The following excerpt from Scenes from the Heartland is reprinted with permission from Donna Baier Stein and Serving House Books, Florham Park, NJ and Copenhagen, Denmark, 2019.
A Landing Called Compromise
The winter of ’37 was the worst folks living in the bootheel had ever seen. Most days brought rain, snow, sleet, or an ominous mix of the three. On Friday, February 24, rain skated down in silvered sheets, painting long, watery tails on the tall windows of the one-room schoolhouse where Martha Blalock had taught for thirty years.
She eyed the class, tallying the small heads to make certain all her children were properly seated, hands folded on their desks, before dismissal. She ran a tight ship, yet the students loved her.
“Mrs. Blalock?” Gloria Hendry twisted the end of one braid, the color of butter-and-sugar corn.
Martha pushed her new plastic horned-rim glasses up her nose. She’d self-prescribed by trying on various pairs at the department store up in Caruthersville, saving the expense of a $3 visit to the eye doctor. Everything still seemed slightly out of focus.
“Yes, dear, what is it?” she asked.
“We’re s’posed to go to church after school,” Gloria said in that self-righteous whine Martha hated. “And I don’t want to go out in this rain.”
Other heads bobbed up and down: Hollins Carter, Betty James, Ronnie Hinote, more.
“My Pa told me to walk, even in the rain,” Ronnie said. He was a scrawny boy, poorly tended to since his mother died last year.
“All of you are going to the church then?” Martha asked, wondering if this was something the new minister had set up. Poor fellow, sent to New Madrid Baptist just two weeks earlier, after the last interim pastor had left. Martha feared that this new one, the Reverend Elijah Berry, was out of his depth, having no inkling of the tumultuous history of the church.
She’d been meaning to set up a meeting with Reverend Berry, to show him the lay of the land so to speak, but this everlasting rain had delayed her. She wondered if a Pastor-Church Covenant had even been written to clarify expectations. One good thing about the Baptist church: if a congregation didn’t like their pastor, they could always fire him.
Still, that thought was presumptuous at this point. The poor man had just started, for goodness’ sake, and if he’d been listening to the wrong folks, he might well have gotten the wrong idea about how things were run.
“You’re supposed to go to church this afternoon? In all this rain?” Martha asked, still skeptical.
More nods swept through the room.
“What on earth for?” A flush warmed her cheeks. Heaven forbid the children think she didn’t want them going to church. She’d been a loyal member of the New Madrid Baptist Church since her own childhood and felt suddenly ashamed she’d let a nuisance like the weather keep her from services these past two weeks.
Gloria released her braid to wave her hand in the air. “For the Good News Club,” she burst out before Martha had given her permission to speak.
“The Good News Club?” Martha repeated. “What’s that?” She looked beyond Gloria’s head, toward the colorful pictures of Bible stories torn from old issues of the Concordia that lined the back wall. There was Jesus The Shepherd Carrying A Lamb, Peter Denying His Savior, The Romans Laying Hands On Jesus, and Our Saviour Beginning His Suffering. Martha had bought the leaflets when her son, Gene, was three and shown them to him so often the pages were worn almost translucent. When Gene left home to join the Coast Guard, her husband Carl asked her to throw out all those back issues taking up space in the attic. Instead, she simply moved them behind an old unusable pie cabinet that tilted due to a missing leg. She would throw out a few issues, she reassured Carl, but saved their covers to tape to her classroom wall. They reminded her of those long-ago days when Gene was a little boy and she and Carl so blessedly young themselves.
“Yes, ma’am,” Ronny Hinote said. “We’re s’posed to go to church now every Wednesday after school. Mrs. Blix will be mad if we aren’t there on time.”
Gloria nodded her head.
Martha’s ears pounded, and her vision clouded even more. Reverend Berry must have announced this new club on Sunday, in her absence. “Mrs. Zula Blix?” she asked slowly, being careful not to let her voice betray her anger.
“Yes, ma’am.” Ronny wrapped a leather strap around his books and threw it over his shoulder. When Martha didn’t reprimand him, the room grew noisy as the other children also gathered up their pencils, books, and canvas lunch totes.
“I will drive those of you going to the church myself,” Martha said, shouting over a rolling drum of thunder from outside as she quickly took control of the situation.
Somehow, all nine children fit into the Ford woody wagon, and they made their way through bucketing rain to the church. She drove at a snail’s pace on the dirt roads, especially through the dark puddles, ever mindful of how quickly accidents can happen and how precious the little ones in her charge were.
“You will not believe who they asked to teach my students Bible stories after school,” Martha said that night as she lay in bed with Carl. Without waiting for an answer, she said, “That she-devil Zula Blix herself. What on earth is this world coming to?”
