The Merry Spinsters – By John E.Ouellet
It was one of those delightful muggy days when the sun and rain clouds met above as if wandering tourists. A violent flash of rain quickly muddied the earth. Then, all too soon, the sun vanquished the storm as if it was the mere spittle of an infant. Lydia left her garden in haste. She watched from under her huge, straw hat as the last defiant rain drops spun the brilliant sunlight like tiny prisms.
She noticed the unmarked police car in her gravel driveway; its presence, however, was unremarkable. She shook the rain off and nudged the screen door open with her shoulder. From the Lestoil-soaked linoleum kitchen, she heard her sister, Molly, chattering away in her high-pitched tone. A man, whose voice was rather deep and hardly able to enter the conversation, was with her in the parlor down the narrow hallway. The squeal of the screen door gave her away and Molly called out to her. “Lydia, they know where Rose is. This clever officer can tell us what happened to her.”
Lydia entered the darkened room without addressing her sister and sat on a cloth-covered ottoman, frayed and tattered by years of Molly’s calloused heels. She spoke as beads of water dripped from the soaked hat. “Oh, tell me, however did you find out?” she asked.
The officer cleared his throat. He was younger than the two sisters by twenty years or more. He was a wide man and possibly quite tall, though it was hard to tell, with him sunk so deep in the compacted armchair. He had a head of thick, gray hair that looked to Lydia to be dry and difficult to comb through. She was imagining how such humidity as today would play havoc with it when he said, “As I explained to your sister, I’m not an officer, I’m a detective sergeant.”
“Ohhh, a detective,” Lydia cooed. Yes, she could see that now. He had that air. An older, thicker, Colombo. Or maybe a hairier Kojak.
“Lydia take off that hat, you look ridiculous, like a big, soggy Corn Flake. She’s forever wearing it around,” Molly said to the sergeant.
Lydia removed it gently and worked to reshape it. “I bought it at a garage sale in Osawatomie, Kansas,” she advised their guest. “That’s where John Brown, the abolitionist, butchered to death five men. It’s nice, don’t you think.”
“Very nice,” the sergeant said, “Well, to set the record straight, we don’t know where Mrs. Conroy is.”
“Tell Lydia your name,” Molly piped in. “Go ahead, tell her.”
The sergeant squirmed and straightened himself as he announced, “Ben Arnold.”
“Ben Arnold,” Lydia repeated.
“Like Benedict Arnold,” Molly said, gleefully.
“Benjamin Arnold,” Sergeant Arnold said.
“Yes, I know,” Molly said, “but like Benedict Arnold.”
Ben Arnold nodded politely, the jokes and asides being as much a part of him as his thick hair.
“It’s a strong name,” Lydia said. “Even though he was a scoundrel of the worst kind, you can’t deny he had a strong name.”
Sergeant Arnold gave them a moment to re-collect themselves. They were old spinster sisters, known in the town to be very daft, if not downright mad.
He had been to the old farmhouse many times over the years, as a patrol officer, to take reports of kids stealing from their prize vegetable garden and bloodying the house with tomatoes. That, and prank phone calls, eggs on Halloween, and rocks and obscenities from teens in passing cars. And spiteful, malicious things that made the burly Ben Arnold seethe. “What’s a carpet muncher?” Molly asked him years ago during one of the reports. “What’s a perv?” Lydia asked.
And it was never ending, a dare for mischievous young boys, a right of passage for pre-teens, machismo for high-schoolers. What made it worse were their parents who preceded them decades before and filled the kids heads with urban legends and myths. He had heard them all: dykes, ghouls, witches, baby snatchers, made all the more gripping by the fact that neither had ever married or been conspicuously attached.
But it was the mark of murderer that kept most of the myths alive and the people at bay. That terrible night, years before Ben Arnold joined the force, had been satisfactorily and legally explained away within a week of their elderly mother’s fall down the basement stairs. Their own father was a witness who testified that she was growing very frail and often faltered on the smoothest of walkways. The narrow and shaky wooden staircase that lead to the earthen basement was no place for her to be at her age.
If the sisters even remembered him, it wasn’t apparent. And Sergeant Arnold let it lie. For even in their seventies, and with all the evil talk about them sure to mere hogwash, he could not dismiss the notion that they were quite capable of the dispensing of Rose Conroy.
“I was noticing your vegetable garden on my way in,” he said to Lydia. “Quite a crop, so early in the season.”
“Oh, it is doing marvelous, isn’t it? I think I may get corn earlier than usual. You’ll have to come back for a dinner.”
