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.
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.
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 her eyes. Others may call her Chancellor; to me Peggy will always be just plain old Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S. If not for Peggy, I would still be Mrs. Henry “Trey” Biggs-Dix III, mistress of Pemberton Palace. I would still be sleeping on Frette sheets, numbered like works of art and thick and dense as deep sleep itself. I would still be breathing in air that smelled of lavender, eucalyptus, and the kind of clean that only generations of really dirty money can buy. If not for Peggy, I wouldn’t be here, huddled on Kippie Lee’s front porch, fighting to stave off bankruptcy. Bankruptcy? Who am I kidding? I was bankrupt when I married Trey. I believed he would rescue me. But his succubus of a mother sliced my oxygen hose and left me gasping on the ocean floor. No, it is what lurks beyond bankruptcy that terrifies me.
I feel my former mother-in-law up there gloating, and I punch the doorbell frantically. Still no one arrives to rescue me. I press my ear to the door and hear furious whispering, most of it coming from Kippie Lee. But when Graciela, the live-in housekeeper, finally opens the door, the Kipster is nowhere in sight.
“Miss Blight.” Blight? Not the most euphonious rendering of my name, Blythe, but it’s nothing compared with the question Graciela asks: “Can you go around to the back?”
“The back? The service entrance?” I am certain I’ve heard wrong. Kippie Lee was one of my stalwarts, one of the women I called my Flying Buttresses because they had supported me so solidly when my marriage crumbled. Actually, the marriage imploded more than crumbled. One day Trey and I were doing a mat Pilates class together, the next a lawyer—a lawyer?!— was telling me that my marriage was over. In the immediate aftermath of that bombshell, Kippie Lee poured endless glasses of pinot grigio and agreed that Trey was a Dix in more than last name.
And now this? Asked to use the service entrance?
There could be no more definitive signal that I have officially plummeted from Upstairs to Downstairs. I hide my shock and humiliation and chirp out with more pep than a Texarkana girl rushing Kappa Alpha Theta: “Not a prob!”
Feeling Peggy’s vulture gaze drilling into me, I drive the little minivan around to the back of Gigando Manse and consider the deep irony of my demotion to Downstairs: I was never really Upstairs. Not on paper, where it mattered. Not after the Dix family’s team of carrion-eater lawyers slid that cursed prenup under my pen.
The tears I will not allow to fall make Pemberton Palace look wobbly and long-ago, like something out of a misty fantasy. Fantasy has always been my stock-in-trade. It’s what I built two careers on: event coordination and photography. Some would say that my last incarnation, as Trey’s bride, was little more than a canny career move. All I have to say to those slanderers is “Check out the prenup.” Would that I had been half as calculating as I am accused of being. And would that such calculations had occurred before I signed that damn prenup.
As I scuttle back and forth unloading foil-wrapped trays, flowers, and rented polyester tablecloths, I see the silver lining in this service entrance cloud: I am sheltered from the Iron Chancellor’s rapacious gaze, and even better, Kippie Lee won’t be monitoring the supplies that financial necessity has forced me to resort to. I am stuffing the evidence of my cost cutting into the trash when our hostess herself appears in the kitchen.
“What’s that?” Kippie Lee asks, stopping me from shoving the trash compactor closed.
I whirl around, making sure that the sunlight catches my custom-fitted Zac Posen in just the right way. “Kip-Kip! Wow, you look amazing.” Amazing is how most of Kippie Lee’s crowd think she looks. With her long, straight, expensively bleached hair and long, straight, fastidiously starved body, K.L. has always modeled herself after Jerry Hall. Now, however, she has whittled herself away, to the starved, holding-on-by-a-thread look of a fellow sister in desperation. Her doll-baby bright-blue eyes glitter a little too intensely; her size 1 Pucci frock hangs a little too loosely. Kippie Lee appears to be in the crisis phase with a straying husband when she is in danger of giving him what he wants most and making herself disappear altogether.
I point to her shoes and squeal, “You got the Chanel croc heels! I was so going to get those exact heels.”
