Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Chapter 16

Surely it must be time to get up, I thought.  Unwilling to open my eyes to the bright morning light just yet, I nudged one of several dogs off my legs and tried to stretch.  Not the smartest move - once they realized I was awake, the barking and licking started.  I opened my eyes to find Duncan, paws on my chest, holding a rolled up paper in his mouth.  I assumed it was for me.

Yep.  It was a note from Jeff:  Dogs walked and fed.  Kids clean, dressed, stopping at Uncle Jimmy's for breakfast on the way to school.  Thought you'd like to sleep in.

What a guy.  I looked at the clock - it was nearly nine.  I couldn't remember the last time I'd slept that late.  Well, since having children anyway.  I shooed the dogs off the bed and headed toward the kitchen, musing that coffee might be just the thing to start my day.  That's when the knocking began.  Loud knocking.  Knocking that was way too urgent for this early in the morning.

All four dogs accompanied me as I stumbled into the kitchen.  At the back door, I peered out the window to find three tiny black women standing on the back porch.  "Yes?" I said, opening the door with some hesitation.

"I'm 'Lil Niecy," the tallest of the three said.  Gesturing to her companions, she continued, "And this here's Ti-Niecy and this one Chi-Niecy.  Mister Rob sunt us down to help you."

"To help me?"

"With your housework and such," the one called Ti-Niecy replied.  "He said you got two kids, a big ole husband and your husband's daddy to look after."  She stepped back slightly, as Duncan edged toward her silently.  "And all them dogs."

"Well, I wasn't expecting..." I began.

Chi-Niecy interrupted me.  "We does for Mister Jimmy and Mister Rob three times a week.  At they house and in the shop.  They sure does have lots of furniture to shine up."

"Mister Rob was going to call you," said 'Lil Niecy. 

Just then the phone rang.  I motioned for them to come in and grabbed the telephone.  It was Aunt Rob.  "They're here," I answered when he told me why he was calling.  I listened while he extolled their many virtues and when I started to protest, Aunt Rob sweetened the deal by offering to provide their services on a weekly basis.  He promised that I would have no complaints and rang off.  I looked at the Weird Sisters - an amusing image considering Duncan's less than friendly reaction to them - and said, "As long as you're here, I guess I might as well give you the tour."

"Oh, we been here before," said Ti-Niecy.  "We cleaned the place for Mister Jimmy just before you all moved in."

"Well, you don't have to clean my office," I said, standing in the doorway.  "I prefer not to have anything on my desk moved.  I can take care of this room myself."

Chi-Niecy stuck her head in the door and looked around as if she doubted my housekeeping skills. "What in the world is all them chalkboards for?" she asked.  "Is you some kind of teacher?"

"No," I replied.  "I use them for my work." I didn't want to mention that I never take the chance of an over-eager housekeeper erasing my calculations and other random scribblings.  Or the fact that some of the files that came across my desk were of the top-secret variety.  "My kids aren't even allowed to come in here."

"Now don't you worry," said 'Lil Niecy.  "We won't bother a thing in there.  We should get started, if you don't mind.  Mister Rob says you like to use you own cleaning supplies.  He says they is pet friendly.  You want to show me where everything is?"

I led them into the laundry room and pointed out the cupboard with the cleaning supplies.  "As you can tell, I haven't done much cleaning in the past couple of weeks.  We're still settling in."

"That's why we is here to help you," 'Lil Niecy said.  "Our mama used to work for Mister Jimmy and Mister Rob until she got so's she couldn't get around too good.  You might remember her; her name DeNiecy."

Actually, I did remember.  That sweet little lady made the lightest buttermilk biscuits I've ever eaten in my life.  I inquired after her present health.

"Oh, she still cooking and baking, but she don't do the cleaning no more."  I followed 'Lil Niecy into the kitchen while the other two headed upstairs laden with the vacuum cleaner, a mop and a bucket.

Curiosity had finally gotten the better of me; I had to ask.  "I guess you're her namesake," I ventured.

"We all is, " she replied.  "Her given name is Deniece.  My grandmama named me Deniece, too, but Mama always called me 'Lil Niecy.  Then when Ti-Niecy come along, she was so small they name her Deniece on account of she look just like me, but we call her Tiny.  When she got older, she didn't like that, so we change it to Ti-Niecy.  And I'm sure you can tell why we call Chi-Niecy what we do."

"Is her name Deniece, too?"  I asked.

"Lord, no!  It be Stella.  But she got them Chinese eyes, so we been called her Chi-Niecy all her life.  I expect she used to it by now," she said matter of factly and started unloading the dishwasher.  "Now I can't be standing here jawing all day.  You need to go ahead on and get dressed and you might ought to do something about that hair.  And that office of yours sure look like you got some work to do."

I knew why Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Rob liked the Weird Sisters so much; they enjoyed being looked after.  I also knew why they sent them to me: my uncles thought I needed a keeper, too.

Maybe just for a couple of weeks.  Or a month.  Until we get settled in.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Chapter 15

Of course, what happened next was the real surprise.  Piney Point's own dumb, but decidedly debonaire, deputy Danny sauntered over to Miss Van Beek and laid what my granddaddy would have called a big buzzer right on her primly painted lips.  I don't know, but I may have gasped audibly and hung on to either the bar or Jeff for support.  Billie Jo let out with a wild whoop of delight and rang the bell over the beer taps.  Jeff slowly shook his head and took one of the ice-cold bottles off my tray.

