The author of the acclaimed The Happy Hour Choir and Better Get Livin’ is back with a wonderfully funny and sweetly honest novella about family, football, and our final wishes for the ones we love.
When Edie Malcolm’s husband, Jerome, passes away after sixty years of marriage, the looming emptiness is so heartbreaking all she wants to do is follow him. But Jerome’s will is packed with surprises—for Edie, her sister-in-law Janice, and two teenagers mired in the awkward process of discovering the adults they will become.
To fulfill Jerome’s final wish, Edie and Janice and their two teen drivers must take the Orange Blossom Special—the old hearse Jerome painted in a bright University of Tennessee checkerboard—to three points across the state to spread his ashes. For Edie and Janice, decades of mutual dislike are packed in their overnight bags, but every mile of their odd road trip offers eye-opening truths about grief, love, and the kind of friendship that blooms in the most unexpected places . . .
Praise for Sally Kilpatrick’s Novels
“Kilpatrick mixes loss and devastation with hope and a little bit of Southern charm. She will leave the reader laughing through tears. This is an incredible start from a promising storyteller.” —RT Book Reviews on The Happy Hour Choir
“A pleasantly engaging take on Romeo and Juliet.” —Library Journal on Bittersweet Creek
“A tale filled with both hilarity and heartbreak.” —Booklist on Better Get To Livin’
“Don't miss this quirky, fun love story. I couldn't put it down.” —Haywood Smith, New York Times bestselling author on Better Get To Livin’
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As everyone had long feared, it was Tennessee football that finally killed Jerome Malcolm. Sure, the death certificate said "cardiac arrest," but an anemic Tennessee offense and the wily Steve Spurrier were truly to blame. Edie, his wife, consoled herself with the fact that her husband had gone peacefully in his sleep — even if it was after two hours of ranting and raving about the inadequacies of the Tennessee offense — and that he hadn't suffered from dementia, a broken hip, or the indignities of the nursing home.
She and Jerome celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary the month before, and she'd officially forgotten what life was like before Jerome came stomping in with his huge feet, infectious laugh, and propensity for waltzing with her in the kitchen when no one else was looking. As husbands went, he really only had two faults: his addiction to Tennessee football and a tendency to do household chores for his sister before his wife.
"Oh, Edie. You handle a hammer better than I do," he would say.
And this was true, but not the point, so she would reply, "Yes, but I also handle the washer, dryer, dishwasher, and vacuum better than you do."
Edie looked around her kitchen and wiped away a tear at the thought that there would be no more impromptu waltzes for her. Probably best, since she had no intention of breaking a hip and ending up in a nursing home — not if she could help it. No, she had a bottle of pills with her name on it. She'd get out of this world while the getting was good, just as soon as she took care of Jerome.
She paused and misted up because, if she pretended hard enough, she could almost imagine Jerome barreling through that swinging door and taking her into his arms as he began to hum "The Blue Danube." The kitchen certainly looked almost the same as when they'd moved into the cozy brick ranch back in the fifties: oak cabinets, now faded laminate countertops, and dingy tile with a sunny disposition. Like Edie, the kitchen was worn but well-maintained.
She cut off two more hunks of the pineapple cake and told herself to quit stalling. The lawyer was there to read the will, and she wanted the whole thing over with so she could mourn in peace. She didn't care one whit about Jerome's earthly possessions.
Balancing a dessert plate in each hand, she hobbled her way through the swinging door and into the dour dining room that Jerome had always hated. "Fussy and stiff," he'd called it. Well, Edie still liked the old Duncan Phyfe dinette set she'd argued for when they first married. When she pointed out that she easily earned half of all the money they made, Jerome had good-naturedly thrown his hands in the air and told her to go for it. He'd been different from her friends' husbands like that.
She set the larger slice of cake in front of Peyton and carried her own to the seat at the end of the table. The clink of forks on plates and cups on saucers were the only sounds for a few minutes before Walter, her teenage grandnephew, finally spoke. "This cake is really good, Aunt Edie. Thank you."
