All through the noisy luncheon Glory Bea would lay her hand over her wine glass when the waiter came patrolling her side of the long table. On his last trip around behind her, she almost relented and left her hand in her lap and let him pour. But she didn’t. She held her head high and drank ice water. Even more than author did she prize her name in this town as impeccable lady. And ladies did not sit around in public restaurants at two o’clock in the afternoon drinking wine.
She had sat there through the annual autumn Junior Fortnightly Club guest luncheon, not reading one of her stories for the program for the first time in ten years, listening to that overweight Ella Follett, who could not wait to fill in with three vocal selections from The Sound of Music, a capella. Standing up there, lifting her hand, walling her eyes back like a dying cow. Those voice lessons her mother put her through certainly had made a fool of her.
Glory Bea simply had not been able to write a new story. Everyone in Ste. Marie was highly impressed by her prose. They told her so and praised everything she ever read, extravagantly, even though her oeuvre had ended up unpublished and in dress boxes under her bed. She was the only fiction writer in Ste. Marie, Louisiana, near the reedy shores of Lake Pontchartrain.
She leaned back from the white tablecloth and pressed the sides of her neck. With each throb of the artery against her fingertips she was feeling a small terror. It seemed to rise in the mounting noise of voices, the clatter of dishes, cutlery, ice. The smells of food, wine, bodies, were beginning to stifle her. Even the fabric on the arm of the woman seated next to her rasped on the back of her hand as Glory Bea pushed back her chair.
“Excuse me,” she murmured, smiling, gracious, somewhat aloof, and walked sedately toward the hall and the sign LADIES.
In the rest room she chose the lefthand booth, which had the new toilet. Sliding the bolt on the door, she groped in her needle-point handbag. She drew out an elegant perfume flask encased in sterling filigree, a gift proffered on some triumphant occasion to a remote lady, in fact her mother. She quickly unscrewed the polished top and drained the clear contents into her upturned lips. Silent and odorless and comforting, it shot down the clean chute of her perfectly poised throat.
She sat down and patted her lips carefully with a square of tissue, then gently removed a cerise smear from the neck of the flask. For the vodka she sighed a deep and grateful breath. Everything was really all right. She shot the little bolt and stepped out, giving the handsome woman in the mirror a dazzling smile.
“Have you had cosmetic surgery, darling?” she asked, then opened the hall door and returned to the mindless din.
The luncheon was breaking up, and every member and guest who could get to her told her how they missed hearing one of her lovely romances, how disappointed they were— out of earshot of Ella Follett, of course, who was, after all, a charter member of Junior Fortnightly, and Glory Bea was not, quite.
“Let’s go,” she said to Opal, moving toward the porch of the Ste. Marie Tea Room. But the new Presbyterian minister’s wife stopped her.
“Oh, Miss Bolton, I was so looking forward to hearing you read today. I am distressed to learn that you aren’t writing lately. I want you to know that Mr. Terry and I are deeply interested in the arts of this community. We want to encourage them in every way we can. Have you ever sent anything to The Christian Herald? With a name like Glory Be, you ought to catch their attention!”
She reached up and patted Glory Bea’s sharp jawbone. “Don’t let those old Yankee magazines discourage you, precious.” The tiny woman chimed out a little laugh for herself.
Glory Bea and Opal pushed themselves on through the crowd, the Estée Lauder, raw silk, and Ultrasuede. Outside on Marigny Avenue the Buicks and Continentals and Cadillacs were parked every which way on the roots of live oaks in front of the tea room, but the two women hurried around the corner to walk home, a kind of Mutt and Jeff pair. Opal had grown wide, but Glory Bea remained a beanpole.
They walked silently, intently, careful not to trip over the uneven sidewalk jutting up over persistent roots that plowed through and under the whole town. They seemed not to notice the gentle drift of Spanish moss hanging from oaks and magnolias, moving on the October breeze off the lake and redolent of salt water and the crab boil that came from exhaust fans at the rear of every little restaurant in town.
“Good Lord,” Glory Bea said later, standing at her picket gate. “Now when did any fool ever see a story in The Christian Herald, I’d like to know. That preacher won’t last long here with an absolute tree frog for a wife.” Opal giggled, her face rosy from wine. “And my name isn’t Glory Be, she’ll learn if she every does get to hear me read. It’s Gloria Beatrice,” said Glory Bea, as if Opal hadn’t known that for 50 years next month. “If it takes some kind of freak name to catch their attention, if that’s what they want, they can all do without my work. McCall’s and Goodhousekeeping could get down on their knees and beg me, and I wouldn’t send them another one of my stories. I’m through with all of them. Fiction in these magazines is trash, t-r-a-s-h.” Glory Bea raised her chin high. When you pass 40, press your tongue against the roof of your mouth to tighten the sag of your throat. Papa.