"I need a drink," he said.

"Well, if that don't beat all," said Billie Jo, replacing the bottle and pushing the tray toward me.  "Get to steppin', girl.  You got a new customer."

I glared at her and picked up the tray.  "I am definitely keeping my tips for tonight," I hissed and headed for the table closest to the stage.  Danny had gone back to tuning his guitar and conferring with his bandmates.

"Can I get you something to drink?" I asked.

"In a minute," the principal replied.  "Have a seat, would you?"

I pulled out the chair across from her and sat down.  "Listen," I began, "I want to apologize..."

She cut me off.  "Don't apologize.  I was ill-prepared when I told my secretary to get you on the phone.  You were pretty well into your tirade when I finally realized who Jake's parents actually were.  If I'd read the file more carefully first, I wouldn't even have called you.  I'd have waited to see you both on Parents Night and told you how delightful I think both of your children are."

I'm sure my mouth was hanging open.

"I was impressed with the way you stood up for Jake.  The girl I used to know wouldn't have said boo.  I've always been proud of you, but you seem to have become more assertive over the years. I also see you haven't lost your excellent taste in shoes."  She reached over and patted my hand.  "Welcome home."

"Miss Van Beek, I thought you hated me.  And Jeff, too."

She laughed.  "Goodness, no.  You were my best student.  Jeff was the nicest, kindest boy I've ever had the privilege of teaching.  Teachers have to be careful not to show favoritism, you know.  I always tried to encourage you both to excel at whatever paths you chose.  And well, I just didn't want to see you follow in the footsteps of your classmate over there, good-hearted though she may be."

"Billie Jo?  She will freely admit that her weakness is men, but she's working on making better choices," I replied in defense of my friend.  "Besides, not everyone is lucky enough to win a college scholarship.  She's done pretty well for herself, building a successful business all on her own."

"I can see that.  I'm just not sure what someone with a PhD in applied mathematics doing here waiting tables."

"Uh," I stammered.  "I'm just helping out."

"Well, I'll have a margarita then," Miss Van Beek said.  "And I really wish you'd call me Laura.  I'm really not that much older than you are.  My first year as a teacher was when you were a freshman in high school."

"I guess anyone in authority seems a lot older when you're a kid," I said.  "I'll be right back with your drink."

The door opened to let a half dozen couples in as I headed toward the bar.  I gave Billie Jo the order and turned to look at Jeff.

"So much for my number one suspect."

He laughed.  "You mean your latest number one suspect.  Give up on the mayor already?"

"No - have you?"

He ignored my question.  "Your order's up - and it looks like the Wednesday night regulars are arriving for the entertainment.  Better get busy."  Jeff stood up and looked over the crowd.

"Sizing up the potential cheaters?" I asked, balancing the margarita on my tray.

"Something like that.  See anybody you know?"

"Actually, yes.  There's that woman who introduced herself outside the school as Ariadne and Dexter's mom.  I still have no idea what her name is.  Over there, honey - the blonde in the tight sweater," I said and nudged Jeff with my elbow.

"That must be the style these days."  Jeff snickered.  "Oh - that's Tom Schams there with her.  She must be his wife.  I met him the other day.  He's the new district attorney.  I'm sure he must have told me her name but I don't remember it now."

"And you call yourself a detective."  I hurried away to deliver the drinks on my tray and start taking more orders.  Me Oh My was filling up fast.  I wasn't sure if it was for the music or the margaritas.


Turns out it wasn't either one.  Once the band started playing and its lead singer took the stage, all eyes were on what appeared to be George Strait's voice having taken over Hugh Jackman's body only to invoke the spirit of Elvis.  I made the rounds of the room a couple of times, clearing away empty glasses and beer bottles, and taking a few drink orders.  There wasn't an empty seat in the house.

Billie Jo was leaning on the bar, gazing longingly at Danny.  His George Strait baritone was crooning "I Can't Help Falling in Love with You" to the crowd, or to someone in the audience anyway.  I was pretty sure it wasn't me or Billie Jo.  I finally spotted Jeff sitting in a chair next to the ice machine.

"Think he knows "All My Exes Live in Texas?"  Here, sit with me.  There aren't any more chairs," Jeff said, pulling me onto his lap.  "I never expected these guys to be quite this good."

"Me, either," I agreed.  "It's like when Jim Nabors went from "Go-oll-lly!" to sounding like Pavarotti."

"Good analogy, but I wouldn't mention it to Danny if I were you.  Anything interesting to report?"

"No.  Other than a lot of church people around here sure can drink.  But once the music started, they all settled down to listen.  And most of the people here are with their lawfully wedded partners.  The ones that aren't, are here with the full knowledge and consent of their spouses, or so the gossip would imply.  Are you sure Jerry is a regular?"  I took a sip of Jeff's beer, made a face and handed it back to him.  "Yuck."

"You had to know there was beer in this bottle, babe.  Yes, everyone says Jerry is a regular.  And that he has been known to leave with a number of different ladies on a number of occasions."

"One at a time or as a group?"

"Don't be a smart ass."  Jeff smiled in spite of himself.

"Are any of those alleged ladies here tonight?" I asked.

"No.  Unless he's dating the garden club, but I think they actually are ladies.  It would also appear that they are Danny's fan club.  Look over there," Jeff said and pointed toward the front window table.

All  five of the demure garden club ladies were standing in the middle of the room waving their arms and dancing to the Texas swing rhythm of  "San Antonio Rose."  I squinted to determine whether they had dollar bills clutched in their hands and were preparing to storm the stage.  Probably not, I decided.

