Desperate Housewives

Three things were a given in Austin’s high society in 2003: Marriages were on the rocks, pills were taken straight up, and ties to the Bush White House were the most intoxicating drug of all. An exclusive excerpt from Sarah Bird’s new novel, How Perfect Is That.
Illustration by Anita Kunz

Ah, Pemberton Heights, the creamy-white filling squirting out of Austin’s exclusive Tarry­town Twinkie.

The image calms my jittery nerves as I pilot the Kia Sedona minivan that has replaced my beloved, yet sadly repoed, Escalade toward the street where Trey and I lived not so very long ago. Though tears threaten at the thought of my lost paradise, I forbid them to fall. My future will be decided today. So although the lengthy list of things I would rather be doing than coordinating Kippie Lee’s garden party would lead off with “Anything” and finish up with “Gum surgery,” I have no choice. One, just one, healthy check could keep me alive long enough to regroup and come back to fight another day.

In another city. Under another name.

Kippie Lee’s check is my last, rapidly fading hope for staying out of debtor’s prison. The words “debtor’s prison” fill my mind with images from A Rake’s Progress. Wastrels in powdered wigs despoiling themselves at the gaming tables. Blowsy slatterns in mob caps with beauty marks painted over syphilitic sores. Grand ladies in Marie Antoinette wigs amusing themselves by gawking at the debt-maddened lunatics imprisoned in Bedlam. It is a highly motivating vision.

I am about to switch off the radio and concentrate on dodging crippling grief when the word “Enron” pops out at me. I turn the volume up. I have to stay current on the Enron situation for that rare occasion when one of the ladies wants to talk about something other than Italian glass tile and who’s had work done. Since the consensus view on Enron among Kippie Lee’s group is “government witch hunt,” I need to collect further evidence of big government’s attempt to throw sand into the gears that power free enterprise and the American way. But the only news on the Enron front today is that indictments naming the participants in a gaudy array of fraud schemes will remain sealed for another month.

Drat.

I turn the radio off and brace myself. Kippie Lee’s gigando manse is directly beneath Pemberton Palace, where I lived high on a hill above them all during my short marriage. It is bad enough rattling onto my old street in a minivan, but even worse is having to arrive without backup, since I can’t afford to hire minions for any but the barest minimum of essential hours. Consequently, I am all by myself when I step up to the front door of Kippie Lee Teeter’s titanic French provincial. The Teeters tore down not one, not two, but three houses to construct their Xanadu. Petitions started circulating the day the foundation was poured to ban such McMansions forever from Pee Heights in particular and the whole precious 78703 zip code in general.

I plaster on a glittering smile, pinch my cheeks, then ring the bell. Surrounded by chafing dishes and cans of Sterno, I force myself to forget all the times when I was greeted effusively as a cherished guest, a friend, an equal. No, let’s be honest; when I was married to Trey, when I was Mrs. Henry “Trey” Dix the Third, I was better than Kippie Lee, better than any of them. They sought me out, a treasured addition to the guest list. When asked, “Who’s coming?” my name would be the first one a hostess coyly dropped.

Like many a divorcée before me, though, I learned to my eternal sorrow that it was never my name they were dropping.

It was the illustrious Dix family name with its magical White House links being dropped. And in Austin, Texas, in 2003, the third year of the reign of our former governor, it is all about White House links. Austin Republicans had suffered through more than thirty years since they’d last had an honest-to-goodness Texan in the White House. And that one had been a— shudder—Democrat. For three decades R’s had watched their city kowtow to every D who ever tossed a bluebonnet seed onto the side of a highway with Lady Bird. Now is their time to ride the glory train, and they are all highly determined to get their tickets punched.

Kippie Lee certainly is. Apparently, back in Midland, Laura Bush used to babysit for her. Or maybe Laura was her godmother or camp counselor, I can’t recall. Whatever the feeble connection with the first lady, Kippie Lee has somehow managed to enshrine it in Xanadu and leverage them both into total social dominance of Pemberton Heights.

I ring the doorbell again and consider Kippie Lee’s dubious White House ties. Laura Bush’s true inner circle claims that since Kippie Lee wasn’t even born back when they were giving hand jobs in Midland, she is a rank pretender. That hasn’t slowed Miss Kip down. She and the coven cherish the few tenuous Bush connections they have and desperately seek out new ones. No one was sought more desperately than my ex, Trey Dix the Third, since the Dixes and the Bushes go way, way back. All the way back, in fact, to the Jurassic period, when the petroleum that both their families’ fortunes were built on began forming. This meant that for the brief, shining duration of my marriage, I too was a White House connection, and the Zero Three-ers cultivated me like a hothouse orchid.

Now more Jehovah’s Witness than hothouse orchid, my skin prickles as I wait at the front door. A laser beam of attention skitters across my back, and I whirl around to see who is staring at me. As usual, there are no actual human beings on the street other than a couple of yardmen. When I look up, however, up to my former home, Pemberton Palace, perched above the neighborhood majestic as a potentate on a throne, I find my former mother-in-law staring down at me. Peggy Biggs-Dix’s nickname, the Iron Chancellor, never seemed more apt. A bulldog in pearls and a summer frock, the sun glints off her iron-colored hair and the iron-colored lenses of the binoculars she holds to

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