FOR BOOK CLUBS
Vicki is happy to talk with book clubs who are discussing one of her books. Send her an email (email@example.com) if you want to pre-arrange a phone call for your meeting time. If you live in the Asheville area and would like her to come to your meeting, she will do so if her schedule allows.
Caution! Contains spoilers! Don't read until you've read the book!
1) After some readers said Phillip was “boring” in the first book, Vicki tried really hard to liven him up and make him loveable. Or at least not so boring. What do you think? Is he worthy of Elizabeth's affection? What sort of fellow do you think would be better for her?
2) Who decides what Art is? How does Phillip's appreciation of art differ from Laurel's? What kind of art do you think Elizabeth has on her walls?
3) Why does Jessica's glass sell better than Jess's? Why do all of Rafiq's sculptures sell so quickly after Boz's death and why does that depress Rafiq?
4) As in Signs, there is a secondary story set in the past. Do you enjoy this excursion into earlier times? Why or why not?
5) Why do you think Lily Gordon made the choices she did – the move to Appalachia, the sudden decision to leave the women's center, the decision to marry? Did you like Lily Gordon? Why or why not?
6) How did you feel about Willow ? Is there more to her than the stereotypical aging hippie Elizabeth sees?
7) Was there a character you really liked or really hated because they reminded you of someone in your life?
8) What are the good things about where Elizabeth lives? What are the drawbacks? (Aside from all the murders, I mean.)
9) What could explain Reba's actions?
10) Will Elizabeth and Phillip finally get together? What does it say about each of them that they haven't yet?
EXTRA CREDIT! The original draft of Art's Blood had a different ending – a different murderer. Vicki's editor didn't like it and suggested a change. When Vicki asked who the murderer should be, the editor said the name of a well-known mystery (book and movie) from the middle of the previous century. With that suggestion, Vicki knew who her murderer should be. High praise for coming up with the one word title of this well-known tale. Really high praise for pointing out two tiny hints in the proper names of two characters in Art's Blood.
From Lily Gordon’s journal - First entry
I still see the bed – its wide white expanse floating like a snowy island on the deep pearly carpet – the creamy tufted silk coverlet neatly folded back – the soft heaped pillows, their pale lace soaked and stiff with her blood. Even the smells come back to me – Chanel No. 22, that sweet, spring-like fragrance she always wore – the scent of the white roses on the nightstand – and something else – a harsh, ugly , insistent smell – cloying and faintly metallic. And after all these years I still see her satin slippers beside the bed, placed neatly parallel to await a morning that never came – and the shadowy marks of her heels on the linings seem almost too much to bear.
On that day and until the day we buried her, he had seemed broken – weeping and bewildered, letting himself display a weakness none would have imagined. Was it genuine sorrow, I wonder now, or only a charade, as subsequent revelations would seem to suggest? And the child – so beautiful, so like her mother that it broke my heart to look at her – the child remained dry-eyed and quiet – already, I see now, beginning the long retreat that has transformed her into what she is today. And these are the scenes, the faces that haunt my nights.
I have noted, as the years go by, that I seem to require less and less sleep. But recently the dreams have been so persistent – I awake each morning haggard and weary, and at the end of the day, the bed is no longer a comfortable refuge but a loathsome penance. I approach it, in the words of Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” “. . . like the quarry slave at night, / Scourged to his dungeon.”
My faithful Reba was aware of these tormented nights almost before I had allowed myself to see the pattern forming. At first she was content to dose me with her chamomile or catnip tea at bedtime but when these had little effect on the dreams, she nagged at me until I agreed to see Dr. P. Not a usual thing for her, as she generally puts her faith in herbal nostrums and her supposed healing powers as seventh daughter of a seventh daughter. Remarkable, to find the old beliefs still so strong in this new century. I’m sure that the imaginations of my Biltmore Forest neighbors would be titillated by the news that Lily Gordon’s housekeeper is a self-proclaimed ‘witchy-woman.’ What a delicate morsel of fresh gossip for their cocktail hour now that the years have leached the juice from the old scandals.
