ouisiana Richardson was tempted to go back to her Cheerio-littered van and find a coffee shop to hide in. Cleaning the house, preparing for the babysitter, and tearing herself from her crying one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Zoe, had been exhausting. Besides, she was sure that she'd just been invited to the shower so Trish's baby could be outfitted with the latest in high-tech infant gear. A fellow library science professor at Louisiana A&M, Trish had never graced her with more than a terse hello. The transplanted Texan sometimes gave her pitying glances when Louise opened her purse to find a discarded sippy cup or tried in vain to remove a juice spot that made her shirt look like a map of Europe. Trish's wrinkle-free clothes were always color coordinated, and she never accidentally wore one blue and one black shoe.
Louise shifted the gift to her other arm and rang the doorbell. One side of the package bulged with an excess of crumpled-up paper, and the box peeked out on the opposite end. With her children constantly interrupting, she'd barely managed to get the thing wrapped, let alone make it look pretty. The sight would have made Martha Stewart choke on her almond tea biscuit.
When a tall blond woman wearing a cream-colored pantsuit and gold high-heeled sandals answered the door, Louise nearly dropped the gift and ran. But it was too late.
“Hi, I'm Louise,” she said, manufacturing an upbeat tone of voice. When she first arrived in Louisiana, she'd considered finally ditching the nickname, but quickly abandoned the idea. “Louisiana” had sounded exotic and interesting to her childhood friends in Minnesota. Here, judging from the incredulous looks she got the first few times she'd introduced herself, it was just too much. There were women in Georgia named Georgia and women in Virginia named Virginia, but apparently no one in the Pelican State shared its name. Except her. So “Louise” it was.
“Alicia. Pleased to meet you.” The woman stepped back to let Louise in. Her toenails were not only painted but also professionally manicured. Alicia's hair and makeup were so impeccable that she looked like a living dollâthe perfect embodiment of a Southern belle, if such an animal still existed. Once Louise was inside the house, the survival of the species was abundantly evident. Southern belles with blond-highlighted hair, wearing ironed, breezy blouses, sipped champagne by the fireplace. Southern belles in creased slacks balanced tiny plates of bite-size morsels as they admired the gifts piled next to Trish. Southern belles with charm-school posture and blemish-free skin trotted to the kitchen in their strappy, high-heeled sandals to refill drinks.
Louise was a mutt in a room full of purebreds. She hadn't realized that baby showers down South were so formal. In Minnesota, her jeans and plain black T-shirt would have been perfectly acceptable, but they were shabby next to the silk blouses and tailored pantsuits. As usual, her makeup was limited to an indifferent slash of cinnamon lipstick, and her straightish, shoulder-length brown hair wasn't tinted, fluffed, blow-dried, or permed. Louise couldn't afford a manicure or a dye job, and all her clothes were relics of the previous decade. When they were married, her ex-husband had enjoyed buying cute dresses and sexy little tops for her. Shopping for clothes with Brendan had made her feel like a princess. On her own Louise had no motivation to update her wardrobe. Her ex was gone, and chasing after children didn't require cocktail wear.
Louise tried to find a dark corner where she could become invisible, but Alicia's house was maddeningly bright and open. The combination of the ten-bulb chandelier in the living room/kitchen/dining area and the sunlight coming in through the windows lit up every inch of the space. The beige and white decor seemed unnaturalâthere wasn't a stain or smudge anywhere. It reminded Louise of the magazine-worthy perfection of her former in-laws' mini-mansion with its artfully placed vases of flowers, spotless floors and countertops, and beds piled high with decorative pillows. After the first visit, she'd understood Brendan's periodic comments about her lack of housekeeping skills. He didn't nag her; instead, he'd say something like, “Shouldn't we clean behind the refrigerator once in a while?” “We,” of course, meant her. Just like his father, Brendan never did housework. When they were first married, that detail hadn't seemed important. Back then, their relationship was about long, passionate discussions over glasses of wine. The misery, betrayal, and pain came later.
