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Joan Hess - Arly Hanks 13 (8 page)

BOOK: Joan Hess - Arly Hanks 13
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"I'd better see if Larry Joe needs help," I said before she worked herself up any further. "The little ones are going to need a place to play softball this summer."

Mrs. Jim Bob glowered at me. "I should think you might show some respect for the generosity of the Robarts family, Arly. Her family donated all this out of Christian charity, of which not everyone in this room has an overabundance."

"What shreds I have are itching to build bleachers," I said. "Are Ruby Bee and Estelle settled in?"

"Ruby Bee is poking through the kitchen cabinets and I believe Estelle went for a walk." Her eyes narrowed. "And what have you been doing?"

"I went to the cabin to make sure Darla Jean was okay."

"And?"

"And what? Isn't it a little late in the game for you to concern yourself with her well-being?"

Willetta Robarts stood up. "I need to be on my way. If you have any problems, feel free to call Anthony. He's the caretaker these days. Up until last fall, we had a caretaker in residence, but the poor man finally drank himself to death. We didn't realize it for several months, since he was a bit of a recluse who hiked into town only two or three times a year to buy necessities. When Anthony discovered the body ... well, it was far from pleasant. To this day, Anthony refuses to eat chocolate chip ice cream."

"How tragic," said Mrs. Jim Bob.

"He has no problem with vanilla and strawberry," she said, "or even butterscotch swirl."

I glanced at Mrs. Jim Bob, who was visibly unnerved, and went through the dining room to the kitchen. Ruby Bee might have last been seen poking through cabinets, but she'd moved on. All the dishes from lunch had been washed and were propped in racks to dry. A dish towel, neatly folded, hung from the refrigerator door. A vase containing dogs' tooth violets sat on the window sill above the sink.

If I'd had any hope that Darla Jean was cutting planks for the bleachers, it would have been relatively idyllic. The evening's menu had been revised, and I had no doubt the contents of Ruby Bee's freezer would keep us happy for a few days. Mrs. Jim Bob had seemed to accept my limited role in all of this. Larry Joe's wattage was a bit brighter than usual. Corporal Robarts's avowed preferences in ice cream flavors did not concern me.

I went out the back door, intending to go to the ball field to help out as best I could. When I'd attended the high school in Maggody, all the girls had been required to take home ec classes under the benign and befuddled tutelage of Lottie Estes, while the boys had been shunted to Larry Joe's shop classes. Given equal opportunity, I could have been a fine welder in a chop shop in Starley City.

Someone, possibly a Methodist or Unitarian, had planted a vegetable garden. I immediately recognized the row of tomato plants, as well as several tidy lines of nascent carrots and radishes. If I'd had my catalogue, I could have identified the rest of it, but all I could do was nod approvingly at the mulch and such. Could zucchini and cucumbers be far behind?

I was visualizing a garden behind the PD when Ruby Bee came puffing down the hillside. "Out for a walk?" I said.

"Reckon so," she gasped, clutching her chest and coming damn close to sprawling into my arms. Her face was whiter than any batch of rolls she'd set out to rise.

I helped her to a metal bench. "You don't look so good, Ruby Bee. How about a glass of water?"

"Water ain't about to help. There's a bottle of sherry under the sink."

"Coming right up," I said, then hurried inside and rummaged behind detergent bottles until I found her stash. I poured a couple of inches into a glass and went back to the patio. "What's wrong with you?"

She drained the glass. "Nothing."

"Don't give me that," I said as calmly as possible, considering I was hoping that this part of the county had emergency ambulance services. "Why are you upset?"

"Who says I'm upset?"

"I polled everyone on the patio and the consensus is that you're upset. It wasn't a large poll, mind you, but there were no dissenting votes."

Ruby Bee shoved the glass into my hand. "Don't get smart with me, missy. You may think you're all growed up, but I can still take you over my knee and whup your behind till you whimper for mercy."

"Hold that thought," I said as I went into the kitchen and splashed more sherry into the glass. I took a gulp from the bottle, then went back outside with what might have been a somewhat strained expression.

She was staring at the hillside. "You believe in ghosts?"

