The four would-be chicken farmers known as the Early Birds arrived at the large communal dining area in plenty of time for lunch, before their two other table companions arrived and before all the Jell-O salad had been set at each plate. They usually got there before their places had been set, but with the visit in Mavis’s office and the detour to Agnes’s apartment they turned up a trifle later than usual.
Agnes stopped by her apartment on the way, urging the others to go on down, while she gathered up some of the information she’d printed from the web sites she had found. The others elected to wait so they could all go down together.
Agnes smiled graciously, but wished they’d go on like she’d suggested. She wanted a moment or two alone, because sure as shooting Mavis Purcell would be relating the Early Birds’ request to her daughters and she’d rather face the triplets with the news than do damage control after Mavis unloaded on them. She hoped to call one of her daughters before that happened.
The Tri-Dees, a name their Dad had given them, were Agnes’s only children. Amazingly enough, the Tri-Dees were born, when such things would be allowed, on three different days. Donna the oldest was born at 11:54 PM on March 11th, Deborah at 12:06 AM on March 12th and Diana, the baby, at 12:01 AM on March 13th. Donna and Deborah were identical twins while the youngest Diana was their fraternal twin. Agnes remained convinced that the Tri-Dees had collaborated in utero, deciding that each needed her own coming out party. Agnes’s doctor declared her brave and heroic when Diana finally emerged. Worn out and determined never to get pregnant again described her better.
The Tri-Dees remained close as adults, tricky business given their decidedly different personalities. Agnes endured the results of many a Tri-Dee’s tidal wave by trying to stay on higher ground. They had gone to three different universities—on scholarships, thankfully—but even then they continued to talk on the phone nightly until Howard put his foot down. Without even checking with each other, wanting to make their decisions solo, they all pledged Tri-Delta Sorority. What else? Agnes thought when they told their Dad and her
Their first husbands were all named David. Donna and Diana were still married to their David’s. Deborah, divorced again after three failed marriages, only the first one to a David, had a big yellow Tabby named Daffodil. As long as Howard had been alive, they’d been manageable, but they were increasingly less so since their Dad’s death fourteen months earlier. Agnes’s broken hip six weeks previous escalated their inborn tendencies to manage their mother.
Agnes put all thoughts of calling the Tri-Dees out of her mind as she scurried to pick up the papers next to her computer, a Christmas gift from her family. Out of the corner of her eye she kept an eye on her three friends as they made themselves at home. Ruth rolled her wheelchair to the refrigerator, opened the door and took inventory. No doubt she’d bring that up at lunch. Thelma Louise wandered around the room sticking her finger in Agnes’s potted plants.
“This one needs water.” Thelma Louise exclaimed, holding up her finger as evidence and turning to shuffle to the tiny kitchenette.
“Thelma Louise, it’s artificial.” Agnes said.
“Well, no matter what it is, it’s as dry as a bone.”
“Thelma Louise!” Agnes started to tell her not to water the artificial Fica tree no matter how dry it was, when she noticed the Reverend Henry Porter sorting through her mail on kitchenette bar. Oh My! Agnes grabbed all the remaining papers, chicken literature and whatever else was in the stack, dumped the lot in the basket on the front of her walker.
“I’ve got them!” she proclaimed, “Let’s go to lunch.”
Agnes headed for the door. Ruth reluctantly closed the refrigerator and Thelma Louise forgot why she was headed for the kitchen and fell in line. The Reverend Henry Porter snapped to attention, holding the door open for each of the ladies to pass, asking before he closed the door, “Do you have your key, Agnes?”
Agnes chortled, pulling a Lanier from the front of her dress and waving her key at him over her shoulder.
“I’m a latch key grandma.”
The threesome to her rear, grunted, but the grunt was good natured.
The tables in the dining room each sat six people. The Early Birds’ table was rounded out by Mrs. Pauline Pettigrew and Colonel Henderson Wilcox.
The Colonel arrived punctually, not a minute early or late. His habit of precise arrival and his pride in doing so irked most people. His compulsive habits could be downright irritating, the Early Birds agreed. Years of military training left their mark, they supposed, but with the Colonel—his preferred moniker—the mark was etched in the granite calcifications of his brain.
