I Still Dream About You: A Novel, page 4
When she had turned him down, he had been a complete gentleman and had not acted very upset, but she heard later that he had been to the point of almost drinking himself to death after she left for New York City. Why hadn’t he fought for her? Why hadn’t he insisted that she stay home? Why hadn’t he come after her? There was that moment in time, before she left New York City for Dallas, when, if he had come, she would have gladly headed for home. If he had, she would never have met Richard. Lord … why had Charles been so noble? Why had he been such a gentleman? Both their lives could have turned out so differently. But she guessed he couldn’t help being what he was any more than she could help being who she was: so incredibly stupid.
After she’d moved home from Dallas, she’d lived in fear and dread of running into Charles again, but thankfully, she hadn’t. Most people had been kind and not mentioned him at all. Only once had a girl she hardly knew, who had married a mutual friend of theirs, asked, “Do you ever hear from Charles Hodges?”
“No, I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Oh, we don’t either. All we know is that he married some Swiss banker’s daughter and moved there for good, I hear.”
She hoped Charles was happy. He deserved to be happy, just like she deserved to be as unhappy as she was. She had, after all, brought it all on herself.
THERE WERE A LOT OF PRETTY GIRLS IN BIRMINGHAM, BUT MAGGIE Fortenberry was one of those rare pretty girls who grew more beautiful the longer you looked at her, and Charles Hodges III, who could stare at her for hours, tried to figure out what set her apart from the others. He finally came to the conclusion that it was her eyes. There was an expression deep down in her brown eyes, something so sweet, so shy and vulnerable; it made him want to protect her from the whole world.
He had come from quite a social background and was able to converse with everyone, young and old, but around Maggie, he often found himself at a loss for words and, to his embarrassment, kept repeating, “God … you’re pretty.” But she was. Charles was an amateur photographer, and he had taken photograph after photograph of Maggie and found that no matter what angle he shot, it was impossible to get a bad picture of her. She didn’t have a bad side as far as he could see. But he was in love.
He must have been. That summer, he had driven Maggie and her harp from one event to the other, had gone to all the Miss Alabama affairs, and had stood in the back as people fluttered all around her. He didn’t mind; he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. And after a private talk with her father to get his blessing, he had spent hours selecting just the right ring for her. An entire evening was planned: dinner, dancing, and, later, the proposal.
Maggie didn’t know it, but his parents had already made a down payment on a house for them. After she said yes, he was planning to drive her up the mountain the next day and surprise her. His parents would be waiting inside with champagne to celebrate. But she had said no.
She had decided to go to New York first. He had been so torn about what to do. He didn’t want to stand in her way, but he also knew that if she went, she was sure to become famous, and he would never see her again.
The day she left for New York, he stood with her parents and smiled and waved, but as the train pulled out of the station, he knew he was losing her. He couldn’t blame her; she couldn’t help being who she was. But he didn’t think he would ever get over her. No wonder he stayed drunk for the next five years.
The Purple Flash
Monday, October 27, 2008, Midnight
LONG AFTER MAGGIE HAD TURNED OFF HER LIGHT, ETHEL CLIPP WAS Still sitting up in bed in her purple flannel nightgown with the cats on it, rolling up her thin purple hair in bobby pins, busy clicking from local news to CNN and Fox TV and back. At this point, Ethel didn’t care who won the presidential election. She didn’t like either candidate. Still, she wanted to know what was going on, so she could have something to complain about in the morning. Of course, Brenda was all hoo-ha for Barack Obama, and Maggie never discussed politics, so she didn’t know who Maggie was voting for. She herself hadn’t liked anybody since Harry Truman. In fact, she hadn’t liked much of anything since 1948 and was quick to tell you about it. Ethel could be a little blunt at times. She was quite a bit older than she cared to admit (eighty-eight last May), was deaf in one ear, and had terrible arthritis in both knees, but regardless of her age, she never missed a day of work at Red Mountain Realty. She liked work. It kept her heart going. She supposed some people looked forward to retiring and traveling, but not her. There was a time when people traveled for pleasure, but as far as Ethel was concerned, there was nothing pleasurable about it anymore.
She used to like to take the train, but since the government took that over, what was once gracious dining with white linen tablecloths and fine silver was now just a snack bar full of people in flip-flops eating bad microwaved sandwiches, drinking beer and Diet Snapple. And forget flying. Standing in those long lines, being prodded and poked to a fare-thee-well, treated like a criminal. Hell, she didn’t want to take her shoes off in front of strangers and stick them in some dirty plastic tub. Years ago, when you took a plane, you were served a fully cooked hot meal: roast beef and gravy or lobster with a nice wine and a dessert. Now it was just water and a bag of peanuts. And even if your plane was on time, there were no more redcaps to help you with your luggage anymore. At the end of her last flight, when she’d tried to grab her bag, she had been dragged halfway around the carousel, and if that man hadn’t caught her, there was no telling where she would have ended up. And then it hadn’t even been her suitcase. They had lost hers. How a bag clearly marked Birmingham, Alabama, could wind up in Butte, Montana, on an entirely different airline was beyond her. And God knows you couldn’t drive anywhere with all of the big eighteen-wheeler trucks running up your behind, blowing their horns, and scaring you half to death. And even if you did make it to where you were going without having been squashed along the side of the road, it wasn’t the same. Years ago, when you checked into your hotel, they used to be happy to see you and say, “Welcome!” Now it was just some kid behind a desk who didn’t even look at you. No hello, just “Do you have a reservation?” So, she was staying home.
