How Fanny Got Her House
Here’s a Southern Yarn from Collin Kelley who, I learned by talking with him over email, worked on this story with Georgia novelist Ferol Sams whose granddaughter was once one of my students. Georgia’s small like that.
Standing in the checkout line at the A&P, I noticed Fanny Ballard was a couple of customers ahead of me. As the cashier counted change into her hand, Fanny saw me and nodded her head. I smiled and started to say hello, but Fanny picked up her shopping bags and hurried out of the grocery store.
I’d heard the rumors about Fanny. She had worked as a maid for Judge Joshua Jenkins and his wife Eleanor for more than 30 years. When they died less than a year apart, Fanny wound up the sole beneficiary of the Jenkins’ fortune. The couple had no children, but relatives on both sides were outraged that all the money went to “the help,” no matter how devoted Fanny had been over the years.
As I was walking to my car, arms loaded with grocery bags, Fanny appeared beside me. She was in her 70s, but her brown skin was unlined and her hair, which she kept short, was jet black.
“Mr. Chris, I’d like to invite you to tea,” she said.
I was momentarily at a loss for words. “Well… sure,” I managed. “I’d love to see your new house.”
Fanny laughed. “Ole Miss set a store by you, boy. She said you always did right by your folks and this here town, bein’ a public defender and all.”
“Well, I appreciate that,” I said. “Miss Eleanor was always so kind to me. Cottonwood isn’t the same without her.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Fanny said softly. “You come tomorrow afternoon. I need to tell ya a story.”
“A story? Well, let me check my schedule…”
Fanny turned away and walked down Railroad Street toward the square. “Two o’clock and don’t be late,” she said without looking back.
The next afternoon, I sat in the living room of Fanny’s new house on Banks Street with a plate of pound cake balanced on my knee and a glass of sweet iced tea sweating in my hand. Fanny sat across the room in a barcalounger and studied me closely.
“If I tell you somethin’, you gotta keep it secret since you’re a lawyer, right?” Fanny asked.
“There’s attorney-client privilege, but I’m not your lawyer,” I said.
Fanny grunted. “I need some advice.”
“What’s this all about, Fanny?”
She sighed heavily. “There’s been a lot of trash talkin’ since the Judge and Ole Miss passed. The Judge’s sisters still sayin’ they gone sue me to get some of the money back.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” I said. “They’re just jealous.”
This made Fanny cackle and nod her head. “Lawd, ain’t that the truth.”
She went quiet again, staring at me so hard that I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. I cleared my throat and said, “You were going to tell me a story.”
Fanny closed her eyes. “Yes. I’m gone tell you what really happened with the Judge and Ole Miss.”
I felt the glass of tea slip in my fingers, but caught it before it crashed to the floor. “What really happened?”
Fanny nodded gravely, then spoke.
Miss Eleanor sat in the library for four hours before anyone noticed she had slipped into a coma and not one of her frequent naps.
Fanny would later recall that Ole Miss had been on the phone having a heated argument with her brother. Those little battles had been played out a dozen times as Miss Eleanor attempted to stop her brother from swindling their elderly father out of a large sum of money. But the last few arguments were different, Fanny said.
“She was cussin’,” Fanny said, shaking her head. “Some of the finest cussin’ I’d ever heard from a white woman.”
Anyone who knew Miss Eleanor knew that cussing was strictly forbidden in her presence. She had never uttered a swear word in her life. She was a lady and anyone who used profanity was of “low breeding.”
“That brother was a scandal,” Fanny said. “An’ you coulda knocked me down when she said not to ‘fuck’ with her. I knew somethin’ was wrong right then and there.”
More cussing followed, Fanny reported, and then those hours of silence while Miss Eleanor sat in the library behind her little writing desk, chin drooping against her bosom.
“I thought she was just restin’,” Fanny cried. “Them fights with that scoundrel brother always left her wore out.”
