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The Right Thing
By AMY CONNER
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Amy Conner
All rights reserved.
Jackson, Mississippi, 1990
I am thirty-five years old and running out of time.
It's Wednesday morning, the day before Thanksgiving. I'm tiptoeing across the kitchen's Mexican tiles like a sneak thief in my own home while this thing in my bathrobe pocket feels as though it's burning a hole through the white silk. Thank the Lord Myrtistine's broad, wide-shouldered back is to me, her big arms busy rolling out the dough for tomorrow's pumpkin pie. I'm going to take a chance and try to slip out into the backyard while she's not looking.
But be damned if my luck isn't running true to form this morning. The screen door screeches like I poked it with a needle, and then, to make matters worse, the north wind snatches the handle away from me, and wham! The door hits the frame with an offended bang as soon as I step foot outside.
"Oh, hell," I hiss under my breath, hurrying down the back steps into the garden. Overhead the sky is a flat gray, the color of wet sidewalks and tears, while the frigid flagstones sting my bare feet like shards of glass. It seems to take forever to reach the ornamental rose beds in the back of the garden even though I'm almost running. Yanking my robe free of what was a magnificent Peace hybrid tea this past summer, I weave between the thorns to the back corner of the bed, kneel, brush the mulch aside, and dig a hole as deeply as I can. The dirt is like crumbling cement: it hasn't rained since September, and the earth tells the story. The small, plastic object hidden in my robe's pocket goes into the ground.
For an instant, the slender white wand—plus for yes, minus for no—wavers because my eyes are wet. Stop it, I think with a swipe to my eyes, and the home pregnancy test resting in the dirt swims back into view in implacable sterility. I am not pregnant. This little grave is sister to those of at least twenty- five other EPT tests, all announcing that I'm not going to be a mother, nor will Du, my long-suffering husband of thirteen years, be father to a long-awaited child.
Well, to hell with it. This is the day I give up, I swear. I should stick to rosebushes and other, less painful things.
The wind picks up, blowing my hair into my eyes. Behind me, from across the garden, the screen door screeches open. "Miss Annie? Where you at?" It's Myrtistine, calling from the back steps. I hurry to fill in the hole, brushing the dust from my hands.
"Miss Annie!" She sounds cold and a little put out.
"Coming," I answer, even though I'm pretty sure she can't hear me. It's a big backyard. Getting to my feet, I scuff the loose mulch back under the Peace rose with my bare foot and trot to the house through the dying garden.
Myrtistine holds the door open for me, the warm air from inside the kitchen a humid veil around my face as I mount the back steps. The kitchen smells of baking cornbread, a hen simmering on the back of the stove, and Clorox. Today, the day before Thanksgiving, Myrtistine is making her famous cornbread-and-oyster dressing and bleaching the linens for the table tomorrow. I don't want to think what I'd do without her. Seriously—I'm hopeless when it comes to all things domestic, and I can't cook worth a damn. The only thing I'm allowed to do on Thanksgiving morning is turn on the oven for the turkey because I burn everything.
"It Mr. Duane on the phone. You crazy, going outside in your nightdress? That wind blowing pee-neumonyer germs all the way from Canada," Myrtistine scolds. "And what you doing down by them rosebushes?"
"They need mulch," I improvise. It's not quite a lie and probably as harmless as burying the pregnancy tests instead of just dropping them into the wastebasket, but as months have turned into years without the hope of a child, the regular bad news has become an intensely private hell. I mean to keep it that way because here in Jackson, Mississippi, all my acquaintance knows they're entitled to a fresh misery report at least once a week. I swear, it's nobody's business but my own and I don't want anyone to know. Not Du, please God, and not my so-called friends: those relationships are about as deep as Saran wrap. Myrtistine especially can't know. She works for my mother on the days she doesn't come to our house, and my mother's the last person on earth I want to find out that I hadn't quit trying. Not until today.
Taking the cordless phone from Myrtistine's damp, brown hand, smelling of bleach, I'm still shivering. She pours me a cup of coffee.
"Drink this and warm your cold self up," she says. "Mulch, my foot."
"Thanks," I say, feeling obscurely guilty about the almost- lie. "I'll go upstairs with this."
I take the back staircase up to my bedroom, dusty white silk trailing behind me. "Hey!" I chirp into the phone, trying to sound upbeat. Du's little woman needs to be as cheerful as a thousand acres of Kansas sunflowers. It's part of the deal.
"Mornin', sugar pie," my husband answers. "How's my gal?" At least, I'm pretty sure that's what he says. On the phone Du usually sounds like he's talking around a mouthful of butter beans. In 1975 when he was pursuing me around the Ole Miss campus with the nigh-insane persistence of a rabbit-bound beagle, I hadn't given it much thought. It seemed everyone talked like that back then, a sort of good-ole-boy camouflage, but now it's 1990, Du's older, and the drawl's gotten so much worse it's like trying to simultaneously translate when I can't read his lips.
