No one knew. "Three percent. Three percent!"
"I like to do my own shopping," Jackson said.
Claire was anxious for Jackson to open the wine. He put it off, just to let the anxiety build a little. As if he might not open it until they sat down to eat. Which was the sensible way to do things. Claire headed them toward the kitchen, and a corkscrew.
"This is what anthropologists call magical thinking," Jackson said. "If you wish hard enough for something to happen, it will happen. Like the cargo cults. People think these dotcom guys are some kind of spiritual beings possessing divine powers. Like John Frum." "I'm wishing that you'd open the wine," Claire said.
Jackson opened Claire's wine. "Is this supposed to breathe, or can we drink it now?"
"Both," Claire said. "Do you have any Campari?"
"No, I don't have any Campari."
Claire laughed. She always asked for a Campari and soda, reminding Jackson of a time when they used to drink Campari and soda all the time.
Pam stooped to admire the view through the kitchen window. "Do we have time for a walk before supper?"
She was looking at eighty acres of timber. Woodlots. Mostly second growth, but a lot of the old trees still standing. White oaks, red oaks. Horse chestnut. Hickories. Kentucky coffee trees, two or three elms that had survived the Dutch elm disease that devastated the campus and the town. There were two cottonwoods at the far end of the property, where the stream ducked under Route 64, and plenty of wild cherry, Osage orange, walnut, hackberry, mulberry.
"You wouldn't want to walk now," Jackson said. "I didn't get the paths cleared this summer. Warren - Warren used to live over the garage - always cleared the paths in the spring with a trimmer mower, but Warren got sick, and then he died. Too much poison ivy, you've got to be careful. Too late to do it now. You've got to watch out for ticks, too."
"Jackson had this marvelous hired man who did everything for him. Plowed the drive, fixed the roof, cleared the paths... He inherited him from Claude Michaut. Mr. Pygmy."
Jackson poured olive oil into a large copper saucepan and added some minced garlic. Just before the garlic had started to turn golden, he added a generous splash of white wine.
"He's got a niece," Claire said. "Warren does. In the prison here. Henrietta Hill Correctional Facility - the Hill. He helped her apply to Thomas Ford. Got her a tuition scholarship and left her enough money to pay for everything else. Jackson's supposed to look after her."
Jackson crumbled some gorgonzola onto the salad.
"Have you figured out what to do with her? I mean, is she going to live in a dorm? How old is she? She's about thirty-five, right? Hard to imagine she'd want to live in a dorm with nineteen- to twenty-two year olds. Of course, after Henrietta Hill, who knows? She could probably teach them a thing or two about group living. What about the church, Ray?" Ray seemed startled. "Can you think of anyone in the congregation who might be willing to take her in?"
"Not off hand, but I suppose we could put a notice in the bulletin." "She'll need some friends, that's for sure. We can help out there." "What's she in prison for?"
"She shot her husband, isn't that it?"
"I didn't know that was a crime."
"Very funny, Pamela. But it was more complicated than that, wasn't it Jackson?"
"Much more complicated."
"Her husband forced her to put her arm in a box of rattlesnakes, isn't that right? Forced her at gunpoint."
Pam expressed the appropriate horror. "So she had a good reason to shoot him. Did she get bit?"
Jackson was sorry now that he'd ever told the story to Claire. Like a lot of stories, this one had gotten loose, like a snake, and was probably going to start biting people. Claire had no doubt spread it around the university. Mea culpa. "I guess it was too good a story to keep to myself," he said aloud. (Though he'd kept quiet about the Garden of Eden, and about his daughter.)
Excerpted from Snakewoman of Little Egypt by Robert Hellenga. Copyright © 2010 by Robert Hellenga. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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