Summer of Faerie: “Carla and the Prez” by Loren Warnemuende

June is flying by in a blur of hot green days and cool blue nights (I sort of stole that phrasing from Tolkien). Pink peonies are nodding in our garden and paddle boarders and kayakers have been cruising by on the river. I wish I could bottle up all this lush, vibrant loveliness and save it for some slushy late winter afternoon. 

This week’s Summer of Faerie contribution is a short story by Loren Warnemuende, who has an Jane Austen-ish or George Eliot-esque mastery of character-creation. Whether protagonists or villains, she crafts believable, flesh-and-blood people with memories and desires that feel so real.

Loren took on a significant challenge in this fairy tale retelling by tackling the tale of King Thrushbeard, a lesser-known and highly shocking tale that would not be publicly acceptable today. If you don’t know it already, I highly recommend reading the original tale before you read her retelling. Enjoy!

Carla and the Prez

by Loren Warnemuende

Photo by David Givens

When Dad said I’d better get a job or start working toward a degree, I thought he was joking. I mean, I didn’t need to rush. For years, Dad made plenty in consulting, and even though he was teaching at a university now we had enough for a good life. The thing is, when we moved from suburban Michigan to the piney woods of East Texas for Dad’s teaching job, all my motivation to do something was completely squelched. Maybe it was the crazy humidity that bushed my straight hair and zapped my energy.

Despite this, after Dad’s first semester he declared I’d have to do something productive. I told him I needed more time to adjust, but when he heard about a job fair in nearby Glimmer he dragged me to it.

Now, I knew there were educated people in this part of the world, but honestly! These job reps were the epitome of Southern redneck. I told Dad they were. One barbecue restaurant rep had a gut like a lard bucket. “Dad! He lives in fat!” I whispered. Then there was the hotel rep who called me “Dahling” and “Sweetie.” I told Dad that she’d never have gotten away with that condescending terminology if she’d been up north.

Every one of them was like that, but the clincher was the last—a guy around my age. When I stepped up to his booth, he tipped his cowboy hat and I blurted out, “Hey, it’s the President!”

Dad turned beet red and this fellow asked (in a perfect Southern drawl), “Sorry, Ma’am?”

“You look like G. W. Bush!” I laughed.

The guy stared at me, his face kind of white, and dad started dragging me off.

“Bye Prez!” I laughed as we left. He was cute.

“I can’t believe your behavior,” Dad hissed. “What’s gotten into you, Carla?”

“Dad,” I sighed, “You and Mom didn’t raise me so I could work for some local yokels.”

Dad ran his hand over his forehead, and groaned. At dinner the next evening, he put his fork down and looked at me.

“Since you won’t seriously look at work or school, we’ve decided you’ll take the first job we find you.”

“But Dad!”

“No buts. In fact, I’ve arranged a job interview for you.”

I cried, but Dad was set. The next day he drove me to Glimmer and pulled up at the local Whataburger.

“Are we getting lunch?” I asked.

“Oh no, this is it,” he smiled grimly.

And he sent me into a fast food place to interview! I almost walked out when the manager greeted me. I thought the job fair folks were stereotypical Southerners, but this guy! His name, he said, was Joe Bob and he had a set of real Bubba teeth. I endured his drawl and spoke very properly back to him. I mean, he was polite and I didn’t want to be rude, but I wanted to clarify the difference between us. Finally, he stood and stuck out his hand.

“Welcome to the team, Miz Carla,” he grinned around those awful teeth. “You’ll be workin’ with Mindie.”

I started the next day, and sure enough, working at Whataburger was boring. Glimmer’s a one-stoplight town, and we were never busy. Thankfully Mindie was fun, and entertained me with all kinds of stories about the area. Her ancestors had lived near Glimmer since Texas was a Republic, and before that hailed from Ireland. Her family had a signed land deed and red hair to back her claims. Even though she was biased, Mindie liked my stories about winters and the gorgeous clear lakes in Michigan.

Glimmer wasn’t pretty, but the pasture lands around it were. I looked forward to the daily rides in and out of town because I loved to watch the sleek cows and horses browsing in the early spring fields. Mindie lived near me so she drove me home each day. Every evening we took a little farm road to my house. The first time we spotted a white pickup parked along the road by a field and this cowboy leaned against the truck, his eyes on the setting sun and a camera in hand. He heard us and turned, touched his hat, then went back to his view.