Besides, she couldn’t go anywhere anyway. As long as Maggie and Brenda were willing to hang in and keep Red Mountain Realty going, she would hang in there with them. And with Babs (the Beast of Birmingham) Bingington circling around their office like a big shark, Ethel needed to be on guard twenty-four hours a day. She already suspected a few things, and she’d be damned if she’d let Babs pull the same dirty rotten tricks on Maggie as she had on Hazel.
Ethel was a Christian and all that, but she still couldn’t forgive Babs for what she had done to Hazel. She was working on it, but so far, no luck.
BABS (THE BEAST OF BIRMINGHAM) HAD BLOWN INTO TOWN YEARS ago from New Jersey and by her second year there, was already a member of the Diamond Club and had been the city’s top producer of sales for six years in a row. A dynamo in business, yes, but it would be more than generous to say that Babs wasn’t a nice person. She didn’t even have the courtesy to fake being nice—unless, of course, she was with a client. Babs not only had two faces, she had two voices as well. When dealing with her employees or with other agents, she snapped orders in a loud, nasal tone that could crack ice, but with clients, she always used some fake oozy, syrupy voice, her attempt at a southern drawl that Brenda said was enough to gag a maggot. They say that eventually, everyone gets the face they deserve, and in her case, it was true. Someone (Ethel) once said that Babs looked exactly like a well-dressed wharf rat, a terribly cruel thing to say, but accurate. With her tight little beady eyes, tight little face, and long sharp nose, there was definitely a rodent vibe going on somewhere. Once, at a Women in Real Estate cocktail party, when Babs had been across the room nibbling on a piece of cheese, Ethel had poked Brenda and said, “See, I told you she was a rat.” But Brenda said she though
And it wasn’t just her looks that Ethel objected to: it was the harsh way she conducted business and her loud and crass advertising style. Babs’s company used ads written in big bold headlines that screamed at you:
HURRY! HURRY! HURRY!
WON’T LAST LONG!
RUN, DON’T WALK!
BRING YOUR TOOTHBRUSH!
Whereas Maggie’s ads used more subtle terms like “Prepare to fall in love,” “Elegance of the past,” “A house to build a dream on,” or “Your lovely new home awaits you.” When Maggie wrote ads for less expensive homes, she said, “A rare opportunity for the discriminating buyer,” “Adorable and affordable,” or “Perfect for the first-time buyer and those wishing to scale down.” Babs’s ads for the same homes screamed at you:
CHEAP! CHEAP! CHEAP!
A REAL STEAL!
GRAB IT WHILE YOU CAN!
A LOT OF BANG FOR YOUR BUCK!
Maggie’s ads for the high-end, upper-market, “over the mountain” homes and estates were especially discreet and simply stated, “Price upon request.” Babs’s idea of selling an expensive home was:
IF YOU HAVE TO ASK, YOU CAN’T AFFORD IT!
If Maggie’s ad said, “A large spacious home, perfect for the collector and gracious entertaining,” Babs’s said:
GOT ART? WALLS GALORE!
PLENTY OF ROOM TO PARTY!
Ethel said Babs was about as subtle and discreet as a Mack truck, but as the years went by and Babs Bingington’s office started outselling Red Mountain Realty’s office three to one, it was obvious that much of the public was responding, and it made Ethel so mad she could spit bullets.
By now, everybody in the business knew that Babs was taking kickbacks from some of the new real estate developers in town. When they saw a house on a lot they liked, usually one of the beautiful older homes, Babs would approach the owners and talk them into selling to the nice young couple she hired to pretend to be the buyers. And then, after it was sold and escrow closed, the next day, the developers would move in and bulldoze the existing house down to the ground and, almost overnight, throw up a cheaply built, brand-new six- or seven-thousand-square-foot, bright orange, fake Mediterranean-style mega-mansion that looked to Maggie like a giant Taco Bell. And, as Ethel often said, “What the hell does Mediterranean style have to do with Birmingham anyway?”
Sleepless in Mountain Brook
MAGGIE TRIED TO SLEEP, BUT SHE KEPT THINKING ABOUT ALL THE things she had to do to get ready to leave on the third. She had already decided she would donate all her clothes and jewelry to the little community theater around the corner. Her neighbor Boots volunteered in the costume department and said they were always in need of clothes. Everything else—sheets, blankets, towels, dishes, pots and pans—would go to the Salvation Army, but she was still unsure about what to do with her Miss Alabama trophy and her sash and crown. And what about all her family photographs and newspaper clippings? She didn’t know anyone who would want them, but she didn’t want them to wind up at some garage sale either. She supposed she should probably take them down to the office and put them in the big paper shredder in the back room, if she could figure out how to work the thing. The last time she had tried, it had shredded one of her good scarves into a hundred pieces.
