by Myles Abroad
Tragedy strikes a small community, forcing them to re-evaluate what is important in life.
It was just after six thirty when the first guests arrived. Jake was just firing up the grill while Josh was in his play pen, under the shade of the tree that stood in their front yard, sucking on a bottle. Meagan was helping her Daddy by bringing things from the kitchen and putting them on the picnic table.
Doris and Norman Smith were at the front gate and Norman was untying the string that held the gate closed. He let Doris through, and retied the gate while Doris put a freshly baked cherry pie and a large bowl of salad on the picnic table.
Jake walked over to Doris and gave her a welcoming hug. "It's nice to see you, Doris. You look real nice tonight," he said. She was wearing a pretty light blue dress. She loved to dress up for these occasions and Emily had told Jake that Doris really enjoyed when people noticed. He wouldn't normally pay attention but for Doris he made that effort.
"Why thank you Jake," she said.
Meagan had just come down the steps of the deck carrying a bag of hot dog buns. Doris turned her attention towards her and put her hands on her ample hips.
"I see Meagan is being a big help. Isn't that right, dear?" Doris said.
Meagan dropped her burden on the ground and flung herself at Doris.
"Hi Mama Doris!" Doris bent down, folding her in a matronly hug.
"And how's my girl?" Doris asked with delight as she sat at the picnic bench with Meagan sitting on her lap facing her.
Jake watched their exchange with pleasure. Doris had always been 'Mama Doris' to Meagan. She was like a grandmother to her; a gentle, kind and warm hearted woman. It baffled Jake why others couldn't see Norman and Doris the way they did.
He thought back to an incident that happened a year ago, before Josh was born. Jake, Emily and Meagan had gone for a picnic with Norman and Doris at Sheridan's Lake. While they ate they had been distracted by the raucous laughter of a group of people walking by on the trail.
They overheard one of them yell, "Hey Bob! Looks like we're in the wrong neighbourhood!"
Jake had instantly looked up to see three men followed by two women. The men had stared, laughed and one sang out, "Jungle Bunny, hop, hop..."
One of the women stepped forward, pushed him in the back and yelled, "Shut up Bob. You don't need to start no trouble here!"
"You a nigger lover now, Christy?" Bob yelled back while the others laughed.
"Go to hell, you're drunk!" Christy shouted back as they kept walking.
Jake was incensed. He had immediately gotten up to confront them but Norm grabbed him by the arm.
"We don't want you to do this Jake," Norman said. Jake hesitated. He looked at the group as they moved on and returned his gaze back to Norman and then to Doris who had a pleading look in her eyes.
"Please Jake. It's not our way," she said.
Jake had relented and Norman had turned loose of his arm and patted him on the back saying, "Thanks Jake. Let's sit down and enjoy the rest of the day."
Jake had gotten a tiny picture of what they sometimes endured. In spite of that, Norman and Doris were the most loving people he knew. It was hard to understand why. Whatever the reason, Jake loved them and felt very protective of them.
He was stirred from his thoughts when Norman came along side, also watching Doris and Meagan. He put his hand on Jake's shoulder.
"They sure love each other, don't they?"
"They sure do, Norm." Jake agreed with a contented smile.
"You know Jake," said Norman, "you ought to fix the latch on that gate. It must be a pain in the neck for you and Emily to have to tie it up every time you use it. You don't want Meagan wandering onto the road."
"Yea...You're right Norm. I keep forgetting to pick up a new latch in the hardware."
It was embarrassing to him. The latch had been broken for a month. The gate was on a spring, so at least it stayed closed, but Meagan could easily open it. All their friends were used to untying and retying the gate but the kids sometimes forgot. Emily was stressed with worry that Meagan could escape. She had told him Drew would fix it but he wouldn't hear of it. It was his job to do; a simple job. It would be humiliating to have someone else to do it, especially Drew who had the irritating habit of pointing out the things he should do.
