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Sometimes a little white lie is just the kindest thing. I mean, what in the world was I supposed to tell Riley, my agitating next-door neighbor, when he rang my doorbell one October morning and asked if he could work at my brand-new restaurant as Peter's sous chef? My mind raced in a thousand directions and my initial thought was to say, "That is so nice, Riley. I tell you what, though, I'll need to talk to Peter about this and get back with you." At the very least, it would have taken the onus off me. But just as I was about to open my mouth, my peripheral vision caught a glimpse of Kissie standing in the doorway leading from the dining room to the kitchen with hands firmly planted on her hips, mouth drawn tightly, and her head shaking from side to side. That was her not-so-subtle way of telling me that what I was about to do was a big fat no-no. She knew me all too well.
I knew she was right, but it's hard for me to be brutally honest with people, especially guys like Riley. I feel sorry for him, bless his heart. He's … well, he's pitiful really, and he can't help it. He speaks with a soft r, so when you first meet him you think his name is Wiley. Wiley Bwadshaw. Kissie, on the other hand, doesn't feel in the least bit sorry for him. She says he's just plain annoying and that his speech impediment has nothing to do with it. She says there's no reason to feel bad for him. "He gotta plenty money, a full head a hair, nice stature, and two strong legs to find honest work. There ain't no reason in the world to feel sorry for that man."
As he stood on my front stoop wearing a white apron and a chef's hat with RILEY embroidered in black, he tried selling himself. "Working as a Pampa'ed Chef Consultant qualifies me as a pewfect candidate for the sous chef position."
"I thought you gave up Pampered Chef for Amway," I told him, still not having invited him in. Kissie would rather spend an entire afternoon behind a shopping cart with a bad wheel than five minutes face-to-face with Riley.
"Actually, I did, but I've weconsidered my decision and I'm back in business. Anyway, these days," he went on, "PCCs have to do cooking shows as part of the job." Riley adjusted the tie around his waist and it was then that I noticed the lettering on the front of his apron: THE PAMPERED CHEF® DISCOVER THE CHEF IN YOU. "I've alweady hosted close to seven cooking demonstwations featuring the Pampa'ed Chef's best thirty-minute wecipes."
I stood silently in my doorway trying my best to be polite, bobbing my head with a kind note of approval. Quite honestly, at this point, my neck was beginning to hurt.
He went on. "That alone is another benefit, as I could make a huge diffewence in the efficiency of your westauwant opewation." An ear-to-ear smile spread across his face as he popped his index finger in my direction. "And here's the best part, you could stock your kitchen exclusively with all Pampa'ed Chef pwoducts, declaring the Peach Blossom Inn the first all-PC westauwant in Tennessee. Hey, you could even put a PC logo on the fwont door, as well as on all your menus, boasting that you are the first!" He further added that that one detail alone was sure to increase our foot traffic by at least 75 percent—given the Pampered Chef reputation and all. "It's a win–win!" Riley exclaimed as he snapped his fingers in the air and poked his head inside the entryway of my rental home, scanning his eyes from side to side. Riley's thirst for information could never be considered his strong suit.
Not only is Riley a Pampered Chef salesman ("consultant" is his word) but he "reps" Tupperware, Cutco, and of course, Amway, too. Kissie says that line of work is meant for women only and that he's flat-out embarrassing himself, but as he puts it, "It's a gweat way to meet the ladies." I can't help but feel sorry for him there, too, because he's in his late thirties, still a bachelor, and sports a military hairdo to boot. His cropped brown hair ripples in the back when he bends his head down, but he keeps a two-inch flattop growth on the top. When you go into his home, he'll show you around the house but you can't sit on the furniture. It's covered in plastic. So are the rugs. In fact, there's a see-through runner that extends all over the house. The one time I had to go over there to borrow an egg and made mention of the vast amount of Tupperware products in his kitchen, he swept his hand over the coated furniture in the den and said, "Well, how do you think I got all this? Nevah, my dear lady, unda'estimate the powa' of plastic."
So instead of putting off the inevitable and saying that I'd ask Peter about the sous chef position and get back with him, I took Kissie's body language into account, mustered all my courage, and said, "That's so nice of you to ask about that, Riley, but Peter already has a sous chef." It was technically a lie, I realize that, but I like to think of it as a harmless little fib meant to spare his feelings.
