By Bethany Joy Lenz
Dorothy closed the drapes over the window from which she had been watching Annabell and Teddy in the backyard. Just what we need, she thought, my daughter infatuated with a bankrupted kid. She called out, “Nessie!” The chief of the staff appeared, carrying a large vase of flowers for that evening’s annual summer dinner. ”Nessie, the Wentworth boy is here and he’s dawdling.”
“That’s my fault, Ma’am. Junior invited him to play a game of catch when he arrived, and I tol’ him it was alright.”
“Well, Ness, I appreciate that it must be awkward for you giving orders to someone who is used to having servants of his own, but Mr. Wentworth is not here to play games with my son, or daughter for that matter– which IS a another matter. He is here to be paid, and to earn his pay he must work. And you mustn’t feel shy about telling him exactly what to do. Are we clear?”
“Yes Ma’am. My apologies.”
“Now, I won’t have those coyotes baking in the sun and surrounded by a swarm of flies! Please have him clean up the mess before the afternoon heat sets in.”
“Oh, Ma’am, I went ahead and mustered up the strength. It’s all clean now.”
Dorothy paused and smiled. ”Oh. Well, good. Tell Mr. Wentworth he can get started hedging the azaleas, then.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Ness nodded.
“And ask him to fix the fan in the dining room!”
“And Nessie…” Dorothy added.
“Thank you. You’re doin’ a fine job.”
Nessie’s lips parted ever so slightly and those curled-up corners of her mouth appeared once more. ”Yes, Ma’am.” She lowered her eyes and, after arranging the flowers on the table, she turned toward the back door where Teddy and Annabell continued their game of catch in the yard.
Nessie made haste to break up the fun, and Teddy –who was sufficiently embarrassed, much to Annabell’s delight (seeing that he did care about her impression of him)–, bumbled and apologized and got to work right away on those pesky azalea bushes.
The afternoon passed quickly, what with all the hubbub of the annual dinner preparation. Still, Annabell was not exempt from her own responsibilities. She was required to do a few pre-set lessons, which she did at half-speed so she could stare out of the windows at Teddy Wentworth sweating and glistening and looking like a Big Six (as deliciously-clichéd gardeners do). She took breaks only now and then to switch the record on the Victrola from Ruth Etting’s, “Me,” to Annette Hanshaw’s, “It All Depends on You,” and to a few more that made her hum along and daydream about all the swell things they were destined for together. Finally, after she had focused on her work long enough to finish her French lesson (out of a terribly boring workbook), she began practicing her speech for the evening’s party where she was to be presented as a debutante at the dinner. She was being accepted into the Young Society of Southern Women and the debutante dinner was the most coveted of Jones family traditions.
“It’s an honor to be presented to all of you–” she stopped. ”Presented.” Sounds like I’m the prized pig at a county fair. She started in again, “It’s an honor to join you all as a… bonafide member of society. I always try my very best to embody the tenets of a respectable southern lady and, now that I’m eighteen –and a half–, I look forward to exceeding expectations and taking advantage of all my opportunities to be an honorable representative of the Jones and Mason families.” Short and sweet, she thought. She looked at the ticking clock and right on cue, her beautician, LeeLee knocked on her bedroom door.
The next few hours were spent in what should have been a relaxing and peaceful state of mind. Annabell received a collection of treatments for her hair, nails and skin in preparation for the event. Unfortunately, all she could think about were the butterflies in her stomach. Everyone who was anyone in Savannah would be in her dining room in two hours, and every insecurity within her was rearing its ugly head. For beneath all the frivolity of her lifestyle and the emotionally overplayed attempts at adulthood, the truth about Annabell Jones Mason was much more sinister than anyone but her mother and father could imagine. Yes, the truth about Annabell was that she lived in the constant shadow of a terrible family secret and, since she was eight, had been suffocating under the weight of knowing what she had done.
“Did you want the permanent?”
Annabell snapped out of it and saw her reflection– now a dewy-faced, well-manicured young woman looking back at her. The nasal voice asked again, “Miss Mason? Did you want me to do the permanent?” and Annabell smiled dryly at her scrunchy-faced beautician.
“I don’t think I have enough time, LeeLee.”