After Maggie tossed and turned for another half hour, she finally gave up and went into the kitchen and made herself a cup of tea and started her “Things to Do Before I Go” list:
Cancel subscriptions to Southern Living, Veranda, and Southern Lady magazines
Drop a hint to Dottie about unit becoming available
Clean out desks at home and work, all drawers and closets
Decide what to do with crown and trophy
Buy cardboard boxes
Pack up clothes for theater
Go to Walmart
Close out checking account
Pay off all credit cards, except MasterCard
Finish going through papers
Send whatever money left to Visiting Nurses and the Humane Society
She hoped there would be some money left over. The visiting nurses had been so helpful with her parents, and although she had never been able to keep a pet where she lived, she had always loved animals.
She then walked down the hall and started pulling down some of the boxes from the top of the closet. She hadn’t gone through them for years, and she wasn’t sure how much she had, but she saw that she had three entire hatboxes full of Miss Alabama stuff alone, so she thought she might as well get a head start on trying to figure out what to throw out and what to shred.
Later, she sat in the kitchen looking at all the old pictures of herself taken the night she had been crowned Miss Alabama. It was hard for her to believe she had ever been that young. But there she was, in photo after photo, with her bouquet of roses, just smiling away, so happy, so naïve, with absolutely no idea what was to come next.
Maggie wished she could just crawl back through the years and somehow stop time. If she could, she would have stopped it that very night. But time only moves forward and drags you along with it, whether you want to go or not.
As she continued going through the photos and old newspaper clippings, she began to think about the series of events that had led up to today’s decision. She guessed it had all started with the incident in Atlantic City, losing Charles, then Richard, and, later, both her parents in one year. But for her, the final blow, really, had been Hazel.
One day, Hazel was in the office laughing and then the next day, she was gone. When she had died so suddenly, it was such a shock. For weeks afterward, everybody at the office half expected her to come bursting in the door with her daily joke, to make them laugh, cheer them up, flatter them, to make them all feel so smart. Everybody tried to continue on as usual, but as time went by, they all came to the slow, painful realization that she would not be coming back, and life at the office was suddenly dull, the work hard, the days long. There wasn’t a day that passed that someone didn’t start a sentence with “Remember when Hazel said this or when Hazel did that?” or ask how Hazel would have handled a problem. She had been the motor that had kept them all running happily for so many years. Without her, their incentive to work hard and the pride of being a part of Team Hazel was gone. They all missed her terribly. But for Maggie, losing Hazel had kicked the very foundation right out from under her. The year Maggie lost her parents, Hazel had quietly stepped in, and without her even realizing it, Hazel had become her rock, her mentor, her own personal cheerleader. And in a world increasingly lacking in role models, she had been the one person Maggie had admired and looked up to. But then, everyone who had ever known Hazel had looked up to her. Ironic, considering that Hazel Whisenknott had only been three feet, four inches tall.
Hazel Whisenknott Begins
September 21, 1929
“THIS IS THE TINIEST BABY I’VE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE!” IS A PHRASE most people have heard a few times, but in Hazel Whisenknott’s case, it was true. When she was born, her father had been able to hold her in the palm of his hand, but even so, both parents had been shocked when the doctor informed them that their little girl was never going to grow much bigger than three feet. It wasn’t until the second grade that Hazel herself began to notice something odd. She was not getting any taller while everyone else in her class was. When she asked her parents about it, they were ready with answers, and if she ever resented it or felt sorry for herself, they didn’t know it. Somehow, her mother had said the exact perfect word at the exact right time. Hazel was told that she was to be different than most, but “special,” and Hazel had liked that word. She would settle for that and make the best of it. What her parents didn’t know was that inside that small body beat the heart of a natural born businesswoman, and she could hardly wait to get started.
Just five short years later, Mrs. Mae Flower was at the sink rinsing out her deviled egg plate when she heard a knock on the front d
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” the small person repeated. “I hope you are having a pleasant afternoon.”
Mrs. Flower was so completely surprised to see the tiny talking person that she clapped her hands in delight.
“Oh, if you are not just the cutest little thing … I could just pick you up and squeeze you to death, and just look at those little teeny feet and hands. Why, you are just a walking, talking little doll.”
The little doll flashed a beautiful smile. “Thank you, ma’am.”
Mrs. Flower threw the door open and said, “Well, come on in, precious, and let me get you some pie or something. Oh, I wish my husband were at home to see you. He’s never going to believe me. Are you here with the circus?”
“Oh no, ma’am,” said the little person. “I live here in Woodlawn, over on Thirteenth Street South, about five blocks from here.” She pointed to the car parked at the curb. “My mother drove me over.”
Mrs. Flower looked out and saw a full-sized lady sitting in a green Chevy smile and wave at her.
Mrs. Flower waved back and led the little person into the living room and indicated for her to sit. “What can I do for you, darling? Are you collecting money for anything?”