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My name is Blake O'Hara Heart and, boy, do I have a story to tell! It wouldn't be such a story if Vivi, my best friend since forever, hadn't done what she did. You have to understand that women in the South, women of Southern blood, just don't partake in scandalous adventuresand when we do, it's in a discreet manner. We have reputations to consider, after all. But since Vivi's trouble became headline news, our lives became anything but discreet. I'm an attorney, and even I wasn't sure I could get her out of this one.
When I met Vivi in the third grade, we were silly nine-year-olds in ponytails and Catholic school uniforms. She was exciting and confident. I loved her immediately. I was new to St. Catherine's, Tuscaloosa's Catholic academy, and didn't know a soul. Vivi made a beeline across the room, her pale and freckled arm outstretched. "Hi," she said. "My name is Vivi Ann McFadden. I'll take care of you today and make sure you don't get lost. This is my fourth year here including kindergarten. So, I'm an expert." I loved her self-assurance, outspokenness and all that crazy, wild red hair, which she was constantly pushing from her face.
She took care of me that day, it's true. But from eight o'clock the very next morning I have been taking care of her. I always want to protect her, but she makes that difficult. Her huge messes are almost always of her own making. Luckily for both of us, I've always known how to get her out of jail, so to speak. But this particular instance, on this particular daywell, let's just say she must think I'm a miracle worker.
See, the problem is, in Alabama, women are most definitely
women. Viviwell, some would call her opinionated. Others would say, "Bless her heart, that girl is just a redneck!" That's a little secret of the South: you can say awful and insulting things about anyone, and as long as you start with "Bless her heart" you're not really gossiping. Like, "Bless her heart, that girl looks like a pregnant heifer in that dress." See? That makes it look like we're so sad for her, when you know we really think otherwise. Women from Alabama are strongwell, stubbornand, above all, we are beautiful. There's nothing in the world a little spackle and Aqua Net won't fix. We are trained by way of the beauty pageant system. In the Deep South, pageants aren't just fun, they're a way of life. With the heavy doll makeup applied to perfection, the big hair jacked up to Jesus and the princess-cut, bedazzled gowns with full crinoline and sometimes even a hoop skirt underneathwe are brought up to walk the runway. And a proper Southern girl always has a strand of pearls around her neck. That way, if anyone ever needs to be strangled, we have the perfect tool. Just remove and use.
But Vivi never quite fit into the fru fru of it all. Her frizzy, wiry Irish curls and endless sea of freckles made her a standout for all the wrong reasons. Her skin was so white she was almost blue. But I thought she was beautiful. She had a wonderfully infectious smile, straight, pearly white teeth, ruby-red lips that never needed lipstick and I thought her green eyes were just perfect. Vivi was a real Southern blue blood, too. She came from sugar cane. Really! An actual plantation was part of her family history. And that made what Vivi did seem like the end of the world. Someone from the "uppa crust" wouldn't dare be involved in such activities. But Vivi wasn't quite as "uppa crust" as the rest of her family. I mean, how could a blue blood be a redneck? That's exactly what made me love her. She was different. Unexpected. Surprising. What she did was a surprise, all right, but not the kind you hope for on Christmas morning..
Harry, my husband and my law partner, was in the lobby of the old Tutwiler Hotel when the news came. He was waiting to meet me. It was our tenth anniversary and we were meeting for lunch. We did this every year; same table, same bourbon-n-peach cobbler. I wasn't looking as forward to this lunch as I had been on other anniversaries, though. Harry and I had been having some problems. Well, unless you don't consider silence a problem. We had been growing apart as he grew ever closer to his political dreams. With every step toward his coveted Senate seat, he stepped farther away from me. My plan was to talk to him during our lunch, to tell him that I'd had enough of his absentee husband routine. I spent all morning gearing up to tell him that I was through with being second to his career and his political dreamsit was time to focus on our marriage, or I wanted a separation. Of course, I'd been a nervous wreck since I'd opened my eyes that morning. But, lucky for me, I was saved by the belle
a belle named Vivi.
I was running late that morning, which was basically on par for me. I was stuck at the law school in an alumni meeting that was reaching into an eternity. I was sure Harry stood patiently waiting, checking his pocket watch at least once every 23 seconds, then glancing into the nearest mirror to check his gorgeous hair. If there was a mirror within 20 yards, you'd find Harry looking at himselfusually in admirationbut checking, always checking, for perfection. Every thick strand of hair in place, gold cuff links hitting just at the hem of his suit sleevesdown to the last detail, Harry liked to be in control. His cell phone rang in his vest pocket. It was Vivi.
