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"It's not the same place I saw in my rearview mirror twenty years ago, Mr. Freeman. I'll give you that." Sam leaned one shoulder against the Dewi's Market daily special sign. The porch's gaptoothed floorboards groaned under his feet. "Still and all, I'm not sorry I came back."
"Just scraps and bones." Big Hyde Freeman's blade scraped across the soft cedar in his hand. "And the occasional predator looking for what he can finagle for himself out of the rubble."
Sam felt that time-sharpened gaze slide over him. He did not rise to the bait. "I reckon that gets old pretty fast."
Big Hyde snorted. "Live to be my age, you learn everything gets old pretty fast. Dang sight faster than you ever figured on it happening, that's for sure."
"I hear that." Sam rubbed his stiff neck. He'd driven straight through from Albuquerque and paid the price in aches and pains a younger man would not have suffered. Even so, his words remained true. He was not sorry to have come here.
He'd come for a reason. A good reason. Thesooner he made it known he was not running away again, the sooner he could get to it.
He crossed his arms. A staunch, late October gust swept down Persuasion Road, the main street through town. Rust-colored leaves plastered themselves against empty buildings and settled among the old newspapers and cobwebs that collected in the recessed doorways.
"What all is left here besides the-what's the last count? A couple hundred or so families?"
"Thereabouts, if you figure in the farms and count the cottages."
No one in town counted the people who lived in "the cottages." Sam had grown up there. He stretched out far enough to look down the dirt road that wound out and away from the all-purpose market, bait shop, and social center of the tiny community. He could just see the first of the row of ten squatty, boxlike bungalows built during the Depression. The hair on the back of his neck stood up.
"Around two hundred families, give or take, that's right." Big Hyde said it like he was talking to himself.
"And obviously that's enough to keep the market in business here. What else? Cafés?"
"Just them booths in the side room of Dewi's."
"Barber shops? Beauty salons?"
"King Cuts. End of the road there."
"They do men's and women's hair?"
"Men's, women's, children. Think they'd even clip your dog, you brought it in on a slow Tuesday afternoon."
Sam shook his head. "Guess I need to start thinking of this place in more singular terms, huh?"
"You know, the market, the hair cutting place, the gas station."
"The gun shop."
"The elementary school."
Sam narrowed his eyes on Big Hyde. "The bus driver."
"That no-account, never-amount-to-nothing Moss boy."
He raised his chin. "The church."
"What church?" Big Hyde tapped his foot to shake off the pungent cedar shavings. He did not look at Sam. "Ain't no church what ain't got no preacher. Had laymen and evangelizers comin' in for nigh onto a year now, but that ain't the same."
Sam straightened and tucked his hands in his jeans pockets. His leather jacket bunched up around his shoulders and chest. If he squinted, he could just make out the cross on the steeple thrusting up into the cool, gray sky. He let out a long breath. "The church in the lurch."
"For a fact."
"The sanctuary floor still slant down toward the altar?"
"Maybe you should go in and find out for yourself."
"Last time I went in I do recall being asked never to darken its doors again."
Wind rattled the tarnished gray screens on the market's front windows and set a loose shingle flapping on the overhang.
Big Hyde held up the bare stick and studied it with one eye closed. "How many marbles did you set rolling to the pulpit from the back pew that day?"
"Only as many as my pockets would hold."
Teeth white as his long-sleeved cotton shirt flashed in Big Hyde's dark face.
Sam stepped off the porch onto the wide, low stairs.
"Ain't gonna be easy for you back here, you know."
"It never was."
A humph and a mutter answered him.
Sam glanced over his shoulder. Light glowing from the market's windows gave off a sense of warmth and welcome. The aroma of long-brewing coffee and snippets of conversation punctuated by laughter completed the idyllic picture of the place.
He wanted to go inside but knew this wasn't the time for it. Still, he could not leave. Not until he knew ...
"Tell me something, Big Hyde."
"If I can." He rested his forearms atop his brown polyester pants, his stony gaze trained on Sam.
