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I’ll tell you right off that I’m not in the habit of talking about people, listening to gossip, or spreading rumors regardless of how tempting it is to pick up the telephone. Do unto others, I always say. I will admit, however, that occasionally I hear a tasty tidbit that just seems meant to be passed along. Yet I’ve learned that it’s best to first go to the source and check my facts. What one may think is deliciously passable could turn out to be completely inaccurate, thus changing one’s entire view of the subject in question.
That’s what happened to me. I’ve known Etta Mae Wiggins for several years now, but I’d known of her for much longer. Everybody had.
Not, I assure you, that she was the talk of the town—she lived, after all, in Delmont some ten miles or so from Abbotsville, so she wasn’t always the number one topic of conversation. In fact, most of us had never met her and wouldn’t have known her if we’d passed her on the street.
But just let somebody mention a divorce or a remarriage, and someone else would pop up and ask, “Is Etta Mae Wiggins at it again?”
She was, I think, the epitome of what we thought of as a loose woman—smart, flashy, bold, and well endowed—not a young woman with whom a husband should be left alone. I know of which I speak, for the time that Sam was confined to his house with a broken leg, she was the Handy Home Helper who came twice a week to assist with his therapy and do minor chores for him. That’s when I first met her, and I’ll tell you the truth, she put my back up immediately. She was much too helpful, standing too close, and petting and pampering him until I thought I’d throw up. That was long before Sam declared himself to me, and I was eaten up with jealousy even though I hadn’t been able to put a name to it, having never felt that way about Wesley Lloyd Springer. More’s the pity, but that’s another story.
Hazel Marie Pickens, née Puckett, had known Etta Mae since they were in county schools together, although because Hazel Marie was a few years older, they’d never been particularly close. I must mention, however, in spite of Etta Mae’s checkered marital career and her spotty reputation, that Hazel Marie has never had an unkind word to say about Etta Mae, which I should’ve taken notice of early on, but didn’t because Hazel Marie never has an unkind word about anyone. And let me say here that I never should have listened to the gossip about Etta Mae, considering what my own husband at the time—Wesley Lloyd Springer, now deceased—was up to. Be careful of what you laugh at. It could come back to haunt you.
But be that as it may, what I’d heard about Etta Mae Wiggins did not put me in mind to welcome a friendship with her, and I learned—incomprehensible as it seems—that she had pretty much felt the same way about me. But in spite of the great difference in our ages—no need to mention how great—we came to know each other through a series of incidences in which we were thrown together through no premeditation of either of us. I had reason to call on her for help, and each time she’d responded willingly and eagerly, although her enthusiasm could noticeably wane on certain occasions—like, for instance, when I had need to slip through a bamboo thicket in Florida, or to climb the Abbot County Courthouse dome, or to rescue Mr. Pickens from the clutches of a West Virginia sheriff. But waning enthusiasm never stopped her from following my lead, and, I’ll tell you the truth, I would’ve never accomplished all I have without her right beside me. Or, more often, right behind me.
It was on a few of those trips together that I began to see beneath the surface of Etta Mae Wiggins, although that surface was noticeably attractive, especially to a particular type of the opposite gender, like a certain NASCAR driver, that sheriff I’ve already mentioned, and innumerable husbands afflicted with eyes they couldn’t keep from sliding in her direction.
See, now, a lot of people would blame her for that, but I didn’t and I don’t. I put the blame right where it belongs—on grown men who can’t keep their eyes or their hands to themselves.
So most of the gossip about her loose and easy ways came about because of what some people hoped to get, not because of what they’d actually gotten. And the biggest and most astounding bit of gossip made the rounds a few years ago, before Etta Mae and I knew any more about each other than that I owned the Hillandale Trailer Park and she was a resident in same who was forever calling me to complain about one thing or another.
I put a stop to that by hiring her to manage the place so she could take her complaints to herself. Unbeknownst to me, however, at the very same time she was up to her neck in what became the talk of the town for weeks. She told me about it later—much later—after we had warmed to each other and she knew I would not condemn her for it.
On the contrary, I admire her to this day. That is not to say that I would’ve done the same nor would I recommend what she did to anybody else. Still, given the same set of circumstances, who knows what one would do?
Now, in case anyone unfamiliar with Abbotsville, Delmont, and the residents thereof (including your humble correspondent) happens to come across this story, don’t worry about it. All you need to know is contained herein, and you’ll be the better for reading it. Etta Mae’s story is a salutary one, wholesome and beneficial to anyone who is struggling to improve, to get ahead, and to win respect.
I would dearly love to tell you this story myself, but as I’ve mentioned, I don’t carry tales. She, however, is now far enough from the experience to be able to talk about it, and once Etta Mae starts talking, she’s hard to stop.
So this is Etta Mae’s story—or one of them, at least—told in her own words just as it all happened a few years ago when she was alone in this world without the benefit of my watchful oversight and stabilizing influence. And when you know her story as I do—what she was up against and what she tried to do about it—who among us would throw the first stone?