"I can pick up a latch for you on Monday if you want?" Norman offered.
"Thanks Norm but it's ok. I promised Emily I would do it on Monday. I'll make sure to pick one up after work." Jake recalled their latest argument. Emily had actually given him an ultimatum to fix it by then or she would ask Drew to do it.
Norman walked over to Josh who was holding out his arms and crying out to him.
"What are you doing here all by yourself, Josh?" asked Norm as he picked him up and sat down at the picnic bench with him.
"Is Emily not home yet?" Doris asked.
Jake looked at his watch. Emily was running late. "She probably had to work a bit later. That sometimes happens on Saturday nights. She usually phones though. I'll give her a few more minutes before I phone the diner to see where she is."
The gate banged open and the Brady boys ran into the yard. Meagan jumped out of Doris's lap and joined them in a game of tag. They were closely followed by Karen and Drew who were laden with provisions for the evening. They called out a greeting and before she joined the small group at the picnic table, Karen told Caleb to retie the gate.
"Hi Jake, is Emily not home yet?" she asked.
"Not yet. She probably won't be long." He replied as he rummaged through the cooler and passed sodas around. Even though the heat of the day was ebbing away, it was still hot and the ice cold drink felt refreshing.
"I see you got your hands full, Jake." Drew said smiling as they shook hands.
Drew always had a ready smile and a quick laugh, although Jake suspected he sometimes laughed at you, instead of with you. Emily had quickly told him he was just being paranoid when he had confided this to her. She was probably right; she usually was.
Then his smile faded. "I saw what happened earlier with Rob and Tammy."
"Yup. They've gotta go, Drew."
He sighed. "I know. I'll tell them tomorrow." He hesitated. "I just hate doin' this kind of thing."
"I know it's hard, Drew, but I'd sure like to give them my two cents worth. I'll come along, if you want."
He brightened. "Would you? That means a lot." He looked around then and asked, "Anything I can do?"
"Yea, why don't you help me set up some chairs? We can bring out the kitchen chairs as well."
Drew was good that way. He liked being useful in practical ways. His job was a perfect fit for him, being a janitor at Dahlia High School and the trailer park manager. He was always being asked to fix something and gladly rose to the challenge. If he couldn't solve the problem, he would find someone who could. Jake would see him marching around the trailer park, a large bunch of keys bouncing off his belt loop taking care of the multiple maintenance issues that plagued the establishment.
"I seen you and the boys heading out on a fishin' trip this mornin'," Jake said. "You catch anything?"
Drew leaned in, and quietly replied, "Yea, a couple of blue gill, but they was small." Jake could hear the disappointment in his voice. "Norm told me about a nice fishing hole in Bear creek about a mile upstream from here. It's a nice hike through the woods."
Bear creek runs behind the trailer court, about a half mile walk south on the railway tracks. Jake and Emily often walked down to it. There were some deep holes they would dip in to cool down from the heat.
"He caught himself a nice size bass there last Saturday," Drew continued. "He showed it to me." He glanced over at Norman, and whispered. "Don't tell Norm what I caught. I won't live it down."
Jake laughed. He really enjoyed watching the rivalry between him and Norman over fishing and hunting. "I won't. I promise." He said. "Did you let them go?"
"Nah. They was big enough to eat. I showed the boys how to clean and gut them and Karen cooked them up for lunch. There wasn't much but it was sure nice." Jake looked at Drew's broadly built and overweight frame. It was a testament to Karen's great cooking.
"You should go fishing, Jake. It gets you away from everything and you can relax."
"Nah, I haven't been fishing since I was a kid and I used to find it boring."
"Boring?" Drew laughed with incredulity. "I tell you what. Next chance you get, go with Bill in his boat. Do it, and I guarantee it'll change your mind."
"Alright, I'll do that," Jake said dubiously.
Jake saw Drew looking around at their partially cut, overgrown lawn. "Is your mower giving you trouble again?" he asked, with a slight smile.
