The Reverend Spain has asked her for a photograph and—since Leah has no pictures of herself—she has to ask her landlady to snap a Polaroid, when the landlady stops by, collecting rent. She poses outside, next to her screened porch, because the tiger lilies are in bloom and Leah hopes the flowers will compensate for what she lacks in terms of looks. The Reverend has assured her that he doesn’t care about such things, it is her purity of soul that he admires, but Leah thinks a man like him, who’s done so much to help the children of the world, deserves to look at something beautiful. Also, she wants him to see what kind of house she lives in and what kind of town: hence, Main Street in the background with the picture house, all boarded up, and the bar with its apologetic sign: “Trail’s End Saloon.” Her church is on the same block, but the whitewashed steeple of Atonement Lutheran does not materialize in the photograph. There’s just the defunct theater and the neon bar sign. She is glad. Leah doesn’t want the Reverend Spain to pity her. She just wants him to understand why she can’t send him more cash than she does, each month, to help with his important work in Africa.
She inscribes the photo with his first name. “Dell-Mar, this is me.” It seems like such audacity, calling an ordained minister by his first name, especially one she’s never met in person. Yet he calls her Leah, always, in his letters. Lately he’s started writing “Leah, dearest” and, once, “Leah, lamb,” which makes her feel all jittery, remembering. She hopes that he won’t think she is forward, calling him “Dell-Mar.” She’s warned him that she is a rookie when it comes to love, that she, approaching fifty years of age, has never kissed a man besides her husband Arnold, and that since Arnold’s disappearance many years ago, she has resigned herself to solitude—or had, until the Reverend Spain dropped into her life, lighting up her silent skies like Sputnik I, aflame.
She mails the photograph the next day on her way to work. On Sundays, Leah worships at Atonement Lutheran, and most other mornings, she goes there to clean. She’s worked here since she first arrived in town at the beginning of the war and, every day for the past twenty years, she’s thanked the Savior for her job within His house. She likes the church on Sundays, all the pickup trucks and Studebakers parked out front, the farmers in their Sabbath finery, their wives in hats, but she likes it better when the congregation’s gone. She loves the soft groans of the floorboards and the stained glass squares of light that pulse and quiver there, like living things. Sometimes—and this is something she has not told anyone, not even Reverend Spain—sometimes when she is rubbing lemon oil into the pews, she can detect a faint noise coming from the altar. She hears the sweet, sad singing of a microscopic choir. She can’t hear this on Sunday mornings, though. It only happens when she’s all alone.
She’s not alone this morning. Pastor Larson’s in his office, working on a sermon. His door is open. She can see his crewcut head bent low over his typewriter, and she tries not to distract him as she gets her mop and broom out of the closet, but he looks up anyway. “Say, Leah. I liked those nifty thingamajigs you made for the craft bazaar,” he says. “Those were just swell.” Leah is fond of Pastor Larson, but it bothers her, the way he uses so much slang. His predecessor never talked that way.
“How did you think of using corncobs for the handles?” Pastor asks.
She shrugs. “In my day, we made use of what we had. We didn’t throw things out, like nowadays.”
“Oh. They were nifty doodads, anyhow.”
“People now throw everything away. Good clothing. Vacuum cleaners. Food. When there are people starving overseas.”
He gazes at her with that worried face he sometimes gets.
“All those precious little children,” she says. “Starving.”
“Yes.” He runs one hand over his scalp and goes back to his work.
She cleans the sanctuary first. She mounts the three steps to the pulpit, sweeps the hexagonal space inside, then dusts the rails, applying extra pressure to the spots where Pastor rests his hands on Sundays. She will not allow herself to wonder what it feels like to be standing there in front of an entire congregation, sermonizing. She is not prone to foolish flights of fancy; vanity is not among her flaws. Though she has other flaws, of course. She is a sinner born; she’s done bad things, the same as every human being. For instance, it is probably a sin that she delights in solitude, that she prefers the church without the congregation present. Why should she wish to hoard the Savior to herself? She decides to ask the Reverend Spain this question soon. Quite often, they discuss theology within their letters.
