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The Cherry Cola Book Club
By ASHTON LEE
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 2013 Ashton Lee
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBooks versus Bulldozers
Maura Beth Mayhew shut her sky blue eyes and let the unsettling words that had just been thrown her way sink in for a few tense moments. When she finally opened them, she flipped her whiskey-colored curls defiantly at Councilman Durden Sparks and his two underlings seated at the other end of the meeting room table. Their only distinction was their nicknames—as in "Chunky" Badham, who had not missed many meals along the way, and "Gopher Joe" Martin, the consummate "yes man" if ever there was one. Colorful monikers aside, Maura Beth had no intention of letting any of them roll over her with those bulldozers they kept on romancing as if they were the secret to unlocking the universe.
"You actually think the citizens of Cherico are going to stand for this?" she said, her voice trembling noticeably as the stress crept into her face.
Councilman Sparks flashed his matinee idol eyes and prominent white teeth—the source of his ongoing popularity with many female voters—and leaned toward the town's pretty young librarian of six years standing. "Miz Mayhew," he began, "don't panic. This won't happen tomorrow. We'll give you up until our budget approval at the end of November to rev up that library of yours. Use the next five months to show this Council why we should continue to fund it in lieu of other, more beneficial projects such as our proposed Cherico Industrial Park."
Maura Beth had her response at the ready. "Interesting that you call it my library, now that you don't think it has any value. Or maybe you never did."
"Perhaps you're right," he answered, nodding her way. "I remember when I was eight years old and I wanted to participate in summer reading like some of my classmates were doing. They were getting blue ribbons for finishing a certain number of books, and that got my competitive juices flowing. I asked my mother if I could sign up, and I'll never forget how she rambled on about it. She described The Cherico Library as a burden for the taxpayers and told me that the librarian at the time, Miz Annie Scott, did nothing all day but read her favorite novels and try to get in good with all the wealthy families so she could wangle donations. Mom believed it was no coincidence that their children were the ones that always got the ribbons and that I could make much better use of my time playing sports and getting good grades. So that's what I did."
The shock clearly showed on Maura Beth's face. "I had no idea you had such a jaundiced view of the library. But you actually think that grading that tract of glorified cow pasture on the north end of town will pay dividends for Cherico?"
"We're not flying by the seat of our pants here. We've commissioned a study," he answered, brandishing a thin bound volume in the process. "We believe several viable companies would locate here if we prepare the land for them properly. That would bring jobs to our struggling little community. It would mean growth for us in this stagnant economy."
Well, there it was. The broken record of the current crop of local politicians who had gotten re-elected to office in Cherico, Mississippi, two years ago in the fall of 2010. They had won because they had campaigned with the same stale bumper stickers, but now that they'd gotten in once again, their mantra had suddenly morphed into growth and change. Even if she knew—and Durden Sparks, Chunky Badham, and Gopher Joe Martin also knew damned good and well—that Cherico was not the type of town that wanted to get busier with traffic and attract a lot of those copycat, big-box franchises that advertised on television all the time. It did not even have a daily newspaper anymore—only one of those weekly shopping guides full of coupons, discounts, and special sales gimmicks on certain days of the week.
No, Cherico was small and parochial, even xenophobic at times. It had never taken full advantage of its picturesque location on Lake Cherico, which itself was a finger of the Tennessee River System in the extreme northeast corner of Mississippi. The town was not actually old enough to be called antebellum; indeed, it barely qualified for the Victorian Era with a smattering of homes in the Queen Anne or Swiss Chalet style here and there. Overall, the architecture was muddled and mundane.
Mostly, though, Cherico was full of people who wanted to be left alone, particularly the newer citizens who had built their ritzy vacation retreats and boathouses out on the lake and were therefore not even year-round residents. When they dropped in on the environs during warmer weather for some fishing and skiing, it was only for a few weeks at a time, maybe as long as a month, and they stayed out of local politics as a result.
"What you cannot deny, Miz Mayhew," Councilman Sparks continued after a healthy sip from his water glass, "is that your circulation figures have steadily declined over the past three years, and they weren't going gangbusters before you came here, either. By your own admission, your only regular patrons are Miss Voncille Nettles and the Crumpton sisters, who gather in your meeting room once a month."
"That's an exaggeration," Maura Beth said, her eyes flashing. "We have our regulars who check out books and DVDs. And just for the record, we also have the very respectable Mr. Locke Linwood attending 'Who's Who in Cherico?' His wife, Pamela, was also a regular before her untimely passing, as I'm sure you recall."
"Yes, I do. It was a most unfortunate event. Very well, then. I stand corrected. Three spinsters and a widower attend these utterly fascinating meetings." Councilman Sparks loudly cleared his throat and continued, "At any rate, they gather to run on about their fabled family trees. As if who begat whom is going to change from week to week. Hey, the bottom line is, you're stuck with your genes—good, bad, or something in between— and no amount of flowery window dressing will make any difference, to my way of thinking."
