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Menstruation, menopause, mental breakdown. Ever notice how all women's problems begin with men?
Comment overheard under the hair dryers at Dazzling Do's
It isn't every day a movie star steals your husband. Chiffon Butrell certainly wasn't expecting such a major upheaval in her life on that nippy Tuesday in January. Instead, she was grappling with more trivial aggravations, such as hunting down a pencil for her eight-year-old daughter, Emily.
Her oldest child stood near the front door, fully dressed, her light brown hair gathered up into a neat ponytail. Wearing a mask of quiet stoicism, she kept glancing at her Hello Kitty wristwatch.
Chiffon, her blond hair snarled into rats from sleep, rummaged through the junk drawer of a battered desk. "You'd think that somewhere in all this mess there'd be one lousy...Ick!" She snatched back her hand as it touched something sticky.
With her thumb and index finger, she picked up the offending object, a Hulk action figure, covered head to toe with peanut butter.
"Dewitt, what is this?" she asked her five-year-old son, who was slicing the air with a series of karate chops.
"It's a spearmint," he said, continuing to deliver blows to an invisible assailant.
"What?" Chiffon said, bewildered.
"An experiment," Emily said matter-of-factly. She was a frequent translator for her younger brother. "He likes watching Bill Nye, the Science Guy. We'd better go. The bus will be here any minute."
"I just can't believe Wait a second." Chiffon picked up her pocketbook from the floor and scrabbled inside. "Aha!" she said, handing Emily a pencil she'd fished from the bottom. "Here we go, baby."
Her daughter examined it with large gray eyes. "Mama, this is an eyeliner pencil."
"It won't do in a pinch?"
"I'm taking a standardized test today. I need two sharpened No. 2 pencils."
Chiffon vaguely remembered signing an official-looking letter from Emily's school about an upcoming test. And Emily, being a responsible child, had almost certainly mentioned that her pencil supply was running low. Unfortunately, Chiffon had completely forgotten about both.
"Don't worry, Mama," Emily said in an even voice. "My teacher will probably have some spare pencils. Come on, Dewitt, let's go."
Emily opened the front door, letting in a gust of frigid air. Chiffon shivered and gripped together the lapels of her skimpy leopard-print robe. The local morning TV show had said it was 28 degrees outside, uncommonly chilly for Cayboo Creek, South Carolina, even in winter.
"Stay warm!" Chiffon hollered after the pair. They waved at her with bare hands already pink from the cold as they crossed the frozen lawn, which looked like it was covered with a layer of powdered sugar.
"Shoot," Chiffon said to herself as she sprinted barefoot across the freezing wooden floor. "I should've made them wear mittens." Trouble was, when she'd looked earlier, she hadn't been able to find a pair anywhere in the house. Yesterday there'd been a light snow, and the kids had had to wear their daddy's athletic socks on their hands to make snowballs.
"Gotta go to Goodies and get some mittens," she said to herself, adding to a mental list of errands she needed to accomplish today. Tuesday was her day off from her waitress job at the Wagon Wheel steak restaurant.
Gabby, her six-month-old daughter, who up until now had been amusing herself with a plastic spoon, screwed up her face and let out a cranky cry.
"Hey, kiddo," Chiffon said, scooping up the baby from her walker. "Yeesh. Your diaper's sopping."
On her way to the nursery from the living room, she banged her hip against the corner of her husband Lonnie's pool table. "Dang it," she said with a grimace, knowing a vivid yellow-blue bruise would soon blossom there. She didn't know how many women would put up with a deluxe-size pool table smack dab in their living room, but she guessed the number was few.
She changed Gabby's diaper and outfitted her in flannel footie pajamas and a knit stocking cap. Then she dressed herself in a black turtleneck, jeans, and a fleece-lined denim jacket. Taking it from the hook by the door, she clapped Lonnie's plaid, ear-flapped hunting hat over her head. Before she started her day, she wanted hot coffee, along with a dose of chitchat, and she knew exactly where to get it.
With the baby in her arms, Chiffon slammed the front door behind her and made her way to her elderly Pontiac Firebird parked in the drive. As she strapped Gabby into her car seat, she noticed her eyes looked as glassy as blue marbles. Her daughter's vacant look and the fine thread of drool on her lips meant she was moments from naptime.