"Harry, where are you?" she said.
Now, Harry is rock-solid by anyone's standards, by far the most patient soul. His emotions are buried deep, like down near the Earth's core. But, as even-keeled as he is, Vivi could almost always manage to rattle his cage. This phone call would shake Harry to his soul.
"I'm in the Tutwiler waiting on Blake," he answered.
"Shit! I forgot it's your anniversary," she said. "Harry, forgive me for this. I need Blake."
"She's at the university, Vivi. You okay?" Harry asked.
"Harry, I'm drivin' and I don't have a destination," Vivi said in her thick-as-molasses Southern voice. This wasn't the typical Vivi call for help.
"Vivi, where are you?" he said.
"I don't know. I'm just drivin'. When can I talk to Blake? When will she be there?"
Harry was having trouble making sense of her words between her frantic nonsense and the god-awful cell reception.
"Vivi, just tell me where you are and Blake and I will meet you," Harry said.
There was no response.
"Vivi! Vivi! Can you hear me?" Harry shouted. By this time, he'd stepped outside onto the courtyard for a little more privacy once he realized everyone in the lobby was staring at him for all the wrong reasons.
Vivi answered slow and sober. "Harry.I think I've just killed Lewis."
"Harry? Did you hear me? Lewis is layin' dead in the bed, buck naked and blue, at the Fountain Mist on I20!" Vivi screamed.
Harry Heart came from a long line of legal counseldefense attorneys to be exact. Generations upon generations of Hearts were all University of Alabama Law School graduates.
All except for Lewis. Lewis was Harry's younger brother. He was the wayward son who wound up on the radio. He was the play-by-play announcer for the University of Alabama Crimson Tide; a partygoer so popular with the women, he never marriednever had to. All of his needs were met nightly by the groupies, from cheerleaders to professors to coach's wives. Lewis Heart was at your service, so to speak.
Harry stood among the gardenia blossoms in the Tutwiler courtyard, dumbfounded, wanting to utter something, but unable to make a sound. Finally, he managed to ask, "Vivi, are you talkin' 'bout my Lewis?"
"Yes, dammit, Harry," Vivi said. "Who the hell else? Oh, my God, he's dead. He's dead, Harry! And I've killed him, I know it!"
"Stop, Vivi. Slow down," Harry said. "Okay. Let me get Blake. We'll meet you at Mother's."
"I'm sittin' in front of her house right now, Harry. I didn't know where else to go."
Meredith Blakely Fletcher is my maternal grandmother and the matriarch of everything. She is known affectionately as "Mother" to everyone who knows her. Her house has always been the command center. At one time or another it had been home to all of us, both friends and family alike. It became known as "Mother's" decades before I was even born.
Mother has a real rags-to-riches story. A young woman during World War Two, she was born in the mud of the Mississippi Delta, surrounded by money and old plantations, but never quite able to grasp it herself. She was absolutely gorgeous, a movie-star type of beauty with dark, wavy hair and eyes as blue-green as the Gulf. She worked at a five-and-dime during the war as a cosmetic salesperson. One day a handsome young law student by the name of Frank Fletcher came into the store and approached the lunch counter. Her Southern beauty caught his Yankee eye and they were together for 41 years, until his death twenty-one years ago. My New York-born grandfather always bragged that he found a million-dollar baby in the five- and ten-cent store, just like the song says.
Frank gave Meridee, as he affectionately called her, everything: a big Southern home and the exciting life of a wealthy lawyer's wife in the late forties and fifties. Frank set up his practice and Meridee gave birth to three children. She entertained with lavish parties for Frank's clients and two maids helped her care for her home and children. Meridee was the epitome of a Southern blue blood, even though her blood had originally run plain ole red.
Eventually, after much success on his own, Frank Fletcher and Hank Heart set up practice together. Yes, Hank is my Harry's grandfather and, no, mine was not an arranged marriage. They were affectionately known in Tuscaloosa as Hank-n-Frank, Attorneys-at-Law. Go ahead and laugh now and get that out of the way.
I remember as a child, Mother's house was my favorite place to be. Her bedroom was so full of the thick scent of perfumes that I can't think of her and not recall those fragrances. Her dressing table was a place of pure fascination to a little girl. The French pink glass bottles and the powder she had custom mixed to match her delicate skin tone made that table an island of enchantment to me. And the silver makeup brushes were the wands of magical transformations. Meridee wore black transparent stockings with seams running up the back. Her long nails were always perfectly manicured and always matched her endless array of bloodred lipsticks. I wanted to grow up to be just like her.
