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Authors: Tamar Myers

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BOOK: The Cane Mutiny
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His eyes danced. “Your husband is a lucky man, Mrs. Wiggins.”

“I'm a poor widder woman, Mr. Cotter. That means my sweet daughter here is half an orphan. Perhaps you can find it in your heart to help a poor widder and her sweet, semi-orphan child.”

He had a crooked smile. “Perhaps I can. Wait just a minute.”

The second he turned his back, I was on Mama like white on rice. “Mama! What on earth was that all about? And whoever heard of a semi-orphan?”

“Shhh, dear. Just you wait and see.”

We didn't have to wait long. Mr. Cotter returned with two pages that appeared to be fresh from his printer. He started to pass them to Mama around the side of the screen door, but then opened it wide.

“The information you wanted is on this first sheet. But like I said, it won't do you any good. The second page contains the names, addresses, and phone numbers of everyone who signed up to bid. I took the liberty of circling the names of the top five bidders, not counting the young lady here. Don't know why, but they might come in handy. My phone number is on the masthead as well, in case you get the widder woman blues and need a little company.”

“Thank you,” Mama twittered, sounding every bit as coquettish as she might have had Brad Pitt handed her his unmentionables.

I waited until we were in the car and Mama had stopped twittering. “Mama, don't you think you went a bit far, throwing yourself at him like that?”

She patted her pearls. Mama's emotions are obvious when one observes the manner in which she handles those mollusk secretions. When they start spinning, you know you're in deep doo-doo.

“Why Abigail Louise! I most certainly did not throw myself at that impossibly handsome man.”

“I'd need a crowbar to pry you loose from him.”

The pearls began to move. “Don't be ridiculous.”

“So, how long are you going to wait until you call him?”

The pearls made one full rotation, then stopped. “I think I'll call him right now, dear. Thanks for the suggestion.”

“But Mama, we're still in the parking lot.”

“Then I won't have to worry about a signal, will I?” she said, and dialed.

T
here are few things more embarrassing than having one's mother engage in wanton phone flirtation with a man whose house you can see. I closed my eyes to keep him from seeing me and pressed my hands against my ears. The only thing that kept me from singing “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall” at the top of my lungs was my consideration for Mama. She doesn't hear quite as well as she used to, particularly when there are background sounds.
Finally
she flipped her phone closed and revved the engine.

“Don't let me forget, dear. We're meeting at McCrady's, a week from Thursday, for dinner. Seven o'clock. We would have made it this week, but
Survivor
's on, and we both think the teams are being merged. Isn't that exciting, Abby?”

“That you watch the same TV shows? I'm sure that's more than a lot of couples have in common,
Mama, but there's a catch: you don't watch first-run television. You haven't since
Father Knows Best
went off the air.”

Mama shook her very gray but well-coiffed head. “Abby, I'm beginning to think that as a mother I failed you. It's not what a man believes that's important, but what he thinks he believes. That's why it's always important to get dressed and undressed under the covers.”

“That didn't make a lick of sense, Mama.”

“Life is one long allusion, dear.”

“Don't you mean illusion?”

“I know what I mean, dear.” She jerked the gearshift intro reverse, and we exited the parking lot in a shower of gravel. Just as long as Mama maintained the illusion that her car was undamaged, and didn't allude to the fact that her car needed a new paint job, one for which I would somehow be held accountable, what did the truth really matter?

We drove back up River Road while I gathered my thoughts. Perhaps the smart thing was to hire a private detective to track down the elusive storage shed owner. If that didn't pan out, then maybe I'd try calling some of the names on the list Mr. Cotter had given Mama.
Maybe.

But I'd only managed to gather a few of my thoughts when Mama made a sharp left on Plow
Ground Road. For a second or two my stomach remained behind on the road more traveled.

“Mama, where are we going? This isn't the way back to the city.”

“We're going to hobnob with the rich and famous—well, at least the rich.”

“There are plenty of rich people in town. In fact, downtown Charleston, the area south of Broad, has the fifth highest concentration of wealth in the country.”

“Yes, but those folks advertise their wealth just by being there. We're going to see a rich woman who doesn't care about showing off. It's what she would want with the contents of a storage bin that makes her interesting.”

“Mama, you don't make a lick—”

Mama tossed the papers from her lap into mine. “That's because I'm making two licks of sense. Read the top name.”

“Claudette Aikenberg. So what?”

“Well, he circled it, didn't he?”

“Yes, but—”

“Now read the address.”

“It says 2513 Major Moolah Road. So?”

“That's on Wadmalaw Island. Sudie Pridgen lives on Wadmalaw Island. She had our Sunday school class out there for a cookout last summer. There was a vacant lot next door, one with a marsh
view. Someone asked her the price, because the view was really stunning. She said a million five. Abby, she wasn't talking rubles. And you know what else? A lot of the houses out there can't even be seen from the roads. Believe me, that's where the serious money lives.”

