Corinne hung up the phone, took a deep Yoga breath, and reached to the shelf above the telephone nook for her Charleston Party Receipts cookbook. A pitcher of Mrs. Foxworth's Bloody Mary cocktails, she thought, and maybe that crab-and-mushroom thing.
"Not that anybody could find a lousy half-pound of fresh crab out here in the middle of the fucking Delta," she muttered aloud, then caught herself, went back and mentally deleted the F-word. Not very ladylike of course there wasn't a soul for miles around to hear other than Alf, the border collie, sprawled and dreaming on the rug where the early afternoon sun streamed through the screen door. "And you don't care, do you, Alfie?"
At the mention of his name, the dog's head jerked up; his tail thumped the floor a couple of times, then his head lowered and his eyes closed again.
Oh, to be so placid and self-contained, Corinne thought as she opened the canned crab. She wanted everything to be perfect for tonight. Except for a couple of tailgate parties at Ole Miss football games, tonight's was the first real social event she and Brad had been invited to in the months since they'd moved to the Blakeville area last spring after his graduation from law school in New Orleans. Oh, there'd been the two teas, of course, and Ann Louise Templeton's brunch, and the baby shower for Brad's sister Mamie women-only affairs where Corinne knew she was undergoing inspection despite the veneer of festering-magnolia hospitality.
Tonight would be different: couples and singles, a real event, her first taste of the highly touted Delta party life she'd always heard so much about. Corinne almost laughed aloud at herself for feeling an exhilaration reminiscent of high-school prom days, an adrenaline-laced excitement that in former years had preceded any evening of glamour and she smiled at the word romance.
She just wished Brad hadn't stayed so late in Memphis taking depositions, or that at least he'd had more time to talk when they'd been on the phone a few minutes ago. Of course she'd known about the event for a couple of weeks. "A chunk party!" she'd exclaimed when he told her the Holts were hosting one at Mayfield Plantation. "How wonderful!" Never mind that Velma Holt, Brad's sister's best friend, who'd gone steady with Brad all through high school, seemed resentful of Corinne for marrying Brad, although Velma had married Eugene Holt nearly four years before Corinne and Brad had wed. And what difference did it make that Corinne hadn't the foggiest notion what a chunk party was?
She wasn't about to let on to Brad or anyone else that chunk parties had somehow been omitted from her social repertoire. She was touchily aware of the irony that she, a Charleston debutante transplanted by marriage all the way out here to the boonies, was the one who seemed to be a hick. She was inept at fitting in, nervous practically to the point of being tongue-tied and awkward regardless of her impeccable social credentials.
So when Brad had announced the invitation apparently passed by word-of-mouth, having come to Brad via another junior partner in his firm Corinne had decided instantly not to disabuse him of the notion that she'd been attending chunk parties all her life. She was certain she could finesse it. She'd tried to sound nonchalant when she asked him, "What'll I wear? Shall I take something?"
"It's casual, of course," he'd responded, "and they'll have stuff there, but you might want to take a little something."
"Fine!" But by now she'd learned that in Blakeville, "casual" could mean anything from black-tie on down. If she ran into one of her new acquaintances in the produce aisle at the Piggly Wiggly, that person might very well be perfectly coifed and immaculately made-up, wearing heels and a Lanz dress, as though on her way to or from church, whether or not it was Sunday. And take what "little something"? Something to eat? Something to drink? Would a big bottle of booze be an insult?
But she'd finally had to make up her mind, and now here she stood, grating cheese, mincing onions, glancing out the kitchen window now and then to watch the yellow leaves drift languidly down from the redbud, the maroon leaves spin down from the dogwood. Focus on the good, she thought. At least here there's a real change of seasons, she mused; I can wear that classy Ralph Lauren tweed suit tonight, with my russet silk blouse and the brown suede pumps with the chunky heels. Chunky heels for a chunk party; she giggled, then thought, if I tried wearing that outfit in Charleston right now, I'd probably burn up.
She poured the Bloody Mary concoction into a pretty Plexiglas pitcher with a leak-proof lid and set it inside the fridge. "Come on, Alfie! Time to go get beautiful!"
