Beard Science: Extra Scene

After seven years, I should’ve been relaxed while waiting for final ceremony at the Tennessee State Fair, or—at the very least—at ease. I should’ve been accustomed to the pressure and attention, the associated crowds, the judging, the other contestants.

But I hadn’t. Every year was just as nerve-wracking as the last.

“I don’t know why you’re nervous.” Jackson nudged me with his elbow.

I shook my head, casting a furtive glance to the other bakers shooting us looks. Typically, only the judges, finalists and one guest were allowed beyond the yellow ribbon lining the bakers’ tables. Cletus was my plus-one this year.

However, Jackson had flashed his badge and ducked under the barrier as soon as he spotted me.

“Hush.” I shook my head.

Jackson dipped his chin and, leaning closer, added on a whisper, “You win every year.”

“That’s not why I’m nervous,” I mumbled in response.

“Well, I have to hand it to Cletus,” Jackson grinned, motioning to my fiancé in the crowd, “he sure is doing his best to take the pressure off.”

I couldn’t stop my smile and I didn’t try. Seeing Cletus earlier had helped. Not because his presence calmed me, but because it distracted me. He distracted me. Actually, I’m pretty sure he was distracting everyone.

“What is that man wearing?” Roger Gangersworth grumbled from his spot to my right, drawing both my and Jackson’s attention.

Seeing that Roger was pointing at Cletus, I rolled my lips between my teeth and dropped my gaze to the banana cake on the long rectangular table in front of me.  We—all the final first place in category baking contestants—were standing behind our creations as the judges conducted their concluding pass of the baked goods.

I’d won for cake.

Roger used to bake cakes, but he’d stopped a few years back and switched to pies. He told me three years ago that I was a no talent hack, then flipped the table holding my winning cake, knocking everything to the ground. My momma had driven me home in a rage.

Roger’s superior offering this year was a rhubarb and strawberry pie. It looked and smelled delicious.

“I think those are supposed to be sausages,” Posey Lamont loud-whispered from behind one hand, pointing at Cletus with the other. Posey, standing on Roger’s other side, also used to bake cakes. She’d switched to muffins last year after declaring loudly that the cake contest was rigged.

“It’s grotesque.” Roger made a face.

My eyes lifted, searching for Cletus again, but I had to immediately return my attention to the table. I was in grave danger of losing myself to a fit of giggles.

Cletus—my sweet, conniving Cletus—had decided to enter the cured meats contest this year. He’d just won a blue ribbon last week and best-in-show yesterday. As a joke, his brother Jethro had knit him a scarf that was basically one continuous strand of sausage links. The scarf was at least twenty feet long.

Cletus was wearing it now, wrapped several times around his head—like a crown—and neck as he perused the baked goods tables. He also wore a T-shirt that read, King of Meat. Some thirty feet away, he’d just bent at the waist to sniff a plate of croissants then lifted his chin regally and sniffed again.

Posey huffed. “He won over my Earl this year. No one likes a showoff, Lord knows there’s enough of those in the cake category already.”

I kept my eyes downcast, though I felt both Roger and Posey’s gazes drilling into the side of my face.

I sensed Jackson tense at my side, preparing to respond to their implied insult, so I placed my hand on his elbow, arresting his gaze, and shook my head. He frowned at me, but pressed his lips together as though biting back a retort.

Thankfully, Posey and Roger’s stares were short lived because a commotion at the judges’ table had all the finalists standing a little straighter. It was time to award best-in-show for baked goods, the highest and most prestigious of all honors awarded at the fair.

I took a steadying breath and focused my attention to the panel, now approaching the plank steps of the make-shift stage. I didn’t allow my gaze to stray to the crowd, but I’d overheard it estimated that at least three thousand spectators had gathered to watch the spectacle.

“We have reached a consensus.” Bob Mart—the senior judge—bent to speak into the microphone, causing a rapid and deafening hush to ripple over the crowed; the effect reminded me of tossing a stone into a placid lake, but just the opposite.

