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.

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