Authors: Nancy Brandon
Copyright © 2012 by Nancy Brandon
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
Lloyd Aspinwald Publishers
4 Mall Court
Savannah, GA 31406
All rights reserved.
“Miss Bea Dot! You all right? What happen to you?”
California’s husky voice penetrated the darkness, first as a tinny, distant sound, as if on the other end of a telephone line, but gradually growing clearer. No one ever had trouble hearing California. Bea Dot’s mind cleared at the warmth and gentle pressure of her housekeeper’s wide palm on her back.
“What Mr. Ben mad about this time?”
Bea Dot opened her eyes, disoriented at first by the close up sight of the heart pine floor. She shifted her gaze, and a piercing pain jabbed at her temple as she focused on California’s shabby shoes and ashy brown shins. Pushing up from the floor, she stopped a few inches from it, wincing. “Please help me up, Cal,” she said with a shaky, almost whimpering voice.
California knelt and slipped a tree limb of an arm under Bea Dot’s back and cradled her head in a wide, calloused palm. “You got a nasty knot on your forehead,” she said, rubbing her thumb against Bea Dot’s dark brown curls. “I’ll get you in bed and then call Dr. Arnold.”
Bea Dot rested for a moment in her housekeeper’s arm, hoping the headache would subside, tuning out the raspy voice as she tried to remember what she’d done this time to provoke her husband’s ire.
“Always knew Mr. Ben was uglier than the devil. Now we know he’s meaner too.” California talked on, unaware Bea Dot only halfway listened. She leaned her throbbing head on California’s shoulder, and the wooly braids brushed against her cheek. “Don’t know why men think they got to hit they wives, ‘specially in your condition. He never knocked you out before. Temper’s getting worse.”
Bea Dot touched her temple, ignoring California’s voice. She needed a bed, not commentary. With Cal’s support, Bea Dot managed to rise. After standing still a moment to let a wave of nausea pass, the two women shuffled toward the bed, and Bea Dot kicked something that clinked like broken glass.
“Don’t worry ‘bout that, Miss Bea Dot. I’ll get you a new frame.”
Ben must have broken the picture of Bea Dot’s mother. Was the damage deliberate, or just a casualty of his tirade? Suddenly all thoughts of Ben vanished as Bea Dot’s midsection seized her like a boa constrictor taking hold of her body. She cried out as she doubled over and her legs collapsed.
“I got you, Missy. I gone take good care a you.”
The authority in California’s voice soothed Bea Dot little. California scooped her up in strong arms and carried her to the bed, laying her down like an infant. Bea Dot pulled her knees to her chest and rolled on her side, the cramps burning and squeezing her insides. She clamped her eyes shut, and tears rolled across the bridge of her nose and onto the pillow. Her head pounded while the rest of her constricted in agony. When the muscles finally relaxed, a moist warmth between her legs shocked her eyes open, and she exhaled, feeling relief for the first time in her five-month marriage.
“You gone be all right,” California crooned as she rubbed the back of Bea Dot’s head.
Bea Dot reached behind her, clutching California’s hand. “Call Dr. Arnold, Cal,” she said. “Then please call my Aunt Lavinia.”
Bea Dot sat propped against her pillow, dark brown curls looping over her shoulders. From the teacup and saucer in front of her, the stink of beef broth steamed her nostrils. She curled her lip at the thought of sipping it. The afternoon August heat offered no breeze through the partially opened window. Why couldn’t she have a nice glass of iced tea?
“You must keep up your strength,” Aunt Lavinia and California told her repeatedly, as they pushed the teacup closer to her face.
Aunt Lavinia sat in the maple rocker that used to belong to Bea Dot’s mother. Resting on the floor next to it was a basket of fabric strips, which Aunt Lavinia rolled absently into white balls. “Dr. Arnold says you’re young and strong,” she said without looking up from her rolling. “I imagine you’ll be pregnant again in no time.”
Bea Dot wasn’t worried about that.
California had swept up the broken glass. After placing the picture on the bureau, she had taken the dustpan out back to empty it. Now she was back to take away the pile of soiled linens and Bea Dot’s bloody clothes. Aunt Lavinia rose and eased herself on the edge of the bed, touching Bea Dot’s arm and rubbing it consolingly as she spoke. “Darling, Dr. Arnold wants to know if you want to name the baby.”
Bea Dot plunked the tea cup and saucer on her side table. Beef broth sloshed out, and a brown stain spread on the crocheted doily. Why would she want to name a dead baby? She bit down on her thumb nail and whispered, “No.” Then she turned her face to the window. A blue jay lit on the dogwood branch outside.
Aunt Lavinia twisted her torso to face California, then shook her head quickly. California nodded and left the room, her arms full of linens.
“Look at me,” Aunt Lavinia said softly after turning back to her niece.
Reluctantly, Bea Dot faced her aunt and found love and urgency in the aged eyes. Knowing her aunt’s usual tendency to intrude, Bea Dot prepared for unsolicited advice. This time, though, numb from the day’s ordeal, she didn’t dread the conversation, but only wondered why Aunt Lavinia insisted on wearing her gray/blonde hair in that insipid Gibson girl bun.
“What set off Ben’s temper, darling?” Aunt Lavinia asked in a low, grave voice. “Did you two argue?”
Bea Dot sighed and shook her head. The blue jay flew away. She wished she were it.
