|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
LaVyrle Spencer is the bestselling author of 22 novels.
Read an Excerpt
Thursday, September 7, 1950
Cyril Case was making the daily run from St. Cloud to Cass Lake, sitting up high on his box seat in engine number two-eighty-two. Beside him, his fireman, Merle Ficker, rode with one arm out the window, his striped denim cap pushed clean back so the bill pointed skyward. It was a beautiful morning, sunny, the heavens deep blue, farmers out in their fields taking in the last of their crops, most harvesting with tractors, though down around Sauk Center they'd seen one working with a team. They'd passed a country school a couple miles back where the kids, out for recess, waved from the playground, and their teachera slim young thing in a yellow dresshad stopped gathering wildflowers, shaded her eyes with an arm and fanned her handful of black-eyed Susans over her head as she watched them pass. It was days like this that made driving a train the best job in the worldgreen woods, gold fields and the smell of fresh-cut alfalfa blowing straight through the cab. And beneath the men the shuug-a-shuug-a of the steam engine hauling smooth down the tracks.
Cy and Merle were having another one of their friendly disagreements about politics.
"Well, sure," Merle was saying, "I voted for Truman, but I didn't think he'd send our boys to Korea!"
"What else you gonna do?" Cy replied. "Those Communists go in and start bombing Seoul. Can't let 'em get by with that, can we?"
"Well, maybe not, but you ain't got a nineteen-year-old son and I do! Now Truman goes and extends the draft till next year. Hell, I don't want Rodney to get called up. I just don't like howthings are going." Merle pointed. "Whistlepost up ahead."
"I see it. And don't worry, MacArthur'll probably clean 'em up before Rodney gets any draft notice."
Up ahead on the right, the arm of the white marker shone clear against the pure blue sky. Cy reached up and pulled the rope above his left shoulder. The steam whistle battered their ears in a long wail two longs, a short and a longthe warning for a public crossing.
The whistlepost flashed past and the long wail ended, leaving them in comparative quiet.
"So," Cy continued, "I suppose your boy's gonna go to work for the railroad if he doesn't get ..." He stiffened and stared up the track. "Sweet Jesus, he ain't gonna make it!"
A car had turned off of Highway 71 and came shooting from the left, trailing a dust cloud, trying to beat the train to the crossing.
For one heartbeat the men stared, then Cy shouted, "Car on the crossing! Plug it!"
Merle jumped and hit the air brakes.
Cy grabbed the Johnson bar and squeezed for dear life. With his other hand he hauled on the steam whistle. Machinery ground into reverse and the brakes grabbed. From the engine through the entire train line, everything locked in a deafening screech. Steam hissed as if the door of hell had opened. The smell of hot, oily metal wafted forth like Satan's own perfume. The couplers, in progression, drummed like heavy artillery from the engine clear back to the caboose while the two old rails, with fifty-three years' experience between them, felt it in the seat of their pants: forward propulsion combined with a hundred tons of drag, something a railroad man hopes he'll never feel.
"Hold on, Merle, we're gonna hit 'em!"' Cy bellowed above the din.
"Jesus, Mary, Joseph," Merle chanted under his breath as the train skated and shrieked, and the puny car raced toward its destiny.
At thirty yards they knew for sure.
At twenty they braced.
At ten they saw the driver.
Dear God, it's a woman, Cy said. Or thought. Or prayed.
Then they collided.
Sound exploded and glass flew. Metal crunched as the gray forty-nine Ford wrapped around the cowcatcher. Together they cannonballed down the tracks, the ruptured car folded over the metal grid, chunks of it dragging along half-severed, tearing up earth, bruising railroad ties, strewing wreckage for hundreds of yards. Pieces of the car eventually broke free and bounced along the flinty ballast of the rail bed with a sound like a brass band before tumbling to rest in the weeds. Throughout it all some compressed piece of the automobile played the tracks in an unending shriekmetal on metallike a hundred violins out of tune. Dust! They'd never seen so much dust. It billowed up on impact, a brown, stinky cloud of it, momentarily blinding Cy and Merle as they rode along haplessly above the discordant serenade. The smell of petroleum oozed up, and sparks sizzled off the steel tracks, setting small fires in gasoline drips that flared briefly, then blew out as the train passed over them.
