From the day her husband Coot Green set fire to her honeymoon clothes, Ouida Green had stayed annoyed with him. In the 30 years since, Ouida arranged the details into an amusing story for women who came into her dress shop: she and Coot left their wedding reception and headed to Memphis in a brand new 1929 Ford. On the backseat Ouida laid out her pink silk nightgown, navy and white sailor outfit, and the white beaded chemise. As the car rounded the curve at Sherard, Coot flipped his cigarette out the window. Several miles past Moon Lake, the trousseau burst into flames.
Although Ouida told the story with a practiced detachment through the years, relishing the apricot jam between layers of wedding cake, the pink silk fans the bridesmaids carried, the absurdness of the smoke filling the honeymoon carriage, repeating the vision of her wedding to the women trying on Nelly Don dresses, she had never forgiven Coot. And since the mishap occurred on the very first day of their marriage, it had not escaped Ouida’s notice that only for a half day in their married life had Coot been completely in her good graces.
The backseat fire burned brightly today, the white beaded chemise smoldered afresh, as Ouida tore open the white package from Prentiss’ Laundry and Cleaners and took out Coot’s socks and boxer shorts. There was no room for a washer in their tiny house, so all the laundry was sent out. She opened Coot’s drawer in the bureau. All his socks were in a jumble. Ouida turned the drawer upside down on the bed. Out fell a small package, wrapped up in a brown paper bag. It was the wrong shape to be the usual half-pint of whiskey. Instead, it was a silver Bulova watch with a link band, encased in a plastic bubble. Just like the one Coot had given her last Christmas. Ouida carefully matched the socks up, rolled them together into balls, and put them back. In the far corner of the drawer, she returned the watch and covered it with ribbed undershirts and striped boxers. Once a woman standing in her slip in the dressing room told Ouida about sewing her husband’s flies shut in all of his underwear. She had then ironed and folded the light blue and white boxers into neat little rectangles, hoping he would give up the buxom ticket-taker at The Talisman.
Ouida opened the bedroom door and went into the kitchen, or as Coot always described it, from the bedroom, you “fell into the sink.” In the tiny shotgun house, moved here from the country where it had once been a sharecropper’s cabin, a visitor started out on the twelve by six foot screened-in porch, “fell onto” the two-seater tuxedo sofa, antique platform rocker, and corner what-not shelf, and from that room, opened the door and “fell into the bed” in the bedroom, went through the kitchen, pulled aside a curtain and “fell into” their daughter’s (Little Coot’s) bedroom, transformed from a back lean-to into a fairy tale, with its tiny iron bed and tiny white dresser, and little pictures of red birds that Ouida had painted.
Ouida pulled up the kitchen window, which looked into the overgrown cherry laurel trees where grackles were roosting. It was late October. The compress had just blown its five o’clock whistle, a long, a short and a long, imitating the riverboat whistle from the Kate Adams. For years, the riverboat carried, along with the mail, brides from Prentiss leaving on their wedding trips. The whistle got Ouida to thinking that if the Kate Adams hadn’t burned at its moorings in 1927, she and Coot would have been on the boat. Then the fine trousseau that Aunt Ouida had bought for her would not have caught fire and she and Coot would have gotten off to a better start.
Ouida tore off a long sheet of waxed paper. She wanted to finish wrapping up the new batch of chocolate candy before Coot got home. A feeling came over her, a feeling of longing or homesickness. She didn’t know if it was the sound of the waxed paper ripping or the compress whistle. It was a feeling of wanting to be back in her Aunt Ouida’s house, her old family home. After Ouida’s father died, Ouida and her mother (who died shortly afterward) had come home to live with Aunt Ouida and her daughter Sally. The white frame house Ouida had been raised in had stood on this very lot. The same spreading magnolias, water oaks, and pecan trees that Ouida’s grandmother had planted now enveloped and dwarfed the shotgun house. As a child, Ouida had made necklaces with the red magnolia seeds and little men out of pecans under the camellia bushes and trumpet vines.
