Chapter 20 – The Last Battle
In spite of Mrs. Hipp’s worries, and the fact that Dr. Cloudee had washed his car the day before, the morning of the rummage sale dawned clear and blue. The slumbering town rose from its bed like a child on the first day of summer holiday. Everyone expected fun to be had at the rummage sale. Indeed, it was more of a town party than a serious money-raising event, and this fact would stick in Mrs. Hipp’s craw all day long.
The first riser was Lily Cloudee. As a morning person, she wanted the fun of that day to start with the sunrise. She made French toast for her husband’s breakfast, threw Bowzer’s bone deep into the rose bed for his digging pleasure, and sang “Morning Has Broken” in her best light soprano as she loaded her baby blankets into a large basket.
Emilia Greeter was not far behind her friend. And although she did not plan to exit her door on this delightful day, she anticipated much activity in her kitchen. The Greeters had volunteered this space to serve lunch to all the volunteers manning the tables, and offered their guest rooms as napping space for all the volunteers’ babies. By 10:30, Baby Shepherd and Baby Waight would be cooing happily next to each other in their porta-cribs.
Ernest Greeter was also up. He’d received a call from James Cloudee the night before, asking for a brief conversation the morning of the sale. It was an odd request. Dr. Cloudee rarely called on the college dean. Dr. Greeter wondered what was up, and mistakenly put on a tie and suit coat before his wife reminded him it was only a rummage sale. In his distraction he ate her bran cereal for breakfast. He hates bran cereal.
Willina Hipp and Juanita Jones were in a dither. Unfortunately, each woman had marched early and authoritatively to the other’s house at exactly 8:00, but the shrubbery and sale signs had prevented them from seeing each other. Horace was in his hostas, and Jonquil was in bed, so the two frustrated women missed each other for the next 45 minutes, fuming at each other and steaming nicely until they finally ran into each other by the table erected for the sale of jams and jellies.
“Miss Jones! Where have you been?”
“Mrs. Hipp! I’ve been looking everywhere for you! Really!”
I’m sorry to say that this slightly rocky start did not bode well for the bosom friends. Mutually grouchy, the women began to berate their assistants and generally shove both people and tables around. “Oh, I’ll just do it myself,” Mrs. Hipp was heard to say more than once. And “Honestly! Does anyone have a brain around here?” escaped from Miss Jones’s lips frequently. Quickly the bleary-eyed student slaves disappeared back to their dorm rooms. Church ladies trickled in one at a time bearing yet more rummage sale donations. Mrs. Busby took her usual place behind the jams and jellies. Athena and Connie dominated an expansive space by the fountain with three tables of children’s clothes. The baby paraphernalia stretched behind them like a little parking lot.
The Sharp sisters arrived in style. Their cook Honey drove them in the Cadillac and helped them to their places. She set up their cushioned lawn chairs under a beach umbrella, right next to the baked goods auction. While Betty smiled at all passersby and appeased Mrs. Hipp with her agreeable nodding, Inez surreptitiously sneaked slices of pecan pie from the table and dropped chunks of it on the ground for the marauding squirrels. The squirrels were careful not to make a noise with Mrs. Hipp nearby; they knew what was good for them. And thus every squirrel in the county was at the baked goods auction by 10:00. They outnumbered the humans. The Sharp sisters believed that squirrels are to fairies what horses are to humans, and always hoped by luring squirrels into their yard that they would at last see a fairy. They are imaginative women.
