Copyright © 2000 Karen Kingsbury.
All rights reserved.
The old biddies sat in a circle, their tightly knotted heads turning this way and that like vultures eyeing a kill. Only this time the carcass was the Conner family, and no one was quite dead yet.
Hap Eastman watched from a corner of the Williamsburg Community Church fellowship hall. He'd done his part. Started the coffee, laid out the pastries, set up the chairs. It was something he did every Saturday morning for the Women's Aid Society, and every time it was the same. The old girls started with a list of needs and prayer requests and ended with a full-blown gossip session.
Hap's wife, Doris, was president, and at forty-five the youngest of the group. So Hap hung around tinkering with fix-it jobs in the kitchen or perched on a cold metal folding chair in the corner, a cup of fresh brewed French Roast in one hand and a Louis L'Amour novel in the other. Four days a week he was a jurist laden with a heavy workload and weighty decision making. Saturdays were his day to relax.
Hap had already heard the story from Doris and generally when the birds got going, he tried not to listen. But days like this it was nearly impossible.
"I don't care what anyone says. We need to talk about it." Geraldine Rivers had the floor, and Hap eyed her suspiciously from a distance. Geraldine was a talker from way back and in charge of the social committee. Generally when the gossip got going, Doris and Geraldine fanned the fires and battled for position. Especially in the heated sessions, and Hap figured this was about as hot as they'd ever get.
"We haven't read the minutes yet." Louella tilted her face in Geraldine's direction. The minutes were still tucked in her unopened Bible, so her comment was more for appearances than anything else.
"Minutes mean nothing at a time like this!" Geraldine nodded toward Doris. "Tell us what you know, will you, Dorie? Several of the ladies here haven't heard what happened."
The vultures nodded in unison, and Doris took her cue.
"It's really very tragic, very sundry. I almost hate to talk about it at church." She paused for effect, smoothing the wrinkles in her polyester dress. "You all know the Conner family, Angela and her husband, Buddy"
"Buddy's been drinking alcohol at the tavern lately. Louella's husband saw his truck there last week, isn't that true?" Geraldine knew this to be true but enjoyed her own voice too much to be silent for long.
Doris frowned. "Right. He's become a regular drunkard. Now, Angela . well, she's another story. A flirtatious type, not given to things of the Lord." She looked around the circle. "Nearly everyone in Williamsburg has suspected her of cheating on Buddy."
The old birds nodded again.
"Well, yesterday I got a call from Betty Jean Stevens . you've probably noticed she's not here today." Doris's face bunched up like it did when Hap forgot to take out the trash. "Seems all those rumors were true. Betty Jean found out last week that her husband been seeing Angela Conner on the side. And I don't mean at the Piggly Wiggly."
A collective gasp rose from the circle, and six of the girls started talking at once.
"Bill Stevens and that loose woman?"
"Why, that hypocrite!"
"A deacon at Williamsburg Community has committed adultery?"
"He'll need to make a public apology before I forgive him!"
"I knew something was happening between those two!"
The cacophony of accusations grew until Geraldine rapped her fist on the table. "Quiet, all of you! Quiet!"
They had obviously forgotten about Hap and his novel, and he gazed at them over the top of his book. The biddies fell silent again, and Geraldine lowered her gaze, trying to look appropriately indignant. "There's more"
Doris brought her hands together in a neat fold. "Yes." She drew a deep breath. "For the past few weeks Bill's been . taking a motel room with the Conner woman. Apparently she set about trying to seduce him for some time. And . well ."
"There's a temptress in every town!" Geraldine obviously intended to maintain her presence even if it was Doris's story.
"Betty Jean says Bill tried to ward off her advances. But last month . he gave in."
"I do declare, Angela Conner's a harlot. She always been a whore!" Geraldine snapped at a lemon pastry and dabbed fiercely at the filling it left on her lips.
"Yes, I believe she is." Doris looked glad that Geraldine had said it first. Hap sighed. "But the worst part happened last night."
The birds were nodding their interest, waiting breathlessly for the rest of the story.
Doris sipped her coffee, and Hap knew she was enjoying the way she held her audience captive. "Last night . Bill Stevens ran off with her. The two of them. Just like that, they up and left town."
Several of the women were on their feet firing questions.
"Where did they go?
"Does anyone else know?"
