Authors: Maggody,the Moonbeams
"No, I need a favor."
"You want I should shoot Jim Bob? I'll have to bill you for the bullet, you know, but it will be worth it. Not one soul in Maggody will skip the funeral. Afterward, we can all enjoy Ruby Bee's green bean casserole and Estelle's special snowflake salad and -- "
"Don't be impertinent, missy. We are going to need your assistance for the next ... few days. I was under the impression that it was all under control, then Eula came down with a head cold and Elsie had the audacity to announce she was going to her niece's wedding in Texarkana. Millicent's rheumatism is flaring up and she can hardly be expected to come to our aid."
"As in?" I asked.
"The youth group at the Voice of the Almighty Lord Assembly Hall is scheduled to spend a week at Camp Pearly Gates down in the south part of the county, just past Dunkicker. I need a chaperon."
My feet hit the floor so abruptly that I came damn close to falling out of my chair. "What does that have to do with me?"
"The group is going the day after tomorrow. Six girls, four boys. It is imperative that they have constant supervision to prevent any sort of immoral interaction. I assume you know what that means. I'd hoped Lottie would accompany us, but she's barricaded herself in her house and refuses to answer the door. To think she calls herself a good Christian!"
"Camp Pearly Gates used to be a summer camp for children with asthma, cancer, and the like. Now church congregations all across the state have agreed to pitch in and restore it. Our youth group voted to go there instead of Branson for their spring break. I fell to my knees and thanked the Lord that all those years of Sunday school finally paid off and they're willing to make the sacrifice and utilize their youthful energy to help the less fortunate."
I really, truly hated it when she had the moral high ground. "But I don't see why you should need a second chaperon. Your presence ought to be more than adequate to keep them in line. Take hymnals and lots of marshmallows."
"Brother Verber will be accompanying us, naturally, but he and I will stay in the lodge, where we can supervise the work assignments, monitor supplies, see that kitchen chores are carried out, and lead nightly gatherings of a spiritual nature. Larry Joe Lambertino will be staying in the boys' cabin. You'll be with the girls. Between the four of us, we ought to be able to maintain discipline and prevent rampant promiscuity." She gave me the sharp look of a crow perched on a mound of putrefying flesh. "You of all people should know what wickedness these teenagers get into around here. This very morning I found whiskey bottles in the ditch in front of my driveway, and Jim Bob swears they steal so many packs of cigarettes from the supermarket that he can barely keep the shelves stocked. Just imagine what they'd do without someone to ride herd on them. I feel faint thinking about it."
She did look a bit pale, but it might have been caused by her girdle rather than the vision of couples behaving with abandon under the whispering pines.
"You'll have to find someone else," I said. "I already have a full-time job making sure the inmates don't take over the institution. If Larry Joe's agreed, why not ask Joyce to go, too?"
"I suppose she might, as long as you're willing to babysit their children. I happened to see them at the supermarket the other day, and it was all I could do not to rip open a box of tissue and wipe their disgusting noses. I'd be real surprised if they don't all have head lice. Joyce has never struck me as the sort to pay much attention to hygiene or personal appearance. Larry Joe's shirts look like he sleeps in them. I shudder to think what kind of example he's setting for the impressionable youth in his shop classes. I was fully expecting the whole town to come down with food poisoning after Joyce passed out jars of that repulsive green slime."
I stared at the water stain on the ceiling. "What about Ruby Bee? She might enjoy a restful week at this camp."
"And go prowling in the woods with a flashlight? How are you going to feel when she's bitten by a snake and dies? Why don't you start writing the eulogy about how you sent your own mother to her death because you couldn't be bothered? What kind of message will that send to our young people, who have volunteered to pass up waterslides and corndogs to help sick children deserving of a carefree week at camp? Some of those little children won't be with us a year from now, you know. I don't know if Jesus runs a summer camp up in heaven, but -- "
"I can't take off for a week."
Her lips curled upward. "Yes, you can. The town council voted last night."
"In a secret meeting?"
