Maggie’s last client is taking a coon’s age deciding on a color. Maggie slides bottles across the manicure table. “Tasmanian Devil” and “Hot in Havana” clang together like salt shakers.
It’s already after six. Soon she will be at her apartment, lighting incense, unscrewing the wine, and reading her book.
But here comes the receptionist hurrying toward Maggie’s station. “Pick up your phone. Sounds urgent.”
Maggie’s stomach lurches. Collection agencies aren’t supposed to call at work; besides, she just signed another payment plan.
The receptionist adds, “Some guy says he’s your uncle.”
Uncle Jonny almost never calls. Claims it costs too much to phone from Birmingham to Nashville. She didn’t even know he had her work number.
He shouts, “I can’t think of anyone to call but you.”
“What’s the matter? Are you sick?”
“Sick of living,” Jonny says.
“Oh, dear. What can I do?”
“Bring me a gun. So I can shoot myself.”
“Just kidding, of course.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Uh, okay, sure.”
This conversation replays among the clients and employees at the Pizazz Salon. Maggie says her uncle is eighty-one and widowed for a while, but she thought he’d been getting along just fine.
“He’s depressed,” her client, Karen, says, holding out her fingers for a massage. “Forty percent of the elderly are clinically depressed. He should take St. John’s Wort.”
“No,” Maggie says, “he’s happy, loves to joke around. Just has trouble hearing, and...”
“That’s enough to depress anyone. When my ear wax plugs up, I hear this constant swishing. Like a broom on a porch.”
“Uncle Jonny doesn’t see very good, and he limps. Arthritis, I guess. But he never complains about being sick.”
“Well, he will,” Karen says, “Get him settled in a retirement place now. At least on a waiting list. It took months to get my father into Hope Haven. Cost a fortune!”
“There’s a place near him,” Maggie hurriedly applies Karen’s top coat, “called The Gardens.”
“Sounds real nice. Take him for lunch,” Karen says. “If he likes the food, he’ll be more interested. Let him meet some of the residents.”
“I suppose.” Snapping off the crookneck lamp, Maggie asks if anyone brought a book for The Club. Her lending library started when clients left behind their novels, mostly romances. Maggie read them all, then wanted to chat about the stories. Sometimes the Pizazz Book Club members forget the plot by their next appointment. Maggie never did.
“You won’t have time to read, sweetie,” Karen says, blowing across her pale pink nails.
* * *
Packing is simple. Some clothes, her cosmetics bag, and a copy of To Love Again
. Maggie has, in her bedroom, a shrine to Danielle Steel: the author’s latest books, candles, incense, and a press photo—the one with Danielle’s hair pulled back, white shirt, perfect red lipstick. Maggie cut it from a book jacket and wrote in a sophisticated, ladylike hand: “To Maggie, with love, D.”
She got the idea from Jake, an old boyfriend, who, before he disappeared, had arranged a shrine in Maggie’s living room to honor dead rock stars. She keeps Jake’s mementos dusted, in case he stops by.
Maggie’s landlord says he’ll bring in her mail. She tells him if he sees a guy with a pigtail, wearing workout sweats, it’s probably Jake. Ask him to call back later, please, because she’s just going to be gone a couple of days.
* * *
Her uncle Jonny lives on the far side of Birmingham, in Bessemer, the town where she grew up. Jonny and her father worked at Royster Fertilizer Company. The plant was torn down years ago to make way for Kmart, the only chain store in Bessemer.
The drive from Nashville is a straight shot down I-65. Before noon she arrives in Jonny’s neighborhood, which looks a lot seedier than she remembered. Cracked and buckled sidewalks. Empty houses. BEWARE OF DOG.
In her uncle’s yard, only a few clumps of zoysia grass clutch the yard. A burned-out stump is all that’s left of the magnolia tree. The wrought-iron outdoor benches are gone, ripped from the red clay. Vandals, no doubt. She’s probably gotten here just in time.
She raps on the door, then pounds until the mailbox almost shivers off its nail.
