"She got bit, but I think it wasn't real bad. They got her to the hospital right away."
"Why didn't they put him in jail?"
"I don't know. I guess the bite didn't swell up much. Her husband said it might have been their pet raccoon that bit her."
"A box of rattlesnakes? Who's got a box of rattlesnakes?" Jackson dumped the mussels into the pan, put the top on, and looked at his watch. Soup bowls were stacked on the counter. The loaf of French bread, from the Cornucopia, was on the table.
"Willa Fern's husband, that's who. He's a holiness preacher down in Little Egypt. Southern tip of Illinois, across the Ohio River from Kentucky.
"Is that around here?" Pam asked. Pam was from California.
"Four hundred miles."
"Why does he have a box of rattlesnakes?"
"They handle them during their services."
"Is that legal?"
Claire poured herself some more wine. "Jackson, I'm going to go with you when you pick that poor woman up at the Henrietta Hill. She's going to need a female friend."
"There's no 'we'll see' about it. She's going to need some looking after. Imagine, your husband forcing you to put your arm in a box of rattlesnakes. And when you try to defend yourself you get thrown in jail. This country is unbelievable."
Jackson specialized in simple French or French-type dishes. He had both volumes of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking and a copy of Larousse Gastronomique in French, but the only cookbook he used regularly was his first, which he'd bought at Kroch's and Brentano's in Chicago. The Flavor of France. A picture on every page (of France, not the food), and no recipe was longer than a half a page. He hadn't given a little intimate dinner in two years, and he was looking forward to the buzz - from the wine, and from the possibility of a strange woman spending the night.
Claire asked Ray to say grace and insisted that they all hold hands. Jackson, sitting across from Father Ray, held hands with Claire and with Pam, ready to disengage his hand before Claire gave it a special little squeeze. Pam's holding strategy was neutral. She had no special message to communicate. No invitation.
He put a side of salmon on the grill so it would cook while they ate their first course, moules marinières. One thing he'd learned from Claude was how to give a nice rhythm to a meal by serving two courses of more or less equal weight. The salmon was done by the time he'd cleared the mussel plates, so they picked up the thread of the earlier conversation - ShoppingKart.com - and then Father Ray pointed out that today was not only Jackson's birthday, and not only the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, but also the Feast of the Transfiguration. There was a connection in Father Ray's mind because his grandfather had been killed at Okinawa in 1945.
"Some churches have started to celebrate the Transfiguration on the Sunday before Lent. It's not a bad idea, actually. It makes a nice transition between Epiphany and Lent. But I don't know. It's always been on August sixth, as long as I can remember." By the time the conversation turned back to the heat and the humidity, the salmon was flaking nicely. It was beautiful. Jackson served it on large white plates that had room for the salad. A wonderful salad. Spring mix. All kinds of herbs and lettuces in special bags.
"You know what I'm thankful for?" he said. "I'm thankful for the salads in these little bags. It took them a long time to figure out how to get the bags right. Each bag is a miniature biosphere. You have to have a different kind of atmosphere for every kind of salad. You get the wrong kind of ink on the package, bang, your salad is suffocated.
Jackson didn't keep any brandy or cognac around, no hard liquor in the house. So they drank more wine. Jackson had always enjoyed unbuttoned after- dinner talk, but he was thinking of introducing a system of entertaining in which people came over for a good meal and then left right away. That's the way his parents had entertained. Before they'd lived in Paris. But it would be hard to explain this to friends and colleagues when you were inviting them to dinner. I'd like you to come for dinner, but I want you to leave as soon as we're finished eating.
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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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