The grand old house had burned up several years after Ouida and Coot were married. Then, she and Coot had the shotgun house moved to the lot where the family home had stood and they had lived in it ever since.
Ouida would never forget the first Christmas she and Coot had spent in this shotgun house. Little Coot was a few months old. Aunt Ouida and her daughter Cousin Sally drove down from Memphis. Ouida had worked so hard fixing oyster dressing and ambrosia. On Christmas Day when she leaned over to get the turkey out of the oven, Aunt Ouida was standing so close to her she could hardly get the pan out without spilling hot drippings all over their feet. Aunt Ouida asked over her shoulder, “Who ever heard of a Christmas without servants?”
“This is my home now,” Ouida said outloud to herself in order to break the reverie. She had to remind herself that she had lived in the little house longer than she had ever lived in the big house. She picked up a piece of the chocolate candy from the marble slab and wrapped it in waxed paper. She put the piece in a shoebox and began to wrap another square of the fudge, working quickly. She who had loved the smell of chocolate coming from Aunt Ouida’s kitchen as a child was now sickened by its sweetness.
She had begun the candy making the year Coot moved the sharecropper’s cabin from his family’s place. He’d lost everything through mismanagement and a series of bad cotton crops. She first used the candy money to fix up the cabin. Selling a dozen boxes to re-cover a chair, a dozen more to get the old newspapers scraped from the living room walls and nice flowered wallpaper put up. The candy making went on, even after she had opened her dress shop, because by then Little Coot was going to Ole Miss. Now it seemed the candy money always went on the running tab at Glorioso’s grocery. Coot’s real estate business had never paid much more than the light and water bill, and now hardly that.
Ouida glanced at her watch to check the time. It was already five thirty, and she hadn’t even thought about supper. Coot had bought her watch at Brown’s drugstore and given it to her last Christmas. Was she more annoyed at Coot for buying a watch just like hers for someone else, or was it that he had spent money they didn’t have? The same watch! He’d probably charged it too!
Ouida picked up the saucepan with the spoon she used for beating the candy. “Just look at that,” Ouida said aloud. “I’ve worn all the silver off one side of the spoon, I’ve beaten so much candy with it.” Aunt Ouida had given her the silver plate spoon along with the candy recipe the last Christmas in the big house before it burned. She missed her Aunt Ouida. She missed Little Coot licking the candy off the spoon. She slammed the spoon and pan in the sink, ran hot water over a dishrag, and wiped off the marble slab with a vengeance. The white chemise was the prettiest dress she had ever owned and she had never gotten to even wear it out of the house.
Ouida opened a can of salmon and mashed up the pink meat, bones and all, and added a little chopped onion, Worcestershire, salt and pepper. She squeezed out lemon juice, crumbled up crackers, stirred in a beaten egg and patted out the salmon into small croquettes. There was still no sign of Coot. How had she ended up with a man who never managed to get home for supper? Aunt Ouida hadn’t told her it was a consideration in picking a husband. She fried the croquettes and drained them on a brown paper bag.
She took off her flowered housedress and put on her navy skirt, white blouse, pearls and red heels. She made it a rule always to dress for supper, a remembrance of times in Aunt Ouida’s house. Ouida ate the salmon croquettes and cauliflower with cheese sauce and some left-over green beans at the kitchen table. She then fixed a plate for Coot, covered it with tin foil, and left it warming on the stove.
Ouida fixed herself a little toddy of bourbon and water and sat down to read the paper. But she began to worry. What was she going to wear to Cousin Sally’s daughter’s wedding? And what was she going to give little Sally for a wedding present? Ouida wanted it to be nice, but not too expensive. She was thinking another toddy might help her decide when she heard Coot pull up in the driveway, the only dirt one on the block. Coot stopped to take his shoes off on the porch, meeting one of her requirements.
Coot opened the door, walked over and kissed Ouida. “You needn’t make up to me for being so late,” Ouida said. “Looks like the later you work, the less you do in that office.”
