When Mitch’s persistent kindness starts to confuse Suzanne’s feelings for him, she remembers that she is even less interested in a hand-me-down husband than she is in wearing secondhand clothing. Neither has Mitch forgotten his late wife’s plea that he never remarry. His children certainly haven’t. Will their faith in God and trust in each other be enough to overcome the odds and build a life together?
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Hand Me Down Husband
By Rosanna Huffman
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2015 Rosanna Huffman
All rights reserved.
The thud, thud, swoosh outside the classroom window lulled Suzanne Bloomer into a trance as she graded English compositions. She recorded the last paper and scanned her desk. Math homework to check for the ninth and tenth graders, biology quizzes to grade, and a chemistry test to write. Poems from the juniors and seniors to read. She wouldn't be out of here before seven tonight.
Today's impromptu lessons hadn't gone half bad, but she couldn't risk that two days in a row. Tomorrow had to be planned. Her stomach growled, a reminder that breakfast had been nonexistent and lunch skimpy. Propping her head in her left hand, she closed her eyes and listened to the rhythm of Jacob Sanderson's basketball on the concrete.
A gruff throat clearing interrupted Suzanne's micro-nap. The other teachers and the high school students who stayed for tutoring had left, and Jacob's ride should have come and gone by now. Then a distant whoop from the playground told her the sixth grader was still out there. Of all things, here was his aunt—who shouldn't even have had to get out of her car—. Wait ... gruff? Amazing what all could zip through her mind in the split second it took to lift her head.
The person at her desk was not Jacob's aunt. It was his grandfather, Mitchell.
Thank the Lord it wasn't Marissa. She didn't need that woman catching the teacher asleep. Even after all these years, she had a way of making Suzanne feel foolish and inferior. Thankfully, none of her kids were in high school yet.
Flames shot up her cheeks. Talking to the elder Mr. Sanderson didn't thrill her either. Besides being related to Marissa, he was recently widowed. There are probably nice, proper, comforting things to say to the bereaved, but she couldn't think of a single one.
"Uh, hi." She stood, tucking her hair behind her ears. "You're here for your grandson? I'll get him." Raising the screen in the window behind her desk, she called to the NBA wannabe, then turned back to her visitor. "He's coming. Sorry about that. I told him to watch for you."
"No problem." Mitchell Sanderson strolled around as if he had all the time in the world. One hand in a pocket and the other clutching a Stine Has Yield cap, he hardly resembled the busy, all-important businessman farmer whose youngest teenager she had taught years ago. Not that she ever saw him back then. His wife had come to parent/teacher conferences alone. Suzanne couldn't recall ever having a conversation with him in the two years she'd taught Marci.
He didn't offer any more comments, and she had no idea what else to say, so she checked to see that Jacob was on his way. In a sense he was. He must have sent the ball out into the grass and was now retrieving it in that slow, deliberate way Suzanne had once admired so much in his dad. The screen was still up, so she rapped on the siding to get his attention and returned to her mountain of grading.
"You're the high school teacher, right?" Mitchell materialized beside her desk.
She flinched and instinctively turned over the paper on which she'd marked a dozen red X's. "Yes. I'm sorry, I told Jacob to watch for his ride. He was supposed to be ready." She should smile. Everyone knew Sanderson money kept New Vision Christian School going.
"No problem. We had to stop running beans when the combine's auger chain broke. Marc and Martin have everything covered. I'm in no rush."
Jacob bounded in at that moment and grabbed his backpack. "Hey, Grandpa. I'm ready to go, come on." At the door he turned, crossed his arms, and tapped a foot. "Let's go. I'm hungry."
"Hold on, Jake." Mitchell laughed and held up a hand. "Did you tell your teacher thank you?"
"For what? I didn't want to stay, Mom made me. And she ain't my teacher." The outside door slammed and he was gone.
"I'll thank you for him." Mitchell twisted the seed corn cap in both hands. "Thank you. I'm sure you're not doing this because you're bored. I'll get out of here now so you can get your work done."
With the roar of the heavy pickup heading east on Chicken Bristle Road, Suzanne stretched her legs and did the evening school chores. When she was sure all the doors were locked, she settled back in her desk to finish her work.
No, she didn't tutor because she was bored, but she was glad to fit it into her schedule and help these kids. Haley and Jacob truly needed the help—Spanish and math, respectively. Not Tina. Suzanne had convinced her to stay after school on Mondays and Thursdays to practice vocabulary with Haley.
Tina was as much a genius in all things academic as she was a dunce in all things social. Suzanne hoped that as Tina helped Haley master Spanish, she would gain at least a modicum of self-confidence. Not that either girl had been clued in on their teacher's motives.
At six o'clock Suzanne washed down a granola bar with Pepsi. She brushed away the crumbs and stepped on the empty can readying it for the recycling bin on her way out—hopefully in the next hour.