Kippie Lee tips her left shoe from side to side, examining it as she recalls, “God, they made me wait, like, two months before . . .” She catches herself and stops suddenly; my feint into friendship has failed. Once again all business, Kippie Lee yanks open the compactor, and her mouth drops in horror as she reads the name on the wrapping I was trying to hide.
“Sam’s Club?” She points to the trays of food waiting to be presented to the cream of Austin society. “This is what you’re going to serve?”
“No, no, of course not.” I pirouette to shield the trays of Sam’s taquitos I’d planned to slip through customs as petites tournedos béarnaise à la mexicaine.
“Blythe, you promised me a true fête champêtre, a classic English garden party. The menu we agreed upon was amuse-bouches, to include, but not to be limited to, mustard-seed-crusted tuna loin with an herb-coconut sauce and quail stuffed with goat cheese.”
I hold up a finger to silence Kippie Lee and furiously punch numbers into my cell phone. “Guillaume, bonjour. Comment va avec les amuse-bouches?” I pause, nod thoughtfully, and throw out an occasional enthusiastic, “Bien, très bien!” as I listen to the dead silence of a dead cell phone whose bill I haven’t been able to pay in months. I snap the cell shut and announce triumphantly, “My staff is putting the finishing touches on the tuna loin even as we speak.”
“Are those . . .” Kippie Lee snags a flower from one of the buckets I bought from a street vendor on the way over. “Carnations?” She might as well have asked, Used toilet brushes?
“What?” I squint with irritation at the flowers. “Oh, damn, Les Fleurs du Mal messed up my order. Don’t worry. I’ll get it sorted.” I purposely say “sorted,” not “sorted out.” Dropping the occasional anglicism—“one off,” “brilliant,” “chuffed”—has a nice distancing effect. I work my thumbs and forefingers as frantically as a pachinko player as I simultaneously punch a text message into my phone and juggle to keep the dead screen out of Kippie Lee’s sight.
“Blythe, you promised masses of peonies and lilies and many sets of the Dix family antique Royal Winton china in the coveted Dorset pattern. And croquet. You said there would be croquet.”
I can recall nothing about this Victorian fantasy I apparently painted, though I do like the croquet flourish, and answer smartly, “A staff member just called to say he has secured the precise croquet set used by HRH and that he is on his way right now to set it up. I’ll check to make sure he has it.”
Before I have a chance to make a pretend call on my pretend phone about the pretend croquet set, K.L. begins manhandling the smudge pots I picked up at Family Dollar, then spritzed with Glade. I pluck it out of her hand and quickly change the subject. “Kip-Kip, if you had given me the advance we agreed upon, I could have—”
“You know I wanted to, but Hunt put his foot down.”
Now we are on very thin ice indeed. The major reason that poor Kippie Lee is hosting this or any other party is to silence the rumors regarding trouble here in the starter castle. Rumors about how Hunt Teeter, Miss Kip’s philandering asshole of a husband, has been getting the kind of cleanings from his nubile young dental hygienist that left Happy Rockefeller a widow. Unfortunately for K.L., though, if you want to throw a big the-marriage-is-fine party, El Hubbo has got to put in an appearance. Ominously, Kippie Lee had not been able to wrangle Philandering Asshole into making so much as a cameo. And, in the end, she was forced to settle for this, the all-gal-pal weekday garden party.
“Well, without an advance—”
“Duncan and Cherise told Hunt that they were not completely in love with what you did for her opening.”
“Duncan and Cherise Tatum? The Tatums were mad about that event. I perfectly matched the food to Cherise’s remarkable show of button art. Cunning pieces. Little button men holding little button hearts out to little button women. Button dogs lifting button legs on button fire hydrants. Button girls chasing button butterflies. I picked up the motif perfectly and served a complementary buffet every bit as fanciful. How perfect was that?”
“You served Eggo waffles, Necco wafers, pepperoni kebabs, and circles of bologna on Ritz crackers.”
