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Authors: Mary Daheim

Major Vices

BOOK: Major Vices
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Flynn tipped her head to one side,…


on The Bluff had once offered a…


. W
watching the evening news on TV. Her husband…


Major Mush had been dispersed. In the…


the den set Judith's teeth on edge…


went to search for her fiancé, Aunt…


right about Aunt Toadie and Aunt Vivvie:…


other call, this was the one that…


,” Renie declared as they continued their exhaustive…


more interested in hearing Buck Doerflinger's solution…


in the den. Aunt Toadie whirled on…


. W
threatening to quit. “Over twenty years we've…


moment, the den door opened. Toadie caught…


were arguing, not in the mulish, self-absorbed…


hand, Judith hit Renie on the back.


the liquor. Judith poured herself a scotch…


biography had fallen directly behind Uncle Boo's…


off, narrowly missing Judith. The bullet lodged…

Flynn tipped her head to one side, picked up a black marking pen, and drew antlers on the formal portrait of Aunt Toadie. The effect couldn't have pleased Judith more if she'd added the final stroke to a van Gogh.

“Nice,” remarked Serena Grover Jones, admiring her cousin's handiwork. “How about blacking out a couple of her teeth?”

Turning the eight-by-ten photograph facedown on the coffee table, Judith grimaced. “Enough's enough. Especially when it comes to Aunt Toadie. I have
understood how Uncle Corky has put up with her all these years.”

Cousin Renie considered. “He traveled a lot on his job with the engineering firm. Since he retired, he still travels a lot. Separate continents help, I guess.”

Judith leaned back on the off-white sofa in the large living room of Hillside Manor. On a Tuesday afternoon in early February, the bed-and-breakfast was empty. Except for St. Valentine's Day, these were the dull months at the B&B, from the second week of January until the third week of March. Judith didn't mind. In the four years since converting her family home into a hostelry, business had increased steadily. The catering sideline
was also doing well. She'd never get rich, but with any luck and a great deal of hard work, she'd never be poor. Again.

Setting aside the box of family pictures, Judith picked up her mug of hot chocolate. “Toadie never liked me,” she declared, sipping slowly. “When I was a kid, she always said the rudest things to me. My least favorite nickname was Lardbucket.”

Renie snorted. “She never liked any of her Grover in-laws. Toadie called me Bucky Beaver. And then she'd laugh, like it was soooo funny. Mean old hag.” Leaning forward on the matching sofa, Renie waved a finger at Judith. “She never said things like that around Uncle Corky. He would have yanked her chain.”

Judith arched her dark eyebrows. “Would he? Uncle Corky's a dear, and he loves to bluster. But at home, I always figure Aunt Toadie keeps him on a tight leash.”

Renie looked pained. “Could be,” she allowed. “I'd hate to think it. So what's the drill for Friday night?”

Flipping open a leather-bound notebook, Judith scanned the page. “It's Uncle Boo's birthday. He's seventy-five or a hundred and seventy-five, depending on whether or not he's been legally dead for years.”

“He has. Uncle Boo hasn't moved since Truman was in the White House.”

Judith nodded, running her long fingers through her silvered black curls. “Right. The only time Uncle Boo gets excited is when he sees a spaceship land next to his gazebo. Anyway, the party starts at six o'clock with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres for the Major Mush employees. If Aunt Toadie has her way, they'll be given glasses of cheap white wine and soggy cheese balls, then hustled out the door around seven after singing an off-key rendition of ‘Happy Birthday, You Tight-Fisted Old Coot.' No cake. No punch. No fun. Next comes the family party.” Judith rolled her dark eyes while Renie groaned. “This will not be fun, either, unless you enjoy being in the company of our most revolting shirttail relations.”

Renie now waved both hands. “Hey, we aren't guests, we're drudges. We can stay in the kitchen and get secretly
crocked, which is the only way I can stand Aunt Toadie and a whole lot of Lotts. No wonder Uncle Corky went off on safari! He'd rather be eaten by two-toed sloths than spend an evening with his in-laws.”

“They don't have sloths in Africa,” Judith remarked absently, her eyes still on her page of notes. “Dinner at seven, followed by feudal warfare, or whatever that quarrelsome bunch of Lotts does when they get together. Hey, coz,” she said suddenly, gazing earnestly at Renie, “I'm sorry I got you into this. I thought Arlene would be back from Palm Desert by now.”

