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When the phone rang, she had been in the process of wrapping up and refrigerating the three-quarters of her famous vegetarian lasagna that the homecoming crowd chose not to eat.
Was she kin to "a Jenny McLaurin, white female, age about 80"? Georgia said yes, Jenny was her cousin.
"Well," said the deputy, "she's drowned."
Georgia thought to ask the location. She went back to the stairs and called up to where Justin and Leeza were doing God knows what, surely not that, with her this far along.
"Justin," she said. "We've got a ... a little emergency. You remember Cousin Jenny, don't you?" (Why the hell would he?)
A noncommittal answer was followed in half a minute by a head of uncombed hair leaning over the railing.
"What's wrong?" As if he hoped it would be something that could be fixed without his active participation.
"What's wrong, Mom?"
Georgia could think of no other way to say it.
It took Justin five minutes to get reasonably close to fully dressed-flannel shirt and Levi's, shoes but no socks. Leeza insisted on coming, too. Justin helped her down the steep, dark stairs a step at a time, the girl's swelling belly bulging under the light blue smock, the rest of her still so thin that Georgia knew shewould lose every damn ounce once the baby was born.
Justin insisted on driving. Leeza, after only minimal insistence on Georgia's part, rode up front. In the back seat, Georgia looked out at Kenny's harvested fields, corn and tobacco stalks waiting for the burning and plowing under, fodder for another season. She rolled the back window down, then back up again as the stench from the hogs reached her.
The lane was smooth clay and dirt now, no more ruts to loosen your fillings. At the end, where it met the paved road into East Geddie, was a little green street sign in the middle of working farms and fallow fields full of mobile homes. The state had decreed that everything bigger than a driveway had to have a name, so the rescue squad could find you in case you had a stroke or your house was on fire.
Georgia wondered if Cousin Jenny's house had a street sign in front of it.
Kenny or the Geddies could have named the dirt road anything they wanted, but the green sign, not much different from one you might see in Washington or New York, read "Littlejohn McCain Road" in letters shrunk enough to squeeze them all into one line.
"That's the only proper name for it," Kenny had told her when she thanked him for the cost-free but generous gesture. "Annabelle and Blue and I were in total agreement on that, at least."
He told her about two families half a mile farther from town who had shared the same small sand road peacefully for three generations and then fell out so badly over which of their names to put on their new sign that they wound up going to court. Rather than abide by the judge's Solomonic decision to call it BunceJacobs Road, they named it Copperhead Lane.
Now, though, the street sign seemed like just one more rebuke to Georgia as they turned right, a piece of green metal silently asking Where were you? Aren't you ashamed of yourself?
At the flashing red light in East Geddie, they turned right again, on Old Geddie Road, with Georgia giving what she did not think were too many directions, and Justin saying "I know, I know" to each of them.
The old store where she once walked to buy grape Nehis and meet the bookmobile now sold farm supplies. The fields across the way, surrounded by the circular road that served a majority of the town's residents, had sprouted houses of their own, mostly modular and temporary-looking, connected to the half-moon lane by more dirt lanes with more green street signs.
Half a mile farther, they passed under the interstate that now linked Raleigh and beyond with Newport and the Atlantic beaches. The highway still seemed strange to Georgia, even though it was five years old. Not far from the road they were on, it cut through a lush edge of the farm. Now, ocean-bound traffic rushed above some of the best land, where the strawberries had grown and no tobacco was ever planted. It was Blue's land now. Everyone had known that they would build the interstate eventually, but Georgia doubted her father gave it much thought when he rewrote his will. Still, she agreed that it was a shame. A good 10 acres were taken by the right-of-way, and another 10 or so were ruined, cut off from any road, flooded when the big highway changed the drainage patterns.
Old Geddie Road was now paved all the way to Route 47, and when they reached the state highway, they turned left, and soon came to Jenny McLaurin's home, upon which half the county seemed to have descended.
There were at least 20 cars parked in the yard and along the path that ran past the house and the pond behind it. Three sheriff's cars were there, along with an ambulance and a fire truck, although Jenny's body had already been taken away.
They walked through a curious and sympathetic crowd that parted for them, and soon they were standing on a little raised bank, staring down into a murky expanse of water measuring perhaps 50 yards by 30 yards.
"It just goes straight down," the sheriff said, his words only slightly garbled by a golf ball of tobacco in his cheek. "I don't reckon she could swim. She was drug out right over there."