"Yea, it quit on me today. It's so frustrating! I spend more time fixing that dang thing than I do using it."
"You could borrow mine, you know."
"I know. It's probably just the spark plug but I'll take you up on that." He hated borrowing anything from Drew. He always got the impression he gloated anytime he had to ask for his help.
They finished setting out the chairs and Jake looked over at the fire pit. He had cut up the old lumber and had it stacked neatly, nearby.
"Let's set the fire up so it's ready to be lit," he said.
"That's a nice stack of wood you got for the fire tonight."
"Me and Bill built a new deck for Jim Stebbins down at the lake. That's some of the rotten wood from his old deck."
"You should build yourself a new deck, Jake. The wood's rotten and it's starting to sag. One day someone's gonna fall through it. Heck, the wood you're plannin' on burnin' is not as rotten as the wood on your deck." Jake ground his teeth; fortunately they were interrupted by the Prather's arrival before he could tell Drew to mind his own business.
Bill and Darlene's seven year old daughter, Sue, was at the fence with a small fish bowl in her hands. "Hey Pete," she yelled excitedly her blond ponytail waving around, "Look what I found down at the crick." All the kids clustered around her on the inside of the fence staring with fascination. She handed the fish bowl to Pete and ran to untie the gate.
"Well hi, Sue," said Doris grinning at her. "You're all business tonight, ain't ya?"
"I caught a newt Doris. It's so cool!"
"Well I won't hold you up," Doris said. "You better go watch out for it."
Sue immediately ran to her friends.
"Sue and Pete are good buddies, aren't they Drew?" Jake commented, watching Sue join the group of children. She was talking animatedly with Pete while he reached in and lifted the newt out of the fish bowl.
Drew was grinning as he replied, "Yea, they have a lot of fun, those two. They're always exploring the woods behind the trailer court."
Grace, Bill and Darlene's four year old, arrived next; her parents close behind, each carrying a bag of food for the evening. Bill bent his head down to Darlene, saying something. She erupted with a loud laugh and slapped him on the arm. He smiled down at her and put his arm across her thin shoulders and then mischievously tugged on her blond ponytail. Jake marvelled at the contrast between them, not just physically but in personality and yet they were so tuned into each other.
Grace joined in with the throng of kids. She was just a smaller version of Sue and both girls took after their mom. Bill and Darlene yelled a "hello" to everyone and placed their burdens on the picnic table, now laden with enough food to feed them all for the next few days. Bill immediately got to work, slicing up a watermelon he had brought, then handed Norman a slice.
"Try that Norm and tell me that ain't the best watermelon you ever tasted."
Norman took a bite. "Now that is a good watermelon, Bill." he replied feeding a small piece to Josh. "What do you think, Josh?"
Darlene waved at Jake and then turned to Doris and Karen laughing at the commotion Sue had stirred up. Jake along with Drew joined the fray at the picnic table helping themselves to some watermelon.
"That watermelon's so sweet and cold, Bill," Jake said.
Drew took a slice and closed his eyes. "Man! That's just what the doctor ordered. Best thing for this heat."
"We had it in the fridge all day and then I put it in the freezer when I got home from work," Bill replied. "Nice, ain't it?"
Jake overheard the women talking and turned his attention to them.
"Sue sure made an entrance, Darlene." Doris said laughing.
"I know," she replied. "Me and Grace and Sue was walkin' in the woods near the crick. Sue said she and Pete had seen some newts there earlier. She was bound and determined to catch one just so she could show him."
"Pete's impressed," said Karan, "and if I know him, he'll be wantin' to go down and catch one himself."
Darlene turned around to Jake. "Where is Emily, Jake?"
"She should be home by now," Jake replied looking at his watch. "I'll go find out."
Jake went into the home and phoned the diner. He talked to one of the waitresses who said her car was still there.
"She must be working out back," she speculated. "I'll tell her you called."
