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If not for long-dead Civil War Generals Ulysses S. Grant, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and a pot of chicken and dumplings, Bitty Hollandale would never have been charged with murder. Of course, if the mule hadn't eaten the chicken and dumplings, that would have helped a lot, too.
My name is Eureka Truevine, but my family and friends all call me Trinket. Except for my ex-husband, who's been known to call me a few other names. That's one of the reasons I left him and came home to take care of my parents who are in their second adolescence, having missed out on their first one for reasons of survival.
We live at Cherryhill in Mississippi, three miles outside of Holly Springs and forty-five minutes down 78 Highway southeast from Memphis, Tennessee. My father--Edward Wellford Truevine--inherited the house from my grandparents around fifty years ago. It wasn't in great shape when he got it, but over the years he's put money, time, and his own craftsmanship into it, and now it's on the Holly Springs Historic Register.
Every April, Holly Springs has an annual pilgrimage tour of restored antebellum homes, with pretty girls and women in hoop skirts and high button shoes. Men and boys in Confederate uniforms stand sentry with old family Sharpshooters and cavalry swords, neither of which could do much harm to a marshmallow. It's a big event that draws people from all over the country and gives purpose to the lives of more than a few elderly matrons and historical buffs.
This year, Bitty Hollandale cooked up a big pot of chicken and dumplings to take to Mr. Sanders, who lives in an old house off Highway 7 that the local historical society has been trying to get onthe historic register for decades. Sherman Sanders is known for his fondness of chicken and dumplings, and Bitty meant to convince him to put his house on the tour. It'd been built in 1832 and kept in remarkably good shape. Most of the original furniture is in most of the original places, with most of the original wallpaper and carpets still in their original places. The only modern renovations have been electricity and what's discreetly referred to as a water closet. It's enough to make any Southerner drool with envy and avarice.
"Go with me, Trinket," Bitty said to me that day in February. "It'd be such a feather in my cap to get the Sanders house on our tour."
I looked over at my parents. My father was dressed in plaid golfing pants and a red striped shirt, and my mother wore a red cable knit sweater and a plaid skirt. Under the kitchen table at their feet lay their little brown dog, appropriately named Little Brown Dog and called Brownie. He wore a red plaid sweater. They all like to coordinate.
"I don't know," I said doubtfully to Bitty. "I'm not sure what our plans are for the day."
What I really meant was I wasn't at all sure leaving my parents alone would be wise. Since I've come home, I've noticed they have a tendency to pretend they're sixteen again. While their libidos may be, their bodies are still mid-seventies. The doctor assures me it's fine, but I worry about them. Daddy's had an angioplasty, and Mama has occasional lapses of memory. But otherwise, they're probably in better shape than Bitty and me.
Bitty, like me, is fifty-one, a little on the plump side, and divorced. But she's lived in Holly Springs all her life, while I haven't come back to live since I married and followed my husband to random jobs around the country. Bitty and I have been close since we were six years old and she rode over on her pony to invite me to a swimming party. As I then had a love for anything to do with horses, she fast became my best friend. Besides that, she's my first cousin. I've got other cousins in the area, but over the years we've lost touch and haven't gotten around to getting reacquainted.
Bitty knows everyone. I've only been back a couple of months and am still struggling to reacquaint myself with old friends. Some people I remember from my childhood, but many have been forgotten over the years. Besides, the shock of finding my parents so different from how I remembered them in my childhood still hasn't faded enough to encourage more shocks of the same kind.
"They'll be just fine," Bitty assured me. She knew what made me hesitate. "Uncle Eddie and Aunt Anna can do without you for an hour."
"Maybe you're right." I studied Mama and Daddy. They played gin rummy with a pack of cards that looked as if they'd survived the Blitzkrieg. "Will you two be okay if I run an errand with Bitty?" I asked in a loud enough voice to catch their attention.
"Gin!" my mother shouted triumphantly, or what passes for a shout with her. She's petite, with flawless ivory skin that's never seen a blemish or freckle, bright blue eyes, and stylishly short silver hair that used to be blond. Next to my father, who's over six-four in his stockinged feet, she looks like a child's doll. My father has brown eyes and the kind of skin that looks like he works in the sun. He wears a neatly trimmed mustache, his once dark brown hair is still thick, but has been white since a family tragedy in the late sixties. He reminds me of an older Rhett Butler. Since I'm using Gone With the Wind references, my mother reminds me of Melanie Wilkes, with just enough Scarlett O'Hara thrown in to keep her interesting. And unpredictable.