“Well, you ought to keep on writing more stories for Ste. Marie,” said Opal, who had been a widow for years and lived three doors down from Glory Bea in a gingerbread cottage choking on fig vine, “I can’t see why you don’t write about your papa, you all being so close, and him being such an interesting man, if ever I laid my two eyes on one. Why don’t you ever write about Mr. J.J.?”
Opal was dumb. Glory Bea had always known it, had tried to tell her that she didn’t really know Papa; she just thought she knew him. Nobody knew Papa but Glory Bea. No, I can’t write about Papa, Opal. I’ve tried. I loved Papa. He raised me right by himself. Did his best, in his own way. He was a lovely man, a gentleman of the old school. A true gentleman of Virginia transplanted to Louisiana. But I have told you, Opal, Papa had a sweet streak and a mean streak, and I found it impossible to maintain my dedication to the purest art of fiction when I tried to write about him. You see, Opal, everytime I would start writing about Papa, what was a sweet story, I’d write myself straight into a mean corner with him, and it could be terrible. Then if I just broke down and started a plain flat-out mean story about him, I’d find myself in the midst of the sweetest little tale anybody every heard of, but by then Papa would have flown the coop. He mixed me up so I just decided to wash my hands of him, in a literary way, I mean. Interesting as he may have been.” And this was why Glory Bea could put up with Opal’s dumbness. She could speak to her like this, in confidence. Up to a point.
Opal spread her fat little fingers over her mouth. “Well, what do you know, Glory Bea! If you don’t beat all. You writers are just something else. I just always thought Mr. J.J. Bolton was terribly, terribly interesting and a perfect gentleman always. He was real witty, too, but sort of remote, too. Romantic! And traveling on a train as a boy all out west and way down into Old Mexico in the days when nobody went way down there. He told me he learned to speak Spanish down there. Mr. J.J. had a mind like a steel trap, and that’s the truth.”
“I began a story about Papa’s travels as a boy one time, one of my early works. I was well into it when I sat down with him and asked him how my grandparents could let an 18-year-old boy—that’s how old he was—of gentle raising get on a train and be gone a year, and you know what he said? He told me, “They didn’t let me. I just walked down the tracks to Fayetteville and caught the night freight.”“
“Freight!” gasped Opal, looking up and down John Law Boulevard. She laid her hand comfortingly on Glory Bea’s arm. “Maybe he was fibbing, honey.” She paused for a moment and looked thoughtful. “Well, couldn’t you say—I mean write-that they permitted him to take a tour and let him travel by daycoach? Like that. Then you could write about him working with Mexicans and all. And learning to speak Spanish. It would be grand at the fall meeting next year. I let the committee talk me into being program chairman, Glory Bea. . .”
“Oh, Opal, I never heard Papa use but one phrase in Spanish. I heard him say it many times till I was old enough to look it up in the Spanish-English dictionary.”
“Let me guess.”
Glory Bea smiled down at Opal. “All right, guess.”
“Oh, no, Opal. My goodness, those are just words everybody knows.”
“I give up,” said Opal, cheerfully.
“Besa mi culo.”
“What? What does that mean, Glory Bea?”
“Look it up,” said Glory Bea, wishing she had never brought it up. Why had she? She was going too far, letting Opal in too far.
“I don’t have a Spanish dictionary. I took French.”
“I know. It means . . . “Let’s shake hands.”“
“Oh, how genteel! That’s just like Mr. J. J. ! I’ve never known one line of Spanish. I can’t wait to spring it on somebody.”
“No, Opal,” said Glory Bea. “I wouldn’t do that. Its vowels have to be pronounced just right. Anyway, it’s pretentious to go around spouting foreign terms. Show-offy. Don’t do it.” She sighed. “As for whom or what I shall next write about, if the muse strikes again, I’ll find other subjects.” She sighed again. “Being an authoress is not all peaches and cream, Opal. People are jealous of success, you know. You wouldn’t believe what I go through with. Mavis Gumm always smiles at me and says, “Well, here comes our big celebrity.” Just like that, as mean as an old alley cat. I know what she’s up to.”
