Miss Julia fans both new and old will be especially keen to get their hands on the sixteenth in the series, Miss Julia Lays Down the Law, guaranteed to be the steel magnolia’s most exciting adventure yet.
It’s November and Miss Julia is looking forward to some quiet time before the holidays. That is until snobby Connie Clayborn and her rich husband move to town. At first, Miss Julia and the other ladies are pleased to be invited over for coffee, but the afternoon turns into a slap in the face when their hostess spouts nonstop criticism about Abbotsville. Why, how dare she? Days later, Miss Julia decides to confront Connie woman to woman, but when she arrives, Connie is lying on the kitchen floor—lifeless in a pool of blood. Who could have done this? Miss Julia will need to find out fast—particularly because her fingerprints are now all over the crime scene. . . .
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About the Author
Ann B. Ross is the New York Times–bestselling author of eighteen novels featuring the popular southern heroine Miss Julia, as well as of Etta Mae’s Worst Bad-Luck Day, another Abbotsville-set novel as told by Miss Julia’s sassy sidekick. Ross holds a doctorate in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has taught literature at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. She lives in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
Read an Excerpt
Holding my coat against the wind, I walked across the brittle grass of the Clayborns’ sloping yard to my car, paying no attention to the other women coming out of the house behind me. No one spoke—all the pleasantries and other closing remarks had been said inside, and everyone was anxious to leave, no one more so than I. I bent against the wind as I hurried toward the cars parked in the drive and along the street. The strong November breeze with a nip in it swirled off the mountain—another reason not to linger.
I slid into my car and closed the door, then, with shaking hands, rammed the key into the ignition.
Why hadn’t I said something?
Driving a little less carefully than was my wont, I hurried home, shivering occasionally as remnants of the startling lecture flashed in my mind—rural blight, complacent people, unsustainable economy, ugly mismatched storefronts, and on and on, until I’d thought I’d explode with outrage at the tongue lashing.
I hadn’t wanted to go to Connie Clayborn’s house for coffee, had thought of half a dozen reasons not to go, had almost called that morning to offer my apologies.
Yet I had gone because what else does one do when graciously invited, but graciously accept? As had a dozen or so women—many of whom were my close friends, and others, if not close, well known to me. It should have been a pleasant occasion, full of talk about the approaching holidays, the state of the weather, children, and grandchildren, as well as that of the nation. We were a fairly well-read and well-informed group.
I should’ve gotten up and left.
During the social hour, I had listened attentively to the comments of almost everyone there over the fact that Sam had lost the election for state senator a few days before. He’d lost, but not by much—he’d given Jimmy Ray Mooney a run for his money—yet a miss is as good as a mile in politics as well as in horseshoes, and we had to live with that. Hearing remarks from some who were sincerely sorry was hard enough, but I’d also had to attend to those pious souls who could hardly bring themselves to offer their regrets, but who had commiserated for the sake of politeness. That was probably why I hadn’t wanted to go in the first place, yet better to face it than to avoid it.
They were all eager to see how I was taking the loss—would I be angry, disgusted, bitter? None of the above. I had smiled, even laughed occasionally, saying, “We always deserve whomever we elect, don’t you think?” and let them interpret it as they pleased.
After pulling into my own driveway and parking, I strode into a quiet house, recalling that Lillian had said she’d be grocery shopping. With no one to talk to, but still on edge, I immediately went upstairs to change my clothes. I had worn a powder blue woolen princess-style dress with a double strand of pearls under a matching coat with my diamond brooch on the shoulder. After putting the jewelry away, I hung up the outfit and donned an everyday dress and a cardigan. Then, slipping into low-heeled shoes, I sat down in one of the easy chairs in front of a window that looked out over Polk Street, determined to compose myself after enduring a piercingly critical review of my shortcomings, as well as those of every other resident of Abbotsville, North Carolina.
Why had we put up with it?
Connie Clayborn had invited us to a coffee—the term we use for a morning social occasion in which coffee and hot tea are served along with an array of finger food. Such an occasion gave the hostess an opportunity to use her silver, her best or second-best china—depending upon whom she’d invited—and to display by the centerpiece her skill in flower arranging. And, of course, to show off her home.
I had been to hundreds of such gatherings over the years, but never to such a one as I’d been subjected to that morning. Let’s get this straight right at the beginning: it had not been a social occasion. The invitation to a coffee had been a ruse to get us to attend, and, being polite people, we had accepted even though Connie Clayborn was a newcomer to the town and barely known by most of us.
What had been the matter with us?
In hindsight, though, I realized that she had known us. She’d invited the cream of the crop, so to speak, knowing that if one of us accepted, the others would follow suit. Mildred Allen had been there, and so had LuAnne Conover, Emma Sue Ledbetter, Helen Stroud, Callie Armstrong, Sue Hargrove, and several other leading women of the town. Interestingly, though, neither Hazel Marie Pickens nor Binkie Enloe Bates had been there, perhaps because one was married to a private investigator and the other to a sheriff’s deputy—too blue collar for Connie, I supposed.
Which proved that Connie didn’t know us quite as well as she thought. Binkie, for instance, was one of the most successful lawyers in town, and Hazel Marie was the mother of Lloyd, the child of my late husband, Wesley Lloyd Springer, which meant that Lloyd and I shared the largest estate ever probated in Abbot County. Neither Binkie nor Hazel Marie would ever go hungry, so Connie Clayborn didn’t know everything about us.
