The Waning of Miss Lyla Bluetree

Editor's Note: This is the first chapter of a novel in progress.

Life had taught Lyla Bluetree that locks never came to any good. She leaned over in her scooter and peered through the door of the supermarket, willing the sensored doors to open. She lifted her cane and banged on the glass. Seeing no movement, she banged again. The scrawny manager poked his head out from an aisle and walked over.

“I done told ya, Miss Bluetree," he said through the glass. "These doors is set to automatic. They don’t open til 7 am sharp from corporate over in Memphis!”

“You don’t have to yell, I ain’t deaf,” Lyla said.

“I ain’t yelling and you are too,” he said pressing his pockmarked face so close to the glass it fogged up two little spots in front of his nostrils. Lyla smacked the door again near his face and he jumped back.

So what if she had a little hearing trouble, Lyla thought. It’s downright rude to call attention to it.

“I know you got an override key,” she said. “Don’t act like you don’t.”

“They took it away from me the last time I let you in early Miss Bluetree, I swear. My key only works for the side door. You’ll need to wait a few more minutes.”

Lyla backed up her scooter about three feet and debated ramming the door. She’d had a bumper installed last summer, just so she wouldn’t have to wait so much. When she asked the mechanic down at the filling station to fashion her one, she described it to him like one of the big cow scoopers they had on trains back in her day. Lyla imagined being able to go through anyone standing in her way like Moses parting the Red Sea. Instead, the man had slapped a rubbery guard on the front that stuck out about a foot with crooked waves that looked like a cheap perm.

When Lyla did get a notion to ram something, it bounced her back like a bumper car. So much so, it almost gave her whiplash one afternoon at the Chili cookoff when some teenagers wouldn’t move their car.

Before the manager could get a word out, Lyla swung the scooter forward and to the east and said, "I'm coming round."

“Alright, Mrs. Bluetree” he yelled. “I’ll meet you over there, but there’s no smoking in the store and I expect you to at least – But Lyla was already gone.

After her shopping, Lyla tried to stay on the sidewalk as much as she could, if for no other reason than to keep that smart-mouthed deputy from Lepanto off her back.

Know it all, she thought.

A few years ago, he’d pulled her over. Lyla protested that her scooter couldn’t go over 15 miles an hour and that even if it could, there weren’t any kids around that day. And besides all that, she had a pint of butter pecan ice cream in her groceries that was melting.

“I’m 96 years old,” she said in frustration.

“I know, ma’am. That’s why I’m just giving you another warning. This is a school zone and we have told you several times, that while you now have the legal right to use your scooter, there is still a need to take into consideration –

“Good Lord, if you’re gonna give me a lecture, just write the ticket,” Lyla said.

And then he did!

Some nerve, she thought.

The town council had tried to pass an ordinance against her when she first got the scooter in 1993 after her driver’s license had been confiscated. From that day forward Lyla made up her mind to not take any guff from anyone at the city and had earned a certain reputation among the civil servants of the region.

When she pulled up in front of the steps to her house, the thought of it all still fired Lyla up so much that she almost forgot to set the brake again even though she’d tied her grocery bag to the handle as a reminder.

"I go sending this thing into the river one more time and I’ll never get it back," she muttered to herself.

She pulled the brake, then lifted her bag from the basket and put one hand on the pipe railing before she stood. There were forty-seven steps from the sidewalk up the bluff to her front door and Lyla had come to hate every single one in the past year.

The only good thing about shrinking over like she had was that it wasn’t any effort at all to put the bag on each step before she pulled herself up, one at a time like an inchworm. Back in her eighties it hurt her back considerably to do it that way. But she ate more back then – two bags worth – which made it hard to navigate both the bags and the pipe railing that ran up the steep steps to the old house at the top of the bluff.

The house was a fourteen-room colonial revival that overlooked the Mississippi River on the highest bluff in Helena, Arkansas. It had been the home of one of the foremen for Lee Wilson, the man who built the Arkansas Delta. In its heyday, the Bluetree House had hosted almost every dignitary in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi, even once a Vice President of the United States of America. Lyla wasn’t sure which one it was because it had been so long ago, but it seemed to her the man went by Cookie to his friends.

She worked her way to the next step and placed down the bag. These days, all Lyla ate in a week was a half chicken and three cans of Tomato soup. The chickens were so fat and thick, it was like four chicken’s worth, at least compared to the scrawny ones she remembered killing for her mother when she was a girl.

And don’t get me started about the soup, she thought.

They were out of plain Campbell’s tomato soup so she had to buy something called Creamy Tomato Basil from a company she’d never heard of in a huge can that she could barely get her fist around.

The steps took about 25 minutes, but Lyla made it to the top and thanked the Lord she only shopped every other week. Once on the porch, she turned the knob of the large door and pushed her shoulder against it, then felt it suddenly give way.

“There you are Aunt Lyla! I’ve been worried sick.” It was Terri, her great nephew Leland’s stout wife, pulling open the door just as Lyla came in.

Speaking of cheap perms, Lyla thought.

“Let me get these for you,” Terri said and snatched the bag out of Lyla’s hand as she took her by the arm.

