Annabell stood catatonic with her hand firmly gripping the now-crumpled paper that was to be her extravagant expression of ladylike gratitude. Her limbs had stiffened as she absorbed the ghastly image before her. Dreadful Eve. The sound of wrinkled leaflets beneath Annabell’s fingertips betrayed to the party guests that she had lost her poised train of thought and needed a kind reminder.
“Please continue, Annie,” said a mousy voice from the end of the table. Junior smirked as if to say, Ha, yes, Annie… please try and continue!
Annabell’s eyes went beady, her blood was at a boil, her breath was short and sharp. Dorothy snapped her fingers quickly as if to knock her dear child out of a staring spell. Annabell blinked rapidly. Her blood began to cool, and one could only tell because the color had returned to her picture-perfect face. If looks could kill, Annabell would have sucked the life out of dear Eve twelve times over.
But Eve couldn’t be less aware of how much disruption had come with her arrival. The Help pulled a chair from the other side of the room out of respect for the tardy guest. Napkins were placed, and fine china went down to welcome our new guest of honor, since she had indeed taken the spotlight from its original keeper.
Annabell let the silence linger until the clinking and clanking of the tableware settled. Now, and only now, did she take the moment to inhale a calm breath to gather her thoughts, like a debutante must (almost) always do. Her grip slowly loosened on the speech that was now –more than ever– used as a crutch, so as to prevent her from falling flat over from pure, unadulterated insult. And it was obvious that Annabell’s thoughts were far from pure. In fact, the idea of strangling the untimely node with both hands had crossed her mind more than she’d care to admit. She stretched out her fingers to relax the muscles that had tightened with ravenous thoughts of burying Eve’s pretty, perfect remains deep into the forest terrain, where no man or woman could ever be disrupted by her tardiness again… But alas, those thoughts faded as she came to grips with what was, and what must be.
And with that, she freed her mind from the agitating idea of Eve, just long enough to muster the words, “Uh, yes, where was I? Yes, here we are. Thank y––”
The door swung open –harder this time around–, and in walked the buffoon-of-a-man by the name of Joseph Pines. Pillows of sweat cascaded down the sides of his unkempt, bear-like face. He appeared high-strung, and seemed to be cursed with two left feet which swayed this stump-of-a-man from side to side. It was as if life had given human characteristics to a lumpy, old tree– just to amuse the townsfolk.
Junior chuckled under his breath. This couldn’t get any better. The sweet taste of revenge had slapped his elder sister far harder than he had ever anticipated; to watch her recoil, for reasons out of her control, was a far better taste than any cheddar grit to his boyish, sinister lips. This had clearly become a night of charades, brought to a head by a unwelcome ring of chaos. The invitees hadn’t received the telegraph in time to prepare for such awkward interaction, accordingly.
Joe reached for a chair that was lodged tightly beside a guest, who tried his best to hold it hostage; Joe tugged a bit harder and won the epic battle. Around the table, each guest could almost feel the others’ eyes roll at the very sight of this animal posing as a gentleman. “Who-hoo, sorry, folks,” Joe chimed in. “We be late, and all that. It’s that rickety ole’ firewire of an engine. Near sucks the fuel out of every tank by dusk.”
Eve breathlessly recovered for her date. “I already told them the story, Joe. Now hush up. Annie here is making a speech.”
Like a dog taking orders from its master, he lowered his head and followed suit, but not before he scanned the table to make eyes with the respectable man of the house. “Walter, sir, how are things?”
Walter nodded with a simple, “Fine, Joe–– please take a seat.”
Joe bulldozed his way down the table. “Me oh my, look at these-here fixins’ we got today. We got ourselves a summer annual party now, do we ever,” he mouthed off again.
Annabell’s lips were quivering. Not from disappointment or embarrassment– oh no, far more frightening is a young woman scorned on a day where praise is due; it was with utter disgust and pure hatred for the vile vermin that had the audacity to walk in here at a time like now and act up like this.
Joe plopped his rear down in a seat, rubbing elbows with the likes of far more-civilized family on the Jones’ side; they scootched over as best they could, so as not to scratch arms with this muggy man missing the classy chip that most would have held.
“I tell you, it’s been a wild day,” Joe began again. Eve shushed him, but it was too late.
“Do you not have any manners?” Annabelle snarled.
“Annie!” Dorothy could not believe her own daughter.
The dumb bull was caught in a very peculiar situation. “I beg your pardon?” Ah, there it was. The man within the man. Joe didn’t quite know what it was like to take lip from anyone other than his mistress.