Slower ... slower ... slower ... two terrified railroad men rode it out, one maintaining a death grip on the Johnson bar that had long since thrown the gears into reverse, the other still hauling on the air brakes that had locked up the wheels more than a quarter-mile back.
Slower ... slower ... All those tons of steel took forever to decelerate while the two big-eyed men listened to the fading squeal that dissolved into a whine ...
Then a whimper ...
Then silence ...
Cy and Merle sat rigid as a pair of connecting rods, exchanging a shocked, silent stare. Their faces were as white and round and readable as the pressure gauges on the boilerhead. Number two-eighty-two had carried the Ford a good half a mile down the railroad tracks and sat now calmly chuffing, like a big old contented whale coming up for air.
Outside, something small fellglass maybe, with a soft tinkle.
Merle finally found his voice. It came out as tight and hissing as the air brakes. "No way that woman's gonna be alive."
"Let's go!" Cy barked.
They scrambled from the cab, bellies to the ladder, free-sliding down the grab rails. From the caboose, twenty cars back, the conductor and a brakeman came runningtwo bouncing dots in the distanceshouting, "What happened?" A second brakeman stayed behind, already igniting a fusee that started spewing red smoke into the gentle September morning, mixing the stink of sulphur with the sweetness of the fresh-cut alfalfa.
Running along beside the locomotive, Cy yelled, "Look there, the engine's hardly damaged." The lifting lever on the drawbar was a little scraped up, and a couple of grab bars were marred, but when the two men rounded the snout of the engine, they halted dead in their tracks.
It was a sickening sight, that car riding thin on the pilot as if it had been flattened for a junkyard. The coupler at the front of the cowcatcher had actually pierced the metal of the automobile and protruded like a shining silver eye. Some broken glass remained in the driver's-side window, jagged as lightning.
Cy moved close and peered in.
She was brown-haired. Young. Pretty. Or had been. Wearing a nice little blue flowered housedress. Surrounded by broken fruit jars. He closed his mind to the rest and reached in to see if she was still alive.
After nearly a minute, he withdrew his hand and stood on a crosstie facing Merle.
"I think she's dead."
"No pulse that I can feel."
Merle remained as colorless as whey. His lips moved silently, but not a sound came out. Cy could see he'd have to take charge here.
"We're gonna need a jack to get her out of there," he told Merle. "You better run to the highway and flag down a car. Tell 'em to run to Browerville and get help ..." Merle was already hustling off at an ungainly trot. "... and have 'em call the sheriff in Long Prairie!"
At that moment the conductor and brakeman reached Cy, panting.
"He dead?" one of them asked.
"She. It's a woman."
"Oh my God." The conductor had a huge florid face that hung in soft folds from his cheekbones. He glanced at the wreck, then back at Cy. "She dead?"
"I think so. Couldn't feel any pulse."
They stood motionless, absorbing the shock while Cy, the engineer whose job it was to take command in emergencies, took control of the situation.
"Better get that other fusee out," he told the brakeman.
"Yeah, sure thing." The brakeman headed up the track to the north, waving a red flag as he went, to set out the warning for any southbound trains. A mile he would go before igniting the flare, while the other brakeman walked a mile off the rear of the train and did the same thing.
Left alone with Cy, the conductor said, "There's fruit jars all along the tracks. What do you suppose she was doing with all those fruit jars?"
The two men gazed back along the tracks at the shimmers of sunlight glancing off the pieces of broken glass.
"Probably some farmer's wife with a big garden," Cy replied.
