Marigold Holloway listened closely whenever God spoke to her among the apple trees. After coffee, she’d trace the perimeter of the back field and come through a narrow row that curtained off the Johnson farm to the south and a clump of woods to the north. On most days, it was just Marigold, the knobby trees, and the birds. But sometimes, she’d hear the singular reedy note. At first, it was a drone—a nasal vibration like the sound of a bassoon. Then it would open into calm and ordered words.
The voice had told Marigold about her husband’s cancer and how it would outsmart the doctors, the pneumonia that would take her aunt in the middle of a snowstorm, and then the birthday cake for Dana Mueller that would ignite three houses on Hemlock Street. And in the spring of 1958, when the lilacs were blooming all at once, Marigold heard the reedy sound again. A nighttime rain had come and gone. The ground was still wet. Marigold was standing in the corridor when she heard the drone and then the words, “They will bring their venom.” She waited for more. There was nothing.
“They will bring their venom,” she said back.
Two days later, she stood by the potato bin in Risers Grocery. Myrna Richardson was in Natalie Tolaski’s checkout lane talking about every affliction in her vast body—a stinging all the way down her right leg, stomach cramps the night before, and feet getting sorer every day. Myrna wondered aloud if Risers might consider a delivery service. Natalie said she didn’t know, but what she did know was that next week, for the first time ever, they were going to sell bottled beer.
“Well, how about that?” Myrna said.
“They’ve been working at it for a year,” Natalie said. “Finally got approval.”
“I hope it goes good,” Myrna said before grabbing the handles of her canvas sack and teetering toward the door.
Marigold looked down at the potato in her hand. It had too many eyes, and it was getting soft. She put it in the bin and pressed until she felt her thumb rupture the skin. At the register, she unloaded her basket. “So you’ll be selling liquor?” she said.
“Bottles of beer. As early as next week is what Lewis says.”
So there it was. They’d sell liquor along with flour, eggs, packaged meat, and so on. They’d stock it in the refrigerator, and all the men who’d never seen the inside of the place would come in from the fields before closing time, head for the refrigerator, push aside the eggs, and reach for their venom.
Marigold wouldn’t support it, even if it meant going without. Liquor had killed Daniel. She’d warned her husband, told him liquor was death in a bottle. He wouldn’t listen. She told him to keep it out of the house. Sometimes, when he was in the shed, she’d pass the bottles on the porch, reach down and feel the temperature. When you go heating up yeast, it gets a mind of its own. That’s what she told him, but he laughed, right there on a sun-colored afternoon no less than a month before the doctor first noticed something awry
On the way home, Marigold made her decision. She’d restart milk delivery with Benner’s and get eggs from the Holbrook farm. Risers could go on without her. Of course, her neighbors—the Richardsons, Polks, and the rest—would find no fault in it. They were glad to roll along in the wind. Like fallen leaves, they’d pile themselves into whatever nook would hold them. When the highway people raised the speed limit on Route 34, everyone grumbled and said there’d be accidents. Sure enough, there were collisions and skid-outs and funerals. When the Johnsons brought in those trailers and parked them by the road, people said it’d make the town look rotten. Years later, it looked nothing but that. And when the river flooded, everyone twiddled their thumbs. No one proposed channeling the overflow away from town. At least the state officials could have tried, but they didn’t, and no one made them. The most people in Blakeslee would do about anything was shake their heads—as if Saint Peter himself was looking down and keeping track of yeas and nays. But not Marigold Holloway. She wouldn’t stand for liquor right up next to the eggs. She’d go to Bryan, to that Miller market. It had been five years since she’d made the drive, but it wasn’t far, only a few miles to the big curve and then a few more beyond that. She had a dependable car, a Plymouth that Daniel had kept running quietly for years.
On Monday, honeysuckle hung in the air long past sunrise. Marigold left at ten o’clock, enough time to get back before the men in pickup trucks came into town looking for lunch. She looked out at the yellow-green sprouts blanketing the fields. There were times when she and Daniel used to cross into Indiana and snake around the inland lakes, back when a car ride felt like a windy dream. She’d given up long drives after Daniel passed on and now drove only for groceries and church, but today felt different. There was a mission, a purpose.
At the store in Bryan, the carts were shiny and clean, the aisles wide. The metal cart handle felt cool as faucet water and the floor shimmered with currents that snaked around her ankles. There were whole stretches of boxed cereal—Sugar Jets, Trix, Frosted Os. Even the canned goods aisle was packed with options and so much surplus–tomato soup alone extending for several paces. In front of the applesauce, a stock boy asked if she needed help. She said she didn’t, but being asked made her move along more slowly.