Jake told his guests that Emily was working late and should be along soon. He turned on the stereo, put a tape in the cassette deck and turned up the volume. He started grilling the meat, regularly checking his watch. 'Why is she leaving everything to me? She could have at least phoned to tell me she would be late!' he thought to himself more than once.
The sun was dipping to the horizon; the intense heat had subsided to a warm muggy evening. There was a hubbub of voices and laughter; shrieks of delight from the children as they played into the approaching night. The smell of barbecued meat made Jake's stomach rumble.
Finally, Emily arrived at eight, parking her car next to his truck. She got out of the car and ran her hands through her brown curly hair in an attempt to tame it down after it had been blown around on the journey home. With a stab of guilt, Jake remembered that he still hadn't fixed the air conditioning on her car. Emily quickly walked up the path showing an abounding energy that kept her small frame fit and trim. Normally she bore an open good natured expression on her face; tonight her temper was in evidence. Jake could see the anger in her face as she glared at him.
'What the hell is she angry about? She left me in the lurch!' he thought to himself.
She quickly masked her anger with a smile for Doris who came up to greet her with a hug. The others surrounded her in greeting. She excused herself to change her clothes. On her way past, Jake stopped her and hissed quietly, "Where the hell have you been?"
Emily worked at Newman's Truck Stop and Diner. It was three miles north of Dahlia on Indiana Highway 61 and only a mile from home. This was a busy highway and Newman's was a favourite spot for truckers to refill their trucks and bellies. People from Dahlia and the nearby air base also frequented the diner. It was an out of the way spot where they could have a quiet meal at a good price and although the food served was run of the mill diner food, it couldn't be criticised too heavily.
It was after six, quitting time for Emily. On her way to the staff room she stuck her head in the diner manager's door.
"See ya Monday, Jim," she said.
Jim, a heavyset, middle-aged man, looked up from his paperwork and smiled. "Ok Emily, and enjoy your barbecue. Tell them I said, 'Hi'."
"Will do... Bye."
In the staff room she removed her apron and sat down to rest her tired feet. She sighed, stretched out her legs and then began to count her tips, stashing them in her purse when Stacey Hoffman, another waitress, entered, in a huff, for the start of her shift.
"Hi, Stacey. Jim's been lookin' for ya."
"I know. I'm runnin' late again. I bet Jim's gonna kill me!" she said putting her apron on and tying back her hair.
"I wouldn't worry. You know Jim."
"What were the tips like today?"
"Pretty good. It'll all go into savings," she said proudly, remembered how her tips had gone towards paying off their home. Now, she and Jake were saving for a larger home. "It's hectic out there. You oughta do good tonight."
"I could sure do with it... See ya Monday," Stacey said rushing out the door.
Emily grabbed her purse and left. On her way out, she saw Dave, the short order cook, standing in the kitchen with his back to her, daydreaming while he drank a cup of coffee. She snuck up behind him and nudged his elbow just as he was about to take a drink. Coffee spilled down the front of his shirt and he whirled around.
"Dog gone it!" he spat. "Emily!" His face broke into a smile.
She sprang away, laughing. "Gotcha. Now we're even," she said, running through the exit.
Dave had only started a month before, but in that time the atmosphere in the diner had lightened. He was funny, easy going and took work in his stride; most of the staff easily took to him. The Sunday after he started at the diner, she was surprised when he turned up at the church she attended in Dahlia and was introduced as the new associate pastor.
He wasn't a hit with everyone though. Kate Straus, another waitress at the diner, generally ignored him. She was single, in her late twenties and always ripping to party. She lived fast and loose; one night stands were her bag.
"Lots of fun but no strings attached!" she would brag to anyone who would listen.
