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Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Page 34

Rebecca Wells

  Thank you from my clumsy heart. You are most dear to me and I am your

  Grateful Vivi

  Sidda lay very still for a moment. Then she carefully tucked all the letters back in the manila envelope, and placed it on the coffee table. Turned over on her stomach, leaned her head over the edge of the sofa so she could see the Ya-Yas.

  “Hey, yall,” she said softly.

  All three women looked up.

  Only then did Sidda start to cry.

  Sobbing, she stood up, with her pillow in her hand, and crossed to the table. Her hair was smashed against her head where she had been lying down. She looked sleepy and sad and lost.

  “I changed my mind,” she said, in between sobs. “Can I please have some more coffee and pecan tarts?”

  “Of course,” Necie said, heading to the kitchen. “I brought eighty-four thousand.”

  Clearing away her game of solitaire, Teensy looked up at Sidda. “Ma Petite Chou,” she said, “come sit. Bring your pillow and come sit by me.”

  “So, Pal,” Caro said, “how’re you doing? Sure you feel like staying up late with the alleged grown-ups?”

  “I want to know the truth,” Sidda said.

  “We don’t deal in truth,” Caro said. “But I’ve got some stories. Will that do?”

  “That’ll do,” said Sidda, as she bit into one of the tarts Necie handed her. “That’ll have to do.”


  Caro closed her eyes for a moment, gathering strength. Then she opened them and began to speak.

  It started just before Mardi Gras. The four of us had all decided to give up drinking for Lent. Necie took it seriously—she was the only one who stayed on the wagon the whole time. I saw the whole thing as a test of will. Teensy amended abstinence to mean every day except Sunday. Then your mother modified it to mean every day except Sunday—or any time at all if we happened to be outside of Garnet Parish.

  Well, Pal, we put a lot of miles on Teensy’s Bentley—driving to Lafayette, Baton Rouge, or even Tioga, just to have a drink. Anything to cross the parish line. Then one weekend your mama and Teensy lit out for Marksville. I would have gone too, but one of the boys had strep throat. They left early that Saturday. Hit a few of the Cajun dance halls, where dancing and drinking beer start at nine o’clock in the morning. They went all day and into the evening. On the way back they put the Bentley in a ditch. Nobody hurt, just the car in a ditch and the two of them too smashed to deal with it. They called Necie to come get them because they were too scared to call Chick or Shep, and they knew I had a sick kid.

  When Necie found them, Vivi and Teensy were at Dupuy’s Lounge eating boudin balls, sipping gin-and-tonics and acting up. This was the second week of Lent. Maybe the third, I don’t know. Lent is a long stretch, Pal, a long desert of a stretch.

  Necie called a tow truck for the Bentley, then drove them back to Thornton.

  The next thing I knew, your mama had gone to some new priest—I’ve blanked out his name. He sent her to Dr. Lowell. A big Knights of Columbus man, had priests referring patients to him right and left. I’d never heard of the man till Vivi got the prescription. Dexamyl. I’ll remember that name until the day I die, half Dexedrine, half Miltown. Shot you up and threw you down. It was supposed to get your mama off alcohol and make her a better Catholic all at the same time.

  Vivi adored those pills, couldn’t stop raving about them. Gave her energy, she said, kept her mind off drinking, no appetite at all, and she could get by on four hours’ sleep. Flying high. Too high.

  Two weeks before Easter she took off on some four-day retreat with that same priest, somewhere in Godforsaken Arkansas. She went cold turkey off bourbon, straight onto pills and penance. It kills me to think I didn’t spot her headed for the rocks. Friends are supposed to act like harbor boats—let you know if you’re off course. But it ain’t always possible, Pal.

  I don’t know what happened at that retreat. Over the years, Vivi’s told me a little. She didn’t know a damn soul there. All Catholic lay women, no nuns, just that Goddamn priest. The place where it was held evidently used to be a small sanitarium for TB patients, can you imagine? She had packed her stash of Dexamyl, her missal, her rosary, one change of clothes, and a lipstick. All-day lectures, prayer, fasting, Communion, plenty of Confession, I’m sure. Stick-your-fingers-in-the-wounds-of-Christ shit. She was going to get pure.