Miss Eleanor’s husband, a retired judge of the county magistrate court, was in his “gun room” downstairs during the incident.
“More like his barroom. They ain’t as much as a squirt gun down there,” Fanny said. “He knew I was onto him and called me a bladder watcher, cause I used to raise a stink when he’d pass out and pee all over hisself. He was three sheets to the wind most days, but that night, he was the whole linen closet.”
Fanny tiptoed past the library trying not to wake Miss Eleanor, but she decided to rouse Ole Miss before leaving, because there was always some last minute detail or errand for Fanny to run the next morning before coming to work.
“I called her name, then I touched her arm and when I did that, she kinda slipped outta the chair and slid under the desk. Well, I just screamed my head off.”
Fanny screamed loud enough to bring the Judge out of his Scotch induced stupor in the “gun room.”
“He came in there and all I could do was point and scream at Ole Miss’s foot stickin’ out unda the desk,” Fanny said. “Judge was screamin’ at me to stop screamin’ and I jest kept on screamin’ and pointin’.”
Fanny said it took the Judge about ten minutes to realize his wife’s body was crumpled under the desk, not to mention that he had wet his pants.
Miss Eleanor was taken to a hospital in Atlanta where she regained consciousness the next day. The doctors proceeded with a battery of tests and discovered Miss Eleanor had a brain tumor on her frontal lobe. When Miss Eleanor learned that her “little tumor” was inoperable, she set about making all the proper phone calls to announce that she would be dying in three to six months.
“Ole Miss was a fighter,” Fanny said. “She got the Judge in her room up there at the hospital and cussed him good. They said you could hear her up and down the halls and some of the nurses even clapped. She told him to straighten his tired ass up and he better not show up at the funeral drunk or she’d come back as a haint.”
Three months to the day after Miss Eleanor had her blackout in the library, she died. She had opted not to take chemotherapy because she wanted to have all her hair in the coffin.
“I came in to make breakfast as usual and the Judge said Ole Miss had checked out about five that mornin’. Well, I just set in to wailin’ with grief and the Judge was already on his third or fourth glass. He’d already called up Lester Moody to get the body ready, even though Ole Miss said she didn’t want that Moody man touchin’ her even if she was dead because she’d heard he liked to molest on the corpses. Hell, he looked like a corpse hisself.”
Fanny tried to remind the Judge about Lester Moody’s predilections, but he called her a bladder watcher and stumbled out the back door. It was Fanny who called all of Miss Eleanor ’s friends and family from a list Miss Eleanor had dictated while she was in the hospital.
The Judge had some of his cronies from the courthouse move the furniture in the parlor to make room for the coffin because Miss Eleanor wanted to lie in state in the house, a custom Fanny found not only morbid, “but just plain damn scary.”
Fanny had to stop and catch her breath because the next part of the story was just about more than she could bear.
“Well, the house was full of folk givin’ the Judge they condolences, which I thought was just crazy since the body hadn’t even got there yet. I went back in the kitchen to get some more of them finger sandwiches Ole Miss set such a store by, and the phone rang. I knew the Judge weren’t gonna get it, so I did.”
Fanny paused to catch her breath, taking a sip of her tea and waving a paper fan featuring Moody’s Funeral Parlor on one side and a picture of Jesus on the other to cool herself down.
“I picked up the phone and it was Ole Miss wantin’ to know where that sonofabitchin’ husband of hers was. Well, I set in screamin’ bloody murder and when I did, I heard a bunch of plates and glasses drop and I thought, Lawd, there go Ole Miss’s good china.
“The Judge came in and I jest held the phone and screamed. Well, he started screamin’ for me to stop screamin’ and snatched that phone outta my hand. When he heard Ole Miss, it look like he was havin’ a stroke. His body started twitchin’ and he kinda slumped against the wall.
“I could hear Ole Miss just cussin’ her lungs out wantin’ to know why he weren’t up at the hospital. The Judge dropped the phone and stumbled out the back door and left me to go tell all them folks Ole Miss weren’t dead. How do you like that scandal?”
