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Pushing through the swinging door from the dining room, I started talking before I got into the kitchen good. "Lillian, I need to ask you something, and I want a serious answer. What in the world is wrong with Sam Murdoch?"
She turned away from the sink and squinched her eyes at me. "They's not one thing wrong with Mr. Sam. An' what I think, Miss Julia, is you ought not be pickin' on him."
"Well, he's acting strange, if you ask me."
She turned back to the sink, mumbling about not having heard anybody ask anybody. Lillian was bad to mumble under her breath whenever she disagreed with somebody, namely me. I didn't mind, though, since I'd been known to do a little mumbling myself on occasion. She'd been taking care of my house, my meals, and me for so long now that we pretty much knew what the other was thinking, whether we spoke up or not. And I knew she never liked hearing anything against Sam, which was why I hadn't brought up my concern about him before now.
"Lillian, please," I said, "Would you just come sit down and help me with this?"
"If you want these green beans for supper, you better let me finish stringin' 'em."
"Maybe the first thing I ought to do," I went on, as she brought the plastic bag of beans and the bowl of snapped ones to the table, "is ask what's wrong with you. I declare, Lillian, neither you nor Sam have been yourselves lately."
"I don't know nothin' 'bout Mr. Sam," she said, busying herself with spreading the morning's newspaper on the table. "He actin' like he always do, far's I can tell."
"No, he's not. You just don't know the half of it." I took a handful of beans and began stringing them on the newspaper. "He's been sending flowers, for one thing. Well, you've seen them. They're all over the house."
"That's 'cause he know you sad an' lonesome with Miss Hazel Marie and Little Lloyd gone to live with that Mr. Pickens. He know you miss 'em, an' he tryin' to cheer you up."
"That's probably true." I nodded in agreement. "But one arrangement and one potted plant would've been a gracious plenty for any cheering up he wanted to do." I dropped snapped pieces into the bowl and reached for another handful of beans.
"About the time one arrangement begins to wilt, here come two more. And the notes,
Lillian, you just haven't seen those notes."
"No'm, 'cause you won't let me."
"No, and I'm not going to. Or anybody else, for that matter. Embarrassing is what they are."
Lillian cut her eyes at me, then laughed in the old way, her gold tooth shining. It struck me that she'd done precious little laughing since Hazel Marie and Little Lloyd had packed most of their belongings and moved in with Mr. J. D. Pickens. Just to see if it'd work out, Hazel Marie'd said. Mr. Pickens was that private investigator I'd once hired, who set about winning Hazel Marie's heart without one word being said about making the situation legal. Except by me, who'd had plenty to say on the subject. Believe me, I won't ever employ a handsome man with a roving eye and an aversion to matrimony again.
"What them notes say?" Lillian asked. She got up to turn down the heat under the pot where she'd put a chunk of streak-of-lean on to boil.
"Never mind what they said. But you'd be worried about him, too, if you knew." I took a trembling breath, recalling some of the poetic passages that had accompanied the flowers, all in Sam's handwriting. "Then, Lillian, he calls me every day, just wanting to talk, he says. Now, you know how I hate talking on the telephone when nobody has anything to say. At all hours, too, as if some people aren't already in bed or busy with important matters." I stopped, then went on to tell it all. "And another thing. He drops by to see me without a by-your-leave or anything, just shows up right out of the blue. To see how I'm doing, he says. You've noticed that, Lillian, don't tell me you haven't."
"Yessum, I have. But you and Mr. Sam got so friendly at Miss Binkie and Coleman's weddin', I jus' figured things was pickin' up."
"What things are you talking about?" I demanded, readying myself to refute any assumptions she might have made.
"Well, you know. Maybe that weddin' put you in mind of another one." She came back to the table and started stringing green beans again, as innocent as you please.
"My Lord, Lillian, another wedding is the last thing on my mind." I said, throwing another handful of beans in the bowl. "Unless it's Hazel Marie's. Whoever heard of moving in with a man for a trial period, anyway?"
"Lots a people, that's who. An' it nobody's bus'ness but hers," Lillian reminded me, as she often did when she thought I was beginning to meddle. "Now, look like to me all Mr. Sam doin' is bein' nice and friendly."
I dropped the beans that were in my hand, and covered my face. "Oh, Lillian, it's not only what he says, but the way he says it. I don't know what he means, or if he means anything at all."
"I 'spect you figure it out, you put your mind to it."
I ignored that because, all along, I hadn't wanted to delve too deeply into what was behind Sam's unnerving attentions. Once burned, twice shy, you know, and after my previous less-than-satisfactory experience with a husband, I intended to steer clear of another one.
I propped my chin on my hand, my elbow on the table, and put the focus back on Sam where it belonged. "I'm afraid something's wrong with him, Lillian, and that's the truth of the matter. The way he's acting is just not like him. You know how he is. Usually, that is. So polite, so much of a gentleman, courtly even, and now ..." I lifted my head as a sudden thought came to me. "You know who he reminds me of? Mr. Pickens, that's who. He flirts, Lillian, and says the most outrageous things you've ever heard."
"That don't sound so bad to me."