Just so you’ll know, my name’s Etta Mae, Etta Mae Wiggins. Granny always says it doesn’t matter what your name happens to be, it’s how you act that counts. But when I look around at some of my kin and their actions, I know what everybody thinks when they hear Wiggins. They think lazy, shiftless, no-account, backwoods trailer trash. But they’d be wrong about that last part, because none of us ever lived in a trailer. Except me, but only because Bernie Whitlow, my number two ex, bought me one when we got married. And that’s where I still live, out off Springer Road in Hillandale Trailer Park a couple of miles from Delmont, and right by myself, too, ever since I kicked Bernie out.
Regardless of where you live—trailer or mansion or somewhere in between—and regardless of what Granny says, names do count. They tell who you are, where you’ve come from, and what you’ve made of yourself, all in one word. I could’ve called myself Etta Mae Taggert or Etta Mae Whitlow or Etta Mae Connard, since I’ve been, or intend to be, one or the other at various times of my life. In between, though, I’ve always gone back to Wiggins, and I don’t know why unless it’s because I figured I had to start at the bottom all over again each time.
At the bottom again was where I was after I got rid of Bernie, and good riddance. I’d learned my lesson by then, and it was about time since I’d made two bad choices in a row. Three, if you count Bobby Lee. Four, if you include Jerry Johnson, which I don’t because he hadn’t lasted long enough, having his heart set on running around NASCAR racetracks instead of running around with me.
I had my sights set on a higher prize this time, having figured out what it was I really wanted. And none too soon, since I was knocking at the door of thirty years of age. What it was that I deep-down wanted was a name that people would have to respect. Mrs. Howard Connard, Senior, is who I wanted to be.
And if I played my cards right, I’d get what I wanted. But I didn’t intend to be another first Mrs. Howard Connard, Senior, in any way, shape, nor form. The first Mrs. Connard had been a dumpy little woman as near as I could tell from her picture in the newspaper that time years ago when her house had been on the garden tour, and I don’t want to be unkind, but she could’ve lost a few pounds and it wouldn’t have hurt her. Even so, every woman in town who had the means modeled themselves on her. She was the first woman every spring to put away her winter coat with the fur collar and show up at the First Methodist Church of Delmont in a mink stole with a Lady Hamilton camellia pinned on it. That was the signal to all the other ladies that winter was over. She was a fashion statement all by herself, in spite of the extra weight she carried. Some people can get away with it.
She might’ve been a hard act to follow in some people’s eyes, but not in Mr. Howard’s. You should’ve seen them light up in his head every time I came to check his blood pressure and give him his physical therapy. That was my job, to look in on the sick and elderly and incapacitated on a twice-weekly basis.
I was one of Lurline Corn’s Handy Home Helpers, a Medicare-Approved Home Health Care Agency. There were five of us, and we were under contract to provide semiprofessional home nursing care to senior citizens in failing health. We provided a real service, because we’d give bed baths and back rubs, treat bedsores, and encourage exercise. We changed sheets, cleaned kitchens, wrote letters, and did all sorts of helpful, as well as some fairly nasty, things for people who couldn’t do for themselves. None of us were registered nurses, nor even practical ones, although Lurline helped me get my certified nursing assistant degree so she’d have a CNA on her staff and qualify for Medicare reimbursements. Mostly, though, we were just hardworking people who didn’t mind doing for our fellow man and getting paid for it.
Lurline had a nice little business going for her, and I wished I’d thought of it myself instead of wasting good years doing makeovers for Mary Kay, taking telephone orders for aluminum siding, and selling cleaning products for Amway.
You’re probably getting an idea by now of what being the second Mrs. Howard Connard, Senior, meant to me, but you’d have the whole picture if you knew Mr. Howard, or even of him. He was a man to be reckoned with around Delmont in terms of respect and powers-that-be. He was Mr. Connard, sir to most everybody, but I called him Mr. Howard out of respect for his advanced age and our employer-employee relationship it all started out with.
The reason Mr. Howard occupied such a position in the minds of Delmontians, and of all Abbot Countians as well, was because he knew money—how to make it and how to use it. Take, for instance, how he’d seen the handwriting on the wall before the textile business even started its downhill slide. Everybody hated it when he closed the thread mill, sending jobs to China and Taiwan and the like, but we were proud that one of our own knew how to get ahead and stay there. Even if nobody else did.
I mean, it gave the rest of us hope, even though Tinch Moore knew in his heart that recapping tires wouldn’t bring in a fortune. And Harry Tinsley knew that his Ace Hardware Store wouldn’t set the world on fire, and Bea Shelton knew that setting hair wasn’t going to put her on easy street, even after she installed tanning beds. But Mr. Howard had made it big, and he belonged to Delmont.
