Authors: Fannie Flagg
Bad News Travels Fast
ack in Elmwood Springs, Elner’s neighbors Ruby Robinson and Tot Whooten had received the news about Elner, even before Norma and Macky. Earlier that morning, after the ambulance left with Elner, Ruby and Tot had gone inside and Ruby had called her nurse friend, Boots Carroll, who worked at Caraway Hospital, and told her that her neighbor Mrs. Shimfissle was on the way and to be on the lookout for her. As a professional courtesy, Boots had called her back and informed her that the word had just come out of ER that her Mrs. Shimfissle had officially coded at 9:47, and Boots read her the report over the phone. When Ruby put the phone down, she turned to Tot, who was sitting at the kitchen table, and shook her head. “She didn’t make it.”
“Oh, no…. What happened?”
“Anaphylactic shock. That many wasp stings all at once, her heart just stopped.”
“I don’t believe it. Are they sure?”
“Oh yes, Boots said she was practically a DOA, never had a chance from the get-go. I knew her pulse was weak, but I thought she would pull through, poor old Elner, but at least she didn’t suffer, that’s something, I guess.”
“So she’s really dead?” said Tot, not believing it.
“Yes.” Ruby walked over and sat down. “Sad to say, but she’s really dead.”
“I’m just glad if it had to happen, she didn’t die down there in Florida, around a bunch of strangers.”
“Yes, thank God, she was in her own yard when it happened.”
They both just sat for a moment staring into space trying to come to terms with the fact that they had just lost their friend and neighbor for good.
After a while Tot breathed deeply and said, “Well…it’s the end of an era, isn’t it?”
Ruby nodded and said solemnly, “Yes, it is. I’ve been knowing Elner Shimfissle all my life….”
“Me too,” said Tot. “I won’t know what to think anymore, not to see her out on her porch every day, waving at everybody. She was one of the oldies but goodies, wasn’t she, Ruby?”
“She was that,” said Ruby.
They sat there and thought of all the ways their lives were going to be affected now that Elner was gone for good. Not only had they seen her every day, but for years, every evening the same group had all brought their lawn chairs over to Elner’s yard and sat and talked and watched the sun go down.
Tot said, “What’s going to happen to the Sunset Club now?”
“I don’t know,” Ruby said.
“And who’s going to do the Easter egg hunt this year?”
“I haven’t a clue. I guess somebody will.”
“Easter just won’t be the same without Elner.”
“No it won’t, I tell you one thing, Luther Griggs is going to be very upset when he hears about Elner…and poor Norma, you know she is going to take it hard.”
“Oh…don’t you know it?” said Tot. “She’ll probably just fly all to pieces and have a running fit.”
“She’ll be beside herself, you know that. I think she was closer to Elner than she was to her own mother.”
“I know she was, and who could blame her?” Tot added quickly, “I liked Ida, but she could be a real pain in the butt sometimes.”
Ruby agreed. “I liked her too, but she was uppity, no two ways about it. Thank goodness Norma has Linda to help her get through it.”
“And the new grandchild, that should be some comfort, not that mine would,” said Tot.
They sat and stared at the table, this time thinking about poor Norma. After a moment Tot asked, “Well…what should we do now?”
Ruby said, “I guess we should probably go over to Elner’s and make sure everything is all right, lock everything up, you know they won’t be back until late.”
“Yeah, I guess we should.” Tot glanced up at the red plastic teapot-shaped kitchen clock, then went to the phone and called her daughter at the beauty shop. “Darlene, cancel all my appointments. I’m not coming in today. Poor Elner Shimfissle was just stung to death by wasps, I’m so upset, I couldn’t do anybody’s hair today if I tried.”
Linda Gets the Call
inda Warren, a lovely blond woman of thirty-four, was in the boardroom, leading a meeting in St. Louis, when her secretary interrupted and told her she had an emergency phone call from her father. She ran down the hall and picked it up in her office.
“Daddy? What’s wrong?”
“Honey, it’s Aunt Elner. She fell off the ladder.”
“Oh no, not again,” said Linda, sitting down at her desk.
“Is she all right? Did she hurt herself?”
There was a silence. Macky did not know exactly how to tell her, and said, “Well…she’s in pretty bad shape.”
“Oh no. Has she broken something?”
“Ah…worse than that.”
“What do you mean, worse than that?”
There was a long moment, then Linda said, “She’s not dead, is she?”
“Yes,” answered Macky flatly.
Linda felt all the blood drain from her head and heard herself ask, “What happened?”
“When Tot and Ruby found her, she was on the ground, unconscious, and they think she must have died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.”
“Oh my God. Why? From what?”
“They don’t know exactly what caused it yet, but whatever it was, it was fast, she didn’t suffer. The doctor said most likely she never knew what hit her.”
“Here with me. We’re at the Caraway Hospital in Kansas City.”
“Is she OK?”
“She’s OK, but she wants to know if there is any way you could get here. We have a lot of decisions to make, and your mother doesn’t want to do anything without you. I know it’s short notice, honey, but I really think your mother needs you to be here, if it’s at all possible.”
“Sure, Daddy, tell Mother to hang on and I’ll get there just as soon as I can.”
“Good, I know she’ll be happy to know you’re coming.”
