Hell in a Handbasket – Denise Grover Swank

It was funny how dying put things in a whole new perspective.
Which was why I found myself at the Henryetta First Baptist Church on a hot
Sunday afternoon in late July, going to a church picnic with my older sister, Violet, and
her family.
The Henryetta First Baptist Church was practically the last place on earth I wanted to
be.
I’ll admit that I’d tried my darnedest to get my best friend, Neely Kate, to come for
moral support. Turned out there wasn’t enough money in the world to convince her to
come.
“No. Way,” she’d said, shaking her head to make sure her answer was clear. “I
suspect if I went anywhere near that church, the women’s group would try me for being a
witch. They know Granny claims to see the future.”
“They’d convict me before they’d get to you.” Neely Kate’s granny couldn’t see the
future if it stood two feet in front of her. I, on the other hand, had spent most of my life
seeing flashes of other people’s futures and blurting out what I’d seen (an unavoidable,
and mortifying, side effect). Plenty of those visions had been in the Baptist church.
Fortunately—or not—most people had presumed I was simply a weird child. It helped that
I was usually spouting unimportant nonsense about Laura Gurney’s French toast burning
or Tim Hinkle getting a ticket for running a red light.


When Momma died a little over a year ago, I’d stopped attending the First Baptist
Church, and no one had been sorry to see me go. I’d told my sister that I never wanted to
step inside the church again, something I’d reminded her of when she’d begged me to
come to this picnic.
But Violet was dying, and I’d do nearly anything to make her happy—even go to a
place that reminded me of my visions at a time when I would rather not think about
them.
I’d nearly died in the middle of a vision a week and a half ago, and I hadn’t
experienced a single one since. Surprisingly, no one had noticed. Over the past year, I’d
learned that if I forced visions, I had much fewer spontaneous ones. But after a few days
of no spontaneous ones, I was enjoying being normal, so I hadn’t forced any either.
Maybe if I didn’t try it, they’d be gone for good. Sure, over the last year I’d learned to see
the visions as a gift rather than as the curse I’d always believed them to be, but now I
wondered if the cost was too high.
“See?” Violet said, beaming from ear to ear as we got out of the car.

“The picnic’s
outside. You don’t have to go anywhere near the church doors.”
I resisted the urge to make a face at her, mostly because my niece and nephew were
watching.
“What if Aunt Rose has to go to the bathroom?” my niece Ashley asked with a worried
look. “What’s she gonna do then?”
“She’ll just have to hold it,” Violet said with an ornery grin.
“Don’t you worry,” I said to Ashley. “I’ve got a bladder made of steel.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Somebody steals your pee?”
Violet started to laugh, but her husband Mike remained silent as he unbuckled my
nearly two-year-old nephew, Mikey, out of his car seat.
Mike had been acting odd the last few months.

He and Violet had married young, and
he and I had always been close. Living with my mother up until her death hadn’t been
easy, and Violet and Mike’s house had always been my refuge. Mike could have resented
my intrusion into their family, but he’d always welcomed me, often taking my side when
Violet pulled out her bossy tendencies. He and I had even kept in touch after the two of
them split, briefly, last fall. So nothing could have prepared me for how distant he’d
become after Violet’s cancer diagnosis in February. She’d departed nearly immediately for
MD Anderson in Houston, Texas.
Mike read the papers, which meant he knew I had something to do with the fall from
grace of one J.R. Simmons.
J.

R. Simmons had been the most powerful man in southern Arkansas—a successful,
influential businessman who’d used his success to interfere with people’s lives in evil and
ugly ways that included corruption, extortion, and murder. I’d ended up on his radar as
the undesirable girlfriend of his son, Joe Simmons. He’d resorted to bribery to force Joe
and me apart, but it hadn’t ended there. The more I’d learned about J.R., the less I’d
believed he should be allowed to continue ruining people for his own benefit. The
notorious James “Skeeter” Malcolm, king of the Fenton County underworld, and I had
teamed up to bring him down, something that had become public knowledge. Tongues
were still wagging about it.
Mike had tarred and feathered me in his mind, and he’d recently admitted his change
in attitude was due to his concerns about the company I kept.

Little did he know how
involved I’d become in the criminal world. If he ever found out I’d slept with James
Malcolm, I suspected I’d never see my sister or her children again.
While I understood Mike’s concerns, part of the reason I’d gone after J.R. was to save
him. In the early days of his construction business, he’d bribed an inspector and J.R. had
threatened to disclose it. Which made me wonder . if Mike had offered bribes in the
past, was he still doing it today?
I shoved thoughts of Mike away, only to find myself thinking of James.

