Wilhelmina Battersley slammed the bread dough down on the cracked wooden board. She dug her fingers into the sticky mess. The flour on her hands obscured her age spots and left particles clinging to the fine, pale hairs on her muscular forearms.
Wilhelmina Battersley was a fine upstanding Christian woman who knew her duty. She had been wrong and she would be the first to admit it. But she didn't have to be happy about it. Her mouth was a thin, pinched line and she stared sightlessly out her kitchen window as she took her anger out on the dough.
She would do the right thing. She had always done the right thing. She was an upright, duty-bound Christian woman and she knew her place. She had been wrong and she would apologize. Her mouth twisted at the thought, but she straightened her back, gave a final punch to the bread and set it in the unheated oven to rise. No one had ever accused Wilhelmina Battersley of shirking her righteous duty.
She dusted her hands against her apron. Untied the strings. She would take over one of her freshly baked pies and do her duty.
She had done her duty the first time. It wasn't her fault that Agatha Holsted's husband wasn't having some kind of a fling with that woman. They had no business being seen that close together in a public place, talking and touching. And laughing. Creating a scandal. Anyone would have thought! It had been her Christian duty to warn Agatha and she had done so. And she would do it again if she had to.
She jammed her hat on her head, picked up the warm pie and stalked down the lane and walked the quarter of a mile to Agatha Holsted's house.
She had been wrong and she would be the first to admit it. But what were decent people to think! Tom Holsted had no business being in the same room with a woman like that. She had warned Lionel about Magnolia Tetterbaum the very first time she had seen the woman in church, pretending to be so righteous during the sermon. She had whispered into her nodding husband's ear right in the middle of the Lord's Prayer, so strongly had she felt. He had looked startled at first and appeared to agree with her, but she wasn't fooled. She recognized the type.
How was she to know the Tetterbaum woman was just helping Tom pick out something nice for Agatha's birthday? He had no business smiling at her like he had. No man did. How was she to know?
She knocked abruptly on Agatha's screen door and went in.
"Agatha? It's Wilhelmina. I'll not mince words, I was wrong and that's all there is to it. I still don't think Tom had any business being seen with that Magnolia, she's no better than she thinks she is, but I was wrong and no one has ever said that I didn't own up to my mistakes. Agatha, can you hear me? I brought you a pie."
Agatha was sitting bolt upright in her living room, all dressed in her Sunday-best. But she couldn't hear Wilhelmina, or see her, or take her pie. Agatha had done her duty, too.
Lionel Battersley walked out of his barn one extremely hot morning in August and disappeared.
It was the talk of the cafe for months. Homer Aspern said Wilhelmina had driven Lionel to it.
"That woman would make a pig go off his slops with one glance!"
Matthew Pickering thought it maybe, could've been money troubles. He had heard "talk."
Sarah, the waitress, knew it was another woman...and can you blame him?
Tom Holsted insisted it was aliens but no one paid him any mind. Tom had been a little off ever since his wife died.
No one came right out and asked Wilhelmina what really happened and eventually the talk died down and was replaced by speculation on Martha Winsap's boy and what really happened down at Harmon's Creek, the Pickering's barn fire and the other various ephemera of daily life.
About one year to the day that Lionel walked out of his barn, the rumors started. Phylis Langston was the first. She said she had heard that Lionel was back! Next Sarah said she had heard the same thing and Homer said that he had heard from a guy who had talked to a guy who had heard from a guy who had seen Lionel at the feed store.
The talk persisted for over a week. At the cafe, it was the topic of consideration. Everyone knew someone who had talked to someone who had seen Lionel somewhere around town. Tom said it proved he'd been right. The aliens had gotten what they wanted out of Lionel and had sent him back. Homer said that anything Lionel knew wouldn't have taken a year to get.
Then one morning Wilhelmina came into the cafe. Sarah raised her eyebrows at Phylis and Matthew and greeted her from behind the laminated counter.
"Well, Wilhelmina. We don't see you round here often...what can I get you?"
Wilhelmina took no notice of the others and stared past Sarah, "I need some of those cough drops you have back there. Lionel has been driving me about crazy with his hackin' and I have had enough. He couldn't come down here. No siree, he's too busy sittin' on his old, well, never you mind. I had to come down. Didn't matter that I was right in the middle of something. What I do isn't important. My time is at everyone's disposable. I can just drop anything to run down here and get...NO not those, the other ones." She waved dismissively over Sarah's left shoulder.