Edie couldn't help but notice that her sister-in-law, Janice, glared at her grandson as if he were a traitor. Edie smiled. "Thank you, Walter. I'm glad you're enjoying it."
"It is quite good. I don't often get such a treat when I read a will," said Ben Little, the lawyer at the other end of the table.
"Well, I'm happy to oblige, Mr. Little."
"Now, now, Miss Edie. I thought we'd discussed how you can call me Ben."
"If that's the case, then you'll have to drop the 'miss'."
Edie liked Ben Little and was so glad she'd sent Jerome to his practice when he started clamoring about making a will. She'd taught high school with Ben's grandmother back when they finally integrated the schools. The two women had become fast friends, both outcasts in their own ways. Edie was a Yankee and persona non grata at the faculty lunch table for being an outsider with blunt ways. Elvira Little had skin a shade darker than bronze and hailed from the "other" school, one that many of the teachers saw as separate but most certainly not equal.
By the time Ben had graduated from law school, race relations around town had improved considerably, but it still took him a while to build a clientele. Jerome was one of his first customers, and from there Ben had built his practice one happy client at a time. He'd never needed Edie's help, but he always seemed to appreciate it nonetheless, and she appreciated his attention to detail and how kind he'd been since Jerome's passing.
As the odd group ate their cake and sipped on either coffee or milk, Edie studied those who had been named in Jerome's will. Peyton, a skinny redheaded teenager, lived next door, but she spent a lot of time with Edie and Jerome. Edie had the idea that life wasn't too great in the trailer next door. She never turned the girl away, and she always made sure to feed her.
Next to Peyton sat Janice. She and Jerome had been particularly close as brother and sister, so close that Edie had lost the argument when she'd suggested that maybe it wouldn't be a good idea to have Janice living next door. Nope. Instead she'd endured almost daily the subtle insinuation that she'd only married Jerome for his money.
The fourth beneficiary of the will was one of Janice's grandchildren, Walter. He was the youngest of her grandchildren, the son of one of the daughters she'd adopted from Africa back when it wasn't the celebrity thing to do. Walter spent a lot of time with Janice, doing the things her husband, Harvey, could no longer do, like mow the lawn. He always mowed Edie's lawn, too, without being asked. All he ever wanted in return was something from her pie safe and to be able to watch football on the big screen with Jerome.
Maybe she should give that television to Walter.
But then the kids wouldn't come over anymore.
Edie, you're not going to be here for the kids to come over.
Edie pushed away the cake she no longer had any taste for, her stomach somewhere near her toes.
"Please proceed, Mr. Little."
"Let me summarize what I read," Ben was saying. "The house, the property over in Cleburne County, and almost all of Mr. Malcolm's investments go to his wife, but —"
"Of course they do," Janice said bitterly. "She's been waiting for them."
"Janice, I think sixty years of marriage means I'm officially not a gold digger, and the next time you imply it, I'm going to throw wild onions in your yard. And pick my dandelions and blow all of their little seeds in your general direction."
Janice gasped. Her lawn was a perfectly maintained carpet of zoysia, and she babied it and all of her landscaping as if her life depended on it.
"Aw, Aunt Edie, please don't do that," Walter said.
Edie sighed. She couldn't do that to Walter, since he did all of the mowing and worked as his grandmother's assistant, helping her prune the crepe myrtles and such. "For you, Walter, I won't." She turned to Janice. "But I don't want to hear that word ever again or I'll park the Orange Blossom Special in your driveway."
Janice narrowed her eyes at Edie. The one thing both Edie and Janice could agree on was that they both hated the old hearse that had been painted in an orange-and-white checkerboard to be Jerome's "ultimate tailgating machine." Edie would get a kick out of parking the hearse over at Janice's and letting it leak oil all over her pristine driveway.
"Speaking of the, ah, Orange Blossom Special," Ben said, "it's going to be important in just a few minutes."
