miss julia inherits a mess

Also by Ann B. Ross

Miss Julia Lays Down the Law

Etta Mae's Worst Bad-Luck Day

Miss Julia's Marvelous Makeover

Miss Julia Stirs Up Trouble

Miss Julia to the Rescue

Miss Julia Rocks the Cradle

Miss Julia Renews Her Vows

Miss Julia Delivers the Goods

Miss Julia Paints the Town

Miss Julia Strikes Back

Miss Julia Stands Her Ground

Miss Julia's School of Beauty

Miss Julia Meets Her Match

Miss Julia Hits the Road

Miss Julia Throws a Wedding

Miss Julia Takes Over

Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind

VIKING

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

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New York, New York 10014

penguin.com

Copyright © 2016 by Ann B. Ross

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ISBN 978-0-698-15800-9

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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Contents
Also by Ann B. Ross
Title Page
Copyright
Dedication
Acknowledgments
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
Chapter 30
Chapter 31
Chapter 32
Chapter 33
Chapter 34
Chapter 35
Chapter 36
Chapter 37
Chapter 38
Chapter 39
Chapter 40
Chapter 41
Chapter 42
Chapter 43
Chapter 44
Chapter 45
Chapter 46
Chapter 47
Chapter 48
Chapter 49
Chapter 50

This book is for Carolyn Carlson with deep gratitude for the many years of superb editorial guidance, perceptive suggestions, constant encouragement, and general handholding. Miss Julia and I wish you the very best.

Acknowledgments

Last year, the Blue Ridge Literacy Council of Henderson County, North Carolina, offered at auction to the highest bidder the naming of a character in a Miss Julia book. This is that book.

Although I do not know Diane Jankowski, whose most generous bid won her namesake a prominent role in
Miss Julia Inherits a Mess
, it was a pleasure to work with my version of her. I have given that character a professional background as an accredited furniture appraiser and, as such, she is a great help in extricating Miss Julia from the mess in which she finds herself.

Through the many months of working with “Diane Jankowski,” I have come to know that character quite well. I can only hope that the real Diane likes her as much as I do.

My thanks to you, Diane.

Chapter 1

“Julia
!”
Barely catching her breath, LuAnne Conover started talking as soon as I answered the phone. “Have you heard? Everybody's talking about it—it's all over town. I can't imagine what she's been through, can you?”

“Well, no, LuAnne, I can't. Who're we talking about, anyway?”

“Why, Miss Mattie Freeman, of course. Who else would we be talking about? I
mean,
Julia, who else do we know who fell and broke her hip and couldn't get help no matter how long she cried and screamed, and had to lie sprawled out on the floor all night long?”

“Oh, my,” I said, abruptly sitting down. “No, I hadn't heard. Is she all right? What happened?”

But LuAnne wasn't finished with what she'd started. “It's beyond me to understand how you miss everything, Julia. It's not as if you live out in the sticks or anything. In fact, I live farther out than you do, and
I
heard about it more than an hour ago. I would've called you sooner, but my phone's been busy.”

Yes, and I knew why—she'd been on it. But I said, “Well, I don't get out and around like you do.”

“That's because you have Lillian to run your errands and do your shopping and everything else, while I have to do everything myself.”

Every now and then, LuAnne had to take a little jab at those of us who had household help. Not, I assure you, that she couldn't
afford it herself, although I concede that she might've had to compromise on other things. But still.

“That's neither here nor there, LuAnne,” I said, unwilling to apologize for my good fortune. After all, I'd had to put up with Wesley Lloyd Springer for forty-some-odd years to get it. “Tell me about Miss Mattie. Is she all right?”

“Who knows?”
LuAnne said, almost in a shriek. “Nobody'll tell me anything! I've called the hospital and I've called Dr. Hargrove and they won't tell me a living thing! They ask if I'm a member of the family—they're the only ones they'll talk to. And, Julia, I've known her for
years,
which I think ought to count for something.”

“Well . . .”

“I even called Sue, and would you believe she said I knew more about it than she did. Now, I just don't believe that, because she's the doctor's wife. Who else would know something if not her?”

“When did this happen, LuAnne?”

“Not fifteen minutes ago. And she said she had something on the stove and couldn't talk. Hurt my feelings, too.”

“No, LuAnne, I mean when did Miss Mattie fall?”

“Oh. Well, sometime last night or maybe yesterday afternoon. I can't get a straight answer out of anybody. Do you think the EMTs would tell us anything?”

“I don't think I'd bother them. They're probably under orders not to give out information. But does that mean they were called out for Miss Mattie?”

