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Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Page 6

Rebecca Wells


  After writing in her journal, Sidda felt sleepy. She let her head drop down over the table and dozed off. Vivi’s scrapbook slid from her lap, and a small key slipped from between the folds of the old pages, and fell on the floor next to her foot.

  When Sidda woke, the first thing she saw was the key. It was a small, tarnished thing, dangling from a chain, about the size of a pecan. What could it unlock? A jewelry box? A small suitcase? A diary? She padded to the sliding glass door and let Hueylene out. It was dawn, but the lake was shrouded in fog so thick that Sidda could not see the opposite shore.

  The key lay in her palm as she stood on the deck looking out into the fog. A few tiny letters appeared to have once been printed on it, but Sidda couldn’t make them out. Stepping back out on the deck to call Hueylene, she pressed the key between her palms and blew into her hands. Then she did a strange, childlike thing: she smelled the key, and licked it. It had a metallic taste that made her shiver slightly, made her feel a surge of Nancy Drew—like excitement.

  She spent the rest of the day walking, eating, and napping. She had no idea she was so tired. Finally, around four, she walked down to the Quinault Mercantile, the small general store that served the area, to use the pay phone.

  She made a little Sign of the Cross, then she dialed her parents’ phone number.

  It was midway into cocktail hour in the state of Louisiana when the portable phone rang at Pecan Grove. Vivi Walker was sitting at the edge of Shep’s vegetable garden in an Adirondack chair, watching her husband pick vegetables for supper.

  “Hello,” Vivi said.

  “Mama, it’s Sidda.”

  Vivi took a sip of her bourbon and branch water. She immediately felt a stab of guilt at having broken her vow of abstinence so soon. She drew a deep breath, and said, “Siddalee Walker? The New York Times oft-quoted Siddalee Walker?”

  Sidda swallowed. “Yes, ma’am, that one. I called to thank you, Mother.”

  “Since when do you call me Mother?” Vivi asked.

  Shep looked over from a row of green peppers. When Vivi mouthed the word “Sidda,” he moved over to the bean poles, farther away from his wife. He’d been the one who had to live with Vivi’s reaction to the Times piece. Vivi had scared him so bad he’d taken her off for a trip to Hilton Head. Shep figured it was better than a doctor-ordered trip, which was what Vivi had seemed headed for.

  Shep Walker didn’t understand his wife, never had. To him, she was another country that he needed a passport to visit. He had given up on ever knowing what made her tick. She was harder to live with than a cotton crop, and Lord knows, cotton needed tending. But she could still surprise him, after forty-two years, and she knew how to make him laugh, something not many people did. When she rode in the back fields with him, sitting shotgun in his pickup, she still really listened when he rambled on about his rice or cotton or crayfish or soybeans. And once in a while, when she turned to him the way she did, tilting her head to ask a question, Shep felt like a young man again. There had been a mighty sexual attraction between them when they were young. An attraction that had waned—not so much with years, but from the exhaustion of trying to survive each other.

  “I never trusted women who called their mamas Mother,” Vivi said into the phone.

  “Sorry. I called to tell you that I’m—well, Mama, I’m overwhelmed by your sending me the scrapbook. It’s incredibly generous.”

  “It’s the least I could do for the legitimate theater,” Vivi said. “But remember that Clare Boothe Luce was much, much older than the Ya-Yas. And the Ya-Yas love each other, unlike those she-cats Luce wrote about.”

  “I’m really touched that you would part with ‘Divine Secrets,’ Mama.”

  “After the way you butchered my reputation throughout the United States of America, I do think it was rather big of me.”

  “Not simply big, Mama. Grand.”

  There was a short silence in which Vivi waited for an apology.

  “I’m sorry about it all, Mama. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

  “I do not want to discuss it,” Vivi said. “Now, what about the wedding?”

  “I do not want to discuss it,” Sidda said.

  “Everybody’s driving me crazy asking me questions,” Vivi said. “I mean, I have given countless wedding gifts for the past twenty-some-odd years to every girl in your class, some of them for three different marriages. People want to know where to send the gifts.”

  “Your scrapbook is the gift I need right now, Mama.”

