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I didn’t see it at the time—how many of us do?—but it all started back in January, a few days into the new year, when I felt compelled to sit down and take stock as, on occasion, I feel the need to do. So with the house quiet that morning—Sam off meeting with some local businessmen, Lillian at the grocery store, Lloyd in school, and me with time on my hands—taking stock was exactly what I was doing.
Now, I’m not talking about counting up assets and debits in a portfolio—I let Binkie, my curly-headed lawyer, take care of that—but rather, totting up the pluses and minuses of my life while hoping that they’ll balance out in the final accounting. Admittedly, I have a lot of pluses: Lloyd, Sam, Lillian, Hazel Marie. I could go on and on, but I also have a lot of minuses, like stubbornness, self-centeredness, a tendency to jump into the problems of other people—all for their own good, but still—and a certain impetuosity when action is called for.
I would like to report that, at the time of which I speak, I dwelt on the pluses and how thankful I was for them, but I didn’t. I was in a critical frame of mind, and all I could think of were the numerous times that I’d overstepped myself, blithely confident that I knew best and acting on that certainty.
Even as I inwardly cringed at the remembrance of some of my rasher moments, I could also comfort myself with the fact that only a few of them had actually made things worse. I will concede, however, that my recollections can on occasion be a tiny bit selective. But that in itself is a gift, an asset if you will, for who among us could live with our character defects constantly in the forefront?
I know I couldn’t face a day with mine uppermost in mind. I have to keep them safely stored in a mental box, opening it only when I feel the need to take stock, then quickly storing them away again.
So that’s what I’d been doing the morning after Sam had told me in no uncertain terms that he was tired of taking trips by himself and that, furthermore, he had no intention of giving up his trips. In other words, he meant for me to go with him, and right there I had to add another minus to my debit list: I was too self-centered to put his desires above my own, but I’ll tell you the truth, I did not want to go traipsing all over the world.
“But you’d love it, Julia,” he’d said. “Think of all the places we could go—Ireland, for example. Wouldn’t you like to go there? Or we could do a cathedral tour in Europe or a tour of the great houses of England. Or what about Rome or Paris?”
“Yes, and what would we have when we got back? Aching feet and a bunch of pictures with nowhere to put them.”
“Memories, honey. We’d have memories, and we wouldn’t have to take any pictures.”
“I should say not,” I said. “The thought of walking all over creation with a camera around my neck is not my idea of fun. Besides,” I went on, “I don’t fly.”
“We wouldn’t have to fly. We could go by boat. You’d like it if we went first class—dressing for dinner, strolling on the deck, meeting interesting people.”
“And suffering from seasickness the whole way, too. Oh, Sam,” I said, immediately contrite at the disappointed look on his face, “I’m sorry. It’s just that I have no desire to see the world. I like it right here, doing the same things every day. The daily routine ressures me, while constant change disturbs my equilibrium. But I know you love to travel and I wouldn’t discourage you from it for anything.”
“I know you wouldn’t, but I’d enjoy it so much more if you were enjoying it with me. And I think you would, if you’d just try it. We could start with a few short trips to get you used to being away. We could take the Amtrak Crescent to New Orleans, for instance, or take it the other way and go to New York. See some Broadway shows, go to museums, do a little shopping.”
“You’re getting closer,” I said with a smile to show I was teasing. “What about a Sunday afternoon drive? Wouldn’t that suffice?”
“And see what?”
“Oh, there’re waterfalls around and fruit stands and motorcycle convoys. Maybe a fireworks stand. And we’d be home by dark.”
Sam laughed. “You just don’t want to leave home.”
“That’s right. I like it here.”
“Well, I like to travel and I’d really like you to go with me.”
“I’ll think about it.”
That had been the end of the conversation, but I knew it wasn’t the end of the matter. But, I declare, I didn’t want to take off for parts unknown and leave the people who might need me. Why, what would happen to Lloyd without me around to watch over him? And what if Hazel Marie needed help with her twin babies? And what would Lillian do if trouble descended on her or Latisha, her great-granddaughter? To say nothing of the Abbotsville First Presbyterian Church. If I were gone any length of time, there was no telling what Pastor Ledbetter would get in his mind to do. He might change the order of worship again—something that he seemed to do just to keep us off balance. Or to keep us awake, but who knew?
The last time I’d been out of town for a few days—the time I chased jewel thieves all the way to Florida—you wouldn’t believe what had happened while I was gone. I’d been elected treasurer of the garden club, president of the Lila Mae Harding Sunday school class, and leader of the book club for a whole year. And on top of that, I’d been volunteered to host a Christmas tea and to help with Vacation Bible school the following summer.
No, it wasn’t safe to leave town. I needed to stick around to protect myself. Sam, of course, didn’t have that problem. If he returned from abroad or wherever and found himself in an office he didn’t want, he’d just smile and say, “Thank you all the same, but I think I’ll pass on that.” And he’d stick to it, whereas I would be so riddled with guilt for turning down an elected honor that I’d accept it and hate every minute of it.
So the days and weeks passed with no further mention of the wonders of travel while I put aside my stock taking since I couldn’t remedy or rectify any lapses of the past anyway. I noticed, however, a few travel brochures left lying around the house—on the hall table, for one, in the kitchen by the phone, and even next to the sink in our bathroom. It seemed that Sam had in mind a boat trip down the Rhine—or up it, depending on which way it flowed. And all I could think of was how could he expect us to spend a week or more on the high seas just to get to the Rhine, then spend more time on water once we got there.
