We came home having made great progress in our investigation to find a big surprise waiting for us. Several gentlemen from the coffee room at the courthouse had showed up on our veranda for our very first Five O’clock Somewhere Mint Julep time. Five O’clock Somewhere was a tradition Kevin and I had enjoyed at our “Happy Place” in Cove City. Only Kevin didn’t drink Mint Juleps. He drank the very hard to find Bartles and James Berry Wine coolers. And only one of those at that. I still have some in the refrigerator at home left over from before the SpedEx truck got him. I guess I’m still waiting for him to walk in the door one day.
Come to think of it we never had Mint Juleps. It just seemed appropriate to serve them now since they’d had such a beneficial effect on the success of our pilot for Partyin' on the Plantation on the Dishing It Network.
The gentlemen already held a Mint Julep in their hand with fresh mint from our garden no less. We climbed the stairs rather curious as to who had been playing host when out walked our cousin, Faye Lynne.
“I thought you were ‘chaperoning’ Estrellita, Faye Lynne,” I said while Faye Lynne air-hugged Sister. Her makeup was on too good for a close hug and her hair looked like she’d just had it done before coming to the Big House. I thought it looked like it might actually be hair that had grown back while she’d been gone, but I thought it might be real tacky to ask right now.
From the look on her face when she’d walked through that door -- before she saw us that is -- she thought she had died and gone to heaven with all those handsome, silver haired, accomplished Southern gentlemen hanging around our back veranda. Kind of like the Saks Fifth Avenue of gentlemen whom I assume, since they were sitting on our veranda for our Five O’clock Somewhere event without their ladies, were single for some reason -- death or divorce -- and had come to see Sister and me.
Faye Lynne leaned toward me and threw me an air kiss that I dodged adroitly to take the chair she had vacated beside Harvey.
“You got any more of those Mint Juleps made?” I asked.
“Sure do,” Faye Lynne said. “They’re Sophie’s recipe that she got from that her doctor friend and used to serve at Malabouchi.”
That intriguing opening for conversation kept Faye Lynne and Sister busy. So I decided if I was going to get a Mint Julep I’d have to get up and go get it myself. I knew soon as I did Faye Lynne was going to put her Bitty Butt into that chair and I’d never get it back, but there seemed to be no way around it because she had her drink and had brought an extra out which she gave to Sister. Of course, all the gentlemen, being well raised, were still standing. Faye Lynne never thought to tell them to sit or to sit herself so they could sit though they kept offering her their chair.
She had herself arranged against the railing in her well-practiced most provocative manner that actually came across looking casual. But I knew the truth.
So I got my Mint Julep and put it on a tray with a pitcher. Then I went to the back door and said, “There’s more chairs on the front veranda. So I’m headed that way.”
“Harvey?” I said and prissed my ample behind down the mahogany hall and through the double doors out onto the front veranda. Harvey followed and so did the others.
Faye Lynne really did not know what to make of my sudden popularity. I guess it just goes to show that some of us peak young and others of us have to wait for our time to come. Sometimes it takes a real long time. I did not know what to make of this phenomenon myself!
Just as we got settled, Mick Jefferson, the videographer, came around the corner of the house with the artist he had introduced me to once before. Billie Cox had become intrigued with the faces of Cox County and was working with Mick and Natalie Roy, a sociologist Mick got involved, delving into the intricate community of the plantations of Cox County.
Life on a plantation was much like the feudal system of the Middle Ages. Each member of the community had a job -- cook, laundress, field hand, housekeeper, brick maker, bricklayer, overseer, blacksmith, hostler, herdsman, weaver, seamstress -- and so many more. Each job was critical to the functioning of the plantation. I’ve always thought the identifier slave diminished their true value and legacy to their children and surely needed clarification. I also wondered if taking the name of owner of the plantation had prolonged that lack of a real identity.
When I do my genealogy and track our family back to an average person living in a village in the Middle Ages, my relative could very well be serf (almost a slave), but I never see that word, just the job the person did which is pretty much how most folks got their last names originally -- Baker, Smith, Cook.
The gentlemen stood to be introduced as Billie and Mick climbed the front steps. I introduced them to Harvey Banks, retired circuit judge; Clayton Connor, retired banker; Cameron Bonner, who once owned the Ford dealership; and Osborne Frith, a former Wall Street Banker, who had bought a huge plantation house in Evalina to retire to.