And to me. If I could keep him healthy enough to get through all the prenuptial activities and up to the altar at the First Methodist, come December. That’s when we wanted to have the wedding, when my bridesmaids could wear velvet. And also, I was hoping by that time he’d be speaking a little clearer and be able to stand without a walker and have a little more strength in his various appendages to manage a honeymoon. Stroke patients take a lot of rehabilitation, you know, which was part of my job, and we’d made our plans while I exercised him. We were keeping it a secret, just between the two of us, because we didn’t want any interference from people who’d want to meddle in our May–December romance.
Mr. Howard, though, could hardly wait and he could hardly keep his good hand off me. I’d had to watch him like a hawk from the first day I’d shown up and introduced myself as his Handy Home Helper. But that’s a man for you. Doesn’t matter if they’re old or young, weak or strong, men just have this grabbing instinct built inside that they can’t, or won’t, keep under control. At least that’s been my experience with them, and I’ve known a few.
Thinking about men in general and Mr. Howard in particular, I had to smile as I drove to his house for another therapeutic session. Remembering how quick he was with that hand. And where he could get it to before I could catch it.
But I stopped smiling when I turned into my intended’s long, tree-lined driveway in my ’98 Camaro, with its faded gray body paint, rattling tailpipe, busted AC, duct-taped seat covers, and ninety-something-thousand miles. I knew, as soon as I pulled in near the back entrance, that trouble was already parked and waiting for me. I didn’t recognize the brushed gold Cadillac Seville over by the garage, but I knew who had to be its owner. A visitor would’ve parked in front.
I checked my makeup in the rearview mirror, especially my eye shadow and liner. I just hate smudges. First impressions are so important if you aim to get ahead. I wanted whoever it was, though I knew it had to be Junior Connard, Mr. Howard’s only son, who should’ve been in Raleigh where he belonged, to see me as the professional woman I was. I didn’t want to come across as some low-rate, scrub-the-floors kind of person with chewed-off lipstick, nor some loose excuse of a woman with her makeup caked on like a bar pickup, that he was probably expecting, either. Names are important, but the way you look can make up for a lot.
You see how careful I was.
I sat there for a minute listening to the early morning quiet, trying to gather my wits. I always liked to look out over the back garden every time I came. So peaceful, all enclosed like it was by shrubbery and flowering trees, with a big square of grass in the middle. I’d read about it in The Delmont Daily that time it was on the garden tour when Mr. Howard’s first wife had her picture made with her prized camellias blooming behind her. I hadn’t paid much attention to the article then, not having any connection to Mr. Howard Connard, Senior, at the time, and not being the type to tour any gardens, either. But the picture had stuck in my mind all these years, and here lately, when I made my regularly scheduled visits, I’d let myself imagine what I’d look like posing in front of that same camellia bush.
Well, sitting around thinking about it wasn’t getting it done. So I got my black canvas bag and a grocery sack out of the backseat, took a deep breath, and headed for the door.
I knocked as usual but, not as usual, waited for Emmett to come to the door. He knew the days I came, so he was always in the kitchen waiting for me, and I’d give a courtesy knock and go on in. But with that brushed gold Seville sitting out there, I waited this time till he came to the door.
“Hi, Emmett,” I said, bright and cheery, in spite of the agitation I felt.
He nodded, cut his eyes to the side like somebody was listening and taking notes, and said, “Mornin’, Miss Etta.”
Emmett had been with Mr. Howard for as long as anybody could remember, even before the first Mrs. Connard, Senior, passed. Black as a licorice stick and just as wiry, and as much of a gentleman as Mr. Howard himself. He wasn’t much bigger than me, but he was strong enough to get Mr. Howard in and out of bed, and do for him whatever needed to be done, like dressing and shaving and the like. On top of that, Emmett kept the house up, vacuuming, dusting, and so forth, doing the things that a maid had done years ago. He’d been hired as the cook and general handyman when he first came, but now with no woman around and Mr. Howard practically on his last legs, he did it all. He lived in a couple of rooms over the garage, but here lately he’d been sleeping in the house in case Mr. Howard needed help during the night. Like with getting up to relieve himself, which he couldn’t do by himself without the risk of falling and breaking a hip, which you always have to watch out for when it comes to senior citizens. He was weak on the left side, you know, from the strokes.
Since Mr. Howard had been laid up and needing the Handy Home Helpers, I’d offered to come over every now and again on my own time to give Emmett some time off, which, I liked to think, made him think kindly of me. I never pass up an opportunity to make a friend, since you never know when or where you might need one. Those were the times I’d bundle Mr. Howard up and take him for a drive for a change of scene. We’d drive around Delmont, then up on the Parkway, all the time talking about the views of the Smoky Mountains and the new people moving in who were bringing changes that neither of us liked. We’d almost always stop at the Dairy Queen and get a vanilla cone. It was the highlight of our time together.
That was when Mr. Howard and I got to know each other so well.
“How is he this morning?” I asked as usual, pretending I didn’t suspect that Junior was lurking and listening to every word.
Emmett stood in the doorway, not exactly blocking it but not so that I could breeze in like I usually did.