Assuming that there will be any further letters, once he’s seen her photograph. He says he doesn’t care about appearances, or not the temporal kind, at least. He’s promised her that when they finally meet, he’ll see her as she’ll look on Judgment Day, all wreathed in radiant glory, but she’s sure he will be disappointed nonetheless. She is not vain, nor is she abashed at how God made her, plain and capable, no curves except her spine, a bit curled over at the top. She is less hourglass than apostrophe but not abashed. She just can’t fathom how a man who looks like Reverend Spain (thick silver beard and hair swept straight back from his temples just like Charlton Heston’s in The Ten Commandments, which was the first and only moving picture Leah saw before the picture house shut down) could fall in love with her.
Like Moses, parting the Red Sea. That’s what she thought when she first saw him at the open-door revival meeting in the country. Dell-Mar had bowed his head to bless a harelipped girl, and the Reverend’s sterling mane shone like a prophecy, and the whole crowd under that green army tent exhaled amen. Amen. She’d gone there because she had seen the posters and heard people talking in the supermarket—the Reverend had been holding meetings for a week in the next county over, not too far away, and Leah was curious. So on the night of the last meeting, she drove thirty miles in the jalopy she’d inherited from Arnold and found the tent pitched in a cattle pasture by the river. She was relieved not to see anyone she knew.
The meeting lasted more than three hours, until well past dark. She was interested in the healing, in the laying on of hands. She was curious because this was a thing that never happened in the Lutheran Church and she noticed that the preacher was good looking—very!—but she didn’t feel the spirit move her, even when the crowd all stood and swayed, hands raised, or when the woman next to her began to speak in tongues and then fell, writhing, on the grass. In fact, she wished the woman would get up. Leah disapproves of histrionics as a rule.
Nor did she feel the presence of the Holy Ghost when the Reverend started dunking new believers in the river—she’d watched baptisms aplenty at Atonement. But later, when the baptizing was over and the moon cast patterned shadows on the water and the Reverend started preaching in his silky baritone about the spread of intellectual agnosticism, which was incubated in the Eastern cities and then radiated out, like cancer, like bubonic plague, infecting young and old with feverish ideas, inclining them toward liquor, gambling, rock-and-roll and creeping communism, marijuana, slothfulness, licentiousness of thought and deed—she stood up with the others, raised her palms. The Almighty needed help, the Reverend said, expunging all that was unwholesome in the land, and though Leah knew he couldn’t see her in the back row, she still felt as if he were addressing her alone.
“Are you okay?” It’s Pastor Larson. She was not aware that he was in the sanctuary, never heard him coming in, and now she wonders how long he has been here, watching while she daydreams in his pulpit. She backs down the steps, all three at once, and starts to sweep, making the dust rise up into a swirling vortex of the kind that smothered crops when she was young. The pastor clears his throat. “I’ve been meaning to ask you something, Leah.” He has that worried look again. “I was wondering if you would like to take some time off work.”
She gapes. He’s only been a pastor for a year, whereas his predecessor guided First Atonement for three decades. Does this young man really have the nerve to fire a twenty-year employee?
“I mean a short vacation,” he says. “Just a little break. You haven’t taken a week off since I’ve known you.” It’s been longer than that. Longer than this freckled baby pastor can imagine, but she only says, “I don’t need a vacation. I enjoy my work.”
“Don’t you have relatives, somewhere, that you would like to visit?”
“No,” she shakes her head. “No family. It’s just me and Buster.”
“Buster’s my cat. He’s an orange tabby.”
“Oh.” He coughs. “Well, think about it, anyway. There must be someone you would like to visit if you had the chance.”