As I went over in my mind the ones who had been invited, I realized that Connie had selected the most obviously wealthy and influential women in town either by virtue of their husbands—doctors, lawyers, or executives—or because of inherited wealth, plus one or two who’d made it on their own. But that didn’t explain the presence of Emma Sue Ledbetter, the wife of the minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Abbotsville, because I knew what we paid him. I now realized, however, just why Emma Sue had been invited—it was because she was so active and involved. Especially if whatever she did could be counted as another good deed to be chalked up.
I’d also thought that Connie had made a mistake with Helen Stroud because Helen had lost her financial standing when she’d lost her husband. But on second thought, perhaps Helen had not been a mistake, because if anything needed to be organized, supervised, and done right, she was the one who could do it.
But let me tell you about Connie. First of all, she was a little younger than some of us—late forties, I would venture, although about half of the guests had been in that age group. But none, I realized, had young children at home—we could all have been seen as women of leisure.
Connie and her husband, a top executive at the local plant of an international plastics company, had built a glass and stone house in the first and, so far, the only gated community in the county. I didn’t know what the plastics company made, but Connie had taken pains to let us know that they had lived in Switzerland, New Jersey, Chicago, and Boston during her husband’s climb to the top. It had occurred to me that being transferred to Abbotsville might indicate some slippage from those heights, but who knew?
I can’t believe we just sat there and took it.
The first time I’d met Connie, which had been a couple of weeks before at a reading by our local poet at the library, she’d walked up to me, held out her hand, and said, “Did you, by chance, go to Vassar? You look so familiar.” A claim that was patently unlikely to begin with, there being such a difference in our ages.
“No,” I’d replied, “I went to Winthrop.”
“Oh?” she asked with a lift of her eyebrows. “Where is that?”
“Rock Hill.” Then as she frowned, I said, “South Carolina.”
“Well, that explains it,” she’d said. “I don’t know the South very well.” Meaning, I surmised, that she’d never heard of the school or the town, and I realized that her motive in asking had been to let me know that she was a Vassar graduate. Lot of good that would do her in Abbotsville twenty years later.
Still, it probably explained why she dressed in twin sweater sets and pleated skirts, complete with heavy, clunky shoes. Though quite tall, she was not an unattractive woman, but, then, I wouldn’t call her especially attractive, either. She had dark brown hair, deep brown eyes, and an olive complexion that was prone to a sprinkle of dark moles. With her serious demeanor and black-rimmed eyeglasses, she seemed to me to be projecting intellectual, which, if she had to work that hard at it, probably meant she wasn’t.
She did, however, impress a number of people. Like Emma Sue Ledbetter, for one, who was thrilled to have such a superior being among us.
“Julia,” she’d whispered to me at the coffee, “Connie is unchurched, can you believe it? I invited her to Sunday services, and she said she’s a rationalist who depends on the positive energy of the universe to guide her life. I don’t know what that means.” Emma Sue added, frowning, “But it really hurt me to hear it. Isn’t she just the kind we want to reach? I mean, she’s so intelligent that she’ll see the truth if it’s presented to her. I think she’s ripe for evangelizing, so do whatever you can to reach her.”
“Well, Emma Sue,” I said, balancing a teacup on a dessert plate, “if she asks, I’ll be happy to respond. But I’m not much for bringing in the sheaves against their will.”
Emma Sue’s eyes automatically filled at that, but she said, “I know you don’t mean that, Julia. We must always be on the lookout for the little lost sheep.”
Later, as we’d mingled before Connie surprised us by calling us to order, Mildred Allen had sidled up to me and said, “Guess what? I really shocked our hostess by telling her that I, too, went to Vassar. I don’t think she knew that any Southern girl had even heard of it.” Mildred sipped from her cup, then, with an arched eyebrow, said, “Then I told her I’d left before finishing the first semester. Came back down south where people have manners. I think that makes me one up, if anybody’s counting, and I think someone is. She went and stayed. I went and left, having found it lacking.”
“Did you mention that you’ve also been to New York?”
Mildred sputtered, then laughed. For a heavy woman, she had a remarkably light heart.
Just as I was about to head for the guest bedroom to retrieve my coat, Connie began to herd us all into her large vaulted-ceiling living room, saying that she had something important to tell us. Then when we were seated around the room, on sofas, in chairs, on footstools, and on a bench, she stood in the middle and began to tell us what was wrong with us and what she had planned that would set us right.
The nerve of the woman!
Hearing Lillian bustling around in the kitchen, I hurried down to discuss the morning’s events with her. As soon as I pushed through the door from the dining room, she said, “Miss Binkie call you this mornin’ right after you left.”
Binkie Enloe Bates was my curly-haired attorney, one of the feistiest lawyers around—anyone who tangled with her came out of it beaten and bedraggled. Married now to Sheriff’s Sergeant Coleman Bates, she was the mother of little Gracie, which I kept hoping would serve to domesticate her to some extent.
“Oh, my,” I said, suddenly concerned about the state of my finances. Binkie, along with Sam, took care of both halves of Wesley Lloyd Springer’s estate that Lloyd and I shared, and every time she called I had visions of stock market crashes, lawsuits, bursting bubbles, and bankruptcies. “What did she want?”
“She don’t tell me. Jus’ say she gonna be in court most of the day, an’ she call back later.”
“Well,” I said, pulling out a chair at the table, “that makes one more thing to worry about. Not that I don’t have enough on my plate already. I declare, Lillian, some people don’t have enough sense to come in out of the rain.”
She turned, frowning at me. “You talkin’ ’bout Miss Binkie?”
