The Assignment by Jim MorudThe Assignment

By Jim Morud

Chapter 4

Despite her soft composure, Barbara Langston had a steely side. She resisted being pushed and she moved at her own pace. While driving in heavy freeway traffic, Ken had witnessed his sweet wife tapping the brakes to get tailgaters to back off, scolding them with her piercing blue eyes through the rearview mirror.

Ken was still standing among the congratulating swarm of people when he saw that same chiding look in Barbara’s eyes. She stood stiffly by with her arms folded, her internal brakes locked, and Ken could smell the rubber burning inside of her. He knew he needed to hop to her side right away.

“Excuse me,” Ken said to all, sidestepping down the aisle. Barbara had already turned and started walking to the back of the church, knowing he had caught her signal. Ken quickly caught up to her.

“What are you doing?” she whispered sharply. “I thought we were here to candidate, not to celebrate a foregone conclusion.”

Barbara’s scolding eyes locked on him and Ken’s sanguine feeling fizzled, his fling with popularity ending with a thud. Doggone, if he hadn’t done it again. He blasted himself. The sorry side of a salesman is how swiftly he can be sold himself. And Ken was admittedly an impetuous sort. A gush of contrition washed over him as it struck him what his unreliable impulses had done to him again. His eyes polished the brown-tiled floor. A little boy inside him wanted to bolt in the way of Gilbert Hawkins.

“Uh, I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I didn’t see this coming.”

“Well, please don’t let it go any further,” she insisted, her eyebrows raised and her forehead sternly creased. “We need to discuss it.”

Barbara looked past Ken and a pleasant expression quickly washed over her face. Viola Chalmers was coming their way.

“I’d be glad to show you the parsonage!” she beamed.

“Oh, well, you see, we need to talk about it first,” Ken stammered.

“How can you talk about it when you haven’t even seen it?” Viola blurted. Firmly grasping Barbara’s hand, Viola tugged her past Ken and, waving a heavy arm, gestured for him to follow them. Barbara looked back at Ken with dread in her eyes. Viola swiftly strode ahead with Barbara in tow. Moving at her own pace was clearly not an option with Viola directing her steps.

The parsonage sat in the back shadow of the church building. A short concrete walkway separated the two buildings, but they were almost identical – boxlike and serviceable – because they had been constructed from the same plan. The only difference was their colors. The church was stark white and the parsonage was painted purple, which had faded and paled since its last coatThe Purple house.

When Barbara got a glance at the parsonage, her face also turned purplish and then went white.

Ken had seen that look on her before. Early in her pregnancies, Barb had been bedridden by severe morning sickness. Now he was afraid she was going to heave her breakfast again. He draped an arm around her to shore her up, but she bristled. Her shoulders felt like cold stones. She was holding back tears.

Viola tugged her up the steps onto a wide wooden porch and opened the front door. Ken followed closely behind. He noticed Barb was slightly shaking as she stepped inside the house, faintly trying to conceal her anguish with her best imitation smile. She avoided making eye contact with Ken. Years of selling real estate had taught him that the real buyer was usually the lady of the house and that first impressions counted a lot in making a sale. Barbara clearly was not impressed with this place. If he were trying to make a sale, Ken was sure this would be his toughest sell ever.

But they stepped into a pleasant surprise. The empty living room they entered was filled with a lucent glow that was let in through three large four-paned windows. Its walls were paneled by beautiful rosy and honey-hued Douglas fir. The flooring and the ceiling, which was spanned by four large exposed beams, were of the same magnificent material – tight-grained and obviously milled from old-growth timber. It was like standing inside a treasure chest made of ancient wood.

“My Hank built this place,” Viola proudly announced. “The mill gave us the lumber, but he did the work. He’d come here every evening after working long days over at Johnson’s dairy farm. I held a flashlight for him while he hammered nails after dark.”

“He was quite a craftsman,” Ken marveled.

“Yeah,” she smiled. “He didn’t own any power tools either. He cut every board and drilled every hole by hand. Him and his dad built their place back in the Dakotas just about like it, except they used white oak back there. That’s where he learned his carpentry.”

A massive fireplace with a raised hearth stood beside one wall. “I did a lot of the heavy lifting,” Viola added, pointing to its large smooth stones. “I fished river rock out of the creek and Hank and I built this fireplace together. We made one just like it in our place.”

Viola guided Barb and Ken through the rest of the house.

“Hank made these kitchen cabinets,” she beamed. “They’re the same as mine, made out of solid fir.”

Viola started pulling drawers and opening cabinet doors. “See, don’t these drawers just glide in and out? And you can shut these doors with a push of a finger. Same thing with the bathroom and the bedroom doors.”

She pulled a golf ball from a drawer and handed it to Ken. “Here,” she said, “put it on the floor. It won’t roll an inch.”

Ken bent down and set the ball on a floor plank. It didn’t move.

“Hank built this house to last as sure as God made Sunday morning,” Viola glowed.

Ken was sold. As a realtor, he appreciated the market value of craftsmanship like this. He was certain they would see the same quality in every room. And they did. The trim and the baseboards were cut and fitted with precision. It was flawlessly constructed – small by modern family standards, but sufficient in its time – with three cozy bedrooms and one narrow bathroom. Holes in the Wall

“There’s only one rule,” Viola warned, waving an index finger at the two of them. “No more nails in the walls! I’ve seen lots of pastors and families come and go around here. And I tell them all the same. These walls would look like Swiss cheese if I let every one of them decide where to hang their pictures.”

Viola pointed out several nails on the living room walls where pictures could be hung. “That’s it!” she insisted, her jaw stiffening as a bodily warning against any kind of rebuttal. “That’s where you can hang your pictures.”

Ken kept quiet, but he could see an argument ensuing in Barbara’s eyes. He knew it would soon be coming out of her during their drive back to Eugene. Barbara was inching backwards to the door.

“Thanks for showing us around, Viola,” Ken said politely. “I’m sorry we can’t stay longer, but we’ve got to run and get our son.”

Ken was fastening Aiden in his car seat when Claudette Marley tapped his shoulder. “Excuse me, preacher,” she said, talking to his back. “I have something here for you.”

Ken rose and turned to Claudette, who was holding a thick three-ring binder. “I’m the keeper of this here preacher’s book,” she said, handing it to him. “Every preacher who comes to this church gets it. I’m passing it along to you because it’s your turn to have it.”

Ken didn’t notice Barbara trying to get his attention from the passenger seat, waving a hand at him and shaking her head no.

“Thank you, Claudette,” Ken said. “Do you want it back soon?”

Barbara tossed her hands up and rolled her eyes.

“No,” Claudette replied. “It’s yours to keep as long as you’re our preacher. When the Lord moves you on, then you’ll need to give it back to me. But before you go you have to write something in it. Read it for yourself. You’ll see what to do with it.”

Ken opened the binder and thumbed through it. He saw that it contained many different letters written by pastors of the church through the years.

“This should be interesting,” he thought, placing it on the back seat beside Aiden.

Not all silence sounds the same. As their van winded down the roadway leaving Elk Creek behind, with Aiden soundly sleeping, Barbara’s silence emitted a message that Ken had learned to detect. It meant that he was also to remain silent. Her straight-backed forward stare meant that she was sorting through her thoughts and feelings. She was processing. She was not yet open to inquiries or input. She needed to be alone, and the best place for her to find such solitude was in silence. Ken knew her well enough to let her be and to let her come to conclusions at her own pace.

This required self-restraint for Ken. It went against every fiber of his natural being. He was a verbal processor. He thought out loud. He talked himself into conclusions and he could just as adeptly talk himself out of them. He also permitted himself to make mistakes, freely admitting to them, while knowing he could always backtrack if things didn’t work out. He gave others freedom to fail as well. It was a characteristic that had drawn Barbara to him but which could also sometimes drive her away. She herself was reserved and exacting, given to making right decisions, not quick decisions.

“I wish you hadn’t accepted that notebook,” Barbara finally offered. “It makes me feel as if you’ve already accepted the role of pastor there. There’s more for us to consider than how people liked your message, Ken.”

“Okay,” he replied, keeping his eyes on the road and his fingers tightly wrapped around the steering wheel. It was the moment he had been waiting for. “What are you considering?”

“That I don’t want to live in someone else’s home forever,” she replied tersely.

“Forever?” Ken couldn’t restrain his sarcasm.

“It would seem like forever to me,” she countered. “I want my own space, my own walls so I can decide where to hang my own pictures. And I want to choose my own color of the house that I call our home, and I would not choose purple.”

“I feel as if this whole idea is being thrown at me,” she continued, her voice quivering. “If I can’t make those basic choices about my own home, then something inside of me will just die.”

Ken felt a strong urge welling up within him to dismiss her feelings. Her resistance felt like an affront to his leadership. He recalled the shocked look she had given him when he made that snide comment about the church the first time they saw it. He was tempted to return that glare and to let her know how wrong she was for thinking that way. But he held his tongue and he found his own hideaway. He retreated into a silent spell of his own.

