Submitted Date 02/14/2020

Despite the late hour and her exhaustion, Jean didn't sleep well that night. She tossed and turned in the too-large, too-empty bed. The slightest sound outside woke her, from the hooting of an owl to the raccoon rummaging through the neighbor's trash. At six a.m., she decided not to fight it anymore and got out of bed. It was better, she figured, than continuing to stare at the ceiling.

More out of habit than anything else, she brewed a pot of coffee and poured herself a cup. Allowing the steam from it to curl up and warm her nose, she began to form a plan of action. It shouldn't be hard to arrange a meeting with Barbara Barnes. Ruth had been trying to get Jean to accept appreciation for coming to Arnold's aid, even if she didn't feel she deserved it. She simply had to give in. The funeral was recent enough that the family would still be receiving condolences in the form of casseroles from friends and neighbors. That would make a visit from Ruth and Jean seem like just another hot dish.

The trick would be to question the widow about the family finances without being rude or suspicious. Arnold's wife had known about his gambling debts, but how did Barbara think her husband paid them off? Had she noticed a sudden influx of cash, only to see it disappear again? Whose secrets would her husband have been privy to? Was she equally as well-informed? Then there were the more personal questions, like, "Are you in cahoots with Dr. Carnegie?" and "Did you murder your husband?"

Her first cup of coffee drained, she stood up to get herself a refill. As she peered out the window over her sink, she saw the milkman approaching. She was seldom awake when her delivery came and couldn't help but notice the man carrying it filled out his uniform quite nicely. There was something about a man in uniform that made her blush. Jean looked away before he noticed her staring. She heard the clink of milk bottles and footsteps leaving the porch. She looked up again in time to admire the milkman's behind as he walked back to his truck. He started the engine and cruised slowly down the road to his next stop.

Although Jean wasn't ashamed of herself for looking, there was a slight twinge of guilt. She missed Teddy dearly. Sometimes the physical part of their relationship was hard to bear without. Still, temptation was one thing, giving into it was another. Adultery. That was a secret a person might pay to cover up. She resumed her position at the kitchen table and tried to brainstorm more. If a person had something to hide, it was probably either shameful or illegal, maybe even both. Embezzlement, illicit gun sales, and betrayal all came to mind.

Jean suddenly felt overwhelmed. How could she hope to discover everybody's hidden secrets? Even if she could, how would she weed out which ones Arnold Barnes knew about and then ferret out who paid for his silence? It was an enormous task that was exhausting to contemplate. As she rinsed her cup out in the sink, she gazed out the window again, peering toward Ruth's house. It was still too early for anyone to be up, especially if Tom and Ruth had stayed up with Jack all night. She remembered seeing their lights on when she returned home from work late the night before.

In an effort to distract herself, she retrieved her milk from the porch and put it away. Then, she set to work on the laundry. First, she had to sort everything. Her uniforms went into one pile, her stockings into another. Then, she filled a tub with lukewarm water and a tablespoon of granulated soap. Setting her uniforms to soak, she peeked out of the kitchen window again to check for signs of life next door. Nothing yet, but it was approaching eight o'clock. Jean knew Tom would be carrying his briefcase and a brown paper lunch bag out to his car soon. Every Friday, he went to the funeral home to review the accounts, whether or not they had a service scheduled. She only hoped Ruth would be staying behind today. If there was a service, her chances of getting Ruth to introduce her to Barbara that afternoon were slim.

She'd just turned the heat on the washbasin when the sound of a car engine made her leap up and dash outside. Jean was relieved to see that Tom was in the car alone. She waved at him and he acknowledged her with a nod of his head before turning to guide the car backward down the driveway. Ruth was standing on her porch, waving to her husband. Her other hand was holding her son's. She greeted Ruth with a smile and tried to get little Jack to do the same, but he wouldn't lift his eyes and tried to scoot behind his mother. She turned and lifted him to her hip. Ruth motioned Jean to follow her inside and, setting Jack down again, offered to make them both coffee.

"I can't stay too long, Ruth," Jean said after she'd accepted a hot mug. As she poured cream from the mouth of a porcelain cow, she said, "I've just started the laundry. But, I was thinking that I'd love to go and see Barbara Barnes today if you have the time. I didn't get a chance to offer her my condolences at the service. We were so busy with the flowers and the food."

"Sure, Jean, if you don't mind doing the driving. Jack can play with little Nathan," Ruth responded, looking at her son. "Would you like that, Jack? Someone besides mommy to play with?"

