I Still Dream About You: A Novel, page 3
Maggie walked down the hall and picked up the mail in the silver dish in the foyer. Nothing but junk and a flyer advertising Willow Lakes, a retirement community for active seniors; she threw it in the trash can. When she went into the kitchen and turned on the light, she saw a business card on the counter from Dottie Figge from Century 21 Realty, who must have shown her unit again today. Dottie was a hard worker and had brought the same couple from Texas through at least three times in the past three weeks. At present, there was only one two-bedroom unit for sale in the complex, but Maggie suddenly realized that her unit would be available after November 3. She should probably call Dottie tomorrow and give her a heads-up. She wouldn’t tell her which unit, only that one would be available soon. She liked Dottie. They had been in the Miss Alabama contest together. Dottie had played the trombone and tap-danced, but now she was just another struggling agent like herself, hanging on by a fingernail. Two years ago, Dottie had announced that she was no longer a Southern Baptist and had decided to “embrace the Eastern.” She said that if it had not been for OM Yoga and her daily devotionals to Goddess Guan Yin, she would not have been able to keep going. It had been a little strange at first, seeing hundreds of little Buddhist prayer flags flying at Dottie’s open houses and crystals everywhere, but she was so sweet. The last time Dottie had sold a unit in Maggie’s building, she had given Maggie a ying-yang bowl as a thank-you gift. She didn’t know exactly what you were supposed to do with a ying-yang bowl, but she didn’t want to hurt Dottie’s feelings by asking.
After Maggie poured herself a big glass of wine, she went into the living room and sat down, kicked off her shoes, and put her feet up on the coffee table. As she sipped her wine, she thought about what else needed to be done to make sure everything went smoothly from here on. She wanted to leave not only debt-free, but worry-free as well. She was too tired tonight; first thing in the morning, though, she would make out a “Things to Do Before I Go” list. She couldn’t trust herself to remember every detail unless she wrote it down. She didn’t know if it was because she was so tired, but lately, she had started forgetting things, like people’s names or the name of a certain movie star she used to love. Last week, she’d forgotten Tab Hunter’s name. He had always been one of her favorites; how could she ever forget him?
She took another sip of her wine and thought about the Whirling Dervishes again. Oh, Lord. She hoped the Arts and Lecture people wouldn’t put them at one of those big ugly convention hotels downtown. Hazel had always said, “People always come to Birmingham expecting the very worst, so it’s doubly important that they leave having seen the very best.” She looked at her watch. Too late to call Cathy at her office now. She would call in the morning, and if Cathy hadn’t booked a hotel yet, she might be able to casually suggest something with a little more local charm, like the Dinkler-Tutwiler or even one of the lovely guest cottages at the Mountain Brook Country Club. But they did have a strict dress code there, and other than the annual Scottish Society Dance, men in skirts might be frowned upon.
She took another sip of her wine. At least, one thing she didn’t have to worry about: she knew the Dervishes would be entertained royally while they were in Birmingham. Last year, when the opera singer Marilyn Horne came, she had received over sixty-five “Welcome to Birmingham” fruit baskets. People in Birmingham were famous for their friendliness and southern hospitality. If anything, some people said they were overly friendly, too eager to please, so much so that when visitors left town, they were usually so exhausted, they couldn’t wait to get back home and rest.
But besides just being friendly by nature, Maggie thought the other reason they fell all over themselves wanting so much for people to like them was that they were still trying to live down all the bad press Birmingham had received during the civil rights movement. It had been devastating. Even now, whenever there were racial problems anywhere in the world, it seemed they still drug out the same old newsreels of Birmingham and the dogs and the fire hoses and ran them over and over again. It broke her heart. Not because terrible things hadn’t happened. They had. But the press had made it seem like every single person in Birmingham was a foaming-at-the-mouth racist, and it just wasn’t true.
In her letter, she had used the word “depressed” because it was a word people easily understood. But the best word to describe how she really felt would be “sad.” Maggie had never told anyone what had happened to her in Atlantic City the year she was Miss Alabama, and she never would. People in Alabama, and Birmingham in particular, had heard enough bad things about themselves to last a lifetime.
The Lady with the Frozen Arm
BRENDA WAS STANDING IN THE FIVE POINTS CONVENIENCE STORE with her arm stuck deep inside the large freezer. In the past ten minutes, she had moved around what seemed to her to be a hundred cartons of ice cream, looking for a pint of mint chocolate chip. They had tons of rum raisin, coffee, butter pecan, vanilla, and strawberry. But not one pint of mint chocolate chip. Great. Not only was her entire right arm frozen until she couldn’t feel her fingers, but now she was going to have to drive all the way over to Bruno’s Supermarket out on the Green Springs Highway and try to find it there.
