|Sandpebbles, Women of Faith Series #3|
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Recently widowed March Longfellow struggles with the issues never resolved between herself and her husband before his fatal boating accident. While March continues to commandeer the lives of her son, Mason, her pastor father, and the staff members of the small-town newspaper she owns, she also grapples with the deep grief of circumstances she could never control. To complicate matters, a know-it-all pastor, Colin Arnett, enters Candle Cove impromptu to take over areas of her life she is unwilling to surrender. As the Arnett family's lives become intertwined with her own, March finds her life completely turned around and thrust into a new direction--one she cannot control. March learns that as she lets go of the things of the past, God rekindles her own faith and joy and a renewed hope for love.
NOT LETTING GO IS MY DOWNFALL. I CAN THINK OF at least three lives I saved because of it and at least two lives I wrecked. Case in point: Whenever my husband Joe and I saw an accident, I leaped from the car, checked the victimsí vitals, and directed traffic until the local cops and EMS team arrived.
Be that as it may, succumbing to this same inner mechanism is why I held a gun on two thugs and rescued my baby-sitter, Yolanda, from what would have been possible torture. It was not a real gun.
A year and a half after Joeís death I drove home from Gumís Food Mart loaded down with ears of corn and shrimp for a seafood boil near the ocean. My boy, Mason, expected me to punctually pick him up from his Grandpaís and chauffeur him to his baseball game. My late habits at the newspaper office triggered occasional tardiness. He tended to get miffed about my weak timekeeping. So I almost missed seeing Yolanda at the Hep-Ur-Sef coin-op car wash because I exceeded the speed limit. But in an oblique sort of manner, I saw the spray wand lift and lower above Yolandaís VW Beetle. Then the whole hose contraption went haywire. Suds fountained in the air as the hose spewed in circles and made cobralike gyrations that caught my eye and caused my foot to hit the brake.
That is when I saw the thugs. One wielded a terrorizing blade. According to the ten oíclock news that night, the wayward boys had escaped from a jail in New Jersey, stolen a car, and made it all the way to our town of Candle Cove, North Carolinaóa mistake they will most surely never make again. We are tight here. Whatever they intended to do with Yolanda never came to light. Before they could wrestle her away from the Beetle, my tires squealed to a dead stop right in front of them. Grenades of corn pitched throughout my SUV and I remember whisking away husk hairs for a solid month from the upholstery and carpet, a fact that irked me for the longest time. Mason had dropped his black water pistol onto the floor of the car. With both hands, I gripped it tight through the open window. I hid the plastic cap that holds in the water with my thumbs. "Put up your hands! Iím the police!"
Yolanda whitened and tried to speak even though one of the brutes had his filthy hand clamped over her sweet teenage mouth.
Both of the men were so surprised they froze, and the one with a knife threw it down. I called May at the police station on my cellular and she sent our two cops, Harold Gleason and Bobby White, over right away. (They were having jalapeno bagels at the nearby Lighthouse Java Mill.) I ordered the criminals to lie facedown on the pavement and Yolanda ran shrieking out into the street to flag down Harold and Bobby. Harold held them at bay while Bobby cuffed them and read them their rights. Harold said he wanted to swear at me for succumbing to my mechanism only to endanger the life of two helpless women, one being myself. But I had already stepped aside to retch into the Hep-Ur-Sef trash container.
Yolanda cried and ran up the bill on her parentsí cellular phone, calling first her mother, her father who was away in Pittsburgh on business, her orthodontist, and her best friend in the whole eleventh grade. She hugged me and bawled on my shoulder so hard I had to tear myself away to run and fetch Mason, who by that time paced in front of his grandfatherís house, tapping the tip of his bat against the walk, irate as mad bees. Even though I had rescued his lifelong babysitter, he was angry enough that he spilled out disconnected phrases that seemed to combust at the end with incensed grunts. The slightest infraction on my part, in his ten-year-old estimation, was worthy of castigation.
That is why I took him to Virginia every spring to visit his fatherís grave, to leave flowers, and to help Mason forgive me.
