Tom Lawrence is the founder of Front Porch Press LLC, Porchscene’s parent company. Tom is currently quite ill, so to honor him, I’d like to reprint one of his earlier posts. The story is based in fact, with only slight embellishment from Tom, and although it’s slightly longer than our usual publications, it’s fun and worth the little bit of extra time.
The Canton Ladies’ Club
by Tom Lawrence
My first wife, Nancy, and I lived in an area of Jackson, Mississippi known as Belhaven, an older neighborhood that had been developed in the 1920s. At one time it had been “the” place to live in Jackson but had since been replaced after World War II by what was now known as East Jackson. If you asked anyone who lived in Belhaven to describe the area, they would probably refer to it as a quaint, well-established area of elegant old homes. Most everyone else called it that old rundown area behind Baptist Hospital. It depended on your perspective.
Tonight was our supper club meeting, and we were going to Tico’s Steak House for dinner. But before dinner, our friends Carl and Cathy Sides were taking us to Canton, their hometown just north of Jackson, to attend a pre-dinner cocktail party.
I came through the front door just as Nancy was leaving to collect our babysitter for the evening. Let me pause here to explain exactly what a babysitter used to be. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was considered rude and thoughtless to bring small children into adult situations. For instance, you did not bring your toddler to see Splendor in the Grass. Bambi, yes. On the Waterfront, no. You did not bring a colicky infant to dinner at a nice restaurant. The soda fountain at Brent’s drugstore maybe, but not LeFluer’s. What you did was employ a local teenager to come to your home to attend the little angels while the adults went out for the evening.
This childminder referred to as a “babysitter,” and the act of “babysitting” provided a much-welcomed source of teenage income. Every young couple had a secret list of babysitters, and the list was protected from your friends. There were many hard and fast rules governing our social set: you did not wear a colored shirt during the business day; ladies did not wear white shoes until summer; and if you had a little too much to drink, you didn’t barf in someone’s car. Good common sense stuff.
Our society was tolerant and forgiving if you slipped up on things such as adultery, teenage pregnancy, or alcohol abuse, but there were several transgressions from which there was no redemption. If you stole your neighbor’s maid, yardman, or babysitter, there could never be a meaningful future relationship. Something like that could get you thrown out of the Junior League, bounced from a half-dozen bridge and garden clubs, and tossed from the country club. You were socially fried; you might as well have been a Yankee.
By the time Nancy returned with our young lady of the evening, I had managed to shower, shave, and put on a pair of khakis, a blue button-down cotton shirt, a navy blazer, and loafers—the standard weekend uniform. Carl and Cathy pulled into our driveway, and we all started for Canton, our first stop of the evening.
Carl and Cathy were born and raised in Canton. Carl had been an outstanding high school athlete and Cathy, a couple of years younger, had been Homecoming Queen and a yearbook beauty. Cathy’s father had been a prominent physician before his untimely death, and her mother, Bitsy, was at the pinnacle of the Canton social register. Bitsy lived on the best street in one of a dozen large, white Victorian homes found on verdant, shaded lots. The widow ladies of a certain age who owned these homes were members of an ad hoc organization known as “The Canton Ladies.” Mrs. Bomart Devon was the titular head of this group, and it was her home to which we were heading. Mrs. Devon’s son, Beau, was a well-known figure on the Hamilton County scene. He had attended several institutions of higher learning on an on-again-off-again basis, but to no one’s knowledge had Beau ever received any degree. This did not hamper Beau; he had never had a job and was not the least bit interested in getting one. What the Devons did have was over 20,000 acres of Black Belt cotton land that had passed down from Beau’s great-grandfather.
Beau always wore a white suit, à la Colonel Sanders, and drove a stable of sports cars. He oversaw the manufacture of the finest sour mash whiskey that ever was, and ran the only private race track for trotting sulkies in Mississippi, complete with illegal pari-mutuel betting and a large grandstand. On any Sunday afternoon during Beau’s racing season, several hundred well-dressed friends and acquaintances would fill the stands for a day of racing and a gourmet dinner on the grounds. Somehow all of this escaped the notice of the Hamilton County Sheriff or any other law enforcement agency.
It was the custom of “The Canton Ladies” to host a little soirée each Friday night, starting in the spring and ending on Labor Day. Tonight’s gala would be at Beau’s momma’s house, and there were several dozen cars and pickup trucks lining the street in front when we arrived. There was no official guest list. Everyone just knew if they would be accepted, or not. Cathy’s status as Bitsy Streel’s daughter and “Princess in Waiting” assured that we would be welcomed. Carl had definitely married above his station.
