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Issue 181

This issue features


Kapok Tree

© by Karin Claus.


Valerie Miner


Chapter One: Half and Half

(from the novel-in-progress The Roads Between)


March


“Ms. Fraser?” A man behind her whispers anxiously.

An old patient? People are always stopping Janet to report about flossing or new electric toothbrushes, although it’s been three years since she retired from Dr. Miller’s practice. She counts her breaths. Maybe if she ignores the guy, he’ll get the message.


“Are you alright, Mrs. Fraser?” A kind voice, slight Spanish inflection.

*

Chaotic afternoon at Sandler’s Grocery. As Janet checks each cash register to find the shortest queue, she frets about her dodgy parking spot. What’s going on? All of Santa Rosa is foraging today. Did she miss news about an imminent typhoon?


Ah, finally, a reasonable line. She parks her cart behind a mother with two mannerly girls. Forty years since Marta and Angie were their ages. Even Angie’s kids, she sighs, are older now.


The sigh summons her mindfulness training. How Jimmy would laugh at the picture of her meditating. All around her people are checking email, yakking on cell phones, skimming The National Enquirer or Us. OK, breathe. Stay in the moment. She closes her eyes, inhaling slowly. Exhaling. One, two, three…grief stabs her ribs. Last night she watched, incredulously, as Trixie’s light flickered away in the vet’s gentle hands. Eyes shut, tail still, breath gone. A relief to know the sweet dog was no longer suffering, but heartbreaking to lose this devoted friend of fifteen years. As the young mother loads cans and boxes on the checkout belt, the bald clerk smiles to the girls. Returning to zone, Janet inhales slowly—four, five six…really, she’s hopeless at this.

*

“Ms. Fraser?”


Janet reluctantly turns to a tall man with arresting brown eyes. Not a former patient, but she knows him from somewhere. Taking in his anxious face, she’s compelled to explain. “I was meditating. Trying to. I hate standing in line and I have a tricky parking spot.”


His laugh is immediate, full-throated. “Guess we’re in trouble when we mistake serenity for illness.” He shakes his head, one dark curl brushing his left eyebrow, and laughs again.


The mother and daughters look back curiously.


Janet laughs too.


“We haven’t formally met.” He extends his hand. “I’ve seen you at the Tutoring Center. I’m Guillermo, Guillermo Alvarez.”


“Janet,” she extends her hand. Right! Last week he sat at the adjacent table reviewing English verbs with a young farmworker. “Dr. Alvarez. You had an office in the same building as Dr. Miller.” A coincidence because Santa Rosa is no longer the small outpost she moved to in 1981. The population has doubled to 180,000. Jimmy never could have imagined.


“Yes, that’s where I first saw you, before you retired.” He smiles broadly.


She’s surprised, shy, pleased.


“I’m still in the same office. Actually, I’m celebrating the fortieth anniversary of my medical practice this week.”


“Definitely something to commemorate.” Janet’s normal reserve dissolves.


“I had thought so,” he says wistfully.


“Pardon?”


“My sons planned to fly up from L.A. But both bowed out yesterday. Raul landed an extra heavy case and Miguel’s boy made soccer finals. You know how important it is for parents to attend games.”


Janet purses her lips. Surely, it’s important to support parents, too. Well, no complaints there. If anything, Angie and Marta are too solicitous. “Shame they’ll miss your celebration.” She stops. Mindfulness involves minding your own business.


He frowns, distracted. “I made a reservation at Barndiva months ago, one of those super cool spots that appeals to guys their age.”


“My younger daughter raves about that place. She says she has to save six months to afford a meal.” Why is she so chatty and easy with this stranger?


He gazes at Janet as if he’s known her for years, as if they attended prom together.


She blushes.


“Ah, then, you’d be the perfect person to join me.” He tilts his head puckishly.


Distracted by his wavy black hair, it takes a minute to register the invitation. She’s speechless.


“You can impress your daughter!” He persists, biting the inside of his lip.


Her eyes widen. “Thank you…very much. But, well, you don’t know me,” she stutters, “I, I don’t know you.”


As he lowers his head, she sees his ears reddening.


“I am sorry,” he tents his hands. “I’m being impetuous. I’ve embarrassed you.” He steps back, straightening his shoulders. “I’m not usually this forthcoming. You see, Miguel cancelled two minutes ago. Damn cell phones make me speedy. I saw you, remembered the tutoring center and spontaneity prevailed. Please forgive me.”


“No, don’t apologize.” Suddenly she’s disappointed. “It’s good to be spontaneous.”


He regards her closely, then tries, “What better way to celebrate than with a new friend. I promise to get you home by curfew.”


She laughs, flattered, intrigued. “This Saturday?” She has been in a bit of a rut.


“Oh, don’t tell me you have another engagement.”


“Ha! I can’t come up with a lie that quicky.” She grins. He does seem nice. The girls constantly urge her to get out. “I guess all that’s left to say is, ‘Thank you, Dr. Alvarez, the evening sounds fun.’”


“Next, next,” the checker rubs his shiny scalp impatiently. “Next!”


“Ooph!” Janet taps her head. “Talk about mindfulness.” She pushes the cart ahead, then turns back. “Shall we exchange numbers at the Tutoring Center, Dr. Alvarez, when I’m not holding up a posse of shoppers?”


“Yes, of course. And please call me Memo.”


She smiles, nods, wonders where the hell she came up with “posse.”


No parking ticket. An omen for the day. And Memo? She tips her face to the sun. Janet loves the surprise of warm afternoons in late winter. The whole week is meant to be mild. A nice break between the storms, although she prayed for rain during last fall’s horrendous fires. She carefully reverses the old Mini, chest humming from her bold acceptance. She’s exaggerating, of course. The poor man simply wants a companion for his celebration. But why her? Had he asked all the other sixty/seventy something women in the market? What could he possibly know about her? Well, these days he could know a lot from the internet. She’ll check it out with Sadie this afternoon. Meanwhile, best to concentrate on driving. Mindfully.


Swinging open the kitchen door, the first thing she notices is Trixie’s empty bowl. Why didn’t she pack it away with all the doggie toys and beds and dishes? That damn blue porcelain bowl. She can hear Trixie’s dog tags ring as she eagerly slurps dinner.


Janet drops two grocery bags on the counter, makes it to the stool before bursting into sobs. She’s crying for the dog. For Jimmy, gone twenty-five years. For her brother Frank, killed in Da Nang. Weeping for her perfectly healthy and—as far as she can tell—happy—daughters in the City and up north. Sobbing about loss and loneliness and ageing and her own death, the fear of which has become, if not a shadow, at least like one of those eye floaters, appearing, vanishing, reappearing.

Sixty-nine is not that old. Not old-old. Henri Cartier Bresson returned to painting at age ninety. In their nineties, John Paul Stevens wrote law books and Jimmy Carter was running around the world monitoring elections, building houses and eradicating guinea worm. Sadie’s favorites, Bettye Saar and Faith Ringgold, continued making amazing art. And Betty White kept getting funnier, or at least sillier.

Sadie warns she’s a fool to look forward to a ripe old age, citing the odds of osteoporosis, Parkinson’s, macular degeneration, heart attack, stroke, COPD, incontinence and dementia. But pessimism has never come easily and Janet suspects that’s why Sadie enjoys her company.

She wipes her eyes and shelves the groceries, appreciating this spacious kitchen with its view of the hills. The cherrywood cupboards Jimmy built still cast a faint sunset glow. When they moved in, the house was a dilapidated fixer upper. Each year they made small improvements. This month, she splurged on the sea green wicker table and chairs. Finally, the kitchen she’s always wanted. She misses Angie and Marta, but not their clutter. Both girls live too much in their heads to notice dead newspapers, empty cereal cartons, even large objects.

