CHAR AND I ARE HAVING LUNCH in the large eating hall in Bigelow Village, a room with a towering ceiling, bolstered with what I call fly- ing buttresses, though I’m not sure what an architect would call them. There are windows on two sides, the kitchen area on the third, and the entrance from the hall on the fourth. Some forty tables are set around the spacious room, though on this day only perhaps twenty or so folks arehaving lunch. The food, Charlotte has told me, is accepta- ble but not gourmet. The menu has its standard daily fare, with spe- cials on given days. The waiters are college students, and so one might expect the service to be spotty. It begs the question, then, of why Charlotte lives here.
“I don’t eat fish,” Charlotte says, “but I hear good things about the tilapia. I think I might order a melted cheese sandwich, maybe with some of their cold strawberry soup first. It’s good, the strawberry soup.”
A woman who is perhaps in her seventies approaches our table and sits at the third of four chairs. I see Char sort of frown slightly, then say, “This is Freda Graham. Freda, I’m not sure if you know my brother, Greg.”
“Saw him last year and the year before,” Freda says, in a high, whiny voice, but with a contrasting sparkle in her dark eyes. “Pre- sented on growing older, and then on understanding our grandchil- dren.Thought it was odd since he–I mean you–didn’t have any of your own.”
“Well,” I said, feeling defensive, “as a teacher, I don’t always have to experience something to know about it.”
“That is probably true, because I enjoyed both of your work- shops.”
“He’s not presenting this time,” Charlotte says. “Here just for the pleasure of our company.”
“Your company,” Freda says. “I can’t imagine he–you–would rel-
ish the company of most of us old battleaxes.”
I smile at her self-deprecation, and say, “Hard on yourself, aren’t you?” aware that Claire, too, had once spoken negatively about the residents of Bigelow Village.
“Not at all. I’m blunt but truthful.”
“Yes,” Charlotte says, “Freda is our ultimate ‘tell-it-like-it-is’ res-
ident. Got to pay attention to our veracity when she’s listening.”
“The only way to live,” Freda says. “Now, poor Claire, she was an honest one, but you see it got her in trouble.”
“Oh?” I ask, galvanized by the reference to Meredith’s grand-
mother. “How did it get her in trouble?”
Charlotte smiles. I can see she knows, but waits for Freda’s an-
“Claire was proud of her atheism. Blind as a bat, she was, but her vision about a deity–or the lack of one–was clear as a bell. Made no bones about the fact that religion has been the cause of most wars.”
Now I smile. My sister is so different from both Freda and the way she is characterizing Claire.Charlotte, I am sure, is a nonbeliever as well, but has not the remotest interest in evangelism. I would doubt that anyone in the entire village even knows her position on spiritual issues, though she is outspoken when it comes to politics and social inequality.
“So, you’re saying that folks here resented her for…well, I guess
you could say, her radical stance on religion?”
“You got it, Charlotte’s brother. A lot of resentment. This is not a place where people want to be toldthey’ve thought the wrong thing their whole lives.”
“But no one ever threatened her…?”
“I’m not so sure,” Charlotte says. “She once told me of a nasty note she got, that her granddaughter read to her. It was camouflaged as to subject matter, but read something like, ‘Disrespect for eternal matters is ignorance.’ She said she tossed it.”
A man, using a walker, slides toward our table, a wrinkled grin spreading. Before he arrives, Char says softly, “Elmore. His wife is here too.”
“You must be the kid,” Elmore says to me. “I have three kids and four grandchildren.”
Freda scowls at the intrusion, but Char says, “And you also have a great-grandson.”
“Yes,” Freda says with annoyance, “and you always forget about him.”
“Oh.” He smiles vaguely and slides his walker away and toward
the entrance, where his wife is summoning him with a waving arm.
“The wife there is a first-class religious freak,” Freda says as she stands, “and he’s just out of it; wouldn’t know religion from pizza. Well, good to see you, teacher. Sorry you won’t be holding forth this year. When you come again, I have a good topic for you: How to be happy despite living with decrepit old farts.”
As she stomps away, Char says, “You can see she’s an iconoclast.
Elmore has Alzheimer’s, and Freda can’t stand him.”
“She has strong opinions for certain, and you do have your char-
acters here. Makes me realize, even more, how different we all are.”
Charlotte is quiet for an instant, then says, almost to herself. “Yes, that’s right. Claire was a target for people insulted by her be- liefs.” She hesitates, and says to me, “She was buried a few days ago, but I wonder if it would be possible to exhume the body and do an autopsy?”
“What? Are you saying you believe there was foul play of some sort? Here?”
“You know Greg, we’re none of us dead yet, and we still have our passions.”
“I’m sorry, Char. I know you do.”
“Well, if she was ‘done away’ with, she has the right to justice,
no matter how old she was. But no one is ever going to suggest they check. I wonder, Greg, do you think I can get the police to listen to me?”
“I think you’re one of the most astute people I know, Char. So I say, ‘Hey, Ms. Marple, go for it!’”
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