As she went across town, having to steer with her left arm because the right one was still numb, she became more and more irritated at Robbie. Why couldn’t she buy just plain chocolate or just plain vanilla ice cream? She liked vanilla. Why didn’t she buy vanilla? But no, she had to buy mint chocolate chip, a summer ice cream that Robbie knew darn well was hard to find in the fall. And when she knew Brenda would be tempted, why did she keep ice cream in the freezer in the first place? But then, there was something wrong with Robbie anyway. How could any normal person “forget” to eat lunch? It nearly drove Brenda crazy. Robbie never finished everything on her plate, and at her own birthday party, Robbie had eaten only half a piece of cake. Brenda had never eaten half a piece of anything in her life, and she didn’t understand those who could.
Thirty minutes later, when Brenda finally came out of Bruno’s Supermarket with a pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream, she struggled not to look to the right, because she knew the frozen yogurt place next door would still be open. But she was upset and stressed, and she needed something to calm her down, so after the shortest struggle known to man, she headed over. She figured since she had already eaten an entire pint of ice cream and blown her diet for the month anyway, she might as well get herself a small cone of nonfat sugar-free frozen yogurt. It couldn’t hurt now.
She walked in, took a ticket from the machine, and stood waiting in a long line, still mad at herself for eating Robbie’s ice cream. But then, it wasn’t all her fault—it was a family disease. For years, she had done nothing but fuss at her older sister, Tonya, for being an alcoholic and had even put together an intervention and paid to send her off to rehab—twice. But she was really no better; Tonya couldn’t have just one drink without going off on a bender, and evidently, she couldn’t have just one bit of ice cream. Oh, well. Tomorrow she would stop eating all sugar for one month.
As the line slowly moved up, she observed all the other fat people waiting with her and decided she would not have any bread or potato chips either. She had to lose that weight before next summer. Last summer had been pure hell; there was not enough talcum powder in the entire world to keep her from chafing in the hot, humid Alabama heat, and lately, her knees and her hips had started to ache from carrying all that weight. She had not mentioned any of this to Robbie, because she would just say, “I told you so.” It was pure hell living with a medical professional.
She looked up at the clock. It was already a quarter after eight. She had to get that ice cream back in the freezer by nine, and if that boy working behind the counter didn’t hurry up, she would have to leave before she got her cone. She just hoped Robbie wouldn’t come home early and decide to have some ice cream tonight of all nights. Chances were she wouldn’t, but with the way Brenda’s luck was running lately, you never knew. The minute the boy
Later, as Brenda drove into the garage, she saw Robbie’s car. Thank heavens she had hedged her bet and had the sack with the milk, cereal, and bananas with her so she could tell Robbie that’s why she had gone to the store. She put the pint of ice cream in her purse. She would stick that in the freezer later, after Robbie went to bed. When Brenda walked into the kitchen carrying the sack, Robbie, who was still in her scrubs, looked surprised.
“Hey, where did you go?”
“Oh, we needed a few things from the store, so I just ran out and picked them up.”
“Oh, what did we need?”
“Bananas, milk, and Cheerios,” she said as she put the things back where they had been earlier this evening.
Robbie looked puzzled. “That’s weird. I thought we had a bunch of bananas this morning. Didn’t we?”
Brenda didn’t want to be caught in a lie, and she remembered something Hazel had once said: “If you don’t want to answer a question, change the subject with great enthusiasm.” So, she immediately turned to Robbie and said with great enthusiasm, “Guess what? The Whirling Dervishes are coming to Birmingham!”
“The who?” asked Robbie.
Brenda quickly grabbed the paper and showed her the article, and to her relief, Robbie forgot about the bananas. God bless Hazel, gone five years and still saving the day.
Meanwhile, Back at Avon Terrace
ALTHOUGH MAGGIE WAS CERTAIN SHE HAD MADE THE RIGHT DECISION, she still wondered, Why today? Something must have triggered it. She thought back on a conversation she had had with Ethel earlier that afternoon.
WHEN MAGGIE HAD come back from lunch, Ethel had said, “God, I miss Hazel. After all this time, I still can’t believe she’s gone.”
Maggie agreed. “Me neither … every Sunday, I still expect her to call me up and say, ‘Hey, Mags, let’s go roaming.’ She loved to drive that big old car of hers all over town, doing things, and enjoying every minute of it.”
“Oh yes, no matter what she drug us through, she always had a good time.”
Maggie said, “Ethel, you knew her better than anybody. Do you think she ever got tired of being so cheerful and always on the go?”
Ethel shook her head. “Not for one minute … we got tired, but she didn’t, and it was exhausting. Remember all the things she got us into? The softball team, all the parties, the Easter egg hunts, the crazy trips. That woman kept me so busy, I had to get my divorce over the phone.”
“How did she keep it up, I wonder?”
“I don’t know, but she wore me out trying to keep up with her. We got older, but she didn’t. Do you remember when she made us all take hula lessons and march in the Do Dah Parade? My hips were sore for two months.”
Maggie had to be careful how she worded her next question. Ethel was very sensitive about her age. “Ethel … what’s the worst part of … uh … getting older … for you?”
“The worst part?”
