“The Fun House,” New Era, June 1999, 41
Work, as far as my brother Todd is concerned, is fun—when somebody else is doing it.
If I didn’t know better, I’d think Todd was allergic to work. He doesn’t talk about it, doesn’t think about it, and he hardly ever does any. Dad calls him a “fun-seeking missile.” I just call him “lazy.” But I only say that to my friends, who share similar sisterly outrage.
Hey, I know this sounds judgmental, but I have to pass summer semester Psych 101, and my paper on human relationships is a big part of my grade. I’ve narrowed the focus to sibling relationships, and Todd has given me plenty of examples over the years to support what I’m trying to say.
And it is in the summer, after all, when Todd is at his laziest.
Case in point: We have always had Saturday chores to do in our family, but you have never seen anybody go to so much trouble to avoid them as Todd. Last year, for example, Mom and Dad went to get a new dryer one Saturday, and Todd was up to his old tricks as soon as they left. I had dusted and vacuumed the living room, and I left the vacuum cleaner in a prominent place—in front of the refrigerator—where Todd would be sure to trip over it.
Of course, Todd had better things to do. He neatly ignored the vacuum, opting for the more-accessible freezer. A while later I found him watching cartoons in the family room with a big bowl of rocky road ice cream balanced between two knees. Our baby brother, Scottie, was sitting nearby with a diaper so wet he needed oars, but Todd was oblivious. I changed Scottie, then got the bathroom mopped and the tub scrubbed. When I walked past the family room, Scottie was staring at Todd, thumb in mouth. Todd was busy dragging one foot sideways across the carpet, every so often picking up an obvious piece of thread or dirt, evidently trying to give the impression of a freshly vacuumed room. I shook my head. Scottie and I couldn’t believe Todd. Wouldn’t it have been easier just to vacuum it?
Todd had made it a lifetime pursuit to perfect the art of having fun. He’d graduated from high school this spring and had decided to step up his fun a notch. Movies, computer games, TV shows. He still liked game shows. Give him a chance to win a car just by making a lucky guess; that’s all he wanted.
So no wonder my parents just stared at him when he told them he’d found a summer job. But when he told them where, they laughed right out loud.
The Fun King Amusement Park.
It made perfect sense. And he’d be working in the fun house.
No doubt he thought he’d be working on his tan, wearing his shades (forgetting it was indoors), and keeping an eye on the cute girls.
“Hey, it’s gonna be great. Piece o’ cake,” he said.
I had friends who’d worked at the park, and I knew his job description probably included making sure there were plenty of burlap bags for the kids to slide down the slides on, polishing the fat, short, skinny and wavy mirrors, picking popcorn out of the air jets in the floor, making sure the clown outside was laughing constantly, taking tickets, and repeating, “Have fun. Have fun. Have fun,” to every customer until neither word meant anything.
Mom and Dad also knew it would be no “piece o’ cake” and were careful not to use phrases like “character building” or “a good experience,” which would tip Todd off to some degree of difficulty involved.
Todd got us passes with his employee discount, and the whole family came to the park. In that sea of people, it was tough enough to find Todd, but we actually found him on the roof of the fun house.
“Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.” Todd was standing behind the clown, laughing insanely, tinkering inside it with a screwdriver. He waved to us, still laughing until the clown burst forth with so much pent-up laughter that it was frightening. Todd disappeared and then reappeared from behind the building a few minutes later. He was actually sweating.
I took a picture.
“It sure is a lot of work to make sure people have fun,” he said, wiping his face with his sleeve. “I’m thinking of asking for a transfer to the Cotton Candy Cabin.”
“You know what I think you’d be great at?” I told him. “Getting shot and falling off a roof in the Old West Shootout.” Mom gave me a look.
He considered this. “Nah. Maybe I could run the Horror Ride. All you have to do is load people in and out and take out the little kids who get too scared.”
I shook my head.
Todd had always bailed out of anything he thought was too hard. He told me once that taking shortcuts was the smartest way to do things.
“That’s what the Donner Party said,” I reminded him.
I wondered how long he would stick with the fun house job before his fun quota needed filling.
