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Velma Still Cooks in Leeway: A Novel

Velma Still Cooks in Leeway: A Novel

by Vinita Hampton Wright

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
H"A real story doesn't require a special, make-believe place. Our lives get lived out in the open, with people walking in and out of them as they please." So notes Velma, the smalltown Kansas cook who narrates this extraordinary, character-driven novel. How does a close-knit Christian community react as it gradually suspects that one of its favorite sons is viciously abusing his wife? For a Christian author, Wright (Grace at Bender Springs) pulls no punches; these characters are complex sinners whose dark sides will remind readers of unresolved conflict in their own lives. Each chapter begins with an epigraph from the Book of Ezekiel, setting the tone for the ensuing action, and ends with a soulful recipe from Velma's cafe, where the town's loves and losses are played out. Wright draws her characters masterfully, allowing them to grow and minutely change. A "good old boy" pastor who doubts the veracity of a young wife's delicate pleas for help comes to realize his error when his own daughter has similar troubles in her marriage--but not before a terrible tragedy engulfs the town. The novel explores the nuts and bolts of forgiveness in a village that looks sleepy from the outside but that actually stages a cosmic drama of divine grace at work in human life. As a bona-fide work of literary fiction, Wright's newest deserves a wide readership both within and outside the Christian market. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

B&H Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.03(w) x 9.01(h) x 0.74(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


The spirit lifted me up and bore me away; I went in bitterness in the heat of my spirit, the hand of the Lord being strong upon me.

—Ezekiel 3:14

When I was a young girl, strange fevers would fall upon me. All of a sudden my temperature would rise and carry me away. Sometimes it lasted an hour or two; a few times it lasted more than a day.

    Dr. Breem—who had treated my mother and her mother before her—couldn't determine the cause or cure. As I recall, he wasn't too patient with me. One day, about the third time Mama had taken me to see him, he peered down his ivory-white nose at me—I could stare right into his gray-haired nostrils—and told Mama I was the melancholy type and that I'd probably outgrow my dramatic flashes.

    Mama nodded, her pocketbook tight against her tummy, and steered me out of the office with one finger pressing into my shoulder blade. We stopped at the drugstore for a chocolate sundae, then walked the nine blocks to home. Mama's humming that day was kind of aggravated, and I took care not to interrupt the fourteenth stanza of "Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross." Mama worked through a lot of her troubles by humming. It seemed to me that the harder she was thinking, the softer she hummed, sometimes leaving out several notes, as if the melody had disappeared into a tunnel and then blasted out at the other end without losing its place.

    When we got home that day, Mama sat me down at the kitchen table to peel potatoeswhile she chopped celery and carrots for soup. After a bit she said, "Velma, it looks like we'll just have to turn these fevers over to the Lord. He's provided doctors for regular ailments, but when the doctors run out of ideas, then that's a sign. So don't you worry at all."

    Mama talked about the Lord quite often, as if he were her closest friend and advisor. She could get away with that for some reason. I've known plenty of people who sprinkled their conversations with "the Lord," like in those E. F. Hutton commercials where a person mentioned Hutton and everybody stopped to pay attention. But I never did resent Mama's references to the Lord, maybe because I knew her to be a humble woman and a true, sweet Christian. In addition, Mama had the sort of strong presence that made a person hesitate to argue with her.

    So when she told me not to worry about my fevers, I was inclined to obey. I don't remember being afraid, really. I'd just get hot and woozy and not care about my life. I remember thinking once, during a two-day hot spell, that probably just a nudge would put me into heaven, and I didn't think I'd mind. In some ways, my fevers were like a location that only I could go to, a place for being with just myself and thinking and dreaming without interruption.

    My Aunt Trudy liked to sniff loudly and comment that I was "just like Mother," meaning my grandmother. She'd talk about how both Gran Lenny and I had sensitive temperaments and we got sick more than normal people did because we were so taken with our own dark thoughts. Back then, I thought that no one else in the family appreciated my grandmother, who was strange for that time in this little town. But I would have gone through a thousand bad fevers if I'd thought they would help me turn out just like Gran Lenny.

