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Sarah can't keep her mind on the spoons. So she starts over, counting right out loud, "One, two, three, four," pursing her lips in that way she has, fitting each newly polished spoon carefully into its allotted space in the big mahogany silver chest. Thirty-six spoons, all accounted for. Normally this is the kind of job Sarah just loves, but today it's so hot,
hotter than the hinges of hell in here, and she is distracted because Gladiola Rolette, who's polishing the spoons and handing them over to her one by one, will not shut up, not for a single minute. Gradiola beats all! She does not seem to understand that it's her fault it's so hot in here, that she should have called a repairman the instant the air conditioner went on the blink. Gladiola does not even seem to understand that it's her fault Sarah has to count the silver in the first place. But Gladiola just let it all go during the last six months of Daddy's illness, forks and spoons jumbled up together, the butter knives scattered to the four winds. And furthermore, it is perfectly clear that Gladiola has been giving her trashy family the entire run of this house.
Sarah has seen the signs everywhere--unfiltered cigarette butts in the flower beds, a beer can stuck in a planter on the portico, a lipstick smudge on the drinking glass in the downstairs bathroom--why, even the furniture has been rearranged! Gladiola herself would never think of doing such a thing. But her daughters, both of them hussies, would. They've got ideas, Gladiola's girls. Sarah has watched them grow up.
Right now Roxanne, the younger one, could not possibly be a day over seventeen but could pass for thirty, she looks so cheap and jaded with that spiky black hair and all those holes in her ears. Gladiola's older daughter, Missy, is down in Atlanta getting certified to be a massage therapist, or so she says. A massage therapist, ha! Sarah can just imagine. Of course Missy has already had one baby out of wedlock, that fat little girl out there digging in the mint bed right now with a spoon. Probably a silver soup spoon, Sarah would not be one bit surprised.
Little Bonnie comes to work with Gladiola every day, and eats everything in the house. This is a pure fact. Sarah had no idea until she came back to bury Daddy and stayed on to clean out this house. Somebody had to! Oh, a lot has been going on here that Sarah didn't know anything about. These Rolettes have practically taken over.
But of course it is all Hubert's fault. Hubert is Sarah's brother, the district attorney, a rumpled, distracted man. All Hubert cares about is his job, and all his northern egghead wife, Mickey, cares about is taking classes at the community college, where she earns degree after degree, or claims to. So Hubert was perfectly happy to hire as many Rolettes as it took and close his eyes to the havoc they wrought, just as long as everybody stayed out of his hair. Hubert! Hubert has no standards.
Sarah practically slams the knives into the silver chest, thinking of Hubert, Hubert who talked so mean to her the last time she came home and tried to make some reasonable suggestions about what to do with Daddy. Hubert wears wrinkled suits and horn-rimmed glasses way down on the end of his nose. He looked at her over the rims. "Hell, Sarah," he said, "Dad's fine. Just leave him alone. He likes to pile newspapers all over the house, he likes to have Gladiola's granddaughter around, it keeps him company. He likes to stay up and watch the talk shows and then sleep until noon, so what's the harm in it?"
"People ought to get up in the mornings," Sarah said. "A regular schedule never hurt anybody." Sarah herself has not slept past seven a.m. in twenty years. She eats one-half cup of bran cereal with banana for breakfast every morning of her life.
Gladiola, on the other hand, fed her father Pop-Tarts and instant grits. This is a fact. Pop-Tarts and grits! Lord knows what kind of shape his bowels were in by the time of his death; Sarah did not discuss this with Hubert.
But she did bring up the hat. "I just don't think we ought to let him go around looking like that," she said.
Hubert laughed. "Hell, he's eighty-five years old. I think he ought to wear whatever damn kind of a hat he wants to."
So Hubert had destroyed her influence with Daddy, Hubert having his way as usual, Hubert who was possibly even more spoiled than Ashley, God rest her soul, however.
Suddenly Sarah feels awful.
She sits down abruptly on a Chippendale chair at the dining room table. She's so hot! Maybe it's a hot flash, maybe she's getting the change of life. "Is there any ice tea?" she asks Gladiola, who runs to get it.
