Chapter 13 – The Cloudees Ruminate
Now, dear reader, I will admit that Dr. Cloudee should indeed have acted quickly, if he had known how to act. He should have banded together his committee and recommended strongly whatever candidate he preferred. But he did not. The weeks of spring sped by. He cared not a fig for institutions themselves. He did not want the property sold to Lutherans or anyone else. He wanted the property, at least partly, for his own congregation’s use, and the last thing he wanted was an enemy stronghold, like a Baptist conference center, dominating the center of his town. But whom should he recommend? Juanita Jones? Heaven forbid that she should remain in Greenfield a minute longer than absolutely necessary! With she and Willina Hipp standing over the campuses like a joint Colossus of Rhodes, all interaction between Leach Street and College Street would be unbearable. Every Christian male in Greenfield would be unmanned by the pair of them.
Reginald Heeler? Besides the fact that no one in the SNARK camp would tolerate him, a newcomer and a SNACK supplanter, Heeler would feel his rise in position too nicely, Dr. Cloudee suspected. He was an ambitious young man. Such a rise would not be good for his humility.
So our Dr. Cloudee was left with only Dr. Greeter for his consideration. And even if he could convince the dean to accept the post, this option presented its own thorns. Greeter would keep the college going in its old course – solid, small, solvent and Snarkian. This was perhaps a better option than the other two, but Dr. Cloudee was not satisfied with the old song. Once he got a taste in his mouth for possession of those lovely grounds, he found it hard to spit the flavor out. It slipped about on his tongue, improving with time. In some ways, Greeter at the college’s head would be a more formidable opponent than the other two – a wise man, a noble man, but a stubborn man when defending an institution he loved. He would never tolerate it to be reduced in any way.
Dr. Cloudee needed a man who would slowly let the college dwindle and be absorbed into the Atlanta school, while allowing the grounds to remain in the denomination, and at his disposal. He doubted any of the three candidates would do this, and it seemed clear that the denomination would not keep the property if it weren’t useful.
“The property must not be sold!” These were the words that kept returning to his mind.
Lily Cloudee could tell her husband’s thoughts were disturbed. He let his oatmeal grow cold in the mornings, picked at his lunch leftovers, and grumbled about his evening casseroles. She sewed baby blankets for the upcoming rummage sale, and when she met with her sewing club, or her reading group, or her knitting circle, she gossiped with the ladies, telling them that Dr. Cloudee had a protracted case of indigestion.
One such delicious conversation occurred early in May at the home of Betty and Inez Sharp. The elderly Sharp sisters were life-long residents of Greenfield and faithful congregants of Leach Street Presbyterian. Dearly loved by all the other old ladies, all the little children who yearly trick-or-treated up to their stately white mansion on the hill, and all the middle-aged women who found them adorable, Betty and Inez Sharp resided over Greenfield society with mindless, quiet beneficence. They knew everyone’s news mysteriously and instantaneously. They never crossed spars with anyone, even Mrs. Hipp. And except for their cook, Honey, they addressed everyone by “Mr.” and “Miss,” even the children. Betty Sharp walked to the Tuppence Tea Shop every morning at 9:30 and drank a cup and a half of Assam tea with Mrs. Grey, with lemon and sugar only. Inez Sharp only left home for church and the beauty shop, and spent her mornings painting birds in the backyard and her afternoons napping on the sun porch. Their tyrannical father, long-deceased Major Sharp, donated the funds for the Leach Street church organ over fifty years ago. The sisters, now in their early 80s, were in reasonable health, although they had the usual signs of dotage. Betty’s gray head nodded up and down in gentle movement, almost constantly. She drank her tea slowly because of this. It tended to dribble down her chin if she hurried. However, Inez’s white head wagged from left to right slowly, as if she were in general disagreement with the world, but with a smile on her lips, as if she did not care to fight about it.
“Lily, dear, would you care for more tea?” Inez asked her guest, shaking her head at her the while. Lily nodded in the affirmative, but became confused when she looked at Inez Sharp’s head.
“Yes. No.” Lily’s eyes dazed. “I’m fine, thank you, Miss Sharp.”
