Two Shades of Morning

Two Shades of Morning

Janice Daugharty

July 2013 $12.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-321-4

Sibyl is either dying--or just dying to cause trouble.

 
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"Janice Daugharty is a natural-born writer.” — Pat Conroy

Sibyl is either dying—or just dying to cause trouble.

Sympathy for a man-hunting siren? Sibyl says she's dying. But this sexy new neighbor in a small Georgia town, circa 1960, may be lying. After all, her main goal seems to be milking her story in order to keep her husband, Robert, under her thumb while also enchanting his best friend, P.W.

For plain-Jane Earlene, P.W.'s wife, Sibyl's suspicious motives include a bewildering mix of syrupy kindness and sly cruelty. Earlene's attempts to point out Sibyl's behavior to others in town sound petty toward a dying woman. Who is Sibyl, really? Her lavish spending hints at a hidden source for money, since Robert isn't rich. How is it possible to be both repelled and hypnotized by her? There are secrets waiting to be exposed.

Janice Daugharty's 1997 novel, EARL IN THE YELLOW SHIRT (HarperCollins), was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She is the author of ten acclaimed novels, five other novels in ebook-only format, and two short story collections—GOING THROUGH THE CHANGE and more recently GOING TO JACKSON. All of her work can now be enjoyed in ebook editions. She serves as writer-in-residence at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Georgia. For more on Janice visit her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/janice.daugharty.


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Excerpt

Chapter 1

NOBODY EVER believed much about Sibyl Sharpe, least of all that she would die, and yet death is the first thing I heard about her. "Little Robert Dale Sharpe's marrying a gal from Orlando they say ain't got long to live. Some kind of rare blood cancer.” That was the talk at the post office, and from that day on, I was hooked on the mystery of her death—so young and alive and dying.

"Why would a strapping young man get mixed up with somebody about to die?” they said.

I expected an invalid, simpering and wan, an ephemeral wraith who would languish on the sick cot in the old farmhouse next door, while Miss Lettie, Robert Dale's spinster sister, did her best to see to the poor thing's needs. But, as it turned out, Miss Lettie got one whiff of her fancy sister-in-law's perfume and took off to live in Tallahassee so she could be close to her mama in the nursing home. They said. And before her scored tracks could be swept by the spring rains, they were bulldozed to Bony Branch with the house. Not a nail remained on the raped plot and only a scattering of choice oaks. Even the pecan orchard, which had kept Miss Lettie in pocket change, smoldered in the century-old rubble that took a good three weeks to burn out.

From the window of my and P.W.'s mobile home, I got my first look at Sibyl. She was standing on the yard-turned-lot with a silk turquoise scarf billowing from her neck. She wore a white leather jacket and brown ski pants—ski pants were trickling into fashion in Little Town in sixty-four, though we rarely saw snow in North Florida. Seeing her so lithe and confident in those pants made me self-conscious of my plump thighs and my childish zeal over the one snow I'd witnessed in my nineteen years. Snow wouldn't faze her.

Sibyl Sharpe had class if she had a dime!

I wasn't jealous, then; that came later. Then, I just watched her out of curiosity. I could tell right off that she was a few years older than Robert Dale—a flaw! Not that I was looking for flaws at the time, but I discovered them, and I was glad. Maybe, at first, I was a little miffed at what I considered the absent razing of a seasoned house and grove, an accumulation of emotional relics. I'd always been close to Miss Lettie and her mama, and it seemed that those two old porch-sitters had been bulldozed to Bony Branch along with their precious jars of blackberry jam.

After parading about the lot, Sibyl got into Robert Dale's pieced-together pickup and juddered up the sandy road, and I went back to watching Phil Donahue.

One morning down and two hundred to go, give or take a day, watching Sibyl.

The next morning, she came again, this time tooling along the road in a sporty red Cadillac convertible. I hung my last towel on the clothesline, watching her from beneath my arm. I could feel the eyes of my elderly neighbors watching too. As far as I knew, none of them had ever seen a new convertible in Little Town either.

Sibyl parked in the shade on the ramp between lots and slid out with a white note pad. Alternately writing and glancing about her lot, she leaned against the car then hoisted herself onto the hood with an air of having been born accustomed to fine things. Her back was to us—it always was, even later when she faced us.

Her lot was first on our dirt road, branching off the main highway leading into Little Town, right at the city limits sign. Though Little Town was no city: we had one grocery store, a public school, a courthouse, a post office, a new service station, three churches and a street light set to blink on red at the main intersection. Little Town, the county seat of Monroe County, one of many hamlets scratched out of flatwoods on the Georgia/Florida line, growing then, but not grown, or so it seemed in that decade of promised growth. As time passed, I learned that the town had been grown then but I had not.

