None of us realized Mrs. Sutton went crazy after her husband died. We all thought she was holding up pretty well, although of course some people claimed they knew all along, especially Sarah Babbs, who had to put herself in the middle of everything. The rest of us, however, thought Mrs. Sutton was fine because she kept to her schedule just like she always had. Everyone in Mount Oak said you hardly ever needed a watch as long as you knew where Mrs. Sutton was.
On Sundays from 10:45 until 12:00, Mrs. Sutton sat on the right side of the sanctuary at the First Baptist Church on the corner of Fifth and Elm. Her favorite church dress was navy blue with crisp white linen at the collar and cuffs. With it, she wore black leather shoes with sensible heels and a round navy blue hat with a little netting veil. She sat alone now because twelve years ago, Jane Marie went away to college on the other side of the country and never came back. Mrs. Sutton stopped leaving a place for her in the pew eventually. Even after Mr. Sutton died six months ago, she kept on leaving a place beside her for him, and she traded her navy-blue dress for plain black dresses without any embellishments like white linen cuffs.
Mrs. Sutton always sat in the second pew. She once remarked to Mr. Ernest Pines that sitting in the first pew was unseemly. “It’s the mark of someone who is too eager,” she said, and he never sat in front of her again.
Church ended at noon, and if it didn’t, Mrs. Sutton’s frown got deeper and deeper with every passing minute. The first time Preacher Willis caught sight of that disapproving look, he faltered right in the middle of quoting scripture. He couldn’t find his place again, and he closed his Bible and gave the quickest benediction any of us had ever heard. He even skipped the altar call, and the choir didn’t get to sing “Just As I Am,” which was a shame because we’d been practicing the harmonies. If there were any lost souls in the congregation looking for salvation, they had to wait until the evening service to get it. Preacher Willis kept morning services on a tighter schedule after that.
After church, Mrs. Sutton got in the driver’s seat of her huge white Cadillac. When Mr. Sutton was alive, they went to Cox’s Diner for the Senior Sunday lunch special: hamburger steak, mashed potatoes and gravy, and green beans with a roll and free refills on sweet tea. Anyone sitting nearby could hear her litany of everything that was wrong with the service and the congregation.
“Sue Perkins shouldn’t wear skirts above the knee at her age. Women over forty should dress modestly, don’t you think?”
Mr. Sutton nodded as he shook more salt onto his hamburger steak.
“Someone surely needs to tell Reba Dawkins she’s not one of the Gaithers. ‘Blessed Assurance’ is one of my favorite hymns, and all her gyrating and waving her arms around up there in the choir loft just ruined it for me. Didn’t she just ruin it for you?”
Mr. Sutton grunted an acknowledgement and poured another packet of sugar into his tea.
After Mr. Sutton died, Mrs. Sutton sat at their usual table alone, and those of us who were nearby didn’t get to hear about how the sopranos were off-key or how unflattering that shade of yellow was on Sue Perkins.
The Suttons lived in a two-story white house with a wide porch and flowerbeds filled with pink roses along the front. The grass was thick and verdant green, and the yard was surrounded by a white picket fence. The house was built sometime in the 1940s when Maple Street was still unpaved, and Mr. Sutton bought it in 1975 when that neighborhood was one of the best in Mount Oak. Mrs. Sutton decorated the inside with pastel floral upholstery, Precious Moments figurines, and white carpet that was always spotless because she made everyone take their shoes off as soon as they walked through the door. She kept a vase of freshly cut pink roses on the coffee table, which also displayed the latest issues of Home and Garden and Ladies Home Journal, and the whole house smelled like Pine Sol and citrus potpourri. Mr. Sutton had one piece of furniture to himself: a navy-blue corduroy reclining chair. After he died, we all wondered how long it would be until Goodwill or the Salvation Army showed up to haul it away.
On Sunday afternoon, Mrs. Sutton oversaw the yardwork from the top step on her porch because Mr. Sutton never got the flowers planted or the leaves raked the way she wanted, but he kept the lawn healthy and neat. If it was too cold for yardwork, he was in his workshop out back, and when he emerged from it, he smelled like cigarettes and beer. Every other day of the week, he could drink beer in the house, but not on Sunday, and hard liquor was never allowed. Sarah Babbs said Mr. Sutton kept a bottle of vodka hidden behind his work bench, and he shared it with her and Jane Marie sometimes once they were old enough to drink.
