Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born in Virginia and write from the hills of Tennessee.
Every time the cold grip of winter thawed to creek water in Alabama, there came the chatterings of spring including festival talk. A well-attended festival was the watermark of a good community. Burnt Springs didn’t host a festival so most folks talked about which ones were worth the drive off the Burnt. This choice laid in a balance between appetites and desired personal space. Doubloons to doughnuts, the biggest draw to packing in a sweaty SUV with hoppity kids and phlegmy elders, was the promise of deep fried funnel cakes.
An early spring set the Burnt afire with festival talk that raged well into May, when, on a particularly fine weather afternoon, a clique of ladies convened a festival committee over happy hour. The next morning, Grace Johnson reined in the impassioned talk by tacking a notice on the Masonic Lodge door announcing a town meeting, and surreptitiously appointing herself committee chair. She didn’t want the Burnt to become like the neighboring Bottom Springs and their unfortunate selection of a raccoon inspired theme. Their DeWayne County Coon Festival was rabid with drunkards shooting stray bullets into the trees shouting, “I got me another one.” And their beauty contest faired worse, as they found most gals had little desire to be Miss Coon Bottom.
On the evening of the meeting, Grace was pleased at the number of attendees. Couples that she hadn’t seen in ages arrived through the opened Lodge doorway and milled around without taking seat. Nearly five minutes past the hour, Grace tapped the gavel to call the meeting to order. At which point, the Worshipful Luke Emery, Lodge Master, said, “You boys ready to let these hens be?”
Most of the men walked towards the back of the lodge. Apparently, the Freemasons decided to use the time as a recruitment hour and opened up the rear bar to entertain questions. Curious, thought Grace, as every eligible male in the area was already a member.
The committee ran through the sordid histories of failed festival experiences in the lower Alabama area and offered a few current thoughts on themes. They ‘had a go’ at a festival once in the Burnt, for a coveted Azalea Blossoms Festival title. At the time, there were already three fledging attempts at this theme within a day’s carry, but that hadn’t deterred the ambitious festival committee. If the festival took, their plan was to repeat it as the Mighty Azalea Blossoms Festival. For the brief foliage spell of these bloomers, this was a dicey decision. The town council ordered fifty Azalea bushes from down south and the politics of where to plant them began. In the end, it was all unsuitable for their landscape; no profusion of colors ever came because the shade of the moss-laced Live Oak trees in the Burnt allowed very little light. The committee did not want a repeat fail and offered up ideas such as Moon-pie Madness and Junebug Jiggity. When Grace opened the floor to suggestions, Jacob Strickland stood.
“Miss Johnson, I have a gem of an idea.”
Fresh back from seeing his people down on the Panhandle, Jacob extolled the simplicity of the Worm Grubbing Festival he’d seen in Sopchoppy. After a lively discussion, the committee wasn’t convinced how this activity differed from any other weekend in the Burnt, and the idea failed on account of ‘lack of specialality.’
“But it was very fine idea, thank you Jacob.” Grace said, appreciative to one of the few men attending this important meeting. There was another half-hour of half-baked ideas thrown around the room until they heard the one that made everyone’s arm hair stand at attention.
It was Lolly Hagan who, looking like she’d been holding back on a dramatic announcement, finally proposed the “Burnt Springs Mermaid Festival.” The idea was first met with a nervous pause. The Burnt Springs maid was part rumor, part lore. Some weren’t really sure if it was a mermaid fished out of the springs years ago. Some claimed to still see her. Grace knew the people of the Burnt. They were good low church going folk but they had amoral imaginations. Lord, she pictured festival revelers of this ilk dressed in half-shell bikini tops and felt this needed to be stopped.
“Lolly, I know that you’re not from around here so you don’t have the full story as you lived off the Burnt, but we don’t parade crazy like that. And if she exists, we can’t exploit the Burnt Springs maid, now that just wouldn’t be right.” Grace said.
“Ain’t right.” Jacob burst nodding in agreement.