Coot headed straight to the kitchen. He reached under the sink and pulled out the bottle of Old Crow. “I’ve got some things I’m working on,” Coot said.
“Don’t leave anything out on the counter,” Ouida said. “I’ve already cleaned up the kitchen once. Your supper’s on the stove.”
“Hell, Ouida, one of these days you’re going to tell me one something one too many times,” Coot said, smiling, grinning at her, “and while you’re at the dress shop I’m going to hire me a flat bed trailer, and a big old tractor and haul this damn house right back to the middle of a cotton field where it belongs.”
Ouida could see that he was determined to be charming and funny. She saw him headed to Memphis, pulling their house around a curve too fast, swerving back across the highway, the little cabin sliding around the flatbed, Coot lurching along with her and Little Coot inside the house, the furniture toppled to one side. Coot put his glass down to light a cigarette and she remembered his cigarette burning in an ashtray at the Peabody while she was being led around the dance floor in a foxtrot by her good-looking husband with the black wavy hair and hazel eyes. She put the memory away just as she had put the Bulova back in the corner of Coot’s drawer. Soon it would be bestowed on some lady-in-waiting, as if it were an expensive Omega watch instead of off the counter at Brown’s drugstore.
“What did you do on your afternoon off?” asked Coot. He was adding a little more bourbon before putting the bottle back up under the sink.
“Made candy,” Ouida said. “I got to thinking about Aunt Ouida’s house. Oh, I wish we could have rebuilt that wonderful house. We could have Little Sally’s wedding reception just like ours, on the porches and in the yard under the magnolias and the big water oaks. If Little Coot could just have grown up in it! When we have grandchildren, they could come home to visit and there would have been plenty of room.”
“Cousin Sally wants something a lot finer for Little Sally’s wedding, the Memphis Country Club. And you know Little Coot is not coming home to visit,” said Coot. “Her Yankee husband thinks we’re narrow-minded. Even though the whole town bowed and scraped to him like he was royalty or something, the one time he came to visit. And they ain’t going to have any children because they don’t want any.”
“They are brilliant people,” said Ouida.
“I know,” Coot said. “But Little Coot has outgrown us and her husband’s a blowhard.”
“You’re just being mean,” said Ouida. “I’m going to bed, and you need to go on the wagon.”
Ouida went into the bedroom and closed the door. She could hear Coot pulling out the whiskey and pouring himself another drink, the bottle knocking against the counter. She had never really known how much he drank, all told, but it was enough to give him a pleasant plastered look most of the time. She took off her clothes and hung them in the closet and put on her cotton gown and lay down on the bed without pulling back the covers. She was thinking about Little Coot. Was Coot right? Was she ashamed of her roots? Ouida had always thought she was just busy with her own life, she was so smart and had married so well. Those things she had wanted for her child. Little Coot wasn’t pretty, but that was all right. Being pretty hadn’t exactly gotten her the best of everything. There had been times when there was nothing to eat but grits. She’d tell Little Coot: “Just pretend we are marooned on an island. All we have to eat are the grits that we grabbed up when we abandoned ship.”
What was she going to do about the watch? She got out of bed and went over to Coot’s drawer. She pulled out the brown package and opened up the plastic bubble. Ouida took off her watch with the slightly scratched face and bent link. She put her old watch in the bubble and slipped the brand new one on her wrist.
Ouida lingered over picking out what to wear to work the next morning. Coot was still in bed, his plate left on the back of the stove, the food spoiled. She’d have to throw it out. She ran her fingers over a dark green cotton dress. It looked good with her white hair, streaked with auburn. The smoothness of the material cheered her. She splurged on a new package of stockings and rolled them up with garters to just above her knees. She put on her brown and white spectator pumps. “Don’t you look grand?” she asked softly, just as she would a customer in her shop. She was careful not to wake Coot. She didn’t want him spoiling her morning. She put on her baroque pearls, real pearls, that Coot had given her when they got married. She was feeling better. Even if she was 15 pounds overweight and her hair a little frizzy from too many permanents, Ouida knew she could still put on a good show when she set her mind to it. She dabbed some Chanel No. 5 behind her ears, on her wrists, and behind her knees.