“Goodness, no. Binkie has more sense than is good for her, but that’s just my opinion. Nothing would do but she had to keep that law practice going, leaving little Gracie to be raised by someone else, and working when Coleman is off, and being off when he’s working. I wish she’d put more of that good sense into her home and family.” I sighed and rolled my eyes. “Of course if she did, I’d be left high and dry, so I can’t wish it too hard.”
Just as Lillian was pouring coffee for the two of us, the phone rang. Hoping it was Binkie so I could stop worrying about my economic well-being, I hurried to answer it. It wasn’t, but it was a welcome call, nonetheless.
“Julia?” Mildred said, “I’m so mad I’m about to pop. Come over and have lunch with me. I need to vent.”
“I’ll be right there.” And, telling Lillian where I was going, I headed next door to Mildred’s large Federal house. I, too, was dealing with a head of steam. Something needed to be done about newcomers who, with nothing but compassion in their hearts for the unenlightened, condescended to instruct us on how everything had been done better in New York, Boston, New Jersey, and Switzerland, and how if we tried harder we might eventually become a beacon in the South to every well-heeled shopper, tourist, and developer looking for a place to spend their money. As if that were what we all longed for.
Mildred met me at the door—a sure indication of her state of mind, for generally her excellent housekeeper, Ida Lee, was the greeter.
“Get in here,” Mildred said, “and calm me down.” Easier said than done, because she immediately went on. “I have never in my life been so insulted in such an insidious way that I didn’t even realize it at the time. What was wrong with us, Julia? Nobody said a word. We just sat there and listened to her run us down, and not only us but the entire town.” She took my coat, threw it on a velvet bench in the foyer, and led me into the dining room.
“Tell me about it,” I said in agreement. “I’ve been in a state of shock ever since. I mean, no one has ever criticized a whole group of people to their faces like she did.” I took the chair that Mildred indicated at the table, and she took her own. Ida Lee had already prepared our lunch, and our filled plates were waiting—open-faced Reuben sandwiches and, as a nod toward Mildred’s ongoing diet, tossed salads on the side.
Mildred lifted her fork as a signal to me, took a quick bite, and said, “I was offended as soon as she opened her mouth. She started right in by assuming we were the culprits, and it was our fault that the town looks the way it does. Julia,” Mildred went on, waving her fork, “none of us is on the town council, and I don’t know anyone who wants to be. I resented every word that came out of that woman’s mouth, and I had a good mind to get up and walk out.” She chewed for a minute. “I wish I had.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” I agreed. “But, Mildred, just what did she want us to do? It was such a mixture of criticism on the one hand and rah-rah enthusiasm on the other that I wasn’t sure whether she wanted us to hide our heads in shame or organize and take over the town.”
“It’s all so silly. Our main street is not Fifth Avenue and never will be. Does she not have any idea what it would take to make downtown into a—what did she call it?—a shoppers’ mecca or a bustling hive of activity? Where would people park, for one thing?”
“Yes, and how does she expect to get store owners to fall in with her plan? I mean, if she wants to give the street a face-lift—which I admit it could use—who’s going to pay for it?”
“Well,” Mildred said, pursing her mouth, “she was right about one thing. There’re an awful lot of closed and empty shops, but if she expects me to go into the retail business, she can keep expecting. I’m not interested.”
“Nor am I. But did you catch it when she said that with the pitiful state the town is in, it wouldn’t matter what kind of businesses we had as long as all the storefronts were alike and we had gas streetlamps?”
“I did!” Mildred let her fork fall to the plate. “Tattoo parlors, massage parlors, pool parlors—can you believe it! Anything that would draw people downtown. Well, what kind of people, I ask you!”
Ida Lee silently pushed open the door from the kitchen to see if we’d finished eating, then just as silently closed it. We were doing more talking than eating.
“What she should do,” I said, “is go over to Tennessee and take a look at some of those tourist towns. Every shop is filled with tacky stuff from Taiwan. And after you’ve bought one Smokey Mountain bear trinket made in Taiwan, who would want another one? And you know that area around the lake at the foot of the mountain—it caters to motorcycle gangs. Sam and I drove down there one Sunday afternoon last summer, and the roads were packed with swarms of motorcycles. And we couldn’t even find a place to eat for all the motorcycles in the parking lots. I won’t even mention the horrendous noise those things make.”
“Oh, I know,” Mildred said. “But it stands to reason that a town will draw the kind of people who want what that town has to offer. But what happens when we don’t want them?” Mildred carefully sliced a cherry tomato on her salad plate. Then she said, “Now, she did mention antique shops, which I might could agree to, but that was in the same breath as bars with dance floors. And, Julia, you know as well as I do that we have street dances every Friday night in the summer. That’s enough dancing as far as I’m concerned, and if you mix in liquor, you’ve got problems.”
“I know,” I said, sighing. “She didn’t seem to realize it, but her big ideas couldn’t possibly be implemented in a town this size. How in the world could we ever compete with Zurich or Bern or even Gatlinburg, for that matter? Fountains with sprays of water, marble statues, copper flower boxes, and riverboats in the middle of town—how do we do that? Divert Mud Creek so it’ll flow through Main Street? It all sounded too grandiose and, frankly, too expensive. I know of only one small town that was completely made over like she was talking about, but it took a Rockefeller to do it. And all we have is a town council that goes into shock at the mention of more trash receptacles.”
“Well, that’s where we come in, according to Connie. Remember, she said with our combined assets, we could turn this town upside down.” Mildred contemplated her plate, then looked up. “I guess that means we should open our pocketbooks. And she said we should organize, put a combined force before the town fathers, and demand they do something to rehabilitate the town. She forgets, or doesn’t know, that most of us are past the idealistic age. And the fantasy age, too. But did you catch that about how we should ensure that the town is in harmony with the universe? How’re we supposed to do that?”
