Sunday Psalms: Fictional Narratives Inspired by the Psalms, Proverbs, & Other Biblical Works
“What’s wrong with you? Are we ever going to move up in the world? Don’t you care about me at all?” The string of all-too-familiar questions from his disgruntled wife swirled around Conrad’s brain as he downshifted and brought his station wagon to a hover at the red traffic light.
Theresa’s most recent spew of irritated questions had been hurled at him the night before after he had loaned a co-worker money for a down-payment on a new car. Although the interest-free loan would be repaid in two weeks, Conrad had failed to discuss the details with his wife.
“Why would you do that?” she had spouted. “And without charging him interest or anything.”
Conrad gave her a look that meant she was being ridiculous. Charging a friend interest? What was wrong with her?
“Harry’s not poor. He can afford to give you something for your generosity.” Harry who was always wearing new suits, drinking five-dollar coffees, and talking about his excursions to Europe.
“Generosity? You can’t pay someone to be generous, Theresa. That negates the definition.”
Conrad was in the den when Theresa had broached the subject. She had paced back and forth while he sat on the leather couch, trying very hard to stay calm.
“All I know is that my father–”
“Your father?” This was where Conrad interrupted her. The last thing he needed was a lecture about his wife’s rich father, the mortgage broker who drove a Maserati and owned a private island in the Caribbean. “Is that what you call your father? Generous?”
“He bought us our washer and dryer,” Theresa said, glad to have this fact readily available in her mental Rolodex.
“Twenty years ago. And that was our wedding present.” Score. He had temporarily silenced her. And so he continued, his law school training at work. “Have you ever been without, Theresa? Ever gone hungry? Ever been without nice clothes?”
“Well, there was that one week,” she said after a moment. She was referring to a famous event in the early days of their household; one of those times in young marriages when, after paying the rent, the heat, and the water bill, leaves less than ten dollars in the bank. Conrad and his new bride had survived on rice and beans for all three meals a day until their meager paychecks had arrived eight days later.
“You’re right, Theresa. There was that one week two decades ago.” Conrad couldn’t help but include a fragment of sarcasm in his tone. Not just because he was irritated with her now, but he actually looked back on those rice-and-bean days as a kind of adventure.
Theresa’s pacing temporarily paused as she crossed her arms, attempting to make him feel bad. And he did feel bad. A little.
“Conrad, all I know is that if you keep giving our money away, we won’t be able to go to the coast, and what would I tell Kate and Abby?” Theresa had referred to the annual trip they took with her college friends; they had never been Conrad’s friends. Every year he reluctantly spent one weekend with them and their plastic families, succumbing to stories of face lifts, wine tastings, and in-ground swimming pools that cost more than his entire house.
“And you think Kate and Abby are happy?” he asked as he flipped through channels on the muted television set. Theresa scowled a bit more. No, of course they weren’t happy. They were miserable. She would not, however, admit this to Conrad.
“Can’t I be proud of you?” she had asked, shifting gears. She viewed his years as a public defender to be a drudgery, buried beneath cardboard file boxes and yellow legal pads. “Shameless, if you ask me,” she would frequently inform him when she saw his pay stub. And maybe the pay was shameless, but she never quite grasped that this job was exactly what Conrad was created for. In all sincerity, Theresa had genuinely tried to accept the life of a public defender’s wife. Most days she pushed her financial disappointments down; it was only on these rare occasions when she was rattled, shaken like a carbonated soda whose bottle cap is suddenly removed, that she would display biting emotions.
While Theresa had her flaws, she was a woman of passion, and thinking of her still made Conrad smile. He couldn’t help but love her, Theresa with her posh sensitivities. Her outbursts of anger simply masked her best features, blurring her loyalty, her love, and her admiration. Even when the spoiled brat lurking inside his sweet wife occasionally popped out from some deep chamber and tormented him, she was still gorgeous. Still his bride. Still his love. Which is why he wasn’t more upset with her than he was.
“I notice these kind of conversations happen whenever we’ve spent time with your parents.”
“Is that so? And what do my parents have to do with any of this?” Conrad’s observation triggered a raised eyebrow and a challenging stance.
“I’m just saying that I can’t have any part of that money-lending business, Theresa. Getting rich off of interest while folks sweat it out, praying they’ll keep their jobs long enough to pay off the debt. No thanks.”
“So you’re saying my father is a villain out of some Charles Dickens novel?” By then, Theresa was nearly shouting. Conrad sighed heavily and stopped surfing channels to turn and look at her, standing there in the den, on the verge of a complete eruption. A petite blonde volcano, ready to explode in the middle of their suburban neighborhood.
“Of course not.” Conrad had tried to sound convincing. “Look, I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you about it. I’ll make sure Harry pays me back. Promise.” This had seemed to soften his wife, and he resisted the urge to turn back to the television.