The news seemed to take him by surprise. "Oh. Well, hmmm. I didn't wealize you had alweady hired someone." The creases in Riley's forehead deepened as he considered his options.
I didn't say a word. "The less said the better," as Mama used to say, a quote she often borrowed from Jane Austen. Emma, I think it was.
"Never mind, then," he said, disappointment in his voice. "Well, good luck with your new hire."
"Thanks, Riley. Talk to you soon." I backed behind the door and waved as I slowly pushed it to.
With relief oozing from my pores, I bolted the lock and turned around in a rush, bumping noses with Kissie. "What'd you go and tell him that for?" she asked in her indignant tone of voice, the one she's become famous for—at least in my mind. Her right hand alternated between pointing her finger in the air and resting on her large hip. "He gone find out the truth as soon as you put an ad in the newspaper, hm hm hm, hm hm hm. Lawd knows that man reads every word in it. Even the circulars." Kissie chants little hms when she's disgusted at something or someone. She also does a variation of it when she's happy. This was not one of those.
I sighed loudly. Shifting my weight from one foot to the other, I reached around and knotted my long, curly (ofttimes frizzy) red hair into a bun, something I do whenever I'm nervous. Or whenever Kissie is about to lecture me. I really and truly thought what I said was just the kindest thing. "But this way I won't hurt his feelings."
"That may be, but in the long run, your fib gone get you in trouble. And even if you get out of that tall tale, what you gone say about outfitting your new restaurant with all Pampered Chef products?" Now both hands were back on her hips. "He ain't gone stop there neither. He'll want you to use Cutco, Tupperware, and Amway, too. Wait and see if ol' Kissie ain't right. He's over there thinking he's hit the jackpot. You better nip this in the bud while you still can." After enduring eight months of maddening encounters with my meddlesome next-door neighbor, my other mother was flat done.
From the very first day I rented the house, Riley had had "his nose in our business," as Kissie put it. She'd do almost anything to avoid him, including drawing the curtains in the middle of the day to give the impression no one was home. Incidentally, Kissie had been giving me "the look" with her hands on her hips since the day I learned to walk. And she was continuing the tradition with my two little girls. Clearly a person's age had nothing to do with it. I was just short of thirty-six, but to Kissie, age was irrelevant.
Twenty minutes later when two consecutive doorbell chimes interrupted our morning a second time, Roberta, my little two-year-old mutt my girls and I found at the pound, hurled himself into a barking frenzy. After sticking him in the kitchen so he wouldn't run off down the street once I opened the door, two more chimes had followed in the space it took me to make it to the foyer. This not only got Roberta going again, but Kissie—who was taking what she called "a breather" to watch Saturday-morning cartoons with my Sarah and Isabella—sprang out of her seat (she's nearly eighty-four) and beat me to the entrance hall. She knew exactly who was on the other side. "May I help you, Riley?" I heard her say while flinging the door open. Her voice could possibly pass for polite but there was not a bit of a happy-to-see-you lilt in it at all.
"Good morning, Kissie. May I talk to Leelee again?" Riley, on the other hand, was exuberant.
"All right. Leelee," she hollered behind her, with no enthusiasm, "Riley's back."
I strolled up and shyly peered over her shoulder. Panic about my fib had started to take root.
This time Riley wore one of his black sweatshirts with TUPPERWARE ROCKS embroidered in large red letters clear across the front. Until meeting Riley, I had no earthly idea that Tupperware clothing even existed. "Hi again." He waved at the two of us. "I just had a bwilliant idea." Riley's enthusiasm was made obvious by the way he rocked back and forth on his heels. "I was just looking awound my kitchen when the thought popped in my head that the Peach Blossom Inn will have all kinds of food-stowage needs. I could stock your kitchen with any kind of Tuppa'ware pwoduct you could possibly imagine. And Kissie, you could host the pawty!" He reached into his back pocket and handed her a rolled-up Tupperware catalog. "You won't believe the kinds of wewards you can earn. Why I've nearly outfitted my entire house."