Mother's was a stone's throw from the law school, so it made for a very convenient hangout. Frank was a huge success as an attorney, but on Saturdays in the fall, you'd find him in the broadcast booth of the Alabama Crimson Tide. Frank was the play-by-play announcer for the famous football team. He was so proud of that. Our blood runs perfectly Crimson in my family. Their house was a place for everyone, and Meridee made sure that all felt welcome. All my life, in any moment of crisis or excitement, we always wound up at Mother's. No surprise, it's where we all wound up on that day.
Harry drove like a bat out of hell over to Mother's. He later told me he knew it would be bad for his Senatorial run if he had gotten a speeding ticket, but for once he didn't think about the political dreams first. Amazing.
When Harry got to Mother's, he found Vivi sitting in her car, gripping the steering wheel and staring straight ahead in a dazed stupor.
Harry had called me as he was driving to Mother's. When I found the ringing cell in my red leather Gucci bag and saw the caller ID announcing it was Harry, I don't know why, but I instantly suspected something awful. Harry never sounds hurried or breathless. He is the consummate lawyer, always in control. So when I answered the phone and heard his voice, I knew it was something awful.
"Blake!" Harry sounded like he had been jogging. "Meet me at Mother'snow!"
"Harry, what's wrong?" I asked.
"Blake, just come now." A silence. Then, "Lewis might be dead and Vivi's involved."
"What? I'm on my way." He explained all the details as I sped through town.
I don't remember the drive over there. I don't think I breathed even once in the five minutes it took me to arrive at the familiar cracked driveway. You had to angle your car just right to get in and out of it so as not to bottom out. I wasn't thinking of any angling as I ripped right in behind Harry's Mercedes and Vivi's powder-blue convertible Thunderbird. Harry was standing beside her car. The shock of what I'd just heard was stealing my breath, but I knew they both needed me. I opened my car door and turned and touched my high heels to the cement.
"Tell me againwhat the hell happened?" I heard Harry say to Vivi. "Go slow this time. I need every detail."
The consummate lawyer. Even when his own brother could be dead, Harry was in full lawyer mode.
"For God's sake, Harry, you aren't takin' a freakin' deposition are you?" Vivi reacted in pure Vivi form. "Your damn brother, my lover, is dead, Harry! Dead! Dead! Dead!"
Vivi is a tactless wonder. "I did it, but it was an accident! I thought he was enjoying it. He was yellin' and moanin' and
Harry, he just stopped," she said. "I don't know if I suffocated him or what, but oh, my God, he's dead!" She was crying and trembling, pushing the red, wiry frizz away from her eyes.
By now, Harry was visibly shaken. He pulled off his wire-framed glasses and dragged his long fingers through his thick salt-and-pepper hair. He was in his late thirties, but if you keep yourself so bottled up all the time you go gray before you know it. Harry was bottled and corked.
"Vivi," he said slow and steady, "is Lewis still at the Fountain Mist?"
"Well, Harry," Vivi answered with as much sarcasm as she could muster, "unless you believe in the walkin' dead, he's still right there where I left him, buck naked."
"Vivi, if Lewis is actually dead, you need an attorney," I interjected. "My God, we need to call an ambulance! The police."
"Well, y'all," Vivi said, "aren't I lookin' at two lawyers right now?"
Harry and I stood, looking dumb and stupid, first at each other, then at Vivi. Still, Harry looked the most confused. The most disoriented. I could tell he was trying to process how this little development might impact that precious blossoming political career.
He and his brother, Lewis, had never been close and Harry had spent a lifetime bailing Lewis out of one mess after the next. Lewis was the baby of the family. He was good-looking, but in a Field and Stream sort of way. He was the polar opposite of Harry. Harry was prep-school gorgeous. Straight out of GQ. Lewis was two years younger, with a loud, center-of-attention boom of a voice that could really get irritating. Actually, overall, Lewis was quite irritating. Why in the world Vivi would shack up with him was beyond me. I looked at her and, despite her mascara-stained eyes, her sheet-white skin and runny nose, wellhonestly, my thought was that Vivi could do better than Lewis. But what I loved in Vivi was her wild streak. She was one of the few people who really lived in the moment. Hell, Vivi lived for the moment. And I was sure that's what attracted Lewis.
After a long, awkward silence in the warmth of the late morning sun, Vivi spoke. "Well," she said, as if she had been picked last to play kickball, "since I don't really have a turkey wishbone handy for y'all, somebody be my damn lawyer already! Do we need to play eeny meeny miny moe or what?"