Looking back now, though, I should’ve jumped at the chance to fill our summer with a globe-trotting trip. I should’ve realized that my husband’s inquiring mind would not be content without something new and intriguing to occupy it, but I made no mention of the brochures nor did I ask about Sam’s plans. I just let things ride while hoping that his wanderlust would wear itself out or, if it didn’t, that he’d get over wanting me along. Neither happened, but a few things came up that took their place, and I’m still not sure which would’ve been for the best.
“Julia,” Sam said with a little smile pulling at the corners of his mouth as he snapped open the newspaper, “I’ve decided not to take a trip this summer. It looks to be so busy that I won’t have time to get away.” This was on an evening a few weeks later while we relaxed by the fire in our new library at the end of a blustery day in February.
I looked at him in the other wing chair, taking note of his carefully averted eyes, and knew that something was afoot. “Is that right,” I responded. “Well, I’ll be glad to have you home. What changed your mind?”
“Oh, I’ve just realized that there’re a lot of interesting things to do closer to home. I don’t have to go halfway around the world to keep myself entertained.”
He was being entirely too noncommittal, deliberately holding back on something.
“You’re not planning a camping trip in Pisgah Forest, are you? Because if you are, I don’t sleep on cots or in tents.”
He laughed. “Not my cup of tea either.” Then he made a great show of concentrating on an article in the paper—a patent attempt to engage my curiosity.
“May I ask what it is you’ve found that’ll keep you too busy to float down the Rhine? And, yes, I’ve noticed all the brochures you’ve left lying around.”
“Thought you would,” he said without looking my way. “They didn’t tempt you, did they?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “They didn’t.” Then waited to hear what he’d come up with to replace his travel plans. And kept waiting, while he read the want ads, the sports page, the editorials, a columnist with whom I knew he didn’t agree, and the letters to the editor. At this point, I realized that I had another character defect that would go on my list of minuses the next time I decided to take stock: lack of patience.
“Well,” I demanded. “What is it? What do you have up your sleeve that you’re dying to tell me about, but not before I have to drag it out of you?”
He frowned and pursed his mouth, as if he were giving it some deep thought. “Well, it’s like this. It might involve a little travel—not far—just around a couple of counties, as you suggested, but still you might not be interested. I can probably handle it by myself, but if not, there’ll be plenty of volunteers to help out.”
“For what? I never heard of having volunteers to travel around a few counties. And who would volunteer, anyway?”
“Oh, a lot of folks, all eager to do whatever I want. I’ll have my pick, but don’t worry. No overnight trips as far as I know.”
“Well, that’s good,” I said, thinking that I’d figured out his plans. “Sounds as if you’ve found some fishing buddies. You’ll be floating around on water even if it’s not the Rhine, and you’ll probably catch more, too.”
“Nope, won’t be any time for fishing. The French Broad and Mud Creek will have to do without me this year.”
“Sam Murdoch,” I said, fully aroused by this time, “put down that paper and tell me what you’re doing.”
He lowered the paper, smiled at me, and said, “I’ve decided that you’re right—home is where I want to be, too. So tell me, how would you like to be the state senator’s wife?”
“Jimmy Ray Mooney’s? Sam, he’s married.”
“So are you,” he pointed out, laughing at the shock on my face. “But no, you won’t have to change husbands. The one you already have has been asked to run for the senate of the North Carolina General Assembly.”
“The state senate,” I murmured, as if it was a new concept, which it was. “In Raleigh?”
“Where else?” Sam asked.
“Well, I guess I’m just surprised,” I said, running over all the ramifications in my mind. “I didn’t know you had political ambitions. How long have you been thinking about this?”
He looked at his watch. “About two hours,” he said with a straight face. Then he put aside the paper to give me his full attention. “Here’s what happened: I was approached about running several weeks ago, but I had my heart set on taking a trip with you this summer. So I turned it down, but then Frank Sawyer had to drop out—you heard about that?”
“He had a double knee replacement, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, and not doing very well, I understand. The party was counting on him to run against Jimmy Ray again, but he’s not up for campaigning all spring and summer. Look, Julia,” Sam said, leaning forward, “the deadline for filing is at the end of this week, so if you have any hesitation about this, tell me now. I’ll turn it down with no regrets. In fact, it’d give me a good excuse to go fishing instead.”
“Well, I guess that’s better than going down the Rhine, but I don’t know, Sam. You’re not giving me a whole lot of time to think. Would we have to move to Raleigh?”
“No. The Assembly is in session only a few months a year. We could get a small apartment there, and you could go with me or I’d come home every weekend. They close up shop on Thursdays, so we’d have three-day weekends at home.”
“It’s a long drive, though.”
“About four and a half to five hours.” He raised his eyebrows and smiled. “Depending on how often we stopped.”
I smiled back. I didn’t let many rest areas go by without dropping in. Then I gazed into the fire for a while, thinking over what a political campaign might mean to our comfortable way of life. Then I looked up at him and said, “This may sound as if I’m trying to talk you out of it, but I’m not. I just want to know what we’d be getting ourselves into. You’ve retired from practicing law, do you really want to take on another job? And what about your book—the one you’ve worked on so long? Would you just put that aside?”
“As for taking on another job, the beauty part of this is that I would be a one-term senator—I’ve made that clear. The party is grooming an up-and-comer, but he’s too green this year. In two years in the next election he’ll be ready or Sawyer will be healthy enough to run again. Frank knew he was having surgery, but he assured the party he’d be able to run, but, well.” Sam stopped and chuckled. “He didn’t take into account some complications he’s having. I understand he’s cussing his surgeon up one side and down the other. Fact of the matter is, Julia, I’d be a stopgap, which is fine with me. Two years of politicking is enough, and besides, it’ll give me more material for my book.”