"What are you smiling at?" Jeff pulled me closer and kissed my neck.

"I was picturing those ladies rushing onstage to stuff dollar bills in Danny's jeans," I admitted and Jeff laughed out loud.  "It would be funny, wouldn't it?"

"Yes, but the last thing I want to worry about tonight is crowd control.  I'm about ready to call it a night.  What time is it?"

"Nearly midnight.  I had to snap Billie Jo out of her trance long enough for any last orders.  Danny seems to have a powerful effect on the local ladies," I said.  "We can go whenever you're ready."

The fiddle player launched into the introduction of "Faded Love."

"One more song," Jeff said.  "This is date night, after all."

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Chapter 14

"So what's your plan?" I asked.  Jeff rolled down the truck window as we drove up Willow toward Main Street.  I inhaled the fresh air that smelled wonderfully like fall.

"Well, I thought I'd sit at the bar and observe the crowd while you work the room."

"Work the room?  This isn't a cocktail party, Jeff, it's a redneck bar.  What am I supposed to do, stop and chat at each table?  Show them my shoes and hope they make some old floozy cringe at the thought of having had the poor judgement to dally with Jerry Maguire?"

"Something like that," he replied.  "Do you have any better ideas?  The only thing that all of the so-called suspects have in common is that they met old Jerry at Me Oh My during its evening incarnation as the local hot spot."

"Met as in were introduced or met as in met up for their assignations?"

"As in introduced.  Unless BJ has rooms available by the hour over the bar, they met for their assignations, as you refer to their alleged sexual encounters, at Jerry's house."  He laughed and shook his head.

"What's so funny?"  I tried to get comfortable enough to breathe in my too-tight jeans.

"It just amazes me that someone who likes sex as much as you do has such a hard time actually saying the word."

"Shut up," I said, probably blushing.  He did have a point.  "Cheating sex is different than married sex.  And there, I said the word.  Are you happy?"

"I'm pretty sure the mechanics are the same, babe."

"You know what I mean."

"Yes, I do," Jeff answered, putting the truck in park and turning the engine off.  "And just so you know, I am blissfully happy with the married kind.  Now let's go inside and flirt with some cheaters."

* * * * *

"Not much of a crowd for a Wednesday night," I observed.  There were a couple of guys at the bar, a few tables occupied by groups of ladies on their mid-week night out, a bunch of guys at a table up front and several couples occupying the dimly lit booths along the back wall.  "Thought you said there was a band."

"There is," Jeff said.  "Danny and his cousins are tonight's entertainment."

I waved at Billie Jo and headed toward the bar.  Jeff whistled after me and  walked toward Danny who was up on stage tuning his guitar.  This is going to be some evening, I thought.

"What the hell are you wearing?" Billie Jo practically shouted as I hopped up on a bar stool.  "I can't believe HunkaHunka let you out of the house like that!"

"Lower your voice," I hissed.  "I'm on an undercover assignment."

"Girl, there ain't much under cover in that get up," she chortled, setting a beer bottle in front of me.  I knew it was filled with ginger ale.

"Well, I thought you would have approved, what with your unrefined, trampish taste and all."

"I'm just jealous that I couldn't stuff myself into those jeans and that sweater, honey."  Billie Jo leaned on the bar.  "Jeff told me this afternoon that you all would be in tonight.  I'm just amazed he got you to tart yourself up like that ."

"I am not tarted up," I protested.  "And this was not my idea, believe me."

"So how do you plan to gather information for your investigation, Pepper Anderson?"

I laughed.  "We're aging ourselves with that one.  Sgt. Crowley over there says I'm supposed to work the room, whatever he means by that."

"The best way to work this room is to wait tables," Billie Jo said.  "I'll even let you keep the tips.  My feet and I could sure use a night off."

"Okay," I said.  "What do I do?"

"That's right, I forgot, you're the only college girl I know who never waited tables.  You walk up to the customers, lean over a little to get your money's worth out of that barely-there sweater and ask what they're drinking.  Think you can handle that?"

"Don't be a smart ass," I said and picked up a tray and an order pad.  "I can do this."  At least I hoped I could.  I gave Jeff a thumbs-up as I headed across the room toward my first table to take their order.

Telling the ladies at the center table I'd be right back with their drinks, I walked past the stage on my way back to the bar.  "What are you doing?" Jeff asked, grabbing hold of my arm.

"Working the room.  Just like you wanted.  Can I get you all anything?" I smiled sweetly, pen poised over my order pad.  "We have seven different kinds of beer on tap and imported in bottles.  Oh wait, would you boys rather have an apple-tini?"

"Very funny.  I'm working, so I'll have a Coke.  But I think Danny needs a beer to get loosened up a little.  He just admitted that crowds make him pretty nervous."

"Well, I wouldn't exactly call this a crowd.  But I can sympathize with the nerves thing.  I'll be right back with your drinks.  And I'd better get a decent tip."

I didn't hear what Jeff said as I walked away, but I was willing to bet it had something to do collecting my tip later.  I set my tray on the bar and rattled off the orders to Billie Jo.  I had a feeling this was going to be a long night.

* * * * *

"Billie Jo, these people can really drink," I said, sitting on the  bar stool to take a break for a couple of minutes.  "It would probably be a good idea to just haul a whole keg of beer over to Al Henke and the gang at his table.  I think I've brought them twenty beers."