On cue, the phone rings.

Janet presses speaker and continues to unpack.

“Hey, Mom, how are you?”

“Fine, Marta love. Just fine, and you?” She pictures her lithe younger daughter with hair as black as Mother’s.

“I was thinking about Trixie and, well, wanted to check in.”

“She had a good life,” Janet hears herself say, blinking tears. “I’m doing OK, keeping distracted. What’s up with you?”

“Thought I’d drive down Saturday. How about dinner and a movie?”

Her heart catches. Like most mothers, she supposes, she aches to see her kids more. Marta is consumed with her law clinic and Angie, with her children, husband, painting, teaching. How can she turn down family for a complete stranger? She glances at Angie’s new painting in the hallway, vibrating warm yellows and reds.

“Can you hear me?”

“Yes, fine dear. I’d love it if you came down next weekend.” She accelerates. “I’ve already agreed to dinner with a friend on Saturday.”

“That’s nice. Sadie? Benicia?”

“No... someone you haven’t met.” She notices she’s picking at a ragged cuticle and stops.

“What’s her name?”

“Guillermo,” she tries to be casual. “How about next weekend, Marta?”

“Guillermo?” She laughs in surprise. “Wow. Who is this guy?”

“No one, I mean it’s only supper with a Tutoring Center friend. We’ll compare notes about students.” What else can they talk about? What kind of enormous blunder has she made?


Marta whistles. “Can’t say I’m not dying of curiosity. But you respect my privacy, so I’ll wait to hear details.”

“Really, it’s nothing.” Janet feels a little dizzy. “Dinner. Home by curfew.”

“So relieved you’ll be tucked in by pumpkin time. See you next Saturday?”

“Can’t wait.”

“Love you, Mom.”

Janet glimpses her reflection in the mirror. Her long dark hair is a shade lighter than Marta’s, streaked with silver, and still has a good sheen. Then there’s this face. Her face? Caverns where there used to be smooth, rosy cheeks. Blotches, spots, crows’ feet. Maybe she should have used that age-defying moisturizer Angie sent for Christmas and birthdays. But she doesn’t want to defy age. She wants to enjoy it. God, look how her nose has grown. She used to have a button and now it’s a hook. A small hook. Would Jimmy even recognize her?

Of course he would and he’d love every wrinkle; she was that spoiled by him.

*

Sadie arrives early for their afternoon book group, carrying two bottles of white wine. She seems to have grown thinner and taller these last twenty years. Now that her hair is white, with a blaze of violet this month, chartreuse last month, she can appear almost angelic, a comic masquerade for her prickly temperament.

Janet opens the front door, wagging a finger. “You’re not supposed to bring refreshments. I’m hosting today.”

“Hell, I didn’t know what you thought of the book, which I hated, hated, and I thought some wine could blunt the pain.”

Janet rolls her eyes. “Listen, I’m glad you’re early. I want to run something by you.”

“You’re getting married!” Sadie says, deadpan.

Janet blushes.

“I was kidding. Say it ain’t so, Joe.” Sadie clasps Janet’s shoulder. “Who’s the guy?”

Psychic Sadie, Janet sighs. “Guillermo Alvarez.” She adds quickly, “Just one dinner.”

“Oh, yeah, that doctor. Benicia was close to his wife. How’d you meet?”

“We didn’t.”

Sadie crosses her eyes.

Janet bursts out laughing. “It’s nothing serious. He invited me yesterday, at Sandler’s.”

“Some stranger asks you on a date—at the grocery store—and you accept?” Sadie’s prosecuting attorney tone.

“Well, I was meditating. And he caught me off guard.”

“Hang on.” Sadie raises her left palm and goes to the kitchen. She returns with two glasses of wine. “I need this before we proceed.”

“Apparently, we both tutor on Thursdays.” Janet hates her defensiveness.

“You’re going out with someone you just met?” Closing her eyes, Sadie savors the wine.

“He’s a doctor. Family practice. In the same building with Lewis Miller.” Why is she going on like this? Because Sadie is voicing her own doubts.

“A doctor! What does that prove? Lots of doctors are psychopaths. Remember that guy Sybers, a while back, who injected his wife with some shit that paralyzed her, killed her?”

“Sadie, love…” Janet puts down her wine glass; she needs all her wits when Sadie is on a calamity tear. “You’re a fount of disaster.”

“So why did you bring this up?”

“A little girlfriend support?”

“This is support. I’m telling you, men prey on older women.”

“Hey, hey, Sadie, you should talk, with your harem.”

“But you’ve been alone all these years. Now suddenly…how do you…”

“Not that it matters, but he’s our age. Maybe a year or two older.”

“Worse! He’s probably shopping for a caretaker for his decrepitude.” Sadie warns.

“Sadie!” She giggles so hard her eyes well up. She glances at Trixie’s bowl and sobers.

“OK. OK. Are you worried about the date?”

“Look, there’s Benicia’s car pulling up. Let’s talk later and keep this entre nous."

“Entre nous and Guillermo."

*

Janet tosses in bed for hours. She doesn’t credit Sadie’s paranoia, but what would they talk about? It’s a long drive from Santa Rosa to Healdsburg for two strangers. She’ll run out of conversation before they reach the restaurant. And how do you dress for such a place? Her clothes are either garden-to-grocery jeans or the cotton shirts and slacks she wears to Sonoma State. Her dresses have been outdated since the 90s.

Sitting in the kitchen with a cup of chamomile, she sorts it out. Yes. She’ll apologize to Guillermo and say that she forgot about a plan with Marta. One good thing about growing old is that people expect you to forget.

*

The hours until Thursday tutoring creep by, with alternating dread, embarrassment and excitement. Hoping to catch Guillermo privately, Janet arrives early, so early she has to wait for Benicia to arrive with the key.

“You’re here already?” her friend exclaims. “Hurry in. It’s chilly tonight.”

“Cleaning up my act,” she says. “Mrs. Mayes is so prompt. How…where’s Father Pete?”

“The old bear is resting at home with a sprained ankle. Frankly, I think he just wanted to watch the game.”

Janet hopes Benicia is being frank about her husband. Father P. seems to be slowing down. “He deserves a break. So do you! Next week, I could open up, start the coffee.”

“Thanks, but during basketball season, I’m happy he’s watching TV with his buddies.”

Janet arranges the books on her table, breathing patience into her pervasive panic.

Mrs. Mayes arrives at 7 pm sharp, waving happily to Janet.

Janet hides her nervousness as she reviews last week’s homework with Mrs. Mayes, who gets a perfect score despite working two jobs and raising three grandchildren.

Guillermo slips in. “Sorry,” he whispers to Diego. “Unexpected house call.”

“No hay problema,” shrugs the bashful young fieldworker.

House call, Janet thinks, how will that fit into Sadie’s villain fantasies?

“Ms. Fraser, is everything alright?” her student asks.

“Sorry, Mrs. Mayes. I got distracted a moment.”

The midpoint bell rings. People stretch, saunter to the table of cookies and hot drinks.

Gripping her cup, Janet closes her eyes, rehearsing the lie about meeting Marta.

“Meditating again?”

“No, well, kind of.” What is wrong with her?

Guillermo grins. “Nice to see you.”

“Yes…yes,” she stutters. Jesus!

“You know, I was assailed by doubts after my impulsive invitation. You must think me terribly audacious.”

