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Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Page 36

Rebecca Wells

  There had been all kinds of publicity about the shopping center’s grand opening. Billboards, radio ads, and a television ad that ran for weeks advertised it as “Cenla’s Entry into the Twentieth Century!” Of course, the unspoken subtext was integration: the coloreds were trying to sit at what was supposed to be our counter at the downtown Walgreen’s, they were trying to ruin our downtown. Come on out to the shopping center, where things are still white!

  For the grand opening ceremonies they were offering free elephant rides to every white kid in Garnet Parish. Promoted as “Lawanda the Magnificent, Straight from the Wilds of Darkest Africa,” the elephant’s picture had been plastered all over Thornton. I had been thinking, dreaming, reading, and talking about elephants for weeks, and when the day finally came for the grand opening, I was beside myself.

  The Ya-Yas, with all sixteen of us kids in tow, arrived early at the new shopping center and set up a little tailgate party in the parking lot—Cokes, cocktails, snacks. It was the biggest parking lot I’d ever seen. I had to blink and rub my eyes; I was disoriented to see stores and pavement where all my life there had been nothing but cotton. I’d never seen a field disappear before. I didn’t know such a thing could happen. I thought a field was forever. At that age I thought that everything was forever.

  When we arrived, the Thornton High School band was playing and there were teenage girls tap dancing on a stage in front of the brand-new Walgreen’s. At a table, a lady straight off The Price Is Right gave each one of us a little key just like the one I have in my hand.

  Sidda held up the key so Connor could see it.

  “It used to hang from a key chain that had a blue plastic elephant attached. The elephant had a number stamped on it that indicated your place in line for a ride.”

  “Vivi Dahlin send that?” Connor asked.

  “Vivi Dahlin sent this key,” Sidda said.

  She took another sip of champagne and leaned back in her chair. She could feel the generosity of Connor’s listening.

  I will never forget my first glimpse of Lawanda. She was an enormous, magnificent beast, her height and her bulk in perfect proportion. There was a surprising grace to every element of the animal. Feet big as basketballs. Majestic jutting brow, eyes big as platters with foot-long lashes. Ears big as card tables, and feet so big her toenails looked like dinner plates. When her ears fluttered, I could feel the air move. Of course, I’ve no idea of her actual size—I was seeing all this from a seven-year-old’s perspective.

  In typical fashion, Mama and the Ya-Yas were the only mothers who insisted they be allowed to ride on Lawanda, along with their children. They weren’t worried about our safety. They just didn’t want to miss an opportunity to ride an elephant.

  When it was our turn, we climbed a few steps up onto a wooden platform that had been set up so that kids could be helped up onto Lawanda’s back. Mama stood at my side, holding my little brother Baylor’s hand. He must have been around four. I remember Mama had him dressed in a little red-and-white striped shirt, with a small straw hat. Of course, she’d dressed all four of us in her idea of elephant-riding outfits.

  “Siddo Kiddo!” Mama said. “It’s your turn now. Climb on.”

  I stared at Lawanda, whose huge back held Lulu, Little Shep, and Baylor. I don’t know what happened, but I just froze.

  “Let’s go, Buddy,” Mama repeated.

  The elephant handler’s assistant reached out to help me onto Lawanda. But I was paralyzed.

  “Sidda Dahlin,” Mama said, “don’t be a party pooper. Climb on Lawanda with the rest of us.”

  Sidda took another sip of champagne. “Need I tell you that being a party pooper is a cardinal sin in the Church of Vivi? It’s the eleventh commandment, which Moses forgot to bring down the mountain: Thou Shalt Not Be a Party Pooper.”

  Giving Hueylene a pat on the forehead, Sidda continued.

  “I can’t, Mama,” I whispered. “I’m too scared.”

  “Will you be all right?” Mama asked.

  “Yes, ma’am,” I whispered, my head hanging in humiliation.

  “All right then,” she said, and she climbed onto Lawanda’s back along with my three siblings.

  With each step of Lawanda’s enormous feet, my terror grew. They will all be killed, I thought. Lawanda will throw them off her back, and stomp them to death. She will kill them like ants, then smear their bodies like ketchup on the fresh blacktop.

