Your Basic Buffalo, Your Tiny Chipmunk


It’s a basic law of the animal kingdom, and Elliott, the returned missionary, was determined to be law-abiding.

Your Basic Buffalo, Your Tiny Chipmunk

“Is that it?” Elliott asked the stake president.

“Yes, you’re officially released as a full-time missionary. Welcome home. You can start dating again.”

They shook hands. “Thanks. Oh, can I use your phone?”

“Sure. I’ll be in the other room with the stake clerk if you need me for anything.”

Elliott stared at the phone. He pushed his glasses in place with his index finger. It wasn’t that his glasses fit that badly. Mostly it was something he did when he felt nervous or threatened.

I can do it, he thought to himself, picked up the phone and dialed.

“Hello,” Rachel said.

“Rachel? This is Elliott. I just got in town. In fact I’m calling from the stake president’s office. He just released me from my mission.”

“Oh, Elliott, welcome home. How was your mission?”

“Terrific. I can hardly wait to tell you about it.”

“Well, I’ll be sure and be there when you give your talk in church.”

He paused. “Actually, the main reason I called was, well, my mother says that you and Kyle have been going together, and I was just wondering, you know, how serious you are?”

“It’s funny you should ask. Last week he asked me to marry him.”

“Gee, that sounds fairly serious then, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, I think so, Elliott.”

“What did you tell him?”

“I said I’d think about it.”

“Before you think much more, can I come over and talk to you?”

“There,” she said. “I just put the stamp on my letter telling him I accept his proposal.”

“So maybe this isn’t a good time to call and ask you out?”

“No, it really isn’t, but thanks for thinking of me.”

“Well, I thought, you know, that you and me … I mean you and I … that we …”

“I’m sorry, Elliott. I really am.”

“You say you wrote to Kyle—where is he?”

“Well, you knew he joined the air force, didn’t you?”

“No, I didn’t know that.”

“Yes, he’s a fighter pilot. He was here a few days ago, and then they shipped him off to Alaska.”

“Alaska—that’s a long ways away, isn’t it?” He paused. “And you haven’t actually mailed the letter, right?”

“No. Like I said, I was just putting it in the envelope when you called.”

“How about waiting until tomorrow to mail it?”

“Why?”

“The way I look at it, until you actually mail it, you’re not officially engaged.”

“I think that’s really putting too fine a point on it, Elliott.”

“I’d like to see you tonight,” he said. “But I won’t bother you if you’re engaged.”

“Why do you want to see me?”

“So you can see firsthand what a mission can do for a guy like me.”

“Well, gee, I don’t know.”

“At least let me come over and talk to you.”

Ten minutes later she set the letter on the dashboard of his car. “Can you drop by the post office on our way home so I can mail this tonight?”

He drove by the high school. “You and I have a lot of great high school memories together, don’t we?”

She looked puzzled. “We do? What are they?”

“Do you remember the junior-senior prom when Scottie Anderson wore a tuxedo and tennis shoes, and Melanie Peters tried to pin Joe Pillen’s carnation on, and she stuck him, and he yelled. Do you remember that?”

She looked at him strangely. “I don’t remember that at all.”

“Oh,” he said quietly. “And then there’s those times we dated.”

“I guess we did date a couple of times, didn’t we?” she said.

“Three times.”

“Was it three? Okay, but still …

“All I’m asking is for you not to mail that letter for a few days. Go out with me, and let’s just see if some of that old magic is still there.”

She scrunched up her nose. “Elliott, am I forgetting something? What old magic are you referring to?”

“Remember how we used to kid around in seminary? I liked to sit next to you and make wisecracks so you’d laugh out loud in class and get in trouble. Rachel, you’ve got one terrific laugh.”

“You like my laugh?”

“You have the finest laugh in the world. Your laugh is like shaking a bottle of soda and then opening it up and having it spray out over everybody.”

She cleared her throat. “Let me see if I have this straight. You’re saying that because I laughed at your jokes, I should break off my engagement to Kyle.”

“You’re not engaged yet, so there’s nothing to break.”

“There’s one thing that puzzles me,” she asked. “Why didn’t you just give up when I told you about Kyle?”

“All right, let’s face it, he and I are in competition for you. Animals do that all the time you know—they fight for the female of the species. You take your basic buffalo, or your deer, or even your tiny chipmunk. All share this common characteristic that only the strongest male wins the female of the species. At first you might think this is unfair, especially if you happen to be one of the weak males, but actually it’s only nature’s way of ensuring that only the strongest will pass on their genes to posterity.”

She was looking at him like he was from another planet. He pushed his glasses back in place. “So,” he mumbled, “I take it you’re not a fan of ‘Wild Kingdom’?”

Then she burst out laughing.

“All right!” he cheered. “That’s the Super Bowl of laughs.”

“Your basic buffalo? Your tiny chipmunk? Give me a break!”

“Sorry. I haven’t dated for a couple of years, so I’m a little rusty. But I’m sure I’ll improve with time.”

“For your sake, Elliott,” she teased, “I certainly hope so.”

She asked if they could stop by the grocery store to pick up a few things for her mother. He pushed the shopping cart for her. “I can tell you still kind of like me,” he said.

“I’ve always liked you, Elliott—as a friend. I find you … well, interesting.”

He frowned. “Interesting? Is that all? How about ruggedly handsome?”

Diplomatically she turned to her shopping list. “If you see any Niblets corn, let me know.”

“So, tell me,” he said, “what else in life do you find interesting besides me?”

“The National Geographic,” she said, suppressing a grin.

“Would you say I rate above or below the National Geographic in degree of interest to you?”

She was trying hard to fake seriousness. “Well, of course you know that the National Geographic is a monthly publication.”

“Yeah? So?”

“Should I compare you with one issue or to a whole year’s worth of informative factual writing and wonderful color photographs?”

And then they both laughed.

On the way home he asked, “Basically, how am I doing so far?”

“You don’t give up, do you?”

“I learned that from my mission.”

“Be honest. Are you really sure you want to get serious with a girl so soon after your mission?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Well to be honest, not really.”

“Then why don’t we leave well enough alone. You keep on being unsure, and I’ll go marry Kyle.”

“But what if there’s no other girl in the world like you that I can joke around with? Give me two weeks. That’s all I’m asking. Two weeks for us to find out if we could ever like each other enough to want to get married.”

She paused.

“Look, I know Kyle’s tall, dark, handsome, and has good eyesight. I can see that some women might consider him more physically attractive than me.”

He waited for her to say it wasn’t true. But she didn’t say anything. “Well, is he?”

“Elliott, all Kyle has to do is walk in the room and I get weak in the knees.”

“And what happens when I walk into the room?”

“I start smiling because I know you’re going to make me laugh.”

“That’s it?”

“Elliott, mainly I think of you as a good friend. More like a cousin actually.”

He pushed his glasses into place.

They drove home and made popcorn and ate it on the front steps. At nine o’clock he said he’d better go home and be with his parents. “Don’t mail the letter for a while, okay?”

“All right, I’ll hold it for a few days.”

“How about going fishing with me tomorrow morning?” he asked.

“Fishing?” she asked.

“On the plane after my release I thought about what I wanted to do when I got home. I came up with two things—asking you out and going fishing. This’ll combine ’em both, sort of like killing two birds with one stone.”

She laughed. “How can I refuse such a deal?”

Elliott wasn’t quite sure why she was laughing. “I’ll pick you up at six thirty.”

He shook her hand. She looked strangely at her hand and then smiled at him and went inside.

The next morning they drove to an old fishing hole he’d gone to before his mission. They found a large flat boulder near the edge of the water and sat down while he fixed their lines.

“You think we’ll actually catch anything?” she asked.

“Of course we will. When I go fishing I’m always sure I’ll do well.”

“Why’s that?”

“When I was a kid, my parents used to take me fishing out on a boat. My dad would bait my line first and then toss it overboard, and then he’d do my mom’s and then his. Since my line was in the water way before anybody else’s, I often caught the first fish. My parents used to say, ‘Elliott’s such a good fisherman. He always catches the first fish.’ Since I knew I did catch the first fish, I decided they were right. From that moment on, I thought of myself as a good fisherman.”

He cast her line out first.

“Later in junior high when I started going fishing by myself, I just knew I was a good fisherman. If I caught fish, then I thought to myself, ‘Of course—I’m a good fisherman.’ But if I didn’t catch anything, I thought, ‘Hey, if I didn’t catch any fish, then nobody caught anything, because I’m a good fisherman.’ No matter what happened, I always interpreted it in terms of this unshakable belief that I was a good fisherman. The amazing thing is that because I saw myself as a good fisherman, I became a good fisherman, because I never got discouraged and gave up.”

Her pole dipped strongly downward.

“I got one!” she yelled excitedly.

He coached her as she reeled in, and then took a net and dipped down into the cool clear water and pulled in a large trout.

“Rachel! All right!”

He removed the hook and put the fish on a stringer and set it back into the water.

Then he baited her hook and helped her cast out again.

“Rachel is a good fisherwoman,” he said. “She always catches the first fish.”

They sat down again and watched their lines.

“You know,” he said, handing her a donut, “lately I’ve been thinking. What if that’s the secret of success? What if nothing else is as important as how we feel about ourselves? If that’s true, then the most important thing to do is to build a child’s self-confidence. I’ve been thinking about majoring in education. I think I’d like to teach in grade school. That’s where kids need the most to be told they’re special.”

“What a treat for a kid to have you for a teacher. You’re so positive about everything.”

“On my mission I learned that Heavenly Father is positive about all of us. In the Doctrine and Covenants, he tells us to go ahead, do any good thing you want to do. He tells us that the power’s in us. I believe that. I think we should follow our dreams and not give up.

She sat a little closer to him.

“What are your dreams?” he asked.

“Well, I want to finish college. Kyle says there’s a college just a few miles from where we’ll be living, so maybe I’ll finish after we get married.”

“Anything else?”

“I want to be married in the temple and have children and be the kind of mother to my kids that my mother was to me.”

“Anything else?”

She paused. “You’ll think this is dumb.”

“No I won’t.”

“Since I was a little girl, I’ve written songs. I’ve always wanted to know if they were any good, you know, if I could find a record company willing to promote them.”

“What other dreams do you have?”

“I’ve always wanted to paint a picture that was good enough to hang in a living room.”

“You can do it. The power is in you to do it. You wouldn’t have the dream unless you had the power in you to put wings on it to make it fly.”

“You really believe that, don’t you?”

“Sure, why not? You should always believe you’re going to win.”

“But a person doesn’t always win.”

“No, but you should always believe you will.”

She smiled.

“What’s wrong?”

“I was picturing you on the Titanic just after it struck the iceberg. The ship’s sinking and everybody’s running around trying to jump into lifeboats, except you. You’re going around telling people, ‘Hey, no problem. Just think of it as a very large ice cube.’”

The sun was warm. She leaned against his shoulder and closed her eyes, while he watched the water—and her. “I love to look at your face,” he said.

She didn’t answer.

“Are you awake?”

“Yes.” She opened her eyes.

They ended up with five trout. They were home by eleven that morning. She invited him to eat lunch with her family if he’d cook up the fish they’d caught.

While he worked in the kitchen with her mother, Rachel went to get the mail.

“It’s nice to have you home again, Elliott,” her mother said.

“Thanks. It’s nice to be home.” He paused. “Can I ask you a question? How does Rachel get along with Kyle?”

“You should see how her eyes light up when he enters the room.”

He looked outside. She was sitting on the steps reading a letter. He knew it was from Kyle.

When she came back, she was uncharacteristically somber.

But he was too busy frying fish to talk.

After lunch, she walked him out to the car.

“Can I see you tonight?” he asked.

“Elliott, I got a letter from Kyle today. He’s gone ahead without me and ordered our wedding announcements.”

“Good grief! That means you must have already set a wedding date.”

“Well, we set one tentatively, but I’ve never actually agreed to marry him. And he knows that. I guess he just assumed my answer would be yes.”

Elliott pushed his glasses into place. “But he hasn’t actually sent the announcements out yet, has he?”

“No. He’s having them all mailed to me when they’re printed.”

“What a waste of money. Well, I suppose we could always cross out his name and write mine in. They have write-in candidates for elections, right? So why not for a wedding?”

“This isn’t funny, Elliott.”

“I never said it was.”

“Maybe it’d just be for the best if we quit seeing each other.”

“What for?”

“I hate to change horses in the middle of the stream.”

“No. Don’t think of it like that.”

“How else can I think of it?”

“Well, okay, you’re at this corral, see, and there’s all these horses milling around. At first you picked out this rather ordinary quarter horse named Kyle. But then you spot this magnificent Arabian named Elliott. So you turn to the man in charge of the horses and you ask, ‘Would it be all right if I changed my mind and took that Arabian instead of the one I originally picked?’ And the cowboy says, ‘Hey, Lady, it’s no skin off my nose.’ So you pick the Arabian. What I’m trying to say is, don’t think of it as changing horses in the middle of the stream. In the middle of the stream would be if you were officially engaged, which you’re not. But this is still in the corral. I think you should keep that in mind.”

She smiled. “You had to be the Arabian, didn’t you?”

After supper he showed up at her home again. Her mother met him at the door. “Rachel just left. She said she had to go to the post office.”

“I’ve got to stop her.” He ran to his car and took off for the post office. He got there just as she was about to drop a letter into the mailbox.

“Wait! Don’t mail that letter! It’s not in the middle of the stream! It’s still in the corral!”

An elderly lady, thinking he was a lunatic, hurried out the door.

Rachel dropped the letter into the chute.

He lunged for the letter, but it was too late. It was gone.

He sighed. “Okay, you mailed it. I can accept that. But until he actually receives the letter, you’re not officially engaged.”

“Calm down, it wasn’t a letter to Kyle. I was just paying my bill to a C.D. club.”

“Oh—sorry.”

They left the post office.

“Elliott, I don’t think you’re as interested in me as you are in achieving a goal you’ve set for yourself.”

“Two weeks, that’s all I’m asking.”

That night she wrote to Kyle and told him not to do anything more about marriage plans because she hadn’t made up her mind yet.

The next day when Elliott showed up at her home, it was a rainy day. They sat at the piano while she played the songs she’d written.

“They’re terrific songs,” he said. “You’ve got real talent. Let’s record your songs and send them out to some record companies. I think you’ve got a bright future as a songwriter.”

“You really think so?”

“Absolutely. You can do anything you set your mind on.”

They ate lunch. It was still raining. “One time you talked about wanting to paint a picture,” he said. “How about if we do that this afternoon?”

They drove to an artist supply shop and bought a large canvas and several tubes of paint and some brushes, and then they went to his house.

His mother talked to Rachel while he set up in the garage for their project.

“Elliott is very enthusiastic about you,” his mother said.

“As far as I can tell, he’s enthusiastic about everything.”

“Your mom and I talked yesterday. We’re a little puzzled about you two.”

“I’m puzzled too. I like Elliott very much.” She paused. “But I’m in love with Kyle.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.”

Just then he burst into the house. “C’mon! Let’s go be Rembrandt!”

They went to the garage. Elliott had placed the canvas on the floor. They took an old tricycle and dabbed paint on the wheels and ran it back and forth across the canvas. They repeated the process several times with a variety of colors and wheels. It took them three hours and then they stood in the garage looking at their creation.

“I think it makes a very bold statement,” Elliott said with a grin.

“And tricycle art is so today,” she said. They started laughing. “Oh, Elliott, you’re so much fun to be with.”

On Sunday he spoke in sacrament meeting and told about some of the experiences he’d had on his mission. And then afterwards, he invited Rachel for lunch with his family.

On Monday Elliott located a music studio in town where they could record Rachel’s songs. On Tuesday he called around for some musicians, finally locating two guitar players and a drummer. On Wednesday night they recorded the songs.

Thursday night when he showed up, he could see by her expression there were problems. “What’s wrong?”

“Kyle got my last letter. He just phoned to ask what the problem is, so I told him about you. He’s really upset. He’s catching a military transport plane down here this weekend.”

The first time Elliott saw Kyle that weekend was at church. He wore his air force uniform. Elliott was depressed seeing how good Kyle looked in a uniform. Kyle and Rachel sat together in church. He draped his arm around her shoulders most of the meeting.

A member of the bishopric announced a Young Adult fireside at Rachel’s house.

Elliott lost track of them after sacrament meeting because he had a calling to teach Primary.

He spent the afternoon in his bedroom.

“Can I come in?” his mother said just before supper.

She came in and sat down on the bed. “Are you okay?”

“Well, no, I guess I’m not.”

“You’re worried about Kyle?”

“When he walks in the room, Rachel gets weak in the knees. But when I walk in the room, she starts snickering. You’re a woman. Tell me what I need to do so she’ll get weak in the knees when I walk in the room.”

“Is that what you really want? For her to be weak in the knees.”

“I want her to fall in love with me.”

“Just be yourself.”

“Mom, I’ve tried that, and it’s not enough. How can I compete with Kyle? He’s out of my class. A girl would be crazy not to fall in love with him. He looks terrific, he’s got an education, he’s an officer in the air force, a fighter pilot. He’s got a future, and what have I got? Three more years of schooling and then a poverty level income as a grade school teacher.”

She paused. “I think you’re wonderful, but of course I’m your mother. You’ll just have to wait and see what happens. There’s one thing on your side though.”

“What’s that?”

“She may be in love with Kyle, but I think you’re her best friend.”

“So?”

“Guess who my best friend is?” she asked.

“Dad?”

“That’s right.”

Monday morning Kyle left.

Rachel came over to see Elliott. He was going through the want ads looking for a job.

She sat down with him at the kitchen table. “Kyle said the chances of ever finding a record company willing to take a chance on my songs are pretty slim.”

“Realistically, I guess he’s right.”

She paused. “I showed him the painting we did. He made fun of it and said it looked like somebody’d taken a child’s tricycle and run it back and forth over a canvas.”

“Well, of course, that’s true.”

“And then I talked to him about taking college music courses after we were married. And he asked why I’d want to do a dumb thing like that.”

She quit talking.

“He told me all I had to worry about was being his wife. He tried to kiss me, probably thinking I’d just melt into his arms. But I pulled away and told him I needed some time, and that I wasn’t ready to get engaged to him. I tried to tell him how good I feel about myself when I’m around you, but I don’t think he understood. Anyway, he’s gone. So I’m available—if you want to go fishing sometime.”

“Let’s go tomorrow,” he said.

“Are the fish biting?”

“Of course they are. We’ll catch a lot of fish.”

“How do you know?” she asked.

“We always do, don’t we? Let’s go to McPherson Reservoir. I always do well there.”

She paused. “They drained it last year.”

He paused. “Some other place then. It’s a big world. There’s lots of places to do well.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Mann