Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind

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Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind

A Novel by

Ann B. Ross

F
OR
A
LICE
, C
HARLES, AND
J
OHN
M
ICHAEL

Contents

Chapter One

I’D JUST CAUGHT my breath after the shock of my…

Chapter Two

GO CALL THE sheriff,” I told her as I turned…

Chapter Three

I SANK BACK in my chair with a sinking feeling…

Chapter Four

I’D ABOUT PACED a rut in my hardwood floors before…

Chapter Five

I PACED BACK and forth, wringing my handkerchief until I…

Chapter Six

IT’S A WONDER I slept a wink that night. How…

Chapter Seven

WHEN WE WERE through with the pause that refreshes, I…

Chapter Eight

AFTER WALKING ACROSS the parking lot, I found it a…

Chapter Nine

I DON’T KNOW how I managed to walk across the…

Chapter Ten

THE LIST I got from Binkie had been winnowed down…

Chapter Eleven

WHILE I CALLED the sheriff’s office, Lillian paced the kitchen,…

Chapter Twelve

WITH THAT WORRISOME thought in mind for the rest of…

Chapter Thirteen

WAIT! WATCH FOR cars! Little Lloyd, don’t you cross that…

Chapter Fourteen

LATER IN THE day I tried to read the newspaper,…

Chapter Fifteen

I’D KNOWN EARL Frady for all the eighteen years he’d…

Chapter Sixteen

IT WAS NOT a restful night. I came awake fully…

Chapter Seventeen

AS SOON AS Lillian finished, Hazel Marie Puckett swallowed hard…

Chapter Eighteen

LILLIAN AND I doctored on Hazel Marie for some time…

Chapter Nineteen

WAIT FOR ME,” Lillian said. “I’m goin’, too, but I…

Chapter Twenty

OKAY,” I AGREED, because I couldn’t think of a better…

Chapter Twenty-One

WE ALL HAD a slow start the next morning, except…

Chapter Twenty-Two

LILLIAN,” I CALLED toward the kitchen, “I’m going over to…

Chapter Twenty-Three

AS SOON AS Lillian showed up, Pastor Ledbetter told her…

Chapter Twenty-Four

COME ON OUT,” I whispered to Lillian and Little Lloyd.

Chapter Twenty-Five

I SAT THERE, too stunned to be hospitable, and let…

Chapter Twenty-Six

THE BOY TRUSTED me, so that gave me some time.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

WHEN I GOT back to the house, I went through…

Chapter Twenty-Eight

WHY, BROTHER VERN,” I said, staring at him through the…

Chapter Twenty-Nine

I RAN FROM the room, heading for the stairs, as…

Chapter Thirty

DEPUTY BATES HAD Pastor Ledbetter, Dr. Fowler, Brother Vern, and Lillian…

Chapter Thirty-One

MY HEAD SWIVELED from Sam to Binkie, waiting for one…

Chapter Thirty-Two

SAM WALKED OVER and took the paper from me. He…

 

I

D JUST CAUGHT
my breath after the shock of my husband’s sudden passing when his last legacy showed up on my front porch. We’d buried Wesley Lloyd Springer some few months before that hot, still morning in August, and I hoped I was through signing forms and meeting with lawyers and shuffling through various and sundry legal papers. I declare, this business of dying has more legal aspects to it than you would think. The deceased never knows what you have to go through to get his affairs in order, and Wesley Lloyd’s were in as much order as they could get. I thought.

Lord, it was hot that morning, and I recalled again how Wesley Lloyd had always put his foot down about air-conditioning the house, even when the Conovers had theirs done. Central air, too. Wesley Lloyd said it was a waste of money and, besides, fresh air was good for us. He felt that way only at home, though, because his office at the bank was kept cool enough for the three-piece suits he wore day in and day out. But I don’t believe in speaking ill of the dead, even when it’s the truth.

So I was sitting in my living room trying to get my mind off the heat by looking through a stack of mail-order catalogs. Making a list of the items I intended to call in for and having a good
time doing it, since Binkie Enloe’d said I needed to spend some money. Sam Murdoch had agreed, and he ought’ve known since he was the executor of the will that had put me in my present more-than-comfortable position. Lord, there was more money than I ever knew Wesley Lloyd had, and it all belonged to me, his grieving widow. But a proud widow, too, and justly so, because I’d made such a fine and fortunate choice of husbands.