“Uh, Miss Etta,” he began, his old face lined with misery. “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but I got my ’structions. Mr. Junior, he say Mr. Howard don’t need no more nursin’, and I supposed to tell you don’t come here no more.”
Well, that just did it. Junior Connard didn’t have the nerve to tell me to my face. And a good thing, too, because it flew all over me. I might’ve slapped him cross-eyed if he’d been standing there.
“Well,” I said, trying hard to keep my professional aspect, in spite of the steam that was about to blow my top off. I knew Junior had to be nearby, listening to what he couldn’t bring himself to do. Maybe hoping I’d pitch a fit so he’d feel justified in firing me.
And it was all I could do to keep from pitching one that would stunt his growth and curl his hair. If he had any left to curl.
I hadn’t intended for Junior or anybody else to hear about our marital plans until they were a fate accomplished, but wouldn’t you know somebody would let the cat out of the bag. I had a pretty good idea who it was, too. I’d only told one person, which I did before I could help myself. Lord knows poor Mr. Howard couldn’t tell, since nobody but Emmett and me could understand him, the way his strokes had left him. But you can’t keep a secret in this town. Somebody, and I knew who, had called Junior and told him he’d better get out of Raleigh and take a hand here before that Wiggins woman took his daddy for all he was worth.
So you might know Junior’d come running as soon as he heard the news. A loving son, you might say, worried about his daddy and wanting to save him from a gold digger. Ha, is all I have to say. That overgrown boy, pushing fifty and then some if he was a day, hadn’t given one thought to his daddy for years. Sent him a crate of half-ripe pears at Christmas and a sorry-looking tie for his birthday. Didn’t come see him, didn’t write, didn’t do anything but play golf and live off his trust fund. Not that I much blamed him, though, if what I’d heard was true. Everybody said that Mr. Howard had been a hard man in his prime, not caring who he stepped on or whose feelings he hurt. A lot of rich, powerful men are like that, you know, until old age or sickness lays them low; then their attitude changes in a hurry.
But I’d never seen the other side of Mr. Howard, because by the time I came to know him, he was just a shadow of his former self and as sweet as he could be. That’s what a couple of strokes will do for you.
Now, what I thought Junior ought to’ve done was get on my good side. I’m not a greedy person nor a selfish one, and from all I’d heard, there was plenty to go around. He ought to’ve thanked his lucky stars that I’d come along—a trained and experienced home health care specialist to lighten his burden and make his daddy’s old age a happier time than the old man’d ever had, bar none.
But none of this meant a thing under the present urgent circumstances, and I had to come up with something to keep our plans on track. I tapped my foot and looked off in the distance for a minute, trying to maintain my temper and handle the situation to my best advantage.
I mean, I was Mr. Howard’s intended and that gave me a certain entry. On the other hand, I had a job to do and a contract that confirmed it.
So I smiled at Emmett, like it didn’t matter to me one way or the other. It did, but one thing I’d learned was if you can’t get what you want one way, there’s always another. If you’re smart enough to find it, and not let anybody know you’re looking for it. So while my brain went into overdrive, figuring out what I could do next, I smiled some more.
“That’s fine, Emmett,” I said, just as businesslike and professional as I could be. Let Junior chew on that awhile. “I must’ve missed your message at the office, so I’ll just go on to the next shut-in on my list. But I did pick up Mr. Howard’s Metamucil and I brought him a bottle of prune juice. You might try him with a little of that and see what happens. Tell him I stopped by, and say hey to Junior for me. I heard he was trying to lose some of that weight, but the way I heard it, he’s losing more hair than pounds.”
And knowing that Junior was listening, I added, “Don’t tell him I said that. See you later, Emmett, have a good one.”
I went back to my car, fuming inside, but not giving away a thing to anybody who might’ve been watching. Needing time to get myself together before trying to drive, what with my trembling hands and boiling insides, I took out my record book and propped it on the steering wheel. I pretended to jot down notes of my visit, as Lurline makes us do, so Junior and Emmett wouldn’t wonder why I was just sitting there.
What I wanted to do, though, was put my head back and howl. Every time, every time, I thought things were about to go my way, some awful thing rose up and put me back down. This time it was Junior trying to ruin the best chance I’d ever had.
But what he didn’t know, I told myself as I scribbled damn, damn, damn on my record book, was that I was through being put down, shoved around, fired without cause, and treated like trash. What he didn’t know was that he was tangling with a woman who wasn’t going to be stopped this time.
But first things first, and the first thing I was going to do was cook Lurline Corn’s goose. So I put away my record book, cranked the car, and drove down the driveway, looking straight ahead with my nose in the air like I didn’t have a worry in the world, in spite of the rumbling muffler and the cloud of black smoke trailing behind me.
Junior Connard might think he could get rid of me as easy as that, but he didn’t know Etta Mae Wiggins.
