Chapter Seven

Jackie’s Declaration

Pastor Prentiss’ sermon had struck a nerve…or two with Jackie. She had left the church and driven to her dance studio. As soon as she had locked the door behind her, she began peeling off her clothes.

“I cannot believe how I came from the big city to this simple little town only to be shunned and shut out! How dare they? How long will they grieve for Ava? When will they move on? Prentiss is a young man. A handsome, virile man who needs a woman’s touch. He needs me. He’s so sad, but I can bring him back to life! If I don’t do something, that little old woman will have him dry right up all by himself! Well I won’t have it!” she said almost shouting. She had taken off her black chiffon duster and wore nothing but black leotards. She moved to the small bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror.

“I am beautiful. I am sexy.  I am a woman. I am a lover. I can be anything–anyone I wish to be, and I want to be Mrs. Prentiss LeBeaux. I SHALL be his wife, and no one will stop me. Not that Poison Iris with her money and her pretty white teeth. Prentiss thinks she is so pretty and so generous and so sophisticated, but I’ll show her! Pretty is for girls. I am a woman. I wanted to be her friend, but she wouldn’t even let me in her house! Why?” a tear sat on the edge of her eyelid.

“It’s just like what happened the last time in Atlanta. Everyone always shuts me out!” she screamed. She grabbed a towel and scrubbed at her makeup violently. The tears continued to flow.  “But Pastor Prentiss told ME, with his own mouth, that whatever I made happen for others, God will make happen for me.” She wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands and ran her palm over her short blond hair.

“I have saved the day for Prentiss.  I have carried the load for Prentiss.  I have played beautiful music for Prentiss.  I have loved Prentiss.  God, I know you will make those things happen for me.  I have sown.  I will soon reap.  Amen.”  Jackie opened her eyes.  She did not realize she had whispered a small prayer until she said Amen.  She felt her random lapse into prayer was a sign from God.  That he had sanctioned her to show everyone at St. Andrew that her purpose in Pastor Prentiss’ life would not be denied.

“I’ll teach them to shut me–Jacqueline O’Shelle Black–out! I will destroy all of them. Prentiss will hate them all, and I’ll be there waiting to console him. Comfort him. Hold him. Love him.” she smiled as she left the bathroom. “That gorgeous man and St. Andrew will belong to me. Everyone will forget about Ava and love me!”

She pressed a button on her bookcase stereo and Jennifer Hudson began belting out “And I Am Telling You.” Jackie began to spin around, kicking up her legs in rhythm. She dipped her head and shoulders low to ground before throwing her body into the air. She leapt and spun and bowed. Her arms flailed to and fro as tears streamed down her eyes and cries tore from her already raw throat. At the dramatic end of the song, Jackie whirled around and landed on the floor with a loud thud. She lay there on the floor, spent and sobbing loudly. After several minutes of crying out in her raw love for Prentiss LeBeaux, she wiped away tears and sweat and pulled her long legs into her chest, rocking gently to and fro, mumbling.

“Iris and Locke left me alone on the lawn, uncared for, and unconnected. Poor Prentiss is under their spell, for if he had known I was outside and uninvited in, he would have spoken up for me. They distracted Prentiss so he wouldn’t see me.  But they will soon see me, in all my glory, standing proudly as Mrs. Jacqueline O’Shelle Black-LeBeaux.  And heaven help me, if they don’t see.  St. Andrew and Sweet Fields will love me.” She stood, ran her hands over her damp, closely cropped curls, and bent deeply at the waist, stretching.

Jackie was too engrossed in her monologue to realize that Locke had just slid by her studio in the sleek navy Cadillac.  Locke was on her way to see Maybelline.  “That poor woman,” she said out loud as she pulled her car into Maybelline’s driveway.  Maybelline’s gold Camry was not in the garage.  Locke noticed that it sat in the driveway, askew, as if parked by a bank robber on the run.  She stepped out of the car and took note of the clusters of Black Eyed Susans Maybelline had in cobalt blue pots on either side of her yellow door.  Locke pressed the doorbell with her gloved hand.  She heard stirring inside.

“Maybelline.  Don’t be silly.  I won’t stand out here all afternoon.”  Nothing.  Locke followed a stone footpath to the back deck.  Maybelline often sat out back drinking sweet tea.  But no one was there.  As she made her way back to the front she caught Maybelline peeping through one of the panes at the bay window.

“Come on out here, Lena, and open this door.”  Locke knew that Maybelline would understand she meant business, when she called her Lena.  Locke hadn’t called her Lena since she was a child.

By the time Locke made her way around, the yellow door was open and the entryway unoccupied.  Maybelline, however, had disappeared to her bedroom.  Locke took inventory of Maybelline’s living room.  There were beautiful little trinkets along her fireplace mantle.  Her overstuffed sofa was red and decorated with purple and green pillows.  The oversized loveseat was also red and draped with a chenille blanket of the same hue.  A denim and white chevron pillow sat neatly in the chair.  There were things everywhere in Maybelline’s living room, and yet every single item had a proper and perfect place.  Maybelline’s house invited guests to visit and never leave.  And, if there was one thing Maybelline did well other than playing piano, it was keeping an immaculate house.  Even though she made a handsome salary working at PC&G Manufacturing Companies as the managing engineer for all sustainable bottle cap design engineers, Maybelline was content to live quietly in her sage stoned cottage with vines of ivy creeping up the sides.

Maybelline’s house smelled of eucalyptus and mint.  Locke liked the cleanliness of the smell.  She did not spray.

“Ms. Belle, please don’t lecture me right now,” Maybelline mumbled from the bedroom.

“The hell you say, Lena!  Your dress drops around your ankles one time, and you want to go hole yourself up.  You didn’t even come to church today.  That horrible bird woman, Jackie Black, tried to play like you.  She sang like a sick cat.”  By now, Locke had made her way to Maybelline’s room, a large queenly space outfitted with an ornate Paul Bunyan bed.  Maybelline’s bedding was bright yellow, accented with navy and white.  Her bright white sheets were crumpled in the middle of her bed where Maybelline sat wearing a white PC&G T-shirt, very short denim shorts and a head full of the biggest rollers Locke had ever seen in her life.

“That’s easy for you to say, Ms. Belle.  All of St. Andrew didn’t see your rump as you walked across the dance floor at the biggest gala of the last 10 years.  I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life.”  Maybelline crumpled up the sheets even more and wiped at her wet face.  She rocked slowly, back and forth.

“Yes, Lena.  You have been more embarrassed.  Remember the time when you were getting on the church bus to go to the Youth Rally down in Rayton County, and your slip fell down to your ankles?  Remember that?  Didn’t you keep on living after that?  Became an accomplished pianist?  Got a scholarship to MIT?  Making more money than most folk can shake a stick at, down at PC&G?  You’re the only woman manager in that place.  So what, they saw a little Spanx last night!  It’s about time you did something daring.”

“Ms. Belle, none of those things matter when you’re made a fool of by someone you hardly know.  I don’t know why she…”

“She who?  What are you babbling about Maybelline?  Get yourself together so I can hear you right!”

“That Jackie Black!”  Maybelline vomited her name out of mouth, almost choking on the k’s in her name.

“Wait a minute, Maybelline.  What has Jackie the buzzard to do with all this?”

“She stepped on my dress, Ms. Belle.  She stepped on my dress and smiled while she did it.”

“Now, Maybelline.  Your dress was tight.  It was hugging you like the skin on summer sausage.  You sure it wasn’t a wardrobe malfunction, like Janet Jackson had.  Do you know I was there the night that happened?  I told my Clive…”

“Ms. Belle.  It was Jackie Black.  While Nurse Jackson was helping me get myself together, Jackie, walked past me and whispered, thank goodness you’re not the only one who can play piano in this room.”  Maybelline broke down after that and flopped back onto the bed.  She stretched her arms out and cried.  “I’ve never done anything to that woman.  Why does she insist on vexing me so?”

“Have you eaten today?” Locke asked Maybelline.  Her eyebrows were furrowed.

Maybelline sat up quickly. “Do I look like I need something to eat?”  She cried even more.

“Yes.  Yes you do.  You look a mess.  I brought some of my lavender and lime teacakes.  They are out in the car.  I’m going over to my house and fix you something fresh from my garden.  The teacakes will hold you until I get back.”

Locke gathered her dress and started toward the front door to her car.  She retrieved the teacakes, which were in a dainty silver tin tied with a purple bow.  “Now you eat a few of these, the lavender will calm you down.  I’ll be back shortly with something more hearty, filling, healthy.  Then you can play me something on that Baby Grande when we’re done.”

“Thank you, Ms. Belle,” Maybelline sniffled.  “I appreciate you for stopping by.”

Locke threw her black-gloved hand up in the air as if agitated with Maybelline.  “You go in there and pull yourself together.”

