Counting The Ballots…The Latest News From Watervalley

(My Dear Readers,

As a nurse, Covid has controlled the narrative of much of my life this past year. I suspect your experience has been the same. When I began to write this short story, I found that Covid references began to dominate this narrative as well. So, I decided that Watervalley existed in a Covid free world. Hey…that’s why it’s called fiction. Anyway, blessings to you and yours for the Christmas season. I hope you enjoy!)

Luke Bradford and family were back in Watervalley for the Thanksgiving Holiday weekend. They stayed at the farmhouse with Christine’s mother, Madeline. Then on Saturday one of the triplets caught the sniffles with a low-grade fever. It became the gift that keeps on giving. It wasn’t serious but, taking care of three sick one and a half year olds wasn’t exactly a rollicking good time either.

So, Bradford and company ended up staying the entire next week which delighted Madeline Chambers to no end. Luke was antsy to get back to Nashville, but Christine gave him one of those looks. A quick phone call to Vanderbilt and he had the entire week off. Luke had been working endless twelve-hour days. His boss was happy for him to take a break. Then, on Monday morning, Luke got a phone call. It was the mayor, Walt Hickman. How in the world Walt knew he was still in town was beyond Luke’s imagination. But, then again, this was Watervalley. 

Walt needed a favor. An ad hoc committee had been formed to count the ballots for this year’s Watervalley Citizen of the Year award which was to be announced at the annual community Christmas Eve service. Since Luke had been a previous winner, Walt thought it appropriate for him to be one of the counters. 

Luke held the phone for a moment and exhaled a long sigh. He responded with a reluctant, “sure.”

“Great, Doc! The committee is meeting at City Hall at eleven o’clock. Lunch will be served.”

“How long is this going to take, Walt.”

“Oh, ‘bout an hour. Thanks again, Doc. See you then.” With that, Walt promptly ended the call. He wasn’t exactly Mensa material, but Walt knew when the hook was set.  

Shortly before eleven, Luke pulled down the long driveway to Summerfield Road and made his way toward town. It was cold and the countryside had the thrilling, clean austerity of morning; a brisk, pure, and cloudless sky of November blue. The downtown streets were richly draped in garlands, large ornaments of gold and red, and the enchantment of endless twinkling lights. A grand nativity scene stood unapologetically on the courthouse lawn. It seemed that little of Watervalley had changed. 

Luke opted to enter the building through a little used side door, wanting to avoid attention. Walt practically jumped from his chair when Luke entered his office. He circled his desk at a trot and profusely shook Luke’s hand like a well pump.

“Thank you, thank you, Doc for coming.” His whole face had a feverish and hectic look. For the next minute Walt exercised his gift of gab and Luke did his best to show great facial interest. Soon enough, though, Walt showed Luke to the conference room. “The rest of the committee should be arriving soon.”

Before Luke could inquire further, Walt made an abrupt retreat. Luke shrugged and took a seat. He didn’t have to wait for long. 

Moments later, Connie appeared in the door. Her eyes were soft, her voice, low and sweet. It had been eight months. “Hello, sugar. Come give me a hug.”

He wrapped his arms around her shoulders, and she embraced him in a long, eye-bulging clutch. She then held his face with both hands and stared, deeply. Her velvet, doting gaze soon tightened. “You’ve gained weight. Your face looks chubby.”

“I love you too, Connie.”

“At least it makes you look more boyish.”

“Well, good. Boyish is what all the medical researchers are going for.”

“Quit your foolishness, sit down, and tell me about the babies.”

“They’re doing fine. They are about a year and a half now and Lillian still rules the roost even though she’s a welterweight to Noah and Ethan.”

“And how’s Christine?”

“Fabulous. The woman is a machine. I stay at the lab more than I should, so she has to do all the heavy lifting. At my insistence, we have a lady come clean the house and help with the laundry twice a week. We also moved to a bigger place, mainly to have an extra room for the photo collection. Anyway, how have you been?”

