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Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Page 28

Rebecca Wells

  Each time Vivi began to cry, she felt guilty for giving up hope. She and Teensy would stand together in the hall by their lockers at school after lunch. Some afternoons they could not bear to walk into history class because the tears were falling too fast. Instead, they sat outside on the grass, and cried. They didn’t want any more history, they’d had enough history for a while. Vivi did not want Jack to be a part of history. She wanted him to eat hamburgers with her at LeMoyne’s Drive-In, she wanted to see him round the corner as she sat in a booth at Bordelon’s drugstore, she wanted to see his eyes light up when she entered the room, she wanted him to hold her and give her back her life.

  For months, Vivi spent Friday and Saturday nights with Teensy, forsaking all offers of dates. Side by side, they would lie in bed and drink Cokes, and, if Genevieve was not near, they would cry. Later, on those evenings, Caro and Necie would drop by, and often, Chick, Teensy’s boyfriend, whose devotion to the Ya-Yas never wavered. No one thought it odd in those days for two young women to lie in bed like that, holding each other in their flannel nightgowns. Holding each other until they could stand up again and walk and talk and maybe start to pretend that their lives had not had a hole blown out of them.

  It was Buggy Abbott who had stepped in to crush the fantasy about Jack, a move that made Vivi at once thankful and resentful for the rest of her life.

  One Saturday night a little over three months after the news of Jack’s death, Buggy had knocked before entering Vivi’s bedroom door. Vivi and Teensy were sprawled on the bed, surrounded by newspapers. It had become a weekend ritual for them to scour not only the Thornton paper but also The Baton Rouge Daily Advocate and The New Orleans Times-Picayune for news of the French Resistance.

  Buggy wore a high-necked gown with a robe tied around it. In her hand was an unlit sanctuary candle. Vivi was surprised to see her. Buggy had rarely entered her daughter’s bedroom.

  “Vivi?” Buggy said.

  “Yes, ma’am?”

  “Yall doing okay in here?”

  Vivi nodded. “Yes, ma’am, we’re fine.”

  “Yall want anything? I saved some peanut-butter fudge for you.”

  “No thank you,” Vivi said. “We just had a Coke.”

  “Look, Vivi,” Teensy said, holding up a page from one of the newspapers. “Here’s something about a railway line being blown up outside Lyon, France. That’s them, Vivi. I know it.”

  Vivi began to read the clipping, concentrating intently.

  “The Lyon French Resistance group is the one that first found Jack,” Teensy explained to Buggy.

  “Shhh—” Vivi said, trying to silence Teensy, who, like Genevieve, did not attempt to hide her beliefs about Jack’s “rescue.”

  Buggy Abbott hesitated in the doorway for a moment before she crossed to the bed and sat on the edge. “Yall keeping real busy with your research, aren’t you?” she asked, awkward.

  “We make headway every day,” Vivi said.

  “There’s a lot to do,” Teensy explained. “Maman says we should put in at least four hours a day on our research.”

  Buggy nodded. She was afraid of what was happening to her daughter, but she did not know what to do. She watched as Vivi studied the article in front of her, marking it with a red pencil, then clipping it out of the newspaper with a pair of manicure scissors.

  “Hand me the Lyon file,” Vivi said to Teensy.

  Teensy reached for a manila envelope, one of the many that Genevieve had procured from the bank to hold their burgeoning files.

  As Vivi bent over the envelope, a strand of hair fell from her ponytail into her face. Just as she was about to push it back, Buggy reached up and did it for her. For just the blink of an eye, Buggy let her hand linger gently against her daughter’s cheek. But it was long enough for Vivi to sense the clumsy tenderness. Looking up, Vivi asked, “What’s the candle for, Mother?”

  “I was wondering,” Buggy said, “if yall might want to pray with me tonight—for just a moment.” Her voice sounded unsure, almost shy.

  Vivi looked at Teensy, who shrugged her shoulders.

  “Okay,” Vivi said. “We’ll pray with you.”

  Reaching into the pocket of her robe, Buggy pulled out matches. She lit the candle, then set it on the bedside table. Kneeling at the side of her daughter’s bed, Buggy began to pray.

