Mitford’s longtime Episcopal priest, Father Tim, has retired. But new challenges and adventures await when he agrees to serve as interim minister of a small church on Whitecap Island. He and his wife, Cynthia, soon find that Whitecap has its own unforgettable characters: a church organist with a mysterious past, a lovelorn bachelor placing personal ads, a mother battling paralyzing depression. Whitecap has more than its fair share of challenges, but in the end, Father Tim and Cynthia find that Mitford is never far away when circumstances back home keep their phone ringing off the hook...
About the Author
Jan wrote her first novel at the age of ten. "The manuscript was written on Blue Horse notebook paper, and was, for good reason, kept hidden from my sister. When she found it, she discovered the one curse word I had, with pounding heart, included in someone's speech. For Pete's sake, hadn't Rhett Butler used that very same word and gotten away with it? After my grandmother's exceedingly focused reproof, I've written books without cussin' ever since."
Several years ago, Karon left a successful career in advertising to move to the mountain village of Blowing Rock, North Carolina, and write books. "I stepped out on faith to follow my lifelong dream of being an author," she says. "I made real sacrifices and took big risks. But living, it seems to me, is largely about risk."
Enthusiastic booksellers across the country have introduced readers of all ages to Karon's heartwarming books. At Home in Mitford, Karon's first book in the Mitford series, was nominated for an ABBY by the American Booksellers Association in 1996 and again in 1997. Bookstore owner, Shirley Sprinkle, says, "The Mitford Books have been our all-time fiction bestsellers since we went in business twenty-five years ago. We've sold 10,000 of Jan's books and don't see any end to the Mitford phenomenon."
Hometown:Blowing Rock, North Carolina
Date of Birth:1937
Place of Birth:Lenoir, North Carolina
Read an Excerpt
Table of Contents
CHAPTER ONE - Angel of Light
CHAPTER TWO - Social Graces
CHAPTER THREE - Going, Going, Gone
CHAPTER FOUR - The Smell of Salt Air
CHAPTER FIVE - A Patch of Blue
CHAPTER SIX - The Long Shining
CHAPTER SEVEN - A Little Night Music
CHAPTER EIGHT - The Spark in the Flax
CHAPTER NINE - Home Far Away
CHAPTER TEN - If Wishes Were Horses
CHAPTER ELEVEN - Worms to Butterflies
CHAPTER TWELVE - Over the Wall
CHAPTER THIRTEEN - Mighty Waters
CHAPTER FOURTEEN - Letting Go
CHAPTER FIFTEEN - Lock and Key
CHAPTER SIXTEEN - Dorchester Island
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN - Bread and Wine
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN - Simple Graces
CHAPTER NINETEEN - Jericho
CHAPTER TWENTY - Dearly Beloved
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE - True Confessions
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO - A New Song
Sneak Peek: Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good
A NEW SONG
Jan Karon, who lives in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, was an award-winning advertising executive before following her dream of writing books. She is the author of five bestselling Mitford novels: At Home in Mitford; A Light in the Window; These High, Green Hills; Out to Canaan; and A New Song (all available from Penguin). At Home in Mitford was nominated for an ABBY Award by the American Booksellers Association in 1996, 1997, and 1998. Her book Jeremy: The Tale of an Honest Bunny will be published in 2000 by Viking Children’s Books.
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Other Mitford books by Jan Karon
AT HOME IN MITFORD
A LIGHT IN THE WINDOW
THESE HIGH, GREEN HILLS
OUT TO CANAAN
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street,
New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.
Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ, England
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England
First published in 1999 BY Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.
Illustrations copyright © Penguin Putnam Inc., 1999
All rights reserved
Illustrations by Donna Kae Nelson
Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint excerpts from the following copyrighted works: “If Once You Have Slept on an Island” from Taxis and Toadstools by
Rachel Field. Copyright 1926 by The Century Company. Used by permission of Random
House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc. “God’s Way” by Kao Chung-Ming,
appearing in Your Will Be Done, Youth Desk of Christian Conference of Asia,
1986. By permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Karon, Jan, date.
A new song/ Jan Karon.
eISBN : 978-1-101-07872-3
Making or distributing electronic copies of this book constitutes copyright infringement and could subject the infringer to criminal and civil liability.
In memory of my aunt,
Helen Coyner Cloer,
who, when I was ten years old,
typed my first manuscript.
October 4, 1917-October 12, 1998
“. . . we shall be like Him . . .”
1 John 3:2
Sing unto the Lord a new song, and His praise from the end of the earth, ye that go down to the sea, and all that is therein, the isles and the inhabitants thereof.
Isaiah 42:10, KJV
In the Mitford books, there are nearly as many acknowledgments as there are characters in the story. That’s because I try to thank absolutely everyone who helps make the story more authentic. Sometimes I toss in a name out of sheer sentiment, like that of my sixth-grade teacher, Etta Phillips, who comes to my book signings and looks as youthful as ever. Many readers enjoy these acknowledgments because they occasionally find the name of an old school chum, friend, or family member.
Sometimes, they even find themselves.
Warm thanks to:
Brother Francis Andrews, BSG; Rev. Roy M. King; Flyin’ George Ronan; John Ed McConnell; Ralph Emery; Dr. Carl Hurley; Loyal Jones and Billy Edd Wheeler; Bonnie Setzer; Mary Richardson; Fr. John Mangrum; Fr. Jeffrey Scott Miller; Dr. George Grant; Austin Gragg; Roger David Craig; Frank Gilbert and his Mustang convertible; the Mitford Appreciation Society; Gwynne Crosley; Rev. Gale Cooper; Sue Yates; Dr. David Ludwig; Dan Blair; Linda Foster; Will Lankenau; William McDonald Parker; Blowing Rock police chief, Owen Tolbert; Officer Dennis Swanson; Bishop Christopher Fitz-Simons Allison; James F. Carlisle, Sr.; Betsy Barnes; Rayburn and Sheila Farmer; Fr. Scott Oxford; Bishop William C. Frey; Bishop Keith Ackerman; Rev. Stephen J. Hines; Larry Powell; Barry Hubert; Derald West; Sandy McNabb; Donna Kae Nelson for her outstanding cover illustrations for the Mitford series; Captain Weyland Baum, early keeper of the Currituck Light; Billy McCaskill; Major John Coffindaffer; “Bee” Baum; Drs. Melanie and Greg Hawthorne; John L. Beard; Greg and Kathy Fishel; Frank LePore; Garry Oliver; my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Downs; my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Sherrill; Dr. Michael C. Ain; Captain Mike Clarkin of Fishin’ Frenzy; First Mate Matthew Winchester; Dr. Sue P. Frye; Ross and Linda Dodington; Fr. Richard B. Bass; Colonel Ron and Cathey Fallows; Murray Whisnant; Robert Williams; Chris Williams; Michael Freeland; Rabbi David and Barbara Kline; Officer Kris Merithew; Bruce Luke; Johnny Lentz; Judith Burns; Wonderland Books; Tom Enterline; J.W.D.; Loretta Cornejo; Tex Harrison; Jerry Gregg; Officer Tracy Toler; Jeff Cobb; Walter Green; and Anita Chappell.
Special thanks to:
Dr. Bunky Davant, medical counsel to Mitford and Whitecap; Tony DiSanti, legal counsel to Mitford; Grace Episcopal Church, the lovely architectural model for St. John’s in the Grove; Fr. Charles Gill, rector of St. Andrews by the Sea; Fr. James Harris, friend and helper; Judy Bistany South, for her warm encouragement over the years; my valued assistant, Laura Watts; Captain Horace Whitfield, master of the Elizabeth II; hardworking booksellers everywhere; and, as always, my devoted readers.
Angel of Light
Dappled by its movement among the branches of a Japanese cherry, the afternoon light entered the study unhindered by draperies or shades.
It spilled through the long bank of windows behind the newly slipcovered sofa, warming the oak floor and quickening the air with the scent of freshly milled wood.
Under the spell of the June light, a certain luster and radiance appeared to emerge from every surface.
The tall chest, once belonging to Father Tim’s clergyman great-grandfather, had undergone a kind of rebirth. Beneath a sheen of lemon oil, the dense grain of old walnut, long invisible in the dark rectory hallway next door, became sharply defined. Even the awkward inscription of the letter M, carved by a pocketknife, could now be discovered near one of the original drawer pulls.
But it was the movement and play of the light, beyond its searching incandescence, that caused Father Tim to anticipate its daily arrival as others might look for a sunrise or sunset.
He came eagerly to this large, new room, as if long deprived of light or air, still incredulous that such a bright space might exist, and especially that it might exist for his own pursuits since retiring six months ago from Lord’s Chapel.
As the rector of Mitford’s Episcopal parish, he had lived next door in the former rectory for sixteen years. Now he was a rector no more, yet he owned the rectory; it had been bought and paid for with cash from his mother’s estate, and he and Cynthia were living in the little yellow house.
Of course—he kept forgetting—this house wasn’t so little anymore; he and his visionary wife had added 1,270 square feet to its diminutive proportions.
Only one thing remained constant. The house was still yellow, though freshly painted with Cynthia’s longtime favorite, Wild Forsythia, and trimmed with a glossy coat of the dark green Highland Hemlock.
“Cheers!” said his wife, appearing in jeans and a denim shirt, toting glasses of lemonade on a tray. They had recently made it a ritual to meet here every afternoon, for what they called the Changing of the Light.
He chuckled. “We mustn’t tell anyone what we do for fun.”
“You can count on it! Besides, who’d ever believe that we sit around watching the light change?” She set the tray on the table, next to a packet of mail.
“We could do worse.”
They thumped onto the sofa, which had been carted through the hedge from the rectory.
“One more week,” he said, disbelieving.
“Ugh. Heaven help us!” She put her head back and closed her eyes. “How daunting to move to a place we’ve never seen . . . for an unknown length of time . . . behind a priest who’s got them used to the guitar!”
He took her hand, laughing. “If anyone can do it, you can. How many cartons of books are we shipping down there, anyway?”
“Fourteen, so far.”
“And not a shelf to put them on.”
“We’re mad as hatters!” she said with feeling. During the past week, his wife had worked like a Trojan to close up the yellow house, do most of the packing, and leave their financial affairs in order. He, on the other hand, had been allowed to troop around town saying his goodbyes, sipping tea like a country squire and trying to keep his mitts off the cookies and cakes that were proffered at every turn.