“Better than other years, I take it.”
“Lydia’s garden is always the best around,” Molly crowed.
Lydia smiled and patted Molly’s hand. “Well, I learned a little from mother.”
“A little,” Molly barked. “Nearly all of it, I’d say.”
Lydia scowled back. “Let us say, some, to be kind to the dearly departed.” Lydia swiveled to Ben. “So thank you, sergeant. If I can take some credit, yes, it usually is the best around. I’ve won several awards, you know.”
“I certainly do know. Your watermelons have beaten my three years in a row.”
“Truly,” Lydia said, delightedly. Then, “I’m terribly sorry.”
“Not at all. Someday, maybe you can share some of your secrets. But right now, I need to talk to you both about Rose Conroy’s disappearance,” Ben said.
Molly’s arm went up in an instance. “Oh, can I tell her?” she asked.
“Tell her what?” Ben said.
Molly turned to face her sister squarely. “The police think we did it.”
“No,” Lydia said, curtly.
“No,” Ben repeated.
“We were the last to see her,” Molly said, matter-of-factly.
Lydia thought it over. “You know, we were.” She turned to the sergeant.
“We certainly were, Sergeant Arnold. Ohhh, that looks terrible on us.”
“Now wait a moment,” Ben said. “That is not what I’m saying; you’re jumping to conclusions.”
“That’s right, Molly, you remember how Matlock used to say that all the time.”
“I didn’t like that show,” Molly said. “Never did. I haven’t liked any show since The Family Feud. I mean, the real one with Richard Dawson. He was so handsome.”
“He was shameless, kissing all those young woman, even the married ones. And on the lips,” Lydia said.
“It’s all right if they don’t object, right Officer Ben? That’s not against any law.”
“No, it’s not.”
“That’s not the point,” Lydia argued.
“Ladies,” Ben interjected, “about Rose Conroy.”
“Oh, yes, poor Rose. You found her?”
“No, I’ve told you that.” Ben pushed himself out of the chair and circled the room slowly to re-establish some control. The sisters watched him patiently. “The fact,” he began, “is that Rose Conroy went missing eight days ago. The delivery man from Domino’s Pizza saw her here at nine ‘clock that night.”
“Quilt batting,” Molly said.
“We were quilt batting. You know, making a quilt,” Molly held up the corner of the quilt on her lap. “Rose Conroy was a very good quilt maker.”
“Oh, yes,” Lydia agreed. “Some say she was the best in the county. My sister, Molly was, until Rose moved in several years ago.”
Molly gave her sister a hard stare. “I will have to admit, she was good.”
“Very good,” Lydia continued.
Ben recalled seeing old blankets lying around Rose Conroy’s manse on the hill. It was the original parsonage, built in the 1920’s when the town was a thriving commercial district known for its plentiful crop of huge strawberries. Seemed everyone had patches, like lobster traps in Maine. That is, until the 1970’s when retail went suburban mall. The patches dried up shortly after the town center. Now, they grew wild and unruly, in places where people used to live but now rarely go.
“Anyway, she never made it home. She left no note, took no belongings that we can tell, and had no enemies.”
“Heavens, no,” Lydia said, “no enemies whatsoever.”
Molly concurred. “She was a sweetheart. And with all that money, you think she’d have angered someone in her past. Or her family had.”
“You know she had money?” Ben Arnold asked.
“Well, living in that big house, rundown as it was.”
“That’s only because her interest was in making her quilts. All day, all night. She had little time for anything else,” Lydia said.
“Yes, Lydia, the officer has heard quite enough about how accomplished she was at making quilts”
“Yes, well, anyway, she was always talking about her late husband, how successful, how, charming, how . . . good in bed.” Lydia clasped her hands to her mouth. “Oh, dear, did I say that? Excuse me Mister Arnold.”
“Not a problem.”
Molly leaned forward. “Did you say she never made it home?”
“No, she didn’t.”
“How do you know that?”
“Well, her daughter called her that night and she didn’t answer the phone.”
The sisters looked at each other, grievously.
“That was their arrangement,” Ben continued. “She would call her daughter whenever she came back home after being out for the evening. That night she didn’t call so her daughter called her.”
“I see,” Molly said. “Lydia, be a dear and hold the end of the quilt while I work on it. Excuse me, Sergeant. I won’t be ignoring you; I promised myself I’d have it done by week’s end.”
Lydia pushed her chair back and pulled the massive blanket onto her lap. She arranged it smoothly, as if it was completed and she was settling in under it for the night. Molly bowed her head as she worked. “Would you be a dear and hand me a square of Dri Lux beside you,” Molly said to Sergeant Arnold without looking up.