James, who’d
given me two weeks to weigh his suggestion that we start a relationship. Time was
running out, and I was no closer to an answer than I’d been ten days ago.
Don’t think about that now. You’re with Violet.
I needed to focus on spending as much time with my sister as possible—and on
making her as happy as possible.
“Aunt Rose,” Ashley said, slipping her hand in mine. “Will you do the three-legged race
with me?”
“Hey,” Mike said as he stood with Mikey in his arms. “I thought we were doing the
three-legged race.”
“But I get to see you all the time,” she whined, squeezing my hand tighter. “And I
hardly ever see Aunt Rose.


Violet stared down at her daughter with a confused look, then glanced back up to me
and Mike. “What’s she talking about?”
This wasn’t the time or place to let Violet know Mike had kept me from the kids while
she was in Texas.
“Nothing,” I said, hoping my smile didn’t look forced. “We better get going if we want
a good spot. It looks like the hill is pretty full.”
“That’s because everyone else went to the church service,” Violet said. “We’re getting
all the leftover spots.”
“There’s no need to push it, Vi,” Mike said. “You’re just now feeling better after your
bout with pneumonia. Going to the service would have been too much.


That was something Mike and I actually agreed on.
Mike had popped the trunk open, so I grabbed a quilt and the picnic basket I’d spent
the morning preparing. Ashley led the way to a fairly flat spot on the hill that gave us a
good view of the grounds where they held the races—not that I knew from firsthand
experience. Momma may have been an active member of the First Baptist Church, but the
Gardners had never attended the church picnics, which Momma had called “a frivolous
waste of time.” This year would mark my first—and hopefully last—attendance.
“This looks like a good place,” I said. “Your momma can watch us win the threelegged race.” I knew I should back down and let Mike run the race with his daughter, but
I also wanted to stand my ground and let him know I wasn’t going anywhere. Not
anymore.
Ashley jumped up and down with excitement.

“Yeah!”
She helped me spread out the quilt, and by the time I set the basket on the corner,
Violet, Mike, and the baby had reached us. Mike set his son on the ground and helped
Violet sit next to me.
“Something sure smells good,” she said, peering over at the basket.
“Did you bring fried chicken, Aunt Rose?” Ashley asked, trying to peek inside.
“I sure did. It’s one of your mommy’s favorites.” I glanced up at Mike and offered him
a conciliatory smile. “And your daddy’s too.”
His gaze held mine for barely a second before he looked away, but I saw a flash of
guilt.
Why did he feel guilty? Because of the way he’d treated me, or was this something
more?
I realized I was still staring at him, so I looked back into the basket and pulled out a
plastic storage container.

“And here’s some potato salad.”
“What about cookies, Aunt Rose?” Ashley asked.
I chuckled. “No cookies, but there’s a lemon pound cake. Another one of your
mommy’s favorites.”
“How come you made so many of Mommy’s favorites?”
A lump formed in my throat, but I pushed out the words. “Because I’m so happy your
mommy’s back home.”
The joy in Ashley’s eyes faded, but she didn’t say anything. Did she know? Violet had
told me that she and Mike had decided to keep it from the kids, but my niece was a smart
girl.
“You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble, Rose,” Violet said.

“You must have been
in the kitchen for hours.”
“It was no trouble,” I said, pulling out the container of chicken. “Besides, I made the
cake last night.” I could have added that Neely Kate had gone on a date and it had given
me something to do, but then she’d ask who Neely Kate was dating, and I didn’t want to
get into it. Somehow I thought Mike was as unlikely to approve of Jed, James’ best friend
and longtime enforcer, as he was to invite James himself into the family with open arms.
I filled plastic plates full of chicken, potato salad, baked beans, and still-warm
homemade biscuits and passed them out to everyone. Violet focused on helping Mikey
get situated instead of eating her own food. I almost insisted on taking over so she could
eat—she was skin and bones—but the joy on her face stopped me. I knew that she’d
hated missing so much of his life while she was in Texas. She wasn’t about to waste any
time now.


I couldn’t keep the tears from my eyes. I could barely handle the thought of losing my
sister, but when I thought about Ashley and Mikey losing their mother, a deep well of
sadness opened in my chest.
I didn’t want to cry in front of the kids or Violet, so I put my plate on the blanket next
to me. “I’ve got to go to the bathroom.”
“Is somebody trying to steal your pee, Aunt Rose?” Ashley asked with wide eyes.
“She’s just tryin’ to make sure they don’t,” Violet teased, then gave me a knowing
look. “You go ahead. We’ll be here waitin’ for you.”
But for how long? A fresh batch of tears flooded my eyes, and I hurried off before I
broke down in front of the kids. I didn’t really want to go inside, so I headed toward what
looked like a collection of potluck tables, only one was covered with pies and the other
with plates of fried chicken.