“Oh, no.” Worried he’s cancelling, she’s surprised by fierce distress.

“It was spur-of-the-moment. My sons nag that I’m tied to routine. I hope you didn’t find me abrupt. Or even, a little, I don’t know, brazen.”

“No, that would be Sadie.” This slips out.

“Sorry?”

“Your invitation was surprising but hardly brazen. I’m looking forward…”

“I’m so glad.” He blows on his hot black coffee. “You’re sure?”

She nods, half-smiles.

“Shall I pick you up at 5:30 on Saturday?”

“That would be uh, fine.”

A bell marks the end of recess.

“See you then, Guillermo.”

He’s laughing.

She looks puzzled. Then, “Right! My address!” She scribbles on a paper napkin.

“I’m honored.” He makes a small theatrical bow, then presses his card into her hand. Dr. Guillermo Alvarez, Family Practice. His home number is neatly printed on the back.

Mrs. Mayes nods thanks for her usual cup of milky tea. “You were talking to my doctor. A good man.”

“Yes?”

“He watches my son’s diabetes like a hawk.” She stares into the middle distance. “You know when we first moved here, it was hard to find a doctor to treat Black folks.”

“That’s against the law.”

“Said they had full rosters. Dr. Alvarez, he took us right away. And let us pay in installments until my Henry got hired at the plant with insurance and all. Nice he’s your friend.”

“Yes,” Janet nods, swallows hard. “A new friend.”

*

“Charge your phone,” Sadie calls to say. “You do have me on speed dial?”

“Yes, Mrs. Killjoy. You’re number 3, right after Angie and Marta.”

*

Occasionally retirement is a curse. So many hours to fill. Janet uses the hours wisely, finishing her degree, visiting friends and family, gardening, tutoring, reading. Yet there’s more time to obsess now. For instance, about her outfit for swish Barndiva.

Friday morning, she bolts awake certain she has nothing to wear.

Wincing at the bite of yesterday’s re-heated coffee, she drags clothes from her closet. A turquoise raw silk dress with shoulder pads purchased for Marta’s law school graduation. Red microfiber slacks and jacket: Sadie’s sixtieth. An olive green knit sweater and skirt—who knows why/when that appeared? Definitely too heavy for this week. And probably too tight. She hasn’t worn any of it in ten years, she groans, folding everything for Goodwill.

*

Macy’s is pleasantly uncrowded at 10:15 a.m. Why the loud music? And all these separate displays, departments within departments. She may sound like Sadie, but what happened to the “dress department?” Why separate Eileen Fisher and Ann Klein and Dona Karan into separate sections? She wants something comfortable, pretty, and preferably on sale.

Two hours of foraging later, sweaty and tired, she drives home with a simple yellow cotton tea dress and a lime green linen skirt and blouse. She’s had an education in 120 minutes. Ugly and loose is in style. Some women are, apparently a size zero-zero. And although she’s gained five pounds since her last visit to the fashion minster, she’s now two sizes smaller.

At home, she hangs the outfits side by side in the closet and lies down, exhausted for the first nap she’s taken since she was pregnant with Marta.

*

He’s reserved a quiet, corner table. She starts with Barndiva’s special salad of heirloom beets, endive, avocado, raspberries and warm goat cheese. She’d prefer to split the dish, but that feels forward, and Guillermo, or Memo as he insists, orders yellowfin tuna sashimi, sticky rice, avocado, pickled chili, watermelon and ponzu. Too elaborate for her. Then it’s scallops for Memo, sole for her. Everything is delicious, elegantly presented. She registers details for her Sadie report but stops short of the requested photos.

Conversation begins with tutoring tales and flows easily.

“Mrs. Mayes is super conscientious, finishes every assignment early. Unless there’s a crisis at home. I’m confident she’ll get her GED this year.”

“Good, good.” He tugs at a white cuff. “Diego studies hard, but for him, it’s the language first. All day he’s in the vineyard with other Mexicans. At night he’s with family. Spanish 24-7. I’m preparing him for an English conversation group.”

“I love hearing you two laughing together.” She pauses, then insists, “I can’t imagine him with another mentor.”

“Of course I’ll continue his tutoring. I just want him to broaden his experience.”

She nods, pondering her urgent tone. Then she asks about Raul and Miguel.

He inquires about her daughters.

“And your late wife? Amalia?” Benicia said she was beautiful, brilliant.

He returns her tentative gaze. “Amalia was a smart, kind, loving woman. The boys couldn’t have had a finer mother. And I couldn’t have had a better partner, friend, lover. We met in L.A. in second grade. Both of us navigating Spanish at home and English at school. We knew each other our whole lives. It’s hard to believe she’s been gone five years, maybe because she went suddenly. I still expect to see her when I get home from the office.”

He seems to want to talk, so she asks, “Was it a heart attack?”

“Stroke. She’d just had a complete physical. Her doctor was shocked. Obviously, I missed something I should have seen. Sixty is too young for that kind of stroke.” His eyes darken in bewilderment as he describes the crowded family funeral, the years of reconstructing his life.

She nods for him to continue.

The waiter lyrically describes five enticing desserts.

“I couldn’t, thank you. But Guillermo, Memo, you go ahead.”

“No thanks. Will you join me for coffee?

“Ginger tea for me, thanks.”

“Two ginger teas, please.”

Memo turns to her. “I’ve been talking too much. Tell me about your Jimmy.”

“He was just fifty when he died. Esophageal cancer. The gas station was meant to be our ticket to stability, and it was, until he got sick.” She clears her throat. “But we managed. His life insurance paid off the mortgage. The girls were 15 and 17. They added hours to their after-school jobs. He’s still very much in our hearts. He would have been so proud of the girls.”

“I’m sure,” Memo murmurs.

She smiles faintly, lost for words. God bless the server bearing tea.

Memo nods, “You know that green outfit brings out your eyes.”

“Thank you.” She reaches for neutral topic. “Are you also addicted to the new Masterpiece Theatre series?”

He laughs. “My sons tease me about being an Anglophile. Yes, definitely. Excellent acting. And the world was completely different then. It’s like an adult fairytale.”

Janet imagines sitting beside him on her couch with a glass of wine. Smiling, she catches herself: she’s a stand-in tonight. A serendipitous supermarket match.

She has more than enough in her life—loving daughters and grandchildren, close friends, a sturdy used car. Enough income from Jimmy’s Social Security and a few IRAs for all the necessities and some luxuries.

The waiter brings the bill and Janet instinctively pulls out her credit card.

Memo is stricken. “No, no. You’re my guest. It’s been a delight to celebrate with you.”

“Thanks, but no. Even as a girl, I never let a date pay for my meal.”

“I knew you were a feminist,” he smiles. “Keeping your single name and all. This one time, I insist.”

“Please, really…”

He folds his napkin slowly. “How about this? Perhaps you could reciprocate sometime. With that famous cioppino you say Angie and Marta love.”

She blinks, caught between fear and anticipation. “It’s a deal.” Then hurriedly, “Thank you for a lovely evening.”

*

Traffic is light on US 101 and as Memo drives, they watch the moon rise.

Suddenly, she thinks about the new Helen Mirren film. Would he like to go to an early show and come to her place for cioppino afterward? Asking takes all her nerve.

He frowns. “Sorry, I’m off on vacation—Spain and Portugal—an entire month. I’ve never traveled alone. It’s a kind of reward to myself.”

“Well done,” she manages. “A real adventure!” She’s trying too hard.

He pulls into her driveway.

So soon.

Leaning over to her—she can smell his citrusy aftershave—he smiles. “When I return, I know I’ll be hungry for your special fish stew, with or without Helen Mirren.”

