The Three Miss Margarets

September 2007 Pulpwood Queen Book Club Bonus Selection


Praise for The Three Miss Margarets

The Three Miss Margarets by Louise Shaffer

"Winning debut by actress and television writer Shaffer... THE THREE MISS MARGARETS are wholly imagined, rich creations whose reticence speaks volumes about their time and place." --Publisher's Weekly

"The story never lags, leaping back and forth between present and past, showing how much the latter creates the former... Shaffer has created a little piece of heaven here in Charles Valley." --- The Miami Herald

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Recipes From Charles Valley



Chapter 1

Chapter One

She'd gone to bed with her shoes on, and not by accident. She'd deliberately climbed under the covers fully clothed and pushed her shod feet down between the clean sheets. Because she felt like it. Because she was mad at the world at large and whatever force passed for God in particular. Because it was the kind of thing an icon didn't do. And Margaret Harrison Banning, otherwise known as Miss Li'l Bit, definitely qualified as an icon in her little chunk of the world. Which just went to show that if you lived long enough any old damn thing could happen to you. At least it could in a place as lacking in a sense of humor as Charles Valley.

Humor and memory. There probably weren't five people left in town who remembered that in her youth, at six feet tall, with far more nose than chin, and a father who was, to put it politely, different, she had been considered a disaster. Then she was the homely-as-a-mud-fence daughter of the local lunatic who couldn't get herself a man if her life depended on it. Now she was an icon. "That Miss Li'l Bit," the locals would say to visitors who'd come to Charles Valley to soak up its Southern charm and visit its world famous horticultural center," She's the real thing-- Old South to her toes. She's a Banning on her Daddy's side. They've been here since before the War of Northern Aggression, which is what we like to call it." Pause to allow the listener to chuckle at adorable Southern humor. "She still lives in that big old white house that's been in the Banning family since her great grand daddy bought it in


eighteen sixty eight. Runs it herself, does Miss Li'l Bit, just has that girl Cora come in to do for her twice a week. And she keeps up the Old Justine Gardens too. Well, they're not the originals you understand, but she re-did them close to. The Justine family is famous in these parts. They owned a plantation that covered all of Lawson county until the family lost it during Reconstruction. Miss Li'l Bit's great grand daddy bought the big house and the gardens around it to keep it from going for taxes. The Justines were his wife's people, you understand, cousins a couple of times removed. And Miss Li'l Bit, she keeps the gardens like they were back in the olden days. Why she's got even got some magnolia trees that were put in a hundred years ago."


Pause for inevitable tourist response to quaint local eccentricities." Yes Ma'am, I guess we Southerners do take our history real serious. And Miss Li'l Bit, well, like I said, she's the real thing. "

Well, "the real thing" was lying like a lump under her blankets wearing the skirt and blouse she'd put on yesterday morning, her support hose, and her second best pair of Natural Bridge Oxfords. Her admirers would be shocked. And if they knew what else she'd done in her time… But she wasn't going to think about that.

She hoisted herself up in bed so she could read the clock on her night stand. The numbers were insultingly large, meant for eyes that were starting to fail, although of course the salesgirl who suggested it had not said so. Her nap had lasted forty four minutes. Pleased, she turned off the vanquished alarm. She prided herself on waking before the thing went off , because no clock was going to tell her when it was time to stop sleeping. Especially not tonight. She was in control tonight. She had to be.

Slowly, she pulled herself out of the bed, her knees giving her the hard time she'd come to expect. But she wasn't going to coddle them. Tonight there was no such thing as aching joints. Tonight her body would have to perform.

The phone rang. "Yes, Peggy," she answered too quickly to give the caller time to identify herself. Proving she was still in control. Staying a step ahead of the music.

"We're here," said Peggy. Her voice sounded tired, and not too young for her age as it usually did, "I came out to call you from the car phone."

"I assumed as much." It was indulgent and needlessly showy to have rented a car with a telephone in it, and she'd told Peggy so when she got the foolish thing.

"Do you need me to come get you?" Peggy asked.

"No, I'll be fine on my own."

"It's real cold out, Li'l Bit. And dark. Couldn't you please drive?"

"I'll have my flashlight, and I'll take the shortcut over the ridge." Impossible to explain how much she needed the short walk alone in the dark to collect her thoughts. There was a weary laugh on the other end of the phone.

"What's so funny? "she demanded.

"Maggie said you'd want to walk through the woods. She says when you're alone in the woods that's when you pray." That was total nonsense. She did not pray. Not in the mealy mouthed way most people meant, she never had and she never would. She left the praying to Maggie who insisted in believing in her saints and Madonnas in spite of having a first class mind and an excellent education.

Peggy continued, "That's what we've been doing, Li'l Bit. We've been praying. Maggie gave me her rosary beads and we've been saying that prayer to Jesus' mother. I never thought I could do it tonight, but somehow having those beads in your hands really helps. And it's much easier praying to a woman, at least, that's how it feels to me. Maybe I should convert to Catholicism after all these years. What do you think?" She laughed again, and sounded close to tears. Too close.

"Peggy, how much have you been drinking?"
Pause. "Not more than usual. And Maggie's sharp as a tack. She's remembering everything. So if you'll just change your clothes, the three Miss Margarets will be fine."

"I wish you wouldn't use that ridiculous phrase, it makes us sound like a Gilbert and Sullivan trio." No need to address the issue of changing her clothes, Maggie and Peggy knew her too well.

"Li'l Bit, stop stalling. It's not as bad as you're afraid it's gonna be." There were times when Peggy could be unpleasantly clear sighted. "Just get yourself over here now," she said and hung up.

Peggy was right, it was time to get on with it. Li'l Bit took a deep breath to steady herself, then marched into her bathroom, where she'd already laid out her clean clothes. Her freshly ironed clothes, thank you very much. As she entered the bathroom a dog the size and color of Gentle Ben heaved herself up from her resting place on top of the heating vent and came over, her long brush of a tail wagging happily. Automatically Li'l Bit reached out in time to save a box of tissues that was perched on the vanity before it went flying.

"Petula's lights are usually on dim, " Peggy had said when she conned L'il Bit into adopting the half starved mongrel, "But she'll be a true and believing acolyte. You two need each other." She was ruthless when it came to finding homes for the strays that were left at the shelter she had founded, she'd talked poor Maggie into taking three. Peggy named her dogs after performers she had admired over the years. Giving them a little pizzazz, was the way she put it.

"Not now," L'il Bit said to the dog, "I can't take you for a walk, go back to sleep." Petula sighed and plopped back down on the vent. L'il Bit picked up her comb and began to drag it painfully though hair she hadn't touched in days.

It was so like Peggy to turn to the sloppy comfort of Maggie's religion. Well, let them chant over their beads, and confess their sins, and beg for God's mercy. L'il Bit would not be joining them. She did not need mercy. And as for praying to God, she sincerely hoped she'd been right all her life and no such being existed. If one did, he or she had much to answer for .

Suddenly the comb became too heavy. She put it down and turned away from the mirror. Petula was still watching her. L'il Bit lowered herself to the floor, ignoring the grumbling of her knees and wrapped her arms around the dog's neck, burying her face in thick black fur. But she was not crying. On this night she would not shed one tear.

Click here to listen to an excerpt from the audio book of The Three Miss Margarets by Recorded Books Productions, narrated by Linda Stephens.

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