Print book July 2011
Pine branches slapped at the stained glass window to the left of our pew. I glanced up from the church bulletin, wondering if the old glass would hold under the assault. The storm had come up quickly, although menacing black clouds had been brewing in the north a half hour earlier when we left the house.
My wife nudged me and pointed through one clear section of glass. “Gus, look.”
I followed Camille’s gaze. Dirt devils skittering across the parking lot like mini-tornadoes. I leaned sideways to get a better look. “Whoa.”
She slid her arm through mine and hugged me sideways. “You don’t see that every day.”
We’d been waiting for the sermon to start, trying to keep Johnny still for the past three minutes. A daunting task, at best. My grandson caught sight of the whirling dust balls and shrieked at the top of his voice. “Dorothy!” He stood on the seat and pointed outside.
I knew Johnny referred to the Wizard of Oz, but Mrs. Dorothy Mason, who sat behind us, apparently didn’t.
“It’s not polite to call your elders by their first name, Sonny.” Her voice was sweet on the surface, but her tone implied that someone hadn’t raised this boy right.
Before I could explain, the lights flickered, and in a sudden gush, hail clattered on the roof.
“Santa Claus.” Johnny’s whispered words made me smile, but no one heard him. All eyes snapped to the tin ceiling rattling under the assault.
Behind the pulpit, Reverend Nahum Hardina shrugged and smiled, smoothing his wispy gray hair. “Maybe the Lord wants to deliver his own sermon this morning.”
A titter ran through the crowd. A few stragglers hurried in, rustled to their family pews, and chatted with their neighbors about the wild winds.
The air felt heavy and hot on this Sunday morning in East Goodland, New York. Already perspiring, I wiped beads of moisture from my forehead and fanned myself with the church program. It sagged limp in my hands.
While the reverend prepared his books and props for the sermon and chatted with our organist, Johnny, almost three years old now, squirmed beside me. He blew his forelock in boredom, then pushed his nose into a pig snout, snorting so loud everyone turned to stare.
“Johnny!” I laughed and patted his knee.
The reverend climbed the pulpit and smiled at the congregation. “Welcome, brothers and sisters.”
Johnny squealed and snorted again.
I cringed and whispered apologies to anyone who cared to listen, but the noise of the storm washed my words away. Before I could catch him, my grandson flung his arms over the back of the pew and gawked at Dorothy Mason. A grin appeared on his angelic face and he shouted, “Your hair is blue!”
A sigh escaped her lips. “It’s not polite to—”
In a blink, he pitched one leg over the backrest and nearly toppled onto her. Sweating, I stood and locked my arms around the struggling boy to lift him back to his seat.
His big brown eyes glinted with hints of mischievous deeds to come.
I settled him on his seat and lowered my head to his level. “Sit.”
My words must have come out sterner than I intended, for he slumped against me, his mouth turned down in a pout.
Reverend Hardina shot me a glance of empathy, raising his voice over the wail of the wind. “And now, let us turn to the quiet temple deep in our hearts. Prepare to worship the Lord from this region of inner peace. May the radiance of the Lord flow into your hearts and minds as our acolyte comes forward to light the candles.”
Johnny recovered in a flash, hopping to his knees and flailing his arms toward the window. “Why’s it night out?”
I looked where he pointed, and felt a prickle of concern. Daylight had indeed disappeared. “It’s just a storm, buddy. Don’t worry.”
He quickly lost interest in the diminishing sunlight and turned his palm up, wiggling his fingers for candy. I unwrapped another peppermint Lifesaver and pushed it into his sticky hand, wondering if the roll would last until the Sunday school exodus. He popped it in his mouth and sat down.
Camille pressed close to me in her yellow sundress. I sensed her skin’s warmth and drank in the scent of her freshly washed hair. Memories of passion from the previous night skated across my mind’s eye. Soft skin. Sweet perspiration. A mew-like cry that meant I’d done something right.
Heat rose within me accompanied by totally inappropriate stirrings of desire.
I tried to refocus and stared at the wart on the bald head in front of me.
That did it.
My wife’s dark curls tumbled forward when she bowed her head to pray. I reached for her hand and bowed my head as well, rubbing my thumb across her wedding band. We’d been married in this very church, although with all that had happened since our marriage last May, it seemed like a lifetime had passed.
I glanced up when Camille’s daughter passed us on her way to the pulpit. Shelby waved a long brass candle lighter over the wicks until they sputtered and caught. Johnny sucked on his Lifesaver, drumming his feet against the pew. I touched the back of his hand in gentle warning. “Shush, now. Be still, buddy.”
He scrunched his face in protest, then turned to rummage in his little backpack for a toy. Brandishing a black police car, he raced it up my arm and onto my shoulder. “Vroom, vroom!”
There it idled. Although the storm wailed outside, his voice made heads turn. I ignored Elliot Newman’s glare and clamped down on the urge to burst into hysterical laughter, then slid my arm around Johnny’s shoulders and pointed to Shelby. “Look. There’s Shelby. Wave to her.”
He waved like a flagman at the speedway and shouted her name. She started to laugh, but caught herself and wiggled her fingers at him instead. Shelby extinguished the lighter, hung it on the side of the pulpit, and rejoined us, sliding into the pew beside her mother.
“Shall we rise and sing the opening hymn? Our first selection is on page one forty-five.”