Reaction to the tragedy only now began setting in, delayed like the sting that follows a slap. Cy felt it deep in his vitals, a terrible trembling that traveled to his extremities and brought a faint nausea as he stood at the head of the train with a dead woman caught in the twisted wreckage of her gray automobile.
"Her license plate is gone. The back one anyway. I'll see if the front one is there." The conductor walked further around the train, but came back long-faced. "Gone too. Want me to walk back along the tracks and see if I can find it?"
"She's got a purse," Cy said, dully. "I saw it under one of her ..." He quit talking and swallowed hard.
"Want me to get it, Cy?"
"No, that's ... that's all right. I will."
Cy steeled himself and returned to the wreckage while a herd of lethargic holsteins, chewing their cuds, watched from inside a nearby fence. The soft morning wind, not yet tainted by the red sulphur from the faraway fusee, carried the faint scent of manure, not wholly unpleasant when mixed with the continuing aroma of cut alfalfa. In the distance, a silo pointed toward heaven, where the woman had probably gone. Nearer, over a copse of shiny green oaks, a flock of chattering starlings lifted and milled. One of the cows mooed, and the engine, its steam kept up according to railroad regulationsgave out an intermittent quiet chuff. All around, the bucolic countryside presented a picture of life as it should be while Cy retrieved the purse of the dead woman and wiped it off on the leg of his blue-and-white striped overalls.
Merle returned from the highway, short of breath, and reported, "Fellow from Eagle Bend, going that way, said he'd get word to the constable and sheriff soon as he hits Browerville. That her purse?"
They all looked down at it in Cy's oversized hands. It was a little wedge-shaped white plastic affair with hard sides. Its handle had been broken in the accident, and its jaws skewed so the metal clasp no longer worked.
Cy opened it and looked inside. He picked things out very gingerly, then set them back in with the greatest care: a clean white handkerchief, a rosary with blue glass beads, a pack of Sen-Sen. And a small black prayer book, which he examined more slowly. Stuck in its pages was a recipe for "Washday Pickles," written on the back of an envelope, with the word Mother in the upper right-hand corner. A name was written on the front of the envelope with its canceled three-cent stamp and its simple address of Browerville, Minn. The same name was written on the inside cover of the prayer book, and on a social-security card they found in a small pocketbook that also held some school pictures of two little girls, and a dollar bill plus eighteen cents in change.
Her name was Krystyna Olczak.
Everybody in Browerville knew Eddie Olczak. Everybody in Browerville liked him. He was about the eighth or ninth kid of Hedwig and Casimir Olczak, Polish immigrants from out east of town. Eighth or ninth they said because Hedy and Cass had fourteen, and when there are that many in one family the order can get a little jumbled. Eddie lived half a block off Main Street, on the west side of the alley behind the Lee State Bank and the Quality Inn Cafe, in the oldest house in town. He had fixed it up real nice when he married that cute little Krystyna Pribil, whose folks farmed just off the Clarissa Highway out north of town. Richard and Mary Pribil had seven kids of their own, but everybody remembered Krystyna best because she had been the Todd County Dairy Princess the summer before she married Eddie.
The children around town knew Eddie because he was the janitor at St. Joseph's Catholic Church and had been for twelve years. He took care of the parochial school as well, so his tall thin figure was a familiar sight moving around the parish property, pushing dust mops, hauling milk bottles, ringing the church bells at all hours of the day and night. He had nieces and nephews all over the place, and occasionally on a Saturday or Sunday he'd prevail upon one of them to ring the Angelus for him at noon or six P.M. In truth, weekends meant little to Eddie; he had no such thing as a day off. He worked seven days a week, for there was never a morning without Mass, and when there was Mass, Eddie was there to ring the bells, most often attending the service himself. He lived a scant block and half from church, so when the Angelus needed ringing, he ran to church and rang it.
