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Authors: Liz Garton Scanlon

The Great Good Summer

BOOK: The Great Good Summer
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For Lynn, Carrie, Kathie, Shannon, Bern, and Barbara—Oh My Goodness!

Chapter One

G
od is alive and well in Loomer, Texas, so I don't know why Mama had to go all the way to The Great Good Bible Church of Panhandle Florida to find him, or to find herself, either.

Daddy says she went to get some of the sadness out of her system. He says it like it should be as easy as getting a soda stain out of a skirt. A little scrub, a little soak, one quick run through the machine—good as new and no big deal.

Every day since Mama left, Daddy's been trying to convince me that things aren't all that bad, even though Mama's become a Holy Roller and has disappeared with a preacher who calls himself Hallelujah Dave.

Meanwhile I've been trying to convince Daddy that things
are
truly and indeed all that bad. Hallelujah Dave, for goodness' sake.

“I promise I'm not just being sassy, Daddy, but explain to me again how lying around on the ground speaking in tongues is gonna get anything out of Mama's system?”

“We don't know that she's really lying on the ground, baby,” says Daddy. Which, you have to admit, is a minor quibble. And you'll notice, he doesn't mention the speaking in tongues. What he
does
do is pour me a big bowl of puffed rice and hand me a banana from across our kitchen table.

For my whole life Mama's always cooked breakfast—something hot, like eggs or oatmeal—but I don't mention that 'cause it's not Daddy's fault that we're here all alone with cold cereal, no eggs, and no Mama-in-her-own-mama's-apron. It's not his fault, but I'm not used to this way of doing things, and I don't really want to be.

Until the wildfires in the spring, everything was perfectly great-good enough here at home in Loomer. I mean, we've got more churches than Quik Marts. Way more. And we have Advent Oil and Lube, and we have Heaven Sent Hair Designs, and we have Creation Concrete. And we pray in school, which the science club doesn't like, but that doesn't seem to stop anybody except the kids in science club. We have all that godliness, but we don't have The Great Good Bible Church.

Apparently those fires just freaked her all the way out and she needed help to make sense of it all. Or at least
that's what she said ten days ago when she actually up and left.

“I need to see the truth and be the truth,” said Mama, “and Hallelujah Dave says The Great Good Bible Church is the place to do that. You understand.”

But we didn't.

My mouth partly filled with cereal, I say, “Daddy, she's been gone long enough to have called us, though, right? And she hasn't yet. So are you gonna do anything about that?” I reach my wet spoon into the sugar bowl and pull a big scoop back onto the cardboardy puffs getting soggy in my bowl.

“Ivy-girl, I don't think there's a dang thing more I
can
do, 'cept let your mama get right with God. We're here, safe and sound, and she'll be back soon. And in the meantime, I may not be a mother, but I can take care of my daughter. Nobody's gonna tell me I can't.”

And with that, he pushes back his chair, sets his coffee cup down just a little bit too loudly in the sink, and slips his Green's Roofing ball cap onto his head. I can tell by the clock above the stove that he doesn't really need to leave for work quite yet, but he is obviously done with this conversation, so I guess I am too.

I want to say, “How do you
know
she'll be back soon?”
but instead I say, “You're doing a fine job, Daddy,” and I mean it. He's doing as best he can. And the least I can do is put up the breakfast dishes and make the beds and maybe even run a load of dirty clothes without complaining.

“You too. Love you, baby,” Daddy says, and then he sighs and shakes his head and walks out the door.

Here's something that's not very good about The Great Good Bible Church of Panhandle Florida. It's in Florida.

And here's another thing: it doesn't have a website. It doesn't have an address or a phone number or ratings or reviews or anything. It's almost like it doesn't really exist. And for all we know about Hallelujah Dave, he might as well be a bogeyman or something who swept Mama off into the swamps of Florida, never to be seen again.

When I say as much to Daddy, he says, “Your mama's too smart to fall for a bogeyman, Ivy. We've got to have faith in that.” Which isn't super-reassuring, if you ask me.

