Told in three voices, a story of division in a small town and the unlikely events that bring people together.
The Great Divide
"You joining us?"
Opening the squeaky screen door, I stepped out onto the porch of Keilah's Cup. Immediately my body shivered from the sharp chill of a mid-winter evening.
I recognized him from his Tuesday order: two shots, whole milk and extra foam.
"No. Maybe another time."
He paused, staring at me briefly before he rejoined the crowd.
Sandy Salts residents were lined up on either side of Highway 97, which doubled as our main street. They shouted back and forth at each other, daring the other side to "meet them in the middle."
The Toots—those who didn't want the extra two lanes to come through town, and the Forts—those who welcomed progress, had been at it every night for a month.
I had just finished cleaning up for the evening when I heard tonight's rowdy rebels. Peering out the window, I saw a gathering of citizens carrying signs that read, "For Lanes 4 Fools," and "What if it's YOUR daddy's grave they dig up?"
A rumor swirled around town that the new highway would run through the cemetery, and that the state hoped to dig up graves of loved ones without anyone noticing.
My husband, Phillip called the highway department directly to get to the bottom of it. They laughed at the notion and asked if he'd actually looked at a map of the lane additions. Construction was going nowhere near the cemetery. It mattered little to the angry Toots, however. They salivated at the thought of fighting with their neighbors, with or without the truth on their side.
It wasn't long before things escalated, as they always did, and the group met in the center of the highway. They pushed and shoved until someone yelled "car!" forcing a quick retreat.
As absurd as it was, I couldn't look away. With each encounter, the group grew increasingly more violent, with signs being hurled at one another along with rotten fruit.
I stepped back inside and waited. Glancing around the coffee shop I'd purchased from my boss, I felt a sadness creep over me. Things were going to change soon, whether the protestors—or us business owners—liked it or not.
I jumped when the door opened. "Oh, sheriff. Thanks so much for coming."
My stubborn red hair drooped over one eye, just as tired-looking as the rest of me felt. I made a fruitless attempt to tuck it behind my ear before turning my attention to the sheriff.
Sheriff Lurlene Pile folded her ridiculously beefy arms across her chest. "I've got reinforcements on the way. I hate to think of you missing your kids bedtime. Why don't you go on home? I'll make sure they don't damage your place."
A broken window would give Phillip one more reason to be upset with me.
You don't listen to me, anymore, Keilah!
You don't say anything! How can I listen when you're keeping secrets?
My head snapped up. "Oh, sorry. I'd feel better if I waited until you break up the crowd. Verla's place had a broken window two nights ago."
Sheriff Lurlene as she liked to be called, nodded. "You've made your choice then?"
"What?" I'd been caught, drifting off once more.
"Are you for the two lanes or the four?" The sheriff asked.
I was shocked that a public official would ask. "I'm staying neutral. All the business owners are trying to keep quiet so we don't lose customers."
She cocked her head to the side and glared at me. "Don't think so. Everybody I've talked to has made up their minds and they're pretty vocal about it. I find that odd."
"Why is that, sheriff?"
Flashing red lights appeared in my gravel parking lot and the sheriff reached for the door. She paused momentarily, gazing at me with hard, brown eyes. "This town is full of secrets, Mrs. Charmont."
Keilah—owner of Keilah's Cup, coffee shop and a bad interview
K.J.—Kenner Jack, Keilah's precocious son who wants to form his own pots and pans band
Jonah Myles—foreman for new road project
Vanessa Withers—one of Keilah's two best friends who writes obituaries and sniffs perfume samples in her spare time
Four Months Ago
When I was younger, there were three things I was told were omens of bad events to come. My father said it came to him in a dream after eating all of the homemade salsa in one sitting. The peppers were extra hot that summer.
First was the earth moving.
The ground shook for the second time today and I jumped up, grabbing both of our cups. It had become a familiar routine, the sounds of machinery and the unsettling rumble under our feet.
"I want my readers to know that anyone can realize their dreams," my best friend, Vanessa continued, oblivious to the chaos around us. "It's an old premise, but I like to circle back around every few months. It always gets a lot of hits online."
Each day we could hear the road crew getting closer to our little town, and each day I became a little more anxious and unsettled. ]
Vanessa Withers, Librarian/Postal Employee/Reporter/Avon Representative/Non-Sleeper, pulled her phone from the side pocket of her suitcase-sized purse, and set it on the table in between us.
"I can't imagine anyone clicking on this article. Everyone here in town knows my story. Why would they want to hear it all again?"
I diverted my gaze from my friend to the table behind us, where my beautiful copper-headed boy, K.J., was using my brand-new spatulas to beat on the head of my baby girl. "Kenner Jack, what are you doing to your sister?" His wide-eyed stare of innocence always melted my heart. "Use those to beat on the floor if that's your gig today. Sisters are for smothering in hugs."
