Chapter Five

The Event of the Season cont…

The men in tuxedos and women in black satin gowns were warming up their violins, cellos, basses, trumpets, and bassoons, and clarinets.  Iris noticed a rotund red-haired gentleman putting on his tuba. As she glanced at the array of orchestral instruments, she wondered where did Locke get an orchestra?  She didn’t know why she was surprised. Locke seemed to enjoy keeping her gala plans a secret from her…and everyone else. No one knew what to expect.  The word on the street was if you wanted to see celebrities and be seen by celebrities, you should be there.

Iris had helped Locke strategically leak information about certain people on the guest list to boost ticket sales, and it had worked like a charm. Buzz about the gala was all over the airwaves, both AM and FM all the way to Atlanta.  The handsome, recently divorced, TV judge Rick Carson, who most middle aged women thought to be the sexiest man alive was coming–alone. The adored news anchor for one of the most popular stations in the area was to emcee the program; Locke had smiled when she leaked that information to the deacon board. Even her devoted Clive had developed a small crush on Cindy Sullivan.   A few ladies from an Atlanta-based reality show were planning to attend as well.  Sweet Fields was bursting at the seams with glamour, fanfare, and money, because Locke had personally invited CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, several of whom had RSVPed.

The orchestra was no longer warming up and began playing in earnest, so Iris took that as a cue to slip into the ladies’ room to check her makeup and hair.  She gasped as she entered the room. Even the doors of the stalls were decorated with white satin and flower wreaths. Locke’s people left no stone unturned.  Iris was swiping her lips with gloss when the church organist, Maybelline Johnson, joined her in the mirror.

“Don’t you look pretty!” Maybelline said a bit out of breath.

“Thank you. You look very pretty too” Iris returned with a curt nod.  When had she started nodding at people? Had she picked that up from Locke?

“Do I really? I lost about 10 pounds trying to get into this dress.” Iris looked at the dress–a satin concoction reminiscent of a block of Velveeta cheese. It was much too bright and shiny, but Maybelline seemed very proud of it.  Iris looked at the winged sleeves that draped over Maybelline’s rounded shoulders and fleshy upper arms; it reminded her of a small cape.  The caplet fluttered about as Maybelline shimmied and jiggled uncomfortably in the dress.  Iris watched as she smoothed the bodice, which was under much duress despite the layers of spandex underneath.  Iris did not feel confident about Maybelline’s dress and its durability.

“I hope it doesn’t split open!” she panted.

“Are you okay?” Iris asked hoping Maybelline would say “yes” and leave.

“I’m as nervous as I can be. I’m playing a special medley of song tonight on the piano, and I’m afraid I’m going ruin it.”

“I’m sure you’ve practiced and it will be fine.” Iris said, hoping she sounded convincing.

“Yes. You’re right. I have practiced long and hard. I can do this.” she said smoothing the shiny material down over her ample hips and thighs. Iris couldn’t help but think of the humiliation, should the thread on those seams give way.

Iris flashed her a rare high wattage smile and touched Maybelline’s forearm lightly and said, “You’ll be wonderful.” She snapped her clutch closed and exited the ladies’ room quickly.

As the bathroom door closed behind her, Iris took a deep breath and stepped into the flow of the evening.  She’d taken Locke’s advice and wore the green dress.  It didn’t make her feel any more rooted in the community.  Iris had a hard time deciding which dress to wear.  It was Locke who helped her narrow her purchase down to two contenders.  Both were cut specifically for her curves, but the green dress was especially beautiful, because the kelly green lace overlay featured beading that sparkled in the evenings lighting as Iris moved across the floor.  Iris’s dress was floor-length, which was an unusual find for her height.  The long lace sleeves were snug and complimented her toned arms well.  The sleeves fell just below her wrist bone and featured small Swarovski crystals that eliminated the need for jewelry.  Tastefully fitted from the collarbone to knee, Iris’s dress was its own accessory, and she wore it as if she knew it.  She found her seat at the elaborately scaped round table and was met with Locke’s mothering approving eyes.  She was relieved to finally sit down.  Instinctively, she reached for the tiny onyx spray vial of sanitizer that sat in the middle of the table. The warm vanilla and lavender scent of the mixture was heady and afforded her instant relaxation.

“You’re going to make it through this evening fabulously,” Locked leaned over and said too loudly to Iris.

So far, Locke was pleased with the way the event was going.  Promptly at 7 p.m. the Who’s Who of Sweet Fields began to file in and fill up the round tables closest to the front and adjacent to the two long rectangular tables that sat the committee members.  They were not advocates of being fashionably late, especially when they knew the guest list was chocked full of local and not-so-local celebrities.  Sweet Fields wanted to be in their seats so that they could see the long parade of personalities saunter into the room.

“Have you seen that hideous Jackie Black?” Locke asked Iris.

“Not yet,” whispered Iris.

“I hope she doesn’t drag in here and ruin everything.  This benefit is important to Prentiss, and I will NOT have her turn it into the Jackie Circus Extravaganza.”

“How could she ruin all of this, Locke?  Really, this affair is beautiful.  It rivals the ones I’ve attended with…”  Iris’s voice trailed off.

Locke patted Iris’s hand with an elbow length lace gray glove.  “Yes, I know.  But it’s just the two of us now.  My Clive isn’t here to keep me quiet, either.  Still, we have to watch.  Watch and pray.”  Locke winked.

Locke did not intend to upstage anyone with her gown, though it was almost impossible not to do so, and her nonchalance about just how impeccably she was dressed made her an even more intimidating figure.  Her dress, too, was floor length, and designed especially for her by Antoine, her dresser.  Every piece he designed for Locke was intended to mimic her personality, her steel gray demeanor that masked a large soft heart, her organic lifestyle, her non-fussy behaviors, her penchant for things of style and class, her complete disdain for germs, and her uncanny way of finding hidden diamonds in rough terrain.  Locke wore a cascading gown with soft pleats above a cinched modestly jeweled waist and light fluid chiffon below.  The color of the material was stainless steel, that’s what Antoine called it.  He said it was because he thought nothing living on earth could touch Locke, because she steeled herself from foolishness.  Locke’s hair was styled in a loose chignon at her neck and accentuated by a sapphire pin that glistened when she snapped her head around to listen to side conversations.  Her only other accessory was a large sapphire ring set in platinum, which she wore on her right ring finger.

The band continued to play a jazzy version of “Great is Thy Faithfulness” as guests continued to arrive.  The waiters, dressed in uninterrupted white, were dispatched and had begun to canvas the room to be sure their patrons were comfortable.  The room bustled with energy as the sound of ice in glasses and the pouring of sweet tea and lemonade filled the room.  The long awaited TV personality entered, and all women attendees 40 and older sat erect.

“Look at ‘em,” Locke quipped, “they are all a-puddle over this one.”

“Who is it?”  Iris asked.

“Somebody who is as annoying as a bee in a bonnet, but as gifted as a bootleg preacher when it comes to getting donations.”  Locke waved timidly as he came her way; however, before he could get to her table, Locke stood up and directed him to his assigned seat on the other side of the room.  They air kissed and made their way, Locke floating, Carson strutting.

