Disclaimers: See Part 1
A Special Note to Our Readers: Hoosier Daddy is a work in progress. You will likely notice a few inconsistencies here and there as you make your way through the online version of the story. We have made some tweaks and subtle adjustments to the plot, most specifically to timelines. For this, we ask your indulgence, and promise that in the final, published version of the book, everything will make sense. If not, we reserve the right to blame our editor.
Disclaimers: None. All of the characters are ours.
Violence/Sex: No violence, but some quirky sexual encounters and lots of big trucks. This story does involve a consensual, loving and romantic relationship between two adult women. It's not graphic, but if sexual encounters in bathrooms or behind lemon shake-up stands offend you, you may want to consider another story selection -- or at least one that isn't set in Indiana.
We would love to know what you think, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org , email@example.com or on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/maxine.redwood or http://www.facebook.com/ann.mcman or http://www.facebook.com/SalemWest.411 .
Copyright: Ann McMan and Salem West, April 2013. All rights reserved. This story, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any format without the prior express permission of the authors.
Downtown Albion was swarming with people.
“This is ridiculous,” El declared. We'd just made our fifth circuit around the courthouse square, looking for a place to park. “It's like Walmart on the damn Friday after Thanksgiving.”
“Welcome to Pork Day,” I explained.
“I've never seen so many pickup trucks in my entire life.”
“Welcome to Southern Illinois.”
She was still staring out the passenger window. “What's a Catholic girl from Buffalo doing in the middle of this madness?”
“Welcome to Fantasy Island.”
“Is it always this hot on Fantasy Island?”
Grammy's old Ram didn't have air conditioning.
I opened my mouth to respond, but El interrupted me. “If you say ‘welcome to anything' one more time, I'm going to clock you with one of those ham shanks people out there appear to be munching on.”
“Those aren't ham shanks. They're pork chops. Bone in.”
“From what? Pigs that are raised near nuclear retention ponds?”
I laughed. “We take our pork products seriously in these parts.”
“Word to the wise: be careful when you bite into your pork chop sandwich.”
El's eyes grew wide. “They have bones in them?”
“I think I just became a vegan.”
“Oh, cool!” I exclaimed. “Here's a space—right next to Doc and Ermaline.” I pulled off onto a patch of grass about the width of a Smart Car. We were shoehorned in between Doc Baker's El Camino and the town water tower. I turned off the engine and unclipped my seat belt. “Let's go. We have ten minutes to find Grammy.”
El sat there staring at me. “Seriously? How do you suggest we get out of this thing? Crawl through the back window and hop out of the bed?”
“Oh, come on. It's not that tight.” I tried to open my door. It swung out about five inches before it bumped up against one of the metal support legs on the tower. “Um.” I closed my door. “How's your side looking?”
El glanced out her window.
“Doc and Ermaline appear to smoke a lot of Camels,” she said. “Judging by their floor boards, they've saved the wrappers from every pack they've purchased since Joe Camel was in short pants.” She looked back at me. “It ain't happening.”
I sighed. “We'll never find another space.”
“Then I guess we'll have to enjoy the festivities from here.”
I looked over my shoulder at the sliding window on Grammy's Ram.
“For-get it,” El cautioned. “I am not climbing out the back window of this truck.”
“Come on, El.”
“No. Not happening.”
She shook her head.
I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel. Then I got an idea. I started the truck.
“What are you doing?” El asked.
I put the truck into reverse. “I'm backing up so you can hop out.”
“Then I'll pull back in and climb out the window.”
El was shaking her head. “You are one determined white woman.”
“Talk about the pot calling the kettle black,” I said. When I'd moved the truck back far enough to clear the El Camino, I stopped. “Okay, hop on out.”
“Before I do,” she said, “I want to make sure you're aware that the bed of this truck is full of something that smells vaguely like manure.”
“That's not manure—it's peat moss. Not the same thing at all.”
“Riiiight.” El opened her door. “One thing before I hop out.”
“This.” She took a quick look around, then leaned forward and kissed me. The sensation shot from my lips to every other part of me in about two-point-four seconds. I reached out to pull her closer, but she was already backing away. “Who knows when we'll get another chance?” she said. She hopped out and stood on the ground next to the truck. Before she closed the door, she glanced again at the bed full of whatever it was. “Don't say I didn't warn you.”
When she was clear, I pulled forward into the space again, and shut off the engine. Then I rotated around, and pushed open the sliding window behind the bench seat.
An unpleasant odor hit me like a brick wall.
Uh oh. Maybe that's not peat moss in the truck bed….
I kicked off my shoes so they'd have a shot at staying clean. I could see El, standing by the rear bumper, watching me with an amused expression.
‘Well?” she said. “What are you waiting for? Make your great escape, Houdini.”
I took a deep breath and pushed my head and shoulders through the opening. El was right. The smell was ripe and it was starting to make my eyes smart. There was no place on the floor of the truck bed that wasn't covered with the redolent muck, so I just tried to edge myself along the liner toward the side rail until I could get a leg through the window. Then I'd be able to stand up, and vault over the side. It seemed like a good plan, too…until I sneezed.
You have to understand. I don't have a diminutive sneeze. When I sneeze, it's a full-body, full-throttle, full-contact sport. When I sneeze, it trips seismographs along the New Madrid Fault . When I sneeze, antelope on the Serengeti make frenzied runs for cover. When I sneeze, my body bucks and recoils like a sawed-off shotgun.
Therefore, sneezing in such a manner, when your body is precariously balanced in the center of a pickup truck's sliding rear window, is pretty much a guarantee that things aren't gonna end well.
Down I went. Butt-first into a sea of something that was not quite manure—but not quite peat moss, either. In two seconds, I was covered in muck from the back of my knees to my shoulders. The only part of me that emerged unscathed was my head.
“God fucking damn it!” I was sputtering as I tried to clamber to my feet.
El seemed to be trying hard not to laugh, but wasn't really succeeding. “I think you'll lose points for not sticking the dismount. In fact,” she continued, “the dismount seems to be sticking to you.”
I was shaking the tarry, black mixture off my hands. “Very funny.”
“Are you okay?” she asked.
I glared at her. “Do I look okay?”
“I'm not talking about your bovine couture. I want to know if you hurt yourself.”
I sighed. “Only my dignity.”
She walked over and reached up a hand to help me climb out. “Well, thankfully, that's a renewable resource.”
“God. What is this stuff? It smells like kimchi…and peat moss.”
“You said it was your Grammy's farm truck.” El wrinkled up her nose. “It smells very…farmy.”
I hopped over the side. A trail of muck followed me and plopped to the ground near my feet.
El jumped back. “Is that stuff alive?”
I pulled my shoes out of the cab. “It could be…I thought I saw something moving back there.”
“Gross.” El reached up and flicked a bit of muck off my chin. “What now? Home for clean clothes?”
I shook my head. “And lose this primo parking space?”
I stared at her.
“You're not joking?”
I waved a hand to encompass the sea of chrome that surrounded us. “El. It's Pork Day USA. In Albion. Southern Illinois. That means half the population of the tri-state area will all be out cruising the byways, looking for this very space. There's no way I'm moving this truck.”
She laughed. “Okay, Einstein. What do you intend to do about your…ensemble?”
I looked around. “Find a garden hose and some clean clothes. All the stores will be open.”
“I won't pretend to understand your logic.”
“There's a Dollar General across from McDonald's.”
She sighed. “Lead on. At least when people stare at us, we'll have a pretty good idea why.”
The streets were humming, and choked with crowds of people. Bluegrass music was blasting from someplace near the courthouse. All the sidewalks were lined with booths and vendors hawking everything from beaded bags to custom face painting designs. And, of course…there was pork. Lots and lots of it. Cooked every way you could imagine. The event's barbecue competition was second only to the Miss Pork Day contest in popularity.
The sun was already high in the sky and heating things up. A dull haze was settling in. The crowds across the street looked like they were moving around behind one of those transparent plastic shower curtains. The heat index today was supposed to be one for the record books, with the high temperature topping-out someplace in the triple digits. That probably meant afternoon thunderstorms, which also were pretty typical for Pork Day. It was hard to remember a year when you didn't have to run for cover during at least part of the festivities.
El noticed that people seemed to be giving us a wide berth as we pushed our way through the throngs.
“I think they're afraid your condition is contagious.”
“Which condition would that be? The muck on my clothes, or my partiality for a certain union agitator?”