"Hey, let me in!" Knocking accompanied the hollered words. Karen Young popped in when Suzanne opened the door. She was headed to her night shift at Miami Valley Hospital. Karen had roomed with Suzanne for almost a year. The eighth or ninth young woman to fill the position of boarder, and undoubtedly the most annoying. If Suzanne hadn't needed help with the rent so badly, she would have sent Karen along months ago. But with monthly payments that took half her teacher salary, Suzanne couldn't afford to live alone.
Karen's stopping in like this was not unusual. She always needed something, and because she paid part of the rent, she believed Suzanne owed her whatever she asked.
"Hi there. What do you need?"
"What? Oh, nothing. I'm supposed to tell you that Trevor's dad has to talk to you. He left a message on your answering machine this morning, and then Trevor told me to have you call since you hadn't called back yet. Plus, we're out of milk. You used the last yesterday and forgot to get more. I had to drink water." She tossed the reproach over her shoulder and slipped back out into the lengthening shadows.
Trevor's dad. Bob Hopkins, Suzanne's landlord and Karen's soon-to-be father-in-law. What was the problem now?
Suzanne had been renting his little house for a dozen years. It wasn't much, but it was the best she could find in her price range. And then only if she took in a paying boarder. When she first moved away from her parent's house, she had tried to live in the rental alone and loved it. She didn't mind eating beans and rice and the garden produce she could grow in her small garden. Then Bob raised the rent and Suzanne hardly had enough money left each month to buy gas. She bicycled to school until the days got too short and the weather too wet.
If she had gotten the expected raise, it might have worked. However, several families dropped out of the already-small private church school, and Suzanne accepted a cut in pay instead. But the Lord provides. About the time she started packing to move back to her parents' house, Sheila Brubaker asked if Suzanne had a room to sublet while she finished up her nurse's training. First Sheila, then Anne, and Lori, and Colleen, and Abigail who wouldn't-answer-to-Abby, and Jessica. Seven times she'd lived through wedding plans as these girls moved in from other states, supposedly to go to college or work out their chosen careers, but more obviously to snag a husband.
Suzanne should have seen it before she agreed to let Karen take the room. But she noticed it too late—from day one Karen was after the landlord's son.
Eight more months. Suzanne could live with that. Then Trevor and Karen would be married and living their own luxurious life. Maybe with her recently added responsibilities and the school not having to pay a principal's salary anymore, Suzanne would get a raise. Then she could swing the rent alone and reap the added benefit of privacy.
Daylight was a faint memory when she opened the creaking screen door at home with tomorrow's lessons planned, a budget that could accommodate her anticipated single living strategy, a throbbing headache, an empty stomach.
And a red six blinking on the answering machine.
"Suzanne, this is Bob Hopkins. Give me a call as soon as you can."
So Karen was right. He did want to talk to her.
"Aunt Eva calling, darling. Checking to see you got the chair. I'll try back later."
The fancy new desk chair her aunt had had delivered to the school. With no possible way of knowing how welcome it was.
"Hey, it's Bob. I'd really like to talk to you. Call me."
Give me a minute, sir.
"Bob here, call me when you get in."
"Miss Suzanne? This is Jackson. What's our assignment for tomorrow? Can you call me tonight?"
Comforting to know that Jackson hadn't undergone a personality change.
"Suzanne? Suzanne! I need to talk to you. Maybe your phone's not working. I'll come over when I get the next load of beans hauled." Bob's voice ended on the final message as his trademark knock sounded at the door.
* * *
Mitchell Sanderson drove through the countryside marveling at the beauty of the golden fields. "Look at that cornfield, Jake. How many bushels you think we'll get from that one?"
"I bet at least two hundred an acre. What's your guess, Grandpa?"
"You might be right. That field is one of our best, and this year it'll probably break some records. Going to keep us busy, that's for sure." That field and the rest of the multiple hundreds of acres of corn and soybeans either rented or owned by Sanderson Farms. God had certainly blessed them with a bountiful harvest here in southwest Ohio. For the second year in a row.
His sons had been right in encouraging him to buy the new S-690 John Deere combine last summer. His dad would have swooned at the outrageous price of the giant machine with its sixteen-row corn header and forty-foot bean header. But another year even half as plenteous as the last, and it would be paid off.
Two turns and as many soybean fields later, Mitch stopped his tan Silverado beside Marc's garage and watched Jacob disappear into the house. Four-thirty. Enough time to drive out to the combine and see if Martin needed help. Then he better hightail it to Marissa's house for supper.
He couldn't be late. That would make three times in two months, and Marissa might have a stroke. Supper with Marissa and Layne tonight. Tomorrow at Marc and Kelly's, then on to Marci and Abe's house, and finally to Martin and Janelle's before starting the routine again.
In the year after Marilyn died, he had appreciated and enjoyed how they took care of him. Especially he'd liked being with his grandchildren, who remembered their grandma and asked questions. They hadn't stayed around to hear all the stories he yearned to tell about her, but their existence and presence had kept him going.
