I still dream about you.., p.14

I Still Dream About You: A Novel, page 14

 

I Still Dream About You: A Novel
 


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  The minute she walked through the front door, she saw Audrey behind the counter in the jewelry department. Maggie hoped Audrey hadn’t spotted her and kept going, but it was too late. Audrey, obviously thrilled to see her, yelled across the store, “Maggie! It’s me! I’m working here now.” She followed Maggie all the way back to the lingerie department and pushed the regular girl at the cash register out of her way, insisting that she wait on Maggie. She wanted to stand there and reminisce about old times, and if Maggie hadn’t been in the handicapped spot, she might have stayed and talked to her longer, but after Audrey had run up her purchase, Maggie grabbed her hose and literally ran out the door, saying she was late for an appointment, which was a bold-faced lie. When Maggie pulled out and drove away and realized what she had just done, how rude she had been to poor Audrey, she parked in front of Books-A-Million around the corner and started to cry. She had not seen Audrey in over twenty years. She should have stayed and talked to her.

  Audrey had been a good friend of her mother’s, and the last time she had seen her was at her mother’s funeral. Seeing her today, an old lady with arthritic hands, working behind a counter, was so sad; Audrey had once been a tall, good-looking, stately redhead and had run the entire Ladies Better Wear department in the big Loveman’s store downtown. Maggie even remembered the first time she had met her. Audrey was wearing a royal blue wool dress with large square gold buttons and a sapphire pin on her shoulder, and Maggie thought she was as glamorous as a movie star. Over the years, whenever she and her mother came into the store, Audrey would see them and call out to any other salesgirls who approached, “These are my customers!” She had taken care of them like they were part of her family.

  After Maggie’s mother had developed arthritis and could no longer sew, Audrey would call if something was on sale or if a dress came in that she thought would look good on Maggie. Being a working woman herself, Audrey understood that they had very little money, so whenever Maggie needed a dress for some dance or function or a coming-out party for one of her girlfriends, Audrey always found her something wonderful to wear that had just been reduced. She would wink at Maggie and say, “We can’t let our girl go to fancy parties in rags now, can we?” And when Maggie became Miss Alabama, Audrey was as proud as her own parents and announced to anyone who was within a mile, “I’ve dressed her for years.” But now Audrey, who had once been Loveman’s main buyer, was relegated to a part-time position in costume jewelry at a small outlet store. Maggie sat there and wondered what she should have said to Audrey. What could you say?

  She sat for a minute and then got out of the car and walked the two blocks back to the store and found Audrey again. She walked over and took her hand. “You know, Audrey,” she said, “I don’t know if I ever told you this, but you have no idea how much you meant to me, how much you helped when I was growing up, always being so sweet and making me feel special, and I just want to thank you.”

  Audrey looked at her and said, “Oh, darling, you were always so easy to be sweet to.” Then Audrey glanced around the room. “Listen, I know you’re in a hurry, but can I grab you for a second?” And for the next thirty minutes, Maggie was pulled around the store, from one department to the other, while Audrey introduced her to everyone who worked there, including a few clueless customers who just happened to be standing around, waiting to pay for something. “This is Margaret Fortenberry,” she announced, beaming as if she were introducing the Queen of England to her subjects. “The night she won Miss Alabama, wouldn’t you know it, I was home sick in bed with the flu and couldn’t go to the pageant, but the very first person she called after it was over was me. I’ve known her since she was ten years old, and she was the sweetest little thing, always so well behaved.” Audrey said this to people Maggie was sure couldn’t care less about meeting some old beauty-pageant winner, but they were at least polite. It was embarrassing, but she could see it meant a lot to Audrey, so she was happy to stand there and shake hands.

  As Maggie drove back home, she felt a little better about herself; Audrey had been the first person she had called that night. Maggie began to wonder why Audrey was still working. Where was her family? Did Audrey have a decent place to live? After a while, she moaned and started talking to herself: “Oh Lord, don’t start. You can’t help Audrey—you can’t even help yourself.” And why did those panty hose have to be A petite and not regular? Why had she run into that particular store? She could have just as easily run out to Walmart and picked up a cheap pair, but no, she had to have the more sheer and expensive kind. As she drove home, she decided to leave Audrey her Miss Alabama crown and sash and trophy.

