April 1, 1909
In the year 1908, Stanislaw Ludic Jurdabralinski, a tall raw-boned boy of fourteen, was facing a future of uncertainty. Life in Poland under Russian rule was bleak and dangerous. Polish men and boys were being conscripted to serve in the czar’s army, and in an at- tempt to destroy Polish unity, Catholics and priests had been jailed for anti-Russian sentiments. Churches were shut down and Stanislaw’s father and three uncles had been sent to prison camps for speaking out.
But with encouragement from his older brother Wencent, who had escaped Poland five years earlier, Stanislaw arrived in New York with nothing but the ill-fitting plaid woolen suit he was wearing, a photograph of his mother and sisters, and the promise of a job. With the help of a Polish stevedore who he had befriended on the ship, he managed to hop a freight train.
Five days later, Stanislaw arrived on his brother’s doorstep in Chi- cago, excited and ready to begin his brand-new life. He had been told that in America, if you worked hard, anything was possible.
A MOST UNUSUAL WEEK
Point Clear, Alabama
Monday, June 6, 2005
76º and Sunny
Mrs. Earle Poole, Jr., better known to friends and family as Sookie, was driving home from the Birds-R-Us store out on Highway 98 with one ten-pound bag of sunflower seeds and one ten-pound bag of wild bird seed and not her usual weekly purchase for the past fifteen years of one twenty-pound bag of the Pretty Boy Wild Bird Seed and Sunflower Mix. As she had explained to Mr. Nadleshaft, she was worried that the smaller birds were still not getting enough to eat. Every morning lately, the minute she filled her feeders, the larger, more aggressive blue jays would swoop in and scare the little birds all away.
She noticed that the blue jays always ate the sunflower seeds first, and so tomorrow, she was going to try putting just plain sunflower seeds in her back yard feeders, and while the blue jays were busy eating them, she would run around the house as fast as she could and put the wild bird seed in the feeders in the front yard. That way, her poor finches and titmice might be able to get a little something, at least.
As she drove over the Mobile Bay Bridge, she looked out at the big white puffy clouds and saw a long row of pelicans flying low over the water. The bay was sparkling in the bright sun and already dotted with red, white, and blue sailboats headed out for the day. A few people fishing alongside the bridge waved as she passed by, and she smiled and waved back. She was almost to the other side when she suddenly began to experience some sort of a vague and unusual sense of well-being. And with good reason.
Against all odds, she had just survived the last wedding of their three daughters, Dee Dee, Ce Ce, and Le Le. Their only unmarried child now was their twenty-five-year-old son, Carter, who lived in Atlanta. And some other poor (God help her), beleaguered mother of the bride would be in charge of planning that happy occasion. All she and Earle would have to do for Carter’s wedding was show up and smile. And today, other than one short stop at the bank and picking up a couple of pork chops for dinner, she didn’t have another single thing she had to do. She was almost giddy with relief.
Of course, Sookie absolutely worshipped and adored her girls, but having to plan three large weddings in fewer than two years had been a grueling, never-ending, twenty-four-hours-a-day job, with all the bridal showers, picking out patterns, shopping, fittings, writing invitations, meeting with caterers, figuring out seating arrangements, ordering flowers, etc. And between dealing with out-of-town guests and new in-laws, figuring out where to put everyone, plus last-minute bridal hysteria, at this point, she was simply weddinged out.
Dee Dee had married, then promptly divorced. And after they had spent weeks returning all the wedding gifts, she had turned around and remarried the exact same husband. Her second wedding hadn’t been quite as expensive as the first, but every bit as stressful.
When she and Earle had married in 1968, it had been just a typical church affair: white wedding gown, bridesmaids in matching pastel dresses and shoes, ring bearer, best man, reception, over and out. But now everybody had to have some kind of a theme.
Dee Dee had insisted on having an authentic Old South Gone with the Wind wedding, complete with a Scarlett O’Hara dress, large hoop skirt and all, and at the last minute, she had to be driven to the church standing up in the back of a small moving van.
Le Le and her groom wanted an entirely red and white wedding, including the invitations, food, drinks, and all the decorations, in honor of the University of Alabama football team.
And Ce Ce, Le Le’s twin sister, the last girl to marry, had carried her ten-pound Persian cat, Peek-a-Boo, down the aisle instead of a wedding bouquet, and the groom’s German shepherd, dressed in a tux, had served as best man. And if that wasn’t bad enough, someone’s turtle was the ring bearer. The entire thing had just been excruciating. You can’t hurry a turtle.
Looking back on it now, Sookie realized she really should have put her foot down when Ce Ce and James invited all their friends to bring their pets to the reception, but she had made a sacred vow to never bully her children. Nevertheless, having to replace an entire banquet room’s wall-to-wall carpeting at the Grand Hotel was going to cost them a fortune. Oh, well. Too late now. Hopefully, all that was behind her, and evidently not a minute too soon.
Two days ago, when Ce Ce left for her honeymoon, Sookie had broken down and sobbed uncontrollably. She didn’t know if she was experiencing empty-nest syndrome or just plain exhaustion. She knew she must be tired. At the reception, she had introduced a man to his own wife. Twice.
The truth was, as sad as she was to see Ce Ce and James drive off, she had been secretly looking forward to going home, taking off all her clothes, and crawling into bed for about five years, but even that had been put on hold. At the last minute, James’s parents, his sister, and her husband had decided to stay over an extra night, so she had to quickly try and whip up a little “going away” brunch for them.
Granted, it wasn’t much: Earle’s coconut margaritas, an assort- ment of crackers, cream cheese and pepper jelly, shrimp and grits, crab cakes with coleslaw, and tomato aspic on the side. But still, it had taken some effort.
* * *
When Sookie drove into the little town of Point Clear and passed the Page and Palette bookstore, it occurred to her that maybe tomorrow, she would stop in and pick up a good book. She hadn’t had time to read anything other than her daily horoscope, the Kappa newsletter, and an occasional Birds and Blooms magazine. We could be at war for all she knew. But now, she was actually going to be able to read an entire book again.
She suddenly felt like doing the twist right there in the front seat, which only reminded her how long it had been since she and Earle had learned a new dance step. She had probably even forgotten how to do the hokey pokey.
All she really had left to deal with was her eighty-eight-year-old mother, the formidable Mrs. Lenore Simmons Krackenberry, who ab- solutely refused to move to the perfectly lovely assisted living facility right across town. And it would be so much easier on everybody if she would. The maintenance on her mother’s yard alone was extremely expensive, not to mention the yearly insurance. Since the hurricane, the insurance on everybody’s house on the Mobile Bay had gone sky high. But Lenore was adamant about never leaving her home and had announced with a dramatic gestures, “Until they carry me out feet-first.”
Sookie couldn’t imagine her mother leaving anywhere feet-first. As long as she and her brother, Buck, could remember, Lenore, a large imposing woman who wore lots of scatter pins and long, flowing scarves, and had her silver hair teased and sprayed into a perfect winged-back flip, had always rushed into a room headfirst. Buck said she looked like something that should be on the hood of a car, and they had secretly referred to her as “Winged Victory” ever since. And Winged Victory never just left a room; she whisked out with a flourish, leaving a cloud of expensive perfume in her wake. Never a quiet woman in any sense of the word, much like a show horse in the Rose Parade, she could be heard coming a mile away, due to the loud jingling of the numerous bracelets, bangles, and beads she always wore. And she was usually speaking long before she came in sight. Lenore had a loud booming voice and had studied “Expression” while attending Judson College for women, and to the family’s everlasting regret, the teacher had encouraged her.
Now, due to certain recent events, including her setting her own kitchen on fire, they had been forced to hire a twenty-four-hour live- in nurse for Lenore. Earle was a successful dentist with a nice practice, but they were by no means rich, and certainly not now, with all the money they had spent sending the children to college, the weddings, Lenore’s mortgage, and now the nurse. Poor Earle might not be able to retire until he’s ninety, but the nurse was a definite necessity.
