The Sweetheart of Prosper County

Jill S. Alexander

Square Fish

1
a hood ornament in the no-jesus christmas parade
Sundi Knutt had a blue-ribbon-winning sow, a deer hunting license, and a mound of cleavage. She rode on the hood of Josh Whatley’s daddy’s four-wheel drive Super-Cab Ford. The Future Farmers of America chapter hung posters on each side door glitter-glued with FFA SWEETHEART in all caps. The truck was mirror white, and Sundi, stuffed in a strapless red velvet dress trimmed with real, white rabbit fur, waved to each side of the crowd as the truck poked around the downtown square.
“Hey!” A voice hollered toward Sundi. It was Dean Ottmer, standing in the middle of his spit-and-scratch so-called friends with his baseball cap on backwards. The cap pushed his straw hair down into his eyes, making him look like a short sheepdog. “Mrs. Claus called and she wants her outfit back!” His gang laughed and high-fived each other. Sundi just rode on, smiling and waving. Being a sweetheart must give a girl that kind of confidence.
“She looks like a cherry plopped on top of a DQ soft-serve sundae.” Maribel sucked on a candy cane, watching Sundi roll by.
Maribel and I weren’t parade royalty. We were just taking up space on the curb, waving back at the sweethearts, hoping to stay off Dean Ottmer’s radar.
“She looks more like an ornament to me,” I said. “Just hook a paper clip on her head and hang her from a Christmas tree.”
The truck inched along and so did Sundi’s dress. She stopped waving long enough to hook her thumbs under the fur and tug and pull the top up, but it looked about as pointless as trying to carry a couple of big water balloons in a handkerchief.
The Big Wells High School cheerleading squad came flipping behind the FFA Sweetheart. The Roughnecks’ mascot, a girl hidden under an oversized man head with a permanent scowl, threw handfuls of plastic-wrapped candy canes into the crowd. Folks were scrambling around trying to catch them and scooping them off the ground.
Maribel stepped off the curb, picked up a fistful, and shoved them into her purse—a yellow mesh shoulder bag bearing the unibrowed likeness of Frida Kahlo and the declaration I Paint My Own Reality on the side.
“You’d think they were throwing money,” I said.
She tucked her black hair behind her ear. “Can’t hear you!”
The school band was going by, tooting and banging out "Jingle Bells.” I felt bad for Lewis Fortenberry. He marched in the back row with his tuba. Lewis was knock-kneed, and his blue uniform pants were too small and too snug around his big, flat butt. He looked like somebody squeezed his legs together and the fat parts just spread out over the top of his belt.
“Austin, he’s got bad muffin top,” Maribel whispered.
Dean Ottmer stepped off the curb and got behind the band. He had his T-shirt tucked into his jeans, and his jeans pulled down below his crack. He pinched his butt cheeks together and pretend-marched a few feet behind Lewis. Dean’s buddies clapped and yelled, “DEAN-O, DEAN-O, DEAN-O, DEAN-O.”
Lord, Jesus! I threw my head back, looking for some help from above. Dean Ottmer is present. Momma said to pray the problem, not the outcome. She said that in the Bible, Mary doesn’t pray for Jesus to bring wine; she just told him they were out, then he gave them a flowing river of wine. Momma said to tell Jesus the problem and let Him solve it in His way in His time. But I added anyway, Ninth grade has been rough, and I’ve got three and a half years of high school left. And one more time in case He missed it, Dean Ottmer is present.
I opened my eyes. Dean was still there—the biggest mouth in the crowd lining Main Street. The whole town and half of Prosper County had turned out for the annual Big Wells Christmas parade. A small-town social event. As big a draw as Friday night football and Sunday morning church.
Some burly man with a four-year-old on his shoulders decided he could get a better view if he stood in front of me, so Maribel and I had to move. Mayor Nesmith’s float was coming by; we wanted to be in the front for that. He had been mayor of Big Wells for three years, and every year he had the best parade float, and handpicked kids off the curb and out of the crowd to ride on it. Maribel and I were hoping this year was our turn. Mayor Nesmith was up for reelection; I felt sure he’d load his float up with kids.
As Mayor Nesmith’s float got closer, downtown Big Wells began to smell like a movie theater.
“Wow!” Maribel drew in a long sniff. “It’s a popcorn buffet.”
And it was. Mayor Nesmith’s float was a spanking-new, red eighteen-wheeler with a flatbed, lowboy trailer. The trailer had two popcorn machines on each end, a Christmas tree with the White family dressed fancy and stringing popcorn garlands—Mrs. White had been Miss Texas and her perfect twins had her silky blond hair—and a few veterans dressed in their military uniforms walking along handing out bags of popcorn. “Run Run Rudolph” blasted from the float. Tiffany Smoot, the high school dance team captain, and Marvelle Jones, the first male, African-American cheerleader in Big Wells, performed a super-fast swing dance in the middle of the float. Two long banners hung from each side of the trailer: HAVE A HOT POPPIN’ DOO-WOP CHRISTMAS.
Mayor Nesmith hopped out of the shiny red cab in a business suit, a red tie, and a Santa Claus hat. He gave everyone a big, two-handed wave and walked toward Maribel and me, smiling directly at us.
“This is it, Maribel.” I grabbed her arm. We stepped off the curb. “We’re finally getting to ride in the Christmas parade.”