"They're about done for the night.  He makes his crew start work at seven in the morning so they'll be out of here soon.  Nice bunch of guys, never any trouble and they're great tippers."

"Do you see those three boys who just came in?  I don't think they're old enough to drink."

"No, they're not," Billie Jo said.  "Those are high school seniors - football team.  Just go take their order."

"But..." I started, but Billie Jo interrupted me.

"Just go," she said and reached under the bar.

I wove my way between the tables and stopped next to the teen-aged boys.  "What'll you have?"

"Whatcha got?"  the shortest of the three said, paying way too much attention to my sweater to suit me.

"Is this your first time here?" I asked, looking him in the eye.  The other two snickered.

"We'll just have a beer," the fullback said politely.

"I'll be right back," I said and put some coasters on the table.

Billie Jo had three bottles waiting on the bar for me.  "Ginger ale?" I asked, setting them on my tray.

"Yeah," she said.  "They're just kids.  No one has to know it isn't beer; they can tell their friends they went out and didn't get carded.  It happens a couple of  times a month.  We did a lot worse, if you recall."

I smiled.  "You're the boss."

I delivered the drinks to my high school customers.  "On the house," I said.  "If you need a refill, let me know."  I turned to walk away and felt an unfamiliar hand on the back of my jeans.  It was the quarterback type kid.  I leaned down next to him and spoke quietly in his ear.  He removed his hand and I continued on to the next table.

When I got back to the bar to turn in my orders, Jeff was sitting on the bar stool at the end closest to the kitchen.  "What did you say to the kid who grabbed your ass?"  He almost looked serious.

"I told him that he needed to take his hand off me for three reasons."

"Which were?"  Jeff was smiling now.

"A: I am old enough to be your mama.  Two: I don't want to embarrass you in front of your friends by punching you in the face.  And D: See that big guy over there at the bar?  That's my husband.  He's also the new chief of police who will throw you in jail for underage drinking and even worse, call your parents."

"You'd have scared my seventeen-year-old self."

"And there they go," I said.  We watched as the three terrified boys tried to slink unnoticed out the front door.  "Poor kid.  I really wouldn't have punched him.  Or called his parents."

"He didn't know that," Jeff said.  "Anything else to report besides gardening tips from the ladies at the window table?  I see some men out with women other than their wives at the back booths."

"They weren't interested in talking to me," I replied.  "The ladies by the window complimented me on my shoes and very politely ignored my sweater, or the lack thereof.  The beer guzzlers up front are too busy trying to out drink one another to pick up women.  Billie Jo says they'll be staggering out soon.  Maybe we picked the wrong night to stake this place out for grave robbing stalkers."

"Oh, I don't know," said Billie Jo.  She set three drinks on my tray.  "Look what just blew in."

"Is that who I think it is?" asked Jeff, clearly dumbstruck.

"As I live and breathe, it's Miss VanBeek."  I couldn't believe what I was seeing: our old high school teacher, now the principal at Taylor and Jake's elementary school in a bar!  The dragon lady herself was out on a school night, dressed in a pair of snug-fitting jeans, a low-cut t-shirt and, the one thing that didn't surprise me at all, a pair of pricy Tory Burch leopard flats.

I knew it.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Chapter 13

"I can mashed potato!" sang Jake, lurching across the kitchen floor.

"I can do the twist!" shrieked Taylor as she twisted lower, holding on to Zippy's front paws.

"Now tell me, baby," I sang, "Do you like it like this?"  I stirred the pot of spaghetti noodles, shaking it as best I could to the beat of the Contours' big sixties hit.

"Tell me, tell me..." the kids were singing and dancing their hearts out.

Then a voice from the kitchen door boomed, "We VanDeGelders don't dance.  We're Presbyterian."

Smart ass.  The dancers launched themselves at their father and I turned down the volume on the CD player on the kitchen counter.  Jeff sat down at the kitchen island, holding a giggling child in each arm.

"What are Vandy Gelders, Daddy?" Jake asked.

I rolled my eyes.  "Your father is poking fun at Broadway musicals," I answered.

"From Hello, Dolly," Taylor added.  "Aunt Rob has the DVD - he'll let us watch it sometime, Jake."

"Is there dancing?" Jake asked.  "I like dancing.  I can do the twist!"  He squirmed out of his father's grip and dashed off after the dogs, no doubt to convince one of them to dance with him.

"This is all your fault," Jeff said to Taylor.  "Monkey see, monkey do."

Taylor gave Jeff a kiss on the cheek.  "You love us, Daddy.  Even if we do dance.  I'll set the table, Mom."

Lord, every day I am thankful for that sweet and helpful child.  "And how was your day, dear?" I asked my husband, taking a sip before setting a cold glass of sweet tea in front of him.

"Thoroughly exciting.  Danny interviewed the whole list of suspects and other than sampling tea and cookies at practically every stop, he came up with absolutely nothing useful.  I'm hoping we're a little more successful tonight at BJ's bar.  Who's watching the kids?"

"Your dad.  He got home a little while ago.  I think he's out back resting up before dinner.  You could go call him in - it's almost ready," I suggested.

"He's not missed dinner yet; he'll come in on his own," Jeff replied.  "Oh, I brought you a present."  He held up a shopping bag from Belk.

"You went shopping?  In Mobile?"  I flashed back on the morning's odd telephone conversation.  "Ah, the shoe size inquiry."  I picked up the pot of spaghetti and poured the contents into the colander in the island sink.  "Show me - I have to finish fixing dinner."

