Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Very Hot Summer

BY WILLIAM CASS

by William Cass

It was Sunday, and people at the twelve o’clock Mass sat in folding chairs in the little school hall waving their missalettes to move the air around. There was no church because that far out in the fields, there wasn’t funding or demand for one. Usually, the altar was arranged up on the stage, but in hot months, it was moved to the opposite end on the linoleum floor where it gained the tiny breeze from the open doors on either side.

Three little girls, sisters, sat in a row on the edge of the stage in chiffon dresses, black plastic shoes, and short white socks, and dangled their legs over the side. The youngest girl in the middle was in Kindergarten; she was small and pale and had Down’s syndrome. Her hair was cut short and she held a beige blanket with a pattern of ducks on it around her knees. The older girls were a couple of years older, twins, and very pretty. They wore red dresses and had their hair in sausage curls. The youngest girl had her head tilted back and looked like she was laughing hysterically, but no sound was coming out.

Father Buffani stood in the kitchen that served as the sacristy looking out at the congregation shuffling in the folding chairs or the wings waving missalettes. A few of the families grew up in Lancaster County, but the majority were Puerto Ricans who went to New York City or Puerto Rico in the winters, and made their way up the agricultural route along the Eastern seaboard in the other seasons. Because most of them knew only Spanish, they understood little that Father Buffani said, and sat respectfully in hand-washed work clothes. Some of the men stood along the wall holding their caps in front of them.

Father Buffani was a young priest from Marquette, Wisconsin. He had been in Pennsylvania for only four months and had red hair and a weak voice. He wanted to say something to them today about the heat; with the way it had lingered miserably on, he felt he needed to. He stood at the opening to the kitchen sweating in his robes and was aware of flies buzzing and flitting in the still air of the hall.

He walked past the choir, which was twelve people sitting next to the kitchen and a tall man standing before an electronic keyboard, and began the Mass. The twins sat with their hands folded in their laps, their legs moving like scissors over the lip of the stage. The youngest girl put her chin in her hands and looked out the open doors up front, then laid down on the stage and watched the flies.

Father Buffani mumbled through the opening portion of the service and then stepped to the lectern where he’d arranged his old Bible from the seminary and the notes for his homily. He’d found the Bible the night before in some packing boxes he’d stored away in the double-wide trailer that was his rectory. While leafing through it to find the readings for the next day, he’d come across a letter he’d written but left unsent to his mother just before his ordination. In it, he’d finally tried to tell her of his longstanding doubts about his calling and that he’d decided to not become a priest. But in the end, after picturing her receiving it alone in that old apartment building along the river upstate, he couldn’t bring himself to send it, and had tucked it away. After reading it again that previous night, he’d considered throwing it away, but instead had replaced it in the pages of the Bible and returned to fashioning his sermon.

Father Buffani cleared his throat and read the epistle. Then the congregation rose and he read from Luke’s gospel, which was short and began, “if God so clothes the grass, which flowers the field today and is burnt in the stove tomorrow, is he not much more likely to clothe you, you of little faith?” When he finished, they sat down and resumed using the missalettes as fans.

Father Buffani had the homily written on a pencil tablet in front of him. He read it quietly and raised his eyes rarely. He said that they must trust in God’s goodness and intentions. He told them that the heat would stop and that there would be rain; he prayed for it every night. God’s challenge, he said, was a just and fair one. He said that God’s will was beyond question, and not to question, but to serve. The last thing that he said was that God was a gentle and benevolent father who loved them.

When he said that, the youngest sister jumped up from the stage and said, “Goddamn it. Goddamn it to hell.”

Her voice was loud in the small confines. The congregation turned at once, and some of them stopped waving their missalettes. The little girl stood up and began skipping on the stage.

Father Buffani said, “Please…”

The girl shouted, “Goddamn, you all!” And then she fainted off the edge of the stage onto the floor of the hall. Her mother ran to her in a shimmery dress from where she was sitting nearby, and her sisters climbed down from the stage. Two men lifted the girl under the arms and legs and carried her from the hall while her family followed.

Father Buffani finished the rest of the Mass as quickly as he could. In less than an hour, he was in the kitchen changing out of his cassock while the choir sang, “Ave Maria.” He called the local hospital from the phone in the hallway.

A woman’s voice answered and said, “Hello, this is the Ephrata Community Hospital.”

Father Buffani asked, “Did someone bring a little girl in a yellow dress in?”

“They brought her in,” the voice said.

“Is she all right?”

“Yes. They took her home.”

“I’m their priest. Do you know their name?”

“Harrison.”

“Mitchell Harrison?”

“His daughter,” the voice said.

Father Buffani finished dressing slowly. He walked back through the hall and saw the little girl’s blanket lying at the foot of the stage. He picked it up and went out into the empty parking lot, then got into his pick-up truck and began to drive through the dirt roads of the tobacco fields. Dust followed him and a thing coating fell on the tobacco at the sides of the road.   He watched the tall, leafy stalks flit by in endless rows and the long barns that appeared now and again that were black inside from the gas that was used to dry the leaves. Some of the barn doors were propped open, and he could see the workers hanging the big leaves out on the high racks to dry. There were other workers stooped over in the rows with nets over their heads and straw hats over the nets. It was very hot and bright, and the dust that came through the open windows got in Father Buffani’s mouth and made it dry.

Towards the end of the fields, he drove up on three rows of shacks. Some of them were made from wood taken from road signs, and others were constructed out of sheets of rusting corrugated steel. None were big; they sat in a clearing of dirt up against the rows of tobacco. Children sat in the dirt playing with sticks and looked up as Father Buffani drove by. He recognized many of them from church as the dust rose and covered them.