Thank God! There ought to be iced tea in any decent household in the summertime of course, anybody knows that. Mama was nuts on the subject. And among the three children, Sarah is the only one like Mama, that soft pretty woman Sarah can hardly remember right now, sweet
Mama who died of a racing heart twelve years ago.
Sarah left work the minute she got the message, and drove all night long to get home in time to see to every detail of Mama's funeral. Then she volunteered to stay home to take care of Daddy, who was just lost withoutMama, it was really the saddest thing. You can't imagine how he carried on.
But instead, here was Ashley back from California, flat broke, to recuperate from the second of her two divorces.
So Sarah stayed on in Richmond, where she is a buyer for the housewares section of Miller and Rhoads, a perfectly elegant downtown department store with branches in all the suburbs. In Richmond, Sarah has her book group, her bridge club, and a whole host of lovely friends. To be perfectly honest, Sarah was glad to stay in Richmond, in her new condominium with its eggshell walls and its silk ficus in the foyer. Daddy was disorderly and always had been, not to mention his drinking. Drunk and disorderly, ha!
Come to think of it, they were all disorderly--Daddy, Hubert, and Ashley--not to mention all of Hubert's and Ashley's spouses and children, a great straggling parade which Sarah loses track of. Lost, Sarah corrects herself. Which she has lost track of, as Ashley herself is lost.
Poor Ashley wasn't even married to the man who caused her last, fatal pregnancy. At the time, she wasn't married at all, and he was married to somebody else. But she was sure he would marry her, Ashley had confided to Sarah that summer morning nine years ago. They were sitting in the kitchen after breakfast, drinking coffee. It was already hot.
Mama's climbing rose was blooming profusely all over the trellis. Sarah remembers that morning like it was yesterday. Ashley leaned forward, so excited that spots of color stained her porcelain cheeks. She looked like a person running a fever.She spilled coffee on her flowered robe.
"He loves me so much," she said. "You can't imagine." Two weeks later she was dead of an ectopic pregnancy.
Sarah drinks her iced tea. She finishes with the knives: thirty-six of them, all accounted for. She smiles at Gladiola. "There now," she says.
Gladiola grins back. She's a fat, foolish woman, poor white trash if Sarah ever saw it, of course up here in the mountains this is common. People spill over from one social class into another all the time--it's hard to know who's nice. This is not true in Richmond, where the help is black and a proper distance can be maintained.
Sarah has been absent from her job at Miller and Rhoads for five days now, but she will be back on Monday. She can't afford to stay any longer. As it is, they will begin carrying three new lines of china during her absence, all of them informal: Pietri, heavy painted pottery from Italy, covered with fanciful animals and fish; Provence, oversize French china patterned in wild flowers; and Hacienda-Ware from the Southwest, all earth colors
(terra-cotta, sagebrush, sunset, and dawn, ha!), which looks like hell in Sarah's opinion. All of it looks like hell. So does that new girl they've hired to "help" Sarah with the expanded china department, a girl with rat's-nest hair and deadwhite makeup and some kind of a degree in "design." Sarah knows she will hate everything this girl likes.
What Sarah loves with all her heart is her mother's delicate bone china right over there in the breakfront, china so thin you can practically see through it. It will just kill her to split up the set with Hubert, who is totally unable to appreciate it. Well, a salad fork is missing, no surprise. Also two butter knives--no, three butter knives!
Out the window, Sarah sees Everett Sharp drive past in his little green car. Everett Sharp is the undertaker who buried Daddy two days ago. Sarah had lost touch with him since their high school days, but she was pleasantly surprised by his manner: respectful, attentive, but not unctuous. Not pushy. Everett Sharp is a tall, thin balding man, with a red beard and a high potbelly. Sarah has to start over on the soup spoons.
"Let's us stop for lunch now and I'll tell you about the wedding," Gladiola says. Gladiola knows how to get Sarah's attention.
"What wedding?" Sarah is a fool for weddings. She stops counting and wipes her face with a napkin. Actually, she's so hot, she's glad to stop for a while.
"Let's us go on in the kitchen and I'll tell you," Gladiola says.