He pulled a shoe box out of the bag and opened it.  "Well?"

He was holding a pair of purple leather flats - with a gleaming, hard-to-miss Tory Burch logo on the toes.  "Nice color, no heels, not crazy about the ostentatious logo, but I imagine that's the whole idea." I transferred the spaghetti to the large green pasta bowl and poured the sauce over it.

"The shoes are size eight and I hope this is the right size," Jeff said, now holding up an astonishingly small silver sweater with a v-neck cut down to the navel, or so it appeared.

I dropped a meatball right into the middle of the spaghetti, splashing sauce all over the front of my t-shirt.  "I don't care what size it is, I'm not wearing that," I said, adding more meatballs to the evening meal.  "Have you lost your mind?"

"I didn't pick it out.  And besides, the whole point is to get noticed."

"Believe me, you aren't going to be happy with what gets noticed if I wear that thing."

I carried the spaghetti to the table and called the kids into the kitchen for dinner.  "I smell something good for supper," said Grandpa Jack as he closed the kitchen door.  "Garlic bread?"

"Yes," I answered.  "Fresh from the grocer's freezer."

Jeff sat down at the head of the table.  "Glad you could join us," he said to his father, as Jack took his seat.

I gave Jake a boost up to the kitchen sink so he could wash his hands and took the rare opportunity to give his face a quick swipe with a paper towel.  Taylor picked up the basket of bread and delivered both it and Jake to the table.  I followed them both with a pitcher of tea.

"I'll ask the blessing," Jack said and proceeded to give thanks for the food and our little family.  I peeked at Jeff while his father was praying; his head was bowed and his eyes were closed.  A good sign.

As soon as the amen sounded, Jack exclaimed, "I am so hungry I could eat a whole Italian!"

"A what?" his sister asked.  "That doesn't make any sense.  An Italian is a person from Italy."

I stopped to trying to make sense of the majority of Jake's bizarre statements a long time ago.  But this time I was trying hard  to imagine what sort of large animal my son could possibly mean.

"No, it's not," Jake said patiently.  "It's a horse."

Jeff quickly set his glass of tea back on the table.  "You mean, stallion," he said, trying not to laugh.

"That's what I said," replied Jake.  He stabbed a meatball with his fork and began to eat it, as if it were some kind of meat popsicle.

I took the fork out of his hand and cut his meatball into manageable boy-size pieces.  I handed his fork back to him and tucked his napkin into his shirt.  "Mind your manners, please, " I said.

"So I understand you two are going for a night on the town," Pop said.  "Such as the nightlife is, here in Piney Point."

I laughed.  "It's a fact-finding mission, not a hot date."

"What is it you expect to find out?"

"Hopefully more solid information than interviewing Mr. Maguire's lady friends has gotten me so far," Jeff answered.  "And if not, well, we'll at least know who the rest of the cheating husbands and wives in town are."

"What game do they cheat at, Mom?" Jake asked.  "Daddy says it's not good to cheat when you're playing a game.  Uncle Jimmy, too."

"Life," I said, hoping to change the subject.

"If I was going to cheat, I'd cheat at Monopoly," Jake said, chewing his meatball with his mouth half open.  "Tay always beats me at that because she cheats."

"Please don't talk with your mouth full," I said.  "And Tay beats you because you're six, not because she cheats."

"Life is too boring to cheat at," he said, always having to get the last word in.  Infuriating - just like his father.

I looked at the clock - nearly seven.  "Let's just finish eating so I can clean up from dinner.  We don't want to miss the action at Me Oh My before they roll up the sidewalks in this one-stoplight town."

* * * * *

I was standing in the bedroom in my underwear, holding the tiny sweater in front of me.  "And in just what universe did you think that this miniscule, yet outrageously expensive garment, would even begin to fit me?"

"It stretches," Jeff said, leaning back on his elbows as he lounged on the bed.  "Just try it."

"Sure - if I ruin it, you can't return it.  And it is just begging to be returned."

"Babe," he replied.  "Humor me."

"It's not going to fit.  And even if I do miraculously manage to get it on, I am going to look like a silver sausage."  I held my breath as I pulled the sweater over my head and cautiously slipped my arms into the sleeves.  I pulled it down carefully, amazed that there was that much give in the fragile fabric.  It was stretched to the point of gaping holes, for all I knew.  I was afraid to look at Jeff, much less in the mirror.

"Not bad.  Not bad at all," he said, smiling that smile of his.  Damn him.

I looked down.  All I could see was cleavage.  I slowly exhaled.  No ripping sounds - that was a good sign.  I turned to look in the mirror.  It fit - barely.  Pun intended.  Was this some of new kind of space-age one-size-fits-all fabric?  If it was, the fashion applications were endless.

"I am wearing this thing one time only, you understand."  I looked at Jeff.  "And only as a favor to you."

He laughed.  "Oh, I'm sure I can get you to wear it again sometime.  As a favor to me."

"That's what you think," I replied.  I picked up the clean pair of jeans off the chair next to the bed and stepped into them.  I glanced in the mirror as I zipped them up.

"Not tight enough," Jeff said.  "Don't you have some tighter jeans?"


"Then you need to wear the tighter ones."

"Like this tight sweater isn't going to draw enough attention?  I don't need people starting at the rest of me, too."

"Honey, just wear those tight faded jeans with the hole in the knee.  Those are perfect," Jeff suggested.

