Wedding fever hits Abbotsville and several of Miss Julia's friends have plans to tie the knot. But, as usual, nothing is so simple. Christy Hargrove suddenly gives up a lifelong dream and drops out of medical school to marry, Helen Stroud and Thurlow Jones decide to change their commercial arrangement into a marital one, and, to Miss Julia's consternation, Lillian, her housekeeper and closest companion, is considering a less-than-romantic offer to wed a local businessman who turns courting into a job interview. And then there's LuAnne who just wants to be married, and Janelle who doesn't.
Miss Julia wants to properly celebrate each ceremony, insofar as anyone will let her. But Helen wants a private, even secretive, wedding; Christy's fiancé wants a destination wedding, and Lillian can't decide if she wants a wedding at all. In the middle of it all, a strange figure keeps showing up in town, streaking across lawns and vandalizing the gardens of Miss Julia's neighbors. Abbotsville's liveliest resident finds herself trying to solve it all---matters of the heart and petty crime alike---and once again save the day.
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All things considered, you'd think we'd have taken it in stride, but no. I mean, people get married all the time, don't they? But just let someone mention the words wedding, bridesmaid, engagement ring, or the like and everybody gets all atwitter with excitement even though the happy couple may be the most unlikely pairing anyone could imagine.
As word of the currently forthcoming nuptials began to trickle out, I admit to a tingle of excitement myself, although my fingers were crossed behind my back whenever I passed the news along. Of course I wished them well and all that, but I couldn't help but wonder why they'd want to rock the boat. Their present arrangement seemed the best possible one under the circumstances, and they'd already lived down the rampant speculation and gossip that had stirred the town when she'd moved in, so why in the world would they want to start it all up again?
I didn't know, but one thing I did know and that was that Helen Stroud never did anything she had not thoroughly thought through and determined the benefit, or lack of same, to her. And if that makes her sound coldhearted and self-absorbed, I don't mean it to. What I mean is that Helen was clear-eyed and farsighted. She knew what she was doing, even though nobody else could figure out why she was doing it. She already had Thurlow Jones under her thumb and his checkbook in her hand, so why in the world would she want to marry him?
Well, of course that was no more understandable than their original arrangement, which had stunned us all and become the subject of at least two sermons in a nondenominational church on the outskirts of town. No names were mentioned, as you can imagine, but when the preacher went off on a tangent about two people living openly in sin at an age and of a class that should've known better, they say everybody in the congregation sat up straight and nodded in agreement. I didn't hear the sermons myself, being a Presbyterian attending my own church where things are done decently and in order, yet our pastor touched briefly on being unequally yoked in marriage one Sunday when his topic was the wedding in Cana. He did a fine tap dance with that since Presbyterians aren't too liberal when it comes to drinking wine, either, but everybody knew who he was talking about.
And everybody knew that for many years of her life, Helen Stroud had been one of the most active women in our church. Why, she had been president of the Women of the Church at least twice, a Sunday school teacher for years, and a circle chairman several times. And when we finally got around to electing women to the Board of Deacons and to the Session, she showed her allegiance to Paul's admonition about women keeping silence in the church by refusing to run. We admired her for that.
Everything changed, though, when she moved in with Thurlow Jones. She hasn't darkened the door of any church since then, and as far as I know not one person from the visitation committee, much less the pastor himself, has gone to see her to urge her back into the fold. Let me tell you something, when a church drops you, you pretty much stay dropped.
I wonder, though, if that will change when a marriage certificate elevates her to legitimacy. But here's the thing: I'd have to be in worse straits than unwelcome in church to go to such an extreme as to legally bind myself to the likes of Thurlow Jones.
All I can say is that the stars must've been crazily aligned to have brought those two together. Helen was one of those neat, capable women, fastidious to a fault, who could've run a major industry if she hadn't first married a go-getter husband who overstepped himself into a ten-year sentence for fraud and embezzlement. But Helen was no Tammy Wynette. She divorced him as soon as the prison doors slammed shut behind him and went about arranging her life to accommodate the new reality of having to work for a living.