  “I always thought I’d use that thing to write my memoirs,” Vivi said. “But who has time to write memoirs? I’m still living my memoirs.”

  “It would be wonderful if you’d write about all those memories, Mama. I have so many questions. I mean, the things in the scrapbook are wonderful, but there is so much I don’t know. So many stories. I found this key, for instance. It just fell right out of the book, and I’m dying to know what it’s to. Has a little chain attached to it.”

  “Oh, really?” Vivi said.

  “Do you have any idea what it’s to?”

  “Could be to anything.”

  “Mother, it would be so helpful to me if you would just sit down and write about your life for me. What formed you, what went into creating the lifelong friendship you share with Caro and Teensy and Necie. What you felt, what your secrets were, what were your dreams? The stories underneath all this Ya-Ya-rabilia.”

  “I asked you not to call me Mother. It sounds so Northern. In fact, I believe I asked you not to call me, period. I am under no obligation to write an essay about my life for you. Especially since you seem to feel it your obligation to broadcast lies about me to the free world.”

  “God, Mama. I could not control that. Let’s not fight, please.”

  Vivi took a sip of her drink.

  Two thousand miles apart, Sidda could hear the ice cubes clinking against Vivi’s glass. If anyone ever made a movie about her childhood, that would be the soundtrack. She glanced at her watch. How could she have forgotten that it was cocktail time in Louisiana?

  “Forget it, Mother.”

  “No,” Vivi said. “You forget it. You want to pick yourself apart, go right ahead. But you’re not going to pick me to pieces. I sent you my Ya-Ya ‘Divine Secrets,’ for God’s sake, what else do you want—blood?!”

  “I’m sorry, Mama, I didn’t mean to sound like I’m not grateful, but—”

  “Do you remember how horrified you were as a little girl when you found the word ‘vivisection’ in the dictionary? Came running to me in tears, remember? Well, I’m not a Goddamn frog, Sidda. You can’t figure me out. I can’t figure me out. It’s life, Sidda. You don’t figure it out. You just climb up on the beast and ride.”

  “I’ll take good care of the album,” Sidda said, “and get it back to you like you asked.”

  “I want it back before my birthday, you hear me?” Vivi said.

  “Yes ma’am.”

  “And do me a favor, will you?” Vivi said. “Don’t call me again acting like a researcher for This Is Your Life. I don’t need the kind of publicity you come up with.”

  Late that night, after Sidda had race-walked for five miles down a long, flat road that led into the Quinault Valley, she sat out on the deck and stared up into the sky. The whole day had been overcast, and no stars were to be seen. She sipped a mimosa and nibbled on some cheese and bread, wondering what Connor was doing at that moment. Her body missed his. She thought of the time in his small office at the Seattle Opera when he’d reached down into the waist of her slacks while she stood at his drafting table, looking over drawings. How he stroked her and how he smiled and how she groaned, Oh, these drawings are so lovely. She missed him, she wanted him. She resented the fact that each time she thought of him she grew simultaneously moist in her groin and tight in her chest.

  She turned to look inside the cabin. Vivi’s album sat on the table. She took a step closer and leaned her face against the screen of
the door, like a child might do. She raised her glass to the scrapbook in a private little toast. The album drew her back inside.

  Leaning over the scrapbook, she opened to a page near the front. What she found was a cardboard placard with the number 39 written on it. Next to it was a piece of paper on which a childish hand had written the following, so that it looked like the beginning of a newspaper article:






  Sidda smiled and turned the paper over, but it was blank. No story followed, there was only that heading. She scoured the nearby pages for more, but she could find no further information from “Vivi’s Very Important News.” She knew exactly who those girls were. 1934. The depths of the Great Depression. Huey Long was Governor of Louisiana—or dictator, depending on your viewpoint and your parish. She knew that Eugene O’Neill’s play Days Without End had premiered that year, and that Pirandello received the Nobel Prize for Literature. But she did not have the faintest idea what her mother had been disqualified from, or who had done the disqualifying.

  Shaking her head, she absentmindedly reached down to stroke Hueylene. If only that scrapbook could talk, she thought. Our Lady of Cherubim Chit-Chat, if only that scrapbook could talk.


