Reverend Herbert Kennard sat down in his straight-backed chair behind the army surplus grey desk; he was in his “pastor’s office”, a rather generous name for the six by eight-foot room that used to be part of the nursery. He was the new pastor at Beulah’s Chapel Methodist Church; he was a recent Duke University Divinity School graduate and was serving his first congregation. Actually, he served two churches, preaching at each one every Sunday. “The first shall be first, and the last shall be last” was the little jingle that one of the ladies in the church had made up many years before his arrival. The two churches were very small and getting smaller, so for over twenty years now the Conference had required that one pastor serve both. The little jingle reflected that the churches alternated each Sunday as to which one had preaching first, thus Beaulah’s Chapel had preaching first on the first Sunday, second on the second Sunday, first on the third Sunday, and second on the fourth, or last Sunday.
“Pretty clever for these country people,” he thought, then caught himself and administered a mental whack to his ample behind. Reverend Kennard had come to the ministry late in life; that was why he was forty-two years old and in his first year of service and in not exactly the environment that a Duke Divinity grad would strive for. His advisor at Duke had tried to prepare him for disappointment; “Now Herbert, you have to realize that because of your age and the fact that this will be your first charge it will probably not be of utmost desirability,” Reverend Broome had told him. Reverend Kennard had braced himself before going to the Western Conference, but he was a bit taken aback when he was awarded TWO churches. The minister who had informed him of his fate had tried to paint as pretty a picture as he could; “You know, there is a parsonage beside the church in Long Shoals, so you will have a free place to stay,” he had told Reverend Kennard, so the new minister had accepted his fate. As far as his self-administered “whack to his ample behind” Reverend Kennard was painfully aware of his physique; he was a tall man with rather narrow shoulders and a very wide rear. It was so far out of proportion that his “off the rack” purchases had to be altered considerably. The Reverend was quite aware that the youngsters of the church had come up with a nickname for him——“baby Huey,” a reference to a cartoon character with a highly pronounced rear. He bristled a bit as he thought of this but quickly administered another whack, reminding himself that “kids will be kids.” As he looked over his appointments in his monthly calendar his eye caught the meeting that he had with Sarah Hoffman just the day before. Sarah was a widowed lady with three children; in fact, he had been called back from his honeymoon to preach her husband’s funeral. She was a nice lady, always trying to do the right thing, and she had a conundrum she had wanted to talk to him about.
“Well what can I help you with, Mrs. Hoffman,” he had said after she knocked on the door, entered, and had a seat.
“I have this problem that I just don’t know how to approach,” she had said haltingly.
“Why don’t you tell me about it,” Reverend Kennard said in what he liked to think was his most soothing tone.
“I have made a most earnest effort to be helpful to people in our church, especially since they were so nice to me in my time of need,” she said, tearing up a bit when she said it.
“Now, now, we must move on; what can I help you with,” he said, once again trying to move forward.
“It’s about Annie Clemmer; I am sure you remember her. I think you visited the family when her father passed away,” Sarah said.
Reverend Kennard nodded, remembering going into the dimly lit old run-down Victorian house. He recalled that the stench was virtually intolerable and that it was all he could do to stay for fifteen minutes and end with a brief hopefully consoling prayer.
“I know that she has no way to get to church and I have been going by to pick her up every Sunday now for a couple of months. I know that she appreciates it, but the weather is starting to get purty cold and the kids are starting to complain a lot. So I just don’t know what to do,” she said, a very worried look on her face. Reverend Kennard was silent for a bit; he was wondering what the onset of cold weather and complaining kids had in common, so he took a deep breath and forged ahead.
“You know, Mrs. Hoffman, that there is not a lot we can do about the changing seasons and I certainly don’t want your poor children to go around shivering. Maybe we could dip into the church emergency fund and get you a space heater,” he said, trying to see if any of this was sinking in.
“Actually it is the odor,” Mrs. Hoffman said shyly. At that instant Reverend Kennard had a distinct memory of his visit to the run-down Victorian house and what his olfactory sense had encountered.
“I do remember a bit of an odor in that house,” he said, realizing that he had put it out of his mind because he tried not to judge his parishioners. “I must say it is very Christian of you to offer Annie a ride, and I do understand the consternation experience by your children, and I am sure by you,” he said, using the somewhat flowery vocabulary he utilized when he was in the mode of sort of reminding people where he went to Divinity School, most of the area ministers being graduates of Fruitland Bible College, if even that. The entire problem came together in his mind at that moment and he had an “idee”, as they said in the local vernacular.
“Possibly I could pick up Mrs. Carpenter; of course it might make me a little late for preaching,” Reverend Kennard said, looking closely at Sarah Hoffman to see if what he said had the desired effect. It did.