“So glad you could make it, Carson.  You see how you’ve turned the women into 6th graders.”

“I see, but you seem to be immune to my charms.  When do you think I’ll be able to have that effect on you?”

“Don’t start that mess, Carson.  I’m old enough to be your young mother.  How well did we do in donations with the television promotion?”

“I think you’ll be pleased,” Rick Carson said, “you know, only you get my best work.”  Rick paused, he grabbed Locke’s hand lightly and lifted it a few inches. “What, no spray?”

“You know better, Carson.  I had my people rig up a light misting that triggers as soon as you cross the threshold.  The guests think it’s some kind of sweet smelling confetti.”  They both laughed as Rick Carson made it to his seat.  “You need anything special before I go back to my seat?”

“As a matter of fact I do.”  Rick glanced toward Iris and smiled.  “What about an introduction to that gorgeous girl in green sitting with you.  You know I’ve heard about her.  These old men in Sweet Fields don’t know what to do with a woman like that.  I’m so surprised you didn’t do one of your famous hook ups when she came to town.”

“Haven’t you learned anything from the last mess you made of a woman’s heart?  Stick with television.  Love is not what you do best.”  Locke nodded and floated back to her seat at the table.

Locke was gone just long enough for Deacon William Hughes to make his way over to Iris and perch in the empty space left by Locke.  Iris was so busy observing that she didn’t see him ease into the seat.

“Sister M-m-m-murphy,” Hughes stuttered.  William Hughes gathered himself and cleared his throat.  “It’s amazing how you can walk into a room fully clothed and make a more stunning impression than women who arrive half naked.” Hughes tilted his head to the right as if he was using it to point at someone.  She didn’t look to see what Hughes was talking about, but only because she was so annoyed by his presence.

Hughes was a good-looking man.  Tall. Dark. Handsome.  Iris noticed that he stuttered a bit around her.  Lloyd had stuttered…towards the end, and she didn’t want to be reminded of Lloyd. Not right now.  In addition, Deacon Hughes was a bit too admired by the women of St. Andrew.  He owned a successful plumbing and home improvement business, and had gained quite a reputation for his ability to renovate the stately Victorian homes of Sweet Fields without compromising their character and integrity.  Iris didn’t want to deal with a man whose job it was to make house calls.  Still, she heard he worked fast and was the consummate professional.  He was always on time, and always finished a job before the end date he gave his clients.  Hughes’ prices were fair, and he didn’t allow womanly charms to sway his bottom line.

Iris had heard all of these wonderful things about Deacon Hughes, and still she was not at all interested in him, at least not in that way.  Truthfully, Grandma Maggs’ house, though well kept, would need some work soon, so Iris entertained the Deacon a little while.

“Why thank you, Deacon Hu…”

“You don’t have to be so f-f-f-ormal, Sister Murphy. Call me Will.”  Deacon Hughes placed his arm on the table as if to reach for Iris’s hand.  Iris looked at the deacon’s arm and looked away.  He was well dressed for the evening in a gray, modern and well-fitting tuxedo.  He wore a deep cobalt blue tie with matching pocket square and a boutonniere the color of the bird of paradise flower.  He had begun to grow a beard which was well trimmed and without one hint of gray.  The Hughes men were known for their grayless heads of hair.  It was rumored that the oldest man in the Hughes clan didn’t gray until he turned one hundred.  This is what made the men of the Hughes family men of distinction, their coal black head of hair and their impeccable taste in clothes. In this area, William Hughes did not disappoint.  He was consistently well groomed, well lined, and smelling good.

“I am not so sure about being so informal, Deacon Hughes.  I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was disrespecting your title as an upstanding member of the church and trusted co-chairman of the board.  You know how people talk.”

“L-l-let them talk, Sister.  They ain’t talking about nothing they know for sure.”

“I appreciate your wanting to calm my apprehensions.  That’s sweet of you, but remember, I am still the new kid on the block.  I have to keep my nose clean.  Anyway, I am quite sure half the women in Sweet Fields call you by your first name.”

“Yeah, they call me by my first name, but I said that you could call me Will.”

Locke was on the pair before either of them realized it.  “Well, Deacon Will, I think I hear your seat at the table calling you right now.  Get on up out my chair with all that foolishness.”

William Hughes scooted the chair away from the table, and stood up.  He was an impressive figure, and he towered over Locke.  “Ms. Belle Lynne Locke,” he said with a grin, “you’re the prettiest old woman I’ve ever seen.”

Chapter Five

The Event of the Season

Iris remembered Locke saying that her people would make the gala more than aesthetically pleasing.  Iris didn’t know who Locke’s people were, but they did a marvelous job.  The place was dripping with elegance and sparkling with glamour all at once.  Iris was fortunate enough to see the grand display in its completion, hours before guests began to arrive.  Locke permitted this, because she liked the young woman.  And while her tone with Iris was brisk at times, Locke felt a genuine kinship with Iris.  She knew that Iris would appreciate the work put into making the gala an unforgettable event.  And that Locke’s people did.

They had transformed the old Sweet Fields Armory into a wonderland of sleek black chairs, luxurious white linens, and lush flowers and foliage.  White sheer drapes provided the backdrop of the two-storied space.  Giant ferns sat atop twenty-foot columns that were aligned to section off the dance floor.  Iris tried to keep her mouth closed, but she couldn’t believe what she was seeing.  How had the old armory been converted from an old musty warehouse to such an elegant venue?  Iris thought that even the room smelled rich and decadent.  The luxe of the ballroom reminded Iris of the red-carpet events Lloyd would sometimes attend to celebrate his book and movie premieres. She was a long way from the red carpet and flashing lights of the paparazzi of Hollywood, but Locke had managed to bring Hollywood to Sweet Fields.

She walked gingerly between the tables and saw the Steinway piano nestled between two columns at the edge of the white dance floor.  She wanted to glide her her fingers across the top, as she’d seen sultry singers on TV do, but resisted the urge, though it almost overwhelmed her.  Between another set of columns was a bandstand.  Iris imagined members of the band box would be arriving in the next few hours, but she was glad she could view the room without throngs of people bustling about.   Iris thought about how the gala of the season was so different from her life of solitude with Lloyd.  There were film screenings and viewing parties, but Lloyd required small intimate gatherings for events of that sort.  This was totally different, and Iris would have to emerge from her cocoon of comfort.  Locke was pushing Iris more than she was used to.  Not only did she agree to be Locke’s eyes and ears on the gala committee, but Locke had roped her into being a vital part of both its inner and outer workings.  To top it off, Locke was holding a by-invitation- only nightcap after the gala.  While the nightcap was more intimate, Iris knew nothing of the guest list, and her aversion for the unknown made her anxious.

This is why Iris decided it best to visit the venue before show time.  She wanted to mark territories, so that when she returned by evening, her experience would not seem so foreign.  She would also go by Locke’s house before walking home to dress for the gala.

