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"So what do you reckon they're doing?" asked Estelle as she nibbled pensively on a tuna salad sandwich. She and her best friend, Ruby Bee Hanks, were sitting in the front seat of Estelle's station wagon, which was parked under a sickly persimmon tree across the road from what had been, up until three days ago, the county old folks' home. Now bulldozers and backhoes were roaring all around the shabby building, spewing clouds of dust into the bleached blue sky. Dump trucks inched in and out of the surrounding pasture like gimpy dinosaurs, while jackhammers ripped into the asphalt driveway. Stacks of lumber were piled on the scruffy lawn.
Ruby Bee reached into the picnic basket for another deviled egg. "How many times are you aimin' to ask me that? Not one soul in town has any idea what they're doing, not even Mrs. Jim Bob. You'd think, what with her being the mayor's wife, that she'd know something, but she swears she doesn't. Dahlia's fit to be tied since the patients had to be moved out and she and Kevin had to take in her granny."
"I can't say that I blame her. I can't imagine what they'll do after the new baby comes. Eileen says the twins are a handful, running around like ferrets and getting into anything that's not locked up tighter'n a tick." She put her sandwich on the dashboard and refilled her cup with iced tea from a thermos. "Want some more?"
"Take a look at that," said Ruby Bee, ignoring the offer. "That must be the limousine Lottie and Eula saw yesterday evening. Lottie said she expected the president or somebody like that to climb out. Turned out to be an ordinary-looking man."
Estelle patted her beehive of red hair to make sure no bobby pins were dangling, then said, "What say we just drive right over there and ask him what he thinks he's doing, closing down the old folks' home like that? We should tell him right to his face what a terrible thing he did."
"Hush up," Ruby Bee whispered as she leaned forward. "He's getting out of the backseat."
"You think he can hear us all the way over here? Did Lottie say he was a superhero with X-ray hearing?"
"Well, he ain't wearing tights and a cape," Ruby Bee said drily. "Those sunglasses make him look suspicious, though."
Estelle snorted. "Maybe he's wearing them on account of it being sunny. I'd be wearing mine if I hadn't lost them at that flea market at Bugscuffle last week. I took 'em off and set 'em down for five seconds while I looked at a teapot. The next thing I know, they're gone. I think that old lady with the wart on her forehead scooped 'em up. I was of a mind to grab her and -- "
"I'd say he's more than six feet tall, wouldn't you? Nice silver hair, maybe in his fifties or a tad older, tanned like one of those Hollywood folks. The man that he's talking to must be the foreman."
They watched, as enthralled as children in front of a TV cartoon show, as the two men pointed at this and that, unrolled and consulted a blueprint, and then disappeared into the dust. The driver of the limo climbed out of the front seat, took off his hat, and loosened his tie. He seemed content to lean against the fender and wait.
"Well!" said Estelle. "What do you think about that?"
Ruby Bee wiped her fingers on a napkin and closed the lid of the picnic basket. "I think I'd better get back to the bar & grill and start supper. Didn't you say you have a three o'clock appointment to cut Millicent's hair?"
"We ought to do something."
"Like get ourselves arrested for trespassing? You see all those signs, don't you?"
"Just who do you think is going to arrest us? Arly's not supposed to get back to town until the next weekend." Estelle reluctantly started the engine and maneuvered until the station wagon was headed back toward the sorry excuse for a highway that curled through Maggody. "You heard from her?"
"I already told you that I haven't. Maybe you should get yourself some of that X-ray hearing, Estelle Oppers. You know perfectly well that she and that fellow from Springfield went camping up at Tablerock Lake. How's she supposed to find a telephone out there in the woods? You think there's a pay phone on every pine tree?"
"It seems to me she might have called when they went into town for supplies," Estelle countered.
"She told me she wouldn't call unless it was from an emergency room." Ruby Bee tried not to sigh as they passed the construction site. "It's only ten days, for pity's sake. I wish I knew more about the fellow, though. She's being too secretive, if you ask me. But I'm her mother, and I can tell something serious is going on between them. What if they was to get married and she moves to Springfield?"
Estelle patted her friend's knee. "Arly's got more sense than all the Buchanons put together. She's already gone through one disastrous marriage. She won't rush into anything without thinking long and hard about it."
"Or so I'd like to think," murmured Ruby Bee, blinking back a tear.