El was scanning the crowds. “I don't think many of these people would think there's a difference.”
“I don't know.” I sniffed at her. “You smell a whole lot better.”
She bumped into me as we slowly made our way along the street. “Nut job.”
We were just about to cross Main Street and head for Dollar General when El tugged me to a halt.
“What about one of those?” She was pointing at a display of brightly colored t-shirts.
“ You Are My Sunswine,” I quoted. I looked at El. “I don't think so.”
“Oh, come on. It's cute.”
“You have to admit, it does exude a certain…porkiness.”
“It's neon blue. I hate neon blue.”
El stared at me. “Neon blue? This is your objection?”
El snapped one up. “I'm buying it.”
I shook my head. “It's your money.”
“And you're wearing it,” she continued.
“No arguments.” She walked over to the vendor to pay for the shirt.
I looked at my watch. We were going to be late meeting Grammy. With luck, the Dollar General folks would let me clean up in their restroom. Fortunately for me, most of the damage was confined to my shirt and my pants. I'd also have to prevail upon them to give me a couple of bags to tie up my soiled clothes. I wondered if T-Bomb's cousin, Mellonee, would be working today. She'd be likely to take pity on me—mostly because she'd revel in the opportunity to tell everyone about my mishap.
I wished for the zillionth time that I lived in a bigger place, where nobody knew anything about me.
El returned with the shirt. “Okay. Let's go find you some pants.”
“I am not wearing that.”
“Yes you are.” She ignored my protest and strode off toward Dollar General. I meekly followed along behind her. I realized that this was becoming a pattern for us.
We entered the store, and immediately a voice bellowed out, “Hey? Friday? What in tarnation happened to you?”
I looked over toward the checkout counter, where she was restocking candy bars.
“Hi, Mellonee. I fell into a pile of…something…and need to get cleaned up. Can I get some new pants and use your bathroom?”
“Sure.” She walked toward us. I noticed that she was staring as much at El as she was taking in my dirty clothes. “Those Capri pants on aisle seven are buy one, get one free.”
“Mellonee, this is Eleanor Rzcpczinska.”
“Hi there.” El extended her hand. “Call me El.”
“El?” Mellonee looked confused. “Wait…aren't you one of them union agitators?”
“Guilty,” El said.
Mellonee shook her hand. “My cousin told me about you. She said you sang real good at karaoke night.”
El and I exchanged glances. That wasn't the claim to fame we expected.
“It's true,” I said. “She really impressed me with her talent.”
Mellonee laughed and slapped me on the arm. “Yeah. My cousin told me about that, too.” She was still chuckling as she led us toward the display of Capri pants. They were pretty hideous…a spectrum of day-glow colors that were guaranteed to make me visible from outer space.
El held out the t-shirt. “Which pair goes best with this?” she asked?
When Mellonee turned away to start sifting through the rack of pants, I gave El an “are you nuts?” look. Mellonee was wearing an ensemble that would make a pair of transition-lensed eyeglasses go black...indoors. She pulled out a pair of the cheap cotton pants and held them up against the bright blue t-shirt.
“I think these would look real nice.”
Real nice? They were lime green with fuchsia and white polka dots on the cuffs.
I took an involuntary step backwards. “I can't wear those.”
El was looking them over. “Why not? They look like your size.” She took them from Mellonee. “Where's your fitting room?”
Mellonee looked confused. “Fitting room?”
“A place to change clothes?” El clarified.
“Oh.” Mellonee pointed toward the back wall of the store. “You can use the bathroom. It's at the end of aisle nine, beside the fuel injector cleaner.”
“Thanks, Mellonee.” El smiled at her and took off toward the back of the store. I sighed, and followed her. We were halfway there when Mellonee called out to us.
“You two take it easy on the plumbing back there. That new sink only just got put in a week ago.”
I could hear titters of laughter coming from some other shoppers.
When I reached the bathroom, El was standing in the open doorway. She held out the components of my new outfit.
“T-Bomb is so dead to me,” I said.
“No she isn't. Take these and get in there.”
I was surprised. “You aren't coming in?”
El rolled her eyes.
“Right. Okay.” I looked down at the collision of colors. “This stuff looks like it's vibrating.”
“It'll be fine. You'll blend right in.”
I met her eyes. “Therein lies the problem.”
“Resistance is futile.” She raised the garments up a higher, like she was presenting them at an altar. “You will be assimilated.”
I stood there tapping my foot.
She stared back at me.
I gave up. I needed clean clothes, and we were already fifteen minutes late. Grammy would be out wandering around, looking for us. There was no way I was going to win this battle.
I yanked the clothes out of her hands.
“Paybacks,” I muttered as I went into the bathroom.
“I'm counting on it,” El said.
Five minutes later, when I still hadn't emerged, El tapped at the outside of the door.
“What's taking you so long?”
“I am not coming out.”
“Because I look ridiculous.”
“You looked ridiculous before, when you were covered with…whatever that stuff was.”
I sighed and opened the door.
El's eyes grew wide when she saw me.
“See?” I started to retreat back into the safety of the bathroom. “I told you. I look ridiculous.”
El grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out into the store. “You look adorable.”
“Are you nuts? I look like a pack of Fruit Stripe gum.”
“Stop it. It's not that bad. It's…cute.”
“El.” I reached out to a nearby end cap and plucked a Hello Kitty air freshener off a hook. “ This is cute. I, on the other hand, look like a sidewalk sale at a Chinese sweat shop.” I tugged at the front of the t-shirt. “Besides, this thing is about three sizes too small.”
El was staring at my chest. “I know. It's perfect .”
“Are you for real?”
She met my eyes. “I'd like to think so.”
I shook my head. “Maybe Mellonee will lend me some scissors.”
“So I can cut the neck on this thing. It's obviously cutting off the blood flow to my brain.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I'm actually standing here, wearing this absurd getup.”
El laughed. “Grab your dirty clothes and let's get out of here. We need to go find Grammy.”
When we reached the checkout counter, Mellonee was waiting for us.
“Those fit great,” she cooed. She held up a bag. “I went ahead and picked you out a second pair.” I could see some hot pink fabric poking out of the yellow bag. “You lucked out on this great sale today.”
I was about to disagree with her when I caught El staring at my chest again.
I handed Mellonee a twenty.
Grammy was pacing back and forth in front of the lemon shake-up stand, scanning the crowd. She was juggling a tower of paper plates topped with thick, spicy pork chop sandwiches. She must've had six or eight of them, because the stack was nearly as tall as she was.
“Grammy!' I called out to her. “Here we are.”
Grammy looked toward my voice, but did a double take when she saw me.
“Jill?” she asked.
We reached where she stood, and I took the stack of sandwiches from her. Cutting the neckband of my t-shirt had helped a little bit, but I still thought I looked like a floozy walking around in it. I was happy to have something to carry that would conceal how tight it was. Grammy was giving me a good once over.
“It's a long story,” I began.
Grammy shook her head. “I don't begin to understand what motivates you young people when it comes to fashion.” She shifted her gaze to El. “It's nice to have you here with us, Eleanor.”
“Thanks, Grammy.” El smiled at her. “I'm so sorry we're late—Friday Jill had a little mishap and fell into the bed of your pickup. We had to get her some clean clothes to wear.”
Grammy looked at me. “What in thunder were you doing up in my compost heap?”
“Is that what it is?” I asked.
“Of course. I got it from Doc. It's for my Garden Peaches.”
El looked confused.
“She means her fall tomatoes,” I explained.
“Let's get our drinks and head on over to the Pagoda,” Grammy said. “Doc and Ermaline have our chairs all set up. Luanne and T-Bomb are already there.”
“Do you want a lemon shake up, honey?” Grammy asked El.
“I don't know what that is,” El replied, “but if it's cold, I'll take two of them.”
“It's cold, all right. And refreshing.” Grammy walked over to the vendor and ordered the drinks.
Ten minutes later, all the introductions had been made, and we were seated in our long line of webbed lawn chairs near the town Pagoda, balancing our lunches on our laps, and listening to the rumble of approaching marching bands. The parade was staring.
I leaned forward and addressed Doc. “How'd you score this great location?”
He shrugged his narrow shoulders and bit into his sandwich.
“We got here at seven o'clock this morning,” Ermaline explained.
I looked at Grammy. “You've been here since seven o'clock?”
“You pretty much have to do that if you want to stake out a good location,” Ermaline continued.