The book of which we spoke was a history of Abbot County’s legal community—the lawyers, judges, defendants, and so on—which Sam had been working on during his retirement.
“But,” he went on, “if you’re against it, I won’t do it. The only reason I’m even considering it is because I’m a firm believer in the two-party system. To let Jimmy Ray run unopposed goes against the grain. He’s been in the senate long enough.” Sam stopped and thought for a minute. “And there is this: I may have no choice. I might not win.”
“Oh,” I said, waving my hand to brush that possibility aside, “you’ll win, all right. Everybody knows you and respects you. I have no doubt you’d win.”
He laughed again. “Thanks, but I’m not so sure. There’s an ingrained group that’s controlled this district, county, and town for years—it’s a tight network of old hands, except they’ve been careful to bring in newcomers so that the same faces don’t appear over and over. But they know what they’re doing. They pretty much stack the town council, then they take turns standing for mayor. And they do pretty much the same with state and federal offices—that’s why it’s such a blow to lose Frank Sawyer. He was the best one to take on Mooney. He almost beat him two years ago.”
“So you’d be running against Jimmy Ray?”
“Right, and he’ll be hard to beat with that crowd behind him.”
As I thought this over, I realized that a lot of underhanded things must’ve been going on that I—and a lot of others—hadn’t known about.
“That just burns me up,” I said, somewhat hotly. “Do you mean to tell me that our elections have all been rigged for years?”
“Not rigged exactly, no,” Sam said, shaking his head. “Just that they’ve been able to preselect the candidates who run, and with this district being mostly a one-party district, voters have little choice. And they put up enough new names now and then to give the appearance of real change. They’re all alike, though, and they all have the same agenda.”
“And what agenda is that?”
“Knowing ahead of everybody else which industry plans to expand, where a new business or a government building will be located, what roads the DOT will widen and where new ones will be constructed—just a few minor things like that. Then they form a corporation to buy up land before any of it is made public.”
“I don’t think that’s legal, and who are they anyway?” I demanded, riled up now at the thought that I’d been freely exercising my right to vote all these years without knowing that I’d not been so free after all.
“Well, look who’s on the town council and on the county commission, and look at our representatives and senators—state and federal. They’re all part of it. But voters might be ready for a real change this go-round. Take Jimmy Ray, our current state senator . . .”
“I don’t have to take him. Every time I hear his name, I feel so sorry for that daughter of his. Jimmie Mae Mooney—who in their right mind would saddle a child with a name like that? He should’ve just named her Junior and been done with it.”
“Oh, he’s all right,” Sam said, thinking the best of people as he usually did. “In fact, they’re all decent enough. But Frank Sawyer was our best bet to take on Mooney and break that stranglehold. I’m trying to consider it an honor that the party asked me to take his place.” Sam grinned in that self-deprecatory way of his.
“Well, I consider it an honor, as well as an indication of the party’s good sense in selecting you. But, tell me something, Sam—were you never interested in being a judge? You would be such a good one—you’re so fair-minded and you certainly know the law.”
“I thought about it a couple of times,” Sam said, shrugging. “But I was caught up in writing my book, then I got a bee in my bonnet about a certain widow lady, and the interest faded away. Now, though, learning and doing something new is very appealing, especially if it appeals to you, too. I think we’d have a good time, Julia, doing this together and doing something good for the district, as well. But,” he said, raising a finger to emphasize his point, “I’m not going to do it without you. We’d be making a two-year commitment if I win, and that would be it. And if I do win, it’ll mean going back and forth to Raleigh when the Assembly is in session, and keeping an office open here for constituents during the off-season. But keep in mind that it’s very likely that I’ll lose, and I don’t want you to be disappointed. As for me, I can take it or leave it.”
As I studied the matter, I realized that I, too, could take it or leave it. However it turned out, I was not so invested in a senate race that I’d be thrilled on the one hand or devastated on the other. Of course, though, it never entered my head to discourage Sam from doing anything he wanted to do, but it was clear that he wanted me to want what he wanted. In fact, it sounded as if he wouldn’t do it at all if I was the least bit hesitant about it. I’d already disappointed him by turning down a globe-trotting trip, but this I could do without having to pack a suitcase.
So I thought about it, and the more I thought, the more appealing it seemed. I thought about those long drives to and from Raleigh—just the two of us in the car alone, the talks we could have—why, we’d have more time together than we’d ever had at home. And the thought of being the representatives of all the people in the district—working for them, improving conditions, speaking for them—I just got all patriotic and shivery at the thought. Well, of course I knew that it would be Sam who’d be their senator, but I, too, would have a small part in sacrificing for my country.
“One question, Sam,” I finally said. “Would I have to make any speeches?”
“Oh,” he said offhandedly, “maybe one or two. Maybe to your book club or to other small groups, that sort of thing. We’d work up a little ten-minute talk, and you’d give that over and over.” He arched one eyebrow at me. “All about how wonderful I am.”
I laughed. “That would be no problem, except I’d probably make every woman in the district jealous.”
“And,” Sam went on, “during the campaign we’d have to show up at every pig-pickin’, barbecue, watermelon cutting, parade, VFW meeting, and civic event around. Your job would be to stand there and gaze adoringly at me.”
“Oh, Sam,” I said, laughing, “you make it sound like fun. And we could take Lloyd to some of the events. He could meet people and learn all about politics. But,” I went on, getting serious, “there’s one thing I want you to promise me. Please, please don’t use the word fight in your speeches or advertising or anything. It just turns me off to hear a candidate—even a sweet, grandmotherly type—say, ‘Send me to Raleigh or Washington, and I’ll fight for you,’ as if they can’t wait to get into a brawl with fisticuffs and hair pulling.”