“It’s a plan, then.” She stares at the moon. “Thanks again for a lovely dinner.”

“Thank you.” He squeezes her cold hands.

Janet waves from the front door and as she turns the knob, her fingers are still warm.

She wanders into the kitchen and pours herself a big glass of Sadie’s wine. Perching on the stool, she sips slowly, then notices the answering machine blinking with three messages.

“Since you didn’t call, I assume you survived,” Sadie barks. “I’ll be up until midnight. Call me if you’re not locked in passionate embrace.”

Marta next, “How’d it go, Mom? Do you like him? Wasn’t Barndiva fabulous? Call when you feel like it.”

Finally, Angie, “A little bird told me you were flying tonight. Details, Mom, I want all the details. Everyone here is fine.”

She loves each of these women. They know, she knows, that no one could replace Jimmy. Tonight, she was an understudy for absent sons. She raises the glass. Not half-empty. Half-full, she tells herself.

“Forget it,” she hears Sadie’s reply. “Half a glass of wine. You’ve got half left.”


Copyright © 2023 by Valerie Miner.


Short synopsis of the novel

The Roads Between focuses on Marta and Angie, two sisters in their 40s and their mother Janet, who is 70, as they navigate questions of age, race, class, gender and the definition of family. I hope to reach readers who appreciate literary fiction and provocative narratives. The cast reflects California’s multicultural population, and characters range from wealthy to shelterless people. Threaded throughout the novel are challenges to individual agency in a troubled world.

The novel considers their lives independently and in relation to each other. I’m interested in the way that place shapes character, how geographical distance affects relationships and what happens in blue collar families when members cross into the middle class. I want to explore the vicissitudes of loyalty and love in this family, the ties that bind and the bindings that constrict or fray and/or hold us safe.


Janet raised the girls on her own after Jimmy died. Money was tight, but everyone pulled together. Janet is a source of inspiration and worry to her daughters—a force of nature who seems to be getting younger and more vital in her seventies. Angie Phelan, a mother and wife, is an art professor and neighborhood activist. Marta Phelan moves 120 miles north of San Francisco to rural Madrone Ridge and starts a law clinic serving Latino/Latina farm workers. Her intimate life is both more complicated, with a modest succession of male and female lovers and less complicated since she has no children. The two sisters are close. Angie’s chapters are mostly set in San Francisco and Marta’s are located in the country. The sisters visit each other for a few months. Sometimes they meet in between at their mother Janet’s house, the old family home, in suburban Santa Rosa. They live in California’s ethnic mosaic with friends, lovers, and colleagues of diverse backgrounds.


In some chapters Marta or Angie or Janet is the main character. In others, they are minor characters. The style of this literary fiction is mostly realistic, with a tinge of magic and noir here and there.


About the Author

Valerie Miner is the award-winning author of fifteen books. Bread and Salt is her fourth collection of stories. Her latest novel is Traveling with Spirits. Other novels include After Eden, Range of Light, A Walking Fire, Winter's Edge, Blood Sisters, All Good Women, Movement: A Novel in Stories, and Murder in the English Department. Her short fiction books include Abundant Light, The Night Singers and Trespassing. Her collection of essays is Rumors from the Cauldron: Selected Essays, Reviews and Reportage. In 2002, The Low Road: A Scottish Family Memoir was a Finalist for the PEN USA Creative Non-Fiction Award. Her short fiction collections, Trespassing and Abundant Light were each Finalists for the Lambda Literary Awards (1990 and 2005).


Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Triquarterly, Salmagundi, New Letters, Ploughshares, The Village Voice, Prairie Schooner, The Gettysburg Review, The T.L.S., The Women’s Review of Books, The Nation, and other journals. Her stories and essays are published in more than sixty anthologies. A number of her pieces have been dramatized on BBC Radio 4. Her work has been translated into German, Turkish, Danish, Italian, Spanish, French, Swedish and Dutch. In addition to single-authored projects, she has collaborated on books, museum exhibits as well as theatre.

She has won fellowships and awards from The Rockefeller Foundation, Fondazione Bogliasco, The Brown Foundation, Fundación Valparaiso, The McKnight Foundation, The NEA, The Jerome Foundation, The Heinz Foundation, The Australia Council Literary Arts Board, and numerous other sources. She has received Fulbright Fellowships to Tunisia, India, and Indonesia.

Winner of a Distinguished Teaching Award, she has been on the faculties of Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, the University of Minnesota, ASU, etc. She travels internationally giving readings, lectures, and workshops. She and her partner live in San Francisco and Mendocino County, California. Visit: www.valerieminer.com



Raleigh Marcell

Night Shift at the Boll Weevil Café

(from the unpublished novel The Ladies of The Sacred South)



Dusk comes to downtown Pop! Georgia. (The “!” courtesy the C of C.) A bearded man paces the nearly empty square, gesturing and muttering, not insanely but intently, as though trying to recall something once known but now lost. The benches in the Square are mostly unoccupied, the regulars having gone home or Elsewhere. One or two of the sad men in brown have emerged to claim a bench to stretch out on to dream of a winter snooze in the sun or a cool lounge in the summer despite the threatening, stormy night ahead.

By the time darkness comes to R. Edward Lee Boulevard (how slyly renamed! And no Yankie driving through town has ever been the wiser), the few remaining businesses have given in and are darkened and locked and the downtown settles into the stillness of the sage fields which surround the town. The one exception is the Boll Weevil Cafe, the one remaining Elsewhere in Pop! for those who have not gone home, its harsh, white fluorescence making it a lighthouse for those seeking Elsewhere. If Spike Jones oversees the buzz and chaos of breakfast and lunch at the Weevil, Montovani conducts the hum of the evening and night, the clank of white porcelain mug and plate one of the few sounds above the murmur of conversation among the third shift of patrons.

For the employees of the Weevil there are only two shifts. The night shift having taken over, day-shift Misty sits on the far end stool at the counter, feasting on a plate of leftover bacon judged too limp for BLT’s, a perk the Weevil offers to its employees. It is not always limp bacon but today it is and bacon being bacon it demands to be eaten despite it’s limpness. As inviting as a plate of limp bacon can be, it’s not what’s keeping her. She has a date with a new fellow in town, Jack. He promised to pick her up at The Weevil after her shift. She hoists up her watch on a chain from the crevasse of her cleavage. ‘He’s almost but not quite late, but he’d better show up soon,’ she thinks. ‘It’s getting busy and if I’m still here I’ll be asked to pitch in. But what should I do? Go home to my trailer? I’m not sure if Jack even knows where I live.’

It’s a sort of a first date. In a small town such as Pop! there’s no such thing as a ‘first date’. Romance, should it occur, operates on a continuum, not in bursts of ‘first’ and ‘second’ and third’ and so on. Misty sighs. Better bacon up, sweetie. She doesn’t know what he has planned but strongly hinted at a drive into the next county for a drink and a movie, prospects of such delight that she decides to wait it out and so finishes up the remaining delicious but sad and flaccid strips of fried pork on her plate.

The weather roils. The wind kicks up. If there were tumbleweeds they’d be tumbling down the deserted street. The several second-line Benchers who have claimed places in the Square turn up their frayed collars and clasp their buttonless coats closed. Palmer Motley, the undisputed town ‘character,’ who plants tomatoes everywhere, his yellow slicker glistening and white waders sloshing, strides into the Square clutching a large paper bag. He pauses only for a moment. Is he contemplating sitting? No. He welcomes the coming rain but hopes it is not so strong that it washes away all his freshly-planted seedlings. He sniffs the air to determine how close actual rain is. Sniffing done, he heads to the Weevil.