Ouida knew she should walk to town—the sun was out, the leaves were turning, it wasn’t too hot. But it might rain. Her feet would start hurting in the spectator pumps. She would sweat on her dress. Instead, she drove the green Ford the few blocks to her shop, taking pleasure in knowing that Coot would have to walk in the hot noon sun, his head aching from a hangover.
Tempe Powell was standing on the sidewalk looking in the window of Ouida’s shop. “I need a dress,” Tempe said. “I hope you have something for Little Sally’s wedding.” Tempe in her mid-forties was ten years younger than Ouida. She was slim and had wavy brown hair. She was the only divorcee in Prentiss. Ouida felt sorry for her, it certainly set her apart. Life with Coot hadn’t been especially easy. But divorce, nobody was divorced.
The dress shop was in a row of white frame buildings, owned by Tempe Powell. Ouida never remembered them not needing a coat of paint. Her shop was long and narrow. There was a glass counter with a few pieces of jewelry, a few hats, and the chocolate candy in shoeboxes. In the back were two metal frames with dresses. The walls were board and batten, painted a light green. The wooden floor creaked slightly when Ouida and Tempe walked across.
“Coot has been helping me out with trying to get these buildings sold,” said Tempe. “I just don’t have the money to fix them up like I’d like to.”
“Oh,” said Ouida. “He hasn’t mentioned it to me.”
“The new landlord would want to keep the tenants,” said Tempe.
“How would this look?” She pulled out a Nelly Don dress. It was a shirtwaist with a flowered pattern.
“That’s too old looking for you,” said Ouida. She looked through the rack and held out a light blue two-piece silk. “Is Rosa Tempe coming to my Halloween party this year?”
“I don’t think she’d miss it for the world,” said Tempe. “Her daddy is coming to visit. I’m supposed to meet him at the Memphis airport and bring him back down with me on Monday, but I know his visit won’t get in the way. That’s not really what I want,” said Tempe. “I don’t really know what land of dress I need. I’ve got to run. I’m late going to Cleveland for a beauty parlor appointment.”
“Let me know if you sell the building,” said Ouida. “I can’t help but worry.”
“Coot will be the first to know since he’s helping me,” said Tempe.
That doesn’t mean I’ll be the first to know, thought Ouida.
“I want to order some of your candy for Thanksgiving,” said Tempe. “Someday I want you to give me your recipe. It’s the best thing I ever put in my mouth. Maybe you can be on the lookout for something for me to wear.”
“I don’t know what I’m wearing either,” said Ouida. “You know I can’t turn loose of my candy recipe just yet. Everybody in town wants it. If the recipe gets out, nobody will buy my candy. There’s plenty of time to put your order in.”
Why hadn’t Coot told her about the possibility of her shop being sold? What was he trying to hide? Could it be that he had a crush on Tempe? When Ouida set her cap for Coot and wanted to marry him, she didn’t know that he’d be setting his cap off and on for whoever happened to come along. Coot had been such a sharp dresser and so attentive and from a good moneyed family, leading Ouida to think she had won the grandest prize when they got engaged. Ouida hung the blue silk back in the size eights and thought about taking Coot’s tweed sportcoat, bowties and wingbacks and setting fire to them underneath the cherry laurels, watching the grackles fly up through the smoke.
It was Tuesday and Halloween night. Ouida was in the driver’s seat of the old green Ford. She had on a black dress and a witches’ hat. She had caked green eyeshadow over her eyes and put black dots for moles on her chin. On the back seat were Rosa Tempe Powell and her friend Linda Lee, both dressed up like hoboes. They were the remnants of what had been in years past a big Halloween party. Ouida would make popcorn balls, then pile Little Coot and all her friends in the car like sardines and drive to the park for ghost stories. Rosa Tempe and Linda Lee were both too old for Halloween parties, and Ouida thought they were there out of politeness. What had happened to all the children she knew? Grown and gone like Little Coot.
