Chapter One

 

HERE IN Nine Mile, kinship still shapes daily life. Familial bonds are strong, and the ties of friendship are lifelong and rarely broken. We seem to possess the tattered remnants of a pioneer culture, with all the spirit and cohesiveness that entails, and at the same time, we find ourselves coexisting with satellite dishes and microwave ovens and shiny computer-driven automobiles that beep and boop and flash annoying little lights at us every time we do something stupid.

The people here are good, most of them. Kind, simple country folks. Many are farmers, and like good farmers everywhere, they have an undying, tongue-in-cheek faith in the ability of God or government, or both, to somehow mangle the next harvest and render it worthless.

In reality, these people haven’t changed as much as they might think they have. Their accessories have, certainly, but not the people themselves. Like the pioneers before them, their hearts are strong with reverence for country, family, friends, and church. And the land, of course. With citizens such as these, it is always the land that comes first. Always.

Put simply, they are nice, decent people. On the whole.

Exceptions, of course, can always be found.

And on this, the last day of her life, Grace Nuggett would meet one of those exceptions face-to-face.

It wasn’t the sort of day one would choose for the last day of life if one’s options were open. The rain had not yet come pelting down, but by the look of that dismal gunmetal sky above our heads, I figured it was only a matter of time before it did. From the occasional grumble of distant thunder, it seemed a safe bet Someone up there agreed with me.

Being the only Methodist minister in Nine Mile, and knowing full well the farmers were scanning the sky for the least little promise of rain to ease the long drought they had been enduring (God did it to them this time, since they couldn’t very well blame the government for the weather), I should have sent up a grateful prayer of thanks that the withered crops in the fields would finally get some much-needed moisture. But in reality, all I did was lean against the outside wall of my church, cross my arms, stare balefully at the sky, and sigh. If I were a farmer in need of sunshine, I would have had the pleasure of blaming God for this outrage, but being a preacher in need of sunshine in the middle of a drought, I didn’t quite dare. Not that I wasn’t tempted.

After two long months with nary a hint of moisture in the air, today, of all days, the sky had finally decided to open up. Sam had warned me, of course. He always does. About everything.

Sam is my go-to guy for all things mechanical, since I’m about as useful as a box of sick hamsters. Sam is also my best friend. We have known each other since we were kids growing up in this one-horse town. Looking at us, one would think we were polar opposites. Sam stands about five foot six, and I’m six four. Sam is well built, and I’m a beanpole. His hair is reddish blond while mine is black. The only thing we truly have in common, other than friendship, is the fact that we are both single. Which, of course, opens up a whole new can of worms since every woman at the church is constantly trying to set us up with a female relative or two. Or three. But so far Sam and I have held on to our bachelorhood with tooth and claw.

But that’s another story altogether.

“Give the farmers a break, Brian,” Sam told me. His voice was a booming, sonorous echo because he had his head buried in the church’s old upright piano. He had his head stuck in the piano because he was trying to tune the thing himself since the church couldn’t afford to pay an actual piano tuner to do the job.

I didn’t say anything, but it sounded to me like he was getting questionable results as far as the tuning went. His words, however, would later prove to be right on key.

“Set the date for the annual basket dinner,” he said. “That’s the only way the poor farmers’ll get any rain, and you know it.”

He must have heard my derisive snort, for he poked his head out of the piano and gave me a glare. A dust ball the size of a mouse was stuck in his hair. “Just wait. You’ll see. And while you’re waiting, hand me that velvet hammer. The one in the toolbox.”

I handed him the hammer, and here I was, two weeks later, propped against the side of the church like a tired wooden Indian, the back of my neck heating up, remembering how I had scoffed at Sam’s prediction.

Well, to make a long story short, I did see. All too well. As I watched, the good ladies of my congregation, with their starched Sunday dresses flapping like flags about their legs, tried rather unsuccessfully to place tablecloths and napkins atop the plank-covered trestles arranged in rows beneath the elm trees at the edge of the churchyard. Unsuccessfully because as soon as someone neatly spread a tablecloth, the wind would come along and flip it into the grass. Or happily toss the napkins into the air. Or simply poof the poor lady’s skirt up around her ears until she was forced to drop everything in an attempt to maintain her dignity, and the moment she did, the wind would take everything—tablecloth, napkins, paper plates and cups—and gleefully scatter them to hell and back.