Lenore, who was not only loud but also extremely opinionated and voiced her opinion to everyone within earshot, had suddenly started calling total strangers long-distance. Last year, she had called the pope in Rome, and that call alone had cost them more than three hundred dollars. When confronted with the bill, Lenore had been incensed and said that she shouldn’t have to pay a dime because she had been on hold the entire time. Try telling that to the phone company. And there was no reasoning with her. When Sookie asked why she had called the pope, considering that she was a sixth-generation dyed-in-the-wool Methodist, Lenore had thought for a moment and said, “Oh . . . just to chat.”
“Yes, and you mustn’t be so closed-minded, Sookie. One can cer- tainly be on speaking terms with Catholics. You don’t want to marry one, but a friendly chat can’t hurt.”
And there had been other incidents. At a chamber of commerce meeting, Lenore had called the mayor a pointy-headed little carpet- bagger and a horse thief and was sued for defamation of character. Sookie had been worried to death, but Lenore remained unfazed. "They have to prove what I said was not true, and no jury in their right mind would dare convict me!” In the end, the judge had thrown the case out, but still, it had been very embarrassing. All last year, Sookie had to try to avoid running into the mayor and his wife, and in such a small town, it had been almost impossible. They were just everywhere.
Since the lawsuit, they had been through three different nurses. Two quit, and one left in the middle of the night, along with one of Lenore’s dinner rings and a frozen turkey. But now, after months of searching, Sookie felt she had finally found the perfect nurse, a darling older Filipino lady named Angel, who was so patient and so sweet, even though Lenore continued to call her Conchita, because she said she looked exactly like the Mexican woman who had worked for her in Texas in the forties, when Sookie’s father had been stationed there.
The good news was, now that Lenore had Angel, Sookie was fi- nally going to be able to attend the Kappa reunion in Dallas, and her old college roommate, Dena Nordstrom, had promised to meet her there. They talked on the phone regularly, but she hadn’t seen Dena in a long time, and she couldn’t wait.
As Sookie sat at the intersection waiting for the red light to change, she pulled down the visor and looked at herself in the mirror. Good God, that was a mistake. She guessed that after fifty, nobody looked good in the bright sun, but even so, she really had neglected herself. She hadn’t seen her eye doctor in over three years, and she clearly needed a new prescription.
Last month at church, she had embarrassed herself half to death. The correct quote was, “I am a vessel for God’s love,” but she had read out loud in front of the entire congregation, “I am a weasel for God’s love.” Earle had said that no one had noticed, but of course, they had.
Sookie glanced at herself in the mirror again. Oh, Lord, no wonder she looked so terrible. She had run out the door this morning without a stitch of makeup. Now she was going to have to drive all the way home and throw some on. She always tried to look somewhat presentable. Thankfully, she wasn’t as vain as her mother, or she would never have left home at all. Outward appearances meant everything to Lenore. She was particularly proud of what she called the Simmons foot and her small, slightly turned-up nose. Sookie had gotten her father’s longer nose, and wouldn’t you know it, Buck got the cute one. Oh, well. At least she got the Simmons foot.
Just as the light changed, Netta Verpe, Sookie’s next-door neigh- bor, whizzed by in her huge 1989 Ford Fairlane, probably on her way out to Costco, and tooted her horn. Sookie tooted back. Sookie loved Netta. She was a good old soul. She and Netta were both Leos.
Netta’s house was in between their house and Lenore’s. Poor thing. She had been stuck in the middle, with all the Poole children and animals on one side and Lenore on the other, calling her night and day, but she never complained. She said, “Hell, I’m a widow. What else am I going to do for fun?”
Sookie supposed she shouldn’t have been surprised that Ce Ce’s wedding theme had been “Pets Are People, Too.” At one point, there had been eleven animals living in the Poole house, including an alligator that had crawled out of the bay and up the back-porch stairs, three cats, and four dogs, one being Earle’s beloved Great Dane, Tiny, who was the size of a small horse.
All the dogs, cats, and hamsters --- and the one blind raccoon --- were fine, but she had drawn the line with the alligator and insisted that it stay in the basement. She loved animals, too, but when you’re scared to get up at night and go to the bathroom, it’s time to put your foot down, and hopefully not on top of something that could bite it off.
The hard part of having animals, for her, was losing them. Two years before, Mr. Henry, their eighteen-year-old cat, had died, and she still couldn’t see an orange cat without going to pieces. After Mr. Henry died, she told Earle, no more pets. She just couldn’t take the heartbreak.
Sookie drove straight on through town, waved at Doris, the to- mato lady on the corner, then headed down the hill, toward her house on the bay.
The old historic scenic route was lined on both sides with large oak trees planted before the Civil War. On the right side, facing the water, were miles of old wooden bay houses built mostly by people from Mobile as summer homes. Sookie guessed that if she had a penny for every time she had driven on this road over the years, she would be a millionaire by now.
She had been eight the first time her father had brought the family
down from Selma to spend the summer. They had arrived in Point Clear on a warm, balmy evening, and the air had been filled with the scent of honeysuckle and wisteria.
She could still remember coming down the hill and seeing the lights of Mobile, sparkling and twinkling across the water, just like a jeweled necklace. It was as if they had just entered into a fairyland. The Spanish moss hanging from the trees had looked bright silver in the moonlight and made dancing shadows all along the road. And the shrimp boats out in the bay, with their little blinking green lights, had looked just like Christmas to Sookie. For her, there had always been something magical about Point Clear, and there still was.
About a mile past the Grand Hotel, Sookie turned in and drove up her long crushed-oyster-shell driveway and pulled into the carport. Netta’s house was almost identical to theirs, but Netta’s yard was much prettier. As soon as she could get rested enough, one of the first things Sookie was going to do was prune. Her azalea bushes were a disgrace, and her limelight hydrangeas had just gone completely wild.
Their house, like most of the others along the scenic route, was a large white wooden home with dark green shutters. Most of the bay houses had been built long before air-conditioning and had a wide center hall that ran all the way to a large screened-in porch in back overlooking the bay. And like their neighbors, they had a long gray wooden pier with a small seating area with a tin roof on the end. When the kids had been much younger, she and Earle used to go sit there almost every evening to watch the sunset and listen to the church bells that rang up and down the bay. They hadn’t done that in years. She was so looking forward to being alone with Earle again.
Sookie took the two bags of seeds out of the car and put them in the little greenhouse Earle had built for her, where she kept her bird supplies. A few minutes later, after she went inside, Sookie suddenly noticed how quiet the house was. Almost eerily quiet. As she stood there, all she could hear was the ticking of the kitchen clock and the cry of the seagulls out on the bay. It was so strange not to hear a door slamming or someone running up and down the stairs. How pleasant to have peace and quiet, and not hear loud music blaring from someone’s room. So pleasant, in fact, she thought maybe she would fix herself a cup of tea and sit and relax a few minutes before she headed out again.
Just as she was reaching for a tea bag, the kitchen phone rang, and now that the house was empty, it sounded like a fire alarm going off. She picked it up and looked at the caller ID number. It was a long- distance call, but not from an area code she recognized, so she just let it ring. She was too tired to talk to anyone if she didn’t have to. In the past few days she’d had to smile and talk to so many people that her face still hurt.
Sookie stuck a cup of water in the microwave, grabbed her tea bag, and went out on the screened-in porch to enjoy it. She sat down in her big white wicker chair. The bay was as smooth as glass, not a ripple in sight.
She noticed that her gardenia bushes were still in bloom and thought she might cut off a few and float them in a dish in the living room. They always made the house smell so sweet. She took a deep breath of fresh air and was about to have her first sip of tea, when the phone started ringing again. Oh, Lord, it was obviously somebody calling the wrong number or a solicitor trying to sell her something, and if she didn’t answer they would probably drive her crazy all day. She got up and went back to the kitchen and picked up. It was her mother.
“Sookie, I need you to come over here right now.”
“Mother, is something wrong?”