At first he just tried to settle himself down, trying not to vent his feelings. To do this, he kept staring straight ahead, his only detectable motion coming when his arms and shoulders were moving the wheel to follow the curve of the road and when he snuck a furtive look at Barbara. She was sitting rigid and upright, biting her lower lip. She turned the other way when she felt his eyes glancing at her. Ken let his mind unwind as he drove along the road. He thought about Barbara dutifully selling some of her favorite furniture and packing their remaining things before heading off to seminary. They had left a nice home in a nice neighborhood for three hectic years of study and sparse living. She had given up her world to follow him. He also thought about Chad, all red-in-the-face, chewing him out for making an idol out of Northside while he stood there feeling filleted and found-out.

“Well,” he finally uttered, “maybe I’m now guilty of making Elk Creek an idol just as I did with Northside. As Fred used to tell us, God will never let us put ministry or anything else ahead of Him.”

Turning to Barbara, he gently touched her hand. “So who knows where this winding road is taking us? Maybe nowhere. But it’s been a fun ride, hasn’t it?” he joked.

“No, it hasn’t,” she said flatly, slowly twining her fingers through his.

It was the middle of the afternoon when Ken and Barbara arrived at Nancy’s home in Eugene. They had been staying with her during the past week of their transition. Nancy was thrilled to have them, and she was glad to watch three-year-old Chloe when they went off that morning to Elk Creek. Barbara walked in first, gently tiptoeing across the hardwood floor, followed by Ken who was carrying Aiden, sleeping limply with his head planted sideways on his father’s shoulder.

When they emerged from putting Aiden down on a bed, Nancy was eagerly waiting to hear all about their time in Elk Creek, but she could see it in their eyes that this was not a triumphant return for them. So she held her silence and she greeted them nonchalantly, as though they had only been gone to the local supermarket or somewhere.

Unlike her late husband, who was quick with words, Nancy’s gift displayed itself through her calm and easy presence. She was an eloquent, engaging listener. People felt safe with her. They often came to her either unannounced or uninvited, but knowing they would have an open audience with her. She possessed an unusual grace, not uncommon to a minister’s wife, who learns to regard the privacy of others through protecting her own.

Ken looked jumpy, full of pent-up energy. “I’m going for a run,” he announced, disappearing into a bedroom.

Barbara settled into a sofa, wearing the same perplexed gaze she had during their drive home.

Nancy watched her softly from the kitchen space. “Can I offer you some tea?” she called.

“Oh, yes, that would be nice,” Barb replied. “Do you have any chamomile?”

“Certainly,” Nancy chimed. “I’ll have some too.”

Ken stepped through the family room, sporting glow-green Nike running shoes with a matching shirt and shorts. His trim upper body and his long, sinewy legs gave him the look of a serious runner, and he was clearly ready to roll.

“Before you go, would you please get Aiden’s things out of the van and bring them inside?” Barbara asked him.

Feeling derailed, Ken turned, slump-shouldered, and trotted out the door. He hurriedly gathered Aiden’s jacket and toys from the back seat and grabbed the three-ring binder. Returning inside, he plopped everything in a pile beside Barbara’s feet but placed the binder on the coffee table.

“I’ll be gone awhile,” he informed her, which she knew meant he had no set plan for how far he might run or for how long he would be gone. Running was Ken’s outlet for engaging in long conversations with God. She could tell from his tone that this could be a long talk. He shut the door and he was gone.

Barb picked up the binder and opened it. Inside it there was an assortment of discolored, aging letters, assembled in chronological order, many of which looked to have been typed on the same manual typewriter with some lines running crooked and a few words blotched with white-out.

Nancy walked into the room carrying a tray with tea and Danish cookies. “I know what that is,” she said. “It is a priceless history.”

Barbara closed the binder and placed it back on the table. She wished she hadn’t been seen picking it up.

“If it wasn’t for that book, I wouldn’t have said yes to Elk Creek,” Nancy continued. “Fred might have gone there, but not me.”

“So what is so special about this book?” Barbara asked, lifting it again from the table.

“Well, for one thing, it persuaded me to like the color purple,” she smiled. “Especially a purple house.”

Barbara perked up. “What on earth are you talking about?” she insisted.

“I am talking about what probably every pastor’s wife who ever lived in that parsonage has talked about,” she declared. “So how do you feel about the color purple?”

“How do I like purple?” Barbara asked, feigning surprise. “Why, I…I like purple, but just not on a house, that is, not on my house.”

“Just as I thought,” Nancy laughed. “Now let me tell you how I came to like the color purple.”

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Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6