Carl parked in Bitsy’s driveway several doors away, and we walked in the early summer twilight toward the sound of a tinkling piano and subdued laughter. We climbed the steps that lead to a large white verandah with rocking chairs and swings. Every seat was filled with what could have been the cast party for a Tennessee Williams play. Cathy knew everyone, Carl knew most of them, and Nancy and I knew Bitsy. There would be no introductions made—everyone was on their own. It was assumed this was not your first party, and that you could meet and greet like a grown person.
Cathy and Carl disappeared into the house, and Nancy and I spotted a henna-haired lady of indeterminate age nursing what appeared to be a tumbler of straight sour mash, taking periodic drags on a smoking cigarette in a holder. She wore an orange and gold caftan, a purple turban, and was barefoot. Looking like a good prospect for an interesting conversation, I walked over and said,
“Good evening, Ma’am. I’m Tommy Larch, and this is my wife, Nancy. We’re from Jackson. This is our first time at the Friday night party.”
The woman slowly turned in my direction and looked me up and down before saying, “I’m Esmeralda; I’m a gypsy. I can tell your fortune if you’d like.”
“Gosh, Esmeralda, we don’t get a lot of gypsies around here. Do you live in a wagon?”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, I’m not a real gypsy. Just on Fridays. The rest of time I live in the house across the street.”
“Is your name really Esmeralda?
“Just on Fridays; the rest of the time I’m Bertha Manning. My late husband, Charlie, was President of Canton Bank and Trust and now my son Chaz is in charge, but I own all the stock, so they have to be nice to momma.”
“Are they nice to momma?’
“Very nice. Now, exactly who are you?”
“We’re friends of Bitsy Streel’s daughter, Cathy.”
“Oh, Cathy is such a beautiful girl. It’s a pity she made such an unfortunate marriage. We try so hard to teach our girls that one may fall in love and have passionate affairs, but should always marry for money. My Charlie was no great lover, but he was rich as Croesus and very indulgent where I was concerned. We were the perfect match.”
Nancy grinned, and said, “Mrs. Manning, you seem to know everyone here. Why don’t you tell us about some of them?”
“Oh, call me Bertha, my dear, and I’d be delighted to fill you in on our little crowd—there are interesting characters among us. For instance, see that old fool in the bib-overalls? That’s Jethro Cummins from Artesia. During the depression, he ran a little country store over near Flora. He lived in the back and pinched every penny that came through the front door.
He managed to save a couple of thousand dollars, and in 1933, he bought 10,000 acres of cut-over scrubland for twenty-five cents an acre from J.W. Raines—an old coot who owned everything in Flora. We all knew it must be worthless if J.W. was selling it. Well, in 1938, Standard Oil found the Tinsley Oilfield, and most of it was under Jethro’s land. He still lives behind his store, and he drives that old beat up pickup across the street, but he banks at our bank, and I can tell you, he’s got more money than God.”
“Is he married?” Nancy asked.
“No, he’s a life-long bachelor; I believe his only social activities are our little parties.”
“I would have thought he would have been the perfect target for some young maiden with marrying for money on her mind.”
“Oh, my God, honey, everything has its limits. Jethro bathes on Fridays just before he comes to our dos, and puts on clean overalls and a fresh shirt. All of that will last him until this time next week. Besides, even if a girl could get by the odor, she would still be married to the tightest fist in Mississippi; Jethro is not a generous man. Rich as all hell, but a real skinflint.”
“I bet you could straighten him out, Miss Bertha. You’d have him taking a daily shower and driving a Cadillac.”
“I probably could, my child; I certainly gave Charlie Manning all he could enjoy and some more. They’ll try to tell you that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but I can promise you that the key to men is about eight inches below their belt buckle. Take good care of that little thingy, and you’ll have a long and fruitful marriage and an even better widowhood. I wouldn’t touch Jethro Cummins little thingy for twice his net worth.
“Why don’t you children go in and fix a drink. You also might want to visit the buffet table. This is a B.Y.O.B and potluck party, but there’ll be plenty of booze on the bar, and the food is delicious. All of our maids do the cooking and bring the dishes over. While you’re at it, you can bring me another drink.
“Delighted, Miss Bertha. What can I fix for you?”
“If you’ll just pour a half glass of Jack Daniel’s over a couple of ice cubes, that would just be fine.”
