OLD MISSUS 2004
Something was up. From the hallway outside her bedroom she heard the words Old Missus murmuredor possibly they were shouted; her ears were sharp for a ninety-year-old, but even she couldn't hear through thick pine doors the way she used to. For a moment she contemplated protesting. Essie, who had been her housekeeper, cook, and general factotumfor, was it twelve years now?knew that using the hated Old Missus title was a call to arms, even if the sweet young thing Essie had just hired did not. Sharp words were called for. But it would take energy to deliver them. And one had to be careful how one spent that precious commodity at her age. Besides, she wasn't sure she wanted her faithful retainers to know exactly how much of the conversations that swirled around her she managed to pick up. Eavesdropping was one of her main pleasuresthere were so few left.
She hoisted herself out of bed as quickly as ninety-year-old joints would allow, so she could begin assembling the various partsdental bridges, eyeglasses, and medicationsthat now made up the whole of "Old Missus."
Twenty minutes later, she climbed back into bed. There were additional rustlings and murmurings in the hall, and the sweet young thing entered with a breakfast tray. She had initially balked at hiring the child, whose name was Cherry and whose job description was companion/helper. But Essie had put it in terms she couldn't fight. "I can't keep up with this big old barn of a house on my own, and you can't go on living in it all by yourself," she'd said. "I ain't coming in some morning to find you dead in your bed or lying on the bathroom floor with your other hip broken. You let me get someone in here to sleep through the night, or I quit."
So now young Cherry was standing in the doorway, holding the breakfast tray and wearing a fond if slightly patronizing grin. "The Charles Valley Gazette is here, Old Missus," she announced.
After delivering that piece of good news, the child could call her Old Missus or Old Mushroom, she didn't give a damn. "Give it here," she said eagerly. The Charles Valley Gazette was supposed to be a weekly paper, but it hadn't come for two months, and she had missed it desperately.
The Cherry child carried the tray full of clanking china and cutlery across the room with the concentration of a tightrope walker. Breakfast in bed was an indulgence Old Missus had started allowing herself lately, but she still cringed slightly when it appeared.
The girl finally came to a shaky halt at her bedside. "The paper was in your mailbox down at the post office yesterday," she announced. "They must have sent it out from Charles Valley last week."
"Probably. I'll take it now, Cherry."
"Where is Charles Valley?"
"Lawson County. May I have my newspaper, please?"
But the girl wasn't through cogitating. "I thought it wasn't anyplace around here."
"No." Silently, by reflex, she added, God forbid! Although by now it probably wouldn't matter how close she got to Charles Valley. She could march down the main street of the town shouting out her life's story over a bullhorn. No one was still alive who could possibly care. Or would they?
"Why do you get a newspaper from a town that's miles away?" her new helper asked, breaking into her thoughts. Clearly, they were making sweet young things much sharper than they used to. "I mean, it's not like there are any stories in it about the whole state or the country or anything but Charles Valley. You couldn't even buy any of the stuff in the ads over here."
It is never easy to pull yourself up to your full height while fighting bedclothes, but she didn't get to be Old Missus for nothing. "Cherry, dear, I want my breakfast before it congeals on the plate." She was trying for a regal tone, but it came out cranky-old-lady. These days that seemed to happen a lot.
The Cherry child settled the tray over her midsection and helped her adjust her pillows. The Gazette was under the bowl of oatmeal that her enthusiastic young doctor said was a real heart saver. What the hell the boy was saving that aged organ for was anyone's guess.
She pulled the paper out from under the bowl and positioned herself under the fancy new natural-light lamp she'd allowed Essie to put on her night table. She'd insisted she didn't need the damn thing, but the truth was it did make the small print easier. And the print used by most newspapers, including the Charles Valley Gazette, was infinitesimal. She should start a lawsuit on behalf of elderly Americans across the country being driven mad as they attempted to stay informed.