"'Who's Who in Cherico?' has been the benchmark for genealogical research for many years," Maura Beth proclaimed. "Miss Voncille Nettles spends countless hours researching deeds and such at the courthouse for accuracy. She knows everything about everybody, as well as all sorts of historical nuggets about this town."
Councilman Sparks pursed his lips as if he had just taken a swallow of sour milk. "Tell me about it. I think sometimes we should just set up a cot for the darling lady in the archives and lock her in for the night. Maybe throw in a pitcher of water and a chamber pot for good measure. But Miss Voncille and her followers could just as easily meet in someone's living room as your library. They'd certainly have more space, and I bet she and her little crowd would enjoy a libation or two while they gossip about their dear, dead relatives. Unless you've changed the policy without my knowledge, I don't believe the library allows the consumption of adult beverages, if you will, on its premises. Why, that little bunch could leave you high and dry if they decided they'd had enough of teetotaling all these years. Face it, Miz Mayhew, they're now your only viable claim to fame!"
Chunky and Gopher Joe snickered, winked at each other, and nodded their heads knowingly while Maura Beth did her best to suppress her disgust. She knew those two would never carry on in such a disrespectful manner anywhere other than this special budget session she was being forced to endure without benefit of a single witness. It was clear that as far as they were concerned, she fit the definition of the proverbial redheaded stepchild.
"May I quote you on all that, Councilman Sparks?" Maura Beth said.
"It would be a 'he said, she said' at best, I'm afraid. You'll be gravely disappointed if you try to rally the public, because it's my belief that almost nobody out there really gives a damn about the library. It's my job as a politician to read the tea leaves on all the issues, and I don't think I'm wrong about this one."
Maura Beth shot him a skeptical glance and decided to stay on the attack as long as she could. "I'm curious. Why don't you just close down the library right now? Why wait until you approve the new budget?"
After a particularly patronizing grin and an overly dramatic pause, Councilman Sparks said, "Because we wouldn't want to be accused of not giving you one last chance to turn it all around. Even though we're all supremely confident that you won't be able to, of course."
"Well, I have to admit you've done absolutely nothing to help me up to this point."
"And how's that? I don't profess to know anything about running a library, except the cost efficiency."
Maura Beth allowed herself to roll her eyes as she exhaled. "I'm referring to the fact that this Council has consistently refused my requests to fund a couple of computer terminals so the patrons can come in and access the Internet. That would have bolstered library use considerably over the past several years. It's what knowledgeable patrons all over the country have come to expect. But I guess that didn't suit your long-range agenda."
"There, I have to put my foot down," he said, making a fist of his right hand and pounding it twice on the table like a gavel. "The public can buy their own computers. Everybody I know has one—not to mention all the other electronic gadgets people use now to keep in touch no matter where they are." He cut his eyes first at Chunky, then at Gopher Joe.
"Matter of fact, that reminds me of a joke going around. Stop me if you've heard it. Seems this fella walks into a doctor's office complaining of a peculiar growth on his ear, and now he's constantly hearing bells and loud voices. He's been really worried about it for a while and finally decides to get a medical opinion. 'Do ya think it might be a tumor, or am I going crazy, Doc?' the man says. Whereupon the doc flicks on his flashlight, squints real hard looking around, and finally answers, 'Nope, you're fine. It's just your cell phone.'"
The guffawing from Chunky and Gopher Joe was devastating for Maura Beth. She felt as if they were laughing at her and the joke was their cover. When it had all finally died down, she found herself staring at their wrinkled, solemn faces and wondering if these lackeys had ever in their lives read anything that had not been required for their high-school book reports light-years ago. In fact, she had strong anecdotal evidence to that effect when at a previous meeting, Chunky had rambled on about "all those snooty books in the library like 'Silence' Marner that nobody likes to read." Even so, she knew she was up against it big-time, and that it would do her no good to continue to aggravate this powerful, privileged trio.
"Very funny joke. But I still have about five months to turn things around," she managed, quickly recovering from her unpleasant mental review. "And if I do so, you'll continue the library's funding?"
Councilman Sparks took his time, casting his eyes toward the whirring ceiling fan as he considered. "I wish I could give you a guarantee, Miz Mayhew. But if you do nothing to change the status quo, The Cherico Library is history. We can't justify the expense any longer. If you should impress us enough, maybe we'll be willing to work something out. Just remember, though—you'll need more than Miss Voncille beating the drum on your behalf. The fact is, there's no millage specifically dedicated to the library, and we think the time has come to stop pretending that we're getting good value for our money in this particular line item of the budget."