There were people at Locke’s.  She could see several silhouettes moving like dancing shadows behind the sheers at the window.  Iris had always liked the big windows of the Victorian home.  The vines creeping along the soft pink brick seemed to try to make their way inside through the long panes that were dressed in ivory sheers all around.  On Locke’s porch were two tiny women meticulously streaming copious strands of small clear lights along the front porch.  Both women wore glasses on their noses, and they strung the lights with unflappable concentration.  By the time Iris made it to the porch, Locke was meeting her at the front door. “Did you see it?” she asked briskly.

“Yes. It is beautiful and so tastefully done.  How did you get it to make such a stark transformation?”

“I told you, Iris.  I put my people on it.  Don’t look so shocked.  Come on in.”

“I will not be here too long.  I just wanted–”

“I’m back here getting dressed.  Do you need someone to dress you?”  Locke’s voice trailed off, but only because Iris was fascinated by the new look of Locke’s home.  The color scheme of black and white was reimagined in Locke’s parlor and great room.  There were tall bouquets of yellow tulips accenting two large round tables covered in crisp white tablecloths with a wide strip of ink black fabric dividing the whites of the cloth.  Several people dressed in white scurried about, tugging here, pulling there, smoothing elsewhere.  There were taller bistro tables in the corners of the room with smatterings of soft yellow decor in the center.  The ceiling was draped in antique white fabric, with the ends puddling in soft vanilla bunches on the dark hardwood floors.  Iris could only imagine the ambience at nightfall with soft lighting and dainty white candles everywhere.  “Come on!  What are you waiting for?”  Locke broke Iris’ trance.  As Iris followed Locke to her dressing room, she heard the silky low voice of a man.  A man?  Iris thought.  In Locke’s bedroom?

“This is Antoine.  He came to dress me.”  Antoine greeted Iris warmly, but spent very little time paying attention to her.  He buzzed around Locke, pinning her hair, matching up accessories to a beautiful smoke gray dress hanging on her mirror, and fussing over an abundance of vials, canisters, and sprays.  “So, do you think you’re ready?”

“Ready for what?”

“Ready for your debut?”  Locke gave Iris the once over.  “Nope. You’re not ready.  Look at you now.  You’re as nervous as a humming bird.  I’ve never seen anyone smoothing down skinny jeans.  I don’t think Maggs would even do that.”

“Really, Locke.  Must you make those kinds of assumptions?  Have you no faith in me?  At all?  I’ll be fine.”  Iris had not yet convinced herself of her own words.

“What are you wearing?  I can send Antoine over to get you ready.”  At that statement, Antoine paused, turned toward Iris and raised his right eyebrow in slight objection.

“I can get myself ready.  Besides, when did you become one to make such a fussy-fuss.”  Iris lifted her hand and flitted it around the room when she said the words fussy-fuss.

“I’m a little woman of few words, but it doesn’t mean I don’t know when to make a big deal.  This, Maggs–I mean Iris–is a big deal.  Trust me.  Now is the time to show Sweet Fields where your roots are.”

“My roots are not here, Locke.”  Even as Iris said it, she had to admit, she was growing fond of Sweet Fields and St. Andrew.  It felt like home to her.

“That’s what your mouth says.  But you wear that porch swing out every evening.”  Locke picked up a lemon teacake from a round silver tray Antoine had brought from the kitchen and into Locke’s dressing closet.  Her eyes slid up to see Iris glancing at the cookies.  “You want some sweet tea? That’s all I can offer you, since you don’t eat anything breaded.  You and those glucose levels.”

Iris declined.  “I have to get home and get dressed.”

“I hope you wear the green one,” Locke yelled from the dressing room as Iris left.  “The green one says you have roots here.”

Iris walked away smiling.  She was excited.  She hadn’t felt excited in a while.

“Get yourself out of here, Hughes.”  Locke shooed him away and reached for the vial on the table to re-sanitize the soft seat covered in crisped white linen fabric.  Right at that moment, there was the tap of a fork on crystal from the front of the room.  The band softened their music until everyone settled down.

Chapter Four

Iris and Jackie cont…

Iris opened the heavy oak door and spoke to Jackie from behind the screen door.

“What can I do for you?” Iris asked with a strained smile. Jackie was the last person she expected to see.

“I wanted to apologize for my behavior earlier today. You seem like a very sweet girl. We are both fairly new at St. Andrew. We could be good friends.” She said smiling sweetly.

Iris was speechless. She wanted to tell the woman to get the hell off of her porch, but she needed to know if what Locke believed about her was true.

“Would you like some tea? We can sit on the porch.” There was no way that woman was coming into her granny’s house.

“Oh! I’d be delighted.” She said moving to sit on the porch swing.  Moments later Iris reappeared on the porch carrying two tall glasses of sweet tea.

“So how long have you been at St. Andrew?” Iris asked feigning interest.

“I moved here almost a year ago and opened a dance studio downtown. I became a member of St. Andrew, after my former pastor wrote me an excellent reference, and I joined the Deaconess Board right away.” She sighed and took a sip of her tea. Her eyes never left Iris.

“Wow. You jumped right in, didn’t you?”

“Well,” she gushed “I also started the praise dance troupe. And I plan to work very closely on the St. Andrew Daycare project. Pastor Prentiss and I will be meeting this week to select the committee members. Would you like to be on the committee?  I can make that happen since I am committee chair.”  Jackie tilted her head upward and stretched her neck slightly on the words, committee chair.

Horrified, Iris stopped the gentle swaying of the porch swing. “No. Absolutely not. I have way too much to do as it is.”

“Oh, come on. What do you have to do? You’re an heiress…twice over! You have nothing but time and money.” She laughed loudly, touching Iris lightly on her arm. Apparently, she had heard the gossip. Iris figured everyone would know soon enough, but she did not appreciate Jackie’s laughter. She did not like the sound of it; it was throaty. Stretched. Vulgar.

“Well, Jackie, speaking of time, I have to get back inside. I will think about the committee. When is your meeting with Reverend?”

“We’re meeting Wednesday afternoon at 4pm. I tried to have a dinner meeting, but he insisted we meet before bible study.”

“Well, I need to think about it. If I decide to join your efforts, I will meet you at the church.”

Iris watched Jackie smile and glide from her porch slowly. Jackie folded herself into her Thunderbird and drove away.

Iris had to tell Locke what happened. She dialed Locke’s number and pleaded aloud for her to pick up. She picked up on the third ring.

“What has happened, Iris?” Locke asked without so much as a greeting.

“Jackie Black just left my house. We had tea.” Iris said excitedly. There was no response on the other end of the line for a while. Finally Locke spoke.

“How soon can you get here?” Locke’s question came fast, like one word.

“Five minutes, I guess. You’re what about 2, 3 blocks away?”

“One street behind you and three blocks down. Come around to the back gate.  I don’t want Harry seeing me accept company. He’ll be dragging his sad sack of bones over to be nosy, and we have work to do. Well, come on!” And then she hung up.

Iris wasn’t sure why she was excited, but she was. She grabbed her keys and ran out the back door. She unlocked the gate that led to the backyard and looked up to see Locke standing on a massive enclosed deck watching her from above. As Iris climbed the stairs to the deck, she thought of the stairs in Lloyd’s Nob Hill mansion. She smiled. She looked through the glass and saw that Locke’s eyes remained fixed on her with her mouth drawn into a tight line. Iris opened the glass door, and immediately Locke asked, “did she touch you?”