“All right, then. We’ll just pin it up.” And she got to work on putting all that newly-trimmed and conditioned long hair into a sweet, faux bob with a pale green bow. Annabell had begged her mother for the new Shingle bob haircut, but Dorothy had been horrified at the idea of her daughter running around with short hair. ”It may be all the rage in New York, but here in the South, we conduct ourselves like ladies. No Jones girl will be seen from the back and wondered about if she’s a boy!”
Now, Dorothy Jones Mason (as if you didn’t know) was the sister of Pembroke Jones, who was the richest man in the South. He and his wife, Sarah, lived near the Masons in Wilmington, North Carolina. They owned a dizzying amount of land which they named Airlie Gardens, and it was the hosting grounds for a great many of political and celebrity-studded affairs. The Joneses had made such a name for themselves that it became commonplace to hear “The Joneses” thrown about as the comparative standard to which one must “keep up.” Annabell was under no shortage of pressure to be everything she was expected to be, and this meant things like participating in women’s suffrage, wearing flapper dresses, smoking cigarettes and chopping off her hair, were OUT of the question. She smiled at herself in the mirror and thought, Yes, this will hint that I’m modern enough to make my own way in the world, but still enough of a lady to do it properly.
“Oh, Miss, you look just like Mary Pickford!”
“I do, don’t I?” she said with a slight grin. Annabell closed her eyes and focused on what lay ahead of her. She quieted her buzzing ming, took a deep breath and sighed, contentedly. It was the Golden Twenties! What an age to be alive and young (and rich!), she thought. The war was over, moving pictures were in technicolor, good fashion abounded if one could afford it, bootlegged liquor and cigarettes were on everyone’s lips, and jazz had taken over the world. Annabell was 18 ½ and she just knew she was ready to be the brightest star… the brightest, golden, roaring star.
Suddenly, she could smell the food coming out of the oven downstairs. It was all happening at once– cherry cobbler, ham and gruyère soufflé, bacon-wrapped shrimp in Nessie’s famous cheddar grits, roast chickens with garlic and onions, and a cheddar-crusted apple pie. This meant that guests would be arriving within the hour and there wasn’t a moment to lose. Annabell said goodbye to the beautician, climbed into her white & silver brocade dress, and, by the time she was completely ready, the doorbell had rung twice. She gave the looking glass one last pucker, admiring the cheekbones she’d inherited from her father, and flew to the stairs in her girlish excitement. She paused at the cusp, choosing, instead, a more ladylike pace as she descended upon her guests, which made her feel like she was pretending more than ever before.
The table was set, and everyone had been milling around the house and gardens for a good hour and a half. It was a small crowd of wealthy locals who always attended the annual summer dinner, but the group was also peppered with a select few Masons and Joneses who had driven down from Wilmington for the special occasion of Annabell’s debut. Annabell spent most of the evening trying to avoid a shadow in the form of her cousins on Dorothy’s side, Mary and Jane Jones (15 and 11, respectively) who were infatuated with Annabell’s newfound glamour. Conspicuously absent were the Wentworths. Annabell had personally invited Teddy, though, so she couldn’t imagine what was keeping him this late. She felt sick to her stomach that he might not come at all. She spotted her mother talking with Rosemary and Dod Harris in the corner of the yard by the magnolia tree and hurried to her.
“Hello” and “thank you again for coming” and “you look lovely” and “aren’t you excited for your debut” and blah blah blah… Annabell finally captured Dorothy’s attention privately.
“That was very rude, dear. You didn’t even seem sincere when the Harrises complimented your dress.”
“I’m sorry, Mother. I’ll apologize to them. Listen, did you invite the Wentworths?”
“Well, no sweetheart. Think of what an awkward position that would have been for them. Why, the poor Wentworths are barely getting by. How could I rub it in their face that they can’t afford a nice gift for you, or to get dressed up when all they’d have to wear was from seasons ago! They’d have been so embarrassed, darling.”
Annabell looked her mother straight in the eyes. “I don’t think you believe one word of what you’re saying.”
