Queen Bee of Mimosa Branch

A Novel

Haywood Smith

St. Martin's Press

I took the long way home that fateful midsummer day last July, maybe because I still couldn't quite believe what I was about to do.

I could still hear Miss Mamie--that's my mother; everybody calls her Miss Mamie, including my brother and me-- telling me, on the eve of my wedding, that if I insisted on marrying Phil at nineteen, I shouldn't even think of turning up on her doorstep again. "You make your bed, you lie in it,'' she'd said with absolute conviction. (Miss Mamie says everything with absolute conviction.)

Yet here I was thirty years later, galled to my very soul that my family's dire predictions for my marriage had finally proven true. The phantom umbilicus that connected me to my mother had turned out to be a cosmic bungee cord, my fifty years of life one long, ludicrous leap that was rebounding at light-speed back to the womb, God help me.

So that Thursday, the day after the Fourth of July, I took the slow, scenic route through Mimosa Branch. Driving into the old business district, I was struck that my hometown seemed to have come up in the world at least as far as I had come down. Everything was fixed up, filled up, and decidedly suburban upscale, right down to the contemporary artists' warren in one of the old mill buildings.

Miss Mamie had told me all about the artists in her almost-daily phone updates. An equal-opportunity gossip, she belonged not only to the United Methodist Women, but also to the Baptist Women's Circle, so she got the scoop. She'd assured me the good ladies were doing their best to love these "offbeat transplants'' in a Christian way, just as they tried to love "those Mexicans'' who had flooded into the area and "snapped up'' all the jobs at the poultry plant. But as to the artists, the good churchwomen of Mimosa Branch--Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, and even the Pentecostals--had been united at last by their common alarm about the New Age influence the interlopers had introduced to their conservative community. Worse still, several of the odd characters were from California, a point of origin surpassing even Florida in its capacity for alienating the locals.


cf0I knew my mother would fill me in on all their subversive activities. Endlessly. Incessantly. In person.

Shuddering at the thought, I tried to concentrate on the brick storefronts that flanked Main Street. Gone were the for rent signs and sad neglect. Like kudzu, Atlanta's suburban tentacles had invaded my hometown and cloaked it in green--the spending kind. And like kudzu, the blanket of green had certainly made things look better, at least on the surface. Whether it was really an improvement, though, remained to be seen. The decay was still there under kudzu; you just couldn't see it.

Yep. Things had definitely changed. I passed the nude painting Miss Mamie had told me "blared right out on Main Street.'' Galleries now replaced all but a single law office of the dozen that once practiced here. I'd always wondered how so many lawyers could stay in business in a town of 3000 that wasn't a county seat. Apparently, they couldn't. But then again, this was no longer a sleepy little town of 3000.

Even the people on the sidewalks looked different. Where were the fat women? Mimosa Branch had always had the state's highest per capita ratio of fat women. I wondered if one of those California artists had gotten the city to enact that same secret ordinance they had in Beverly Hills and Brentwood, banning fat people from coming out in public.

My thirty extra pounds smarted in outrage.

The one comforting presence downtown was Chief Parker's Drugs, which had defiantly held on to its ugly aluminum awning and faded fifties commercial tackiness through three owners and the insurgence of trendy bistros, boutiques, and galleries. "never closed to the sick'' was still painted on the front windows above the store's number and old Doc Owens's home phone. The place stuck out like a sore thumb among its trendy new neighbors.

Mimosa Branch, trendy. I still couldn't believe it. Seeing the tastefully quaint renovations in subdued merchants'-
association-approved coordinated colors, I felt like I was looking at a movie set.

How long had it been since I'd come here last? I thought back. Not since the year I'd dragged Miss Mamie on that cultural exchange to France...'91. Cripes. Ten years. I was moving back to a place I hadn't even seen in a decade. Heaven only knew what things were like here now.

Everything changes, I told myself. Maybe if I got lucky, life at home would be different, too. Better, I hastily qualified.

Not that it was that bad growing up. How can I put it diplomatically? Life at 1431 Green Street had been just a bit too...colorful for my tastes.