That got everyone's attention so he could carry on. "Mr. Malcolm redesignated some funds a few years before. He put aside a little travel fund for both of you, Miss Janice and Miss Edie. He said he hoped the two of you would go to Hawaii together, since you both said you wanted to go and he wasn't about to get on a plane himself."
When hell freezes over, Edie thought. Janice's face contorted into a similar expression. But that was Jerome, always saying things like, "I swear the two of you would actually get along pretty well if you'd cut out the petty nonsense."
"He also set aside a couple of college funds, for Peyton and Walter, at a hundred thousand each."
"Oh," Edie said. She and Jerome had had separate checking and savings accounts since the eighties, and she had no idea he'd had that kind of money. Of course, they'd always saved a heckuva lot more than they'd spent and she knew he liked to play with his stocks. He'd seemed pretty happy about that Home Depot stock he'd bought so long ago. Maybe she should've paid more mind.
Edie felt Janice's glare and knew that it was killing the woman not to lob her favorite insult, but she loved her newly pressure-washed driveway too much to risk it. Edie had never wanted Jerome's money, but if she had a dollar for every time Janice had called her a gold digger? Well, she'd be rich enough not to ever need it.
Ben turned to the younger people. "Peyton, Walter, you may have these funds to go to the college of your choice — although Mr. Malcolm may have mentioned a partiality for the University of Tennessee — as long as you comply with his wishes for disposing of his remains in the specific way he has requested."
Peyton's already pale face grew even whiter. "I don't like dead people, Mr. Little."
"Don't worry, he's been cremated and his ashes are in that, um, cookie jar over there, dear," Janice said, pointing to the sideboard, where a ceramic likeness of Carmen Miranda sat.
Peyton shivered in revulsion despite Carmen's smile and cheerful fruit hat.
Edie rolled her eyes. The Carmen Miranda cookie jar had been another of Jerome's requests. He loved to talk about the time he'd seen Carmen Miranda at some USO event. He loved even more to tease Edie about it because he knew she got jealous that she wasn't as curvy. Just when she'd thought he'd forgotten all about the Brazilian bombshell, he'd come in with that ridiculous cookie jar.
"And what do you expect me to do with that?" she'd asked.
"Put my ashes in it so I can finally commune with Carmen," he'd said.
That had been four or five years ago, and she could thank Target for making the cookie jar and bringing up the lady with the fruit hat once more. She'd thought her husband was kidding about the cookie jar, but he'd apparently made arrangements with Ben, so there he sat, communing with his precious Carmen at long last.
"Miss Edie?" Ben asked. "May we continue?"
"The four of you are to travel together in the Orange Blossom Special and to spread Mr. Malcolm's ashes evenly in three different places: the Ryman Auditorium, General Neyland's grave, and the checkerboard end zone at Neyland Stadium."
"Is that all?" Edie rolled her eyes. Her husband was a nut. Well, he had been a nut.
"You know I don't think you even miss him," Janice said, her voice hitching. "The way you're acting proves my point that you never really loved Jerome. Otherwise you would be willing to do whatever he asked you to do."
Too far, Janice.
"I loved Jerome Malcolm more than you will ever comprehend," she said, thinking of the bottle of pills that would allow her to join him as soon as she finished this wild-goose chase. Once she found her words, she continued in a voice dangerously low and cultivated from over thirty years of teaching high school math. "I am happy that he went the way he wanted to go, but in a few days, you'll all be gone and I'll be left alone with nothing but his memory. Don't presume to tell me how much I did or did not love my husband."
The women glared at each other in silence.
Peyton was the first to speak, as she started to pull away from the table. "This is all real nice of Mr. Malcolm, but I can't do it."
"Don't be silly." Walter put a hand on Peyton's arm to encourage her to sit back down. "It's enough money to get a college education. Can't you take a little car trip for that?" She sat back down but still looked as though she might toss her cookies at any moment, and Edie's anger dissipated as she wondered what possibly could have spooked the girl so badly. Peyton's hands shook, but she took them from the top of the table and put them in her lap when she noticed Edie staring.