The dog dutifully rose, stretched, and followed her up the stairs. He was Brad's dog, really; although he minded Corinne politely, he wasn't very much company. It was as though he was never quite all there unless Brad was around. Corinne had thought more than once about getting a cat, but knowing Brad didn't like them, she tried instead to become better friends with Alf. So far, it hadn't been much use.
From her bedroom window she gazed out into the brilliant red-orange of the maples that wound down the driveway and out of sight toward the highway. A sharp breeze came through the screen, welcome after the sweltering days of an unseasonably warm fall unrelieved by rain. This day was golden, not a cloud in the sky; the air had a crisp sparkle, beckoning, promising, making Corinne look forward to the hour-long late-afternoon drive to Mayfield Plantation. And she could hardly wait to see that house she'd heard her new friends talking about it at Mamie's shower. Apparently it was a real antebellum showplace; Corinne hoped seeing it would inspire some ideas she could use here at Glenwood, where she and Brad had lived since coming "home" from school.
Glenwood, too, had been built before the war, but not on the scale of some of the other places in the area. Still, it was a stately old foursquare with the original molding and mantels as well as other fine details; Corinne felt lucky to be able to live here, and on weekends Brad enjoyed helping his father farm the acreage. The place actually belonged to Brad's widowed great-aunt Dorothy, a drifty blue-haired old dear who, after several accidents during her last years in the crumbling, leaking old house, had moved to Sycamore Plantation where Brad's parents could keep a closer eye on her. She'd left Glenwood only a couple of weeks before Corinne and Brad had come to Blakeville; when she realized they were looking for somewhere to live, she'd begged them to move in and fix up the old place.
Corinne had been delighted. If there was one thing she had confidence in, it was that she could make a respectable contribution to any historic restoration project. Her mother dabbled in residential real estate in downtown Charleston. Corinne, wanting to help pull her own weight while at the College of Charleston, had earned her spending money and later, her tuition and rent by helping her mother refurbish old buildings and get them ready for people to move into. In the process, she had honed her knack for interior design and developed a wide knowledge of antebellum architecture, period furnishings and antiques. The work had dovetailed nicely with her major in art history and helped her land a museum job in New Orleans, where she'd met Bradford Maxwell Blake III, who at that time happened to be in law school there. For Corinne, restoration and preservation had progressed from a mere job to her main passion; Brad often teased her for not being able to pass any fallen-down old building without yearning to save it.
By now, Corinne was already well into the painstaking research on Glenwood she regarded as prerequisite for any restoration job, but her involvement and interest in this project went far deeper than any other she'd done. Having married one of the Blakeville Blakes, she felt it incumbent on her to do justice to Glenwood. The outcome, she knew, would not merely save one more antebellum structure; it would reflect on Brad's family name, now hers. She hoped that an impressive restoration of Glenwood might also serve as a testimony to her own acumen, helping her gain acceptance in this new community where up till now her position seemed undetermined and tenuous.
Her immersion in the job had also served as a lifeline that helped Corinne maintain her sanity during the long, lonely days while Brad was at work. Blakeville secretly, she called it "Bleakville" was no cornucopia of cultural attractions, but at least it had a library and several good antique shops owned or run by people who shared her interests. They, too, had sung the praises of Mayfield Mansion, so she was doubly eager to see it tonight.
She frowned into the mirror. There was nothing really wrong with her reflection: Her honey-colored hair fell straight to her shoulders, curving into a pageboy; her plain gold necklace gleamed; her taupe stockings echoed the muted tones of the herringbone blazer. But somehow, she thought, she looked too tailored too businesslike. So she twisted her hair into a knot atop her head, exchanged the gold necklace for a string of pearls, and tucked a rust-colored silk rose into her lapel. Finally, she removed the small gold hoops from her ears and inserted pearls. None too soon: Alfie jumped up and bounded downstairs, anticipating, as usual, the sound of Brad's tires on the gravel drive. He always heard the truck coming before she did.
Corinne moved to the window. As the silver-and-maroon Dodge Ram emerged from the trees, she noticed Brad had had it washed. Sometimes she joked that he loved that truck better than he loved her. In their garage stood a late model Cadillac, a vintage Mercedes and the BMW convertible Brad had bought for her as a wedding gift, but tonight, as always, Brad would probably insist on driving the truck some kind of good ole boy thing, she supposed.
