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Excerpt

Excerpt

The Same Sweet Girls

1
Corrine
blue mountain, Georgia

ALTHOUGH WE CALL OURSELVES the Same Sweet Girls, none of us are girls anymore. And I'm not sure that any of us are now, or ever have been, sweet. Nice, maybe, and polite, certainly. All southern girls are raised to be nice and polite, can't be anything but, regardless of how mean-spirited we might be deep down. The illusion of sweetness, that's all that counts. We don't have to be sincerely sweet, but by God we have to be good at faking it. Southern girls will stab you in the back, same as anyone else, but we'll give you a sugary smile while doing it.

The question is, are the Same Sweet Girls sweet? Hardly. But one thing's for sure: We're the same. We are the same complicated, screwy, mixed-up, love-each-other-one-minute and hate-each-other-the-next group of women we were when we met thirty years ago. I guess we were sweeter then, at age eighteen; we were certainly more naive and less sophisticated. I'd like to say virginal, but that wouldn't quite be true. Not of everyone. Okay, I was. Unlike the others, I was fresh off the farm, as wide-eyed and gullible as a newborn calf. But a couple of us were already damaged, innocence long gone. Those of us with a trace of naïveté left at age eighteen were soon to lose it; we just didn't know it then. I can promise you this: Not a single one of the Same Sweet Girls has a smidgen of it left today.

We're the same, but we're also different, if that makes sense. The group-the SSGs, we call ourselves-formed when we were in college together, roommates, suite-mates, tennis or lab partners. We got our name from a silly little incident that we still relate to each other, telling the story over and over as though we haven't heard it a million times already. Finding ourselves away from home for the first time, in the intimate environment of an all-girls' school, we became friends for life. We forged our clique then, our group of six girls, and we became closer than sisters. We scheduled classes together, stayed up half the night gossiping and giggling, went home with each other during weekends and holidays. As close as we were then, however, we were only truly bound together when one of us was lost, three years after graduation. When you're in your early twenties and invincible, death is a life-changing experience, a sobering wake-up call unlike any other.

I clung to the Same Sweet Girls then, loving them as I'd not done before. Before, life was one big party, the whole basis for our friendship; afterward, we were tightly bound, as though knitted together with unseen but indestructible threads. In tears, we stood apart from the crowd of mourners at the grave of one of our own, linked hands, and promised to remain friends, to always be the Same Sweet Girls we were then. Five felt like such an odd, lopsided number that we moved quickly to fill the gap, becoming the magic six again. Too quickly, some of us thought later. But . . . that's another story, for another time.

Today the six of us do not live in the same place; some of us are geographically separated by hundreds of miles. But somehow, we manage to stay as close as we were when living in the same dorm, all those years ago. Some years I've seen the others only at our biannual get-togethers, in early summer and late fall. There have been times when job or family obligations kept us apart. After graduation we started our careers, then we married, had babies, raised families. Things like sick children, school plays or Little League games, proms, funerals, weddings, graduations would keep us from attending our gatherings. Inevitably, when that happened, we grieved our absence from the group as though we'd never see each other again. Now that we're older, for the most part our kids grown and gone, we see each other more often, and we're all more aware of the passing of time, the shocking awareness that one day we'll attend a gathering of the Same Sweet Girls, and it will be our last one.

When I'm describing the Same Sweet Girls to other people, I usually tell them it's helpful to group us in twos. Lanier and I were former roommates, as were Julia and Astor; then there's the odd couple, Byrd and Rosanelle. (Poor Byrd, getting stuck with Rosanelle, but there again, that's another story.) Paired like that, we seem like polar opposites, but we aren't, really. I'm considered the weird one of the group, and I'll admit I've earned that honor. Most people think artists are weird, anyway, but me-I'm a gourd artist. As the other SSGs say, with much eye rolling, how many of those do you know? My former roommate, Lanier Sanders, doesn't do weird, being not only a former jock but also a nurse, which is such a prosaic profession for someone like Lanier. Lanier would have been a doctor-a good one-had she not flunked out of medical school her first year. Not because she's dumb; although she struggled in the humanities, Lanier's plenty smart in math and science. Here's the thing about Lanier-lovable as she is, she will always find a way to screw up her life. Almost fifty years old, and she is still doing it. But I don't have any room to talk, since I've been pretty good at that myself.

Like Lanier and me, Julia and Astor were college roommates. The school we attended, the Methodist College for Women in Brierfield, Alabama (nicknamed The W), paired you up; you didn't get to choose like you do in most schools, the Methodists preferring to mix their poor scholarship students in with the more privileged ones. If it hadn't been for the incident our freshman year that made us the Same Sweet Girls, I'd never have gotten to know Julia Dupont or Astor Deveaux, either one. Unlike me, a shy little art major, both Julia and Astor were hot stuff on campus. Classically beautiful in a Grace Kelly sort of way, Julia Dupont was from a wealthy old family in Mobile. Her mother had gone to some fancy boarding school with the dean of women, which was how Julia ended up at The W. It was a year after we became friends before we discovered the real reason Julia was there. Thirty years later, it still surprises me.

