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Cast a Road Before Me

(Paperback - Apr 2003)
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Overview

A course-changing event in one s life can happen in minutes. Or it can form slowly, a primitive webbing splaying into fingers of discontent, a minuscule trail hardening into the sinewed spine of resentment. So it was with the mill workers as the heat-soaked days of summer marched on. City girl Jessie, orphaned at sixteen, struggles to adjust to life with her barely known aunt and uncle in the tiny town of Bradleyville, Kentucky. Eight years later (1968), she plans on leaving to follow in her revered mother s footsteps of serving the homeless. But the peaceful town she s come to love is about to be tragically shattered. Threats of a labor strike rumble through the streets, and Jessie s new love and her uncle are swept into the maelstrom. Caught between the pacifist teachings of her mother and these two men, Jessie desperately tries to deny that Bradleyville is rolling toward violence and destruction."

Details

  • SKU: 9780310253273
  • UPC: 025986253271
  • SKU10: 0310253276
  • Title: Cast a Road Before Me
  • Series: Bradleyville Series the Bradleyville
  • Qty Remaining Online: 5
  • Publisher: Zondervan
  • Date Published: Apr 2003
  • Pages: 288
  • Weight lbs: 0.70
  • Dimensions: 8.40" L x 5.60" W x 0.90" H
  • Features: Price on Product
  • Themes: Theometrics | Evangelical; Cultural Region | Southeast U.S.; Geographic Orientation | Kentucky;
  • Category: FICTION, CHRISTIAN
  • Subject: Christian - General
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Chapter Excerpt


Chapter One

The last time I saw my mother alive, she was on her way to serve the poor.

She was wearing one of her favorite dresses, a blue cotton knit with a sash at the waist. She'd had it for years. It was her favorite not because of style, but because it was comfortable and easy to wash. "This dress will do just fine," she would say whenever I bewailed the notion that she wore it so much to Hope Center, people might think she slept in it. She was far more careful in dressing for work, starching blouses and skillfully mending old skirts so they would not bespeak her lack of a wardrobe. She'd add one of her three pairs of dime-store earrings, sometimes an inexpensive necklace. But any jewelry was out of the question at the Center, where it would only get in the way or, worse, remind the homeless and hungry that their needs were far beyond our own. As for the blue cotton dress, it had been spit up on by mewling babies, dirtied by the spilled soup of children, even torn by the clutching hand of a frightened young mother. Mom would drag home from another long evening at Hope Center, her beautiful face lined with fatigue and a thick strand of her dark auburn hair straggling out of its rubber band, and shake her head good-naturedly over the day's ruin of her dress. Then she'd wash it by hand and hang it up to dry for the next time.

I often volunteered alongside Mom at the Center. After my homework was done and her workday as a receptionist at an insurance firm was finished, we'd hurry through a simple meal, then drive to the two-story brick building in downtown Cincinnati that provided room and board to the poverty-stricken. Saturdays, I always went with her. Except that Saturday. My high school sophomore finals were the following week, and Mom had insisted I stay home to study. "You stay home too," I'd pleaded. "You're exhausted, and you haven't given yourself a day off in weeks. Let somebody else fill in for you just this once."

"Oh, but I can't," she'd replied softly. "I promised little Jianying and a whole group of children I'd read to them today, and then I've got to teach that class on how to interview for a job. And besides, Brenda's sick, so I've got to oversee cooking dinner." Brenda Todd had founded the Center ten years previously and acted as manager. Mom had been her "right-hand woman" for eight years.

And so, on that horrific Saturday, my mother kissed me goodbye and walked out the door of our small rented house and down our porch to leave. I followed, still protesting. "Then at least let me come with you. Maybe I can help with dinner, and you can come home after the class. I'll get somebody to give me a ride home. I can study all day tomorrow."

She placed her hands with firm gentleness on my shoulders. "No, Jessie. Stay here and study. And maybe I can find someone to replace me tomorrow. I wouldn't mind a day in bed." She smiled, trying to hide her tiredness as she slid into our battered Chevy Impala.

I will always remember that smile. It is cut into my brain like a carved cameo. I can picture her blue dress; the paleness of her cheeks, void of makeup; the warmth of her brown eyes. She'd placed her worn white purse beside her on the seat, its bent handle flopping forward. Something about that old purse tugged at my heart. I thought of the long hours she was about to put in-again-for no pay. How many dresses, how many purses could she have bought had she spent as much time earning money?