He had even dropped into Happy Endings Bookstore and bought two new books to take to Whitecap, a fact that he would never, even on penalty of death, reveal to Cynthia Kavanagh.
She looked at him and smiled. “I’ve prayed to see you sit and relax like this, without rushing to beat out a thousand fires. Just think how the refreshment of the last few weeks will help you, dearest, when we do the interim on the island. Who knows, after all, what lies ahead and what strength you may need?”
He gulped his lemonade. Who knew, indeed?
“The jig, however, is definitely up,” she said, meaning it. “Next week . . .”
“I know. Change the furnace filter next door, weed the perennial beds, fix the basement step, pack my clothes . . . I’ve got the entire, unexpurgated list written down.”
“Have your suit pressed,” she said, “buy two knit shirts—nothing with an alligator, I fervently hope—and find the bicycle pump for Dooley.”
“Right!” He was actually looking forward to the adrenaline of their last week in Mitford.
“By the way,” she said, “I’ve been thinking. Instead of loading the car in bits and pieces, just pile everything by the garage door. That way, I can check it twice, and we’ll load at the last minute.”
“But it would be simpler to—”
“Trust me,” she said, smiling.
Barnabas would occupy the rear seat, with Violet’s cage on the floor, left side. They’d load the right side with linens and towels, the trunk would be filled to the max, and they’d lash on top whatever remained.
“Oh, yes, Timothy, one more thing . . . stay out of the bookstore!”
She peered at him with that no-nonsense gleam in her sapphire eyes, a gleam that, for all its supposed authority, stirred a fire in him. As a man with a decidedly old-shoe nature, he had looked forward to the old-shoe stage of their marriage. So far, however, it hadn’t arrived. His blond and sensible wife had an unpredictable streak that kept the issues of life from settling into humdrum patterns.
“Anything wonderful in the mail?” she asked.
“I don’t know, I just fetched it in. Why don’t you have a look?”
His wife’s fascination with mail was greater even than his own, which was considerable. William James, in his opinion, had hit the nail on the head. “As long as there are postmen,” James declared, “life will have zest.”
“Oh, look! Lovely! A letter from Whitecap, and it’s to me!”
He watched her rip open the envelope.
“My goodness, listen to this. . . .
“‘Dear Mrs. Kavanagh, We are looking forward with great enthusiasm to your interim stay in our small island parish, and trust that all is going smoothly as you prepare to join us at the end of June.
“‘Our ECW has been very busy readying Dove Cottage for your stay at Whitecap, and all you need to bring is bed linens for the two bedrooms, as we discussed, and any towels and pillows which will make you feel at home.
“‘We have supplied the kitchen cupboards with new pots, and several of us have lent things of our own, so that you and Father Kavanagh may come without much disruption to your household in Mitford. Sam has fixed the electric can opener, but I hear you are a fine cook and probably won’t need it, ha ha.
“‘Oh, yes. Marjorie Lamb and I have done a bit of work in the cottage gardens, which were looking woefully forlorn after years of neglect. We found a dear old-fashioned rose, which I hear your husband enjoys, and liberated it from the brambles. It is now climbing up your trellis instead of running into the street! We expect the hydrangeas and crepe myrtle to be in full glory for your arrival, though the magnolias in the churchyard will, alas, be out of bloom.
“‘Complete directions are enclosed, which Marjorie’s husband, Leonard, assures me should take you from Mitford straight to the door of Dove Cottage without a snare. (Leonard once traveled on the road selling plumbing supplies.)
“‘Please notice the red arrow I have drawn on the map. You must be very careful at this point to watch for the street sign, as it is hidden by a dreadful hedge which the property owner refuses to trim. I have thought of trimming it myself, but Sam says that would be meddling.
“‘We hope you will not object to a rather gregarious greeting committee, who are bent on giving you a parish-wide luau the day following your arrival. I believe I have talked them out of wearing grass skirts, but that embarrassing notion could possibly break forth again.
“‘When Father Morgan joined us several years ago, he, too, came in the summer and was expecting a nice holiday at the beach. I’m sure you’ve been warned that summer is our busiest time, what with the tourists who swell our little church to bursting and push us to two services! We all take our rest in the winter when one must hunker down and live off the nuts we’ve gathered!
“‘Bishop Harvey was thrilled to learn from Bishop Cullen how greatly you and Father Kavanagh were appreciated by your parish in Mitford! We shall all do our utmost to make you feel as welcome as the flowers in May, as my dear mother used to say.
“‘Goodness! I hope you’ll forgive the length of this letter! Since childhood, I have loved the feel of a pen flowing over paper, and often get carried away.
“‘We wish you and Father Timothy safe travel.
“‘Marion Fieldwalker, vestry member of St. John’s in the Grove, and Pres. Episcopal Church Women
“‘P.S. I am the librarian of Whitecap Island Community Library (35 years) and do pray you might be willing to give a reading this fall from one of your famous Violet books. Your little books stay checked out, and I believe every child on the island has read them at least twice!’”
His wife flushed with approval. “There! How uplifting! Marion sounds lovely! And just think, dearest—trellises and old roses!”
“Not to mention new saucepans,” he said, admiring the effort of his future parishioners.
She drank from her perspiring glass and continued to sort through the pile. “Timothy, look at his handwriting. He’s finally stopped printing and gone to cursive!”
“Let me see. . . .”
Definitely a new look in the handwriting department, and a distinct credit to Dooley Barlowe’s Virginia prep schooling. Miss Sadie’s big bucks, forked over annually, albeit posthumously, were continuing to put spit and polish on the red-haired mountain boy who’d come to live with him at the rectory five years ago.
“‘Hey,’” he read aloud from Dooley’s letter, “‘I have thought about it a lot and I would like to stay in Mitford and work for Avis this summer and make money to get a car and play softball with the Reds.
“‘I don’t want to go to the beach.
“‘Don’t be mad or upset or anything. I can live in the basement with Harley like you said, and we will be fine. Puny could maybe come and do the laundry or we could do stuff ourselves and eat in Wesley or at the Grill or Harley could cook.
“‘I will come down to that island for either Thanksgiving or Christmas like we talked about.
“‘Thanks for letting me go home from school with Jimmy Duncan, I am having a great time, he drives a Wrangler. His mom drives a Range Rover and his dad has a BMW 850. That’s what I would like to have. A Wrangler, I mean. I’ll get home before you leave, Mr. Duncan is driving me on his way to a big meeting. Say hey to Barnabas and Violet. Thanks for the money. Love, Dooley.’”
“Oh, well,” said his wife, looking disappointed. “I’m sure he wanted to be close to his friends. . . .”
“Right. And his brother and sister. . . .”
She sighed. “Pretty much what we expected.”
He felt disappointed, himself, that the boy wouldn’t be coming to Whitecap for the summer, but they’d given him a choice and the choice had been made. Besides, he learned a couple of years ago not to let Dooley Barlowe’s summer pursuits wreck his own enjoyment of that fleeting season.
It was the business about cars that concerned him. . . . Dooley had turned sixteen last February, and would hit Mitford in less than three days, packing a bona fide driver’s license.
“Knock, knock!” Emma Newland blew down the hall and into the study. “Don’t get up,” she said, commandeering the room. “You’ll never believe this!”
His former part-time church secretary, who had retired when he retired, had clearly been unable to let go of her old job. She made it her business to visit twice a week and help out for a couple of hours, whether he needed it or not.
“I do it for th’ Lord,” she had stated flatly, refusing any thanks. Though Cynthia usually fled the room when she arrived, he rather looked forward to Emma’s visits, and to the link she represented to Lord’s Chapel, which was now under the leadership of its own interim priest.
Emma stood with her hands on her hips and peered over her glasses. “Y’all won’t believe what I found on th’ Internet. Three guesses!”
“Excuse me!” said Cynthia, bolting from the sofa. “I’ll just bring you a lemonade, Emma, and get back to work. I’ve gobs of books to pack.”
“Guess!” Emma insisted, playing a game that he found both mindless and desperately aggravating.
“A recipe for mixing your own house paint?”
“Oh, please,” she said, looking disgusted. “You’re not trying.”
“The complete works of Fulgentius of Ruspe!”
“I give up,” he said, meaning it.
“I found another Mitford! It’s in England, and it has a church as old as mud, not to mention a castle!” She looked triumphant, as if she’d just squelched an invasion of Moors.
“Really? Terrific! I suppose it’s where those writing Mitfords came from—”
“No connection. They were from th’ Cotswolds, this place is up north somewhere. I had a stack of stuff I printed out, but Snickers sat on th’ whole bloomin’ mess after playin’ in the creek, and I have to print it out again.”
“OK, guess what else!”
“Dadgummit, Emma. You know I hate this.”
She said what she always said. “It’s good for you, keeps your brain active.”
As far as she was concerned, he’d gone soft in the head since retiring six months ago.
“Just tell me and get it over with.”
“Oh, come on! Try at least one guess. Here’s a clue. It’s about the election in November.”
“Esther’s stepping down and Andrew Gregory’s going to run.”
She frowned. “How’d you know that?”
“I haven’t gone deaf and blind, for Pete’s sake. I do get around.”
“I suppose you also know,” said Emma, hoping he didn’t, “that the restaurant at Fernbank is openin’ the night before you leave.”
“Right. We’ve been invited.”
She thumped into the slipcovered wing chair and peered at him as if he were a beetle on a pin. Though she’d certainly never say such a thing, she believed he was existing in a kind of purgatory between the inarguable heaven of Lord’s Chapel and the hell of a strange parish in a strange place where the temperature was a hundred and five in the shade.
“Will you have a secretary down there?” she asked, suspicious.
“I don’t think so. Small parish, you know.”
“How small can it be?”
“Oh, fifty, sixty people.”
“I thought Bishop Cullen was your friend,” she sniffed. She’d never say so, but in her heart of hearts, she had hoped her boss of sixteen years would be given a big church in a big city, and make a come-back for himself. As it was, he trotted up the hill to Hope House and the hospital every livelong morning, appearing so cheerful about the whole thing that she recognized it at once as a cover-up.
