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A Light in the Window
by Jan Karon
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A Light in the Window

By Jan Karon

Chapter One

Close Encounters

Serious thinking and crossing the street, he once said, shouldn't be attempted simultaneously.

The red pickup truck was nearly upon him when he saw it. The shock of seeing it bear down with such ferocious speed sent him reeling backward to the curb, where he crashed in a sitting position. He caught a fleeting glance of the driver, talking on a telephone, as the truck careened around the corner.

"Father Tim! Are you all right?"

Winnie Ivey's expression was so grieved he felt certain he was badly hurt. He let Winnie help him up, feeling a numb shock where he'd slammed onto the curb.

Winnie's broad face was flushed with anger. "That maniac! Who was that fool, anyway?"

"I don't know. Perhaps I'm the fool for not looking where I was going." He laughed weakly.

"You're no such thing! I saw the light, it was still yellow, you had plenty of time to cross, and here comes this truck roarin' down on you like a freight train, and somebody in it talkin' on a phone."

She turned to the small crowd that had rushed out of the Main Street Grill. "A phone in a truck!" she said with disgust. "Can you believe it? I should have got his license number."

"Thank you, Winnie." He put his arm around the sturdy shoulders of the Sweet Stuff Bakery owner. "You've got a special talent for being in the right place at the right time."

Percy Mosely, who owned the Grill, ran out with his spatula in his hand. "If I was you, I'd ask th' good Lord to kick that feller's butt plumb to Wesley. Them poached eggs you eat are now scrambled."

The rector patted his pockets for the heavy office key and checked his wallet. All there. "No harm done," he assured his friends. The incident had simply been a regrettably dramatic way to begin his first week home from Ireland.

Though he'd spent the summer in Sligo, he found on returning that he hadn't, after all, missed summer in Mitford. His roses bloomed on, the grass lay like velvet under the network of village sprinklers, and parishioners were still leaving baskets of tomatoes on his porch.

As he came up the walk to the rectory, he heard a booming bark from the garage. It was the greeting he had missed every livelong day of his sojourn across the pond.

Since returning home less than a week ago, he had awakened each morning to see Barnabas standing by the bed, staring at him soberly. The inquiry in the eyes of his black Bouvier-cum-sheepdog companion was simple: Are you home to stay, or is this a joke?

He walked through the kitchen and opened the garage door, as Barnabas, who had grown as vast as a bear during his absence, rushed at him with joy. Laying his front paws on the rector's shoulders, he gazed dolefully into the eyes of his master, whose glasses fogged at once.

"Come now, old fellow. Slack off!"

Barnabas leapt backward, danced for a moment on his hind legs, and lunged forward to give the rector a great lick on the face that sent a shower of saliva into his left ear.

The victim dodged toward his parked Buick and crashed onto the hood with his elbow. "Sing and make music in your hearts," he recited loudly from a psalm, "always giving thanks to the Father for everything!"

Barnabas sat down at once and gazed at him, mopping the garage floor with his tail.

His dog was the only living creature he knew who was unfailingly disciplined by the hearing of the Word. It was a phenomenon that Walter had told over the whole of Ireland's West Country.

"Let's have a treat, pal. And you," he said to Dooley's rabbit, Jack, "will have beet tops." The Flemish giant regarded him with eyes the color of peat.

The house was silent. It wasn't one of Puny's days to work, and Dooley was at football practice. He had missed the boy terribly, reading and rereading the one scrawled message he had received in two long months:

I am fine. Barnabus is fine. Im ridin the hair off that horse.

He had missed the old rectory, too, with its clamor and quiet, its sunshine and shadow. Never before in his life as a rector had he found a home so welcoming or comfortable--a home that seemed, somehow, like a friend.

He spied the thing on his counter at once. It was Edith Mallory's signature blue casserole dish.

He was afraid of that.

Emma had written to Sligo to say that Pat Mallory had died soon after he left for Ireland. Heart attack. No warning. Pat, she said, had felt a wrenching chest pain, had sat down on the top step outside his bedroom, and after dropping dead sitting up, had toppled to the foot of the stairs, where the Mallorys' maid of thirty years had found him just before dinner.

"Oh, Mr. Mallory," she was reported to have said, "you shouldn't have gone and done that. We're havin' lasagna."

Sitting there on the farmhouse window seat, reading Emma's five page letter, he had known that Edith Mallory would not waste any time when he returned.

Long before Pat's death, he'd been profoundly unsteadied when she had slipped her hand into his or let her fingers run along his arm. At one point, she began winking at him during sermons, which distracted him to such a degree that he resumed his old habit of preaching over the heads of the congregation, literally.

So far, he had escaped her random snares but had once dreamed he was locked with her in the parish-hall coat closet, pounding desperately on the door and pleading with the sexton to let him out.

Now Pat, good soul, was cold in the grave, and Edith's casserole was hot on his counter.

Casseroles! Their seduction had long been used on men of the cloth, often with rewarding results for the cook.

Casseroles, after all, were a gesture that on the surface could not be mistaken for anything other than righteous goodwill. And, once one had consumed and exclaimed over the initial offering, along would come another on its very heels, until the bachelor curate ended up a married curate or the divorced deacon a fellow so skillfully ensnared that he never knew what hit him.

In the language of food, there were casseroles, and there were casseroles. Most were used to comfort the sick or inspire the downhearted. But certain others, in his long experience, were so filled with allure and innuendo that they ceased to be Broccoli Cheese Delight intended for the stomach and became arrows aimed straight for the heart.