“Okay, I agree—no fighting. You want to do this?” He leaned over and took my hand. “Are you with me?”
“I’m always with you, and, yes, I do want to do it, because you’re the best one for the job and,” I couldn’t help but add, “it beats floating down the Rhine any day.”
He laughed, then said, “One thing you should be aware of—there’ll be people who’ll be working against us.”
“Well, like Thurlow Jones for one.”
“What! Why, Sam, you are without doubt the best-qualified, the most experienced, the fairest, most honest, and best-liked man in town. How could anybody be against you? And Thurlow?” I waved my hand in dismissal. “Nobody pays any attention to him.”
“That’s not exactly true, sweetheart,” Sam said, his voice taking on a serious tone. “Thurlow is the money behind the ones in office now. He’s the one who makes the decisions for the other party—he’ll be against us. Not many people know it, but he pretty much runs this town.”
Well, that was a shocker if I’d ever heard one. Thurlow Jones was an unshaven, disgraceful, and disreputable excuse for a man who delighted in showing his contempt for women in general and for me in particular. If you didn’t know him but happened to see him on the street, you’d think he was a tramp down on his luck. There was no way to tell from his appearance that he could buy and sell half the town.
And to think that he was the power behind the thrones of the county and the district—it beat all I’d ever heard. Until the mail came one sultry morning a few months later.
“Sam?” I called, tapping on the door of his office as soon as I’d scanned the letter in my hand. Hearing his response, I walked into my former sunroom—the one Deputy Bates had rented after Wesley Lloyd Springer left me a somewhat bereaved widow and before Deputy Bates married Binkie—the sunroom that I’d made into Sam’s home office. I was loath to disturb him, because this was one of the few free days he’d had to work on his book since winning the primary the previous month. Of course, having been the party’s only candidate, winning the primary had been a foregone conclusion. “If you’re busy,” I said, though not really meaning it, “this can probably wait. We can talk later.”
“Never too busy for you. Come on in.” Sam had risen from his creaky executive chair behind the desk and pulled a wing chair closer. “Sit down and talk to me. I’m stuck in the year 1966, trying to decide how much to reveal about Judge Alexander T. Dalton. You may remember him better as Monk Dalton.”
“Vaguely,” I said, sitting down and trying to show a little interest in the history he was writing about the shenanigans of the local legal community. “Didn’t he have two wives at the same time?”
Sam laughed. “Yeah, they had him on a bigamy charge until one of the women, the one he’d lived with for years, told him that if he’d make a hefty settlement on her, she’d testify that they’d never had an actual ceremony, and she’d move to Florida. He did and she did, and the charges were dropped.”
“Oh, well then. Tell it all, Sam. That’s the kind of book people will buy. But listen, the mail just came and I need your advice.” I held up the letter—written in pencil on lined notebook paper—that I’d just received.
“Who’s it from?”
“Elsie Bingham. You don’t know her, but she’s my half first cousin or half cousin, first removed, or something. Her father was my father’s half brother.” I stopped and thought for a minute. “Or maybe his stepbrother, which would make her no kin at all to me. Wouldn’t that be nice.”
Sam smiled at my sarcasm. “Not good news, then?”
“About as far from it as you can get. Listen to this.” I began reading.
Haven’t heard from you in so long you might be dead as far as I know. But in case your not, guess your still living high on the hog like you always did.
I let the letter fall to my lap in disgust. “Wouldn’t that just frost you! A nice way to start a letter to someone you haven’t had contact with in forty years.”
“Kinda puts you off, doesn’t it?” Sam agreed.
“I’ll say. But she was always like that. Well, listen to the rest of it.” I lifted the letter and began again to read:
I know you remember the summer you spent with us on the farm which is gone now and good riddance I say, except we’re on another one just as bad. Or worse. Anyway your mother was sick and died from whatever she had so that’s why we had to take you and your sisters in and feed and cloth every one of you all summer long cause your daddy was to broke up to lift a hand for his own children.
“I say, feed and clothe us! That was the worst summer of my life. And I happen to know that Papa sent money to Uncle Posey to take care of all our needs. What he actually did with it is another matter because we ate a lot of corn bread and buttermilk and you wouldn’t believe the amount of beans. And as far as clothing us is concerned, by the time we were sent home we’d outgrown everything we owned. Papa had to send Pearl downtown with us to buy school clothes. You should’ve seen what we ended up with, but Elsie’s right about one thing. Papa was out of his mind with grief and not responsible, which was when I as the oldest began to take over.”
“And did an excellent job of it, I’m sure.”
“I don’t know about that,” I mused, recalling the problems of a young girl taking charge of a motherless home. “Did the best I could, I guess, although my sisters wouldn’t think so.” I sighed and took up the letter again, reading aloud:
Anyway, when things get binding families do what families ought to do. There is such a thing as family ties and family responsibilities and so on you know, which is the reason to remind you of what my family did for your family.
“Can you believe this!” I demanded, waving the letter.
Sam smiled and shook his head. “She wants something.”
“She sure does and you won’t believe that either.”
Anyway living out here in the sticks our Trixie don’t have a way to meet nice people and learn that a high-school dropout wont do more than pump gas the rest of his life and not even that with all the self-serving stations we got nowadays. She’s Doreen’s girl, but Troy and me had to take her and raise her long after I thought I was through with all that and I wont the best for her. So Im sending her to you for the summer so she can get spruced up and polished and learn what high living is like and meet somebody willing and able to support her like you did. I thought you’d never get married but you finally did pretty good at it.