I, on the other hand, am more like Scarlett's sister Suellen, with just enough of Mammy's pragmatic optimism to keep me from being a complete cynic and whiner. I inherited my father's height, my grandmother's tendency toward weight gain, and auburn hair and green eyes no one can explain. I like to think I'm a throwback to my mother's Scotch-Irish ancestry.
"We'll be fine if your mother will stop cheating at cards," my father said.
Mama just smiled. "I'm not cheating, Eddie. I'm just good enough to win."
Daddy shook his head. "You've got to be cheating. No one beats me at gin."
"So," I said again, a little louder, "you'll both be fine for a little while, right?"
My mother looked at me with surprise. "Of course, sugar," she said. "We're always fine."
Bitty and I went out to her car. Bitty's real name is Elisabeth, but it got shortened to Bitty when she was born and the name stuck. Anyone who calls her Elisabeth is a stranger or works for the government. Bitty is one of those females who attract men like state taxpayers' money lures politicians. On her, a little extra weight settles in the form of voluptuous curves. About five-two in her Prada pumps, she has blond hair, china blue eyes, a complexion like a California girl, and a laugh that'd make even Scrooge smile. If she wasn't my best friend, I'd probably be jealous.
"I wish you'd drive a bigger car," I complained once I'd wedged myself into her flashy red sports car that smelled of chicken and dumplings. "I always feel like a giant in this thing."
Bitty shifted the car into gear and we lurched forward. "You are a giant."
"I am not. I'm statuesque. Five-nine is not that tall for a woman. Though I admit I could lose twenty pounds and not miss it."
Gears ground and I winced as we pulled out of the driveway onto the road that leads to Highway 311. One of the things Bitty got in her last--and fourth--divorce was a lot of money that she's found new and interesting ways to spend. I got ulcers from my one and only divorce. Those aren't bankable. My only child, however, a married daughter, makes up for everything.
It was one of those February days that promise good weather isn't so far away. Yellow daffodils and tufts of crocus bloomed in yards and outlined empty spaces where houses had once been. Some fields had already been plowed in preparation for spring planting. A few puffy clouds skimmed across a bright blue sky, and sunlight through the Miata's windshield heated the car. I rolled down my window and inhaled essence of Mississippi. It was cool, familiar, and very nice.
"So what are you going to do with yourself, Trinket?"
I looked over at Bitty. "What do you mean?"
"You've been home almost three months now. A doctor just bought Easthaven. Want me to introduce you?"
"Good Lord, no. I don't want another man in my life."
"He's a podiatrist. Think of how useful that could be. And Easthaven is one of the nicest houses in Holly Springs."
"My feet are fine. And Cherryhill suits me right now." Bitty ground another gear and I checked my seatbelt. Undaunted by my lack of interest, she went right on talking.
"Think of the future. Once your parents are gone, God forbid, you'll be all alone in that big ole rambling house. Is that what you want?"
"Dear Lord, yes. Not that I want my parents gone, but living alone doesn't bother me. I'm used to it. Perry traveled a lot."
"Whatever possessed you to marry a man named Percival, anyway? It sounds like a name out of Chaucer's medieval romances."
"His mother read a lot. Besides, with a name like Eureka Truevine, that's not a stone I felt I should throw."
Bitty nodded. "That's true enough. Percival and Eureka Berryman. Good thing his last name isn't Berry. Then he'd be Perry Berry."
We laughed. It's funny what appeals to middle-aged women past their prime but not their youthfulness. There's a sense of freedom in being beyond some expectations.
