By the time Aletta realized the bitter smell drifting out her front door was burning kolaches, it'd been too late to save them. Inside the house, two sheets of blackened fruit-topped pastries emerged from the veil of thick smoke like a magic trick. She plunked herself down on a bar stool, a dish towel still dangling from her fingers, and watched wisps of smoke rise off the kolaches. She couldn't help but draw unkind comparisons to her own lifesinged beyond recognition, stinking to heaven's pearly gates, and most likely irretrievable. The kolaches had been a shot at making a little cash, but this was the third batch she'd ruined, the first dying from a baking powder overdose. She still wasn't sure what had gone wrong with the second.
Outside, the Okay Czech Festival paraded right in front of her house on Main Street. The yearly summer festival caused the population of Okay, Oklahoma, to swell from five thousand folks just getting by to forty thousand out for fun. When the bill for the mortgage had come in the mail the day before, she knew it meant a near end to her checking account, so she'd decided to make some grocery money off her location. She hadn't realized making Czechoslovakian desserts required some kind of baking miracle.
Honking horns and whoops and hollers made her glance out the kitchen window. Men with round bellies tucked against their thighs and tasseled hats covering balding heads raced around in toy-size sports cars. Aletta let out a chirp of a laugh. The parade had started.
"Mama, what's that smell?" Ruby yelled from the front door. In another moment, she stood in front of Aletta, her face painted with a daisy on one cheek and an American flag on the other. In the summer of 1976, it seemed all of Oklahoma was into America's bicentennial.
"I burned the kolaches," Aletta said. Her eight-year-old looked so scared, it made Aletta think the girl must've heard wrong.
"Does that mean we have to move?" Ruby asked.
"Where'd you get that crazy idea?" Aletta's pale green eyes had to fight back the surprise of unexpected tears.
Ruby looked down at her flip-flops. "I heard you talkin' on the phone."
"Now, that's grown-up talk, Ruby. We're not gonna lose this house if I have anything at all to do with it, so there's nothin' to worry about. I'm just gonna make some lemonade to sell." She reached out with both arms, inviting a hug. "You go on and have fun. I'll be right out."
Ruby held her mama's pregnant belly, her fine blond hair spilling across Aletta's breasts. Aletta hadn't realized just how much their daddy's leaving and her fears about money were affecting her kids until she'd seen that scared look on Ruby's face. She smiled as Ruby pulled away, but inside she was cussing Jimmy again, unable to pretend he'd left for something more complicated than going middle-age crazy at thirty-four.
On the card table in her front yard, Aletta set out a pitcher of powder-mix lemonade, a small ice chest with ice cubes from her fridge, and some Happy Birthday cups left over from Randy's sixth birthday party. She turned over the notebook paper that said Homemade Kolaches - fifty cents for one or three dollars a dozen and wrote Lemonade - ten cents.
Her house was on the far west end of town, at the beginning of the official parade route. People lined both sides of the street farther down, but here Aletta could watch the marching bands in their snazzy tasseled outfits and the floats carrying firemen or the bowling league right from her front yard. Just as she finished her sign, she looked up and saw Jimmy. Her husband stood on a float that looked like an enormous football. He and several other men of varying ages and waist sizes wore red-and-white Okay letter jackets and waved to the crowd. The 1940s red tractor that pulled the float carried a banner reading Okay Athletic Alumni Association.
Excerpted from The Saints and Sinners of Okay County by Dayna Dunbar Copyright© 2003 by Dayna Dunbar. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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