Suddenly, a high-pitched, agitated voice behind the drapes cuts through the serenity: "Dante! Git your silly ole tail in here, I cain't git this zipped up!"
No, she's not getting married, but Willadean is back.
When she announced a few months ago that she and some of the ladies from church would be going on a winter cruise, Dante immediately took charge. He was the most traveled among us, he had been to the Caribbean twice, he knew cruise lines inside out. Atlanta, he stated emphatically, was where we would go for her wardrobe; he had connections and with his help, Willadean would be the belle of the seafaring ball.
To this day, I'm not quite sure how he managed to bamboozle me into joining them, but early one Saturday morning, I found myself throwing an overnight bag into Monica's SUV and climbing aboard next to Miss Scarlett for The Big Atlanta Shopping Excursion.
The first thing Willa had to get, Dante insisted, was new foundation garments. No, she could not go to Walmart, she needed "quality." "You got some good stuff, Willadean Jean," he said, "but you ain't showin' it to its full potential."
"Don't you go talkin' 'bout my stuff, you devil," she reacted instinctively. "You still a man an' it ain't fittin' for a man t' talk 'bout no women's stuff, silly-tail-lazy-tail-no-good-tail-ol'-heathen..."
"You might want to try a thong," the lingerie salesclerk recommended, and when we all expressed our contempt for such garments, she hiked up her skirt right there in the ladies' dressing room and showed us how comfortable she was in her own. "It just gives you such a sense of freedom," she insisted, completely ignoring the look of horror on our faces. We found it impossible to avert our eyes when she bounced away a few minutes later, her freedom most obvious under a clingy pleated skirt.
Now that Willa had the proper foundation on which to build, Dante took us to one store after another. "You'll need two formals and two semi-formals," he had begun before she had interrupted. "I got plenty o' nice Sunday dresses."
"You plannin' on goin' to church on this ship?"
"Then the church dresses are stayin' home."
We went in and out of so many shops over the next two days I lost count. True to his word, Dante did know someone at most places. Sometimes it would be a clerk, sometimes a manager. Sometimes he'd tell the floor manager that he was good friends with Miss So-and-So in accounting or Mr. So-and-So at "the main office." I didn't question him and neither did any of the store personnel. In one store, Willadean found several gorgeous dresses, but they were miles out of our budget, and Dante wasn't familiar with anyone on staff. "Come on, we gotta go somewhere else...where's Miss Scarlett?" Dante looked around and spied our little Southern Belle batting her eyelashes at a handsome young clerk in Better Suits. Taking her aside, he whispered loudly, "Miss Scarlett, you know that man?"
"No," she began.
"You workin' on gittin' us a discount?"
"Then tuck them boobs back where they belong and git in th' car!"
With Christmas and New Years' just behind us and new stock not yet in, slim pickings were to be had at most larger stores. We found the best selection and prices at an incredible little consignment shop. Willadean bought several pairs of shorts and t shirts, a couple of cute pairs of capris, and a new-with-tags knee-length black cocktail dress; Monica bought at least a dozen outfits; Dante found scads of dress slacks in his size; Miss Scarlett spent over $300; I bought a pink tutu for Zoey.
Willa bought shoes. ("I ain't wearing them snake skin shoes, them's hootchie-mama shoes, gimme those with the gold heels and diamonds.") She bought jewelry and hats and sunglasses. She tried on several evening gowns, but nothing was quite right. Monica and Dante were kept busy running back and forth between dressing room and floor fetching various styles and sizes. In the dressing room of one large mall store, my heart went out to a woman in the next stall as she pitifully insisted that she did NOT need a bigger size. "Oh, alright," she finally conceded, "bring me a 6."
A 6. A 6 is bigger. My heart jumped right back in place.
In the hotel room that night, Dante had Willadean do a fashion show for us all. "You need some help in there?" he called into the bathroom.
"You stay outta here, you devil!" she called back. She strutted out in one outfit after another. Dante would make little suggestions here and there; he was amazing with his advice. "This scarf," he said, throwing a paisley fringed number over his arm, "will be divine wrapped...like...this..." He stood back to critique, adjusted it slightly to one side, and...it was perfect. When she stepped out in her black cocktail dress, he said wearily, "Willadean Jean, where's your new black bra?"
