Dirty Faces

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Chapter 20: In a Fix

"I wish you'd told me about this dang wedding," Kody griped. It was Saturday and he was standing over the wash basin in his aunt's kitchen, scrubbing the last of the day's axle grease from underneath his fingernails. It was understandable, him being in a foul mood, seeing as he'd been sleeping in a pallet in Jack's bedroom floor for almost a week. Allegedly, Ralph would be leaving again the next morning.

"It slipped my mind. But hey, Leslie's gonna be there," Jack replied, wearing that sly grin of his. Kody still looked annoyed. If he and Ginny were to stay here another night, there was no way they could avoid accompanying the rest of their family to the wedding this evening. And the first he had even heard of it had been when he got in from work this afternoon.

Jack stood up from the kitchen table and walked over to his mother's Hoosier cabinet. "You know what you need? You need something sweet to knock that sour look off your face, and it just so happens I got just the thing to do the trick." He pulled two saucers from the cabinet and set them on the white, enamel counter-top.

"I don't want any more stack cake," Kody droned.

Jack grinned over his shoulder. "Good, because ya ain't getting any. Finished that off two days ago."

He cut two generous pieces then returned the cover to the plain, metal cake carrier; when he turned back around, the saucers each held a slice of yellow cake with chocolate frosting. He set one on the table and pulled out the chair for his cousin. Then, he opened a drawer and pulled out two forks, taking a bite before even handing Kody one. "I been eating on this here cake all day," he said, little flecks of yellow cake flying out of his mouth with each syllable.

Ginny appeared in the kitchen doorway, a defeated look on her usually guilty face. She had spent the last half hour in front of her aunt's vanity mirror as she attempted to tame the poor girl's hair, but the best she had managed was to pin down the more unruly cowlicks. Admittedly, a hat would have been more effective.

Jack frowned at her. "You look like you could use a piece of this, too."

Ginny's eyes went straight to the table and lit up. "Is that.....?"

"It is, indeed. Over there in the carrier. Getcha some."

Betty Paserella's yellow cake was the stuff of legend in those parts. Any self-respecting housewife would quite nearly give up her first born if it meant getting her hands on Betty's recipe.

Ginny practically skipped over to the Hoosier cabinet and cut herself a piece from the already half-eaten cake. She pulled a fork from the drawer and leaned on the cabinet to savor the moist, not-too-sweet cake paired with the thick, lusciously rich, chocolate frosting.

"Jack, are y'all about ready to head into town?" his mama called from her bedroom.

"I reckon so. We just gotta run by Kody and Ginny's to fetch their church clothes."

"Well why don't y'all head on that way. And go ahead and take that cake so they can have the reception table all set up and ready to go soon as the weddings over."

Ginny's eyes widened. She pointed with her fork at the slice on her plate and mouthed, 'This cake?'

"This 'un in the carrier?" Jack clarified.

"Yeah. Me and your daddy be out that-a-way shortly. I'm gonna fry up some okry to take, too, but they'll all be waiting on that cake."

Kody glared at Jack.

"I didn't know!" Jack whispered defensively.

They all hurried to eat their piece and wash up their dishes as silently as possible, then Jack swiped the cake carrier off the Hoosier cabinet and they slipped out the back door. It had rained most of the week, leaving the path through the woods dangerously slick and they all struggled just to remain vertical as they stumbled down it. Once in the yard, they tiptoed through the back door, careful not to disturb Ralph in case he was napping or passed out, like they hoped he was.

Jack set the carrier down on the kitchen table. "Alright, Ginny, get to throwing together your best yella cake," he whispered.

Kody's head shook emphatically no. "That would guarantee you get in trouble with Aunt Betty. Folks might get sick."

Jack knew his mama wasn't one to brag on herself, but she was quite proud of her famous yellow cake and she lapped up every ounce of praise it garnered her. If she'd been asked to make it for someone's wedding-and the bride wasn't just someone, but the mayor's daughter- and left Jack in charge of getting it there, and it didn't, it would be his neck. Or more precisely, his rear end and the leather strop his daddy used to sharpen his razor, seeing as he was too big now for a little old hickory switch to do much damage. And what was worse, he'd managed to drag his cousins into the mess.

Kody pulled a plate from the cabinet and Jack deposited the evidence on it. He hated the thought of the rest of his mama's fine cake going to the likes of Ralph, but it was a sacrifice he was willing to make to save his own behind. Without thinking, he slammed the lid back on the cake carrier.

"What the hell's all that racket in there?" Ralph thundered from the bedroom.

His cousins' faces paled and they all shot out the front door and made for the truck. Lilly kicked up mud all over the yard as Kody threw her in reverse and skidded into the road just as Ralph appeared in the doorway, shirtless and red in the face.

Now we got them in trouble with their step-daddy, too.

"I know! But I didn't mean to. He was the last thing on my mind."

Well, too late now. What're we gonna do?

"I don't know. I don't wanna humiliate Mama. And I don't want them to get punished, neither."