“What? Touch me? Who?” Iris asked closing the door behind her.

“Did that Jackie creature touch you? Whilst you two were having tea?”

“As a matter of fact, she did. She touched me lightly on the arm.” Iris touched her own arm lightly, as she followed Locke into a massive French country style kitchen.

Locke whipped around and faced Iris, “No. You wait here.”   Locke moved silently around the large island, pulled open a drawer, and gave a small bottle to Iris.

“Here. Put this on your hands and arms.” It was a vial of sanitizer.   “That’s right.  On up to your elbows.”  Iris did as she was told and waited for Locke to provide instruction. “Come over here. Let’s get this thing together.”

They settled around the round kitchen table where a crystal decanter and sherry glasses waited for them. A large wrought iron French-styled pendant light hung overhead. Locke slid over a small platter of tea cakes and noticed how Iris stared at them.  Locke also noticed that Iris gave the slightest sniff, taking in the fragrance of the lemon and lavender flavored delights.

“Tell me what happened,” Locke said quietly as she sipped from the dainty glass.

Iris relayed the details of Jackie’s visit and waited for a response.  Locke twirled her glass in her hand and turned the corners of her lips downward.

“Prentiss is planning a fundraiser for the daycare. This will be a gathering of who’s who in Parish county. Everyone who is anyone of importance with more than a few dollars will be there. There will be some very influential people there from Atlanta too. We’ve got to make sure this event goes off without a hitch. I’ve got my people working on it to make sure it is the most glamorous event since the mayor’s daughter got married back in ‘99.” Locke smiled and poured herself another glass of wine.

“You will join her committee and go to the meetings and report everything to me,” she said after a long sip. “I need you to tell me every single thing that woman says and does,” Locke said rising from the table.  “I have some calls to make. I’ll call you later.”

Iris walked back home teeming with excitement. This reminded her of the days and nights she spent with Lloyd plotting the schemes of characters. This time, though, it wasn’t in a book–it was real.

 

 

Chapter Four

Iris and Lloyd

Iris took Lloyd Sutton’s creative writing class as an undergraduate English major.  She had read all of his books, and could hardly contain herself when he asked to see her after class. It was the end of the fall semester, and she had done well in the course.  Dr. Sutton had plans for a new historical fiction novel and needed an assistant. His wife had usually assisted with his writing, but since their nasty divorce, he had taken a break from writing and people altogether.  He had become impressed with the nineteen year old who sat at the front of his noon class.  She was always early, always present, and always attentive.  He offered her a job working as his assistant over the Christmas break, and she readily accepted until he explained she would live in his home for the duration of the break.  Iris was uncomfortable at the news, but when he explained that Ruth, his middle aged housekeeper also lived there, she reluctantly agreed.

What was intended to be a holiday job of three weeks turned out to last for ten years– the rest of Lloyd’s life.  Iris became Lloyd’s research assistant, traveling companion, friend, dog-walker, and anything the eccentric little man needed. He was like a father or uncle to her.  When he isolated himself to write, she was the only person he allowed to enter his solitary confinement.

Iris thought solitary confinement was harsh phrasing for a man who loved writing so much.  Lloyd, however, informed Iris that he hated writing as much as he loved it, that often words were both his ailment and his antidote.  Like the wheelchair in which he sat, Lloyd’s writing got him where he wanted to be, even in his crippled state.  His confinement helped him stay focused on the story and its characters.  Brimming with shelves and shelves of books, solitary confinement was Lloyd’s playground.   It was a room that looked like fall year round, with piles of books from the floor to the arm of his overstuffed leather chair, where he read his chosen classics like, The Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, The Sun Also Rises, and Sherlock Holmes.  The pile near the burnt orange upholstered chair consisted of The Bluest Eye, Paradise Lost, and The Three Musketeers.  When he read, Lloyd was always in one of the chairs.  Often the piles of books would spill onto the floor when he was in a reading frenzy.  They obstructed Lloyd’s navigation; at these times Iris was allowed to come in and clear a path for Lloyd to move around and make his way, in his wheelchair, to the sleek Macbook Pro he liked to have positioned smack dab in the middle of the huge curved mahogany desk.  The desk was as intimidating as it was inviting, with its curves and bends.  Lloyd had it made special; now, Iris owned it–this gift from Lloyd that kept on giving even after he died.  She situated the desk across from the fireplace in grandma Maggs’, no her–Iris’ study–just the way Lloyd had arranged it in his own study.

Other times, Iris would enter Lloyd’s solitary confinement to bring him food, on a plain silver tray.  He didn’t ask for much:  a turkey sandwich, dry, with water; almond butter on toast; Sun Chips.  It was easy to see how others would think she was his glorified maid, or even an overpaid amanuensis; but Iris knew she was more than that to Lloyd.  She had been his confidant, his muse, and always his second set of eyes.  It was rumored that the unlikely pair—frail, temperamental writer confined to a wheelchair and a tall, curvy young student—were having an affair. Some even called Iris his “pet” or “Girl Friday.” Once, she had mentioned the gossip to Lloyd, and he smiled and said, “ Let them talk. They are simpletons who have never had anyone of any importance show any interest in them. Besides you do not work for free. You are invaluable to me, and I have compensated you well, but they need not know it. They are envious. That is all.”

Lloyd had compensated Iris well. The work she did on campus was paid for through the school.  For the work she did on the weekends and breaks, she was paid handsomely. After the two collaborated for a year, Lloyd began to pay her tuition and expenses. He called it a scholarship and never spoke of it again.

While Iris worked for Lloyd, he managed to write several books and sell the rights of three of them to movie producers.  Iris, Ruth, and Manny—the driver—were Lloyd’s family.  Upon his death, Lloyd left his vacation home in Big Sur, Shakespeare (his Scottish terrier),  and a sizeable nest egg to Ruth and Manny who had fallen in love during their employ. Lloyd had been an only child, his parents were deceased, and his failed marriage yielded no children.  He willed the rest of his estate to Iris.

The death of Lloyd Sutton—the famous mystery writer—made national news.  Ruth and Manny wed quietly and slipped off to start their lives together in Big Sur. Meanwhile, the tabloid reporters had a field day with Iris—calling her a gold digger, a child bride, and even a murder suspect.  She would have left San Francisco, but she had nowhere else to go.  She was just like Lloyd. That’s why Lloyd took care of her. He had been a “college orphan” as he had put it.  Iris’ parents had divorced when she was a baby. Her mother was dead, and her father had moved to Italy with a girlfriend. The only family Iris had was her father’s mother—Maggie Murphy– who lived in Sweet Fields, Georgia.

Iris located her grandmother and made a trip to Sweet Fields to visit her.  Iris returned to San Francisco to take care of some business transactions and had planned a longer stay with her grandmother, but Maggie died before Iris could return.  Maggie, having fallen in love with the granddaughter she hadn’t seen since the girl was five, changed her will to include Iris as the sole beneficiary—not St. Andrew as she had originally intended.

