“I don’t want to do this anymore.”
“What, eat lunch?” Stan took another bite of his chicken salad sandwich. It was supposedly “organic” and was tasteless. He looked at the label on the wrapper: “Safflower mayonnaise”. No wonder. Chicken salad was no good without real mayonnaise.
“No, practice law. I’m worn out with it – in fact I hate it,” Catherine said. She was having yogurt with blueberries on the bottom. “If I didn’t owe all this money on student loans I would quit right now.”
“Why? What inspired all this…venom? You seemed okay when you walked in this morning.”
“It’s Mrs. Winkler. She’s making my life miserable.” Catherine scooped the last bit out of the container and threw it in the trash can under her desk.
“That scrawny old woman? What’s she done now?”
Catherine picked up her notepad and looked at it. “She wants me to go to this place in the boonies tomorrow and meet with somebody at this old house she owns. Says she can’t do it herself. Duh. She can’t go to Publix herself much less…” Catherine looked down at her notes. “Hood’s Bluff.”
“Well, she pays you, so what’s the problem? Where is it?”
“About two hours northwest of here. I looked at it on Google Earth. Middle of nowhere.”
“Doesn’t sound too awful to me. I prefer that to standing around the courthouse all day. Wish I could go with you, get out of the office.” Stan stood up and stretched. “What are you supposed to do when you get there?”
She cut her eyes at him. “It’s so ghoulish, you won’t believe it. Mrs. Winkler’s old cousin that died and left her the house, well, her body went missing from the morgue.”
“You’re kidding! How in the world…”
“I know. Must be a problem with hospital personnel or something. The sheriff down there called and told her. So I’ve got to go up there and, one, speak to the Episcopal priest about doing a small service for her – even though there’s no ‘her’ there – and, two, go out to the house and photograph it, inside and out.” Catherine sighed mightily. “I think I’ll go buy a flask and take some bourbon with me.”
“Well, I tell you what. You just go on down to Fairhope when you get through and spend some time sitting on the beach. We can live without you around here for a few days.”
Catherine slumped in her desk chair. “You’re right. I need to get away. That hog farm case nearly killed me. The smell alone!” She held her nose and made a face. “Glad we saved those folks from having to live next to that!”
“Yeah, that was a lulu. Didn’t tell me about that in law school. Well, back to the daily grind. So, seeing you when you get back?”
“Yes – and thanks for the beach idea. I’ll take you up on it.”
Catherine Scott was bad about talking to herself in the car. As often as not she harangued herself about poor choices, like going to law school. Dumb choice. She should have been someone famous for doing something good for mankind, a neurosurgeon perhaps, or a ….what…a missionary like Mother Teresa. Something worthwhile. As it was, she had made all A’s all the way through college and had not missed a party or a football game. It had been too easy. And all those insipid fraternity boys she had dated – waste of time. Major. She should have set her goals higher instead of being the only female able to outdrink Ted Allison, the notorious drunkard of University Avenue. Harangue, harangue. “Right, beat yourself up, Catherine,” she said out loud.
It only took about ten minutes to get to Mrs. Winkler’s house from the office, since the historical residential district was contiguous to the business district, both old and crumbly. Mrs. Winkler’s house was Steamboat Gothic and as pristine as the day it was built. Amazing what that old lady was able to do from the confines of her wheel chair and her canopy bed. As always, the door was answered by the maid Ethel, a pleasant long-suffering black woman who appeared to be as old as Mrs. Winkler but was still mobile.
“Hey, honey,” she said, holding the door wide for Catherine. With her other hand she carried a huge tabby cat. “She sitting up there in her chair, waiting for you. She not in a particularly good mood…” Ethel smiled in a conspiratorial way.
“I understand,” said Catherine. “I’ll be all sweetie, honey, baby.” She reached out to pet the cat – Beau – but the cat jerked its head back in disdain.
“You didn’t bring him no food so he not studyin’ you,” Ethel said. “I’ll be in the kitchen if you want me.”
The broad staircase in Mrs. Winkler’s house is exactly like the staircase Rhett Butler carried Scarlet up in the movie, red carpet and all. Imagine being carried up stairs like that, then having sex with Rhett Butler – but the Rhett in the book, not Clark Gable. Catherine loved the book but pictured Rhett as younger and better looking. But she digressed. She needed to think how she was going to speak to Mrs. Winkler, what tone of voice, what pacific words.
“I hear you coming!” Mrs. Winkler said. “Don’t creep!” She had maneuvered her electric chair to the doorway and was sitting there scowling.
“I wasn’t creeping, Mrs. Winkler. I was enjoying the softness of your carpet.” Catherine held out her hand to shake, but Mrs. Winkler had already done a one-eighty and was heading into her bedroom. She stationed herself behind her roll-top desk and motioned Catherine to a chair next to her. Catherine sat. She smiled sweetly at the old woman and reminded herself not to call her “Mrs. Wrinkler” as she thought of her to herself.
“I need prompt action,” Mrs. Winkler said. “No shilly-shallying. You need to get that priest to pray for Clara’s soul and then go chastise somebody at the hospital about losing her body and go tell the sheriff not to pussy-foot around, to find it!” She hit her little fist on her desk. “Then,” she picked up a map and handed it to Catherine, “Go out here where I’ve marked and look at the house and I want pictures of everything. I haven’t been there since…I don’t remember…it may be falling in for all I know. Hampton Hood, my cousin, left it to me because we were blood relatives – his wife only owned it for her lifetime, then it passed to me. Not that I want it! What can I do with it? I guess we need to have it assessed…It’s probably like this place – a big white elephant that drinks up all the water.”
Catherine thought this was a very strange metaphor but let it go by. She took the map and put it in her briefcase. “Yes, ma’am,” she said. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Here’s the name of the lawyer the Hoods used – Ernest Lawson. He’s in Fort Baldwin, the county seat – there’s not actually a Hood’s Bluff town, though it’s on the map. Last time I saw it, there was just a filling station and a Baptist Church with this pathetic homemade steeple and some old houses and farms. Mr. Lawton’s office is near the courthouse – won’t be hard to find.
“You know, it just burns me up,” Mrs. Winkler continued. “I don’t even want that place. He’s been dead for years. Hampton Hood. He was a doctor there in Hood’s Bluff. What am I going to do with it? Nobody wants to buy it and the historical people would sue me if I tried to tear it down. Be sure and go in every room and look at everything. I guess you have a digital camera?”
“Yes ma’am.” She held up her iPhone. “I’ll bring pictures of everything. You just relax.” Just like I’ll be relaxing at the beach for a whole week when I get through.
Mrs. Winkler leaned back in her chair. “I never knew what to make of my cousin Hampton,” she said. “He was a real eccentric.” She tapped the side of her head. “Went to Europe to study medicine and married a German woman and brought her back to live in the rural south.” She laughed in her non-laugh way. “She was nuttier than him. Or maybe driven nutty living out there in the country. I never liked either one of them,” she said, matter of fact. “They never had any children, thank the Lord. Last time I saw them was in 1982. Someone died, can’t remember who. Hampton and Clara came to the funeral. The late Mr. Winkler always called her ‘that German woman’…..She had the worst teeth….” Mrs. Winkler looked off into the distance, picturing the bad teeth, then shook her head, erasing it.