The following is an excerpt from Death In The Stacks. Johns Valley, Oklahoma’s 4th of July parade. Download is included in your Amazon Prime membership and Kindle Unlimited.
The high school marching band, pride of Johns Valley, Oklahoma, stepped smartly out and headed down the long hill comprising High Street, twirlers out front, tubas bringing up the rear. The parade was off to a late start, according to the digital clock over the door of Farmer’s Bank, which also noted the temperature, 92 degrees. A lone cloud drifting across the face of the sun offered a momentary respite to the young marchers sweltering in their new royal blue band uniforms, trimmed with gold braid and shiny buttons. Tall sparkling shakos, cinched to the head with white chin straps, fluttered with real feather plumes. Every organization in town had held fundraisers to purchase these magnificent outfits, and band director Randy Faulkner understood the public relations value of showing them off on this most patriotic occasion. Nothing said the Fourth like a high school marching band playing John Philip Sousa.
Cross streets north of Main were blocked with sawhorses to protect the parade route, but Depot Street was kept open for emergency vehicles. Elinor arrived late to find Dot’s red Datsun already parked behind the Fordyce Chandler Civic Center. The library occupied the west end of the building, the police department filled the middle suite, and the fire truck was usually backed into a bay on the east end, but today the bay was empty. The pumper had already taken its place in the parade. The dreary little back lot, a narrow alley that was home to a dumpster and a pride of feral cats, was jammed with cars.
Dot had staked out a patch of sidewalk under the awning that shaded the windows of Betty Blanton’s law office. She waved Elinor over and handed her a flag.
“I thought you weren’t coming. You smell like peaches.”
“I was in the middle of it and didn’t want to stop. I brought you a couple of jars. I’m parked right next to you.”
Whatever Dot replied was lost in the staccato of snare drums. The band, reaching the intersection of High and Main, executed a precision pivot, a turn that required every member to reach a certain spot, march in place until those further out had reached their own spot, then everybody execute a snappy right-angle turn and reassemble in block formation. It was a maneuver perfected over countless pre-dawn drills on the football field, and rightly sent the crowd into swooning wonder. They noticed that Betty Blanton had come out of her office to watch the parade go by.
“Don’t tell me you’re working today!” Dot exclaimed.
“I work every day,” Betty said.
Betty Blanton was something of an anomaly in their town, an unmarried middle-aged professional woman. She didn’t mind being an iconoclast, in fact, rather played it up, Elinor thought, dressed as she usually was in jeans and boots. She was known to smoke a little white lady pipe. Of course she was rumored to be a lesbian. Well, if it earned her fees commensurate with the male lawyers in town, why not?
Despite such efforts, Ms. Blanton had drawn the more difficult and probably less lucrative side of the Weathers divorce, a dispute that had played out for months, neither side willing to compromise a decimal point, or so they heard. The gossip mill churned out a steady stream of speculation and opinion. Wives tended to side with Judith Weathers. Everybody knew Buck Weathers fooled around on her. Husbands, out of earshot of wives, thought it a shame that Weathers family land was being broken up to satisfy the demands of a woman, who, judging from appearances, ran through money like it was water.
Elinor wondered if the newspaper article Buck Weathers had requested supported his side of the case somehow. With a start, she realized she had come within an inch of mentioning it to Judith Weathers’ attorney. But it is none of my business, she told herself firmly. Lawyers weren’t the only ones sworn to protect the confidentiality of clients.
“Here comes Kate’s little house!” Dot cried.
Shelby Jacks, behind the wheel of a heavy-duty truck hauling the flatbed trailer on which the float had been assembled, looked hot and grumpy, an unwilling but necessary component of his wife’s efforts to rebrand herself as a professional realtor after raising three kids to school age. Women had no idea the time and labor involved in a project like this, his expression said. His livestock didn’t observe holidays. There was no indication that he himself was running for re-election to his seat on council. Shelby, like privileged males the world over, took it for granted that citizens looked to him to run things.
Kate and Enid, standing on the “porch” of the float, flung candy randomly at the crowd. Gary treated his pieces as projectiles, aiming at the heads of other seventh-graders he spotted among the cheering multitudes. Stevie, who wanted to be called Steve now, appeared embarrassed by his participation and probably had to be coerced to appear in public with his family.
Elinor heard someone say that the little house looked like an outhouse. There was a titter as others recognized the truth of the remark. Sharp elbows reminded the crowd that Kate was Elinor’s niece, and that she might take personally any criticism of the float representing JV Properties. It seemed impossible to Elinor that Shelby had followed Kate’s design for the parade house. JV Properties, to say nothing of Kate’s career ambitions, would have been better served with just the sod and a For Sale sign. Finally the outhouse/dollhouse rolled out of sight along Main and all eyes turned to the next parade entry, a dozen or so middle-aged belly-dancers led by their instructor Rexie Roberts.
“Oh, good grief,” Dot said. “We could’ve been spared that.”
“There’s an exercise class for everybody, Dot. You could wear your turban.”