Locke thought about Maybelline and the dress and Jackie Black and the embarrassing production she rendered outside on Locke’s lawn the night before.  Ever since Sister Jackie Black arrived, things at St. Andrew had been a little off.  Now she was messing with Maybelline, who really never bothered anyone.  She knew what Maybelline said about Jackie sabotaging the dress was true, even though she didn’t see it herself.  What she didn’t know yet was what she was going to do about it.  Something would be done, and Iris would have to help her do it, before Jackie struck again.

Chapter Six

Celebration Sunday

Iris, completely wrung out from Saturday night’s festivities, managed to look as fresh and fabulous as she usually did the next day for Sunday service. Antoine insisted kelly green was her color and convinced her to wear it again. Iris slipped into her kelly green pencil dress with a smug smile. She fastened her skinny black patent leather belt and looked at herself in her granny’s floor-length mirror.  She had always known she was attractive, but last night, she owned it. She patted her messy bun of curls, straightened the black jeweled brooch at her neck, and slipped her bare feet into her favorite pair of black patent leather Louboutins.

While Iris was home dressing for church, most of the men who comprised the deacon board of St. Andrew had already congregated at their favorite gab corner near the back of the church.  The renovations that took place at St. Andrew afforded them a tricked out, but still appropriately sanctimonious, den to count money and handle petty church disputes.  Most of the time, the men used the church’s version of a man cave to sit, drink coffee, and gossip.

There was much to be said, because Hughes had managed to gain a brief audience with Iris.  The men were anxious to see how the conversation went.  And Hughes was anxious to embellish the conversation to engage their curiosities.  “Yeah, I sat and talked with her.  And you know how some women are real pretty until you get up on them?  Not this one, brethren.  Her pretty held its ground.  It didn’t lie.”

“I’m surprised you said anything to her, Hughes.  You know how you get to stut-stut-stuttering when you get around a woman.”  Deacon Clemson Callahan delivered the low blow.  And he got away with it, because he was chairman of the deacon board, a position that Hughes hoped to have; he was, after all, next in line.  Hughes figured Clemson would be around a while.  No one really knew how old he was, because he had more energy than a hummingbird.  Unlike the hummingbird though, Clemson was not a man who’d live a short life.  He probably would never die.  Hughes thought it was because of all that juicing he did.  He called it holistic living. To William Hughes, a meat and potatoes man, the clean eating Clemson was always blabbing about was probably nothing more than another passing fad.

Clemson continued, “but, I understand.  When you get around a pretty woman, like my Judith.  It throws you off a bit.”  Callahan was standing over Hughes, who had sat in one of the wing chairs near the large flat screen TV mounted on the longest wall above the faux fireplace.  Clemson propped his foot up on a small stool upholstered in rich burgundy tapestry.  His shoes were so shiny, that Hughes could see the reflection of his own jet black hair in them.  Clemson’s shoes were the kind that laced up to the ankle, black with a shiny round toe that was accessorized by a meticulously stitched double seam across the top.  This was the only telltale sign that Clemson may have been up in age.  “Well, tell us what she said Hughes!  We don’t have but twenty minutes before church starts.  Maybelline will be tickling those keys right on time.”

“Well at first she was kind of shy, but then, she said she heard that I did good work on, well, pipes and such.  She invited me over to check on hers.  Said, she’d like for me to look at a coupla things around the house.”  The other men of the board drew closer to Hughes, interested.  Hughes leaned back in the chair and kicked Clemson’s foot from the stool to replace it with his own. “Yep, that’s what she said.”

Clemson squinted.  Hughes knew of his own hyperbolic tendencies, but sometimes he couldn’t help coloring the story, just a little–especially when there was a captive audience.  He waited for Clemson’s response.  He knew the older man would call his hand.   “Hughes, don’t go getting any ideas off of a two sentence conversation.  You probably couldn’t hear her over that band sitting up in that box at the gala.  Maggs’ house needs work, bottom line.  Maggs hadn’t hired a man to fix up around that house for years before she died.  There’s sure to be some problems.   Sister Murphy ain’t stud’n you.”

“Sister Murphy hadn’t had a working man around her either, unless you count that piece of man she helped write all those books.  What kind of job is writing anyway for a real man?  She needs to know better.  I can make her know better,” Hughes chuckled his last sentence out with confidence.

“You can hardly make a sentence, doc,” said another deacon said with a guffaw.

“You have to get her to sit long enough to wait for you to get your words out first,” one of the deacons muttered from the back of the room.

“What you really have to worry about,” Callahan said as he ran his fingers through the hair he still processed after 40 years.  He peered into the blank screen of the TV for stray strands,  “is Locke.  It’s like she’s got a padlock on the woman.  She’s just like her husband, God rest his soul.  She puts a lock on anything that has to do with money.”

Hughes stood up and straightened his suit jacket.  He pinched at the crease of his pant leg and drew his fingers all the way down each side.  “I can handle Belle Lynne Locke,” he said with a fond smile, “she’s as cold as steel, but she still has the warm softness of a woman down in there somewhere.”  This was something Hughes knew for sure, because he’d seen it for himself when his mother died. Locke showed him kindness and compassion that had surprised him.

“Well, it sure was some kind of night to remember.  Judith and I were so worked up over all that classy dancing we did, that we couldn’t keep our hand off of each other in the car.  We drove up to Process Point and…”

“Aaaaaaaaaah, naw brother,” the other deacons wouldn’t let Clemson finish his sentence.  They knew where it was going, and they didn’t want to join the ride.

Iris arrived at St. Andrew just in time to see the fraternal exchange of the well-dressed deacon board walking from the back of the church and to watch Locke, dressed in a flowing linen dress that was unmistakably one of Antoine’s designs, consecrate her seat. She caught Locke’s eye, nodded and seated herself in her own consecrated space. The church was buzzing. People were still excited about the night before. Some women had slept “pretty” so they could show off their  elegant hairstyles, while one or two ladies opted to wear their dresses again so those who didn’t attend the gala could see how beautiful they had been the night before.

The deacons filed in, followed by the deaconesses.  Some organ music had started, but Maybelline was not the musician. Poor Maybelline. Iris wondered if someone had gone to check on her last night. She doubted anyone did.  When the pianist began to sing, Iris’ head snapped in the direction of Locke. Locke, recognizing the the singer as Jackie Black, tightened her lips and narrowed her eyes.

“She sounds terrible,” Antoine whispered. “Crying and screaming always makes people look and sound like jackasses.”

“Shhh. You can’t say that in church!” Iris whispered after letting an audible laugh escape her lips.

“I can’t say she sounds like a jackass? Why not? It’s the truth. Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” Antoine said sucking his teeth and rolling his eyes.  “Anyway.  Jackass is in the Bible. In fact, Jesus rode a jackass, so I can say it in church.”  Iris giggled.  It had been a while since she had giggled–well, she had giggled last night. She had actually laughed out loud–at both that handsome devil Rick Carson and at Jackie Black.   Jacqueline Black made laughter much too easy for Iris.  Her behavior at Locke’s nightcap, though no laughing matter, was laughable, to say the least.  Iris could not get the scene of the night’s fiasco out of her head.

After the gala, Locke had invited twelve of her most special guests to her home for a nightcap. Some of them knew each other, and some met for the first time. A convoy of limousines and luxury sedans made their way slowly through the quiet streets of Sweet Fields and lined Superior street in front of Locke’s brick home.  Her home, dressed in the same colors as the armory– polished blacks, creamy whites, and pale golds–welcomed the guests. There were three waiters still dressed in white at the ready. One tended the finger foods, another made specialty drinks in the oversized French country kitchen, while the third circulated among the guests tending to their drink requests. The lady Iris spotted earlier hanging decorations stood guard at the door.  The last guest to arrive had been Prentiss; this was no surprise, as he assumed his traditional pastoral duties at the door thanking guests for their support.

Prentiss had come in and settled into a large chair next to Locke in the grand parlor.  All seats–occasional chairs, sofas, settees were comfortably occupied. Iris was sitting in front of the picture window on a loveseat with Antoine, the fashion designer whom Locke had discovered making costumes for female impersonators in New York.  They’d become fast friends at the gala.  He, too, was mesmerized by Iris in her kelly green.

Jean Paul, a Frenchman, whose gambling had cost him and his sister, Genvieve their shoe store in France, occupied a settee near the fireplace. Because of Jean Paul’s gambling debts, the bookies had assaulted and tortured Genvieve–she had not spoken a word since.

Celeste was the daughter of friends of the Lockes. After hearing her sing, Clive and Locke paid for her voice lessons and her trip to an American Idol audition. The famous singer was curled in an occasional chair with Kofi perched in a window seat nearby.  Clive had found Kofi on a trip to Africa, took him off the streets,  and placed him in a home with some friends in America. He was now a bodyguard for Celeste.