She flushes. There is someone, but he can’t know that. Leah has not told anyone about her correspondence with the Reverend, which has lasted eight months now. It’s not that she’s embarrassed—there is nothing scandalous within those letters. She just knows no one would believe her if she told. Not just because most Lutherans do not go to tent revival meetings, but also because Leah looks nothing like those ladies in the magazines, the ones who’ve obviously never swept the dirt floor of a sod house, never wrung a rooster’s neck or gathered dried-up cowchips to burn in the stove for winter heat. She knows she’s an unlikely romance heroine, and she is sure that Pastor Larson would be skeptical, especially if he knew about the money she’s been sending every month to help the children in the Belgian Congo.
It isn’t his fault that he wouldn’t understand. It’s just that Pastor, with his rosy cheeks and pencil-calloused hands, fresh from the seminary in Nebraska, has obviously never lacked for food. In her first letter to the Reverend, Leah explained how she had grown up motherless in Oklahoma in a sod-roof dugout where she’d often fried up lumps of flour and water to feed her father and herself because the flour was all they had, unless one of them shot a possum or a quail. The Reverend responded that he’d known privation too. He was an orphan, which was why he felt a special kinship with those orphans in the Congo. “You and I,” he wrote, “are cut from the same cloth, dear Leah. We both know what it is to suffer, and your suffering will not go overlooked when it comes time to separate the righteous from the damned.” His words brought her more consolation than he could have guessed, though Leah fears it was a sin, the way she shoved the poor cat off her lap, reading those words, because her lap was suddenly too warm.
“A paid vacation, naturally,” says Pastor Larson. “Wouldn’t you like to take a week off with full pay? Or even two?”
“Perhaps,” says Leah. “I’d need some time to think about it.” Then, as he leaves the sanctuary, she says, “Wait.”
He turns around, expectant. “Yes?”
“Could I borrow your typewriter, after my work is done?”
“I’ll pay you for the ribbon.”
“No. That isn’t what I meant. It’s neat that you’ve been doing so much typing, Leah. Are you taking a correspondence course or something?”
“No.” Leah does not return his smile. “Of course not. I just need to write a letter.” If he asks, she will explain that she prefers to type because her penmanship is wretched, a result of never having gone to school. The school was too far from her home, and anyway, her father needed help around the house. He taught her everything he could: to read the Bible and to copy verses and to cipher numbers. Also how to fire a .22 and how to skin and gut small game, which came in handy later, when the crops began to fail. He taught her well, but penmanship was not among her father’s strengths. However, Pastor doesn’t ask. He says, “Feel free to use the typewriter at any time, Leah. Just go ahead.”
Dear Reverend, Leah types, an hour later, after Pastor Larson has gone home and she has finished with her work. She isn’t brave enough to call her beau by his first name today. By the time you get this, you’ll have seen my photograph. I mailed it this morning. I warned you that I wasn’t much to look at. I guess you’ll believe me now. Leah bites her lip and keeps on typing with two fingers, flinching every time the carriage return ricochets across the page. I had to write again so soon because there’s something that I need to tell you. I should have told you sooner but I wasn’t sure how to explain it. Please forgive my. Leah stops to fix her error, changes “my” to “me,” continues pecking at the keys until the letter is complete—a whole page and a half. She puts it straight into an envelope and seals it up. Writes “AIR MAIL ONLY” in block letters next to the address in Tennessee, which is where the Reverend makes his home when he’s not on the road, holding revival meetings, or in the Congo, with the orphans there.
She intends to mail the letter on her way back home but then changes her mind. She doesn’t want it to arrive before the photograph. The next day she has funeral committee, and she’s too busy prepping food for the Copenhaver funeral even to think about the Reverend. That’s not true. She thinks about him plenty while she’s gouging eyes out of potatoes, chopping onions for the stroganoff, enough to feed a hundred Lutherans, give or take a few. And later, when she’s in her nightgown, combing out her hair, she shuts her eyes and thinks about the laying on of hands. Maybe she won’t send that letter after all.