  Vivi Abbott Walker knew she wasn’t supposed to be drinking, and she knew she wasn’t supposed to be smoking. That is why, after she’d cleared the dinner things and said good- night to Shep, she felt a little thrill as she stepped out on the back patio with a snifter of Courvoisier and a cigarette. She sat down at the wrought-iron patio table where she’d set up the Ouija board. She lit candles on the silver candelabra, which had been one of the many wedding gifts fron Teensy’s mother, Genevieve. Then she went into a little trance.

  She didn’t pose any questions. She just sat there with the candlelight and the Ouija board and the sounds of the cicadas and the appealing idea that she was some kind of medium.

  One hand rested lightly on the pointer, and Vivi smiled as it slid across the board and spelled out the numbers “1,” “9,” “3,” and “4.”

  Ah yes, Vivi thought, my first encounter with Hollywood.

  Vivi, 1934

  You have got to have exactly fifty-six curls if you want a chance to win the Shirley Temple Look-Alike Contest. Me and my best buddies, Caro and Teensy and Necie, spent all morning at the beauty parlor getting our hair just perfect.

  Miss Beverly’s Beauty Parlor was so busy you would have thought it was New York City. Teensy’s mama, Genevieve, took us there to have our hair changed from rags to curls. Genevieve is the one who helped us all get our hair and costumes ready for the Shirley Temple Look-Alike Contest. Yesterday morning she rolled our hair in rags and we were supposed to keep them in all day and all night.

  But Caro ripped her rags out in her sleep. When we got to the beauty parlor, her hair was lying there straight as little boards. She said, “Those rags made my scalp itch and they pulled my eyes back like a Chinaman’s, so I ripped them out and threw them in the garbage.”

  I know what she means. I’ve still got twitches around my temples that I sure hope go away before I grow up.

  “I’m gonna wear Lowell’s aviator cap,” Caro said, and she whipped out her brother’s cap, plopped it on her head, and tucked her hair underneath.

  “What a splendid idea,” Genevieve said. “Très originale!” Genevieve always says things like this because she grew up on the bayou, near Marksville. She makes everyone call her by her first name, even kids. Whenever all us girls are together, she says, “Gumbo Ya-Ya!” This means “everybody talking at the same time,” which is what we sure do.

  Genevieve wouldn’t even be here if she hadn’t married Mr. Whitman, who owns the Garnet Savings and Loan. She met him in New Orleans, where a rich friend of her father sent her to the Ursuline nuns to learn to be a lady. Oh, but thank the Lord she came to Thornton! We adore her. She has jet-black hair and eyes just as dark, and her skin is smooth and she can dance any dance in the world. Besides the Cajun two-step, she has taught us all the jitterbug, Praise Allah, and Kickin’ the Mule. Genevieve is the most fun of any grown-up I know—except when she gets her attaque de nerfs and has to stay in bed with the shades drawn. I want to be just like Genevieve when I grow up.

  I made sure to count each curl when Miss Beverly took the rags off my hair and spun out curls with her fingers. I didn’t want her to mess up and give me thirty-eight curls instead of fifty-six. Then, in walked Jack, Teensy’s brother. He came right into the beauty parlor, where boys never come.

  “Hey!” he said. “Brought yall some donuts. Just out of the oven at Mr. Campo’s Bakery. Vivi, I got you a chocolate, like you like.”

  That Jack is so sweet. Not sissy-sweet. Just sweet. He is the best baseball pitcher in town. And the way he hits, people call him T-Babe, short for Little Babe because he can slug like Babe Ruth. Jack also plays the Cajun fiddle, but his daddy won’t let him play at home. Mr. Whitman won’t even let Jack be called by his real name, Jacques. Mr. Whitman forbids Genevieve to speak Acadian French around him. He says, “Speak English, Genevieve! For God’s sake, speak the King’s English!”

  “Yall are a whole lot prettier than Shirley Temple,” Jack said. “She looks like a little skunk compared to yall. Mais oui, yall are gonna bump old Shirley’s name right off the marquee.”

  Caro was the first to hear about the Shirley Temple Look-Alike Contest, because her father owns The Bob—one of the two movie theaters in Thornton. Mr. Bob also owns The Bob in Royalton and The Bob in Rayville, both down the road. His biggest movie theater is in New Orleans: The Robert. It’s the fanciest of all The Bob Theaters in the world.