“So,” Iris sighed. “Here I am with no family, no friends, and more money and stuff than I know what to do with.”

“That explains why there are so many whispers about you.” Locke said gesturing to the server for another mimosa. “The pastor and the finance committee knew of Maggie’s initial will, so you can imagine their surprise when they learned of the new one leaving YOU everything.”

“I had no idea!” Iris gasped. “Should I give the church the money?”

“NO! Absolutely not! Not yet anyway. Just calm down and sit tight. You can help St. Andrew alright, but the timing has to be perfect. We have a number of things to do, you and I.” Locke said in a loud whispered. “The first of which is getting rid of that Jackie Black.”

“Get rid of? What do you mean?” Iris asked eyeing the plate of croissants the server had placed in the center of the table.

“There’s something about that woman that disturbs me.  She has the demeanor of some of the headhunters I’ve encountered on my travels.  She’s on a mission.”  Locke shivered, “She’s hunting for heads, and she has one candidate in her sights.”

“You mean a fortune hunter?”

“I know what I said. She’s a headhunter. She’s looking for a husband. Not just any man will do. She’s looking for a pastor, and right now, our own reverend is in her crosshairs.” Iris opened her mouth and stared at Locke. “And don’t ask me how I know. I just do. Pay special attention to her.”

The pair left the café and rode in silence for a while through Sweet Fields.

“Why didn’t you eat a croissant? You wanted to.” Locke asked without looking at Iris.

“I try to limit my bread. I tend to have high glucose levels, and eating bread elevates it.”

“Ah. I see. I would say you need some meat on your bones,” Locke paused, “but I don’t eat much meat myself.  Anyway you have plenty of meat on your bones. Deacon Hughes noticed it. Especially the meat on your backside.”

“Who? Noticed what?” Iris asked shocked.

“Deacon Hughes. He’s the tallest man on the deacon’s board.  He’s tall just like his daddy. His father, Big Hughes, was a good-looking tom cat in his day, but he married Edie who’s almost as tall as him. William is their son; he is good looking like his father and clumsy like his mother.  When you were at the front of the church, he couldn’t take his eyes off you. He studied you from head to toe. He’ll come ‘round to your house this week, I suspect. Let me know when he does and what excuse he gives to call on you. You have to be careful of those long-legged Hughes men.”

Iris said nothing.  She had noticed the man Belle was talking about. She had made a mental note of how handsome he was, but she had missed the man’s inspection of her.  She hoped Locke was wrong about him coming to visit. She wasn’t ready for romance.  When Locke slowed to a stop in front of Maggie Murphy’s former legendary Bed & Breakfast, Iris released her seat belt and reached for the door handle.

“Iris, we need to go to bible study on Wednesday night early. I need you to help me get rid of this Jackie Black creature. Now, will you be able to focus or are you already over the moon about William Hughes?”

“I’m not interested in William Hughes.” Iris snapped.

“Good. But he’s going to come sniffing around, as he is surely interested in you…or your money. Call me with any new developments. Especially if members of St. Andrew pay you a visit. Right now, you’re a pretty pink piggy bank; the wrong people will be coming to smash you to bits and take what’s inside. The genuine people, though, won’t utter a word—because they won’t know you from the girl at the Piggly Wiggly.

“Thanks, Locke. For everything.”

“No, Iris. Thank you. Tetta!”

Later that day, Iris answered a ringing doorbell and found Jackie Black standing on her porch.

Chapter Three

Shoes cont..

Genevieve waited for them on the other side of the green velvet curtains in a cozy parlor warmly decorated in tapestries and lace.  She brought iced tea, sherry and mimosas in crystal pitchers with crystal glasses on a silver serving tray.  She gestured for them to sit in the upholstered armchairs and gathered their handbags—Locke’s brown MZ Wallace satchel and Iris’ black Kate Spade crossbody—and hung them carefully on a nearby coat rack. While the ladies sipped their sweet tea, Genevieve brought out boxes of shoes and placed them on a nearby table. She brought Locke a pair of exquisite handmade shandals first. Then, she brought Iris a pair of nude Louboutin pointed toe slingbacks. When Iris smiled and sighed, Genevieve smiled and nodded.

“Oh! These are beautiful!” Iris giggled. “Did you tell her what I like?”

“No. That’s Genevieve’s power of deduction. She’s mute, you know. But she can read a woman’s feet like a book. The more she gets to know you, the more she will amaze you by discerning your likes, dislikes, and what will look and feel good on you. ” Locke said nodding her approval to Genevieve.

The forty-year-old French woman with waist length hair gathered the boxes and set them aside. She refilled Iris’ glasses with sweet tea, poured Locke a fresh glass of sherry, and disappeared behind the curtain again.

“You can only shop with Genevieve by appointment.  I’ve been knowing her and Jean Paul for years.”  Locke sniffed awkwardly.  “My Clive was Genevieve and Jean Paul’s investors, you could say.”

Genevieve returned with two smaller boxes. Sandals. She opened the box for Locke and slipped the leather thong on her foot. Then Iris, but Iris had already opened her box and was sliding her foot into the shoe. Genevieve smiled and nodded.

When the appointment was over, Genevieve had sold Locke a pair of RED shandals and a pair of Daniel Greene slippers.  Belle Lynne Locke had also consumed several glasses of sherry.  Iris noticed how Locke fumbled just a little with the little pink gloves.  Genevieve had sold Iris two pair of Louboutin sling backs—in nude and black and a pair of white leather thong sandals.  Iris was just as drunk with the wine of shoe buying.  Shoes were the one purchase Iris preferred not to make over the internet.  Here at J & G’s Dolce Chaussures, she knew no one else had ever put her foot in the shoes she’d purchased.  The ladies paid for their shoes, hugged and gave both Jean Paul and Genevieve air kisses near their cheeks.  They stepped out into the sunny sidewalk.

They walked next door to the café and had a light lunch, al fresco. Iris’ lunch consisted of a Caesar salad, while Locke nibbled on chicken salad served on a bed of lettuce.  As they chatted, Jackie cruised by in her red convertible. Her eyes fixated on Iris and Locke as she slowed while passing the cafe’.

“Alright. What’s her story?” Iris asked peering over her sunglasses. Belle Lynne Locke looked back at Iris, and her lips curved into a teasing smile.

“Before we talk about Jacqueline, I want to talk about you.”

“What about me?”

“I want to know whatever it is about you that has everyone whispering.”

Iris knew it was going to come up sooner or later. She was glad for the opportunity to talk about it.  She had been quiet for so long.  She had hidden for so long. She might cry. Just thinking about Lloyd made her cry.  She sighed and removed her sunglasses, smoothed her black cigarette pants over her thighs, and touched the diamond pendant resting at her neck.

“Well, what do you want to know, Belle?” Iris asked calmly.

