by Lorie Lewis Ham
Lorie has been singing gospel music and writing since childhood. Her first song and poem were published when she was 13 and she has gone on to publish many articles, short stories and poems throughout the years as well as write for a local newspaper. Lorie continues to sing and her mystery novels are set here in the San Joaquin Valley, with five of the six featuring gospel singer Alexandra Walters.
Deadly Discrimination was originally published as a novel. The story takes place around a fictional version of the Reedley Fiesta and is being serialized here at Kings River Life Magazine in weekly installments. Be sure to start with Chapter 1!
I stopped by the Happy Mouth to see Eddie on my way to the park later that afternoon. Anytime school was out, the Happy Mouth was filled with teenagers. It had quickly become the most popular hangout in town other than the youth center. The shop opened just after I moved to town. Miguel Martinez had a soft heart for youth. His childhood in Mexico had been very difficult and he’d told me often that he would have given anything to have a place like this to escape to back then.
Kingsbury’s main crime problem was juvenile, so the local police had welcomed the shop with open arms. Before the Happy Mouth and the youth center, the kids had been bored with nowhere to go after school. They’d resorted to joining gangs, shoplifting, and vandalism.
Miguel was a kindred spirit, for my heart also ached for the youth of today. This was something my church had not been overly thrilled to learn after I arrived. They balked when I hired Eddie to help me clean the church once a week as part of an outreach program for troubled youth, but they couldn’t argue with the results — the church had never been in better shape.
Eddie came to us after being arrested for shoplifting despite his father’s best efforts. Miguel brought him to me kicking and screaming after I had offered to serve as a mentor. His family did not attend church, but I hoped Eddie would be the start of that changing. He’d become a fine, responsible young man over the last few months.
Though he hadn’t yet accepted Christ, I prayed that would soon change. Prejudice and hypocrisy was what he’d seen of Christianity until recently, so he was a hard one to convince that you shouldn’t judge Christ by what His people did, but instead by what He had done on the cross.
I made my way through the crowd to the counter and hopped up on a baby blue stool. Swing music played in the background, a trend I could actually enjoy. At last, my knowledge of jazz from my days in New Orleans actually helped me communicate with young people instead of hindering me.
Miguel’s wife walked over, an eternal smile on her round face. “What can I do for you, Pastor Mike?”
“Hmm. Anything new for me to try?” The Happy Mouth made their own ice cream and was constantly coming up with new and inventive flavors.
“Oh yes. Miguel mixed up the first batch of banana-peach surprise. Want to try it?”
“Does he use local fresh fruit?” This area was a major fruit producer in the country. It only took one bite of a fresh, fuzzy peach to learn what a difference it was to have fresh fruit as opposed to store-bought.
She beamed with pride. “Of course, Pastor Mike. My Miguel uses only the best ingredients.”
“Then I’ll definitely try it.”
“With maybe a little homemade whipped cream on top?”
She knew my weakness. At this rate, my middle would soon begin to expand despite the fact that my mode of transportation was a bicycle. But I gave in and nodded. Perhaps it was good all I could afford to drive was my bike.
Eddie’s father walked in wiping his hands on a greasy rag as his wife passed him on her way to the back of the shop.
He looked my way and the frown that had been creasing his brow disappeared. Miguel waved for me to follow him to the back. A short man, he more than made up for it with his muscular frame. If I could be in that good of shape at his age, I would be happy. His black hair was still thick, but sprinkled with gray. I guessed him to be around sixty, but wasn’t certain.
“Afraid we’re having rodent problems, Padre. The landlord refuses to pay for a pest man to come out so I’ve had to use my own concoction. If it does not work, we will be shut down. Please pray for us.”
“I always do. What kind of concoction is it?” My curiosity was peaked.
“My papa taught me about it when I was a boy in Mexico. It’s a mixture of cyanide and Parmesan.” He laughed, a deep hearty laugh. “It’s a poor man’s rat poison. The rodents like the cheese.”
