I asked Madam Miller if she wouldn’t mind holding onto the money for a couple more days. My reason was because I was afraid that having to immediately return to the bank and visit the vault again might seem suspicious. There was probably nothing wrong with doing such a thing, but the eyes and ears of the bank tellers probably worked just like everyone else’s in this small town when it came to gossip and prying eyes.
Besides, Madam Miller didn’t mind at all. I assured her I would definitely return for it once I had spoken to Cotter about who she was and filled him in on the details of why Mr. Sook had left half the money with her. I first had to tell Cotter about the money in the cigar box before anything else. I gave her my business card and cell phone number and told her to contact me if she needed to. Outside in the car, my cell phone showed all bars available so I dialed the Mobile, Alabama office and explained to them that I would be spending at least one night in Monroeville.
My boss asked if anything was wrong with the Faulk residence. I really didn’t want to explain the talking cow, or even begin to mention the ghost stories, especially with the threat of one of them following me around. He’d make me bring Cotter right back to the teen home if I started babbling about all the strange happenings, especially about finding a dead neighbor. I assured him that everything was fine but that my investigation of the house and the interviews with the family were just taking longer than I had anticipated. I promised a full report by Monday, which bought me a few extra days just in case.
The sun was just beginning to fall when I pulled away and headed back to Skully’s Landing. I would make it back just in time for dinner with Ms. Skully. I wasn’t convinced that was something to look forward to, but I was so tired after this long and bizarre day that I couldn’t imagine it getting any stranger. Being an old Southern woman, I’m sure Ms. Skully’s cooking was something worth sitting down to. And it was.
I entered the front door of the bed and breakfast to the warm comforting smells of country ham, fresh baked cornbread, white beans, and cabbage. I had not eaten a home cooked meal like this in years. A fire was roaring in the fireplace and the dim lights in the chandelier flickered like soft candlelight. I felt like I had come home. Ms. Skully greeted me at the door and told me dinner was ready if I cared to run up to my room and freshen up.
I did as I was told. A pair of slippers were waiting next to the bed. I kicked off my shoes and put them on. My feet practically sighed out loud from the relief. A plush robe was draped across the bedspread. I grabbed it and put it on. It felt so comforting and warm against my arms and neck. Now I just needed a box of chocolates, hand fed to me by a hunky, shirtless butler. I’m sure Ms. Skully’s dinner would suffice.
When I came back down the stairs, Ms. Skully was sitting at one end of the large dining table. There was a place setting for me immediately to her left, instead of at the far end of the long table opposite her like it always is when two people are dining in some fancy mansion in a movie.
“I see you found the robe and slippers,” Ms. Skully said, waving a hand for me to join her.
“Yes, I hope it’s okay to wear them to dinner,” I said walking over to the table and taking the seat next to her.
“Absolutely. Had you come downstairs in anything else, I would have insisted you run up and change into them,” she said with a smile.
“Thank you so much.”
“It’s my pleasure, dear.”
The dishes in front of me were as white as snow, only shinier. The silverware twinkled with the light from overhead. There was a crystal goblet of ice water. I reached for it and immediately took a large sip.
“I hope you are hungry,” Ms. Skully said with a pleasant smile.
“Yes m’am, I am. It’s been a very long day.”
“Splendid! Jule Ann has prepared a marvelous dinner for us, and you can tell me all about your day over it.”
“Jule Ann?” I asked.
“Yes, dear. She’s the maid and cook of Skully’s Landing.”
“Oh, I see.” I had no idea why I had expected Ms. Skully to have prepared the meal herself. Rich women in Alabama running B&B’s, or not working at all for that matter, certainly did not cook.
As if on cue, the door across from us opened. Bright white light filled the room from what must have been the kitchen. A two tier serving tray on wheels entered the room being pushed by a large buxom woman who must have been Jule Ann. My eyes immediately noticed the large cloche covered plates of food on the tray.
Jule Ann parked the cart across the table from us and lifted the silver dome covers, two at a time, with a flourish. Billows of hot steam filled the air like smoke from a magician’s trick. Jule Ann bent over and placed the covers on the bottom of the cart. She grabbed up one of the plates of vegetables with a fat meaty hand and walked around the table, standing between me and Ms. Skully to serve us. She held the plate of food down low so that I could admire it for a second or two before she inserted a large spoon and scooped a helping on to each of our plates. My mouth watered from the beautiful sight and aroma of it all.
It was not until Jule Ann returned to the cart two more times to serve us mashed potatoes and cabbage, that I finally got a really good look at her. While she stood at the cart slicing the baked ham, I looked up at her face and was shocked by her sad harsh features.
Unlike the Faulks, Ms. Skully’s maid was a white woman. She was as big as a bear in her black attire. Her skin was so pale it looked translucent, so white that I could see thick blue veins twisting up her temples like grapevines. Her hair was as black as coal and slicked back, cut in a crude chop with a bit of curl at the back of her neck.
Her cheeks were plump and fat, but the left side of her face drew your attention because of a strange scar. It was practically in the shape of half of a Valentine heart, a deep pink line that extended out of her hairline near her ear, curved up and under her eye, dipped down near her nose and then back down and away from her chin. It was not a deep cat scratch or accidental scrape to the face. It’s size, and perfect linear shape encircling her cheek, was a sure sign that it was caused by some surgical performance. Someone had attempted to maim her by cutting off part of her face.