Ouida drove the Ford up over the curb and into the middle of the park. It was only a block from her house. She cut the engine. “Lock the doors,” Ouida said to underscore the scariness. “You never know who or what might be out here walking by in the dark of night. Once upon a time, there was a very old, old man who lived all by himself right out in the middle of a cotton patch in a big old white house, four stories high with wrap-around porches. In the dark of the night, there was a knock on the door. It was a traveler lost in the violent storm. Lightning was flashing around. The old man took him way way up a long flight of stairs, about a thousand steps. The traveler went to sleep. In the middle of the night, the visitor heard someone step on the bottom step. He heard a step on the next step. He started counting, Three, four. . .’ With each step, the thing was getting closer and closer.”
At the edge of the park, staying in the shadows, out of the glare of the street lamp was a figure who could have been the thing going up the stairs, so secretive did the figure look to Ouida.
All the time that Ouida had been making her popcorn balls for the girls, Coot had been planning his own Halloween party. When Ouida left to tell ghost stories out in the middle of the park, Coot went into the bedroom. He got the Bulova watch out of the bureau. He put it down in one coat pocket. In the other pocket was a half-pint of Old Crow that he had bought at the package store that afternoon.
Coot picked up the telephone. When the operator said, “Number please,” Coot answered, “Number Two.” The phone rang three times.
“Hello,” a man said.
“Who’s this?” asked Coot.
“Walter Powell, who’s this?” the man answered.
Coot slammed down the receiver. What in the hell was he doing there wondered Coot. Tempe’s ex-husband. Coot had gone to high school with him in Prentiss, but he had moved away after the divorce. Coot had been courting Tempe for weeks, although Coot wasn’t sure she had gotten the message. One thing he knew, he was tired of making do, with everything and in every way. He was sick of Ouida’s damn candy-making. He was tired of coming home to his tiny house and taking his shoes off before he could get in the door. Tempe was his ticket out. He’d move into her big house and manage her rental property—it was broken down old stuff now, but he could help her take care of it. Why, she didn’t look like the land of woman who’d give him hell everyday, always trying to make the best of everything at his expense.
One more, thought Coot, one more and I’m going over there anyway, Walter or not. He went in the kitchen and poured himself a drink out of the Old Crow up under the sink. He had been fixing drinks most of the afternoon whenever Ouida wasn’t looking. When the next drink finished off a fifth, Coot threw it in the trash. “Another dead soldier,” said Coot.
Coot went out his back door, down the four steps and walked slowly along the side yard by the magnolia trees. Underneath his feet he knew the grass was scruffy, the yard littered with the large brown leaves, needing to be raked. He caught his foot on a branch, growing close to the ground. “Goddamn it,” Coot said. “Ouida and her damn trees.”
He remembered he had tripped in this part of the yard, maybe even on the very same branch, at his wedding reception when Aunt Ouida’s house was still standing. He’d gone to look for a real drink, only to find champagne punch. He thought of Ouida, his new bride, holding her train, and flitting across the grass to greet guests. Some of their last carefree moments, it seemed now looking back to him. Only a few hours later, Coot was speeding along, laughing at Ouida, watching her brown hair blow, seeing their life ahead, laid out like the highway, beautiful and straight, level with the cotton fields, the trees growing up around a slough in the distance. When they had smelled smoke, he had stopped the car. While he tried to beat the fire out, Ouida had run to the nearest colored cabin, but there was no running water, not even a pump or well. She had gone on up the road and come back with a man carrying a pitcher of water. Silver! Not a bucket even. An elegant silver pitcher. Ouida had interrupted cocktail hour, the women sitting around with their long legs crossed, pushing their hair back with one hand, the men talking about cotton, horses, dogs. The life he should have given Ouida. He remembered needing a drink, waiting by the smoked-up car, his champagne buzz gone, wishing he had thought to stash a half-pint in the honeymoon car. After the fire was put out the man had invited them to stop by his house for a drink, but Ouida insisted they drive on to Memphis.
