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Secrets Over Sweet Tea

Scarlett Jo Newberry’s lime-green flip-flops smacked the sidewalk loudly as she walked through her neighborhood. Her prayers were sometimes just as loud—or sometimes she prayed them in her head. Sometimes she’d hum gently, and other times she’d belt out a song at the top of her lungs.

She didn’t mind the stares or the comments. She was used to both. Some folks had trouble with her love of bright colors. Some disliked the noise her five children could make. Some thought she strolled the streets talking to herself. But Scarlett Jo hadn’t simply survived her life. She had learned how to live in spite of it—and not to worry too much about the perceptions of others.

This early morning routine of part prayer, part recalibration was pretty much a daily occurrence. Every day except the rainy ones. Rain messed up her hair. But with her hectic household, she needed a set of new mercies as often as possible.

She started humming that old song again, the one from The Sound of Music that listed “my favorite things.” Watching the sun rise was one of her own favorites. So was walking. And praying. And with all those things in this one beautiful morning, she had that song on her mind.

If anyone had been listening, they might have hummed along. But most people weren’t listening. If they were jogging, they passed her by with things stuck in their ears, pumping music in so fast and furious that she didn’t know when they’d last heard all the beautiful music that life made right around them.

She passed Sylvia Malone’s house and prayed for her. Sylvia needed a lot of prayer. Sometimes Eugenia’s house next door wouldn’t even get prayed over because Sylvia needed so much. But Scarlett Jo tried to cover every house if she could, including her own. Talking with her Father that way made all of life better. And so would the pastry she’d grab from Merridee’s Breadbasket over on Fourth Avenue South when she was done.

Scarlett Jo reached beneath her double-Ds and adjusted her underwire. Then she reached into the pocket of her hot-pink terry-cloth shorts and pulled out the small pencil and notebook she kept stashed in there for moments just like this. For distractions.

She wrote, Visit Victoria and get a new secret. She giggled. Jackson would like that. A lot. That special connection of theirs had helped make her the wife of one good-looking preacher and the mama of five amazing boys.

She stuck the notebook back in her pocket and continued on her morning walk. Franklin, Tennessee, was just starting to come alive. But Scarlett Jo Newberry had been marvelously alive for years.

Despite what many believed, she’d never been out for attention. Her oversize personality just seemed to attract it. And Scarlett Jo didn’t mind because she knew she’d eventually earn entry into people’s hearts. Experience had taught her that many who initially disapproved of her would eventually want her on their committees and include her at their functions and parties. Maybe the fact that she wasn’t the skinniest or the quietest girl in the room helped them feel better about themselves.

But Scarlett Jo thought it was something else. It was because, for the most part, she was nothing but herself. What you saw was what you got. It had taken her a long time and a lot of pain to get there. And people responded to that.

Not everybody, of course. A lot of those she knew weren’t quite there yet. And she was trying to learn patience about that. Trying to learn when to speak up about what she saw—she was pretty good at that—and when to shut her mouth and wait—which was still a challenge. She knew she stepped over the line a lot, that people weren’t ready for her to let it all hang out. Every day she asked God to show her the fine line between being herself and simply being too much—and to please keep her from hurting Jackson’s ministry by saying the wrong thing.

Not that Jackson would ever tell her to do anything for the ministry’s sake. He was crazy about her just the way she was. But Scarlett Jo had been involved with churches long enough to know that folks could be as bottled up and closed off and easily offended in church as anywhere else. Maybe more so in church than anywhere else. Which meant the state of Tennessee must be chock-full of the bottled up, closed off, and easily offended because churches were as plentiful here as ants at a Sunday dinner on the grounds. Why, right here in Scarlett Jo’s little part of Franklin you could find Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Methodist, nondenominational, and Catholic. Probably more.

Sometimes she wished their church had confessionals like the Catholics did. With a confessional, at least for a few brief minutes, you had a soul vulnerable, available to the kind of honesty that could heal. And if they weren’t being honest, you could simply jump out of your side of the curtain and grab them before they got away.

The nondenominational church she and Jackson had started two years ago didn’t have confessionals. What it did have was people hungry for something real. That was evident by how quickly the church had grown. But though Jackson tried with all his might to get their people living out of their “authentic selves,” it hadn’t been as easy as he’d expected. It wasn’t easy for people to be authentic—or appreciate authenticity—when they hadn’t seen their authentic selves in decades.

Still, Scarlett Jo had hope. She was a woman on a mission for her city whether they knew it or not. So each morning after her walk, and after all five of her boys got out of the house and on their way to school, she’d curl up in her hot-pink robe on the small sofa in her sunporch, sip a glass of sweet tea, and watch men and women as they scurried up the streets with their coffee. Or ran behind baby strollers. Or walked like half drunks with their eyes glued to a screen no wider than her big toe as if everything in life depended on reading the latest tweet. She’d watch them all and pray a little more.

What she really longed for was to be the kind of person who, when people wanted prayer—the real kind of prayer that reaches down to soul places and up to heavenly places—they’d know to come straight to her. Unfortunately that had only happened one time in the two years she and Jackson had lived here. Proving that sometimes denial is a strong-willed companion. Or that she still had some growing to do. Probably both.

“Scarlett Jo, seriously. I’ve told you—no woman your age or your size should be in hot pink. You look like an overgrown bottle of Pepto-Bismol.”

Scarlett Jo walked to the edge of Eugenia Quinn’s yard, two houses down from her own. “Eugenia, if those aren’t the loveliest peonies I have ever seen.”