Cynthia returned with a glass of lemonade and a plate of shortbread, which she put on the table next to Emma. “I’ll be in the studio if anyone needs me. With all the books we’re taking, we may sink the island!”
“A regular Atlantis,” said Father Tim.
“Speakin’ of books,” Emma said to his wife, “are you doin’ a new one?”
“Not if I can help it!”
He laughed as Cynthia trotted down the hall. “She usually can’t help it.” He expected a new children’s book to break forth from his energetic wife any day now. Indeed, didn’t she have a history of starting one when life was upside down and backward?
Emma munched on a piece of shortbread, showering crumbs in her lap. “Do you have those letters ready for me to do on th’ computer?”
“Not quite. I wasn’t expecting you ’til in the morning.”
“I’m coming in th’ morning, I just wanted to run by and tell you all th’ late-breakin’ news. But,” she said, arching one eyebrow, “I haven’t told you everything, I saved th’ best ’til last.”
His dog wandered into the study and crashed at his master’s feet, panting.
“If you say you already know this, I’ll never tell you another thing as long as I live. On my way here, I saw Mule Skinner, he said he’s finally rented your house.”
She drew herself up, pleased, and gulped the lemonade.
“Terrific! Great timing!” He might have done a jig.
“He said there hadn’t been time to call you, he’ll call you tonight, but it’s not a family with kids like Cynthia wanted.”
“Oh, well . . .” He was thrilled that someone had finally stepped forward to occupy the rectory. He and Harley had worked hard over the last few months to make it a strong rental property, putting new vinyl flooring in the kitchen, replacing the stair runners, installing a new toilet in the master bath and a new threshold at the front door . . . the list had been endless. And costly.
“It’s a woman.”
“I can’t imagine what one person would want with all that house to rattle around in.”
“How quickly you forget! You certainly rattled around in there for a hundred years.”
“True. Well. I’ll get the whole story from Mule.”
“He said she didn’t mind a bit that Harley would be livin’ in the basement, she just wanted to know if he plays loud rock music.”
Emma rattled the ice in her glass, gulped the last draught, and got up to leave. “Before I forget, you won’t believe what else I found on th’ Internet—church bulletins! You ought to read some of th’ foolishness they put out there for God an’ everybody to see.”
She fished a piece of paper from her handbag. “‘Next Sunday,’” she read, “‘a special collection will be taken to defray the cost of a new carpet. All those wishin’ to do somethin’ on the new carpet will come forward and do so.’”
He hooted with laughter.
“How ’bout this number: ‘Don’t let worry kill you, let th’ church help.’”
He threw his head back and laughed some more. Emma’s life in cyberspace definitely had an upside.
“By th’ way, are you takin’ Barnabas down there?” She enunciated “down there” as if it were a region beneath the crust of the earth.
“I don’t know how you could do that to an animal. Look at all that fur, enough to stuff a mattress.”
Barnabas yawned hugely and thumped his tail on the floor.
“You won’t even be able to see those horrible sandspurs that will jump in there by th’ hundreds, not to mention lodge in his paws.”
Emma waited for an argument, a rationale—something. Did he have no conscience? “And th’ heat down there, you’ll have to shave ’im bald.”
Father Tim strolled across the room to walk her to the door. “Thanks for coming, Emma. Tell Harold hello. I’ll see you in the morning.”
His unofficial secretary stumped down the hallway and he followed.
He was holding the front door open and biting his tongue when she turned and looked at him. Her eyes were suddenly red and filled with tears.
“I’ll miss you!” she blurted.
She hurried down the front steps, sniffing, searching her bag for a Hardee’s napkin she knew was in there someplace.
He felt stricken. “Emma! We’ll . . . we’ll have jelly doughnuts in the morning!”
“I’ll have jelly doughnuts, you’ll have dry toast! We don’t want to ship you down there in a coma!”
She got in her car at the curb, slammed the door, gunned the motor, and roared up Wisteria Lane.
For one fleeting moment, he’d completely forgotten his blasted diabetes.
“I’m out of here,” he said, kissing his wife.
“Get him to leave something for the island breezes to flow through, darling. Don’t let him cut it all off.”
“You always say that.”
“Yes, well, you come home looking like a skinned rabbit. I don’t know what Joe Ivey does to you.”
Considering what Fancy Skinner had done to him time and time again, Joe Ivey could do anything he wanted.
“Leavin’ us, are you?” Joe ran a comb through the hair over Father Tim’s left ear and snipped.
“Leavin’ us in th’ lurch is more like it.”
“Now, Joe. Did I preach to you when you went off to Graceland and left me high and dry?”
Joe cackled. “Thank God I come to m’ senses and quit that fool job. An’ in th’ nick of time, too. I’m finally about t’ clean up what Fancy Skinner done to people’s heads around here, which in your case looked like she lowered your ears a foot an’ a half.”
“My wife says don’t cut it too short.”
“If I listened to what wives say, I’d of been out of business forty years ago. Do you know how hot it gits down there?”
If he’d been asked that once, he’d been asked it a thousand times. There was hardly anything mountain people despised more than a “hot” place.
“I’m an old Mississippi boy, you know.”
“An th’ mosquitos . . .!” Joe whistled. “Man alive!”
“Right there,” he said, as Joe started working around his collar. “Just clean it up a little right there, don’t cut it—”
Joe proceeded to cut it. Oh, well. Joe Ivey had always done exactly as he pleased with Father Tim’s hair, just like Fancy Skinner. What was the matter with people who serviced hair, anyway? He had never, in all his years, been able to figure it out.
“I hear it’s a ten-hour trot t’ get there,” said Joe, clearly fixated on the inconvenience of it all.
“Closer to twelve, if you stop for gas and lunch.”
“You could go t’ New York City in less’n that. Prob’ly run up an’ back.”
“There’s a thought.”
Joe trimmed around his customer’s right ear. “I’m gettin’ t’ where I’d like t’ talk . . .”—Joe cleared his throat—“about what happened up at Graceland.”
“I ain’t told this to a soul, not even Winnie.”
There was a long pause.
Father Tim waited, inhaling the fragrance from Sweet Stuff Bakery, just beyond the thin wall. Joe’s sister, Winnie, and her husband, Thomas, were baking baklava, and he was starting to salivate.
“You couldn’t ever mention this to anybody,” said Joe. “You’d have to swear on a stack of Bibles.”
“I can’t do that, but I give you my word.”
Joe let his breath out in a long sigh. “Well, sir, there towards th’ end, I got to where I thought Elvis might be . . .”
“Might be what?”
“You know. Alive.”
“I ain’t proud t’ admit it. Thing is, I was gettin’ in th’ brandy pretty heavy when I went up there. My sister’s husband, he was laid off and things was pretty tight. Plus, their house ain’t exactly th’ Biltmore Estate when it comes to room, so ever’ once in a while, I’d ride around after supper t’ give Vern and my sister a little time to theirselves.”
“That was thoughtful.”
“I took to lookin’ for Elvis ever’where I went, ’specially at th’ barbecue place, they all said he was a fool for barbecue. My sister, when she heard I was lookin’ to sight Elvis, she started pourin’ my brandy down th’ toilet. A man can’t hardly live with somebody as pours ’is brandy down th’ toilet.”
“That would create tension, all right.” Heaven knows, he’d tried for years to get Joe to quit sucking down alcohol, but Joe had told him to mind his own business. Something, however, had happened in Memphis that sent his barber home dry as a bone.
“Then one night I was drivin’ around, I said to myself, I said, Joe, Elvis wouldn’t be cruisin’ through a drive-in pickin’ up a chopped pork with hot sauce, he’d send somebody. So I said, if I was Elvis, where would I be at?
“Seem like somethin’ told me to go back to Graceland, it was about eleven o’clock at night, so I drove on over there and parked across th’ street with my lights off. I hate to tell you, but I had a pint in the glove department, and I was takin’ a little pull now and again.”
Joe took a bottle off the cabinet and held it above his customer’s head. “You want Sea Breeze?”
“Is the Pope a Catholic?”
“First thing you know, I seen somethin’ at th’ top of the yard. There’s this big yard, you know, that spreads out behind th’ gate an’ all. It was somethin’ white, and it . . .”—Joe cleared his throat—“it was movin’ around.”
Joe blasted his scalp with Sea Breeze and vigorously rubbed it in. “You ain’t goin’ to believe this.”
Joe’s hands stopped massaging his head. In the mirror, Father Tim could see his barber’s chin quivering.
“It was Elvis . . . in a white suit.”
“Mowin’ ’is yard.”
“I said you wouldn’t believe it.”
“Why would he mow his yard when he could pay somebody else to do it? And why would he do it in a suit, much less a white suit? And why would he do it at night?”
Joe’s eyes were misty. He shook his head, marveling. “I never have figured it out.”
“Well, well.” What could he say?
“I set there watchin’. He’d mow a strip one way, then mow a strip th’ other way.”
“Gas or push?”
“How could he see?” Father Tim asked, mildly impatient.
“There was this . . . glow all around him.”
“Then, first thing you know . . .”—Joe’s voice grew hushed—“he th’owed up ’is hand and waved at me.”
Father Tim was speechless.
“Here I’d been lookin’ to see ’im for I don’t know how long, and it scared me s’ bad when I finally done it, I slung th’ bottle in th’ bushes and quit drinkin’ on th’ spot.”
His barber drew a deep breath and stood tall. “I ain’t touched a drop since, and ain’t wanted to.”
Father Tim was convinced this was the gospel truth. Still, he had a question.
“So, Joe, what’s that, ah . . . bottle sitting over there by the hair tonic?”
“I keep that for my customers. You don’t want a little snort, do you?”
“I pass. But tell me this . . . any regrets about coming back to Mitford?”
“Not ary one, as my daddy used to say. It’s been a year, now, since I hauled out of Memphis and come home to Mitford, and my old trade has flocked back like a drove of guineas. Winnie gave me this nice room to set my chair in, and th’ Lord’s give me back my health.”
Joe took the cape from his customer’s shoulders and shook it out. “Yessir, you’re lookin’ at a happy man.”
“And so are you!” said Father Tim. “So are you!”
After all, didn’t he have a new haircut, a new parish, and a whole new life just waiting to begin?
He couldn’t help himself.
