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Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Page 38

Rebecca Wells

  Clearly, her parents did not recognize their unfamiliar rental car. Taking a deep breath, she said a prayer to the Holy Lady and her band of Louisiana angels, then Sidda started blowing the horn.

  “Hold my hand and tell me I’m not insane,” Sidda whispered to Connor.

  “You’re not insane,” he said, “and I love you.”

  As Sidda watched her mother rise from the swing and walk toward the car, she noticed how Vivi moved more slowly than she remembered. Her mother seemed to have shrunk a little in height, but other than that, she looked positively robust. With each step Vivi took, Sidda’s heart beat faster.

  When Vivi reached the car, Sidda rolled down the window. “It’s me, Mama.” Her voice sounded foreign. She tried not to feel five years old. She tried to feel at least eleven.

  As Vivi leaned her head into the car, Sidda could smell bourbon on her breath, mixed with the painfully familiar Vivi scent.

  “Sidda?” Vivi asked, unbelieving. “Is that really you?”

  Sidda was relieved to hear that her mother was not drunk, only lightly tipsy.

  “Yes, ma’am,” Sidda said, “it’s me.”

  Vivi didn’t respond for a moment. Sidda wondered if she would turn and walk away.

  After a beat or two, Vivi put her fingers in her mouth, and let rip one of her famous Ya-Ya whistles. “You crazy fool! What in the world are you doing all the way down here?”

  “I came for your birthday,” Sidda said. “I decided to take my chances.”

  “Holy Mother of Pearl!” Vivi said, then turned to Shep and the other guest, “Would yall believe it?! It’s Siddalee! It’s my oldest child!”

  Sidda stepped out of the car and into her mother’s arms. “Happy Birthday, Mama,” she whispered. They embraced for an instant before Vivi’s body stiffened and pulled away.

  “I can’t believe it!” Vivi said, nervous. “You nut! I didn’t think you’d really come!” Leaving Sidda, she crossed to the car’s passenger side, and peeked in.

  “Who are you?”

  “I’m Connor McGill, Mrs. Walker,” he said, and gave her a slow grin.

  The minute Connor smiled, Vivi gasped, and stepped back from the car, momentarily shaken.

  Sidda held her breath.

  Stepping back to the car window, Vivi said, “Gloriosko-Zero! I do not believe it! What are you doing just sitting there, Dahlin? Get out of this car and let me see you!”

  Folding his long legs out of the car, Connor stood next to Vivi, who appeared absolutely tiny next to him. As he stood there, relaxed, open, Vivi surveyed him from head to toe. The whole time she studied him, she kept one hand clasped to her chest, like she was trying to keep her heart in place. Sidda had absolutely no idea what her mother might say or do next.

  “Oh,” is all Vivi said at first. “Oh,” she said a second time, in a small, young voice.

  Then she wrapped her arms around her waist, which was not a gesture Sidda could recall ever seeing her mother make. Vivi was silent for so long that Sidda wondered if she were experiencing pain.

  Finally, almost abruptly, Vivi shifted her hands to her hips. “Sidda,” she said, “for God’s sake, why didn’t you tell me Connor looked exactly like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?”

  Connor laughed.

  “My, my,” Vivi said, as she extended her hand to her daughter’s lover. “I have always adored tall men.”

  Connor then completely shocked Sidda by refusing to shake her mother’s hand. Instead he kissed it. He lowered his lips to Vivi’s hand and kissed it. Sidda almost fell on the ground.

  “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Mrs. Walker,” he said.

  “Oh,” Vivi said, “please call me Vivi, or you’ll make me feel terribly old.”

  “You are old, Babe,” Shep Walker said, stepping over to the car.

  “Oh, shut up,” Vivi said, laughing. “Don’t give away my secrets. Shep, this is Connor McGill. Connor, meet my first husband,” she said playfully, making it sound like she’d had several.

  “Shep Walker,” Sidda’s father said, extending his hand to Connor.

  “Connor McGill, sir,” Connor said. “A pleasure to meet you.”

  For a moment, Sidda was left out of the triangle as her mother wrapped up the introductions between the two men. She stood to the side as she witnessed her mother in her favorite two-men-to-one-Vivi ratio in the old time-honored sport of competitive flirting. Sidda watched her father as he waited for a sign from Vivi that it was all right to welcome his daughter.