“Fine, fine. All my children were in for Thanksgiving and we had a wonderful time, mostly laughing at the antics of my silly sibling.”

“So how is Estelle?”

“The same. Perky as a squirrel.”

“And Watervalley?”

“Not much to tell there either, except that common sense seems to be in shorter and shorter supply.”

She paused for a moment. “Oh, Chick McKissick is the Vice-Mayor now.”

“Really, what does the Vice-Mayor do?”

“Beats me. I guess he calls Walt every morning to make sure he’s still breathing.”

“When did this happen?”

“About a year ago, after all the hub-bub from last Christmas. It’s mostly an honorary title. Chick’s the most honest soul in town and I think Walt was trying to rub on some of that magic by association.”


Connie thought for a moment. “Huh, I guess you wouldn’t know. Well, every year Miss Janelle, Walt’s secretary, counts the ballots for the Citizen of the Year Award that is announced at the Christmas Eve service. Normally, no one but Janelle knows until it is announced Christmas Eve.”

Luke nodded. “Okay.”

“Last year she was out sick for a few weeks and Walt did the counting. Unlike when you were here, there was no consensus candidate so, five folks got within five votes of each other. The actual winner was Trina Hamilton, the florist who owns the Tilted Tulip. But on the Monday before Christmas Trina suddenly left town for Florida with a note on the shop door that read, “Gone for the Season! Reason? Freezin!”

Luke grinned. 

“Well, Walt decided that you need to be present to win so he crossed her off. The next winner would have been Gene Alley, Watervalley’s whacky DJ down at the radio station.”

Luke nodded. “Sure. But you said, ‘would have been?’”

“You know how Gene signs off each night with that old phrase ‘Dance like no one is watching?”


“Apparently he took his own advice. That same Monday night around two AM, Sheriff Warren Thurman found Gene prancing around on the courthouse lawn wearing only boxers, a Santa hat, and some fuzzy slippers. Gene told Warren he was trying to open himself to a little higher cosmic vibration by doing interpretive dance.”

“So, what happened?”

“Warren took upon himself to do the interpreting. Public drunkenness, as it were. After that, it seemed pretty bad form to name someone as Citizen of the Year who had a court date pending.”

“I see. So, I’m guessing Walt descended down the next rung of the voting ladder.”

 “Umm hmm. But by now the rumor mill was in full throttle.”

“How did that happen?”

Connie rolled her eyes. “You do realize that Walt’s definition of a secret is something you only tell one person at a time.”

“Only too well.”

“People were starting to mumble that Warren was in a conspiracy to bump Gene off to help the competition.”

“So, who was the third winner?”

“As chance would have it, Warren.”

Luke thought for a moment. “Yeah, that would look a little ugly.”

“Umm hmm. Hard to put a shine on that penny. Walt took it upon himself to eliminate Warren. Actually, I think Warren knew and was fine with it. So, the award went to Polly Shropshire, who had my vote in the first place.”

“Polly? Really?” Luke was delighted.

“Yes, she’s made a miraculous turnaround. She’s involved in everything. The Food Bank, blood drives, even tutoring kids after school. 

“I’m glad to hear it. So, that settled it.”

“Unfortunately, no. Somehow, word got out that Leonard Lineberry was number five.”

“As in Leonard Lee Lineberry, the EMT and part time pastor at the Love from Above Church?”

“That’s the one. I don’t know if Leonard is behind it, but every year his congregation votes for him as a block which is odd because Leonard doesn’t always speak too kindly of them regarding their stinginess. I think the church operates on a shoestring budget. Per Leonard, most of his flock are shrewd economist, trying to secure their spot in heaven for the least possible outlay.”


“Everybody was fine with the outcome until the following week when the Courthouse janitor found around a dozen ballots in the trash of the copy room. He took them to Walt who promptly shredded them, saying that they had been counted and left there by accident. Turns out, the janitor was a member of Leonard’s congregation.”

Luke’s eyes widened. “Woah!”