"No.  The ones I have on are fine."  I sat down to put on the purple shoes.  I held out my foot to admire them.  "I have to admit, these flats are just lovely."

Jeff was standing next to me, holding out my faded jeans.  "These jeans look great on you."

"You only think that because you are my husband and you are blind to my flaws."

"Yes," Jeff answered.  "I am blind to your flaws, but your ass is definitely not one of them.  Now put on the jeans and let's go.  We have undercover detective work to do."

I love that man.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Chapter 12

"I really like the color," I told Uncle Jimmy.  I stood back to get the full effect of the sage green wall with the oak wainscoting.  "I finished the window valances this morning and I am going to do the pillows tomorrow."

"Rob decided the bookcase needed a little work.  It's been sitting in the shop for Lord knows how long.  I gave up hope of ever selling it - and now I'm glad we didn't.  I have to put another coat of polyurethane on it when I get home this afternoon and hopefully I'll be able to bring it over in the morning.  Thought I'd get the painting done in the meantime."

My phone was ringing from somewhere over on the desk.  I hurried to catch it before the call went to voice mail.  "Hey, Jeff."

"What size shoe do you wear?"

"Eight. Why?"  I couldn't imagine my fashion-challenged husband shopping for shoes.  For me or anyone else.

"Eight," he repeated.  "What size shirt?"

"What kind of shirt?" I asked.  "A t-shirt? A sweater? A blouse?"

"You know, a top," Jeff replied, sounding exasperated.  I heard a muffled voice in the background.  "Never mind, I can figure that out.  Gotta go.  Don't forget date night.  Love you."

Well, that was strange, I thought.  Jeff does not shop for anything but groceries and home improvement materials.  Like most men, clothing is a binary concept for him: clothed or naked, on or off. I was sure I'd find out what this morning's unusual conversation was all about later.

"Push that ladder over here, would you?" asked Uncle Jimmy, moving his supplies to the other side of the room.  "And we might ought to open that window.  It'll help the walls dry a little faster."

"What do you know about Pop's lady friend, Mrs. West?" I asked.  Jeff's father had made himself scarce for the past two days; I was hoping he wasn't sick of the kids already.

There was a long pause.  "Nothing really."  Uncle Jimmy rolled more paint onto the paint roller and turned back to the wall.  "I don't think she lives in Piney Point.  If Mrs. West exists at all, she either keeps to herself or she's really new in town."

"Maybe he knows her from Mobile," I said.  "He had been living down there for a while before he agreed to come and stay up here with us.  Jeff said his dad had probably been back in Mobile longer than any place he's lived in quite a while."

"Jack never could seem to stay in any one place for very long.  When we were in high school, he couldn't wait to get out of Piney Point and see the world.  Just when it looked like he might stick around after all, well, a girl broke his heart and he took off.  Didn't see him again until he brought Jeff back home to live with his grandmother.  How old were you two - eleven?  And Jack didn't stay around long then."

"I remember.  It didn't seem like Jeff missed him very much.  And it was a long time before he'd even talk about his mother."  The memory of my husband, a lost little boy at eleven, tugged at my heart.  "I think he liked his grandmother well enough, but he always seemed to spend more time at our house or yours."

Uncle Jimmy laughed.  "Yes, he did.  Especially your house."  He wiped a paint drip off the woodwork.  "When he was about twelve, he asked me if I thought you'd marry him when you all grew up."

"I think he asked me not long after that."  I smiled at the memory - and probably blushed a little.

"What'd you tell him?"

"I said sure, but we'd have to wait. At least until I was finished with college."

"Well, sugar, that was one patient boy.  As far as he was concerned, you were the one.  He never once looked at another girl.  Even when you went and made him jealous with that Reed boy."  Jimmy gave the wall a once-over looking for spots he'd missed.

"Jealous?  I never did any such thing and if he was jealous, it sure wasn't anything I did on purpose," I said.  "Reed was my lab partner.  We were just working on chemistry projects.  Jeff knew that."

"I know, but that doesn't mean he wasn't jealous.  You have to remember, honey, you and Jeff spent practically every waking minute together from the time you were little kids.  Just thinking about you spending a couple hours with another boy, especially the country club, college boy type - well, that really got to him."

"He never said anything," I said, sitting down in Jeff's new chair, my feet barely touching the floor.

Uncle Jimmy dabbed at a spot on the wall.  "Jeff doesn't talk about things that really bother him.  You know that."

"I like to think he's gotten a little better about that over the years, but I may be wrong."

"Sugar, don't you worry about Jeff.  He's one happy man.  I couldn't be prouder of him if he were my own son.  I will have to admit that seeing Jack again over the past couple of weeks has made me want to shake the old fool and remind him how well his boy turned out in spite of having such a poor excuse for a father," Jimmy said, and shook the paintbrush for emphasis.

"Oh, he knows, Uncle Jimmy.  He does love Jeff, I think, in his own way.  Some people just aren't cut out to be fathers, the same way some people aren't really meant to be mothers."

"You're too forgiving, darlin' - you always were."  He poured more paint into the paint tray.

"No - I'm a realist.  A barking dog will always be just a barking dog," I set the chair spinning.  "I stopped expecting people to change a long time ago."

"Think your sisters will ever come around?"  Uncle Jimmy asked.  "Cooler heads might prevail now that your mama is no longer part of the equation."

I laughed just as the phone rang.  Saved by the bell, I thought.  "Hello?"