I eased my car into the turn where Main Street became Green Street at the second dogleg, just past the most recent and ostentatious of the Breedlove mansions, now resurrected to its turn-of-the-century Italianate glory as a posh bed-and-breakfast. Miss Mamie had told me all about it, of course, but seeing the restored grounds and tastefully sandblasted sign, I felt an inexplicable sense of loss. The place seemed to wear its newfound prosperity uneasily, like a mechanic in a three-piece Brooks Brothers suit.

A bed-and-breakfast in a town that had always been a "meat and three'' kind of place. Go figure.

Two more blocks of Green Street to home, railroad on the left now, houses on the right.

Bracing for a bump that didn't happen, I realized the city had finally done away with the abandoned sidetracks leading to the old mill. Farther down, the old Watkins place gleamed afresh with vinyl siding and dark green shutters. Law Office. Maybe they hadn't all gone away, just moved to larger quarters.

Beyond that, somebody was redoing Mrs. Duckett's fanciful Victorian from the studs out, complete with a copper cupola, scalloped shingles in the gables, suitably gaudy Chinese red paint on the gingerbread, and a real slate roof. Must have set them back at least a mil.

And across the next side street, 1431 Green Street loomed, the one thing in town besides Chief Parker's Drugs that still looked the same as it always had.

Home.

On its own, my foot eased back on the gas.

Bounded by shoulder-high camellia hedges that, like the rest of our home place, had seen better days, the sturdy old white Victorian sat firmly anchored by eighty feet of verandah--"Miss Mamie's Porch'' to one and all in Mimosa Branch. Nothing fanciful about our house; it was massive, angular, and quintessentially functional. And as usual, it needed painting. Old Southern houses peel worse than Scandinavians at Miami Beach, so ownership conveys a constant cycle of scrape and paint, and I do mean constant. At least it gave my underemployed brother, Tommy, something useful to do.

As I neared the driveway, my car slowed to a crawl all by itself. I still could not accept that I was really doing this, so I distracted myself by focusing on the familiar landmarks. The same massive elm stumps rotted between the road and the cracked, uneven sidewalk. The same garden- club flower beds bloomed with marigolds and cockscomb by the railroad tracks across the street.

I reached the opening in our camellia hedge and squeezed my car past the historical marker onto the circular gravel driveway. My eyes scanned past the bronze letters: ALLEN BREEDLOVE MANSION, 1897, the second residence of Allen Breedlove, founder of Mimosa Branch and Breedlove Textiles

I used to take pride in reading my family's illustrious history, but ever since Granny Beth had spilled the beans about what a pompous son-of-a-bitch my great-grandfather had really been, the words rang false.

Up ahead, the house's wide, shallow steps and porch boards shone the same blue-gray against the white of the latticed foundation. The same sweet autumn clematis twined through the porch rails. And the same damned purple bathtub full of pink begonias reclined on its gilded ball- and-claw feet beside the front door, like a rich old socialite laid out on a swooning couch in her underwear. Miss Mamie had affixed 1431 to the side in big brass numbers, which only drew more attention to the embarrassing eyesore. Clearly, she'd given up even trying to find somebody to haul the thing away. How white-trash was that?

My foot hit the brake as if my body was telling me, "It's not too late! Get away! Run!''

The trouble was, I had no place else to run. The only people who would take me in lived inside those walls. And every last one of them was crazy to some degree.

Unlike me, of course. I was damaged, but normal. At least, that was the conviction I clung to.

I forced myself to drive the last few yards to the wide spot in the gravel where the porch steps came down to the edge of the driveway. There I stopped. Like it or not, I had arrived. A dull throb of pain bloomed in my right eye and deepened slightly with every heartbeat.

Oh, God. I was really doing this, moving back home at fifty. The very thing I'd spent the past five years criticizing my brother for doing.

chJudge not that ye be not judged, in spades.

But unlike Tommy, I had no intention of staying. I'd only be here until I got back on my feet. I'd be back out from under Miss Mamie's roof as soon as I made enough money to redo the garage apartment. Beyond that, who knew, but I had great hopes. I had to.

I'd escaped once; I could do it again. I'd be fine.