Chiffon cranked the car's engine, which wheezed in protest, and backed out of her gravel driveway lined with halved tires, wedged in the ground and painted white. Her purple one-story house stuck out in the neighborhood like a peacock in a flock of wrens. Its garish color and its location, directly in front of an ABC Package Shop, were the reasons she and Lonnie had been able to afford it.
She traveled down Main Street, watching red-cheeked passersby struggle against the sting of the icy wind. Unlike many boarded-up and abandoned small Southern towns, downtown Cayboo Creek bustled with a collection of thriving businesses. Boomer from the butcher shop stood on a stepladder taking down the letters from his outdated portable sign that read JANUARY IS HEAD CHEESE MONTH. Reeky Flynn, bundled up in a bulky ski jacket and wool mittens, fumbled with her keys to open the Book Nook. When she passed the storefront for Dazzling Do's, Chiffon touched a hand to her unruly blond curls. She was way overdue for a cut.
Parking outside the Bottom Dollar Emporium, she slung her sleeping daughter over her shoulder and strode toward the entrance. The pansies out front, potted in gleaming copper washtubs, had wilted faces, stunned by the polar temperatures. The row of white rocking chairs on the porch, often occupied by the town elders in balmier weather, creaked in the bracing breeze.
Chiffon pushed opened the door and immediately heard the querulous voice of Attalee Gaines, the soda jerk, coming from the soda fountain in back.
"What a lot of twaddle!" Attalee said. Chiffon guessed she was addressing the owner of the Bottom Dollar Emporium, Mavis Loomis.
Chiffon threaded past several wooden barrels, heaped high with bulk candy from another age. Every time her children came into the Bottom Dollar Emporium, their eyes glazed over as they tried to take in the vast hodgepodge of sweets. Voluptuous wax lips brushed up against Teaberry gum and lengths of licorice pipes. Burlap bags bulging with Gold Nugget bubblegum were nestled among Charleston Chews, Chick-O-Sticks, and a tangle of Slo Pokes.
If the barrels of treats failed to tempt customers, the line of glass jars crammed with Swedish red fish, anise squares, and peppermint sticks would definitely set mouths to watering. Chiffon gazed greedily at a jar packed tight with gummy bears, imagining them beating their fruit-flavored fists against the glass, pleading, "Let me out!"
With a swift motion, Chiffon shook a menagerie of bears into the metal scoop of the candy scale, poured her purchase into a small white paper bag, and scribbled the amount on a chit sheet, which she stuck by the register.
Weaving her way to the back of the store, she paused at a display of sourwood honey jars and courtin' candles (used long ago by fathers to let their daughters' beaus know when their dates were over). The Bottom Dollar Emporium was chockablock with all manner of items from a bygone era. Button-flap union suits, pine-tar soap, and galvanized watering cans could all be found among the cluttered aisles of the store.
Stiff floorboards groaned beneath her feet as Chiffon headed toward the rich fragrance of roasted coffee beans, which curled from the break area to her eager nostrils. She parked her gum in an old brass spittoon attached to the wall and poured steaming coffee into a heavy chipped mug with her name on it. The toasty cup warmed her hands, which were raw from the cold. She saw Mavis and Attalee fussing over some kind of contraption lying on the soda fountain.
"What have you got there?" she asked the two women as she settled the baby into her carrier.
"A Diaper Houdini," Attalee said, pointing a yellowed fingernail at the box on the fountain. She wore her soda-jerk uniform, and her crisp white cap sat on her head at a crooked angle.
"Diaper Genie," Mavis corrected.
Attalee brushed a gray sausage curl from her wrinkled face with the back of her hand. She was well into her eighties but still sported the fussy hairdo of a seven-year-old girl.
"Heck," she said in a voice like sandpaper over wood. "A real Diaper Genie would change the young 'un and wipe its bottom."
Mavis scratched her head in bewilderment. She was a plump woman with short, wiry salt-and-pepper hair and bemused brown eyes.
"As it is, we're not real sure what it does," Mavis said.
