Four women sat around a table on the patio at Plantation Country Club. Overhead a pastel-striped umbrella rustled in a breeze thick with the perfume of jasmine and alive with the drone of cicadas, while beyond the dappled shade of the lattice-enclosed dining area, the South Georgia sun danced and sparkled and flashed.
Friends for years now, so many even they had forgotten the exact number, the women enjoyed their monthly ritual—Saturday lunch at the club—where, amid the clink of Waterford crystal and bone china, the sound of their own voices was as pleasing to their ears as a favorite song, no less enjoyed because they had long ago memorized the lyrics.
‘I declare.’ Marla waved the linen napkin like a fan. ‘It sure does seem unusually hot this year.’
‘Seems about the same to me,’ Reba said as she peered at Marla over the rims of her sunglasses. ‘Maybe you're just having a hot flash.’
Marla continued to stir the air with her ineffectual fan. ‘I most certainly am not. I’ll have you know I haven’t had one since Dr. Avery started me on estrogen.’ Frowning, she dropped the napkin onto her plate. ‘How long has it been now? Six months?’
‘How should I know?’ Reba asked. ‘You’re the one taking it.’
‘Then again,’ Marla said, ‘I guess it’s more like eight, ‘cause it was right after Thanksgiving when I had my checkup.’ At fifty-three, she was the oldest of the foursome, yet she knew she didn’t look it, due in part to the aid of the best plastic surgeon her husband’s money could buy. ‘Anyway, my point is, it’s not a hot flash; and if I'd known it was going to be this hot, I’d have worn something with short sleeves.’ She tugged at the hem of the sea-green tunic. ‘This thing is just so hot.’
Reba inched her sunglasses down onto her nose. ‘Isn’t that a new outfit?’ she asked, even though she already knew it was or Marla wouldn't have called their attention to it.
Marla smiled. ‘Why, yes it is. I just got it this week.’
Reba shoved her sunglasses back into place. Personally, she didn’t think the outfit was at all becoming—for one thing it was too baggy. However, Marla had definitely put on quite a few pounds and probably thought something loose would conceal the fact. Smiling, Reba said, ‘That shade of green brings out your eyes.’ One thing she could say about herself—she still wore the same size she’ worn in college, not bad for a woman of fifty. But then, she watched her diet and exercised at the gym, something Marla should consider doing before it was too late.
‘Jordan had it tucked away just for me,’ Marla added, referring to the owner of the area’s most exclusive boutique. ‘He said when it first arrived, he took one look and knew the designer must have had me in mind.’ She smiled, caressing one of the iridescent pearl buttons. ‘It’s French, you know.’
‘Marla, I swear, but a person would think you were the only client Jordan had.’ Claire tossed her blonde head and laughed to show she was being facetious, though in actuality she found Marla’s attitude more than a little irritating. As if she was the only one for whom Jordan Benoit set things aside. Why, last month he’d presented yours truly with an exquisite lace shawl from Italy, and it was really one of a kind, not some mass-produced copy that every other woman in the world was tossing across her shoulders. Yet she wasn’t going to mention this to Marla; after all, Claire felt she could afford to be beneficent, and thinking this, she turned her arm, watching the way the sunlight careened off the new diamond bracelet she’d received for her forty-ninth birthday the previous weekend. Not that she was going to be so tacky as to call everyone’s attention to it.
The last of the quartet and the youngest at forty-seven, Phyllis Russell raised her wineglass with one hand and simultaneously crushed out her cigarette with the other. ‘Marla, you know you look fantastic,’ she said. ‘You always look fantastic.’ She sighed, impatient with what she called—at least behind her friend’s back—Marla’s ‘incessant compliment fishing.’
‘Well, thank you, I needed that, especially at my age,’ Marla said as she glanced toward the entrance to the clubhouse. ‘Where on earth is that girl? Didn't she hear me when I said we'd like to order soon.’
‘Oh, you know how they are. She'll show up in her own good time,’ Claire said as she too looked toward the doorway.
Once again Marla swished the napkin by her face. ‘I wonder where that other girl is, you know, the one who usually waits on our table?’ The napkin paused, hanging limply in her hand. ‘Come to think of it, she wasn't here last time either. Was she?’
