Opal and the Hussy
by Diane Thomas-Plunk
On Saturdays, Opal Pratt went to the Piggly Wiggly in nearby Vicksburg, Mississippi to buy groceries. On Sunday mornings, she went to church and sat alone on the back row. On Mondays, she did her small batch of laundry. On a daily basis, Opal did her chores, listened to the radio and hummed her favorite popular songs. In the afternoon, she took a creamy, sugary mug of coffee to the front porch and sat in her momma’s rocker. The table next to it still needed folded paper stuck under one leg to keep it steady. When she considered the table’s repair, though, she remembered the coin purse that held her savings for a television set. Most people had them.
The dirt road to her house was short making it easy to observe the goings and comings on the highway – delivery trucks, the school bus, the Trailways bus taking folks who knew where.
Opal’s life was small, circumscribed by routine and loneliness.
On this afternoon, Opal sat, sipped and rocked as usual until she spied the late-model, red Chevy lurching toward Vicksburg. With a break in traffic, the car made a jerky left turn into Opal’s lane where it simply stopped and either steam or smoke plumed out of the hood like a petulant dragon.
Opal watched until a woman emerged, slammed the car door roughly and looked toward the house before starting to walk up the lane.
The license plate was obscured, but the car was surely not from around here. No lady in Warren County looked like that. The stranger wore a tight, black skirt that clearly hindered her ability to walk on rough ground. The tightness of the bright pink sweater embarrassed Opal, but she liked its fuzzy white collar. The woman’s yellow hair was fixed in a fancy style. All in all, Opal was reminded of movie star pictures in magazines at Woolworth’s.
The fancy lady struggled toward the house. Red and bronze leaves blanketed the road and camouflaged ruts and holes. High heels wobbled along the rutted lane, occasionally piercing the coverlet. The woman teetered and tottered.
Opal could now see that the woman was more voluptuous than she’d thought. Breasts and hips strained against fabric, but her waist was abnormally pinched in.
The blonde woman finally got to the porch stairs and, without even a howdy-do, marched up the wooden steps. “That goddamn car. Here I am almost to goddamn Vicksburg and the damn thing craps out on me.”
Nope. Not from around here.
“Sugar, I’m gonna have to use your telephone to call a garage. You have a phone, don’t you?”
“Yes’m, sure do, and you’re welcome to use it. You come right on in.”
The woman barged ahead of Opal and into the drab living room. Opal pointed to the corner table where the telephone sat.
“Right there’s the phone and a chair and a directory’s in that drawer. I can get you fresh coffee. Sure will.”
“Why, thank you, sugar. And forgive my outburst. Breaking down this close to town just makes me goddamn mad.” The woman seated herself. Opal observed that she could actually sit in that black skirt after all.
High heels click-clicked into the kitchen behind Opal. “There were people talking. The damn telephone’s broken too.”
“No ma’am. I’m on a three-party line. You know – I share the phone line with two other families. We take turns. We’ll wait until they’re done talking. Let’s have our coffee.” Opal motioned to the old, oak table. She presented the coffee in her prettiest mug along with a plate of cookies. There was never such a glamorous visitor in her house.
“You’re ever so kind and I’ve been rude. My name is Francine Fontaine. Enchante’.” The woman extended her hand, but it looked more like she wanted it kissed not shaken.
“I’m Opal Pratt.” She grappled with Francine’s limp hand until she forged a solid, Baptist handshake.
As Opal plopped into a chair, Francine popped up and went back to the telephone. Opal heard the receiver slam into its cradle.
“Dammit to hell. I’ve got work in Vicksburg. I’ve been driving all day from New Orleans. I’m tired and I’m expected this evening. It’s a good-paying job.”
New Orleans. That explained the French-sounding name. Opal had never been there or anywhere actually, but it sounded mysterious and fancy.
“May I ask what kind of work you do, Miss Francine?”
“Please, just ‘Francine,’ sugar. I’m a model and a dancer. The photographer tonight is an important man. This could be good for my career, oh yes.”
Up-close, Francine didn’t look just like the movie star pictures. There was too much. The hair was too yellow, the lashes too black, lips too red, clothes too tight. She exuded a glare, not a glow.
“But surely, I’m too plain to have an opinion,” thought Opal.
Francine reached for another cookie. “I’ve never heard so much quiet. Where is everybody, honey?”
“I’m alone. Momma and daddy both passed. Daddy died in the front bedroom, and momma had her stroke right there on the front porch. Never married, no kids. Just lived here all my life.”
