(Read Luke 18:35-43.)
The house at 1203 Robin Lane could not have been more all-American. It was pale red-orange brick trimmed in white. The high-pitched roof had cedar shingles. There was—yes—a white picket fence. And ivy covered one end of the house. Evergreen shrubs framed the flagstone path.
Rex, the water spaniel, presided over the backyard, which also featured a birdbath and goldfish pond. The front yard was patrolled by Groucho, a black cat with a splash of white on his face that made him look like he had a mustache.
Along the side of the house opposite the ivy was the deck. It was a magnificent deck of redwood, skirted with lattice work. At one end was the Cooker: a combination grill, smoker, and steamer.
The Cooker had been designed by Mr. Bayer himself. Fred Bayer was President and CEO of Bayer Cookers: The Finest in Outdoor Cooking Hardware. And Fred lived in this All-American home on Robin Lane. He had lived there for twenty-seven years. The kids were small when they moved in. It was a nice four-bedroom home where you could raise a family. Fred and Marie had settled in with the intention of staying. They made modest improvements over the years—new carpet had gone in ten years ago. They kept the place up. It looked good.
On a Saturday in April in the middle of the afternoon, what do you do? The weather was as near perfect as it can be: a very soft breeze, a few wispy clouds high in the East, temperature in the mid-seventies. Fred did not have to do lawn work any more. A high school boy down the street did the routine stuff, and Mother brought in some guy from a nursery to do major things with trees and bushes and flower beds. So, Fred sat on the deck with a newspaper in his hands.
He was an All-American man in his early sixties: silver hair that long ago had yielded to training and parted the same place every time, a five-foot-ten frame that once was muscular with seventeen-inch neck, but now let fat slop over the top of the belt, powerful hands that still could handle a cutting torch or T-square, a tough, handsome face dominated by clear blue eyes under silver brows.
Inside, Marie was playing the piano. She had pretty much retired from being pianist at the church, except as a substitute accompanist for the Children’s Choir. But she played on beautiful days in April with the windows open and the soft breeze carrying the notes out across the backyards of Robin Lane. So, when the phone rang, Fred figured she could get it. The piano ceased and then the ringing stopped. Fred waited briefly to see if it was going to be for him. He let the paper sag, and his eyes wandered along the vista before him. It had been a great spring: the grass had gotten a good start, trees were leafing out, flowers blooming. Everyone on the street seemed to have been in competition to have the Most Beautiful Lawn. Fred felt a gentle contentment.
The side door onto the deck opened. He had almost forgotten the phone. He realized that Marie must have talked to whoever it was. Now, she was coming to report.
“That was Charles on the phone.” Her voice said more than the words. Charles was their youngest son. First had come Betty Marie and then Frederick Wasmire (for Marie’s family) and then Charles Kennedy (for the young President) Bayer. Mother’s voice said something was not right with Charles. Fred closed the paper. It crinkled and creased the wrong way and refused to fold properly. Fred’s mind refused to focus on the newspaper as it stubbornly settled to the deck floor. “He’s in Los Angeles again,” Marie continued. She was standing before Fred now. Her posture was perfectly erect, her dress was immaculate. She held a tiny handkerchief, a delicate one with purple flowers; a ball of it was in her left hand, and one corner was held firmly by her right. The two hands twisted and grappled with the handkerchief as she talked.
“So, what’s he doing there?” Fred asked with a voice filled with the same dejection as he had heard in his wife’s.
“I don’t know. It’s not clear to me. He’s going to work for the computer graphics firm again. But not selling. Just the creative end, he said.”
“Well, that sounds good. He’s working.”
“Yes, well…” Marie hesitated.
“He said he wanted to talk with you.”
“Me? So, why didn’t you call me to the phone?”
“No, not over the phone. Face-to-face, he said.”
“So, when is he coming?”
“No, he’s not coming here. He said he just can’t afford the ticket. He wants you to come there.”
“So, why is this so urgent?”
“He really would not say. He just said, if you could get away, he would like you to come out. He wants to talk with you.”
Fred sat quietly for a moment. Suddenly, his business was before him as a vision. He had projects to complete, orders to fill, workers to train, meetings to call and attend. His son Fred did a marvelous job, he knew, but somehow the older Fred was still the one in charge of the business.
“I don’t know. I just don’t see how I can get away. We have summer coming. That’s prime season for us. We’re going to be very busy until July. I just do not know.” Fred was trying to think about it. The newspaper had caught a puff of wind and was skittering across the deck. Marie trotted over to catch it.
