Millwood Hollow cast the kind of dreamy mood that drew women into its center, the way morning trickled through the pale green mist of dawn and the trout stream meandered in an elegant train around two hundred tree trunks. The quiet veil of virgin light belonged to Millwood Hollow, just as the noise of rattling Model-As and newspaper boys shouting into the dry September air belonged to Hot Springs. The leaves hung soft and green on the thick limbs, each overlapping another, strung from the sky to the earth like happy fabric squares cut and laid out for a winter quilt.
Such a place might rekindle schoolteacher Fern Coulter’s interest in him, Jeb Nubey thought, although he did not know for certain. Fern could not be figured out in an instant. Jeb knelt on one knee and practiced a speech, careful to bar any idle flattery. Fern’s intellect would not buy into sentimental sweet talk, and if he so much as hinted at manipulation he would lose her altogether.
He remembered the afternoon she had dumped him. On the hottest August day that swept dust and shimmering ghosts of heat through town like a mean spirit, Fern had confessed, “Jeb, it’s a crying shame, you know, the way I fell in love with an ideal and not a man. I blame myself, not you.”
“I’ll be making preacher soon, Fern, if that’s your worry.” He had realized too late he might come across a mite anxious.
“Something good will come of all this,” she had said. “You’ll move on, make something of yourself. I am proud of you, so don’t get the wrong idea.”
“Gracie says I’ll be getting a certificate from this school in Texas he hooked me up with.” Jeb had stopped short of saying he would have it framed. He could feel his legitimacy spilling out of him like he had sprung a leak there in plain sight of Fern. Looking back, he should have walked away right then with what little dignity remained.
“The last thing you need is someone loving you for what you’re trying to become.” She had worn a pair of jointed earrings that kept tapping the sides of her face like the forelegs of a praying mantis. “You deserve better.” She picked up a sack of something she had bought that morning at the Woolworth’s, then climbed into her rattling Chevy coupe and tooled off to start the next hour of her life without him.
Jeb had tried to tell Fern how he reached for her same ideals with the muster of a fighter pilot. But he was left watching her drive away as he fumbled for words that would not come.
Fool that you are, he had thought to himself.
Fern’s blunt here’s-the-deal, take-it-or-leave-it way of letting Jeb down had left him grasping for another chance, although his oldest charge, Angel, had judged him duly demeaned.
Now, in the secret chapel of daylight, he balanced on one knee until it came to him that his posture suggested matrimony. If Fern so much as laid eyes on him in such a position, she would turn and walk away before he had the chance to explain his lesser intent of starting over with courtship. So he found a place to sit on a fallen tree and spent several minutes piecing together a speech that might convince Fern to give thought to the idea of seeing him again—over coffee at Beulah’s. No. Dinner. Dinner would be better, since their first go-around had taken them past the stage of coffee and a biscuit.
How well he remembered the night she had come nigh to giving herself to him. That alone had much to do with Fern’s gradual pulling away from him, along with the fact she had said she loved him—before the truth came out, that is. That Jeb was not who he said he was.
Jeb slumped down, exhausted by his thoughts. His year under the tutelage of Philemon Gracie had taught him how to bring out the message inside the Scriptures, picking away at every word until the application rose from the story like a bubble below the lake’s surface. Gracie had taught him porch chatter—how to yammer on about everything from the best place to buy buckshot to how to feed six children on three dollars a week. But Philemon, not a minister to dabble in matters as impractical as romance, had not mentioned how Jeb could win back the affections of the schoolteacher who hated him for pretending to be someone he wasn’t. Even knowing he was working to become a legitimate preacher had not improved her trust in Jeb. The history they shared smacked of too much bitter and not enough sweet.
Returning to his orations, Jeb practiced a few well-turned phrases, got up, sat back down, then threw open his arms and said to the trees, “Fern, I’m not the same man you once knew. I’ve learned the difference between what is right and wrong. I want to ask you to forgive me and . . .”
His voice weakened at the sight of Angel, his fourteen-year-old charge, staring at him from across the rear of the acre behind the church. Her gaze held a pitiable anticipation, as though she expected every last ounce of his manhood to wither up and blow away. She shrugged and called over to him, “I liked you better as a liar. At least you was believable then.”