Ask them. They might have ideas.

Jack turned his head to ask his cousins what they thought they should do and was startled to find Ginny staring up at him, a mix of concern and confusion on her face. Kody cleared his throat and she quickly looked away, locking her eyes on the road ahead of them. Sometimes he slipped and these conversations made it outside his head, but he was pretty sure Ginny had never been around when it happened. No matter. She already knew he was nuttier than a squirrel turd.

"So what's the plan?" he asked.

"Well, right now it looks like it's show up at the wedding with an empty cake carrier," Kody replied.

"That the best ya got?"

Kody looked over at him and shrugged, then turned his eyes back to the road.

"Ginny?"

She looked up at him and shook her head.

He let out a discouraged sigh and laid his head against the window.

"Hold on," Kody said. "I thought of something."

Jack perked back up, hopeful.

"Leslie can cook. I don't know how well, but she does a lot of the cooking around her house."

Showing up at somebody's house and asking them to bake a cake for you didn't seem like the most polite thing to do, but it was all they had.

"Alright then."

By the time they got into town, a steady drizzle had started back up, adding an element of gloom to the already bleak ambiance. Kody parked the truck in front of the Williams' house and the three of them hurried to take shelter under the awning of the porch. Jack realized Kody and Ginny, in their haste to flee Ralph's ire, had left their Sunday clothes at home. His mama wasn't going to be too happy about that.

The door was open and J.D. and Mr. Williams were seated in the front room; the Carter Family's Wildwood Flower drifted through the screen, along with the sweet, spicy aroma of cinnamon and cloves.

"You young 'uns get on in here outta the rain," Mr. Williams said when he heard the activity on the porch, not bothering to remove himself from the rocking chair next to the record player.

"Thank, ya, sir," Jack said as he opened the screen door.

"Y'all headed to the wedding?"

"Yes, sir."

"Ye mama and daddy ain't coming?" He eyed the cake carrier.

Jack looked down at it, too. He felt foolish toting around that empty carrier and even more foolish for having worked himself into such a tizzy over a silly cake.

"They are. Mama's still cooking, though."

"Ah."

Mr. Williams took a long draw off his cigarette. He was done talking.

J.D. looked at Kody. " I expect you wanna talk to Leslie."

Kody nodded.

J.D. rolled his eyes. "She's in the kitchen." He got up from his seat on the couch and led them there.

Leslie was wrapping the single layer of apple stack cake she'd made for the bride's cake in tin foil. She looked up from her work and smiled. "Fancy seeing all of you here."

"Well, reckon we've come begging," Kody said, throwing a side-ways glance at Jack.

She cocked her head to the side and pointed at the cake carrier. "Is that the famous cake?"

"No," Jack admitted. "It's just the carrier the famous cake used to be in." He set the empty metal burden on the table, glad to be free of it for the first time since he realized his blunder, and leaned against the sink.

"Y'all already been by the fellowship hall to drop it off?"

"No," he mumbled. "We...I... ate most of it. I didn't realize it was for the wedding."

J.D. jumped in. "Where have you been? Everybody knew your Mama was bringing her yella cake. Heck, most folks is more looking forward to that cake than to seeing Bud and Arlene get hitched!"

Jack didn't think they would believe him if he told them his mind was a busy place, and he certainly didn't want to explain how the voices inside his head were so frequently louder than the ones outside it.

"Guess I just ain't been paying attention."

"Sounds like you got yourself in quite a fix," said Leslie.

He nodded gloomily.

"We were hoping..." Kody began.

"Yes?"

"...That maybe you might be able to make a replacement cake."

Leslie frowned. "I really wish I could help but there's just not time for that. The wedding starts in less than an hour."

Jack hung his head. He had expected that would be the case but he'd still hoped. For once at a loss for words, he looked around the little kitchen, first to Leslie's pitying face; then to Kody, his expression unreadable; then to J.D., shaking his head, a likely taste of the general sentiment of the wedding guests; and finally, to Ginny, seemingly unfazed by anything around her. Her eyes were focused intently on the window behind him, watching.

Jack turned and looked over his shoulder. A red bird hopped back and forth on the neighbor's windowsill, shaking the rain from its feathers. His mama was always talking about signs, signs from Heaven, signs from God. He couldn't remember if seeing a red bird was a sign that visitors were coming, or a sign of good luck, or both, or neither. But one thing was certain: it was a sign.

"Leslie," he said, "What do ya know about your new neighbors?"

She seemed a little confused. "Not a whole lot. Their name's Pickett, a young fella and his new bride. They come from somewhere out on the mountain. And they go to church on Saturdays."

"Methodists, huh?"

Kody sighed. "Adventists."

"Ah, I see. And are they home?"

"I don't think so. I ain't heard their car. It's an old jalopy so we can usually hear when they come and go...Why do you ask?"

Jack turned back from the window, his face triumphant. "Because there is the prettiest cake I ever did see sitting on their table."


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