If Mama were here, she'd say, “Ivy, don't be flat-out ridiculous. You let your imagination run away from you like a fox with a ham hock. Keep your head on, honey, and say a prayer that God doesn't get a look at your crazy ideas and make them all come true.” Because she's practical that way.

But the thing is, ideas are my talent. My only talent, really. My voice isn't right for singing, I freeze up in the spelling bee, and I can't shoot a basket to save my life. If I stop coming up with ideas, I'm not gonna have anything left to do or talk about.

This year in English class Mrs. Murray asked us to create a motto, and mine was, “Every good day starts with an idea.” Mrs. Murray liked it. She said it was not just a motto but an
inspirational
motto. And Paul Dobbs, who was my tablemate in English but who'd barely ever whispered a word to me, said, “Yeah, that's cool. It's kind of like saying ‘Every good experiment begins with a hypothesis,' isn't it? I might change my motto!” Which goes down in history as the first and only time I've ever said anything even mildly impressive to an egghead like Paul Dobbs.

At home when I showed my motto to Mama, she said, “Yes, every good day starts with an idea. That may be true. But not all
ideas
are good.”

Considering where Mama is or isn't right this very moment, I could say the same to her.

This is the second summer in a row that Mrs. Murray's hired me to help take care of Devon and Lucy. Maybe she
hired me on account of my ideas. Or maybe it's because I live on the same side of town, and I get good grades, and she knows my mama and daddy. She trusts me. But if I don't leave the house right now, I'll prove her wrong, because I'm never gonna get there by nine o'clock.

I put my lock and chain and a can of orange soda in my backpack, and I jump on my bike, sidesaddle. Rolling down the alley behind my house, I slip past the Larsons' backyard and the Melroys' and the Newtons'—and there are Abby Newton and Kimmy Roy, sitting on the bench by the Newtons' garage, painting their toenails and tossing a ball for Abby's dog. Because of course Abby's lucky enough to have a dog. (Personally, I think if you're an only child, you should automatically be issued a dog when you're born, as a consolation prize, but my mama and daddy disagree.)

“Hey, Abby. Hey, Kimmy. Hey, Buddy,” I say, but I keep moving so I don't have to get into a big conversation, since everything with Abby and Kimmy—especially Kimmy—is a big conversation.

“Hey, Ivy!” Abby yells when she sees me.

“Hey, Ivy!” echoes Kimmy. “Abby says your mom went to, like, seminary or some kind of crazy God camp or something? For the summer? Is that true?”

I'm still sidesaddle, with only my left butt cheek on the seat, so I whip my left leg all the way over the center bar of my bright blue bike and start pedaling in earnest. “Yep. Something like that,” I say, and I keep pedaling, faster and faster, to get away from them and from the honest truth about my mother.

Chapter Two

M
ama thinks Mrs. Murray is kind of kooky. That's what Mama calls people who aren't originally from Loomer, or who dress a little differently than she does, or who don't go to Second Baptist.

But Mrs. Murray gets the
Loomer Press
delivered every day, and she has pots of blue hydrangeas on her stoop, and pretty pottery wind chimes and a welcome mat. She's a teacher and a mother and a volleyball coach,
and
she writes novels in the summer, on a cute laptop with a rainbowy cover. She has a husband and two kids and a little red car. If you ask me, everything about Mrs. Murray is as normal as normal can be.

And, not to point fingers or anything, but nobody at the Murray house followed a perfect stranger to Florida for the summer, if you know what I mean.

I roll my bike into the Murrays' garage, my pulse still pounding and my head thrumming with things I might've said to Abby and Kimmy about Mama. Things like, “Yeah, she's bleeding out of her hands and feet like Jesus,
and her head spins around like in that old movie where the girl gets possessed.” Or, “She went off to pray that you guys don't go to hell for painting your fingernails blue and triple-piercing your ears.” Or, “God told her to start a mega-church on a riverboat in Louisiana, and we're gonna be millionaires by Christmas.”

But I didn't say those things, because even when I'm worried and frustrated and running late, I'm not much of a liar. And the truth would have either gotten them talking about me to the other girls at school or made them feel sorry for me in kind of a pathetic way, or both. That's why I rode on.

