In which Claire has lunch with Alice Weston
“Dear, what’s your schedule like next week? You’ve been here almost two months, and as the chair of your search committee, it is my obligation and my desire to find out how you are.”
“Alice, that is kind of you. Shall we say Wednesday?”
“Yes. I’ll pick you up. See you Sunday, and then on Wednesday!”
Alice Weston was the quintessential church lady. Like the Hills, Alice had been around a long time and had served everywhere in the church. As she had just finished chairing the search committee that found Claire, she was between duties at the moment, but Claire had no doubt there would be something on the horizon. Maybe the congregation’s hundredth anniversary. Add that to the to-do list.
Alice was tiny, just squeaking past five feet in heels. She still sported a perm and went to the beauty parlor every Friday for a wash and set. Her hair was a beautiful white with a few streaks of gray left, and the kids loved to sit behind her in church and watch her scrunch the back of her hair into a little flip. She never wore pants, not even to clean the house or work in the garden. She was married to Garrett, a gem of a guy, a retired lawyer who forever referred to Alice as his first wife. (She was also his only wife.) They had five children who showed up at church on Christmas Eve, Easter, and Mother’s Day.
Alice drove a beige Buick Regal with a little booster cushion to help her see over the dashboard. To say she drove it was not quite accurate; she steered it like Captain Ahab, on the lookout for errant dogs, balls, and children. She tended to tailgate, which made Claire a little nervous, but she figured there was enough hood between them and the next car that were there a rear-ender, they would make it out alive.
Of all the places Claire imagined Alice would take her to lunch, the Steel Horse Diner didn’t even make the list.The restaurant was in the industrial part of town which would probably see some gentrification in a few years, but in 2010, it seemed a little dicey. Alice managed to parallel park her boat and the two walked in.
“Alice! Where have you been? Off on another one of your cruises?”
“Hello, Sandy dear. How are you? Missed me, did you?”
“It’s been, what two months? Yes, I missed you. Who’s your friend?”
“Sandy, I’d like to introduce you to our new pastor, Claire Grayson. Claire, this is Sandy, the best waitress this side of the Rockies.”
“Now Alice, you know we like to be called servers.”
“Whatever, dear. Where shall we sit?”
Claire had to admit that she was served one good greasy hamburger, and the fries were the best she’d had since she’d moved – small, crispy, salty; they probably used oil full of trans fat. Alice ordered a burger and fries too, though both said no to the milkshake and yes to iced tea.
“Now dear, tell me truthfully. How is it going?”
To her embarrassment, Claire got a lump in her throat. Her eyes started to water, and she looked away, out the window. She saw a dog peeing on a fire hydrant. Thank you, God. I needed that.
She took a deep breath. “Sorry about that, Alice. I think I’m at the point where the wonderment has worn off and I’m realizing everything I left behind. I mean, things are going fine, but I’m just starting to grieve.”
Alice reached across the table and laid her hand on top of Claire’s. She looked straight into Claire’s eyes and dropped the sweetness, which was replaced by a kindness that was balm to the soul.
“Claire, I do not doubt for one moment that taking this call was a huge risk for you and Emma, and a sacrifice too. You had a life back in Minneapolis. You had friends. You had a church that loved you and trusted your leadership. You had a hairdresser and a dry cleaner and a grocery store you knew your way around in.
“I pray for you and Emma every night because I really believe you were meant to be here. The sadness is just a part of it, and unfortunately you have to go through it because there is no way around it. But there are people pulling for you – you have no idea. I’m just sorry for the sad part. Is there an old friend, someone not from here, that you can talk to?”
Claire teared up again at the thought of her best friend Martha, whom she hadn’t talked to in weeks. She nodded.
“You ladies need some more iced tea? ‘Cause things are looking pretty serious over here. Did you see that dog peeing on the fire hydrant? Next stop is our door, hoping for scraps.”
At that moment Claire knew that she was in the hands of two decent and kind women. “Yes, more tea would be great. Thanks.”
Sandy went back to the counter, sashaying her hips and sassing her customers on the way. Sure enough, the dog did make its way to the door, looking plaintively through the glass, the triumph of hope over reality.
“Alice, your words mean more to me than I can say. Really. I know there’s not much you can do about our sadness. Like you said, it’s just something Emma and I have to deal with ourselves. But you can help me with one thing.”
“Well, it’s a who’s that. Bill Hill. I don’t know what to make of him. One minute he is the picture of kindness and the next he’s a fire breathing dragon certain I will drive St. Rahab’s into the ground if I don’t proofread the bulletin every week.”
“Bill. William Meriwether Hill. The thing you have to remember about Bill is that he always has the best for St. Rahab’s at heart. I’ve known him and Glad a long time. They are good people. I was there when Glad went through two miscarriages before Meri was born and another before Junie was born. I was there for them when Junie told them she was gay. I was there when Bill got depressed when he retired. I will be there when the cancer diagnosis comes.”
“You know about that?”
“Gladys has to have someone to turn to. Give him time. His bark is much worse than his bite. And I don’t know what this cancer will do to him. Don’t let him scare you off, but don’t write off what he says either.”
“Glad told me that Emma is quite the baker! I’d love to have her over sometime.”
“Oh. To make Prune Drop Cookies? I hear they’re your specialty.”
“I don’t share that recipe with anyone, dear. But I’d love to share my lemon meringue pie recipe. The secret is letting the sugar and water and cornstarch sit covered in the double boiler for ten minutes before adding the lemon juice .”
The burger and fries left Claire a little drowsy that afternoon. She looked over at her couch, asked Trystene to hold her calls, set her timer for twenty-five minutes, and laid down. She fell asleep almost immediately.
She woke up suddenly to the sound of her alarm. What a strange dream she had been having. A tall, dark, and handsome man was at the Steel Horse Diner with Alice, and Sandy was bringing them a covered silver platter. The man was dressed like Sherlock Holmes, and Alice was dressed like a pirate, and Sandy was wearing a dress just like the dress Claire wore for funerals, but with striped knee socks. The three were speaking in a language Claire couldn’t understand. Sandy suddenly took the lid off the platter, and there were Prune Drop Cookies, steam rising off them. The peeing dog came in, sat next to Alice, and promptly ate a cookie.
Claire decided next time she had lunch with Alice, she’d stick with the soup.