“Julia,” LuAnne said with just a touch of impatience that meant I was being uncommonly slow. “Who do you
think
they'd call? Miss Mattie had been lying on that floor in horrific pain all night long. She had to have somebody who could get her on a stretcher or whatever, and somebody who had an ambulance to get her to the emergency room.”

“Oh, of course. But who found her?”

“The postman! You know how they have all the tenants' mailboxes in the hall of her building? Well, he was delivering the mail
right beside her door, and he heard her moaning, so he called for help. And thank goodness he did. But I can't believe her mail comes so early in the day. Can you? If it'd been me, I would've been lying there till suppertime, practically.”

“So she's in the hospital now?”

“Surgery. They're still operating on her.”

“Oh, my,” I said again. “Should we go over? I mean, maybe a group of us could sit in the waiting room to show our concern. She doesn't have any family, does she?”

“Not that I know of,” LuAnne said, slowing down as she thought about it. “It's strange, isn't it, to know someone so long, yet know so little about her? But I'll tell you something else,” she went on, gathering steam, “if you get a group together to go over there, don't bother calling Helen Stroud.”

“Well, she's probably busy.”

“Busy, my foot. She's just not interested, and I don't think she gives a flip about Mattie. When I phoned to tell her what happened, all she said was, ‘That's too bad. Thank you for calling.' Now, is that cold, or what?”

“Well, you know how Helen is. She expects people to do what they say they'll do, and Mattie . . . well, Mattie's not the easiest person to get along with.”

To tell the truth, Mattie Freeman could be downright disagreeable—abrupt and outspoken—with little thought of the feelings of others. She also had a tendency to volunteer for anything that came up, then to either forget it or just not do it. Helen, on the other hand, was the most efficient and organized person I knew—when she said she'd do something, you knew it would be done. She'd probably washed her hands of Mattie years ago and felt no need to manufacture a great concern for her now.

Not wanting to discuss those thoughts with LuAnne, though, I picked up on her earlier comment. “I think it's strange, too, that no one seems close to Mattie. I've known her since I first came to Abbotsville as a bride, yet I can't really say I
know
her. But what do you think? Should the two of us go over?”

“Well, I will if you will, but Leonard will want his lunch before I go. And there's really not much use in our just sitting around if she's still in surgery. Why don't we think about it for a while?”

I agreed, knowing that Miss Mattie would spend some time in the recovery room after the surgery anyway, and would be unlikely to feel up to receiving visitors anytime soon.

I put down the phone after LuAnne's assurance that she'd keep me up to date on Mattie's condition. I had no worries on that score, for LuAnne kept everyone up to date with anything and everything she heard, knew, or even thought of.

I sat down on the leather Chippendale sofa there in our library, which had once been the downstairs bedroom, to think about what had happened. Miss Mattie Freeman, bless her heart, what would she do now? As far as I knew—and I knew enough—she wouldn't have too many options. It was a settled fact, though, that she would need round-the-clock care for some time to come. Whom did she have to make those decisions and those arrangements if she was unable to do so herself? Which, at her advanced age, was highly likely to be the case.

Thinking of Miss Mattie's present, uneasy situation, I recalled the day a few weeks after Wesley Lloyd's passing—this was years ago now—when Binkie, my curly-headed lawyer, called me to her office.

“Miss Julia,” she'd said, holding out a frayed, much-used ledger, “you may not know about this, but you should take a look. It's a list of people who owe money to Mr. Springer—well, to the estate now. It shows how much they borrowed and how they're repaying it.”

“Oh, you mean bank loans?” Wesley Lloyd had been the owner of one of the last independent banks in the state, a situation in which I'd wanted no part. I'd sold out as soon as I profitably could.

“No, not bank loans—personal loans. You'll forgive me, Miss Julia, but Mr. Springer was running his own operation and charging a pretty penny for it, too.”

I hadn't needed to forgive her for anything she had to say about my first husband. I'd had plenty to say about him myself.

As I glanced down the list of names in the ledger, I realized that I knew most of the people who were indebted to my husband, and now to me. I smiled to myself as an idea began to form in my mind. Hazel Marie Puckett, my late husband's paramour and mother of his little son, who up to that point had been thoroughly snubbed by the town, would, I decided, soon be welcomed in some of the finest homes in Abbottsville. Or else I would see that a certain number of loans on that list would be called in forthwith. Then I saw Mattie Freeman's name. I closed the ledger and handed it back to Binkie, feeling as embarrassed as I would've if I'd walked in on Miss Mattie in the act of disrobing. I told Binkie to cancel that debt, but none of the others.

It was days later that Binkie told me that Mattie had been highly offended at the cancellation, saying that she didn't need charity from anyone, much less from someone she had to see in the Lila Mae Harding class every Sunday that rolled around. I'd left all further decisions about Wesley Lloyd's loan sharking up to Binkie after that and never mentioned the matter to Miss Mattie. For many people who run out of funds, pride is the only thing left, and I respected that.

