I Still Dream About You: A Novel, page 6
Many of the seamstress’s clients her mother worked for were women who lived “over the mountain,” and Maggie grew to love going along and seeing the beautifully appointed homes, the furniture, the art, the Oriental rugs, the long staircases leading up to large open and airy bedrooms with balconies overlooking the city. No one had minded her coming; she was always well behaved and quiet. All the ladies had been kind to her, but Maggie had fallen in love especially with Mrs. Roberts, at first sight. To Maggie, she was all elegance and grace. Mrs. Roberts had no daughters of her own, and she had taken a special interest in Maggie and, from time to time, would ask her mother, “May I take Maggie to tea?” or “May I take Maggie to Easter brunch at the club?”
Maggie had loved going to the Birmingham Country Club, with its big floral chintz chairs and sofas, and she had liked the people “over the mountain” right away: their manners, their clothes, the way they took such good care of everything. She had been fascinated seeing all the exotic foods they ate: Camembert cheese, artichokes, caviar, black olives, smoked salmon. So different from the Franco-American spaghetti from a can she was used to. When she was twelve, Mrs. Roberts had arranged a scholarship for her at Brook Hill, a private girls’ school. If it had not been for Mrs. Roberts taking her under her wing, Maggie could very well have wound up never knowing there was such beauty and grace in the world. Mrs. Roberts had taught her how to appreciate the finer things in life.
And even though she was one of the wealthiest ladies in Birmingham, there was nothing pretentious about her. When she donated money to support numerous causes around town, she did so anonymously. Never class- or race-conscious, she opened her home to all, and all were treated well.
Mrs. Roberts was everything that Maggie had aspired to be. She had spent the rest of her childhood looking in on the seemingly graceful lives of those who lived “over the mountain,” just waiting to grow up and move there. It never occurred to her that it wouldn’t happen. She had always just assumed that she would wind up there someday, living in a beautiful house, married to a wonderful man; but as with so many other things (Richard for one), she had been dead wrong.
Maggie wished she could have ended up like Mrs. Roberts and all the other “over the mountain” ladies. They had such a neat, orderly way of living she so admired. After their husbands died, they sold the big house and moved into a little garden home in English Village. Then, after a certain age, they went on out to St. Martin’s in the Pines, the lovely Episcopal retirement home they all favored, to spend the rest of their days with old friends, most of whom they had gone to grammar school with, playing bridge and being taken on the St. Martin’s bus to theater, museum, and flower show outings.
St. Martin’s was a three-part facility that made all the unpleasant things about the end of life so much easier. First the little cottage on the grounds, then as a resident’s health started to fail, they were moved to the assisted living section, and thereafter, on out to the family plot. A lovely, practical, and predictable ending, but unfortunately, Maggie didn’t have the money or the desire to wait that long. True, she wasn’t getting the Technicolor ending she had expected, but she couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful beginning.
Another New Day
AFTER MAGGIE HAD FINALLY GONE BACK TO SLEEP, SHE DREAMED IT was a warm summer night and she was young again, dressed in a white evening gown and dancing under a thousand stars on a terrace overlooking the city. Was it Charles she was dancing with? She couldn’t quite tell, but it was such a vivid and beautiful dream that when she first woke up, she still felt so warm and happy—until a few seconds later, when that same old familiar wave of cold gray dread washed over her, and the warm glow faded into the harsh reality of the present. It was seven A.M., and once again, she had to summon the strength to get up and face yet another day. She wished she wouldn’t have those dreams; it just made it harder. She felt the hot tears running down her face and reached over and grabbed a Kleenex. Oh Lord, now she would have swollen eyes, and she was showing a house later on this morning. That’s all her client needed was some weepy real estate agent moping around.
After a moment, she got up and went into the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror and, just as she’d suspected, her eyes did look swollen and puffy. Now she was going to have to put tea bags on them. She would have loved to just go back to bed, but she couldn’t. She had a lot to do today, and she wanted to get an early start. She was meeting Brenda at noon, and it was her turn to buy the wine and cheese for the realtors’ open house, and also, she wanted to call Cathy Gilmore at the Arts and Lecture office and find out about the Whirling Dervishes’ hotel situation.
As she sat there with the tea bags on her eyes, she realized that at this point, it was completely idiotic that she should even care where a group of perfect strangers she certainly would never see again stayed, but she did care. At exactly one minute after eight, Maggie dialed Cathy at her office. She hoped to reach her before she got on the phone with someone else. They didn’t call her Chatty Cathy for nothing. Fortunately, Cathy picked up right away.
Twenty minutes later, when she was able to gracefully slip in the question about where they were putting the Dervishes, Cathy told her that they were arriving the afternoon of the performance and leaving for Atlanta right after the show that night. They weren’t even going to spend the night in Birmingham.
