As promised on the official Facebook page, I am presenting Chapter One of Back to Newtonberg. Be warned that there are spoilers if you haven’t read All That Remains, and if you haven’t read ANY of my books you will probably be lost. (And if you haven’t — what are you waiting for? Get thee to SmashWords!)
Also, Kathleen Wilhoite reference in the title. And one that’s rather fitting, wouldn’t you say?
It was the purple hair that caught his eye.
Father Louis Nichols hadn’t really been paying attention. He was on his way to the Library Board meeting, and he was more concerned that he’d forgotten to bring his copy of the agenda with him. He was walking past Swensen’s Café, on his way back to the car to see if it was in the back seat, when he caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye. He stopped in his tracks and walked back to make sure it wasn’t a trick of the light.
Sure enough, a young woman, probably somewhere between eighteen and twenty-three, was sitting at one of the tables. She had some type of tablet computer in front of her (a Nook? Kindle? iPad? — he couldn’t tell), she was drinking a cup of coffee – and she did indeed have purple hair.
Or perhaps it was more violet or fuchsia than purple. Father Lewis wasn’t the most artistic person in Newtonberg and had no eye for shades of colors. As far as he was concerned purple was purple, with varying shades of intensity.
Her hair wasn’t the only distinctive thing about her. She had multiple piercings in each ear and she wore a knee-length denim skirt, black leggings, Doc Marten boots, black frame eyeglasses, and a black net vest over a white long-sleeved T-shirt that read DA 2011.
Puzzled, he shook his head and headed for his car. It’s not that he was shocked by the young lady’s appearance. It just wasn’t the norm in Newtonberg. The closest thing to exotic hair colors until now had been when the new stylist at Mrs. Lucas’ Beauty Parlor misread the directions on a bottle of bluing back in the late 1970s.
He checked his watch. It was 11:45. The meeting was at noon; a special lunchtime meeting since Mike Baldridge, the Library Director, would be out of town on the usual date. He was taking Cap Blakeney to Houston for his treatment at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
He found his agenda under a stack of church bulletins and headed back toward the library. As he passed the Café again, John Swensen stepped out of the front door.
“Hello, Father Louis,” he said.
“Everything okay? I thought you were coming in.”
“No, no. I’m on my way to the Library board meeting and I forgot something in the car.”
John nodded. “Ah, yes. I’ve done that myself many times. How is everything at the library these days?”
“According to Mike, things are pretty good.” Father Louis checked his watch again. “I’d better get going or I’ll be late.”
“Good to see you. Stop by after the meeting. I’ve got a pecan pie in the oven.”
“Will do.” They shook hands and John went back inside.
Before leaving, Father Louis glanced inside the Café again. The young lady was still there, but now she was looking at him. She smiled and waved as she caught him looking, then went back to reading.
* * * * * * * * * *
He entered the library a few minutes later and quickly realized he needn’t have hurried. Only three other board members were there, making four of a total eight. Cliff Magnuson (President of the Board), Big Tom Wallace (Vice-President), and Harriet Johnson – the “Widow Missus” – sat at a table with their copies of the agenda, talking about the previous week’s football game. The Widow Missus served as the Board’s secretary, but she also ran the local paper, so the football game was of special interest to her readers.
“Afternoon, Father Louis,” Cliff said, looking up.
“Hello, all.” He nodded towards the empty seats. “Where’s everyone else?”
“Gladys Thompson will be here shortly,” the Widow Missus said. “Al had an eye appointment in Koval that he couldn’t get out of. Gladys had to go so she could drive him back if they decided to dilate his eyes.”
“Steve Michaels is on his way, too,” said Big Tom. “I stopped off at the bank on my way here and he was with a customer. One of the tellers said he’d be here, though.”
“That just leaves Sharon Lucas and Mavis Nelson,” said Father Louis.
Sharon Lucas ran the local hair salon, which she had taken over when her mother-in-law, Peg, had retired. Peg had inherited it from her mother, Thelma.
Mavis Nelson was the wife of Orville Nelson, one of the twins whose grandfather had owned Nelson’s Pharmacy. Orville and his brother Oliver had no interest in running a drug store, and neither was good enough in science to become a pharmacist anyway. The store had been sold to the Cahill family, who kept the name for old time’s sake. Scott, the oldest Cahill brother, ran the pharmacy; Sean, his youngest brother, was the Newtonberg Fire Chief.
“I’m sure Sharon got tied up giving someone a perm or something. And I think Mavis is out of town,” said Cliff.
“She is,” said Mike Baldridge as he entered the room, pushing a cart with a coffee urn and a plate of cookies. “She went with Orville and Oliver for a wrestling convention.”
While Orville and Oliver may not have shown much aptitude for science, they had excelled in athletics at school. Both of them had received football scholarships to West Texas State University in the late 1960s. While they were there, they had trained under Dory Funk, Sr. to become professional wrestlers, appearing in tag team matches as “The Wright Brothers”, a play on Orville’s name and the famous brothers who invented the modern airplane. (“Just imagine,” Mavis would say when asked about it. “If they’d waited fifteen years or so, they could have been ‘The Redenbachers.’”)