“Yes! Wasn’t it inspired? Buttons? Circles? Circles of life, circles of friends, circles of food. They adored it.”
“They stopped payment on the check.”
“All right, Kippie Lee, I’ll level with you. A few of my events might have been the tiniest bit less than flawless after”—I pause before going on to identify the Damocles sword hanging over K.L.’s head—“the divorce.” Waiting for a gush of sister feeling to well up, I blink back tears that I don’t have to summon so much as simply stop fighting for one second. “Well, a woman really finds out who her true friends are.”
Kippie Lee takes a second to imagine all her friends drinking Belmontinis at the Belmont without her and a few drops of compassion do actually moisten her arid expression. I push this tiny opening. I’d heard that even though Hunt Teeter’s firm had made one fortune on legal prestidigitation when the venture capital money flowed to the dot-commers, then another fortune when it was rerouted through bankruptcy court, his wife’s extravagance was rumored to have been the final straw, the one that caused him to stray. What Kippie Lee’s three-teardown Xanadu had ended up tearing down was her marriage. I decide to play that card. Sniffing, I go on bravely, “I guess, though, what I miss most is my house. My home.”
Kippie Lee puts her hand on her mouth, suppressing the horror that rises at the thought of losing the house that has cost her so much.
“I mean, of course, I could have stayed on”—I raise a born-again finger toward Pemberton Palace—“up there. But it brings back too many memories.”
Kippie Lee places a hand on my arm.
Bingo! The buttresses are flying again. This is my opening; I have to scoot through it while I can. “At least George and Laura have stayed on my side.”
“Yes, we visited them so many times at Kennebunkport. Gathering of the clans, all that. Forty-one and Junior.” I press my index and middle fingers together to symbolize the closeness between Trey’s father and the forty-first president of the United States. “Bar is begging me to do something clambakey for her this summer when the whole gang gathers. You didn’t hear it from me, but . . .” I glance around the empty kitchen and Kippie Lee leans in. “Bar hates Peggy. Loathes her. When Bar was doing fundraisers for Planned Parenthood back in the Texas years, Peggy was on the board, and it got so bad that Bar had her banned.”
Kippie Lee drags herself back to the matter at hand, though with considerably less vehemence now that I have again reestablished my White House-insider status. “Okay, but the votives?”
I look down and pretend once more to read a message on my cell phone. “Jean-Philippe just texted. The votives are on the way, Kips.” I turn my nervous hostess around and give her a gentle push. “Now, you, my little goddess, all you have to worry about is making yourself even more fabulous than you already are. Scoot, scoot, scoot.”
Kippie Lee leaves and I slump onto a hammered-copper bar stool. After sitting for a moment, I notice that I can’t catch my breath and that my hand resting on the two-inch-thick textured-glass countertop is trembling with a palsied rattle I cannot control. With a macabre syncopation, my right eye starts twitching. I put my twitching hand against my twitching eye and feel my spastic colon tick like a time bomb.
Pausing only to grab my silver Fendi hobo, I rush out. I’m cracking and have to find sanctuary before the meltdown. Thank God for K.L.’s adoration of Texas’s first and still most glamorous celebrity-socialite, Becca Cason Thrash, who has thirteen powder rooms and two bedrooms in her 20,000-square-foot Houston home. Thirteen to two. The ratio mesmerized Kippie Lee, who believed that it held the secret to earthly happiness. When she tried to duplicate it, however, her husband put his foot down. “What the hell do you think we’re running here?” Hunt had demanded. “A potty-training academy? Four is the absolute maximum number of crappers I will allow.”
Kippie Lee split the difference and went for eight powder rooms, and Hunt went for Marigold, the comely young dental hygienist. He’d first been attracted to Marigold because she smelled like Dove soap instead of all the “froufrou crap” his wife had had specially compounded in some Swiss laboratory. The affair turned serious when Hunt asked Marigold where she wanted to go for a weekend getaway and she answered that the redfish were running in Rockport. After that, Hunt stopped caring about powder rooms. Or Kippie Lee.
