Coral Mines was a small farming town in Oregon. Population: 904, at least before Mary-Beth Coolidge had twins, and Wharton Burroughs died of a heart attack after blowing out the candles on his 74th birthday cake. Their town hall was a multi-purpose space hosting farmers markets, community dances, and ice cream socials. Thursday was bingo night. The single church held weddings, funerals, baptisms, and potluck dinners outside of Sunday morning mass. A quiet library sat at one end of Main Street, a solitary convenience store at the other. Folks had to drive twenty minutes to the neighboring town of Beggar's Arch if they wanted to go food shopping at a proper grocery or spend a night at the cinema. Most Coral Miners preferred their own happy community though, the congregation content to gossip about who had been seen canoodling with whom. But when the corner store received an order containing a big pink dildo, Helen Woolworth-Abernathy lost her goddamned mind.
It was a sunny summer day when Helen's husband Joseph began sending out invitations for his wife's 65th birthday bash. Recently retired but still spending the majority of his days out in the field, Joseph was a good man who walked with a slight crook in his back. He never moved faster than he could throw a baseball and spoke with a similar steady credence.
"You got the whole town on the VIP list," he said, lumbering to his pouting wife. He leaned over with an unanswered kiss. Helen was cross-stitching by the window and mumbling to herself.
"Might have to rethink it once I figure out who decided to give themselves to the Devil," she said.
"No need for that, dear. To each their own," Joseph said. He walked to the rounded refrigerator and pulled open the heavy door looking for an ice-cold bottle of pop. Day-old meatloaf and week-old lasagna watched him through their shrink-wrapped skins.
"Careful," Helen said. "You don't want to end up being the one person not invited to my big day."
"My beautiful blushing bride, love of my life, perhaps consider letting people's private matters remain private."
The deputy had called Joseph into town earlier that week when Helen caused a scene in the convenience store. She had been inside when the salesman was restocking, unpacking thick cardboard boxes filled with cans of sauce, bread, and potato chips. One contained the big pink dildo, which he promptly put in a glass case next to the cigarettes behind the counter and out of sight for children. When Helen saw, she flipped a lid and threatened to burn to store to the ground if the devil's dangle wasn't immediately removed.
"Sorry ma'am," the clerk said. "It's just business."
Helen didn't like that answer. She stomped her feet and shouted like a toddler in a tantrum. She tore open bags of potato chips and smashed jugs of milk that exploded white over the floor never once seeing the irony. When the deputy showed, the store looked like a charging bull had come through.
Joseph came to pick her up from the authorities. Helen refused to apologize and spent the entire drive huffing and puffing with arms crossed claiming that she wasn't responsible for the damages because she was acting on behalf of God. She held that same mentality sitting and knitting by the window.
"I know I shouldn't," Joseph said, popping the cap off a bottle of Coca-Cola, "it ain't good for the ticker, but dang, it's delicious."
"Maybe it was Karen Walker. You know she's been seen by the pond with a traveling man. I betcha she's giving herself to lust in an effort to catch the eye of a man that isn't her husband!" Helen said. She stopped knitting and leaned over to jot some thoughts in her notebook marked Sinners. Joseph sighed.
"You know as well as I do that Karen Walker is a writer. That there's her agent who, as I recall, is a fine gentleman with no drive to lay with a woman, if you'll hear it."
"A double sin…" Helen said, wide-eyed. She scribbled more notes. Pages had been filled with the names of the community and possible motives for purchasing the lurid item, which had been purchased. The Sunday following the incident, Helen snuck away from the post-sermon congregation while Joseph was in the bathroom and went to the convenience store. A different clerk—a young man with greasy hair in a side-part—worked the desk, which might have been the only reason she was let inside.
"Oh good, you got rid of the…the um…" she said, pointing to the empty glass case.
"Yup, sold that sucker pretty quick," the clerk said. He was reading the funny pages and barely looked up.
"Sold?! Do you mean to say that someone in our town bought that atrocity?"
"Yes, ma'am. Hey, you ever seen this guy who works in an office? Hilarious stuff," he said. He held up the newspaper, pointing to a comic strip of Dilbert. Helen ripped the flimsy paper out of his hands, eyes raging.
"Who bought it?!" she asked.
"I can't tell you that, ma'am," the clerk said. He collected the paper with a disappointed frown, folded it, and sat on his stool.
Helen left the store and stomped back to church. People were still enjoying coffee and pastries and it seemed that Joseph hadn't even noticed she was gone. Helen knew she was at ground zero for a story destined to make national headlines. She could see it so clearly in her mind. Town Saved by Inquisitive, Detail-Oriented Hero!