She was good looking with a stunning figure she emphasized with her tight fitting uniform; the first buttons of her blouse opened, displaying the cleavage of her generous bosom. She was really popular with most of the men, openly flirting with them. When young male clients took a table, she pushed past the other waitresses to claim them as her own. This upset Emily at first, but she soon realised she had a lot more customers, since she needed to look after the ones Kate ignored. Emily often saw her outside the diner smoking while flirting with one guy or another.
Not long after Dave had started, Emily had seen them talking. She had been aghast when Kate had abruptly stalked off, leaving Dave looking hurt.
"What was that all about, Dave?" she had asked.
"I'm not exactly sure, Emily."
"Well, you must have said something."
He thought a moment and then shrugged it off by saying "Good Christian folk like us have to expect this. Our pure life style shows some people their sin and they'll hate us for it."
Emily had felt sorry for him, but at the same time, she admired his conviction to press on with his faith, even when it so clearly hurt him.
Walking to her car, Emily was laughing to herself, pleased she had gotten even with Dave. Earlier, she had been returning a tray with glasses of water to the kitchen. Only Dave was there. As she was putting the tray on the counter he nudged her arm causing her to spill water all over the counter and floor. She grabbed one of the glasses of water, still full, and threw the water in his face. His expression of shock slowly turned into a grin. She ran from him while he took the opportunity to coil up the dish rag and flick her on the rump. It stung and she let out a yelp. They heard Jim coming into the kitchen and immediately started mopping up the water. After he left, they couldn't stop laughing. It was so long since she had laughed like that. It reminded her of her carefree days as a teenager, growing up with three older brothers; a time of pranks and horseplay.
Her laughter was cut short when she noticed her car had a flat tire.
"Crap!" she said, "That's the second one this week." She threw her purse in the car, opened the trunk and lifted the spare wheel out. That was when she noticed it too was flat.
"Shoot! Now what am I gonna do?" she spat, wiping the sweat from her forehead. "I told Jake he needed to fix this tire last week."
She was walking briskly back into the diner to phone Jake, her fists clenched, when she ran into Dave just as he was leaving.
"You in trouble, Emily?" he asked.
"Yup! I've got a flat tire and the spare is also flat," she replied. "I'm gonna phone my husband to sort this out. It's his fault!"
"Easy there. I can drive you home. I'm leavin' now anyways."
"Thanks Dave, but I'd better get that tire fixed tonight. I'll need the car to go to church in the mornin'."
"Well, in that case, I can take you into Dahlia to get it fixed. I know a place that should still be open. Then we can swing back here and I'll change it for you."
"That's real nice of you, Dave, but that's a lot for you to do."
"It's fine Emily," he said, giving her an encouraging smile. "C'mon, Let me sort this out for ya,"
"Well Jake oughta do it, but he's probably real busy right now," Emily said. She looked away, wrinkling her brow pensively and then looked back at him smiling. "Alright Dave, I'll take you up on that. Thanks. I really appreciate this."
Dave put the spare wheel in the back of his truck and she climbed into the passenger seat.
"I'm sorry Dave, You got better things to be doin'...," she began, but Dave cut her off with a pat on her knee, his hand lingering before he pulled it away.
"Don't worry about a' thing little missus. I'll get you sorted out," he laughed intoning a southern accent she couldn't help but laugh at.
They pulled out of the parking lot, onto the southbound lane of highway 61. Dave put on the air conditioner and soon the cab of the truck was refreshingly cool, the radio playing softly in the background.
"The air conditioning feels like such luxury," she said. "Mine's been broken awhile now and I forget what it's like."
"Really? That's got to be uncomfortable," he replied, glancing over. "You oughta get your husband to sort that out."
"I'm sure Jake will... eventually. You get used to it, and besides I don't go very far."
"It's good you're so patient. A lot of women wouldn't be."
Emily thought of the growing list of jobs that Jake kept meaning to do and sighed heavily. "He's just got a lot on his plate right now," she replied.
He nodded. "Yea, things can pile up on ya, but sometimes it's about prioritising," he said. "What would you have done if you'd have got a flat tire on the road?"
