Makin miracles, p.6

Makin' Miracles, page 6


Makin' Miracles

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  “Yes. All of them but me.” He slowed the car to pass over a short, wooden bridge.

  She gave him a teasing look. “And does Virginia call to your blood, Spencer? Are you still planted in that land in your heart?”

  “No.” He nearly bit her head off with his sharp answer.

  Zola’s eyes widened. “Ouch. I guess I hit a nerve.”

  “Yes. I’m not very close to my family.” He didn’t add anything else.

  Watching his jaw clench, Zola wisely decided to let the topic go for now.

  She pointed to a dirt road up ahead. “Turn there, Spencer. That’s the Devon Farm Road leading back to my grandparents’ place. It weaves a circle through the major part of the old farm. The big gray house we passed a block back on the left was my Aunt Becky and Uncle Gene’s place.”

  “Is your place on this road?” he asked.

  “No, but there’s a well-worn path to it across Buckner Branch and through the woods. By the road, you need to continue driving down Jonas Creek Road about a mile.” She smiled at him. “You can run me down to the house after lunch if you want. But don’t expect much. It’s only an old renovated farmhouse.”

  Spencer turned to smile back at her. “Are you kidding? This whole place around here is a photographer’s heaven.” He pointed. “Look around you. It’s beautiful. Graceful white farmhouses, weathered red barns, fresh green fields dotted with cows and goats, misty mountains rising in the distance on either side. Plus that picturesque old brick church we passed back up the road. I definitely want to come back here to take some shots of that.”

  Zola reached over to put a hand on his knee affectionately. “I’m glad you like it here, Spencer. I always have. And that old brick church is the Jonas Creek Missionary Alliance Church. I’ll take you to visit one Sunday if you’d like. My best friend, Rachel Lee Upton Howard, goes to church there. She plays the piano every Sunday and sings solo occasionally. She’s really good, too. Her daddy, Pastor K. T. Upton, is the minister there.”

  “If I visit, will you go with me?” He slowed the car over a rut in the road as he asked.

  She grinned. “Sure. But you’ll find it’s very different from Highland Cumberland Presbyterian.”

  “How so?”

  “Livelier. Less formal. Louder. More fervent and passionate in the worship style. And the gifts might flow.”

  He shrugged. “Won’t scare me. It sounds like one of the churches over on Daufuskie or like Aston Parker’s AME Zion church in Savannah I often visited.”

  Zola pointed Spencer toward the driveway that pulled off to her grandparents’ rambling white farmhouse. She studied him discreetly out of the corner of her eye. Interesting little aspects about Spencer Jackson seemed to continue popping out unexpectedly all the time.

  She looked across at him; he was dressed in a neat white shirt again. The shirt was tucked into khaki slacks with a jacket to match for church. Only his long, sun-dipped hair, tied back neatly with a leather string, gave away the artistic, independent streak she knew she’d seen in him.

  Zola smiled at him. “Maybe we’ll talk some more about your interesting church experiences another time.”

  “Maybe,” he said, parking the car and opening the door.


  Spencer found himself quickly enveloped into the bosom of Zola’s family as soon as he entered the Devon house. Enveloped was the best word to describe the experience in Spencer’s way of thinking. Her family was a boisterous, talkative, hugging sort of group that seemed to encircle him in their warmth. He’d traveled and been around many kinds of people as a photographer—but experiences like this were always striking. It made Spencer want to capture it on film. But he didn’t think it possible. It was why he’d never delved more deeply into documentary photography or candid portraiture as some great photographers had done. He didn’t feel capable of capturing emotions like this; he couldn’t get detached enough from the experience. He liked to revel in it too much, to watch it, to listen to it. It was fascinating.

  Zola’s aunt, Becky Rae, slapped her knee as she talked now. “Lord in heaven, I couldn’t believe that dress Dora Hensley had on today. Those were the most bodacious flowers in that fabric design I’ve ever seen in all my born days. And on those hips of hers, they jiggled like Jell-O.”