“Connie, all I’m asking is that you talk to me before giving away our retirement.” This had been her concluding statement before going to bed, leaving Conrad alone to watch the game; he never could sleep right after one of those discussions.
Before he left for work in the morning, Theresa had made no reference to their argument. She had grilled French toast with blueberries and powdered sugar, stacked neatly alongside four strips of thick bacon. This gesture meant she felt bad but wasn’t yet compelled to offer a verbal apology.
Now, sitting in traffic, the light turned green, and Conrad struggled to get his car rolling. An impatient driver behind him began an incessant “honk-honk-honk,” which added to the stress. Did it look like he was trying to hold up traffic? Sure, that was his master plan alright. Drive through town, intentionally slowing down commuters. “I’m trying!” Conrad yelled, even though the other driver couldn’t possibly hear him. He was on his way to the state penitentiary to meet with a client, and once on the highway, Conrad was grateful for the drive. Forty-five minutes to decompress. By the time he arrived for his appointment, he would have his marriage in perspective.
They weren’t perfect. Conrad knew that. At times he withdrew. He unintentionally focused on his clients and forget the details of his family. And Theresa was the kind of woman who never left the house without flawless hair and makeup, and knowing her parents made it easy to understand why. Too rich for their own good. Unlike Theresa’s family, Conrad had little regard for public appearances. In fact, the thing that Theresa had first loved about Conrad was his simple kindness and social servitude. Long before it was popular he was wandering around their college campus, distributing fliers about pollution and chemicals. Theresa with her synthetic nails and bleached hair had pranced by and taken a flier just because he was cute.
“We’re going to be okay,” Conrad informed himself as he pulled into a gas station. He would call his wife, offer to take her out to dinner. That always made her happy. He set the nozzle to self-pump then felt around his pockets for his cell phone which he soon realized had been left at home. By now Theresa would have discovered it, still plugged into the charger. “Well, isn’t that swell,” he muttered and kicked at the pavement.
Resuming his drive, Conrad tried to forget his troubles and focus on his client. A transfer case from a co-worker who had retired. He never particularly enjoyed those kind of cases, having to work backwards and trace through the paperwork that another underpaid employee had started. As he completed a mental review of the client’s file, Conrad soon forgot about his wife and the in-laws. He was, in fact, so engrossed in his work that the sound of a minor explosion in front of him caused him to swerve slightly. The back tire of a yellow Cadillac in front of him had burst, and the smell of burning rubber filled the air as the driver frantically tried to keep himself from crashing into the ditch.
Instinctively, Conrad braked and cautiously accompanied the other car to the side of the road. “You alright mister?” he asked, jumping out and leaning into the window of the Cadillac.
“Think so,” the shaken driver said and turned off the ignition. Conrad obligingly opened the door and held out an arm for the man who gingerly stepped out. He was the kind of man who looked sixty but was probably seventy. Tall and lanky, tweed jacket, silver hair slicked back. He reminded Conrad of someone you might see on a campaign ad for city council or commissioner or something.
“Could I trouble you for a ride?” the man asked. “Never was one to carry a spare tire.”
“Gee, I wish I could take you back to town, but I’m on my way to an appointment.”
“No trouble, son. Suppose I can reschedule my trip to prison,” the man said, amused by his own joke.
“Hey, that’s where I’m headed,” Conrad said grinning. “We can arrange for a tow on the way back.”
“I’d be much obliged,” the man said and gratefully followed Conrad to the station wagon. Climbing in, the man looked out-of-place in the old vehicle, surrounded on all sides by empty coffee cups, gum wrappers, and wads of yellow paper.
“Sorry about the mess,” Conrad apologized to the gentleman who waved it off.
“Son, don’t go worrying. I’ve kept a few messy cars in my day. So, what do you do for a living?” asked the man who said his name was Walt.
“Uh, public defender,” Conrad mumbled.
“You don’t like your job?”
“Me? No, I love my job,” Conrad quickly said. “I couldn’t think of doing anything else. Just not the kind of salary that delights a woman with rich tastes.” Walt seemed to him understand completely.
Arriving at the prison, Conrad moved as one who had been through the security process many times. Walt, on the other hand, was the obvious newbie.
“I must have left my wallet back at the hotel,” he said, looking dejected at Conrad who had already passed through.
“Sorry, sir. Can’t let you in without I.D.,” snapped a guard who had faithfully memorized the prison policies and procedures.
“I’ve got a meeting with the warden,” the man said, which ensued a phone call from the guard.
“Go on, son,” the man said to Conrad. “If they don’t let me in I’ll wait for you in the car.”