Sarah closes the lid of the silver chest and goes to sit in the old kitchen rocker while Gladiola makes pimiento cheese sandwiches, Sarah's favorite since childhood.
"Well, you knew Roxanne was fixing to get married," Gladiola begins.
Sarah stares at her. "You mean Missy," she says automatically. It's a shame how Gladiola's face has fallen in like spoonbread around her mouth. She used to be a pretty woman.
"No ma'am," Gladiola answers emphatically. "I mean Roxanne."
"But Roxanne is only seventeen," Sarah says. "Isn't that so?"
"Yes ma'am," Gladiola says. "But can't nobody do a thing with Roxanne once she takes it in her head to do something. She's been like that ever since she was a little girl, ever since she was Bonnie's age."
As if on cue, Bonnie comes tracking dirt across the clean kitchen floor on her way to the sun porch, where she turns on the TV. Sarah sighs, bites her lip, says nothing. It is possible to say too much, she knows this, and really this pimiento cheese is very good.
"Tell me about the wedding," she reminds Gladiola.
"Well, I don't know where Roxanne got this idea, mind you, but she took it into her head that she just had to have a blue wedding."
Gladiola hands Sarah another sandwich, then sits down and grins at her. "A blue wedding! All blue! See, blue is Roxanne's favorite color, always has been, why last year when she was head majorette she forced them to let her make herself a new uniform, blue with gold trim instead of gold with blue."
"Do you mean to tell me that Roxanne had a blue wedding dress?" Sarah fans her face with a copy of Time magazine.
"Ordered it," Gladiola corrects her. "We ordered everything through Judy's Smarte Shoppe. You know Judy is real reliable, so usually everything comes in right when she says it will. We ordered a baby-blue wedding dress and veil, and baby-blue tuxedos for Sean and his brother and the two groomsmen, and three baby-blue dresses with an
Empire waist and puff sleeves for the bridesmaids."
"My goodness!" It is all Sarah can think to say.
"But then Roxanne and Tammy--that's her best friend, Tammy Bird--had a big falling-out," Gladiola goes on, "and so Tammy said she wasn't going to be in the wedding after all, and Roxanne said that was fine with her, for Tammy not to be in the wedding, and so Roxanne called Judy up and canceled Tammy's dress. But Judy happened to be out sick that day, well, actually, she was over at Orange County Hospital getting her tubes tied and her mother was keeping the store for her. You know everybody thinks she's got Alzheimer's."
"Mrs. Dewberry," Gladiola says. "Judy's mother. But I don't think she's got it. I think everybody just says that because it's popular."
"What is?" Sarah manages to ask.
"Alzheimer's," Gladiola says. "That's one of those diseases nobody ever heard of until it got popular, and now everybody's got it, like that other one, you know the one I mean, the one where you diet until you die, nobody ever heard of that one until it got popular, either."
"Anorexia," Sarah says weakly.
"Whatever," Gladiola says. She lights a cigarette.
"The wedding," Sarah says.
"Well, so Judy's mother went and canceled the whole order, is what she did, instead of just the one dress, and forgot to say anything about this to Judy, so when the
Thursday before the wedding comes and Roxanne's order doesn't come in, Judy calls them up. It's this company in New Jersey."
"Can I have a Coke?" Little Bonnie plants herself in front of Gladiola, but Sarah stands up and gets it herself out of the refrigerator. She gives it to Bonnie, then pushes her back out on the sun porch, where All My Children is on TV. Sometimes Sarah actually watches that show herself, back home in Richmond on her rare days off, of course she'd never admit it to a soul.
"What about the wedding?" Sarah asks when she returns.
"They couldn't have it," Gladiola says. "Judy had to reorder everything."
"Rut I would have thought that since the church was already reserved, I would imagine, and the minister all lined up, and the invitations sent, for heaven's sake..." Horror crosses Sarah's face. "I would have thought that they would hold the wedding regardless, and just find something else to wear. Perhaps something more traditional," she adds hopefully.
