S N E A K P R E V I E W
The Front Porch Sisters
A Novel by Sue Chamblin Frederick
Prologue: In 1956, from the front porch of their ancestral home in the sprawling fields of Madison County, spinster sisters Essie and Jewell Donnelly reminisce about times gone by -- neighbors no longer come to their front porch for lively conversations or Jewel's buttered rum pound cake. The sisters felt it was just a matter of time before they were forgotten, ending up in the Mt. Horeb cemetery and remembered only as the Donnelly sisters who never married. Before it was too late, they decide to alter the course of their lives, never dreaming they would change their small town forever.
She didn't know why most everyone thought she was a hard woman. Sometimes she looked in the mirror searching for a clue of some kind, a sign that said watch out for this woman, she will kick your ass. But, she saw nothing that was slap-you-in-the-face, unmistakable, rock-hard meaness. Maybe someone had taped a sign on her back when she wasn't looking that said: 'Beware: Hard Woman.'
Then, one day, she figured it out. It was a simple thing, right there in front of her, sitting on the opposite end of the long front porch. All delicate and pretty. Not one single flaw that she could see. All softness, nothing hard to be found, except maybe the black bible she held in her hands. It was Jewell, her lovely, sweet and kind sister, all beauty inside her. No, she couldn't hold a candle to her. Stand the two sisters side by side and there it was, just as obvious as warts on a nose. And that was their life together, hard and soft, tough and tender.
If the stars should appear in the night sky high above the fields of Madison County, they would most certainly shine the brightest along the Bellville road, where the starlight would reflect on the winding Withlachoochee River before settling quietly on the Donnelly farm and its grand house with the magnificent porch.
No one could really remember precisely when it all began: the importance of the porch. It was as though its roots were entrenched before the birth of time. The old porch’s façade of faded white boards seemed to wear an expression that fell somewhere between slumber and the prick of a thorn that would remind one of the memories that had been created there, under its sloping roof, and where jasmine twisted wildly around the white columns.
There was no doubt that the front porch was the soul of the house, its heartbeat lasting at least until the Rapture or maybe even beyond. The front porch knew everything: tears, cussing and even lovemaking on the swing with the creaky chain.
The porch ran east and west, all fifty feet of it shaded by hundred-year-old oak trees that promised cool afternoons during the furnace heat of a Pinetta summer. The distance between the two ends of the porch might as well have been to the moon and back – each end separate from the other and divided by the differences of the two Donnelly sisters.
In its heyday, the long porch, studded with rockers and swings, sagged with the onslaught of Sunday afternoon visitors who drank iced tea and ate Edith Donnelly’s famous buttered rum pound cake. The women, frilly church hats atop their heads, chatted non-stop about the canning of tomatoes and green beans, while the men leaned on the porch railing and smoked their cigars or chewed tobacco, all the while worried if it would rain on their newly planted tobacco fields.
But, that was then, and the echoes of those times lingered quietly in the nearby Mt. Horeb Cemetery where folks from as far back as 1700 lay in their final resting place, not far from the Withlacoochee River.
“Well, I do believe we’ve got company.” Jewell Donnelly leaned forward in her freshly painted Adirondack chair, a chair surrounded by her daily life, a life broken up into piles of tattered books, dainty teacups and the frills of being one of Madison County’s most beautiful women. “I can’t imagine who it is.”
From the other end of the porch, nestled in a cypress swing and still in her pajamas, Essie Donnelly glanced up from her book. “Well, hell, Jewell. It’s DooRay. Who else do we know with one arm and a goat pulling a cart?”
Jewell frowned. “Mama won’t like that cussing, Essie.”
“Mama can’t hear a thing, Jewell. I told you that – she’s resting over at the cemetery. Has been for eighteen years.”
The lane to the house from Bellville road was an eighth of a mile long, clay with some rich dirt and a little sand, a straight path to one of the most elegant homes in the tiny town of Pinetta, Florida. Essie squinted and watched DooRay shamble down the lane, the goat following. DooRay reached the edge of the yard and Essie moved to the railing, looking down at the entourage that had arrived just at the top of noon.
“DooRay, where’re you going?” She eyed the goat harnessed to the cart and the rooster that sat on top of the goat’s back, squatted like it was laying an egg, its pair of bright red fleshy wattles dangling as if they were small testicles.
“Hey, Miss Essie. Miss Jewell.” DooRay pulled the hat off his head and fanned himself. “I reckon I’m going on over to Clyattville.”