Right, the cynical new voice who lived inside me said. You're fifty. No money. No degree. No technical skills. No real job experience. Knees too rotten to wait tables or work as a checkout clerk. Sure, you'll be fine.

My spiral into self-pity was cut short when Uncle Bedford lurched out the front door in nothing but Depends, carrying a mahogany TV tray loaded with his shoes. (I recognized the white patent slip-ons.) His stocky, little hyper-blond self had wasted away to almost nothing, but he descended the steps with surprising speed and agility.

I watched in morbid fascination. Hearing Miss Mamie's reports about his mental deterioration was one thing, but seeing him this way was quite another. Now I understood why Aunt Gloria had moved the two of them in with my parents six months ago. Who could cope with this alone?

"Don't try to deny it!'' he hollered to nobody in particular.

Stupidly, I raised my hand and waved as he detoured around the front of my car, leaving a cordovan loafer on the hood. "Hey, Uncle Bedford.'' Since he'd been a well- respected podiatrist for more than forty years, the shoes seemed vaguely appropriate to me, which is pretty damned scary in retrospect, I can tell you.

Heedless of the gravel on his bare feet, Uncle Bedford stomped toward the late-blooming azaleas that separated the circular driveway from the front lawn.

Better stay out of Miss Mamie's pet azaleas, Uncle Bedford, or you'll really be in hot water. For reasons unknown to God or man, those gumpos had been flowering in midsummer ever since my mother had planted them back in '73. They'd become her local claim to fame.

"That boy took my shoes, that gay guy,'' my uncle ranted. "He takes everything.''

Miss Mamie's updates had informed me that Poor Aunt Gloria had become "that gay guy'' to Uncle Bedford, just as she had become Poor Aunt Gloria to the rest of the family when Uncle Bedford had finally quit drinking three years ago and promptly gone into the permanent D.T.'s.

Poor Aunt Gloria, indeed. At least I was moving back to the bosom of my own family. She'd been forced to live at the sufferance of in-laws.

Speak of the devil, here Aunt Glory came out the front door, round, fierce, and firmly packed as ever, holding out one of the sheets Uncle Bedford used for keeping "the Japanese'' off the furniture. Hobbling down the stairs on her arthritic knees, she said through her tiny teeth, "Don't you dare get out of that car, Lin. I'll take care of your uncle. He's my husband, so it's my shame to bear.''

She caught up with him beside the Rose of Sharon that was in glorious fuchsia bloom. "Jackson Bedford Breedlove the Fourth.'' Owing to his deafness, she shouted loud enough to be heard a block away. "Cover up and come back to the house this instant before somebody from church sees you!''

Her husband hallucinated Japanese, thought she was a gay guy, and was running around in Depends with a TV tray full of shoes, and she was worried what somebody from church would think? Uncle Bedford wasn't the only crazy person in this scenario. Obviously, living with him had made Aunt Glory as loony as he was.

Never one to back down, Aunt Gloria held the sheet like a matador's cape and did her best to corral her husband. Uncle Bedford evaded her first few swoops, but he soon got enough of it and counterattacked with a powerful swing of the TV tray. Shoes went flying. Fortunately, Aunt Gloria managed to jump out of the way, because the tray made an ominous whooshing noise as it whizzed past her.

Damn, he was strong. I had read somewhere that when they were psychotic, even fragile old geezers like Uncle Bedford were strong as prizefighters on PCP, and now I believed it.

My conscience told me it was time to get out of the car and try to rescue my aunt from her husband, but not before I punched 911 into my cell phone and poised my finger over the send button. I opened the car door and stepped into humid, oppressive air that smelled of granite dust, fresh-cut grass, magnolia blooms, and honeysuckle.

My mother chose just that moment to emerge from the house in full dudgeon, broom in hand, still a force of nature despite her eighty years. "Good Lord, Bedford,'' she fumed, "if you weren't the General's baby brother and sole survivin' family, I'd shoot you dead on the spot. Now get back in the house. Poor Lin's gonna think this place is an insane asylum!''

"Poor Lin'' knew it was an insane asylum and so did my mother, but my only thought was a desperate, Dear God, please don't let me be Poor Lin from now on! I couldn't stand it. Anything but that.