“I have something extremely important to discuss with you.”
“Oh, Mother, can’t it wait? I just got home.”
“No, it cannot!”
“Oh, well . . . all right. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Sookie frowned as she hung up. That particular tone in her moth- er’s voice always made her a little anxious. Had Lenore found out she had spoken to the woman at Westminster Village about assisted living? She had just been inquiring about the price, and it had only been one short call. But if someone had told Lenore she would be furious.
A few minutes later, Sookie walked over, and the nurse, who was in the front yard cutting fresh flowers, looked up and said, “Oh, good morning, Mrs. Poole,” then added with a sympathetic little smile, “God bless you.”
“Thank you, Angel,” said Sookie.
Oh, Lord . . . it must be worse than she thought. As Sookie walked into the house, she called out, “Mother?”
“In the dining room, Sookie.”
Sookie went in and saw her mother seated at the large Georgian dining room table with the twelve Queen Anne chairs. On the table, placed in front of her, was the large leather box with the maroon velvet inside that held her set of the Francis I silverware. Next to the box was the large Simmons family Bible.
“What’s going on, Mother?”
Sookie sat down and waited for whatever was coming. Lenore looked at her and said, “Sookie, I called you here today because I am not entirely convinced that you fully appreciate what you will be receiving upon my demise. As my only daughter, you will be inheriting the entire set of the Simmons family silver . . . and before I can die in peace, I want you to swear on this Bible that you will never, under any circumstances, break up the set.”
Sookie was so relieved it wasn’t about the call to Westminster Vil- lage, and said, “Oh, Mother, I do appreciate it . . . but really, why don’t you leave it all to Bunny? She and Buck entertain much more than I do.”
“What?” Lenore gasped and clutched at her pearls. “Bunny? Leave it to Bunny? Oh, Sookie,” she said with wounded eyes. “Do you have any idea what was sacrificed to keep it in the family?” Sookie sighed. She had heard the story a thousand times before, but Lenore loved to tell it over and over, with large dramatic gestures included. “Grandmother Simmons said that at one point during the war, all that stood between them and the entire family going hungry was your great- grandmother’s silver. And do you know what she did?”
“No, Mother, what?”
“She chose to go hungry, that’s what! Why, she said there were
days when all they had to eat was a pitiful little handful of pecans. And they had to bury the silver in a different spot every night to keep the Yankee soldiers from finding it, but she saved the silver! And now you say, ‘Oh, just give it to Bunny?’ Who’s not even a Simmons --- and not even from Alabama? Why don’t you just cut my heart out and throw it out in the yard?”
“Oh, God. All right . . . I’m sorry, Mother. It’s just . . . well, if you want me to have it, then thank you.”
Sookie certainly hadn’t meant to hurt her mother’s feelings about the silverware, but she really had no use for it. She didn’t know any- body who used a pickle fork or a grapefruit spoon anymore, and you can’t put real silver in the dishwasher. You have to wash each piece by hand. And she certainly didn’t want to have to polish silver all day. The Francis I pattern had twenty-eight pieces of carved fruit on the knife handle alone, not to mention the tea service, the coffee service, and the two sets of formal candlesticks.
Sookie realized she probably should care more about the silver. After all, it had come all the way from England and had been in the family for generations. But she just wasn’t as formal as her mother. Winged Victory would die of epilepsy if she knew her daughter sometimes used paper plates and plastic knives and forks and just hated polishing silverware.
Lenore dearly loved to polish silver and, once a month, would sit at the dining room table wearing white cotton gloves with all of it spread out before her. “Nothing relaxes me more than cleaning my silver.”
Oh, well. Too late now. The dye was cast. Sookie was stuck with it. She had swore on the Bible that not only would she never break up the set, but that she personally would polish it regularly. “Don’t ever let tarnish get a head start on you,” Lenore said.
What could she do? Being Lenore’s daughter meant she had come into the world with preordained duties. First, to proudly carry on the Simmons family line that, according to Lenore, could be traced all the way back to fifteenth-century England. Second, to protect the family silver.
It was such a beautiful warm day, and after Sookie left her moth- er’s house, she took her shoes off and walked back home along the bay.
As she strolled along, she suddenly wondered how many times she and the children had walked back and forth to Lenore’s house over the years. It seemed like only yesterday when all day long, the kids were running back and forth to her house and theirs.
Time was so strange. When the children were younger, she used to marvel at the tiny little footsteps they left in the sand, but those days were gone forever. They were all grown up now . . . and, bless their hearts, not a one of them had the Simmons foot, and three had the Poole ears. But that was another story.
A few minutes later, after she had thrown on a little makeup, Sookie drove back to town and was sitting in line at the drive-in bank waiting to make a deposit to cover yet another one of Lenore’s unexpected expenses. About ten years ago, Lenore had suddenly started bouncing checks all over town and hadn’t seemed the least bit concerned. “I hate fiddling with figures,” she said. So now all Lenore’s mail was delivered to Sookie to handle, including all her bills. Lenore’s letters alone were almost a full-time job. She was always firing off editorials to the newspaper. The last one, suggesting that we do away with the vote for people under fifty-five, had brought in more than one hundred letters that Sookie had to answer. Lenore never looked at her own mail. “Just tell me if something is important,” she said. The woman ordered almost everything she saw on television, and Sookie always had to send it back. Why would anybody over eighty want a ThighMaster?
Lenore was her mother, and she loved her, but Lord, she was a lot of trouble. When Earle had first bought the dental practice and they had moved down to Point Clear for good, Lenore insisted that before she would move with the family from Selma, Sookie’s Great- Grandfather Simmons must be moved from the Selma Cemetery and transferred down to the Soldier’s Rest Cemetery in Point Clear. “I would just die if I didn’t have Grandfather Simmons to decorate. He was a general, Sookie!” And, naturally, Sookie was the one who ended up having to deal with all the endless red tape of trying to arrange it. After weeks of hassling back and forth with the cemetery people, having to sign paper after paper, she finally just begged them to please dig up anything --- dog, cat, or horse --- and send it on. At that point, she was so tired, she didn’t care.
The car in front of Sookie moved one space closer to the teller, and she moved up with it. She looked at herself in the mirror again. She looked a little better, with her makeup on, but, of course, she had forgotten to put on her earrings. Honestly, between the weddings and dealing with her mother, it really was a miracle she was still sane at all.
She had always had a delicate nervous system and a tendency to faint under pressure. And it was very stressful never knowing what her mother was going to do next. Lenore had shown up at Ce Ce’s wedding wearing a large yellow hat with two live lovebirds in a cage sitting on top. God only knows where she got that.
Thank heavens, all Sookie’s kids had been good kids, because when they were growing up, she had let them do pretty much what they pleased. She had wanted them to have a carefree childhood. Hers certainly hadn’t been, with Lenore pushing her into everything. She had always been basically shy. She never wanted to be a Magnolia Trail Maiden or a cheerleader or to join all those organizations. But she had no choice. Lenore ruled with an iron hand. “You owe it to the Simmons name to be a leader in society, Sookie!” she said.
Well . . . that certainly hadn’t worked out. She knew she was a disappointment to her mother, but what could she do? She didn’t know why, but in school, as hard as she tried, she had never been able to get more than a C average while Buck had made all As. And those ballet lessons Lenore had pushed her into had been a complete disaster.
Sookie was finally at the drive-through window and handed the bank teller her deposit and suddenly noticed that she had developed a strange tic in her right eye, probably some leftover stress from the wedding. Thankfully, Earle had finally just picked the turtle up and handed it to James or they would probably all still be sitting there. The girl in the window pushed the drawer back out with her receipt and said over the speakerphone, “Thank you, Mrs. Poole, have a nice day.”
“Oh, thank you, Susie. You, too.”
“Tell your mother I said hello.”
After she left the bank, Sookie ran into the market and picked up a few pork chops and, as an afterthought, a can of sliced pineapple. Earle said he had a big surprise for her tonight, so she thought she might spice up the chops a bit.
