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Every first Sunday in June, members of the Moses clan gather for an annual reunion at a sprawling hundred-acre farm in Arkansas. And every year, Samuel Lake, a vibrant and committed young preacher, brings his beloved wife, Willadee Moses, and their three children back for the festivities. In the midst of it all, Samuel and Willadee's outspoken eleven-year-old daughter, Swan, is a bright light. Her high spirits and fearlessness have alternately seduced and bedeviled three generations of the family. But just as the reunion is getting under way, tragedy strikes, jolting the family to their core and setting the stage for a summer of crisis and profound change. With the clear-eyed wisdom that illuminates the most tragic-and triumphant-aspects of human nature, Jenny Wingfield has created an enduring work of fiction. Look for special features inside. Join the Circle for author chats and more. RandomHouseReadersCircle.com
Columbia County, Arkansas, 1956
John Moses couldn’t have chosen a worse day, or a worse way to die, if he’d planned it for a lifetime. Which was possible. He was contrary as a mule. It was the weekend of the Moses family reunion, and everything was perfect—or at least perfectly normal—until John went and ruined it.
The reunion was always held the first Sunday in June. It had been that way forever. It was tradition. And John Moses had a thing about tradition. Every year or so, his daughter, Willadee (who lived way off down in Louisiana), would ask him to change the reunion date to the second Sunday in June, or the first Sunday in July, but John had a stock answer.
“I’d rather burn in Hell.”
Willadee would remind her father that he didn’t believe in Hell, and John would remind her that it was God he didn’t believe in, the vote was still out about Hell. Then he would throw in that the worst thing about it was, if there did happen to be a hell, Willadee’s husband, Samuel Lake, would land there right beside him, since he was a preacher, and everybody knew that preachers (especially Methodists, like Samuel) were the vilest bunch of bandits alive.
Willadee never argued with her daddy, but the thing was, annual conference started the first Sunday in June. That was when all the Methodist ministers in Louisiana found out from their district superintendents how satisfied or dissatisfied their congregations had been that past year, and whether they were going to get to stay in one place or have to move.
Usually, Samuel would have to move. He was the kind who ruffled a lot of feathers. Not on purpose, mind you. He just went along doing what he thought was right—which included driving out into the boonies on Sunday mornings, and loading up his old rattletrap car with poor people (sometimes ragged, barefoot poor people), and hauling them into town for services. It wouldn’t have been so bad if he’d had separate services, one for the folks from the boonies and one for fine, upright citizens whose clothes and shoes were presentable enough to get them into Heaven, no questions asked. But Samuel Lake was of the bothersome conviction that God loved everybody the same. Add this to the fact that he preached with what some considered undue fervor, frequently thumping the pulpit for emphasis and saying things like “If you believe that, say ‘AMEN’!” when he knew full well that Methodists were trying to give up that sort of thing, and you can see what his churches were up against.
John Moses didn’t give a hoot about Samuel’s obligations. He wasn’t about to mess with Moses tradition just because Willadee had been fool enough to marry a preacher.
Of course, Samuel wasn’t a preacher when Willadee married him. He was a big, strapping country boy, strong as an ox, and dangerously good- looking. Black-haired and blue-eyed—Welsh and Irish or some such mix. Several girls in Columbia County had taken to their beds for a week when Samuel married that plain, quiet Willadee Moses.
Samuel Lake was magic. He was wonderful and terrible, with an awful temper and fearsome tenderness, and when he loved, he loved with his whole heart. He had a clear tenor voice, and he could play the guitar or the fiddle or the mandolin or just about any other instrument you could think of. Folks all over the county used to talk about Samuel and his music.
“Sam Lake can play anything he can pick up.”
“He can make strings talk.”
“He can make them speak in tongues.”
Every year, the day after school let out for the summer, Samuel and Willadee would load up their kids, Noble and Swan and Bienville, and take off for south Arkansas. Willadee already had freckles everywhere the sun had ever touched, but she would always roll the window down and hang her arm out, and God would give her more. Her boisterous, sand-colored hair would fly in the breeze, tossing and tangling, and eventually she would laugh out loud, just because going home made her feel so free.
