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THE END OF AUGUST ALWAYS TURNED the small valley town of Dorsetville into a hive of activity.
Children, who in June had thought the summer would never end, were now flush with a sense of urgency to put in as many hours as they could down at the swimming hole by the river, or to explore new paths along the mountain range that ringed the town. Suddenly there seemed so much that had been left undone that they swarmed like bees collecting the last pollen to get it all in before summer had passed.
Men, who had spent the month enjoying the countryside filled with lush shafts of wheat and corn from the vantage of their front porch rockers, now felt the pull to get busy. As harvesttime neared, few dared to linger over second cups of coffee at the Country Kettle. They were much too busy for idle chitchat. There was machinery to grease and oil, barns and silos to be cleared, firewood to be split and stacked, and acres of corn and wheat to be gathered in before the frost.
Men worked tirelessly from sunup to sundown against the steady drone of combines that spit and sputtered up and down the fields, leaving the entire countryside to resemble a patchwork quilt. And when they were through, hundreds of circular bales of hay would dot the fields like modern sculptures left to dress the landscapes in a prelude to fall.
Women were no less frenzied as the summer came to a close. Vines bent to the ground under the weight of fist–size tomatoes. Peaches were coming so fast and furious that even the birds had had their fill. Suddenly it seemed as though every manner of fruit and vegetable was ready to be canned at once.
Women scurried about like squirrels, gathering in bushels of produce. Kitchens were off bounds to the rest of the family as women manned pots of boiling water and melted paraffin. And when the last canning jar had been lifted out from its steam bath, there wasn’t a housewife among them who didn’t feel as rich as Solomon as she gazed across the pantry shelves that fairly groaned under the weight of ruby red tomatoes, topaz peaches, emerald peppers, and amber corn relish, bowls of which would grace every table throughout the long winter ahead. As the snow grew higher around the doors and the temperatures plummeted to five below, the golden kernels would act as a reminder of the halcyon days of summer past and the promise of those yet to come.
But no matter how busy the season, folks in this small town always managed to fit in the annual County Fair. Although blue ribbons may have cost only fifty cents each to make, to the men and women in Dorsetville they were worth more than a king’s ransom. In between their chores, men groomed their livestock entries until their coats shone like spun glass, tuned their tractors until they purred, and practiced their hog hollering until their wives thought they’d go insane. Meanwhile the women crafted items until their fingers felt as though they might fall off their hands and cooked until their kitchens were as hot as the fires of hell.
The Friday of Labor Day weekend would be the official kickoff for the fair, held at the fairgrounds about a mile and a half outside town. Although it was still called a county fair, only a few of the forty or so towns that made up Litchfield County participated. Since the early eighties, much of the surrounding farmland had been sold and developed. Where acres of verdant, rich fields had once spanned the distance as far as the eye could see, the hills now sported enormous homes the locals called “McMansions.” The landscape, however, wasn’t the only thing that had changed with the influx of people. Taxes had soared as thousands of children poured into the school systems. It seemed that every school was undergoing some kind of renovation program. More teachers were hired. More school buses were bought. Dirt roads quickly gave way to asphalt, which was easier to plow in the winter. Of course, the increase in motor traffic meant an increase in public services, all of which required higher taxes, which began to make it increasingly difficult for farmers to hold on to their large tracts of land.
Fortunately, the state of Connecticut intervened. Realizing that the beauty of the state was in its scenic vistas, which were quickly becoming endangered, it fashioned a buyback program. Farmers would sell their land to the state, then rent it back for a dollar a year, thus eliminating all taxes. When the family no longer wanted to farm the land or died off, the farm would be turned into open space, ensuring that Connecticut would maintain its beautiful landscapes for future generations.
Several large farms had been saved with this plan, including farms in Goshen, Bethlehem, Morris, Litchfield, Roxbury, Washington, and Dorsetville, and the farmers still looked forward each year to the chance to participate in livestock competitions at the County Fair.
The fair was a tradition that had started during the depression in the hope it might keep folks’ minds off their troubles. Back then it had been mostly an agricultural fair, where blue ribbons were handed out to the best in breed in poultry, rabbits, swine, horses, and cattle. Over the years it had grown and now included hollering contests, woodchopping and sawing contests, tractor pulls, a miniature rodeo run by the 4–H club, and a plethora of women’s events that covered everything from fine needlepoint, quilts, hooked rugs, flower arranging, and preserves and jams to the most coveted blue ribbon of all—the Apple Pie Contest.
It was this last entry that made Father James Flaherty feel like a black cloud was hanging over him like a guillotine. Heaven help him, he had finally agreed to be a judge for this year’s contest. He would have done anything short of selling his soul to the devil to have sidestepped the honor but had finally run out of excuses.
He passed the Congregational parsonage on his way downtown and remembered the year that Reverend Curtis was named a judge. The poor man hadn’t had a minute’s rest from the moment his name appeared in the Dorsetville Gazette. For the next few weeks, Father James had watched women stream into the parsonage bearing pie samples for his “opinion.” When the reverend had finally insisted they stop because the activity might be construed by women of other denominations as trying to influence a judge, they took offense. Father James had heard that Reverend Curtis’s church attendance dropped by 20 percent after that.
Then there was the aftermath.
“Rochelle Phillips continues to refer to me as ‘the cleric’ at all church meetings,” the reverend had lamented when he came to offer his condolences upon hearing the news about his Catholic colleague.
Father James carefully stepped around a chalk hopscotch pattern on the sidewalk, thinking that he was already dead meat—an expression he had picked up from Matthew Metcalf, a former altar boy. Apparently, the women in his parish were well along with planning to take advantage of his position.
His head usher, Timothy McGree, had taken him aside this morning after mass. He said there were rumors flying around the parish that this year the women of St. Cecilia’s had “an in,” since their priest was a judge. Father James had moaned so loudly that George Benson, who besides owning a heating and air–conditioning company was Dorsetville’s fire marshal and had been conducting his annual inspection, offered him a Tums and a ride to Doc Hammon’s. The priest had declined both and made a beeline for the sacristy.
George’s booming voice followed him down the aisle. “You'd better tell those old ladies in the Altar Society to wear their glasses when they’re setting up these candles. State code says they need to be at least fourteen inches clear of all surfaces. I don’t need another church fire.”
George would never get over the fire that had destroyed the Congregational Church a few years ago. Since then, every time he came into St. Cecilia’s he was on the lookout for one violation or another.
“The church and statues are made of stone,” Ethel Johnson reminded him as her golden retriever, Honey, pulled on her leash, anxious to make their after–mass visit to the Country Kettle, where a bowl of scraps awaited her in the back kitchen. “There’s no danger of anything catching on fire.”
As he always did when confronted with something he couldn’t refute, George mumbled, “Regulation is regulation.”
Father James removed his vestments in record time, then made a mad dash out a side door, hoping that by the time George noticed his absence, he would be safely on his way to his morning cup of coffee. Like Honey, Father James looked forward to his after–mass visits to the Country Kettle.
He passed the town green, which separated St. Cecilia’s and the Congregational Church. His thoughts turned back to the contest. As predicted, a string of freshly baked pies now arrived every morning, lined up on the rectory’s back porch with little notes attached that read, “Hope you enjoy! Your parishioner, Mrs. Cummings” or “Just thinking of you. Your parishioner, Mrs. Florence Tate.” Just as innocent as little lambs. Ha! As though he didn’t know what they were up to.
He leaned back into the steep decline as the hill wound its way down to Main Street. He was in desperate need of a cup of Harry Clifford’s rich coffee and a plate of home fries. There was nothing like a visit to the Country Kettle to lift a man’s spirits. Just the thought of his favorite eating place made him feel better. The black cloud shifted.
He spied a dime wedged between the cracks of the sidewalk in front of Second Hand Rose. He bent down and picked it up. Heads. That was a good sign, right? Who knew, maybe things weren’t as bad as they seemed, he thought, smiling. He still had a week before the contest. Maybe something would come up. Maybe someone would step forward and demand to be made a judge. Not very likely, but it could happen. Or maybe the bishop would call with an urgent matter. Maybe…
He was so focused on the many avenues left to fate that he nearly plowed right into Barry Hornibrook as he stepped outside Dinova’s Grocery’s front door.
“Whoa, there, Father,” Barry said, laughing, steadying a heavy brown paper bag overflowing with fresh produce.
Father James’s face filled with delight. Barry was one of his many good friends here in town. “Sorry, I was lost in thought.”
“Let me guess. The Apple Pie Contest, right?”
“News is all over town that the women of St. Cecilia’s have the Apple Pie Contest tied up.”
Father James groaned. “That’s what Timothy said. I was hoping the rumor was unfounded. What am I going to do?”