  “Blessed Lady,” she said softly, praying in the language of the ancient Mary masses. “Virgin greeted by Gabriel, Light for the Weak, Star in the Darkness, shining with brilliant light, Comforter of the Afflicted, you know the sorrows of all your children. Take our pain into your heart and bless it. Gracious Lady, gentle and sweet, we cry to you for solace. Be with us in our time of sadness. Holy Mother, shining with brilliant ray, remember the soul of Jack Whitman, who has been called to your loving bosom. Remember Newton Jacques Whitman, whom we have loved.”

  With those words, Buggy Abbott pierced Genevieve Whitman’s delusion, which had held her daughter in its grip. The candle flickered beside her daughter’s bed, and its tiny flame released Vivi.

  That night Vivi, who had up to that point thought she knew what suffering was, suffered even more. In her sleep, she let go of Genevieve’s fantasy, and when she woke the next day, it was to a new world in which her loss was real.

  When Vivi and Teensy attempted to confront Genevieve about the implausibility of Jack’s having survived the crash, she would not listen. “Sans aucun doute, without a doubt,” Genevieve muttered, over and over, as if the words were an incantation, a mantra that could make her fantasy come true.

  Vivi remembered all this as she pulled into Teensy’s drive. How could five decades have passed so quickly? How many years went by unnoticed, unembraced?

  French mulberry bushes grew near the brick wall that ringed Teensy and Chick’s huge yard, and rows of thick mondo grass and large camellia bushes edged the circular drive—all plantings put in by Genevieve many years ago.

  Remember the soul of Jack Whitman, Vivi prayed as she reached to open the door of her Miata. Remember Newton Jacques Whitman, whom we have loved.

  Ten minutes later, as Vivi sat on the pool patio with Teensy, she fell into the shorthand of their long friendship. A luxuriant honeysuckle supported by a trellis hung lazily over their heads, while caladiums, impatiens, and elephant ears grew in wild profusion around a fountain from which sprang a stone mermaid. It was an old patio, an old tile pool, and the feeling was one of a meticulous balance of cultivation and wildness.

  “The Sidda thing with the scrapbook has me thinking about Genevieve,” Vivi said.

  Teensy said nothing for a moment, then asked, “ ‘Without a doubt’?”

  “Exactly.” Vivi nodded, comforted by the fact that she was not alone with this memory.

  Arriving with a tray with drinks for the two women, Chick looked at Vivi and Teensy and tried to gauge their mood. “Yall want me to put on a couple of filet mignons?”

  “Give us an hour or so, please, Bébé,” Teensy responded, blowing him a kiss through the air.

  “Sans moi?” he asked, looking at the two old friends.

  “Yep,” Vivi said, giving him a smile. “Sans toi.”

  “Holler if yall need anything, mesdames,” he said, giving a stagy little bow. “I’ll be inside marinating—vegetables, that is.”

  Vivi and Teensy reached for their drinks, then sat in silence. The hissing of lawn sprinklers and the soft slap-slap sound of water as it circulated out of the swimming pool mixed with the growing songs of crickets and the trickling sound from the fountain. Early-evening sunlight hit the pool water as Vivi sipped her bourbon, and Teensy, her gin.

  Amazing how that one phrase “without a doubt” held such meaning. How it recalled Genevieve’s long decline: her inability to accept Jack’s death; the short-wave radio in her bedroom; the middle-of-the-night calls to the White House; the all-night “strategy sessions” to stage Jack’s return. Then finally after the war, the disastrous trip to France, where there was, of course,
no trace of her son. Only devastation, disorientation, displacement. And the years that followed, years when Genevieve did not leave her bedroom, which had become a pharmacopoeia.

  “It’s the things that aren’t in that scrapbook,” Vivi said elliptically. “The little big things. Dog tags.”

  She heard a sharp intake of breath from Teensy.

  “Oh, if there had been anything, Teens,” Vivi continued. “Anything. His dog tags, his boots, the Saint Jude scapular. Anything. Genevieve could have accepted it if there’d only been something for her to touch, some little piece, some stupid tiny object. I have sent my oldest daughter—The Grand Inquisitor—our ‘Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.’ But there is so much I didn’t give her, cannot give her. Cannot give myself.”

