Nolie pushed at the brim of her hat to better see the man who’d identified himself as Erik Payne. He was certainly dressed up for a hot May day—he wore dark pleated trousers, a white shirt, and a red tie. What man chose to wear a tie in this heat?
She tilted her head. “You say you’re from Chattahoochee?”
He kept his gaze on the driveway as the truck rolled forward. “Until last week I was pastoring the First Community Church there. You ever hear of it?”
She shook her head. “I don’t get over that way much. Not unless somebody’s in the hospital or something.”
She shifted her gaze from his thin, unlined face to his hands. Smooth and pale, with clean and evenly-trimmed nails, they looked like a preacher’s hands.
“So.” The reverend cleared his throat as he applied the brake and stopped the truck a few feet from the front sidewalk. “Should I be nervous about talking to your sister?”
Nolie laughed. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I meant that Darlene runs the house, that’s all. She’s the one to talk to if you’re lookin’ for work.” She gripped the door handle, and grinned at him. “And you’re in luck—I happen to know she’s looking for someone to mow the lawn and all like that. Since she started having hot flashes, Darlene just can’t take the heat.”
A wave of color brightened the preacher’s face as he put the truck in park and pocketed his keys. “Okay, then. I guess I’m ready to meet your sister.”
“Her name’s Darlene. Come with me, and I’ll introduce you.”
Nolie slid out of the truck and stopped to pat Lucy’s and Ricky’s heads—the dogs had followed her up the driveway. After greeting Nolie, they darted toward Erik, positioning themselves between the minister and the walkway.
Erik lifted both hands in a position of surrender. “Do they bite?”
“They never have.” Nolie walked toward him, then looked at the dogs and touched the man’s arm. “It’s okay, baby dogs. This man is a friend.”
The dogs relaxed, their stiff tails now swinging back and forth in happy arcs. “They’re beautiful,” Erik said, following Nolie as she led the way up the sidewalk. “What kind are they?”
“Leonbergers,” Nolie answered, pleased at his interest. “A cross between St. Bernards, Newfoundlands, and Great Pyrenees. They’re still pretty rare over here, but they’re fairly common in Europe. I had these two flown over from Germany when they were pups.”
Giving the visitor another reassuring smile, Nolie turned toward the porch—and stifled a groan. Like a sentry on duty, Darlene stood between the center columns at the top of the stairs, a shotgun in her hands. “Sister,” Nolie said, flashing a warning, “you can put the gun down.”
Darlene eyed the stranger with a steely gaze. “I don’t know this fellow.”
“That’s only because you’ve never met him. Darlene, I’d like you to meet Reverend Erik Payne. Rev. Payne, this is my sister, Darlene Young.”
The minister took a hesitant step forward, his hand extended. “Ma’am. I’m pleased to meet you.”
Darlene lowered the gun and took his hand without smiling. “What brings you all the way out here, Rev. Payne? We don’t need any more Bibles—we have plenty.”
“Please, call me Erik. And I’m not selling anything.” He pulled a folded handkerchief from his pants pocket and wiped perspiration from his forehead. “Since you asked, ma’am, I was pastoring a church in Chattahoochee until those folks felt the time had come for me to move on. With the employment situation being with it is today, one of my parishioners gave me your name—he said you and your sister might be willing to take in a stray like me. I’m not looking for a handout, mind you, but a job and a place to stay. I had to leave the parsonage, so I’ve been staying in cheap hotels and lookin’ for work.”
Nolie tugged on Darlene’s apron. “You were just sayin’ we need someone to mow the lawn. And wouldn’t it be nice to have someone take that old siding off the guest house? He could do that and a lot of other things around here.”
“Yeah . . . that’s the trouble with owning an old house. No matter where we sit, we’re looking at somethin’ that needs doin.’” Darlene shifted her gaze back to the minister. “But before we commence, Rev. Payne, I have to ask somethin’ and I’d appreciate an honest answer: why did that congregation ask you to leave? Did they catch you stealing from the offering plate? Or were you spending too much time counseling somebody else’s wife?”