I gasped. “That was Prez!”

“Who?” Mindie asked. “Wait, you mean Rob there?”

But it was him, the job fair guy. Mindie cracked up when I explained the nickname and agreed there was a resemblance.

“So does he live around here?”

Mindie looked at me like I was crazy.

“That field he was by?” she said. “That’s just one on his family’s ranch.”

Well that floored me. I started to wonder what kind of job he’d been offering. Every evening after that I’d see Prez there by that field eyeing the sunset, and I’d wonder.

Most people who came to Whataburger were pretty nice. I had to admit there was a lot of truth about Southern charm. Even when someone obviously thought I was a nitwit they were polite. Joe Bob, bad teeth and all, was a decent manager. He complimented my work and started giving me other jobs—he said I had good organizational and communication skills.

But then one horrible day came at the beginning of May. I was at the register when this guy strode in like he owned the place. He wore ritzy sunglasses and didn’t even take them off inside. His hair was slicked back and his expensive gray sports coat was slung over his shoulder. Leaning over the counter, he pushed his glasses down his nose and glared at me.

“Bacon and cheese burger,” he said, his accent straight out of the upper Midwest. “No onions, no cheese. Mayo, ketchup—no mustard. Fries. Large. And pop—make it a large, too.”

I gaped at him. It had been so long since I’d heard the Midwest accent it took me a second to understand him. I even had to mentally translate “pop” to “soda.” And he was so rude!

The guy stood and tapped his foot. “Well? I don’t have all day!”

I mumbled an apology and tried to put his order in. He’d so rattled me that I messed up; then he got mad and started calling me all kinds of names so I messed up again. Mindie organized the meal but when we handed him the tray he went ballistic and threw the whole thing over the counter at us. The soda soaked me top to toe. Then he turned on his heel and stalked out.

Mindie helped me mop up, but I was so upset it was hard to say how much of my soaked shirt was from soda and how much was tears. Joe Bob came in while we were still cleaning. When we told him what happened he looked worried.

“That was our new boss,” he said. “I think he was testing you, Miz Carla.”

“Well, I failed!” I sobbed. “Now what am I going to do?”

Joe Bob ruminated, then his eyes lit up.

“I got a job for you gals if y’all can spare an evening. My sister is catering barbecue for a big shindig tomorrow night. If y’all can help, the cash can tide ya over if y’need to find a new job.”

Mindie shrugged and I agreed reluctantly. Dad was going to be sad I’d lost my job. And, much as I hated to admit it, I’d come to like my Whataburger gig.

It turned out Dad and Mom had a year-end thing at Dr. Hart’s, the university president, so Mindie picked me up the next evening. We drove out through pastures wreathed with Queen Anne’s Lace and golden bitterweed. We passed the field where I always saw Prez and his pickup, but he wasn’t there. Eventually Mindie turned in at a set of wrought iron gates and worked our way up a winding drive through scrubby pines and live oaks. Suddenly we rounded a bend and the house opened up before us.

“What in the world?” I gasped. “This in East Texas?”

The house looked like someone had picked up a colonial mansion and set it down in the piney woods. Its brick face rose tall and classic, the front lined with cedars, and a multicolored gravel circle fanned out before it. Fields opened up behind gridded with pretty white fences.

“Oh, I know whose house this is!” Mindie laughed, driving us around the corner to the kitchen entry. “It’s President Hart’s house. He modeled it after Mt. Vernon.”

“What?” I strained around to see the cars pulling up on the front circle to let out visitors. “My parents’ll be here and all the profs who know me. How embarrassing!”

“Buck up,” Mindie said. “It’s an honest living.”

Joe Bob met us at the kitchen door looking scrubbed and uncomfortable in a bolo tie, buttoned shirt, and fancy jeans. He waved us into the lofty, flagstoned room and introduced us to his sister who looked a lot more polished than him.

“I gotta run and take care of other details, gals,” he said. “See y’all ‘round.”

Joe Bob’s sister put us to work and soon we were up to our ears in brisket and cole slaw. The wait staff scurried in and out to collect trays and I glanced out the tall windows at the back portico and manicured lawns filling with dressed-up folks. I couldn’t help but wish I was out there with Mom and Dad.

After a bit Mindie took a quick break. When she returned she caught Joe Bob’s sister who nodded to me.

“Carla, can you take out a fresh pitcher of sweet tea? I need Mindie here.”

