Royal Palm Literary Award First Place Winner
me those,” I said as I reached for the opera glasses Violet used to peer at Jessica’s house.“She’s getting out of the car.”
“I can see that without
the glasses. I want to know what’s in those grocery bags.”
Violet lowered the glasses and glared at me. “How do you
know she’s carrying grocery bags?”
I pointed out the window. “If you’ll take a look you’ll see
those white objects in her hands. She goes out every third day and comes back with at least three of them. Nobody who lives
alone needs that much food. She’s up to something.”
Violet leaned her chubby elbows on the windowsill and peered once
more through the glasses. “Wal-Mart. Right around the corner. She used to ride her bicycle to the store. Wonder why
she takes the car now?”
“For the very reason I just said. She’s up to something. Harboring somebody in that house. And
I checked the register in the office–no guests registered at her place.” That is one of the many park rules, we
must register any overnight guests and they aren’t permitted to stay more than thirty days.
This whole adventure never would
have happened if I hadn’t lost my husband Barclay. Honestly, I lost him on a trip to the Galapagos Islands four years
ago. We were scuba diving off a small boat with a large group of tourists. For a while it seemed like the whole world was
looking for him, even though it was only the other divers, professional and amateur. Personally, I suspected he climbed into
a different boat and didn’t even notice he wound up with a group of Finnish research scientists, or maybe they were
Norwegians. I never learned which. Anyway, ever since I’ve been living alone, I’ve taken to having afternoon refreshments
with my neighbor, Violet Hathaway.
My life had degenerated to this, an old woman with nothing more to do than spy on my neighbors.
It wasn’t always like this. For years Barclay and I worked together on his research papers and books. When he retired
officially, I began my own attempts at writing. After we moved into Keegan Bay Park, an “age qualified” community
south of Daytona Beach, I found a writing group. We took turns meeting at each other’s homes. Barclay, on the other
hand, was content to write his memoirs in our second bedroom-turned-office. Occasionally we took trips to far off parts of
the world. He would investigate the flora and fauna; I would take notes and then sell travel articles.
Unlike our former home, a seventeen
room Victorian house in New England, this house is a large doublewide. Residents in Keegan Bay Park are asked to refer to
them as manufactured homes, but they are trailers arranged in a well landscaped park-like setting with meandering streets
lined with live oaks and palm trees. Lovely as the house is, it is still a two bedroom, one story home that could be blown
away by a strong wind. The fact that it hasn’t disappeared in any of the hurricanes these past eight years is more a
testament to the engineers who arranged it on the lot rather than to sound construction.
Here on Keegan Bay Central Court
it is my assigned task to keep an eye on the neighborhood, a task Violet helps me to take seriously.Violet is a few years older than I, several inches shorter and
many pounds heavier, though to be truthful, ever since Barclay’s disappearance and my new habit of afternoon “tea”,
I have been adding a few to my own usually slender figure. She lives immediately next door and likes to come over to my house
to chat and share a spot of tea in the afternoons. She’ll often pick up an object from a shelf in my living room and
ask where we had brought it from. I could then spend quality time explaining the artifact, when and where we’d discovered
it, whether in a shop or on a beach or poking up from the ground on a remote jungle path.
Two weeks ago, on a Monday, I observed that
Jessica Robbins, a slight woman several years older than Violet and I, had changed her routine. Normally she walks to the
swimming pool at eleven in the morning and then returns home for lunch to watch her soaps at one. By her own accounting, she
then naps from three until four, checks her email and then communicates with her daughter and northern friends on her computer
until it is time to make her supper. Three evenings each week she played cards or bingo at the clubhouse, and on Saturdays
she attended the Elks’ Club for Bingo. Sundays she goes to church. When necessary, she rides her bicycle to the grocery
store. That had been her routine for the year and a half since she moved into Keegan Bay Park. But, two weeks ago she stopped
doing all those things.
When I noticed the change in Jessica’s schedule, I went to the
community manager, Carol, and asked in as off-hand manner I could manage, “Is Jessica Robbins all right?”
right? Why are you asking, Doll?” My name is really Doris, but my family called me Doll from the day I was born and
the name stuck. I’m the least likely looking Doll you’d ever want to meet, but there it is.
“Just wondering, that’s
all. She hasn’t gone down to the pool for a couple of weeks and she pretty much told me to mind my own business when
I questioned her a few days ago.” That statement was not entirely truthful. I only asked Jessica when I saw her putting
out her garbage three days ago, “Where have you been keeping yourself, Jess?”She’d replied, rather aloof, I thought, “I’m
not going out much these days.” After which she scurried as fast as her little body could move back into her house.When Carol raised her eyebrows I took it as
a signal that perhaps I should listen to Jessica.I shrugged.
