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Soda Springs: Chapter 6

Flor Hardwick snapped her grade book shut. She hadn't made an entry since Lupe Sandoval waltzed into her office and announced she had a crew of dropouts for daily classes after school. They would start Monday, a month before Esperanza opened in June. Impossible. Flor had no materials, no time to plan. Even so, her mind strummed with the nervous anxiety of a first-year teacher. She would turn these kids on with a racy novel, or maybe start with simple chemistry: let them blow something up or create a stench. Kids learn from the forbidden, much to the horror of principals.

The high school had gone silent, the gravel parking lot empty. Five-thirty. She had to tell Bobby this new twist. He didn't object when she accepted Lupe's offer, but his silence shouted resentment. He had been preoccupied, what with Easter week and the Apache Flats bombshell. Tonight she would rekindle his grad school commitment to change the world.

How naïve they had been. Early on, they drove the dirt streets east of Main, four blocks by six, abutting the railroad tracks. The houses were crumbling adobe or flaking clapboard, tiny as summer cabins. Waist-high weeds overran empty lots and dirt front yards. Broken glass and rusted car bodies littered the place. Flor recalled one squat whitewashed home trimmed in turquoise, its miniature lawn as manicured as a golf green. Roses and hollyhocks splashed its white picket fence with yellows and reds. This lone cheery home accentuated the fact that Mexican Soda Springs was a shabby slum.

Bobby's parishioners called the Mexican enclave Beanville, or simply "over there." No whites lived there. Only those with a pressing reason dared enter: police chief Zeigler, Doc Milard, volunteer firemen, an occasional road crew.

Flor had analyzed the 1960 Census: 932 Mexicans, fifty-eight percent of the town's population, crowded like Third World refugees into twenty percent of the town's land. On the United Methodist side of Main, 675 whites lived in thirty blocks of bungalows and brick Queen Anne and Victorian homes with trees, shrubs, flowers, and grassy lawns, girded by sidewalks and paved streets. No Mexicans lived west of Main.

Flor and Bobby vowed their legacy in Soda Springs would be to bridge the chasm separating Mexicans from whites. United Methodist wasn't up to a frontal assault on tradition, so Bobby merely prayed from the pulpit that poverty be alleviated, that people of different backgrounds come to know each other. And he praised Doc Milard's plan to rid the town of outhouses and hand-dug backyard wells, a proposal that affected only Beanville.

Over a bottle of Chianti one summer night in 1961, when the girls were off for two weeks in Honolulu with their grandparents, she and Bobby agonized over the Freedom Rides in the South, clergymen risking their lives for their values. "We should be doing more," Bobby said.

"Right on. Let's integrate the church," Flor said.

Bobby laughed. "Can't. No Negroes."

"Mexicans, then. We'll raid Our Lady of Grace and convert them. Then boycott white-owned businesses, shop only at Mexican-owned stores."

Bobby frowned. "Aren't any Mexican-owned stores in Soda Springs."

"A protest march then -- from Beanville to The White House." They marched through the parsonage, wine glasses aloft, belting out "We Shall Overcome," then fell laughing to the floor and made love on the living room rug.

Reality intervened. Falling membership. Fading youth group. Sinking finances. Endless hospital visits, sermons, Sunday school lessons. Now, they had saddled him with Apache Flats. No wonder he resented Esperanza.

On her way home, Flor spotted her girls on the grade school swings. They waved. No need to call them in until she stirred up dinner.

Bobby wasn't home. At half past six, Juliana burst screeching into the house, knee and elbow bloody, with Angela on her heels, shrieking, "I didn't do it. I didn't do it. She fell."

Flor washed off the bloody grit. A minor scrape, but enough to sting. She sprayed it with Bactine, bandaged it, held Juliana until she quit sniffling. Flor let them picnic on hot dogs, but didn't boil one for herself. After dinner, she scolded Angela for splashing Juliana in the bath, then for poking her little sister's scrapes. Bobby always read a story at bedtime, and Flor dashed through a chapter of Charlotte's Web. Light out at nine, straight up, no grace period. She tucked them in but didn't linger, even as she regretted having been a gritch. It wasn't their fault their father couldn't bother to call. No doubt a new crisis in Apache Flats, the second since Bobby's first day up there a week ago. Another fifty-two-mile round trip on top of this morning's sixty miles for bedside prayers at the Alamosa hospital. Even a coffee-saturated driver could fall asleep on that desolate two-lane highway.

