I had managed to get through Ash Wednesday with my vow of abstinence intact. The ball gowns were divided into those destined for the cleaners and those to be left at the Junior League Second Hand Shop for recycling by some future patronesses of the Queens of the Nile or the Maids of Ophelia, better known as MOO. The dozen or so hat boxes were returned to the top shelf of the closet, the champagne spattered, linen pumps of just the exact shade of not-quite-lime green were relegated to the new puppy as a chew toy, and the children, the little dears, were off to St. Olaf’s for the resumption of classes. I, thank gawd, was happy to return to my normal routine when I opened the Titusville Tattler to the front page of Section D.
With a big sip from my third cup of coffee (as Blanche Dubois so succinctly stated, “A little bourbon never hurt a Coca Cola,” well a little scandal never hurt a really good cup of coffee), my eyes finally focused and I turned to the final wrap-up of the Mardi Gras season. After all, nothing really happens in Titusville unless it makes the Paper. I grimaced at the epithet Bette’s Boudoir and gave a sigh for the good old days when Aunt Joanna determined the social significance (i.e. who made the Paper and who did not) of any event, large or small. And who better, I say. After all, she, of all people, knows intimately every old family in Titusville. Indeed, Joanna Whitley Dunham Rictor Ames Johansen had earned her status as social lioness of Titusville society.
I sniffed and read on. The words fairly jumped out at me: steel gray silk pantsuit with Capri styling. I felt faint, the coffee cup slipped from my fingers and ricocheted off the table splattering hot coffee against the Sport Section of the Paper that Ham (Hamilton Greer Ames, III) held before him as he perused yet another titillating account of the fifteen car crash in the Daytona 500 wherein Jeff Gordon masterfully navigated the entire lap without a single scratch. He lowered the paper, his eyes not quite leaving the text of the printed word. “Is something wrong, Mary Margaret?”
For a moment I couldn’t find my voice, and no, it wasn’t from shouting over the roar of music and voices at the R.F.F. reception on Fat Tuesday in order to dish the spring finery on display with a dozen or so of my closest friends. Not since that day ten or more years ago when I walked into Brennan’s Restaurant in New Orleans for a tasty hundred dollar plate of eggs for brunch where I came face to face with a couple wearing matching tee shirts in outrageous orange stating I’m with Bubba and I’m Bubba, have I experienced a faux pas of such magnitude. Brennan’s had an excuse, or so the new management claimed. They were, after all, a commercial enterprise and to continue to insist that gentlemen wear suits, or in a pinch, a sports coat, was getting in the way of the free enterprise system. Besides, tourists in cut off jeans and earth shoes like eggs, too. But to wear a steel gray silk pantsuit with Capri styling to the Royal Fools of Folly champagne reception, a one hundred and twenty-five year old social tradition, went beyond the pale.
I shot to my feet, spilled coffee ignored, and stepped over shattered Belleek china shards. “I must call Shuga,” I said as I rushed for the privacy of my writing desk and the telephone.
Ham grunted and resumed reading.
Trey stammered and stuttered when, in a voice weakened by shock, I asked to speak to Shuga. I could hear Shuga’s voice in the background. She was ranting about more vodka. Something definitely wasn’t right. I hadn’t seen Shuga since mid-way through the reception when two of her little boys who were serving as pages to the Court were sliding like hockey pucks across the champagne spattered floor of the main ballroom, made grimy with hundreds of dancing feet, in their Little Lord Fauntleroy outfits. She, at that point, was fortified with adult beverage to the point that her stock answer to any inquiry was, “What can I say, I married a Democrat.”
“Trey, if you don’t put Shuga on the phone right this minute, I’m coming over.”
“That you, M?”
Shuga has called me M since our kindergarten days at Alonzo P. Hiram’s School for Girls when attendance at that institution was an identity as well as a social statement. Now, as Sophie Newcomb has lost its identity to Tulane University, alas, Hiram’s has surrendered its suzerainty to St. Olaf’s. Is nothing sacred? But I digress. Shuga’s tongue was thick with what I knew from our youth to be an excess of spirits, and not the disembodied kind.
“Shuga, what are you doing? Have you forgotten our vow to abstain from alcoholic consumption for the duration of Lent?”
“I’m in mourning.”
“Oh, my gawd.” What had happened? “Who–not Aunt Joanna? Or Uncle Jack?” I was working my way down the list of connections near and dear to Shuga. “The children?”
“Worse!” What could be worse? Then I remembered the purpose of this call and Bette’s Boudoir and sank back against the chintz covered chair. “You’ve seen the Paper.”
“The Paper? What’s the Paper got to do with it?”
“I saw her! At the reception! As blatant as you please.” Shuga’s voice strengthened with righteous indignation. “Before gawd and everybody!”
“You mean you actually saw the steel gray silk pantsuit with Capri styling?”
“You saw it, too?”
“No, it was in the Paper.”
“The Paper!” Shuga’s shriek nearly pierced my eardrum. I had no time to recover from that shock when the clatter of the receiver against a hard surface apprized me of the fact that Shuga had lost her grip, literally and figuratively. I could hear Trey making soothing sounds in the background while Shuga continued to shriek, “The phone! The phone! Find the phone!”
With much fumbling and muttered oaths, the phone, pacifier that it is, was returned to her frantic grasp. “What should we do?”
I had been busily thinking through the consequences of this catastrophe and trying to decide what could be done. There was only one answer. “Get dressed. I’ll pick you up in twenty minutes. We need Aunt Joanna’s advice.”
Shuga’s lipstick had a decidedly orangey cast to it and didn’t quite follow the outline of her lips. Neither the color nor the artistry did anything for her sallow complexion and the puffiness beneath her eyes. It must have been one of those freebies in the latest Lancome special. I could only hope that Aunt Joanna wouldn’t notice or would attribute it to the great shock we had both suffered.
Ester ushered us into the inner sanctum where Aunt Joanna determined the social fate of a number of events as she sorted invitations to various functions from political rallies to weddings into Accept and Decline piles. She looked up from her task and her smile was brittle. “Dahlings, how delightful to see you this morning.”
I could see the Paper on the fainting couch. The Sport Section was on top. A bad sign. In a crisis I knew the best course of action was to fall back on breeding and manners. “Aunt Joanna, how wonderful you look this morning. I’m so sorry to appear on your doorstep without so much as a call–”
Shula could not be constrained by mere decorum. “Have you seen it? Did you see her?
Aunt Joanna’s eyebrows rose to that imperial height that has made many a debutante quake in her shoes. “Shuga, dahling, I do believe you’ve been drinking.”
It was true that Shuga bore all the outward signs of having imbibed, but the truth was, the shock of learning that the steel gray silk pantsuit with Capri styling had actually made the Paper had sobered her completely. She threw a guilty glance in my direction. Since our days in the Court together when she reigned as Queen and I served as her Maid, she has always cast me as the defender of all well deserved charges laid at her door.
“The shock, Aunt Joanna. It would drive a saint to drink,” I said.
“Yes.” Aunt Joanna’s eyebrows lowered a fraction. She lifted her hand in silent summons and Ester appeared at her elbow. “A little medicinal libation for the girls, Ester.”
This was serious. Aunt Joanna has guided many a Court through the rituals of the Season and always professed that the stroke of midnight on Fat Tuesday should bring an abrupt halt to all the pleasures of the flesh that frolic had entailed. “But, Aunt Joanna! What about Lent?”
“There are certain times when moral strictures must give way to the expedient. We need our wits about us, dahling girls. Besides, look at the Pope’s behavior in St. Louis.”
For the first time since reading those dreaded words, steel gray silk pantsuit with Capri styling, I felt myself relax a little. Aunt Joanna recognized the significance of this transgression and it would be dealt with. Ester arrived with two highball glasses of Makers Mark bourbon (Aunt Joanna won’t tolerate the presence of that cheap J.D. in her house). Shuga and I took a long soothing drink and further relaxed against the silk brocade of the sofa. In the nether regions of the house, the telephone rang as we sat patiently waiting for Aunt Joanna to map out a course of action.
Ester reappeared with the cordless phone in hand and spoke softly near Aunt Joanna’s ear. She took the receiver and said in that honeyed voice of hers, “Bama, dahling. How delightful to hear from you.”
Aunt Joanna paused for a response.
We could hear Bama’s excited voice though not her words.
“Yes, Bama, I did.”
Another pause as Bama ranted on.
The interruption was lengthier this time.
Finally, Aunt Joanna would brook no further interruptions. “Bama, sweetheart, don’t excite yourself. I’ve already spoken to Jack this morning. Nothing like this ever happened when he held sway in these matters.
Shuga and I looked at each other and nodded in agreement.
“Don’t worry, dahling. She probably doesn’t even know what the Easter Ball is.”
Both Shuga and I sat forward, gripped by a new spasm of fear.
“Who is she? Well, really, Bama, I don’t know.”
Shuga and I sank back into the luxurious softness of the sofa, signed with relief, and allowed the mellow feeling of good bourbon to hold sway. If Aunt Joanna didn’t know steel gray silk pantsuit with Capri styling then all was well with the universe. She obviously wasn’t a Titusvillian and never would be.
©Rebecca Campbell Barrett