Brother Verber, spiritual leader of the Voice of the Almighty Lord Assembly Hall's motley collection of saints and sinners (with a darn sight more falling in the latter category), was lying on the sofa in the silver trailer that served as the rectory, thinking about his upcoming Sunday sermon. A fan stirred the sour air. On the coffee table, a box of saltine crackers and a jar of peanut butter were next to the bottle of sacramental wine that he always kept nearby to inspire him. It wasn't like there was a shortage of possible topics for a sermon, he thought, but he'd just spent a couple of months working through the list of the seven deadly sins (and a few others of his own creation), and it would be nice to come up with fresh material. Something so startling that those who tended to nod off would sit up straight. Something that'd make 'em squirm.
Maybe, what with it being summer, it was time to remind the teenagers and their parents of the wickedness taking place on blankets alongside Boone Creek. The lust and depravity of supple young bodies writhing away like dogs in heat, moaning and groaning, their hands groping --
The sound of a car door slamming jerked him out of his reverie. He hastily twisted the cap on the wine bottle and shoved it under the couch as the front door opened.
"Brother Verber?" called Mrs. Jim Bob (aka Barbara Ann Buchanon Buchanon) as she marched into the living room. She stopped and looked down at him, her lips pinched. "What's the matter with you? Your face is red, and you're sweating. Are you coming down with a summer cold?"
He fished a handkerchief out of his pocket and mopped his face. "No, but I appreciate you asking so kindly. I was working on my Sunday sermon."
"You have more important work to do right now," she said as she sat down on the edge of a chair.
"Is someone hovering on the brink of eternal damnation? Do I need to grab my Bible and go rescue this stray lamb before he falls into Satan's evil clutches?" He began to fumble for his shoes and socks.
"This is far more important. Are you aware of what's going on out at the old folks' home?"
Brother Verber blew his nose while he tried to guess what he was expected to say. "Well," he began slowly, "I know the county closed it this last weekend and told the old folks that they'd have to get out. I heard some of them were moved to a nursing home in Starley City, and a few others went back to their families. Petrol Buchanon supposedly snuck off to stay with his brother Diesel in that cave up on Cotter's Ridge."
Mrs. Jim Bob gave him an exasperated look. "That is not what I meant, Brother Verber. Have you driven by there in the last two days?"
"I don't recollect that I have. Is there some reason I should have, Sister Barbara?"
"This morning Millicent and Eula came by my house for coffee and cinnamon rolls and told me I ought to go see for myself, so I did. I couldn't believe my eyes!"
He recoiled like she'd slapped him upside the head. "You don't mean they're planning to turn it into -- into one of those brothels with red flocked wallpaper and chandeliers and bleached blond hussies fitted out in tight dresses, do you? Why, every pathetic sinner in the county will be fighting to get in the doorway! Afore long, there'll be a casino with gambling, and theaters showing pornographic movies all night long. There'll be drunken louts staggering down the street, insulting the refined ladies of Maggody with foul language and lewd invitations."
"I don't believe I said anything like that," said Mrs. Jim Bob, perplexed. "I have no idea what's going on at the old folks' home, except for all manner of delivery trucks and heavy machinery coming and going. While I was watching, a van from a plumbing company arrived, and not a minute later a fancy convertible pulled up and out got a woman with an armload of carpet samples. I'm not one to judge, but she was wearing an unseemly short skirt and high-heeled shoes."
"Were the carpet samples scarlet?" asked Brother Verber as he blotted his neck.
"I couldn't see through all the dust. Are you sure you're not running a fever?"
He slipped off the couch and kneeled in front of the coffee table. "No, Sister Barbara, I was thinking of those weak-willed men in my congregation. Won't you pray with me to give them strength to resist the temptations they may face?" He clutched his hands together, closed his eyes, and began to mumble under his breath.
Mrs. Jim Bob stood up and brushed at the wrinkles in her navy skirt. It was obvious that he wasn't going to be any help, so she left and went out to her pink Cadillac. It was her only concession to vanity, but she'd repeatedly assured herself that she had a duty as the mayor's wife to own the biggest car in Maggody, as well as the finest house. There were Bibles in every bedroom and booklets of daily inspirations in every bathroom, along with little baskets of potpourri and pine-scented candles. She'd redecorated her living room so many times that she couldn't at that moment recall what color it was. As she drove home, she was thinking she might ought to buy some of those glossy magazines so she'd have some new ideas for the next time she caught Jim Bob fooling around with some floozy at the Pot O' Gold trailer park.