Sookie was standing in the “less than six items” checkout line when she heard someone call out her name. It was Janice, a pretty blond girl and one of Ce Ce’s bridesmaids, who rushed over from the produce department, still holding a head of lettuce, and hugged her. “Oh, Mrs. Poole, I’m so happy to see you! How are you? You must be exhausted from all the excitement . . . but I just had to tell you, that was one of the nicest weddings I have ever been in. And such fun, too! Ce Ce and Peek-a-Boo looked so cute coming up the aisle --- and it’s always so wonderful to see your precious mother. I swear she never changes. She’s still the prettiest thing . . . and funny. I wish you could have been at our table --- she had us all just screaming with laughter. And that hat with those birds! How does she come up with these things?”
“I have no idea,” said Sookie.
“What a character, and she was so sweet to bring her little Mexi- can nurse with her.”
As Sookie moved one person closer to the checkout girl, Janice moved with her. “Oh, and listen, Mrs. Poole, I was going to drop you a note and apologize for Tinker Bell’s terrible behavior at the recep- tion. I don’t know what got into him. He usually just loves cats to death.”
Sookie said, “Oh, don’t worry about it, honey . . . . After all, dogs will be dogs.”
Janice thought about it for a second and said, “Yes, I guess you’re right. They just can’t help themselves, can they?” Then she made a sad face. “How are you holding up? You must be so blue with Carter and all the girls gone --- but thank heavens, you still have your mother to keep you company . . . and I’ll bet she just keeps you entertained twenty-four hours a day doesn’t she?”
“Oh, yes, she certainly does,” said Sookie.
Finally, it was Sookie’s turn at the cash register, and Janice said, “Well, I’d better run. Bye, Mrs. Poole, so nice to see you. Be sure and tell your mother I said hey.”
“I sure will, honey.”
When she came out of the market, she saw that the Elks Club ladies had set up a bake sale, so she walked over to see what they had. Dot Yeager, sitting behind the table, said, “Don’t they all look good?”
“Oh, they do.”
“Your mother looked so pretty at church yesterday, in that bright blue dress with her silver hair. I wish I could wear that shade of blue, but it just fades me out to nothing. I had my colors done, and I’m a fall, but Lenore is definitely a spring, isn’t she?”
“Yes, I believe she is.”
Sookie was standing there, trying to decide between the lemon icebox and the pecan pie, when her friend Marvaleen walked up. “Oh, hi, Marvaleen. What do you think would go better with pork chops? The pecan or the lemon icebox?
“If it were me, I’d go for the key lime, but then, I’m a fool for key lime.” Sookie bought the key lime.
Sookie was glad she had run into Marvaleen. She seemed so much calmer now. Marvaleen had recently gone through a divorce and, for a time, had been quite intense. She had been seeing a life coach over in Mobile named Edna Yorba Zorbra, and all she wanted to do when you saw her was tell you in great detail what Edna Yorba Zorbra had just said.
A few months ago, Sookie had been at the store and in a hurry, and she had tried to hide, but Marvaleen had spotted her and cor- nered her in the frozen food department. “Sookie, do you journal?”
“Do you journal? Write things down?”
“Oh, like lists. Yes, I have to. I went to the store four times before
I remembered to buy Parmesan cheese.”
“No, Sookie, I mean seriously journal. Write down your innermost thoughts. Edna Yorba Zorbra says it’s essential to maintain a healthy psyche. I can’t tell you what a difference it’s made in my life. I would never have divorced Ralph if I hadn’t started journaling. I didn’t realize how much I hated him until I saw it written down in black and white. Oh, you must journal, Sookie. I didn’t know who I really was until I started journaling.”
Well . . . that was fine for Marvaleen, she guessed, but she couldn’t imagine anything she would rather not do than write about her in- nermost feelings. And besides, she already knew exactly who she was and, unfortunately, so did everyone else within a five-hundred-mile radius.
Driving home, Sookie passed by the cemetery, and sure enough, there was Lenore’s car parked at the entrance. Every Monday, she put fresh flowers on her Grandfather Simmons’s grave and inspected the grounds and made sure to call anyone whose relative’s blooms were fading and lecture them about honoring the dead. Most people had moved on and were more interested in the recent dead. But not Lenore. The woman was obsessed with her ancestors.
Lenore’s own mother had died in childbirth, and she had been raised by her grandmother. That probably explained a lot about Lenore and her propensity to live not just in the past, but in the distant past. Sookie’s Great-Grandmother Simmons had been born during the Civil War, and her memories of that time were still raw and somewhat bitter. From early childhood, the message given to Lenore almost daily at her grandmother’s knee was in order to survive in this world, she was to remain strong and proud. The South had been bloodied and defeated, yes, but never bowed. They had lost everything but their pride and their good name.
At seventeen, Lenore was sent to Judson College and became president of her sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma, and valedictorian of her class. It was at Judson where Lenore had met Sookie’s father, Alton Carter Krackenberry. He had been a cadet attending the Marion Military Institute nearby. And from the first moment he met her in the receiving line, he had been blinded by love for life.
During World War II, Sookie’s father had commanded an entire unit of men in Brownsville, Texas. But at home, Lenore always ruled the roost. He spoiled her terribly and did pretty much whatever Lenore wanted him to do. No matter how many insane things she did, he would just look at her and exclaim to his children, “Look at her --- isn’t she just wonderful?” To the day he died, he said that Lenore had been the most beautiful girl at the Senior Military Ball, a fact that Lenore had agreed with most wholeheartedly. And often!
After Sookie got home and put the groceries away, she went into the sunroom with the paper and sat down to read when Peek-a-Boo jumped up in her lap. Oh, dear. She was perfectly happy to keep her until Ce Ce came back from her honeymoon, but she didn’t want to get attached to her, so she picked her up and put her down on the floor. But the cat jumped right back up again. Sookie sighed and said, “Oh, Peek-a-Boo. Honey . . . don’t make me like you. Go on now,” and she put her back down again. But she jumped right back up. The poor thing was obviously starved for affection, and so against her better judgment, Sookie started to pet her. After a minute, Peek-a-Boo was purring and kneading Sookie’s legs, looking up at her, happy and content. “Oh, well, bless your heart . . . . You miss your mother, don’t you? But she’ll be back, don’t you worry. Do you want me to get you some more bites? Is that what you want, precious? Do you want to play with your little toy?”
Oh, Lord. She had only had the cat forty-eight hours, and she was already talking baby talk to it. But what could she do? She couldn’t just ignore the poor thing . . . and she was so cute.
When Earle came home from work, Peek-a-Boo was happily chas- ing her mouse on a string that Sookie was pulling all through the house. Earle said, “Hi, sweetie. What did you do today?”
Sookie had been waiting for years to say this: “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
That night in bed, Earle was fast asleep, and so was Peek-a-Boo, who was now cuddled up next to her, but as usual, Sookie was still wide awake. Earle’s big surprise was that he was going to take her on a second honeymoon and she was so happy about it. She wanted to spend as much time with Earle as she possibly could, while she still could. With her future being as uncertain as it was, Sookie really didn’t know how much time she had left.
It was the curse of the Simmonses. When they reached a certain age, some of them (her Aunt Lily and Uncle Baby) had to be sent to Pleasant Hill Sanitarium. As the doctor said, “When a fifty-eight- year-old man goes downtown dressed up in a Dale Evans cowgirl outfit, complete with a skirt with fringe, it’s time,” and after Aunt Lily’s unfortunate incident with the paperboy, it was obvious she needed to be committed. But with Lenore, it was hard to tell. When Sookie had called Dr. Childress in Selma about her mother’s latest exploits and asked what he thought, he sighed and said, “Sookie, honey, I’ve known your mother all my life, and the problem with Lenore has always been trying to figure out what behavior is just ‘delightfully eccentric’ and what’s ‘as batty as hell.’ I know it’s not an official diagnosis, but every Simmons I ever knew had a loose screw somewhere.”