  I climbed down from the platform, but once back in the crowd, I couldn’t find the Ya-Yas anywhere. It was too crowded. Everywhere I turned, there were strangers, and they were all taller than I was. It was the first time in my small-town life that I’d been in a crowd and not been able to find a single face I knew.

  I worked my way to the edge of the crowd, and stood there. I could not spot Lawanda and my family, no matter how high I stood on tiptoe. I was hotter than I’d ever been in my life. The blacktop parking lot was bubbling, it was such a scorcher.

  I pressed my elephant key chain into my palm and went looking for Mama’s T-Bird. I should have ridden that elephant, I told myself. I would rather die with Mama than be safe on the ground without her. If I lose Baylor and Little Shep, and Lulu, I’ll be sad. If I lose Mama, I will die.

  I walked through rows and rows of cars looking for the red bandanna on Mama’s antenna. “Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, won’t you please look around? Something has been lost and must be found.” I said the prayer over and over till I found the T-Bird.

  The metal door handle was so hot it hurt to open it. Inside, even though the windows had been rolled down, it was so hot I almost swooned. I grabbed the beach towel Mama kept in the car and spread it across the front seat so I could sit down in the driver’s seat. I turned the wheel back and forth and pretended to be my mother. I blew the horn; turned on the radio. I pretended to light a cigarette. Then I slammed on the brakes and yelled, “Goddamn it to hell! Get out of my way!”

  I could not stop my morbid thoughts. What will I do when they tell me Mama is dead? How will I find Daddy? Will the Ya-Yas adopt me?

  Closing my eyes, I sent messages to Lawanda. Don’t do it, Lawanda. Please. Don’t kill my mother.

  I smelled Mama before I saw her. I had been dozing in the driver’s seat, and what woke me was her scent. I recognized it right away. Her personality smell, Coppertone, and the sun on her skin, and somewhere underneath, her Jergen’s lotion and her Hovet perfume. I opened my eyes, and her hand was on my shoulder. She was standing just outside the car.

  I jumped out of the car and buried my head against her thigh. “You’re not dead, Mama! You’re not dead!”

  She lifted my hair up and blew on the back of my neck.

  “Have they been spreading rumors again of my untimely passing?” she asked, laughing. Then she reached into the ice chest to pull out a beer and a cold Coke.

  “Dahlin,” she said, gently pressing the cold Coke bottle against the back of my neck, “you missed the ride of a lifetime!”

  On the way home, with the Ya-Yas following behind us, caravan-style, Mama declared, “I don’t care if they build a Saks Fifth Avenue there, Lawanda is the most fun I will ever have at that shopping center! They should have Lawanda every day—instead of that ridiculous Singer Sewing Center for the 4-H crowd.”

  “Lawanda is leaving,” Little Shep said. “Lawanda only came here for one day.”

  “Lawanda the Magnificent is a busy elephant,” Mama said.

  “Will Lawanda know me if I ever see her again?” Lulu asked.

  Mama thought for a minute, then said, “The question is: Will you know Lawanda?!”

  I was sitting in the front passenger seat holding Baylor in my lap. Suddenly I became overwrought at what I had missed. I had looked into Lawanda’s huge eyes and she had looked back. I had sent her messages not to kill Mama and she had heard me. Lawanda had offered me the chance to climb onto her broad back, and I turned it down.

  I burst into tears.

  “Sidda,” Mama aske
d, “what on earth is wrong with you?”

  “I don’t feel good,” I mumbled. I didn’t want to tell her why I was crying. Not in front of the others, who might make fun of me for chickening out.

  Mama handed me a Kleenex from her purse, then reached over and felt my forehead: “I don’t feel any fever.”

  I continued to cry uncontrollably. I pushed Baylor out of my lap and made him crawl into the crowded backseat of the T-Bird with the others.

  When we got to Pecan Grove, the other kids scrambled out into the yard, pretending to be elephants. Mama got out of the car, but I stayed in my seat. I stretched the top of my sunsuit out and covered my face with it. I could feel the tears dropping down on my hot belly.

  “Do not try my patience, Buddy,” Mama said. “Either tell me what is wrong or forget it.”

