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Merry Wives of Maggody
An Arly Hanks Mystery
By Joan Hess
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Joan Hess
All rights reserved.
Still water may run deep, but the rapids will leave you bruised and battered in Maggody, Arkansas (pop. 755). That is, if the locals don't get you first. Some of them are devious, some are stupid, and some are merely annoying. My mother falls into that last category.
I kept my eyes on the far bank of Boone Creek as she approached the hickory tree. "I came here for the solitude," I muttered.
"I reckon you can come here for whatever reason tickles your fancy," Ruby Bee said as she plopped down beside me. She does not plop with grace, being a short and sturdy sort with a deceptively benign face. Her blond hair is sensibly short; anyone who mentions the gray roots is liable to regret it long after the chickens have come home to roost in a condo. "Being that I heard tell you've been sitting out here for nigh onto four hours, I thought I'd have myself a nice lunch while I checked up on you. You can have some or not." She opened a picnic basket and started pulling out plastic containers. "Lemme see now, I got fried chicken, pimento cheese sandwiches, dill pickles, potato salad, and a couple of chunks of fudge cake. How 'bout some lemonade, Arly? I made it just the way you like it."
"No thank you."
"Suit yourself, Miss Sulky Pants." She kept shooting sly glances at me while she munched on a drumstick. "You intending to sit here the rest of the day?"
"Maybe. Is there a reason why that's any of your business?"
"Can't think of one. Dahlia's looking for you, but it's on account of Jim Bob won't let her park in the handicap space at the SuperSaver Buy 4 Less."
I couldn't stop myself from wincing. "She's not handicapped."
"She claims she is, what with the twins and baby Daisy. Not that having a baby should qualify somebody for a handicap sticker. Having babies is normal. If people didn't have babies, well — there wouldn't be any people to not have babies, if you follow me. Sure, it's a chore those first couple of years, but it ain't that hard as long as you got family nearby to help you. I've been there."
"I know you have," I said, relenting enough to pat her on the knee. I relented a little more and poured myself a cup of lemonade. "That's one of the things I've been thinking about. If you don't mind, I'd really prefer to be alone. I'll come over to the bar and grill for supper. Okay?"
Ruby Bee does not respond well to subtlety. "You talked to Jack?"
"Yes, I have. Go away, please."
"What did he say?"
I felt like a hapless hiker being stalked by a mountain lion (although the hiker would have had a better chance than I). "Jack called a couple of days ago to tell me about a fantastic opportunity to join a National Geographic Society team headed for the Brazilian rain forest. Their photographer broke an ankle, so Jack's going to be in charge of filming. He won't be able to get in touch with anyone for six weeks, maybe longer."
"And you let him go?" gasped Ruby Bee.
"I didn't let him do anything. He didn't call to get my permission, just to let me know where he'll be and why I won't hear from him." I threw a hickory nut into the water and waited for it to surface. It did not oblige. I wondered if piranhas were feasting on it.
Ruby Bee wasn't interested in nature. "What did you say to that?"
"I told him to watch out for headhunters."
"But not a word about your ... condition? Are you as plumb loco as Dimson Buchanon?"
I raised my eyebrows. "Is that what we call it these days? A condition?"
"Yes, missy," she said as she picked up the picnic basket, "we call it a condition. We also call it a predicament. You can't spend the next seven months sitting here like a wart on a widow's chin, you know."
"Sitting here's a lot more amusing than peeing on strips of plastic. I have enough of those to build a model of the Eiffel Tower. Run along and let me decide what I'm going to do about this so-called condition."
For a moment I thought she was going to whack me with the picnic basket. She managed to get herself under control, then said, "You ain't thinking about ...?"
"I am thinking about all of my options. If I have to climb all the way to the top of Cotter's Ridge to get some privacy, I will — even if it means I'll end up covered with chiggers and ticks." Or tiggers and chicks, if you prefer.
I watched her stomp back toward the highway, smiling when I noticed that she'd left the containers of fried chicken and fudge cake next to the tree. For the record, Jack is a charming man with a lopsided, contagious grin. His hair is shaggy, and whenever he runs his fingers through it, I melt. His favorite attire, except in certain adult situations, is denim. He makes divine blueberry muffins and shares the Sunday newspaper. Neither of us can solve a sudoku puzzle, but we make a helluva team tackling crossword puzzles. Most importantly, he was the sperm donor.
It takes two to tangle.
Dahlia Buchanon grunted as she tried to lift the double stroller onto the porch. It was heavy to begin with, but even more burdensome with bulgy diaper bags hanging from the handle and boxes of juice in the back pocket. Kevin kept telling her to leave it on the lawn, but she didn't trust that filthy ol' fool Raz not to steal it from under her nose. She was pretty sure he'd stolen her panties off the line a few weeks back.
