Chapter 16 – Of Coffee and Confidences
The two women stood in the living room of the Hipp home examining a stain on a curtain, when Horace Hipp sneaked silently into the kitchen by the back door. He knew his plan of attack was sound. He knew it could work, if he could have three minutes in the kitchen, unnoticed and undisturbed.
First, the letter. If it was still on the table in the breakfast room, his plan was dust. They would see him. But – thankfully! – the letter to the Mt. Moriah session had been placed on the kitchen counter by the car keys. It lay there, innocently, under three other pieces of outgoing mail. Also on the counter were two seed catalogs that had arrived for him the previous day. The ladies’ plates, silverware, and half-drunk coffee mugs were scattered messily as well. He knew he would be told to wash them up in the next half hour. He placed the letter, now sealed, addressed and stamped, under the front cover of one of the seed catalogs. It was well-concealed. Then he quietly restacked the plates, and poured all the leftover coffee into one mug, placing it inside the other mug. It sat ajar, leaning precariously over the seed catalog. The coffee sloshed at the rim. Then he gingerly placed each piece of silverware in the mug, with their heavy ends jutting upward and over, making the mug top-heavy. It was a coffee catastrophe waiting to happen.
Horace Hipp breathed quietly. He was halfway there. He slid across the kitchen to the refrigerator, opened it slowly, and extracted a leftover piece of sausage. Now, all that was left was to beckon his accomplice in crime. He knelt carefully next to the cat’s bowl, and merely squeezed the bag of kitty treats, just a little squeeze. The bag made a quiet rustling sound. Ezmerelda, Willina Hipp’s obese and evil cat, listened for that sound every minute of every day. In four seconds, she was standing in the kitchen door, green eyes fixed on the man’s hand, gray tail twitching in anticipation. Then the man’s other hand reached out to her, and she smelled sausage. Sausage, so much superior to treats! The man slowly walked toward the backdoor, moving the delicacy toward the counter. He opened the door silently, made a beckoning noise to the cat, tossed the sausage onto the stack of plates, and exited through the door with just enough noise to catch his wife’s attention. The closing door was muffled perfectly by the sound of crashing dishes as the animal bumped over the mugs and gobbled the sausage in one gulp.
A moment later, Mrs. Hipp smacked her cat from the counter and bemoaned the broken mug and spilled coffee. Horace re-entered the door he’d just passed through, and noted the ruined seed catalog, but his wife was little concerned with such things.
“Throw it out!” she ordered. “It’s soggy. We are going out, President Hipp. Do finish the dishes, throw out all this nasty mess, and put that cat out for the morning.” Mrs. Hipp gathered her keys and the stack of mail. “Come, Miss Jones. To the post office, and then the tea shop. There is God’s work to do!”
Horace Hipp nodded obediently. As the ladies walked down the path, he was tossing the letter, drenched and brown, into the garbage with the seed catalog, as instructed by his wife.
“If they don’t look at the letters before they put them into the slot, they won’t even know it’s never gone!” And he crossed his fingers and looked longingly up to the ceiling.
Lily Cloudee tapped on Athena Shepherd’s kitchen door. She had not visited this house since Emma Lou Hopkins had lived here, over ten years before. Emma Lou was a master with a paintbrush and had taught Lily all about watercolors and shading fruit.
Athena was vacuuming the living room and did not hear the knock at first. She welcomed Mrs. Cloudee with pleasure and surprise.
“Thank you, m’dear. I won’t keep you but a minute,” Lily began. She looked around uncomfortably, and Athena, wiping her hands on her apron, offered her a chair.
“That’s fine. Baby’s asleep, and I’m only cleaning. Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“No, no. Had two cups this morning, and that’s my limit.” Lily smiled at the young mother. Then she rallied to her final task of the morning. She cleared her throat. “Your Sam is a good friend of Billy Greeter, isn’t he?”
Athena’s face hardened and her eyes turned imperceptibly colder. “Yes, he is. They’re best friends.” Athena turned her gaze away, toward the window. “Why?”
Lily waited for Athena to look at her again, but it took several moments. “You know what’s being said.”
“What?” Athena said sharply.
“About Billy. About a woman. And a baby.”
“A baby?” Athena stood up abruptly. “A baby! There is no baby!”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
“I’m sure you are,” Athena retorted.
“Athena! I came here as a friend.” She leaned toward the younger woman. “Sit down, dear.”
Athena complied. She turned to Lily. “If anyone says there’s a baby, that’s an outright lie. All this gossip is,” here she paused, “is empty. It’s nothing.”
Lily tilted her head. “Nothing? There’s no truth in it at all?”
Athena bit her lip. Lying would not help Billy. It would only hurt in the long run. She sighed.
“Very little to it. There was a woman who liked him. He broke it off. He even left the office to escape the situation.” She looked again at Lily as her eyes brimmed with emotion. “Why should he be persecuted for that? He’s done the right thing.”
Lily Cloudee was silent. She turned Athena’s salt shaker around in little circles on the tablecloth. Here was an honest question. But how to stop the damage to Billy and his parents? How to stop the persecutors?
“Athena,” she began, “I came here just to let you know that the gossip is getting rather bad. Billy should be warned that it will probably involve the church, and his father as a session member.”
“Yes. I’m afraid so.”
“But Sam! How would he …?”
“That’s why I came. I want you to know. And perhaps we can find a way to avoid all the hurt and meanness, if the men know ahead of time.”
Athena rested her head in her hands, shaking it in denial. Then she looked again at Lily.
“My Aunt Hipp. She’s behind this, isn’t she?”
Lily said nothing. Athena’s mouth set in a hard line and she smoothed the hair around her face.
“Thank you, Mrs. Cloudee. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this. I’ll handle it, as much as I can.”
“I spoke to Mrs. Greeter too, Athena.” Lily placed a kind hand on Athena’s, and patted it.
“You’re very brave. This town is a gossip machine if ever there was one.”
“Yes, well,” and Lily stood to take her leave. “Some is more harmful than others. I cannot bear to see a young man ruined by mean-spiritedness. Good-bye, dear.”
Athena neglected her vacuuming and spent the next half-hour pondering what to tell her husband.