However, after a second week of troubled nights, my witchy-woman admitted defeat. Miss Lily, you ain’t doin no good, she pronounced in her flat mountain voice, stripping the rumpled sheets from my bed with her usual brisk efficiency. Woman your age, you need your sleep. You kin fire me if you want to but I’m calling that doctor of yourn. We’ll see what he says about all this dreamin.
And after a consultation and the usual weary rounds of inconclusive tests, it was at Dr. P’s suggestion that I began this journal. There’s no obvious physical explanation for your disturbed nights, he said, tapping a sheaf of papers on the desk before him. I could write you a prescription that would ensure sleep, even dreamless sleep – but I’d rather you try something else first. The fewer medications, the better, is my opinion. He reached into a drawer, pulled out a slim, blue-covered book, and offered it to me
It’s a notebook, he said, looking a little sheepish as I raised my eyebrows. I want you to record everything that keeps you awake – doubts, fears, even confessions. We all have our sins of omission as well as commission. If something troubles you, write it down. No one will ever read your journal; I want you to do it for yourself alone. Just write everything down and then let it go, he said. Burn the pages as soon as you finish them, if you like. I smiled grimly as I took the little book from him. A woman of my age had best keep the matches near to hand, I told him.
He patted my shoulder in that irritatingly patronizing manner of his and called me a wonder. With all you’ve weathered, he said, it’s not surprising that you have bad dreams. He explained, as if to a child, that dreams are often caused by the mind’s sifting through matters inadequately resolved in the waking hours – experiences, thoughts, emotions too unpleasant to be dealt with and so, repressed. Earlier, P had the effrontery to suggest that I see a psychiatrist, to work through some of these issues, as he called them, but I dismissed that idea as preposterous. And so he proposed the journal.
If only you were a Roman Catholic, he chuckled. There’s much to be said for a routine examination of conscience followed by confession and absolution. Clears the mind, so to speak. Many people blame themselves for trivialities when they’ve lost someone. They think, If only I’d done this or hadn’t done that… He helped me up and walked with me to the door where Buckley was waiting. P is a fool in many ways – there are things I would never speak of, even to a priest. But he could be right in this instance. I believe that putting these memories down on paper, giving them a shape, however ephemeral (for I do intend to burn these pages), will help me to a less troubled sleep.
So now I have my journal to keep me company through the interminable afternoons – the quiet, tedious hours when the tick of the clock in the hall seems to slow and hang suspended like a dust mote in the fading light – the light that dims inexorably, all as if in rehearsal for the long night which creeps closer with every heartbeat, like the fog rolling in across the harbor in my childhood. In these times, as I drowse in my chair, the pen slipping from my fingers, the past is present, the dead still live. And it is at these times that I see F as she was then, my mountain flower, my heart, my soul.
Chapter 1 ~ Don’t Know Much About Art, But …
(Saturday, August 27 and Monday, August 29)
From her vantage point at the top of the steps leading into the gallery, Elizabeth Goodweather regarded the pile of burnt match sticks with an expression that wavered between hilarity and disbelief. The heap of pale wooden slivers, some charred just slightly at one end, others little more than a fragile curl of carbon, sat in the exact middle of the room on a low pedestal covered with a sheet of thick red vinyl. The assemblage was about four feet in diameter and its peak was almost knee high. And growing.
The bare, bone-white walls of the gallery had been covered with a fine grid of narrow scarlet-lacquered shelves bearing red and blue boxes of kitchen matches in uniform stacks. As Elizabeth watched, one after another of the dinner-jacketed and evening-gowned throng of art patrons took boxes from the wall and began striking matches, extinguishing them, and adding them to the accumulation that was the focus of the evening’s event.