“Time’s up.” Francine stalked back to the phone. “Excuse me. Just ex-cuse me all to hell. My name’s Miss Francine Fontaine, and my car has broken down out here in east Jesus. I have important business in Vicksburg, and I must call a garage to fix the automobile. I can’t wait all the damn day for you to stop yabbering, so would you please get off this goddamn phone?”
Head in hands, Opal wondered how she’d ever face her neighbors.
“Sugar, sometimes you have to just tell people what you want. Now you remember that.” Francine smiled her sweetest smile, then picked up the phone again and placed her call. With the situation explained and directions given, Opal looked to the fancy lady for instructions.
Francine sighed impatiently.
“I don’t know how long this will take. We need a drink.”
“There’s more coffee. And I have sweet tea in the Frigidaire.”
“No, sugar. We need a drink. Don’t you have some whiskey, booze, hootch, white lightnin’??”
“Oh, I don’t drink, but I think …” Opal’s voice trailed as she hefted up from the telephone table and walked to the kitchen. Stretching way up to the top shelf of a cabinet, Opal’s hand found the long-forgotten, half-empty bottle of Jim Beam whiskey. It had been her daddy’s.
On Fridays he got paid, gave the paycheck to momma and took his Jim Beam out of the cabinet. The touch of the bottle was so strong that Opal thought she could smell the smoke of Camel cigarettes and hear her father’s whiskey belches.
She set the bottle on the counter and reached instinctively for the small Welch’s jelly jar glass that daddy always used. She presented them to Francine.
“Tell you what let’s do,” said Francine. “I’ll get the bottle and glass. You grab a saucer for my ashtray, and let’s sit on the porch to wait.”
“No. I can’t let you do that.”
“No? The little brown bird can say ‘no’?”
Opal’s face reddened. “I’m so sorry for being blunt. Truly. But I can’t let my neighbors see you drinking and smoking cigarettes on my porch. I just can’t have it you see.”
“But it’s okay to do the same thing here in your kitchen where they can’t see us? Sin is all right as long as it’s secret?”
The question confused Opal, and she couldn’t answer.
“Sugar, it’s okay. I know all about secret sin.” She smiled sweetly. “We’ll just sit right here. I won’t shame you.”
Opal located the old, chipped saucer and gave it to Francine as she sat again. “I apologize.”
“Enough. I’m glad you spoke up. I didn’t know you could.” Francine poured a hefty amount of whiskey into the jelly glass. She drew in more than a sip, swallowed and grimaced. “Whew, that’s rough. But it’ll surely do.”
Francine fished a pack of Viceroys and a lighter from her purse. She lit the cigarette gracefully and exhaled gratefully. She checked the time on a sparkly wristwatch before remembering Opal.
“So, honey, what do you do? You can’t just be here by yourself all the time.”
“I guess I don’t do much. I used to work at the shoe factory ‘til daddy got sick and I had to come home to help momma. Then daddy passed and I took care of momma and then she passed. I go to church. I keep house.” Opal fidgeted, feeling useless.
“Just down the road is little Billy Jamison, nice boy. He walks over here sometimes after school. And a couple of months ago, we rescued two honey-colored pups from old Mr. Harwood’s place. Billy had heard them whimpering and he peeked over the fence. Old Harwood was starving those pups to death. So Billy and I went over one afternoon when we knew Old Harwood wasn’t around. Billy scrambled over the fence and handed each pup over to me. I put them in a box and toted them back here. I fed them warm milk from a dropper for a while. Wrapped them in towels and held them close to my bosom for days ‘til they started getting better. Billy came every day, and, when the pups were well enough, he took them home. I miss those pups. Nothing sweeter than puppy breath on your cheek.”
“You’re a good woman, little brown bird.” Francine looked long at Opal before replenishing the glass. “I need to freshen up for when I can get out of here. Since you have sensible shoes, do go get my makeup case from the car, would you? I’d be obliged.”
Opal took no offense at being sent on an errand by the younger woman, so she headed down the lane.
Returning with the case, Opal watched as Francine began her ritual. With the makeup case open, Francine laid out pencils and pots and puffs. That done, she poured more Jim Beam and started another Viceroy.
“Sugar, I’m not starting makeup from scratch. When I do, there’d be skin preparation first. Skin preparation is very important. Remember that. It’s like an artist preparing a canvas before painting.”
“What’s it like to model? Is it like magazine pictures?”
Francine patted on colors and licked her whiskey-washed lips. “Well, there’s a backdrop or set with different kinds of furniture, depending on what they want the photograph to look like. There are stands with bright lights so hot that I sweat like a pig and have to stop to blot off the moisture. Then they tell you how to sit and stand and lie and pose, and they take lots of photos. It’s tiring, but that’s how I’ll get famous.”