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Chapter 11

"Well, crap," I said to the ceiling and my sleeping husband.  I looked over at the clock on Jeff's side of the bed - time to get the kids up and ready for school.  I tried to slide out from under his arm.

"Where are you going?" he growled, his voice muffled by the pillow.

"Upstairs to awaken your children."  I attempted to move his arm again, to no avail.  "Jeff - it's almost seven."

"Five more minutes."

"No - everyone will be late, including you."

"I don't care."  He turned over on his back.  "Isn't it Saturday, yet?"

I was searching for my slippers under the bed.  The dogs must have made off with them again.  "Not even close.  Honey, come on.  I'll make pancakes," I offered.  "Oh, and you promised you'd do show and tell for Jake at school today.  I ironed that khaki shirt for you last night."

"You know, I only married you because you can iron like a Marine."

"That's because one taught me how.  Now get up - the dogs are waiting for you."  I stepped over Zippy and Mac on my way upstairs.  The other two must be sleeping with the kids.

Taylor's bed was already made, backpack on the table outside her door.  I heard water running in the bathroom on my way down the hall to Jake's room.  Somewhere a six-year-old boy was buried under a quilt and two dogs.

"Rise and shine, boys."  When I pulled the quilt off my sleeping son, Duncan and Willie scrambled off the bed, out the door and down the stairs.  It was sure a lot easier to get the dogs moving in the morning than the men in this house, I thought to myself.  "Jake, you can't be late - you have show and tell today."

That was all I needed to say.  Jake sat up and rubbed his eyes.  "I have to wear a red shirt," he said.  "Do I got one for today?"

"Do you have one," I corrected him.

"That's what I was asking you, Mom," he answered and slid off the bed.  "It has to be red.  All my friends are wearing red shirts today."

I smiled.  Jake was definitely the most social member of the family; the third day of school and he already had friends - plural.  I grew up here and by the time I was in sixth grade, I had only made two real friends: Billie Jo and Jeff.  I hope Taylor turned out to be more successful at relating to strangers than I had been.  I finished straightening the sheets on Jake's bed as he wandered back into his room.  "I'll get your clothes out if you fix your quilt and put the pillows in the right place, okay?"

I rummaged around in his dresser until I found a red shirt.  I put the jeans, shirt, clean underwear and socks on the end of the bed.  "You'd better be dressed and downstairs in ten minutes.  I'm making pancakes and you don't want to be late.  You know how much Daddy loves pancakes."

"Can we have blueberries?"  His face looked hopeful.  "I love blueberries."

"And I love you.  I'll see."  I hugged Jake until he started to squirm.  Time to make the pancakes.

"Coffee, babe?" Jeff asked.  He was probably on his second cup.  "Hazelnut? Mocha? Tall, grande or venti?"

"Very funny.  We don't go out for all that fancy coffee nonsense here.  I will just have a cup of tea, thank you.  Jake has requested blueberry pancakes - any objections?"  I measured pancake mix into the batter bowl.  Yes, I cheat in the kitchen when time is of the essence.

"None, whatsoever.  Bring 'em on.  I have a show and tell to attend this morning."

"Look on the bright side, Daddy," Taylor said, "if you do the show and tell it keeps Jake from telling some embarrassing story about one of us."  She did have a point.

"What's with the hair?" I asked.  Taylor's normally well-groomed hair was going in twenty different directions.

"I fell asleep on my wet hair.  I was reading and forgot to brush it out and now I have a big mess.  Can you fix it, Mom?"

I couldn't see much fix to it, other than a hat - but that's why I cut off my long hair years ago.  "Go get your brush and an elastic band.  Daddy will fix it for you.  And bring your brother with you when you come back."

Not only does Jeff know how to cook and iron his own clothes - neither of which he voluntarily does very often, mind you, he can also do a mean French braid.  I set the table and finished making breakfast while he untangled and expertly tamed Taylor's dark hair.

"Did you go to hair trooper training, Daddy?" Jake asked.  He climbed into his chair at the table and looked at me expectantly and then at his empty plate, as if willing a short stack of hot blueberry pancakes to appear.

"Something like that," Jeff replied.  "But we're not going to talk about hair at show and tell today, okay?"

"Okay."  Jake's attention was diverted by the arrival of his breakfast.

"Can I come, too?" I asked, just to see what Jake would say.

"Next time, Mom," he said.  "I'm not sure what you do anyway."

Jeff burst out laughing.  "Oh, you know, Jake, secret math stuff.  Satellite surveillance, targeting systems for smart bombs - nothing very exciting."

"I know," replied Jake.  "That's why I asked you to come for show and tell instead.  You shoot people."

"You'll thank me later," Jeff said and grinned at me.

"I'm sure you'll have a lovely time.  Hey, did you have any voice mail from Danny last night?"

"Not a word.  Our grave robber may have been deterred by the stake-out.  I asked the coroner to make a big production of putting Millie back - floodlights and everything.  Along with an official seal on the crypt.  Leaving my car in front of Mr. Maguire's house last night probably wasn't necessary, but I've got to put a stop to this.  If it was a joke, it's gotten out of hand.  I have a feeling, though, that it's no joke."

"Me, too," I said.  "I'm just having a hard time figuring out the motive behind all this."

"So stop trying.  Figuring this mystery out is my job.  Don't you have more stuff to unpack, pictures to hang, cookies to bake, equations to solve?"  Jeff finished his coffee and put his napkin on the table.