“Annabelle Jones Mason that will be enough now.” Dorothy glared through to her daughter’s eyes, demanding she stop this nonsense that instant; it was one thing to have guests attend tardy in front of others, but it was quite another to have the town talking nonsense about a spectacle that went down amongst the present company. That’s all we need– another rumor floating around about the family. Hadn’t they been through enough?
Joe settled as he stuffed a fresh, hot crescent roll in his yapper out of nervousness.
“I apologize, Eve and Joseph. It is quite nice to see you– it has been a while.” The two nodded respectfully. The wound was still fresh, but it was kind to see Dorothy trying to mend the cut.
“This annual summer dinner is far more special than most,” Dorothy continued. “As you can see, Annabell is being accepted into the Young Society of Southern Women. A superior accolade, if I may say so.”
Joe swallowed the gulp. Walter breathed in heavily, and called for another bourbon with a silent gesture.
“That is right, Mother. My dinner.”
Dorothy clutched Annabell’s arm with a tight, yet discreet, squeeze. “Alright now, Annie. Be nice now. They are your family.”
Annabell pounced at the opportunity. “And, regretfully so.”
Walter pounded his fist on the table. “That will be enough!” The china clinked, and the guests came to a halt. Annabell had never seen such fury from her father. Nearly never.
“You will treat my side of the family with respect, child. Or so help me, God.”
You could hear a pin drop. And they did, in a way, as Junior’s fork clunked to the ground, spraying potatoes about the fine oak floor. Whatever kernels of food that were swishing away in the mouths of the invitees, were being chewed even more slowly than any southern slug. For this was rare out of Walter. Rage. It didn’t fit him, nor did it sit well with the family. You see, his history of violence was one of a traditional southern gentleman– never one to pick a fight, but kindly the one to conclude a tussle if the bourbon kept him bold. That was how Walter impressed many a’ fine lass in his hay-day. Bourbon and butting heads.
But that’s a story for another day.
Walter had aged naturally by the grace of the Lord, so his instinctual ability to cause a ruckus had faded along with the glowing glimmer of hope in his eye. For now he was just a wallflower who sat back and took it all with the hopes of one day soaking up enough know-how to gain the upper hand once again. The air in the room was stale, and one could cut the tension with a dulled knife.
Nessie moseyed on in, blind as per usual of the heighten dramatics that she had just missed.
“Eat up now, food’s bound to get cold. And we got that cheddar-crusted apple pie that Junior here’s been runnin’ mah ear off about.” Nessie tossed his hair a bit as a sign of endearment.
She wiped her hands on her apron as the guests reluctantly dug in. Nessie set a couple of glasses and place settings down in front of Joe and Eve. Joe waved his hands politely. “Thank you ma’am, but I don’t think we ought to be stayin’.”
Joe locked eyes with Walter.
Dorothy chimed in, “Now now, Joe, don’t be silly. It’s just the nerves the girl has. Isn’t that right, Annabell?”
Annabell couldn’t hold back the sweltering tears behind her lids. As one began to carve a path down the left side of that perfect, porcelain cheek, she caught it almost instantly with a very stern, “Yes ma’am,” not too far behind.
Dorothy grinned and bore it. “There, it’s settled. You will absolutely stay. Eve, you as well. Annabell would like her family here. It’s the right thing to do.”
Walter took another slurp out of the bourbon, threw his napkin on the table and stood. “I’m going to get some air.” He walked out into the kitchen, and the porch door swung shut as if done by the hand of twenty Walters.
Dorothy composed herself. “This Georgia heat really is getting to everybody, hmm?” Annabell cleared her throat as Dorothy rested a hand on her child. “Go on now, read for your guests…”
Everybody was up and drunk, and drowning those memories of the hours before in artificial conversation about who was marrying who, and who was wearing what. It was a dreadful display of socializing, but it was the life that had been chosen for her. Annabell glided around the party, dressed to kill, but as time went on her finely-polished nails had been bitten down to the core, and her hair was now loosely slung on the top of her head as if to say, Why bother?
A reflection of a figure was seen through the window, out beyond the porch. Is that…. Why would it be? Over the hustle and bustle of the guests yammering on about county gossip (and what really makes a fine brew), Annabell saw her father, plopped down in the middle of the yard on the rocking chair. Well, why did he take it off the porch, that old drunk– that’s not where it’s supposed to be.
And, she was right. A rocking chair was supposed to be on the property– on the porch, surrounded by other furniture, so you’d never be alone. But, maybe that was exactly what Walter wanted.