After he died, Mrs. Sutton had to tend the flowers and rake the leaves herself, and we often saw her out in the yard with her silver-gray hair in pink foam rollers and wrapped up with a polyester scarf with yellow flowers on it. She would tell anyone who passed, “My hair soaks up all the odors from outside, and you can’t tell I’ve washed it at all.”
On Tuesdays, Mrs. Sutton walked the three blocks from her house to the church to tend the graveyard. Because she was working outdoors, she unbent enough to wear slacks, but never enough to wear jeans. She strode down the cracked sidewalk with the confidence of a bulldog, her black leather pocketbook draped over her left arm. Even the floppy haired young men who skateboarded along the sidewalk and did tricks off the chipped brick wall in front of the old Hurston place got out of Mrs. Sutton’s way without being asked.
She didn’t mow the cemetery grass; we had a groundskeeper for that, and it would have been too difficult for her to navigate a push mower between all the headstones and monuments anyway. But she weeded around each marker and threw away dead bouquets. She carried a spray bottle filled with water and a couple of microfiber cloths in her voluminous pocketbook to clean the dirt off the artificial flower arrangements, and she removed those that were too faded by the sun and rain to be suitable for display. Tackiness wasn’t allowed in the First Baptist graveyard.
In the winter, she cut back her maintenance work to once a month since there weren’t any weeds growing, although she went twice in January: once to do routine maintenance and once on January 7, the day after Old Christmas. On that day, she checked to make sure we’d all removed any poinsettias – real or silk only; Mrs. Sutton didn’t approve of plastic flowers – or Christmas trees. They had to be gone after Old Christmas or she threw the offending arrangements away, and we’d have to buy new ones the next year. The graveyard saw considerable traffic on January 6. Artificial arrangements weren’t cheap, especially those that met Mrs. Sutton’s standards.
Jane Marie came all the way from Washington state for her father’s funeral. Mrs. Sutton called her daughter up and said, “Jane Marie, your daddy’s dead. I need you. Come home right away.” Just like that. Jane Marie told Sarah Babbs all about it in the middle of the soda aisle at the Piggly Wiggly when Mrs. Sutton needed some ginger ale for her nervous stomach.
“How many times has she said that to me? No, Jane Marie, you can’t go out with your friends this weekend. I need you to help me around the house. No, you can’t go to the fall dance. I need you to help me cook for the family reunion on Sunday.” Jane Marie got all red in the face and puffed her cheeks out. Sarah Babbs reached for her hand and squeezed it tight. “She tried to tell me I had to stay with her for at least three weeks, but there’s no way in hell I’ll last that long. Daddy was the only reason I ever came back here anyway.”
Most of us thought the break between Jane Marie and Mrs. Sutton started with Bobby Lee Whittaker. Jane Marie fell in love with him when she was seventeen, and we couldn’t blame her, because he was the most handsome boy in school back then. He was tall and lanky with wavy brown hair and blue eyes. He played drums in the marching band and wore tee-shirts with superhero logos on them.
We hoped Bobby Lee would ask Jane Marie out, but those of us who knew Mrs. Sutton best weren’t surprised about what happened when he did. Mrs. Sutton pretended not to hear when anyone asked her about Jane Marie and Bobby Lee, but we heard all about it anyway because Jane Marie told anyone willing to listen.
Jane Marie said she waited until after dinner one night to talk to Mrs. Sutton. She helped Mrs. Sutton clear away the table and clean up the kitchen as usual, and then she told Mrs. Sutton about Bobby Lee asking her to go to the movies that weekend.
“He’s a nice boy, Mama, and I really like him,” she said, but Mrs. Sutton screwed up her mouth tight as a cat’s ass.
“I don’t want you to date anyone right now,” Mrs. Sutton said. “I know what’ll happen. You’ll spend all your time running around with that boy, and you won’t be here when I need you. Your granddaddy is getting feeble, and I can’t do everything myself. I need you to help me take care of him.”