Whatever toll those powder rooms had exacted on the Teeter marriage, I am glad to have such a wide choice of hideouts. I duck into the first one I come to.
“Oh, sorry, boys, my mistake.” I quickly back out of the media room, where I have accidentally burst in on Kippie Lee’s son, Hoot, and several of his middle school chums from St. Stephen’s enjoying a sprightly double feature of Good Will Humping and Glad He Ate Her.
Resetting my compass, I make my way to the largest powder room, the one with a small fireplace, lock the door behind me, and collapse onto the lid of Kippie Lee’s Toto UltraMax toilet (same brand the Pi Phi Bulimia Queens use for all their heavy-duty flushing needs). Once seated, I have serious doubts whether I’ll be able to stand again. I can usually put on a good front. A great front. It’s how I’ve survived for the past year since Trey and his mother’s death squad of lawyers pulled the plug on me. But the constant humiliation of serving women whom I used to entertain in my home and who used to entertain me in theirs has taken a heavy toll.
I can’t hold back the tears any longer. I start crying and cannot stop. I am coming unglued, and all I can think about is what a great story this is going to make: the day the caterer locked herself in a powder room and refused to cater. I can hear Kippie Lee bestowing the details of my collapse like party favors.
And guess who the caterer was?
Blythe Dix. Well, Blythe Young now. The family made her give up the Dix family name.
So why wouldn’t she come out of the powder room. Was she high?
“No!” I startle myself by speaking this fierce defense out loud. But it is the truth. I’m not high. Not at this exact minute, anyway. I wanted to do this event with no chemical amendments. And not just because my supplies were running perilously low.
Keeping up the pretense that I am simply helping friends out with their parties for the sheer fun of it is exhausting, but I have no choice. The instant that the 78703 zip code discovers that the Dix family has totally disowned me and that whatever gossamer ties I might once have had to the White House have been severed, I will be tits up. When they realize that catering is not just something I am doing to fill the time between spinning classes but the one activity standing between me and starvation, I will be most definitively hosed. When they twig to the fact that I have moved out of Pemberton Palace and into Bamsie Beiver’s carriage house not because the Palace “brings back too many memories” but because I was “tossed out on my ass without a dime,” I will no longer be of any use to them whatsoever.
The gossips in my head start twittering again. I imagine them zeroing in on my deepest, darkest secret: “I heard that Trey took her to the cleaners in the divorce.”
My answer—which the Pemberton Princesses must nevereverever hear—is, I wish. I could have managed the cleaners. But Trey Dix the Third and his family of wolverines weren’t content to just take me to the cleaners. No, they took me to the taxidermist. I have been gutted but have yet to be stuffed and stitched back up.
“Get a grip,” I order myself as I splash water onto my wrists from Kippie Lee’s cobalt-blue vessel sink etched with dancing nymphs. But no grip arrives. The past year of living on nerves, Stoli, and speed have done me in. I dry my hands on a monogrammed guest towel and study myself in the mirror. I wish there were someone around—someone male with tons of money—to admire how sexy my navy-blue eyes look when they are swimming in tears. How puffed up all the crying has made my lips, how uncontrollable sobbing has plumped my skin the way long bouts of vigorous sex do.
Instead, outside the powder room’s sculpted glass door, I hear the distant echoes of Kippie Lee having the mandatory preparty nervous breakdown, then, ominously, the staccato clacking of Chanel crocodile pumps draws closer. A shadowy form appears at the door. I don’t worry. Kippie Lee’s Southern-girl “niceness,” which, at its most basic, consists of an aversion to making scenes, will protect me from anything truly dire.
Kippie Lee pounds on the door. “Blythe? Are you in there? Blythe, come out. We need to talk.”
The words “need” and “talk” in the same sentence always mean someone—lover or employee—is going to get the ax.
“Little busy in here, Kip-Kip!” Again that indomitable Kappa Alpha Theta pep.
“Blythe, I’m serious.”