What if he wasn’t kidding?
Dreadful images of what she might find inside flit across her mind.
The door cracks open. “If you’re the plumber, I fixed it myself.” A safety latch clicks free. Her uncle, Jonathan William Bruce, squints through glasses as thick as vase bottoms, and says, “Look what’s landed on my doorstep!”
“Oh!” She laughs at the pink, smiling face, “Uncle Jonny.” Laughter. Relief. Something like anger. The way mothers must feel when their almost-lost kids show up. “Couldn’t you hear me knocking?”
He presses a forefinger into each ear: “Darn things only work about half the time.”
“You really scared me on the phone,” she shouts.
“But I got you to come.” He has to stand on tiptoe to kiss her cheek. Then, as if they were about to enter the Cotillion Ball, he adjusts his bow tie, takes her elbow, and escorts her into the house.
In the living room, only heavy pieces of furniture remain, abandoned on the stained carpet. She looks around. “What happened? Have you been robbed and didn’t tell me?”
“I told you about the tag sales. Fred and I are getting rid of all the stuff we never use. Fred’s garage is bigger, so…”
“Who is Fred?”
“My neighbor. The widower I told you about. Pardon me for saying so, Maggie, but you don’t listen very good on the phone. Anyway, we’ve added something new. Along with the stuff, we sell iced tea. With straws! Fifty cents a pop! Whoo! Plenty of folks like to sit and swap stories with Fred and me. I tell most of the stories.”
Along one wall of the warm, dark room, her Aunt Evelyn’s orchid plants, once extravagant with blooms, are now impotent, rangy vines deserting their stands. Evelyn looks down from her portrait onto a room she would hardly recognize. Jonny says, “I ask Evie before I make any decisions. She gives me the okay.”
Maggie, too, sends a quick heavenward message, asking her aunt if she’s doing the right thing, moving Jonny out of his house. Evie does not beam her “okay.” In fact, her aunt looks rather sour, fed up with answering questions.
Jonny leads her into the kitchen. They make their way around the Formica table and chairs, piles of newspapers, the microwave stand, the TV cart, and a stand with an Underwood typewriter. Beside a stack of legal pads, he pauses. “Here’s something I want you to take a look at. Doesn’t have to be right now.”
Could be a scam. People prey on old folks. Every week at Pizazz she hears about scams. Another good reason to get her uncle into a place where he’ll be looked after.
He looks at her. “You finished that college, right?”
“It’s called a beauty academy. I topped the class in acrylics. Applied a full set in less than thirty minutes.”
“Oh.” He picks up a legal pad; squints at it. “But you still read as much as you used to?”
He lays the pad carefully back on the pile, then claps his hands. “Let’s eat! You must be starving. Did you bring me a cake? Last time, you brought me a cake.”
“I’m sorry. I thought I’d take you to lunch.”
From under a clatter of saucepans on the counter, he pulls out a black iron skillet. “Since you didn’t bring cake, I’ll fix us some eggs.”
“Couldn’t we go out?”
“I just have a hankering for scrambled eggs.” Egg after egg, smacked first on the crockery, gets attacked in the bowl with his fork. Jonny turns the fire up under the skillet, shuffles off, and clicks on the television.
“It’s time for my program.” Game show contestants shriek at full volume. “Nope,” he says, “Must be too late. Hard to see the clock.”
While he clicks channels on and then, mercifully, off, smoke begins to fill the room. There is no exhaust fan. The fire under the burner is a few inches away from an open grease pot.
Maggie yanks the skillet off the stove, slides the black and yellow eggs onto a plate, and sets it in front of him at the table. “Wouldn’t it be easier to live somewhere you didn’t have to cook?”
“You referring to The Gardens?” He eats quickly, spilling yellow clumps on his pants.
“The senior apartments you talked about one time. Don’t you have a friend there?”
“Used to. Linard died last week.”