The bearded man stands on a bench at the west end of the Square. He gestures vigorously and broadly towards the last shreds of orange from the set sun, now rising elsewhere, as though to reverse its path for a final burst of light for this gloomy evening ahead. Alas, no such alchemy of gesticulation can reverse time.

Palmer Motley stands at the big plate-glass window of the Weevil, the brown paper bag hiked up to his chest, staring in, the first plus of the ‘2+2+2 Special’ centered on his forehead. He thumps his head against the plate glass several times. Misty hears the thumps, recognizing their level and rhythm. She spins around on the stool and waves him in with a greasy right hand.

The evening shift of patrons at the Weevil is as motley as Palmer Motley, each seeking their Elsewhere. Nearly everyone has the air and look of a long day of lawyering, doctoring, banking, clerking, cashiering, fixing, farming – lounging. Even the Funk Brothers, of the ‘Cotillion Christmas Lights!’ fame are here this evening in the booth behind Misty. To the Funks, a ‘Cotillion’ was a billion trillion though it is doubtful if their show had even a million lights. They eat in silence while studying charts and diagrams.

Palmer Motley sidles through the huddle of patrons at the check-out register to reach Misty. He hands her the big brown paper bag.

“Dozen. Big ‘n green. Good for fryin’.”

Misty peels open the bag to verify its contents, the paper instantly drawing the bacon grease on her fingers unto itself. That Palmer Motley can produce plump green tomatoes pre-season is only slightly less mysterious than the ripe ones he dispenses over town.

“Perfect for fryin’”, she closes the bag. “Just a minute.” She wriggles herself behind the counter and into the kitchen returning with a Styrofoam box and a steaming paper cup of coffee.

The patron on the next-to-last stool has finished and left, his plate still displaying ample remnants of his meal, the coffee mug nearly half-full. Palmer Motley, holding his box and cup stares at the plate. Misty’s gaze is drawn also to the plate. They look at each other and simultaneously:

The Gleaner!”

Misty breaks into a laugh. “I haven’t thought of him since...I don’t know when.”

“Yes you know when.”

“Right. Since the Dairy Queen closed.”

“First time? Second time—


?”

Misty saddens, “Each time.” She lifts the plate from its place on the counter, holding it aloft. She whispers, “Who is the Gleaner?

He gleans. He gleans. What does he do?” intones Palmer Motley.

He is what he does,” responds Misty.

Misty keeps the plate in the air for almost half a minute, her eyes closed, until the Funk Brothers bring her out of it with an, “Amen!”

Palmer Motley is gone. Out of the Weevil and into the night. Crossing the Square he repeats to himself, chant-like:

Who is the Gleaner?

He gleans. He gleans.

What does he do?

He is what he does.”


The inevitable happens and Misty is recruited to pitch in with, “Face it, honey, you’ve been stood up. Might as well put that cleavage to work. It’s a good-tipping night.” Misty jumps in, taking the Funk Brothers’ order for dessert.

Being recruited into the second shift and with a fresh remembrance of The Gleaner brings Misty back to her time as a waitress at the Dairy Queen, Pop!’s now defunct alternative Elsewhere to the Weevil, where there was only one work shift: opening to closing. The Dairy Queen, or the DQ as it was known, was situated just inside the outskirts of town, the very last numbered address of R. Edward Lee Boulevard, beyond which the road became FM 2314. Being on the edge of the outskirts of town it attracted those souls in the upper middle fringes of the fringe of Pop! society. Prominent among them was The Gleaner. No one knew where he came from or where he went but those in the know knew where he was when he was, which was the only time he seemed to exist. It was understood among the regulars that no one who ate at the DQ ever ate everything on their plate if the hour was near to closing for it was then that He, The Gleaner, came in, shuffling, circling among the tables and booths, dressed in shabby war surplus camouflage, or maybe it was the real thing – no one knew. They only knew that “he is what he does” and what he did was glean. The Dairy Queen was His context. When the place ceased to be The Dairy Queen, so did The Gleaner. He simply vanished and no one ever has seen him again.

Some speculate that The Gleaner was The Dairy Queen and when it ceased to be what it was, so did He. When it closed, though it reopened ‘under new management’, and quite within the tradition of Pop!, it took its name from the remaining working letters of the still striking neon sign transforming into the ‘airy Q’. Though the ‘airy Q’ remained practically the same inside and out, it failed as quickly as it was born, the handful of gay residents of the county almost instantly adopting it in earnest as their Elsewhere it was the, so to speak, kiss of death and the ‘airy Q’ died practically at birth. As is still commented upon, “at least it was allowed to be born.”

But before that, when it was the DQ, it offered a less frenetic more conversational Elsewhere than the Weevil, with the option of dining in or out in your car, being part restaurant, part drive-in. With the exception of The Gleaner, the DQ was a favorite of Pop!’s second-string characters, several of whom possessed qualities which would make them at the best third-round draft choices but none capable of challenging either The Gleaner or Palmer Motley’s supremacy. Whether they ever met no one knows.

The DQ was also known for having retained its original decor from its opening in the ‘50’s, all sparkling chrome and shining plastic. It remained so, though no longer sparking and gleaming, even through various post-DQ attempts to keep the place going. Even near the end, when you walked in, there were those once-stunning, now faded and crinkled, now hideous, photos of fantasy sundaes, bloated hamburgers and now green French fries glaring down at you like so many Joseph Stalins or Big Brothers. The row of pin-ball machines which had long ceased working brought memories of the Friday and Saturday chorus of Pin-Ball Boys, swivel-hipped, finger-flipping ball bearing ever downwards focused with a ham-like glaze in their eyes: chinka-chanka TING chinka ting Chanka-chinka TING.

The DQ was unknowingly a museum of the recent past, of a life not so long gone, itself now faded almost but not quite to oblivion, the structure dark and silent, the lot surrounding it now a convenient parking space for truckers avoiding the weigh station on the Interstate to overnight.

Misty plops banana pudding into a bowl and slices pecan pie for the Funk Brothers. The sweetness of the deserts sweetening her memories of her time at the DQ. Sweet for the fact that Misty was once a Queen, a Dairy Queen, sponsored by the now defunct Dairy Queen every third year in rotation with the Association of Sage Growers and the Boll Weevil Cafe. She wanted to one day write her memoirs of being a dairy queen, and the last one at that, and she’d already decided on a title: “Memoirs of the Last Dairy Queen”. Her life’s ambition was to have accomplished the Pop! Trifecta: to reign as Dairy Queen, the Miss Sage, and The Czarina Weevil but those days have passed her by. Yet every once in a while when she came upon her tap shoes molding in a dark corner of her closet she would think that it might just be possible. Though the Dairy Queen was no more, her already having been the Dairy Queen the Trifecta was still open to her. She’d hold the molding tap shoes, clack them together, and her dream would return and then, looking at herself in the bathroom mirror her hopes would soar. She could do it! She might be older than those teens but now her cleavage, oh her cleavage! And it’s not like it was back then—they let you show more, even expect—demand—more. And once she got up there and started tapping—! Oh my!

