EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from The Welcome Committee of Butternut Creek by Jane Myers Perrine (Faith Words).

Chapter One

On a blazing-hot June afternoon in the middle of a clogged US 183 in Austin, Texas, Adam Jordan clenched his hands on the steering wheel of the stalled car and considered the situation. As a newly ordained minister, he probably should pray, but he felt certain the drivers of the vehicles backed up behind him would prefer him to do something less spiritual.

The day before, he’d headed west from Lexington, Kentucky, toward Central Texas, a twenty-hour, thousand-mile trip, in a car held together by his little bit of mechanical skill and a lot of prayer. Sadly, on Tuesday, the Lord looked away for a moment as Adam attempted to navigate the crowded tangle of highways that is Austin. The radiator coughed steam as the old vehicle stopped in the center lane of more traffic than he’d ever seen gathered together in midafternoon. Did rush hour start at three o’clock here? He soon learned that rush hour on US 183 could last all day and much of the night, because the city grew faster than its highway system.

He got out of the car and began pushing what had once been a brilliantly blue Honda across two lanes of barely moving traffic and onto the shoulder amid the honks and the screeches of highway noise and curses of angry drivers. If his defective directional skills hadn’t led him on a fifty-mile detour into South Austin, the pitiful old vehicle might have made it to Butternut Creek—but they had and the car hadn’t.

As happens to everyone and everything over the years, the Honda had faded and frayed until no one could tell what it once had been. The identifying hood ornament had long since fallen off, and the paint was a crackled and blistered gray. And white. With rust peering through it. But it usually ran.

Adam’s first thought was to abandon the heap right there, but he’d heard Texas had laws against that. Instead, he called Howard Crampton, an elder of the church and the chair of the search committee that had called Adam.

“Hey, Howard,” he said when the elder picked up the phone. “I’m stuck in Austin on 183.”

For a moment, Howard said nothing. Finally he asked, “Who is this?”

So much for believing the church breathlessly awaited his arrival. “Adam Jordan.” When silence greeted that, Adam added, “The new minister.”

“Hey, Adam. Good to hear from you. Sorry I didn’t recognize you at first. I’m in the middle of a bank audit and my brain’s filled with numbers. What can I do you for?”

“My car broke down on 183, north of something called the Mopac.”

“Know exactly where that is. I’ll send a tow truck to pick you up.”

“All the way from Butternut Creek?”

“Not too far. Sit tight.”

As if he could do anything else.

And that’s how Adam entered Butternut Creek: sitting in the cab of the tow truck, chatting with Rex, the driver, about fishing and hunting, neither of which he did back then, with his car rattling on the flatbed behind the two men. Although his disreputable arrival didn’t signal a propitious beginning, he fell in love with the town immediately.

They entered on Farm-to-Market—FM—road 1212A, which passed between the Whataburger and the H-E-B. Rex pointed out the football stadium and high school about a hundred yards to the north and up the hill. Then the residential section began, big Victorians shoved jowl-to-jowl with bungalows and ranch houses, split levels alongside columned Colonials, interspersed with apartments and motels. Here and there, large, beautifully manicured lawns stretched out, some decorated with a gazebo or fountain while in a yard next to them appeared an occasional pink flamingo or enormous live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss.

Everyone waved as Rex chugged along Main Street. Adam waved back, instantly charmed by the town, by the people who smiled a greeting, by the sturdy brick buildings with Victorian trim and enormous old trees standing tall and full and casting shade and shadows across the lawns and the streets.

“Town square just over on the other side of the courthouse, that way, Padre.” Rex nodded to the right. “I’m fixin’ to leave you and your car at the church. I’ll help unload it. Don’t look like you’ve got a lot of stuff.”

As Rex turned the steering wheel, the truck lumbered into the church parking lot. “You leave your keys in the car and I’ll pick it up later.”

Adam swiveled to look at the driver. “Leave the keys in my car?”

“Padre, you’re in Butternut Creek. No one steals cars here.”

He glanced back into the rearview mirror. “Especially not that one.”

While Rex lowered the car onto the asphalt, the new minister turned to study the parsonage.