Dr. Childress had been the family doctor for years, and Sookie wished he had told her this before, not after, she had had four chil- dren. Who knows what wacko genes she may have passed on? Being second-generation, the children could be safe, but she was a genetic time bomb waiting to go off any minute. She lived in fear and dread of one day embarrassing her husband and children, and at one of the weddings, having someone point at her and say, “That lady in the corner talking to herself and batting at imaginary flies is the mother of the bride.”
When she tried to tell Earle how worried she was about the Sim- mons curse, he had always dismissed it. “Oh, Sookie, don’t be silly, you’re not going to lose your mind. You’re as sane as I am.” She hoped he was right. But a few weeks ago, she had gone for a dress fitting in Mobile and had left the dress at home. Hopefully, now that she was almost sixty, it was just a normal senior moment and not the begin- ning of something worse. She didn’t know, but she had written her family a letter and put it in the safety deposit box at the bank, just in case.
She also wished Carter would get married sooner rather than later. He had always been popular. A couple of his old girlfriends still called her, wanting to know about him, so she was hopeful. The other day, he had said, “Mom, I want to get married . . . . it’s just that I haven’t found anybody, yet, and it’s getting pretty discouraging.”
“Oh, I know, darling, but I promise one day, you’ll meet the exact right one, and when you do, you will know it.”
“You just will, that’s all.”
Sookie knew it was a stupid answer, but it had happened to her, sort of. She’d known Earle Poole, Jr., since grammar school. She just hadn’t known he was the right one until years later. Granted, her life had not always been a bowl of cherries --- but then, whose had? Even ifher life were to end tomorrow, she still had so much to be grateful for. First and foremost, for Earle.
And her children had mostly been a joy. The twins, Ce Ce and Le Le, had never given her a minute’s trouble. They had always been happy, probably because they had each other. From the moment they could talk, they just chattered away together. They were like their own separate little unit, and she was amazed at how well they got along. She had read that some twins hated to dress alike, but not hers. They loved it and had to have matching underwear and pajamas. They even spoke in stereo. One would start a sentence, and the other would fin- ish it.
Raising Carter had been easy. He was just like her brother, Buck. Send him outside with a ball to play with, and he was fine. Dee Dee was the one she worried about the most. She had never been a par- ticularly happy young girl, and her teenage years had been especially painful. She had always been a little on the chunky side, and unlike the twins and Carter, who had inherited Lenore’s perfect complexion, she’d had terrible acne all through high school. Each new pimple brought on a new set of histrionics. Almost every afternoon, Dee Dee would come home from school, run to her room, and fling herself across her bed in tears, because some boy hadn’t spoken to her or she hadn’t been invited to some party or something equally as devastating. Sookie had spent hours sitting with her, holding her hand, while she cried and sobbed about how terrible her life was. “Oh, Mother,” she would sob. “You just don’t know how it feels to be me. Everybody’s always telling me how cute and darling the twins are. All my life, people have fallen all over them and just ignored me.” Then, inevita- bly, she would wail, “Oh, Mother . . . why did you have to have twins? Why couldn’t you have just one like a normal person!”
Sookie tried to explain. “I’m sorry, honey. It wasn’t anything I planned. It just happened. It was a surprise to me, too. They are the first twins on either side of the family. It was just a fluke.”
“Well, I hope you’re happy! You’ve ruined my entire life. I will al- ways be some ugly fat lump with bad skin that nobody wants.” And so it went, on and on. She tried to give Dee Dee special attention and be patient with her, because, unfortunately, what she said was true. Whenever the girls went anywhere, especially when they were younger, people made a huge fuss over the twins and left poor Dee Dee stand- ing there, having to listen to them ooh and aah about how absolutely adorable they were. It broke Sookie’s heart to see her suffer so. And she did know how it felt. Growing up with Lenore, she had always felt like a little brown wren, hopping along behind a huge colorful peacock.
June 7, 2005
The next morning, Sookie woke up early, prepared to try and solve her bird problem. Earle had just walked out the door when the phone in the kitchen started ringing, and she wondered who in the world was calling her so early. It couldn’t be Lenore; she was on her way to water therapy at the senior center. Oh, dear God, please don’t let it be Dee Dee saying she was moving back home. She knew she was having marital problems again and today’s horoscope had warned her to “Expect the unexpected.” Sookie looked at the phone with trepidation and read the number on the readout. It wasn’t Dee Dee. It was that same area code as yesterday, probably the same phone solicitor, so she didn’t pick up. She didn’t have time to talk to anybody now. She had to concentrate on her bird-feeding plan. It was going to be tricky. She’d seen how those blue jays could go through all their food in just a matter of minutes, so she was going to have to move very fast.
Sookie quickly rinsed off the breakfast dishes and stuck them in the dishwasher, but whoever was calling wouldn’t hang up, and it was distracting. They used to have an answering machine, but Lenore thought it was an open mike for her to speak into on any subject at any time and had left fifteen- and twenty-minute messages on it, sometimes in the middle of the night, so they had to get rid of it.
As she finished up in the kitchen, she debated whether to put the sunflower seeds for the blue jays in the front yard or the back. If she put the sunflower seeds in the front, someone driving by might see her and want to stop and talk, and she didn’t have a second to spare. So she decided she would start at the back and run to the front. Her success depended on how long it would take the blue jays to finish the sunflower seeds before they discovered the bird seed in front and how fast she could run from one yard to the other.
But what shoes should she wear? She looked down and realized she shouldn’t try and run in her flip-flops, it was too dangerous. She went to her closet and found nothing suitable --- practically every shoe she owned had a little heel.
She went down the hall to the twins’ bedroom closet and started rummaging through a box of their old shoes. She found a pair of worn-out pink sneakers with pom-poms. Unfortunately, they were two sizes too large, but they’d be better than trying to run in flip-flops and breaking an ankle.
She put them on and laced them up as tightly as she could and went out to her greenhouse and filled her two large ceramic polka- dotted bird seed containers, one with sunflower seeds and the other with the wild bird seed. She went out and placed the container with the wild bird seed on the side of the house, ready to be picked up as she ran by, headed to the front yard. She then went back to the green- house, picked up the container with the sunflower seeds, took a deep breath, and ran to the backyard, filling up the feeders as fast as she could.
After Sookie finished filling the feeders in the backyard, she dropped the container on the ground and ran to the side of the house and picked up the other polka-dotted seed container and was running toward the front yard when she stepped in a gopher hole and lost her left shoe. She couldn’t stop so she just went on without it.
And of course, the very same moment she hit the front yard, the new Methodist minister and his wife were driving by the house and saw Sookie, wearing one pink shoe with tassels, hopping around on one foot, throwing seeds from a large polka-dotted container at her feeders. They slowed down and, as a matter of courtesy, were going to stop and say hello, but thankfully for Sookie, decided against it and quickly drove on. They were from Scotland and didn’t know if run- ning around wearing one pink shoe with tassels while carrying a large polka-dotted container and throwing seeds was some kind of South- ern bird-feeding ritual or not, but they were afraid to ask.
Sookie’s neighbor Netta Verp was sitting out on her side porch in her robe, having her morning coffee, when she suddenly saw Sookie flying around the yard like a bat out of hell, with her polka-dotted bird seed container, slinging seeds every which way, and she wondered what in the world she was doing. Netta had never seen anyone in such a hurry to feed their birds in her life.
After Sookie had filled all the front yard feeders, she ran back into the house and stood looking out the living room window, waiting to see if her smaller birds would come to feed. She waited, but none came. Where were they? There was not a bird to be seen anywhere. She then ran down the hall and looked out the kitchen window and saw the blue jays happily gobbling up all the sunflower seeds in back, while as usual, all of her smaller birds flittered around in the bushes below. Oh, no. Those little birds didn’t know what was waiting for them in the front yard. Oh, Lord. She hadn’t planned on this. Now she didn’t know what to do. She ran out on the back porch and started waving her arms and yelling at the top of her lungs, “Go to the front, little birds --- go around to the front! Hurry up, little birds!” But how do you communicate with birds? It was so frustrating. Now not only were her little birds not getting anything to eat, all those sunflower seeds seemed to have attracted every blue jay in the entire area, and more were flying in by the minute.