Mayor Nesmith grabbed two bags of popcorn from one of the veterans and stiff-armed them at me and Maribel. We stopped in our tracks. He turned away from us and shook hands with the burly man. The little girl on the man’s shoulders reached down toward the mayor. She had curly black hair and black patent-leather shoes and a shorty-short black satin dress with a white lace collar. She looked like a collectible doll sold in a box. A veteran wearing a starched white navy uniform put a stepladder by the truck’s cab. Mayor Nesmith carried the little doll up the steps and posed her on the hood. She immediately began waving and smiling—side to side, side to side.
“A hood ornament!” I stepped back onto the curb and pulled a fistful of popcorn from the bag. “I haven’t liked Nesmith since he took Jesus out of the parade.”
In his first parade as mayor, Nesmith assembled a baby-Jesus-in-the-manger float. County folks loaned him a goat, two sheep, and a donkey. He borrowed a camel from the exotic animal farm by the interstate. The Methodists donated a young couple and their new baby. Mayor Nesmith rented a Roman soldier costume and stood in front of the manger scene waving. Less than a week later, the Big Wells Tribune ran an editorial on the separation of church and state, using the mayor and his float as the example. The paper quoted the mayor the next day as saying it was an honest mistake and that future Christmas parades would definitely not include Jesus.
“He gave Reese’s out?” Maribel asked, hoping for some chocolate.
“No!” I yelled over “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” “I said ‘JESUS OUT’!”
Nesmith’s doo-wop vote float rolled slowly past, making sure everyone could read the huge sign stretched across the back of the trailer:
RE - ELECT
MAYOR VICTOR NESMITH
I heard a crowd of boys laughing and looked around. Dean Ottmer had a couple of his jerk friends locked elbow to elbow and standing off the curb—one brown-haired string bean stooge and one short dumpy guy with a candy cane in his mouth. Dean imitated Nesmith and strutted toward them—shoving each in the chest with half-empty popcorn bags. He shoved them again, then pointed and hee-hawed at me and Maribel. I pinched my lips together and made out like I didn’t get that he was making fun of us, like I didn’t even see him. But he was still there, still laughing, and still under my skin.
The United Hispanics of Texas cruised to a stop in front of us. The UHOT board members rode in an old Impala convertible painted metallic brown with chrome rims and brown-trimmed, white leather seats. Daisy Flores, a senior and the UHOT La Reina, graced the hood.
“She is a daisy,” I said. The sleeves of her yellow satin dress framed her brown face and eyes when she raised her arms to wave.
“Rrrrrrrrrrrrrdddd!” Maribel hollered, trilling her r’s for everyone to hear.
She tried teaching me how to do that once, but I just spit a rain shower trying to say arriba. Everyone in the UHOT cruiser whistled back at Maribel, like they knew her personally, like she had some double life I knew nothing about.
Dean Ottmer and company belted out a Spanglish karaoke attempt at “Feliz Navidad.” They made up Spanish-sounding words for the lyrics they didn’t know.
“Good gravy!” Maribel rolled her eyes, blowing Dean off. “He just makes fun of everything.”
Texanne Farhat, the Rodeo Club Sweetheart two years running, rode by on the hood of a 1970s Cadillac with real cow horns mounted on the car’s grille.
“Those must’ve come off a big side of beef,” Maribel said.
Texanne held the state record in barrel racing as a freshman and a sophomore. She wore a pink, wide-brimmed cowboy hat and huge grin. She had Bugs Bunny front teeth but didn’t seem to care as she sat on that hood, waving and blowing kisses at the crowd.
“Hey!” Dean Ottmer was at it again. “I bet you could bite an apple through a picket fence!” Then he held two bent fingers in front of his top lip and waved real big with his other hand. Texanne covered her mouth with both hands, then blew double kisses, maybe even quadruple kisses, toward Dean. She took off her hat and drew big circles in the air with it, like a lasso. Then she yelled, “WHOOOOOP!” She had her very own cowgirl signature wave and holler, and Dean Ottmer meant nothing to her.
Maribel and I cracked up.
“What are you laughing at, chestless?” Dean flattened his palms and mashed them across the front of his shirt. “Austin, Texas"—Dean kept his palms flat against his chest—"the no-hill country.”
Dang. It seemed like the whole crowded curb laughed—everyone except me and Maribel. I was nobody’s sweetheart, and I didn’t have a signature wave. And I had no car to ride off on when Dean Ottmer punched me with insults. I just stood on the curb with a greasy popcorn sack and a red face as the parade rolled by.
“Don’t let him get to you, Austin.” Maribel tried to make me feel better for the umpteenth time. “He’s like E. coli—just contaminates everything he comes in contact with.”
But this time Dean Ottmer had flipped my switch. No way could I spend the next three and a half years of high school being identified as “Austin Gray, you know, the girl who’s the butt of Dean Ottmer’s jokes.” I had taken his smack since fourth grade and done nothing. Just like I waited on the curb for someone to pull me into the parade instead of joining in on my own. I had to redefine myself in high school, become something other than Dean’s punch line.
“That’s it, Maribel,” I said as Santa Claus rode by on the fire truck. “This is the last time I’m getting stuck on the curb with Dean-O the Jerk-O. No matter what I have to do, come next year, I’m going to be a hood ornament in the No-Jesus Christmas Parade.”
 
Excerpted from The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander.
Copyright © 2009 by Jill S. Alexander.
Published in 2010 by Feiwel and Friends.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.