He saw a stack of neatly trimmed and brightly colored fabric on the end table. He reached over and picked up several with his thick fingers. They felt to him like those microfibers slacks his wife had bought for him, the ones that felt like he was wearing baggy nylon stockings. He hated the feel, but they were comfortable, and he swore only to wear them around the house when no visitors were expected.
Sergeant Arnold waited several minutes while Molly worked on the quilt. She moved quickly, her frail but nimble fingers setting the multicolored square patches in place while stitching tight and smooth. Fascinatingly tedious is how he saw it. He recalled his own mother patching torn corduroys, stitching ripped seams, and replacing buttons. He never paid the process much mind. It was just something that happened; hand over the damaged goods and wait for them to be made new.
Though she said otherwise, she certainly appeared to be ignoring him. If the silence disturbed the sisters they weren’t showing it. Perhaps after so many years, they had become well acquainted with it. Not so the sergeant who used silence too make others sweat, not himself. He was about to break the rhythm when Molly spoke up. “There, done. Officer, would you hand me another square? A green one this time; that would look smart, I think.” He dug through the pile for a spring green with half of a spot of yellow paisley. “So when Rose’s daughter called, and no one answered, that meant she never made it home?” Molly said.
Initially, that was the way the investigators interpreted it, but coming from the old woman, a drip of cynicism on her tongue, it sounded as if it could use some fine tuning. “What would it mean to you?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m sure I don’t know. I’ve never been good at solving mysteries.”
“Motive,” Lydia said. “That’s what Matlock would say.”
“Lydia, really,” Molly said, clucking her tongue. “That was just a T.V. show.”
“But it’s so, isn’t it, detective. I hear it on the news all the time. The motive was this or the motive was that.”
“Motive’s important,” Sergeant Arnold concurred. “Did either of you have a motive?”
“I’m not sure,” Lydia said. “Did we, Molly?”
She clucked again. “Of course not.”
Lydia smiled sweetly at him. Molly remained focused. He walked to the window overlooking the back yard and stared out. “You gave each other a look there,” he said, “when I said Rose Conroy’s daughter called her that night and she didn’t answer.”
Molly stopped quilting and looked up at him. “Well wasn’t it so clever of you to notice. Yes, yes we did give each other a look.”
“We certainly did,” Lydia said.
He turned to them. “Why?”
The sisters looked at each other. “I don’t know,” Molly said.
“Couldn’t be she maybe slipped and fell into that pond out back,” he said.
“Oh, gosh, no, that’s in the other direction from her house,” Lydia said.
“Yes,” Molly added, “she’d have no business going back there.”
“Then, ladies why the look, and please, no more acting scanty.”
Molly looked to Lydia, delivering a nearly imperceptible communiqué. “Well, detective,” Molly said nervously, “if you must know, and please remember it was you who asked, we have our . . .”
“Doubts,” Lydia said.
“Questions,” Molly countered.
“Suspicions?” Lydia offered.
“Oh., yes, very good, Lydia, suspicions it is, that Rose’s daughter may not be quite right with her mother, if you know what I mean.”
“Quite right?” Ben Arnold repeated.
“Yes. Oh, we do hate talking about people like this,” Molly said in a whisper.
“Especially about Rose,” Lydia added.
“Well, Lydia, let’s face it,” Molly said, “this isn’t exactly about Rose.”
Lydia nodded, solemnly.
The two sisters remained bowed and silent as if in prayer.
“The story,” Ben Arnold nearly bellowed in frustration.
Molly snapped her head upright. “Yes, well, you see, Rose has a lot of money.”
“Or so she’s said,” Lydia noted.
“And her daughter, Beth, I think her name is, is married to a bit of a ne’er-do-well. Rose’s words, not mine.”
“He’s so lazy, he can’t even muster the vim to make grandchildren,” Lydia said. “That’s what Rose said about him.”
“Lydia, honestly, that’s not meant to be public.”
“Everything needs to be public, if it’ll help. Right detective?”
Ben ignored Lydia. “I’ve spoken to Beth,” he said. “Seems her mother was very generous to her.”
“Of course, she’s her daughter. I’ve never had one, but I’ve been one. I know how strong a relationship that is,” Molly said. “Besides, this isn’t about Beth, it’s about . . .
“Ron,” the detective said.
“That his name? She never did say. I think it hurt her too much to say, to tell you the truth.”
“Because of grandchildren?”