"Not on your life!" Gladiola laughs. "Roxanne had her heart set on a blue wedding." Gladiola shakes her head. She acts like it was all out of her hands, every bit of it, like sue is powerless in the world. But Gladiola was the Mother of the Bride! Sarah cannot say a word, she just stares at Gladiola, who goes right on with the story. "Well, Preacher
Sizemore said he could marry them anytime they took a notion to do it, so they set another date, and Judy reordered everything, and we got on the telephone and called up everybody we could think of, and so we put it off. But then, do you know what those rascals done?"
"Roxanne and Sean."
"What? What did they do?" Sarah cannot imagine.
"They went ahead and moved in together just like they had gone and gotten married after all! I was mad as fire. But there wasn't nothing I could do of course, you can't do a thing with Roxanne, and they already had this trailer that Sean's uncle had gave them after he built himself a new brick home out on the Bluefield road. It's got an aboveground swimming pool," Gladiola says, "which I think are so ugly."
Sarah unbuttons the top two buttons of her blouse and rolls up the sleeves. " Then what?
"Well, so they move into this trailer, which is already decorated real cute, and Sean buys them a new car, which he's real proud of, that he bought cheap in a bankruptcy auction. A black Trans Am, they were both crazy about that car."
"How old is Sean?" Sarah asks.
"Nineteen," says Gladiola. "So anyway, they get all moved in together, and the wedding is set for two months off, and then Roxanne signs up for that nursing program at Mountain Tech. You know she was always so smart."
Sarah nods. Too smart for her own good, is what Sarah thinks.
"Well, this is when the trouble really starts." Gladiola lights another cigarette. "Sean's a real jealous person, it turns out. He can't stand for her to go anyplace without him, and he especially can't stand for her to drive off anyplace in the car without him. He gets downright peculiar about that car. So anyway, on the day that Roxanne has to register over at Mountain Tech, there's a big thunderstorm, and the computers go down. So it takes her forever to get registered, and it's nearabout dark when she gets back to the trailer."
"Can I have one of those?" Sarah reaches for Gladiola's pack of Salems.
Gladiola nods absently. "All I can say is that Sean Skeens went temporarily insane because she was over at Mountain Tech so long. Why, as soon as she pulled up in the road, he came busting out of that trailer hollering all this crazy stuff about Roxanne going off in the car to see other men, and such as that, and then you won't believe what he did next!"
"What?" The nicotine is making Sarah feel high, dizzy.
"He picks up this two-by-four that was laying right there, that they were fixing to build a deck with onto the trailer, see, they had them a big pile of treated lumber that they got on sale from Wal-Mart, and Sean's brother was going to help them build the deck."
Sarah leans back in the rocker and shuts her eyes. It crosses her mind that Gladiola is trying to drive her crazy. "Go on," she says. She blows smoke in the air.
"Well, Sean Skeens proceeds to lay into that car something terrible. He busted ever window clean out, he was so mad, and then started in on the dash."
Sarah sits bolt upright. "But that's terrible! What did Roxanne do?"
Gladiola is putting things back into the refrigerator now. "I'm ashamed to own it," she says, "but Roxanne picks up this other two-by-four and hits Sean Skeens right upside the head, just as hard as she can."
"Good heavens!" Sarah is suddenly, horribly agitated. She feels like she has to go to the bathroom. Instead she reaches for another cigarette.
"Yes ma'am. Broke his nose and one cheekbone and some little bone right up here." Gladiola points to her eyebrow. "I forget what you call it. Anyway, blood went all over the place, it was the biggest mess. Now they've got Sean Skeens wired up till he can't eat no solid food, he can't have nothing but milk shakes. He's still in the hospital. His mother has gone and charged Roxanne with assault and battery, and Roxanne has charged Sean with destruction of personal property. I tried to talk her out of it, I said, 'You'll have to pay that lawyer out of your own pocket,' but you know how she is."
"So what happened then?"
"Nothing yet. They're all going to court next week." Gladiola wipes off the kitchen counters and spreads her dishrag on the sink to dry.
"And the wedding is off?" Sarah feels an overwhelming sense of loss.