“Sit down and join us,” I said to Billie and Mick.
After the hand shaking was attended to, Billie and Mick pulled over a couple of rockers.
Sister brought out two more silver Mint Julep cups and added a celery stick along with the mint in one for Billie because he’s an artist and a vegetarian.
“We drove up back of the house, but nobody came to the door when we knocked. We heard voices around here and decided to come around. I hope that’s all right,” Billie said in his soft cultured voice. He looked like the artist he was with his interesting dreadlocks. Billie had the kindest eyes. I think that’s why his subjects relate so well to him.
Mick chuckled and said, “I really had hoped to see Dr. Ransom's dogs, Dido and Eudo, tonight.”
“Eudo is exhausted and already went to bed. Dido is never far away,” Sister said.
“We just wanted to tell you that your idea of inviting women to come forward with family quilts and tell their story is going over very well. There are all kinds of memories wrapped up in those quilts. Each square generates a recollection,” Mick said.
“I use the quilt as a backdrop for the photographs I take of the women for my new series of pictures,” Billie said. “Do you have a suggestion for the title?”
“How about Family Heirlooms/Mosaics of Memories?” I said.
I suggested to Natalie Roy, my sociologist friend, that she might want to start over at Gee’s Bend just nineteen miles away, in a curve of the Alabama River just north of Callerville, and sit and quilt awhile with those ladies to find out more of the history of the area. Most of them had ancestors that grew up on the Pettway Plantation.
“How did you get the idea for the quilt?” Mick asked.
“Mary, who helped me raise my children, gave me one of her mother’s quilts. I was looking at it one day and remembered Mary telling me that the squares were taken from the clothes they wore as children. So, for Mary, each square would have reminded her of one of her brothers or sisters as well as reminding her of her mother sewing the quilt together.”
“Quilts could be a bit like memory beads of the ancient people,” Billie added.
“That was what I was thought,” I said.
Mick hesitated and then said, “Natalie said a strange quilt came in the other day. She wanted me to tell you about it. Someone identified the quilt as one that your grandmother made and had been seen at your Aunt Alberta’s house on her bed.”
“Charlene sold it?” Sister asked.
“No, it was found dumped in the woods covered with blood wrapped around a gun.”
“Why wasn’t it taken to the authorities,” Harvey asked.
Billie said, “I gather it was found at a place where it would not have been safe for someone to admit they had been. Whoever found the quilt thought they could wash it and use it, but when they unwrapped it a gun fell out. Now what Black person is going to admit being in possession of a gun wrapped in a bloody quilt?”
The silence was eloquent. Things had changed in Alabama, but it was hard to erase the memories. Like those stitched into the quilts.
Mick said, “Florence recognized the quilt as having been the one on your aunt’s bed sometime around when your cousin Palmer was supposed to have committed suicide. She said you had been asking questions about his supposed suicide.”
“Did anyone know what property the quilt was found on?”
“Somebody named Barton?” Mick said.
Sister and I looked at each other. That was the name of the folks that bought Aunt Alberta’s house and property so suddenly. They then turned around and sold tall but the house for a fine profit to the timber company.
“Harvey, do you know anything about the investigation into Palmer’s death,” Sister asked.
“A little. I went through whatever records we had on file. It was a pretty cut and dried case. Pretty little widow distraught because she’d just seen her husband put his gun to his head and blow his brains out in front of her and her children while they sat on the sofa watching TV. They were all crying and wringing their hands. The sheriff was all over the news across the nation about then because he was found tied naked to a tree. So he was busy answering telephones every which way.”
“So I gather you don’t think there was much of an investigation?” I asked.
“They found a gun in Palmer’s hand that had been shot recently. I don’t know if they actually looked for the bullet that shot him,” Harvey said trying to remember.
“Anyway, I went over to Selma today and spent a little time in the coffee room. I asked around whether anybody had any dealings with Palmer Watson. A young Montgomery lawyer happened in and told me he’d been called over to witness a new will and file it. When he found out Palmer had committed suicide, he turned around and went home. Can’t collect a fee from a dead man,” Harvey continued.
“Those names make the whole thing even more suspicious. The Bartons have had a grudge against the Palmers for a couple of generations. Kind of like the Cox County version of the Hatfields and McCoys. Your granddaddy got involved somehow. Let’s see now, how did that story go?” Cameron Bonner said. “You hear lots of jokes and good stories when you’re hanging around a car lot.”