Ethan and Patricia were sitting with Jackson Reed on an oversized sofa chatting quietly about money.  Ethan Stone was Clive’s nephew who had traveled to Italy to become a chef.  He owned one of hottest restaurants in Atlanta. Patricia was a single mother/business student who had been waiting tables at one of the Locke’s favorite eateries when the two met. Locke, after getting to know Patricia, had insisted that she and Clive invest in her business, a daycare center. That had been ten years ago. Patricia’s business idea had blossomed into a chain of daycares for single mothers.  Jackson’s father and Clive had been boyhood friends.  Clive convinced Locke to attend a political fundraiser for Jackson Reed’s mayoral campaign, and she had been smitten with the dapper wordsmith ever since.

Anita and Tony were huddled together on another sofa. Anita was a playwright who had wowed the Lockes with an off-Broadway show.  The Lockes, impressed with her refreshing and pure talent, invested in her Theatre Troupe.  Tony was a brilliant mathematician whose mother, during his senior year of high school, was raped and killed. Locke couldn’t help but reach out to the hurting teen. She and Clive had paid for his college education.

 Locke, like a Queen Mother, sat near the doorway in a navy velvet wingback chair with brass tacks around the edge. The merriment overflowed much like the sherry and champagne until it was interrupted by the ring of the doorbell.

Locke looked to the front door with a snap.  Ruth, the doorkeeper for the evening, answered, “Good evening. May I help you?”

Jackie Black’s voice cut through the merriment like a switchblade. She threw her head back and retorted, “Yes. I’d like to come in.”

“Your name, please?” Ruth asked looking over her black-rimmed glasses.

Jackie laughed.  She thought the pomp and circumstance of having a doorkeeper was a joke.  Surely they expected her, especially with Prentiss there.  “Why, Jacqueline O’Shelle Black.” she said with a deep curtsy.  The feathers of her dress shimmied and rustled as she slid up from the curtsy.

“Please wait here,” Ruth said and closed the door gently in Jackie’s face. While Ruth conferred with the mistress of the house, Jackie took the opportunity to enter–on her own, uninvited.  Ruth was still with Locke when Jackie made her presence known.

“Good evening, everyone.” She said standing in the doorway wearing a hideous peacock feather-trimmed shawl about her shoulders.  Jackie’s priceless pageant smile was plastered across her face.  She was posed, as if everyone had been waiting for her.  She stood in classic fifth position, and if the guests looked closely enough, they would have seen an iridescent purple peep toe pump with one lone feather draping the arch of Jackie’s right foot, the wicked eye of the feather looking up into the faces of Locke’s gifted band of twelve.  The hush that came across the room was only interrupted by the hiss and swish of the feathers settling around Jackie’s lower body.  Sentences and glasses of champagne hung silently in the air, unfinished.

“Jacqueline.  This engagement is invitation only. We will see you tomorrow at church.” Locke maintained a sickening sweet tone while looking into Jackie’s faux gray eyes. Kofi moved stealthily in the background and was beside Jackie before she could end her dramatic gasp. He placed one hand at the small of her bare back while the other took charge of her elbow and guided her out.

“Pastor LeBeaux, are we not meeting tonight?” she asked over her shoulder.  Her voice, the question, was barely a whispered and was carried by a desperate tremor. Prentiss did not answer.  Jackie, in response to his silence, spun around to see Prentiss engaged in conversation with Iris. They were laughing!  “Prentiss!” she cried.

“Oh! Jackie. Are you leaving already?” he asked when he snapped out of his laughter with Iris.  “Of course, you must be tired after all the excitement of the gala.  Your having to fill in for Maybelline at the last minute must have drained you.  Let’s talk after church tomorrow. Goodnight.” he said pleasantly, completely unaware she was being thrown out of the party.

Locke said nothing. She watched the situation unfold with a pleasant smile. She nodded as she watched Kofi escort Jackie out onto the front lawn.  He locked the door upon his return.  Kofi perched in the window seat near Celeste who was talking with Antoine about dressing her for the upcoming red carpet season. The server with the finger foods made a round as did the server with more glasses of sherry, wine, and champagne.  As Iris stood to join Antoine and Celeste in their conversation about fashion,  she heard a loud wail.  She looked out of the picture window behind her just in time to see Jackie Black standing on the grassy lawn stomping her feet and shouting in what sounded like French.   She continued to stomp away, until the feather flew from one of her awkward purple shoes.

“What is she saying, Jean Paul?” Antoine asked. Jean Paul stood with his glass of wine and joined Iris at the window.  After listening for a few seconds, Jean Paul dragged his hand through his curly white hair and stroked his fluffy beard.

Je suis plus digne d’une invitation a cette bande de marginaux.”

“I don’t want to say in the company of women, monsieur. It is not very good French, but I get her point.”

Ce petit lutin rétréci d’une femme ne sera pas me tenir loin de lui. Je vais avoir mon jour!”  She yelled louder.

“Which is?” Antoine asked arching a perfectly shaped brow.

“Nothing. Her point is moot, whatever it is.” Locke said raising her glass. “A toast!”

Prentiss who was then talking to Jackson Reed, raised his glass and said “To generous friends!”

They raised their glasses and yelled a rousing “Salut,” as Jackie shouted something else in French.   She whirled around and around, causing the tail of her dress to take to the air around her like wings.  One by one feathers began to disassemble from the bottom of the dress.  Jackie stopped mid spin, recognizing that she was losing herself and her accoutrements.  Frantically, she scoured and scraped the ground in search of her precious peacock feathers.  All the while, she continued to rant in French.

Je ne vais pas être en reste par une femme orpheline curieux qui se habille comme Poison Ivy.  Iris, vous ne avez pas entendu le dernier de moi.”  Iris recognized her name in the verbal outburst. While the others drank merrily, Iris sat down her glass and left the grand parlor quietly with her cell phone in her palm. She said nothing to the others, but Kofi followed her to the door.

“Let me, Iris.” He said in a deep baritone voice.

“No. She called me out.  I shall answer.” Iris said.  Iris was tired of people calling her name for no good reason. She had abided all the chiding and harassment she was going to–tabloid reporters were one thing, but a desperate troublemaker was another. It was going to end. Tonight. She glided carefully down the brick steps and walked the footpath to the lawn where Jackie was then squatting with her feathered train all around her.

“Jackie, what do you want?”

“Why wasn’t I invited?”

“This gathering is for Locke’s very dear friends. That’s why.”

“But Prentiss was invited.” She said pouting.

“That’s because Prentiss is a very dear friend.” Iris was perplexed by Jackie’s child-like behavior.

“Prentiss is my dear friend, too,” she whined, “we should have been invited together.”

“Listen to yourself Jackie.  You make absolutely no sense.  Now, if you really want Prentiss to see you tonight, I can call Officer Martinez to come and cart you off to jail for trespassing, and maybe Pastor LeBeaux will add you to his list of sick and shut in. He will be sure to come visit you then.  Is that what you want?”

“Out of my face, Iris!” she swooshed her hand through the night air as if it held a magic wand. “I was here before you!”

“And I’ll be here after you, “ Iris said taking one step closer to Jackie who had started pulling the peacock feathers from her shawl and dress in a fit of anger.  “Get your rumpled, ruffled, raggedy feathers together and get off this lawn, or so help me, you’ll be a very popular bird in the county jail,” Iris said with her eyes narrowed into slits.

Jackie said nothing, but screeched in agony. Defeated agony. She threw off her shawl and plucked the feathers from her dress while tears streamed down her face. Iris’s boldness didn’t dissipate.  She drew even closer to Jackie Black and whispered, “and do NOT pick off another feather from that dress.  I won’t have Locke’s lawn littered with the feathers of a naked bird.”  Iris returned to the grand parlor and closed the blinds overlooking the lawn that was the stage for Jackie Black’s tantrum.  She rejoined the conversations and found Locke talking to Prentiss but looking directly at her. The dialogue between the two looked very official.  Prentiss’s eyes never left Locke’s face, and therefore, he knew nothing of Jackie Black’s obsessive fit of the evening.

And now, on the Sunday after the gala event of the season (with all of its drama), Jackie was sitting on the organ trying desperately to sing “How Great Thou Art” with a raw throat and red eyes.  Pastor Prentiss LeBeaux sang excitedly unaware of the instability that sat so close.

Pastor Prentiss LeBeaux was full. He was overwhelmed with gratitude to his parishioners and the community of Sweet Fields. He was especially grateful for Locke’s friends who had given so generously just because she was affiliated with St. Andrew. His sermon was much shorter than usual, because he was overcome with emotion.

St. Andrew, y’all really outdid yourselves last night! You really made me proud. I have never seen such generous people give as freely as you did to help get this academy and daycare built.  As I reflected on this grand occasion, I thought about Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Turn with me to Ephesians 6:8; it reads: 8 Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. 9 And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.