Kevvie Junior and Rosemarie were racing around the yard, yapping like wolf pups. Her precious Daisy was snoozing in the playpen, although it was a wonder how she could do it with all the commotion. Dahlia wheezed sadly as she remembered what it was like before she'd had the twins, and then Daisy. She and Kevin had used to sit on the porch swing and spoon, or even sneak off to do the sort of things that Brother Verber railed about from the pulpit every Sunday morning. Back then, she'd been Kevin's love goddess, his honey bunny, his beloved for all eternity. These days she was a short order cook, a janitor, a nurse's aide, and a full-time employee at a launderette.
She almost squealed when a male voice right behind her said, "You want some help, pretty lady?"
It sure weren't Raz, she realized as she reeled around to gape at the man. He was tall like Kevin, but his hair was slick like a televangelist's and he was dressed right nice in trousers and a short-sleeved shirt with a tiny logo. He had a funny little mustache that could have been drawn with a crayon. He looked to be a few years older than Kevin, but there was something familiar about him. She squinted more closely at him. "Do I know you?"
"You sure do, Dahlia O'Neill. Well, Mrs. Kevin Buchanon now, ain't it?"
"Mebbe," she said suspiciously.
Chuckling, he picked up the stroller and set it on the porch. "Got a couple of wild ones, I see," he said, gesturing at Kevvie Junior and Rosemarie. "Me and their daddy were little hell-raisers, too. Many's the time we'd get into mischief, and his ma would tan our behinds with a switch. Kevin would blubber for hours like the devil hisself was pinching him."
She chewed on this for a while. "You're kin, ain't you?"
"I'm Bonaparte Buchanon, Kevin's third cousin. His great-grandpa and mine were brothers. There was bad blood between them, and my family ended up outside of Neosho. In Missouri."
"I know where Neosho is."
"You ask Kevin about his cousin Bony, and how I used to yank down his pants in the co-op in Starley City. Uncle Earl got so fed up that he stopped taking us with him on Saturday mornings."
Dahlia didn't much like his smarmy grin. "Kevin'd kick your butt if you tried that now. You best be on your way, Bonaparte Buchanon. I got to fix supper." She looked over his shoulder. "Kevvie Junior, don't make me come over there! Don't think for a second that I can't see what you're aimin' to do to that poor cat. Rosemarie, I don't know who taught you to tie a noose, but you untie it right this minute or I'll paddle your behind until you can't sit down for a month of Sundays!"
"I see you got your hands full," Bony said. "I was hoping to visit with Kevin, but I'll go on to Uncle Earl and Aunt Eileen's house. When Kevin gets home, you tell him that I said he was a lucky guy to land a prize like you, Dahlia. You still have that sexy, full-figured body I remember from all those years ago, when you used to charge me a nickel to touch your titties out in the barn."
He left her standing on the porch, her mouth slack and her multiple chins quivering. She was still staring as he went out the gate and ambled down the road like he thought he owned it.
Mrs. Jim Bob (a.k.a. Barbara Ann Buchanon Buchanon) banged her gavel on the dinette table. "We need to get down to business. The first Maggody Charity Golf Tournament begins a week from Saturday. The Almighty Lord is in charge of the weather, but everything else is up to us."
"Amen," rumbled Brother Verber, eying the plate of lemon squares. They were mighty tasty, all tangy and crunchy. He realized the ladies were watching him. "May the Almighty Lord smile down on us in our humble endeavor to bring aid and comfort to the wretched golf widows all across this fine country of ours."
"It's downright tragic," Mrs. Jim Bob added. "My second cousin's sister-in-law told her that she saw some of these golf widows on Dr. Phil. They're alone all the time and have nobody to rely on but each other. Most of them don't even have jobs so they can support their children. They're all thin as rails from malnutrition. Just thinking about how they bravely sit at home breaks my heart." She plucked a tissue out of her purse and dabbed her nose. "It'll mean so much to them to know we care."
The members of the Missionary Society nodded their heads, but they'd all heard it so many times that no one was moved to sniffle. Brother Verber took the opportunity to sidle closer to the plate of lemon squares.
Mrs. Jim Bob had never gotten closer to a golf tournament than on the TV, but she'd done research and was confident that she could organize one. After all, she'd overseen countless church potlucks, rummage sales, and Christmas pageants, and they always went without a hitch. The golfers on TV were respectable and polite.
She opened her notebook. "Green committee?"
Eileen Buchanon shrugged. "Earl's been mowing the fairways in Raz's back pasture every other day, and it's coming along. He plugged Bermuda on what'll be the greens. They'd look better if Raz's mule hadn't trampled all over them after that rain the other day. We got two ponds for water hazards, three if you count that boggy bottom next to Boone Creek. There ain't much Earl can do about the poison ivy, though. The golfers better stay in the fairways."
"Hardly our problem."
"I'll have Earl take the posthole digger and plant tin cans on the greens," Eileen continued. "Edwina Spitz is sewing the red flags to attach to the iron poles we found behind the old Esso station. They may not stand up real straight, but they'll do."
Edwina awoke with a jerk. When everybody looked at her, she said, "I agree."
"Very good." Mrs. Jim Bob ticked off the first item. "Hospitality?"
