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Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Page 15

Rebecca Wells

  Sidda didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She was lying on the sofa, facing out toward the lake, with a fan blowing on her, munching on Jonagold apples and hunks of Stilton cheese, which lay on a plate that sat on her stomach. All her life she thought her mother had made up the name “Miss Alma Asshole” out of whole cloth. But the name must have come from this Miss Alma Ansell and her Academy of Charm and Beauty.

  Winter Session, 1940, Sidda thought. Mama was fourteen years old. Just after the gang had attended the Gone With the Wind premiere. Interesting.

  Tears will do you no good.

  Although Sidda was not one to quote the Bible, there was a quote from Luke she’d always loved. “Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh.” Sidda thought the quote was lovely and was impressed by its light touch. Luke—or whoever really wrote it—didn’t promise you’d prosper or be saved. He promised that if you wept, sooner or later you’d laugh.

  She folded Miss Alma’s lesson back into the scrapbook, and let her mind wander. As she lay on the sofa in the cabin on the lake, where she had come to decide her future, Sidda thought about tears.

  Sidda remembered the first time Lizzie Mitchell came into her life. It was an Indian-summer afternoon in 1961 and Vivi had not left her room in almost two weeks. Sidda was relieved just to have her mother back home after a long unexplained absence, an absence that left them all dizzy with abandonment and confusion.

  The golden afternoon light hit the fields where Chaney and Shep and a host of others worked to harvest cotton. The afternoon air was warm and cool all at once. If things had been normal, Sidda would have been in the backyard, picking up pecans, singing to the dog, dreaming about becoming a missionary in Africa or an actress on the London stage. But she was inside, sitting on the floor outside Vivi’s door with a Nancy Drew book in her lap, one ear cocked for any sounds or requests that might issue from the room. She had been doing this for weeks; she considered it her job.

  Lizzie Mitchell pulled into the driveway at Pecan Grove driving a black 1949 Ford with a cracked window on the front passenger side. When Sidda heard the front doorbell ring, she jumped up from her position outside Vivi’s door, and ran to see who it was. Vivi didn’t want to see anyone, and Sidda was standing sentry. Only the Ya-Yas were allowed into Vivi’s room, and sometimes Vivi didn’t even feel up to seeing them.

  Lizzie Mitchell stood in front of Sidda wearing a blue shirtwaist dress with a gray sweater draped over her shoulders. Painfully thin, with sad blue eyes, she had a frail kind of beauty. Her face, her whole body appeared tired. In her early twenties, she had beautiful skin, but her teeth were bad, and even Sidda could see she wore the wrong shade of lipstick. She carried a suitcase, and for a moment Sidda thought the woman was a traveler who had stopped to ask for directions.

  At the sight of Sidda, she gave a quick forced smile and said, “Good afternoon, is the lady of the house at home?”

  Sidda just stared at the woman. Finally she said, “Yes, my mother is home. But she’s busy.”

  “Would you tell her that a representative of the most advanced line of beauty products available in the world today is calling, please?”

  “Just a minute, please,” Sidda said, and left the woman standing at the door.

  She knocked softly on Vivi’s door.

  “Mama?” she asked in a soft voice. “You asleep?”

  When she got no response, she opened the bedroom door and walked in. Vivi was curled in the bed. The Snickers bar and club sandwich and Coke that Sidda had made for her when she got home from school were still untouched on the TV table.

  “There’s a lady at the door asking for you, Mama,” Sidda said.

  “I don’t want to see anybody,” Vivi said, without moving. “Who is she, anyway?”

  “She is a representative of the most advanced line of beauty products available in the world today,” Sidda said.

  “What?” Vivi asked.

  “That’s what she said. And she has a suitcase.”

  Vivi slowly propped herself up in the bed, bunching her old feather pillow behind her head.

  “She probably just wants to sell me something. Can’t you get rid of her?”

  Sidda looked at her mother. Her face was pale, had been since she’d gotten home. For the most part, she stayed in her nightgown. She hadn’t even worn any of her fabulous hats because she had hardly left the house.

  “No, ma’am,” Sidda said. “I can’t get rid of her.”

  “Why not?”

  Sidda thought for a moment. She glanced down at the cover of her book.

  “Because,” Sidda said, “she’s got on the wrong color lipstick.”

