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The Strange Dinner, Hundreds of Clocks, and the Mentally Disturbed Cat

March 31, 2014

This is a story out of my past, when I was a single young evangelist traveling the country in a beat-up Dodge Aspen, speaking God’s Word to some of the smallest and most rural churches in America back in the 1980s.  Here is an excerpt from my book Gas Tank Chronicles, during a week in California where I was a speaker at a small church in the central part of the state:

 

On the fourth day of the meetings, Pastor McConnell pulled me into his office. He offered me a seat and settled himself quietly behind his desk.

“Each night, as you know, we’ve had a family take care of your evening meal. I had people sign up weeks ago, not only because it gives them a chance to share in the giving part of ministry, but it also gives them a chance to get to know you, our speaker, better.”

1bbbI nodded. “Yes, Pastor, and I appreciate it. The conversations have been even better than the food. Each family has a great history, and they’re all superb storytellers. Each dinner is like reading a book,” I said.

He blanched a bit. “Mmm. Good. Uh, like I said, I had people sign up ahead of time…” He paused and tapped a pencil on the desk.

“Yes?” I didn’t feel comfortable with his pause.

He coughed.  “… and I feel committed to honor all of those sign-ups…” He looked down at his desk.

I shrugged. “Is this about the people who signed up for tonight?”

“Yes,” said the pastor, looking at me. “Rather, it’s the one person who signed up to give you dinner.”

I waited.

“His name is Granville Yates.” He blinked. “You know who I’m talking about.”

I swallowed. Yes, I did.

Granville Yates was, to say the least, an eccentric. A seventy-year-old bachelor, Yates sported an Albert Einstein-inspired uncombed look and wore clothes that were at least two sizes too big for him. Each night of the meetings he lugged in a boom box  – remember those oversized stereo radios of the 1980s? – and sat in the exact middle of the congregation. He loved my sermons and told everyone that he was going to record my messages for his future study. However, that meant that Mr. Yates punched his boom box’s button to “record” from where he sat, trusting that my voice would come in clear and crisp despite the people coughing, air conditioning adjusting and other ambient noises that permeate the average church auditorium.

There was another problem with his recording scheme. His audio cassette tape was only fifteen minutes per side, meaning he would hear the ‘click’ of the tape, switch it over, and punch ‘record’ again. This in itself would be no problem, except that Mr. Yates fell asleep in each of my messages.

Every one.

The ‘click’ would startle him awake, whereby he would panic and rewind the tape in confusion. He would then fumble around, trying to figure out where I had finished my last phrase so that he’d have a smooth transition as he turned over the tape, and he would turn up the volume to get an idea of where the tape had stopped recording. He would mistakenly crank the volume up to a full blast and turn on the tape – remember, this was right in the middle of my message – and fiddle around with the buttons until he was able to change sides.

Few things would confuse me during my speaking engagements as much as hearing my own voice shouting at me at a supersonic level in the middle of my own sermon. The added feature to all this was that it scared the ever-livin’ wits out of everybody within five rows in any direction.   Due to the age of the congregation I seriously considered asking the pastor to have a paramedic on hand each evening.

This happened every night.

Every night.

This was the man who was taking me to dinner.

“I’ve, er, talked with him about cooking you a meal,” said the pastor, “and told him he was not allowed to do that.”

I didn’t even want to begin trying to figure out what that meant. “In fact, Brad, you can back out if you want to.”

I raised my hands. “Pastor, how can I do that? He’s made a commitment to show a generosity to me. I can’t turn away from that, can I?”

I leaned forward. “Can I?”

Pastor McConnell only said, “I think it’ll be okay as long as he’s taking you out to a restaurant.”

So I agreed to go.

Within an hour, Granville Yates stopped by and gave me the details.

“I’ll be picking you up in front of the church here at four o’clock. I’ll be taking you to a nice diner – I can’t really cook, so I don’t want you to eat at my home.”   He grinned. “There’s another reason for us going to the diner. There’s been a waitress that I’ve known for over a year there – Brenda’s her name – and I’ve been trying to talk to her about heaven. She says she’s not a Christian, so if we go eat there, then I’ll open up the conversation for you and you can take care of it!”

I’ve always been uneasy when people use me as sort of a magic genie, wanting me to wave my hands and produce a miracle in one short meeting. This had happened a couple of times during my circuit, and I learned to have sympathy for pastors who are thrown innocently into a meeting – often through a ruse – so that a person can corner another family member can have the opportunity to see the minister “sic ‘em.”

