I was surrounded.
Back to the wall.
Well, to the window.
The table was littered with fruitcake, cookies, coffee cups, plates, and napkins; the guests in various states of agitation or tranquility.
And in that moment, unnerved as I was by Muriel’s accusation I had “gone too far,” I noticed each of the guests had struck a pose, which unquestionably revealed what she was thinking.
Why couldn’t they adopt such characteristic postures when I was perched on the sofa, hands on the keyboard, blank page staring me in the face, cursor blinking?
‘Weary of the turmoil, she sat quietly while the others talked,’ I could describe how Bonny Bee had eased her chair back imperceptibly and folded her napkin by her empty plate.
The owner of the Peregrine Inn was preparing to make a polite exit.
‘Her patience had reached an end,’ I could depict Ivy Leigh, angled sharply toward me, legs crossed, foot swinging, her slender right arm resting on the table, fingers tapping.
The manager of the Magnolia Arms was about to give me a talking to the likes of which I would not soon forget.
‘She was deeply troubled,’ I could portray how Muriel, having unburdened herself of the opinion she had come to dispense, had sunk back in her chair, arms crossed.
Former owner of the Drifters’ Rest, current owner of Mollie’s Restaurant—how, I wasn’t sure—knew the whole story of the Oakley family, and Willis, in particular, and had grievances she fully intended to air.
‘She calmed her nerves by eating,’ I could explain how Maybelle took one cookie after another from the white box, munching, glancing at Muriel for approval to take one more.
The matriarch of Hog Holler was wrestling with what she had known all along—Zeke had been restless his whole life and now she knew why.
‘The memory jarred her,’ I could tell how Bridey, arms outstretched, was gripping both edges of the table, left and right, as if we were being rattled by an earthquake and she was trying not to slide off her chair.
The President of the Dennisonville Historical Society loved her husband Asa Ludlow with all her heart—especially now, when he needed her most—but it had been a love she had grown into, not like the desperate, all-consuming love she had felt for Willis Oakley.
But I wasn’t writing the scene into a book, so only took note, reminding myself why seminar speakers all spout the same advice about character description.
Show. Don’t Tell.
I was used to one of these ladies occupying my thoughts, summoning me to “come in” to her particular setting, but had never been in this situation before—all of them gathered simultaneously, all demanding answers, a jury of sorts.
Should I feign innocence or confess outright?
Opting for wide-eyed bewilderment, I turned to face Muriel, which mercifully released me from Ivy Leigh’s scrutiny.
“What do you mean?” I asked, voice strained.
“I’ll tell you what I mean,” Muriel said, pointing her thumb over her shoulder. “Get that laptop of yours. Bring it in here and open it to the chapter you’re working on. Read the section on Willis.”
Before I could even open my mouth to ask which section, Ivy Leigh said, “Don’t even try to say you don’t know what Muriel’s talking about.”
Fetching my laptop, I located the chapter titled “Households,” a clever spin (or so I thought) on the opening lines of Romeo and Juliet: “Two households…”
I scrolled through, reading a few lines of each paragraph, inquiring, “This?”
Finally, Muriel reached for my laptop and pulled it toward her. She scanned the pages. When her face reddened, I knew she had found what she was looking for. She scooted it back to me and stood behind my chair.
“Right here,” she said, pointing. “This. Read it, and we’ll see what these other ladies think.”
Bridey, on the other hand, had gone pale. “I don’t want to hear it…”
Muriel looked across the table at her. “I don’t know why you mind, Bridey. You’re an honest-to-goodness heroine in this chapter.” She tapped my shoulder. “Go on.”
I read aloud:
By the end of the first week, Willis felt more at home in the store than his house. He began staying late to restock shelves, offering to lock up. Because Greg’s son Hal had described Willis’ miserable life at school, Greg had already determined to help him. Entrusting Willis with responsibility would build confidence, and he had potential. Anyone—except his own father, apparently—could see it. Greg gave him a key. One night, when Willis was locking up, he stopped himself. Why bother? No one wanted him at home. His mother had not called once. And he hated walking past Susan’s empty room. He went back inside and slept in the stockroom, content.
“How old is this young man?” Bonny Bee asked.
“Fifteen,” I said.
“Reminds me of Wilf Gregor.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” I said, eager to change the subject.
Bridey had released her grip on the table and grabbed a napkin. Sniffling, she scraped it across her face, wet with tears or sweat…or both.
“I remember when he went to work in Mayberry’s store. His father picked him up the last day of school and drove him straight there. I never knew he was sleeping in the stockroom.”
“It was necessary,” I said, “to set up the scene where Ivy Leigh confronts Willis’ father.” I turned to her. “It will be one of your finest moments…once I’ve finished.”
“Well,” Maybelle said, licking her fingers, “I’ll tell you one thing right now…I don’t care how many people show up at my house, I can always put one more potato in the soup and take one more quilt from the cedar chest. Ain’t nobody gonna sleep in the barn in my story.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.