    When I was in a fever, I would often dream a colorful, meandering dream and wake up to Mama or Gran Lenny sponging me off with alcohol mixed with water. Then I'd be gone again, and the dream would take up where it had left off. I would fly over the face of the world or find myself inside a huge tree that had rooms and furniture in it. Sometimes in the middle of the journey I would realize that I had company, someone I couldn't see but feel. I never talked about these dreams because they didn't fit the language of my everyday world.

    As an adult, I've not had fevers like I did as a girl. But when they do come, they usually bring some unwelcome thing with them. When I was twenty, I went into a fever and dreamed about being underwater. When I awoke, I was losing my first baby. It was just a tiny gray sack with a tiny person in it who hadn't really formed yet. Albert and I buried it in a little jewel box in our garden and planted peonies on the spot. I stood there with the garden hose and sprinkled the fresh ground, and the water smelled like the water in my dream.

    In 1979, I had a fever during the second week of August. I seemed to float for days and days, feeling everything I loved slipping over horizon after horizon. I lay on my back miles above the farmland, looking up at icy blue atmosphere, and I felt the chill. I woke up and put on my sweater, feeling death at the door. My mother lived with us at that time, and we knew she didn't have long in this world. Mama lingered just another week. I held her hand while she died and then long afterward as the heat left her body. I held her cool fingers, and they felt as fresh and blue as the sky from my fever dream.

    These days, as much as I fear fever, it visits me once, maybe twice a year. It puts me in bed for two or three days, and that private location it takes me to is full of people from everywhere and every period of my life. I fly longer and higher, and the world I'm looking down on is wider, but darker and filled with more things I don't understand.

My name is Velma Brendle, and I live in Leeway, Kansas. That's in the southeast corner of the state, not far from Oklahoma or Missouri. You might know where Leeway is if you were related to someone here or if your car broke down here when you were headed somewhere else. Otherwise, you'll go the length of your life without ever paying us a visit. We don't mind that as much as you might think. A lot of people are meant to go into the bigger world, and they grow up in a place like Leeway and leave it when they're grown. We see them packing up, and we say that we'll miss them, and we will, but we know that this needs to happen.

    But some of us belong in Leeway or some other such town. Our lives are full of loved ones and a landscape that's old and belongs to us. I sit under an oak tree in my backyard that my grandmother planted. Our family has cared for this tree through all kinds of seasons, splinting it after lightning struck and treating it for bagworms. I wouldn't say that I own the tree, but we do have a connection. It's important to me, as silly as that might sound to someone who has moved around a lot and lived in different places. Some of us just aren't meant to move. We're for staying and caring for things and keeping track and preserving the photographs and clippings that long-lost cousins or grandchildren will need in another thirty or forty years, coming back to Leeway to sell Mom's house or look for somebody's baptismal record. I'm proud to be one who stays. A lot of people in Leeway feel that way.

    It's not a very big town—barely more than twelve hundred people. There's not a lot of money here. Portions of it are pure trailer park. But other parts are old and tree-lined and deep with color. My block is shaded almost completely by oaks and maples—sturdy, tall ones that also shaded the town's families three generations ago. Most months of the year, my backyard is cool and sun-dappled.

    For thirteen years, I've operated Leeway's only real restaurant. It's six blocks from my house, down Pickins Street. On top of that, I janitor at Jerusalem Baptist Church, where I am also a member. The janitor job requires only a few hours a week, but it fills a need in my life. The sanctuary, with its high ceiling and tall, frosted windows, has always been a soothing place, especially during the afternoon when I'm the only one there. The cleaning doesn't feel like work, just something to keep my hands and eyes busy while my soul is doing other things. The windows let in light, but any objects or people outside are only shadows going by. I can't see them, and they can't see me. It's a good arrangement. Even during worship services, it's nice to have the light but not the distractions. Pickins is one of the main streets in town, and there's always some little drama going by. As it is, a good many Sunday mornings we can hear Maria Dalmazio calling for her cat, Theo. We can tell by the different pitches of her voice that she's walking up the street and calling, then turning around and walking the opposite direction and calling a little louder. As if she didn't know that silly cat would come home when it was good and ready. We just chuckle and go on worshiping. But if the windows were clear, don't you know we'd be craning our necks to see her go back and forth.