Joseph was chatting with Marcus and Marjorie Hamill whose eccentric taste in Halloween home décor might have been a gateway to deviant behavior. Lucinda Burns was a young widow and could often be found in the bars getting chatty with farmhands. David Teymor did a stint in prison for larceny during his early twenties but had turned to God in an effort to change.
For the rest of that Sunday, Helen judged the congregation taking mental note of who might have invited a forbidden phallus into their womb.
Monday night, Helen called an emergency meeting of the Bingo Babes, a select group of powerful community women who got together once a month to discuss issues facing Coral Mines. They also played bingo every Thursday at the Town Hall. A special table was reserved near the host for them and them alone. The Bingo Babes was an invite-only club, Helen being a founding member.
Janice Porter was the other founder. She was the heiress of a dairy farm empire and held the ears of local political powers. When people thought of Janice, they thought of her big, gaudy broaches proudly displayed on her left side—same as her heart, god bless.
Maureen St. Cuppins was among the first to be invited. She dyed her hair autumn red when nature tried to paint it snowy white and told people it was au naturale. Maureen's husband was crippled when a tractor's braking safety had rusted out and a tire rolled over his leg as he was climbing down. The company settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, but Maureen and her husband never had to worry about money again.
Phoebe Bouvier was invited at the same time as Maureen. She was Coral Mines royalty. Her father had served as mayor, and her grandfather had taken the initiative to pave the roads funding it out of his own pocket. This act ultimately settled the town into what it became. Phoebe was a firecracker of a woman who was loud, brash, and unapologetic about her feelings. She drank wine like it was water, and Miller Lite like it was wine. If the Bingo Babes were denied a request, Phoebe was called in to raise hell and tip the scales in their favor. It worked every time.
Darla Mayberry was the final inductee. She had money, but only because her son ran a successful tech company out of San Francisco. If it hadn't been for her boy, she would have been like the rest of the community shoveling dirt for a living, and the women made no qualms about telling her such. What Darla brought to the table was a sense of reason, even if she was considered to be the bottom of the totem pole.
When the Bingo Babes were called to order, Helen wasted no time.
"Ladies, we need to mobilize. A terrible sin has found its way into our humble and God fearing town," she said.
"Opiates? Crack?" Janice asked, wide-eyed.
"Gutter-punks? Hippies?" Maureen asked.
"What is a gutter-punk?" Phoebe asked.
"Those teenagers that choose to be homeless," Darla said.
"You think gutter-punks are worse than crack?" Janice asked.
"Oh shush! None of us know what the problem actually is yet," Maureen said. "I'm just trying to help is all."
"Ladies, let us bow our heads for a moment and cleanse the spirit," Helen said. "Heavenly Father, the Devil has placed an obstacle in front of us. We seek your wisdom and guidance during these troubling times. Amen."
"Amen," the other women said in unison.
"I was at the corner store and with my naked eyes I did see a terrible sight. Unpacked from one of the boxes was a…" Helen looked around to make sure no one else might be listening in. Then she whispered, "a big pink dildo."
"How big?" Janice asked.
"How thick?" Maureen asked.
"Battery powered or rubber?" Phoebe asked.
"Is he single?" Darla asked, and all of the women giggled except for Helen.
"This is no laughing matter," Helen said. She turned bright red and wagged her finger. "Sins of the flesh, like a serpent in Eden, have slithered into Coral Mines."
"Is it the type that has veins?" Janice asked.
"Will it talk dirty?" Maureen asked.
"Do you remember how much it was?" Phoebe asked.
"Does it have a job?" Darla asked, and the women giggled. "Also, I brought wine."
Darla reached into her purse and pulled out an unopened Chardonnay. The women whistled and cooed, except for Helen.
"You will NOT drink that until you start taking me seriously," Helen said. She stomped her foot. The women paused.
"Is that really why you called us here?" Janice asked.
"Tearing down the library to build a Target, that's a problem worth mobilizing for," Maureen said.
"The school teaching out of textbooks that unapologetically use the 'N' word because of how dated they are, that's a problem," Phoebe said.
"Old man McGregor threatening to shoot up City Hall if they didn't let his son out of the drunk tank, that's a problem," Darla said. "All of which we handled."
"Ladies…" Helen said, on the verge of pleading.
"What people do behind closed doors is none of our business," Janice said.
"It ain't hurting nobody," Maureen said.