Her attention was piqued as Brad drove past the front door, where she'd expected him to stop. Where was he going? She moved to another window where she could see better. He drove past the barn to the tractor shed, where they stored farm equipment. Just inside the open front was an enormous stack of firewood. Brad backed the truck up to it, climbed out of the cab, and began tossing logs, two at a time, into the truckbed. "What in the hell is he doing?" Corinne asked aloud. He finally stopped, pulled out a handkerchief and dusted his hands. Then he climbed into the truck and drove back to the front of the house, stopping by the front door as she'd originally expected him to.
She ran downstairs and opened the door. Alfie bounded out in front of her. "Hey!" she said.
"Hiya, Alf! Hey, Hon!" he said as he came up the front steps. He suddenly stopped. She knew by his face she was wearing the wrong thing. He said, "I thought you'd be ready." He pulled her into his arms for a kiss. She took the kiss, returned it, then backed off, looking at him. He was rumpled: his chestnut hair windblown, his tie loosened and collar- button undone, his Armani suit sagging on his lanky frame. She asked, "Are you going like that, then?"
"No, I want to throw on some jeans."
"Good. All I have to do is put on a pair of slacks--won't take a minute."
She started away from him, asking, "You want a drink?"
But he grabbed her arm. "Wait a minute. I've got something to show you."
"A surprise. Come on out here." And he led her down the steps and around to the back of his truck, where he let down the tailgate. "Voila'!"
"What on earth!" There in the truckbed, in front of the pile of firewood heaped next to the cab, was an oversized, overstuffed recliner chair, some sort of Barcalounger or La-Z-Boy wide enough to seat two, upholstered in hideous gold-and-avocado wool plaid that had obviously seen better days. A strip of silver duct tape was plastered over its left arm like a bandaid.
Alfie leapt to the truckbed and began sniffing it enthusiastically.
"Isn't it great? I found it in a junk shop down on Manassas for just 10 bucks." Brad was bursting with pride. Had he lost his mind? Surely he didn't expect her to take that filthy thing into the house.
"But where'll we put it?" she asked.
"Why, it's for tonight, Darlin' Cory! Ain't it a hoot and a half?"
Corinne, usually amused when Brad lapsed into the vernacular, felt a flash of annoyance. She said, "I I never knew they made double-wide lounge chairs." She failed to hide the sneer in her voice, but it didn't matter Brad was oblivious.
"Neither did I, but yonder she sits! We'll be the envy of everyone we can snuggle down in her!" And again he drew her close for a kiss.
Completely bewildered, she wanted to kick herself. Why in the world hadn't she just asked him what a chunk party was, instead of trying to be such a know-it-all? Now, as far from enlightenment as ever, she was loath to let him find out not only how abysmally ignorant she was, but also what a hypocrite she'd been for trying to make him think she was an old pro at chunk parties. She gazed dismally at the lounge chair. Alf was now enthroned on it, his tongue lolling proudly. "Brad, that thing might have fleas." Or worse, she thought, shuddering.
"Oh. Right. I'll spray it right after I change. Why don't you make us a drink?"
"Fine." She headed for the kitchen as he went upstairs. Ordinarily, she wouldn't drink before going to a party, but after fixing Brad's Jack Daniel's and water, she poured herself a stiff shot of Canadian Club and topped it off with ginger ale. She made both drinks extra strong, in tall plastic cups to take on the road; then after a long sip, she refilled her own.
Just as she finished packing the cooler, Brad came into the kitchen wearing jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, his damp hair still showing the teeth marks of the comb. "Thanks," he said, taking his drink.
"Here's the spray," she said, handing him an aerosol can, "and the stuff we'll be taking is in the cooler." She pointed. "I'll be right back."
"Great. It's getting dark already days are getting shorter. And don't it feel good out there? Better take a jacket."
When she returned, she found him spraying the recliner. Her hair was again loose, the rose in her lapel was gone, plain gold hung in place of the pearls, and wool slacks had replaced her skirt. On her feet were olive suede saddle oxfords. She decided to take a chance: "Do I look okay?"
He stood in the truck bed with the spray-can in his hand, a cloud of mist settling on him and the chair. Alfie, who hated flea-spray, was nowhere to be seen. Brad looked at her. "You look great, but aren't you a little dressed up?"
Exasperated, she said frostily, "This is what everyone wears to Charleston chunk parties."
Surprised at the irritation in her voice, he raised his eyebrows. "Well, Honey, you asked." Mistaking her ire for wounded vanity, he jumped from the tailgate and took her in his arms, assuring her: "You look beautiful, just like you always do."
After a long kiss, they climbed into the truck, popped Lucinda Williams into the CD player, and headed down the road. As she sipped her drink and listened to the music, watching the autumn fields flash by in the deepening twilight, Corinne decided she didn't care what a chunk party was she was going to enjoy herself.
By the time they reached the main entrance gate to Mayfield, the harvest moon had begun to rise full and orange as an egg yolk, so big it looked close enough to touch. They rattled over the cattle gap and followed a gravel drive more than a quarter mile through a pecan grove before the house finally came into sight.
Corinne drew an audible breath. "Goodness!" she whispered, in awe.
"Yeah," Brad agreed. "Quite a sight, huh?"
And it was: Massive but graceful, like something out of "Gone With the Wind," with two-story-high columns stretching across the front and around the sides; upper and lower wrap-around verandas; a mansard roof; and on the north side, interrupting the symmetry but somehow adding to the grandeur, a porte-cochere with a Lincoln Town Car parked beneath it. White with green shutters, the enormous home seemed to glow in the dark. Lights sparkled from the windows and from the porch chandeliers.
Corinne was a little surprised not to see more cars around. She hoped they weren't too early. When the drive forked, instead of going left onto the loop that circled in front of the house, Brad drove straight ahead, past the mansion and toward a dark clump of barns and stables in the distance. Astonished, Corinne asked, "Where are you going?"
"The party's down by the levee," he answered.
"Oh." Corinne's heart fell. A line from an old song went through her head: Good ole boys drinkin' whiskey and rye. . . . She said, "I'd sort of hoped to see the house."
"I doubt if you'll get to tonight," he told her. "Why don't you and Velma make arrangements to get together sometime during the day next week?"
Yeah, right, she thought; I'll invite myself over for lunch, and Velma can spend the whole time telling me what-all you two used to do when you were going steady in your high-school days, back when she was still Velma Mayfield. No thanks.
The truck's headlights carved a tunnel through the dark, lighting the sumac and scrub mimosa along the hedgerows, until they came to a gate. "Hop over here and drive through so I can close it behind us," he told her. The CD player was on low; when he opened the door, she could hear the tree-frogs and crickets above the music, leftover summer sounds in the chilly air that rushed into the truck.
They went through two more gates, the gravel road giving way to dirt after the second. Gradually the horizon of the land seemed to rise before them, darker than the sky. "There's the levee," he said.
The road, by now little more than a wagon track, followed the levee south. Eventually they could see a glow in the darkness; soon after that, they rounded a bend and saw a huge bonfire, the golden flames flickering skyward, sparks flying upward into the dark. As they drew closer, Corinne observed that the fire was surrounded by a dozen or so pick-up trucks, their tailgates facing the light. People were sitting on chairs in the truck beds or milling about among the vehicles. Brad pulled up and backed the Ram in between a Silverado and a GMC.
"Well, here we are!" he announced unnecessarily. "Come on, Honey," he called as he leapt from the truck to receive his friends' greetings. He had left the door open. The night air coming off the river invaded the cab like an unwelcome stranger, slipping icy fingers under Corinne's wool blazer and chilling her to the bone. She was suddenly overcome by a pang of homesickness, an intense longing for palmettos and Spanish moss and the rich marshy smell of the coastal low country. Brad had gone off with his friends. She wanted to cry.