She does mail it, but not for three more days. She drops it in the mailbox on her way to Hobson’s farm for quilting circle. The Hobson place is less than five miles out of town. Noreen Hobson greets her at the door, with a baby on one shoulder and a toddler tugging at her skirt. Leah hands her hostess a small pair of crocheted socks. “Here. I made them green because I couldn’t remember what it was this time. Is it a boy?”
“A girl,” Noreen says. Leah follows her into the living room, where a group of women are already seated near the quilt frame, basting. “We missed you last week,” Noreen says. “Were you sick?”
“No. Busy.” Busy reading up about the Belgian Congo at the library, if anybody asks. Of course, nobody does.
Noreen sets her baby in a playpen with some others, tries to pry the toddler from her leg. “You probably didn’t notice,” she says, “but we got ourselves a brand-new member since the last time you were here.”
“Well, Josie Larson. How are you?” Leah turns to smile at Pastor’s wife. “I didn’t realize you were a quilter.”
“I’m not much of one.” Josie fingers her pearl earrings, acting shy. She’s younger than her husband, even. In her wool pleated skirt and ankle socks, she looks like she belongs in high school, though she must be twenty-one or -two, at least. “I’m not much good, to tell the truth. I’m not like you. But I did buy some gingham to make squares.”
Noreen, meanwhile, has extricated herself from the toddler, but no sooner has she managed this than another child appears from nowhere and starts pulling at her wrist. Leah doesn’t think she’s seen this child before, but then, it’s hard to keep to them straight. “Take heed, Josie,” says Noreen with a sigh. “See what your future holds?”
“Oh, I love children,” Josie smiles.
“You say that now.”
Josie holds up a piece of fabric, so that everyone can see. “What do you think? I ordered it from the Sears Roebuck catalog. I thought it might look pretty in a Sunburst pattern, maybe.”
Amid a general murmur of appreciation, Leah says, “You purchased that brand new? How much?”
“Pay no attention, Josie.” This is Noreen’s cousin, Deb. “She thinks we’re all supposed to use old rags to piece our tops.”
“It was on sale,” says Josie. “Fifteen percent off.”
Leah moves over to the quilt frame. “You see that?” she taps the border of the quilt. “And over there, the squares inside the star? And there? Those all came from a bedsheet I got for a wedding gift. I used it for ten years, and then I turned it and used it another ten before I tore it up for scraps.”
“Leah,” Noreen says, “maybe you could help me get the coffee?”
“Do you know what it means to turn a sheet?” says Leah to Josie, and the younger woman shakes her head.
“You use it until it wears thin in the middle,” Leah says, “and then you slit a line straight down the center,” similar to how one slits a possum, chin to tail, but Leah keeps this thought to herself. “You turn the outside edges in and make a new seam where the fabric’s still intact. Your sheets will last you twice as long that way.”
“Of course, Leah’s bedsheets don’t see that much use,” says Noreen, winking. “Most of us wear our sheets out quicker, if you catch my drift.”
“For shame,” says Deb. “You’re making Josie blush.”
“You young people buy everything brand new,” says Leah, pretending not to hear the snickering. “Brand new. It’s such a waste.”
“Don’t mind her, Josie,” says Noreen. “Leah was raised in dustbowl country, don’t forget. In a dugout house, no less.”
“A dugout?” Josie looks confused. “You mean it was underground?”
Leah nods. “My father built it right into the hillside. Reinforced the door with stones so it would hold up when the milk cow grazed over our heads. The doorway was an arch because an arch is stronger than a door with corners. My father said the ancients taught us that.”
“The floor was dirt,” says Deb.
“Of course. But I made braided rugs to cover it. And we pinned flour sacks to the walls. I had to take the sacks down once a week to shake the bugs out, but it’s cozy in a sod house. Warm and snug. The dust blew right over our heads. We had it better than most people in those days. The weather rolled right over us and kept on going. That’s why a dome-roofed building lasts so long. Think of the Taj Mahal.
“The Taj Mahal.”