“The nerve of the woman!” I exclaimed. “Does she think I run a finishing school? But, listen, Sam. It gets worse.”
So don’t tell me you cant do it because I happen to know you took in a woman no kin to you and one who had done you dirt to boot. Trixie has never done a thing to you and she wouldn’t for the world—shes real sweet and good company cause she dont talk a lot and worry you half to death. And Julia dont tell me you cant afford it. I happen to know you married above yourself with that little banty of a man that owns a whole bank by hisself so if you got the money to take in his floozie then you got the money to feed and cloth your own kin for a few months like we did you. And your sisters to. We had a good time playing under the scuppernong vine that summer.
“Sam,” I said, closing my eyes and leaning my head back against the chair. “I am simply speechless. I don’t know how she knows anything about me—she doesn’t even know that Wesley Lloyd Springer is dead, and she doesn’t know about you. But she obviously knows about Hazel Marie.”
“Where does she live? Way off somewhere?”
I turned the envelope over and read aloud. “Route one, Vidalia, Georgia. That’s near Savannah, I think, but too close as far as I’m concerned. But you haven’t heard the worst of it yet.” I read the next paragraph to him:
So Im putting Trixie on the Greyhound real early Thurs. morning and she will get there about noon for you to meet her. You want have no trouble with her. Shes good as gold and likes chickens if you keep any she will look after them for you and earn her keep. Just tell her what to do and she will do it without a lot of backtalk.
“They Lord!” I cried. “Does she think I keep chickens? The woman is crazy. What’re we going to do, Sam?”
“Looks like we’re having a guest for the summer. She’ll be company for you while I’m out campaigning.”
“You’re taking this entirely too complacently. Besides, I intend to campaign with you and I already have all the company I want. I won’t have time for any more.”
“Well, maybe we can introduce her to some young people around town—keep her busy and entertained that way.”
“I don’t know any young people, and I heartily resent the high-handed tone of this letter. She doesn’t even ask, just tells us she’s sending this Trixie!” I had to grit my teeth to calm myself down enough to read the rest of it to him:
Anyway you can send her back at the end of the summer when I especk her to know all the ends and outs of all that la-de-dah living you do. I dont want her marrying a gas-pumper or a farmer like I did. I give you credit Julia for picking a man with money even if he don’t look like much. You cant eat looks anyway. Take care of Trixie. Shes a real good girl. Your cousin, Elsie Bingham.
P. S. Troy says to tell you not to spruce Trixie up to much. He dont wont her coming home with her nose in the air like you always had yours. But I say if she finds herself a decent husband up there she can get as stuck up as she wonts to.
I let the letter fall to my lap and leaned my head on my hand. “This is too much, Sam—too much to ask of anybody. Not that she’s asking. I don’t know this girl. I never knew her mother—this Doreen—and barely remember Elsie herself. I am just not going to do it.”
“Well, call her up and tell her it’s not convenient at this time . . .”
“Actually at any time,” I mumbled.
“Anyway, as Elsie is prone to say,” Sam said, “it doesn’t seem to have occurred to her that you might have plans for the summer.”
“That’s the truth.” I stood up, folded the letter, and put it back into the envelope. “Thanks for listening, Sam. I’m glad you agree that we can’t do this. I’d better go ahead and try to get Elsie’s phone number from information—you’ll notice she didn’t give it in the letter. I’m going to tell her not to put Trixie on that bus.”
“Julia,” Sam said as I turned to leave, “what day is it?”
“Thursday, why?” I suddenly stopped in my tracks, snatched the letter out of the envelope, and scanned it again. “Thursday! That girl’s been on a bus all morning! And it’s almost noon when she’ll be here.” I couldn’t believe Elsie had so effectively trapped me. Because without a doubt in this world, she’d planned her letter to arrive just as it had—too late to keep Trixie at home. It was just as I remembered Elsie—sly, crafty, and determined to have her way.
But I wasn’t yet outmaneuvered. With a glint in my eye, I said, “Sam, about that trip down the Rhine—it would pretty much take up the whole summer, wouldn’t it?”
Well, of course it was too late to plan a summer voyage on the ocean or a river, but, believe me, I regretted having been so adamant about staying home. Now, of course, Sam would be too busy campaigning to go anywhere, but Elsie didn’t know that and neither did Trixie. I drove to the Greyhound bus station on the edge of town, still simmering at the high-handedness of them both. I’d already decided that as soon as that girl stepped off the bus, I was going to put her right back on.
Actually, I’d probably have to wait with her for the next bus going south, but I was determined not to leave the station with Trixie in tow. Fuming, I decided that I’d sit there with her if it took all day for the next southbound bus to come in. Let her surprise her grandmother instead of me by showing up out of the blue. And it would be a surprise because I’d been unable to get a phone number for Elsie—either because she didn’t have one or her last name was no longer Bingham even though that was the way she’d signed her letter.
She could’ve just signed it that way, I mused, so I’d know who she was. But then again, she’d mentioned Troy, so she was still married to the same man she’d started out with—Troy Bingham. Maybe, I thought, they used only a cell phone like a lot of people were doing. In which case, their number wouldn’t be listed. The possibility still existed, though, that they simply didn’t have a telephone—Troy hadn’t been that good a catch to begin with.
I let the car idle at a red light, remembering the handwritten wedding invitation we’d received from Elsie the year we’d both turned twenty-one—the year I’d resigned myself to spinsterhood. But not Elsie. She’d been looking for a husband since she’d been sixteen, and apparently Troy Bingham had been the first one to take her up on it. The invitation had been no more than a long boastful dig because she was getting a husband and I wasn’t.
