Clara heard the low rumble of a car rolling onto her gravel driveway. She peeked through the curtains of her living room’s plate-glass window. “Preacher? I should have known he would be sticking his nose in my business.”
As she walked toward the door, she glanced at the mirror hanging on the wall. “Whoa, Clara. You look like a Yahoo.” She straightened her collar and began to coif her disheveled white hair. But as she did, she wondered why she was primping for the preacher. “In fact…” She bent over and combed her hair out with her fingers, stood back up, and studied the mirror. To accompany the wild hair, she experimented with a few faces. She finally settled on wide, darting eyes with a tightly compressed mouth. “Perfect. I’ll drive him to exorcism.” As an added touch, she grabbed the shotgun behind the door. Then she went out to greet the preacher.
He did not notice what was hanging by her side because his eyes were drawn to her face. “Oh, my,” he said, his voice and step stuttering simultaneously. Regaining his composure, he took a couple more steps, stopped, and said, “Good morning, Sister Clara.”
Everything about him was blue: his sedan, his clothes, his wife’s hair standing high on the passenger side. They were a funny pair—his wife with her tall stature capped with tall hair and he not only shorter than she but shorter than most women.
“Why so blue, Charles?”
“Oh, now, please, Sister Clara. You know better than that. It’s been a long, long time, I grant you. It’s been too long, in fact. I’ve been remiss in my duties of offering you spiritual guidance, and I’m sorry about that. But it hasn’t been so long that you’ve forgotten what to call me. It’s Brother Charlie.”
“It’s also Mrs. Klein. And you don’t have any duties to perform here.”
“Now, Sister, that’s no way for a good Christian woman to be.” Then, noticing the shotgun hanging down by her leg, he asked, “What’s that for, Mrs. Klein?”
“It’s for shooting things, Charles,” Clara answered. “It’s a gun.”
“Well, I know that. But why are you carrying it around?” He followed the question with an artificial chuckle, to demonstrate that he was sure this was a joke and that he was in on it, not the butt of it.
“I thought I heard a skunk nosing around out here just now. One used to come around every once in a while, making a nuisance of himself. He hasn’t been around for a while, but I thought he had returned.”
“Well, you don’t want to shoot him, now do you?”
“I don’t want to, no,” Clara said. “I don’t want to cause a big stink, you know. But I don’t want him bothering me either.”
Brother Charlie decided to play along a little. “Is he a big one?”
“Smaller than most.”
The preacher’s smile did not waver at his mouth, but it did evaporate from his eyes. “Still, he’s going to be hard to dispose of once you’ve shot him,” he said, still trying to play along. “You’ll have to haul him away or bury him out back, won’t you?” As he realized what he’d said, his smile gave way to a flash of apologetic panic.
She pursed her lips and stared through him for a moment. Then she raised the barrel of the shotgun slightly. “What brought you out here, Mr. Keeble?”
He gave the smile another try and said, “Why, a car brought me out here, Sister Clara.”
“I think it’s time to be serious, Charles.”
He shifted his feet and his disposition. “You know what I came for, Sister Clara. I came to tell you to get yourself packed and out of that house.”
“I’m not leaving.”
“You have no choice, Sister Clara. You have to leave. Period.” With a gentle smile, he offered to have some people from the church come to help her.
“I’m not leaving.”
“Sister Clara, I understand—”
“No, I don’t think you understand at all,” Clara snapped.
“I understand that this is your home, Sister, but it may not be your home for very much longer. It may not be a home at all. I’m sorry, but we have to be realistic about this. The water is probably going to make it up here. There’s no denying that.”
“I’m not in denial, Charles.”
“Then why do you expect everybody to sit back and let you get washed downstream?” He cringed and apologized with his eyes again. She narrowed hers as if she were going to respond, but he continued, trying to talk his way through his blunder, “Now, I hope you’ll be lucky. I sure hope and pray you do. I hope the levee will hold and we won’t get a single drop of water over here. But you know we can’t count on that happening. The only thing we can do now is take advantage of these few days by preparing and praying.”
“I’m not leaving. As far as preparing goes, I’ll take care of that in my own way. And as for praying, that’s your bailiwick. Though you seem to do more prying than praying, if you ask me.”
“Praying is for everybody, Sister Clara. You know better than anyone that it’s not just for us preachers. Why, you and I could even pray together right here and now, if you want to.”
“Don’t waste your time. My heart’s as dry as dust, Charles.”
“Please, join me in prayer, Sister Clara.” He propped his right hand on his car hood and bent his knees. About halfway down he paused, not wanting to kneel on the gravel unless she was going to join him. “It’ll be just like the good old days again. Do you remember how we used to spend many a moment together praying to the Lord? I’ll tell you, Sister Clara, I’ve sure missed it. I’ve been hoping and praying you’d come back to the flock for so long now. Why don’t you come back right now, right this minute? Now’s as good a time as any.”
His wife opened her car door to join them.
“Just join us in a little prayer, Sister Clara,” he continued. “Doesn’t even have to be a big one if you don’t want. You don’t even have to speak. I’ll pray out loud for all of us, and you can just pray along silently, if you want.”
