“Can I sit with ya’ll?” She asked with a smile on her face, lunch tray balanced in one hand and crutch under her other arm.
Modene looked up at her aunt and smiled. “Sure. There’s always room for you.” She scooted her chair a little to make room at the round for her.
Vista stuck her straw in the milk carton. “This is so much fun fer me. I haven’t been to school in ages.” She took a slurp.
“So yer enjoyin’ bein’ a substitute?” One of the other girls at the table asked.
“Oh yes.” Vista looked at her tray. “I was so bored sittin’ around the house with m’leg up. I was surprised they asked me.”
“Well, it makes perfect sense.” Modene said playing with her French fries. “Get a real writer to teach the journalism class. I think you should do it all the time.”
“Aw thanks, honey.” Vista smiled. “But I’m only here ‘til Miss Trayer comes back. It should only be a few weeks before she gets that Visa mess straightened out.”
“How did she end up in Slovenia anyways?” Modene asked.
“I’m not really sure, darlin’, but just stand warned never to sign up for a singles website on Facebook.” Vista took a bite of meatloaf. “Now what was you girls talkin’ about afore the nasty ol’ teacher sat down with ye?”
“Nothin.’” The morose figure directly in front of her sighed. It took Vista a minute before she realized it was a young girl and another to remember who she was.
“Louie Kirk.” Vista put on a wide grin. “It’s a pleasure ta meet you. I have read all about you in the Tomahawk.”
“Thank ye, ma’am.” The girl smiled.
“Imagine bein’ on the All-State Basketball and Volleyball teams an’ just a Junior?” Vista was so proud of her. “You are doin’ our little county sa proud.”
Louie blushed and went back to her meatloaf. Vista looked around the quiet table. “Should I move to the teacher’s room? I feel like I just sat down in the middle of ya’lls plot to overthrow Libya.”
“No, Aunt Vista, yer fine.” Modene looked up and assured her.
“Good.” She smiled. “That little room they want us ta eat in makes me feel like one a them giraffes at the Knoxville Zoo. I keep expectin’ someone to knock on the glass and tease me with a head a’ lettuce.” None of the girls cracked a smile. “Are ya’ll sure now?”
“Believe me,” Modene said half looking up from her lunch tray. “Nobody at this table was about to hold hands and sing Kumbya”.
“Obviously they is somethin’ wrong. You wanna talk about it?”
“No.” Louis Kirk made that very clear.
“Okay, honey. Don’t bite m’ head off.” Vista smiled.
“I’m sorry ma’am.” Louie looked up sincerely. “We’s all jest in a foul mood. Ain’t been a good day fer none of us.”
Vista nodded her head and shifted around a little. “It’s okay, Louie. I understand all about bad days. Sometimes it’s good to jest sit around with yer best girlfriends and all be miserable together.”
“Reckon that’s what we’re a doin’.” Modene said quietly.
“Well, don’t make me the only happy cluck in the henhouse. Tell me what’s goin’ on so I can kick the fire outta the cat when I get home, too.”
“Oh, good, four of you at once.” A voice came behind Vista’s shoulders.
Louie looked up from her plate at whoever was behind Vista Kay. “If you wanna talk about what I think you wanna talk about, let me jes’ say fer all of us at this table…drop dead!”
“Louie!” Vista was shocked.
A third girl, a timid little mouse looked up. “I kin speak fer m’self, Louie Kirk.” The tiny little girl looked at the figure behind Vista and was vehement. “Why don’t you go f….”
“Honey!” Vista dropped her fork on the floor. “You kiss yer mother with that mouth?”
“I’d rather do that than be in enny stupid ole beauty pageant!” She said huffing and folding her arms across her chest.
“Is that what this is all about?” Vista asked.
Modene rolled her eyes and nodded her head. It took a moment to maneuver her body around, the cast on her foot making it difficult. She turned around to see Unita Cheeseman, the girl’s phys ed coach, standing behind her perplexed.
“Girls, you should be honored.” The woman said. “Your homerooms voted you to represent them.”