  “Now, Becky Rae.” Nana chided her. “Let’s not be uncharitable. Besides, you’re not exactly a skinny woman yourself.”

  “No. But I do know how to dress for my weight.” She heaved a sigh. “I just do not understand how some women don’t show a lick of sense in the dresses they pick out for themselves.”

  “If they all wore pant suits most of them would look better,” Stacy interjected. She’d changed out of the dress she’d worn to church earlier and now wore old jeans and a plaid flannel shirt. Stacy was what Bowden would have called a tomboy or, in a less kind moment, a geek. But Spencer already liked her. He guessed Stacy and Zola might be near the same age.

  The Devon family were all sitting around the big dining room now, enjoying coffee, homemade caramel cake, and ice cream, after a huge Sunday after-church meal. Spencer felt pleasantly stuffed—like after Thanksgiving—and he was still working his way through the cake, drizzled with a sticky homemade caramel icing worth shouting about.

  Spencer counted eleven adults around the long dining room table and four children at the kitchen table around the corner. He could hear the children giggling periodically, and their young voices often trickled into the room with the adults.

  Wayne’s wife, Patricia, a sunny blonde, stood up. “I’m going to start clearing these dishes off, Nana. And Becky Rae and the girls and I are washing and putting up today. You’ve done enough cooking. You go out in the living room and visit with everyone.”

  There seemed to be a rumbling movement as everyone started to get up from the table.

  “That was a great meal, Mama,” Ray said. He pushed his glasses up on his friendly, smiling face. He turned to Spencer. “And it was good having you with us, Spencer. We all feel a little better about Raven’s Den being sold now that we’ve met you. Sounds, from what you told us, like you’re trying to keep the place natural—like God made it.”

  Zola’s grandfather, Vernon Devon, shook a warning finger at Spencer. “You be sure you don’t ever cut down that old tulip tree up toward the top of Shinbone Ridge. It must be nearly thirty feet in diameter. I remember I couldn’t even stretch my arms around it. There’s not many virgin trees around here like that one anymore.”

  Spencer smiled. “I know that tree. I’ve photographed it.”

  “Well, I’d like to see that photo.” Vernon licked a last dab of caramel icing off his finger before he left the dining room. “I can’t get up that ridgetop quite like I once did.”

  Spencer thought of suggesting he’d e-mail him a copy of the photo print of the tree but then changed his mind. He hadn’t even seen a computer in the house. “Mr. Devon, I’ll make you a copy of the picture and bring it by sometime.”

  Vernon nodded. “Well, that would be right good of you, Spencer. I hear tell you do good photo work. I’ll have to come down to your gallery someday. Maybe see some of your pictures.”

  Spencer smiled. Everyone seemed to be filing into the big living room at the front of the house now. Some of the family carried a few of the dining room chairs into the room with them as they shifted locations.

  Zola joined Spencer, still standing by her grandfather. “I think Spencer needs to get home, Papa.” She gave her grandfather a hug. “I may let him take me over to my house as he leaves.”

  He patted her fondly. “Well, you go tell your grandmother good-bye first. She went back to the bedroom.”

  “I’ll be right back,” she told Spencer.

  “Fine girl.” Vernon Devon looked after her. He turned his still-keen hazel eyes to Spencer. “Zola was raised for much of her life in the South Pacific islands. Perhaps you know that. Her mother was Tahitian. My son Stanford’s a missionary doctor over there
in Mooréa next to Tahiti. Warmhearted people the Tahitians—generous, kind, welcoming. Maybe a little too warmly affectionate.”

  He eyed Spencer candidly. “You ever take advantage of that affectionate streak in our girl and I’ll learn of it, boy. We watch our women real carefully here in the valley. We don’t condone none of them new ‘goings on’ you see on the television and hear about that young folk are doing these days. We still live by the Good Book. Just wanted you to know that right up front.”

  Spencer wasn’t quite sure what to say in reply. “I’ll remember that, sir.”

  “See that you do.” He nodded several times as if to affirm the words again.

  Zola came back then to save him. “Ready to go?”