She ignored him and turned her attention to his wife, who had now walked around to the front of the car. “Good morning, Jane. I’m glad Charlie brought you out to see me,” she said with a syrupy sweetness that wasn’t intended to fool anybody.
“Clara,” the preacher’s wife answered, with a swift nod and her perpetual frown.
“I guess this means Charlie can’t handle me by himself?”
“I guess he sure can.”
“Oh, I see. Charlie’s out here to support you. It’s you who can’t handle me alone.”
“I reckon I can too,” Jane said, with a smile that didn’t quite replace the frown.
“Now, Sister Clara—”
“Hold on, Charlie. She just said she could handle me by herself.”
“That I did,” Jane said, nodding to her husband with confidence.
“So, Jane, what brings you out here?”
“Just doing my Christian duty.”
“And why would you want to do a thing like that?”
“You should know, Clara, since you used to do plenty of it yourself. Back when you were one, that is. By works we are justified, and not by faith alone.”
“I see. But what about Jews who do good works? Do they get to enjoy the pleasure of your company in heaven?”
Jane held a hand up to her husband. “No, Clara, they do not.”
“But they’re so similar to Christians, Jane. Don’t they read the same Bible?”
“Their scripture is incomplete. They don’t accept the New Testament as the word of God.”
“So they haven’t evolved the way you have, huh? You feel they’re the stupid and stooped apes of religion, whereas Christians such as yourself are upright beings, so to speak. That’s a very Darwinian position you’ve adopted, Jane.”
“Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that,” Jane answered, a little nervousness creeping into her voice. “Tell me, Clara, how could a good Christian woman such as you used to be change so much for the worse?”
“Well, Jane, it took a lot of effort, but once I had my Sundays free I found I could devote more time to it. But let’s not change the subject—I was wondering where that puts the Mormons?”
“I don’t know what you—”
“Well, they have three testaments: the Old, the New, and the Book of Mormon. They’ve edged you out by the same margin by which you beat the Jews.”
“Or, if you want to express it in ratios, you’re twice as godly as the average Jew. But the average Mormon is what, fifty percent more godly than you? Is my math correct?” Clara looked up at nothing and moved her finger as if she were solving a problem on a chalkboard.
“Jane Keeble, I thank you. I feel so enlightened now.”
“Good-bye and good riddance, Clara Klein.” Jane turned away and stomped back to the car.
“When you leave, if you happen to see a couple of young men with short hair wearing ties and riding bicycles, could you send them my way? And thank you again for leading me down the true path to salvation.”
Jane looked up toward the sky and said, “Verily I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city.”
Clara clapped her hands. “Bravo. Bravissimo! That was very dramatic, Jane. You should take your act on the road. Might I suggest a busy interstate?”
The preacher’s wife shook the dust from her feet and sat in the passenger seat. “Mark my words, Clara Klein,” she said loudly. “Just like everybody else, you’ll repent before you die. Or spend all eternity wishing you had.” She stuck her chin out and stared straight ahead as she slammed her door.
“That was uncalled for, Sister Clara,” the preacher said.
“Sorry, Charlie.” She noticed that he had returned to his ridiculous half-bent-ready-to-pray stance. “Get up,” she said, raising the barrel again.
He straightened his legs. “Jane was right about you, though. You used to be such a good Christian woman, Clara.” He gave her a smile full of sadness. “A good and godly lady. I remember you used to read two pages of the Bible every day and two pages of your Shakespeare, I believe it was. You said it was nourishment for the soul and the mind. Do you still do that?”
“No, I don’t waste my time with the Bible anymore. But you’ll be glad to hear that allowed me to double up on my Shakespeare.”
“Don’t read the Bible anymore? What a shame. And for such a lovely lady. Sister Clara, why do you want to be a bitter old woman, tortured and tormented out here in this lonesome house?”
“What makes you think I have a choice?”
“We all have a choice, Sister. It’s called free will.”
“Is that so? I thought you believed your God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Where was free will then?”
Charlie smiled and nodded. “Free will versus predestination. Yes. It’s been analyzed and debated for centuries. How can they possibly coexist? Well, because He who created all and knows all says they can. And we are mere humans, limited in our ability to comprehend the ways of God. But yes, He can turn a king’s heart whithersoever He will. I don’t think that applies in your situation, though. As far as I can see, God is not using your obstinance as a tool toward some greater good. No, I think you have to shoulder the blame for hardening your own heart, Sister Clara.”
“Do you mean to say you can blame me for the end result, but you can’t blame that God of yours for the actions that led to it?”
“I’m not in the business of second-guessing Him, Sister Clara. There was a time when you would have understood that and agreed with me.” He grinned and added, “You know, I was just thinking on the way over here about the story you used to tell about watching Elvis Presley for the first time on TV. You remember that?”
She did remember. Elvis had been on Ed Sullivan, singing “Peace in the Valley.” The girls in the studio audience had screamed as if this were just another rock-and-roll song, but Clara had smiled as she sang along and marveled at the voice and at the faith he wasn’t ashamed to expose to the world.
