by Ron Van Sweringen
Melba Mae Lee was a humdinger, no question about it as far as Flat Hump, Georgia, was concerned that summer of 1940. Her platinum blonde hair could be picked out on Main Street as easily as a flashlight in an outhouse on a rainy night.
The boys from Harvey’s Auto Repair Garage even got to work half an hour early on Saturdays just to watch her walk the two blocks from the bus stop to the Curl Palace, her one-room beauty parlor. The old saying “Stopping Traffic” certainly did apply to Melba Mae as her hips swayed down Main Street in a red polka-dot dress.
“Whooo-eeeee!” Filbert Martin, let out a tortured moan. “Ain’t never seen nothin’ like it.”
“Don’t reckon you ever will again either,” Donnie Phillips added, unbuttoning his grease-stained work shirt. “Somethin’ like that only comes along once in a lifetime.”
Red Harvey, sticking his head out of his office, gave a shout. “Okay, boys, now that you’re fired up, how about changing a few tires and emptying some oil, if ya want to get paid today.”
Some in Flat Hump snickered and called Melba Mae a hussy from the wrong side of the tracks, but they were mostly of the female persuasion. Hats tipped and eyes bulged from every man lucky enough to find himself in her way, regardless of what waited for him at home when his wife found out.
So it went that August morning on Main Street when something out of the ordinary happened. Melba Mae was struck by lightning as a Good Year blimp passed high overhead. The peculiar thing was, not a cloud was in the clear blue sky, because the lightning bolt in this case happened to be a Georgia State Lottery ticket worth $25,000 cash and $500 a month for twenty years.
Now, everyone in Harlan County and, truth be told, the whole state of Georgia was desperate to win such a fortune, with the Depression still hanging on. Folks were pretty much worn thin with hard times.
Cash money was had by few people in Flat Hump, namely those that lived in the big houses on Oak Tree Hill, rich folks like the two Walker brothers who owned the Flat Hump National Bank And Savings. And there was Matilda Frump, whose father owned the Southern Belle Peach Orchard and canning factory that employed a quarter of the population of Harlan County.
Melba Mae Lee, definitely did not live on Oak Tree Hill. The River Bottom trailer park was more like it. Odd thing was, nobody in town really knew much about Melba Mae. The rumor was she had arrived one midnight on a Greyhound bus out of Atlanta. Folks took up the rumor, because someone said they had seen lots of women with hair that color in Atlanta.
Two weeks after it was announced on the radio that Melba Mae had won the Georgia State Lottery, a special delivery letter arrived for her at the Flat Hump general post office. News spread fast that Melba Mae was about to receive her fortune. Folks gathered outside the post office just to get a glimpse of the new millionaire. The $25,000 cash and $500 a week for twenty years made Melba Mae a millionaire in the eyes of the working folks of Harlan County.
* * *
The road to the Flat Hump general post office that morning had not been an easy one for Melba Mae. Her life began in a pig trough when her mother, nine months pregnant was slopping the hogs one fall morning. Being her ninth child, Melba Mae’s birth was easily accomplished when Mrs. Lee bent over to lift up a heavy slop bucket.
From then on, it was a matter of determination on Melba Mae’s part to free herself of the pig-farm stench that seemed to follow her everywhere, no matter how hard she scrubbed in the creek each day. Her chance came when she was fifteen and secretly wrote a letter to her mother’s sister, who ran a small beauty shop in Kansas City, Kansas. In the letter Melba Mae begged her aunt for a chance to leave the farm and become a beautician.
Her emancipation proclamation arrived in a letter two weeks later. It was in the form of a one-way bus ticket to Kansas City alongside of a neatly folded ten dollar bill. Melba Mae never looked back or smelled the same again.
Hildegard Frump surveyed her kingdom like a queen, from a shady, white-columned veranda, while sipping a very tall gin collins. A small Confederate flag with her initials, ‘HF,’ embossed on it, rising from an orange slice on the rim of her frosted glass spoke volumes about her undisputed position of power in Harlan County, and especially the town of Flat Hump, Georgia.