In a surprise move, Lolly also agreed and outlined how they would protect the Burnt maid by forbidding any likeness of her to be displayed. How the only stories of her would come by way of an exclusive tour guide (for a ten dollar charge). She went on to make it seem silly not to parlay on the Burnt’s notoriety, and described some family friendly activities that could be planned.
“I mean, who doesn’t like the enchantment of the Littl’ Mermaid?” she asked waving her arms wide in a ta-da moment.
With the sounds of delighted murmurs spreading across the room, Grace thought Lolly might as well have invoked the image of Santa Claus.
“And the Hagan’s are willing to put up $500 for a Burnt Mer-Maiden beauty contest.” Lolly said addressing the crowd.
Santa Claus holding the baby Jesus himself.
They responded in whoops. Even Jacob smiled at the thought. Somehow the energy of the room had slipped from her grasp and Grace frowned in resignation. Committee members were out of their chairs and milling with their friends. As people walked out the door, Thin Minnie halted everyone.
“Wait we forgot to vote. All in favor of the Mermaid festival theme say aye,” she shouted.
“Aye!” the room of voices answered in accord.
“Done,” she said turning to Lolly. They walked towards the back room, arm in arm.
If ever there was an evening for extra prayers, thought Grace.
The Burnt Springs Mermaid Festival had been born.
“I could have brought up the mythical element of mermaids and how we God-fearing folk should not encourage fantasy and monsters and other idolatries,” Grace said as she huffed next to her companion trying to keep up with his leg pace.
Jacob had offered to walk her back home after the meeting and she was glad for his company as the Burnt evening was quickly filling up with gray-green fog off its swampy waters. The hazy fiolet hovered about twelve feet up slinking its way over low hung branches of Live Oak trees. They knew it would soon blanket the ground and quickened their pace. Conversation-wise, Jacob mostly nodded his assent to every thought she shared. The deference was flattering and oddly irritating.
“Just do me a favor and tell me all that you overhear of this festival talk,” she said, “I have a feeling that Lolly will now try everything to keep me out of the loop.” Jacob Strickland was known for being a proverbial fly on the wall. His reedy figure could affix itself about anywhere and his eavesdropping abilities topped the feds.
“Righto” Jacob said with a wave like a salute as they reached her front porch. The neighboring dog was barking into the foggy landscape when there came a high quavering cry and several short pitched yips. Then a chorus of them.
“Song dogs,” Jacob said.
“Coyotes?” Grace asked.
“A pack of coyotes? Goodnight then,” Grace said with a quick hand wave that Jacob grabbed and gave it a goodnight squeeze.
“Don’t let him fool you—it’s probably a beau geste,” replied Jacob.
“A trick—modulating a howl so it sounds like more than one coyote. Nevermind, military stuff again. Good night, Grace.”
After retreating behind the front door, Grace sighed and leaned her head against it. She closed her eyes to the coyote cries, trying to resist the reoccurring nightmare— she in a pale blue dress, the barking Labrador pup on her leash, the gruesome attack. Stop! she thought and moved through the foyer. Tomorrow she could apologize for her abruptness.
Settling in on the sofa, Grace unwound thoughts over her evening glass of whiskey. Getting Jacob Strickland on her side was a good move, even though her instinct was not to trust anyone from off the Burnt. Jacob had lived here long enough, unlike Lolly. That Hagan family poser. She was the worst type of untrustworthy, the popular one. To Grace, Lolly seemed like the kind of woman who could mouth the most wounding insults and get away with it since she sang them out in eighth-note triplet. That was Mississippi for you. And this ‘bama girl was not to be bested by some ‘sippian. In the morning she would call on Thin Minnie and make sure she understood the importance of keeping Lolly in line with the committee.
“Well, I heard there was a lot of festival talk so I decided to form a committee,” the mayor said. ‘Mayor’ was a glamorous title for the Alderman who took an annual turn in wrestling the rest of the representation together. Stu Johnson currently inflated the title in a sign over the counter of his small engine repair shop. Grace knew better to be impressed— she knew Stu to be both a blow-hard and her cousin.