Jeb stopped his truck when he saw the face of the boy, aged by hard times, selling homemade items alongside the road. Everyone in Nazareth had fallen on hard times. But nobody wanted a handout, no matter what the rest of the country thought. Buying homemade wares from a neighbor lacked the sting of blatant charity. Edward Bluetooth’s family was known for making and selling goods along the stretch of road right outside downtown Nazareth, as well as for being good fix-it people for the county’s farmers.
Jeb was supposed to be on his way into town on an errand; Gracie had sent him to pick up a sack of nails and some wood to repair a window in the church. He hit the brake and pulled the truck to a stop next to the boy’s stand.
Edward Bluetooth attended the county school often enough to fall behind and yet get a free lunch and be counted in the rolls. He’d never had the look of a boy, just a small twelve-year-old man with a Fuller Brush salesman’s spiel and yellow teeth. He sold his family’s wares on the side of the road—mostly leather things and squares of lye soap cooked up with lavender to hide the unpleasant stench when his momma stirred up potent batches out in the front yard.
Jeb picked up a pair of moccasins stitched around the toes, with leather straps and tassels that tickled the calf. Edward had a hungry look about him that pinched Jeb’s conscience. He’d heard the Bluetooths had left the Appalachians on foot and hiked all the way to Arkansas to try to find a place where they could set up shop and escape the starvation of the hills. But the Depression had put every person—Indian, Negro, and White—in the same boat.
Before Jeb could lay down the shoes, Edward said to him, “Those are real good moccasins.”
“I’ll give you fifty cents, Edward,” said Jeb.
“You don’t believe me. Try ’em for a month. If they don’t work fer ye, you bring ’em back. I’ll give you back your dollar.”
“Seventy-five cents. Bottom dollar, Preacher.”
Jeb handed Edward all the change from his pocket.
“You still owe me a dime, Preacher, but if you’ll not mention it to anyone, I’ll let you slide. You is lucky. The moccasins wear just as good at sixty-five cent as a dollar.”
Jeb pulled his foot out of his right shoe and tried on a moccasin. “Feels good, Edward. You make them?”
“Nobody in the Bluetooth family has my way with leather. Best hands in the county—fingers touched by God, my uncle says. Wait to see how they do for you, then you’ll be runnin’ back for more.”
Jeb smiled at the boy’s pitch and climbed into the cab of his truck. As he drove off, he glanced back at Edward. The boy had already pulled up shop and was walking down the road with his entire business in a time-punctured satchel straining with his shoemaker’s knickknacks. Leather straps dangled out the bottom. He was whistling a song that sounded like a Christmas carol in the middle of September.
Jeb drove on to the parsonage wearing Edward Bluetooth’s moccasins. When he pulled up, Reverend Gracie, the minister of Church in the Dell and his mentor and teacher, waited on the front porch. The instant Jeb pulled into the dusty circle of roadway that led to the house, Gracie pulled out his pocket watch to check the time. He lifted himself out of the rocker and waited for Jeb to come up and seat himself. Once settled, the parson chatted about the county fair for a moment, more talkative than usual. Then he spotted some pages sticking out from under the jacket Jeb had laid over the top of his work. Little if anything ever got past Gracie’s eye for detail.
“Good. You brought your notes. I can’t find my glasses. You’ll have to read a bit of your thesis to me. Eyes are getting old,” said Gracie.
“I don’t have your flair with words,” Jeb admitted. Gracie had loaned him his old papers from the little Bible school he had attended up north. The preacher’s writing had a quick pace about it—like a general, all hurry-up-and-let’s-get-on-with-things. Jeb’s thesis felt like lead in his hands. He had inked out and written over so many of the words, the paper looked blotchy, as though penned by Angel’s little brother, Willie. He hesitated. “Maybe I should rewrite it.”
“First-thesis jitters. I had them too. May as well get over it. Let’s see it.” Philemon had lucid eyes that changed from green to blue depending upon his mood. They were eyes that could see straight into Jeb with candor, probing all the way past his insecurities and straight into his fears.
Jeb laughed. He had come to know a different Gracie from the black-coated penguin who had waddled into Church in the Dell with his three astute city children. Only with Jeb around did Gracie fall into jesting.
Jeb read a line or two, cleared his throat, and then began again. He’d gone through a couple of paragraphs before he realized Gracie was staring into the dusty road beyond the parsonage. “I’m boring you. If it’s lousy, just give it to me slowly.”
Gracie pulled a blanket around his shoulders, allowing the corners to hang like an old lady’s prayer shawl. After a pause to gauge Jeb’s mood, he spoke candidly. “I’m afraid I’m not well, Jeb.”
