Allison Chestnut: Queen For a Day (memoir) Dec. 2018
Southern Literacy statement: I am a spinster with a Bible and a gun who grew up reading Fannie Flagg, Jerry Clower and Lewis Grizzard. I have seen a squirrel get loose in a Baptist church. I have ridden a mule in Bonifay, Florida. Please do not hold my disdain for Faulkner against me.
Queen For a Day
“You need a life.” My friends shared their group epiphany with me about the same time as Jill Conner Browne published her bestseller The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love. If Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood depicted basket droppers and the Red Hat Society showed off well-coiffed geriatric women, then the Sweet Potato Queens were redneck heroines.
June, my friend and fellow English teacher, invited me to join her local chapter, her Sweet Potato Vine. Each vine had a leader called the Head Sweet Potato Queen. In order to join a local Sweet Potato vine, the national Vine organization had three prerequisites of its rushes. Each wannabe provided her own glitzy crown or tiara, wore a single-colored feather boa coiled Mae West-style around the shoulders, and brought a sock monkey to initiation. The local chapter had the right to determine any other requirements.
I am not a joiner: I eschew sororities, social clubs, and anything that requires prolonged commitment. But June could charm the bumps off a dill pickle and her sense of humor resembled George Carlin and Robin Williams. Besides, she knew an easy mark when she saw one. Her Vine met at 206 Front Street, my favorite Hattiesburg restaurant. And she knew that my widowed mother and my mother’s widowed sister had camped indefinitely at my house. So how could I refuse her proffered sponsorship? I had boa and crown leftover from previous pageant activities, and a homemade sock monkey named Mr. Tickles, who would be the most handsome simian in the restaurant.
At 7 p.m., I arrived wearing the requisite tiara, with boa and sock monkey perched on my shoulder. Mr. Tickles and I entered the restaurant through the backdoor and made our way to the designated private and so far empty, dining room. By 7:15, Martha, the Vine Queen arrived. A circulation librarian at a local university by day, she watered herself with Sky vodka tonics as we waited for the others to arrive. By 7:30, June and her other protégé came in.
“Where have you been? You’re late. Late. Very late,” I stage whispered as June’s protégé Betty helped June to her seat.
“Don’t be too hard on her,” Betty said. “We just got her out of the hospital. I wasn’t sure we were going to get here at all, but the doctor finally signed the discharge papers.” She pushed June’s chair under the table. June’s eyes slowly traveled up my face, and she managed a wan little smile.
“Oh my goodness. What’s wrong?” I asked. June kept smiling, so I addressed the protégé. “Is she okay?”
“June was in the yard, digging in the dirt—weren’t you, honey?” Betty answered.
June looked at her and slowly nodded her head. In the second downward motion, her forehead hit the table and stayed among the silverware until we pulled her upright.
“That’s right. That’s exactly right.” June said. She looked around and adjusted her tiara. “I was digging in the dahlias, the pretty purple dahlias, when all of a sudden the inside of my nose began to itching, and I had to scratch it. I just had to scratch my nose. And that’s when it happened.” She stopped, her attention caught by the feathers shedding from her boa.
“That’s when what happened?” I asked.
“Huh? Oh. That’s when I got a flesh-eating bacteria up my nose. I was so sick. It almost got my brain. My brain. Wanna see where they packed it?” June started pulling a thin strip of cloth from her nostril. The protégé grabbed June’s wrist and gently removed the strip from her hand.
“You need to push that back on up where it came from and don’t be messin’ with it while we’re eating dinner. Doctor says it has to stay in at least a couple more hours. Okay?” Betty said.
I looked away. I avoid mixing body fluids with food whenever possible and don’t want to see what results when others do.
June nodded, covered her face with her napkin and replaced the packing.
“The pain meds will be wearing off soon. By the time she gets good food in her, she’ll be her old self,” Betty said, looking at June. “But only iced tea for you tonight, hear? Can’t go mixing booze and pain pills.”
Betty sat down next to June, and I sat next to Betty, a cashier at the Greene County Truck Stop on Highway 98. “Well, you’ve had quite a day taking care of June,” I said.