Of course she changed her tune a few years later when Wesley Lloyd Springer came into the picture. Although she didn’t want him—and I didn’t much either—he was a financial catch, as no one knows better than me. Well, Sam and Binkie know, but that’s beside the point.
When that invitation had come, Elizabeth, my youngest sister, said, “I wouldn’t go to her wedding for all the tea in China.” And Victoria had added, “I still have nightmares about that summer. How Papa could’ve sent us to that family is beyond me.” Then they reminded me of the time that Elsie’s mother had chased down a chicken, wrung its neck, and fried it up for Sunday dinner. She’d put a wing on each of my sisters’ plates, looked at me, and said, “Too bad hens don’t come with three.” Then put the boney back on mine. Elsie had come by her meanness naturally.
Except for several preprinted birth announcements from Elsie—for which I’d sent gifts that had never elicited thank-you notes—that wedding invitation had been the last personal contact between us. Until now.
When I reached the bus station, I pulled in and parked. Then just sat there deciding how I’d tell Trixie that she wasn’t welcome. I could tell her that we were facing a terribly busy summer with plans to go abroad—I couldn’t flat-out lie and say we were definitely going—and her grandmother hadn’t given us enough time to change our plans. And besides, I didn’t have room for a guest. With all the remodeling I’d done—changing the sunroom into an office and the downstairs bedroom into a library—the only room available was the small one next to Lloyd’s room that Lillian and Latisha used when the weather was too bad for them to get home. It just wasn’t right to give their room to Trixie even though a snowfall was highly unlikely in July.
I glanced at my watch—a few minutes past twelve, but I’d called the station and the bus wasn’t due until twelve-thirty. Another thing Elsie had been wrong about.
Gritting my teeth as I thought about dashing a young girl’s hopes for the summer, I determined to be kind but firm. We just could not have her, that’s all there was to it. I’d have to be strong even if she teared up with disappointment—I was sure that Elsie had filled her head with unrealistic visions of my la-de-dah living, as she’d called it, so the girl was probably looking forward to a round of parties, teas, and dances all summer long, ending up with an engagement ring. Well, if that was the case, she might as well cry with disappointment now as do it at the end of the summer when none of that had come to pass.
Wonder, I thought, if every family has some Binghams around somewhere on the outskirts of their lives. Probably so, I decided, they just don’t let on about it.
Then I began to wonder what Trixie looked like and how I would recognize her. Sam had said that with a name like Trixie, she was probably an outgoing, perky little thing. “The only Trixie I’ve ever known,” he said, “was a cheerleader.” But the name conjured up a different association for me. I rubbed my neck where the only Trixie I’d ever even heard of had almost pinched my head off. Lillian, however, when I moaned to her about unwanted guests, said, “The onliest Trixie I know is my neighbor’s ole dog that sleep under the porch. The girl got to be better’n that.”
Looking at my watch again, I got out of the car and went into the small bus station. It was almost empty—only a few tired-looking travelers sitting in the rows of plastic chairs. I sniffed at the sight of ticket stubs and candy wrappers littering the floor and walked over to the ticket window.
“Could you tell me, please,” I asked of the man behind the grate, “when the next bus to Vidalia, Georgia, comes in?”
He smoothed his thin mustache as his eyes traveled up and around the window—thinking, I supposed. Then he cleared his throat. “That would be your Jacksonville bus. Twelve-forty-five.”
“Really!” I exclaimed, pleased beyond words that I could put Trixie on a southbound bus as soon as she stepped off the northbound one.
“A.M.,” he said, and I had to hold on to the ticket shelf to steady myself.
More than twelve hours to wait. I couldn’t believe it. Well, nothing could be done about it—I’d have to take her home, give her dinner, and bring her back in the middle of the night.
I turned to walk away, disappointed and about half angry, wondering if I could put Trixie on a plane or hire a car service—anything to get her on the way out of Abbotsville.
The roar of a heavy motor and the screech of brakes announced the arrival of a bus. I walked outside to see a cloud of black smoke issuing from the rear of the bus as it pulled in and parked. When the door opened, passengers began to descend the steps to the platform—mothers with babies, a soldier, two unkempt men with paper sacks rolled up under their arms, an old woman with a scarf around her head, a heavyset girl with a shopping bag, and two attractive young women who didn’t seem to be together.
I walked over to the most likely one, smiled, and asked, “Trixie?”
She gave me a scornful look and said, “I don’t talk to strangers, especially in a bus station.” And walked away.
Just as the public address system came to life, announcing, “Bus for Asheville, Knoxville, and points in between now loading at Gate Three,” I approached the other teenager, who was struggling with a large suitcase.
“Trixie? Are you Trixie Bingham?”
“No, ma’am,” she said, hefting the suitcase from one hand to the other, “but I wish I was. I need help with this thing.”
Hope sprung in my breast—maybe Elsie had changed her mind and kept Trixie home. Turning away, I started for my car, thinking that I’d done my part by meeting the noon bus. It wasn’t my fault that Trixie wasn’t on it.
“Uh, ma’am,” a voice said to my back. “I’m Trixie.”
It’s a good thing that I’d had so much experience in handling sticky social situations—you know, the kind that embarrass or shock you, but which have to be managed without letting your true feelings show. This was one of those situations that demanded careful control of my face and voice, because Trixie turned out to be a short, stocky, almost muscular, and not-so-young woman with stringy hair and a sweating face that flushed bright red when I turned to look at her.
“Trixie?” I said, almost strangling on the word.
She ducked her head and clutched a wrinkled Target’s shopping bag closer. “Yes’m, that’s me.”