"It ain't no never mind o' yours where it is..."
"You need it with this dress; it just don't hang right with the white one." He insisted she change, and when she did, yes, there was a noticeable difference. "See?" he said, steering her toward the full length mirror on the door. "Slump your shoulders down a little...there...now that's how the other bra looked...straighten up...see how much better?"
"Silly tail, lazy tail..." she mumbled her way back into the bathroom.
After exhausting all other possibilities the following day, we took a tip from one of Dante's store clerk friends and found ourselves at an intimate bridal shop. He would call the owner himself and arrange a discount.
This place was LUXE. It simply exuded elegance and charm, and the selection of formal gowns did not disappoint. Dante charmed the clerk and when he returned with the news that the discount would apply to anything except shoes and jewelry, Miss Scarlett was already in one of the pink dressing rooms trying on a wedding dress.
"What's she trying on wedding dresses for?" he asked indignantly. "She fixin' to marry husband number 5?" And spying Monica with a white gown over her arm, too, he cried out. "Mabel Corrine! What are you DOIN?! YOU'RE MARRIED!"
"Shhhhh!" she admonished. "This ain't for me, it's for Scarlett. Y'all go help Willa." And off she flew into the pink recesses.
Willadean was holding a white tulle number in front of her body. Dante glared down at me. "Y'all are outa control."
In my defense, all I was holding was my purse.
But I did have a glance at the Alfred Angelo Collection.
We got Willadean steered in the right direction. She liked this color, didn't like that style, liked the fabric on this one, couldn't stand the texture on that one. She took three gowns into the dressing room. She called on Monica, on me, on the attendant. Miss Scarlett stepped out three times in fuller-than-full white skirts, and I had to admit, she was gorgeous. Mr. Businessman's tapping on his netbook slowed and finally stopped each time she emerged. Willadean grew more and more irritated; she wailed that she'd never find anything. "Do you HAVE to do the formal dinners on the cruise?" I ventured.
That remark was not well received at all.
After roughly an hour, Dante slipped away and returned with two more gowns. "But she already said no to this one," I began, and he said yes, he knew that, but it was going to be the best one on her, she just didn't know til she could see for herself, and that we would tell her it wasn't the same one, see this little broach? And he pinned a small rhinestone-embellished cross to the bodice.
It did the trick. As soon as she saw that cross, she fell in love with that dress. "It's just like Jesus sent me a sign, ain't it?" And the next thing we knew, she was calling for Dante's assistance in the confines of the pink dressing room.
"Now don't you be lookin'..." "I ain't lookin'...suck in, Willadean Jean..." "I AM suckin' in, you ol' silly tail..." "You're gonna need a bigger size..." "NO! This is the one The-Lord-Our-Savior-Jesus-Christ wants me to have!..." "The-Lord-Your-Savior-Jesus-Christ don't want your big ol' butt hanging out on the ship when these seams split, now lemme get a bigger size!"
Well, let me tell you, when the bigger size was fetched, and Dante successfully got Willadean into it, she just blew us all away. That gown really was made for her. The sweetheart neckline was deep, but not so deep that she felt she'd go to Hell for wearing it; gathers cinched with a large rhinestone buckle on the right side disguised the waist, falling gently to the floor to add fullness to the skirt. The fabric swished pleasingly, and a ruffled jacket made it appropriate for cool evenings on deck. The dress was magical; she was beautiful. My hand was at my throat, as she swished and turned and admired herself from all angles in the tall mirrors.
"My butt's as big as Jennifer Lopez," she said. "Bigger," Dante mouthed.
Spell broken. Back to reality.
"Wait'll I tell Hoyt I helped Willadean Jean get dressed," Dante said on the way back to Nashville.
"Wait'll Hoyt sees her in that dress," Miss Scarlett said.
"Ya'll ain't right," Willadean smirked, "y'all silly-tail-lazy-tail-..."
Part II of Willadean's Cruise coming soon!