The Folklore Project
The Neighborhood of Make-Believe
By Jennifer Lynn McCarthy
Every spring in the Florida panhandle, the night air erupts into a symphony of noise and pain as Earth’s mighty creatures unfurl their might upon us humans. This symphony is not the creation of a graceful muse, but the result of long nights in dank wet soil. Mosquitos take aim at our ankles, and the frogs find their song. The palmetto bugs plan their march into our kitchens, and the cats fight under oppressive heat as spring rolls with tenacity into our lives. We deal with it. We change our clocks. We buy flip-flops and tuck our jackets away yet again. There is another drama going on right under our noses — the return of the azalea. Its bloom heralds the true end of winter. During my childhood, it was the sign of royalty returning to the Gulf of Mexico. It was Azalea Queen time.
Let me be clear. This is not the Azalea Queen of pageantry and pomp that occurs in many small Southern towns. I had a chance at that and quit midway through a tryout. I was still finding myself as a high schooler, but no amount of assurances from well intentioned friends was enough to go through with someone I knew was just ... not me.
The court I speak of took place on a Leisure Craft boat that sat on a trailer until it was time to unload it and spend idyllic days at Shell Island. Until that time, until that very moment when Daddy unloaded the musty life jackets, sprayed them down, and we all made pimento-cheese sandwiches for the ride, our Azalea Queen parade took place between a girlfriend and myself. Everything else was in our heads.
The crowds were there. Didn’t you see them? They came out from the island of azalea bushes that dotted our yard. Didn’t you hear them? The crowds cheered as we waved to our adoring fans. How could you not hear how we plotted for this moment the night before under cover of Trina’s pink canopy bed? It took tenacity. It took determination. You missed out, let me tell you. You really need to hear how it went down — the best little Azalea Queen Parade in Bay County.
My friend and I (let’s call her Trina for now, in case she and I don’t happen to share the same memories — I am almost 44, after all) planned all night. This was after we swam all day in a neighbor’s pool, ate Domino’s pizza, and watched “Top Gun” for the 20th time. We could recite every line. We often slept at each other’s homes, and like most kids, I thought her home was so much cooler than my own. Her house was newer, ranch-style. Ours was mid-century concrete block with Juniper pine walls whose knots appeared as gaping faces as soon as my lights were out. I’d stare down those wizard-like faces every night, the green glow of my radio hitting their open mouths until my eyes shut. I fell asleep to the sound of rain against jalousie windows, a few spots of grassy rain hitting my floor and filling my dreams. My friend, she didn’t have those problems, blessed as she was with smooth white walls and catalog-bought curtains and a modern kitchen with non-yellow linoleum.
The weekend day came. My daddy was busy in the garage, and mom was down the street with my baby sister, gossiping or spending time with an elderly person. Both of my parents were people I respected deeply, even then. I thought they knew me well. I thought they knew what kind of creative mind they had nurtured. I was confident that they’d be just fine with our Azalea Queen parade.
My yard was a dreamscape that year. We gathered the blooms up in an old Easter basket. We had our favorites. The common light pink kind were everywhere. We left those for last, the poor things. My favorite kind was the tight little red ones, and my friend’s favorite kind was the white ones. We waved at my mom.
“Hi! We are fine!” We called out, too busy with our task to eat peanut butter and jelly. I held out for another pizza night. Maybe. It was spring. Anything was possible.
We crept up into the boat.
The boat was something my entire family valued. It was a sign of success in Bay County. Nobody really cared about what kind of car you drove. It was always, always about having a boat. Everyone in Bay County went to Shell Island. Spring was “getting-the-boat-ready time.” I suppose I was subconsciously taking that role away from Daddy. I was “getting the boat ready” for Shell Island adventures.
Methodically, we placed those azalea blooms in every available nook and cranny in that two-tone Leisure Craft. I stuck azaleas into the fish finder, the steering wheel, and laid them in fairy circles on each brown and white upholstered seat. Down the stairs we went, into the cabin. I still remember that smell of boat cabins — light mildew with a strong dose of coconut oil. There sat Mom’s sturdy towel bag. I stuck red blooms in it. We decorated that cabin like it was a love scene out of my favorite soap opera, Santa Barbara. I cranked the windows open and delicately placed blooms in along each metal frame. We moved back out of the cabin to the open well of the boat. There, a fiberglass case didn’t leave a ton for the imagination. We stuck white blooms all over the Evinrude motor and along the bilge and pump.
Out of obvious spaces to decorate, I lifted up the little hidey holes for coolers and life jackets, and we sprinkled those spaces with the cherry pink blooms I loved so much. When our basket was almost empty, we stuck azalea blooms in our hair, helping each other to reign supreme in our kingdom. We itched as the yellow pollen got in our eyes and the hidden aphids came to life, but we didn’t care.
Our court awaited. We turned outward, high up on the trailer and waved to our people. We giggled and blew kisses. A car drove down our street and honked. We blew kisses at them, too. The family dog, Hank, started to bark at us. He was a German Shepherd who was beloved by my family. I waved at him and threw him a bloom. He ate it and kept barking.
“Hank. Hank!” My Daddy called from the garage. Daddy was never an angry person. But when he raised his voice, we listened. So did Hank.
Trina giggled picked some flowers off the boat and onto our dog. He snapped them up like Scooby snacks and barked more.
“Shh. Hank. Shh,” I whispered. His barks were deep and loud. Daddy came around the corner from the garage and followed Hank’s gaze.
“What? Girls... What?” I don’t really remember what all he said. I do remember that our crowds quickly dispersed under the cloud of his confusion and irritation. He said things about how he had just hosed off the entire boat and all its equipment. He said things about taking care of people’s property. He didn’t yell at us. But I gathered he was a bit ticked off. My daddy was good at being kind and patient. I was good at reading between the lines.
Trina and I turned to each other with red faces. We knew each other’s parents and had mutual respect for all of them. We were the kind of young people who felt ashamed at the right times and felt disappointed in ourselves when our parents did. We went about removing our flowers in somber silence. It was not an easy task, as we soon found out.
One cannot just peel off an azalea blossom. They stick. You have to roll them off. You are basically destroying them. There is nothing to salvage and stick in a vase. It took us a long time to get every blossom out of that boat. We climbed down and tossed the bag of spent blossoms in the trash, the lid sounding the end of our glory filled days. We said goodbye, too embarrassed to continue the afternoon. My family’s yard was half naked, the burgeoning blooms wasted on a dream and a fake parade.
Two weeks later, my family sped across the bay to land upon Shell Island in that boat. We scrambled out onto shore and climbed the huge white dunes. We opened bags and ate lunch. No-AD sunscreen covered our backs and I made lines on our tummy in hopes of striped tan lines.We splashed and snorkeled by the jetties. On the way home, my sister slept on Mom’s lap and Dad stood with his brown tan and cool glasses against the wind, steering us home.
I went into the cabin and opened a window. As we flew under the Hathaway Bridge, the boat smacked the wakes of larger boats and my heart raced. Soon after, the boat motor and salt air put me to sleep. When I woke up, something wet was on my ear. I flicked it away. There, a deep red azalea blossom fell to the wet floor. I picked it up. How did it survive all these weeks? Why was it not a sodden remnant by now?
I looked at my parents. Daddy with his glasses, reflective and non-revealing. He gave me a smile. Mom with her glasses, just as mysterious. She gave me a smile.
I came out of the cabin and held onto a rail as the salt hit my face. I was still in the parade. My court was there, after all. My people were always here.