Mom hadn't led an easy life herself, yet she was always thinking of others. Her husband-my father-had wandered away when I was a baby, leaving her with nothing but dark memories of his alcoholism. Years later, he was killed in a drunken fight in some bar halfway across Ohio. Her one sister lived in a tiny, remote town in Kentucky, and they rarely saw each other. And Mom had been estranged from her parents for years before their deaths. After the one and only disastrous time we'd taken a chance and visited them, I'd declared with all the righteous indignation a ten-year-old could muster that we'd never go back again. Within four years of that visit, my grandfather had died from cirrhosis of the liver, and my grandmother from heart disease.

As Mom slipped the keys into the ignition, the smile I've held in my memory faded from her lips. Then, for the briefest of moments, her eyes slipped shut, and I watched an expression of despair spread across her features. Anxiety for her hit me in the chest, and I was just about to argue with her further about staying home when her eyes reopened. She noticed me gazing at her, and the expression vanished. She smiled again, a little too brightly. The car started and she began to pull away from the curb. I saw her left hand come up, fingers spread. It was a small wave, intimate. "Thanks for caring," it seemed to say, "but you know I'll be fine." I lifted a hand in return, managed a wan smile back.

I sighed in worry as I watched Mom ease down our street and turn right. Then she was out of sight. Two blocks from our house, she would turn left and begin the climb up Viewridge, which curved to become visible from where I stood.

I fervently wished she had stayed home to rest.

The distinctive sound of a mail slot opening clanked through my thoughts. I turned to see Jack, our mailman, pushing envelopes into the Farrells' house next door. Calling out a greeting, I waited near the curb for him, shielding my eyes against the sun.

"Hi, Jessie," Jack said as he drew near, pulling our mail from his cart. "Almost done with school for the year, aren't you?" He folded the envelopes inside a magazine and held the bundle out to me. I raised my hand to take it. That's when the squealing began.

It was a long keening, the unmistakable sound of frantic brakes. It's not the noise itself that immediately draws your eyes, it's the expectation of what's to follow. Jack's head jerked up. I whirled around, scanning Viewridge, and caught sight of my mother's car. Then I saw the vehicle reeling toward it, pulling a trailer. Fishtailing badly. Dread bolted me to the sidewalk.

Time slowed, suspended in the suddenly suffocating air. In the next second it looked like Mom swerved onto the shoulder toward safety, but she had little room. I remember the nausea that seized me at that moment, even before the inevitable crash. I felt as if I were watching a horror movie, shouting "No! No!" at the screen. Then I heard the words yelled and realized they were my own.

Jack murmured a prayer. Vaguely, I registered the sound of mail hitting the sidewalk.

The crash played forever. There was the smash of impact as the truck hit the side of my mother's car, a grinding of metal and gears, the lingering screech of twisted vehicles careening to a halt. Then utter, dead silence. My feet still would not lift from the sidewalk. Screams gurgled in my throat.

My next memory puts me a block away, breaths ragged with sobs, running, running

Chapter Two

She had such a good heart."

"Your mother was the most giving person I've ever known."

"Dear child, you can know she's in heaven, for all the loving things she did."

Words of solace poured from the mouths of all who attended my mother's funeral. Hope Center's large gymnasium, cleared of its overnight cots for the homeless, was filled with men, women, and children who wept with me for my mother. Little Jianying Zheng, her doe-brown eyes brimming, wordlessly pressed a white rose into my hand. Her mother placed both palms against my cheeks, her gentle fingertips conveying what her tightened throat could not. In that simple motion I understood the depth of her gratitude. My thoughts, numb as they were, flashed to the recent night this tiny Chinese woman and her five children had come home with Mom to sleep on our floor, the Center being too crowded to take them in. Mei Zheng and her children were immigrants, her husband recently dead from an illness he'd picked up in a filthy overseas refugee camp. Mom had seen that they all were fed and bathed, patiently trying to understand their broken English as they told of their troubles. After dinner, Mei Zheng had pulled a small statue of Buddha from her ragged knapsack, and the entire family knelt before the statue on our checkered kitchen floor to give their thanks. I had never seen such outward religious obeisance before and was touched by it. As long as I could remember, Mom had instilled within me the understanding that one's soul is more important than earthly matters. How one reached God was up to the individual, she said; people throughout the world found him through differing religions and beliefs. Mom taught me that the way was not important. Her personal way was living a life in service to others.

"They're so content, even when they have nothing," Mom had whispered to me as we tiptoed from the kitchen out of respect for the Zheng family while they worshiped. "Theirs is a wonderful religion-peaceful, revering all life, never violent." Mom abhorred violence, her burning aversion long ago forged at the lightning quick hand of her intemperate father. From my earliest days, she had taught me never to raise a hand against anyone. As she lingered to look back at the threadbare, kneeling figures, her lips curved at their serenity.

