Authors: Tamar Myers
“She was mad at her lover, and pretty much just wanted to get rid of me, so she decided that whatever was good enough for him as a last name was going to be good enough for his baby's first name as well. Granny never did invest anything along those lines because she never anticipated the day when the secret would come out.”
“I see. Now it is all just as obvious as the pimple on Bob's nose.”
I was only joking, but Bob, the poor man, yanked a silver compact out of his pocket and desperately scanned his proboscis for a grease-clogged follicle. “Abby,” he boomed in his basso profundo, “one more prank like that and you're off our Halloween guest list.”
Believe me, that's all the warning I would need for the next five months. No one, but no one, gives Halloween parties like the Rob-Bobs. Folks have been known to put off dying in order to attend, and more than a few have returned from the dead in time to enjoy these fab
ulous events. There are even stories of people who have been
deadâMarie Antoinette, comes to mindâwho somehow managed to put in an appearance. In her case, fellow partygoers were more impressed with the fact that she carried her head tucked under her arm than that she'd somehow managed to hop over an ocean and skip ahead two centuries.
Along about then Wynnell trotted back bearing a mahogany and ivory tray bearing four mismatched mugs of undrinkable coffee. “What did I miss?”
I faked a yawn. “Nothing muchâexcept that C.J.'s parents were both communists. Her mama's a Russian and her daddy's Chinese and her real name is Cheng Cheng and she's been asked to open a panda preserve in the mountains of western North Carolina. Now tell me, Wynnell, which part of this little tale isn't true?”
Wynnell didn't even blink. “It's all true, except for the panda part.”
? How did you know?”
My friend has eyebrows like a pair of black shoe brushes, except they usually form an unbroken straight line. Now, however, she'd managed to jam them together into a steep-sided vee.
“Abby, didn't you talk to C.J.'s Aunt Nanny at all at the wedding?”
“Of courseâwell, a little.”
It looked as if the lower half of C.J.'s long broad face was going to break off and fall on my good hardwood floor. “Are you saying that my Aunt Nanny knew all this and didn't tell me? I thought sure Uncle Billy would have been considerate enough to take that secret to his grave.”
“Maybe he thought that the considerate thing to do was give her a chance to talk to him about it,” Wynnell said. “Anyway, Abby, C.J., I wasn't trying to keep it a secret from either of you. I simply didn't know it was a secret. But while we're at it, C.J.,
Ni how ma
“Wo how shi shi ne,”
C.J. said, happy as a 160-pound lark again. She turned to me. “So Abby, how about it? Do I have the job? You know that I'm a good saleswoman, and I understand your styleâsuch as it is.”
“But you love living in Sewanee, Tennessee, with my brother. Or have you forgotten that you're well on your way to becoming an Episcopal priest's wife?”
“Ooh, Abby, but you see, I'm not. Toy and I are separated.”
Wynnell, Bob, and I all stared silently at the big galoot from Shelby.
Wynnell spoke first. “I get it; you're joking, right?” C.J. shook her head. “You know I don't have a sense of humor.”
“But C.J.,” I cried, “how can you do that? Don't you love Toy? He adores you!”
“No he doesn't, Abby. He adores the
of having a wife so that someday he can be a parish priest in a small town where he knows everyone and can solve all their problems. But it isn't
he's in love with.”
“I'm out of here,” Bob said, rising. “This is family business.”
“Me too,” Wynnell said wisely.
“No,” C.J. said. “You're both my family too. Besides, sooner or later, what I tell Abby will get back to you. Right, Abby?”
I felt like a worm on a hot sidewalk. “Wellâmaybe later. Certainly not sooner. Okay, so I can't keep a secret; what would you like to know about each other?”
said it,” Bob blared, not me.
“Abby,” Wynnell said, “you know that I think you're the salt of the earth, the veritable pillar of indiscretion.”
“So anyway, Abby,” C.J. said, “here I am, back in Charleston, on account of Shelby's just too small for me these days. So I was thinking about what to do, and then I saw your ad; it was like a match made in Hell.”