As soon as I got to the end of the driveway, I turned up the country music station I kept my radio on, stomped the gas pedal, and shot out into the street—so mad I could’ve spit. Scraped the tailpipe on the curb, too. I didn’t care. I hunched over the wheel, getting madder and madder. Lurline was going to regret the day she tried to cross me.
I’d thought she was my friend. I’d worked hard for her, always taking on the worst of our clients, the ones that the other girls couldn’t or wouldn’t handle. I’d increased her business and made money for her, and what did I get? A piddling twenty-five-cents-an-hour raise and a twenty-five-dollar bonus last Christmas. And she’d bought a new Mercury Cougar for herself, all the time moaning about the cost of overhead and how she didn’t know how she was able to stay in business. Well, I could tell her that. She was able to stay in business because she had people like me doing the dirty work while she sat in an office making out deposit slips.
The thought of it made me grip the wheel harder and stomp on the gas, billboards and speed limit signs flashing by. All I could think of was Lurline’s prissy self trying to run my personal business as well as her own.
And that hair! A woman in her fifties, which she’d never admit to being, just oughtn’t use anything darker than Clairol number 120, Natural Dark Brown. But you couldn’t tell her anything. Except, today, she was going to hear it from me.
I’d confided in her, thinking she’d wish me well. But no, she couldn’t stand for anybody to better themselves. I should’ve had my head examined for telling her about me and Mr. Howard. I should’ve known she’d go behind my back and try to do me in. Why, I just bet she’d been on the phone to Junior as soon as I got out of her office, my heart singing with the joy of a future as the second Mrs. Howard Connard, Senior.
Oh, dang and double-dang!
Blue lights flashing in my rearview mirror. My foot came off the gas—instinct, you know—and I turned the radio down, hoping the cop car would swing past me on its way to somewhere else. But no, it slowed down with me and I saw an arm motioning out the window for me to pull over. This had to be my worst bad-luck day.
Slowing, I brought the car to rest on the shoulder. I held on to the steering wheel with both hands, my head hanging down between my arms. Other cars passed by, the drivers slowing down to crane their necks at my misfortune. I sat there avoiding their eyes and wondering what else could go wrong on this awful day. I couldn’t afford a speeding ticket. I couldn’t take time off from work to go to court, and it wouldn’t do any good if I did. Lord, I was about to cry until I raised my head and looked in the side-view mirror.
He was climbing out of the patrol car, all six foot two inches and one hundred ninety pounds of him fitting into that dark blue deputy’s uniform like it’d been handmade for him. I’d never been sure of what sauntering meant exactly, until I saw Bobby Lee Moser do some of it. I watched him fit his hat carefully on his head, worried about messing up that thick head of hair he was so proud of. Vain as a peacock. He reached back into his car and brought out a ticket book, then he sauntered over to my window, grinning like he was God’s gift to every woman in the world.
Well, at one time I’d thought he was.
By the time he got to my car and leaned down to look in my window, the grin was gone. I couldn’t see his eyes because of those black aviator shades that made him look hard as nails and just as cold.
“Ma’am,” he said, just as serious and impersonal as he could get, overlooking the fact, I guess, that I knew how he looked with his pants off. “Do you know you were doing sixty in a forty-five zone? I could have your license for that. Now, where you going in such a hurry?”
“Bobby Lee,” I said, “I don’t have time to mess with you. Just give me a ticket and let me go. Or, better yet,” I said, cocking my head and giving him a sweet smile, reminding him of times past, “why don’t you just give me a warning? I promise to slow down, and besides, I’ve never gotten a speeding ticket before and you wouldn’t want to ruin my record, would you?”
“Etta Mae,” he said, dropping his voice in that bedroomy way he had, “I thought I’d already ruined your record, but seems to me you might need another session. I think we ought to get together sometime soon, don’t you?”
“In your dreams, Bobby Lee,” I snapped. “Now, I’ve got business to tend to, and I don’t have time to fiddle with you. So just give me whatever kind of ticket you’re going to give me and let me get on with it.”
“Well,” he said, squatting down beside my car so that his face was right next to mine. He rested one arm on the car door so that the short sleeve of his uniform hiked up enough for me to see part of the Airborne tattoo on his huge bicep. He knew that turned me on. “What I usually do in cases like this is take the suspect back to my car and give her a good talking-to. I don’t know that I can just turn you loose so easy. Have to make sure you’re not going to go off and be speeding again.”
I could tell, in spite of not being able to see his eyes, that they were sparkling the way they used to do when he’d try to make me mad. He’d rather tease me than eat, and that was just one of the things that kept breaking us up over the years, the last and final time being just a few months back. I’m too serious a person to put up with that kind of foolishness for long. Having fun was all he could think about, and having fun was way down on my list of life’s little necessities.
“Bobby Lee, I promise. I won’t speed again, not even if you’re lying somewhere bleeding to death and I’m the only one who can get to you. I’ll observe the speed limit every step of the way. Now, please, I’ve got to go. My whole life depends on what I do today, and I’ve got to get on with it.”
He ran his finger across my arm and frowned. “You in trouble, Etta Mae?”