Although they were two of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet, the promoter decided to play them as bad guys, or “heels” as the industry called them. The crowd loved to hate them, so they did their job well.
They excelled as a tag team, although occasionally they would wrestle as singles; but even then, the other brother was never far away, ready to switch out when the referee wasn’t looking. Their career lasted until Oliver permanently damaged his knee during a match, and they’d retired back to Newtonberg together.
“I’m afraid I can’t compete with Swensen’s Café when it comes to coffee,” said Mike, “but maybe this will suffice long enough for the meeting.” It was generally accepted around town that Joanna Swensen made the best cup of coffee in Newtonberg.
“Did Natalie make it?” asked Big Tom. Natalie Gonzalez was Mike’s assistant and made a respectable pot of coffee. While it was not anywhere near as good as Joanna Swensen’s, it would do in a pinch.
Mike shook his head. “She’s out today.”
While there were no audible groans, things were relatively quiet while everyone who dared to try it got a cup of coffee and a cookie or two. Sharon and Steve arrived, begging apologies, and joined the queue for refreshments.
“I don’t know how much longer Gladys will be,” said Cliff, rapping on the table, “but we have a quorum, so let’s go ahead and call the meeting to order.”
As usual, they seemed to fly through the agenda and the meeting was over in about twenty minutes. Whether that had to do with having so few items that needed attention, or if it was due to everyone’s desire for a better cup of coffee, no one could – or would – say.
Just as Cliff adjourned the meeting, Gladys walked in.
“What did I miss?” she asked.
“Everything. The meeting just ended,” said the Widow Missus. “But I can let you look over my notes before I leave.”
“Thank you, Harriet,” Gladys replied. Then, in a hushed tone, she said, “Have you been by Swensen’s Café?”
Father Louis perked up.
“Not this morning,” replied the Widow Missus. “Why?”
“I dropped Al off there while I came to the meeting,” Gladys said. “And there was a young woman in there with purple hair!”
“Yes. And you should have seen the way she was dressed!”
Everyone else had grown quiet now, listening to Gladys.
“She had three or four earrings in each ear, purple lipstick, and her clothes! They weren’t immodest, but they were certainly unconventional.”
Even without anyone saying a word, you could almost hear each board member silently deciding to have lunch at Swensen’s Café once the meeting ended.
“Who is she?” asked Big Tom.
“Oh, I’ve never seen her before in my life!” said Gladys.
“Do John and Joanna have any grandchildren?” Sharon asked.
“I don’t think so,” Cliff said. “Their daughter got married a few years ago, but I don’t think she’s had a child. Besides, from the sound of it, this girl would be too old.”
As the conversation turned to the young girl and speculation about how she came to be in Newtonberg, Father Louis decided it was time to leave. The meeting seemed to be turning into a gossip session that he didn’t want to be part of.
“I’ve got to go,” he told Mike.
“Sure thing,” Mike replied. “I’ll send along a copy of the minutes once Mrs. Johnson gets them to me.”
“You be careful headed to Houston.”
And while everyone else around him continued to whisper about the mysterious stranger at Swensen’s Café, Father Louis took his hat from the rack by the library door and left.
* * * * * * * * * *
Headed back to his car, he was tempted not to stop at Swensen’s Café, but Al Thompson stuck his head out the door as he passed by.
“Howdy, Father Louis. Is the meeting over?”
“Yes,” he replied. “It ended about ten minutes ago.”
“Can I buy you a coffee? There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”
“That’s not necessary, Al. I’ll be happy to come in and meet anyone. I told John I’d stop in for pie anyway.” Al held the door open and Father Louis entered the Café.
The young lady was still there. Before he knew what was happening, Father Louis was led over to where she sat and Al was introducing them.
“This is Nicole…”
“Nikki,” she said, smiling and extending her hand. “No one calls me Nicole except my grandma. And my mother when she’s mad at me.”
“Right – Nikki. This is Father Louis Nichols. He’s just coming back from the Library Board meeting.”
“That’s wonderful!” Nikki said. “I was just asking Mr. Thompson where that was. Is Mrs. Corbett in today?”
Father Louis and Al exchanged a look. Madge Corbett had been the library director in Newtonberg for over forty years, but she’d retired several years ago and had recently passed away.
“I’m afraid Mrs. Corbett is no longer with us,” said Father Louis. He briefly explained the situation.
Nikki’s face fell. “Oh,” she whispered.
Al spoke up. “Perhaps Mike, the new library director, can help you instead.”
“I’m not sure. It’s more of a personal thing. I’m looking for some of my family.”
“Well, Mike’s a bit of a local historian. He might know something.”
Father Louis placed a hand on her shoulder.
“What kind of family are you looking for?”
Nikki looked up at him. “My great-grandfather is supposed to be buried here.
“His name was Vernon Powell.”