Authors: Varina Denman
Tags: #Romance, #Inspirational, #Forgiveness, #Excommunication, #Disfellowship, #Justiifed, #Shunned, #Texas, #Adultery, #Small Town
For those who long for heaven
Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stoneÂ at her.
I last attended worship service on a blustery Sunday in March, the year I turned seven. I'm certain of the date because I still have the bulletin from that morning. Momma wadded the paper into a fist-clenched ball, but I pressed it between the pages of an old dictionary to flatten the wrinkles and later hid it in my chest of drawers beneath my sweatpants.
That morning, we took our usual spot in the musty building, fifth pew from the back, and my best friend, Fawn Blaylock, sat with her parents in front of us. Fawn turned around to make funny faces at me, so I was giggling when Momma snatched my arm and dragged me out the door. Fawn's comical expression morphed into surprise, but her parents, oddly enough, never looked at us.
Our silver hatchback careened through town as Momma put a death grip on the steering wheel, and by the time she pulled under our carport, the muscles in her face and neck resembled polished marble. Mind you, Momma never cried. No matter what she was feeling, every emotion manifested itself as anger. Even when Daddy left, she bottled up her grief like one of those homemade bombs you make with a Coke bottle. So when she read that notice in the church bulletin, her emotions ignited into an explosion the likes of which I never saw before or since. When her rage petered out, she locked herself in her bedroom and stayed there until supper.
Fawn Blaylock stopped being my friend before the Monday morning Pledge of Allegiance, and Momma's church friends looked the other way whenever we'd pass them in town. It didn't seem to matter that Daddy was the one who ran off. Nobody asked for details before they branded Momma with a scarlet letter.
We became invisible to our church family, and after a visit from one of the elders, I knew we would never return to worship services. No more Saturday night plastic curlers, which I wouldn't miss. No more Sunday morning ruffled socks, which I would. And for all practical purposes, no more Momma. She stopped smiling, socializing, living. My seven-year-old immaturity convinced me the church had pulled her away from me, and I wondered if, in some way, they had taken Daddy, too. I resolved to steer clear of Christians, and over the years, the baptized believers never gave me cause to reconsider.
Thirteen years later, my callous determination had grown fierce, and when the Cunninghams moved to town with their charm and good intentions, I figured they were nothing more than a fancy version of the same old rigmarole.
“Ruthie, did you hear? There's a new kid up at the school.” My cousin, JohnScott, called through the window of his step-side pickup as I pushed a squeaky shopping cart across the parking lot of the United grocery storeâmy second job. For my day job, I worked full-time as attendance clerk at the high school, so I knew for a fact we hadn't gotten a new student in three years. I could almost taste my curiosity.
The truck idled in front of the store, and I stopped to lean on the rusty driver's door. “What are you talking about? I left the school an hour ago, and I didn't see anybody.”
“Let me think â¦” He rubbed a palm across his five o'clock shadow. “Seems like the name was Cunningham.”
“Any relation to the new middle school teacher who's supposed to be showing up any day?” I smiled as I inhaled the scent of his truck, a mixture of cheap cologne, cattle feed, and West Texas sand. “Out with it, JohnScott.”
“It may take a minute for me to recollect. I remember going to the office to turn in some grades â¦” He squinted at the sky.
“If you talk, I'll get Blue Bell Ice Cream from the back freezer.”
He killed the ignition. “You're too easy, Ruthie. I would've talked for less.”
I grinned as his goading washed over me like the sugary smell in a donut shop. JohnScott would do anything for me. We had practically been raised as brother and sister, because in childhood I spent more time at my aunt and uncle's house than my own. Now that we were grown, my cousin teased me a lot, but I knew I could count on the man.
“What's his name?” I quizzed JohnScott as we stood shoulder to shoulder in the walk-in refrigerator at the back of the store.
“Grady Cunningham. He's a senior. He was touring the school with his mother. And yes, she's teaching. Couldn't come two weeks ago because she was giving notice at her old job.”
I nodded as the refrigerated air sent chill bumps across my neck, but JohnScott could not be rushed.
He peeled away the lid of the ice-cream container, studying the contents. “Surely he'll play football, right? I mean, why wouldn't he?” Since JohnScott was the head coach of the high school football team, his conversations tended to gravitate toward the pigskin sport. “You think he could take Tinker's place?”
“Maybe.” Football made little sense to me. I slipped into a huge jacket that hung on a hook by the refrigerator door, and a whiff of sour milk enveloped me along with the jacket's warmth. “He's only missed a few games.”
“Good thing we've got a bye tonight or he'd be missing another one.” JohnScott scratched behind his ear. “I guess he's a city boy. Comes from Fort Worth.”
“So the dad's not a farmer?”
“I don't think the dad's in the picture, but the mother seemed nice. She's short, like you.”
“What's that got to do with anything?”
He clicked the plastic spoon against his teeth, licking the frozen chocolate. “I don't know, but she looked awful small next to the boy.”
“So he's tall.”
“Smidgen taller than me, I guess. Might be good on offense.”
“A new family with a son who plays football?” I shook my head and mumbled, “That news will spread faster than a grass fire in a drought.”
My cousin looked at me out of the corner of his eye. “Mom will be all over this, you know.”
I cringed. Aunt Velma meant well, but her advice always ended with me getting married. I'd do that too, if it meant getting out of Trapp, but most of the men I knew planned to spend the rest of their lives here. “For crying out loud, JohnScott, the kid's in high school.”
“Not ideal, but he'll grow up.”
“I'm not planning to hang around that long.”
“He's a looker â¦”
I laughed. “Then you date him. I don't need a babysitting job. Besides, he can't be handsome enough for me to risk losing my job at the school.”
“His older brother might be, though.”
I bumped a pile of egg cartons, then reached to steady them. “Older brother?”
“The boy mentioned him. I figure he's home from college for the weekend.” JohnScott wrinkled his forehead. “Could be older.”
I smiled. Other than my cousin, Trapp boasted four eligible bachelors, all of whom repeatedly asked me out, and none of whom understood the concept of antiperspirant. I shivered, partly from the temperature in the refrigerator and partly from the possibilities this older brother presented. “Tell Aunt Velma I'll marry that one.”
I stacked three milk crates and told myself not to get my hopes up. Reality rarely matched my daydreams, so I steered the conversation away from my impending marriage plans. “I got my acceptance letter.”
“Tech or A&M?” JohnScott finished his Rocky Road and crushed the carton.
“Tech. I gave up on College Station.”
We fell silent as my mind cluttered with thoughts of the future. Before I could desert Momma, a series of complications would have to be overcome, the greatest being the need for a scholarship. So far I'd had no luck.
The refrigerator door opened with a wave of warm air, and the manager leaned in. “I need you on checkout, Ruthie.”
“Be right there.” The door closed again, and I sighed, wishing my breaks were longer.
“Mind if I stick around a while, little cousin?”
“You just want to listen to gossip.” I slipped off the jacket and hung it on the hook.
“Is that a yes?”
“If you'll bag groceries for me, you can stay as long as you like.”
He followed me down the dog-food aisle to the front of the store, and I punched my employee code into the register while he readied the plastic-bag dispensers. Two elderly women rambled to the counter, chattering nonstop. I recognized them as sisters who lived forty-five minutes outside of Trapp and came to town every few weeks to stock up on groceries and town news. I could never keep their names straight, so I referred to them secretly as Blue and Grayâbecause of their hair colors.
I greeted them and began scanning items while listening to their prattle.
“He's a rapist, you know.”
“I heard it was statutory.”
“It's all the same in my book.”
What in the world?
Rape was not a common topic of conversation at the United, especially between two little old ladies.
I glanced at JohnScott and knew he wondered the same thing. “Are you talking about that Cunningham family?” I asked.
“Lawd, no.” Gray's hunched back made it seem as if she shared a great secret. “Clyde Felton. You two remember the likes of the Feltons?”
I shook my head, but JohnScott mumbled, “Seems like I've heard the name.”
“They've been gone nigh on fifteen years now, but Clydeâ”
Blue wagged a crooked finger. “It's been twenty years if it's been a day.”
Gray scrunched her eyes so tight, her nose got involved. “You may be right, Sister.” She focused her attention back on JohnScott and me. “But anyhoo, Clyde Felton just got out of prison. Drove into town this afternoon.”
I hesitated with a box of Rice-A-Roni in my hand. “He's in Trapp?”
“Rented the old, yellow trailer house over on Third,” Blue said. “Who owns that thing anyway, Sister? Why would they rent it to a convict?”
“Can't say as I know.” Gray reached for the reading glasses she wore around her neck, the chain jingling as she held them above her nose, and appeared captivated by the fine print on a magazine cover.
After sliding a bag of potatoes to my frowning cousin, I wiped grit off my hands. The United grocery served as the hub of community gossip, but I hoped the sweet sisters had their facts wrong. The thought of a convicted rapist living a few streets over from Momma and me sent a tremor down my spine like a low-grade earthquake.
Blue took a step toward me and giggled. “I bet you can't wait to meet 'im, girlie.”
“Clyde Felton?” I dropped a container of pimento cheese but didn't bend to pick it up until Blue answered.
“Lawd, no. I mean that new boy. Does he play ball, Coach?”
Lowering my head as I made change, I ignored JohnScott, who stifled a chuckle behind his response.
The female shoppers at the United would have me married to a teenager before the end of the month. It was bad enough I still checked groceries at the United at twenty, but even worse, many of the customers fancied me the town's matchmaking project.
Using the intercom, I called a boy from the back to carry out the groceries, while the women jumped back into their conversation.
“I hear they came in a big U-Haul, pulling an El Camino.”
“An El Camino? You don't say.”
“Never knew a widow to drive a truck.”
“Don't seem right, does it?”
JohnScott hefted a watermelon into their cart. “Actually, the mother drives an SUV.”
Silence followed for five seconds until Gray seemed unable to stand it any longer. “The mother?”
“Yep, must be one of the sons drives the El Camino.”
“Ah â¦” Gray smacked her lips. “The son drives the El Camino.”
“Best we make a stop at the post office after this, Sister. They're sure to know about that El Camino over there.” The women meandered toward the door.
“Bye, now.” Blue waved her receipt over her shoulder.
“Have a good day.” I smiled, but JohnScott crossed his arms, appraising Blue and Gray as they made their way to their car.
“You thinking about Clyde Felton?” I asked.
Goose bumps crept up my arms, but I busied myself changing the receipt paper in the register. “And to think I traipse all over town by myself.”
“Maybe we should change that.”
“If you pick me up after work, I'll tell you what he looks like.”
JohnScott stiffened. “You figuring to meet him?”
“I work at the United, JohnScott.”
He eyed me for a moment. “I can stay longer.”
The idea comforted me like warm milk with honey, but practicality overruled my fear. “Aunt Velma will tan your hide if you're not home for dinner.”
His shoulders relaxed, and his voice took on a patient whine. “I've got my own place now.”
I remembered good and well his double-wide in Aunt Velma and Uncle Ansel's pasture, but I also remembered my aunt's admission that he never missed one of her home-cooked meals. “If you say so.” I winked, knowing my teasing didn't pack a punch, since I truly did still live with my mother.
“I'll pick you up at ten, and I want to hear everything.”
I followed him to the door, blinking against the late-afternoon sun. “We've gone years without anyone moving to town, and now we have two at once. What are the odds?”
“About one in a million. See you later, little cousin.”
As the door closed behind him, I had mixed feelings. Dread about the rapist coming to the store, and butterflies about the Cunninghams doing so. Strangers made me nervous, but I'd better get ready, because the odds of either Clyde Felton or the Cunninghams making an appearance at the United before closing time beat a million to one, of that I was certain.