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Authors: Louise Shaffer

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BOOK: The Ladies of Garrison Gardens
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Chapter Four

OLD MISSUS

2004

S
HE WANTED TO SCREAM.
The
Charles Valley Gazette
was maddeningly uninformative about the death of Peggy Garrison. There was a goopy tribute to her by Hank Barlow, and a brief mention of church services that had already taken place, but that was it. Frustrated, she threw the little newspaper on the floor. As if on cue, Cherry came hurrying in.

“Did you drop your paper? Let me get it for you.”

“I don't want it anymore. Take it away.”

“Yes, ma'am.” Cherry picked up the offending paper and was about to walk out.

“Wait.” The girl stopped obediently. “Go to Buddy Dogget's and get me any copies he has of the
Atlanta Constitution
.”

“Why don't I just go to Eckerd's? It's right there in the middle of the shopping center. Dogget's is all the way downtown—”

“Buddy doesn't always get around to returning the newspapers he doesn't sell. Tell him it's for me, and I want all the back issues of the
Constitution
he has. And he can throw in the last three months of
Southern Living
while he's at it. I'll pay full price.”

“Yes, Old Missus,” Cherry muttered rebelliously, under her breath.

“Cherry,” she called out, timing it nicely so the kid was almost out of the room, “I believe I've told you and Essie that I prefer to be called Mrs. Rain.”

It was sheer cussedness on her part to insist on being called that, and she knew it. The southern way would have been to call herself by her first name with a respectful “Miss” tacked on the front. That was what everyone expected, because she was an old lady and they figured her for Old South. Over the years it had always been a struggle to get the various maids and cooks and gardeners to call her Mrs. Rain.

In the beginning she'd insisted on using the name as a way of hanging on to a scrap of everything she'd had to give up. It had been an act of defiance, silly, sentimental, and maybe even a little dangerous. But it was her way of shaking her fist at the sky. And there had been a time when she needed to do that.

But now she was just torturing poor Cherry because the girl was young and didn't have achy joints and diminishing eyesight. And because the death of Peggy Garrison brought back memories of other deaths. Even though she'd never met Peggy, she'd always wished she could have. She would have asked the woman if she liked being Dalton Garrison's wife, if being a Garrison had made her happy. But now Peggy Garrison was gone. And the last link in the chain was gone with her.

Chapter Five

LAUREL

2004

T
HE BEDROOM SUITES
used by the family were at the back of the house,” Li'l Bit said, when they got to the top of the staircase.

She and Maggie weren't even breathing hard after their climb to the mezzanine. Laurel was.

“The guest rooms were on both sides and the front,” Maggie added. “I remember they were quite opulent. Each one had a bathroom and a dressing alcove.”

On each of the guest bedroom doors there was a small brass plaque documenting the fact that someone of note had spent the night there and giving the date on which the historic sleepover had occurred. Laurel read a couple of names she probably should have recognized from her high school history classes but didn't. Finally she found one she knew.

“I thought it was just talk about Franklin Roosevelt staying here,” she said.

“Actually, he visited twice,” said Li'l Bit.

“The last time was right before the war,” said Maggie. “The rumor was that he was meeting with one of Churchill's people, but that never did come off. Although Dalton and Myrtis did have a picnic for President and Mrs. Roosevelt over at the gardens.”

Laurel stared at the plaque for a moment. Suddenly, the whole thing seemed wildly funny. “I have a house with little brass things on the doors,” she said unsteadily. “I have bedrooms and sitting rooms and dressing rooms and a room for cutting flowers.” Laughter she couldn't control was gurgling up inside her. “There were times when Ma was gone on a bender and I didn't have enough to eat. I slept on the couch when I was a kid, because we only had one bedroom. A month ago I was trying to figure out how to pay for a new air conditioner.”

The laughter was coming in waves, and she could hear it sounding a little shrill. She was afraid of what would happen next. But, God love them, Maggie and Li'l Bit started giggling along with her. Then somehow they were all holding on to one another and laughing. Then they weren't laughing anymore, they were just clinging to one another.

“What the hell am I going to do?” Laurel asked.