  “I want to ride Lawanda,” I mumbled into my sunsuit.

  Mama leaned closer to me. “Get your head out of your sunsuit and speak up. You’ll never get anything in life if you mumble like that.”

  I lifted my head and looked up at Mama. I could see my face reflected in her sunglasses.

  “I will die if I don’t get to ride Lawanda,” I said.

  “Why didn’t you ride when it was your turn?” Mama asked.

  “I don’t know. I got scared.”

  “What spooked you, Dahlin?” she asked, sitting down on the grass beside the driveway.

  “I looked at Lawanda and I got scared and then yall left and I thought you were going to be trampled to death.”

  “Ah,” Mama said, “the alligators can get you at any age, Buddy. But the worst thing you can do is freeze. You understand what I’m saying?”

  “Yes, ma’am,” I said.

  “So,” she said, “you absolutely must ride Lawanda. Is that it?”

  I nodded.

  “You’ll never be able to live with yourself if you don’t. Is that it?”

  “Yes, ma’am,” I said, “that is exactly it.” I felt an enormous relief that she could read my mind. I stopped crying.

  “Okay,” Mama said, reaching into the car to blow the horn. “Time to implement Plan 27-B.”

  Caro, who’d gone into the house with the other Ya- Yas, stuck her head out the door. “What’s up, Pal?”

  “Sidda and I have to see a man about an e-l-e-p-h-a-n-t,” Mama called back. “We’ll be back later. There’s shrimp in the fridge, vodka in the freezer, and Oreos in the cookie jar. My house is your house.”

  I climbed into the car next to my mother and we roared off, in the direction of Lawanda.

  The parking lot was almost empty. The elephant keeper was hosing down Lawanda’s legs, and the lady assistant was pitching hay to a pile in front of the elephant. I stood transfixed as I watched Lawanda lower her trunk, curl it around some hay and plop it in her mouth.

  “Hello, sir!” Mama said. “I know you’ve had a long day and must be utterly exhausted. But could you possibly consider being so kind as to give my little girl a ride?”

  He checked something on Lawanda’s huge foot. “Nope,” he said.

  Mama stepped in a little closer. “Please, you must. She panicked when it was her turn and now she’s just dying to ride.”

  “Too bad,” he said.

  I looked at Lawanda’s feet. She had pieces of blacktop stuck between her toes.

  “Just one short ride?” Mama said. “Of course, I’d be happy to pay you. Hold on just a second, and I’ll be right back.”

  Mama ran back to the car and returned with her purse. She rummaged through it until she found her wallet.

  “Here you go,” she said. “I can pay you two dollars and seventy-two cents.”

  “No way,” the man said. “Cost you more than that. The girl is tired. We have to drive all the way to Hot Springs, Arkansas, tonight.”

  He called Lawanda a girl.

  Mama tore through her wallet, looking for more cash, but all she had were Daddy’s charge cards. The entire time I was growing up, my mother never had a checking account of her own. She was completely dependent on my father’s numerous charge accounts and whatever money he felt like giving her.

  “I don’t suppose you’d consider charging it to my husband, would you?” Mama said, joking. “How about Green Stamps?”

  “I got work to do,” the man said.

  I was devastated.

  “Will you wait long enough for me to come back with some more money?” Mama asked.

  “Depends on how long that is,” he said.

  “Give us five minutes,” Mama said.

  We jumped back in the T-Bird and sped over to Johnson’s Esso, at the edge of the shopping center. It was where we always got gas, one of the many places where Mama simply said, “Charge it to Shep, Dahlin.”

  Mama pulled right up next to the station office, where Mr. Lyle Johnson sat at his desk, a girlie calendar hanging on the wall above him.

  “I need some quick cash, Lyle,” Mama said. “Would you just charge five dollars to Shep’s account and give it to me?”

  Mr. Lyle picked up a windshield wiper off his desk and started fooling with it. He wouldn’t look at Mama.

  “I’m sorry, Miz Vivi,” he said, “I can’t do that.”

  “And why in the world not?” Mama said. “You’ve done it countless times before.”

  “Shep done come in here two days ago,” he said, “and told me I can give you all the gas and service you want, but I can’t give you no more cash.”