Awkwardness hung heavy in the air. Hosting a Tupperware party would be the last thing eighty-three-and-a-half-year-old Kissie King would ever add to her bucket list. Just as I was pondering another little white lie to relieve us all of this misery, Riley piped up again. "And wait till you learn about the sharp world of Cutc—" The daggers in Kissie's eyes could have cut that poor thing's face in half. As for me, I just stood there expressionless, not knowing what to say. Riley backed down the steps and onto the walkway. "Uh, why don't you take your time and think about it; I'll get back with you later."
Kissie put her hand on the back of the door and shoved. "Sure, Riley," I said before it swung shut.
Even though I didn't want to, I met Kissie's glare straight on. I'd seen it a thousand times. Tight, pursed lips with eyebrows arched like upside-down crescent moons and coal black eyes staring right into mine. "Don't say a word," I told her. "I knew you were right the minute I heard the second doorbell chime." As she turned and ambled back to the den to join the girls, a peeved "hm hm hm" was the only sound she made.
Kissie is one of the loveliest people who ever lived. It's just that Riley crawls all over her. She puts it like this: "Sometimes that man sits on my last raw nerve." As irritated as he makes her, though, she doesn't stay that way long. In fact, she spends much more of her time laughing than glaring. If she finds something funny—anything at all—she'll tee-hee herself into a full-blown laughing attack quicker than anyone I know. Tears will stream from her eyes and pretty soon her entire face looks like she just stepped out of the shower. The sound of her laughter is the most contagious thing you've ever heard and it's virtually impossible not to join right in with her. When she's finished—with the laughing attack, that is—she'll end by saying, "oh me," or, "oooh-wee," however the mood strikes her.
Without question, she's the most wonderful person I've ever known, and that's been since the day I was born. My grandparents shared her with Mama and Daddy the minute I popped into the world. She was considered one of the best cateresses in Memphis when Granddaddy stumbled upon her at a cocktail party. He popped one of Kissie's cheese dreams in his mouth and knew he had to hire her. She cooked for them for ten years before I was born and all of a sudden she was both a chef and a nanny. Times were different then. Many families had a black lady working in the home. Some had a cook, a maid, and an ironing lady. Not many, but a few. Mama and Daddy had a maid who doubled as an ironing lady and a superb cook. And I had a black mama.
Sometimes I'm surprised she stayed with us. Mama had a tendency to be jealous of my affection for Kissie. As far as I'm concerned, the reason for that is as simple as two plus two. Kissie was the one taking care of me. Running my bath, cleaning my behind, and making sure my tummy was full; kissing my elbows and knees when I fell off my bike and bundling me up in the winter. Kissie worked in our home at least five days a week. Children bond to their caregivers whether they are blood or not, and that's exactly what happened with me. I fell in love with Kissie King like she was my own mother.
There was never a birthday party where Kissie didn't do most of the work or a dance recital when Kissie didn't help me get ready. Of course, Mama helped. I would be remiss if I didn't give her part of the credit. I know she tried. But something else in her life seemed to always claim the front seat.
* * *
My white eyelet dress with Juliet sleeves and an empire waist came from Goldsmith's, Memphis's hometown department store. The cutest thing I'd ever seen and just perfect for my first Junior Cotillion dance. Mama took me shopping and I couldn't wait to get back home to try it on for Kissie. Since I attended an all-girls school and Junior Cotillion was an all-girls organization, I had to invite my own date. All year my eyes had been set on Danny Weaver, a boy from the boys' school down the street. Sandy blond hair, a spray of freckles across his nose, big blue eyes—I had set my sights high. From the moment I spotted him at my first boy–girl party one year earlier, I pictured us a couple.
Calling him on the phone, God as my witness, took five years off my life. It was a Friday afternoon; I'll never forget it. I'd never called a boy before and as an eighth-grader with no brothers, I was scared to death to dial the number. His mother answered the phone and with Mary Jule, one of my three best friends, sitting right next to me, I said, "May I please speak to Danny?" That was just before the days of caller ID and I could have hung up right then and there if I wanted to but Mary Jule held my hand and urged me to "just get it over with." Once he said hello, Danny sat there on the other end of the line, barely saying anything until I finally blurted out the question. After an excruciating pause, he finally said yes but hurried off the phone. It's a wonder I survived.