Seemingly all of Asheville “society” had turned out to mark the late August opening of the Gordon Annex: a long-awaited and costly addition to the Asheville Museum of Art. It was the munificent gift of a single benefactor – Lily Gordon. This elegant little woman, – “somewhere in her nineties,” whispered a woman to Elizabeth’s left – had cut the crimson ribbon that stretched across the entrance to the annex and had spoken a few brief words in a voice that, though slightly cracked with age, was clear and carrying. Her spare frame was upright, conceding not an inch to age. Now she sat in a comfortable chair with the museum’s director crouched by her side and the chairman of the board leaning down to catch her words.
The old woman wore a simple but beautifully cut evening dress of black satin accented with white – “vintage Chanel,” Elizabeth’s neighbor had informed a friend, and her arthritic fingers were covered with rings that glittered as she reached up to accept a glass of champagne from the chairman of the board. Behind her chair stood a tough looking, gray-haired man in a dark blue suit. His craggy face was expressionless and his eyes scanned the throng without stopping. More a like a secret service agent than an art lover, Elizabeth thought.
Fascinated, she studied the little group, wondering what this very old woman made of the scene unfolding before her apparently amused gaze. “She’s always been the museum’s greatest patron,” someone behind her murmured, “absolutely millions of dollars. Her house is literally crammed with art – Picasso, Kandinsky, Pollock—just to name a few. She and her husband began collecting just after World War II. Of course –“
The voice moved away and Elizabeth smiled, wondering if she looked as out of place as she felt in this rarified crowd.
“You are coming in for the opening of the Gordon Annex at the Art Museum, aren’t you?” Her younger daughter Laurel, on a visit out to the farm a few days earlier, had fixed her with a demanding eye. “It’s this coming Saturday.”
“Ah,” Elizabeth had hedged, “Saturday. . . . Well, I . . .”
“Mum, this is a really important show! And you know the artists – Kyra and Boz and Aidan. They’re just across the hard road which makes them neighbors. So the least you can do…”
As an aspiring artist herself, Laurel was very much a part of the burgeoning art scene in Asheville and had done her best to develop Elizabeth’s appreciation for the latest trends. Last year Laurel’s passion had been outsider art; this year performance art was evidently the next new thing. Though she supported herself with a job tending bar at an upscale restaurant, Laurel devoted most of her free time to constructing vast mixed media ‘pieces’, as Elizabeth had learned to call them. Recently, however, Laurel had begun to speak wistfully about the “ephemeral beauty” of performance art and of the “spiritual purity” of a carefully choreographed presentation that would never be repeated.
Laurel had been relentless. “It’s going to be something really special – the people attending the show will participate in the creation –” She had broken off, seeing Elizabeth’s face, which unmistakably said, Oh, great. “– if they choose to, I mean. And then Kyra and Boz and Aidan will be taking pictures during the piece and next month there’ll be a show at the QuerY to display the photographs. And-” she had continued, with the air of someone producing a trump card, “there’s going to a really awesome twist to the whole thing that I can’t tell you about now but it’s going to generate some incredible publicity for those guys.”
Elizabeth had at last agreed to meet Laurel at the Saturday night opening. Kyra and Boz and Aidan were neighbors and one did for neighbors whenever possible. Even if it means going to some ridiculous performance and dressing up – evening clothes, my god! Elizabeth had fumed, rummaging in her closet for something to wear. At last she found a long black skirt of heavy polished cotton that she had worn to some forgotten event, and a white silk shirt still in its gift box, a Christmas present from her sister two years past. A narrow jewel-toned scarf, discovered crammed in the back of a drawer of socks and underwear, would work as a cummerbund. Suddenly her mood had improved. They’re just kids, after all, and to have a show at the Art Museum is a big deal for Kyra and Boz and Aidan.
KyraandBozandAidan: one tended to think of them that way. Indeed, when they had first moved to the little house across the road from her farm, Elizabeth had assumed they were a ménage a trois. Laurel, however, had explained, with the careful patience of one speaking to the elderly and un-hip, that while at first Kyra and Aidan had been partners, when Boz had come on the scene they had briefly experimented with a three-way relationship; but eventually Kyra and Boz had excluded Aidan from the king-size futon that dominated the larger of the two bedrooms. However, no matter who slept with whom, the three still functioned artistically and domestically as a single entity and seemed to live in relative harmony.