Coot reached down and broke off the magnolia branch he’d just stumbled on and took a swig out of his half-pint and put it back in his pocket. He now remembered the candy, the candy and popcorn balls he was to give out to the trick-or-treaters. Ouida had given him instructions. He went around back and went into the kitchen, picked up a tray of popcorn balls and the bowl of bubble-gum and put them out on the screened-in porch. They could help themselves, the little buggers.
He left again by the back door and went along the side of the yard and then crossed the street and hugged the edge of the park in the dark, as well as he could, staying behind the big water oaks and skirted on around the park square and then crossed Voohries Street, passing a group of kids dressed as pirates and devils and carrying paper bags. He ducked into a side yard and cut across the backyard of the old Jacob house. He felt like a little kid again himself. When was the last time he had cut across a yard in the dark of night? He stopped and unscrewed the half-pint. “Hot damn,” Coot said. A late cricket chirped in the thicket. A truck in need of a muffler was going toward Memphis too fast.
There was a sweet smell in the air, a summer smell that seemed out of place just now. He walked on by the thicket and got back on the sidewalk, bordering Highway Number 1, and walked towards Tempe’s. He ducked through the boxwood and stood looking at Tempe’s big brick house. He thought how nice it would be to walk from one room to the other, instead of falling into the bed from the living room. On the front porch a Halloween pumpkin was lit. Coot moved closer, stood still, alone and unnoticed in the dark. It pleased him to be lost in the shrubbery.
Coot crossed the yard to the sidewalk and continued up the wide brick steps to where the pumpkin was. The flame flickered behind grape teeth and a green pepper nose. The ears were bananas stuck through holes. Coot tried the door knob. It was locked. Coot took the half-pint out and took a swig. He knew nobody locked their doors in Prentiss, Walter and Tempe must have suspected he was coming. He beat on the door, but nobody answered. “Hot damn,” mumbled Coot, “I came over to give Tempe this watch and I’m going to give it to her.” How seldom he had prevailed in his life with Ouida. The only thing that he could really think of was the child had the same nickname he did, Coot, Little Coot. She’d loved him dearly as a teeny little thing. But now, who was she? Coot didn’t know. Coot leaned against the door and gave it a shove with his right shoulder. He banged into it several more times before it broke free, tearing the latch and splintering part of the door frame. The pumpkin was broken into pieces and the bananas squashed. Running down the hall towards him was big Walter Powell.
“Where’s Tempe?” asked Coot.
“You don’t need to know,” Walter answered.
“The hell I do,” said Coot. “I got her a watch and I’m going to give it to her. She needs a new watch.”
“You’re drunk,” said Walter. “Go on and get out of here before you get in trouble, Coot.”
“You’re not getting in my way,” said Coot. “Tempe likes me. You’re just sorry you ever left.”
“She told me you had been annoying her,” said Walter. “You need to leave now.”
“Tempe will have to tell me that herself,” said Coot. He’s just trying to scare me, thought Coot, because he played football and I didn’t. Coot could feel the half-pint rubbing against his right leg and the Bulova nestled against the left. He pulled back his fist and hit Walter, missing his chin, but knocking him against a side table, scattering candy corns.
“Son of a bitch,” Walter said. He pulled himself up and ran into the library and on back into a bedroom.
Coot couldn’t believe that he had scared off big Walter Powell. He felt in his pocket to see if the Bulova was okay. He pulled out the half-pint and drained the last of the whiskey, putting the bottle down carefully behind a fan palm. He heard Tempe yelling somewhere in the back of the house. Coot started down the long hall. He was not going to leave without finding Tempe. Off to the side, standing in the dining room was big Walter. He was pointing a small pistol at Coot.
“I could kill you,” Walter said. “Go home, Coot.”
“What do you think I am? A dog? I’ve got something to give Tempe,” said Coot. “And by God I am going to give it to her.” He kept on walking past Walter towards the kitchen. Walter aimed the pistol at Coot and shot him in the leg.