After a perfunctory, "Sorry, baby,'' to me, Miss Mamie bustled over and laid a firm hold onto Aunt Gloria's elbow. "Go back inside, Glory,'' she said with exaggerated diction, a manner of speaking reserved for embarrassing situations. The more embarrassing the situation, the more precise and gravid her speech. "You only make it worse when he's this way. Leave him to Lin and me.''

I took another look at the heft of that TV tray and the brittle spark in Uncle Bedford's eyes and voted for 911, but I kept my mouth shut because I knew the mere mention of calling in strangers would send these women into a rage, or hysterics, or both.

Aunt Gloria, unwilling as ever to leave the field of dishonor without a clear victory, shot yet another anxious look up and down the empty pavement of Green Street. Then she deflated. "All right.'' She handed over the sheet, suddenly looking every bit of her worried, worn-out seventy- six years. "But at least try to keep him behind the azaleas where nobody can see him. I won't be able to lift my head in this town if anybody from church should drive by.''

"They won't, sugar,'' my mother reassured her in her normal voice. "This time of day, they're all home napping or watching All My Children. You know that.''

"Lord, I hope so.'' Aunt Glory glared at Uncle Bedford, which was all it took to set him off again.

He jabbed the TV tray in his beleaguered wife's direction. "That boy took my shoes! I want 'em back! These new ones hurt my feet!''

"Bedford,'' Aunt Gloria hollered, "look at your feet. You're not even wearing any shoes.''

This was going to be my life: Aunt Gloria trying to use logic with Uncle Bedford in the midst of a psychotic break, and Miss Mamie thinking she can fix everything with confidence and a broom.

I'd married at nineteen to get away from crap like this!

The pain in my right eye bloomed to ice-pick intensity, stabbing through the back of my skull. I winced like Popeye.

Miss Mamie prodded Aunt Gloria toward the house. "He'll do better when you're out of sight, honey,'' she assured in her embarrassing-situation voice. "So hurry on outta here, before somebody from church really does come by.''

Patting her sparse permanent wave, Aunt Gloria turned her silk-clad back on her husband with military precision, then marched her Talbot's flats toward the porte cochere. Uncle Bedford watched with a canny gleam of triumph. "Hah!''

Miss Mamie handed me the sheet. "Keep this ready, sugar. Let's just give him a little time to settle down.''

Sure enough, the minute Aunt Gloria was out of sight, Uncle Bedford lowered his weapon and cocked his head at me, his blue eyes clearing. "Hey, Lin. Where you been, little girl?'' he muttered with the same sweet inflection he'd always used, but so softly I might have missed it if I hadn't been paying close attention.

Unexpected tears stung the backs of my eyes. I don't know if they were tears of sadness for what had been lost, or happiness for what, if only for a moment, had been resurrected. I wrapped the sheet around him and gave him a hug. "I came to see you, Uncle Bedford.'' He felt so small and frail, and his skin gave off an odd, sour odor that was completely out of character--Uncle Bedford, who'd always been so clean he smelled like disinfectant even when he played tennis in the summer.

"Let's go into the house so I can bake you a pumpkin pie,'' I suggested loudly, making sure he could see my mouth. He loved my pumpkin pies. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, I always sent him home with one.

Uncle Bedford let out a chortle. "If those azaleas are right, it's nowhere near Thanksgiving,'' he mumbled with a spark of his old, dry wit. But the window of lucidity closed in the middle of his next sentence. "Still, I'll take one of your pumpkin tammis, and they never got it to the prookis.'' Just like that, the light extinguished, and he slumped, incoherent and unsteady, against me. I guided him toward the stairs.

"Gone again, bless his heart,'' Miss Mamie said. "Just like your dear, departed Uncle Garland toward the last.'' Her face hardened. "Alcohol. It steals your soul, every time.''

Uh-oh. The Uncle Garland thing. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. My mother's timeworn stories came with the lodgings. I might as well get used to it.

"I'll never forget the sight of Garland lying dead in all that blood in that filthy room,'' my mother repeated with the same words she'd been using since I was twelve. "That's what drinking does, Lin. True, Garland always had been a little odd''--a Southern euphemism that covers anything from the mildest peculiarities to full-blown schizophrenia--"but it was the drink that took him down. Steals your mind, your decency. I wish you'd stay away from it, honey. You never know when that wine at dinner will work its way into a fifth a night in the woodshop. Just look at Bedford.''