“I have no idea. I didn’t even know that the universe carried a tune. I don’t keep up with musical groups, anyway.”
Taking a deep breath, I tried to ease my rising temper at the memory of Connie Clayborn’s scathing critique of our town and, even worse, of us. “I tell you the truth, Mildred, I’m at the age where I feel I’ve done my part. I’ve been to more committee meetings over the years than I can count, and I’m tired. If it wasn’t community work, it was church work, and nobody was ever satisfied. They always wanted more—more volunteers, more money, more of your time, more, more, more.
“But,” I went on, getting more exercised as I went, “what got to me most was when she scolded us for not using our gifts effectively for the benefit of others. Gifts, ha! What she meant was our time and money, without knowing one thing about what we do or don’t do. She called us lazy, self-serving, and burdened with too much leisure.”
“Yes,” Mildred said, “and I plead guilty to all three. What I do with my gifts is my business and not hers.”
“Amen to that. And she kept saying that it was our responsibility to give back. Give back to whom, I ask you! The only person I could give back to is Wesley Lloyd Springer and he’s dead. What she meant was simply give, not give back.”
“You said it, Julia. Just because I don’t volunteer for whatever somebody dreams up doesn’t mean I’m not contributing in my own way. And contributing heavily.”
“Actually,” I said, “I’ve done it all and more in my day. Well, I was never a runner, but nobody else was, either. But there was a time when I volunteered for everything that came along. I worked for the Literacy Council for years. I helped with Vacation Bible School, taught Sunday school classes to kindergartners, brought covered dishes to Wednesday night suppers, collected used clothing for those without and bought new clothes and toys for Christmas, donated to every project that helped children, gave to every fund-raising group that rang my doorbell or sent me a pledge card. And to tell the truth, I’ve had enough of it.”
“It never stopped, did it?” Mildred said, recalling the activities of our younger days. “And now she wants us to take on the town council! Why, Julia, can you imagine what that group of men would do if we showed up and started demanding copper flower boxes? I’ve got better things to do than cause strokes and heart attacks.”
“Well, speaking of better things to do,” I said, “you are going to Sue Hargrove’s tomorrow night, aren’t you?”
“Oh, yes, although my fingers are still sore from last week. I’m not much of a seamstress, but I do enjoy that group, and the ornaments we’re making are just lovely. Of course my snowman has bloodstains on it from sticking myself so much. But why don’t I pick you up and we’ll go together?”
“That’ll be fine,” I agreed. “I enjoy that group, too, although I expect Connie will be the number one topic. We’d better remind them that the Christmas sale is only a few weeks off, and we have to do more sewing than talking.” I took my last bite of salad, thinking of the only fund-raiser I was presently involved with. Every year a compatible group of women—usually the same ones—got together throughout the fall to make felt Christmas ornaments which we then decorated with seed pearls, sequins, and whatever else we could sew or glue on. Some were quite attractive, while others only the makers could love. Yet we sold out every year at the County Christmas Sale because we always chose a widely favored cause to receive the proceeds.
After a brief period of silence in which I had pleasant thoughts of Christmas, images of Connie intruded again. “You know, there was a time when, if you didn’t have a nine-to-five job, you were expected to be a full-time volunteer. And we both just about were. So it makes me doubly irate to hear Connie belittle and berate us. There she was, coming in here from up north or Switzerland or wherever, criticizing us when she knows absolutely nothing about us!” At the thought of it, I wanted to grind my teeth. “I’d like to give something back to her!”
“That’s the thing, Julia,” Mildred agreed. “She thinks she does know us. In fact, it was her holier-than-thou, know-it-all attitude that got to me the worst. And if somebody has invited her to the sewing group, I’m turning around and leaving. I’d like to snatch that woman bald-headed, and I just might do it if she starts in on us again.”
“You and me both,” I agreed, but what neither of us had touched on was the awful mortification that I had personally suffered throughout Connie’s tirade. Mildred was too careful of my feelings to bring it up, and my feelings were still too tender for me to say anything. But I still burned with resentment, and appreciated the fact that Mildred was letting me know whose side she was on.
I’d barely stepped into my house after my lunch with Mildred when the telephone rang. Hoping it was Binkie, I hurried into the library to answer it, waving to Lillian as I passed. She was scrounging around in the pantry, mumbling about being sure she had another sack of flour somewhere.
As I picked up the phone and almost before the word hello was out of my mouth, Emma Sue Ledbetter started talking, and kept talking, hardly taking a breath.
“Julia, I’m so upset. I know I’m the worst of all Christians and I try to do better, I really do. I get up every morning and ask the Lord to lead and guide me, to show me what He wants, to prevent me from doing or saying anything that will hurt my witness, and, you know, to just be with me all day long. I try to watch what I say and what I do, knowing that He has His eye on the sparrow, and other people do, too. Because, as a minister’s wife, I’m under special scrutiny, to say nothing of the fact that our Father in heaven sees us as we really are, and . . . and . . . I just don’t know what else I can do.” Emma Sue began to cry, sobbing piteously over the phone.
“Oh, Emma Sue, please don’t cry,” I said, uneasy, as always, when she lost control of her emotions. “Listen. Emma Sue, listen a minute. Has something happened? Or are you talking about what happened at Connie Clayborn’s this morning?”
“Ye-es,” she sobbed. “It just seemed so unfair, because I’m doing the best I can. I go from morning till night every day of my life, except when I have a migraine and can’t get out of bed. Oh, Julia, what else am I supposed to do?”