“Yeah, it was ugly. It was trial by innuendo and Leonard’s congregation wanted to call down the wrath of heaven on the mayor’s head. Walt did his best to paper over it, but the damage was done. That’s when he asked Chick to become the Vice-Mayor. Who knows? Walt probably thought people would be fooled into thinking that any further vice would be associated with Chick.”

“So that’s why a committee is counting the ballots this year?”

“Umm hmm, that’s why?”

“So, who else is coming?”

As Luke spoke, the conference room door swung open and Chick McKissick jauntily strolled in. 

“Why Lord have mercy! I’m seeing a ghost!” He pretended to stagger and pat his chest, feigning a heart attack.

“Good to see you, Chick.” They shook hands and Luke immediately inquired, “Tell me about being the Vice-Mayor.”

“Nothing much to it, Doc. I don’t spend a lot of time here and generally, Walt and I see eye to eye on most things.”

“Most things?”

“Now don’t get me wrong, Doc. Walt is my friend. But his idea of government is to tax everything, including your patience.”

The conference room door swung open again and Hoot Wilson sauntered proudly into the room. “Howdy, everybody. Whoa! Would you look a’ there? Doc, how you doing?”

They shook hands, but Luke immediately noticed something odd. Connie spoke first. “Hoot Wilson, what in the world is that awful smell?”

He grinned broadly. “That’s my Italian cologne, Desiderio. It’s their word for desire.”

“Well, it should be their word for abstinence. I’m pretty sure Karen is starting to think fondly about the smell of milk cows.”

Hoot was about to respond when the door swung wide and John Harris entered. He had an air of casual urbanity as he walked in and dropped into a chair. He sat back and surveyed the room before addressing Luke. “Looks like you got roped into this too, huh?”

“Looks like.”

“Well, where is Mayor Brioche? Let’s get this over with.”

Luke leaned toward Connie and whispered, “Brioche?”

She leaned and whispered in reply, “Mostly air.”

Luke nodded. “Got it.”

With slight timidity, Chick spoke next. “Folks, thank you all for coming. The mayor has asked me to supervise the counting of the ballots this year. I thought it would be good to gather a few trustworthy souls to participate so that the process would not be questioned.”

Everyone quietly nodded their understanding. 

“What I’d like to do is have two counting teams. Half of the stack will go to each team. Both members of the team are to write down the name on each ballot in their stack. Each additional vote for that person will be given a strike mark. I’ll collect all the counting sheets to make sure that the two team member tallies are the same. Then, I’ll add the tallies of both teams to get the final count. Everybody understand?”

There was a collective nod. 

“Luke, I’d like for you and Hoot to be Team One and John, I’d like for you and Miss Connie to be team two.”

A puckish grin filled John’s face as he and Luke stood and switched sides of the table. Conversely, Connie folded her arms and glanced loathingly to her side as John settled in. He wasted no time with his old friend and adversary.

“Hey Connie, what are the chances I catch you under the Mistletoe again this year?”

“Shame on you, John. You’re a married man now. I should have known you would try to capitalize on that singular moment of weakness.” 

“Oh, admit it, Connie. It was great. I almost got goose bumps.

“Humph. I almost got a tetanus shot.”

By now Chick had placed their half of the ballots before them. 

“Grab your pencil, Connie. But don’t worry. I still have plenty of dry powder to throw your way.”

Meanwhile, Hoot was leaning in toward Luke so much that he was resting on the arm of Luke’s chair. He spoke in a low confidence. “Doc, I’m glad you’re my partner. I’m not so good with this numbers stuff. Back in the day, I was more of an athlete than a mathlete.”

“Oh, really? What sports did you play?”

“I was on the bowling team, Doc. We finished second in the district.”

“That’s good. That’s impressive. How many teams were in the district?”


“I see.”

Fortunately for Luke, Chick had now placed the ballots before them. 

“Well,” Luke said, changing focus. “Let’s get started.”

And so, it began.

Both teams were quiet at first, concentrating on the task at hand. But eventually, John and Connie began to break the silence. 