When her old neighbor across the road had died, Elizabeth had been saddened to see the once neatly-kept yard growing up in weeds. It had been welcome news when one of the daughters called to say that the house was rented. “They said they was friends of Laurel and they seemed real nice, though they are awful hippies. They want to fix up the ol’ barn fer a place to do their painting and such.”
And the three young people had settled into the rural mountain community with uncommon ease. Boz and Aidan had been quick to offer help with simple carpentry and plumbing repairs for some of their older neighbors and were said to be “right good hands to work,” while Kyra – whose nose ring and tattoos were the source of much head-shaking and tongue-clicking among the local women – Kyra had won hearts by joining in, friendly and competent, at a quilting bee held at the volunteer fire department.
Elizabeth had taken her new neighbors a round loaf of homemade bread and a basket of fresh herbs when they first moved in was it February? Almost six months back. But chores of the farm had kept her busy and beyond a quick chat on the few occasions she met one or another of the trio at the mailboxes, Elizabeth had seen little of the three.
There had been the occasional encounter in Ransom, the nearby county seat, a somnolent country town which had only recently attained its second stoplight. She’d seen her neighbors most recently in the hardware store where she was purchasing hinges to repair a sagging door. They were clustered around a metal bin, evidently assessing the artistic potential of a mass of nails. Boz, at six five and in his customary red cowboy boots, towered over the other two. His frizzy brown mop of hair, wide crooked nose and acne-pitted face were unattractive, at best, but his deep voice and booming laugh seemed to mark him as the obvious leader of the trio.
Aidan was as handsome as Boz was ugly. Really . . . beautiful, rather than handsome, Elizabeth had thought at the time. Slender, but well-muscled, Aidan stood not quite six feet tall with smooth tanned skin and long pale blond hair that he usually wore in a sleek pony tail. Only his lower left arm and hand marred the perfection, carrying as they did the discolored marks of some long-ago injury and three permanently crooked fingers.
Kyra was tiny, barely reaching Aidan’s shoulder. With her spiky hair dyed a jetty black, the nose ring, and the multiple tattoos, she was an incongruous sight amid the hardware and farm implements – yet in spite of all these distracting affectations, Elizabeth had suddenly realized that Kyra was a very pretty young woman.
Shaking herself out of her reveries, Elizabeth tried to pay attention to the scene unfolding around her. Strike on Box had been billed as “participatory performance art” and had been accorded the honor of being the inaugural “piece” to be presented in the new modern wing. Kyra and Boz and Aidan, billed simply as The 3 – the name they signed to all their joint art works, were moving around the gallery, each armed with a digital camera. Kyra was flitting about the room, chatting easily with onlookers and encouraging their participation. Aidan’s camera was focused on the growing pile of burnt matches and, as Elizabeth watched, Boz, snapping shot after shot, approached the chair where the old woman was sitting. He thrust the lens close to her unsmiling face and said something. An expression of distaste pulled down the old woman’s thin lips but she did not reply. Instead she raised one hand slightly.
Instantly the blue-suited man came forward and motioned Boz to move away. Boz stared down in disbelief at the smaller man and laughed. The smaller man took a step forward and spoke briefly. After a moment’s hesitation Boz shrugged his shoulders and moved on. The other man watched him go and then turned to the old woman whose displeased look had not wavered. She raised a finger and the man bent his head near to her mouth. She spoke a few words then resumed her aloof study of the evening’s entertainment.
Elizabeth looked on, bemused, as the flamboyant Boz moved through the crowd, seemingly unfazed by the recent rebuff. He moved to one wall where a voluptuous blonde, trophy wife, Elizabeth decided, was stretching up to retrieve a box of matches from the topmost grid. Boz crept up behind her, aimed the camera at her stiletto heels then slowly, lasciviously, shot the length of her tightly-gowned body, lingering on the rounded buttocks then, as she turned, zooming in on her abundant cleavage, Her squeal expressed surprised delight and a tanned, silver-haired man who had been wordlessly watching, burst into a raucous guffaw. “He’s immortalized that expensive ass of yours, babe. I always did say you were a work of art.”
