In This Mountain
Father Tim and Cynthia have been at home in Mitford for three years since returning from Whitecap Island.
Father Tim Kavanagh stood on the front steps of the yellow house and looked with dismay at the mounds of raw earth disgorged upon his frozen March grass.
Holes pocked the lawn, causing it to resemble a lunar surface; berms of dirt crisscrossed the yard like stone walls viewed from an Irish hilltop.
He glanced across the driveway to the rectory, once his home and now his rental property, where the pesky Talpidae were entertaining themselves in precisely the same fashion. Indeed, they had nearly uprooted Hélène Pringle's modest sign, Lessons for the Piano, Inquire Within; it slanted drunkenly to the right.
Year after year, he'd tried his hand at mole-removal remedies, but the varmints had one-upped him repeatedly; in truth, they appeared to relish coming back for more, and in greater numbers.
He walked into the yard and gave the nearest mound a swift kick. Blast moles to the other side of the moon, and leave it to him to have a wife who wanted them caught in traps and carted to the country where they might frolic in a meadow among buttercups and bluebells.
And who was to do the catching and carting? Yours truly.
He went inside to his study and called the Hard to Beat Hardware in Wesley, believing since childhood that hardware stores somehow had the answers to life's more vexing problems.
"Voles!" exclaimed the hardware man. "What most people've got is voles, they just think they're moles!"
"What voles do is eat th' roots of your plants, chow down on your bulbs an' all. Have your bulbs bloomed th' last few years?"
"Why, yes. Yes, they have."
The hardware man sighed. "So maybe it is moles. Well, they're in there for the grubs, you know, what you have to do is kill th' grubs."
"I was thinking more about ah, taking out the moles."
"Cain't do that n'more, state law."
Even the government had jumped on the bandwagon for moles, demonstrating yet again what government had come to in this country. "So. How do you get rid of grubs?"
"'Course, some say don't use it if you got dogs and cats. You got dogs and cats?"
He called Dora Pugh at the hardware on Main Street.
"Whirligigs," said Dora. "You know, those little wooden propellerlike things on a stick, Ol' Man Mueller used to make 'em? They come painted an' all, to look like ducks an' geese an' whatnot. When th' wind blows, their wings fly around, that's th' propellers, and th' commotion sends sound waves down their tunnels and chases 'em out. But you have to use a good many whirligigs."
He didn't think his wife would like their lawn studded with whirligigs.
"Plus, there's somethin' that works on batt'ries, that you stick in th' ground. Only thing is, I'd have to order it special, which takes six weeks, an' by then ..."
"... they'd probably be gone, anyway."
"Right," said Dora, damping the phone between her left ear and shoulder while bagging seed corn.
He queried Percy Mosely, longtime proprietor of the Main Street Grill. "What can you do to get rid of moles?"
Percy labeled this a dumb question. "Catch 'em by th' tail an' bite their heads off is what I do."
On his way to the post office, he met Gene Bolick leaving the annual sale on boiled wool items at the Irish Woolen Shop. Gene's brain tumor, inoperable because of its location near the brain stem, had caused him to teeter as he walked, a sight Father Tim did not relish seeing in his old friend and parishioner.
"Look here!" Gene held up a parcel. "Cardigan sweater with leather buttons, fifty percent off, and another twenty percent today only. Better get in there while th' gettin's good."
"No, thanks, the Busy Fingers crowd in Whitecap knitted me a cardigan that will outlast the Sphinx. Tell me, buddy—do you know anything about getting rid of moles?"
"Moles? My daddy always hollered in their holes and they took off every whichaway."
"What did he say when he hollered?"
Gene cleared his throat, tilted toward Father Tim's right ear, and repeated the short, but fervent, litany.
"My goodness!" said the earnest gardener, blushing to the very roots of what hair he had left.
He heard the receiver being crushed against the capacious bosom of his bishop's secretary, and a muffled conversation. He thought it appealingly quaint not to be put on hold and have his ear blasted with music he didn't want to hear in the first place.
"Timothy! A blessed Easter to you!"
"And to you, Stuart!"
"I was thinking of you only this morning."
"Whatever for? Some interim pulpit assignment in outer Mongolia?"
"No, just thinking that we haven't had a really decent chinwag in, good heavens, since before you went down to Whitecap."
"An eon, to be precise." Well, a couple of years, anyway.
"Come and have lunch with me," suggested his bishop, sounding ... sounding what? Pensive? Wistful?
"I'll do it!" he said, decidedly spontaneous after last Sunday's Easter celebration. "I've been meaning to come for a visit, there's something I'd like us to talk over. I may have a crate of moles that must be taken to the country. I can release them on my way to you."
"A crate of ... moles."
"Yes." He didn't want to discuss it further.
But he couldn't catch the blasted things. He prodded their tunnels with sticks, a burlap sack at the ready; he shouted into their burrows, repeating what Gene had recommended, though in a low voice; he blew his honorary Mitford Reds coach's whistle; he stomped on the ground like thunder.