His eyes lifted, up and up. He’d seen Victorians but never one quite so big. When the pulpit committee had come to Lexington to interview him, they’d described the house, but he hadn’t realized the massive size of the pale yellow edifice: three stories, each six or eight windows across, doors and shutters of a dark green, every inch of surface covered with painted wooden curlicues of a dark purplish color—maroon?— plus newel posts and bric-a-brac and, bringing it all together, gingerbread. What in the world would he do with all that space?

As he studied the turret and the bay windows and everything else on the house, he felt sure the parishioners expected him to multiply and be fruitful, producing enough babies to fill every bedroom and all the children’s Sunday school classes. He shook his head. Bad planning not to have brought a wife with him.

Sadly for the hopes of the congregation and all those empty rooms, no prospect for a bride had presented herself over the last few years, not since his fiancée Laurel dumped him after she decided she didn’t want to marry a minister. The teas and worship services and good works, she’d said, weren’t really her thing.

The church management professor at the seminary had warned the newly minted and still-single ministers not to date a young woman in the congregation. It could cause jealousy. It would cause discomfort if they parted. Gossip could ruin a minister’s reputation.

Although warned by the professor, Adam had ignored the problem being a single minister presented several months ago. He’d known a few women interested in marrying a preacher, but they were in Kentucky. Even they wouldn’t covet that position enough to follow him to Texas. Besides, he’d always felt a little uncomfortable with the forward women who made their determination to marry a minister clear. Not that he felt comfortable with any young woman. That personality flaw probably doomed the possibility of, like Abraham, his fathering a multitude of nations or even two or three children to fill those rooms.

Maybe the extra space could be used as classrooms for Sunday school? A library? A boardinghouse to bring in a little additional income for the church?

Adam reached forward to try the front door. It opened right up. Getting used to all this trust in small-town Texas was going to be hard. Would he insult someone if he locked the door?

Inside, his footsteps echoed. As he walked, he looked around the great expanse of hardwood floor, the huge and beautifully curved staircase leading up to a second story, the empty parlors on each side of a hallway that led back and back into unknown areas he’d explore later. The silence crushed in on him, and he felt even more alone than he had when his parents left him at boarding school years earlier.

“Grab a box, Padre,” Rex shouted from outside, interrupting his reflections.

“Coming.” Adam ran back out to the car and flipped the trunk open. Within a few minutes, the two men had unloaded the car and lugged everything inside.

When Rex left, the sound of his work boots thudding across the polished floor, Adam glanced at the tiny heap of his possessions in the middle of what looked like a family room or maybe a dining area, and then began to explore. First he ambled back to the front porch, which looked as if it surrounded the entire house. His neighbors to the right and across the street lived in similarly huge Victorians. Then he turned to the left to study the beautiful brick church just north across the parking lot. Huge live oaks dripping with Spanish moss shaded the green lawn. Strength and love and serenity seemed to flow from the steepled roof and huge white columns. How could he have been so blessed to do the Lord’s work here, in this perfect place?

Of course, he hadn’t met Miss Birdie yet.

***

Adam’s college days and nights had been spent in a dorm room. During seminary, he occupied the furnished parsonage of his student church up near Maysville, Kentucky, a town founded by Daniel Boone and famous as the birthplace of Rosemary Clooney. Because, as an adult, he’d lived in furnished spaces, he possessed no furniture: not a card table, not a desk chair, not a bed. Oh, he did have a sleeping bag from the youth retreats and church camp, a television that he hoped to hook up to cable soon, and a computer with the sermons he’d preached over the past three years. He’d shipped all his books ahead. All those boxes should be stacked in the minister’s study at the church. Other than that, all his earthly possessions were in a couple of boxes and two ancient suitcases.

He studied the pile of his things and shook his head. This little bit to fill a huge parsonage.

Miss Birdie was horrified when she brought him dinner that evening.

“You’re Adam Joseph Jordan?” Without identifying herself, she strutted into the barren desolation of the parsonage like a five-star general inspecting her troops. The fact that only one slightly terrified man stood before her didn’t lessen her resolve.

“Yes, Miss Birdie.” Adam knew who she was. Howard had warned him, told him how to address her and how to act in her presence. In that moment, he realized Howard’s words of caution, the admonitions Adam had laughed off, were disturbingly true.