What to say about Astor Deveaux? How about, she and I have a rather complicated relationship. I'm not sure what kind of weird chemistry there is between us, but it's been going on since the first day we met, in an Interpretative Dance class. Lanier accuses me of not even liking Astor, but that's not quite true. I don't trust her, I'll admit, and we've had numerous clashes. But like everyone else, I'm fascinated by her. From Lake Charles, Louisiana, Astor Deveaux came to The W on a dance scholarship and intrigued everyone on campus. None of us Alabama hicks had ever seen anyone like her; we'd certainly never seen anyone so talented. Astor went on to dance on Broadway, until she got too old to get good parts. Then she moved back to Alabama, unfortunately. See?-that's what I mean. I'm always making cracks like that about Astor, and I'm not even sure why. But one thing I do know-I've got better sense than to turn my back on her.

I group Byrd and Rosanelle together because they're the most normal ones of the Same Sweet Girls (which isn't saying a whole lot, believe me). Byrd McCain is plain and simple and unpretentious. We've nicknamed her Mama Byrd, a role she fits to a tee. She certainly plays it well, and if on occasion Byrd plays it too well, giving out advice, being uptight or disapproving . . . we always forgive her. She's that lovable. Rosanelle Tilley is another story, but she's not really one of us. She's who we inherited after Byrd's roommate, one of the original six, was killed in a car wreck, and we felt the need to fill the gap. Rosanelle's also the one who unintentionally gave us our name, the Same Sweet Girls. This will tell you everything you need to know about Rosanelle-she's flattered that we named our group after something she once said, not realizing that, as usual, we were being ironic and facetious. Thirty years have gone by, and she still doesn't get it. It all sounds so serious, telling it like this, but it's anything but. Over the years, we've developed a lot of silly rituals that I'm embarrassed to tell other people about, especially now that we're almost fifty years old. We crown a queen and have royal edicts and all sorts of stuff like that. Each year the crown goes to the one who can prove that she's the most deserving. And what does she have to do to land the coveted crown? Why, be the sweetest one of all, of course. She campaigns all year for the crown, then has to convince the rest of us that she's done enough sugary deeds to earn the coveted title. The highlight of our summer weekend is when each of us summarizes our campaign for the crown during a ten-minute presentation. Like the pope, the queen is elected by secret ballot. Naturally, the first year everyone voted for herself, so we had to change the rules. It's not considered a sweet thing to do, to vote for yourself, and if you do so, you're disqualified.

Even more embarrassing, we have our own coded language that we call Girl Talk. It's been going on for so many years that it's hard to remember where most of it originated. The punch lines of popular jokes make the rounds, but we tire of them and they fall by the wayside, due to our overuse. Our most enduring Girl Talk comes from stories we repeat ad nauseam, year after year. Lanier provided one of the lines we use most often by telling us the story of the elderly woman who was a patient of hers. When Lanier took her vital signs and asked her how she was feeling, the lady said, "Terrible, just terrible. My rheumatism's worse than ever; I can't lift my arms; my back's killing me; and I can't walk without hurting. But it's being so cheerful that keeps me going." The other two most popular Girl Talk lines were provided by Astor, years ago. When she lived in New York, her best friend was a gay dancer named Ron. Astor would take Ron shopping with her because if she picked out the wrong thing, Ron would shake his head sadly and say, "Oh, honey, no." On the occasions Ron didn't go with her and she showed up wearing one of her mistakes, Ron would sigh, roll his eyes, and say, "Girl, what were you thinking?" With the Girl Talk, the crowning of the queen, the royal salute, the procession, and the edicts, our get-togethers have become ritualized to the point that they're pure theater, and anyone peeking in a window at us would swear we're all crazy as loons. Which we are. One of these days, we'll stop being the Same Sweet Girls and start calling ourselves the Same Crazy Fools, I suppose. Some would say that day is fast approaching. But in the meantime, we'll be the Same Sweet Girls, who aren't girls anymore, and who aren't sweet and never have been. We'll keep crowning our queen and going through our rituals and loving each other and sometimes hating each other, because we've done it so long it's become a part of us. It's a big part of who we are and how we got to be that way. It's where we are today and how we got from there to here. It's our story.

2
Lanier
dauphin island, alabama

MAMA ALWAYS CALLED ME sassy, and bless her heart, my smart mouth nearly drove her to drinking. If you looked up "sweet old southern lady" in the dictionary, there would be a picture of my mama, wearing pearls with her apron. For some reason I have Mama on my mind today. Guess because it's been several weeks since I've gone to Selma to visit her in the nursing home. I feel bad when I visit her and worse when I don't. Last time I was there, she didn't know me from a houseplant. Poor Mama. Sometimes I think it was having me for a daughter that made her lose her mind. It's all my fault.