  For a minute I thought Mama was going to hit the man. She bit on her bottom lip and looked out the window for a second.

  Then she turned back to Lyle Johnson and acted like she had just discovered he was actually Paul Newman.

  “Oh, Lyle,” she said, “be a big sweetheart and just do it for me. I’d be ever so grateful.”

  “Sorry,” he said. “Shep said just gas, no cash.”

  Mama started to leave. Her face was red and I thought she might start crying. She didn’t though. She turned back around, and in one of the deepest voices I’d ever heard her use, she said: “Listen to me, Lyle: I need five Goddamn dollars right this instant. I need it for my daughter.”

  “I’m sorry,” he said. “I take my orders from Shep. He’s the one that pays the bills.”

  I could see my mother’s humiliation. It mixed with my own embarrassment and disappointment. I wanted to kick Lyle Johnson for the way he treated her. And I wanted to yell at my mother because she didn’t have cash in her pocket like my daddy.

  We stepped out of Lyle’s office and went and stood by the T-Bird.

  “I guess we have to give up,” I said.

  Mama looked at me and squinted her eyes as she watched a white Galaxy sedan pull up to a gas pump. “Don’t let me ever hear you utter those words again,” she said.

  She took my hand and walked me over to the Galaxy.

  “Good evening,” Mama said to the lady.

  “Evening,” the lady said.

  The woman was rather large, and she was wearing a man’s workshirt that was raveled where the sleeves had been cut off. Her dashboard was crammed with matchbooks, a fly swatter, and a bunch of candy wrappers.

  “I’ve got a proposition for you, Dahlin,” Mama said.

  The lady gave Mama a look. “Look, hon,” she said, “you’re not a kook, are you?”

  “Absolutely not!” Mama said, laughing. “Listen, you’re paying with cash, right?”

  “That’s right.”

  “How much gas are you planning to buy?”

  “Four dollars’ worth,” the woman said, and reached into her shirt pocket.

  “Tell you what,” Mama said. “Let me put five dollars’ worth on my husband’s charge account and you pay me the cash. What do you say?”

  The woman looked at us for a moment, then said, “Well, I don’t see what harm that can do.”

  “You are an angel from God,” Mama said.

  “I don’t know about that,” the woman said.

  Mama made Lyle Johnson h
imself pump the gas. When she signed for the woman’s gasoline, she said, “Lyle, I’m looking forward to the day when you have to ask me for a favor.”

  Mama winked at me, and I winked back. Then we climbed back into the T-Bird with our cash money and sped back to Lawanda.

  “Monsieur Elephant Keeper!” Mama said. “We have returned! With cash on the barrel head!”

  The man laughed. “How much you got?”

  “Four big ones,” Mama said, squeezing my hand to let me know she was bargaining.

  “Forget it,” the man said.

  “Make it four and a half,” she said.

  “Four and a half,” I repeated.

  The man smiled at her. My mother smiled back.

  “Six,” the man said.

  “Highway robbery!” Mama said, and started to walk away.

  “Oh, all right,” the man said. “Five and a half.”

  “You got yourself a deal, Mister!” Mama said.

  Mama and I climbed onto Lawanda’s magnificent back and greeted the animal. “Good evening, Lovely Lawanda,” Mama said. “You’re more splendid than ever.”

  “Good evening, Magnificent One, oh Lovely Lawanda,” I said. “Thank you for waiting for us.”

  My arms circled around my mother’s waist, and in the pink-orange light of a summer twilight we set out across the parking lot. The elephant keeper walked beside us, a pole in his hand. Soft evening light shone on my mother’s freckled skin, and on Lawanda’s flat gray hide, with its thousand wrinkles. As Lawanda lumbered in her slow, undulating walk, it felt like soft cushions were tied to her basketball feet, so quiet and soft was each step. For an animal that massive to move so gracefully seemed miraculous. She had the power to destroy us with a flick of her trunk. Instead, she let us climb on her beautiful, tired back and ride.

  “Siddalee,” Mama said, “close your eyes, just for a minute.” Then, in her most magical high-priestess-European-queen-gypsy-fortune-teller voice, Mama began to speak.