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Home > The Appeal(9)

The Appeal(9)
Author: John Grisham

"A good day for you?" Ramona asked.

"Yes, very good. Let's use the white cheddar." She found a block of it in the fridge and began grating it.

"You can relax now?" Ramona asked.

"Yes, for a few days anyway." Through a friend at church, they had found Ramona hiding and half-starved in a shelter in Baton Rouge, sleeping on a cot and eating boxed food sent south for hurricane victims. She had survived a harrowing three-month journey from Central America, through Mexico, then Texas, and on to Louisiana, where none of the things she had been promised materialized. No job, no host family, no paperwork, no one to take care of her.

Under normal circumstances, hiring an illegal and unnaturalized nanny had never occurred to the Paytons. They quickly adopted her, taught her to drive but only on a few selected streets, taught her the basics of the cell phone, computer, and kitchen appliances, and pressed her to learn English. She had a good foundation from a Catholic school back home, and she spent her daytime hours holed up in the apartment cleaning and mimicking the voices on television. In eight months, her progress was impressive.

She preferred to listen, though, especially to Mary Grace, who needed someone to unload on. During the past four months, on the rare nights when Mary Grace prepared dinner, she chatted nonstop while Ramona absorbed every word. It was wonderful therapy, especially after a brutal day in a courtroom crowded with high-strung men.

"No trouble with the car?" Mary Grace asked the same question every night. Their second car was an old Honda Accord that Ramona had yet to damage. For many good reasons, they were terrified of turning loose on the streets of Hattiesburg an illegal, unlicensed, and quite uninsured alien in a Honda with a zillion miles and their two happy little children in the rear seat. They had trained Ramona to travel a memorized route through the backstreets, to the school, to the grocery, and, if necessary, to their office.

If the police stopped her, they planned to beg the cops, the prosecutor, and the judge. They knew them well.

Wes knew for a fact that the presiding city judge had his own illegal pulling his weeds and cutting his grass.

"A good day," Ramona said. "No problem. Everything is fine."

A good day indeed, Mary Grace thought to herself as she began melting cheese.

The phone rang and Wes reluctantly picked up the receiver. The number was unlisted because a crackpot had made threats. They used their cell phones for virtually everything.

He listened, said something, hung up, and walked to the stove to disrupt the cooking.

"Who was it?" Mary Grace asked with concern. Every call to the apartment was greeted with suspicion.

" Sherman, at the office. Says there are some reporters hanging around, looking for the stars." Sherman was one of the paralegals.

"Why is he at the office?" Mary Grace asked.

"Just can't get enough, I guess. Do we have any olives for the salad?"

"No. What did you tell him?"

"I told him to shoot at one of them and the rest'll disappear."

"Toss the salad, please," she said to Ramona.

They huddled over a card table wedged in a corner of the kitchen, all five of them.

They held hands as Wes prayed and gave thanks for the good things of life, for family and friends and school. And for the food.

He was also thankful for a wise and generous jury and a fantastic result, but he would save that for later. The salad was passed first, then the macaroni and cheese.

"Hey, Dad, can we camp out?" Mack blurted, after he'd swallowed.

"Of course!" Wes said, his back suddenly aching. Camping out in the apartment meant layering the den floor with blankets and quilts and pillows and sleeping there, usually with the television on late at night, usually on Friday nights. It worked only if Mom and Dad joined the fun. Ramona was always invited but wisely declined.

"Same bedtime, though," Mary Grace said. "This is a school night."

" Ten o'clock," said Liza, the negotiator.

"Nine," said Mary Grace, a thirty-minute add-on that made both kids smile.

Mary Grace was knee to knee with her children, savoring the moment and happy that the fatigue might soon be over. Maybe she could rest now, and take them to school, visit their classes, and eat lunch with them. She longed to be a mother, nothing more, and it would be a gloomy day when she was forced to reenter a courtroom.

Wednesday night meant potluck casseroles at the Pine Grove Church, and the turnout was always impressive. The busy church was located in the middle of the neighborhood, and many worshippers simply walked a block or two on Sundays and Wednesdays. The doors were open eighteen hours a day, and the pastor, who lived in a parsonage behind the church, was always there, waiting to minister to his people.

They ate in the fellowship hall, an ugly metal addition stuck to the side of the chapel, where folding tables were covered with all manner of home-cooked recipes.

There was a basket of white dinner rolls, a large dispenser of sweet tea, and, of course, lots of bottled water. The crowd would be even larger tonight, and they hoped Jeannette would be there. A celebration was in order.

Pine Grove Church was fiercely independent with not the slightest link to any denomination, a source of quiet pride for its founder, Pastor Denny Ott. It had been built by Baptists decades earlier, then dried up like the rest of Bowmore. By the time Ott arrived, the congregation consisted of only a few badly scarred souls. Years of infighting had decimated its membership. Ott cleaned out the rest, opened the doors to the community, and reached out to the people.

He had not been immediately accepted, primarily because he was from "up north" and spoke with such a clean, clipped accent. He had met a Bowmore girl at a Bible college in Nebraska, and she brought him south. Through a series of misadventures he found himself as the interim pastor of Second Baptist Church. He wasn't really a Baptist, but with so few young preachers in the area the church could not afford to be selective.

Six months later all the Baptists were gone and the church had a new name.

He wore a beard and often preached in flannel shirts and hiking boots. Neckties were not forbidden but were certainly frowned upon. It was the people's church, a place where anyone could find peace and solace with no worries about wearing the Sunday best. Pastor Ott got rid of King James and the old hymnal. He had little use for the mournful anthems written by ancient pilgrims. Worship services were loosened up, modernized with guitars and slide shows. He believed and taught that poverty and injustice were more important social issues than abortion and g*y rights, but he was careful with his politics.

The church grew and prospered, though he cared nothing about money. A friend from seminary ran a mission in Chicago, and through this connection Ott maintained a large inventory of used but very usable clothing in the church's "closet." He badgered the larger congregations in Hattiesburg and Jackson and with their contributions kept a well-stocked food bank at one end of the fellowship hall. He pestered drug companies for their leftovers, and the church's "pharmacy" was filled with over-the-counter medications.

Denny Ott considered all of Bowmore to be his mission, and no one would go hungry or homeless or sick if he could possibly prevent it. Not on his watch, and his watch never ended.

He had conducted sixteen funerals of his own people killed by Krane Chemical, a company he detested so bitterly that he constantly prayed for forgiveness. He didn't hate the nameless and faceless people who owned Krane, to do so would compromise his faith, but he most certainly hated the corporation itself. Was it a sin to hate a corporation? That furious debate raged in his soul every day, and to be on the safe side, he kept praying.

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