    I have believed in Jesus nearly my whole life. That's not to say that I understand him much. I do trust him more than I used to. But it still bothers me that after all these years, Jesus hasn't offered an opinion or an explanation about my fevers and dreams. Some prayers you pray, and you really know the answer, but you just need some encouragement. Other prayers just take you toward questions and discomfort. I don't understand why this is so. But I've tried to build the habit of giving my fevers to the Lord. Some things you know you can't control anyway.

    But these days I'm feeling at ordinary times the way I used to feel during fevers. Dizzy and slow and struggling to understand as scenes appear in front of me. Life itself has become a complicated dream, and I want more and more to slip out of it and find all the people who have drifted up into the chilly blue air.

    I suppose I know why it seems that everything important has slipped out of my grasp. A lot of bad things have happened lately. In fact, the past two years have tried Leeway's people to the end of their resources. I've watched people lose important things, and it's made me shut my lips tight and fret against God. It's made me wonder what could be so important about pain that it should visit—so often and so freely—the people I love.

    I may never understand, truly, the events that hurt all of us so. But I've decided that life has patterns and those patterns repeat themselves. They don't go the same way twice, but the same ten or twenty lessons keep working their way out. It seems that, over the past few years, lessons about death and loss just kept repeating, like the chorus of a bad hymn, the kind with a clunky rhythm and odd words. An unlovely melody that plays through your mind for days afterward.

    If my husband, Albert, were here, he'd say that I'll make myself crazy, thinking over events again and again, wondering what else I could have done. "You don't rule life and death," he'd say. That's Albert for you. I think men just naturally rise up from their hurts and defeats and move on. I suppose I never was good at letting go. Partly it's my personality. But partly it's my faith. I grew up expecting a lot from God. And, truth be told, this past year or so I've felt that God didn't come through as he should have. What a thing to wrestle with. How does a person get over it?

    I've never considered myself a fanatic, just a serious Christian. But sometimes you come to understand a thing in a way you never have before. And it doesn't make much sense, but you know it's absolutely true. You can't prove that it's true. You can't sit people down and explain it so that they're just as convinced as you are. But the thing is truer than your own name. And when that kind of knowledge comes to you, you're responsible to accept it and believe it. It's yours—you didn't ask for it, but it's yours—and Heaven's watching to see what you do with it.

    Well, I feel a revelation coming on. I think the Lord is working out an extra big pattern here. I've never felt so strange for so many days at a time, with or without fever. And I can't help but believe that before long I'm going to wake up and something important will have taken place. For now, I just need to pay attention.

    I haven't talked with my pastor about this. I know already that he wouldn't have much to say. Preachers tend not to talk about the private part of faith—the part that's separate from sermons or Scripture or traditions. What's in the center of another person's soul is something a pastor just doesn't know. And if he can't teach it with authority, then he'll stay clear away from it. Probably just as well.

    I'm on my sunporch and the morning is quiet. The aroma of autumn has slipped into the breezes. It's rained recently, and my little town is so full and fertile that you would think it was early spring, the air green and yellow and reflecting off the late summer trees, which have not yet burst into fiery colors. The streets are so still that I can hear Don Bradley talking to his son from all the way down the block. They're deciding whether to chop down that big old cedar.

    For just a second I imagined that I heard my old neighbors, Doris and her daughter, Shellye. So many times that kitchen window has been open and I could hear Doris buttering her toast, raking a knife across it again and again, usually after she'd been up half the night walking the streets, trying to smoke away another nervous spell.

    I feel the peace around me this morning, and I try to reason with myself. I wonder why I can't let go of my sorrows. I don't know why events that are in the past can still have such a terrible hold on me.

    But one evening last week I was dusting the bookshelves of the attic bedroom, the room that was my grandmother's, and I remembered a bit of advice she gave me once. Then I went to the drugstore and bought four "blank books," as they're called now. I took them home and sat at the kitchen table and wrote my name in each one.

