The Willard Watts Project

By Alma J. Yates

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    “Pay attention, boys,” Brother Loder said, breaking into our discussion of the basketball game our team had lost the night before. “We have a service project to think about.”

    Brother Loder leaned forward in his dark suit, placed his forearms on his knees, and held his black pocket calendar in front of him. Brother Loder was vice president of one of the banks in town and everything he did was always precise, proper, and meticulous. He studied his calendar a moment and then asked, “Well, men, what are we going to do?”

    The room went quiet. I always hated this part of our planning session. Service projects never were my favorite things. I didn’t mind doing them, but coming up with the idea was always a problem. They were always so much the same.

    “Sister Seymour might need some help,” Brother Loder suggested after observing our sudden silence.

    “Yes, that sounds all right,” Chris Frei mumbled without conviction. “She can always use some help.”

    I leaned back in my chair and stretched. “The widows always get helped,” I muttered. “Let’s do something else this month.”

    “Do you have any suggestions, Kyle?” Brother Loder asked, glancing over at me and adjusting the tie that didn’t need adjusting.

    I thought for a minute. “How about choosing a widower to help?”

    Brad and Chris began to smile while Brother Loder shook his head and rolled his eyes toward the ceiling.

    “We could activate Willard Watts,” I suggested, trying hard not to smile.

    “Kyle, can we get back to our planning?” said Brother Loder, sternly.

    “What’s wrong with activating Brother Watts?” I asked.

    “Kyle, I’ve lived in the 12th Ward since I was a kid. To my knowledge Brother Watts has been inside this church twice during that time. Once for his wife’s funeral and the other time for a friend’s funeral. He smokes. He swears. For years he wouldn’t even let the home teachers inside his house. He’s been a prospective elder since I went on my mission.”

    “Well, I say it’s about time we got him out to church.”

    “Kyle, we want to end this planning session in the next few minutes.”

    “So do we just give up trying to help him?”

    “Kyle, he gave up on himself a long time ago.”

    Because our stomachs were growling with hunger and we wanted to get home for lunch, Sister Seymour finally was nominated as our service project for the month, but as I left the church and walked home in the crisp January air, I couldn’t help thinking of Willard Watts and wondering what it was like to be given up by everyone.

    Willard lived just five houses away from me in a small, red brick home with a large garage. He had been an automobile mechanic for years, so he’d set up an auto shop in his garage to make repairs in his spare time. He was a heavyset, old man with gray, short-cropped hair, a round head, and flat nose. He rarely spoke or smiled, and always looked mean.

    Before I went into the house that Sunday afternoon, I glanced down the street toward Brother Watts’s place where a few patches of old snow littered his lawn. His old truck was parked in front and the living room drapes were pulled closed.

    Mom called me in to dinner and that made me forget all about Willard.

    Four days later a winter storm dumped eighteen centimeters of snow overnight. Dad woke me up in the morning, pushed a snow shovel into my hands, and told me to clear the snow away from the house. He thoughtfully reminded me that I would have to hurry to get to school on time. I grumbled most of the time but worked fast to get out of the cold. I was about to hurry into the warmth of the house to eat breakfast when I glanced down the street in Brother Watts’s direction. The house was dark; the snow around his house was undisturbed. For a moment I pondered. Then I did one of the craziest things I’d ever done in my life. I walked down the street and began shoveling the snow from Brother Watts’s house.

    “What are you doing, boy?” a voice growled behind me when I was about half finished with the job.

    Startled, I turned to see Willard Watts standing at his front door. His hands were stuffed into the pockets of his old jacket, and his head was scrunched into the coat’s collar.

    I shrugged. “Just shoveling a little snow to stay in good shape.” I banged the shovel on the cement and stomped my feet.

    “I clear my own snow. I can’t pay you, if that’s what you’re planning.”

    “I wasn’t planning on it,” I answered, returning to my shoveling.

    He watched for a moment and then turned back into the house. I went on clearing the snow. As I worked, I wondered what made Willard behave the way he did. I soon finished clearing the snow, put the shovel over my shoulder, and headed for home.

    “Hey, boy,” Brother Watts called to me from the front door. He came down the steps and held three dollar bills in his hand. “This is all the change I have,” he mumbled. “I usually do my own work.”

    I looked at the three dollars. “I didn’t do it for money.”

    He seemed puzzled. “You’re Tom Jordan’s son, aren’t you?”

    I nodded yes.

    “Did he tell you to do this?”

    I shook my head and said something about being late for school.