“Tragic. See, I don’t think Linard died of a heart attack. It was the food at The Gardens. Which, by the way, has not got a single living flower on the outside or inside—just cast-out funeral baskets. What it has is a stupid name because it’s a stupid government project and nobody goes there unless they have to. But, if someone needs putting away, that’s the only game this side of the tracks.” His pink cheeks darken, veins protrude above his bow tie.
“Breathe,” she tells him, “Take a deep breath.” Surely he’s exaggerating. “Wouldn’t it be better if you didn’t live alone? If you moved someplace nice?”
“I can’t afford nice. All I can afford is The Gardens.”
Maggie wonders if Ethyl Templeton encountered this much resistance from her father.
“What if you get sick?”
“If I get sick, they’ll move me over to the nursing unit, put one tube up my nose, one in my mouth, and another up my butt. They’ll stick me in a wheelchair with my eyes rolled up in my head. I’d rather shoot myself. But you can’t bring a gun into The Gardens.”
“Stop it! The place can’t be all that bad.”
“All right, Miss Maggie. We’ll go take a look. Since you don’t seem to like eggs, you can have lunch at The Gardens.” He reaches for his cane. “It’s a nice day for a drive. But we have to be back by three.”
Probably needs an afternoon nap
, she thinks.
She helps him over the curb and into her Subaru, which he calls a Cadillac. She doesn’t correct him. At the end of every block, he gives directions. He will not divulge any information beyond the upcoming block.
They pass the Pig and Pit. The peppery smoke, like Southern perfume, rising from the chimney, smells exactly the same as when she spent countless after-school hours there with her girlfriends, drinking Coca Colas on swing-around stools, testing the worthiness of unfinished boys.
“You’ll have to turn off the air conditioning if we’re going to make it up the hill toward First Baptist,” he says. “It destroys an engine if you don’t.”
The grinding noise Maggie hears is not from the car, but her own teeth.
He looks over. “Too hard on my knees to walk to church any more. Folks offer to pick me up, but after I get there, I can’t hear the preacher.” He pounds the dashboard and hoots, “That’s okay! They send me tapes! Sermons. Songs. The whole show! I turn my cassette player up loud as it’ll go, and follow right along.” He starts to sing, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” The strength of his lungs amazes her.
They pull into The Gardens’s parking lot. The grey concrete building rises like a sentinel over a neighborhood of ranch-style, post-World War II homes.
“You have to sign in,” Uncle Jonny whispers. “They guard the entrance. Won’t let the inmates out after dark.”
“Oh, silly.” She helps him up onto the curb; kisses the top of his head.
He is correct. In the lobby, a narrow hallway, an African-American woman shoves a paper beneath a glass partition. She is forking something out of a Styrofoam container.
Jonny puts his face up to the window. “What you got today?”
The woman says she thinks it’s chicken. Maggie can see jellied gravy spilling over the tray compartments onto store-bought cookies.
Jonny leans on his cane and smirks. “On weekdays, the food gets trucked over from school cafeterias,” he says. “Today, being Saturday, is part of what Linard called ‘leftover weekends.’ Said he felt like a leftover, too. Fred and I used to take him out for cup custard. Fred can still drive, you know. All three of us just loved cup custard. We figure they’ve got it in heaven.”
While her uncle chatters, Maggie reads the Residents’ Rules posted on the hospital-green walls. A woman with a terrible cough sits in a wheelchair, staring at the front door. A man mops the floor with a strong chlorine solution. He drops his cigarette ashes on the wet linoleum.
“Linard lived on the twentieth floor. Had a window near the ceiling. Said he saw birds. Must have been vultures, he said. Nothing else flies so high.”
“Sure you don’t want to eat? This lady could probably find another tray.”
In the car, Jonny rests his elbow on the window ledge, taps his fingers, and sings, “Do Lord, oh, do Lord.” He is belting out, “Oh, do remember me,” as Maggie drives back to the Pig and Pit. She orders two giant pork sandwiches, slaw, and barbequed beans. They still have room for cup custard. The best dessert, she declares, she has ever eaten.