Louise's own modest ranch home looked like a day care gone to seed. The toy-strewn living room was decorated with stickers and marker scribbles. That morning, Zoe had put a blanket on the coffee table and arranged a tea party for her stuffed animals, using every piece of play food she could find. Dinner dishes still in the kitchen sink gave off an odor of curdling milk and stale macaroni and cheese. Paper, crayons, and coloring books covered the kitchen table. Louise had done the dishes and swept the crumbs from under the kitchen table for the babysitter's sake. As she now endured Alicia's appraising gaze, she wished she'd skipped the party, left the housecleaning for later, and snuggled on the couch watching morning cartoons with her kids instead. Zoe was obsessed with Elmo, and her delight at seeing him on the screen was so infectious that it made the puppet's high-decibel voice bearable, even endearing.
Alicia half turned and glanced at the group of elegant women. It was clear that she wanted to join her friends but felt that she had to be polite. “So, do you go to Community?”
“No. What's that? A church?” Louise didn't recognize any of the guests. None of the other library science professors had apparently bothered to come, probably because they knew about the Community clique, whatever it was. Louise was out of the loop, as usual. She felt like a kid during her first day in a new school. She had the wrong clothes, the wrong name, even the wrong accent.
Alicia fluffed her blond mane. “Well, we like to say that life is inspiration.” After an awkward pause, she glided back to the living room area, sitting next to another statuesque blonde and laughing about something, most likely Louise's nondescript jeans.
Louise didn't need an instruction manual on Southern manners to know that she'd been snubbed. All the assembled belles focused on Trish, who had draped her pregnant body in a pastel flowered dress and roller-curled her honey-blond hair for the occasion. No one looked at Louise.
She inched around behind the women, skirted the last love seat, and slid her present onto the edge of the pile, backing away slowly. From her perch on a straight-backed chair, Alicia glanced at her and then at the badly wrapped present. Her tight smile was the kind usually reserved for an errant child. Chastened, Louise took another step back.
Trish was busy tearing open a large, professionally wrapped gift. The woman sitting next to herâa sister, maybeârecorded the offerings in a notebook shaped like a baby's bottom. She gave Louise a genuinely friendly smile before her attention was drawn by the exclamations of the observing ladies. “I've seen those diaper pails!” someone squealed. “They use grocery bags so you don't have to buy expensive refills!”
All of the chairs were taken, so Louise stood next to the buffet table and searched for a kindred spirit in the group. But everyone focused on the gift-opening ritual with baffling intensity. The women appeared to be having fun, but maybe it was all pretense. How could anyone get excited about baby clothes, blankets, wipe warmers, pacifier holders, and other assorted infant accessories? When Louise was pregnant for the first time, she'd been new in townâIowa at the timeâand had no friends around to throw her a shower. Even though she could have used the gifts, she didn't miss the party. Big gatherings caused her inner shy child to reappear, making her awkward, bored, and miserable all at once. Feeling that unpleasant mix of feelings begin to churn around in her gut, she decided to leave while the belles were preoccupied.
She retrieved her worn black purse from behind the designer handbags and walked quickly toward the front door. Thankfully, her tennis shoes made no noise on the wood floors. They would be called “sneakers” in Southern speak. In Louisiana, sub sandwiches were po'boys, counties were parishes, minor wounds were bo-bos, lollipops were suckers, pop was . . . well, she hadn't yet figured out that one. Sometimes, she felt like she'd stepped through Alice's looking glass: everything was just a little bit off-kilter.
Opening the front door, she sighed with relief. Free at last. Except that a woman in a peach dress blocked her way. Louise let out a different kind of sigh.
“Lou-Lou! Where do you think you're going?” Sylvia set down a neatly wrapped present on the stoop, the better to adjust her underwear. Even though her pregnant belly strained the front of her dress, she was stunning with her wavy auburn hair, bright green eyes, and naturally pouty lips enhanced by glossy pink lipstick. Sylvia's makeup was always flawless, and she had a seemingly endless wardrobe of fashionable clothes. Despite being nearly six feet tall, she usually wore three-inch heels. The current pair were peach platform sandals that matched her dress exactly. She reminded Louise of a red-haired Barbie, but somehow they were friends anyway.