But I tell you, I thought I’d never get over the shock of finding Wesley Lloyd dead as a doornail, slumped over the steering wheel of his new Buick Park Avenue. Steel gray with plush upholstery, parked right out there in the driveway.

But I did, laying him to rest in a properly ordered Presbyterian ceremony as he would’ve expected. Then I had to suffer another shock when I found out how well-off Wesley Lloyd had been. Why, besides the bank his daddy’d left him, he owned half the county, seemed like, plus stocks and bonds and tax-deferred annuities, all of it making more and more money every day of the week. When the extent of his estate was laid out for me, all I could think of was how he used to hand me a housekeeping allowance every Friday, saying, “Make it last, Julia. Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know.” And all the time he was cultivating a whole grove! Well, a lot of good it did him, because I ended up with every penny.

Now, after forty-four years in blissful ignorance of Wesley Lloyd’s activities, financial and otherwise, I had settled down to enjoy the benefits of widowhood and a full checkbook, both of which I was mastering with hardly any problems to speak of.

I looked out the window as a few cars passed by on Polk Street, headed down to Main. I declare, everybody and his brother seemed to have a telephone glued to his ear, though this town’s not big enough to need BellSouth whenever you drive to the grocery store. Across the street the parking lot spread from
Polk to the back of the First Presbyterian Church of Abbotsville, my church and the one Wesley Lloyd and his father, before him, had supported with their presence, tithes, offerings, and over-and-above donations. Advice, too, which was always taken but not always appreciated. Heat waves shimmered up from the asphalt lot as I took note of whose cars were parked over there. It was my custom to keep up with what went on around me and, since Mondays were Pastor Ledbetter’s days off, I couldn’t be blamed for wondering why he was meeting with several men on the session at the church. But far be it from me to be nosy.

I could hear Lillian humming along with the radio above the occasional clatter of pans out in the kitchen as she prepared my lunch. That was another thing that was different, now that Wesley Lloyd wouldn’t be home for meals anymore. He’d liked a quiet house, meals served on time, and everything done right on schedule. I had already begun to enjoy a little freedom from that schedule, telling Lillian that we’d eat whenever either of us got hungry or she got the urge to put something on the table.

I licked a finger and turned a page in the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog, wondering what Sam and Binkie would say if I ordered a few trinkets from it. I declare, some of the offerings were for people with more money than sense, a condition that didn’t apply to me, I’m happy to say. I expect, though, that any number of people would’ve said it did if they’d known the full extent of Wesley Lloyd’s prudence and foresight.

However. His prudence and foresight hadn’t taken heart attacks into account. I knew as sure as I was sitting there he never intended to leave me in charge of everything he owned. I knew it as soon as Pastor Ledbetter came sidling up to me not two days after laying Wesley Lloyd to rest, telling me he knew I’d want to honor Mr. Springer’s last wishes even if they’d never gotten written down. That was the first I’d heard that Wesley Lloyd had
planned to make the First Presbyterian Church his main beneficiary, with Pastor Ledbetter and a member of the session as trustees who’d dole me out an allowance every month.

And speaking of which, you wouldn’t believe the phone calls and circulars and brochures and letters on embossed stationery that had come to me from investment counselors, financial advisors, estate planners, and you name it, wanting me to turn my assets over to them. It didn’t matter if it was a church, a college, a charity, or a businessman in an office, they all knew what was in my best interests. If I’d just let them take care of everything, I would be assured of an allowance dribbled out every quarter throughout my lifetime. Well, I’d been on an allowance for forty-four years, thank you, and having it all was better.

I reached over to close my wine velvet drapes against the morning sun streaming through the window—you have to watch that the sun doesn’t fade your Orientals—and shifted in my chair to move out of the glare. A hairpin slid down my neck and, as I tucked it back in, I recalled how Velma had started talking during my last appointment, paying no attention to the business at hand, which was giving me a permanent. It’d just made me sick when I saw what she’d done. She said the curl would loosen up when it was washed, and besides, my hair was real fine, and I ought to know that hair texture changes with age, and was I taking any medication that would react with the solution. I declare, I wish just once in her life the woman would admit to a mistake and not blame me or my hair for coming out looking like a Brillo pad.

But some things you just have to live with. Like frizzy hair. And no children to comfort you in your old age, both of which can make you want to bury your head and cry.