My heart dropped, but I nodded and grabbed the pitcher, the glass slippery with condensation. I pushed out the kitchen door onto the portico and turned, only to see Prez—that is, Rob, the sunset watcher. He stood chatting casually by President Hart. Prez looked classy in his cowboy hat, his bolo tie glinting in the late sun. I stepped behind a pillar and swallowed. What was he here for?

“Carla, isn’t it?” One of the wait staff pulled up by me. He motioned to the president’s group. “Dr. Hart’s son was asking for tea.”

“Dr. Hart’s…that’s his son?” I stared around the pillar. The president’s son looked up as I moved.

“Well, yeh—his son runs this ranch,” the waiter said, rolling his eyes.

I squeezed mine tight.

“Excuse me, Ma’am. Could I get some tea, please?”

My eyes flew open to see Prez standing there, smiling pleasantly. His smile widened.

“Wait—you’re Dr. Moore’s daughter, aren’t you? Come on out and say hey.”

He took me by the elbow before I could speak and maneuvered me into the open. I stumbled a little and my pitcher sloshed this way and that. I tried to steady it, but it slipped in my hands. Prez glanced over, then paused as if to help, but that threw me completely off balance. The whole pitcher slid out of my hands and fell at my feet sending a wave of sweet tea up my legs.

“Oh!” I cried, and then I shrieked, “Ow!”

Little fiery pinpricks lit into my sandaled feet and up my ankles. I looked down and saw ants running all over their mound and swarming up my legs. “Ow!”

I started dancing and slapping like an idiot. Prez grabbed me by the waist and lifted me off and away from the mound. His shoulders were shaking with laughter, but he pulled out a handkerchief and bent down to wipe the beasts off of me.

“Welcome to East Texas, Miss Carla,” he said.

My face must have been as red as Glimmer’s traffic light. I could see folks gawking, and my parents hurrying toward me. My soaked legs and feet burned and ached from the fire ant bites and the aroma of sweet tea saturated the air around me.

But for all that distraction, there was something in the way Prez spoke that stopped me cold. I stared down into the kind eyes lifted up to me.

“Joe Bob?” I whispered.

He grinned then and stood, his hand in the pocket of his fancy jeans. When he pulled it out, he held a set of fake teeth—Joe Bob’s teeth.

“Aren’t you ‘Rob’?” I gasped, remembering what Mindie had called him.

He tipped his hat slightly. “To my family—yep. Joseph Robert Hart at your service.”

“But…but…why?”

I was so confused and mortified. My folks came up and I saw Dr. Hart nearby. They all were smiling.

Prez had the decency to look chagrined, but Dad said, “Honey, I put him up to it.”

“No, Sir,” Prez said. “I’ll take the fall. You see, Miss Carla, I was fuming when you called me Prez at the job fair. I was so sick of that nickname from school days—it didn’t help that my dad is a university president. Then your Dad contacted me and apologized, and said if you shaped up you were more than qualified for the job I had. I decided I’d test you a bit and your dad agreed, so Mindie let me play my game….”

“Mindie?” I asked blankly.

“She owns the Glimmer Whataburger,” Prez admitted. “And she’s my cousin.”

“She owns it? But what about the new boss?”

Prez coughed and pulled a pair of snazzy shades from his breast pocket. He put them on and said without a hint of a southern drawl, “You gonna to get me some pop since you spilled all that tea?”

“That was you, too?” I yelped.

“Well, you enjoyed Whataburger so much I didn’t know another way to get you out here,” Prez said, removing the sunglasses and falling back into his drawl.

I shook my head, my face still hot. I looked at Mom and Dad who kept grinning like fools, then at Dr. Hart who was trying to reign in a smile.

“Will you forgive me?” Prez—I mean Rob—said. “I shouldn’t get so touchy about who I am. I would have let up a while back, but Mindie was having fun getting to know you. You’ve shown in the past few months that there’s a lot more to you than some sassy-mouthed northerner. You’d do great in the office management job we have if you want it.”

He looked so sincere and apologetic. I sighed and looked down at the welts rising all over my feet.

“I forgive you. I’m sorry I was so rude,” I said. “If you can forgive me, I think I’d like to take that job you have…as long as I don’t have to deal with obnoxious northerners or fire ants.”