“You have no idea.” Betty took a deep breath. “I had a dentist appointment today, too. It like to kilt me. Took me three weeks, but I finally got my upper bridge. All new teeth.” She gave a big smile so I could admire her appliance. The teeth, though white, had a pattern to them, like the brackets for braces. I stared a little too long.
“Ah. You noticed, didn’t you? I was hoping I had left them in the hot water long enough to get the shape back.” She shifted in her chair. “I got this bridge today, but by the time I got home my mouth fell to hurting. I decided to stretch out on the couch and get a nap before tonight’s shindig. I put the bridge on the side table, but when I woke up, it was gone. I looked all over the house. You’ll never guess where I found it.”
I shook my head and motioned her on. “I found them in the dog bed.” She slapped my arm. “In the dog bed! My little ole Pomeranian had made herself a chew toy.” She laughed and hit my arm again. “That dog is a mess I tell you.”
As she pulled out her bridge, I could see the notch of canine fangs. “So, I had to have my teeth tonight to eat, right? What was I gonna do?” She turned the bridge and flicked at an indentation with her fingernail. “It’s a little better. It’ll have to do. The dentist says it’s gonna take another three weeks before I can get a new one.” She shrugged and popped it back in her mouth.
At 7:45 two more Tater Queens arrived. I was the night’s only initiate. My first task: to choose a Sweet Potato name, to be used only among our Vine. I chose Coweta Calhoun, the names of adjacent counties in Georgia, in honor of Flannery O’Connor. The others approved my name, saying that it was just redneck enough. The Vine Queen pulled a notecard from her purse; she stood and tapped her water glass with a spoon.
“Will the potential bloom rise?” I stood and repeated the Sweet Potato pledge, after which her majesty presented me with my own sprouting sweet potato. “Plant this in the field of friendship as a sign of your unity with Sweet Potato Queens everywhere,” Martha said as she dropped the root in my hand. “Let’s have a drink.”
We had finished the main course when the last member arrived. She exploded into the room, and, in one sweeping motion, removed the first full wine glass within reach, emptied it, removed a second and emptied it, too.
“You would not believe the night I’ve had.” She reached for a third wine glass, but Martha, handed her the wine bottle.
New Girl pulled out a chair, crossed her legs and removed her shoes. “The girl who was supposed to relieve me didn’t show up, so I had to work a double shift and you know how busy we are on Fridays.” She rubbed her naked feet. “And then Robert has the nerve to be mad at me because I’m tired but I’m still going out with you girls.” She paused and said, “Shit, just look at my feet.”
June, feeling much more coherent, leaned over and whispered, “You’re going to be looking at more than her feet. They’re not the only thing that’s swelling.” Then she addressed New Girl, “Well, how are you feeling? I heard you have some news.”
“Yeah.” She patted her tummy. “I’ve got some news. I expected Robert to take care of something, one thing. Just keep up with the birth control. That’s all. So what does he do? He comes to where I work and buys condoms, in front of all the people I know. And then he doesn’t even check the box.”
“Check the box? For what?” I asked. “For size? Color?”
“You’re new at this aren’t you?” said New Girl. “I work at the Dollar Store. You don’t never buy anything there ‘less you check the expiration date. And God forbid that Robert would think twice about a box marked ‘irregular.’”
She continued my education. “And ‘irregular’ has nothing to do with the shape or size of his dipstick.”
“It doesn’t?” I replied. What did I know?
“Oh, hell, no.” She rolled her eyes and made a face at the other sweet potatoes. “Irregular means inconsistent production, like thin or sized incorrectly, or weak. I guess he knows what it means now. If he doesn’t, he will in about five months. I need a drink.” While she and the Head Queen went to the bar, I looked over at June.
“I wish you could have seen the look on your face when she said she got condoms from the Dollar Store,” June said. “That’s like buying a diaphragm from the salvage drug store stock at Hudson’s. Maybe that’s why the birth rate goes up every time Family Dollar opens a new store.”