Across the gallery a little knot of attendees burst into laughter. From their midst emerged a trim middle-aged man in beautifully tailored evening clothes. His head was completely bald and shone as if waxed. Diamond studs sparkled in his earlobes and a vest, lavishly embroidered in deep metallic blues and greens could be seen beneath his dinner jacket. A man’s voice somewhere to Elizabeth’s right said in a low tone to an unseen companion. “He’s here to protect his little investment. I warned him that he was taking a chance with a loose cannon like Boz but, oh no, the big gallery owner knows best. He swears that the photographs from this performance will fly out the door, once he mounts the show at the QuerY.”
“I’d heard that he likes them rough,” sniffed the other man. “I, personally, don’t care for the acne-pitted look. Now, the other one . . . that blonde boy . . . quite delicious. Just like that gorgeous elf in the Lord of the Rings films.”
The owner of Asheville’s newest gallery had succeeded in gaining Boz’s attention and was trailing after him, speaking urgently as the young artist continued his circuit of the room, seemingly intent on capturing images of all the attendees. After a few minutes, Boz turned the camera on the bald man, aiming first at his shining head then, as he had done with the shapely trophy wife, slowly panning the length of the gallery owner’s body, pausing at his crotch, then crouching down to move around for a rear shot.
The bald man whirled, his face flaming, and melted back into the crowd. Pleased snickers erupted from the pair at Elizabeth’s right and they moved away, trading delighted speculations as to whether or not those particular photographs would show up at the QuerY.
Elizabeth looked around the crowded room for Laurel who seemed to have disappeared. Standing on tiptoe, she tried to catch a glimpse of her daughter’s fiery mop of dreadlocks amid the careful coiffures of the society matrons who were giggling like teenagers as they struck match after match.
But Laurel was nowhere in sight. Elizabeth began edging toward the door that led to the smaller gallery where photographs of rural Appalachia were on display. She had seen them before, but. . . . All this silly carrying-on, she thought, I need to look at something real.
She wove her way between the chattering art patrons, feeling safely invisible in her anonymous black skirt and white shirt. Maybe not exactly invisible, she thought, as a pair of men thrust empty glasses in her direction while continuing to talk about the stock market.
At the door to the smaller gallery, Elizabeth stopped and scanned the crowd once more for sight of her daughter. No sign of Laurel, nor, she suddenly realized, of The 3. She hesitated, wondering if a new phase of the performance was about to begin but the smell and smoke of hundreds of matches were beginning be annoying. Deciding that she would risk missing whatever was next, Elizabeth shouldered her way between two brittle-faced women who were regaling each other in piercing voices with horror stories concerning the outrageous demands of their respective au pairs.
The smaller gallery was blessedly quiet and almost empty. A few patrons were studying the large black and white photographs whose subjects were so like many of Elizabeth’s neighbors. Straight ahead of her was a picture of a sturdy white-haired woman in a house dress leaning down to milk a cow. That looks familiar. She smiled, remembering her late neighbor. Elizabeth moved slowly around the gallery, working her way to her favorite picture – a shaggy workhorse being led down through a snowy barnyard toward a rude gate – when she heard voices.
She paused to read the artist’s statement, which was on an easel by the door. Beyond the door was a small hallway where restrooms and an elevator were located and looking out the door Elizabeth saw The 3 reflected in the glass of a large framed poster hanging beside the elevator. She was about to move away to avoid being caught skipping out on their performance piece when she heard Aidan say, “And you’ll show up before they actually arrest me?” In the reflection she could see him tossing his long straight ash-blond hair back in a strangely girlish gesture. “I sure as fuck don’t want to end up in a cell with some big Bubba type who fancies me for his bitch.”