“Ooh, don't be silly, Abby. You keep your shop three degrees hotter than The Finer Things, and you pay your employees a lot less.”
Watching Wynnell scowl is like watching a conga line of tarantulas. “Is that true, Abby? About the pay?”
“From what I hear, both things are true,” Bob boomed.
“Thanks,” I hissed softly.
“Abby,” C.J. said, adopting a motherly tone, although she was twenty years my junior, “when your store is too warm for comfort on hot days you lose customers. You want them to walk in and say, âMy that feels good. I could stay in here forever.' Then you make sure that they doâjust not like Cousin Penelope Ledbetter who lived in the Pine Hollow IGA for twenty-four years and raised herself three young'uns in there from start to finish, and had already started in on a granddaughter.”
“C.J., you read that in a book.”
“No siree, ma'am. You ask anyone in Shelby. Poor old Frank and Ida Cornmeister, the couple who owned the store, never could figure out how come they couldn't seem to keep Twinkies and Charmin in stock. It wasn't until Cousin Ludmilla LedbetterâCousin Penelope's granddaughterâgot caught stealing a box of Krispy Kremes, and the police insisted on driving her home, that they discovered three generations of people had been living in that store all along.”
“C.J.'s right about one thing,” Bob said. “People will hang around a lot longer if they feel comfortable.”
“You're hired,” I said. “Does Mama know that you and the son who hung the moon just for her are separated?”
“No, but I was planning to tell Mozella tonight, irrespective of whether or not you gave me the job. Honest, Abby.”
“Where are you staying? In a motel?”
“No, I'm staying at CHAS.”
“It's an acronym for Charleston House for Absentee Shelbyites. The rooms are very small, but the rates are lowâkinda like the ceilings.” She chuckled good-naturedly.
“I don't care if the rooms are free. You're staying with Greg and me. You're family, C.J. You always will be; even if the day comes when you really are shed of my self-absorbed brother.”
“Abby, I can't put you out like that. I don't mind bumping my head on the ceiling. I really don't.”
“Tough titty said the kitty. You're staying with me, and that's that.”
C.J. glowed with gratitude. “Thanks, Abby, you're a Carolina peach. You know, most people associate peaches with Georgia, but that's only thanks to better marketing. South Carolina actually produces more peaches than does Georgia.”
“Gotta love this one,” Bob said.
“Hey, that's not fair,” Wynnell cried.
I turned to my second best friend in the entire world. “You know, I'd love to have you and Ed move in as well, but I only have the two bedrooms, dear. As it is, she'll be bunking with Mama. Besides, Wynnell, you have a perfectly good house of your own, don't you? Nothing's happened since yesterday, has it?”
“My house is fine! What I meant is,
want company for a change. Ed and I never have guests. Everyone said, âMove to Charleston and you'll have a constant stream of visitors.' Well, pooh on that. Our two beautiful guest rooms just sit empty gathering dust.”
I felt a wave of relief sweep over me. In fact, it would have swept me off my feet had I not already been sitting down. To put it mildly, C.J., by any name, is high maintenance.
It's quite possible that my sister-in-law felt similarly; she accepted Wynnell's offer immediately. One would think she might have expressed some level of indecision out of consideration for me, but oh no.
Bob, bless his heart, decided to distract me. “Abby, have you given any thought to our previous conversation?”
“What conversation was that?” C.J. said. The big galoot was also without guile.
“Bob's mother has come to stay with them,” I said. “
, it seems. He wants me to help him find a way to send her packing back up to Charlotte.”
“Ladies, this is strictly confidential,” Bob said. “If Rob ever found out, he'd send me packing off to Toledo.”
“Sure thing,” Wynnell said. She pretended to put on a thinking cap.
C.J. might be as silly as a canister full of putty, but she generally doesn't need time to think. “Bob, how about if your Aunt Nanny came down to stay for a while?”
“That would be great, C.J., except for the fact that I don't have an Aunt Nanny.”
“Sure, you do.” She winked broadly. “She's your father's widowed sister-in-law, remember?” She was, in fact, referring to one of her own aunts.