“Mama, a lot of really rich people enjoy the thrill of the hunt. Miss Aikenberg probably read about the auction in the paper—same as I—and thought it would be a fun way to spend a Saturday.”

“We'll see.”

Mama stomped harder on the gas. I checked my seat belt. I also checked the rearview mirror. The last time Mama got a ticket, she invited the issuing officer over for a home-cooked meal. You can imagine my horror when, after a hard day's work, I opened the front door only to find Tweedledum sitting on one of the Louis XIV chairs, eating a miniature quiche with both hands. Tweedledee, thank my lucky stars, had been assigned different duties for the day.

Things went from bad to worse when Tweedledum wiped his fingers on the silk damask seat of his chair. Had it not been for the arrival of Greg, I might well have experienced the inside of a jail cell a whole lot sooner. Mama, of course, pretended to be utterly oblivious to Tweedledum's
bad manners. During the meal that followed, Greg sat beside me, instead of his usual place at the head of the table, and squeezed my knee every time he sensed that I was about to explode. Mama might well have gotten seriously involved with the miscreant had he not, at the meal's conclusion, let loose with a belch that sounded like a sonic boom. Even that might have gone unnoticed if the tremendous force of it hadn't knocked Daddy's picture off the sideboard and onto the floor.

At any rate, once my minimadre is on a mission, there is nothing, short of divine intervention, that can stop her. Having decided to give up prayers of petition for Lent, I was totally at Mama's mercy. I double-checked my seat belt, gritted my teeth, and hung on to the overhead handhold.

Major Moolah Road is unpaved, and as rough as a dragon's back, but it's mercifully short. Claudette Aikenberg lives at the very end, on a wooded peninsula that juts out into the Wadmalaw River. At the end of her drive an understated sign announces the name of her house: Three Bears.

We hadn't called, so I was both relieved and somewhat panicked to see a Jaguar sitting in the circular drive. Mama parked immediately behind it and then tooted her own horn.

“Mama! What is that for?”

“I'm just giving her a heads-up, dear. What if
she's in the middle of putting on makeup and has only one eyebrow stenciled on? She might be too embarrassed to come to the door. I thought we'd give her about five minutes before we ring her bell. I'm sure she'll appreciate it.”

“Maybe. And that's
penciled
on, not stenciled.”

“Oh, not for me, dear. When you get to be my age and have nothing left, it's just easier to use a stencil.”

“I never heard of such a thing.”

“They're called ‘The Eyes Have It.' They come in eight different shapes. I like the one called Cupid's Bow the best. See?” She turned her head so I could see both sides in profile.

Her brows were exactly matched. Why hadn't I noticed that before? And why hadn't I noticed that her skin hung in textured ribbons, like flesh-colored orange peels? Mama was getting old, and since the distance between our ages has pretty much stayed constant, that meant I too was getting older. I glanced at the backs of hands: still smooth, but several of the freckles were morphing into age spots.

“Looks nice, Mama.”

“Thank you, dear. Do you think there's any chance we could talk Wynnell into shaving off those hideous eyebrows of hers and using the stencils?”

“I seriously doubt it. Wynnell needs those brows the same way a cat needs whiskers. They help her judge spaces. You wouldn't want her to get her head stuck in a cupboard, would you?”

Mama laughed, even though I was half serious. We chatted pleasantly for a few more minutes before Mama got out to fluff her crinolines. Then she had me honk the car one last time.

Thanks to our generous warning, Claudette Aikenberg answered the massive front door looking like a million bucks. I recognized her immediately from the auction, even though then she was wearing an Hermès head scarf and Versace sunglasses. It was clear by her expression that she didn't have the slightest recollection who I was, despite my rather distinctive size, which is usually a surefire giveaway.

“Hey,” Mama said, ever the smooth operator. “I'm Mozella Wiggins, and this is my daughter, Abby. We'd like to invite you to church with us.”

I would have gasped in surprise, but Mama, anticipating that, kicked me in the shin with the heel of her pump. I gasped in pain instead.

“Yes, come to church with us,” I managed to say.

“What church is that?”

“Church of the Holy Confection,” Mama said, without missing a beat.

“Father Baker teaches a mean Sunday school class,” I said after just one beat.

“Is it Catholic?”

Mama smiled coyly. “Are you?”

“Baptist.”

“Oh well, this church is intensely Catholic. I'm sure you'd be happier at a Baptist church. But a celebrity, such as yourself, probably already belongs to a church…” Mama let her voice trail off. Clearly she was up to something; something diabolical.