Louie Kirk squinted her eyes at the woman. “No they didn’t, and we all know it. Jest go away Coach Cheesy.”
Vista turned back to the girls. “Oh, that’s excitin’! All four of ya got voted in?”
“Every one of them.” Coach Cheesy said. “We’re gonna start rehearsals next week. I’m hopin’ all four of you will participate.”
“No thanks.” Modene managed to smile before rolling her eyes and stabbing a blob of meatloaf with a fork.
“But why?” Vista tried to encourage the morose quartet. “It’ll be so much fun! It’s the fiftieth year ain’t it? They’s bound to be a real big ta do. Ya’ll be a part a history.”
There was no response from the girls. They continued to poke forks at the meat loaf and French fries. Vista turned to Coach Cheeseman who just shrugged her shoulders. Vista put her own fork down and turned back to the girls.
“Now I know it ain’t ever girl’s dream to be in a beauty pageant but ya’ll are actin’ like ya just got voted to be given a las’ wish an’ shot at sunrise”.
“Might as well be…” The mousey one said quietly.
“What’s goin’ on here?” Vista asked. “Is there somethin’ I don’t know about?”
Modene looked up from playing with her food a moment. “Look at the list Aunt Vista.”
“That’s the list a girls voted to be in Miss JCHS you got in yer hand ain't it, Coach Cheesy?” When the coach nodded her head guilty, Modene told her. “Let Aunt Vista see it.”
The petite little woman sighed and handed the folder to Vista. Vista let out a little giggle as she opened the folder. “Just think, one a the lucky young ladies on this list is gonna be the fiftieth…oh my…”
Vista looked up at Coach Cheesemen and back down at the list. She plastered a smile on and turned back to the girls. “It’s hard to pick a winner. It’ll be some pageant.”
“Oh yeah…” Modene slurped her milk.
Turning back to the list, Vista scanned it. “Look, Marcella Tater…and you girls…”
“Kind of a surprise list, ain’t it Auntie?”
“Well…” Vista closed the folder and put it in the center of the round. “I have to admit I’m a little surprised Ruth Ann or Ann Bliss aren’t on that list, but they’re in the same homeroom, prob’ly canceled each other out this year.”
“Look at who got chosen over ‘em.” Modene glared.
Vista picked back up the folder. “Let’s see, they’re in Miz Brookshire’s homeroom…” Her eyes scanned down the page. “Oh yes, Donnette Cornwall. Why she’s…umm…”
Louie Kirk looked at her. “Let’s just say she’s in special ed, and leave it at that.”
“…and a wheel chair.” The mousey one spoke up and trailed off.
Coach Cheeseman pulled a chair from the next table and sat down defeated. “Okay girls, I’m beggin’ for some help here. We all know what went on, and so far the only girl in the pageant is Marcella Tater. I get no more girls and she wins by default.”
“By default?” Vista was shocked. “Surely a number of these girls are gonna participate.”
The four at the round all looked Vista in the eye and shook their heads.
“Of course they are, this is such an honor.” Vista struggled for the right encouragement. “It’s…its tradition. You know how much we inbred rednecks love country music, shootin' stuff and tradition.”
“None of us are gonna be in that stupid pageant, Auntie. That’s final.” Modene slammed her fork down in the mess she’d made of her lunch.
“You’ve seen that list.” The mousey girl said.
“Yes, I have.” Vista opened it back up. “And ever’ one of these girls would make a fine Miss JCHS.”
“Well, looks like ol’ Marcella Tater’s gonna win by default.” Louie said. “Ain’t no one else on that list ever gonna be in that pageant. We’ve all got more respect for ourselves ‘en that.”
Vista started to argue, but Coach Cheeseman put her hand on Vista’s about to flail arm. “Miz Moretz, they’re right.”
Modene turned to her aunt. “The football team decided it would be fun to make the big pageant this year a…what did they call it?”
“A dog and gunny sack parade.” Louie didn’t look up from the pile of ketchup she was drawing a circle in.