As the bells at Lord’s Chapel pealed three o’clock, he turned into Happy Endings Bookstore as if on automatic pilot. He had five whole minutes to kill before jumping in the car and roaring off to Wesley for a bicycle pump, since Dooley’s had turned up missing.
“Just looking,” he told Hope Winchester. Hope’s ginger-colored cat, Margaret, peered at him suspiciously as he raced through General Fiction, hung a right at Philosophy, and skidded left into Religion, where the enterprising Hope had recently installed a shelf of rare books.
He knew for a fact that the only bookstore on Whitecap Island was in the rear of a bait and tackle shop. They would never in a hundred years have Arthur Quiller-Couch’s On the Art of Reading, which he had eyed for a full week. It was now or never.
His hand shot out to the hard-to-find Quiller-Couch volume, but was instantly drawn back. No, a thousand times no. If his wife knew he was buying more books to schlepp to Whitecap, he’d be dead meat.
“Better to take it now than call long-distance and have me ship it down there for three dollars.”
Hope appeared next to him, looking wise in new tortoiseshell glasses.
No doubt about it, Hope had his number.
He raked the book off the shelf, and snatched Jonathan Edwards’s The Freedom of the Will from another. He noted that his forehead broke out in a light sweat.
Oh, well, while he was at it . . .
He grabbed a copy of Lewis’s Great Divorce, which had wandered from his own shelves, never to be seen again, and went at a trot to the cash register.
“I’m sure you’re excited about your party!” Hope said, ringing the sale. Margaret jumped onto the counter and glowered at him. Why did cats hate his guts? What had he ever done to cats? Didn’t he buy his wife’s cat only the finest, most ridiculously priced chicken niblets in a fancy tinfoil container?
“Party? What party?”
“Why, the party Uncle Billy and Miss Rose are giving you and Cynthia!”
“I don’t know anything about a party.” Had someone told him and he’d forgotten?
“It’s the biggest thing in the world to them. They’ve never given a party in their whole lives, but they want to do this because they hold you in the most edacious regard.”
“Well!” He was nearly speechless. “When is it supposed to be?”
“Tomorrow night, of course.” She looked at him oddly.
Tomorrow night they were working a list as long as his arm, not to mention shopping for groceries to feed Dooley Barlowe a welcome-home dinner of steak, fries, and chocolate pie.
He mopped his forehead with a handkerchief. He’d be glad to leave town and get his life in order again.
“I’ll look into it,” he muttered, shelling out cash for the forbidden books. “And if you don’t mind, that is, if you happen to see Cynthia, you might not mention that, ah . . .”
Hope Winchester smiled. She would never say a word to the priest’s wife about his buying more books. Just as she certainly wouldn’t mention to him that Cynthia had dashed in only this morning to buy copies of Celia Thaxter’s My Island Garden, and the hardback of Ira Sleeps Over.
He knocked on the screen door of the small, life-estate apartment in the rear of the town musuem.
“Uncle Billy! Miss Rose! Anybody home?”
He couldn’t imagine the old couple giving a party; his mind was perfectly boggled by the notion. Rose Watson had been diagnosed as schizophrenic decades ago, and although on daily medication, her mood swings were fierce and unpredictable. To make matters worse for her long-suffering husband, she was quickly going deaf as a stone, but refused to wear hearing aids. “There’s aids enough in this world,” she said menacingly.
He put his nose against the screen and saw Uncle Billy sleeping in a chair next to an electric fan, his cane between his legs. Father Tim hated to wake him, but what was he to do? He knocked again.
Uncle Billy opened his eyes and looked around the kitchen, startled.
“It’s me, Uncle Billy!”
“Lord if hit ain’t th’ preacher!” The old man grinned toward the door, his gold tooth gleaming. “Rose!” he shouted. “Hit’s th’ preacher!”
“He’s not supposed to be here ’til tomorrow!” Miss Rose bellowed from the worn armchair by the refrigerator.
Uncle Billy grabbed his cane and slowly pulled himself to a standing position. “If I set too long, m’ knees lock up, don’t you know. But I’m a-comin’.”
“Tell him he’s a day early!” commanded Miss Rose.
“Don’t you mind Rose a bit. You’re welcome any time of th’ day or night.” Uncle Billy opened the screen and he stepped into the kitchen. The Watsons had cooked cabbage for lunch, no two ways about it.
“Uncle Billy, I hear you’re giving . . . well, someone said you’re giving Cynthia and me . . . a party?”
The old man looked vastly pleased. “Got a whole flock of people comin’ to see you! Got three new jokes t’ tell, you’re goin’ t’ like ’em, and Rose is makin’ banana puddin’.”
Father Tim scratched his head, feeling foolish.
“Y’ see, th’ church give you ’uns a nice, big party an’ all, but hit seemed mighty official, hit was anybody an’ ever’body, kind of a free-for-all. I said, ‘Rose, we ought t’ give th’ preacher an’ ’is missus a little send-off with ’is friends!’” The old man leaned on his cane, grinning triumphantly. “So we’re a-doin’ it, and glad t’ be a-doin’ it!”
“Hit’s goin’ to be in th’ museum part of th’ house, so we can play th’ jukebox, don’t you know.”
“Why, that’s wonderful, it really is, but—”
“An’ me an’ Rose took a good bath in th’ tub!”
He had seen the time when Uncle Billy and Miss Rose could empty two or three pews around their own. . . .
Miss Rose, in a chenille robe and unlaced saddle oxfords, stood up from her chair and looked him dead in the eye. He instantly wished for the protection of his wife.
“I hope you didn’t come expecting to eat a day in advance,” she snapped.
“Oh, law,” said her mortified husband. “Now, Rose—”
She turned to Uncle Billy. “I haven’t even made the banana pudding yet, so how can we feed him?”
“Oh, I didn’t come to eat. I just came to find out—”
“You march home,” said Miss Rose, “and come back tomorrow at the right time.”
Uncle Billy put his hands over his eyes, as if to deny the terrible scene taking place in front of him.
“And what time might that be?” shouted Father Tim.
“Six-thirty sharp!” said the old woman, looking considerably vexed.
His wife went pale.
He felt like putting his hands over his own eyes, as Uncle Billy had done.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know how to say no. Uncle Billy is so excited . . . They’ve never given a party before.”
“Why in heaven’s name didn’t they let us know?”
“I think they invited everybody else and forgot to invite us.”
“Lord have mercy!” said his overworked wife, conveniently quoting the prayer book.
They had collapsed on the study sofa for the Changing of the Light, having gone nonstop since five-thirty that morning. He had made the lemonade on this occasion, and served it with two slices of bread, each curled hastily around a filling of Puny’s homemade pimiento cheese.
“I can’t even think about a party,” she said, stuffing the bread and cheese into her mouth. “My blood sugar has dropped through the soles of my tennis shoes.”
Ah, the peace of this room, he thought, unbuttoning his shirt. And here they were, leaving it. They built it, and now they were leaving it. Such was life in a collar.
“Timothy, are you really excited about going to Whitecap?”
“It comes and goes in waves. One moment, I’m excited—”
“And the next, you’re scared to death?”
“Well . . .”
“Me, too,” she confessed. “I hate to leave Mitford. I thought it would be fun, invigorating, a great adventure.” She lay down, putting her head on one of the faded needlepoint pillows that had also made it through the hedge. “But now . . .” Her voice trailed off.
“We’re pretty worn out, Kavanagh. This is a stressful thing we’re doing, pulling up stakes. I’ve hardly been out of Mitford in sixteen years. But we’ll get there and it will be terrific, wait and see. You’ll love it. The freedom of an island . . .”
“The wind in our hair . . .”
“Gulls wheeling above us . . .”
“The smell of salt air . . .”
It was a litany they’d recited antiphonally over the last couple of months. It always seemed to console them.
He pulled her feet into his lap. “How about a nap? We’ve got a tight schedule ahead.”
“Tonight,” she said, “Puny helps us clean out all the cabinets . . . Dooley comes tomorrow evening just before the Watson party, and will have supper with his mother. Then a day of shopping with our threadbare boy and moving him in with Harley, followed by your meeting with the new tenant, and Dooley’s steak dinner. Then, of course, there’s the grand opening at Lucera on Thursday night after we finish packing the car, and on Friday morning we’re off. I don’t think,” she said, breathless, “that we’ll have time to celebrate your birthday.”
His birthday! Blast! This year, he would be sixty-six, and just think—in four short years, he would be seventy. And then eighty. And then . . . dead, he supposed. Oh, well.
“Don’t be depressed,” she scolded. “And for heaven’s sake, dearest, relax. You’re sitting there like a statue in a park.”
“Right,” he said, guzzling the lemonade.
He had noted over the last few days that the late June light reached its pinnacle when it fell upon the brass angel. Because of the exterior overhang of the room, the direct light moved no higher than the mantel, where the angel stood firm on its heavy base of green marble.
He had found the angel in the attic at Fernbank, Miss Sadie’s rambling house at the top of the hill, now owned by Andrew and Anna Gregory. Only months before she died in her ninetieth year, Sadie Baxter had written a letter about the disposition of her family home and its contents. One thing she asked him to do was take something for his own, anything he liked.
As Cynthia rambled through Fernbank seeking her portion of the legacy, he had found the angel in a box, a box with a faded French postmark. Though the attic was filled with a bountiful assortment of inarguable treasures, he had known as surely as if someone had engraved his name upon it that the angel in a box belonged to him.
The light moved now to the angel, to its outspread wings and supplicating hands. It shone, also, on the vase of pink flowering almond next to the old books, and the small silhouette of his mother, which Cynthia had reframed and hung above the mantel.
As long as he could remember, he’d been afraid to sit still, to listen, to wait. As a priest, he’d been glad of every needy soul to tend to; every potluck supper to sit to; even of every illness to run to—thankful for the fray and haste. He’d been frightened of any tendency to sit and let his mind wander like a goat untethered from a chain, free to crop any grass it pleased.
He was beginning to realize, however, that he was less and less afraid to do what appeared to be nothing.
