Authors: Ann B. Ross
Also by Ann B. Ross
Miss Julia’s Marvelous Makeover
Miss Julia Stirs Up Trouble
Miss Julia to the Rescue
Miss Julia Rocks the Cradle
Miss Julia Renews Her Vows
Miss Julia Delivers the Goods
Miss Julia Paints the Town
Miss Julia Strikes Back
Miss Julia Stands Her Ground
Miss Julia’s School of Beauty
Miss Julia Meets Her Match
Miss Julia Hits the Road
Miss Julia Throws a Wedding
Miss Julia Takes Over
Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind
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First published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014
Copyright © 2014 by Ann B. Ross
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Ross, Ann B.
Etta Mae’s worst bad-luck day : a Miss Julia novel / Ann B. Ross.
eBook ISBN 978-0-698-17624-9
1. Single women—Fiction. 2. Older men—Fiction. 3. May-December romances—Fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
This is for Deborah Schneider and Carolyn Carlson with many thanks for believing in Etta Mae and her story.
From the Desk of Julia Springer Murdoch
I’ll tell you right off that I’m not in the habit of talking about people, listening to gossip, or spreading rumors regardless of how tempting it is to pick up the telephone. Do unto others, I always say. I will admit, however, that occasionally I hear a tasty tidbit that just seems meant to be passed along. Yet I’ve learned that it’s best to first go to the source and check my facts. What one may think is deliciously passable could turn out to be completely inaccurate, thus changing one’s entire view of the subject in question.
That’s what happened to me. I’ve known Etta Mae Wiggins for several years now, but I’d known
her for much longer. Everybody had.
Not, I assure you, that she was the talk of the town—she lived, after all, in Delmont some ten miles or so from Abbotsville, so she wasn’t always the number one topic of conversation. In fact, most of us had never met her and wouldn’t have known her if we’d passed her on the street.
But just let somebody mention a divorce or a remarriage, and someone else would pop up and ask, “Is Etta Mae Wiggins at it again?”
She was, I think, the epitome of what we thought of as a loose woman—smart, flashy, bold, and well endowed—not a young woman with whom a husband should be left alone. I know of which I speak, for the time that Sam was confined to his house with a broken leg, she was the Handy Home Helper who came twice a week to assist with his therapy and do minor chores for him. That’s when I first met her, and I’ll tell you the truth, she put my back up immediately. She was much too helpful, standing too close, and petting and pampering him until I thought I’d throw up. That was long before Sam declared himself to me, and I was eaten up with jealousy even though I hadn’t been able to put a name to it, having never felt that way about Wesley Lloyd Springer. More’s the pity, but that’s another story.
Hazel Marie Pickens, née Puckett, had known Etta Mae since they were in county schools together, although because Hazel Marie was a few years older, they’d never been particularly close. I must mention, however, in spite of Etta Mae’s checkered marital career and her spotty reputation, that Hazel Marie has never had an unkind word to say about Etta Mae, which I should’ve taken notice of early on, but didn’t because Hazel Marie never has an unkind word about anyone. And let me say here that I never should have listened to the gossip about Etta Mae, considering what my own husband at the time—Wesley Lloyd Springer, now deceased—was up to. Be careful of what you laugh at. It could come back to haunt you.
But be that as it may, what I’d heard about Etta Mae Wiggins did not put me in mind to welcome a friendship with her, and I learned—incomprehensible as it seems—that she had pretty much felt the same way about me. But in spite of the great difference in our ages—no need to mention how great—we came to know each other through a series of incidences in which we were thrown together through no premeditation of either of us. I had reason to call on her for help, and each time she’d responded willingly and eagerly, although her enthusiasm could noticeably wane on certain occasions—like, for instance, when I had need to slip through a bamboo thicket in Florida, or to climb the Abbot County Courthouse dome, or to rescue Mr. Pickens from the clutches of a West Virginia sheriff. But waning enthusiasm never stopped her from following my lead, and, I’ll tell you the truth, I would’ve never accomplished all I have without her right beside me. Or, more often, right behind me.
It was on a few of those trips together that I began to see beneath the surface of Etta Mae Wiggins, although that surface was noticeably attractive, especially to a particular type of the opposite gender, like a certain NASCAR driver, that sheriff I’ve already mentioned, and innumerable husbands afflicted with eyes they couldn’t keep from sliding in her direction.
See, now, a lot of people would blame her for that, but I didn’t and I don’t. I put the blame right where it belongs—on grown men who can’t keep their eyes or their hands to themselves.