  Spencer nodded gratefully.

  She gave him an odd look as they got into Spencer’s car out in the driveway. “What did Papa Vern say to you? You looked kind of stunned when I came out.”

  He grinned at her then. “He just warned me off.”

  Her eyebrows flew up. “He what?” She thought for a minute and then shook her head knowingly. “Oh, you mean he gave you the morals talk.”

  “He does that often?”

  She looked thoughtful. “He usually only does it with boys I’ve been dating for a while.” She grinned at him. “He didn’t show you his shotgun, did he?”

  “Thankfully, no.” Spencer shuddered.

  “Well, then you got off easy.” Zola laughed that warm, spontaneous laugh of hers.

  “Will you still come up to my place?” he asked.

  She stretched lazily. “Yes. If you’ll wait and let me change clothes first. I’ll want to hike back down, and I don’t want to do that in a dress.”

  Spencer started to say she looked nice in a dress but decided to keep that thought to himself. With the grandfather’s warning still rumbling in his mind, he wasn’t sure he wanted to get too close, too fast, to this girl who saw things in others’ lives all too clearly. He remembered then that the Daufuskie wise-woman’s husband left her while he lived on the island, said she caused him too much difficulty with her “knowing.”

  It wouldn’t be easy being close to a woman like Zola. And Spencer had dealt with enough difficult people in his past. He wanted his peace now.

  Perhaps the two could just be friends. Zola was an interesting girl.

  She changed clothes quickly while telling him to explore around the house. Zola lived in a rustic white farmhouse with a gray tin roof. A small, open front porch sat in the angle between the two sections of the farmhouse, and a screened porch opened off the kitchen in the back. Inside the house, a riot of rich colors and an eclectic blend of both Appalachian country and South Pacific island décor filled every room. Spencer grinned to see what looked like richly printed pareu fabric in the living room drapes and throw pillows right beside a Shaker table with Early American ladder-back chairs. He picked up a giant seashell that sat beside an ancient, antique clock on the mantel.

  “I found that shell on the beach at Mooréa,” Zola said, coming back into the room in jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt. She carried a lined jacket over her arm.

  He noticed she’d made some effort to pin up her froth of naturally curly hair into a clasp behind her head, but it was hopelessly drifting out of the clasp already.

  She pointed to the old clock. “That clock was my great-great-grandfather Devon’s.”

  “Nice mix of items everywhere.” He looked around him.

  “I’m a mix, too.” She shrugged. “It seems to suit me.”

  “It does suit you, and I like it.” He resisted a desire to reach out and touch her face. “Every spot in the house is interesting and seems to yearn to tell a story.”

  “Ahhh. There goes that artist in you speaking. I like that.” She led the way out the door. “We’d better go. The dog is wanting to get out at your house.”

  Spencer rolled his eyes. “Zeke has a dog door to an outdoor run, Zola.”

  She turned her brown eyes to his. “Yes, but he wants his walk. And he’s listening for your car.”

  As Spencer followed her out to his SUV he worried again about spending time with a woman who constantly popped out little personal details like she did. After all, a guy liked a little privacy. What if she read his mind when he was thinking something he didn’t want to share? Or when he was thinking something… well, sort of intimate. Would she just come right out and say what he was thinking? It creeped him out to even consider it.

  They wound their way out of the Jonas Creek valley and back to the parkway leading into Gatlinburg. Zola pointed out local spots of interest along the way and told him humorous stories. She was entertaining company.

  “Tell me how you ended up coming to Gatlinburg via Richmond, Virginia, and Savannah, Georgia.” She turned her bright face toward his with interest.

  “I was raised in Richmond, as I think I mentioned before.” Spencer tapped his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel as he replied. The traffic in Gatlinburg was heavy and slow today. “My parents own a rural place outside the city near a seventy-five-hundred-acre park called Pocahontas State Park. It’s about twenty minutes from Richmond. I grew up in a house near the park’s border and explored nearly every inch of it with my best friend, Peter Bradley.”

  “Do you still stay in touch with him?”