Over the next few months, I watched what Sibyl had sketched materialize. Brought up to detest extravagance, I was relieved to see a shell-home construction crew lay the foundation for a three-bedroom house. How much can you lavish on such a basic house? Well, when the sides rose above the average roofline, I decided Sibyl's house was MODERN HOMES' number-three model, top of the line. And although the house was beyond my and P.W.'s means, it still seemed within reason. I'd heard that Robert Dale had made a decent profit on his tobacco crop the year before, the market looked good for the coming season, and credit was cheap. But soon it was clear that Sibyl had set her sights on a two-story house—model number-three modified—the only upstairs house in Monroe County where space was plentiful and people were scarce.

So, the house grew between the old oaks, imposing and new, but still a featureless shell, incongruous in its surrounds of renovated mill houses and our mobile home, backdropped by woods and fields. Come spring, the smell of paint covered the wisteria festooning the oaks, and Sibyl and Robert Dale moved in. Almost every day for two weeks, big trucks from companies we'd seen advertised on TV brought rounds of furnishings: appliances, furniture, pictures, lamps and rugs. And sometimes the trucks would haul off saggy padded chairs and heavy dressers and chests, which Robert Dale and Mae, one of his Negro field hands, had lugged in only the week before.

According to Mae, Sibyl couldn't lift anything because of her condition. "She look fine to me,” Mae added, suspicious but proud to be rescued from the fields to work as a maid and privy to tidbits of gossip with which to tempt us.

Aunt Birdie—not my real aunt—at the farthest reach of the road, across from Mama and Daddy, was first in the neighborhood to pay our fancy neighbor a visit.

On that warm and windy March afternoon, she came hobbling up the dirt road with a jar of mayhaw jelly and stopped by to get me. She'd pressed the collar of her blue-print housedress, and I could tell she hoped to look merely presentable, without making a statement, which she doubtless would end up stating anyway. She was as curious about Sibyl as anybody else and acted mad at the world because she'd let her mind seduce her body into something so trifling. "I got things to do waiting on me at the house,” she said.

I slipped on a wrap-around skirt and caught up with her, already limping along the road toward the stark white house. Pain from her bunions showed on her face, and the bunions showed through snips in her canvas shoes, which she called tennises.

"A little housewarming present,” she said, justifying the jar of mayhaw jelly clutched to her bosom. Working her freckled lips, she spewed snuff juice to a hedge of greening dog fennels.

"I guess I oughta get them something.” The wind filled my skirt, exposing my plump knees. If I didn't hold it closed, she'd try to sew a snap on the opening.

"Next thing you know,” she said, "Little Robert Dale and his old lady'll be in abathing in the backyard.” She laughed, her seething brown eyes settling on me. "How in the world you reckon Little Robert Dale's gone come up with the cash money for all them fancy doings?”

"He did all right on his tobacco last year, Aunt Birdie.”

"Looks to me like he better go to doing better than awright.”

I wouldn't have argued with her old-fashioned notions about money even if I'd disagreed. Nobody argued with Aunt Birdie. "Lil ole gal was probably pore as a church mouse, coming up.” She ducked to spit. "Got holt of a little money and went to putting on airs.”

"Aunt Birdie, that ain't no way to talk about somebody dying of cancer.”

"You think you're not dying? Or me? Your mama and daddy?” With her meeting freckles and faded red hair, she looked smithed of rusty iron.

Heading across the shady yard, we saw one of Robert Dale's Negro field hands setting out roses on the east side of Sibyl's house. In the center of the rose bed was an oval pool, swirling with gold fish, and a charcoal cat poised on the lip of concrete.

"Punk!” called Aunt Birdie. "That you setting out tea roses?”

"Yassum, sho is now.” Punk stood and wiped his sharp face on his shirt sleeve.

"How come you ain't out yonder setting out tobaccer?”

"Mr. Robert Dale say he want me to do Miss Sibyl's yards from here on.” He shook potting soil from a plastic bag to the bed.

"Well, I be dogged!” Aunt Birdie said. "I bet that's the first time anybody round here ever bought dirt.”

"Yassum, sho is now.” Puck grabbed a chunk of concrete and hurled it at the cat. It spirited away in the paisley shadows of the oaks.

"That your housecat, Punk?” asked Aunt Birdie.

"Huh! Ain't none of mine,” he snorted. "Belong to Miss Sibyl.”