Chapter 2

When the phone rang again, I hurried to it, hoping there would be news of Mattie's condition.

“Julia, it's me,” Mildred Allen said, although I instantly recognized her voice. Mildred lived next door in what was the largest house in Abbotsville or, if not the absolute largest, pretty close to that distinction. “I guess you've heard from LuAnne about Mattie Freeman.”

“I have, and I was just sitting here wondering what Mattie will do, now that she probably won't regain her mobility anytime soon.”

“Well,” Mildred said, “I say it'd be a good thing if she doesn't. Julia, she can't hear and she can't half see, yet she drives that old car like she's the only one on the road.”

“Oh, I know. I pull to the side when I see her coming.” We laughed a little at the thought of Mattie's age-old Oldsmobile barreling around town. “I don't think they make those things anymore, and I keep hoping it'll die on her. I doubt she'd be able to get parts for it, so she'd have to park it.”

“We'd all be safer if she did, but let me ask you something,” Mildred said. “I've had her on my mind all morning and started wondering about this. Have you noticed how Miss Mattie's teas keep getting smaller and smaller? I can remember when she'd have about a dozen guests every spring to repay her obligations for the past year. Her teas were always lovely—especially those
luscious finger sandwiches she served. But last year there were just a few of us there. Are people turning down her invitations or is she just not inviting many?”

“Oh, Mildred, I finally figured that out. It took me awhile, but I think I know the answer. You're right, years ago she always invited eleven ladies, making twelve counting herself. That's about all her living room will hold at one time anyway.”

Miss Mattie had lived in a two-bedroom apartment in an old but substantial building near town for as long as I'd known her. The tall, spacious rooms with medallioned ceilings, designed by an architect unaffected by modernism, were filled with furniture of a size and quality that indicated a decline from more gracious surroundings. She entertained once a year—always in the late spring when it was warm enough for her guests to expand into the sunroom through the French doors in her living room.

“Yes, I know,” Mildred said, “but what I'm saying is that she hasn't had that many guests in a number of years. Last spring there were only five of us, six counting her.”

“Well, hold on. I'm telling you why. You know that lovely china she has?”

“Meissen, isn't it? I don't know the name of the pattern.”

I started laughing. “I don't think anybody does. Remember the time LuAnne raised her cup over her head to look at the mark on the bottom?”

“And tilted it so she spilled tea on herself? I sure do—funniest thing I'd seen in ages.”

“Well, anyway,” I went on when we stopped laughing. “It's a beautiful set—so thin you can practically see through it and quite old. It's probably been discontinued by now. But that's the problem. Mildred, I think that over the years, Miss Mattie has suffered some cup and saucer breakage, and as they break, she's had to cut down on the number of guests she invites.”

“Why, that's right. I should've figured that out myself. I remember thinking—what was it, three years ago?—how strange it was that Mattie had invited only seven guests. Such an odd
number, but that meant she was down to eight cups and saucers. And last year she must've been down to six. Oh, bless her heart, that's so sad.”

“It is,” I agreed, “but you have to admire her for keeping up appearances in spite of it.”

“She certainly does that. And woe be to anyone who leaves her off a guest list. Ever since she started using that walker, though, she's a danger to have around.”

“Oh, I know. She almost crippled a visiting preacher one time when a rubber-tipped metal leg of that walker landed on his foot. How old do you think she is, anyway?”

“Older than we are, that's for sure.”

“I guess that makes her fairly close to ancient—speaking for myself, of course.”

“Of course,” Mildred said, laughing. “But, Julia, do you think she'll have to go into a hospice or a retirement home or what? She won't be able to stay by herself, will she?”

“I wouldn't think so, and the way hospitals discharge patients so quickly these days, something will have to be decided fairly soon. Does she really have no family at all?”

“I've never known her to mention any, although generally there's a distant cousin crouching in the background somewhere just waiting for a death notice.”

“Oh, don't even think that. Besides, I expect that even if a distant cousin shows up, he'd be sorely disappointed.” We let a few seconds pass in silence as we thought of Miss Mattie's dire straits. “Mildred, you and I may have to step in if it comes down to it.”

Mildred sighed. “I was thinking the same thing, although I don't want it to get around that we're providing Social Security supplements. No telling where it would end with all the impoverished widows in this town.”

“I'm in total agreement with that. But let's just wait and see how she gets along. For all we know, we'll be dodging that Oldsmobile again in a few weeks.”