Instead, she took a long swallow of her drink, thought a moment, and turned to retrieve the old quilts Brad kept folded in the extension of the cab behind the driver's seat. She decided that although they were moldy and none too clean, having accompanied Brad hunting and fishing several times since she'd washed them, she would spread them on that nasty recliner anything would be better that letting her good clothes come in contact with the dirty plaid wool. As she reached for the quilts, she spotted the cooler she'd packed, and next to it, the big ice chest Brad always took camping. Lifting the lid, she saw that it was filled with ice, beer and Cokes. There was also a fifth of Jack Daniel's tucked in among the cans. Good, she thought; I couldn't possibly get as drunk as I plan to on just that little old pitcher I packed. She filled her cup with ice and whiskey and added a little Coke. Taking it and the quilts, she went around to the back of the truck, let down the tailgate, and climbed up.
After spreading one of the quilts on the seat, she sat down in the recliner and tucked the other around her, queen on a ramshackle throne. She sipped her drink and surveyed the scene before her. In the flicker of firelight it might have appeared eerily atavistic, had it not been for an unmistakable spirit of domesticity permeating the place. People were wandering about or standing in groups talking; a few stood or squatted by the fire roasting wieners or toasting marshmallows. Several trucks away, children played noisily. Dogs meandered through the area greeting one another, tails wagging in goodwill. If Alf hadn't been run off by the flea spray, he'd probably be here, too, she realized. She missed him.
Guitar music drifted from somewhere on the far side of the fire; she couldn't make out the words, but a man was singing "Paradise; " other voices joined his on the chorus. Two more trucks arrived, backing in to be greeted by shouts of welcome. She spotted Brad not far away; he was helping some men set up a makeshift table, laying boards across a couple of saw-horses. When they finished, two women shook out a cloth and spread it on top. She was assailed by the scent of what she thought was lamb and garlic, green peppers and onions. She peered over the side of the truck. The couple belonging to the Silverado next door had set up a small grill; the man was in the process of arranging shish-ka-bobs on the rack over the glowing coals while the woman looked on. They glanced up to see her watching them. "That sure smells good," she said. The man looked up and smiled. "You want some? We got plenty."
"It's goat," the woman said.
"It is not goat, it is kid," he corrected her, an exaggerated patience in his tone.
"Same thing," she said.
"Ain't neither. Lamb ain't mutton, and kid ain't goat. I keep telling you."
He adjusted a skewer.
"Yeah," the woman said, "and you're about to get my goat. A billy by any other name. . . ."
She looked up at Corinne and grinned. Corinne said, "Whatever it is, it smells delicious. Thanks for the offer maybe later." And she leaned back in the recliner. She was too depressed to be hungry. She envied the couple's easy compatibility. Suddenly she heard Eugene Holt's voice yelling from a distance: "Nathan!" he shouted. "Yo, Nate! Your turn, boy! Throw another chunk on her!"
Stepping toward the tailgate of his truck, he held the log as though it were a football and he were about to make a thirty-yard-pass. The stick of wood went sailing through the air and landed PLOCK! in the middle of the bonfire, sending up a shower of sparks and eliciting an admiring roar from the crowd.
So this was a chunk party!
Corinne burst out laughing in spite of herself. You just had to hand it to these crazy Delta people. Way out here in the middle of nowhere, where there was practically nothing to do, they'd come up with a unique form of recreation that somehow suited them perfectly. She felt a rush of affection for them.
Brad came back, stopping to congratulate Nate on his throw. Corinne jumped down from the tailgate to meet him with a hug. She whispered in his ear, "We've got the best seat of anybody! I can hardly wait till we snuggle down in her. But right now, why don't you get the cooler, and let's find Velma so she can tell us where she wants the food to go. I'm starving I need to eat soon or I'm liable to get drunk."
"Okey-doke, Darlin' Corey; I'm hungry too but first let me fix me another. Sure I can't freshen you up?"
"No thanks. I think I better slow down."
She leaned against the truck, waiting for him. The moon was higher now, more yellow than orange, smaller than before but still majestic. The warmth of the fire felt good; so did the chilly air. It was a beautiful night.
Memphis native Kay Newton has lived for a number of years in Knoxville, where she operates a small bed-and-breakfast inn, the Star Magnolia. She's a member of the Knoxville Writers' Guild, writes song lyrics, and occasionally teaches writing and publishes poetry.
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