I paid almost no attention at all to the last conversation I had with my stepsister-in-law, Poppy Queensland. Though I liked Poppy - more or less - my main feeling when she called was one of irritation. I was only five years older than Poppy, but she made me feel like a Victorian grandmother, and when she told me she was going to foul up our plans, I felt very... miffed. Doesn't that sound grumpy?
"Listen," said Poppy. As always, she sounded imperative and excited. Poppy always made her own life sound more important and exciting than anyone else's (mine, for example). "I'm going to be late this morning, so you two just go on. I'll meet you there. Save me a place."
Later, I figured that Poppy called me about 10:30, because I was almost ready to leave my house to get her, and then Melinda. Poppy and Melinda were the wives of my stepbrothers. Since I'd acquired my new family well into my adulthood, we didn't have any shared history, and it was taking us a long time to get comfortable. I generally just introduced Poppy and Melinda as my sisters-in-law, to avoid this complicated explanation. In our small Georgia town, Lawrenceton, most often no explanation was required. Lawrenceton is gradually being swallowed by the Atlanta metroplex, but here we still generally know all our family histories.
With the portable phone clasped to my ear, I peered into my bathroom mirror to see if I'd gotten my cheeks evenly pink. But I was too busy thinking that this change of plans was inexplicable and exasperating. "Everything okay?" I asked, wondering if maybe little Chase was sick, or Poppy's hot-water heater had exploded. Surely only something pretty serious would keep Poppy from this meeting of the Uppity Women, because Poppy was supposed to be inducted into the club this morning. That was a big event in the life of a Lawrenceton woman. Poppy, though not a native, had lived in Lawrenceton since she was a teen, and she surely understood the honor being done her.
Even my mother had never been asked to be an Uppity Woman, though my grandmother had been a member. My mother had always been deemed too focused on her business. (At least that was how my mother explained it.) I was trying awful hard not to be even a little bit smug. It wasn't often I did anything that made my successful and authoritative mother look at me admiringly.
I think my mother had worked so hard to establish herself - in a business dominated by men - that she didn't really see the use in lobbying to join an organization made up mostly of homemaking women. Those were the conditions that had existed when she plunged into the workforce to make a living for her tiny family - me. Things had changed now. But you were tapped to join Uppity Women before you were forty-five, or you didn't join.
What did it take to be an Uppity Woman? The qualifications weren't exactly spelled out. It was more like they were generally understood. You had to have demonstrated strong-mindedness, and a high degree of resilience. You had to be intelligent, or at least shrewd. You had to be willing to speak out, though that was not an absolute requirement. You couldn't have any big attitude about what you were: Jewish, or black, or Presbyterian. You didn't have to have money, but you had to be willing to make an effort to dress appropriately for the meetings. (You would think an organization that encouraged independent women would be really flexible about clothing, but such was not the case.)
You didn't have to be absolutely Nice. The southern standard of niceness was this: You'd never been convicted of anything, you didn't look at other's women's husbands too openly. You wrote your thank-you notes and were polite to your elders. You had to take a keen interest in your children's upbringing. And you made sure your family was fed adequately. There were sideways and byways in this "nice" thing, but those were the general have-tos. Poppy was teetering on the edge of not being "nice" enough for the club, and since there had been an Uppity Woman in the forties who'd been just barely acquitted of murdering her husband, that was really saying something.
I shuddered. It was time to think of the positive.
At least we didn't have to wear hats, as Uppity Women had in the fifties. I would have drawn the line at wearing a hat. Nothing makes me look sillier, whether I wear my hair down (because it's long and really curly and wavy) or whether I wear it up (which makes my head look huge). I was glad that the Episcopal church no longer required women to wear hats or veils to Sunday service. I would have had to look like an idiot every week.
I'd been mentally digressing, and I'd missed what Poppy said. "What? What was that?" I asked.
But Poppy said, "It's not important. We're all fine; I just have to take care of something before I get there. See you later."
