Chapter 8 – The Worthy Commission

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“He said only ten days?” asked Betti. Scott became a bit alarmed. 

“Less, do you think?” he asked, hoping.

Betti got up from the table to bring more coffee to both their mugs. After she sat, she noticed that Scott had used most of the cream so she asked Beth to get more from the fridge. The two younger girls had been in and out of the kitchen all morning to monitor the discussion and demeanor of their male guest. They piled the remaining warmed-up baked goodies in front of him, imploring him to stock up for the ride south. Scott hadn’t seen anything of Jeannie. Beth took great care in filling the creamer and flashed a quick, brazen smile when Scott looked up to thank her. It was not lost on Scott.

“And when did he call?” Betti asked.

“Just a few days ago, I guess.”

“Oh...” Betti said, giving this some thought. “Did he sound drunk?”

“Drunk? Does he get drunk often?” Scott worried. “We only talked for a bit. He seemed confident that we would be finished ten days max. It really sounded like he wouldn’t need me at all.”

Betti shook her head slightly, exhibiting a rare moment of consternation. “Todd has said many things like that over the years so be prepared. That’s why I took you up on your offer to go down there.”

“You can count on me,” Scott said, taking an emotional gulp that got stuck in his sternum.

“I believe in you, Scott,” Betti said, reassuringly. Scott blushed a bit and blinked.

“So you have Todd’s number. He’s got all the major tools so you have to stay on his good side. He’s trouble, but he has and can do decent work, if you know how to manage him.”

Scott’s eyebrows raised. “You have any tips on that?”

“I know you’ll have what you need when you need it. You can make sure he follows through. God knows he’s had his chances to get it finished. Getting that house sold is about the only way Jeannie can get to college and with the last round of layoffs at the lab down there, I need to sell it as quick as possible.”

“Lab?” Scott asked.

“The National Laboratory. You know, the birthplace of the atomic bomb.”

“Oh! Los Alamos. I thought that was a different Los Alamos. There’s one in California and I always thought that’s where the bomb was made. That’s wild. That’s where I’m headed?” he asked.

“Well, you won’t have anything to do with the Lab of course. Unless the Men in Black visit you,” Betti said, chuckling.

“What?”

She laughed. Beth chimed in from the counter with, “The guys in suits and sunglasses come to spy on new people!” Then dead serious, “And you might disappear if you’re not careful.”

Scott, taken aback, looked from Beth to Betti.

“Shush, Beth,” Betti told her, then to Scott, “It’s just a routine thing that security people from the Lab often come to your door once you’ve moved in to let you know they have a presence there. They probably do a background check. You don’t have any treasonous activities in your past that would come up, do you?” she teased.

Scott’s eyebrows rose. “No! Wow, that’s... uh, interesting.” He was a bit alarmed. The thought of G-men probing into his life was a bit scary whether he had anything to hide or not. The doubts about this quest began to resurface.

Betti continued, “It’s the biggest source of employment in the area and they’re laying off a lot of people, retooling their research. And after the big fire and thefts a few years ago, they’ve tightened up security and instituted cutbacks. Lots of homes coming up for sale cheap as the scientists move away.”

“I had no idea - not a clue about all this,” Scott admitted. “But why would you accept my offer to help, then? I meant to ask you. I know computers. I only worked on that one house with my dad and his buddies.”

Betti said confidently, “I know you’ve always been very detail oriented. Ever since you were a child and you would clean up your own toys without anyone asking you. Plus, your father was such a good handyman, I figured it has to be in your blood.”

Scott’s head began swirling. All of these revelations coming so fast and this was more weird Betti shit he was hearing. He should have remembered this about her. After he left his job at the factory and they had moved to Indiana when Scott was in high school, his dad started doing freelance carpentry and remodeling work. After Scott moved out, Art went full time with his business. But he had not mentioned that to Betti. Those three sessions he had with her were not talk sessions. 

How many times had his father tried to pressure him into going out with him on jobs? He was content to hide away up in the projection booth at the movie theater and worked as many nights as they’d give him, which was a lot. Scott had become the projector maintenance guy for the theater. He’d tear them down to clean and lube the big machines. He felt like he had disappeared when he was up there, the twin arclight machines clattering away and the movie sound in the booth turned way up. Better than getting schooled by his dad on replacing the wax seals on toilets. Shit - literally, he thought.