“They kinda made sure in every home room, the girl voted in was one people made fun of er they thought was the ugliest in the class.” Modene admitted. “Even if some of ‘em wanted to be in that pageant, Auntie, they’s so poor they kin barely afford what few clothes they wear ta school.”
“That’s jest awful.” Vista finally understood. “Why would them boys do that?”
“They thought it would be funny.” The mousey one piped up.
The intercom interrupted the sudden quiet. “Coach Cheeseman come to the office please. Coach Cheeseman come to the office.”
The coach looked at Vista as she picked up her folder. “Wanna bet that’s the firing squad?”
Vista smiled at the young woman. “Goo’luck.” As she got up to head toward the office, Vista added. “Let me know if I kin help.”
The table watched the defeated woman head toward the office. Coach Cheeseman was usually so perky and energetic. It was easy to see, she’d lost this game and had given up any chance of a last minute rebound.
“I never thought I’d see the day, girls.” Vista admitted. “I am at a total loss fer words.”
A chubby little girl with six or seven unnatural colors in her hair appeared at the table and looked on them. “Hi, girls!”
Modene rolled her eyes. “Hi, Marcella.”
“I jes’ wanted you all ta know that I’m gonna be the next Miss JCHS. My mama ‘n I already bought my gown from Target, an’ Erma Plotkin is gonna be here ta do my hair ‘n make up personal.” She put her hands on her ample hips. “An’ my talent is spactac’lar. It’s gonna blow this Podunk town wide open!” She sneered.
Lou Lee Eller, the fourth until now silent one at the table, looked Marcella Tater in the eye. “Does it include puttin’ on yer knee pads and given yer neck and jaw muscles a workout?”
Marcella Tater squinted her eyes. “That’s sa’ funny I fergot to laugh. I look forward to whippin’ yer hiney and when I do I’m gonna make you bend over and kiss my royal…”
“Marcella Tater!” Vista stepped in. “I have heard enough. You spoke yer mind, now run along.”
“Fine.” She hadn’t realized an adult was at the table. “I apol’gize Mizz Moretz. These girls has teased me all my life, an’ I guess I let the devil git to me. You know how the devil steps in when the Lord finally sits ya on the right track.”
Vista squeezed a tight smile on her face and nodded as the girl swished away. As soon as Marcella was out of sight, Vista turned back to the table and slapped her hands on the Formica surface. “You girls gonna let that little stuck up snot get away with this?”
“What kin we do, Miz Moretz?” The mousey one sighed.
“I’m sorry, what’s yer name honey?”
“Virginia, Virginia Alexander, but ever body calls me Mousey.” She smiled.
“Well, Mousey, It’s nice to meet ya, and I’ll tell ya exactly what you kin do.” Vista leaned in. “Forgive my language, but you kin be in that pageant and whip that little slut’s ass.”
“Ain’t gonna do it.” Louie was firm.
“You wanna let that thang treat you like loser afore ya even tried ta prove yerself?”
“First of all, we ain’t got no chance.” Lou Lee snorted. “And secon’ of all, the school’s just gonna howl and cat call ever time we walk on stage.”
“Who says?” Vista was equally vehement.
“Look at us, Miz Moretz.” Mousey was almost in tears. “Speakin’ fer m’self, I gots a figure like a prayin’ mantis wif the legs ripped off.”
Vista smiled. “Honey child, that’s what God made chicken cutlets fer.” The table giggled. “Ev’ry one a you girls has a chance ta win this thing. All ya got to do is do it.”
Louie Kirk shook her head and put down her fork. “Miz Moretz, I ‘preciate the encourg’ment, really I do. Yer right Lou Lee, Mousey and ‘specially Modene would have a real shot, but me…I ain’t gonna ‘embar’ss m’self.”
“Now why would you think that?” Vista asked.
“Com’on, be honest.” Louie sat back in her hard plastic chair and folded her arms. “I’m surprised the kids in m’homeroom even 'membered I was a girl.”
Vista bit the inside of her mouth. “Honestly? I dint say it wuddn’t gonna take some work, but we can do this.” She reached across the table and took Louie’s chin in her hand. “Honey, inside of everyone there’s a little bit of beautiful. You believe that and I bet we can make everyone see just how beautiful you are on the outside, too.”
