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Solomon's Oak: A Novel

By Eric Matthews,2014-11-04 20:28
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From Publishers Weekly Mapson's (Hank & Chloe) latest is an emotionally genuine if predictable story of three lonely, damaged people who find solace in one another. A year after the untimely death of her husband, Dan, Glory Solomon is adrift, in financial trouble, and unable to find much meaning in a world without her mate. But when she opens a wedding chapel on her historic California ranch (known for its ancient oak tree), she attracts a variety of couples in search of unconventional nuptials--and two lost souls. Juniper McGuire, an angry teenage girl, is still reeling from the tragedy that put her into the foster care system. And a former crime scene photographer, Joseph Vigil, suffers chronic pain from an on-the-job accident. Together, the three grievers form Published by Bloomsbury Publishing USA on 2010/10/12

S O L O M O N’S??O A K

A Novel

Jo - Ann??Mapson

In memory of Jason Wenger:

    Murdered December 2, 2007, an unforgettable human being who left behind many broken hearts. Tohonor Jason’s writing ambitions, a percentage of the proceeds from this book will benefit theJason Wenger Award for Excellence in Creative Writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage MFAProgram in Creative Writing.

Jason, I hope heaven is everything you dreamed and more.You are missed every day.

    And to Earlene Fowler:

    For your abiding, generous friendship.

Women’s hearts are like old china,none the worse for a break or two.

—SOMERSET MAUGHAM

, 1907Lady Frederick

P R O L O G U E

    IN 1898, IN Jolon, California, not far from the Mission San Antonio de Padua, PennsylvanianMichael Halloran set out to cross the Nacimiento River during spring thaw. Like everyoneheading west, he thought California was the land of plenty: the Pacific Ocean full of abalone,citrus groves and artichokes growing year-round, everything necessary to raise a family andprosper.

    According to Salinan Indian storytellers, his horses refused to enter the water until Halloranwhipped them. On the other side of the river lay his newly purchased land. Everyone begged himto wait until spring runoff was complete. Stay in the hotel for free, the owner said. Halloranrefused, believing it was a trick to steal his land. As soon as he entered the river in hishorse-drawn wagon, his wife, Alice, and baby daughter, Clara, aboard, he lost control. MichaelHalloran was thrown free, but Alice became caught in the reins as the panicked horses tried tofree themselves. The wagon flipped over and over in the swift current. Horrified, Michael couldonly watch from the riverbank while the reins he had used to punish the horses twisted andturned, decapitating his wife. Her body washed ashore days later. Baby Clara was never found.

    After Mrs. Halloran’s burial, the Salinan shaman predicted her ghost would never rest, becausea body without all its parts has trouble finding its way to the spirit world. In the 1950s,Alice appeared to two soldiers on watch at an ammunition bunker on the Fort Hunter Liggettmilitary base. One died of a heart attack; the other never recovered from the trauma. The armydenied the reports, but closed the bunker. In addition to the Salinan story “The Headless Ladyof Jolon,” several Central Valley, California, ghost stories feature a headless horsewoman:“The Lady in Lace,” “Guardian Spirit,” and “Ghost of a Murdered Wife.”

    Stories, passed down from generation to generation, can take two forks: factual history, orlegend/lore. The word history came into English from Latin via Greek and originally meant

    “finding out,” and in some dictionaries “wise man.” In modern dictionaries, history is

    defined as “a continuous, typically chronological record of important events.” You can make

    , and that can be a good or bad thing. Sometimes people say and the rest is history,history

    which leaves out the most interesting parts. Or you can be history, which means you’re gone.

    Disappeared. “Dust in the wind,” which is the title of the rock band Kansas’s only hit song.

    The word legend has its roots in Middle English, French, and Latin. Legenda translates to

    “things to be learned.” Lore, from the German and Dutch lehre, translates to “learn.”

    You would think that between the two we’d get the whole story.