He actually cackled. “We got her now!”

I sighed, but told Mr. Yates that I would try my best. In the middle of this woman’s working hours in serving tables and earn tip money, I was supposed to try to stop her and give her the plan of salvation… well, he did say he’d “set it up.”

He picked me up in a rusty yellow VW Beetle with pockmarked seats and ankle-deep trash.  True to his word, he arrived at precisely four o’clock, bubbling with excitement. “You’ll like this place,” he gushed. “It’s got a great menu – all kinds of dishes, you can try anything you want. And we also get to catch Brenda so you can talk with her!” He laughed aloud.

We puttered up to a ramshackle clapboard restaurant that best fits the description “greasy spoon.” I don’t know how the place passed the Health Department inspection.  It looked like the owners made a recent decision to change from a hay barn to a sit-down restaurant. None of the chairs matched, dust was everywhere, and the uneven floor had dirty wood planking.   Mr. Yates handed me a wrinkled menu. “Try anything.”

I looked it over and the only safe thing seemed to be a plate of French Fries. I mean, the oil would be hot enough to burn off any diseases, right?

Here she comes, here she comes,” snickered Granville Yates. “She has to take our order, and when she does, I’ll introduce you and, you know, set it up.”

“Okay, Mr. Yates.” I started to take a drink from my water glass but decided against it. The rim had lipstick on it.

Brenda came over, harried and yet cheerful. She was middle-aged but energetic, and it was obvious that she was doing the most work in this little place. She had been waiting on four others tables, carrying plates of food. “Hey, Brenda, gal,” said Mr. Yates.

“An’ how’re you doing?” responded Brenda in a husky but upbeat voice. I was fairly certain that she didn’t really know Mr. Yates as well as he made it out to be.

“Well,” he said expansively, “I’ll have the scrambled eggs with biscuits. And a sausage. Oh, and a glass of milk.” He slapped down his menu and pointed at me. “And I’m paying for his meal.”

“How nice,” said Brenda.

“Uh, I’ll have a hamburger, please,” I said.

“Coke or Sprite?”

“No, thank you, this water’s fine.”

“Okay, then.” She picked up the paper menus.   Granville turned and winked at me. Here was his big opening.

“Brenda,” he said loudly. She turned to face him.

He leaned his face to within a foot of hers. “How’s your black ol’ soul?”

She stared at him with blank eyes and one of her eyelids flickered. She stuck out her chin and said, “It’s getting’ blacker.” And she turned on her heel and headed into the kitchen.

An expression flickered across his face, and I could tell that he was reconsidering whether this was an appropriate line with which to start a conversation about salvation. His eyes grew troubled, and when she had another waitress deliver our food, I was sure he decided that he’d made a mistake. Her name never came up again.

After our prayer, he slurped down everything in front of him – milk, sausage, eggs – before I was even halfway through the hamburger. “Come on,” he said, wiping his mouth on the back of his sleeve. “We have time before the service tonight. I want to take you to my home. I have something to give you.”

I left Brenda a nice tip, squeezed back into his Beetle and we puttered across town to an older section of Lakeport.

“I’ve lived here all of my life,” he said, “and at one time my business was one of the top companies in town.”

He swung into a pothole-filled side street and entered the first driveway on the right. This was his property. We pulled into a carport-type of construction that was leaning at such an angle that I wondered whether slamming the car door would topple the wooden barn. “Decrepit” was an apt word to describe the structure.

“Come on, we’ll take the back way,” said Mr. Yates. He motioned for me to come around to the back gate; it hung on one hinge, swinging crazily. “Should… should I shut it?” I asked, immediately realizing how inane that sounded.

“Yes, better make sure it’s shut,” he said, walking through waist high weeds in the back yard. As I followed him my feet felt something concrete; there was actually a sidewalk path underneath all of this growth.

We climbed the back steps of an unpainted two-story house. I searched for something to say as I stood a the top of the staircase. Three steps were missing.

“Uh, this sure gives you a nice view of the …neighborhood,” I tried.

“Yeah, I’ve always felt that it’s the best view on this street. Come in this way.” He held opened the screen door for me and I entered through what might be called the utility room. A large sink and faucet were located on the left-hand side of this back porch. Hundreds of empty fly-infested tuna cans reached a full two feet above the rim of the sink. “My kittens love tuna,” he offered.