In the end, he wasn’t really afraid of moving to Whitecap, either; he’d given his wife the wrong notion. He had prayed that God would send him wherever He pleased, and when his bishop presented the idea of Whitecap, he knew it wasn’t his bishop’s bright idea at all, but God’s. He had learned years ago to read God’s answer to any troubling decision by looking to his heart, his spirit, for an imprimatur of peace. That peace had come; otherwise, he would not go.
He inhaled the freshness of the breeze that stole through the open window, and the fragrance of oak and cherry that pervaded the room like incense.
Then, lulled by the sight of his dozing wife, he put his head back and closed his eyes, and slept.
Rose Watson set out what most people would call an outrageous assortment of cracked, chipped, and broken china, including mismatched cups and saucers that teetered atop a tower of salad plates anchored on a turkey platter.
After standing back and gazing at the curious pile with some satisfaction, she decided to flank the arrangement with a medley of soup bowls.
The large plastic container of banana pudding sat on the electric range, bristling with two serving spoons jabbed into its yellow center. For napkins, Uncle Billy supplied a roll of paper towels, which he stood on one end next to the pudding.
“Don’t set paper on a stove!” Miss Rose snatched the roll and moved it like a pawn on a chessboard to the kitchen table.
“What about spoons?” shouted her husband. He was fairly benumbed with the idea of having a swarm of people descend on their living quarters, though it had been his notion in the first place.
“Pull out the drawer! They can help themselves.”
He did as he was told, thinking that his wife sometimes had a good idea, and wasn’t half as crazy as most people thought. Mean-spirited, maybe, but that was her disease.
He had tried to read about schizophrenia in the Mitford library, one of the few times he had ever stepped foot in the place. He had looked for the oldest volunteer he could find, thinking she would be the boss, and asked her to lead him to a volume on a disease whose name he could not spell. He had then taken the book to a table and sat and asked the Lord to give him some kind of wisdom about what was so terribly, horribly wrong with his wife, but he couldn’t understand anything the book had said, nothing.
“That’s good thinkin’!” he shouted.
“You say somethin’s stinkin’ ?” She turned and looked at him.
“Dadgummit, Rose, I said—”
“It might be your upper lip, Bill Watson.” She suddenly burst into laughter.
There it was! The laughter he heard so seldom, had almost forgotten, rushing out like a bird freed from a cage, the laughter of the girl he’d known all those years ago. . . .
He stood, stunned and happy, tears springing to his eyes as suddenly as her laughter had come.
Father Tim found the china assortment fascinating. He could spot several pieces of French Haviland in a pattern his grandmother had owned, and not a few pieces of Sevres.
At least he thought it was Sevres. He picked up a bread-and-butter plate and peered discreetly at the bottom. Meissen. What did he know?
He certainly didn’t know what to do about the banana pudding. Everyone except themselves had been asked to bring a covered dish, so there was plenty to choose from. Miss Rose, however, stood like a sentinel by the stove, making sure that all comers had a hefty dose of what had taken her a full afternoon to create.
All those cracks in the china, he thought, all those chips and chinks . . . weren’t they a known hideout for germs, a breeding ground? And hadn’t he sat by the hospital bed of a woman who had put her feet under Rose Watson’s table and barely lived to tell about it?
He could remember the story plainly. “Lord knows, I hadn’t hardly got home before my stomach started rumblin’ and carryin’ on, you never heard such a racket. Well, Preacher, I hate to tell you such a thing, but you’ve heard it all, anyhow—five minutes later, I was settin’ on th’ toilet, throwin’ up on my shoes.”
He had not forgotten the mental image of that good lady throwing up on her shoes. He certainly hadn’t forgotten her dark warning never to eat a bite or drink a drop at Rose Watson’s house.
“Fill y’r plates and march into th’ front room!” Their host’s gold tooth gleamed. “Some’s already in there, waitin’ for th’ blessin’.”
Cynthia served herself from the pudding bowl as if she hadn’t eaten a bite since Rogation Sunday.
“Fall to, darling,” she said, happy as a child.
Oh, the everlasting gusto of his spouse! He sighed, peering around for the ham biscuits.
He found that everyone was oddly excited about being in a place as prominent as the town museum. It was a little awkward, however, given that not a single chair could be found, and they all had to mill around with their plates in their hands, setting their tea glasses on windowsills and stair steps.
The jukebox boomed out what he thought was “Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy,” and laid a steady rhythm into the bare floorboards.
He and Cynthia made a quick tour of the exhibits, which he’d never, for some reason, taken time to study.
There was a copy of Willard Porter’s deed to what had been the Mitford Pharmacy and was now Happy Endings Bookstore. There was also a handwritten list of pharmaceuticals that Willard had invented and patented, including Rose Cough Syrup, named for his then-ten-year-old sister, and their hostess for the evening.
There was the framed certificate declaring the Wurlitzer to be a gift to the town from the owner of the Main Street Grill, where it was unplugged on June 26, 1951. It had been fully restored to mint condition, thanks to the generosity of Mayor Esther Cunningham.
He examined the daguerreotype of Coot Hendrick’s great-great-grandfather sitting in a straight-back chair with a rifle across his knees.
It had been Coot’s bearded ancestor, Hezikiah, who settled Mitford, riding horseback up the mountain along an Indian trading path, with his new English bride, Mary Jane, clinging on behind. According to legend, his wife was so homesick that Mr. Hendrick had the generosity of spirit to give the town her maiden name of Mitford, instead of Hendricksville or Hendricksburg, which a man might have preferred to call a place settled by dint of his own hard labors.
“’At’s my great-great-granpaw,” said Coot Hendrick, coming alongside the preacher and his wife. He’d been waiting to catch someone looking at that picture. For years, it had knocked around in a drawer at his mama’s house, and he’d hardly paid any attention to it at all. Then somebody wanted it for the town museum and it had taken on a whole new luster.
“He looks fearless!” said Cynthia.
“Had twelve young ’uns!” Coot grinned from ear to ear, which was not a pretty sight, given his dental condition. “Stubs!” Mule Skinner had said, marveling at how he’d seen people’s teeth fall out, but never wear down in such a way.
“Six lived, six died, all buried over yonder on Miz Mallory’s ridge. Her house sets right next to where him and my great-great-granmaw built their little cabin.”
“Well!” said Father Tim.
“Hit was a fine place to sight Yankees from,” said Coot.
“I’ll bet so.”
“There probably weren’t many Yankees prowling around up here,” said Cynthia, who’d read that, barely a hundred and fifty years ago, an Anglican bishop had called the area “wild and uninhabitable.”
“You’d be surprised,” said Coot, tucking his thumbs in the straps of his overalls. “They say my great-great-granpaw shot five and give ever’ one of ’em a solemn burial.”
“I didn’t know there were any battles fought around Mitford,” said Cynthia, who appeared deeply interested in this new wrinkle of local history.
“They won’t. Th’ Yankees was runaways from their regiment.”
Spying Esther and Gene Bolick making a beeline in their direction, they excused themselves and met the Bolicks halfway.
“We just hate this!” said Esther. Overcome, she grabbed his hand and kissed it, then, mortified at such behavior, dropped it like a hot potato. “Gene and I have run th’ gambit of emotions, and we still just hate to see y’all go!”
“We hate to go,” he said simply.
“I baked you a two-layer orange marmalade and froze it. You can carry it down there in your cooler.” There was nothing else she could do to keep her former priest in Mitford where she was certain he belonged—she had prayed, she had lost, she had cried, and in the end, she had baked.
Her husband, Gene, sighed and looked glum.
This, thought Father Tim, is precisely where a going-away party turns into a blasted wake unless somebody puts on a funny hat or slides down the banister, something. . . .
He turned to his wife, who shrugged and smiled and sought greener pastures.
“Gene’s not been feelin’ too good,” said Esther.
“What is it?” asked Father Tim.
“Don’t know exactly,” Gene said, as Miss Rose strode up. “But I talked to Hoppy and went and got th’ shots.”
“Got the trots?” shouted Miss Rose. Everyone peered at them.
Gene flushed. “No, ma’am. The shots.”
“Bill had the trots last week,” she said, frowning. “It could be something going around.” Their hostess, who was monitoring everyone’s plate to see whether her pudding had gotten its rightful reception, moved on to the next circle of guests.
“We reckon you know how hot it gets down there,” said Gene.
“Honey, hot’s not th’ word for it!” Fancy Skinner appeared in her signature outfit of pink Capri pants, V-neck sweater, and spike-heel shoes. “You will be boiled, steamed, roasted, baked, and fried.”
“Not to mention sautéed,” said Avis Packard, who owned the grocery store on Main Street, and liked to cook.
Fancy popped her sugarless gum. “Then there’s stewed and broiled.”
“Please,” said Father Tim.
“Barbecued!” contributed Gene, feeling pleased with himself. “You forgot barbecued.”
Fancy, who was the owner of Mitford’s only unisex salon, hooted with laughter.
“Did you consider maybe goin’ to Vermont?” Gene wondered if their former rector had thought through this island business.
“Because if you think your hair’s curlin’ around your ears now,” said Fancy, “wait’ll all that humidity hits it, we’re talkin’ a Shirley Temple-Little Richard combo. That’s why I liked to keep your hair flat around your ears when I was doin’ it, now it’s these chipmunk pooches again.” Fancy reached out to forcibly slick his vagrant pooches down with her fingers, but restrained herself.
He looked anxiously around the room for Cynthia, who was laughing with the mayor and Hope Winchester.
Omer Cunningham trotted in from the kitchen with a plate piled to overflowing, wearing his usual piano-key grin. Father Tim vowed he’d never seen so many big white teeth as the mayor’s brother-in-law had in his head. It was enough for a regular Debussy concerto.
“Lord, at th’ traffic I’ve run into today!”
“On Main Street?”
“I mean air traffic,” said the proud owner of a ragwing taildragger. “I been buzzin’ th’ gorge. You never seen th’ like of deer that’s rootin’ around in there. Seems like ever’body and his brother was flyin’ today.”
Father Tim had instant and vivid recall of his times in the ragwing with Omer. Once to Virginia to hear Dooley in a concert, with his stomach lagging some distance behind the plane. Then again when they flew over Edith Mallory’s sprawling house on the ridge above Mitford, trying to see what kind of dirty deal was behind the last mayoral race.
“I spotted a Piper Cherokee, a Cessna 182, and a Beechcraft Bonanza.”