"That must be your baby-shower gift for Elizabeth," Chiffon said. Elizabeth used to be a clerk at the Bottom Dollar Emporium, and she and Chiffon had gotten to be best chums over the years.
Chiffon picked up the Diaper Genie box. "These things are all the rage. You can stuff about thirty diapers inside, and the Diaper Genie will twist them up into a cone with no stinky smell."
"That's all?" Attalee said, looking dispirited, as if she'd expected something more miraculous.
"Don't worry. Elizabeth will love it."
As Chiffon dropped into a heart-backed chair and propped her elbows on a small table, her eyes fell on the baby-word scramble Attalee had been working on as a part of the shower games.
"'Drool,' 'spit-up,' 'colic,' and 'stinky,'" Chiffon said, picking up the paper from the table and reading from it. "Shoot, Attalee. Couldn't you come up with some sweeter baby words for the scramble? You'll put a scare into Elizabeth."
Attalee straightened her cap in the mirror behind the soda fountain. "Raising young 'uns is dirty work. Don't see no need to prettify it."
Chiffon nibbled on her thumbnail, trying to come up with some nicer baby words to add to Attalee's list. But with an infant in the house, the first thing that came to mind was the mounting pile of spit-up rags she'd gone through while Gabby fought off a bug. Attalee was right; there was nothing glamorous about raising kids. And with Lonnie gone for the last few days, it'd been doubly hard.
"When's your man going to quit hobnobbing with movie stars and get on back to Cayboo Creek?" Attalee asked, as if she'd been reading Chiffon's mind.
"His plane leaves California Sunday morning," Chiffon said.
A few months ago Chiffon had entered the Be-a-Movie-Star contest at Showtime Video Store. She'd long forgotten her impulsive entry when a company representative called and said she was the grand-prize winner of two round-trip tickets to Los Angeles and the opportunity to appear as an extra in a movie starring Janie-Lynn Lauren.
Lonnie and Chiffon had squealed like a couple of game-show contestants when they'd found out the news. He ran to the liquor store and picked up a box of Almaden white zin-
fandel, and they toasted each other with plastic cups. Chiffon tossed out her dinner of charred Tuna Helper burnt in her excitement over the news and Lonnie took the whole family out for chicken-fried-steak night at the Chat 'N' Chew.
Chiffon, who'd spent most of her thirty-six years in Cayboo Creek, was going to Hollywood! She'd get to visit a real movie set and maybe even meet America's most famous female movie star, Janie-Lynn Lauren.
Two weeks before their trip, she'd made arrangements for the kids to stay with Mavis and had driven across the Savannah River to the Kmart in Augusta, Georgia, and bought a brand-new coordinating outfit from the Kathy Ireland line.
Two packed suitcases had stood by the front door, ready to go, a full week before their departure date. Chiffon fretted over the contents of her bags for three days, packing and repacking, hating the look of her frayed panties and scuffed shoes wishing she had the cash to buy all new things. Lonnie pitched a fit over her Kmart purchase, saying it was criminal to spend sixty-two dollars for just one outfit. He was used to Chiffon digging out dollar-fifty slacks and shirts from the bins at the Methodist Church thrift shop, and didn't have a clue about the high cost of clothes.
Two days before they were set to leave, her best friend, Elizabeth, dropped by the house with a pink-and-white-striped Victoria's Secret box and a playful grin on her face.
"I figured this trip could be a second honeymoon for you and Lonnie," she said with a wink as Chiffon unearthed a wispy white nightie from the layers of scented tissue.
Chiffon appreciated her friend's gesture, although she couldn't imagine wearing such a virginal-looking nightie to bed without Lonnie laughing her right out of the room. When it came to lingerie, Chiffon's tastes tended toward animal prints, peekaboo cutouts, or fire-engine red panty-and-bra sets.
Besides, she and Lonnie had never needed any extra help in the bedroom. That area of their marriage was rock solid, even after three kids, a near bankruptcy, and her ten-pound okay, maybe it was more like twenty-pound weight gain since their wedding day ten years ago. Chiffon looked forward to having her husband all to herself in a hotel room without any interruptions from kids.
Unfortunately, on the night before they were to leave, Gabby woke at two in the morning, squalling. Chiffon knew immediately that her baby's cry sounded peculiar, and sure enough, when she reached into the crib, her daughter's forehead was hot as blue blazes.
Chiffon rummaged in the medicine cabinet for the baby thermometer and took Gabby's temperature. When the thermometer registered 104 degrees, she shrieked loud enough to startle Lonnie out of bed.
Long story short, the next morning Chiffon did not get on the plane to California in her Kathy Ireland sherbet top with matching flower-print capri pants. Instead, she spent the better part of her day in a grungy sweatsuit, slumped in a hard plastic chair on the pediatric floor, waiting for the doctors to tell her what was wrong with her baby.
Despite Gabby's illness, Chiffon insisted that Lonnie fly to California without her.
"Babies are all the time getting high fevers. Most times it's nothing," she said to Lonnie, fighting back tears of disappointment. "No sense in both of us missing out."
Lonnie hemmed and hawed for about ten seconds, and then grabbed the tickets from Chiffon's purse, saying, "Okay, darling. If that's the way you want it."
By the time Chiffon imagined her husband on the plane, tearing open his foil bag of peanuts and leaning back in his seat to watch the in-flight movie, Gabby's fever had broken. The doctor couldn't find anything wrong, and Chiffon's one-and-only opportunity to see Hollywood had gone straight down the drain.
"Lonnie's living it up," Chiffon said as she popped a red gummy bear into her mouth. "He's already visited Knott's Berry Farm and the Gene Autry Museum. He got to see the Colt firearm display and ate lunch at the Golden Spur restaurant."
"Has he rubbed elbows with any movie stars?" Attalee asked eagerly.
"He'll be an extra on the Janie-Lynn Lauren movie for the next few days; no telling who he might run into," Chiffon said. "But I've read that extras aren't supposed to fraternize with the movie stars. Once an extra got fired on the spot just for eyeballing Sylvester Stallone."
"I bet you wish you were with him," mused Mavis.
"I don't know. I hear California has some god-awful smog," Chiffon replied.
Since Lonnie had left, she'd been trying to conceal her disappointment over missing out on the Hollywood trip. Who cared about palm trees and a bunch of plastic movie stars? And did it really matter that she'd been on only one lousy vacation in her entire life? She and Lonnie had driven to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for their honeymoon. Once there, she'd seen only the inside of their mountain cabin with the heart-shaped Jacuzzi and knotty-pine walls, completely missing out on some of the area's most famous attractions, like Ripley's Believe It or Not! and Hillbilly Golf.
Chiffon bit into her quivering lower lip. "Lonnie's promised to take lots of pictures and bring home a bunch of those tiny bottles of shampoo and hand lotion from the hotel," she said with a brave smile. "And yesterday Dewitt lost his first baby tooth. If I'd been in California, I would have missed out on being the tooth fairy."
The bell over the front door jingled, and Birdie Murdock marched in carrying an armful of baby bottles.
"I thought we could fill these with Jordan almonds," Birdie said, wearing a pair of navy pumps that reverberated on the floor planks. "They'll make delightful party favors."
"That'll be cute," Mavis said, relieving her of some of the bottles. She glanced at Birdie's navy-and-white-checked suit and saw a red press ribbon pinned to the lapel. Birdie was publisher and reporter for the Cayboo Creek Crier.
"Looks like you've just come from covering a story," Mavis said. "Anything interesting going on in town?"
"The principal of Cayboo Creek Elementary had to climb up on the roof of the school because her students read over four hundred books in one month," Birdie said.
"Brrrr," Chiffon said with a mock shiver. "It must have been like the North Pole up there."
"Indeed it was. I'm completely windblown from taking her photograph," Birdie said, removing her basin hat with the matching checked ribbon around the rim and smoothing her silver coiffure. "There was some real concern for the roof shingles. Esther Holmes is a woman of considerable girth."
"Plus, she's fat as a suckling pig," Attalee remarked.
Birdie ignored Attalee's comment and sat across from Chiffon. "I was reminded of your sister, Chenille. When she was in the fourth grade, she held the record for most books read in a month by a single student. What a studious child she was! Have you spoken with her lately?"