If they wanted people to be court captains, then they ought to
listen to them when they suggest something might be amiss. Like the night old Andrea shot Harry and nearly killed him when
she learned he’d been visiting the Purple Onion up on Ridgewood. That’s the place in Holly Hill where they have
the naked girls serving drinks. I told Carol that she ought to keep an eye on that couple. Ever since Andrea invited Harry
to move in with her, I knew there’d be trouble. And I was right. Two eighty year old fools. She shot him in the arm
and then had to spend the next six weeks catering to his every whim. Andrea sure taught him a lesson, though. As far as I
know he never went back to the Purple Onion. And now the two of them ride around the park in their golf cart each afternoon
like a pair of lovebirds.
So, there we were sitting in Keegan Bay Park at my front window, Violet and I, checking up on Jessica. I
graciously accepted the opera glasses from her as if I hadn’t been nagging her for the past twenty minutes and watched
as Jessica disappeared into her house and shut the door behind her. I hadn’t been able to see what she’d been
hauling in those bags. Nary a hint. I’d have to wait until she went to the store again to see if I could figure out
“Pity the houses next door to her are empty. In a couple of months the snowbirds will be back and maybe they can
tell us something,” Violet suggested.
“We can’t wait that long. What if she has someone living in there
who’s intimidating her? Threatening her life?” I replied. “She could be dead by then. What if I get Bob
to pretend he’s from the pest control and say he has to check her house?” Did I mention that I was often accused
of being a drama queen?
“Bob? When does a doctor have time for that sort of nonsense? He’s your friend; you ought to
know that.” Violet picked up the glasses from the windowsill and went to refresh our drinks. Scotch for me and gin and
tonic for her. Our afternoon ‘tea.’
“That’s just it, he’s my friend.”
“Friends don’t send friends into danger without fair
warning. What will you tell him? That you suspect your seventy-eight year old neighbor is housing a desperate criminal and
would he please go search the house? He’ll tell you to call the police.”
“If I really believed that, I would.”
sighed. She does that when she’s exasperated with me, but this time, I knew I was right and I was determined to learn
Jessica’s secret. I accepted the drink, took a sip, ready to give up my watch for the day when I caught some movement
across the way. Jessica’s door opened.“She’s coming out again!” I snatched up the opera glasses and tried to focus before Jessica disappeared
behind her house. “Taking out the garbage. She’s been doing a lot more of that lately as well.”
“So, ask the boys when
they come around what’s different about her trash.” Violet likes to think of herself as bright. The “boys”
work full time as the maintenance men. José is in his sixties, a pleasant fellow with a small mustache, dark tan and
heavy Spanish accent. George is gray haired, in his forties and works to help pay his own lot rent here in the park. They
pick up the trash, keep the pool crystalline, replace light bulbs in the clubhouse and do any odd jobs required around the
place. The full timers have been working at Keegan Bay Park forever, certainly since I’ve been here. There is also one
part time position, but that person keeps changing. The newest one, a sullen looking boy in his early thirties, never says
a word. He mows, clips hedges and scowls. Amongst the three of them, they’re responsible for four hundred lots as well
as the grounds.
"They won’t tell us anything, you know that,” Violet said.
“Want to go to the movies tonight?” I asked, changing
the subject. I don’t think spying appealed to her today.
“I’ll have to check with John.” She and her
husband had been together for over fifty years, fifteen of them in Keegan Bay.
“Go check with him and I’ll find
out what’s playing.”
She left and I sat down, suddenly despondent. This sudden overwhelming depression has been happening more
and more since I haven’t had Barclay around. Except for the once a week writing meetings, I haven’t figured out
a productive way to spend my evenings. Though Violet and I spent quite a bit of time together, I was beginning to find her
company tedious. The afternoon ‘teas’ were enough time with her. I mentally slapped myself on the side of my head
for suggesting a movie.
“He’s gone off to help build another set for the theater,” she said upon returning.
we can have an early bird supper at the diner and catch the six thirty showing,” I said with a vague attempt at enthusiasm.
I hadn’t bothered checking. “I don’t know, but with six theaters, something is bound to
sound good. And they rotate the start times, so we’ll find something we both want to see at a time that’s convenient.”
saw Nights in Rodanthe. “Life changing events set in motion as a woman whose husband strays, seeks solace at
an isolated inn.” Ho-hum. And the meatloaf had been bland, too. I really ought to make a note to myself that I have
seen all the plots about mixed up middle-aged people. They are no longer awe inspiring. Though I have to admit Richard Gere
was easy to look at; sadly, if he looked at me all he’d see is an old lady who insists on fooling herself by dying her
hair and wearing youthful clothing. I do make some effort to keep myself reasonably slim and fit, but those afternoon Scotches
show up in the mid-section, especially when I go to buy new clothes and am forced to look at myself in a full-length mirror.
next morning, knowing that Violet would sleep late after being out ‘until all hours’ for the movie, I took the
opportunity to watch the house across the way from seven o’clock until hunger sent me in search of breakfast. Then I
went on with my day, pushing Jessica and her unusual shopping habits to the back of my mind.
