Mabel Long’s silver hair was tightly wrapped in a bun on the back of her head and her large glasses had a tendency to tilt to the right. At nearly seventy-three, her mouth was constantly moving, not producing words, but slowly rolling as she was required to wet her lips and gums because of a dry mouth affliction. Her red gingham dress had once hung in the living room in the form of curtains, but the eye catching pattern could only be resisted for so long. Heavily stretched knee highs led down to a nurse style pair of black shoes complete with thick orthopedic soles.
She was a devout member of the Tulip Knob Holiness Pentecostal Church and had held numerous positions within the organization.
Across the room Patrice looked with great longing at theassortment of goods as if comparing each one to the efforts made in her kitchen. She was an interesting type of baking anomaly, a grandmotherly figure that had never quite grasped what needed a pinch instead of a dollop.stood
Unlike Mabel, was a member of the Elydale Baptist Church. Elydale was a small community about eight miles toward the Tennessee line and they had their own school that hosted festivals. Patrice had always been a sucker for a good cake walk and had chosen to participate in this foreign festival. Her small town anonymity would assure that no one knew about her long string of baking mishaps. She was a spry little woman, five one and about a buck oh five in heavy shoes, that could give any middle aged contestant a run for their money when both laid eyes on the last open spot on the wall. Patrice came attired in pale green gingham, most likely a color that had not caught Mabel’s eye at J.C. Penny’s. Her tiny feet were clad in an athletic walking shoe capable of carrying even the most inexperienced cake walker to victory.
As the music played on and on, Mabel and Patrice found that luck was not with them on this very night. Small children cruelly crushed their hopes with a quick smile and a step into what should have been their place. Middle aged mothers and fathers looked at them sympathetically as they were time and again sent to the middle to gaze upon peanut brittle that would never be theirs. Sounds of Flatt and Scruggs or Bill Monroe disappeared at the most inopportune moments, leaving Mabel and Patrice caught in no man’s land during each painful silence.
The music played on, young participants walked away with all the brownies, and the two elderly walkers were left wondering if all their quarters had been spent for nothing. Mabel had begun the night with a front breast pocket full of quarters, and now the lessening of weight had once again hidden a patch of skin that no one cared to see in the first place. To make matters worse, more participants were standing in line and it looked as if both ladies would be asked to move to the back of the line after each loss. As a teacher began to approach them, they felt the cold fingers of desperation pulling them further from the prizes.
Miss Whatever calmly explained to Mabel and Patrice that they would have to leave the game each time they were without a number and return to the back of the line. She said that it was only fair to all the people that wanted to play. This young teacher had been sent to crush their dreams, an evil reminder of how the young enjoy controlling the elderly. First Mabel nodded her head, and then Patrice appeared to agree, and the music began for what would be their last game before joining the other rank and file festival goers. Gone forever was their preferred status in the land of cake walking that had assured them better odds of winning.
Ralph Stanley began singing “O Death” and the end of their continuous walking crept nearer and nearer to its end. Mabel shuffled slowly when she passed a position on the wall, trying in vain to remain near a safe haven. A young mother pushed her relentlessly from behind in an effort to remove the most experienced player in the game. Each time Mabel glanced over her shoulder, there were the unfeeling eyes of competition glaring down on her, telling her to move on. Suddenly there was a silence in the room, Dr. Stanley had been shut off. Mabel looked quickly ahead to see that an innocent little girl stood taunting her at the next station. Her red lollipop stained lips were pursed sending a message of victory. Mabel realized one path had been blocked and wheeled quickly to find an empty space to the rear. The young mother had stopped to chastise her child, who was poking her finger in the prizes, and had momentarily paused when the music stopped. Just as she began to take her rightful place, the tilting glasses on her nose tipped just far enough to begin falling. Not wanting to be reduced to near blindness, Mabel was forced to stop in an attempt to steady her spectacles. That precious moment in time, that half of a breath, allowed a younger competitor to spring with one large step toward the spot.