Maybe it's the dolphins jumping in the bay this afternoon that make me think of Mama and Daddy and the so-called good old days of my childhood. Actually, they were. Good old days, that is. Sometimes I think I ought to make up some dysfunctional stuff so I'll fit in with everyone else. The Same Sweet Girls say I had the best childhood of all of us, and I reckon they're right. Truth is, I didn't think about it one way or the other when I was a kid. I just lived it. I was raised in a pretty little town, Selma, Alabama, which later got famous for the civil rights stuff. But in the fifties when I came along, it was just home, where my grandparents and most of my relatives lived, and where my daddy was a judge. Mama was a homemaker and did the country club and the Episcopal church ladies and all that stuff. Actually, I spent about as much time at the country club as Mama did because I played tennis and golf all the time. So guess I had one of those-what do you call it?-idyllic childhoods.

We spent most of our summers here, on Dauphin Island, in this old fishing cabin where I've been staying the last three months. As I stand on the back deck and watch the dolphins playing around in the bay, I remember naming this place when I was eight. Lord, that's forty years ago now! Five acres of prime waterfront real estate on Mobile Bay, this property and cabin had been in Daddy's family for years without being named anything, just called the Brewer place by the locals. When we piled in the car and drove three hours south to get here, we just said we were going to Dauphin Island to our fishing cabin. (I thought it was "Dolphin" Island until I was ten.) I pitched one of my fits, insisted the property needed a name, and we should call it Dolphin Cove. Damn if Daddy didn't go for it, even making a sign in his workshop and hanging it up on the gatepost. The thing's still out front but I've got to fix it, because it's loose and flops around whenever the wind blows hard. When I first moved in here, it banged around in a rainstorm and liked to have scared the devil out of me.

I watch the dolphins jumping around, bobbing up and down like they're showing off for me, and I raise my wineglass to them in a salute. Not a coincidence that I named this place Dolphin Cove-I've always loved dolphins. They're like pure magic to me, and I used to swim with them when I was a kid. The Same Sweet Girls don't believe that, even Corrine. First time the SSGs met here, everyone got so excited when they saw the dolphins that they almost fell off the pier. "I swam in the bay with them when I was a little girl," I told them, not dreaming they'd think I was bullshitting them. When everyone pooh-poohed me, I jumped right into the bay with all my clothes on-of course I'd had a few drinks-and swam out to where the dolphins were. I spooked them splashing around, and they took off like I was the guy who chased that big whale we studied about in American Lit. What was his name, Captain Arab? The book was Moby- Dick, I know, because I called it Mo' Big Dick, just to aggravate Byrd, who was in class with me that semester. Anyway, with the SSGs yelling at me to get my butt back to the pier, right then, I tried to grab a dolphin and almost drowned myself. Corrine screamed bloody murder and poor Julia cried until I managed to crawl back on the pier, soaking wet and sober. It was one of those things that was funny afterward but not at the time-Corrine actually grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me, like she was my mama or something. In an attempt to lighten things up, Astor said, "Girl, what were you thinking?" but nobody laughed, even me.

I tried to explain to Corrine that I have a thing for dolphins, like they're my soul mates or something. I figured Corrine of all people would go for that, since she's into all sorts of New Age stuff. But she was too scared and mad to listen to me. I said maybe I was a dolphin in a previous life. And Corrine said, "Yeah, Lanier, guess that's where all the crazy karma comes from." Maybe she's right. If so, I must have been one bad-ass dolphin.

I wait until the dolphins disappear from view, moving further and further out to sea, before turning away and going back into the cabin. I've put this off long enough, by God. I have to get the house cleaned up. It's a disgrace. For three months I've lived here like I was on a camping trip or something, and the place is a wreck. The big weekend is coming up, the annual gathering of the Same Sweet Girls, and the girls will have a hissy fit when they see what a mess the cabin's in. The SSGs love this place almost as much as I do. The first summer after graduation, when we decided to have our first SSG get-together, we had it here. I had to beg; everyone wanted to go to Gulf Shores instead. I promised them we could go to the beach whenever we wanted to, since Gulf Shores is not that far. Once everyone got here, I was scared they wouldn't like it, since it's so isolated. Although it's real pretty here, there's not a blame thing to do except sit on the deck or the pier, watch the dolphins and seabirds, gossip, and get drunk. Dixie Lee was alive then, bless her heart, and she said, "And the bad part is . . . ?" which kind of broke the ice.

We didn't go to the beach the whole weekend, we just lazed around the cabin laughing and talking and drinking rum punch. Well, we did a little crabbing, too, the girls surprising me by enjoying that so much, something I'd done all my life. They loved catching the crabs, thought they were so cute, but did not like cooking them. Corrine grabbed my arm and stopped me when I started to drop one of the squirming crabs into a pot of boiling water. She's always been too tenderhearted, which is part of the reason she's had such a sad life. I ended up throwing the crabs back into the bay and going into town to buy crabmeat for my she-crab soup. Corrine wouldn't even taste it and still won't, to this day.

