By the time Aletta realized the bitter smell drifting out her front door was burning kolaches, it’d been too late to save them. Inside the house, two sheets of blackened fruit-topped pastries emerged from the veil of thick smoke like a magic trick. She plunked herself down on a bar stool, a dish towel still dangling from her fingers, and watched wisps of smoke rise off the kolaches. She couldn’t help but draw unkind comparisons to her own life—singed beyond recognition, stinking to heaven’s pearly gates, and most likely irretrievable. The kolaches had been a shot at making a little cash, but this was the third batch she’d ruined, the first dying from a baking powder overdose. She still wasn’t sure what had gone wrong with the second.
Outside, the Okay Czech Festival paraded right in front of her house on Main Street. The yearly summer festival caused the popu-lation of Okay, Oklahoma, to swell from five thousand folks just getting by to forty thousand out for fun. When the bill for the mortgage had come in the mail the day before, she knew it meant a near end to her checking account, so she’d decided to make some grocery money off her location. She hadn’t realized making Czechoslovakian desserts required some kind of baking miracle.
Honking horns and whoops and hollers made her glance out the kitchen window. Men with round bellies tucked against their thighs and tasseled hats covering balding heads raced around in toy-size sports cars. Aletta let out a chirp of a laugh. The parade had started.
“Mama, what’s that smell?” Ruby yelled from the front door. In another moment, she stood in front of Aletta, her face painted with a daisy on one cheek and an American flag on the other. In the summer of 1976, it seemed all of Oklahoma was into America’s bicentennial.
“I burned the kolaches,” Aletta said. Her eight-year-old looked so scared, it made Aletta think the girl must’ve heard wrong.
“Does that mean we have to move?” Ruby asked.
“Where’d you get that crazy idea?” Aletta’s pale green eyes had to fight back the surprise of unexpected tears.
Ruby looked down at her flip-flops. “I heard you talkin’ on the phone.”
“Now, that’s grown-up talk, Ruby. We’re not gonna lose this house if I have anything at all to do with it, so there’s nothin’ to worry about. I’m just gonna make some lemonade to sell.” She reached out with both arms, inviting a hug. “You go on and have fun. I’ll be right out.”
Ruby held her mama’s pregnant belly, her fine blond hair spilling across Aletta’s breasts. Aletta hadn’t realized just how much their daddy’s leaving and her fears about money were affecting her kids until she’d seen that scared look on Ruby’s face. She smiled as Ruby pulled away, but inside she was cussing Jimmy again, unable to pretend he’d left for something more complicated than going middle-age crazy at thirty-four.
On the card table in her front yard, Aletta set out a pitcher of powder-mix lemonade, a small ice chest with ice cubes from her fridge, and some Happy Birthday cups left over from Randy’s sixth birthday party. She turned over the notebook paper that said Homemade Kolaches - fifty cents for one or three dollars a dozen and wrote Lemonade - ten cents.
Her house was on the far west end of town, at the beginning of the official parade route. People lined both sides of the street farther down, but here Aletta could watch the marching bands in their snazzy tasseled outfits and the floats carrying firemen or the bowling league right from her front yard. Just as she finished her sign, she looked up and saw Jimmy. Her husband stood on a float that looked like an enormous football. He and several other men of varying ages and waist sizes wore red-and-white Okay letter jackets and waved to the crowd. The 1940s red tractor that pulled the float carried a banner reading Okay Athletic Alumni Association.
Aletta couldn’t decide if the pain in her belly was the baby or her stomach pitching a fit. Inside, she felt a humble brew made up of equal parts shame that he might not want her anymore, revulsion that she cared, and fear that he’d really stay gone forever. A voice in her head told her clear—as clear as the ringing of the Jesus Is Lord church bells at noon every day—that she couldn’t make it all alone.
As always, Jimmy stood out from the other men. His six- foot-two frame was topped off with black hair and sideburns that made his handsome face look rugged, but it was his smile that made people watch him that extra second. He kept his back to her until the float passed their house, then turned for just a moment, flashed her that smile, and waved. She raised her hand, but instead of waving, she pushed her shoulder-length strawberry blond hair behind one ear and then sat frozen in her chair until he finally turned away. How could he smile like that? As if there wasn’t a train wreck lying between them, twisted and smoldering.
From his perch down the street, the PA announcer called out, “And now we have our athletes. Y’all are sure to recognize Okay’s only all-state basketball player, Jimmy Honor.” Across the street, Aletta saw Ruby and her little brother, Randy, watching their daddy with mouths hanging open. They seemed unsure what to do until the people watching the parade cheered for Jimmy, and then they started running alongside the float. Aletta wanted to yell at them to stop. Instead, she put her hand to her mouth as their daddy tossed them little plastic basketballs. They finally stopped running and waved good-bye as he tossed more of the orange balls out to scrambling children in the crowd.
“I’ll take a lemonade if you’re still sellin’.”
The powerful scent of her daddy almost pitched her from her chair as Aletta turned toward the stranger. The weather-beaten cowboy held the reins of a beautiful quarter horse. He smelled like milk and hay and farm animals.
