The Least of These, My Brother


The Least of These, My Brother

The class bell rang, and a few stragglers darted quickly into their classrooms, leaving Jed Fischer stranded in a new school with a locker that wouldn’t open. For the fifth time he slowly turned through the numbers written on a slip of paper, but it wouldn’t open.

“What are you doing in the hall during class time?” a voice sternly barked behind him.

He turned, expecting to face an angry teacher, but instead found a girl his age sporting an impish grin.

“Scared you, didn’t I?” Her face was freckled and she had short, tossled, reddish-brown hair. Plopping her books in his arms, she took the paper giving his combination. After dialing the three numbers, she slammed the locker with her foot. The locker flew open.

“It sticks. You have to hit it.” She opened her own locker, next to his, and took her books from him.

“Thanks,” he said. “I just transferred here from Idaho.”

“Welcome to New York. I’m Pam Burgess.”

“My name is Jed Fischer.”

“I know. I work in the office in the afternoon. My family is very big for volunteer work,” she said, with a touch of sarcasm in her voice. “I looked at your records when they came here. I found out that you’re a junior, that your dad is a nuclear engineer transferred from Idaho to Brookhaven Lab, and that you’re a football player. Are you a Mormon?”

“Yes.”

“Then you’re the only one in this school.”

“My sister goes here too. She’s a sophomore. So there’re two Mormons.”

“What’s her name?”

“Brenda.”

“Does she have curly hair like her brother?” Pam asked.

“No. That’s the curse of our family. The girls have straight hair.”

“Do you want to walk around, and I’ll give you the tour?” Pam asked, closing her locker.

“What about you?” he asked as they leisurely strolled the halls.

“My mom and dad both work in the city. Mom is in advertising. Dad’s a stockbroker. I see him about twice a month.”

They passed the cafeteria. The smell of tuna fish casserole invaded the hall.

“Nobody eats there,” she said.

“Somebody must.”

“Oh, sure, the losers.”

“Who are the losers?” he asked.

“There are just two kinds of people in the world, the winners and the losers. Didn’t you know that? You look to me like a winner.”

“Where do the winners eat?” he asked.

“We go to a little pizza place a couple of blocks from here. I’ll meet you at noon and show you.”

He met Pam at noon. They were joined by one other boy, Doug Cabot, who spent his time complaining about how rotten everything was.

The pizza shop was old. Two large fans resembling airplane propellers stuck from the ceiling. At noon the place was crowded with kids from school. All the booths were being used, and several people were jammed around the stand-up counter. After they had ordered, they stood and waited.

“I think we can sit down over there,” Doug said, looking at a small booth near the corner.

They walked over to the booth. There was just one boy in the booth. He was overweight and wore a pair of thick glasses that seemed to magnify his eyes to an observer. He ate his pizza without looking up, avoiding eye contact with any person in the room.

“Ernie, how’s it going?” Doug asked, his voice conveying a mood of cruelty.

The boy looked up with a weak smile.

“We saw you sitting all alone in this big booth, and we thought you might be nearly through.”

Ernie understood the threat. “You can sit here. I’m almost finished.”

Ernie stood up, grabbing his cardboard platter with pizza still on it, and started to leave the booth. Doug stood in his way.

“You sure gorge yourself, Ernie,” Doug said. “What’s it like to be fat? Since you have such a weight problem, would you mind if we borrowed a couple of slices to nibble on until our order is done?” Doug reached out and took a slice.

“Give him back his pizza, Doug,” Jed said firmly.

“Why? He’s letting me have it.”

“Leave him alone.”

“Are you a friend of his?” Doug asked. “Because if you are, you’re the only one he’s got.”

Pam broke the mounting tension. “Lay off, Doug. Our pizza is done.”

Doug stepped aside for Ernie to pass. About halfway to the door, somebody deliberately bumped Ernie’s arm and his pizza fell on the floor. Ernie knelt down, scraped up the mess, and threw it in the garbage can on his way out.

During lunch, Doug talked about the injustices committed against a group of people in South America.

Jed found out when he went to class that Pam was in his chemistry class. On that day they were having a lab. Each group was given a test tube with an unknown solution in it. The purpose of the lab was to determine what the unknown was by performing a series of chemical tests.

Pam invited Jed to work with her. “Nothing to it,” she smiled. She walked to the checkout counter in the back of the room and started talking to the lab assistant. The others in the class were testing for the unknown.

In a few minutes Pam came back with a slip of paper. “I found out what our unknown is. Just copy this down on your lab notebook.”

“What about the tests we’re supposed to perform?” Jed asked.

“All the reactions are negative except numbers 3 and 11.”