Six months later, the second anniversary of Joeís death rolled around, and Mason and I drove all the way up to northern Virginia to visit his daddyís grave. Neither of us wanted to stay behind in Virginia, or return to North Carolina. The trees along 1-95 were not greening yet, and that disappointed Mason. Ten-year-old boys like him see sunsets and blooming trees and grow up to be men who can cry. Masonís daddy could not cry, and I believed that was what caused his death.
I thought that Joeís death would end my life. Even when Bobby and Harold showed up at my door stiff as soldiers with the news of Joeís passing, I had said just that very thingó"Dear God, my life is over!" But instead of ending me, Joeís accident left me opened up and walking around. Yet if I attempted the most menial tasks, I felt a paralysis slip over my mind. The most insignificant incidents reminded me of my Joe, like the time I opened a tool drawer out in the garage and found it stuffed with bank slips and gas receipts. I thought I had cleared away all of the clutter that reminded me of his pack rat tendencies, but right next to a ratchet and a box of matches lay more of his addiction to disorder. I cried for days. For hours every night after I sent Mason to bed, I cleared out every possible cranny in the house where Joe might have tossed a piece of this or that, even poring through his shoeboxes filled with tax returns until his clutter was eradicated and every inch of our house cleared of the-history-of us. After the Nights of Eradication, I worked to close the windows of my soul and bar the attic of my mind.
It was the very worst thing I could do.
During our summer, we are the sun children of the Sound Country, not a long distance from the ferry that tools tourists out to Ocracoke Island or from any number of the fishing villages that dot the decaying womb of upper coastal North Carolina. Candle Cove draws beachcombers and business opportunities but not always both trades at once. Winter does not kiss us with heated passion the way it plays to its mistresses of the low country and Florida. Damp winters sluice the Sound people with blankets of firmament so thick the sky is one with the fog beneath our feet.
Summer is where we prefer to live. Mason wanted to cross the threshold to the inland with its thickets of live oak and find it green, not plainónot allowing the wind to howl through the naked tree limbs, brittle beggars undressed in the fields. Winter makes its home up north, but it plants its feet in the Carolinas, enough to chill the field and to blow snow across the upper decks of the mountains and leave a tinsel of cold upon the Atlantic side. Mentally I had painted our little piece of heaven green, just as I painted my mother alive. "Soon, Mason, weíll have us a good spring."
We saw the "Welcome to North Carolina" sign as we left Virginia behind, but the crossing of thresholds had lost its sheen. When too much change comes to your door, you grow anxious around thresholds.
I had learned to watch Mason without him knowing it. He sat with the passenger shoulder safety belt twisted behind him. Mason complained of seat straps too high for short kids. He never minded the height issue until fifth grade. But now he attached all of his worth to it, as though it were his defining trait. Within every comment from a grade-school imbecileóand every class has oneóhe found hidden meaning between what was said and what was implied.
My observances of Mason were as covert as all of the things that kept me a step ahead of him, like the furtive ways that a mother watches her boy so he wonít complain sheís smothering him. I catalogued a mental collection of a motherís snapshots into little significant files like "Mason when he is angry with me" and" Mason when he daydreams." I thirsted for the tender and rare moments right now, the sight of things that stole my breath and gave me pause. You learn to look for beauty in the fragile lace of life when other things in your world come unthreaded.
Mason remained transfixed on the ebbing color that stained the horizon, as though he were sucking the color out of the sky himself. A mélange of orange and cinnamon firmament floated just above the mountains, a marker for where the sun had just kissed the sky before bed. He traced the cloud shape onto the surface of the car window. Or perhaps he drew something else. I donít know why I give every action a meaning. Itís just the thing a writer does when she sees something mysterious.
"This is North Carolina," he said, "not South."
"Right, Professor. North comes before South."
"Not if youíre coming from Florida."
"Letís stop here tonight. Then tomorrow morning weíll have only three hours left until we reach Candle Cove."
"Grandpaís looking for us."
"I told him it might be tomorrow."
A LaQuinta sign the color of orange and cinnamon floated above the interstate. It advertised a special for families.
"Free breakfast. Letís stop here." I braked.
"Continental. Thatís not real breakfast."
"We have continental every morning: cold cereal, frozen waffles, toast."
"Ask if we can check the pillows first. I hate pillows that are overpuffed," he said
"Overpuffed isnít a word. Unless youíre saying it as two words." We drove over a speed bump and past the flashing vacancy sign.