“Stu, I told you there’s already a committee and we even had a productive meeting at the Lodge last Thursday evening.” Grace said exasperated. She had no other tidbit to add since she’d been unable to find Thin Minnie over the weekend, even at Sunday church service.
“Yeh, sorry I missed it. I heard it was a pretty good time, leastways from the after-party stories. Listen Grace, I was off on business last week don’t ya know.”
“Well, you heard a lot of things lately didn’t ya, especially for someone who went off the Burnt last week. But this won’t do, we’ll tell the newly formed committee their services won’t be required. Who did you appoint chair?” Grace asked.
“Lolly Hagan. She volunteered.”
“Lolly Hagan? She volunteered?”
“Yes, you ain’t getting deaf are you?”
“Lolly! She ain’t even from around here.” Grace cried.
“I don’t think that matters. She has ideas, energy, and like she says ‘cachet.’”
“She has ideas alright. And cachet my ass. Stu you’re letting her work you over like a garden hoe. It’s got to stop.”
“Cain’t never could, Stu. You need to handle this, that’s what a mayor is supposed to do. Just call her up and say there’s a misunderstanding.”
Stu shook his head.
Grace looked out the window. Even in daylight it seemed the wooded wetlands held eyes.
“Just say she can combine her team with the established committee. That’s compromise. That’s the great America way.” Grace let out a sigh.
Stu sighed in return.
“Well, now Grace, we’ll have to think on that.”
Grace took leave but paused at the door to add, “If you get around to feeling like accomplishing anything as mayor you might consider doing something about the pack of wild dogs tearing through town.”
Stu nodded in a slow movement, “Yes, I heard. The coyotes are back.”
Grace high-tailed it down to the Slap-out Mercantile in search of Jacob. She knew he spent many of his free afternoons on the porch listening to the old storytellers and the business of the young. She spied him leaning against the Pepsi cooler and waved him over to a shade tree away from earshot. His frown indicated he knew exactly what Grace had to say.
“Have you ever?” Grace said and fell silent.
“I reckoned you’d hear,” Jacob said.
“You reckoned? How about coming to tell me Jacob?”
“I knew it would make you unhappy.”
“Humph. Well, I’m not going to say much more on this because it ain’t you that’s at fault, but tell me what you know. Please tell me the God’s honest truth of what you know.”
“Not much to tell. I’ve been listening like you asked and I heard not a thing until it was done.”
“When was that?” Grace began to pace.
“This morning. Lolly came by the Merc after meeting up with Mayor Johnson—”
“Stu. Stu Johnson. Stupid Stu Johnson, don’t make him out to be more.” Grace interrupted.
“Yeh, Stu, and Lolly announced that he had appointed her chair of the Burnt Springs Mermaid Festival committee. She’d come by to ask ole Slap-out Sam if he’d help Thin Minnie with the festival concessions.”
“What did anyone say?”
“I said, Heck No! You can’t let that skinny thing be in charge of making sure there’s something to put in everyone’s ole bread basket.”
Grace looked at him quizzingly.
“I mean we’d all starve. That woman don’t even cook, let alone eat. Butting my nose in didn’t help any though.”
“Now I’m in charge of concessions.”
“What?” Grace said, nearly shouting.
“I know,” Jacob reached out and touched Grace’s arm as if to mollify her, “it seems like I’m fraternizing with the enemy Grace, but in hindsight, this may be the only way for us to know what they’re up to. Lolly just put a spy in her camp.”
Jacob’s expression spoke clever and wily. Grace was at a loss for words. The past hour seemed to have eroded all the plans she’d dreamed up over the weekend. She felt the undertow pulling her away but now recognized the lifeline Jacob just threw her.
The first meeting of the newly formed festival committee met at Lolly Hagan’s house. Jacob was late, not as a statement, because he wanted to avoid the pre-conference chatter. He was greeted warmly by Lolly’s husband Eldred and escorted through a cluttered hallway. The walls were lined with photos of Elvis Presley the way others filled theirs with family photos. Eldred stopped halfway down the hall and pressed Jacob’s shoulder, “don’t you think there shouldn’t be an age range for the Miss Mer-Maiden contest?”