At twilight each evening, the slow final drain of summer into September sent everyone in town out onto their front porches. Even from a mile up the road, just before Marvelous Crossing Bridge, Jeb could hear the neighbor girls’ carefree laughter, filled with the joys of coming of age and the mystery of boys and not the least bit dampened by the Depression.
“You been to see the doctor yet?” Jeb laid aside the thesis between them on the porch, his rocker slowing to the same steady, lulling creak of Gracie’s import from Germany.
“Down around these places, it’s difficult to get good care. Dr. Forrester in Hot Springs says I’ve gone and got myself a nasty stomach disorder.”
“You thought about seeing Ethel Bluetooth? She’s the best yarb woman, you know, and lots of things can be done for a stomach complaint,” said Jeb, unconsciously examining his new moccasins.
“If it weren’t for the children, I’d not blink an eye about staying. I can’t imagine how things would turn out for them without me. Bad enough they lost their mother. I’m terrified for them.”
A flock of Canada geese startled the sky all at once and dived beneath the line of trees, calling out to one another that winter would soon flush all warmth from the hollow. Jeb shifted in the rocker, wanting to steer the conversation back toward safer topics. But he noticed the beads of sweat above Gracie’s upper lip and the diluted color of his cheeks and temples. He said, “Reverend Gracie, you and I both know this town took a long time to find you and get you to come and pastor Church in the Dell. You can’t leave.”
“Ever notice how life is one big fleeting chapter after another? You take Saint Paul. Never could settle in one place.”
Jeb stopped Gracie’s hand as it tapped the chair arm. “You can’t be bad sick. God wouldn’t allow it.”
“Don’t presume to second-guess God, Jeb.”
Jeb drew back, respectful of his mentor.
Gracie began to lay out the plan he had mentally organized over the course of the last week. “We’ll give the congregants time to grow accustomed to the idea. I’ve heard of another doctor in Hope who might be able to help me until I can get to Cincinnati.” He caught Jeb’s deflated look. “I don’t mean I’m throwing in the towel just yet, so don’t look at me like that.”
Jeb still knew of those in Nazareth who had not forgiven his phony preacher stint when he’d used the Welby children as his family for a front. He had been on the run from the law not one year ago. The memory of his brief season of crime still weighed him down, not only in his own mind, but in the minds of the townspeople who had believed he should be lynched. Looking back on all of it—Angel’s wrinkled scheme, his puerile belief that he would wind up the town preacher with a girl like Fern on his arm—still left him astonished that he had not been struck down by the Almighty. It was like him to run. He had not meant to stay long enough to get found out and arrested. But the omnipotent One had laid out a different plan.
The thought of Gracie’s duties being suddenly dumped in his lap gave him a queasy feeling, like looking out over a canyon while the ground eroded under his feet.
“Your thesis opener isn’t bad. I’d like for you to bring me a fresh new sermon. Tomorrow.”
“What makes you think I’m ready to preach, let alone step into your shoes?”
“Man like you hates to accept defeat. You’re like the young boy pedaling uphill with all his brothers watching. I know you’ve been trying to prove yourself to everyone in town. Including that schoolteacher.”
The girls from Marvelous Crossing raced down the road, followed by the Welbys. Jeb could see Angel leading the chase with elbows crooked and bare feet pounding. Little dusty ghosts of red clay trailed behind them.
His obligation had somehow become his family, he realized. Jeb had never heard about youngens being put out when he was growing up. These days it was the same as being orphaned—nobody around to see to your meals and teach you the ways of the world from a comfortable perch. Either way, you had better find a body to latch onto or starve. Like the Welbys, past things had put him out too. But Nazareth had become their place to land. Odd the way they had become a family—Jeb, Angel, Willie, and Ida May—like someone had knitted with threads of cotton and wool a thing of comfort. Although the biggest, Angel, had her prickly ways.
Jeb felt Gracie slipping away from him, as though he were being cast to sea. “Six more months with you, and then I’ll take that platform, Reverend.”
“I know this is hard for you, Jeb. Give yourself some mulling-over time.”
“People here count on you, like you’re the man of the house when it comes to Church in the Dell.”
Gracie spoke to himself as he checked off a mental list. “So much to tell you. Things like how to keep your mind on the flock and out of town politics. I’d better write all this down. Where’d I put my glasses?”
Jeb hated to tell him they were right on the bridge of his nose where they belonged.