“Not another thing, Emma Sue,” I said emphatically. “You already put everybody in the Presbyterian church to shame, and frankly a lot of us wish you’d slow down a little. You drive yourself too hard and take on everybody’s problems. It’s time you took care of yourself for a change.”
“Oh, I do,” Emma Sue said, sniffing. “It’s just that so many need so much, and I do so little. . . .” And the crying began again. “In fact,” she said as the breath caught in her throat, “I’ve been thinking I should give up working in the city park because I enjoy it so much. I could deliver more Meals on Wheels if I did. But now my heart’s just not in anything.”
“Emma Sue,” I said, almost losing patience, “stop running yourself down. I’m telling you that you don’t need to do another thing. Forget Connie Clayborn. And stop worrying about that park. It doesn’t need weeding in the wintertime. Mildred and I have already decided that Connie doesn’t know what she’s talking about. And she has some nerve excoriating us like she did!”
“But, Julia, she’s so intelligent. And she’s been all over the world, and she’s educated, and, and she’s, well, I guess she can’t help but compare us to other places she’s seen. And I know we fall short, especially me.”
“For goodness sakes, Emma Sue! She thinks she knows it all, but actually she’s as ignorant as a post. Just because she’s traveled farther than Edneyville doesn’t give her any special knowledge about us or what we do—or should do. You can’t let her get to you like this. And I’ll tell you another thing, I don’t think she’s so intelligent, because no intelligent person would have done what she did this morning. And I think she’d better watch her step before she really offends somebody. She might get taken down a notch or two.”
“Well, I don’t know,” Emma Sue said. “I think it behooves us to at least listen to criticism and use it to examine ourselves for flaws and ways to improve.”
“I’ve already done that, and I passed with flying colors. And so have you. There is no room for improvement as far as what you do for others. In fact, there’s no room for you to do anything else, period. You don’t have time for it. You’re an example to us all.” I said that to make her feel better, but the truth of it was that she made me tired. She was always so busy doing good—often for people who wished she’d leave them alone—that her days were filled with frenzied activity until a migraine struck her down.
“Well,” she finally conceded, “I guess I’ll just have to pray about it. But, Julia, it really hurt when she called the city park an eyesore, and laughed—laughed—at our idea of what a park should look like.” Emma Sue had to stop as a sobbing fit overtook her. “I know I’m not a landscaper or a horticulturist, but I try so hard. And what she said was like a knife to my heart, because you know it was my design the garden club used.”
“I understand, Emma Sue,” I said, trying to be of comfort, because I did understand—it had hurt me, too. Of all the crushing things Connie had said, her harangue about the city park had been the worst. A few years back, after the town had demolished the old courthouse and built a new one some blocks away, a developer had wanted to construct a high-rise condominium building on the Main Street site. That hadn’t worked out so well since the town had an ordinance against high-rises, and nobody could afford his condominiums anyway. I won’t go into all the problems we had with that, so suffice it to say that we were left with a huge empty lot, excepting the rubble from the destruction of the old courthouse and a tin replica of Lady Justice salvaged from the top of the dome. That’s when the garden club headed by Emma Sue had taken over. The site was now a lovely garden spot, with Lady Justice taking pride of place in the middle of the park in the middle of town.
And it had all been Emma Sue’s doing, with a few checks and suggestions from me, because Emma Sue had won the park design contest, and had since been the leading force in the care of the plantings, the paths, the gazebo, and the benches for weary shoppers. That park was the only thing I could think of that Emma Sue did that wasn’t first and foremost what one would think of as a purely church-related activity. I thought it was good for her.
“Emma Sue,” I said, sharply enough to get her attention, “listen, that park is a jewel. People use it and enjoy it, and it’s all because of you. If Connie doesn’t like it, she doesn’t have to. A lot of other people do.”
“Well, but, Julia, she said our Lady Justice is t-t-tacky and ought to be scrapped.” And Emma Sue dissolved into tears again. “And everything else, too. And did you hear what she said about spring bulbs? She said they ought to be outlawed because the foliage is so unsightly after they bloom. And I just bought two hundred tulip bulbs to plant along the paths—thanks to your generosity, Julia—and now I don’t know what to do with them.”
“You’re going to plant every one of them and enjoy them when they bloom. The park will be beautiful when the tulips and the pear trees are in bloom, and everybody will thank you.”
“Well,” Emma Sue said, sniffing, “well, I don’t know. I guess it doesn’t matter what I do, since Connie thinks it’s already so awful. And maybe she’s the Lord’s way of telling me there are more important things He wants me to do. There’re so many lost and needy people in the world, and I’ve been frittering away my time on weeding and planting and raking and deadheading and first one thing after another, and ignoring my true calling.”
“Listen, Emma Sue, think of this. Who was it that gave us flowers and trees and grass? Who gave us gardens, for goodness sakes—think of where Adam and Eve lived! And what were they given to do? Tend the garden, that’s what! So it doesn’t matter what Connie thinks. You can’t let her get to you like this. You are doing the Lord’s work every time you put a bulb, annual, or perennial in the ground. And you’ve put in a lot of them.”
“I guess I hadn’t thought of it like that.” Emma Sue stopped and blew her nose. “Maybe Larry could speak to this in one of his sermons.”
I rolled my eyes, but said, “That’s a good idea. But, Emma Sue, don’t let what Connie said bother you for another minute. She doesn’t know it yet, but she has stirred up a hornet’s nest. I wouldn’t be surprised if she gets stung pretty badly one of these days.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to her.”
“It’s just a saying,” I said tiredly, because Emma Sue was always so literal. “But it’s been my experience that when someone goes out of their way to antagonize people, what’s said has a tendency to come back and bite that someone. And in the case of Connie, I’m looking forward to having that happen.”