His mouth twisting, he reached up and loosened the knot of his tie. “Nothing like that, ma’am. I—well, I was married when I took the church. I’d been married five years and my wife supported me all the time I was going to school and seminary. But once we went to Chattahoochee and actually got into the work of the ministry, she decided she didn’t like being a pastor’s wife. She didn’t like living in a parsonage, she didn’t like going to people’s baby showers, and she really didn’t like sharing me with a hundred other people. So a year ago she up and left, and after six months she divorced me. The church was good enough to allow some time in case God wanted to work a miracle and heal my marriage, but He didn’t, and the church decided that a divorced man couldn’t be a good example to the flock. So they asked me to leave, and that’s probably all you want to hear.”
He dabbed at his forehead again, then shoved his handkerchief back into his pocket. “That’s God’s truth, Ms. Young, you can call and ask anyone in Chattahoochee.”
Darlene narrowed her gaze. “The man who gave you my name—who was he?”
A smile finally broke through Darlene’s mask of indifference. “I do know Beverage Simons—and I know he wouldn’t have sent you here if you weren’t a good man.” She looked at Nolie. “I suppose we can work something out. We can put him in the guest house, can’t we?”
Nolie stared in pleased surprised, then she beamed. “Indeed we can.”
The minister slumped in relief. “Thank you, ma’am. Thank you ladies.”
Darlene leaned the shotgun against a porch column, then folded her arms. “Now—what can you do, Rev. Payne?”
He looked at Nolie as a half smile crossed his face. “Honestly, ladies, I haven’t done much manual labor lately. But as a kid I did some painting, lawn mowing, and general labor. You tell me what needs to be done, and if I don’t know how to do it, I’ll go into town and find somebody to teach me.”
Darlene nodded. “And in return we’ll give you use of the guest house and one meal a day. How long do you think you’ll be stayin’?”
He took a deep breath and scratched his chin. “I can’t say. I know I’ve been called to the ministry, so as soon as I’m settled, I’m going to start sending out resumes and looking for another position. God called me to preach and teach, so that’s what I aim to do . . . as soon as the Lord opens a door.”
“So we’ll be waitin’ on God, then.”
“Yes, ma’am. Is that acceptable?”
Darlene looked at Nolie again, then nodded. “I think so. What do you say, sister?”
Nolie smiled, glorying in the shared moment. She’d been holding her breath, hoping Darlene would see that the good and Christian thing to do would be to help this man regain his footing. He had a look in his brown eyes, the same look she saw when one of her dogs was in pain, and she couldn’t bear to see any living thing in need of help . . .
“I say ‘Welcome to Sycamores.’” She turned and gripped the man’s hand, grinning as the dogs picked up on her excitement and began to bark. “Come on, and I’ll walk you down to the guest house. It’s not fancy and it needs some work, but it’ll keep you warm at night and dry in the rain.”
“No matter what it looks like,” Erik said, following her, “it’ll be an answered prayer.”
And now, meet Carlene:
Sitting in her doctor’s Manhattan office, Carlene Caldwell couldn’t stop thinking about how a single hour on a particular September 11 had shaken her city to its foundations, and taught every New Yorker that seismic change could arrive without warning. Though her doctor’s report wouldn’t affect millions of Americans, it certainly held the potential to destroy her future.
So where was her young doctor, and why did he have to keep her waiting?
She folded her hands in her lap and tried not to look at her antsy agent, who was jiggling his crossed leg more energetically than usual. “I want you to know how grateful I am that you were willing to come down here with me,” she said, eyeing a thick folder on the physician’s desk. “I’ve been dreading this appointment, so it’s really nice to have someone along for moral support.”
Martin laughed, but his laughter contained an edge. “I’m always happy to help you, Carlene. It’s the least I could do after all our years together.” His brow furrowed. “How many years has it been?”
She paused to count them up. “Let’s see—I got my first part in ’84, and signed you right after. So that’s—what?”