Locke moved her chair over an inch or two, leaned in, and said quietly “whatever you want to tell me, but I’d prefer if you start at the beginning.” She smiled and Iris relaxed a little. She had to tell someone. Right now, Locke was the only friend she had. So Iris sipped at her mimosa and started at the beginning…

Chapter Three

Shoes

Iris woke up to the urgent ringing of a doorbell. She frowned and covered her head. “Oh my God! Who the devil is it?” she growled rolling out of bed.  She murmured and blasphemed the ringer of the bells as she slipped on a robe and stomped, barefoot, down the stairs.  The wood floors were cool against her feet.  She snatched the massive oak door open and yelled through the screen door “what?!” She saw no one. She looked to the sides of the porch and found Belle sitting in the porch swing.  Belle looked as if she’d been sitting on the swing for hours, as if it were her home.  She had on gloves.

“My, my. Aren’t we testy in the morning?” she teased smiling. “Where are your shoes?”

“What? Shoes? I was in bed asleep!”

“That’s the problem with young folk. They don’t take care of themselves. You should never walk around barefoot! It’s bad for the reproductive organs.”

“That doesn’t make any sense, Mrs. Locke. What do you want?” Iris asked still frowning.

“I want you to go put some shoes on is what I want.  What I need is for you to get dressed and come with me downtown.”

“Downtown? What’s downtown?” Iris recalled the frustration of the downtown shops—Mom and Pop shops.

“My favorite shoe store. Dolce Chaussures.

“I see. But why must I come with you?”

“I need to get to know you. What better way to get to know someone than while shoe shopping? If you require more conversation about it, can you at least put on some socks?” Iris sighed loudly and went back inside and up the stairs. Belle remained in the swing.

Moments later, Iris returned to the porch to find Belle bending over the azalea bushes in the yard. “Mrs. Locke. What are you doing?”

“Beautiful Azaleas, Iris. Just beautiful. Your grandmother always did  have a  green thumb.” She stood up and realigned her long linen blouse.  “Did you know they were poisonous?  Just as pretty as they can be, but that kind of pretty right there,” Locke pointed at the azaleas again, “will kill you dead…come on. Genevieve is waiting for us.”  Locke skipped down the steps.  This surprised Iris, but not a lot.  Locke snapped her head around to Iris on the last step and said crisply, “And do not call me Mrs. Locke.  It’s either Belle Lynne or Locke for YOU.  For you, only.”

Iris slipped into the passenger seat of Belle’s special edition navy Cadillac CTS coupe. She admired the tan leather craftsmanship and said so.

“I absolutely detest Cadillacs, but Clive, bless his heart, insisted that I have one. Navy is my favorite color, so he made a special order. I can’t bring myself to do anything with it except drive it. My Clive…he was such a sweetheart.”

Belle’s voice got a little shaky when she spoke of Clive. Iris knew how that felt—to speak of a loved one and get choked up with tears. Iris, unsure of what to say, said nothing.  Eventually, the car glided soundlessly out of the residential area and onto Sweet Field’s main street. The historic downtown was home to many quaint boutiques, cafes, and shops. The clientele consisted mainly of tourists and upper crust residents. Most people shopped at the mall on the west end of town.  Sweet Fields Galleria was a good collection of the popular retail and department stores. Iris had visited the galleria mall once or twice and had been sorely disappointed.  She resorted to online shopping. It had never occurred to her to visit the Shops of Sweet Fields on Main Street.

Locke parked the coupe in front of a coffee shop, and the two ladies prepared to exit the car.  As Locke walked around the front of the car to join Iris on the sidewalk, she said “what in blue blazes is she wearing?”

“Who?” Iris asked looking around. Locke tipped her sunglasses, little round ones like John Lennon used to wear, and looked across the street at the Majestic Divine Dancers of Heavenly Bodies. Iris looked in the direction of Locke’s gesture and saw the tall thin lady from church emerging from a red Ford Thunderbird convertible.  Her long, graceful form was draped in a yellow chiffon duster over yellow leotards.  Her head and neck were wrapped in a yellow floral scarf.  She wore a black pair of round shades that nearly covered the entire top half of her face.

“That’s the lady from church yesterday. Who is she?”

“Trouble. That’s who she is.” Belle said grabbing Iris’ elbow.  She visualized the words “Bubonic Banana” along the side of Jackie Black’s body.

They made an odd pair, Iris thought—Locke in her mid-fifties and she in her mid thirties. Locke with her short, petite frame, and Iris with her height and curves.

“Jean Claude and his sister Genevieve  are lovely people. The customer service is legendary.” Belle said pausing in front of the store Dolce Chaussures.

A gentleman with a silver beard and curly mop of white hair opened the door as Iris reached for the handle.

“Ah! Belle! Bonjour! Comment êtes-vous?” the man said air kissing Locke. “Et qui est votre ami?” He said turning to Iris.

“Jean Paul, I am so glad to see you again! This is my new friend, Iris Murphy. Iris, this is Jean Paul Babineuax.” Locke said standing between the two. The Frenchman kissed the back of Iris’ hand and flashed her a brilliant white smile.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Iris. Any friend of Belle’s is a friend of ours.” Jean Paul said not taking his eyes away from Iris’.

“Yes, yes, Jean Paul. Stop flirting. She’s young enough to be your daughter,” Locke said rapping him lightly on his chest with her knuckles. “Where is your gorgeous sister, Genevieve?”

“She is in the parlor preparing for you. Please, ladies do go through,” he said gesturing towards a pair of green velvet curtains.

“Oh, we shall, Jean, but I want to show Iris your beautiful shoe boutique,” Locke said as she grabbed Iris’ elbow again with a pink gloved hand.

They perused the shoes on display. Iris was teeming with excitement. She noted the brands of the finely crafted leather shoes and decided right away this was her favorite place in Sweet Fields. The disadvantage of online shopping for Iris was that she couldn’t touch or smell the leather.  For her, that was one of the most exciting parts of shoe shopping, and she missed it.  Locke was telling Iris about her favorite shoemaker in the United Kingdom when they heard a woman’s voice address them.

“Well, hello, ladies,” said the voice. Locke and Iris turned to face the tall woman in banana yellow. Her eyes bulged anxiously as Locke and Iris took in the sight of her.

Locke spoke first. “Hello, Jacqueline. Don’t you look, er…like the picture of spring this morning.”

“Why, thank you, Belle. I shall value that compliment, as I hear they are rare coming from you.” Jacqueline turned to Iris. “I don’t believe we have met. I’m Jackie Black,” she said extending a slender hand.

“I’m Iris Murphy. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“You know,” Jackie said trailing her fingers over a low-heeled pump on display. “I never knew this was a shoe store.”

“I’m sure you didn’t, dear. Most people visit the mall for their footwear. Only those with more discriminating tastes shop here.”

Iris watched Jackie fondle the shoes on the shelf in front of her. Locke noted the way Jackie turned each shoe over to check for prices.

“Oh no, dear. Jean Paul doesn’t disrespect his shoes by placing stickers on them. Surely you’ve heard the saying, ‘If you have to ask…’   I’m sure Macy’s has what you need.” Jackie whirled around to face Locke, but Locke had already turned away and was smiling at a woman near a curtained entryway. “Come, Iris.  Genevieve is ready for us.” As the two ladies walked toward the curtains, Locke turned to look at Jackie over her shoulder.