Betti saw that her explanation had made Scott uncomfortable. She quickly changed the subject.

“How’s that girl you were seeing?”

“I think we broke up,” he mumbled into his coffee.

“Oh no, I’m so sorry. What happened?”

“Eh, sad old story. Everything seemed to be fine. Then one day, she told me that I could never follow through with anything and she left. No crying or anything, just left.”

“There weren’t any clues? What didn’t you follow through on?”

“I actually couldn’t think of what she was talking about,” Scott mused.

“Did you love her? Betti pointedly asked.

Scott looked over to Beth who was listening intently. When Betti followed his gaze, Beth quickly turned away.

“I think I’ll let Toby out,” she said as she took a swipe with a dish rag across the counter before leaving the kitchen with a quick look backward toward Scott.

When he was sure Beth was gone, Scott replied. “Yeah, I think I loved her. But I just couldn’t go further. It didn’t seem like we were ready. It’s such a huge commitment, you know? Forever...”

A call from the front room came into the kitchen. “I found the keys, Mom!”

The older Jeannie bounded into the room, her socks slipping on the wood floor, face flushed. She purposefully did not make eye contact with Scott as she handed a small ring of keys to her mother. Scott watched her and wondered what was up with that. 

“Thank you, Sweetie.” Then she said to Scott, “Here you go, Scott,” Betti said, as the young woman just as quickly left the room, careful to walk without sliding. 

Betti handed the keys to Scott. He took them and separated them on the ring and handling each one. There was one big brass key that looked like it would be a front door deadbolt lock. On it was stamped, ‘Do Not Duplicate’.

Watching, Betti said, “There’s two of those. You’ll have to ask Todd for the other front door key back before you leave.”

“What if he needs to do something after I’m gone?”

Betti’s brow creased and she stopped still, looked away and then back to Scott to say with finality, “He’s not to have anything to do with the house after you’re done and you leave. I need to be very clear about that. I’m sorry to seem negative about it, but this has gone on way, way too long.”

She lowered her eyes. For the first time since he’d know her, Scott had never experienced a less than buoyant Betti Bee.

“I only wanted to help him and his family - get his kids out of the way they were headed in that hellhole town. Española,” She hissed, and then the anger left her.  A weariness that seemed to weigh down her shoulders came over her like a lead ballast.

Coming back, she segued back to the keys, “The other small key is for the storage shed out back that has yard tools. That third, silver key is for a storage unit that Todd was storing all the building materials in that I bought while we were still there and also what should be new materials - tiles and the like - that I sent him money for over the years.”

 “Okay,” Scott responded, “I should have everything I need in there?”

“He’s got all the major tools so you have to stay on his good side. He’s trouble, but he has and can do decent work, if you know how to manage him.”

Scott, remembering his time in the men’s group, felt confident. “I think I can manage him and the situation.”

“So you have Todd’s number. If he said it would only be about ten days worth of work then the place should be mostly done and you could be back for Christmas.” Betti then added, “But he’s said many things over the last three years so be prepared for surprises.”

With sincere care, she switched gears. “I’m sorry again about you having to wake up to a cold house this morning,” she said to her coffee mug.

Before Scott could comment, there was a slam of the back door.

“Mom!” little Erin’s voice called as she ran into the kitchen. “Toby ran off and I tried to catch him but there was a red fox and it scared him!” She was out of breath with life and death in the balance of her young world. She stopped close behind her mother’s chair back, the cold wafting off of her rosacea-pink cheeks and her coat, lowering the temperature in their vicinity.

With the sight of her precocious nine-year-old and her worldly crisis at hand, Betti’s love could only reopen like a morning glory when she saw the sunlight of her baby girl’s passion and concern, that baby-fat, pretty pink face puffing and demanding an equal response.

“Okay, Okay, sweetie!” Betti responded. “We’ll go rescue Toby from that mean old fox while Scott gets his car packed up.” 