When Mabel’s vision was restored it was only to see the cruel fate that had befallen her. There she stood, without a home, looking longingly at the two adversaries that had ended her run. Maybe she could shrink for just a minute, disappear from the cake walk police that would circle the room to remove those without the shelter of a number on the wall. As her eyes rose, they locked with a teacher headed in her direction. Caught in the headlights, Mabel waited patiently to be informed that she had been eliminated. I’m sorry ma’am, but you’ll have to go to the back of the line. Such an uncaring statement, a blatant manner of telling someone that they aren’t good enough to play anymore.
Mabel slowly moved around the prize table, shuffling slowly, waiting for a sentimental player to offer her a place. There would be no such hero, only a room of vicious competitors mumbling under their breath that she needed to get out of the way. Then, as clearly as anything she had ever seen, Patrice stared at her with pouting lips to mock the painful defeat at hand. It only happened for a second, no one else saw the condescending look shot in Mabel’s direction. Patrice stood there, in her copycat dress and sinfully short hair, mocking her leave.
As she moved toward the line, Mabel had an epiphany. Midway through the line, she seemed to stumble and her hand reached for something stable. A hand caught her, moving her toward the wall for balance. Oh, thank you, I thought I was going down for sure! A nice young man had taken the bait and assured her position in the next game. I’m so sorry, do you mind if I just stand here for a minute? Of course he wouldn’t make her move, that would be such a callous thing to do to an old woman.
Relying on years of experience and a certain way with young men, Mabel had assured herself a position in the next game. Slowly she ground her two quarters between her thumb and forefinger while watching Patrice squeak through each round. It seemed as if she exerted control over the masters of the music, willing them to hit the stop button seconds before she was in position. Deftly and decisively she maneuvered through young children and middle aged adults to move into the final three. But, a pizza stained finger slipped from the stop button as Patrice passed one of the final safe havens. She shuffled her feet, pretended to get a cramp, and did anything to remain as close as possible to salvation. To her rear a twelve year old girl pushed, harshly exclaiming that she couldn’t just stop.
Mabel let out an almost inaudible exclamation of joy as the music stopped with Patrice in no man’s land. Her competitor shrunk under the misery and agony of defeat. Using Mabel’s tactic, Patrice assumed the appearance of a helpless woman incapable of understanding why she had to leave. A teacher came over to explain that she would have to wait for the next game. Escorting Patrice around the tables, the young teacher felt Patrice’s body begin to give. A poor rendition of falling caused everyone in the room to inhale as Patrice was narrowly saved from disaster by the quick reflexes of her younger assistant. I’m sorry, I don’t know what happened there. Maybe I should just sit down for a moment.
In that moment, Mabel realized that her competitor had mastered the art of needing assistance. She glared at Patrice as she was allowed to sit at one of the tables while the last two walkers vied for the prize. But her acting had been to no avail, the line was far too long for her to participate in the next game for the final prize, Miss Allison’s banana pudding. Mabel, the crafty veteran, could make short work of the wearied field en route to grand champion status. She looked at Patrice with feigned remorse as if to give her condolences for a loss.
As the music stopped, and a pan of brownies was snatched from the table, Mabel shuffled forward to pass her warm quarters to the game attendant. A quick look in Patrice’s direction would let her know that there could be only one. The spaces on the wall filled quickly and Mabel’s blood began to pump quickly as she was surrounded by inexperienced competitors. As the wave of excitement drew her in, she spied Patrice taking a quick swipe through the pudding with her finger. This was just the beginning of the plan that would cause the most famous cake walk calamity in Lee County history.
Patrice rose slowly, letting everyone see her pain, and moved toward the young man that had assisted in Mabel’s plan. Good luck young man, I guess I’ll just have to sit this one out. Those soft words and those elderly deer in the headlight eyes had their desired effect as the young gentleman offered his place to Patrice, even letting her use the quarters he had already paid.
Now, Mabel standing at twelve, with Patrice breathing down her wrinkled neck at eleven, the final notes began to play as the game was set in motion for the chance to claim Miss Allison’s banana pudding. An up tempo fiddle kicked it all off with Charlie Daniels claiming the South’s gonna do it again and the walk of a lifetime began. The teachers drove them mercilessly, quick starts and stops, narrowing the field at an alarming pace. Mabel and Patrice shuffled, coughed, paused, and stretched between numbers to remain ahead of their less astute walkers. At one point, Mabel stopped to adjust her shoe and Patrice graciously excused herself to move ahead. In a cutthroat situation such as this, many forms of trickery could be expected.