I heard a little giggle towards the back of the room and saw the light bounce off a mop of blonde hair.
“I didn’t know you were there, Glenda.” Glenda was Eddie’s girlfriend, the daughter of the chief of police, and the granddaughter of Marvin Toews. That last familial connection was something no one held against her. I sometimes feared she and Eddie would end up like Romeo and Juliet because of the way her father disapproved of their dating.
“Hey there, Pastor Mike. I just love Miguel’s laugh. It always makes me giggle. Wish my dad would laugh like that.” Without seeing her face, I could tell the laughter was gone from her eyes by the drop in her tone of voice.
I walked closer to the shiny blonde head and found her gloved hands covered in tan colored ice cream. “I see Miguel’s letting you mix his precious ice cream. You must feel honored.”
The glow returned and she nodded, holding up her dainty hands with pride. “I’m going through a ton of these plastic gloves though. I didn’t think I’d get it on my hands just by stirring.”
“Are you going to be at the Fiesta?”
Glenda brushed back her bangs with the back of her right hand, getting just a bit of ice cream on a few strands. I wasn’t a fan of short hair, but hers framed her face in such a flattering way I couldn’t argue with the results. She looked like a China doll. If she weren’t so young, I’d have asked her out myself. And if not for Lola.
There was also the fact she’d turned her back on the church. During one of our talks about Christianity, Eddie confided in me that Glenda had gone to church as a small child with her grandparents but, as she got older, decided if Grandpa Toews was an example of a Christian she didn’t want anything to do with the church. I was glad she didn’t include me in that.
“I’m gonna help out at the ice cream booth,” she answered. “It’s your first Fiesta isn’t it? You’ll have a blast. There are all kinds of cool food and craft booths and great bands. Hey, doesn’t Lola’s quilting group have a booth?”
Her rapid-fire questions made me smile. “Yep, I have specific instructions to stop by her booth tonight while she’s setting up.” Afterwards, we plan to get dinner at one of the food booths. I checked my watch, it was getting late.
“Better go eat my ice cream and take off. See ya later tonight.”
I shoveled down my ice cream just slowly enough to still enjoy each bite, then paid Glenda on my way out. She had washed up and taken Mrs. Martinez’ place up front.
Josh and his musketeers brushed by me as I headed out. I turned to watch them and noticed a hard look come into Glenda’s eyes. I didn’t know much about Josh, but I was beginning to get the feeling he wasn’t very popular with some of his peers. Odd, since he was a big shot on the football team. Perhaps it had something to do with school rivalry, or maybe he was just a spoiled brat.
Milburry Park was dotted with booths from one end to the other. The street was blocked off from corner to corner with police barriers. Booths even filled the police department parking lot across from the park. While there were a lot of people, I’d been told it was nothing compared to what would fill the park after the parade tomorrow.
The booths across the street were carnival style, with games to entertain the young and old alike. Things like ring toss and knocking down milk bottles. I’d have to try one out before I left; see if I’d found my first honest carnival games. In the street between the park and a local dentist’s office, there were pony and car rides for the kiddies.
Heavenly smells filled the air. It was great. My stomach growled despite the ice cream I’d had a bit earlier as my nostrils took in the gourmet scents. I pulled a Fiesta guide out of my pocket, a special insert in the Kingsbury News this week. The food choices were abundant. Hot dogs, pizza, tri-tip sandwiches, tacos, tamales, tostados, burritos, Frito boats, corndogs, German Sausage sandwiches, beerocks, and every type of baked good imaginable. But how to choose? And, of course, the Happy Mouth booth was filled with mouth-watering ice cream.
Every charity and church group in Kingsbury was represented in some way with either food, game, or craft booths. The Assembly of God Youth Group had the ring toss, the Veterans of Foreign Wars had the hot dog booth, and the Mennonite Central Committee had the beerocks booth.