I get the mop and the bucket and the Clorox and Mr. Clean and start cleaning up. Before I tackle the house, I make myself go down to the pier. Daddy added a little gazebo-like thing with benches-another project from his workshop-and all the fannies that have sat on the benches over the years have worn them smooth as driftwood. But the benches are grimy and nasty now, so I spray them with Fantastik and wipe them off with paper towels. The walkway of the pier is white-speckled with seagull doo-doo, making it look like a crazy artist flung a paintbrush over it, so I unwind the hose and wash it off good. The queen's promenade down the pier is a Same Sweet Girl tradition, one of my favorites. We can't have the queen slipping on seagull doo and busting her royal ass, can we?

It takes me a couple of hours and several trash bags to clean up the cabin, it's such a mess. Don't know how I've let it get so bad in such a short time. The cabin's real simple, what a decorator would call rustic. Julia once called it shabby chic, but Astor muttered, "Guess I missed the chic part." There's one big central room, with plank walls and pine posts from the floor to the ceiling. The kitchen area's sectioned off from the sitting area by a counter that doubles as an eating bar. The back of the room is the best because of the floor-to-ceiling glass doors and windows looking out over Mobile Bay, with all the sofas and chairs turned to face the great view. On either side are the bedrooms, two on each side. That's it, except for the deck in back, where the steps lead down to the bay. Plopping down on the old wicker sofa, I try not to break my arm patting myself on the back. It looks good, clean as an angel's underwear, as Mama used to say, but living here now, rather than just vacationing, I see that it leaves a lot to be desired. Truth is, it's pretty tacky. Both Mama and my grandmother furnished it with their throwaways, a few "beachy"-looking pieces thrown in, like the wicker sofa and rocker. I don't know how much longer I'm going to be camping out here, but I ought to fix it up, make it not only more comfortable but prettier. My house in Reform, now that's what you call well decorated. Ought to be; Paul and I paid a fortune to that hotshot decorator from Columbus, Mississippi, to fix it up, after we restored it. Paul and I . . . better not go there now, or I'll end up squalling again, and I won't get a thing done. I stand up, hands on hips, and look around. I'm not sure of the best approach for a makeover. Repainting the walls? Putting rugs on the bare floors? Nuking the whole place and starting over? I go outside and down the wooden stairs to the storage area under the house. Since it's on stilts, there's not only a parking area under there but also lots of room to store stuff, which Mama did after Daddy died, before she got sick and ended up in the nursing home. But rummaging through it, I don't find anything I like, except a big pink ceramic lamp that looks like a tallywacker. Being the mean person I am, I put it in the room where Rosanelle always stays, she and Byrd. Poor Byrd, getting stuck with Rosanelle every time, as though it was Byrd's fault that Dixie Lee was her roommate and Rosanelle the replacement. Once I had too much rum punch and horrified everyone by saying that the worst thing about Dixie Lee dying was how we ended up with Rosanelle taking her place. (Obviously, this was one of those times when Rosanelle didn't come.) My comment even shocked Astor, who's pretty unshockable, and everyone agreed I'd never be crowned queen again, saying such terrible, unsweet things. I felt real bad about it, I swear I did, because I didn't really mean it. I like Rosanelle fine, bad as she gets on my nerves. Truth is, I'm not a sweet person, but most of the time, I'm able to fake it pretty good. I get this wild hair up my butt and decide to decorate, not just clean up. Except for a few nice pieces of Corrine's artwork, her gourds that look like fancy vases and bowls, everything here is so tacky I can't stand it anymore. I load up three big boxes-old-timey chenille bedspreads, plaid and floral throw pillows, faded rugs that look like they survived the Civil War, they're so old-and haul them to Mobile, to the Goodwill thrift store. Then I shop, going to Pier 1 Imports and blowing a whole month's paycheck. I buy bedspreads in Indian batiks and a red-patterned throw from the Himalayas to spruce up the sofa. I get kilim floor pillows and a green-edged sisal rug. The sales clerk, a skinny college girl with little-bitty ears pierced about fifty times, talks me into getting these precious hanging lamps that she calls "jewel-globed," telling me the colors are amethyst and ruby and emerald. I've always been a sucker for talk like that. Taking her advice, I buy enough scented candles to burn Mobile to the ground and smell good doing it. In a fancy kitchen store at the Outlet Mall, I splurge on bamboo placemats and at least a million baskets, every size and shape imaginable. On a roll, I can't seem to stop myself buying stuff. I've always hated to shop, which caused Paul to swear I was lacking in some essential female gene, but today, I see why it's considered such fun. By leaving the hatch open in my car, I'm able to take home two five-feet-tall ficus plants in sea-grass baskets as well as half a dozen hanging spider plants. If I can't decorate it, I'll hide it.

By nine o'clock that night, I'm worn out. I've only stopped once, to eat dry granola from the box, standing up by the sink. I emptied the fridge when I cleaned it, and my cupboards are bare; how they'll be till payday. I've never had to worry about money before, never in my life, and I feel guilty how I've always taken things for granted. You know, things like groceries and the light bill. I've found out in the last few months that nothing makes you feel poorer than being hungry. Because I haven't had to think about it in the past, I do dumb things like spending all my money buying jewel-globed lamps instead of groceries. Tomorrow I'll have to hit the crab pots again, just to have something for supper. Once the SSGs get here this weekend, though, there will be plenty to eat because our dishes have become part of the ritual.