“Well, they would be if Jeremiah would quit messing with them. I told Gray if he started sending that man to me, he’d spend the rest of his life all up in my business. I’m a prophet!” Eugenia used the back of her wrist to push at her bleached-blonde locks, the palm of her gardening glove almost as black as the soil. Her bob bounced right back into place. Good hair was about the only thing she and Scarlett Jo had in common.

“Well, it’s good you have Jeremiah taking care of things for you now that you’re going to DC so much.” Scarlett Jo leaned in. “I heard the White House is beautiful. Is it beautiful, Eugenia?”

Eugenia bent over her peonies again and swatted at Scarlett Jo. “It’s big and it’s white and it has pictures of dead people everywhere.” Her tone softened. She couldn’t help it. She was about to speak of the people she loved most. It always shifted here. “But my family is there in Washington. And my grandbabies need their Gigi.”

“They sure do. How are they adjusting?”

“They’re the smartest children you’d ever find. And very well-mannered.” Eugenia raised her eyebrow at Scarlett Jo.

Scarlett Jo got Eugenia’s message and completely ignored it. Her five boys burped, passed gas, and rode skateboards and bikes all over the place. They were loud. They fought. And they were totally and completely alive, just the way she liked them. “And how are Sam and Lola?” she asked Eugenia. “The pictures I’ve seen look like they’re growing like weeds.”

“And jabbering up a storm. I’m crazy about them.”

“Of course you are, Eugenia.”

“I see you killed those trees I gave you for your front porch.”

The little potted trees had been Eugenia’s welcome gift when Scarlett Jo and Jackson moved into the storybook stone cottage up the street. Scarlett Jo twitched her nose and pushed out her lips. Her weight rocked slightly on her flip-flops. “If your thumb is green, Eugenia, mine is—”

“Hot pink! You spend more time focused on looking like a neon sign than taking care of plants. Heaven knows I should have gotten you silk ones. But then the town would be downgraded from the twentieth best place to retire to number twenty on the tacky meter.”

“I told you when you gave them that I’d do better with some cinnamon buns.”

Eugenia raised her eyebrow again and opened her mouth.

“Don’t say anything! I’m going to go back to praying. Anything special you need today?”

Eugenia looked at Scarlett Jo, obviously thinking. “I need life to slow down. My friend Dimples to speed up. Jeremiah to leave me alone. And God to keep the cicadas from hatching. Got that?”

Scarlett Jo nodded. “Got it. Are those cicadas really as bad as everyone says? Swooping from the air? Screaming in your ear?”

“All that, baby girl. All that.”

Scarlett Jo shivered and finished her prayer with an added bonus for the cicadas.


Jackson came up behind Scarlett Jo and wrapped his arms around her waist while she stood with her nose almost touching the glass pane of their sunporch. She noticed his hands didn’t make it quite as far around as they had twenty-five years ago, when she was eighteen and he was twenty. But neither one of them minded. It hadn’t been their figures that had attracted them to each other in the first place.

She patted his hand. “Morning, sugar. Rest well?”

He breathed his words across the base of her ear. “I’d recognize that Mississippi drawl four states over.”

His breath gave her chills. She tried to squirm free. “Jackson, you just made the hairs on my legs grow.”

He laughed. “I know.” He finally leaned back, patted her rear, and came around next to her. “Who are you spying on now?”

“New neighbor. Four doors down.” She motioned with her fingers in the direction of the house as if she were engaged in some covert mission.

He played along. He always played along. “Well, that does happen when people move out. Usually someone moves in. Think they’re terrorists?”

She slapped at him without turning his way. “I think they’re from up North somewhere. They drive one of those Prius cars.” Sylvia Malone could be the neighborhood watch committee all by herself, but Scarlett Jo couldn’t resist helping her out now and then.

“They do sell those now in the South, you know.”

“I know that. But I watched them take in most of their clothes too.” Her sigh came out heavy. Did this man not pay attention?

“Of course you did. And you started this surveillance activity when?”

“Two days ago. They started Saturday. And had everything in by yesterday.” Her next words came out in a whisper. “Their clothes were mostly black. Only people from New York or California dress in all black.” She took a long sip of her tea.

“We’d better hide the good china.” He shivered as he spoke. “Plus, all this time I thought you were out there praying in the mornings.”

“Don’t mock me, Jackson Newberry. Northerners are a different breed, baby. They don’t like you to touch them. They don’t want to be called sugar or sweetie or honey pie or darlin’. They’ve never heard of lard. They have no clue on God’s green earth what fixin’ to even means. And if you say y’all, they look at you like you probably marry your second cousin or something.”

His phone rang from his pocket. He leaned over and kissed her before he pulled it out. “I’ve always wondered about your cousin Thelma Lou.”

She swatted at him, and he laughed. “What I know about you, Scarlett Jo, is you can make even Northerners fall in love with you. I’ll see you tonight. And please, don’t take them anything at least for a week. Let them get settled first. Visit them next weekend.”

She started to protest, but he shook his ringing phone in front of her and walked from the room. She sighed. People thought pastors were like God—needed to be accessible at all times. She turned back toward the house down the street that seemed quiet after yesterday’s busy activity. She breathed a prayer for the hearts that would now live inside. Then her mind began to rummage through the selection of baked goods at Merridee’s. She’d find out what these Northerner newcomers were really like. And she had every intention of finding that out today.

Secrets Over Sweet Tea
by by Denise Hildreth Jones