“Uncle David could speak to Ben’s father,” Aunt Lavinia suggested. “Maybe ask him to give Ben some marital advice. You’re still newlyweds, after all. Perhaps Ben has a misperception of what it means to be head of a household.”
Bea Dot exhaled a snide chuckle. “Do you really believe that’s the problem?” she asked. “A simple misunderstanding?”
Aunt Lavinia pressed her lips and straightened her spine, and Bea Dot regretted her stinging words, but she also knew Uncle David’s intrusion would only exacerbate Ben’s anger. After a few seconds, Aunt Lavinia leaned forward, her talcum scent blending with the odor of beef broth.
“I’m only trying to help,” she said. “Your marriage can’t continue this way. I never understood why you insisted on marrying Ben, but since you did—”
Thank goodness Dr. Arnold entered the room. A lock of gray hair fell over his forehead, and he had rolled his shirt sleeves to his elbows. He approached the end of the bed, placing his black satchel at Bea Dot’s feet and resting his white-haired arms over it.
“Thank you for coming, Doctor,” Bea Dot said.
“You’re welcome, dear. How are you feeling now?”
“Glad to hear it. Now, I will tell Ben you need your rest for several days.”
“All right,” Bea Dot nodded. How much did he know? She suspiciously eyed Aunt Lavinia, who had returned to her chair, intent on rolling her bandages.
“Only your aunt and California can visit,” Dr. Arnold explained, “but in a few days you should consider going someplace where you can, uh, get some fresh air, take your mind off your loss.”
Bea Dot tensed as the doctor searched for polite words. She shifted accusing eyes to Aunt Lavinia as her cheeks heated in shame. Then she stared at her hands, too embarrassed to face Dr. Arnold.
“I’ll check on you Thursday, but call me if you need me.” He picked up his satchel and stepped toward the door.
“I’ll see you out, Doctor.” Aunt Lavinia stood and followed him.
Exhaling, Bea Dot reclined against her pillows, glad, finally, to be alone. She relaxed in the just-washed stiffness of the linens. Closing her eyes, she inhaled their off-the-line scent. The pain in her forehead had subsided to a dull ache. Maybe she could sleep.
Before she drifted off, a shuffle wakened her again. Ben leaned on the door frame, holding a folded newspaper, which showed only half the front page headline: “President Wilson Calls…” Ben’s pudgy pear shape and doughy skin belied his actual strength. Bea Dot always bit her tongue when friends observed how lucky she was to have married the second in command at Ferguson Shipping. What they didn’t know was that the smallest provocation brought out her husband’s demons, and in the six months of her marriage, Bea Dot met them often. For now, it seemed, he had tucked them away.
“You lost the baby,” he said, with neither regret nor contempt.
He nodded, then looked at the floor, shifting his weight from one shoe to the other. His height and girth filled the doorway. “Can you have others?”
Bea Dot raised one eyebrow skeptically. He wanted more children? The thought of conceiving a child with him chilled her, but she willed herself not to shudder. “Dr. Arnold hasn’t said one way or the other.”
“We’ll have to ask him.”
“Yes, we will,” Bea Dot replied calmly, knowing we wouldn’t ask the doctor anything. Ben had been absent throughout Dr. Arnold’s visit. Not that Bea Dot wanted him.
“Your head.” Ben touched his left brow. “Does it hurt?”
“A bit.” She lightly touched her temple.
“I hadn’t realized how hard I hit you.”
Was that an apology?
“Dr. Arnold says I’ll be fine.” Immediately Bea Dot wanted to kick herself for excusing his violence.
“Well, I’m glad you’re all right,” he said, still in his neutral tone. He’d have used the same tone with his employees at the office.
What else could she say to him? He offered no words of comfort. She hadn’t expected any. The couple eyed each other for a beat. Then he said, “I just came from my parents’ house.”
So that’s where he’d been.
“Mother and Father wish you well.” He sounded like a business letter.
“Thank you,” Bea Dot echoed the same tone. “That’s very kind of them.”
“They asked how long your recovery would be. They’re eager for a grandson, you know.”
Of course. The precious grandson. She should have known where his priorities lay. The stilted conversation tired Bea Dot. How long would he stand there, barely pretending to care? “Dr. Arnold says I need rest,” she said in what she hoped was a convincingly tired voice. “Perhaps I should try to sleep.” She pulled the covers up to her chest.
“Yes, maybe you should,” he replied as he turned to leave, but before walking away, he faced his wife again, this time with a slight curious frown.
“Bea Dot, are you sorry you lost this baby?”
Was he that perceptive? Bea Dot surveyed the room, as if a suitable reply would present itself somehow.
“Don’t say anything,” he continued. “I’m not. I just want you to know I think this…ordeal…is for the best. I couldn’t have stood raising another man’s child.”
Bea Dot sucked in a breath and held it. How long had he known? And how did he find out?
“Yes, I know, but your petrified look confirms it.”
Bea Dot’s face and neck burned with humiliation. “I’m sorry, Ben,” she muttered as she examined the monogram on her sheet:
After a pause, he replied, “You’ll be sorrier if you ever deceive me again.”
Ralph Coolidge sighed heavily as he pressed the stethoscope against Will Dunaway’s back. At the touch of the cold disc, Will stiffened his spine, immediately inhaling at the prick of sudden movement.
“Dammit, Will, don’t be contrary. Just cough for me.”