“I'm escaping the Museum of Southern Perfection,” Louise said.
“Shut up! You are not. I just got here.”
“Forget it. We aren't part of the Community community.”
Sylvia checked her lipstick in a compact mirror. “The coffee shop?”
“No, I think it's a new-wave church. You know, the kind with electric guitars and preachers in headset microphones.”
“So what? I'm hungry. Carry this present for me. Come on, I'm pregnant.”
“I know, I know.” Louise picked up the box. The pink wrapping paper was covered with winged cherubs. “What's with the girly stuff? Isn't she having a boy?”
“I don't know. Is she?” Sylvia stepped inside and speed-walked to the refreshment table, her heels clicking. All the other guests followed her with their eyes. Sylvia waved, taking the attention for granted. Unlike Louise, Sylvia was never ignored. “Hello, ladies. Trish.”
“Hi, Sylvia. So glad you could make it.” Trish set aside the onesie she'd just unwrapped and beamed, glancing briefly at Louise, almost certainly noticing her for the first time.
“Well, I'm sorry I'm late, but getting the hubs to watch Jimmy is always a challenge. Especially when there's a game on.” Sylvia took a baby-blue plate and eyed the selection of refreshments.
Louise delivered the present, and Trish immediately tore off the paper. “Oh, Sylvia. This is lovely.”
“Just a little something my friend made,” Sylvia said, filling her plate with tiny shrimp quiches. “It's nothing.”
Trish held up a baby-size quilt decorated with a boy fishing in a blue denim lake. The assembled ladies made admiring noises.
“Sneak. You knew it was a boy,” Louise said, coming up behind Sylvia and also getting a plate.
Sylvia grinned, her mouth full of quiche. “No, I got lucky. My friend Bonnie from high school has a girlfriend who quilts.”
“Everyone quilts around here, don't they?”
Sylvia pursed her lips, thinking. “Everyone knows someone who does. I'll say that, Minnesota girl. Do you have homemade quilts for your kids?”
“You can add that to the list of my parenting failures.”
“Oh my God. I'll get you some, don't worry. Poor quilt-less children.”
Louise laughed as she selected some fruit and miniature cheesecakes, feeling at ease for the first time since she'd set foot in Southern-belle land. Even though Sylvia had long legs and a gorgeous smile, something about her was comforting. She could even make Louise stop worrying about the number of calories in each of the deceptively small dessertsâat least temporarily.
Trish opened Louise's present next, a starter kit of baby bottles that she had picked from the registry. The gift seemed to sum up Louise's entire persona: safe, boring, forgettable. How had she ended up in bayou-and-alligator country with such a flamboyant best friend? It was one of the mysteries of the universe. Trish immediately set the gift aside and picked up a package wrapped in sparkly blue paper.
“Have you checked your e-mail today?” Sylvia asked.
Louise tried a bite of miniature quiche. “Are you off your meds? I just managed to dress myself and make the house minimally presentable before the babysitter came.”
“We got a campus-wide e-mail. There are going to be big cuts at A&M.”
“What do you mean?”
“Budget cuts. You know about that, right? Economic crisis? A&M's budget reduced by twenty percent?”
Sales tax revenues were down with the shrinking economy, and the governor had targeted the university for reduction. The previous week, all the faculty and staff had received an e-mail warning them that cuts were coming. No one knew exactly what would happen. There were rumors about killing programs, departments even. German seemed vulnerable, as did Classics and Latin. Everyone agreed that there would be layoffs, at least among the ranks of instructors and adjuncts.
“Well, the library science school is tier three. Which means we mightâshoot, probably willâbe eliminated,” Sylvia said.
“Eliminated? The library school?” Louise nearly spit out a mouthful of quiche.
Sylvia snorted. “Never mind that our graduates run the public libraries, school libraries, and everything else around here. Yes, we are on the chopping block. And guess who still doesn't have tenure.”
“Both of us.” Louise's stomach sank. She'd just moved to this godforsaken place. For an apparently doomed job.
“Exactly. We are royally and completely screwed, sister.”