Ernest Greeter and James Cloudee met by the fountain before Athena Shepherd left her house that morning. It was a quiet, almost clandestine meeting of men. From a distance, one might see Dr. Greeter’s hands in his pockets, his head down. Dr. Cloudee’s hands were slightly imploring, and he often looked to his friend as they walked. Once, Dr. Greeter paused and looked into the green pool of water next to them. He placed his foot on the fountain’s cement rim, but a large chunk of the pool’s edge crumbled under the pressure, and he stepped back. They continued in deep conversation, circling the fountain for a quarter of an hour. At last, the men looked at each other, and Dr. Greeter nodded slowly. They shook hands. No one saw them except a few early squirrels. No one in Greenfield knew that at last the pastor had convinced the dean to accept the temporary position of college president. It was a hard task, but Dr. Greeter was persuaded at last that this was best for the school. Dr. Cloudee was greatly relieved. The committees’ pressures, the irritating ingratiating antics of Associate Heeler, and the distasteful presence of Juanita Jones, would now be banished from his life. He owed a large favor to Dr. Greeter, and both men knew it.
Lily Cloudee, in spite of her early rise, was late arriving at the party. She enlisted the help of Mr. Heeler to carry her basket, since her husband had left early and she hadn’t seen him since. Mr. Heeler was willing enough to help, but he had one objective that morning: to find Jonquil Jones and keep her for the day. Jonny’s goal was to spend enough time with Reg to fulfill her promise, and then escape. She regretted their vaguely romantic interlude.
As Reginald Heeler set Lily Cloudee’s basket down on the baby table and his eyes began to scan the campus, Jonny stepped out into her backyard. She saw Helen Bishop, casual in blue jeans and a t-shirt, walking to the Greeters’ house. Jonny backed up and stood very still in the shadow of her carport. She saw Helen tap lightly on a window, and moments later Billy emerged. Together they strolled toward the rummage sale. Billy reached over and playfully flipped Helen’s ponytail. Jonny sighed.
The day began to warm toward noon. The smell of pine sap drifted through the air. Women in lawn chairs pulled old church bulletins from their purses to fan themselves with. The table selling lemonade, sweet tea and raspberry slushies was doing a lively business. A few old men dug the horseshoes out of the chapel storage room and started a game, while their wives told them to be sure not to hit the children. Mrs. Hipp had at last indignantly removed all the pecan pie from the Sharp sisters’ reach, and both the sisters and the squirrels were unhappy.
“What a selfish woman!” Inez wagged.
“Now, sister. She is so unhappy,” Betty affirmed.
“I baked those pies myself! I can give them to whomever I please!” Inez protested.
It was when Mrs. Hipp was carrying four pieces of pie that she first saw Mr. Heeler following Jonquil Jones. This development did not sit well with her. She detected a slight leer on the man’s face that made her spine quiver with distaste. And he was winking in a lively way. She set her chin, squared her shoulders and began to march in the direction of the furniture tent.
“Miss Jones?” she hollered. “Miss Jones!”
Juanita Jones bustled from the tent. “Yes? What do you need, Mrs. Hipp? Is there something wrong with the pie?”
“What? The pie?” Mrs. Hipp looked surprised at the four sagging paper plates in her hands. “No! No, Miss Jones. It is your niece.”
“Jonquil? What’s wrong? Is she ill?”
“No, Miss Jones. She is not ill. She is consorting.”
“Consorting?” Miss Jones snorted disdainfully. “My niece does not consort. With whom do you suspect she is consorting, Mrs. Hipp?”
Willina Hipp set the pie on a nearby table and put her arms akimbo under her substantial bosom. “She is consorting with that ingratiating worm, Reginald Heeler!” And she boomed his last name loudly as if it were a verbal weapon against her comrade.
“She is not!”
Miss Jones thrust forth her chin, bent her arms and strode forth into the fray. “Jonquil!” she bellowed. “Jonquil Jones!” Mrs. Hipp followed her in lockstep.
They did not get far, however, before they found themselves walking next to another couple. Miss Jones stopped in her tracks, and Mrs. Hipp bashed her nose into her friend’s neck.
“Mrs. Hipp!” she hissed.
There before them walked Helen Bishop, Mrs. Hipp’s own niece, and Billy Greeter, the reprobate. And as they strolled past, brushing shoulders, Helen slipped her slim hand inside Billy’s. Mrs. Hipp’s breath was sucked in between her teeth so shockingly that even I am surprised that she did not faint. She, however, is not the fainting kind.
