It was the eighth of July, 1957, when Ollie’s daddy slowed their rusted-out Chevy pickup near the junction of Highway 29 and Carter Road. They had come to set up for a three-day revival. Ollie sat in the truck bed with her sisters. She was thirteen and the oldest of Reverend Love’s five daughters, followed by Martha, Gwen, Camille, and Ellen. Ellen was at Ollie’s side, clutching Baby Doll Sue and singing “Mama’s Little Baby.” Ollie noticed her sister was getting the words twisted up and wrong—again.
It may have been only nine o’clock in the morning, but the summer sun was already high in the sky and sweating up the land. Fields of soft green barley laid themselves out across the earth in perfect rows—as if God had reached down and combed them just so. Ollie noticed a carved-up plank of wood that someone long ago had shoved into the dark Southern soil. It read: BINDER, ARKANSAS.
She closed her eyes and imagined what it might be like if her daddy drove past this small town and into the heart of a city. Maybe a preacher could make a decent living and buy a fixed-to-the-ground house with a mailbox, telephone, and refrigerator. Ollie thought it might even be a place where a girl could go to a real school and have an honest-to-goodness teacher, instead of being taught by her mother and a couple of hand-me-down books. It had to be worlds better than cramming into a 1941 travel trailer to sleep with the same four sisters every night. And oh—so much better than hitching up that trailer and disappearing down the road every three days. A city, Ollie imagined, was a place of possibilities.
Somewhere along the way, however, the good reverend decided a small town meant a poor town, and a poor town meant humble people. Ollie’s daddy was born to preach to those people. His daddy had been a traveling preacher, as was his daddy before him, all the way back to the time of Moses. The Good Lord ushered him into that long line of preachers, and then his parents gave him the name Everlasting Love.
It was everything he was.
The truck rumbled to a stop at the edge of Carter Road. Ollie grabbed her satchel and jumped out of the truck bed. One of her jobs was to walk into town and spread word of their revival. She knew her daddy would turn around and head back to Mr. Marshall’s place. That was the farmer who had agreed to let them use his spare field.
“Can I go, too, Mama?” Ellen hollered up to the front. “I wanna buy a new story for Baby Doll Sue with my chore dime.”
“You’re too young,” Ollie said. She looked forward to those walks into town. It was about the only time she ever got to herself.
Susanna Love hung her head out the window. “Take your little sister,” she said.
“But, Mama, they probably don’t have a market. There’s nothing for her to see.”
“No back talk.” Her mama’s voice was snappy from the heat.
Ellen jumped out and gave her sister a told-you-so grin.
Ollie started walking.
Reverend Love waved goodbye and circled the Chevy back down Highway 29. Billows of dusty earth swirled out from the tires like smoke trailing off a campfire.
Ellen skipped over to Ollie and peered up at her with big, frog eyes. “You fixin’ to get a soda?”
“Maybe I am and maybe I’m not.”
“If ’n you do get a soda, you fixin’ to give me a sip?”
“There’s likely no store, Ellen.” Ollie reached over and pulled a stalk of rye grass that was growing tall. She stuck it in her mouth and chewed on the tangy end as the two girls continued up Carter Road and into town.
Ellen wasn’t deterred. “I’m fixin’ to get myself one of those new Golden Books with my dime, and I figure you might want to take a peek at my book. So it ain’t rightful that you should look at my book if you don’t share at least a tiny sip of your soda with me.”
“Isn’t right, Ellen. Ain’t ain’t a word.”
“You get my meaning,” the girl replied. “And don’t think I’ll forget you didn’t give me a sip of your soda, ’cuz I won’t.”
“I haven’t even gotten a soda yet! Who said I would? Maybe I’ll get a book, too. Besides, we’re supposed to be spreading these flyers.” Ollie motioned to the white papers in her satchel. Well, mostly white. They were the same flyers they’d passed around the last few towns. Part of her job was shoving them into people’s mailboxes or screen doors, and part was going back and picking them out of garbage cans before they left town, so they could be used again.
“Are you sayin’ we ain’t even gonna look for a market?” Tears immediately rimmed Ellen’s bright eyes.
“And you’ll give me a sip?”
“A sip, Ellen. One.”
“One is better than none,” the girl said with new hope.
“Yes,” said Ollie. “One is better than none.”
* * *
Halfway into town, Ollie noticed a boy slinking along between the crowded poplar and ash trees that lined Carter Road. If he was trying to be sneaky about spying on them, he was doing a lousy job. Still, Ollie didn’t mind. She was used to being other people’s entertainment.
Ollie played along and pretended not to see the boy, with his orange shirt and scraggly brown hair. He continued to follow them, blending into the tree shadows, as they walked down the last bit of farm road and turned onto Main Street.
Binder was a pitiful place, worn thin from years of want. It was exactly like all the other towns her daddy dragged them through. It was exactly the kind of nothing Ollie had come to expect.
Except, maybe, for that boy.
Ollie walked casually along the tree-lined street until her curiosity got the best of her. She jumped into a thicket of poplars, where she thought she saw the boy hiding. “Gotcha!” she hollered.
No one was there.
“You heat crazy?” Ellen asked, Baby Doll Sue on her hip.
“Then whatcha screamin’ at?”
Ollie took a long look behind the rows of trees and then scanned her eyes out across the fields. “Nothing,” she finally said.
“Martha once told me about a girl who sat out in the sun all day and fried her brain,” Ellen kept on, chattering a blue streak. “Fried it like eggs on a raddy-ator. Martha said the girl went so crazy her daddy sent her to a home for brain-fried people.” Then Ellen stopped walking and tilted her head up to the heavens like a scrub jay. “Ollie, what’s a raddy-ator?”