The fact that her father Beauregard Frump, a German immigrant, had been a riverboat gambler in his youth was of small consequence. To Hildegard Frump, it was simply a malicious rumor started by a jealous business rival of her father’s, a short-sighted little man who went bankrupt because he planted fig trees on his land instead of peaches. Served him right.
With the success of his peach tree orchards and fruit canning factory, Beauregard Frump built the largest house on Oak Tree Hill. Hildegard had occupied the mansion for all of her sixty-five years. Her father’s fond wishes for a suitable marriage and children for his only child never materialized. It seemed that no suitor was ever good enough or, in any case, foolish enough to ask for Hildegard’s hand.
This unfortunate turn of events resulted in a sour disposition accentuated by an upraised chin and flaring nostrils, as though she were constantly smelling something unpleasant, like a pig farm. Pinched-nose glasses and rows of pin-curled hair only served to reinforce the magnitude of her misfortune on the citizens of Flat Hump. For all practical purposes, considering every family in town had at least one or more of its members employed by ‘Frump Enterprises’, she dictated every aspect of life, except in this case who owned the winning Georgia State Lottery ticket. That is where the trouble began.
“Not in my Fourth of July parade! No brazen hussy with hair that color is riding in my parade,” Hildegard Frump fumed at the Flat Hump town council meeting, her nose pinched up to match her glasses.
“But, Miss Frump, please be reasonable,” the mayor, a portly little man with perspiration braking out on his bald head, nervously pleaded. “The governor will be in attendance to congratulate the Georgia State lottery ticket winner. Miss Lee has to ride in the parade, no matter what color her hair is.”
“Fine!” Hildegard shot back. “Then make her dye it!” There was a moment of stunned silence as her demand sunk in on the town council members.
“Dye it?” the mayor repeated weakly.
“Brown,” Hildegard snapped. This last remark caused the mayor to sink down in his chair. “Oh dear,” he mumbled. And so a line was drawn in the sand with Melba Mae on one side and Hildegard Frump on the other, with the town of Flat Hump, Georgia, caught in the middle.
* * *
It was one week before the Fourth of July parade when Melba Mae was informed of Hildegard Frump’s edict.
“Brown?” Melba Mae repeated weakly to the members of the town council who were gathered in her small beauty shop.
“I’m afraid so,” the mayor replied, lowering his eyes. “It has to be brown.”
“All right,” Melba Mae sighed, “guess I can’t fight city hall.”
An audible sigh of relief flowed from the group, thankful that their problem was solved.
Flossie Williams, a middle-aged woman, had quietly watched the scene unfold from her position beside the shampoo bowl. After the council members were gone, her face showed anger and disappointment. “The idea of that old woman, tellin’ folks what to do,” she said sharply, “it ain’t decent. All my life, people been lookin’ at me funny ’cause I ain’t the same color as them. But I wouldn’t change it if I could. If I was you, I sure wouldn’t do it. No sireee.”
“You’re right,” Melba Mae replied, hands on hips and her right foot tapping the floor.
“I knew it,” Flossie shouted watching Melba Mae smile. “Has we got a plan?”
“Yes,” Melba Mae replied. “We have a plan. Hurry on down to Fillmore’s drug store and get me three large bottles of peroxide.”
* * *
The morning of the 4th of July parade dawned bright and sunny. By ten o’clock, Hildegard Frump was seated next to the governor of Georgia in the viewing stand on Main Street. A wave of excitement rippled through the large crowd as the first float, from the Chicken Hut restaurant, appeared covered with crepe paper chicken legs.
The excitement of the crowd rose to a peak when the float carrying Melba Mae approached the viewing stand, preceded by the All Girl marching band of Flat Mount high school. Melba Mae waved at the crowd and gave a large smile.
At that moment, Hildegard Frump’s pinched-nose glasses flew off when she passed out, keeling over backwards, chair and all.
“Isn’t it wonderful what a one hundred dollar donation to the high school Drum and Bugle drive will get you,” Melba Mae thought, watching the All-Girl Marching Band of Flat Mount High School pass by under their humdinger platinum blonde hair.
Copyright © 2015 by Ron Van Sweringen