Columbia County was located down on the tail end of Arkansas, which looked just the same as north Louisiana. When God made that part of the country, He made it all in one big piece, and He must have had a good time doing it. There were rolling hills and tall trees and clear creeks with sandy bottoms and wildflowers and blue skies and great puffy clouds that hung down so low you’d almost believe you could reach up and grab a handful. That was the upside. The downside was brambles and cockleburs and a variety of other things
nobody paid much attention to, since the upside outweighed the downside by a mile.
Because of the annual conference, Samuel never got to stay for the reunion. Just long enough to unload Willadee and the kids, and talk awhile with Willadee’s parents. At least, he talked with her mother, Calla. John would invariably gag and go outside the minute his son-in- law set foot in the house, but Calla thought Samuel hung the moon. Within an hour or so, Samuel would be kissing Willadee goodbye and patting her on the backside, right there in front of God and everybody. Then he’d hug the kids and tell them to mind their mama, and he’d head back to Louisiana. He always said goodbye to John as he left, but the old man never answered back. He couldn’t forgive Samuel for moving Willadee so far away, and he couldn’t forgive Willadee for going. Especially since she could have married Calvin Furlough, who now had a successful paint and body shop, and lived right down the road, and had the best coon dogs you ever laid eyes on. If Willadee had cooperated with her father by falling in love with Calvin, everything would have been different. She could have lived nearby, and been a comfort to John in his old age. And he (John) would not be stuck with a granddaughter named Swan Lake.
The Moses family lived all over Columbia County. All over. John and Calla had loved each other lustily, and had produced five children. Four sons and a daughter. All of these except Willadee and their youngest (Walter, who had died in a sawmill accident the year he turned twenty) still lived around Magnolia, all within forty miles of the old homeplace.
The “old homeplace” had been a sprawling hundred-acre farm, which provided milk and eggs and meat and vegetables and fruit and berries and nuts and honey. It took some coaxing. The land gave little up for free. The farm was dotted with outbuildings that John and his sons had erected over the years. Barns and sheds and smokehouses and outhouses, most of which were leaning wearily by 1956. When you don’t use a building anymore, it knows it’s lost its purpose.
The Moses house was a big two-story affair. Solidly built, but it leaned a little, too, these days, as if there weren’t enough souls inside anymore to hold it up. John and Calla had stopped farming several years back. Calla still had a garden and a few chickens, but they let the fields grow up, and walled in the front porch of the house, and turned it into a grocery store/service station. Calla had John paint her a sign, but she couldn’t decide whether she wanted the thing to say “Moses’ Grocery and Service Station” or “Moses’ Gas and Groceries.” While she was making up her mind, John ran out of patience and nailed the sign above the front door. It said, simply, moses.
Calla would get out of bed every morning, go down to the store, and start a pot of coffee perking, and farmers would drop by on their way to the cattle auction or the feed store, and warm their behinds at the woodstove, and drink Calla’s coffee.
Calla had a way with the customers. She was an ample, comfortable woman, with capable hands, and people liked dealing with her. She didn’t really need John, not in the store. As a matter of fact, he got underfoot.
Now, John liked to drink. For thirty years, he’d laced his coffee with whiskey every morning before he headed out to the milk barn. That was to keep off the chill, in the winter. In the summertime, it was to brace him for the day. He no longer went to milk at dawn, but he still laced his coffee. He’d sit there in Calla’s store and visit with
the regulars, and by the time they were on their way to take care of the day’s business, John was usually on his way to being ripped. None of this sat well with Calla. She was used to her husband staying busy, and she told him, finally, that he needed an interest.
“I’ve got an interest, woman,” he told her. Calla was bent over, stoking the fire in the woodstove at the moment, so she presented a mighty tempting target. John aimed himself in her direction, and wobbled over behind her, and slipped his arms around her middle. Calla was caught so off guard that she burned her hand on the poker. She shrugged her husband off and sucked on her hand.