How could I have forgotten the annual pie and fried chicken
contest? I may have never attended a picnic before, but the congregants loved to talk
about them, so I knew a thing or two about how they were run. I had always wondered if
Momma’s aversion to the church picnic was due to the fact that she couldn’t win the pie
contest. Not with Anita Raeburn entering every year.
The chicken contest had a perennial winner too—Patsy Sue Clydehopper—and she
was currently standing in front of the chicken display with a woman who looked an awful
lot like her. Though both contests were supposed to be blind taste tests, Barbara, the
church secretary, always made sure the pastors knew which plate of chicken was Patsy
Sue’s. She was used to winning, and if she ever lost, she’d likely up and move her
membership to the First Baptist Church in Pickle Junction. The church bank account
needed the support of one of its richest and most influential members—hence the
cheating.
Only it looked like something had gone wrong this year. Both pastors stood behind the
chicken table, staring dumbfounded at Patsy and her bleached-blond look-alike. Barbara,
who stood tugging at Reverend Baker’s arm, looked like she was either going to cry or
start throwing the plates of chicken.


“That’s my recipe, Carol Ann, and you doggone know it.”
Now I knew who she was. Carol Ann Nelson was Patsy’s cousin, although rumor had it
that she’d run off to LA to get famous acting. Looked like she was back.
Carol Ann put a hand on her trim hip. “You sure as Pete don’t own it, Patsy Sue. It’s
Grandma Nelson’s recipe, and she gave it to both of us.”
“She may have given it to both of us, but we all know I’m the cook in this family. You
can barely make it through the drive-thru of McDonald’s up in Magnolia, let alone figure
out how to navigate a kitchen.”
“If that’s true,” Carol Ann said as she curled up her bright red top lip, “then how come
I just won the grand prize?”
“Uh .

” the reverend said, holding up his hands, “there’s no grand prize.”
Carol Ann turned her attention to him. “Well, did I win or didn’t I?”
“Well . you did . ” But he didn’t seem so certain as he shot an apologetic look at
Patsy Sue.
Carol Ann’s chin lifted in a gloat. “That’s grand prize enough.”
“If that’s prize enough, why were you darkenin’ my doorstep last Thursday askin’ me
for thousands of dollars?” Patsy asked.
“I needed the money to buy the ingredients to make the fried chicken that beat
yours!”
“You’re just mad that I refused to give you one more dime,” Patsy said. “So instead,
you decide to get even and use my recipe in my church to try to look better than me!”
“I don’t have to prove that I look better than you!” Carol Ann shouted back.

“All
anyone has to do is take one look at your dumpy self then take one look at me to know I
look ten times better.”
While I was no fan of Patsy Sue Clydehopper, her cousin had just told a bald-faced lie.
Patsy may have been in her mid-forties, but she used her resources well in her quest to
look thirty-one, the age she’d been claiming for the past decade. Rumor had it she’d
started saying she was thirty-two. She had too many crow’s-feet to get away with her
preferred age anymore. While she wasn’t as thin as her cousin, Patsy also looked ten
times classier. But then, I guess she had to be since her face was posted all over town on
her Clydehopper Realty real estate signs.
“Why, I never!” Patsy said in outrage and slapped Carol across the face.
I wasn’t the only onlooker. At the first sign of the trouble, a crowd had gathered, and
milliseconds after Patsy’s hand connected with Carol Ann’s cheek, the crowd collectively
released a loud gasp.


Carol Ann pointed a red-painted fingernail at the other woman. “You’re gonna pay for
that!”
“I’ve already paid, Carol Ann. I’ve paid and paid and paid, and I’m not payin’ any
more. And neither is Aunty Lucille. You’ve bled her dry. Everyone knows you’re here to
weasel more money out of all of us. Why do you think nobody’s excited that you’re home?
Go back where you came from, Carol Ann. There’s nothin’ for you here.”
“Ladies,” Reverend Baker said, finally coming out of his stupor and walking around the
edge of the table. “Let’s all take a breath, and maybe take this inside.


“No,” Patsy said with a firm shake of her head. “I’m not going anywhere with this fool.
Now, if you’ll hand me my blue ribbon, I’ll head back to my blanket.”
Reverend Baker looked sheepish. “I can’t do that, Patsy. Carol Ann won.”
“She cheated! She stole my recipe! She broke one of the Ten Commandments to win.”
“And you broke a commandment in your temper tantrum when you lost,” Carol Ann
said with a satisfied grin, despite the red handprint on her cheek.
“You stole my recipe!” Patsy shot back.
“Like I said, it’s Grandma Nelson’s recipe.

