Page 46

Lou Ann went on endlessly about Mama. "I can just see your mama... What's her name, anyway?"

"Alice," I said. "Alice Jean Stamper Greer. The last thing she needs is an Elleston on top of all that."

"... I can just see Alice and Harland running for the sugar shack. If she's anything like you, she goes after what she wants. I guess now she'll be getting all the paint and body jobs she needs."

"He's only half owner, with Ernest Jakes," I said. "It's not like the whole shop belongs to him."

"Alice and Harland sittin' in a tree," she sang, "K-I-S-S-I-N-G!"

I plugged my ears and sang, "I'm going back someday! Come what may! To Blue Bayou!" Turtle whacked the dirt and sang a recipe for succotash.

I spotted Mrs. Parsons and Edna Poppy coming down the gravel path with their arms linked. From a great distance you could have taken them for some wacked-out geriatric couple marching down the aisle in someone's sick idea of a garden wedding. We waved our arms at them, and Turtle looked up and waved at us.

"No, we're waving at them," I said, and pointed. She turned and folded and unfolded her hand in the right direction.

Now and again these days, not just in emergencies, we were leaving the kids with Edna and Virgie Mae on their front porch to be looked after. Edna was so sweet we just hoped she would cancel out Virgie's sour, like the honey and vinegar in my famous Chinese recipe. It was awfully convenient, anyway, and Turtle seemed to like them okay. She called them Poppy and Parsnip. She knew the names of more vegetables than many a greengrocer, I'd bet. Her favorite book was a Burpee's catalogue from Mattie's, which was now required reading every night before she would go to bed. The plot got old, in my opinion, but she was crazy about all the characters.

"Ma Poppy," Turtle said when they were a little closer. She called every woman Ma something. Lou Ann was Ma Wooahn, which Lou Ann said sounded like something you'd eat with chopsticks, and I was just Ma. We never told her these names, she just came to them on her own.

The two women were still moving toward us at an unbelievably slow pace. I thought of a game we used to play in school at the end of recess: See who can get there last. Edna had on a red knit top, red plaid Bermuda shorts, and red ladies' sneakers with rope soles. Virgie had on a tutti-frutti hat and a black dress printed all over with what looked like pills. I wondered if there was an actual place where you could buy dresses like that, or if after hanging in your closet for fifty years, regular ones would somehow just transform.

"Good afternoon, Lou Ann, Taylor, children," Mrs. Parsons said, nodding to each one of us. She was so formal it made you want to say something obscene. I thought of Lou Ann's compulsions in church.

"Howdy do," Lou Ann said, and waved at a bench. "Have a sit." But Mrs. Parsons said no thank you, that they were just out for their constitutional.

"I see you're wearing my favorite color today, Edna," I said. This was a joke. I'd never seen her in anything else. When she said red was her color, she meant it in a way most people don't.

"Oh, yes, always." She laughed. "Do you know, I started to dress in red when I was sixteen. I decided that if I was to be a Poppy, then a Poppy I would be."

Edna said the most surprising things. She didn't exactly look at you when she spoke, but instead stared above you as though there might be something wonderful hanging just over your head.

"Well, we've heard all about that before, haven't we?" said Mrs. Parsons, clamping Edna's elbow in a knucklebone vice-grip. "We'll be going along. If I stand still too long my knees are inclined to give out." They started to move away, but then Mrs. Parsons stopped, made a little nod, and turned around. "Lou Ann, someone was looking for you this morning. Your husband, or whatever he may be."

"You mean Angel?" She jumped so hard she bumped the stroller and woke up Dwayne Ray, who started howling.

"I wouldn't know," Virgie said, in such a way that she might as well have said, "How many husbands do you have?"

"When, this morning while I was at the laundromat?"

"I have no idea where you were, my dear, only that he was here."

"What did he say?"

"He said he would come back later."

Lou Ann bounced the baby until he stopped crying. "Shit," she said, quite a few minutes later when they'd moved out of earshot. "What do you think that means?"

"Maybe he wanted to deliver a check in person. Maybe he wants to go on a second honeymoon."