"Thank God that didn't happen," she said, bitterly thinking how Jake put aside time to help his friends; attention she desperately needed. She sighed, putting those thoughts aside and finally relaxed as they listened to the radio, talked and laughed. She loved the way their conversation could seamlessly move to matters of shared faith, something she and Jake were no longer able to do.
They returned to the car with the repaired wheel. She watched as he worked. His strong frame working the jack, the muscles in his arms bulging as he pulled on the tire iron. She was flattered to notice he was discreetly checking her out. It felt nice to be noticed, especially after having two kids. She leaned back against the hood of the car, her arms propping her up as they talked, but realising how provocative she was being, she quickly straightened up. 'What am I doing?' she chided herself as her face coloured with embarrassment. When he was done she started to gush another thanks but was quickly cut short when Dave put up his hand and gave her a heart-warming smile.
"Honestly Emily. It was my pleasure." he replied. "Besides I really enjoyed talking with you. It's not that often I get to be in such good company."
"It's nice of you to say so, Dave. I'll see you in the mornin' at church," she said getting into her car.
She waved goodbye. 'That was real decent of Dave,' she mused happily, easing back into the seat of the car as she drove; the warm air blowing through her hair. She exited the highway onto the county road they lived on and glanced at the clock on the dashboard. She was surprised it was nearly eight; the time had effortlessly slipped by. Then she winced, realising how much of Dave's time she had taken. She angrily pushed the gear stick into fifth gathering speed on the quiet country road. Jake's carelessness wasn't just affecting her and kids now, others were being inconvenienced. She slowed to a stop at the four way intersection. Guiltily she sighed and ran her fingers through her hair. 'I need to be understanding. He is working hard.' she thought. She continued driving, but her hands tightly gripped the steering wheel realising she and the kids could have easily been left stranded.
"No. Dave is right. Jake needs get his priorities straight," she fumed. "We have needs too!"
Arriving home, she parked next to Jake's truck. She took a couple of calming breaths, stepped out of the car and smoothed her hair down. She glared at Jake to let him know he was in trouble and then turned her attention to her friends. As she started to unknot the string on the gate she had to restrain herself from kicking it; tears stung her eyes and her hands trembled as she untied and retied the string. Taking a deep breath, she walked over to the picnic bench where she was assailed by a chorus of greetings.
"How're you guys doin'?" she called out. "Sorry I'm late.
Doris stood up and embraced her. "I bet you're half starved, hun," she said.
"That meat sure smells good. I didn't realise I was so hungry."
"Here Emily, try this," Bill said handing her a slice of watermelon.
"Thanks Bill, but I'm gonna have a wash and change my clothes before I do anything else," she said. "I'll be right out."
"I'll make you up a plate food while you're getting cleaned up, Emily." Karen said.
"Thanks, Karen," Emily called over her shoulder as she walked past Jake, pointedly ignoring him. He put out his hand and stopped her, though, hissing quietly, "Where the hell have you been?"
She couldn't believe what she was hearing. She expected some concern; maybe an 'Are you alright?' or 'I'm sorry you were delayed, you must be tired and hungry." Instead, she was assaulted by his angry tone.
She faced him angrily. "I had a flat tire, but you never fixed the spare like you said you would!" she hissed back, trying to contain her voice but gave up as she exploded. "It's typical of you! You don't care about me. You only think of yourself!"
She quickly looked from Jake's shocked face, to her friends' stunned silence and cringed as she fled into her home. She slammed the door, leaned heavily against it and closed her eyes; her stomach clenched in dread, a distant memory resonating, her father, standing in their dishevelled kitchen, screaming at her Mother after she had arrived home late one evening.
"Where were you? I'm tired of pulling your weight. You're either sick or doin' your own thing!"
Emily wiped a tear from her cheek and went into her bedroom as her chest began to constrict.
"Oh God, not this again," she gasped.