The Haviland china rested beautifully on the low coffee table, and bright sunshine filtered through lace curtains. The Sharp sisters’ parlor was filled with pink damask furniture – low chairs with curving arms and arched backs, “rather like cats,” Lily thought, and a very worn wool rug. An ancient clock ticked sleepily on the mantelpiece. Lily settled on her lap a pink baby quilt with fluffy lambs gamboling across its surface. She began to stitch one animal’s leg in place.
“Such a sad time at the college,” noted Betty Sharp.
“Oh yes,” Inez shook her head in disagreement.
Lily found conversations with the Sharp sisters less confusing if she did not look at them.
“And what a hard time for the Greeters,” added Betty.
“Yes,” interposed Lily, “I’m sure Dr. Greeter will have more to do, especially with graduation coming on.”
Betty looked up. “Oh no,” she said, nodding in affirmation. “Not that. I mean poor Billy.”
“Billy? What’s wrong with Billy?” Lily asked, and she pricked her thumb with a sewing needle.
“Betty heard it all in the tea shop, from Earline Grey,” Inez said, leaning close to Lily and lowering her voice. “Horrible! What will they do?”
“Do about what?” Lily asked.
Betty leaned in too. “Why, having him so close to the college girls! Mrs. Hipp says it must not be allowed!”
“Not allowed,” Inez echoed, shaking her head ominously.
“And he ought not be living on the campus!”
“Ought not,” Inez echoed, and her head agreed.
Lily made the mistake of watching the sisters’ faces as they batted words like tennis balls. She felt dizzy.
“Wait, wait!” she interrupted, putting down her baby quilt. “What in the world has Billy done?”
The sisters stopped in their tracks, looked surprised at each other, and were momentarily still. Then their heads started again. Betty began, “He’s involved himself in a most horrible scandal, down in Atlanta. Mrs. Grey heard Mrs. Hipp talking about it with Miss Jones – “
“—horrible woman --“ broke in her sister.
“Now Miss Sharp,” cautioned Betty to her sister. To Lily she said, “ – with Miss Jones, after church last Sunday.”
“Yes, but --“ attempted Lily, unsuccessfully.
“And we’re afraid it might be true, every word!” continued Inez. “Because Mrs. Hipp’s old neighbor in Buckhead has a nephew who works in the office next door to Billy’s firm, and he was quite certain –“
“Quite, quite certain, oh dear!” wailed Betty.
“Bless me,” whispered Lily.
“And we all agree that it’s most unnatural,” Inez went on, her white head wagging most violently now, “for him to be home this long in tax season.”
“Yes, yes,” murmured Betty, nodding, and Lily of course agreed.
“I am so sorry,” Lily added. This seemed to still the ladies, but not their heads. Finally Lily asked meekly, “What exactly did the nephew say, if I might ask?”
Betty nodded as if speaking absolute truth. “That it was the truth, a terrible truth, but the truth nonetheless. Mrs. Hipp said so.” She gazed out the window into the sunshine. “Poor, poor Billy.”
Lily now surmised that a more circuitous route might be more effective, and made a stab in the dark.
“And what will the girl do?”
Inez placed a thin hand on Lily’s knee. “The girl,” she whispered, “left the office and hasn’t been heard from since!”
“They say there’s a baby,” added Betty.
“But we don’t believe it,” added Inez.
Betty knitted and Inez crocheted, and there was a moment of silence. Lily tried again.
“But if there’s a baby, why doesn’t he just marry the girl?”
“How can he,” replied Betty, “when she’s already married!” and she lowered her voice to a hiss on the final word.
“Yes!” Inez replied with a sturdy wagging of the head from side to side.
“But then,” Lily countered, “the baby might be her husband’s.”
“No!” Betty answered, with an affirming nod of her gray locks. “They say the husband’s left. And Billy has shamed himself. And the Greeters can barely show their faces.”
“But I saw him in town just yesterday,” Lily replied. “And Emilia never shows her face anyway.”
“True,” answered Inez, but Lily did not look at her contradictory head.
Lily pricked her thumb again. “Ah, second prick, ladies. That means I’m tired and need to go.” She stood and began folding her quilt and gathering her thread. The sisters put down their work and stood to see her out.
“So sorry you must go,” said Betty, who was small and thin.
“Please come again, Lily,” said Inez, who was short and stout.
Lily Cloudee kissed them each on the cheek and exited into the bright May sunshine.