More than any other book I have written Lawson Payne has surprised me again and again. The irascible Flora Dunman ranks way up there on the “I Never Saw That Coming” list.
By way of review (in the event you haven’t read the other entries about this book and its characters), Lawson Payne begins in 1940 with the birth of Willis Oakley. Then the story jumps ahead to 1955. After several chapters, the story again leaps, this time to 1979 or “the present day” at the Magnolia Arms.
In the last book, The Moores, the Merriers, I explored Ivy Leigh (Moore) Ransom’s [now Hampton] backstory, and her growing up years in Jacksonville, Florida. In those chapters the reader learns Ivy Leigh leaves home when a teenager (I’ll not relate that story here, in case someone reading this entry has not read the previous book.) She ends up at the Magnolia Arms, married to Marshall Ransom, a disabled Korean War veteran. Also at the Magnolia Arms is her friend Margaret Hawthorne (Agnes Quinn meets in Trevorode the Defender).
Working as housekeeper during this time is Flora Dunman.
She was a fun character to get to know, but I wouldn’t want her to work for me.
Or vice versa.
Martin York—founder and president of York Lumber Industries—was dead.
The news seeped out from Duke Medical Center, trickled along the streets of Durham, swept south along Highway 15, and surged across the Dennisonville city limits while the breakfast crowd at Newman’s Restaurant was still swigging coffee and spooning apple butter onto biscuits.
Moe Tate, proprietor of Whispering Pines Motor Lodge, was first to receive the news. His sister Joan, a cardiac nurse at DMC, had rushed to the phone the minute her shift ended. The report could have waited till she got home…been delayed even till after breakfast. Mr. York had been in decline for weeks, his death expected. The real news—Joan could not wait to tell—was that Hettie York Oakley, who had bolted from Dennisonville eight months before, leaving her two sons at the mercy of her bad-tempered husband, was at her father’s bedside when he breathed his last.
Within half an hour the phone was ringing at the Magnolia Arms. Ivy Leigh, sequestered in the pantry where she was making a grocery list, squeezed her eyes shut, and shouted to Flora.
“Would you… get that, please?” She grimaced, hoping for the best.
Flora, stationed at the sink, was already in a snit over the egg-yolk-crusted plate she was scrubbing and was currently behind schedule. She had often tried to impress upon Ivy Leigh that taking time to answer the phone interfered with her efficiency.
Nevertheless, she sank the offensive plate beneath the suds, snatched up a dishtowel, and dried her hands as she charged toward the phone.
Ivy Leigh, turning her attention back to rice, cornflakes, and oatmeal only half-listened to Flora’s end of the conversation, terse as usual.
“When?… Uh-huh… Okay… Yes.”
To Ivy Leigh’s surprise, Flora appeared at the pantry door. Ordinarily, she could not be bothered to deliver a message immediately, deeming very little news of genuine importance.
“That was Gretchen,” Flora said, dishtowel over her shoulder. “Old Man York died.”
Ivy Leigh looked up. “What? When?”
“Early this morning.”
Ivy Leigh reached up to snag the string dangling from the overhead bulb. “Wonder if Willis will want to go to—”
“Wait a minute,” Flora said, stepping in. “What is that?” She pointed.
Ivy Leigh’s shoulders sagged. “Granny Atchison’s canned peaches.”
Flora brushed past her and picked up one jar, then another, moved another aside, voice rising as she counted. “One, two…there are six jars of these things. What were you thinking?”
“Bridey’s trying to earn money for the junior class trip to Washington.”
Flora, like a prosecutor entering an exhibit into evidence, held forth one of the incriminating jars. “You’re not seriously suggesting we eat these. Please tell me you’re not.”
Reminding herself she, not Flora, was manager, Ivy Leigh pasted on a Mona Lisa smile.
“No…but it’s not hurting anything for the jars to sit here on the shelf, is it?”
Flora set down the jar. “You and that soft heart of yours.” She turned, still muttering as she headed back to the sink. “Not the way to run a house…not the way to…how long have you been there?”
Willis had slipped into the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee. Standing on the other side of the open refrigerator door, he was searching for skim milk and reciting Shakespeare.
“Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, featured like him, like him with—”
Flora stepped around the door. “Did you hear me? How long have you been in here?”
Milk in hand, Willis closed the refrigerator and squinted at her. “What?”
“How long have you been…here… in the kitchen?” She pointed at the floor.
He poured milk in his coffee. “Not long.”
“Did you hear me talking to Ivy Leigh just now?”
“Yeah. Something about peaches…” He returned the milk to the refrigerator and closed the door, “…like him with friends possessed…” then put two slices of white bread in the toaster.
Flora shook her head and went back to the dishes.