Monday, August 13, 2007

Chapter 1: Jennings Grove, Part III

This place looks like a ghost town, Vernon thought and shivered. He pushed a switch on his door handle, and the window hummed as it rolled down.

As they drove around, they finally found where everyone had gone. Jennings Grove Primitive Baptist Church was in session. He stopped in the middle of the road and peered out. The white building with clapboard siding sat on what looked like wooden posts. A cross-topped steeple perched above the front door. Stained-glass windows glowed with various saints and biblical scenes as twilight approached. Trees surrounded the church and its large gravel parking lot, which remained largely free of cars. As he cocked his head out the window, Vernon made out muffled strains of "And Can It Be." A sign out front proclaimed this week's message as "The Outer Darkness, Where there is Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth." Well, now isn't that just cheerful?

Something about the grounds looked odd, but it took a moment to figure out what bothered him. Vernon was a city boy; he preferred concrete and steel to meadows and open sky. But since Cheryl liked taking the scenic route when they went on vacation, he'd learned to appreciate rural sites, particularly the architecture. Every old country church he'd ever seen had at least a small cemetery, but this one lacked even a single headstone.

"There it is," Cheryl said, pointing past his ear. He turned his head and saw a driveway just behind them. Nodding, he pushed the lever to reverse and backed up until he could pull into a driveway just past the church.

The winding gravel drive took them to the front of an aging white house. Antique windows peered back at them from a new wooden porch in the front. Paint peeled from the front door and the wooden eaves. A new set of windows faced the church from the western wall, and a new carport covered a spur of the driveway on the eastern side. Ethan wasn't kidding about the renovations, was he? He looked up. Shingles curled from a battered roof. I hope his plans include a new roof. For that matter, I hope that thing will keep the rain out.

The site looked a bit smaller than most of the other tracts in Jennings Grove, but still offered more space than they'd ever had, even at their home in Houston. Lots of room for Alexis to run around. He smiled at the thought. She had never been able to fully understand why she couldn't go outside to play at their last couple of apartments. Even though it hurt to tell her she couldn't go to the neighborhood's filthy park, he liked the fact she couldn't grasp her parents' concern about drug dealers, gangs and dirty needles. She can stay innocent out here. Toward the back of the yard, between the house and church, stood the biggest pecan tree he'd ever seen. She'd love to climb that thing, I bet. Someone had mowed recently, exposing a set of deep ruts across the yard.

"So," he said, turning to his wife. "What do you think?"

"I think I'm going to have a lot of cleaning to do."

"Probably." He pointed to the ruts. "Don't you think Hank and George could have been a little more careful with their trailer? Those are going to take forever to even out."

"So what? Look at the place. Do you think anyone's going to notice?"

"Ethan has done a lot for us here. The least we could do is take care of the place. I'd think your brothers would appreciate that."

"My brothers moved nearly everything we own up here and into that house themselves. They did it for free. They had to take off work and pay for the gas all the way up here and back down to Houston. I'd think you would be a little more appreciative of what they've done and not worry about a couple of tire tracks in the yard."

"You're right, Cheryl. I'm sorry." He took a deep breath. "Look, I don't want to fight anymore, OK? It may not be the greatest place in the world, but it's a sight better than what we had. Let's try to make the most of it."

"Alright." She glanced at the house and, for the first time in months, his wife smiled. "Let's go inside."

Vernon opened the door and climbed out of the car. They were finally home.


Part I of Chapter 2 coming Friday!

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Friday, August 10, 2007

Chapter 1: Jennings Grove, Part II

Vernon dropped the transmission into drive and eased back out on the asphalt. Black lines showed the path of his car's wild ride. Waiting at the intersection for a couple of battered pickups to go by, he offered a silent prayer of thanks that no one had been hurt. This move was hard enough on everyone as it was; he didn't need to add injuries to the stress.

He had been quite happy in his previous job at a small plastics company on the Texas Gulf Coast. Everyone in the shop worked hard, often performing the duties of two or three people because the owner didn't want the expense of adding to his headcount. Vernon didn't mind. It made for long hours but decent pay and a fair measure of job security. Or so he thought until Herb Franklin announced he was bankrupt and the company was shutting its doors for good. They found out later he had also moved to South America with his secretary and all the money he could squeeze out of his business, including the pension fund.

In the last six months, the Hamilton family had been forced to sell their home and move into a two-bedroom rat-hole of an apartment while Vernon looked for another job and his wife bore their second child. With his experience, Houston should have been an easy place to land something. But, as Vernon gradually discovered, Franklin was not the most ethical of businessmen. Prospective employers took one look at his resume and moved on to the next candidate. The only consolation, small though it might be, was that his former coworkers were having similar difficulties. A few old friends in the industry told him there was a general suspicion in the area that those with his level of seniority had been in on Franklin's shady dealings. His current financial difficulties just meant he got double crossed.