An hour later, Conrad was finished with his client and spotted Walt leaning against his beater car, conversing with Warden Marshall. He watched as they shook each other’s hands before parting ways, Warden Marshall nodding at Conrad as they passed one another.
“So you know the Warden?”
“College buddies,” Walt said as they pulled out of the parking lot. “Arranged to have a tow truck meet us,” he added.
On the drive back Conrad and Walt talked like old friends. They discussed movies and books, Italian food and baseball.
“It’s a lost art. People are just too rushed to appreciate a cold drink and a bag of peanuts on a summer afternoon,” Walt said, and Conrad couldn’t agree more.
Back at the Cadillac, the tow truck was waiting. “You Walter?” asked the driver with the name “Biff” stitched across the pocket of a grimy shirt. He puffed away on a cigarette that was stationed in his mouth like a regular appendage. “How you wanna pay, mister?” Biff asked as the Cadillac was raised up onto the bed. A look of dismay fell over Walt whose credit cards were tucked in with his driver’s license back at the hotel.
“Can’t you invoice me?”
“Sure can’t,” Biff responded without hesitating. “Learned my lesson with that one.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Conrad instinctively informed them and pulled out a credit card that Biff quickly snatched up and slid through the card reader.
“I don’t know how to thank you for this,” Walt said, his appreciation obvious. “Second time today you bailed me out of a jam.”
“No problem,” Conrad said, wishing he could have discussed it with Theresa. He kicked himself for leaving his phone at home. Biff returned the card to Conrad and hollered at Walt that they better get a move on.
“I won’t forget this, son,” Walt said and gave Conrad a hearty hand shake.
As the truck rumbled off, Conrad felt a melancholy shadow fall over him. It was strange feeling; he’d only spent an hour or two with the stranger, but they had lived a lot of life together in that short amount of time.
Theresa had been more understanding about things than he had predicted. He vowed to eat rice and beans for an entire month to pay off the bill, and she suggested they reconsider their annual trip to the coast. Six days later, Conrad was back in his den, watching the seventh inning of a baseball game when she asked him, “Conrad, what was the name of that man you took to prison? You know. The old man with the tire?”
“Uh, Walt,” Conrad said, rubbing his temples. Why was she was bringing that up now? It was late. All he wanted to do was have a drink, watch the game, and go to bed.
“Yeah, I guess so. I didn’t ask his last name.” Was she going to look him up and send him one of her generosity invoices? Turning from the game, he saw she was holding out an envelope.
“He sent you a letter,” she said. Conrad set down his glass and scanned the note that had been scrawled in block letters:
THANKS FOR THE RIDE TO PRISON. HOW’S ABOUT I RETURN THE FAVOR BY HAVING YOU AND THE MRS. OVER TO MY PLACE FOR DINNER? CALL ME. TRANSPORTATION’S ON ME THIS TIME.
“Walter Fitzgerald…how do I know that name?” Theresa racked her brain to make the connection.
“Because it says it right there.”
“No,” she said and tossed a throw pillow at him. “I’ve heard it before. Walter Fitzgerald…” As soon as she said the name again, her eyes widened. “Stay right there,” she instructed, as if he might disappear.
“Do I look like I’m going anywhere?” he hollered after her and laughed. In less than a minute she was back with a magazine.
“Conrad, do you have any idea who Walter Fitzgerald is?”
“Conrad, Walter Fitzgerald is a movie producer. He’s up for a bunch of awards. He’s kind of famous.”
He took the entertainment magazine from his wife and instantly recognized Walt’s smiling face, photographed amidst a cluster of famous actors. The article discussed his string of successful films, his extravagant home in France, and plans for a prison film that would begin production later that year.
“That’s him,” Conrad confirmed. “What do you know?”
“Are you going to call him?” Theresa urged, pointing at the phone number Walt had included.
“Of course right now. Why not?”
“I don’t know. Just feels kinda strange,” Conrad said as Theresa began dialing.
“You said he was nice. He wants you to call,” she assured him and handed him the phone.
“Conrad, you got my note!” came the friendly voice on the other end, as down-to-earth as he was before Conrad knew he was somebody important. “When do you and the wife want to come? How about this weekend? Beautiful time of year to visit Paris.”
Theresa ferociously nodded yes to Conrad. Of course they could make it. Yes, this weekend was just fine. Who cared about the coast now?
“Good. Good. I’ll have my plane waiting for you at the airport. Can’t wait to show you the place. We’ll make you feel right at home.”
Questions to Ponder: When are you quick to be generous? When are you slow to show generosity?
Song Recommendation: First Family by Rich Mullins (available for download on Itunes & Spotify)
Written by Heidi Sadler, Inspired by Psalm 15, © 2016, Heidi Sadler, All Rights Reserved.