On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Island Affair: An Excerpt Featuring Judge "Baby" Godbold



          The judge has agreed to spend a few weeks at the vacation home of her older brother "Son," a retired general, and his wife, whose island retreat is beginning to bore the perennially active judge,  herself now retired from Chancery Court in Nashville.  The excerpt below chronicles the three as they attend a party and on their way home make a gruesome discovery.
            “Here we are,” Son said, directing the women up a stone walk to a low-slung, rather small  house.  It sat modestly farther back than its neighbors.  A glass lanai faced the sea with tropical plants and trees sheltering the patio.  As the trio approached the terrace, they saw a couple emerge from a black Jaguar that had pulled into the turnaround.
            “The Kings,” Mary Rose hissed.  “He’s a retired big gun at an investment company in Mobile.  They have an enormous house at the tip of the island.”
            Baby watched the couple as sleek as their automobile step along the paving stones toward the house.  He was a tall man with black hair in his mid to late fifties, wearing immaculate white.  His wife was carefully and conservatively dressed in beige gabardine slacks and a coral colored linen shirt.  Baby hadn’t seen many of Son and Mary Rose’s neighbors, but from the start she’d expected to be overshadowed by these women in matters of dress, but this woman looked fairly ordinary, or at least unassuming. 
            Not that she herself was careless.  Not at all.  Her bulk and height made it imperative that she spend a small fortune on flattering styles in rich fabrics and colors.  Soft fabrics.  She knew all too well that anything stiff or heavy would look as if she’d purchased her clothes at Nashville Tent and Awning.  She preferred plain to prints but always adorned herself with interesting, she thought, and some would say ostentatious jewelry--either old family pieces or items purchased on her many travels.  Tonight, she was wearing a cream-colored voile patio dress with a large coral and silver necklace and matching earrings.  She knew the silver jewelry went well with her dark and silver-streaked hair, worn short as always.
            The small group entered the outdoor room through a glassy expanse, opening easily to their touch.  The party had not yet gotten into full swing.  Looking around the lanai, Baby saw one other couple talking to the Kings.  They were enthusiastically greeting them as if they’d not seen each other for some time.  In all probability, they’d spent an evening together within the last week.  The Kings departed into the house, leaving the other two looking inquiringly at Baby.
            “Come meet Richard and Bobbi Lou Denton,” Mary Rose said, leading Baby toward the couple.  After nodding at the wife, a tall blonde with a svelte figure and an unfortunately large
nose, Baby shook hands in an excruciating grip with her husband.  But she only had time to find
out that the Dentons were from Houston when she was assaulted by a little woman with a sparrow-like face, who was presented to her as their hostess, Mavis Penworthy.  She spoke in a cultured British accent and looked very un-British in a flashy harem outfit.  Maybe more parakeet than sparrow, Baby amended.  The woman’s hair was molded like a dessert into a much teased french twist, obviously the pride and joy of the local beautician.
            A man, introduced to her as their host, Professor Penworthy, put a blue-colored drink with a little straw hat on a toothpick into her hand.  As Son and Mary Rose conversed with their hosts, Baby wandered over to the buffet and helped herself to a plate of boiled shrimp and crudites.
            Other guests began to file in and be introduced to her; names and faces blurred after an hour, so at an opportune moment Baby slipped away to seek refuge in a corner of the room behind a large oriental screen.  She faced one of the windows that looked toward the Gulf.  The sun was setting now, and the sky looked like a flawless coral gem.  She suspected this was one of the reasons why people became enamored of these subtropical climes.  An unreal quality permeated these moments; it was like being on the inside of a Faberg√© egg.  But could one really live and function at all productively or even intelligently in such an environment?  She realized she seemed inordinately dissatisfied with what seemed to be nothing but frivolous activities, but that was her personality, she knew.  Always she seemed to hunger for challenges, but was that any way to regard retirement?  Maybe she just needed to relax.
            “But I am not going to take up golf!”  A high, musical female voice rose above the conversational babble in the room.  “I’d rather take up mining.”
            “Mining?” A male voice asked incredulously.
            “Absolutely,” the female said.  “For gold or diamonds . . .”  And after exclamation of
disbelief from her audience, she added, “. . . that I can wear!”
            “Now, now, Lily,” a man’s voice said jokingly, “you know what women are called who devote their energies to that pursuit.” 
            Baby stepped to the edge of the screen and peeped out.  She detected the owner of the musical voice at once, a beautiful woman surrounded by several of the male guests.  She had long dark hair worn in deeply waved wings over her temples.  Her eyes were a melting brown, her skin lustrous and delicately tinted as if only brushed by the sun’s gentle touch.  Baby judged her age to be mid-thirties.  She wore a long black silk halter dress that revealed the shape of her breasts and accented her smashing figure.  She wore no jewelry except large diamond earrings.
            Baby moved closer to the little group. 
            She remembered Mary Rose describing her as the wild divorce√©.  But before she could give her own name, the host of the evening, Frank Penworthy, stepped into the breach and not only introduced Baby to the group and they to her, but also gave a little history of the judge’s distinguished career, saying, “This lady may look peaceable, but according to her brother, she has actually solves crimes for authorities in her spare time.” 