Georgia remembered the pond. As a child, when they would visit here, her mother, and especially her father, would warn her about playing around it. Even if you can swim, they told her, there's no way to climb out.
It was true, then and now. She had enjoyed tempting fate by slipping away back then and standing atop the bank, getting a thrill when either her parents or Harold or Jenny would come running as if she were really getting ready to do a swan dive into the nasty water, home to bream, spot, and bullfrogs, plus the occasional moccasin from the swamp that stretched behind it.
No one said anything for a few minutes. Justin stood beside her with his hands in his pockets. He had not seen Jenny, Georgia knew, in 10 years at least, since the summer he turned 16. Leeza, who had never been in Scots County in her life until two months before and probably had never even heard Jenny's name mentioned until this bright fall afternoon, was crying softly. Georgia stifled the urge to tell her to shut up.
Justin reached over and squeezed his mother's shoulder. "So," he said, "she was your cousin, right?"
"And yours. Second, or first, once removed. I can't ever remember how that goes. They didn't have any children, and she didn't have much family ..." Any family, Georgia thought, that ever gave a tinker's damn about her. But I did. I did. I just didn't know. She knew she was going to start crying, her tears falling into Harold McLaurin's worthless snake pond, if she didn't take some kind of head-clearing action.
She turned away at last from the water to face a crowd that had grown still larger, hanging back as if torn between manners and curiosity. She recognized two members of the church among them, younger men whom she didn't really know, babies when she had left for college. She walked past their mumbled "anything I can do's" in a daze, looking for the sheriff, who had drifted off at some point. Still in her Sunday clothes, she almost tripped over the tangled thickness of the centipede grass in her high heels. Supporting arms caught hers, and she supposed everyone thought she was overcome with shock and grief.
She caught up with Wade Hairr standing by his brown-and-gold patrol car adorned with a cartoon star on each side.
"Sheriff," she said, tapping him on the shoulder. She felt foolish calling him that, Wade Hairr who finished Geddie High School two years behind her, a short, thin, acne-scarred boy with an irritating laugh who played no sports, made average grades and drove a school bus. The ones who stayed were sometimes rewarded for their diligence, moved to the head of the class past the beauty queens and football stars, past the college-bound, all the deserters who left and never Came back. And when they did come back, if only temporarily, Georgia supposed that it was only fair that they should know it was not their world anymore, that it belonged to the faithful, to the Wade Hairrs.
He turned from the young deputy whom he had just told to "get these people out of here. This idn't a picnic."
"Sheriff," Georgia started again, and he told her to call him Wade. "Who identified her? I mean, didn't somebody have to do that?"
"Oh, Miss Forsythia Crumpler did that. You know she lives right next door."
"Right. I'd forgotten."
She had been Georgia's seventh-grade teacher. Older brothers and sisters would tell their siblings about her corporal punishment administered with a Fly-Back paddle, her zero tolerance for chewing gum, lost homework and ignorance.
Georgia, a teacher's kid, a straight-A student who wanted a challenge and a chance to shine, had adored her. Forsythia Crumpler made her feel she was special. One day, she asked Georgia to stay for a minute as the rest of the class went to lunch, and she gave her a copy of Rebecca, the first real novel Georgia McCain would read. Others followed, and the teacher would always ask Georgia what she thought of certain characters and scenes, usually just nodding but sometimes pointing out nuances lost to the seventh-grade mind.
In some ways, she had steered Georgia more than her own mother did. Sara McCain would teach Georgia in both the ninth and 12th grades at Geddie High, but she and her daughter were too much alike for knowledge to change hands easily. "The quickest way to make Georgia go east," Sara told Littlejohn once, "is for me to tell her to go west."
Forsythia Crumpler was a lifelong member of Geddie Presbyterian Church, and Georgia would see her on a more or less regular basis until she finished college and moved away permanently. For years, she and her old teacher would exchange gifts long-distance at Christmas-always a paperback version of some book one was sure the other would particularly like. Georgia did not remember when or why they stopped.
In the 11 years since her father s death, Georgia had only been to East Geddie five times, visiting Jenny each time but only crossing over the tall hedge that bordered the McLaurins' yard on two occasions to say hello to her favorite teacher. The last time had been three years ago.
Georgia looked around, but did not see her old teacher anywhere in the thinning crowd.