Netta observed her neighbor out on her back porch, jumping up and down and waving her arms around like a crazy person, and she didn’t know what to think. It was certainly peculiar behavior. She just hoped poor Sookie hadn’t flipped overnight, but with the Simmons family you never knew.
After a moment, Sookie ran back to the living room window to see if, by chance, any little birds were there, but now a whole new gang of big blue jays were in the front yard, eating all the bird seed. It was so frustrating. The only other thing she could think of to do was to get Carter’s old baseball bat and run out and try to scare the blue jays off. But she didn’t want to get reported to the humane society for cruelty to animals, especially since she was on the board. Oh, God, the phone was still ringing off the hook. Whoever it was must have her on some computer redial. Between the blue jays and the phone, she was getting a headache, so she went in and picked it up.
The person on the other end seemed surprised that someone had finally answered and said, “Oh, hello! Ahh . . . to whom am I speak- ing, please?”
“Well, whom were you trying to reach?” asked Sookie, as she saw three more blue jays swoop in.
“I’m trying to locate a Mrs. Earle Poole, Jr.”
“Yes, this is she.” As soon as she said it, she knew she had made a mistake. She should have pretended she was the maid and said Mrs. Poole wasn’t home. She was stuck now. As she stood watching more and more blue jays show up at the little birds feeder, she suddenly re- membered that old BB gun of Carter’s in the closet and wondered if she could fire off just a few warning shots from the porch without being seen.
The man on the phone was asking another question. “Are you the former Sarah Jane Krackenberry?”
“Yes, I was . . . am.” Sookie realized that the idea that she would even think about shooting a gun at a helpless bird was not her normal way of thinking, but those blue jays made her so mad --- the way they pushed the smaller ones around.
“Was your mother’s maiden name Simmons, middle name Mar- ion, first name Lenore?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Did your family live in Brownsville, Texas, from the years 1942 to 1945?”
“Is the current mailing address for Mrs. Lenore Simmons Krack- enberry 526 Bay Street, Point Clear, Alabama?”
“Yes, all her mail and bills are sent to me.” Sookie was still thinking whether or not she should get Carter’s old BB Gun and try and scare the blue jays away, but decided not to. If she were to accidentally hit one, she would never be able to forgive herself.
“Is your zip code 36564?”
Peek-a-Boo walked over and rubbed up against her leg. Then it suddenly occurred to her: maybe Peek-a-Boo would like a big fat blue jay for breakfast. She could let her out. But on the other hand, if Peek- a-Boo ran away and anything happened to her, Ce Ce would have a fit.
“Ma’am? Are you still there?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, what was it?”
“Is your current zip code 36564?”
“Uh, yes. That’s correct. You have to forgive me. I’m a little dis- tracted. I’m having a little bird problem at the moment.” Sookie sat down, held the phone against her ear, and retied her pink sneaker. She felt a dull pain start up in her right ankle. Oh, no. She knew as soon as she had stepped in that gopher hole, she had twisted something. She just hoped it wasn’t sprained. She needed to put ice on it right away, before it could swell up, and she also had to get the man off the phone, but in a nice way. “Sir, I’m so sorry, but I think I’ve sprained my ankle, so I’m going to have to hang up now.”
“I see . . . uh . . . Mrs. Poole, one more thing before you go. Will you be home tomorrow between ten a.m. and twelve p.m.?”
“Will you be at this address tomorrow?”
“Yes, I guess so. I might go to the travel agency later. Why?”
“We are sending a letter to Mrs. Lenore Simmons Krackenberry, and we need to know if you will be home to sign for it.”
It suddenly occurred to Sookie that this was certainly a weird call. Why did this man want to know where she would be tomorrow and at what time? She began to get a little suspicious and wondered if he might be some sex pervert or a burglar. So she quickly said, “Yes, I will be home, and so will my husband, the police chief. May I ask where you are calling from?”
“I’m calling from Texas, ma’am.”
“Texas? Where in Texas?”
“I’m in the Austin area.”
“Yes, ma’am. And Mrs. Poole, the letter should arrive at your ad- dress tomorrow, sometime between ten and twelve.”
Now Sookie really was baffled. Why would anybody in Texas be sending Lenore a letter? “Is this from the Gem Shopping Network? Are they in Texas? Has she ordered more scatter pins? I hope not. She has over a hundred now.”
“Is it from Barbara Bush? My mother thinks they have a lot in common, and she’s always writing the poor woman, asking her to come down for a visit. I said, ‘Mother, Barbara Bush is far too busy to come all the way down here just to go to lunch with you.’ ”
“No, ma’am, it’s not from Mrs. Bush.”
“Oh . . . well, is it a telephone bill? Has she called somebody and reversed the charges again? If so, I apologize in advance. We have a wonderful nurse watching her, but she must have turned her back for five minutes. Anyway, I’m so sorry, and tell whoever she’s called that we will be happy to pay for it.”
There was a pause, and then the man said, “Mrs. Poole, we have a registered letter we are sending out, and I just need to confirm that someone will be home tomorrow who is authorized to sign for it.”
Sookie’s heart stopped. A registered letter! Oh, no. That always meant something legal. Sookie winced as she asked the dreaded question. “Sir, when you use the term, ‘we,’ are you by chance a law firm?”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Poole, but I’m not at liberty to discuss it over the
Oh, God, it must be something serious, if the man can’t even dis- cuss it over the phone. “Listen . . . I’m so sorry. What is your name?”
“Listen, Harold, is it about some editorial she’s written? She watches the news and gets herself all riled up, and she’s always spouting off about something. But believe me, if my mother has made any threats against the government or said anything stupid, I can assure you that she’s a perfectly harmless old lady. Well, harmless as far as not being armed or anything. She’s just not quite right, if you know what I mean. It’s a family trait. You just have to know the Simmonses. They are all a little off. She has a brother and sister that are really off. You have no idea how much trouble the woman has caused. She’s almost eighty-nine years old, and she won’t go to assisted living, and she refuses to let us put in a walk-in tub for her, and I worry to death about her falling and breaking a hip.” She sighed. “I’m sorry to be so upset. It’s just that my poor husband and I have just gone through four wed- dings, and my little birds won’t go around to the front yard. I’m just being overrun by blue jays, and another lawsuit is just not what I need right now. My nerves are all a jangle as it is. Can’t you tell me what it’s about?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I’m not authorized to give out any information over the phone.”
“Oh, please, Harold, don’t drag this out. You don’t know me, but I really could go off the deep end at any moment. It’s the Simmons family curse. It hit Uncle Baby overnight. One day, president of a bank, and the next, off weaving baskets over at Pleasant Hill. And Aunt Lily was perfectly fine and then for no reason, she shot at the paperboy. Thank God, she didn’t hit him or she could be sitting in jail right now, instead of where she is.”
“As I said, Mrs. Poole, you will be receiving the letter in the morn- ing.”
“Oh, Harold, can’t you just open it up and read it to me now? I don’t need to know all the details, just how much she’s being sued for. We just went through our entire retirement account for a down pay- ment for a house for our daughter Le Le and her husband. He’s perfectly nice, but he plays the zither for a living.”
“Oh . . .”
“Yes . . . that’s what we said. But she loves him, so what can you do? Anyhow, we are mortgaged up to the hilt. Can’t you at least tell me how much my mother is being sued for, so I can be prepared? I won’t tell anyone. I promise.”
“I’m so sorry, ma’am, but I don’t have the authority to do that. I was instructed to locate the current mailing address and send it on, that’s all. This is not even my department. I’m just filling in.”
“Oh, I see. Well, couldn’t you just take one quick little peek and tell me if it’s over a hundred thousand dollars?”