“Oh, no, Julia, we must pray for our enemies, not wish them harm.”
“Well, I wouldn’t exactly call her an enemy, Emma Sue. It’s just that after this morning, I don’t care for her company, and I intend to avoid her from now on.”
And that started Emma Sue off on our Christian duty to love the unlovely, feed the hungry, visit the sick, and so on. By the time I got off the phone, I felt as if the whole day had been given over to my personal failures and horrendous shortcomings.
• • •
I stood for a minute holding the phone after Emma Sue had said good-bye, giving some of Connie’s comments serious thought. I hadn’t mentioned it to Mildred and had barely touched on it to Emma Sue, but I was not only hurt but also incensed by the cavalier way Connie had dismissed the park as an amateurish attempt at beautifying the town. She’d sneered at Lady Justice, unaware that I, along with Etta Mae Wiggins and Poochie Dunn, had risked life and limb to rescue her. Connie had also told us it was time to put aside old antagonisms by removing and discarding the marble marker to the Confederate war dead. Why, what a travesty that would be! And a slap in the face to all the old families in the county whose names were inscribed on it.
And if Connie thought that marker indicated leftover antagonism toward Northern invaders, she had done nothing to lessen it. In fact, for my money, she and her ilk were worse than the original invaders, but we’d all been too polite and sensitive to her feelings to have put a stop to the enumeration of our deficiencies.
So I didn’t know if my sudden sinking feelings were because I’d not stood up for myself and our town—which I had been too stunned to do—or if they were a result of my having been made aware of my failures.
I wished Sam would get home so I could count my blessings, starting with him.
Late that afternoon when I heard Sam come through the back door and stop in the kitchen to talk with Lillian, I hurried out to meet him. Lillian was already pouring coffee, asking if we wanted it in the kitchen or served in the library.
“Right here is fine,” Sam said, pulling out a chair at the table, then, before sitting, coming over to give me a kiss. “How was your day, sweetheart?”
“Disturbing,” I said, taking the chair beside him. “Lillian, join us. I’d like to hear what you think of this.”
She put a cream pitcher on the table along with our cups, then said, “I got to finish supper, so I’ll jus’ listen in.”
“Well, feel free to join in, too.” Then I turned to my levelheaded, fair, and supremely just husband. “Sam, what do you think of people who move to a town and start excoriating it right off the bat?”
His eyebrows went up. “Haven’t given it much thought. Why?”
“Because I went to a coffee this morning at Connie Clayborn’s house, and was told that I, and everyone else, should be ashamed to live in a town that doesn’t have enough pride in itself to install water fountains, matching shop awnings, and public restrooms on the sidewalks.”
Sam smiled. “And who was the city-planning expert who told you such a thing?”
“Why, Connie, of course, and apparently, she herself knows exactly what should be done to draw crowds of spenders from all over who’ll boost the economy and put us on the cover of Southern Living. The only thing she didn’t tell us was how to pay for it. We are up in arms.”
“Oh, I doubt it’ll come to taking up arms,” Sam said soothingly. “The town could use some beautifying, that’s a fact. And anything that would draw people downtown couldn’t hurt.”
“Well, yes, I expect so, if you don’t mind motorcycle gangs and tattoo artists and barhoppers. I tell you, some of her ideas for updating the town were just plain silly, even outlandish. Why, Sam, she said we ought to get rid of all the grassy areas in our park and spread gravel instead. With clumps of swamp grass and huge boulders here and there, and you know how I feel about boulders.”
He smiled, for he’d heard me often enough on the subject of big rocks strewn around helter-skelter in a so-called natural landscape. “I do know how you feel, but rocks and gravel would cut down on maintenance costs.”
“That’s what she said!” I exclaimed. “But that’s being penny wise and pound foolish, because who wants a rock-filled park? Where’s the beauty in that? How would a rock garden draw shoppers downtown? It wouldn’t draw me!” I put my cup in the saucer and looked up at Lillian. “What do you think, Lillian?”
“I think I better stay out of this. I don’t have much bus’ness downtown anyway.”
“But listen, Lillian. And you, too, Sam. We can all agree that the town could use some help, but who wants a newcomer with no knowledge of our history or our traditions to come in and start telling us how lax and shortsighted we are, and then to tell us that she’s the answer to all our prayers?” I took a deep breath. “Except she doesn’t believe in prayer, so what can she be an answer to.”
Sam grinned. “You have a point. But, Julia, if she wants to approach the town council with a few ideas for improvement, tell her to have at it.”
“Well, yes, and I’d say more power to her if that had been all,” I said with a dismissive wave. “But it wasn’t. According to Connie, it is our moral and civic duty to organize, donate, and move the town forward. I mean, she about worked herself into a frenzy of outrage that we were so taken up with our own selfish interests that we’d ignored the needs of the town. And I’d be willing to wager that she has no idea of what she’s talking about. She hasn’t been here long enough, for one thing, and she doesn’t know us well enough, for another. She just assumed that we’re self-absorbed and uncaring of others, and that it’s her job to lead us forward.”
I stopped, recalling the intense anger I’d felt toward Connie as she stood before us and told us how backward we were.
“In fact,” I went on, “she as much as told us how she’d dreaded moving here when her husband was transferred. But then she said she realized what a perfect project it would be to fill her time. Don’t you just hate it when somebody thinks up a project?” I stopped, then thought of something else. “And then, on my way out I overheard her say that what she’d really like to do is take a bulldozer to both sides of Main Street! I can’t tell you how much that attitude upsets me.”