"Know what? You have a funny way of showing how much you supposedly loved my brother," Janice said again. She was sniffling now, and she reached into her pocketbook for a crumpled tissue to dab at her tears. Then she blew her nose with that distinctive honking sound that all the Malcolms seemed to make.
"We all mourn in our own ways," Edie said. "I'm not sure I've even begun to grieve yet."
The oppressive ticking of the clock might as well have been a bass drum for how well it punctuated the sudden silence. Edie would have to remember to start winding it. That had been Jerome's job.
Ben cleared his throat to regain their attention. "Mr. Malcolm's will also stipulated that, for this trip, Peyton and Walter are to take turns driving —"
"That's preposterous!" Janice and Edie said in unison.
"Awesome!" Walter held out a hand for Peyton to slap, but she wasn't as enthusiastic and she still looked a little green, to tell the truth.
"He, uh, didn't think either of you should be driving," Ben said apologetically to Edie and Janice. "Especially not the older car. He might have mentioned how you'd never make it to Knoxville if someone wasn't doing the speed limit."
"Well, I never," Edie said softly. Jerome had always been the one with the lead foot.
Ben shrugged. "He said, and I quote, 'The old girl needs to be aired out at least one more time. ' " Edie couldn't help but chuckle. She was an old girl who was about to be aired out one last time.
"I'm not riding in that hearse." Janice sat back and crossed her arms.
Edie wanted to caution her against wrinkling her linen suit, but instead she said, "Now look who doesn't love Jerome enough to follow his dying wish."
"Fine." Janice ground the word out between her teeth. "I will ride across the state in his ridiculous hearse that's been painted orange and white. There's nothing I would like more."
Ben tugged at his collar. "Upon the successful completion of this task, Peyton and Walter will each receive access to an account that has been specifically designated for their college education. Miss Edie and Miss Janice, you will, of course, receive access to your travel fund, and Miss Janice will also receive the family Bible."
Janice sucked in a breath.
Edie couldn't help but think, So that's where it went. Janice had been harping about that Bible for the past twenty years or better, carrying on about how it should've been passed on to her instead of to Jerome. Meanwhile, that sneaky man had hidden it somewhere to cash in for a favor later. Oh, her husband could be manipulative if he wanted to be.
"What's my incentive for going along with this harebrained scheme?" Edie asked. She wouldn't mind traveling with Walter and Peyton. Janice, however? She didn't want to spend fifteen minutes in a car with Janice, much less take a trip across the state with her.
Ben grinned. "He said you'd ask that question. He also said you'd go along with it out of the goodness of your heart."
Edie stabbed her pineapple cake and crammed a huge bite into her mouth. She wasn't feeling much "goodness in her heart" at the moment. Eating cake was better than giving in to the urge to stab something else, though. Or someone.
"He might've mentioned something about how you'd be able to take that trip to Paris."
Edie's fork hit her plate, and she tried hard to swallow over the lump in her throat. She'd given Jerome such grief over his unwillingness to fly. Now he was telling her to go on without him.
She thought of her bottle of pills. They'd still be there after a trip to Paris.
"He suggested you might want to sell the Orange Blossom Special to help pay for the trip," Ben added.
Damn straight, I'm going to sell that hunk of junk.
"Is the — Orange Blossom Special — a stick shift? I can't drive a stick shift," Peyton blurted.
Bless her heart. She was trying so hard to get out of this. If her parents caught wind of it, they'd make her go and then try to take the money for themselves. Edie hoped Jerome had written stipulations for that scholarship in such a way that they couldn't.
"I can teach you how," Walter said. "It's not that hard."
"Thanks," she said, but she still looked too green around the edges to exude any real gratitude.
Edie set her fork down on her plate. "Well, that seems to be all settled, then. Thank you, Mr. Little."
"Miss Edie," he said as he gathered up his belongings.
Excerpted from "Orange Blossom Special"
Copyright © 2017 Sally Kilpatrick.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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