“The Caretaker,” New Era, May 1999, 41
It must be close to freezing this morning. David can tell, even though the apartment is still draped in shadow, and he is still lying in a tangle of bedding on the sofa that passes for his bed. It must be 20 degrees outside, David is thinking. He can imagine flowers of ice spreading on the window panes. His mother snuffles and shifts in her sleep. She is nearly always cold, so yesterday David helped her shove her bed closer to the radiator, beneath the window at the front of the studio apartment that the two of them share. It is already late January, but today is the first day it has dipped below freezing. It’s an unusual winter for New York City.
“Morning, Lobo,” David whispers to the warm nose nuzzling his neck. “You ready for your walk?” He scratches his Siberian husky under his chin, then slides out of bed and kneels in his sweat pants at the side of the sofa. While Lobo paces the floor, his toenails clicking on the hardwood, David says his prayers. He prays silently, so as not to disturb his mother, and he prays for what he has been praying for ever since he joined the Church over a year ago. The words are familiar by now. They tumble together in his head like a well-rehearsed hymn.
“Please,” he murmurs into his pillow, “please, let me be able to go.”
It can’t hurt, David figures, to ask for something he doesn’t need for five more years. This ought to give Heavenly Father enough time to work something out.
“David?” his mother’s voice is barely a rasp.
“I’m here, Mom.”
“What are you doing?”
“Taking the dog out in a minute. Why? You need something? Some breakfast, maybe? I could make oatmeal—oatmeal with butter and brown sugar.”
His mother’s eyelids are swollen. She rubs her palm over her forehead and clutches her quilt tighter. “No, baby,” she whispers. “No, that’s all right. You go on.” She waves him away with a flick of her fingers.
On regular mornings, David walks his dog Lobo all the way to Riverside Park. But this is not a regular morning. This is Sunday, and it is not even a regular Sunday because David still has some finishing touches to do on the talk Bishop Wendall asked him to give in sacrament meeting today. Light is just beginning to creep over the horizon, but cars and people are already bustling along the streets. Steam boils from manhole covers as David makes his way up the street, sidestepping the potholes that yawn in the sidewalk. He waves to old Mr. Gerard, who is busy stocking Snickers bars in his newsstand on the corner.
“Whoa, boy,” David says to his dog, which is straining at his leash, wanting to go all the way to the park. David feels bad he has to pull him back. Finally, though, Lobo seems to catch on that they are only walking around the block this morning. Lobo stops and David carefully attends to his needs.
Mr. Gerard is watching. “You know,” he calls from his newsstand, “it’s refreshing to see a young man clean up after himself.” He hobbles over and slips a Snickers bar into David’s hand, grinning his gap-toothed grin at him.
David shrugs. “Thanks, Mr. Gerard, but it’s no big deal. It’s the law.”
Mr. Gerard lets out a half snort, half laugh. “Maybe you haven’t noticed,” he says, shaking his knobby finger at the cement walls surrounding them, “but a lot of people around here don’t care about the law.” The walls are smeared with paint, red and blue and green, pictures and words with sharp angles.
“Seems like a good boy is harder to find than a three-headed rooster these days.” Mr. Gerard chuckles to himself.
David nods, then clears his throat and says, “I’m a Latter-day Saint, you know.”
“Is that so?” Mr. Gerard is shuffling away. “Good for you,” he calls over his shoulder. “I’ve seen those Mormon missionaries riding around here on their bikes. They look like good boys, those missionaries. You going to do that someday?”
“I hope so,” David says, but Mr. Gerard is now handing his first customer a newspaper and doesn’t hear. “I hope so,” David says again.
Back at the apartment David shakes dry food into his dog’s bowl and fills the water dish. He sprinkles plant food on the potted geraniums growing on the window sill. He toasts two pieces of bread and pours a glass of milk. Then he puts on his dress shirt. It is short-sleeved, and David knows he looks funny wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt in the dead of winter, but it’s his only one.
After he’s dressed, David goes around the apartment picking up empty liquor bottles and stuffing them into a trash bag so he can dump them down the chute in the hallway. Before he goes, he places the plate of toast and the milk next to his mother’s bed. “I’ll be back by lunchtime,” David says to the dog, who whines and rubs against his legs. Then he scoots out the open door but pauses when his mother starts making small hiccuping noises. He waits until she rolls onto her side, then pulls the door closed gently behind him.
Lobo is the reason David started going to church in the first place. He was out one morning when some boys from the neighborhood ran up and asked if they could pet his dog. They were three brothers, all younger than David, and they weren’t allowed to have a dog themselves. So David let them pet his dog. After that, the boys started coming around all the time to see Lobo, and eventually they told him they were LDS. Did David want to come to church with them some time?