"Unless they're hurtin' for a squir–" Phoebe started.
"Oh you shush your mouth!" Darla said, turning bright red. "You're so bad."
"If you don't back me on this, well…I'd hate to see some of our secrets spill out to the congregation," Helen said. She crossed her arms and stopped blinking.
"Is that a threat?" Janice asked.
"We're not the only ones with secrets," Maureen said.
"This wine isn't going to drink itself," Phoebe said.
"And it's not like it ain't natural," Darla said. "It's how babies are made, and we've all had a baby or two…"
The room went silent. All of the women looked at the floor except for Helen who picked at her fingernails. The women breathed through their noses in short, shallow breaths.
Janice smoothed out the top of her pants like she was petting a sleeping cat.
Maureen chewed the soft inside of her lip and looked at the window curtains, soft pink things as light and transparent as cotton candy.
Phoebe bent forward and scratched her kneecap, and then bent all the way forward to scratch her naked ankle.
"I didn't mean…" Darla said.
"Four against one, I see," Helen said. "Now I know what you really think of me."
"Helen, she meant nothing by it," Janice whispered. "We're all still mothers and–"
"Just because mine isn't alive doesn't mean I'm not still a mother," Helen said. "I'd like you all to leave."
The women collectively dropped their heads and nodded.
"Right then," Maureen said. The women stood up and collected their things. Darla put the Chardonnay on the side table; a silent peace offering.
"Maybe it's time for our little group to disband," Phoebe said. She put on a thin leather jacket and wrapped an airy colorful scarf around her neck and shoulders. "The Bingo Babes was fun while it lasted."
"Whatever you say, Judas," Helen said, still seated.
"That's uncalled for," Janice said. Helen refused to meet her eyes.
"Fine," Darla said, snatching the wine from the tabletop. "Whatever."
The women showed themselves out. When the door clicked shut Helen stood up, found the stack of hand-written invitations to her birthday party, pulled out the names of the four Bingo Babes, and tore up the paper into hundreds of small pieces.
Now, days later, Helen sat in the same seat scribbling ferocious notes into her Sinners notebook while Joseph sipped his ice-cold Coca-Cola and looked across the shimmering farmland from the kitchen window. The aged pink curtains spread tinted light onto the yellow linoleum floor.
"What would you like for your birthday this year?" Joseph asked. He wiped his chin with the cuff of his plaid work shirt.
"To find the wolf in sheep's clothing," Helen said.
"I might have to go to the Target in Beggar's Arch for that," Joseph joked. "How about a nice new hat? One of those big flimsy ones, a big ol' straw hat for walking around in the sun."
"No," Helen said.
"I know, some sandals. They got sandals now with memory foam and arch support. It's like you'd be walking on a cloud. How does cloud walking sound, my heavenly angel?"
"I already know what you're going to say, but I don't care. When people come to my party, I'm going to make them tell me who bought that filthy contraption. That's all I want for my birthday," Helen said.
"I don't reckon that will bring you peace," Joseph said. "People prefer to celebrate life at birthdays. Folks don't want to wait in line to be interrogated. They want cake and music and laughter."
"Well, there's a lot in this life that I wanted, and it never came to pass," Helen said. Joseph put his sweating glass of Coke onto a coaster and knelt down on creaking knees next to his wife's favorite sitting chair.
"What we've been through, what you've been through, it's a pain we might never get over. But God helps us carry it. The community is here for support. Don't alienate folks who just want to live happy, harmonious lives in the privacy of their own home."
"It's a SIN, Joseph," Helen said.
"It's natural, Helen. People want to feel good. They want to feel connected. Lord, when was the last time you felt good?"
Helen thought for a moment. She remembered nights with Joseph feeling more alive and in love than she believed possible. Their bodies connected, their hearts beating together in time, the natural world building to a moment of perfect clarity, she believed God was speaking to her through intimate interconnectivity.
But if such was the case, why didn't the child scream when it was born? Why was it purple and quiet? Why was it never able to suckle life from her bosom?
Helen never stopped asking why and it wasn't long before she believed it was because she deserved to be punished. All that good, it wasn't actually good. She saw it as God's way of saying if this is what you like, then this is what you get.
"Don't be late to my party," Helen said, and got up from her chair. She walked to their bedroom, closed and locked the door, and screamed into her pillow until her voice was made of sandpaper.
Joseph finished off the glass of Coke with a happy sigh, looked outside across the acres of shimmering farmland growing enough food to feed the town, recognized that life was still good all things considered, and poured himself another glass.