_______

After hanging up the phone, I walked to the window overlooking the backyard. It was a beautiful spring day—clear skies and a warm breeze stirring the leafed-out ornamental fruit trees we'd planted a few years back. The forsythia, jonquils, and tulips were about gone, but the wisteria over the arbor and the crape myrtles beside it were just before their full blooming stage.

It was time for Miss Mattie's annual tea party, but there wouldn't be one this year.
Maybe I should do it for her
. That was an inspiring thought, and I congratulated myself for thinking of it. I sat down to think it through.

I would have it here at my house, of course, and Mattie would be the guest of honor. And I would invite more than five or seven or even eleven guests because I had thirty-six unbroken and unchipped cups and saucers. And they would be constantly washed and replaced on the silver tray as guests came and went.

I would seat Mattie in one of the large wingback chairs, not in the living room, which would create congestion at the front door, but here in the new library, where the ladies could line up to be greeted in style. And I'd keep that perilous walker far from Mattie's chair, so she couldn't get up and down, posing a danger to every foot in the room.

Mattie would be in her element—she loved parties and never missed a one. If, for some reason, she did not receive an invitation to a party that she knew someone was giving, she wasn't above calling the hostess with the news that her invitation had been lost in the mail.

But thinking of all that, my mind eventually came back to the question of what was to become of her now. There were at least two large complexes near town that catered to well-to-do couples, widows, and widowers in their declining years, offering both excellent living conditions and lifetime care. One of those would be ideal for Miss Mattie—she would revel in the attention—but I doubted she'd be able to afford either one.

The alternative, as far as I knew, was some crowded government establishment where she'd have a roommate who'd keep her awake by moaning and crying all night, and aide workers who would do the best they could, but which in the final analysis wouldn't be good enough. Shunted aside, that's what it would come down to, and I hated the thought of that.

I might as well be honest here and say right up front that Mattie and I had never been close. She'd been on the fringes of my acquaintances throughout the years, and neither of us had made any effort toward a closer relationship. She had always been so
old,
even years ago when we were all younger. Her hair had always been up in a bun, and her clothes had always been gray or black. For years, she had been a tall, big-boned woman—not particularly overweight, but in the last several years her frame had broadened and become more hunched as her legs bowed from the weight. You wouldn't want to go through a doorway with her.

I smiled to myself recalling the first time Lloyd had seen her not long after he and his mother had come to live with me. He'd thought she was the witch from
Hansel and Gretel,
and he'd kept his distance from the oven as long as she was in the house.

It had been a natural progression for Mattie to go from a limp to a cane to a walker. And now, perhaps, to a chair or a bed for the rest of her life.

I got so sad thinking about it that I had to get up and walk around.

And a convenient move that was, because I could walk right on out of the room as Lillian called me to lunch.

Chapter 3

“Tuna fish salat,” Lillian said, motioning to the plate on the kitchen table. “I always think of it when springtime come rollin' 'round.”

“It does look good,” I said, sitting at the table. “Have you eaten?”

Lillian laughed. “I been eatin' all mornin'.” She scrubbed a spot on the counter, then rinsed the cloth under running water. “Miss Julia, did you hear 'bout pore ole Miss Mattie Freeman? Everybody at the grocery store wonderin' what gonna happen to her now.”

“Yes, I have heard, and I've been wondering the same thing. It's so sad to be all alone in the world, which is what we think she is. I can't imagine what she'll do. I don't even know what her choices would be in the way of getting the help she'll need.”

“Well, they's lots of nursin' homes out in the country,” Lillian said. “But they all crowded up with cranky ole people that can't do nothin' for their selves. I wouldn't put my dog in a one of 'em.”

“Oh, dear,” I said, lifting a fork full of tuna salad. “Well, I hope she's had the foresight to designate someone to make those decisions for her if it comes down to it. But,” I went on, “for all we know, she could get over this and be her old self again. Lots of people do.”

“Yes'm,” Lillian agreed, but with little conviction. She busied herself with pulling out various pans and pots in preparation for
dinner. “Oh, I forget to tell you,” she said, turning to me, “I run into that nice Miss Etta Mae in the coffee aisle at the store today. She ast me how you doin'.”

“Well, how sweet of her. I haven't seen her for a while. Is she getting along all right?”

“Yes'm, I guess. She smilin' an' talkin' like she always do. But, I tell you, she have that long, lonesome look 'round her eyes—you know what I'm talkin' about. So all that talkin' an' carryin' on don't fool me. She a sad young woman.”

“Oh, I hate to hear that,” I said, putting down my fork, troubled by Lillian's insight—she was rarely wrong. “I hope nothing bad has happened to her.” I put my napkin by my plate and stood up. “I think I'll call her and see how she's doing. I've been thinking of her anyway, wondering if she might be available to help Mattie when she comes home.”

