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Soda Springs: Chapter 2

Bob Hardwick prayed silently for self-control, but he was grinding his teeth. Not a mile from Soda Springs, and Flor had begun again. He overshot Countyline Road, jerked the wheel, and skidded into the boggy shoulder. "Look, I'll be ready. Let it drop."

"Nice move. We're stuck." Flor glared at her husband. "Saturday noon. Tomorrow's Palm Sunday. You have no sermon yet. Why waste your day at a farm sale? To buy me some beat-up tractor for my birthday? And paid for from what piggy bank?"

"First, we're not stuck." He backed onto the road. "Second, the girls are fine. They're in good hands, and you know how they love to ride horses. Third, I'm getting you a manure spreader, not some crummy old John Deere."

"It's snowing. They'll freeze. The point is, you're never home."

Neither moved. Then, Flor looked at him cross-eyed. "A manure spreader? How'd you guess? It'll be full, I trust." She chuckled.

Flor's laughter had been too rare of late. No doubt the dragging winter, and the wind -- icy grit clogging nostrils and freezing the soul. In winter, Flor locked herself in the parsonage and pined over childhood photos from the Philippines. When she did hazard the outdoors, she layered on clothing enough to survive a blizzard. Flor was a trial in winter, but with spring she would bud into an orchid. Dear God, please deliver us unto May.

"Tinkum has been my rock on the church board. I owe him."

"They've moved. Why torture yourself watching the vultures haggle over their discards?"

"Vultures? What is it really? The church budget? Youth program? Cramps?"

Flor took his hand. "Money, I guess. How can we make it on a fifteen percent cut?"

Like this, eyes locked on hers, Bob could hardly contain his love, despite Flor's recent churlishness. She hadn't aged in their eleven years together. At thirty-four, she looked nineteen, a classical Filipina beauty with almond eyes and tapered lashes, luxurious, obsidian-black hair. "We'll manage, we always do," he said. The hard truth was, pledges were down. The board had cut into the bone. Churches survive on dollars, not prayers. "By the way, sermon's done. Just needs a little tweaking. A half-hour."

"Oh, yes, that tired story. Don't you dare take all night. We need time together."

Bob edged the rusty Volvo into Tinkum's place at noon.

Flor patted his knee. "Sorry I've been so crotchety. You're a saint."

"It's the nasty weather. I understand."

"No, it's more than that. And not only your being saddled with the youth. The rumor is Buck Bennett's got something up his sleeve." She opened the car door. "Buck never misses a bargain. He'll be here today. Find out what's up. Make him face you man-to-man."

Flor reported to the farmhouse. Bob joined the knot of men at Tinkum's showcase tractor with sealed cab and air conditioning. Bids inched up, fifty bucks at a time. The auctioneer threw up his hands. "My God, friends, it's a 1962 John Deere 8000, not a buggy."

Buck Bennett touched his Stetson. The price went up fifty. A stranger raised him a hundred. Buck upped it five hundred and picked up, for twenty percent of its value, Tinkum's last gamble at saving the farm his grandpa homesteaded.

Buck swaggered on toward another steal, Jock Sanders beside him. The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Bob thought, Buck flamboyant in matching cream-colored Stetson and cowboy boots, and his World War II leather bomber's jacket. Jock Sanders looked as if he had climbed down from a tractor. Grimy Purina baseball cap. Wranglers. Work books. Wool-lined denim jacket, unbuttoned, even though the sky continued to spit snow.

As if he heard Bob's thoughts, Buck whirled and beckoned with a flick of his hand. "Good news for the paycheck, Reverend. Denver wants us to take on the Apache Flats church."

"That old rumor? The bishop hasn't said a word."

Buck leaned in, chest crowding Bob's face. Buck's Stetson made him a foot taller than his six feet. "He called last night. Said he couldn't get hold of you."

"The board hasn't --"

"Fact is, we're gonna approve it Monday morning."

"Bids are up on those tools," Jock Sanders said. He tipped his hat, "Morning, Reverend."

"Give it some thought." Buck strode away with Jock by his side.

So that was the big secret: merge the churches and force him to drive the fifty-two-mile round trip to Apache Flats every Sunday. A minister can't zip in, preach, zoom off. He has to stay and chat. There'd be funerals and night-time talkathons on how to pull off the next fund-raiser. Bob wanted to tell the man where to go, but Buck didn't back down publicly. The only option was to quietly convince each board member Apache Flats was quicksand. Buck had one thing right: extra income meant Flor could quit tearing her hair over the checkbook. But Buck didn't care that Bob would face icy dinners ladled with pitchers of guilt each night he trudged in after the girls went to bed. Farmers always worked late. So did preachers, but a preacher could never afford a Caribbean cruise after the harvest.

Bob studied the farmers clustered around the mountain of hand tools. Tinkum's sale meant one less Methodist family, but worse, loss of Tinkum's calming voice on the church board. Also the end of Muriel Tinkum's decade-long stint as Sunday School teacher and sponsor of the Methodist Youth Fellowship, the church's teenage youth group.

The auctioneer banged his gavel and pointed to Jock Sanders. The bidders moved on. Bob started for Tinkum's house but decided to head home to finish his sermon. Tonight, he and Flor could hammer out a battle plan to counter this hare-brained merger. Some task. He would have to buttonhole each board member on Palm Sunday, and without Tinkum on his side.

Flor Hardwick wound her scarf mummy tight and forced herself from the Tinkums' cozy farmhouse. A small mob scavenged the furniture littering the dead lawn like overstock from a Goodwill store. Flor wandered among the folding tables from United Methodist, each groaning with Tinkum castoffs. She fought tears when she saw the pea-green lazy Susan, the centerpiece at any Tinkum dinner, now splotched with mud.