But to look on the bright side, hair can grow out and children can grow up to squabble over inheritances, so I couldn’t
feel too sorry for myself. Not that I would ever deny a child of mine what was rightfully his. Or hers, but they might fuss among themselves. As it was, I was spared the shameful spectacle of a family split apart over who got what. I know what I’m talking about, because I’ve seen it happen too many times, more’s the pity. I expect there’s never been a will in the world that satisfied all the beneficiaries, so I couldn’t feel too sad about being the sole survivor.

I sighed and turned another page, my attention so taken with the glitter of the catalogs that I nearly jumped out of my skin when the doorbell rang.

I went to the front door and looked through the screen at a woman standing there in heels too high, dress too short, and hair too yellow. All of it too young for the hard-living lines around her eyes and slick, red lips. A skinny little boy stood behind her hanging his head, and I thought she was selling something. Door-to-door salespeople do that, don’t you know, take a child with them to make you feel guilty about turning them down. I opened my mouth to say “No, thank you,” but she was already talking.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” she said, hefting up the strap of her shoulder bag. I could see the sheen of perspiration oozing out from under her makeup as she took a deep breath and let the words pour out. “I wouldn’t do this if I could come up with anything else. But I can’t, and he didn’t leave me no choice, and I got to make a livin’. You know how it is; well, maybe not. But I’m on my way to beauty school down in Raleigh. Learning nails? You know, acrylics and all? There’s money in nails, and I just don’t know what else to do.”

I kept opening my mouth to tell her she had the wrong house, I didn’t know her from Adam, but she didn’t give me a chance. She pulled the child in front of her and gave him a little
push toward the screen door. Sorry-looking little thing, scrawny and pale, standing there with a hangdog look to him and holding a brown Winn-Dixie grocery sack in both hands.

“This here’s Wesley Lloyd Junior, though I guess,” she said with a nervous laugh, “his name’s not too legal, as nobody’d know better’n you. Wesley Lloyd Junior Springer is what I call him, it don’t matter what’s on his birth certificate, though his daddy’s name’s on it as the father. See, his name’s right here.” And she held out a piece of paper with the words “Certificate of Live Birth” across the top.

I could’ve been sleepwalking the way I opened the screen, took the paper, and read my husband’s name on it. “Father: Wesley Lloyd Springer. Mother: Hazel Marie Puckett.”

“I got to leave him with you,” Hazel Marie Puckett said, pushing the little runt closer. “I got to depend on your Christian charity, ’cause Wesley Lloyd didn’t leave me a red cent. I talked to that lawyer of yours, and she said not even the house I been livin’ in some twelve years now. I’m broke, Miz Springer, and I’m not asking you for nothing but to look after my boy while I go get some trainin’. There’s nobody else I can leave him with and, I mean, it’s kinda like he’s your stepson, idn’t it? I’ll be back to get him, six weeks, max, and I really hate to do it, but. Be a good boy, now,” she said, patting him on the back, and using a foot to shove a pasteboard suitcase over beside him.

“Mind Miz Springer, now, you hear?” She gave him a quick kiss on the top of his head and tripped down the steps to a rumbling maroon-and-white car parked in front of my house. Burning oil so bad that thick fumes curled around my boxwoods.

“Miss! Miss!” I called, finally gaining my voice and hurrying out on the porch. “Come back here! You can’t do this! I can’t take this child! Miss! I’m calling the sheriff, you better get back here!”

But she hopped into the passenger seat, and the car sped off
before she hardly had time to slam the door. Passenger seat, it came to me. Somebody else driving.

“What’s all this yellin’ about?” Lillian was at the door, her white uniform glowing through the screen mesh. You could mistake her for a heavyset nurse or waitress unless you noticed the run-over heels of her shoes that flapped with every step she took. She looked at me, and then we both looked at the boy.

I’d never seen such a pitiful-looking specimen. About nine or ten, I guessed, with lank brown hair hanging in his eyes, big horn-rimmed glasses down on his nose, pale skin dotted with freckles, shifty eyes that wouldn’t look at either of us. He stood there with his shoulders slumped, the clip-on bow tie crooked on his thin cotton shirt and his shiny pants gathered high above his waist with a brown stretch belt. Wal-Mart special, no doubt. I looked him over good, ignoring Lillian standing there with her mouth open. I lifted his chin and studied his face, confirming what was as plain as day. My heart sank like an elevator as I gazed at Wesley Lloyd Springer, minus sixty-some-odd years. Looked just like him, but without Wesley Lloyd’s self-confidence and leadership qualities.

I took a deep breath. “Lillian, look what else Mr. Springer left me.”

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