Reba shook her head. ‘No, now that you mention it, I don't think she was. I wonder why.’ Saying this, she also turned briefly toward the doorway. ‘Then again, when was the last time we saw her?’
Phyllis shrugged. ‘Can't say I remember.’ She pulled a cigarette from the pack beside her glass. ‘But come to think of it, wasn’t it the day it suddenly started to rain and we all had to dash inside?’
Marla nodded. ‘I think you're right. That would make it two months ago.’ She looked at Claire and raised her glass. ‘Remember? She got all wet when you asked her to go back and get your cell phone because you’d left it on the table.’
‘What was her name, anyway?’ Reba asked.
Again Marla swished the napkin past her face. ‘It was Mary—or was it Mavis? I don’t know, but it started with an M, same as mine.’
Claire held out her right hand and wiggled her long slim fingers. ‘I want y’all to look at this—just look—forty-five dollars, and for what?’
Reba stared at Claire's hand. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘This,’ Claire said and waved her hand in front of Reba’s face. ‘Just look at my nails. That new girl they hired at Adele’s, why, she ruined them, that’s what. I swear but it’s going to take months for them to regain their shaped again.’ Scowling in displeasure, she added, ‘I’ll tell you one thing—I wasn’t about to pay for this mess and I said as much to Adele.’
The other women watched Claire's hand flutter and frowned in sympathy.
The first to glance away was Phyllis, taking a long drag on her cigarette and squinting through the smoke as she stared across the patio. ‘Would you just look at that?’ she said.
The other three women all shifted in their chairs to get a better view.
Shaking her head, Claire said, ‘Now, I just have to ask—would you wear that to the club?’
The object of their attention was a slim, dark-haired woman at a table beside the fountain. Dressed in jeans, a white crop top, and sandals, the woman threw back her head and laughed at a comment from one of her companions. She sat with one long leg curled under her in the chair, her sun-browned hands moving in animated rhythm to her words.
Marla frowned as she said, ‘I've always maintained that the club should have a dress code, but will the board listen to me?’
‘She has to be around our age,’ Phyllis said. ‘You’d think she’d know how to dress by now, wouldn’t you?’
Yawning, Reba shook her head. ‘Face it,’ she said, ‘some people just don't care how they look. And, personally, I think it says something about the degeneration of society.’
Claire leaned back in the chair and patted her hair. ‘Speaking of the degeneration of society, look over there. It’s Caroline Henley.’
The other women turned and looked toward a table near the edge of the patio where a plump blonde sat alone.
‘Y’all going to their party next week?’ Phyllis asked, her eyes never leaving the woman.
Reba shrugged. ‘Martin says we should make an appearance. After all, she and Ruben are on the board here at the club.’
Phyllis shot a disapproving glance at Reba.
Marla said, ‘Really now, I don’t see—’
‘You can’t be serious,’ Reba said. ‘You’ll set foot in their house after what Ruben Henley did to Lawrence?’
‘For the life of me,’ Claire said as she picked up her wineglass. ‘I'll never understand what possessed Ruben, turning down Lawrence's defense that way.’ She raised one thin eyebrow at Phyllis. ‘What was his excuse again? Something about ethics? Or was it justice?’
Phyllis drew one final puff from her cigarette before crushing it out in the over-flowing ashtray. ‘Let’s don’t get into that. It’s not something I care to discuss.’
‘Well,’ Marla said, ‘Personally—’
‘It’s about time.’ Reba nodded toward the clubhouse entrance.
A young black woman in a crisp burgundy and white uniform was headed in their direction.
‘Talk about slow service,’ Phyllis murmured.
Reaching their table, the waitress smiled. ‘Are you ladies ready to order?’ She readjusted her nametag and withdrew a pad from the front pocket of her skirt.
Phyllis admired the way the sunlight flashed on her new diamond bracelet. ‘First,’ she said, ‘I’d like another glass of wine.’
Marla said, ‘So will I, but let’s go ahead and order lunch. No telling how long before we’ll be served if we don’t order now.’
Reba and Claire nodded in agreement.