“No, I’m not in trouble. I just have business to take care of. So just do what you have to, and let me go.”
He took off his shades, giving me the full benefit of his dark eyes, and said, “Give me time. I’m thinking. So, tell me, how’s Granny these days?”
“Granny’s fine, thanks for asking, but she’s not on my mind right this minute.”
He grinned. “Want to know what’s on my mind right this minute?”
“No, I do not, and don’t tell me.”
“Come on now, girl, I was just thinking about seeing Granny walking along the side of the road the other day. I offered her a ride, but she said she’d see me in hell first.”
I had to laugh, though I hated giving in to it. “She’s a pistol, all right.”
“I ride by there a coupla times when I’m on night patrol in that sector. Watch out for her a little. She still keep that shotgun by her bed?”
“Oh, yeah, and I wouldn’t shine the spotlight on her house, if I were you. She’ll shoot it out for you.” It made me weak to think of him taking special care of Granny. He used to do that for me, too, until I reported him. “Thanks for watching out for her.”
“Glad to do it, but don’t tell her it’s me. She’d fill me with buckshot some night. That lady can sure carry a grudge.” Then he leaned his head in close and said, “Just like you, darlin’. When’re you gonna get over being mad at me?”
“Never, and I don’t want to talk about it. Now, do what you have to do. I have to go.”
He studied me for a long minute, while I pretended it didn’t bother me. Him being so close, and all. Then he said, “Okay, it’ll be a warning this time, but remember, I’m keeping my eye on you from here on out. Just think of me as Big Brother, watching over you all the time.”
“Big boob is more like it.”
“You always did have a mouth on you,” he said, smiling with his eyes half closed as they traveled from my face to my waist. “Not that I’m complaining. I like a woman who can give as good as she takes.”
“You just like a woman, period, Bobby Lee Moser.” Darla Davis came to mind, and it took an effort of will to keep my professional cool. “But I thank you for the warning. Now, if you’ll stop hanging on my car, I’ll be on my way.”
He stood up, tipped his hat at me, and said, “Give me a call sometime. I been missing you.”
I looked back in the rearview mirror as I pulled onto the road. I saw him laugh and shake his head, then walk back to his car. While I was still watching him, Trisha Yearwood came on the radio singing “There Goes My Baby.” I almost sprained my wrist switching her off. That man could get to me like nobody else, keeping me on edge and about half excited every time I was around him. The problem was, he did it to every woman he met. Bobby Lee and I had been off and on more times than I could count, and it’d usually been his flirty ways that’d turned me off. I’m the jealous type, and I couldn’t put up with all the women he drew like flies to honey. I swear, the man would hit on a holly bush if he thought it was female.
Thank the Lord I wouldn’t have to worry about Mr. Howard in that regard. When you’ve got a man in a wheelchair or stumbling around on a walker, you pretty much know where he is and what he’s doing every minute of the day.
I pulled into the back lot of the square white house that Lurline rented for her business. It was just a four-room, one-bath milltown house like all the others on a side street in downtown Delmont.
A lot of small businesses and lawyers’ offices had set up shop in the area after the thread mill closed some years ago. Lurline had fixed up the former living room as a waiting area for families who wanted to make arrangements for home care of their elderly loved ones. She had it decorated with a hooked rug, a deacon’s bench, wingback chairs, and lots of doilies to keep the upholstery clean. Oh, and a brass eagle over the fireplace. Whatever her other faults, I had to give her credit for good taste when it came to home furnishings.
She’d made the former front bedroom into her office, and it was Early American too, but with a professional look from all the wood-grain file cabinets. Half of them were empty, I happened to know.
Entering through the back door, I marched through the kitchen, which was reserved for EMPLOYEES ONLY. That’s where I’d spent hours and hours training Lurline’s new girls in how to give bed baths and take care of bedsores and check urine for sugar and so forth and so on. And the thought of what I’d done for her made me even madder as I stormed through on my way to her office. She was lucky to have me since I was the only one of the Handy Home Helpers with a degree in assistant nursing from the Abbot County Technical College, although, to be fair, she did help pay for my education. But I’d paid her back a thousand times over, according to my calculations. You’d think she’d show a little appreciation.
I poked my head into the waiting room to be sure no one was there, then walked right into her office. When she looked up and saw me, she closed her checkbook and frowned.
“Aren’t you supposed to be seeing your patients?” She pulled the schedule in front of her, studied it, and said, “You’ve got Mrs. Evans and Mr. Hughes today. Surely you haven’t finished already.” I noticed she didn’t mention Mr. Howard, so she’d known he was off the schedule.
I could’ve snatched her bald-headed for letting me go out there without a clue.
“Lurline,” I said, surprised that steam didn’t come out of my mouth at the same time. “What in the hell did you think you were doing? Did you think I wouldn’t know it was you? Why, is what I want to know.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She was sulling up something awful. I could see it in her face, the way her prim little mouth tightened up, and hear it in her voice. She looked out the window, unable to face me. “And, besides,” she said, swinging her head around and glaring at me, “what gives you the right to come in here and yell at me, cussing and carrying on like you don’t need a job? You just better watch your step, young lady.”