    To this day, it is said that on a moonless night in Jolon headless Alice can be seen floatingabove the Nacimiento River, searching for her lost daughter. She also frequents the oldcemetery on the military base. Locals say if you catch sight of Alice, quickly put your ear tothe earth and you will hear the baby girl crying for her mother.

    Part??I G L O R Y??S O L O M O N ? A Pirate Handfasting Menu Roast tom turkey Apple, date, and onion stuffing Mashed Yukon Gold potatoes Peasant bread Crudités McIntosh apples California navel oranges Mead Grog Lemon bumble Pirate-ship devil’s food wedding cake

Chapter 1

THANKSGIVING, THURSDAY,NOVEMBER 27, 2003

    ONE YEAR AGO to the day, Glory Solomon had spent hours cooking the traditional Thanksgivingdinner for her husband, Dan: turkey with bread-crumb stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoesand gravy, and Dan’s favorite, the yam casserole with the miniature-marshmallow topping shealways managed to scorch. Why he liked it she never understood. Her pumpkin pie was a work ofart, with a homemade crust so flaky it rivaled her grandmother’s, but for Dan it didn’t getany better than blackened yams. Glory had set the table with the china Dan’s mother had leftthem, Franciscan Desert Rose. She ironed and folded linen napkins. She whipped heavy cream totall peaks. While Dan said grace, she took a slug of wine because religion made her nervous.They feasted and laughed, and when they could move again, they took the horses out for a longride on their oak-filled property that was ten minutes as the crow flies from the Mission SanAntonio de Padua. After that, Glory called her mother in Salinas to wish her a happy holiday,and they both said how much they missed Daddy, gone twenty-two years now. Glory and her sister,Halle, had been teenagers when he died. Next Glory called Halle and interrupted her appletiniparty because she could never get Halle’s schedule right.

    This year Glory was roasting three twenty-five-pound turkeys, mashing thirty pounds ofpotatoes, baking a dozen loaves of baguette bread, and heaping local apples and oranges inbushel baskets borrowed from her friend Lorna, who ran the Butterfly Creek General Store. Not ayam in sight. If Dan were still alive, Glory would gladly have made yams the main course, paidattention to his grace, put her wineglass down, and waited for him to say “Amen.”

    This Thanksgiving, she made gallons of mead (honey wine), lemon bumble (vodka, heavy on thelemons, to prevent scurvy), and grog, which is basically a bucket of rum with fruit thrown in.These three beverages are what pirates drink, and drink is what pirates do, on any occasion,and who can blame them, the high seas being filled with mortal danger every single second?

    The dinner she was cooking was for the Thanksgiving “handfasting” ceremony of Captain GeneralAngus McMahan and his wench-to-be, Admiral Karen Brown. Those two and their fifty-eight guestswere weekend reenactment pirates who’d been turned away by every church they tried to book fortheir ceremony. Angus had come to Glory seeking permission to hold the wedding in the chapelDan had built on their land last September. What would Dan have thought of her holding awedding there? What was Glory thinking that she could cater and pull off a wedding on anational holiday?

    Money.

    Angus had spotted the chapel while visiting the tree known as Solomon’s Oak. It wasn’t in theAAA guidebook, but word gets around when a white oak that isn’t supposed to exist in theCentral Coast Valley climate grows to be more than a hundred feet tall. The tree had stoodthere for three generations of the Solomon family, and who knew how long before that?

    The oak set the Solomons’ property apart from that of the other ranchers, who grewstrawberries, grapes, pecan trees, distilled flavored vinegar, raised hens, or ran a few headof cattle, made gourmet goat cheese to sell at the farmers’ market—whatever they could do tosqueak by and keep hold of their land. Arborists bused field trippers to the tree. Horticultureprofessors from U.C. Santa Cruz gave lectures beneath its branches. Young men seeking aromantic setting to propose to their girlfriends could not go wrong under the shady oak. Insunny weather, plein air painters descended with field easels. If the moon was full or therewas some pagan holiday, say Bridgid or Beltane, a flock of druids would show up, sometimes inclothing, other times without. The Solomons tolerated people on their property because theyrecognized the tree was special. Most oak trees die before they hit a hundred years of age, butSolomon’s Oak had a healthy bole, and from its circumference, the University of California,Santa Cruz, boys estimated its age at approximately 240 years.