“I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you too, honey.”
Macky hung up and felt a wave of relief. The truth was, he needed Linda there as much as Norma did. Somehow he knew that when Linda got there everything would be all right. His little girl, that sweet helpless little angel who had depended on him for everything, had now grown up to become the one he could depend on. At times he looked at the successful and assured woman she had grown into and still saw that little girl there, then there were times like today when he realized she was more capable and smarter than either he or Norma. How the two of them had managed to produce her, he didn’t know, but he was so proud of her he didn’t know what to say.
As soon as Linda hung up, all the executive training she had received on how to deal with crisis situations kicked in, and in less than eight minutes she had arranged to have the au pair pick up her daughter, Apple, at school that afternoon and take her over to her best friend’s house to spend the night. Her secretary on another line had her on a private corporate jet out of St. Louis, booked a limo to the St. Louis airport, and a pickup at the airport in Kansas City. Linda was out the door in the backseat of the car and on her way in less than fourteen minutes.
Linda had not been close with her grandmother Ida, who had moved away from Elmwood Springs when Linda was a baby to be closer to the Presbyterian church and her garden club meetings in Poplar Springs, and when your mother does not get along with your grandmother, it is hard to have a good relationship. Her grandmother told her she had been so disappointed in Norma: “I don’t understand her, she could have gone to college, and made something of herself but she just threw her life away and became a plain old housewife.” All Norma had said was, “Just be thankful she’s your grandmother and not your mother.” And so Aunt Elner had been the one she was close to growing up. As the limo rode through traffic, Linda began to think about her childhood and the many nights she’d spent up at Aunt Elner’s house.
From the time she had been a baby until long after she was far too old for it, Aunt Elner had always put her to bed with a baby bottle full of chocolate milk. In the summers she and Aunt Elner would sleep out on her big screened-in back porch, and in the winters Aunt Elner would put her in the small bed across the room from her big bed, and they would lie there, watching the orange glow of Aunt Elner’s electric heater, and talk until they fell asleep. When she had taken lessons at the Dixie Cahill School of Tap and Twirl, Aunt Elner had been at every dance recital, and she had attended every graduation, and the wedding of her one failed marriage. As she looked back on her life, it was the three of them who had always been there. Mother, Daddy, and Aunt Elner. When her daddy had not been able to convince Norma to let her train with AT&T instead of going to college, it was Aunt Elner who had talked Norma into letting Linda go. As a matter of fact, whenever there had been a problem between anybody, it had been Aunt Elner who had always been able to resolve it.
Over the years Linda had come to appreciate and to be somewhat in awe of Aunt Elner’s ability to see both sides of any argument, see exactly how to negotiate a settlement, say the right thing to make both parties feel better. Long before they were teaching the win-win solution for problem solving techniques in business schools, Aunt Elner had already been doing it for years and without any training. Of course she was no fool. When she saw there was no way to solve a problem she knew it. When Linda was having problems with her marriage, after months of tears, talking, arguments, marriage counseling, breakups and reconciliations, broken promises on his part, it was Aunt Elner who had finally given her the best advice, using only five little words: “Get rid of him, honey.” Linda must have been ready to hear it, because that’s exactly what she did, and considering her ex was now on his third marriage, it was the best advice she could have taken.
And when she had told her mother that she wanted to adopt a Chinese baby, Norma had tried to talk her out of it. “If you are not married, Linda, and suddenly show up with a Chinese baby, people will think you have had an affair with a Chinaman!” But thank heavens Aunt Elner had been on her side. “I’ve never even seen a Chinaman in person and I’m looking forward to it,” she had said. Suddenly a wave of combined guilt, remorse, and grief swept over her. Why hadn’t she found more time to go home and visit with Aunt Elner? Why hadn’t she let her daughter, Apple, get to know her better? Now it was too late.
She suddenly remembered their last conversation. Aunt Elner had been so excited about some article she had read in
about a breed of mice that leaped in the moonlight. Some photographer had evidently hidden in the bushes and caught a picture of them leaping, and Aunt Elner thought that was the cutest thing she had ever seen and had called Linda long distance and pulled her out of a meeting to tell her all about it. “Linda, did you know that desert mice leap in the moonlight? Imagine those little mice leaping around in the moonlight and having fun when nobody was looking, I guess they call themselves dancing, isn’t that something, you need to see this picture right away!” Linda had not been as patient as she should have been, and had lied to her on top of it, telling her she was running right out that minute and getting a copy of the
Then she lied when Aunt Elner called her back in a few hours wanting to know what she thought. “You were right, Aunt Elner, they are just adorable, the cutest things I’ve ever seen!”
Aunt Elner had been so pleased. “Well, I knew you’d want to see them, didn’t it just make your day?”
“It sure did, Aunt Elner,” she lied again. If she could only take it back.
Now Linda knew firsthand what she had always heard was true. There are always regrets when you lose a loved one. She would live the rest of her life with a thousand “Why didn’t I’s?” and “If only I had’s.” But now it was too late. Maybe after the funeral, when everything settled down, she and Apple would spend more time at home with Mother and Daddy. Life. You never know when a conversation may be the last one you will ever have. Linda vowed to never take life for granted. She had just learned the hard way—it can stop without warning.