On her way to the ladies’ room, she opens a phone book clamped to the wall. Under Retirement Homes, she finds a full-page color ad with photos of beaming white-haired people, “Making the Most of The Golden Years.” Tours Daily: From nine until five.
Jonny’s cane pokes out of the men’s room. “You look tuckered out, kiddo,” he says. “We’d better go home.”
“Would you please look at just one more place?”
“What?” he shouts.
She will fix that damn hearing aid if it kills her. If she has to save all her tips to buy a new one. “I’d like to show you a place called Meadow Glen.”
“I thought you were a smart girl. Must not have learned much from those books you were always reading. I can’t afford no Meadow Glen.”
“But if you sell the house?”
“What I’ll get for the house would last about six months at that place. I’ve seen the brochures.”
She takes him home.
Her suitcase is in the second bedroom. Jonny says she can use the room air-conditioning unit if she’ll put a towel on the floor, because it leaks. He reminds her that it is very expensive to run a room air conditioner.
Maggie changes into lighter jeans but doesn’t completely unpack her bag.
How can anyone that tiny shout so loud? Wasn’t he supposed to be taking a nap?
“It’s almost three o’clock. Fred will be here any minute. He’s expecting you to help. Come on.”
“With what?” She follows, obediently. The back door slams, rattles the dangling security chains. The man carrying in two bags of groceries has a bald head and extravagant white eyebrows. His round face appears above a box of Cheerios and rolls of toilet paper.
, she thinks: all he needs is a cap
“Hot diggity! Maggie’s even prettier than you said.”
“Of course my Maggie’s better than sad.”
“Uh, oh.” Fred leans in close to Jonny’s ear; gently flicks a fingernail back and forth. “There. Got that switch backwards, Bud. You’re picking up signals now.”
He winks at Maggie. “So,” he says, “you two stopped by The Gardens. Jonny and I won’t go near that place, now that Linard, God rest him, is gone.” He sets a new bottle of Joy beside the sink. “That’s not a safe neighborhood. But I always wear this.” He pats his brass buckle. “A belt makes a great weapon. Whip it out of the loops and wrap it around your wrist—buckle swinging out. Just remember to aim for their chins.”
So much for Santa Claus.
Fred fits cans into cupboards, stuffs one loaf of bread into a tin box, and another in the freezer. “Didn’t get dessert. You said Maggie would bring cake.”
Jonny pats her hand, as if to console her.
From a zippered wallet, Fred counts out some bills and lays them on the table. She notices his cuticles are ragged. Wonders if he has pilfered money from Jonny. Bringing groceries could be a ploy.
Jonny recounts the bills. “Perfect. Just enough for the lottery.”
This business of buying lottery tickets is something her uncle frequently mentions to her on the phone. Once she asked all of her clients if they thought that could be a sign of something. Compulsion? Addictive behavior? Everyone had a different answer.
Maggie looks at the men. “I didn’t think Alabama had a lottery. You Baptists keep voting it down. Gambling being the work of the devil.”
Fred moves his chair closer to Jonny. Both men roll their eyes.
She asks, “So where do you buy tickets?”
“Florida,” her uncle says, as if she were a child who had just asked the color of the sky. “Florida has the biggest jackpot of any state. Alabama does not have a lottery. Gambling is the work of the devil. That’s on one of my sermon tapes. But in Florida, all the money goes to the school children. For charity, you might say.”
“You drive all the way to Florida to buy tickets?”
“Maggie, honey, I don’t remember you repeating everything so much. Here’s what we do. On the last Wednesday of every month, Fred picks me up at six-thirty a.m. His Plymouth runs real good. Gets us right on the four-lane.”
Fred leans over. “Tell her about the biscuits.”
“Halfway to the border, outside Montgomery, there’s a truck stop with the best egg biscuit you ever ate. We get there before the menu switches over to burgers.”
“Then,” Fred says, “just inside Florida, at the Mobil gas station we get our twenty dollars’ worth of tickets.”