Jack, who was chewing on a wooden block painted with the letter J, looked up at his mom but didn't speak. She turned her attention back to Jean.

"We ought to take something with us. I don't want to show up empty-handed."

"How about if I bake something? I'm sure she's sick to death of casseroles and gelatin by now."

"That sounds lovely, Jean. Have you finally decided to let yourself be the heroine?"

"Not exactly, but I do want to see how she's doing."

The two women agreed to meet that afternoon and Jean went back to her own house. The laundry was steaming nicely by now and Jean used her ancient dolly pin to agitate the load. It sat for a while longer in the hot water while she opened kitchen cupboards, seeking flour and sugar. Ingredients gathered, she lit the oven and greased a cake pan. Between the laundry and the oven, Jean's kitchen was becoming very warm. She removed her cardigan and hung it neatly across the back of a chair. Rolling her sleeves up, she started to sift the flour and other dry ingredients into a bowl.

By the time one o'clock rolled around, there was a warm coffee crumble cake cooling on the counter and all of the laundry had been hung to dry. Still, Jean didn't have any better notion of how to get answers from Barbara Barnes. She examined herself in the mirror, making minor adjustments to her hair and makeup before heading out to meet Ruth. Jean tried to pull a tough-guy face, but she looked absurd. She laughed at herself. Starting with a smile instead and softening her expression by degrees, she eventually managed to look serious but still pleasant.

Ruth and Jack came to Jean's house and knocked on the door. Jean shut the light in the bathroom, scooped up her coffee cake, and met them on the porch. The three of them got into the Cabriolet and Ruth accepted the duty of holding the cake in her lap. While she tried to keep Jack from sticking his fingers in it, Jean guided the car down the drive and into the road. With Ruth as her navigator, it wasn't long before they found themselves in the Barnes's neighborhood. It was decidedly a step up in property values. Although where Jean and the Dormans lived was clean and safe, it was modest indeed compared to the two and three-story stone estates they saw set back from the road. The lane Barbara lived on was lined with walnut and hickory trees that shaded out the sun. Ruth directed Jean to take a left into the third drive from the corner. They went up a short incline and the house slid into view. Jean was breathless.

The home of Mr. and Mrs. Arnold Barnes was a gorgeous three-story Richardsonian done in rose-colored stone. At the right-hand corner, a Syrian arch framed the main entry. On the left, a rounded tower stood the height of the house. Identical rectangular windows were recessed in sets of three on each story. The second story set featured a narrow balcony decorated with wrought-iron railing. High above the entrance, a small circular window was framed by a wooden arch that fit into the peak of the roof. The drive was wide enough for another car to pass, so Jean parked to the right of the house and cut the engine.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Ruth said once they'd gotten out. "I couldn't believe it myself the first time, thought I'd taken a wrong turn somewhere."

"It's gorgeous, Ruth."

"Wait until you see the inside," Ruth said, leading Jack by the hand.

When Jean rang the bell, she half expected a stoney faced butler to answer the door. Instead, when the ornately carved door swung inward, it revealed Barbara's sister. She was dressed casually in a pale blue sundress with white polka dots. Her blonde hair was pinned up on top of her head. Two pearl earrings were clipped to her earlobes, bookending a pink lipped smile. The smile did not extend to her eyes.

"Yes?" She said, not appearing to recognize either of them.

"Hi. I hope you don't mind us dropping by. I was hoping Barbara was at home. I'm Ruth Dorman. My husband owns Graceful Exit…" Ruth said, hoping it would jog the blonde's memory.

The fake smile broadened, revealing a perfect row of teeth. As she held the door open, she motioned them inside, saying, "Oh, yes, of course. Please come in."

The first thing Jean noticed was the distinct bouquet of furniture polish. It was lemon-scented and reminded her of the reflective shine on her mother-in-law's dining table. Oriental rugs muffled the sound of their footsteps as they made their way down a short hall. Barbara's sister came from behind and edged past them as they came to a sitting room. It was lit by the sunlight streaming in through three identical rectangular windows. Sitting in an overstuffed wingback chair was the widow, staring out into the yard.

The blonde woman announced them. "Barbara, dear. The lady from the funeral home is here." She turned to the guests and continued, "Ruth, was it? And you are…?"

"Jean. My name is Jean Bell. Ruth and I are neighbors."

"Jean was the nurse who tried to save Arnold in the diner. She wanted to check in on you, Barb, see how you're doing."

Jean held out the coffee cake and added, lamely, "We brought cake."


*image: U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine & Surgery (public domain)


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