As their money dwindled, they moved to a smaller rat hole and finally an efficiency that even rats turned their noses up at. Vernon started to wonder if their next home might be under an overpass when he got the call from Ethan Roodschild, an old supervisor who had left the company a couple of years before. Something wasn't right about Franklin Plastics, he'd said before moving near the Oklahoma border to work at a place called Paris Plastics, Inc. They made little kiddie swimming pools and fake Christmas trees. Ethan had tried to get Vernon to come with him then, but he refused. How could he leave Houston, especially for a podunk little town on the backside of nowhere?

Ethan's most recent call came as a pleasant surprise.

"I heard what happened to the company and the pension," he said. "Is there any hope they'll get him back in this country to face charges?"

"Not much. Apparently extradition's a real bear down there."

"That's a shame." There was a pause, and Vernon could hear him clearing his throat. "Look, I know you're having a hard time finding work..."

"Try impossible."

"I know. That's unfair, but that's why I tried to get you to leave a couple of years ago."

"Yeah. I'm starting wish I had listened."

"Then this just might be your lucky day. We've got a couple of openings up here. I could use a good man like you on my crew. The pay's not as much as you're used to, but the cost of living is a lot lower up here," Ethan had said. "Are you interested?"

Not only was he interested, but Vernon agreed to it on the spot. He'd start in three weeks, at the beginning of October when the monthly lease on their current place ran out. Cheryl wasn't thrilled he had made the decision without discussing it with her, but she agreed they had to leave. It was only a matter of time before one of the gunshots they routinely heard at night put a bullet through their window. Ethan even had a home for them, an old, two-bedroom farmhouse he had purchased and started remodeling as an investment. He'd let them live there rent-free for six months, and they could lease it for only three hundred bucks a month after that. He even waived the deposit and had the utilities turned on. Judging from the photos he sent, the house wasn't much, but at least they had managed to take a step in the right direction.

Driving down this county road, Vernon listened to gravel crunching under his tires, smelled the dust his car kicked up and glanced sideways at his wife in the passenger seat. She chewed on a lock of her curly auburn hair, a sure sign of anxiety. The stress of the last half-year had taken its toll. A tall woman, she had always been thin and pale, but these days, Cheryl hovered on the verge of gaunt. Food had sometimes been hard to come by in the last few months, but he'd tried to make sure she and Alexis never went hungry. They certainly couldn't afford baby formula, so Cheryl had to breastfeed Ray. She ate enough to keep him healthy, but anxiety kept her from putting on any weight. Her usually penetrating stare had become a hollow-eyed gaze. She had her feet up on her seat, hugging her knees close to her chest as she hunched away from the screaming behind her.

I probably don't look any better, he thought. He had lost quite a bit of weight himself, but unlike his wife, his short, stocky frame had plenty to spare.

He reached over and patted her knee. "It'll be all right," he said softly. She shot a withering look at him. "Look, I'm sorry. I overreacted. You're right to be mad, and I'm a big, stupid jerk." Her face relaxed slightly, and she turned her frown back out the window. How long has it been since I've seen her smile?

They crested a hill and got their first look at their new home.

The community sat on the Red River, a motley collection of a few dozen houses on three hundred twenty acres tucked away in the northernmost point of Lamar County. He spotted some new construction, but most of it looked older, including a few that might even be from the 1800s. The gravel road circled around the community, passing an old church at the point nearest the Red River.

Vernon followed the looping road to the right, driving slowly as he looked for their house. Each residence had a large yard, several acres apiece. Alexis'll love that, he thought. Many sported tricycles, swing sets and other signs of children. He saw gardens and even a few small-scale farms. Most homes had darkened sheds or barns, and he spied several tractors and riding lawnmowers. Cars and pickups sat in driveways, under carports and, presumably, inside the garages they passed. Lawn furniture sat ready to provide outdoor comfort. Porch swings swayed in the wind. Leaves rustled and grass bent. Jennings Grove sported all the signs of life, but no life itself. Light glowed in a few windows, but no shadows moved inside. No dogs barked. No cows lowed or horses neighed. He couldn't find any cats sauntering from yard to yard or coyotes howling at the darkening sky. Even birds seemed to have abandoned the small town. So had the people.


Part III coming Monday!

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Monday, August 6, 2007

Chapter 1: Jennings Grove, Part I

Vernon's grip tightened on the steering wheel. Vinyl creaked in protest. He tried to ignore the sound, with better success than his attempts to block out his wife's nagging, infant son's screaming and the CD of children's songs playing on the stereo for the eleventh time. He gunned the engine. The Camry lurched and halted as he stomped on the brake while a pair of racing Mustangs filled the hole he had seen. Traffic streamed by without a break. The left blinker continued its maddening, steady click.

"Come on, come on," he muttered, jerking on the transmission lever.

"That won't make the cars go by any faster, Vern," Cheryl said.

"Just, please, hush. I'm trying to concentrate on driving here."

Finally, he saw the gap he needed. Traffic had moved ahead of a slow-moving eighteen-wheeler hauling gravel. "Hang on."

The green station wagon whipped across the divided highway, its laden rear end fishtailing slightly as it turned.

"Whee, Daddy!" Alexis yelled from her seat in the back.