“Aren’t we going to do it?”

“What for? This is how I do all the experiments. If you want to be a hero and smell like hydrochloric acid, be my guest.”

Jed sheepishly signed his name to the report and turned it in.

As they walked downstairs to their lockers, she suggested driving to Montauk Point on the tip of Long Island.

She let him drive her car, a late model sports car. When they arrived, the wind was whipping up white caps on the incoming waves. The turbulent waves smashed against huge boulders, sending up geysers of spray.

They walked along a path that climbed up to a rocky precipice. Near the top they found a place where they could sit and watch the endless water.

“Most people come here in the summer,” she said, her arms wrapped around her legs. “Sometimes it seems like there are a million, and every one of them has a bag of potato chips and a bottle of suntan lotion. They gobble the chips, throw the bag on the beach, douse themselves with oil, and fry.”

They watched the clouds changing shapes as they swept across the sky.

“I like to come in the winter,” she continued, “after the wind and the breakers have ripped away all the debris, leaving it clean.”

She pointed out to him the silhouette of a freighter on the horizon.

“Hard to believe all this is an accident,” she said, observing the harsh beauty of the ocean.

“It didn’t just happen.”

“You seem sure of yourself.”

“I am,” he replied.

“Back in school or at home, I really get so I don’t care about God. But sometimes, when I walk here, there’s a feeling I get. It’s hard to explain, but a feeling that He’s there somewhere. But by the time I’m back in my car and stuck in traffic on the freeway, the feeling is gone.”

He studied her face as she talked. She was beautiful even with the wind scattering her hair. He felt as if he cared for her, not really like being her boyfriend, but more like a brother. It was a good, clean feeling, and he thought that she felt it too.

“Pam, I want to tell you about my church.”

They made a date for her to attend his ward on Sunday. When they returned to the car, the feeling was gone.

“Well, that turned into a real prayer group, didn’t it?” she said, embarrassed.

They made it back to his home at 7:30. Luckily his parents had gone out that night to have dinner with his father’s new boss. While Jed got out of the car, Pam slid over to the driver’s side, smiled, and drove away. When he walked in the house, his sister Brenda was standing at the window.

“Well, I don’t have to ask you how your first day of school went,” she teased. She was tall and graceful, looking like she could be a ballet dancer. Yet at home she preferred levis and an old long-sleeved shirt of Jed’s. The hardest thing about the move for her had been the sale of her quarter horse.

“Her name is Pam, and I think she’s interested in the Church.”

“Where have you been?”

“We went to Montauk Point. How was your day?”

“Not too bad, considering I don’t know anybody in the school.”

The next day after English class, Ernie walked over to Jed and said, “Thanks for trying to help me yesterday.” His eyes darted up to Jed’s face and then down again, uncertain of his standing.

“Sure.”

“They say you’re a Mormon. I’ve got an uncle who’s a Mormon. He joined a year ago. Is there a Mormon church on the island?”

“Several.”

“Can people who aren’t members go to it?”

“Yes.” Jed inwardly cringed at the thought of Pam seeing Ernie at church.

“I’d like to go this Sunday. My uncle keeps telling me how friendly the people are.”

“You can’t smoke on church property,” Jed said coolly.

“I know. I have a jacket with these pants. Is that okay to wear?”

Jed looked at the wrinkled, gray dress slacks with tiny cuffs. They must be ten years old, he thought to himself. “I guess so,” he said dryly.

It was only the second time that Jed had been to church in New York. After priesthood meeting he was in the hall putting on his jacket so that he could drive out to pick up Pam. Ernie walked in. His forehead was sweating, and he was puffing.

Elder Baker, one of the missionaries assigned to the ward, rushed Ernie shortly after he walked in, shaking his hand and welcoming him to church.

Jed reluctantly came out from the coat rack area and said hello to Ernie, “I see you made it,” he said. Ernie rambled on about missing an exit and going three miles out of his way. Jed looked nervously at his watch and excused himself.

Pam’s home was a three-story brick house set on a hill overlooking Long Island Sound. A maid answered Jed’s ring and showed him to the den. He sat and studied the wall of bookshelves; in the middle of the room was a large, natural-stone fireplace.

In a few minutes Pam appeared. It was the first time he had ever seen her dressed up. She looked beautiful and rich.

“What’s it going to be like?” she asked on the way. “Will you help me so I’ll know when to kneel or what to say?”

“It’s not like that. It’s very simple. More like a big family than anything. In fact, we teach that we’re all brothers and sisters. So if anyone calls you Sister Burgess, don’t faint.”

He took the exit from the freeway. “Oh, Pam, there’s one other thing. That fat kid, Ernie, cornered me in class, and well, he’s going to be in church too.”

