Mrs. Marple and the Hit-and-Run
Stealing through the stranger’s yard, Virginia Marple regretted once more how she’d lost her temper at the Elysian Fields rest home earlier, the way she’d lashed out at the three women around the table—her oldest friends, now a twice-weekly bridge club.
“I am not Miss Jane Marple,” she had declared when Cass compared Virginia’s recent concerns to those of her “namesake”—stiffening sharply. “And don’t any of you dare….” Some small breaking point had been reached, her prided composure gone.
But even now, with her eyesight already strained and the branches overhead muddying the scant moonlight, Virginia pictured ever more clearly—and with renewed astonishment—the spinster detective’s pink cheeks and blue eyes, her hair fixed up in a bun, the way the old woman had been content to knit by the fire, watch birds through her binoculars, tend to her garden… so sunnily tranquil. The comparison had been enough to make Virginia want to forsake the tulips budding back in her own yard, the pink and white vincas, the lush marigolds soon to emerge, the red and purple salvia set to carry her through to fall.
And yet hadn’t their comparison been accurate? Wasn’t that why she was here tonight, dressed head-to-toe in black, her frail joints aching as she squatted in the shadows of first one oak tree and then the next, her knobby fingers pressed against their hides? Didn’t she hope to prove that she was indeed as keen as Agatha Christie’s old maid?
Virginia couldn’t bear the thought of being shut up in the Elysian herself, of Preston taking away her license, stripping her of what freedom she did have. And after all, she hadn’t read all of the clues wrong.
Three extraneous details:
Assessments from two of Virginia’s friends at the Elysian Fields:
The components of one camouflage outfit, pieced together from various corners of Virginia’s home:
As she eased across the yard toward the lighted window on the west side of the house, Virginia tried not to notice how the boxwoods looked like sentries or how the streetlights cast ominous shadows on the yard. She tried not to think of the phone call she’d received from James Hildred, the man who owned this house, the man she now found herself stalking, or of what the policeman had told her when he finally phoned to follow up on the incident. But she could not avoid recognizing that she was now closer in age to Jane Marple than to the younger women who turned up in Christie’s romantic subplots, the ones she had always identified with the first time she’d read the books. She could not entirely avoid pretending that the girl inside the house—Jill was her name, Virginia had learned—that Jill was one of those innocent young women, waiting for some slim salvation. And throughout these thoughts drifted images of the Elysian Fields rest home, of women who stared idly at the parlor television all day and of their parade of walkers, wheelchairs and ailments. And of Nell too, her third friend at the Elysian Fields, squat and plump in a frayed terrycloth robe, her long gray hair rolling in ringlets around her face, her hands motionless as they clutched along the edge of the table, that thickening glaze of her eyes, that silence.
The branches of the bushes scraped against Virginia’s sweater as she pushed through the shrubbery. Pine needles crunched beneath her feet. Keeping her eyes focused on the sinister glow from the window farther down the wall, Virginia stopped in her tracks, waiting for another light to shine suddenly or a door to open—for some voice to cry out, “Who’s there? What are you doing in my yard? What do you want, old woman?”
Excerpts from four conversations, mainly one-sided, that Virginia couldn’t entirely untwine anymore:
Three persistent images, one imagined:
Questions for two of the men from Virginia’s past—never asked:
One series of questions from her son Preston, asked on the phone:
Wedged behind the boxwoods, pressed tight against the brick, Virginia leaned her head back to stare up at the open window above her, its frame covered only by a lightweight screen. Voices murmured inside, but she could barely hear them over the clatter of Preston’s questions in her memory.
“One foot off the pedal, one foot closer to the grave,” said another voice—one of her friends at the Elysian Fields—and though Virginia couldn’t recall which one had said it, she knew it was true. The years passed so quickly. Inevitability bred consent, and soon consent became its own inevitability. We chose a path, bided our days, slowly disappeared.
All too soon, Preston would ask again for her license. She pictured herself moving away from the Martin Senour White walls she had learned to love, and saw her lawn falling prey to leafspot and mildew, aphids and Japanese beetles, caterpillars and slugs. She imagined her hands clutched around the edge of a card table, struggling for some balance in what was left of her life. Her gaze too might drift off from disuse.
But now there was still time to see. She hadn’t gotten all of the clues wrong, and she felt certain that the new clues were trying to tell her something. Margaret had first called the driver of the truck a slug, but now Virginia wondered if there might instead be something else behind these walls, struggling to be born.
Once more, Virginia tried to make out the voices through the window, recognized the deep bass of the man who’d called her on the phone. Once more came the echoes of other words in her memory: I don’t tolerate… I take discipline very seriously… my daughter will sorely regret…. you best learn your place, young lady… you best or… tan your hide… snatch a knot in your tail…. And what would she herself say when it was all over? Look here, Preston. I can see things well. I can see things that you don’t see, that no one saw but me. I can take care of myself. I can take care of other people. And if I can do all that, then surely I can drive myself around town, can’t I?
Virginia fumbled in her handbag and shifted through its contents. As she removed the orange gun, she smiled to consider how she suddenly envied old Jane Marple.
And when I’m done here, I’ll drive down to the paint store. I’ll drive down to the paint store, license in hand, and buy myself a gallon or two of paint.
She loaded the flare, shifted her weight, rose to her knees.
Monarch yellow , she thought, as she gripped her fingers around the windowsill and hefted the flare gun in her other hand. “Swallowtail blue,” she said aloud, to catch the man’s attention before she pulled herself up and set her sights inside.
A native of Richlands, NC, Art Taylor graduated from Yale University and has earned creative writing degrees from North Carolina State and from George Mason University, where he is now an assistant professor of English. His short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Fiction Weekly, North American Review, and The Rambler, among other publications. He blogs at artandliterature.wordpress.com.
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