He'd just been driving through today, getting a feel for the area again, when he'd spotted Big Hyde Freeman hunkering his bantamweight body into the least broken down of the chairs on Dewi's porch. Sam pulled his truck up and cut the engine then and there. If anyone had the answers to the questions that had plagued Sam since the day he'd committed himself to return, it was the man sitting before him now.
Big Hyde had driven the single bus that connected Persuasion to the Bode County school district for forty years. Every person who lived in the county knew the man-and he knew them. Knew more about them, maybe, than most people liked to think about. Kids talk. He heard the secret truths of many a family spilled in innocence from small mouths. He saw, in too many children's eyes and attitudes, the silent reality that no amount of brave words could conceal.
Big Hyde could help Sam like no one else, if he wanted to help.
"You gonna ask something, or you want me to just figure out all on my own what to tell you?"
"I'm sure whatever you decided to talk about would prove pretty fascinating, but yeah, I did have something particular in mind."
"Then spit it out. Ain't got all day."
Someone inside the market bellowed out the punch line to an ancient joke. A round of laughter swelled then ebbed.
Sam put one foot on the porch proper and leaned in over his raised thigh. "Whatever happened to the Dorsey sisters?"
Big Hyde chuckled. "Now there's a name that takes me back! The Dorsey sisters."
"Do you know what happened to them?"
"I do for a fact."
The old man scratched his nose.
"What happened to them?"
"Moved away. Up North."
"All three of them?"
"That's right. Youngest left ten or so years back, right after their daddy passed. Moved to New York City."
"Little Collier's in New York City?"
"That's what they tell me."
Sam had forgotten that Big Hyde tended to think of people the way their names appeared on his bus roster. "Yeah, Patricia, the oldest one."
"Chicago. Her and her husband-"
"Parker," Sam filled in.
"The Sipes boy." Big Hyde rubbed his thumb over a wormhole on his whittling stick. "Moved up that way when the factory closed."
"That long ago?"
Sam slowly shook his head. "Seems to me like only a handful of years ago that Parker Sipes played quarterback for the Bode County Pirates with Petie on the sidelines leading the cheers."
"Don't tell me. I remember all of ya'll the day each one of you come to the bus stop bawling like babies on your first day of school."
"No, I'll give you that, Sam Moss. Never did see you turn loose of so much as a sniffle. Not even when your mama run off, nor when your daddy throwed you out."
Sam clenched his jaw.
"From that first day you come tromping up to my bus, shoes two sizes too big, torn jeans, and hair the color of dirty straw stuck out every which way, you looked a hard case."
"Looks can be deceiving."
"Never believed you was as hard as you let on."
"Maybe I was, maybe I wasn't. Does it really matter now?"
"Heard you done jail time."
"Don't believe everything you hear, do you?" Sam met the old man's gaze.
He sucked his teeth then went back to his work. "That all you got to say about it?"
"Pretty much." He hadn't come round today to talk about himself. He'd come to see what he could find out about the town, the people, and one person in particular. He exhaled to help force out some of the tension welling up inside him, then dipped his gaze to the red dirt parking lot. When he raised his head again, he cleared his throat. "So the youngest Dorsey girl is in New York, the oldest in Chicago, you say."
"I did." Big Hyde leaned back in his seat. "Their widowed mama went up there visiting one summer, too, and that was it for her."
"Oh, really?" It surprised Sam how badly the news made him feel, considering ... "Then Dodie Dorsey is no longer with us?" "Nope."
"That's a shame." And he meant it.
"Yes sir." Big Hyde turned the stick around and began peeling away the bark from the other end. "Fool woman went up to that big city for a vacation and stayed on and married a Yankee."
"A ...?" Sam winced. He'd walked right into that one. "I guess for some folks that's worse than being dead."
"City fellow and a Yankee? For a fact."
"Like I said before, it's a shame." He'd have tried harder to hide his grin if Big Hyde had been looking.
"Some round here took it as a regular slap in the face to the memory of Collier Jack Dorsey. Maybe that's why the fool woman stays as far away from these parts as she can."
"Did they sell off the house?"
"Girls wouldn't hear of it. They bought it from their mama a while back, and they've managed to hang on to it all this time."
Sam turned in the direction of Fifth and Persuasion. Trees obscured the view of the two-story frame house, but he didn't have to see the place for it to stir something inside him. "That so?"
