The Garden Club by Phil Bowie
Phil is this month’s winner of $287.50 for his story on the power of rumor and trust in middle America. Though tinged with darkness, this story also manages to be informative in its own distinctive way.
Born and raised in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, Phil Bowie is an instrument-rated pilot, a Coast Guard-licensed master mariner, a motorcycle rider, an astronomy buff, and a fiddler. He has published five novels, including a four novel series starring John Hardin and an independent novel on African elephant hunting titled Killing Ground.
Without further ado, “The Garden Club” by Phil Bowie.
Marvin Tolland said, “Stella, those wicked bitches are going to drive this town to ruin.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Marv,” his wife said from across the dining table. “How on earth can thirteen women be held responsible for the ills of an entire town? We’re just a chattery flock of plant lovers. Our projects have beautified the whole county. You want to tell me Kafer Park hasn’t been a blessing?”
“Walter Hoover is dead, Stella.”
“What are you saying? You think we had something to do with that? Thelma said it should have come as no surprise to anyone he took his own life. I know he was a friend of yours, but you have to admit he was always strange. Everybody knew that. Then there were all the suspicions about him and those little boys.”
“Will you listen to yourself? I knew Walt all his life. He was shy and quiet, and he looked different with those thick glasses and the big nose, but I’d swear on my eyes he was never a child molester. He was a Cub Scout leader for sixteen years.”
“Why was he a Cub Scout leader, Marv?”
“Because he loved kids, and they loved him. He and Beth couldn’t have any of their own. Simple as that.”
“Thelma said. Let me give you a hypothetical scenario. About eighteen months ago, Thelma plants a tiny seed in her fertile-minded garden club. She heard Walt Hoover really likes little boys. Her twelve loyal disciples start watering that seed with whispers. Grow it into a weed that spreads through town in the shadows. Parents start pulling their kids out of Walt’s pack, just to be on the safe side. Pretty soon, there is no pack and Walt’s walking around with this stunned expression like somebody just whacked him on the back of his head with a baseball bat. Walt’s shop starts losing business. Bills come due he can’t pay. Beth decides to take an extended vacation up at her mother’s place. Everybody thinks there must be something to the rumors for his life to be coming apart like that. Finally, Walt puts on his Cub Scout leader’s uniform, loads his daddy’s old forty-five Army pistol, and walks off into the woods.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I damned sure can. Listen, I’m a banker, and banking runs on trust, especially in a small city like this. It’s a fragile thing, so maybe I’m more sensitive than most about damaging rumors and innuendo.”
Stella frowned and stared out the window. She was forty-nine, and there were permanent lines etched around her eyes. Her hair was showing premature streaks of gray. After a miscarriage years ago, they too had been unable to have children.
Her lower lip was trembling.
Marvin ran a hand over his mostly bald pate, heaved a sigh, and said, “Ah, hell. Sorry. I’m not accusing you of malicious intent, Stell. Most of the girls in that club mean no harm. They’re only gossiping. We all do it to some extent. But Thelma’s different. I just flat sense it. All I’m asking, I guess, is please give it some thought. Did Thelma have anything against Beth? Is it remotely possible that’s why she might have gone after Walt?”
Stella blinked several times, composing herself. She avoided looking at her husband and began clearing the table. “Thelma would never do what you’re suggesting. Sometimes I think you need help. I really do.”
Marvin got up and carried handfuls of tableware into the kitchen behind her. Said to her back, “Stell, every other thing you say these days seems to be some sort of sideways put down or verbal dart. You watch those sick talk shows on TV. Talk about half the people in town behind their backs. You never used to do that. Since you’ve been going to those Thursday meetings, I swear you’ve changed. I think the atmosphere in that group is toxic. And contagious.”
She clattered dishes into the sink and turned to face him, her cheeks blotched with anger. “Well what are you doing? You just practically accused Thelma and the others—me—of murder, for God’s sake.”
“But I’m not spreading rumors around town, am I? You’re my wife and I’ve hated to watch you changing. I’m just trying to get you to see. All that talk, it can damage people. There’s a streak of . . . evil in Thelma. It hangs in the air whenever that club of hers meets. Just think about it, Stell, will you?”
* * *
On Thursday evening, Stella arrived at Thelma’s immaculate old restored gingerbread three-story in the historic district 20 minutes early, intending to talk privately with Thelma, but two other club members were already there. More arrived amid the usual warmly comforting chatter and laughter. Finally, they all settled down with tea and cookies in the large parlor. Candles fluttered on the coffee table. Muted classical music flowed from the stereo.
They dispensed with club business and finances quickly, and then talked briefly about a shrub and flower plan for the city library grounds.
Thelma was on the end of the baroque couch, long legs curled under her, raven hair flowing forward over her left shoulder like an inky waterfall. She was in her mid-forties but still exotically beautiful and svelte in the soft light. She smiled and said, “Well, who has any news?”