So most of the gossip about her loose and easy ways came about because of what some people hoped to get, not because of what they’d actually gotten. And the biggest and most astounding bit of gossip made the rounds a few years ago, before Etta Mae and I knew any more about each other than that I owned the Hillandale Trailer Park and she was a resident in same who was forever calling me to complain about one thing or another.
I put a stop to that by hiring her to manage the place so she could take her complaints to herself. Unbeknownst to me, however, at the very same time she was up to her neck in what became the talk of the town for weeks. She told me about it later—much later—after we had warmed to each other and she knew I would not condemn her for it.
On the contrary, I admire her to this day. That is not to say that I would’ve done the same nor would I recommend what she did to anybody else. Still, given the same set of circumstances, who knows what one would do?
Now, in case anyone unfamiliar with Abbotsville, Delmont, and the residents thereof (including your humble correspondent) happens to come across this story, don’t worry about it. All you need to know is contained herein, and you’ll be the better for reading it. Etta Mae’s story is a salutary one, wholesome and beneficial to anyone who is struggling to improve, to get ahead, and to win respect.
I would dearly love to tell you this story myself, but as I’ve mentioned, I don’t carry tales. She, however, is now far enough from the experience to be able to talk about it, and once Etta Mae starts talking, she’s hard to stop.
So this is Etta Mae’s story—or one of them, at least—told in her own words just as it all happened a few years ago when she was alone in this world without the benefit of my watchful oversight and stabilizing influence. And when you know her story as I do—what she was up against and what she tried to do about it—who among us would throw the first stone?
Just so you’ll know, my name’s Etta Mae, Etta Mae Wiggins. Granny always says it doesn’t matter what your name happens to be, it’s how you act that counts. But when I look around at some of my kin and their actions, I know what everybody thinks when they hear
. They think lazy, shiftless, no-account, backwoods trailer trash. But they’d be wrong about that last part, because none of us ever lived in a trailer. Except me, but only because Bernie Whitlow, my number two ex, bought me one when we got married. And that’s where I still live, out off Springer Road in Hillandale Trailer Park a couple of miles from Delmont, and right by myself, too, ever since I kicked Bernie out.
Regardless of where you live—trailer or mansion or somewhere in between—and regardless of what Granny says, names do count. They tell who you are, where you’ve come from, and what you’ve made of yourself, all in one word. I could’ve called myself Etta Mae Taggert or Etta Mae Whitlow or Etta Mae Connard, since I’ve been, or intend to be, one or the other at various times of my life. In between, though, I’ve always gone back to Wiggins, and I don’t know why unless it’s because I figured I had to start at the bottom all over again each time.
At the bottom again was where I was after I got rid of Bernie, and good riddance. I’d learned my lesson by then, and it was about time since I’d made two bad choices in a row. Three, if you count Bobby Lee. Four, if you include Jerry Johnson, which I don’t because he hadn’t lasted long enough, having his heart set on running around NASCAR racetracks instead of running around with me.
I had my sights set on a higher prize this time, having figured out what it was I really wanted. And none too soon, since I was knocking at the door of thirty years of age. What it was that I deep-down wanted was a name that people would have to respect. Mrs. Howard Connard, Senior, is who I wanted to be.
And if I played my cards right, I’d get what I wanted. But I didn’t intend to be another
Mrs. Howard Connard, Senior, in any way, shape, nor form. The first Mrs. Connard had been a dumpy little woman as near as I could tell from her picture in the newspaper that time years ago when her house had been on the garden tour, and I don’t want to be unkind, but she could’ve lost a few pounds and it wouldn’t have hurt her. Even so, every woman in town who had the means modeled themselves on her. She was the first woman every spring to put away her winter coat with the fur collar and show up at the First Methodist Church of Delmont in a mink stole with a Lady Hamilton camellia pinned on it. That was the signal to all the other ladies that winter was over. She was a fashion statement all by herself, in spite of the extra weight she carried. Some people can get away with it.
She might’ve been a hard act to follow in some people’s eyes, but not in Mr. Howard’s. You should’ve seen them light up in his head every time I came to check his blood pressure and give him his physical therapy. That was my job, to look in on the sick and elderly and incapacitated on a twice-weekly basis.