She looked at him with raised eyebrows. “Ernie?”

They got there late. Jed saw the elders taking Ernie to the investigator’s class, and so he decided to take Pam to the class for high school students.

Sacrament meeting was held immediately after Sunday School. It seemed extra long to Jed. The high council visitor was there. He talked about welfare and explained how he used to hoe sugar beets on a welfare farm in Utah as a boy. Jed counted him using poor grammar ten times during the talk. A young mother in front of them struggled with her two-year-old boy, feeding him soda crackers one at a time. Jed felt embarrassed about church for the first time in his life.

On the way home Pam talked enthusiastically about their summer home in Maine and how she’d like him to see it sometime when her folks took her there.

“Thanks,” she said as they pulled up in her driveway.

“I guess it seemed a little different from the church you usually go to,” he said.

“Yes, it did.”

“I’m sorry about the noise.”

“That’s okay. I guess it’s what you get used to.”

“Will you let the missionaries explain about our beliefs?”

She grinned. “I’m more interested in you than I am in your church.”

“It means a lot to me.”

“I’ll see,” she answered.

When Jed got home, Elder Baker and his companion were there.

“Ernie’s really ready for the gospel!” Elder Baker announced. “He wants to have the discussions. It’d be great if we could have them here so he could be fellowshipped.”

Jed’s mother agreed, and they arranged the first discussion for Tuesday evening.

“How about inviting that girl you brought to church to hear the lessons at the same time?”

“No, not with Ernie.”

The discussion on Tuesday was a success as far as the missionaries were concerned. After Ernie had left, Elder Baker said, “He’ll be baptized. Jed, you can really help him by fellowshipping. Eat lunch with him, take him to activity night, get to be friends with him.”

“A guy like that will never join the Church,” Jed said grimly.

“What do you mean by that?” his father challenged.

“Nothing,” Jed said, unwilling to get into an argument.

The next week Jed started on the next chemistry lab experiment, determined to quit his reliance on Pam’s friendship with the student lab assistant. He was still reading the complicated directions when Pam came back to where he was working.

“Sodium hydroxide,” she whispered in his ear.

“Go away. I’m busy.”

“The unknown is sodium hydroxide. But now that I’ve told you, it’s not unknown, is it? I’ve saved you two hours of work. Will you come home with me and help me fix my ten-speed?”

After they’d looked at the bike, she gave him a piece of cake. They sat and ate in the kitchen. The kitchen floor looked like it could have been used for a commercial about floor wax.

“My dad says he knew a Mormon in the service; he respects them.”

“Did you ask him about taking the missionary lessons?”

“I never ask him anything unless it costs money,” she answered.

“Well, are you going to take them?”

“I don’t know. Is it all that important?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Is good old Ernie going to be a Mormon?” she teased.

“No.”

“If he did, you’d have to call him Brother Ernie, wouldn’t you? And if I joined too, he’d call me Sister Pam. That’d be great,” she said cynically. “He’s a loser, Jed. Face it.”

That Friday night Pam’s parents took Jed and Pam to dinner with them in Manhattan. They ate at a Japanese restaurant where they removed their shoes and ate on bamboo mats in a small enclosed room. Afterwards they went to a Broadway play. They talked during intermission about inviting him up to see their summer cabin in Maine.

The next week the elders persuaded Jed to pick up Ernie for activity night. He and his mother lived in a housing development built for low-income people. Ernie’s mother was a tired-looking woman with a deep, hacking smoker’s cough.

They played volleyball that night. At first Ernie was just going to watch, but Brenda talked him into playing on her side. She stood next to him and instructed him about how to set up the ball for players in the front row to spike. When he missed, which he did frequently, she’d say, “That’s okay, Ernie,” or, “Nice try.” By the end of the first game, he was returning most of the serves hit to him. By the end of the second game, he was excited about the game, encouraging other players, and shouting when they gained a point.

Jed and Brenda drove him home after it was over. He joked with Brenda about his poor eyesight, telling how he stepped on his glasses once while he was looking for them. Jed was silent.

After they had let Ernie out at his home, Brenda started in with Jed. “The only time you paid any attention to Ernie was when you spiked the ball toward him.”

“He was the weakest member of your team. It was just good strategy.”

“You aren’t helping him any.”

“You’re wasting your time, Brenda. He’ll never join the Church.”

“But your precious Pam will?”

“Yes, in time she will.”

“My big brother is a dummy.”

“My little sister can’t face reality.”

“Jed, why do you ignore him?”

“How can anybody ignore him? He’s got bad breath.”

“Do you think you’re better than he is?” she asked.