Thurlow, on the other hand, was the town buffoon, careless in dress, conversation, and attitude. Loaded by all accounts, he looked and lived like one of the bums who wandered the sidewalk on Main Street. He lived in his family's once-impressive mansion, which he had allowed to deteriorate on its overgrown city block not too far from my own house. He took inordinate delight in shocking the staid, upright ladies of the town, and he wasn't above sneaking a pinch of female flesh if you didn't keep your distance.
All of that changed when he climbed to the roof of his house to adjust a television antenna and fell three floors to the ground, breaking one hip, two legs, an arm, and several ribs. Laid up for an interminable length of time and having no wife or siblings, not even a cousin or two, to care for him, it was either go into a nursing home or come up with a suitable alternative.
That was where Helen came in. She needed a home and an income. He needed a nurse and a caretaker, and to all intents and purposes, Helen proved her negotiating skills. Not only did she move in, she agreed to oversee Thurlow's entire household as well as his medical needs with one caveat-he would provide the funds. She started by hiring a cook, a male nurse, and a house-cleaning crew. I don't know how Thurlow survived that because he was as tight as a tick with his money, which is why he had so much of it. But Helen demanded and was given unlimited access to Thurlow's bank account and permission to refurbish his one-hundred-and-twenty-year-old house, proving thereby that she was also an interior designer of great talent. So, in one fell swoop Thurlow got everything a wife would ordinarily have provided without getting any of the intimate privileges of having one-as far as we knew.
Of course there was talk, as well as whispers and gasps and images of impossible couplings, what with Thurlow encased in casts and strung up in traction. But Helen, the chatelaine, sailed untouched above it all, projecting by her serene competence that their connection was a commercial and not a romantic one.
But now they were going to marry? Why? I ask you.
Drawn to the kitchen to have somebody to talk to, I found Lillian sitting at the table in front of a half cup of coffee. As I headed toward the coffeepot on the counter, she began to get to her feet.
"Don't get up," I said, waving her back. "I'll join you unless you're thinking on some deep, dark subject and don't want company."
"Well, I am," she said, "but I need some comp'ny 'cause I don't want to be thinkin' what I'm thinkin'."
"And what's that?" I drew out a chair and sat opposite her at the table. "I've been telling myself that with this beautiful spring we're having I should be feeling blessed and happy. But I'm feeling so low I hardly know what to do."
"Law, Miss Julia, me, too." Lillian leaned her head on her hand and gave me a forlorn look. "Guess who's gone an' got herself pregnant."
My head jerked up and I almost spilled my coffee. "Not Helen Stroud?"
"Oh," I said, wiping my hand across my face. "What am I thinking? Of course it's not Helen. She may look fifty, but she's well into her sixties. Sorry, Lillian, I've just had her on my mind wondering why she's marrying that crazy Thurlow Jones."
"Ev'rybody's wonderin' that, but it's not hard to figure out. Miss Helen, she sees what it's like to get old without enough to live on. Can't nobody blame her for that. No'm," Lillian went on sadly, "it's not her that's carryin' a baby. It's Janelle, an' I'm jus' sick to my soul about it."
"Oh, no," I said, leaning back in my chair and closing my eyes. Janelle was Lillian's bright young neighbor who had often helped out at my house. She was quick to learn and efficient in her work, never having to be told twice. I'd long been impressed with her and knew that she was graduating from high school in June with plans for college already made. "Oh, Lillian, I do hate to hear that. She's so young and has so much to look forward to. Why in the world would she ruin it all?"
"I don't know, Miss Julia. Her mama, she say she be glad to have another baby to raise, but what else can she say?"
"That sounds," I said carefully, "like Janelle's not planning to get married."
"No'm, from what I hear, he already left town. I declare," Lillian said with a sigh, "look like these young girls would learn not to believe half what they're told. But at least Janelle gonna have that baby 'stead of gettin' rid of it like a lot of 'em do."
"Yes, there is that, and I'm glad to hear it. But, listen, will she be able to graduate? Girls in trouble used to have to quit school, but everything's so different now. To have a baby out of wedlock used to stigmatize you for life, but now . . . Well, now it seems more a badge of honor than anything else."
"I don't know 'bout that," Lillian said. "All I know is she's lucky Miss Pearl wants to help her out, but then, what else is new? Grandmamas been raising babies forever."