The Mennonite Quilting Group was Lola’s group and, as I walked by, I noticed they already had some incredible handmade quilts on display. Everything from their booth sales and that of the Mennonite Central Committee’s booth went to help people who’d been involved in disasters such as floods, hurricanes and drought. They helped people all over the world and their quilts were well known and admired. Since I was new to all of this, our church simply donated the lumber to make the quilt booth. Next year I intended for us to have our own.
Each booth was decorated with banners proclaiming the delights they offered and the names of the sponsors. The entire area was a rainbow of different-colored banners. Some of the booths were still in the process of being set up. The weather was perfect, with a slight breeze gently moving the banners.
I waved to Lola, who stood beneath a bright red one. “Would you like me to get us some tacos?” I yelled across the crowd.
“Yes,” she mouthed.
I was almost to the taco booth run by St. Anthony’s Catholic Church when I heard the familiar voice of Miguel Martinez yelling loudly enough to attract attention.
“Pastor, watch out!” yelled Glenda as she artfully dodged out of my path, carrying a large container of ice cream. This distracted me from hearing what was being yelled, though it would have been wrong for me to eavesdrop anyway. Glenda seemed a bit overwhelmed by her load.
“Sorry, Pastor Mike.”
“That’s okay. Can I help?”
“No, I’m fine. Only a few more miles, I mean feet, to go.”
“Bringing over anything I might like?”
She frowned and stuck her tongue out. “I think this stuff is awful. You might like it, but you can’t have any because this is my Grandpa Toews’ favorite. No one gets to eat it but him.”
“What is it?”
“Cheesecake almond ice cream.”
“Yum, can I try a bite anyhow?” I asked as she moved the bucket out of my reach.
“Sorry, but gotta keep the landlord happy even if he is a lousy landlord.”
My face must have shown my confusion.
“That’s right, you’re new to town. My grandfather owns half of downtown and charges outrageous rents. He’s an awful landlord. If it wasn’t for Mr. Martinez’ handiness, the place would have been closed down by the health department ages ago.”
This made me wonder. “I heard some commotion going on just before I ran into you. Is everything okay with the Martinez’ family? If not, I’d like to help.”
The slender girl shifted her weight of the carton to her hip and whispered. “I shouldn’t be telling you this, but you are a preacher. They’re a month behind on the rent, and my darling grandfather is threatening to evict them.”
“That’s not good; it wouldn’t only hurt them, but all of the youth who count on the shop as a safe haven after school. Maybe I can find a way to scrounge up the money.”
Glenda shook her head. “They’re too proud. I already tried that. I have a substantial trust fund from my grandma. They said no.”
“At least I can pray.”
At this, the frown returned. “Sure thing, Pastor Mike. You do that.” The sarcastic edge to her voice hurt.
I wished she would open up to me but I couldn’t push. “I will, Glenda. Now why don’t I help you carry that?”
“No, really, I’m okay.”
I shrugged as I watched her walk away. Minutes later, I nearly jumped out of my socks when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around to find the most beautiful woman in the world standing behind me, tapping her delicate foot.
“Isn’t she a little young for you?” I was thankful for the gleam in Lola’s green eyes that told me she was just kidding.
I slipped an arm around her waist. “Yes, I know, but I just can’t help myself around beautiful young women. Are you going with me to get the tacos?”
She smiled and twisted herself around until she was facing me.
“Watch it, preacher, your parishioners might not appreciate such public displays from their pastor.”
“They’ll just have to get used to it.”
Again, we heard loud voices in the direction of the Martinez booth. I wondered if I should check it out but, reading my mind, Lola shook her head. “If they need you, they’ll tell you.” With the slightest bit of guilt, I let my lady drag me towards the food as a local jazz band began to play in the bandstand. I hoped my first Fiesta was going to be a good one but I had a bad feeling in my stomach, and it wasn’t just from being hungry.
Originally published by PublishAmerica, © Lorie Ham 2003