  I am not a psychologist, Pal. I don’t know what fine filament got stretched too tight. I think a lot of it was the Dexamyl. People did not know how bad that drug was back then. Ten times worse than booze.

  Caro stood up from the table and walked to the sliding glass door to look out at the lake. She ran her hands through her short hair and began to cough.

  Sidda was worried. The cough sounded so ragged. “Are you okay, Caro? Can I get you anything?”

  “I don’t suppose we could skip the rest of this tale,” Caro said, “and I could divulge to you my world-famous Ramos Gin Fizz recipe instead?”

  Sidda went to Caro, and put her arms around the older woman’s waist. “This isn’t easy for you, is it?”

  “Nope,” Caro whispered.

  Sidda looked at Teensy and Necie. “Why did yall come?” she asked. “I mean, this is no picnic, is it?”

  “Your maman misses you,” Teensy said, standing and walking over to the sofa, where she kicked off her shoes.

  “We’re like her ambassadors, you know what I’m trying to say?” Necie said, unsure.

  “Did she send you?” Sidda asked.

  “Not in so many words, no,” Teensy said.

  “Then why did you come?” Sidda asked. “Why didn’t she come herself? Why doesn’t she—why hasn’t she told me this story herself?”

  “Because,” Caro said. “That’s all: because.”

  Sidda waited as the older woman walked into the kitchen and returned with a glass of water. Crossing to the easy chair, Caro sat down. The light was minimal, and she took out a pack of matches. In horror, Sidda thought she was about to light a cigarette. Instead, Caro reached for the candle that sat on the table next to the chair. She lit it, then reached into her pocket, pulled out a cigarette, and placed it, unlit, between her lips. From that point forward, she used the cigarette to gesture as she told the story.

  By the time Vivi got back to Pecan Grove, Caro continued, she was convinced—at least this is what she’d pieced together—that the four of you kids had been entered by the devil.

  Caro stopped to look at Sidda, who was still standing near the glass door. “Pal,” she said, “why don’t you come get comfortable? I’m kind of lonely over here.”

  Crossing toward the easy chair, Sidda pulled over several large lounging pillows, and plopped down on the floor beside Caro. Necie went to lie on the sofa with Teensy, their heads at opposite ends. Caro got up and, without speaking, crossed to the table where Sidda had left her feather pillow.

  Handing it to Sidda, Caro smiled. “Here ya go, trooper.

  “I imagine you remember the next part, Sidda,” Caro said, sitting back in the easy chair. “Vivi beat the four of you violently. She struck you repeatedly with a belt while you were naked. By the time I got there, after Willetta had cleaned yall up, the welts were horrible and the four of you were almost hysterical. Willetta and her husband had seen the beating out in the yard and gone over to your house, where they stopped Vivi, and took yall back to their house. Willetta called your grandmother, and your grandmother called me. At your grandmother’s instruction, I went to Willetta’s house first.”

  At that point, Caro paused.

  “Caro?” Teensy said, getting up. “You okay? I worry about you talking this much.”

  Caro put down her unlit cigarette, and pulled her oxygen tank closer to her. Swiftly, without drama, she began to attach the tube that ran from the tank to her nose.

  “Can I do anything, Caro?” Sidda asked. “Can I get you another glass of water?”

  Struggling to keep breathing herself, Sidda went into the k
itchen, where she poured Caro a glass of water. The kitchen was dark, and Sidda could smell the strong coffee on the stove. She laid her cheek down against the cool countertop for a moment and took a deep breath.

  Steady. You have already lived through this.

  Caro took a sip of the water Sidda handed to her, then a swallow of black coffee, and continued her story.

  “Buggy took yall home with her, and I went up to your house. I found Vivi lying on the kitchen floor alone, naked. I thought at first I could reason with her. I thought I could will Vivi to snap out of it. My mistake.

  “I have loved your mother like a sister, loved her like family, loved her as much as I love my children, probably more than I loved my husband. Ever since the day I met her at the concession counter of my father’s movie theater in 1933, wearing a little yellow dress with red tulips on the pockets, buying an Orange Crush. Seeing her on the floor like that wasn’t easy.”