"Good." Not good, actually, but I'm not going to admit to anything else this morning. "I was just outside. The roses need mulching," I add before he can ask why.
"Aww, hon—we got a man for that," he says. I hear the snap of his Dunhill lighter. Du's just lit his second cigar of the day.
"I know, but ..."
"Glad you take such a hint'rest in them thangs, but baby, it's damn cold outside." Du chuckles. He puffs a long, satisfied-sounding stream of expensive smoke and commences to remind me about the law firm's partners' dinner tonight at the Petroleum Club. Putting the coffee on the bedside table untasted, I climb up onto our king-sized four-poster, back into bed. While he stresses again what an important night this is for him, I slowly drag the goose-down duvet to myself and wrap it around my shoulders. I'm not looking forward to the partners' dinner.
"You need to look good, darlin'. 'Member? Judge Shapley's gonna be there?"
Du's voice is lugging around a big briefcase stuffed with anxiety. Judge Otto Shapley is the undisputed Word of God around the law offices that have sprung up like mushrooms in a cow pasture around here in Jackson, and so Duane Sizemore's wife must be above reproach or even lifted eyebrows. Poor Du. Heaven knows I haven't been much of a success in this rendering-unto-Caesar department, although I never quit trying.
Du's still rambling on about the Judge and tonight. Half listening, with a loathing-filled glance at the open door of my room-sized, walk-in closet, I know in my bones that despite the armloads of designer ready-to-wear, the racks of shoes and boots, the unbelievable accumulation of crap that lives inside that treacherous space, I won't be able to find a single dress that'll work for tonight. The very thought of poking around in there gives me what my Great-Aunt Too-Tai would call the fantods, so I'm just going to have to go shopping at Maison-Dit this morning. Something new and different for me today—except that's not true. Shopping is what I do best, and I know it.
"Okay, Du. See you tonight," I say, pressing the "end" button. Then I fling the duvet over my head and burrow under it to the end of the bed. I'm in a goose-down cavern now, the hiding place of my childhood. Methyl Ivory, our old maid, would climb up the stairs, panting and swearing under her breath, to roust me out of bed on school days, and I'd scoot under the blankets, hoping nobody would find me there. Bless her, Methyl Ivory is long since departed, and now Myrtistine does for the family, but the years between have taught me you can't hide for long.
So how would I fill up my days if it weren't for shopping? That's a question I don't want to think about, but without a child in my life, having all this free time is a real chore. Even though it's sweetly painful, I fill up Tuesdays and Thursdays doing Ladies' League charity work, rocking those poor babies at the University Hospital while their drug-addicted mothers are in detox. I entertain when the backlog of unreciprocated invitations piles up in an embarrassingly large heap. Oh, and I pretend to garden when the weather's nice, but right now all I want to do is hide under the duvet to have a good cry, and honestly? That's too self-indulgent, even for me.
I'd better get a move on. It must be almost eleven. Emerging from under the covers, I light a cigarette and head into the bathroom for a shower, planning to wear what I had on yesterday and thereby avoid the closet. I won't bother with the armor-plate of makeup either since I'm sure that on the day before Thanksgiving, Maison-Dit will be deserted and I won't run into anyone I know there.
And so the rose garden's burial party is partially eclipsed by today's mission: an acceptable cocktail dress for Du's big night. Dressed at last, I regard my reflection in the bathroom's full-length mirror. Moss-green cashmere sweater: check. Jeans, high-heeled boots: check. Mink parka: check. Down to the five-carat diamond ring on my wedding finger, the diamond studs at my ears, I am both locked and loaded.
Maison-Dit is decorated for Christmas but hasn't turned the carols on yet. True to my expectations, I'm practically alone in the store with the massive silver poinsettias, cascading rhinestone icicles, and a mannequin wearing gold harem pants, a Madonna-inspired leather corset, and a vacant pout.
But Dolly, my saleswoman, seems glad to see me—at least, I think she is. Usually her face has all the expression of a bathroom sink thanks to this latest, less-than-optimal lift job, but today her big, yellow-tinged teeth and gums are showing. That's a sign she's in a good mood.
"I need something dressy, but not too formal," I announce. Dolly's been dressing me for years, ever since my sophomore year's debut parties. After my mother and Du weigh in, Dolly gets the final word on what I wear and how I wear it.
"Annie Sizemore, sweet peaches! We just got the new Ralph Lauren collection in yesterday, and it's divine," she flutes. "You were made to wear Ralph, honey." Her voice seems to come from somewhere underneath the silk twill scarf at her throat that's supposed to be hiding her turkey neck. It's uncanny, like watching a bad ventriloquist perform sans dummy, but Dolly's older than God and maintains she can't afford to retire, not unless she wants to give up plastic surgery. Since she's not going to give up breathing either, that's out of the question.