Miss Jones turned on her friend, the companion of her youth and her spiritual sister. Her eyes were slits. Her thin lips barely moved. “Consorting, eh?” And Miss Jones stomped past her, as best she could stomp on the soft college soil. Mrs. Hipp put her hand to her chest. She thought she felt palpitations, even though she is not the palpitating kind.
Willina Hipp realized this little spat would not damage her causes in the long run. Miss Jones would come around. Today, she must devote herself to the sale, and to the larger mission: the college presidency. Somewhere in this throng, James Cloudee must be lurking. For too long, she had delayed a head-to-head assault on the man, regarding the college post. A public gathering would perhaps be the best place to get an honest answer from him about how he would satisfy her and her camp. How long until he would present Miss Jones as a candidate? And how long until he told that miserable worm of an associate pastor that he was not a candidate? Mrs. Hipp smoothed the bun on her head, fluffed out her black robes, and marched toward the center of the sale.
James Cloudee was at the sale, but he was incognito. He had secured his college president, and he had no politicizing to do today. Bedecked in white linen shorts, a baby blue golf shirt, and a large Panama hat, he sat far to the seminary side of the grounds – in fact, right behind Mrs. Hipp’s own home. At 11:00 he saw Horace Hipp slip silently into his potting shed as his Amazonian wife strode into the fountain area. Dr. Cloudee had no potting shed, nor was he as much of a coward as the seminary president. He slid his hat brim over his face and slouched in his seat. He looked nothing like his usual self.
Two clusters of visitors also roamed the grounds, unaware of each other. One was a band of unsuspecting Lutherans, invited to the campuses by Harold Bossman, the chairman of the Committee on Committees, and his golfing buddy Wendel Stucker, head of the Committee on Institutional Institutions. Mr. Bossman was pointing out the gracefulness of the dancing cement porpoises in the fountain, while Mr. Stucker tried to hide the several chunks of cement edging that had been dislodged that day around the pool. The men with them looked mildly interested, listened mindlessly to the history of the campuses, and nodded appreciatively when asked if they’d like a lemonade. Unfortunately, as Mrs. Hipp sailed by in her flowing robes, she overheard this horrible question from a pair of Lutheran lips:
“And you say both campuses are for sale?”
And the appalling reply from Mr. Stucker:
“Oh yes. I think this summer. Yes, for sale.”
Mrs. Hipp, the Greek Warrior Goddess of her beloved city and Great Protector of her campuses, stopped dead in her tracks. She drew herself up to her full height, clenched her fists, unclenched her teeth, and turned on the traitorous band before her. But before she could speak, she heard yet another conversation behind her, in front of the jam and jellies table. It is Adel Busby’s voice. She is talking on her cell phone to her daughter who lives in Chattanooga.
“Yes! A new college president! At least I hope so. I just talked to them, a whole group of them. Such nice men. They’re looking for Horace Hipp.” Mrs. Hipp’s ears perked, and she delayed her vitriolic attack on the SNACK group. This conversation sounded important as well. Adel continued.
“Well, let’s see. There was a Mr. Usher, and Henry Something-or-other. Several of the old guard from SNARK. I think they want to present a man to be our new president! I forget his name ….”
But before she could finish her sentence or say good-bye, Willina Hipp had snatched the phone from her hand. Adel Busby gasped slightly, as the large woman leaned in toward her. Mrs. Hipp’s face was contorted in rage and as red as the raspberry slushie that was melting in Adel’s cup.
“Where are they, Adel?” she hissed. “Where are these men?”
“I … uh, uh … well ….” And then Adel pointed vaguely toward the Sharp sisters’ table.
As Mrs. Hipp spun around, her eyes lit briefly on the reclining form of James Cloudee, hiding himself under her magnolia tree. She growled quietly. In fewer than ten strides, she was on him.