“Some. But I think there was much more to it. Rose spent a lot of time here, didn’t she, Lydia.”
“Oh, yes, which, I’m afraid, is why you’re here, officer, calling us murderers.”
She gave the last word an Alfred Hitchcock drawl. Ben Arnold was about to protest when Molly did it for him. “Lydia, you are so melodramatic, I swear. The detective never said such a thing.”
“He implied it,” Lydia said, her voice lively at the thought.
“Ladies, please, it’s an investigation, everyone’s a suspect.”
Lydia put her hand over her mouth. “Oh, dear, even you, detective? How dreadful.”
Ben Arnold shook his head. “I spoke with Ron, Mrs., Conroy’s son-in-law. I admit, he has no spunk, but he seems genuinely concerned about her disappearance.”
“Follow the money,” Lydia piped in, proudly.
Molly and Ben looked at her.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to think of. That’s what Deep Throat said in the movie.”
“What movie?” Molly asked.
“All the President’s Men,” Ben said.
Lydia pointed at him. “You’re right. Remember in the garage, how Deep Throat told Robert Redford to follow the money? Or was it Dustin Hoffman?”
“Now there’s a handsome man,” Molly said. “Robert Redford. What’s with that bump on his cheek? You’d think with all his money he could have had it removed.”
“I know, like Barbra Streisand with that nose.”
“Okay, ladies, Rose’s money was the motive?”
Lydia and Molly nodded. Molly spoke for them. “Oh, it’s dreadful, I know, to even think it, but you know about families and money. Had we gotten married and raised husbands and children, who knows what kind of a mess we’d be in.”
“I agree,” Lydia said.
“Was that something Mrs. Conroy spoke about often?” Detective Arnold asked.
Lydia nodded. “Not Beth, I don’t truly think, but she was afraid that . . . Ron, you said his name was?”
“That Ron was only with Beth for the money. You must admit, that is a possibility, I mean, she’s kind of a mess to look at.”
“Well she is.”
“I refuse to believe that beauty is the main reason for two people being together,” Molly declared.
“Why of course it isn’t. Not in this case, anyway,” Lydia said. “Money is.”
“You do realize they could be in love?”
Lydia mulled it over “No, it’s the money.”
Sergeant Arnold made the decision to end the interview. He reasoned it out this way: He had asked about twenty-five percent of the questions he had formulated. They answered only about twenty percent of those, and half of those answers he didn’t understand. The sum of that left two answers: Rose Conroy made quilts and didn’t much like her son-in-law.
“Well, it’s hot and you ladies must be tired,” he said. “Mind if I take a look around your garden and pond on the way out?”
“No not at all,” Molly said.
“I’ll come too,” Lydia said. “The rain chased me away, and I still have weeding around the radishes.”
Contrary to his earlier praise for Lydia, Sergeant Arnold had taken time prior to the day’s meeting to notice the garden. It was two days ago, at four in the morning when he hoped no one would be awake. But it was still too dark to notice a suspicious mound, freshly turned soil, or a five-foot swathe of delayed growth. Now, it seemed almost moot. These were two old spinsters whose lives literally evolved around the confines of their own property lines. It was Matlock and Richard Dawson and quilts and prized watermelons. So the disappearance of a friend didn’t raise much concern; World War Three probably wouldn’t, unless a battalion of paratroopers landed smack in the middle of Lydia’s green peppers.
It was sad. They were as dippy as people said. Sergeant Arnold handed the remaining stack of Dri-Lux squares to Molly for her convenience, then followed Lydia outside. The steam from the garden was still rising. The moisture hung suspended in the air as if each bead had been hooked on a fishing line and dangled from the sky. Lydia put on her now dried, floppy-brimmed hat, looking every bit as ridiculous as she had when it was drenched and limp.
He followed her down to the garden. She moved in a lively jaunt while holding her hat, the way young models do while walking too carefree on a windswept beach. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she said of the garden.
Sergeant Arnold gave an obligatory smile of concurrence while scouring the land for a clue. It was as full and delicious as any garden could be in mid July. Not a weed in sight. Not one drooped tomato plant. Not one brown vine. And not a sign of upturned earth that shouldn’t be. Surely these merry spinsters weren’t capable of murder, never mind burying a body beneath a garden so painstakingly and proudly maintained. Still, “Would you mind if I came back with a dog and crew and checked your garden?” he asked.
She was dumbfounded and for the first time, quite put off. “Whatever for?”
“Just to be sure.”
“By having a dog run through my garden? Are you still that upset over my watermelons, Sergeant Arnold?”