Luanne agreed. “Jay and I set up our chairs and roped ‘em off while it was still dark.” She pointed to the stage in front of the Pagoda. “We wanted to be sure we had good seats for the competition.”
“Well, it'd be hard to get any better than this,” T-Bomb chimed in. “Luke! Quit playin' with that bone…you're gonna put Laura's eye out. Donnie? Take that dern bone off his sandwich before he puts his sister's eye out.”
Donnie Jennings reached over and pulled the bone away from Luke's pork chop. He was a smallish man—short, with hair so blond it was almost white in the sun. The twins were like mini versions of him. They were all dressed alike in crisp blue shirts with matching blue and white striped shorts.
“I told you this was a mistake,” he complained. “They're gonna have this mess all over their new clothes.”
“So what? They don't get to do this but once a year,” T-Bomb replied. “Besides, if either of ‘em get too dirty, we can borrow Friday's extra pair of new pants.” She laughed merrily.
I glared at her. “By the way…thanks for telling your cousin about the sink.”
“Hey. I didn't tell her nothin',” T-Bomb declared.
“Honey,” Ermaline cut in. “Everybody in the whole Tri-state area knows about you two and that dern sink. Ain't that right, Doc?”
“What sink?” Grammy asked.
“It's nothing,” I said to Grammy. “Just another urban myth.”
“Urban myth? Is that what you're calling it now?” Luanne shook her head. Her hair was especially big today, and finished off with a bunch of tight-looking curls that swept down over both ears. I figured she must've put in some extra effort since the spotlight was going to be on Jailissa all day. “I don't think that post commander thought it was much of an ‘urban myth' when he had to tell two hundred people that one of his bathrooms was out of order.”
El started chuckling.
“What bathroom?” Grammy asked.
I pointed up the street. “Look, Grammy. Isn't that the Soul Stompers?”
“Where?” she asked, scanning the scene with eagerness.
“I heard they were gonna be here today,” Ermaline said. “Doc said they were making the parade circuit. Last week, they were over at Owensboro—ain't that right, Doc?”
“I just love them fancy marchin' routines they do,” T-Bomb added. “I hope Luke joins up when he gets old enough.”
Donnie rolled his eyes. “It's Job Corps, Terri. You don't ‘join up,' you get sent there by the authorities.”
T-Bomb glared at him. “He's your son—I expect he'll grow up to be an accountant soon enough. Let me have my dreams while I can.”
Donnie huffed and picked a piece of lint off his shirtsleeve.
A red Cadillac convertible was gliding by with the grace of a shark in shallow water. Larry “Golden Throat” Dennis was sitting up on the white leather back seat, waving at the crowds.
“How in tarnation did the county coroner get to be Grand Marshall?” T-Bomb asked.
“It's an honorary title,” Grammy explained.
“Larry helped Jailissa a lot with her diction,” Luanne explained to El. “He used to be a famous radio announcer.”
“The Dennises have always been good public servants,” Grammy agreed.
I nudged El. “Welcome to Long Day's Journey Into Night.”
“Stop it,” she hissed. “I love this.”
I felt a surge of affection for her. “You mean that, don't you?”
She nodded and bumped my shoulder.
Close behind Larry's Cadillac was a mix-n-match brigade from Cisne's Coon Creek Ridge Riders. Some of the horses were loudly decorated and tricked out with full western riding gear. Others were being ridden bareback. They clip-clopped along the brick street to a chorus of whoops and hollers.
A trail of fresh road apples marked their progress up 5th Street.
The eighteen members of the West Salem Grade School Marching Band had the unfortunate task of following along behind the horses. They did their best to stay focused on their up-tempo rendition of “Suicide is Painless,” while they sidestepped the worst of the road hazards.
“Oh, Lord,” T-Bomb declared. “That poor little guy with the clarinet just stepped right in a pile of horse hockey.”
“That's just disgraceful.” Luanne shook her head. “Why don't they make them horses wear those things they put on ‘em in the big cities?”
“You mean bun bags?” El asked.
“Is that what they're called?”
“I think so. At least, that's what they called them back in Buffalo, on the Lincoln Parkway horses.”
“Hey? Friday?” T-Bomb was yelling across our line of chairs. “You should get on out there and show them Stompers some of your fancy footwork. I mean…they already got the manure and all.” She cackled at her own humor.
“Very funny.” I wondered how in the world Mellonee got the word out that fast.
The Soul Stompers had snapped to attention right in front of us.
“Drill team!” the commander shouted. “Sound off!”
The unit of two-dozen cadets launched into a complex, synchronized step routine that was half disco and half hip hop. They chanted and slid across the worn bricks in time with their rhythmic gyrations.
“I don't know what you been told.”
“Soul Stompers got lots of soul.”
“Work your body to the beat.”
“Soul Stompers gonna move your feet.”
It was a spectacular performance, and the crowd loved every second of it.
Luanne was clapping her hands in time to their movements. “They're famous,” she told El. “They performed for Jimmy Carter—and that Collins girl, when she was governor.”
“Here comes the first float,” Grammy was excited. She loved seeing what kinds of designs the area 4H Clubs created to honor the agricultural heritage of the region.
Luanne sat forward and scanned the street. “That means the Pork Queen contestants are coming on.”
The top of the white float was shaped like a giant football helmet. It was decorated with an oversized 4H shamrock, made with hundreds of green carnations. “Take the Pledge Never to Text & Drive” was painted in bold type on long placards that ran the length of the float. Kids riding on the float waved signs that read, “TEXT 4H4ICW to 50555.”
“What in the world does that have to do with farming?” Grammy asked.
“Well, all that texting and driving is becoming an epidemic,” Ermaline explained. “I don't know how people manage. I got my hands full just shifting gears and puttin' on my eye makeup.”
“Don't forget wranglin' your smokes,” T-Bomb added.
“Hell. You don't need hands for that—it's why god gave you a mouth.”
“Here comes that Destinee Knackmuhs.” Luanne was all business now.
The first contender for Miss Pork Day USA rolled toward us. Destinee was a pretty girl, buxom with long red hair and a mouthful of large teeth—all Knackmuhs trademarks. Her lawn chair sat atop a slowly rotating dais on the back of a flatbed truck. Bales of hay, and a cross-section of live farm animals surrounded her. It was pretty impressive—like a Midwestern-themed crèche. A curved banner that read “Heartland's Destinee” arched over her chair. She waved and smiled at the crowds, who oohed and awed at her display.
Luanne clucked her tongue and pointed at the passing menagerie with her pork chop bone. “That right there is our only real competition this year.”
“How'd she draw first dibs in the parade?” Ermaline asked.
“It was more like gettin' the short straw. In this game, you want to be last —not first.”
“Where's Jailissa, then?”
Luanne smiled. “Last.”
I leaned over to El. “Do you wanna go stroll around for a bit?”
I was Jonesing for the chance to be alone with her. Or, at least, as alone as we could get stuck in the middle of half the population of Gibson and Edwards counties.
She looked at me with wonder. “And miss seeing Jailissa?”
I smiled at her. “You really are enjoying this, aren't you?”
“Are you kidding? It beats season three of Downton Abbey —and it has better special effects.”
“I don't think I'd go quite that far.”
“Oh come on.” El gestured toward the succession of floats rolling past us. “When was the last time you saw a…genetically modified… soybean …that resembled a Volkswagen?”
I followed her gaze. “El, that is a Volkswagen.”
“Oh.” She looked back at me. “We don't do much work in German-owned plants.”
“Here come them Hortons!” T-Bomb was on her feet, chasing after Laura, who had dashed out into the street in hot pursuit of some Tootsie Roll Midgees that had just been flung off a float.
“Well if that don't beat all.” Luanne sounded surprised. “It looks like all three of ‘em are ridin' on the same dern truck.”
Ermaline snorted. “It ain't hard to see why…two of ‘em appear to be pretty far along.”
“That's just wrong.” Luanne shook her head full of tight curls. “They shouldn't be allowed to compete in that condition.”
“Well, you'd have a hard time comin' up with a full field of contestants if you started rulin' girls out just for fallin' prey to them unavoidable indiscretions.”
Luanne stared at her. “Comments like that make me wonder why you never ended up over at that House of Praise before Kenny took up with them hoppers.”
“He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her,” Ermaline quoted. “Ain't that right, Doc?”
“Well who in tarnation is that boy up there with them?” T-Bomb had wrangled Laura back into her seat. “He looks like he lost his last friend.”
“That's not a boy—that's Casey Horton…the youngest girl.”
