فصل 09

کتاب: پیش از آنکه مال شما باشیم / فصل 10

فصل 09

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“May Crandall. Are you sure that name isn’t familiar?” I’m sitting in the limo with my mother and father, en route to the ribbon-cutting ceremony in Columbia. “She’s the one who found my bracelet at the nursing home yesterday.” I say found because it sounds better than lifted it right from my wrist. “The Greer design with the garnet dragonflies—the one Grandma Judy gave me. I think this woman recognized it.”

“Your grandmother wore that bracelet frequently. Anyone who’d seen her in it certainly might remember it. It’s quite unique.” Mom searches her memory banks, her perfectly lined lips compressing. “No. I really don’t recall that name. Perhaps she’s one of the Asheville Crandalls? I dated a boy from that family when I was young—before your father, of course. Did you ask who her people are?” For Honeybee, as with all well-bred Southern women of her generation, this is a natural question upon meeting. Wonderful to know you. Isn’t this a lovely day? Now, tell me, who are your people?

“I didn’t think to ask.”

“Honestly, Avery! What are we going to do with you?”

“Send me to the woodshed?”

My father chuckles, looking up from a briefcase filled with documents he’s been reading. “Now, Honeybee, I have been keeping her busy. And nobody could file away all those details the way you do.”

Mom swats at him playfully. “Oh, hush.”

He catches her hand and kisses it, and I’m pinned in the middle. I feel thirteen years old.

“Eeewww. PDA, y’all.” Since coming home I’ve readopted words like y’all, which I had expunged from my vocabulary up north. They’re good words, I’ve now decided. Like the humble boiled peanut, they serve perfectly in many situations.

“Do you recall a May Crandall, Wells—a friend of your mother’s?” Honeybee retracks our conversation.

“I don’t think so.” Dad reaches up to scratch his head, then remembers that he’s been amply hair-sprayed. Outdoor occasions require extra preparation. Nothing worse than ending up in the newspaper looking like Alfalfa. Leslie made sure I pulled my hair back. Honeybee and I match, actually. It’s French twist day.

“Arcadia,” I blurt out, just to see if the word draws a reaction. “Was that one of Grandma Judy’s clubs…or maybe a bridge circle…or did she know someone who lived in Arcadia?”

Neither my mother nor my father seems to have any unusual reaction to the word. “Arcadia, Florida?” Mom wants to know.

“I’m not sure. It came up in the conversation about her bridge groups.” I don’t tell her that the way Grandma Judy said it left me uneasy. “How could I find out more?”

“You’re awfully concerned about this.”

I almost pull out my phone to show her the photo. Almost. My hand stops halfway to my purse, and I smooth my skirt instead. The ember of a new worry is clearly visible in my mother’s face. She doesn’t need one more thing to stress about. If I show her the photo, she’ll be certain a nefarious scheme is being perpetrated and May Crandall wants something from us. My mother is a professional worrier.

“I’m really not concerned, Mama. I was just curious. The woman seemed so lonely.”

“That’s sweet of you, but Grandma Judy wouldn’t be much company for her, even if they did know one another. I’ve just had to ask the Monday Girls not to visit Magnolia Manor anymore. Too many old friends stopping by just frustrates your grandmother. She’s embarrassed that she can’t place names and faces. It’s harder when it’s not family. She worries that people are talking about her.”

“I know.” Maybe I should let this go. But the question nags me. It whispers and pesters and teases. It will not leave me alone all afternoon. We chat; we schmooze; we clap when my father cuts the ribbon. We spend time in the VIP lounge at the local country club, rubbing elbows with the governor and talking with corporate higher-ups. I’m even able to offer some free legal advice on the battle over natural gas fracking and ongoing legislation that could throw the doors wide open to it in neighboring North Carolina. Economy versus environment—so often it comes down to those two heavyweights duking it out in the ring of public opinion and, of course, upcoming legislation.

Even as I’m discussing the cost-benefit questions, which I honestly do care about passionately, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking of the cellphone in my purse and Grandma Judy’s reaction to the photo.