“We didn’t have it bad,” says Leah. “Believe me, plenty others had it worse. It’s cozy in a sod house.” True enough, until the grass dried up and blew away and then the milk cow dried up too, which was possibly what caused Leah’s spine to curl, the lack of calcium. And not too long after the passing of the cow, her father died and then it seemed she had no choice except to marry Arnold, whom she met in town, who seemed like a good Christian man, at first.
The baby in the playpen starts to wail, and Noreen checks her watch. “She’s still got half an hour till feeding time,” she says. “See what you got in store for you, sweet Josie?” Josie smiles, smoothing the folded gingham in her lap. The infant’s cries get louder. “And Leah, count yourself among the fortunate. You don’t have to put up with anybody but yourself.”
“I’ll second that,” says Deb. “I’m sick and tired of Eric tracking mud across my rugs. How many times I’ve told that man to take his boots off at the back door, I can’t say. And then his socks stink something fierce. Worse than his overalls.”
“You’re lucky, Leah,” Noreen picks her screaming baby up at last. “I envy you.” She says things like this all the time, but Leah knows she’s not sincere. Noreen, with her wailing offspring and her pablum-crusted, green Formica tabletop, her new pink Westinghouse refrigerator and her matching stove, would never trade her life for Leah’s. Nor would Deb, her husband’s odors notwithstanding. Leah knows how people talk about her when she’s not around. Poor Leah. Her husband up and disappeared when she was still a newlywed, and now she’s growing old with just a cat for company and not a penny to her name.
Leah doesn’t care what people think, and anyway, they’ve got a few things wrong. It’s true, the memory of hunger haunts her; sometimes still, she starts to salivate when she spots a raccoon up a tree or an unusually plump squirrel. She will remember hunger always and the snugness of her subterranean abode: the glow of cowchips burning and the smell of roots and clay and earthworms—but she rarely thinks of Arnold anymore. Her time with him was brief, the Lord be praised. And besides, she is not as poor as people think. In fact, she has one hundred twenty thousand dollars in a rainy-day fund. One hundred twenty thousand, unbeknownst to anyone except herself and—very soon—the Reverend Dell-Mar Spain.
She told him all about it in her letter, told him how the money was the only thing she ever got from Arnold, unless you counted his old car and her black eyes, her busted ribs. She found it in a cardboard box beneath the bed, a few weeks after Arnold disappeared for good. Back then it was a little over fifty thousand, all in hundred dollar bills—a tidy sum, in 1938—but she invested it in Standard Oil shares, and it multiplied, just like the fishes and the loaves. She still has no idea where the money came from. When he wasn’t at home, smacking her around, her husband kept low company, she knew. She heard that he consorted with known criminals, with gamblers, thieves, loose women—he was rumored to have tried his hand at everything except for honest work, which is why she hasn’t spent a dime of what he left behind and why she’s kept the money secret for so long. She assumed that nobody as virtuous as Dell-Mar Spain would want to hear about her former husband’s sin, but now, she told the Reverend in her letter, she has changed her mind. She’s realized that something good might come from Arnold’s legacy—it’s not too late. His tainted fortune could bring sustenance to children in a far-off land, and wouldn’t that be a fine aggravation to the devil?
“Leah,” Noreen says. “Would you help me bring the coffee out? It’s hard to do with just one hand.”
“Here, let me hold the baby,” Josie puts her arms out. “Please, Noreen.”
A week goes by without a letter from the man she loves. Leah didn’t expect a speedy answer—it takes time for mail to travel, even air mail, and besides, most of the time he isn’t home in Tennessee but on the road somewhere, spreading the Word. Sometimes he’s in the Belgian Congo, and then she might hear nothing for a month or more. She knows this—she reminds herself of these things every day—yet by the third week she’s convinced that she will never hear from him again. By now he must have seen her photograph. He’s probably appalled—if not by her appearance, then by what she told him in her letter about Arnold’s money. It’s Leah’s own fault, she knows, that she didn’t try to find the rightful owners of that cash, her own poor judgment that she never called the sheriff, and she won’t blame the Reverend if he ends his correspondence with her now.