“Yes'm, Miss Mattie gonna need lots of help, an' maybe Miss Etta Mae could go stay with her like she did when Miss Hazel Marie have her twinses.”

“Well, I don't know about that,” I said, rolling my eyes just a little. “You wouldn't believe what her employer—Lurline Somebody—charged for letting her do private duty. I wouldn't have minded if Etta Mae had gotten it—I mean, she was up and down all night every night with those babies, then taking care of them and Hazel Marie during the day. She earned every penny, but she only got her regular salary.”

Lillian smiled. “I 'spect you make up for it, though.”

I smiled back. “A workman is worthy of his hire, I always say.”

I stood by the table for a few minutes, lost in thought. Then I said, “You know, if anybody else could hear me I wouldn't say this—I'd probably be strung up by wild-eyed feminists. But I think what Etta Mae needs is a man.”

“Law, Miss Julia,” Lillian said, laughing as she cut her eyes at me. “From what I hear, she already have a bait of 'em. I 'spect that the last thing on her mind.”

“Well, I'm talking about a decent, hardworking man who'd
love her and support her as she deserves to be. She's all alone in the world except for Granny Wiggins, who seems healthy enough now, but how long will that last? And it'll be Etta Mae who'll be taking care of her.”

“Well, you know what they say. You spend the first part of your life taking care of chil'ren, an' the last part taking care of your mama an' daddy. An' your grands, too, if you got 'em.”

“That's the truth,” I said, then had to smile because it wasn't the truth for me. “I guess that's the bright side of having no children and outliving all your relatives. I tell you, Lillian, I don't think I'm cut out for taking care of an old person. Not enough patience, for one thing.”

Lillian grunted. “You didn't think you was cut out to take care of no chil'ren, either, and look what been happenin'.”

“Well,” I conceded with a smile, “Lloyd is a different matter altogether. And the little Pickens girls, too. And I guess Coleman and Binkie's Gracie as well. But I'd rather deal with children than with some sharp-tongued old person who's never pleased with anything you do.”

“You got that right, 'less,” she said, stopping to laugh, “it Latisha you got to deal with. She a handful.”

I smiled at the thought of Lillian's talkative great-grandchild. “Well, it's said that the Lord never gives you more than you can handle, but I thank goodness that Sam and I are the oldest in both our families. I don't have to worry about having someone in declining health on my hands for the rest of his or her life.”

“Yessum,” Lillian mumbled as she began peeling potatoes. “The Lord, He know what He doin', all right.”

_______

“Etta Mae?” I said when she answered her cell phone. “It's Julia Murdoch. I hope I'm not calling at an inconvenient time.”

“Oh, Miss Julia! How nice to hear from you, and, no, it's not inconvenient. I'm in my car, on my way to the next patient.”

“Well, good. You're so busy that I always hesitate to call.”

“Oh, don't do that. You can call anytime you want to. I can always stop what I'm doing if you need anything.”

“That's very thoughtful of you, Etta Mae. But what I'm calling about now is to see if you could add another patient to your list.”

There was silence on the line. Then she asked, “Are you having trouble, Miss Julia?”

“Me? Oh, no. My goodness, I'm as healthy as a horse. No, I'm calling about a friend who might need some help.” And I went on to tell her about Mattie Freeman, although emphasizing that I was simply exploring the possibilities.

“Well, sure,” Etta Mae said, although with markedly less enthusiasm than I'd previously heard. “Lurline would have to rearrange the schedules with the other girls, but if you ask for me, I expect she would.”

“Understand, though,” I said, “that I'm not talking about round-the-clock care from you. That would be entirely too much to ask—and I'm not that close to Mattie. And it may not come to needing you at all. For all I know, she's made her own plans, and I hope she has.”

“Maybe so, but you can let me know.”

“Thank you, I will. But, Etta Mae . . . ?”

“Ma'am?”

“How are you doing?”

“Oh, I'm okay,” she said with a sigh. “Just a little disappointed, I guess. I thought maybe you were calling about taking another trip to West Virginia or Florida or somewhere.” She laughed at her dashed hopes.

“I tell you what, Etta Mae,” I said, about to promise something that I'd never thought of before. “When this business with Mattie is settled, we ought to take a trip. But not for the reasons we took the other ones. Let's think about just going somewhere for fun.”

“I would love it,” she said, and from the way she said it, I knew she meant it.

Chapter 4

“Julia,” LuAnne said when I answered the phone later that afternoon. “Mattie is out of recovery and in her room. I just checked, and she's doing fine. Do you want to go visit her?”

I glanced at my watch. “Why, yes, let's do. It's not quite four, so we could go and be back before supper.”