That’s how it happened. The rest was simple. David prayed about it, and he gained a testimony of the gospel. Unfortunately, those three boys moved away.
Now David goes to church by himself. He takes the 7:45 one train to Lincoln Center, then walks across the street, skirting the construction at the corner of 65th and Columbus. It’s the seven-story building with the gold lettering above the door that says “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” “Visitors Welcome” is the sign on the corner, but David is not a visitor.
Two missionaries are relaxing in overstuffed armchairs when David pushes open the lobby doors. One, Elder Hindmarsh, is from Florida, and Elder Simmons is from California. Even though they are indoors now, they still have their trench coats buttoned up and their scarves wound tightly around their necks. They glance up from their worn copies of the Book of Mormon. “Hey, man,” Elder Hindmarsh says. He stands to slap David on the shoulder. “We heard you got roped into speaking today. Good luck.”
“Yeah,” Elder Simmons says. “Don’t choke.” He grabs his own throat with both hands and pretends that he can’t breathe.
“Cut it out,” David says, but he’s laughing. He fingers the two sheets of notebook paper that are folded neatly in his jacket. Please help me not to trip over my words, he pleads silently.
“Seriously, though, good luck,” Elder Hindmarsh says. He squeezes David’s arm for reassurance.
David steps into the elevator at the far end of the lobby and punches the button for level four. Level two is the Family History Library, and level three is the Relief Society room and the cultural hall and some classrooms. Level four is the chapel.
“Well, good morning,” Bishop Wendall greets as he puts his arm around David when he enters the chapel. “Nervous?” he asks. The chapel is nearly empty because David has arrived 45 minutes early to help prepare the sacrament.
David gives the “just a little bit” sign with his thumb and forefinger, and the bishop smiles and pats him on the back. Bishop Wendall says he will do fine, just fine.
After the sacrament is passed, and the bishop excuses the Aaronic Priesthood members to sit with their families, David slides into a seat next to Sister Greene on the stand. Sister Greene used to be a school teacher before she retired. She wears glasses and bright scarves with tropical birds printed on them, and she paints pictures in the air when she talks. David likes Sister Greene. She is one of the first people he ever heard speak in sacrament meeting after he was baptized. She talked about what it means to make a leap of faith.
David looks down and sees Sister Logan smiling up at him from where she’s sitting with her husband and two children. She wants to take David in as a foster child. “You’re only 14,” she told him the other day when he dropped in after school for some snickerdoodles and a glass of milk. David has stayed with Sister Logan and her family off and on for days at a time, when his mother has had to go to the hospital for treatment for her depression. Even when he’s not crashing on the Logans’ sofa, David likes to drop in every now and again.
But the other day, while he was munching his snickerdoodle and sipping his milk, Sister Logan had stood over him, her face a tight mask of concern. She had jiggled her baby on her hip and she said, “That neighborhood of yours …”
She had let her voice trail off, but David knew what she was thinking. She was scared David would never have a chance.
What Sister Logan doesn’t know is how very much David would like to be her foster son. He can picture himself tromping home from school in the afternoon and pushing open the slick glass doors of her building’s lobby. He’d stop and visit with the doorman for a while, then zip up to the 12th floor, where he’d sit at the spotless Formica table in Brother and Sister Logan’s white kitchen. He’d work on his math problems until it was time to help with dinner.
But this, David knows, is only a dream. It is like the dream he used to have about his father coming back to live with him and his mom. It is like the dream that one morning he will wake up and his mother will have stopped drinking. She will be standing in the kitchen, whipping up a batch of blueberry waffles and telling him it’s time to get ready for school. It is only a dream.
David returns Sister Logan’s smile.
Five years, David is thinking while the bishop announces who today’s youth speaker will be. A lot can change in five years. But, then again, a lot can stay the same. Before he knows it, it is time for him to speak. Sister Greene pats him on the knee as he stands up. A leap of faith, Sister Greene said in her last sacrament talk, is when the Lord asks you to walk to the edge of the light and step into the darkness, trusting that He will guide your steps.
While David walks to the microphone, he slips his talk out of his pocket. He spreads the wrinkled sheets of paper on the pulpit and stares at them. His own words, scrawled in a blue ballpoint pen, stare back at him. Please, David prays silently, I’m afraid I’ll never have a chance.
But then he looks out at the hodgepodge of faces in the audience. Dark and light, wrinkled and rosy. Pairs of eyes gaze back at him, young eyes and tired eyes and eyes with crow’s feet. Familiar eyes. You can do it, these eyes say. You can do anything. We’ll help you.
So David clears his throat. He grips the sides of the podium, and he opens his mouth. “I’d like to speak to you today,” he begins, “about what I am doing now to prepare to serve a mission.”