  Vivi took a deep breath.

  “I don’t suppose yall have any Goddamn cigarettes around here, do you?” Vivi asked. “I know none of us smoke anymore, but I could use something to gesture with.”

  Teensy walked over to a hutch at the outdoor kitchen end of the patio. She returned with a silver cigarette case, which she opened and offered to Vivi. Vivi took two cigarettes and handed one to Teensy.

  “Shall we light?” Teensy asked.

  “Will Chick find out?” Vivi asked, sounding like a girl.

  “He knows,” Teensy said.

  “Let’s light, then,” Vivi said, and allowed Teensy to light their cigarettes with a box of matches that sat on the glass patio table beside them.

  “Every time I light a cig these days, I say a ‘Hail Mary’ for Caro,” Teensy said.

  Vivi turned to look at her old friend. Teensy was still tiny, with stylishly cut, subtly colored dark hair, with just the right amount of silver peeking through. She wore a pair of red silk pencil-legged pants with a black shell. On her size-five feet were a pair of little black-and-white-striped espadrilles. As she smoked, Vivi could see the sun spots on her friend’s small hands.

  “Maman,” Teensy said, as though the word itself were an incantation. “There is no escape from our mothers. I don’t even want to escape anymore.”

  Gazing out at the pool, then over at the fountain, Vivi thought: Maybe we aren’t meant to escape our mothers. What a Goddamn scary thought.

  She pictured Genevieve wearing a turban, dancing and singing while she cooked crayfish étouffée. Genevieve with that Cajun patois, that laugh of hers, those misbehaving eyes. Genevieve hauling the four Ya-Yas to Marksville for the pirogue races, the hot boudin, the cochons de lait, the thick black café at four-thirty in the morning on the way to the Fisherman’s Mass. Genevieve hauling her out of that hellhole of a boarding school. Vivi Walker’s life would not have been the same without Genevieve Whitman.

  “Sidda wouldn’t be such a worry wart if she’d known Genevieve,” Vivi said.

  “Don’t kid yourself,” Teensy said, “Maman retreated to some bayou in her head long before Sidda saw the light of day.”

  Vivi knew that was true, but still could not help wishing her daughter had known the woman who had been such a beacon. Why were memories flooding in like some internal levee had burst? Was it age? Was it the fight with Sidda?

  As Vivi smoked, she remembered how she’d visit with Genevieve when she was pregnant with Sidda and the twin. Sometimes, on good days, the Ya-Yas would spend whole afternoons with Genevieve in her bedroom. Vivi six months and huge; Teensy, four months, but barely showing; Necie pregnant for the second time, and beginning to put on weight all over; Caro, the biggest of them, fit and strong and big as a horse. The four of them, beached whales, surrounding Genevieve, snacking on sandwiches and Bloody Marys that Shirley brought up on a tray. Genevieve’s boudoir on a good day had the feeling of an intimate if slightly bizarre bistro.

  Genevieve would be propped up, dressed in one of her gorgeous bed jackets, ten thousand pill bottles on her bed table, her thick black hair piled up on her head, her nails perfectly done, surrounded by freesias, her favorite flower. She’d listen to every single detail of the Ya-Yas’ pregnancies, no detail bored her. Then, lapsing into her patois, Genevieve would give them remedies she’d learned growing up on the bayou.

  “To keep the devil away, let the bébé teethe on a necklace of alligator teeth. Show dem spooks who is boss! For teething, take crawfish, rub de chillun’s teeth, will make them cut easy.

  “Always remember,” Genevieve would say to the expectant Ya-Yas: “Sometime the bébé she has to get sick to get well.”

  On bad days, the boudoir lamps weren’t even turned on. Genevieve’s room was kept dark. She wanted no light. The bad days finally stretched to weeks, then to months. Finally, only Teensy was welcomed into her mother’s bedroom.

  One afternoon when Sidda was a little over a month old, Vivi stopped in to show Sidda to Genevieve. It was Vivi’s first trip out after losing the twin, and she was trying to pull herself out of depression. She intended to ask Genevieve to be Sidda’s godmother.

  Caro had driven Vivi and the baby to the Whitman home. When they arrived, Shirley met them at the front door.