  “Lucky yall made it down here with that old storm that was messing around,” Shep said.

  “The wind and rain in Houston were pretty bad,” Connor said.

  “That’s why we’re late,” Sidda said.

  “Storm was heading our way,” Shep said. “Sure glad it changed its mind and headed out into the Gulf.”

  “The grand old Gulf of Mexico,” Vivi said, linking her arm in Connor’s. “It’s absorbed many storms. Do you know the Gulf, Connor?”

  “No,” Connor said, “I don’t. But Sidda has sure talked about it.”

  After Connor’s subtle refusal to continue excluding Sidda, Vivi turned to her husband and said, “Shep, you remember Sidda, don’t you? Our child with the national-media connections.”

  Sidda and her father stepped toward each other at the same moment. Hugging his daughter tightly and quickly, Shep whispered in her ear, “Missed you, Babe, missed you.”

  Sidda was aware of how her mother policed their hug. I’ve got to stay alert, Sidda thought. Mama is like a hurricane. Same ferocity, same beauty. And you never know where she’ll strike down.

  “Beautiful place you have here, Mr. Walker,” Connor said.

  “You’ll have to come back in the daylight,” Shep said, relieved. “I got me some surprises out in that field. Along with my rice and crayfish, of course.”

  “Gadzooks!” Vivi said, “I’ve utterly forgotten my guests! My manners are going to hell in my dotage!”

  “Dahlin, come over here right this minute!” she called out to the person they’d been chatting with when Connor and Sidda arrived.

  A small wiry man of around seventy stepped toward the car. He was wearing a plaid bow tie and a finely tailored shirt, looking a little like a cross between an aging horse jockey and Mr. Peepers. “Sidda Bébé,” he said, and without hesitation gave her a long, warm hug. “Teensy was right. You look ravishing.”

  “Chick,” Sidda said, “it’s wonderful to see you.”

  “You must be Connor,” Chick said, giving him a kiss on the cheek in the European fashion. “I’m La Teensy’s lesser half. She raved about you. Welcome to Thornton, where the sin-loving Southern half of the state meets the atonement-hungry North.”

  Putting his arms around Sidda again, Chick looked at her face. “And the nose looks terrific.”

  “The nose?” Connor said.

  “She took half of that little upturned beauty off on our diving board doing her first cut-away,” Chick explained. “Thrilled to see it grew back.”

  It felt luxurious to have Chick’s arms around her. The smoking bunny, she thought, as she remembered the Easter he and Teensy helped keep her family pasted together.

  “You darling man,” she said to him, smiling. “Where is Teensy? Where are all the Ya-Yas?”

  “La Teens needed her beauty rest,” Chick said. “Necie and Caro followed suit. I’m the last of the red hots, chère, and I’m not red hot for long. About time for me to vamoose. I’ve probably worn out my welcome as it is.”

  “Nevah,” Vivi said, “you know that.”

  “Terrific party,” Chick said, stepping away from Sidda to give Vivi a kiss. “Happy Birthday again, Viv-o. Impossible to believe you’re thirty-nine. Gives new definition to the word ‘timeless.’ ”

  Vivi laughed and kissed him again.

  “Night, Chick,” Shep said, putting his arm around the smaller man’s shoulders. “Thanks for all your help.”

�Bon soir, Sidda, Connor,” Chick said, heading toward an immaculately restored Bentley. “Sidda, please don’t snitch and tell your amoureux that I’m a faux Cajun. I can’t help if I only married into majesty.”

  As Chick was driving off, Shep said, “I believe I’ll turn in. I’m not good for much after ten P.M. these days.”

  “I’m shocked you lasted this long,” Vivi said.

  “Little bird told me we might have a surprise tonight,” he said, giving Sidda an almost indiscernible wink. “You know how Ya-Yas can talk.”

  Sidda gave her father a quick peck on the cheek. “Goodnight, Daddy,” she said. “Love you.”

  “Love you, Butter Bean,” he said. “Love you bunches.”

  * * *

  As Shep walked back to the house, Sidda became aware of raucous laughter coming from somewhere behind the house. “Who’s that? Are there still guests out back?”

