Chapter 14

© Copyright 2006 by Kendra Cornell

Paul good-naturedly donned the apron that one of the women handed him, and tied the strings behind his back. Okay, maybe wearing an apron in a kitchen full of church women is a little emasculating, but... let’s just think of it as taking one for the team, he thought as he stirred a large pot of spaghetti sauce. The heavy, cast-iron pans must have been fifty years old and they definitely showed their age, but were built to last and still going strong. The basement kitchen had large, open windows set in the walls that looked out into a common room. Circular tables set with plastic tablecloths supported bouquets of someone’s late spring tulips blooming in glass bowls. Tables ready to house the buffet line sported plastic cutlery and thick paper plates. Paul loved the bustle of activity. Several women, and a few men, arranged trays with almond and lemon bars, assorted cookies and other treats, and someone had made individual cheesecakes with strawberries on top. Tables were loaded with fried chicken, baked ham, casseroles, pasta salads, and a beautiful assortment of colorful side dishes. A number of small children raced around the basement, their harried mothers chasing after and trying to corral them before the dinner began.

The clamor of people filling baskets on the tables with warm rolls and setting out hob-nailed pitchers of lemonade was heartening. People greeted each other warmly. There were real relationships here. This church might be small, but it was very definitely still alive. Elderly people sat in clusters, some just watching the activity. Paul wondered if they reminisced about how things had been forty years before, when those precious women had been chasing their own little ones around this very same basement. Life just keeps moving, thought Paul with a momentary stab of longing for a family of his own. His reverie was broken by a call for the prayer.

“Well, Pastor, I think we’re just about ready here,” called one of the deacons, to good-natured applause from other hungry members.

Paul untied the strings of the apron, and hung it on a hook. He walked out of the kitchen with a smile, and raised his hands.

“Alright folks, why don’t we bow our heads for a moment of prayer?”

Mothers grabbed their children, and families moved together as heads were bowed.

“Heavenly Father, we come to you tonight in thanks. We thank you for this fine food and fellowship that you have provided for us. We ask that you would bless this food to our bodies and that You would make us a blessing to each other. We thank you for every person here tonight. In Jesus’ precious name we pray, Amen.”

A soft chorus of amens echoed across the basement and expectant faces looked up.

Paul added quickly, “Okay, let’s move the line on both sides of the tables.”

Just a bit of good-natured jostling ensued as people moved towards the head of the line. Plates, forks, and napkins were gathered up, and slowly the line moved forward. Parents of small children tried to juggle several plates at once while excited little ones pointed out their favorites.

“Jamie, you can’t just eat jello. How about some macaroni and cheese?”

“But it has ham in it, and I don’t like ham,” whined the little one who apparently was partial only to red and green gelatin.

They compromised on a fried chicken leg, and the pair rushed off to join a group of young families at a table across the room.

“How are you coming on that issue we discussed, Pastor?” asked Steve slipping up beside Paul who was trying to avoid the current frenzy.

“Steve, I got an interesting letter in the mail today- something I would definitely like to show you later. I’m not even really sure what I should be looking for, and things may have just gotten a bit more complicated.”

Nodding, Steve acquiesced. “I’ve got a few minutes tonight. Why don’t we talk about it after we eat?” Steve’s wife and two twin daughters had arrived at the head of the line, and were looking for him. “Guess that’s my cue... You want to join us?”

Shaking his head, Paul smiled and pointed to the small woman at a table near to them. “I believe that Miss Rose has saved me a seat. It was good of you to go over to get her, Steve. She needs to be here... I really appreciate all you do around here.”

“It was no problem at all- the girls love her,” he said walking the few steps to the head of the line. Steve put one arm around his wife and kissed her on the cheek as he joined her and the girls who had begun to select bits and pieces from the offerings on the table.