St. Andrew Family, I’d like to share with you with this thought: What you make happen for others, God will make happen for you. You have been there for me in my darkest hour. You have held me up in prayer. You have rejoiced with me. You have loved me. Supported me. Fed me.  Last night, you all gave your all–not just to me on behalf of my sweet Ava, but to the entire community. Many of you gave your hard-earned money, several gave of your time and talents, and a few special people gave themselves. For those of you who gave to this ministry until it hurt, I love you and appreciate you. I want you to remember that what you make happen for others, God will make happen for you. God will never leave you alone–unavenged, uncared for, or unconnected. He will never leave his children abandoned, all alone out in the wilderness.  But when he brings you out, He wants you to do the same for someone else.  Turn to your neighbor and say “what I make happen for someone else, God will make happen for me!” Because you all have made so much happen for me, I want to return the love, the kindness, and gratitude.

Chapter Five

The Event of the Season cont…

“Welcome to the Benefit Gala for The Ava LeBeaux Early Learning Christian Academy and Daycare Center,” Prentiss said.  He wore a navy blue tuxedo accentuated with black at the collar and lapels.  The outside pocket was trimmed with a band of black matte material.  Underneath the jacket was a black vest.  Iris noted that someone had tucked and dusted him.  His black bowtie was frighteningly straight.  The salt and pepper of Pastor LeBeaux’s hair was complimented nicely by the suit’s stately blue.

“This daycare center has been a dream of mine and my wife, God rest her soul, for quite some time.  And I really thought New Orleans would be the place where this dream would come true.  God saw fit to keep the dream alive, but just move it to another location.”  The guests laughed and clapped in a dignified manner.  “Anyway, I’m glad you’re here to help the dream become a reality and to put Sweet Fields on the map as one of the first Southern towns to offer quality Christian learning to our children early in their lives.”  There was more dignified clapping, and Pastor LeBeaux raised his hands to quiet the audience.

“God, when He led me here, gave me some unlikely people to have my back.  This wouldn’t be possible at all, had it not been for some good friends and beautiful people, a wonderful couple who supported this church and God’s vision for it, even when the two became one less…” Pastor LeBeaux looked toward the table where Iris and Locke sat.  Ever so slightly, Locke shook her head, no.  One would have to be as close as Iris was to Locke to see the gesture.  “Additionally, God sent a strong committee of planners, producers, protectors, providers, and just plain old good people my way to hold up my arms when the battle got a little too hard for me to fight.”  Pastor LeBeaux spread his arms out toward the audience, “Would the Benefit Gala Committee please join me out here on the dance floor.  I promise I won’t make you dance!”

Iris turned to Locke and stared at her like a deer caught in headlights.  Locke nodded, “He called you up there.  It’s show time,” she said.

Everyone had made it to the shiny dance floor except Iris and Jackie Black.  As Iris made her way, the crowd quieted.  Perhaps it was the flattering fit of the kelly green lace dress (which became her signature color).  Maybe it was the modest way she approached the dance floor as if she hadn’t a care in the world, her long legs making effortless elegant strides across the room in spite of the unoffending snugness of her dress.  It could have been the simplicity of the thick coif of hair with its deep side part that smoothed into large horizontal bun at the nape of her neck.  Then again, it may have been the intimidating 5’10” stature and the feet shod with red-bottomed matte gold strappy sandals.  Whatever it was, the crowd was rendered speechless, and Iris had gained a place in Sweet Fields.  The community was proud to own, claim, and adopt this beautiful specimen, and from that evening on, if anyone were to ask about Iris Murphy, every person present at the Gala would say “Yes, I know her.  She’s from Sweet Fields.”

Jackie Black, on the other hand, would never be acknowledged by the people of Sweet Fields as a member of the community. She was an enigmatic creature whose presence created dissonance in the hearts and minds of those who looked upon her.  Jackie stood and walked slowly–too slowly– to the dance floor.

Her dress was an amalgamation of geometric shapes and peacock feathers.  It was the two-foot train of peacock feathers that the onlookers noticed first.  Known for the beautiful display of colors, peacock feathers, when not on the peacock, presented a haunting bouquet of black eyes.  These black eyes seemed to watch its onlookers as they made their way across the armory floor carried by Jackie Black.

 Then, the crowd saw flesh.  Above the unsightly clump of trembling peacock feathers,  which ended at her knees, they could see Jackie Black’s slender legs from the knee to the upper thigh through a black sheer veil. Women gasped as they feared they would see the woman’s private parts. Men leered, hoping to see the same. Where the sheer blackness ended-just below where her thighs met her backside-black satin began, but it didn’t last long.  The scrap of material barely covered her derrière, for at the top of her buttocks, the fabric abruptly ended in the shape of  a V.  The bare flesh of her back –and some of her sides–was exposed all the way to the top of her shoulder blades. Two triangular pieces of fabric stretched across the very top of her back to hold the distasteful creation together. When she finally arrived at her place on the dance floor beside Iris, she whirled around dramatically.   The peacock eyes stirred in their feathers.  The onlookers who had been offended by her dorsal side were doubly offended by the front of her.

The boat neck of her dress was the only quiet part of her dress, for the bodice below it screamed with its severely molded breast cups accented by four raised black seams that ran from her bosom in a downward direction to her feminine center.  The satin part of the dress ended in an arc dangerously close to the apex of her thighs, leaving the onlookers gaping at the front of her thighs and more peacock feathers that began at her knee.

“Do, Jesus!,” the twins Luceal and Laura gasped aloud in unison. Setting their table afire with whispers and chuckles.

“What in blue blazes is she wearing?” Someone whispered too loudly.

“Help your people, Jesus.” Sister Washington said out loud casting a glance upwards.

Locke tightened her lips and sprayed a light mist from her vial. The sight of the woman dragging a collection of dead peacocks on the floor with the eyes of the feathers mocking the crowd was nearly Locke’s undoing. She steadied her breathing and focused on Iris. Her Iris. Maggs, you did good, girl, she thought with a nod. She was bound and determined to not allow Jackie to ruin this event. She looked at Jackie’s pageant smile and briefly felt sympathy for the wretched creature. Jackie was whirling with the idea that the gasps and whispers were because of the beauty of her dress.   She beamed at Prentiss, who was still droning on into the microphone acknowledging each of the committee members. Because Locke’s eyes were focused on Jackie, she knew the exact moment when Jackie realized everyone was smitten with Iris and not her.

Prentiss LeBeaux directed his attention to Iris and spoke, “To our own very special Iris Murphy, who has just recently made Sweet Fields home. I believe Sweet Fields is a great deal sweeter with this generous young woman in our community.” The room erupted in applause. He continued, “because of Miss Murphy, the academy and daycare will have a state-of-the-art library complete with a technology wing.”  A second round of applause erupted and was louder than before. There. It was during the applause–both rounds– that Jackie’s countenance fell.  Her face and sickening smile had faltered.  Locke noted the tightening of Jackie’s lips and twitch of the right eye–a tell tale sign. When Prentiss addressed Jackie’s contributions, she lit up again like a twinkle light.

“Lastly, but not least, is Jacqueline Black.  She, too,  is new to Sweet Fields. Let’s give her a hand,” Prentiss said innocently.  Jackie’s eyes slid down the row of committee members and let her eyes rest on Iris. Her lips tightened again, and Locke knew there would be trouble soon.

As the introduction of the committee ended and the members were taking their seats, Locke noticed that Jackie did not return to her table. Instead, she stepped behind one of the 20-foot columns and disappeared.  This bothered Locke. Jackie was angry, and crazy people aren’t compliant when they’re angry.  She tried to put her eyes on Jackie but was interrupted when Rick Carson intercepted Iris’ graceful glide back to her seat. Rick grabbed Iris’ hand with his right one while his left hand went to her shoulder. He leaned in and whispered something in Iris’ ear. Iris quite delicately tilted her head back and laughed, showing her perfect white teeth.  This irritated Locke; she told Rick to stay away from Iris. She was even more incensed when Rick proceeded to take Iris’ elbow and escort her back to her seat.  When he pulled Iris’ seat out, his eyes met with Locke’s steeled ones.  He winked. Locke was fit to be tied. She had lost sight of Jackie and Rick was trying to force himself in a match with Iris.  She slid the ornate vial over to Iris and nodded for her to use it.

Meanwhile, Prentiss was enjoying his time at the microphone. He was gushing over his beloved Ava.  Eventually, he announced a special musical selection to be played by the Sweet Georgia Orchestra with guest pianist, Maybelline Johnson.

Maybelline strutted out to the piano and seated herself comfortably at the Steinway. She waited for the applause to completely die before beginning. She watched the conductor and began on his cue, starting the medley of the late Ava’s favorite classical pieces.  The orchestra would join her here and there. The medley went from Moonlight Sonata to Hungarian Dance No 5 to For Elise. It finally ended with Flight of the Bumblebee with the spotlight from the rafters on Maybelline.  The congregants of St. Andrew who were in attendance were shocked, as no one knew she was such an accomplished pianist. With her head down, cheeks puffed with air, and sweat beading at her brow, Maybelline played her heart out. The jumbotron at the front of the room panned the audience and orchestra, but stopped on Maybelline. It zoomed in on her pleasant, round face and then moved to her fingers that were flying with confidence and finesse across the keys of the Steinway. The audience was in silent awe as Maybelline’s fingers moved over the keys with lightning speed.  When she struck the final chord of the piece, the audience erupted into thunderous applause. She stood from the piano bench and walked around to the front of the piano, as she had practiced, and curtsied. She gestured to the conductor and orchestra, as applause continued to  rip through the building.