Then she heard his muffled voice, obviously whispering behind his hand, “Mrs. Poole, the wife and I just married off our daughter, so I know what you’ve been through. Don’t worry, she’s not getting sued.”
“No? Oh, thank God! Oh, bless you, Harold. I don’t know why,
but with Mother, I always assume it’s going to be bad news, but then again, it could be good news, right?”
Harold didn’t say anything, so Sookie’s mood suddenly bright- ened. “Hey, wait a minute. Did she win a contest or something? Are you from Publishers Clearning House? Should I have her over here at the house in the morning, dressed and made up or anything? I need to know, because she’ll want to have her hair done. Will there be photographs? Or news people?”
“Oh . . . well . . . can you give me just a little hint of what to ex- pect?”
There was a long silence on the other end, then Harold said, “Mrs. Poole, all I can say is . . . you are not who you think you are,” and then he abruptly hung up.
Sookie sat there with his last words ringing in her ear, and now there was someone banging away on her back door. As Sookie stood up, her ankle throbbed even worse than before, but she hobbled down the hall and opened the door, and there stood Netta in her robe, who looked at her strangely. “Honey, are you alright? I saw you running around the yard like you were in some kind of distress. “I tried to call you, but your line was busy. You left one of your shoes out in the yard.” Sookie took shoe and said, “Oh, thank you, Netta.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Netta. I was just trying something new with feeding the birds, and this man just called about some registered letter for Lenore and I think I’ve sprained my ankle. Come on in.”
“No, I can’t, I’m still in my robe. I better get back home, but call me if you need me.”
A few seconds after Netta left, Sookie went and looked out in the front yard to check on her birds and, to her dismay, saw that her entire yard was now a veritable sea of blue. It looked like she was running a blue jay reserve. She’d been so distracted by the phone call that she didn’t know if the little birds had gotten anything to eat at all. Oh, drat. She would just have to try again tomorrow.
Sookie hobbled back into the kitchen and put some ice cubes in a hand towel and wrapped it around her ankle. As she sat there with Peek-a-Boo in her lap, she thought more about the phone call and what the man had said. “You are not who you think you are.” Then it suddenly dawned on her. That man had probably been calling from the Jehovah’s Witnesses or some other religious group. They were always leaving pamphlets at her door asking, “Do you know who you are?” or “Do you know who your father is?” Oh, Lord. Now she felt like a fool. What a complete idiot she had been, telling him all that personal stuff about the family.
But on the other hand, knowing her mother, he could be calling from ancestor.com or some other geneology-tracing company. She’d also seen ads for them that said, “Who are you?” or “Who do you think you are?”
The more she thought about it, she thought that it must be Lenore trying to trace the Simmons family line again. “I just know we’re re- lated to the royal family in some way. I just feel it in my bones,” she said. For as long as Sookie could remember, she had been tracing and retracing, but so far, no connection. Now even Dee Dee was obsessed with it and had the Simmons family crest hanging over the mantle in her condo.
As the morning wore on, Sookie tried to relax and just forget about the call, but she was sill feeling a little uneasy. It was the word “registered” that bothered her. She hated to call Earle at work but she dialed the number anyway, and his receptionist answered. “Dr. Poole’s office, may I help you?”
“Hi, Sherry, it’s me. Could you get him to pick up? I need to ask him a quick question.”
“Sure, hold on. I’ll buzz him. How’s your mother?”
“Fine, thank you.”
“Well, good. Hold on.”
A few seconds later, Earle picked up. “Hi, are you okay?” “I’m fine. I just need to ask you something.”
“Honey, I’m right in the middle of a root canal.”
“Okay, I’ll make it fast. A man from Texas just called and said he was sending Lenore a registered letter tomorrow. Should I be worried? He said he wasn’t a lawyer.”
“Well, then, no.”
“What do you think it’s about?”
“Oh, I don’t know. It’s probably just some come-on, trying to sell something or get her to join something.”
“Then I shouldn’t worry?”
“No, just forget about it.”
“But it’s registered.”
“Well, honey. Just don’t sign for it.”
“Isn’t that against the law?”
“No. Just tell Pete you don’t want it. That’s all. Sweetie pie, I’ve really got to go. I’ll see you at home, okay?”
“Earle, maybe . . . I just won’t go to the door.” “Fine.”
“But won’t he leave a note and try and redeliver it?”
“Honey, do whatever you want. Don’t go to the door or just sign for it and throw it away. It’s probably just junk. Okay?”
“Then I shouldn’t worry?”
“And I don’t have to accept it.”
“No. Forget about it. I gotta go. Love you.”
Sookie hung up and smiled. Earle always knew how to make her feel better. Even her ankle felt better.
June 8, 2005
Sookie woke up and planned her day. She decided that this morning she would try a slight variation on yesterday’s bird plan and put sunflower seeds into every other feeder. She hoped the little birds would figure it out and eat a little while the blue jays were still at the sunflower seeds. Then after she fed the birds, she was going downtown to the travel agency and check out trips and cruises. A second honeymoon. What fun! Her brother, Buck, and his wife were always going on cruises, so yesterday afternoon she had called Bunny in North Carolina and asked her advice. Bunny said that Prague was “the new Paris,” but Sookie hadn’t seen the old Paris, yet. She hadn’t really been anywhere, except to college and to the store and back, so anywhere Earle wanted to go would be fine with her.
At 8:10, Sookie had filled all the feeders and was out in the back- yard in the pink tennis shoes, hiding behind a tree with her binocu- lars, when suddenly someone walked up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder. She nearly jumped five feet in the air. It was Pete, the mailman. “Oh, my God, Pete,” she said. “You nearly scared me to death!”
Pete, a tall skinny man in gray shorts, said, “I’m sorry. I knocked on the front door, but you didn’t answer.” He then reached in his bag and said, “I have a certified letter for you, but first I have to ask you, ‘Are you Mrs. Earle Pool, Jr.?’ ”
Sookie sighed. Pete had only been her mailman for the past thirty years. “No, Pete, I’m the queen of Romania. Of course, it’s me. You know who I am.”
Pete took his job very seriously. “Oh, I know who you are, but it’s an official letter, and I have to ask. Do you have Power of Attorney to sign for Mrs. Krackenberry?”
“Yes. What I want to know,” Sookie said, “is why you are here so early? Don’t you usually start your deliveries on the other side of the pier?”
“Yes, but I thought the letter might be important, so I came here first. I just need for you to sign right here on this line.”
“Oh, Pete, I’m sorry you came all this way, but I don’t want to sign for it.”
He was completely taken aback. “But . . . it’s a registered letter.”
“I know, but Earle said I didn’t have to sign for it, if I don’t want to.”
“Oh . . . well . . . huh . . . I’ve never had this happen before . . . so I guess I’ll just write out a first attempt slip and try again tomorrow, then.”
“But I won’t want it tomorrow, either.”
“Well, officially, I’m required to make three attempts to deliver it.”
“Pete, I don’t want it. I don’t even know who it’s from.”
“Huh . . . well, that’s up to you. But it does seem a shame --- somebody sure went to a lot of trouble and expense to make sure you got it. And it could be important . . . . it looks like it’s some kind of medical records.”
“Pete! I really don’t want to know. Right now, I’m busy trying to plan a vacation. Did you know that Earle and I have not been anywhere alone since 1970? And what makes you think it’s medical records?”
“It’s from the Texas Board of Health, so I just figured it had some- thing to do with health information.”
“Texas Board of Health? How weird. What could they want?”
“I don’t know,” he said, looking at the large envelope. “Did some- one ever get sick in Texas or hospitalized for anything there?”
“No. I was born in Texas . . . but . . .”
“Well, there you go. Maybe it’s an outstanding hospital bill or something.”
“Oh, I can’t imagine it could be a bill at this late date. You knew
Daddy. He always paid his bills.”
“Yeah, that’s true. Maybe it’s a refund.”
“Fifty-nine years later? I don’t think so.”
“Well, if you’re sure you don’t want it, I’ll just leave you the attempted delivery slip on the door and go on then.”