"See you," I said cheerfully. "What are you wearing to the meeting?" Melinda had asked me to check, because Poppy had a proclivity toward flamboyance in her clothing taste. But I could hardly make Poppy change outfits, as I'd pointed out to Melinda. So I'm not sure why I stretched the conversation out a little more. Maybe I felt guilty for having tuned her out, however briefly; maybe it would have made a difference if I'd listened carefully.
"Oh, I guess I'll wear that olive green dress with the matching sweater? And my brown heels. I swear, I think whoever invented panty hose was in league with the devil. I won't let John David in the room when I'm putting them on. You look like an idiot when you're wiggling around, trying to get them to stretch enough."
"I agree. Well, we'll see you at the meeting." She wasn't even dressed yet, I noted.
"Okay, you and Melinda hold up the family banner till I get there."
That felt strange, but almost good, having a family banner to hold up, even though my inclusion was artificial. My long-divorced mother, Aida Brattle Teagarden, had married widower John Queensland four years ago. Now Melinda and Poppy were her daughters-in-law, married to John's two sons, Avery and John David. I liked all of the Queenslands, though they certainly were a diverse group.
Probably John's oldest son, Avery, was my least favorite. But Melinda, Avery's wife and mother of their two little Queens-lands, was becoming a true friend. At first, I had tended to prefer Poppy, of my two new step in-laws. She was entertaining, bright, and had an original and lively mind. But Melinda, much more prosaic and occasionally given to dim moments, had improved on acquaintance, while Poppy and the way she lived her life had begun to give me pause. Melinda had matured and focused, and she'd broken through her shyness to express her opinions. She was no longer so intimidated by my mother, either. Poppy, who didn't seem to be scared of anything, took chances, big chances. Unpleasant chances.
So, while I enjoyed Poppy's company - she could have made the Devil laugh - I held part of myself away from her, afraid of the intimacy that would make her loss even more painful. Frankly, I figured she and John David would divorce within the next year or so.
What actually happened was much worse.
Melinda sat next to me at the table nearest the door. We'd kept a chair open for Poppy the whole meeting, but she'd never shown up. The room was full of Uppity Women, and they'd all turned to look at us when Poppy's name had been called and we'd had to say she wasn't there. The other Uppities saw a very short woman in her mid-thirties with a ridiculous amount of brown hair and a wonderful pair of green-rimmed glasses, and a taller, very slim, black-haired woman of the same age, who had a narrow and agreeable face. (I was the shorter of the two.) I am sure all the Uppities who could see that far noticed that we had matching expressions, compounded of social smiles and grim eyes. I, personally, planned to rake Poppy over the hottest coals I could find. The president of Uppity Women, Teresa Stanton, was giving us a basilisk glare.
"Then we'll continue the meeting with our book discussion," Teresa said, her voice clipped and businesslike. Teresa, aggressively well groomed, had that chin-length haircut that swings forward when you bend your head, as she did now to check the agenda. Her hair always did what it was told, in sharp contrast to mine. I was sure Teresa's hair was scared not to mind.
Melinda and I sat through the book discussion in mortified silence, but we tried to look interested and as though we were thinking deep thoughts. I don't know what Melinda's policy was, but mine was to keep silent so I wouldn't draw any more attention. I looked around the room, at the circular tables filled with well-dressed, intelligent women, and I decided that if none of them had ever been disappointed by a relative, they were a lucky bunch. After all, a woman hadn't shown up for a big-deal, high-pressure social engagement. Surely that was not such a rarity.
I muttered as much to Melinda, between the book discussion and lunch, and she widened her dark eyes at me. "You're right," she said instantly, sounding relieved. "We'll go by and see her after this is over, though. She can't do this to us again."
See? Even Melinda was taking it personally, and she's much more well balanced than I.
We scooted out of the dining room as quickly as we politely could after Teresa had dismissed the meeting. But we were waylaid by Mrs. Cole Stewart, who inquired in her deep southern voice where Poppy was. We could only shake our heads in ignorance and mutter a lame excuse. Mrs. Cole Stewart was seventy-five, white-haired, and all of a hundred pounds, and she was absolutely terrifying. From her affronted stare, we clearly received the message that we were being charged with guilt by association.
