Bucks County Writers Workshop
Selling the Girls by Jules C. Winistorfer
I'd just served the poached pear salads when Audry made her grisly proposal. In her patented way, she cocked her head to flip aside the pesky tress of hair--hair once the color of polished bronze but now leaden white--which obscured an eye. And then she just blurted it out, throwing a pall over our little group.
This was the same sweet, sensitive Audry who'd found it impossible to put down her dog Gunther when he was so very sick. Ignoring the pleas of myself and the rest of the girls, she nursed him until the end. She wrote a poem about Gunther after he passed--called it The Best Stick Chaser on Ferndale Road. The girls all cried when she read it to us.
No pretentious sorority names for us--the girls is all we'd called ourselves for almost sixty-five years--ever since college. There used to be seven girls, but two of them are gone now. All the spouses of those left are gone too; proving it's fruitless to debate the actuary tables. We meet once a week for lunch in our homes on a rotating basis-used to be once a month in the evenings, but that was then.
Rose challenged Audry's proposal right away. "Why in god's name would we want to do away with ourselves?" she said. We all wagged our heads up and down in support of Rose.
For good measure, I added, "Yes, Audry, what the hell are you thinking of?"
"Shut up and listen, Noreen," she said.
The protests rolled off Audry like rain off a steep slate roof as she donned her selling cap.
"Look, do we want to end our days in some nursing home where they shoot us up with drugs to keep us quiet until we die? Right now we're still in control of our lives, but once we lose our faculties and those greedy vultures get their hands on us, we won't be. We must act now while we still can."
We looked at one another still in disbelief of Audry's pitch. She went on before rebuttal developed. "I look around the room at your faces. In spite of their worn, aged wrinkledness, the former beauty of our youth shines through on most--yet which of us can deny the need for a long, long rest." The girls nodded. "Ever since aches, pains and chronic illnesses have come to dominate our conversations, we've expressed horror at the prospect of landing in a nursing home. And consider the burden on our children."
After I cleared the dishes, Audry left; the rest of us buzzed on for a couple of hours, debating the issue.
At our next meeting, Audry pressed even harder. The group softened-and a lot more quickly than I would have imagined. Each person agonized, but one by one they fell. I turned out to be the last holdout and doggedly argued my position.
"Audry, I don't care how you couch your scheme, it's nothing but a suicide pact and I don't believe in themäand poisoning by our own hand with our own delicious cooking? How gross!"
"No, no, no, Noreen, I'd rather think of it as culinary Russian Roulette, except that everyone dies." The girls all cringed, and for a moment I thought I'd won some converts. But Audry had always been the strong one of the group--most always got her way. The rest of us were followers; that's why we'd always gotten along so well. To be sure, the more Audry wheedled and weaseled her points the more solidly the others aligned with her.
"Your arguments are compelling, Audry," I said, "and we've never done anything without unanimous agreement, but I still have some reservations. Tell me the details of how this will work before I make a final decision."
"Okay, Noreen, I don't like taking this any further without a firm commitment from all, but if you must." She sighed. "We continue our luncheon rounds as though nothing were different except, as determined by a jellybean drawing, it will be the responsibility of the holder of the black jellybean to carry out the poisoning when it is her turn to host."
"How morbid," I said. I looked around for signs of faltering, but all expressions were steely blank.
Audry ignored my remark. "We can fill in the niceties of presentation as we firm up our plans. Under the circumstances, it behooves us to keep this as upbeat as we can."
"What happens if one of us chickens out and either refuses to eat or can't bring herself to carry out the assignment as lethal hostess?" I asked. "Well, Noreen, if that happens, I guess we'll just have to kill that person." She coughed up a dry, hoarse laugh. The others tried to emulate her but only managed wheezy little imitations.
"Seriously, I suppose that person would have to get out and we'd start over."
"I think I can live with that arrangement," I said. No one caught my accidental play on words. Although Audry had granted the loophole grudgingly, it sealed my agreement. No one objected, and I think the other girls felt easier knowing the same escape route applied to all.
The jellybean drawing took place the following week and yours truly drew the black bean. This put me unexpectedly in control of the whole gruesome mess--especially since I was last in the rotation. I still had a tough decision to make at the end, but I no longer had to worry about some one poisoning me along the way. Audry'd have had a kitten if she knew I held the killer bean.
Rose was first in the rotation and observed all the conventions we'd established. First she announced the menu-meatloaf, baked potato, salad, and parfait dessert, with meatloaf as the featured or killer dish, as we called it, were she the appointed one. Silence and tension surrounded the table while we each took a generous forkful of meatloaf, solemnly chewing and swallowing it. When no one keeled over, the cloud lifted and pleasant chatter began to fill the room like old times.
Audry's, Clara's, and Vicky's luncheons followed. Angst increased with each successive meal 'til when they gathered at my house, the stink of fear filled the dining room-mitigated only by the savory aromas wafting from my kitchen.
"Today we're having chicken Kiev, my darling, garlic mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce. The featured dish today is my famous homemade cranberry sauce. I know it's not an entree, but you all love it so." I sensed my elaborate presentation had irritated the girls--they didn't seem to be taking this at all well. With me the obvious black beaner, they had only two alternatives: eat and, if not truly committed to Audry's program, pray that I had wimped out or refuse to eat--too much peer pressure to push the food away.
"Bon appetit," I said. They scowled.
Reluctantly, we all scooped a generous spoonful of cranberries. The girls held the sauce in their mouths for a long time before swallowing. When nobody collapsed or pitched forward into her food, it became smiles all around--even Audry looked relieved--and the girls tore into their food with unbridled gusto. More laughter and friendly chatter prevailed than I'd seen since Audry started this lunacy. No one said a word about the benign cranberries.
They all looked surprised when it happened. Clara and Vicky had slumped forward onto the table, narrowly missing their half-eaten plates of food. Poor Audry sat in her chair-shoulders drooping a bit-her bottom jaw hanging open a little. Her trademark lock of white hair still hung over one eye. Rose had pitched over backward and lay on the floor-still in her chair-staring at the ceiling with frog eyes.
With hands in my lap, I sat in an armchair near the front door while the policemen strung yellow plastic ribbon around. They treated me very nicely--not at all like on TV. One young man called me by my first name and helped me down the front steps. He gave me this look. "Noreen, how could you? You look like my grandma."
Not one of those nice policemen noticed I was the only one who hadn't touched my darling, garlic mashed potatoes.