“Girl?” T-Bomb asked. “I think you need to get your eyes checked.”
“Nope,” Luanne insisted. “It's Casey, all right. I think they pushed her in at the last minute—just as a placeholder in case one of the older girls came early. Like two years ago, when Jennica's water broke during the evening gown competition.”
“Honey,” T-Bomb was staring at Casey Horton, who was riding along with her sisters, staring grimly down at the floor of the truck bed and clearly wishing herself anywhere but there. “If that's the best they got, then I think Jailissa's got this one in the bag.”
“Well,” Grammy said. “I think she's a fine looking young woman. Lots of girls wear their hair that short these days. And I do think her armband is…interesting. What kind of design is that?”
I squinted. “I think that's a tattoo, Grammy. It looks like concertina.”
T-Bomb was cackling again. “I think this one plays for your team, Friday.”
“What team?” Grammy asked.
T-Bomb leaned forward and winked at her. “You know…them friends of Dorothy's.”
“Dorothy's?” Grammy was confused. “You mean Dorothy Hames, from over in New Harmony?”
“I have a question,” El interrupted. “Can someone explain to me how it's possible for three women from one family to compete in the same contest?”
I gave her a grateful smile.
Two more floats, a VFW drill team, and another marching band drifted by while Luanne and Ermaline took turns explaining to El the sordid history of how the Horton family had pretty much commandeered ownership of the Miss Pork Day USA crown for the last decade. Then, we heard a distant, sonorous blast— like a train whistle. All conversation stopped.
“She's coming,” Luanne whispered.
“What in the world was that?” Grammy asked.
“Jailissa?” I asked. “Is she coming by train?”
Luanne shook her head. She was eagerly looking down the street. “It's Joe's truck.” She looked at El to clarify. “She's riding in an Outlaw 650—one of the biggest and best custom-built trucks to ever roll off the Krylon assembly line. It was a special anniversary edition we built for the auto show, and Joe won it in a company lottery.”
“And he's driving it in the parade?”
“Nope, Jay's driving it. Joe lent it to us for the day. He said a queen needed a real chariot.”
Ermaline sighed. “That's just beautiful.” She nudged her companion. “Ain't it, Doc?”
The train whistle sounded again. Two short blasts, then a longer report.
“Oh. My. God.”
El was staring with an open mouth as the massive truck rolled toward us. It dwarfed everything around it—including the percussion line of the Edwards County High School Marching Band, which lost its hold on their up-tempo rendition of the Rocky theme song, “Gonna Fly Now” every time Jay blew the horn.
Luanne got to her feet as the truck approached. Out of respect, we all followed suit.
“That right there is poetry on wheels.” T-Bomb's voice was dreamy.
The truck was a cherry red, 360 horsepower, quad cab with a 6.7 liter Cummins ISB diesel engine, 22.5 inch duelers, an extended bed, running boards, Smittybilt XRC light bar, eight inch chrome Peterbilt exhaust stacks, a bull bar, and a Wolo Siberian Express air horn.
To summarize all of that in plain-speak, assembly plant vernacular—it was doped.
A printed placard on the side of the truck proudly proclaimed, Jailissa Keortge, America's Sweetheart .
“That thing could qualify for its own zip code,” El whispered.
“It's the pride of the Heartland, El.” I leaned toward her. “It was made with love.”
She met my gaze. “I think I'm finally beginning to understand that.”
We smiled at each other. As discreetly as I could, I dropped my hand between our chairs so I could squeeze her fingers. It was hard to be this close to her and not be touching.
“There she is.” Luanne's voice was reverential.
There she was, indeed. Jailissa was a sight to behold. She was standing up, perfectly proportioned and perfectly poised, wearing an elegant, emerald green, banded waist jacquard cocktail dress with an asymmetric neckline and pleating at the bodice and shoulders. She made an alluring silhouette against the chrome rear window louvers—standing tall and proud without fuss or excessive ornament.
Unless, of course, you counted her ninety-five-thousand-dollar undercarriage as a bauble…
Jailissa's head of thick blond hair was upswept in a netted fascinator, with loose hairs curling at the back of her neck. Everything about her hinted at class and style. She held a single, white rose in her hand. She was stunning. She smiled her perfect smile and waved at her admiring fans with an inherent grace that couldn't be taught. She made gliding up 5th Street in the back of a pickup truck look every bit as impressive as Miss America's inaugural walk down the famed runway in Atlantic City. Jailissa was a queen—in every sense of the word.
“She's gorgeous,” El said to Luanne. “Her dress is beautiful.”
“Jay Jr. designed it for her,” Luanne explained. She wiped at a stray tear rolling down her cheek. “They teach them boys new trades in the joint. He wasn't much for food service work or carpentry—but it turns out he's a regular whiz with fabrics and colors. That there,” she pointed at Jailissa, “is his modification of a Vera Wang creation he saw in one of them high fashion magazines. He said dark green would be a good color for her—and she could wear it in the parade since it's before five o'clock.”
Jailissa was directly in front of us now. She smiled brilliantly at us, then gently and perfectly tossed her long stemmed rose to her mother.
“Well, dern…” T-Bomb's voice was shaky. “I'm about to well up over here.”
The truck rolled past us. A man in a tight-fitting, dark blue suit trotted along behind it, taking pictures.
“Is that Joe Sykes?” I asked.
Luanne nodded. “He's so proud of her. He begged and pleaded with Jay and me to have Jailissa ride in his truck.”
“Hell,” T-Bomb quipped. “It ain't hard to figure out why you didn't have to sit at home for two weeks after you set off all them alarms at the plant.”
“I thought that at first, too. But Joe explained that management forced him to exact that punishment. I only got to come back because they're runnin' all them extra shifts, and he didn't have nobody to cover for me.”
El was staring at the back of the truck. “What's that purple thing swaying under the bumper?”
I peered more closely at it. “It looks like a Crown Royal bag.”
“Joe covered up his truck balls out of respect for Jailissa,” Luanne explained. “At first, Jay and I had a problem with his obsession with her, but we've come to understand that it's a pure love—and when you have that, age differences don't matter.”
Ermaline agreed. “I don't know many men who would do a thing like that. He might turn out to be her sheep in wolf's clothing—just like my Doc, here.”
I'd had about enough local color for one day.
I glanced down at my outfit. Especially when I'm wearing the majority of it.
It was clear that the parade was winding down, so it seemed like a good time to make a getaway.
“Okay,” I got to my feet. “I need to stretch my legs a bit.” I looked down at El. “Wanna walk with me? We can browse the booths and see the classic cars.”
“I'd like that.” She stood up, too.
“Hey? Friday?” T-Bomb asked. “Maybe you can find some other good deals on new clothes?”
“I don't think so.”
“Why not? I think that Whistle Stop gun store has some camouflage pants on sale.” She laughed. “They'd go great with your truck.”
I rolled my eyes. “I'll be sure to check it out.”
“Oh, man .” Donnie sounded exasperated. “Terri? Luke just tripped over a pile of dirty plates. He's covered in barbecue sauce.”
“Is he hurt?” she asked.
“No—but he's a total mess.”
“Great.” T-Bomb sighed. “Findin' a place to wash him up out here is gonna be about as easy as findin' a Horton who ain't packin' more than a pretty smile.” She looked back at us. “Hey? You two didn't happen to bring that sink along, did you?”
Luanne and Ermaline started to chuckle.
I scowled at her and took El by the arm.
“What sink?” I heard Grammy ask as we walked away.
“That's not two points. It's zero.”
“It's not zero . It's halfway on the board.”
“Yeah, but the other half is touching the ground.”
“So it doesn't count.”
“What rules? That's a complete fabrication.”
“No, it's not.” I waved a hand toward the board. “The only two-point option is a bag that is halfway through the hole.”
She glared at me. “You're totally making that up.”
I held out both hands. “Why would I make that up?”
She lowered her head and looked at me over the top of her sunglasses. “Seriously?”
“You have a dirty mind…any one ever tell you that?”
“Hey. I'm not the one standing here, making crude, sophomoric puns.”
“El. That was not a pun. It's a rule. A real one.”
We were playing a cutthroat game of Baggo Cornhole, and it was clear that I was pretty much kicking El's ass. It was also clear that she was unhappy with this outcome.
“Fine.” She sighed. “My score is zero. You win another round. Color me so surprised.”
I shook my head. “I had no idea you were this competitive.”