"For a fact. All their people are still here, you know. All them cousins and The Duets."
"The Duets! Talk about a blast from the past." Sam tried to picture the two sets of twins-women he had last seen in their forties who would now be past retirement age.
"What the Dorsey sisters was to your generation, The Duets was to mine and then some." Big Hyde shook his head and let out a low whistle.
"So, the Dorsey girls ever come back to visit their aunts? Their cousins?"
"Oh, sure. Sure."
"They're good girls. Brought up right. They didn't just take off and forget about everyone they left behind." He rolled his hand over so that the tip of the knife pointed straight at Sam.
He sighed. Sam wondered if he'd ever do anything right in this town's eyes. If he were smart, he'd climb in that truck and hightail it back to Albuquerque.
"Yes, them girls come down here every year for a spell, without fail."
"Can you tell me when?"
"Why you want to know?"
"I just ... a ..."
Freeman held up his hand to cut off the justification. Probably wouldn't have believed whatever excuse he gave anyway, Sam thought. "Can't say for certain when they'll show up."
"Just know that sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas a person'll look up, and there they come, one, two, three. Cars flying down the road. They slide around that corner just like they did when they was teenagers."
Sam could practically hear the thumpa-whomp of tires as they left the paved main road, then crunched across the rutted red dirt of Fifth.
"Them girls descend on that old place like a flock of snowbirds settling in for the winter."
"Even her. They all come, kids and husband in tow."
"Kids and husbands. Of course." He nodded and hunched his shoulders up. "Of course."
"Sure do liven up the place when they do, too."
"I don't doubt it."
"Just like the old days. This old town never did have too much to brag on, but one thing we did have, we had the Dorsey sisters."
"For a fact," Sam murmured.
The Dorsey sisters. Just the name charged the air with anticipation. People sitting in a room with backs to the door would find themselves drawn away from conversations, compelled to turn and look when one of those dark-haired, brown-eyed beauties appeared.
"They were something," Sam whispered.
"Were and still are."
Sam nodded. "I can well imagine."
"Don't have to imagine. You'll see for yourself. If you're still around when they show up."
"Oh, I'll still be here, Big Hyde." Sam folded his arms. The autumn wind stung his face, and a long forgotten emotion began to twist in his gut. He looked from the cottages to the church to the corner lot of the Dorseys' old house. "You can count on it."
"I do not scrub lavatories for a living. I own my own house-cleaning service, thank you very much." Nic shook the can of powdered cleanser twice, hard. The fine cloud that rose from the bowl burned high up into her sinuses. "And if I did scrub them, I'd hardly do it with my head!"
"What'd you say?"
"I said ... I said ..." She sneezed.
She sneezed again. Her eyes watered.
Petie rapped at the door with all the restraint of a woodpecker on a sugar high. "If you expect to hold any kind of conversation with me, li'l sister, you gotta get yourself out of that rest room and join the festivities."
Nic let the whorl of flushing water answer that.
Petie knocked again.
The ungainly rubber gloves turned inside out as Nic peeled them off. She tossed them under the sink where she'd found them.
"Are you coming out of there, or do I have to come in and drag you out?"
"Drag me out? Ha! And risk breaking a nail?" Hot water gushed into the basin. "I'll be out when I'm good and ready."
"You're just doing this to hide out for a few extra minutes. Don't think I don't know it."
A few extra minutes of peace before the chaos of a huge meal with her family, with her youngest sister in charge of the food, no less. The notion did tempt Nic sorely.
She lathered up her hands. "Naw. Not me. I just love spending my day of thanks with Wally telling stupid Southerner jokes and asking us how long it takes to get used to wearing shoes again after we get back from Alabama."
"Hey, don't begrudge the man. It's his day after all."
Turkey. Now there was an apt description of Wally Weggler. What Mama saw in that ruddy-faced clown after a life with Daddy, she'd never know. But then, Nic was hardly the expert on men and what made a good one. Her track record made ol' Wally boy look like the catch of the century.
Excerpted from THE SNOWBIRDS by Annie Jones Copyright © 2001 by Annie Jones
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.