Gracie picked up the thesis and passed it back to Jeb. “Best you read me a little more. The sun is going down and we’re low on coal oil.”
Nazareth’s bank had just closed when Jeb arrived downtown with the small offering Gracie had given him to deposit. Jeb had seen more squeezed from corn than was wrung out in that offering plate. He tapped on the window glass where the clerk, Finn Dudley, was pulling down the shade.
“Finn, can you take this deposit for Reverend Gracie?” Jeb said, knowing Gracie carried more weight than he.
Finn’s gaze made a half-circular examination of the bank lobby behind him.
“For the church, Finn.”
Finally, with a sigh as reticent as pond mist, the obliging clerk pulled out a ring of keys. Jeb smiled at him through a circle drawn in the window dust by a youth. He met Finn at the counter, where the clerk carried out the transaction while talking about the piping hot supper he had waiting for him back at the house.
“Sorry to keep you from your supper, Finn.”
Finn mentioned that the wife could always throw an extra tater in the pot if he would join them. Jeb mulled over the invite, all the while knowing he had three more mouths to feed besides his own. But before he could respond the front door snapped open. Asa Hopper came into the bank like he had just bought it.
“Evening, Asa,” Jeb said, even though Asa looked past him.
“Mr. Mills is gone for the day, Asa.” Finn kept his eyes on the deposit, which would have been his habit anyway, so as not to lose count. But it seemed he did not want to give Asa the satisfaction of looking into his eyes.
“This Depression ain’t no excuse to just haul off and kick a man when he’s already fighting to scratch together two nickels, Finn!” Asa had a bearlike countenance, brown eyes liquid as kerosene. He held up a letter that had the bank’s address at the top. “Ain’t no one who could come up with this kind of money in two weeks. I got big deals, I tell you, that will land me in the money—but not in two weeks.”
“It’s none of my business, Asa.” Finn kept counting the money.
Jeb knew the church offering was paltry and figured Finn had counted it three times by now. “I’ll be out of here, if you two are needing to do personal business.”
Finn’s fingers turned white around his fountain pen. “No need to hurry off, Jeb. I can’t help you, Mr. Hopper. Your business is not with me, but you already know that.”
“You tell that banker, Mills, this is not my last time to come looking for him. If I want to see him, I know where he lives.” Asa wadded up the letter and tossed it on the rug where people wiped their feet. Then he turned to leave and slammed the door behind him.
The big clock near the door clanged out the hour of six o’clock as though it timed Hopper’s exodus.
“I should have locked up behind us,” said Finn.
Jeb felt responsible for the whole scene with Asa. Finn had already wrapped up his evening clerk duties and might have motored halfway home by now if he had not wangled his way inside. “I should have waited until tomorrow. Is something wrong with Asa Hopper?”
Jeb had never known much about Asa. His wife, Telulah, was a woman as slight as a frail twig in winter, even seeming at times to snap in two if any of the other women tried to engage her in everyday talk. Some Sundays she came with their brood of five youngens, although usually it was with just their youngest, Beck. But Asa never visited the church. Not for Easter sunrise service or even shadowing the wife at the church picnics like other men that preferred Sunday on the creek bank.
“Asa’s like every other poor old Joe in the country—needing relief but not knowing where to get it. I wish him well, but I can’t help the man.”
Jeb recalled that the Hoppers owned a large spread of land just outside Nazareth, a place running over with several big, strapping boys who looked like men years before they’d come of age. “Don’t we all wish this Depression would let go? Been like an old mean dog, tearing up people’s lives as it lopes down the road.”
“Here’s your receipt, Jeb. Or should I call you Reverend Nubey?” asked Finn.
It was the first time since Jeb had lied about being a preacher that he’d heard the title Reverend in front of his own name. He figured he would have to let it settle on him until he no longer felt like a fraud, like he’d been cut out of the newspaper in little Gracie silhouettes. He thanked Finn, stepped around the wadded paper on the rug, and opened the door.
Hopper yelled out the open window of the jalopy driven by his oldest boy. “I’ll be back tomorrow, Dudley! You tell that to Mills!”
Jeb hesitated long enough to watch Hopper disappear around the next block. “Finn, go on and lock up behind me. It’s getting late.” He waited until Finn had locked the door.
When the sun set, it was as though all Jeb’s energy drained with it. He was as tired as the day had been long.
© 2004 by Patricia Hickman.