“You're kidding me, right? This is a news flash for you?”
“Friday Jill. I have five siblings—all of them older than me. I had to fight to survive.”
“You make it sound like you grew up on the Island of Dr. Moreau.”
“It wasn't that dissimilar.”
“Who's making stuff up now?”
She rolled her eyes. “Let's just get the bags and play another round. I want to at least break even.”
“I could give you a handicap?” I suggested.
El drummed her fingers against her thigh.
“Feeling antsy?” I asked.
She socked me on the arm. “I'm so gratified you're enjoying this.”
“I am, actually.”
“You know,” she said with exaggerated patience. “I can think of all kinds of things that might never end up halfway through any holes.”
I stared at her with an open mouth.
“Hah. That took the wind out of your sails, didn't it?”
She strode off across the grassy median to retrieve our throwing bags of corn. I was still pretty much speechless when she returned. She handed me my pile of bags.
“Okay, smartass. Give it your best shot.”
I was staring at her. “Do I know you?”
She looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “Of course you do. In every sense.” She smirked. “Including the biblical.”
I had no argument with that last one. Of all the senses, it was my current favorite.
“Right. Okay.” I hefted my corn bag. “Here goes.”
I made a few practice heaves, and then let it fly. It hit the board and slid toward the hole.
“Cow pie!” I exclaimed.
“Shit.” El mumbled.
I gave her a brilliant smile. “Exactly.”
“Move over.” She shoved me out of the way.
She took careful aim, wound up like she was throwing the last pitch at the bottom of an extra inning, and hurled her bag high into the air. It flew right over the board, and smashed into the back of a rather portly man, standing in line at the Moose Lodge Pork Chop Hut.
“Screaming Eagle!” I bellowed.
She frowned at me. “Do I even want to know what that is?”
“Use your imagination.”
“I think I should get a do-over—there was a cross wind.”
I lifted my chin into the air to check. There wasn't even the thinnest hint of a breeze. “Nope. Not feeling it. It's still dry as a bone and a hundred degrees in the shade.”
El mumbled something and moved to the side.
I cocked an ear toward her. “I didn't quite get that.”
“Keep it up, Einstein. Paybacks are hell.”
“Oh, really?” I took my place at the throwing line. “What are you gonna do? Bludgeon me with authorization cards?”
“I thought I'd already done that.”
“Okay,” I held up my burlap bag full of corn kernels and took careful aim. “Let's take this home.”
I gave it a good heave. The bag landed near the base of the board and slid forward to stop just below the base of the hole. “Blocker!” I cried. I now had two bags near the high scoring position.
El stood staring at me with her hands on her hips.
“Don't get cocky. Close only counts with hand grenades.”
I held up an index finger. “And Baggo Cornhole.”
“What- ever .” She took her place at the line. This time, her toss was spot on. It slid around both of my bags and dropped halfway into the hole.”
“Ha!” El faced me with a triumphant expression. “What do you call that one?”
I shook my head. “Dumb luck?”
“Hey…” she tagged me on the arm again. “Be as liberal with your praise as you are with your censure.”
“Okay, okay.” I rubbed my arm. “But quit socking me. It's going to leave a mark.”
“Oh, please. I barely touched you.”
She gave an exasperated sigh. “What if I promise to rub it later.”
That got my attention. “Rub it?”
“I seem to recall that you're partial to rubbing.”
It was hard to argue with that. I was lost in the land of happy recollection for a few moments.
“So?” she asked.
I looked at her. “So?”
She waved a hand toward the board. “So, what do you call that snazzy maneuver I just pulled off?”
“Um…that's called a hooker.”
She smiled smugly. “I just had a hooker.”
“I hear there's always a first time….”
She made a fist, but I danced out of her way. “My turn. Prepare to be upstaged.”
“Give it your best shot.”
I hefted the bag a few times and swung it back and forth in several, practice throwing motions.
“Any time in this life would be good,” El commented.
I looked at her. “Could we have silence in the peanut gallery, please?”
“Oh, I'm sorry.” She pointed a finger at her chest. “Am I causing you to have performance anxiety?”
I lowered my bag. “I don't know. Are you talking about this game, or do you mean in more general terms?”
She stared back at me. “Yes.”
“ Very helpful.”
I turned back toward the board and took careful aim. My throw was a good one. The bag landed smack dab on top of El's.
“Yes!” I started to celebrate, but then noticed that neither bag had dropped into the hole. They both teetered there, half in and half out. I stared at the board in disbelief. We now had a cluster of four bags near scoring position—all of them in front of, behind, or halfway through the hole.
I was flummoxed. “This never happens.”
“What never happens?” El walked over to stand beside me.
“That.” I waved a hand toward the board.
“It does look rather congested near the opening.”
I looked at her with incredulity. “You sound like you're reading the six o'clock news.”
“Really?” She shrugged. “Maybe I could give that ‘Golden Throat' whosis a run for his money?”
“I still don't believe this.”
“Who cares? It's my turn again.”
I moved so she could make her toss. It landed woefully shy of the board.”
“Sally!” I called out.
She glared at me. “Who?”
“Your wimpy throw…it's called a Sally.”
“It wasn't wimpy . I wasn't ready yet, and it sipped out of my hand.”
I shook my head. “Sorry. Those are the breaks.”
“I'm not sure I like this game,” she pouted.
“Yeah, well…stand aside and console yourself elsewhere. It's my turn again.”
I prepared to make my last throw of the round. If I could manage to land my bag on top of the others teetering across the opening, I should be able to knock them all through. I started my wind up.
“Are you going to try to knock them all through?” El asked, just before I let it fly. Her voice was close to my ear.
I sighed and lowered my throwing arm.
“Will you stop that?” I turned to face her. I noticed that she had taken off her sunglasses.
She was giving me the whole ‘who me?' treatment with her smoky gray eyes.
“Stop what, Friday Jill?”
“That thing you do with your eyes. It's distracting.”
She fluttered her eyelashes. “It is?”
“Oh, like you don't know it.”
“Oh, I know it all right. I'm just gratified it's working.”
If we hadn't been standing in the middle of a median on Main Street, surrounded by half a dozen pork chop vendors, face painters, and Hadi Shriners zooming around on those ridiculous little muscle cars, I would've grabbed her and showed her how well it was working. Instead, I took a deep breath—and a step back. It was better not to tempt fate.
“Let's just see if we can get this game over with in this life.” I glanced down at my watch. “I don't want us to miss the talent portion of the pageant.”
El's eyes grew wide. “There's a talent competition?”
“Well, what are you waiting for? Toss that damn thing and set us free.”
“That's the plan.”
I took careful aim again, and let my last bag fly. Incredibly, amazingly, impossibly, it landed with the grace of a falling autumn leaf right on top of the other four bags. But none of them budged a single centimeter. I dropped my arm to my side and stared at the sagging pyramid of bags with an open mouth. The hole was now completely occluded.
It was impossible not to see the metaphor at work in this one.
I faced El. “Do you think this game is trying to tell us something?”
She laughed. “What? That we're mutually incapable of follow-through?”
I nodded. “Or completion?”
That one stopped me cold.
“You think we're incapable of commitment?”
She shrugged. “I think it's possible.”
I didn't have a ready response for that one. It certainly wasn't an outcome I wanted—not for this damn game, and not for anything else, either. I glanced back at the board. El had one bag left to throw. I looked at her.
“Here's your chance to change all of that.”
“I'm not sure I like these odds.”
“Does that mean you don't want to play any more?”
“Oh, no.” She took her place at the throwing line. “I want to play.”
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
I touched her arm. “Don't you want to see what you're doing?”
She shook her dark head. “Nope. Sometimes, it's best just to go with your gut.”
She tossed the bag. It seemed to leave her open hand and fly away from us in slow motion. It was like time had decided to conspire with it, and was dragging its foot along through the dirt to slow the turning of our cosmic carousel. I watched El's bag of corn soar across the sky and coalesce into a unified tapestry with everything else around us. It became one with the group of musicians on a makeshift bandstand who were tuning their stringed instruments. One with the large man in a tiny red car who made lazy figure eights around a group of giggling children with faces painted like circus animals. One with some hoppers from the House of Praise, who were passing out leaflets and singing an a cappella rendition of “Falling in Love with Jesus.” And it became one with every hope and fear I'd ever known, growing up as part of this quirky and curious world, where I fit, and didn't fit, all at the same time.
