The Upside of Down: Chapter 1


      Natalie grabbed the hands of her two youngest children, five-year-old Mariah and three-year-old Bradley, and walked across the parking lot into the fast food restaurant. After a long morning at the doctor’s office for immunizations, she was eager to eat lunch quickly and return home so she could prepare her Primary lesson. She wanted to get through the line without incident.
A young family stood in line ahead of Natalie. “I told you to stay next to your mother,” demanded a man who looked only a few years older than Natalie’s oldest child, Andrea. His gray eyes almost seared a hole into a little red-haired girl who stepped behind her young mother. Natalie noticed the young girl’s physical features—slightly upward slanting eyes and a tongue that seemed too large for her small mouth— and  concluded she had Down syndrome.
“Take your mother’s hand, right now. I mean it,” the man com­manded again.
The girl reached up and slipped her hand into her mother’s.
Natalie positioned herself between the family and her own chil­dren, hoping to shield them from the young man’s harsh demeanor. In an attempt to divert her kids’ attention, she turned back to Mariah and Bradley and said, “Look outside the window. Do you see that big truck across the street? Isn’t it huge?”
“Where?” Mariah stood on her tiptoes to see out the window.
“Make sure she behaves and doesn’t embarrass me,” the man in front of Natalie said. His wife cast a glance to the floor, and she brushed at her flushed cheeks. A loose ponytail held her mousy brown hair back from her plain face.
“Over there in that parking lot. It’s orange,” Natalie said to Mariah.
The raw anger of the young man clamped around Natalie’s throat. She bit at the nail on her right index finger and avoided looking in the family’s direction.
While they waited to order their food, Bradley wrapped himself around Natalie’s left leg and Mariah eyed the toys included with each meal. “I want that one,” Mariah said, flipping her long dark braid and pointing to a small figure in the display case.
The sizzle of the french fries laced through the heavy air while the scent of cooking hamburger patties stung Natalie’s nose. The soda machine hissed as an employee filled paper cups with soda pop. Natalie squinted her eyes to read the small print on the menu above the counter so she could order as soon as she stepped up to the register.
“Stop moving, right now. Do you hear me, or are you too stupid to understand a simple thing like that?” the man in line said to his daugh­ter. Without meaning to, Natalie glanced at him and saw his bright red face.
The little girl froze in place. The mother whispered something to her husband. He countered, “Don’t give me any lip. I know what I’m doing. You’re as stupid as she is, anyway.”
Natalie’s heart beat furiously at hearing his cruel words. She pulled at her shoulder-length hair. The man didn’t seem to care that he was verbally abusing his daughter. He stepped up to the counter to place his order. Natalie seized the opportunity to soften his callous words. She bent down and said, “You sure are pretty.”
“Don’t talk to my kid,” he barked from the register.
Startled, Natalie stood quickly, fear strangling her voice.
“Leave her alone,” he said, his eyes blazing.
“I’m sorry. She looks so frightened.”
“Mind your own business. You don’t know nothin’.”
“But—”
He stepped toward her. “She’s retarded. You got a retarded kid?”
Natalie wanted to put this bully in his place, but instead she pulled Mariah and Bradley closer to her, attempting to shelter them with her hands. Other customers in the dining room stopped talking, and she
felt their gaze on her. The cashier took a few steps back, her eyes wide.
“Well, you got a retarded kid or not?”
In a barely audible voice, Natalie said, “No.”
“Then shut up.”
He whipped around and finished placing the order for his family. He instructed his wife where to sit in the dining room.
Natalie’s cheeks throbbed. Rage-induced shaking overtook her body. His vicious words hung in the air, reminding her that she did not want to fight with him. Yet she desperately wanted to reach out to this innocent girl and her helpless mother. 
“Next?” the cashier’s voice rang out, but Natalie, still paralyzed by the confrontation, didn’t move.
“Mommy?” Mariah tugged on Natalie’s shirt.
Natalie stepped up to the counter.
The cashier, a teenage girl with large brown eyes and a nose pierc­ing, said, “Can I take your order?”
Natalie tried to concentrate on the menu. “I . . . I,” she stammered.
“He ain’t no kind of dad talkin’ like that,” the cashier said. Her gaze darted to the table where the family sat.