"I give up," he told his wife, teeth chattering from the cold.
He noted the streak of blue watercolor on her chin, a sure sign she was working on her current children's book starring Violet, the real-life white cat who usually resided atop their refrigerator.
"But you just started?"
"Started? I've been working at it a full half hour."
"Ten minutes max," Cynthia said. "I watched you, and I must say I never heard of getting rid of moles by shouting down their tunnels."
He pulled his gloves off his frozen hands and sat on a kitchen stool, disgusted. His dog sprawled at his feet and yawned.
"I mean, what were you saying when you shouted?"
He had no intention of telling her. "If you still want them caught and crated up, you do the catching and crating, and I'll haul them to the country. A fair division of labor." He was sick of the whole business.
Cynthia glared at him as if she were his fifth-grade teacher and he a dunce on the stool. "Why don't you just stop fretting over it, Timothy? Let them have their day!"
Have their day! That was the artistic temperament for you. "But they're ruining the lawn I've slaved over for years, the lawn you dreamed of, longed for, indeed craved, so that you might walk on it barefoot—and I quote—‘as upon a bolt of unfurled velvet.’"
"Oh, for heaven's sake, did I say such a silly thing?"
He rolled his eyes.
"Timothy, you know that if you simply turn your head for a while, the humps will go down, the holes will fill in, and by May or June, the lawn will be just fine."
She was right, of course, but that wasn't the point.
"I love you bunches," she said cheerily, trotting down the hall to her studio.
He pulled on his running clothes with the eagerness of a kid yanked from bed on the day of a test he hadn't studied for.
Exercise was good medicine for diabetes, but he didn't have to like it. In truth, he wondered why he didn't enjoy running anymore. He'd once enjoyed it immensely.
"Peaks and valleys," he muttered. His biannual checkup was just around the bend, and he was going to walk into Hoppy Harper's office looking good.
As the Lord's Chapel bells tolled noon, he was hightailing it to the Main Street Grill, where a birthday lunch for J. C. Hogan would be held in the rear booth.
Flying out the door of Happy Endings Bookstore, he hooked a left and crashed into someone, full force.
Edith Mallory staggered backward, regained her balance, and gave him a look that made his blood run cold.
"Edith! I'm terribly sorry."
"Why don't you watch where you're going?" She jerked the broad collar of a dark mink coat more securely around her face. "Clergy," she said with evident distaste. "They're always preoccupied with lofty thoughts, aren't they?"
Not waiting for an answer, she swept past him into Happy Endings, where the bell jingled wildly on the door.
"'Er High Muckety Muck traipsed by a minute ago," said Percy Mosely, wiping off the table of the rear booth.
Father Tim noted that the slur of her perfume had been left on his clothes. "I just ran into her."
"I'd like t' run into 'er ...," said the Grill owner, "with a eighteen-wheeler."
If there was anyone in town who disliked Edith Mallory more than himself, it was Percy Mosely, who, a few years ago, had nearly lost his business to Edith's underhanded landlord tactics. It was clergy, namely yours truly, who had brought her nefarious ambitions to utter ruin. Thus, if there was anyone in town whom Edith Mallory could be presumed to despise more than Tim Kavanagh, he didn't have a clue who it might be.
"Ever' time I think I've seen th' last of that witch on a broom, back she comes like a dog to 'is vomit."
"Cool it, Percy, your blood pressure ..."
"An' Ed Coffey still drivin' 'er around in that Lincoln like th' Queen of England, he ought t' be ashamed of his sorry self, he's brought disgrace on th' whole Coffey line."
J. C. Hogan, Muse editor and Grill regular, slammed his overstuffed briefcase into the booth and slid in. "You'll never guess what's hit Main Street."
Percy looked fierce. "Don't even mention 'er name in my place."
"Joe Ivey and Fancy Skinner are locked in a price war." J.C. pulled a large handkerchief from his hip pocket and wiped his face.
"A price war?" asked Father Tim.
"Head to head, you might say. Fancy had this big sign painted and put in her window upstairs, said, Haircuts Twelve Dollars, All Welcome. First thing you know, Joe puts a sign downstairs, says, Haircuts Eleven Dollars."
Joe Ivey's one-chair barbershop was located in a former storage room behind the kitchen of his sister's Sweet Stuff Bakery. The only other game in town was Fancy Skinner's unisex hair salon, A Cut Above, which rented the upstairs area over the bakery. "Poetic irony," is what one Grill customer called the arrangement.
"So Fancy cranks her price down to ten bucks and has her sign repainted. Then Joe drops his price, changes his sign, and gives me an ad that says, ‘Haircuts nine-fifty. Free chocolate chip cookie to every customer.’"
"Cutthroat," said Percy.
"I don't know where this'll end," said J.C., "but if you need a haircut, now's the time."