"Don't she know them lil ole shiners won't last till the sun goes down with that cat?”

"Yassum, I done and told her. Say she get some more.”

Stout and self-satisfied, Aunt Birdie wrung the neck of the jelly jar with her rough hands, gazing off at the house while the leached red bun on her neck released tendrils to the wind.

"Let's go on in, Aunt Birdie,” I said.

We sidestepped a sprinkler whirling switches of water to a nearby plot thriving with fuchsia azaleas. The air smelled of rich loamy soil. My own wild yard, in which I'd wrangled with Bermuda grass for a path, now seemed what it was—a fenced-off corner of cow pasture. P.W. had bragged that I wasn't about to let a "lil ole bunch of Bermuda grass” whip me. But next to Sibyl's progress, my efforts seemed trivial; my one year of hacking at the network of roots wouldn't have amounted to a week's work for Punk and the bulldozer. Sprigged centipede snaked around Sibyl's oaks. Before, my yard had been pretty enough, even with P.W.'s junk-car lot in my back yard. Classics, he called them. "Just give 'em a few years and they'll be worth a fortune.” His prize find was a cream-colored forty-eight Ford convertible he'd bought from Emmet Moore in Little Town. Already, bullous vines were creeping over the fenders and choking the rubberless wheel rims.

For the first time in my life, I felt ridiculous. Again, not jealous, not then, and not as curious as confused. Robert Dale and P.W. both farmed, growing what they could on land handed down from generation to generation, as well as rented tobacco acreage. Until that summer, they had shared equipment and tobacco crops, which meant hard work, hasty gathering and curing at its peak. Not much chance of getting rich in farming, except relatively.

Any boy worth his grits worked back then, from the time he got old enough to see over the steering wheel of a tractor. Before that, he was sent to the fields with a hoe. Education was secondary; a boy didn't need a diploma to plow the south forty or to lug a bucket of gum from the turpentine woods. Dropping out of school, on the other hand, wasn't the thing to do either. It was good if he could handle both, better still if he could add a few basketball trophies to the case at the school house.

Nothing was required of a girl, except that she be cute and virtuous and learn to cook. All in preparation for marriage; nursing or teaching were alternatives if she didn't find her mate by high school graduation day.

From the very first, P.W. and Robert Dale had clicked, and all through high school, you seldom saw one without the other. If they competed, it was never to impress. A new shotgun or rifle was the extent of their squandering, and they shared those guns, shared their trucks, tools, labor, even me. It's easier to remember when I started with P.W. than with Robert Dale. With Robert Dale there was no start, just a continuous drifting current from birth. Aunt Birdie and Mama would wander up the road to the curve to visit with Miss Lettie and Miss Avie Nell, Robert Dale's mama, and I'd play with him. There was no beginning, as there usually isn't with families who live in the same place all their lives—they inherit one another.

"You mark my word, them two'll wind up married one day,” Miss Lettie would say on the front porch while watching me and Robert Dale dig for treasures in the foot-tracked dirt yard.

"Could be,” Aunt Birdie would say back; and Mama, planted in one of the rockers, would change the subject because marriage implied sex.

I was always half-listening; he never seemed to listen at all. At home, I'd overheard Mama telling Aunt Birdie that Robert Dale was slow because he'd been born while Miss Avie Nell was going through the change. And the word "change,” in that context, struck me as ironically static: Miss Avie Nell, delicate and pensive, barely moved her lips when she spoke, her cultured voice throwing no farther than the edge of the high-floored porch.

I had also heard Aunt Birdie call Big Robert Dale "a rounder,” but I knew what that meant from the way she whispered behind her hand. He seemed younger than Miss Avie Nell, not only because he looked younger: he was tough and tall and there was something profoundly romantic about his swagger and reputation. His dark eyes were inset and hardened by straight black brows that grew from the jut of his deep forehead. His hair was black too, and Miss Avie Nell's was feathery gray, done up in a bun on her neck. She was smooth and birdlike, elegantly smoking in a wooden slat chaise lounge. (The other women were never without a pan of peas to shell or sewing in their laps, but she reclined like an old queen.) The odd pair didn't fit, seemed mad with one another, and from what was said, I got the impression that whatever had happened to unpair them had happened after Little Robert Dale—junior—was born.

Big Robert Dale, a successful farmer and turpentine man, was jaded on whiskey, women and work, Miss Avie Nell resigned. Over the years I must have pondered a million times how it all connected, how Little Robert Dale came out of that stale union. A softer version of his deceased daddy, Robert Dale resembled him enough to have earned the name. He never said a word, never did a thing to make me think he was deprived, but I always thought of him as unwanted in that weird family, handed-down child to the virgin Lettie.