During the funeral service, that scene-the tiny frame of Mei Zheng bowed low, her dark hair spilling onto the kitchen floor, and my mother's loving, accepting smile-rose before me again as Ralph Crest, the minister from the Unitarian Church two doors down from the Center, spoke his eulogy. Mom's closed casket was covered with flowers, from expensive arrangements sent by nearby business owners to hand-picked daisies and day-old bouquets foraged throughout the city by those whom Hope Center sheltered. I knew without a doubt which ones Mom would have liked best. I sat on the front row of hard folding chairs between Aunt Eva Bellingham, Mom's sister, and her husband, my Uncle Frank. I had seen them only once before, also at a funeral; that one for their only child, Henry, who had been killed in the Korean War. I was only seven at the time, yet had felt the weight of the grief from those around me pressing down on my own small shoulders. I had wanted to comfort my aunt and uncle then; now they were trying to comfort me.

"Marie Susanna Callum was a deeply religious woman," Mr. Crest was declaring in a voice of hushed reverence. "She gave wholeheartedly and unceasingly here at Hope Center, yet asked God for nothing for herself. And because of that, she has certainly found her salvation today, now that she has passed from this world.

"You know, every once in a while, Marie would visit our services. And I want to tell you of a day a few years ago when she came with her daughter, Jessie. Marie looked so tired, and I knew she had been working even more than usual here, preparing meals and serving. I believe you'd lost one of your volunteer cooks at the time. After the service she shook my hand and thanked me for my words. Seeing the lines on her forehead, I said, 'Marie, don't you ever get tired of giving?' I said, 'Some people would insist you've already done enough good for one lifetime.' And you know what she replied? She looked me straight in the eye and said in her soft voice, 'Well, Minister Crest, I'm afraid I'd have to disagree with those people. No amount I can do will ever be good enough.'"

Never good enough.

A knife cut through me at the words. All too well I remembered the day they had been hurled at my mother through the gritted, tobacco-stained teeth of her hateful father. How furious I'd been at him that day. And how hurt I had been for Mom, my eyes suddenly opened to the childhood abuse at which she'd only hinted. I struggled to push the memory away as a sob rolled up my chest. I could hear others crying behind me, the shaky whispers of women shushing their young children. I thought at that moment that I would simply die, for the sorrow was more than I could bear. It was going to split my chest wide open. How could my wonderful, self-sacrificing mother be dead? I squeezed my eyes shut, swooning in my seat. Uncle Frank hastened his arm around me and held me tightly.

"What a marvelous testimony for one who had already done so much," Ralph Crest concluded. "Yes, Marie Susanna Callum was forever compassionate to the needs around her. She was always ready to do more."

I shuddered against Uncle Frank's broad chest. Despite the minister's interpretation of Mom's words, they spoke to me only of wrath and judgment. How could she even have formed those words with her own tongue, especially in reference to herself?

After the service, I rode to the cemetery in a solemn black limousine with my aunt and uncle. I barely remember the journey. Only that Aunt Eva hugged me so hard I could barely breathe, weeping, "My poor chil', my poor chil'; Lord Jesus, help us take care a her." It was a fitting day for a burial, the air oppressive with humidity, a light drizzle beginning to fall as we stood before the grave site. When they lowered my mother's casket into the earth, taking what was left of her away from me forever, I sank to my knees, wracked with sobs. I cried for the loss of her, then cried harder that I wouldn't even be able to tend her grave. I was to leave the next day to live with my aunt and uncle in the tiny town of Bradleyville, Kentucky, a town I'd seen only once, when their son had been buried.

The ceremony finally complete, I still could not get up. Aunt Eva and Uncle Frank knelt beside me, oblivious to the rain, and prayed aloud for God's comfort, long after everyone else had gone. Still, I could not leave. Finally, Uncle Frank rose, gathered me tenderly in his arms, and carried me from the grave, my head lolling against his starched white dress shirt, now wet and wrinkled from the rain and my tears.

Chapter Three

Nothing could have prepared me for the change in atmosphere and pace that I found in Bradleyville. The town was even smaller than I remembered. It contained all of two stoplights, both on Main Street. The first was upon entering the town along Route 622 after a series of stomach-dropping hills; the second heralded the one-block downtown area. In between the two was the post office, in which Aunt Eva worked. Past the second light were the grocery store, the Laundromat, Miss Alice's sewing shop, and Mr. Tull's Drugstore on the right. Across the street lay the hardware store, dime store, and bank, plus a small police station that included a tiny holding cell (hardly ever used), the fire station, and the doctor's office. There were two churches at strategic locations on different side streets off Main-a Baptist and a Methodist.

Continues.

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