As usual, the first thing she did was look through the newspaper's table of contents for articles written by Laurel Selene McCready. For the past seven years, Ms. McCready had been listed on the paper's masthead as the assistant to the editor, Hank Barlow, although she also did double duty as a writer. But about three months ago her name had disappeared, after which there was no newspaper for two weeks. When it appeared again, a new assistant was listed on the masthead; soon that name was gone and two others appeared and disappeared in rapid succession. And the arrival of the Gazette, which had been a regular feature of Old Missus' Saturdays, suddenly became a random event. Sometimes it showed up on Tuesday, sometimes on Fridayif it showed up at all.
Clearly, the loss of Ms. McCready was a major catastrophe for the paper. And not just because of whatever she had done to make sure it was published each week. Since her disappearance, the damn thing was loaded with typos. But in the humble opinion of Old Missus, it was Laurel Selene's writing that was the biggest loss. The absent Ms. McCready had had a nice way with a phrase and an irreverent slant on life that gave her stories an unexpected and welcome tartness. They were better than the swill turned out by the man she had assisted, that much was sure.
"What's that picture?" asked Cherry peering over her employer's shoulder at the front page of the paper.
"Those are the azaleas at Garrison Gardens."
"I've heard of thatsome kind of vacation place, isn't it?"
"It's one of the most important horticultural centers in the country," she responded huffily. "Didn't they teach you anything in school about your own state?" This was an overreaction, but Cherry wouldn't take offense. No one ever did when you were over ninety. No matter what you did, you were cute.
"That garden place is in Charles Valley?"
But mere geographical location didn't begin to explain the relationship of the gardens to Charles Valley, Georgia. The little town owed its livelihood to Garrison Gardens. Students from around the world came to study the work being done by their botanists. Tourists poured into the Garrison Gardens resort to enjoy the lodge, the restaurants, the golf course, the man-made lake, the tennis courts, the RV campground, the hiking and biking trails, the country store, and the phenomenal thirty-thousand-acre Garrison Nature Preserve. Ms. McCready's boss at the Charles Valley Gazette genuflected in print whenever he mentioned the gardens or the resort or the Garrison family that had built them. The family no longer owned the gardens, which were now part of a charitable trust. But the Garrisonsor, more accurately, Peggy Garrison, who had inherited the whole shebang from her late husband, Daltonhad a controlling voice on the board that ran the trust and retained full ownership of the very profitable resort attached to the gardens. The Garrison nameif not the bloodlineremained the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the area.
"Would you like me to read the paper to you?" Cherry asked brightly. The girl was terminally perky. "You seem to be having a little trouble this morning."
"I'm fine," she answered firmlynot, she hoped, crankily. "I'll call you if I need you, dear."
"Okay," Cherry said, in the indulgent tone that young people used with her now. She vanished and Old Missus reached up to turn on her fancy lamp. She was having a little trouble this morning. With her hands, not her eyes, thank you.
Cherry had touched a nerve. It was foolish to keep renewing her subscription to the Gazette. Her only connection to the town had been gone for many years. But the little newspaper had become a part of her life. Some names had appeared regularly in it for so many years they were like old acquaintances. She liked to keep tabs on them. At her age, it was hard to make new friends. And it wasn't true that she had no connection to the placethere was still one person whose comings and goings had personal meaning for her. So it was with a gasp that she scanned the front page and read that Peggy Garrison was dead.
A little alley alongside the one-story brick building that housed the Charles Valley Gazette functioned as an unofficial parking lot for the newspaper's staff. Hank parked his car there, and Laurel had too, when she was his assistant. In the past week, a beat-up blue Buick had been in her old spot every time Laurel drove bywhich she had done a little too often to be totally healthy. The presence of the new car confirmed the rumor that Hank had hired a new assistant. Again.
But the Buick wasn't in the alley this Saturday morning. Nor was it parked on the street in front of the newspaper office. Hit by a sudden impulse, Laurel pulled into her old space, walked quickly to the big bay windows in the front of the newspaper building, and looked in. No one was inside. When she'd been his assistant, Hank had insisted that she be on duty at the crack of dawn on Saturday. She'd done it because he threatened to fire her if she refused, and because the Gazette was the only newspaper in town and it made her feel special to work there. Her other options for employment had all involved food services.