When Misty got the courage to wipe down her molding tap shoes and pull out the plywood platform she still kept under her bed and squeeze on the shoes and start to tap she had no doubt she could complete the trifecta if she chose. So why hasn’t she chosen? Above all other things, it was being the Czarina Weevil. Why a county which still grew considerable cotton would fashion a festival and anoint a Czarina in the name of cotton’s greatest foe is lost to the mists of time. Yet still, every other year a new Czarina Weevil is crowned. About ten years ago the Cotton Growers Association sought a change to a Cotton Queen but tradition was too strong and, besides, there were Cotton Queens all over the south but only one Czarina Weevil. Finally a compromise was reached. On the Sunday night of the Festival, at the conclusion of the grand fireworks display, an effigy of the new Czarina, complete in every detail, was hoisted high above the crowd, doused with kerosene and set aflame. This was too much for Misty. It was also too much for most of the truly beautiful, talented, and Czarina-worthy girls of the county, especially after the first two of the ‘new’ Czarina Weevils died in fiery car crashes during their reigns. Now the contest has become the region’s affirmative action beauty contest, attracting the plain and marginally-talented girls mostly from beyond the county who finally had the real opportunity to wear a crown and wave a scepter even at the risk of a short and fiery reign.

Why such a thing continues every other year as the ritual burning of the Czarina Weevil? There is rarely cheering as the effigy Czarina is consumed by the flames. Cheers do rise from the crowd as she is hoisted up high and the Festival’s Master of Ceremonies approaches with the flaming torch but as soon as she begins to burn and the extravagant sequined gown disintegrates, a hush spreads and continues until the last ember blinks out and the festival-goers shuffle off the field. The few drunken shouts and cheers are quickly suppressed by the silent and solemn majority.

#

The Bearded Man, still standing on an empty bench in the Square, holds a penultimate gesture, shouts achingly, falling to the ground. He lies there for a moment, rises, making an ultimate motion to the threatening sky. Seemingly satisfied, he brushes himself off and heads toward the lighthouse of the Weevil.

The Bearded Man enters the Weevil. Cautiously at first then rather conspicuously saunters up and down, taking a short sit-down in an empty booth or stool, all the time acting very much like a store-window manikin expecting, even welcoming, inspection. He receives little or none, except when he’s taken up the place temporarily vacated by a customer returning from the bathroom.

The Bearded man finally settles on a stool at the far end of the counter, where Misty had been sitting. She squeezes around the counter bearing banana pudding and pecan pie, with coffee, for the Funk Brothers. She squeezes back behind the counter to face the Bearded Man, smile on her face, pad and pencil poised, upper body angled for maximum effect and generous tippage.

“JOE!” the Bearded Man shouts.

“Who?”

“No. What.”

“What?”

“JOE!”

“Coffee—?” asks Misty

“Yeah—”

Misty steps back and away to the urn, a gigantic one, and pulls a mug of what by this hour is the well-known ‘Weevil Strong.’ The ironic brew the result of a long day’s cooking down from the morning’s strong and fresh java into the SAE 40 sludge of the end of the day. But who needs such a jolt at the end of the day?

Misty returns, placing the mug of ‘Weevil Strong’ just out of the Bearded Man’s reach, sliding it towards him.

“Anything else?” she asks.

The Bearded Man stares into the blackness of the steaming near sludge, whispering, “What else is there?”

“I’ll get a menu...”

“NO! What I mean is ‘what else could there be?’”

Misty stops in mid-turn, stiffens her spine, twisting her head to face him fully, drawling out, “Pie—”

The Bearded Man jerks his head from the depths of his Joe, “Ha-ha! That’s good. It belies your uniform. Your—exposure.”

He gulps his Joe, jumps off the stool, staggers back two steps, turns, and he’s out of the Weevil in an instant and a half.

The Funk Brothers, feasting on their banana pudding, pecan pie, and mugs of Weevil Strong begin breaking their silence with exhalations of excitement and approval as the papers, diagrams, and charts begin to coalesce into a plan of action following up their ‘Cotillion Lights of Christmas with—An Easter extravaganza.

Funny thing about the Funk Brothers is that they are always thought of as ‘the Funk Brothers’ and never as Freddy and Frodo Funk. Yet they are as different as a field of tobacco and a field of sage. To begin with, they are not brothers but cousins, several times removed; to continue, there’s at least a decade’s difference in their ages; and to conclude, Freddy, the older, all scarecrowish, towers over rolly-polly Frodo.

When not planning and executing their much-anticipated Christmas display, Freddy and Frodo work one of the region’s last allotments of tobacco, several hundred acres of the ‘noxious weed’. They are also known among the locals for almost never leaving the county. With one exception. On the same week, every October, they disappeared. Though there is nothing inherently mysterious about it, it is enough to generate considerable curiosity and is the topic, as Autumn arrives, of gossip throughout the county. Both were bachelors now, though Freddy had been married twice and Frodo was always deeply engaged or rebounding, people couldn’t help but connect the week’s disappearance with the satisfaction of carnal desires. Both of the Funks knew of this speculation and did nothing to discourage or disprove it, which led to even wilder speculation which taxed the limits of the local’s ability to conjure depravity or their knowledge of Leviticus.

If the truth be known, the reason or reasons the Funks are so secretive is likely a great deal more interesting than the ‘secret’ itself. The disappearance for a week every October was not to Amsterdam or Bangkok or Atlanta but to Harlem, Georgia, where they donned each the appropriate costume and paraded about and lived for the week as Laurel and Hardy at the Annual Festival. It is a harmless indulgence but for some reason a deep and secret delight to Freddy and Frodo Funk.

Freddy Funk pushes aside the loose bits of paper and charts beneath which lay a large multicolored map the size of the tabletop.

“Just think of it,” says Freddy. “Three of the biggest, brightest dang crosses the South has ever seen. On hills here, here—and here!”

Frodo Funk, firmly wedged into his side of the booth, studies the map and the three grease spots left by Freddy’s fingers. (The Weevil’s fries always left a lasting impression.) “We’ve got no hills there. There. And there. Or anywhere.”

“No problem. We’ll make ‘em.”

“That’s lotsa dirt. It’ll leave a considerable hole.”

Freddy pokes at the last bits of his pecan pie crust. “So we’ll have a big hole in the ground, right? We’ll fill it with water and get into that fishaculture thing.”

Frodo sees it deliciously, “Yeah! Catfish! But don’t you think… Misty! Another puddin’— aren’t we biting off more than we can chew?”

“You don’t think we can do it?”

Frodo adjusts himself. It’s a tight fit for him. “I know we can. But should we? After all, our Christmas display is an unqualified success but to take on Easter—?”

Freddy straightens to his considerable height. “No-no! We don’t have to call it ‘Easter’. We could market it as a… a sequel! Yes! We’ll call it ‘Christmas II: The Reckoning’.”

Frodo repeats under his breath increasingly in wonder and awe. “Christmas II: The Reckoning. But will they come?”

“Let’s ask Misty.”

Who arrives bearing Frodo’s banana pudding and carafe of coffee, from which she pours into their mugs without asking.

“Misty,” Freddy takes the lead, “you’ve been out to the farm for Christmas, right?”

Misty laughs. “Sure. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Frodo pounces, “...for ‘the world’?” Frodo has a tendency to crash conversations by seizing offhand remarks and has to be…

“—I’m sure what she means is—”

“...what I mean is that I have never missed a Christmas in my entire life! Don’t you recognize me?”

Freddy and Frodo look at her. Look at each other. Then back at Misty, whose praying hands now cover her cleavage.

And in unison, “It’s Mary!”

“Darn right, it’s Mary. At least for the last four years. And I’m NOT going to be giving it back to Zelda Gouldschmidt! And before that three years running as each of the Wise men with an extra year as the Frankincense Guy. A shepherd. A shepherdess. Two years as a camel— first year front end, next year back end. Same for a sheep. Then a stint as ‘the littlest shepherd.’ I was your first baby Jesus! Three years running! Until I kept climbing out of the crib.”