She could see the mirrored Boz clap Aidan on the shoulder and hear the growl of his deep voice. “Don’t worry, man; I’ll be back in time to save your skinny ass.”
Her curiosity fully in gear, Elizabeth strained to catch what Kyra was saying. The young woman’s voice was pitched low and she sounded distressed, “…tell us where you’ll be … danger…” That was all Elizabeth heard before Boz’s deep rumble cut off Kyra’s murmurings.
“Naw, baby girl, it’s better Aidan don’t know where I’m at. They might want to give him a lie detector test and he’d spill his guts. Now you two get on back in there and we’ll get this show on the road.”
Quickly, Elizabeth moved away from the door and hurried back to the main gallery and the pile of burnt matches. Without the presence of The 3 and their busy cameras, the attendee/participants seemed to have grown a little weary of the game and most were frankly ignoring the unopened match boxes still on the gridded wall. Most of the men seemed to be huddled in knots discussing financial matters or golf and the table at the side where champagne was being poured was doing a lively business. The ancient benefactress and her bodyguard were gone, but no one had presumed to sit in her chair. The director and chairman stood on either side of it, deep in talk, each holding an empty champagne flute.
“What do you think, Mum?” Laurel, her tall, slender frame clad in a long floating garment made of red-orange silk shot with gold threads, materialized suddenly at her mother’s elbow, and waved her glass at the pile of burnt matchsticks on the red circle. “Look at the composition that makes! And the grid on the walls – well, obviously it references Mondrian, but the ongoing depletion speaks so clearly to a postmodern sensibility!” She nodded toward the dark lattice of shelving. It was mostly empty now, but for a few untouched matchboxes, and Elizabeth had to admit that it did have a certain….
“Well,” she ventured, “in the words of the philosopher, I don’t know much about art, but– where did that outfit come from, Laurel? It looks expensive.”
Laurel grinned and struck a pose. “It’s an original – a friend lent it to me. We did a trade; I’m going to model some stuff for-“
She broke off, seeing Kyra and Aidan re-enter the room and begin snapping pictures again. Elizabeth was amused to notice that many of the patrons who had been busy with their champagne and gossip were suddenly moved to resume the lighting and extinguishing of matches. Just as one particularly expensive-looking woman was elaborately placing her scorched match at the very apex of the pile, there was a loud hissing sound.
The crowd of art patrons parted, revealing Boz, carrying a hefty fire extinguisher in one hand. His other hand held its hose and he grinned with manic delight as he aimed the dripping nozzle at first one woman and then another. Each brief hiss was accompanied by a little jet of white foam.
The crowd shrank back – but not too far -- eager to see what the next act of this performance piece might hold. Boz advanced steadily on the pile of burnt matches and the blonde woman in the blue-green dress who seemed frozen there, her hand extended over the twisted and blackened slivers of wood.
The gallery patrons stared in delighted anticipation as Boz, brandishing the hose, came nearer and nearer to the stricken woman. She uttered a tiny sound – fear? excitement? -- but stood stock still, as if hypnotized. Boz, his face set in a demonic rictus, raised the fire extinguisher as if in salute, then slowly lowered it and covered the cowering woman and the pile of burnt matches with white foam.
There was stunned silence and then Boz spoke. “Aidan, you pathetic shit, it’s over.” He dropped the fire extinguisher and walked calmly over to Aidan and Kyra. A woman behind Elizabeth hissed, “Isn’t this exciting! I just love performance art! But I had no idea that Marilou was going to be part of it.”
Marilou, evidently the woman who had been covered with foam, didn’t act as if she had known either. She was wiping the white froth from her arms and making sputtering noises as she looked down at the ruin of her turquoise silk gown. The throng of guests made no move to assist her as they watched eagerly to see what would happen next.
Elizabeth was confused. Aidan and Kyra seemed to be cowering away from Boz as he approached them. He strode toward them, his body massive in the black slacks and black tee shirt that were the uniform of The 3, his red cowboy boots resounding on the slick floor. Aidan and Kyra stood dumb while Boz reached out, snatched the cameras from their hands, and hurled them to the floor. With a sardonic grin he ground his boot heel into a metal case. There was a sharp crack and a lens popped out and skittered across the polished floor. The boot heel came down again, crushing the second camera.