'Cause here's what really happened: after the forest fires burnt down what seemed like half of Texas—including the old wooden church where Mama's daddy was the preacher when she was a girl—Mama went down to the Red Cross to volunteer. I don't know what she thought she'd be able to do, but it turned out not much. I mean, she sorted some canned goods and she made a delivery of clothes from our church and she helped out for a couple of days at the shelter that they'd set up at one of the high schools. But buildings had been burned and ranches ruined, and blackened trees stood still as skeletons. There really wasn't a thing
anyone
could do, at least not about any of that.

So after a week of helping out where she could, Mama came home wringing her hands and saying, “I'd like to see God explain
this
. I'd just like for him to really and truly help me understand
this
!”

She said it over and over again and then she went to bed and stayed there, for six straight days. Which meant she missed my end-of-year ceremony at school—never mind that my mama never misses a single thing and, also, she was supposed to be in charge of refreshments. Daddy had to call Mrs. Luck and have her reassign the job because Mama “wasn't feeling well.” That's what he said, like it was just that simple.

Meanwhile, I didn't understand what Mama was feeling or doing any better than she understood the fires that had left gray ash floating through the air around us, like some sort of ghostly confetti. She had never acted anything like this, not one day in my whole life.

“It is a mystery,” said Daddy when I tried to get him to explain it to me. “But, baby, everybody gets a little down every now and then. She just needs rest.” And then he put his finger up to his lips to remind me to be quiet—for the sixth day in a row.

When she finally got up out of bed, it was to go for groceries. But instead of buying milk and eggs, she found
a flyer about a new ministry in town, set up for the very purpose of healing hearts after the fires. And I guess she went straight there and started speaking in tongues, of all things.

It wasn't even Mama who told us about it. Her friend Carlene, from church, was over at the strip mall getting a bikini wax. (I'm not gossiping—she included that as part of her story, which I kind of could not believe. Carlene is the least likely person in the world to wear a bikini, honestly.) Anyway, there were these big double doors, wide open to the sunshine, right next to the waxing studio, and Carlene specifically noticed them because they'd always been locked up tight with a
FOR LEASE
sign on them, for as long as she'd been going over there. So she couldn't hardly help but look to see what was going on.

“And there was a young man preaching like the gates to hell were just around the corner,” she said, and people kneeling and keening and lying on the ground moaning and speaking the language of Babel. “I couldn't stop looking, I admit it,” she said, which is how she came to realize that one of the moaners was Mama. Carlene drove straight to our house to tell us, because she knew we'd need to know. That's how she put it, like she was doing us a huge favor.

“Don't tell your mama, but I've always thought Carlene was sort of a busybody,” said Daddy when she left. And then he dropped his head into his hands and rubbed his scalp, hard.

That night Daddy asked Mama about the preacher at the strip mall. Her hair was sort of wild like she was still on her six days in bed, but her eyes were shiny and wide awake. “He appeared in Loomer to save me. The answer to my prayers,” she said. “If that's not a miracle . . .”

I don't think the whole thing makes any more sense to Daddy than it does to me, even though he's acting like it's temporary and all under control. He just doesn't go in for drama. Here's the thing, though—neither does Mama, usually. Whenever somebody in Loomer does something a little different, like skydiving or breaking off an engagement or something, Mama shrugs and says, “Seems a little kooky to me, but what do I know? You know me, Miss Straight-and-Narrow.”

I don't know what really happened to Mama, deep down, during those wildfires, but I can tell you that Miss Straight-and-Narrow would not have gone to bed for six days, she would not have gone down to a creepy church in a strip mall, and she most definitely would not have
gone off to Florida ten days later with a preacher called Hallelujah Dave.

“Happy summer, sweet Ivy,” says Mrs. Murray when she opens the door. “Hurry on in. I've only been home from school for a week, and I've about lost my marbles already. But it's absolutely beautiful out, and ohmygoodness, I'm burning with ideas and ready to write! Remember your motto about good ideas? Well, I've got some, and I plan to use them! I think you and Lucy and Devon should go to the park on this pretty day, and I'll stay here and make something of myself. Yes?”