  “She’s selling beauty products and she’s wearing the wrong shade of lipstick?”

  “I think you need to talk to her, Mama.”

  “Oh, all right,” Vivi said. “Ask her to come in for a minute.”

  When Vivi walked into the kitchen, Lizzie Mitchell was sitting at the kitchen counter with Sidda. The minute Vivi walked into the room, Lizzie jumped up from the stool.

  “Good afternoon,” Lizzie said. “Are you the lady of the house?”

  Vivi had pulled her green-striped silk bathrobe over her nightgown and stood barefoot. She put her hand on the counter as if to steady herself.

  “May I help you?” Vivi asked.

  “Yes, ma’am,” Lizzie said in a soft voice. Her eyes went blank for a second, and then she reached into the pocket of her dress and pulled out some scraps of paper that had notes scribbled on them. Attempting to hide the fact that she was reading the notes, Lizzie began her spiel.

  “I am here,” she said in a terrified voice, “to offer you the golden opportunity to discover the finest line of cosmetics ever made for a woman’s skin. The Beautiere Line is a elite line of beauty products designed for the discriminating lady whose first concern is her looks.”

  “An elite line,” Vivi said.

  “Yes, ma’am,” Lizzie repeated, her hands quivering, “it is a elite line.”

  “The correct grammar would be an elite line,” Vivi explained automatically.

  “Pardon me?” Lizzie asked, her voice quivering. Lizzie’s scraps of paper fluttered out of her hand onto the floor. Embarrassed, she bent to pick them up. Sidda watched as the woman seemed almost unable to stand back up. When Lizzie did finally right herself, she was in tears.

  Sidda wanted to hit her. The last thing she needed was for this woman to upset her mother. Just the week before, Vivi had sort of capsized at the A&P, and Sidda had had to call Caro to come and get them. Vivi moved like someone who was still getting over the flu, tired and uncertain, guarding her energy instead of flinging it around like she used to. Both her father and her grandmother had told Sidda that it was up to her, the oldest, to make sure that nothing upset her mother.

  To her surprise, Sidda saw her mother touch the woman’s elbow gently.

  “Please,” Vivi said, “excuse my rudeness. I’m Vivi Abbott Walker, and this is my oldest daughter, Siddalee. Won’t you sit down please?”

  Unable to meet Vivi’s eyes, the woman sat back down at the counter.

  “Would you care for a cup of coffee? I personally do not touch coffee after ten in the morning. I think I’ll have a light cocktail. Shall I make you one as well? Something light?”

  Lizzie continued to cry and said, “Coffee, please, if it’s not too much trouble.”

  “No trouble at all,” Vivi said. She took ice cubes out of the freezer.

  “Sidda Dahlin, do you feel like making some coffee?”

  “Yes, ma’am,” Sidda said, relieved to be given a task.

  Vivi filled the crystal ice bucket with ice cubes, then dropped a couple into a glass. Into the glass she poured orange juice and a half jigger of vodka.

  Sidda put water on to boil and measured Community Coffee Dark Roast with chicory into the filter of the Chemex coffeepot. She tried not to look at her mother’s bare feet. The toenail polish was chipped, something that Vivi would ne
ver have allowed when she was well.

  “I’m sorry,” Vivi said, “I didn’t catch your name.”

  “Oh, no! I’m so sorry,” Lizzie said, covering her face with her hands. “The first thing you’re supposed to do,” she mumbled, “is introduce yourself to your customer.”

  “Well, give it a try,” Vivi said as she stirred her drink. Sidda could see that her hands were still shaky. Vivi reached into the pocket of her bathrobe and swallowed a huge B-12 vitamin.

  Taking her hands down from her face, the woman said softly, “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Lizzie Mitchell and I’m your Beautiere lady.”

  “Pleased to meet you, Lizzie Mitchell,” Vivi said, and sat down at the counter with the woman.

  “I’m pleased to meet you, Mrs. Walker,” Lizzie said. “You too, Siddalee.”

  “Would you like cream and sugar?” Sidda asked.

  “Yes, please,” Lizzie said. “If it’s not too much trouble.”

  Sidda started to get out the blue coffee mugs, but Vivi said, “Dahlin, let’s use china, shall we?”