Carl cleared his throat then wrapped his hairy arms around her angular frame. “Now, Martha,” he began.
“You know what that woman is like. What that entire family is like. Not a one of them should be teaching this town’s children the Word of the Lord. ‘Specially not Zula.” Martha sighed loudly.
She had already decided to speak to the new Reverend Elijah Berry about his responsibilities to the church, what he was expected to do, and what he was not. A Child Evangelism Program was all well and good, she would say, but it required the proper teacher. She would offer herself as its head. Though she knew gossip was a sin, sometimes one simply had to do it. The Blix family had a long history of flouting at least three of the Lord’s Commandments. The new Reverend should know; the children of New Madrid deserved no less.
“Why, she’s not even from Missouri!” Martha’s bad eye started twitching, and she turned to face her husband. “Carl,” she whispered. “I can’t stand to see Zula contaminate the minds of my children.”
Carl patted her shoulder uncomfortably, as if that would help. He had reassured her multiple times there had never been a spit of anything between him and Zula after her rich husband died last year. But Martha had seen the widow flirt with every man in the congregation, whether they were married or not and no matter what side of the aisle they sat on.
The New Madrid Baptist Church had been built on a half-acre clearing in the woods high on a hill inside the oxbow curve of the Mississippi River, on the state line at a landing called Compromise. New Madrid County, Missouri, sat on one side and Fulton County, Kentucky, on the other. Half the church’s thirty benches of hand-hewn sycamore were in one state and half in the other, enabling the members of the congregation to walk up the aisle on their side of the church and attend services without ever stepping into the other state. Come Sundays, folks would file in, lean their guns against the wall, and sit down in the pews on their designated side. Everyone would kneel for prayer except a man who stood guard at the end of each aisle in case any member from the opposite pews decided to start a fight. No one had caused any trouble for ages, but the guns were still kept at the ready. Families from the two counties had been feuding since the Civil War, when a flag officer from Fulton County turned traitor and helped a Union gunboat attack Island Number 10, leading to the Confederates’ first loss of a battle position on the Mississippi.
Martha Blalock’s kin lived in New Madrid County. Zula Blix and her folks lived in Fulton County. But even beyond the historic feud, Martha had harbored an extra helping of hate toward Zula and her kin ever since the woman had shown up for Sunday services mere months after her husband died, wearing a jade and teal dress with flared skirt and low scooped neck. Zula had blinked her eyelashes and touched the sleeve of every man she saw. Carl hadn’t responded, but Martha had distrusted the woman ever since. Martha enjoyed criticizing Zula not to her face, but to her husband and her cousin Beulah every chance she got. Still, no matter how often Carl and Beulah agreed that yes, it was far from encouraging that Zula came from a suspiciously wealthy, drinking, firearm-toting Kentucky family and even worse that her oldest boy had gotten away with what he did all those years ago, Martha still sometimes doubted her superiority over the other woman. And her stomach sometimes twisted when Zula wore a pretty, certainly expensive dress to church or drove through town in her fancy new red-and-black Chevy coupe.
Next to her in bed, Carl grunted.
But Martha wasn’t finished. “I’ll start making phone calls in the morning. Get the ladies from church on my side so we can approach the Reverend together. I’ll have a few over for coffee so we can figure out the best way to remove Zula from her teaching duties in this new program. Why, the woman never even attended church while her husband was alive.”
“You hate having folks to the house,” Carl said, expertly reaching through the moonlit dark to touch the lid of her right eye, closing it because that sometimes stopped the twitch.
Martha considered the long cane she’d propped against the wall before climbing into bed, wondering if she should get up now and thumb through her mother’s cookbook for a coffeecake recipe. “I hear Zula’s always having folks over for fancy teas and card games. Even folks from our side of the river. If you can imagine! So I’ve got to make it clear mighty fast that I’d do a much better job getting the Lord’s Word into the ears of our children before it’s too late. A much better job.”
Carl patted her bony shoulder. “Time for shut-eye, Martha May. You know I’ve got work tomorrow.”
She turned away from him, careful not to put any weight on her bad hip. At least her eye had stopped its spasms. They’d been worse this week, and Martha feared it might be the new glasses. “But the weather’s so bad,” she said, knowing he’d still be up before dawn to deliver the county’s mail the next morning.
He turned away from her but spoke softly over his shoulder, “You’d be a fine teacher at the church.”