"No, but the Tooth Fairy owes me three dollars."

"That ain't funny."

"I suppose not," I admitted. "You think you saw a ghost?"

"I know I saw something."

"Okay, that's a beginning. What did you see?"

She sighed. "I don't know. Maybe it was nothing more than a piece of cloth caught on a bush. It seems like everything's crazy these days, Arly. I don't know if I'm coming or going, or if I already came and went. You might ought to pack me off to a nursing home afore you leave."

"What's wrong with you? Have I done something?"

"No, of course not. You got your life to lead, and I got mine. Our paths are gonna stray."

"That's probably true," I said. "I've never pretended from the day I came back to Maggody that I was there to do anything other than recuperate from the divorce. I'm biding my time until I can trust myself to flounder back into the real world. I could go to law school, you know, or become a vet or a nuclear physicist. The Marines are looking for a few good men. With hefty doses of testosterone -- "

"You still ain't funny."

"I suppose not. Did you see a ghost?"

"I suppose not." She clutched my hand and we silently watched the light rippling across the garden.

 

Hammet Buchanon's nap in a pew at the Voice of the Almighty Lord Assembly Hall had been worth every minute of it, although the pew was hard and the sunlight through the dusty windows was peskier'n a swarm of skeeters.

He weren't one to complain, however, having spent the first ten years of his life in a squalid cabin without indoor plumbing or electricity. After his ma'd been killed, he and the others had been farmed out to foster care. Which hadn't been downright awful, although it seemed like he was spending most of his wakin' hours at school or church.

It weren't natural, he'd decided three nights ago as he shimmied down the drainpipe and headed for Maggody. Arly'd understand and let him stay, even iff'n she hadn't been real keen on it before. Why, he could fix a place to sleep under the table in the back of the PD, and git up ever' morning to sweep and turn on the coffeepot. They'd have doughnuts for breakfast, just like in all the cops shows on TV.

Thing was, Arly weren't nowhere to be found. Her car was out in front of the PD, meanin' she hadn't gone off to track down cold-blooded killers and tell the shitheels how they had the right to remain silent. Hisself, he'd just shoot 'em in the gut and toss their bodies in the river. Serve 'em right.

He was thinking how to suggest this enlightened approach to Arly when he heard the front door of the church open. He slithered off the pew and rolled underneath it, then curled up tighter than a sickly armadillo.

"Let me carry one of those sacks, Millicent," a woman said.

"Mighty kind of you, Eula, but I got a grip on them. I'm just going to set them behind the pulpit until Brother Verber gets back and unlocks the storage room."

"Been doing some spring cleaning for the rummage sale?"

"I've been telling Darla Jean to clean out her drawers and closet. She kept whining that she was too busy, so I decided to do it for her while she's gone with the church group. Some of the clothes the girls wear these days are disgraceful, and the music they listen to is enough to make my stomach turn. Darla Jean thinks I can't hear the lyrics long as her bedroom door is closed, but let me tell you, Eula, you've never heard such filth in all your born days!"

Their voices receded as they went toward the pulpit, but Hammet stayed where he was, sensing he might learn something to his advantage.

"I won't argue with you, Millicent. Most of the young folk have been spared the rod and spoiled rotten. Did you hear what happened in the supermarket earlier?" After a pause during which Millicent either mutely shook her head or shrugged, she continued. "Jim Bob spotted one of those vile children that Robin Buchanon was raising up on Cotter's Ridge. He was stealing food, if you can imagine. Jim Bob would have had him arrested on the spot if Arly was in town."

"Better yet," Millicent said with a snicker, "Jim Bob could have called in Brother Verber to save his twisted soul. After all, we got a fine baptismal font, and Mrs. Jim Bob's likely to have more than one bar of lye soap in her bathroom cabinet for when Jim Bob comes staggering in with whiskey on his breath and lipstick smeared on his collar. I hate to think what kind of mischief he's gonna get up to while she and Brother Verber are gone this week."

Their voices grew louder as they came up the aisle.

"All I can say," said Eula, "was if I was that particular bushcolt, I'd eat whatever food I found setting on the piano bench by the pulpit and then skedaddle back where I came from."