“I’m so sorry we can’t continue this little chat, but Iris and I have appointments.”

“Appointments with a shoe clerk? Belle, if I make you uncomfortable, I understand. You don’t have to make things up.” Jackie said with a smirk on her lips.  Jackie started to follow the women beyond the velvet rope and curtain of the shoe store.  She spun around dramatically, and the banana yellow chiffon whipped around as she turned to go through the curtains along with Iris and Locke.  Jean Paul met her twirl with a smirk and wink.

“Non, non, non, madame,” Locke said in a surprisingly spot-on French accent, “you, Jacqueline, may continue your window shopping out here, whilst we have our tea and select our shoes in privacy and comfort,” She and Iris disappeared through the velvet curtains. Jackie watched the bullion fringe swing until Jean Paul approached her.

“Madame, perhaps you would like to try the shoe?” he said looking at the leather ballet flat Jackie was bending and twisting in her hands. Jackie threw the shoe at Jean Paul’s chest and stormed out of the shop with her banana yellow chiffon scarf trailing after her.

This entry was posted on March 15, 2017. 1 Comment

Chapter Two

Locke cont…

The sermon and another choir song ended before Iris was able to collect herself.  She did not like crowds. She did not like strangers.  She did not like people intruding on her personal space.   Lloyd’s reclusiveness had rubbed off on her. She couldn’t help but smile a bit thinking about Lloyd Sutton.  She smoothed her dress and stood with the rest of the congregation when she realized the service was about to end.  She watched as everyone, or almost everyone, bowed their heads for the benediction. The small gray-haired, loc’ed lady was looking directly at her…and so was the big-eyed, long-legged, deaconess.

Iris gathered her clutch and bible and turned to exit her pew when a tall male usher put a hand to her elbow.

“Good Afternoon, Sister Murphy.  I’m Melvin Collier, head usher here at St. Andrew.  Won’t you join the pastor and new members in the ladies’ parlor for light refreshments?”  Melvin Collier held out a very official looking gloved hand toward a door in the wings.

“Oh. Thank you, but I will not be staying.”  Iris kept moving toward the church exit to make her point.

“The pastor insists, sister. Just stay a few minutes,” he said with a charming smile.   He moved slightly in front of Iris.  She followed the usher to a room furnished like a Victorian parlor—complete with tapestry wingback chairs, small mahogany tables, and lace curtains.   “This is the Women’s Ministry room,” Melvin announced.  “Make yourself comfortable. Refreshments will be served momentarily,” the usher said before leaving her in front of a massive ornate  bookshelf.  And there she stood.

Ladies wearing slim rectangular pins, which read, New Members Committee, on their suit lapels, entered through a pair of French doors.  They carried an assortment of petit fours, tea sandwiches, and drinks.  Other new members and visitors meandered in moving past her unnoticed. The room began to fill up, but Iris recognized no one. No one except the small lady with the hand sanitizer.

She watched her take a seat in a high-backed wing chair nestled in a far corner.  She rifled through her handbag for a moment before lifting her eyes to look directly at Iris. She smiled and nodded. Iris nodded back. As soon as Iris prepared to take a step out of her cozy place on the wall, she was blocked by a large pink hat.  The wearer of the hat turned to face Iris and said, “Oh! Theeeere are you are! I’ve been looking all over for you!”  The woman’s voice was a high shrill C-minor.  She reached out with both arms and pulled Iris into a hug. “Your grandmother was one of my best friends.  I’m Luceal Baxter, but everyone calls me Ceal.

“It is nice to meet you Ms. Baxter.”

“No. It’s a pleasure to meet YOU. I’ve read—oh—I mean I’ve heard so much about you. I feel like I’m meeting a celebrity.” She was holding Iris’ hand tightly when she turned and yelled across the room. “Laura! Come here and meet Maggie’s grand!” Iris tried to pull her hand back, but Luceal tightened her grip.

“Oh! Ceal, she’s a pretty lil thang. Lil’ chocolate self!” the lady called Laura said. She was wearing a white shirtdress and deaconess’ hat.

“Iris, I want you to meet my sister, Laura. We’re fraternal twins in case you’re wondering.” But Iris was not wondering. She was only thinking, Oh no, there are two of them!  She did not want there to be two of them. Or one of them.  Nor did she want to meet any of these people. In fact, she had never said St. Andrew would be her church home. She merely said she would stay on in Sweet Fields since her granny had left her the house and everything she owned. Iris was on the verge of panic. She did not like crowds, strangers, or questions; she knew questions would be coming soon.

The one called Laura spoke first.  Her makeup was too perfect.  This is what made Iris nervous.  “Now, Iris. Your grandmother, God bless the dead, hosted all of our Tuesday Tea meetings and our Saturday Sewing Circle meetings. You know Maggie was the only one who had a house large enough to host such gatherings. We were hoping you would be willing to host next month’s meetings,” Laura asked leaning in but speaking rather loudly.  Laura’s voice went up on the word meeting, and the collar of her little white shirt dress vibrated with excitement and anticipation.  Laura’s perfectly manicured left eyebrow remained raised as she waited for Iris’ answer.

“I will not.” Iris said shortly. Tea? Sewing? What year were they in?  She would not have nosy biddies in her granny’s home to snoop and ask for things.   Laura’s eyebrow dropped, and Iris thought she heard the woman growl.  Iris reaffirmed her position about the manifold meetings the woman proposed. “Absolutely not.”  She arched a brow at the one called Luceal, the one who said she had “read” about her.  SHE most definitely was not coming into her Granny’s home.  While her sister, Laura, was much too made up to be comfortable with, Iris thought that the one called Luceal could use a visit from Clinton and Kelly of “What Not to Wear.”

“You’ve been here a month. We’ll give you another month to get yourself together, and we’ll talk about it over brunch. We know you’ve got to move your family down here with you.”

“There is no family.  There will be no Tuesday Teas, nor will there be Saturday Sewing,” Iris said having finally snatched her hand from Luceal’s grasp.  Using that same hand, she smoothed the hair at the nape of her neck and looked for some salvation in the room.

“But why?” Laura wanted to know. “Maggie would have wanted it that way, don’t you think? You—her granddaughter carrying on her community traditions. “

“Oh quit harassing her, already Laura and Luceal.  And stand back!  Are you trying to steal her breath? Jesus!” Laura and Luceal stepped aside to reveal the small lady with the hand sanitizer.  “Let the girl breathe some FRESH air and get her bearings,” she said while taking a small vial from her neck and spraying the air around the twins.

The two sisters slunk away leaving Iris standing with the small, gray-haired lady.  Iris, already tall and wearing stilettos, stood head and shoulders over her.   For closure, Locke yelled at the twins’ backs, “…and how would you mewing cats know what Maggie wanted.  Just, please…”  Iris observed how the loc’ed woman threw those words at the women as if she were throwing out old pot liquor.  She had never felt more grateful since she moved to Sweet Fields.

“I’m Belle. Belle Lynne Locke. You may call me Belle.  I would shake your hand, but I don’t have my gloves on.” She said shifting her eyes from her hands to Iris’ hands. “No offense, dear. I’m rather particular about germs and such.”

