Monday, October 29, 2012



Perhaps it was the Black Dress which set the tone of foreboding.


Mr. and Mrs. Duke lived two-houses-down, in one of the big old mill houses, and immediately upon their moving in, had had their two sons from Memphis to come down with ladders and buckets to cover the house’s grim khaki siding with a lively appley green.

I think she did most of the rooms herself, over time, for you’d knock, and enter a deep purple space, where the Fullers had had the dimmish white living room.   Or step through the dining-room arch into a rusty-brown cave, with great wrought-iron sconces whose red glass shades cast an inferno-glow onto the dinnerplates and lent the rich lush air of midnight dining in a Spanish castillo 

The kitchen was schoolbus yellow, with the old green linoleum the only dismal note, and the lighter yellow formica table and plump-vinyled chairs sat in the middle of the floor, with counters ranged all round the edges. 
 A strange combination of plaster plaques were scattered on all the walls---a whole village of little Asian people at various tasks, and enough bright half-fruit to fill Carmen Miranda’s hatbox. 

Mrs. Duke seemed to live in a maelstrom of Primary Colors, with interchangeable tablecloths and wardrobe featuring garish fruit or umbrellas or palm trees.

The tiers of café curtains featured dancing pots and pans, and her aprons were always wild rick-rack dreams from the Crayola Box of Eight.

She WAS a good cook, at least to my notion, for she made Spaghetti and MEAT BALLS, with some exotic whiff of unknown, pleasant herb, and set out little green shakers of Parmeesyun cheese.    Hers was quite a contrast to our plain ground beef, crumbled and browned with bell pepper and onion, and anointed with a can of Campbell’s tomato soup and a tiny can of Contadina.  Ours was mixed into the biggest spaghetti Ronco had to offer, cooked way past fork-twirling stage.
Aluminum  Wearever percolator on the white Amana range, Golden Wheat cups and saucers on the table---never mugs, for those endless cups of Maxwell House with whoever-dropped-in, and at least five ashtrays distributed around the kitchen, any three of which could be guaranteed to have a Pall Mall or Kool smouldering away, sending up eye-searing little signals of “Don’t forget MEEEE!”

She was a bright little twinkle of a woman, with sparkly jewelry and a bouncing page-boy.  The Dukes belonged to the Civic Club and the Garden Club, and she was always scurrying off to Wednesday AND Thursday Bridge, with a colorful purse on her arm and the smiling snap of Doublemint as she went.
So one Christmas when she came into the house preceded by Arpege,  perhaps it was the unaccustomed black dress that startled us to begin with---setting a tone of foreboding in its severity, like the one poor Miss Doris Day wore in MIDNIGHT LACE.   Her smart little black suede sandal-strap heels clicked across the floor as usual, as she set a cellophane-wrapped present down on our kitchen table.
“Y’all, I have a confession,” she said, in the tones of about-to-admit-adultery.  We looked at her, shocked into silence, as she went on.   “Y’all KNOW I make a whole lot of fruitcakes every year, and I ALWAYS bring Y’all one.   Well, this year, I just worked so hard, and bought up all that candied fruit all Fall, and went clear over to Greenville to pick up pecans at Sister’s house.   And it took me several days to pick ‘em out, and then chop the fruit and mix up all those cakes---well, I just hate to tell Y’all, but when I got through all that mixin’ and stirrin’ and gettin’ into the pans and the first batch in the oven---I looked down and saw I had a FINGERNAIL missin’ and I just like to DIED!”
All eyes swiveled to her hands, and sure enough, the finger-with-her-rings on her left hand had a little ole stumpy nub-nail where her usual bright red manicure flourished, like a shorter plank in a picket fence.   I think we all probably swallowed hard, and I don’t remember what-all was said or done before she left.  
But when she was gone, my Mother picked up the cake and said,  “Anybody feel like eating this cake now?   Why did she have to tell everybody she gave one to?  Only one of us would have been surprised.”
It was kinda like the old joke about the raffle where the prize was a mule, and it turned out the mule was dead.   But only the winner complained, and they gave him his dollar back.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Rachel:
Well, we can certainly tell you that should we have been presented with a home made fruit cake, with fingernail or without we should have been thrilled!!!No, a small matter of a lipstick red manicured nail would not have put us off for a moment. Indeed, just recently lighted birthday candles had melted into a fruit sponge cake and we, Stalwart Brits that we are, tucked in to it with gusto!!!

How we have simply loved this tale of Mrs Duke. We can totally imagine her house and all its garish furnishings, so perfectly described in only the way that you know how!

Beverly said...

Oh my goodness, Rachel. This had me laughing. There are some characteristics of your Mrs. Duke which put me quite in mind of one of my husbands aunts, Aunt Mary Plummer. She was a true memorable personality, too. I dare say that she and Mrs. Duke would have been either staunch friends or strong enemies. One might have been perceived as a threat to the other's territory.

Chesapeake said...

Oh, Rachel, I can just see the expressions in that kitchen, and can almost hear your mother's voice!

You have such a talent for writing that I am astounded that no literary agent has been hounding you, begging to represent you to publishers!

Jeanne, backyard neighbor said...

Hello Rachel, Mrs. duke sounds a lot like my mom always having or going to bridge luncheons. She dressed for every occasion Made fruitcake as well as all kinds of baked goods. She did not like bright colors but she did help me decorate my kitchen in pink and cherry red in 1965. We painted my cabinets pink and the floor had checkerboard squares of white and cherry red tiles. She brought wallpaper to finish the look with a design of kitchen utensils in pink and cherry red. My neighbors loved it but it took me a time to get used to "pink" cabinets. HA!. My kitchen was the talk of the neighborhood. I waxed that floor mirror shiny. What fun.

Your story was so amusing and as I always do, I enjoyed every word.

My daughter and granddaughter do favor each other. Our dtr has been told she looks like Hillary Swank "many" times. They are about the same age.

Happy Halloween,
xo, Jeanne

Tonja said...

I loved, loved, loved this story. I remember some little pictures that my Mom had in our kitchen when I was little. I don't remember ever thinking of those before. And, she had an Asian lamp and some figurines, and I often wondered why.
This story was delightful and I am still smiling! Thank you!

Buttons said...

You are a very talented and funny writer.
Oh I almost want to meet your imagined(or Not) characters in person I am sure it would be quite the event. I am laughing visioning this. B

Kim Shook said...

I busted out laughing at this, Rachel! No LOLs, no ladylike titter – just a big snorting bellow! I loved the picture of Mizz Duke – I suspect that if I liked primaries instead of pastels, our kitchens would be identical. I covet that table and chairs and the apron!!! I never see fruitcake without thinking of Truman C.