Monday, September 3, 2018

Mint Juleps and Murder: Partyin' on the Plantation begins

This is one of my favorite chapters out of the Mint Julep Mysteries. I am about to start another book in this series. I re-read this. Laughed once more. Thought I would share.

Chapter Three

I had discovered before the taping of the first show for Partying on the Plantation that the crew thought we were a pair of “rich Southern bitches.” I heard one of the make-up girls say so, though as of yet, neither Sophie nor I had any contact with them. I cocked my ears toward the two women gossiping.  
“Look at all those fancy dishes. You put that stuff out at a party and everyone knows you’re putting on airs.” 
 They thought our grandmother’s gold-rimmed Limoges china, etched crystal and antique English silver (that we’d gotten off of YOWAY and delivered by SpedEx. giving me the willies, I might add) was “putting on airs”! We’d been delighted to find a set of china that actually could have been our Grandmother’s. The goblets and silver looked so much like that she had been so proud of we both cried as we’d washed and dried each piece by hand. We thought it looked beautiful on the polished mahogany table beneath the Czechoslovakian crystal chandelier.  
Grandmother had hauled water for cooking from the stream to cook in kitchen of the little house across the street from Waverly. She and the other women in the neighborhood scrubbed their clothes in that same stream. She picked up pecans for spending money and built her up a small herd of cattle one by one. She made biscuits and stuck her finger in making a hole into which to pour molasses for her children’s lunches. That was what they could afford. In bad times, people paid the doctor last. Or brought him produce and called it even.  
My daddy said as a little boy he’d watch children eat their lunch of a slice of pineapple with mayonnaise between two slices of white bread and he swore to himself that someday he’d have the money to buy white bread and pineapple. When the time came that Grandmother could afford those pretty dishes and the etched glass, she had earned it. If she got pleasure out of using them, God bless her. 
Would the rest of America appreciate the sentiment? That her granddaughters were paying homage to their Grandmother’s memory? Would they miss the purpose of doing things graciously? I felt my confidence drain.  
Mick Jefferson, the independent videographer whom the Dishing It Network had hired to chronicle the show from a real life perspective, spent a lot of time with that television crew. He took me aside and told me that Sister came off as aloof, too refined, intellectual and elegant. 
“She might not translate well on television,” he said. I was afraid of that. But then he continued, “And, from the practice tapings I have done to help the two of you get used to the cameras, you are filming stiff, anxious and too eager.” I know my dismay was written all over my face.
“I say that as a friend,” he assured me.
Finally the day arrived for the actual filming to start. We would tape the preparation of different dishes for the show in Sophie’s kitchen. Brilliant lights lit the kitchen and though the air conditioning blasted full force, it still was hot as hell in that room! The breakfast room that was really just a part of the kitchen was filled with the Dishing It Network crew. Nerves were raw because of the heat and because it was our first time to all work together. 
As if my nerves couldn’t get any tighter, I came into the kitchen in the middle of a hot flash wondering why everything was so quiet. I found everyone on the production staff with their eyes focused as one under the pine table in the breakfast room of Grandmother’s kitchen. I looked toward where they were looking. 
Eudo, sister's beloved Schnauzer, happily humped away under the table on the much-abused Maltese bedroom shoe, a gift from my granddaughter, that I’d given up on ever wearing again. Dido languished, watching Eudo with resignation. Their presence had been written into the contract. Sister hated to let them get out of her sight since her last visit to the pet psychiatrist. Apparently he had convinced her that Eudo suffered from separation anxiety and he should be allowed his “connection” with the inanimate object that gave him comfort. His “loss” (the neutering) exacerbated by Gil’s death had triggered a psychosis that was activated by his slight exposure to the mercury.  
I thought that was a bunch of baloney and it was just a way to get Sister to ante up bucks for more visits. Whatever. They were her babies and if she needed him near … well, I’d try to look the other way.  
“What’s going on?” I whispered to Mike. 
“The crew has taken bets on how long that little guy can last,” he answered without looking up to see who had asked the question.   
I began to worry. Where was Sister? The sound of running water drew my attention away from Eudo. Sister was at the sink washing the bird she was to roast for what I knew must be the umpteenth time. She’d scrub her hands down to her elbows, spray all the surfaces with Bleach-Lite and then pop on sterile gloves out of a box to start all over again. You’d have thought she prepared for surgery instead of a filming the roasting of a chicken.