“His fans hollering and carrying on, why, they just didn’t get it. But you did, didn’t you, Sister Clara? You got it.”
“What’s your point, preacher?”
“My point is you used to be so devout. You used to have such a healthy outlook on everything.”
“My outlook is more realistic now.”
“How can you say that, Sister? You’ve cut yourself off from society and sequestered yourself in this lonesome little house. You’re not more realistic now. You’ve abandoned reality and—”
“You’re saying I’m crazy?”
“No, no, of course not. But let’s be honest, Sister Clara. You’re not as in touch as you should be. Ever since George and—”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sister Clara, didn’t you just last month call the sheriff to report that somebody had stolen a can of green beans from your pantry?”
How does he know about that? “I found them behind the peas later,” she said, as if that explained everything. “I told them.” Embarrassed and angry, she went on, “Besides, that has nothing to do with anything.”
“Sister Clara, I was just hoping—”
“Well, you need to stop hoping and start hopping.” She raised the barrel again.
He sighed, returned to his car door, and grabbed the latch. “Don’t you understand that by staying here you can’t save your house or possessions? But by leaving now you can save most of your stuff, not to mention your life. You can’t stay and fight it. You’ll lose.”
“I won’t lose.”
“You’ll lose your life.”
“I might be destroyed, but I won’t be defeated.”
He frowned and tried to decipher the comment.
“It’s a line from The Old Man and the Sea. Paraphrased by The Old Woman with the Gun. We English teachers like to spout such stuff, you know.”
He continued to frown as he nodded. “Well, I guess there’s nothing more I can do at the moment, so I’ll just leave for now.”
“Be not dainty of leave-taking,” she said as she lifted the shotgun.
“I guess that means you want me to hurry up and go. And I guess you got that one from Shakespeare.”
“That’s two correct guesses. You win a kewpie doll.”
The preacher sighed again and got into his car. He started the engine and rolled down the window. “You know you’re being unreasonable.”
“And you know you’re being a pain in the ass.”
Clara saw Jane’s mouth open slightly with shock, and she felt defiant pride mixed with simple shame.
“And you know I’ll be back to try again before long, don’t you?” he said, attempting to be cheerful.
“I’ll pray for you, Sister Clara.”
This last remark saddened him. As his window rolled back up with a mechanical whine, he said, “God bless you, Sister Clara.” The blue sedan backed up the driveway, then disappeared down the gravel road.
Yes, he will be back. And there will probably be others. What if the law comes out? Could they make me leave? This thought disquieted her, and she went back into the house and carried her shotgun to her bedroom. She sat on the foot of her bed and, looking at the mirrored back of her dresser, saw the frightened face of a lonely woman who had grown old before her time. “Sixty-seven is not really that old,” she told herself. But her mirror image silently begged to differ. Tears welled up in her eyes.
Judge. I can make him understand. He’ll help me. She wiped her eyes with her sleeve, stood up, and walked to the living room as she composed herself. Then she picked up the phone and dialed.
When I was shopping for an agent, I described A Sparrow on the Housetop as “Beloved meets The Old Man and the Sea (with overtones of A Confederacy of Dunces).” After my agent and I found each other about a year ago, he understandably wanted to use more recent comparable titles when submitting it to prospective publishers. He presents my novel as “A Man Called Ove meets The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, with a dash of The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules thrown in.” I think we’re both right.
A Sparrow on the Housetop tells the story of Clara Klein, widowed farmer, retired English teacher, self-proclaimed heathen, and the kind of person who can think circles around others and tie them up in knots. Clara lives alone on the small Missouri farm she once shared with her late husband, George. Ever since George drowned in the Mississippi River nine years before, this once devout Christian lady has lived in limbo, unable to get over or get past his death, and unable to forgive the God she once loved and trusted. Now the year is 1993 and God—apparently not satisfied with their uneasy truce—is sending that murdering river to take on Clara in her own home. And Clara Klein is not backing down.
The sheriff (who once was her student), a family friend (who once was a judge), and a pain in the ass (who once was her preacher) have been concerned about her well-being, mental and otherwise, for years. But now that she is refusing to evacuate in the face of grave danger, they have reached the point of alarm. Each tries in his own way to get Clara to leave voluntarily, and the sheriff even considers forcing her to evacuate against her will. But Clara persuades them to leave her alone by convincing them that she knows what she’s doing and that she will not let the flood kill her.
What these men don’t understand is that Clara Klein has no intention of leaving when the waters threaten her life. Instead, she intends to set up camp on her roof, read, reminisce, and then take on the God of Life and Death one on one, to wrestle that power away from him and (unlike George and everybody else) determine for herself how she lives and dies, giving God no say in the matter at all.
But God, it seems, has other plans.
Mike Todd lives in Mountain Home, Arkansas. His writings have appeared in numerous publications, including Thema, Fiction on the Web, Front Porch Review, River Poets Journal, New Reader Magazine, and Books ‘N Pieces. His first novel, A Sparrow on the Housetop, is currently being presented to publishers by his agent. You can follow him on Facebook.
Embark, Issue 10, October 2019