The Guys

As the congregation finished singing the recessional hymn, I walked down the aisle toward the open sanctuary door and took my place just inside. I smoothed my white robe, adjusted the cincture, and made sure the stole hung evenly around my neck. This was my first Sunday as the associate pastor. I needed to look presentable. Ready, I waited for the last “Amen,” which in every Methodist Church triggers a stampede to coffee hour.

One by one, the parishioners filed past, with words of welcome, hugs, handshakes, and the inevitable sharing of germs.

A finger poked my arm. It poked again. “Miss. Miss.” I turned toward the voice. “Miss, are you that new lady minister?”

Befuddled, I answered, “Yes, my name is Laura. What’s your name?

“Eddie. Eddie Totten.”

I stuck out my hand to shake his. The man next to him shook it instead.

“Her. Herb. Herbie,” he said.

“Nice to meet you, Eddie and Herbie. And your name is?” I turned toward a third man, obviously with the other two. He reached into the pocket of his flannel shirt, retrieved a small notebook, and scribbled in block letters. Then he turned the page toward me.
            “John. Your name is John.” He nodded and a small sound emanated from his throat. Seeing a line growing impatient behind them, I said, “You know, guys, I hear there’s going to be cake at coffee hour today. How about you head that way so you don’t miss it, and I’ll catch up with you in a few?”

Eddie grinned, and his eyes sparkled. The guys nodded, then headed out the door.

“Those men live in the group home down the street. They’ve come here every Sunday for years,” the next parishioner in line explained.

“They seem sweet.”

“Oh, they are. We all adore them. And it looks like they’ve taken a shine to you already.”

After the last congregant made a beeline for snacks, I headed to my office, removed my clerical garb and wandered to the fellowship hall in search of a much-needed caffeine fix. It took 10 minutes to get near the urn as one person after another pried for personal information.

“Where were you born?

“Brooklyn, but I grew up on Long Island.”

“Just how old are you?”

“27 in two weeks.”

“Any family or significant other around?”

“Excuse me. I promised someone cake.”

Grabbing a large plate, I balanced four slices and my coffee, then headed for my new friends. “Thought you might like a second piece.” I doled out the cake on the plates the guys were still holding.

Eddie, a short, pudgy man in his sixties, spoke with his mouth full. “The fair is coming.”

“A county fair? I’ve never been to one.”

“It, it, it’s fun,” Herbie, the oldest, said, his nose and mustache wiggling as he spoke.

John reached for his notebook. “GO?”

“You want to go to the fair?” All three nodded. “How about I check with the person who runs your home and see if I could take you?”

Of course, she said yes.

The following Sunday, the guys stopped by my office as I was getting ready for the service. Placing a marble in my hand, Eddie said, “For you.” The Sunday after that, they brought me an artificial flower and the next week a tiny plastic puppy. Since their residence was only two doors away across from Sweet’s Funeral Home, I strolled over to see their house mother.

“Herbie, Eddie and John keep bringing me presents. They shouldn’t be doing that.”

Sharon put me straight. “Please don’t ask them to stop. It’s difficult to find things to keep the men entertained. For the last few Saturday mornings, I’ve taken the house-full of them in the van to go yard-sale-ing. All the guys help Eddie figure out what to buy with his nickel, and he brings it to you on Sunday. Just say thank you.”

The shelf behind my desk filled up as we got closer to County Fair week. Finally, the day came. Since they wanted to see the lights at night in the carnival midway, I picked them up at 3 pm. Herbie, the tallest, rode in the front seat. He chatted about what he saw as we drove north. When I checked on Eddie and John in the rear-view mirror, they were sporting enormous grins. “You like to look out the window?”

“The trees are pretty,” Eddie said. He’d been in various institutions all his life and likely had not gone for too many rides. Herbie and John, too. Luckily, they’d been placed in Sharon’s group-home as older adults, where they could live in an actual house.

“I like the river,” Herbie said, “And all them flowers in people’s yards.”

“Look! Look at them rides!” Eddie said as we pulled into the parking lot at the fairgrounds. “Can I ride the bumpy cars?”

“Of course you can,” I said as I parked. “Okay, everybody out. Time to see the fair.” Before going through the gate, I handed each of the guys a slip of paper with my name on it. “Put this in your pocket. If we get separated, give it to a policeman and they will help us find each other.” Each guy dutifully stashed his note. “Okay, what do you want to see first?”

We headed toward a row of barns housing farm animals. We mooed at every cow, petted every horse, and grunted at every pig.