Barry patted him on the back. “To use one of your phrases, this too will pass. Eventually. Just don’t expect as many dinner invitations for a while.”
“That’s right, I forgot they hog–tied you into judging one of these darn contests. When was that? A couple of years ago?”
“Five, and Mildred Dunlop still isn’t talking to me.”
“Great.” Father James swore. The black cloud was back.
“Look at the bright side.”
“There’s a bright side?”
“If none of the women are talking to you, think of all the work you’ll get done.”
Hmm…He hadn’t thought about that. When was the last time he’d spent a full day on his Sunday homily without being interrupted?
“Thanks, Barry. I hadn’t thought of that,” he said. The cloud was starting to shift again.
“Anytime,” Barry called, heading toward his car.
Father James looked straight up into a cloudless day. Why was he allowing this to get to him? For Pete’s sake, it was only a contest. It wasn’t like he had been asked to judge the angels, was it?
Now that things were back in perspective, this called for a cup of coffee, a plate of home fries, and a celebratory cinnamon bun. He headed straight for the Country Kettle, suddenly feeling famished.
FATHER JAMES STEPPED THROUGH THE RESTAURANT DOOR. Something wasn’t right. It was just a little after nine on a Friday morning, and the place was empty. Where was everyone? Normally, he could count on the St. Cecilia morning mass crowd to be still mulling over their coffee mugs. What was going on? He asked Wendy, who was stationed by the grill with today’s copy of the Dorsetville Gazette spread out on the counter. Wendy was fairly new to Dorsetville, having arrived just two years ago from New York. In the beginning, she had scared most of the regulars half to death with her thick New York accent and no–nonsense ways, but folks had finally come around. Even Father James had taken a strong liking to her.
“The County Fair,” she said without looking up, as though that explained everything. She licked her finger and turned a page with one hand while reaching for the Pyrex coffeepot with the other.
“A plate of home fries and a cinnamon bun,” he announced, sliding onto a vinyl–covered stool.
“There aren't any.”
“Any of what?”
“Any home fries or cinnamon buns.”
Drats! He had been all set for a cinnamon bun, not to mention those home fries. “All right, then I’ll take a blueberry muffin.”
“None of those either,” she said, pulling a fluorescent green alligator mug that Joe and Florence Platt had purchased during their 1995 trip to the Everglades out from a rack of clean cups. Like all of the dishes at the Country Kettle, Harry had bought it at a tag sale.
“Then make it a toasted corn muffin.”
“None of those either.”
“Well, what the devil is there this morning?”
"I told you. It's the County Fair."
“Well, what the blazes does that have to do with anything?” he wanted to know, his temper rising.
“Don’t get your collar all in a knot,” she said, leveling him with one of her New York don’t–mess–with–me looks.
“Sorry,” he said meekly, sipping his coffee. Ugh! He had forgotten the sugar. He reached for the canister.
“Apparently folks around here take this fair kind of seriously.”
“Tell me about it,” he mumbled.
“Do you know that yesterday I stopped in at Second Hand Rose to drop off some winter clothes, and there was a sign on the front door, ‘Closed for the fair.’ What kind of businesswomen would lose a week’s worth of revenue for a fair?”
“Bobbie helps judge the baked goods, and Beth helps her husband set up the hog–calling contest,” he said, stirring his coffee.
She looked at him strangely. “You’re kidding, right?” Wendy was still having trouble adjusting to the priorities of country life.
“Nope,” he said, taking a sip of coffee.
She grabbed a cloth and began to wipe the counter clean while shaking her head. “And I wonder why none of my friends back in Queens believe me when I tell them these things. Anyway, to answer your question, Lori closed the bakery for the week. As you know, little Paul is getting baptized on Sunday.”
Father James smiled. He always looked forward to baptisms, especially this one. Lori and Bob Peterson had nearly given up having another child. The adoption of little Paul was cause for great celebration.
“When that’s over, she needs to finish a needlepoint pillow that she’s entering and something about getting ready for a cake–decorating contest.”
“He’s home helping his Scout troop put the finishing touches on the float they’re entering in the Main Street parade contest.” She rolled her eyes. “What is it about this town and contests?”
“This year’s prize is a trip to that huge amusement park, the Big E, New England's ‘State Fair,’ up in Springfield, Mass. I guess the pressure's on.”
“So what's it going to be?”
“White or rye?”