With an i, Lyla thought.

That’s what the girl said to every person she met. “I’m Terri. With an i.”

No need to manhandle, me,” Lyla said.

Terri with an i placed the plastic bag on the floor beside the door. Lyla liked to put her groceries away first thing when she came home and wondered why the girl went to the trouble of taking the bag if she was just going to leave it sitting by the door. Lyla was just about to reach down and pick it back up when Terri pulled her by the arm.

“Aunt Lyla, come sit with me a spell,” Terri said.

Lyla let herself be led into the living room. Why anyone would leave groceries setting by the front door escaped her. The whole time Terri talked Lyla couldn’t help but look over at the bag as if dirty looks would keep chicken from thawing.

Lyla never paid much attention to anything Terri said and today was no different. The girl was going on about how Lyla needed to be more careful, not do so much, and for the love of God put some locks on her doors. If there was one thing Lyla Bluetree was not fond of, it was a sermon. Particularly in her own living room!

“Don’t you be worrying none about my locks,” Lyla said. “I’ve been around a hundred years and somehow managed to survive. I suspect I’ll be fine.”

“It’s just that Leland worries so about you, Aunt Lyla. This neighborhood has gone to pot. These times we live in ain’t like it used to be.”

“You think you’re telling me anything new?" Lyla asked. "This neighborhood was gone to pot before you ever drew breath, missy. My friend Bessie Hornbuckle got shot not ten feet from my front porch steps in 1972.”

“That’s horrible!” Terri said. “Who shot her?”

“Her husband, who else.”

“Are you serious?”

“Bud Hornbuckle was a mean drunk. But Bessie always went back.”

“Did she die?” Terri asked.

“Too stubborn,” Lyla said, with a slight smile. “I went down the steps after I heard the shot and went straight up to her. I took her by the hand and said, don’t you die, Bessie, you hear me? Don’t you die! Bessie looked at me and said clear as day. I wouldn’t give that son of a bitch the satisfaction.”

“Dear,” Terri said.

Lyla giggled, then said, “Bessie made Bud pay for it eventually,” then giggled again.

“Well, I hope you won’t be telling that story to the newspaper next week,” Terri said.

“Hell’s Bells,” Lyla said. “Is that here already?”

“It’s not every day someone turns 100!” Terri said.

Not even me, Lyla thought.

Truth be told, Lyla was going to be 103 next week, not 100. She couldn’t remember when she’d shaved the three years off. Probably sometime in her thirties, back when those kinds of things mattered. And nobody but the Lord knew where her birth certificate was if there even was one. Her family had been over in the Ozarks when she was born.

“Is there any kind of cake you’d like for the party?” Terri asked.

Lyla rolled her eyes but didn’t fight. They were all determined to give her a party whether she wanted it or not.

“Plain yellow cake with white icing,” Lyla said. “But get it from Kroger, not that fancy bakery over by the bypass. That one gives me gas.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Terri said. “Anything the birthday girl wants. But I’m still worried sick all the time about you living in this big old place without so much as a lock on the front door.”

“Locks are for people afraid of something,” Lyla said casting down her eyes.

She had lived in the mansion since she married Claude Bluetree in 1943. At the time, there were only latches with hooks on the doors. Lyla hated doors with latches and knew they were no use. One of the first things she did after the honeymoon was to remove every single one. If it’s out there and wants in, there's nothing to be done. You'd would be a lot happier if you went about your business.

Be ready for it, but don’t run from it. That’s for babies, she thought.

Her husband always indulged her peculiarities, as he called them. Claude was a good man but not the love of Lyla’s life by any means. He had more money than good sense dictated and came from a family of well-to-do cotton merchants who made their fortune in Memphis but then retreated to Helena back when it was a rural enclave a short ways down the river.

Though Lyla hadn’t come from money, it never bothered her to run in the circles of those who had. When they first met, she found Claude more amusing than attractive. He had an unusually large forehead and thick eyebrows, but the way he laughed won her over.

“Still,” Terri said. “I can’t hardly believe you’ve never had locks on these doors. But Leland says it’s so. He remembers coming in and out at all hours when he was little, but I still can’t picture it.”

“Well picture it or not that’s the way it was.” Lyla replied. “And the way it’s going to stay.”

“Yes ma’am,” Terri said.

“Was there anything else?”

“Well,” Terri stammered.

“Spit it out.”

“Leland was wondering if he could borrow some money to send little Ray Ray to church camp next summer. They are making everybody put the money up front in installments because last summer the Jenkins twins promised to pay and then didn’t. Things are a bit tight this month.”

Lyla never minded giving Leland money for little things. She liked the fact that nobody in the family knew whether she was rich or not. Lyla would sometimes even forget to keep track of it herself. Which, by her standards, meant that she must be fairly rich.

If you’re poor, you don’t forget it, she thought.

There was a time when the Bluetree family was one of the richest in the Delta and for all anyone knew, still was. Lyla enjoyed the idea that her relatives might suck up to her just because she may or may not have some money. So, when they asked for little things here and there, she never hesitated for a moment and simply said you bet and wrote a check.