The cashier was a young redhead—the flitty type, proud of her own curves, who’d likely end up in trouble. She’d take an item, ring it up, and push it down the slope so that her fingers kept touching the bagger’s fingers. With each can or box, they made sure to brush skin—even after Marigold caught the bagger’s eye. And the redhead was so involved in the touchy feelies that she pushed $1.49 instead of $.49 for the package of ground beef. When Marigold pointed it out, the girl said she didn’t think so. When the groceries were bagged, Marigold checked the receipt. Sure enough, she pointed out the error in black and white, and being more wind than muster, the girl didn’t know how to undo what she’d done.
On the way home, Marigold came up behind a tractor churning along at fifteen or so. She stayed close and watched the farmer bob in rhythm, his shirt fluttering like a denim flag. She watched bullets of dried clay arc out from the tires and thought of those times when she and her sisters would chase monarchs through milkweed—and that one afternoon when she, Ellen, and Melissa, along with the lanky Manville boy from down the road, locked arms like a plow and kicked up a wave of grasshoppers in front of them. That was all before Ellen ran away, before Melissa fell from the barn roof and never got up, and before all the telephone wires.
The farmer started windmilling his left arm but Marigold couldn’t see around him. He slowed down and got over, almost to the ditch. Still, there wasn’t enough room. When the farmer shrugged his shoulders and threw his hands in the air, that didn’t bother Marigold. “Okay,” she said. “Fine with me too.”
On Sunday, Pastor Michael was gone. Some family business had kept him down in Chillicothe, so the service was led by Gene Whitman, a craning Dutchman who’d been living north of town—just below the Michigan border—for as long as anyone could remember. Whitman made people uneasy because he sometimes said things that weren’t in the Bible, and when he did, the left corner of his mouth went up. The smirk was the sign. Even if you didn’t know the good book, you could tell by the smirk when Gene Whitman was going off the rails. Still, Marigold didn’t mind. Whitman had a knowledge of God, plain and simple. If you couldn’t see it, that was your own problem.
Whitman ended with a breathless sermon. He said that God was up close and waiting for an answer, that the question was always and forever the same. “Are you ready?” He kept asking it aloud. “And because we live this mortal life,” he said, “we have to keep answering. God is waiting in between the inhale and exhale, behind each rain drop, at the bottom of the treacherous canyon and between each slip that drags us down, between a butterfly’s heartbeats, between this word and its silence. He is waiting to scoop us up and away.” And he asked again, “Are you ready?”
Marigold kept saying yes in her mind and then quietly in her mouth. She felt the question quilting her shoulders, folding up around her head, and she told God that she’d always been ready, that she’d be ready any time He saw fit. And when she opened her eyes, Whitman was sitting next to her.
“How are you, Marigold?”
“I feel good, Pastor. I feel good today.”
“You’re getting on okay at home?”
“Oh, sure. I get on just fine.”
“Despite the hardships, I suppose we’re all doing fine,” he said.
“That’s right. That’s exactly right.”
“Time was,” he said looking around the empty pews, “when people would stay after service and talk a while.”
“Well, people don’t worship like they used to.”
“I suppose not. But they worship in their own way.”
“I don’t know what way that would be, Pastor. I really don’t. That’s not a very Christian thing to say, but I said it.”
“I’ll grant you,” he said. “These are hard times for the reverent.”
“Well, that’s the truth,” Marigold said. She looked ahead and kept her hands folded over her pocketbook. “And now,” she told him, “they’re selling that venom at the grocery store.
“Liquor. Right along with everything else.”
“I didn’t know. At Risers?”
There was a patient silence. Marigold imagined Whitman brooding on it, probing all the dimensions and consequences. She imagined him castigating himself for not knowing, for shopping there recently. And she imagined him seeing the future, a dark time when men would wander the streets with half-open eyes, when the righteous would be driven to far corners in search of peace.
“Well,” Whitman said into the quiet, “you can’t stop the tide.”
Marigold stared up at the cross. The sun streams slanted in through the east windows. “Why not?” she asked. “Why can’t you?”
“Because it’s the tide, Marigold. It rolls around your feet and on up to the shore.”