Ouida wore her anger, just as she wore the new Bulova. She flicked it in Coot’s face whenever she handed him the paper, or poured his cup of coffee. Coot was chagrined that he had left a used watch for Tempe. For even after the shot was fired, he had pulled the package from his pocket and left it sitting on the hall table.
By Friday, Coot was ready to escape, catching a ride downtown. He climbed the steps slowly to his office, his hurt leg moving painfully from step to step. Usually after one of his escapades, Ouida would go to Memphis to visit Cousin Sally for a few days, returning home cheerful in the dress shop and making batches of candy in a frenzy. But now, he thought he could smell her anger, just as he’d smelled the chocolate all these years. He didn’t want to go home. He sat until eight o’clock, listening to his clock tick, hearing an occasional patron checking his mailbox in the post office below.
Coot picked up the phone and said, “Number Two, please.” The phone rang and rang at Tempe’s house but nobody answered.
Tempe had hysterically called Dr. Dallas who had met Walter and him at his clinic. After checking Coot’s pulse, cleaning the wound and taking X-rays, Dr. Dallas had sent him home. The doctor told him that if he tried to remove the .22 bullet, it would damage tissue, nerves and maybe blood vessels. Walter had delivered him home to an astonished Ouida who offered him a popcorn ball, and a glass of water. Coot touched his leg where the bullet was and knew he’d be wearing it a lot longer than Ouida would ever wear her new watch.
Tempe was going ahead with the property sale and cutting him out of a commission. The new owner planned to fix up the white frame buildings and open a hamburger place and a furniture store. What would happen to Ouida’s dress shop? He’d gone too far this time. Coot got down on the floor and put his bum leg up in his desk chair. It felt better. He thought if he didn’t stay off it he might get blood poisoning. What if he lost his leg? He got up and got a bottle out of his desk drawer and took a long swig of whiskey. He’d lost Tempe, and the commission, and now, for the first time, he was worried about Ouida. Maybe he could make it up to her by finding her a better building for her shop. But his leg hurt. How could he get out and look at property? And, damnation, there was the doctor’s bill and the accident at Tempe’s, he’d knocked over the pumpkin and the candle had set fire to the porch, and smoked up the wall, and now Tempe was saying he would have to fix it. Where would he get the money? A fire, another fire. He swung his good leg back and gave the desk a hard kick.
After Coot had caught a ride and gone downtown, Ouida drove to Brown’s drugstore and bought Scotch tape, white wrapping paper, and white ribbon. She got the clerk at the drugstore to give her some white tissue paper and a hairbrush box. Back home, Ouida got the candy spoon out of the drawer. She sat down at the kitchen table. She turned the spoon around and around in her hand. Why had Aunt Ouida given it to her and not her own daughter Sally? Had she known all along, in her infinite wisdom, that she, Ouida, would need it, need it to make do in her life? Ouida put the spoon carefully on a sheet of tissue paper, wrapped it around and put it in the hairbrush box. She took out the stained index card with the candy recipe and put it in the box with the spoon. She didn’t know what kind of young man Little Sally was marrying, but the spoon was the only thing that hadn’t burned from the old house, the only inheritance that she had to pass on. Of course, she was skipping over Little Coot, who Ouida knew, when she and Coot were gone, would probably sell the shotgun house, contents and all, so little feeling did she have for how things had been. It was all tangled up now in her head. The spoon and Coot. Had she after all, married whom she had needed? She wondered if her gift would be displayed on the card tables, covered with white linen tablecloths in Cousin Sally’s Georgian red brick house.
Ouida took out a pink sheet of stationery and sat at the kitchen table and wrote out a copy of the candy recipe. She addressed a pink envelope to Tempe Powell. She would mail it today on her way to the dress shop. She would mark everything down for a big sale, except one dress she had in mind. It was the most expensive dress she had ever carried in her shop, a pink silk with beading around the collar. It put her in mind of the pink her bridesmaids had worn, and she determined to wear it to Little Sally’s wedding.