Mardi Gras

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Sallie handed Leo another pile of coats and leaned in close so only he could hear.

"Stop jumping down the stairs," she hissed, "you almost ran into Mr. Sandridge."

"I'm not jumping Aunt Sallie, I'm leaping," he whispered back, "It makes my cape fly out."

"Well stop it before you knock down one of the guests!" she turned away with a glassy smile to welcome a new bevy of costumed party-goers.

As Sallie checked the newcomers' tickets against the master list, Leo bounded up the stairs with the coats, his cape rippling behind him. Moments later he reappeared, jumping lightly onto the landing and squatting dramatically in a classic superhero pose, his eyes bright behind his black half-mask. Sallie glared at him disapprovingly. Unperturbed, Leo stood, squared his shoulders, lifted his chin and walked regally down the remaining steps. She sighed and handed him the last of the coats, then headed for the kitchen to check on the food.

Sallie's dress shimmered even in the dim light of the hallway, its iridescent blues and greens mimicking the peacock feathers tucked into her hair and the feathered mask tucked into her beaded sash. All remaining traces of her cold had been obscured with deftly applied cosmetics, and a few soft curls had escaped to frame her face which was slightly flushed. She might have been lovely without the scowl and the knitted brow. It wasn't the party that was troubling her; even Leo's antics were just part of the fun. No, she'd had a visit from the renters this afternoon, that little girl and her mother. She'd heard them out but she hadn't invited them in; it was a busy day after all and making the child apologize didn't adequately make up for the time she'd wasted on that fool's errand of a birthday party. Even so, she felt unsettled. She wanted to talk to Kate. Sallie made her way past the savory tableau in the formal dining room where the buffet was nearly ready to be announced and stopped in the service doorway to observe the ordered melee of the kitchen.

Two chefs worked with neat efficiency at the island in the center of the room, one twirling crepes in a pan, the other quickly filling, rolling and arranging them on trays. Pancakes were traditional for Mardi Gras, but Sallie thought crepes set a more elegant tone. A battalion of teenagers dressed in formal black and white hummed around counters and in and out of doors doing various things with silver trays, alighting and taking off like so many bees, while Kate shifted through the room arranging, adjusting, and keeping the confusion at bay. Kate preferred being in the kitchen to mingling with the guests and Sallie had to admit things ran more smoothly when she was there. Still, she'd insisted Kate join the party after the food was served. The juggler, festive in his striped tights (and supposedly on his break), was juggling abandoned hors d'oeuvres from the plates waiting to be refilled, popping them into his mouth as they cycled through the cascade. Later he'd juggle trinkets and beads and toss them among the guests.

Beyond the buffet Sallie could hear the muffled music and chatter of the party punctuated by occasional gasps as the magician moved among the company pulling gloves and coins and cards from ears and sleeves. She could picture the guests in their tuxedos and gowns, many decked out as princesses and kings, a daring few as pirates, fairies, or fortunetellers, all of them with fancy masks and a drink in hand. All but old Stanley Early and his sister, Grace; he'd have the drink but not the mask. While most of the guests were out-of-town patrons of the Guesthouse, Stanley and Grace were neighbors from up the road and they never missed a Mardi Gras. They came in the same costumes every year – a battered cowboy for him and a big flowered caftan with plastic lei's for her – and every year Stanley walked through the door and bellowed, "When's the last time y' saw a mask this good?" as he pointed to his own bare face. Sallie could hear him now, undoubtedly at the bar where Joe was pouring drinks, his big, happy laugh erupting over the even murmur of the crowd.

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