Mason slid his finger up and down the bridge of his nose in a manner that followed the inward curve of the bridge to the upturned and rounded curves that housed his trademark Longfellow nostrils. Whenever anger shot up his spine, those same nostrils flared and he looked pug-nosed.
"I hope the dog and cat are all right. Hercules always acts psychotic after heís been at the Pet Spa," I said.
"Johnson acts psychotic every day. Cats are all psychotic."
But none as off-the-wall as Johnson who had feline phobias such as a fear of walking on sandóhe would mince onto the sand, shake his paw, and turn and run back up to the cottage. Only he didnít like the cottage either, and I swore he had agoraphobia or whatever you call that thing when you just want to stay in all of the time. "You know you love Johnson, Mason. You ought to. Heís gotten too old to give away."
"A needy family still might take him. For a rug."
"This LaQuinta looks new. Maybe weíll get a new room. Toss my shoes over here, will you?"
"Iíd rather pick up Hercules tonight. Heís nervous without me." Mason slid my sneakers toward me with the side of his foot.
"Heíll be fine one more night. Anyway, the Pet Spa closes at seven, I think. We have to wait until tomorrow to check him out anyway. This is like a three-day weekend for me. If Gloria keeps her word about it, that is." Gloria Hammer, my assistant at the Candle Cove Sentinel had promised to keep the presses rolling in my absence from the weekly newspaper. I had never used my degree until after Joe died so I chose a business that seemed to line up with my journalism major, forgetting I might have needed a few courses on small business administration. I purchased the Sentinel as a safety net after Joeís death. Instead, it consumed our money as if we had carved a hole beneath the little downtown bank and plugged it with a vacuum. "Your last day of spring break. No cooking, no making the beds."
"We donít make the beds now. This place looks Mexican. See if they have a Taco Bell, Mom."
"You wait here, Mason. Iíll get a key to check a room."
"And donít forget to check the pillows." He yelled "overpuffed" through the glass.
I crossed the asphalt beneath the registration overhang and glanced at Mason, but he stared down at the floor, stared as though he needed to count how many caramel corns had dropped to the floor between northern Virginia and North Carolina. He had grown more argumentative over the last few weeks, more as we packed away the office where Joe had kept his law files. And even more so when we swept away the veil of snow from the grave site where two years ago we had laid Joe to rest.
The night clerk was a Southerner who had developed a sonorous Midwestern elocution. I knew that because I could still hear the mountains in his vowels whenever he said, "Please take advantage of our free breakfast that starts at dawn."
"I notice a large bus parked out back. Is that a seniorsí tour or a youth group?" I wanted peace all night.
"Neither. Itís a basketball team from Florida."
I held the key card a foot away.
"Theyíre a good bunch of young ladies."
"Oh, ladiesí basketball." I always thought it strange to call those young girls "ladies," and imagined them with enormous handkerchief-stuffed black leather handbags with brass latches. I remembered Masonís request but felt too silly to ask about the pillows. "I need to check out the room first. But Iím sure itís fine. If I donít come back, it means I took the room."
The clerk picked up the phone but answered me tacitly, lifted his head and pinched his forehead until both eyebrows beetled, black antennae spreading over dark insect eyes.
I steered the car around the lot, slowly ascending the hills of speed bumps and following the red arrows the clerk had scrawled on a hotel map. "You can check out the pillows yourself, Mason."
"I wish I was already home. It was dumb to plant Daddy so far away."
"His family comes from Virginia, Mason. Your dad grew up there." Mason followed me up the little rear porch dimly illumined by the muted yellow courtesy light, and then tramped ahead to be the first inside.
"Virginia is too cold. My fingers almost froze up and cracked off."
"I think we enter through that doorway. Then down the hall is the elevator.
"You donít listen to anything I say."
"Mason, Iím tired."
"You look it."
We rode the elevator up to the second floor without a word exchanged between us. The door opened to a hallway decorated with quiet red carpet. Electric candlesticks cast a soft ambiance. I fiddled with a luggage strap and then said to him, "I know for a fact I havenít said anything to make you mad at me. I think youíre tired."