Lord, even if I’d been looking forward to giving the girl a social whirl in Abbotsville society—such as it was—this was impossible. I glanced down at her hairy legs and large toenails—painted purple—sticking out of dusty sandals, taking in her bitten fingernails on my way, and realized that this situation called for every iota of self-control and social poise that I possessed.
“How do you do, Trixie,” I managed to get out. “I’m Julia Murdoch. You may address me as Miss Julia while you’re here. But speaking of that, let me say that I’m sorry that you’ve made such a long trip in vain. Ordinarily, we would be happy to have you, but unfortunately, it seems that our plans for the summer call for us to be away. I’m afraid your visit will be an abbreviated one, and you’ll have to return home tonight.”
She shrugged her shoulders, mumbled, “Okay,” and looked from side to side—anywhere but at me.
Well, that was easily done, I thought, as she seemed unruffled by the prospect of a quick round trip. To be sure that she understood, though, I went on. “Yes, as much as we’d like to have you, our summer is completely taken up. But you’ll have dinner with us, then I’ll bring you back about midnight. I expect you can sleep on . . .” I stopped as the girl shifted from one foot to the other, then bent over, shuddering ever so slightly. “My goodness, are you all right?”
“I got to pee real bad.”
“Oh,” I said, my eyes widening. “Well, run into the station. There’ll be a ladies’ room there.”
“Meemaw said they’s nasty people in ’em. I can wait till we get to your house.”
Meemaw? That, I supposed, would be Elsie, but, I declare, I could think of half a dozen more acceptable names for a grandmother—Nana, Grandmommy, Grandmom, Grammy, even Granny—but Meemaw? Thank goodness, I didn’t have the problem, having had no children. Therefore, no grandchildren.
“Well, come on then. Let’s get you home.” I led her toward the car, wondering why she’d brought up the subject if she was able to wait. Then, stopping, I said, “Your luggage! Is it still on the bus?”
“They’s a suitcase somewhere,” she said, making no move to retrieve it. Then she swung the shopping bag around. “My good stuff’s in here.”
“That’s all? For the summer?” I couldn’t help the surprise in my voice.
Never meeting my eyes, she mumbled, “Meemaw said I’d need different clothes up here, and you’d know what to buy.”
“Get in the car then,” I said, opening the door and thinking that her Meemaw probably expected me to buy the clothes, too. “I’ll see about your suitcase.” Walking back to the bus where the driver was emptying the baggage compartment, I found Trixie’s huge, Samsonite suitcase—the kind with no wheels—among several others. When I tried to drag the thing to the car, the bus driver took pity and put it in the trunk for me.
With that done, I rounded the car to the driver’s side, steeling myself for several afternoon hours of Trixie’s company, while looking forward to the time I could put her on that midnight bus to Georgia.
As I pulled away from the bus station and headed for home, Trixie sat slumped in the seat beside me, her straight hair falling over the side of her face. I glanced surreptiously toward her several times, thinking that if I were to take her on for the summer, the first thing I’d tackle would be the state of her posture. I wanted to say, “Head up, shoulders back. Sit up straight and act like a lady,” but I didn’t. She was not my problem.
Making an effort to assume the role of hostess, regardless of how brief the role, I tried to draw her out, asking about her trip, her family, her interests—all to no avail. She answered with a mumbled “No’m,” “Yes’m,” or “I guess.” It was enough to make me want to shake her and forcefully say, “Speak up!”
But to tell the truth, the girl needed more than a pep talk, and I was more and more relieved that I wasn’t the one responsible for providing what she needed. Take that hair, for instance. It wasn’t just that her dark roots were showing, it was that the roots had grown out some five or six inches, leaving the bottom five or six inches a brassy blond shade with an undertone of—would you believe—pink.
She took a sudden sharp breath, then crossed her legs, giving me a sudden sharp fear of possible damage to my leather seats. I turned into a Shell station and parked at the side.
“Go use the bathroom, Trixie,” I said. “The door’s unlocked.”
She squirmed, an agonized expression on her face. “Meemaw said—”
“And I say go use the bathroom before you ruin your kidneys.”
That was all she needed. She was out of the car in a flash, scuttling toward the ladies’ room door, while I waited and waited. I sat, hoping that relief would loosen her tongue and brighten her outlook, neither of which occurred.
When she came out of the ladies’ room, I watched as she hurried—no, scuttled was the correct word—back to the car, her shoulders hunched over and her eyes darting fearfully from side to side. What in the world had her grandmother put in her head?
Maybe she was shy and self-conscious—painfully so, from the looks of her. It could be, though, that she only needed a little self-confidence, which she would gain from having a complete makeover. I’d start with hair restoration and styling, professional makeup, manicure, pedicure, more appropriate clothes than the baggy sheath she was wearing, posture and elocution lessons, a book on manners and etiquette, a low-calorie diet, an exercise regimen, and a Lady Schick razor. But she wasn’t my problem.
When I turned into the driveway at home and stopped the car, Trixie stared out the window. “This it?” she asked in the same flat tone she’d been using.
“Yes, of course,” I said. “That’s why we stopped.” Then regretted my sharp reply.
“I thought it’d be bigger,” she said, and I stopped regretting anything but bringing her home.
“Well, come in and meet everybody,” I said, getting out of the car. “We usually go in the back door because we park near it. You can leave your things in the car, since we’ll be going back in a few hours.”
“Meemaw said not to leave this,” she said, hefting herself out of the car, carrying the sack with her.
“Then bring it,” I said, shrugging as I led her to the door. The girl had barely said two dozen words, and already she’d rubbed me the wrong way.