As usual, Maggie had been concerned over nothing, but at least now she knew and she wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. It was so irritating. All her life, she had wasted so many hours, days, years even, worrying about this and that. It was a serious character flaw. Why couldn’t she have been more like Hazel? Hazel never worried. Even when they lost the big new insurance account to Babs Bingington: everybody at the office had been devastated, but when Hazel came in, she just brushed it off and then turned to an agent and said, “Hey, Maxine, ask me why the woman shot her husband with a bow and arrow.” As upset as she was, Maxine tried to smile and asked and Hazel said, “Because she didn’t want to wake up the children.” That afternoon, Hazel had sent them a dozen roses with a card: “Remember, girls, it’s always the darkest right before the glorious dawn.” Hazel had always been so optimistic about the future; unfortunately, Maggie wasn’t Hazel. But then, who was?
Brenda’s first meeting with Hazel, like most people’s, had been memorable. Brenda had just moved back home from Chicago to be closer to her family and had seen an ad in the paper that interested her. Red Mountain Realty was looking for people to train as real estate agents, and Brenda had called and spoken directly with the owner and set up a meeting.
When she walked into Hazel’s office, a tiny little woman, no bigger than a child, jumped down from her chair, walked over, reached up and shook her hand, and said, “Hi, I’m Hazel! Do you know any good jokes?” And the next thing Brenda knew, she was hired. A few minutes later, when Brenda came out, she was still in a little bit of shock and walked over to Ethel, who was typing up her papers, and said, “Excuse me … is that lady in there really the owner?” “She sure is,” said Ethel, pushing her purple glasses up on her nose. “Oh … well … does she know she’s a midget?” “Why, no,” said Ethel, never looking up. “But I’m sure if you want to go back in and tell her, she’ll be delighted to know why she’s so short.” “Oh no … I didn’t mean it that way … What I meant was that she acts just like a real person … Oh … I’m not saying she’s not a real person. It’s just … well … she didn’t sound like a midget on the phone.”
“I thought they all had funny little voices like the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz or something. Well, anyhow, I’ll see you Monday morning … I guess,” Brenda said as she tripped all over herself trying to get out the door before she made more of a fool of herself. Ethel, unfazed, went back to her typing. She was used to people’s first reactions. She had been with Hazel from the very beginning and seen it over and over, but after the initial shock, people quickly forgot Hazel’s height,
Of course, she sometimes needed assistance reaching things when she was grocery shopping, and getting on and off buses, but it had never been a problem. As she once said to Ethel, “I’ve had to depend on people my whole life, and they haven’t let me down yet.”
In 1982, Hazel was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as “The Biggest Little Real Estate Woman in the World.” And it had tickled her to death.
The Perfect Plan
MAGGIE KNEW SHE HAD A FEW MORE DAYS TO GET READY, BUT before she did anything else this morning, she thought she would just go ahead and run out to Walmart and pick up the last of her supplies and get it over with, so she wouldn’t have to think about it the rest of the week.
Twenty minutes later, Maggie walked into Walmart at the big mall and headed back to Aisle 10. Luckily, she knew exactly what color and what size she wanted, and she paid in cash. It was part of her plan to leave absolutely no clues as to her whereabouts, and having a record of the purchase of a rubber raft show up on her credit card bill so close to her departure might tip someone off. After all the planning, she certainly didn’t want to make a mistake at the very end. She had assumed that making the decision to do it would be the hard part, but coming up with a viable and working plan for just how she would do it had not been as easy as one might think.
Pills were never a sure thing. A gun would be much too violent (and oh, didn’t the press just love to portray all southerners as gun-happy?), and her being a former Miss Alabama? They would just have a field day with that. So no, a gun was definitely out. Sticking her head in an oven had never been an option; all the kitchen appliances at Avon Terrace were electric, and it certainly wasn’t anything you would ever do in someone else’s kitchen, or at least she wouldn’t. Her car was a company leased car, so driving off a cliff was out as well. No matter what method she had come up with, she’d found there was just no surefire way to do it and remain attractive, and no matter how shallow it may seem to some, she felt she had a responsibility to always try to look her best, no matter what.
It had taken quite a while to figure out something that would meet all her specific requirements, but six months before, she had been at the gym working out with wraparound ankle weights in her Stretch, Flex, and Strengthen class, when she had come up with the perfect plan. On the designated day, now November 3, she would go down to the Warrior River, get in the rubber raft, row all the way out to the middle where it was very deep and very calm, wrap two ten-pound weights around her ankles plus two ten-pound weights around her wrists, then jump in.
She had some concerns that the Velcro that held the weights together might come undone underwater, but the man at Big B Sports had assured her that the Velcro they used was completely waterproof. However, just to be on the safe side, she had gone to the As Seen on TV store and bought a tube of fast-drying 100 percent waterproof glue, guaranteed to last a lifetime. So, on the third, when she got to the middle of the river, she would apply the glue, wait the necessary twenty minutes for it to dry, then jump. It was a perfect plan. It was so perfect that it really was a shame she couldn’t tell anybody about it.