“I mean, one that’ll keep you out of my hair,” she snapped.
“You never wanted me out of your hair before.”
He was wounded. She hadn’t intended to wound him, but after all, wounds heal over. Most of them.
“I never had time to notice before if you was in my hair or not. Isn’t there anything you like to do anymore, besides roll around in bed?” Not that she minded rolling around in bed with her husband. She liked it now, maybe even more than she had in all the years they’d been together. But you couldn’t do that all day long just because a man had nothing else to occupy his time. Not when you had customers dropping by every few minutes.
John went to the counter where he’d been drinking his coffee. He poured himself another cup, and laced it good.
“There is,” he announced stiffly. “There most damn certainly is something else I like to do. And I’m about to do it.”
The thing he was talking about was getting drunk. Not just ripped. Blind drunk. Beyond thinking and reasoning drunk. He took his coffee and his bottle, and a couple more bottles he had stashed behind the counter, plus a package of doughnuts and two tins of Prince Albert. Then he went out to the barn, and he stayed for three days. When he’d been drunk enough long enough, and there was no further purpose to be served by staying drunk any longer, he came back to the house and took a hot bath and had a shave. That was the day he walled in the back porch of the house and started painting another sign.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” Calla demanded, hands on hips, the way a woman stands when She Expects an Answer.
“I’m cultivating an interest,” John Moses said. “From now on, you’ve got a business, and I’ve got a business, and we don’t either one stick our noses in the other one’s business. You open at dawn and close at dusk, I’ll open at dusk and close at dawn. You won’t have to roll around with me anymore, because we won’t be keeping the same hours.”
“I never said I didn’t want to roll around with you.”
“The hell you never,” said John.
He took his sign, with the paint still wet, and he climbed up on his stepladder and nailed that sign above the back door. The paint was smudged, but the message was readable enough. It said, never closes.
Never Closes sold beer and wine and hard liquor seven nights a week, all night long. Since Columbia County was dry, it was illegal to sell alcohol to the public, so John didn’t call it selling. He was just serving drinks to his friends, that’s all. Sort of like gifts he gave them. Then, when they were ready to call it a night, his “friends” would each give John a gift of some sort. Five dollars, or ten dollars, or whatever his little ragged notebook indicated the gift should be.
The county sheriff and several deputies got into the habit of dropping by after their shifts, and John really didn’t sell to them, just poured them anything they wanted, on the house. Those fellows never saw so much free liquor, so it just stood to reason that there would be a lot of other things they didn’t see. But they were used to not seeing, under certain circumstances, so it all felt pretty right.
Before long, John got his own share of regulars who would drop by to play dominoes or shoot pool. They’d talk religion and politics, and tell filthy stories, and spit tobacco juice in the coffee cans John had set around, and they’d smoke until the air was thick enough to cut into cubes.
John took bitter pride in his new venture. He’d have dropped the whole thing in a heartbeat, would have torn down his walls and burned his sign and told his regulars to go to hell, if Calla would have apologized, but she had her own pride. There was a wedge between them, and she couldn’t see that she’d been the one to drive it.
After a while, Calla took to staying open seven days a week, too. Sometimes her last customers of the day would walk right out the front door and go around the house to the back door and drink up whatever money they had left over from buying groceries. Sometimes, it was the other way around. John’s customers would stagger out the back door at dawn and come around to the front (there was a well-worn path). They’d sober up on Calla’s coffee, then spend the rest of their money on food for their families.
You could go to the Moses place, any time of the day or night, and buy what you needed, provided your needs were simple. And you never had to leave until you were ready, because neither Calla nor John had the heart to run anybody off, even when they ran out of money. Nate Ramsey had stayed once for almost a week when his wife, Shirley, took to throwing things at home.
And that’s the way things went along, right up until the day John Moses died. Moses Never Closes was something folks counted on. It was a certain place in an uncertain world. Folks wanted it to stay the way it was, because once you change one part of a thing, all the other parts begin to shift, and pretty soon, you just don’t know what’s what anymore.