I refrained from reminding her that Uncle Bedford had been pretty functional until he'd stopped drinking. Then it occurred to me that I had no idea what had gone on behind closed doors at my uncle's all these years. Maybe he hadn't been so functional after all.

Nothing else had turned out to be what I'd thought lately. Why should this be any different?

Miss Mamie took Uncle Bedford's other arm and helped me guide him toward the stairs. "It's the Breedlove curse, the oddness, the drink. I pray every day it's not hereditary. My Tommy. Your poor David.''

Help. The poors were contagious. Now it was "my poor David.'' My strapping, world-beating, Emory graduate would love that.

"Thank goodness your David's sweet little girl wasn't afraid to marry him,'' Miss Mamie rattled on.

Not that again. My eye developed an annoyed tic, which I staunched with my index finger. "Her name is Barb.''

"I know her name. David's my only grandson; of course I know his wife's name.'' My mother's features sharpened with interest. "Have they said anything to you about starting a family?'' Miss Mamie was forever "takin' off down every conversational pig trail in north Georgia,'' as my daddy put it. I'd long since stopped wasting energy wishing she wouldn't. It was so much easier just to hop on and ride it out. "David's girl isn't getting any younger,'' she said for the hundredth time, "and neither am I. I'd like to be alive to see my great-grandchild.''

"Tommy's oldest daughter has three kids,'' I reminded her. "Don't they count?''

"Frankly, no,'' my mother huffed. "Tiffani-with-an wasn't even married when she had the first one. My own granddaughter, an unwed mother.''

"Judge not, Miss Mamie.''

"Well, I'm hardly capable of bein' judged for that, Lin. I haven't had a uterus since 1958. And I haven't had... well, never mind about that.''

I deliberately shifted the subject away from my mother's sex life, or lack of it, and my niece's past sins. "Anyway, where do you get off always making fun of Tiffani's name?'' I countered. "You named me Linwood, for cryin' in a bucket. People who live in glass houses...''

My mother would not be diverted. "I haven't seen that Tiffani-with-an-i in fifteen years,'' she huffed. "Not since that first wife of Tommy's took her and Brandi-with-an-i to Detroit. Who in their right mind moves to Detroit, for God's sakes? I ask you.''

Uncle Bedford managed another step along the gravel, but his knee didn't seem to work this time, so he sank toward the driveway like a penitent at the altar rail. "Whoa,'' Miss Mamie said as we pulled him back aright. Blessedly, it was enough of a diversion to send her down another conversational sidetrack. "I wish to goodness Glory would give Bedford his medicine like she's supposed to. This doesn't happen when she gives him his medicine like she's supposed to.''

"What's he taking?''

"Ativan, I think.''

Not the one I took every day. My magic pill was Prozac. Trying out several before I'd found one that worked, I'd learned that you can't just start and stop taking mood-altering drugs. The dosages have to be built up or decreased gradually. Otherwise, you might turn suicidal or attack people with a TV tray because "that gay guy'' was stealing your shoes.

We finally got Uncle Bedford to the bottom of the stairs, but at this rate of progress, the seven steps were going to take a while.

"Should we just hoist him up?''

"No,'' Miss Mamie said. "We might pull something, in him or us. It's best just to keep him steady until he hitches up his get-along. We'll get there eventually.''

She bent her mouth to Uncle Bedford's ear. "Up we go,'' she hollered brightly. It took him three tries to make that first step, almost falling every time, but as she'd predicted, he managed.
par
Step one of seven.

"Why doesn't Aunt Glory give him his meds like she's supposed to?'' I asked.

Miss Mamie rolled her eyes. "Says it makes him a zombie.'' She leaned behind Uncle Bedford to whisper, "I'd rather have him a zombie than a public menace running around good as nekkid in broad daylight.''

I seconded that.

The women's shelter was beginning to look like a viable option.