"What on earth does that mean, Eula?"

Her response was cut off as the door closed. Hammet sucked in his breath as long as he could, then wiggled out from under the pew. He stayed on the floor, though, making sure no one was lurking in the vestibule in hopes of pouncing on him and trying to drown him in some tub of holy water. His foster ma'd tried to have him baptized a year ago, but it'd taken four full-growed men to hold him under the water and he'd come up cussin' something awful. The preacher had called it off then and there.

He finally stood up. When nothing happened, he went down to the piano bench and rooted through a box of ham sandwiches, apples, and a piece of pecan pie in plastic wrap. It was enough to hold him for the rest of the day, but it sounded like Arly wouldn't be back for awhiles. Breaking into her apartment might not sit well with her, 'specially when he was going to try to sweet-talk her into letting him stay on. Ruby Bee and Estelle wouldn't take it well, neither. He couldn't tell where Brother Verber was for the time being, but breaking into his trailer might result in a lengthy stay in the place Jim Bob had been sputtering about.

He took the box and let himself out, and then found a shadowy hollow between the shrubs alongside the church. As he licked the mustard off a slice of ham, he considered the possibilities.

 

 

 

5

 

Having endured a prickly lecture in which it'd been made clearer than spring water that my assistance was neither required nor desired, I left Ruby Bee yanking out measuring spoons and utensils. Willetta Robarts had driven away, and Mrs. Jim Bob must have retreated upstairs to pray for my salvation, as futile as the cause may have been. Brother Verber remained slouched at the end of the dock, unmindful of the mosquitoes buzzing around him. Although we were a couple of hours away from sunset, the blue of the sky seemed to be intensifying in readiness for what might prove to be a gratifying presentation.

I walked up the hill to the softball field. Darla Jean was not present, but the other kids were working industriously under Larry Joe's practiced supervision.

Or so it seemed.

"Oh my gawd!" shrieked Heather, dropping one end of a freshly cut plank. "I've got a sliver under my fingernail. It's bleeding, too!"

Amy Dee, who'd instinctively dropped the other end, clutched one foot and began to hop around like a mutant frog. "You broke my toe! When I catch up with you, you'll see some real blood, you whore!"

"At least my initials ain't scratched in every locker in the boys' gym."

"How would you know?"

Larry Joe got between them before they could get hold of each other's hair. Keeping them at arm's length and ignoring their threats, he said, "Parwell, you and Big Mac set this in place and start drilling holes for the bolts. Heather, you go on down to the lodge. The first-aid kit's got a pair of tweezers fit to pluck a pine tree off the mountainside."

"Tweezers?" gulped Heather. Her eyeballs rolled back and she crumpled to the ground.

Larry Joe stared down at her, mystified. "What'd I say?"

I may have overestimated his wattage. I knelt next to Heather and flopped her over so her face wasn't pressed in the dust. Her eyelids trembled but remained closed. "She'll be okay in a minute."

"That was awesome," said Big Mac as he loomed over my shoulder. "Reminds me of that faintin' goat my Uncle Bromide had for a spell. If you snuck up behind it and shouted, it keeled right over. Funniest damn thing I ever seen."

Parwell whacked him on the shoulder. "Bet it wasn't as funny as when you tried to get it up for Lanci Louise Ferncliff. She told me she tried so hard not to laugh that she near to peed in her pants." He began to sing, "My wiener's got a first name, it's L-I-M-P-Y ... "

"Sumbitch!" Big Mac howled, his face turning redder than the tomatoes in the seed catalogue, pages twenty-nine through thirty-two.

I stood up and made it clear I was ready to smack both of them if they didn't back away. "Let me tell you of a lesser-known commandment: Thou shalt not piss me off. These six words need to haunt you every minute of your waking hours, from reveille to taps, presuming we have a bugler in our midst. You are welcome to settle this later, but for now, shut up and do whatever Larry Joe says -- unless you'd like to participate in an anger management session led by Mrs. Jim Bob and Brother Verber." I glared at the rest of them. "That goes for all of you. Questions?"

BOOK: Joan Hess - Arly Hanks 13
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