I Still Dream About You: A Novel, page 2
When she was eleven, she had seen a photograph of the Whirling Dervishes in one of her father’s National Geographic magazines, and they had looked like something right out of the Arabian Nights, so exotic in their tall cone hats and long swirling skirts. And seeing them the night before she left for good would be a nice send-off for her and certainly make more of an occasion out of it. Besides, it was so important to support the arts, but most of all, she wanted to do something nice for Brenda, as a sort of farewell gift. It was the least she could do for a good friend. She picked up the phone and dialed.
“Listen, Brenda, when you speak to Cecil, ask him if it’s possible to get us seats in the middle, and if he could, to try to get us as far up front as he can. We want to get a close look at their outfits.”
Brenda said, “Don’t worry. If Cecil knows you’re coming, they’ll be good seats. But I’m bringing my binoculars so we can get a really good look at them, okay?”
“Oh, I’m so excited! Hey, Maggie—what do you suppose they wear when they are not in their twirling outfits?”
“Oh gosh, honey, I don’t have a clue.”
“Me neither. I just can’t wait until November the second. Can you? I’m so glad we’re going. Yeah!”
Maggie smiled. “Well … I’m glad you’re glad.”
“See you tomorrow.”
“Yes, you certainly will,” said Maggie.
Something to Look Forward To
BRENDA WAS SO HAPPY ABOUT SEEING THE WHIRLING DERVISHES, she almost did a little dance in her kitchen. Now they had something fun and interesting to look forward to, and God knows they deserved it. She was under a lot of stress. Real estate was going to hell in a handbasket, and they were predicting that prices hadn’t hit bottom yet. It seemed all they did every weekend was hold open houses on every midlist tired old dog on the market and watch the really good high-end “over the mountain” listings, properties that even had a chance of selling, get snatched up by their main competitor, Babs Bingington. (Not her real name, as Brenda was quick to point out to anyone who didn’t know.) Babs had only made it up because it sounded good in her slogan, “For the best in Birmingham, call Babs Bingington Realty”—a slogan that, along with her photograph, Babs had plastered on every shopping cart, billboard, and bus stop bench in town. But in local real estate circles, Babs was known as the Beast of Birmingham.
By now, everyone knew just how ruthless she was. She would stop at nothing to steal a client. It was said she had married and divorced two of them just to get their listings. Ethel Clipp, their office manager, often said that Hazel Whisenknott, the beloved founder of their company, would just be turning over in her grave if she knew the lack of real estate ethics going on in town today. Hazel had built Red Mountain Realty’s reputation on a code of honesty and ethics; Hazel had even been one of the founders of the Better Business Bureau of Birmingham, for God’s sake! But ethics weren’t helping them much in today’s market. In the past six months, they hadn’t had enough sales to cover their advertising, much less make a profit or pay the office rent. How Maggie managed to remain so cool, calm, and collected was a wonder to Brenda, but most things about Maggie were. With all the mean backbiting and cutthroat tactics going on all around her, Maggie never got ruffled or said an unkind word about anybody. Brenda guessed it just must be easier for someone like Maggie not to let anything bother her. But then again, why should she? Maggie was tall, thin, and beautiful, with those perfect teeth and that thick straight hair she could just whip up in a ponytail and still look like a million dollars. And Maggie didn’t have a single living relative pulling on her night and day. Brenda had so many brothers, sisters, and nieces and nephews always wanting money for this and that nonsense that she could hardly save a dime, much less buy that fifty-inch high-definition television set out at Costco she had her eye on. Sometimes, she had to laugh when she thought about Maggie, always so perfectly groomed, never a hair out of place, always so pleasant, just floating along through life on a pink cloud. She didn’t know how lucky she was, and you couldn’t explain it to her if you tried; she had the world by the tail. Brenda just wished she could be more like her.
AFTER MAGGIE HUNG up with Brenda, she opened the desk drawer and found a small bottle of Wite-Out and changed the date on her letter to November 3 and continued writing the letter where she had left off.
