Chapter 9 – Civil War
The two women strode toward the town center. From behind, they seemed very nearly the same size, with Juanita Jones being slightly less rotund, and slightly shorter. Willina Hipp gave the impression of physical fortitude in every bone and muscle. Her brown hair, streaked with gray, was worn in a bun on the back of her head, topped off with a hat in all weathers, which was held firmly in place by a long, sharp hatpin inherited from her mother. Mrs. Hipp always wore dresses with long, flowing skirts and ample sleeves, in dark colors. In winter, a black wool cape was added to the ensemble, and school children in Greenfield called her Draculette.
Even I, the writer, am hard-pressed to understand the friendship between these two women, because at first glance they seem so different. Mrs. Hipp is, essentially, a womanish creature; Juanita Jones is rather manly. Her once-blond hair is shorn off in a rude manner, her voice is deep and resonant, and the attempts she does make at a feminine aura only lead her into error: fistfuls of gaudy rings, garish nail polish, shockingly bright clothing, and polyester slacks whose tight constraints produce rippling bulges as she walks. Thus, from behind, the pair are a contrast of flowing robes and wobbling fat. Yet they’ve been the best of friends for over forty years.
“I do not trust that man,” Willina said of Mr. Shrilling. “He’s up to something.”
“Musicians are always up to something, Willina. Especially church musicians. Their lives would be sheer boredom if they weren’t.”
“Well, we must not let Jeremiah’s final service be corrupted with Latin and Papishness. That’s Leach Street for you, Juanita, mark my words!” When together, they always used formal names. But when away from her friend Juanita Jones quickly lapsed into the Jimmies, Jonnies and Willies that rolled off her tongue so easily.
She glanced toward her flowing friend. “No worries there. I’m sure the two of us will be a match for one skinny choir director, Willina.”
As they turned the corner onto College Street, Willina spied a lanky form, striding toward the college gates. His head was down.
“That’s Billy Greeter!” she exclaimed. “I wonder why he’s home?” She stopped in front of the seminary’s iron railing. “Where’s Jonquil, Juanita?”
“Why, she’s jump-roping. She left earlier, when the Cloudees stopped by. I imagine she’s back home by now.”
“Good. Good.” Willina Hipp’s eyes narrowed and she studied Billy carefully. “How long since they’ve seen each other?”
“I have no idea! Probably more than five years. Why?”
The black hat turned toward her comrade. “Because we are commencing a war, Juanita. A jovial, smiling and quiet war, but a war nonetheless.” Mrs. Hipp pulled herself to her full height of 5’9”. “A war for our college, for our seminary. A civil war in Greenfield. And James Cloudee is their general, Juanita.”
“Yes. What does that have to do with Billy Greeter?”
“Because we must be certain of our allies, my dear. Certain. And those Greeters … I just don’t know.”
“Ernest Greeter has been at Hezekiah College for thirty years! Come now, Willina.”
“Thirty-four years.” She pursed her lips until they nearly disappeared. “And I say he may well be in the enemy camp. And his son,” she whispered, “is just Jonquil’s age.”
Thus they whispered and conspired all the way to the college chapel. They made more copies of their chosen funeral hymns, and placed them in all the chairs in the choir loft.
Sam Shepherd thought it would nearly be easier to dig the grave himself. All the funeral representatives from Mort’s Funeral Home were old enough to be Jeremiah Jones’s father. They were creakingly slow, painfully quiet, rheumatically comforting.
“Now, Pastor Shepherd. Mort’s got it all in hand. The diggers will be here in moments. Not to worry! Every detail will be attended to.”
Sam had dealt with Mort and his cronies before. They looked very responsible in their dark suits and stooping shoulders. But he also imagined the pain awaiting him if anything went wrong. Like at Mrs. Busby’s funeral, when Mort’s funeral home had placed the chairs under the tent so that the rain poured directly down the necks of all Mrs. Busby’s sisters. Or when Mort misspelled Eliza Pandy’s name on all the programs – Mrs. Panty! Or, worst of all, when he’d mistakenly brought Cooter Phelps’s body out to Grandma Cloudee’s graveside service. Lily had screamed, bless her heart, and nobody had blamed her. She nearly kissed Cooter Phelps, and that would make anybody scream, even when he was alive. Sam shuddered inside himself, in spite of the warm weather.
“Gentlemen,” he said stoutly, “I’m driving down to the funeral home. I’d better see a truck full of strong men with shovels, meeting me half-way!” And he strode off in a flurry of protests.
Billy arrived back at his house tired and irritable. He’d found no one at home on Highland Circle. Now he heard music coming from the living room. It was his mother. She had the most delicate, tender touch when she played. He stopped in the kitchen to listen. It was a sad song, probably dedicated to some dead person. This surprised him, because on sunny days, his mother wore white and played only songs in major keys. On cloudy, rainy, or otherwise inclement days, she wore black and played only in minor keys. His mother’s normal predictability made him wonder at this extraordinary behavior. He sneaked around the corner from the kitchen, to see what color she was wearing.