We'd only reached step three when a man I'd never seen before emerged from the side yard, making straight for us with long, resolute strides. Tall, handsome, about my age, with sandy hair and a trim build, he held a most uncooperative little cat in his arms. A seething train of toms skulked through the bushes behind him.

Bold as you please, he strode right up to the bottom of the front stairs and stopped there. The tomcats swarmed into the azaleas, several of them making that guttural mating moan they do.

I could feel the man with the cat staring at us from behind, willing us to turn around.

Now I ask you, what kind of numbskull would intrude on people when they're clearly in the middle of a hideously embarrassing family crisis? And then stand there without even introducing himself? Had this guy been brought up in a barn?

I refused to look at him, figuring maybe if we didn't acknowledge him, he'd go back where he came from. As usual when it came to men, I figured wrong.

"Ah, hi. Excuse me for interrupting,'' the intruder said in a newscaster nonaccent, "but it took me over an hour to capture your cat, and I didn't want to risk losing her again. I have to go back to work. Could you take her? Please.'' He added the please begrudgingly. "She's come into season and needs to be spayed.'' He said it like a man who was used to having people do what he asked them to, even when he skipped the amenities, which he definitely had. The kitten hissed. "Ow! Quit that, cat.''

So this was the California cat guy, Old Doc Owens's son, who had taken over Chief Parker's after his father died. Miss Mamie had told me all about him, of course. Despite the fact that he'd appropriated three of our pets this winter out of misdirected "kindness,'' my mother actually wanted me to meet him with dating in mind, "when you're ready.''

If the annoyance I felt was any indication, I definitely wasn't ready--which came as no surprise. As far as I was concerned at that point in time, all men were peckerheads. The last thing I wanted was another one.

The most polite response I could manage was to continue ignoring him. But I did glare briefly at my mother. Miss Mamie winced, her matchmaking toes clearly trod upon, but blood being thicker than water, she tended Uncle Bedford as if the cat guy wasn't there.

I heard the kitten hiss and growl again. "As I said, she's in heat,'' the guy bit out in a strained cadence, "and she keeps sneaking into my father's--my house and eating Garfield's food.''

A cat named Garfield. How original.

When we still refused to acknowledge his presence, his urbane accents took on a hint of belligerence. "I came home for lunch to find half the tomcats in town vying for your kitten's favors in my garage. The place stinks to high heaven now. Ow!'' Score one for the wanton kitten. "I'm already half an hour late getting back to the store, so would you take this vicious little beast, or what?''

Since he obviously had no intention of leaving, I relented and said over my shoulder, "As you can plainly see, sir, we're a little busy here. Please leave.''

"Not until you take this cat,'' he snapped.

Big mistake. Miss Mamie gave me a look that said, "Sic 'im, honey.''

The only degree I have is a Ph.D. in Southern Bitch, so I shot back an answering "Oh goodie'' look.

At last, we got Uncle Bedford securely onto the porch. Miss Mamie took over, waving me off. "Soon as I get Bedford settled and check on the General, Glory and I'll come help unload your car, sweetie.''

"Where's Tommy?''

She steered Uncle Bedford toward the door. "Fishin'.''

Typical. My brother was the only able-bodied male in the house, and the one time in thirty years I need him, he was out on his bass boat.

Fueled by that added insult, I turned to glare down on the tanned, middle-aged stranger holding my mother's six-
month-old kitten at the bottom of the stairs. He was wearing expensive but decidedly non-Southern taupe silk trousers, European loafers, and a retro-chic cream-and-taupe Hawaiian print shirt. "I'm afraid we cannot deal with the kitten now,'' I said in my most condescending Garden Club voice. "As you can see, we've had a family emergency. My uncle is very ill. So please go back where you came from and take the kitten with you.''

I granted him a frosty smile, gratified to see that the kitten was doing a nice job of shredding the hands that held her. I should have let it go at that, but being my mother's daughter, I couldn't resist adding, "That's the third of my family's pets you've seduced away with your canned cat food and open door and California ideas about animal cruelty. In the interest of neighborliness, my family has overlooked the other incidents, but enough is enough.'' Some shattered remnant of my old goodie-two-shoes self was just horrified enough to make this really fun, and the New Me gloated shamelessly. "My parents cannot afford shots and spaying for animals who don't live here, so I suggest if that one needs spaying, you pay for it, since you're the one who appropriated her.''