I was one of Lurline Corn’s Handy Home Helpers, a Medicare-Approved Home Health Care Agency. There were five of us, and we were under contract to provide semiprofessional home nursing care to senior citizens in failing health. We provided a real service, because we’d give bed baths and back rubs, treat bedsores, and encourage exercise. We changed sheets, cleaned kitchens, wrote letters, and did all sorts of helpful, as well as some fairly nasty, things for people who couldn’t do for themselves. None of us were registered nurses, nor even practical ones, although Lurline helped me get my certified nursing assistant degree so she’d have a CNA on her staff and qualify for Medicare reimbursements. Mostly, though, we were just hardworking people who didn’t mind doing for our fellow man and getting paid for it.
Lurline had a nice little business going for her, and I wished I’d thought of it myself instead of wasting good years doing makeovers for Mary Kay, taking telephone orders for aluminum siding, and selling cleaning products for Amway.
You’re probably getting an idea by now of what being the second Mrs. Howard Connard, Senior, meant to me, but you’d have the whole picture if you knew Mr. Howard, or even of him. He was a man to be reckoned with around Delmont in terms of respect and powers-that-be. He was
Mr. Connard, sir
to most everybody, but I called him Mr. Howard out of respect for his advanced age and our employer-employee relationship it all started out with.
The reason Mr. Howard occupied such a position in the minds of Delmontians, and of all Abbot Countians as well, was because he knew money—how to make it and how to use it. Take, for instance, how he’d seen the handwriting on the wall before the textile business even started its downhill slide. Everybody hated it when he closed the thread mill, sending jobs to China and Taiwan and the like, but we were proud that one of our own knew how to get ahead and stay there. Even if nobody else did.
I mean, it gave the rest of us hope, even though Tinch Moore knew in his heart that recapping tires wouldn’t bring in a fortune. And Harry Tinsley knew that his Ace Hardware Store wouldn’t set the world on fire, and Bea Shelton knew that setting hair wasn’t going to put her on easy street, even after she installed tanning beds. But Mr. Howard had made it big, and he belonged to Delmont.
And to me. If I could keep him healthy enough to get through all the prenuptial activities and up to the altar at the First Methodist, come December. That’s when we wanted to have the wedding, when my bridesmaids could wear velvet. And also, I was hoping by that time he’d be speaking a little clearer and be able to stand without a walker and have a little more strength in his various appendages to manage a honeymoon. Stroke patients take a lot of rehabilitation, you know, which was part of my job, and we’d made our plans while I exercised him. We were keeping it a secret, just between the two of us, because we didn’t want any interference from people who’d want to meddle in our May–December romance.
Mr. Howard, though, could hardly wait and he could hardly keep his good hand off me. I’d had to watch him like a hawk from the first day I’d shown up and introduced myself as his Handy Home Helper. But that’s a man for you. Doesn’t matter if they’re old or young, weak or strong, men just have this grabbing instinct built inside that they can’t, or won’t, keep under control. At least that’s been my experience with them, and I’ve known a few.
Thinking about men in general and Mr. Howard in particular, I had to smile as I drove to his house for another therapeutic session. Remembering how quick he was with that hand. And where he could get it to before I could catch it.
But I stopped smiling when I turned into my intended’s long, tree-lined driveway in my ’98 Camaro, with its faded gray body paint, rattling tailpipe, busted AC, duct-taped seat covers, and ninety-something-thousand miles. I knew, as soon as I pulled in near the back entrance, that trouble was already parked and waiting for me. I didn’t recognize the brushed gold Cadillac Seville over by the garage, but I knew who had to be its owner. A visitor would’ve parked in front.
I checked my makeup in the rearview mirror, especially my eye shadow and liner. I just hate smudges. First impressions are so important if you aim to get ahead. I wanted whoever it was, though I knew it had to be Junior Connard, Mr. Howard’s only son, who should’ve been in Raleigh where he belonged, to see me as the professional woman I was. I didn’t want to come across as some low-rate, scrub-the-floors kind of person with chewed-off lipstick, nor some loose excuse of a woman with her makeup caked on like a bar pickup, that he was probably expecting, either. Names are important, but the way you look can make up for a lot.
You see how careful I was.
I sat there for a minute listening to the early morning quiet, trying to gather my wits. I always liked to look out over the back garden every time I came. So peaceful, all enclosed like it was by shrubbery and flowering trees, with a big square of grass in the middle. I’d read about it in
The Delmont Daily
that time it was on the garden tour when Mr. Howard’s first wife had her picture made with her prized camellias blooming behind her. I hadn’t paid much attention to the article then, not having any connection to Mr. Howard Connard, Senior, at the time, and not being the type to tour any gardens, either. But the picture had stuck in my mind all these years, and here lately, when I made my regularly scheduled visits, I’d let myself imagine what I’d look like posing in front of that same camellia bush.