The impression of her father remained after the cowboy took his lemonade and went to join the rodeo contingent. Aletta closed her eyes. “Oh, Daddy, what should I do?” she whispered.
“You’re one smart girl makin’ some money with this location,” Joy called from her driveway, “and I for one am in desperate need of a kolache.” Joy lived next door with her husband Earl behind her beauty salon, Joy’s Femme Coiffures. This month she happened to have red hair, flaming and high, and her Merle Norman pancake makeup hid any hint of a pore. She hated the natural look that was “in” these days and made it very clear to her customers that she intended to keep the “femme” in all their coiffures.
“Come on over,” Aletta called back.
Joy sashayed across the lawn wearing tight-fitting Capri pants, a sequined American flag blouse, and gold-strapped high-heeled sandals.
“I couldn’t make a kolache to save my life,” Aletta said, opening a metal folding chair for Joy.
“I’m sorry, hon. When Randy told me you were tryin’, I have to admit I said a little prayer,” Joy said.
Just as she situated herself on the metal chair and put a cigarette to her lips, a tiny red Corvette raced by, passing the parade on the other side of the street. Joy’s husband, Earl, held onto his tasseled hat with one hand as he sped along, an impossibly serious look on his face.
In an instant, Joy was running after him. “He musta missed the start,” she shouted.
Aletta laughed as she watched Joy zigzag around a line of people waiting to buy brisket and beer, then hop off the curb and race between the Okay Marching Band and last year’s homecoming queen waving from a yellow Thunderbird convertible. She chased after Earl, her gold two-strap shoes somehow staying on as she ran, until Aletta could no longer see her.
A flash of light caught Aletta’s eye, and she turned to watch her eldest daughter’s twirling team march into view. Sissy and the other girls wore white Keds, sequined one-piece outfits, Supp-Hose, and big smiles. They tossed their batons high in the air, light glinting from the silver metal. Aletta stood up and cheered for her pretty fourteen-year-old. Pride swelled inside her chest, and she thought that maybe she was doing something right.
Ruby and Randy ran toward Aletta. Randy’s face paint was smeared across his pudgy cheeks, and bits of cotton candy clung to his home-cut bowl-shaped hair.
“Do you see Sissy?!” he yelled.
“I see her. She’s doin’ great,” Aletta said.
“Sissy!” Randy screamed, waving frantically.
“Not so loud, honey. How much sugar have you had?”
“A ton,” Ruby said.
Not two minutes after Sissy marched by, the Burning Bush Battle Church banner approached. Aletta wanted to run inside to avoid her mama, one of the brightest of the Bushes. But when she saw Reverend Taylor, she sat stuck in her chair. At first she thought he must be attached to the float by a rod up his backside because of the look on his face. It was a mix of holier-than-thou and y’all are my people, a tricky combination. Plump in his gray leisure suit, he waved and beckoned.
Behind him, a man dressed as a lion with a huge head full of sharp teeth battled with a sheet-wrapped teenage boy. They wrestled so fiercely that Aletta feared one of them was going to fly off the flatbed trailer. Strapped onto a cross behind them, Jesus overlooked the fight. He was sweating so badly that his fake blood had turned pink and ran in rivulets onto his drooping beard and down his chest.
Spreading out from the float, several dozen people dressed in their church clothes handed out pamphlets. Odiemae Sharp caught a toe on the curb as she beelined toward Aletta, causing her to do a little skippity-hop on her way across the grass. She was darned fit for a lady of her age.
“Here y’are, Aletta. We look for you ever’ Sunday, you know,” she said, holding out a pamphlet.
Aletta noticed Odiemae’s silver hair coming in beneath her brown dye job, but her hazel eyes were clear as a child’s. It was just her mama’s friend, but still she felt the old pang of guilt for not being the daughter she was supposed to be.
Aletta took the pamphlet but made sure their hands didn’t touch.
“Thanks,” Aletta said, looking past Odiemae. “Where is she?”
“Oh, she stayed home, complainin’ of old age.” “But she’s strong as a mule.” Aletta hadn’t seen her mama in almost five months. It seemed they just couldn’t be around each other anymore without a bitterness rising up like a wind before the rain.
“Well, I gotta run,” Odiemae said. “How long before the little one comes?”
“Just a couple more months.”
“I’m sure your mama’s proud. She’s a saint of a woman, you know.”
Aletta looked down at the full-color pamphlet in her hand. The Burning Bush Battle Church, it said across the top, Battling to Save Your Soul. Below a painting of a bush aflame, there was a Bible quote: Whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. James 5:20. Aletta tossed it onto the table without opening it.
Near the end of the day, Eugene Kirshka walked up and slid a quarter across the table. “I’ll take one, please,” he said, his rounded cheeks making him look boyish despite six feet of lanky, milk-fed build. His light brown hair looked unruly without the cap that normally sat on his head.
“You’re an awful big spender,” Aletta said.
He took a sip of watery lemonade. “How you holdin’ up without him?”
“Not so good,” she said, her smile fading. He was the only one to ask her about Jimmy all day. People around here handled hard times, especially emotional ones, by not talking about them, unless of course they had anything to do with bad weather or surgery. “You’re his friend. You tell me what he’s doin’.”
The Saints and Sinners of Okay County