But gravity won the momentary tug of war, and El's bag changed course, drifting back toward earth. I followed its graceful descent with anxious excitement. I wanted to close my eyes, too. But I couldn't. I needed to see it. I needed to know if the colors of my world were about to change.
It landed with a resounding thud—directly on top of our precarious pyramid. I held my breath. The pile of bags didn't budge—they hung on, stubbornly refusing to slip through the opening.
I gave El a morose look. I thought she seemed equally demoralized.
“What do you call that one?” she asked, in a quiet voice.
“They don't have a name for that one,” I answered.
She exhaled, and looked past me toward the board. I saw her eyes widen. She grabbed my arm.
“What is it?” I followed her gaze.
All four of the bags had disappeared.
“You gotta be kidding me?”
“They fell through!” El was giddy with excitement.
“Yeah.” I bumped her shoulder. “Double Deuce, baby.”
“I guess we both win.”
I smiled at her.
“I can live with that.” She linked arms with me. “Now let's go watch Jailissa win this damn pageant.”
I knew better than to argue with her. For once, it seemed like all the omens were looking good.
“What the hell kind of instrument is that?” T-Bomb leaned forward between El and me and pointed up at the stage in front of us.
“Shhhh.” I held a finger up to my lips. “Hold it down.”
“It's a euphonium,” El whispered.
“A phony-what?” T-Bomb asked.
“A eu-phon-i-um ,” El said again. “Like a trombone—only with valves instead of a slide.”
“That don't look like no trombone I ever seen.” T-Bomb dropped back against her seat with a huff.
On stage, an oblivious Casey Horton was hammering out a somewhat lackluster arrangement of “I'm Every Woman.”
“Well,” Luanne hissed. “I think her musical selection is in pretty poor taste.”
“I think it's supposed to be ironic,” I offered.
T-Bomb was still mumbling. “I bet that Chaka Khan is rollin' over in her grave.”
“Chaka Khan ain't dead,” Luanne corrected her. “But this performance would probably make her wish she was.”
“Well it still ain't as bad as that poem…why in tarnation would Destinee Knackmuhs quote that dern Eskimo thing on the hottest day of the year?” T-Bomb fanned herself with a paper plate.
She had a point, there. For some reason, Destinee had chosen to recite the Robert Service epic, “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” It was an eclectic choice, to say the least—but the crowd seemed to love it. And that was probably because most of the people in attendance had had to memorize the same piece in eighth grade English class, too.
“Would everyone please be respectful and stop yammering?” Grammy was giving us the evil eye.
We all managed to remain silent until Casey finished blowing her way through the R&B classic. There was a lukewarm smattering of applause. Casey gave a short head nod, pushed her horn-rimmed glasses up her nose, and strode off the stage.
That concluded the talent portion of the competition.
“Well, I think Jailissa cleaned-up in this part of the contest,” Luanne proclaimed.
“What contest?” T-Bomb asked. “Neither of them other two finalists came close to Jailissa's twirling routine.”
Luanne nodded. “It's true. Jay Jr. said she should add that flaming baton at the end. It was a show-stopper at the Edwards County Fair last year.”
“I thought the sparks from that thing might catch some of them judges' hairdos on fire.” T-Bomb laughed at her own joke. “Now that would've been a real show stopper.”
“What happens next?” El asked.
“Well,” Luanne explained. “The three finalists come out on stage and answer questions from the emcee. They'll all be wearing their evening gowns, too. They kinda combined those two events for this year.”
“You mean to tell me that Horton boy is gonna come out in an evening gown?” T-Bomb asked.
“I keep telling you he's not a boy —he's a girl .” Luanne's exasperation was starting to show. “It's Casey …the youngest one. She's always been…different.”
“Hell. ‘Different' is sure one way to describe it.” Ermaline stood up and brushed off her shorts. “She looks like she'd rather have a root canal than participate in this pageant.” She turned around and scanned the crowd. “I need a smoke. Anybody seen which way Doc went?”
T-Bomb pointed across the square. “Him and Donnie took the twins over to look at those stupid little Shriner cars.”
Jay Keortge walked up with Joe Sykes in tow.
“We've got the truck all ready in case she wins,” he told us.
It was customary for the new Miss Pork Queen to take a victory lap around the courthouse square.
I could see Joe eyeing El. She noticed it, too. Before I could introduce them, she stepped forward and extended her hand.
“Hi there,” she said. “I'm El…one of the agitators.”
Joe actually smiled…sort of. “Joe Sykes,” he said. He briefly shook hands with her. “I've heard of you,” he added.
“Likewise,” El replied.
Jay was fidgeting. “What's taking so long?”
“Will you just calm down?” Luanne looked at her watch. “They need time to change.”
“Why ain't you helping her?” he asked.
“Because Violet Fewkes is back there with her.”
He looked confused. “The florist?”
Luanne nodded. “She's putting all them little flower doodads in her hair for this final round.”
Ermaline coughed. “Well I wonder if she brought any smokes along…I'm about ready to succumb.”
“I told you to have one of mine,” Luanne replied.
Ermaline shook her head. “I hate them damn Viceroys…they taste like floor scrapings.”
Luanne rolled her eyes.
Joe fished around in his jacket pocket and pulled out a hard pack of Camels. “Want one of mine?” He held out the pack.
Ermaline's hand was a blur snapping the cigarettes away from him. “Well, praise the Lord.”
Joe was staring at my outfit.
“What?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “I'm not used to seein' you look so…girlie.”
El stifled a laugh.
“Friday had one of them wardrobe malfunctions getting' outta her truck,” T-Bomb explained. “Didn't you, Friday?”
“Well,” Joe was still looking me over. “I think you look…nice.”
Nice? I looked like a refugee from the bargain bin at Dollar General.
El gave Joe one of her blinding, million-dollar smiles. “I agree, Joe.”
He gave her a respectful nod, and nervously shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
I looked back and forth between the two of them. If this kept up, they'd soon be joining hands and singing “We Are the World.” I continued to marvel at how well El could work a crowd. No wonder she was so damn good at her job.
“Here comes Larry!” Luanne exclaimed.
We all turned toward the stage.
“Oh,” Grammy gushed. “I do love to see a man in a tuxedo.”
“Maybe he can lend it to that Horton girl,” T-Bomb quipped.
We all took our seats.
“I don't think he'll have to,” Ermaline whispered. “It looks like she brought her own.”
The three finalists followed Larry “Golden Throat” Dennis out onto the stage. They were a sight to behold.
Destinee Knackmuhs wore a canary yellow, one shoulder taffeta creation with a sweetheart neckline and big ball gown skirt. The shoulder strap was topped with a huge ruffle, and the waistband was beaded with dozens of hand-made flowers. She looked like every bridesmaid's worst nightmare.
Casey Horton took a more…eclectic…approach. She wore a western cut leisure suit in pale blue, finished off with a bolo tie and bull hide cowboy boots.
Jailissa was last to take the stage. She wore another stunner: a form-fitting, cobalt blue bustier gown with a flowing skirt. Her only jewelry was a simple necklace, ornamented with three white pearls, and matching pearl earrings. For a moment, it felt like we were in the front row at the Golden Globes—not sitting on metal lawn chairs in front of the downtown Pagoda in Albion, Illinois.
El was shaking her head. “She looks like Kate Winslet.”
“Without the airbrush,” I whispered.
Larry “Golden Throat” stepped up to the microphone.
“Welcome to the final round of the Miss Pork Queen competition.”
There was a robust round of applause and a bevy of wolf whistles.
Larry let it go on for a moment, then held up a hand to quiet the crowd. “Our three finalists will now answer a series of four questions before the judges submit their ballots, and tell us who the next winner will be. Remember that we will have a Miss Congeniality, a First Runner-Up, and, of course, a new Miss Pork Queen.” He turned to face the contestants. “So really, all three of you young ladies are already winners.” There was another smattering of applause. “Now, back stage, you three lovely young women drew straws to determine the order for the questions. What I'm going to ask each of you to do is step forward to that microphone stand when I call your name, and answer your question. Then step back and let the next contestant come forward. You'll all take turns answering one question at a time, until this round is through. Are we all clear on that?”
All three of the girls nodded.
“Okay, then. Let's get started.” Larry lifted his thin stack of index cards and started to read. “Our first contestant is Miss Casey Horton.”
Obviously, Casey drew the short straw backstage. She sighed, and took two steps forward to stand just behind the microphone. She seemed to be eyeing Larry with suspicion—like she expected him to ask her something insidious, instead of simply inane.