“Kind of like bird-watching.”
“That Bonanza costs half a million smackers. You don’t see many of those.”
“I’ll bet you don’t.”
“Listen, now,” said Omer, ripping the meat off a drumstick with his teeth, “you let me know if I can ever buzz down to where you’re at to help you out or anything. My little ragwing is yours any time of th’ day or night, you hear?”
“Thank you, Omer, that’s mighty thoughtful!”
Omer’s chewing seemed unusually efficient. “I’ve flew over them little islands where you’re goin’ any number of times. Landed on many a beach. If you stay out of th’ bad thunderstorms they have down there, it’s as calm an’ peaceful as you’d ever want t’ see.”
Omer picked up a ham biscuit and eyed it. “I don’t like ham in a cathead biscuit,” he said. “Have to dig too far for th’ ham.”
It was his fault. He was the one who casually mentioned it to Mule Skinner.
In nothing flat, the word of Dooley Barlowe’s driver’s license had replaced the party buzz about Avis Packard’s decision to buy a panel truck for grocery delivery, and the huge addition to Edith Mallory’s already enormous house.
Did he imagine it, or were they all peering at him as if to inquire when he was trotting out a car to go with Dooley’s license?
Absolutely not. He had no intention of buying a car for a sixteen-year-old boy, then running off and leaving him to his own devices. Fortunately, Dooley had agreed to ride his red bicycle this summer, but he knew the notion of a car was definitely in the boy’s mind. After all, didn’t everybody’s father in that fancy school toss around snappy convertibles and upscale four-wheel drives like so much confetti?
While it was obvious that Dooley couldn’t earn enough money for a car by bagging groceries, Father Tim thought a summer of trying would hardly damage the boy’s character.
In truth, there was an even more serious concern than Dooley’s automobile hormones. And that was the fact he’d have nearly ten weeks to come and go as he pleased. Harley Welch would make a dependable, principled guardian, but Dooley could outwit Harley.
He muddled his spoon in the banana pudding.
As if reading Father Tim’s mind, Mule said, “We’ll all watch after ’im.”
“Right,” said Gene, “we’ll keep an eye on ’im.”
Adele Hogan, Mitford’s only female police officer and nearly-new wife of the newspaper editor, caught up with him at the jukebox, as her husband snapped pictures for Monday’s edition of the Muse.
“Just wanted you to know,” said Adele, “we’ve got cars cruisin’ around the clock. We’ll keep our eyes open for your little guy while you’re gone.”
The truth was, there’d be a veritable woof of men to look after the boy, not to mention a fine warp of women, including Puny, and Dooley’s mother, and now Adele.
“Thank you!” he said, meaning it.
Adele stood with her thumbs tucked into her belt, appearing for a moment to be hired security. She had come straight from the station in her uniform, wearing a Glock nine-millimeter on her hip. The sight of Adele, who was the new hotshot coach of the Mitford Reds and also the grandmother of three, never failed to astonish and impress him.
“Don’t worry about a thing,” said Adele.
He was almost inclined not to.
“Right!” agreed Avis. “I’m th’ only one that’ll drive my delivery truck, except for Lew Boyd’s cousin, who’s fillin’ in on Saturdays. Anyway, I’m goin’ to work your boy’s butt off this summer. He won’t have time to get in trouble.” In a spontaneous burst of camaraderie, Avis slapped him on the shoulder.
The mayor barged up and slapped him on the other shoulder. He nearly pitched into the Wurlitzer, which was now playing “One Mint Julep.”
“Run out on us, then,” said Esther Cunningham. “See if I care.”
“You don’t need me anymore. After praying you into office eight times in a row, you’re hanging it up and going off with Ray in the RV.”
Esther narrowed her eyes and peered at him. “I guess you know about th’ hurricanes they get down there.”
“And th’ heat . . .”
Would they never hush . . .?
A muscle twitched in the mayor’s jaw. “We’ll miss you.”
“We’ll miss you back,” he said, putting his arm around his old friend’s well-cushioned shoulders. He hated this goodbye business. He’d rather be home yanking a tooth out by a string on a doorknob, anything. “Are you laying off the sausage biscuits?”
“Curiosity killed the cat,” she said.
Esther cupped her hands to her mouth and shouted, “Somebody unplug th’ box!”
Omer squatted by the Wurlitzer, which couldn’t be shut off manually, and pulled the plug.
“Must be Uncle Billy’s joke,” said Gene Bolick, getting up from the stair step where he was sitting with Mule.
Mule sighed. “I hope it’s not that deal about th’ gas stove! I’ve heard that more times than Carter has liver pills.”
“Here’s one for you,” said Gene. “What’s a Presbyterian?”
“A Methodist with a drinkin’ problem who can’t afford to be Episcopalian.”
Mule scratched his head. He had never understood jokes about Episcopalians.
“Come on, everybody!” yelled the mayor, her voice echoing in the vaulted room. “Joke time!”
Uncle Billy stood as straight as he was able, holding on to his cane and looking soberly at the little throng, who gave forth a murmur of coughing and throat-clearing.
“Wellsir!” he exclaimed, by way of introduction. “A farmer was haulin’ manure, don’t you know, an’ ’is truck broke down in front of a mental institution. One of th’ patients, he leaned over th’ fence, said, ‘What’re you goin’ t’ do with y’r manure?’
“Farmer said, ‘I’m goin’ t’ put it on m’ strawberries.’
“Feller said, ‘We might be crazy, but we put whipped cream on our’n.’”
Uncle Billy grinned at the cackle of laughter he heard.
“Keep goin’!” someone said.
“Wellsir, this old feller an’ ’is wife was settin’ on th’ porch, an’ she said, ‘Guess what I’d like t’ have?’
“He said, ‘What’s that?’
“She said, ‘A great big bowl of vaniller ice cream with choc’late sauce and nuts on top!’
“He says, ‘Boys howdy, that’d be good. I’ll go down to th’ store and git us some.’
“Wife said, ‘Now, that’s vaniller ice cream with choc’late sauce and nuts. Better write it down.’
“He said, ‘Don’t need t’ write it down, I can remember.’
“Little while later, he come back. Had two ham san’wiches. Give one t’ her. She looked at that san’wich, lifted th’ top off, said, ‘You mulehead, I told you t’ write it down, I wanted mustard on mine!’”
Loving the sound of laughter in the cavernous room, Uncle Billy nodded to the left, then to the right.
“One more,” he said, trembling a little from the excitement of the evening.
“Hit it!” crowed the mayor, hoping to remember the punch line to the vanilla ice-cream story.
“Wellsir, this census taker, he went to a house an’ knocked, don’t you know. A woman come out, ’e said, ‘How many children you got, an’ what’re their ages?’
“She said, ‘Let’s see, there’s th’ twins Sally and Billy, they’re eighteen. And th’ twins Seth an’ Beth, they’re sixteen. And th’ twins Penny an’ Jenny, they’re fourteen—’
“Feller said, ‘Hold on! Did you git twins ever’ time?’
“Woman said, ‘Law, no, they was hundreds of times we didn’t git nothin’.’”
The old man heard the sound of applause overtaking the laughter, and leaned forward slightly, cupping his hand to his left ear to better take it in. The applause was giving him courage, somehow, to keep on in life, to get out of bed in the mornings and see what was what.
Uncle Billy and Miss Rose looked considerably exhausted from their social endeavors; the old man’s hands trembled as they stood on the cool front porch.
“I’d like to pray for you,” said Father Tim.
“We’d be beholden to you, Preacher, if you would,” said Uncle Billy, “but seems like we ought t’ pray f’r you, don’t you know.”
Hardly anyone ever did that, he thought, moved by the gesture. “I’d thank you for doing it.”
Cynthia slipped into the circle and they joined hands.
“Now, Lord . . .”—the old man drew a deep breath—“I ain’t used t’ doin’ this out loud an’ all, but I felt You call me t’ do it, an’ I’m ex-pectin’ You t’ help me, don’t you know.
“Lord Jesus, I’m askin’ You t’ watch over th’ preacher an’ ’is missus. Don’t let ’em git drownded down there, or come up ag’in’ meanness of any kind. You tell ’em whichaway to go when they need it.”
Uncle Billy paused. “An’ I ’preciate it. F’r Christ’s sake, a-men!”
Father Tim clasped his arms around his old friend. “Uncle Billy—”
“I hope they give you plenty of fried chicken down there!” squawked Miss Rose. She’d always heard preachers liked fried chicken.
He didn’t know how many more goodbyes he could bear.
It wasn’t that he and Cynthia hadn’t wanted to go to Whitecap to see and be seen. They had carefully planned to go for five days in March, but the weather had turned foul, with lashing rains and high winds that persisted for days along the eastern shoreline.
He had then tried to set a date for April, but most of the Whitecap vestry, who were key players in any approval process, would be away for one reason or another.
“Don’t sweat it,” Stuart Cullen had said in a phone call. Stuart was not only his current bishop, but a close friend since seminary days. “They know all about you. They’re thrilled you’ll do the interim. Bishop Harvey agrees it’s a match made in heaven, so don’t worry about getting down there for the usual preview.”
“It’s a little on the pig-in-a-poke side, if you ask me.”
Stuart laughed. “Believe me, Timothy, they need exactly what you’ve got to offer. Besides, if you don’t like each other, Bill Harvey and I will give you your money back.”
“How about telling me the downside of this parish? All Bill Harvey talks about is the church being so attractive, it ends up on postcards.”
“Right,” agreed Stuart. “He also vows he hears the nickering of wild ponies through the open windows of the nave, though I don’t think Whitecap has wild ponies these days.”
“What I’d rather know is, who’s likely to stab the interim in the back? And who’s plotting to run off with the choir director?”
He was joking, of course, but equally serious. He wanted to know what was what in Whitecap, and nobody was telling him.
“Ah, well, Timothy, there isn’t a choir director.” His bishop sounded strained.
“Really? Why not?”
“Well . . .”
“Because the choir director ran off with the organist.”
“Is this a joke?”
“Surely you can come up with something slicker than that. Good heavens, man, we had a jewel thief living in the attic at Lord’s Chapel, not to mention a parishioner who tried to buy the last mayoral election. Tell me something I can get my teeth into.”
“Sorry. But I’ve just given you the plain, unvarnished truth.”