Instinctively and unbidden, my eyes darted to Cletus. A small, secretive smile hovered behind his beard as he met my gaze. I knew it was there because the way his eyes were crinkled at the corners told me so.

I’d confessed to him earlier that I hoped I didn’t win. I’d done my best, because we’re called to do our best in all things, but I didn’t want to take home the prize. Not again.

“Why on earth do you want to lose?” He’d asked, looking at me askance.

“Because winning never gained me any friends. I have enough trophies and blue ribbons. It would be nice to make friends with other bakers.”

Pressing his lips together, he’d shaken his head disapprovingly. “You don’t want to be friends with people who don’t support you when you win. If people can’t be happy for you when you succeed, then they’ll only be happy when you lose.”

Presently, Cletus stepped away from the croissant table, his smile widening with encouragement and his eyes shining with pride.

I love you, he mouthed.

Automatically, I mouthed back, I love you, too.

His smile morphed into a giant grin as he made a beeline for me and my heart skipped in anticipation.

“Here he comes,” Jackson mumbled unnecessarily, lifting his chin toward Cletus.

I nodded absentmindedly, my nerves becoming something else, something nicer.

“It was a difficult decision,” Bob continued, waving his hand toward all the tables and bakers lined up around the periphery of the giant showroom, then patted his substantial belly. “Y’all made this year a doozy, a delicious doozy.”

A rumble of chuckles and whispered comments emanated from both the contestants and crowd.

“However, the time has come. Without further ado, it is my great honor to announce this year’s best-in-show. . .” Bob paused for dramatic emphasis, but I hardly noticed and I wasn’t really listening. My attention was singularly focused on the tall bearded man with chaotic curls and pretty lashes.

Cletus had promised, no matter if I won or lost, that he’d give me a big, sloppy kiss as soon as best-in-show was announced.

“Something to focus on,” he’d whispered in my ear earlier this morning as we got dressed, then pinched my bottom just before he walked out of our bedroom.

My cheeks heated with the memory.

“Jennifer!” Jackson shook me by the shoulder.

I jumped, blinking up at Jackson.

“You won!” The deputy shouted over what sounded like a riot of rain on a tin roof, but was actually the applause coming from the crowd. “You won! Go up there and claim your prize!”

I gaped, my mouth hanging open. I’d missed the announcement, instead daydreaming about Cletus pinching my backside and his lovely promises.

“Jennifer Sylvester wins for the seventh year in a row!” Bob called from the stage. “This young lady is a treasure! Where is she?”

My eyes darted to the podium then to Cletus, he was grinning wildly and was just about even with my table. I wanted to wait for his big sloppy kiss, so I hesitated.

And because I hesitated, Roger Gangersworth stepped in front of me, blocking my view of Cletus and the stage.

Clearly irate, he shoved his face in mine and snarled, “Are you sleeping with the judges? Is that it?”

I stumbled back, away from his red face. “Ex-excuse me?”

“This is the final straw!” Posey Lamont was suddenly at my left. “There’s cheating going on here! You’re a cheat!”

“Excuse you.” Cletus boomed, abruptly also at my left, shoving Posey to one side. “Back off, Posey. Your muffins taste like deodorant and disappointment. Now let Jenn pass.”

“You two get out of the way.” Jackson, from my right, was using his official tone. His official tone more or less woke me from my stupor.

“No, no. Not this time.” Roger shook his head with vehemence, his face turning red while a blue vein throbbed in his forehead. He shouted over the crowd, “I demand a recount! This whole fucking thing is rigged! It’s a goddamn set up!”

Applause waned and murmured sounds of confusion claimed the crowd closest to us as Cletus stepped forward toward Roger. “Now listen here-”

But I stopped my fiancé by gripping his arm meaningfully. He glanced at me. I shook my head.

I’d officially had enough.

Addressing Roger directly, I straightened my spine and lifted my voice. “I’m sick of your ugliness, Roger Gangersworth. If you don’t like the outcome, you know there’s a process for voicing concern. And I do not appreciate such foul language.”

