"So, sorry to disappoint you all, Miz Laura. You ladies are doin' such a fine job, there's jes no money in our little ole city's budget. Ask ole Matt there's he's been after us to fund his project for three, four years now. Matt, you know how it is, how disappointing it is. Talk with Miz Laura here and these fine ladies."
Before they know it, Matt and Miz Laura have been pulled together as a team, each consoling the other with words of disappointment about their failed requests for funding. Each nodding in agreement with the mayor who left them in the hallway as he sproinged down the steps of the Zen Town Hall.
About three steps down he slaps me on the shoulder, pulling me in to the conversation he's just had. "And you, good people, you know I'd be at your church's anniversary if I could, Preacher. Hate to disappoint you, but you know the promise I made when I married Hattie..."
Everybody knows the promise he made Hattie. There's no convert like a new convert. And the mayor reminds everybody in Zen of his conversion as often as he can.
Vincent Octavius Xavier di Popolo is his name. He's our mayor. And has been as long as anybody can remember. Vox, as everybody calls him, was born into the town's only Catholic Italian family. His parents emigrated to Zen at the turn of a certain century. They owned a feed and seed store. After Vox was born one Thursday, his father stood on the counter of the store on Saturday morning and help the baby up -- already big -- and introduced to every seed-buying farmer in the county as a future president of these united states. Papa di Popolo's accent was so thick that almost nobody could understand, but the farmers all laughed when the baby yelled a roaring, rollicking cry. "See, they already hear him in Washington," the shopkeeper said.
But it seems that almost from that presentation in the temple of Zen commerce, the little baby knew his father was wrong. The di Popolos were good Catholics. At least as good as they could be in Zen, as the only Catholics in Zen. About once every six weeks, they drove the ninety miles to the nearest Catholic church to not understand the priest whose Latin wasn't very good anyway. But Vox did understand one thing. This would not make him president. Sure Catholics had run for President and one day one would win. But this was Texas. And Vox knew he could never work his way up the ladder -- no stair-stepping to the county courthouse, then to Austin, then to Washington as a Catholic from the Lone Star State.
So, in the seventh grade, Vox set his sights on Hattie Broaddus, daughter of the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Zen. He carried her books. He pushed away other boys to sit by her. He took the taunting of his classmates when he skipped out on recess games of baseball to sit by her in the shade on the playground. He went to Sunday night church just to see her sing in the junior choir.
Pastor Broaddus hated Vox's courtship of his daughter. No offspring of his would marry the son of a feedstore-owning, accented immigrant. Vox's own parents hated his courtship of Hattie, as well. They had secretly arranged for the daughter of a friend back in Italy to come to Zen to marry Vox, in due time of course. Disappointment filled the air in Zen like the clouds of mosquitoes that circled in the humid springtime air.
Then, one Sunday evening, it happened. Pastor Broaddus introduced the closing hymn. The hymn was so stereotypical that you wouldn't believe me if I told you it was, "Just as I Am." But it was. Everybody sang the first four stanzas, the Pastor Broadduss stopped the organist to pray. He prayed and he prayed, then he asked the junior choir to sing another stanza, which they did. Then, Brother Broaddus, asked everybody to keep their heads bowed and their eyes closed and just hum another verse or two. They did.
And as all the Baptists in Zen hummed, Vox di Popolo walked steadily up the center aisle and told his future father-in-law that wanted to be baptized. Brother Broaddus wept. The good people in church thought it was because the preacher had saved the soul of the lost sheep who would father his grandchildren. But it wasn't. Pastor Broaddus wept for disappointment. Disappointment that Vox di Popolo had outsmarted him into the waters of baptism.
Vox was immersed, head to toe -- and held under a remarkably long time, some commented -- the following Sunday morning. His parents stayed home and wept. They wept tears of disappointment, knowing that Vox had washed away the faith of their homeland in a new-fangled indoor bathtub, recently installed by the Baptists.
On the way home from church that day, Vox asked Hattie to marry him. He promised her if she did, he would never miss a single Sunday of church with her. She said yes. They kept their engagement a secret until the day after high school. Then they were married that summer, surrounded by smiling, crying. disappointed parents.
"...the promise I made when I married Hattie," the mayor was saying. "I promised her I would never miss church with her. So I sure do appreciate the invite to celebrate ya'll's big day, but I sure would hate to disappoint Hattie."
"Yes, sir," I said. "I understand, Mr. Mayor."
He stopped at the bottom step, which was a rare occurrence. I don't know that I had ever seen Vox di Popolo stand still. He looked up into the big sky over Zen, then he looked back at me.
"Preacher," he said. "That's it. That's what leadership is: managing people's disappointments."
Thanks to my friend and former teacher Bill
for passing along the kernel of this story,
the line about managing people's disappointments.