… have been depressed for quite some time, I was always so proud of being from Alabama and extremely grateful to have been given the honor and the privilege of representing my state in the Miss America Pageant.
Margaret Anne Fortenberry
She usually added a little smiley face to her signature, but she didn’t think it would be appropriate here, so she just left it plain. She then looked it over for any spelling mistakes, because you couldn’t be sure where it might eventually end up. After rereading it a few more times, she felt she had made her points; she had offered some information, but not too much. It wasn’t her intention to be mysterious, but in her case, some things were best left unsaid. She was sorry the letter had to be so generic and impersonal, but she couldn’t address it to either Brenda or Ethel and tell them not to open it until a certain date without having them become suspicious. And she certainly couldn’t trust Brenda not to open it. Her sister Robbie said that last year, Brenda had opened all her Christmas presents even before Robbie had a chance to wrap them. Also, Maggie knew that if, for any reason, they found out what she was planning, they would try to talk her out of it. It was sweet of them, of course, but often, well-meaning friends try to stop people from doing things that in the long run are really best for everyone.
Although she wasn’t particularly pleased with all the wording, she did feel the overall message was clear. “I’m leaving. I have my reasons. Don’t look for me.” But she wasn’t a fool. She knew, no matter how hard she tried to make it easy on everybody, some people were still going to be shocked. They would wonder, “Why? When she seemed so happy?” Which was true. She had always tried to appear happy. Some might ask, “Why? When she could have had any man she wanted?” Not quite true. And besides, after Richard, she didn’t want anyone else. Or “Why? When she was so pretty?” And no question about it, being pretty is grand while it lasts, but good looks alone don’t bring you happiness; an awful lot of perks, yes, but not a good enough reason to go on. And some would be disappointed that she hadn’t gone into greater detail about her reasons, but she had them. Just last week, she had jotted down sixteen perfectly good reasons, and she was sure there were many more she hadn’t thought of yet.
Still, she hated leaving people up in the air. But what could she possibly have said? She couldn’t tell them the truth. So, it was best to just bow out gracefully and be grateful she had at least accomplished a few of her goals. She had never smoked, cursed, raised her voice in public, or received a traffic citation or a parking ticket—no mean feat, considering she still couldn’t parallel park after years of trying. But now, at age sixty, too young to retire and not smart enough to learn a new profession, what was the point? It was obvious that the best of her life was behind her. So, why continue to struggle? Toward what?
Without Hazel, life had become as hard as trying to balance a stick on her nose and juggle six rings in the air while standing on one leg on a big rubber ball. There were times she just wanted to go stark raving mad and run down the street naked, screaming at the top of her lungs, but of course, she couldn’t do that. Not in this day and age, when everybody and his brother had a camera on his phone. There was no privacy left in the world anymore. Somebody was sure to get a photograph of her and put it on YouTube, and something like that could wind up on the Internet for years.
Brenda was lucky. She still had a lot of goals left. Just last week, she announced she wanted to run for mayor of Birmingham and fire the entire city council. Brenda had ambition and a family who cared about her. Even Ethel Clipp, who they said was at least eighty (nobody knew for sure)
She was simply, quietly and discreetly, and with as little fanfare as possible, leaving life a little earlier than expected, that’s all. An extreme avoidance tactic (perhaps), an inability to face reality (of course), a preemptive blow against old age (most certainly). But on the positive side, by leaving now, she would be saving the government an awful lot of Social Security money down the line; making much less of a carbon footprint; using less oxygen, gas, water, food, plastics, and paper goods; and there would be fewer used coffee grounds in the garbage. Al Gore should certainly appreciate it.
She put the letter in the envelope and placed it in the drawer, underneath the stack of old telephone bills, and was reminded that she had to make sure the rest of her bills and credit cards were paid off before she left. She never wanted to give anyone the chance to say that a former Miss Alabama was a deadbeat. She sat up and glanced around the room. Although none of the furniture was hers, she still had a few little personal items to get rid of, but that was about it.