I blew my boy—my twin—a kiss and returned to our conversation. "Sorry, Vee. Usually he's so good, but every now and again, I'm reminded that he's only five."
She squinted, a sign there was something amiss in my appearance.
"Did I forget to brush my hair this morning? No one else has looked at me strangely, but it's been a slow day."
"It looks great, hon. You're about as focused as a dog in a park. This isn't a re-tread of the 'follow your dreams' story. We're adding the element of renewal. It's going to
serve two purposes. One, prove to my editor that I'm capable of more than writing obituaries, and two, hopefully bring folks back together. They need to understand
this highway isn't dividing them; their words are. Now, you're moving this business four hundred feet–"
"Five hundred feet," I corrected her. "The road construction supervisor was supposed to be here today. Guess I shouldn't have expected he would keep his word."
My former landlord and good friend Dee warned me that highway construction was about as reliable as a clock with used batteries.
"We're doing a complete remodel, from painting the logs that make up our walls to shining the floors, to new lighting." I gestured around the coffee shop dramatically,
the way I'd seen them do on television.
It was how I acted with everyone these days; using broad gestures to divert attention from the topic I knew was on everyone's mind. The gossip mill had, no doubt
, been churning over time with the juicy tidbit that my husband, Phillip had grown tired of me.
"When I bought this place, the bank was kind enough to loan me extra money for remodeling. I've been holding on to it for the last six years waiting for just the right
time," I continued, pointing toward the back door and then the ceiling, like the flight attendant did on the plane before our honeymoon trip.
"Oh, and we're adding on a new covered deck area. All thanks to the State of Iowa's plan to widen the highway through town. It's the perfect time to remind everyone they need to put down their verbal weaponry and support their local businesses, like Keilah's Cup."
"Ooh, I like that. Reminder to Vanessa," she spoke into her phone, "use Keilah's last line for the end of the article."
I nodded, trying to be supportive even if this seemed like a colossal waste of time.
"That's why I'm trying to put a positive spin on things," Vanessa continued. "After yesterday's competing rallies ended in near bloodshed, I want to be the force for good."
I'd seen the ugliness for myself. In all the years I'd lived in Sandy Salts, the residents were strange, but they were a cohesive, strange group. Now, they avoided one another on the sidewalk and skipped large gatherings. Businesses put up orange cones, dividing the space into distinct areas where each strongly opinionated soul could stand.
"Let's spend a few minutes focusing on your journey from the lost little girl who came to town, trying to find answers for her childhood to the strong business owner with two kids and a husband. We'll begin with your acquisition of the business. People love it when you start in the present and move backward." Vanessa pushed record on her phone and made a rolling motion with her hand.
"It wasn't so much an acquisition as the realization that Jack wanted to retire, and his daughter was in the middle of her third divorce and didn't have the time to run a coffee shop."
I paused. My heart wasn’t in this interview.
Vanessa's arms flailed about as she tried coaxing more from me. Suppressing a giggle, I remained stoic.
During my first year in Sandy Salts, I was struggling to figure out exactly who I was. Had it not been for Deeloriandra Fisher, my landlord, and Vanessa, I'd still be stuck between my old life and new. "I guess you could remind people that I came to Sandy Salts to start over. I left my family farm in Pepperville with no job and no—"
Vanessa pushed "stop" and frowned. "You're going to put everyone to sleep. My readers want grit. They want to know about the challenges you've faced being a business owner."
"Your readers are more interested in your colorful obituaries and the weather," I reminded her. "They aren't going to care what I say."
Kenner Jack produced two spatulas, taken from my clean dishes, and set them down in front of Vanessa. "I want to go to Gee Gaw's. Can you take me, Auntie Vee?" He cocked his copper-colored head to the side, smiling so broadly that all three of his missing teeth holes were visible.
"As soon as your mother is done with her stimulating interview." She gazed at me hopefully. "It's going to be stimulating soon, right?"
I shrugged. I wanted to confess everything to her, but it wasn't the right time or place.
Vanessa ruffled K.J.'s hair and kissed the top of his head before he ran off. "You're going to break hearts, little man," she called after him.
"Wait!" I grabbed his arm as he ran by, giving him the sternest look I could muster. "You need to ask your mother for permission. Your aunt spoils you, but I'm still the boss. What do you say, K.J.?"
"Can I pleeease go to Gee Gaws and play with her toys?"
I'd learned there was a rhythm to parenting. You can't automatically agree to anything without your kid using it as a sign of weakening authority. Take a breath and count to ten so they know you're thinking it over. I made it to five. "Okay. You need to call her first–"
Without waiting for me to finish, he ran through the swinging doors leading to the kitchen and ducked under them. "I know!" He shouted.