“Twenty-eight. You never have been good at math. ”
“That’s why I trust you to keep my accounts straight.” She smiled at him, grateful that he hadn’t brought up the reason for their visit. “We’ve lasted longer than a lot of marriages.”
“Including yours and all three of mine.”
She glanced at her watch, then sighed and crossed her legs, struggling to get comfortable in her chair. “Good thing we never married.”
“Good thing I never asked. I knew you had better taste.”
She turned and stared at the closed door behind them. “What could be keeping that doctor?”
Martin’s eyes softened. “Are you nervous?”
“No—well, yes. I keep hoping for good news, but I don’t know . . . common sense tells me something’s not right. My voice tells me something’s not right. I don’t even talk like I used to; this rasp in my voice is driving me crazy—”
“Some people might find it sexy.”
“Those people know nothing about singing.”
Martin fell silent, then he reached out and squeezed Carlene’s arm. “I’m sorry you’re in this spot.”
She choked on a desperate laugh. “If I’d known losing my voice for six months was even a possibility, I would never have had the surgery.”
Martin shifted his weight, then cleared his throat. “By the way, how’s your understudy doing? Are the producers happy with her?”
Carlene shrugged. “I think so. But almost anyone could play Golde. It’s not the most demanding part in the world.”
“Any thought about what you might like to do next?”
“That all depends on the outcome of this meeting, doesn’t it?”
The door behind them finally blew open, revealing the young doctor who wore a furrowed brow and a concerned expression. He walked around the two guest chairs, then paused to shake Carlene’s hand. “Thank you for coming in, Ms. Caldwell.”
Carlene introduced Martin, who stood to shake the doctor’s hand. When the introductions were complete, she leaned forward. “I hope we can skip any other formalities, Dr. Weston. I have to know—is my throat going to get better, or will I sound like this for the rest of my life?”
The doctor frowned and perched on the edge of his desk. “You haven’t noticed any improvement since I last saw you?”
“Your upper register is still affected?”
“My upper register is gone. I used to have a five-octave range; now I can barely manage one.”
“Well.” The young man rubbed his palm along the seam of his trousers, then released a machine gun volley of words: “The reason I asked you to wait for the result of the latest scan is because I was hoping the scar tissue would recede. But apparently the thyroid cartilage has elongated and reinforced the loosening of your vocal cords. I was hoping you’d be better after several months of recuperation, but sometimes our purposes are thwarted and our goal is not achieved. But you are able to speak with no problem, and that may be the best result we can hope for.”
Carlene blinked, her mind reeling in the verbal onslaught. “You thought I’d be better? Doctor, I can’t simply be better. I have to be exceptional. I have to be able to sing like I used to.”
The doctor’s expression remained locked in neutral. “I’m sorry the results of your surgery were not what we expected.”
He was sorry—was an apology all he could offer her? Carlene struggled to swallow as her throat tightened. Perspiration soaked the back of her hand while a drop of sweat trickled between her breasts.
Not what he expected? Why didn’t he call this what it was, a disaster, catastrophe, calamity, and tragedy?
“Martin, I can’t—” She closed her eyes as the objects in the office swirled around her. She heard Martin bark a command, then felt a strong arm support her shoulders and hold her upright.
A moment later she opened her eyes to find the room’s furnishings settled in their proper places. She fastened her gaze on the doctor’s white lab coat.
Martin took her hand. “Are you all right, Carlene? Would you like to go home? I could call a cab—”
“So that’s it, then.” She lifted her chin and looked at the doctor, who was moving to the chair behind his desk. “My voice is ruined.” She uttered the words in her new voice, trying them on for size.
The doctor’s mouth changed just enough to bristle the fashionable stubble on his cheek. “I’m so sorry.”
“You’ve already said that.” She blinked, then looked at Martin. “I think I’m ready for that cab now.”
Martin helped her to her unsteady feet as the doctor stammered behind his chair. “If—if there’s anything I can do—”
“Thank you,” she said, moving toward the door. “Thanks for destroying my life.”
That’s it for today! Comments? Questions? What are you thinking? What are you impressions of these women?
Thanks for the feedback!