But he must have been having enough fun in between the work to keep at it, because he kept the fun house job for five weeks and counting. He was even made fun house supervisor. I couldn’t figure it out until I heard that Jolene Sparks was his supervisor.
I wanted to laugh. Jolene had been the high school drama queen, award-winning speech-giver, and valedictorian. What kind of a shot did Todd think he had with her?
Then Jolene asked Todd to help her in the nursery at church. After high school graduation, Jolene had been called to be a nursery leader. One Sunday, when the other nursery leader was going to be out of town, Jolene asked Todd to help her. This was going to be good.
There were 14 children in the nursery. When I came by the nursery after Todd’s first Sunday, I almost felt sorry for him. He had several wet streaks down his suit coat, his tie was flipped over his shoulder, and he had what looked like the remains of an animal cracker stuck in his hair. I could see a perfect half-moon of tiny teeth reddening on his hand.
“Man, those kids are monsters,” he said. “They wouldn’t sit still for the lesson, they just stared at me when I asked the questions, and they spent most of the time crying.”
The next week the bishop called Todd to be a nursery leader. I thought Todd would turn him down flat, but he surprised me. He accepted the calling. Then I realized it meant more time with Jolene Sparks.
Still, even Jolene was not enough to induce him to take on the nursery one Sunday morning. Todd limped around the house trying to call Jolene to tell her he couldn’t make it; he’d beaten up his leg on a mountain biking trip on Saturday. He’d just hung up the phone after trying to call when Jolene called him.
He hung up the phone, panic all over his face.
“You gotta help me, Marce,” he said. “Jolene had to go out of town to her cousin’s farewell. I’m gonna have to go to the nursery, but I need your help.”
I’d heard that song before—all nine verses—usually when Todd’s allergies flared up or he had a headache. Work or responsibility often brought out terrible illness in Todd. But he did have a legitimate bruise on his shin, so I begrudgingly pitched in.
“I’m not doing all of it, Todd, just helping out. Don’t get me in there, ditch me and run,” I told him. “Even if you could run.” I scrambled to find pictures and the lesson manual. Then I found a box of Scottie’s goldfish crackers and made up some salt clay in five different colors.
When we got to church, Todd said, “You didn’t have to go to all that trouble. They’re just kids.”
I glared at him as he hobbled down the hall. What did he do in there every week? Just sit and stare at the children? I got things set up for the lesson, and the children started coming in.
Todd sat in a chair wincing and rubbing his leg while I set out the snack of fish crackers and tiny cups of water.
“Hey, Marce. Aren’t these lessons a waste of time?” Todd said. “I mean, those kids don’t have a clue, do they?” He pulled up his pant leg to inspect his bruise again.
“Man, this really hurts.”
Tara gathered her crackers in her paper towel, her favorite blanket in her other hand, and approached Todd. She handed him her crackers, carefully putting them one by one, into his palm, then stood with her thumb in her mouth, holding the tired-looking piece of cloth, staring at Todd. Scottie and two other boys, curious, came over too.
“You got a owie?” Tara asked. She poked his leg gently. Tara then laid “blankie” on Todd’s leg and wrapped it clumsily around it. Then she kissed his knee and said, “All better.”
The other children found a puzzle to play with, but Tara sat near Todd, playing with a toy cash register, occasionally patting Todd’s leg. “Don’t cwy,” she said, as though Todd were continually on the verge of bursting into tears.
I looked at Todd.
“You can’t tell me they don’t understand the lessons,” I said. “Those children probably understand service and empathy for others better than a lot of adults.”
Todd didn’t say anything but nodded, a stunned look on his face.
When nursery was over, Tara’s mother and brother came to get her.
“Where’s your blankie?” she asked.
Tara pointed to Todd.
“It’s on his owie.” Tara went out the door with her big brother.
Tara’s mother looked startled.
“She must really like you,” she told Todd. “She drags that blanket with her wherever she goes. I can’t even get it in the washer because she won’t let go of it.”
I stayed at school for the next few weekends taking midterms. The next weekend I was home, I was curious to see how Todd was doing. Mom said he still worked the fun house job and was still working in the nursery, along with Carlie Maxwell. I was amazed, especially since Jolene Sparks had moved back east in preparation for her first semester of college.