“Don’t you know enough to ignore Martha?” Ollie shoved a flyer into a mailbox and sighed. Looking down Main Street, she could see a small spattering of buildings. There was a tiny schoolhouse, a store called Jake’s Seed and Feed, an insurance office, a purple house called Knuttal’s Quilting Cottage, a boarded-up Lutheran church, a sheriff ’s office, and a small clapboard building with a sign that read:
GET IT HERE, OR DON’T GET IT
“They do have a market!” Ellen said. She bolted down the street toward the store.
A hard-looking woman met them out front. Ollie thought she looked like that famous picture from the Great Depression—the one her mama had shown her in an old magazine. It didn’t take but a glance to know that, like the woman in the photograph, this woman had experienced more than a few difficult days in her life. She had two threadbare boys sitting at a card table off to the side of the market. They were flipping through a deck of cards at a furious pace. Slapjack. Ollie knew the game, though her daddy never allowed his girls to play with cards.
“Good morning. Is this your market?” Ollie asked, trying to sound friendly despite the wet heat streaming down the back of her neck and making her shoulder blades prickle.
“It is,” the woman said. “Who’s askin’?
Ollie squared her shoulders and said, “I’m Olivene Love, oldest daughter of the Reverend Everlasting Love.” Then she gestured to Ellen. “This here is my baby sister, Ellen.”
The woman eyed the two girls with suspicion. “What’s yer business?”
Ollie pulled a wrinkled flyer from her satchel. “Preaching, mostly—some singing and an occasional healing if the need arises.” She handed the flyer to the woman. “The Marshalls have been kind enough to allow us to use their spare field. We welcome all to come see us at day’s end.”
The woman took the flyer and shoved it into her apron pocket. “How much did old Jeb charge ya?”
“Just the promise to leave the land clean as we found it.” She knew her daddy offered Mr. Marshall the usual five percent of all collections, but figured that was their private family business.
The woman nodded, sucked in a wet breath, and shot a mouthful of brown spit onto the ground. Then she lifted the back of her hand and wiped tiny beads of tobacco juice off her chin. Ellen recoiled behind Ollie’s skirt.
“That’s tobacco,” Ellen whispered, “and she’s a girl.”
“That ain’t likely so,” the woman said, replying to Ollie’s statement. “Jeb Marshall ain’t never done nothing without earning a profit in the matter.”
Ellen slipped past the woman and into the dark market. Ollie shifted her feet and tried to think of a way to follow her baby sister. “Well,” she said, “maybe it was my mama who talked to Mrs. Marshall. Women have a softer side toward strangers, you know.”
“I know’d Eva Marshall since she was high as a tick’s belly, and she ain’t got a softer side toward no one.”
“Everyone’s got some goodness in them.”
“Not everyone,” the shop woman said, staring across the narrow street and into a small cluster of trees. “Some ain’t even got a notion of goodness. Ain’t that right, boys?”
The younger boy stopped his card in midair. “That’s right, Mama,” he said. “Some folks ain’t born with any good a’tall.” Then he flipped the card down and slapped the mound of cards centered on the table.
“Seems you’ll be losing those, Joseph,” the older boy said, lifting his brother’s hand from the pile. “That wasn’t no jack. That was a queen.”
Joseph slammed an angry fist into the corner of the rickety table, sending cards skittering to the ground.
Ollie looked to the shop woman, expecting her to chastise her son, but could see she was distracted by whatever she saw in the trees. Ollie let her eyes follow the woman’s gaze. The dark green leaves on a poplar shivered and an orange T-shirt stood out from each side of the skinny trunk. Ollie walked over to the boy. “You spying on me?”
“Is it called spying if ’n the person is walking about in public?” he asked, still hidden behind the tree.
“No, I suppose it’s not.”
“Then I’d say I’m not.”
“Why don’t you show yourself ?”
It was quiet for the longest minute before the boy stepped out from his hiding spot. He was about Ollie’s age, sorrily thin, and hadn’t seen a speck of soap in weeks. Sweaty wisps of brown hair hung down over his warm, chocolate eyes.
Ollie took two cautious steps. She slid her hand into her satchel and pulled out another flyer. “You’re welcome to come out to the preaching field tonight. My daddy’s words are sure to chase away your sorrow,” she promised. “And bring joy into your heart.” She pushed the flyer out toward the boy, but he didn’t move. She bent down and laid the paper at his bare feet. “You’ll be glad you came,” she said. “Everyone is always glad once they hear my daddy sing his songs.” Ollie paused and added, “Will you?”
The boy hesitated. “Maybe.”
“And bring your folks?” Ollie knew, as much as Reverend Love enjoyed having children at his revivals, they usually didn’t add much to the offering basket.
“Can’t,” the younger boy from Carter’s said, coming up behind Ollie. “His pa’s buried at the cemetery, and his sad excuse for a mama is jailed for the murder.”
The boy took a step back into the tree shadows.
“Well then,” Ollie said with a forced smile, “I’ll save you a seat right next to me, up front where the listening is best of all.”
The boy fixed his eyes on Ollie, saying nothing.
“I’ll watch for you at sundown.”
Ollie walked back across the street and headed into the store. As she passed by, the shop woman muttered, “If ’n you’re asking me, I’d say you were looking for a mess of trouble invitin’ that Koppel boy to your celebration. He’ll bring bad luck upon you and your whole clan—plus shoo us good people away.”
Copyright © 2011 by Tess Hilmo