Reverend Martin Luther Larsen—highly regarded, completely ethical, genuine and sincere—has dedicated his life to the pastorate. Now, in the face of the drudgery, church politics and frustration that are the usual professional hazards of the ministry, a dangerous and intriguing complication has slipped into his life: Ange. No one in Larsen’s close knit congregations knew of the existence of this woman, the daughter of a parishioner who appeared just in time for her mother’s funeral. For Larsen, Ange is more than mysterious. She is alluring, wise and astonishingly intuitive. . . . And then there is the issue of the large rat that seems to be taunting the members of his church.
She had answered the door shoeless, wearing a close-fitting black dress and no makeup. Her black hair was just long enough to bounce when she let him in the front door and immediately turned toward the kitchen table, where packets of documents and possessions were stacked. He assumed she was going to hand him the items she had promised him at the funeral and bid him farewell, until he saw the magnum of red wine and the two glasses beside it. First he thought he would have to turn down the offered drink, and then he wondered if perhaps he should not have assumed. Perhaps she was expecting other company. She sat down in one of the two chairs at the table and crossed her bare legs.
“Can you sit down for a minute? It was nice of you to come all the way out here to pick these things up, Pastor Larsen,” she said.
He pulled out the chair and sat down. The daughter sat in the one he had always used in past visits. It was strange to him to sit in the chair Joan Celeste sat in when he visited her, where she graciously offered him crumb cake and lemonade.
“I came out here to Alton a lot, actually. Your mother was very dear to me. That is, she was just as nice and hospitable as she could be. And I always really appreciated that. I enjoyed coming to visit her.” He smiled. “Of course you mother very faithfully showed up every Sunday. It’s a long way from Alton to Manchester. But she never missed. When someone comes that far every week, you want to show your appreciation.”
Ange Celeste stared at him. It was a bit disconcerting to Larsen. Did she not believe that he visited often, or did she doubt his sentiments? Did she—perhaps cynical about church life or even an outright disbeliever—look down on the sort of pastoral relationship he described? The unexpected or incomprehensible reactions of extremely attractive women had always troubled him, made him feel like an unappealing buffoon.
“She liked you.”
Her words and the way she spoke them surprised him. It was almost like a pronouncement or a verdict Joan had handed down for her daughter to share with Larsen in her absence. And there was something about the tone she used. It was wiser and perhaps more intimate than he expected.
“Well. I liked her.”
“She told me about conning you into going to the fall festival here in Alton. And on a Saturday, no less. And she told me about your favorite wine.”
Without asking, she turned and grasped the magnum in two hands. Larsen’s mouth dropped. He stammered, started to protest that he was working, had other appointments to keep that Friday afternoon and could not drink. The daughter paid no attention to him, though, as she poured the glasses full.
“A nice Nebbiolo from Verità Wino, your favorite Italian winery.”
“. . . I really shouldn’t.”
She had anticipated his reluctance and brushed it aside. “One glass, Pastor Larsen. Only 12% alcohol. Undetectable.” She picked up the glasses and handed one to him. “A toast to my mother, the divine Joan Celeste.”
He laughed, somewhat anxiously, as they touched their glasses. “To Joan.”
The wine was as he remembered it: rosy and slightly tart with a lingering mellow aftertaste. And with the first taste he felt himself begin to relax. The second and third sips did not disappoint.
“I did not know Verità Wino produced a magnum size of their Nebbiolo.”
She looked at the bottle, as if seeing it for the first time. “Well I guess they do.” She smiled at him. “Mother said it was ironic that you liked this wine.”
He gazed at her. “Seriously? Why did she say that?”
“Because you are so much like it.”
“The Nebbiolo grape takes an exceptionally long time from the moment it blooms until it’s ready to pluck.” She smiled. “And once you do skin it and start the fermentation process, it takes a very long time before . . . it’s ready for the bottle.”
He stared at her oval face, cream-colored complexion, dark almond eyes, pert nose and small mouth. She bore only the faintest resemblance to her mother, whom he had only known in her 70’s. How old was this daughter? Forty perhaps, at most? Was she a late-life child?
“What does that have to do with me?”
She had finished her glass and poured another. “I guess Mother thought you were a work-in-progress.” She grabbed his glass in his hand and steadied it as she brought the neck of the magnum onto the lip and filled it again.
“No thanks. . . . Uh. What did your mother mean, that I’m a ‘work-in-progress?’ Was I not the pastor she needed me to be?”
“I seriously doubt that, Pastor Larsen. . . . Sounds like you worry about that kind of thing though.” She took another drink.
He thought about it. “Every pastor worth his salt wants to be the shepherd his—or her—congregation needs.”
“How politically correct of you.”
He laughed. “Heaven knows I try, Ms. Celeste.”
“No. Say it right. It’s pronounced ‘auhnjj.’ It’s French.”
“Well, Ange, I take it you don’t have a great deal of use for church life and customs.”
Her head tipped to one side. “I don’t do religion the way my mother did. That doesn’t mean I’m not spiritual.”
Lazarus Barnhill’s titles appear in several Indigo Sea Press genres. Among his first novels to be published was the police procedural The Medicine People. Later, co-authored with Sally Jones, he released Come Home to Me Child. His work is characterized by the unexpected twist and turn, by crisp dialogue and unpredictable endings.
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June 2, 2016 at 12:42 pm
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