Erin’s face turned to Scott at his mention and with a tilt of her head and a coy smile said “Good Morning Scott!” before turning back to Betti. “Let’s go, Mom!”

~~~

As Scott repacked the Jeep, the leather seats crackled from the Colorado cold and his breath fogged the windows. He was filled with so many different emotions that it made it difficult to concentrate on the practical aspects of getting himself down to New Mexico. “Oil and gas okay? Everything back into the Jeep?” He couldn’t remember. But he was pretty sure he had brought everything out that he had taken inside the night before.

In the driver’s seat, he turned the ignition. The Jeep cranked over and... nothing. “Oh, great,” he thought. This just added to his mind’s resistance to his ongoing activity, a protestation growing in his gut that resembled that poor man standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square. Scott turned the key again, letting off the gas and letting it crank. And crank. And then, miracle of miracles, the Jeep coughed and stuttered and started, a fast rev settling down to an uneasy idle. “If only miracles were so cheap and easy,” he thought. He would find out soon enough that he knew absolutely nothing about miracles.

When he was done, Scott stood waiting outside the chugging Jeep in the bitter December morning. He dared not go back in the house because he’d probably not leave the envelope of warmth and life. The front door opened and Betti and the girls stepped gingerly out of the house in loosely thrown-on coats to send him off.

“Scott! We got Toby back!” Erin exclaimed as she ran up to him. The small brown, white, and black Corgi squirmed in her too-small arms to get free.

“That’s fantastic!” Scott replied as he gave the pup a rub on the head. Toby tried to get his gloved hand in his mouth to chew on. “Hey, dude!”

Scott looked over past the women to the front door. Betti turned around to look as well.

“Where’s Jeannie?” she asked the girls. They both yelled Jeannie’s name. The front door was flung wide open and the oldest girl came jogging out with no coat. Her breath followed her as she ran to them, holding up a cloth shopping bag.

In a rush, she said, “Here is a little bag of snacks I made for the trip. Nothing exciting just PB & J and some chips. And some leftover brownies.”

Jeannie handed Scott the bag and looked as if she was about to burst into tears. Then she stepped forward to give Scott a huge hug that almost suffocated him.

“Thank you! I don’t think you know how much this means to me - us,” Jeannie rushed to get out while embracing Scott.

Scott, gasping for air and totally taken off guard, could only manage a simple, “Thanks!”

She let go of him and just as quickly ran back into the house. The four remaining all looked at each other with the laughing, unspoken question of, “What the heck was that about?” Scott bent down through the open door to reach over and put the bag on the passenger seat. 

When Scott turned back, the two younger girls, in turn, decided to follow Jeannie’s lead and stepped up to give Scot a hug and a ‘Thank you’ before stepping back. They both looked like they had just received their first high school prom kiss.

“Thank you again for this,” Betti emphasized. “Now remember, when you get down there, you’re in charge. Don’t let Todd try and boss you around. He can be very pushy. The house is about 15 minutes outside of the downtown, so just stay at the place. After all this time, last week I was able to finally talk to Todd on the phone and told him to have someplace for you to sleep.”

“Yeah, he said he set up a bedroom for me and that I’d sleep like a king,” Scott said.

“Okay, well that’s good. If you need money for supplies or anything just give me a call. Oh! I know Todd has a helper he uses from time to time so if you need an extra hand just let him know.”

Scott liked this idea of someone to help. “Great! Thanks.” Scott brought his phone out of his jacket pocket to check the time. “Hey, it’s cold! You should get back inside and I should get going if I’m going to make it there by tonight.”

Betti stepped closer to Scott and took his face in her hands, looking into his eyes before closing hers.

“May the Good Lord protect you, equip you, look after you, and bring you back successful in this endeavor. In the name of our blessed Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Erin ended the prayer with an exuberant, “Amen, Mom!” 

The women walked back to the house. Scott climbed into the Jeep and as he put it in gear, Betti shouted to him from the open door, hugging herself from the cold. Scott rolled the window down.

“Give Todd a call before you get there! And be careful with him! God bless you! See you in a week or so!”

Scott yelled, “Okay!”, giving her a thumbs-up. He rolled the window back up and continued down the street, Betti waving until she closed the door. Scott took one last look back in hopes of maybe seeing Jeannie in a window, still feeling her grateful arms tight around him. He wondered again, “What was that about?”

But the road beckoned and the last fourteen hours had been so full, the best Scott could do was to focus on the pavement in front of him, the route south holding mysteries and fears and possible victories. It also held the all-too-real possibility of a flame-out, crash-site-carnage defeat. It was different now, though. Scott felt a distinct imperative to get down there to get it all over with and find out which it would be.

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