Fiction, Vol. 4.2, June 2010
Stealing through the stranger’s yard, Virginia Marple regretted once more how she’d lost her temper at the Elysian Fields rest home earlier, the way she’d lashed out at the three women around the table—her oldest friends, now a twice-weekly bridge club.
“I am not Miss Jane Marple,” she had declared when Cass compared Virginia’s recent concerns to those of her “namesake”—stiffening sharply. “And don’t any of you dare….” Some small breaking point had been reached, her prided composure gone.
But even now, with her eyesight already strained and the branches overhead muddying the scant moonlight, Virginia pictured ever more clearly—and with renewed astonishment—the spinster detective’s pink cheeks and blue eyes, her hair fixed up in a bun, the way the old woman had been content to knit by the fire, watch birds through her binoculars, tend to her garden… so sunnily tranquil. The comparison had been enough to make Virginia want to forsake the tulips budding back in her own yard, the pink and white vincas, the lush marigolds soon to emerge, the red and purple salvia set to carry her through to fall.
And yet hadn’t their comparison been accurate? Wasn’t that why she was here tonight, dressed head-to-toe in black, her frail joints aching as she squatted in the shadows of first one oak tree and then the next, her knobby fingers pressed against their hides? Didn’t she hope to prove that she was indeed as keen as Agatha Christie’s old maid?
Virginia couldn’t bear the thought of being shut up in the Elysian herself, of Preston taking away her license, stripping her of what freedom she did have. And after all, she hadn’t read all of the clues wrong.
- The driver had wide shoulders, a fierce expression, short blond hair, an earring. (Even in the rearview mirror, that gold hoop had been vivid, winking nastily in the morning sun. Virginia had never gotten used to earrings on men…)
- The passenger had a thin face, wide eyes, an open mouth, a ponytail. (Virginia had seen her from two angles, once in the mirror and then in profile as the driver swerved around Virginia’s Cadillac and sped away.)
- The truck was a silver Toyota SUV. (Virginia heard the television jingle dancing through her head—Oh, what a feeling!—even as she had emphasized to the policeman that it was an “SUV,” careful to use the right term.)
- The license plate was MSW 1158. (Martin Senour White: the color her husband had used for each of their rooms, declaring, “Where paint is concerned, Gin, this house is a patriarchy.” November 1958: The birth month and year of her only son, Preston.)
Three extraneous details:
- Moments before the accident, staring into the rearview mirror, Virginia saw that the trees along the street were thick with caterpillar nests, densely meshed and angular, reminding her of the first time she’d seen them more than sixty years before and of the rusting rake in her father’s hand, of the flaming rag balanced at its tip, and of her relief that the web—and the small life writhing incandescently within—were so far just out of her father’s reach.
- Virginia’s knuckles had turned white as her hands locked around the steering wheel, preparing for the impact.
- Drivers get younger every year.
Assessments from two of Virginia’s friends at the Elysian Fields:
- “Issues of personal responsibility are a foreign notion to young people in this day and age,” said Margaret, adjusting the gauzy scarf tied tight around her long, thin neck, picking a speck of lint from the white linen suit she often wore for Wednesday church. “It’s the culture they were brought up in, the world we live in today. They’ve become vermin. They’ve become slugs.”
- “It’s the same old story: teenaged sweethearts out all night playing lovey-dovey, and then ‘Oops! What light through yonder window breaks,’ and ‘Wake up, little Susie, we gotta get you home.’” Cass, a former English teacher, cinched the belt of her silk kimono, smoothed the flamestitch lapels, secured the copy of True Detective magazine in her pocket. “Today’s morals are no different from ancient times. Young boys just don’t know what to do with all that testosterone. Their little peckers start growing and their brains cut off.”
The components of one camouflage outfit, pieced together from various corners of Virginia’s home:
- Donna Karan slacks in the perfect shade of flat black.
- A black Jill St. John knit sweater generally too warm for August, but pulled out of winter storage early for the occasion.
- A black beret picked up years before in Paris with her late husband. Worn only once, to a theme party at the neighbors’.
- A large black handbag containing a wallet, a cell phone, and a scrap of paper with the numbers for the police and the hospital. Also hiding an orange flare gun her husband had kept for the boat they’d once owned. Found in a shoebox in the top of the hall closet with a trio of flares. Unloaded, for safety.
As she eased across the yard toward the lighted window on the west side of the house, Virginia tried not to notice how the boxwoods looked like sentries or how the streetlights cast ominous shadows on the yard. She tried not to think of the phone call she’d received from James Hildred, the man who owned this house, the man she now found herself stalking, or of what the policeman had told her when he finally phoned to follow up on the incident. But she could not avoid recognizing that she was now closer in age to Jane Marple than to the younger women who turned up in Christie’s romantic subplots, the ones she had always identified with the first time she’d read the books. She could not entirely avoid pretending that the girl inside the house—Jill was her name, Virginia had learned—that Jill was one of those innocent young women, waiting for some slim salvation. And throughout these thoughts drifted images of the Elysian Fields rest home, of women who stared idly at the parlor television all day and of their parade of walkers, wheelchairs and ailments. And of Nell too, her third friend at the Elysian Fields, squat and plump in a frayed terrycloth robe, her long gray hair rolling in ringlets around her face, her hands motionless as they clutched along the edge of the table, that thickening glaze of her eyes, that silence.
The branches of the bushes scraped against Virginia’s sweater as she pushed through the shrubbery. Pine needles crunched beneath her feet. Keeping her eyes focused on the sinister glow from the window farther down the wall, Virginia stopped in her tracks, waiting for another light to shine suddenly or a door to open—for some voice to cry out, “Who’s there? What are you doing in my yard? What do you want, old woman?”