Renie shrugged. “No apologies necessary. My workload is in pretty good shape right now. I finished all my annual-report graphics last month. The next crunch won't come for another two weeks, when they start going on the presses.” Renie's job as a graphic designer allowed her to work at home, but Judith knew that winter was always her busiest time. The cousins had hardly seen each other from New Year's until late January. “It's not your fault that the Rankerses decided to stay on an extra week,” Renie went on. “They've got a grandson in southern California now. You can't blame Arlene and Carl for wanting to spend some extra time with the little guy.”

Judith inclined her head. Arlene Rankers was a good neighbor and an even better friend. She was also a crackerjack cohostess in the catering business. The original plan had been for Judith and Arlene to cater Uncle Boo's birthday party. But over the weekend, Arlene had called to tell Judith that they wouldn't be returning home to Heraldsgate Hill until the second week of February. Judith had taken the news in stride, even though it meant juggling her Friday night guest list, which so far showed three of her five bedrooms booked. Happily, Joe Flynn had announced he'd fill in for his wife. He was off duty for the weekend and would take an extra day on Friday. He liked to cook, so fixing breakfast for the guests would be no trouble. He would enjoy making appetizers for the five o'clock sherry hour. His job as a homicide detective threw him in with people who were considerably less savory than his wife's B&B guests. In their not quite two years of marriage, Joe's
role at Hillside Manor had been limited. But he didn't mind helping out. He loved Judith very much, and the feeling was mutual.

“It's Joe I'm worried about,” Judith said. “He'll go nuts. I never told him about the couple last week who brought a kangaroo gerbil along. It got loose and jumped all the way downstairs and landed in the syrup pitcher. What a mess!” Judith shook her head at the memory. “Have you ever tried to shampoo a gerbil?”

“Oh, sure,” Renie responded blithely. “I gave Tessie the Turtle a pedicure once, too. After three kids, there isn't much I've missed.”

Silently, the cousins reflected on their maternal experiences. Judith had one son, at last a college graduate and gainfully employed as a forest ranger in Idaho's Nez Percé National Historical Park. Michael McMonigle had taken his time finishing his degree in forestry, but at least he had gotten his education. Back in the dark, dreary years of Judith's first marriage, in the Thurlow Street rental, while working two jobs and enduring the verbal abuse of a lazy, ill-tempered, four-hundred-pound husband, she had never dared hope that Mike would go to college. When Dan McMonigle had died at age forty-nine from overeating and underachieving, Judith had felt not loss, but relief. She had recovered her freedom, and with it a future for herself and her son. Now that Judith was remarried and those years were behind her, Dan seemed less loathsome. On occasion, her memory of him was benign. Once in a while she even missed him. There had been some good times, especially in the beginning. Dan had been smart; he had possessed a sense of humor; he could be very generous. His flair for alienating people had grown not out of dislike for them, but from dislike of himself. Nobody—not even Judith's relatives—had despised Dan as much as he had.

“Bill is going to cook dinner for our kids,” Renie remarked at last, referring to her husband of twenty-five years.

Judith gave a start. “Bill? Cook? What, for heaven's sake?”

Renie smirked. “Fish and chips. He picks them up on
the way home from the university, then warms them in the microwave. For Bill, that's cooking.”

Judith grinned at her cousin. “At least he knows how to turn on the microwave.”

Renie's round face went blank. “He does? Who said so? I'm leaving instructions.”

Judith didn't know whether or not Renie was kidding. Bill Jones, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and tenured professor, knew his way around a textbook better than a cookbook. She gazed at the group family photograph on the coffee table. Bill Jones's square, serious face gazed back. Next to him was Renie, with her thick chestnut hair worn long and about six months pregnant. Bill and Renie each held a toddler. Mike, at two and a half, reposed in Judith's arms. Dan McMonigle loomed behind her, scowling at the camera. The picture had been taken in this same living room at Christmas, some twenty years earlier.

“A lot of these faces aren't around anymore,” Judith remarked sadly.

Renie glanced at the photo. “Right. My dad's. Dan. Grandma Grover. But,” she added brightly, “we've added a few. Our youngest, Tony. Your Joe. Cousin Sue's granddaughter. The twins by—”

A sharp ringing sound rattled the living room. Renie jumped; Judith sighed.

“I wish,” Judith said through gritted teeth, “Mother wouldn't do that unless it's really an emergency.” Getting to her feet, she headed for the French doors at the end of the living room.

Renie trotted along behind. “Maybe something
wrong,” she suggested. “Maybe she fell. Maybe she's sick.”