Repressing a start of surprise at the abrupt termination of the flood of complaints, Sarah quickly got the cough drops down from the shelf behind the counter. But before she handed them over she toyed with the box and said, ever so casually, "Must be pretty nice having Lionel back...after all this time." A hush as thick as a wool blanket fell over the cafe.
Wilhelmina focused her eyes on Sarah and looked even more irritated. "Back? Back from where? That man hasn't been out of his easy chair since the Lord knows when. I wish he would disappear for awhile. I'd probably get a lot more done without having to answer his every beck and call."
Sarah, confused, blustered, "Well, Wilhelmina, I mean..., you know, since Lionel, well, since Lionel, you know, walked out a year ago...." The words trailed off as Wilhelmina began to laugh.
"Walk! Lionel, walk? Walk out on me?!" She sneered. "The day I see that man walk further than the path between his chair and my icebox, well that'll be the day pigs'll fly! He wouldn't know the first thing to do without me telling him. Sometimes I wonder how he's even managed to stay alive this long. I don't know if it's true about drunkards, but it's certainly true the Good Lord looks after fools!" And with that she put her money on the counter, grabbed the cough drops and walked out of the cafe.
"Well, I never! Who does she think she's kidding?" Sarah said indignantly.
Matthew thought maybe Wilhelmina was a little "touched." Phylis said she thought she was probably trying to hide the shame of it. When Homer and Tom came into the cafe a little later, Homer wondered why Lionel just didn't get up and leave again. And Tom just stirred his coffee and didn't say anything.
It was about three weeks later when Wilhelmina returned to the cafe. No one had as yet actually seen Lionel and the reports of his activity had died down somewhat. In fact there hadn't been a Lionel sighting in over two weeks.
She had stuffed her dumpy figure into an aged black dress and was wearing rusty black gloves with seams as fragile as spider webs. She marched into the cafe and announced she was there to invite all of them to Lionel's funeral.
"It's at 2 p.m. on Sunday and there'll be food out at the house afterwards. There won't be a wake. Don't believe in that nonsense. The Good Lord didn't put us on this earth to waste time on pointless vanity. I expect to see you all there to pay your respects."
She left as abruptly as she came.
Phylis was aghast. Sarah was astonished. Homer said he thought there was something "funny" about the whole thing. Matthew whistled through his teeth. Tom got up and walked out of the cafe.
Sarah wondered what happened and said it was too bad and how could that woman just sashay in here like that. Didn't she have any shame?
Homer and Matthew just eyed each other, each rubbing a callused thumb against a thick ceramic coffee handle. Homer thought Lionel's big mistake was in coming home. "The woman nagged him to death!"
Phylis wondered if anyone would go to the funeral.
Of course everyone went. The Battersley's church was small, what with there not being many Presbyterians in town. Today it was filled to the rafters and the elderly minister looked a little confused.
Homer and his wife arrived early and bumped into Phylis and her husband at the church around 1:30.
"Just wanted to make sure he was properly seen off," he said gruffly.
Sarah and the Pickerings showed up about 5 minutes later. Tom didn't come.
There were quite a few raised eyebrows when it was discovered there was no coffin. The ceremony was brief. Wilhelmina sat in the first pew, wearing the same dress and gloves she had had on at the cafe. She sat alone, her big, wide body straining against the material, and she reminded Sarah of the old blackbird that liked to torment the dogs in town by coming up behind them and pecking at their heads before it flew off and laughed from the trees.
The preacher said a few words about how we all had to be ready to meet our maker and how we all had to toil before our proper time had come. Wilhelmina gave a short laugh which she turned into a cough at the word, but otherwise it was a very nice ceremony, everyone said, as ceremonies go. Homer thought the preacher laid it on a bit thick about Lionel's beleaguered soul and how it was now free to return to home pastures though he allowed that beleaguered was as good a word as any to describe a man who had to've lived with Wilhelmina. His wife told him to hush.
