A Bishop, a Dad, a Sailboat


Second-Place Fiction Winner 1980

I drummed my fingers on the wooden chair’s skinny armrest, then twisted to the right and looked at the photograph of the First Presidency hung on the light-blue wall. Calm down, I said to myself. After all, I had requested this visit. I could hear a familiar voice grow louder as the bishop left the clerk’s office, crossed the hall, and came inside. He smiled and said, “Well, Jeff, how are you doing?”

“Fine, just fine,” I said out loud while thinking to myself frantically, What am I doing here?

Bishop Smith pulled his heavy chair from behind his solid dark desk, put it alongside me, sat down, and smiled again. Bishop Smith was a big man, very round, and when he smiled, his whole body seemed to beam right along with his face. I basked for a moment in all that warmth and then said, “Actually, bishop, I guess things aren’t all that great. I’ve thought a lot about our talk last month, a lot about a mission. And, well, frankly I just can’t go.”

“Don’t think you can go?”

“Yeah, I mean I’m 22. I’d be 24 when I got back. I’d be too old.”

“Too old for what?”

“Come on, bishop. You know. I just graduated from state university. I’m a pretty good botanist. How can I work with someone who was a junior in some high school when I was worrying about passing Professor Gotlieb’s Advanced Plant Pathology? I can tell you anything you want to know about wheat germs.”

Bishop Smith looked at me for a moment, leaned forward, and asked in a manner as gentle as when I had planted fir tree seedlings on Rye Grass Ridge, “Is that your real reason?”

I wasn’t ready for that question. I had hoped for a cheery smile and ready agreement. “Well, yes. Mainly,” I stammered. “I mean, basically.”

“Jeff, we’ve had some serious talks, you and I. Tell me, what are some other reasons to go with this basic reason?” The chair creaked as Bishop Smith leaned back.

“Oh, you know.” I spread my hands out in front of me and then picked some lint off my slacks. “Bishop, I haven’t exactly made the best decisions in my life. Being inactive for seven years didn’t help any. How can I say to some investigator, ‘I just loved Sunday School when I grew up,’ or ‘I’ve always believed living the Word of Wisdom was important’? How can I talk about goals or loyalty or testimony?”

“Converts can talk about testimony and goals and loyalty, and they weren’t always active members.”

“But they chose to join, not to leave.”

“You chose to come back.”

I didn’t have anything to say at that moment, and all I could hear was a rustling out in the hall. After a moment the bishop said kindly, “I don’t quite understand. Are you worried about worthiness?”

“Bishop,” I replied firmly, “I’ve got my life going again. I have nothing to hide. I know the Lord loves me, and I love him. But at every sacrament meeting or general conference or whatever, I hear that the Lord wants only the best, the strongest, the most reliable to be his missionaries.”

“I think in a small way I see, Jeff.” Bishop Smith paused and tapped his thick fingers against each other. “Have you talked to your dad about this?”

“Only a little. I guess I haven’t said much at all. At least I told him I was coming here tonight.”

“Jeff, maybe it’s time to see your dad. I know him; he’s a good man. Talk to him and then come see me again. Okay?”

The interview hadn’t gone quite as I had planned it. Suddenly I really didn’t know what to do. “Okay,” I said, and we stood up. Bishop Smith walked me to the door, and just after he shook my hand, he gave my shoulder a squeeze.

“Remember,” he said, “come see me again.”

As I drove away from the institute building on Powell Avenue, I considered going home to my apartment or seeing some friends. I even thought about going up on campus and walking through the greenhouses. Although I had already graduated, I was still helping Professor Gotlieb work with some sunflower research. And then I decided to talk to my dad.