Laura Kunkel shifted on her chair, set her cup on the table, and said, “I heard from Angie Dunn, that cute little secretary at Feinstein and Wardlow, you know, the one who drives that ridiculous yellow convertible nobody can figure out how she got unless she’s taking care of a little more for Feinstein than his books? Anyway, she told me Wardlow plans to run for county commissioner against your husband, Olivia. He has the business and country club strings to make it, and you all know what that means.”
Olivia Braxton said, “He’ll have the deciding vote on the commission, and he’ll oppose the north side expansion in favor of using his cousin’s land out on Highway Twenty. Several of our families here have interests in that north side project.”
There were some assenting sounds.
Thelma gazed at the ornate plaster ceiling and said, “Well, the thirteen of us represent twenty-two households when you consider close relations, and we have more families on our side when you think about those we work and socialize with. It adds up to lots of votes and considerable influence.”
“But not nearly enough to counter Wardlow’s connections,” Olivia said.
Laura said, “And he’s popular, anyway. Look at all the people who go to his restaurant.”
Thelma pursed her lips. Nibbled at the inside of her cheek, thinking. She said, “You know, I’ve never liked that place myself. Considering some of the kitchen help, I seriously wonder about the cleanliness. And there’s this scare going around the state about tainted meat. Marge, isn’t that friend of yours one of the county health inspectors? Do you think you might ask him if the place is really safe? Several of the rest of us might inquire among friends about anything on the menu they’ve noticed may be a bit off. You have the right to protect your families, after all.”
Stella watched the members register approval and felt a slight chill.
Her brow lined with concern, Thelma was studying Dorothy McClellan. Quietly, she said, “Dorothy, dear, you don’t seem yourself tonight. Is something wrong? You know you can speak freely here.”
Dorothy fisted her small hands in her lap, her knuckles whitening, and stared at the Oriental rug, gathering herself. She brushed her hair away from her face and looked around at the group. She said, “It’s Randolph again. I know he’s seeing another woman. He’s taking long lunches, like he did last time, and some nights he doesn’t come home until really late. When he does get home, he has no time for me. He says it’s a big new office building design he’s working on for an out-of-state developer, but I just know it’s an affair.”
“I’m with you, honey,” Norma Chiles said. “When Vince started tapping his office manager—that back-stabbing little slut—I knew it right away. Let me tell you, it’s a personal celebration every time I cash an alimony check. Men can be such animals.”
“I’ve tried to be a good wife and mother,” Dorothy said. “I don’t see how I can even consider a divorce. The prenup wouldn’t leave me and the kids enough to make it. Sometimes I swear I could just kill Randolph.”
“Now, Dorothy,” Thelma said. “You can’t be thinking that way. A killing by any conventional means would just be too risky, wouldn’t it?” She laughed her crystalline laugh and a few of the others joined in.
Thelma went on in her calm, mesmerizing voice. “So, Randolph has been working late. Wasn’t it only a year ago he had that mild heart attack? It’s not healthy. I mean, so much after-hours work, combined with any bad nutritional habits, could well lead to another cardiac episode. So many foods these days are absolutely loaded with trans fats and cholesterol and salt. You can add it all up on the package labels. Many people have no idea. Anyone who isn’t careful could be plugging up their arteries dangerously in no time.”
“All those diets,” Harriet Jankowicz said. “They come down to the same thing. Cut your fat intake, but everything that tastes good has to have astronomical fat content.”
The conversation drifted into the endless maze of failed diet and exercise programs. Stella was watching Dorothy, who had been staring into a middle distance, but then she lifted her eyebrows and her eyes widened. A smile that was alight with resolve replaced the desolation of a moment ago. A twisted grin that sent a premonition spidering up the back of Stella’s neck.
Dorothy grinned at Thelma through the chatter in the room.
Thelma smiled back with a slight nod.
Stella thought, foods loaded with trans fats and cholesterol and salt . . . numbers on the labels . . . could be plugging up arteries in no time . . . could lead to another cardiac episode . . .
The topics covered a recent news show segment about alleged sexual allegations against a longtime respected state senator, a tabloid story about a top movie star accused of date rape, a comment by the White House chief of staff that could be construed as racist, and a round of boyfriendly and husbandly transgressions.
Harriet said, “Dewayne accused me of starting another argument with his mother, that harridan, and he always automatically takes her side.”
Before she could stop herself, her voice shrill, Stella blurted out, “Walter Hoover. Marvin accused us of complicity in . . . in what happened.”
The room went so still that the soft music from the stereo seemed louder. None of the women looked at Stella except Thelma, whose unblinking gaze was fastened on her.
In a subdued voice, Stella said, “I . . . I told him that wasn’t possible. Of . . . of course.” Her throat was dry, and she sipped at her cold tea dregs, thinking, what is wrong with me?
As though Stella had never spoken, Thelma said, “Norma, I heard you mention the new Methodist minister. Someone said he was actually born in Russia and his parents may have been prominent communists . . .”