Larry held up his first little white card. “Casey, our judges would like to know what quality you like most about yourself, and why?”
Casey raised a hand and rubbed two fingers along the side of her nose.
“I don't know, Larry,” she answered in a voice that sounded remarkably like her euphonium. “Avarice, sloth, envy, lust…I think there's a couple more, too.” She looked over toward the judges' table. “Do I have to name just one?”
Larry stared at her with a blank expression, and then consulted his card again. There were a few titters in the crowd, and finally, someone began a round of polite applause. Casey nodded, and stepped back to reclaim her place in line.
Larry cleared his golden throat. “Our next contestant is Miss Destinee Knackmuhs.”
Destinee surged forward with all the grace of a street sweeper. When she stopped moving, her dress kept right on going. It flounced and surged around the base of the microphone stand in a tidal wave of bright yellow. It looked like Mountain Dew sloshing around in the base of a mason jar. She ignored Larry—and the audience—entirely, and turned to face the card table where the judges were seated.
Larry rolled with it, and reread the first question.
“Destinee, what quality do you like most about yourself, and why?”
“Well, Larry,” Destinee flashed the judges a brilliant smile, full of big, white teeth. “I really like that I'm a super nice person, and people really like me. A lot. I'm really popular, and that means people want to be my friend…including the kids that no one really likes.”
Destinee's sizeable claque in the audience leapt to its collective feet and started whooping and hollering. It took Larry a minute to quiet them down. He patiently waved his little stack of index cards up and down. Finally, the applause tapered off.
Luanne was huffing and fidgeting in her seat.
“Them Knackmuhses shouldn't be allowed to carry on like that—it ain't fair to the other contestants.”
Jay patted her puffy hand. “It's okay. Jailissa won't let it rattle her.”
T-Bomb snorted. “And that Casey Horton is too occupied with starin' at Destinee's derriere to even notice.”
“Well,” Luanne remained agitated. “I'm still worried. We didn't prepare any answers for trick questions like this.”
“What kind of questions were you expecting?” I leaned across El to ask.
“Ones about doing that GMO stuff to crops, neutering pets, or creating world peace.” She waved a hand. “The usual things.”
“I think Jailissa can handle it,” I said.
Larry was addressing the audience again. “And now let's hear from our last contestant, Miss Jailissa Keortge.”
Jailissa glided forward like she was riding on a conveyor. She smiled shyly at Larry.
“She's really extraordinary,” El whispered to me.
“Jailissa,” Larry asked, “tell us what quality you like most about yourself, and why?”
“Well, Mr. Dennis,” Jailissa replied in her soft, soprano voice. “I like to think that I'm a ‘glass half full' kind of person. By that I mean that when I see something like puppies covered in ticks, or read in a magazine about how some elderly people have to eat cat food—I remind myself about how soft puppy bellies are when you rub them, or how lots of older people drive really nice Buicks.”
The crowd erupted into another bout of raucous applause.
I glanced at El, who was staring at Jailissa with a confused expression. She turned to face me. “And yet…maybe not so much,” she added.
I bumped her shoulder.
Jailissa smiled at the crowd, and demurely stepped back to reclaim her place in line with the other contestants. I prayed that maybe her abundant poise would carry more weight than her…depth of expression.
Larry was ready for round two. He gave a nod to Casey, who sauntered forward again.
“Casey,” Larry said. “Here is your second question. If you could change just one thing about the world, what would it be?”
Casey cleared her throat and bent toward the microphone. “Well, Larry,” she said with confidence. “I'm glad you asked me that. I'd abolish telemarketers. Then surely, world peace would ensue—or at least, world peace of mind.”
A few seconds of dead silence ensued. Casey gave the audience a shrug. “Am I right?” she asked.
There were a few tentative handclaps, and then the entire square erupted into thunderous applause. Casey nodded smugly, and took her place back in line with the other two contestants.
A confused Larry looked out across the crowd. “Well. I guess we can all agree with that,” he muttered.
When he turned back toward the remaining two contenders, Destinee had already moved forward to claim her spot behind the microphone.
“Destinee?” he asked. “If you could change just one thing about the world, what would it be?”
She gave the judges another blinding smile.
“I think the world would be a better place if young men today would take more responsibility for things like mowing yards for their grandparents, emptying the dishwasher, and buying condoms.” She paused. “And I mean those really good ones that don't break after just one time.”
Larry's lips started to move, but no sound came out.
“Well, dang,” T-Bomb whispered. “They oughta just call her Destinee Knocked-up .”
“She could give them Horton girls a run for their money,” Ermaline said.
“All except that boy one up there,” T-Bomb replied, pointing at Casey. “He don't need ‘em.”
“I wouldn't be too sure about that,” someone mumbled.
El and I looked at each other.
“Was that Doc?” she asked.
I shook my head. “I honestly have no idea—I've never heard him say anything before.”
“Would you all hush up?” Luanne was glaring at us. “It's Jailissa's turn.”
Jailissa was now at the mike, ready to answer her next question.
A somewhat exasperated looking Larry faced her.
“Alrighty, then. Jailissa? If you could change just one thing about the world, what would it be?”
“Well, Mr. Dennis…” Jailissa looked out over the audience with a dreamy expression. “Even though some folks don't believe in it, I'd like to fix global warming.” There was a collective gasp from the crowd, but Jailissa soldiered on. “That would make people's crops better, and give them higher yields. Then they could afford to buy newer and more efficient farm equipment—and do things to improve their property, like build garages and maybe quit parking in their yards.”
There was a restrained round of applause. Jailissa took her place back in line.
“That don't bode well.” Luanne was shaking a Viceroy out of her pack. “I kept telling her to leave her political views out of her answers.” She fired up a smoke. “I hope these last two questions go more her way.”
“All right,” Larry said. “We're down to our last two questions, so we're going to kick it up a notch.” He walked over and pulled their microphone off its stand. “I'm going to ask each of you to answer your question, then pass the mike on to the next contestant. When Jailissa finishes with her answer to the first question, she'll pass the mike back to Casey for the second, and final, question of our speed round. Are you ready?”
They all nodded. He handed the mike to Casey.
“Casey. If you could be on the cover of any magazine, which would you chose and why?”
Casey smirked. “ Garden & Gun —because they have something for everyone.”
Casey passed the mike to Destinee.
“ People Magazine ,” she said. “Because they have professionals who do your makeup and hair, and I'd be, like famous—and look really super good.”
She continued to hold on to the mike until Jailissa reached over and offered to take it from her. Destinee seemed to let go of it with reluctance.
“ Martha Stewart Living ,” Jailissa said. “Because she has really good recipes, craft projects, party planning tips, and all kinds of things that you can do at home with stuff you already have.”
Jailissa passed the mike back to Casey.
“Okay,” Larry said. “Now we're down to our final question. Ladies? It's time to leave it all on the table.” He consulted his last index card.
“Well, dang,” T-Bomb hissed. “That's kinda creepy coming from a coroner.”
There was a titter of laughter.
Grammy glared at her.
El had my knee in a death grip. I was positive it would leave a mark.
“Here is your fourth and final question,” Larry said with great ceremony. “Good luck, ladies. In a few minutes, one of you will be crowned the new Miss Pork Queen.” He paused for effect. “Are you ready?”
The three contestants looked at each other, then nodded at Larry.
“Casey Horton. Here is your final question. “What bothers you most about America today?”
Luanne dropped her head into her hands. “It's another political question,” she whispered.
Jay ran his hand in small, consoling circles over her back.
Casey, however, seemed undaunted.
“Bad spelling,” she said, before calmly handing the mike to Destinee.
Destinee stared at Casey for a moment before facing the audience, and flipping her red hair back behind her shoulder.
“Well, Larry,” she said. “I think we need to do more to protect our school children from vicious attacks by lawless trouble makers. As Americans, we should make our schools safer by arming our teachers, cooks, and bus drivers.” She faced the judges. “This is our sacred duty—and our second amendment right.”
“Oh, lord.” Luanne still had her head buried in her hand.
I was pretty sure I was going to need a knee transplant before this “speed round” ended.
Somehow, Jailissa managed to wrangle the microphone away from Destinee. She squared her shoulders and faced the audience.
“While I agree that there are a lot of things that America could do better to help its people,” she said. “I really believe that our biggest threat comes from the endless cycle of ignorance to poverty that occurs every day in our own back yard.” She seemed to look each of us in the eye. “I know that if we try, we can do more to help each other, and our community, be stronger and better prepared to face the challenges that will continue come our way in the future.” She smiled. “Thank you all for taking the time to come here and listen to our views on these important issues.”