When the road stopped, a large white house sat perched in front of him with green shutters. A grass yard in front of it seemed like an island among the sea of fields. Two maple trees stood in front of the house with the early propeller droppings that fell from them on the grass. A large silver automobile gleamed in the driveway and there was a small statue of a Black stable boy with a black cap and red coat in the grass.

Under one of the trees, the two twins sat in tulip-backed chairs in their red chiffon dresses eating crustless chicken salad sandwiches and drinking lemonade. They smiled at Father Buffani as he parked the pick-up truck. He nodded to them as he carried the blanket to the front door and then rang the bell.

Mrs. Harrison opened the door. She was an attractive woman in her mid-thirties wearing the same blue satin dress that clung to her. She smelled like flowers through the doorway and held a tall glass with ice cubes and limes.

“Why, Father,” she said, smiling. “Hello.”

He handed her the blanket and said, “This was left at church. Is the little girl all right?”

“She’s fine, Father. She fainted with the heat and took a fall.”

“I hope she’ll be okay.”

“She has a bump.” Mrs. Harrison pointed to her head. “She took a fall, but she’s fine. She’s resting in her bed.”

“Could I see her?”

“That’s very nice, Father. Let’s see if she’s awake.”

They walked through the dimly lit house where the windows were closed and the curtains drawn. It was drafty and cold from air conditioners that he could hear blowing, billowing some of the drapes. Mrs. Harrison opened a door in the back of the house. The room was pink and held a pink bed with a canopy. The little girl was sitting propped up in bed under thickly matted covers.

“This is Violet, Father,” Mrs. Harrison said.

Violet looked at them through her short, disheveled hair and smiled with all of her teeth. She tilted her head to one side. Mrs. Harrison stayed in the doorway and Father Buffani passed through her floral scent as he walked over to the bed. Violet idly looked up at him. He stood next to her with his hands in his pockets. Her tongue hung out of her mouth, and drool trickled down her chin. The ugly lump on her forehead looked very purple against her pale skin.

“You took a fall, didn’t you?” Father Buffani said.

Violet shook her head.

“How are you doing?” he asked.

Violet shook her head again and laughed. “I know you,” she said. Then she climbed under the covers and Father Buffani could hear her laughing.

“Are you hiding?”

Father Buffani smiled and looked at Mrs. Harrison who did the same and sipped her drink.

“What are you hiding from?” Father Buffani asked. “Can you come out here, Violet?”

“I have a lump,” Violet said from under the covers. The sound of her voice was muffled.

“How does your head feel? Are you feeling better? Please come out.”

Father Buffani moved back the covers and Violet was not laughing, but was crying with her chin down in her neck. He brushed the hair back gently from the bruise on her forehead.

“God loves you, Violet,” he said quietly. “He loves you very much.”

Violet shook her head violently. She cried louder and pulled the covers up around her shoulders.

“What is it, Violet?”

Mrs. Harrison said, “Perhaps we should go, Father.”

Violet turned over in her bed. She shook her head back and forth, crying into the pillow.

“All right, Violet,” Mrs. Harrison said. “Let’s leave her be, Father.”

She left the room and Father Buffani followed her back through the house. The satin dress rustled and moved as she walked, and the glass dangled next to one slim leg between two fingers. In it, Father Buffani thought he counted two limes, but there may have been three. When they came to the front door, she opened it, and Father Buffani stood partly in the sudden blast of heat and partly in the coldness of the foyer.

“What was the matter?” he asked.

She sighed. “I don’t know, Father.”

“Did I say something?”

“No, Father. It is hot, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Father Buffani said.

He looked over his shoulder to see the tobacco fields she gazed at. He heard her shake the ice in her glass and sip again from it.

“This heat is going to kill my potatoes,” she said.

“It doesn’t hurt the tobacco?”

“It hasn’t hurt the tobacco yet. It won’t hurt it badly if we can get it picked and hung. But it’s going to wreck the potato growers up north.”

Some of the workers were closing the big wooden door to a barn. Gas from a propane tank hissed on.

“Do they have to work on Sunday?” Father Buffani asked.

“They don’t have to work, Father,” Mrs. Harrison said. “But we pay them better on Sunday.”

Father Buffani nodded and looked back at her. “I don’t think I’ve seen your husband at church.”

“No.”

“I’ve heard of him, but I don’t think I’ve met him yet.”

She shook her head. “No. He’s not around much.”

They looked at each other while Father Buffani nodded some more.

“Would you like something cold to drink, Father?”

He watched her tilt her head and pull a thatch of her long hair behind an ear. She shifted from one hip to the other. They looked at each other until Father Buffani said, “No. Thank you, though.”

He watched her tip the glass to her lips, but there was only ice left in it, and she lowered it again to her side. They regarded each other until he stepped out into the heat, then turned to steady himself and asked again, “What do you suppose was wrong with Violet?”

“I don’t know. She was upset.”

“I hope she’ll be all right.”

“She’ll be fine. She took a fall and she’s a little upset. That’s all. Thank you for coming, Father.”

He nodded again and watched her close the door slowly. He walked to the pick-up truck, climbed inside, and sat for a moment in the heat. He looked at the twins who were still in the lawn chairs reading picture books. They waved at him as he started the truck and then turned back to their books. Farther Buffani began up the long dirt road. As he drove, he watched workers sitting in the shaded rows with their children or stooped over picking. He could see some of them hanging leaves inside the barns, the backs of their shirts stained with sweat. He watched a man pour a pail of water over his head by the side of one of the barns. Father Buffani shivered as the man shook his wet head in relief.