By the close of that month—twenty days without a letter from the Reverend—Leah fears she is about to lose her mind. She forgets to put her mop bucket away at work, leaves it sitting out beside the altar, right where everyone can see it, Sunday morn. The next day she puts a chicken in a roasting pan and then neglects to turn the oven on, so when she comes home, nine hours later, her dinner is still raw—and worse, it’s spoiled, unsafe for Buster, even. Looking at the wasted chicken, Leah weeps. Weeps for her younger, hungry self and all the hungry people in the world. Weeps for the love she had for a short while and now has lost. At night, she twists and turns until the cat decides it’s safer to sleep in the other room, and the center seam of Leah’s perfectly turned sheet begins to fray. Instead of mending it or saving it for scraps, she throws it out. And then, when she has given up all hope, a letter comes.
It’s in the box when she gets home from work. She doesn’t read it right away. She forces herself to eat dinner first, then cleans the dishes, puts her nightgown on although it’s only half past six, not even dark. She turns the lights down, all except the lamp next to her bed, and climbs beneath her quilt to read the letter. She reads all the Reverend’s letters in her bed. She reads this one three times, from start to finish, her lips moving without sound. Buster purrs and rubs against her arm, to no avail. She doesn’t even notice he is there.
She has the next two days off work—a blessing, since there’s so much to be done. She pulls all the remaining carrots in her garden and then cleans her house from top to bottom, washes all the walls and windows, scrubs the shelves inside her kitchen cupboards. Sunday night, after she gets home from the Copenhaver funeral, she stays awake in bed till after midnight, reading each one of the Reverend’s letters in sequential order, several times. Not the Reverend, not the Reverend—Dell-Mar. Might as well get used to saying his name now.
The next day she calls in sick to work for the first time in twenty years and drives out to the Hobsons’ in the rain. Noreen greets her in curlers and a polka-dotted housedress. “Shh. Quiet. I just put Baby down to sleep.”
Leah skirts past her to the kitchen, without waiting for an invitation. Her shoes are muddy and the cardboard box she’s carrying is dripping wet.
“Making jelly?” Leah glances at the large pot on the stove.
“Boiling diapers,” says Noreen. “What’s in the box?”
“Diapers. Oh. I wondered what I smelt.” Leah sets the box down on the kitchen table and Buster, inside, gives a plaintive mew.
“You brought your cat?”
“His name is Buster.”
“You don’t say. And why is Buster on my kitchen table?”
Leah opens up the box and lifts the cat out, sets him on the floor. A child appears from somewhere, tries to grab the cat, who darts beneath the sink. “I’m leaving town,” says Leah. “Soon. I figured a big farm like this could always use another mouser.”
“Leaving? Why? Oh, Charlie, leave that cat alone. He’ll scratch you. Mind my words.” To Leah: “Where’re you going? For how long?”
“I’m going for good,” says Leah. “For permanent. I told my landlady already.”
Noreen frowns. “You’re not going back to Oklahoma? I thought you had no family left down there.”
“I have no family anywhere.”
The little boy screams and begins to cry. “Well, Charlie, what’d I tell you?” says Noreen. “It serves you right for pestering that cat.” She shoos Charlie from the kitchen, fills a saucer up with milk.
“Buster likes his milk warmed up,” Leah informs her, but Noreen puts the saucer down the way it is.
“You still haven’t told me where you’re going.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Africa. The Belgian Congo. They’ve got all these starving children over there.”
“Ah,” Noreen nods slowly. “Ah, you’re doing volunteer work, then. You signed on with the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League.”
“No. Not exactly.”
“Then you’re going on your own?” Noreen smirks, as though she’s made a clever joke. “You’re giving me your cat so you can skip off to the Ivory Coast, all by yourself?”
