In this charming first novel, Tracey D. Buchanan introduces the unforgettable Mrs. Minerva Place. Minerva is a quirky widow who prefers communing with the dead to dealing with the living, but when a young boy and his father burst into her world, her life in 1950’s small-town Paducah is turned on its head. Publisher’s Weekly called the novel “…one to savor.” Please enjoy the excerpt below.
Excerpt from Toward the Corner of Mercy and Peace
Mrs. Minerva Place knew they thought her odd. That she didn’t mind. Kept them out of her hair. But crazy? Crazy was a whole other matter. Preoccupation with a cemetery should not qualify one as insane.
“Oh, Minerva, don’t be so dramatic,” she said as she marched down Charity Avenue (was talking aloud to yourself another sign?) “It’s just your imagination.”
And with that lapse of concentration in where she placed each step, her heel—a modest, practical heel though it was—got crossways with the gravel and turned her ankle. Faster than a blink she lay splayed atop the resting place of—she twisted to see—Electra Eliza Barkley.
Minerva squinted. Tiny Johnson’s face hovered above hers upside down. His eyebrows seemed to be speaking. No, that was his mustache where his forehead should be.
“Yes.” Of course, it was her. What kind of inane question was that?
“You all right? You’re lucky you didn’t fall over there.” Tiny pointed to a freshly dug grave. He laughed and spit. Tobacco juice arced toward her. “Wouldn’t that have been something?”
Minerva rolled to her side.
“You need help?” He offered a hand caked in dirt. She gripped the headstone, then—what choice did she have?—she reached for Tiny’s hand. It was moist, which repulsed her further. She grunted as she stood, a muffled “Oomph.”
Tiny laughed again. “You’re a big gal, ain’t ya?”
“Thank you, Mr. Johnson.”
She reminded herself that Tiny Johnson wasn’t right in the head. Still, her face burned. “I’m fine.” She motioned him away with hand sweeps. Hopefully he would forget this soon. If anyone else had seen her, the news would spread like poison ivy. Just yesterday the whole beauty shop lit up like a Christmas tree with news about Bess Truman. As if what the first lady wore was their business. Honestly, people would meddle about anything these days.
“Why do I see you over here all the time? If you’re…”
“Forevermore. Mr. Johnson, just go on and leave me be.” Oh, my stars. He looked like he might cry.
Minerva clapped her moss-bruised hands. Tiny picked up his shovel.
“Well,” he offered. She concentrated on the leaves and bits clinging to her tweed coat. The last thing she wanted was to make eye contact and reengage him.
Finally, Tiny Johnson ambled toward the grave he had been digging. Minerva gathered what she’d dropped—paper, pen, crayons, toothbrush. The jar of water had rolled out of her bag and rested by the headstone.
“Mrs. Barkley, I’ll be on my way.” She addressed the headstone with a nod.
“You say something?” Tiny called. The man had such keen hearing. He was already a few gravesites down the way when he stopped to check with her. Hope filled his question.
“No.” Minerva didn’t bother to turn around. She continued toward the corner of Mercy and Peace, pebbles maneuvering under her careful steps.
The weather-worn marker engraved with a weeping willow and German inscription sat crooked, leaning as if it wanted to forfeit its job. She laid out her tools, dipped the toothbrush in the Ball jar, and scrubbed the words. As the water ran over the ridges like tears, her throat tightened, and her nose tingled. This feeling startled her. She felt like a doctor listening to a patient’s heart with a stethoscope, intimate. Or maybe she was upset over the fall. Who knew?
Once she cleaned the stone, she wrapped the butcher paper around the front of the marker, then secured the paper with duct tape. She chose a dark crayon—purple for this Frau—tore the paper jacket off, held it flat against the stone, and rubbed. As the words appeared Minerva imagined this was how war spies felt when a message in invisible ink materialized. A snuffle of a laugh escaped through her nose. War spies. Minerva, really.
The words emerged like ghosts on the butcher paper:
Für die Liebe und Freundschaft
Seiner früh verstorbenen Frau,
Margaretha Retter, Geburtsname,
Stecken, wird dieses Denkmal gewidmet
von ihren trauernden Ehemann und Kinder.
Sie wurde in Siebeldingen, Deutschland am 6. Juli 1819 geboren
Und verstarb nach kurzer Krankheit im Januar 1845.
Weich und Peaceful im Herrn
Ruhe ihre Asche.
On this November afternoon, the air awash with the last of the leaves dancing their way to earth, she inhaled the perfume of woodsy remains then sighed, satisfied. She rolled up the rubbing and slipped it into her coat pocket.
Nella must have been looking out her kitchen window waiting to ambush her, because the minute Minerva pulled in her carport, her neighbor bustled out her side door.
“Forevermore. What now?” Minerva muttered. She liked her neighbor fine, but some days she wished she could hang a closed sign on her door.
“Have you been to the cemetery, Minerva?”
“What can I do for you, Nella?”
“Oh, not a thing. I’m bringing you a piece of pie.” Nella held up a plate covered in tin foil. Her smile revealed a smear of red lipstick on her teeth. Nella, still in her 40s, wore too much makeup―lipstick, rouge, eyeliner, and mascara. All that for a simple weekday.
“C’mon in.” She gestured with her finger to indicate Nella should clean her teeth.
“Oh, thanks.” Nella rubbed and re-smiled. Minerva nodded. “Did you hear about the house around the corner selling—the Sullivan house?”
“Huh-uh,” Minerva called from the hall where she hung her coat. She noticed Nella had gotten a new coat. A plaid involving gold, red, olive, blue, brown, and orange. Loud. Minerva wouldn’t say vulgar or obnoxious, but borderline. “Who bought it?”
“Somebody moving from out of town. Somebody with the plant.” Nella transferred the wedge of pie from her dish onto one of Minerva’s plates and licked her finger. “Apple.”
“Very thoughtful.” Nella liked to experiment with her culinary skills, though Minerva kept trying to convince her that she preferred straight forward dishes. Exotic fare such as Tuna Fritters with Cheese Sauce, Peas Juliette, or Fritos Veal Roll did not, could not, measure up to a simple meatloaf. Minerva tolerated experimental sweet recipes better. Nella had made a chocolate cake with mayonnaise—mayonnaise!—and it had been delicious.
© 2023 Tracey D. Buchanan
Tracey Buchanan crashed into the literary world when she was six and won her first writing award. Fast forward through years as a journalist, mom, volunteer, freelance writer, editor, artist, and circus performer (not really, but wouldn’t that be something?) and you find her happily planted in the world of fiction with her debut novel, TOWARD THE CORNER OF MERCY AND PEACE (June 2023, Regal House Publishing.) She and her husband Kent Buchanan live in Paducah, Ky. You can find her catch-all blog at TraceyBuchanan.com.
Photo by J. Dodson
Love Minerva, and will be buying this book. I’ve got to know more!