There was a long silence. “What else do I need to know?”
The bishop told him. In fact, he told him a great deal more than he needed to know.
He stepped into the downstairs bathroom and took his glucometer kit from the medicine cabinet. With all the hoopla going on, and the radical changes in his diet, he figured he should check his sugar more often.
Once or twice, he’d felt so low, he could have crawled under a snake’s belly wearing a top hat. Other times, his adrenaline was pumping like an oil derrick.
He shot the lance into the tip of his left forefinger and spilled the drop of blood onto a test strip. Then he slid the strip into the glucometer and waited for the readout. 130.
Excellent. He didn’t need any bad news from his body. Not now, not ever.
“Thank you, Lord,” he murmured, zipping the case shut.
He and Dooley loped across Baxter Park with Barnabas on the red leash, then turned left and headed up Old Church Lane.
They ran side by side until the hospital turnoff, where Dooley suddenly looked at him, grinned, and shot forward like a hare.
As he watched the boy pull away toward the crest of the steep hill, he saw at once the reason for his greater speed. Dooley Barlowe’s legs were six feet long.
He huffed behind, regretting the way he’d let his running schedule go. Oh, well. Whitecap would be another matter entirely. All that fresh salt air and ocean breeze, and a clean, wide beach that went on for miles . . .
He would even walk to his office, conveniently located in the basement of the church, only two blocks from Dove Cottage. Nor was he the only one whose physical fitness would take an upturn. Cynthia was sending her old blue Schwinn down with their household shipment, and would leave her Mazda in Mitford. For an island only eleven miles long and four miles wide, who needed a car? Even many of the locals were said to navigate on two-wheelers.
“Better watch your step down there,” Omer had advised. “Them bicycles’ll mow you down, they ride ’em ever’ whichaway.”
“Wait up!” he shouted to Dooley.
Dooley turned around, laughing, and for a crisp, quick moment, he saw the way the sun glinted on the boy’s red hair, and the look in his blue eyes. It was a look of triumph, of exultation, a look he had never, even once, seen before on Dooley Barlowe’s face.
He didn’t know whether to whoop, which he felt like doing, or weep, which he dismissed at once. Instead, he lunged ahead, closing the gap between them, and threw his arm around the boy’s shoulder and told him what must be spoken now, immediately, and not a moment later.
“I love you, buddy,” he said, panting and laughing at once. “Blast if I don’t.”
They sat on the cool stone wall, looking into the valley, into the Land of Counterpane. There beyond the trees was the church spire, and over there, the tiniest glint of railroad tracks . . . and just there, the pond next to the apple orchard where he knew ducks were swimming. Above it all, ranging along the other side of the valley, the high, green hills outlined themselves against a blue and cloudless sky. It was his favorite view in the whole of the earth, he thought.
“There’s something I’d like you to know,” he told Dooley. “I believe we’ll find Sammy and Kenny.”
Father Tim had gone into the Creek with Lace Turner and retrieved Dooley’s younger brother, Poobaw. Later, he’d driven to Florida on little more than a hunch, and located Dooley’s little sister, Jessie. Now two of the five Barlowe children were still missing. Their mother, Pauline, recovering from years of hard drinking, had no idea where they might be. As far as he could discover, there were no clues, no trail, no nothing. But he had hope—the kind that comes from a higher place than reason or common sense.
“Will you believe that with me?” he asked Dooley.
A muscle moved in Dooley’s jaw. “You did pretty good with Poo and Jessie.”
Barnabas crashed into the grass at Dooley’s feet.
“I believe we’re closer to deciding on some colleges to start thinking about.”
“Yep. Maybe Cornell.”
“You’ve got a while before you have to make any decisions.”
“Maybe University of Georgia.”
“Maybe. Their specialty is large animals; that’s what interests you. Anyway, that’s all down the road. For now, just check things out, think about it, pray about it.”
“We’re mighty proud of you, son. You’ll make a fine vet. You’ve come—we’ve all come—a long way together.”
There was an awkward silence between them.
“What’s on your mind?” asked Father Tim.
“Let’s talk about it.”
Dooley turned to him, glad for the invitation. “It looks like you could let me borrow the money and I’ll pay you back. Working six days a week at five dollars an hour, I’ll have sixteen hundred dollars. Plus I figure three yards a week at an average of twenty apiece, I’m countin’ it seven hundred bucks because some people will give me a tip. Last year, I saved five hundred, so that’s two thousand eight hundred.”
He had the sudden sense of being squeezed between a rock and a hard place. . . .
“Nearly three thousand,” said Dooley, enunciating clearly. “I could prob’ly make it an even three if I cleaned out people’s attics and basements.”
Aha. He hadn’t counted on three thousand bucks being a factor in the car equation. He gazed out to the view, unseeing.
“This just isn’t the summer for it. We can’t be here, and that’s a very crucial factor. Besides, you know we agreed you’d have a car next summer. If we’re still at Whitecap, you’ll come there, and everything will be fine.” He looked at Dooley. “Call me hard if you like, but it’s not going to happen.”
Dooley turned away and said something under his breath.
“Tell you what we’ll do. Cynthia and I will match everything you make this summer.” It was a rash decision, but why not? He still had more than sixty thousand dollars of his mother’s money, and was a homeowner with no mortgage. It was the right thing to do.
Dooley stared straight ahead, kicking the stone wall with his heels. If Dooley Barlowe only knew what he knew—that Sadie Baxter had left the boy a cool million-and-a-quarter bucks in her will, to be his when he turned twenty-one. He knew that part of Miss Sadie’s letter by heart: I am depending on you never to mention this to him until he is old enough to bear it with dignity.
“Look. We gave you a choice between staying in Mitford and a summer at the beach. That’s a pretty important liberty. We didn’t force you to do anything you didn’t want to do. Give us credit for that. The car is a different matter. We’re not going to be around to—”
“Harley’s going to be around all the time, he’s going to let me drive his truck, what’s the difference if I have my own car?”
Well, blast it, what was the difference? “But only once a week, as you well know, with a curfew of eleven o’clock.”
Father Tim stood up, agitated. He never dreamed he’d be raising a teenager. When he was Dooley’s age in Holly Springs, Mississippi, nobody he knew had a car when they were sixteen. Today, boys were given cars as casually as they were handed a burger through a fast-food window. And in fact, a vast number of them ended up decorating the grille of an eighteen-wheeler, not critically injured, but dead. He was too old to have a teenager, too old to figure this out the way other people, other parents, seemed to do.
“Look,” he said, pacing alongside the stone wall, “we talked about this before, starting a few months ago. You were perfectly fine with no car this summer; we agreed on it. You even asked me to hunt down your bicycle pump so you could put air in the tires.”
He knew exactly what had happened. It was that dadblamed Wrangler. “Is Tommy getting a car this summer?”
“No. He’s working to raise money so he can have one next year. He’s only saved eight hundred dollars.”
This was definitely an encouragement. “So, look here. Harley was going to mow our two yards once a week, but why don’t I give you the job? I’ll pay twenty bucks a shot for both houses.”
“If Buster Austin did it, he’d charge fifteen apiece, that’s thirty. I’ll do both for twenty-five.”
He looked at the boy he loved, the boy he’d do anything for.
It rained throughout the night, a slow, pattering rain that spoke more eloquently of summer to him than any sunshine. He listened through the open bedroom window until well after midnight, sleepless but not discontented. They would make it through all this upheaval, all this tearing up and nailing down, and life would go on.
He found his wife’s light, whiffling snore a kind of anchor in a sea of change.
Bolting down Main Street the next morning at seven o’clock, he saw Evie Adams in her rain-soaked yard, dressed in a terry robe and armed with a salt shaker.
“Forty two!” she shouted in greeting.
He knew she meant snail casualties. Evie had been at war with snails ever since they gnawed her entire stand of blue hostas down to nubs. Some years had passed since this unusually aggressive assault, but Evie had not forgotten. He pumped his fist into the air in a salute of brotherhood.
After all, he had hostas, too. . . .
“If I have to say goodbye to you one more time, I’ll puke,” said Mule.
Actually, Mule was moved nearly to bawling that his old buddy had come by the Grill at all. Father Tim could have been loading his car, or turning off the water at the street, or changing his address at the post office—whatever people did who were leaving for God knows how long.
“Livermush straight up,” Father Tim told Percy as he slid into the booth. “And make it a double.”
“Livermush? You ain’t ordered livermush in ten, maybe twelve years.”
“Right. But that’s what I’m having.” He grinned at the dumfounded Percy. “And make it snappy.”
It was reckless to eat livermush, especially a double order, but he was feeling reckless.
Percy set his mouth in a fine line as he cut two slices from the loaf of livermush. He did not approve of long-term Grill customers moving elsewhere. Number one, the Father had been coming to the Grill for sixteen, seventeen years; he was established. To just up and run off, flinging his lunch and breakfast trade to total strangers, was . . . he couldn’t even find a word for what it was.
Number two, why anybody would want to leave Mitford in the first place was beyond him. He had personally left it only twice—when Velma was pregnant and they went to see cousins in Avery County, and when he and Velma went on that bloomin’ cruise to Hawaii, which his children had sent them on whether he wanted to go or not.
But worse than the Father leaving Mitford, he was leaving it for a location that had once broken off from the mainland, for Pete’s sake, and could not be trusted as ground you’d want under your feet. So here was somebody he’d thought to be sensible and wise, clearly proving himself to be otherwise.
As he laid two thick slices on the sizzling grill, Percy shook his head. Every time he thought he’d gained a little understanding of human nature, something like this came up and he had to start over.
J. C. Hogan thumped into the booth. “Man!” he said, mopping his face with a rumpled handkerchief. “It’s hot as a depot stove today. I hope you know how hot it gets down there.”
Father Tim put his hands over his ears and shut his eyes.
“Lookit,” said J.C. He tossed the Muse, still smelling of ink, on the table. “You made today’s front page.”
Mule snatched the eight-page edition to his side of the table and adjusted his glasses. “Let me read it. Let’s see. Here we go.” The realtor cleared his throat and read aloud.
“‘Around Town by Vanita Bentley . . .’