No one stayed long up at the weather-beaten old farmhouse. While the food was plentiful and good, ("Well, the old bag always did know how to lay out a proper table," Sarah whispered to Matthew, wiping pie crumbs from her mouth) and the furniture was neat and tidy with every angle aligned, still most folks just wanted to pay their respects and leave. Even before he disappeared, Lionel hadn't really paid too much attention to his farm. He got his crops in and tended the few animals he had. But it was a dispirited kind of care and the contrast between it and the house with its painful cleanliness, reflected his chronic indifference.
It was Monday afternoon, two weeks after the funeral. The cafe was full and Phylis, Homer, and Matthew sat on their stools at the counter drinking their second to the last cup of coffee for the day.
"Did anyone here ever see Lionel before he died?"
Phylis, Homer and Matthew looked at Sarah.
"I mean...did anyone ever actually see Lionel after he left...you know...a year ago?"
Phylis allowed as she hadn't. Matthew and Homer just shrugged. Sarah wiped the spotless counter with the edge of her apron and said, "I just wondered if...if he ever really did come back?"
"Why don't you say what you really mean?"
Everyone in the cafe looked up. Tom had been so quiet lately that most of them forgot about him even when he was there. His question floated, unanswered, along with the dust motes. It glided down to the cracked linoleum floor and lay there, waiting to be cleaned up.
There was a subtle shifting of weight on stools. Someone coughed discreetly and asked for a refill. Then Phylis asked what everyone thought about the Lutheran minister's new wife. Matthew said hey, how about them Bantams. Homer said they sure beat the pants off the Mosley Rebels. And Sarah asked if anyone else wanted a cup.
A month passed and life pursued its meandering course in the cafe. It was a cold December afternoon when Sarah remarked that she hadn't seen Tom around in awhile.
Most people had worried about Tom after his wife's death. It was a messy "accident" that no one talked much about, except in hushed tones when Tom wasn't around. He had changed afterwards, everyone said. Before, he had been the coach for the local baseball team, a deacon of his church, and had written the Town Topics column for the local paper, the paper Tom's family had owned for over 50 years. All that ended when Agatha died. The only outside activity Tom took part in now was drinking coffee at the cafe. Sarah made sure he got a bite to eat, too, because she wasn't sure it was something he thought about any more.
Homer said he had heard that Tom had been helping out at Wilhelmina's place. Matthew said something to the effect that if that ol' witch had gotten her clutches into another one, she wouldn't let go easy. Phylis shook her head and thought that there was no way that any man in his right mind would have anything to do with that woman! Homer said who said anything about Tom being in his right mind. Sarah thought it was a shame, but maybe they were jumping to conclusions.
The wedding announcement was in the paper on Tuesday. Just a small ceremony at the church with a supper afterwards at the VFW Hall. People were shocked at the impropriety, though no one blamed Tom. It was that Wilhelmina! Lionel hadn't turned cold in the ground yet and she was snarin' another one.
"Maybe ol' Tom'll walk out like Lionel did," Matthew said after he heard the news. No one pointed out what Lionel's ultimate destination had turned out to be.
The conversation in the cafe spun around whether everyone would be invited and whether anyone would go. It was quite a sensation not simply because Lionel had been dead for less than a year, but because Wilhelmina was marrying a Holsted. It was quite a step up.
Of course, everyone in town got an invitation.
Of course, everyone went.
There were comments later on how Tom seemed defiant during the ceremony. Wilhelmina was resplendent, her pudgy body stuffed in a brand new white moiré silk suit. It was said it had been ordered all the way from a department store in Chicago. Tom stumbled over his answers to the preacher's prompts. Wilhelmina's strident voice bounced from the old church's rafters.
During the reception Tom stayed away from his old friends from the cafe. Whenever one of them maneuvered close enough to say a private word, Tom would see that someone's glass needed filling or that the flame under the chicken ala' king had gone out. Wilhelmina stayed at the front of the hall near the food table and appeared to be counting how much everyone ate. People didn't stay long.
Tom wasn't seen much after the wedding. Neither was Wilhelmina. Tom closed up his old home and moved into the Battersley farm. Whenever they needed any supplies from town, they sent in one of their newly hired hands. The barn was painted and livestock replenished. No one from the cafe was ever invited back after the wedding supper.
Sarah, the waitress, allowed as it was a real shame.
Homer Aspern said it just goes to show.
Matthew Pickering thought that you never could tell.
And Phylis Langston just shook her head, took a sip of her coffee, and asked if anyone had heard why the Winsap's boy had left town in such a hurry.