فصل 07

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CHAPTER 7

Avery

The retirement home lies bathed in soft morning sunlight. Even with the newly added parking lot on what was once a sprawling front lawn, Magnolia Manor speaks of a bygone era—of the elegance of afternoon teas, and glittering cotillions, and formal dinners at the long mahogany table that still stands in the dining room. It’s easy to picture Scarlett O’Hara fanning herself beneath the moss-draped live oaks that shade the white-columned veranda.

I remember this place’s former life, if only a tad. My mother brought me to a baby shower here when I was nine or ten. Driving over, she shared the story of attending an important cocktail reception here for a cousin who was running for the South Carolina governorship. A college girl at the time, my mother had anything but politics on her mind. She wasn’t at Magnolia Manor for thirty minutes before she noticed my father across the room. She made it her business to find out who he was. When she learned that he was a Stafford, she set her cap.

The rest is history. A marriage of political dynasties. My mother’s grandfather had been a North Carolina representative before his retirement, and her father was in office at the time of the wedding.

The story makes me smile as I climb the manor’s marble steps and punch the code into the incongruously modern keypad beside the front door. Important people live here still. Not just anyone is allowed to enter. Sadly, not just anyone is allowed to exit either. Behind the manor, the expansive grounds have been carefully fenced in decorative iron too tall to climb over. The gates are locked. The lake and reflecting pool can be looked at but not reached…or fallen into.

Many of the residents must be protected from themselves. That’s the sad truth of it. As they decline, they move from one wing to the next, slowly progressing to higher levels of delicately provided care. There’s no denying that Magnolia Manor is more upscale than the nursing home May Crandall lives in, but both places face the same underlying challenge—how to provide dignity, care, and comfort as life turns difficult corners.

I wind my way to the Memory Care Unit—here, no one would even think of crassly calling it the Alzheimer’s Unit. I let myself through another locked door and into a salon, where the television plays a rerun of Gunsmoke turned up loud.

A woman by the window stares at me blankly as I pass. Beyond the glass, the climbing roses are dewy and fresh, pink and filled with life.

The roses outside Grandma Judy’s window are a cheery yellow. She’s sitting in the wingback chair admiring them when I walk in. I stop one step inside the door and steel myself before drawing her attention from the plants.

I prepare for her to look at me the same way the woman in the lounge did just now—without a hint of recognition.

I hope she won’t. There’s never any telling.

“Hi, Grandma Judy!” The words are bright, and loud, and cheerful. Even so, they take a minute to garner a reaction.

She turns slowly, leafs through the scattered pages in her mind, then in her usual sweet way says, “Hello, darling. How are you this afternoon?”

It’s morning, of course. As I’d predicted, the DAR meeting ran late last night, and try as I might, I couldn’t get away from the wedding interrogation. I was like a hapless grasshopper dropped into a henhouse. My head is now full of suggestions, dates I shouldn’t plan on because someone important will be out of town, and offers to loan china, silver, crystal, and linens.

“Wonderful, thank you,” I tell Grandma Judy, and cross the room to hug her, hoping the moment of closeness will draw a memory from her.

For an instant, it seems to. She looks deep into my eyes, then finally sighs and says, “You are so very pretty. What lovely hair you have.” Touching it, she smiles.

Sadness expands in my chest. I came here hoping for answers about May Crandall and the old photograph on her nightstand. That doesn’t look very likely now.

“There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead.” My grandmother smiles up at me. Cool fingers with paper-thin skin stroke my cheek.

“And when she was good, she was very, very good,” I add. Grandma Judy always greeted me with this poem when I visited her house on Lagniappe Street as a child.

“And when she was bad, she was horrid,” she finishes, and grins and winks, and we laugh together. It’s just like old times.

I sit in the chair across the little round table. “I always loved it when you teased me with that rhyme.” In Honeybee’s home, little girls were expected to be anything but horrid, but Grandma Judy had always been known for having a spunky streak that bordered on impropriety. She’d spoken out on issues like civil rights and education for women long before it was acceptable for a female to have an opinion.

She asks if I’ve seen Welly-boy, her pet name for my father, Wells.

I fill her in on yesterday’s press op and the town hall forum, then the long, long, long DAR meeting at Drayden Hill. I skip over the wedding chatter, of course.

Grandma Judy nods with approval as I talk, narrowing an eye and offering shrewd comments about the town hall meeting. “Wells mustn’t let those people run riot over him. They’d love to catch a Stafford meddling in the dirt, but they won’t.”

“Of course not. He handled it beautifully, just like he always does.” I don’t mention how tired he looked or his seeming mental lapse under questioning.

“That’s my boy. He’s a very good boy. I don’t know how he could’ve given rise to a girl who can be horrid.”

“Pppfff! Grandma!” I slap a hand over hers and squeeze. She’s actually cracking jokes and drawing connections between us. It is a good day. “I think it skipped a generation.”

I’m expecting a quick-witted retort. Instead, she says blandly, “Oh, many things do.” She sinks back in her chair, her hand pulling away from mine. I sense the moment fading.

“Grandma Judy, I wanted to ask you something.”

“Oh?”