“What kinds of dresses do you model?”
Francine cut her eyes at Opal, then returned to the mirror. “Oh, sugar, it depends. I guess it could be just about anything. You know.” Francine glanced at Opal’s childlike expression, and laughed her biggest laugh. “No, I guess you don’t know, ma petite.”
Opal didn’t believe that Francine could look any fancier, but the glamour was somehow ratcheting up.
“Opal darlin’, you lay on my heart, so I want you to call me Fran, and I want to tell you some things. The great Miss Marilyn Monroe began life as Norma Jeane Mortenson. I changed my name, too, for my career. I was born Frances Hebert. Oh, it sounds stuck-up – Aaa-bear. If you saw it written, you’d think it was Hee-bert. We’re from New Orleans all right, but my family was more Hee-bert than Aaa-bear.”
Fran sipped Jim Beam and remembered being Frances.
“Daddy died when I was little. I had two older brothers, so mom had a lot of mouths to feed. We did okay. We ate regular, and everybody around us was poor, too, so we didn’t get picked on. But I’d go to the drugstore and sit on the floor reading movie magazines ‘til the manager ran me out. I didn’t want to end up like our neighbors with a passel of kids and a man who messed around ‘cause I’d gotten fat. I was hungry. No, starving for – something I couldn’t put words to. Like there was a magnet pulling at me. Do you know that feeling?”
Opal silently shook her head fearing that Fran might stop telling the story.
Fran studied her flushed face in the mirror tilting her head this way and that, then smiling confidently. She looked back at Opal.
“But you see, I was pretty, and pretty can take you places,” she said almost grimly. “So, I became Francine Fontaine. I’ve done whatever I had to do, and I’ve just got to get to that job tonight. It could be my big break”
The two women heard the sound at the same time. A vehicle was pulling up to the porch. They nearly tripped on each other getting to the door. A man was walking up to the porch.
“Ma’am,” he said, sure that the fancy lady belonged to the red car. “I done checked a few things and this won’t be hard.” He explained that a busted water pump was the culprit. The only problem was that he didn’t carry those on his truck. He’d need to go to the parts store and come back for installation.
Fran held her breath before replying. “I do appreciate you, but I have a business meeting this evening in Vicksburg, and I must get there soon. I’d be so grateful if this can be speeded up.”
“It won’t take long once I’m back so now I’ll just git.”
He pointed the truck toward the highway and looked back knowingly at the fancy lady. “Business?” he thought. “Monkey business.”
Fran stood, hands on hips, watching the truck disappear. Her foot tapped impatiently. Opal took two steps back, fearing that Fran might explode.
When Fran finally turned around, Opal saw that she was struggling to hold back tears. “Sweetie, let’s go find my damn cigarettes.” Fran led the way toward the kitchen, and Opal followed dutifully. She had never had such a day.
While still standing, Fran poured whiskey and lit a cigarette. She seemed deep in thought. Opal approached her chair, but Fran stopped her.
“No, sugar. Not there. Let’s pull that chair over here facing me. We’ll have some fun.” Fran smiled. She moved both chairs so they faced each other and motioned for Opal to sit. They were almost knee-to-knee. Fran’s makeup display was to her right, and cigarette smoke curled above the array like a child’s ringlets.
“Fran, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“Oh, hush up, little bird. We’re gonna fix you up. We start with a complexion cream – not too thick or it clogs the pores. Remember that. But your skin is good, sugar. Oh yes.”
Fran opened one of the small pots and began tenderly stroking the sweet-smelling concoction onto Opal’s face. Opal closed her eyes tight. No one had ever touched her like that. Fran’s face was so close that Opal could smell the whiskey on her breath. She felt awkward and squirmed in the chair only to be chastised by Fran. Opal felt like a child again and liked the feeling.
“What ever will I do with this hair?” Fran puzzled. “You could use some color to brighten you up and cover those little grays, but we’ll do what we can.”
Fran misted Opal’s hair with hairspray, then pulled a comb through it, shaping, styling, crimping. She saw Opal pick up the jelly glass and sniff the whiskey inside.
“Miss Opal, oh Miss Opal, do you dare?” Fran put on a mock show of shock. “Go ahead, sugar. Take a slug.”
Without hesitation, Opal lifted the glass and gulped a long sip. She started coughing and gasping immediately. Fran was just about doubled up laughing, and Opal joined her as soon as the coughing subsided. They giggled like little girls until they were out of breath and Fran ran to the bathroom yelling that she was about to pee herself. Which made Opal start laughing all over again. Fran had been right. They were having fun.