“James Cloudee, you are a traitor!”
He leapt in his chair. His hat fell in the grass.
She placed her chubby fists on her bulging hips and leaned in. “Exactly who are those Lutherans, invading our property? You invited them today, didn’t you? Didn’t you? Today of all days!” And then she did the unthinkable. She grabbed the man by the arm, and lifted him bodily from his lawn chair.
“Get rid of them! I will not have them on my property!”
“Mrs. Hipp,” he said, feigning calm, “I think I can hardly ….”
“You will! Immediately!” And she wheeled him toward the fountain, with her forceful hand in the middle of his back.
When they reached the fountain, she presented James Cloudee to the mingling group of Lutherans. But as she waited for him to do his duty, she was jostled from behind. The Snarkian group were examining the fountain too. A man gently grasped her elbow.
“Why, hello, Mrs. Hipp,” he said. “I’m Mr. Usher, from Savannah, here with some friends. We’d like to speak to your husband, if we may. Can you direct us to him?”
Before she could reply, James Cloudee said loudly to her, “Mrs. Hipp, I know nothing of this, this … Lutheran visit. Good day!” He shoved past her, infuriated at her pushiness, and at the committee men trying to sell the school.
Mrs. Hipp spun around to prevent him from leaving, but she missed. Mr. Usher, meanwhile, tried to grab her elbow again. And quite unexpectedly, Reginald Heeler approached from a third direction. He had secured Jonny and was dragging the unwilling girl around by the hand.
“Mrs. Hipp! At last I’ve found you,” Mr. Heeler said. “I must talk privately with you.” And, grasping Jonny by the arm, he tilted his head at Mrs. Hipp. He winked.
Poor Willina Hipp. It was too much for her. She lifted her arm to slap the impudent young man, and delivered a sharp “smack” to his cheek. The blow, which stunned him, propelled her off her balance. She lost her footing. Behind her was the fountain. Wobbling slightly, she stepped up onto its rim to escape the throng.
“Mrs. Hipp!” said Mr. Heeler.
“Mrs. Hipp!” said Mr. Usher.
“Mrs. Hipp!” muttered Dr. Cloudee under his breath as he strode away. It was an imprecation.
The woman balanced herself on the pool’s wide cement edge. She listed one way and then the other. As she looked out over the crowd, she saw her niece Helen, gazing fondly at Billy Greeter. Mrs. Hipp moaned in distress. Billy smiled at Helen, leaned over, and kissed her gently under the shade of a live oak tree, while the marauding squirrels chattered happily above them.
Mrs. Hipp lost her equilibrium at last. The cement beneath her bulk crumbled away. As she fell slowly and heavily into the fountain’s pool of green algae, she grabbed wildly for anything in her reach. Unfortunately, her frantic fingers curled around the sloping nose of a cement porpoise. She paused in midair, clinging by her fingertips, desperately hoping to avoid total humiliation. A grimace of a smile stretched across her lips. And the porpoise’s nose, weak as the rest of the ancient cement, broke off and crumbled in her palm. With the splash of a gargantuan cannonball, Mrs. Hipp plunged into the slimy green water of the pond.
The rummage sale instantly fell quiet, all except Inez Sharp, whose high-pitched voice rang out in the silence.
“He’s kissing her! Billy’s kissing that pretty girl!”
All eyes that were riveted on Mrs. Hipp’s humiliation were then drawn in the other direction. Helen Bishop blushed deeply when she opened her eyes and saw the town looking at her in Billy’s arms. She giggled. And everyone cheered. Billy waved at them like a shy school boy.
“Ah, young love,” Lily Cloudee said.
In the quiet reverie of this blissful moment, the air was splintered by a massive bellow. “Will someone get me out of here!” Mrs. Hipp demanded. And a few college boys, displeased at having to touch a wet Mrs. Hipp, obliged. With as much dignity as she could muster – and I must say, it’s amazing how much dignity a woman like Mrs. Hipp can muster at such times – she walked with straight back and forward eyes to her house door.
