A Southern Sisters Mystery
(Read or print)
"Believe me, Patricia Anne," my sister Mary Alice said, striding into my kitchen and plunking her purse down on the table, "wedding presents aren't going to be any problem. That girl doesn't have even so much as a deviled-egg dish to her name."
"You could give her that one of yours that says See Rock City. The one where the eggs are toppling over Ruby Falls."
"Are you crazy? That's an antique. I bought it at the Lookout Mountain gift shop when my senior class went to Washington." Mary Alice pulled out a chair and looked up at me. "What in the world are you doing?"
"What does it look like I'm doing?"
"Breaking your neck."
"That's for sure." I was standing on my kitchen counter painting the cabinets, the problem being that while I am five feet one, the space between the counter and the ceiling is four six, resulting in a Hunchback of Notre Dame stance. I laid my brush across the open can of glossy white enamel, sat down on the counter, and rubbed my stiff shoulders.
"You're too old to do that," Mary Alice said. "You could fall and break your hip. I'm sure you have osteoporosis. You're a prime candidate, you know. Just the other day on 'Good Morning America' that lady doctor with the big dimples said if you're skinny, old, and white, watch out."
"I enjoy painting," I said. "Instant gratification. Maybe in five years when I'm as old as you, I'll quit."
Mary Alice narrowed her eyes but decided to let it pass. On her last birthday, she had been sixty-six but had decided to start counting backwards. At last count, she's sixty-four. Big difference. It reminds me of that commercial where they're celebrating Great-grandmama's one-hundredth birthday and one woman whispers cattily to another that Greatgrandmarna is really a hundred and one.
"As I was saying," she continued, "I don't think that girl's got a pot to pee in."
"I assume 'that girl' is Sunshine Dabbs."
"Well, of course, Mouse. Who else would I be talking about?" Mary Alice got up, opened the refrigerator, and took out a pitcher of tea. "You want some?"
I reached behind me and handed her two glasses.
"She seems very nice, though. Pretty. Sweet."
"Well, of course she is. Ray wouldn't have married her if she weren't."
"I don't want somebody after my baby for his money."
"God forbid a woman should marry for money."
Mary Alice wasn't going to let me get by with this one. "That's tacky, Patricia Anne. I loved them all and you know it!" The "all" she was referring to were her three husbands, all of whom had been twenty-eight years older than she was, incredibly wealthy, each virile enough to impregnate her once and thoughtful enough to die neat deaths, though Roger Crane's demise on a transatlantic flight had caused a few problems.
"I know you did," I admitted. Though, as Fred, my husband says, "Money do help."
"Then quit being tacky." She put the tea on the table. "Get down off the counter and I'll tell you what I've found out about Sunshine. You got any cookies?"
I slid from the counter and looked in the bread box. "Some of those wafer things."
"The ones that have that stuff like lard in the middle? I love the way they coat your tongue."
I handed her the package. "I thought you were on a diet."
"I am. I drank one of those diet milkshakes for lunch. That's why I'm so hungry." She took several cookies and chowed down. "Don't you want one?" I shook my head no. "Lord! Anorexia!"
I didn't bother to answer that. My sister and I are proof of the possibilities that exist in a family's gene pool. Mary Alice is six feet tall, admits to weighing two fifty, and has olive skin. She used to be a brunette, but now that's subject to frequent change. 1, on the other hand, am tiny, have fair, freckled skin, and hair that Sister used to call "no color." Now it's mostly gray unless I lose my mind and let Sister talk me into putting something on it which she does occasionally.
"Have you heard from Ray?" I asked.
Sister held up her hand for me to wait a minute, chewed, swallowed, and took a sip of tea before she answered. "Last night. It's true."
"Well, why hadn't he called you sooner? He just let a girl you don't know from Adam's house cat walk right in and announce they're married?"
"He had a group out for a week's dive and I guess it just didn't occur to him that Sunshine would get home that quick. He apologized. I told him it was fine, just startling to have this strange girl show up at my front door saying she was married to my son." Sister bit into another cookie. "He says he'll be home next week."
"Are they going back to Pago Pago?"
"Bora Bora. I have no idea. I hope they'll stay here. They could live in Destin. Don't dive ships go out from Destin?"
I shrugged. Deep-sea diving was not up my alley. When Ray, the youngest of Mary Alice's three children, took off for the South Pacific and bought a dive ship, I was suspicious that his ambition was fueled by the belief that he would be welcomed by exotic, grass-skirted native girls gathered on the beach doing the hula and singing "Happy Talk." But his business venture had been wildly successful. And if the grass-skirted ladies failed to materialize, he hasn't had time to be too disappointed. Young American, Australian, and Japanese women are much into diving. Mary Alice has a whole picture album filled with photos of Captain Ray Crane, a big grin on his face and his arm around a variety of bikini-clad ladies.