The bells of St. Joseph's pretty much regulated the activities of the entire town, for nearly everybody in Browerville was Catholic. Folks who passed through often said how amazing it was that a little burg like that, with only eight hundred people, boasted not just one Catholic church, but two! There was St. Peter's, of course, at the south end of town, but St. Joe's had been there first and was Polish, whereas St. Pete's was an offshoot started by a bunch of disgruntled Germans who'd argued about parish debts and objected to the use of the Polish language in liturgy, then marched off to the other end of town with the attitude, to hell with all you Polaks, we'll build our own!
And they did.
But St. Peter's lacked the commanding presence of St. Joseph's with its grandiose neo-baroque structure, onion-shaped minarets, Corinthian columns and five splendid altars. Neither had it the surrounding grounds with the impressive statuary and grotto that tourists came to see. Nor the real pipe organ whose full diapason trembled the rafters on Christmas Eve. Nor the clock tower, visible up and down the length of Main Street. Nor the cupola with three bells that regimented everyone's days.
And nobody was more regimented than Eddie.
At 7:30 each weekday morning he rang what was simply referred to as the first bell: six monotone clangs to give everyone a half-hour warning that church would soon start. At 8:00 A.M. he rang all three bells in unison to start Mass. At precisely noon he was there to toll the Angelustwelve peals on a single bell that stopped all of downtown for lunch and reminded the very pious to pause and recite the Angelus prayer. During summer vacation every kid in town knew that when he heard the noon Angelus ring he had five minutes to get home to dinner or he'd be in big trouble! And at the end of each workday, though Eddie himself was usually home by five-thirty, he ran back to church at six P.M. to ring the evening Angelus that sat the entire town down to supper. On Sunday mornings when both High and Low Mass were celebrated, he rang one additional time; then again for Sunday Vespers. And on Saturday evenings, for the rosary and Benediction, he was there, too, before the service.
Bells were required at special times of the year as well: during Lent whenever the Stations of the Cross were prayed, plus at all requiem Masses and funerals. It was also Polish Catholic tradition that whenever somebody died, the death toll announced it to the entire town, ringing once for each year the person had lived.
Given all this ringing, and the requirement that sometimes a minute of silence had to pass between each pull on the rope, Eddie had grown not only regimented, but patient as well.
Working around the children had taught him an even deeper form of patience. They spilled milk in the lunchroom, dropped chalky erasers on the floor, licked the frost off the windowpanes in the winter, clomped in with mud on their shoes in the spring, stuck their forbidden bubble gum beneath their desks and wiped their boogers on the undersides of the fold-up seats whenever they forgot their hankies. Worst of all, right after summer vacation, when all the floors were gleaming with a fresh coat of varnish, they worked their feet like windshield wipers underneath their desks, and scratched it all up again.
But Eddie didn't care. He loved the children. And this year he had both of his own in Sister Regina's roomAnne in the fourth grade and Lucy in the third. He had seen them outside at morning recess a little while ago, playing drop-the-hanky on the rolling green playground that climbed to the west behind the convent. Sister Regina had been out there with them, playing too, her black veils luffing in the autumn breeze.
They were back inside now, the drift of their childish voices no longer floating across the pleasant morning as Eddie did autumn cleanup around the grounds. Instead he listened to the whirr of the feed mill from across town. It ran all day long at this time of year, grinding the grain that the farmers hauled in as they harvested. Eddie liked the smell of it, dusty and oaty; reminded him of the granary on the farm when he was a boy.
The town was busy. There were other sounds as well: from Wenzel's lumberyard, a half block away, came the intermittent bzzzz of an electric saw slicing through a piece of lumber, and occasionally the rumble of the big silver milk trucks returning to the milk plant with full loads, their horns bleating for admittance. Now and then the southwest wind would carry the metallic pang-pang of hammers from the two blacksmith's shopsSam Berczyk's on Main Street, and Frank Plotnik's right across the street from Eddie's own house.