Roger snapped his mouth shut and glared at me, his right eye larger than his left.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me.” I forced myself to relax my fingers where they’d grabbled fistfuls of my skirt.

I made to move past . . .  and then I’m not quite sure what happened next.

All I know is, one minute I was walking toward the stage and someone said, “Lying, cheating banana bitch!” followed by a few gasps from lookers on.

And then something snapped.

I turned, grabbed the nearest object, and lobbed it at Roger’s face.

My startled gawk was mirrored by everyone around us when we all seemed to realize at the same time that the object I’d lobbed at Roger was his award winning strawberry and rhubarb pie.

The pie plate fell from his visage, leaving him in tan crust, splotches of red goop, and tiny crescent moons of rhubarb. The filling dripped from his face, which was absolutely motionless, and pooled on the tops of his shoes.

A moment of stillness, of staring and gaping, was abruptly eclipsed by the building murmur of the crowd. Shouts and laughter followed.

Peripherally, I thought I heard Bob’s voice over the loud speaker exclaim, “Oh dear me, Roger’s been hit in the face with his own pie!”

Roger, meanwhile, scraped the mess from his eyes first and squinted at me. “I’m going to have you arrested.”

“For what?” Cletus’s voice asked from my side, drawing my attention to him. His eyes were bright with laughter as they moved over Roger’s form.

I swallowed my spike of alarm which was soon overshadowed by plain shock. I could barely comprehend what I’d done.

I reached forward. “I’m so-”

“Don’t you dare apologize,” Jackson cut in, shaking his head as sternly as he could manage amidst his own laughter, “You did nothing wrong.”

“What? Nothing wrong?” screeched Posey.

“You do understand, that was assault, right?” Roger drew himself up to his full height, but I had trouble reading his expression as it was still masked by pie.

“Was it?” Cletus scratched his beard and swapped a glance with Jackson before adding. “I’m pretty sure the only crime here was ruining a perfectly good pie.”

Roger moved his squint to Jackson and raised sticky index finger in my direction. “I want her arrested.”

“Now see here, the way I saw it, you fell face forward into your own pie.” Cletus pointed at Roger, then the table. “Right, Jackson?”

“That’s right.” Jackson nodded once, wiping away his tears of laughter. “That’s what I saw, too. Must’ve tripped over something.”

“He did no such thing!” Posey hollered, “That entitled bi-”

Jackson held his hands up. “Now ma’am, no need to get ugly.”

“Too late,” Cletus quipped, eyeballing Posey’s face meaningfully, making the older woman gasp and flinch.

“How dare you!”

“Goodness gracious, Roger. You bring this on yourself.” Bob Mart cut in, stepping into the fray, his eyes sweeping over the lot of us before reaching for my arm and tugging me toward the stage. “It’s time for you to collect your prize, Ms. Sylvester.”

Coming out of my shocked fog, I twisted out of his grip. “Wait, there’s something I need to do first.”

Hastily, I launched myself at Cletus, wrapped my arms around his neck, and pulled his lips down to mine for my sloppy kiss.

“Oh good Lord,” Bob sighed from someplace behind me, but I didn’t care.

I’d been promised a sloppy kiss—no matter what—and a sloppy kiss was what I intended to collect.

It only took Cletus a half second to respond, but when he did my man more than delivered, wrapping me in his strong arms and bending me backwards in a half dip. He kissed me good and messy, thoroughly loving my mouth and holding handfuls of my body as though he were insatiable for the feel of me.

I thought I heard cheers. Or fireworks. Or a parade. But that might’ve just been in my head.

Eventually, unfortunately, the kiss ended. Cletus set me back to rights on my feet and nipped my lip once more before lifting his head and grinning down at me. He was breathless.

Even so, he managed to say on a happy rumble, “Nicely done, my queen.”

Just before I turned for the stage, I reached around him and pinched Cletus Winston’s backside, making him jump while I whispered in his in ear, “Always a pleasure, my king.”

~ End Scene ~