  Caro paused for a moment and rubbed her eyes. Then she continued:

  I took her to the bathroom, put her on the toilet. And she could not remember what to do.

  Pal, I said. Just try to relax and let the water come out.

  Vivi’s body was so tense you could see the veins in her face. That’s when I decided to call Beau Poché, yall’s baby doctor—you probably remember him. I had no idea where your father was. Shep was never home. So I called Beau Poché myself, knowing damn well he was only a pediatrician. He’d known us all for years, though, played trumpet in the band when we were in high school, made countless house calls on every one of our kids. I was not about to call the sons of bitches who called themselves psychiatrists in this town who let us lose Genevieve.

  Beau was at the house within thirty minutes. Vivi was on the hall floor, naked underneath the robe I threw on top of her. She could not tell Beau what year it was. She could not tell him her name. He gave her a shot—some kind of tranquilizer, and she didn’t fight it. A truck pulled into the driveway. I signaled to Beau that I’d go see who it was.

  It was dark by then. I met your father just as he was climbing out of his truck. “Shep,” I said, “Vivi’s sick. She’s cracked up. We’ve got to get her some help.”

  “Where are my children?” he said, angry. “Are they okay?”

  “With Buggy,” I said.

  He turned his back, took a step toward his truck.

  “Don’t you even think about getting back in that truck,” I told him.

  Your father covered his eyes with his hands.

  “Where is Vivi?” he said.

  “Inside with Beau Poché.”

  “You called that man out to my house?”

  “Yes, I did, Shep, and I don’t want to hear one word about it.”

  “She could just be behaving actressy, Caro,” he said. “You know how Vivi can be.”

  When your father walked into the house, he ignored Beau Poché. He spoke to Vivi.

  “Vivi, Babe,” he said, “you look like you could use a good meal. How bout I fix you a little something to eat?”

  Then your father went into the kitchen and fried a pound of bacon. Your mother followed him in there. She sat on the floor by the stove and stared at his feet. I stood there and watched your father fry bacon, slice tomatoes, tear lettuce, and toast bread. I sat at the kitchen counter and watched him get down on the floor next to your mother and try to make her take a bite of the sandwich he’d just made. She could not remember how to chew. The food fell out of her mouth.

  Shep looked up at us sitting there at the counter on those rattan stools. “Can’t either of yall get my wife to take a bite of this bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich?” he asked, tears streaming down his face.

  “No, Shep,” Beau Poché said. “I’m afraid we can’t.”

  Then your daddy picked the bacon off Vivi’s lap and wiped the mayonnaise off her face.

  This must have been what—the fourth Sunday in Lent.

  The next day Chick drove Teensy, Shep, your mama, and me to a private clinic outside New Orleans. Necie took care of yall. It was a long day. At the hospital, we wanted Vivi to sign herself in. Shep did not want her to feel like she was being put away.

  But when the administrator asked Vivi what her name was, she said, “Queen Dancing Creek.”

  The man looked at your father.

  “Ask her one more time,” Shep said.

  The man asked again.

  “Rita Abbott Hayworth,” Vivi said, “love child of H. G. Wells and Sarah Bernhardt.”

  I would have laughed if your mama hadn’t accompanied that comment by picking up a paperweight from the administrator’s desk, and throwing it so it barely missed his head. Right away, Chick put his arms around Vivi like he was hugging her. Really, he was trying to constrain her because we had no idea what she would do next.

  “I’m afraid if your wife cannot give me her legal name,” the man said, “this will have to be an involuntary commitment.”

  Your father stepped up to the man. “Listen to me, Nimrod,” he said. “I’m paying the bill in this sonavabitch joint, and if my wife wants to sign herself in as the President of the Goddamn United States, that’s how you’ll do it, you hear me? Her name is Rita Abbott Hayworth. My wife signs in however she wants, and then you take Goddamn good care of her. She is a precious woman. Am I clear?”

  Man, was he clear.

  Your father kissed Vivi on the forehead before we left her. Then he cried all the way to the Monteleone Hotel, got smashed in silence, and passed out before we even ordered dinner.

  There are no records of Vivi Walker’s ever having checked into a psychiatric clinic for three months. No one ever knew, except us. When Vivi got home three months later, she made it clear that she did not want anyone to know.