When she got back home, she still had a few hours before she had to meet Brenda at the open house, and that was good. She could use the time to start culling through a few more boxes. Maggie had just reached for another cup of coffee when something suddenly occurred to her. Oh, my God! Today was Tuesday, and she had a nine-thirty hair appointment with Glen, but with so much on her mind, she had completely forgotten about it. How could she have been so stupid? Oh no, with all she had to do, she didn’t want to waste two hours getting her hair done. Oh Lord. Why hadn’t she thought about it yesterday? She could call and say she was sick, but then she would have to stay home and not be seen for a day at least, and she couldn’t do that.
The shop had a twenty-four-hour cancellation policy and if she didn’t show up, she would be charged anyway, and she couldn’t just drive over and pay him without letting him fix her hair. Of course, she could always mail him a check. But knowing Glen, if he received something from her in the mail after she was gone, he would just freak out, and the last thing in the world she wanted was to upset anyone, especially Glen. His partner of twelve years had just run off with an ice skater, and he was already on the edge. She looked up at the clock, wondering what to do. After thinking it over, she supposed the best thing was to just go and finish with the boxes tonight.
At 9:42, Maggie was sitting in Glen’s chair, and he was busy wrapping streaks of her hair with tin foil and telling her all the latest about his ex. Other than the fact that she felt rushed, it was really very pleasant at the shop this morning. As usual, a lot of the ladies from St. Martin’s in the Pines were there having their hair done, happily chattering away.
Maggie sat there thinking about how upset poor Glen would be if he knew that all of his hard work was for nothing when she heard Fairly Jenkins say to Virginia Schmitt, “Gin, I heard a rumor that Dee Dee Dalton might be thinking about selling her house.”
A couple of months ago, just hearing that someone might be thinking of selling, Maggie would have jumped up with her hair still wet and run out the door and tried to get the listing. Considering that she was leaving the real estate business in a few days, however, the fact that someone might be selling shouldn’t have meant a thing to her; but hearing what house might be for sale threw her for a complete loop.
Glen continued telling her all about his ex, but Maggie didn’t hear a word. Her mind was going a mile a minute. Everyone had always assumed that Mrs. Dalton would never sell Crestview in a million years. How could she even think about it? It had never been on the market before; why was she selling it now? Crestview wasn’t just any house. It was a landmark, and her favorite house in all of Birmingham. The thought that it might be going on the market was very upsetting. The longer she sat there, the more agitated she became.
Oh, no. She knew the minute Glen finished blow-drying her hair and she paid her bill, she would have to fight off the urge to drive up the mountain and take a last look at it. But what would be the point? Why make herself miserable today, of all days? She was on a tight schedule as it was. She shouldn’t be concerned about anything else today, except making sure that everything was taken care of before Monday. She had a plan, so she should stick to it and just concentrate on that.
She paid her bill, went out, got in the car, and headed straight up the mountain. It was stupid and childish, she knew, but she couldn’t have stopped herself if she’d tried. She parked in front of Crestview and began to get more upset by the minute. There it stood, like it always had, so stately and proud, overlooking the city. To Maggie, it was the perfect house, perfectly proportioned, elegant, and understated. Of course, she had never been inside, but Mrs. Roberts, who had been a friend of Mrs. Dalton’s, had said that it had lovely wood-paneled walls in every room and the most beautiful set of white marble stairs she had ever seen. When Maggie was growing up, she had dreamed about those white marble stairs.
In the past, she had watched helplessly as Babs Bingington had sold off so many of the beautiful old homes over the mountain and, one by one, they had been torn down. Seeing those lovely old homes go and all the ugly new ones overbuilt on the lots had been a bitter pill to swallow. But if Babs got this listing, it would be a disaster. Babs Bingington had single-handedly been responsible for tearing down blocks and blocks of charming little thirties bungalow homes on the south side and developing new cheap four-story fake Swiss château swinging-singles apartments with a bad pool in the middle. The more she thought about it, the more agitated she became. Babs really had no business sellin
The thought of Babs Bingington marching through Crestview, like Sherman through Atlanta, gave Maggie a sick feeling. Babs had no loyalties to the town or the neighborhood. In the past, there had always been an unwritten law among real estate agents about selling homes on the mountain; even if it meant taking a cut out of your own commission, you did not sell those houses to people you knew would not take care of them or appreciate them. But not Babs. She was only interested in the sale. And who knows what could happen? Some young dot-com millionaire could buy it and put a basketball court in the living room. Or worse yet, it might be sold to a developer. If someone tore Crestview down, the entire skyline of Birmingham would change; it would be like looking at a beautiful woman with her front tooth missing. Or even worse, if one of Babs’s developer cronies got a hold of it, a beautiful woman with a big bright orange tooth. Thanks to Babs, there were some streets Maggie couldn’t even drive down anymore.
Oh no, here came that strange rage again. She could feel her cheeks starting to burn and her face turning beet red and her heart pounding a mile a minute. What was going on? She had never lost her temper in her life. This was twice in one month. It was either late menopause or some weird form of road rage—or, in this case, real estate rage. Whatever it was, she realized she’d better calm down. She didn’t want to have a stroke before she had a chance to finish up all the loose ends she still had to deal with.
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