I smiled and put my hand on her arm. "I know, and they have a special place in heaven, too." Lillian, herself, had raised a great-grandbaby after the mother left town and never came back. "Latisha is a blessing to you and to everybody who knows her."
"Yes'm, but she's gettin' to that age when some boy could turn her head and start it all over again."
"I know, and I worry about it, too. But pray about it, Lillian, and talk to her. Hold up all the possibilities that are open to her. Why, with her intelligence and her personality, Latisha can do anything she wants to do. If she doesn't let herself get waylaid along the way."
"I jus' feel so bad about Janelle," Lillian said, mopping her eyes with a napkin, "an' I'm mad at her, too. She knowed better, 'specially since she's not the first one that boy got ahold of, but at least Janelle's gonna finish high school, which they'll let her do from home. But she say she won't walk on the stage to get her diploma 'cause by June she'll be too big to get up the steps. She won't be goin' to no college, either, which I guess is just as well 'cause she's not likely to get any of the honors and scholarships she was in line for. No need givin' 'em to somebody who'll be stayin' home with a baby." She smoothed out the napkin, then mopped her eyes again. "Miss Julia, did you know Janelle is third in her class? An' she jus' throwed it all away. I could jus' cry 'cause anybody that smart ought not to get in such a mess. An' it makes me worry about Latisha that much more 'cause bein' smart don't always mean you act smart."
"That is certainly the truth," I agreed, thinking of a few questionable decisions I had made in the past. I considered myself on the bright end of the intelligence scale, yet on occasion I had made some poor choices-nothing irretrievable, I hasten to add, yet nothing to be proud of, either. "So what will Janelle do? Do you know?"
"Last I heard she's gonna find a job soon as the baby comes 'cause somebody gotta support it an' the daddy's nowhere to be found." Lillian grimaced at the thought. "An' her mama say Janelle gonna try to take a class ev'ry term out at the technical college."
"Oh, good for her," I said, then on further thought, added, "except at the rate of one class every term, it'll take her about twenty years to graduate. Still, it's better than nothing, and she might find a field that doesn't take as long as a degree program, like cosmetology or childcare or nursing-something that she can make a living at." I sighed, thinking that there would be a lot of intelligence and ability going to waste if Janelle contented herself with the technical, rather than the academic, route. Yet even uneducated people often made good if they had a strong work ethic. And there was such a thing as being self-educated. I mean, anybody can read, can't they? Lillian had told me that Janelle's mama had often complained about Janelle having her nose in a book. That seemed to me to be a hopeful sign.
The news about Janelle did nothing to lift my spirits, so I put on a sweater and wandered around outside for a while wishing that I had planted some spring bulbs back in the fall. Things had been awfully busy then, and I'd not even thought of jonquils or tulips or anything else. I missed them now, so it was a relief when Lillian called me in to the telephone.
"Julia," LuAnne Conover said when I answered, "sorry to interrupt whatever you were doing, but I need to ask you something."
"You didn't interrupt anything, LuAnne. I was just surveying the yard to have something to do. How are you? It's good to hear from you."
LuAnne was a longtime friend who had suffered a recent divorce from Leonard Conover, who'd been unwilling to give up a certain lady friend, also of long standing. Unhappily, Leonard had never been a provident provider, so dividing a little into two made for not much for either of them to live on. LuAnne, for the first time in her life, had been forced to find a job, and she'd lucked into the receptionist's position at the Good Shepherd Funeral Home.
"Well, listen, Julia," LuAnne said, "I think we ought to do something, and I'd love for the two of us to go in on it together. Your house has all the room in the world, while my condo wouldn't do at all. But we're her friends, at least I guess we are, but who knows now? So what do you think?"
"About what? I'm lost here, LuAnne. What are we talking about?" That was the problem with LuAnne-her mind skipped from one topic to another and very few of us were swift enough to keep up.
"Why, Helen, of course. I mean, it's not often we have a wedding to celebrate at our age, which may mean there's hope for me. But you know she'll expect her friends to do something for her. I'm thinking that a bridal shower probably won't do-you know how picky Helen is-but maybe a tea or something along those lines where we'd only invite women. I'm just not up to entertaining Thurlow even if he could get out of bed."