  When your mama got home she’d stopped hallucinating. She could speak coherently again. She’d lost tons of weight. The only thing she would eat at first was peaches.

  We tried to get her to talk about her breakdown, but she would not allow it. The most she would say is “I dropped my basket.” That is the phrase she made up to refer to the whole episode.

  Only once, when Vivi and I were alone one night, years later, at Spring Creek, did she talk about it. It was late and we’d been drinking gin. She made me describe to her exactly how I found the four of you kids that Sunday afternoon. She made me tell her everything—every single mark on each one of your bodies. She watched my every expression, my every eye movement, waiting for me to judge her. But I didn’t. And I won’t.

  What I regret the most is that none of us ever talked with you, Sidda—or Little Shep, Lulu, or Baylor. We hid behind some archaic belief that you do not interfere with another person’s children.

  Caro looked at Sidda in silence for a moment. “Here’s what I want you to know: not one bit of this is your fault. Something just cracked in Vivi. Maybe people are more like the earth than we know. Maybe they have fault lines that sooner or later are going to split open under pressure.

  “And, yes, your mother was an alcoholic. Is an alcoholic. I admit it. I know that has been hard for you, Sidda. I am not denying one bit of it.

  “But of all the loony, imperfect souls you’ll ever meet, my friend, Vivi Abbott Walker is one of the most luminous. When she dies, the remaining three of us will ache like part of our body has been cut off.”

  Caro looked at Teensy and Necie, and gave a little laugh. “We’re surviving members of a secret tribe, Pal.”

  Then, focusing her gaze on Sidda, Caro said, “You’ve got Ya-Ya blood, Siddalee. Whether you like it or not. And sure, it’s tainted. But what the hell in life isn’t?”

  Caro leaned back in the easy chair and let out a sigh. No one spoke for a while. Then Sidda unfolded from her position on the floor and walked to the glass door. She slid it open and stepped out onto the deck. The heat of the summer day had been replaced by a cool Northwest night. She looked out across the lake, and it occurred to her that she could walk down the steps of the deck and onto the lake path, w
alk straight out into the night and never return.

  She looked back into the cabin, where the three women remained in their same positions. Inside, the candle still burned. Hueylene waited at the door with her head cocked to one side, trying to keep an eye on all of them.

  Sidda felt very young and very old at once as she watched Caro, then Teensy, then Necie slowly rise from their spots and walk toward her out on the deck, Caro leaning on Necie’s arm. She stood quietly as the three women put their arms around her. She breathed in their scents, the lake air, the scent of the towering old trees. She breathed in the vast world of suffering and pure, dark love, and as she did, a well of compassion began to flow in her. The moon was dropping behind the ridge of trees on the opposite side of the lake; something caught Sidda’s attention. It was the tiny key she’d hung in the window, glowing in the fading moonlight.


  It was early afternoon when Sidda began to stir from her sleep on the sofa. She had collapsed there the night before, after giving the Ya-Yas her bedroom. Someone was whistling “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and at first she thought she was dreaming. She let her body sink down a little deeper into the covers. The air was warm and the scent of cedar and lilies drifted in through the open deck door. The whistling floated in and out of Sidda’s dreams before she realized that there was only one person in the world who could whistle “When You Wish Upon a Star” with all its wonderful Walt Disney intricacies.

  Hueylene smelled Connor before Sidda saw him. The cocker ran to the deck door, her barks quickly turning to happy whines of adoring welcome. Sidda flung the covers back and stood up.

  When she saw Connor standing on the deck rubbing Hueylene on the belly, her heart gave a sudden lurch. She paused for a moment and pressed her hand over her heart to quiet it. It was kicking so hard she thought for a moment she might be having a heart attack. Then she remembered that very thing used to happen all the time when she was a lovesick teenager. But now that she was forty, the power of the response made it hard for her to stay standing. She took a deep breath. Then, clad only in a baggy T-shirt, she ran across the room, through the open door, and out onto the deck, where she jumped up onto Connor, her bare legs wrapping around his waist, her hands at his neck. Connor cupped her naked butt, spun her around in the air, and they began to kiss.