“Maybe she just. . . well, that’s just poor Mavis’ way.”
“Poor Mavis, my foot.” Glory Bea gripped the sharp point of a picket. “I ought to write a story about “poor Mavis.” I’d never write myself into a sweet corner with her. I could stay on the mean streak straight as an arrow to the last word.”
Opal grabbed Glory Bea’s hand. “Oh, Glory Bea, why don’t you?” Then she let go. “But you’d have to disguise her mighty good, or I couldn’t use you at the autumn guest luncheon next year. I mean not with Mavis sitting right there, recording secretary.”
“Glory Bea went kind of limp. “Opal, believe me, I am suffering from writer’s block.”
Opal looked alarmed. “My dear! I had no idea!”
“Writer’s block is not gastritis or sinus, Opal. I just mean the well has run dry. I find nothing to inspire creativity anymore. I’m just. . .blah.”
“Why Glory Bea, how can you say there’s no inspiration living in this lovely town in the bounty of our beauties of nature? Just look at the way those magnolia limbs sweep the ground right there in your own yard. If I could write like you do, I’d write a romance novel about that tree.” Opal looked like she had just struck oil in her back yard. “Two lovers could meet there in the moonlight. You could write about the scent of the white blossoms, and the moonlight reflecting on the glossy leaves, a tall handsome man and a beautiful young girl in an ivory gown with Chantilly lace and drop shoulders.” Opal stopped for breath and rolled her eyes. “They could stroll hand-in-hand under the trees along the Bogue Kanokee under the moss and all.”
“There you are,” said Glory Bea, her mouth in a thin line. “You be the writer. Go home and write it, and you can read at the fall meeting. You can do your own program.”
“Glory Bea! Are you serious? Do you honestly think I could write a story? Like you?”
“Well, now Opal, be realistic. Remember I’ve been at it for years. . . .” This was getting boresome.
“Would you read it for me, what I put down, and tell me if you think it’s good?”
“I’ll find time to critique it for you.” said Glory Bea. “I’ll tell you something else. Mrs. Landrieux over at Reymond is looking for a program for the Climbers’ Club’s May meeting.”
Opal forgot herself and squealed, “I could wear my blue Ultrasuede and my dyed-to-match blouse. Oh, I’m going home right this minute and start,” she giggled, “before the muse stops striking or I get the writer’s block.” She grabbed Glory Bea’s hand. “Oh, thank you Glory Bea. Ste. Marie’s own laureate!” Her six gold antique bracelets clattered toward her elbow as she waved good-bye.
Glory Bea strolled to her house, where she had lived alone since her Papa had died ten years ago. On the porch she gazed back at the magnolia tree, idly. The foliage did glisten darkly. There was darkness in the depths of its shade, even in midafternoon. A small smile began to pick at one corner of her mouth.
By the time she had reached her bedroom, she had her earrings off. Papa had thrown a fit when she had her ears pierced on her 35th birthday. They tinkled in a glass box. She put her purse on the purse shelf in her closet and her shoes on the shoe rack. Closing the door she leaned back on it and looked around the room, at her lace panels, her rose carpet, her hand-crocheted counterpane, the sepia photograph of Papa on the wall over her desk. “Well, here we are, Papa,” she said, looking away from his eyes.
She sat down at her desk, where, along with some bills and a cup of pencils and pens, was an open lined pad. Pristine. Ready. Glory Bea selected a sharpened pencil. She tapped the eraser against her chin a few times, and then she began to write. Slowly: Angelica Pryne . . . no, she scratched out Pryne. Angelica Davidson, a gracious Southern lady, still young in spirit, though mature in the qualities that count— judgment and taste—strolled out into the starlit grassy lawn. She and her father had just finished their evening repast with a glass of good port from his well-stocked cellar.
“Ah, my dear,” said her handsome father, stroking her long blonde waves with his hand. “Why don’t you take a stroll in the cool evening air?”
“Thank you, Father. What a lovely idea. I’ll get my lovely shawl that Aunt Veronica . . . .” No, she had used Veronica in “The Rose Beyond the Wall.” Damn. She crossed out Veronica and continued: “. . . Lucinda crocheted for my 16th birthday.”