When we pulled up into the rutted driveway of The Cedars where Sherman Sanders lives in voluntary isolation and bachelorhood, he was sitting on his colonnaded front porch, serenely rocking with a shotgun across his lap. He stood up, a small man with wizened features, bowed legs, and a nose that juts out like a ship's prow. He wore faded blue overalls, muddy boots that had long ago lost any kind of shape, a flannel shirt that had seen better days, and a straw hat that looked like something big had taken a bite out of one side. A bone-thin black and tan hound lay beside the rocking chair, and when Sanders nudged it with his boot, the old dog struggled to its feet and bayed in the opposite direction. Sherman Sanders casually brought up the shotgun. It pointed straight at Bitty's car. He obviously had better eyesight than his hound.
"Don't mind the shotgun," Bitty said when I made a squeaking sound. "He doesn't shoot women. Usually."
"Dear Lord," I got out in that squeaky tone. "Who does he usually shoot?"
Bitty opened her car door and stuck her head out. She waved her hand and called, "Yoo hoo, Mr. Sanders, it's Bitty Hollandale. You remember me?"
Sanders aimed a stream of brown spit at the dirt in front of the house and nodded. "Yep. I 'member you. You're that pesky female that's been worryin' the hell out of me 'bout my house."
One thing about Bitty, she never lets minor obstacles deter her from her goal.
She smiled real big. "That's right. I brought you something."
Sanders shifted the wad of tobacco in his mouth to his other cheek. "Don't need nuthin'. Might as well go on back home. I ain't in'trested in my house bein' on no stupid damn tour with a bunch of strangers walkin' through it and gawkin' at everything."
I didn't much blame him, but I didn't say that to Bitty.
"Oh, you'll like this," she said, and started to put both feet out of the car to reach in the back for the pot of chicken and dumplings. Unfortunately, she'd forgotten to take the car out of gear or set the brake. The Miata bucked forward. Off-guard, Bitty pitched out of the car like a sack of cornmeal and sprawled face-first onto red dirt. Luckily, she was wearing a pantsuit and not a skirt, but her rear end stuck up in the air like a generous red wool flag. The car coughed, died, and made an annoying buzzing sound.
Sherman Sanders cackled so loud his hound started to bark again, turning its head in all different directions just in case the mysterious noise was dangerous. While Mr. Sanders slapped his thigh and cackled, I set the brake, took the keys out of the ignition to stop the buzzing, then got out and went over to see if Bitty was hurt.
"Are you okay?" I asked anxiously, but could tell she was just more mad than anything else. She sat up and brushed dirt and gravel from her face, palms, and the front of her pants.
"Damn car. I keep forgetting it's got a clutch. Look at my pants. I just got them out of the cleaners, too. Give me a hand up, will you?"
I did and she turned back to Mr. Sanders. "As I was saying, you'll like this, Mr. Sanders. It's your favorite."
Bitty has always been quite resilient.
"Oh my, where are my manners?" she said then, and gave me a push forward. "Mr. Sanders, this is my cousin, Trinket Truevine from over at Cherryhill."
I managed a polite smile and "How do you do" while keeping an eye on the shotgun, but a still chortling Sanders looked like what I often call, "ain't right," meaning not right in the head.
Bitty pulled out the big aluminum pot where she'd secured it behind the driver's seat, and marched relentlessly up to the porch. When she set it down on the white-painted hickory planks, the hound immediately found it irresistible. Its nose seemed to be the only one of the five senses still working efficiently.
"Sit, Tuck," Mr. Sanders said, again with another nudge, and the dog reluctantly squatted on its back haunches with nose in the air and sniffing furiously. Sanders leaned forward. "What you got in that pot?"
Bitty smiled. "Chicken and dumplings. Homemade, of course."
I could see Sanders wavering. The shotgun lowered, the bowed legs quivered, and I swear that his nose twitched just like his hound's.
"Huh. Reckon you intend to bribe me with those, do you."
"I sure do." Bitty's smile got bigger. She lifted the lid and a thin curl of steam wafted up. "Fresh, too. Just made early this morning. They have to sit a little bit to let the dumplings soak up all that broth, of course."
"Two. And White Lily flour cut with shortening and rolled out to a quarter inch."