On Sunday, I peeked into the nursery just before church let out. Carlie was rocking a child who had fallen asleep. I saw Tara come up and swing her arms around Todd’s neck, planting a big wet kiss on his cheek. Todd was wearing a bunny hat and hopping around, and all the children had on paper bunny hats, too, with wildly scribbled ears.
The bell rang to dismiss classes, and parents started coming in. Paul Myerson started to cry. He wanted to stay with Todd.
Sister Jensen came in for her little boy, beaming at Todd.
“I don’t know what you’ve been doing, but keep doing it!” she said. “Tyler loves to come to nursery now. I’ve been able to get to my class and get set up to teach my lesson instead of being late all the time.”
Other moms and dads were similarly impressed.
The nursery emptied until there was just Todd, Scottie, and me.
“Wow,” I said, stunned. “You’ve done a great job with these children.” The toys were put up, and the floor and the table and tiny chairs were clean.
“This is the best calling I’ve ever had,” Todd said. “It’s a lot of work, but these little kids are worth it.” He tickled Scottie and swung him in his arms.
A few weeks later, Mom sent me a newspaper clipping about Todd. “Local Man Saves Child on Woolly Caterpillar Fun Ride” was the headline. Now what had he done?
According to the article, a child had fallen from the last seat of the ride and gotten his hand stuck in the rail. Todd heard him screaming and ran to the ride. He stopped it and stood under the dangling boy, hoisting him up. He held him until the paramedics could free the boy’s injured hand. Todd had stood with his head poking through the rails, a dangerous spot if the ride should somehow start again. There was a picture of the boy’s mother kissing Todd’s cheek and a smiling Todd with his hands on the shoulders of a beaming boy who held up a bandaged hand. The article said the mayor had plans to honor Todd as “The Hardworking Hero of Fun King.” Hardworking hero? This certainly wasn’t the Todd I knew.
When I came home for a quick weekend visit, I asked Todd about his adventure. He was kind of quiet until he started talking about his mission and the money he’d saved. When I asked him about his job, I was surprised at his answer.
“The fun house? Oh, I quit that.”
I felt a little let down. So much for the new-and-improved Todd who was sticking to hard jobs.
“How come?” I asked.
“Well, I was working a lot of Sundays, and I realized my priorities were out of whack. I mean, Jolene only ever looked at me like I was a reflection of one of those fun house mirrors, you know, with eight-foot legs and no body or a giant forehead and hardly any face. And I was like that. I was only thinking about entertaining myself, not about anyone else.”
I smiled. It was the new-and-improved Todd.
“I guess my nursery kids taught me about being concerned about others and sharing. I should have figured this out years ago. Guess I’m a slow learner,” he said, grinning at me.
I said, only half sarcastically, “Todd, who knew you were such a lovely human being?” I punched him in the shoulder.
He laughed and so did I until I thought about my psych class. I had a paper due and nothing to write about.
Todd stood up in testimony meeting that Sunday, the first time I’d ever seen him do it. He said, “The Savior gave His life for us, and I was thinking that He must have thought we were all worth it. He paid a high price, but I guess for anything worthwhile, we have to pay a price. I haven’t been looking forward to a mission because I thought the price was too high—I mean, I’d be leaving my car, my camping trips, my free time, my family. But I never thought about the people I might be teaching. Everyone says a mission is hard work, but I guess service is like that.” His voice fogged up. “I look at my little nursery kids. Every one of them is so great. I’m going to miss them a lot.”
He sat down, rubbing his eyes with his hand, and Mom smiled and patted him on the shoulder.
My paper was due Monday. Todd had really loused it up. I had to trash the whole thing, all seven pages of it. Luckily, I stumbled across something about Jesse and Frank James, so I chose them for my new analysis. I typed my paper in a hurry on Monday morning, just before my class. It was pretty much a rough draft.
I thought my paper would be a “piece o’ cake.” Todd’s the reason I only got a C on the paper. Thanks a lot, Todd. But I guess sometimes it’s not such a bad thing to be wrong.