The raps at Opal’s front door became more frequent and insistent. She wasn’t listening. She didn’t care. The female voice called out.
“Opal, I’m coming in.” Country folks never locked their doors anyway. It was just a courtesy to knock. Opal’s front neighbor, Camelia, let herself in and saw the tears.
“Oh, no, sweetie. What’s wrong?” Camelia quickly crossed the small room, sat next to Opal and engulfed the older woman in her arms.
“It’s just so sad,” Opal moaned. “Haven’t you seen this?”
Camelia looked from Opal’s empty hands around the room to the still-new television. “Are you talking about a show?”
“Yes, this poor lady has a brother who was in a terrible accident and needs a special bed and wheelchair. She herself has a thirteen-year-old son who’s just not right, and he needs special tutors so he can stay in school. Other children make fun of him. And her husband ran away and left her. It’s nearly more than I can bear. That’s all a good reason never to get married.”
“Opal, it’s television.”
“But it’s important,” insisted Opal wiping her face. “One of my other shows features four ladies with sad stories and then the audience claps and votes for their favorite, and that one gets to be Queen for a Day. She gets a robe and a crown and a huge bouquet of flowers and even more prizes than she asked for. But I guess they can’t bring back her husband.”
“Opal, darling, pleases stop crying. It’s a show. We don’t even know if these stories are true.”
“Yes, they are.” Opal was immoveable.
“You’ve only had this television a month and already I can’t get you on the telephone. You need to come back to the world of the living.”
“But there’s more reality on these shows. I never knew that people in the world had such crisis and pain and confusion I thought everybody lived quiet like me.”
“Are you talking about this show?”
Opal refused to look at Camelia.
“I want you to settle down,” said Camelia. “I’m going to turn off the TV.”
Opal squinched up her face and glared at her friend.
Camelia began, “I hope you remember that Lemuel promised me fruit from his orchard, and you and I were going to learn how to can. We were going to have a big time and divide up the jars of fruit. Remember?”
“Maybe.” Opal was still angry.
“Well, Lem brought me a big basket of fruit a couple days ago, and we need to get started. I’ve been calling, but you don’t answer your telephone any more.”
“I have other business.”
“Right. TV shows.”
“You don’t know anything, Cammy. There’s been a terrible car accident on The Secret Storm, and one of the main men is in a coma. We don’t know if he’ll live or die. If he lives, he may not walk or speak or think. They say he could be a vegetable. How awful!” Opal teared up again. “And on The Edge of Night, that harlot is running around on her husband and might even desert her children. It’s just awful. What if she gets in the family way? I don’t think I can stand it!”
“Opal, I have half a mind to kick in this television,” said Camelia. “You need to get this under control. You must. It’s all made up. Not real.”
“You have a television,” said Opal.
“But I turn it off. Back to the fruit. You remember Otha Lee, the housemaid at the Bordeaux place? Well, she’s promised to teach us how to put up the fruit that Lem brought. I’ve hired her, and she’ll get some of the jars of peaches. She’s coming tomorrow at nine o’clock. I’ve already bought all the supplies she told me to get. We’ll fix cold, meatloaf sandwiches for lunch, and we’ll have a lot of fun. I expect you up the road at my house at that time; and, if you’re not, I’ll come down here and drag you out.”
Opal thought about it. “None of my stories come on that early. I guess I can do it.”
“My friend, pardon me, but I see dirty dishes in your kitchen. You haven’t swept off your porch in a long time, and I haven’t seen you out there watching the traffic on the highway. You can’t let this television take you hostage.”
Opal looked around the living room, but not at Camelia.
“Do you hear me?”
“Everyone in Warren County can hear you, Excuse me, please. I’ve been advised to wash dishes.”
Camelia groaned and shrugged her shoulders as Opal went to the kitchen with her chin up in the air. “Okay, Opal. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Opal was up as early as usual the next day, but made a point of being late to Camelia’s brick house up on the highway. She loved Camelia, but that should have remained Opal’s land like she’d always thought, not a place for the big, fancy house.
Camelia’s kitchen was already a buzz of activity when Opal Pratt strolled in the back door.
A huge pot of water boiled on the stove and sent up great clouds of steam that hung over the stove like fog. Glass jars with their lids and rubber seals were lined up on one of Cammy’s broad counters waiting to be sanitized. Otha Lee measured out sugar for readiness to add to the fruit. She was chattering about what had happened at the Bordeaux place. Camelia sat on a bar stool at another of her counters separating peaches from their skins and pits.
“Hey, Opal. I’m glad you’re here. Come sit next to me, and I’ll put you to work,” said Camelia. She produced a large cutting board, sharp knife, and an empty bowl. She slid to Opal the bowl of naked peaches that she’d been working on.
“You get to chop up these — the last step before they go into the cook pot. Isn’t that right, Otha Lee?”