In any case, there was always the problem of what to do with the dish. Decent people returned it full of something else. Which meant that the person to whom you returned it would be required, at some point, to give you another food item, all of which produced a cycle that was unimaginably tedious.

Clergy, of course, were never required to fill the dish before returning it, but either way, it had to be returned. And there, clearly, was the rub.

He approached the unwelcome surprise as if a snake might have been coiled inside. His note of thanks, which he would send over tomorrow by Puny, would be short and to the point:

Dear Edith: Suffice it to say that you remain one of the finest cooks in the county. That was no lie; it was undeniably true.

Your way with (blank, blank) is exceeded only by your graciousness. A thousand thanks. In His peace, Fr Tim.

There.

He lifted the lid. Instantly, his mouth began to water, and his heart gave a small leap of joy.

Crab cobbler! One of his favorites. He stared with wonder at the dozen flaky homemade biscuits poised on the bed of fresh crabmeat and fragrant sauce.

Perhaps, he thought with sudden abandon, he should give Edith Mallory a ring this very moment and express his thanks.

As he reached for the phone, he realized what he was doing--he was placing his foot squarely in a bear trap.

He hastily clamped the lid on the steaming dish. "You see?" he muttered darkly. "That's the way it happens."

Where casseroles were concerned, one must constantly be on guard.

"Edith Mallory's lookin' to give you th' big whang-do," said Emma.

Until this inappropriate remark, there had been a resonant peace in the small office. The windows were open to morning air embroidered with bird song. His sermon notes were going at a pace. And the familiar comfort of his old swivel chair was sheer bliss.

"And what, exactly, is that supposed to mean?"

His part-time church secretary glanced up from her ledger. "It means she's going to cook your goose."

He did not like her language. "I am sixty-one years old and a lifelong bachelor. Why anyone would want to give me a whang ... why anyone would ... it's unthinkable," he said flatly.

"I can tell she thinks about it all th' time. Besides, remember Father Appel who got married when he was sixty-five, right after his social security kicked in? And that deacon who was fifty-nine, who married th' redheaded woman who owned the taxi company in Wesley? Then, there was that salesman who worked at the Collar Button ..."

"Spare me the details," he said curtly, opening his drawer and looking for the Wite-Out.

Emma peered at him over her glasses. "Just remember," she muttered.

"Remember what?"

"Forearmed is forewarned."

"No, Emma. Forewarned is forearmed."

"Peedaddle. I never do get that right. But if I were you, I'd duck when I see her comin'."

I've been ducking when I see her coming for twelve years, he thought.

"One thing in her favor," said Emma, recording another check, "is she's a great hostess. As you have surely learned from doin' your parties, a rector needs that. Some preachers' wives don't do pea-turkey, if you ask me. Of course, if anything's goin' to happen with your neighbor, and Lord knows, I hope it will--you ought to just go on and give 'er a nice engagement ring--then Edith would have to jump on somebody else."

"Emma," he said, ripping the cover off the typewriter, "I have finally got a handle on the most important sermon I've written in a year ..."

"Don't say I didn't warn you," she replied, pressing her lips together in that way he loathed.

At noon, Ron Malcolm appeared at the door, wearing boots caked with dried mud and a red baseball cap.

Being away for two months had given everyone the rector knew, and Mitford as well, a fresh, almost poignant, reality. He had scarcely ever noticed that Ron Malcolm was a man of such cheering vigor. Then again, perhaps it was the retired contractor's involvement in the nursing-home project that had clone something for the color in his face and put a gleam in his eyes.

"Well, Father, we're off and running. Jacobs has sent their job superintendent over. He's having a trailer installed on the site today." He shook the rector's hand with great feeling.

"I can hardly believe it's finally happening."

"Five million bucks!" Ron said. "This nursing home is the biggest thing to happen around here since the Wesley furniture factory. Have you met Leeper?"

"Leeper?"

"Buck Leeper. The job superintendent. We talked about him before you left for Ireland. He said he'd try to get by your office."

"I haven't met him. I'll have to walk up--maybe Wednesday aftenoon."

Ron sat down on the visitors' bench and removed his cap. "Emma around?"

"Gone to the post office."

"I think it's only fair that I talk to you straight about Buck Leeper. A few months ago, I told you he's hardheaded, rough. I know I don't have to worry about you, but he's the kind who can make you lose your religion."

"Aha."

"His daddy was Fane Leeper, so called because a preacher once said he was the most profane man he'd ever met. Fane Leeper was also the best job superintendent on the East Coast. He made three contractors rich men, and then alcohol got 'im, as they say

"You need to know that Buck is just like his daddy He learned contractin', cussin', and drinkin' from Fane, and the only way he could get out from under the shadow of his father was to outdo him in all three categories."

Ron paused, as if to let that information sink in.

"Buck's on this job because he'll save us money--and a lot of grief. He'll bring it in on time and on budget, and you can count on it. Out of respect to you, Father, I talked to Jacobs about sending us another man, but they won't send anybody but Buck on a job this size." He stood up and zipped his jacket. "We'll probably hate Jacobs for this, but before it's over, we'll thank him." "I trust your judgment."

Ron opened the door and was backing out with his hat in his hand.

"You might look softhearted, Father, but I've seen you operate a time or two, and I know you can handle Buck. Just give 'im his rein."



Meet the author:
Jan Karon


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