"But it's not like Sam! I tell you the truth, I think he's entering his second childhood. He's old, you know."
"Not much older'n you," Lillian reminded me.
"Wouldn't hurt you to try; might even do you some good. Seem like to me you be noticin' you not gettin' any younger. I know lots a ladies be real happy to have a well-set-up man like Mr. Sam whisperin' in they ear. You keep on like you doin' an' he gonna turn his eye somewheres else."
I blew out my breath in exasperation. "Don't get me started on all the widows in this town who'd do anything in the world just to get married again. I know how they carry on. Just as soon as somebody's wife dies, there they are with casseroles and cakes and pies and invitations to dinner. I tell you, they don't know when they're well off."
"Lemme get these beans on," she said, pushing herself up from the table and carrying the bowl to the stove. "This meat done boiled down enough."
"You're not helping me, Lillian. I'm really worried about him. At first I thought he was suffering a midlife crisis, except he's too old. Maybe he's getting senile."
"Well, which is it? He in his chilehood or his old age?"
"I don't know," I said, slumping back in my chair. "And to tell the truth, I don't know which would be worse."
A sudden whining and growling began building up from out on the street and, as I jerked upright, the racket seemed to fill the whole room. "What in the world is that?"
Realizing that we couldn't see from the kitchen window, Lillian and I pushed and shoved each other in our hurry to get through the house to the front door. The clattering, rumbling din was painful to hear as we got closer to it.
"What is it? What is it?" I gasped as we both reached for the door knob, our hands fumbling for purchase.
"Oh, my Jesus!" Lillian cried, her voice cracking as she panted for breath. "It's the Rapture! Here I am, sweet Jesus, I'm a comin'!"
"Lillian, for goodness sakes. Get hold of yourself and get this door open."
Before I could say what I thought of that, she pushed my hand aside, got the knob turned, and opened the door. When we rushed out onto the porch, I'd have opted for any kind of flying object other than the one that greeted our eyes. A rumbling, whining, two-wheeled machine slued out of my yard onto Polk Street, then swung wildly around the street and headed back into my driveway, sideswiping the plastic roll-out trash container perched on the sidewalk. Then, weaving up the driveway, it sliced through a pile of leaves, sending them swirling and scattering in the air. As we watched, open-mouthed, the loud, grumbling thing took its rider between two boxwoods, grazed the limbs of a crepe myrtle, and chewed up my grass as it skidded in a mighty half-circle before coming to rest in the middle of my yard.
"My Lord," I gasped, taking a firm grip on Lillian's arm. "Who's driving that thing?"
"Look like it drivin' itself," Lillian said.
As the machine whined down, it gave off a few nerve-shattering pops and backfires. A black leather-clad figure swung a leg off the pile of steel, chrome and exhaust pipes, kicked down the kickstand, and turned to face us.
At least, I guessed he was facing us, for his head was encased in what looked like a shiny black bowling ball with a dark visor. Removing the black gloves, the figure creaked and squeaked its way toward the porch, steel-toed boots clanking on my concrete walk.
"Is that Mr. Pickens, Lillian?" I asked, trying to peer past the black face-covering. "Is that who it is?"
"No'm, I don' think so. This 'un not as spry as Mr. Pickens."
Whoever it was stopped at the foot of the steps and pulled off the helmet, leaving a few sprigs of silvery hair standing straight up, looking for all the world like Little Lloyd's cowlick. Tucking his helmet under his arm, Sam stood there, grinning at us. If there was ever any proof that my concerns about Sam's mental condition had a solid foundation, it was right smack in front of us.
"See, Lillian!" I whispered, rounding on her, although if Sam heard me I didn't care.
"That's what I'm talking about! If it's not one crazy thing, it's another. And now he's running around on a two-wheeler like a maniac. Sam," I raised my voice and turned to him with my hands on my hips, "the very idea, coming around here disturbing the peace and giving me a heart attack with all that roaring and popping and carrying on. What will the neighbors think, I ask you."
Before he could answer, Lillian said, "Don't be jumpin' on him, Miss Julia. He havin' the time of his life." Her smile was as big as his. She'd certainly changed her tune from when she'd been expecting the end of the world hardly a minute before.
"I say, the time of his life. He's on the way to ending his life with that thing. At his age, he ought to know better than to run around on such a contraption." I crossed my arms over my bosom and glared at Sam as he came toward us. He was grinning with a mixture of pride and what should've been embarrassment after that less-than-graceful entrance. "Senile old fool," I mumbled.
"Hello, Julia, Lillian," Sam said, still smiling as he walked up the steps to the porch and stopped next to me. "How you like my new toy?"
I declare, I never knew how the smell and sound and look of leather could overpower a person as unaccustomed to such attire as I was. Sam seemed twice his size-and he wasn't a small man to begin with-as he stood close, breathing in and out from the exertion of steering a machine with a mind of its own. I took in all that leather smell and the preponderance of zippers on his jacket as he leaned over me and said, "Well, Julia, what do you think?"
I took a step back. "I think, Sam Murdoch, that you have lost your mind."
Excerpted from "Miss Julia Hits the Road"
Copyright © 2004 Ann B. Ross.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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