For a bunch of weight-conscious women, we eat like field hands when we get together. Julia will have her chef fix that great chicken salad with red grapes and toasted pecans in it, which I could eat by the gallon, and she'll also bring her pimento cheese. The other girls make sandwiches out of it, but I've been known to sit cross-legged on the floor with the bowl of pimento cheese in one hand and a spoon in the other. Mama Byrd brings comfort food: garlic-grits casseroles and her tomato-and-Vidalia-onion pie. I ate a whole one the first year, all by myself, so since then, she's been bringing half a dozen, one for each of us. First time she brought that many, Astor made me mad by saying that Byrd brought one pie for the SSGs and five for me. That wasn't what pissed me off, actually; it was the way Astor rolled her eyes and carried on about me eating a whole pie. I stuck out my tongue at her and she said no wonder your ass is so big and I said you can kiss mine, and she said she'd better get started, then, because it'd take her a while. We ended up having a pure-tee fight about it.

The next year, after we'd all graduated, we had the gathering here again-the beginning of the tradition-and Astor flew in from New York with a cheesecake from some famous Yankee place up there. Since then she always brings the desserts. Not that Astor cooks them; she's about as domestic as a bird dog. Recently, she's been bringing healthy, sugar-free stuff that we all hate, things like tofu and fruit with Sweet'N Low on it. Take last year. Astor brought a prune cake from a new bakery in Birmingham and told us it was sweetened with fructose or something. After supper we got about half-crocked and took the cake down to the pier, where we broke off chunks of it and fed the fish.

After a thirty-minute shower (Oh, God, how will I pay the water bill?), I go to bed on new sheets from the Ralph Lauren outlet. They feel as soft as a baby's behind, which they'd damn sure better, at fifty dollars a sheet. A breeze, tasting of salt and smelling of the ocean, blows in the opened windows (that way I don't have to run the air-conditioner), and I doze off. When the phone rings, I can't think what the sound is, what has jerked me out of sleep. I think it's the alarm and I've got to be at the hospital. When I grope for the phone, a catch in my back surprises me, what I get for getting down on my all-fours and scrubbing the floors, like a pure fool. A good deed never goes unpunished. I answer without turning on the lamp. "Yeah?"

"Lanier? You there?" It's Astor. I fall back on the pillow, wishing I hadn't answered. Conversations with Astor can be exhausting; she's nothing if not high maintenance. "I'm asleep," I tell her, throwing in a yawn for good measure.

Her laugh is skeptical. "Oh, bull," Astor says. "Don't give me that. You've got someone with you, right?"

"Listen, can I call you back in the morning? I cleaned up the house and . . ."

"Someone's there," she repeats, ignoring me. "Who is it, Roland Pierce?"

That wakes me up. "Not funny, Astor. Even for you, that's a low one."

"Calm down, Sidney Lanier," she sighs. "Don't get your panties in a wad." Astor tells everyone that she always does yoga while on the phone, so I picture her twisted like a pretzel, the phone hooked up to headgear. "I'm calling to see if you knew that Byrd has gone to Blue Mountain to pick up Corrine," she says.

I sit up against the wicker headboard, pulling a pillow behind me. "Byrd's gone to Corrine's? Why would she do that?" Our travel is habitual. For our get-togethers here, Corrine drives from Blue Mountain to Birmingham to Byrd's house, and they travel together to Mobile. Since moving back to Alabama, Astor's been going to Montgomery and picking Julia up. Rosanelle drives down by herself, since she usually visits with other alumni groups. That way, she can write the weekend off as part of her job. In October, when we meet in Blue Mountain, we reverse the process, me going to Birmingham to travel with Byrd, Julia picking up Astor. Only a few times have there been any variations in our patterns. Byrd driving to Blue Mountain to pick up Corrine is definitely weird. For some reason-maybe because I'm only half awake-it makes me uneasy.

"I have no idea why Byrd would do that," Astor says, with that breathlessness she gets when she's either excited or nosing around in somebody else's business. Why Byrd picking Corrine up would interest Astor is beyond me, except she's so nosy. Since moving back she's been in hog heaven, all wrapped up in the boring little dramas of our lives. She goes on to say, "When I called Byrd tonight, Buster told me she'd gone to Blue Mountain to get Corrine. I was afraid that something might be wrong."

"Nothing that I know of. Corrine's car is a piece of crap, as you know, so maybe Byrd got it in her head that Corrine wouldn't make it to Birmingham. Probably nothing more than that." I'd almost fallen for Astor's dramatics again, gotten myself all worked up. "Guess we'll find out this weekend," I add, yawning.