“The Belgian Congo,” Leah corrects her. “Not alone. I’m getting married.”
There. She’s said it, and now Noreen’s smile is gone, replaced by an expression better, even, than the various expressions Leah has pictured in her head, since she decided to bring Buster here. Noreen’s face at this moment is enough: sufficient compensation for the years of charitable smiles, the sideways glances and the muttered jibes, the spinster jokes. Noreen pulls out a chrome and vinyl chair and sits, not bothering to cross her legs. For the first time since Leah has known her, Noreen does not have anything to say.
Leah fills the lapse in conversation with a few details about her fiancé. She tells Noreen about the Reverend’s work in Africa and that they’ve been pen pals for some time, but she does not disclose the circumstances of their meeting. Nor does she tell her friend about the money. “I appreciate you taking Buster off my hands,” says Leah. “I know he’ll like it, living on a farm, and I need to get my Greyhound ticket right away.”
“You’re going to Africa,” says Noreen, “on the bus?” Her voice is dull, as if nothing she hears can possibly surprise her anymore.
“Well, no. I’m going to Chicago and St. Louis and then on down to Miami. I’ll change buses twice. Miami’s where we’ll catch the boat.” After the wedding, Leah assumes, although Dell-Mar was somewhat vague about the details in his letter. “I’ll take the bus because my car’s so old, and I’m afraid to drive on that new superhighway.” Leah pauses, but Noreen says nothing. She is staring into space. “Besides,” adds Leah, “I’ve been waiting for a chance to ride on one of those new Scenicruiser coaches. Have you seen the advertisements? ‘Every mile a magnificent mile . . . every highway a strip of velvet.’ They’ve got a lavatory, even. With an actual flush toilet.”
Another pause, then Noreen speaks, her voice still strange and flat. “They have diseases over there in Africa. They’ve still got polio, I’ve heard.”
“I’ve been vaccinated,” Leah says. She pushes up the left sleeve of her dress to show Noreen the scar, as round and shiny as a silver dollar.
With Buster taken care of, Leah finds it easy to make preparations for the trip. She doesn’t own much. There’s not much to pack. The only hold-up is her passport. She had not expected it would take so long to get one: several weeks! At least this gives her extra time to harvest what is still left in her garden, finish up her canning. When her passport finally arrives, she writes a note to Pastor, tells him that the rumors are correct—she’s leaving town. She wishes him and Josie all the best and hopes the church will find another cleaning lady soon. It would be courteous to tell him this in person, but she can’t. Pastor Larson would be worried—he would ask all sorts of questions, and she doesn’t have the time for that right now.
She cleans the church the next day, same as always, leaves her note on Pastor’s desk. Then she goes home and cleans her house for the last time, feeling no affection for the rooms she’s occupied so long. These stucco walls have sheltered her, yet they have never once embraced her like her childhood walls of dirt. Still, this is better than the house she shared with Arnold, certainly.
For supper, Leah eats a slice of Wonder Bread with some pork gravy, clearing out the last remaining items in her fridge. She turns the lights off, loads her suitcase into her old car, atop the contents of her cellar: six boxes full of canned goods that cannot be left to go to waste. The furniture will stay behind for the next tenant.
The bus depot is in the city, sixty miles away. It’s nearly sundown when she gets there, since her car is slow and backfires constantly. The depot parking lot is almost full, but she finds a spot next to a bench on which a homeless man lies sleeping. She knows this man. Or knows his type. He looks just like the men who rode the rails when she was young. She’d thought the hobos were all gone now, and yet here’s one, grizzled, urine-reeking, wearing hobnail boots that have no laces. His skin matches his shirt, which is no color Leah can name, unless dust is a color. Yes, that’s it—this man is dust, an apparition sent from 1936.
“Excuse me.” Leah stands beside the bench. “Sir? Sir?” She touches the man’s shoulder, which feels solid and unghostlike. He wakes up. “Here,” she dangles her car keys before his eyes and shakes them. “Here. Would you like a car?”