Locke and Iris exchanged glances and sighed in relief. Maybelline had earned her moment in the spotlight. She had played beautifully, even though her dress was its own spotlight.   Cindy Sullivan announced that after the upcoming video presentation, the audience would have another chance to hear Maybelline Johnson play during the appeal for the attendees to donate to the center.  The voice directed their attention to the jumbotron for a video presentation of donors and supporters of the Ava Center.  Various CEOs, television personalities, and other celebrities (all of whom Locke knew personally) shared the amounts of their contributions.  While waiters prepared to distribute linen envelopes for the contributions, Maybelline returned to the Steinway for some “giving music” as Prentiss had called it.

Maybelline, still basking in her crowning moment, happily moved to the beat of  “The Second Line,” as she pounded it out on the keys.  Her enthusiasm was contagious, and the crowd clapped along; some tapped their feet; others swayed in their seats with their white linen napkins raised, but all were shy about moving to the dance floor.   The music stopped suddenly.  There was the uncomfortable sound of splitting wood, and a “Whooo” sent up in a wave from the audience.  Maybelline, who before had been bouncing gleefully on the piano bench, was on the floor!  The orchestral musicians tried to recover Maybelline’s topple with their own rendition of the tune, but they needed her to set the tempo. Maybelline struggled to get up.  Two gentlemen went to her aid. Though back on her feet, she was still too flustered and upset to resume the music. She started towards the ladies’ room to gather herself.

As she walked past a smiling Jackie and her dress of eyeballs and feathers, Maybelline heard a loud tear and felt a faint cool breeze where the satiny material of her dress had slipped away. Time stood still and all other sounds ceased.  The entire room seemed to hear the rip of the fabric. When she looked down, Maybelline saw a puddle of cheese-colored satin at her feet. The lower half of her gown was on the floor.  In a matter of seconds, the joyful second line music had ended.  There Maybelline stood, on the ballroom floor in a puddle of Velveeta cheese satin, covered only by black knee-length spanx. Sister Washington, the church nurse, jumped to her aid quickly, because she had seen this kind of disaster before (wardrobe malfunctions happened sometimes when churchgoers got happy in the spirit).  Jackie swooped in and lit onto the piano, picking up where Maybelline had left off.  There were whispers and craning necks, but the Second Line party music proved to be an effective distraction.

The money didn’t stop flowing either.  The white satin boxes containing the donations were filled to the brim, and had to be changed repeatedly to make room for more.  Champagne was flowing at every table, and Jackie–having saved the evening–was bouncing merrily at the piano while acknowledging Prentiss’ approving and grateful eyes.

The night of merriment and charitable giving ended on a high note.  The five-course meal had been exquisite–lamb, beef, and chicken with gourmet side dishes and créme brulèe for dessert. There had been swag bags for everyone containing products thoughtfully donated by local businesses. And the celebrities in attendance tarried a while to chat with fans and sign programs.  Yes. The night had been an affair to remember. Locke’s people and their people set about breaking down the staging and decorations while the wait staff began cleaning the industrial kitchen. The well-dressed throngs thinned, and the parking lot was lit up with headlights.

Only Prentiss LeBeaux waited until the end. He thanked people for coming as they left. Jacqueline lurked about pretending to help clean up.  While she was trying to give instructions to the decorators, Prentiss said his final goodbye and started to his car. Jacqueline spotted him just in time to stuff her feather-bedecked self into her Thunderbird and follow him across town.

Chapter Five

The Event of the Season cont…

The men in tuxedos and women in black satin gowns were warming up their violins, cellos, basses, trumpets, and bassoons, and clarinets.  Iris noticed a rotund red-haired gentleman putting on his tuba. As she glanced at the array of orchestral instruments, she wondered where did Locke get an orchestra?  She didn’t know why she was surprised. Locke seemed to enjoy keeping her gala plans a secret from her…and everyone else. No one knew what to expect.  The word on the street was if you wanted to see celebrities and be seen by celebrities, you should be there.

Iris had helped Locke strategically leak information about certain people on the guest list to boost ticket sales, and it had worked like a charm. Buzz about the gala was all over the airwaves, both AM and FM all the way to Atlanta.  The handsome, recently divorced, TV judge Rick Carson, who most middle aged women thought to be the sexiest man alive was coming–alone. The adored news anchor for one of the most popular stations in the area was to emcee the program; Locke had smiled when she leaked that information to the deacon board. Even her devoted Clive had developed a small crush on Cindy Sullivan.   A few ladies from an Atlanta-based reality show were planning to attend as well.  Sweet Fields was bursting at the seams with glamour, fanfare, and money, because Locke had personally invited CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, several of whom had RSVPed.

The orchestra was no longer warming up and began playing in earnest, so Iris took that as a cue to slip into the ladies’ room to check her makeup and hair.  She gasped as she entered the room. Even the doors of the stalls were decorated with white satin and flower wreaths. Locke’s people left no stone unturned.  Iris was swiping her lips with gloss when the church organist, Maybelline Johnson, joined her in the mirror.

“Don’t you look pretty!” Maybelline said a bit out of breath.

“Thank you. You look very pretty too” Iris returned with a curt nod.  When had she started nodding at people? Had she picked that up from Locke?

“Do I really? I lost about 10 pounds trying to get into this dress.” Iris looked at the dress–a satin concoction reminiscent of a block of Velveeta cheese. It was much too bright and shiny, but Maybelline seemed very proud of it.  Iris looked at the winged sleeves that draped over Maybelline’s rounded shoulders and fleshy upper arms; it reminded her of a small cape.  The caplet fluttered about as Maybelline shimmied and jiggled uncomfortably in the dress.  Iris watched as she smoothed the bodice, which was under much duress despite the layers of spandex underneath.  Iris did not feel confident about Maybelline’s dress and its durability.

“I hope it doesn’t split open!” she panted.

“Are you okay?” Iris asked hoping Maybelline would say “yes” and leave.

“I’m as nervous as I can be. I’m playing a special medley of song tonight on the piano, and I’m afraid I’m going ruin it.”

“I’m sure you’ve practiced and it will be fine.” Iris said, hoping she sounded convincing.

“Yes. You’re right. I have practiced long and hard. I can do this.” she said smoothing the shiny material down over her ample hips and thighs. Iris couldn’t help but think of the humiliation, should the thread on those seams give way.

Iris flashed her a rare high wattage smile and touched Maybelline’s forearm lightly and said, “You’ll be wonderful.” She snapped her clutch closed and exited the ladies’ room quickly.

As the bathroom door closed behind her, Iris took a deep breath and stepped into the flow of the evening.  She’d taken Locke’s advice and wore the green dress.  It didn’t make her feel any more rooted in the community.  Iris had a hard time deciding which dress to wear.  It was Locke who helped her narrow her purchase down to two contenders.  Both were cut specifically for her curves, but the green dress was especially beautiful, because the kelly green lace overlay featured beading that sparkled in the evenings lighting as Iris moved across the floor.  Iris’s dress was floor-length, which was an unusual find for her height.  The long lace sleeves were snug and complimented her toned arms well.  The sleeves fell just below her wrist bone and featured small Swarovski crystals that eliminated the need for jewelry.  Tastefully fitted from the collarbone to knee, Iris’s dress was its own accessory, and she wore it as if she knew it.  She found her seat at the elaborately scaped round table and was met with Locke’s mothering approving eyes.  She was relieved to finally sit down.  Instinctively, she reached for the tiny onyx spray vial of sanitizer that sat in the middle of the table. The warm vanilla and lavender scent of the mixture was heady and afforded her instant relaxation.

“You’re going to make it through this evening fabulously,” Locked leaned over and said too loudly to Iris.

So far, Locke was pleased with the way the event was going.  Promptly at 7 p.m. the Who’s Who of Sweet Fields began to file in and fill up the round tables closest to the front and adjacent to the two long rectangular tables that sat the committee members.  They were not advocates of being fashionably late, especially when they knew the guest list was chocked full of local and not-so-local celebrities.  Sweet Fields wanted to be in their seats so that they could see the long parade of personalities saunter into the room.

“Have you seen that hideous Jackie Black?” Locke asked Iris.

“Not yet,” whispered Iris.

“I hope she doesn’t drag in here and ruin everything.  This benefit is important to Prentiss, and I will NOT have her turn it into the Jackie Circus Extravaganza.”