“Splendid, my dear. And I’ll have a pipe in the library. Come in for a goodnight kiss, my child, before you take a chill.” He smiled and nodded his leonine headful of wavy white hair. Glory Bea went back and read all she had written; and once again she felt the thrill. Once she got started it was always this way, like a motor racing. She got up, pushing her spindly chair away with the backs of her knees, and went back to the pantry where she poured herself a half-tumbler of bourbon. She took two deliberate swallows and felt it hit her scalp. “What the hell,” said Gloria Beatrice Bolton, and she went through the house and locked all the outside doors. Then she hurried back to her desk.
Reaching under her blouse she unhooked her brassiere and began to shake the straps loose over her shoulders. She pulled one strap down through one sleeve, then the other. Then she pulled the whole bra from under her blouse. Sitting on the side of her bed she caught her panty hose at the waist and pulled them down over her stomach, buttocks, down her long calfless legs. Rolling back, her legs in the air, she bicycled bare legs a few times and landed on her feet on the floor. “Jesus God, Pappy, I’m glad to get out of that.”
Veronica stepped out onto the veranda. Hell’s bells; what was her name? Angelica. Angelica stepped out onto the veranda. A miasmic dampness filled the night air as the beautiful young woman wrapped her shoulders in the lovely shawl that Aunt. . .. Glory Bea took a sip and flipped back for a look at the first page and continued: “Lucinda had knitted for her.”
The moon shone down with a mirrored glow on the dark glossy magnolia leaves, and the soft scent of the blossoms smote her aristocratic nostrils.
“How blessed I am,” Angelica murmured. “Here I am, young, beautiful, the daughter of a handsome father, whose grandaddy owned two hundred slaves but freed them all long before the law said he had to. Freed all those sweet soft-singing darkies purely out of his own Christian spiritedness.” This was her heritage. “I am fortunate indeed.” she reiterated.
Hark! What was that? A sound emerged from under the dense and glowing magnolia boughs.
“Who goes there?” Olivia called, pressing her soft white ringless hand to her soft white bosom, modestly covered with tucks. “I say, who goes there?”
A tall dark man came strolling out from under the tree. Angelica drew back and gasped, “Oh!” in surprise.
“Good evening, Miss . . . ?” Glory Bea emitted a long bass belch.
“Miss Olivia Pryne.” She stepped back a pace toward the verandah.
“I beg your pardon, dear lady. I had no wish to startle you, but the rustic bench under yon magnolia beckoned a weary stranger, and I could not resist to sit a spell and drink in the splendor of the night.”
“How do you do, Mr. . . . ?”
“Henry Sampson, ma’am. I’m indeed happy to make your acquaintance.” The tall handsome man walked toward the beautiful Angelica. Glory Bea quickly stood up and took off her skirt and blouse. Sitting back down in her peach satin slip, she peered down briefly at the bars of ribs disappearing under the wide, flat ecru lace. She clutched the cut-glass tumbler and took a noisy swig. Now, let’s see, she thought he’s walking toward me—toward what’s-her-name—Olivia. Oh, God, Angelica! Have I been saying Olivia? I’ll get a better name before I read it to the club and send it off. She took another swallow and laughed out loud. McCall’s and Goodhousekeeping? Besa mi culo. And the same to you, Christian Advocate. Glory Bea hurried back to the pantry and brought the bourbon and set it on the floor by her chair. She pulled her slip down carefully; the cane seat was scratchy.
She whispered, “I’m rolling now. I’m writing a real love story, and Papa, you’re going to behave yourself this time. This is a lovely unsullied young lady.”
She read back a couple of sentences, squinting, seeing double just a bit. Shut one eye. Papa.
The tall handsome man walked toward the beautiful Angelica. “If you can forgive a lonely stranger for being so bold, you are surely the loveliest flower it has been my privilege to gaze. . . .” She locked her feet behind the chair legs. The front door bell rang. Goddamn it.
Glory Bea grabbed up the bourbon and headed for the bathroom. Then she remembered the doors were locked, so she calmly sat down on the lid of the toilet and beamed at herself in the mirror. She pulled the loose skin under her chin to the back of her neck. “You smart little fox, you,” she said, teetering dangerously toward the tub. “Just be still and they’ll go away, whoever it is.”
She decided to go to the window. It was Opal, and she already had pages of handwritten manuscript in her hand. Good God from Vicksburg. That poor pain in the butt. I was too kind to her, thought Glory Bea. I never should have encouraged her. Now she’ll be on my tail for the rest of time.
