A Portrait of Brenda


Painting her was like trying to paint the clouds.

A Portrait of Brenda

And now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort … (Mosiah 18:8–9).

During his freshman year of high school Jed began each day standing at the lane a couple of hundred yards from his house waiting for Brenda to pick him up for early-morning seminary. They lived less than a mile apart in the table-top flatness of Nebraska. Not that Jed’s family were farmers. They’d moved there two years earlier. His father worked for the post office. They lived in the farmhouse because it had been foreclosed and the bank was renting it until they could sell the farm.

Jed was barely 14, small for his age. He wore glasses with brown plastic frames, although he planned to get contact lenses as soon as he could save enough money.

Brenda was 16 and tall, with long wheat-blonde hair. She felt most at home in jeans and a T-shirt, working with her father around the farm.

On the first day of school when she pulled into the farmyard, Jed ran out to the old battered pickup she drove and got in. She had the radio set to a country-western station. She put it into first gear and let the clutch out. The pedal stayed down. She grumbled, flung open the door, crawled under the truck, did something and then got back in.

“Linkage,” she said.

He had no idea what she was talking about. “Oh.”

That was all she said for the rest of the drive into town, a distance of 15 miles. It was obvious that because he was so much younger than she was, she didn’t figure they’d ever be friends.

In October Jed and his father were assigned to home teach Brenda’s family. Her father was strong, a man who took all that life dished out to him without ever letting on how bad it was. His face bore the scars of farm life. Not just the hard work, but the financial burdens too. He knew he might lose the farm if things didn’t get better.

As they rode into seminary each morning, Jed became fascinated with watching Brenda. Her beauty was like the plains itself—you could just about talk yourself into thinking Nebraska was drab, but then something would happen between the sun and clouds and land, and suddenly it became the most beautiful place in the world. Brenda was like that too. She used little makeup and never fussed over her appearance, but when the winter sun hit her hair just right on the way home from school, he’d look and think she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.

That was why he began drawing. He wanted to capture the way she looked in sunshine and in shadows. Almost every night he drew her face. He hid the drawings from his parents because he didn’t want to explain to them why he was drawing her. He wasn’t sure himself.

One day in March the pickup broke down on the way to town. Brenda pulled over, got out, and got some tools out. Jed got out and watched her work on the truck, feeling useless. After a few minutes, she’d fixed it and they took off again.

“I wish I could do things as good as you can,” he said.

She shrugged her shoulders. “You’ll learn someday.”

“How old were you when you first learned to drive?” he asked.

“Twelve. My dad needed help bringing in the crop.”

“My parents say I’ll probably have to wait till I’m 16.”

“What for? You’re legal now.”

“I know.”

That afternoon, on the way home from school, after they turned off the highway onto the seldom-traveled county road, she pulled over and stopped. “Switch places with me.”

“Why?”

“You want to learn how to drive or not?”

First she showed him how to shift gears. He tried it but killed the engine. She didn’t seem to mind. After several tries, he finally got it into first and they were moving down the road. She helped him get it into second, and then third, and let him drive a few miles.

He felt great. “Thanks,” he said when they switched back again.

She shrugged her shoulders. “No problem.”

After that she let him drive from the turnoff to the lane near his house. To Jed it meant much more than that he was learning how to drive. It meant he and Brenda were now friends.

That summer turned out to be a disaster for the farmers—too little rain and too many grasshoppers. Brenda’s father had to sell off some of his equipment, including the old pickup Brenda had used for school.

In August Jed’s father bought another car and let Jed get a driver’s license so he could drive to school each day. When school started in the fall, Jed picked Brenda up for seminary.

One day in October when he went out to the school parking lot to go home, he saw Brenda talking to Cory Steadman. Cory was a senior who played on the football team.

“Well, I’d better go to practice,” he said. “I’ll call you tonight, okay?”

“Sure. See you.”

Jed started the car. Brenda got in. “Seems like a nice guy,” Jed said.

She smiled. “He is. I think he’s going to ask me to the Homecoming dance.”

“That’s good.”

“I’ve never gone before. This’ll be my last chance to go to one. He doesn’t drink at all. And he goes to his church a lot.”

“Sure.”

“And there’s no LDS guys I could go with, except you, and you’re too young.”

“I know.”

“So I’ll probably say yes if he asks.”

“Sure.”

“Do you think you’ll go?” she asked.

“Probably not.”

“Why not?”

“Like you said, I’m too young. Besides, I’m saving up for contact lenses. In another month I’ll have enough money to get ’em.”

“I won’t know you without glasses.”

“Once I get contacts, girls’ll probably fall all over me.”

“Sure they will,” she said with a smile. He had never seen her in such a good mood before.

“I wonder how much a formal costs,” she asked.

“I don’t know. Probably not much.”

“I think I’d like a pink one.”

The next morning when Jed picked her up for seminary, he could tell by her smile what had happened. “He asked you to Homecoming, didn’t he?”

“Yeah. Is it okay if we stop by a store after school?”

“Sure.”

“I’ve got some money saved up,” she said. “I should be able to get what I want with that.”

After school they stopped by a store and looked at formals. Jed sat in a chair as Brenda came out wearing a low-cut formal.

“What do you think about this one?”

“Shows too much,” he said, then started to blush.

She looked in the mirror again. “You’re right.”

A while later she came out in another one. “What about this one?”

“I like it.”

“It’s the most expensive one.”

“How much is it?”

She showed him the price tag.

“That much for one dress?” he said.

“There’s another one that isn’t as much. I’ll go try that on.”

At that time he didn’t realize how sensitive he was to color and light and shadow, and how years later he would still be able to recall in detail her image as she tried on each dress.

Finally she picked out a formal and had it put on layaway. She was happy all the way home. When they pulled into her yard, he noticed a car from the bank in front of the house.

The next morning he stopped by for her as usual, but she didn’t come out. He turned off the motor and walked to the door. He knocked for the longest time, and then Brenda’s mother came to the door in a robe.

“Brenda?” her mother called out, “Jed’s here.”

“I’m not going today,” Brenda called out from her bedroom.

“If you stay here, I’ll put you to work, so you might as well go.”

There was a long pause. “All right. Ask him if he can wait.”

“I’ll wait,” Jed called out.

A couple of minutes later Brenda came out tucking her shirt into an old pair of jeans.

“You’re not going to school looking like that, are you?” her mother asked.

“What difference does it make?”

“You listen to me, young lady, you quit going around feeling sorry for yourself.”

As they pulled onto the county road, he asked, “Are you going to buy the formal today?”

“I’m not going to the dance.”

“Why not?”

“It’s a waste of money, that’s why.”

“But yesterday …”

“Why don’t you stay out of other people’s business?”

“Just tell me what happened.”

“The bank’s foreclosing on us. They’re having an auction the day after Homecoming. We’re going to have to move out of town so my dad can get a job. My parents need my money to help tide us over till we get settled.”

“I’m sorry.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “It’s not like it wasn’t expected.”

“Have you told Cory yet?” he asked.

“Not yet. He’s in Omaha on a field trip. I’ll see him tomorrow.”

Jed spent most of seminary that morning studying her face. He wished he was older, taller, and more self-confident. He wished he could tell her that as far as he could tell, he was in love with her. Or at least if it wasn’t love it was something—he wasn’t sure what. He knew he wanted her to be happy.

In school that morning he couldn’t concentrate. At noon he left school and drove to the department store.

“May I help you?” the saleswoman asked.

“I was here yesterday with a friend. She picked out a formal and put it on layaway. Last night she found out her father’s going to lose his farm. So she won’t be going to the dance.”

“I’m sorry.”

“She’s my best friend. She taught me how to drive. You saw her. Did you notice her face? Don’t you think she’s beautiful?”

The woman was getting restless. “Can you excuse me a minute while I wait on these other folks?”

“Wait, don’t go. I want to buy the formal for my friend. Don’t let anybody else buy it until I come back from the bank.”

Within half an hour, he’d bought the formal. He hung it from a hook in the back seat and drove around town, trying to figure out how he was going to get it to her. He knew she might not accept it if she knew he’d bought it for her.

He went to the post office just as his dad was about to leave for lunch.

“Dad, there’s something I’ve got to show you. It’s in the car.”

That afternoon after school, on the way out of the parking lot, he told Brenda, “On our way home there’s a garage sale I want to go to. Is that okay with you?”

“I guess so.”