“I want to find the one with the curliest tail,” Herbie said.

John walked over to a pen, wiggled his forefinger and grunted.

“What do you think, guys? Has John found the pig with the curliest tail?”

All three nodded.

 Our next stop was a row of pavilions, where businesses showcased their services. We ran our hands over textured roofing tiles, took turns sitting on a riding mower, massaged our palms in hot tub jet spray, sniffed Avon perfumes, and tasted samples of chocolate, jellies and chip dips.

Before we left, we stopped to marvel at a faucet suspended in midair, out of which flowed a constant stream of water. “How do they do that?” Eddie asked.

I shrugged. “Cool, isn’t it?

On the way to the Community building, we stopped to vroom, vroom on the tractors and measure ourselves against the one with tires taller than any of us. Then we joined a circle of folks watching a man juggling while riding a unicycle.

“I wish I could do that,” Eddie said.

“Me, too,” I mumbled. “It looks like fun.”

The Community building housed dioramas about farming made by the local 4H, potted plants and fancy vegetables from the gardening club, displays of handcrafts on tables and homemade quilts on the walls. There was even a gallery of children’s artwork. We explored everything: the biggest pumpkin, the scariest drawing, the most colorful quilt, even the model explaining how to sheer a sheep. Since Eddie thought the wool felt soft, we all had to touch it.

“Pastor Laura. I thought that was you.” The voice came from behind. I turned to find a parishioner, waiting for his wife to finish admiring the quilts. “I’d like to know what you thought of the conversation at the Trustees meeting last Thursday…”

Dutifully, I listened to him drone on about contractor bids for sealing the parking lot until his wife rescued me.

Turning back toward the guys, I said, “You ready to go on some rides?” Herbie and John nodded. “Where’s Eddie?” I did a quick recon of the vast room. “Where’s Eddie? Did either of you see him walk away?” They shook their heads. I walked the guys outside to look.

Over the loudspeaker I heard, “Laura Bender. Laura Bender. Please meet your party at the missing children’s booth.” The guys stayed close as we hurried to find our missing friend.

“I’m Laura Bender,” I said to the security guard standing in the doorway.

“Your guy is in there.” He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb.

I rushed in to find Eddie, sitting on a bench licking a lollipop.

“There you are! I was so worried. Where did you go?”

“You were talking to that man and I smelled something good. Real good. I started sniffing. And I went where I sniffed. And then, I couldn’t find you.” A tear rolled down his cheek. “Am I in trouble?”

“Of course not, Eddie. You did exactly what I asked you to do if we got separated. Come with us. We’re heading to the rides. You want to try the bumpy cars, don’t you?”

Eddie wiped his eyes. After hugs all around, we headed across the fairgrounds, all four of us instinctively holding hands so we wouldn’t get lost. “Who would like some cotton candy before we take rides?”

As if on cue, the neon lights came on in the midway and we spent the next hour admiring them from high atop the Ferris wheel, as we went round and round on the carousel, and not at all while we focused on knocking into each other in the bumper cars. At 10 pm I dropped the guys at their home, then drove to my apartment exhausted and grinning.

The next Sunday, Eddie brought me a golf pencil bearing a roofing company logo and a tiny porcelain bunny looking into a blue basket minus the handle.

“The fair will be back next year,” Herbie said. “You gonna take us?”

John wrote in his notebook, then handed it to me. “You want to be a policeman, John?” He grinned and nodded. “That’s a good idea. That policeman really helped us find Eddie. Maybe we’ll see him at the fair next summer, too.”

Over the following fifty-one weeks, my shelf and then the bottom drawer of the desk filled up with gifts. And every week the guys asked about the fair. Even when they had to trudge through knee deep snow to get to church, they still asked.

“Guess what’s happening this week, guys?” I asked when I saw them approach my office one Sunday in August.

 “The, the the Fair?” Herbie asked.

“Yup. I’m picking you up at 3 pm Thursday, if you want to go…” They all hugged me at once. The truth is, I didn’t know who was looking forward to it more, them or me.

For four years in a row, Herbie, Eddie, John and I kept our August fair date. Then the following June, my phone rang early in the morning. It was the church secretary. “I just got word that Herbie Klingsohr died last night. Just wanted to give you a heads-up. You’ve got a funeral.”

I called Sharon to let her know I was coming to see her houseful of guys. When I arrived, they were sitting in a circle in the living room. Eddie slumped in his chair, sniffling.

