To think that Helen worked as a pinup girl in the forties and fifties, Evelyn pondered from the shade of the sugar maple in the backyard. Dark soil clumped on her trowel as she stabbed the stubborn weed roots she’d tracked from Miss Helen’s veggie patch to the hosta bed. She tried to imagine the wrinkly old gal as the foxy young thing from the photos. Evelyn glanced over at the dozing Miss Helen curled up in an Adirondack chair with a copy of Good Housekeeping and wondered if anyone else in the retirement village knew her secret. She guessed not because men were already a scarcity at the Sheltering Arms Retirement Community. If the other ladies knew that Miss Helen was a former pinup — well, it would be disastrous. Little old ladies, particularly the kind living in retirement communities, were merciless gossips.
Just last weekend, the impeccably dressed Barbara Goodlin came to Helen’s to discuss the upcoming garden tour. Evelyn cleaned Barbara’s house and often listened in on the hateful woman’s phone conversations. Barbara had a shopping addiction that was out of control. As a cleaner and caretaker, Evelyn knew all kinds of things about the residents. She considered it a perk of an otherwise miserable job.
As the ladies chatted, Evelyn investigated Helen’s desk drawers while pretending to dust. It was there that she discovered a scrapbook from Helen’s modeling years. She turned the yellowed pages with care, her fingers tracing over the white edged photos with their thick cardboard backing. A long-legged, smooth-skinned Helen smiled into the camera, often with handsome G.I.s throwing an arm around her minuscule waist. Some of the pages contained posters, drawings, and rough sketches of Helen as she leaned against airplane wings, fences, cars, and horses with turned up skirts and garters. One particularly risqué photo featured a demure and topless Helen holding a rifle above her head. Miss Helen had a secret.
Miss Helen’s house was not originally part of the retirement community. She’d lived in it for at least forty years as far as Evelyn knew. Helen sold the house to Sheltering Arms for almost nothing with the understanding that she would be a member of the community. The dapper Craftsman-style bungalow looked incongruous with the surrounding retirement community duplexes. When Helen died or moved to the Sheltering Arms Nursing Care Facility, her bungalow would likely be replaced by one of the mock-adobe cookie cutter Flintstones houses. Evelyn knew that Helen spent much of her time quietly working to declare the home historical so that Sheltering Arms couldn’t bulldoze it. Evelyn admired Helen’s spunk and much preferred her to the catty female duplex residents whose houses
Evelyn’s spade hit something solid and made a grating sound that had her teeth aching and her mind leaped forward to the present. She dug a gloved hand into the hole which was quite deep. Probably one of the armies of little toy soldiers or matchbox cars planted by Helen’s great nephews, she thought. She felt the offending object and wrapped her fingers around it to bring it up. As her fingers unfolded and the dappled Virginia sunlight trickled over her cheerfully-patterned gloved hand, Evelyn stared in horror and curiosity. It was a finger bone. The only reason she knew it was actually a finger bone was that it wore a manly college ring and she’d spent far too many Saturday nights at home in her PJ’s watching CSI reruns.
It appeared that Miss Helen had more than just one big secret.
Perhaps it was a tragic chainsaw accident and someone’s finger simply launched through the air and into Miss Helen’s back garden. Or perhaps it was a lovers quarrel in which the owner of the finger pulled a Vincent van Gogh and lopped it off — ring and all — as a testament of his great love for Helen, the exotic temptress from the photos and sketches. Evelyn could not stop coming up with scenarios.
Evelyn gazed at the ring and finger bones nestled in the damp earth. The ring read: Sigillum Universitat Carol Septent, Esse Quam Videri, and engraved inside the band in Edwardian-looking script, Wm. L. Clifton. Without really knowing why, she pulled out a paper napkin from her pocket and folded the ring (and bones) inside to examine when she wasn’t seated in wet bottomed jeans not four feet from the snoozing Miss Helen.
With one eye fixed on Miss Helen, she dug a bit deeper into the hole and set her findings on the ground in front of her. In just a few minutes time, she’d pieced together a hand and forearm. This was not the product of an unfortunate chainsaw accident. This was either William L. Clifton or someone in possession of William L. Clifton’s ring. Considering Helen’s last name, Evelyn felt safe assuming Helen knew about the body. She patted dirt back over the rest of the bones, stood up, and began brushing off her jeans.
“Well, I’m off, Miss Clifton.” Evelyn said to the still sleeping Helen. Her lashes fluttered and caught the sunlight. Good Lord, the woman had lashes like Rita Hayworth.
“Oh, that’s just fine, Evelyn. Did you find anything but weeds in that silly garden? Do you need some spending money, dear?” Helen smiled up at Evelyn from the wooden lounger and reached for her purse. Helen, like many of the retired ladies, carried her purse everywhere.
Evelyn rattled off the usual speech about how the helpers weren’t allowed to take tips and that it was Sheltering Arms policy. Then a funny thing happened, Evelyn became very aware that tucked deep in her pocket, wrapped carefully in a crumpled napkin with mustard stains from lunch, was the bone of a person that Helen probably knew and possibly killed.
“Is something the matter, dear? You look as though you’ve seen a ghost!” cried Helen as she reached her arms out to Evelyn as if she might crumple gracefully like in the movies.
Evelyn didn’t faint gracefully.
She fell like a tree.
Eyes like chlorine pools with golden flecks searched her face. Those eyes had her dancing across billowing grasses in flowing skirts – arms outstretched like a pagan worshipping the sun — and belting out Rogers & Hammerstein songs in her mind. Warmth seeped into her very bones.
“Evelyn? Honey, it’s Helen. You’ve had a bit of a fall and it’s just a lucky thing my son was coming up the walk when it happened. Who can we call for you? Roommate?” Helen’s concerned face came into view as she spoke, the silver strands of her pixie-cut hair catching the light streaming through the open windows.
Evelyn realized that she was laying on Helen’s tropical patterned couch with her feet propped up on a stack of old magazines and the piano cover draped over her. Seated on the floor next to her was the handsome master of those glorious eyes and on the heavily varnished coffee table perched a very worried Helen. Son? Miss Helen Clifton, the former pinup with a skeleton in her garden had a son?
After somehow managing to excuse herself with repeated promises to go directly home and rest, she was finally away from Helen, Helen’s dreamy son, and the gossipy ladies of Sheltering Arms. Seated in her bright little kitchen with toile de Jouy curtains and dozens of potted succulents, she opened the napkin with trembling hands.
It was empty.
Evelyn searched all of her pockets and even stepped out of her jeans. She stood in her kitchen frantically shaking out dirt-stained denim, sending crumbles of earth flying with her mind turning somersaults. Miss Helen’s words seemed to echo through the buttercream walls, “Did you find anything but weeds in that silly garden?”