"It's been a while. Chenille keeps busy with her teaching job in Bible Grove," Chiffon said, refilling her coffee cup. "But she'll come home for the occasional holiday."
"I haven't seen her in years," Birdie said. "Isn't Bible Grove only about two hours away?"
Chiffon smiled thinly. Truth was, her sister, Chenille, was a weird bird. She wore prissy blouses buttoned to her chin and shoes with large buckles or bows. And she continuously fussed over that little dog of hers, dressing him up in outfits that matched her own, brushing his teeth with a miniature toothbrush. It just wasn't natural.
The sisters hadn't been close as children (Chenille with her nose in a book; Chiffon out and about with a tribe of friends), and they were even more distant as adults.
Chiffon glanced at a clock on the wall. Where'd the morning go?
"I better be on my way," she said, picking up the carrier in which her daughter dozed. "See you all tonight?"
The ladies had promised to help Chiffon prepare for Elizabeth's shower tomorrow. She'd agreed to host the party, since she wasn't going to be in California.
"We'll be there," Mavis said, with a good-bye wave.
That evening Birdie stood on a kitchen stool, hanging pink and blue streamers from the living room ceiling. Chiffon filled baby bottles with pastel almonds from a large plastic bag, while Attalee and Mavis sat across from her at the kitchen table, putting the finishing touches on corsages fashioned from pacifiers.
As usual, Chiffon had to pee, but she wanted to fill one last bottle before she went to the bathroom. Ever since she'd given birth to Gabby, her bladder had been all out of whack. Now drinking a half a can of Diet Pepsi would make her fidget in her seat. As she crossed one leg over the other to delay nature for a spell, Attalee looked up from her work and snapped her fingers.
"I plumb forgot. I saw a commercial today for that TV show, Hollywood Hijinks. They said Janie-Lynn Lauren was going to be on tonight."
"Really?" Chiffon said. "What time does it start?"
"Seven o'clock," Attalee said.
Birdie climbed down from the stool and glanced at her wristwatch. "It's a minute till right now."
Chiffon picked up the remote from the lamp table and aimed it at the television. "Let's take a break for a minute," she said. "Maybe she'll talk about her new movie."
The women abandoned their projects and gathered around the television.
"Up next, a Hollywood Hijinks first," announced Godiva Jones, the host, wearing a slinky silver dress and diamond chandelier earrings. "Superstar Janie-Lynn Lauren snuggles with a mystery man outside an L.A. watering hole. Hollywood Hijinks has exclusive footage of the torrid twosome."
"That Janie-Lynn is skin and bones," Birdie tsked as the show went to a commercial. "Why, a good strong squall could carry her away."
"I read she takes three bites of her food at meals and then dumps salt all over it so she won't eat any more," Chiffon said.
"She's thin as a cake of lye soap after a week's washing," Attalee said. Her trick eye jumped behind the lens of her glasses. "A woman needs some meat on her frame."
Chiffon patted her middle, which was still plenty fleshy after the baby's birth. Her mother had given her a Belly Buster for her birthday last month, but the gadget hadn't shrunk her tummy one whit.
"Onlookers gawked when Janie-Lynn Lauren fraternized with a new fellow at Joseph's, an L.A. nightspot," Godiva chirped after the break. "But the cozy couple only had eyes for each other. Rumor has it that Lauren's latest lad is an extra on the set of her new movie, The Mail Order Bride."
Chiffon's stomach twisted at the word "extra," and she scooted to the edge of her chair.
The footage of Janie-Lynn Lauren and her new boyfriend was dark and grainy. All Chiffon could discern was a shadowy, masculine figure smooching with the actress. Then, as the camera panned in for a tighter shot, she made out a familiar profile. A pair of copper-colored eyes sprang open, and her husband, Lonnie, stared directly into the camera, a hangdog look on his face.
Time stood still as Chiffon gaped at the TV from her spot on the La-Z-Boy. Then a wet warmth, spreading from her bottom to the back of her thighs, jolted her out of her daze. It took a couple of seconds to realize she'd peed her britches.
Copyright © 2005 by Karin Gillespie