"Happy birthday. Father Tim thought they should get to the point.
"Right. Happy birthday!" said Percy. "You can be one of th' first to order offa my new menu."
J.C. scowled. "I was used to the old menu."
"This is my an' Velma's last year in this hole-in-th'-wall, I wanted to go out with a bang." Percy stepped to the counter and proudly removed three menus on which the ink was scarcely dry and handed them around. He thought the Wesley printer had come up with a great idea for this new batch—the cover showed the Grill motto set in green letters that were sort of swirling up, like steam, from a coffee mug: Eat here once and you'll be a regular.
"Where's Mule at?" asked Percy.
"Beats me," said Father Tim. "Probably getting a haircut."
"So how old are you?" Percy wanted to know.
J.C. grinned. "Fourteen goin' on fifteen is what Adele says."
"Gag me with a forklift," said Mule, skidding into the booth. "He's fifty-six big ones, I know because I saw his driver's license when he wrote a check at Shoe Barn."
"OK, give me your order and hop to it, Velma's havin' a perm down at Fancy's and I'm shorthanded. Free coffee in this booth, today only."
"I don't want coffee," said Mule. "I was thinkin' more like sweet ice tea."
"Coffee's free, tea's another deal."
J.C. opened his menu, looking grim. "You spelled potato wrong!" he announced.
"Where at?" asked Percy.
"Right here where it says ‘tuna croissant with potatoe chips.’ There's no e in potato."
Look who's talking, thought Father Tim.
"I'll be darned," said Mule. "Taco salad! Can you sell taco salad in this town?"
"Taco salad," muttered Percy, writing on his order pad.
"Wait a minute, I didn't say I wanted taco salad, I was just discussin' it."
"I don't have time for discussin'," said Percy. "I got a lunch crowd comin' in."
Father Tim noticed Percy's face was turning beet-red. Blood pressure, the stress of a new menu ...
"So what is a taco salad, anyway?" asked Mule.
The Muse editor looked up in amazement. "Have you been livin' under a rock? Taco salad is salad in a taco, for Pete's sake."
"No, it ain't," said Percy. "It's salad in a bowl with taco chips scattered on top."
Mule sank back in the booth, looking depressed. "I'll have what I been havin' before th' new menu, a grilled pimiento cheese on white bread, hold th' mayo."
"Do you see anything on this menu sayin' pimiento cheese? On this menu, we don't have pimiento cheese, we ain't goin' to get pimiento cheese, and that's th' end of it." The proprietor stomped away, looking disgusted.
"You made him mad," said J.C., wiping his face with his handkerchief.
"How can a man make a livin' without pimiento cheese on his menu?" Mule asked.
"'Less you want to run down to th' tea shop and sit with th' women, there's nowhere else to eat lunch in this town ..."—J.C. poked the menu—"so you better pick something offa here. How about a fish burger? Lookit, ‘four ounces breaded and deep-fried haddock filet served on a grilled bun with lettuce, tomato, and tartar sauce.’"
"I don't like tartar sauce."
Father Tim thought he might slide to the floor and lie prostrate. "I'm having the chef's salad!" he announced, hoping to set an example.
Mule looked relieved. "Fine, that's what I'll have." He drummed his fingers on the table. "On the other hand, you never know what's in a chef's salad when you deal with this chef."
"I'm havin' th' tuna melt," said J.C., "plus th' fish burger and potato skins!"
"Help yourself," said Mule. "Have whatever you want, it's on us." He peered intently at the menu. "‘Chili crowned with tortilla chips and cheese,’ that might be good."
"Here he comes, make up your mind," snapped J.C.
"I'll have th' chili deal," said Mule, declining eye contact with Percy. "But only if it comes without beans."
Percy gave him a stony look. "How can you have chili without beans? That's like a cheeseburger without cheese."
"Right," said J.C. "Or a BLT without bacon."
Father Tim closed his eyes as if in prayer, feeling his blood sugar plummet into his loafers.
So what are you doing these days?
It was a casual and altogether harmless question, the sort of thing anyone might inquire of the retired. But he hated it. And now, on the heels of the very same question asked only yesterday by a former parishioner ...
"So what'n th' dickens do you do all day?"
Mule had left to show a house, J.C. had trudged upstairs to work on Monday's layout, and Percy stood beside the rear booth, squinting at him as if he were a beetle on a pin.
After nearly four years of retirement, why hadn't he been able to formulate a pat answer? He usually reported that he supplied various churches here and there, which was true, of course, but it sounded lame. Indeed, he once said, without thinking, "Oh, nothing much." Upon hearing such foolishness out of his mouth, he felt covered with shame.
In his opinion, God hadn't put anyone on earth to do "nothing much." Thus, in the first year following his interim at Whitecap, he'd given endless hours to the Wesley Children's Hospital, second only to the church as his favorite charitable institution. He had even agreed to do something he roundly despised: raise funds. To his amazement, he had actually raised some.
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