"I'm thinking I might as well kill myself," said Dahlia through a mouthful of chocolate cream pie. She was sitting at her mother-in-law's kitchen table, watching Eileen do the dishes. Kevin and the twins were in the living room with his pa, where a NASCAR race was blaring on TV. The twins, not yet two years old, were likely to be ripping pages out of gun magazines or gnawing on the furniture. Only that morning she'd caught Kevvie Junior chewing so fiercely on a wooden mixing spoon that he'd got a splinter in his lip. Rose Marie wasn't any better, having mangled one of her Barbie dolls till it was down to one leg and half an arm. The doctor at the clinic told her they were teething, but Dahlia figured they were going plumb crazy, same as she was.
"Why do you say that?" asked Eileen as she began to scrub a pot.
"It's my granny. We had no choice but to take her in with us. She demanded the twins' bedroom, so we moved the baby beds into ours. Now there ain't hardly enough room to get dressed. What's more, Granny snores so loudly the whole house shakes. Kevin's taken to sleeping on the porch swing. What with the twins fussing, her snoring, and me having to pee every fifteen minutes, I ain't had a decent night's sleep since I can remember. I can't nap during the day, neither, because Granny creeps into the kitchen and starts trying to cook something. Yesterday she put a pound of bacon in the skillet, turned up the heat, and then went and got herself locked in the bathroom. The grease caught fire, and it was a miracle the house didn't burn down."
Somehow Dahlia had managed to finish a piece of pie during her recitation, and was reaching for the pie plate when Eileen caught her wrist. "Dahlia, you know perfectly well what the doctor told you. You have to be real careful during this pregnancy so you don't get diabetes like the last time."
Dahlia reluctantly pulled back her hand. "I might as well die happy," she muttered. She looked down at the tent dress that covered all three hundred plus pounds of her and spotted a dribble of chocolate cream. She scooped it up with her finger and furtively snuck it into her mouth as Eileen turned away. "I don't suppose you and Pa might consider..."
"We are not going to have your granny move in with us, if that's what you were about to say. Won't her Social Security and Medicaid pay for that nursing home?"
"They would, but some smarmy lady from there did an evaluation and said they wouldn't take her. All I can hope is that she goes up on Cotter's Ridge to hunt for ginseng and a bear eats her. I know that ain't the Christian thing to say, but it's true."
Eileen glanced over her shoulder. "I may have felt the same thing after Earl's pa moved in with us."
"At least he had the decency to die. My granny's probably going to be bitching and whining when the twins graduate from high school." She paused, her chins rippling as she thought. "Arly had no business going off like she did. She sure better do something when she gets back."
"If she can," said Eileen, who was thinking about what it'd be like to spend a week camping next to a lake with nothing to do but read or gaze at the water. Earl was not in the picture, having been eaten by a bear several days earlier.
Sitting at a table in the back of Roy Stiver's Antiques Store: New & Used, Jim Bob was thinking about his two pairs, tens and threes. He glanced slyly at Roy, who put down his cards and entwined his fingers over his ample belly. The sumbitch was impossible to read. Larry Joe Lambertino, on the other hand, was a mite twitchy as he stared at his cards through thick glasses. Could be on account of having three-of-a-kind or a straight, or maybe working up the guts to bluff.
Jim Bob refilled his glass with whiskey, took a gulp, and said, "How 'bout a two-dollar raise just to keep you ol' boys honest?"
"Why, Jim Bob, you know I'm as honest as the day is long," drawled Roy as he pushed his cards away and stood up. "I reckon I'd better go see a man about a horse. There's another plate of baloney sandwiches in the icebox. Help yourselves."
Larry Joe started to rise, but Jim Bob snarled, "Did you come to play cards or to stuff your face? Two dollars to stay in. You gonna hold 'em or fold 'em?"
"Oh, okay," said Larry Joe, settling back down. He unwadded some ones and tossed them into the pot. He was as tall and lanky as Roy was short and round; his height served him well when he bawled out the morons in his shop classes at the high school. It didn't help at home, though. Joyce didn't even come up to his shoulder, but she had a way of narrowing her eyes and swishing her ponytail that pretty much got her whatever she wanted.
Jim Bob spread his cards. "Read 'em and weep."
"Three jacks," Larry Joe said apologetically as he gathered up the pot.
"So, Mr. Mayor, what do you know about all this construction at the old folks' home?" asked Roy as he came out of the bathroom.