“I am rather particular too,” Iris said, not explaining exactly what she was so particular about.

“I noticed. Now, those two sisters are trouble. Stay away from them, they are full of evil  germs. Don’t tell them anything. Not even the time.” Belle said, rolling her eyes in their direction. Locke began to walk in the direction of the two wing backed chairs, and Iris followed, almost dutifully.  “The stories I could tell you about the Baxter sisters will curdle your blood, but we’ll save that for another day,” she said turning to look at Iris full on. So, you’re Maggie Murphy’s granddaughter. Maggs and I were thick as thieves in our girlhood days.  She was a clever woman, your grandmother.  And it looks like you’re particular just like her.”

“What do you mean by that?” Iris asked arching a thick eyebrow.

“Oh calm down. I mean the way you kept smoothing your dress. Maggs did that all the time. She couldn’t bear to have lines or wrinkles in things—table linens, bed linens, clothes, kitchen towels, you name it. I also noticed you can be quite terse. You said ‘There is no family and there will be no teas or sewing’. Very short and to the point. And no contractions! I like that most. That’s how city people talk. Quick, sharp, and rude. I mean, by southern standards, that was rude, but you can’t be rude enough to the Baxter sisters. You keep that city-sharp tongue of yours ready. You’re going to need it.”

Before Locke could continue, Prentiss LeBeaux was at her side.  “Sister Locke.”  His voice smiled when he said Locke’s name.  He was warm toward her, and while he never once touched Belle Lynne Locke, his hovering way let Iris know they had history.  Rev. LeBeaux turned to greet Iris.  “Hello again, Sister Iris.  I can’t tell you how good it is to have you in our midst.  Now, if you’ll excuse Ms. Belle and me, we’re going to step away for a moment.  You don’t mind do you?”

“Oh no,” Iris breathed.  Belle Lynne Locke’s forwardness had made Iris uncomfortable, but she couldn’t help think about how relieved she was to see the stately little woman and her sanitizer during service and how thankful she was to be the recipient of her rescue mission afterward.  She watched Pastor LeBeaux as he walked away with Locke.  He bent his head down toward the small woman, listening tentatively. Iris noticed how his right hand hovered ever so gently under Locke’s left elbow, which was crooked just enough to allow her Louis Vuitton pouchette to dangle from her arm.  While the chatter of the gathering never stopped, all eyes were on the pair as they continued on in quiet conversation, as if no one else was in the room.  Long money, Iris heard her granny’s voice speak gently in her ear.

Later, Iris stood on the church steps, slid on her Kate Spade sunglasses, and decided to walk home through the park.  Pendleton Park was lovely this time of year. Though she wished they had been grouped by color, she couldn’t help but smile at the tulips that lined her path through the park.

The Pendleton was directly across the street from St. Andrew and her home—it still felt funny to call granny’s home hers—was just two blocks away. She strolled along carefully and admired her grandmother’s house when it came into view.  The large Victorian  sat on the corner of Magnolia and Cuyler. The olive green paint looked fresh and the whitewashed trim and fence, crisp. It was a beautiful house, and her granny was meticulous about its curb appeal.  She eyed the porch swing and decided she would have her Sunday dinner al fresco.

Iris  enjoyed the porch swing well into the evening. A few children rode by on their bikes. The adults walked by and waved to her.  She nodded in response afraid that a warm smile and hearty wave would be misinterpreted as a welcome for them to join her on the large porch. When the sun shined its final light, she turned to go inside and recognized the slightest flutter of curtains in the front window of the house across the street.  Her grandmother told her about him.   Bennett Banks, the man who watched all things and said nothing.  Iris decided that she would deal with him later, on an evening when she was not so sleepy and over worn from the day.

Just as she climbed into her grandmother’s California king-sized bed, the phone rang. She stared at the cordless phone blinking green lights at her for a long moment before answering.

“Hello,” she clipped out.

“That’s interesting. You don’t ASK ‘hello?’ like most people when they answer the phone. This is Belle. I hope I’m not disturbing you.”

“I am just getting into bed. How may I help you?” Iris asked flatly.

“I have a question for you. Did you notice the two ladies trying to kill each other during service today?” Belle sounded like she was smiling.

“Kill each other?” Iris asked while propping herself up against a mountain of pillows.

“Oh, yes. If looks could kill, the deaconess and the organist would be at the Willie Richmond’s Funeral Home.” Belle giggled.

“Oh yes! I did notice them. Did you notice how they both reacted when the reverend stood up?”

Belle cackled loudly. “I knew I was right about you. You don’t miss a thing! What do you think it’s all about?”

“Well, I don’t know any of them, but it seems like the ladies both want the reverend’s attentions. Is he married?”

“Rev. LeBeaux? No. He lost his wife of 20 years about five years ago. They had been married since they were 18 years old.  Clive and I had been married forty-three wonderful years.” There was a long pause. Finally, Belle continued. “I hear Jacqueline Black, the deaconess, is fairly new in town.  She came about a year ago. That woman is on a mission. You mark my words.”

“How do you know all of this? I thought you were new to the church.”

“I am new…somewhat. This is my hometown. I grew up here. Got married here. Clive and I visited often, but I decided to come back for good when Clive died. “

“So how long have you been back in Sweet Fields?

“Not long. Today was my first Sunday back in church. You want to know how I could possibly know the goings on of St. Andrew if I don’t talk to people, don’t you? Well, I read lips. I don’t have to talk TO people to know what’s going on. I just look at them while they talk. I can stand at a safe distance—away from germs and viruses and STILL be in the proverbial loop.” Belle laughed an eery giggle. “Now don’t you go telling people my secret,” she chided.

“Your secret is safe with me.  You’re the only person I’ve had a conversation with since I’ve been here. I, uh, prefer to keep to myself.”  Even as Iris spoke these words, she wondered how was it that this woman had drawn her in with such a short exchange over the phone.

“I see. ‘You, uh, prefer to keep to yourself.’ Well, I think something’s made you that way; we don’t have to talk about it tonight. But we will talk about it  ‘cause I like to know who I’m friends with.”

“Friends? Who me? You don’t even know me.”

“Child, I know all I need to know for now. You keep to yourself. You tell it just like it is, and your eyes move ‘cross people faster than mine do. That means you see a lot that other people don’t see.” There was silence. Belle had read Iris like a book and in doing so shut down the conversation for a few moments.  Finally, Belle broke the uncomfortable silence.  “Well, Iris.  You know I like that name. It’s an old lady’s name, but you’ll grow into it. I’m going to bed. I will see you tomorrow.” And with a click of a button, Belle was gone.

Tomorrow? What was tomorrow? Iris had plans for tomorrow.  Apparently, Belle did too.

Commentary:  Had it not been for Locke, Iris would have been over taken by the Baxter twins!  It seems that church may not feel like the safest place for introverts like Iris.  Have you ever thought about how overwhelming it can be for new and introverted Christians to become a viable part of a church without feeling overwhelmed?  What should Iris do?  Or maybe the real question is, what can churches do to help introverts feel comfortable in their congregations?