After that, Jane Marie started sneaking around with Bobby Lee, and Sarah Babbs hosted a lot of “study sessions” on the weekends for them. She thought they were just like Romeo and Juliet until Jane Marie pointed out that Romeo and Juliet both died.
Jane Marie applied to out of state colleges and picked the one that was farthest away from Mount Oak despite Mrs. Sutton’s objections. All she’d say was she didn’t want to live at home.
“Why would you want to go away to college when there’s a perfectly good university just thirty minutes away?”
“I don’t want to live at home.”
“But think about all the money you’ll save on tuition and housing by commuting!”
“I don’t want to live at home.”
“But I need you here!”
“I don’t want to live at home.”
Sarah Babbs said Jane Marie sounded like an answering machine: “Please record your message at the tone. BEEP!”
Mrs. Sutton tried to get Mr. Sutton to talk Jane Marie out of going, but Mr. Sutton said, “She’s eighteen. She can make her own decisions.” We heard he slept in the guest room for over two weeks after that.
Jane Marie never came home except for Christmas until Mr. Sutton died, and she lasted all of three days after the funeral. The day Jane Marie left, almost the whole of Maple Street heard the commotion. Mrs. Sutton wasn’t shouting because she was a lady, but Jane Marie was letting her opinion be known as loud as she could. We couldn’t make out what she was saying while they were inside, but it wasn’t long before Jane Marie shoved the screen door open so hard it hit the wall and bounced back, and she came barreling out of the house, dragging her luggage behind her. Mrs. Sutton appeared a minute later. She was wearing a pink cotton housedress with a floral print faded from many washings, with fuzzy white slippers on her pale, blue-veined feet. She didn’t have makeup on or her hair done, and her skin hung looser on her face.
“Jane Marie, honey, don’t carry on so.” Mrs. Sutton looked up and down the street, wringing her hands. “The neighbors will hear.”
“Let them! I don’t care. I’m not stepping foot in this house again.” Jane Marie whirled around at the bottom of the porch steps and huffed at her mother. “You don’t respect my boundaries, and I’m sick of it. I won’t let you run my life like you did Daddy’s.”
“I’m only trying to help,” Mrs. Sutton said, her voice quavering. “You don’t have experience, and you don’t know what’s best like I do.”
“That was true when I was a kid. Not so much anymore.”
Jane Marie slung her suitcase into the boot of her car and took off, disregarding the speed sign that clearly said to go only fifteen miles per hour in our neighborhood.
Mrs. Sutton stood on the porch and looked down the street even though Jane Marie was out of sight. It was a good ten minutes before she went back inside.
The first clue anybody got that something was wrong was when Mrs. Sutton didn’t volunteer to serve on the Fourth of July fireworks safety committee like she usually did. At the time, we thought she was cutting back on her community activities because she was busy sorting out Mr. Sutton’s estate. We held the celebration in the town commons and had a fireworks show that lasted ten minutes longer with much bigger and brighter fireworks than previous years. The finale was several dozen fireworks set off one after the other to a stirring rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and we all agreed it was the most inspiring display we’d ever seen. Nothing caught fire and burned down, and no small children were disfigured, despite Mrs. Sutton’s dire predictions in the past.
Mrs. Sutton didn’t attend the celebration, and Sarah Babbs claimed later that she took it as a sign that Mrs. Sutton was starting a slow slide into madness, but during the fireworks show, she didn’t seem to be all that concerned about Mrs. Sutton when she slurped down cherry-flavored shaved ice and made eyes at Daniel Thompson, whose ink wasn’t even dry on his divorce papers.
By mid-July, Mrs. Sutton took to sitting in her porch swing most of the day, and while she usually had a book or a magazine in her lap, she seemed more interested in staring at the street than in reading. She hired Darla Banks’ teenage son to mow her lawn every week, and her roses ran wild with no tending or trimming. Sarah Babbs says we were all willfully blind, but we just thought maybe losing Mr. Sutton had taught her to relax and enjoy life for a change. Besides, nobody saw Sarah Babbs up on Mrs. Sutton’s porch, offering grief counseling.