At my back, through the walls of the old church, I heard the sweet voices of the Methodist choir practicing, yet again, one of the hymns they had chosen for this occasion. Behind the emphatic lead of the ancient upright piano—which still wasn’t tuned right, dammit—I heard the choir sing the old familiar lyrics I grew up with.

 

Shall we gather at the ri-i-iver,

The beautiful, the beautiful r-i-i-iver.

 

Before the verse was finished, a particularly energetic gust of wind rattled the elm branches, and rain began to splatter the sidewalk at my feet and plunk against the tall windows of the church. Then something a bit more insistent began plunking at the window beside me, and I turned to see Sam tapping at the glass from inside the chapel and pointing to the ladies out there beneath the trees as they frantically gathered up the tumbling paraphernalia of our ill-timed basket dinner. With squeals of laughter, they began scurrying, light-footed, through the wet grass toward the church to seek shelter from the quickening rain.

As luck would have it, the food was already in the basement.

“Just in case,” Sam had said earlier, with a wary eye on that ugly sky overhead as the ladies began arriving with dishes upon pots upon containers of every sort, filled with heaven knows what but all smelling so wonderful it sent saliva dribbling off the end of my chin as if the gaskets in my mouth had dissolved from the sheer splendor of it all.

As my nephew Jesse, fifteen years old and looking uncomfortably spit shined on this summer afternoon, and his friend Kyle, looking equally clean and miserable, ran past me to help the ladies do what they had to do, I realized it might not be a bad idea if I helped them a bit myself. They weren’t paying me to prop up the church. I was supposed to be the man in charge.

Before I could set off to assist the ladies of Nine Mile, a loud crack of thunder made me jump straight up into the air and bang my head on the underside of the electric meter nailed to the side of the church.

One of the ladies squealed in mock terror as she ran for the door, trailing a tablecloth over her head to protect her hair from the rain. Manly enough not to squeal, or so I hoped, I caught one last glimpse of Sam’s laughing face in the window as I sprinted for the door myself. Rather than mowing the good woman down in my haste to escape the now cascading sheets of rain, it seemed a bit more gallant to grab her arm and lead her safely, but hurriedly, up the church steps and into the vestibule. There we shook ourselves off like a couple of wet dogs and laughed at the silliness of the situation.

Never one to miss an opportunity to embarrass me, as old friends always seem to do, Sam gave me a good-natured ribbing as I stood in the vestibule, dripping. “Good Lord, Brian! It’s raining cats and dogs out there. Let’s have a picnic, shall we?”

Sam’s aunt Mrs. Shanahan, a rotund lady of eighty-some years with blue finger-waved hair that rolled across the top of her head like a corrugated tin roof, and possessing a voice that could crack obsidian, came to my rescue. Not. Mrs. Shanahan and I were adversaries from way back. She used to chase me out of her scuppernong arbor back in my youthful, barefoot days, and she had been chasing me one way or another ever since.

“Now, Sam. Mustn’t pick at the poor man just because he chose the worst day we’ve had in six months to hold our annual basket dinner. We’ll get by. We always do. Old Reverend Morton, now. He knew how to pick ’em. Always chose the prettiest day of the year. I asked him once how he managed to do that year after year, and he said he asked God to set the date for him. Now, there was a man of faith!”

He was also a pompous old windbag who inevitably smelled of garlic and cheap aftershave, I thought, rather uncharitably, I suppose, for a Methodist minister. Especially when referring to the man of God who had preceded me at my post for nigh on fifteen years. But it was true nevertheless. Reverend Morton was the dullest man to set foot on this planet since the conception of time, and if he ever spoke directly to God, and God actually deigned to answer, then I was a Kurdish camel driver on the road to popedom.

“But never mind,” Mrs. Shanahan yammered on, giving Sam a wink and me a snarl. “We’ll eat inside. Lord knows we haven’t had to do that for ages. Kind of defeats the purpose of an outdoor basket dinner, don’t you know. But what the hey? The food’s good. That’s what counts. Right, Jesse?”