“I don’t think you want to fire me, Lurline,” I said, trying to hold back my temper. “You might have to go out and clean a few incontinent patients yourself.” I took a deep breath and sat in one of the captain’s chairs in front of her desk. I looked her over good, noting the white uniform she always wore so the families she interviewed would think she was a nurse and capable of doing what they paid her to do. Of course, the rhinestone-studded chain holding her glasses around her neck and the earrings dangling out from under that frizzy black hair put a damper on the effect. “Why did you have to call Junior Connard, Lurline? I trusted you, and wanted you to be happy for me.”
She drew herself up and pursed her mouth, getting all huffy and self-righteous. “I’ll have you know I’m not paying you to pursue your own interests. I have an obligation to the families not to let anyone take advantage of their loved ones. After all, they’re the ones who foot the bills.”
“Don’t give me that!” I said, squinting up my eyes and giving it right back at her. “You just lost yourself a client, and that’s the last thing you ever want to happen. Unless, of course, you’re going to assign one of the other girls to Mr. Howard, but I warn you, he won’t like it and might just cancel the contract himself. His mind is as clear as it ever was, you might be surprised to know. He won’t take kindly to somebody he doesn’t even know meddling in his business.” I took a deep breath and went right on. “And if you think Junior Connard has any say in this, you are dead wrong. He doesn’t pay one cent for his daddy’s care. All expenses are paid by Mr. Howard’s lawyer, Mr. Ernest Sitton, and you know it as well as I do. No,” I said, shaking my head and clenching my fists, “obligation to the family wasn’t the reason. The reason was, you just didn’t want me to get ahead. You couldn’t stand it that I had a chance to better myself. Just admit it, so I’ll know what kind of friend you are.”
“Now listen, Etta Mae.” She leaned forward in her chair, arms crossed on the desk. She was switching into her I-know-what’s-best-for-you way of talking to me. “I was thinking of you, too. You have a future here in this business and you don’t want to go marrying that old wreck of a man. You’re too young for that, and too pretty. Although, and I have been meaning to mention this, since it has to do with my business image, you need to touch up your roots a little more often. You have to watch these things when you go blond.”
I jumped straight up out of my chair. “You’ve got a nerve! Before you start criticizing my hair, Lurline, why don’t you take a look in the mirror? You’re too old for that dark color, and I don’t know why somebody hasn’t told you before this!”
She jerked back in her chair like I’d slapped her. Which I wanted to do so bad I had to hold myself back. “There’s no need to get personal,” she said.
“What you mean is, there’s no need for me to get personal.” I leaned across her desk, so she’d see I meant business. “But it’s all right for you to criticize me. Well, I’m going to tell you something, and it’ll be the last thing I ever tell you. It’s not over yet. Junior Connard has had his say, but his daddy hasn’t had his. And his daddy’s crazy about me, and he won’t take this sitting down!”
Poor old Mr. Howard couldn’t do anything but sit down, but I didn’t bring that up.
I whirled around and headed for the door, intending to slam it on my way out.
“You going to Mrs. Evans first?” Lurline asked.
“Yes, then to Mr. Hughes. Then I’m going to straighten this mess out on my own time, and I’ll thank you to keep your nose out of my business from now on.”
And I did slam the door behind me, but not real hard.
• • •
It took most of the day to finish with the others on my list, and it was after six by the time I parked the Camaro by my single-wide. And sat there, stunned at the mess strewn around the door. Garbage cans overturned, with coffee grounds and newspapers and tomato cans and chicken bones and Hardee’s wrappers all across the concrete slab that was my patio. Plus a chair on its side and my geranium uprooted. I leaned my head on the steering wheel, teary-eyed and sick at heart, until the thought of the whole awful day upset me so bad I didn’t know whether to cuss or cry.
This was the absolute last straw. If people couldn’t keep their dang dogs out of other people’s garbage, then they needed to be penned up. Either the dogs or the people, didn’t matter which.
I crawled out of the car and stood there with my hands on my hips, surveying the damage. My single-wide was the only asset I had from two marriages and two divorces, and I was grateful for it and proud of it. When Skip Taggert, my number one ex, hit the road, I’d been so far in the hole I thought I’d never get out. You wouldn’t believe the debts he left me with. I’d had to move back in with Granny, and get one of those credit managers to negotiate with all the people he owed money to. Why, I couldn’t even get a telephone in my own name. Took me six years to get out from under, and it was only with Bernie’s help that I was able to then.
I’d played it cool with Bernie, not letting him get past first base until the ring was on my finger. He would’ve done anything for me, and just about did. He paid up the last of my debts, and I went into that marriage free and clear. He was the happiest man alive to do it for me, too. I made sure of that. We set up housekeeping in the pre-owned single-wide I’m still living in, and you couldn’t have found a prouder woman, nor one so determined to express gratitude. Bernie got so much gratitude, in fact, that he could hardly drag into work every morning for a good six months.