    Three other times I cleaned off the snow in front of Brother Watts’s house. Each time I finished he came out with a few one dollar bills and held them out to me. Each time I politely refused them.

    The last time I cleaned off the snow was the end of March after a storm had dumped quite a bit on the ground. He came out with a twenty-dollar bill. “Take it,” he insisted, thrusting it towards me.

    I laughed, shaking my head. “I’m doing this to get myself in good physical condition,” I said.

    “Who makes you do this?” he demanded.

    We stared at each other for several seconds without speaking. It was a question I had asked myself. Part of the reason went back to the fact that everyone had just crossed him off as one more negative Church statistic. Ever since that first morning I’d felt sorry for Willard Watts, living alone in his house, just waiting for life to end. Everybody deserved more than that out of life. It was possible that the next time he went to church might be to attend his own funeral. “I guess I just thought you—” I hesitated, chewing on my lower lip. “I better be going,” I mumbled. “Don’t want to be late for school.”

    Willard pulled out a cigarette, put it in the corner of his mouth, and lit it. He inhaled deeply, and as he exhaled he muttered, almost as though he didn’t want me to hear, “Well, thanks.”

    One Saturday morning in late April the Young Men and Young Women planned a clean-up day in Sister Seymour’s yard. Brad Hunt and Chris Frei came to my house so we could walk over together. On the way I noticed Willard Watts in his backyard putting up a fence.

    “Sister Seymour’s going to have more people than she needs,” I remarked, stopping.

    “If you stay away from another service project,” Chris grinned, “Brother Loder will have you in to see the bishop.”

    “Nobody’s staying away. We’re just changing projects. We can telephone Sister Seymour’s home to let them know we can’t come. Brother Watts needs help.”

    “Do you mean old Brother Watts?” Brad groaned. “He wouldn’t let you help him even if you wanted to.”

    I started walking into Willard’s yard.

    “You’re not serious, are you?” Brad called after me.

    I just kept walking.

    Brad and Chris hesitated a moment, but their curiosity got the better of them and they soon followed.

    “Well, what do you want us to do?” I asked Willard cheerfully.

    Willard looked up from the posthole he was digging. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, glancing first at me and then at Chris and Brad. “I can’t pay you anything,” he muttered.

    I grabbed a shovel. “What do you want us to do?”

    Things were awkward for a moment, but then Willard saw that we weren’t going to leave, so he grumbled some instructions to us and we began to work. Brad and Chris thought I was crazy at first, but they worked hard. It was a bigger project than any of us had anticipated, but we continued to work.

    Willard smoked one cigarette after another most of the day and occasionally grunted instructions. Several times he told us we should go, that we’d done all that a person could expect us to do. But we stayed till the work was completed, which was about three o’clock in the afternoon.

    As we were helping Willard put the tools away, Brad announced, “Well, I have to get home. I need to do some work on my car.”

    “When did that ancient car of yours start working?” Chris asked.

    “I didn’t say that it was working. I said that I had to work on it.”

    “What kind of car do you have?” Willard asked.

    “Oh, it’s an old 1972 model,” Brad said.

    “Maybe I could look at it sometime,” offered Willard.

    “It’s not a bad car,” Brad said.

    “That’s right,” I said, “everything works but the engine.”

    That evening Willard stopped at Brad’s house and towed the old car back to his garage.

    The following day in quorum meeting, Brother Loder mentioned that he was sorry the three of us hadn’t been able to get to Sister Seymour’s for the service project.

    “We found another project that was more urgent,” I explained.

    “Oh, really?”

    “Yes. We were helping Brother Watts.”

    The rest of the quorum began to laugh—except for Brad and Chris. I looked around without smiling. Back in January when I had first mentioned Willard’s name, I would have appreciated the laughs because Willard was just a joke then, but the last three months had made him a person, and finally a friend. I knew then that I hadn’t missed Sister Seymour’s service project just to do something for myself. I had been at Willard’s place because I really wanted to be there.

    A week later Willard telephoned me and asked if I’d bring Chris and Brad over to his house. I was amazed. The last person I had expected to call me on the telephone was Willard.

    When the three of us arrived, Willard was in the garage. Brad’s old car was parked in the middle of the garage. Willard reached into his pocket, pulled out Brad’s car keys and tossed them to him. “See what you think.”

    Brad caught the keys. “Does it work?” he asked.

    Willard shrugged and turned away, going to his workbench and pushing a set of wrenches around. “Try it,” was all he said.

    Slowly, Brad put the key into the ignition and turned it. The engine gave out a nice, smooth sound almost like a cat purring.