    “No one else will host our wedding,” Captain Angus said as he pleaded his case to Glory amonth earlier over the fancy coffee and almond croissants he’d brought to win her over.

    October, once Glory’s favorite month, had been filled with golden leaves and a pile of unpaidbills. “We’ve tried the Unitarian church, the Transcendentalists, the nondenominational;I’ve even been turned down by the Masonic Temple, and those guys have a reputation for beingsomewhat piratical, at least in how they dress for parades.”

    Glory studied him as he sat across from her at her kitchen table. “How old are you?” sheasked.

    “Thirty. It’s a turning point. How old are you?”

    “Thirty-eight.”

    “How long were you married?”

    “Nearly twenty years.”

    “Wow,” Angus said. “That’s a long time.”

    “You’d be surprised how fast it goes by,” Glory said, brushing crumbs from her fingers.

    “I’m in love, Mrs. Solomon.”

    “I can see that.”

    Angus had a red beard and strawberry blond hair that fell to the middle of his back. His eyesreminded her of a kid’s, sky blue and hopeful. “And I want our wedding to not just be a legalcontract, but wicked, good fun.”

    Glory hadn’t set foot in the chapel since Dan died. As far as she was concerned, the buildingcould fall to rubble. Every time she went out to feed the horses she turned her back on it.Where someone else might have seen beauty in Dan’s carpentry and the river rock, all she sawwas precious time wasted on faith that failed to save him. Since his death from pneumonia lastFebruary she’d been forced to take a part-time job at a chain discount store. Four days a weekshe drove the freeway to work five-hour shifts for minimum wage. Her supervisor, Larry O., wasnineteen and had atrocious grammar. He was authorized to tell her how to stack the merchandise,how to speak to customers, and when she could duck out to the restroom. She was old enough tobe his mother.

    Dan’s life insurance policy, through Horsemen’s Practical, a California carrier just aboutevery rancher and farmer in the area subscribed to, paid out $50,000 upon his death, whichseemed like a fortune while the Solomons were paying the premiums. But they had no healthinsurance and hospital bills had gobbled up much of it. By Christmas her savings would be gone.

    The pirates wanted to pay Glory $3,000 to use the chapel and to make their reception food. Shehad chickens, horses, goats, and dogs to feed.

    “Okay, Angus. Consider your wedding on.”

    “Thank you! I can’t wait to call the Admiral!” He jumped up from the table and thanked Gloryin the nicest way possible—he took out his checkbook.

    Over her rickety kitchen table among the crumbs of coffeehouse pastry, an unlikely business wasborn:

    SOLOMON’S OAK WEDDING CHAPEL.

    PIRATES WELCOME.

    The chapel had been Dan’s final project. One summer morning over his oatmeal he’d said,“I’ve got a bug to build myself a chapel. Nothing fancy, just a place to worship out of therain.”

    Glory wasn’t a believer, but she supported his efforts, bringing him lunch and admiring hiscarpentry, the work he’d done all his life. He’d finished the chapel just before Labor Day2002, and darned if they didn’t have rain that very weekend. The small building could seatforty on the hewn benches, fifty if you held a child on your lap. It had a pitched, slate roof,exposed beams, and stained-glass designed by an artist with whom Dan traded finish carpentry onher Craftsman-style house in Paso Robles for the windows.

Six months later he would be dead.