The man sits up. His face is angry. No doubt, he believes this is a prank. “No, really, you can have it,” says Leah. “It’s yours to keep. I can’t take it with me, where I’m going. I don’t even know if they have roads there.”
Now the man looks apprehensive. He probably thinks she’s talking about heaven. Still, he takes the keys. “Enjoy,” says Leah. “If nothing else, it’s a warm place to sleep. And you’ll find foodstuffs in the back. Nonperishables, mostly. Put some meat back on your ribs.”
She joins the line of people on the platform. “Is this your only piece of luggage, Ma’am?” the driver asks. Leah nods, then watches as he flings her small black Samsonite into the cargo hold, down in the belly of the bus. She’s not concerned; there’s nothing valuable inside that case. The things that matter are inside her purse, strapped to her shoulder. All the money’s there—the whole one hundred twenty grand, in traveler’s checks. She was tempted to dip into it to buy herself a new dress for the trip, just something simple off the Penney’s clearance rack, but she refrained. That money’s for the orphans, every cent, and it’s all accounted for inside her purse, just like her reading glasses and her gout pills, her new passport and her pocket Bible (King James Version) and her gun. The gun belonged to Arnold once. She’s bringing it along for safety’s sake although it hasn’t fired a shot in twenty years. She is a woman traveling alone, and there are some in this old, troubled world who might attempt to take advantage of that fact.
She boards the bus, finds her assigned seat on the upper deck, beside a window. The turquoise seat upholstery is every bit as plush as she’d imagined, but she is dismayed to find that all the other passengers are smoking. Worse, the man across the aisle from her is swigging from a metal flask. Leah wonders if she ought to notify the driver. She hates the smell of whiskey—it brings back too many memories—so she unfolds her handkerchief and presses it over her nose and mouth.
Through her window, she can see the homeless man, still sitting on the hood of his new car. He’s found a jar of Leah’s pickled beets, and his triumphant face makes Leah smile. It brings her joy to help the needy, always has. Dell-Mar says a sinful deed is like a tablespoon of dirt stirred into a clean glass of water—over time, the particles will settle and the water will look clear again, but the filth will always lurk there at the bottom, poised to recontaminate the pure. He may be right, but Leah has no regrets.
She unsnaps her pocketbook and counts the traveler’s checks again. All there. She has decided something, sitting on the bus. Dell-Mar must marry her immediately after she arrives in Florida. She will insist on this, since it might hurt his reputation to be seen consorting with a single woman like herself. Another thing, she won’t give him the money once they’re wed. No, she is going to wait until they get to Africa, then give it to the orphans, place it right into their tiny palms. She will divide it up among them equally and give each child a share, in secret, telling them to hide it, guard it with their lives, use it for a college education or as a shield from future hardships, since you never know what tribulations lie in store. You never know.
Outside, the hobo is still wolfing down the beets. Lucky for him, there are plenty more inside the car, enough to last him half the winter, probably. Leah takes pride in her pickled beets. Even Arnold said he liked them, which was probably the only kind thing Arnold ever said. It isn’t true that no one knows what happened to bad Arnold. Nobody knows except for Leah. Leah knows. She didn’t want to, but she had no choice, and in the end, it wasn’t all that hard—easier by far than shooting some poor possum who had never done a thing to her. She knows she is forgiven, knows the Lord needs help—as Dell-Mar says— expunging evil from the land. And anyway, now she is off to save the orphans, and what better penance for a near-forgotten deed?
The Scenicruiser sputters, roars, and a blue shimmer of exhaust clouds Leah’s view. She snaps her pocketbook closed, holds her handkerchief a little closer to her face. Yonder, beyond the silhouettes of smokestacks, night is coming fast. The violet sky glows bright as kingdom come, while in the parking lot below, her hobo grins, his teeth stained iridescent red. Leah laughs into her handkerchief and waves at him. She will admit, she makes good pickled beets.