“Kind of like the coffee room at the courthouse,” I teased Harvey. And they said men don’t gossip!
“I think it was the Fosdicks who were the married couple. Old man Fosdick had taken him a young wife. She said she’d rather be an old man’s darlin’ than a young man’s slave. She got herself a boyfriend. The husband caught the wife fooling around with one of the Barton boys. He got his gun and set out to shoot him and found him sitting on a fence in his mama’s back yard with his two brothers. Old man Fosdick didn’t know which one for sure was the one he’d caught naked in the bed with his wife, they all looked pretty much alike, so he just chose one and shot him. In the chest. His brothers took issue with shooting one of their own, especially since it was one who hadn’t committed the crime, so they took off after Old Man Fosdick. Fosdick was old, but he was a survivor … he’d survived The War and was a tough old bird.”
“So how did Palmers get involved?” Faye Lynne asked.
“Sophie and Dabney’s granddaddy was his doctor. The old man told him who had shot him and your granddaddy told the authorities. The authorities put the ones who shot the old man in jail.”
“And they remember that this many years after the fact?” I said.
“Well, there’s not a lot to do around here for some folks except to sharpen a grudge.” Harvey Baker said.
“Well now, what you’re saying is you think it would be payback for the Bartons to kill Palmer and own the house and property that used to be where the Palmers lived?”
“I never have figured where those Bartons get all their money,” Clayton Connor, the retired banker said. “I heard they have an airstrip out somewhere in the woods where drugs get dropped under the radar and then get distributed from that point.”
“That would be a good reason for whoever found that quilt not to let it be known where they found it.”
“But what would a bloody quilt have to do with Palmer’s suicide?” I asked.
Sister said, “What if Charlene had been having an affair with one of the Bartons. What if Charlene or one of the children caught wind of the fact that Palmer planned to rewrite his will? The one that was probated was never questioned, was it, Harvey?”
“Not to my knowledge. Cut and dried.” Harvey said.
“What if Charlene’s lover got into the house and shot Palmer, dragged his body from where it would have fallen wrapped in the quilt where he had fallen, took his own gun outside and shot it, unrolled the body in a place where it would appear that there were three solid witnesses and then took the quilt with the gun somewhere they thought no one would ever find it,” I said.
“Well now that’s a pretty complicated scenario,” said Osborne Frith who’d been listening intently to the convoluted story.
“I write novels,” I admitted. “I have a good imagination. I am always amazed at how stranger than fiction truth can actually be! How many times do you read things in the newspaper and just wonder at the avarice and stupidity of people?”
“You’re right,” Osborne Frith said. “And Cox County does have its fair share of Snopes. But an airstrip and planes dropping drugs? Connor you should be writing novels.”
For some reason, the man’s condescension and arrogance rubbed me the wrong way.
“That’s a wild pig, isn’t it?” Faye Lynne said sweetly. She wasn’t well read, our cousin. Faulkner’s trilogy on the Snopes family wasn’t on the same shelf as BF&D Magazine. It was time for her to enter the conversation again. She’d been ignored too long.
“Not quite,” Sister said, but didn’t bother to elaborate.
“So, who’s living in Aunt Alberta’s house now?” I asked.
“Elton Barton,” Billie said. “Florence cleans for him, too. Ephraim Carter, the overseer for Waverly, also handles the grounds around that place.”
Clayton Conner stood then and must have joggled Osborne Frith’s hand because his Mint Julep spilled all over his Armani suit and down onto those fancy shoes.
Faye Lynne jumped and tried to clean him up a bit.
“I’ll just run into the bathroom and see what I can do with this. It is all my fault,” he said and smiled at us all showing us his perfect teeth.
Harvey had alerted us earlier to Frith’s political connections and how they had helped Harvey’s brother, the Senator. Hartwell Banks and Osborne Frith had been roommates in college. For some reason, I could not warm to him.
Harvey stood. “It’s time for me to go home.”
Faye Lynne said, “I brought a tape of the interview you did with Tony Waterman on the Wake Up Show in New Orleans.”
“Y’all want to watch it with us,” Sister asked.
We gathered in the study that used to be Aunt Anna Claire’s bedroom right off the front veranda where the only television in the house was located. Sister slipped the disk into the DVD player.