Ruth and Thelma Louise thought order, rank, chain of command as well as a plethora of war stories rounded out the Colonel’s tightly wrapped personality while Agnes thought they squared him up. Agnes found him rigid, opinionated and downright boring at times. She didn’t share those observations with the others or anyone for that matter. To do so might change the seating arrangements and that just wouldn’t do.
Their table in the dining room was the only one that sported two gentlemen. The ladies all widows were pleased with that arrangement so as long as they had male dinner companions, even one who was as predictable and dull as white bread, they weren’t about to complain.
So handling an occasional story about the Colonel’s frost bite that almost cost him two toes in Korea could be endured even though the tale was not only boring, but also a bit graphic for meal time conversation. And thank the Lord there were times when the Reverend Henry Porter and Colonel Henderson Wilcox engaged in a spirited discussion about the condition of the world and God’s action or lack of it in the affairs of human beings.
Agnes loved listening to a lively debate, having lived more than fifty years with Howard and forty-four with the Tri-Dees. Conversational rumbles raised the roof frequently or at least stirred the waters in the Webster home. So when things got really dull at the table, she’d throw out some crumbs and watch the two old dogs fight over them.
Ruth tolerated the discussions and Thelma Louise despised them, sometimes pulling her hearing aids from her ears and slamming them on the table. She’d stopped doing that after her hearing aids had been cleared from the table with the dishes the week previous. They’d been located seconds and inches before they entered the automated dishwasher. Now when the conversation grew heated she opted to turn them off.
Pauline Pettigrew entered the dining room at the stroke of the hour which would have made her as punctual as the Colonel if she hadn’t stopped to chat with this one and that at other tables. Ever the socialite, she breezed through the room, stopping at every table along the way to speak to someone. Pauline’s late husband Walter had a short career in politics serving in the State House of Representatives and a longer more successful reign as an attorney specializing in wrongful injury cases. Her fellow dinner partners agreed the woman could certainly work a room and was the only one at their table who knew and could remember the names of all the people she’d met in her lifetime as well as a few she hadn’t met but was inclined to believe she had.
Pauline had the all the residents beat in the name and information department. Name dropping was one of her specialties. However, for a woman who could remember names so well she couldn’t remember cards worth a darn. She was without a doubt the poorest bridge player any of them had ever encountered and yet she always wanted to play. Today, she managed to take her seat at five past the hour, apologizing for being tardy as always.
Her table companions smiled graciously as Pauline assumed her position, nodded to the Reverend Henry Porter, folded her hands and bowed her head. The Queen had docked and was holding court. The Reverend cleared his throat and said, “Shall we pray?”
The Colonel muttered under his breath, “If we must.” Agnes noted, however, that he too bowed his head while the blessing was asked. The Reverend Henry Porter had learned to keep his prayers short in the presence of the Colonel or endure the latter’s audible throat clearing when he decided the prayer had run past the acceptable time limit. The blessing concluded with a proper “amen” and everyone, but Pauline, settled down to the matter of eating. The menus didn’t vary much, but something from every food group was represented if cherry Jell-O counted as a fruit and though every dish was only mildly seasoned nothing was inedible.
Pauline chatted along as if she had the ears of her companions which most of the time she did not. In fact, she preferred to talk without interruption and had been observed carrying on a dialogue with herself at times. The Early Birds were eating heartedly, when The Reverend noticed the Colonel had not touched his plate. He set staring straight ahead, a puzzled look on his face. The Reverend, noting the Colonel’s perplexity, turned in his chair to follow the Colonel’s eyes and spotted Otto and his brother Frank unloading the supplies for the chicken coop.
Beyond the building project, The Reverend noticed Mavis Purcell talking to a stately slightly familiar looking gentleman. When he looked back to speak to the Colonel, The Reverend saw he’d turned ashen and struggled to rise from his chair. Ruth was speaking to him.
“Colonel, are you feeling ill?”
“Just a touch of dizziness,” he muttered pushing his untouched plate away from him and using both hands palms down to rise, “If you’ll excuse me, Ladies, Padre, I think I’ll head on back to my apartment.”
“Well, well,” Pauline, whose monologue had been temporarily interrupted, observed, “It isn’t like the Colonel to leave a full plate.”
There was agreement to that fact around the table before Pauline returned to her rattling and the other ladies to eating. The Reverend turned once more to look out the window. Otto had left Frank who was arranging the chicken coop materials. Mavis and the gentleman had disappeared.