She followed me into the kitchen, stopped short at the sight of Lillian at the counter, and whispered, “That your maid?”
Ignoring the question, I said, “Lillian, this is Trixie Bingham, who is visiting for a few hours. And Trixie, this is Lillian, housekeeper and friend.”
“We glad to have you, Miss Trixie,” Lillian said, drying her hands as Trixie frowned and turned away without responding.
“Trixie’s a little shy, Lillian,” I said, giving her a roll of my eyes. “Is Sam in the library? He’ll want to meet her.”
Trixie, still clasping her sack, followed me into the library where I introduced her to Sam. He, of course, was his usual courteous self, standing to greet her and extending his hand.
Misunderstanding the gesture, she mumbled, “It’s not heavy. I’ll hold on to it.” At which, Sam’s eyebrows shot up.
“Well,” he said, “it’s nice to meet you, Trixie. I expect you’ve had a tiring journey, would you like to rest a while?”
“I wouldn’t mind,” she mumbled.
“Come then,” I said. “I’ll take you upstairs where you can freshen up. We’ll have lunch in a few minutes, then you might want to take a nap.”
Even though Sam and I usually had lunch in the kitchen, Lillian had set the table in the dining room. When I saw the crocheted place mats and the centerpiece of fresh flowers, I knew that she had taken extra pains in honor of our guest. The first course was cups of chilled strawberry soup. After Sam said grace, Trixie—without following the lead of her hostess—picked up a teaspoon, took one taste, and screwed up her mouth. Then she put her spoon back on the place mat.
“Don’t you care for it?” I asked. “I think it’s nice on such a hot day.”
Trixie shook her head. “Mine didn’t get heated up.” And she cast a sullen glance in Lillian’s direction.
“Oh, well,” I said, as Lillian brought in plates filled with curly lettuce and fruit, covered with poppy seed dressing. “Perhaps you’ll like the fruit plate better. Oh, look, Lillian has made cream cheese and pecan sandwiches on date-nut bread. This is a treat, Lillian. I feel as if we’re at a ladies’ luncheon, don’t you, Sam?”
“I do, indeed,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “I love ladies’ luncheons. I go to them all the time.”
“Oh, you,” I said, laughing, but Trixie just stared at him.
She played around with the canteloupe, strawberries, melon, and kiwi slices on her plate, taking tentative bites now and then, but clearly not enjoying her lunch. All I could think of was how glad I was that I would not be taking her to any real ladies’ luncheons in Abbotsville. If she didn’t like fruit, she probably wouldn’t care for quiche, so what would she eat?
Finally I took pity and asked, “Is there anything you’d rather have for lunch?”
“You got any Doritos or Fritos? I could eat that and maybe some onion dip.”
Lillian’s mouth dropped open.
I quickly said, “I’m sorry, but no, we don’t have anything like that. In fact, we rarely have snacks in the house. What about a peanut butter sandwich?”
“A ’mater sandwich would be better,” Trixie said, “but I’ll take it if that’s all you got.” As if we were woefully deprived of food.
So Trixie had a tomato sandwich for lunch, carefully prepared by Lillian but for which she received no thanks. In fact, when the plate was set before her, Trixie eyed both the sandwich and Lillian as if she suspected some lurking trickery somewhere.
After that unsuccessful luncheon, I suggested that Trixie might like to rest for a while. I made the mistake, though, of mentioning that the room was kept for Lillian and Latisha on the rare occasions they couldn’t get home, hoping to subtly indicate that I was unprepared for an unexpected long-term visitor. Trixie stopped short in the middle of the room, staring at the bed.
“Meemaw said you’d have a guest room,” she mumbled.
“This is the guest room,” I replied, holding back the sharp retort that almost got away from me. “And occasionally Lillian is our guest.”
“You mean your maid sleeps in the bed?” Trixie asked.
“Well, she certainly doesn’t sleep on the floor,” I returned sharply. Then taking a calming breath, I went on. “Now, Trixie, I assure you that the linens are fresh and you can either rest on the bed or in the easy chair, whichever you prefer. After all, it’s only for a few hours, then you can sleep on the bus where all kinds of people—washed and unwashed—have been before you.”
Holding on to my temper as best as I could, I left Trixie still deciding between the bed and the chair. Silently fuming, I wondered if she’d prefer Lloyd’s bedroll that still had a rank smell from his last camping trip.
“Sam,” I said, finding him waiting for me in the library, “that girl is impossible. I’ve a good mind to take her back to the bus station and let her sit there till the bus comes in. She can buy Doritos from the vending machine for dinner.”
“Only a few hours more, Julia,” Sam reminded me.
“I know,” I said, sighing as I sat beside him. “But if she doesn’t start showing some respect to Lillian, I’m going to let her have a piece of my mind. The idea! Do you know that she didn’t want to sleep in the bed that Lillian has slept in?” And I went on to tell him of the conversation upstairs.
Sam frowned, then said, “I was inclined to pity her, but we can’t have Lillian’s feelings hurt. I tell you, Julia, the girl appears backward to me.”
I looked at him in surprise. Sam rarely made critical judgments about people. He could always find reasons or excuses for untoward behavior, which if uncorrected, he simply ignored. I, on the other hand, always felt I had to do the correcting, but not in this case—I wanted Trixie gone. She was not my problem or my responsibility.
When Lloyd came in from school that afternoon, he was in high spirits—it was the next to last day of his freshman year and, as he said, he had survived undamaged and unbowed.
Excerpted from "Miss Julia's Marvelous Makeover"
Copyright © 2015 Ann B. Ross.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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