"As you well know, I am married to the mayor of Maggody, and I saw to it that you were given permission to take a week of vacation time to accompany us to Camp Pearly Gates. We're meeting at the Voice of the Almighty Lord Assembly Hall on Saturday morning at six o'clock sharp. You'll need clothing, personal items, a sleeping bag, insect repellent, and a reliable flashlight. The teenagers will be bringing their Bibles, but since everybody knows you're an atheist, we won't ask that of you."
I did not ask if it might be more expedient to bring a case of condoms.
Once Mrs. Jim Bob had swept out in an acidic haze of self-righteousness, I sat back and wondered how difficult it might be to provoke an appendicitis that would allow me the better part of a week of TLC in the Farberville hospital, where I could indulge in pudding, overcooked broccoli, and cable television.
The specific organ failed to twinge.
I did not give up hope of anything short of spontaneous combustion, but resigned myself to deal with the matters at hand. I found the number of the battered women's shelter, dialed it, and was informed that no one named Norella Buchanon had been or currently was in residence. End of conversation, as in dial tone.
With reluctance, I called the sheriff's office. The dispatcher, LaBelle, always interprets my calls as a threat to her despotic rule, but eventually transferred me to Sheriff Harve Dorfer, who presents himself as a good ol' boy but can outwit the majority of the vermin in the county. Outwit them, but not necessarily outrun them; Harve's never met a chicken-fried steak or cheap cigar not to his liking.
"Coincidence you called," he said genially. "We got this ol' boy out in DeWatt, name of Ebie Whitebread, who's convinced communists are stealing his sheep."
"I'm not in the mood for sheep, Harve," I said. I told him what Duluth had told me. "Any chance to track her down? She's violating the court-ordered visitation."
"Norella Buchanon," he mumbled under his breath. "Name's ringing a bell. Hang on a minute; I reckon there's more to the story." Wheezing, he shuffled papers, then scritched a match to light a cigar and said, "Yep, she's on the list of folks we'd like to talk to about a meth lab out in Emmett. We didn't issue a warrant, but she was told to show up here ten days ago."
"And she didn't."
"Hard to pull the wool over your eyes, ain't it? Let me see what I can find out, then I'll call you back."
I replaced the receiver, called Ruby Bee's insurance agent and set all that in motion, then spent some time fooling with my hair. Thus far I had resisted Estelle's offers to frost it, cut it, layer it, crimp it, curl it, or tint it auburn. I'd also resisted discounts on mascara, eyeliner, and lipstick. Beauty pageants in Branson were not on my agenda.
Harve called back the next day to say that the shelter had referred Norella to a community outreach service in Farberville, and that they had been unable to help her beyond a fifteen-dollar voucher for gas and a few coupons for a fast-food chain. After some not especially subtle prodding from me, he agreed there might be something in the file on the meth lab bust that might persuade the county prosecutor to put out a warrant for her. Law enforcement agencies across the state would not be searching for her, but if an officer pulled her over and checked the license plate, we might hear about it.
I found Duluth, bless his soul, in the kitchen at Ruby Bee's Bar & Grill and told him what little I'd learned. I lamely added that I'd spend more time on it when I returned from a week at Camp Pearly Gates. His surly look implied that I might as well remain there for all eternity, or at least a goodly portion of the thereafter.
And so I found myself shivering outside the Voice of the Almighty Lord Assembly Hall at six o'clock on Saturday morning, my essentials crammed in a duffel bag, my eyes grainy, my lips a shade of blue that not even Estelle could match had it been bewitching, which it wasn't. Various teenagers, including Darla Jean McIlhaney and Heather Riley, were deposited by parents who drove away with disturbingly gleeful expressions. The Dahlton twins were shoved out of a car that barely slowed down. Billy Dick MacNamara literally dove out of the back of a pickup truck as it raced past us.
"What are you doing here?" Darla Jean asked me, her teeth chattering either from the frost forming on her braces or the proximity to a law enforcement agent.
"I don't know," I answered sincerely.