Loren Warnemuende

When she was in fourth grade, Loren won a story-writing contest and decided that she’d grow up to be a writer. Since then God has led her into many roles including wife to her Renaissance man, Kraig, and mom and teacher to their three kids. Loren also teaches Worldview and Bible to high schoolers in a homeschool co-op, and adults at church. Through all these roles writing has been a source of hope and a way to share the stories and big ideas that fill her mind and heart. Loren lived most of her life in Michigan, but now calls East Texas home. You can find more of her sporadic writing on her blog Willing, Wanting, Waiting…..

The Magic of Late Winter, Part II: Guest Post by Loren Warnemuende

Pink blossoms
Photos by Loren Warnemuende

Last week, I posted the first in a series on the magic of late winter, or the special beauty of this season between midwinter mystery and spring awakening. This week, I have the privilege of posting an achingly beautiful piece by Loren Warnemuende, another writer-friend from The Habit writing community. Loren’s encouragement and wisdom have been a blessing to me in my writing, and her work has the warmth and richness of the first golden day of spring.

Snow and Flower

by Loren Warnemuende

I remember a day in late January, 2009, when the snow fell thick and heavy. It fell unhurriedly; it had plenty of time, and plenty to dump. Southeast Michigan in January tends more to gray days and ice, but on that day, the skies cried soft snow.

I drove, my mind churning, my tires cutting through ruts of previous vehicles. One of those vehicles carried my daughter Keren—an ambulance that sped far ahead, out of sight. I didn’t know if Keren still lived.

The snow paused. A shaft of light cut through the clouds and caressed a white field. It was as if God reached down to remind me, “I am here. I am holding all of you.” The cold and snow lingered, the heart monitor flatlined, but the sunlight touched the field.

Six months later we cleared lava rock and weeping mulberries from our yard, replacing those horrors with grass and a dogwood tree. Though Michigan dogwoods can’t compare to their southern relatives who shake out white and pink blooms each spring like antebellum debutantes at a ball, the Michigan dogwood defies winter. We trusted its pretense of fragility and delicacy when we planted our memorial for Keren. We watched our dogwood through the months. Around Keren’s seventh birthday, the leaves fell, mourning the end of summer. On the first cold January anniversary, the tree’s branches stuck out straight and brown, bare of the red berries they bore at Christmas. April arrived trumpeting resurrection. I watched the tree. Each day I checked it. Each day it stood unchanged. Then one day I noticed woody knobs tipping some branches. On others, brown points cut through the ends of boughs. A month passed from knob to bloom. There were days I bit my lip to resist shrieking with impatience. I wanted to see the flowers! Other days I inspected each knob and point, marveling at the process of glory superseding lifelessness. The sharp-tipped branches forced out pairs of leaves, raised upward like hands in praise. The knobs expanded until they broke, quartered, and unfurled crosswise, not into petals, but four leaf-like bracts. At first these bracts twisted brokenly about the center. Yet life flowed and the bracts spread, flushed, and dimpled. They imitated petals, each set of four surrounding a crown of tiny yellow flowers. The tree held her wine-red blossoms to the clear blue spring sky.

I don’t know how many years it will be till I see Keren again. Life has charged on, bringing new challenges and changes. Our family has lived in a different country, and we now hail from East Texas where great dogwoods bloom in March, and the magnolia in front of our dining room blossoms in January, dropping pink petals as softly and slowly as the snow fell that day eleven years ago. Sometimes I long for our reunion with Keren—I want to see her flower! Other times I feel like God is forcing sharp points through bare branches in my life. Yet then there are days I am enthralled by the blossoms God is slowly unfurling in those of us who wait. Often they seem warped and broken, but someday our blooms and leaves will be complete.

Photo of Loren Warnemuende

Loren Warnemuende

When she was in fourth grade, Loren won a story-writing contest and decided that she’d grow up to be a writer. Since then God has led her into many roles, including six-and-a-half marvelous, stretching years as mom to Keren, who was born with Trisomy 18. Loren is wife to her Renaissance man, Kraig, and mom and teacher to their three kids (who stretch her differently than Keren did!). Loren also teaches Worldview and Bible to high schoolers in a homeschool coop, and adults at church. Through all these roles writing has been a source of hope, healing, and stress-relief. Loren lived most of her life in Michigan, but lived in Guadalajara, Mexico, for two years and now calls East Texas home. You can find more of her sporadic writing on her blog: Willing, Wanting, Waiting….