(continuation of the story)
“Whaddya mean, ‘lost it’?”
“Whaddya mean, ‘lost it’?”
“Well, he just said a bunch of stuff at a team meeting and the boss said that was it, he’d have to go.” Ted paused again and studied his interlocutor. Fred gave no sign. “I want you to know that I am trying to work with Charlie, Mr. Bayer. I really like Charlie. I’m trying to help him get established in his relationship with God. But he is still exploring. Everything is brand new for him.”
“What’re you talking about? Relationship with God? You with some kind of cult?” Fred almost bit his tongue, realizing he had said it again.
Ted seemed to take zero offense. “No, no, not really. We are an intense community of faith. And we attract Charlie’s kind of intensity. Let me tell you how I met Charlie. I was down at the beach with my family and some other church members. Charlie was with some folks from his company playing beach volley ball. He got into a dispute about the game. The argument grew very intense. Charlie stalked off and went and sat on a blanket close to where we all were. He was sipping a beer and started to talk with us. Most of our group was getting some hamburgers grilled and really weren’t paying any attention. He had this way of talking so softly that you really couldn’t hear, you know? But he’s sitting there talking straight at you, and you feel like maybe you ought to be listening. I went over by his blanket and we began a conversation. He was really embarrassed that he had gotten so upset about the game. But he said something that stuck with me. He said, ‘Why do something if it doesn’t matter?’”
Fred squirmed in his chair. “That sounds something like Charlie.”
“Anyway, I ended up giving Charlie my phone number. The next evening, he called. I went over to his place. We talked half the night. It’s been that way ever since. He’s either over at my office, talking to me or my secretary or whoever else will listen. Or, he’s calling me up, wanting me to come over and talk to him. And from the start, he seemed to be hung up about one thing—his relationship to you.”
Fred sat up straight; his hands gripped the arms of his chair. His eyes no longer were studying the smiling face of the preacher. He was staring into the spaciousness of the lobby of the giant medical complex.
“Mr. Fred Bayer, please come to the Information Desk.” Fred shot a glance at Ted, who looked puzzled. The announcement repeated itself, and Fred rose painfully from the cushions of the armchair and strode heavily back to the little lady with all the information.
The lady already was lost back into her romance novel as Fred rested his forearms on the fake marble counter-top.
“I’m Fred Bayer.” He decided not to force her to make any assumptions.
She looked up with a blank expression and hesitated briefly. Then, recognition came to her and she excitedly thumbed through her crumpled notes. “Oh, yes. Fred Bayer. Your son, Charles Bayer, would like you to go to his room as soon as you arrive.” It was as though she and he had never had the previous conversation. Yet, her accuracy in delivering the message was admirable. “Room 3342. Take that second bank of elevators to Three and you can follow the signs to his room.”
“Thank you.” Fred ground the marble slab with his heel as he turned to his right and pushed on to the elevators. He realized Ted was beside him, but he did not speak to the preacher.
On the third floor, he hesitated and studied the signs and arrows directing him to various ranges of room numbers. He walked along the corridor, hardly noticing the uniformed personnel. Ted walked silently along, to his left and behind a step. Fred was counting backwards as they progressed down the numbers. When they arrived at 3342, there was a name beside the “A”: Augustino Malconado; but there was no name beside the “B”. Perhaps, they hadn’t gotten to it. Fred cautiously looked around the door frame.
“Hello, Dad.” Charlie was sitting in a bed beside the window. The curtain was open between the two beds. The other bed was empty, but it looked as though someone was using it.
“I see you’ve met Brother Gonzales.”
“Yeah. How’re you doing?” There was a bandage on his forehead. Charlie was sitting up; one knee was pushing the sheet high, the other poked out from under the sheet.
“Oh, I’m all right. I have a pretty good headache. But I’m OK.”
