I Still Dream About You: A Novel, page 10
Punch. “Mrs. Wilmer … It’s Hazel Whisenknott. Could you have Tom call me A.S.A.P. here at the office? I’m gonna need him to take down some curtains for me and get them over to June and bring some rugs downtown to Al. Right … And how’s your granddaughter? Good, well, I’m glad she enjoyed it. Hold for Ethel, and she’ll give you the details.”
Punch. “Al, thanks for holding. Listen, hon, I’m waiting for a call back from Tom, but as soon as I hear, I’ll have him call you, and you tell him where he can drop them off. Well, thank you, and you’re a sweetheart for doing it for me on such short notice.”
Hazel looked over and smiled at Maggie. “See, honey, everything’s going to be fine. This is nothing. I’ll speak to the Caldwells and explain what happened, so don’t you worry about a thing, sweetie. You just go home, have a drink, and relax, and I’ll see you tomorrow.” Then she called out, “Ethel … get me a Coca-Cola when you have a minute, will you?” Punch. “Hey, Tom. Did you get my message? That’s right, first to Al, then to June … Okay? Hold for Ethel.”
By ten o’clock the next morning, every rug and every curtain was back in place, cleaned and dried; every floor waxed and shined; and fresh flowers sat on the entrance hall table, waiting to greet the Caldwells when they returned home at noon. When Maggie walked into the office, she looked at Hazel in awe. “How did you do it?”
“Get the house cleaned up.”
“Oh, that … that was nothing. I told you, you don’t ever have to worry about a thing. If it can be done, I’ll get it done.”
Dear God, was it any wonder they all missed her?
HAZEL WAS RIGHT about Maggie. After her initial flooding disaster, Maggie had been very good at selling real estate from the start, and she had been especially skilled at staging a home. Hazel always said, “Good taste doesn’t cost a dime, but if you don’t have it, you can’t buy it for a million dollars,” and Maggie certainly had good taste. Brenda and Ethel were still amazed at her ability to deal with even the most difficult clients in such a lovely and graceful way.
How do you suggest (in a nice way) that it would be best for the home owners to remove most of what they own from the house, particularly the family photos? Ethel, who had no patience with people, would have said right off the bat, “The photos of the ugly jug-eared grandchildren have to go,” but Maggie always managed to do it without hurting anyone’s feelings. As she once said to a couple in West End, “It’s not that the gold shag rugs in every room aren’t nice, it’s just that too much of anything tends to be unattractive.”
But as much as Maggie loved and appreciated houses, she had never owned one of her own. However, where she lived had still been very important to her. She had never understood people who blew into town and bought the first house they saw. Or those who said that location didn’t matter, they could “just live anywhere.” Not Maggie. When she had moved back to Birmingham from Dallas, she had spent months looking for just the right location, and the minute she’d walked into Avon Terrace, she’d known it was the perfect spot for her. From her back terrace, she could look up and see Crestview standing on top of Red Mountain.
Why Babs Hated Maggie
THEY SAY ENVY IS A COAL THAT COMES HOT AND HISSING STRAIGHT from hell. If so, it had been burning a hole in Babs Bingington from the moment Hazel Whisenknott had introduced Maggie as her new agent. Babs had hated Maggie at first sight. This has-been beauty queen with all her phony manners, just waltzing into the business on her good looks and her “over the mountain” contacts. It made her sick to see how all the male agents in town acted like fools around her, fawning and preening like idiots. It was bad enough that she had to compete with that damn midget; now this.
Three weeks later, when she found out that Maggie had gotten the Caldwell listing, she was livid. The Caldwell house was on a view lot that the people she dealt with at the construction company wanted. Babs had contacted the Caldwells a month before, and they had told her that they were not selling. And now, that beauty-queen bitch had gone behind her back and stolen her listing. And to make matters worse, she had driven by the Caldwell house on Monday afternoon, expecting to see cleanup trucks everywhere, but there had been absolutely no signs that the house had been flooded. The kid she had hired to go upstairs, plug up the tub, and leave the water running had obviously screwed up. The little shit. She had been hoping to get the bimbo fired and take over the listing. And what had made her twice as furious was that before she had enough time to come up with another scheme, the house had sold.
Nothing had ever come easy for Babs. She had never been a natural beauty, and it had cost her a fortune. She had been through two face-lifts, a nose job, a chin implant, and had her hairline moved up before she was forty. People had always been out to get her from the start. A disgruntled employee had done her in in Newark. After she lost her real estate license in New Jersey, Babs had changed her name and moved to Birmingham, where her son was studying medicine at UAB. And that had not been easy, either. She’d had to push and shove every inch of the way to get into the real estate market here. Those southern girls were so clannish; they were nice to her face, but she knew they all thought they were better than she was. Only she would get her revenge on that phony Miss Goody Two-Shoes, Margaret Fortenberry. For now, she was just biding her time.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
THE NEXT MORNING, MAGGIE WOKE UP AND REALIZED: SHE COULDN’T have picked a better date if she’d tried. Leaving on November 3, the day right before the presidential election, was perfect. Now that the Miss America Pageant was no longer being shown on network television, being an ex–Miss Alabama or even second runner-up at the national level no longer carried the weight it once had. But you could never be sure. Had she done it earlier, on a slow news day, some bored reporter could have picked up the story, and she might have wound up as a joke on a late-night TV show. Some people could be so terribly unkind. They didn’t understand the tremendous pressure and the responsibility that went along with the title or how stressful being a role model could be, but Maggie did, it had taken a large toll on her. And now she was bound and determined not to make her same old mistake: waiting too long to do something until it was too late to do it!