"Not a damn thing. It's county property, so they can do whatever they want with it. They sure as hell aren't wasting any time, are they? I drove out that way this morning, and from all I could tell, they could be building a pyramid to bury some asshole county commissioner."
"I parked down by the low-water bridge and walked along the edge of the pasture," volunteered Larry Joe. "Looks like they're keeping the front part of the building, and taking down the backside, along with some sheds. They've already started pouring concrete for a foundation for a good-sized addition. It also looks like they're aimin' to fence in two or three acres."
Roy reached for the whiskey bottle. "Something mighty peculiar's going on out there, mighty peculiar."
"Shut up and deal," said Jim Bob, still smarting from the last hand. He knew he might as well make the most of the afternoon, since there'd be hell to pay when he went home for supper (or dinner, as Mrs. Jim Bob insisted on calling it). If she'd stopped by the supermarket and learned that he wasn't there, she'd assume right off the bat he'd gone to comfort some lonely trucker's wife. Which he did whenever the opportunity arose. Admitting he'd been playing poker all afternoon wouldn't sit much better. At least there was a decent baseball game on later. If he was feeling generous, he'd invite her to watch it with him.
"I can't tell you what's going on out there because I don't know myself," said Sheriff Harvey Dorfer for the umpteenth time that afternoon, wishing he could rip the telephone cord out of the wall. "All I can suggest is that you call over to the county courthouse and ask them." He listened to more squawks, then said, "Yes, ma'am, I am the county sheriff. My job is to catch criminals and lock them up. The only dealings I have with the quorum court concern my budget and the possibility of building a new jail. I can assure you, ma'am, that if it happens, it won't be in your backyard. Have yourself a real nice day."
He replaced the receiver, took a swallow of tepid coffee, and bellowed, "LaBelle, get your butt in here right now!"
LaBelle, the dispatcher and receptionist, came to his office door. "I was meaning to have a word with you, Sheriff Dorfer. I'm gonna take off early today so I can go by the bakery and pick up some little cakes for my niece's baby shower."
"I thought I told you not to put any more of these damnfool calls about the old folks' home through to me." He lit a cigar and gazed at her through a billow of pungent smoke. "Was there something in my order that mystified you, LaBelle? Should I have repeated it two or three times, and then asked if you had any questions?"
"I already told you that I do not lie," LaBelle said snippily. "We are both employees of Stump County and have an obligation to serve the public."
"Put one more call through and you won't be an employee of this or any other county. However, to save you from the grief of having to lie, I'm leaving now to track down criminals fishing without a license or polluting our scenic lakes by throwing beer cans overboard."
"I told you that I have to leave right away."
"When's the baby due?"
LaBelle stiffened. "I don't rightly see that it's any of your business. What's more, I have already paid for the cakes from the bakery."
Harve was about to suggest what she could do with 'em when the telephone rang. He glared at LaBelle, then picked up the receiver.
"What?" He then held the receiver away from his ear so LaBelle could hear the snarly threats. When the voice ran down, he said, "Listen, T-Rex, I don't know what's going to happen to the old folks' home. This is the quorum court's doing, not mine. From what I heard, they met last week and voted to sell the property. Why don't you go over to the county courthouse and ask the clerk if any papers have been filed?"
LaBelle waggled her fingers and fled to the front room. After pushing a button on her phone that would automatically transfer all calls to Harve, she grabbed her purse and headed for the parking lot.
And so it went in Maggody, Arkansas (population 755 or thereabouts). For the next week, construction proceeded at a boggling rate in and around the former county old folks' home. The new addition rose almost overnight, and truckloads of immigrants appeared to pound in shingles on the roof. Exterior walls were going up as interior walls from the older section were being torn out and thrown into Dumpsters. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters, painters, and wallpaper hangers arrived early and left late. No one had spotted the limo again, but the woman in the convertible came daily. The grounds around the structure were enclosed by an eight-foot chain link fence topped with curls of barbed wire. A dozen flatbed trucks from a landscaping service delivered pallets of sod, followed by thick shrubs and good-sized trees that required special machinery to plant.
But most intriguing of all, a uniformed security guard had been assigned to prevent any unauthorized person or persons from so much as setting foot on the property. He had a clipboard in his hand, a gun strapped to his belt, and a bad-tempered German shepherd on a leash.
Copyright ©2006 by Joan Hess