With Opal’s hair sprayed tighter than a Mississippi tornado could shake, Fran, back at the table and composed, turned to the makeup and began painting Opal’s round face. The time flew. They were both startled when the mechanic knocked at the screen door.
“Oh, thank God you’re back,” said Fran. “How long now ‘til it’s fixed?”
“All done ma’am. See?” He stepped aside so Fran could see her Chevy parked at the porch. “I drove it up here for you.”
Fran shifted her stance in a way that was subtle, yet clearly seductive. “Sir, you are so thoughtful. Now I must pay you so we can both be on our way.”
With materials, labor and the road charge, he said the total came to $32.50. Fran neither blinked nor changed expression.
“Of course,” she said. “I’ll just get my pocketbook.” This time, Fran closed the house’s wooden door and walked soundlessly into the kitchen. She picked up her pocketbook and roughly pushed aside the makeup on the table. Opal knew something was bad wrong and sat motionless. Fran rummaged through her billfold.
“Goddamn. God damn son of the bitch!” A sob erupted from deep inside Fran’s soul. Opal had never heard such a sorrowful sound. Fran grabbed the first ornamental pot that she touched and hurled it across the room. It looked like a smashed egg against the wall.
Fran’s body vibrated with the sobs. Opal thrust a kitchen towel into Fran’s hands.
“I don’t have it. I just don’t have it and I need to leave for Vicksburg right now. I have to go. I don’t have time to get the money anywhere else. If I can’t pay, he’ll take my goddamn car. I’m done, goddamn ruined.” Fran’s tears slowed as a resolute expression transformed her face. “Well, hell. There’s nothing else to do. I’ll make a trade with him. He’ll go for it. I saw him looking at me, and I’ll make it fast. This ain’t my first rodeo.”
“Fran, no. Blow your nose. Listen to me,” Opal commanded, and this time it was Fran who obeyed.
“How much what?”
“How much do you have and how much is he wanting?”
“I have $14. It’s everything I have. He wants $32.50 for the car. Might as well be $100.”
“Stop that right now. We can take care of this.” Opal spoke with new authority. “Take another sip of daddy’s whiskey and fix your face. Give me your $14. I’ll be right back.”
Opal went to her bedroom and dug out the coin purse from its hidey place. Although she knew the exact amount, Opal quickly counted it once more as a sort of farewell. Her television fund totaled $24. With Fran’s money it would pay for the repair with a few dollars left over. The television would wait.
The mechanic blinked when the made-up and coiffed Opal opened the door.
“Sir, I apologize for keeping you waiting, but here’s your money. You can count it if you like.” Opal opened the screen door and passed the cash to him. She stood tall and looked him in the eyes.
He thumbed through the bills, tipped his hat and walked back to his truck wondering if make-up gave women backbone.
Opal entered the kitchen where Fran was packing the makeup case. She looked composed.
“I paid him,” Opal said. “I had some money put away, so I paid him. Here’s what’s left. You’ll need it.”
“I’ll pay you back. You know I will, but I have to leave now. I’m sure to be late.”
“Then you better get on the road.”
Fran shoved the $6 in her pocketbook, picked up the makeup case and walked to the porch. Opal was right behind her. Fran reached the steps and Opal called her name softly.
Fran turned toward Opal. She couldn’t recall the last time she’d been called that.
“Frances, I don’t know much, but I know you shouldn’t go.”
“But I must. It’s important to me.”
“Come back to see me. You’re always welcome here.”
“Sure I will, sugar – maybe when I’m a big star. You remember that.”
The two women embraced fiercely for a long moment, then Fran stepped back holding Opal’s hands.
“Precious Opal, go wash your face. This isn’t you. Don’t you ever let me or anyone else turn you into someone you’re not. You’re perfect exactly as you are. I’d be proud to be more like you.” Fran squeezed Opal’s hands, took up the case and descended the stairs to her car.
Opal watched as her best friend drove down the lane and turned west toward the city.
Diane Thomas-Plunk was born and raised in Memphis. NPR recognized her work last year when her entry was selected as a “favorite” in their Three-Minute Fiction contest. Another Opal Pratt story was published recently in the Editor’s Choice edition of Belle Reve Literary Journal, which has also published her poetry. Thomas-Plunk was a professional writer throughout her career in public relations and as a print journalist. Her publication credits until now, including two handbooks on community/media relations, have been primarily nonfiction. She has a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and English.