“Boz, you crazy fucker!” Aidan’s anguished howl reverberated in the stunned silence as he dived for the sad little pile of broken components. “You’re destroying the show!”
“You got it, little buddy.” replied Boz. Satisfied that the cameras were ruined, he calmly walked over to the nearest wall and began pulling down the flimsy shelves. Kyra was crying helplessly and the woman who was standing behind Elizabeth whispered again, a little dubiously this time, “It’s all part of the art, isn’t it?”
from Chapter 19 ~ Loretty's Legacy
Forty-five minutes later Elizabeth was on her way to visit Franklin Ferman. She pulled her car into the driveway and waited to see if he would appear on the porch but the only signs of life were a few scrawny red hens scratching around the base of a mildewed lilac bush at the side of the house. Elizabeth got out of the car, slammed the door loudly, and waited a few minutes. When no one appeared, she climbed the steps to the porch, knocked vigorously on the frame of the sagging screen door, and called out. “Mr. Ferman? It’s Elizabeth Good-”
“Come in the house.” The preemptory voice seemed to come from the depths of the little dwelling. Elizabeth stepped into the front room. An oil stove, a disgraceful old upholstered chair, and an upended wooden box lay to her right; to the left was a narrow bed, its white-enameled iron frame dotted with patches of rust. A moth-eaten army blanket and a faded pink chenille bedspread covered the hillocky mattress and one almost flat pillow, its striped ticking plain through the worn yellowing pillow case, lay at the head. The room was dark and stuffy and smelled strongly of mice.
“Back here.” The voice was husky with an unused quality to it. Elizabeth followed it through the door by the oil stove and found herself in a small, grimy kitchen. The sink and countertops were piled high with unwashed dishes whose sour smell suggested that they had been there for some time. Franklin Ferman was sitting at the ancient enamel-topped kitchen table, busily spooning soup beans from a sauce pan into his toothless mouth. His false teeth lay by his left elbow, just beside the remnants of a somewhat charred cake of cornbread. An overturned box of cereal, a jar of sorghum molasses with a steady stream of ants climbing and descending its sides, and an assortment of more dirty dishes crowded the rest of the filthy table top.
“Git you a chair.” He nodded toward a straight back wooden chair. Its hickory bark seat had a gaping hole in it which had been covered by a narrow board. Elizabeth pulled it up to the table across from her host and carefully sat down.
“Thank you for letting me come over, Mr. Ferman. I’m Eliz-”
“Dor’thy told me who you are.” The noisy inhalation of food continued. “I’ll show you them quilts quick as I get done. I got that ol’ sugar in my blood and iffen I don’t eat regular, I’m like to pass out.”
“That’s fine, Mr. Ferman; I’m in no hurry.” She composed herself to wait, trying to ignore the teeth grinning up at her from the table. Covertly looking around the kitchen, she tried to imagine what it might have been like when Loretta Ferman was alive. The grayed and tattered remains of sheer ruffled curtains edged in red hung at the window over the sink. The cabinets, beneath layers of grease and dirt, showed that some loving hand had once enameled them a bright yellow and adorned them with decals of baskets overflowing with fruit. A brilliantly painted (beneath the grime) plaster rooster and hen decorated the wall beside her and behind Franklin Ferman’s head, hung a large framed print of Leonardo’s Last Supper. Elizabeth had to suppress a smile when she saw that the nail it hung from had been pressed into double duty: a rusting metal fly-swatter hung down the middle of the picture, entirely covering the figure of Jesus.
She looked away from the picture to see a terrified mouse peeking out of the cereal box there on the table. Black bead eyes seemed to consider the options. Suddenly the tiny creature made a break for it, darting toward the side of the table.
