In the short time I'd lived in Lickin Creek, I'd become very familiar with that phrase and its evil twin, “We've never done it that way.” Hit me with a two-by-four half a dozen times and I get the idea. There was no use in arguing; I might as well find a comfortable place to park myself for the next hour.

Oretta turned to face her cast. “No point in waiting for Weezie any longer. She doesn't have any lines near the beginning, anyway. Places, everybody. Bernice, stand over there-stage right-next to the palm tree. Have you all highlighted your parts? It would be nice to hear you reading the right lines tonight.” She glared at one of the hapless women, who seemed to shrink several inches. Another rummaged through her purse, extracted a bright yellow marking pen, and began to diligently mark her script.

Silently cursing myself for being such a wimp, I shrugged off my jacket and took a seat on a metal folding chair in the front row. Ginnie Welburn appeared next to me bearing a cup of steaming coffee and a couple of cookies wrapped in a red paper napkin. “Thought you might like some nourishment,” she said with a grin.

“How did this happen to me?” I whispered, accepting the gift. Little Santa faces smiled at me from the napkin.

“Whatever Oretta Clopper wants, Oretta Clopper gets,” Ginnie said. “She's one of those natural forces you just can't fight.”

“Who is she? The name's familiar. Isn't the new borough manager named Jackson Clopper? Are they married?”

Ginnie snickered. “Don't let her hear you ask that. Oretta's the ultimate snob, and in her opinion, Jackson crawled out of the lower depths when he was hired to be borough manager and should be made to return there as soon as possible. I believe her husband, Matavious-who's almost a doctor-and Jackson are some sort of fifth cousins once removed, or whatever they call it around here.”

“What do you mean by ‘almost a doctor'?” I asked, curious about her strange choice of words.

“Chiropractor.” I could practically see the sneer in her voice. Apparently, Oretta was not the only snob in the room.

Ginnie continued. “The Clopper men don't speak. It's one of those Blue and Gray family squabbles.”

“You mean a family feud going back to the Civil War?” I remarked. “Now that's what I call holding a grudge!”

“A lot of people are still actively fighting that war here in Lickin Creek.”

“Quiet down front!” Oretta snapped. “Ladies, let the play begin.”

Ginnie groaned, winked at me, and moved back to the kitchen. I tried, but failed, to find a comfortable position on the cold metal chair and nibbled on a heavenly chocolate-macadamia-nut cookie.

Before any of the actresses spoke, a tiny woman fluttered down the center aisle and shrugged off her red ski jacket to reveal a most un-Christmasy yellow cotton housedress covered with tiny blue flowers. “I'm so sorry,” she twitted. “You'uns know how my husband is. He don't like me to go out at night, so I thought it best to wait till he fell asleep.”

Oretta nodded sympathetically. “We do indeed know how he is. Let's get started, or we'll be here all night.”

I silently breathed an amen to that.

She stepped to the edge of the stage and peered down at me. “Just wanted to make sure you're still here, young lady.”

I sniffed at the “young lady.” After all, I am a tiny bit past thirty, and Oretta, despite her imposing size, was probably in her forties.

Without moving back, she announced to the audience, “The Nutcracker, an adaptation by Oretta Clopper. Music, please, Matavious.” She stared down at the man sitting next to me. He pushed a button on the portable cassette player on his lap, and the Overture to The Nutcracker reverberated through the hall.

“Too loud, Matavious.”

“Sorry, dearest.” He lowered the volume.

I studied him for a moment. Physically, he was the exact opposite of Oretta, small and thin, with thinning sandy-colored hair that was beginning to turn gray, and rimless glasses. Thanks to Ginnie's crack about him, I'd probably never be able to think of him as anything but “almost a doctor.”

Oretta shared stage center with Bernice Roadcap and the late-arriving Weezie. They alternately referred to themselves as sugar plum fairies, angels, and goddesses.

Although Oretta had announced the pageant was an adaptation of The Nutcracker, I recognized nothing from that lovely ballet except the background music. Thankfully, the middle-aged angels/goddesses/sugar plum fairies didn't dance.

The blank verse the three women spouted had far more to do with Greco-Roman mythology and New Age mysticism than it did with Christianity's most sacred season. The other four cast members had little to do but hold up scenery and chorus back the ends of some bad verses.

The three lead actresses spent most of the next half hour perched on kitchen stools, reading from their scripts in stentorian tones. I padded the seat of my hard chair with my jacket and concentrated on making my final cookie last.

I guessed the ending was blessedly near when the goddesses jumped from their stools and danced around a pedestal on top of which sat a Styrofoam cup, while Dr. Clopper's tape player boomed out “Ode to Joy.” I recalled with amusement the wonderful “Ode to a Grecian Urn” in Meredith Willson's The Music Man. All these middle-aged goddesses needed were flowing togas, which led me to wonder what exactly they would wear for the pageant.

Bernice waved her fur-covered arms in the air and wailed, “What does this mean, my lady?”

Little Weezie paused in her dance to read, “The King doth wake tonight. He is to the manor born.”

I clapped my hand over my mouth so I wouldn't laugh out loud.

Oretta, only a little out of breath, sang out, “By the tolling of the bell, someone wonderful has come to dwell.” She raised the white cup above her head with both hands and cried, “What light from yonder manger breaks? It is the star from the east and the mother is the sun. Hail to the great mother.” She paused, then glared at the woman in the chorus who had only just finished highlighting her script with her yellow pen. “Janet…”

“Sorry, Oretta. Hail to the great mother.” She looked embarrassed. I didn't blame her.

“Hail to the wyccan.”

“Hail to the wyccan.” What the heck was a wyccan?

“Hail to the Goddess.”

Goddesses I know about. I winced as Janet hailed this one with slight enthusiasm. A little artsy feminism goes a long way with me.

“And now we drink from the Goblet of Life.” Oretta brought the cup to her lips and drained it. “Hold your places, ladies. Dorrie, you may take your pictures now.”

“It's Tori,” I protested, even though nobody paid any attention to me. I got to my feet stiffly, suffering the effects of sitting on that torture chair for over an hour.

I snapped half a dozen pictures of the cast at different exposures and shutter speeds, hoping at least one of them would develop into a photo good enough for the paper. Photography is not my strong suit.

As I wrote the names of the ladies in my notebook, Oretta barked, “Good work, ladies. Take ten and we'll run through it again. Without scripts this time. Somebody refill the goblet. Make it spiced apple cider this time. That coffee was cold.”

“Now look here, Oretta…” Bernice waved her script in Oretta Clopper's face. “You'uns got it all wrong.”

“Really, Bernice! I did write it, you know.”

I left the stage and nearly bumped into Ginnie. Her face was all crinkly from laughing. We walked to the kitchen together, where she filled a cup with coffee and handed it to me.

“I'm surprised the minister hasn't run them out of here on a rail,” I said as I doctored my cup with fake cream and artificial sugar.

Ginnie's lips twitched. “Oretta has everybody snowed. She almost had a play produced Off-off-off Broadway once. Now, she's executive director of the LCLCT. That's the Lickin Creek Little Community Theatre, spelled t-h-e-a-t-r-e,” she explained, answering my unspoken question. “The town's convinced she's the next Eugene O'Neill.”

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