I know she recognized the woman. Queen…or Queenie.

It’s not a coincidence. It can’t be.

Arcadia. Arcadia…what?

In the car on our way back to my father’s Aiken office, I offer up a few innocent-sounding excuses to slip away from my parents for a while—errands and whatnot. The truth is that I’m going to see May Crandall again. If there is something going on here, I’m better off knowing about it. Then I can decide what needs to be done.

Daddy actually seems a little disappointed that we’re parting ways. He has a strategy meeting with his staff before finally going home for supper. He was hoping I’d sit in.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Wells. Avery is allowed a personal life,” Mom interjects. “She has a handsome young fiancé to keep up with, remember?” Her slim shoulders rise, and she offers me a conspiratorial smile. “And a wedding to plan. They can’t plan if they never talk.” The end of the sentence rises, singsong with anticipation. She pats my knee and leans close. A meaningful look flashes my way. Let’s get this show on the road, it says. She busies herself with her purse, lets a moment pass, and pretends to be casually switching topics. “The gardener brought in some new form of mulch the other day…for the azaleas…on a recommendation from Bitsy’s landscaper. They put it out last fall, and their azaleas were twice as thick as ours. Next spring, the gardens at Drayden Hill will be the envy of…well…everyone. Around the end of March. It should be just…heavenly.”

The phrase perfect for a wedding hangs unsaid in the air. When we announced our engagement, Elliot made Bitsy and Honeybee promise they wouldn’t sweep in and hijack the decision-making process. It’s killing them, really. They’d have this thing all sewn up if we’d just get out of the way, but we’re determined to make plans in our own time, in the way we think is best. Right now, my father and Honeybee should be focusing one hundred percent on Dad’s health, not worrying about wedding arrangements.

You can’t tell Honeybee that, though.

I pretend not to get the drift. “I think Jason could grow roses in the desert.” Jason has managed the gardens at Drayden Hill since long before I left for college. He’d be thrilled to have the chance to show them off. But Elliot will never go for a wedding idea that originated with the moms. Elliot loves his mother, but as an only child, he’s exhausted by her constant focus on arranging his life.

One thing at a time, I tell myself. Daddy, cancer, politics. Those are the big three right now.

We pull up in front of the office. The driver opens the door for us, and I slip out, glad that I’m free.

One last thinly veiled hint follows me out the door: “Tell Elliot to thank his mother for the suggestion about the azaleas.”

“I will,” I promise, then hurry off to my car, where I do call Elliot. He doesn’t pick up. Chances are he’s in a meeting, even though it’s after five. His financial clients are international, so demands come in around the clock.

I leave a quick message about the azaleas. He’ll get a laugh out of that, and he often needs it at the end of a high-stress day.

A block down the road, I get a call from my middle sister, Allison.

“Hey, Allie. What’s up?” I say.

Allison laughs, but she sounds frazzled. The triplets are fussing in the background. “Is there any way…any way at all you could pick Courtney up from dance class? The boys are sick, and we’ve been through three sets of clothes today already, and…yeah. We’re naked again. All four of us. Court’s probably standing outside the dance studio wondering where in the world I am.”

I make a quick U-turn toward Miss Hannah’s, where I was a ballet and pageant class failure back in the day. Fortunately, Court has real talent. At her spring recital, she was amazing. “Sure. Of course I’ll do it. I’m not even very far away. I can be there to get her in ten.”

Allison answers with a long sigh of relief. “Thank you. You’re a lifesaver. Today, you’re my favorite sister.” It’s been a running joke since childhood, the question of who was Allison’s favorite. As the middle kid, she had her pick. Missy was older and more interesting, but I was younger and could be bossed around.

I laugh softly. “Well, that’s totally worth an extra trip across town.”

“And please don’t tell Mama the boys are sick. She’ll come over here, and I don’t want to take any chances on Daddy being exposed to whatever this bug is. Drop Courtney off at Shellie’s house. I’ll text the address to you. I already called Shellie’s mom. They’re fine with Court spending the night.”