Some might disdain his town because it was small and backward, clinging to a lot of old-country customs, but Eddie knew every person in it, every sound lifting from it, and who made that sound. He was a contented man as he loaded a wheelbarrow with tools and pushed it over to the fishpond in Father Kuzdek's front yard to clean out the concrete basin that had grown green with algae over the summer. It was an immense yard, situated on the south of the church, with the rectory set well back from the street and fronted by a veritable parkland covering an entire half block. The statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary stood in a stone grotto near the street, a rose bed at her feet and a screen of lush green pines behind her. The long sidewalk to Father's house was flanked by great shade trees, intermittent flower beds and rock gardens, all of this surrounded by a fence substantial enough to stand till Judgment Day. The fence, of stone piers and black iron rails, set off the grounds beautifully, but it went clear around three sides of the church property and made for a lot of hand clipping when Eddie mowed the lawns. Sometimes though, the Knights of Columbus helped him mow and trim. They had done so last Saturday, the same loyal workhorses showing up as they always did.
Eddie was on his knees at the fishpond when he was surprised to see one of those workhorses, Conrad Kaluza, coming up Father's sidewalk. Con had hair as black as ink and whiskers to match, dark even after a fresh shave. He owned a little music store on Main Street and always wore nice trousers and a white shirt open at the throat.
Eddie sat back on his heels, pulled off his dirty gloves and waited.
"Well, Con, what the heck are you doing up here at this time of day? Come to help me clean out this slimy fishpond?"
Con stepped off the sidewalk and crossed the grass. He looked pale and shaken.
"Hey, Con, you don't look so good, What's..."
Con squatted down on one heel in the shade beside the pond. Eddie noticed the muscles around his mouth quivering and his whiskers blacker than ever against his white face.
"What's the matter, Con?"
"Eddie, I'm afraid I got some bad news. There's, ah ..." Con paused and cleared his throat. "There's been an accident."
Eddie tensed and looked southward, toward his house. His backside lifted off his heels. "Krystyna ..."
"'Fraid so," Con said.
"She okay, Con?"
Con cleared his throat again and dragged in a deep breath.
"I'm ... I'm afraid not, Eddie."
"Well, what's ..."
"A train hit her car at the crossing out by her folks' place."
"Jesus, Maria." Eddie said in PolishYeshush, Maree-uhand made the sign of the cross. It took a while before he could make himself ask, "How bad is it?"
When Con failed to reply, Eddie shouted, "She's alive, isn't she, Con!" He gripped Con's arms, repeating, "Con, she's alive! She's just hurt, isn't she?"
Con's mouth worked and the rims of his eyelids got bright red. When he spoke his voice sounded wheezy and unnatural.
"This is the hardest thing I ever had to say to anybody."
"Oh God, Con, no."
"She's dead, Eddie. May her soul rest in peace."
Eddie's hands convulsed on Con's arms. "No ..." His face contorted and he began rocking forward and backward in tiny pulsing beats. "She can't be. She's ... she's ..." Eddie looked north toward his in-laws. "She's out at her ma's house canning pickles. She said she was ... she and her ma were ... oh, Con, no, Jesus, no ... not Krystyna!"
Eddie started weeping and Con caught him when he crumpled. Over at Wenzel's the saw started up. It sang a while and stopped, leaving only the sound of Eddie's sobbing.
"Not my Krystyna," he wailed. "Not my Krystyna..."
Con waited awhile, then urged, "Come on, Eddie, let's go tell Father, and he'll say a prayer with you ..."
Eddie let himself be hauled to his feet, but turned as if to head toward the school building on the far side of the church. "The girls ..."
"Not now, Eddie. Plenty of time to tell them later. Let's go see Father first, okay?"
Father Kuzdek answered the door himself, a massive, balding Polish man with a neck and shoulders like a draft horse. He was in his early forties with glasses like President Truman's, their wire bows denting the sides of his round pink face. He wore his black cassock most of the time and had it on today as he opened the door of his glassed-in porch and saw who was on his step.