She was wearing black.
“Black, and a minor key,” he wondered. “Maybe she’s confused about the weather?”
Billy sucked in a deep breath, and breezed into the living room.
“Well, howdy, old thing! What’s shakin’?” And he slid onto the bench next to his mother and gave her a peck on the cheek. “What’s with the black and morbid?”
“Billy!” She squeezed him around the waist. “Are you here for the funeral?”
“By accident. Ah – that’s why you’re in black.” She nodded. “I just saw Jonquil Jones outside! That was a shocker.”
Mrs. Greeter shuffled her music pages. “Yes, it’s quite a to-do. I’m playing, you know. The ‘Pavane.’ Most appropriate. Except it’s supposed to be pianissimo. But in order for anyone to hear it outside, I’ll have to play it forte. Such a shame.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine, Mom. Where’s Dad?”
“At the chapel with Dr. Cloudee. They’re officiating.”
“Well, I’d better take a shower and clean up,” said the son, and went to retrieve his suitcase.
“Fitzwilliam.” He hated it when she called him that.
“Why are you home on a Tuesday? How’s work?”
Now Billy Greeter had never really settled on what to tell his parents. He preferred not to lie, but he also preferred to avoid outright warfare, particularly with his dad. So, when the crucial moment arrived, and he was called upon to give an account of his presence, he fudged.
“I’m taking a bit of a break, Mom. Just a breather.”
“In April? In an accounting firm?” His mom was no slouch.
“Yes, well, we don’t do much tax work.” That was a lie. “And I’ve been burning the midnight oil lately.” That was the truth, kind of. Playing “Halo” was time-consuming. “Just a quick visit, Mums,” he said as he worked his way to the hall. “I’ll be right out!”
His dad would be tougher, much tougher, to escape from.
Ernest Greeter and James Cloudee sat in the small office to the side of the choir loft in the Hezekiah Strong Chapel. The funeral was prepared. All that was left was for them to don their black ministerial robes. Dr. Greeter sipped his second cup of coffee. Dr. Cloudee unfolded and refolded an old church bulletin in front of him, working the creases in.
“And what did the committee say?” asked the dean.
“They were divided,” answered the pastor. “That was before Jones died, and we decided to wait.”
“And what do you think they’ll decide, now that the post is vacant?”
“Ernest, I don’t know. My desire, of course, is to fill the post with a good, solid man who will guide the schools in much the same direction they’ve always gone.” The pastor studied the bindings of Calvin’s Institutes that lined the shelves before him. “The college is a prized institution, dearly loved. Do you have suggestions as to who should fill the post?”
“No, not anyone in particular just yet.”
“Heavens no!” the dean replied. “Never in a thousand years! I’m perfectly happy where I am.” He paused, cleared his throat, and paused again. The pastor waited. “I’m wondering if it would be better to have a younger man as president,” the dean continued, “instead of a member of the older guard. Someone to give new life, new spirit, to the college. Jerry was a fine man, but he’d been here too long. It’s time for the school – really both schools – to turn a new leaf and change with the denominational shifts and progress.”
“You’ll find little support for that view among your own ranks.”
“But why?” the dean asked.
“Because,” the pastor coughed softly, “your Snarkian camp will want the old guard, and only the old guard. And the Snackian camp will want either no one, or one of their own.”
“No one! What do you mean? How could they want no one? How can a college proceed without a president?”
“Well, that’s really the point, Ernest. Some in my denomination – I mean, in my previous denomination -- don’t necessarily want the college to proceed. They feel its time is past. They would be satisfied if it closed its doors.” The pastor recrossed his legs, and picked a piece of lint from his knee.
“Never!” The dean stood and paced the short length of the room. “Why would they propose such a thing? What harm does the college do them?”
“No harm, Ernest, no harm. Sit down, friend. There’s no need for anxiety yet. It’s just that, with the joining of the two denominations, some men feel there’s no need for two colleges, two seminaries.”
Ernest Greeter pushed his lower lip out. His face was flushed. He ran his hands through his tousled hair.
“James,” he said, “I must have your help in this. You must speak for the college on that committee.”
“I will delay as much as I can. And of course I’ll do all I can for the college…” he began.
“Delay?! We don’t need delay. We need a new man in here as soon as possible!”
“That will be difficult, with the committee in disagreement. Unless you have a candidate to put forward?”
At this moment, the deep voices of two women were heard, as they moved through the chapel’s choir loft.
The two men looked at each other in silence, but each knew what the other was thinking. The dean could only grumble low in his throat, furrow his brow, and rub his chin.
Copyright by M.K. Christiansen
Copyright by M.K. Christiansen