Both she and Eudo were oblivious to the prying eyes. 
I, being a Southern lady attempted to be refined, pretending to ignore the indelicate behavior. We are taught early that it is “common” to acknowledge vulgarity. I picked my way through the crew to a spot behind the cameraman where I could watch the action.  
We had gone over the process of preparing and roasting a turkey several times. Sophia consulted with Julia Child’s French Cooking video and the book (basically a lot of common sense advice) and our own family recipe book. No cook in our past had thought anyone needed to know measurements. We were supposed to know what a pinch or a dash was! But Sister was a trooper and took things seriously. She prepared two turkeys that we’d eaten off of for the last week just to be sure she knew what she was doing. 
Cameron, our producer, entered the kitchen oblivious to the crew’s distraction. He called, “Quiet on the Set.”  
The “set” the man had said. Sister’s kitchen was a “set”! God help us. It sunk in on me.
When Cameron called “Action” Sister froze. Apparently it had just sunk in on her as well! 
She stood with a deer-in-the headlights kind of expression holding the bird with a leg in each hand and its empty, perfectly clean cavity flashing directly toward the camera. This woman who could face life or death situations with ease had frozen with fear in front of those cameras. But not only was she frozen, she held the turkey in a particularly obscene position toward the cameraman who shook with laughter behind his tripod.
Mick Jefferson, the videographer filming the filming of the show for a documentary, attempted to smother a laugh and started choking. Contagious laughter spread though the production crew attempted to hold tightly to its professionalism. A cough, a chuckle, a giggle and it grew.
I couldn’t help it. The thought ran through my mind that I’d seen women sit with just about as much modesty. A farsighted doctor could almost perform a pelvic examination they would have their legs spread so wide … just like Sister held that bird.  
Like a wave at an Alabama game, the suppressed chuckles spread, sounding like a group coughing fit.    
So, we had a dog humping and a bird flashing and Sister caught frozen wide-eyed, mouth open, gaping about as badly as that poor bird.  
And then the ruckus began.  
Gigi, my white standard poodle, and Madame Bovary, my Maine Coon cat had been brought at my request to Waverly. Gigi apparently discovered Madame Bovary’s hiding place upstairs in the laundry room where I thought I had left the door securely closed. The silence of Sister’s deer-in the headlights moment was broken by a startling, hair-raising “Yeowwwwww” which the way some of the crew jumped I knew they thought was the spirit of the voodoo priest come to reclaim his bed. Then came a thumping and a rush of paws on the ebony stained floors as Gigi chased Madame Bovary around the upstairs balcony, down the carved mahogany stairs, down the long hall into the kitchen and under the table where Madame Bovary took refuge.   
There Gigi got distracted by the two teeny tiny little excuses for dogs that Sister adored. She decided they were stuffed animals. Gigi grabbed Eudo by the tail and flipped him up in the air. The make-up girl caught him in mid-air.  
Sister unfroze immediately and dropped to her knees to crawl under the table to rescue her babies while the rest of us tried to corral Madame Bovary. Cameron finally grabbed Madame Bovary by the tail as she ran past and now held her tightly while she hissed and sputtered at the dog that had disturbed her rest. I grabbed Gigi, no little dog, and pulled at her collar dragging her from the kitchen and shutting her up in the bathroom under the stairs.  
The whole room now lay in shambles. Power cords got wrapped around the feet of those who were involved in the lighting and filming of our first show as they had jumped and twisted to avoid becoming involved in the cat and dogfight. People flailed and fell in all directions. Then more laughter began.
Sister sat flat on the floor with her feet extended from under the table cradling and comforting Dido. She caught the fever and was now red in the face and gasping for breath. A snorting, hooting woman rolling with laughter was not aloof and too intellectual. At last Sister had revealed her true self.
Mick captured it all on tape.  
“If the show is a flop, you can recoup some of your losses by submitting this to America’s funniest home videos,” he hooted.
I joined Sister on the floor laughing so hard I couldn’t stand.  
 “Think on the bright side,” the make-up girl said, still holding Eudo whose eyes looked like they were going to pop out and his ears stood straight up like he’d been electrocuted. He looked around for that crazy dog that had attacked him. “Maybe that little shock therapy is just what that damned dog needed!”  
When the animals had all been secured and out of sight, we wiped the tears of laughter from our eyes. The make-up girl bonded with the studly Eudo. The way Eudo followed after her, we had hope that perhaps he had transferred his affections.       