And now Sunshine Dabbs from Locust Fork, Alabama, had hooked him.
"Tell me what you've found out about her," I said. "For starters is that her real name? Sunshine?"
"That's what she said when she showed up on my front steps. Sunshine Dabbs. Ray called her Sunny. Anyway, she's only twenty. So there's eleven years' difference in their ages."
"That's not too bad." I was thinking of my own daughter, Haley, engaged to a man twenty years older.
"No. That's fine. In fact, it's all pretty good." Mary Alice drank some more tea. "Lord, it's hot today!"
"Ninety-five," I agreed. Actually, that's par for the course for Birmingham in August.
"Anyway"-Mary Alice reached for another cookie"she graduated from Jefferson State Junior College with a degree as a licensed practical nurse and she's supposed to start work at University Hospital in September. But I guess that's changed now, since the wedding."
"What about her family?"
"She's always lived with her grandmother. Her mother travels a lot, some kind of sales job, I think. I don't know about the father. Sunshine just said he's never been there."
"Well, he obviously put in an appearance at one point in time. And if her mother has a good job, what makes you think they don't have a pot? Dive trips to the South Pacific cost a fortune. How did she manage that?"
"Won it on Wheel of Fortune. Remember when they were in Atlanta?"
"I'll be damned."
"As for not having a pot, take my word for it, Mouse. You should have seen the car she was driving. Had to roll it down the driveway to make it start." Mary Alice broke open a wafer cookie and licked the filling. "I haven't heard a car backfire like that in a long time. But she's cute* as she can be. Little bitty thing. Had her hair back in a French braid. Blonde." Mary Alice put the whole cookie in her mouth and kept talking. "I want y'all to come to supper tomorrow night to meet her. Henry's going to fix the food."
"What time?" I asked. I didn't have to wait to see if Fred had other plans. Henry Lamont, Mary Alice's son-in-law, is the chef at one of Birmingham's most elegant country clubs and my husband is his greatest fan.
"Seven. Or is that too late for Fred?"
"I think he'll be able to make it." I snatched the cookie package from her. "Who all's coming?"
"Henry and Debbie, if she feels like it."
"Bless her heart. I remember what that's like, don't you?"
"Morning sickness? I never had it."
"You did! You stayed upside down in the toilet for months!"
"Well, maybe just a twinge or two." Sister snatched the cookies back and took the last one from the package. "Anyway, I'm delighted that they're pregnant so soon. I wonder if it'll be twins this time. Wouldn't that be something?"
I agreed that it would. Debbie has beautiful two-year-old twins, Fay and May. In her mid-thirties and single, she had heeded her biological clock's tick and visited the University of Alabama sperm bank with spectacular results. Now happily married to Henry Lamont, she's two months pregnant.
"Is she able to work okay?" Debbie is a very successful lawyer.
"Says she has a barf bag. When she pulls it out, the judge calls a quick recess."
"I'll bet he does."
Mary Alice and I grinned at each other. We each have three children, all in their thirties now (Dear God! Sister's Marilyn and Freddie, our oldest, would soon be forty!), but with the exception of my middle child, Alan, who has two teenaged boys, none of the others has been in a hurry to produce grandchildren for us to spoil.
"Is Sunshine's family going to be there tomorrow night?" I asked.
"Not her mother. She's out of town. Meemaw will, though."
"That's what she called her. Her grandmother."
"I'm assuming Meemaw has a name."
Mary Alice frowned. "And I don't know what it is. It was 'Meemaw this' and 'Meemaw that' and I forgot to ask. How do you think I can find out? I hate to introduce her as Meemaw Dabbs. You know? God, I can't believe Ray has done this."
"It wouldn't be Meemaw Dabbs, anyway. Not if she's Sunshine's mother's mother."
Mary Alice stirred her tea with her finger. "True."
From outside, I could hear my old Woofer dog barking. It was too hot for him to be getting excited about anything; I needed to go put some ice in his water bowl. But just at that moment, a cloud crossed the sun. A precursor of the usual late afternoon August thunderstorms. I watched Sister stir her tea; my shoulders ached and I was suddenly very sleepy.
"Hey!" she said.
I jumped a mile.
"Locust Fork's in Blount County, isn't it?"
"I don't know. Why?"
"Reckon how many people live there?"
"Not many, I wouldn't think."
"I'll bet I know someone who knows Meemaw's name." "Who?"
"Sheriff Reuse. I'll bet that martinet knows everybody's dog's name and if they've had their rabies shots."