Franklin Ferman took the spoon from his mouth, smacked the mouse hard on the head, and, without missing a beat, resumed shoveling the beans into his toothless maw. “That’ll learn him,” he commented.
The little gray form quivered and was still. Elizabeth sat, listening to the prolonged slurping sounds of the old man and studying the small corpse. Finally she stood and gingerly picked up the mouse by its tail. The kitchen door was open to the back steps and she walked over to it and tossed the dead mouse toward some scraggly boxwoods.
The body was instantly pounced on by a lean speckled hen that snapped it up in her yellow beak and ran under the back steps, eagerly pursued by two red chickens, intent on stealing the treat.
With a satisfied belch, Franklin Ferman pushed the saucepan to one side. He picked up his dentures and put them into his mouth, then said, “You keep chickens?”
Elizabeth turned from the door. “Yes, I have a few-”
“Loretty was plumb foolish over them things.” The old man pulled out a ragged blue bandanna and blew his nose loudly. “I wish you could have seen this place when she was alive. I ain’t much of a hand to keep house, but back when she was able, ever thing was just so.”
He stood and started toward the other room. A heavy man, stooped with age, he was wearing overalls that had been worn and washed almost to handkerchief thinness. He walked slowly, as if his feet were painful. “Come on this-a-way.” He passed through the front room to a little hallway that appeared to run down the side of the house. “Back here is where her quilts is.”
She followed him down the narrow hall, picking her way around the cardboard boxes stacked along the wall. The old man stopped before a closed door at the end of the hall. “This here room was mine and Loretty’s. But when she took so sick and got to where the least little sound’d waken her, I fixed me a place in the front room.” He blew his nose again. “After she went, I thought I’d keep the room just how it’d been when she was alive. That-a-way, when I get to feelin’ low, I come in here and set with her.”
Franklin Ferman’s red-rimmed eyes peered at Elizabeth. “I’d just as soon you not mention my foolishness to Birdie or Dor’thy.” He pushed open the door.
“No sir,” said Elizabeth and followed him into the room. She looked around apprehensively. Long-forgotten memories of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” flooded her consciousness. You’re being ridiculous, Elizabeth. Do you really think this old man has a mummy in the back bedroom?
No. No mummy. Just a simple room, an oasis of tidiness within the squalor that was the rest of the house. An old chest of drawers, topped by an embroidered cloth, supported an age-streaked mirror. Beside it was a rustic wooden bed, piled high with bright quilts, one atop another. Family photographs hung on the walls, ranging from oval-framed sepia-toned likenesses that, to judge by the clothing and hairstyles, dated from the early 1900’s to full color family groups from the 50’s and 60’s. Dust was thick on everything except for the straight-backed wooden chair pulled up to the bed and the worn black Bible that lay on the little bedside table.
The old man shuffled to the chair and lowered himself onto it. “She liked for me to read to her from the Book. I kindly got in the habit and I still come in and read her a chapter every morning.”
He rested a work-scarred hand on the bed. “These quilts is all ones what she made. She put her whole heart into ‘em – I reckon that’s why she seems near when I’m in this room. But I believe that she’d be proud was folks to see ‘em.”
The gnarled hand caressed the pinks and greens of the topmost quilt. “She was so cold-natured there towards the end, she kept askin’ for more covers. And I’d bring her another one of her quilts and she’d just smile up at me like an angel when I laid it over her.”
He turned the quilt back to reveal a faded brown and blue Nine-Patch. “Just look till you find what you want, Miz Goodweather.” There were eight quilts there on the bed. Many were in tatters, worn out in use, but there were two that had evidently been kept “for best.” After making sure that Franklin Ferman was willing to part with them for the month that they would be on display, Elizabeth took them from the bed. One was a double wedding ring, pieced in soft Depression-era pastel prints with a background of creamy unbleached muslin. The other was an eye-dazzling array of six-pointed stars, pieced from dress and light-weight upholstery fabrics.
“Will you put her name on ‘em?” The old man’s voice was anxious. “I want folks to know it was Loretty what made them quilts.”