He stopped in front of the house where the garage sale was being held. There were several tables of assorted clothing and some old toys and battered books. It was an impromptu garage sale, one which only lasted for an hour, but Brenda didn’t know that.

“You might as well look around,” he said. “I might be a while.”

She was annoyed at the delay, but got out of the car anyway.

He looked through a pile of shirts as slowly as he could while she wandered around looking at things.

“Jed, come here,” she called out.

He went over to where she was.

“Look at this,” she said.

There hanging among some drab clothing hung a pink formal.

“How much is this?” Brenda asked the woman who was having the sale.

“A dollar,” the woman said.

“Only a dollar?”

“If you look closely it’s got a stain on it.”

“I don’t see a stain,” Brenda said. “Where is it?”

The woman showed her a small stain on one tiny segment of the dress. It was barely noticeable.

Brenda pulled Jed aside. “I can’t believe this. It’s just like the formal I saw in the store—for only a dollar. With only the tiniest stain that’ll come out real easy anyway. Jed, loan me a dollar, okay?”

He reached into his pocket and gave her a dollar’s worth of change.

She rushed back to claim the dress. “Here, thanks,” Brenda said.

They got back in the car.

“Jed, I can go to the dance now. I can’t believe it. It’s like an answer to a prayer.”

“That’s great.”

On Friday night Jed walked into the school gym during the dance and stood in the shadows and watched Brenda dance with Cory. They looked good together. Jed had never felt better in his entire life.

The next morning Brenda came to their house and asked for Jed. He got up and got dressed and went into the kitchen where she was waiting for him.

“Hi,” he said.

“You bought that dress and then rigged up a garage sale, didn’t you?”

“Why would I do a thing like that?”

“I don’t know why. At the dance last night, one of the girls told me this guy asked her at the last moment to go with him. She’d looked at my dress and nearly bought it, but decided to go to another store first. When she came back, all set to buy it, they told her they’d just sold it to a guy who was going to give it to a girl so she could go to the dance. You know what I think? I think you used the money you were saving for contact lenses to buy the dress for me.”

“I’m not admitting to anything, so you might as well give up.”

“Well, whoever did it is the nicest guy in the world.”

“Did you have a nice time at the dance?”

“It was wonderful. Talk about extremes. Last night was great, and today is going to be awful. They’re having the auction over at our place right now. I’m feeling pretty bad. Do you think you could stay with me today?”

“Sure.”

They walked over to her place. Vehicles were lined up along the road. They could hear the auctioneer on the P.A. system. They stood on the edge of the crowd and watched for a while. Her parents watched their property being taken away from them one item at a time. It was too painful for Brenda to watch. She asked Jed to walk with her. They went to the one native tree on their property, an old gnarly cottonwood, and climbed it.

“After the auction, we’re going to stay in town tonight, and then tomorrow we’ll go see how Omaha is for getting work. … If you could give me a ride into town after the auction is over, I’ll have some things to take in too, if that’s all right.”

“Sure.”

They stayed away all morning. He took her to his home and they had lunch. He showed her some of the sketches he’d done of her. She said they were good, but he said he could never get her face the way it really was, because it was like trying to paint the clouds. She didn’t understand. He told her how difficult it was to capture the beauty of clouds, because they changed so fast, and each time was more wonderful. She said she didn’t know what he was talking about.

After lunch they went back to her tree and climbed it and waited. When they saw the stream of traffic going past their place, they got his car and then drove to her house. Her parents had left her a note.

He helped haul her things out to the car. When he came inside the last time, she called from her room and told him to go wait outside.

He went out and leaned on his car and waited. She came out, wearing the formal, dressed just like she’d been the night before.

“Jed, dance with me,” she said. She hummed a tune and they danced around the desolate farmyard until her tears came too fast and made her voice so she couldn’t sing anymore. “I’ll never forget you, Jed.”

“I’ll never forget you either.” He wanted to say more, but he was afraid he’d lose control.

That was the last time he saw Brenda. Years later, when he was serving a mission, his parents sent him the wedding announcement she’d sent to the family. He was glad she was getting married in the temple. He sent her a card and a gift.

After his mission, while majoring in art in college, he finally managed to do a portrait of her that did her justice. It was Brenda in her Homecoming dress, standing alone in the desolate yard of an empty farmhouse.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul H. Mann