“How could she ruin all of this, Locke?  Really, this affair is beautiful.  It rivals the ones I’ve attended with…”  Iris’s voice trailed off.

Locke patted Iris’s hand with an elbow length lace gray glove.  “Yes, I know.  But it’s just the two of us now.  My Clive isn’t here to keep me quiet, either.  Still, we have to watch.  Watch and pray.”  Locke winked.

Locke did not intend to upstage anyone with her gown, though it was almost impossible not to do so, and her nonchalance about just how impeccably she was dressed made her an even more intimidating figure.  Her dress, too, was floor length, and designed especially for her by Antoine, her dresser.  Every piece he designed for Locke was intended to mimic her personality, her steel gray demeanor that masked a large soft heart, her organic lifestyle, her non-fussy behaviors, her penchant for things of style and class, her complete disdain for germs, and her uncanny way of finding hidden diamonds in rough terrain.  Locke wore a cascading gown with soft pleats above a cinched modestly jeweled waist and light fluid chiffon below.  The color of the material was stainless steel, that’s what Antoine called it.  He said it was because he thought nothing living on earth could touch Locke, because she steeled herself from foolishness.  Locke’s hair was styled in a loose chignon at her neck and accentuated by a sapphire pin that glistened when she snapped her head around to listen to side conversations.  Her only other accessory was a large sapphire ring set in platinum, which she wore on her right ring finger.

The band continued to play a jazzy version of “Great is Thy Faithfulness” as guests continued to arrive.  The waiters, dressed in uninterrupted white, were dispatched and had begun to canvas the room to be sure their patrons were comfortable.  The room bustled with energy as the sound of ice in glasses and the pouring of sweet tea and lemonade filled the room.  The long awaited TV personality entered, and all women attendees 40 and older sat erect.

“Look at ‘em,” Locke quipped, “they are all a-puddle over this one.”

“Who is it?”  Iris asked.

“Somebody who is as annoying as a bee in a bonnet, but as gifted as a bootleg preacher when it comes to getting donations.”  Locke waved timidly as he came her way; however, before he could get to her table, Locke stood up and directed him to his assigned seat on the other side of the room.  They air kissed and made their way, Locke floating, Carson strutting.

“So glad you could make it, Carson.  You see how you’ve turned the women into 6th graders.”

“I see, but you seem to be immune to my charms.  When do you think I’ll be able to have that effect on you?”

“Don’t start that mess, Carson.  I’m old enough to be your young mother.  How well did we do in donations with the television promotion?”

“I think you’ll be pleased,” Rick Carson said, “you know, only you get my best work.”  Rick paused, he grabbed Locke’s hand lightly and lifted it a few inches. “What, no spray?”

“You know better, Carson.  I had my people rig up a light misting that triggers as soon as you cross the threshold.  The guests think it’s some kind of sweet smelling confetti.”  They both laughed as Rick Carson made it to his seat.  “You need anything special before I go back to my seat?”

“As a matter of fact I do.”  Rick glanced toward Iris and smiled.  “What about an introduction to that gorgeous girl in green sitting with you.  You know I’ve heard about her.  These old men in Sweet Fields don’t know what to do with a woman like that.  I’m so surprised you didn’t do one of your famous hook ups when she came to town.”

“Haven’t you learned anything from the last mess you made of a woman’s heart?  Stick with television.  Love is not what you do best.”  Locke nodded and floated back to her seat at the table.

Locke was gone just long enough for Deacon William Hughes to make his way over to Iris and perch in the empty space left by Locke.  Iris was so busy observing that she didn’t see him ease into the seat.

“Sister M-m-m-murphy,” Hughes stuttered.  William Hughes gathered himself and cleared his throat.  “It’s amazing how you can walk into a room fully clothed and make a more stunning impression than women who arrive half naked.” Hughes tilted his head to the right as if he was using it to point at someone.  She didn’t look to see what Hughes was talking about, but only because she was so annoyed by his presence.

Hughes was a good-looking man.  Tall. Dark. Handsome.  Iris noticed that he stuttered a bit around her.  Lloyd had stuttered…towards the end, and she didn’t want to be reminded of Lloyd. Not right now.  In addition, Deacon Hughes was a bit too admired by the women of St. Andrew.  He owned a successful plumbing and home improvement business, and had gained quite a reputation for his ability to renovate the stately Victorian homes of Sweet Fields without compromising their character and integrity.  Iris didn’t want to deal with a man whose job it was to make house calls.  Still, she heard he worked fast and was the consummate professional.  He was always on time, and always finished a job before the end date he gave his clients.  Hughes’ prices were fair, and he didn’t allow womanly charms to sway his bottom line.

Iris had heard all of these wonderful things about Deacon Hughes, and still she was not at all interested in him, at least not in that way.  Truthfully, Grandma Maggs’ house, though well kept, would need some work soon, so Iris entertained the Deacon a little while.

“Why thank you, Deacon Hu…”

“You don’t have to be so f-f-f-ormal, Sister Murphy. Call me Will.”  Deacon Hughes placed his arm on the table as if to reach for Iris’s hand.  Iris looked at the deacon’s arm and looked away.  He was well dressed for the evening in a gray, modern and well-fitting tuxedo.  He wore a deep cobalt blue tie with matching pocket square and a boutonniere the color of the bird of paradise flower.  He had begun to grow a beard which was well trimmed and without one hint of gray.  The Hughes men were known for their grayless heads of hair.  It was rumored that the oldest man in the Hughes clan didn’t gray until he turned one hundred.  This is what made the men of the Hughes family men of distinction, their coal black head of hair and their impeccable taste in clothes. In this area, William Hughes did not disappoint.  He was consistently well groomed, well lined, and smelling good.

“I am not so sure about being so informal, Deacon Hughes.  I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was disrespecting your title as an upstanding member of the church and trusted co-chairman of the board.  You know how people talk.”

“L-l-let them talk, Sister.  They ain’t talking about nothing they know for sure.”

“I appreciate your wanting to calm my apprehensions.  That’s sweet of you, but remember, I am still the new kid on the block.  I have to keep my nose clean.  Anyway, I am quite sure half the women in Sweet Fields call you by your first name.”

“Yeah, they call me by my first name, but I said that you could call me Will.”

Locke was on the pair before either of them realized it.  “Well, Deacon Will, I think I hear your seat at the table calling you right now.  Get on up out my chair with all that foolishness.”

William Hughes scooted the chair away from the table, and stood up.  He was an impressive figure, and he towered over Locke.  “Ms. Belle Lynne Locke,” he said with a grin, “you’re the prettiest old woman I’ve ever seen.”

Chapter Five

The Event of the Season

Iris remembered Locke saying that her people would make the gala more than aesthetically pleasing.  Iris didn’t know who Locke’s people were, but they did a marvelous job.  The place was dripping with elegance and sparkling with glamour all at once.  Iris was fortunate enough to see the grand display in its completion, hours before guests began to arrive.  Locke permitted this, because she liked the young woman.  And while her tone with Iris was brisk at times, Locke felt a genuine kinship with Iris.  She knew that Iris would appreciate the work put into making the gala an unforgettable event.  And that Locke’s people did.

They had transformed the old Sweet Fields Armory into a wonderland of sleek black chairs, luxurious white linens, and lush flowers and foliage.  White sheer drapes provided the backdrop of the two-storied space.  Giant ferns sat atop twenty-foot columns that were aligned to section off the dance floor.  Iris tried to keep her mouth closed, but she couldn’t believe what she was seeing.  How had the old armory been converted from an old musty warehouse to such an elegant venue?  Iris thought that even the room smelled rich and decadent.  The luxe of the ballroom reminded Iris of the red-carpet events Lloyd would sometimes attend to celebrate his book and movie premieres. She was a long way from the red carpet and flashing lights of the paparazzi of Hollywood, but Locke had managed to bring Hollywood to Sweet Fields.

She walked gingerly between the tables and saw the Steinway piano nestled between two columns at the edge of the white dance floor.  She wanted to glide her her fingers across the top, as she’d seen sultry singers on TV do, but resisted the urge, though it almost overwhelmed her.  Between another set of columns was a bandstand.  Iris imagined members of the band box would be arriving in the next few hours, but she was glad she could view the room without throngs of people bustling about.   Iris thought about how the gala of the season was so different from her life of solitude with Lloyd.  There were film screenings and viewing parties, but Lloyd required small intimate gatherings for events of that sort.  This was totally different, and Iris would have to emerge from her cocoon of comfort.  Locke was pushing Iris more than she was used to.  Not only did she agree to be Locke’s eyes and ears on the gala committee, but Locke had roped her into being a vital part of both its inner and outer workings.  To top it off, Locke was holding a by-invitation- only nightcap after the gala.  While the nightcap was more intimate, Iris knew nothing of the guest list, and her aversion for the unknown made her anxious.

This is why Iris decided it best to visit the venue before show time.  She wanted to mark territories, so that when she returned by evening, her experience would not seem so foreign.  She would also go by Locke’s house before walking home to dress for the gala.