Two weeks later, she needed a range of canned goods—green beans, butter beans, peas, applesauce, peaches in syrup, and some pears. And this week, she was going to make up a little spaghetti pasta. She always liked spaghetti in the summer—how the oregano wafted through the house, how it mixed with wet grass and livestock feed that blew in from the west. And some cottage cheese, she decided. Just a couple bites in the late afternoon would settle any discomfort brought on by the acids of sleepless nights.
In the dairy section, she stared at the milk—all different kinds, even jugs of chocolate mixed up and ready to drink. And there was a whole compartment of brick cheese—Swiss, cheddar, and Colby, more choices than people needed. She looked down the aisle for a worker. There was no one, and the next three aisles were empty too. She left her cart and went up to the lanes where all four cashiers were punching in numbers. There was a raised office by the entrance but she couldn’t get to it without going through the lanes. She stood for a solid minute until she realized how she looked—out of tune with the bustling affairs of a big-town store.
She picked the oldest cashier, a thin brunette in lane three, squeezed past a woman in line, said “Pardon me” because she didn’t want to be rude, and asked in a simple phrase, “Cottage cheese?”
The cashier kept checking items and punching numbers.
She asked again, this time with more air behind it. “Cottage cheese?”
The cashier looked up.
“Dairy aisle!” the woman said.
Marigold started, again, at the back of the aisle and scanned each compartment—milk, all the brick cheese, then the eggs.
“Looking for something specific, ma’am?” a stock boy said.
“Well, yes. Where’s your cottage cheese?”
“That’s all the way to the front.”
“I guess I hadn’t made it that far.”
“It can be a little confusing, I suppose,” he said, walking along beside her. He had a nice haircut, none of those bangs or slick sides.
“I think I’d put it right back there with the other cheese.”
“I agree with you,” he said a little quieter. “Okay. Right here.”
Marigold looked to see her brand neighboring a compartment of beer, the simple Daisy lettering on the blue and white tubs shouldered up to those dark bottles. Down the aisle, a woman in a snazzy skirt perused the sour cream. The registers at the front kept dinging against the music, a chirpy violin melody, and for the first time in years, Marigold’s arms ached the way they did after Daniel died. That same dull and ruminant throb, something she came to understand after so many quiet mornings—not arthritis, not sore muscles, but her old bones grieving, yearning for what’s gone.
“I don’t want it,” she said.
“It’s right here, ma’am. Three different kinds.”
“I changed my mind.”
She didn’t monitor the cashier or check the receipt. The bagger loaded her cart and asked if she needed help outside. She left without answering.
On 34, she heard racing engines. In her mirror, she saw two cars undulating on the dips of highway behind her. The first passed like a blaze. When the second started cutting back into her lane, Marigold clung to the wheel and waited for impact, for the force to send her beyond the weedy ditch where she’d roll door over door in the freshly turned clay. But it barreled forward and missed her by inches. Hands shot out the windows and waved. They were blasting that music and careening toward oblivion. She watched them get small and curve away, and she imagined their future—everyone’s future with such hooligans at the wheel, such unfettered depravity. She cranked the handle down. While the wind fingered at her pinned hair, she spoke to Pastor Whitman, at first mouthing and then speaking in full voice against the windshield. She said that water rolls where it wants only because the righteous refuse to hold it back, because the world is full of its own bustling. Whitman didn’t understand because he was a man, a creature of so much flesh and muscle, a body way bigger than the spirit wants. Of course, he was right about time and God, about the constant waiting and the raindrops, but there was Joshua’s trumpet, the walls of Jericho—whole cities flattened, whole nations burnt or crumbled. There were ways to push against it all, ways to keep the tide from rolling in over the righteous.
The road curved hard to the right and went on without her. She heard the engine whinny and watched the tree line beyond the field bounce and jitter. She felt the steering wheel pound against her palms until everything was still. She’d come to rest in a field. Out there beyond her hood, beyond the plume of dust, the midday clouds were rolling in from Indiana, and Marigold decided that God was there, twisting in the heat above the new corn, that He’d been there all along, that everyone was moving too fast to see Him. And she decided she would tell Whitman. She’d explain, best she could, to anyone who’d listen, maybe even the farmer in the distance who was leaving the shade of a sprawling oak and jogging toward her.
~ ~ ~
John Mauk has a PhD in English from Bowling Green State University. In 2010 his short collection, The Rest of Us, won Michigan Writer’s Cooperative Press chapbook contest. His first full collection, Field Notes for the Earthbound, will be published by Black Lawrence Press in August, 2014. He currently teaches at Miami University of Ohio and spends summers in Traverse City, Michigan. For more information, visit www.johnmauk.com.