Paul finally joined the ebbing flow of people. He took a plate and began to peruse the selection. There was Mrs. Custis’ cheesy potato casserole, which she always brought to the potlucks, probably because it was so popular. Steve and his wife had brought Paul’s favorite pasta salad- a spicy blend of rotini, pepperoni, and tomatoes. He added some ham, a red gelatin-marshmallow mish-mash that one of the children insisted he try, some rolls, chicken, and a few vegetables from a platter of cru dite that he dunked in the ranch dip. No one ever said church dinners were nutritionally sound affairs, he thought with a smile.

Paul made his way through the crush of chairs and sat beside Miss Rose, who was joined by two young couples and a few elderly gentleman.

“How is everyone doing this evening?” he asked, reaching for the pitcher of lemonade.

“Bethany was just sharing some wonderful news,” said Miss Rose.

Bethany blushed as her husband, Cliff, put his arm around her. “We can start telling people now, but,” she said as she looked at Cliff and then back at the table full of people, “we’re pregnant,” she said shyly but exultantly.

Hearty congratulations were passed around the table, and word quickly spread to nearby tables. Miss Rose reached out to Bethany and took her hand, trembling just a bit.

“God’s blessings, honey. On you and on that child there.”

Bethany bit her lower lip and smiled. “Thank you so much. I’m just so nervous and excited. Cliff and I went out today and bought the crib. I think we’re going to do Noah’s Ark in the nursery,” she said and turned to her husband. “I can’t believe that we’re turning that silly spare bedroom into a nursery!

Cliff kissed her cheek, and turned as several people came to shake his hand and offer congratulations.

Miss Rose took a small bite of potato salad, and chewed thoughtfully for a moment. “You know, honey, I did Noah’s Ark when my son was born. Back then, my daddy had carved a set of those animals. Little giraffes, a couple of horses, and the most wonderful set of elephants with miniature tusks you ever saw. Johnny broke one of ...em when he was about five. But every time I look at that elephant, I remember when my baby was young. Course, he’s fifty-seven now,” she laughed, and there was resulting laughter around the table.

Bethany smiled, “Miss Rose, I’d love to see those sometime if you still have them around.”

“As a matter of fact, I do. It’s one of the few things I wanted to have with me when I moved out of my house. Silly really, I guess.”

“Not at all, Miss Rose. I think it makes wonderful sense!” replied Bethany who soon turned away to thank well-wishers.

“How many children do you have Miss Rose?” asked Paul as he sawed on a piece of fried chicken with a plastic knife and fork. It was much more complicated than it looked.

“Well, we had four. But I lost one to cancer when she was eighteen. My oldest lives here in town- comes to visit me every week. My daughter lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband. She’s a grandma now too! And my youngest, well, he kind of moves around I guess,” she said as her eyes clouded.

Sensing her unhappiness, he maneuvered the conversation in a better direction. “So you have one great-grandchild?”

Miss Rose smiled, “Yes I do. A great-granddaughter. Nine months old now. I have all kinds of pictures up in my room, Pastor. Next time you stop in, I’ll show ...em to you.”

“I’d like that Miss Rose. Truly.”

One of the elderly gentleman entered the conversation as well. “My grandson just had his third. That makes nine ...greats’ in my family. Six boys and three girls.”

“Well, Laurence, some of us spring chickens just need time to catch up,” she replied saucily.

Easy laughter spread as the banter continued. Soon, Paul offered to get something for Miss Rose’s dessert.

“What did you bring, honey?”

“I made my own mother’s famous berry trifle-fresh whipped cream,” he added as an incentive.

“It’s not that stuff out of a can, is it?”

Paul acted wounded, “Miss Rose, you know I would never!”

She smiled, “I’m just teasing you. Bring me a touch of that, and don’t skimp on the whipped cream, if you please.” She adjusted the napkin on her lap as he walked to the dessert table.

Two lemon meringue pies, still warm from the oven beckoned to him. Cupcakes decorated like clowns were popular with the under-ten set, he noticed. A warm gingerbread sent out its tantalizing aroma as well. Well, there’s only one thing to do, he thought. I just have to be diplomatic and take a little of everything. And he did just that, adding a slice of the gingerbread, a mini-cheesecake, a warm sliver of the lemon meringue, and a dab of a chocolate mousse confection that looked like it would melt on his tongue. He also put a spoonful of the trifle on a plate for Miss Rose.