Now they were growing past that. Nobody wanted to hear about his childhood sweetheart anymore. His sons' wives and his younger daughter obviously fixed supper out of a sense of obligation. Marissa insisted they cook, but he longed to escape her increasingly suffocating control.
At fifty-four Mitch was far from being an old man. An episode of chest pains a month after Marilyn's death had scared them all, but his physical heart was fine. The combination of stress and indigestion had sent him to the emergency room. His four grown children panicked and to hear them talk were still ready to banish him to a nursing home. Maybe when they heard the doctor's report from this morning, they'd back off. The report that didn't vary from the past three physicals.
"Hi, Daddy." Marissa greeted him with a wooden spoon wave from the stove. "Hope you don't mind spaghetti again tonight. I talked to Janelle after I thawed the beef. She said she fixed it last night."
"You know I'm not picky." He hung his cap on the closet doorknob and started to set the table. "Where're the kiddos? It's about dark. They're not still outside, are they?"
"You bet your bananas they are. After last week's rain, I'm making them play outside every daylight hour that's dry. This house is way too small for all that energy."
"How many places tonight? I assume Layne will be here?" Mitch stood at the cabinet, ready to count out plates and glasses.
Marissa heaved a drastic sigh, planted her left hand on her left hip, and continued stirring. She looked so much like her mother, he almost grabbed his chest at the sight. He set down a stack of glasses and caught his breath and the last of her words.
"... to set up a tree stand to be ready for bow season. But he promised to be here by seven for dinner."
The four children, Layne and Marisa, himself. He arranged the plates and glasses, added the napkins and flatware, and pulled the extra chair from the closet.
After supper Mitch stacked the dishes beside the sink and turned on the hot water. Before he got the sink filled, his shirt pocket vibrated. Text from Marc. Bring gas for grain truck. asap.
Stifling a sigh of relief he handed the dishwashing off to Marissa and gathered his leftovers in a plastic grocery sack. The tension from their supper conversation hung thick in the air.
"Dad." Her hand went back on the hip. "This is your night with us. Marc knows that. You have to stop letting him jerk you around."
Mitch hooked the sack over his arm and hugged his firstborn daughter. "Chill out, honey. I'd soon be leaving anyway. If you don't want to wash dishes, get Layne to do them. Or Merry, she's old enough to help, isn't she?"
"Just try not to be late Monday, remember we need to eat at five-thirty so I can take Landon to guitar lessons." Marissa sighed and ducked from under his arm.
"That reminds me, I probably won't be here Monday night."
Her cheeks tightened and her eyes narrowed. "Why?"
Must he explain his every move to his kids? Good grief, she grew up on the farm. What else would he be doing besides harvesting this time of year? The boys would likely chase him away once again, but he might be running the combine. Marissa couldn't go on thinking she ran the show.
He let her stew as she followed him out to the truck. He replaced his cap and slid behind the wheel.
"Why, Dad? What are you doing Monday night?"
"Check your calendar, it's October. Remember that season called harvest? Well, I'm still a farmer with crops out there to bring in. I hope to be on the combine or in a grain truck Monday night."
The wrinkles in her forehead smoothed for a moment. "Oh."
"If you're really desperate, I'll come over after dark and wash up the dishes."
"Dad! It's not that. I just worry about you. What will you have for lunch on Tuesday?"
"Probably this." Mitch lifted the bag from the seat beside him.
"No way. That's five days from now, it'll be spoiled. I'll bring something Tuesday morning and you can microwave it."
"Don't. I'll put this in the freezer and thaw it if I need it. Or I can get something in town. Better run. Thanks for supper, honey."
She turned to go, but not before getting in a parting shot. "You think about what we want to do for you."
He left the graveled drive and pulled onto Chicken Bristle Road. As he passed the school, he noticed lights still on. For years he'd passed it multiple times each day and never noticed a thing. Now twice in the same day his mind was drawn inside. How late did those teachers work anyway? Teachers? There were more than one, weren't there? He'd only seen one when he picked up Jacob. And there was only one car there now—the same one he'd seen earlier.
Who was that woman, anyway? Oh sure, he knew who she was. What's-her-name Bloomer, Jim and Connie's girl. She'd been there forever it seemed. Hadn't she been Marci's teacher?
In the dusty darkness Mitch fueled the grain truck from the tank on his pickup bed. With the roar of the combine on the far side of the field, conversation with Marc was impossible. Martin had repaired the chain, and the harvesting operation was up and running. Without Mitch.
At quarter to ten Mitchell Sanderson stacked a Glad disposable plastic bowl of spaghetti and meat sauce on top of a gold Tupperware microwave container of spaghetti and meat Osauce. Spaghetti and meat sauce for Wednesday night supper, Thursday breakfast, lunch, and supper, and now enough for breakfast and lunch the next three days.
Excerpted from Hand Me Down Husband by Rosanna Huffman. Copyright © 2015 Rosanna Huffman. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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