“Well, I swan.” She looked way up at Adam. “You are a tall, skinny boy, aren’t you?”

At six-four and 160, Adam had been tall and skinny as long as he could remember. Most people didn’t comment on it.

She studied his face and height for a few more seconds. “With a name like Adam Joseph Jordan, guess you didn’t have much choice but to become a minister.” Then she took off across the entry hall. Her tiny feet, shod in tie-up shoes with fat rubber soles, squished across the hardwood floor before she stopped and stood between what Adam had labeled as two large parlors.

She wore her white hair in a no-nonsense, almost military style: short and parted on the right. No curls, no waves. Straight with a hint of bangs brushed to the left. Her chest held as high as a proud robin’s, she turned to look at the empty space. Every inch of her body showed disdain as she inspected the area. How could such a tiny, thin woman give off such as air of authority, control, and doom?

How could she intimidate a man more than a foot taller than she? But she did. Adam cringed inside.

Chagrin oozed across her features. “Tut, tut, tut.” She made a quick turn in the middle of the room to glare at the new preacher, then closed her eyes and shook her head. When she finally opened her eyes, she glared at him again.

“What kind of minister . . . what kind of person has no furniture at all?”

Adam smiled at her in an effort to ingratiate himself. She didn’t smile back. He’d disappointed her, as he figured he would many more times.

Did she expect Adam to be ashamed of his lack of furnishings? To look mortified? He didn’t because he wasn’t, but Miss Birdie wouldn’t understand. Generations separated them. She’d probably never heard of a futon. When he didn’t flinch—at least, not outwardly—or apologize for his shortcomings, she said, “Hmph.”

He’d rapidly learn that she expressed some of her most powerful comments with sounds.

With a quick turn, she marched down the short hallway and into the room where his few possessions resided. She glared at the pile of stuff.

“What’s this?” She pointed at his pitiful collection of belongings. “You really don’t have any furniture? None?”

“I have a television and a computer and a . . . that’s about it.” Instantly recognizing that his words didn’t satisfy her a bit, Adam added, “I’ll have to work on that.” He again attempted to disarm her with a smile but learned in a moment that Miss Birdie was not disarmable, especially when the truth lay so heavily on her side. “Treasure in heaven, you know,” he added.

Ignoring the biblical reference, she said, “Where am I supposed to put this?” She nodded toward the quilted tote that dangled from her arm and emitted a mouthwatering aroma. “Where are you going to eat it?” She tilted her head and squinted at him. “Are you the kind of man who stands at the kitchen counter to eat?”

Yes, Adam was, although he hadn’t realized it qualified him as part of a decadent class of humanity. After disappointing her about the furniture, he couldn’t confess he was guilty of what she so clearly considered a lack of proper etiquette, of gentility and acceptable rearing. She would have turned, he feared, and taken that dish away. The aroma of what she’d prepared called to him, made his stomach growl after a ten-hour drive without stopping for meals because he’d been afraid the old car would conk out if it got a rest and a chance to think about how much farther it had to go.

“Oh, no. I plan to get some furniture and sit at the table. For the moment, I’ll have to stand at the kitchen counter to eat.” He nodded his head, then shook it, not sure which action was required to respond to her question. “Only for a few days.”

“Don’t suppose you have a bed?”

“Sleeping bag.”

“Sofa? Chair?”

He shook his head.

She took a step forward and scrutinized him. Adam felt judged and found wanting. No hope of redemption existed. Miss Birdie’s expression didn’t even hold out the promise of grace. “Do you have a towel? A bar of soap?”

“Soap. Yes, I have soap.” Glad to have finally passed one of her tests, he pointed toward a box and a small suitcase. “And probably a couple of towels.” He waved at a tattered suitcase held together with a belt. “Somewhere.”

With a deep sigh—one that Adam felt came from the very depths of her soul and left no doubt what she thought about this feckless young man who stood to eat and yet had the audacity to undertake the task of becoming her spiritual adviser— she placed the dish on the kitchen counter, turned, and squish-squished out of the house. Without a Good-bye or a Blessings or a Welcome to Butternut Creek, she left.

After she slammed the front door, Adam discovered a spoon and plastic tumbler in one of his boxes and was able to eat some of the delicious chicken spaghetti right out of the dish. Still, he kept checking the entrance hall in case Miss Birdie might fling the front door open and shout Aha! when she found out he hadn’t even bothered to find a plate because he was a rude and boorish young man, as most twenty-five-yearold bachelors he knew were. The fear of her appearance made locking the door seem like a good idea.

He put the leftovers away in the refrigerator provided by the church. Inside were a carton of milk, another of orange juice, butter, and a dozen eggs, all left by some helpful person. If he could find a frying pan, he could fix breakfast in the morning.

Over the next few hours, more members of the congregation stopped by. They smiled and welcomed Adam and brought cakes and bread and vegetables and fried chicken and a brisket.

Once that slowed down, Adam considered unpacking, but he had no hangers and none had been left in the tiny coat closet. Probably some hung in the huge number of closets upstairs, but he didn’t feel the call to explore tonight. All those large empty rooms would probably depress him. He left everything in the suitcases, boxes, and plastic bags. Surely everyone— except Miss Birdie—would understand.

Next he called his parents, who’d retired to London after his father sold his company for gazillions of dollars. It was very early morning there, but his mother was glad to hear he’d arrived safely and promised they’d visit soon. His father expressed amazement that Butternut Creek had telephone service.

Tomorrow he’d email his sister in Kenya. Not that she’d worry. Traveling between refugee camps as she did was a lot more dangerous than the trip through Tennessee and Arkansas he’d just made.

Having completed everything he needed to take care of right away, at nine thirty he rolled out the sleeping bag, plugged in the television, and searched for a baseball game. Unfortunately, only one station came in, a feed from Austin transmitted from Llano. The picture was snowy, and the sound faded in and out. The problem constituted another introduction to the difference between city and rural life, but he didn’t mind. He listened to the local news and watched the blurry rerun of a sitcom before deciding to go to bed. Or, to be more exact, to go to sleeping bag.

Filled with gratitude to be here, he said his prayers and dozed off as soon as he finished.

After the long, exhausting trip, he slept well.

***

The insistent ringing of the doorbell started at nine o’clock. Adam shook his head in a futile effort to clear it, slipped into jeans and pulled on a T-shirt. When he opened the door, two muscular men stood there, carrying a sofa between them. Adam stepped back and watched as they brought it in without a word. They settled it against the wall of the room where he’d slept, then headed back out to a large truck with hilton furniture painted on the side.

“What are you doing?” he asked as the furniture came inside. “This isn’t mine. I didn’t order it and I can’t pay for this,” Adam attempted to explain as they carried in a large dining room table. They didn’t stop.

Like a yappy little dog, he ran after them asking where all this had come from.

 “You’re in the wrong house,” he said but the men continued to ignore him. Taciturn and focused, they kept unloading and placing the furniture where they thought it appropriate: a recliner, a coffee table, that dining room table with six hefty chairs, a queen-size bed—well, almost everything a bachelor minister needed to set up housekeeping except, of course, that big bed they’d taken upstairs, which suggested marriage at some time down the road.

During this entire time, the men didn’t pay the slightest bit of attention to him. When they had finished, Rodolfo— the name embroidered on his shirt—handed Adam a clipboard and pen. “Please sign, Pastor.”

He took the invoice and read it, attempting to find out the source of the furniture and where it should have been delivered. There was nothing on that page except the word widows and his address. Well, not the real address because, as he later learned, no one knew one another’s numerical addresses. This house was described as “the parsonage next to the Christian Church.”

“I can’t pay for this.”

“It’s taken care of.”

“Everything’s been paid for?”

“Uh-huh.” Rodolfo took the page Adam had signed, then tore off and handed the minister a copy. Followed by his crew, he left.

“Who paid for it?” Adam ran along behind the crew.

“Don’t know.”

“You’re sure you’re in the right place?”

“This is the parsonage, right? Next to the Christian Church?” He turned back and pointed at both. At Adam’s nod, he and the other men got into the truck.

“Who are the widows?” Adam shouted as they drove away. When the truck disappeared down the highway, he wandered inside to look around the newly furnished rooms.