“No disrespect, Auntie, but why should we?” Modene looked at her Aunt. “It ain’t no honor this year. We all been branded with a Scarlet Letter only the modern version with a big ol’ ‘L’ stomped on our foreheads.”
“High school is hard ‘nuff bein’ on the bottom tier.” Mousey agreed with Modene. “All the girls in this years pageant, fiftieth er no, is gonna wind up in a special bottom a the barrel section.”
“We’d jest be jest tellin people to ta humiliate ‘n’ tease us...in front of ar kinfolk!” Lou Lee admitted.
Vista Kay Moretz knew they were right. She hadn’t been in high school for a long time. It was tough for the kids who weren’t popular or rich, and somehow in 2011, the popular and rich had created a whole new way to publicly bully and get away with it. But she would not be swayed.
“There’s got ta be a way to turn this all around girls.”
“’Less you can find us all a fairy godmother and a whole punkin patch it ain’t never hap’nin’”. Mousey frowned.
But that statement made Vista smile. “If they was a way to not make this pageant a dog ‘n’ gunny sack parade would ya’ll be willin’ ta do it?”
The girls looked at each other and shrugged. “Good.” Vista beamed. “I got an idea. You talk to ever girl on that list. Tell ‘em not ta worry about money fer dresses, er bein’ teased. We’re gonna turn this sucker around.”
Mousey brightened up. “You promise Miz Moretz?”
“I not only promise, I guarantee.” Vista took the girls hand. “Now you have ever girl interested in makin’ the football team eat crow outta their protective cups with Marcella Tater servin humble pie come ta my house tonight fer dinner. We gots lots a work to do.”
Vista pushed herself back from the round and reached for her crutches. Modene grabbed her arm. “But Auntie, me ‘n’ Lou Lee’s seniors. Seniors never win.”
“Aw honey, this year it ain’t about winnin’ the crown it’s about steppin’ on all them tongues that are gonna drop to the floor when we prove to ‘em beauty’s in the eye a the beholder but stupidity goes clear to the bone.”
Modene smiled, the first one Vista had seen from her all day.
“Oh, an’ Modene that thing about seniors ain’t true.” Vista hauled herself up on her crutches and hobbled toward the office. “I was a senior when I won.” She tossed over her shoulder as she headed towards her destination.
She had to stop a moment before she could throw open the office door. Bernadine Cunningham, as usual sat behind the desk. She looked at Vista and smiled.
“Is Coach Cheeseman still in his office?” Vista asked.
Bernadine got a worried look on her usually happy face and nodded her head. “I wouldn’t disturb them. Arzella Tater and Vida Leigh’s in thar, too. Cain’t be pretty.”
Vista smiled and headed her crutches to the door. “You might wanna take a break, Bernadine. Ugly is about ta have a nuclear meltdown.”
“You was warned.” Vista didn’t bother to knock. She threw open the office door and walked right in.
Arzella Tater spun her head around. “We’re busy.”
Mac Moretz sat behind the desk with the nameplate that said principal. “Vista Kay, this probably isn’t a good time.” He looked to be discreetly trying to find some holy water.
“Ya’ll discussing the Miss JCHS Pageant?” She smiled sweetly.
“Yes.” Vida Leigh shouted in a tone she’d gun down anyone using in her library.
“So you gots no business in here, Vista Kay.” Arzella spewed. “Leave!”
Vista turned her body awkwardly and firmly closed the door behind her. “As the only former Miss Johnson County High School in this room, I’ve got more business bein’ here than any one of you.”
She noticed the happy twinkle in her ex-husband’s eye as she helped herself to a chair.
“Listen, missy…” Vida Leigh took a step toward her.
“Vida.” Mac cut her off. “She’s right. Vista and her sister are both former winners. She deserves to know what’s going on.”
“Oh, Mac. I pretty much know what’s going on. Now what are we gonna do about it?”
“I’m not sure what we can do.” Coach Cheeseman finally spoke up.