Kippie Lee’s dominatrix tone tells me that I might have miscalculated. That this far west of the Mississippi, enough pioneer-gal grit may have entered the mix that a Texas girl will make a scene. I hold my breath and pray that there is still enough of the belle in Kippie Lee that she won’t break down the door.
Kippie Lee leaves and I relax. Unfortunately, the clack returns a moment later followed by the unmistakable snick of a black AmEx card sliding between door and jamb. I am outraged: Kippie Lee is breaking in. Violating the sanctity of the powder room. This I had not expected. Resigned as a prisoner being â€†led to the gallows, I am almost grateful that the jig is finally up. I am so deeply, deeply tired. Whatever steep descending step in A Rake’s Progress comes next, it can’t be any worse than this.
And then the cavalry arrives.
“Miss Keeply,” Graciela calls out. “They are here. Los otros.”
My minions have arrived.
“Miss Keeply, they want to know, where do you want them to put the tables?”
With an irritated sigh, Kippie Lee removes her card. “I’ll be right there, Graciela.”
Before I can crater again, I give myself a stern talking-to. Have I forgotten that I was born in and raised in and got the hell out of Abilene as soon I could? That I am more of a Texas gal than the whole lot of them? Grit? Try growing up in a double-wide a block off I-20 with a Dairy Queen for your country club and the boys’ JV football coach for your secret boyfriend when you were barely thirteen. Grit? I have more grit in my craw than a Rhode Island Red. The Dixes and everyone else in Zero Three might have reduced Blythe Young to baking humble pie and serving it to them on doilies, but by damn, they will never force Blythe Young to eat it.
I give my nose a definitive blow, then power-flush the Kleenex down the Toto. I have had my moist moment and now it is over. I will hide out while the underlings set everything up, then, if I can just hang on until the guests arrive, it will be smooth sailing from there. Kippie Lee will never make a scene in front of guests. I can safely emerge and throw the absolute best garden party for her my limited means will allow. A party good enough, at any rate, to get that one lifesaving check. In order to accomplish this mission, however, in order to step out of this locked bathroom, I must become a different person. A person with the hide of a rhino, the morals of a hyena, and the metabolism of a hummingbird.
So, once again, circumstances dictate that I reenlist my old defender to effect the necessary Jekyll-Hyde transformation. I fetch the Fendi bag and remove a 32-ounce commuter cup with “Code Warrior” printed on the side. The Warrior entered my life during the early days of Wretched Xcess’s first incarnation, when I had to do the work of ten to meet the demands of my bright dot-com boys. With no one other than myself to depend on—as usual—I was forced to devise a secret formula to keep fluid, electrolyte, and psychopharmaceutical levels stable.
And now, exactly as it has been since Vicki Jo Young gave birth to me 33 years ago, it is Blythe Young against the world. Just a girl who never had family money or even a My Little Pony lunch box when all the other girls in third grade had one doing what she has to do to survive. And right now, she has to do some Code Warrior.
I take all the fixin’s out of my purse and mix up my proprietary blend of Red Bull, Stoli, Ativan, just the tiniest smidge of OxyContin, and one thirty-milligram, timed-release spansule of Dexedrine. I shake, drink, sit back down on the Toto UltraMax, fasten my safety belt, and wait for the g-forces to blow my cheeks back.
My friend Stoli hits the jangled synapses first, smoothing the way for her buddies Ativan and OxyContin to do their jobs. Desperation, mortification, regret, and panic melt away before the Warrior’s might, exposing the bone-deep exhaustion that lies beneath, and I nod off for the first bit of real sleep I have had in weeks.
Moments later, I wake with my heart thudding in a full-blown panic attack. The spansule has dissolved and Code Warrior’s Dexedrine shock troops have hit the beach. My jugular vein is throbbing; I am grinding my teeth and snorting like a bull about to charge. My thoughts cascade past at a frightening speed. I am hurtling through time and space on a psychic luge and fear I might throw up.
In short, I have become precisely the person I must be in order to face the cream of Austin society. How perfect is that?