Thursday I was completely sidetracked by an unexpected visit from my oldest son Ian, his wife Audrey, and their three offspring.
He had called from the Orlando Airport. I do love my boys, but surprise visits are unsettling to say the least. They were
on their way to Port Canaveral for a cruise and thought they would pop in and take me out to play miniature golf and then
to dinner at the Top of Daytona, things they’d promised the children they’d do, never thinking that I might have
“But, I haven’t shopped. There’s no food. The least you could do is give me some advance notice!”
I scolded when they arrived.
“What? You’re so busy? We wanted to cheer you up. Get you out of the house for a change. It’s
not healthy the way you live here alone waiting for Barclay to come walking through that door.”
He knew how to hurt his mother,
intentional or not.
“I’ll have you know I went out to dinner and a movie two nights
ago. You think I sit in here three hundred and sixty five days a year waiting for you to fly south and take me out?”
My heart raced with anger at his lack of understanding.
“Dinner and a movie?” Audrey said with a twinkle in her eye and,
I suspect, hoping to change the subject. I hadn’t considered that she’d think I had a date.
After taking a moment to regroup,
I smiled my best enigmatic smile. “I don’t want to say in case it doesn’t come to anything.”
“Grandma has a boyfriend!”
she chortled gleefully.
Donnie, Robbie and Mike, my grandsons, sat like lumps on the sofa staring at the television, each one of
them disappointed that the wireless world hadn’t yet reached the interior of my house. I told them if they wanted to
text message or speak on their cell phones they’d have to either stand in the southwest corner of the dining room near
the window or do it outside. The center of the courtyard provided the best reception. Though they’d come south for the
hot weather, not one of them was eager to stand out in the sun to talk on the phone. Not one of them wanted to go to the swimming
pool either, with “all those old pod people.”
“Pod people?” I asked.
Audrey provided the explanation. “There
was a movie years ago called “Cocoon” where the old people stood in the pool and then were sucked up and became
young again. Anyway, we called them the pod people and that’s how I referred to the folks here when I first came to
visit. The kids remembered.”Nice
kids, honor roll students, so they tell me, but teenagers just the same.
By the time they left for their ship two days later, I had heaps
of linens to wash, blow-up beds to deflate and a refrigerator to replenish. I hardly thought of Jessica the entire time.
I have to be honest, I didn’t think of her at all because I was either busy or exhausted. What triggered the next event
happened because I had to get up at three o’clock one morning to use the bathroom. Feeling restless, I wandered around
my darkened house, guided by the light from the streetlamp, enjoying the clean quiet of my home when a movement outside caught
my eye. I pulled the curtain aside and lifted a slat in the blinds. A car moved in my direction from the house across the
way. It turned right onto the main street leading to the highway. I saw Jessica. Why would she be going out at three o’clock
in the morning?
I went into the kitchen and made myself a cup of tea, real tea, and brought it back to the window and parked
myself for the duration. What could Jessica need so desperately that she had to go out in the middle of the night? My opera
glasses rested in the same spot, undamaged by the children when they had used them to study the little lizards in the shrubs
out front. I peeked around the neighborhood. All was quiet; houses dark. Of the nine houses in our courtyard, only four were
currently occupied. One was for sale, the other four would come alive between late November and January when the snowbirds
arrived, in this case, Canadians. The
snowbirds happily maintained two residences, one up north and one here in the park, flitting from one to the other as the
weather changed, frequently hopping up and down the coast for weddings, birthdays or other life altering celebrations and
ceremonies. These days, it was more often to attend funerals. But, tonight our Keegan Bay Central Court remained tranquil.
was considering a third cup of tea, not Johnny Walker, when the car returned. I picked up my glasses and waited. First Jessica
stepped out of her car, leaving that door open, and looked around as if expecting to be spied upon. I dared not move my glasses
lest she see a reflection from the streetlamp. I held my breath as her gaze passed over my house. She appeared satisfied and
stepped up to her kitchen door and unlocked it. She opened it so that now there was only a small gap between the car door
and her kitchen door for me to view her activity.
She leaned into the back seat of the car and pulled out an enormous bundle.
Big enough to carry–a baby? That’s exactly what it looked like, a baby’s car seat. By her actions, it appeared
that the car seat was filled with something. What else would one put in a baby car seat except a baby? Where on earth would
Jessica have found a baby? And why was it at her house?