At least she was leaving while she had some of her looks left; her skin was still nice, thanks to the fact that she had always stayed out of the sun and what little gardening she had done, she had done at night with a flashlight. However, she had noticed that what used to be freckles on the backs of her hands were now starting to look a lot like old-age spots. She had a few gray streaks here and there, but Glen had been able to blend them in with her highlights so they looked natural. Even so, there was simply no two ways about it: she was like a carton of milk whose expiration date was just about up.
Of course, Maggie knew that winding up like this was terribly sad, and she could have spent what little time she had left being miserable and feeling sorry for herself, but there was definitely a bright side to departing this world early. Just this morning, she had made out a brand-new “Pros and Cons” list on the subject, and even she had been surprised at the results.
16 Perfectly Good Reasons to Jump in the River
No old age (no face-lifts, knee or hip replacements, etc.)
No more hair dyeing
No more having to make decisions
No more bad TV dinners
Dentist or doctor’s appointments, etc.
No more unpleasant surprises
No more Babs Bingington
No more sleepless nights
Having to make a living
Paying bills and doing taxes
No more regrets
Having to watch bad news on TV
No more bad news, period
No more worries
Missing spring in Mountain Brook
When she saw everything written down in black and white, she had to admit that the pros still had it, hands down. Number 16 alone clinched it. Last night, she had lost another two hours of sleep, worrying about Crestview again. Not having to worry about anything ever again was something else she was really looking forward to.
SHE WENT DOWN the hall and pulled out the last box of her parents’ papers and started putting them in stacks. She guessed she could just throw them all out and not bother to shred them. There was no need to be concerned about identity theft now.
A few minutes later, when she saw their burial policies, something suddenly occurred to her. Since she was not going to be using her cemetery plot, maybe she should give it to some needy person. It was in a very nice spot. But her parents had gone to a lot of expense and had bought the plots on a layaway plan because they had wanted the family to be together. What would they think if a total stranger suddenly showed up next to them? She didn’t know if she believed in an afterlife or not, but she decided that on the off chance they would know, she’d better just leave it empty. Then she suddenly realized something else. Since she was their only living relative, she needed to make long-term arrangements about flowers for her parents’ graves, so she pulled out another piece of paper and began another list.
Yearly Floral Arrangements for Mother and Daddy
The only days she could eliminate with a clear conscience would be their birthdays, but even when eliminating the two birthdays, it would still cost around $375 a year. She then made an educated guess at how many more years she might have been around. Considering the fact that she was still pretty healthy, and averaging out the age at which both her parents had died, she thought eighty-five was a fair place to stop the flowers. So, twenty-five times $375 came to … good Lord. That was a lot of money, but she couldn’t just leave them without any remembrance on the holidays.
She looked in the telephone book for the name of a florist on the other side of town. She couldn’t call people she knew, like Bill over at Park Lane or Norton’s Flowers; they might suspect something. She looked in the yellow pages and found a florist she had never heard of; a woman answered.
“Bon-Ton Flowers, may I help you?”
Maggie could tell by her accent that the woman was not southern, and she was glad. She probably didn’t know who she was, or even if she did, she probably wouldn’t care.
“Yes, hello … uh, I’m going to be out of town this Christmas, and I was wondering if I could have flowers delivered to my parents’ graves. Do you deliver to cemeteries?”
“Yes, ma’am, we sure do, and I’d be happy to arrange that for you … Is that going to be Forrest Lawn or Pine Rest?”
“Forrest Lawn. I have the location numbers. Lot 7, Section 196, and the names are Anna Grace and William Herbert Fortenberry.”
“That’s Anna Grace and William Herbert?”
“And what price range would you like on that, hon?”
“Oh … I was thinking around seventy-five?”
“Seventy-five … alrighty then, we can do up something real nice for that, unless you want balloons. If you want balloons, that’s fifteen dollars extra.”
“No, just the flowers. I think.”
“Okay … that’s fine, and what do you want on the card?”
“The card?” Maggie was suddenly caught off guard; she hadn’t thought about the card. “Oh … well. Oh dear, uh … just say, ‘Love, Margaret,’ I guess.”
“Okay, hon … we’ll have it out there for them bright and early Christmas morning, and how do you want to pay for this?”
“Can I get that credit card number from you?”