Natalie cleared her throat. “No. He’s not.”
“Poor kid. She can’t help it.”
“I want a cheeseburger. And a toy,” Mariah said.
“Toy,” Bradley said, his blond curls bobbing up and down with his vigorous nodding.
“I guess we’ll have two kids’ meals. Cheeseburgers. With Sprite to drink.”
“Anything else?”
“I’ve lost my appetite.” Natalie gave a weak smile.
“I don’t blame you. He should be ashamed of himself, actin’ like that.” The cashier rang up the order.
Natalie searched the dining room for an empty table and found one much too close to the young family. They sat down, and Mariah grabbed her cheeseburger. She took a bite and then slurped her soda while Bradley played with the action figure that came with his meal. Natalie was grateful they were both entertaining themselves.
“Eat your lunch,” the man said to the little girl in a rough voice.
Then he turned to his wife, “What’re you lookin’ at?” He paused for a moment. “What? You think I’m proud to have a retard for a daughter? She can’t even do nothin’ but stare at me with those bug eyes. I’m tellin’ you, we shoulda given her to them people when she was born. She ain’t ever gonna do nothin’.”
Natalie closed her eyes to stop the tears. She couldn’t believe anyone could be so nasty about any child, let alone his own, especially one with a handicap. His words cut into her heart, and sadness settled heavily on her shoulders as she considered the little girl’s home life.
She wanted to get involved, to protect the little girl and her mother from this raving maniac, but when she accidentally made eye contact with him, a tremor of fear raced down her back. She didn’t want to put her own children at risk, so she remained quiet, uttering a silent prayer in the girl’s behalf.
“He’s mean,” Mariah said.
“Shh.” Natalie put her finger to her lips.
“But, Mommy, he has mean eyes.”
Natalie placed her fingers on Mariah’s lips to quiet her. “We’ll talk about this later. Okay?” Natalie glanced up to make sure the man hadn’t heard Mariah.
He yanked his daughter out of the chair and walked out of the restaurant while the mother followed them, staring at the ground. As the older model pickup truck left the parking lot, Natalie’s stomach twisted.
During the twenty-minute drive home from Farmington, New Mexico, to rural La Plata, where they lived, the situation replayed itself in Natalie’s mind. How could a father be so heartless? She said a prayer of gratitude that her own husband was a kind and devoted father and that none of her children had been afflicted with Down syndrome, or any other handicap, so they didn’t have to encounter such repulsive behavior from others, especially family.
Mariah interrupted her thoughts. “I don’t like that mean man.”
Natalie nodded. “He wasn’t very nice. That’s not okay, is it?”
“Nope. He wasn’t being like Jesus. He’s a bad man.”
Natalie paused, remembering her own judgment of the young man. “He’s not a bad man, but he was doing something bad. Remember, we’re all Heavenly Father’s children, but sometimes we make bad choices that hurt other people.” She needed to convince herself as much as Mariah.
“You’re a nice mom.”
A tear rolled down Natalie’s cheek. “Thank you.”
***


After they arrived at their gray, Victorian-style, two-story house, set back from the highway, Natalie talked Mariah and Bradley into watching a Disney movie. Mariah agreed as long as she could have some popcorn. Natalie glanced at the clock on the wall. She had enough time to study her lesson before the school bus dropped off nine-year-old Justin and sixteen-year-old Laura. She mentally tracked Ryan, her eighth grader, who had soccer practice, and Andrea, a senior in high school, who was staying after school for her student council meeting.
She crept up the stairs to her bedroom and found her sanctuary— the master bathroom. It wasn’t always a place of solitude, but she fig­ured that Mariah and Bradley would keep themselves occupied long enough for her to think about her lesson and have a little quiet time. The situation at the restaurant still disturbed her, especially how the young father called his daughter stupid and retarded. How cruel.
As she perched on the toilet with her manual spread across her lap, the phone rang. “Let the machine get it,” she yelled from the bathroom.
Another ring. “Don’t answer the phone! I’m busy right now.” She listened for the next ring but only heard a thundering silence. “Oh no,” she said aloud.
Before she could do anything, she heard Mariah’s voice. “It’s okay. She’s going potty. I’ll get her because she takes a real long time in there. Nope, she won’t mind. I’m almost there.”
