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Hung Out to DieA Stain-busting Mystery
By Sharon Short
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Sharon Short
All right reserved.
"Now, this square was cut from your Uncle Fenwick's football warm-up jersey, after the 1970 season," Mamaw Toadfern said, as she stared at the crazy quilt spread on top of her bed, which was itself covered in another crazy quilt. The mixture of colors and shapes in both of her homemade quilts was making me dizzy.
As was her perfume -- Estée Lauder's Youth Dew, also vintage 1970. I briefly wondered if Mamaw had gotten the perfume at Maxine McNally's estate auction, held the previous weekend. I'd gone and found on a card table -- right next to a stack of lovely old linen and lace napkins and tablecloths -- a whole box of Youth Dew. Riley -- one of Mrs. McNally's granddaughters -- told me no one ever knew what to get her grandmother, so they just kept sending her Youth Dew. Turned out she was allergic to it, but she wore it anyway at Thanksgiving, just to make everyone happy, and finally confessed, a year before she died, not just to her allergy but also to her complete dislike of the scent.
At least, said Riley, as I bought up the whole lot of linens -- stains and all -- that explained why her Mamaw McNally always sneezed through the entire Thanksgiving meal.
Anyway. My own Mamaw Toadfern now reeked of Youth Dew and I suppressed a sneeze and wondered if I was allergic, too. I hadn't seen Mamaw at the sale. But then, I hadn't seen her other than at a distance since I was about seven years old . . . and that had been twenty-two years before.
And now, here I was. At her house for Thanksgiving. Looking at a quilt that seemed to be comprised mostly of old sports clothes. And trying not to sneeze at her perfume.
Mamaw poked again, with a hot pink sparkly fake fingernail, at the square of shiny silver fabric with the navy blue number 23. "Or maybe this square was cut from your daddy's football jersey. I got their numbers mixed up all the time." She tapped navy-on-silver 47 a few squares away. "Fenwick and Henry aren't identical twins, but at least back then they looked a lot alike. Same build. You'd think the numbers would have helped me keep them straight, but with two other boys to keep track of too . . ." She shook her head. "Your daddy and your Uncle Fenwick were the stars that season. Henry set a record for interceptions and Fenwick for field goals, records that have yet to be broken in Muskrat history." She was referring to the mascot of East Mason County High School and for a moment she looked really proud, as if she'd gone back in time to the season when they'd set the records. Then she looked suddenly despairing again. "Those two were always so competitive, you know."
No. No, I didn't know.
In fact, I had no recollection of my daddy at all, considering he'd run off from my mama and me when I was two.
And yet, here I was, in his mama's bedroom, as she droned on sentimentally about this quilt, and I held my breath, and heard somewhere in the back of my head a high-pitched whining sound that wavered to the melody of "Over the River," as in "Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother's house we go, the horse knows the way, to carry the sleigh, through white and drifted snow, oh . . ."
At least I found the song cheery, if a bit ironic.
Because this was the first, last, and only time that this particular Thanksgiving tale would be cheery.
Oh, it included a river and woods, seeing as how I live in Paradise, Ohio, and Mamaw lives in the country, on a farm, on the other side of the Stillwater River. Her huge, two-story farmhouse sits in the midst of trees. The rest of the property is a cornfield, which she farms out.
And it included plenty of white and drifted snow. The day before Thanksgiving, we'd had a record-setting storm, which dumped almost a foot of glistening white snow throughout much of the Midwestern United States, including our little patch of the Midwest in southern Ohio.
But in this tale's case, there is no horse or sleigh, although a confused, derelict deer does figure into the telling -- later on, anyway.
And grandmother is my Mamaw Toadfern, not exactly the white-haired, apron-wearing, doting grandma the song implies. In her high-heeled mules, Mamaw was at best four feet eleven inches -- a good four inches shorter than me -- and weighed maybe a hundred pounds. The lines in her face were so deep and craggy they reminded me of the glacial grooves I'd once seen in a rock at the Museum of Natural History in Cincinnati, but still . . . she loomed as big and scary as she had the last time I saw her, which, as I said, was when I was about seven.
I think she still seemed scary because of her piercing blue eyes. Or maybe because at seventy-six she wore tight black pants with those high-heeled mules, and a tan sweatshirt appliquéd with sequined turkeys, pilgrims, and Indians, and a big blond wig, and somehow managed to look pretty good.
Mamaw was suddenly shaking me as she hollered, "Josie! Josie, are you okay?"
My vision cleared, the melody drifted away, and I coughed as I peered down at Noreen Faye Wickenhoof Toadfern. The matriarch of my daddy's family -- a family I'd never known, except for a stray cousin or two, because long ago this woman had decided my daddy's running off was my mama's fault, and forbade everyone from talking to my mama or anyone in my mama's family (which was much smaller, consisting of only a brother, a sister-in-law, and a nephew). Then when I was seven, my mama ran off, too, and Mamaw chose that time to instruct the whole family to cut me off.
Excerpted from Hung Out to Die by Sharon Short Copyright © 2006 by Sharon Short. Excerpted by permission.
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