“Yes, but I’m also going to need to have you give me the total cost for arrangements for Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Memorial Day.”
The woman sounded surprised. “Oh, I see … well … just how long do you plan to be out of town?”
There was a pause. Then Maggie said, “About twenty-five years.”
The conversation did not go well after that, but after talking to the woman for a while, Maggie convinced her that she was serious, and the woman finally took her credit card number and started the process. Before she left, Maggie would send a check to MasterCard to cover the exact amount plus whatever other expenses she might have.
A FEW MINUTES later, Mrs. Thelma Shellnut, the woman at Bon-Ton Flowers, walked into the back and said to her husband, “I swear, Otis, what some people won’t do to get out of going to the cemetery.”
Otis looked up from his Reader’s Digest article. “What?”
“You should have heard the tall tale this woman told me: said she was going to be traveling and needed to have arrangements delivered for the next twenty-five years. Traveling, my left foot—she’s just too lazy to visit her parents’ graves, if you ask me.”
The truth was, Maggie was not totally without a living relative. She had one: Hector Smoote, a distant cousin of her father’s who lived in western Maine in a double-wide trailer that he and his wife, Mertha, had named Valhalla. Maggie had tried to keep in touch with him after her parents died out of some kind of family obligation, but every time she called, Hector hurt her feelings so badly, that eventually she’d stopped calling altogether. However, under the circumstances, she supposed she should try to end on a good note. Maggie dialed his number.
“Hector. It’s Maggie from Birmingham.”
As usual, he started in. “Well, hey there, little old honey pie … how y’all a-doing way down there in redneck land?”
“Oh, just fine, thank you.”
“How’s my little old country cousin? Are y’all still watching Hee Haw?”
Maggie tried to laugh. “No … not lately … I think it’s been off the air for some time now. Anyhow, I just wanted to call and say hello. I’m sorry we haven’t seen each other in so long.”
“Yeah, me too. Hey, why don’t you move out of that hellhole and come on up here with us? It’s not much, but at least we have running water.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’s lovely there … but …”
He interrupted her with “Hey, Maggie, they still shooting Yankees down there?”
“Oh, yes … uh-huh, the streets are piled up with bodies as we speak. Well, anyway … I just called to say hello.”
“I’m glad you did and next time, don’t be such a stranger; let us hear from you more often. You hear?”
“Okay. Well, my best to Mertha. Bye.”
Maggie hung up. It was just no use. She had been thinking about leaving her Miss Alabama crown, sash, and trophy to Hector and Mertha, but it was probably best she didn’t.
If Maggie had any passion left at all, it was for Birmingham and Alabama. Like everyone who loved their home, she was probably far too thin-skinned and had lost her sense of humor, but to her, talking to Hector was like pouring salt in a wound over and over again.
MAGGIE HAD HEARD other people say about their state that they “couldn’t wait to get out and go somewhere else,” but not her; from the first minute she left, she couldn’t wait to get back, and if it hadn’t been for Richard, she would have come home much sooner. She couldn’t imagine being from any other state. What if she had been Miss anywhere else but Alabama? Most of the other girls in the Miss America Pageant had traveled to Atlantic City by plane, an automobile, or by bus, but she had traveled on her own private train car, aboard the beautiful Silver Comet, renamed the Miss Alabama Special for the trip. She had been given a huge send-off at the station, with bands playing and GOOD LUCK banners flying everywhere; and unlike most of the other girls, she had arrived with an entire entourage of people to see to her every need. She had been so surprised when several of the girls told her t
The reason she had entered the contest was to try and win a scholarship to modeling school. She had done some teen modeling at Loveman’s department store downtown, and her mother’s friend Audrey, who worked there, had encouraged her to try for it. Maggie had certainly not planned on winning, and that night, nobody was more surprised than Maggie. And for a poor girl like herself, winning Miss Alabama had been a very big deal. She had been awarded ten thousand dollars, which had helped her parents buy their first home. She had been given beautiful, expensive jewelry and a complete wardrobe from Loveman’s, designed especially for her, plus a gray mink stole from Carlton’s furs, which she still had.
Maggie walked down the hall to the back closet, pulled it out, and examined it. It was still in pretty good shape. She put it on and looked at herself in the mirror. Too bad mink stoles went out of style, but you couldn’t wear fur of any kind without offending someone. Just one more thing she would never have to worry about: offending someone. That was one of the reasons she was always so comfortable with Brenda; she was not easily offended, and if you were to ever say something by mistake, she wouldn’t hold it against you. Not that she ever had or would purposely say or do anything to hurt someone’s feelings. She knew what that felt like firsthand. She knew all too well.
Dropping a Hint
ETHEL, THE OLDEST MEMBER OF THE JINGLE-ETTES, A HANDBELL choir that played out at the mall on holidays, had invited Brenda and Maggie to come during their lunch hour to a first dress rehearsal for their 2008 performance. Brenda said she would drive, and Maggie was glad to have an opportunity to ride with her. It would give her a chance to try to drop a hint again.
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