When we got to my Volvo, Melinda said, "We're going over there and have a few words with her."
I didn't say no. In fact, I'd never considered any other course of action. "Oh, yeah," I said grimly. I was so focused on having a few choice words with Poppy that I couldn't enjoy the clear, chilly November day, and November is one of my favorites. If we passed anyone we should have waved at, we never noticed it.
"It isn't as if she does a lot of work around the house," Melinda said suddenly, apropos of nothing. But I nodded, understanding the extended thought. Poppy didn't work outside the home anymore, she had one baby, and she didn't even take very good care of the house, though she did take good care of the baby. She should have been able to manage what was on her plate, as my mother would have put it.
As I'd half-expected, when we got to Poppy's and saw that her car was still parked in the carport, Melinda quailed. "You go in there, Roe," she said. "I'm liable to get so mad, I might mention a whole lot of other things besides the topic at hand."
We exchanged a meaningful glance, the kind that encompassed a whole conversation.
I swung my legs out of the car. I noticed something on the ground by my feet, two long straps of embroidered cloth.
"Oh crap," I said, glad only Melinda was there to hear me. I tossed them into the car for Melinda to look at, and I marched to the front door. I was mentally loaded for bear. "Poppy!" I called as I turned the doorknob of the front door of the house. The door opened. Unlocked. Since by now I knew Poppy had already had company that morning, I was not so startled by this.
I stepped into the foyer and called again. But the house was quiet. Moosie, Poppy's cat, came to see what was happening. Moosie was a pale sylph compared to my huge feline basketball, Madeleine. The cat meowed in an agitated way and ran from hall to kitchen and back again. I'd never seen Moosie act so jittery. He was Poppy's pampered pet, a declawed half Siamese she'd adopted from the animal shelter. Moosie was not allowed out the front door, only out the sliding glass back door, which led into a backyard enclosed all the way around with a six-foot-high privacy fence. After Moosie stropped my ankles a couple of times, I registered the fact that the sensation was sticky. I looked down and saw that my hose were stained.
"Moosie, what have you been into?" I asked. Several unpleasant possibilities crossed my mind. The cat began cleaning himself vigorously, licking at the dark patch on his side. He didn't seem hurt or anything, just, well, catty. "Where's Poppy?" I asked. "Where's your momma?" I know that's disgusting, but when you're alone with animals, you get that way.
Poppy and John David actually had a human child, Chase, as well as the cat, but they'd had the cat longer.
"Hey, Poppy!" I yelled up the stairs. Maybe she'd gotten in the shower after her visitor left. But why would she? Even for Poppy, missing such an important engagement was very unusual. And if she'd been up to her usual shenanigans ... I had to press my lips together to hold in my anger.
I stomped up the stairs, yelling Poppy's name the whole time. She'd missed Uppity Women, and she'd missed lunch, and, by golly, I wanted to know why.
The master bedroom looked as though she'd just stepped out. The bed was made and her bathrobe was tossed across the foot of the bed. Poppy's bedroom slippers, the slide-in kind, were in a little heap on the floor. Her brush was tossed down on her dressing table, clogged with red-gold hair.
"Poppy?" I said, less certainly this time. The bathroom door was wide open, and I could see the shower enclosure. The wall was dry. It had been quite awhile since Poppy had showered. I could see my reflection in the huge mirror that topped the two sinks, and I looked scared. My glasses were sliding down my nose, which is a very insignificant feature of my face. I'd worn the green-rimmed ones today to offset my bronze-colored jacket and tobacco brown sheath, and I took a little moment to reflect that autumn colors were really my best.
Well, I could think about myself any old time, but right now I needed to be searching. I went back down the stairs faster than I'd gone up. Melinda, waiting out in my Volvo, would be wondering what had happened to me. I, however, was wondering why the central heating was roaring away on this cool but moderate day, and why I was feeling a draft of chilly air despite the heating system's best attempts.