"I think she went back home," Wade Hairr said. "She identified the, ah, deceased, and then she left."
Georgia started to walk across the yard, in search of Forsythia Crumpler, and then stopped.
"Why was she out there by the pond in the first place? I know she couldn't swim at all."
The sheriff looked away, as if pondering life's mysteries.
"Well, you know how old people are," he said. "You can't tell what they're liable to do. Maybe she was just going out to feed the fish or something."
"But she definitely drowned, right?"
Georgia found a gap in the photinia hedge between Jenny's wooden two-storey house and Forsythia Crumpler's brick rancher. She walked along the edge of the thick grass until she found the flagstone walk, Justin and Leeza following in her steps.
She rang the bell, noticing as she did that everything that could be painted apparently had been in the last few months.
A few seconds later, the door opened a couple of feet.
"Mrs. Crumpler? It's me. Georgia. Georgia McCain. I just wanted to thank you ..."
Forsythia Crumpler was no more than 5 feet tall, and Georgia supposed she must be 80 years old herself, but she still had a presence. Maybe it was the ice-blue eyes that still burned brightly, or the way she carried herself, chin still jutting forward. Even bifocals didn't do much to soften her.
"I know who you are," she said to Georgia and the pair standing behind her on the lowest step.
"I just wanted to thank you ..."
"Let me ask you something." Forsythia Crumpler stepped out on her front porch, barely leaving room for her guest. "When was the last time you saw Jenny McLaurin? When was the last anybody came to see her, other than me and her circle-meeting group, or maybe those sorry Blackwells now and then? You know she would cry sometimes, talking about how she didn't have any family anymore, how lonesome she got."
Georgia moved back as far as she could, the hollies that surrounded the porch pricking her rear and legs.
Forsythia Crumpler seemed to be just getting started. It looked as if she might have been crying.
"I didn't know ..." Georgia began, trying to gain some conversational traction.
"You didn't even send her a Christmas card last year," the older woman exclaimed. "She was so hurt that she told me about it."
"Why didn't somebody tell me?"
"Tell you to send her a Christmas card?"
Georgia hadn't sent any Christmas cards, something she didn't think was worth introducing as an ameliorating factor. "Why didn't someone tell me she was so lonely? I could have come to see her."
Forsythia Crumpler shook her head in disgust.
"I wish I had. But you know Jenny. Or I suppose you do ... did. She was proud. She specifically told me not to write you, every time I threatened to. I wish to God I had anyhow, though. We tried to look out for each other, two old ladies without any family to speak of." She nearly spit the last part out.
Georgia could feel the stares of Justin and Leeza behind her. "I sent her money," she said, regretting it even as she said it. "Money. Fifty dollars a month. Not enough to keep her from canceling her subscription to the paper. I let her borrow mine." "She canceled her subscription to the paper?" Jenny would read the newspaper front to back. Even Georgia remembered that.
"I'll bet you don't even know about the Blackwells, do you?"
Georgia shook her head. "The Blackwells?"
"This is how lonesome and scared she was. She was so lonely, so worried that nobody would look after her, that she might die alone, that she gave up her house."
"What do you mean, gave up her house? She was living here, wasn't she?"
The older woman stopped to catch her breath. "Well," she said after a few seconds, "you'll find out about it pretty soon, I suppose. I'm not the one who ought to be telling you.
"I'll tell you this, though, Georgia McCain. I am purely ashamed of you. How long have you been back down here, a week?" Georgia could only nod.
"And you hadn't come by here once. Not once. She knew you were here, too. I taught you better than that, girl, and your momma and daddy taught you better. Jenny McLaurin was family. Your family."
"We didn't know she was this bad off," Justin said, the first time he'd spoken.
Forsythia Crumpler gave him the same laser glare she had used to pin smart-ass seventh-grade boys to the wall for 40 years. Georgia saw him take a half-step backward.
"Son," the older woman said, looking down at him, "nobody ever knows anything they don't want to know."
Georgia could feel the tears welling up. Her eyes burned.
Her old teacher turned again to her.
"Georgia McCain," she said, in a voice appropriate for a star student caught cheating on a final exam, "I thought I would always be proud of you."
And then she turned and walked, stiff with pride and arthritis, back into her brick rancher, shutting the door quietly but firmly.
Excerpted from ROCK OF AGES by Howard Owen Copyright © 2006 by Howard Owen. Excerpted by permission.
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