  “Our Lady of Pearl,” Vivi said, “I almost forgot about them. That’s your Uncle Pete and the boys out on the dock. They have been back there playing bourrée for God knows how long.”

  “Bourrée?” Connor asked, his eyes opening wide.

  “But, of course,” Vivi Walker said, raising her eyebrows.

  She led them in the direction of the bayou. “Do you play, Connor?”

  “Oh, no, ma’am,” Connor said.

  It floored Sidda to hear Connor say, “No, ma’am.” She knew those words had never crossed his Yankee lips before.

  “Sidda’s only told me about bourrée,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to sit in on a game.”

  “Connor’s an ace poker player, Mama,” Sidda said. “He has regular poker nights in New York, Maine, and Seattle—every theater he designs for, he’s got a group of poker buddies.”

  Sidda knew that Vivi Walker automatically liked anybody who played cards. It didn’t matter if they were liars or embezzlers or Republicans. If they played a decent hand, they were okay by Vivi.

  “What in the world could Sidda tell you about bourrée?” Vivi asked. “She’s never played in her life.”

  “You’re right, Mama,” Sidda said. “I told Connor what a crackerjack bourrée player you are.”

  “Said you were one of the best in the state,” Connor said.

  Vivi stopped for a moment and looked first at Connor and then at Sidda. “Yall are trying to please me,” she said, giving them a wide, grateful grin. “Okay, I’m easy.”

  It made Sidda want to cry when she saw how much this small effort delighted her mother.

  “I am thoroughly impressed that you have taken up with a card-playing man, Siddalee,” Vivi said as she continued walking. “I shall look forward to taking his hard-earned money away from him sometime in the near future.”

  Vivi led Connor and Sidda back to a little dock that extended out over the bayou behind the Walker home. On the dock sat a card table and two old floor lamps, from which ran a long orange extension cord that disappeared in the direction of a small playhouse, where Sidda used to stage her tea parties. A small camp stool that held a platter of food was positioned between the lamps. On folding chairs around the table sat Sidda’s brothers, Baylor and Little Shep, her mother’s brother, Pete, and her cousin, John Henry Abbott. Irma Thomas was singing the blues from a portable CD player positioned next to a cooler. Spanish moss hung like wild witch hair from the trees that leaned out over the bayou.

  Ain’t no doubt, Sidda thought: I’m right smack in the heart of Louisiana. She wanted to lift the tableau up, set it down on a stage, and say: This is where I come from. But this wasn’t a scene she could direct. She was in the middle of one sweet, messy, unpredictable improvisation.

  When the four card players spotted Sidda, each man’s jaw dropped. Sidda knew exactly what they were thinking: hold on to your seat—Vivi and Sidda in the same state. If they’d been wearing holsters, their hands would have been on their pistols.

  Sidda knew the scenes they’d had to witness down there in the thick of things: Baylor refusing to represent Vivi in a lawsuit against Sidda. Vivi’s letters, sent certified mail to everyone in the extended family, announcing that she had disowned her oldest daughter. Vivi’s highly publicized (in Thornton) firing of the lawyer who’d represented the Walkers for decades because he dared advise her to think it over before she cut Sidda out of her will. Vivi’s monthlong attempt to reach Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times, to give him a piece of her mind. Vivi’s wild attempt to force the Garnet Parish Library to burn their issue—and the microfiche—of The New York Times that carried the offending article. Then Vivi’s desperate cancellation of her library card when they refused. And of course her delight in the subterfuge when she later reapplied for a card under an assumed name. Baylor had kept Sidda informed of all this, hoping to make her laugh at the small-town drama, but it had only broken her orphaned heart.

  Now, as she looked at her four male relatives, she did not blame them for hesitating before they spoke.

  Baylor was the first to break their standstill. He made the Sign of the Cross, then slapped his hand of cards down on the table and sauntered over to Sidda. Once he reached her, he picked her up in the air, swung her around, and pretended he was about to throw her into the bayou.

  “Go ahead!” the other bourrée players yelled. “Do it! She’s been dry too long! She needs a bayou baptism!”

  “Don’t you dare!” Sidda hollered, delighted.

  At the last minute, Baylor stopped short. Instead, he set her feet back on the ground and gave her a bear hug. “What is this, you little sneak! How’d you ever get into Hooterville without me, the grand gatekeeper, knowing? I thought they confiscated your passport.”