"Con, Eddie ... what's wrong?"
"There's been an accident, Father," Con told him.
While they moved inside, Con explained, "It's Krystyna ... she ... her car ... it was hit by the train."
Father went as still as if riddled by two hundred ten volts. Eddie had worked for the parish for twelve years. Father's concern for him went far beyond that of a priest for a parishioner. "Kyrie, eleison," he whispered in Latin. Lord, have mercy. "Is she dead?"
Con could do no more than nod.
Father Kuzdek's breath left him like air escaping a ruptured tire. Rocking back on both heels he closed his eyes and lifted his face, as if begging divine sustenance. "Erue, Domine, animam ejus." Deliver her soul, O Lord, he prayed in an undertone, then Caught Eddie around the shoulders with one beefy arm.
"Ah, Eddie, Eddie ... what a tragedy. This is terrible. So young, your Krystyna, and such a good woman."
They took some time for their emotions to swell, then Father made a cross in the air over Eddie's head and murmured in Latin. He laid both of his huge hands right on Eddie's head and went on praying, ending in English, "The Lord bless you in this time of travail. May He guide you and keep you during the difficult days ahead." After making another cross in the air, Father dropped his hands to Eddie's shoulders and said, "I ask you to remember, my son, that it's not ours to question why and when the Lord chooses to take those we love. He has His reasons, Eddie."
Eddie, still weeping, bobbed his head, facing the floor.
Father dropped his hands and asked Con, "How long ago?"
"Less than an hour."
"The junction of County Road Eighty-nine and Highway Seventy-one, north of town."
"I'll get my things."
Father Kuzdek came back wearing his black biretta, carrying a small leather case containing his holy oils. They followed him to his garage, a small, separate building crowding close to the north side of his house and the rear of the church. He backed out his black Buick, and Eddie got in the front, Con in the back.
The Reverend Anastasius T. Kuzdek commanded the driver's seat the way he commanded the respect of the town, for though Browerville had a mayor, its undisputed leader was this priest. In an area of the state where the vein of old-world Catholicism ran deep, none ran deeper than in Father Kuzdek's parish. Legends were told about the man, about the time neither family members nor the local constable could break up a fight between two drunken brothers-in-law at a family reunion. But when Father Kuzdek was called in, he grabbed the pair in his beefy hands, conked their noggins together as if they were little more than two poolballs, and ended the fistfight on the spot. When he stood in the pulpit and announced, "The convent needs wood," firewood appeared like Our Lady appeared at Fatima, miraculously delivered into the nuns' yard already dried and split. When he ordered school closed on the feast day of St. Anastasius, his patron saint, there was no school and no complaint from the Archdiocese. Some bigwigs in St. Paul once decided that Highway 71 should be rerouted to bypass Browerville, taking along with it the frequent tourists who stopped to see St. Joseph's, both the church and the grounds, and drop their money in the offerings box and spend more of it at the businesses in town. Kuzdek took on the Minnesota State Highway Department and won. Highway 71 still cut smack through downtown, creating its main street and running right past the front steps of St. Joseph's Church.
Father turned left onto the highway now. When he said, driving his Buick toward the scene of the accident, "Let us pray ..." they did.
They spotted the red warning cloud from the fusee long before they saw the train itself. By now the cloud had stretched and drifted clear across the highway, stinging the air with its acrid sulphur fumes. The train, one of the little local freights, was only about twenty cars long, carrying hardware, grain, machinery, mailhardly a deadly cargo, only the trappings of the ordinary lives lived in this peaceful rural area. They passed the cabooseeven it had cleared the crossingand paralleled the train until they saw, up ahead, on the shoulder of the highway, a gathering of vehicles: Constable Cecil Monnie's Chevrolet, a truck from Leo Reamer's D-X station, the sheriff's car and Iten & Held's hearse. Browerville was too small to have a hospital, so when the need arose, Ed Iten used his hearse as an ambulance.
