What could an obnoxious guy in a plaid leisure suit possibly teach me?

Earl

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1).

I feel ashamed whenever I see Earl. I didn’t like him when we first met. He was overweight and wore a plaid, polyester leisure suit that I thought looked tacky. His plump hand was moist when I shook it, and he chuckled senselessly after every sentence he spoke: “Hi, Sharon.” Chuckle. “I’m Earl.” Chuckle. “It’s good to know you.” Chuckle, chuckle.

Earl and I had been assigned to organize and execute a branch service project for the college branch we attended. Upon receiving the assignment, I’d immediately put my creativity to work. Perhaps, I thought, we could take a group of under-privileged children on a weekend camping trip in the mountains. What could be better for them than exercise, camaraderie, and clean air, I reasoned, overlooking the facts that it had snowed there last weekend, most of the branch members owned little, if any, camping equipment, and the children would surely possess none at all. It irritated me when Earl, chuckling good-naturedly, brought these details to my attention and suggested a Halloween party at the local rest home instead. How unoriginal, I thought, as I smiled and nodded approvingly at his plan.

We met several nights in succession to form our plans. The meetings were unpleasant to me, his ideas so dull that even compromises sounded boring. I wanted horror melodramas for entertainment, complete with shrieks of terror and handsome heroes with their ladies. He wanted ghost stories, all of which would surely begin, “It was a dark and stormy night …”

For refreshments I’d dreamed up whole-wheat pumpkin cakes and apples on a stick dipped in hot, cinnamoned honey and cooled. “What about their dentures?” he’d asked, again chuckling. In turn, he suggested sugar cookies and cider.

As our plans progressed, however, I began to become excited about the prospect of aiding the elderly. I recalled the verse in James 1:27, which reads: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction.” The previous year at Christmastime my Laurel class had baked cookies for all the widows in the ward. Sister Kirkham, a 90-year-old woman who walked with two canes, had wept when we came to her door and, when we were leaving, thanked us again and again for our visit. We all felt good afterwards. That’s what the gospel is all about, I thought as I anticipated the upcoming service project. The only thorn in my plans was Earl. He irritated me.

I couldn’t understand why he didn’t lose weight, or find a shampoo that would help control his problem with dandruff. If he’d exercise and eat nutritious foods he’d be in a lot better shape, I’d thought critically, proudly reviewing the personal health program I followed.

Too, his intellect was lacking and his wit was dull, a fact manifested by his love of simple puns and riddles. At one of our meetings when we were relaxing for a moment, he’d asked me jovially, “What’s black and white and read all over?” “A newspaper,” I answered quickly. He chuckled, “Ah, you already heard the joke.” I wondered who hadn’t heard the joke.

I also had serious doubts about the genuineness of his charity. His voice didn’t seem to contain a proper amount of pity when he spoke of the bedridden and ways to include them in the festivities. Nor did he seem to feel much sorrow for the plight of the elderly in general. “Old folks are a real kick,” he’d say. “My grandma can spin a yarn that’ll keep you on the edge of your seat. Course she’s in a rest home now, but that don’t get her down none.”

“He just drives me nuts!” I complained to my roommate, Carol. “Everything about him just drives me nuts.” But despite my irritation with Earl, preparation for the party progressed. Halloween came.

We arrived at Sunshine Terrace nursing home early to begin decorating and set up the refreshments.

“Hello, Earl,” the receptionist smiled as we walked through the door. I briefly wondered how she knew him. We proceeded to the big gathering room. Ancient-looking people sat along the walls in the hallway. One man with a walker had warts that covered half of his face. Another woman sat in a wheelchair which had been tied to the handrailing on the wall. Her head flopped and she drooled continually, wetting a large portion of her dress bodice. As I stepped by she clawed my skirt. I pulled away and muttered a hasty hello. Earl, his smile as usual planted on his face, walked beside me. Old eyes crinkled at him and toothless mouths grimaced his way. Some extended greetings to him and he chuckled out, “Howdy, Doris” and “Lo there, Howard” in return.

I felt tense and faintly nauseated, my charitable zeal overshadowed by fear and revulsion. Earl remained his same chortling self. I soon realized that he knew these people. He was friends with them. I hung close to his shadow, letting his greetings and handclasps compensate for my own silence and lack of response.

But despite my mere surface participation, the party was a success. The elderly people seemed delighted with the drooping orange and black crepe paper (one of Earl’s ideas), and one woman said that the cider and sugar cookies reminded her of the autumn baking days of her youth. They chilled at the ghost stories and retold the eerie tales recalled from their own childhoods.

I began to realize that these were real people with real thoughts and feelings. Nevertheless, my own self-consciousness and discomfort kept me from becoming an active participant and enjoying their company. I had never seen a man without arms or a woman with spastic palsy. I didn’t want to see them, so I focused my eyes on the floor or ceiling or I watched some of the other students in the branch or Earl.

Earl remained, well—Earl. He was still overweight. His hands were still moist, his dandruff unchecked. His remarks and jokes still displayed an amazing lack of originality, and his chuckling remained incessant. I looked at him with those people. His damp hand comfortably clasped a withered, dry one. That was when I first began to feel ashamed. Earl was naturally what I was only pretending to be. I’d come to Sunshine Terrace full of self-righteous charity, artificial smiles, and condescending words of tenderness. Earl had simply come.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes