The House Call

Beulah-Road

Luke Bradford only had a couple of quick errands to run this last Saturday before catching the start of the football game at eleven. He left the house at ten, thinking everything would take an hour, tops. By then, he would be on the couch, well stocked with chips and a cold brewski. His alma mater, Vanderbilt, was playing on TV. It was a big game.

But for Luke, watching the game wasn’t meant to be.

It all started at the grocery store where he stopped to pick up some snacks and sandwich supplies. Stepping lively, he bobbed and weaved through the various aisles and quickly gathered the things he needed. He was heading toward checkout when he ran into Claude Reynolds. His daughter, Florence  was with him.

This would be the first delay of game. It wouldn’t be the last.

Claude, a feeble little man in his seventies, had a careful politeness and friendliness about him. Florence, however, was a different matter.

She was a squat, tough, forty something woman with a raspy voice, bushy eyebrows, and a hard, mean face. She struck you as one of those seedy movie characters who assessed you with cool, squinty eyes as she lit up a Marlboro. Florence hadn’t smiled in twenty years and was proud of it.

“Hey, Dr. Bradford. You got a minute? Come over here. I got something I need to ask you.”

Reluctantly, Luke obliged. Florence began a loud and lengthy diatribe about the various malfunctioning of Claude’s gastrointestinal system. For Luke, it was a major over-share, especially in the presence of groceries.

But Luke had football on his mind. And the entire time Florence was talking he couldn’t help but imagine her as a dead ringer for Uga, the Georgia Bulldog Mascot. In a pinch, he thought, Florence could even suit up and play linebacker.

After several painful minutes of accommodating grunts, Luke managed to separate himself, advising Florence to bring Claude by the clinic. This wasn’t the answer she wanted.

“Well, can’t you just write him a prescription for some pills or something?”

Florence regarded Luke with narrow-eyed scrutiny, looking for all the world like she might pop him one just to bring him around to her way of thinking. Finally, she warily agreed to set up an appointment, but she wasn’t happy about it. Nothing new there.

Luke hastily took his place in the checkout line, glad that only one customer was in front of him. Unfortunately, that one customer was Clifford Tomlin. Clifford was a doleful and plodding fellow with an exhausting habit of slowly repeating everything anyone said to him.

“Yes, it is a cold day for November.”

“Yes, it would be nice to see a little snow before Christmas.”

“No, I didn’t notice that you can get a third apple free if you buy two.”

Luke smiled patiently, afraid to say anything lest Clifford repeat that as well.

When Luke lived in Nashville, store etiquette required you to have your plastic ready to swipe the millisecond the last item was scanned. But this was Watervalley, and Clifford operated under no such expectations. Obliviously, he continued  the conversation well after his things were bagged. Finally, after studying the cash register total for a contemplative moment, Clifford proceeded to retrieve his checkbook, find a pen, and carefully fill it out with glacial speed.

Luke was dumbfounded. He had seen chess players with faster reflexes.

Then Clifford stopped altogether. He had an epiphany and spoke in a matter-of-fact manner. “You know, I think I have the sixty eight cents.”

After an eternity he finished inking the check, stopping to admire his signature as if he had just signed the Constitution. Now began the arduous process of logging the transaction in his check register. Luke checked his watch to make sure it was still Saturday.

After meticulously tearing the check out and handing it to the cashier, Clifford dug into his hip pocket and retrieved a small rubber coin purse. In his large, pudgy palm he squeezed it open, revealing a collection of loose change. Slowly, methodically he picked through it to gather the sixty-eight cents needed to complete his purchase.

Luke wanted to scream. He pondered the desire to go back and get more beer, but feared loosing his place in line. He opted to think about more constructive things, like opening the mayonnaise and bread and making a few sandwiches to pass the time. Finally, his turn came.

As he pulled out of the parking lot Luke knew that catching the kick-off was now a lost dream. He still had one more stop.  Even though it was Saturday, he had a house call to make. He needed to go see Ivy Blanchard.

In her late sixties, Ivy lived in a farmhouse out on Fattybread Road. She was historically a lively and happy soul who had always been intensely involved in the church and community. For years she had led a Women’s Bible study, fascinated by the deeper truths found in the passages. Edward, her husband, joked that Ivy could find hidden meaning everywhere in scripture, especially in the use of numbers, even the ones at the bottom of the page.

But Edward had passed away less than a year ago and Ivy had taken his loss hard. Now she lived alone. The pastor at Watervalley First Presbyterian, Joe Carter, had noticed that Ivy hadn’t been to church in a month. Joe had been out to see her several times and on the most recent visit, Ivy had told him that she had run out of her anti-depression medicine. She just didn’t think she wanted to take the medication anymore.

Joe had put a bug in Luke’s ear about this. Luke was acquainted with Ivy, having seen her at the clinic. But he knew her more by reputation. He had heard stories of what a wonderful, selfless person she was; how she had given generously of herself to her family and the community.

Loaded with some pharmaceutical samples, Luke determined that he needed to go see her. He headed that direction.

Beulah Road was a long straight stretch of flat blacktop that headed north out of town. On this cold, bright Saturday morning, Luke had it all to himself.

“Of course no one is out here,” he said to the general air. “They’re all home, watching football.”

He thought he might push the speed envelope a little bit and make up for some lost time. But in the far distance, he noticed a pickup truck pulling up to the road from a side lane. Luke closed the gap quickly; hoping that whoever it was wouldn’t impede his accelerated glide out to Ivy’s house. Fortunately, the truck didn’t do anything. It just sat there. That was, until Luke was right up on it. Then the driver proceeded to pull out in front of him and head north as well. Luke slammed on his breaks, practically coming to a complete stop while the truck slowly accelerated.

Luke’s previous life in the city offered the anonymous luxury of honking and invoking meaningful hand gestures in response to such an event. But he knew that small town life wasn’t as forgiving of such behavior. Somebody always figured out who you were, and Watervalley’s limber tongues would spread the news quicker than the front page, not to mention making you the central topic of numerous prayer groups. So Luke just pursed his lips and decided to calmly wait his chance to pass.

But that didn’t happen. At least, not immediately.

The truck’s driver was Horace Chapel. Horace was old, practically deaf, and notably on the grumpy side. He was a sour little man with scraggly whiskers and a pinched face. He had stopped at the intersection because he had forgotten where he was going. When it finally came to him, he pulled out without ever looking. If a car was coming, it would just have to stop. Screw ‘em.

Smoking and coughing in a squealing roar, the old truck was in bad need of a tune-up and a muffler. Top speed was almost forty. Additionally, Horace found it wonderfully convenient to drive down the middle of the road.

Meanwhile, Luke was fantasizing about having a James Bond car, the kind with a fifty-caliber gun hidden behind the headlights so you could take out a tire in this kind of sitation. To make matters worse, the next stretch of Beulah Road was through some low hills, making for endless curves that prohibited any chance of passing. They were a two car parade. It lasted for miles.

Finally, they came upon a short stretch just long enough for Luke to get around. He gunned it, pushing the old Corolla to the engines screaming point. As he passed, he noticed Horace hunched over with both hands in a death grip on the steering wheel, grimly staring ahead as if he were flying a small plane through a snowstorm.

Luke sped on. After a couple of minutes, he turned on Fattybread Road. Ivy’s long gravel driveway led up to a white painted farmhouse with a generous front porch. Within moments he knocked on the door. She was delighted to see him.

“Oh my, Dr. Bradford. You didn’t have to come all the way out here.”

They talked at the doorway for a few minutes until Luke finally consented to Ivy’s request for him to come in for a cup of coffee. They sat and talked in her small parlor with its Victorian chairs and handmade quilts and dozens of framed photos crowding every surface. Luke asked a few questions, but mostly listened. He told Ivy he had brought her some more anti-depressant medications, having heard she was out. At this news Ivy became noticeably subdued.

“Dr. Bradford, it’s good of you to bring those out to me. But, I’m not sure I want to take them anymore.”

“Was there some side effect, because we can try a different medication?”

“No, no. It wasn’t that. It’s just, well, with Edward gone, and my three boys all moved away, the days are pretty lonely. I’ve had a good life, but I miss Edward a lot. And I spend most of time wishing I could be with him again. So I just think, what’s the point?”

Luke could see the resignation on Ivy’s face. He heard her words but was at a loss as to what to say, how to compensate. In his discomfort, he glanced at his watch. By now the game was probably in the second quarter. He felt ill equipped to do much more than encourage Ivy to take her medications. He felt for her, but in truth, part of him was ready to leave, to give her space to deal with her life, and for him to get on with his. But mostly, he just wanted to get away from his inability to help.

“Can I tell you something Dr. Bradford?”

“Sure.”

“It’s probably wrong, but when I say my prayers at night, I ask the Lord to just take me in my sleep.” Ivy said these words with a sad resolve.

Now Luke was truly at a loss for words. He simply nodded.

“Ivy, I really want you to start taking the medication again. Can you promise me you’ll do that?”

Ivy pursed her lips and nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll try, Dr. Bradford.”

A painful silence followed. Luke exhaled a defeated sigh and looked reflectively into Ivy’s face, now a mask of despair and disillusion. It was tough to see her this way.

But he knew she hadn’t always been like this. He knew that behind this façade of grief was a face of warmth and devotion, a life that had been sensitive, giving, wholehearted, and at times transparently incandescent and loving. Ivy had an insatiable need to be in the service of others. She had spent years in the joy of exhausting herself in the care of those she loved and being deeply and richly loved for doing so. Yet now, they were gone. Luke had no answers.

He stood and as best he could, gathered an accommodating smile toward her.