  Later, after Maggie had finished packing up all her jewelry and her mink stole and had everything ready to go, she called Boots and told her about the things she wanted to donate to the costume department. Boots was just thrilled and said she would have her guys pick them up first thing Monday morning. When Maggie hung up, she felt good about giving them the clothes. Hazel would have been so pleased. Hazel had always just loved the theater.

  The Night-Before Preparations

  BRENDA WAS BUSY ROOTING AROUND IN HER FAT AS A HOG SECTION, looking for just the right thing to wear to the theater tomorrow night. She had already picked out her wig. Something simple and stylish, but with a flip. Maggie would look drop-dead gorgeous as usual, but Brenda’s intent, since she was planning ahead for her political career, was to start now to affect a bold look. An outfit that screamed confidence. She settled on a smart button-up dark green number she had picked up in the Ladies Plus Size department at a dress shop at the mall.

  ACROSS TOWN, MAGGIE was packing up the last of her jewelry when she found a penny Hazel had given her years ago. She couldn’t help but smile when she remembered the day.

  Hazel had just received an award as Woman of the Year from the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, and as she and Maggie pulled out of the parking lot of the Downtown Club she said, “You know, Mags, I’m smart as a whip and a darn good businesswoman.”

  Maggie laughed. “Well … yes, I agree … even if you do say so yourself.”

  Hazel laughed. “I didn’t mean it that way. What I mean is that besides being naturally smart and working hard at it, there’s another reason I’ve been so successful in my life, something I’ve never told anyone before.”

  “What’s that?”

  “Luck.”

  “Luck, really?”

  “Oh, yes. You know, honey, when I was pulling weeds for a living, I found an awful lot of four-leaf clovers. Why, over the years, I must have found thousands. Imagine how much good luck that is!”

  “Quite a lot, I would say.”

  “You bet. Plus finding all my lucky pennies, and you have to admit, aren’t I just the luckiest person you know? And what amazes me is that most people don’t even bother to look for lucky pennies. I look for them everywhere I go, and I find them, too. It never fails. If I find a lucky one, wham! I get a check in the mail the next day.”

  “But, Hazel, don’t you think you would still get that check even if you didn’t find a penny?”

  “No, it’s the pennies. Don’t you look?”

  “I thought if you ran across one by accident, it was lucky. I didn’t know you were supposed to look for them.”

  “Sure you are! Listen, babe, you have to search for your luck; it’s nice if it just falls in your lap, but I look for my lucky pennies. Last year, I found three brand-new pennies, heads up, out at the mall, and the very next day, we got the Park Towers account. Biggest sales of the year!”

  “What do you do with all your pennies?”

  “I give them away. It’s good to spread your luck around, and it always comes back to you. Here, I want to give you something.” She reached inside her purse and handed Maggie a brand-new penny. “This is for you; stick it in your bra, and something good will happen.”

  “Do you think so?”

  Hazel looked at her with a twinkle in her eye and patted her hand. “You keep that penny, a
nd I guarantee you someday, when you least expect it, something good is going to happen; you just wait and see. And when it does … think of your lucky penny, and just remember I told you so.”

  “What’s going to happen? Tell me now.”

  “Oh no,” she said, looking up in the air innocently, “that’s for me to know and you to find out. Just stick it in your bra, and don’t ask questions.”

  “Hazel, you are a real character.”

  Hazel broke out in a big grin. “I am, aren’t I? Sometimes, I just get the biggest kick out of myself. I just never know what I’m liable to do next. Little Harry said he thought I was the most interesting person he ever met. And I don’t even try. I just am, I guess,” she agreed as she slid her huge car into a parking space that Maggie couldn’t have parked in if her life depended on it. She had failed Driver’s Ed in high school, twice in a row.