Waterman asked Sister, “How do you reconcile being a cardiologist and cooking soul food with fat back and real butter on your show?”
Sister, looking dignified and beautiful, perched primly on the edge of her chair on Waterman’s set. She hooked one foot around her other ankle like we’d been taught in our Deportment Class and said, “Well, Tony, there’s heart food and there’s soul food. One is good for the heart physically, and one ministers to our hearts soothing our souls with its familiarity, recalling those happy times with loved ones. There’s a time and a place for both of them,” she said.
Waterman asked her lots of questions about the who, what, when and where of the show, but it was that statement that meant the most to me. Sister was a serious person and the welfare of those who respected her opinion meant a lot to her. That was an honest answer and a realistic one. No one is going to totally give up the lifestyle in which they were raised. Much relies upon genes as to general health, we sometimes speculate on whether they should be expected to totally change their traditions. I had wondered how she reconciled our new venture with her profession.
“Speaking of food,” I said. “Sister and I were thinking of going to the Cypress Ridge Dinner Club tomorrow night. Y’all want to join us there?”
Harvey said he would make the reservations and we all agreed to meet there.
Sister, Faye Lynne, and I climbed the stairs with Gigi leading the way. Gigi would sleep outside our closed door. Adam had come in the back door while we were out on the veranda and was already asleep. We heard him snoring.
The three of us stood outside the room with the voodoo priest’s bed and I said, “I guess you can sleep in here tonight, Faye Lynne.”
“Like hell,” Faye Lynne said. “If you won’t sleep in there why in the hell do you think I would sleep there?”
“Some of us are more sensitive than others, Faye Lynne,” I said.
“You think you’re more sensitive than I am?” Faye Lynne challenged.
I prickled, but I don’t think it was because of any spirits. Faye Lynne just always got my hackles up.
“Well, I’m going to bed,” Sister said.
I followed. So did that damned Faye Lynne. I started to close the door to Sister’s room, but Faye Lynne pushed back. I finally gave up.
Faye Lynne had returned to Hollywood’s higher calling and Estrellita after the pilot so we had not had to figure out sleeping arrangements. But, somehow it seemed that our brave, bold Faye Lynne had returned to us fearful. I wondered what had happened. Faye Lynne would tell us in her own good time.
We all grabbed our pajamas and crossed the hall like the Three Stooges one following the other. Each of us took one of the nice slate-tiled wooden dressing rooms that held private commode and shower facilities (I chuckled when I heard Faye Lynne squeal when Madame Bovary ran out of the one she thought was hers and hers alone). Then Faye Lynne and I hurried out to make sure Sister didn’t leave us alone in that bathroom that used to be the back bedroom. We followed Sister to her king-sized bed. Sister lay down on her side of the bed. I lay down on what had now become my side of the bed. Faye Lynne just stood there beside me and waited.
“I don’t know where you’re sleeping tonight, Faye Lynne. I guess there’s a chair over there if you don’t want to sleep in Sister’s guest room,” I said.
Sister just watched. She reminded me of Ole Brer Rabbit.
“That’s a king size bed,” Faye Lynne said.
"We’ve all slept together on a bed this size before,” she said and sat her little Bitty Butt on the bed beside me.
“We weren’t grown ladies, then, though, Faye Lynne,” I said.
She looked at me meaningfully. If she said anything about how “fluffy” I was I was going to push her Bitty Butt off onto the hardwood floor.
“If you’re going to get in this bed, why can’t you sleep in the middle?” I said.
“I might get sick with this chemotherapy and all and then you’d wake up with vomit all over you.”
I scooted over to the middle of the bed.
I thought she was probably lying (Faye Lynne had been known to do so on occasion) because she did not want to sleep in the middle, but would you take a chance?
Sister did her usual sit up in the bed, turn the covers perfectly down and smooth out the wrinkles thing and we all lay there with our arms outside the covers looking like a trio of cadavers laid out with eyes wide open looking up at the ceiling. Skin to skin like we were in that bed, there was not much chance that we would wrinkle those covers doing any turning. At least not unless we tapped each other on the shoulder and said “turn” and we all turned together.
“Remember how Muddy used to rub Ben Gay all over her and take out her teeth before she went to sleep?” Faye Lynne said.
“I think that’s your cue, Dabney,” Sister said.
We were all asleep before I got to our second cousins once removed in my prayers that night.