Doris kept her back stiff, her nose in the air. Hap hated it when she got uppity, and this was one of those times. She answered their questions with all the condemnation she could muster.
"Yes. Betty Jean says Bill sat her down last night and told her they were through. Told her he's in love with Angela, and they're starting a new life in Washington, D.C."
"Dear heaven, how's Betty Jean handling it?"
"She's ashamed, broken. But she saw it coming. About a year ago, Bill began meeting with Angela to talk about a business venture."
"I guess we all know what type business" Geraldine spat the word the way boys spit watermelon seeds on a summer day"that was, don't we?"
Doris hesitated. "Betty Jean's just thankful the children are grown and out of the house."
"Angela Conner was bad blood from the get-go. Last year, I think she was seeing that attorney in town. You know, the divorce lawyer."
"I'm sure you're right. Everyone this side of Richmond knows the Conner woman and how she was always sniffing around for a man to bed."
Hap raised an eyebrow. A man to bed?
"What about Buddy?" Again Geraldine was determined to keep the discussion alive.
"Buddy's disgraced, as well he should be. Any man who can't keep his wife at home should be ashamed of himself." Doris looked at Geraldine for approval. "And I have it on good word that he won't be back to Williamsburg Community Church."
"I certainly hope not." Geraldine finished the pastry and wadded her napkin into a tight ball of crumbs and sticky paper. "The man's a drunkard."
There were several nods of approval, then one of the vultures gasped. "Oh, dear heaven. What's going to happen to little Jade?"
Jade. Hap felt his heart sink. He'd forgotten about the sweet ten-year-old, Buddy and Angela's only child.
Geraldine did nothing to hide her righteous indignation. "Isn't she the one who pals around with your Tanner?'
A deep crimson fanned across Doris's face. "The Conners live in our neighborhood, in Buddy's mother's house. Tanner is about the same age as the Conner girl, so it's only natural that the two play together. It doesn't happen often."
Doris wasn't telling the entire story, and Hap knew why. The reason was an ugly one. He and Dorie had two boys: Harry was twenty and worked for the city dumpa detail Dorie never told the girls at the Women's Aid Society. Then there was Tanner. Even at twelve years old, Tanner was everything Harry hadn't been. He was bright and handsome and the finest athlete in primary school. Doris thought he was going to be president of the United States one day. How would it look if he had already made the social mistake of befriending the child of a woman like Angela Conner?
Of course, there were other reasons Doris detested the children's friendship. More complicated reasons. But Hap didn't want to think about those on a sunny Saturday in May when he was supposed to be relaxing. He shifted positions, but the biddies were too caught up to notice him.
"Didn't you say something about Buddy leaving town?" Geraldine was working on another Danish.
Doris lowered her voice. "Buddy's moving. Taking the child and getting as far away from Virginia as he can."
"He must've been planning it," one of the girls chimed in.
"Certainly he saw it coming."
Doris nodded. "I assume. Either way, Angela and Bill are gone, and by next week, Buddy and the girl will be gone, too."
"I feel sorry for the child." Louella fingered the pages of her Bible and the minutes, which remained unread.
Doris huffed. "Daughter of a woman like that! I say good riddance to bad rubbish"
Hap knew his wife was thinking about their son. He and Jade were more than casual neighborhood pals. They were best friends, and for the past year, Tanner had insisted he was going to marry Jade when they grew up.
Doris was wagging her finger. "You know what the Bible says. Bad company corrupts good character."
Geraldine raised an eyebrow. "Tanner?"
Doris nodded, her cheeks flushed again. "My boy doesn't need a girl like Jade around to tempt him. He'll wind up a father before he's sixteen."
"Doris!" Louella seemed genuinely shocked.
"Well, it's true. I'm glad they're leaving. Especially after what they did to Betty Jean. She's my best friend, after all."
Geraldine clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. "Doris is right. Williamsburg is a place filled with old money, old family ties, and old-fashioned values. The Conners are trouble, pure and simple. The girl is sweet now, but with a mother like hers we all know how she'll wind up. Where are they moving?"
Doris cleared her throat. "Washington state somewhere. Buddy has a brother in a small town Kelso, I think it is."
"Pity the good folks of Kelso, Washington, when a family like the Conners moves to town." Geraldine nodded her head decisively.
"Now, now ." Doris's tone was friendly again, and Hap saw she was making an effort to look the part of a righteous Christian leader. "Let's not be vicious. We need to concern ourselves with Betty Jean. After all, the Conners will be gone soon, out of our lives for good."