“Okay, thank you, Pete. Sorry.”
As soon as Pete walked away, Sookie looked out in the backyard. Once again, it was full of blue jays. Not one little bird to be seen. Her plan was clearly a failure --- not only a failure, but she might have made things worse. She wouldn’t blame the little birds if they all just packed up and never came back. And it was so sad, because they were her favorites, and they didn’t even know it.
Later, as she sat in the tub, she tried her best to forget about the letter, but it was still on her mind. It wouldn’t have been so hard if Pete hadn’t waved it around in her face and hadn’t blurted out who it was from. It was so irritating. All she had wanted to do today was relax and not have to think about any more problems. She knew the letter had something to do with her mother, but what? She couldn’t imagine. Had Lenore been sick or hospitalized when she was living in Texas? She had never said anything. Was there something her mother didn’t want her to know? Everyone always said how young and beautiful she looked for her age. Maybe she had had a major face-lift in Texas. Or she could have hit somebody and put them in the hospital. Lenore was a terrible driver, and she had run into almost everybody in Point Clear at one time or another. Or maybe she had had some sort of mental break, like Aunt Lily, and been committed at some point. Could Lenore have been in a mental hospital? Oh, dear.
By the time Sookie had dressed and put on her makeup, her imag- ination had completely run away with her. The next thing she knew, she was downtown at the post office with the pink slip and had picked up the letter and was on the way home with it. She never did make it to the bookstore or the travel agency. She stared at the envelope it on the seat next to her all the way home. Sure enough, it had Texas Board of Health written across it, and stamped in big black bold letters across the front was personal and confidential material enclosed.
At 5:15 that afternoon, Earle walked in the house. “Hi, sweetheart. I’m home.”
“Hi, honey,” she said, not giving him a chance to sit down. “Earle, I know you think I’m silly, but I’ve been waiting for you to come home all day. Would you sit with me while I open this letter?”
“The registered letter.”
“Oh. I thought you weren’t going to sign for it.”
“Well . . . I tried not to . . . but anyhow . . . I wanted you to be here.”
He smiled at her. “Okay, sweetie. Let me fix a drink, and I’ll be right there.”
Sookie sat down on the sofa in the sunroom and waited until he came back in and sat down across from her. “Okay, open her up, and let’s see what we got.”
Sookie took a deep breath and opened it and read the cover letter.
Attention: Mrs. Lenore Simmons Krackenberry c/o Mrs. Earle Poole, Jr.
526 Bay Street
Point Clear, AL 36564
Our office has received the following, and as requested, we are forwarding to your present address.
The envelope attached was postmarked Matamoros, Mexico and handwritten in an almost uneven and childlike scrawl. Sookie read the letter inside, which was in the same handwriting.
May 20, 2005
Dear Mrs. Krackenberry,
Hello. I am the daughter of Conchita Alvarez, who worked for you in Brownsville, Texas during the war. I am sorry to say my mother passed away last spring at the age of eighty-five. When we were going through her things, we found these papers she was keeping for you. They look important. They look like you might need them. I do not know where you live. I am mailing them back to where they came from so they can send them to you. My mother liked you very much. She said you were so pretty.
Mrs. Veronica Gonzales
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” said Sookie.
“A lady in Texas that used to work for mother died and her daugh- ter found some of Lenore’s old papers and is sending them back. Well, that’s very sweet of her.”
“What kind of papers?”
“I don’t know, yet. Let me see.” Sookie picked up another piece of paper.
The next thing Sookie knew, she was lying on the floor, and Earle was standing over her, fanning her with a newspaper.
“It’s okay, honey, you just fainted. Just relax and breathe. Don’t talk.”
Lying on the floor beside her was what she had just read.
October 8, 1952
Dear Mrs. Krackenberry,
Due to the military’s recent lifting of certain restrictions in the Children’s Medical Privacy Act, and in reply to your request of January 6, 1949, we are now at liberty to release photocopies of your daughter’s original birth certificate, including all birth mother medical records in our possession, up to the date of her adoption from the Texas Children’s Home. We hope this information will assist you and your daughter’s health care professionals in determining her risk of any hereditary conditions. Please contact this office if you have any further questions.
Director of Public Health Services
Please find enclosed the following: Birth certificate
A few minutes later, Earle had helped Sookie to the couch, and she was lying there with a cold rag on her head, trying to comprehend what she had just read. All she remembered were the words “her adoption.”
Earle came back with a brown paper bag for her to breathe into, and a glass of brandy. “Here, honey, drink a little of this.” He looked very concerned and kept patting her hand.
“Did you read it?” she asked.
He nodded. “Yes, honey, I read it. What a hell of a thing to spring on somebody.”
“But what does it mean?”
He picked up the letter and read it again. “Well, sweetie . . . I’m afraid it means just what it says. Evidently, you were adopted from the . . . here are the papers . . . the Texas Children’s Home . . . on July 31, 1945.”
“But Earle, that can’t be true. It has to be a mistake.”
Earle looked at the papers again and shook his head. “No, honey . . . I don’t think so. It looks pretty official, and they have all the right information.”
“But it has to be a mistake. I can’t be adopted. I’ve got the Simmons foot and Daddy’s nose.”
“Well . . . maybe not.”
“Why? What else does it say? I don’t understand.”
“Honey . . . just keep breathing, and let me look at this again.” He sat there reading the papers while Sookie continued breathing into the brown paper bag, but she didn’t like the look on his face.
“Well?” she asked, between breaths.
He looked at her. “Are you sure you’re up for this? This is a lot of information to get in one day.”
“Yes . . . of course, I’m sure.”
“I’m not going to read anymore, unless you promise me you won’t get too upset and faint again.”
“Well . . . your medical records look good. You were a very healthy baby.”
Earle picked up the birth certificate. “According to this, it says that your mother’s name was Fritzi Willinka . . . and I think the last name is . . . it looks like Juraaablalinskie. Or something like that.”
He spelled it out.
“Good Lord! What kind of a name is that?”
“Uh . . . let’s see. Oh, nationality of mother . . . Polish.”
“Polish? I don’t even know anyone Polish.”
“Hold on . . . it says . . . birthplace of mother . . . Pulaski, Wis- consin . . . November 9, 1918. Religion of mother: Catholic.”
“Catholic? Oh, my God. What does it say about the father?”
Earle looked again and then said quietly, “Uh . . . it says here, fa- ther unknown.”
“Unknown? How can it be unknown? What does that mean?”
“I’m not sure. It could mean a lot of things. Maybe she didn’t want
to say or . . . I don’t know.”
Then Sookie said, “Oh, my God, Earle . . . I’m illegitimate. I’m an illegitimate Catholic Polish person!”
“Now, honey . . . calm down. We don’t know that. We can’t jump to any conclusions.”
“Well, Earle, if you were married to someone, he certainly wouldn’t be unknown, would he? Did she even give me a name?”
“Wait a minute. Yes, here it is. Your birth name is . . . Ginger
Jaberwisnske or however you pronounce it . . . and you were born at 12:08 p.m., October fourteenth, 1944, weight . . . eight pounds, seven ounces.”
Sookie slowly sat straight up and said, “Earle, that’s not right.”
“Well, honey, that’s what it says. October fourteenth, 1944. Look . . . there it is in black and white.”
Sookie looked stricken. “Earle, do you know what that means? Oh, my God, I’m sixty years old! Oh, my God --- I’m older than you are! Oh, my God!”
“Okay, honey, now just calm down . . . that’s no big thing.”
“No big thing! No big thing? You go to bed thinking you are a fifty-nine-year-old woman, and the next day, find out you’re sixty!” Sookie felt the blood slowly begin to drain from her face. Earle caught her just before she fell off the couch and hit the floor again.
A few minutes later, after she had come to again and had a little more brandy, Sookie, who almost never cursed in her life, looked at Earle and said, “And who in bloody hell are the Jerkalawinskies?!”
The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion