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Evidence of Love
A True Story of Passion and Death in the Suburbs
By John Bloom, Jim Atkinson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 John Bloom and James R. Atkinson
All rights reserved.
"Once upon a time there were three trees."
The children stopped fidgeting in the church pews, and all you could hear was the whir of the ceiling fan and the occasional rattle of paper as the younger ones played with their song sheets. All fifty pairs of eyes focused front and center, where Candy Montgomery stood before the altar, waiting for absolute quiet. She always got it, too. Children have little patience for most activities that go on within a church sanctuary, but Candy's daily parables were an exception.
"Once upon a time there were three trees high up on a hill," she began again. "And for centuries and centuries they grew and grew. Sometimes they would talk to each other. The biggest tree used to say to the others" (here her voice became deep and masculine) "'When I grow up, I want to be made into a big boat, the finest ocean liner in the world.'
"And the second, medium-sized tree would say, 'When I grow up, I want to be made into a baby cradle, which is the most marvelous thing of all.'
"But the third tree, the littlest one, said, 'I don't ever want to be cut down; I want to stand here forever, pointing to God.'"
As Candy said this, she pointed toward the ceiling, just the way she had practiced it with her husband Pat the night before. The kids were enthralled. When Candy told these stories, there was something about her manner that was itself childlike: she glowed with simple, genuine delight. She even looked a little like a child, or at least like one of the teenagers, with her worn blue jeans and rubber thongs and loose-hanging gauzy blouse. Her blonde hair was close-cropped and tightly curled, almost kinky, in the style of the early seventies. Pat didn't like it that way; he said it made her look loose. But everyone else seemed to like it, and besides, it made her feel free. Candy was the kind of mother you could call by her first name, a part of the child's eternal conspiracy against order. It was almost as though she didn't know how the story ended and was making it up as she went along.
"But one day a group of woodcutters came to the hill of the three trees," said Candy, puckering her brow, "and one of them looked at the biggest tree and said, 'This tree looks like it would make a fine fishing boat.' The big tree cried and cried. But the woodcutters cut it down anyway."
She paused for effect.
"And it became the very boat that Peter used as his altar to spread the Good News."
Candy had a sudden and unexpected smile that could transform the face of a brooding introvert into that of a mischievous party girl. She flashed it now, as though to say, "Isn't this wonderful fun we're having?"
"Then a little while later the woodcutters came back," she said, "and one of them took a look at the second tree and said, 'This one looks like it would make a great barnstall.' And the medium-sized tree cried and cried, but the man cut it down anyway. ... And it turned out to be the stable the baby Jesus was born in, the best baby cradle of all."
Candy let the expectation build.
"And then," she said, more softly, "a little while after that, the woodcutters came for the third tree. And one of them said, 'This tree will make a fine cross.' And the little tree cried most of all. ... But it ended up as the cross that Jesus hung on, and it's still standing today, pointing to God."
"We should always remember," Candy concluded solemnly, "that what we are is not what we plan for ourselves, but what God plans for us."
It was the thirteenth of June, 1980, the beginning of a punishing, oppressive Texas summer, and Candy Montgomery had arrived at the United Methodist Church of Lucas, Texas, a little before nine that morning. As soon as she pulled onto the gravel lot, two doors of the old white family station wagon flopped open and the children piled out and ran inside. Ian, her "baby," went his own way, but Jenny and her best friend Alisa Gore stuck together, inseparable as only six- and seven-year-old girls can be. It was the last day of Vacation Bible School, a mixed blessing for the dozen or so mothers who reported for duty that morning. On the one hand it would be a celebration for those who had taught and shepherded the children all week: their reward was to be a noon luncheon in the old sanctuary. On the other, they would be more than happy when it was over. Even though the school ran only five days a year, and only in the mornings at that, it was such an inflexible schedule, requiring car pooling, refreshment preparation, babysitters, and lesson planning, that it was all the women could do to get through the week. The final day brought additional burdens, what with the cooking to do and a special puppet show for the visiting parents. More than one of them had joked about the "graduation" falling on Friday the thirteenth.
Candy Montgomery had a hundred other things to do besides. At breakfast the kids had all badgered and begged until she gave up and said that, yes, perhaps Alisa Gore could spend the night again that evening, even though they usually didn't allow the girls to sleep over two nights in a row. And, yes, she would ask Alisa's mother whether Alisa could go to The Empire Strikes Back that night with the Montgomery family. But the changed plans meant that Candy's driving strategy for the day would have to be rearranged. (In the "distant suburbs" of Dallas, as Collin County was known, the success of an entire day could revolve around a housewife's efficient use of the car.) The extra night would mean accepting the responsibility for Alisa's afternoon swimming lesson in Wylie in addition to the other errands in various outlying towns: the station wagon needed gas (in Allen), she wanted to help with the luncheon (in Lucas), she needed to get to the store to buy Father's Day cards (in Plano), and she had promised to lend a card table to her best friend, Sherry, who had relatives coming for the weekend (in Fairview). Five errands now, in five different towns — the price of living in the country. No telling when she would have time to take care of it all. Now Alisa had told her that her swimsuit was still at home, which meant driving all the way to Wylie to get it from Betty Gore.
First came Bible School. As soon as she arrived that morning, Candy grabbed her purse and headed over to the parsonage. Reverend Adams would want to know that she had finished the phone lists for her committee. She didn't call him "Reverend," of course. She had never been able to call him anything except "Ron," perhaps because he was only twenty-five years old, perhaps because the Methodists of Lucas had never stood on any kind of ceremony. She knew Ron wouldn't be at the Bible School program that day; she suspected Ron didn't even like the Bible School. It was frivolous, something the women did. Poor Ron. Somewhere behind that head full of building plans and budgetary procedures and the arrogance of a young man in his first pastoral appointment, there might be a nice guy. Ron would never show it, though. Candy told Ron about the lists, and he grunted his approval. Then she bustled into the sanctuary just as the children were bowing their heads for Betty Huffhines' first prayer.
Candy had saved "The Three Trees" for the last day of school. It was a special story for Candy, a modern parable she had picked up at the Methodist Annual Conference in Dallas that year. Candy had been the church's lay delegate for the past two years, a job she accepted for reasons that had little to do with Methodism but a great deal to do with the feelings of warmth and security and belonging that this little church by the roadside gave her. It was a place where people could have religion without "being religious," a distinction in her mind that separated Lucas from the narrow-minded orthodox Presbyterians of her childhood. She had never spoken about these feelings to anyone except Jackie, the woman who had pastored the church before Ron, but it all came down to one word: love. All Jackie had ever preached about was love. That's why Candy liked "The Three Trees" so much; it was so loving. It was Christian but it didn't have all the biblical references that got in the way of a child's understanding; it was a little like the story she had told on Tuesday, about the little gingerbread man and the little gingerbread woman. The kids wouldn't have liked it nearly as much if they had known it was the story of Adam and Eve. But when Candy had performed "The Three Trees" for Pat the night before, he had pronounced it the best story of the week. "Fantastic!" he said. "The kids will love it." Pat loved Lucas Church almost as much as Candy did. In a way, the church represented everything the Montgomerys had moved to the country to find. Here, for the first time in their lives, they felt like they had a home.
After the day's parable, Candy had the children bow their heads for a final prayer, and then they all scurried off to their 9:30 classes. Betty Huffhines was in charge of the school that year, so she and Candy were the only women who had no classes to teach. Instead they stayed behind to straighten up the sanctuary and collect the song sheets. Afterwards Candy walked over to the old sanctuary, a deteriorating white clapboard building with concrete steps and a skinny metal cross perched on its peaked roof. She had an affection for the old building; it was drafty and crudely constructed and too small, but she found it charming nonetheless. The new sanctuary was fine, too; it had pile carpet and stained glass and cushioned pews for up to 120 people. But there was something warm and nostalgic about the old place that had made her love it the very first time they had visited, three years before.
Candy mounted the steps and walked through the foyer to the old worship room, where the pews had been replaced by cafeteria tables and the altar had given way to a lopsided pool table. She could hear the scuffling of children's feet on the hardwood floors as a class met in a corner. She continued into the kitchen, where she knew she would find Barbara Green preparing Kool-Aid and cookies for the 10:30 recess.
"Here, let me help you with that," she said brightly. "I'll do the ice." Candy had a way of making everything she did sound fresh and insouciant.
Barbara assented and showed her where the glasses were. Candy enjoyed chatting with Barbara. The Greens lived two houses down, and Barbara's husband Phil worked with Pat at Texas Instruments. Candy felt she could confide in Barbara about almost anything. The only exceptions were the secrets Candy shared only with Sherry Cleckler, her closest friend of all. Candy admired Barbara, but she was also a little intimidated by her. Barbara was one of the few people in the world, Candy imagined, who may never have had an impure thought, or almost never. Barbara was embarrassed by even mildly vulgar language, but she had the grace and good sense to ignore it when she heard it. Barbara was devoted to her family and had a simple, genuine faith. Sometimes Candy envied her.
Candy did most of the talking, about everything and nothing.