“I keep a tellin’ ya. Nobody’s gonna care if my daughter’s the winner.” Arzella huffed. “Let me run it as usual an’ ever thing will be wonnerful. No one would dare believe it’s a big joke with me in charge agin this year.” She smirked.
“Watcha gonna do Arzella, let yer daughter have a one woman show and then hand ‘er the crown?” Vida put her hands on her hips. “If Marcella’s in, then yer out. I’ve been a dyin’ to change that blasphemous heathen parade inta somethin’ fer the glory a the Lord.”
“Interesting.” Vista said. “You’d make changes, I’m assuming.”
“A course.” Vida crossed her arms and looked down her nose. “Nobody ain’t got no talent so that goes, an’ most a the girls is poor so no ev’nin gown.”
“What just have ‘em come out in jeans and hold yer hand over their head to measure applause?” Vista tried not to ask too sarcastically.
“Don’ be stupid, Vista Kay.” Vida harumphed. “It’s a beauty pageant. Have the girl’s come out in swimsuits and recite their favert Bible verse. The five best has a Bible drill until theys only one left. Miss JCHS will fin’ly be the girl wif the best morals.”
“…and the nicest hooters.” Vista smirked.
“Look, the bottom line here is…” Mac Moretz had to admit. “if Unita can only get one girl to be in this thing, I have no choice but to cancel or open it up to any girl who wants to be in it.”
“Any girl?” Arzella sputtered. “But it’s always only been open ta girls voted in by their homerooms. It’s tradition!”
“It’s better then having one girl compete against herself.” Vida smiled and crossed her arms.
“And she’d still prob’ly loose.” Unita Cheeseman said quietly for only Vista to hear.
“Well, Mac, ya don’t got to do neither.” Vista announced. “As of right now ya got five contestants and by this time tomorrow you’ll have more.”
“Five?” Unita Cheeseman turned to look at Vista’s face as she nodded and smiled.
“Modene, Louie Kirk, Lou Lee Eller and Virginia Alexander have all just committed to bein’ in the pageant an’ they’s gonna talk to all the other girls on the list and try ta get more.” Vista confirmed.
“Louie Kirk?” Arzella half laughed and half squealed. “Marcella’s still gonna win.”
“Maybe, Arzella, but if Marcella’s still in…” Mac said.
“Of course, she’s still in.” Arzella scoffed.
“Then your out.” Mac smiled triumphantly.
Vista leaned forward. “And Miz Leigh, that means yer out, too.”
“Me?” The librarian demanded. “Why me?”
Vista turned to Arzella. “Unless you dropped that restraining order Arzella, Miss Leigh still cain’t come within a hunnerd feet of Marcella. Am I right?”
Vida Leigh turned violet in anger. “I did not touch yer precious little girl, Arzella.”
“You tried ta perform an exorcism on ‘er!” She yelled back. “My poor baby still cain’t take a bath without passin’ out first.”
“That settles it then.” Mac Moretz smiled in relief. “The pageant is still on, but the two of you will have to settle for being on the sidelines.”
“Fine.” Arzella said, Vista swore through her flaring nostrils. “But whose gonna put on this pageant then? It hasta be someone connected with the school if yer gonna stick to the rules.”
“Why, Unita here.” Vista put her hand on the Coach’s shoulder.
“Coach Cheesy?” Vida Leigh almost laughed. “It’s a beauty pageant not a innermural!”
“I’ll have you know I was second runner up three years in a row in Miss Oklahoma.” Unita smiled. “I don’t know how that happens, second three years in a row. You’d think I’d go up or down, but nooooo...always second runner up…but I’m not bitter.”
“There.” Vista grinned. “An’ me and Vonda Kay will help out.”
Arzella grinned and leaned forward. “But ever body knows Modene’s yer niece. What’s the differ’nce in you sponsorin’ and me sponsorin’.”
“She's my niece too, Arzella.” Mac put his foot down. “This is Johnson County, Tennessee. Like it er not every body’s related some how to every body else. I doubt anyone would think twice about any kind of wrong doing if Modene won.”