  “Miz Vivi, Miz Caro, yall kindly wait in the living room?”

  When Teensy came down the stairs, she looked exhausted. Her swollen body looked like a volleyball had been placed in the waistband of an adolescent girl’s skirt.

  “Maman’s sleeping today,” she said. “I’m sorry. She’s not doing so good.”

  “Is she sleeping,” Caro asked, “or did they give her another shot?”

  “Another shot,” Teensy whispered. She lifted the baby blanket to peek at Sidda sleeping in Vivi’s arms.

  “Lashes to die for.”

  “Like Shep’s,” Vivi said.

  “Little one,” Teensy whispered to the baby. “I don’t think my maman can be your marraine.” Then she folded the blanket back over Sidda’s tiny head. She did it quickly, as if she couldn’t bear to see the baby’s face for another instant.

  “Vivi,” she said, “ask Caro to be the godmother.”

  “Why?” Vivi asked. “It doesn’t matter if Genevieve can’t be at the baptism. I want Genevieve to be—”

  “Don’t argue with me, Vivi,” Teensy said. “Please.”

  “Couldn’t I just show Sidda to Genevieve?” Vivi asked.

  Teensy looked as though she were barely holding on. “I’m sorry, Vivi,” she said.

  Sidda never got to meet Genevieve St. Clair Whitman.

  A month after Sidda’s baptism, Vivi was lying on a green-and-blue-plaid spread on top of the daybed. Sidda lay next to her, sucking on her bottle. It was a moment when she had managed to put the lost twin in God’s hands for a few hours, and cuddle up inside her life, and she was thankful. Shep was in the kitchen, mixing a drink and slicing some cheese to go with crackers. He was the one who took the phone call from Chick.

  Vivi could hear the sound of him talking, but couldn’t make out what he was saying. She was in a sweet, dreamy time with her new baby. My husband is going to bring me appetizers, then broil me a steak, she thought. I look pretty damn good for a woman who has just had a baby.

  “Baby,” Shep said, walking back into the room with her bourbon.

  “ ‘Baby’ yourself,” she said, patting the bed. “Come sit.”

  Vivi wanted her little family curled around her. She was a new mother with a handsome husband and a beautiful and healthy redheaded daughter. She might have lost a child, she might have been doing battles with the demons, but that evening she was in a glow and she knew it. Vivi could feel the bright center spotlight shining on her.

  “Look at this darling girl,” she whispered to Shep. “Just look at her.”

  Vivi took a sip of her drink, then set it on the table next to the day bed. She began to whisper to Sidda. “You have pretty eyes big as plates and a perfect nose and sweet little lips. You have ten yummy toes and ten yummy fingers and pretty little legs. I just want to eat you up.”

  Shep looked at his infant daughter for a moment, then at his wife. He hated to ruin the sweetest moment they’d
had since the twin died.

  “The good French lady has left us, Vivi,” he said softly.

  Vivi wasn’t paying attention to him. She was in Sidda’s sweet, powdery little world. She was holding the bottle to Sidda’s lovely lips. She watched her daughter’s eyes starting to get heavy as she finished the bottle.

  Bending down, Shep started to pick up Sidda. He had slipped one of his hands under her tiny back.

  “Don’t pick her up, yet, Baby Doll,” Vivi said. “Let her drift all the way off, then I’ll burp her and put her to bed.”

  Usually Shep let Vivi tell him what to do with his daughter. He didn’t touch Sidda without Vivi’s instruction or permission. This time, however, he left his hand under Sidda’s back for a moment, hesitating. Then he scooped her up, taking the bottle out of Vivi’s hands.

  “What are you doing, Shep? You want to finish feeding her?”

  Shep stood holding Sidda in one hand at his hip.

  Vivi sat up, still in a good mood, ready to indulge her husband.

  “Vivi, Genevieve has passed over,” he said, watching his wife closely.

  The taste of iron seeped into Vivi’s mouth. She stood up. Strange, she thought. I did not taste iron when the twin died. I have not tasted it since Jack died.

  “What happened?” she asked, not wanting to know.

  Shep looked down at the baby girl in his arms. He did not want to tell his wife what he had to say. “Babe, I’m awful sorry. But I think the alligators got her.”