The dirt road circled to the left and when he passed the curve of trees, he saw the weather beaten white wooden structure, looking like nothing so much as a rural country church, probably Baptist. As he saw the sign he realized that was exactly what it was.
"Praise God Baptist Church," said one white sign and another nearby said, "Putnam County Food Pantry."
There were two dozen cars and trucks parked in the field surrounding the church. Twenty-year-old pickups, old model Fords and Chevolets and 90s model Pontiacs and station wagons which had seen much better days. The trucks for the most part had beds filled with odds and ends and tools. The cars looked like the original coats of paint been transformed by dust and grime to some in-between shades.
The exception was a late model blue Dodge Grand Caravan parked almost out of sight behind the church. Two boys were running a hose over it and two younger girls were using rags with suds.
He found a place to park and took his camera, tape recorder and notebook out before locking it. Probably unnecessary, but it was a habit.
He walked toward the front of the building attracting curious gazes from the line of men and women, mostly women, standing in a line outside the door. There were a lot of small children. Some pre-teens, but mostly young enough to be in diapers or toddlers held in mothers' arms.
A few of the women weren't bad. Frazzled, too young for him, but not bad. Most were older, heavier, tired looking. Keeping up with the swarms of little ones would tend to do that. He had thrown the camera on its strap around his shoulder and put the mini-recorder in his pocket.
"Hi," he said to an older man leaning on a cane. "Is this where I can find Mrs. Miller?"
The old man gave him a blank look.
A young boy, who looked to be on the cusp of turning from a pre-teen to a full fledged teen because his hands and feet were outgrowing the rest of him, had heard and said, "Oh, you mean the Wheelchair Lady?"
"Tommy," an older woman said, giving him a hard look.
"Yes, sir, Mrs. Miller is inside. She keeps things running."
Then, moving a little closer, she said softly, "don't mind the boy. Everybody calls her the Wheelchair Lady, or Miss Jessie. She don't mind."
Pushing open the screen door, he stepped inside. The church was bigger than he had thought. It ran backwards a ways, a long, rectangular room. Today it wasn't a church. There were no pews.
Instead, wooden tables had been set up end to end and nearly a dozen men and women bustled about behind and in front of the tables. The tables were heaped with loaves of bread, pastries, canned goods, some green vegetables that looked like greens or collards.
The front of the tables were lined with men and women, again usually women, holding paper bags that the workers behind the tables were loading with bread and canned goods and a few green things. Children were begging for particular cakes or pies while their mothers tried to move them along.
A stoop-shouldered older man approached him, glancing at the camera on his shoulder.
"Can I help you?"
He reached out and shook the man's hand, saying, "Yeah. I'm Robert Kincade. I work for the Times-Union and we had contacted Mrs. Miller about coming out and getting a few pictures. Doing a story for our Saturday Florida section. About her. The work she does."
"Hubert, Hubert Mossman, Mr. Kincade. She told a few of us that somebody was coming out. But she thought it was going to be some guy named Bass, Harry Bass. Kind of unusual name. Not hard to remember that."
"Yessir, Harry does have a memorable name, but he's tied up on another assignment and I'm taking his place."
"Glad to see you here, Mr. Kincade. Jessie- Mrs. Miller – is a good woman. And she deserves a little attention for all that she does."
"Well, that's what I'm here for."
"Sure, well come on back. She's in the rear."
When he walked through the rear door he found a smaller room with the door open to a back porch. In the back was a Winn Dixie truck with its back panel open showing boxes of canned goods and containers of bread. A half dozen younger men were shuttling the boxes and containers out on to the back porch.
A woman with golden hair piled high and contained in a hairnet directed the actions of the crew emptying the truck like a conductor managing an orchestra. She sat in a gleaming wheelchair that raised her head up to about the height of his mid-chest.
Mossman stepped up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder.
"Whatcha need, Hubie? We need to get this stuff out because Ray at the WD just called and they need their truck back there in 45 minutes."
"A guy from the Times-Union is here, Jessie."
"That Bass guy? Whatever his name was?"
"No, he couldn't make it. They sent another reporter."