As Father slowed down, Eddie stared. "It pushed her all this way?" he said, dazed. Then he saw his car, flattened and ripped and peeled off of the locomotive in sections. Beside the train a body was laid out on a stretcher.
He left the Buick and stumbled through hip-high grass down a swale in the ditch, up the other side, with Father and Con close on his heels. The train was still steaming, its pressure kept up by Merle who would periodically climb up to read the gauges and throw another shovelful of coal into the firebox. The engine gave a hiccup, while across the tracks a herd of holsteins watched the goings-on from behind a barbed-wire fence. Nearer, the conductor, with his clipboard, stopped gathering accident data for the railroad company and stood in silent respect, watching the party of three arrive.
Never again would Eddie Olczak fear hell, for on that day, during those broken minutes while he knelt beside Krystyna's body, he experienced a hell so unfair, so unmerciful that nothing in this life or the next could hurt more.
"Oh, Krystyna, K ... Krystyna, why ......"
Kneeling beside her, he wept as the souls in purgatory surely wept, to be set free from the pain and the loss. With his face contorted, he looked up at those standing above him and asked, repeatedly, "Why? Why?" But they could only touch his shoulder and stand by mutely. "How am I g ... going to tell my little girls? What will they d ... do without her? What will any of us d ... do without her?" They didn't know what to say, but stood by, feeling the shock of mortality come to stun them, too, as Eddie looked down at his dead wife. He took the collar of her dress between his fingers. "Sh ... she made the ... this dress." He looked up at them again, fixing on the pitiful fact. "D ... did you know th ... that? She m ... made this dress hers ... self." He touched it, bloody as it was, while Father Kuzdek kissed and donned his stole and dropped to one knee to pray.
"In nomine Patris ..."
Eddie listened to the murmuring of Father's voice as he administered Extreme Unction, the same voice that had prayed their wedding Mass and baptized their children. He watched Father's oversized thumb anoint his wife's forehead with oils and make the sign of the cross on her ravaged skin.
Krystyna's parents came, and her sister Irene, and they clung to Eddie in a forlorn, weeping band, and fell to their knees on the cinders, keening and rocking while Eddie repeated the same thing over and over. "Sh ... she was on her way out to your house c ... can pickles with you ... that's all she was g ... going to do, Mary. That's where sh ... she should be right n ... now. She should b ... be at your h ... house." And they stared through their tears at the wreckage of the fruit jars strewn along the railroad tracks, reflecting the noon sun like waves on a lake, imagining her loading them in the car a couple of hours ago, thinking she'd be returning home that night with all of the jars filled.
When they'd had time for weeping, Father gave a blessing to Mary, Richard and Irene, and the stretcher was borne through the ditch to the hearse, trailed by the bereaved. When the doors of the hearse closed, Mary asked her son-in-law, "Have you told Anne and Lucy yet?"
"Not yet." The thought started Eddie crying again, dully, and Krystyna's father clamped an arm around his shoulders.
"Do you want us with you when you do?" Mary asked, since Richard found himself still unable to speak.
"I ... I don't know."
"We'll come with you, Eddie," Irene put in. "You know we'll come with you if you want."
"I don't know," he repeated with an exhausted sigh, looking around as if the holsteins in the field could provide an answer. "I think ..." His gaze went back to Krystyna's family. "I think it's s ... something I got to do alone. But you'll come over to the school with me, won't you? I mean, I don't know wh ... what's going to happen after. What do we ..." He stopped, unversed in the mechanics of death's aftermath, his mind refusing to function for the moment.
Father Kuzdek stepped in and said, "Come, Eddie. We'll tell the children together, you and I, and then you and Mary and Richard and Irene can all take them home."
"Yes," Eddie agreed, grateful to have someone tell him what to do next. "Yes, thank you, Father."