Maggie said, “You're going to go through your new house, Doodlebug.”

And when Laurel couldn't seem to make herself move, Li'l Bit opened the door to the nearest bedroom and gently nudged her inside.

From behind her, Maggie snapped on a wall switch, but it only produced a dim light. Through the gloom Laurel could see creamy wallpaper featuring urns and some kind of pink flower. Thick pale rugs were scattered over the floor. There seemed to be a lot of padded chairs and love seats and round tables with skirts, and the twin beds shared a tufted headboard.

“I'd fight not to spend a night in this room,” Laurel said. But Li'l Bit and Maggie were staring at it transfixed, so she added quickly, “But what do I know? It just doesn't seem like Peggy.”

“No wonder,” Maggie said softly. “Peggy never touched this room. This is the way Myrtis decorated it, two years before she died. She showed it to me.”

“That was before I was born,” Laurel said. “It was . . . I don't know how many years ago.”

“It was nineteen-fifty-six,” said Maggie. The date seemed to echo around the room as they all stood quietly, trying to digest what this said about Peggy.

It was Li'l Bit who broke the silence. “That little writing desk over there belonged to Myrtis's grandmother,” she said, in a hushed voice. “Her father bought it for her as a wedding present. The initials on that sewing basket—
M. B.
—stand for
Myrtis Benedict.
Her father's people were Benedicts.”

“Peggy kept all Myrtis's stuff,” Laurel said, needing for some reason to state the obvious.

“Yes,” said Li'l Bit.

“Maybe it was only this room,” Laurel said hopefully.

But it was the same in all of them. The fan in the glass case on one sitting-room wall was the one Myrtis's mother had carried at her deb party. Myrtis's aunt had painted the music box on the nightstand in another bedroom, and the little china clock. The Benedicts seemed to have had a fondness for monograms; a big fancy
B
with swirling curlicues was painted or carved on almost every available surface. But even worse than the damn
B
s were the family photographs sitting in silver frames on the tables with the fancy skirts. In room after room, Li'l Bit stood immobile, her face going from scarlet to white as Maggie quietly identified sepia-toned pictures of Benedict women in hobble skirts and Benedict men wearing white summer suits and boater hats. The Garrisons were represented too, mostly brandishing sporting equipment; tennis rackets and croquet mallets. There wasn't one picture of Peggy's family. Or of Peggy.

“All those years . . .” Maggie said, when they'd walked out of the last gloomy bedroom and were back in the sunny brightness of the mezzanine. “Peggy lived here for all those years. . . .”

“And she never changed a thing,” said Li'l Bit, with a sadness that cut.

“She never asked either one of us to come upstairs.” Maggie smiled an achy little smile. “This is the first time we've been up in this part of the house. I guess now we know why.”

“She was so afraid,” said Li'l Bit. “All her life she was afraid.”

Of what?
Laurel wanted to scream.
Of the goddam Garrisons?

Laurel had grown up among folks in Charles Valley who
didn't
revere its leading family. “Sons of bitches who wouldn't let any other industry in here, refused to pay a living wage, and then called themselves Christians” was the way she'd always heard it. The exception was Miss Myrtis. Even the most ardent critics of the Garrisons said Miss Myrtis was a good person. Laurel thought she sounded as bad as her menfolk. The woman stood by while her husband ripped off his workers; then she gave wads of money to the needy—most of whom wouldn't have been needy if it hadn't been for Mr. Dalt. Miss Myrtis had also been a rotten mother, whose son had caused misery for everyone who knew him, including Peggy. Especially Peggy.

Peggy was worth a dozen of Miss Myrtis. A million!
Laurel wanted to shout. But she didn't. Because Li'l Bit and Maggie were hurting enough. And when your friends are old and fragile, you don't get to shoot your mouth off. Once, when Peggy was talking about her friendship with Li'l Bit and Maggie, she told Laurel there had been a time when she stopped being the youngster and became responsible for them. “It just seemed to sneak up on me,” she'd said. “I always wondered when it happened.”