“I'll pick you up on my way. Fifteen minutes?”

“That's fine,” I said. “I'll see if Mildred wants to go with us.”

Mildred didn't. I called her as soon as I'd hung up with LuAnne, and Mildred had said, “Just give Mattie my best, if you will. It's too late in the day for me. I'll try to go over tomorrow.”

I wasn't surprised, because Mildred had become less and less active lately—a matter that concerned me. But how do you point out to someone that they need to exercise and lose weight without losing a friendship in the process?

After telling Lillian where I was going, I slipped on a cardigan—hospitals are always cold—and hurried out to LuAnne's car when she pulled to the curb.

_______

The Pink Lady at the front desk gave us Mattie's room number, then we followed the painted lines to the surgical ward on the second floor. Stopping at the nurses' station on the ward, LuAnne asked about Mattie's condition.

“She's still a little groggy from the anesthesia,” the nurse
responded, “but the surgery went well.” Then she smiled warmly. “She should have no problem with a full recovery.”

Well, that was encouraging, I thought, marveling again at the wonders of modern medicine.

We proceeded down the hall and entered a room with two beds, a partially pulled curtain between them giving a semblance of privacy. There was a patient in each bed. Mattie was in the one closest to the window, but it took me a minute to recognize her. Her hair was loose and stringing across the pillow, and the wrinkles on her face were deeper than usual. No wonder, of course, considering the night she'd spent on the floor, as well as the hours of surgical intervention that she'd endured. I hated to think what I would've looked like if I'd been through the mill as she had.

We walked past the first bed, courteously averting our eyes from the woman who lay there engrossed in a movie magazine. She paid us no attention.

“Mattie,” LuAnne whispered as she leaned over the bed, careful to avoid the lines and bottles and beeping machines that were hooked onto or into Mattie. “How're you feeling?”

Mattie's eyes opened, then she stared at the ceiling as if LuAnne's words had come from there, but she didn't respond. I lingered at the foot of the bed, hesitant to get close for fear of disturbing the medical paraphernalia.

“Mattie! It's me,” LuAnne said, no longer whispering. “And Julia. We've come to see how you are.” Turning to me, she urged, “Say something, Julia. Don't leave me to do all the talking.”

I edged along the side of the bed so I wouldn't have to raise my voice. “Mattie,” I said, leaning over, “we're so concerned about you. Is there anything we can do? Anything you need?”

Her eyes blinked, then she turned to look straight at me. In a hoarse voice, she reached toward me and croaked, “Oh, Mother, has it come?”

I took a step back.

“What?” LuAnne said. “What are you looking for, Mattie?”

Mattie's head turned toward her. She blinked several times and frowned in thought.

“My gown!” she said, her head rising from the pillow with the forcefulness of her answer. “It's got to get here or I won't be able to go.”

Tears suddenly welled up in Mattie's eyes, and I said, “LuAnne, we're disturbing her. Maybe we should go.”

Mattie immediately turned back toward me. “Yes, go see about it. Call Neiman's, Mother. Tell them it has to be fitted and everything, and it has to get here.” Tears streamed down her face. “I'll just die if I can't go.”

LuAnne and I looked at each other across the bed. LuAnne's mouth was open, reminding me to close mine.

“We'll go see about it,” I said, hoping that was enough to reassure Mattie. “We'll be back later.” I motioned to LuAnne that we should leave, and we started for the door.

As we passed the other patient in the room, she lowered her magazine and said, “I hope you find that dang dress. That's all I've heard ever since they moved her in here.”

_______

“Well,” LuAnne said as she drove toward my house, “the nurse said she was still groggy from the anesthesia.”

“Uh-huh,” I said, slightly shaken from the state of Mattie's mind. “Reliving the past, I guess.”

“But you know,” LuAnne said as she stopped at a red light, “I don't think she knew us from the man in the moon. Why, she thought you were her mother, which is pretty funny when you think about it.”

“More like pitiful,” I said somewhat drily, “considering the fact that Mattie's well over ninety, and I'm nowhere near it.”

For once, LuAnne didn't pursue the subject of age differences, even though she was uncommonly proud of the fact that her birthday was six months later than mine.

Chapter 5

“Sam,” I said as we settled into our usual places in the library after supper that evening. Lloyd was with his mother's family and Lillian had just left, so the house was quiet and settled. Occasionally, a low rumble of thunder rolled around in the distance, heralding a spring shower.

He lowered the newspaper, looked at me over his reading glasses, smiled, and said, “What's on your mind, honey?”

“A couple of things. First, I had all good intentions of going over to Mildred's after supper and enticing her to take a walk around the block with me. I'm worried about her, Sam. She's gaining weight instead of losing it, even though she's constantly on a diet. Or says she is. And here lately all the exercise she gets is walking from one chair to another.”