” She gave her cousin a smirk. “I can’t help it
if I make it better than you do.”
“Why you—” Patsy lunged for her cousin, clipping Reverend Baker’s arm. It threw both
of them off balance, giving Carol Ann an opportunity to shove him to get to Patsy.
The pastor fell into the pie table, his face landing in the middle of a chocolate
meringue while one of his hands slapped into a cherry pie.
The crowd gasped again, but there was no time to react—the two cousins had broken
into an all-out skirmish. Patsy tugged a handful of Carol Ann’s hair, while Carol Ann pulled
Patsy’s shirt up halfway over her head and exposed her hot pink bra.
Screams broke out, and Barbara tried to help the pastor up, but Patsy—unable to see
where she was going—slammed into him. He fell again, this time face-first into a
strawberry rhubarb pie.
Patsy flopped up faster than I would have expected for a woman of her age, then
slammed her cousin into the fried chicken table, sending drumsticks, thighs, and breasts
flying in all directions.


“It’s raining fried chicken,” Ashley said in amazement next to me.
I sucked in a breath as I turned to look down at her. When had she gotten here?
“Ashley, go back to your momma.”
“And miss this? No way!” She squinted at the two women who were rolling from the
chicken table into the pies. “Why’d Miss Patsy take off her shirt?”
Sure enough, Patsy’s shirt was gone and her top half was slicked up from the oily
chicken like she was ready for a wrestling contest.
I covered Ashley’s eyes with my hand, but she pushed it away. “I’m not a baby, Aunt
Rose. I’m gonna be a first grader.”
I didn’t have time to respond because the cousins had rolled on top of Reverend
Baker. The table gave a loud groan before the legs on the left side gave out, sending all
three bodies to the ground.

They landed on top of one another in a heap, but even that
did little to stop the fight. While Patsy Sue and Carol Ann carried on shrieking and
hollering, everyone stood around watching them like this was the most exciting thing
they’d seen since Officer Ernie chased a flock of wild turkeys around the town square.
While I had to admit that it probably was, poor Reverend Baker was taking the brunt of
the fight. He’d never been kind to me, but someone needed to help him.
I was just about to intervene when Officer Ernie himself ran up and puffed out his
skinny chest, trying his best to look authoritative. “Stop in the name of the law!”
There was no chance of the crowd intervening now. They took a step back in eager
anticipation.
The women ignored his command, so he shouted again, “Don’t make me arrest the lot
of you!”
Patsy grabbed a pie tin, attempting to shove it in her cousin’s face, but Carol Ann
bobbed out of the way just as Reverend Baker sat up, getting another face full of pie.
Ernie’s confidence wavered, and he slowly reached for the mic on his shoulder, turning
to the side a bit as he muttered, “I’ve got a situation and I’m gonna need backup.”
“What’s the problem?” a woman’s voice called back.


“I’ve got two women havin’ a food fight outside of the First Baptist Church.”
The woman started laughing. “Officer Sprout’s out on another call. You’re gonna have
to handle that one yourself.”
Exasperated, Ernie turned to the crowd. “Can someone help me out here?”
Everyone watched him with interest, no one volunteering, not that I could blame
them. The cousins and the pastor were covered in various pies and pieces of fried
chicken. Ernie leaned over to pull Carol Ann away from her cousin, but he got pulled down
into the mess.
Calvin Clydehopper, Patsy’s husband, slunk to the front, wearing pressed trousers
paired with a short-sleeved button-down shirt and tie. Calvin and Patsy were normally
considered elite members of Henryetta society, and the look on Calvin’s face suggested
he wasn’t pleased his wife had ruined their carefully constructed façade.


He reached toward the women, then withdrew his hands and said, “Patsy Sue! Stop
this right now! You’re making a fool of yourself.”
Patsy Sue took a moment to glance up at her husband, a piece of chocolate mousse
dripping from her hair onto her cheek. “I’m making a fool of myself?” she shrieked. “This
is all your fault!” She grabbed a half-full pie tin, wound back her arm like a star pitcher,
then threw it up at him.
The tin landed on his head and peaches dripped down his nose. His face reddened
and he looked like he was about to enter the melee when Joe’s voice boomed out from
the other side of the crowd. “Everybody freeze!”
Carol Ann paused with her knees digging into Reverend Baker’s back and her hand on
Patsy’s waistband. Officer Ernie’s leg was trapped underneath Patsy’s lower body, and a
smear of blueberries concealed one side of his face. The poor minister moaned
underneath all of them.
“Uncle Joe!” Ashley shouted and took off running to greet him.


Joe’s face lifted in surprise, and when he caught a glimpse of me, his eyebrows rose
into a smirk. He didn’t need to express himself in words. I could see what he wanted to
say written across his face: “Why am I not surprised to see you with this mess?”
At least I could plead total innocence this time.

.

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