The night of the formal, Kissie helped to straighten my hair and made sure my dress was pressed. Of course, Mama took all the pictures once Danny picked me up at the door, and that was an even more uncomfortable moment, since it was seven o'clock by the time he got there and, well, that's two hours past five. Without fail, no matter what day of the week it was, cocktail hour in our house commenced with the five o'clock whistle.
The evening could scarcely be described as romantic. Once we got to the dance, the girls clustered around the tables while the boys huddled around one another at the far end of the room, no doubt talking about basketball, football, or who knows what else. It could have been my curly-turned-straight red hair, for all I knew; it was and still is the bane of my existence. The parental chaperones urged us to dance but Danny and the rest of the boys just sat there like toads, never uttering a word. Four hours later Danny and I slithered into the backseat of his father's Lincoln Continental for the long ride home. Thank God for Mr. Weaver. At least he made conversation.
Mama was three sheets to the wind and slurring her words the minute we stepped inside the front door. To say I was embarrassed would be a lie. I was mortified. Daddy stepped in to say good-bye to Danny after Mama attempted an inebriated farewell, nearly tripping over her feet when she went to hug him. Danny looked at me, then the floor, back at me, over to Mama, and finally shook Daddy's hand before hurrying out to his father. I hid behind the front window and watched him bound into the front seat. The thought of their conversation sickened me as I ran up to my room. Hours passed before Kissie came into work the next morning and I could fall into her arms. She'd rock me back and forth while I cried but she never said a single unkind word about Mama—no matter what Mama did. All Kissie would say was: "She's your mama, baby. You need to love and respect her no matter what."
* * *
Scotch was Mama's cocktail. I can still picture the green bottle with the red top—Glenlivet 12 with the ivory-colored label. A bottle always sat atop our bar, right next to the small sink. Most of the other liquor bottles—Jack Daniel's, Tanqueray, Absolut, Bacardi, and several different liqueurs—were stacked on the shelves above the bar glasses, but the fifth of Glenlivet was always within reach, easy for Mama to grab. The sound of the silver tongs tinkering in the ice bucket (that Kissie had filled, incidentally) and the clinking of the ice cubes echoes in my mind even today. One, two, three, four, Mama dropped each one into her Waterford crystal highball glass as soon as the clock struck five. Mama would be finishing her second by the time Daddy got home, around six o'clock. She'd leave her chair in the living room and mix him a stiff one as soon as she heard his car engine enter the driveway. But only one. That's all Daddy ever wanted.
He never took the first sip until he kissed me hello. When I was little he'd make it a point to find me, throw me in the air, blowing funny raspberry kisses into my face and down my neck. By the time I turned into a teenager I was usually on the phone when he got home. Still he'd knock on my bedroom door and kiss me before Kissie served our dinner. I always knew my daddy loved me. Maybe it was because of the way he covered me when Mama had had two too many or the tears I saw in his eyes the day I graduated from college or the ones he wept on my wedding day. I suppose that's why I became a daddy's girl. Who could blame me?
It wouldn't have been a surprise to me if Mama died of liver damage had she lived to a ripe old age but instead Mama died of breast cancer when she was only forty-two. And I was only eighteen. It was a terrible time for a girl to lose her mother, only six weeks before leaving for Ole Miss. We were in that awkward phase; the one where mothers and daughters have a hard time getting along. No doubt the hangover from her alcoholism had already nauseated the essence of my soul, but even so I was devastated—heartsick when she died. Seventeen years later I'm finally dealing with it all. Thanks to Alice, another of my BFFs, I started seeing a therapist a few months ago.
Maybe Mama's beauty was her downfall. It was certainly her identity; that I know for sure. She was called beautiful from the day she was born and it became the main component of her self-worth. After graduating from Ole Miss she went back home to Greenville in the Mississippi Delta and spent the next year planning her wedding. She was born to be a wife and mother, all the while looking like a Miss Mississippi on the arm of my father, a dashing Southern gentleman from Memphis, Tennessee, named Henry Beckworth Williams, Jr.
Mama never worked. Not a single day. But she made up for it by volunteering at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital, our church, and the Junior League. She was a Master Gardener, and her roses were, as Celia, one of her best friends, often said, "The most gorgeous specimens in Memphis." Her Lucky Ladies and Velvets were often featured in her friends' floral arrangements and at her garden club meetings, as their fragrance could sweeten any size room.