Freddy’s brain wheels are spinning. “And exactly how old are you?”

Frodo knows where this is going. “Freddy, are you crazy!”

“Oh, but the closure of it, bringing the story full circle. Misty—this year we are going to do Easter. You’ve been all three Wise men and everyone and everything else—how would you like to be—The Guy.”

The gravity of it briefly knocks Misty out of orbit. She pauses, then: “You mean—Judas?”

“No!” says Freddy.

Then Misty, a little more carefully, “—Barabbas?”

“Misty!” a call comes from behind the counter summoning her.

“Let me think about it okay?” She disappears into the chaos behind the counter and into the kitchen leaving Frodo speechless. But not Freddy.

“Well, I didn’t expect that,” says Freddy.

“Phew!” exclaims Frodo.

“Whattaya mean ‘Phew!’”

“I mean, are you nuts? What will Pastor Zeb think? Misty in an Easter Extravaganza as—the guy?”

“He won’t think anything if he’s not here soon. He’s half an hour late.”

“Let’s go, then.”

Freddy takes a sip of his Weevil Strong. “You know as well as I do that if Pastor Zeb doesn’t approve...”

“Alright-alright! But if we’re here any longer I’ll need another burger or….”

And who should appear but The Reverend Zebedee. The Reverend Zebedee, or Pastor Zeb, pastors the county’s only Baptist church which has remarkably never split, though there was that one time with the sandwiches—but Pastor Zeb managed not only to steer his congregation to a satisfyingly Biblical resolution but which also strengthened the fellowship. The Funk Brothers were nominally members of his church and when they did show for services they were definite and firm back-benchers. If there had been seating in the alcove that’s where they’d be. Pastor Zeb stood head and shoulders above the neighboring churches with members practically in the dozens while the Reverend Zeb’s numbered in the hundreds.

“Well, boys, what is it?” says Pastor Zeb, having no choice but to slide in next to Freddy.

Freddy jumps right in. “A grand display! Rivaling Christmas! A drive-through Easter taking the visitor from Accusation through Crucifixion all the way up to Resurrection.”

“Hallelujah!” Frodo cannot resist.

Here Rev. Zeb pauses for effect. Generally he is not ‘fire and brimstone’ in his sermons and is known, actually, for pausing for effect. What most in the congregation did not suspect was that the pause was developed over the years as a way of alerting those whose spouse was nodding off or whose child was fidgeting to distraction to give them the elbow, or a good shake, the pause being general and the effect being an intense stare at the nodders’ neighbor.

At length, Pastor Zeb speaks. “Misty—?” who stands at the booth, poised, “orange juice,” pause, “large..”

The Funk Brothers collectively relax. An orange juice probably meant a quick decision. If it had been a mug of Weevil Strong… But—the OJ was ‘large.’ Maybe he’s just being healthy tonight.

Frodo can’t wait any longer. “Well—?”

“Crucifixion? That’s a pretty big hill.”

Freddy jumps in. “Hill? We’re going to have three of ‘em: here, here—and here. A Jesus hill and a couple of criminal hills. That’s right, right?”

“If you boys came to services more often you’d know there was just one hill.”

“Well, it’s just that, well, you know, we thought Jesus woulda had his own hill.”

“He didn’t.”

“One hill it is.”

“Boys, to be honest, I’m inclined to disapprove...”

Freddy’s ‘Weevil Strong’ is really kicking in now. “But it’ll be just like Christmas! Only different. And they’ll be huge searchlights, like in Hollywood, you know, for the Resurrection. So bright they’ll be jumbo jets tryin’ to land next door in Oliver’s sage fields.” (The Funks were particularly disdainful of the sage which now surrounded their acres of tobacco. In their minds if you couldn’t wear it, eat it, or smoke it, it wasn’t worth growing.)

“Impressive as that may be—” Pause….

Frodo kicks in. “We know that you’ve praised our Christmas show from the pulpit.”

“Again, that’s something you boys should know from having heard it yourselves. But— Easter? Hmmmm. Christmas? Christmas is a different matter. Well, that’s something the church has pretty much given up on.”

“Since when?” asks Freddy.

“Since we gave in to the pagans.”

“What? The Catholics?”

“No. Even farther back. Why do you think there’s no services when Christmas falls on a Sunday? Boys, I’m determined to hold on to Easter. And I don’t think...

“But—”

“Boys, I’m firm. This is a much bigger deal than the sandwiches.”

“Oh my!” In unison. The controversy with the sandwiches is still legendary in the town.

“You’re right ‘oh my’. I will not give my blessing to this. Unless….

Pastor Zebedee was also a part time Realtor which, in the county, was extremely part-time as most property was sold before the sign ever went up, word of mouth being the best Realtor and with no formal commission, but when he had to deal, he was potent, especially when combined with his effectual pauses, one of which he has just initiated.

Frodo, stomach now growling, can wait no longer. “Unless what?”

“An exchange.”

“Anything!” shouts Freddy.

“I will wholeheartedly approve of your Display, or show, on two conditions.” (Pause here.) “First: no bunnies.”

“Agreed!” Freddy blurts out, to Frodo’s chagrin, who is already thinking how to re-purpose their half-dozen camels and creating a scenario to explain the giant rabbits.

“And the second—” (Here another even more effective pause.) A year’s worth of Wednesday Prayer Meetings.”

“What? The both of us?”

“Together? At the same time?”

Here, the Funks exercised a pause of their own, ending with, “Impossible!” Freddy appending, “We’ll do it without the church’s approval.”

Now Pastor Zebedee did more than pause for effect. He calls Misty over for another glass of Orange juice. “Even larger.”

But the Funk Brothers hold firm. Their Christmas Show was such a sensation, such an anticipated event in the year despite the collective drop of the county’s voltage that it is Pastor Zeb who wavers. If word ever got around that the Funk Brothers’ Easter Show was nixed by him… and it turns out to be as popular as Christmas… well, he couldn’t chance it. It would be the sandwiches all over again.

“Alright! Prayer meetings for the both of you but not at the same time—alternating.”

Both sides at this moment exercise their best and longest pause.

In the Funks’ minds: Individual tickets to see the Christmas Show were fine but it was the season ticket holders, most of whom were members of Pastor Zeb’s congregation, who made the show a financial success. Without them Easter would be a futile enterprise.

Pastor Zeb had been trying to get the Funks into church for years. Their presence and participation might well lead to finally getting those first two rows of pews filled. Ah! What an accomplishment! Every Pastor’s dream: seeing those front pews full! How that would put an end to all those latecomers!

Both pauses are broken: “AGREED!”

To seal the deal Pastor Zebedee plops his ever-present Bible on the table. It is his favorite Bible, his carrying-around Bible, as limp from use as the bacon formerly on Misty’s plate. He flipped open the Bible at random. This pertinent, all-purpose verse he knew by heart, as he knew most of the New Testament and the good, frightening bits of Leviticus:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

“Amen,” appends Freddy.

“Oh he’ll see it alright!” Frodo exclaims. “Ow!” he cries in response to Freddy’s kick to his shin. “Amen.”

Pastor Zeb slides out of the booth, followed by Freddy. They wait as Frodo wriggles out. Shaking hands all around. Freddy gathers the map and papers.

“By the way, you boys looking to acquire any more acreage? Because...”

“First things first,” says Freddy. “And for us it’s building a hill and making a lake.”

“Well, then, I’ll be seeing one of you this Wednesday. Bring your Bible.”

Pastor Zeb works his way to the cashier, who refuses his money, and out into the night.