“That’s not the point. If I can get Pam interested in the Church, the Church will be made stronger. She knows a lot of people. But she’ll never even look at the Church if Ernie is baptized.”

“So you’re just going to let Ernie go. His only chance, maybe, to hear the truth.”

“I picked him up tonight. Isn’t that enough?”

She was quiet for several minutes, and then, quietly, she asked, “What would the Savior do?”

“You’re not going to trap me,” Jed answered brusquely.

“Just tell me what He would do.”

“It’s more complicated than that. You don’t understand. If I get tied up with Ernie, I won’t have a friend in that whole school.”

“Because he’s fat.”

“Yes, and sloppy and clumsy.”

“Jed, you’re my big brother. I used to be proud of you, but I’m not sure that I like you very much anymore. You’ve changed. Pam’s changing you. Did you know that?”

“Tough,” Jed said angrily.

The next Monday when Pam and Jed met at their lockers, she invited him to come with her and her family for the weekend while they did some work on the cabin in Maine. The plans called for them to fly up Friday and return on Monday afternoon.

His parents were not happy about the plan. “You’re going to be missing two days of school. You’re already behind,” his mother said.

“What will you do about church on Sunday?” his dad asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll have to miss one time. It won’t kill me.”

“That’s not the point. Where are your priorities?” his dad asked.

After an hour’s discussion his dad finally said that Jed was getting old enough to make his own decisions, that he’d been taught what was right, and that he would be allowed to make his own decision.

Jed went to his room, knowing what he should decide, knowing what he was going to decide. After an hour of listening to his tapes, he walked downstairs and announced simply, “I’m going this weekend.”

The next night Elder Baker and his companion came over and announced that Ernie was to be baptized Saturday. “And he wants you to baptize him, Jed.”

There was an uneasy silence in the room. “I can’t,” Jed said. “I’m going with Pam and her parents to Maine for the weekend.”

“Oh,” Elder Baker said, looking at Jed’s parents.

The next day at school Jed decided the least he could do was to explain to Ernie why he wouldn’t be able to baptize him on Saturday.

“I’m sorry I can’t go to your baptism. Pam’s parents asked me up to their summer home in Maine.”

“Do you think you might be falling in love with her?” Ernie asked.

“What’s that to you?” Jed shot back.

“Nothing, I guess. Are you falling in love with her way of life?”

“Why?”

“I’ve got a friend in chemistry who says you and Pam are cheating.”

“Just on the labs,” Jed defended.

“Oh, just on the labs. I’ll be sure to tell him. I’m sure he’ll be much more interested in learning about the Church when I tell him you’re only cheating on the labs.”

“I’m going to make it up.”

“I don’t know if he’ll believe that, but I’ll tell him.”

Jed felt his face flush with embarrassment. “Anything else? I’m in a hurry.”

“Yes, one other thing,” Ernie replied, looking straight at Jed. “I guess you’re upset about my joining the Church, aren’t you?”

“No,” Jed said. “The Church is for everyone.”

“But you’d like to choose which of those everyones joins, wouldn’t you? A rich man, or a beautiful girl, an athlete, a talented artist, an influential politician. I’m not any of those things, am I? Do you think there’s room in your church for me?”

Jed felt stunned as if he’d been hit.

“For the first time in my life, I now have a reason to live. But you’ve always had that, haven’t you? It was very comfortable, wasn’t it? Having the truth while the rest of us stumbled in the dark. I’d like to know how you feel, Jed. Not that it matters, I guess, because I’m going to be baptized. Not because of your example, but in spite of it.”

Jed walked away. His face felt as if it were on fire.

He walked to a park, sat on a deserted park swing, and thought.

He went back at noon, ate in the cafeteria with Brenda, and for the first time they were able to talk again. After his last class, he met Pam at her locker.

“Pam, something has come up. I won’t be able to go with your family this weekend.”

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I’m going to baptize Ernie Saturday.”

“That’s more important than being with us in Maine?”

“Tell your parents I’m sorry.”

“I can’t believe you’d back out of this trip just so you can baptize that clown Ernie.”

“He’s my brother.”

“Then you’re a loser too,” she snapped, slamming her locker and walking away.

“Pam?” he called, when she was no more than 20 feet away.

She turned around, tearful yet defiant.

“Nobody’s born a loser. We make the losers, you and me, by the way we treat them. We carefully mold them each day of their lives. But to the Savior, nobody’s a loser.”

She shook her head, turned away, and walked quickly down the long hall.

Jed watched her go and then slowly walked up the stairs for what became a long conversation with his chemistry teacher.

[illustrations] Illustrated by James Christensen