While they discussed the intricacies of dumplings, I looked around. The white painted house has a chimney at each end; old brick covered with ivy at one end, bare wisteria limbs on the other chimney. Windows go all the way to porch level on the front, with green shutters that can be closed in stormy or cold weather. Elongated S hooks have the patina of age on them, but still look in good working order. A lantern hangs from the center of the porch, and electrical wire covered with conduit pipes painted white run along the porch's edge to make a sharp right angle beside the double front door, and then run parallel above the footings of the house and around the corner. One of the front doors was open, the screen shut. The closed door has one of those old-fashioned bells that have to be twisted to make a noise. It's a bright, polished brass. Everything about the house promises loving attention, while the front yard looks like goats live in it. No grass. Just red dirt, ruts, and gigantic cedar trees with furrowed gray trunks splintery with age.
"Reckon you can come in if you want," I heard Sanders say, and I looked over at Bitty. I thought she might faint. Her face had the dazed expression of someone in a spiritual trance.
Her voice shook a little when she said faintly, "Why, Mr. Sanders, we'd love to come in. Wouldn't we, Trinket?"
I looked at the shotgun. I wasn't so sure.
"Come on, Tuck," Sanders said, and opened the screen door for us. "He don't bite, but I ain't of a mind to leave him out here with that pot."
The hound didn't worry me. When it'd drooled over the chicken and dumplings, I'd seen that it had no front teeth. Mr. Sanders, however, seemed to have all of his teeth but not all of his marbles. Maybe it was the odd glint in his eyes, or the way he kept cackling like an old hen.
Reluctantly, I followed Bitty and Sanders into the house. It has that smell old houses have of meals long eaten, people long past, memories long gone. It isn't a bad smell. It's actually very comforting. Furniture gleamed dully, smelling like lemony beeswax. Bitty paused in the entrance hall and took in a deep breath. She was obviously having a religious experience.
As if afraid to wake the saints of old houses, she whispered, "Beautiful. Just beautiful!"
I have to admit she's right. Oval-framed photographs of family members in garments a hundred and forty years old hang on walls. The walnut mantel over the fireplace holds more old photos in small frames, a chunky bronze statue of a soldier on a horse, and a pair of crystal candlesticks. A low fire burned behind solid brass andirons. The front room is filled with antiques, and just a glimpse into the dining room across the foyer promised more treasures in the heavy furniture and wide sideboards against two walls.
Since I don't know that much about antiques or old houses, I followed along as Mr. Sanders gave us the royal tour. Bitty kept clasping her hands in front of her face as if praying, and murmured in rapture while we looked at huge old beds with wooden canopies and mosquito netting, cedar wardrobes that go all the way to the ceiling and still hold clothes from the 1800s, and gilded mirrors with a mottled tinge betraying their age. Carpets laid over bare heart pine floors look as if they hadn't been walked on in years.
By the time the tour was over, Bitty had almost convinced Sanders to allow his house to be put on the historic register and added to the tour. He still had reservations and muttered about turning his home into a circus, but had definitely wavered. Bitty really is good. She should sell real estate or run for Congress.
When we got down to the foyer again with Tuck tagging along at our heels, Bitty picked up a bronze statue from a small parquet table. "This is General Grant, isn't it?" she asked.
For the historically uninformed, General Grant was a Civil War general who burned and slashed his way across Mississippi in 1862, but spared most of Holly Springs. Legend says it was because the ladies were so pretty and treated him to nightly piano concerts, but historical fact has a different version.
Ulysses Sherman Sanders was named in honor of Generals Grant and Sherman, since his family had taken possession of The Cedars right after the war when taxes were high and Confederate income non-existent. As Yankees, they were not enthusiastically welcomed into the community. A few generations have gone by since then and hostilities have ceased for the most part, even if not been completely forgotten by some.
Sanders bristled at any hint of censure in Bitty's question. "That's right; it's a statue of General Grant. Got a problem with that?"
"Heavens no. General Grant was an absolute gentleman while he and his troops stayed in Holly Springs, though I can't say the same for all his soldiers. With some exceptions, of course," she added hastily, apparently remembering that Sherman Sanders' ancestor had been one of those Union soldiers. "This statue's very heavy. Is it weighted?"
Sanders nodded. "I reckon so. Probably because it'd be top heavy otherwise, what with the general liftin' his sword like that."