“Okay, will do.” Of the three of us, Allison is the most akin to Honeybee. She operates like a four-star general, but since the boys came along, she’s been overpowered by an invading army. “I’m almost at the studio. I’ll text you once I’ve rescued your daughter.”

We hang up, and a few minutes later, I’m pulling up to Miss Hannah’s. Courtney is standing out front. She brightens when she sees that she hasn’t been abandoned.

“Hey, Aunt Aves!” she says as she slides into the car.

“Hey, yourself.”

“Mom forget me again?” She rolls her eyes and lets her head sag to one side, a motion that makes her seem way more than ten years old.

“No…I was just lonesome for you. I thought we could hang out, go to the park, slide down the slide, play in the play fort, that kind of thing.”

“Okay, seriously, Aunt Aves…”

It bothers me that she’s so quick to reject the idea. She’s too grown-up for her own good. Wasn’t it just yesterday that she was tugging my pants leg and begging me to climb trees with her at Drayden Hill? “All right, your mom did call me to pick you up, but only because the boys are sick. I’m supposed to take you to Shellie’s house.”

Her face lights up, and she straightens in the passenger seat. “Oh, awesome!” I give her the stink eye, and she adds, “Not about the boys being sick, I mean.”

I offer an ice cream stop, our favorite activity once upon a time, but she tells me she’s not hungry. She only has eyes for Shellie’s house, so I turn on the GPS and strike out in that direction.

She whips out her cellphone to text Shellie, and my thoughts switch tracks. Arcadia and May Crandall overshadow the pangs of watching my niece rush headlong toward teenagerhood. What will May’s response be when I ask her about that word, Arcadia?

It’s looking less likely that I’ll find out today. By the time I drop Courtney off, it’ll be supper hour at the nursing home. The staff will be busy, and so will May.

I turn off the main road and wind through tree-clad streets lined with stately turn-of-the-century homes surrounded by perfectly manicured lawns and gardens. We’ve gone quite a few blocks before I realize why the trip to Shellie’s house has such a familiar feel to it. Grandma Judy’s home on Lagniappe is not far away.

“Hey, Court. Want to run by Grandma Judy’s house with me before I drop you at Shellie’s?” I don’t like the idea of going alone, but it has just occurred to me that there might be some answers to be found among Grandma Judy’s belongings.

Courtney lowers the phone, giving me a bemused look. “It’s kinda creepy, Aunt Aves. Nobody’s there, but all Grandma Judy’s stuff is still around.” Her bottom lip pouts outward. Big blue eyes regard me earnestly. It’s hard for the kids to accept the rapid change in Grandma Judy. This is their first real brush with mortality. “I’ll go with you if you really need me to.”

“No, that’s all right.” I continue past the turn-off. There’s no reason to involve Courtney. I’ll run over to Lagniappe after I drop Court at her friend’s.

She’s clearly relieved. “Okay. Thanks for picking me up today, Aunt Aves.”

“Anytime, kiddo.”

A few minutes later, she’s trotting up the driveway to Shellie’s house, and I’m bound for Lagniappe Street and the past.

Blunt-force grief strikes me as I pull into the drive and step from the car. Everywhere I look, there’s a memory. The roses I helped my grandmother tend, the willow tree where I played house with the little girl from down the street, the Cinderella’s castle bay window upstairs, the yawning porch that served as a backdrop for prom photos, the water garden where the multicolored koi bobbed for cracker crumbs.

I can almost feel my grandmother on the Charleston-style piazza along the side of the house. Climbing the stairs, I half expect her to be there. It’s painful to realize that she’s not. I’ll never again come to this place and be greeted by my grandmother.

In the backyard, the greenhouse is stale and dusty smelling. The moist, earthy scents are gone. The shelves and pots have been removed too. No doubt my mother gave them to someone who could use them.

The hidden key is right where it has always been. It catches a beam of late-afternoon light as I remove a loose brick along the foundation. From there, it’s easy enough to slip inside and turn off the alarm. After that, I stand in the living room thinking, What next?

The floorboards crackle beneath me, and I jump, even though it’s an old, familiar sound. Courtney was right. The house seems vacant and spooky, no longer the second home it has always been. From the age of thirteen on, I stayed here during the school year whenever my parents were in D.C., so I could attend classes in Aiken with my friends.

Now I feel like a sneak thief.

This is silly anyway. You don’t even know what you’re looking for.

Photos, maybe? Is the woman on May Crandall’s nightstand in any of the old albums? Grandma Judy has always been the family historian, the keeper of the Stafford lineage, the one who tirelessly pecks out labels on her old manual typewriter and attaches them to things. There isn’t a stick of furniture, a painting, a piece of artwork, or a photo in this house that isn’t carefully marked with its origins and previous owners. Her personal items—any that matter—are similarly stored. The dragonfly bracelet came to me in a well-worn box with a yellowed note taped to the bottom.

July 1966. A gift. Moonstones for first photographs sent back from the moon by American exploratory spacecraft Surveyor. Garnets for love. Dragonflies for water. Sapphires and onyx for remembrance. Custom by Greer Designs, Damon Greer, designer.

Beneath that, she’d added:

For Avery,

Because you are the one to dream new dreams and blaze new trails. May the dragonflies take you to places beyond your imaginings.

—Grandma Judy

It’s strange, I now realize, that she didn’t say whom the gift was from. I wonder if I can find that information in her appointment books. Never a week passed that she didn’t carefully document the details of her days, keeping track of everyone she saw, what she wore, what was served at meals. If she and May Crandall were friends or shared a bridge circle, May’s name will probably be there.

Someday, you’ll read these and know all my secrets, she told me once when I asked her why she was so meticulous about writing everything down.

The comment seems like permission now, but as I pass through the shadowy house, guilt niggles at me. It’s not as though my grandmother has passed away. She’s still here. What I’m doing amounts to snooping, yet I can’t get past the feeling that she wants me to understand something, that this is important, somehow, for both of us.

In her little office off the library, her last appointment book still sits on the desk. The page is open to the day she disappeared for eight hours and ended up lost and confused at the former shopping mall. A Thursday.

The handwriting is barely legible. It trembles and runs downhill. It looks nothing like my grandmother’s lovely, curving script. Trent Turner, Edisto is the only notation for that day.

Edisto? Is that what happened when she disappeared? Somehow, she thought she was going to the cottage on Edisto Island to…meet someone? Maybe she had a dream overnight and woke up believing it was real? Perhaps she was reliving some event from the past?

Who is Trent Turner?

I leaf through more pages.

There’s no mention of May Crandall among Grandma Judy’s social engagements over the past months. Yet, somehow, May gave me the impression they’d seen each other recently.

The farther back I go, the clearer the handwriting becomes. I feel myself sinking into the familiar routines around which I once shadowed my grandmother—events for the Federation Women’s Club, the library board, the DAR, the Garden Club in the spring. It’s painful to realize that seven months ago, before her rapid downward spiral, she was still functioning reasonably well, still keeping up her social calendar, though a friend or two had mentioned to my parents that Judy has been having some lapses.

I leaf through more pages, wondering, remembering, thinking about this watershed year. Life can turn on a dime. The appointment book reinforces my new awareness of this. We plan our days, but we don’t control them.

My grandmother’s January notes begin with a single line scrawled haphazardly in the margin just before New Year’s Day. Edisto and Trent Turner, she’d written again. There’s a phone number jotted underneath.

Maybe she was talking to someone about having work done on the cottage? That’s hard to imagine. My dad’s personal secretary has been handling Grandma Judy’s affairs since my grandfather died seven years ago. If there were any arrangements to be made, she would have taken care of them.

There’s one way to find out, I guess.

I grab my cell and dial the number.

The phone rings once, twice.

I start wondering what I’m going to say if someone answers. Ummm…I’m not sure why I’m calling. I found your name in an old notebook at my grandmother’s house, and…


A machine picks up. “Turner Real Estate. This is Trent. There’s no one here to answer the phone right now, but if you’ll leave a message…”

Real estate? I’m gobsmacked. Was Grandma Judy thinking about selling the Edisto place? That’s hard to fathom. The cottage has been in her family since before she married my grandfather. She loves it.

My parents would’ve told me if we were letting go of the place. There must be another explanation, but since I have no way of knowing, I return to my browsing.

In the closet, I find the rest of her appointment books stored in a well-worn barrister bookcase, right where they’ve always been. They’re neatly arranged in order from the year she married my grandfather to the present. Just for fun, I take out the oldest one. The milky leather cover is dry and crazed with brown cracks so that it looks like a piece of antique china. Inside, the handwriting is loopy and girlish. Notations about sorority parties, college exams, bridal showers, china patterns, and date nights with my grandfather fill the pages.

In one of the margins, she has practiced signing her soon-to-be married name, the flourishes on the letters testifying to the giddiness of first love.

Visited Harold’s parents at Drayden Hill, one entry says. Horseback riding. Took a few fences. Harold said not to tell his mother. She wants us in one piece for the wedding. I have found my prince. Not the slightest bit of doubt.

Emotion gathers in my throat. It’s bittersweet.

Not the slightest bit of doubt.

Did she really feel that way? Did she really just…know it was right when she met my grandfather? Should Elliot and I have experienced some sort of…lightning bolt moment, rather than the relaxed drift from childhood adventures to adult friendship to dating to engagement because, after six years of dating, it seems like it’s time? Is there something wrong with us because we haven’t tumbled in headfirst, because we’re not in a rush?

My cellphone rings, and I grab it, wanting it to be him.

The voice on the other end is male and friendly, but it isn’t Elliot’s.

“Hello, this is Trent Turner. I had a call from this number. Sorry I missed you. What can I help you with?”

“Oh…oh…” Every possible icebreaker flies from my mind, and I blurt out, “I found your name in my grandmother’s date book.”

Papers shuffle in the background. “Did we have an appointment set up here on Edisto? To look at a cottage or something? Or is this about a rental?”

“I don’t know what it’s about. Actually, I was hoping you could tell me. My grandmother has been experiencing some health problems. I’m trying to make sense of the notes on her schedule.”

“What day was the appointment for?”

“I’m not sure if she had one. I thought she might’ve called you about selling a property. The Myers cottage.” It’s not uncommon around here for properties to be known by the names of people who owned them decades ago. My grandmother’s parents built the Edisto house as a place to escape the hot, sticky summers inland. “Stafford. Judy Stafford.” I prepare myself for the change in tone that almost invariably comes with the name. Anywhere in the state, people either love us or hate us, but they usually know who we are.

“Staff…for…Stafford…” he mutters. Maybe he’s not from around here? Come to think of it, his accent doesn’t even hint of Charleston. It’s not Lowcountry, but there is some sort of drawl there. Texas maybe? Having spent so much of my childhood mingling with kids from other places, I’m good with accents, both foreign and domestic.

There’s a strange pause. His tone is more guarded afterward. “I’ve only been here about nine months, but I can promise you that no one’s ever called here about selling or renting the Myers cottage. Sorry I can’t be of more help.” Suddenly, he’s trying to shuffle me off the phone. Why? “If it was before the first of the year, my grandfather, Trent Senior, was probably the one she was talking to. But he passed away over six months ago.”

“Oh. My condolences.” I instantly feel a kinship that goes beyond his presence in a place I have always dearly loved. “Any idea what my grandmother was in touch with him about?”

There’s another uncomfortable pause, as if he’s carefully weighing his words. “Yes, actually. He had some papers for her. That’s really all I can say.”

The lawyer in me surfaces. I catch the scent of a reluctant witness who’s harboring information. “What kind of papers?”

“I’m sorry. I promised my grandfather.”

“Promised what?”

“If she’ll come down here herself, I can give her the envelope he left for her.”

Alarm bells ring in my head. What in the world is going on? “She isn’t able to travel.”

“Then I can’t help you. I’m sorry.”

Just like that, he hangs up.

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