  The only reason Maggie even had a driver’s license in the first place was because of Hazel. Hazel’s cousin Jimmy worked at the DMV, and the day she’d taken her driving test, Hazel had come along. When Maggie parked at least three feet from the curb, Hazel opened the back door and looked down and declared, “Close enough.” Jimmy must have agreed, because he passed her with flying colors.

  Why Ethel Hated Babs

  IT CERTAINLY APPEARED AS IF NOTHING EVER BOTHERED HAZEL; SHE said she never got depressed. Still, Maggie always wondered. Hazel’s life couldn’t have been easy. One day, Maggie had asked Ethel if she thought Hazel was really as happy as she seemed to be. Ethel had sat back in her chair, thought it over, and said, “Frankly, I think Hazel is not only happy being who she is, I think she’s just tickled to death over it. In fact, I’ve never met a person—man, woman, or child—who has such a high opinion of herself. Hazel Whisenknott thinks she hung the moon.” Then Ethel had shrugged. “And who knows? Maybe she did. The point is, don’t ever feel sorry for Hazel—she doesn’t.”

  And it was true; in all the years she’d worked for her, Ethel had never heard Hazel complain or get upset about anything … except once, a few years before she died.

  Hazel was busy trying to get an account, and after she’d put in months of hard work, preparing presentation after presentation, flying back and forth to Chicago in the dead of winter and again a few days before the deal was to be finalized, the company called and said they were sorry, but they had decided to go with another firm. A week later, Hazel found out that Babs Bingington had gotten the account.

  Within a few days, Hazel was sick in bed (with what would later turn out to be pneumonia) and called Ethel over to her house. She told her to close the door of the bedroom, then asked in a worried whisper, “Ethel, tell me the truth. Am I over the hill? Am I losing my touch?”

  “No … you haven’t lost your touch. It’s that Babs Bingington that’s causing you to lose those accounts. It’s not you.”

  “Do you think so?”

  “Yes. I don’t know what she’s doing; she could be sleeping with the entire board of directors, but she’s doing something underhanded.”

  “It could be she’s just a better businesswoman than me.”

  “Listen, Hazel, I’ve been working for you for over forty years, and I wouldn’t lie to you. You have not lost your touch.”

  “Really?”

  “Absolutely, I swear it on my purple hair.”

  Hazel laughed, and after that, she never mentioned it again. But to this day, Ethel blamed Babs Bingington for helping wreck Hazel’s health. The doctor said later that the pneumonia had weakened her little heart.

  Ethel was right, of course. When Babs had found out that Hazel was just about to close the deal, she had pushed and shoved and manipulated her way into a meeting with the company’s three head men and had pulled the same trick she’d played before: telling them she had privileged information and yes, it was so sad, Hazel seemed like such a delightful person, but she was about to be brought up on federal charges of fraud, bribery, and taking kickbacks from developers. When the men had queried Babs about the pending charges against Hazel, Babs had sounded pretty convincing. She should have. She had committed every one of them at one time or another. Before she left, she tearfully advised them, “For your own good and for your company’s protection, break off negotiations now, before your company is dragged into it.”

  After she was gone, the men looked at one another. They didn’t know if she knew what she was talking about, but they all agreed that in this litigious climate and with business being as shaky as it was, they couldn’t afford to take a chance. Too bad. They had really liked the little lady from Birmingham.

  If Hazel’s secret of success had been finding lucky pennies, Babs’s secret had been fear. She had discovered early on in her career what a powerful tool just the threat of being sued could be. She kept two mean little lawyers on staff at all times for just such a purpose. She’d found that people would do just about anything to avoid being dragged into a lawsuit.

  Ethel had never been able to find out exactly how Babs had stolen the account, but she still blamed Babs for Hazel getting so sick that winter. Hazel was more than an employer to her. When Ethel had first met Hazel, Ethel’s husband, Earl, had just left her with no money and two small children to raise. Thanks to Hazel’s hiring her, they had not had to go on welfare, like some. As far as Ethel was concerned, Babs had helped kill the best friend she’d ever had. And then believe it or not, Babs had had the nerve to come to Hazel’s funeral and hand out business cards.