“Mmm, mmm, mmm.” Connie mused, holding one of the ballots in her hand. That’s the seventh vote for Nubbin Laidlaw. Poor soul passed away this year. She turned to John in an air of general inquiry. 

“Bless her heart, what were her parents thinking…giving her a name that would embarrass a dog.”

John thought reflectively for a second. “Who was Nubbin Laidlaw?”

“An old spinster. She retired from teaching school a number of years ago. She was deeply loved although not widely. Kept to herself mostly. She never had a harsh word to say about a single soul.”

John pondered this a moment. “Not a single soul, huh? She have any idea what she was missing out on.”

“Thanks, John for that penetrating insight.” He grinned and reached for the next ballot.

Luke and Hoot were working through their stack, surprisingly oblivious to the exchange taking place across the table. It was the norm for any conversation between John and Connie to be laden with flammable material. 

“So, Doc. How’s it going at Vanderbilt?”

“Fine. Busy.”

“Tell me again what you do there, Doc?

“I do research into various pathologies.”

Hoot nodded and reflectively rubbed his chin. “Huh, so…you like umm, study hiking trails?”

Luke froze from his writing and stared at the paper before him, his face vacant, processing. As he slowly rotated his gaze toward Hoot, the answer hit him.

The words of explanation rolled out slowly. 

“Yeaaaah, something like that.”

The counting continued.  

In total there were about nine hundred ballots to record, nearly twice as many as in previous years. An hour and a half had passed and only about a third of the stack had been processed. The counters began eying their watches with greater frequency. Chick had some sandwiches brought in, but Hoot was the only participant. Everyone wanted to keep the process moving. 

By now the earlier code of reverence and discretion about the recorded names had deteriorated into open discussion. John led the way.

“My, my. Looks the new pastor over at the Baptist Church is leading the way this year.”

“He’s a good man, or so I hear,” retorted Connie. “I think they were quite fortunate for him to accept the call.”

“Yeah, so I heard,” replied John. “I understand they kept offering him more and more money till God led him to come.”

Connie paused long enough to offer John a long disapproving scowl. She pursed her lips dismissively and reached for the next ballot, staring at it discerningly. 

         “Hmm, look at that. There’s another vote for Jennifer Parker.”

“Who’s she?” Inquired John.

“She’s the new hair stylist down at the Three Sisters Salon.”

“Oh, yeah. I heard about her. Is she the hot young blonde people are talking about?”

Connie glared. “You’re not built for subtlety, are you John?”

“I heard she’s caused quite a stir. Instead of Maylon’s shop, all the young guys are going to her for their hair cut. They say she’s a little ditsy.”

“Humph,” replied Connie. “She may not be a power brain, but she fully understands the cause and effect of winsome.”

John snickered. “So, she got a few votes. What’s the problem?”

“I’m sure she may be a nice young lady. I’m just not sure that makes her Citizen of the Year material.”

“People don’t always vote from the heart.”

“Umm hmm,” said Connie reflectively. “And just what part of the anatomy do you think’s at play here?”

John laughed. “Connie, why do you always feel the need to apply the test of virtue to every experience. Contrary to your thinking, heaven is not a gated community.”

“Thanks for that penetrating insight, John. That tidbit of information is certainly fraught with insignificance.”

“Connie, I’ve been having such a good time here. And now you’re just raining all over my parade of awesome.”

“John, I know you’d like to wrap yourself in your impervious superiority, but you need to know that Copernicus called earlier. He said you’re not the center of the universe.”

He smirked in return and wiggled the pencil between his fingers with a kind of easy boredom. He spoke across the table to Luke. 

“Luke, are you going to sit there and let me take this abuse?”

Luke continued with his work and spoke without ever making eye contact. “John, you are picking a fight with Constance Grace Thompson, whom we all know can probably summon avenging angels with fiery swords if it suited her. So, right now, I don’t know you.”

“Thanks for the non-help.”