“Blah, blah, blah, OK, here’s th’ meat of it. ‘Father Kavanagh treated everybody as if equal in intelligence and accomplishment, making his real church the homes, sidewalks and businesses of Mitford. . . .
“‘Whether we had faith or not, he loved us all.’”
Father Tim felt his face grow hot. “Give me that,” he said, snatching the newspaper.
“What’s the matter?” said J.C. “Don’t you like it?”
He didn’t know if he liked it. What he knew was that it sounded like . . . an obituary.
He was hunkering down now, trying to cover all the bases.
Reading Group Guide
Come away to Mitford, the small town that takes care of its own. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Mitford is a crazy quilt of saints and sinners — lovable eccentrics all. Seen through the eyes of Father Tim, the long-suffering Village Rector, Mitford abounds in both mysteries and miracles, compelling readers to return again and again to this beloved series.
In the tradition of James Herriot, Bailey White, and Garrison Keillor, author Jan Karon brilliantly captures the foibles and delights of a hilarious cast of characters.
Book V: In A New Song, Father Tim, recently retired after years of serving as the rector of Lord's Chapel, agrees to pastor a small parish off the Atlantic coast. There's only one problem: How can he and Cynthia leave the town—and the boy—they love? Soon, however, the charming island of Whitecap reveals its own cast of unforgettable characters: a lovelorn bachelor trying his hand at personal ads, a church organist with a past, a gifted musician who never ventures beyond his gate, and a young mother struggling with paralyzing depression. Still, Mitford is never far from their minds-especially when Dooley ends up on the wrong side of the law. Like every other bestselling Mitford novel, A New Song is a book you can't bear to see end.
ABOUT JAN KARON
Jan Karon was born in Lenoir, North Carolina, in 1937 ("A great year for the Packard automobile," she says). Her creative skills first came alive when her family moved to a farm. "On the farm there is time to muse and dream," she says. "I am endlessly grateful I was reared in the country. As a young girl I couldn't wait to get off that farm, to go to Hollywood or New York. But living in those confined, bucolic circumstances was one of the best things that ever happened to me."
Jan knew that she wanted to be a writer, and even wrote a novel at the age of ten. Her first real opportunity as a writer came at age eighteen when she took a job as a receptionist at an ad agency. She kept leaving her writing on her boss's desk until he noticed her ability. Soon she was launched on a forty-year career in advertising. She won assignments in New York and San Francisco, numerous awards, and finally an executive position with a national agency.
Recently she left advertising to write books, and moved to Blowing Rock, North Carolina, a tiny town of 1,800 perched at 5,000 feet in the Blue Ridge mountains. "I immediately responded to the culture of village life," says Jan. "And I must say the people welcomed me. I have never felt so at home."
Blowing Rock is the model for Mitford, and the similarities are strong. "None of the people in Mitford are actually based upon anyone in Blowing Rock," says Jan. "Yet, the spirit of my characters is found throughout this real-life village. You can walk into Sonny's Grill in Blowing Rock and find the same kind of guys who hang around Mitford's Main Street Grill."
Jan is quick to assert that there are Mitfords all over the country, those hundreds of towns where readers of Jan's books cherish their own cast of eccentric and beloved characters. Currently, one of Jan's chief delights is getting to meet those readers. "Some people finish writing and open a bottle of scotch or a box of chocolates," she says. "My reward is meeting my readers face-to-face. I think an author is something like a glorified bartender. My readers tell me all kinds of things about their lives, and I get these long, long letters. I answer every one, of course."
Jan has a daughter, Candace Freeland, who is a photojournalist and musician.
AN INTERVIEW WITH JAN KARON
You write about the small town of Mitford, yet haven't you spent most of your life in cities?
Until I was twelve I lived in the country, then I spent many years in cities. I think that I was born with a kind of deep affinity for the rural, the rustic. In addition, I'm very drawn to the pastoral novels of the English genre — the village novel where a small group is used to paint a picture of a larger society.
I still have in me a great love for the agrarian — for what this country was, for what we still are. People say, "Oh well, I guess there's no such thing as Mitford." Well, the good news is there are Mitfords all over the country, and there are still great stretches of open land and pastures and meadows and fields. It's not all bad news. There's so much left of this country that is reasonable and moral and strong. And that's the part I relate to.
You've often said how important a rural upbringing was for you. How has it influenced your writing?
On the farm there were long passages of time in which to observe. The senses are very important to me, and I try to bring the experience of the senses into my writing. And life on the farm is very graphic. Calves are dropped, colts are foaled, manure lies steaming in the sun. It's the bottom line of what life is about.
Mitford is packed with delightful characters like Dooley, Miss Rose, Emma, Miss Sadie, and Homeless Hobbes. Where do they all come from?
Darned if I know. My characters walk in and introduce themselves to me and I'm stuck with them. When I first moved to Blowing Rock to write a book, I struggled hard to write according to the outline I came here with, but the book never worked. The characters never got off the page. That was a real defeat for me. "Woman's dream turns to nightmare," I thought. "I don't know how to write a book!"
Then one night in my mind's eye I saw an Episcopal priest walking down the street. I decided to follow him and see where he went. Well, he went to a dog named Barnabas, they went to a boy named Dooley, and the story unfolded before me. Instead of me driving the story, the story began to drive me! I got interested, wrote a couple of chapters, and there you have it.
How much do you personally relate to Father Tim? Are you very much like him?
Father Tim's personality is far more conservative than mine, but like Father Tim, I don't know a great deal about having fun. If I get dragged into it, I can always enjoy it, but it's hard for me to go out and find it on my own. And of course we both share a faith. My books are formed on my connection to God. That's the seasoning in the stew.
How would you describe the nature of that faith?
In my books I try to depict not a glorious faith with celestial fireworks, but a daily faith, a routine faith, a seven-days-a-week faith. Father Tim's faith is part of his everyday life. He has simple prayers, not polished, pious prayers. He follows the Apostle Paul's command that we pray without ceasing. I try to depict how our faith may be woven into our daily life, like brandy poured into coffee. I believe that spirituality needs to be basic, common, everyday.
Father Tim seems in the thick of things whether he wants to be or not. How does this affect him?
In the first book, At Home in Mitford, he lived a very quiet life. In the subsequent books we are able to see far more of Father Tim's humanity because he is surrounded by people. That means that his heart is going to be broken and his patience is going to be stretched — all of the things that happen when we get involved with other people. This has made him a much more human figure.
Father Tim is very heroic but he does grand things in such a quiet way that he doesn't assume the proportions of a hero. I think Father Tim is somebody who's into recycling and restoring people. It comes from two places inside of him. First of all, it comes from that place where he was so deeply wounded in his relationship with his father. He is in a sense recycling himself; he's still trying to heal himself. And second, he operates on the fuel, the steam that comes from his relationship with Jesus Christ. But he's definitely into reclamation, recycling, helping people find the way — which is what Jesus is all about. So I suppose that Father Tim is a type of Christ figure — not just because he is a preacher but because of the way he is constructed.
In Out to Canaan, Father Tim lives in a chaotic household. Did you grow up in such a household?
No, I didn't. I've lived a fairly ordered life. Being a writer requires a lot of solitude. I've not lived like that, but I've always looked toward those households with a certain longing.
Where do you write?
My studio stretches across the back of my little house. It has eight windows that look out on a copse of trees. I can see the blue outline of the mountains in the distance. Where I write is exceedingly important to me. I am never comfortable unless I am in a room that pleases me. I need the pictures on the wall to be hanging straight. I have to do my housekeeping before I can sit down at the computer. Things need to be in order in my mind and in the place where I write. In recent months my life has been topsy-turvy. I have learned to write with utter chaos all around me. I turn to my book with great intensity. Sometimes I may write twelve hours a day. Sometimes I can write only two hours a day.
Do you have any conscious technique that so effectively makes Mitford come alive for people?
I grew up in the era of radio. When you turned on the radio, you heard the voices and you filled in all the blanks. Radio helped me become a writer. Television would never help me become a writer. With radio you have to color in everything. What you need to do for readers is give them as much free rein as they can take. Let them participate in the story by building their own imagery.
So conversations and characters bear the burden of telling the story?
My books are about relationships. With rare exceptions, the scenes are all one-on-one relationships: Father Tim and Dooley, Father Tim and Cynthia, Father Tim and Emma. There are times when I step away to the Grill where three or four people are in a relationship. Basically, I try not to waste the reader's time with descriptive narrative, details of what people are wearing, how they look, how tall they are.
You seem to have a lot of lovable eccentrics in your books. Are you attracted to unusual people?
I see everyone as unusual. Most everyone seems to have an extraordinary life story. "I just love people," was my grandmother's saying. Casting the writer's light on ordinary people makes them appear extraordinary.
- Father Tim and Cynthia's good-bye to their friends in Mitford is long and painful. Have you experienced a similar good-bye? What have you learned that can lessen the pain? What can be done to ease the transition?
- Ernie Fulcher said the yellow line down the center of the floor of his and Mona's building has helped save their marriage. Is having separate areas a good idea for a couple? How might it affect customers? Friends? In what other ways do people define their space? How do children sharing a bedroom define "my side"?
- Junior Bryson advertises for a bride. How would you write the personal ad for Junior? Should he have been so honest about himself? How would you describe yourself in an ad?
- Father Tim met his neighbor, Morris Love, when Barnabas dove under his fence. Father Tim was hot, angry, and feeling foolish. Have you met someone in your life in an unusual way? How do you feel about meeting people when you don't look your best?
- What elements contributed to helping Father Tim see the suffering soul behind Morris Love's infirmity? Have you ever had such an experience?
- Should Father Tim have welcomed the wayward ex-choirmaster, Jeffrey Tolson, back to St. John's? Should he have consulted with his parishioners or was it his responsibility to decide? Was repentance a fair requirement?
- Was it wise for Father Tim and Cynthia to take Jonathan Tolson into their home? Did caring for a toddler help or hinder their work? Was Father Tim's concern about Cynthia's emotional attachment warranted?
- How did the storm change the landscape of Whitecap? How did it change people's lives?
- Was Helene Pringle right to come to Mitford? Was Father Tim right to give her his angel? Whom do you think it belonged to? What was he given in its place?
- How does Father Tim react to the glowing praise of Mitford's new rector? Have you ever been in such a situation? How did you react?