I was her only child. When I asked her why, she said, in her heavy, r-rolling, Mississippi drawl, "I didn't want my fig'a marred any more than it already was. One day, when you're lookin' at your post-pregnancy body in the mirr'a, Leelee dear, you'll unda'stand what I mean." Despite all that, there is one thing I know for sure about Mama: I was her heart. She used to tell me so over and over again.
Once Mama died, Kissie became even more important. Someone had to step in. Daddy's mother had already passed away, and Mama's mother, my namesake, lived down in Mississippi, more than likely an alcoholic herself. Nobody ever admitted to being an alcoholic in those days. A "social drinker" was the term Mama used to describe herself, a phrase my grandmother used as well. "I only drink durin' cocktail hour," Mama liked to say, with a defensive tone. "I would nev'a take a drink durin' the day." I guess she had forgotten about her Budweisers on Saturdays during Ole Miss games or her "Bloodies" with Sunday brunch.
Thank goodness Daddy had the foresight to keep Kissie around. Looking back on it now, I can't imagine how my life would have turned out without her. If it weren't for her, I wouldn't have a clue how to cook, how to clean, or how to properly fold our laundry. But as wonderful and helpful as she is, that lady can put me in my place in half a second. I can always tell when I'm in trouble by that glare of hers.
* * *
The Memphis heat during August was hotter than "blowed coal," according to Daddy. As Alice and I readied ourselves for Jay Stockley's summer boy–girl party, Alice sat tailor-fashion on the floor in front of the full-length mirror in my bathroom and I sat on top of the counter with my feet in the sink. We painted enough baby blue eye shadow on our eyes to look more like cartoon characters than like fifteen-year-olds and wore enough Heaven Scent to warrant an arrest from the perfume patrol. When we were ready to leave for the party, we pranced out of my bedroom wearing short shorts and halter tops and headed down the long hall toward Kissie, who was waiting on us at the other end. She had the car keys in her hand—Mama and Daddy were out of town—and her eyes narrowed as we got closer. Her lips were pressed together, the glare on her face spreading from one side to the other. At first she didn't say anything but her head turned with each step we made around the den. Finally she said, "Where's your brassiere, Leelee?"
"Halters don't need bras," I told her.
"Hm," was her only response. But when my back was toward her, she yanked the sash of my paisley halter top, springing it loose with ease. "Kissie," I said, clutching my arms over my chest. (Incidentally, at that point, my tender breasts were A's. It would be the end of my junior year before my D's finally sprang to life.)
"Don't Kissie me," she retorted. "What you gone do when some junkyard dog gets you in a lip lock and starts runnin' his hands all over your back? You think he ain't gone do what I just did? You need to get back in your room and change outta that thing you're callin' a shirt, young lady. Put on a blouse. Somethin' decent." Kissie pointed her finger down the hall. "You, too, Alice. What would your mama say? Y'all's shorts are bad enough. Might as well be wearin' underpants. You girls ain't gone go out under my watch looking like streetwalkers. Get on back there, you hear? Hm hm hm, hm hm hm, hm hm hm. I declare, you girls gone put me in Bolivar."
* * *
Bolivar is a place people from Memphis talk about ending up when they finally have a nervous breakdown. I've never seen it before but I've heard about it my whole life. It's actually the Western State Mental Health Institute in the town of Bolivar, Tennessee. People have just shortened it to "Bolivar." Mama talked about it and so did Daddy. In fact, everyone's parents did. When I was little I remember Mama calling mental hospitals insane asylums, and the very image of that scared the daylights out of me. I hear the town is as charming as any small Southern town could ever be, but I can't help but feel a little sorry for the citizens. I bet they are sick to death of people asking them all about the mental hospital when asked the simple question: Where are you from?
Daddy passed away of complications from diabetes ten years after Mama died. That was unquestionably the worst time of my life. I think something else dies when a girl loses her father, something inside the deepest caverns of her heart. It's her sense of security, that wellspring of protection and safety that only a daddy can provide. He's the one person she can count on to be there for her no matter what.
Copyright © 2013 by Lisa Patton