“Clyattville? That’s over eight miles. Mighty long way with those bare feet. How come you’re not riding in the cart?”
DooRay grinned and looked behind him at his goat. “Murphy’s mad at me right now. He won’t pull me nowhere.”
“How can Murphy be mad at you, DooRay?” Essie studied the white goat, the long lashes on the dark eyes silently sweeping every time it blinked.
DooRay hung his head. “Guess you hadn’t heard, Miss Essie. Lightening done hit my house yesterday evening and burned it up into a pile of black ashes. Murphy got singed a little bit. Wasn’t nothing I could do it happened so fast.”
“Oh, my, DooRay. I’m so sorry. That why you’re going to Clyattville?”
Murphy stuck out his long tongue and bleated softly. DooRay scratched the top of the goat’s head. “I sure am. Looks like I’ll be living with Uncle Mustard a while.”
“Uncle Mustard? Mustard Aikens? Why, I know him.” Essie hurried down the brick steps into the yard. “Biggest thief there ever was. Worked for daddy one summer and stole everything he could get his hands on. Daddy shooed him off the place and told him to never come back. He is a mean rascal, DooRay. I can’t believe he’s your uncle and you’re gonna live with him.”
DooRay scuffed his bare foot through the dirt and nodded. “Gots to do that, Miss Essie.”
“Oh, no, you don’t, DooRay. The tack room at the side of the barn is a perfect place for you. A few spiders in it, but we’ll clean them out. It’s dry and got a door and window. There’s an old outhouse only a few yards away down by the tobacco barns.” Essie shook her finger at DooRay. “Now, let me get a broom for you . . .” She stopped and looked at the one-armed DooRay. Essie’s voice softened. “Gosh, DooRay. I’m sorry. I guess you can’t really sweep, can you?”
DooRay threw his head back, his laughter bouncing up into the leaves of the oak tree above him. “Oh, Miss Essie, DooRay can do just about anything. Why do you think I go barefooted all the time?” The skinny black man lifted his leg, pulling his foot up to where it was level with his chest. “See this? This here is my missing arm. This foot can do anything my hand can do. Why I can even put a worm on a hook with these long toes.”
Essie smiled at the black man and watched as he returned his foot to the ground. “Say, DooRay. Just how did you lose your arm? You never told me and I’ve known you since we were kids.”
“Oh, that’s a story from a long time ago, Miss Essie. A sad story. You don’t need to hear no sad story.”
Essie’s eyes held DooRay’s face. It was a kind face, smooth and shiny black, his eyes even darker, eyes with wiry eyelashes that were as thick as sheep’s wool. “You’re right, DooRay.”
Essie walked to the edge of the lane and pointed toward the open field. “It’s the biggest barn – the one over there. You’ll see the tack room on the north side. You pull anything out of there you need to and put it into the barn. I’ll check on you later and bring you some iced tea and a sandwich.”
“Yes, mam, Miss Essie.” He placed his hat on his head and pulled on Murphy’s reins. “Let’s go, Murphy. We got us a new home.” The rooster squawked and dug its feet into Murphy’s back, his wings flapping loudly.
DooRay was only a few feet away, Essie hollered at him. “DooRay, that rooster isn’t going to get into my flower beds, is he?
“Oh, no. Killer don’t bother no flowers.”
“Killer? Your rooster’s name is Killer?”
“That’s right, Miss Essie. He do likes to kill snakes. If they’s a snake within a mile a this here place, my Killer will find it.”
Essie stared a long time at the rooster, then at the goat, then at DooRay. The cart was empty; everything DooRay owned had burned in the fire.
“Essie, it’s 12:00 o’clock.” Jewell settled in her chair and closed her eyes. She hummed and waited for the radio program she had listened to every day for years.
“Noon?” At the other end of the long porch, Essie turned on the radio, already tuned to the a.m. station out of Madison. The Gospel Hour with Brother Wilbur and Sister Gladys had already begun. Soul stirring gospel music, sweet as honey, filled the air like a cool breeze. Jewell’s worn bible lay in her lap, open and ready for the day’s scriptures.
Essie had slipped off her pajamas and dressed in a pair of jeans and one of her daddy’s old shirts. She nestled in the porch swing and opened Peyton Place. Hardly a moment had passed when she heard a car turn off the Bellville road and move slowly down the lane.
“Damn! That’s the preacher’s car.” She glanced over at Jewell. “Don’t you say anything, Jewell. I’ll handle this.” Essie turned down the radio and walked to the edge of the porch. She crossed her arms over her chest, eyeing the moving car, and waited.