The bell rang again. “Oo-hoo, Glory Bea-ee! Gloria Beatrice! Let me in by the hair of your chinny-chin-chin! It’s your fellow author! Oo-hoo!”
Oh God, she’s walking across the porch to my window. That crazy old coot. Glory Bea flattened herself against the wall.
Opal chirped, “Well, she has just picked up and gone off to the grocery or somewhere. I’ll leave her my first page. Won’t she be surprised!” She rolled up a page and stuck it under the screened door grille.
Glory Bea watched Opal’s square flat behind as she walked down the steps and out to the street. “She’s always walked like a damn duck,” Glory Bea laughed to herself and walked slew-footed back to the bathroom and poured herself a small drink in her pink plastic gargle cup before she went back to her desk.
”. . . my privilege to gaze upon.” Olivia smiled modestly and allowed him to take her small hand in his large manly one, briefly, before she stepped back a pace.
“You are very kind, Mr. Davidson,” she murmured.
“Won’t you join me on the rustic bench under your glorious magnolia tree?” He waved his arm as gracefully as the wing of an egret toward the dark shadows ‘neath the glossy leaves of the magnolia tree.
“Oh, I really do not know that I should.” Olivia had been raised a perfect lady.
“I don’t mean to be forward. It’s just such a lovely evening.”
“Well, I’m sure it is quite acceptable,” murmured Olivia. “The hour is early and my dear father is sitting just inside the house, smoking his pipe.”
The handsome stranger led Olivia to the bench, which, not being extremely long, forced the happy pair to sit in fairly close proximity to each other.
Glory Bea looked back. What in hell did I call him? She found Henry Sampson and wrote it on the back of the phone bill. “That’ll fix your little red wagon, you sapsucker, you. I won’t forget your frigging name again.” She got up and poured more bourbon into her cup. She tipped the fifth to one side and laughed. “Not enough to write a novel on, but maybe enough to keep my handsome father from going ugly on me.”
She sat down again and picked up her pencil. It was dull now, so she threw it under the bed and pulled a sharp one out of her grandmother’s souvenir cup from the St. Louis World’s Fair, 1904. Not that poor Granny got to go to the fair. Grandpa went alone, the old bastard, left Granny at home, and brought her a two-bit china mug. Men! She was glad she had never married one. Now she’d just have an old fool, probably some old drone going on 60, blowing smelly cigar smoke at her air fresheners. She used to think she wanted a husband when she was young. Young dummy. Papa’s girl. But now that she had matured, she realized what a nuisance a husband could have become.
She consulted the phone bill and continued: “Henry Sampson was wearing some elusive yet familiar cologne or shaving lotion—strange—she could not quite place that odor—scent. It didn’t smell too good, actually, but the lovely young girl was eager to know this handsome stranger who had dropped into her life like a comet from the star-studded sky. She would tell him about herself, her lonely life with her wonderful father, her dreams. . . . She glanced timidly at his profile.
“Yes, I’m only passing through your lovely town. I am a sales representative for the Meridian General Supply Company. Drug sundries. . . .”
“Oh? And what do you sell?”
“Sundries, small drug items.”
“Medicines! How splendid. My maternal grandfather was a physician.”
“I am very successful, I might add.” Mr. Sampson talked to Angelica for an hour about selling sundries in drugstores throughout a large territory in Mississippi and Louisiana. The Mississippi Gulf Coast was his favorite area.
“Oh, how perfectly divine,” she said occasionally. She was far too polite and well reared to interrupt and talk about herself, her lonely life with her adored father. Mr. Sampson laid his arm across the back of the bench, allowing some gentle pressure against her shoulders.
Glory Bea left it at that: shoulders period, deciding not to mention old Lucinda’s shawl again. “I’ve given that old biddy enough credit for that moth-eaten shawl,” she muttered and hiccupped. She brought the bottle back to the desk from the bathroom and set it on the phone bill, careful not to smear Henry Sampson. Damned phone bill. Damned phone. Nobody worth a damn ever called. Committee women. Do this, do that. Bored, idle, aging. Like me, thought Gloria Beatrice Bullshit Authoress Bolton. She clutched her pencil. A lump was forming in her throat, pressing hard against her Adam’s apple, and tears stung the backs of her eyes.
Suddenly the front door opened and Angelica’s handsome father stumbled onto the porch. Glory Bea squinted hard at the terrible words. She glanced up at the sepia photograph. Shithead.