Carl got weather reports and most of his news from the ham radio he’d built from a kit sold by the Wholesale Radio Company. He’d run a long wire antenna across the back yard from the house and stretched it to a pole. Now he could pick up stations from all over the world. On the day of President Roosevelt’s second inauguration, he and Martha had sat in ladderback chairs next to each other, holding hands, listening. Martha liked picturing this important scene taking place so far away from them, and she liked the excitement in the announcer’s voice as he described the abnormally terrible weather there in Washington, D.C. A half inch of rain had drenched the floor of the President’s open car! This winter was definitely the wettest and coldest Martha had ever lived through, and yesterday a radio operator had reported the river was still rising unusually fast and had nearly reached the door of the Piggly Wiggly over in Paycock.
Months later, in June, Carl would tell her a story he’d heard about a girl listening to her family’s short wave one afternoon. “She was sitting on the floor,” Carl would say, “turning the dial to see if she could pick up something interesting when she heard a woman’s voice. The woman sounded upset. ‘This is Amelia Earhart. This is Amelia Earhart, ’ the voice repeated. Over and over. The girl tried to take notes, but the signal kept fading. She heard the woman speak to a man, who sounded delirious. They were in an airplane, on land, but ‘the water was rising.’” Carl’s eyebrows raised high. “Imagine that,” he would say as they sat on the front porch looking out across their finally dry field. “A little girl, God knows where, is able to hear the voice of one of the most famous people in the world. God knows where Amelia Earhart was, too, of course. But we are mighty, mighty fortunate to have the miracle of ham radio in our lives.”
Martha wasn’t as excited by this anecdote as Carl was. It seemed to her that the ham radio had done no one any good in that instance. Knowing someone needed help and being able to give it were two very different things. The girl had, after all, not saved Amelia Earhart. She wondered if the girl might even grow up to be haunted by that fact.
Rain still fell the day after Martha decided to oust Zula Blix from her teaching position at the new and poorly considered Good News Club. As soon as she’d fed Carl cream toast and broiled ham and sent him off to the post office, she wiped her hands on her red gingham apron, lifted the receiver on the Bakelite wall phone, and put in a call to her cousin Beulah.
“I’m going to invite some ladies from church over for coffee. Soon as this rain stops. We need to discuss the new Reverend. And Zula Blix.”
“Hush!” Beulah shouted. Her dog Oleo stopped barking in the background. Then, more directly to Martha, “What’s Zula done now?”
Martha cleared her throat. “Seems the new pastor took it in mind to start a Good News Club last week. This in addition to regular Sunday School classes!”
“I only met the man first time last week at church. Seems a self-satisfied sort,” Beulah said. “Pudgy, as though he won’t mind any of the desserts we ladies bring to socials. I heard he came to us from Mount Horeb. You were there for the vote, weren’t you, Martha?”
Martha twisted the cord connecting the receiver. “Yes, yes. It’s not Reverend Berry I want to talk about though it does appear he started this problem.”
“I miss Reverend Hunnycutt,” Beulah said, her voice low. “Made me no nevermind that he was just an itinerant preacher. It just felt good every time he passed through New Madrid. So what’s this Good News you mentioned?”
“All my students are in it,” Martha answered. “Just heard about it yesterday from that sweet, though spoiled, little Gloria. She told me that she and all my other students were supposed to head to church soon as school ended. That there was a new club, and it was under the tutelage of Mrs. Zula Blix. If you can imagine.”
“Well, I can tell you that last Sunday Miss High and Mighty seemed to have our new preacher wrapped around her little finger. I’m wondering if she offered him some money from her husband’s estate. I’m still not sure why she suddenly decided to be a church-goer!”
“To find a new man obviously,” Martha said. She paused, wondering how many of the tea cups on the green painted shelf next to the sink were chipped.
“If the new reverend takes money from her, they’ll probably claim the whole church building lies in Kentucky or even move it so it doesn’t straddle state and county lines.”
Martha felt flushed with anger and took three breaths like Carl had taught her.
“You still on the line?” Beulah asked.
“I’m here. I don’t plan to hold back when a group of us goes to speak to the Reverend. He needs to know the stained history of that family. All of it.” The words were spitting out of her at a too-fast pace. “Good News indeed! I bet she’ll let the boys in that club run outside ‘stead of sitting and memorizing Bible verses like they ought to!”
“Maybe it’s best to give Zula a few weeks to get herself into her own hot water,” Beulah said, and Martha nodded as though Beulah could see her full agreement through she had no intention of waiting for anything other than this rain to stop.
Martha reached for her purse on the Formica counter and rummaged through it, trying to find that little memo book with the pretty blue hollyhocks on its cover. She’d remembered she needed to add lard to her grocery list so she could make Gene’s favorite pie.
“How’s Willie doing?” she asked. “Gene’s comin’ home for a short leave, and I know he’ll want to see his favorite cousin.”
Beulah’s son had been paralyzed twenty years earlier, in an accident when Gene, and Willie, and Ralph Blix had gone swimming at the Landing.