"Well, all the kids want to see the new Star Wars movie, and so Jenny and Alisa were after me this morning to let Alisa stay over another night so the girls could go with us. Ian just loves Star Wars, you know. He has all the Star Wars characters; he always wants to be Luke when Pat plays with him. Pat promised Ian he would take him tonight, so we're all going. I think I'm going to run down to Betty's and ask her about it and get Alisa's swimsuit while I'm there. If I leave now, I might have time to do that and go over to Target and get some Father's Day cards for Pat."
"Don't forget the puppet show today," said Barbara.
"I'll be back for that. It shouldn't take me more than an hour. I'm sure Betty will be glad to have us keep Alisa another night, since she's got her hands full trying to take care of the baby and plan their vacation at the same time."
After rushing through a few more simple kitchen chores to satisfy her conscience, Candy hurried out of the church building, pausing only long enough to speak to her favorite babysitter, Connie Holmes. Connie was teaching the six-year-olds that day. No one else saw Candy get into her station wagon and pull out onto the highway.
They called it simply "the country," this place where the women had come with their men and their children to settle. Specifically, it was eight to ten amorphous little towns in eastern Collin County, Texas, but it really had no name. The church where the Montgomerys worshipped was located in a tiny farming community called Lucas, but most of the farming had ceased and few of the church members lived there anyway. The church buildings sat on a slight rise surrounded by fallow blackland wheat fields on three sides and a farm-to-market road on the fourth. When the sky was clear and the wind strong, as it usually was, the landscape had the feel of a rough and untamed outpost, solitary and a little forbidding, not beautiful but stunning in its brown and gray emptiness. In the nineteenth century, this had been the place where the westering families from Kentucky and Tennessee had stopped and turned back, unable to cope with the violence of the weather or the naked vulnerability of the land. Only a few had stayed, and you could still hear in the voices of their descendants the clipped cadence of a people who had found no great joy in their triumph. The people of Lucas Church, by and large, knew little of this, for now the land was giving way to a second wave of immigrants.
Most had come to escape something: cities, density, routine, fear of crime, overpriced housing, the urban problems their parents never knew. They came in the seventies, just about the time the Dallas developers started buying out the farmers one by one, and they settled on pasture-sized lots in homes designed exclusively for them by architects happy to get rich by satisfying their personal whims. They sent their children to a little red schoolhouse, joined a civic club or ran for the town council, and started going to church again when they found the quaint little chapel by the roadside in Lucas. Twenty miles to the southwest were the teeming freeways of Dallas, the huge electronics corporations where many of them worked as engineers and physicists and computer analysts, the endless chain of suburban housing developments and shopping malls and office centers running due north out of the city. But here there was quiet and solitude and a kind of control over their lives. Some of them spoke of it proudly. "This is the way things were back home," they would say, or "This is how things used to be," or "Thank God we had enough money to move to the country so the kids could get a good education." The country was pure, untroubled, safe, innocent, a vision of regenerate America.
Slicing through the heart of the country was Farm-to-Market Road 1378, a tortuous two-lane blacktop connecting McKinney, the county seat, with Wylie, an old railroad town now given over to tract homes and light industry. Both towns were older and more authentically western than anything in the twenty miles or so between them. For 1378 had become the main artery for the new subdivisions full of fantasy architecture: houses shaped like Alpine villas, houses dolled up like medieval castles, houses as forbidding as national park pavilions or as secluded as missile bases, hidden in thickets along the shores of Lake Lavon. Juxtaposed with these personal statements were the more familiar examples of prairie architecture: trailer homes, bait shops, windowless lodge halls, an outdoor revival shelter, barns, ghost-town cemeteries. The only connection between past and present was the ubiquitous white horse fences which proliferated along the highway, and around many of the brand-new houses, in inverse proportion to the number of horses needing corrals.
Candy Montgomery pulled onto 1378 and quickly gunned the station wagon up to fifty. She was in no particular hurry, but she tended to get impatient when things weren't done. She was a morning person, at her best when she was up early and finished with most of her work by noon, giving her plenty of time to mess around with Sherry Cleckler. Today she'd had to call Sherry and tell her there just wasn't time, even for coffee, because of the need to take care of Alisa's swimming lesson. She didn't call Alisa's mother, though. Instead she just jumped in the car and headed south; she could tell Betty Gore when she got there, and she'd have to go anyway to pick up the swimsuit. If the truth were known, she often avoided talking to Betty at all. She found Betty cold and distant, and one reason she wanted Alisa to go with them to the movie is that, otherwise, Alisa might not get to see it at all.
Excerpted from Evidence of Love by John Bloom, Jim Atkinson. Copyright © 1983 John Bloom and James R. Atkinson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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