Natalie gulped. It obviously wasn’t Spence on the phone. The door slid open slightly, and Mariah’s petite hand appeared, grasping the handset. Natalie cleared her throat and grabbed the phone.
“Hello?” she eked out, still hoping for a familiar voice on the other end.
“Sister Drake?”
“Uh, yes?” Her cheeks flushed.
“This is Brother Lakes. Bishop Franken would like to schedule an interview with you and your husband for this evening, if possible.”
“I’m sure that’d be fine.” She tried not to think of how she’d face Brother Lakes after what Mariah had told him.
“Seven at the church?”
“We’ll be there. Thank you.”
Natalie hung up the phone, determined to give Mariah a stern lec­ture, again, about what was and was not appropriate information to share with people on the phone. “Going potty” definitely topped the not-to-be-shared list.
As her embarrassment abated, her thoughts turned to the purpose of the phone call. She’d been teaching the CTR 7 class for less than a year, and she loved being in Primary. She loved the kids’ natural curios­ity and their willingness to learn. They were like sponges, soaking up everything. Their small but sincere testimonies touched her, and she loved their energy, at least most of the time.
Spence had only been serving as the Scoutmaster for a few months. He was so comfortable with the young men and looked forward to an adventure-filled summer of campouts and hikes.
Maybe it wasn’t a new calling for her or Spence after all. Maybe it was about Justin or Mariah acting up in Primary or Bradley’s antics in Sunbeams. Perhaps the bishop wanted to visit about Laura’s pathetic seminary attendance or Andrea’s plans for this summer after gradua­tion. Or maybe he wanted to call Ryan to serve in the teachers quorum presidency.
Natalie’s head hurt trying to figure out why the bishop wanted to see them, so she decided to put it out of her mind and not think about it. She needed to concentrate on teaching her Primary class about the Word of Wisdom.

 ***

Natalie unlocked the front door to let Spence into the house. He stepped into the entryway, his sandy hair windswept, and Natalie attempted to smooth it back into place. Spence pulled her into a hug and then gently kissed her.
“Daddy!” Mariah squealed. She and Bradley both rushed their father, pushing Natalie out of the way.
Spence embraced Mariah and then picked up a giggling Bradley. “How’s my little man?”
Bradley let out a few more giggles. Spence set him down, and he ran off down the hallway.
“Hi, Dad,” Justin said when he rounded the corner from the living room. He gave his dad a hug, his light brown hair peeking out from under his Arizona Diamondbacks baseball cap, reminding Natalie he was due for a haircut.
“Something sure smells good. What’s for dinner?” Spence said as he and Natalie walked into the kitchen while Justin and Mariah trailed in behind them.
“Lasagna,” Natalie said.
“My favorite,” he said with the familiar sparkle in his pale blue eyes. He leaned against the beige-tiled countertop in the kitchen.
“Every dinner is your favorite, Daddy,” Mariah said. She was wear­ing a pink tutu and a glittering crown.
“Are you a ballerina today?”
Mariah placed her hands on her hips. “No, Daddy, I’m a princess.”
“Oh, I see.”
She smiled and turned abruptly, her long braid whipping around her head as she ran off after Bradley.
“Has Ryan fed the animals?” Spence asked.
“He’s not home from practice yet, but he should be here in a few minutes. The Kings picked him up tonight. Andrea called and said she’d be home soon too.” Natalie opened the oven door to check the lasagna. The blast of hot, garlic-spiked air made her blink. She pulled the lasagna out and set it on top of the stove. “Dinner’s almost ready. Time to set the table.”
“I think I need another kiss.” Spence swept Natalie into his arms and gave her a long kiss.
“Eewww. That’s so disgusting,” Laura said from the dining room table. “Do you have to do that? I’m trying to do my homework.” She shook her head, and her dirty-blonde hair fell around her shoulders.
“You have one hot mama,” Spence said. He gave Natalie another squeeze. She enjoyed his playful, romantic side. Even more, she enjoyed Laura’s protests.
Laura overacted a dry-heaving motion. “You’re so embarrassing. The kids at school don’t even act like you two.”
“Aren’t you glad we love each other so much? You wouldn’t be here otherwise.” Natalie moved her eyebrows up and down.