There were people at Locke’s.  She could see several silhouettes moving like dancing shadows behind the sheers at the window.  Iris had always liked the big windows of the Victorian home.  The vines creeping along the soft pink brick seemed to try to make their way inside through the long panes that were dressed in ivory sheers all around.  On Locke’s porch were two tiny women meticulously streaming copious strands of small clear lights along the front porch.  Both women wore glasses on their noses, and they strung the lights with unflappable concentration.  By the time Iris made it to the porch, Locke was meeting her at the front door. “Did you see it?” she asked briskly.

“Yes. It is beautiful and so tastefully done.  How did you get it to make such a stark transformation?”

“I told you, Iris.  I put my people on it.  Don’t look so shocked.  Come on in.”

“I will not be here too long.  I just wanted–”

“I’m back here getting dressed.  Do you need someone to dress you?”  Locke’s voice trailed off, but only because Iris was fascinated by the new look of Locke’s home.  The color scheme of black and white was reimagined in Locke’s parlor and great room.  There were tall bouquets of yellow tulips accenting two large round tables covered in crisp white tablecloths with a wide strip of ink black fabric dividing the whites of the cloth.  Several people dressed in white scurried about, tugging here, pulling there, smoothing elsewhere.  There were taller bistro tables in the corners of the room with smatterings of soft yellow decor in the center.  The ceiling was draped in antique white fabric, with the ends puddling in soft vanilla bunches on the dark hardwood floors.  Iris could only imagine the ambience at nightfall with soft lighting and dainty white candles everywhere.  “Come on!  What are you waiting for?”  Locke broke Iris’ trance.  As Iris followed Locke to her dressing room, she heard the silky low voice of a man.  A man?  Iris thought.  In Locke’s bedroom?

“This is Antoine.  He came to dress me.”  Antoine greeted Iris warmly, but spent very little time paying attention to her.  He buzzed around Locke, pinning her hair, matching up accessories to a beautiful smoke gray dress hanging on her mirror, and fussing over an abundance of vials, canisters, and sprays.  “So, do you think you’re ready?”

“Ready for what?”

“Ready for your debut?”  Locke gave Iris the once over.  “Nope. You’re not ready.  Look at you now.  You’re as nervous as a humming bird.  I’ve never seen anyone smoothing down skinny jeans.  I don’t think Maggs would even do that.”

“Really, Locke.  Must you make those kinds of assumptions?  Have you no faith in me?  At all?  I’ll be fine.”  Iris had not yet convinced herself of her own words.

“What are you wearing?  I can send Antoine over to get you ready.”  At that statement, Antoine paused, turned toward Iris and raised his right eyebrow in slight objection.

“I can get myself ready.  Besides, when did you become one to make such a fussy-fuss.”  Iris lifted her hand and flitted it around the room when she said the words fussy-fuss.

“I’m a little woman of few words, but it doesn’t mean I don’t know when to make a big deal.  This, Maggs–I mean Iris–is a big deal.  Trust me.  Now is the time to show Sweet Fields where your roots are.”

“My roots are not here, Locke.”  Even as Iris said it, she had to admit, she was growing fond of Sweet Fields and St. Andrew.  It felt like home to her.

“That’s what your mouth says.  But you wear that porch swing out every evening.”  Locke picked up a lemon teacake from a round silver tray Antoine had brought from the kitchen and into Locke’s dressing closet.  Her eyes slid up to see Iris glancing at the cookies.  “You want some sweet tea? That’s all I can offer you, since you don’t eat anything breaded.  You and those glucose levels.”

Iris declined.  “I have to get home and get dressed.”

“I hope you wear the green one,” Locke yelled from the dressing room as Iris left.  “The green one says you have roots here.”

Iris walked away smiling.  She was excited.  She hadn’t felt excited in a while.

“Get yourself out of here, Hughes.”  Locke shooed him away and reached for the vial on the table to re-sanitize the soft seat covered in crisped white linen fabric.  Right at that moment, there was the tap of a fork on crystal from the front of the room.  The band softened their music until everyone settled down.

Chapter Four

Iris and Jackie cont…

Iris opened the heavy oak door and spoke to Jackie from behind the screen door.

“What can I do for you?” Iris asked with a strained smile. Jackie was the last person she expected to see.

“I wanted to apologize for my behavior earlier today. You seem like a very sweet girl. We are both fairly new at St. Andrew. We could be good friends.” She said smiling sweetly.

Iris was speechless. She wanted to tell the woman to get the hell off of her porch, but she needed to know if what Locke believed about her was true.

“Would you like some tea? We can sit on the porch.” There was no way that woman was coming into her granny’s house.

“Oh! I’d be delighted.” She said moving to sit on the porch swing.  Moments later Iris reappeared on the porch carrying two tall glasses of sweet tea.

“So how long have you been at St. Andrew?” Iris asked feigning interest.

“I moved here almost a year ago and opened a dance studio downtown. I became a member of St. Andrew, after my former pastor wrote me an excellent reference, and I joined the Deaconess Board right away.” She sighed and took a sip of her tea. Her eyes never left Iris.

“Wow. You jumped right in, didn’t you?”

“Well,” she gushed “I also started the praise dance troupe. And I plan to work very closely on the St. Andrew Daycare project. Pastor Prentiss and I will be meeting this week to select the committee members. Would you like to be on the committee?  I can make that happen since I am committee chair.”  Jackie tilted her head upward and stretched her neck slightly on the words, committee chair.

Horrified, Iris stopped the gentle swaying of the porch swing. “No. Absolutely not. I have way too much to do as it is.”

“Oh, come on. What do you have to do? You’re an heiress…twice over! You have nothing but time and money.” She laughed loudly, touching Iris lightly on her arm. Apparently, she had heard the gossip. Iris figured everyone would know soon enough, but she did not appreciate Jackie’s laughter. She did not like the sound of it; it was throaty. Stretched. Vulgar.

“Well, Jackie, speaking of time, I have to get back inside. I will think about the committee. When is your meeting with Reverend?”

“We’re meeting Wednesday afternoon at 4pm. I tried to have a dinner meeting, but he insisted we meet before bible study.”

“Well, I need to think about it. If I decide to join your efforts, I will meet you at the church.”

Iris watched Jackie smile and glide from her porch slowly. Jackie folded herself into her Thunderbird and drove away.

Iris had to tell Locke what happened. She dialed Locke’s number and pleaded aloud for her to pick up. She picked up on the third ring.

“What has happened, Iris?” Locke asked without so much as a greeting.

“Jackie Black just left my house. We had tea.” Iris said excitedly. There was no response on the other end of the line for a while. Finally Locke spoke.

“How soon can you get here?” Locke’s question came fast, like one word.

“Five minutes, I guess. You’re what about 2, 3 blocks away?”

“One street behind you and three blocks down. Come around to the back gate.  I don’t want Harry seeing me accept company. He’ll be dragging his sad sack of bones over to be nosy, and we have work to do. Well, come on!” And then she hung up.

Iris wasn’t sure why she was excited, but she was. She grabbed her keys and ran out the back door. She unlocked the gate that led to the backyard and looked up to see Locke standing on a massive enclosed deck watching her from above. As Iris climbed the stairs to the deck, she thought of the stairs in Lloyd’s Nob Hill mansion. She smiled. She looked through the glass and saw that Locke’s eyes remained fixed on her with her mouth drawn into a tight line. Iris opened the glass door, and immediately Locke asked, “did she touch you?”

“What? Touch me? Who?” Iris asked closing the door behind her.

“Did that Jackie creature touch you? Whilst you two were having tea?”

“As a matter of fact, she did. She touched me lightly on the arm.” Iris touched her own arm lightly, as she followed Locke into a massive French country style kitchen.

Locke whipped around and faced Iris, “No. You wait here.”   Locke moved silently around the large island, pulled open a drawer, and gave a small bottle to Iris.

“Here. Put this on your hands and arms.” It was a vial of sanitizer.   “That’s right.  On up to your elbows.”  Iris did as she was told and waited for Locke to provide instruction. “Come over here. Let’s get this thing together.”

They settled around the round kitchen table where a crystal decanter and sherry glasses waited for them. A large wrought iron French-styled pendant light hung overhead. Locke slid over a small platter of tea cakes and noticed how Iris stared at them.  Locke also noticed that Iris gave the slightest sniff, taking in the fragrance of the lemon and lavender flavored delights.

“Tell me what happened,” Locke said quietly as she sipped from the dainty glass.

Iris relayed the details of Jackie’s visit and waited for a response.  Locke twirled her glass in her hand and turned the corners of her lips downward.

“Prentiss is planning a fundraiser for the daycare. This will be a gathering of who’s who in Parish county. Everyone who is anyone of importance with more than a few dollars will be there. There will be some very influential people there from Atlanta too. We’ve got to make sure this event goes off without a hitch. I’ve got my people working on it to make sure it is the most glamorous event since the mayor’s daughter got married back in ‘99.” Locke smiled and poured herself another glass of wine.