And then there was P.W., who came along the summer I turned eight. We met at the Twin Lakes 4-H Camp, twenty miles from home that felt like two-hundred. I was homesick and weary of wet swimsuits on concrete cottage floors, of bunk sleeping, of run-on parties and staying up, of gorging on potato chips from the mess hall venders, and the strict routine of daily craft classes—how to repair electrical cords on lamps and floor fans.

Mary Lou, my latest best friend, told me that P.W. Watson—that little sandy-headed boy—wanted to go with me, had sent her straight away to tell. Then, smothering giggles, she handed me a note from Robert Dale, in which he said basically the same thing. I didn't know Robert Dale and I weren't going together. We always went together everywhere; Daddy had even driven the two of us to camp, instead of sending us with the county agent.

But P.W. was cuter—clear blonde hair sheared high above molded ears, his scalp, silvery, shining through. He wore different colors of the same striped shirts, knit shrinking from the waist of his khaki shorts. He sweated even while he swam, moisture beads popping on his thorny scalp; he could dog-paddle without ever ducking his head. At nightly socials, in the open pavilion on the lake, all the girls tried to dance with him, but grinning with his teeth too big for his chubby pink face, he would stick close to me. I would stagger dances between him and Robert Dale and sit between them on the sandy shore during vespers while the sun set over the wind-shirred water—I swear I loved them both!—and there was no tug between us. But by Friday of the second week, I didn't want to ride home with Mama and Daddy and Aunt Birdie, who had driven over to pick me and Robert Dale up. I pitched a fit and rode back with the county agent to be near P.W. So did Robert Dale.

"Scat!” Punk shouted, and the cat streaked toward the house. Aunt Birdie and I were on the front porch, brushing our feet on a raised-daisy mat.

"That white'll shore show up dirt,” she said, fingering the clapboards by the door. "Just wait till the wind goes to flirting up that plowed dirt out yonder.” She rapped on the door.

I straightened my skirt; at least it was clean. "She's got her radio running and can't hear.” Aunt Birdie knocked again. Then she hollered to Punk, "Ain't she home?”

"Yassum,” he said. "She don't answer though, less you rings the doorbell.”

I pressed the lighted tab on the door frame and chimes traveled inside like a handheld music box.

The door opened almost immediately and there stood Sibyl. Taller, up close, and darker, with hazelnut eyes and golden hair (not falsely brash, but tinted) and a shaped-clay face that loomed like the moon. Smooth, thick skin, the kind that looks permanently tanned. Coral lipstick, her only makeup, whitened her scalloped teeth. But it was her eyes, those smirky hazel eyes, that zapped you. And while she zapped us, I searched her for signs of sickness and doubted the rumors about her dying. She looked too healthy, too sure. Sure, maybe, that I was giving her the once-over, and standing there as if she knew she was unique and was used to being scrutinized and her tolerance for scrutiny was one more quality that made her unique.

"Well?” she drawled and laughed. And if she hadn't laughed, I might have tried to like her.

"I brung you a little jelly,” said Aunt Birdie, "put up last year.” She still held the jelly as she stepped onto the plush white carpet.

I brushed my feet again and followed.

"I'm Sibyl.” She cocked her head; her hair was swooped into a beehive with topaz pins along the tuck. She was dressed up—too dressed up not to have been waiting for some of the locals to stop by and gawk.

"Birdie Hall.” Aunt Birdie laughed crustily, then added: "Miss Sibyl, huh?” A dead give-away of disapproval was Aunt Birdie calling somebody Miss or Mister in that strong tone.

"You must be P.W.'s little wife.” Sibyl said to me.

"Earlene,” I said, feeling the scour of those hot eyes for the first time. First times, last times stayed with me, but I was never too sensitive about Sibyl, her actions and reactions. I looked about the narrow living room, stunned by the glare of twin chandeliers shimmering on glass. White walls, white floors, white upholstery and mirrors in varied shapes, duplicating the starkness of the room. But still the whole of it seemed rich, and Aunt Birdie and I were poor and plain, the stuff of stale old houses and cheap mobile homes. The luster of new, blending with the fragrance of roses and Sibyl's sophistication, set me apart like an ottoman set to trip over in the middle of a room. I felt shorter than the little girl I thought I'd left at home when I'd married P.W. the year before.