A smile spread slowly across Bob's recently exfoliated cheeks. “He did have an older brother who no one kept in touch with much after he decided to seek his fortune in California.”
“Did he find it?” Wynnell asked.
“No, yesâI guess that depends. He became moderately successful producing soft porn movies; that's why the family disowned him. My coming out was made easier than it could have been, thanks to Uncle Harold.”
“Perfect,” C.J. said. “Aunt Nanny will have a field day with this.”
“Wait just one cotton-picking minute,” I said. “Is this Aunt Nanny a goat?”
“Abby, don't be insulting. Her daughter was a bridesmaid at my wedding; you know that she finally passed the DNA test.”
“But does she have a beard?”
“I'll remind her to shave, and on a daily basis too, if that will make you feel better.”
I sighed. Never had life been fuller, or strangely happier. With C.J. back working for me, my children doing well in their various pursuits, and my husband, Greg, happy as a hickey with his cousin Booger Boy on a shrimp boat, what could possibly go wrong?
Being the toast of the town can go to one's head after several toasts. After a while I could barely lift my noggin off the bed. Thank goodness Wynnell and C.J. were both friends, as well as competent. They kept the Den of Antiquity running smoothly. Just as long as my ego could survive knowing that they didn't need my input in order to keep the shop afloat, there was no reason for me
to stay away.
Although franklyâand I don't mean this as a putdown of the good folks of greater Charlestonâthere is only so much socializing one can do in a city this size without getting bored. I was wined and dined by the South of Broad set, then the Old Village of Mount Pleasant set, followed by the James Island set, until I'd gotten in all the islands, and as far inland as Summerville. But over and over again the same topics of conversation raised their genteel heads, and the same bloodlines were compared, albeit from somewhat different perspectives.
The one thing upon which everyone could agree was that there was no place quite as special as Charleston, and Charlestonians were to be given special credit for having chosen to be born in the Holy City. When I expressed my discomfort with this attitude one evening
at a dinner party for twenty, at the residence of Lloyd and Florence Knudsen, eighteen pairs of eyes looked my way disapprovingly. One pair of eyes remained placid, while the remaining pair belonged to me.
“I never go anywhere else on vacation,” said Mable Stoutsman. “Why should I? I'm already there.”
Everyone laughed and nodded their agreement.
“But don't you have any desire to see Paris in springtime,” I asked, “or walk along the Great Wall of China, or maybe take a boat up the Amazon to visit tribal villages?”
“None whatsoever,” said Deidre Matthews.
“There's a Great Wall of China restaurant on King Street,” Albert Winslow said, much to everyone's amusement.
“I really can't help that I'm from off,” I said.
There were sighs of pity all around.
“Your guest is eating the centerpiece,” Jill Manners said.
Neither Greg nor Mama could accompany me that evening, so I'd brought C.J.'s Aunt Nanny. Sure enough the sweet old lady was nibbling on the greenery surrounding an impressive spray of apricot-colored azaleas. She looked as happy as a hog in a mud wallow.
“Aunt Nanny,” I whispered, “that's just a decoration.”
“Then they should have labeled it as such,” she said. She turned to Jill. “Tattletale.”
“Why I never!”
“Then maybe you should try it, dear. Most people find it quite disagreeable, but my dear Billy and I always thought it aided our digestion. Who knows, you might be one of the lucky few to feel its benefits.”
Jill leaned over Aunt Nanny as if she weren't even there. “Abby, who
this eccentric woman anyway? She's not a Pinckney, is she?”
By then I'd had it with the likes of Jill Manners, and was about to launch into a lecture on
manners, when a liveried wait person showed up on Aunt Nanny's right with a tray of tomato aspic. I'm not saying Aunt Nanny was raised in a barn, but she most probably had rather humble beginnings. The sudden materialization of a waiter in a black tuxedo was too much for her. She bleated in misery as she threw up her arms as a sign of surrender. Unfortunately, one of those long spindly armsâa forearm, I believeâknocked a bowl of aspic, top side down, onto the Knudsens' authentic Persian carpet.