“Not at all; I never was.”
“It’s a lead I have to cover, that’s all. And I’ll bring him down around the pond, too.”
“What happens after that?”
“Depends on what the dog does. It’s a cadaver dog and if it finds a body, then. . .”
“Good gracious, Sergeant, whose body? Rose’s?
“Well . . . yes.”
“And here we were thinking you were being nice in helping to find our friend. I’m appalled, and after you making poor Molly say all those things about her daughter and son-in-law. You know, that’s going to keep her up nights for quite a while. ”
“We’ll be checking them out as well.”
“Well, I’m for sure that dog won’t find a dead body here, but I’ll tell you one thing, Sergeant Benjamin Arnold, if that dog takes a dump, you’re going to clean it up.”
“Did he enjoy your garden?” Molly asked when Lydia returned.
“He was appreciative,” Lydia said, flatly.
“That’s nice, dear.”
Lydia removed her hat and placed it on the coffee table. Molly went back to her quilt. “It certainly wasn’t very nice of you to say I learned my gardening skills from mother.”
“Well, it’s true, and it wasn’t nice of you to say Rose was the best quilter in the county.”
“Well, that’s surely true, and it was you who started it.”
“I did no such thing.”
“Oh, Molly, you’re impossible. You never remember things that put you in bad light.”
“Well, that’s rich.”
“Truly? Rose never would have put that hideous maroon beside that green.”
“And Mother certainly wouldn’t have had a problem with blossom end rot on her peppers.”
“You wouldn’t have even known that if I hadn’t told you about it,” Lydia said.
“I know it looked disgusting,” Molly chided her.
“As disgusting as that maroon?”
Molly stopped in mid-stitch and looked up at her sister. “I think that’ll be enough, Lydia,” she said in a maternal tone.
Lydia sat in the chair vacated by Sergeant Arnold. She watched her sister work on her quilt unperturbed. “He wants to bring a dog by the garden and pond,” she said.
“He’s very thorough,” Molly said as she began to stitch.
“I don’t want him digging up my garden, Molly.”
“Course not, dear. That was very clever of him to pick up the look we gave each other.”
“He’s very observant, I’ll say that.”
“Indeed,” Molly said. “Lydia, pick me out another square. Your choice.”
“You know,” Lydia said. “Is it wise to use so much Dri-Lux?”
“Absolutely. It’s a wonderful fabric: durable, comfortable, easy to clean.”
“Yes, but making such a point of it in front of the detective. Honestly, Molly, how . . .”
“Exciting?” Molly said.
“Naughty,” Lydia countered.
“Dangerous,” Molly said, her eyes dazzling.
“Yes.” Lydia nodded in agreement. “I guess that could be the word.”
“I’ve heard those dogs are very good,” Molly said.
“My, yes,” Lydia said, excitedly. “I saw one on Hills Street Blues who found a body in a dump that had been there for a year. Can you imagine that?”
“I’m sure the detective will bring him through the old wood pile by Beth and Ron’s place, wouldn’t you think?”
Lydia made a face like an infant eating strained peas. “Oh, that place. Nasty. Still, it’s a shame she couldn’t have been buried in her favorite dress.”
“Lydia, let’s not go over that again.”
“It’s a shame, is all I ‘m saying.”
“Well, perhaps I can drape the quilt over her.”
“You wouldn’t. Don’t you think her daughter would recognize the fabric?”
Molly stopped. “That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Rose would love that her daughter knew such things about her. But not in a million years would Beth know. Sad, they lived so close yet were so distant. Yes, I’ll do it. It will be a lovely gesture.”
“Molly, you’re wicked.”
Molly leaned over and patted Lydia’s hand. “Here,” she said lifting the quilt. “Hold this end and pick out a square. You choose.”
Lydia handed her a royal blue.
“Her bathroom. Wonderful choice.”
Lydia smoothed the quilt out over her lap as Molly set the square in place. She caressed it. It was lovely. So soft and cool, evening in the heat of this day. It was like stroking Rose herself. “Molly?”
“Does this mean we’re even?”
“Yes, I guess it does.”
“I’m glad. After so many years, I feel much better.”
“So do I. You know, Lydia, people kill over the silliest things. Like money and property.”
“I’m so glad we’re not like that, aren’t you.”
“Oh, for certain, Molly. Those things have never been important to me.”
“It’s quite enough that you’re the best quilter in the county.”
Molly looked up, a tear forming in her eye. “Isn’t that the sweetest thing a sister could say. And Lydia, it’s quite enough to say that you have the best garden.”