Aunt Birdie's earthiness balanced the scales for me that day; she would have given Jackie Kennedy pause. She simply checked out the chairs and the angular doodads and paintings—one with ruches of red like blood on black ink scratching—looking up and about with unabashed awe, and exclaimed honestly over what she knew to be a squandering of unaccounted-for money. But she didn't say that. What she said was, "Little Robert Dale must of struck oil down yonder at Bony Branch.”

Sibyl laughed, tipping her head back. "Y'all make a place and sit down.”

We sat on the curved white sofa that took up half the room.

Sibyl flashed her thick white teeth at us. I thought of them as expensive, like the leggy ballerina figurine poised next to Aunt Birdie's red mayhaw jelly on the glass coffee table.

I was no longer the prettiest girl in Little Town.

Sibyl lit on a velvet chair like a harlequin butterfly and crossed her legs with a gold shoe peeping from the hem of her silky black jumpsuit. Her foot twitched steadily while she talked. At times her voice grew coarse, but she checked it and continued in her lilting drawl, which I supposed represented the cream of middle Florida: all "R” sounds dropped from words, remaining consonants purled and vowels brayed.

That afternoon, following tea sipped from bird-bone thin demitasse cups, Sibyl took us on a tour of the house. Aunt Birdie lagged on the stairs and stared down at the polished living room, while Sibyl and I waited on the top landing.

"I been after Robert Dale to have y'all over,” she said. "He told me about you-all being so close.”

"We grew up together,” I said. "He and P.W. are old buddies from way back. Used to work together.”

She smiled and said, "Oh yeah!” as though she had suddenly made some important and shocking connection. I didn't know whether to laugh or leave. "Robert Dale told me all about you,” she added.

As Aunt Birdie hobbled alongside, Sibyl took her natural lead. Aunt Birdie glanced at me, giving only that, a glance, as if to say the cause of my puzzlement didn't call for a reprimanding stare. A spendthrift hypocrite; don't credit her with more. And off she trudged in Sibyl's footprints, fagged and bored with the final phase of the tour.

I tagged behind while Sibyl exhibited more rooms of white. They were furnished like the living room: lead crystal and harsh contemporary paintings, much like a furniture showroom.

She perceived my dwindling interest right away; I could see it as our eyes mirrored impressions. I smiled too late to cover it. "Y'all live in that little trailer on the other side of me, right?” she said.

"The blue one.” I caught my mistake.

"Isn't it the only one on this road?”

I laughed. "I guess so.”

Sibyl smiled condescendingly at Aunt Birdie and a chill stole over me. It was as if she knew something you didn't or couldn't know, had some power that rendered you powerless, as if there was only so much and she possessed it all. Never mind the cut-downs; you can't match them. And I never did.

I didn't know until it was too late, and knowing made no difference anyway, but Sibyl's power was not in her ingenuity, nor in her unscrupulousness, but in her ingrained ability to confuse.


Chapter 2

A SLOW DRIZZLE set in the next evening and struck up sounds of quarreling among the frogs at Bony Branch. A continuous treble rising like vapors over the swampy woods behind our mobile home.

P.W. and I had been summoned to dinner at Sibyl's. Dinner was midday for us, and we stood gaping out the kitchen door after Mae had delivered her mistress's message—"Miss Sibyl say be there at seven tonight, and she don't mean eight neither.” Dodging mud holes in my yard, she tramped back toward the tall white house softened by smoky drapes of Spanish moss.

P.W. ducked inside and headed for his recliner, which served as a divider between our living room and kitchen. "You reckon Her-highness thinks we just gone drop what we doing and run right over?” he said.

Earlier, expecting a full afternoon of rain, he had left his tractor in his Daddy's tobacco patch and rushed home to make love, and we'd started too soon, were sated before the drizzle even set in. Now we were both feeling mellow and drained, looking forward to sleeping to the pitter of rain on the metal roof. "I don't know who she thinks she is,” he said, "bossing people around.”

"Who does she think she is?” I laughed and sat on the arm of his chair for him to scratch my back; his hand went up automatically, scratching under my t-shirt as he gazed off. "You haven't met Sibyl yet!” I said. "But we have to go; Robert Dale will be hurt if we don't.”

"Close as me and him's been, you'd think he'd of brung her by before now. Just up and married out of the clear blue! Not a word to nobody but Miss Lettie—saying he was in love, or some such—but even she didn't figure on him jumping the gun that quick.” He dropped his hand from my back. "Way I see it we don't owe him nothing.”

I got up and went to the kitchen for a drink of water. "Let's don't be too hard on him, P.W. He was probably afraid people around Little Town wouldn't know how to take her. She's different.” I didn't know why but suddenly I wanted to go. Maybe I didn't want to cook, maybe I was curious about P.W.'s reaction. His instincts were sharp as an Indian's.