            To exclamations of surprise and queries for more information, Baby waved her hand in a dismissive gesture and said, “I’m on vacation, folks, and I doubt that any tales from the dark side would be welcome either.”
             Lily Lawrence looked properly impressed.  
            “How wonderful to have such a useful life.”  She sighed and looked up at Peter Royal, the club manager, and said, “My problem has always been that I like too many things, and I never want to limit myself to a narrow existence.”
            That seemed like a hole in one to Baby.  The woman was remarkably good at the game of one-upmanship.  She’d obviously had years of practice in its subtleties.  Judge Godbold sagged a bit, feeling much older and heavier than she had while behind the screen immersed in the sunset.  This woman’s beauty ran not to her soul, it was obvious, but was merely skin deep. 
            Baby smiled politely and turned away from the group.  She found herself accompanied, however, by Frank Penworthy.  He took her arm and steered her to the drinks table.  “How about one more before the buffet is served?”
             "No, thanks.  I've had my limit."
            “And so you’re a crime aficionado, I hope that doesn’t mean you’re studying us for criminal tendencies,” he commented jovially.
            Baby laughed.  “Hardly!  I just like to observe in general.  For instance, that gentleman over there” She went on in an undertone.  “I believe his name is King, which seems appropriate. He gives the impression he’s doing everybody a favor being here.  Wouldn’t you say?”  King was as tall as he was powerfully built with horn rimmed glasses who stood slightly outside a small group but whose conversational interjections were pronounced loudly and with great authority. He carried his stomach before him proudly as if it alone proclaimed his prosperity.
            “Oh, absolutely, Judge.”  He, too, lowered his voice.  “Grant King, big-time Mobile businessman.”  He gave Baby a mischievous wink.  “He’s a something of a windbag.”
            They were moving slowly around the crowded room when a woman turned suddenly and nearly bumped into Baby.  They both apologized, the woman effusively.
            “This is Florence King, Judge,” Penworthy said.
            Baby frowned in concentration.  “Florence King,” she repeated.  “I know that name.”
            The woman gave a full throated laugh.  “If you’re a American history buff, you might.  That was the maiden name of Mrs. Warren G. Harding.  Someone told me that after I married Grant, and I looked her up.  I don’t admire her much.  Seems she sacrificed a promising career to live with that philanderer.  And besides, she was a Republican.  I’m a dyed in the wool Democrat, myself.  Oh, dear,” she caught herself.  “I do believe it’s very poor manners to bring up politics at  dinner with friends.”  She pronounced the word “duhnnah.”
            “You’re from Mobile?” Baby asked.  The woman had that distinctive, cultured deep South accent that betrayed a family history of close contact with black slaves and servants, followed by exclusive girls schools run by Miss Sarah or Miss Nannie.  She looked older than her husband.
            “Atlanta, originally, but--” Her words were drowned out by the hostess shrieking in her upper register that the buffet had been laid on, a quaintly British way of saying dinner was served.
            The rest of the evening was as Baby had anticipated.   Along about 11:00, she caught Son’s eye across the room, and she nodded eagerly at his thumbed gesture for leaving.  Baby didn’t know if they were the first to depart, but many still remained.
            A breeze had come up that freshened the air delightfully.  Baby gave an appreciative sniff as they walked toward the beach.  “I do like the ocean, you know.  I wouldn’t mind living on an island myself–maybe a little bigger than this one.  I was thinking more the size of England.”
            Her brother and his wife chuckled.  Mary Rose asked Baby about her impressions of the people she’d met.
            “I can’t say yet.  Light party chatter doesn’t make for interesting observations, let alone character analysis.  Maybe in some smaller groups I can get better acquainted.”  But she held out little hope she’d find anyone of genuine interest, with the possible exception of the professor, that she’d like to get to know better.  But that was unfair since social occasions like the one tonight were not designed for intellectual discussions; also, she hadn’t met everyone on the island, so she mustn’t get the wrong idea from the few obvious types that had crossed her path.
            Their steps pounded on the boardwalk like muffled drumbeats as they marched along in unison, their progress measured by pools of light from the regularly placed lamp posts..
            “The tide’s going out,” Son observed.  The beach lay extended like spilled batter being sopped up by the receding waves.
            Baby saw what seemed to be a dark, irregular shape of maybe driftwood, now covered by waves, now left bare.  She hadn’t remembered seeing such a large piece of it on their walk over.  She guessed the lowering waters had finally revealed it.
            “Look at that,” Son pointed out as they drew closer.  “It looks almost like a body.” He stepped off the boardwalk and moved farther onto the beach area toward the object.  Baby followed him, curious herself.
            Now Baby saw a head--and hair streaming out like a fan.  Her scalp prickled, her steps quickened.  “My word,” she exclaimed, “it is a body!”
            She reached the recumbent figure before her brother and bent over beside it.  It was a moonless night, and the lamp near the boardwalk couldn’t illuminate much so near the water, but Baby felt certain she knew who was lying in the wash.  She recognized the halter dress and saw a faintly twinkling diamond in the one ear that was exposed to view.