How Do You Solve a Pastor like McPherson?

If it wasn’t obvious before I think it should be obvious now: Pastor McPherson is a key player in this little story. He’s also the hardest character for me to approach again. I don’t really know what to do with him.

Remember that this was supposed to be a story that I could sell as Christian fiction. It made sense, then, to make a pastor a central character in Nate’s quest. It’s also why Emma was kind of thinly fleshed out in my original conception. She was really just there as a vehicle to convince Nate to stay in Chauncey and meet Pastor McPherson.

Pastors are an odd breed in the world I came from. They’re universally regarded as being better and smarter than pretty much everyone else by dint of the fact that they’re pastors. They’re touched by god, donchaknow? So Pastor McPherson needed to be one of those guys.

I also needed Pastor McPherson to be a father figure for Nate. I was an unapologetic disciple of John Eldredge and Wild at Heart at the time, so I was fascinated by the notion of boys with broken father relationships and god-as-father being better than father-as-father. Nate, then, has a broken relationship with his (two) father(s) and McPherson, then, steps in to play surrogate and first and then later point in the correct direction.

So, in case you’re wondering, yes, in my original conception of the book Nate was a cipher, Emma was a plot device, and Pastor McPherson was actually Pastor Exposition. The plot was also lifted out of just about every Drew Barrymore rom-com ever. I give myself zero points for originality.

The other thing here is that Pastor McPherson is a bit of an author self-insert. Well, he’s more of a wishful thinking author self-insert. At the time I wrote the book I was planning on going to seminary and becoming a pastor. McPherson was the pastor I wanted to be when I got done. He is wise, kind, patient, and really good at doing lots and lots of stuff.[1]

There’s a reason why I look back at this book now and really, really like what I did. It’s not because I think it’s a particularly great piece of literature. It’s because I remember writing a kind of silly story with a cipher for a perspective character, a plot device for one of the mains, and a Mr Exposition for the other. Oh, and it was explicitly Christian with the intention of being the sort of thing that people would read and think, “Oh, hey, Christianity! I should try that!”

The faults that I find in the book now are that I apparently didn’t realize that Nate was too smart to be a cipher, Emma was much stronger than a simple plot device/damsel in distress, and McPherson would work way better if I wasn’t writing him as the pinnacle of Mr Exposition. Part of the problem there, though, is that we see all of these things through Nate’s eyes. He doesn’t see McPherson when McPherson is having a bad day. He’s got an inkling that there’s a lot to Emma, but he’s been too self-absorbed just yet and won’t get the full-on realization until later.[2]

Part of this was/is my own fault as a writer. I wrote Nate as a cipher. He was supposed to absorb Christianity for the audience and that was really the entirety of his purpose. I’ve been trying to keep the original manuscript as much as possible while editing out the most egregious failures but that commitment is really leaving the scaffolding exposed.

The biggest failure here is the weird little subplot with Rockafeller and Bill Pearson. I put Rockafeller in as a rather stupid plot device to solve two problems at once: Nate needed some sort of income and Nate needed someone to actually push back against. It seemed like a good idea at the time, I guess. So Rockafeller exists as kind of the anti-Nate: the big city guy who came to Chauncey against his will and didn’t want to stay.[3] He also ended up representing a very specific sort of Christian I wanted to take a shot at: the sort of backwards, judgmental Christian who doesn’t like anyone who’s different. He specifically dislikes Emma because of her background. So, weirdly, Rockafeller exists in this tension of both being the stereotype of the big city looking down its nose at flyover country and the embodiment of the rural, conservative values system railing against modernity.

On one level that’s absurdly awesome. On another level I did a terrible job of writing his character since I just needed a stock character and tossed him in.

Either way, I’ve changed very little of McPherson or his interactions with other characters so far. Part of that is because I’m not sure I’m capable of getting into the headspace I was in when I originally wrote the book and I don’t want to fuck too much of that up. I don’t want McPherson to have any guile. I want him to be that good.

I do want to widen the space between “good” and “right,” however. At the tail-end of this chapter Nate begins to realize that McPherson has an agenda. In the original writing of the story Nate went along with the agenda because Nate was a cipher. McPherson’s agenda was the author’s agenda, after all.

I think I’ve finally hit a serious point of departure from the original book. I’ve already spotted cracks in my original read on Emma. Nate’s about to come into his own, too. I’m actually pretty excited to see how that will play out.

Also, the beginning of the next chapter makes me cringe. Terrible. Just terrible. That’s going to need a lot of work.

———————-

[1]We’re also supposed to know that Aunt Ruth is one of those terrible secular humanists because she doesn’t like Pastor McPherson. As if anyone could actually do that and still be a decent human!

[2]The way I wrote that moment bothers the hell out of me and is going to require…something. I haven’t decided what to do with that yet and it’s coming fast.

[3]There’s a whole lot of unpacking I could do here. At the time I also wanted to leave Chicago because I thought that I’d like myself more if I just went elsewhere. There’s also the general anti-New York bias of Chicagans at play.

Second Chances Chapter 7

[Explanatory post here.]

Chapter 7: Little Boy Dreams

Emma spun the wheel and turned onto a gravel road about ten miles south of Chauncey. A car trailer she had borrowed from someone in town bounced along behind her truck, empty for the moment. Nate rode shotgun, staring off down the road, lost in thought.

He looked up when he felt a hand on his shoulder. “So you really think you can rebuild a car like that?” Pastor McPherson asked.

“I have some experience working on cars,” Nate shrugged, “I’m pretty sure I can handle it.”

“You’ll probably need help.”

“Yeah, but I don’t really know anybody around here to ask.”

“You know me.”

Nate turned around and stared at him in disbelief for a moment. He finally shrugged and shook his head. “I somehow should have suspected you would know how to fix cars.”

“Did a tour of duty in the Navy working on jets, son. I also do all of the work on my own cars. I can fix anything.”

“Can’t argue with that. You’re hired.”

Right after seeing the sign in the store on Monday Nate had called the number and talked to the owner. He found out the car was still available and that he could come see it right away. Emma had driven him out to the owner’s house. Tantalizing images of a pristine red Cadillac danced in front of his eyes the entire trip, as if the car had simply sat in Kansas, waiting for him to get in and drive it away.

They’d arrived at a large green and white farmhouse sitting across a well-manicured lawn from a massive barn and a pair of silos. It was the first truly stereotypically rural scene Nate had seen since arriving in town. The car’s owner was sitting on the porch waiting for them when the truck pulled in and had led them down to the barn.

At his first sight of the car Nate’s heart sank. It was sitting in the back corner of the barn, partially submerged under a pile of hay. The owner, who identified himself as George, had led them around the dilapidated, rusted out mess. Several times during the tour Nate had looked over at Emma and found her face scrunched up in a look of disgust and confusion. She looked even more confused when Nate ran his hand over one of the fins, smiled and told George he’d take it.

Over glasses of lemonade up in the house Nate and George had agreed on a price. After writing a check for $1200 as a ten percent deposit, Nate had promised to come back for the car on Saturday. George told him that he would clean the car off as much as possible by then.

Since then Nate had done as much as possible to prepare for the arrival of the car. He recruited McPherson to help in case moving the heavy vehicle required extra muscle. Most of his free time for the rest of the week was spent cleaning out the garage next to his rented house and assembling the tools he would need for the job. Emma’s Uncle Earl had apparently been quite handy and Nate was able to find jack stands, wrenches and almost everything else he would need for the task either in the garage or in the basement.

Thoughts of the car had consumed him ever since Monday. When his television arrived on Wednesday he had barely noticed. That same day he had accepted Rockafeller’s job offer, but his first couple days went by in an almost complete blur. Fortunately he had not yet had to do anything more consequential than fill out paperwork.

As the truck once again pulled up next to the farmhouse, Nate couldn’t contain his excitment. His dream was about to come true. Even having a lot of work ahead of him didn’t mar that thought too much. Really, in the end the car would mean more to him if he had to work for it. He couldn’t remember ever having to work for the things he had, anyway.

Emma brought the truck to a stop and the front door of the house opened. George walked out, followed by a plump, round-faced woman. She smiled broadly at the occupants of the truck. Nate slid out of the truck and held his hand out.

“Good to see you again, Mr. Lassiter,” George said, shaking the offered hand. He turned to Emma as she walked around the truck and nodded slightly. “Ms. Kent.”

“George. Good to see you.”

George then turned to the pastor and stuck his hand out. “Pastor McPherson.”

McPherson shook hands. “George.”

George then turned back to Nate. “This is my wife Deborah,” he said, introducing the woman.

“Nice to meet you,” Nate smiled at the woman.

“It’s good to meet you,” she said. “And I expect you to take good care of that car.”

“I plan on it, Ma’am.”

“It was my father’s, you know. He loved that car, took care of it until the day he died.”

“That’s what your husband tells me.” He wanted to say more, tell her what the car would mean to him, but he wasn’t sure he could find the words.

“Well,” George cut off any possible follow up, “Let’s go get it out of the barn. I cleaned it up, but it’s got a flat tire on the back, so it’ll be hard to move.”

“That’s why they brought me,” McPherson said.

“A man of God should always be ready to do some work,” George smiled slightly, “Dirt under the fingernails is good for the soul.”

“I fully agree,” McPherson slapped the other man on the shoulder, “You’re a wise man, George. Wiser than I’ll ever be.” He started walking down toward the barn, leading the rest of the group.

The pastor was the first to enter the cool, dark interior of the barn. He let out a long, low whistle as he did. As Nate walked in behind him the other man turned and smiled. “It’s a real beauty, Nate,” he said, smiling widely.

George had cleared all of the hay and various other pieces of debris off the car and Nate got his first good look at the front end. The signature doubled headlights and chrome grille and bumper glistened in the weak sunlight streaming into the barn.

“You’re kidding, right?” Emma asked, coming to a stop between the two men. “This thing is a mess. I was kind of hoping you’d mention that too him.”

“Ah,” McPherson patted her on the shoulder, “That’s what you think.” He walked up to the car and ran his hand along the front quarter panel. “See, you look at this car and see a rusted out pile of junk that has seen better days. Nate and I look at this car and see that those better days still are yet to come.”

“Come on,” Emma responded, shaking her head, “You’ve got to be out of your mind if you think that car is going to see better days.”

“I don’t think you understand what a man sees when he looks at a car,” McPherson said, “Especially a car as rare and special as this one.” He reached the door and attempted to pull it open. It wouldn’t budge, so he contented himself with leaning through the open window to examine the dashboard. “A car like this is almost a spiritual thing,” he continued explaining, “It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t understand, but for those who do it doesn’t even need to be spoken.”

“Exactly,” Nate added. He turned to Emma. “Just you wait. In almost no time this car will be bright and shining and you’ll see what we mean.”

“Well in that case,” she teased, “I expect to get the first ride in this thing.”

He smiled broadly, ignoring the hint of disbelief in her voice. “Deal.”

“Hey, can we get going with this?” George asked, walking up to the car. “I’ve got a lot of work to get done today.”

“Good idea,” Nate responded. “I don’t want to take up your time.”

Emma turned around and walked out of the barn. “I’ll bring the truck around,” she said over her shoulder.

George put the car into neutral and Nate joined McPherson at the back end. Grunting and straining, the three men worked the car out of the deep ruts in the dirt of the barn it had sunk into. The car obviously hadn’t moved in years. They finally got it rocking just enough to gain momentum and pushed it up and out of the holes. A little more grunting and cussing and the car was out of the barn and into the morning sunlight. Even after years of neglect the chrome of the bumpers and accents sparkled in the morning sun.

McPherson rubbed one of the few non-rusted sections of the body. “This car used to be black,” he announced.

“Yep,” George nodded.

“I remember the ad you put up. The picture in the grocery store showed a red car.”

“We just took a picture out of a magazine.”

Nate raised an eyebrow as something he had puzzled over since Tuesday clicked into place. “That explains a lot.”

“Figured it would make more sense to show a picture of a good car than this one,” George patted the steering wheel, “A man who knows cars would know what to do, anyway.”

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You’re a wise man, George,” McPherson said, slapping the farmer on the back.

George chuckled. “Tell that to my wife.”

“I just might.”

Emma pulled the truck up and rolled down the window. “How are we going to do this?” she asked.

“We’re going to have to put the rear wheels onto the trailer,” McPherson said, studying the flat tire, “So we’ll probably have to turn the car around.” He scanned the area in front of the barn for a moment. “There’s just not much space to turn the truck around with the car on the back.”

“That’s what I thought,” Emma nodded. She gestured back up the driveway. “I’ll go turn the truck around.”

Ten minutes later they had managed to manhandle the car up onto the trailer and secure it. Nate reached into the car and locked the steering wheel in place, then used the seatbelt to tie it down.

“Why are you doing that?” George asked.

“Keeps the front wheels from coming loose while we’re towing it,” Nate explained. “If they start turning it could rip the trailer right off the back of the truck.”

“Huh.”

“I had a buddy who paid his way through college driving tow trucks. I rode with him a few times and he taught me some tricks.” He scratched an imaginary itch on the back of his neck. “I never really thought I’d be able to use them, though.”

“You never know what you’ll need to know later in life, son,” George said in an almost fatherly tone, “That’s why it’s important to learn as much as possible.”

“True enough.”

Deborah appeared on the porch. “Would y’all like to come in for a drink before you go?” she asked.

McPherson wiped his brow. “That sounds like an excellent idea.”

They went into the house and found Deborah had prepared a pitcher of lemonade. She poured it into five tall glasses filled with ice and they all sat down at the kitchen table.

Nate reached into his pocket and pulled out his checkbook. “I suppose now’s as good a time as any,” he said.

“You sure did come at the right time,” Deborah said. “We’ve had a few problems this year. We weren’t sure how we were going to cover all the bills this month.”

George looked at her in surprise. His brow furrowed in anger, as if his wife had just given away a deep, dark secret.

The pastor saw his expression. “I told you,” McPherson patted her on the arm, trying to diffuse her husband’s wrath, “God will provide.”

Nate stopped writing the check and looked up. “Are you saying this is some sort of miracle?”

The pastor looked at him for a moment without speaking. Slowly, deliberately, he lifted his glass of lemonade and took a long swig. He put glass down and leaned forward. “Seems to me as though there are a lot of miracles around you right now, Nate,” he said, “They’re just not obvious unless you’re looking for them.”

“So you’re saying that God had me get fed up with my life so that I could leave home and buy a car so that someone I’d never met before this week could pay their mortgage?”

“No, Nate, I’m not saying that you’re life has been uprooted just for this.”

Nate spit his next words through clenched teeth. “It sure sounds like it.”

George and Deborah exchanged uncomfortable looks. “Uh, pastor,” George said, scratching the back of his neck, “I hate to seem inhospitable, but like I said, I have a lot of work to do.”

“Of course,” McPherson nodded, offering an understanding look. “We’ve got to get the car back to the house, anyway. I told my wife I’d be back home before noon.”

Nate silently finished writing the check and handed it to George. Everyone stood awkwardly and headed to the front door. George and Deborah walked them out to the porch, but didn’t step into the yard as Nate, Emma and the pastor walked down to the truck.

“See you tomorrow?” McPherson called back as Nate and Emma climbed into the cab.

“Of course, Pastor,” George responded. “We never miss a sermon.”

“Alright, then.”

McPherson got into the truck and Emma pulled out of the driveway. They made the trip back to Nate’s rented house in silence.

“Where do you want me to drop this?” Emma asked as she pulled into the driveway.

“Can you get it up to the garage?” Nate asked.

“I can put it into the garage, if you want.”

“How about we just get it to the door?”

“Fine. Give me directions.”

Nate hopped out of the cab and directed her where to go as she expertly backed the truck up to the open door of the garage. He unhooked the car from the trailer and pushed the car the rest of the way into the garage with McPherson’s help.

Once Nate knew the Cadillac was all the way in, he turned to the pastor. “Thanks for all your help today.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“And, look,” Nate looked down at his feet, “About my little outburst. Sorry.”

McPherson chuckled. “You just don’t see it yet. There’s nothing you have to apologize for.”

“I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“Don’t worry about it. I forgive you.”

“Thanks.”

The pastor stuck his hand out. “Let me know when you need my help fixing this thing up,” he said.

Nate shook the offered hand firmly. “Will do.”

“I’ll see you in church tomorrow?”

Nate paused for a second. “Yeah,” he nodded. “You will.”

“Good.” McPherson turned to Emma. “And I assume you’ll be there.”

“Of course.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow, then.” McPherson got into his car and started to pull out of the driveway. At the end he stopped and stuck his head out the window. “Oh, Nate, one more thing,” he yelled.

“What?”

“I don’t think we’ve seen our last miracle around you.”

“Oh, really?”

“I think we’re just starting.”

“I’ll keep my eyes open, then,” Nate shook his head. “Now get out of here. I think I hear your wife calling.”

Laughing, the pastor pulled his head back into the car and sped off in a cloud of dust and gravel. Nate again found himself alone with Emma. This time it was different, somehow. With the Cadillac he now felt like he had put down roots, no matter how tenuous and fragile.

They stood in silence for long moments. Finally tired of the quiet, Nate turned to Emma. “He’s not going to hold anything against me, is he?”

She shook her head. “Nope.”

“You sure?”

“You want him to stay mad at you?”

“No.”

“Then stop worrying about it. I don’t think he’s capable of holding grudges.”

“Okay.”

“So,” she turned and looked back at the car, “You gonna get to work?”

Nate wiped his brow and shook his head. “Too hot out. Besides, there’s a baseball game starting in a half hour.”

She rolled her eyes. “Well as long as you know to focus on the important things in life.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’ve been excited about that car all week. Now it’s here and you want to go watch baseball.” She shrugged. “It just seems odd, that’s all.”

“I’m very excited about the car,” he said, “But now it’s mine and I’ve got all the time in the world to get to work. I’ve waited twenty years for this, so what’s three more hours?”

“Good point.”

“It’s all about perspective.” Nate turned toward the house, “You want to come watch the game with me?”

“I didn’t really have any plans. Sure.”

*  *  *

Emma stayed until ten o’clock that night. When she left it was with a promise from Nate that he would be ready for church the next morning. He was standing on the porch at 9:15 the next morning when her truck pulled into the driveway.

“You’re a man of your word,” she said as he hopped up into the cab.

Nate shrugged. “It makes more sense to do what I say I’m going to do than explain why I should still be trusted,” he paused, “At least in my book.”

“Wise words.”

“Eh,” he shrugged, “I do my best.”

She put the truck in gear and pulled out onto Leonard Road. “Did you sleep well?”

“As well as possible, I guess.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’ve been having a hard time sleeping since I left Chicago. It’s really frustrating.”

“Understandable, though.”

“Yeah. I suppose I was kind of asking for it.”

“Bad dreams?”

“Mostly. I keep dreaming that something is chasing me.”

“Hmm. How very cliché.”

He offered her a bemused smile. “What? I’m not interesting enough for you?”

“Nah,” she laughed. “It’s just that everyone dreams about being chased or falling. It’s old and kind of boring.”

“That’s right. You’re a psychologist.”

“Yep.”

“So what does my dream mean, then?”

“Well,” she paused, “I don’t really remember my Freud too much, but I’m pretty sure that your dreams mean you’re running away from something. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s something scary, like something you’re afraid of.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I think I just figured out why you’re a grade school teacher and not a psychiatrist.”

She hit him on the shoulder.

“What was that for?”

“Keep it up. Women really like it when you mock them.”

“Hey. I was just making conversation,” he tried to sound hurt and started rubbing his shoulder for effect. “Besides, you were making fun of me.”

“Sure. You’re a man. That makes you fair game.”

“Ah. I’ve always wondered how that worked. Never seemed fair, though.”

“It’s not. Deal with it.”

She swung the truck into the Chauncey Bible Church parking lot, effectively cutting off all further conversation. After parking, she led him through the back door of the church again. Instead of the sounds of praise music, they were greeted by muffled conversation from the sanctuary.

“Good,” Emma commented, “We’re on time.”

The first person Nate saw as they entered the main sanctuary was George. A flash of recognition crossed the other man’s face as he saw Nate. George touched the shoulder of the woman to his right and Nate realized it was Deborah. The couple cut off their conversation and made their way across the room to where Nate and Emma were standing.

“Good to see you, Nate,” George said, holding out in hand.

Nate stuck out his own hand and the two men shook firmly. “Good to see you, too.” He turned to Deborah, “And you, also.”

She smiled. “Mornin’ Nate. Emma.”

“I wanted to tell you this yesterday,” George said, “But I didn’t get the chance. Be sure to bring that car by when you have it all fixed up.”

“Of course,” Nate replied. He paused for a second, then decided it would be best to say what was on his mind. “Look, George…about what I said yesterday…”

“Don’t worry about that. I didn’t take any offense.”

“Still,” he paused self-consciously, “I shouldn’t have said what I said. Just because I don’t believe in miracles or things like that doesn’t mean that I should just dismiss your troubles.”

George put his hand on Nate’s shoulder and smiled. “Way I see it, just because you don’t believe that the good Lord provides, that doesn’t mean He doesn’t. You may think it’s silly, but I believe that you came along and bought that car because God knew I needed the money.”

“Okay, then,” Nate replied, unsure of what to think.

Pastor McPherson stepped up onto the stage, ending any thought Nate had of responding. “Welcome, everyone,” he said, his voice booming throughout the room. “Please have a seat and we can begin offering worship to the Lord.”

George smiled at Nate and Emma. “You’re welcome to sit with us, if you’d like.”

“Thank you,” Emma replied, returning the smile.

They all moved to a pew a few rows back on the right side of the church. “This is where we always sit,” Deborah whispered to Nate, noting his confusion as they passed several unoccupied spaces.

“Ah.”

The band had assembled on stage and began playing a worship song as Nate settled into a spot between Emma and George. He gamely attempted to sing along, but soon decided he was terribly off-key and stopped. Embarrassed, he looked at Emma out of the corner of his eye to see if she had noticed.

She noticed he was looking at her and offered a reassuring smile. “You’re doing fine,” she whispered, patting him on the shoulder. He smiled back, but remained silent.

The singing eventually stopped and Pastor McPherson mounted the steps to the stage. Nate tuned him out as he called the children forward, then remained disconnected for the rest of the service. He found his own problems far more absorbing than church, and having a good relationship with the pastor didn’t seem to change that fact. When McPherson offered the benediction, Nate realized he hadn’t really heard a single word. He wondered if the pastor would feel offended, then realized there was no way he would find out.

George stood up and stuck his hand out. “Good to see you again,” he said, “Stop by if you’ve got nothing to do, we’ll put you to work.”

Nate mentally shook himself, then stood up. “Will do,” he responded, grasping the offered hand.

“Emma,” George said, nodding.

“See you around, George,” she responded, “And you, Deborah.”

“Take care of yourselves,” Deborah said, “God bless.”

Emma turned and led him out of the aisle and toward the back door of the church. She pushed open the door and Nate was nearly blinded by the sunlight that came streaming in. They stepped outside and Nate found himself standing in the middle of the church potluck. He heard the sound of a car starting in the parking lot and knew it was Rockafeller’s Lincoln. Shaking his head at the thought of the man’s behavior, Nate sat down in a nearby chair.

“So,” a familiar voice said from behind him, “How do you like the bank so far?”

Nate turned and found Bill Pearson staring down at him. “It’s not bad. I haven’t really done enough to decide if I like it or not.”

“I see.” Bill grabbed a chair and pulled it next to Nate’s. “Mind if I ask a question?”

“Go ahead.”

“Why does the boss like you?”

Nate stared at the other man blankly for a moment, unable to do anything more than blink slowly. “Excuse me?” he finally managed.

“He treats you a lot better than he’s ever treated me, and I’ve worked for him for almost ten years.” Bill lowered his voice, “To be honest, I’m a little jealous.”

“Jealous? Why?”

“I don’t really know, but that’s what my wife tells me.”

“So you just assume she’s right?”

Bill shrugged, “She’s usually right about these things.” He lowered his voice conspiratorially. “One day when you’re married, you’ll understand how it works. If the wife says something, it’s just best to agree and move on.”

“Ah.” Nate shook his head in amusement. “To answer your question, no. No I don’t have any idea why the boss would seem to like me so much.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Why?”

“I was going to ask for your secret.”

“Gotcha.” Nate leaned back and thought about the question. “You know what it could be,” he said after a little bit, “This might be a bit off, but it’s the best I can do.”

“What?”

“Where are you from?”

“Right here, actually. I was born in Chauncey.”

“Then Rockafeller probably doesn’t respect your background. I’m from Chicago, so he might think I know more than you do.”

“I have an MBA, you know.”

“So do I,” Nate shrugged, “Well, a Masters in Finance. It doesn’t matter if all he thinks is important is whether you’re from a big city or not.”

“It hardly seems fair.”

“You’re right. But there’s nothing you or I can do about it.”

“Yeah,” Bill stood up. “Sorry to bother you.”

“Don’t worry about it. Besides, I’m sure I’ll figure out something to piss the boss off before too long and we’ll be on an even playing field.”

“Okay. See you tomorrow.”

“Yep.”

Bill walked off, leaving Nate to his thoughts. He wasn’t alone for very long when Emma appeared and took the empty seat. “How are you doing?” she asked.

“Fine.”

“Planning on eating?”

“Not hungry.”

“Okay.”

She sat silently next to him, her dark eyes scanning him and seeming to drink in every detail. Nate began to feel naked, as if she were reading his thoughts.

Her next question dispelled that theory. “What are you thinking about?”

“Mail.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I never did anything about my mail service. I’ve been gone for two weeks now, and I’d be willing to bet it’s a problem.”

“Call someone. Ask them to handle it.”

“I figured I’d give my buddy Vince a call today, ask him to pick it up and send it here.”

“Huh,” she responded, shrugging, “You ready to go?”

“Yeah.”

They walked back to the truck and then drove to the house in silence. Emma seemed to start to speak several times, but stopped before any words came. Nate sensed she had something important to say, but had no idea what it was.

“So what are your plans for the day?” he asked as she pulled into his driveway.

“I’ve got some homework to grade, but that’s about it. You?”

He gestured over to the garage. “I was going to get to work on the car.”

“Sounds like fun.”

Nate smiled. “I’m looking forward to it. Want to stick around for a while?”

“Nah,” she shook her head, “I’d only get in your way.”

“Okay.” He opened the door and started to get out. Halfway out the door he stopped as she put her hand on his shoulder.

“Wait.”

“What?”

“The annual Founder’s Day Dance is coming up in a couple of weeks,” she spoke slowly, haltingly, “It’s a thing we do at the end of June. The whole town comes and there’s food and things like that.”

“And dancing?”

She nodded, “Yeah. Obviously.”

“And you probably want to know if I want to go with you.”

“Yeah.” She took her hand off his shoulder and held it up defensively. “But not as a date or anything. Just, you know…”

“I’m sure I don’t have anything else to do that day,” Nate replied, attempting to rescue her from the strange awkwardness that had suddenly overtaken her, “I’d love to go.”

“Good, then. I was worried you might be offended that I’d bring it up, you know with what’s been going on in your life and all.”

Nate shook his head. “Trust me, I wouldn’t be offended by that. It’s not a problem.”

“Good.”

He slid out of the truck and closed the door. She put it in gear and disappeared down Leonard Road. Nate hopped up onto the porch and opened the front door. Molly squeezed around him and outside before he even had it fully open.

“Wanna help me work on the car?” he asked. She leaped off the porch and out into the driveway in response. He shrugged. “I’ll take that as a ‘yes.'”

He stepped off the porch and walked to the garage. The Cadillac sat inside the open door in exactly the same condition as when it arrived the day before. Very little of the original paint remained. What was left was often accompanied by a ding, dent or rust patch. Hay and dirt from the pile under which it had resided for years covered the floor and back seat. Popping the hood he found the engine was also quite far from clean. Old, burned oil and grime covered the compartment, which also had its fair share of hay and dirt.

“This is going to take some work,” he told Molly. “A lot of work.” The dog snorted at the thought and went to lie in the grass next to the garage.

Deciding he would need some extra motivation, Nate walked back into the house and turned on the stereo. After pointing the speakers out the window he returned to the garage. A pair of old leather work gloves sat on the hand-made work bench at the back of the small building. Pulling them on, Nate set to work cleaning out the interior of the car.

Half an hour later he had a neat pile of rubbish sitting at the front of the garage when McPherson pulled up. “How’s everything going?” the pastor asked as he got out of the car.

“Not bad so far,” Nate replied, taking off his right glove and wiping the sweat off his brow. “Haven’t really done much yet.”

McPherson walked up to the car and rubbed the hood. “You’ve got a lot of work to do on this car,” he observed.

“I know. I’m looking forward to it, though.”

“Kind of makes me wonder why you paid so much for it, though.”

“What do you mean?”

“I talked to George today. He told me he was asking for less than half of what you paid him. Said you wouldn’t let him sell you the car for less than twelve grand. Why is that?”

Nate shrugged. “It was worth a lot more than he was asking. I didn’t want to cheat him simply because he didn’t realize what kind of car this is.”

“Looks like an old Cadillac that needs a lot of work.”

“Yes.”

“So what’s so special about it that George didn’t know?”

“This,” Nate leaned up against the rider’s side door and patted the roof, “Is a not a 1958 Cadillac like George said. It’s a 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham.” He looked expectantly at the pastor, but got only a blank stare in response. “There were only four hundred of these cars built,” Nate continued, “All of them were hand-made in the main Cadillac plant. In 1957 they cost over thirteen thousand dollars, which was enough money to buy any two Cadillacs of another model. The company actually lost money with every one of these they sold, since they cost twenty thousand or so to build.”

“So it’s worth some money?”

“When I get it restored it will probably be worth over seventy thousand dollars.”

“And George didn’t know the car was all that special?”

“No. He had absolutely no clue. Didn’t even believe it after I told him.”

“Yet you insisted on paying him a lot more than he was asking?”

“Of course. I’ll probably have to spend more than that restoring the car, but since everything is more or less intact I couldn’t justify not telling him.”

“You’re an honest man, Nate. That’s a great trait.”

“My father always taught me to be honest and up front with people. He said it wasn’t worth the cost to get something at another person’s expense.”

“Your father was a wise man.”

“I guess.” Nate walked to the front of the car and began picking debris out of the engine compartment.

“He obviously taught you a thing or two about cars,” McPherson said, leaning over the side quarter panel to examine the engine.

“No,” Nate shook his head, “That was the job of my Uncle Joe.”

“Who is that?”

“My Dad’s brother. He had a 1958 Cadillac Biarritz convertible, a car even rarer than this one. He used to give me rides.”

“Were you close to your uncle?”

“Yeah. He lives about twenty minutes away from my parents. He never got married and never had kids of his own, so he kind of adopted me. We used to go to White Sox games and car shows and everything else. Really, I think I owe a lot more of my desires and plans to Uncle Joe than I do to my dad.”

“Sounds like you had a great relationship.”

“We did. It kind of bugged my dad, actually,” Nate sighed and pulled his head out of the engine. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think I really hurt my dad the day I told him I wanted to be like Uncle Joe when I grew up.”

McPherson stood up and stepped away from the car. “Now why would you say a thing like that?”

Nate tried to find a good way of phrasing his response and realized he couldn’t. “Because it was true,” he finally said, knowing it didn’t sound good. “And,” he continued, “I think I wanted to hurt my dad. I was old enough by then to know what it would take.”

“Did you?”

“Oh, yeah. I remember seeing the look in his eyes. It was like I had just punched him in the gut. And the worse thing is,” he paused, “It made me feel good. Can you believe that?”

“How does it make you feel now?”

“Like a jerk. My dad did so much for me, sacrificed everything to make sure I had a good life. I repaid him by being a spoiled, selfish brat.”

“Have you ever apologized?”

“No,” Nate shook his head and suddenly found himself fighting back tears. “In fact, I’m doing it again right now. Aren’t I?”

“What? Being a selfish brat?”

“Yeah. I have a very expensive education and I was supposed to get up in the world and make my father proud. I was going to get married and have kids and have the life he always wanted me to have. But now I’ve run away.”

“And you think he’s mad at you?”

“Wouldn’t you be?”

McPherson considered the question for a long moment. “As you know, I’m a father,” he finally said. “When my first daughter was born, I was as proud as any daddy could be. I wanted her to grow up and be something great. If she wasn’t going to be a doctor or an astronaut, I wanted her to be a great missionary or some other such wonderful thing.

“I’ll be perfectly honest, I was disappointed the day she told me she wanted to be a kindergarten teacher.” He sighed. “It’s not an impressive job. When we have daddy meetings nobody looks at me in awe when I say my daughter wants to learn how to teach five year-olds to color. But she was twelve, so I figured in time she’d come around and decide to go to medical school. That was six years ago. In the fall she’s going to college to major in elementary education.”

“Are you still disappointed?”

“How could I be? My dream for her is to grow up and be happy. If teaching kindergarten will make her happy, then I’m thrilled for her. I’m just fortunate I figured that out.”

“Why?”

“My dad wanted me to be a doctor. I don’t think he ever understood that I joined the Navy because I felt I had to. He thought I did it for spite. But my dad didn’t have the money to send me to college. Sure, he would have done everything he could and broken his back to make it happen, but I didn’t want him to have to do that. So I joined the Navy and went to college and seminary.”

“I’m sure he’s proud of you now.”

“I like to hope he would be. My dad died while I was on deployment. I got the notification while under steam somewhere in the middle of the South China Sea. I never got to say goodbye and he never got to see what his son became.” He stopped speaking as tears wet the corners of his eyes.

Nate didn’t have any idea what to say. “I’m sorry,” he tried, knowing it was meaningless.

“Do me a favor, Nate.”

“What?”

“Don’t ever let what happened to me happen to you. I’m sure your dad is proud of you no matter what, so don’t just start assuming he isn’t.”

Nodding, Nate set his jaw in an attempt to avoid breaking into tears himself. “I won’t,” he said, voice barely above a whisper. “I won’t.”

“Good,” McPherson said. He suddenly and abruptly changed the subject. “Now tell me something. What was it about your uncle that you wanted to emulate?”

“Everything, I guess,” Nate shrugged, assuming it was best to follow along, “He was just a lot more fun to be around than my father. Like the day I told my parents that I was going to start saving money to buy a car just like his. I was eight and thought I could do anything I wanted. My dad just laughed at me and told me I would be better off saving my money for college.”

“Did you tell your uncle about your plan?”

“Yeah,” Nate paused, smiling, “He told me to go for it. He told me to dream as big as I wanted and I’d be able to succeed at anything.” He walked out of the garage and took the gloves off. “I guess that was why I wanted to be like Uncle Joe.”

“What did your uncle do for a living?” McPherson asked, following him out of the garage.

“He was one of those people who makes all their money doing investments. He had property and stocks and bonds and everything. I don’t think he ever had a job where he had to answer to anyone in his life. And I don’t think he ever had to worry about money, either. My dad, on the other hand, worked sixty hours a week for most of my childhood. When he wasn’t at work he usually didn’t have time to be with me, so it’s more like he worked one hundred and sixty hours.”

“Why did he do that?”

“Said he had to get ahead in the world. His definition of getting ahead seemed to be having the money necessary to send his son to a good school and make it possible for his wife not to ever have to get a job. In the end, though, I think he hated his brother for all of his success. Even more for the fact that he never seemed to have to try to find it.”

“But he still let you spend time with him.”

“Hey,” Nate shrugged, “He was family. I think my dad knew that I needed Uncle Joe and that Uncle Joe needed me.”

McPherson chuckled. “Makes sense. So what does your uncle think of you being here?”

“Honestly, I don’t know. I haven’t talked to him since Christmas.”

“Why?”

“I’ve been busy. I wanted to be like Uncle Joe, but I was well on track towards being my father.” Nate stopped and locked eyes with McPherson. “That’s really why I left. I didn’t want to become that and I knew it was happening.”

“Have you talked to your father?” the question was soft, almost inaudible.

“Yes. He told me I was going to screw up everything I worked for if I didn’t get home.”

“He’s right, you know.”

Shocked, Nate took a step back. “What?”

“You have screwed up everything you were working for in Chicago,” McPherson smiled warmly. “The only way to fix it is to go back home.” He paused, studying Nate with a knowing look in his eyes. “I don’t think you want to fix anything, though.”

“Maybe not.”

“So tell me something else.”

“What?”

“On Monday you told me that you thought your father did a good job. Now I’m hearing a different story. Which one is it?”

Nate thought for a long moment. “He taught me a lot about life and did what he thought was right. I honestly think he wanted to do more than he did, but in the end he just let life wear him down. I guess he could have been a better father, but he wasn’t a bad one.”

“That’s a fairly evasive answer.”

“I know. I’m just not sure what to say. I mean, he always had my best interests at heart, but he showed them in really bad ways, like squashing my dreams.”

“By telling you not to save your money for a car?”

“Yeah.”

“You know,” McPherson grasped his right elbow with his left hand and rubbed his chin with the right, “I think your father had a problem that a lot of men have. See, every man was once a little boy who thought he could do anything he wanted. That little boy believes that he can take the world, bend it to his will and make it do what he wants. Then he grows up and discovers that the world is bigger than he ever imagined and that it is a hard, cruel place that doesn’t really care if he lives or dies, if he succeeds or fails. I honestly don’t believe a father can ever properly prepare his son for the real world, because somewhere inside of a man who knows how hard it is to simply survive there is a little boy who still wants to conquer the world.”

“But Uncle Joe had figured it out.” Nate concluded.

“Perhaps,” McPherson shrugged, “Perhaps not. It kind of depends on what your definition of conquering the world is.”

“What do you mean?”

“Did your uncle ever get married and have kids?”

“No.”

“But he wanted to, didn’t he?”

“How do you know?”

“You already told me. He adopted you as his son.”

“So you think he was just as unhappy with his life as my dad was?”

“It’s possible, I don’t know. You’d have to ask him.”

“I asked him about it once and he just said he hadn’t found the right woman and left it at that.”

“I’ve heard that excuse more than once. I’ve learned not to believe it.”

Nate turned and walked back into the garage. “I’m not going to make that mistake,” he said, “I’m going to follow my dreams.”

“What if you achieve all of your dreams and find you’re just as unhappy as when you were working six days a week and couldn’t make it to a baseball game to save your life?”

“That won’t happen.”

“Really?” McPherson took a slow walk around the Cadillac. He stopped to rub at a spot on the driver’s side door, then straightened up and nodded at the car. “If you do a good job of restoring this car it will be really nice. It will be something that fulfills a dream you’ve had since you were a small child. But in the end it will still be a car. It’s just metal and leather and glass. The joy you felt when you found it, the joy you will undoubtedly feel the first time you take it for a drive, that will fade over time and it will just be a car, not so different from that Acura you’ve got out in the driveway.”

“So you’re trying to kill my dreams, too?”

“No,” the pastor shook his head. “I just want you to realize that there’s more to life than cars. Your uncle could probably tell you exactly that.”

“So I should still try to start a family?”

“If you want. I wasn’t talking about that, either.”

“Ah,” realization struck, “You’re talking about God.”

“Well,” McPherson put his hand on Nate’s shoulder, “I am a pastor.”

“And that’s why they pay you the big bucks.”

“Exactly.”

Nate turned away. “I can’t make a decision like that right now. I just decided to take control of my own life and I’m not about to hand it over.”

“That’s a hard thing to do, I agree. I believe it’s also something we can talk about when you’re ready. In the meantime,” he slapped the roof of the car, “I believe we have some work to do.”

Second Chances Chapter 6

[Explanatory post here.]

Chapter 6: Haven

The next morning Nate walked through the front door of Chauncey Bible Church. He heard the sound of a hammer emanating from the sanctuary and followed the noise. He found Pastor McPherson on the stage pounding away at something on the floor.

“Uh, Pastor?” Nate asked as soon as the other man paused.

He looked up. “Nate, it’s good to see you.” The Pastor stood and offered his hand.

Nate took the hand and shook it firmly. “I’m not interrupting anything, am I?” he asked, “I can come back if it is.”

“It’s not a problem at all,” McPherson put the hammer down, “There’s a loose board I keep stepping on. I was just fixing it.”

“You do the repair work around here, too?”

McPherson laughed. “I serve any way I can. Sometimes it’s less glamorous than others.”

“I see that.”

The pastor sad on one of the steps that led up to the stage and signaled Nate to follow suit. “So what’s on your mind, Mr. Lassiter?” he asked as soon as Nate had taken his seat.

“I need some advice.”

“I kind of figured that. What do you need?”

“I’m not entirely sure. I’m having a hard time making sense of what I’ve done with my life and I don’t know how to make it better.”

“What would be better?”

“Huh?”

“What is your definition of a better life?”

“I’m not entirely sure right now.”

McPherson smiled. “Then I think we need to do a little more work on this.”

“What do you mean?”

“Tell me why you’re here in Chauncey.”

“Apparently I’m running away from my life.”

“Do you believe that?”

Nate shrugged. “I’m not entirely sure what I believe anymore. It’s all just kind of a blur.”

“So why did you say that?”

“Mostly,” he paused, “Mostly because that’s what Emma told me I’m doing.”

“Ah,” the pastor nodded. “Emma’s a smart woman.”

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

“But she’s not you. She can’t tell you why you did what you did; she can only tell you why she thinks you did what you did.”

Nate sat in silence for a long moment and stared at the floor. “You’re right,” he finally responded, “I guess I shouldn’t take her word as the only explanation.”

“Now, keep in mind, it could be the correct explanation,” McPherson cautioned, “But I still want to hear from you first.”

“Okay.”

“So tell me about your life back in Chicago.”

“I worked as a manager at a corporate headquarters for a large bank. I still lived a few miles away from where I grew up, so I knew my way around. Most of the people I grew up around were still there, so I had a lot of friends and acquaintances.”

“Sounds pretty good, actually.”

“Yeah. I was also about to propose to my girlfriend.”

“Ah,” the pastor paused for a long moment. “Tell me about that.”

“I met Julia about three years ago at a party for a mutual friend of ours. We talked for a while, but nothing really seemed to happen. I thought she was gorgeous, but didn’t tell her. I didn’t want to come on too strong, you know.”

“I can understand.”

“I didn’t see her for about a year, then that mutual friend set us up and we started dating.”

McPherson chuckled. “You didn’t see her for a year after you met her, then dated for two years before deciding to ask her to marry you?”

“That sounds about right.”

“You’re right about not wanting to come on too strong.”

“I’ve always believed that it was best to think things through, I guess. If you just do things on impulse you’ll make a lot of mistakes.”

“But you miss out on a lot of what life has to offer, too.”

“I guess.”

“So what made you finally decide to propose?”

“It seemed like the right thing to do. I mean, she’s attractive, intelligent, very good at what she does and we got along very well together. How could I pass up an opportunity like that?”

“You take the pragmatic approach to relationships, I see.”

“I’ve never believed in doing things on impulse, like I said.”

“So why are you in Kansas right now?”

Nate’s mouth opened, then closed quickly. He stared at the floor for several long heartbeats, completely unable to come up with an answer. “I guess I can’t tell you anything about that,” he finally admitted, “It’s so unlike me. I don’t think anybody else saw it coming. For that matter, I didn’t see it coming.”

“What led up to this one moment of impulse, then?”

“A combination of things, I guess. I was working six-day weeks. Whenever I tried to take a Saturday off I’d invariably be called into the office to deal with something. If I had proposed to Julia I would have had to give up Molly,” Nate paused as the pastor lifted an inquisitive eyebrow, “Molly’s my dog. I’ve had her since she was a puppy. Julia’s allergic to dogs, though.”

“Ah. Go on.”

“It’s kind of stupid, but I think the last straw was when she told me I shouldn’t get a car that I’ve wanted to get for a very, very long time.”

“What kind of car?”

“A 1958 Cadillac Eldorado. There was one advertised that I found just a few miles from my house. But Julia didn’t think I needed to waste my money on something silly like that, so I figured if I was going to propose, I probably shouldn’t get the car.”

“I don’t mean to draw conclusions based on this little bit of information,” McPherson said, carefully choosing his words, “But it seems like she’s a bit on the controlling side.”

Nate frowned. “I don’t really think she is. She’s about as pragmatic as I am, so to her buying a fifty year old car didn’t make any sense. I fully understand that.”

“Okay, if that’s what you believe.”

“Why, should I believe differently?”

The pastor shrugged, “I don’t know. It’s like I said. If you spend all your time thinking about why you should or shouldn’t do something, you’ll miss out on life.”

“So you think I should have bought the car?”

“I wasn’t talking about the car.”

“So what were you talking about?”

“Life.”

Nate looked at the other man for a long moment, feeling very confused. “What?”

“You want to know what I think?”

“That’s why I came in here, I suppose.”

“I think that you have spent so much time worrying about making the ‘right’ decision that you never decided what you wanted out of life. And by the time you realized that, you knew it was far too late to change unless you did something radical.”

“And that’s why I’m in Kansas right now?”

McPherson nodded. “That’s why you’re in Kansas right now.”

“Huh.”

“Unfortunately you’re going to have to make a few more decisions now.”

“Like what to do now that I’m here?”

“Among other things.”

Nate sighed. “Do you think I should go back to Chicago and deal with this?”

“I think,” the pastor rubbed his chin speculatively for a moment, “I think you need to make sure you talk to everyone you hurt by leaving, especially Julia, but beyond that I can’t tell you what to do.”

“I’m on my own in this, then?”

“You’re not on your own. I just can’t make your decision for you. You need to be a man and take responsibility for your actions.”

“You sound like my father.”

McPherson smiled. “I am a father. We all get a book of parenting catch phrases to use when our first child is born. It covers any and all situations.”

Nate laughed. “I’ve always suspected there was something like that.”

“So tell me about your father.”

“Why?”

“I’m just curious.”

“Well, he’s a patent attorney. He’s actually very successful and worked for the same company for nearly forty years. He married my mother when they were both twenty-three and I was born a few years later.” Nate realized something he hadn’t given much thought to and decided to add it in. “I got my pragmatism from him, I suppose. He never made a decision without thinking it through long and hard, and never let me do anything different, either.”

“Was he a good father?”

“He was a good provider,” Nate shrugged. “His goal in life was to retire early and enjoy ‘the good life,’ as he called it. About a year ago he did exactly that. Of course that meant he spent a lot of time at the office, but he still tried to teach me about life when he wasn’t at work. Overall I’d say he was a pretty good father. Why do you ask?”

McPherson tilted his head back and looked at the ceiling for a moment. “One of the hardest things about growing up and being a man,” he said slowly, carefully, “Is knowing which signals to take from our fathers. A boy learns how to be a man from his father, so if the father’s definition of being a man is to work all the time, his son will tend to believe the same thing. Having a job and working every day of the week is not the true definition of manhood, however.”

“My father wasn’t like that.”

“Maybe not. I was simply explaining that as an example. It’s one that I have seen all too often in my life, so it’s the easiest to explain.”

Nate decided to let curiosity get the better of him. “So what’s a real man?”

The pastor turned and looked at Nate. “A real man? A real man is someone who provides for his family and puts food on the table. But he does so with the knowledge that his chief responsibility is to raise and teach his children about life and to love and cherish his wife, assuming he does have a family.”

“My dad taught me a lot,” Nate responded, “He wasn’t absent from my life.”

“Hey,” McPherson held his hand up, “You asked me what it means to be a man. I was simply giving you my thoughts. I can’t tell you about your father because I don’t know him and I wasn’t there when you were growing up.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s not a problem.”

“So,” a new question came to Nate’s mind, “What do you mean when you say a man has to raise and teach his children?”

“In ancient Israel it was a father’s job to instruct his son in the Torah,” the pastor said, “In learning from the holy book the boy learned morals and decency. When it was time for the boy to learn a trade he often learned from his father, working as an apprentice. A young boy learned almost everything he needed to know about life, religion and work directly from his father. That is a tradition our own society does not have.”

“I…” Nate wasn’t sure how to respond. “Um, sure.”

“I’m sorry for bringing that up,” the pastor stood up, “It was a bit off the subject and probably means nothing to you right now.”

“That’s fine,” Nate stood, “I’ve been thinking exclusively about my problems for the past few days. It’s nice to have a different subject to think about.”

“Good, good,” McPherson slapped Nate on the shoulder. “Look, I’m sorry to do this, but I have a meeting in about an hour that I have to prepare for.”

“No problem. I didn’t want to take up too much of your time.”

“Again, it’s why I’m here. Stop back in anytime.”

“I might just take you up on that.”

The two men shook hands and Nate walked out of the building.

 *  *  *

As he pulled into his driveway, Nate saw a vaguely familiar Lincoln sedan parked in front of the house. A man was stood on the porch, back turned to him. Nate shut his car off and got out, figuring there was only one person that could be standing on the porch.

“Um, can I help you, Sir?” he asked.

The man turned around. He appeared to be about seventy, well dressed and proper. “Are you Nate Lassiter?”

“Yes. And you are?”

The other man stepped off the porch and held out his hand. “Richard Rockafeller,” he said, confirming Nate’s suspicions. “Ruth Evans tells me you’re a banker from Chicago.”

“Ruth Evans?”

“She owns this house.”

“Oh,” the name clicked in his head, “Emma’s Aunt Ruth.”

“Yes, that’s it.”

“So what can I do for you?”

“I assume that if you’re planning on staying in town you’ll be needing a job.”

Nate shrugged, “I suppose so.”

“I might just have an opening for you at the bank.”

“As what?”

“My loan officer is about to retire and I don’t have anyone who can take his place.”

Nate raised an eyebrow. “I’m not exactly licensed to bank in Kansas.”

“If you want the job I’ll get everything set up for you.”

Nate thought about the proposition for a moment. “I’m not sure,” he wavered slightly, but decided to be candid, “How long I’m going to be here. I might leave again tomorrow.”

The old banker laughed. “I used to say the same thing myself. Mabel, my wife, took it as a threat for the first twenty years or so, but she eventually realized I wasn’t going anywhere.”

“Where else would you prefer living?”

“I came from New York City, son. I met Mabel during the war and we got married as soon as I was cashiered. She wanted to live the simple life and I decided to go along with her. Always thought it would be temporary.”

“So this place grows on you, is that it?”

“Like a weed, son. Like a weed.”

“I’ll have to remember that.”

Rockafeller looked down at the piece of paper in his hand and abruptly changed the subject. “I was going to leave this for you,” he explained, “I didn’t have your phone number and I wanted to talk to you.”

“Well, I’m here now. And I don’t have much of anything to do.”

“Let me see what I can do to change that.” The older man gestured at the Lincoln. “Get in, I’ll drive.”

Nate opened the door and slid into the plush, leather passenger seat. “This is a pretty nice ride,” he commented as he buckled his seatbelt.

“Of course,” Rockafeller responded, “It’s a Lincoln.”

“Good point.”

The older man started the car and pulled out of the driveway. He remained silent until they got to the end of Leonard Road. “So, what brings you here, anyway, Mr. Lassiter?” he asked as the car turned onto Shackner.

“That’s kind of a complicated story,” Nate responded, unsure of what to tell and how much to let out. “I think it comes down the fact that I realized I didn’t want to live the life I had always thought I wanted.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was successful at a young age. I was about to propose to my girlfriend, and would almost certainly have gotten a positive response. I had the future my mother and father worked hard to give me when I was growing up.”

“And you didn’t want it?”

“Exactly.”

Rockafeller chuckled. “I’ll tell you a secret, Mr. Lassiter, if you’re willing to hear.”

“Go ahead.”

“I don’t let on much, and I’d certainly rather not have the folks around here know it, but I rather like it here. Mabel was the one who made me come here, but I think I was the one who didn’t want to leave in the end.”

“Why?”

“Tell you what. If you’re still here in a year or so, you tell me.”

Nate smiled. “Will do.”

The car came to a stop in front of a brick building sitting on the north side of Main Street directly across the street from the restaurant where he had met Emma. A sign in front of the building proclaimed it housed the Chauncey National Bank, a name which Nate assumed was far more grandiose than the business inside deserved. Rockafeller shut the car off and the pair got out.

“This, as I’m assuming you already figured out, is the bank,” the older man said, holding out his hand as if to direct Nate to look at a distant spot on the horizon.

“I doubt I would have gotten my Masters in finance if I couldn’t identify one of these,” the younger man responded flippantly.

Rockafeller turned and gave him a disapproving look. “I don’t like sarcasm, Mr. Lassiter.”

“Sorry.”

“I’ll allow it this time. Just remember that in the future.”

“I will.”

“Good.”

They mounted the steps that led to the entrance and walked into the building. A thoroughly modern lobby greeted them, much to Nate’s surprise. To the left stood a counter with two teller stations, each equipped with what appeared to be a brand-new computer. On the other side of a tile walkway from the counter sat a pair of desks, each occupied by a banker busily working on a high-quality laptop. Three offices were behind the desks, separated from the main business floor by a glass partition. At the far end of the counter a hallway led to what Nate assumed was the vault and safety deposit boxes. Everything was well-lit and sparkling, giving the impression that the bank had been built shortly before his arrival in town.

“What do you think, Mr. Lassiter?”

“It’s very nice,” Nate responded, genuinely impressed.

“Thank you.” the other man turned toward the teller station. “Michelle?”

A head popped up over the top of the counter. Attached to it was a young woman, about eighteen or nineteen years of age. She, like the rest of the bank, appeared to be quite bright and cheery. “Yes, Mr. Rockafeller?” she asked.

“What were you doing down there?”

She produced a handful of papers and offered a sheepish grin. “I kind of dropped a few things.”

“Ah,” Rockafeller chuckled, “Still having problems with that, are we?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“I’d like you to meet someone, Michelle.” He turned to Nate. “This is Nate Lassiter. He’s considering taking the position of loan officer.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Lassiter,” she said, holding out her hand.

Nate stepped forward and shook it. “Nice to meet you.”

“Michelle has been working here for nearly eight years,” the older man said helpfully, “She’s a model employee, even if she does drop the occasional stack of papers.”

Nate looked at Rockafeller in confusion, then turned to the woman. “Um, if you don’t mind,” he said, unable to come up with a way to properly phrase his question.

Michelle laughed. “I’m twenty-five,” she explained, “But everyone says I look like I’m nineteen.”

“Ah.”

Rockafeller turned to the other two people in the room. “This is Bill Pearson,” he said, gesturing to the man at the desk on the left. “He’s my assistant manager and often fills in the role of personal banker.”

Bill stood up and offered his hand. “Good to see you again,” Nate said, shaking the hand firmly.

“You know each other?”

“We met briefly at church on Sunday,” the assistant manager explained.

“I see.” Rockafeller turned to the other desk. “And this is John Snyder. He’s the man you’ll be replacing if you choose to take the job.”

The loan officer stood up slowly on creaking joints. It was immediately obvious to Nate why he was retiring, as there was almost no way he could be much younger than eighty. “Pleased to meet you.”

“And you,” Nate replied, gently shaking the offered hand.

“You won’t have to use this desk if you don’t want to, though,” Rockafeller said. “John is supposed to be using the office on the far left, but he never does.”

“Don’t like puttin’ up walls,” the loan officer explained, “Can’t do a good job when you’re closed in. It’s not very neighborly, not very honest.”

Nate nodded silently, deciding it was best to simply agree.

“Well,” Rockafeller said, “That’s the bank. If you want I can take you back, you can think about it and then let me know tomorrow or Wednesday.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Nate said, nodding.

The pair turned and walked out of the building. As they got back into the car the older man turned to Nate. “I’m usually not this informal,” he said, “It’s just not every day a banker from Chicago shows up in town. I felt it would be best to take advantage of the situation.”

“I understand.”

“Good, then.” He started the car and pulled back onto Main Street. The made the drive back to the house in silence. Both men simply stared out the windshield, lost in their own thoughts.

As the car pulled up to the driveway Nate saw a familiar black pickup parked behind his Acura. “Emma’s here,” he commented for no particular reason.

Rockafeller pulled the Lincoln around the truck and stopped. He put the car into park and looked over at his passenger. “Want a piece of advice, Mr. Lassiter?”

“I suppose it can’t hurt.”

“Stay away from that woman. She’s bad news.”

Nate raised an eyebrow. “How?”

“She’s bad news. She’ll only cause you trouble.”

“How?”

“You know she was married, right?”

“Some guy named Charlie. She told me about that.”

“Well what she didn’t tell you was how she forced him to come up here from Texas, then decided she’d had enough of him and dragged his name all through the mud until he had no choice but divorce her and leave town.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Nate said, opening the door and getting out.

“Michelle is a very nice girl,” the other man said before Nate had a chance to close the door, “And she’s about your age.”

“What are you getting at?”

“There aren’t too many young men around here.”

“Look,” Nate said, shaking his head, “Offering me a job is one thing, but I believe this is out of line. I left my girlfriend of two years back in Chicago less than a week ago. I still have the engagement ring I was going to give her in my car. Now is not the right time.”

“Oh,” the old man seemed genuinely embarrassed, “I’m sorry for bringing it up, then.”

“It’s okay.” Nate closed the door before any response could come. The Lincoln sped down the driveway and off down Leonard Road.

Shaking his head, Nate turned back to the house and stepped up onto the porch. He pulled the key from his pocket only to realize the door was standing open. Pulling the screen door open, he stepped inside.

“Hello?” he asked.

“In here,” Emma’s voice came from the sitting room.

He stepped around the corner and found her lying on the couch. Molly lay on the floor in front of her, allowing Emma to lazily rub her back. The TV was on and tuned to a History Channel program.

“How did you get in?”

“I have a key.”

“Ah.”

“But you really don’t need to lock the door. No one’s going to break in.”

“I think I can disprove that statement.”

She shot him a quizzical glance, then laughed as she got the joke. “It’s not breaking in if you have a key.”

He rolled his eyes. “Right.”

Emma held up the remote and pointed it at his speakers. “How do you work this monstrosity you call a sound system?”

“Don’t you have to be at work?”

“Half day.”

“Why?”

“Because the school wanted it that way.”

“Ah. So you decided to come over here and watch a program on the fall of the Roman Empire in digital surround sound?”

“I’m sure we can find a movie or something to watch.”

“Okay. Move over.”

She swung her legs off the couch, narrowly avoiding kicking Molly in the process. Nate took the remote from her and sat down on the opposite side. He turned the sound system on, then turned to her with a shrug. “It’s going to be a lot cooler when the widescreen TV gets here.”

“I’ll bet.”

Nate flipped through the channels until he found a movie they could both agree on. They sat in silence for a while, staring at the tiny picture accompanied by his massive speakers. When the first commercial break came, Emma turned and looked at him.

“Aunt Ruth tells me she talked to Richard Rockafeller down at the bank about getting you a job.”

“Yeah. That’s where I was when you got here.”

“So what do you think?”

“It’s a nice bank.”

“About Rockafeller.”

“Seems like a nice enough guy. Didn’t seem the least bit uppity to me.”

“Well, you’re from the big city, too. But just wait. You’ll see.”

“Okay.” Nate looked at her for a long moment.

“What?” she finally asked, seemingly uncomfortable.

“I don’t know if I should mention this, but he doesn’t seem to like you very much.”

She chuckled. “No, no he doesn’t. How could you tell?”

Nate shrugged. “It was mostly a body language thing. He really seemed sure of himself when he told me to stay away from you. He said you were bad news, and I could tell from the way he said it that he really meant it.”

“I see,” she responded, laughing. “Really good at picking up nonverbal clues, are you?”

“Well…I don’t like to boast, but yeah. I am.”

“And modest, too. You’re the total package.”

“Oh, and he suggested I hook up with the girl who works at the bank.”

“Did you tell him you just walked out on your fiancee?”

“Yes. I suggested he not bring that topic of conversation up again any time soon.” He decided not to quibble over the actual state of his relationship with Julia. It was close enough to an engagement to let the comment slide.

She rubbed her chin speculatively. “He’s not going to like that. I’d watch my back around him if I were you.”

“Well it was impolite.”

“That’s his way, though. Most people around here just let him get away with it. They figure there’s no point in starting a fuss.”

“So what do you do?”

“I don’t have to do anything. He doesn’t acknowledge me when he sees me.”

“Why?”

“Eh,” she shrugged, “It goes back to my divorce. He took Charlie’s side and refused to believe I had a reason to do it. Funny thing was, Charlie didn’t want anybody to take his side. He knew it had to end.”

“And now the people around here don’t like you?”

“Most people don’t mind me, actually. It’s just that the ones who think I’m no good are pretty vocal about it. And a lot of people kind of hold me at arms’ length because of that. It’s easier than getting into the middle of things, you know.”

“Why do you put up with that?”

“I kind of got used to it after a while, I guess. It’s really not so bad as long as I avoid people like Rockafeller.”

“Seems to me that that’s a pretty rotten way to live.”

“What, so you think I should just up and leave, like…” she trailed off.

“Like what, like me?”

“Yeah,” she stuck her chin out at him in a gesture of defiance, “Like you.”

“What, I’m some sort of monster because I left Chicago?”

“You can’t just run away from your problems. Running away never solves anything.”

“Sometimes time and distance are all you can put between you and your problems, though.” He paused. “What’s the old saying, ‘time heals all wounds?'”

“Something like that,” she reluctantly agreed.

“How much of a future did you really have here, anyway? You could have left at any time and not had any problems.”

“But that’s not the way I do things.”

“Wait.”

“What?”

“When I tell you about the things I’ve done I have to take your reaction as the final word,” he crossed his arms over his chest, “But when you tell me about your life everything I say is wrong. How is that fair?”

“Hmm,” she looked down at the floor for a moment, “I suppose you’re right. Maybe we shouldn’t try to deal with this right now.”

“Good idea.”

“You hungry?” she neatly changed the subject.

“Yeah, I guess I am.”

“What do you have to eat in this place?”

“Let’s go take a look.”

They got off the couch and headed into the kitchen. Emma started rummaging through his pantry, shaking her head in disappointment with what she found. She then turned to the refrigerator and opened it. Her expression indicated she was equally disgusted with what she found inside.

“Problems?” Nate asked.

“Yeah,” she closed the door and straightened up, “Your food.”

“So what do you want me to do about it?”

“Well, we can always go to the store.”

“I suppose.” Nate walked back into the sitting room and turned off the television and sound system. He reached down and rubbed Molly between the ears. “I’m going to be gone for a little while, girl. Be good.”

Emma was already standing in the driveway when Nate stepped out onto the porch. “I’m driving,” she announced.

“Why do you get to have all the fun?”

“Because I said so.”

“That’s a lousy argument.”

“Get in the truck.” She narrowed her eyes and pointed at the passenger door.

He shrugged. “Okay.”

Laughing, Emma walked around the truck and opened the door. He opened up his door and they both hopped up into the cab. The big pickup sped out of the driveway and they headed into town in silence.

Nate stared out the window, still unsure of what to make of his new surroundings. He had so far only really met four new people in Chauncey, but he was beginning to feel he understood a little about the town. The one thing he definitely knew was that nothing around him ended up being as it seemed the first time he looked. More and more he found himself fascinated with the town and the people he had met so far. He wanted to know what caused Rockafeller to stay. He wanted to know what kept Emma from leaving. Somehow he thought that he could learn a lot about both of those questions from McPherson if he stayed.

In some small corner of his mind Nate also thought McPherson might also be able to tell him why he was there, if he stuck around long enough. After only two short conversations Nate was convinced the man had a lot to teach. Whatever other conclusions he could draw about his reasons for leaving, Nate knew it meant he had a lot to learn.

He looked over at Emma and wondered how much he could learn from her. She had seemed so strong, so confident that afternoon in the diner. Now he had seen some of her vulnerabilities. Maybe, he suddenly realized, she stayed in Chauncey for the same reasons she said he had left Chicago. Maybe she was just as scared of life as he was. Maybe he had run away from the things that scared him and she had simply hidden from her own fears.

She turned and looked at him. “What?”

“What?”

“You were looking at me. I would like to know why.”

“No reason. Just thinking.”

“About anything in particular?”

“Life, the universe, you know. The little questions.”

“Ah. And what part of the universe do I fit into?”

“At the moment you make up a fairly large slice of it, actually.”

“I’m flattered.”

“Don’t get too cocky. My universe shrank a whole lot in the last week.”

“Hmm.” Without further comment she pulled the truck into a spot in front of the store and shut the engine off.

They got out of the truck and walked into the store. Nate had stopped in on his first night in town, but hadn’t stayed long, as he felt very uncomfortable in the alien environment. This time he wandered around the shelves for a few minutes and took in the building. It was smaller than the supermarkets he was used to and had a less varied stock, but it was otherwise very nice. Everything was clean, bright and well lit. The owners and employees obviously took pride in their environment. Pride and hard work appeared to be common themes in Chauncey.

He was inspecting the produce in the back of the store when something caught his attention. A bulletin board labeled “Community News” hung on the wall. The bulletin board was covered with notices and little snippets from what appeared to be the local paper. In the middle of the board was a white piece of paper with the words “CAR FOR SALE, CLASSIC” written in bold across the top. Directly below those words was a picture of a 1958 Cadillac Eldorado convertible.

Carefully, slowly, as if afraid that the sign were an apparition which would disappear if he got too close, Nate walked up to the board. The bottom of the piece of paper was separated into ten little strips with a phone number. Two slips were already gone, and Nate pulled one off with a sinking feeling that he was already too late.

 

He spun around and walked quickly to the front of the store, searching for Emma. She was standing next to a wire rack of paperback books next to the checkout counter.

“Emma!”

“What?” she spun around, looking frightened.

“I need to make a phone call, and then I may need you to drive me somewhere.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know yet. Just hold on.” He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and walked towards the front door. Emma, confused, followed close behind.