“Well, he sounded very serious.” She was standing with one foot on the newspaper. “You know how he is.”
Fred knew how Charles was. Charles was either up or down. He made money and lost it all. He had a failed marriage. He never seemed quite able to handle adulthood. He was the troubled one. In and out of rehab clinics. Waking them up at two in the morning, drunk or high or something. They had tried tough love, patience, confrontation, everything.
For the past two years, he had been in Austin, working for an ad agency. He had seemed to be content. He took a few courses at the University. He would come home for holidays. He was jovial or quiet, but never quite as desperate as he had seemed in the past. What was going on now? Fred sighed and looked at Mother.
“Well, when you get a chance, maybe you could fly out there.”
That seemed to settle it. It was that standard answer of two billion parents in the world: “We’ll see.”
It was a week and one day later, Sunday afternoon. The weather had changed to stormy. Marie was watching the weather warnings at the bottom of the TV screen. Fred was settled into a Sunday afternoon nap, but he reached the screaming telephone first.
“Dad, it’s Charles.”
“Yeah, son. So, you’re…where you at now?”
“Los Angeles. Just got my apartment yesterday. I had to stay with Jerry. Do you remember him? He was at Graphique Today last time I was here.”
“No…I…Oh, was he the guy with the big dog?”
“Yeah…That’s him. Well, anyway, he put me up for the last two weeks. Now, I’ve got my own place. I’m into computer graphics, did Mom tell you?”
“Yeah…She said you wanted to see me?”
“Well, yeah, Dad. I-, uh, you know. I was thinking maybe you could come out sometime. We could go to a Dodger game or something.”
“You know I’m awful busy, Charlie. I got a lotta orders. Wal-Mart put in a big order. We’ve hired extra folks.”
“I know, Dad. No, it’s not baseball. I need to talk some stuff out. It’s really hard…It’s so hard to understand, to explain. I been talking with this preacher.”
“Preacher? You going to church?”
“Well, I’ve been a couple of times. It’s not just church, though, Dad. It’s God. It’s Jesus.”
“What are you talking about, Charlie? You in one of those cults?”
The phone clicked off. Fred stood, his enormous hand almost crushing the phone. His right ear had been painfully creased by the earpiece. He was standing at the dresser in their bedroom, his left hand resting on the dresser top, his whole frame bent over in deep concentration to hear the voice from Los Angeles. Now there was the roar of the dial tone, scolding him for exercising the family trait of sarcasm. He had hurt Charlie.
Fred gave a few weak “Hello?”s and then hung up. He walked into the living room where Mother sat intently studying the map of weather alerts on the screen.
“Who was that?”
“It was Charlie.”
“Oh? So, you talked with him? Not very long.”
“I think maybe…Well, maybe I upset him.”
“Now, dear. What did you say?”
“Well, I, uh…You know. I asked him if he was in a cult or something.”
“Why would you ask him that?”
“Well, he started talking about God and stuff.”
“Oh, dear. You think he’s in a cult?”
“I don’t know. You know Charlie. He’s always running on about something. Anyway, I asked him, and he hung up.”
“He hung up on you?”
The phone rang again. The two of them looked at one another. The team was deciding: how do we handle this one? Fred sighed and ambled to the living room phone with his heavy rolling gait.
“Dad? I’m sorry I hung up.” Charlie seemed to be talking fast. “I just didn’t want to get into a big discussion on the phone. But the answer to your question is ‘no.’ I’m not into a cult or something. This preacher is a Pentecostal preacher. But he’s very legit, Dad. Anyway, it’s not about him. Well, anyway, you think you could get out here? Fred can run that business blindfolded.”
Fred hesitated. He was a little angry. Why did he need to run off to California to hold a grown man’s hand? Still, he did not want to hurt his son. “I’m sorry about the cult crack, Son. Look, let me see how the next week or so goes. I’m not making any promises. Maybe Mother could go out with me.”
“Well, OK. But don’t make Mom come if she doesn’t want to. I mean, I’d be glad to see her, understand. But I really think you and I need to talk this one out.”
“OK, look, we’ll see in a week or so, OK?” We’ll see.
“Yeah, OK. Give me a call. This is the number.” Charles gave the number, and Fred scratched it down on a pad. They said their good-byes.
On Tuesday, Fred received a fax at his office. His secretary brought it in. She handed it to Fred, saying little. The look on her face said she had read the fax.