A hand the size of a thirty-dollar pot roast came out of nowhere and slapped Jesse on the back. I could hear the boy’s teeth rattle from the impact. The poor kid looked vaguely appalled at being thusly singled out for an opinion, but he carried it off well enough. “Suppose so,” he mumbled to no one in particular. At the same time, he rolled his shoulder around to get some circulation back into it. “I like the rain.”

Mrs. Shanahan enthusiastically pounded his back again, this time nearly driving the boy to his knees, which elicited a snicker from his friend Kyle. She appeared oblivious to her own strength. “Of course you do, Jesse!” her voice boomed out. “You and everybody else within shouting distance come from good American farm stock. Ain’t a farmer been hatched yet that don’t like the rain. In decent doses, that is.”

The woman stuck her great arm through mine and dragged me toward the basement steps. “Come on, Reverend. Let’s get the tables set up downstairs. Gotta work before we eat, you know.”

Sam stood on the sidelines, watching this exchange with laughing eyes and a heart, I’m sure, that soared with happiness. Nothing amused him more than my own embarrassment. If you get to really know Sam, sooner or later he’ll tell you about the time I peed my pants in first grade. But let’s not get into that.

I was still being dragged along in Mrs. Shanahan’s wake when a sudden burst of lightning made her tighten her grip on my arm and hasten her step. She came to life like Frankenstein’s monster, I pleasantly conjectured, rather happy with my choice of metaphor, and at the same time, I wondered how the woman could so unfailingly steer my mind into such unchristian corridors. It was a talent at which she positively excelled.

Sam made a face as if he knew what I was thinking, which he probably did. He grabbed Jesse and Kyle around their necks and dragged them down the basement steps behind me. As we headed underground, the sound of thunder receded, to be replaced by the confused babble of a hundred happy voices all jabbering at once in delirious abandon.

The church basement was large, thank heavens, but still every corner was filled. Colorful print dresses were interspersed only occasionally with the more somber shirt and tie. It was a weekday, after all, and most of the farmers were in their fields, or had been until the rain started. Only their wives could afford the luxury of a day off. But even they had earned it. The array of supper dishes and cake plates and aluminum pots and pans of every shape and size confirmed that fact. Food was everywhere. The air was alive with the smell of it. These ladies hadn’t simply popped out of bed that morning and dressed for church. Most of them had been up half the night preparing dishes they could be proud of. Dishes, they hoped, that would pucker their neighbors’ hearts with envy.

Basically, they were showing off. But Lord, theirs was a vanity of which I fully approved.

It didn’t take us long, with all hands chipping in, to arrange the food on tables along the basement wall.

It was a mouth-watering assortment, to be sure. Meats first, then came the casseroles and veggies, and after that the delicacies I loved the best. Homemade pickles, wilted lettuce swimming in sugar and bacon grease (hellish in cholesterol but heavenly on the palate), tiny ears of young corn dabbed with freshly churned butter, garden fresh radishes and peppers dipped in vinegar, and a dozen other trifles.

After that, as you greedily meandered down the line of tables, you came to the breads and biscuits: Freshly baked sourdough that had been tenderly raised—covered with a dishcloth and placed in the sun for warmth—transforming it from an unappetizing wad of pale dough to one of God’s greatest gifts to man, next only to the sacred act of sex itself. Chunks of home-baked bread the size of concrete blocks that you pulled apart with your hands. Round slabs of cornbread baked in cast-iron skillets and sliced in triangles, pie-fashion. Muffins of every shape and flavor—apple, blueberry, carrot, gooseberry, hickory nut, pumpkin, zucchini, and some that were unrecognizable but delicious just the same.

After the muffins, as you neared the apex of this fattening runway, you came to the desserts. Pies of every flavor, with delicate designs carved into the crusts. An angel food cake standing a foot high if it was an inch and topped with strawberries from someone’s garden. Freshly picked cherries buried in coconut and whipped cream, cookies piled high on platters, a dozen different kinds, and at the end my personal favorite: a peach cobbler, baked, I knew, by Mrs. Shanahan, who with those pot-roast-size hands of hers could pull culinary wonders from her oven.