    Some of the old folks in church still use the expression "pray it through," which means that you pray until you know what to do next or until at least you have the peace to stop praying. I have to admit, though, that sometimes a thing won't pray through. Or it won't pray through in the ordinary way. Maybe some of us pray better with pen and paper. However you pray, it hurts just as much, or it lifts your spirit just as high. I know already that the prayers I'm about to write will probably hurt more than uplift.

    When my son was small, he'd go through a little routine when I told him it was bedtime. He'd march around the house singing loudly, "I'm not sleepy and sleep is bad for me. Beds are for lazy old people, and Jesus doesn't want me to be." He wasn't much of a poet, but he believed in that little song and had to sing it every night, just to make his protest. Albert and I learned to let him sing it, usually about thirty times as he roamed upstairs and downstairs and around the furniture. We'd tell him it was bedtime awhile before it really was, because we knew he'd have to do his singing first. By then he'd be yawning and running his words together, and we'd put him to bed. We didn't even get mad about the song, or at Jimmy for singing it.

    I've decided that Almighty God looks at my arguments in about the same way. Lets me sputter and make excuses, then about the time I wind down he gives me the same news as before, and by then I just take what comes.

    I'm feeling like marching up and down and singing a little song of my own these days. It wasn't that long ago when I especially needed to hear God, and yet God always managed to be where I wasn't. So I finally accepted his absence and did the best I could. Now I'm sitting here in my empty house with these stiff, empty journals in front of me. And I suddenly find that God is sitting in the chair opposite me, like a teacher waiting for the student to get busy. Isn't that just like life—when you're ready to go off on your own without a care, the Lord shows up, bringing impossible requirements with him.

    I had no formal schooling past high school, and I know that only writers write literature, because they're gifted to do it. But stories belong to us ordinary people. I'm not even that fond of my little set of stories, particularly some of the endings. But endings aren't up to me. The stories are mine, though, and they're outgrowing me, like starter plants begging to be divided and repotted. These stories are poking out of cracks and memories and even my daily thoughts.

    The people in my stories—even the people who've done the greatest harm—are people I love dearly. When you see something in the paper or on the television about some awful crime, and they flash a picture of the person who did it, it's easy to hate that person, because he's just a face to you—and usually an ugly one at that. You see the photograph and you feel the anger rise inside you, and you feel all right about it, because it's worth getting angry about. And when you can stop at hate, things stay pretty simple. You pass a judgment and speak out of your righteous anger, and that's that.

    But when you see the criminal in church every Sunday, hate becomes a complicated thing. Love is ten times as complicated as the hate. And forgiveness will tear you limb from limb.

    In the meantime, while you're hurting and healing, you do whatever it is the Lord's given you to do. I cook. I look over a table full of good things the Lord's already made, and I turn them into my own sort of love. Sometimes I don't know what does people more good—my prayers or my recipes.

    Last night I dreamed that I walked through the house and saw blood splattered everywhere. I got a rag from the pantry and turned on the faucet to clean things up, and blood came out of the faucet. I looked in the mirror and my face was streaked with it. Even the vegetables on my kitchen table looked cut up and wounded. Lord Jesus, deliver me from these awful places in my mind.

    The worst memories seem to be the easiest to get to. But I can't start there. I'm not ready to write through the blood. First, I need to find words for the love.

Welcome to Velma's Place

Velma's Cabbage, Corn, and Green Onion Soup

4 to 6 cups chicken broth
2 cloves garlic, broken in two
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 cup corn kernels, preferably fresh off the cob
1 cup cabbage, white better than red, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup green onions, coarsely chopped
2 to 3 tablespoons butter or margarine
Salt to taste

Simmer broth, peppercorns, and garlic.

While broth is simmering, lightly brown corn kernels, onion, and cabbage in the butter.

Strain garlic and peppercorns from broth. Add vegetables to the broth and simmer until cabbage is tender.

Adjust seasonings and serve hot.

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