Sarah’s countenance immediately shifted into “shame” mode; Reverend Kennard could see it in her flushed face.
“Oh no, Reverend, that will never do; I just won’t have it. We will just have to persevere; it will be a good occasion for the kids to learn that some people are not as fortunate as they are,” she said. She appreciated the beatific smile she saw on Reverend Kennard’s face, thanked him, and departed.
Reverend Kennard sat in his straight-backed chair for a moment; it entered his mind that maybe he had been a bit disingenuous in his “ride” offer, but he quickly put it out of his mind.
“It was all for the greater good,” he said to himself out loud to himself and began rummaging through his educated brain for sermon ideas.
It was early the following Sunday morning and Sarah Hoffman had just broken the news that they would be picking up Annie Clemmer and taking her to church. She had told them that maybe they would not have the “experience” again but after her meeting with Pastor Kennard she knew what she had to do, no matter what the kids thought.
“They will just have to tough it out; they will be better people for it,” she thought to herself. All three of them were grousing about it, especially the little boy. Richie was twelve going on about ten, so he was making the biggest racket.
“I just can’t stand it, he whined. “Why do I have to sit beside her in the back seat,” he complained.
“Cause you’re the youngest,” Gail, the girl closest in age to Richie said very quickly.
“That’s right, that’s the way it is going to be so just get used to it,” Rose said. She was 22 months older than Gail and was approaching the time to get her driver’s license. She was secretly saving every penny she could in the hopes she would be able to buy some kind of old car so she could remove herself from the smelly situation.
“So how ‘bout Annie sitting in between you two in the back seat; you two are older and your noses are not as young and sensitive as mine,” Richie said, stifling a sob.
“All of you just hush,” Sarah said. “Annie will sit up front with me and the three of you will be in the back seat,” Sarah proclaimed. By the tone of her voice the kids knew that the final verdict was in so they shut up. The kids loaded up in the back seat for the short ride to Annie Clemmer’s house. Sarah pulled past Annie’s house and turned around in their driveway so she would be heading in the right direction to go to Beulah’s Chapel. They sat in the car in front of the old run-down Victorian church for a few minutes.
“I don’t know what is wrong; Annie has always been on the lookout for us before. Go on in there and tell her we are here,” Sarah said, looking at the little boy. Richie turned a bright crimson and started whimpering as he looked at his mother in disbelief.
“Why do I have to go?” he asked, “I am the baby.”
“Because you are the man of the house now; plus, you are on the side of the car closest to the house and it will be easier for you. Be sure to open the passenger door on the front for Annie when you get her out here,” Sarah Hoffman said as Richie got out of the car and walked through the old rusted wrought iron gate and through the weeds in the overgrown yard. He was walking quite slowly, inching his way toward the front porch. Although it way nine o’clock and full daylight the big cedar trees in the front yards sheltered the house and as he got close to the front porch he could see through the dirty half glass in the front door that it was pretty dark inside. Richie climbed the two steps up onto the porch and tapped lightly on the front door several times, then looked back at the car and started back toward the road. He could see his mother motioning in the front seat for him to go on into the house so he went back toward the door and slowly turned the knob and stepped inside the hallway.
“Somebody there?” someone screeched from somewhere back in the house. He could tell it was Annie Clemmer; her voice was a kind of high-pitched singsong and she sounded like she was utilizing it to the limit.
“Yes maam, it’s Richie Hoffman; we have come to pick you up to go to church,” he called out, trying his best to control his quavery voice.
“Well come on back here and sit down in the dining room while I go to the bedroom and get my pocketbook. “Ain’t y’all a little early?” she asked as Richie heard her moving around to get her pocketbook.
“Don’t rightly know, Mrs. Clemmer,” he said, standing in what he figgered was indeed the dining room that she mentioned. There was a light hanging from the ceiling; it had glass prisms hanging from it; Richie thought it was called a chandelier but was not sure. There was a table and six chairs centered under the light fixture, so he pulled one of the chairs out from under the table and was about to sit down in it when he noticed that there were what appeared to be food crumbs on it, so he just remained standing. It was just as well because it was not a minute until he saw Miss Annie Clemmer emerge from around the corner. She indeed was carrying a large pocketbook; she walked with a side-to-side motion and had on a soiled blue print dress. Her head was adorned with a small black hat with a short veil in the front. Richie looked at her brown face, not being able to tell if that was her real skin color of if she was just dirty. As she approached him she grinned widely, exposing three top teeth and two bottom ones; there was a dribble of snuff juice running down the left side of her mouth.