We all thought about that for a few minutes, then in the silence Lillian suddenly said, “I tell you what upset me, an’ that lady you tellin’ ’bout remind me of it. She sound like somebody I been knowin’ for years that went up north an’ come back thinkin’ she know everything, an’ tellin’ us we got to quit talkin’ like field hands. But I been talkin’ like I talk ever since I been born, an’ nobody have any trouble understandin’ what I say.”
“They certainly don’t,” Sam agreed. “On the other hand, I have real trouble understanding what somebody from, say, New Jersey says.”
“Well,” I said, “you should’ve had to sit and listen to Connie this morning. Her voice grated on my nerves so bad that I could hardly sit still. She went on and on until I thought she’d never get through, and, Sam, I’m convinced she, herself, is from New Jersey.” I stopped, tilted my coffee cup absentmindedly, then sighed and looked up. “Well, I might as well tell it all. She publicly humiliated me. And Emma Sue, too, who is just devastated. Oh, Sam, you wouldn’t believe what Connie said about boxwoods, and you know that I donated a mint to buy all those miniature boxwoods to line the paths of the park. And you wouldn’t believe what it cost to transplant those big, old ones that make the park look established.” I leaned my head on my hand. “And everybody knew that the boxwoods were my gift to the town, and everybody knew that the design was Emma Sue’s. And we had to sit there and listen to Connie tell us that the park is a scraggly, poorly designed mess. And I’m so mad at myself for not speaking up, I don’t know what to do. I should’ve said, ‘If you think you can do any better, then do it.’ Except we would’ve ended up with a rock garden edged with wild grasses and reeds. Maybe a puny pond filled with cattails. She likes a natural environment.
“Oh!” I said, sitting up straight, “you won’t believe what else she wants to do. Make half the park into a parking lot! Can you believe it? Here, we have an entire city block for a green space in the middle of town, and she wants to pour concrete over half of it!”
Sam said, “Well, I’d vote against that.”
“Me, too,” Lillian said.
“Sorry,” I said, “you don’t have a vote. Connie’s idea is for us—the leading women of the town, according to her—to take the bull by the horns, the bull being the town council, and push the town into the future whether it wants to go or not.”
“She won’t get far with that,” Sam said, smiling, as he patted my hand. “I know who’s on the council, and I know at least one leading woman in town.”
“Well,” I went on, “you haven’t heard the rest of it. This just ran all over me. Besides having to endure her scathing personal criticism—although she pretended to speak in generalities—I had to pretend it didn’t bother me. But everybody knew who she was talking about when she started in on the park. They kept cutting their eyes at us to see how we were taking it. Poor Emma Sue, I thought she was going to dissolve on the spot, while my face burned and my back got so stiff I couldn’t get up and walk out.
“And even worse, it was ‘My God’ this and ‘My God’ that until I wanted to slap her silly.”
Lillian said, “I thought you say she don’t b’lieve in prayin’.”
“She wasn’t praying, Lillian. She was using expletives. You know, like ‘My God, that park is awful,’ and ‘My God, what is wrong with you people to put up with a town like this?’ It’s bad enough to have to hear it said all over television whenever anybody likes something or when they don’t like something. It’s ‘Oh, my God’ this and ‘Oh, my God’ that, and no one seems to think a thing about it.”
Lillian, frowning, gave me a long look.
“Don’t be frowning at me, Lillian. I know what you’re thinking, but it’s a different matter when I say ‘Oh, Lord,’ or you call on Jesus. What we say is not the same thing at all. They call on God without a thought in the world of getting a response—Connie certainly didn’t think she would. That’s what taking the Lord’s name in vain means. You and I, on the other hand, know we’re addressing someone and, furthermore, we expect an answer.”
Lillian nodded in full agreement. “Yes, ma’am, and amen, we sure do. That’s what we askin’ for.”
And Sam looked from one to the other of us. Then that amused smile of his spread across his face. “If I didn’t know better,” he said, “I’d think the two of you were trained by Jesuits. You may be doing what I’d call a little hairsplitting.”
Hairsplitting or not, I knew what I knew: Connie had done herself in as far as this town was concerned. She might have had the best intentions in the world to be of help to us and to Abbotsville, but one’s manner of presentation is everything. Regardless of what she’d intended, she’d ruined it by her strident words and superior attitude. And by holding up Emma Sue, bless her heart—and me—to ridicule.
We’d just finished supper when Binkie finally called back. I had begun to think of calling her, but I always hesitated to disturb her at home—she had so little time there.
“Miss Julia,” she said, after a few perfunctory questions about my health, “have you heard about Coleman?”
I stiffened with dread of hearing of some dire accident or disease having happened to Coleman. He had come to Abbotsville not long after Wesley Lloyd’s passing, and, at Sam’s urging, I had rented my former sunroom to him. Sam had not wanted me to be in the house alone, although, at the time, I’d not known that Sam himself had designs on eventually keeping me company. But that’s how I had come to know one of the finest young men in town, and it pleased me that Coleman had met Binkie in my house the day she’d been caught in a rainstorm and had come running in drenched to the skin. Coleman took one look and lost his heart.
“No,” I said, fearing the worst, “what’s wrong with Coleman?”
“I think he’s lost his mind.” Binkie giggled just a little. “Or else he’s a hero in the making.”
“What in the world?”
“Would you believe he’s going to do some sign sitting? And I may need your help to get him down.”
“He’s doing what?”