A small grin began to creep into the corners of Connie’s mouth. After a minute had passed, she remained focused on her work but spoke to John instructively. “John, I’ve got a great idea for you. During the twelve days of Christmas, you need to go make nice to all the people you’ve been mean to this year. You need to go on an apology tour. I’ll be glad to get the list of names together for you.” 

John was amused and wrote down the next ballot. “Well, fortunately for me Connie, I’m not in training to be you. I’ll have to get by on my present level of wit and charm.”

“Humph,” replied Connie. “Unfortunately, John, your present level of wit and charm is somewhere on par with “Mr. Ed.”

“Not feeling the love, Connie.”

“Oh, I do love you, John. But there’s no commandment that says I have to like you.”

By now they were getting close to the end of the stack and John spoke out loud what everybody was beginning to notice. “You know, little by little, it’s starting to look like one person is getting a large number of the votes.”

Soon there were only a few ballots left to count and everyone in the room began to exchange inquisitive glances. Luke and Hoot recorded the last one and quietly nodded to each other. John broke the silence. 

“So, tell us who you got?”

Luke turned to Chick who flipped his hand at him. “Go ahead, Doc. No use standing on protocol now. Let’s get this over with.”

 Luke nodded and spoke somberly. “Matthew House. The next closest candidate is thirty-two votes behind.”

Connie responded. “Same here. Matthew House. He leads by over forty votes.”

John folded his arms and spoke reflectively. “I’d like to say I’m not surprised. But I am a little.”

“Why is that?” Luke inquired.

“Well,” said Connie. “Matthew is reserved. He doesn’t quite have the Bradford charm and flair. He’s likeable, just not very knowable. 

“How is he at the clinic?” 

“He’s done an excellent job at the clinic. His response to everyone is warm and natural. He listens with kind curiosity to his patient’s private troubles. He seems to fit in everywhere but is never in the limelight. Quiet but always with an intelligent comment when asked. And one thing is for certain. He has an unbelievable knack for remembering everybody’s name. Sometimes I think he knows the names of people he’s never even met.”

The group discussed Matthew’s victory for a few moments longer and Chick made everybody pinky swear not to tell. Everyone exchanged goodbyes. Luke and Connie were the last to leave.

As they departed, Connie spoke warmly. “Well, I’m looking forward to this Christmas Eve service. It’s just a wonderful thing when all God’s people put their doctrine aside and come together to worship as one.”

Luke was sliding his arms into his coat. “I didn’t know you thought doctrine was a bad thing, even though it does seem to separate folks from time to time.”

“I don’t. I just think your doctrine ought to be like your underwear.”

“Underwear? Huh. How so?”

“Well, you need to have it. It ought to be clean. And very few people should ever see it.”

Luke laughed, gave her a long hug, and departed for home. A late November sunset was upon him and a golden light had displaced the air.  As he drove out Summerfield Road, the distant farmhouses were warm with mellow light. A comforting feeling of timelessness, of constancy poured over him, as if centuries of similar sunsets had shimmered across the endless fields of the valley floor. He realized that the world of Watervalley had gone on, as it were, without his full participation. And in that knowledge was a kind of odd consolation, a surprising sense of satisfaction.

         His thoughts turned to Matthew. He was happy for his friend. But he also knew more about Matthew than most, that Matthew often assumed a quiet confidence that he was far from feeling. Then again, at days end, the people of Watervalley were a fairly astute judge of character. Matthew had clearly earned their adoration. He thought about Connie’s words as he turned down the long drive to the farmhouse, about how Matthew seemed to know everybody’s name. This was a talent he did not realize his friend had. 

         Luke parked the car and gazed for a moment at the early stars. He was on the third step up to the porch when an odd memory hit him. He froze for a moment. It occurred to him that when he and Matthew first met at the Christmas Eve service, Matthew walked up to him and said Luke’s name before they had ever met. A strange coincidence, he thought. 

He turned and looked again at the stars and then made his way through the front door to the delighted squeals of three little toddlers. 

For now, that’s the news from Watervalley.

Merry Christmas to you and yours!  -Jeff