Disinclined to leave the barest smidgen of food, Frodo squeezes back into the booth for what is more of a dab than smidgen of pudding. “Sit down sit down. So, what are we going to do about Misty?”

Freddy deposits his hoard of papers and sits. “Well, she thinks she’s going to be Judas or Barabbas. Does it make any difference? Let her decide or we flip a coin.”

Misty, released from her relief appearance returns to buss the Funk’s booth and cleavaging the tip, is aglow with excitement. And not for the ten dollar tip.

You know just now when I said I’d think about it? Well, I’ve thought about it and I think you meant by The Guy, you know, like Jesus. Right? Well it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? How can I be so dense? Jesus! I was the baby Jesus and now I’ll be the man Jesus! So my answer is, ‘I’ll do it! YES! I’ll do it!’ I’ve got the most wonderful robe! Oh! One thing. It’s not going to hurt, is it? I mean, you’ll fix it so that I’m not just hanging up there all night. This is exciting! I can hardly wait! And for the Resurrection I’m thinking maybe all white and shimmering and for the Ascension? Will I have wings? Will I fly up into the sky? Just like Maria in ‘The Sound of Music’! What excitement! This isn’t the trifecta but believe me, I’ll do the both of you proud!

Table bussed, tip dipped, Misty crashes the tub behind the counter and dashes out into the night leaving Freddy and Frodo in an open-mouthed funk.

Frodo comes out of it first. “And Isaac Steinberg would have been so perfect. Well, Freddy, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”

They stare at Pastor Zeb’s second orange juice (large) sweating between them.

“Wait,” says Freddy. “Maybe there’s a way out. We’ll just have to make the Easter Extravaganza so Extra that they’ll forget all about Jesus.”

“Oh, like those Episcoplians in the next county?”

“That’s not what I meant. I meant it’s got to be extra special good.”

“Do you mean like a mountain instead of a hill? Two cotillion lights instead...”

“No-no-NO!” shouts Freddy.

“—OR we could just tell Misty the part’s not for her.”

“Frodo, you know that neither of us has the heart, courage, or… is willing to give up the hope, to ever disappoint Misty.” This latter confession brings a rising blush to both men. Freddy gathers their plans into stacks. “Well then, that leaves us with the task of extravagandizing our Extravaganza.”

“And you have an idea, I suppose?”

“I do, Frodo. I do—music.”

“Music?”

“Yes music! But not just any music. New music. Original music. Music and songs make anything and everything better. You know the saying, invented right here in Pop!— ‘The right song at the right time will convict a man of any crime’.”

It is such a well-known and appreciated ditty in the area that Frodo practically jumps out of the booth. “White Way William!”

“Yes, White Way William.”

At Frodo’s practically shouting ‘White Way William’, the Weevil goes silent and practically in unison the patrons sing:

“The right song at the right time

Will convict a man of any crime.”

Ah yes, White Way William. William Williamson is the county Prosecutor and is known almost as far as wide for his musical talent as for his prosecutorial ability. To be honest, on court days the courtroom is packed (standing room only) not to hear his opening statement but his “Overture” as he calls it. Yes, White Way William is known as the county’s ‘Singing Prosecutor.’ A summation? For him it’s the “Finale”. His cross-examinations are said to rival the pitter of Gilbert & Sullivan’s patter songs. And his Motions? Barely a dry eye remaining in the courtroom. If you ever wanted a recap of the Golden Age of Broadway, a day at court in Pop! is the place to be unless, of course, you were the one being prosecuted. However, it must be reported that on several occasions, the Defendant has been known to join the standing ovation for White Way William’s Finale.

Now, though nicknamed ‘White Way,’ William Williamson, as far as can be determined, never actually made it to the White Way, that is, Broadway. Rumor has it that he got at least as far, in his younger days, as the Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, Dinner Theatre where he understudied Billy Bigelow in “Carousel.” For something, even a rumor, to be that specific, lifts it above mere rumor to the level of almost but not quite certain fact. And to be truthful, to most of the residents of Pop! the Ho-Ho-Kus Dinner Theatre and the White Way were essentially geographically and culturally indistinguishable.

Despite the serenade, however brief, by the Weevil’s patrons, Frodo is skeptical.

“But we’d need a composer, not a singer.”

“Ah ha! It’s his secret desire to be a composer. He has ambitions.”

“Freddy, how can you know such a thing?”

“Trust me, he’ll do it. An entire score. Never before heard. And there’s a sort of courtroom scene in the Easter thing, isn’t there?”

“I think so.”

“You can ask Pastor Zeb this coming Wednesday.”

“What?”

“At prayer meeting.”

“What you’re planning is not what Pastor Zeb agreed to.”

“Then, Frodo, it’s your job to convince him that he has. In the form of a prayer would be the way to go. Or better yet bring White Way with you.”

“Don’t be ridicu...”

“Ah-ha! We’ve both seen White Way in action. He’ll bring Pastor Zeb around.”

“You’re right. He will. But...? Misty as… aren’t we going too far?”

“Look, Frodo, we’ve done all we can do with lights.”

“I’m inclined to agree with you.”

“But are you all in?”

“Yeah—let’s go for it.”

“Good! Anything else?”

“You gonna drink Pastor Zeb’s orange juice (large)?”


#

Misty practically floats down the sidewalk to her car, arms outstretched, wishing to ascend now instead of waiting until Easter. But there is no fair wind to take her up. Instead, though sufficient enough for flight, the wind this evening is foreboding and chilling. She collapses her arms in an embrace for warmth. She stops suddenly at the edge of the square to watch The Bearded Man running, leaping, and somersaulting across the lawn, over a bench and into the cab of a beat-up red pick-up truck which cranks nosily and drives off.

“That’s Jack’s truck!” Misty exclaims. “But where’s Jack? Better for him he isn’t here or I’ll… Standing me up! On our first date! But did I really expect anything normal from—? Could that have been Jack? Why would he do such a thing? No! That wasn’t him. This is Pop! Yes, that’s it. Palmer Motley, better watch out. I think your competition has finally emerged from this unsettled and stormy night. Wait! Could it be—? Can it be? Is that bearded man… The Gleaner? Finally returned—?”

Misty slows to a stop. In her imagined ascension, she has circled practically back to her origin. She turns to look at the lighthouse of the Weevil, the evening drop in temperature having coated the big plate glass with a dripping condensation, obscuring what lay inside. As she watches the drops rivulet down the glass her imagination overcomes her anger at being stood up and sees herself in sequined gossamer ascending, ascending into eternity.

She stands at the window and sees an omen. Not that she is particularly superstitious, not any more than anyone else, but the droplets running down the window over the “2+2+2” all seem to be bypassing the pluses. “Yes, it’s a sign: this Easter gig is going to be a lot safer than being the Czarina Weevil.”


Copyright © 2023 by Raleigh Marcell.



About the Author

Raleigh Marcell, born in Houma, Louisiana, currently resides in Savannah, Georgia. He published his first short story when he was a junior in high school. Twenty-five years later, four of his one-act plays were published by Dramatic Publishing and Performance Publishing. Over the years, these plays have received over 2,000 performances by schools, community theaters, and colleges in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Turkey. He was the librettist for the musical-comedy about the Cajuns of Louisiana, The Band Inside Your Head produced by the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. His full-length play of Southern history and manners, Pilgrimage, was given an Equity production by the Blowing Rock Stage Company, Blowing Rock, NC. His full-length stage play, Possessed by the Past about the life and times of the last Southern gentleman, was produced by Lander University, Greenwood, SC.


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