Monday, August 08, 2011
If anyone reads this blog and wonders why my posts have dried up a bit, it's because I'm feverishly working on my next novel. I want to finish the first draft before I go back to enslavement on Wednesday. But I will post a few pages here. Comments welcome.
The first and only memory Virginia Mae Cullins Foster had of her mother was the smell of chicken and dumplings, heavy with what she would someday learn to be onions and celery. Yes, now, fifty years later, it was the smell more than color, or sound, or facial expression, or clothing, or touch, or temperature, or furnishings. Over the years she had constructed a scene around that smell, a scene she knew was 95% imagination and 5% from the photos of her youthful mother in 1940s fashion.
The scene was a kitchen, of course. Her mother, Hennie, must have been cooking, using the old-fashioned enamel cookware that looked like it was covered with blue paint-spatters—what did they call it? And the general interior decorating pattern was red gingham—curtains, her mother’s apron, the plastic table cloth, sometimes even the dish towels. Mother was silent, not singing or telling a story or instructing her daughter in how to cook. Virginia had no recollection of a voice, so silence made sense in this ragged-edged world. It was spring outside; the windows were open but there was no need for window fans yet, and heaven knows that in the forties no one but the wealthy had anything like air conditioning in South Carolina. The kitchen was spotless; the table was set for three, herself, her mother, and her father. Perhaps she had placed some of the silverware there. She would have been three to have had this memory, since that was when Hennie left. Three-year-olds could understand the concept of setting a table.
Virginia, Virgie to her family, Gee-gee to her husband Mack in his sweetest moments, was indulging in this memory as she and Mack drove to the town meeting to deliberate on the newest idea for Prosperity: a yearly town festival. Why it came to her now, as they passed soybean fields, several strip malls, and the county’s largest peach orchard, clothed in darkness, she didn’t know, except that she had been rummaging around in her mind for a theme for the festival and her thoughts kept going back to that sense of comfort and dread the memory always gave her.
The town had been knocking around the idea of a festival for about six months now. It had first come up at the council meeting when Dublin Cotton Mill announced it was laying off 300 positions at its Prosperity plant—reducing the payroll to 500. That scared everyone. Especially Mack Foster and the five employees of Foster King Realty. Fewer workers at the plant meant less money for people to buy homes and property, even though more would be selling to try to leave town for other work. Foster King. Humph. That name always got under her skin. The King was from Mack’s cousin, Lee King, who owned all that old farmland north of town that was really no good for anything but cheap subdivisions, not much better than trailer parks. But that’s how the realty company got started, and Lee still owned half of the company even though he was about worthless.
Oh, well. She and Mack weren’t hurting. He was busy. He said something big was coming down the road. Something really big for Prosperity and all of Turling County, into Davis County and to the Georgia line. Maybe beyond, like for the whole upstate. Clemson would even be involved. He’d even brought the governor into it. He wasn’t saying what it was, but Mack didn’t overstate things.
Tonight the council meeting would go long, because the main topic was picking a theme for the festival, and that was going to be a catfight. The high school crowd was going to want something related to education or sports or the mascot or the arts. Coach Zachary would weigh in with something about how the football team had won the 2A state championship last year; that young drama teacher, Jenny Lucey, would want to push musical theatre, somehow; the principal, Ben Jenkins, her old nemesis, would want something too local like “Mustang Freedom” or something bland like ecology.
The cotton mill folks would want to start the Annual Cotton Festival. But there were already at least a dozen of those in the South. Missy Franklin would claim a Tommy Franklin Festival would save the town. Tommy Franklin was her daddy, the home town hero—he’d won the Medal of Honor for service in the Pacific. But the town already had a Tommy Franklin week. Missy needed a life beyond fanning the flame of her daddy’s memory, bless her heart. And then that crowd who was buying up storefronts on Culver Street, the longhairs from Atlanta who had started a restaurant, bookstore, art gallery, and bakery. Some of the locals thought they were part of a religious cult. But they were just sweet kids who had all gone to college together at Emory and wanted people to buy coffee from poor farmers in South America rather than from Maxwell House. They’d probably want an art festival, not art like in the galleries in the big cities but art they called native or primitive or outsider, the kind they sold.
The folks in this town people just didn’t understand those were not workable topics for a, well, permanent festival that would bring in enough people to make a profit and maybe other business. Any town could do those topics, any town with a Mustang as the high school mascot, that is. No, she had investigated this. She had gone to the library in Greenville and found back copies of Southern Living and read through them all. She had been to Hendersonville, and to Fort Valley, Georgia, and Burkeville, Alabama. Apples, peaches, okra. Agricultural products. Towns all over the Southeast hosted festivals based on some vegetable or fruit or flower. That was old hat. If Prosperity, South Carolina, was to have a festival that brought it out of the economic doldrums, it would have to be unique, cultural, Southern, and edible, something that boldly said, “Prosperity, South Carolina.”
She knew exactly what would do the trick. And her theme was rooted in the history of the town she had lived in fifty -five years. And no one else was doing it—she’d checked. Not so far in 1998.
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