Fanny said she walked into the parlor with a plate of sandwiches and some cool drinks and made the announcement. Shortly thereafter, she had to summon Dr. Jones to give smelling salts to the women who had passed out. It became a fine joke around the county that Miss Eleanor had died and then rose from the dead.
“They was the only ones who thought it was funny,” Fanny said. “Turns out the doctors had called from the hospital to tell the Judge that Ole Miss was doin’ better and they’d be movin’ her outta that intensive care to a regler room. The Judge was so sloshed he thought they was tellin’ him Ole Miss was dead.”
Miss Eleanor hung on for another three months, managing to live out a full six. Right up to the last day, she was making phone calls, running the house through Fanny and still leading the various civic organizations she chaired in Cottonwood. She had the nurses use a rectal thermometer so she could keep talking on the phone.
Lester Moody got the body anyway, despite Fanny’s protests, and brought Miss Eleanor to the house “all trussed up like a Christmas turkey.”
“Lester had this big ole grin on his face and stood over the coffin for an hour wringin’ his hands and touchin’ Ole Miss’s face and hair,” Fanny said in disgust. “He’d put her in this big ole coffin that looked like a rocket ship and put all these flowers in her hair. Ole Miss never wore a flower on her head a single day I worked for her. I knew right then he’d violated her. Damn pre’vert. But that weren’t the worst.”
Fanny said Miss Eleanor had called the house the day before her real expiration.
“The Judge picked up upstairs, which was a first. He musta thought it was the last bell for liquor being served. He yelled for me to hang up, but I was dyin’ to listen and see what Ole Miss was gone wear him out about this time,” Fanny said. “I tried to listen, but the Judge could hear me breathin’ and yelled at me to hang up.”
However, no one realized that, in the library, the answering machine had clicked on and would record Miss Eleanor ’s final words. Fanny said she only listened to that tape once.
“It’d been sittin’ in there for days and I was dustin’ and stuff and I accidentally hit the button. Ole Miss started cussin’ and I just screamed my head off, but they weren’t no one home that time. I listened to the tape and then took it outta that machine and hid it over to my place. Ole Miss wouldn’t want nobody hearin’ that, but since I done told you, I’ll put it in the boombox for you.”
Fanny retrieved the tape from its hiding place and popped it into the cassette deck. The tape was amazingly clear. Miss Eleanor was talking to one of the nurses in her hospital room, her voice delicate and motherly. But as soon as the nurse left, Miss Eleanor started her tirade.
“Listen, you bastard,” Miss Eleanor hissed at the Judge, her voice as strong as ever. “I’ve been covering up for you ever since I set foot in this place when I was only a girl. The day after we got back from the honeymoon, you got yourself liquored up and went out driving in that old Model T and you ran over poor old Willy Burns. Yes, it was dark and he might have stumbled out in the road, but you were drunk as a skunk and you ran him down like a dog. If you hadn’t been the Judge and I hadn’t got up and sworn you were sober, they would have locked your sorry ass up and thrown away the key. Then when my first baby was being born, that sweet little boy, where the hell were you? Off at that damn hunting club, as you called it. Bunch of damn drunks. And I was lying in that bed calling for you because the doctor said I was dying and the baby was dying and you were too liquored up to come to me.”
A nurse came into the room, and Miss Eleanor was heard saying, “Oh, that’s so sweet of you, Audrey. You are just an angel. I was just telling my husband what a darling you are. Okay, sweetie. I’ll see you later.”
Then, Miss Eleanor redirected her conversation to the Judge as if she’d never been interrupted.
“Well, I’m about to join that dead baby. And I’ve got a news flash for you, old man. I want you to have something to think about when you’re standing over my coffin. I stopped loving you the day that baby died. I’m done covering up your mess. I’m laying down the burden and I plan to personally tell Jesus to send your fat ass directly to Hades.”