On the day of the party, Helen put on her favorite Sunday dress—the faded pink one with little printed sunflowers designs—and drove herself to the Town Hall reception room. She brought her notebook filled with handwritten profiles of potential suspects. Almost all of the pages had been filled. Her goal was to get their early and post up near the door so that the people who came in had no choice but to interact with her, at which point she could eliminate them from the list or confirm her suspicions.
The room was empty when Helen arrived, which was to be expected. The well-worn marble floors had recently been polished and a handful of round tables draped in white tablecloth sat like sleeping cattle along the perimeter of the crosshatched wooden dance floor. A DJ table was set up at the lip of the stage with two tower speakers and a rack of party lights hung from a chin-up bar ready to fire up and spread some dance fever.
The invitations had been very specific in that people should eat before arriving because there would be no catering or snacks. If people got hungry, they could bring a something as long as it was small enough to fit inside their pocket or purse. Helen wanted to make sure people showed up for her birthday, and not the free food.
With an hour left until the birthday bash officially kicked off, Helen posted up at the folding table near the door and waited.
She practiced her smile. She practiced a welcoming tone of voice. She imagined how scenarios might play out, like if Billy Scribbner—the effeminate artist boy who worked on town murals—broke down into a tearful confession, or if Lila Spring confessed and tried to go on a dry humping rampage across the dance floor. What would she do? How could she react in a way that wouldn't kill the party? There was a lot to think about.
Twice the automatic light sensors clicked off and Helen had to wave her hands like a drowning person to get them to turn back on. There were loud cracks each time the lights went on and off, which bounced around the big empty room like partying ghosts.
When Helen checked her watch, she noticed that people should have already started to arrive, but the room remained as empty as the glass case at the corner store. She poked her head into the hallway and only saw the janitor in his gray jumper dance-mopping with headphones on. The parking lot wasn't filling up with eager community folks ready to bust a move in celebration. Helen returned to her seat as the HVAC system blew another round of cool air into the room through industrial vents.
After some time, Helen heard the front doors open and footsteps bounce through the halls. Finally, she thought, and readied herself once again. Practiced smile. Practiced posture.
Joseph walked through the door with a wrapped box in his hands tied with a nice little pink bow and looked around.
"This town sure knows how to rock," he said, chuckling. He placed the gift on the table beside Helen, who looked ready to pop.
"They're not coming, are they?" she asked. The first glitters of tears started to well in her gray-green eyes.
"I might have heard some talk," Joseph said. He knelt in front of the table as gracefully as he could, but his old knees made him feel like a drawing that had been colored in by a child who didn't yet understand to keep things between the lines.
"They hate me because I'm not like them," Helen said. She blinked and a tear etched a path down her cheek.
"They love you," Joseph said. "They just might not agree with your fire and brimstone, which is their choice to make."
"Am I a good person?"
"I wouldn't have stuck with you if you weren't. You've gone to bat for this town more times than I can count. You've made sure people had the chance to live fair and honest lives. You're passionate about doing good deeds."
"Sometimes I'm afraid I've lost my way," Helen said. "That I consume myself with outrage to drown out the pain of…"
"I know," Joseph said. He took her slender, fragile fingers into his large leathery palms. "Maybe this year you give yourself permission to be happy again, to feel good."
Helen bowed her head. Tears dripped onto the table. Her wrists trembled like kittens in the snow.
"I have some apologies to make," she whispered. "I've lost too much to lose anything more."
"We'll reschedule your party. A week from today. People will show."
"How do you know?"
"Faith," Joseph said, and kissed Helen's knuckles.
Helen smiled and wiped her eyes. She took her purple Sinners notebook and flipped through the pages. Then she tossed it into the garbage can beside the folding table and stood up.
"Let's go tend to our flock," she said. Joseph hobbled back to his feet. His knees popped and whistled. Helen walked around to the front of the table and took her husband's hand.
As they were about to leave, Joseph stopped her.
"Don't you want to open your present?" he asked, pointing to the neatly wrapped gift. The bow was dancing in the cool air from the vent.
"I suppose I could," Helen said.
She pulled one of the strings from the bow and watched the twirls untangle. Using a finger to slide into a folded crevice, she started to pop and tear at the wrapping paper. She felt the type of excitement that she hadn't existed for years—the type that affirmed the belief that anything was possible and all things happened for a reason. There was still good in the world, Helen realized, and that she just had to let herself experience it.
As the last piece of wrapping paper peeled away to reveal a cardboard box, she opened the top flap and looked at her gift.