The Bordeaux housekeeper appeared to be the only one not working much. She repeated her lengthy instructions. Opal could tell that the woman enjoyed being in charge.
And then Lemuel came through the back door carrying another bushel basket.
“Now you got figs, too. That’ll keep ya’ll busy all day,” he chuckled. “I’ll take my share of both batches to sell at my stand. Where does the basket go?”
Both Otha Lee and Camelia answered him at the same time, but with different answers. Lem chose the option nearest him. Pots boiled and bubbled on the stove. Otha Lee banged around pots and pans under the counters. Lem and Camelia talked and laughed. Opal continued to chop up her pile of peaches, but the sound of the knife assaulting the cutting board increased exponentially. Her head swam. She slammed down the knife.
“Too much. Too much,” she said.
She bumped hard into Lem as she made for the door.
“What the tarnation, woman?”
Otha Lee looked miffed.
“Let her go,” said Camelia. “I asked too much of her. She’s making some adjustments right now. I’ll see to her later when she’s had a chance to compose herself.”
“Just looks crazy to me,” Otha Lee muttered.
Camelia and Lemuel exchanged silent, but knowing looks.
“Well, I got nothin’ else to do right now. I’ll pull these stems out of the figs,” said Lemuel. “Somebody give me sumthin’ for trash.”
Otha Lee took up the position of peach chopping, and the crew worked together in near silence. Opal would have appreciated that. Two hours went by before Lem’s stomach began noticeably runbling.
“I’m done with the figs, but I don’t care to leave hungry. Ain’t nobody gonna give lunch to a starvin’ man?” Lem always thought he was pretty funny.
“Otha Lee, I’ll finish up chopping. There’s part of a meatloaf in the fridge. Would you fix some sandwiches for us? Please make a big one for Opal, too.”
Lunch was more cheerful. Camelia, always the skilled hostess, stewarded light conversation that avoided the morning’s unhappiness. Lemuel did his part by trying to be funny.
When they’d passed their dishes next to the sink, Lem announced, “I gotta git. I gotta see a man about a dog.” He made himself laugh at the old, country excuse for leaving any sort of gathering.
“Lem, let me wrap up this sandwich for Opal, and I’ll walk out with you,” said Camelia. “If you’ll clean up what we’ve messed up so far, I’ll be back in a bit to finish filling the jars. I think we’ve done a great job, Otha Lee. Thank you.”
When they exited the back door and got to Lemuel’s truck, he looked back at Camelia’s house and said, “That woman surely liked tellin’ you what to do. I guess that making lunch and cleaning up brought her down a bit.”
“I didn’t mean to do that, but her fee for teaching us was certainly pricey. I don’t know if her new jobs pay her that well.”
Lem said, “What got a burr under Opal’s saddle? Since we’re friends now, am I supposed to do sumthin’? Should I go down there and talk to her? I ain’t good with hysterical women.”
Camelia patted his arm and smiled.
“Leave it to me, Lem. It’s that darn television. You know, Opal’s life was so simple and ordered before she got the money and bought that TV. She read a book now and then. She listened to the radio. She crocheted, had her little chores, and sat on the porch. But all those TV shows have thrown open the gates of hell. Suddenly she’s exposed to so many issues and relationships and crimes that she knew nothing about. Now she’s worried about all the soap opera characters, and she’s pining for the game shows. It all makes me want to steal that TV so we can get our sweet Opal back.”
“So what are you gonna do?”
“Take her lunch. It’s the best I can do right now.”
Camelia said a silent prayer and knocked on Opal’s door.
“Can’t talk right now,” came the voice from inside.
“Then I’m coming in.”
Opal had dragged in a kitchen chair and positioned it just a few feet from the TV. She sat in the wooden chair, leaning forward in concentration.
“I brought you lunch.”
“Shhh. Not now.”
It was Queen for a Day. Four tense-looking women were lined up while host Jack Bailey briefly recounted their sad stories. The audience responded to each with varying amounts of applause to vote for their favorite. Then he called out a name and pronounced her Queen for a Day.
“She was my favorite, too,” Opal exclaimed and clapped her hands.
The woman was presented with the robe, roses and crown before being led to her throne where she listened d to the lengthy list of gifts – that occasionally created gasps.
“Isn’t it wonderful, Cammy? Just wonderful. I know it’s a sin, but I’m so jealous. I could be on that show. I could have a sad story, too. I should be Queen for a Day. I really should be.” Opal slid from ecstasy to boldness.
“Sweetie, I’m standing here with a terrific, cold meatloaf sandwich the likes of which you’ve never tasted. Let’s take this chair back to the kitchen so you can have lunch.”
The chair was dragged, and Camelia found a barely sufficient amount of sweet tea to pour for Opal.
Camelia, “I’m sorry it got too much in my kitchen this morning.”