Well, sitting around thinking about it wasn’t getting it done. So I got my black canvas bag and a grocery sack out of the backseat, took a deep breath, and headed for the door.
I knocked as usual but, not as usual, waited for Emmett to come to the door. He knew the days I came, so he was always in the kitchen waiting for me, and I’d give a courtesy knock and go on in. But with that brushed gold Seville sitting out there, I waited this time till he came to the door.
“Hi, Emmett,” I said, bright and cheery, in spite of the agitation I felt.
He nodded, cut his eyes to the side like somebody was listening and taking notes, and said, “Mornin’, Miss Etta.”
Emmett had been with Mr. Howard for as long as anybody could remember, even before the first Mrs. Connard, Senior, passed. Black as a licorice stick and just as wiry, and as much of a gentleman as Mr. Howard himself. He wasn’t much bigger than me, but he was strong enough to get Mr. Howard in and out of bed, and do for him whatever needed to be done, like dressing and shaving and the like. On top of that, Emmett kept the house up, vacuuming, dusting, and so forth, doing the things that a maid had done years ago. He’d been hired as the cook and general handyman when he first came, but now with no woman around and Mr. Howard practically on his last legs, he did it all. He lived in a couple of rooms over the garage, but here lately he’d been sleeping in the house in case Mr. Howard needed help during the night. Like with getting up to relieve himself, which he couldn’t do by himself without the risk of falling and breaking a hip, which you always have to watch out for when it comes to senior citizens. He was weak on the left side, you know, from the strokes.
Since Mr. Howard had been laid up and needing the Handy Home Helpers, I’d offered to come over every now and again on my own time to give Emmett some time off, which, I liked to think, made him think kindly of me. I never pass up an opportunity to make a friend, since you never know when or where you might need one. Those were the times I’d bundle Mr. Howard up and take him for a drive for a change of scene. We’d drive around Delmont, then up on the Parkway, all the time talking about the views of the Smoky Mountains and the new people moving in who were bringing changes that neither of us liked. We’d almost always stop at the Dairy Queen and get a vanilla cone. It was the highlight of our time together.
That was when Mr. Howard and I got to know each other so well.
“How is he this morning?” I asked as usual, pretending I didn’t suspect that Junior was lurking and listening to every word.
Emmett stood in the doorway, not exactly blocking it but not so that I could breeze in like I usually did.
“Uh, Miss Etta,” he began, his old face lined with misery. “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but I got my ’structions. Mr. Junior, he say Mr. Howard don’t need no more nursin’, and I supposed to tell you don’t come here no more.”
Well, that just did it. Junior Connard didn’t have the nerve to tell me to my face. And a good thing, too, because it flew all over me. I might’ve slapped him cross-eyed if he’d been standing there.
“Well,” I said, trying hard to keep my professional aspect, in spite of the steam that was about to blow my top off. I knew Junior had to be nearby, listening to what he couldn’t bring himself to do. Maybe hoping I’d pitch a fit so he’d feel justified in firing me.
And it was all I could do to keep from pitching one that would stunt his growth and curl his hair. If he had any left to curl.
I hadn’t intended for Junior or anybody else to hear about our marital plans until they were a fate accomplished, but wouldn’t you know somebody would let the cat out of the bag. I had a pretty good idea who it was, too. I’d only told one person, which I did before I could help myself. Lord knows poor Mr. Howard couldn’t tell, since nobody but Emmett and me could understand him, the way his strokes had left him. But you can’t keep a secret in this town. Somebody, and I knew who, had called Junior and told him he’d better get out of Raleigh and take a hand here before that Wiggins woman took his daddy for all he was worth.
So you might know Junior’d come running as soon as he heard the news. A loving son, you might say, worried about his daddy and wanting to save him from a gold digger. Ha, is all I have to say. That overgrown boy, pushing fifty and then some if he was a day, hadn’t given one thought to his daddy for years. Sent him a crate of half-ripe pears at Christmas and a sorry-looking tie for his birthday. Didn’t come see him, didn’t write, didn’t do anything but play golf and live off his trust fund. Not that I much blamed him, though, if what I’d heard was true. Everybody said that Mr. Howard had been a hard man in his prime, not caring who he stepped on or whose feelings he hurt. A lot of rich, powerful men are like that, you know, until old age or sickness lays them low; then their attitude changes in a hurry.