Mason turned his rounded koala face from me, as if to keep me from studying the way his eyes liked, slumberous at the corners. "You donít miss him as much as I do. If you didó"
An older man, his years frozen around his eyes, stopped to look at us two doors down. We vanished from the strangerís reproving stare and locked the door behind us.
"Mason, I just took a road trip halfway up a nation just so we could visit your daddyís grave."
"You didnít cry."
"Maybe Iím cried out. Folks get cried out. Tear ducts empty. Itís not unnatural." A weird bareness rose up inside of me. I felt naked, my insides twisted open by a ten-year-old corkscrew.
"Why does his name on the grave thingy look so cold anyway? I feel like I want to cry, or Iím supposed to but itís not coming out. I waited for you to start, right when you put those plastic daisies in the stone vase. But you never cried, Momma."
"I see what you mean. I need a soda. You fill the ice bucket and Iíll get the drinks."
I swore that Mason and I had talked out Joeís boating accident. Heaven knew the rest of Candle Cove had talked it to death. Masonís gut-thundering honesty shined up nice on some days but on others left me without any energy.
When Joe died, he had left enough of the aroma of manhood on Mason to make him wish for it, but the scent had faded. Mason ran in dogged circles in search of his dad, in search of a face that would tell him what God looked like.
Mason handed me the overnight case and then gutted his duffel bag, a bombed-out explosion of boyís underwear and game cartridges. He dumped both bags near the bathroom door and then scuttled downstairs to lock up the car, marching almost in cadence, the chivalrous male. On some days, he faked it so well, so near ultimate maleness that I believed Mason needed no more than just me. Just us; that was all we needed. I pressed a tissue against my eyes. The cold made them moist.
Sunrise had come too early, especially since I had allowed Mason to rent an in-room movie at nine the night before and break open the microwave popcorn deposited onto a tray by the maid. After an hour or so of driving, I initiated conversation to suppress the sleep demons that turned my eyelids to lead.
"For lunch, letís have a root beer float and toast it just like when your daddy did on that day up at Ocean City. It was your birthday, I believe. Iíll bet your daddy would like that."
"Should we wait until we get home and invite Grandpa? Will we be home by then or did you mean along the way?" Mason had encircled the calendar day in red crayon and scribbled three initialsó DDDófor the "day Dad died." He laid the calendar on the seat between us open to the month of March, the tenth day.
I might have noticed an important calendar notation made earlier on my way out of town, but I didnít even give it a glance. That is what caused all of the trouble. "We might be home by then but I have work waiting at home. I have to stop and pick up some extras for the cottage, too. Grandpaís invited a pastor to preach either next week or the week after. Or, I guess heís an evangelist. But for the life of me I canít remember if it was next Sunday or not. Whatever. Dad acts like he needs the break, anyway." My father had pastored Candle Cove Presbyterian for twenty-seven years without a real vacation.
"Grandpa wants to go fishing, like he thinks I like it."
"If you donít want to fish, tell him."
"Iíd hurt his feelings."
"Grandpaís been told worse things than that, Mason. Pastors hear everything." I felt as though I were slipping back into my old flannel bathrobe as we passed by the familiar towns such as Brinkleyville and Glenview.
"When we go away and then go home, Iím glad to get away, but gladder to get back home," I said.
A rabbit raced alongside the SUV, slightly ahead of us, its legs stretching behind it so extreme in gait, it seemed to fly. Mason eyed it and squinted like a wishful huntsman. He drew an invisible gun, made a cocking sound with his tongue, and then yelled, Blam, blam!"
"Iíll bet youíre ready to get back in school after a break."
"I hate school." He blurted it out as though he knew it would annoy me.
"Boys like to say that, right? Itís something youíre supposed to say when youíre a guy. I wonder if you really mean it, though."
"Of course I mean it." He fired his invisible bullets again. A satisfaction spread across his face as though he didnít see the long legs split a sea of grass and vanish, but rather lurch in a moment of surprise, a stain of red forming at the heart, a jerk, and then a collapse.
"When I kept up with my school work, I mean, when I was your age, I liked school. I never hated it when I had it all together, had my GPA up."
"We donít call it a GPA. Just grades. I make the grades, but I still hate it."
"Hating it has to be a male thing."