The little group dispersed to the various cars, a new dread spreading through them. For they all knew that as difficult as the last hour had been, the next one would be even worse, telling the children.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the novels of LaVyrle Spencer
“A superb story.”—Los Angeles Times
“You will never forget the incredible beauty of LaVyrle’s gifted pen.”—Affaire de Coeur
“Spencer, famous for her heart-rending slices of Americana, delivers the goods again.”—Publishers Weekly
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Loved this book. It held my interest right from the start. I highly recommend. It does not disappoint.
This book was my first by this author. I was touched by the people of Browerville that Ms. Spencer created. As a Catholic, it made me appreciate the lives of the nuns and the dedication with which they serve. Truly a great love story!
I was raised in a Polish Catholic community and so many things she wrote about brought back fond memories. This is such a beautiful love story, I too was unable to put it down. Now I must get her other books. Thanks Ms Spencer for taking me back in time.
What a charming story - you will not be able to put the book down!!! A tale of love and redemption that will touch your heart.
This was the last book from this author before she retired. Sort of a slow storyline. But very nice,simple old fashioned read. Back to the old days of ceremony,morals, and religion. Based in MN, so esp nicerating=73/1/98
I'm not Catholic. Consequently, I found all the rituals incredibly tedious. I love LaVyrle Spencer's style, and have read every book she's ever written. However, her normally interesting research usually pays off, but not this time. The actual story was wonderful, once you get past the rituals and the first 100 pages of death. I give this book 3 and a half stars.
Then Came Heaven is just about as far as I can get from my normal reading but at the prodding of my mother – fascinated at how it portrays life as she grew up – I gave it a go. I’m not familiar with this genre but the book was pleasant, inoffensive, readable, and entertaining. All without the slightest shred of depth or development. It’s like an outline, penciled out with plot and characters, with linking dialogue scribbled in to connect the dots. And that’s too bad. There is plenty of good stuff here. Why was the lead character so driven at his job as the church caretaker? Why did the young nun struggle so with her chosen career after the death of the lead’s wife? And how – really? – did the young nun move so sveltely in a single night from pedestal topping Madonna to the naked, embracing, and openly sexual wife? Now there’s a novel for you. The story presents life in small town mid-twentieth century America in an idealistic way. The families are all recently from the old country, all know each other, all eat the same foods, and all life centers around the central Catholic Church. I know these towns. They are wonderful places. Unless you hail from another part of the world. Or go to that other church. Or don’t fit in in any of a hundred ways. Then life can be something less than idyllic. But I enjoyed the story. It’s good for a few hours of entertainment. Don’t expect much more.
Admittedly, I have yet to read this book. However, it's on my short list of books to tackle, especially since I recently found it in a box of my grandmother's things. I couldn't help but notice the connection between this book's title, and the fact that my grandmother is no longer with us. It was a very emotional moment finding this book. I'm certain that I will enjoy Ms. Spencer's story, due in part to its setting in my home state.
Pleased with this purchase and service.
My favorite book. The characters and setting are very realistic.
This is the only Spencer book we have in our 'collection' and at first i just ignored it...But when I started it,i can't stop myself reading it,and i just love everything about it!!! It is one unforgettable story...
I personally found Then Came Heaven to be an outstanding book. I laughed, cried, got mad...the works I tell ya. It was incrediable and dearly recomend it.
My heart was so FULL after reading 'Then Came Heaven' I was almost overwhelmed by it. There is LOVE in this book: love for God, love for church, marital love, family love, community love; and, of course, the pure, sweet love that slowly grows between Jean and Eddie -- Wow! In addition, Ms. Spencer shows us, in a clear yet respectful way, just what nuns prior to Vatican II had to give up for their love of church and God. It's clear that changes in regards to the vows a nun takes were needed, however, my respect and admiration for the women who did take those old vows grew by leaps and bounds after reading this book. Thank you, Ms. Spencer.