Meager as that peace offering was, it was still a vestige of hope from the powers-that-be. Maura Beth caught herself smirking faintly as the session came to an end and she rose from her seat without fanfare. "Please, gentlemen," she told them, nodding in their general direction. "By all means, don't bother to get up. I know you really don't want to."
Alone among the three, Councilman Sparks stood and executed a hurried little bow.
As she made her way down the hall, memories of library science school at LSU suddenly flashed into Maura Beth's head. There had been no course titled "Dealing with Politicians 101," nor even something along the lines of "Elementary Schmoozing." There should have been, though. Some wise professor should have stood before her and the other innocent young library students taking lecture notes and warned them that the political aspects of librarianship were going to be the most difficult to maneuver. That libraries and their scant millages would usually find themselves first to be cut and last to be restored. It always seemed to be easier for politicians to favor the sound of bulldozers in motion over the static silence of the printed word.
Maura Beth walked down the steps of Cherico City Hall and out onto Commerce Street as if she had just been handed a prison sentence. Five months to get cracking. Her shoulders were slumped, and the blazing June sun glinting off the asphalt made them slump even more. It was just past three in the afternoon, and even though she had skipped lunch, she had no appetite at all. What she needed was a big helping of solace, not sustenance. So she made her way deliberately past the familiar lineup of one-story brick and wooden storefronts: Audra Neely's Antiques; Cherico Ace Hardware; Vernon Dotrice Insurance Agency; and Curtis L. Trickett, Attorney at Law, among others. Finally, she reached the shade of the big blue-and-white awning dotted with silver stars belonging to The Twinkle, Twinkle Café. Inside, she knew she would find its owner and the woman who had become her sounding board since her move to Cherico half a dozen years ago—Periwinkle Lattimore.
"Maura Beth, you get your cute little redheaded self in here before you wilt like my famous warm spinach salad!" Periwinkle called out the second she spotted her friend sighing at the delicious blast of air-conditioned relief that greeted her just inside the door. The place was empty, being right in the middle of the no-man's land between the lunch and dinner crowds, but the welcoming fragrance of spices and herbs lingered over the dozen or so tables with their blue-and-white tablecloths and delicate votive candles. Periwinkle quickly pointed to a corner two-seater beneath a mobile sporting an elaborate array of gold and silver metallic stars. "Right over there, honey! I'll wait on ya myself!"
"Oh, I didn't come to eat," Maura Beth said. "Just some much-needed talking and listening."
Periwinkle laughed brightly and headed over to the table with a complimentary glass of sweet tea. "Aha! Deep-fried talking and braised listening—my house specials!"
"And I've come for my fix. Sit with me until someone comes in."
Maura Beth had long ago concluded that the key to the success of The Twinkle, as many locals affectionately now called it, was Periwinkle's willingness to stop at nothing to keep it going. Not just ordering the food and supplies, but doing a major share of the cooking and even helping her waitress serve when the place got overwhelmed. The woman remained lean and indefatigable but somehow never seemed to break a sweat. Her blond hair with its stubborn dark roots was always styled attractively, never disheveled, even if she was seldom without the unsophisticated touch of a wad of Juicy Fruit gum in her mouth.
"So what's on your mind?" Periwinkle said, settling into her chair. "I can tell you're upset about something."
Maura Beth took a sip of her tea, breathed deeply, and then unloaded, covering every detail of the ordeal she had just endured at the hands of Cherico's three heavy-handed councilmen.
"Those ... so-and-sos!" Periwinkle exclaimed, managing to restrain herself. "You mean you might lose your job? After all this time?"
"It's a distinct possibility."
Periwinkle put her elbows on the table, resting her fists under her chin as she contemplated. "Tell me true—do you think they would be taking you more seriously if you were a man?"
Maura Beth managed an ironic little chuckle. "Maybe, maybe not. In this case, I just think they're all about shuffling the budget around to suit themselves."
"I don't doubt it. But I wonder if they'd be as willing to bulldoze you—using your words here, honey—if you had a pair. Listen, we women have to fight for everything we get. Do you think I would have gotten the seed money to start this restaurant if I'd pulled my punches in my divorce settlement with Harlan Lattimore? Hell, he wanted to ditch me high and dry, but I bowed up and said, 'No, sir, you won't! Not after thirteen years of marriage, and my salad days are in my rear-view mirror. I helped you make a success of The Marina Bar and Grill, working hard as your secretary day and night, and I'll be damned if you'll leave me out in the middle of the water without a paddle!'"
There was a touch of envy in Maura Beth's quiet little sigh. "You certainly know how to stand up for yourself. Of course I know I can't let these men intimidate me. That's exactly what they want. But I can't force people to come to the library, either. I just don't know if there's a way out of this."
Excerpted from The Cherry Cola Book Club by ASHTON LEE Copyright © 2013 by Ashton Lee. Excerpted by permission of Kensington Publishing Corp.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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