"I've arranged to borrow a revival tent from the Hickory Hollow Evangelical Lutheran Church," Elsie McMay said smugly. "Folding chairs and tables, too. Millicent's gonna have Jeremiah and some of the boys fetch everything on Friday. The Super-Saver's providing paper plates, napkins, and plastic forks. Saturday night we can use the buffet pans from the Elks Club in Farberville. We can just provide doughnuts and coffee on Sunday morning."
"What about the rest of the time?" asked Brother Verber. Despite himself, he leaned toward the glistening lemon squares like the Tower of Pisa. "I hope we're aiming to feed the golfers better than that. After all, man doth not live by bread alone. The Israelites would still be living in Egypt if they hadn't been promised a land flowing with milk and honey."
Mrs. Jim Bob ticked off the second item. "This is for charity. We'll serve sandwiches at noon Saturday, a nice supper later, and doughnuts on Sunday morning. I'm quite sure the Almighty Lord will forgive us for missing church, since it's for a worthy cause. The golf widows will fall to their knees in gratitude that anybody truly cares about them."
"Hallelujah!" Brother Verber said with such piety that tears glistened in his eyes and droplets of sweat dotted his bald head. He clasped his hands. "You're a saint, Mrs. Jim Bob — and the Almighty knows it as well as the rest of us do. Hallelujah!"
"Let's hear from the publicity committee," she said.
Lottie Estes pulled out several sheets of paper, then settled her bifocals firmly in place and cleared her throat. "I sent press announcements to all the area newspapers, but there hasn't been much of a response. A few of them said they'd run it in their community calendar column. The public golf courses promised to pin the flyers on their bulletin boards. Some smirky man from the Farberville Country Club called to find out if this was a real tournament, and I told him in no uncertain terms that it most assuredly was and that I didn't appreciate his attitude one bit. None of the area television stations seem interested."
"Well, they will be," said Mrs. Jim Bob, "when they hear about our prize for the first hole-in-one. Yesterday I went to visit with Phil Proodle." She paused while they gaped at her. "As you all know, he owns the biggest boat dealership in Stump County. After some persuading, he agreed to put up a bass boat that retails for more than forty thousand dollars."
Joyce Lambertino looked as if she'd discovered a sea serpent in the inflatable pool in her backyard. "Phil Proodle's all the time on TV, doing those crazy commercials. Do you recollect the one where he rode an elephant in the lot? I'd never seen anything like that in all my born days."
"Wearing nothing but two skimpy towels, one wrapped around his head and the other around his privates," Millicent McIlhaney added in a scandalized voice.
Mrs. Jim Bob frowned. "That is neither here nor there. What's important is that we get all the publicity we can. This prize is for the first hole-in-one. Not that anyone will actually win it, mind you. Our golf course isn't like those fancy ones you see on TV. There'll be more golf balls in the ponds than beetles in a sack of corn meal. I made it clear to Mr. Proodle that a charitable gesture would get him better publicity than hovering over the lot in a hot air balloon or dressing up like a cowboy and chasing heifers between the boats. He finally came around to my way of thinking."
"A forty-thousand-dollar boat," Joyce said. "Larry Joe's gonna turn pea green. His old rowboat sank last year, and he moaned about it for a solid month."
"He must beware the deadly sin of greed," Brother Verber said. "The river that carries the righteous to heaven is strewn with temptations like fancy boats. The ark was good enough for Noah, even though it was mighty crowded. And don't forget about baby Moses. He came drifting along in a basket made of reeds."
Mrs. Jim Bob was beginning to get irritated by his interruptions. His agenda was saving lost souls, but hers was more pressing. She'd read about charity golf tournaments in the newspaper. It'd seemed like an easy way to prove that Maggody was a town filled with generous Christians willing to do the Lord's work on behalf of the less fortunate. The fact that Maggody lacked a golf course had not stopped her. A quick visit to a public course had provided her with an idea how to fit eighteen holes in Raz's forty acres. She'd given Earl no choice but to help her design the course and then plow up the neglected pasture. When it was time for volunteers, the members of the Missionary Society had stepped forward, although some of them had needed a shove in the back. The one thing she didn't need was a running commentary from the pulpit. "Lottie, you need to send out new press releases immediately. Mention the trophies but emphasize the boat. Now we come to registration."
Darla Jean McIlhaney squirmed as everybody looked at her. Right offhand, she could think of a hundred other places she'd rather be. A slum in India, the dark side of the moon, the dentist's chair, even the front pew of the Voice of the Almighty Lord Assembly Hall, which was within spittin' distance of the pulpit — literally. Her mother had volunteered her because Darla Jean was good with her computer and could use it to keep track of the names and addresses of those who'd signed up. It hadn't been much of a chore. "Uh, as of this morning, seventeen people have sent in their checks for a hundred dollars. There may be more in the next week."
Excerpted from Merry Wives of Maggody by Joan Hess. Copyright © 2009 Joan Hess. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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