Dorothy caught a lump in her throat. Somewhere along the way her five-year-old had become eighteen. In the kind of second that lasts forever, Dorothy remembered a flood of moments when she thought she was stealthily shielding her daughter from the world, from sorrow, even from Dorothy’s own lies and brokenness. Now, she wondered how much Annabell had seen through those shields, for all those years. The way the girl looked at her now, with such conviction and such– clarity, terrified Dorothy and made her feel like she was as transparent as hole.
Clink, clink, clink, clink, clink!
The unmistakable sound of silver on crystal rang out through the yard and everyone turned to see Sadie Jones Pope, standing beside her parents, Sarah Jones and Annabell’s step-uncle Henry Walters. “We’re ever so proud of our niece, Annabell, and her admirable efforts in schooling and philanthropy which have garnered her a spot in the Y.S.S.Women! For those of you who have never attended a Jones family debut, you’re in for quite a treat! As is tradition, a female member of the debutante’s family– who must not be her mother, because, as we all know, mothers are not impartial! …”
Dorothy smiled as the crowd looked to her and, on cue, she tucked a stray hair out of Annabell’s face. Both of them playing their parts well.
Sadie continued, “…a female member of the debutante’s family must sponsor the young woman and act as her mentor for the first year of her membership. Annabell, I’m happy to announce that I have volunteered to be your benefactor.”
Annabell felt flush. SADIE POPE was to be her benefactor! Sarah was a Southern Society legend. She was 42, impossibly chic, terribly charitable and certain to secure Annabell’s popularity at the Y.S.S.Women. Annabell smiled and gasped as the crowd applauded cordially. “I don’t know what to say, Aunt Sadie. I’m honored, truly.”
Sadie smiled, “Well, you can tell me all about it over dinner! I’m starving!”
Dorothy chimed in, “Yes, let’s eat! Everyone inside please!” Sadie looped her arm through Annabell’s and the two walked inside with the rest of the group and each found their place at the dinner table. Soon, hors d’oeuvres flooded the table and everyone was taking turns telling their favorite “Annabell” story. They were all complimentary, though sometimes embarrassing in the way that makes you feel warm and known, and before she knew it, it was time to give her speech.
She stood up and began. “I’m ever so grateful to be in such distinguished company tonight. It’s an honor to join you all as a… bonafide member of society. I always try my very best to embody the tenets of a respectable southern lady, and–”
There was a small knock on the door and then, “Yoo hoo!” A lilting voice danced in from the foyer. Everyone turned, not being able to see the door, but wondering who in the world would have the gall to just walk in. Annabell was instantly furious.
“Is anybody here?” Then, the voice– more quietly to itself, said, “Well, that’s strange,” …which WAS strange, because she hadn’t even given enough time for someone to answer. ”Maybe they’re all out back.”
And then a 36-24-36, beaded emerald-green, dropped-waist dress –with a glowing body poured into it and a wavy, red bob on top–, rounded the corner into the dining room. The room sat agape, and Annabell’s eyes widened in horror and disbelief that Eve Harling had the nerve to show her face in their home, let alone interrupt her speech.
“Oh, here you all are! Gee, I’m awfully sorry I’m late. Joe’s car broke down on the interstate and– Oh, Uncle Walter, you know Joe, don’t you?”
She went to Walter and kissed his cheek in a whirl of excitement, not breaking her New York-cadence-in-a-continental-accent for a moment. ”Hi, Uncle Walter!” Walter smiled, stiffly.
“Joe is my friend from Alabama who comes to visit every few months. Well, he’s an engineer, you see, and that requires him to travel an awful lot. So, when he comes to town on business –though it isn’t always business that he’s doing, if you catch my drift…. Anyway, when he comes to town he always takes me out to the craziest places. Honest to god, I don’t know how he finds them. Why just last week– well, never mind. Where was I? Oh! We were on the interstate and he had let me drive for a good long while, you see– but I just don’t know anything –not a thing!–, about automobiles, and when that tiny little lever that tells you all about the gasoline started to drop– well, I just didn’t notice it! And poor Joe, having to walk all that way to buy some gasoline from the nearest store. Oh, well I guess I lied, didn’t I? His car didn’t so much break down– it just ran out of gas!”
Dorothy’s chair creaked.
Eve looked around the room at the faces staring in her direction. Suddenly self-aware, she swallowed and licked her lips, taming the great big smile she had offered. ”Anyway. Sorry I’m late.”