"If Corrine decides to be her usual murky, mysterious self, we won't. And quit yawning, Lanier, you're making me sleepy. Oh, did I tell you, I'm leaving for Julia's right after my afternoon dance class so her chef can fix those crab cakes of his, just for me?" The way Astor emphasizes "just for me" in a playful, little-girl voice irritates me for some reason. Makes it sound like I'm supposed to be jealous or something. Determined not to let her get to me again, I say, "I love going to Julia's now, with all those servants and chefs and bodyguards hanging around."

She giggles. "Especially the bodyguards, huh? If I were Julia, I'd go after-oops . . . somebody's beeping in. Hang on a minute." Astor's back in less than that time, breathless. "Nobody I need to talk to now. Thought it might be the nursing home."

"Anything new with Mose?" I hold my breath guiltily. I'm too tired to hear it tonight.

"Guess you could say that. Earlier today he watered the potted plants on the front veranda, in full view of a group of visitors."

"Yeah? That's a good sign, if he's taking an interest in gardening-"

Astor snorts. "He peed in them, Lanier. Can you imagine? The esteemed Mose Morehouse, rising up from his wheelchair and pissing in a flowerpot on the veranda of St. Mary's. Oh, crap-another call coming in. I'd better catch this one."

"Talk to you tomorrow," I say, relieved she's going, though the image of Mose and the flowerpot breaks my heart.

"Okay. And, Lanier? Give Roland Pierce a kiss for me." Cackling like a wicked witch, Astor hangs up.

I put down the phone and swing my legs over the side of the bed, sitting in the dark. Sometimes Astor can be more irritating than Rosanelle, which is saying a mouthful. I've been fascinated by Astor since we first met, but she can be one royal pain in the ass. Here's what is weird, though. Something about Astor makes you overlook that-which we've all done, again and again. Well, all of us except Corrine, that is. I don't get it, whatever it is between the two of them. Sometimes I think Corrine actually dislikes Astor, but then we'll all be together, laughing and talking and carrying on, and I'll wonder where I got such a notion. One of the Same Sweet Girls couldn't dislike another one, could she? We'd kick her out of the group, since it wouldn't be sweet, and you can't be an SSG if you're not sweet. It's an oxymoron, or whatever you call that thing. I wasn't particularly good in English class.

Corrine and I met Astor Deveaux the first day of Interpretative Dance class, our freshman year at The W. We'd heard of Astor since she arrived on campus, of course; everyone had. Anyone out of the ordinary stood out at The W, and Astor was anything but ordinary. She'd come to The W on a dance scholarship provided by some rich alum who'd made a name for herself on Broadway. We'd heard there was competition all over the southeast for the coveted scholarship and that the girl from Louisiana who got it was really something. After college, Astor went on to dance on Broadway, too, and the SSGs always planned on taking a trip up to see her in a play, but we couldn't get everyone together for that. Too much trouble. Some of us went on our own, though.

Even before our dance instructor introduced Astor as the scholarship winner who'd be assisting her in teaching the class and Astor made a theatrical bow, I knew who she was. Had to be. Since I'd never seen a real live Cajun before, I stared at her wide-eyed. "That's her!" Corrine whispered, nudging me with her bony elbow. Then she leaned over and whispered again. "If that girl's a Cajun, Lanier, I'll kiss your behind." I tried to shush her, but she added, "Bet you anything she's a phony." From that moment on, before they ever spoke to each other, the die was cast for Corrine and Astor's up-and-down relationship.

I pick up the phone to call Corrine, find out why Byrd is picking her up, but don't. It's an hour later in the north Georgia mountains; Corrine will be asleep. Even in college she kept odd hours. First night, I figured I'd have to go to the housing council the very next morning and request a new roommate, much as I liked Corrine. Night and day we were, literally and figuratively. But I decided to give it a little longer, giving me time to get used to Corrine's weirdness. Which wasn't just her bedtime hours, believe me. For one thing, Corrine was the first person I'd ever met who had problems with clinical depression, something I knew nothing about. I wasn't sure if that meant she'd spend a lot of time sitting and staring like a zombie, or if she'd talk to herself or something. God, I was so ignorant then! I knew The W would put me with a scholarship recipient, but I wasn't expecting an art major, which was as strange to me as clinical depression.

Then, to top it off, I found out that Corrine's "medium" was gourds. Gourds! I laughed my hiney off when she told me, but it shut me up when she hauled in a bunch of gourds that she'd won all sorts of prizes with and decorated our room with them. I'd never seen anything so cool! Matter of fact, I wouldn't have even known they were gourds if she hadn't told me. She'd carved or painted them in all sorts of really neat-looking designs. She'd even made musical instruments from some of them, little flutes and sitars and stuff. It used to make me feel really bad for Corrine when she had to sell one for spending money, because you could tell that she was attached to everything she made. She was snooty about it, too, refusing to give in to requests to make those crafty-looking gourds you see, the ones decorated like Santas or birdhouses, though she could've made a lot of money doing so. Corrine's stuff was real art, and sure enough, after graduation, she went on to become sort of famous as a gourd artist. Which still sounds funny, to tell you the truth. To this day, I can't even say the word "gourd" without getting tickled.