At ten, Flor choked down a bowl of Grape Nuts and sat down with the new Reader's Digest condensed version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Headlights lit up the parsonage. She dashed to the window. The car drove past. At eleven, she charred a hamburger, slathered it in mustard, and abandoned it on the kitchen table. She left the greasy skillet on the stove.

Past midnight, Bobby skulked home like a guilty teenager, flicking off his headlights as he rounded the corner to the parsonage and tiptoed in.

Flor pretended sleep. She wasn't up for an argument again tonight. He slunk about the kitchen and fumbled through his bathroom duties in the dark. If he were so concerned about not waking her, why couldn't he close the bathroom door? Or better yet, urinate sitting down?

In bed, he lay still for exactly three seconds, then slithered his hand onto her hip. Flor pushed it away. "Oh, you are awake," he said. "How was your day?"

"You know what time it is? That you have a family?"

"Hard day, uh?"

Flor rolled over, faced him. "Don't pastor me, Bobby."

He kissed her forehead. "I'm listening."

She sat up. "That's foreplay, not empathy. Not tonight you don't."

"I'm sorry I was so late. It's a mess up there. Money problems. Worse than here."

"You could have told Buck Bennett there aren't enough hours in a day to rescue Apache Flats and rebuild our own church. You resent that I signed up with Lupe Sandoval, don't you?"

"Frankly, throwing in with a rabble-rouser doesn't make my life any easier."

"It pays well. That's more than I can say for your church."

"Our church. It's a marriage. Have you forgotten?"

"No, your church. You're the preacher. I'm the wife. They're pissed because I won't sacrifice my life for their petty needs like dear old Mabel Johns did for ten years."

"Profanity doesn't become you, Flor."

"Nor does your playing the martyr. Poor Bobby. Too much work. No one oils his tired feet when he sneaks in after midnight. No one spreads her legs the instant he creeps into bed."

His jaw fell. "Phew . . . nasty . . . but I . . . what hurts is, you don't care whether our miserable little church lives or dies. You could turn the youth group around in a month. But no, you'd rather rush off on some grand Mexican campaign."

"Don't shout. The girls are asleep."

"I'm not shouting. I'm speaking loudly enough so maybe you'll hear me for once. You think I like being gone, that I . . . what are you doing?"

"Getting some clothes on. We'll take this outside."

"Great idea. Broadcast it to the whole town. We could discuss this like adults."

"Apparently not." Flor pulled on jeans and a sweatshirt, threw on a jacket, then stomped across the street to the school grounds. At the football field she plopped down in the bleachers, waited for Bobby to come puffing up. "Esperanza is the opportunity we dreamed about. You should be leading the cheers, not attacking me," she said.

"I'm struggling to save our church. I beg you for help. But no, you insist on manning the barricades. So I recruit Vince to take the youth. You go ballistic. I'm left trying to do everything myself, and you accuse me of abandoning the girls. What in thunder am I to do?"

"I've taken a second job. Plus I'm raising two girls. By myself."

"Pffaw." Bobby jumped up and paced the sidelines, his breath puffing out clouds of steam. Suddenly, he clapped his hands, raced back. "I got it. Forget Vince. What if --"

"Forget him? How? He thinks as soon as a girl half-fills a training bra she's fair game."

"No. Please listen. We're training the youth for adulthood, right? But we treat them like children. Why don't we put the youth program on their own shoulders?"

"Sure, give them the church keys. Rename it Lord of the Flies Methodist."

"No, make it like a school club: put Ginny Sue Bennett in charge with Vince as advisor. Challenge her: 'If you high school kids don't like our youth program, change it. Make it yours.'"

"Deliver her into Vince's clutches? She's an attractive young woman, Bobby."

"She's the only one who sees through Vince's phony charm. She'll handle him, plus do a bang-up job with the youth. The girl's dynamite."

Flor paused. "Hmm, great training for Ginny Sue. Plus, it would force Buck to back off; he'd never let the church board criticize his own daughter. Checkmate."

He took her hand. "See, we do work beautifully together, don't we?"

"We need to talk about that, but not now, I'm freezing." Darn, she thought, that didn't come out well at all; too sharp. They were both tired. Over breakfast, maybe she could try once more to make him understand that she, too, had needs, that she wasn't merely "Pastor's Wife."

Read on: Jump to Chapter 7

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