    Behind the last pew where Glory now stood checking decorations, she’d often brought herhusband ham sandwiches and lemonade for lunch. When the summer sun beat down, Dan could drinkan entire pitcher of lemonade. He’d take a sip, smack his lips, and say, “I am the luckiestman on the planet.”

    Glory thought he still was because he saw the good in everyone he met. He just wasn’t on theplanet anymore.

    Just two days before Angus’s pirate wedding, Glory stood in her bedroom closet, staring at herhusband’s shirts. So far as she knew, there was no etiquette/timetable regarding boxing upyour late husband’s clothes, but the day seemed as good a time as any. In a little over threemonths, February 28, she would have lived an entire year without Dan. She had folded his bluejeans and flannel shirts into a cardboard box. His neckties, given to him by their foster sonsover the years, she kept. Maybe this winter she’d use them to piece a log-cabin quilt. Hislined denim jacket would keep someone else warm. His Red Wing boots were practically new. Shewrapped them in newspaper and set them on the closet floor. Soon all that remained was hisstarched white shirt. She pressed it to her mouth, inhaling Irish Spring soap.

    “I sure could use your help right now,” she whispered. “I have no idea what I’m doing. Whatif someone loses an eye in the sword fight?”

    Once a day she allowed herself ten minutes of closet time. The idea was to restrict her tearsto that private place in the house. After she wiped her eyes, she forced herself to recallhappy times. The summer evenings they’d ridden the horses to the top of the hill. The dogsracing ahead, flushing birds from the dozens of trees that fringed the property. At the fenceline, Dan would reach across his horse to hers, take her hand, and they’d watch the sun godown. Because there were never enough adjectives to flatter a California sunset, he’d saysomething funny. One time he’d quoted Dylan Thomas in a terrible Welsh accent: “ ‘Like anorr-ange.’ ‘Like a to-mah-to.’ ‘Like a gowld-fisssh bowl.’ ”

    Glory gathered eggs to sell at the farmers’ market, trained her “last chance” dogs, and keptthe checkbook balanced. One time she’d forgotten to latch the grain bins, and now generationsof mice were convinced they’d reached the promised land. On the desk a stack of dustycondolence cards waited for her to send thank-you notes, but she couldn’t abide the pastelcard faces or the poems inside. No sentiment could numb such pain. The best she could hope forwas the passage of time. Dan had taught her how to build a gate that didn’t sag, how tostretch a sack of beans and rice to fill up hungry adolescent boys, and how to love with yourheart full throttle.

    He hadn’t taught her how to live without him.

    “Memories you didn’t even know we were making will sustain you,” she could hear him say, butGlory had her response all ready: “A memory can’t put its arms around you.”

    More than two hundred people came to his memorial service. After the “casserole months”ended, whole days went by when Glory talked only to the dogs as she ran them through theirtraining exercises. She washed her coffee cup and cereal bowl by hand. She could let thelaundry go for two or three weeks. All it took was a quick sweep of the wood floors to keep thehouse clean. Feeding the animals took her a half hour, tops, and after that, the time dragged.Except for Edsel, her house dog, she was alone.

    “Glory, you know what they say. ‘Widowed early, that’s what you’ll get for marrying anolder man,’ ” her mother had warned her when Glory was twenty and Dan was thirty-five, andold-fashioned enough to insist on asking her for her youngest daughter’s hand in marriage. Buttheir age difference had nothing to do with her becoming a widow. The blame lay on a man toostubborn to take care of himself in California’s wettest winter on record.

    “It’s nothing,” Dan insisted as he coughed his way through the farm chores. At night sheplied him with vitamin C, zinc lozenges, and NyQuil. “Go to bed until you beat this bug,” shetold him. It was three days before he gave in, and then his fever spiked to 104. By the time

    she drove him to the doctor, whatever bacterial infection he had been fighting had entered hisbloodstream. They called it a “superbug,” antibiotic resistant. Pneumonia raced into bothlungs. “Keep a smile on your face for me,” Dan asked of her in the hospital. She was toobewildered to cry. How could a fifty-three-year-old man strong enough to lift two sixty-poundsaddles die from an organism visible only under a microscope?