Larry gave Jailissa a grateful-looking smile. He stood back and extended his arm to encompass all three of the women.
“Ladies and gentlemen…your Miss Pork Day finalists.”
The square erupted into enthusiastic applause.
Luanne blew out a nervous breath.
“Now we wait,” she said.
“Hell,” T-Bomb was still clapping. “You ain't got nothin' to worry about. She just locked that one right up.”
I found it hard to disagree with her.
El was looking down at her cell phone.
“Something wrong?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Just Tony. He's in the crowd someplace, and needs to talk with me.”
“Can it wait until after the competition?”
She nodded. “He said he come and find us in a few minutes.”
Luanne had her eyes glued to the judges' table. “Look! They're signaling for Larry to come over…I think this is it.”
It was true. Larry had walked over to confer with the three judges. One of them handed him a sealed envelope.
He walked back to the center of the stage where the three contestants waited.
“Ladies,” he addressed them. “The judges have reached their verdicts, and have made their selections. It's now time to crown our new Miss Pork Queen.”
The three women joined hands.
Larry opened the envelope.
“Third Runner-Up and winner of the Miss Congeniality Award, and the recipient of a two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar gift card from Southern Illinois Lumber Company is… Miss Casey Horton!”
The crowd broke into a chorus of wild cheers and applause. Casey was plainly thrilled with this outcome. She repeatedly pumped the air with a fist before grabbing Destinee Knackmuhs, and kissing her square on the mouth.
“Well, dang,” T-Bomb was on her feet, clapping. “I hope she brung along some of them good kind of condoms.”
A nonplused Larry continued.
“Second Runner-Up and winner of a five-hundred-dollar scholarship from Ingram's Funeral Home is… Miss Destinee Knackmuhs!”
There was a loud gasp—as if the entire audience had inhaled at the same time.
Larry was now shouting above the thunderous applause to tell us what we already knew. “This means that our new Miss Pork Queen, and the recipient of a fifteen-hundred-dollar scholarship from the Herschel Johnson Implement Company is… Miss … Jailissa … Keortge!”
Jailissa stood with both hands pressed against her mouth. When Casey made a congratulatory move toward her, Larry intervened and took Jailissa by the elbow to move her forward on the stage.
The reigning Miss Pork Queen, Amanda Horton, waddled out onto the stage bearing the crown and sash for the winner. She had to be at least eight months pregnant.
Luanne and Jay both had tears running down their faces.
Joe Sykes looked like he was about ready to break down, too.
“I'll go get the truck started,” he said.
He took a last, wistful look up at Jailissa, then beat a hasty retreat, wiping at his eyes before disappearing into the crowd.
The audience was still going wild. The applause and the cheers went on and on. It was clear that Jailissa was this year's popular choice. People were crowding the stage, taking pictures with cell phones and cameras. I thought I saw some bigger flashes of light, too. There were distinct, telltale rumblings behind the noise and the cheering. I glanced up at the sky. It wouldn't be Pork Day without at least one gully washer. I just hoped the storms would hold off long enough for Jailissa to take her victory ride around the courthouse square.
El and I were on our feet, too, clapping and hollering. Jailissa stood, regally, at the front of the stage, smiling and waving at the crowd. Camera flashes were still going off. Above the din, we could hear music…sort of. Over at the edge of the platform, Casey Horton had picked up her euphonium and started to play.
I leaned closer to El, and gestured toward Casey.
“What's she playing?”
El cocked an ear toward the sound.
“It sounds like ‘Isn't She Lovely?'”
I laughed out loud. “That Casey Horton is a class act.”
El nodded and leaned into me.
We were still smiling and clapping when I saw Tony making his way toward us. I nudged El.
“Here comes Tony.”
When he reached us, he nodded at me in greeting before taking El by the arm and leading her over to stand near the edge of the Pagoda. He seemed to be showing her something on his cell phone.
El's face looked stricken. She glanced over toward me, then closed her eyes and slowly shook her head before giving her full attention back to Tony, who was still talking and gesturing. He pointed at something off in the direction of the high school. Then he glanced at his watch. El nodded and touched him on the arm. She said something to him, before excusing herself and heading back over to where we all stood.
I could tell by her expression that something was wrong—very wrong. She was moving like an inmate walking The Green Mile in one of those Stephen King novels.
I decided to meet her halfway.
“What is it?” I asked when I reached her. “You're white as a sheet.”
She let out a deep breath and looked at me. Really looked at me. I don't think I'd ever been looked at in quite that way before. Not even by old Dr. Guttmann, who did my first GYN exam when I was sixteen.
“Something horrible has happened,” she said. She quickly reached out to touch my arm. “I mean at the plant,” she added.
“My, god. What is it?”
Judging by the expression on her face, I knew it had to be bad.
“A woman working in the warehouse—I think Tony said her name is Wanda Miles—had what appears to be a heart attack, likely brought on by heatstroke.” She slowly shook her head. “The EMTs weren't called in time…she died on the way to the hospital.”
Wanda Miles? Wynona's sister in law was dead? From the heat? While working in the warehouse?
I closed my eyes. “Oh my, god.”
“Apparently, she went to her supervisor to tell him she was feeling sick and having chest pains, but he told her to go sit down in a front office for a while, until she felt better and could return to work.”
Her supervisor? Oh, god…Earl Jr.
“They didn't call for help?”
El shook her head. “Not for more than three hours.”
I was incredulous. “She sat there for three hours?”
El nodded again. “I think Buzz Sheets finally called the EMTs—after she lost consciousness.”
“Buzz knew about this?” I was feeling sick—and furious.
“I'm so sorry.”
El did look sorry, too. She looked as sick and miserable as I was starting to feel.
“Those bastards. Those stupid, fucking bastards….”
El squeezed my arm. “I know.”
“The air conditioning wasn't even broken in that part of the plant—they just never fucking turned it on to save money.”
El dropped her hand.
“I think we need to stop talking about this now, Friday Jill.”
We stood there, staring at each other like gunfighters facing off in a spaghetti western. More thunder rolled in the distance.
I blinked first. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, you shouldn't talk any more about this—or the plant—to me.”
“Why not?” I started to feel sick for an entirely different reason.
She sighed. “I think you know why not.”
“No I don't,” I lied. “What does this have to do with us?”
I knew it wasn't a fair question—but I couldn't stop myself from asking her. I needed to hear her answer. When she spoke, she sounded as frustrated as I felt.
“It seems likely that Wanda Miles died because of a sad and regrettable combination of extreme heat, and Krylon's pattern of neglect and contempt for workplace safety. You know that as well as I do.”
I couldn't disagree with her, so I simply nodded.
“I have a job to do. You know that, too.”
I knew it, but I didn't want to know it—not any more than I wanted to know about things like global warming—or the fact that all the fracking going on around here was probably poisoning our ground water, and giving all the women in Gibson County breast cancer.
“Okay, I get it,” I said. Even though I couldn't begin to process it all right then. “But where does this leave us?”
It took El a moment to answer. “Right now, there is no ‘us.' There can't be until this is over.”
“Until what is over?”
I was confused. “What vote?”
“The vote that brought me here.” She was starting to sound exasperated. “The union vote.”
“I thought you said that wasn't going to happen—that you were ready to pull up stakes and leave?”
“Not any more. This is a game-changer.”
I was shocked. “That's what Wanda's death is to you? A game-changer?”
For a moment, I thought she might slap me. But she didn't. El had too much poise for that.
“I need to go now,” she said. “Tony is waiting for me.” Her voice was toneless. Flat.
My head was spinning. “Can I call you later?”
“It's probably better if you don't.”
She turned to walk away, but I grabbed her arm.
She stopped and looked back at me.
“Is this really it?”
“No, Jill. This isn't ‘it.' But right now, this is the only ‘it' we have.” She reached up and gently removed my hand from her arm. “I can't make this situation better or different for you—you're going to have to find your own way through it.” She hesitated. “Just like me.”
“I don't know what that means, El.”
“I know you don't,” she said sadly. “Maybe when you do, we can talk about the future.” She looked at her watch. “I have to go now.”I stood rooted to my spot like a sapling, and watched her walk away. It was only after her form disappeared behind the Pagoda, that I realized that it had started to rain.
To Be Continued…
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