“I met a woman yesterday. She said she knew you. May Crandall. Does that sound familiar?” The names of old friends and acquaintances she can often recall with ease. It’s as if her memory book has fallen open, a persistent wind tearing out the most recent pages first. The older the memories are, the more likely they are to remain intact.

“May Crandall…” As she repeats the name, I can tell immediately that she recognizes it. I’m already reaching for my phone to show her the photo when she says, “No…it doesn’t ring any bells.” I glance up from my purse, and she’s looking at me very directly, thin white lashes narrowed over seawater eyes that suddenly seem strangely intense. I’m afraid we’re about to have one of those moments where she stops in the middle of a conversation and without warning starts the visit over with something like I didn’t know you were coming by today. How have you been? Instead, she says, “Is there a reason you would ask?”

“I met her yesterday…at the nursing home.”

“Yes, you said. But many people know of the Staffords, dear. We must always be careful. People look for scandal.”

“Scandal?” The word jolts me.

“Of course.”

The phone suddenly feels cold between my fingers. “I didn’t know we had any skeletons in the closet.”

“Gracious. Of course we do not.”

I scroll to the photo, look into the face of the young woman who reminds me even more of my grandmother now that I’m right across the table from her. “She had this picture. Do you know the person in it?” Maybe these are woodpile relatives? People my grandmother doesn’t want to acknowledge as part of the family tree? Every clan must have a few of those. Perhaps there was a cousin who ran off with the wrong sort of man and got pregnant?

I turn the screen toward her, watch for her reaction.

“Queen…” she murmurs, reaching out to pull the phone closer. “Oh…” Moisture wells up in her eyes. It beads and spills over, sketching trails down her cheeks.

“Grandma Judy?”

She’s a million miles away.

Not miles, years. Years away. She’s remembering something. She knows who that is in the photo. Queen. What does that mean?

“Grandma Judy?”

“Queenie.” Her fingertip trails across the image. Then she turns my way with an intensity that bolts me to my chair. “We mustn’t let people find out….” she says, her voice lowered. She glances toward the door, leans close, then adds in a whisper, “They can never know about Arcadia.”

It’s a moment before I can answer. My mind swirls. Have I ever heard her mention that word before? “What? Grandma Judy…what’s Arcadia?”

“Sssst!” The sound is so sharp she spits a fine spray across the table. “If they ever found out…”

“They? They who?”

The doorknob rattles, and she sits back in her chair, folds her hands neatly one over the other. An eye flash silently instructs me to do the same.

I pretend to relax, but my head is cluttered with possibilities—everything from a Watergate-style cover-up involving my grandfather to some secret society of political wives acting as Cold War spies. What has my grandmother been involved in?

A friendly attendant enters with coffee and cookies. At Magnolia Manor, residents not only have meals, they also have snacks and drinks in between.

My grandmother jerks a secretive backhand toward my phone, her head turning to the server. “What do you want?”

The attendant isn’t flustered by the uncharacteristically gruff greeting. “Morning coffee, Mrs. Stafford.”

“Yes, of course.” Grandma Judy again covertly indicates that I should put the phone away. “We’ll enjoy a cup, certainly.”

I glance at the time. It’s later than I thought. I’m supposed to join my father for a luncheon and ribbon cutting in Columbia. A golden opportunity to be seen rubbing elbows in the home state, as Leslie put it. Press will be there, as will the governor. With the recent rumbles about Washington insiders and career politicians, these local events matter. I get it, but what I really want to do is stay with Grandma Judy long enough to see if I can gain some clarity on this May Crandall issue and find out what Arcadia has to do with it.

Maybe she’s talking about a place? Arcadia, California? Arcadia, Florida?

“I really have to go, Grandma. I’m scheduled to accompany Daddy to a ribbon cutting.”

“Heavens, then I shouldn’t be holding you up.”

The attendant moves in and pours two cups of coffee anyway. “Just in case,” she says.

“You could take it to go,” my grandmother jokes. The coffee is in a china cup.

“I probably don’t need any more this morning. I’ll be bouncing off the walls. I just stopped by to ask you about May—”

“Tsst!” A hiss and a raised finger stop me from finishing the name. I’m given the snake eye, as if I’ve just cursed in church.

The attendant wisely gathers her cart and leaves the room.

Grandma Judy whispers, “Be careful, Rill.”

“W-what?” The intensity is once again startling. What’s going on in that mind of hers? Rill. Is that a name?

“Ears”—Grandma Judy points to hers—“are everywhere.”

Just as quickly, her mood changes. She sighs, tips up the tiny china pitcher, and pours a dab into her coffee. “Cream?”

“I can’t stay.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I wish you had time for a visit. It was lovely of you to pop in.”

At this point, we’ve been chatting for at least thirty minutes. She’s already forgotten. Arcadia, whatever it is, has disappeared into the mist.

She gives me a smile as blank as a freshly washed blackboard. It’s completely genuine. She’s not sure who I am, but she’s trying to be polite. “Come again when you don’t have to rush off.”

“I will.” I kiss her on the cheek and walk out of the room with no answers and even more questions.

There’s no way I can let this thing drop now. I need to find out what I’m dealing with here. I’ll have to unearth some other source of information, and I know where I intend to start digging.

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