Fred dragged a chair between the bed and window. He was oblivious to Ted, or to the paging announcement in the hall. He sat heavily and gripped the arms of the chair. His head swung slightly side-to-side as he spoke: “Now, what is all this ? You worry your mother. You fax me at work. You even send a message to the pilot. What is so important that I got to fly out here? I got orders and new employees. How come you are always such a mess, raising a ruckus about everything that occurs to you?”
Charlie leaned back on the bed. He looked at his father. Sorrow covered his face. Then, his expression changed, his eyes focused.
“Dad, I think I’m saved. No, I know I’m saved. I have decided to follow Jesus.”
Fred did not respond. He looked at his son, his face twisted into intense focus.
“This is my most important decision. I know I’ve been a mess. Do you understand that this is the decision of my life?”
“There have been others.” The family sarcasm slipped through Fred’s lips.
“Yes. Yes, I have decided to quit drugs, to be a hermit, to divorce Karen, to be a lawyer, to drive a truck. I know that I am always making decisions.”
“And you’ve said you’re sorry about four or five times.” Fred wanted it all to get out.
“Yes.” Charlie began to weep. The words came out louder now, forced out between the sobs, his voice getting husky from the swallowed tears.
“But, Dad, I didn’t call you out here just to say I’m sorry. I want you to know this. I want you to know and really understand that I have come to terms with myself, with you and our past.”
Fred sat still. He was trying to understand. “I’m trying to understand, Son. I really am. But what’s the big deal? I mean you going to church and stuff. You going to be a—what is it?--funda-, fundamental? I heard they’re always talking religion.”
Charlie took a deep breath. He looked at Ted, leaning in the doorway. “It’s like this. When I came out here, I was tired. I had been through so many things. I just wanted to come out here and have some fun. Austin had started to get on my nerves. I had taken training in computer graphics. I was ready to sit in front of a keyboard and do my thing.”
“You know your trouble, Charlie?” Fred butted in and seemed to put Charlie off track. “Your trouble is ‘me.’ All I hear you talking about is yourself. What about your family? What about me? I’m an old man. I fly out here—drop everything…”
“That’s it, Dad. That’s exactly it. I was talking to Pastor Gonzales one day. I said—you know—just what you said. And he said—you remember this?” He looked at Ted in the doorway. Ted nervously nodded, unsure how he would be a part of this story. “He said, ‘Charlie, right now this story is about one person, and that is you.’ You see, Dad, I’ve been, like, in this gigantic wrestling match with God for the first thirty years of my life. I’ve been trying to be free, trying to be free by making decisions and going off on tangents and doing outrageous things. I’ve been so crazy in so many ways. And somehow, deep inside, I knew I would not quit being—you know—Charlie, until it was right. Until I knew it was right. Until I got it right. Remember how I argued with that teacher that day? You had to come to school because I would not quit insisting that I was right. And you said, ‘What’s all the ruckus about?’ And I told you how the English teacher was dead wrong about Andy Simkins’ sentence.”
Fred chuckled. “I had no idea what that was all about. You trying to be smarter than the teachers.”
“You know what? I figured out about six years later that I was wrong. It was a subtle point of grammar, and the teacher was right, but she could not convince me. But this is not about being right, so much as living right…You know, being convinced that you’re on the right track. See, that’s more important even than freedom. To be related to everything in the right way.” The words gushed out. Fred was trying to follow his son’s reasonings, but he also was studying his son. He did seem at peace. He thought of that night when Charlie’s acid-inspired theories had filled the darkness. He detected a difference now in this sun-filled hospital room. It was a sense of having turned a corner. It was a sense that he—Charlie’s own father—might play a role, but he would not make the difference. The difference was already there. He was only the fringe on the Persian rug in the room filled with furniture. The fringe mattered, but the room was full.