  “She’s a sly one,” Vivi said.

  Turning to Little Shep, who had not yet risen from the card table, Sidda said in Pig Latin, “Eyhay, Epshay!”

  “Come over here, big sister,” he said, “and gimme a hug.

  “Thought we’d never see you again,” Little Shep said as he stood and hugged Sidda with all his nearly two hundred pounds.

  “God, you’re beautiful!” he said, looking at her. He stroked her hair. “Your hair, your skin. How come you look so good?”

  “Luck? Love?” Sidda said. “A nearsighted little brother?”

  Little Shep laughed. “No, I mean it. Women down here don’t stay looking as good as you, Sidda.”

  “I beg your big fat pardon,” Vivi said.

  “No, Mama,” Little Shep said, “I mean the ones in my age group.”

  “Better stop while you’re ahead, son,” Uncle Pete said.

  “How you been, Shep?” Sidda asked.

  “Can’t complain, Sis,” he said. “Playing the hand I been dealt. Sorry I never wrote you back. You know how life is, huh?”

  “Sidda,” Uncle Pete said, stepping over to give her a hug. “Glad to see you home. It’s been too long.”

  Immediately after hugging Sidda, Pete protectively put his arms around Vivi’s shoulders.

  “Birthday Girl,” he said with fondness. “How’s my little Stinky doing?”

  Laughing, Vivi held her brother’s hand to her heart. “This just might turn out to be one of my favorite birthday fêtes so far,” she said. “Everybody’s here except Lulu.”

  “Where is Lulu?” Sidda asked. Sidda’s younger sister didn’t stay in touch, and since The New York Times upset, Sidda had lost all track of her.

  “Tallulah is in Paris,” Vivi said. “Left her interior-design business with her partner and took off for France.”

  “Took off with a Frenchman is more like it,” Baylor said.

  “His family owns a winery somewhere, and his divorce should be final any day,” Vivi said.

  Turning to Connor, who’d been quietly watching the reunion, Sidda said, “I want yall to meet Connor McGill, my Yankee sweetheart. He is, by the way, a hell of a card player.”

  Connor groaned loudly. “No, no,” he said, “she’s got it all wrong. She has me confused with some other Yankee—
we all look alike. I don’t know a queen from a deuce—I mean a ‘two.’ ”

  “Yeah, right,” Baylor said, reaching out and shaking Connor’s hand. “I’ve heard about you Maine boys. Killers. All those long winters. Pull up a chair, pal, have a brewsky. We’ll be happy to take you to the cleaners—I mean, introduce you to the cutthroat world of Louisiana bourrée. My big brother and I here learned the game at our mother’s feet while she was weaning us on bourbon-spiked baby bottles.”

  “You crazy fool,” Vivi said, loving every minute. “It was Tabasco, not bourbon!”

  Laughing, Connor asked, “What’s a foreigner got to do to get a beer on this dock?”

  “Help yourself, Connor,” Uncle Pete said. “Some cold shrimp and fried frog legs still left.”

  “Guess I better if I’m going to swim with the bayou sharks,” Connor said, opening a bottle of beer and pulling up a chair.

  Everybody laughed. They liked Connor. Sidda liked Connor. She could not stop smiling as she watched her Yale-educated scenic designer release the Good Ole Boy within.

  Connor took a long swig of his beer, then stood up. He put his beer on the table, walked over to Sidda, and leaned her back in his arms. Then, for no good reason other than bayou voodoo, he planted a huge wet kiss right on her lips.

  The whole bourrée gang let out a holler as Vivi watched, eagle-eyed. Sidda loved it.

  As Vivi led Sidda back in the direction of the house, she said, “Most of the food has been put away already, but come on, let me fix you a plate.”

  While Vivi went inside the kitchen, Sidda walked out to the front yard and sat down in the swing. A Cajun cooker was set up nearby, along with several tables. Laissez les bons temps rouler, Sidda thought. A birthday crayfish boil.

  Sidda watched as her mother walked back out toward the swing. She’s not as feverish, Sidda thought.

  Vivi paused for an instant, a momentary hesitation that seemed to border on shyness. It was only for a beat, then she continued on to where Sidda sat on the swing.