Sharon introduced me. “This is Reverend Laura from the church down the street. She wants to talk with you about our dear Herbie.”

After expressing condolences, I asked if anyone had ever been to a funeral. Most raised their hands. “We’re going to have a funeral for Herbie on Wednesday. My job is to help us do that well. When someone dies, I always talk with their family members before I prepare. Since you are Herbie’s family, in a minute, I am going to ask you what you liked most about him.” I took out a notebook and pen. “But first, do you have any questions?”

The man directly opposite me raised his hand.

“Go ahead.”

“Can I wear brown shoes?”

“Yes, you can wear brown shoes to the funeral.”

“But I have a blue suit.”

“I’m sure it will look fine with your shoes. Anyone else?”

Another man raised his hand. I nodded to him and he rose from his chair, walked over to the man opposite me and motioned for him to trade seats. Once settled in what became the speaker’s chair, he asked, “Where is Herbie now?”

“Herbie is in heaven with God.”

He scrunched his face. “I thought Herbie was across the street at Sweet’s Funeral Home.”

“Well, um, yes. His body is at Sweets.”

“Is he in the freezer?”

“No, Mr. Sweet is probably giving him a haircut and a shave in his workroom right now.”

One by one, the men traded for the speaker’s chair. After an hour, I had a notebook full of happy thoughts about Herbie and had answered many oddly related questions.

Eddie spoke last. “He was the best roommate ever.” He wiped his nose on his sleeve. “You wanna see our room?” I followed him down a narrow hallway. The small room housed two single beds on opposite walls, separated by two dressers, one with a mirror and the other under a window. Tidy, it held only a few personal items. A small cross sat on Herbie’s dresser.

“Eddie, I know you know the Lord’s prayer. Would you like to lead it at the funeral? Do you think you could do that for Herbie?”

He nodded, then wiped his eyes.

That Wednesday, the church parking lot filled quickly. Parishioners even took off from work to be there. Sharon and her guys sat in the first two rows, the ones reserved for family.

We sang a hymn, read scripture, and then I gave the eulogy, which in Greek means “good word.” There were plenty to offer for Herbie. The guys saw to that. Then it was Eddie’s turn to lead us in the Lord’s prayer. I invited him to come forward and stand next to me. I placed my hand on his shoulder. “Okay, Eddie.”

He took a deep breath. “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Tears flowed from his eyes. “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done…” He gasped, then let out a wail. I hugged him as he wept. Over his crying, I heard sniffles and snorts from the congregation as they, too, lost their composure. When Eddie was ready, we finished the prayer in unison.

John and Eddie rode to the graveyard in my car, sitting in the back as usual. Herbie’s seat remained empty. It was our version of the “missing man formation.” When the hearse arrived, we exited the car and followed the coffin to the grave. The guys held my hands as we walked and remained close as I led the Liturgy of Committal. Then, one by one, the parishioners returned to their cars and drove away. Sharon gathered the rest of Herbie’s housemates into the van and headed home. Only Eddie, John, and I remained.

“Herbie’s gone to his home, guys. Time for us to head to ours.” Eddie and John used the handkerchiefs Sharon had given them to wipe their faces. Then we turned and headed for my car.

John let himself into the backseat. Eddie chose the front passenger seat. Herbie’s seat.

 “Are you still gonna take us to the fair?” Eddie asked.

“I wouldn’t miss it, guys. I love going to the fair with you.”

Eddie’s eyes twinkled. “We have an empty seat now.” In the rearview mirror, I could see John nodding.

“Would you like to choose someone else to go with us? Since we have a vacant seat.”

“We’ll find someone,” Eddie said.

And they did. But that August, we attended our last fair together. The following winter, the bishop assigned me to a different church. It was a tearful goodbye.

In the thirty years since I last saw the guys, I’ve never missed a county fair. I visit every booth, taste test the yummy stuff, search for the pig with the curliest tail and delight at how the lights in the midway brighten the darkness. And every year I pass by the lost children’s booth and remember how one was found by Herbie, Eddie and John.

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5 thoughts on “The Guys

  1. Laura I’m not sure if you remember me or not. My family and I attended First United Methodist Church of Lake Ronkonkoma, NY back in the 60’s and 70’s. Your story is heartwarming and comforting and brings back memories of our small town congregation. You were always so soft spoken and kind to everyone and had a wonderful sense of humor. Thank you for sharing your story and doing God’s good work. Love and blessings.

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