On his way back to the table, Steve caught his arm. “Were you ready to discuss, uh, those business issues?”

“What business issues?” A sharp voice came from behind. Larry Wilkins was nothing less than a busybody. Paul regularly prayed for the Lord to endow him with patience where Larry was concerned. Larry’s parents had been founding members of the church in the 1920s and Larry found it his divine mission to involve himself with every single issue that concerned the church, and many that didn’t.

Paul smiled at him, “Good to see you Larry. It’s just some personal business that I had consulted Steve on. No big deal.”

Larry’s eyes narrowed, “Well, alright. But if there’s something going on here legally,” he said with a pointed look at Steve, “Then this church body has a right to know.”

“Well aware of it Larry, and thankful for your input. Did you try that lemon meringue pie? It looks delicious,” Paul said turning to Steve. Under his breath, he added, “How about in my office in twenty minutes?”

Steve chuckled and nodded.

Paul returned to the table and placed Miss Rose’s plate in front of her. Bethany had declined dessert, citing a tightening waistline, but Cliff’s plate bore a startling resemblance to his own.

“Well, we are eating for two now,” explained Cliff through a mouthful of cheesecake.

Laughing without reservation, Paul dug into his desserts and listened to continuing conversations around him.

Soon, it was time to slip away. Throwing his plates in the large trash barrel, he walked out of the room and up the back stairwell. Steve had come up a different stairway and was waiting outside the locked office.

Earlier, Paul had copied the letter. He handed the fresh sheet to a seated Steve. After a few moments, Steve looked up.

“Is this for real?” he asked with concern etched on his face, gesturing mildly with the paper.

Paul leaned back in his chair and sighed, “Steve, now you know as much as I do.”

Steve removed his glasses set them on the desk in front of him. “Paul, we need to contact the police. If something illegal is going on...” his voice faded away.

“The thing is Steve, I’m just not getting a clear idea of where to go with this. I prayed about it, and the Lord just seems to want me to hold back on this right now. I can’t explain it.” He leaned forward, pointing to the final lines of the letter. “Besides, what if this is true? What if we can’t go to the police right now?”

Steve laid the letter on the desk. “Paul, no offense here. But this is bigger than our church. Neither of us is qualified to go digging around who knows what.”

Paul nodded, appreciating again Steve’s blunt approach.

“Steve, would you do me a favor? Pray about it tonight. And if you feel like God is telling you to turn this over, then I will trust your judgment. I don’t want to get us in more trouble.”

A shadow stepped in front of the doorway. Larry Wilkins pinched voice spoke up, “And what, pray tell, is going to get this church in so much trouble?”

Steve turned, startled.

Paul rose, deftly placing a book on top of the copied letter. “Nothing that concerns you Larry. Did you need something?”

Larry looked back and forth between Steve and Paul. His eyes narrowed, “I know you two are hiding something. And I think it’s my responsibility to find out what it is.”

“Not at all, Larry. Thanks Paul, for taking the time to meet with me. Appreciate it as always,” Steve said reaching across the desk to shake Paul’s hand. “Larry,” he added nodding as he left the office.

“Pastor, I don’t appreciate being kept in the dark.”

“Larry? There is a time and a place for everything, and this is neither the time nor the place. Let’s head back downstairs, shall we?”

“That’s what I was coming up here for, Pastor. Trudy thought you should head up the dishwashing in the kitchen.” Trudy was Larry’s wife.

How thoughtful of her, thought Paul wryly. “Well, let me lock up here and I’ll be right behind you, okay?”

Larry nodded, narrowing his eyes at the pastor and walked away.

Leaning his head against the door, Paul prayed. Lord, I know I might not get an engraved commandment from heaven about what to do here, but could you please just make Yourself a little clearer? I really don’t have any idea where to go right now...

HEY! and don't forget to e-mail Kendra Cornell if you have a comment! She would really like to hear from you.

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