“Why don't you get her a pedometer? That might encourage her to move around a little more.”

“A pedometer? What does that do?”

“It counts steps. You wear it or carry it in a pocket or wherever, and it counts the number of steps you take in a day. The idea is to increase your steps by a thousand or so each day until you reach an optimum number—about ten thousand, I think.”

“Ten
thousand
! Why, Sam, you'd be walking from sunup till sundown all day long and getting nothing else done. I don't think Mildred takes much more than a hundred steps a day. That's why I thought a walk around the block would be a start, at least.

“I knew it was no use asking her, though, at the first sound of thunder. She would no more take a walk with rain threatening than she'd fly.”

“You could try early in the morning before it gets too hot.” Sam, like a lot of people, had plenty of suggestions for what somebody else could do.

“Oh, Sam,” I said, smiling, “Mildred is a late sleeper, and when she does wake, she has breakfast in bed for another hour or so.”

He lowered the paper again. “Really?”

I nodded. “Yes, she's getting less and less active. And speaking of that, who knows if Mattie Freeman will ever be active again? So that's another one to worry about. I just don't know what's to become of her. I told you how her mind was wandering all over the place when LuAnne and I visited this afternoon. It just stunned me how far out of it she was.”

Sam reached over and put his hand on mine. “That may not be permanent, honey. Tomorrow, when you see her, she may be her old self again. The anesthesia will have worn off and she'll be feeling better.”

“Well, I hope so. She's going to have decisions to make. I doubt she'll be able to live alone in that apartment for some time to come, if ever again.” I turned to him. “Oh, Sam, I'm so glad to have you. If I ever get in that situation, I know you'll take care of me.”

Sam smiled his sweet smile. “You can count on it,” he said. “But remember, it may be the other way around and you'll be looking after me.”

“Oh, don't even think it.” Then a second later, I added, “But if it happens that way, I'll gladly look after you.”

“I tell you what,” Sam said. “Let's go downhill together, and let Hazel Marie, Lloyd, J.D., Binkie, Coleman, Etta Mae, Lillian, and I guess Latisha, too, have us both on their hands. How would that do?”

I laughed. “It would do just fine and serve them right, too.”

“Well, you know, it's interesting,” Sam said, in a musing way. “I was thinking about this the other day and about the fact that
neither of us has children to call on. But then I realized, sweetheart, that you've gathered various children along the way, so I don't think either of us has anything to worry about.”

Now, that was an intriguing concept, and as I thought about it, I couldn't help but congratulate myself just a little for being so prescient. Although I hadn't realized that was what I was being when I began collecting the unrelated family members who now surrounded us.

We sat in silence for a few minutes as a glow of well-being settled in. Or, at least, it did for me. Sam, on the other hand, obviously had his mind on other things. He frowned as he folded the newspaper and put it aside.

“Maybe,” he said, a serious look on his face, “we shouldn't count on others to do what we're unwilling to do for ourselves. I'm wondering if we should begin thinking of moving to a retirement community. Sign up for some of that perpetual care they advertise.”

I stared at him. “I can't believe you're thinking of that. Why, Sam, we've visited people at Halifax Gardens—supposedly the best of the best—and all you see are gray heads and stooped shoulders and walkers and wheelchairs and wrinkled faces everywhere you look. I don't want to live where I see myself staring back at me in every face around. It's unnatural to live without young people and children around to—I don't know—equalize things, I guess. Besides,” I went on, smiling at him, “I think that perpetual care you mentioned refers to cemeteries, not retirement homes.”

We laughed, for Sam rarely misused a word, although it occurred to me that he'd done it to amuse me.

“Anyway,” I went on, “just so you know, if you're really serious about that, you'll have to go by yourself. The last time Clarice Miller invited me to lunch to meet some of her friends out there, the main topic of conversation was how many shrimp each person had gotten in her shrimp Creole.”

Sam laughed as he picked up the newspaper again, but the
memory of six elderly women stirring piles of rice with their forks while they counted shrimp saddened me. I let him finish reading an article that he seemed especially interested in, then I went back to what was foremost in my mind.

“Sam?”

“Hm-m?”

I waited until he looked at me over his glasses. “I spoke to Etta Mae Wiggins this afternoon just to feel her out about taking care of Mattie for a few days when she comes home. Now I'm wondering if I stepped on anybody's toes or pushed myself in where I wasn't wanted. I mean,” I hurried on, “I'm concerned about having a backup plan if Mattie's not made any provision for herself. Or if she doesn't have the means for any kind of plan.”

“So you're asking what I think about your shouldering the expense of Mattie's care?”