Heather, the blonde who possibly was responsible for all the jokes, frowned. "You don't even attend this church. According to Brother Verber, you're destined for eternal damnation. He said you were going to sizzle in Satan's fiery furnace till the end of time."
"Did he?" I murmured as I glanced at the silver trailer that served as a rectory. "Sounds warm."
"Mrs. Jim Bob says you're an atheist," contributed one of the Dahlton twins.
"What's more," said Parwell Haggard, whose face was dotted with glossy pustules, "we heard tell you was a prostitute when you lived in New York City. You painted your face and walked the streets in short skirts and see-through blouses."
I wished I could see through him.
Larry Joe Lambertino arrived before I allowed myself to lapse into violence. He unfolded himself from the passenger's seat of the station wagon, said something I'm sure was meant to be heartening to his wife, Joyce, and managed to grab his suitcase and a sleeping bag out of the back before she drove away. I couldn't tell exactly how many children were crammed inside, but I had to agree with Mrs. Jim Bob's assessment of their noses.
"How'd you get talked into this?" he asked me, jamming his hands into his coat pockets. He was reedy, as if he could be blown over with less than half a huff and a puff, and had the unfortunate habit of scratching his head and appearing totally bewildered when tossed even the most innocuous question. No wonder; he wasn't all that much older than I, but he'd been teaching shop at the high school and moonlighting as a custodian when I'd contrived to escape. He'd undoubtedly spent more time with a mop than I had in line to use the ladies' room at Carnegie Hall during intermission; neither of us was the wiser for it.
"Same way you did, I suppose," I said.
"Ruby Bee doin' okay?"
It was a question I'd answered several dozen times in the previous two days, but I smiled and said, "Duluth is handling the repairs. His second cousin's an electrician, and his nephew's father-in-law is a plumber. The insurance appraiser promised to come out Monday and start the paperwork. Ruby Bee's pretty much staying in her unit."
"Down in the mouth, huh?"
My smile faded. "She'll be fine once she's back to baking biscuits and apple pies."
"Joyce is gonna take by some cookies later today and invite her over for supper. Maybe getting out will cheer her up."
"I hope so, Larry Joe," I said as I turned away, thinking about a certain condo in Manhattan. I wouldn't have recognized a neighbor if we'd jostled each other for position in the deli. Some of us had shared a view, but never a meal or even a conversation about anything more personal than the sluggishness of the elevator.
A few minutes later Brother Verber staggered out of his trailer, dragging a suitcase that must have contained enough clothes to hold him until the Judgment Day and a few millenniums thereafter. His nose was no rosier than usual, but what tufts of hair remained on his head stuck out like bolls of cotton. I didn't have the heart to tell him that his socks were mismatched, but I could tell from giggles behind me that it had not gone unnoticed.
We were milling about when Mrs. Jim Bob drove up in what had been a pint-size school bus but was now painted pastel blue and emblazoned with lettering that proclaimed it to be FLY BY NIGHT DRY CLEANING: YOUR STAIN IS OUR PAIN.
"It's going to be a tight squeeze," she announced as she climbed out, "but the rent was cheap and we're on a mission for the Almighty Lord. The twelve disciples relied on faith, not seatbelts. Put your gear in the back."
Although I knew there was a flaw in the sentiment, I was too groggy to figure it out. Within twenty minutes or so, the remainder of the designated do-gooders arrived and threw duffel bags, bedrolls, and backpacks into the bus, which was already jammed with boxes of food, tools, and a canvas bag of softball equipment. Brother Verber offered a brief prayer for our safety, tucked what looked suspiciously like a pint bottle in his coat pocket, and waved us into the bus.
Us, as in ten teenagers and four adults, in a space designed for half that number and reeking of whatever chemicals are used to eliminate grape juice stains. I was more concerned about potential bloodstains.
"Git your hand off of me, Billy Dick," hissed Darla Jean.
Mrs. Jim Bob glanced in the rearview mirror. "We will have none of that! Our mission is to follow through on our work assignment so that sickly children can spend a week in the fresh air before they join Jesus. Brother Verber, would you like to lead us in a hymn?"