Things went downhill, though, when I found out about his gambling habit. But I’d learned a few things from my past experience and made him put the trailer in my name so he couldn’t lose it by drawing to a straight flush. Good thing, too, because he lost his position with A-One Quality New & Used Cars when he bet his Nissan demonstrator on the Carolina Panthers. Which shows you how much sense he had.
My single-wide was as nice as any in Hillandale Trailer Park, and I worked hard to keep it that way. I’d had a green-and-white-striped awning put over the slab in front of the door. It made a real pleasant entrance with the pot of geraniums by the steps, a short-legged grill for when I cooked out, and the two green plastic chairs from Walmart’s. Whatever my other faults, I kept a neat, clean house and tried to improve my surroundings wherever I was.
Now the place looked like a pigpen. I could’ve cried and did, a little bit, while I picked up the mess and swept up the rest of it, straightening the chairs and repotting the geranium. One bloom had been broken off, but I tamped the soil around the plant, hoping what I was muttering under my breath wouldn’t kill it for good.
Then I went inside and locked the door behind me—you can’t be too careful when you live in a trailer park—turned on the AC, and went straight to the shower. No matter how clean you are in your personal habits, when you work around old and sick people, their odor gets all over you.
Wrapped in my old chenille robe, I went into the bedroom to look at my Barbie collection. That always calmed me down, seeing those pretty dolls lined up on the barewood bookcase I’d bought just for them. I loved to dream that I was like one of them, dressed in the proper attire and taking part in all the fun activities that I’d never had a chance to do. Well, and never would, either.
Sighing, I picked up the threadbare giraffe with the limp neck that Bobby Lee had won for me at the fair one year, and hugged it tight. Out of all the stuffed animals I had propped up on my pillows, that old giraffe was the one I loved the best.
Tucking it under my arm, I went to the kitchenette, where I popped a Bud Light, then went around the counter that divided the room in two. I flopped down in Bernie’s leatherette recliner in the living area to rest from my labors and try to gather my wits. I swiveled the chair so I could admire the way my new floral-upholstered couch went with the burnt orange shag carpet on the floor. I was buying it on time from Braden’s Furniture, but the monthly payments were worth it for the pleasure it gave me. Even the first Mrs. Connard, Senior, hadn’t had anything near like it in her house.
After a while I reached for the phone, feeling about half ready to tackle old lady Springer, who owned the Hillandale Trailer Park, and complain again about garbage pickup and dogs running loose to damage property and mess up a person’s whole day and general outlook on life. I dialed her number, knowing it by heart since I’d had to call it so often.
“Mrs. Springer?” I asked as she answered her phone. “This is Etta Mae Wiggins, remember me? I’m a friend of Hazel Marie’s and I spent the night at your house back in that late winter storm we had when I was Mr. Sam Murdoch’s home health care nurse after he broke his leg? And I was at Binkie and Coleman’s wedding? And I rent a space in the Hillandale Trailer Park that you own? And I always pay my rent on time?”
“I know who you are, Miss Wiggins.” The woman could rub me raw just with the tone of her voice, but I didn’t let on.
“Well, I’m sorry to be calling and complaining again, but it’s been over a week and the garbageman hasn’t been here, and on top of that, somebody’s dogs have been. I came home to a mess today you wouldn’t believe, and I knew you’d want to know about it.”
“What do you want me to do about it, Miss Wiggins?”
Get another garbageman! Call the dog pound! Lock somebody up! Come over here and live with it and see how you like it, I wanted to say. Instead I bit my lip and said, “I’d appreciate it if you’d make the owners of the dogs keep them penned up. At least.”
“Well,” she said, with a long sigh. Like I was putting her out, but she was just too much of a lady to say so. It just burned me up. “I’ll see what I can do, but if you don’t know whose dogs they are, I don’t know that anything can be done.”
“Well, something better be,” I said, trying my best to stay professional, but firm. “I work hard all day, cleaning up after other people, and I don’t need to come home and have to clean up after a pack of dogs!” The whole day was catching up with me, and I was about to lose it. “And I know good and well, Mrs. Springer, that if I just left that mess out there, you’d be sending me an eviction notice.”
“Your lease requires you to keep your space neat and clean,” she said. I knew that. That’s what I was trying to do. That’s why I was calling her. Was everybody after me? Was every effort I made going to be shot down? Seemed like I couldn’t get anywhere for trying.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, hoping she couldn’t tell that I was about to cry. “I do try to keep my place neat and clean, but I need some help here.”
She took another deep breath, and said, “I’ll see what I can do.”
Now, see? That’s what I’ve been talking about. If Mrs. Howard Connard, Senior, had called with a complaint, that woman would’ve fallen all over herself to straighten it out. But let Etta Mae Wiggins complain and you see what happens.