"Well, still looks to me like he'd of broke the news before he brung her home.” His blue eyes looked brighter in his blistered face. "Course, he ain't never mentioned no girl since I took you off his hands.”

I laughed and flicked water at him, then stared out the kitchen window at the woods where dark started.

"I ain't kidding, sugar,” he said, "I do think he was crazy about you.”

"No, he was not!” I hated it when P.W. turned serious. "We were friends, that's all, probably cause y'all were.”

"You sure that's all there was to it?” He lunged and yanked up my shirt tail on my naked butt as I headed for the bedroom to get dressed.

P.W. was really too smug in himself to suspect that I had seriously considered marrying Robert Dale. Probably wouldn't have bothered him anyway. But I kept it to myself, believing that telling might hurt P.W.'s ego, or somehow diminish what I'd had with his best friend. Robert Dale and I had just faded, like a powdery prom corsage pressed in a book with only its colors memorized. And whatever had been among the three of us—call it friendship, call it love—ended when P.W. and I got married.

As for Robert Dale not having brought his new bride over, that didn't seem at all strange to me. Folks in Monroe County had little patience with formalities. If someone was born or died, folks came. They went to weddings and church and baptisms on the Withlacoochee River, to reunions and basketball games, and any other goings-on at the same high school they'd graduated from for half a century. Carting one's bride house to house was unnecessary: Monroe Countians figured they'd meet her soon and often in the course of the long marriage. Golden wedding anniversaries were big in our little town.

I DRESSED UP that night. My best pink a-line knit and black pumps. My fake pearls, I took off then put them on again. Pleased with how I looked and Sibyl bedamned. Glad that my hair curved smoothly from a side part. Usually, in wet weather, it frizzed. We walked up the road in the dark rain, latched to one another with P.W.'s jacket over our heads. Matching strides and cozy in the peal of frogs, we shared breath with his head bent to mine. I was shorter by half a foot, but we fit like lovers chiseled into the same stone. His hand kept riding to my breast from our crisscross of arms. I shrugged it away, giggling in the hypnotic beat of rain on his jacket, and we kissed without once breaking stride.

"Let's don't go,” he whispered.

"We've got to.” I squeezed him, his stocky body fleshy-warm.

"Ain't no law says so.” He lifted me so that my feet cleared a puddle.

"P.W., don't!” I squealed. "We're almost at the door.”

"We can turn around right now if I say so.”

We might have too. P.W. was like that; he never did what he was supposed to and I never cared. I would have followed him home, just as I followed him duck hunting and to see his mama and daddy, even though I hated going. He went to church with me on Sundays and I knew he liked to sleep late.

ROBERT DALE opened the door and Sibyl's easy-listening music ghosted around his lanky body. He looked odd against that backdrop of white and glass, like a deer tipping in a whatnot shop. He smiled, his lips patchy-pale, and I thought about him smiling like that at our Beta Club convention in Atlanta. Not really putting on, but stiff because the occasion called for formal. Was he nervous about whether Sibyl would like us? I hated to think of him that uptight all the time. He hugged me, pumped P.W.'s hand, all of us saying what we always said—just tripe—but guarded, definitely guarded tripe. Naturally, he'd be worried about us accepting Sibyl—who could blame him? She was as different as hot from cold, as day from night—I could come up with a thousand opposites.

"What you been up to?” Robert Dale said to P.W.

P.W. beamed, his blue eyes stretched, and I could tell he was just as impressed and confused about the house as I'd been yesterday. Then they became strangers, trying out grown-men talk. The scent of roses came first into the room then the augering timbre of Sibyl's voice. I'd always thought of rose perfumes as cheap but powerful, quickly growing stale, and decided to test the fact on her.

"I thought I heard y'all come in.” She clipped on a great gold earring and tossed her head, her neck-length gold hair separating in strands of unset waves, as if she'd shampooed and let it dry naturally. Another mark against her.

"You've met my wife, haven't you, Earlene?” Robert Dale turned to the stereo console and started reading the cover of a record album. You had to know him as P.W. and I did to know he needed a break from that wearing-down smile and that shopping-mall music.

"We met yesterday,” I said.

"Well, don't you look precious!” said Sibyl and tugged my left sleeve. Then she smiled at P.W., dismissing me. "Isn't anybody going to introduce me?” she said, and laughter glimmered in the room where rain was only wetness on our clothes.