“Eventually he’ll realize she’s beyond his reach,” the never before witty Cameron, our producer said matter-of-factly. That did it. We were rolling in the floor again.  
From that point forward the atmosphere was light and easy and the filming less intimidating. Sister now felt comfortable. Shooting a bird took on new meaning. Cameron’s pun challenged each member of the crew to out do the other. We only had to mention Gigi or Madame Bovary and they all began to quake in mock fear. We had bonded.  
Sister and I encouraged Carol, the make-up girl, to help us make the show less intimidating and out of reach for the average viewer. We wanted her to tell us if we became pretentious in any way. 
Incredibly, Faye Lynne showed up just as we were about to begin taping. I was so shocked I could not think of anything to say to keep her out of production. 
“You don’t know what we’re cooking,” I tried.
“How hard can it be to select a spice from a shelf when you tell me what you need? It’s show business you need and it’s show business I know! You two are so inexperienced in show business, you need me,” she said and then she hurried up the stairs to put on her dress for the show.
“What about Estrellita?” I asked, but she was already upstairs by then.
I didn’t have time to worry.
Our show would be simple with shots from the garden to sister in the kitchen with the bird and me mashing potatoes the way my mama did it and making rolls using mayonnaise. We’d boil green beans with onions and cream a little corn.
Cameron called, “Roll it!” Julio played our intro, a song he’d written just for Partying, a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll. My heart pounded like a herd of wild horses. I’m sure I had that same deer-in-the-headlights look on my face I’d seen on Sister earlier. I took a deep breath and forced a smile.
I welcomed everyone and introduced Sister and Julio and our Spice Turner, Faye Lynne. Faye Lynne made her entrance wearing a pink sequined evening gown surprising us with a Partying Queen sash over the magnificent breasts her reconstruction surgeon had created. Her beautiful violet eyes sparkled as she smiled and blew kisses. Sister lifted her eyebrow at me when I gave her the glance she read perfectly. Only Faye Lynne would presume royal status on OUR show. During the forty years since that stellar occasion when she had been queen—of the Nutria Festival -- she had not let one conversation go by without mentioning it. The Nutria Festival was right up there with the Rattlesnake Rodeo in my mind. Curt Lindsey, star of Narc on the Run chose her to be his escort. I glimpsed a scar on Faye Lynne’s otherwise bony chest and all of the irritation I felt whenever I saw her faded away. Partying Queen did kind of fit our Faye Lynne. 
The three of us prepared our traditional celebration supper on autopilot because we got to talking about others who once shared that kitchen with us. Faye Lynne made the most of her spice turning and had the production staff drooling over her cleavage with her practiced poses. We remembered different holidays spent at Waverly with Sister’s and my grandparents. 
Sister handled roasting the chicken with a bit of conflict with Faye Lynne over the seasoning. Sister requested lemon pepper; Faye Lynne brought Diamond’s Cajun Kicker. 
“Lemon pepper, Faye Lynne,” Sister said smiling for the camera.
“That will make a bland chicken,” Faye Lynne insisted. “It needs a kick.”
“Lemon pepper, Faye Lynne, or turn in the sash!” Sister insisted still smiling and whispering between clenched teeth. Faye Lynne sulked her way back to the spice cabinet. But she kept smiling. 
When Sister opened the refrigerator for butter and celery for to stuff inside the chicken she had to move the Mint juleps she had prepared earlier to celebrate with later. She set the mixture on the counter. I guess Faye Lynne thought she meant for it to be served so she pulled out the chilled silver mint juleps cups. In the style of Vanna White changing letters, she poured the potent mixture into the cups and added mint posing and pointing at the counter behind Sister and me with each step. Sister and I were distracted with what we were doing at the island in the foreground. 
Both Sister and I had worked up a serious glow (Southern ladies do not sweat) so when Faye Lynne handed us a cup of something so cold there was humidity on the outside of the silver cup both Sister and I drank it down to the last drop. We might as well have mainlined the pure undiluted Mint Julep syrup as nervous and dehydrated as we were. 
I pulled the wooden corn grater from the drawer and began the task of getting the kernels of corn off the cob. I was suddenly even less coordinated than usual and splattered corn all over the Faye Lynne’s sequined dress and down her cleavage as well as all over the counter and the floor as I ran the corn cutter down the 6 cobs. I thought that was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. And plucked kernels of that precious corn off her chest. 