The preacher – Reverend Denslow Grimes – drove a black Cadillac, the front grille heavy with chrome, the back fenders finned like a fish. The walled tires gleamed virgin white as they slowly rolled toward the large two-story Donnelly house. The preacher required a new car every year, the tithes of his parishioners paying for the indulgences of a man who felt entitled. After all, he was a man of God.
He parked near the front porch and Essie could see his red hair through the car’s window. Below the red hair was a thin face that ended in a chicken neck. Reverend Grimes opened the car door and stepped out.
“Well, good morning, Essie. Jewell. It’s a lovely morning, isn’t it?” He ran a hand over the top of his thinning hair and smiled. “Haven’t seen you girls for a while.”
Essie said nothing. Jewell smiled and nodded. The preacher took a step forward, a bible in his hands. “Haven’t seen you in church for a few months now. God doesn’t like His children to miss church.” His perpetual grin pushed his cheeks up and slitted his eyes. In her head, Essie called him Preacher Slick. That’s what he was – slick. She didn’t care if he had a bible in his hands or not.
“Oh, Jewell and I haven’t been missing church.”
The pale, freckled face sobered. “That right?” His voice caught.
“That’s right. Haven’t missed a Sunday.” Essie smiled an easy smile and rocked on her feet.
“What church is that?”
“Oh, over in Clyattville. Why, those folks over there take me and Jewell to Thomasville to eat at The Farmer’s Market every Sunday after church. We ride the church bus and sing the whole way.”
The preacher’s eyes opened wider. Again, “That right?”
Essie snickered to herself. “Hmmm. Best lemon meringue pie I ever ate.” She saw Pastor Grimes stiffen, his face flush.
“There’s no reason to change churches, Essie.”
“Oh? Maybe Eloise shoulda thought twice about moving Jewell to another Sunday school class.”
The preacher semi-rolled his eyes. “Eloise was only doing the best thing for Jewell.”
“The best thing for Jewell?” Essie stomped down the steps. “The reason Eloise moved Jewell to another class is because she wanted to make sure her class won the monthly bible verse contest and got a free barbecue dinner in Madison.”
Hands on her hips, Essie took a breath. “Jewell knows her bible verses better than anyone in the entire church. Just because she’s slow doesn’t mean she doesn’t know them. Those folks in the other class are forty years older than Jewell. Eloise took her out of a class where all her friends were. She should be ashamed.”
Pastor Grimes backed up a step. “Eloise thought Jewell would be . . . more comfortable in the senior class.”
“Senior class? Jewell’s only thirty-nine years old – that’s a long way from being a senior, wouldn’t you say?”
“Well, now, Essie, you have to admit Jewell is a little . . . little more than slow.”
Essie reached over and slapped the bible out of the pastor’s hand. “You get outta this yard. Right now!”
The preacher leaned over and picked up his bible. His boney fingers brushed off the dirt and he leveled his eyes at Essie. The angelic smile had disappeared. “What about your tithes? You haven’t been tithing. Your mama and daddy were one of the founders of the church. Before they died, they committed their monthly ties through you and Jewell.”
“Oh, I get it now. It’s not about me and Jewell coming to church. It’s about the money.” She looked over at the brand new, shiny Cadillac, then back to the expensive suit and tie, the manicured hands. “Well, well, preacher. You and Eloise make a fine pair. The preacher’s wife controls the parishioners and the preacher controls the money. I don’t care if mama and daddy promised you the moon, you won’t get it as long as I’m alive.”
Essie walked back up the steps and onto the porch. When she turned around, the preacher lifted his bible and slapped it with his left hand. “You are not the Christian woman you would have everyone think you are, Essie Donnelly. Eloise won’t like any of this – you’ll be hearing from her.”
Essie stared at the bible a long time, then looked up to the preacher’s narrow eyes. A sly grin eased over her face. “Did I mention that the Clyattville church deacons come pick us up for church if it’s raining?”
The pastor flung open the Cadillac’s front door and slid across the leather seat. Essie noticed his face was the same color as his thinning red hair. She watched him swing the car around and head down the lane. He swerved right onto the Bellville road, kicking up dirt. The man of God was not very happy.
From the other end of the porch, Jewell pressed a napkin to her lips. “Essie, I do not recall ever attending a church in Clyattville. Nor eating at a restaurant in Thomasville.”
Essie grinned wide. “Me, neither, Jewell. Me, neither.”