Charlie continued: “Anyway, I had several talks with Ted. It all started when I got upset at beach volley ball. Can you believe that? Ted and I, we talked—about everything. I wanted him to solve me. To get me free of my crazy ways. Fortunately, he was wise enough not to try to do that. He just told me about Jesus. So, I went to one of the services over at New Life. And, at some point, the crowd was singing about Jesus. And I just ran down to the front—right in the middle of the service. Old Ted, he pulled me over to the side and asked me what’s going on. I said, ‘Ted, Jesus has got to do something about me.’ And Ted stopped the singing and he told everybody what I said. And then everyone prayed. And you know, Dad, something came over me.” Charlie’s voice broke.
Fred’s elbows were resting on his thighs, he was leaned over, and he twisted now to look up at the face of his son.
“Dad, I have been changed by Jesus. I know I’m still a mess. But it’s OK. I’ll calm down, I think. But not too much. I want always to be radically committed to Him.”
“What about your job?”
“Guess what? My boss heard about the wreck. He called a while ago, and we had a long talk. I think I’m going back. I just have to restrain myself.”
“Can you do that?”
“You know, Dad, I think I really can.” Charlie looked across the room to the generic print of a vase of flowers. “The long nightmare is over. Tell Mom that. Tell her I’m OK.”
Fred could not resist one more argument. “Yeah. I’ll tell her, but first tell me something. Why couldn’t you come home on the Fourth or for Thanksgiving or something and tell us this? How come I got to fly all the way out here for you to tell me you got religion?”
Charlie looked at his father. Tears came to his eyes. He stared out the window and tried to gather his thoughts.
“How many times have you and I gone round and round, Dad?”
“Too many. Seems like I’m always in the thick of something with you.”
“Do you know how important you are to me?”
Fred said nothing.
“Somehow, you and me have got to be square before all this stuff is square. Do you understand? It’s like we’re joined at the hip. It’s love one day, hate the next. But we’re always together, no matter where I live.”
Fred stood to his feet. He glanced at the preacher, who had retreated to the hall, though he was still framed by the doorway. He stared out at the amorphous architecture. “What is it you need from me? I can’t seem to get it through my head what you want.”
“I guess I want you to get a sense of the importance of what I am going through. To have some idea that what I am doing is going to matter to me…and to you.”
“I, I have a hard time with that. I mean, your mother and me, we always went to church. What have you discovered that is any different than what you learned in Confirmation?”
“It’s not that different. But it’s real. For the first time in my life, Jesus is real. Forgiveness is real. Reconciliation is real. Not just something you learn. Something that really happens to you.”
“OK. I’m willing to work on this. It’s going to take some time. Maybe I can stay a few days. I’ll have to make some phone calls.”
An hour later, Ted delivered Fred to Charlie’s apartment. Fred settled in, making calls to change flight plans and calling his wife and his son Fred.
The next day, Charlie returned home from the hospital. He had a bad bruise on his forehead. He and Fred went to the grocery store and bought TV dinners and some simple things Fred could cook. Fred made two calls to the factory that day. The business was going OK.
Charlie had the weekend before he had to return to work. Father and son went to a Dodgers game Saturday afternoon.
Sunday morning, Fred went with Charlie to church. The service seemed tame enough. It was less formal—people would stand and sing songs, sometimes repeating them several times. It surely was no cult, Fred decided. Ted was busy after the service with various people who all seemed to need his attention.
Sunday afternoon, Fred fell asleep in front of the TV. Late that afternoon, he awoke. The TV was off and there were no lights on in the living room. The apartment faced east, so the windows offered very subdued light. He fumbled his way around the living room until he found the light switch. He peeked into Charlie’s bedroom and saw that it was empty. Back in the kitchen, he saw the note on the counter:
“Dear Dad, I have finally decided to go ahead and do it. It does not seem to matter much to you. I guess I am on my own in this. I really do love you and Mom. Charlie.”
A chill went down Fred’s spine. He re-read the note. He tried to think. He reached for the phone. Who to call? Not Marie. Not when you don’t know anything. The police? He hesitated. Finally, he grabbed the directory. He tried to think of Ted’s name, then the name of the church. His brain would not work. His huge hands thrashed around on the crowded counter, trying to find something with phone numbers. Finally, he found an address book. He tried “C.” Bingo! “New Life Bible Church.”
He called. The phone rang several times. Then, a masculine voice answered.
“Could I speak with the reverend? What his name? Ted.”
“Brother Gonzales is in church right now. Could I take a message?”
“OK, look. What time is your service over?”
“Oh, we should be done in about 45 minutes.”
“All right. Give me your address. I’ll just take a cab over there.”
The man gave Fred the address. Fred called a cab and soon was on his way.
But would he be too late? He went over the past few days. He never picked up on something like this. Why was Charlie going to do this? Fred was sure that he was doing so much better, that he was happy. The cab made a swing by a park. Dusk was settling over the later afternoon park activities. He caught sight of children down by a little pond. Two boys were wrestling in ankle-deep water. The victor knocked the loser on his bottom in the muddy water.
His mind clicked on a conversation of that morning. Charlie had pointed toward the baptistery of the church. It was not a font from which a minister sprinkled a little water on a baby’s head. This was a tank where people were dunked, totally soaked.
“I’m going to be baptized in that, Dad,” Charlie had said.
“But I ignored him when he said that,” thought Fred. “I was more interested in how people get dried off and stuff.
The cab pulled to a stop in front of the church. He paid and hurried up the walk to the entrance. The service was still going on. A couple of men were in the spacious foyer. One was peeking through the diamond-shaped window of the door into the sanctuary. He was grinning. Suddenly, there was applause from the congregation. The men took advantage of the applause to speak in normal tones.
The one who had been peeking said, “That was my niece. She was really worried about getting her head wet.”
Fred tried to get a view through the little window in the door. The men realized he was trying to see.
“You can go on in,” one said. They opened the door in invitation.
He tried to slip in without being seen. As he came in he realized that Charlie was talking over the PA system. He tried to orient himself, his vision sweeping around the room, trying to locate his son. Then, he realized that Charlie was in the baptistery! Ted was there, and a man was standing outside, holding a wireless microphone to Charlie’s mouth.
“…I finally realized that what was important to me was to be reconciled to God. This stuff that has been happening to me is the greatest ever. I am really excited that I am going to be baptized. I only wish my Dad could be here to see it.”
Fred realized that Charlie was looking out over the middle set of pews and had not noticed him enter. He waved his hand cautiously, hoping Charlie would notice. Ted was talking now…
“…baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
Ted had his hand behind Charlie’s head, and Charlie was going under. Fred was walking down the aisle toward the platform. He wanted Charlie to know he was there. His son came out of the water and instinctively shook his head. Water spayed out of the baptistery onto the carpet of the platform.
“Over here, Charlie!” Fred was running now. He had his hand up, as though he were hailing a cab. “Charlie! I’m here, Son.”
The two men in the chest-deep water wiped their eyes, trying to locate the sound. His voice was getting drowned in the applause. Then, Charlie saw Fred.
“All right! You made it, Dad!”
Fred stood at the edge of the platform, oblivious to the audience. Then, somebody was helping him up on the stage. He went to the wall of the baptistery and embraced his son. Water ran off the son’s head onto the father’s shoulders, and the dark blue sports shirt was pressed tightly to the dripping T-shirt. Water splashed down the front and back of Fred’s pants.
Charlie had worn a pair of clogs into the baptistery. When he reached for his father, he stepped out of the clogs. Suddenly, his feet slipped, shooting in front of him parallel to the wall of the tank. His torso lurched in the opposite direction. His grip on Fred reflexively tightened, and his father was jerked over the wall and down into the water. Ted and another man stepped over to help the two thrashing men. Charlie was helped back to a standing position, and Fred was pulled back out of the tank, but not before he was soaked thoroughly with the water of Charlie’s baptism.