“Okay, that’s gross. No more details.”
“What’s gross?” Justin asked, sitting at the table.
Laura rolled her blue-green eyes. “Nevermind.” She gathered up her books and headed down the stairs to her bedroom.
“Dinner is in five minutes,” Natalie called after her.
“How was your day?” Spence asked.
“The doctor’s office was incredibly fun, as usual. We waited for a long time. Bradley rolled all over the floor, went through all the draw­ers, and then climbed up and jumped off the examining table. How such a cherubic-looking child can be so mischievous is beyond me.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t help. I had one meeting after another and couldn’t get away this morning.”
“No worries. Both the kids got their immunizations.” Natalie tossed the salad inside a large red bowl. “Why so many meetings?”
“Discussions about some new legislation and how it may impact the company.” Spence reached over and grabbed a cookie from the cup­board.
“Should we worry about your job?”
“I don’t think so.” He snatched another cookie.
Natalie gave him a look. “You can’t snack on cookies when dinner’s ready. You’re as bad as the kids.” She turned to Justin, who was still sit­ting at the table, absorbed in playing his Nintendo DS, an extravagant gift from her mother. “Go wash up for dinner and tell the other kids it’s ready.”
“Huh?” Justin didn’t look up from his game.
“Justin,” she said in a loud voice.
“What?”
“I’m going to take that thing away.” She took a few steps toward him, intent on taking the handheld device and disposing of it. She dis­liked Justin’s obsession with it, and she was still angry with her mother for giving it to him against her wishes.
“Okay, okay, I’ll turn it off.” He slipped it into his pocket.
“I better not see it the rest of the night. Now, go wash your hands and tell the other kids that dinner’s ready.” 
Justin scurried out of the room.
“How was the rest of your day?” Spence asked.
“I took Bradley and Mariah to lunch and witnessed a disturbing scene that hasn’t left me. A young man treated his wife and his little daughter with such contempt. He was downright mean to them.”
“What happened?”
Natalie grabbed some bottles of salad dressing from the refrigera­tor. “His little girl had Down syndrome, and he was calling her names. It broke my heart. His poor wife seemed so scared.” She placed the bottles on the counter.
“Did you say anything?”
Natalie nodded. “He told me it was none of my business, among other things.” Reliving the experience brought back the fear she’d expe­rienced at the restaurant. “I can’t seem to get it out of my head. I don’t know why it’s affected me so much.”
“Because you’re a compassionate and caring person. That’s one of the reasons why I love you so much.” Spence ran his finger along her cheek.
“Even after all these years? With all of my gray hairs?”
“What gray?”
“If I didn’t pluck them all out, there’d be plenty.”
“You’re as beautiful today as you were twenty-three years ago.”
Beautiful wasn’t how she’d describe herself. Exhausted, bedrag­gled, wrinkly, frumpy—those were much more descriptive terms. “I think you need your eyes checked.”
“You are. And I love you.” He squeezed her around the waist.
“I love you too.”
The front door opened, and Natalie’s tall, lean son, Ryan, walked into the kitchen. He dropped his backpack with a thud. “Yes! I love lasagna.”
“Hurry and wash your hands for dinner,” Natalie said.
Ryan returned from the bathroom, and the rest of the kids filed into the dining room. After the usual argument of who would sit next to Natalie, Bradley said the blessing, as he did for nearly every meal. Everyone began eating.
“How was soccer today, Ryan?” Spence asked.
“Good. Coach says I’ll probably be a starter for the next game.” He piled lasagna on his plate and then reached for a piece of garlic bread.
“You’ll need to feed the animals after dinner. Be sure to take the slop out to the pigs and check on the horses’ water,” Spence said.
The front door flew open. Andrea shouted from the entryway, “Sorry I’m late. I had to stay longer than I thought. Mmmm, smells de-lish.”
Andrea found her seat at the table.
“How was school?” Natalie asked.
“Interesting,” Andrea said.
“Must be about that guy,” Laura said with a smirk that exposed her braces.
Andrea’s blue-gray eyes lit up, and a smile appeared her face.
“What’s this?” Natalie asked.
“His name is Tristan. He’s Ali’s cousin. He’s living with them until he finds an apartment, and he’s going to San Juan College,” Andrea said.