"All my friends hate it." He scanned the passing field for more wildlife.
A rotary movement caught my eye, a twenty-something-foot-tall mug that rotated above a hamburger stand. "Itís a sign, Mason."
"Iíll get my shoes on." He said it like a television jingle.
"Good. Iíll make the list for Dad." I parked us right outside the takeout window. "Dadís secretary forgets so many little things, especially since Mother died. I donít know why that is. He should pay me a salary for all I have to do to keep Thelma straight."
Mason carried the tray of cheeseburgers, onion rings, and root beer to a red Formica table with chrome legs. "We never take this long to get home."
"I donít know what you mean." I emptied the tray, arranged the food, and then handed the tray to a passing waitress.
"You were in a hurry to get to the cemetery, to Daddyís grave. But youíre taking longer to get home."
"I hadnít noticed."
"Weíve been in the car like forever."
"Drat, they put ketchup on my burger," I said.
"I need to sign up for baseball season this weekend. Tomorrow morning."
I drew in a breath and sighed. "You didnít tell me."
He broke our communal glare with an irritating retort. "I did. Mom, you forgot. Again."
"So weíll get up in the morning and do it. Mason, you exaggerate about me as though you have to parade all of my flaws out in front of the world. Iím not a bad mother."
"I need new pads, cleats, pants. Everythingís too small. If I have to wear those pants another year, maybe I wonít play. "
"Weíll get the baseball gear. Donít make me feel like a louse, as though Iím going to make you go to practice with your rear end hanging out."
"If you donít want to go, Grandpa can take me."
"I said Iíd take you. Iíll be right back. I canít eat this with ketchup." I returned the burger to the front-counter attendant, who sighed and ferried the sandwich into a suspiciously hidden-from-sight kitchen. Mason sat with his back to me. When he wanted something, he always made me feel inadequate, a loose thread on his shoulder.
We finished lunch without sharing many more words. I made a list of things, certain Dad had forgotten them.
The sky clouded an iron gray painted with winter shades that darkened the nimbostratus layer and its ragged skirts. But the quiet aroma of spring left a far hint of complaint in the air, as though winter had stayed beyond its welcome. I shifted and it caused Mason to stand and clear away the litter. He shuffled the trash into a rubber bin and walked alone to the SUV.
He crawled into the middle seat behind me. The rest of the trip, he slept. A tinny rhythm emanated from his earphones. They curved around his neck like a stethoscope. I turned off his cassette player. As we drew nearer to Candle Cove, to Pamlicoís teeming universe, I felt something slipping from me. The cemetery visit left me feeling as though I swam the journey home with anchors tied to both feet.
I once believed that North Carolina offered a comfortable lap for errant souls like Joe. But the ocean beyond the estuaries and further, on past the archipelago of islands adorning the eastern shores like a bridal tiara, was unforgiving. It swallowed up too much. You can only be swallowed once by water if you donít pull yourself out fast enough. It was no way for Joe to leave the world, in my opinion. I wanted significance in my marriageóbanners I could wave around and say, "Joe and me, we made it." But he left all hope on the bottom of the sea with the fish and the sand. Sand pebbles make for weak touchstones, shifting, hiding, and changing places until the world forgets you once made footprints.
Joe left little behind in the way of a legacy, except a disputed piece of land and a cat. I hate cats, although I am cautious to never make mention of it in the Sentinel. I could lose subscriptions. My loathing for cats had more to do with the acquiring of my last name, a stylish name for a writer, according to some of my writer friends. When I said my vows to Joe, I acquired a cat and a good literary name. Once I considered the name a lucky amulet for a writer, although my prose never bubbled close to the abilities of the writerís circle I admireó the Candle Cove Inksters. It is believed that genius flourishes in remote pockets of the Carolinas, but seldom in Candle Cove. I know of at least one irritating genius who ran with the Inksters, but I wanted nothing to do with her. Sarai GilIman was a Wilmington grad who poured coffee up at the Lighthouse Java Mill by day. The girlís wand-shaped shadow flickered against a stained window shade every evening as she fashioned plots that she never shared, even with the Inksters. But also perched in the window were cats. Cattails sashayed back and forth in the girlís window, little metronomes keeping time to the ticking of the keys, the cadence of thought shaped into words by her. The very idea of the creatures jumbled in a mass around that writerís feet repulsed me; all that thrumming those animals do annoys me, as though their motor is forever idling. I know that Inkster has an overage of cats by the silky filaments that cling to her T-shirts and the jagged claw marks along the hem of her uniform:
Caucasian-pink knit slacks tattooed with an embroidered lighthouse on the front pocket. But since Joe died, Iíve wanted nothing to do with catsóespecially the aged family tomcat, Johnson, that coils around my feet every evening when I water the potted geraniums that droop along the three sage-green shelves above my kitchen sink. But that doesnít mean I neglect him. My antipathy for cat lovers I acquired much earlier. But as I said, Iíll sell them a newspaper.
