This story by Robert Meyer was inspired by my story Not The End (which was also posted today from my archives).
The old man in the grey jacket walked by, his hands full of books. It looked like he was having the same difficulty, not being able to make up his mind. He was putting some of the books back on the shelf. Marty felt a sudden twinge of sadness, wondering if perhaps the old man was needing to go back to work because his Social Security benefits weren’t enough to pay the bills, or perhaps he had a wife with lots of medical problems. Thinking of this reminded him that he wouldn’t be growing old with his wife, not the way things were going, and his head started to ache.
The man put another book on the shelf, turning slightly towards him as he did so, and then Marty noticed that he was wearing one of those employee badges. Now he felt embarrassed. He’d been dreaming up some tragic circumstance for the old man, and it turns out he was just a bookstore employee restacking the shelves.
The old man looked up and noticed the look of utter lost-ness on Marty’s face, and he smiled. “Can I help you, sir?” he asked. His voice was sandy and warm, friendly but somewhat quiet, like that of an aged grandfather. Marty smiled back in spite of himself.
“I’m thinking of making a career change,” he said.
The man nodded his head sympathetically. “I can relate,” he said. “Spent thirty years in the furniture business, and here I am selling books. Not quite the career path I’d planned, but what can you do? Man’s gotta work.”
“Yes,” agreed Marty.
“So, you looking for a general change of scenery, or do you have a particular occupation in mind?”
“I’m not really sure, to tell you the truth. Guess I’m just looking for some ideas.”
The old man nodded again, taking a good, hard look at Marty as though examining his clothes. “You’re still a pretty young fella. It shouldn’t be too hard to figure something out. What kinda work you been doing?”
Marty felt his face grow red. “Ministering. Preaching. I’ve been the Senior Minister at a local church.”
“Yep, I figured.”
“You did?” Marty was surprised.
“Well, you have that look about you.”
“Look? What look?”
The man laughed good-naturedly. “The kinda look that says, Even though I’m living in a world of hurt, I’ve got time to listen to your problems. It’s the kind of look you see on psychologists, too, only they tend to make more money at it. I don’t suppose you’re looking to get into pscychology, though.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Of course not. Last thing you need right now is a heap of other people’s problems on top of your own. You need one of those jobs where you can work with your hands, create something out of nothing, the kind of thing Jesus did.”
The old man kept going as though he hadn’t heard.
“Sometimes I think that’s why God put him in the house of a carpenter, so he’d have a way to deal with all those troubled people. I mean, you can’t take on the cares and concerns of the world without having some way of dealing with the stress of it all. And there’s no better way of dealing with stress than putting a tool in your hand and making something beautiful out of something ordinary.”
Marty hadn’t thought of it that way, but suddenly the idea of doing something with his hands appealed to him. He’d always enjoyed working with tools, whenever he got the chance. Which wasn’t often. As a minister, most of his time had been taken up with counseling, preaching, teaching, researching sermon topics, and dealing with people and their problems. And his own family, of course.
The old man continued.
“Personally, I’ve always favored wood projects because they’re more forgiving when you’re first starting out. Most everything that gets messed up can be fixed with just a little bit of wood filler or sandpaper or paint. Metalwork, that’s another story. You’ve gotta work a lot harder and the cleanup can be a real pain. But if you keep at it, you can make some very nice pieces. And they’re very strong.”
Marty still had a faraway look in his eye, thinking about all the things he’d given up to serve the church, the family times, the dinners at home he’d missed, all the events that the kids had participated in but he hadn’t had time for. He remembered his wedding day, and the vows he had made, and felt a wave of guilt wash over him. He had not been the ideal husband, or father. Yet he remembered many sermons on the subject. Words. Just words.
“Some folks get into general carpentry and house maintenance, and that’s OK, but you tend to do the same kinds of things over and over again, like finishing up basements, or doing trim work. But if you want to really make a name for yourself, you start with cabinets, kitchen cabinets. There’s always a call for that kind of thing, and you can make ’em just as fancy as you please.”
Kitchens. Lonely kitchens, late at night, coming home after the kids had gone to bed, finding leftovers in the fridge and a note on the table: Gone to bed. Not “I love you” or “We missed you” or even “Wake me when you get home”. The spark in that relationship had died long ago. How long had it been since they had even hugged each other? He couldn’t remember.
“Once you start with the cabinets, you might even want to move into the furniture angle. That’s really the best side of carpentry, in my opinion, although I might be a bit biased! After thirty years in the business, you get to appreciate the artistry in furniture-making, the way the curve of the grain and the cut of the piece can make a statement about the man who put it together. And you remember those guys. And the customers do, too, and they ask for them by name. You take a look at that Barnaby Rush; now, there’s a man who can make an end table! I wouldn’t be surprised if one of his pieces ends up in the Smithsonian one day. He’s the genuine article, and that’s a fact.”
The genuine article. Had he ever been genuine, really? Had he ever told her what it felt like to be at the receiving end of all the horrors of sin as described by the sinners themselves? Had he ever expressed to her how utterly demoralizing it was to stand in front of an auditorium of people who were more focused on which restaurant to choose after the service was over than the message being delivered from the Word of God? Had she ever understood how humiliating it was to beg and plead for money to keep the heat on in the winter and the air conditioning on in the summer, from people who bragged about the vacations they’d taken to Disney World and Mexico and Europe? No, he hadn’t shared all of those inner feelings with her. He wanted her to be proud of him, he wanted her to think of him as a positive, inspirational person who could charm the fangs off a snake, the tusks off an elephant. He wanted to shield her from all the negative aspects of church – the gossiping, the back-biting, the power struggles, the personality cults.
“Of course, that’s not the kind of thing that happens overnight. No, you gotta work at it for quite a while before you get to the point where the customers are asking for you like that. Years, maybe. But if you work real hard and keep at it, focus on your work and try to improve a little here and there every day, why, it won’t be long before people will take notice. And then they’ll be wanting to find out who it is that comes up with such wonderful pieces. And then you’ll have made a name for yourself. And that’s what’s important, a good name. And once you’ve got a good name, you’ll want to work even harder, to protect it.”
With a sudden dawning horror, he realized that he had protected her too well; he had insulated her not only from the problems at church, but also from his own problems – his own life. It was no wonder that his own wife had become a stranger to him; he had pushed her away with his over-protectiveness, his desire to be that perfect man that she so desired, showing no faults, no flaws.
“Yep, that’s what’s important, you know. Making a good name for yourself, and maintaining the quality of your work. That’s the kind of thing that money just can’t buy. Reputation. You establish a good reputation, a good work ethic, and the world will come calling at your door. Yes, sir, that’s what every man needs. A good reputation.”
His reputation. He had no reputation left. His reputation had been utterly destroyed when his wife had moved out and then filed for divorce. How was it possible? How could he have been so blind, so ignorant of everything that was happening all around him? How could things have gotten so bad while he remained so clueless? How could have been so deaf to all the warnings? He could still remember the words of the Committee as he stood before them on the day that they demanded his immediate resignation, how they had expressed their “deep regret” that, although he had done so much for the church body, it was evident that he was not qualified to pastor their little flock while his own family had been so obviously neglected in regards to their “spiritual and emotional needs”. He was too confused and angry and hurt to even try to explain his own feelings to them; he merely accepted their rebuke, packed up his things from the little office, and drove away.
“Gotta start simple, though, if you’re gonna be making a career change. No sense in jumping off the high-dive the very first time. Pick something you know you can do, something you really like to do, even if it doesn’t pay as well as you’d like, because odds are you’ll be doing it quite a while, so you might as well enjoy it while you’re building up that reputation.”
Simple. Yes, that was it. Something simple, something he enjoyed doing. What did he enjoy doing? What did he really like doing, down in his heart of hearts? What one thing could he envision himself doing for the rest of his life?
The old man smiled at him. “So, son, what do you think? You have anything in particular you might be interested in?”
Marty smiled back. “I like books,” he said. “Do you have any openings here at the bookstore?”
Rob–Nice job! I like the way it all holds together and how the comments made by the old man are picked up by Marty and reinterpreted to fit his own situation. Makes me sad too that this is true for more people than we know.