Fanny shook her head and looked at me. “I saw a movie one time where this little girl was pukin’ all over people and cussin’ like this. You ever see that?”
I didn’t mean to, but I shushed Fanny as I heard Miss Eleanor continue to speak.
“I never was the lady everybody thought I was. I just knew how to put on a good show, but the show is over. You might want to check my will and see what you’re going to miss out on. I’ve been putting some money away and I did a little messing of my own and put all the accounts in my name. What do you think of that? I’m going to die and you aren’t going to have a thin red cent, you son of a bitch. I’ve left it all to Fanny, so she can build that new house she’s always wanted. I don’t care if you rot in the street. So let me just say it so it’s perfectly clear to you, Joshua, absolutely perfectly clear. Fuck you and the mule you rode up on!”
Miss Eleanor slammed the phone down and there was the sound of a dial tone before the tape ended. Miss Eleanor died shortly thereafter, Fanny said as she turned off the tape player.
I asked her if the Judge ever said anything about the phone call.
“Naw, not so much as a peep,” Fanny pondered. “What the hell was there to say?”
Fanny waited a respectable six months to start building her new house. When Miss Eleanor’s will was probated, the Judge thought about contesting it but changed his mind.
“I guess he thought Ole Miss would come back as a haint and he couldn’t deal with that,” Fanny said. “Not that I blame him.”
Fanny’s house was undoubtedly the finest on Banks Street with its big windows and wraparound porch, and many people were jealous. Fanny even hired a maid, which raised more eyebrows.
“Naw, I don’t feel guilty about havin’ a gal work for me,” Fanny said. “It builds character. And let me tell ya, honey, I got mo’ character than two or three people would need. Ole Miss saw to that, too. She was a tough ole bird. Sometimes she’d be real uppity, especially when she had folks over to the house. But I think she was always kinda sad in a way. Guess ‘cause that baby she lost and that thangs hadn’t worked out like she ‘spected.”
Miss Eleanor’s funeral was attended by half the state, and the Judge appeared almost sober. They buried Miss Eleanor next to her baby. The Judge lingered on for about a year, then died of what Lester Moody called “alcohol poisoning.”
“My mind reels at what ole Moody did to the Judge’s body when he was doin’ the enbalmin’,” Fanny shivered. “Gives me the heebiejeebies just thinkin’ about it.”
Fanny said she’d only been back to the cemetery once because something strange happened while she was there putting fresh flowers on Miss Eleanor ’s grave.
“I was kneelin’ there by the grave thankin’ Ole Miss for the money to build my house. The Judge had his spot right next to her. I was kneelin’ there arrangin’ them flowers and I heard laughin’. Just like a cackle and I knew it was Ole Miss down there jest laughin’ her head off at what she’d done to the Judge.”
Fanny took a deep breath. She dropped the fan on her lap and seemed relieved to have the story off her chest.
“You ain’t gonna try and pull none of that fancy lawyer stuff on me now, are you?” Fanny asked. “Like makin’ me an accessory after the fact or somethin’?”
I promised her I would not pull any lawyer stuff, and Fanny popped the tape out of the cassette player and handed it to me.
“Can you lock this up at your office?” she asked.
“You need a safe deposit box at the bank, Fanny,” I told her. “I’ll meet you over there tomorrow and help you get one, if you like.”
She smiled and patted me on the knee. “Yes, yes. Ole Miss said you was a good one. She said Mr. Chris Harris is the most upstanding man in this here town, and she was right.”
“I appreciate that, Fanny. It’s the least I can do. You have to protect your interests.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” she nodded. “You know, you caint never tell about somebody. One minute you think you know, the next they somethin’ else. I worked for Ole Miss and the Judge a long time, but never thought it would come to this mess. But I’m real proud of my place. You come back over sometime and I’ll make you a glass of lemonade.”
Fanny smiled slyly. “I mean I’ll have my maid fix us some.”