The first bit of the sandwich brought a full-cheeked attempt at a smile. It was a good review.
“After I left, I felt a little bad, but there was too much there, just too much, and I’d be happier here with my stories,” said Opal
“You and I both go to church on Sundays, but I’ve wondered if you’d go with me on Wednesday nights. I’d drive. You might want to get out of the house a little more. We could go shopping. I suspect you have some of the furniture money left. Wouldn’t you like a new dress? Maybe we’d both get our hair fancied up. What do you think?”
“I think that I don’t know why you’re bringing all this up right now when you’ve let me be until now.” Opal continued enjoying her sandwich.
“I’m worried. Lem’s worried. That’s just it. The shows you watch on television have upset you, and you’re not yourself. There are other shows, you know, that are uplifting and fun. Maybe we should get a TV Guide and look at other choices.”
Opal wiped her mouth and took a last sip of tea.
“I’m not a child, Camelia. I’m worried about a lot of people. I didn’t know that folks had such terrible trials. And I need to find out how to get on Queen for a Day. I think they’re in California, but I don’t know just where or how to tell them my story. I’ll ask the librarian. That’s what Billy and I did about . . . well, someplace else I was going. That’s all. I plan to be Queen for a Day. Thank you for the sandwich.”
Camelia knew that she was being dismissed. She stood, but leaned over to give Opal a hug while the older woman was seated, but Opal turned away her face. Camelia knew that none of this was healthy for her good friend.
Camelia stopped at the front door.
“Opal, if you were on Queen for a Day and told them your story, what would you ask for?”
“A washer and dryer,” replied Opal. “They give away a lot of those, so it must be easy. I’ve gone to Vicksburg to the laundramat and hung out my clothes and linens for all my life. Wouldn’t it be a blessing not to have to?”
Another two weeks crept by with little Opal contact. Camelia didn’t see her sweeping or sitting on the porch. She could only imagine the degree of TV obsession inside Opal’s house. Camelia was relieved that she had seen Opal making routine Monday trips to the Vicksburg Piggly Wiggly, but just at a different time of day. At the beginning of the following month, Camelia timed it properly and called Opal who, not involved with television, answered when she recognized her party line ring.
“Oh, Opal, I need your help up here,” exclaimed Camelia.
“Why? What’s wrong? Are you all right?”
“I think I’ll be all right, but I need your help. It’s awful. I just can’t manage. Please, please hurry to my house.” Camelia hung up.
Opal was frantic. She didn’t bother to turn off the television. She slammed out her front door and raced, as much as her heftiness allowed, past the crepe myrtles, to Camelia’s back door. Opal was out of breath and shocked to be met by her smiling friend.
“What’s wrong? Oh, what’s wrong?” panted Opal.
Cammy’s smile only got bigger. “Not a thing. Let me bring you in.”
Opal was confused, but allowed herself to be led through Cammy’s kitchen into the living room that seemed largely rearranged. And, then — look. There was Lemuel and Brother Markov and the Piggly Wiggly cashier with her two little children and a few church ladies and — oh no, smiling more broadly than anyone was Frances Hebert/Francine Fontaine.
“What is this? Am I dying?” gasped Opal.
Pastor Boris Markov stepped forward and, in his booming, baritone voice, announced, “Congratulations, Miss Opal Pratt. You are Queen for a Day!”
The assembled group yelled and clapped. Lemuel whistled and stomped his feet noisily which made the little girls laugh. Camelia led Opal forward toward a fine, wing back chair at the end of the room. One of the church ladies came forward and tied a cloak around Opal’s neck. The woman had constructed it from a red velveteen piece of cloth left over from a Christmas costume. The collar was anointed with fur from an old stole belonging to Cammy. Opal was breathless.
The three-year-old daughter of the cashier was urged forward with a plentiful bouquet of daisies that she handed to Opal before insisting that she had to go pee. And then Camelia stepped up. She carried a beautiful tiara that she’d earned in one of her beauty pageant days. Cammy placed the sparkling crescent on Opal’s head, and Brother Markov led Opal to the chair designated as her throne. There was another burst of cheers and applause. Opal looked around the room and none of it really registered. Particularly the huge grin on Lemuel’s face.
Opal tried to understand what the preacher was saying about her and her life. Was she really on TV like her heroes? But then he got down to gifts.
She tuned in and heard about delivery of dinners for a month, rides to the Pleasant Valley Baptist Church on Sundays and Wednesdays for a month, the planting of shrubs at the front of her porch and —- and. Lem stepped forward.
“And right now, Miss Opal, delivery boys from the Sears and Roebuck are setting up your clothes washer and dryer, just the way I told them.”
She burst into tears.
Brother Markov picked up his cue. “All these gifts and the love of your friends belong to you, Miss Opal Pratt, because YOU are Queen for a Day!”