 I held onto the shifting white marble counter top before heading to the stove. “Like Patsy Dream, I believe in butter,” I said, smiling into the camera as I slammed Grandmother’s well-seasoned black iron pan down on the stove. I opened a stick of real butter and tossed it in. I stirred and unconsciously sang my granddaughter’s favorite song from Frozen to myself while the butter melted to the point of turning dark around the edges.
I like every other grandparent in the country had watched the movie and video and granddaughter performance so much the song reverberated in my subconscious. I did not realize I had begun singing it to the top of my voice, lifting my arms and closing my eyes as I used my wooden spoon as a microphone. That’s what I did in my own kitchen when I cooked, though it was usually Abba’s Dancing Queen that inspired my culinary efforts.
Let it go, let it go!
Can't hold it back any more.
Let it go, let it go!
Turn away and slam the door.
I don't care what they're going to say.
I threw my arms wide in an impressive theatrical manner just like Lucie did and gave the last of the song everything I had.
Let the storm rage on.
The cold never bothered me anyway. 
I tossed the corn into the pan. “Simmer the corn in the butter, add salt and pepper (I shook some salt on the corn and then got down on my hands and knees to find where the pepper had rolled off to). “Add a fourth to a half a cup of milk.” (With a flourish I sloshed milk into the pan without using a measuring cup as if I were building an ice castle instead of creamed corn). 
 “Then watch your family enjoy the best cream corn ever. Fresh is always best,” I said as if I knew what I was talking about, praying the corn did not burn. I kept smiling and tasting wondering why my nose had gone numb. Why was Faye Lynne gaping at me?
I took another sip, leaned on the counter and held the cup to my glowing cheek.
Sister had already snapped the pole beans beside me. She teared up chopping onions on her schnauzer shaped wooden cutting board, and took another slug of the cool liquid. She put the glass up to her dewy forehead. Somehow she managed to talk all the while she transferred both to the boiling salt water. Her mascara ran streaking her face like Alice Cooper. She kept smiling and talking.  
It dawned on us that Cameron our producer was indicating that we go to the dining room to close the show. When we finally sat down at Grandmother’s ten foot mahogany dining table under the sparkling Czechoslovakian chandelier to eat the food we had prepared off Grandmother’s plates with silver just like hers, we were exhausted, but pumped. 
“I wish Grandmother were here,” I said with tears in my eyes. Sister said, “Me too.” Faye Lynne stepped between us and pulled us both to her bounteous bosoms and she joined us in our maudlin tears. “Me too though I barely knew her.”
Someone shoved a box of tissues from the other end of the table. 
We swiped our tears and sat primly with backs straight and linen napkin properly placed upon our laps just as Dishing it Network stars ought to do which struck me as hilarious for the three of us so I started giggling. We served our plates from the beautifully arranged serving dishes in the middle of the table done masterfully by the set designer. I grinned at Sister and Sister grinned back at me over the centerpiece of herbs and flowers cut fresh from the garden and that struck Faye Lynne as funny. The director kept making motions my way and I finally figured out it was time for me to say the clever words I’d written for the closing of our show. For the life of me I could not remember what I wrote!
Then the smoke alarm went off and the small voice of the assistant lighting gaffer left in the kitchen yelled, “Something’s burning!”
Sister, Faye Lynne and I looked at each other and said together, “The rolls!” Smoke billowed through the dining room door as the three of us fought our way through to the door. The credits rolled.
Julio played the song he’d written for the show as the credits ran. 
Cameron had streamed the filming of the pilot live to the main offices in New York. The Dishing It Network graded the reaction of their test audience PR gold for the targeted demographic for our show. He was still laughing when he called us and said, “Funniest thing I ever saw!”
“But Partying on the Plantation is a serious show,” I said. He just laughed harder.
PR gold the network called it. “Who knew the Dishing It Network could do humor?” was the lead of the New York Times culture section when the show aired.
I threw my hands up. We were serious about our show. I told them we didn’t do comedy. 
Bob, the CEO, just smiled and said, “Sign here.” Our people grinned and nodded. I saw lots of zeroes and insurance and I signed. 
Faye Lynne said serving us Mint Juleps full strength had been an accident. I wondered. She left soon after to return to Estrellita and Hollywood. I still thought she’d tried to kill me when she swapped daiquiris for margaritas with tequila that I’m deathly allergic to at Mardi Gras years ago. Was Faye Lynne attempting to undermine our success?

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