"You find a good comal, you'll tell me, no?"

The raspy voice seemed directed at her. Flor looked up.

"Hey, lady, you don't speak to Catholics these days? A comal, an iron griddle for tortillas." Lupe Sandoval fingered the lazy Susan tray.

"Tortillas? Not here. You'd have more luck fly-fishing in the sand dunes," Flor said.

"Oh no, señora, I'm fishing for a new ally." Lupe's accent turned thick as paste.

Ha! Dig into any complaint involving Mexicans, and Lupe's fingerprints lay behind it: unpaved streets east of Main; job discrimination; police brutality. Call out a Mexican kid in school, and Lupe, not the parents, would be in your face. "What? A new trumped-up cause?"

"Oh no, amiga. I'm about to offer the town's best teacher the chance of a lifetime. But I'm freezing my tits off. Let's go inside and talk."

Typical Lupe. She thrived on pitching outrageous comments that left her prey open-mouthed. The only defense was to respond in kind. "Not those monsters, no chance."

People said they were alike, Flor and Lupe. Ridiculous. Flor merely spoke her mind; she didn't fire smutty one-liners like buckshot. Some even said Flor and Lupe looked like twins. That was quintessential Soda Springs, perceptive as a fence post. Lupe was five-two; Flor, five feet on tiptoes. Further, Lupe was stout as a fireplug. Not fat, just lacking curves. And frankly, plain as a wallflower: heart-shaped face, flat nose, irregular teeth, goggle-size glasses that made her bug-eyed. And she had no sense of style. Today, she wore her husband's old Navy peacoat, threadbare jeans, scuffed field boots. "It's Saturday, Lupe. No school hassles accepted."

"Ay, Floripa, you misjudge me. I've got a job offer. But my tongue's an icicle. You got guts enough to join me for a cup of coffee?"

Flor hesitated. If Soda Springs had a show home, Tinkum's place was it. "I don't know, Lupe. You know how Muriel felt about . . . about --"

"About letting a Meskin inside -- is that the word choking you? The old bat's gone. We're both freezing our asses out here. You going to let her ghost take over your soul?"

Flor ignored the bait. Her problem wasn't Muriel, but the Methodist women inside, raising money with their barbecued beef and fresh rhubarb pies. They happily sold $1.50 lunches to the horde of Mexican bargain hunters -- as long as they ate outside.

Lupe was shivering -- no gloves, her hands raw. Flor had lost feeling below her knees. "Come on before we both turn into popsicles."

Inside, the Methodist ladies had turned rooms into separate luncheonettes, each with its own butcher paper-covered church table and matching chairs. Flor called, "Martha, two coffees, please. And some of Prue's scrumptious pie."

Martha Andrews turned, her ever-present lopsided grin in place, broad as a circus clown. Her jowls dropped. The room's animated conversation died mid-sentence.

"We'll be in the back." Flor led Lupe through a silent gauntlet to the unoccupied sewing room, furthest from the hub of activity.

Lupe shed her oversized coat, whisked her hands together. "Okay, straight to the point: We got a federal grant for migrant workers. Adult classes. Teen recreation. Nursery and day care. We want you to --"

Martha Andrews shuffled in, clunked down a cafeteria tray. "Two coffees. Two slices of pie. I hope you're happy." She waddled out.

Flor shook her head. "Sorry, I was afraid of something like this."

"That's just Piggy being Piggy. We want you to tutor dropouts. Also teach adult GED. A job. Real money. Not as a volunteer."

"Me? I'm a biology teacher, not a social worker."

"But you know teenagers. They listen to you."

Flor did know high school kids, and scores of dropouts. She liked the Mexican kids: they were well-behaved and respectful. Flor knew how it felt to be buffeted in a cacophony of foreign words. Not personally -- she learned English and Waray-Waray from her first words. But for most of her childhood pals, school had been a whisper of English in a typhoon of Waray-Waray. Their parents didn't speak English; they couldn't help with homework. "I've never taught migrants. I don't know anything about them."

"It pays a thousand a month. Three months, beginning June 1."

Flor tried to look noncommital. Three thousand was more than half her year's salary. And tutoring would be more meaningful than tackling the church's dying youth program. Not that she would step into that morass, no matter how much Bobby whined. The church had to learn a preacher's wife had her own life to lead. "Do you really have funds? Or is this a pipe dream?"

"We get our first check as soon as we --"

"Well, I'll be -- Martha wasn't shittin'." Odell Andrews filled the doorway. "This ain't the Catholic church bazaar. You do your business outside. Flor, you know the rules."

"Don't get your shorts in a bunch, Coach. It short circuits your brain," Lupe said.

"Good morning to you, too, Odell. Care to join us in prayer?"

"Can the sweet talk. That don't cut it with me. You . . . Lupe: you got ten seconds."

"For what, meester? You gonna call the sheriff? Tell him I farted in your pew?" Lupe swallowed the last of her coffee. "You know what? It stinks in here. Some red-faced horse's ass came in blowing pedos. I need some air."

For a moment, Coach stood stiff as a tree trunk, hands clenched, but he spun about and stomped off, cowboy boots echoing through the house.

Lupe patted Flor's arm. "That coach talks big, but inside he's all noise, no huevos."

Flor snickered. "You're either the bravest woman in town, or the dumbest. Also the world's greatest con artist. I'll take the job."

Flor's eagerness surprised her. Now she needed a rationale Bobby could buy. To say nothing of the church board and Bobby's redneck parishioners.

Read on: Jump to Chapter 3

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