Heading west on Farm-to-Market Road 197, Vernon kept the speedometer pegged at fifty. The sun hung just above the horizon, so low that no matter how he positioned the visor, it remained in his eyes. He had to squint through the bug-splattered windshield to make anything out. The narrow two-lane highway twisted like a snarled extension cord. Every time he tried to accelerate out of one curve, he had to slow down for another. Welcome to the country, he thought.

"Vern, could you speed up? My grandmother drives faster than you. I'd like to get out of this car today."

Gritting his teeth, his right foot pushed down on the accelerator. Trees and an occasional house slipped by in an increasing blur. Rubber squealed as he passed through a bend in the road, crossing into the left lane before the highway straightened out. An old blue Ford tractor chugged along the road in front of them. Ignoring the double yellow line to his left, Vern jerked the wheel and passed the tractor without slowing. He slipped back into the right lane.

"Vern, slow down!" Cheryl yelled as he slalomed through yet another curve.

He bit his tongue and just stopped himself from stomping on the brake pedal, although he did tap it hard enough that his wife's seatbelt locked as the Camry lurched to a more moderate speed. Alexis laughed and clapped her hands. Raymond's screams continued unabated.

"Five minutes ago, you were telling me to go faster," he muttered.

"What was that?"

"Nothing." He sighed and ran a hand across his head. His fingers traveled halfway down the back of his skull before encountering a fringe of brown hair. "Can't you do anything about Ray?"

"He's hungry, and he wants out of his car seat. If you'll pull over, I can feed him…"

"No. We've been in this stupid car for seven hours already, and we've stopped five times. We're nearly there; he can just wait."

An exasperated glottal hiss escaped from the back of Cheryl's throat, and she turned up the volume on the radio. "Down by the Station" was starting again. Vernon just knew little puffer bellies all in a row would haunt his every waking moment for the next week. The sacrifice was worth it, he guessed; Alexis had remained fairly quiet the whole way, aside from complaining of hunger or a need to "go potty." Given the four-year-old's usual demeanor on road trips, that qualified as a minor miracle.

"Chug, chug, toot, toot, here we go!" his daughter belted, off-key as usual. Any other time, it would be cute. Now, it was just irritating. Vern turned the radio on. Static assaulted his ears, and he hit the scan button. Snippets of country music and tractor commercials joined the attack. Isn't there a decent rock station around here anywhere?

"Daddy, I want kid songs!"

"Honey, I want to hear the radio for a while. You can listen to your kid songs later when you go to the store with Mommy."

"But I want it now!" She started to cry.

"Now, Vern, turn the CD back on. There's no need for this."

"Everybody, just shut up!" he yelled. "I've had enough of your griping and your whining." Man, what I wouldn't give right now to wake up in the morning and be single again.

He punched the eject button on the stereo. He grabbed the offending disc and flung it to the back of the car like a Frisbee. Sunlight glinted off the golden circle as it bounced off the windows and clattered to rest somewhere amid the cardboard boxes. Alexis' cry rose to a wail, which inspired her brother to even greater vocal feats. Vernon sniffed. Ray had dirtied his diaper. Figures, he thought. Cheryl folded her arms and glared at him through her oval-framed glasses. His right foot slowly pressed down; he ground his teeth as the car picked up speed once more, its four-cylinder engine whining like a sewing machine.

A metal building flashed by in a blur; he barely had time to register the words "Chicota Volunteer Fire Department." A sign pointing to County Road 36850 and Jennings Grove zipped past just as fast. Missed it!

This time, he did slam on the brakes – which promptly locked up.

The station wagon, its rear loaded down with boxes, swerved and slid across the road. Trees spun past the windshield like an autumnal kaleidoscope. The Camry whipped around and skidded into a shallow ditch on the opposite side of the highway. It tilted to the right before dropping back onto all four wheels amid a chorus of protesting squeaks from the suspension. Inside, the car was deathly quiet. Then everyone started yelling at once.

Raymond, of course, resumed his screaming. He could barely hear Alexis saying, "That was cool, Daddy! I want to do it again!"

"Vernon Edward Hamilton, what on earth were you thinking?" Cheryl shouted. "You could have killed all of us!"

He slowly relaxed his tight grip from the steering wheel, put the transmission into park and rubbed his eyes with trembling hands. He sat there, breathing in ragged gasps for several minutes. He turned to his daughter.

"Sweetie, please hush." He leveled a warning finger at his wife. "Nobody's dead. No one's even hurt. The car's running fine. Yeah, it was stupid, but until something actually happens, keep your comments to yourself."

She folded her arms and dropped back in her seat. "Oh, I'm sorry, honey," she said with a bright smile and a syrupy tone. "You're right. That wonderful driving, the best I've ever seen. I don't know what got into me. Can we jump a creek next?"

"Drop it," he snapped. He glanced at the dashboard clock and sighed. "Look, it's nearly six. These people will be getting out of church soon. Let's get home and try to calm down so we don't make a bad impression on our new neighbors. We'll talk about this later." Cheryl's nod promised a great deal of discussion.


Part II coming Friday!

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