Bitty smiled and set it down carefully. "I'll be back in a day or two to discuss what needs to be done before the tour. Even though The Cedars hasn't yet been put on the historic register, we can fill out the paperwork and submit it. I don't think there'll be any problem at all. You've done such a wonderful job taking care of this house. I honestly don't think there's another house in Marshall County that's been kept up nearly this well. Most need extensive renovations."
Sanders puffed up his chest. He still held his shotgun, but just by the barrel now. I hoped that was a good sign.
Tuck suddenly barked and rushed toward the open screen door, making me jump. We all looked outside. Something big and brown had its head stuck in the pot of chicken and dumplings. Before Bitty or I could move, Sanders started to cussing, and banged out the screen door and took a shot at the aluminum pot. Rock salt pellets pinged against metal, and the mule made a strangled sound and took off down the rutted drive wearing the pot up to its eyeballs and shedding chicken and dumplings behind it. Tuck immediately took advantage of this unexpected windfall, and the pot-blinded mule ran into a tree. The impact knocked it backwards so that it sat on its haunches blinking dumplings from its eyes while the liberated pot rolled across the yard. Tuck greedily and happily worked the path the pot had taken, slurping loudly. The mule got up and shook itself free of dumplings, obviously unharmed. And unfazed.
Bitty and I just stood there transfixed by the entire thing. Mr. Sanders heaved a disgusted sigh.
"Blamed mule," he said. "I swear it's part goat. Ate half my hat last week."
Roused from temporary astonishment, Bitty said brightly, "Well, I'll just have to cook you up another big batch of chicken and dumplings. Don't worry about the pot. I have another one at home."
We were halfway back to Cherryhill before we started laughing. Bitty had to pull over to the side of the road so we wouldn't wreck. Finally I wiped tears from my eyes and tried to keep from snorting through my nose. I have a tendency to do that when I'm hysterical with laughter.
"Is putting this house on the tour worth another pot of chicken and dumplings?" I asked as soon as I was snort-free.
Bitty nodded. "As many as it takes. I'll just have to buy more ingredients and take them over to Sharita's house."
"You fraud. Someone else cooked them for you?"
"Good Lord, Trinket, you know I can't cook. If I'd cooked them we'd have been shot, stuffed, and mounted over that magnificent walnut mantel. Did you see it? All those gorgeous hunting scenes carved into the wood ... I thought I'd pass out from pure pleasure."
Bitty and I have different values in many ways. While I appreciate antiques and old houses and generations of custom, it's more in an abstract kind of way. Bitty has obviously made it her reason for living. There are different ways of handling divorce and that empty feeling you get even if the relationship degenerated into nastiness and you're happy to see the last of him. My divorce was pretty straightforward. Bitty's last divorce made waves throughout the entire state.
Bitty let me off in front of my house. "I'm going shopping for new shoes," she said, and tooled on down our circular drive with a happy wave of her hand. I smiled and shook my head. Now there's a woman who knows how to cope.
Mama and Daddy had gone from playing gin to planning a cruise. Pamphlets were spread over the kitchen table. Something familiar smelling simmered on the stove, and afternoon light made cozy patterns on the walls and floor. Brownie slept in a patch of sunshine. He's a beagle-dachshund mix with long legs, a short body, a dachshund head and coloring, and a beagle's loud bay. He can be heard three counties over when he scents a squirrel. He's also neurotic.
"Where are you going?" I asked my parents when I'd hung my sweater on a coat hook beside the back door and stood looking over Daddy's shoulder at the array of pamphlets.
"I was thinking we'd enjoy rafting down the Colorado River. But your mother wants to take the Delta Queen down to New Orleans. They have a cruise in March this year. It's usually June before the cruises start, but it's been chartered just for us retired postal employees."
Mama looked up. "I thought it'd be nice to travel down the river like those old gamblers used to do. Do you remember Maverick? Not the movie. The old TV show. James Garner always did well. I have a feeling I might be just as lucky."
"Huh," Daddy said. "You just think you're a card shark now because you beat me at gin."
"Three times," Mama said with a big smile.
I thought it best not to interfere. "What's for supper?" I asked instead.
"Chicken and dumplings."
My parents just looked at me as if I'd lost my mind when I started laughing, and I heard Mama say to Daddy in a low tone, "Hormones. Must be The Change."