"Cozy" was the word used most often to describe the small town of Crozet, not quaint, historic, or pretty. Central Virginia in general, and Albemarle County in particular, abounded in quaint, historic, and pretty places, but Crozet was not one of them. A homey energy blanketed the community. Many families had lived there for generations, others were newcomers attracted to the sensuous appeal of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Old or new, rich or poor, black or white, the citizens of the town nodded and waved to one another while driving their cars, called and waved if on opposite sides of the street, and anyone walking along the side of the road was sure to get the offer of a ride. Backyard hedges provided the ideal setting for enriching gossip as gardeners took respite from their labors. Who did what to whom, who said what to whom, who owed money to whom, and, that glory of chat, who slept with whom. The buzz never stopped. Even in the deepest snows, a Crozetian would pick up the phone to transmit the latest. If it was really juicy, he or she would bundle up and hurry through the snow for a hot cup of coffee, that companion to steamy gossip shared with a friend.
The hub of the town consisted of its post office, the three main churches--Lutheran, Baptist, Episcopal, and one small offshoot, the Church of the Holy Light--the schools--kindergarten through twelfth--Market Shiflett's small grocery store, and Crozet Pizza. Since a person worshipped at one church at a time, the goings-on in the other three might remain a mystery. The small market provided a handsome opportunity to catch up, but you really had to buy something. Also, one had to be careful that Market's fat gray cat, Pewter, didn't steal your food before you had the chance to eat it. Schools were a good source, too, but if you were childless or if your darlings were finally in college, you were out of that pipeline. This left the post office the dubious honor of being the premier meeting place, or Gossip Central.
The postmistress--a title which she preferred to the official one of postmaster--Mary Minor Haristeen rarely indulged in what she termed gossip, which is to say if she couldn't substantiate a story, she didn't repeat it. Otherwise, she was only too happy to pass on the news. Her unofficial assistant, Mrs. Miranda Hogendobber, the widow of the former postmaster, relished the "news," but she drew the line at character assassination. If people started dumping all over someone else, Mrs. Hogendobber usually calmed them down or plain shut them up.
Harry, as Mary Minor was affectionately known, performed her tasks wonderfully well. Quite young for her position, Harry benefited from Miranda's wisdom. But Harry's most valuable assistants were Mrs. Murphy, her tiger cat, and Tee Tucker, her Welsh corgi. They wallowed in gossip. Not only did the goings-on of the humans transfix them, but so did the shenanigans of the animal community, reported by any dog accompanying its master into the post office. Whatever the dogs missed, Pewter found out next door. When she had something to tell, the round gray cat would run to the back door of the post office to spill it. Over the last few years, the cats had banged on the door so much, creating such a racket, that Harry installed a pet door so the friends could come and go as they pleased. Harry had designed a cover she could lock down over the animals' entrance, since the post office had to be secured each night.
Not that there was much to steal from the Crozet post office--stamps, a few dollars. But Harry diligently obeyed the rules, as she was a federal employee, a fact that endlessly amused her. She loathed the federal government and barely tolerated the state government, considering it the refuge of the mediocre. Still, she drew a paycheck from that bloated government on the north side of the Potomac, so she tried to temper her opinions.
Miranda Hogendobber, on the other hand, vividly remembered Franklin Delano Roosevelt, so her perception of government remained far more positive than Harry's. Just because Miranda remembered FDR did not mean, however, that she would reveal her age.
On this late July day the mimosas were crowned with the pink and gold halos of their fragile blossoms. The crepe myrtle and hydrangeas rioted throughout the town, splashes of purple and magenta here, white there. Not much else bloomed in the swelter of the Dog Days, which began on July 3 and finished August 15, so the color was appreciated.
So far, less than two inches of rain had fallen that month. The viburnums drooped. Even the hardy dogwoods began to curl up, so Mrs. Hogendobber would sprinkle the plants early in the morning and late in the evening to avoid losing too much moisture to evaporation. Her garden, the envy of the town, bore testimony to her vigilance.
The mail sorted, the two women paused for their morning tea break. Well, tea for Harry, coffee for Miranda. Mrs. Murphy sat on the newspaper. Tucker slept under the table at the back of the office.
"Is this a honey day or a sugar day, Mrs. H.?" Harry asked as the kettle boiled.
"A honey day." Miranda smiled. "I'm feeling naturally sweet."