Guilt over calories consumed would come later. For now, everyone dedicated themselves, heart and soul, to the business at hand. We milled around like cows on a hillside, chewing our cuds, eyes half-closed in delirious bliss, as if this were the sole purpose for our existence. To eat. We did it with unbridled enthusiasm, occasionally exclaiming over a particularly delightful discovery and calling out to ask who made it. When the culprit was found, it was usually a stocky housewife with sunburned cheeks and eyes that crinkled at the corners from squinting in a truck garden for hours on end beneath a blazing summer sun. Hearing the compliments, a blush of pride from all the praise accorded her would raise the pink glow of those sunburned cheeks to a happy, fiery red. Then, to ease herself humbly from the spotlight, she would cry out in praise of some delicacy or other, and in so doing, pass the torch to someone else.

It was all very civilized and Christian. These people were, after all, friends. Many of them had known each other, like Sam and I, since birth. They understood that praise, like butter, must be spread around. One brief moment of glory was enough for anyone, but once your moment ended, lend it to someone else. Otherwise, the next time praise was being flung about like candy at a parade, you might find none of it flying in your direction. They were friends, yes, but they were friends who never forgot a kindness or a slight.

After a time, the clatter of forks on plates diminished, and snippets of conversations could be heard that didn’t always refer to the food at hand. The feeding frenzy was winding down.

I sat back, sandwiched as I was between Sam and Mrs. Shanahan, gorged like a tick about to pop. Casually, so as not to be unduly noticed, I loosened my belt a notch. Sam looked about as miserable as I did, although he was still chomping on a fistful of oatmeal cookies.

I tried not to puke watching him, and while I gave my glutted body a much-needed rest, I let my attention roam around the room as I studied the faces of my flock.

These were the people who worshipped in my church, who suffered through my sermons, who sometimes came to me with their problems. We seemed a cozy, friendly group, sitting there huddled together with our bellies full while the summer storm howled outside.

The farmers should be happy, I reflected, watching the rain slap against the little ground-level windows placed high along the basement walls. They had certainly needed this rain, even if I had not. But what the hey, rain or not, the annual basket dinner appeared to be a raging success. Perhaps the rain had brought us closer together, here in this crowded basement room, than we would have felt underneath the elms outside with the endless summer sky overhead.

Gradually, for lack of anything better to do and too stuffed to do it even if there had been, I tuned in to the voices around me.

Mrs. Shanahan’s, of course, was the first to pierce my awareness. She leaned across me and Sam to speak to Aggie Snyder, who was one of the farm wives and who, at the moment, was about as pregnant as a human being can be. Mrs. Shanahan blithely ignored Sam and me as if we were a couple of fence posts someone had had the audacity to sink into the ground smack in front of her face.

“Lordy, Aggie, I feel as full as you look! And this girdle is cutting me in two. ‘Comfortable support for a lovelier you,’ the box said. That’s a laugh!”

They come in boxes? I asked myself. Like stereos? In the meantime, Sam choked on a cookie.

Like Mrs. Shanahan, Aggie leaned over Sam and me as if we didn’t exist. “I don’t know why you bother wearing those silly things. I really don’t. You have a lovely, full figure. If you’re trying to catch a man,” she teased, “it will take more than a girdle.”

“Yes,” Sam whispered in my ear, “a bazooka,” causing us both to break into giggles.

Mrs. Shanahan cackled as happily as we did. “A man? I’ve had a man, and let me tell you, they ain’t all they’re cracked up to be. I married Mr. Shanahan fifty-seven years ago. He hung around for two months, bailed out one morning after breakfast, and I haven’t seen him since. The laziest creature that ever walked the face of the earth! Wouldn’t milk the cows ’cause he said it pained his knees. Wouldn’t hang my new kitchen curtains ’cause he said it pained his neck, don’t you know, reaching his arms way up over his head like that. That man had more pains than a window factory!”

She leaned in even closer to Aggie Snyder, pushing my back to the wall with her head a mere inch and a half from my lap. “A man, you say! What on earth would I do with a man?”

And what, I wondered as I studied those intricate blue waves that seemed to undulate across the top of her head with a life of their own, would he possibly do with you?