"Appropriated?'' The cat man tucked his chiseled chin, his sandy brows rising. "I don't want your cats. They're a nuisance. I can't keep the blasted animals out of my house.''

"Only because you let them inside in the first place.''

The toms circled closer like land sharks around his legs, and I treated myself to a vision of their climbing this pretentious tree-hugger's pricey pants.

"Our cats are used to being outside,'' I explained in what sounded frighteningly similar to my mother's embarrassing-
situation voice. "We don't let them in because we're allergic. And we feed them kibble because it's better for their teeth and cheaper than canned cat food. If you persist in letting them into your house and giving them Fabulous Feline Gourmet, they'll never come home, and we'll be overrun with moles, voles, and snakes. That, sir, is not neighborly.''

As he listened, the cat man's mouth flattened into an outraged line, his perfect nostrils flared, and his Malibu tan turned a satisfying shade of dusty rose. "Not neighborly?'' he blustered. "The animals acted like they were starving. And it was cold outside when I let them in. I couldn't very well leave them out to freeze.''

This guy was really getting on my nerves. "These are Georgia cats. They're used to cold weather, and we have plenty of warm nooks and crannies where they can get out of the elements. And in case you hadn't noticed, they come with fur coats supplied by the manufacturer.''

He didn't back down. "Well, it's not cold anymore, but they keep sneaking into my house every time I open the blasted door.'' He scowled. "If you know of some way I can discourage them, you're welcome to 'em, fur coats, fleas, and all.''

"I do know how to discourage them,'' I clipped out, ready for this to be over.

"Right.'' His eyes narrowed. "And just how do you suggest I do that? I tried throwing things at them and yelling, even spraying them with the hose, but that doesn't work.''

"Of course not. They're cats, not idiot dogs. Here.'' I marched to the front door, opened it, then reached inside to the umbrella stand. That's where my mother keeps her BB gun for running off stray dogs, squirrels, and blue jays. I grabbed hold of the barrel and hoisted it out, then carried it past the damned bathtub full of begonias. "Use this.''

You'd have thought I'd just slapped his mama and accused his daddy of working for the IRS. He bowed up in outrage. "Look, I don't know how you people--''

You people! A jolt of primal Southern Reconstruction adrenaline rattled the lid of my infamous temper, but I managed to keep my cool.

"--can talk about neighborly in one breath and come out with a gun in the next, but this is--''

"Oh, for criminy's sake, mister, it's just a dad-gum BB gun, not an Uzi.'' I stepped onto the driveway and cocked it twice to show him how. "As long as you don't pump it more than three times or shoot at close range, you couldn't hurt a flea with this thing.'' Aiming back toward a porch step, I pulled the trigger, and sure enough, the BB ricocheted harmlessly down the stairs. "See?'' I proffered him the gun. "Keep your cat door locked and feed Garfield inside from now on. Then just pop the kitten in the butt the next few times she comes around, and she'll get the message. Same for the tomcats. It's the only thing that works.''

He looked at me as if I were some serial pet molester. "No way.''

"The object's not to hurt her,'' I felt compelled to explain, annoyed by my need to do so. "It's just to scare her off.''

"Never mind,'' he said with a look that categorized me as just as loony as the rest of my family. "Just forget it. I'll take care of the kitten.'' He turned and strode back through the hedge, trailing his surreal feline entourage and leaving me with BB gun in hand amid a faint acrid whiff of male cat pee.

My ego had survived a lot tougher than that in the preceding eighteen months, so it shouldn't have bothered me that this complete stranger thought I was crazy or an irresponsible pet owner, or both, but it did bother me. It bothered me a lot. But then, I've always had this compulsion to be justified.

"Perfect.'' Stepping over Uncle Bedford's scattered shoes, I returned to my car and pulled out a couple of brimming shopping bags, my family's luggage of choice.

Then I pivoted to face 1431 Green Street, the house that held my past and my future. How long I could stay sane here, I didn't know, but I consoled myself that I was normal going in, at least.


Copyright 2002 by Haywood Smith