    “I don’t believe it,” Chris gasped.

    “What did you do to it?” Brad called out.

    Willard turned around, his face expressionless, but his eyes beamed with pleasure. “Don’t ever give up on a good car like that.”

    “What do I owe you? I mean—how much did all this cost?”

    “It didn’t cost me a thing. Some of the automobile wrecking yards around here owe me some favors. They found me the parts.”

    After that it seemed that Brad, Chris, and I were always over at Willard’s place. We worked in his garage, sipped soda drinks sitting on his front step, and talked about sports. We even teased him about his smoking. We told him that every time he smoked a cigarette he was throwing away thirty minutes of his life.

    He chuckled and shook his head. “I’ve been at it too long to stop it now.” But after that we noticed that when we came, he would throw his cigarette away.

    Then one afternoon as we sat in his garage, he seemed more nervous than usual. He kept rubbing his hands on his pants, scratching the back of his neck, pacing the floor, and shuffling his feet.

    “What are you thinking about, Willard?” Brad asked.

    Willard shook his head. He tried to smile, but his attempt was more like a grimace. He rubbed the stubble on his chin. “I threw away my cigarettes. I haven’t had a smoke for a couple of days. But I don’t know if I can keep it up.”

    For a moment the three of us were quiet. Then Chris jumped up. “You’ll make it, Willard. You just need something to take your mind off it. Do you chew gum?”

    “I could chew nails right now.”

    “You need to stay busy too,” I offered. “I have an uncle that quit smoking. He said the only thing that saved him was to stay busy. He worked himself until he was exhausted.”

    For the rest of the day we stayed with Willard and helped him forget about smoking. It was almost ten o’clock when we left him, but he’d gotten over the urge to smoke. As far as we knew, he never used another cigarette.

    “Hey, Willard, we’ve got a favor to ask of you,” I mentioned one afternoon as we were changing the oil in Brad’s car. “We’re in charge of a dinner over at the church this weekend.” I shrugged and felt my cheeks turn red. “The kids in the ward are putting on a dinner for some senior citizens. Now I don’t mean that we think you’re a senior citizen or anything like that,” I quickly added, “but we wanted you there. Will you come?”

    Willard looked up. His eyes went to each one of us, and then he stared down into the car’s engine. For a long time he didn’t speak. Slowly he pulled a rag from his back pocket and wiped his hands. A feeble smile on his lips. “The last time I was in church was when my wife died. That’s been more than three years. And it was a lot longer before that. There have been times when I wanted to go back, but I couldn’t think of a good enough reason. And there’s nobody there I know.”

    “You’ve got an excuse now. We’re having good food. And you know us. We’ll be there,” I pointed out.

    “Why would you want me to go to a nice, fancy dinner with you?” he asked without looking at us.

    For a moment I didn’t answer, pondering the question. “Because you’re our friend,” I answered simply.

    He shook his head. “I don’t know if I could. People would stare. They’d wonder why—”

    “You’ll be with us,” Brad spoke up. “The whole time. We promise.”

    We all waited, holding our breath. Willard thought for a long time. Finally his face softened into a smile and he said, “Well, I’ll think about it.”

    The night of the dinner I was nervous. Brad had promised to bring Willard while Chris and I helped get things ready at the church.

    “Did you invite anyone tonight?” Brother Loder asked as I was carrying food from the kitchen to the serving table in the cultural hall.

    “Willard Watts.”

    Brother Loder sighed. “When are you going to get over this Willard Watts idea?” He smiled and shook his head. “The day you get old Willard inside this church I’ll buy you the biggest meal you’ve ever had in your life.”

    Just then Chris and Brad came through the doors on the far side of the cultural hall with Willard between them. Brother Loder had his back to them so he didn’t see them approach until they were right behind him. When he turned around, his jaw almost dropped to the floor he was so surprised.

    “Brother Loder,” I started out, “I’d like you to meet a good friend of ours, Brother Watts.”

    For a moment Brother Loder could hardly speak. Then he held out his hand and greeted Willard. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” he stammered. “The boys here have talked about you a lot.” He looked at the three of us and then back to Willard. “I guess I can believe everything they’ve told me.”

    Willard nodded his head. “They’re good boys. I think you can believe what they say.”

    As Brad and Chris led Willard away, Brother Loder turned to me and muttered, “I would have never believed it. I guess I owe you a big dinner.”

    I shook my head and struggled to control my emotions. “Forget it,” I smiled. “Some things you don’t do to win a meal.”

    Illustrated by Roger Motzkus