Where had all this come from?

The only person he could think of who knew he didn’t have furniture was Miss Birdie. Well, the other church members who’d dropped by must have noticed the lack, but they hadn’t seemed to mind. Perhaps they believed the rest of his stuff would be delivered later. Or they might have realized that young ministers seldom had money and wouldn’t have a great number of worldly goods.

But Miss Birdie had cared deeply about the inadequacy. She’d taken it almost like an insult to her personally and to the church that had called him. As he walked through the parsonage on the hardwood floors he bet the ladies had buffed earlier in the week, he remembered her deep disappointment in his lack of possessions and her sharp words.

Now a sofa sat against the north wall of the larger parlor, a great green-plaid beast with soft pillows. He’d have a place to sit and watch television. He sat down. Comfortable and exactly long enough to take a nap during a slow ball game. Miss Birdie wore comfortable shoes and inexpensive clothing. Surely she didn’t have enough money to buy all this. Was Adam wrong about that, too?

Only a few minutes later while he admired the rest of the furnishings, the doorbell sounded again. When he opened it, a white-haired gentleman stood there.

“Jesse Hardin.” He grasped Adam’s hand in a huge hand. “Got a card table for you.” As he dragged the table inside,

Jesse said, “My wife and I own a farm outside town. Do you like to ride horses?”

“Well, I’m from Kentucky so I should,” Adam began. “But I don’t.”

 “Well, if you want to give it a try, give me a call.”

A few minutes after Jesse left, Howard Crampton dropped by with two folding chairs and put them in the breakfast nook with the card table.

“Great cowboy hat,” Adam said, noticing the wide-brimmed hat the elder wore.

“Son.” Howard’s expression was someplace between a smile and a frown. “I’m going to teach you a little something about Texas. Don’t ever call this a cowboy hat. You could insult some good ol’ boy who might take exception, physically, to your sentiments. This”—he pointed to his head—“is my Stetson. Some men prefer a Resistol, but real Texans wear Stetsons.”

Adam nodded. “Thank you, sir.” He dropped his gaze. When he did, he noticed Howard wore cowboy boots, too, with intricate tooling on the toe, but Adam sure wasn’t going to ask about those. Instead he asked a completely different question, the one that really bothered him. “Howard, who are the widows?”

“Don’t worry about that.” The elder shook his head. “You’ll find out soon enough. Relax today, get settled.”

Before he could ask more, Howard sprinted out.

Now Adam really worried.

After Maudie Adams left, a set of towels hung over the bars in both upstairs bathrooms, the bed was made, and more linens were folded in a closet. Later that afternoon, two high school football players lugged in an enormous rustic oak armoire, which they settled against the wall opposite the sofa. Adam’s little portable television sat in splendor inside.

He had furniture. An abundance of furniture. More than he’d ever owned or thought he’d possess. The sight of his parlor and the new furniture filled him with a feeling of comfort, security, and joy. Even if they were temporary, even if the furnishings belonged here, stayed in the parsonage for the next minister of Butternut Creek, the sight of this plenty and a self-indulgent pride of ownership filled Adam with such an agreeable warmth that he struggled to force back that unholy and impious sentiment and attempted to refocus on the spiritual.

That not quite accomplished, he wandered onto the front porch and settled on the swing, pushing back with his feet a couple of times until the movement became established. A soft breeze dried the perspiration he’d worked up from watching those fine new belongings being brought in.

He looked out across the wide green yard he’d need to mow soon. Then his gaze again turned toward the church with the tall pillars in front, two on each side of the massive front door that looked as if it could have been part of the Arc of the Covenant. His eyes climbed the spire to the cross atop the steeple.

On that lovely, gentle evening, he whispered a verse from Psalms: “I give thanks to You, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify Your name forever.”

The beautiful town wrapped itself around Adam, enveloped him in peace while the pale blue of the sky relaxed and refreshed him as the last rays of the sun warmed the air. The wonders of creation filled Adam with awe as day became night.

“All is right with Your world, dear Lord.”

And it was.

Yes, it was and it still is.

 

Copyright © 2012 by Jane Myers Perrine

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