“Ali who?”
“We’re on student council together. I’ve talked about her before.” Andrea flipped her long auburn hair behind her shoulder.
“What about this boy?” Spence asked.
“Dark, thick hair and green eyes. He’s from Grants, and he’s almost twenty-one. I wish he’d ask me out,” Andrea said.
“Is he a member of the Church?” Natalie handed the bowl of salad to Justin.
“No, but there’s no one to date from our ward. It’d only be for fun. Stop worrying. I’m sure he’ll never ask me out, anyway.”
After dinner, according to the job chart, Laura cleared the table, Justin unloaded and reloaded the dishwasher, and Ryan wiped down the table.
Natalie grabbed hold of Bradley. “I think you wore more of your dinner than anything. How about a bath?”
Natalie and Bradley ascended the stairs together, one step at a time. They walked into the bathroom, and Natalie laid Bradley on the dark green bathroom rug to remove his diaper. “Remember, potty in the diaper? No, no.” Natalie shook her head. “Potty in the toilet? Yes, yes.” She nodded. “Let’s make a deal. I’ll pay you one million dollars if you potty train. How does that sound?”
Bradley nodded, his blond waves bobbing. “Potty in toilet.”
“That’s right.” Natalie finished filling the tub and was placing Brad­ley in the mound of bubbles when the phone rang.
A few moments later, Laura stood in the doorway holding the handset. “Mom, it’s for you.”
Natalie whispered, “I’m a little busy right now.” She pointed to Bradley, who was draped in suds. “Who is it?”
Laura shrugged. “It’s a man.”
“Fine.” Natalie wiped her hands on her well-worn black sweats and grabbed the phone.
“Sister Drake?” Her stomach tightened.
“Bishop, I’m so sorry. I completely forgot. We’re on our way, but it’ll take us at least twenty-five minutes.”
“I have another interview I can take care of. I’ll see you in a bit,” the bishop said.
Natalie hung up the phone. “Laura!” she yelled from the bathroom.
“Yeah?”
“Please finish bathing Bradley,” Natalie said.
Laura stood in the doorway of the bathroom, a large textbook in hand. “I have a ton of homework.”
“I need your help. I have to go to the church.” Natalie mentally chastised herself for being so forgetful.
“Why?”
“I’m not exactly sure. But I’m late. Where’s your dad?”
Laura shrugged. She placed her book on the floor, bent over the bathtub, and patted Bradley on the head. “I’ll wash your hair, okay?”
Natalie raced down the hall. She peeked into each bedroom as she passed. “Spence?” No response.
She spotted Mariah in her bedroom. “Can you find Daddy and tell him I need him right away.”
“Okay.” Mariah ran away calling for Spence.
Natalie yanked a black skirt and bright pink blouse out of her closet. “I cannot believe I did this.”
Spence entered the bedroom. “What’s wrong?”
“We have an appointment with the bishop.” Natalie glanced at the clock radio on the nightstand. “About twenty minutes ago.”
“Huh?”
“Brother Lakes called earlier and made the appointment. I got so busy with dinner and bathing Bradley that it slipped my mind.” Nata­lie’s fingers fumbled as she tried to button her blouse. “Bishop Franken is waiting for us.”
Spence stepped over to his closet and grabbed a white shirt. “Did he say what it’s about?”
“I have no idea. I’m so embarrassed.” She finished buttoning her blouse.
During the ride into Farmington, Natalie tossed the reasons through her mind of why they were meeting with the bishop. “Do you know anything?”
Spence shook his head. “I’d guess it’s for a new calling.”
“But both of us have only had our callings for a short time.”
“What else could it be?”
“I don’t know.” Natalie applied some mascara and brushed her hair. “I can’t believe I forgot about this appointment. I’m so spacey lately.”
Spence gave a big smile. “Do I have anything in my teeth?”
“Nope. Perfect as usual. Though you still have some unruly hair in the back.” She patted down a clump of his hair.
They pulled into the church parking lot. Natalie checked her hair one more time and fluffed it before exiting the car. She hoped the appointment would be short and simple so she could get back home and put the kids to bed.
Inside the foyer of the building, the bishop, a short man with round glasses, stood at the top of the stairs just outside his office.