Though the scar made her face appear very despondent, it was not even the worst part. The eye above the scar was missing. The flesh around the socket where the eye should have been was puckered. It had been gathered across the hole that an eyeball would have filled and then sewn shut.
I didn’t look at her as he forked thin slices of ham onto our plates. I kept my eyes focused on my plate instead, but I couldn’t avoid eye contact with her one good eye as she returned to the cart and leaned across the table to place a basket of bread between us. Jule Ann held our glance, but it was me who looked away.
“Tea or wine?” Ms. Skully asked.
“Isn’t tea the fine wine of the South?” I asked, attempting to make a joke to lighten the situation and appear unfazed by Jule Ann’s features.
“Indeed it is, my dear,” she said looking back at Jule Ann and giving a nod.
With our dinner plates full of steaming food, Jule Ann poured each of us a large goblet of iced tea. then, she stood at attention by the cart with her hands behind her.
“Anything else, dear?” Ms. Skully said looking over at me.
“No, it’s all quite lovely. Thank you so much,” I said.
“Very well. Save room for dessert. Jule Ann makes a fabulous blackberry cobbler. That will be all, Jule Ann.”
With that said, Jule Ann gave a silent nod and then guided the serving cart back through the kitchen door. Without turning around, she reached out with her arm and pulled the door closed behind her.
I followed Ms. Skully’s actions and grabbed the dinner napkin from beneath the silverware and draped it across my lap. We then picked up our forks and began to eat. Ms. Skully reached for the basket of bread and offered it to me. I took a cornbread muffin and cut it into two pieces on the small saucer next to my plate. She offered me a pat of butter and smiled.
“Is everything to your satisfaction?” she asked, smearing her own cornbread with butter.
“Oh yes! It’s absolutely wonderful.”
“Jule Ann is a marvelous cook.”
“I believe it. She seems like a lovely woman,” I said.
“You are too kind,” Ms. Skully said looking at me. “She’s really not as miserable as she looks.”
“If I may ask, who–.”
“Her husband,” Ms. Skully said cutting me off, already knowing what I was going to ask.
“That’s so sad.”
It must have been a sin to discuss such disheartened predicaments over a lavish meal, but I could tell Ms. Skully was intent on entertaining me with the story of Jule Ann’s misery. Jule Ann had run the cafeteria at the Monroeville Elementary School. Her husband, aptly named Cleetus, was the town drunk and couldn’t hold a job. He regularly beat Jule Ann and insulted her because she could not bear children. That was probably a blessing because Cleetus would have no doubt abused them too, or much worse.
One night, Cleetus came home drunk and found dinner was not ready. He began to berate her, but she ignored his yelling. She hurried to finish cooking, hoping the sooner she finished the sooner he would shut up.
She turned around in a quick. Not realizing he was standing right behind her, she bumped into him and dropped his dinner, spilling the hot plate of food all over him. He became enraged. Cleetus smacked her so hard she fell to the ground. He said she’d spilled his food on purpose. To teach her a lesson, he pulled out his pocket knife and began to carve her face.
“An eye for an eye, Jule Ann!” he yelled as he poked out her left eye with his knife.
Despite the pain and agony, she managed to pull herself away from him, long enough to dump a skillet of hot grease on him. She then smacked him with the skillet and knocked him out. A kind neighbor had heard her screams and had already called police. They were kicking in the back door just as Jule Ann was trying to get to the phone to call for help herself.
Ms. Skully told the story with great fervor and dramatics, as if it were a rehearsed bedtime story she told her grandchildren every Christmas. Her voice raised and lowered for effect and emotion. She snaked-hissed Cleetus’s name each time she spoke it like he was the devil himself.
I ate and listened with intensity. I felt like my own stories of today could match hers, but I wasn’t about to steal her thunder. I just wanted to finish Jule Ann’s nice meal and retire to my bedroom, with the door safely locked.
“What happened to Cleetus?” I asked, curiosity getting the best of me.
“His brother bailed him out. Jule Ann didn’t want to press charges no matter how much we persuaded her to. She was afraid of him. All the more reason he should be dragged into court and be put behind bars for the rest of his life.”
“He’s in jail then?”
“Oh no, dear. He disappeared before the case went to court. They found pieces of him weeks later along the riverbank. Probably got drunk and wandered off into the swamp. I’m almost sure a gator got him, or that’s what they say.”
This last bit was said as if it were a secret she was sharing between us. Without saying just that, she knew very well what had happened to Cleetus and probably knew who had done it. I’m sure the missing pieces of him had gone to the gators and the pieces they found were what the reptiles didn’t want.
She went on to explain how the children of Monroeville had ridiculed Jule Ann and called her names because of what Cleetus had done to her face. She had to quit her job at the school and never went into town again.
“It was nice of you to take pity on her and give her a job, a place to stay, ” I said.
“Oh yes, dear. The Skully’s take good care of their own,” she said with pride.
“Jule Ann is related to you?” I asked.
“Why yes, indeed. Jule Ann is my sister.”