“We’ll be back in a little bit,” I said, and Nancy and I went in the front doorway. The foyer was a large area with gleaming heart-pine floors, elegant oriental rugs, and luxurious fabrics. The living room was to the right and was similarly decorated, with a baby grand piano in the far corner, at which a middle-aged man in a seersucker suit and thinning hair was skillfully playing cocktail lounge tunes.
To the left of the foyer was a large dining room with a massive, walnut, Sheraton dining table, whose twelve mahogany Queen Anne chairs had been pulled back against the walls of the room to provide seating. The table practically groaned under its load of extravagant food. The table was covered with a full-length, damask tablecloth that was surely a family heirloom. China, crystal, and sterling silver filled the room with a vibrant glow.
The bar had been set up behind the table on the far outer wall, and we began to make our way through the throng of guests who were eating, drinking, and visiting. No one paid the least bit of attention to either of us. Behind the bar was a black man dressed in black pants and a white tux shirt. He saw us coming and smiled.
“How ya’ll doin this fine spring evening,” he sang in a deep, melodic voice. “I’m Coleman. What can I fix you?”
“We’ll have a couple of scotch on the rocks, and we’ll need a Jack Daniel’s for Miss Manning,” I replied.
“Yes, suh, two scotch on the rocks and one Miz Bertha coming up.”
It was clear that this was not Coleman’s first night at this gig. If he would be willing to tell it, he probably knew where all the bodies were buried. Ironic that I should have thought about buried bodies at this particular moment. Nancy tugged on my sleeve and inclined her head back toward the buffet table.
“Do you see what I’m seeing,” she asked incredulously.
Her eyes led me to the far end of the buffet table where I saw two legs from the knees down sticking out from under the tablecloth. They were encased in a pair of ecru support hose rolled down to the knee joints and were sporting a pair of very sensible black shoes. The rest of the person was hidden under the table. Guests were moving back and forth along the buffet, filling plates and talking to each other, and, when they approached the legs, they were very careful to step over them without comment or any apparent concern.
“Maybe she’s had a little bit too much to drink,” I offered.
“She picked a strange place to pass out,” Nancy said.
“Well, nobody seems too concerned, so I guess we just go with the flow. There may be some ancient Canton custom involved, and we don’t need to interfere. We’re only guests, after all.”
“I don’t suppose you could just casually reach down and feel for a pulse, could you?”
“Hell no! Let’s just take our drinks out and see what Miss Bertha thinks about it.”
Nancy and I found Miss Bertha sitting on one of the porch swings, gently rocking and singing along with the piano, whose notes were drifting on the evening breeze. I handed Miss Bertha her drink and said as matter-of-factly as I could,
“We just saw something that seems a little unusual. There’s a lady lying under the buffet table with her legs sticking out. She’s not moving. Do you think someone should check her out?”
“Aw, hell! I can’t believe that ditzy old crow has done it again! Laura Devon is going to have a duck.”
“I take it that this is a regular event on Friday evenings?”
“Well, it’s getting much worse since her last heart attack. She just lies down and prepares to die every time she feels the least bit uncomfortable. We think she’s doing it to try to get a rise from her son, Millsap.
“Is her son here tonight?”
“Yes, he’s the little thing playing the piano. He may be a little light in the loafers, but he sure can tickle the ivories.”
“Do you suppose someone might oughta give him a heads-up that Mommy is taking break amongst the hors d’oeuvres?’
“I suppose we should. Come with me, and we can turn this over to Laura. After all, it is her house.”
The three of us returned to the living room, and Miss Bertha quickly corralled Mrs. Devon and whispered the news. Laura Devon frowned and said, “Damn it, Bertha, I saw the silly thing’s legs sticking out into my dining room table and decided not to give her the satisfaction of noticing. It only rewards her deplorable behavior. I suppose somebody needs to check on her, though. Where’s that young Dr. Ed Reed? I saw him and Patricia here earlier.” Miss Bertha pointed across the room to an upscale young couple who were listening to the piano music.
Laura Devine walked over and said, “Dr. Reed, could I trouble you for a moment?”
“Of course, Mrs. Devon. What can I do for you?”
“If you could rather discreetly examine the person lying under my buffet table I’d greatly appreciate it.”
“I beg your pardon? Someone is lying under the buffet table?”
“Yes, and I’m confident there’s nothing wrong with her other than having a mean and hateful disposition, but I suppose one has to take every precaution in a situation like this. Just give her a quick look, if you will.”