Both Astor and Rosanelle have told me-in strictest confidence, of course-that they think Corrine's crazy as a loony bird. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! One thing about Astor, though. She and Corrine have their little clashes, but deep down, I can tell that Astor really admires Corrine. I know for sure that she likes Corrine a whole lot better than Corrine likes her.

The reason I know how Astor feels about Corrine is this: At our get-togethers, the SSGs are always playing these silly little games, stuff like "If you wrote your autobiography, what would the title be?" Well, one year Astor said, "Let's describe each other by using literary characters instead of adjectives." Most of the time, I like the games a lot, but for some reason, that one struck me as the stupidest idea yet, and believe me, Astor's come up with some lulus. When I pooh-poohed it, Astor told the others that I didn't want to play because I wasn't smart enough. She said that I didn't know any literary characters or adjectives, and I said, "Oh, yeah-is that right, Lady Macbeth, you frigging bitch?" I thought Julia was going to fall off her chair laughing. I ended up playing the stupid game anyway, and Astor said that Corrine was Annabel Lee, which I thought was perfect. The reason is, Corrine is really pretty but in an unearthly sort of way, if you know what I mean. What makes her look kind of ghostly is her being so pale, with big round eyes, silver and clear as water. Then she's got this long, curly, reddish-blonde hair, exactly like the picture of Annabel Lee in the American Lit book we used as sophomores.

I realize I can't call Corrine this late because she's been feeling puny lately, had some kind of bug. Which might be-it hits me-the reason Byrd has gone to get her. Corrine left me a couple of messages when I was working nights last week, saying she might not come to the SSG gathering this year since she couldn't seem to shake whatever was ailing her. Because of her being a New Ager, she's been to psychic healers and herbalists and stuff, but they haven't helped. I'd pooh-poohed the idea of her not coming, calling her back and telling her she'd never get the crown again if she didn't. And we haven't talked since. I'd just assumed she was coming. Assumptions, Paul used to say; you can't assume things in our profession. Got to have proof. He sure took that a whole lot more literally than I ever dreamed he would.

Paul. Almost every night, before going off to sleep, I have to stop myself from calling Paul, just to hear his voice. Sometimes I literally grab one hand with the other to keep myself from picking up the phone. But tonight I have it, right here. I punch in the numbers and wait for the ring. Since I'm no longer in the house to screen the calls, his service usually answers. But ever so often, I get him instead. Like tonight. My breath catches when he answers, and I say, "Paul?" Must've had an all-nighter at the hospital last night, otherwise he wouldn't be in bed already. "Paul?" I repeat. "Who's this?" He's answered without thinking, sleep-dazed. I know him so well. Or so I thought. So I thought.

"Paul, it's Lanier."

"Who?"

I clear my throat, and speak louder. "It's me, Lanier."

The sound I hear is the rustling of the sheets as he moves across the bed to hang up the phone. "Paul-wait! Please, don't hang up!" It's too late. Hearing the click of the receiver, I throw the phone down. Before I know it, I'm crying again, though I haven't cried over him for days. Weeks, maybe. I've been doing so much better. Serves me right. I had to hear his voice again, didn't I? No matter that he hates my guts, that he can't stand the sight of me or the sound of my voice, I had to twist the knife. Fumbling around on the bedside table, I find a tissue, wipe my eyes, and blow my nose.

Jesus, I'm such a slow learner! Either that, or a masochist. Haven't I found out, over and over, that I can't talk to Paul, Lindy, or Christopher without boo-hooing? Christopher calls occasionally, and I always cry, even after his most recent call, a happy one to tell me about his tennis scholarship to Vandy. He's such a jock that I used to worry he couldn't deal with emotional upsets, yet he's handled this better than any of us. Lindy, on the other hand, won't return my calls or answer my letters. Everyone tells me she just needs time, that she'll come around if I let her grow up a bit. She just turned seventeen, and it's been harder on her than any of us.

I can't go back to sleep now; I've gotten myself all worked up, calling Paul and thinking about the kids. Pushing the pillows behind me, I sit up in the bed, yelping at the pain in my lower back, and open the drawer to the bedside table. Fumbling, I pull out my lesson book and fountain pen and wipe my eyes. Since I'm awake anyway, might as well write in my book. I've neglected it lately, being so caught up with settling into my new life. Plenty I need to add to it, that's for sure.

Corrine gave me the lesson book as a joke, sort of, with neither of us having any idea how I'd take to it. It was a few years ago, at a Same Sweet Girls gathering at Corrine's place in the mountains, when she brought out the book and presented it to me. "Lanier, I found this at an antiques store on Tate Mountain," she'd said, "and knew it was perfect for you." Being Corrine, she'd wrapped it in artsy-looking parchment paper that she'd tie-dyed, or something, herself. I was disappointed when I unwrapped it, failing to see what made it so perfect for me, while the other Same Sweet Girls oohed and aahed politely. It was a child's old lesson tablet, made of heavy cardboard, with the blue-lined pages stiff and browned around the edges; the kind of writing tablet I guess our grandparents practiced cursive writing in. The neat thing about it was the way Corrine had added to it-matter of fact, it took me a minute to figure out she'd done it, that she hadn't found it that way. The ivory-colored cover was real old and antique-looking, and "LESSON BOOK" was printed in dark calligraphied letters.