Vanessa picked up her phone and pushed record again. "From what you've told me about your own mother, Dee is a bonus grandparent. How has creating a family away from the farm in Pepperville affected your kids? Talk about that part of your journey for our readers."
"I'd rather not," I replied sullenly. "I don't want them to feel bad about themselves. My mother is masterful at making anyone besides my brother Kyan feel bad. My kids are joyous and free-spirited. I like it that way."
"I'll cut that out."
Vanessa gazed deeply into my eyes and I knew what she was thinking. I wasn't ready to talk about my marital issues. "Can we stop this now and talk about you?" I insisted, trying to break her trance. "Something weird is going on with you, Vee. The last time you came for coffee, you received a mysterious phone call. You never returned."
Second was a division in our lives.
A loud scream interrupted us, and snapped my head around to find my toddler lying on the floor with her chubby hands on her forehead. She was born with the heart-shaped face and beautiful brown eyes of her namesake and my childhood friend, Rosabel McCallister. While her name was a tribute to my deceased friend, her temperament was another matter.
I rushed to her side, bracing myself for a Level 10 toddler accident. Squatting beside her, I gently pried her hands away from her face. "Let Mama see, Rosie. Let me see your owie!"
Rosie shook her head back and forth. "No! No, no!"
"I've been sitting over at that table."
An elderly woman with a pile of gray hair on her head appeared behind me, crossing her arms over her chest. She pointed to a large table where a group of women sat crocheting all afternoon. "Watched that little one unattended. You shouldn't leave her alone like that. This was bound to happen." She clucked her tongue for emphasis. "If you'd agree to section off your place, one side for Toots and t'other for Forts, there'd be more folks here to keep an eye on her." She turned around for reassurance from her group. None of them were watching.
"Yes, I do realize that, Mrs. Nelson." I glanced at Vanessa and rolled my eyes. "But I'm not dividing my business because people have different opinions. If I did that with every local disagreement, this place would look like a spider web."
"You'll have to take a side soon or neither one will want your coffee," she sniffed.
K.J. rushed out of the kitchen and to my side. He placed his arm protectively around my neck. "What's wrong, Mama? Did Rosie fall again?"
"Yes, son. Go get me some ice and a clean wash rag from the kitchen." I scooped my baby up and rocked her in my arms until she calmed to a gentle whimper.Seeing she wasn't going to upset me, Mrs. Nelson did an about face and returned to the support of her group.
"Oh, shoot. You're going to have another goose egg. The gossip machine will go into overdrive with that one." I kissed her tenderly as K.J. arrived with a washcloth and a plastic bag full of ice.
"I put it in a bag, Mama. Last time it ran all the way down her shirt and Rosie was draped."
"You're a good boy. Thanks for remembering. Drenched is the word you're looking for." I placed the bag on Rosie's head and began rocking her back and forth, as much to soothe myself as her.
When we were both sufficiently calm, I returned to the table with Vanessa.
"I'd like to ask two favors, Vee."
"First, can you run the kids over to Dee's?" I raised my eyebrows and looked at my son.
"Gee Gaw would be de-lighted to see us, Mama," K.J. replied matter-of-factly.
"Perfect. Go get your things and Rosie's diaper bag." His little head ducked under the swinging doors as he dutifully fetched her bag. "Love you!" I called after him.
"That's easy. What's the second thing?" Vanessa asked.
"Just make up something about me. I don't care what you say, as long as you make Keilah's Cup sound like the best coffee in the entire state of Iowa."
She folded her hands in front of her, giving the false impression that she was on the same page. "But I wanted to give you this opportunity to shine!" Vanessa protested. "Don't you want to see your words in print?"
Smiling at her, I shook my head. "I don't need an article for people to understand what's important to me. Just make it look like I've got my act together."
K.J. reappeared with a pink-and-purple diaper bag half his size hanging across his body and a red truck-print backpack in one hand. "I'm ready, Auntie Vee."
Vanessa lifted him up and planted a wet kiss on his cheek, which he promptly wiped off. "Okay, my big man. You take your cute self and your backpack out to my car."
She handed him her car keys. "You remember how to unlock it, right?"
He nodded, pointing to the center button.
"No driving yet. We can't do that when your mom's around, or she might think I'm a bad aunt. I'll be out in a minute with the diaper bag and your sister."
He ran off the instant she set him down, banging the squeaky screen door before hopping down the steps.
"Your act is far more together than most people in their thirties." Vanessa leaned in close, her signal for serious talk. "I just want the best for you."
The third sign was the appearance of a stranger.
K.J. reappeared with a solemn look on his face.
"Mama? There's a man out here with a problem."