  The Night of the Whirling Dervishes

  Sunday, November 2, 2008

  BY SUNDAY, MAGGIE HAD MANAGED TO GET ALL OF HER EQUIPMENT, raft, weights, and rooster egg timer down to the river’s edge in two trips and had hidden it all quite effectively. So far, everything was in her favor for an all clear for her departure the next morning; no unexpected detours. The place she had picked was still deserted, and as it turned out, fall was the perfect season for hiding her equipment in the woods. With the leaves and pine needles on the ground, she had been able to cover all her supplies with no problem. Things were looking good.

  All of her belongings were mostly packed and ready to go. She had been able to quietly clean out her desk and had shredded all her papers and old photographs without Brenda or Ethel noticing. After all these years, she had finally figured out how to work the shredding machine. It was amazing the things you could do when you really put your mind to it.

  She was right on schedule; earlier this morning, she had run over to the pay phone in front of the Western Supermarket and ordered her cab for Monday at ten A.M. Of course, she couldn’t use her real name. The man had a foreign accent, so she gave her name as Doris Day. She had the car washed and filled with gas, had air put in the tires, the oil and water checked, so it could go back to the leasing company just as it had been delivered, neat and clean, with all the proper papers in the glove compartment. All she really had left to do now was get ready to go and see the Whirling Dervishes.

  That night, Brenda picked her up at seven on the dot. Why she always wanted to get somewhere an hour early was beyond Maggie, but she was dressed and ready anyway. No need to make Brenda nervous; she wanted Brenda to have a wonderful time tonight. As usual, Brenda rushed them downtown and parked in the theater parking lot, and they were in the lobby by seven-fifteen, waiting for the doors to open. True to his word, Cecil had left two tickets for them at the box office, and when Brenda opened the envelope, she was even more excited. “Maggie, you are not going to believe this: we have two first-row seats! Isn’t that great? I guess we won’t need the binoculars I brought.”

  “No, I guess not.”

  As they stood there, Maggie looked around the lobby of the Alabama Theatre and felt the same old pride and wonder. Thank heavens, because of concerned citizens at the last minute it had been saved from the wrecking ball and had been completely restored. Hazel and their company had donated five thousand dollars. She still remembered the first time she had ever seen it and being utterly overwhelmed, awed
at the spectacle of the four-story lobby with the huge crystal chandeliers heading up the grand staircase, the ushers in uniforms wearing white gloves. The theater had originally been designed as an opera house, with plush red velvet seats and five sweeping balconies rising all the way to the top. Maggie had seen the theater from the stage, as well as from the audience. It was the stage where she had been crowned. As she stood there waiting for Brenda to come back from the ladies room, she remembered that night: the nervous excitement as they lined up, ready to walk out on the runway as their names were called; the smell of hair spray, the rib-crushing longline strapless bras, the four-inch-high heels, the sparkle of the rhinestone earrings, the blinding light of the powerful spotlights from the booth way up in the top of the theater; the thunderous applause as the million-dollar Hammond organ rose up from the floor and hit the first deep chord of “Stars Fell on Alabama,” the spotlights hitting them as they circled the runway; the backstage running and scurrying, changing from evening gown to bathing suit to talent-number costume and back to evening gown; the squeals and screams of delight when the winner was announced. She realized it was very fitting that she spend her last night here.

  At seven forty-five the doors were opened, and as they marched down the aisle to the first row and found their seats and sat down, Maggie realized that although they were in the front row the seats were not very good. In fact, they were terrible. She had to lean way back and look straight up in the air just to see the edge of the stage. But Brenda didn’t notice. She was so excited to be there and had turned around and was waving at friends and strangers alike in the balcony. The good news was that the entire house was packed. Maggie was happy to see that everyone was beautifully dressed. The last time she had been in New York, people had come to Broadway shows in jeans and sweatshirts, but good old Birmingham had not let her down this evening. Later, when the curtain finally started to rise, a hush went through the entire audience, but after it was up, Maggie was shocked to see that except for a row of wooden folding chairs, the stage was empty. She had been expecting exotic backdrops and colorful sets. After an uneasy two minutes, Brenda suddenly poked her in the ribs and whispered, “Look, there they are.”

 
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