"Call him," I said. "He'll be thrilled to hear from you." My sister and Sheriff Reuse had met the year before when she had gotten a wild hair and bought a country-western bar named the Skoot 'n' Boot. Nothing but trouble. Suffice it to say she and Sheriff Reuse were not soul mates.
"You're being sarcastic, but I bet he'll be happy to hear from me. That man leads a boring life, Patricia Anne."
"Hmmm." What could I say?
"Where's your phone book?"
I located it under the newspaper that was spread on the kitchen counter and followed her into the den. This I wanted to hear.
I got the one-sided version, of course, but it went something like this:
Mary Alice (butter-melting voice): "Sheriff Reuse? How are you? It's so nice to hear your voice. This is Mary Alice Crane." (Pause. Voice still sweet.) "No, everything's fine. No, I haven't invested in any more property up there. I know, though I really don't feel responsible for what happened."
(Long pause. Voice not as sweet.) "What I need to know is if you know a family in Locust Fork by the name of Dabbs." (Pause.) "No, I am not buying their property, I assure you." (Nod.) "Sunshine Dabbs is the child's name. Well, it's Sunshine Crane now. She and my son Ray just got married in Bora Bora." (Pause.) "Bora Bora in the South Pacific." (Another nod.) "Yes. And what I need to know is the grandmother's name. All I know is 'Meemaw' and I'm having a dinner party tomorrow night and it would be embarrassing to have to introduce my new daughter-in-law's grandmother and not know her name." (Pause.) "Yes, my son married Sunshine Dabbs. The dinner is tomorrow night. Of course Meemaw is invited." (Disgusted look at me. Holds the phone away from her ear.) "He's laughing."
"Sheriff Reuse doesn't laugh."
"Well, he's putting on a damn good imitation." She handed the phone to me. The sheriff was either laughing, crying, or choking to death.
"Sheriff Reuse?" I asked. "This is Patricia Anne Hollowell. Is something wrong?"
"Turkett," he gasped finally.
"Turkett. Her name is Turkett."
"Like little turkey? Turkett?"
"There is a God." The gargling sounds started again and the line went dead.
Mary Alice and I looked at each other.
"What on God's earth do you suppose that was about?" she asked.
"I have no idea. He said there was a God and hung up. Oh, and he said her name was Turkett."
"I don't know. He was laughing too hard." I held out the phone. "You want to call him back?"
"Like little turkey. And then he said there was a God and hung up."
"Maybe Sunshine will say her name."
Mary Alice put the phone back on the end table. "Shouldn't have called that fool anyway."
"True." I meant it.
She got up. "Y'all come about seven. Okay?"
"I'm looking forward to it," I said truthfully.
Sister started out the back door. "What are y'all having for supper tonight?"
"Lean Cuisines if Fred doesn't stop by Morrison's Cafeteria."
"The paint smell's too loud in here to eat anyway."
"We'll probably take it to the bedroom. Eat in bed."
I was shutting the door when she turned around. "Turkett? You're sure?"
"Reckon why he was laughing so? There's nothing wrong with that name. Not Smith or Jones, but it's a fine name."
I shrugged. Sheriff Reuse's laugh had been disconcerting to say the least.
From the west came the first rumble of thunder. I waved at Mary Alice and shut the door. Meemaw Turkett? I grabbed the paintbrush and climbed back on the counter. Lord!
"Looks good, sweetie." My husband Fred came in a while later. He stood back and admired the cabinets. "You've done a lot today."
"It does look good, doesn't it? Clean and fresh. What's in the sack?"
"Sweet and sour shrimp. Egg rolls." He put the food on the kitchen table, came over, and patted me on the behind. "Why don't you call it a day? I'll finish this Saturday."
"Sounds like a good idea." I stretched and rubbed my neck. "How did your day go?"
"Great! It's really working out, Patricia Anne." What Fred has done in the last few weeks is consolidate his fabricating business with a larger corporation based in Atlanta. He built his Metal Fab from scratch and loves it. When I retired from teaching, though, he began to realize that he had a whole company resting on his shoulders and that he wasn't free to take small vacations, let alone do any serious traveling. Now, though he is still president of Metal Fab, many of the everyday problems have been lifted from him.
I reached down and kissed the top of his head. And a nice head of hair it is, too, thank you, ma'am, thick and steely-gray on a good-looking sixty-four-year-old guy.
"I'll even get in the shower with you. Scrub your back."
"Okay. But only if you're up to doing something kinky
"Be still, my heart. What do you have in mind?"
"A good rubdown with Ben-Gay."
"Put the paintbrush in the sink, woman."
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