New Girl and Her Majesty came back from the bar. “We need a picture to commemberate this initiation. Let’s get a picture.” Martha and New Girl began pushing dishes to the ends of the table. When they had cleared a big enough space, Queen Martha mounted the top. Once supine, she reclined on her elbow and invited the other members to join her. As they gathered for the photo session, the waiter entered offering dessert and coffee.
“You’re the only dessert we need,” Queen Inebriate replied and patted the table. “Come sit by me and get in the picture.”
The waiter respectfully declined, citing management disapproval of working waitstaff joining guests or using tabletops for a bed. “Okay, well, come here and stand by us—you’re part of the evening. Now, who are we going to get to take the picture?”
“I’m the pledge. Let me take the picture,” I said. The Queen handed me her camera. The waiter stayed for two poses before excusing himself. After a few tabletop tableaus, June offered to let me take her place and get in the picture
“Are you crazy?” I asked June. “You know I teach at a Southern Baptist university. If I get in this picture and it gets back to the administration, I’ll be unemployed or at least blackmail material.”
I looked at my watch. “Oh, June, look at the time. I‘ve got to get home to mother. It’s past 9:30, and she will call out the National Guard if I don’t get in before ten.” I grabbed Mr. Tickles and my sweet potato while pulling out the bobby pins that held the tiara in place.
“Are you really going to leave? We haven’t played truth or dare yet.” June looked at the still reclining Queen and called out to her: “What is the topic for tonight?”
“The most embarrassing thing you’ve ever had happen while having sex.”
“Well, I’ve already given my answer,” said New Girl, and patted her stomach again. “What does the winner get?”
“You mean ‘what does the loser have to do,’” answered Betty.
“That’s right,” said Her Majesty. “Coweta, you can’t leave before this part of the meeting.
“Oh, all right, but you are going to have to let me go powder my nose. I’ll be right back.” June followed me to the restroom.
“You aren’t really going to play this game, are you?” June had all her faculties about her by now.
“You know, I’m not. Seriously. You’ve got a friend whose teeth look like a well-used chew toy and a girl who uses discount store birth control. A drunk librarian is laid out on the restaurant table like prime rib at a buffet. You just got out of the hospital and still have ribbon up your nose, and apparently, I’m the token virgin who hasn’t had a date in over twenty years,” I reminded June.
“And what are they going to say when they find out the only naked male I’ve ever seen is Michelangelo’s David. They probably don’t even know who Michelangelo is. Heck, they probably don’t even know who David is. I don’t even want to know what the other two tater members are going to do or say,” I paused to catch my breath.
“So, you don’t want to hear the story about how Dana caught her husband having sex with a man in the bathroom of the Stuckey’s and how she chased him with his pants down through the parking lot by the interstate?”
I washed my hands. “Which one is Dana?”
June ignored me. “You know she’s going to put those pictures on the official Sweet Potato Queen website, right?” June resorted to extortion. I glared my most professional unhappy face, but June didn’t notice.
“Another good reason for me not to be in them. Don’t you tell her my real name.” June gave a coy smile. “I mean it.” I opened the door. “What is the website address?” I asked, but June just shrugged. We exited the restroom.
“Now go in there and make my apologies. Say my mother called. Say I threw up. Or I ran off with the waiter. Say I died. Say anything, but don’t tell them my name. Okay?”
June nodded. We hugged. “I really gotta go.” I pointed to her nose. “I hope you feel better. A nose by any means….”
“Would smell no better,” June finished and headed back to the dining room. She gave a wave as the door swung closed.
I pushed the down button on the elevator, closed my eyes and waited— boa, tiara, monkey and sprouting potato in hand. The man who exited held the elevator door for me. I turned to thank him and realized that he was a colleague from the university music department.
“Oh, don’t worry. I won’t tell,” he said. “But if I hadn’t seen you myself, I would never have believed you of all people would be in public with a monkey.” He reached over and shook Mr. Giggle’s paw as the elevator doors bucked to close.
“Nice pet,” he said, and set off down the hall to the bar. I had a final glimpse of him shaking his head, then the elevator doors snapped shut.