  Sidda poured coffee into a china cup and set it out on the counter with sugar, cream, and a spoon. Then she warmed milk on the stove in a little saucepan and made herself a mug of coffee-milk. She pulled a stool up to one of the upper cabinets and pulled down the bag of Oreos she’d been hiding from the other kids. She laid cookies out on a plate and joined the women at the kitchen counter.

  “Tell me, Mrs. Mitchell,” Vivi said, “how did you come to be a cosmetics saleslady?”

  Lizzie Mitchell, who was raising the coffee cup to her mouth, set it back in its saucer. She tried to speak, but when she did, she began to cry again.

  “I’m sorry,” she said, breathing in short, ragged little breaths. “I just started up with the Beautiere business. Sam—that’s my husband—Sam died four months ago last week. In a accident at the Tullos Lumber Company. I got me two little boys and no insurance.”

  Lizzie Mitchell stared at her coffee cup and blinked. She seemed shocked that she had just blurted this out to Vivi. As if to try once again to establish herself as a real saleslady, she glanced desperately down at her notes and lapsed back into her rehearsed spiel.

  “The Beautiere Line is something I feel honored to be able to represent. If I did not believe in the products one hundred percent, I would not sell them. Now, if—”

  “Oh, my God,” Mama interrupted. “What you have been through! How old are your boys?”

  “Sam Junior is four and my Jed is two going on three.”

  Sidda looked at her mother’s fingers as they held her drink glass. She was embarrassed at how unkempt her mother’s nails looked. Vivi’s hands, her nails, everything about Vivi used to be so cared for, so beautiful. Sidda could not understand what had happened to her mother.

  “Mama,” Sidda asked, “you want a cookie?”

  “No, Dahlin, thank you,” Vivi said.

  Then, training her eyes on Lizzie, Vivi asked, “Where are your boys now? Who is taking care of them?”

  “They’re at my sister-in-law’s, Bobbie’s. Her girlfriend Lurleen got me hooked up with the Beautiere Line. Lurleen has got a savings account of her own and she done so good with her sales they awarded her The Pink Chrysler.”

  “She did so good,” Sidda said.

  Vivi shook her head at Sidda.

  “Yes, ma’am,” Lizzie said, “Lurleen done real good.”

  “I see,” Vivi said.

  “They make pink Chryslers?” Sidda asked.

  “The Beautiere men gets cars and has them painted pink for the top sellers. Beautiere is your most scientific line of beauty products.”

  Lizzie took a sip of her coffee.

  “Scientific,” Vivi repeated, and took a sip of her drink.

  “Oh, yes, ma’am,” Lizzie said. “It is important to be scientific in today’s world.”

  Then, as if the coffee had picked her up, Lizzie Mitchell seemed to draw herself together. Sidda could see the woman’s notes tucked in the left sleeve of her sweater. Trying her best to appear natural, Lizzie started her sales pitch again.

  “The Beautiere Line costs far less than your Avon products, and yet the quality of these beauty aids has pleased thousands of women throughout Mississippi, Arkansas, and now—Louisiana,” Lizzie Mitchell continued, like a trembling windup doll.

  Vivi lit a cigarette. Sidda climbed down from her stool and crossed to the bar to bring her an ashtray. Sitting back down, Sidda alternated between watching Lizzie Mitchell and watching her mother. This was the most interest her mother had shown in anyone in a long time.

  “Ma’am,” Lizzie said, “if I can just take a minute out of your busy day to show you some of the most modern and scientific beauty boosts available, I can promise you, you won’t regret it.”

  Lizzie Mitchell waited a beat, then reached down for her sales kit. The kit itself looked like a regular train case, but there was a silhouette of two women’s heads facing each other emblazoned on the front in a Pepto-Bismol pink. Moving her coffee cup aside, she set the kit on the counter, flicked its openers, and lifted the lid. Then, as if she saw something terrible inside the suitcase, something no one else could see, Lizzie dropped her head and began to sob deeply. Her bony shoulders bobbed up and down, and her crying sounded almost like that of a small dog.

  Slowly Vivi put her cigarette in the ashtray. Leaning in slowly to the woman, she gently lifted Lizzie Mitchell’s chin with her hand.

  “Dahlin girl,” she said, “are you all right?”