  “I do.” Thinking of Peter brought happy memories to mind. “Peter is a park ranger out in Yosemite. Whenever I go out West to do photography, I stay with him. He’s moved around a time or two to other national parks, so I’ve had a chance to visit each of the ones he’s worked with.”

  “And do you have brothers and sisters?”

  “I have an older brother and a younger sister.” He frowned. “As I’ve told you, I’m not very close to my family. My father inherited the Jackson Studio, a photography business that my grandfather Stettler Jackson started in downtown Richmond. It’s well-known there for weddings, special events, and portrait photography. All my family work in the business. My mother added a catering end, called Jackson Catering, after she and my father married. She and my sister and my brother’s wife work in different aspects of that. My brother works with my father and my grandfather.”

  Zola smiled. “Your grandfather still works in the business?”

  “He will until they drag him out with his toes up, if you know what I mean. He loves that business.” Spencer felt himself gripping the steering wheel tighter while he was talking about his family. Zola didn’t seem to notice his discomfort. It was good to know she couldn’t always know what he thought or felt.

  She looked out the window, watching the tourists milling around the sidewalks of Gatlinburg on a Sunday afternoon. “I guess you learned your photography skills from your family.”

  “My father taught me,” he admitted. “He always loved the out-of-doors and I liked to go on walks with him as a boy. He told me once he’d hoped to be a biologist, to teach biology in college. I learned a lot from him about nature. It didn’t interest my brother. That love of nature was the one thing my father and I had in common.”

  Spencer realized he’d told her more than he meant to.

  “It’s good you and your father had something in common you could share.” She smiled at him. “Those are good memories.”

  They were, and it was odd how Spencer found himself remembering those good times suddenly.

  “What took you to Savannah?” she asked, interrupting his thoughts.

  Spencer maneuvered the car into the turn lane and negotiated his way off the parkway to start up Ski Mountain Road before he answered. “I went to college there. The Savannah College of Art and Design has a fine photography program. I wanted a change, and my parents were supportive—after some argument—for me to go to Savannah. My mother’s parents, the Chatsworths, lived in the city then. That’s where my mother was from. My grandparents had a small apartment over their garage. It was agreed I could go to school in Savannah if I lived with them.”

  Her eyes brightened. “Did the
y live downtown in one of those gorgeous row houses?”

  He grinned. “Oh, yeah. In an old house steeped in history. It was a great place. I didn’t mind living there. I doubt I’d have cared much for dorm living. Not my thing.”

  “So why didn’t you go back home and join the family business?”

  Why do women always ask so many questions? Spencer thought. He put his car into low gear to climb the steep hill.

  She waited patiently for him to answer, looking at him with interest.

  Spencer considered what to say. “I discovered nature photography while in college. It captured me. I loved it in a way I’d never liked doing portraiture work or weddings back home. It answered some need in me. I went with it, grew in it, and never looked back.”

  Zola smiled. “I love that book you did of all the scenes of the coastal marshes. It was called Up Close on Georgia’s Barrier Islands. ”

  Spencer felt pleased she knew the name of the book. “That was my first publication. I’d been showing my photography at the gallery in Savannah where Aston worked, and he had a publisher come in one day saying he wished he knew a photographer who might do some coffee-table books of natural sights around the area. Aston told him about me; he asked me to write up a proposal and send some photo samples.”

  Cresting the mountaintop, Spencer started down the winding drive to his house. “The books are what really began to build my reputation as a photographer.”

  “You’ve done several, haven’t you?”

  “Five, and I’m working on the sixth. The money from the books helped me buy the gallery here in Gatlinburg. But now my photography is beginning to make good money on its own, as well.”

  “What is the new book you’re working on?” she asked.

  He considered whether to answer. He wasn’t a man prone to share his personal life freely. However, glancing over to see her waiting on his answer with such a rapt face dissolved his reluctance. “I think I’m going to call this new book Small Pleasures in the Shadow of the Mountains. I’m trying to find the unique and unusual to put in this book—the small unexpected pleasures you come across here in the Smokies.”


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