Claudette Aikenberg swung the door wide open. “Ladies, would y'all like to come in and sit a spell? Maybe have a glass of tea.”

“Don't mind if I do,” Mama said, and sailed in like she had a stiff breeze to her back.

I followed meekly, apologizing out the wazoo.

“Nonsense,” Claudette said. “You ladies are most welcome. Confidentially, between you and I, and my four hundred walls, it can get a mite lonesome here.”

Her house, like all homes in this area that are built close to water, was on stilts. She led us across gleaming hardwood floors, into a large room fronted by an immense bay window. Ancient spreading oak trees framed views that were stunning: first marsh, then the sparkling waters of the Wadmalaw, and then more marsh, followed by more woods. There was an abandoned barge in
the middle of the river, and on it perched a lone blue heron. The furniture in the room was contemporary, and comfortable without detracting from the view.

“Please have a seat,” our impromptu hostess said.

“Don't mind if I do,” Mama said, and settled her skirts into an armchair.

“Sweet or unsweet?”

“Sweet,” Mama said.

“Unsweet,” I said. I was trying to be good. At my height even a pound or two makes a huge difference.

Claudette Aikenberg stared at me in horror. “I'm sorry. I only have sweet. But it will only take me a few minutes to make some fresh.”

Much to my chagrin, I realized I'd committed a cardinal sin of the Deep South. Only diabetics and Yankees ever set lips to a glass of unsweetened tea. Claudette had offered me a choice out of pure politeness; she hadn't, for a second, dreamed I would take her up on it. My only excuse, if it is one, was that a dear friend of mine, Bob Steuben, hails from north of the Line. He drinks the unsweetened variety—in secret, of course—and in private has been touting it as a weight loss solution, given that on a normal day I can drink a gallon of the sweet stuff.

“Did I say
un
sweet? Silly me. Of course I meant sweet.”

The instant Claudette disappeared to carry out her hostess duties, I pounced on Mama like a cat on a vole. “Mama, what's this about her being a celebrity? This isn't another of your sniffing claims, is it?”

Some years ago Mama started saying she could smell trouble coming. She meant that literally. From there her amazing nose progressed to being able to detect future events of all sorts. She even predicted the results of the last national election. From the very beginning of this phenomenon I went on record as being a skeptic. But if she's right an additional six or seven more times, I will be seriously tempted to lay money on her nasal prognostications.

“And you call yourself a sleuth,” Mama said. “Tsk tsk tsk.”

“I don't claim to be anything but a put-upon antiques dealer. Now spill it, please, before she returns with our sweet tea.”

“Well dear, there's a console table in the foyer. Just opposite the door. And right smack dab in the middle is this huge trophy. I didn't get a chance to read any of the fine print, but it looked like a beauty queen trophy to me.”

Our hostess returned bearing a tray of tea
glasses and a bowl of cheese straws. We thanked her and then Mama got right down to business.

“What's your exact title, dear?”

“Mrs. James Aikenberg.”

“Yes, of course. But I was referring to that stunning trophy in the foyer.”

Claudette giggled and blushed. Even my regular nose could tell it was an act.

“Oh
that,
” she said. “Big Jim always insisted that I keep it there, and who was little ol' me to argue? But to answer your question, I was Miss Sugar Tit, South Carolina. We have a Bubba festival every year. It's a lot of fun. Y'all really ought to come.”

I strained my brain trying to recollect where Sugar Tit was. Was it up near Spartanburg? Maybe outside of Greenville? And what exactly was a Sugar Tit, besides a great name for a porn star? Something to do with babies. That's right, a sugar tit was a rag soaked in sugar water that was given to an infant to keep its mouth busy in the days before pacifiers.

“Sugar Tit,” Mama said knowingly. “What a lovely little town. I'm sure you were the most beautiful Miss Sugar Tit ever.”

Claudette glowed. “Thank you, ma'am.”

I peered at the former beauty queen from behind the concealing safety of my tea glass. She was a tall, natural redhead whose alabaster skin
was lightly salted with the faintest of freckles, the kind that are almost impossible not to get at this latitude. Although she'd presumably been alone when we came calling, she was decked out in a flowing hostess gown of lavender silk that had a frilly collar composed of shredded ribbons that were lime green—slime green, Buford used to call it. Her long red locks were piled high on her small round head, exposing a graceful white neck and displaying to their best advantage the most ostentatious pair of diamond chandelier earrings I'd ever seen. But perhaps her most distinguishing characteristic, despite her fiery hair, was the surgeon-enhanced bosom. The implants had been placed so far apart that they almost pointed in opposite directions.

“Mrs. Aikenberg,” Mama said, in a tone that was practically purring, “tell us all about yourself.”

BOOK: The Cane Mutiny
3.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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