My parents live on the east side of town on the other side from my apartment and campus. When I decided that I wanted to attend state university but didn’t want to live at home, I moved out and into the back room of an old, dark-green Victorian house with white trim. My parents were pretty understanding. We’ve always talked together fairly well. When I quit going to priesthood, and then Sunday School, and then Church completely, they never threatened or yelled at me. I’m sure they felt unhappy inside, but I always knew they loved me. I never really ignored my parents, but I had friends and things at school and got pretty busy. Still, my folks would call me up just to say hi, and my mom would bring over some of her delicious carrot cake every now and then. In fact, when I first started going back to church, because of two great home teachers, I didn’t say much about it to my parents. I remember the little pause the first time after I asked them to attend church with me at the institute, and then my dad said, “Are you sure?”

I was surprised when I got to my folks’ and found the lights off and the car gone. But I noticed the backyard light was on, so I got out of my car and went around the side. Out back I saw my dad working on his pride and joy, his small, old sailboat. When I was little we would go sailing on Lake Lourraine, up north. The boat really wasn’t very much. Only one at a time could get in it, but we all liked to try it, even if we spent most of the time in the lake and not the boat. As everybody grew older, everybody got busier, and we didn’t take the boat out much. Finally, it sat pushed against the garage until my youngest brother grazed it with the car; then, we hid it under some tarp behind the house. Now that all the kids are gone, my dad’s interest in sailing has flared up again. Late last year he started to tinker with the boat. A few weeks ago, I helped him paint it white.

“Ship ahoy,” I called as I walked around the house.

“Hey, what a surprise! Just what I needed, another hand.”

“Sounds fine. I was in the area and thought I’d drop by. Where’s mom?”

“Oh, she’s over at the neighbors. Did you just see Bishop Smith?”

“Boy, whatever happened to subtlety?”

“I’m sorry. I was just thinking about you tonight. Here, help me sand a little.” My dad gave me some yellow, fine-grade sandpaper. We both started to work.

“Well,” I said, “do you want to know what we talked about?”

“Whatever happened to subtlety?”

I smiled sheepishly. “I’m sorry.”

“You tell him you’re too old?”

“Yeah.”

“Did he fall for it?”

I looked quickly at my dad. He was grinning at me. “No,” I said, “bishops don’t fall for much of anything. I guess dads don’t either.”

“I guess not. So, what are your plans?”

I walked over to the back steps and sat down. “I don’t know. What do you suggest?”

“What’s more important is what you think. It’s up to you, Jeff. You and the Lord. Have you ever talked to him about your future, about a mission?”

The words weighed on me, and I fiddled with a stem of foxtail grass I had pulled up. “No,” I said quietly, surprised that the night was so still.

“Do you mind if I ask why?”

“I’m afraid he wouldn’t answer or want me. I’ve let him down before.”

My dad started sanding again, and I looked up at the sky and saw Venus burning brightly. “Isn’t she a beautiful boat?” my dad said.

I was glad to change the subject. “She sure is. A beaut.”

“I hope you’ll go sailing with me sometime.”

“You can count on that.”

“She might sink on us, you know.”

“Come on,” I laughed. “She’ll float just fine.”

“Well, she used to be a wreck.”

“But look at her now,” I said. “We’re proud of her. I’d be a fool not to sail in a boat as good as this one.” I paused for a moment and looked straight at my dad. “You know, I get the feeling you want to tell me something.”

“Son, we’d all be in pretty bad shape if we couldn’t start over when we make mistakes. We wouldn’t have a chance.”

“I know, dad.”

“Why don’t you ask the Lord, Jeff. You might be surprised.”

“Do you think he’ll answer me?”

“I promise you he will.”

“Thanks,” I said, looking at my dad’s hands still holding the sandpaper. “I mean it.”

“You know, Jeff, maybe you’d like to fast before you ask. Your mom and I would be glad to fast with you.”

We sanded some more, and I told my dad about work with Professor Gotlieb. When mom came home, we talked about fasting together. My parents were right behind me, and we agreed to do it. As I drove to my apartment, I could smell the scent of rain on the pines in the mountains mixed with apple tree blossoms. I thought of some things I’d like to do before I fasted. And for the first time, way back in my mind, I knew I’d be calling Bishop Smith soon, sooner perhaps than even he expected. And this time, I wouldn’t be going to his office with any excuses.

[illustration] Illustrated by Dilleen Marsh