Rexie Roberts looked fabulous with her navel showing, but the best that could be said for the ladies of her class was that no one was sure who they were behind their veils. Nevertheless, the sight of bare female midriffs, no matter what the shape, elicited wolf whistles.
“Now here comes something worth cheering,” Dot said.
Dot was not alone in her admiration of Guy Pettibone, a muscular and darkly handsome Cajun who ran a local garage. She bragged that since Guy Pettibone came to town, she and other lady customers had been more diligent keeping up with their recommended maintenance schedules. Her Datsun, she claimed, would run another 50,000 miles. Cars weren’t just Guy’s business; they were his passion. He was driving one of his restoration projects today, a finny vintage Mercury rescued from a farmer’s pasture. A hand-lettered poster attached to the driver’s side with duct tape advertised his business, Guy’s Garage.
In the middle of the intersection, at the point of maximum eyeballs, the Mercury suddenly choked and died. Guy Pettibone jumped out and raised the hood, acknowledging good-natured catcalls with a doff of his gimme cap.
Betty Blanton was cynical. “A bit providential, don’t you think?”
“Who cares?” Dot said, applauding as Guy got his old car going again and hurried to catch up with the belly-dancers.
Johns Valley Volunteer Fire Department truck, forced to idle in place, now made its grand entrance, starting the siren as it made the turn. Mayor Patrick Allen Childers was seated in front with the driver, tossing from his open window handfuls of candy suckers wrapped in an appeal for votes.
Betty Blanton caught a sucker in mid-air. “He’s trying to look unbeatable so nobody will run against him.”
“Why don’t you throw your hat in the ring, Betty?” Dot urged. “We could use a woman on council.”
“I like to get paid for my work. Besides, running the city makes the boys feel important.”
“Like they need help with that,” Dot retorted.
As if to prove her point, the next parade entry was Buck Weathers. He, too, was driving a vintage automobile, this one a turquoise blue 1959 Thunderbird convertible with horns mounted to the hood. Magnetic placards on the doors were stamped with the imprimatur of Thunderbird Ranch, a partial circle around the letters “TR,” and the catchphrase “Eat More Beef.” As recently as last Fourth of July, Buck’s wife Judith had ridden on the seat beside him. This year she had been replaced with, not one, but three babes in bathing suits. The girls smiled and waved from the backseat like contestants in a beauty contest. No one recognized them. Imported for the occasion, Dot supposed.
“Rented more likely,” Betty Blanton said.
“Hope they’re wearing sunscreen,” Elinor remarked.
Buck, duded out in a snappy white Western shirt and summer Stetson, looked pleased with himself. The triplet of gorgeous young women could be seen as a message: Buck Weathers is riding the range again. Or soon would be when his divorce was final.
“Son of a bitch,” Betty Blanton muttered.
There was more, of course. Organizations, churches, the Boy Scouts. Johns Valley Historical Society had reassembled their Sooner Centennial float from ten years ago. The pioneer women, in shovel-brimmed bonnets and long sleeves, were more suitably outfitted for the blazing sun than either wool-blend-encased band members or bikini-clad beauty contestants.
But finally it was over, their Fourth of July parade. High Street spilled over with citizens taking the rare opportunity to congregate freely in the middle of the business district. Already, earlier parade marchers had circled back to reach cars, family members, and revel in compliments, both paraders and parade-watchers congratulating themselves on once again honoring the nation’s birthday in style.
Tonight they would gather at the fairgrounds for hotdogs, the mayor’s speech, and a fireworks show, courtesy of the Jaycees. Dot was boycotting because the Knights of Columbus were involved. Although the food had been donated and none of her money would be going to KC projects, Dot was still in a pet over their cenotaph to the unborn. The inscribed stone had divided public sentiment along familiar abortion issue fault lines. Dot came down firmly on the side of a woman’s right to choose. The Catholic Church occupied a prominent block on Main and they would all have to drive past that tombstone every day, she fumed. She had threatened to put up a sign in her own yard featuring a wire coat hanger.
“Not everything is about politics,” Elinor said, unwilling to have that conversation again. “You don’t really intend to miss the fireworks, do you, Dot?”
“I am a woman of principle. I shall not be budged. Besides, the nitrates in wienies gives me a headache. Thanks for the peaches, Elinor. I’ll try to make them last.”
“Well, if they don’t, I’ve got plenty more. Those three little trees produced a bumper crop this year.”
They lingered, standing next to their open car doors behind the Civic Center. All the other traffic had cleared out. Later, they would remember they had not cut through the library as they could’ve done, perhaps to check the thermostat, see if anybody had left a light on, maybe grab a book one of them had left behind. But nothing warned them. No feeling of foreboding or dread moved them to enter the locked and darkened building. They lingered next to their cars, beads of sweat collecting on their upper lip, reliving the parade, wondering if Kate really would install the outhouse in her backyard for Enid to play in. They talked of wienies, polyester blends, and homemade peach preserves. Then they parted.
Had they unlocked the back door and gone inside, they would have found her a day earlier. Surely they would have noticed the smell. Not that it would have mattered. She would be just as dead.