Precious seconds flew by as one by one the other walkers were sent out of the room to make a last ditch attempt at winning a prize elsewhere. Our two savvy competitors remained in contention and began to perspire as the masters of the music started and stopped them with reckless abandon. Within minutes, Mabel and Patrice stood with only one other competitor, that snotty young girl that had excused Patrice in the previous game. Three people, two numbers, the stakes lying on the table tempting each one with the fruits of victory.
Those slave drivers at the music appeared to take joy in prolonging the final rounds of the walk. Tirelessly and with great vengeance the last three standing passed by number after number. In the back of her head, Mabel heard the quick rapport of a button being pressed. Patrice had just passed one of the final spots and had strayed dangerously far to return in time. Mabel squared her shoulders and pushed hard toward her destination. Just as her mind had foreshadowed the music ceased.
Mere feet from one of the final numbers, Mabel stretched her aged limbs in an attempt to retire Patrice once and for all. Patrice had turned quickly, dangerously quick for someone her age, and attempted an elderly leap back toward her previous position. For a fleeting moment, each one was suspended in mid-step, waiting for gravity to provide the speed needed to claim victory.
Throughout the cafeteria, a resounding thud was heard as two orthopedically clad shoes came down in the same place. Thick soles cushioned what would have been a bone jarring landing and windswept gingham dresses flowed forward to catch up with time riddled bodies. It was a tie. One spot, two old women, almost an assurance that the youngest competitor would be given the prize. But, the force of Mabel’s leap had made her body bend forward just as she reached the number on the wall. Leaning she felt the quarters in her breast pocket begin to shift and rattle. The smooth silver was shifting forward at a pace that Mabel could not match. Her hand rose to grip the loose change, to keep it secured in its place. As her fingers reached the top of the pocket they were met with three quarters that had been successfully contained. In that brief victorious moment, astounded by her reflexes, Mabel did not notice Patrice’s hand near her shoulder. Appearing to steady herself on Mabel, the dastardly Patrice slipped her decrepit fingers downward to gently move Mabel’s hand.
The quarters fell slowly before Mabel’s eyes, determined to find their way to the hard tiled floor. The acidic taste of defeat flowed into her throat. She would be forced to move from her position in order to recover the money. Patrice the Malicious had won the battle through another cunning act of sabotage. All those years of cake walking seemed worthless, Mabel had been handed a loss by a foreign cake walker on her home court. The heathens had sacked the castle and would viciously make off with the Holy Grail that was Miss Allison’s banana pudding. The regal taste of silky pudding and cool, crunchy Nilla wafers would decorate the palate of a lascivious queen.
The fight or flight mechanism had not been called into action for many years, yet Mabel could not just give up. She felt the slight frame of Patrice balanced on her shoulder, all buck oh five of her rested on that one patch of gingham. Disregarding her strong desire to recover the quarters, Mabel turned back to the left, feeling the hand lose its grip. Patrice’s body began its downward tumble as Mabel righted herself. Seeing Patrice about to gain her balance, Mabel instinctively put a hand on her shoulder. That slight pressure sent Patrice tumbling to the ground, leaving only one to claim the position. I didn’t push her, I was just reaching for something to steady myself.
A disheveled lump of green gingham sat on all fours in front of Mabel. Her fierce competitive nature rekindled, instinct took hold of Mabel’s foot as she placed it on Patrice’s back and pushed down forcefully.
This is my house you backsliding Baptist heathen.
The words had left her mouth with such authority and conviction, seething with contempt for a foreign competitor’s attempt to take what was rightfully hers. The simultaneous gasp taken by each person within earshot sucked the air from the cafeteria. Mabel’s appearance had altered, her form now standing strong and defiant in the face of many that had considered her helpless. The courteous young gentleman looked with bewilderment at a form that had used his good nature as a means to achieve her nefarious way. Before her feet lay the shapeless mass of a copycat dress, struggling to gain form and rise. The room filled with an outpouring of remorse for the defeated, while the champion’s form diminished slowly. Stern eyes set on Mabel, directing heated glances that conveyed repugnance and hate. –e-