Louisa Abernethy Jones was shocked to hear that Pastor Zwieback was cribbing his sermons. She would almost prefer to know that he cheated at golf, or embezzled from the education fund, or fathered a child out of wedlock.
The news came via Mavis Puffenbarger, her best friend. Like Louisa, Mavis was a lifelong member of the Brickfront United Methodist Church and a native of Hapsburg, Virginia. In childhood, Louisa, the elder by six months, had rescued Mavis from a sinkhole. This deed entitled her to undying gratitude, a claim the younger woman had never been able to refute. As an adult, Mavis used bulletins on her son Marvin’s success on the playing field and then in business to contrast implicitly with the aimless life of young Galahad Jones. Louisa had been reading Arthurian romances during her pregnancy.
The Silver Spoon on Main Street was the natural gathering place for ladies. Also for lawyers, business folk, and the stray tourist. Hapsburg, a picturesque courthouse town, was founded in 1783. The Silver Spoon sprang into being two centuries later as the brainchild of a retired marketing expert. It served up period charm to the point that it seemed always to have been there. A giant spoon hung over the sidewalk.
After club sandwiches and iced tea, Mavis confided.
“Weeza, I know how much you like Pastor Zwieback. We all love him to pieces.”
“Oh, yes. He and Nina have found their niche.”
“She’s a dear, though I wish she wouldn’t wear so much black.”
“It’s a little off-putting,” Louisa said. “But he has the common touch. He preaches the same as he talks.”
“And the stories from his own life,” Mavis said. “He weaves them in so you can hardly tell the difference.”
“I can,” Louisa said.
“Well, I have to tell you something that will break your heart.”
Louisa laid down her fork.
“Those beautiful sermons that he delivers from memory, standing in the middle of the aisle—he gets them out of a book.”
“It’s a collection written by somebody else, like a student who copies a term paper.”
“You mean plagiarism?”
“Weeza, you know all those big words. All I know is that Pastor Zwieback is straying from the path of righteousness.”
“Where did you get this information?”
“I saw the book, Sermons for All Occasions. It was lying on his desk.”
“In the pastor’s study? What were you doing in there?”
“I needed something from the supply closet, and he had stepped out for a minute, and it looked interesting.”
“You had no right, May-may. The pastor’s study is off limits.”
“I’m not sorry. Now I know his guilty secret, and so do you.” She flashed a smile of triumph and took a bite of banana cream pie.
Louisa felt sick to her stomach. As a literary person, the author of Tittle-Tattle, a lifestyle column in the weekly Vindicator, she held herself to the highest standards. Until this moment, she assumed that Pastor Zwieback did the same. She pictured him bent over his desk, writing with a fountain pen, crossing out lines and adding paragraphs, polishing his prose. Then he would memorize it as he paced back and forth in his study, a feat in itself. Now her illusion lay shattered, like the crumbs of pie crust on the table.
“Something must be done,” she said.
“Oh, Weeza! What?”
“I don’t know, but something.”
The Rev. Edmund Zwieback had office hours during the week, a slot he reserved for church business “or anything at all that you might care to discuss.” So far, Louisa had not sought a private conversation. Now she was determined to get to the bottom. On Wednesday afternoon, she arrived at the posted time.
“Come in, come in!” Pastor Zwieback said. “Won’t you have a seat?”
Louisa had never set foot in the pastor’s study. Dating back to childhood, she regarded it as holy ground. The fearsome Dr. Boniface Mead occupied it then. Keeping her coat on, she sat stiffly in the upholstered wing chair.
“What brings you here on such a glorious day? What can I do for you?”
“Well, I’m not sure how to start.”
“That’s perfectly okay. Why don’t we start with a short prayer?”
“All right.” Louisa had not expected this.
“Heavenly Father, to you all hearts are open and from you no secrets are hid. Look down on your servant Louisa, and listen to her plea. In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray.”
“Amen. Pastor Zwieback . . .”
“Call me Ed.”
“Ed . . . it was brought to my attention . . .”
“Let me say first how much I enjoy your sermons.”
“Why, thank you!”
“They must take a great deal of time and trouble to write.”
“It’s kind of you to say so. This is where it happens, every Saturday. No phone calls, no home alerts. Nina knows not to disturb me while I’m working.”
“That’s what I wanted to talk about.”
“Excellent! You’re a writer. When the newspaper comes out, I always read your column first. Maybe you can give me some valuable tips.”
“I don’t know about that.” Louisa was confused.
“Or maybe you came here today to talk about something completely different.” Pastor Zwieback folded his hands and waited for a heartfelt complaint, a diatribe against a relative, or some personal matter that might well lead to tears.
“In a way . . .” The interview had started badly. Now it was headed in the wrong direction.
“How are things in the Jones residence? Is anything not quite as it should be?”
“Now that you mention it, there is one thing.”
“Take your time.”
“It’s my son, Galahad.” The words gushed with no conscious intention. “You’ve seen him skulking in the back pews. He won’t sit with me in the front, the way a family should. He takes after his father, rest his soul. I don’t know that you ever met my husband. He wouldn’t have no truck with religion. That was the way he phrased it. It’s going on five years since he passed away.” Louisa’s eyes began to water.
“You must miss your husband very much.”
“Every day. I never thought I’d end up a widow. My son still lives with me, and that’s a blessing. Except sometimes I wonder.” To her horror, a tear trickled down her cheek.
Pastor Zwieback pulled a tissue from the box on his desk and offered it. Louisa accepted it, dabbed her face, and clutched the damp tissue in her fist.
“Would you like me to have a talk with him? A fatherly sort of chat.”
“Oh, would you?”
“Tell him to come tomorrow, if he’s free.”
“He will be. He’s got nothing better to do. Thank you, Pastor Zwieback.”
And then she saw it: Sermons on Several Occasions, by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, famous for his preaching and practically a saint.
“You’re familiar with this book, aren’t you? I use it all the time. My sermons wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans without Wesley.”
“Thank you. Ed.” Louisa stood and fussed with her coat.
“I’m so glad you came to see me. Snow is still on the ground, but it’s impossible to feel bad on a sunny day like this.”
“Spring is in the air,” Louisa said, glancing out the window beyond the pastor.
Mavis Puffenbarger would pay dearly for this.
About the Author
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia, website boucheronarch.com. He writes on housing, communities, gardens, electric motorcycles, and love gone wrong. His fiction and nonfiction appear in Blue Lake Review, Cerise Press, Construction, Cossack Review, IthacaLit, Montreal Review, Mouse Tales Press, New England Review, New Orleans Review, Niche, North Dakota Quarterly, Poydras Review, Talking Writing, Zodiac Review.