"You're damn right!" Gladiola says. "They was too young to marry in the first place. Plus they was too crazy about each other, if you know what I mean. They would of wore each other out or killed each other, or killed somebody else. It wasn't no way they could of stayed together."
The front doorbell rings and Gladiola goes to answer it, leaving Sarah alone in the kitchen, where she rocks back and forth slightly, hugging herself. Sarah feels like she is hovering over her whole life in this rocking chair, she feels way high up, like a hummingbird. It occurs to her that the change of life might not be so bad. No change of life might be worse.
"What is it?" She struggles to her feet.
Everett Sharp has to repeat himself.
"I do hope I haven't come at a bad time," he says, "although no time is good, in such a season of sorrow. I just wanted to thank you for your business and tell you I hope that everything met with your standards. I guess we probably do things different up here in the mountains...." Everett Sharp trails off, looking at her. He has to look down, he's such a tall man; this makes Sarah feel small, a feeling she likes.
"Sally Woodall," he says suddenly, with a catch in his voice. "Aren't you Sally Woodall? From high school?"
And then Sarah realizes he didn't know who she was at all, not really, he hadn't even connected her with her teenage self of so many years before. Everett Sharp moves closer, staring at her. His long white bony arms poke out of his short white shirtsleeves; his forearms are covered with thick red hair. Sarah feels so hot and dizzy she's afraid she might pass out.
"My wife died last year," Everett Sharp says. "I married Betty Robinson, you might remember her. She was in the band."
"Clarinet," says Everett Sharp. Then he says, "Why don't I take you out to dinner tonight? It might do you good to get out some. They've got a seafood buffet on Fridays now, at the Holiday Inn on the interstate."
"All right," Sarah says, but she can't take in much of what happens after that. Everett Sharp soon leaves. It's so hot. Gladiola leaves. It's so hot. Sarah takes a notion to look for her father's vodka, which she finally finds in the filing cabinet in his study. She pours some into her iced tea and goes out on the porch, hoping for a breeze. She sits in the old glider and stares into the shady backyard, planning her outfit for tonight. Certainly not the beige linen suit she's worn practically ever since she got here. Maybe the blue sheath with the bolero jacket, maybe the floral two-piece with the scoop neck and the flared skirt. Yes! And those red pumps she bought on sale at Montaldo's last month and hasn't even worn yet, it's a good thing she just happened to throw them into her traveling bag. This strikes her as fortuitous, an omen. She sips her drink. The glider trembles on the edge of the afternoon.
Then Sarah remembers something that happened years ago, she couldn't have been more than seven or eight. Oddly enough, she was sitting right here on this glider, watching her parents, who sat out on the curly wrought-iron chairs beneath the big tree drinking cocktails, as they did every evening. Sarah was the kind of little girl who sat quietly, and noticed things. Actually she spied on people. Her mama and her daddy were leaning forward, all dressed up.
Mama's dress is white. It glows in the dark. Lightning bugs rise from the grass all around, katydids sing, frogs croak down by the creek. Sally has already had her supper. She wants to go back inside to play paper dolls, but something holds her there on the porch, still watching Mama and Daddy as they start to argue (jerky, scary movements, voices raised), and then as they stand, and then as Daddy kicks over the table, moving toward Mama to kiss her long and hard in the humming dark. Daddy puts his hands on Mama's dress.
The force of this memory sends Sarah back inside for another iced tea and vodka, and then she decides to count the napkins and place mats, and then she has another iced tea and vodka, and then she realizes it's time to get ready for her dinner date, but before she's through dressing she realizes she'd better go through the whole upstairs linen closet just to see what's in there, so she's not ready, not at all, not by a long shot, when Everett Sharp calls for her at seven, as he said.
He rings the front doorbell, then waits. He rings again. He doesn't know!--he couldn't even imagine!-that Sarah is right on the other side of the heavy door, not even a foot away from him, where she now sits propped up against it like a rag doll, her satin slip shining in the gloom of the dark hallway, with her fingers pressed over her mouth so she won't laugh out loud to think how she's fooled him, or start crying to think--as she will, again and again and again--how Sean must have felt when his very bones cracked and the red blood poured down the side of his face, or how she must have felt, hitting him.