“Sign sitting. He’s got a bunch of his buddies helping him build a platform on one of those big outdoor advertising signs out off the MLK Boulevard. And he’s going to stay up there until he raises twenty thousand dollars for playground equipment for the elementary school. Says those kids are going to have monkey bars if he has to put them up himself.”
“My word, Binkie, doesn’t he know it’s November?”
“Tell me about it,” Binkie said, sighing. “But he’s looking at the long-range weather forecast and reading the Farmers’ Almanac. And,” she went on with a laugh, “he’s consulting some old man on the other side of the mountain who claims to predict the weather a month in advance. Something to do with black gum trees, I think. Anyway, Coleman will have an electric heater hooked up to a generator, and he’ll have a thick bedroll. Bought some long johns, too.
“But,” she said, taking a breath, “that’s why I’m calling around now, asking for pledges. The sooner he reaches his goal, the less time he’ll spend up there. See, Miss Julia, I hate asking for a donation, but I don’t want my husband freezing to death.”
“Good gracious,” I mumbled, wondering what the world was coming to—if it wasn’t Emma Sue pushing herself to take on more than she could handle, it was Coleman risking his health to sit out in the elements. “Binkie, I’ll pledge the whole amount right now. Just keep him off that thing.”
“Oh, Miss Julia, thank you, but he won’t let you do that. He likes challenging himself, so he wants to sit up there. He’s hoping everybody in the county will pitch in and get the playground equipped. Right now it only has a couple of seesaws and one of them is broken.”
“In that case,” I said, resigning myself to the willfulness of some people, “I’ll send him a nice check, but, Binkie, if he starts getting frostbite, let me know. I’ll put him over the top whether he likes it or not.”
Binkie laughed. “I may take you up on that. And, Miss Julia, thanks for helping me take care of my crazy husband.”
With a shake of my head, I hung up the phone and stood there, thinking. Here, I’d worried all day about a financial catastrophe, and all it had been was word of another fund-raiser. Since it was Coleman, though, who was doing the raising, I didn’t mind.
• • •
The doorbell rang the next morning as I crossed the hall on my way to the kitchen to speak to Lillian. I veered toward the front door, opened it, and stood back as LuAnne Conover rushed in, flapping her hands.
“I’m a mess, Julia,” she said, heading straight for the sofa in the living room, where she plopped down, straightened her skirt tail, and kept talking. “I’m so confused, I don’t know what to do. Did you understand a word Connie said yesterday? I didn’t. First she told us we ought to be proud of our town, then she said we ought to do something about it because it’s in the worst shape she’s ever seen. How in the world can we do both?”
“Come to think of it,” I said, following her into the living room, “that was one thing she didn’t tell us. But she pretty much covered everything else we’re doing wrong.”
“Well, one thing’s for sure,” LuAnne said, pulling a sheet of paper from her tote bag and waving it at me. “No matter what she said, I cannot do this.”
“What is it, LuAnne?” I asked, sitting across from her in one of the wing chairs by the fireplace. “I can’t read it from here.”
“It’s my instructions—where we’re supposed to meet, a town map, and my time to start. Connie gave it to me before we left. Julia,” she said plaintively, “I don’t know why I signed up. I mean, those sign-up papers started coming around and I didn’t see a thing I wanted to do, but I felt I should do something, so when this one came by, I just signed it and now I’m stuck.”
“With what? And, for goodness sakes, why did you sign up for anything?” I recalled my sense of outrage when Connie had handed out five or six sheets of paper to go from person to person around the room, each one of which I’d passed along without delay. A quick glance had told me that they were sign-up pages for assignments to certain committees, like, for instance, the Committee for Listing Derelict Buildings, the Committee for Rejuvenation of Flora, the Committee for Ecological Planning, and, for goodness sakes, the Committee for Town Council Oversight.
LuAnne leaned back against the sofa and blew out her breath. “I don’t know why I did. Everybody else was signing up, so I did, too.”
“Everybody else was not signing, I assure you,” I said. “I didn’t, and neither did Mildred.”
“You didn’t?” LuAnne sat straight up and stared at me. “But how could you not? I mean, Connie was watching us, and after she’d cautioned us against being civic do-nothings—which I don’t think I’ve ever been—I guess I wanted to prove to her how active and willing we are. You know, that we don’t live in some backwater without knowing what’s going on in the world. And she made it plain that we ought to make ourselves useful for the betterment of everybody.” LuAnne frowned in thought as she glanced around the room. “I thought I was already doing that—being useful, I mean.”
“You are, and I am, and so are the rest of us. And I will continue to do so, but in my own way,” I told her. “And it won’t be because somebody has laid a guilt trip on me.”
“Well, I wish I’d known you and Mildred weren’t signing up for anything,” LuAnne said with some resentment. “I felt backed into a corner, so I just put my name down so Connie wouldn’t be disappointed in me.”
“Oh, LuAnne, who cares if she’s disappointed? After she laid us all low yesterday, her feelings shouldn’t even be considered. She obviously had no concern for ours, the way she criticized us. Scathingly criticized us, I might add.”
“Well, you’re right,” LuAnne agreed. “I just wish you’d told me you weren’t signing. You know me, I don’t like to be the only one holding out.”
“What did you sign up for?”
“Oh-h-h,” LuAnne wailed, reminded of what she’d let herself in for. “I don’t even know what it is! It just seemed like the only thing I could do once and be done with it. Not like signing up for a committee that’ll meet two mornings a week for the unforeseeable future or anything. And now, Julia, I can’t even do it once!”
“Run! She’s calling it the Run for Rehab, of all things. What do you think that means?”
“I have no idea, unless she thinks we all need a week at a spa. But, LuAnne, what does a run have to do with beautifying the town?”