"Oh, well, send him back. I can't stop right now."
"He's right here."
She touched the arm of the chair and it swung smoothly around. She had blue eyes, the clearest blue Kincade thought he'd ever seen, except maybe one other time. And that was long ago so he couldn't be sure. She wore no makeup, no lipstick. She was dressed in a simple blouse and wore slacks that concealed her legs. And she was still a beautiful woman.
She touched the chair again and it smoothly whirred to within a foot of him. She had to look up to meet his eyes, but with the raised chair she didn't have to look far. She held out one slim hand.
"Hi. I'm Jessie Miller. And you are... ?"
"Robert Kincade. Times-Union. You look pretty busy. Are you sure I won't cause you any problems, be in the way?"
She closed her hand over his and he felt the strength there. The hand wasn't rough. It was a woman's hand, smooth. But strong. And she wore no rings, no nail polish. All business this lady.
"You have a job to do, Mr. Kincade. And we need the publicity. I know your story is going to focus on me – the Wheelchair Lady wheeling around Putnam County doing good deeds. But it doesn't matter. If I get publicity, the work we do gets publicity. And we always need more help, more money, more volunteers."
"I hope it does you and this place a lot of good. But I'm pretty good at what I do."
"Then just stay out of the way, don't get yourself run over, and you can talk to anybody you want and take any pictures you want. I'll talk to you when I have time and things slow down, but they usually don't slow down until afternoon. There are a lot of people in this county who need help."
"Fair enough. Get doing what you're doing. I'll get pictures and talk to some people."
She turned away from him as if he had ceased to exist and was back into the business of shuttling food inside, finding places to store it, answering questions and solving problems that came at her regularly. He walked around and took pictures of men moving heavy crates of goods onto the porch and then downloading them into smaller crates to take inside.
As they worked, an old station wagon pulled up to the rear. A heavy set woman leaning heavily on two canes, aided by two younger men, hobbled up to the steps out of the path of the workers and called to Jessie Miller.
"Jess, I got some onions, asparagus and a mess of tomatoes out here. I was thinking about taking them to the farmer's market, but the Lord put it on my heart to bring them here. You want them?"
"Does a bear crap in the woods, Olivia? Don't be silly. Boys, bring a chair out here for Miss Olivia and help her grandsons get those vegetables out and onto the tables."
As the workers helped her grandsons unload the station wagon of bag after bag of tomatoes and onions and fresh asparagus, Miller rolled her way to the edge of the porch and leaned as far out as she could and held her arms out to the older woman.
"Give me a hug, Miss Olivia. Pastor Bennings said you haven't been to Sunday service in more than a month. Is everything all right?"
With her grandsons' aid, the older woman hobbled to the edge of the porch and was able to almost hug the woman in the wheelchair. Tears glistened in her eyes.
"Just getting older, Jessie. And this old body is failing me. Won't be too long before I'll be with Clete again."
"Bite your tongue, woman. Clete will wait for you a few years longer. Nothing he has to do other than lounge on clouds and pluck at harps anyway. He always said he spent his whole life waiting on you, anyway. You have two grandsons here that need you. As long as the Lord gives you."
As nonchalantly as he could, he swung the camera up and snapped picture after picture of the two women together, catching the tears running down the heavy woman's face. These were money shots. The story might very well go out on the main metro Sunday page instead of stuck inside on the Florida edition front.
Jessie Miller glanced back and saw what he was doing but said nothing. She was a practical woman, he could tell. She wanted the story and pictures to be seen by as many people as possible.
Something came up inside the hall and saying a quick goodbye, Miller swung the wheelchair around with the touch of a finger and was gone. Kincade wondered if there was a V-8 engine hid inside it somewhere. Olivia stared at him and he made it down the porch steps when there was an opening. He approached her and held his hand out. She took it.
"Miss Olivia. My name is Robert Kincade. I'm a reporter with the Times-Union. The paper sent me to do a story and take pictures of Miss Miller and the work she does. You two obviously know each other. Would you mind talking to me for a moment?"
.... There is more of this story ...