Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1363
The Jackson Junior League Annual Ball and Benefit (“the Benefit”) begins with cocktails at seven o’clock at the Robert E. Lee Hotel. The doors of the banquet hall will open at eight o’clock and dinner will begin at nine. The proceeds from the auction will go to the...
(The entire section contains 1363 words.)
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The Jackson Junior League Annual Ball and Benefit (“the Benefit”) begins with cocktails at seven o’clock at the Robert E. Lee Hotel. The doors of the banquet hall will open at eight o’clock and dinner will begin at nine. The proceeds from the auction will go to the Poor Starving Children of Africa, and the dance floor and bandstand are opposite the podium from which Miss Hilly Holbrook will give her speech. The husbands may get drunk but none of the wives will do so. They are all hostesses this night, and they know Hilly is the shining star.
Hilly is dressed in a maroon taffeta gown, and everything but her fingers and face are covered. All the ladies show no more than a few inches of skin; those who show more are not members, they are “those kind.” The Footes do not arrive until 7:25. (When Mister Johnny arrived home from work and saw his wife, he asked if she should be quite so bare at the top. She laughed and said he knew nothing about fashion, and Johnny gave up because they were already late.) At the Benefit, there is a moment when Celia is alone, sparkling in the entryway, and the entire room grows still. It takes a moment for the sight to register, and then the men all smile and say to themselves “at last.” William Holbrook spills his drink on the shoes of one of his largest political contributors, but neither of the men notice. Hilly finally sees what everyone is looking at and her neck muscles grow taut.
Reactions to the dazzling display of bosom and sequins are mixed. One old man feels younger just seeing Celia; his wife says bosoms are for “bedrooms and breastfeeding” and she should cover them up in public. The Footes enter the room, and Celia asks Johnny in a whisper if she is overdressed because the women in the room seem dressed for church. He tells her she looks beautiful and offers his jacket if she is cold. He leaves to get her a drink (her fifth of the day, though he does not know it) and Celia looks around for Hilly. She sees her across the room and “yoo-hoos” at her. As she heads toward her, Hilly disappears into the crowd. No one speaks to Celia unless they cannot avoid it. Near the food, Minny points Celia out to Aibileen; her only response is that the women better watch their men tonight.
Skeeter arrives wearing black, looking bored, and taking a few notes for the next League newsletter. She sees Elizabeth Leefolt (who looks exhausted after giving birth a month before) a few feet away and is amused to see the panic in her face as she sees Celia Foote approaching her from the other side. Her former friend looks trapped before she rushes away with Celia following after her. Skeeter knows the biggest story of the Benefit will be Celia Foote’s fashion disaster.
Neither the Footes nor Skeeter are seated for dinner near anyone who matters. After dinner Hilly begins her speech. She thanks all the nonmembers, and the members all pity them for not being good enough to belong. She thanks all those who donated to the evening’s festivities and auction, and she thanks the “anonymous contributor” of toilets to help the Home Help Sanitation Initiative. Hilly invites whomever was responsible to “step up and accept our gratitude,” but there is no movement. Skeeter shows no reaction at all but keeps her face “stoic and unyielding.” Finally Hilly makes a pitch for her husband’s senate campaign, teasing any congressmen in the room to get the separate schools issue straightened out or she might just come do it herself. There is plenty of laughter in the room.
The dancing begins, as does the auction. Johnny is ready to go home, but Celia is upset that some nonmembers were able to help while she was not. She spots Hilly across the room and heads over to her. She almost makes it before Hilly slips behind the podium. When Celia goes to the ladies’ room, Hilly heads to Johnny. She hooks her hand in the crook of his elbow and begins teasing him about several things—including his meeting Celia while she was serving hot dogs at an LSU game. Before Johnny can say anything, someone whisks Hilly away just as Celia returns.
Their departure is delayed by a few more drinks, and soon the auction winners are announced: first the linens, then the sliver serving pieces, and finally the desserts, ending with the winner of Minny Jackson’s “world-famous chocolate custard pie”—Miss Hilly Holbrook. The crowd cheers but Hilly is confused because she had not bid on anything (she never does). Minny only heard her name in the same sentence as Miss Hilly’s and is suddenly on alert. Hilly stares unwaveringly at Minny and says it was so sweet, that someone must have signed her up for the pie. Celia’s voice is shrill as she comes up from behind Hilly and says she had no idea she liked Minny’s pies. She stumbles as she walks, and there is snickering in the crowd. Hilly stands still and asks if this is some kind of a joke.
There is a bit of a scuffle as Hilly tries to get away and Celia tries to grab her arm—and then there is a ripping sound. Celia has ripped the cuff off of Hilly’s dress. Hilly growls at her, asking who put her up to this. She wants to know who told her and who she has “blabbed to.” A crowd begins to form around the two women. When Hilly demands to know who told her, Celia does not understand the question and says Minny told her and she knows why Hilly does not want to be friends with her. The noise in the rest of the room intensifies, so Celia has to yell to be heard. Just as she tells Hilly she got pregnant after Hilly and Johnny broke up, the background noise ceases, and everyone in the room hears her.
The women gathered around the pair wrinkle their noses and laugh, noting that Celia is “d-r-u-n-k.” Hilly says Johnny never would have done such a thing, and Celia says she thought Hilly would enjoy having the pie. Hilly leans in to Celia so no one else can hear, and she says to tell Minny that if she ever tells anyone about that pie, she will make Minny suffer. She accuses Celia of trying to blackmail her way into the League, which Celia denies because she knows nothing about a pie. Hilly calls Johnny over and says his wife needs him. Celia is confused. She does not know why Hilly called her a liar or why she thinks she signed her up to win the pie. She has tears in her eyes—and then she sprays vomit everywhere before running for the bathroom. Hilly is furious and starts telling lies: Celia has been battling a drinking problem, she is a compulsive liar, and she told Johnny she was pregnant just so he would marry her.
Most of the crowd leaves shortly after the Footes leave, and Hilly is left standing at the podium trying to add the money earned from the auction. She has trouble focusing on the figures and has to start again. Her mother, Mrs. Walters, says she is heading to Hilly’s house. Hilly tells her mother to stay out of the refrigerator or they will both be up all night with her indigestion. Mrs. Walters wants some of Minny’s pie, but Hilly says the pie is in the garbage. Her mother looks deflated and asks why she threw it away since she won it just for her. It takes Hilly a moment to understand that her mother bought the pie for her; when she does, she throws her papers on the ground and curses her mother. As she leaves, Mrs. Walters tells her colored nurse to “call the papers” because her daughter is mad at her again.