Hap knew Doris's last comment was more for his benefit than for anyone else's, and as she said it she looked right at him. None of the biddies knew the real reason Doris felt so strongly about Angela Conner, but Hap did. Her comment hit its mark, and Hap lowered his gaze back to his novel. What had happened between him and Angela Conner was decades old, but that didn't matter. No matter how many years passed, there was one thing Doris Eastman would never forget.
The sins of Angela Conner.
The children rode their bicycles into Tanner's driveway, laid them on the pavement and flopped down on a grassy spot in the center of his neatly manicured front lawn. The discussion had been going on for several minutes.
"I still don't get it. Where'd she go?" Tanner plucked a blade of grass and meticulously tore it into tiny sections.
Jade shrugged and gazed across the street toward the two-story house where she had lived for the past three years. "Daddy says she's gonna meet us in Washington. That's all I know."
Tanner chewed on that for a moment. The whole thing sounded fishy to him. Mamas didn't leave for no reason. And people didn't move without making plans first. "Do you think she's mad at you?"
"Of course she's not mad. She loves me. I know it." Jade tossed her dark head, and her eyes flashed light green. Tanner had never seen eyes like Jade's. Green like the water of Chesapeake Bay.
"Why doesn't she just come back? Then you wouldn't have to move."
"I told you, they already decided. We're moving to Washington. Mama went on ahead of us, and Daddy says she'll meet us there."
"Yes, Tanner. I told you she didn't leave me. She just needed some time alone."
Tanner plucked another piece of grass and twisted it between his thumb and forefinger. "But she didn't say goodbye, right?"
Jade sighed, and Tanner saw tears form in her eyes. "I told you, Tanner. She left early in the morning. Daddy said she probably knew I would be sad so she left before I woke up. 'Cause she loves me."
"Did she leave a note or anything?"
"Daddy said he didn't need a note." Jade swiped at a tear, and her voice was angrier than before. "He knows where she's going, and that's why we have to move. We need to get there so we can be with Mama again. She would never wanna be alone that long."
Tanner still didn't understand, but he saw that his questions were bothering Jade. He sat up and crossed his legs, studying her curiously. The only time he'd ever seen her cry was two years ago when she jumped a curb on her bike and flew over the handlebars. But that was different. Now Tanner wasn't sure what to do. He decided to change the subject. "How far away is Washington?"
"Daddy says"she leaned back on her elbows and stared at the cloudless sky"it's about as far away as heaven is from hell."
Tanner thought about that for a moment. "But you're coming back, right?"
Jade nodded. "Of course. We'll meet up with Mama, and then Daddy's gotta do a job there. He said it could take all summer. After that we'll come home."
Tanner relaxed. That sounded all right. Even if the whole thing still seemed kind of weird.
"I gotta go." Jade rose and climbed back on her bike. "Daddy needs help packing."
Tanner stood and pushed his hands deep into the worn pockets of his jeans. "You leavin' tomorrow?"
She nodded and worked her toe in tiny circles on the pavement. For a moment Tanner thought she was going to hug him, then at the last second she pushed him in the arm like she always did when she didn't know what to say.
Tanner pushed her back, but not hard enough to move her. "Hey, I'm still going to marry you."
Jade huffed. "Shut up, Tanner. You're a smelly old boy and I'm not going to marry anyone."
"One day you'll think I'm Prince Charming," Tanner teased.
Jade couldn't keep a straight face, and she began giggling. "Oh, okay. Right. Sure . whatever you say." She shook her head dramatically. "I would never marry you, Tanner. Sometimes I think you're crazy."
"Got you smiling, though, didn't I?"
They grinned at each other for a beat and then Jade's smile faded. "I'll see ya later."
Tanner kicked at a patch of grass and sighed. "You better come back when summer's over."
Jade's eyes got watery again. "I said I'll be back." She began pedaling down his driveway. Halfway home she turned once and waved. Tanner raised one of his palms toward her. He'd heard his parents whispering about Jade and her daddy the other day. Tanner didn't catch all the details, but it was obvious his mother didn't think the Conner family was ever coming back.
It was good to know she was wrong.
As Jade disappeared into her house, Tanner felt a subtle reassurance that somehow, someday soon, the two of them would be together again.