“How much is it?” Lyla asked.

Terri hesitated before she finally said, “Seventy-five dollars this first installment. I can’t believe it cost so much for a week at church camp.”

“Don’t sound like much to me,” Lyla said. “Let me get my checkbook.”

“You sure I can’t get it for you?” Terri asked.

“Don’t nobody touch my checkbook but me,” Lyla said.

Once Terri had what she’d come for, she seemed to make an excuse to leave, which was just fine with Lyla.

Praise the Lord and about damn time, she thought.

Lyla grabbed the grocery bag as soon as Terri shut the front door and made a beeline for the kitchen. The chicken breast was still frozen but having it sitting out for 20 minutes while they talked wasn’t doing it any good. She walked through the living room to the back kitchen and put the bag on the table.

After Claude died in 1978, Lyla slowly shut down parts of the house one room at a time. One spring she would close off a spare bedroom then another spring she would tell herself that nobody needed to use the third floor. Then yet another spring she would say the master bedroom was way too much for her. By the early 2000's she had moved completely to the first floor and by 2012 occupied the maid’s room, the kitchen and would walk through the living room and out the foyer to the front door.

Lyla paid a family next door to do minor repairs, but the overall state of the mansion was sad by any standard. The roof had been redone a few years earlier and didn’t leak, but if anyone looked closely, they’d see tar patches peppered about. Lyla didn’t mind. She was a vain woman in her time, but that time had long since expired.

She took the chicken from the bag and carried it to the refrigerator. It was bare except for a gallon of orange juice filled almost to the top. Lyla drank one small glass of orange juice every morning and took her vitamin C pill religiously. Other than that, she drank three diet Dr. Peppers – in a can – every day, nothing more nothing less. She hated the taste of water.

She walked back to the counter and took the bag and headed toward the pantry. For a moment she lost her grip and dropped the bag on the tile. One of the cans of tomato soup rolled across the floor. The house always had a slight angle and anything she dropped took off like a jitney to the nearest wall. She went after it immediately, but it wasn’t much of a race. Before Lyla even made it to the kitchen table, the can had rolled through the pantry, into the laundry room and between the washing machine and dryer all the way to the back.

She walked back to the laundry room closet and got a broom to see if she could use the handle to roll the soup can back out. Try as she might, it wouldn’t budge. One little ridge on the bottom of the can was stuck behind the corner of the washing machine.

Soup cans they make these days are so big it’s ridiculous, Lyla thought.

After a couple more tries with the broom, she decided to leave it. She placed the other two cans in the pantry and determined it wasn’t going to upset her routine - that can just sitting there.

So she went about her day. She read two chapters of the book by her nightstand, did fifteen minutes of leg lifts in the recliner, then watched TV for one hour and 45 minutes. After that, she smoked one cigarette and took a two-hour nap. She was proud of herself for not giving the soup can sitting behind the washing machine a second thought all day long, or so she told herself.

Her intention was to tell Terri about it the next time that she came by or to get one of the Holland boys next door to help her get it in the morning when they came to bring her the paper. She gave the young Holland boy a dollar every time he brought in her paper, but only gave his brother fifty cents. The young one was sweeter.

At bedtime, around 8:15, she lay in bed and could not fall asleep. The thought of the can sitting behind the washing machine gnawed at her. It had all day, though she’d decided to pretend differently. Lyla hated to go to bed without everything in its place, so she got up, put on her night robe and grabbed the broom on the way to the laundry room. She reached for the light string and gave it a yank.

Once she got the broom handle between the washer and dryer, she could just touch the soup can. That one little ridge was wedged just so between the washer and dryer and she couldn’t make it roll. She thought if she just had another inch on either side, she could get the broom behind it and gently roll it out.

She set the broom on top of the dryer cross ways and put her left-hand on the top corner of the washer and her right hand on the opposite side. The first time she pushed, it didn’t give a bit. The second time she pushed the front gave a hair, but the back didn’t move. She checked with the broom to see if it was enough to reach, but it wasn’t. She gave the washer one more hard push and that’s when she heard a snap and felt a pinch.

Lyla immediately fell to the floor and knew something was wrong. She couldn’t move her legs or much of anything else. Stunned, all she could manage was to reach out her right hand toward the light string hanging above her.

Well, that’s silly, she thought. That string's ten feet away.

She wasn’t in pain but couldn’t move anything except that one arm. She stayed there, flat on her back, reaching upwards, for some time. Then she lowered her hand and stared at the laundry room ceiling.

Finally, Lyla closed her eyes and thought, so this is what it’s come to?

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About the Author

T. Daniel Wright grew up in Northeast Arkansas. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arkansas. His first original play, Colored Eggs was made into a feature film, starring Ian Somerhalder, Faye Dunaway, Tom Skerritt and Lauren Holly. His first novel, Lost Cain, was released in 2015. The Waning of Miss Lyla Bluetree is the first chapter of a novel in progress. He currently teaches in Kansas City, Missouri and will be on sabbatical this coming year to write and produce a stage adaptation of Jane Austen's, Lady Susan

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