She checked the street quickly. The tourists who would be swarming around in a few hours were still sleeping in their beds in the resort or in the less pricey motels and B and Bs that jammed the area. The locals, who wouldn't be caught dead in tourist territory on the weekend, were nowhere around. She took a set of keys out of her purseher spare set of the office keys Hank had forgotten to take when he dumped herand let herself into the Gazette building.
Inside, it was dark and still relatively cool. Later in the day, the heat would accumulate under the tin roof and drift downward, defeating the efforts of the ancient air conditioner and turning the place into a hot box. The newspaper took up the entire building, including a basement that was used as the morgue. At the back of the ground floor, where the air rarely circulated, was her deskwhat used to be her desk. In front was Hank's desk, and in between was the space with the computers where she and Hank used to lay out the paper in an all-night marathon each week.
Hank had paid her a salary that was low enough to qualify her for food stamps, and there were undoubtedly laws against the working conditions she'd put up with, to say nothing of the hours. She'd had the job from hell. And she missed it like hell.
She stood in the empty space, breathing in the quiet. Ironically, what she missed most of all was the Saturday morning shit shift. The time alone in the silent office had been hers for writing and thinking. That was when she worked on her story for the next week and checked the issue that had just come out for mistakes they'd been too busy to catch. Laurel was murder on punctuation and spelling, a fixation that would have surprised most people who knew her. She had a reputationwell earned, she had to admitfor being a wild child. Actually, white trash was more like it.
The newspaper could have been hers. Hank had been toying with the idea of selling it for a couple of years, and Peggy had offered to buy it for her. Peggy Garrison had been her friend, as were the two other members of a trio of older women known in town as the three Miss Margarets. They were Dr. Margaret Long, Margaret Elizabeth Banning, and Mrs. Margaret Garrison, known as Dr. Maggie, Miss Li'l Bit, and Miss Peggy, respectively.
Dr. Maggie was in her late eighties and still ran the clinic where she'd been treating patients since the 1930s. Miss Li'l Bit was in her late seventies and had a pedigree as impressive as the fortune she used to fund charities throughout the state. Miss Peggy was in her mid-sixties, and while her family tree might not have been as illustrious as the Bannings', the fortune she'd inherited when she became the Widow Garrison was even bigger than Miss Li'l Bit's. And she used it just as generously.
Most of Charles Valley addressed the trio formally with the emphasis on the titles "Doctor" and "Miss." Laurel was one of the privileged few who was close enough to call them simply Maggie, Li'l Bit, and Peggy. She was the only person in town who joined them every afternoon on the porch of Li'l Bit's antebellum home to chat and sip the beverage of her choice as the sun went down.
There could not have been a more unlikely combo than thirty-five-year-old Laurel and the three older women, who were all icons of Charles Valley respectability. Laurel's past was, to put it politely, colorful. Her mother, Sara Jayne, had been a drunk with a high profile at the major and minor honky-tonks along Highway 22. Her daddy, who hadn't lived long enough to see Laurel born or give her his name, was equally well known as a murderer who then went out and got himself killed over the affections of a black woman in a scandal that still lived in the hearts and minds of many of the townspeople, even though it was thirty-six years old. The fact that Laurel Selene, with her family history, was welcome at the sacred afternoon gathering of the three Miss Margarets drove the Charles Valley grapevine nuts.
But two years ago, on a cold autumn evening, the three women had told Laurel a secretone they'd kept since before she was born. In doing it, they had given her a kind of peace about her past, but they'd put themselves at great risk. If Laurel had chosen to betray them she could have destroyed them and might even have sent them to jail. But Laurel had kept their secret, and the three Miss Margarets considered her a friend for life. Only they weren't the three Miss Margarets anymore, because Peggy was gone.