Dear God, from where she had started out, after all she had aspired to be, where she had actually ended up had come to Maggie as a complete surprise. It was clear now that she had seen far too many movies as a child … and had just naturally expected a happy ending.
The Ice Cream Incident
AFEW MINUTES LATER, BRENDA WAS ACROSS TOWN WITH A SPOON, eating out of the pint of her sister Robbie’s mint chocolate chip ice cream, ice cream she was not supposed to be eating, having been diagnosed as prediabetic, but she needed to celebrate. Besides, Robbie, an emergency room nurse, was working at the hospital and wouldn’t be home until nine. She was only going to eat a little around the edges of the carton, then mash it around, and Robbie would never know the difference anyway. Brenda was deep in thought. Surely, when the Whirling Dervishes were not whirling, they had to wear regular clothes, at least when they traveled. They couldn’t fit on a plane in those tall cone hats, particularly not on the small jets where the ceilings were so low, but maybe they traveled in buses like the country-western stars did. Buses had tall ceilings. But then, she realized, they couldn’t take a bus all the way from Turkey, and so they had to fly sometimes or maybe they took a boat. She glanced over at the photograph in the newspaper again, and those tall hats looked very heavy to her. She began to wonder how much they weighed or if the Dervishes ever got headaches from wearing them, and before she knew it, Brenda looked down and saw that she had gone through half the pint of Robbie’s ice cream.
Oh, damn it! There was no way she could hide that now. She was going to have to run out to the convenience store and buy a new pint to replace it. The last time she had done this, she’d filled the carton with water, but when Robbie had opened it and seen that it was mostly ice, she had suspected something. Brenda turned the carton over and looked to see if Robbie had put a mark on the bottom. Robbie was on to all her ice cream tricks and sometimes put an X on the bottom to try to catch her, but there was no mark on this one. Good. She couldn’t afford to get caught cheating on her diet again.
She had been caught red-handed just three months ago, and with Robbie being a nurse and worried about Brenda’s health, it had not been a pretty scene. Even though Robbie was her younger sister by seven years, she was very bossy. She was also much taller than Brenda was and as skinny as a rail. Unfortunately, Brenda had taken after their mother’s side of the family and was only five foot five, and at the moment, she was at her medium weight of around 166 pounds. Her good weight was 150 pounds, and 178 pounds was her top. Consequently, Brenda had three different sets of clothes hanging in her closet, labeled GOOD, MEDIUM, and FAT AS A HOG. She had not been in her GOOD range since Hazel Whisenknott had died, over five years ago. “I eat out of stress,” she told Robbie, and now, between work and nephews driving her crazy, she was just on the verge of having to switch from her MEDIUM to her FAT AS A HOG wardrobe again, which meant she was going to have to switch shoe sizes as well. Robbie said she was the only person in America who gained weight in her feet.
Brenda went ahead and finished the last of the ice cream and wrapped the empty carton in tin foil and hid it at the bottom of the garbage can under the sink. She rinsed off the spoon, dried it, and put it back in the silverware drawer, then picked up the stalk of bananas in the bowl on the counter. She took a carton of milk out of the refrigerator and grabbed the new box of Cheerios from under the counter and put them in a paper bag, put her new Tina Turner wig back on, grabbed her purse, and headed out the door. She didn’t want to go out, but if she got caught eating ice cream again, there would be all hell to pay, especially after what had happened just three months ago.
When she and Maggie had found out that the house they had in escrow and had worked long and hard to sell had major structural problems and the buyer had backed out, Brenda had been very upset. Not only had they lost the sale, but she was hoping to buy that new fifty-inch television set with her part of the commission. Brenda knew darn well she shouldn’t have done it, but that afternoon, she had driven over to a part of town where no one knew her (and Robbie was unlikely to see her) and stopped at an ice cream place. She went in and ordered a large hot fudge sundae with whipped cream, three cherries, and nuts on top. She was heading back to her car with it when, suddenly, a boy ran up and tried to snatch her purse right off her arm. The good news was that he didn’t get her purse, but the bad news was that the next morning, the entire incident wound up being reported in the Birmingham News.