Mrs. Murray often talks in big rushy streams like this. Last year a couple of kids started a petition saying they wanted her to put an outline on the board every day because it was hard to take notes when she was always talking around and around in circles. I didn't sign it. I thought,
Well, if it's hard to take notes, don't take them. Just listen.

“Yes,” I say. “The park. That'll be really nice. And that's great about your ideas!”

I hope I'll be a little bit like Mrs. Murray when I grow up. She actually
does
something with her ideas instead of just think them.

I follow her through the front door and straight into the living room. Right there in front of me sit Devon and Lucy and their blocks and books and breakfast dishes. Lucy comes running over before I'm even all the way through the door, looking up at me with her cute, pink little smile but grabbing on to her mama's leg at the same time.

“Lucy! It's summer! I've missed you, you little pip. You're always sleeping when I babysit during the school year.” I lean down to touch her face, but she turns in toward Mrs. Murray's leg, so I let her be. Last summer she'd just barely turned one, so I'm sure she really doesn't remember me at all.

Mrs. Murray backs into the house with Lucy still attached to her knee and says, “Let's pack a bag for y'all, with snacks and such, right? And, Ivy, tell me about your mama, honey. Your daddy's doing a roof for Mr. Dolan and told him your mama went away for the summer?”

Which I guess means it's public, Mama's taking off. I mean if Abby and Kimmy know, and Mr. Dolan and Mrs. Murray know, and Daddy's talking about it as if Mama's taken off to Paris for a holiday or something, then it must be public.

“She did. I mean, I guess she did. We don't really
know exactly how long she'll be gone, I guess.” I don't know what else to say, unless I go into the part about my granddaddy's church burning down and Mama's freaking out and the six days in bed and all. Right now just doesn't seem the time.

So instead I say, “She's at church.” Which sounds really funny, since normally if you go to church, you would go for, like, an hour or two. Not for a whole summer.

“Well. I'll bet you're going to miss her, huh?” Mrs. Murray says, and I just nod, because a knot of tears suddenly sticks in the back of my throat and makes it so I can't talk.

Yes,
I think.
Yes, I'm going to miss her
.

I guess that's what I've been trying to tell Daddy since she left. And, now that I think of it, ever since the fires in the spring. The fires that left behind black trees and charcoaly rubble and some sort of hole in my mama's heart. Yes. I just plain miss Mama.

I lean up against the counter next to Mrs. Murray and the snacks and the apple juice, and I think about my mama in our kitchen—how she's always been there every day of my whole entire life and now she's not.

And then I help Mrs. Murray bag up the little crackers and chunks of pear without saying another word. She fills
the sippy cups, grabs a stack of clean, dry clothes—just in case—and helps me shove everything into my pack. When we're all set, she grabs Lucy and I grab Devon and we step back outside and plop them in their double stroller, which is the size, I promise you, of a small train.

“Kisses, little Luce,” Mrs. Murray says to Lucy, and then plants a kiss on the top of Lucy's head. “Kisses, Devon-bo-beven,” she says to Devon, with the same kiss for him.

“And thank you, Ivy,” she says to me. “You're an angel.” And I know she doesn't mean it in a churchy or mysterious way at all. She just means I'm helping out.

East Loomer Park is kind of fancy. It wasn't when I was little, but a couple of years ago there was some big pile of money from an election or something, and now it's all city-slickered up. That's what Daddy calls it—city-slickered up, and fancy. It's where all of Loomer goes when the mayor gives a speech or someone's hosting a fund-raiser or a family wants to have a big birthday party with a bouncy house.

There is a red stone track around the pond for people to jog on, and there're two playgrounds—one for babies and one for big kids—with brand-new, bright-colored
plastic equipment. And there's a dog park and a few gardens and a whole bunch of other stuff.

“Do ya want me to push you guys high?” I ask Lucy and Devon as we come up on the swings.

BOOK: The Great Good Summer
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