When their orders were taken, the waitress headed back toward the clubhouse entrance, although she occasionally stopped, smiled, and exchanged comments with various patrons.
Watching her, Marla scowled. ‘Humph, at this rate, maybe we’ll get our meal sometime today.’
Phyllis said, ‘You would think the woman would at least have the decency to apologize for making us wait so long.’
‘What do you expect?’ Reba asked as she retrieved a pack of cigarettes from her purse. ‘Seems like most everywhere you go today, the employees act like they’re doing you a favor by waiting on you.’
Claire watched Reba place the long slim cigarette between her lips. ‘I thought you quit smoking,’ she said.
Reba shrugged as she flicked the lighter. ‘I did.’
Claire raised one eyebrow.
Reba leaned back in her chair and inhaled. ‘But you know something—in just two weeks of not smoking, I gained almost six pounds.’ She exhaled, blowing a smoke ring. ‘But when I started back, why, honey, that old weight just went right up in smoke.’
‘Look over there,’ Claire whispered. ‘Is that who I think it is?’
‘Where?’ Phyllis whipped around in her seat.
‘Don’t stare,’ Claire hissed.
‘Isn’t that Malcolm Denney?’ Reba peered over the top of her sunglasses. ‘Why, it most certainly is. And who’s that with him?’ Her lips curved into a smile. ‘I don’t recall him having a daughter.’
Phyllis said, ‘You know good and well he doesn’t have a daughter.’
Laughing, Reba said, ‘My point exactly.’
Marla brushed her napkin at a fly hovering near the rim of her wineglass. ‘What is it with middle-aged men and young women anyway?’
Claire said, ‘As if you didn’t know the answer. Hell, we all know it.’ She frowned in the direction of the couple now holding hands across the table. ‘It’s because they like their women young, firm, and worshipful, that’s what.’ She nodded toward the couple. ‘I mean, can’t you just see the blind adoration in that poor girl’s big brown eyes?’
‘Just wait until they’re married,’ Marla said. ‘When that sweet young thing has to pick up his dirty underwear and listen to him expel gas every night, that adoration’s going to fly right out the window.’
They all laughed and were still laughing as the waitress returned with their drinks.
She placed the glasses in front of each woman and said, ‘Your lunch will be right out.’
Reba nodded, dismissing the waitress with a wave of her hand; and as the young woman walked back toward the clubhouse, she said, ‘Just how long have we been waiting for these drinks?’ She glanced at her watch. ‘I know good and well it’s been at least fifteen minutes.’
‘Darling,’ Marla said, ‘I've always maintained that good help is hard to find.’ She picked up the wineglass and took a sip. ‘Which reminds me, whatever happened to that other girl?’
‘You mean the one we were talking about before?’ Reba asked, crushed her cigarette in the ashtray, and immediately pulled another from the pack.
‘Y’all starting that again?’ Claire said.
Phyllis smiled. ‘Yes, I guess we are, which means we’ve already run out of anything worth talking about.’
‘I told you her name was . . . ‘ Marla hiccupped. ‘Why, excuse me. But like I was saying, her name was Mavis.’
Reba said, ‘I think you’re wrong.’
‘Well,’ replied Marla, ‘If it wasn’t Mavis, then what was it?’
‘Madeline,’ Reba volunteered.
Marla shook her head. ‘No, it was—’
‘I think you’re both wrong,’ Claire said.
Marla and Reba both glared at Claire.
Claire smiled. ‘Her name was Margaret.’
Phyllis lit another cigarette. ‘And I say you’re all three wrong,’ she said after taking a puff. ‘I happen to know her name was Mary Queen of Scots.’
‘Why, Claire, I do think you're right.’ Marla giggled as she waved the napkin over the table. ‘Now, girls, that’s enough. Let’s call a truce.’
‘I still say it was Margaret,’ Claire said. ‘After all, the girl did wait on us forever.’
‘Oh, please.’ Phyllis's arched her thin eyebrows. ‘Does it really matter?’
Sighing, Claire picked up the wineglass. ‘No, I don’t guess it does.’