"Oh, I'm sorry,” I said. "This is my husband, P.W.” And while she stepped up her act, I checked her again for signs of cancer: her eyes were a bit drowsy, but her snappy mannerisms concealed any weakness.

"Did you offer everybody a drink?” she asked Robert Dale.

"Not yet,” he mumbled, still with his back to us.

"You'll just have to overlook Robert Dale's bad manners,” she said.

"Anybody want one?” Robert Dale turned, grinning slyly—same grin as when we were children smoking behind his house.

Next to the console stereo was a blonde credenza with several bottles of liquor displayed. No wonder Robert Dale was so miserable! Men in our neck of the woods drank—lots of them drank a lot—but they didn't keep it in the house, and they never offered it to their women.

"Believe I'll take a Bud,” P.W. said, sly too, daring me with a guilty grin. I shook my head at P.W.; his neck looked shrunk. Mama would have died if she'd known either had asked me.

"I'll have white wine,” Sibyl said, unfazed as she would be in snow.

Baptist or not, I wished I drank.

DURING SUPPER, little things kept popping up to tick Sibyl off with Robert Dale. With each new episode—say, him slouching in his chair, or setting his water glass down too hard (Sibyl didn't serve iced tea like everybody else)—I would think that now, having corrected him, she might get on with being civil. But halfway through the meal, I decided they must have been arguing before we came and wished we'd waited a while longer before butting in.

Always pale, Robert Dale's face turned blotchy-red, a marbled effect. Sometimes he would snap back at Sibyl, or gesture proudly—yes, proudly!—for us to ignore the little woman. So strange: he kept smiling and acting amused with her, amused with himself for having her. And yet he was weary, slightly haggard, no good at the game. I felt myself wearing down with him. My shoulders ached. But, to my surprise, P.W. was having a good time. He was charming and silly-witty, maybe because he figured the evening was almost gone. If we didn't leave soon he would fizzle like a recording when the power goes off.

When he didn't fizzle, I felt like slapping that silly grin off his face. But I was relieved too because his silliness got us through one hour of winding spaghetti on forks, coddled with spoons, at Sibyl's insistence that it was the Italian way to eat "pasta.” Robert Dale's new blue shirt looked like worms had tracked it with blood. Before dessert, she ushered him off to change into another new shirt—the creases, evidence that it was new, besides he told us.

"You shouldn't tell stuff like that,” she whispered aside in honeyed bleeps. "People'll think you're bragging.”

"I ain't bragging,” he laughed, "just telling the truth. I've never had two new shirts at the same time.”

I'd had enough of him too. "What kind of cake is this?” I asked Sibyl.

"Italian cream,” she said.

"It's real good.”

"Thank you. I made it myself; Mae would've ruined it if I'd let her bake it.”

The cake was absolutely the tallest I'd ever seen without toppling. Ten layers at least, a white column with chopped pecans sprinkled on cream cheese icing. I wondered how she'd got the nuts to stick on the sides.

"You got to get this recipe, sugar,” P.W. said, bent over his plate for another fork full.

"Okay,” I said.

"I don't give out my recipes.” Sibyl posed with her fork in midair.

P.W. wasn't undone. "I don't blame you. This one's too good to just give out; you could make a bundle selling it.”

"I wouldn't sell it either,” she said. "I just make it for special occasions.”

She kept eating, candle light reflecting off her square bisque face. The collar tips of her white shirt looked like tiny dove wings on her neck.

Cake-incident still fresh as the icing in my mouth, I watched her switch from smiling to near smirking, as she'd done on the stair landing yesterday. She leaned close to Robert Dale and whispered in his ear. His eyes cut from her to me, on the other side of the table. "Remember what you told me... you know?” she hissed. "Can I bring it up now?” He smiled while she whispered, listening with merry dark eyes, first shrugging then shaking his head no.

"Oh, well,” she said, sitting back again. Her tawny fingers shimmed on the table, as though in a secret pact with her two selves.

The term "changing subjects” took on new meaning for me—I'd never seen anyone so thoroughly change subjects, never been in a situation so changeable. I'd thought I was immune after yesterday.

Sibyl acted as if she'd just come into the room and sat down. "Have you found your Easter dress yet?” To me—she was talking to me now.

"I haven't even looked,” I said.

"Well, you better get busy. Easter's two weeks away.

"I'm thinking about not getting a new Easter dress this year.” I wished I hadn't said it before the words had tripped from my lips. I always bought a new Easter dress; everybody in Little Town did. Now, I knew I couldn't buy one. I felt robbed.