“Angelica,” he bellowed drunkenly, “where the hell are you? It’s getting late, and I want you to get your ass in this house now. Now! Do you hear me?” He swayed, steadying himself on a rocker, as he turned on the porch light. “Where in hell are you, girl?”
Mr. Henry Sampson sat bolt upright. “Who? What?”
“Pay no attention,” Angelica tittered, and fluttered her wrist in an offhand manner. “He’s our housekeeper’s eccentric husband. Thinks he owns the place. Go away, James,” she whispered, fearful that her handsome father would hear her.
“My word! Are you sure he is safe, uh, all right?”
Miss Angelica Davidson stood up. “No. I’m not sure. I must call Eglantine. And you better go, Mr. Sampson. I’m sorry, truly I am.”
“Well, I say! I am sorry.” Henry Sampson began to back out from under the magnolia tree, toward the gate. “Angie, who the hell is that in the dark out there with you? You got some no-count bum out there?” Her father s shirttail was slipping out of his good country tweeds as he staggered toward Henry Sampson.
“This gentleman is Mr. Henry Sampson, a salesman of drug sundries from Meridian, Mississippi. Do get a hold of yourself, James.”
“James?” Olivia’s handsome father caught Mr. Henry Sampson by his tie and swung him around in a full circle, unsettling his hair in the dark thick magnolia branches. “Well, you listen to me, Mr. James Rubbersalesman, you get your butt out of here before I cut your copperocity off with a grapefruit knife. Right behind your ears.”
Overcome by his own wit, her father turned Mr. Henry loose and fell into a fit of self-applause.
Henry Sampson took off, thoroughly shaken, and was never seen or heard from again by Miss, . . . Glory Bea took another drink as she turned back to the first page . . . Angelica Davídson. Goddamnit. “I should have written all these damn names down on the damn phone bill to begin with,” she muttered, swinging her head low over the desk, like a pendulum. But she raised her head and shut one eye.
Angelica rushed into the house with her weaving father hard on her heels, his state of inebriation almost too shocking for the young woman’s delicate sensibilities.
“Now, honeybunch, don’t be cross with Daddy. You know I can’t let every Tom, Dick, and Harry come in here and get smart with my Angle.”
“But Father, why in God’s name did you have to be so crude? If you had just stepped to the door and called me softly, I’d have heeded your summons at once.” Glory Bea meant to keep this Angelica sweet no matter what her handsome father pulled, damn his black heart. “But no gentleman is ever going to give me a second look, Father.”
“Life just passed right out of her and into you. When you flew out into the world, my little butterfly, she was dead. Everything ended. Your grandfather came for his chrysalis and took her back.” He would hug her to him and say something like, “She was an excellent rider, sat her horse like a cloud. That’s how we met, you know, a horse show in Charlottesville. . . .”
“But I don’t want a goddamned rubber salesman crawling in here after dark under my magnolia tree.” He smiled at her, one eye closed. “There you are. Now then, let’s be friends again, sweetheart. Have a little nightcap with Daddy. A little bourbon and soda. I know you love that sodapop.” He poured three ounces of liquor into a cut-glass tumbler on the tea table and squirted the seltzer at the glass. “Here, Baby, forget that smelly bugger. What the hell was that perfume he was wearing, anyhow?”
Papa used to read to her at night. If she brought fairytale books or nursery rhymes, he would laugh and say, “Ah, you don’t want to hear that crap.” Glory Bea remembered some books he would read—Black Beauty, and he would turn two or three pages at a time to hurry it along, thinking she didn’t notice. He was crazy about “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” which scared her with all the children following the piper and the nasty rats. He loved “The Cask of Amantillado,” but in a thousand readings he never finished it before falling asleep. Papa was a lot of good things, but to this day it still angered Glory Bea that he thought she was too dense to know when he turned several pages at a time.
Papa was two people. On the rare occasion that a visitor called at their door in the daytime he was courtly, all charm. At night he never answered the doorbell, and he forbade Glory Bea to.
Angelica did not answer her father. She drank the whole drink down, slowly and steadily, and handed her glass back to her handsome father. He refilled it, then followed the elusive tumbler with the seltzer bottle as though he were stalking a roach with insect spray. Angelica drank half of her drink, solemnly watching her father. Then she giggled, “I know what it was.”
“What what was?” Her father’s eyelids hung low. His face was red and moist as a toiler in the fields.