Maggie looks between them. “Have you ever won anything?”
“Tell her about the peanuts.” Under the table, Jonny’s heels click together. “I can smell them now.”
“They’re hot, from a machine,” Fred says. “We fill two bags and eat ‘em all the way home.”
She shakes her head. “You just turn around and drive back.”
“Sure. Why not? We get home in time for supper. It’s not as far as Charlotte, though. We’re going to have to spend the night two times before we get to Charlotte.”
“Now that Jonny got you here to help, we’ll be going pretty soon,” Fred says.
She’s confused. “Help with what?”
“The story. Haven’t you told her, Bud?”
“Sort of. I was waiting until she got through running me around Bessemer.”
Jonny and Fred move the stack of legal pads onto the table. She gets a closer look. Hundreds of yellow pages, every line crowded with evenly hand-printed words.
“Been working on this for years,” says Jonny. “But now it’s getting hard for me to see the pages. I really want to write The End so we can take my story to Charlotte—to the US Airways headquarters. Fred’s cousin, who handles baggage, says they publish a magazine full of stories. Says they stick it in the seat for thousands of folks to read. So, I’ve decided to let them have mine. I don’t care about the money. Just want people to read my story.”
Jonny shoves a pad toward his niece. “The first part is about Evie and me meeting at an airport. No way could US Airways turn that down. But guess what? It has to be typed. Fred says he can type up a storm, but I wouldn’t let him start until you looked it over.”
“Proofread it,” Fred says, looking pleased with himself.
She flips through a few of the pads, which seems to detail every moment of the last sixty years of Jonny’s life. Not one word has been crossed out.
“Go ahead. Read out loud,” Jonny says.
Maggie silently scans the beginning lines: JONNY BRICE LOOKED AT EVIE’S HAIR AND IT WAS PRETTY. LIKE HER BLUE DRESS. THE SKY WAS ALSO BLUE AND WINDY. HE SAYS, IT’S A FINE DAY FOR FLYING. YES, IT IS! REPLIES EVIE. JUST LOOK AT ALL THE PLANES! WHOO. WEE! BLURTED JONNY.
“I can hardly remember how it starts.” Jonny says, closing his eyes.
Maggie gulps. Chews her nails for the first time in years. Clears her throat. Then, in a deep, dramatic voice, she reads: EVIE WAS THE LOVELIEST LADY IN THE SOUTH. HER BLACK TRESSES BILLOWED IN THE BALMY BREEZES. THE PLANES THAT SOARED ABOVE COULD TAKE HER AWAY FROM HER MISERABLE LIFE. IF ONLY SHE COULD MEET THE MAN OF HER DREAMS.
“Whoo! Fred, I told you it was a good story.”
Encouraged, Maggie reads on. It’s just a love story, she thinks, that needs a little help. When she gets into the “fertilizer plant years,” she reads: BUSINESS TYCOON, JONNY BRICE, WHO CHANGED THE LIVES OF EVERYONE IN TOWN, ADORED HIS NIECE, AN USUALLY BEAUTIFUL GIRL WHO SHOWED GREAT PROMISE AS A WRITER.
Around suppertime, Maggie stops, makes a few phone calls to Nashville, and tells the guys to fix some sandwiches while she runs an errand.
When she returns from the bakery, Fred pours glasses of milk to drink with the gooey slices of chocolate cake.
“I’ve been thinking,” Maggie says, “This job will take all three of us, working as editors.”
“Editors!” Jonny loosens his tie.
“I’ll read,” she says. “Jonny can listen. Fred will type it all down.”
“Don’t get icing on the pages,” her uncle says.
After Fred’s fingers give out and he goes home; after Jonny begins to snore and she tucks him in, Maggie continues to retell the story.
she thinks, by the time she leaves, she’ll be able to write her own stories. Maybe she’ll send them to Danielle Steel.
Maggie lies on the guestroom bed, awake half the night, wondering what she should wear in her press photo.