Jacob considered the man’s posture—shoulders haunched, eyes darkened—and formed his response carefully. Eldred ran his fingers through his wirery hair, untamed; he appeared wolfish.
“I mean beautiful is just beautiful, no matter the age. Take that Sullivan girl, she may not have hit sixteen yet, but whoa man, what a beauty.” Eldred threw his hands up in a helpless gesture and then pointed to a photo of Elvis with Jerry Lee Lewis, “these guys knew.”
“Beauty is as beauty does.” Jacob replied.
Eldred nodded as if this answer was satisfactory, “Excellent, we need this decided tonight.”
When they walked into the dining room, Jacob realized he’d missed his intended mark. The group was still gaggling and gathered around a box where Lolly was removing packaging material.
“This is my latest— Aloha from Hawaii.” She lifted the shiny ceramic collectors plate in the air. It was decorated with a painted image of Elvis in bent-knee dance swagger, sporting his classic white jumpsuit, and swinging a lei about his neck.
“Ooh,” Thin Minnie said. Her eyes softened with affection.
“Lolly is well on her way to the fifty states of Elvis,” Eldred said beaming at his bride.
“Hmm. I can see why he’s still popular, for a dead guy.” Joyce Ann remarked.
A young man in a seersucker shirt that Jacob didn’t recognize took the plate gingerly from Lolly, “given the cape he’s wearing in this pose, he hadn’t moved into his full-on rhinestone period,” he said.
Lolly smiled and noticed Jacob in the room. She indicated everyone to sit, “let’s begin.”
Without hesitation, Lolly forged through a list of items, directing her children’s activities comments to Joyce Ann. It appeared the town’s schoolteacher had been recruited to coordinate the kids. And given Eldred’s questions regarding electrical needs, he was in charge of logistics. Jacob cleared his throat softly, when he caught Lolly’s eye he asked, “wouldn’t it be nice if we knew everyone’s role?”
“I’m sorry about the lack of introductions, I thought y’all knew each other,” Lolly said.
“Maybe he means Clay,” Thin Minnie said, “I don’t think you’ve met my nephew Clay Lecroy. He’s from Atlanta where he studies at the Paces Ferry School of Design.” The way she pronounced Atlanta sounded like four syllables beginning with an unwritten H.
Clay extended his right hand and shook Jacob’s.
“Pleased for the acquaintance—” he said, waiting for the reciprocate name.
“Clay will have his hand in all things design,” Thin Minnie said. She patted her nephew’s shoulder.
“Design. Marketing. Mermaid sequins. All things bright and beautiful.” Clay laughed.
“He’ll be a god send, particularly for my mermaid parade.”
“Parade? I don’t recall that as an event,” Jacob said.
“We added it once you stole concessions away from me.” Thin Minnie spat.
Lolly had the grace to look uncomfortable but gave everyone an encouraging nod, “We plan to fill the Burnt with mermaids. Dazzling mermaids. Hundreds. It will be the talk of the county!”
“Pardon me for being dense, but the Burnt ain’t that big, where are we getting enough mermaids to make this grand parade?”
“I know ALL kinds of people— we’ll have mermaids up the wazoo, honey,” Clay said with a dark expression mismatching a smiling mouth. His Aunt Minnie gave him a slight nod of her head. Possibly a wink, Jacob thought from his vantage point. It definitely sounded pregnant with negative implications and Jacob smiled back. He couldn’t wait to inform Grace that a possible ‘mis’ added to ‘fortune’ leaned in their favor. This was shaping up to become the best failed festival of ages. Every tongue in the county would be afire.
“Now, if we’re done yapping over trivialities,” Eldred interrupted their private thoughts, “There’s some of us who’d like to talk about judging the Burnt Mer-Maiden Beauty contest.” His half-smile was near grimace and Jacob could have sworn he saw a moist pool of drool at the corner of Eldred’s mouth. He had that rapacious look again.
Lolly scowled his direction, as everyone else at the table remained silent. Through the open window directly behind Eldred came the yelp-howl of a coyote in an unseasonably close proximity.