“Yes, I can see,” I said.

I followed Mr. Yates into the back room, which was his kitchen. The room was poorly lit, the linoleum was curled and greasy, and the refrigerator looked to be from the mid-1950s era. He pulled open the fridge with a jerk and brought out a carton of orange juice. The opening of the carton was crusty and flaked with dark brown flecks. He slurped noisily. “Those eggs made me extra thirsty,” he said, gulping furiously. He turned to me and held out the carton. “Would you like a drink?”

I stepped back as quickly and yet as politely as I could. “Well, no thank you, I’ve pretty well had my fill of water … er, I’m fine.” He shrugged and stuffed it back inside the refrigerator.

“Hey, come on in here. I have something to give you, preacher.”

I stepped into the next room and stared. I was looking at two things in as great a quantity as I’d ever seen in my life. First, there were cats everywhere. Dozens of them wandering around, meowing contentedly and playing happily. They were on the lampstand. They curled on top of the old television set and the nearby sofa.   They played with the curtains. They wandered over to me and rubbed against my leg, purring.

Second, the walls were literally covered with clocks.

Covered with them.

Kitchen clocks, antique clocks, cuckoo clocks, chiming clocks, cat-with-moving-tail-and-eyes-clocks… they took up every available inch of wallpaper space in this room and the rooms beyond. It was fascinating and a bit eerie.

“I used to be in the clock repair business,” he said proudly. “Everybody in town would bring me their watches and clocks to fix.”

Our of the corner of my eye I saw a cat continually walk in a circular pattern. She was obviously trying to get my attention but she couldn’t break that pattern of walking in the same circle. I pointed this out to Mr. Yates.

“Oh, her,” he said. “She was walking under a clock and it fell on her head. That was about a year ago. Hit her pretty hard. She’s been walking in circles ever since. Poor kitty.” He waved his hand. “I have something for you.”

He darted into a room and I reached down to pet the little orbital cat. I shook my head. Some days are filled with the most unpredictable things…

He came out of the room with a huge grin. “I want you to have this.”

I nodded, smiling but wondering. Was this like the stories played out on those late-night movies? An old eccentric man gives a treasure to a struggling youngster to help him on his way? It just might be the Lord’s doing. I had seventeen dollars in my pocket and at the end of this week I was due to be in Denver, Colorado.   Could it be… ?

He stuffed a large flat envelope in my hand. I opened it up.

It was a 1964 cartoon tourism map of the town. It was torn on one side.  It was heavily wrinkled. There were grease marks on each of the corners.

“This is something for you to remember us by,” he said happily.

A greasy map. Really.  I held it up, and when I did, out of the corner of my eye, I saw his happy expression.

He was delighted in giving me a special present.

I realized that this was bringing the joy of giving to an old man who just wanted to help a ministry in the best way he knew how. And you know, I was touched. I really was. “Thank you. I’ll always keep this,” I said to him. And I have.

I tucked the map into my coat pocket and waved my arms around. “ Mr. Yates, did you retire from clock making? I mean, you have so much … inventory here.”

He shrugged.  “Well, I stopped my business years ago because of the deadlines. There was so much to do that I started getting sick, real sick, in the head.” He looked at the clocks.

“So, I closed for business to the folks in town, because people were yelling about getting their clocks fixed in a hurry.   But then that made me sad, because I do love my clock repairing as much as my kittens. I went to church and told the people how sad I was because I was confused in my thinking. I couldn’t stand for people to yell at me to hurry and fix their clocks, but I still like to repair them.“

“And you know what?” He looked at me and threw his hands wide.

“Suddenly a whole bunch of people in the church started asking for my help. It… it was like all the church people had problems with their watches and clocks. I said sure, I’d be glad to help – and here’s what is so wonderful – they said, ‘take your time, just let me know when it’s done.’ They even paid me up front for the work, and they all said they’re in no hurry!   Now, how about that!” He pointed to a cuckoo clock on a nearby ironing board. “I’ve been working on that for over a year, but the folks at church aren’t even upset with it.”

He walked over and sat down on an old metal chair. “Yessir, I’ve got it good. I get up in the morning and work a little on my clocks and I play with my kittens. Then I work a bit on my watches and I go outside and enjoy the sunshine.” He rocked back on his metal chair a bit, shaking his head at all of this. Then he turned to me and smiled. “Isn’t God good?”

Yessir, Mr. Yates. And so are his children. Especially the ones at your church.

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