Well, I sure as hell know when it happened for me
, Laurel thought.
When you died
,
Peggy
. And she could almost hate Peggy for it.

They had walked to the back of the mezzanine where the family bedroom suites were, and now they were facing the door to the master bedroom. Li'l Bit took a deep breath, opened it, started into the room, and then stopped. She and Maggie stood in the doorway and stared at the ornately carved canopy bed in the middle of the room.

“Let me guess,” Laurel said. “The frigging bed was in Miss Myrtis's family for a million years, and they carried it here from Savannah on their backs. . . .” She trailed off because Li'l Bit and Maggie were looking up at the canopy. Laurel looked up too and saw that the fancy
B
she'd come to hate was carved over and over on the frame.

Every night of her married life, the last thing Peggy had seen before she went to sleep was a reminder of Myrtis Garrison. She'd been reminded of Myrtis when she woke up in the morning and when she made love to her husband.

“Shit,” Laurel said.

“Would you like to go in?” Li'l Bit asked. But Laurel could tell that neither she nor Maggie wanted to know what was in there. After Dalton had died, Peggy had moved out of this room and closed it up. Whatever sad, mean little details it would reveal about Peggy's life and marriage, she hadn't meant to share them with anyone but Laurel. Going into the room with Maggie and Li'l Bit would expose her when she wasn't around to put a pretty spin on what they would see. For Peggy, who would rather chew glass than go out of the house without her makeup on, it would be a violation. Laurel closed the door. Maggie and Li'l Bit stood in the hallway looking like lost children. She had to make it better for them.

“I'll take us to lunch,” she said desperately. “The Magnolia Room at the resort. We'll order champagne and have a party for Peggy. She'd love that.”

But Li'l Bit was sagging with weariness, and Maggie was looking every one of her eighty-nine years. Laurel knew they'd rather go back to the big porch that wrapped around Li'l Bit's house.

“I could fix us some sandwiches,” Li'l Bit said, and Maggie nodded eagerly. Laurel could picture the scene. Maggie would pull herself up on the old porch swing and Li'l Bit would settle into the big chair that used to be her father's and they'd eat the soggy sandwiches Li'l Bit had made. And they'd be okay with seeing the empty wicker rocker where Peggy used to sit. But Laurel knew she couldn't stand it. Not today.

She delivered them to Li'l Bit's house and took off.

There had been a time when Laurel would have headed for the Sportsman's Grill after a rotten morning. It was a local hangout, not one of the tourist traps. Denny and The Wiener's father owned it, and she would have gone there because even though it was morning and the place wasn't open yet, Denny would have been inside setting up for the lunch crowd. Denny had been her friend since they were in grammar school. When they were kids they'd discovered Hank Williams and Patsy Cline together, and the music plus their friendship was probably what had gotten them through the bad times when Denny was doing drugs and Laurel wasn't, but she'd get plastered enough to sleep with any boy who asked and some who didn't. And after Denny got clean, on Friday nights when his band played at the Grill, sometimes Laurel still got plastered and sang harmony with the guys.

Over the years, it was Denny who made sure she got home when she'd had one beer too many and who patched her up when she'd fallen for yet another son of a bitch who turned out to be as bad as Denny said he was going to be. Denny was always there for her. Until he met Jennifer, who really wasn't as awful as Laurel tried to tell herself she was.

The next thing Laurel knew, Denny was wearing a tux and standing next to his little brother, who had come home to be his best man, and she was one of Jennifer's ten bridesmaids who traipsed down the aisle of the First Baptist Church. After the ceremony, the happy couple moved to North Carolina and even though Laurel and Denny swore they'd never lose touch, she knew they already had.

And that was why she couldn't go into the Sportsman's Grill anymore, so she'd lost it too. It was coming up now, on her left. She pushed the gas pedal to the floor, with the usual lack of response from her ancient Camaro. She couldn't even speed past the damn place.

“I'm tired of losing!” she yelled as she drove.

But of course, most people would say she hadn't. Most people would say she was one of the luckiest women alive. Because of the way Peggy had “fixed” everything for her.

BOOK: The Ladies of Garrison Gardens
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