Harry rolled her eyes and twirled a big glob of honey off the stick in the brown crockery honey pot. She then removed the teabag from her own drink, wrapping the string around it on the spoon to squeeze the last drops of strong tea into her cup. Her mug had a horse's tail for a handle, the rest of the cup representing the horse's body and head. Miranda's mug was white with block letters that read WHAT PART OF NO DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND?
"Mrs. Murphy, I'd like to read the paper." Miranda gently lifted the tiger cat's bottom and slid the paper out from underneath.
This action was met with a furious grumble, ears swept back. "I don't stick my paws on your rear end, Miranda, besides which there's never anything in the paper worth reading." She thumped over to the little back door and walked outside.
"In a mood." Miranda sat down and looked over the front page.
"What's the headline?" Harry asked.
"Two people injured on I-64. What else? Oh, this Threadneedle virus threatens to affect our computers August first. I would be perfectly happy if our new computer were fatally ill."
"Oh, now, it's not that bad." Harry reached for the sports page.
"Bad?" Mrs. Hogendobber pushed her glasses up her nose. "If I do one little thing out of sequence, a rude message appears on that hateful green screen and I have to start all over. There are so many buttons to punch. Modern improvements--time wasters, that's what they are, time wasters masquerading as time savers. I can remember more in my noggin than a computer chip can. And tell me, why do we need one in the post office? All we need is a good scale and a good meter. I can stamp the letters myself!"
Seeing that Miranda was in one of her Luddite moods, Harry decided not to argue. "Not everyone who works in the postal service is as smart as you are. They can't remember as much. For them the computer is a godsend." Harry craned her neck to see the photo of the car wreck.
"What a nice thing to say." Mrs. Hogendobber drank her coffee. "Wonder where Reverend Jones is? He's usually here by now. Everyone else has been on time."
"A thousand years is as a day in the eyes of the Lord. An hour is as a minute to the rev."
"Careful now." Miranda, a devout believer, although those beliefs could occasionally be modified to suit circumstances, wagged her finger. "You know, at the Church of the Holy Light we don't make jokes about the Scripture." Miranda belonged to a small church. Truthfully, they were renegades from the Baptist church. Twenty years ago a new minister had arrived who set many parishioners' teeth on edge. After much fussing and fuming, the discontents, in time-honored tradition, broke away and formed their own church. Mrs. Hogendobber, the stalwart of the choir, had been a guiding force in the secession. When the offending minister packed his bags and left some six years after the rebellion, the members of the Church of the Holy Light were so enjoying themselves that they declined to return to the fold.
A tiny rumble at the back door announced that a pussycat was entering. Mrs. Murphy rejoined the group. A louder rumble indicated that Pewter was in tow.
"Hello," Pewter called.
"Hello there, kitty." Mrs. Hogendobber answered the meow. When Harry first took over Mr. Hogendobber's job and brought the cat and dog along with her, Miranda railed against the animals. The animals slowly won her over, although if you asked Miranda how she felt about people who talk to animals, she would declare that she herself never talked to animals. The fact that Harry was a daily witness to her conversations would not have altered her declaration one whit.
"Tucker, Pewter's here," Mrs. Murphy said.
Tucker opened one eye then shut it again.
"Guess I won't tell her the latest." Pewter languidly licked a paw.
Both eyes opened and the little dog raised her pretty head. "Huh?"
"I'm not talking to you. You can't be bothered to greet me when I come to visit."
"Pewter, you spend half your life in here. I can't act as though it's the first time I've seen you in months," Tucker explained.
Pewter flicked her tail, then leapt on the table. "Anything to eat?"
"Pig." Mrs. Murphy laughed.
"What's the worst they can say if you ask? No, that's what," Pewter said. "Then again, they might say yes. Mrs. Hogendobber must have something. She can't walk into the post office empty-handed."
The cat knew her neighbor well because Mrs. Hogendobber had whipped up a batch of glazed doughnuts. As soon as her paws hit the table, Harry reached over to cover the goodies with a napkin, but too late. Pewter had spied her quarry. She snagged a piece of doughnut, which came apart in marvelous moist freshness. The cat soared off the table and onto the floor with her prize.
"That cat will die of heart failure. Her cholesterol level must be over the moon." Mrs. Hogendobber raised an eyebrow.
"Do cats have cholesterol?" Harry wondered out loud.
"I don't see why not. Fat is fat..."
From the Paperback edition.