Two weeks later, Mrs. Sutton tried to desecrate a grave.
Mrs. Willis was the one who saw it first. She’d gone to the church to prepare for a Ladies Circle Meeting, and when she pulled into her reserved parking spot, she was surprised to see someone in the graveyard with a shovel because she didn’t remember any funerals scheduled that day, and besides, graves were dug with a backhoe.
She called Preacher Willis on her cell phone to find out if he’d hired landscapers to plant trees or some bushes, but he said he hadn’t and that he would be right over to see what was going on. Mrs. Willis said she didn’t need him to help her run someone out of the cemetery if they weren’t supposed to be there. Preacher Willis said, “Now, Darlene, don’t you do anything foolish,” and she told him to hush his fuss before hanging up and getting out of her car.
Mrs. Willis expected to see teenagers acting up. She and Preacher Willis had caught some of the odd ducks who wore black clothes and black eyeliner out there with Ouija boards before, but they usually showed up after dark, not in the middle of the afternoon.
Instead, she found Mrs. Sutton digging up her husband’s grave. We’d had rain that morning, so the ground was wet, and Mrs. Sutton was standing in a hole about two feet long and six inches deep with goopy mud on her pink terry slippers and slivers of grass stuck to her pale, veiny legs. She wore a faded yellow housedress, and her hair hung in thick spirals down to her shoulders as if she’d done nothing but pull out the curlers. The summery mix of silk daisies and sunflowers Mrs. Sutton had put on Mr. Sutton’s grave a couple of weeks before were half-buried in the dirt, and the glossy sheen of Mr. Sutton’s polished marble headstone was smudged with hand prints.
“Why, Mrs. Sutton! What in the world are you doing?” Mrs. Willis touched Mrs. Sutton’s arm to get her attention, and Mrs. Sutton looked at her with vacant eyes. Somehow Mrs. Sutton, whom words had never once failed before, had nothing to say.
Mrs. Willis didn’t know what to do, so she kept hold of Mrs. Sutton’s arm and stopped her from digging the hole any deeper. Once Preacher Willis got there, he tried to pry the shovel out of her hands, but Mrs. Sutton gripped it tighter.
“No, I’m taking him back home with me where he belongs,” Mrs. Sutton said, all matter-of-fact like she was picking up Mr. Sutton from Dale’s Bar and Grill on a Friday night.
“I think he’s fine right where he is, Sister Sutton,” Preacher Willis said, and when he tried to take the shovel from her this time, she let him.
He passed the shovel to Mrs. Willis and clasped Mrs. Sutton’s muddy hands to help her out of the hole. She stumbled while climbing out as if she’d forgotten how to use her feet, but Preacher Willis didn’t let her fall. He led her to the back entrance of the church with Mrs. Willis following along behind, and he prayed for Mrs. Sutton every step of the way, calling on Jesus to clear her confused mind.
Two days later, Mrs. Sutton’s sister came from either Raleigh or Chapel Hill – no one could agree on which it was – to pack up some of Mrs. Sutton’s things and take her away. That was the last we saw of Mrs. Sutton.
There were a few of us – maybe more than a few – who thought Mrs. Sutton deserved to go crazy after what she’d done to Mr. Sutton and Jane Marie over the years. Some called it God’s punishment for her controlling ways. Others called it karma. But most of us thought about the casseroles we didn’t take over the past few months and the times we didn’t go sit on the porch with her when she was out there staring at nothing. We thought about the times we didn’t take up for Jane Marie, who told Sarah Babbs she didn’t want to step foot in Mount Oak again unless she had to. We thought about Mr. Sutton drinking alone in his little shed. Maybe a handful of us looked around for things we could do differently from then on.
The Sutton house stands empty now. The roses are dying, and the siding is covered with green mildew. Jane Marie came to town long enough to put the house on the market, and there it sits with a for sale sign sticking up out of the overgrown lawn.
Angela Raper is a writer from North Carolina who writes primarily Southern contemporary and historical fiction. She earned her MFA from Converse College, and she teaches at East Carolina University. Her work has been published by Remington Review and Owl Hollow Press. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys knitting and spoiling her pets. Connect with her online and on Twitter: @AngelaRaper1