    Now the wedding day had arrived, and here she was, staring at the shirts she’d unfolded andhung back up. She dabbed at her eyes, exhausted. Her last dime had gone to the food for thepirate menu. She’d been up since dawn, and cooking for days. Two of her former fostersons—hired as servers—were due any minute. She needed to change out of work clothes andpowder her cheeks. Get cracking. But she lingered, touching the hangers.

    Turned out this wasn’t the day to let his things go, either. She pushed the box to the back ofthe closet, slipped on the blue dress that had been Dan’s favorite. She stepped into her dove-gray pumps and picked through her small stash of jewelry in the box on top of her dresser.Pearls today. The single strand of her grandmother’s that had yellowed over time. The matchingearrings Dan gave her one Christmas when they were flush. All she needed was to gather hersilver hair—it had begun turning gray the summer she was fourteen—into a bun and she wasready to open Solomon’s Oak Wedding Chapel to its inaugural event. She practiced saying anauthentic “Arrgh.”

    “Kennels,” Glory called to the rescue dogs currently in training. Well, dog was more

    accurate, because Dodge was the only one who had a chance at successful placement. Cadillac, apurebred border collie, had been adopted out twice and run home both times. She’d given uptrying to place him for the moment and was experimenting with his training to see if he mightlike something else besides herding her goats. Dodge, a mix of golden retriever and cattle dog,had been scheduled for euthanasia the day she adopted him. Once she could get him to stopjumping up, knocking her over, chasing the mailman, and barking at nothing, Glory was sure shecould find him a family. When she’d made a successful placement, she’d visit the shelter andtake home another death-row felon. Dog crimes? Growing from adorable puppies to hundred-poundhandfuls. Boredom, followed by destruction. Conforming to the nature of their breeds. Mainlydogs needed a job to do. Glory looked to each one to tell her what kind of training he needed:clicker, treat reward, hand commands. She trained them in whatever worked, agility, fly ball,or Frisbee. In turn for manners, the dogs earned long walks, nutritious meals, and gentleaffection. When all that was in order, she found them families. She paid home visits beforeplacing them and followed up after. If the owner’s circumstances changed, she’d take the dogback, find another family.

    Her exception was ten-pound Edsel, an Italian greyhound no bigger than a country mailbox. Hehad a splash of red on his long white back that resembled an English saddle. Because he movedlike a ballet dancer, she suspected he’d come from show-dog stock. To look at him you’dwonder what hard-hearted person could dump such a sweet-natured animal at a kill shelter. Gloryquickly learned why. Edsel had a seizure disorder that required medication and a special diet.He lived indoors and had learned to do his business in a litter box. On walks, Glory allowedDodge and Cadillac to run off-leash, but kept Edsel tethered. Sight hounds could see prey longbefore humans could. If a rabbit crossed Edsel’s path, he’d give chase until one of themdropped. Dodge, the big baby, was terrified of rabbits and tried to climb into Glory’s lapwhen he saw one. Rabbits confused Cadillac. Why did they resist being herded into a pen? When achicken got loose, Cadillac raced behind it, executing those on-a-dime turns border collies arefamous for, and he didn’t stop until the escapee was back in the coop. Caddy, with hisshocking blue eyes and plume tail, also herded Glory’s vacuum cleaner, and when the windpicked up, he went after leaves.

    Whenever Dan worked in his shop, though, Cadillac lay down across the doorway all day. If Danheaded to the truck, Cadillac would be in the passenger seat the second Dan opened the door.Glory could feed and train the dog, but Dan was his human. Now that Dan was gone, Cadillacpreferred his outdoor kennel to his bed in Glory’s bedroom. Nights she heard him howling, shewondered if he was grieving, too. She latched the two dogs in the kennels and gave them each a

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