“I know what scent he was wearing. Didn’t it stink, though?” Angelica laughed and fell back in her chair, and the laugh turned high and shrill. “It’s your joke, Papa.”
“What joke, Sister? Come on, tell Daddy.”
“His cologne was panther piss, Papa, “pure old panther piss.” Couldn’t you tell? Didn’t you recognize it? Can’t you remember sitting out on the backsteps that day telling me the joke about the lady whose husband gave her a bottle of perfume for her anniversary?” Veronica leaned forward and whispered, “Panther piss. Panther piss, panser pith. Now don’t tell me you don’t remember that lovely scent.” Her slender young form trembled with mirth.
For a moment Angelica Davidson’s handsome aristocratic father looked almost sober. He lifted the heavy lids over his curdled eyes and looked serious, like he did when he told her about his grandfather freeing all his slaves when he didn’t have to yet. He didn’t say anything. He just let out a long wild yell and began the loudest belly laugh Olivia had ever heard come from a human being. “My handsome father has gone stark raving mad,” thought Olivia. But then she began to laugh, too. “Darling father, you haven’t told me that joke in years,” she wailed, laughing and crying at the same time. She got up and stumbled over the footstool, trying to sit on her handsome father’s lap. She missed and sat hard on the marble hearth.
Olivia’s father stopped laughing as suddenly as he had begun, and he fell out of his chair onto the red carpet. He lay perfectly still on his back, his arms and legs spread out, a black oriental medallion framing his leonine head perfectly.
Gloria Beatrice Bolton sniffed and looked at her empty bourbon bottle. “Mean old bastard,” she said, moistening her pencil point. Angelica’s handsome father had fainted from fatigue. His loving daughter covered him with the lovely shawl and stepped daintily over his prone form and went to bed with great dignity. “Simple-minded little slut.”
And then when he was old he died one night in the rain beating a mule that had got into the yard and was trampling her mother’s old box-bordered rose beds. He ran out with the dustmop, screaming curses at the mule, crashing the shaggy mop over its neck and rump, while the animal stood unmoved, dumb, and wet, glistening in flashes of lightning. Watching from the dining room window, Glory Bea saw Papa suddenly drop, falling half under the mule, which then threw its hind legs awkwardly into the air and leaped away and was gone.
Glory Bea screamed and ran out into the storm, believing her father had been struck by lightning. But it had been a massive stroke, she was told later. The next day neighbors and townspeople, whom she only saw outside her home, began to wander in casually to have a look at him, laid out splendidly in a fine coffin in front of the fireplace. “A native of Virginia,” the paper said, “a resident of Ste. Marie for 40 years . . . a revered citizen . . . preceded in death by his wife, the former Gloria Alicia Heyward . . . survived by . . . .”
Glory Bea picked up the empty bottle and took a wandering route toward the kitchen. Somehow she took a wrong turn and found herself in her father’s study. His rolltop desk was dusty. On the mantel was a photograph of a young girl jumping her horse over a hurdle, the girl, her hair flying out behind her, and the horse, the two of them suspended there like a cloud. Forever.
“I’ll follow this fence,” Glory Bea said aloud, holding onto a row of chairbacks in the dining room, her fingers tracing the curves and arches in the wood. If you ever get lost, honey, just find a fence. In the kitchen she put her bottle into three grocery bags and twisted the tops tightly and dropped the bundle into the trash compactor. The bottle popped harshly, then crunched into dust. As the grinding noise stopped, the doorbell was ringing.
“Ooh hoo! Ooh hoo, Glory Bea, it’s me! Child, I’ve written six more pages! Are you in there? I just couldn’t wait till tomorrow!” Opal opened the screen door and banged the heavy knocker. “Well, I guess she’s still gone. She’s not going to believe her eyes!” Glory Bea leaned against her bedroom wall and tried and failed to give Opal a raspberry.
She took up the pad and began to tear pages out. Dully she thought of what she had been writing—nothing she could read to the Junior Fortnightlies. Damn it, if Papa. . . . She didn’t feel like swearing or drinking anymore. She felt terrible. It had to be the trout amandine at the Ste. Marie.
She lifted one page and squinted close to read, “out of here before I cut your copperocity off with a grapefruit knife. Right behind your ears.”
Glory Bea fell across her bed in her peach satin slip and tried to breathe shallowly and slowly. Papa had taught her everything she would ever need to know.