"Well, I saw this sweet little lavender cotton at Sears the other day,” she said, watching me as if I might run off with her cake. "I don't know if you could wear that color, but it'd be real slenderizing on you.”

If she hadn't been dying, I would have slapped her. I had honestly thought that dying people were always on their best behavior, seldom sinned.

"Well, I be derned!” said P.W., swabbing at the white tablecloth with his sauce-streaked napkin. "I went and got spaghetti on your good tablecloth.”

Was he trying to lure her away from me and Robert Dale, mama-quail style, by turning her on himself?

"My grandmother's tablecloth,” said Sibyl, blowing at her high wan forehead. "No problem, Mr. Bronson can probably get it out.”

I could tell that P.W. wasn't studying our dilemma, just as I could tell that neither of them had any idea who Mr. Bronson was. They might have if the drycleaners had been located in the deerwoods, instead of Tallahassee. I knew only because I picked up names quick and made connections. Also, unlike them, I was onto her game, to-the-manor-born, and all that crap. I was relieved to know when I could avoid her. I could stand her for a night as long as I felt it would end.

Then I got curious: how far would Sibyl go with her act? She had to be looking pretty bad to Robert Dale and P.W. by now. As Mama would have said, To be so obvious is to be so crass. I would make her more obvious. I smiled and asked her for a toothpick—"Got a pecan hull between my teeth.”

"I don't buy toothpicks,” she said, "but I have dental floss in the upstairs' bathroom.” She said it with such lack of dressing me down that it was hard to grasp. P.W. never did grasp it. Maybe he was high on beer.

"Here,” he said, reaching into his shirt pocket, "I got one on me you can borry.” Was he picking at her too?

I took the toothpick and propped my elbows on the table, picking crassly.

She ignored me. My scalp prickled. I could sense the cogs of her mind turning over new strategies. What did I care? I wouldn't be bothered with her again. Mama would have said I was rude, but Aunt Birdie would have said Sibyl deserved it for whispering in company. What had they been whispering about?

"I'm gonna help out with the dishes,” P.W. said, up and scurrying around the table, stacking her gold-rimmed china like paper plates at a barbecue.

"Oh, you don't need to do that,” she said, rushing behind him. "That's what I've got Mae for.”

"No siree!” he said. "I wouldn't feel right after you working so hard over supper.”

She tried to steady the stack of quavering plates. "You really aren't supposed to,” she said, as if that mattered to P.W. Watkins who had always chewed gum in church, and who had never washed a dish in his life.

"I'll just rinse 'em off then,” he said, whisking around the Oriental screen that separated kitchen from dining.

She trailed. "But I've got a dishwasher.”

"Y'all got a pretty house here, Robert Dale,” I said, really sorry for him because he looked so out-of-place in his own place.

"Thank you, ma'am,” he said—how he always spoke to a lady.

Both he and P.W. were gentlemen, by rural standards. Rednecks, true, but redneck gentlemen. And both observed the line drawn between male and female roles: the men brought it home and we cooked it. Simple and primitive, but it worked in Monroe County. The rest of the world would have been appalled at our simplicity. But what did we know of them, or they of us? What we knew of the world would be what Sibyl taught us—she came to represent that other world then, in an odd way. Television was fantasy, Sibyl was real. The threat of the draft hovered like a flock of buzzards, otherwise what was happening in Viet Nam was irrelevant. Sibyl was the closest we would come to change.

Slushing along the muddy road home that night, P.W. said that Sibyl was just curious, meaning peculiar in redneck lingo. "Well,” I said, "I feel sorry for Robert Dale.”

"She don't mean nothing by how she acts.”

I knew he thought I was jealous by the way he held back what he really thought—what he had to think. "I'm not jealous,” I said, "if that's what you're thinking.

"I didn't say you were.” He laughed and pulled me closer under the tent of his jacket. "She ain't none of our business no how.”

"Good! Then we don't have to see her anymore.”

"Won't Robert Dale be hurt?”

"He knows how I feel.”

"Did you tell him?”

"No,” I said, "he just knows.”

"That's up to you.” He squeezed my waist. "You're still the prettiest girl in Monroe County.”

"I don't care about that.” I snatched away. "Didn't you even notice how she did about the dress?”

"Dress! What dress?”

"My Easter dress.” Again, I wished I hadn't said anything; maybe I could have bought one after all. I hiked off ahead in the misting rain.

"Don't go getting mad at me cause you're mad at her,” he yelled. "I don't know what's got into you, but I don't give a flip about neither one of them.”

When we fought during the day, he'd stalk off; at night, he'd walk through fire to keep me from sleeping on the couch.

 

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