“Dear Dad: Sorry to disturb you at work, thought this would be less intrusive than a phone call. I didn’t give you my work phone. It’s on this form. I got permission for the fax. Still hoping you can come out. Help me explore this need of mine to be right with God. Help me and you to resolve our problems. Face to face. Love, Charlie.”
Fred studied the fax. He tried to read between the lines. He tried to understand his son. He tried to figure out why Charlie was so intense. He looked up, realizing his secretary was poking her body through the door. She was staring at the phone in silent communication; then he realized his phone was flashing. He picked it up and tried to focus on the conversation with some faceless voice who wanted more propane fittings. But, as he dealt with the customer, his pen doodled around the compact text of the fax. He underlined key phrases: “work phone,” “permission,” “come out,” “need of mine,” “right with God,” “our problems,” “face to face.”
That night, there was another phone call from Charlie. Fred was watching some inane comedy on TV. He had gotten lost in the plot and most of the laughs made no sense to him. The phone brought him out of his chair and across the room before the laughter of the live studio audience at some lame joke had subsided. It was Charles.
“Hello, Dad. I hope my fax was not a problem at the shop.”
“Oh, I suppose not. What is going on with you, boy? You need to go to a doctor or something? You getting your work done?”
“I really am getting my work done, Dad. I’m just trying to work through some stuff. Stuff that is important to me.”
“Don’t you think I got important stuff too? I mean, we hired two more people today. This is a very busy time.”
“I know, Dad. I’m sorry. But some things do not wait, you know?”
“Like my customers.”
“You’re not coming out?”
Fred sighed. He stood, the phone pressing harshly into his ear. “OK, look. Thursday. I’ll see if I can get a flight Thursday. I’ll be out there, we’ll talk, I’ll go home. Will that satisfy you?”
“Great, Dad. I really appreciate it.”
Fred was on a noon flight for Los Angeles on Thursday. He was never that comfortable flying. He tried to relax, but dozens of thoughts were flying through his head. He felt as though he were standing in the middle of the Shop, foremen were yelling, pallets being dropped with rude “Whacks!”, cutting torches hissing, Gladys Henderson yakking away about some gossip, forklift hydraulics whining. At the same time, he was walking down the God-forsaken hallway of a mental institution, trying to find his son’s room; his flesh crawling as he passed the institutionalized eyes of some patient draped in green. That vision blended into the spooky face of his son, stoned on acid, sitting on Fred’s front porch, explaining to his father some strange theory of the Universe.
Now, once more, Fred was on a trip halfway across the country to rescue his son. He accepted a Coke from the stewardess and tried to enjoy puffy clouds and silent fields and pastures and highways and hamlets that were passing below him.
“Mr. Bayer?” Fred had dozed off. The Coke was still on the fold-down table in front of him. He stared at the stewardess, his eyes bulging with the momentary terror of being awakened from the sleep of the late middle ages. “Mr. Bayer, right?”
“Yeah. I’m Fred Bayer.”
“Well, the Captain has received a message for you.”
Fred stared in disbelief. He was trying to think who the Captain was.
The stewardess continued. “You’re to go to the UCLA Medical Center. Your son is there. He’s all right. Just a minor accident.”
Fred mumbled: “Oh? I see. Well, thank you.” He was still trying to wipe the cobwebs out. He stared at the Coke. He took a sip. Then, he gulped down more. The stewardess had left. He turned to watch her go up the aisle. Quickly, he reached for the Coke with one hand and lifted the table with the other. He rolled into the aisle and rushed toward the stewardess. “Miss…Stewardess!” She turned to look back. Fred was suddenly aware of the noises his voice was competing with—engine, air conditioning, twenty different conversations. The kind lady was making her way back to him.
“Could I see that message?”
“Sure!” She handed him the crinkled paper, torn out of a spiral notebook.
“Thank you. Thank you very much. Do you need this back?”
“Oh, no, you keep it. I hope your son is OK.”
“Yes, thank you.”
Fred stood in the aisle and read the message over again. It said almost precisely what the girl had told him. There was some sort of code scribbled across the top, along with a time. He checked his watch: the message had come about eight minutes before.
He felt the vibrations and sway of the plane as he slowly walked back to his seat. He slipped down into the seat, noticing that he was still grasping a half-finished Coke. He wished there were some place he could throw it. He stared out the window, idly gripping the Coke.
Why was Charlie in the hospital? What had happened now? An overdose? A drunken stupor? An accident? “Just a minor accident.” If it was just minor, why had he gone through all this? Why not page him at the airport? How did he manage this message this way? Who knows? Somehow Charlie always managed to communicate.
Suddenly, Fred was a little embarrassed. Good grief. Taking up the Captain’s time like that. The Captain. That’s the pilot, right?
There was a ding and the “Fasten Seat Belts” sign was on. Fred obeyed with difficulty because of the Coke. A stewardess came by and took the glass away. Fred braced for the landing.
In the airport, he searched his way to the front where the cabs were. He asked for the Medical Center and was on his way. He felt better in a more familiar means of transportation.
“Where you want to go?” the cabbie asked.
“Just to the Medical Center.”
“Yeah, but which side?”
“I don’t know. Where can I get patient information?”
The cab stopped in front of the enormous complex. Fred paid from his wad of bills and ambled into the lobby. He saw a sign: “Information.”
“Do you have a patient, Charles Bayer?”
The volunteer looked too old to be handling this job. She seemed to struggle with the computer. Fred tapped his fingers impatiently.
The lady looked up, a startled expression on her face. “Oh! Charles Bayer? Now, there was a man who wanted to know…” She fumbled with crumpled pieces of paper beside her keyboard. Her head bobbed up, and she looked over at an alcove where armchairs and a couch were arranged around a coffee table. “Sir! Sir!” She struggled to raise her voice. It was not up to its task. Without taking her eyes from their target, and pointing with tremoring finger, she explained to Fred, “There’s a man over there, the fellow in the maroon jacket.” Fred swung toward the alcove, leaning against the counter-top. Across the broad lobby sat a deeply tanned man. Fred instantly thought, “Used-car sales.” He wore a maroon jacket and a tie with modern art swirls on it. Below the jacket were pants with tiny black-and-white checks, shimmering in the sunlight pouring through the window. His foundation was white bucks.
The Information Lady continued. “That man said that if someone came in looking for Charles Bayer, he would like to talk.” She returned to the computer: “Now, Charles Bayer is in Room 3342. Take that second bank of elevators to Three, and you can follow the signs to his room.
“Thank you.” Fred wrote the room number on a scratch paper from a stack on the counter. He strode hurriedly toward the stranger, impatient that he had to deal with yet one more person before he could see his son.
The man had been reading a newspaper; it was stretched out on the couch beside him. His body was twisted to his left; his left elbow rested on the low couch back, his right arm was free to maneuver the paper. He became aware of Fred before he arrived at the cluster of furniture. He seemed to sense that this was his Man; therefore, he wheeled into a square position on the couch and folded the paper neatly.
“You the one wanting to see whoever was looking for Charles Bayer?”
“Are you Charlie’s father?”
The Used Car Salesman stood lightly to his feet and extended his hand. His eyes were deep brown: his black brows almost met at the midline. His hair was thinning, jet black. A high peaked wave of hair swept up from a pronounced widow’s peak. The bald scalp was tanned. The creased forehead put him close to fifty. The grinning teeth glinted in the bright light.
Fred took his hand. “You are…?”
“I’m Ted Gonzales. I’m pastor of New Life Bible Church in Anaheim.”
Fred tried to size the preacher up. He was Hispanic, but probably had Anglo in him. He noted a very smooth, gracious speech that said this guy’s been up and down the road.
Ted motioned for Fred to sit down, as he returned to the couch, folding the newspaper one more time and laying it between himself and the arm of the couch. Fred sat in an armchair at the end of the couch. He leaned an elbow on one knee and twisted to face Ted. He needed to be close to screen out the random echoes of the huge lobby. He waited for Ted to say his piece.
Ted started with a smile. He was one of those folks who begin every conversation with a smile. It only made Fred more on edge. “Charlie’s been through a lot lately. I guess you know some of that.”
“I really don’t have much of an idea.”
“Well, anyway, physically he’s OK. He was driving to the airport today and hit a car as he was pulling out of a side street. I guess the police gave him a ticket. He just has too much on his mind.” Ted paused. “You knew he lost his job?”
Fred winced. “No, I thought he was doing OK. But, if he wasn’t hurt, how come he’s in the hospital?”“Just observation. He hit his head. There’s a bump on his forehead. They said they’d keep him overnight. Well, yes, he was doing fine at his job. Then, someone complained that he was always talking religion. Someone wanted him to stop. He sort of lost it then.”
(continued as Part 2)