Joe adopted Johnson when we dated. Johnson hated my golden retriever, Hercules, the puppy I bought for Mason when he turned three. After Masonís birthday party that year, we relegated Hercules to a backyard pen simply as a means of quelling the constant feud between cat and dog. It is mysterious the way the animals mirrored their owners. I argued with Joe at the slightest provocation in hopes I could help him grow. I was always honorable in my motives.
It was all my fault for falling for lawyerly charisma in the first place.
Joe Longfellow had hooked me from the start. My initial hunch that he would ultimately draw me in by his devices against my better judgment came when I first took notice of the sound of his voice. I kept myself from men like him by cataloguing male voices into a secret system I shared with no one, save my best friend, Dinah Buckworth, who hosts a local radio show called "In the Kitchen with Dinah." I was proofing a college paper I had just roughed out while at the study of my parentsí beach cottage. Stumped by one elusive fact, I had phoned the venerable law offices of Blakely and Chase in Wilmington for one loaded detail, only to wind up with the after-hours answering machine. Joe Longfellow had just passed his bar and made use of his afternoons by researching cases for Blakely and Chase. Blakely had asked Joe to provide the message for their answering machine. I phoned in for a meager thread of research for a postbacc paper. Joe Longfellowís dazzling pitch explained the firmís law specialty, that thing they did for the banking industry as transactional attorneys. Immediately, I placed him on the farthest spectrum of my male voice scale, a scarlet ten with conjuring, albeit, troublesome tendencies that marked his deep vibrato with a subtle trace of jagged machismoóa slight touch of it, but nonetheless, enough to sound the siren. I possessed in my midtwenties a weak splinter of craving that seldom hooked me with the wrong man, but on occasion pricked me in all of my vulnerable places. It was a dreadful chink in my ideology; a gene for which neither of my parents accepted blame.
Joeís voice had had such an effect on me. Instantly pricked, I had left a brief message, but called back ten minutes later to inform "the voice" that I would pick up the information the following day. In person.
My mother, Julia Norville, had a premonition about him, even though she took no store in premonitions. She called those shudders of portent that afflict maternal instinct her "discerning quakes"óa slight tremor that stole her breath and nothing more. Mother quaked only twice for my sakeóonce when through a dot-corn Web site I bought a used Tercel that gave out after one year and, second, when I met Joe Longfellow.
"Heís not of your moral fiber," she had said, but how she knew that I never knew.
"Mason, weíre home."
Candle Cove sat as a breath along the Atlantic, a phosphorescent crescent of light at the end of the day. A pallid shard of daylight flickered, engulfed by the curtain of rain that followed us home.
"Donít forget the dog, Mom."
As if I would. "After we unpack, weíll pick him up. And Johnson." I remembered the root beer stand again. We had wandered into and back out of the roadside stand without ever acknowledging the anniversary of Joeís death, without toasting root beers, as though numbed by the calendar date. Mason dragged his gear to the house, put his key into the twenty-year-old keyhole, and vanished into the dusky entry. The sky let go of the rain and it washed the dust from the SUV, ran into the gutters, flushed down into the waterway, and out into the ocean.
The untoasted moment left me feeling unpardoned and unfinished. I would step inside and ask Masonís forgiveness if he even so much as hinted at the infraction. If he forgot, then I would pick up the dog and cat, and go to bed tacit and incomplete. That is what you do when your life is a wreck.
Sandpebbles by Patricia Hickman, copyright 2002.
Used by permission of W Publishing Group. All rights reserved.