  Lizzie Mitchell looked up at Vivi. “It’s my oldest,” she said, barely audible. “Sam Junior. He’s the one taking it the worst. He wants to be up close to me all the time, can’t stand me to leave.”

  Sidda watched as her mother closed her eyes and listened.

  “When I left him at Bobbie’s this afternoon he started up crying and hollering, wrapped hisself around my legs, and wouldn’t let go. I walked all the way to the door with him hanging off me. Me and Bobbie had to peel him off for me to leave on my sales rounds.”

  Without thinking, Lizzie Mitchell grabbed onto her Beautiere notes and wadded them up in a ball so that she could no longer see them.

  “He’s thinking you’re going to leave and never come back, like his daddy did,” Vivi said softly.

  Lizzie Mitchell nodded her head up and down. “Uh-huh, that’s it. My boy Sam he is just wired up delicate,” she said.

  Then Lizzie took a great gulp of air, which caused her whole body to shudder.

  “I know how that can be,” Vivi whispered. By this time she was crying too.

  Sidda was crying as well, but not just over Sam Junior.

  Using her fist to wipe back tears, Vivi said, “Sidda, precious one, would you please go find us some Kleenex?”

  When Sidda got back to the table, Vivi was pressing the palms of her hands against her cheeks, and it looked to Sidda like she was trying to hold her face together. Sidda held the box of Kleenex out to Lizzie Mitchell. Even though the woman’s face was wet with tears, she took only one Kleenex, like she thought that was the polite thing to do.

  “You can take as many as you want,” Sidda said. “We have lots.”

  “Thank you,” she said, taking a few more tissues and wiping her eyes.

  Then Sidda offered the box of Kleenex to Vivi, who grabbed a handful.

  Vivi wiped her eyes, which were ringed with eye makeup. Although Vivi had let herself go since returning home, the one thing she remained religious about was her mascara and light-brown eyebrow pencil. Without it her own blonde lashes were so light that she claimed they made her look like an albino.

  Vivi frowned at the tissues, now spotted with mascara she’d cried off. Then she glanced at Lizzie Mitchell’s used Kleenex.

  Holding up her tissues covered in slashes of mascara, Vivi said, “Will you look at this? Will you just simply look at this!”

  Lizzie Mitchell and Sidda stared at the tissues Vivi was holding up as evidence.

  “Every single bit of mascara I put on this morning has ended up on this tissue. Cheap, cheap, cheap! All that mascara I paid good money for has ended up on a Kleenex. And here I am left looking like a hairless dog! And this is not the first time this has happened, let me tell you.”

  She gestured to her eyes, and indeed her lashes and eyebrows had all but disappeared.

  “It should be illegal to sell eye makeup that rubs off with the merest provocation.”

  Vivi paused and pulled another Lucky Strike out of the pack. She tapped it on the table several times. She took her time lighting it, examining the sterling-silver lighter that sat on the table as though seeing it for the first time.

  “I don’t imagine you carry a Beautiere mascara line, do you?” she said.

  Lizzie examined her wadded-up Kleenex. It was moist with her tears, but held no signs of rubbed-off eye makeup. Sidda watched as she reached into her purse and pulled out a cheap plastic compact. Holding it up, she examined her reflection in the small mirror.

  When she looked up, Sidda saw something in Lizzie’s eyes that made her think of a gate opening. Sidda’s head tilted slightly to the side, her lips parted slightly, and she thought: My mother is a kind person.

  Lizzie Mitchell closed her compact, took a deep breath, and opened her sales kit again. She pulled her stool over closer to Vivi’s, and spoke in the voice of a woman who was coming back to life.

  “Yes, ma’am,” Lizzie Mitchell said. “Beautiere has a fine—an elite—line of mascara. We call it our Wand of Beauty. I would be pleased to show it to you. I think you’ll find it a bargain at any price if you purchase it as part of one of Beautiere’s Mixed Gift Packs.”

  Shortly after that first visit by Lizzie Mitchell, Vivi began to get dressed in the mornings. After a week or so, she was still shaky, but she’d agreed to a small dinner party at Teensy’s. When Sidda and the other kids came home from school in the afternoons, they no longer found her still in bed with the door closed. They found her making phone calls to friends and acquaintances, talking up the Beautiere Line, especially the Wand of Beauty—which, when Vivi said it, sounded somewhat like a woman’s name: Wanda Beauty.