‘Still,’ Reba said, ‘I do wonder what happened to her? She was the best waitress this place ever had. Always checking on you, always wanting to know if she could get you anything else.’ She frowned, glancing at the clubhouse. ‘I’d also like to know just where they found this girl who’s waiting on us today. I need another drink, and I don’t know about y’all, but I’d sure like to get our lunch before nightfall.’
As if waiting in the wings for just such a cue, the young woman exited the building through the French doors and walked toward their table. Holding a large oval tray balanced in front of her at the waist, she yet managed to move with fluid-like grace through the undulating heat.
‘It’s about time,’ Reba said.
‘Here you go ladies,’ the waitress said, smiling as she approached. ‘And doesn’t it look yummy?’
‘We certainly had to wait long enough for it,’ Reba said, ‘so I hope it tastes as yummy as you think it looks.’ She squinted at the nametag pinned to the white uniform blouse. ‘Judy.’
‘It’s Julia, ma’am.’
‘Well, Julia, I want to know why service is so poor today?’
Julia’s smile vanished. ‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘but there’s a big party in the convention center and we’re understaffed because—’
‘Oh, please,’ Marla said. ‘Does that justify ignoring club members?’
Julia tilted her head to one side. ‘No ma’am, but—’
‘Never mind,’ Reba said. ‘We’d like to eat now.’
Julia placed the individual orders in front of each woman.
Marla frowned. ‘This chicken looks overdone’
Reaching for the platter, Julia said, ‘I can return it if you’d like it replaced.’
Marla waved Julia’s hand away. ‘No, I don’t care to wait any longer.’
The tray now empty, Julia asked if anyone wanted another drink.
Phyllis rolled one shoulder. ‘I guess I’ll have another.’ She glanced at her companions, each of whom nodded. ‘And so will they.’ She looked back at Julia. ‘You do remember what we’re drinking, don’t you?’
‘Yes ma’am, and I’ll bring them right out.’ Saying this, Julia turned away.
Marla called, ‘Wait a minute.’
Stopping, Julia looked back at her. ‘Ma’am?’
‘Perhaps you can settle a little dispute we’ve been having,’ Marla said. ‘There was a girl who always waited on our table. Oh, she did it for years, but we haven’t seen her in two months now.’ She shrugged. ‘We were just wondering what happened to her. She was absolutely the best waitress this place had.’
Julia shifted the tray, balancing it on her hip, as she asked, ‘What was her name?’
‘That’s just it; we can’t agree on her name.’ Saying this, Marla glanced at Claire and laughed.
‘You don't remember her name?’ Julia frowned. ‘And she waited on you for years?’
‘It was Mavis,’ Marla said. ‘I’m almost positive.’
‘No, it was Margaret,’ Reba said.
Phyllis said, ‘She was about your height, a little heavier, maybe older.’
Sighing, Julia said, ‘Her name was Mattie.’
‘Mattie?’ Claire giggled. ‘Of course, that’s it.’
‘Yes, that’s right, it was Mattie,’ Marla said as she leaned forward, placed her elbows on the table, and looked up into Julia’s face. ‘So tell me, dear, where is our Mattie?’
Quiet a moment, Julia then said, ‘Mattie is dead.’
‘Dead?’ Marla echoed.
‘Yes ma’am, Mattie was killed two months ago in a wreck on 285 outside of Atlanta.’ Julia glanced away from the table, her eyes locked on some distant point beyond the boundaries of the sunlit patio of Plantation Country Club.
Phyllis said, ‘Well, that’s really a shame. She was a good waitress.’
Julia looked back at the table, letting her eyes linger briefly on each woman’s face, before she said, ‘Her name was Mattie Renee Harris. She had three children and a husband named Adam. And she wasn’t a girl. She was thirty-seven years old. She sang in the choir at her church, she made the best apple pie in the world, and she loved to dance.’
Claire said, ‘Well, that’s all quite interesting, but—’
‘And she wasn’t your Mattie,’ Julia said. ‘You couldn’t even bother to learn her name.’ With this, she turned and walked away, the heels of her shoes clicking on the patio tiles, as overhead, the candy-striped umbrella rustled softly in the wind, and beyond its oasis of shade, the lazy drone of the cicadas played on while the South Georgia sun danced and sparkled and flashed.