“You will join her committee and go to the meetings and report everything to me,” she said after a long sip. “I need you to tell me every single thing that woman says and does,” Locke said rising from the table.  “I have some calls to make. I’ll call you later.”

Iris walked back home teeming with excitement. This reminded her of the days and nights she spent with Lloyd plotting the schemes of characters. This time, though, it wasn’t in a book–it was real.

 

 

Chapter Four

Iris and Lloyd

Iris took Lloyd Sutton’s creative writing class as an undergraduate English major.  She had read all of his books, and could hardly contain herself when he asked to see her after class. It was the end of the fall semester, and she had done well in the course.  Dr. Sutton had plans for a new historical fiction novel and needed an assistant. His wife had usually assisted with his writing, but since their nasty divorce, he had taken a break from writing and people altogether.  He had become impressed with the nineteen year old who sat at the front of his noon class.  She was always early, always present, and always attentive.  He offered her a job working as his assistant over the Christmas break, and she readily accepted until he explained she would live in his home for the duration of the break.  Iris was uncomfortable at the news, but when he explained that Ruth, his middle aged housekeeper also lived there, she reluctantly agreed.

What was intended to be a holiday job of three weeks turned out to last for ten years– the rest of Lloyd’s life.  Iris became Lloyd’s research assistant, traveling companion, friend, dog-walker, and anything the eccentric little man needed. He was like a father or uncle to her.  When he isolated himself to write, she was the only person he allowed to enter his solitary confinement.

Iris thought solitary confinement was harsh phrasing for a man who loved writing so much.  Lloyd, however, informed Iris that he hated writing as much as he loved it, that often words were both his ailment and his antidote.  Like the wheelchair in which he sat, Lloyd’s writing got him where he wanted to be, even in his crippled state.  His confinement helped him stay focused on the story and its characters.  Brimming with shelves and shelves of books, solitary confinement was Lloyd’s playground.   It was a room that looked like fall year round, with piles of books from the floor to the arm of his overstuffed leather chair, where he read his chosen classics like, The Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, The Sun Also Rises, and Sherlock Holmes.  The pile near the burnt orange upholstered chair consisted of The Bluest Eye, Paradise Lost, and The Three Musketeers.  When he read, Lloyd was always in one of the chairs.  Often the piles of books would spill onto the floor when he was in a reading frenzy.  They obstructed Lloyd’s navigation; at these times Iris was allowed to come in and clear a path for Lloyd to move around and make his way, in his wheelchair, to the sleek Macbook Pro he liked to have positioned smack dab in the middle of the huge curved mahogany desk.  The desk was as intimidating as it was inviting, with its curves and bends.  Lloyd had it made special; now, Iris owned it–this gift from Lloyd that kept on giving even after he died.  She situated the desk across from the fireplace in grandma Maggs’, no her–Iris’ study–just the way Lloyd had arranged it in his own study.

Other times, Iris would enter Lloyd’s solitary confinement to bring him food, on a plain silver tray.  He didn’t ask for much:  a turkey sandwich, dry, with water; almond butter on toast; Sun Chips.  It was easy to see how others would think she was his glorified maid, or even an overpaid amanuensis; but Iris knew she was more than that to Lloyd.  She had been his confidant, his muse, and always his second set of eyes.  It was rumored that the unlikely pair—frail, temperamental writer confined to a wheelchair and a tall, curvy young student—were having an affair. Some even called Iris his “pet” or “Girl Friday.” Once, she had mentioned the gossip to Lloyd, and he smiled and said, “ Let them talk. They are simpletons who have never had anyone of any importance show any interest in them. Besides you do not work for free. You are invaluable to me, and I have compensated you well, but they need not know it. They are envious. That is all.”

Lloyd had compensated Iris well. The work she did on campus was paid for through the school.  For the work she did on the weekends and breaks, she was paid handsomely. After the two collaborated for a year, Lloyd began to pay her tuition and expenses. He called it a scholarship and never spoke of it again.

While Iris worked for Lloyd, he managed to write several books and sell the rights of three of them to movie producers.  Iris, Ruth, and Manny—the driver—were Lloyd’s family.  Upon his death, Lloyd left his vacation home in Big Sur, Shakespeare (his Scottish terrier),  and a sizeable nest egg to Ruth and Manny who had fallen in love during their employ. Lloyd had been an only child, his parents were deceased, and his failed marriage yielded no children.  He willed the rest of his estate to Iris.

The death of Lloyd Sutton—the famous mystery writer—made national news.  Ruth and Manny wed quietly and slipped off to start their lives together in Big Sur. Meanwhile, the tabloid reporters had a field day with Iris—calling her a gold digger, a child bride, and even a murder suspect.  She would have left San Francisco, but she had nowhere else to go.  She was just like Lloyd. That’s why Lloyd took care of her. He had been a “college orphan” as he had put it.  Iris’ parents had divorced when she was a baby. Her mother was dead, and her father had moved to Italy with a girlfriend. The only family Iris had was her father’s mother—Maggie Murphy– who lived in Sweet Fields, Georgia.

Iris located her grandmother and made a trip to Sweet Fields to visit her.  Iris returned to San Francisco to take care of some business transactions and had planned a longer stay with her grandmother, but Maggie died before Iris could return.  Maggie, having fallen in love with the granddaughter she hadn’t seen since the girl was five, changed her will to include Iris as the sole beneficiary—not St. Andrew as she had originally intended.

“So,” Iris sighed. “Here I am with no family, no friends, and more money and stuff than I know what to do with.”

“That explains why there are so many whispers about you.” Locke said gesturing to the server for another mimosa. “The pastor and the finance committee knew of Maggie’s initial will, so you can imagine their surprise when they learned of the new one leaving YOU everything.”

“I had no idea!” Iris gasped. “Should I give the church the money?”

“NO! Absolutely not! Not yet anyway. Just calm down and sit tight. You can help St. Andrew alright, but the timing has to be perfect. We have a number of things to do, you and I.” Locke said in a loud whispered. “The first of which is getting rid of that Jackie Black.”

“Get rid of? What do you mean?” Iris asked eyeing the plate of croissants the server had placed in the center of the table.

“There’s something about that woman that disturbs me.  She has the demeanor of some of the headhunters I’ve encountered on my travels.  She’s on a mission.”  Locke shivered, “She’s hunting for heads, and she has one candidate in her sights.”

“You mean a fortune hunter?”

“I know what I said. She’s a headhunter. She’s looking for a husband. Not just any man will do. She’s looking for a pastor, and right now, our own reverend is in her crosshairs.” Iris opened her mouth and stared at Locke. “And don’t ask me how I know. I just do. Pay special attention to her.”

The pair left the café and rode in silence for a while through Sweet Fields.

“Why didn’t you eat a croissant? You wanted to.” Locke asked without looking at Iris.

“I try to limit my bread. I tend to have high glucose levels, and eating bread elevates it.”

“Ah. I see. I would say you need some meat on your bones,” Locke paused, “but I don’t eat much meat myself.  Anyway you have plenty of meat on your bones. Deacon Hughes noticed it. Especially the meat on your backside.”

“Who? Noticed what?” Iris asked shocked.

“Deacon Hughes. He’s the tallest man on the deacon’s board.  He’s tall just like his daddy. His father, Big Hughes, was a good-looking tom cat in his day, but he married Edie who’s almost as tall as him. William is their son; he is good looking like his father and clumsy like his mother.  When you were at the front of the church, he couldn’t take his eyes off you. He studied you from head to toe. He’ll come ‘round to your house this week, I suspect. Let me know when he does and what excuse he gives to call on you. You have to be careful of those long-legged Hughes men.”

Iris said nothing.  She had noticed the man Belle was talking about. She had made a mental note of how handsome he was, but she had missed the man’s inspection of her.  She hoped Locke was wrong about him coming to visit. She wasn’t ready for romance.  When Locke slowed to a stop in front of Maggie Murphy’s former legendary Bed & Breakfast, Iris released her seat belt and reached for the door handle.

“Iris, we need to go to bible study on Wednesday night early. I need you to help me get rid of this Jackie Black creature. Now, will you be able to focus or are you already over the moon about William Hughes?”

“I’m not interested in William Hughes.” Iris snapped.

“Good. But he’s going to come sniffing around, as he is surely interested in you…or your money. Call me with any new developments. Especially if members of St. Andrew pay you a visit. Right now, you’re a pretty pink piggy bank; the wrong people will be coming to smash you to bits and take what’s inside. The genuine people, though, won’t utter a word—because they won’t know you from the girl at the Piggly Wiggly.

“Thanks, Locke. For everything.”

“No, Iris. Thank you. Tetta!”

Later that day, Iris answered a ringing doorbell and found Jackie Black standing on her porch.