A rustle filled the church when the parishioners reached for their hymnals. Reverend Hardina nodded to Miss Lillian Phillips, who did her best to play the introduction for “Morning Has Broken” on the out-of-tune piano. She winced with every cracked note, but soldiered on with determination. The organ stood silent, a victim of the church’s sad state of affairs. Badly in need of an overhaul, it squeaked out its last note years ago. Now it lingered on top of the repair list.
I leaned forward to peel the back of my wet shirt from the pew. Because of the varnish that never completely cured the last time it was refinished, it made an unholy ripping noise. I nearly lost it.
Camille’s mouth twitched. I looked away, suppressing the laugh threatening to burst from my lips. The congregation clunked and shuffled to their feet. As one, the human wave rippled, stood, and began to sing. The storm worsened and the wind whipped tree branches harder. In the churchyard beyond the window, a pair of young elm trees bent over so far, I thought they’d snap.
We managed our way through the first verse in spite of the gale’s fury. But when the second stanza began, the wail rose to a screech, drowning our voices. A crack exploded in the churchyard. The congregation swiveled as one in their pews and exchanged worried glances. I suspected a tree limb had fallen in the parking area. Hopefully, not on my new Toyota Sequoia.
For a moment, there was a lull in the wind. Lillian started playing again, and when we sang the last verse, sweet rain splashed against the windows. The heavy drops slid down the panes and pooled on the windowsills. A buzz of satisfaction filled the air; everyone chattered and sighed in relief. The shriveled corn stalks would be quenched—cat least for today—and hopefully the rain would prevent a rash of failed crops in Livingston County.
We finished the hymn and took our seats. Reverend Hardina stepped from the pulpit and reached for a bucket of props for his children’s message. Johnny removed his carton of crayons from his backpack, choosing a red one. I gave him my church bulletin to scribble on, but before he could attempt to draw the wheels on a tractor–his favorite image–the crayon slipped from his fingers and rolled under the pew in front of us. I tried to nudge it back with my shoe, but Johnny slithered to the floor and disappeared.
His head popped up. Covered in fine dust, he clambered back onto the seat and grinned. “I got it, Opa.”
I whispered to him with one finger over my lips. “That’s good. But try to be quiet, now, honey. Just a few more minutes and you can go to Sunday school.”
He drew a waxy red circle on the paper, supporting it with my hymnal.
The reverend arranged a jump rope, star-shaped candle, and a tomato on the front table. I wondered what kind of message he had planned for the children with his odd assortment of items.
Nahum’s eyes sparkled. “And now, would the youngsters please join me up here for—”
Siegfried burst through the vestibule doors to the right of the pulpit, blue eyes flared in panic. He breathed hard, and stared straight at me.
The reverend swiveled toward him. “Siegfried, what is it?”
My deceased first wife’s brother answered in his strong German accent. “Oscar Stone called. He says there is a twister coming up the hill. A big one.” His massive hands shot out in opposite directions, flapping in the air.
We sat in stunned silence until the winds picked up again.
The Reverend shot a puzzled glance at Siegfried, who shouted to be heard above the storm.
“We should go where it is safe, Ja?”
Acid slid from my stomach to my throat. A tornado? Although my brain couldn’t process the facts, I jumped up and corralled my family, heading for the door where Siegfried stood.
The pastor hurried down from the pulpit and waved his arms in an attempt to gather his flock. “Okay, everyone, follow Siegfried. Down to the basement. To the common room. The walls are strong there. Hurry!”
Scrambling through the door, they spilled down the stairs into the basement. Most were elderly, and with flushed cheeks and terror in their eyes, they held to the railings and moved as fast as they could manage. Lillian Phillips stumbled on the last step.
I helped her up. “Are you okay?”
She stopped short and turned back toward the sanctuary. Her eyes popped in panic. “My pocketbook! I left it by the piano. My medication’s in there.”
I watched Siegfried and Camille move the children to safety, then spun and ran back up the steps. “I’ll get it. Go down with the others.”
I pushed through the double doors into the sanctuary. As if a veil had been dropped, the light dimmed. I glanced outside and saw black. At ten thirty in the morning. A hungry roar eddied debris outside, escalating to a frightening pitch.
I found Lillian’s oversized leather purse beside the piano and snagged it, racing down the aisle and stairs to the cellar with it banging against my leg. When I reached her side, she accepted the bag with grateful tears.
A sea of confused and cowering people looked to Reverend Hardina for guidance. He summoned his fire and brimstone voice. “My dear people! We must try to be calm and trust the Almighty will protect us.”
A boom of thunder shook the walls, and the Reverend dove to the floor. “Everyone get down! Take cover!”
The winds screeched, increasing to a deafening clatter. Siegfried grabbed Johnny and Shelby and slid beneath a stout table, holding them close. Johnny whimpered once and plastered himself against Siegfried’s chest. I held my wife tight, leaning back against the wall beside them. She locked eyes with Shelby, reaching for her hand to assure her. On the other end of the table, Dorothy Mason’s blue hair poked out, reminding me of a figurehead on the bow of a ship.
My mind played its usual tricks, saying goofy things to me. Was she the symbol of some dreaded doomsday ship? Headed for a bizarre netherworld where the Wizard-of-Oz tornadoes sailed through a tiny farming town in upstate New York?
I pulled Camille closer and backed nearer to the cement wall, trying to still my thumping heart.
Then—in the safest place I knew on earth—all hell broke loose.
 See Mazurka: A Gus LeGarde Mystery, 2009, Twilight Times Books