“Not exactly, because Mildred said she'd help. I just mean looking around at the possibilities at this point. Etta Mae might not be able to do it or want to do it. I sort of hope she won't.”

“Why? That's pretty much what she does, isn't it?”

“Yes, I guess it is, except her regular schedule as a Handy Home Helper gives her the freedom to come and go from one patient to another. She doesn't stay cooped up all day and night with one crabby old woman. See, Sam,” I went on, trying to explain my hesitancy, “I'm concerned about Mattie, but I'm more concerned about Etta Mae. She could use the money, I'm sure, but she needs to be out and around people her own age.”

“You mean men her own age?”

“Well, yes. And what's wrong with that? I worry about her—Etta Mae, that is. She does nothing but work, and I keep thinking I should have her over for lunch or something to meet somebody nice. Except there's nobody nice for her to meet.”

“I tell you what,” Sam said, as if he'd just thought of it. “If you just want to get her out and around, why don't you ask her to stay here with you while I'm gone? I'd feel better if there was someone in the house with you.”

“Hm-m, now that's a good thought, because I'd feel better if there was someone here, too.” Sam, Mr. Pickens, and Lloyd were leaving for a trip to Biloxi for a week of deep-sea fishing the day after school let out for the summer. It had been Mr. Pickens's idea to have a three-man vacation with Lloyd and Sam, and thank goodness for that. Mr. Pickens was proving that he could easily step into stepfatherhood, and I was delighted that the three men would be off on their own with no women around—especially me. I wouldn't have gone deep-sea fishing on a bet.

“Of course,” I went on, picking up the conversation, “I wouldn't have anyone nice for Etta Mae to meet, but it would be a change for her to have company after work and Lillian's good cooking, too. I may just do that, and, Sam, while I'm thinking of it—don't forget to pack some sunblock. And a hat. You'll need a hat out on the gulf.”

“Yes, ma'am,” Sam said, grinning. “I won't forget. You won't let me.”

“Oh, you.” I smiled and reached for his hand. Then I went on in a more serious vein. “But back to Mattie, Sam. Mildred and I are just trying to think ahead. It'll be a big responsibility on somebody to determine what Mattie needs and where she should go, especially if she stays mentally eighteen years old for any length of time.”

“Well, look, honey. If she doesn't recover her mental capacity, it may be that she'll have to go into hospice care. But you don't need to worry about that. Her doctors will decide what's best for her.”

“Well, that's true, and thank goodness for professional experts. I don't want to make any such decisions for Mattie or for anybody, and Mildred most assuredly doesn't. We don't mind contributing financially, but neither of us would want the burden of deciding what's to be done with her.”

“You're worrying for nothing, sweetheart. Think of this: Mattie Freeman has lived alone for as long as we've known her. She's always known that she'd have to look after herself. Don't you
think she has a contingency plan? Something legal that'll kick in if she's incapacitated?”

“Like what? I've never thought I'd need anything like that.”

“That's because you've always had plenty of people who would step in for you. Actually, though, in spite of that, you do have something legal. You and I gave each other power of attorney right after we married.”

“We did?”

“Yes, and I told you to read it carefully and be sure you understood it.”

“Well, I guess I just signed it because you told me to.”

He laughed. “Don't make a habit of that. Anyway, chances are good that Mattie has everything lined up to take care of whatever happens. I'm not sure who her attorney is. She never came to me, so it's unlikely she went to Binkie, either. Maybe Ernest Sitton—he's been around forever. He may be looking after her affairs.”

“I hope so. I truly hope somebody is. You know, Sam, Mattie's always been a part of our circle, but she's been on the fringes, so to speak. So much so that even Helen Stroud, who's the most socially correct woman I know, upset LuAnne with her lack of interest in Mattie's situation. But then,” I said, pausing to smile, “LuAnne was upset with Sue Hargrove, too, for being less than forthcoming with inside information.”

“It seems to me,” Sam, the least judgmental of men, said, “that LuAnne is fairly easily upset.”

“Oh, you can say that again,” I agreed, then returned to the more pressing subject. “You know, Sam, I don't think Mattie has ever had a close friend. And that is really strange when you think about it, considering how long she's been around. But,” I went on with some complacency, “that shouldn't stop us from doing the Christian thing if we have to.”

Sam nodded. “That's true, but it wouldn't surprise me if some lawyer doesn't pop up with a list of just-in-case instructions signed and sealed some years ago by Mattie.”

“I hope you're right, not because I wouldn't want to do my Christian duty, but because I can hardly make my own decisions, much less have to make somebody else's.”

“Julia, honey, you worry too much.”

“Maybe so, but if I don't, who will?”