Going down the short flight of stairs that led to the backyard, Judith threw Renie a disparaging look. “Maybe she overdosed on Granny Goodness Chewy Centers. Give me a break, coz—Mother doesn't have emergencies. She just causes them.”

The February air was raw. The trio of fruit trees, which were all that was left of the original Grover orchard, stood gnarled and bare. Except for a brave camellia bush with
bright buds beginning to unfold, the garden was fallow. There was ice on the birdbath, and the small statue of St. Francis looked as if he could use a sweater. The cousins trudged down the walk to the converted toolshed which was now the home of Gertrude Grover.

“Mother! Yoo-hoo!” Judith banged on the door.

There was no sound from within. Judith leaned her statuesque frame against the door, listening. She called again to her mother. With a trace of apprehension, she tried the doorknob. The door was locked.

“Damn!” Judith breathed. Her strong features puckered in frustration. She turned to Renie. “Check the front window. She must have been alive a couple of minutes ago or she wouldn't have set off that blasted buzzer.”

Renie, who was almost six inches shorter than Judith, had to stand on tiptoe to look through the window. “I don't see her,” she said, sounding worried. “She must be in the bathroom or her bedroom.”

Judith hopped off the single step and headed back to the house, this time toward the entrance to the kitchen. “I'll get my keys,” she muttered, seeing her breath go before her on the cold February air.

Judith disappeared inside the big old Edwardian house. Renie was pacing in front of the smaller structure, trying to keep warm, when Gertrude snatched open the front door and made a peculiar noise.

“H-u-u-u-t! Therena! Where did that lamebrained kid of mine go? The'd better be coming back with a think plunger!”

Renie stared at her aunt. “You're okay? We thought you'd had a stroke. Why are you talking like that?”

Leaning on her walker, Gertrude snorted. “Never mind. What if I'd had a throke? Or two of 'em. Who'd care? Not Knucklehead or her dim-witted huthband.” Between Gertrude's feet, an orange-and-white cat eyed Renie with little yellow eyes. Gertrude nudged the animal with her foot. “Beat it, you flea-bitten creep! You ate my creamed tuna on toatht!”

Sweetums flew out into the yard, stopped at the far edge of the small patio, arched his back, and hissed. Gertrude
hissed back. Sweetums gave the equivalent of a shrug and ventured into the Rankerses' hedge.

“Mother!” Judith was poised at the top of the porch steps. “What happened?”

Impatiently, Gertrude gestured with her right arm, her baggy electric-blue cardigan flapping in the breeze. “Come here! Put thome leg in it!”

Running on command, Judith dashed past Renie, who duly followed both of the other women inside the little apartment. The cousins came to a standstill behind Gertrude and her walker. “The toilet,” she said, clumping toward the bathroom, which also contained a sink and a shower stall. Stepping aside, Gertrude gave the walker a final bang. “I lotht my dentureth. Get 'em out, and hurry up!”

Standing over the toilet, Judith could see no sign of dentures. “Oh, jeez!” she breathed, rolling her eyes. “How on earth did you do

Gertrude drew herself up to her full height, which was diminutive at best. She spoke with dignity: “I sneethed. Tho what?”

Judith's high forehead furrowed. “You…? Oh! You

“Thath what I thaid!” Gertrude was getting angry. “Now get my dentureth!”

It took Judith ten minutes to find the plumber's snake and another fifteen to fish out Gertrude's teeth. Renie tried to help, but couldn't provide much more than moral support, which took the edge off Gertrude's nagging. When at last the upper plate had been retrieved, Judith insisted on sanitizing it with a run through the dishwasher. Gertrude demurred: She could rinse her own damned teeth with boiling water from the teakettle. What did people do before there were dishwashers anyway? That was the trouble with the modern generation—they had to have all kinds of fancy-pants appliances, like automatic dryers, clothes washers without wringers, plug-in irons instead of mangles, and stupid telephone answering machines where stupid people left stupid messages because they were too stupid to stay home. Given that Gertrude's litany was de
livered in her present irksome lisp, Judith was grateful that she never got to “espresso machine.” Before that happened, Joe came home from work early. Gertrude and her walker scampered back inside the toolshed. She was not anxious to see her son-in-law. She never was.

Joe's ruddy round face lit up when Judith told him about Gertrude's mishap. The gold flecks in his green eyes danced. He all but skipped inside the house, with his wife and her cousin at his heels.

“You're mean, Joe,” Judith chided as Joe headed for the liquor cabinet in the kitchen. “No wonder Mother thinks you're such a jerk.”

BOOK: Major Vices
4.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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