Above that, Corrine had added "LANIER'S." Dead center, she'd written, "When the pupil is ready, a teacher appears." "Okay, Lanier, here's the thing," Corrine had said, sitting beside me on the floor and opening the lesson book. "You tell us how you're always screwing up, right?" "Right!" the Same Sweet Girls yelled together, before I could open my mouth. Ignoring me giving everyone the finger, Corrine continued. "You've got to help the rest of us out. It's your duty to our friendship. I got this for you to put your life lessons in. Think of all the important lessons you've learned over the years from your screw-ups and record them for posterity." She handed me a fountain pen. "I got this to go with it and put purple ink in it. Real sweet of me, wasn't it?"

"Kiss my fanny," I'd said indignantly, and everyone booed me. "I'm not going to do it! It's not only that I'm a lousy writer, but I never learn from my mistakes, no matter how many times I mess up." I tossed the book in Corrine's lap, pouting.

But Corrine made me take the stupid little book back and kept telling me to just give it a try, that I'd come to love writing in it. I knew what she was trying to do, of course, so I resisted, like I've always resisted anything good for me, from spinach to studying. But the little book was so cute-and I'd never written with a fountain pen, much less one with purple ink-that I told myself I'd at least write my name in it. Then a couple of days later, I picked it up and wrote down something that my mama used to say, something the Same Sweet Girls loved and quoted over and over when I read it to them: Honey, it will either work out or it won't. Having it in writing kind of inspired me, so that whenever I got myself in a mess, I'd take out the little lesson book and read over that line again-it will either work out or it won't. Yep. That was sure the gospel truth. One day, in a snit, I wrote: I keep doing the same crap over and over and expecting it to turn out different each time.

The entries began to expand, and once I was so startled on rereading an entry that I called Corrine, excited. "Listen to this, girlfriend," I'd said. "I think I've discovered the source of all my problems! Here's what I wrote in that stupid-ass book you gave me. All my problems can be summed up in this one line." "Let's hear it, then," Corrine had said, and I'd read, "I thought I was doing the right thing at the time." I knew I'd hit home when Corrine, after a pause, burst into laughter. Once she told everyone, I was assigned the role of the official scribe of the Same Sweet Girls. Every time we get together, I have to read them what I've written.

Tonight I look back over the last entries as I think about what needs to be said before the gathering, what I can write to share with everyone. Lanier's Life Lessons. A few months ago, when Paul kicked me out of the house and I ended up here at the cabin, I'd written, The Moving Finger writes "You're Screwed," then moves on. Tonight I nibble on the tip of the fountain pen, frowning, before finally writing: Any landing you walk away from is a good landing.

I put the notebook back in the drawer, then yawn and stretch, trying to get the kink out of my back. Getting to my feet, I stumble to the kitchen for a drink of water, feeling my way. Then on to the bathroom to pee. When I come out of the bathroom, something catches my eye, and I move to the window that's across from my bed. Leaning over, I stick my head out, squinting without my contacts to see through the thick foliage. What I see scares me, and I grip the windowsill. I'll be damned-a light is on in the house next door. But-it can't be!-the house has been empty for years. Just yesterday, a Realtor who was one of Mama's old friends called me, asking if I'd ever thought about putting Dolphin Cove on the market. Somehow, with me and her yakking about various things, the subject came up, and the Realtor told me that the Picketts had not sold their property next door. Mrs. Pickett died a few months ago in a nursing home in Mobile-hadn't I read it in the papers? she asked. She said the house was unoccupied, what with the Pickett kids all over the world and poor Mrs. Pickett dying in a nursing home. Said she'd tried to get the Picketts to put the house up for sale, but no. She'd repeated herself, so I'm sure that I heard her right: A shame it was, a real shame that such a nice house, such an important house, should be empty. I sink back in my bed, a little shaken, and pull the sheet over me against the strong salt wind. For the first time, I have second thoughts about my impulsive decision to move here. Pretty as it is, and as much as I love it, it is isolated. Everyone-the SSGs especially-told me I was crazy, a single woman living here alone. It was Lanier and her foolhardy behavior again, they'd said. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, blah blah blah . . . as though anyone would ever mistake me for an angel. Well, I've been a fool going on fifty years now, all my life, and it's not very likely that things are going to change at this late date. If I weren't so sleepy, I'd pull my lesson book out again, and that's what I'd write.

Excerpted from THE SAME SWEET GIRLS © Copyright 2005 by Cassandra King. Reprinted with permission by Hyperion. All rights reserved.

The Same Sweet Girls
by by Cassandra King

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • ISBN-10: 0786890614
  • ISBN-13: 9780786890613