Ethel thought for a moment. “Oh, I guess the older you get, the less you have to look forward to. When you’re young, you look forward to growing up and getting married and having children, and then you look forward to having them move out.”
MAGGIE SUDDENLY REALIZED that was it. Ethel had hit the nail right on the head. She had absolutely nothing to look forward to. Other than missing spring (the flowers and the dogwoods in Mountain Brook were so beautiful) and fall, when the leaves turned such pretty colors, she didn’t have a single reason to hang around.
Maggie looked down at her watch. It was already nine-fifteen. She figured she’d better eat something or else she would get a headache. She still had to work tomorrow, so she got up and went into the kitchen and pulled out a Stouffer’s frozen dinner, baked chicken breast, mashed potatoes, and vegetables, and stuck it in the oven. She never fixed anything at home except frozen dinners or pop-up waffles because (A) she didn’t want to have to clean up the kitchen and (B) although she could set a beautiful table and fold a napkin in over forty-eight different and interesting ways, she had never been very good at cooking. Not that she hadn’t tried. The first year she went to work for Hazel, she had attempted a small dinner party for the girls in the office, but the yeast rolls she served had not been fully cooked, and after the girls went home, the yeast in the rolls continued to rise, and later that night, all of them wound up at the University Hospital emergency room, except for Brenda, who felt fine. After that, Maggie just stopped cooking all together. But like everything, you paid a price. All the sodium in the frozen dinners made her hands swell.
As she sat and waited for her dinner to heat up, she picked up the New Age magazine Dottie had left for her with a Post-it note that said, “Great Stuff!!” She leafed through, but all she saw were pages of advertisements for yoga mats, meditation candles, and numerous self-help books: The Wisdom of Menopause, The Orgasmic Diet, How to Nurture Your Body and Your Libido at the Same Time, and one entitled 100 Secret Sexual Positions from Ancient Cultures Around the World. Good Lord. She didn’t want to hurt Dottie’s feelings, but this was not anything she was interested in, certainly not now, so she threw it in the trash can and picked up today’s newspaper.
Just as Brenda had said, on the front page of the Entertainment section was a large photograph of the Whirling Dervishes twirling in circles, and they looked exactly like something right out of a movie … but then, to Maggie, almost everybody did. Richard had looked exactly like Eddie Fisher.
When she first met Ethel Clipp, their office manager, with her thin purple hair that stood straight up on her head and her large purple-tinted glasses that made her eyes look twice as large, she had looked to Maggie exactly like an alien bug right out of a bad science fiction movie. In 1976, Ethel had had her colors done by a colorist out at the mall and had been told her best colors were purple and lavender, and she had worn nothing else since. Hazel had nicknamed Ethel “the Purple Flash.” She called Brenda “Thunderfoot,” because she said she could always hear her coming, and Maggie was “Magic City Girl.”
After Maggie finished dinner, she cleaned up after herself, put the glass and silverware in the dishwasher, and turned it on. She then went to the bedroom, undressed, took a hot bath, brushed her teeth, got into bed, and clicked on the television set to watch the news. As usual, it was all about the upcoming presidential election. Lately, people just said the ugliest things about one another. Then something dawned on her. She wouldn’t be here on November 4 to find out who won. So why watch? The news just upset her. It was always bad. And she had never cared much for politics. She wasn’t like Brenda, who was very involved in politics, or Ethel who was addicted to twenty-four-hour news. Ethel wanted all the news all the time. Not Maggie. She only watched so she could carry on a halfway intelligent conversation with her clients. But now, the idea of not having to watch seemed wonderful. So, she turned it off. And if anybody did ask her something in the next few days, she would just say, “I’m sorry, I don’t know.”
In truth, there were a lot of things Maggie wished she hadn’t known. Maggie was stunned at what people you just met would tell you about their personal lives. She had never discussed Richard with a living soul, much less a stranger. Maybe she was a prude, but to her, there had always been something so lovely, so civilized about not knowing the graphic details. She really preferred people to be a little more vague, but now, especially in real estate, you couldn’t afford to be vague or the least bit sensitive about anything. Today, in order to even stay in the game, you had to be tough, and in Babs’s case, ruthl
Just another reason she should have married Charles when he’d asked her, but she had been determined to go to New York and become rich and famous and make her state proud. The only problem: she hadn’t thought about how she would become rich and famous. She couldn’t sing, act, or dance, and with her obvious lack of musical talent, all she could really do was look good in clothes. But as she found out, in New York, at only five foot seven and a half, she was not tall enough to be a professional runway model. And after a year, the only modeling job she had been able to get was in the mezzanine tearoom at Neiman Marcus’s department store in Dallas. The other career she might have pursued was that of an airline stewardess, but back then, ex–Miss Alabamas did not become stewardesses; they married well and had 2.5 children.
Maggie could have married well. Most of the kids she had gone to high school with were from the old iron, coal, and steel families, and even though her parents were quite poor, there had been quite a few wealthy “over the mountain” boys who had tried to date her, but the only one she had liked was Charles.
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