Excerpts from four conversations, mainly one-sided, that Virginia couldn’t entirely untwine anymore:
- “What has gotten into you, Ginny? Don’t you know burning is the only way to get rid of them? Those caterpillars would destroy the crops. Now don’t you ask me about it again, you hear, girl?”
- “Mrs. Marple, this is Jim Hildred. I just got in from out-of-town and heard from my wife that you and my daughter, Jill, were involved in a little fender-bender this morning. Instead of you filing on the insurance, I’d like to pay the repairs myself.”
- “Yes, ma’am, that’s right: a girl. I can see how you might’ve thought otherwise with those big, slumped-over shoulders of hers, but it was her all right, right down to those gold hoop earrings you mentioned. ’Course, she tried to say it hadn’t been her, but the badge goes a long ways toward persuading folks, and I twisted her arm enough that she finally fessed up to what she’d done. The mother came home soon after that and told me that they’d been having trouble with their daughter lately—trouble at school, trouble at home. And to tell the truth, the mother looked about as wrung-out as the girl did.”
- “So the driver was a girl. Well, I guess that shoots my testosterone theory all to hell. And worse, Margaret was right all along: Just some irresponsible little twit behind the wheel. But mark my words: I wouldn’t have gotten it wrong myself if you’d just gotten it right in the first place. ”
- “Don’t you dare grab at this rake again, you hear me? You best learn your place, young lady, or I’m gonna tan your hide for real. And don’t you be cryin’ none. I barely touched you, and you know it.”
- “No, my wife did not tell me that Jill had just driven off like that, and I had no idea the police had come by my home. Mrs. Marple, I don’t tolerate lying in my household, and I won’t tolerate my daughter’s behavior toward you this morning. Let me assure you that I take discipline very seriously, and there’s a good many lessons to be learned by everyone here. My daughter will sorely regret having been so careless and irresponsible, and as for my wife….”
- “Yes, ma’am, I ended up not putting the hit-and-run on the official report. Just listed it as an accident with the girl at fault. I’ve seen enough of these cases to know that some of these parents… well, ma’am, you know how young’uns are. You have somebody snatch a knot in your tail—excuse my language, ma’am—but if you do, you won’t make the same mistake again.”
- “Anger and arrogance. That’s right—it was all anger and arrogance when you had some little peckerhead pegged for swerving into you with that gas-guzzling deathtrap. Then you find out it was a girl behind the wheel and now you’re chock full of compassion. But listen up: Whether it was an accident or not, she all but ran over you, Gin, and would’ve left you there without a second thought for your safety.”
Three persistent images, one imagined:
- Caterpillars falling like shards of sunlight to the ground—wriggling, wrestling, pop pop pop.
- James Hildred doubling his belt in his hands, snapping it tight, seething in the hallway as he waits for wife and daughter to emerge from their hiding place in the bathroom.
- Nell’s gaze drifting around the parlor at the Elysian Fields, her focus never clearer than when her eyes settle on some empty spot on the wall or some vacant corner of the room.
Questions for two of the men from Virginia’s past—never asked:
- Why can we not paint the walls in the living room yellow, or have green in the bathroom? What’s wrong with a nice mauve when we lie down for bed?
- But what about the butterflies?
One series of questions from her son Preston, asked on the phone:
- “Mama, are you sure that you were already stopped when that truck hit you? Are you sure you had your foot on the brake? Did the policeman seem at all skeptical that the accident was the other driver’s fault?”
Wedged behind the boxwoods, pressed tight against the brick, Virginia leaned her head back to stare up at the open window above her, its frame covered only by a lightweight screen. Voices murmured inside, but she could barely hear them over the clatter of Preston’s questions in her memory.
“One foot off the pedal, one foot closer to the grave,” said another voice—one of her friends at the Elysian Fields—and though Virginia couldn’t recall which one had said it, she knew it was true. The years passed so quickly. Inevitability bred consent, and soon consent became its own inevitability. We chose a path, bided our days, slowly disappeared.
All too soon, Preston would ask again for her license. She pictured herself moving away from the Martin Senour White walls she had learned to love, and saw her lawn falling prey to leafspot and mildew, aphids and Japanese beetles, caterpillars and slugs. She imagined her hands clutched around the edge of a card table, struggling for some balance in what was left of her life. Her gaze too might drift off from disuse.
But now there was still time to see. She hadn’t gotten all of the clues wrong, and she felt certain that the new clues were trying to tell her something. Margaret had first called the driver of the truck a slug, but now Virginia wondered if there might instead be something else behind these walls, struggling to be born.
Once more, Virginia tried to make out the voices through the window, recognized the deep bass of the man who’d called her on the phone. Once more came the echoes of other words in her memory: I don’t tolerate… I take discipline very seriously… my daughter will sorely regret…. you best learn your place, young lady… you best or… tan your hide… snatch a knot in your tail…. And what would she herself say when it was all over? Look here, Preston. I can see things well. I can see things that you don’t see, that no one saw but me. I can take care of myself. I can take care of other people. And if I can do all that, then surely I can drive myself around town, can’t I?
Virginia fumbled in her handbag and shifted through its contents. As she removed the orange gun, she smiled to consider how she suddenly envied old Jane Marple.
And when I’m done here, I’ll drive down to the paint store. I’ll drive down to the paint store, license in hand, and buy myself a gallon or two of paint.
She loaded the flare, shifted her weight, rose to her knees.
Monarch yellow , she thought, as she gripped her fingers around the windowsill and hefted the flare gun in her other hand. “Swallowtail blue,” she said aloud, to catch the man’s attention before she pulled herself up and set her sights inside.