  A month ago it was formally announced that The Bob would sponsor the contest, with a Shirley Temple man coming all the way from Hollywood. The girl who wins the contest gets to go down to New Orleans on the train and represent our town in the statewide Shirley Temple Look-Alike Contest. And that girl also gets to stay at the Pontchartrain Hotel and be treated like a princess the whole entire time.

  Girls just came out of the woodwork. Even some little colored girls tried to sign up, but the contest rules say only white girls could apply. It costs a dime to sign up, but Mr. Bob let some girls sign up without paying. Some people who came to The Bob today paid him with eggs or potatoes. All those eight Nugent kids get to come to the Betty Boop Club Saturday matinee by paying with one bushel of collard greens.

  Genevieve had her dressmaker, Cecile, do up all our costumes. I have the darlingest little blue-and-white-plaid dress with a little red tie that fits me to a tee. Over it, I’m wearing a matching little blue coat and a black cap, all just like the outfit Shirley wore when she sang “Good Ship Lollipop.” I modeled it for Father last night, and when he saw me, he said, “Come on over here and give your father a hug.” He doesn’t usually like to be hugged when he gets home, so I was surprised. I went and wrapped my arms around him, and then he gave me a two-dollar bill.

  Caro’s outfit is so spiffy! She has a little brown leather jacket that she borrowed from her brother, and she’s wearing it over a pair of baggy dungarees, with an aviator cap on her head. Just like Shirley wore when she met Loop’s plane in Bright Eyes. Oh, Caro is so beautiful. All my friends are beautiful.

  Necie has a bright yellow coat and a white tam over her curls. And that Teensy, she has a pink ballet tutu, like Shirley got for her birthday in that movie.

  I secretly think that I look the most like Shirley Temple. After all, I am the one with the blonde hair. But I wouldn’t dare tell anybody this.

  When Genevieve brought us to the theater this afternoon, they made us check in at the door, where a lady gave each one of us a piece of cardboard to hang around our necks on a string. The cardboard has our official contest numbers written on them. Mine is 39, Caro’s is 40, Teensy’s is 41, and somehow things got mixed
up because Necie is number 61. I hate this cardboard hanging around my neck. It covers up the buttons on my little blue coat.

  The Shirley Temple Look-Alike judge spends his whole life riding trains all over the country judging who looks like Shirley Temple and who doesn’t. His name is Mr. Lance Lacey, but Caro just calls him Mr. Hollywood. He arrived yesterday, and Caro and her mother and father went to meet him at the train station. They took him back to Caro’s house, and he changed out of his suit into a powder-blue shirt and loose, baggy pants that Caro said looked like pajamas. During supper, he received three long-distance calls. We don’t get three long-distance calls in a month at our house! They all sat there, Caro and her parents and Lowell and Bobby, her brothers, just waiting for Mr. Hollywood to get off the phone so they could finish eating. Then this morning he got another long-distance call before breakfast!

  I have always always wanted to be up on the stage of The Bob, and now here I am! Oh, I was meant to be a star! Standing up in front of the footlights, high above the audience. Lights, lights, lights! It’s better than Christmas. It’s hard to see out into the audience, but I can tell exactly where my brother, Pete, is sitting because he yelled out, “Hey, Stinky!”

  I want to step out in front of all these other little ringlet-headed girls and break into a dance. Make everyone look at me, only me! But you have to stand in line. All we’re supposed to do is stand up here and try to look like Shirley Temple. I hate it when I have so many other talents! I can sing, dance, spell “prestidigitation,” recite “The Ancient Mariner,” whistle, and act out stories I made up myself. These folks don’t know what they are missing.

  Mr. Hollywood’s voice flows out all velvet from the microphone. “Shirley Temple represents what is best about America,” he says. “Her innocence and smile are a ray of sunshine that beams across these forty-eight states. And when times look down and regular Joes have trouble buying a cup of coffee, Shirley’s dimples can cheer up even the saddest Depression hobo. ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ has danced her way into the hearts of millions, lifting up our land with her unique brand of sweetness.”