When she got to the table where Richie was standing she let out a long breath and pulled out a chair; “I just got to set down for a minute. My hip is bothering me something turble today,” she said as she plopped into the chair. Her dirty dress rode up above her knees when she sat down, exposing how she had tied a knot in each of her stockings just above the knee. Richie quickly averted hi eyes from there and started looking at the several cats that were wandering around in the room. When he looked back at Annie Clemmer she was eyeballing him and he noticed how bright blue her eyes were; they were completely clean and clear. She hoisted herself up from the chair and looking at him with her clean eyes said “guess we better get on out there.”
Sarah was starting to feel right guilty; “wonder what in the world is taking them so long,” she said to the girls, regretting having sent the little boy in there.
“He’s probly just seeing what he can find to eat in her kitchen,” Gail said, laughing in a big way. Gail was closest in age to Richie and had a pretty good case of sibling rivalry goin’ on with him. Plus she could beat him up; her mother was waiting for the day for the little worm to turn. She told Gail frequently that the day was in the offing, but it fell on deaf ears. Rose did not join in the laughter; she was the more serious of the two by far. Sarah told her friends that Rose “studied real hard and had the grades to prove it,” while Gail “studied a good time.”
Sarah was about to get out of the car when the weathered ornate door of the run-down Victorian house opened and Annie came ambling out, followed by Richie. It was a slow go, taking a few minutes to get down the two steps and traverse the twenty-five feet or so to Sarah’s ’59 Ford. When they got close Sarah called out to Richie “now you open the door for Annie, Richie.” Richie did as he was told and Annie flopped into the front seat, Richie quickly opening the back door and diving into the back. He had managed to keep his distance from Annie while they were in the house and coming to the car but the proximity was inevitable when he opened the door for her and stood there waiting to shut it.
“So how is everybody at your house doin?” Sarah asked, noticing how dirty Annie’s blue print dress was and silently wishing that she had plastic seat covers in her car.
“Well they all doin’ tolerable well, ‘cept Grover might have to go to the dentist in Linkern if his tooth don’t get no better; I told him that he better take care of that tooth ‘cause once they gone they don’t grow back and he ain’t got too many left.” Annie let out a wheezy cackle after saying this and as Sarah looked over at her she saw the snuff trail coming down the left side of her chin.
It was middle October and in the midst of the first cold spell of the fall; it was certainly cold enough to have the heater on in the black ’59 Ford but Sarah was putting it off as long as she could, although the smell was indeed getting to her. Things were not much better in the back seat, although they did have a little advantage with the distance. Richie was making exaggerated gagging motions with his face and then rolled down the window on his side. Rose and Gail had tried to ignore their little brother but once his window had been opened a little and the fresh air came in it was such a relief that Rose nodded to Gail and Gail cracked her window about an inch. Things were barely tolerable and the three of them were “thanking God for small favors” until Sarah picked up on the influx of cold air and against her better judgment turned on the heater. This action was not wasted on the kids and Richie and Gail responded by increasing their window opening to halfway. Sarah could only think of how cold she was and before you knew it the heater was going full blast and the rear windows were completely lowered. So that was how they made the trip to Beulah’s Chapel United Methodist Church; Sarah opened her side pull out window a little and found that the added ventilation sort of got a flow going from front to rear, especially after she said something about the car heater “only having one setting” and asking Annie to crack the pull-out window on her side. So with windows down and the heater on they made their way to church.
When Sarah pulled into the church gravel parking lot everyone except Annie exited the car quickly, Richie opening the door for Annie. It was the third Sunday in October so preaching was first; as the group approached the church entrance Al, one of the Official Board members, was pulling the chain that disappeared into the ceiling of the vestibule, ringing the bell. Richie made a bee line for the back row on the left side; that was where all the old farmers always sat; Richie liked to sit with them, mainly ‘cause they had known his daddy and used to shoot the breeze with him in the front yard of the church when Sunday School was first and everyone was waiting for the bell to ring for preaching. Gail and Rose went to the middle of the left side where they usually sat if they weren’t singing in the choir. Sarah and Annie Clemmer went to the front row on the right; that was where they always sat, Sarah noticing that the front row was empty and also the two pews behind the front. Miss Lizzie was playing a soft song on the old piano, at least it was supposed to be soft; Miss Lizzie had a mostly “banging style” of playing, but she had been the piano player through many years and many ministers. As Reverend Kennard entered and announced that all were to rise and sing number one in the Methodist Hymnal, “Holy, holy, holy,” he glanced around the congregation, his eyes landing on the two women in the left front pew. He smiled at them, a smile that was returned, and he felt a sense of relief that his counseling session had not fallen on deaf ears, especially when he noticed the snuff trail flowing down Annie’s chin. Then he said a small prayer of thanks to himself, thinking of the tiny compartment that constituted the front seat of his Volkswagen.