"Why, yes, I do."  I made a face at him.  "Get your stuff, kids.  You can walk Daddy up the street to his car and he'll drop you off at school."

"Yay!" yelled Jake.  "Show and tell and a ride in the police car.  This is a good day!  Thanks for the pancakes, Mom."

"Breakfast was good, Mom," Taylor said.  "And I know what you do.  I mean, besides taking care of us."  She gave me a quick hug and followed her brother out the door.

"Now I feel bad," Jeff said.  "I was only kidding."  Bless his heart, he actually did look sorry.

"I know you were.  And I don't mean to interfere with your work.  You know I just can't mind my own business when it comes to solving a puzzle.  Character flaw."  I smiled.

"Just one of the many flaws I love."  He leaned down and kissed me.  "How about date night tonight? I hear the band isn't too bad up at Me Oh My."

Date night?  Oh, give me a break.  "It's a recon mission and you don't want to go alone."  I kissed him back.

 "Something like that.  Scouting enemy territory the low tech way can be dangerous," he said, heading for the door.  He turned and looked at me.  "But you know what they say, you dance with the one what brung ya."

I swear, that man thinks he's funny.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Chapter 10

"And so when Jerry's afternoon guest opened the closet to get a robe, there's Millie - big as life- hanging from the closet rod.  The naked lady said she was so shocked she screamed and when Jerry saw his dead wife's corpse, he passed out cold on the floor," Jeff informed his captive audience around the dinner table.  "She thought Jerry was dead, so she called the police department and asked Libby to send Danny out, instead of calling 911."

"She really thought he was dead?" Uncle Jimmy asked.

"Well, that's her story and she's sticking to it," Jeff answered.  "When Danny got there, he checked Jerry out and called 911.   When he finally realized who the lady was, he called me.  This just keeps getting weirder and weirder.  Can I have some more chili?"

"At least we know this particular lady friend isn't the one who dug Millie up," I said, putting butter on my last chunk of still warm cornbread.

"She still might have done it the first time," Aunt Rob observed.  "She does have a penchant for designer shoes."

He was right - Her Honor might have been the original grave robber.  "Did they put Millie back right away - after the first incident?"

"Yeah," Jeff said.  "But she was interred in a crypt - it was fairly easy to get her out the first time.  It would have been just as easy this time."

"I just think it's gross," Taylor chimed in.  "Who'd even want to touch a dead body?"

"I would!" Jake said.  "Just so I could tell people I did."

"You're gross," his sister replied.  "Completely disgusting."

"I know it," Jake answered.  "Gross is good.  Daddy is gross sometimes.  Mommy said so."

"Guilty as charged," Jeff admitted, and all the male members of the family at the table laughed.  "It's a guy thing."

"The chili was great," I told Aunt Rob and started to stack up the empty bowls.  "You cooked, we'll clean up."

"Oh no, honey.  It's not a big deal. Let's just have dessert.  That cake looks divine - and I have vanilla custard from Sweet Berries to go with it.  Just bring the empty bowls to the kitchen for me."

I followed him into the kitchen and put the bowls in the sink.  "Do you think someone is just trying to scare Mr. Maguire or are they trying to scare him to death?"

"You know, I've been wondering the same thing.  He's never been a particularly likeable person and I've known him for years and years.  He was never nice to Millie and since she passed, their children will have nothing to do with him.  I can't imagine that any of these women he consorts with actually really like Jerry.  But I may be wrong."

We carried the dessert plates, cake and ice cream into the dining room only to find Jake in the middle of entertaining the group by burping the alphabet.  I know who taught him that, because the same person taught me and Jeff when we were about twelve.  Jake was surprisingly good at it; I might have to rethink just how much quality time Jake was allowed to spend with Uncle Jimmy.  At the age of six and learning socially unacceptable behavior at this accelerated rate, Jeff and I would never be able to marry this kid off.

"Thank you, Jake.  Show's over," I said.  I lifted him off his feet and sat him back down in his chair.

"I'll be here all week," he quipped, clearly enjoying the laughter that ensued.  God help us.

"Mom, will you make gourmet beanie weenies this weekend?" Taylor asked.  "You'll like them, Uncle Jimmy."

"How, may I ask, do you make beanie weenies gourmet?" he asked.

Jeff grinned.  "It's an anniversary tradition," he explained.  "We were living in California the first year we were married.  We were completely broke because Dr. Ryan here was still in school and we were still paying rent and living in that apartment off base."

"I wanted to make Jeff a nice dinner, but the budget didn't include even buying ground beef for hamburgers," I continued.  "Hot dogs were really cheap and I decided to buy some beans.  I stood there in the grocery store looking the all the different kinds of beans and I thought, well - I can at least make beans and weenies pretty to look at.  So I bought one can each of light kidney beans, dark kidney beans, cannelloni beans, pinto beans - you name it.  I even bought a can of black beans.  Of course, I also realized we'd be eating beans for a week."

"Dinner was really good.  But it wasn't pretty," Jeff said.  I smacked him on the arm and continued the story.

"I drained all the beans before I put them in the pot, along with the hot dogs, some chili powder and some barbecue sauce.  What I didn't realize was that I ought to have rinsed the black beans.  The whole pot of beans turned an ugly grey.  Not appetizing at all."

"But it was good," Jeff insisted.  "Anyway, the evening wasn't a total loss."

"Did you have dessert?" Jake asked.

"In a manner of speaking," his father answered.  "Now let's have some cake."