Nancy and watched as the young doctor eased his way to the end of the table, and, acting as if he had dropped his fork, slipped entirely unnoticed beneath the tablecloth. In a moment, the two exposed legs slid neatly under the table as well, and soon, Ed Reed emerged as if nothing was the least bit unusual. He strolled over to our little group and said,
“Mrs. Devine, I am sad to report that your friend is quite dead. She appears to have suffered a massive heart attack. I believe we must call the authorities and report this.”
“Thank you, Dr. Reed. I appreciate your help, but I have no intention of allowing that awful woman to ruin my party.”
She looked at the three of us and said, “Since you already know what’s going on, the three of you can help me clean up this mess. The first thing that I’m going to do is to call Billy Maxwell and tell him what has happened, and guarantee he doesn’t send a bunch of police cars and ambulances here to make a big scene.”
Billy Maxwell was the sheriff of Hamilton County and a well-known law and order hard nose. If you got so much as a traffic ticket in his county, you got the full treatment, including a prison haircut and a cavity search. He had a female deputy of undetermined sexual preference on his force who very much enjoyed searching young women who were unlucky enough to be ensnared in the Hamilton County Justice system. I was pretty sure Mrs. Devon would be subjected to the full Billy Maxwell treatment, and just the thought of some deputy performing a cavity search of Laura Devon boggled the mind.
What happened was entirely different. Maxwell came to the house alone and pretty much faded into the general hub-bub. The owner of The Carroll Brothers’ Funeral Home arrived with a hearse and two attendants, parking discreetly in the back of the house. Mrs. Devon took one of her silver forks and gently tapped a crystal water goblet, and, once she had everyone’s attention, said,
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve just been informed that there will be a total eclipse of the moon in about five minutes; why don’t we all move onto the front verandah to observe this astronomical wonder?”
A general excitement rippled through the guests, and everyone began to move toward the front of the house. When they were all gone, the two men from the funeral home brought in a collapsible gurney, and without ceremony, drug the body from under the table and removed it to the waiting hearse. It was all done in less than five minutes.
I looked at Nancy and said, “Now, it ought to get really interesting. I’ll bet Maxwell tells all of us not to leave until he’s taken our statements. I’m expecting Mrs. Marple or Hercule Poirot to appear suddenly. I guess we can kiss Tico’s steaks goodbye.”
Soon, everyone started to drift back into the dining room, having been informed that there had been a mistake about the eclipse. The party was back in full swing, with the piano player hammering away. Miss Bertha walked over and said, “Laura and I would like to thank the two of you for keeping calm during this little unpleasantness. We hope both of you will become regulars for our little soirées.”
“Why, thank you, ma’am. I suppose someone has told the piano player that his mother is dead? He sure is taking it well.”
“We decided to wait until the party was over to mention it to him. He’ll be beside himself when he finds out.”
“Well, I can imagine he will; he just lost his mother.”
“Oh that won’t be a problem, they hated each other. He’ll be excited to know that she’s gone and he’ll be inheriting over $50,000,000. He can finally move to New Orleans and move in with his friend. She would have cut off his allowance if he had done it while she was alive. We just want him to keep on playing till the party ends.”
“I don’t see how y’all will be able to keep it from him when the sheriff begins his investigation.”
“Oh, there’ll be no inquiry. What’s to investigate? Billy Maxwell likes being sheriff too much to mess up our party.” She paused for a half second, and her eyes flickered towards the window. “In fact, I see him pulling away, as we speak.”
Sure enough, the sheriff’s car was easing away from the curb, and there would be no further inquiry into the death of Norma Langston. A family funeral would be held sometime next week, and Millsap would be leaving for the Vieux Carré before they could fill in the grave.
Miss Bertha smiled at Nancy and me and said, “Now, you young people need to circulate and meet some more of our members. I’m gonna have another drink and see if there’s some old coot who might like a night of perversion. Enjoy the party.”
Carl and Cathy walked up just as she disappeared into the crowd. “We were about to come rescue y’all from the clutches of Bertha Manning. She’ll talk your ear off,” Cathy explained. “We’re getting bored; let’s head for Tico’s. I don’t guess anything interesting has happened to you two?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary. We’ll fill y’all in on the way.”
Main Street Canton, Mississippi image from Wikimedia
House image from Wikimedia.com, Charles F. Smith House, Canton, Mississippi
Home with columns from misspreservation.com
The Jigget’s House image from www.visitmississippi.org