Vista stepped in. “An’ Arzella you done such a good job the past few years, you deserve a break. Just concentrate on workin’ one on one with Marcella. Let this be a mother ‘n’ daughter project. Next year, the pageant’s all yours agin.”
“Well, it would be nice to not hafta worry about the other girls a fallin’ off the runway.” She thought out loud.
“No body blames you for Stella Coopley’s mishap last year.” Coach Cheeseman assured her. “She told us she was blind as a bat without her glasses. We just didn't listen.”
“I think she jes’ wanted ta sing that nasty song sprawled cross the top a the piano like a whore.” Vida Leigh seethed.
The office filled with music. The librarian grabbed the crucifix around her neck and braced herself screaming, “Satan get thee behind me!”
“Oh relax, Vida.” Vista reached in her pocket. “That’s just m’ringtone.”
“Dark Shadows Theme?” Coah Cheesy asked as Vista looked at her Iphone.
“It was our song.” Mac Moretz smiled.
“’Splains a lot don’t it?” Vista looked at Unita and giggled. “’Scuse me, it’s Modene.”
Vista pressed a number of buttons. “Up to seven, Inez Curd and Effie Rose Fickus are in.”
Arzella Tater grabbed a fist full of air and yanked it in barely controlled triumph. “Yes! Marcella’s still the winner.”
“I don’ know, Arzella.” Vida Leigh sneered. “That Effie Rose has the voice of a angel.”
“And the face of week old road kill.” Arzella shot back.
Mac Moretz stood from behind his desk. “Well, Mrs. Leigh, Mrs. Tater I thank you for volunteering but it looks as though your services are not needed this year. We’ll go it alone from here.”
“Fine.” Vida Leigh’s thin lips disappeared in her face. “Have yer hootchie coo slut fest an’ not include the Lord. Com’on Arzella, the new Midnight Globe is in m’mailbox by now.”
The two ladies turned their noses up and headed for the door.
“Arzella?” Vista remembered. “The pageant girls er all comin’ ta my house fer dinner. Tell Marcella she’s invited.”
“What fer?” Arzella sniffed.
“We’re gonna discuss the pageant an’ how we can all help each other to make it sumpthin special.”
“My Marcella, don’t need no help Vista Kay.” Arzella raised one eyebrow. “She’s gonna win.”
“But, I thought…”
“Back off.” The woman snapped. “We got all the help we want er need. Jes tell Marcella where to walk ta git her roses an’ crown.” With that she and the Librarian we gone.
“Speaking of roses.” Mac Moretz cleared his throat when the door was finally closed. “There’s not a whole lot of money to do this with.”
“Budget cuts off course.” Coach Cheesy tried to smile.
“How much?” Vista was almost afraid to ask.
“Fifty bucks.” Mac was embarrassed. “I don’t know how the board expects a big fiftieth pageant with fifty bucks, but at least there’s no rental for the auditorium and we always use the same crown.”
Vista beamed. “Don’t worry Mac, jus’ leave that all to me. Now, Unita, my house for dinner?”
“I’ll be there. What can I bring?”
“Just yerself. Now I got some phone calls ta make.” Vista stood and grabbed her crutches. “Mac, I’m gonna be askin around fer donations and volunteers. I assume it’s alright that I use yer name and the schools?”
“Anything you need.” He assured her.
“I’ll let you know.” She got her balance as she stood. “It’s a shame them boys on the football team thought they could get away with somethin’ like this.”
Mac nodded his head. “I didn’t know anything until it was too late, but I’ll be handing out some discipline they’ll never forget.”
“Oh Mac.” Vista smiled. “I’m thinkin’ maybe you should let it slide. Act like nobody knows what went on.”
Unita Cheeseman’s jaw dropped. “Act like nothin’…? Miss Moretz, those foul little…”
Mac put up his hand to cut her off. “Unita, I’m going to take care of this.”
Vista turned to her ex. “No, Mac, let the girl’s take care of it. The longer those boys think they’re getting’ away with it the better. Believe me, the Miss Dog and Gunny Sack Pageant is gonna be a night no body is ever gonna fergit!”