"Oh goody," I say. "Ralph Lauren." My lack of enthusiasm must be abundantly obvious, but Dolly plucks the sleeve of my mink and steers me past the shoe department toward the dressing rooms with a pat on my rump—a sheep to the shearing shed.
"I'll just bring some little numbers in for you to try on. You get undressed, and I'll send Ardelia over with coffee." Dolly's angular yardstick figure has already about-faced and is stalking to the Collections Room with the intensity of a hungry heron.
"I don't want any." My call to her is halfhearted because I know it won't do any good. There are no exceptions, not even for me: you always get coffee at Maison-Dit, want it or not. It's an Amenity.
But at least the dressing rooms are blessedly soothing. The lush, rosy lighting angled upward from the baseboards makes everyone's skin glow like a peach—a good thing, too, with that unforgiving expanse of mirrors lining the silk-covered walls. I drop my mink on the brocade divan and struggle out of my boots. Too late, I wish I'd thought to wear panty hose and not the striped Hot Sox. Invisible speakers are playing a piano-and-strings version of "Eleanor Rigby," a perfect song for a gray day.
On an impulse, I wad the parka into a ball and cram it under my loose-fitting sweater, turning to look at my profile in the mirrors. With that, voilà. I'm transformed, pregnant with five thousand dollars' worth of dead minks. I look stupid. Un wadding the fake baby, I drop it back on the divan just before Ardelia knocks on the door with the coffee.
"Come on in." I wave at the coffee service she carries in on a silver tray. "Hey, Ardelia—I don't really want that. I've had four cups already, and I'm about to jump out of my own skin."
Ardelia sets the tray down on the gilt French Empire table in the corner anyway. "Enjoy your coffee, Miss Annie." The smile on her dark face is set on automatic and vanishes as she pulls the door closed. She isn't gone thirty seconds before Dolly knocks and rolls in a miniature clothes rack on wheels that's bulging with dresses, none of which are going to be what I've made up my mind I need for tonight.
"We're in luck," Dolly crows, pulling a velvet slipcover in an aggressive shade of green from the crush of outrageously expensive fabric. "You'll be divine. We can adjust the shoulder pads before you leave. The alteration girl's on call until six for the whole holiday season."
"Umm," I reply. With a sigh I strip off the rest of my clothes—damn, why didn't I wear the good underwear?—and pile them on the divan. The mirrors' reflection of me in an antifreeze-green velvet dress with sagging shoulder pads seems all of a piece with the weather, the partners' dinner, and Eleanor Rigby.
And the rosebushes, something inside me whispers. Don't forget the rosebushes.
Shut up, I say to the something, knowing full well it'll be back. Like morning. Like breathing. Still, harking to childhood's oft-repeated instruction, I stand up straight and look at myself in the mirror with the detachment of the semipro shopper.
"I hate it. This one hangs on me like the curtains at Tara—if Scarlett had lived in some tacky subdivision—and shoulder pads only make the mess wider." I point at the other dresses crammed on their silk hangers. "I hate all of it. I want something with ... a little more under the hood. In black, maybe."
"Oh, no. Honey, you can't." Dolly disapproves, the authority of my mother's say-so backing her up. Black is for funerals. Period. On any other occasion, black makes women look hard, or fast, or something else We Don't Do. "Besides, you know black's not your color—it washes you right out," she reminds me.
And the hell of it is, I know she's right. Since my first grays, I've bleached my previously blondish, shoulder-length hair to an unnatural shade of platinum and my once-apricot skin has faded to ivory. Catherine Deneuve was right: after a certain point in a woman's life, you have to choose between your face and your ass. I've chosen my ass, dieting myself into a size zero, keeping the status quo of five foot three and ninety-nine pounds of Annie by virtue of living on black coffee and Marlboro Lights. The hollows under my cheekbones will only look deeper, hovering above a black neckline. I'm about to give in like always, but suddenly I see myself in the mirror, slipcovered alive in this humongous swathe of fabric, and I just can't do it. After this morning, plus the trial of the partners' dinner tonight, I need a black dress.
"I'll wear lots of blush." Let the partners' wives think what they want of Du's other half in black. If I'm not pregnant (you'll never be pregnant), I'm going for sophisticated and edgy, if Dolly will let me. "C'mon," I wheedle. "At least let me try something on."
"Oh, all right. We just got a Calvin Klein in." Dolly's capitulation is grudging at best. "I'll go to the back and get it. You want me to have Ardelia bring you a robe to wear while you're waiting?" she asks.
Excerpted from The Right Thing by AMY CONNER. Copyright © 2014 Amy Conner. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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