“Willie’s gonna be glad to hear that,” Beulah said. “He’s got some shooting pains in his right leg. Never understood how his legs can hurt like that. But he claims they burn when it rains.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. You give my nephew a special kiss from me. And tell him Gene’s coming,” Martha said.
Inside the clutch, Martha found her handkerchief, the picture of Jesus on gold foil she never went anywhere without, a comb missing a few teeth, and finally the memo book. She took a deep breath again to calm herself. “You go to prayer meeting Tuesday night?” she asked her cousin.
“Mmm-hhhm,” Beulah said. “Zula was there in all her finery, of course. Fancy plaid rain slicker, matching hat and umbrella. I swear that woman ought to spend more time on living the Word of the Lord than on her wardrobe.”
“Amen,” Martha said.
“I’m glad our boys got through their religious education long a’fore she was in charge,” Beulah said.
Gene, and Beulah’s boy, Willie, had been so sweet, both of them with their thick blond curls. They’d spent hours together down at the Compromise Landing, fishing, jumping off the pier in their dungarees, bare-chested and tan. Unfortunately, against her wishes, Gene and Willie had also taken a liking to Zula Blix’s boy Ralph. She never knew how they’d met and tried to put an end to it, but somehow the three boys kept in touch and she knew, though Gene hadn’t been the one to tell her, that even now as young men they still went into town to shoot a game of pool whenever Gene was home on leave. Ralph Blix had been the fool who suggested they all jump off the pier at low tide that long-ago summer, but neither Gene nor cousin Willie seemed to hold a grudge, a fact Martha could not wrap her head around. These days, Gene always insisted on taking his cousin along whenever he went into town, pushing Willie in his wheelchair, sometimes standing on the back riding down the short hill at the top of Main Street, both boys, now grown men, whooping and hollering like they was ten. In Gene’s last letter to Martha and Carl, he’d said he planned to take Willie out to find some pretty girls. In a postscript, he’d reminded his mother to make his favorite foods: noodles baked with tomato sauce, mushrooms, and bacon. Fried potato cakes. And that lemon meringue pie.
“Tell Pa to get the fishing waders ready, too,” he’d added in his rushed handwriting. “He and I are due some bluegill.”
Beulah coughed on the other end of the phone line. “You go down to see the river yesterday?” she asked, bringing Martha back to their call.
“Nope. Didn’t step outside.” Martha tucked the memo pad with her grocery list back into her purse. Gene would be home for a week. She’d have to tell him to steer clear of Ralph Blix. Just until this issue with the Good News Club was resolved. She couldn’t have her own kin act disloyal.
Oleo barked again in the background. “Hush, you mutt!” Beulah said without a trace of anger in her voice. “I’m about to throw this sweet critter out into the rain. He’s been cooped up all week and driving me crazy.”
Beulah huffed, and Martha pictured her cousin bending over to soothe the old dog. “What about the river?” Martha asked.
“It’s bad, worst I’ve ever seen it,” Beulah said. “Heard the levee over at Clear Creek went out. And they’re evacuating Butler County.”
“I swear I don’t remember a February this bad. Of all times for us to get a new preacher.” Martha ran her finger around the mouthpiece of the phone. It had been so much easier when she and Beulah were girls. She wasn’t sure she liked being a grown-up much, all the responsibility that now fell on her shoulders to make sure the world ran the way she wanted it to run. “Amen,” she said again for no reason, then, “Talk to you tomorrow.”
But the next morning, phone lines were down in New Madrid. Scores of trees had fallen into the river, and temperatures had dropped 25 degrees overnight. Outside, sleet came down hard. Some of it stuck to the windowpanes, freezing on contact.
By Friday water came up to the edge of their yard. Carl went out to move their two cows to a small barn up on higher ground. He’d had to lead the animals carefully over the ice around the flooded areas.
Electricity was out, but Carl’s ham radio still worked. The news was nonstop now, the voices on the radio increasingly frantic.
Donna Baier Stein is the author of The Silver Baron’s Wife (PEN/New England Discovery Award, Bronze winner in Foreword Reviews 2017 Book of the Year Award, more), Sympathetic People (Iowa Fiction Award Finalist), Sometimes You Sense the Difference, Letting Rain Have Its Say, and Scenes from the Heartland: Stories Based on Lithographs by Thomas Hart Benton. She was a Founding Editor of Bellevue Literary Review and founded and publishes Tiferet Journal. She has received a Fellowship from the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, a scholarship from Bread Loaf Writers conference, and other awards. Her work has been published in Virginia Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, Florida Review, Confrontation, Gargoyle, Writer’s Digest, Saturday Evening Post, New York Quarterly, and many other journals and anthologies.