Natalie gazed up at the bishop and said, “I’m so sorry we’re late.” The embarrassment rose to her cheeks.
“No problem. I finished my other interview and had a bit of paper work. Brother Drake, may I have a word with you first? Sister Drake, we’ll only be a moment.”
Natalie sat on the upholstered couch at the foot of the stairs. The soft fluorescent lighting bounced off the cream-colored walls. Plum-colored carpet lined the entryway and the stairs leading down to the family history library. Her Primary classroom was across the cultural hall. She tried to imagine the large three-level building as the stake center many years ago when the stake included wards in New Mexico and Colorado. Now it housed three wards in Farmington, New Mexico, one of which included her rural La Plata ward.
Natalie bit at her fingernail, a nasty habit she’d picked up as a kid. Who could blame her after growing up with her mother? She placed her hands on her lap and laced them together. What was the bishop discussing with Spence? A calling? For him? Her?
Time dragged on while she waited. She checked her watch. A queasy feeling tempted her to bite her nails again, but she resisted.
She checked her watch again. How long could this take? Finally, after a few more minutes that felt like hours, the door opened, and Bishop Franken invited Natalie into the office. Natalie sat in a chair opposite the bishop’s desk. She glanced at Spence to see if she could read his expression. He gave her a reassuring smile.
“How are you doing this evening, Sister Drake?” the bishop asked, drawing her focus to him.
“A little frazzled, but okay.” A nervous laugh fell out of her mouth while her heart thudded.
“I’ve spoken with your husband. I’d like to extend a call to you.”
“Me?” No wonder Spence was smiling. She looked back at Bishop Franken. “But I’ve only been teaching my Primary class for a few months.”
“I know,” the bishop said, his eyes piercing. “But we, as a bishopric, have prayed, and the Lord would like you to serve as Relief Society president.”
She stared at the bishop’s dark brown eyes. “Come again?” Relief Society president? He must be insane.
“I’d like to extend a call to you to serve as the Relief Society presi­dent.” He leaned forward, looking deeply into her eyes.
“Are you sure?” she whispered.
“Yes.”
Natalie sat back against the chair, her hands damp. She let out a sigh and looked over at Spence. Her eyes pleaded with him to object, but his face radiated delight.   
“I’ve never served in the Relief Society.” She paused while both men stared at her. “I don’t know what happens in there. I—I can’t even remember the last time I attended. I’ve only served in Young Women and Primary since I got married.” Surely this would convince the bishop that he had the wrong woman.
The bishop didn’t retract the call. In a soft but firm voice he asked, “Sister Drake, would you accept this calling from the Lord?”
Natalie drew in a long deep breath. Relying on her desire to do the right thing, she said quietly, “If that’s where the Lord would like me to serve, then . . . yes.” Her eyes stung with emotion. “I will accept the calling.” She could hardly believe the words as they escaped her mouth.
Spence’s eyes glistened as he reached over and squeezed her hand.
“Thank you,” the bishop said.
She gave a faint smile, feeling like her face might crumble. “You’re absolutely sure?” Natalie asked, knowing the answer but still in a state of disbelief.
“Yes. We all had a strong witness that you should serve in this call­ing.” He studied her for a moment. “The sisters in the ward need you.”
Her eyes widened. “They need me?” Natalie repeated the words in her mind, clutching onto Spence’s hand.
“Yes,” the bishop said.
She raised her eyebrows, her throat suddenly thick. “I’ll take your word for it.”
Her mind spun in a thousand different directions, trying to absorb the implications of her new calling. “Your husband has agreed to sup­port you. It will be busy and intense at times, but the Lord will bless you as you dedicate yourself to Him.”
Spence nodded. Natalie reluctantly let go of Spence’s hand when the bishop extended his hand to shake hers. He shook hands with Spence and then turned back to Natalie. “We’ll set up some training for you. You’ll need to pray about the sisters in the ward and submit names for your presidency. We’d like to sustain you a week from Sunday.”
      Natalie stood and numbly followed Spence out the door and into the late-winter evening, cold air licking at her cheeks. Sitting in the car, she stared ahead of her, lost in her thoughts. Her head pounded with so much pressure it felt like it might explode.