“I probably need to be heading back to town. It was good to visit with you, Ivy. I hope things get better.”

Ivy’s countenance went from sad to crestfallen.

“It’s near lunch, Dr. Bradford. Why don’t you stay and I’ll make you something to eat?”

Luke dismissed this immediately. “Thanks, Ivy. But no, I’m fine.”

She implored him a couple of more times but Luke politely refused. He had done what he had come to do and now simply wanted to get home and catch the second half of the game.

Ivy stood in the open doorway as Luke stepped into the cold air of the front porch. He turned toward her one last time to say goodbye. But Ivy’s face was one of forbearance and loss. She stood silently for a moment and then stepped into the frigid air and gave Luke a grateful, spontaneous hug. Awkwardly, Luke patted her shoulders, caught off-guard by this unexpected show of emotion.

She stepped away and thanked him again. Luke turned to leave as Ivy shut the door behind him.

Finally, it was time for football…for chips and beer and loaded ham sandwiches and hopes for a big upset. He walked to the car with a slight spring in his step. But as he opened the door to get in, he looked back at the farmhouse. He paused. He reminded himself that he had done what he could. But, in reality, he knew he had accomplished nothing. He stood for a moment, gazing thoughtfully out over the distant fields, now raw, silent, and frozen in the frail, mid-November sun. Finally, he exhaled deeply and quietly nodded his head. He shut the car door, walked back up on the porch, and knocked.

“Ivy, what say I take you up on that offer for lunch?”

For the next hour, Luke leaned against the kitchen counter and sipped coffee as Ivy delightedly bustled around the kitchen; frying up pork chops, heating black-eyed peas, and popping a corn bread mix in the oven. The transformation was unbelievable. She was non-stop chatty and animated, telling Luke her favorite memories about raising the boys and silly things that Edward had done over the years. She laughed and snickered and cooked, moving about the kitchen with the energy of a bumblebee. Luke just nodded and listened, genuinely entertained with Ivy’s stories.

They sat at the kitchen table and ate. While Luke gorged himself with her incredible cooking, Ivy told funny tales about vacations, and farm life, and her son’s ballgames. This last topic reminded Luke to check his watch. No doubt, the game was at least into the fourth quarter. Staying had been a good idea. But maybe, just maybe… if he left now, he could catch the final minutes.

He thanked Ivy and rose from the table in a pretense to leave. Once again, Ivy was crestfallen.

“Dr. Bradford, surely you can’t run off now. I’ve got a chess pie in the oven and it will be out in another twenty minutes.”

Luke got a pained look on his face. He really, really wanted to catch some of the game. Ivy had seemed so happy for him to stay. But departing now threatened to wipe all of that away.

“Is everything okay, Dr. Bradford?”

“No, no, everything is fine.”

“Are you sure? Is there anything else you need while the pie is baking?”

Luke thought about this, about what he should do, about what he should say. Then, a simple, obvious idea struck him.

“Ivy, do you by chance have cable?”

*            *            *            *

Luke caught the last few minutes of the game and Ivy insisted that he eat his pie right there in front of the TV. She also fussed at him for not saying something about the game earlier. She relentlessly checked on him, asking if he wanted more pie or coffee. Satisfied, she returned to the kitchen and Luke could hear her absently humming a short melody from time to time as she busied herself with cleaning up the dishes.

The game ended and Luke returned to the kitchen. Ivy had put together a plate of leftovers along with a large helping of pie. Now, he truly needed to get back to Fleming Street to take care of Rhett, his golden, and do a few things around the house. Ivy was sorry to see him go, but this time it seemed within a balance of joy and understanding. For her, it had been a good afternoon.

As he put on his coat, Luke reminded her again to take her medications. This time, she nodded with a smiling assurance that she would do so. Luke was pleased. He had made the right decision and had still been able to catch a little football.

But as walked out onto the porch, one thing still troubled him. It had nagged him ever since he had heard the words. He turned to Ivy, who was again standing in the doorway, this time with a face that was somewhat sad, yet sweet and contented.

“Ivy, look. I’m no authority on this kind of thing…. but, this prayer you pray every night….about the Lord taking you in your sleep?”

“Yes, Dr. Bradford?”

“Well, I want you…” He stopped. “I want you to do something for me.”

Ivy was puzzled, but answered affirmatively. “Sure.”

Luke spoke slowly, thoughtfully choosing his words. “I want you to add another prayer to it.”

Again, Ivy nodded. “Well, okay.”

He stared into the distance, pausing for a moment. Then he turned back toward Ivy and spoke with simple resolve. “When you pray for the Lord to take you in your sleep, I want you to add the prayer…’But Lord, just don’t let it be tonight.’”

Ivy gave him another indebted hug. Luke loaded all the food on to the passenger seat and began the long drive back down Beulah Road. He drove carefully.

Somewhere, Horace Chapel was still out there.

I’m j. high, and for now in Watervalley, that’s pretty much the highpoint.

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