Mrs. Hipp did not present herself at the rummage sale for the rest of the day. It was a very jubilant afternoon.
Emilia Greeter, of course, missed all this fun. She was happily ensconced in her guest room, rocking babies. This was another quiet joy she shared with a few in her community. She loved to babysit, and did it often, and always free of charge. If a young mother needed a few hours of babyless time, Mrs. Greeter was happy to oblige. Once the babies started to walk, she declined. She was not a toddler-sitter; she was a babysitter.
So it was for Connie Waight to tell her the excitements of the morning. From her vantage point at the clothing stall, Connie saw everything, even the kiss. When she collected her baby from Mrs. Greeter’s living room, she relayed every detail.
“They kissed?” Mrs. Greeter asked.
“Yes, ma’am they did,” Connie replied.
Mrs. Greeter smiled, closed her eyes, and breathed deeply of the lovely baby scent on the head of the infant in her arms. Life was good again.
Back at the fountain, Athena followed her aunt from a careful distance as she went to her home in disgrace. But the niece did not go inside. She walked to the potting shed and knocked three times on the door.
“It’s me, Uncle Horace.”
“Oh! Athena! Do come in.”
She opened the door. Horace Hipp sat sheepishly on his stool. He was gripping a flower catalog.
“Better go inside, Uncle Horace. Aunty Hippy needs you.”
“Me? Why would she need me?”
“She fell in the pool.”
He stood up. “Oh my,” he said. He sat again. “Oh my.”
“It was pretty embarrassing, I think.” Athena leaned against the door. “As a matter of fact, I think she had a really rough morning all around. I think she and Jonesy had a fight.”
“I saw Miss Jones putting suitcases in her car.”
Horace Hipp was silent, silent but happy, at this news.
“And, um, Billy Greeter has a new girlfriend. They got caught kissing at the sale, in front of everybody.”
“Did they now,” he murmured. “Very satisfactory.”
“Just thought you’d like to know,” Athena finished.
“Well, thank you, dear. I’ll make my way inside in a bit, I promise.”
Athena walked across both campuses on her way to pick up her baby from Emilia Greeter. As she walked in front of the furniture tent, Sam caught up with her.
“I’ve been looking for you!” he said.
“Yeah! Guess what?”
“What?” She stopped at looked at her exuberant husband.
“I just heard that Ernest Greeter has agreed to be the new college president.”
“That’s good news!” she said.
“That’s phenomenal news!” he exclaimed. “Athena, you don’t know how worried I was that the Greeters would leave over this whole thing with Billy and Mrs. Hipp.”
“Well, that’s pretty settled now too, don’t you think?” she asked.
“Yes, I do.”
The young pastor and his wife strolled beneath the pines and oaks. Lily Cloudee sold her last blanket. As the couple walked by her, she hummed prettily, “I’ve Got Peace Like a River.” The Sharp sisters were nodding, sleeping, in their chairs. Honey fanned them both with a crumpled church bulletin and sipped her slushie. Billy and Helen were nowhere to be seen. Reginald Heeler wandered the grounds, looking for Jonny. He was uncertain just where his day had gone wrong.
The Lutherans left in their church van, and the visiting Snarkians from Savannah, realizing that their quest was in vain, settled into a long tournament of horseshoes. As the afternoon drew to a close, it was difficult to tell if they had won or lost. Most of them were graduates of these old institutions and enjoyed a day to reminisce. By the end of the afternoon, Greenfield had settled into that peaceful warmth of lengthening shadows that hinted at the long, luxurious Southern summer stretching ahead. All her present troubles were over. As the good book says, “tomorrow has enough troubles for itself.” As we depart Greenfield, dear reader, the Cloudees, the Greeters, the Sharp sisters, and the Shepherds all sit happily on their porches eating rummage sale pie and thanking God for young love, good friends, and crumbly cement.