* * *
HOT FUDGE SUNDAE FENDS OFF ROBBER
Miss Brenda Peoples of 1416 Second Court South said she was in no mood to give up her purse to a “would-be purse snatcher” and fought him off with a large white plastic dish containing a hot fudge sundae she was holding at the time. A bystander who witnessed the incident said that she “whaled the living tar out of him.” When the police arrived at the Foster’s Freeze parking lot where the altercation occurred, they reported that although not seriously injured, the 18-year-old perpetrator was “a real mess.”
* * *
Everyone who read the article thought it was the funniest thing that had happened since a man tried to hold up the Alabama First National Bank with a live lobster, but Brenda had been furious that they had printed her name in the paper. Not only had Robbie found out that she was cheating, but also, she had been attending Weight Watchers at the time, and thanks to that nosy reporter, everyone in her group found out, so she never went back. She told Maggie that if she had known they were going to put her name in the papers, she would have just given the fool her purse and finished her hot fudge sundae in peace.
The only consolation she had was that after the attempted purse snatching, the ice cream people made her a new sundae, free of charge, to replace the one she had used as a weapon. Of course, this was something she did not mention to Robbie.
Upon Further Reflection
THE MORE MAGGIE THOUGHT ABOUT IT, THE MORE SHE GUESSED she shouldn’t have been so surprised how her life had turned out, considering all the really bad decisions she had made. Oh Lord, why hadn’t she married Charles Hodges III when he’d asked her? His parents had adored her, and she had liked them. They had been wonderful to her. On her birthday, they had taken her to the Birmingham Club, atop Red Mountain, and she had been enthralled with its rotating glass dance floor of colored lights, where beautifully dressed people sat at ringside tables and drank exotic cocktails, and Miss Margo played piano every evening in the Gold Room, overlooking the city. Charles was a tall blond boy with blue eyes and skin as pretty as a girl’s.
The night Charles had asked her to marry him, he had taken her there for dinner and had planned such a lovely evening. She had just been crowned Miss Alabama, and when she walked in, the band played “Stars Fell on Alabama” in her honor.
It had been a magical year. She and Charles had been the golden couple and had gone to so many parties and dances that summer. Charles was a wonderful dancer and looked so handsome in his tux and black patent leather shoes with the bows. She had loved how he felt when they danced. He had held her so tight that she could feel the warm dampness of his body through his jacket. He held her so close, it was hard to tell where he ended and she began. When she came home at night, the smell of his cologne would still linger all over her and her clothes for hours afterward. She had been too young to know that the magic of that summer wouldn’t last forever. She thought there was plenty of time for everything.
And if she hadn’t married Charles, she should have at least kept up her harp lessons. But she had only learned to play two songs before she stopped. Two had been enough to win Miss Alabama, but she couldn’t make a decent living playing “Tenderly” and “Ebb Tide” over and over again. And why had she chosen the harp in the first place? It was almost impossible to travel with. Why not the piccolo, the flute, or the violin? She’d never been very good on the harp, but she had learned to do a lot of large swirling movements that made her look and sound much better than she was. Even her harp teacher had remarked, “What you lack in natural musical talent, dear, you make up for in flair and style.” It was the story of her life and probably how she had survived this long: with a little talent and a lot of flair. Few people realized she owned only six or seven really fine suits and dresses, but they all had style. Thanks to the designer discount malls and the fact that she could tie a scarf in over forty different and interesting ways, she had always managed to look good on the surface; what was inside, however, was a different story. She didn’t know why, but she had always been a little unsure of herself and for years had been second-guessing every decision with “I should have done that” or “I should have done this,” so afraid of doing something wrong, always looking for some sign from the universe to help her decide what to do, that she usually wound up doing nothing. But today at five-thirty, thank God, she had finally made a decision that felt exactly like the right one. What a relief.
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