I spent most of the summer in Hannah’s company, falling in with her schemes and plans, which never amounted to anything but were enjoyable nonetheless. We rode our bikes into town, went out to explore ravines and fields and cave entrances, or sat together in Hannah’s room listening to Nirvana. To my disappointment I seldom saw Hardy, who was always working. Or raising hell, as Hannah’s mother, Miss Judie, said sourly.
Wondering how much hell-raising could be done in a town like Welcome, I culled as much information as I could from Hannah. It seemed to be a matter of general agreement that Hardy Cates was born for trouble, and sooner or later he would find it. So far his crimes had been minor ones, misdeeds and small acts of mischief that broadcast a frustrated voltage beneath his good-natured exterior. Breathlessly Hannah related that Hardy had been seen with girls much older than himself, and there had even been rumors of a dalliance with an older woman in town.
“Has he ever been in love?” I couldn’t resist asking, and Hannah said no, according to Hardy falling in love was the last thing he needed. It would get in the way of his plans, which were to leave Welcome as soon as Hannah and her brothers were old enough to be of some help to their mother, Miss Judie.
It was hard to understand how a woman like Miss Judie could have produced such an untamed brood. She was a self-disciplined woman who seemed suspicious of pleasure in any form. Her angular features were like one of those old-time prospector scales upon which were balanced equal amounts of meekness and brittle pride. She was a tall, frail-looking woman whose wrists you could snap like cottonwood twigs. And she was living proof you should never trust a skinny cook. Her notion of fixing dinner was to open cans and ferret out scraps in the vegetable drawer. No wilted carrot or petrified celery stalk was safe from her reach.
After one meal of leftover bologna mixed with canned green beans and served on warmed-over biscuits, and a dessert of canned frosting on toast, I learned to take my leave whenever I heard the rattling of pans in the kitchen. The strange thing was, the Cates children didn’t seem to notice or care how terrible the food was. Every fluorescent curl of macaroni, every morsel of something suspended in Jell-O, every particle of fat and gristle disappeared from their plates within five minutes of being served.
On Saturdays the Cateses went out to eat, but not at the local Mexican restaurant or the cafeteria. They went to Earl’s meat market, where the butcher dumped all the scraps and cuts he hadn’t been able to sell that day—sausages, tails, ribs, innards, pigs’ ears—into a big metal tub. “Everything but the oink,” Earl used to say with a grin. He was a huge man with hands the size of catcher mitts and a face that glowed as red as fresh ham.
After collecting the day’s leftovers, Earl would fill the tub with water and boil it all together. For twenty-five cents you could pick out whatever you wanted, and Earl would set it on a piece of butcher paper along with a slice of Mrs. Baird’s bread, and you would eat at the linoleum table in the corner. Nothing was wasted at the meat market. After people were through with the tub, Earl took what was left, ground it up, added bright yellow cornmeal, and sold it as dog food.
The Cateses were dirt poor, but they were never referred to as white trash. Miss Judie was a respectable God-fearing woman, which elevated the family to the level of “poor white.” It seems a minor distinction, but many doors in Welcome were open to you if you were poor white and closed if you were white trash.
As a file clerk to the only CPA in Welcome, Miss Judie earned barely enough to put a roof over her children’s heads, with Hardy’s income supplementing her meager earnings. When I asked Hannah where her daddy was, she told me he was in the Texarkana State Penitentiary, although she’d never been able to find out what he’d done to get himself there.
Maybe the family’s troubled past was the reason Miss Judie had established a spotless record of church attendance. She went every Sunday morning and Wednesday night and was always to be found in the first three pews, where the Lord’s presence was the strongest. Like most people in Welcome, Miss Judie drew conclusions about a person based on his or her religion. It confounded her when I said Mama and I didn’t go to church. “Well, what are you?” she pressed, until I said I thought I was a lapsed Baptist.
This led to another tricky question. “Progressive Baptist or Reformed Baptist?”
Since I wasn’t sure of the difference, I said I thought we were progressive. A frown appeared on Miss Judie’s forehead as she said in that case we should probably go to First Baptist on Main, although from what she understood, their main Sunday service featured rock bands and a line of chorus girls.
When I told Miss Marva about the conversation later, and protested that “lapsed” meant I didn’t have to go to church, Miss Marva replied there was no such thing as lapsed in Welcome, and I might as well go with her and her gentleman friend Bobby Ray to the nondenominational Lamb of God on South Street, because for all that they had a guitarist instead of an organist and held open communion, they also had the best potluck in town.
Mama had no objection to my attending church with Miss Marva and Bobby Ray, although she said it suited her to remain lapsed for the time being. It soon became my habit on Sundays to arrive at Miss Marva’s trailer at eight o’clock sharp, eat a breakfast of Bisquick sausage squares or pecan pancakes, and ride to the Lamb of God with Miss Marva and Bobby Ray.
Having no children or grandchildren of her own, Miss Marva had decided to take me under her wing. Discovering my only good dress was too short and small, she offered to make me a new one. I spent an hour happily sorting through the stacks of discount fabric she kept in her sewing room, until I found a bolt of red cloth printed with tiny yellow and white daisies. In a mere two hours Miss Marva had run up a simple sleeveless dress with a boatneck top. I tried it on and looked at myself in the long mirror on the back of her bedroom door. To my delight, it flattered my adolescent curves and made me look a little older.
“Oh, Miss Marva,” I said with glee, throwing my arms around her stalwart form, “you are the best! Thank you a million times. A zillion times.”
“It was nothing,” she said. “I can’t take a girl in pants to church, can I?”
Na?vely I thought when I brought the dress home that Mama would be pleased by the gift. Instead it set off her temper and launched her on a tirade about charity and interfering neighbors. She trembled with anger and hollered until I was in tears and Flip had left the trailer to go get more beer. I protested that it had been a present and I didn’t have any dresses, and I was going to keep it no matter what she said. But Mama snatched the dress from me, stuffed it in a plastic grocery sack, and left the trailer, marching to Miss Marva’s in high dudgeon.
I cried myself sick, thinking I wouldn’t be allowed to visit Miss Marva anymore, and wondering why I had the most selfish mother in the world whose pride meant more than her own daughter’s spiritual welfare. Everyone knew girls couldn’t go to church in pants, which meant I would continue to be a heathen and live outside the Lord, and worst of all I would miss the best potluck in town.
But something happened in the time that Mama was gone to Miss Marva’s. When she returned, her face was relaxed and her voice was peaceful, and she had my new dress in hand. Her eyes were red as if she’d been crying. “Here, Liberty,” she said absently, placing the crackling plastic bag into my arms. “You can keep the dress. Go put it in the washer. And add a spoonful of baking soda to get rid of the cigarette smell.”
“Did you…did you talk with Miss Marva?” I ventured.
“Yes, I did. She’s a nice woman, Liberty.” A wry smile tipped the corners of her mouth. “Colorful, but nice.”
“Then I can go to church with her?”
Mama gathered her long blond hair at the nape of her neck and secured it with a scrunchie. Turning to lean her back against the edge of the counter, she stared at me thoughtfully. “It’s certainly not going to hurt you any.”
“No, ma’am,” I agreed.
Her arms opened, and I obeyed the motion at once, speeding to her until my body was crowded tightly against hers. There was nothing better in the world than being held by my mother. I felt the press of her mouth at the top of my head, and the tender shift of her cheek as she smiled. “You’ve got your daddy’s hair,” she murmured, smoothing the inky tangles.
“I wish I had yours,” I said, my voice muffled against her fragile softness. I breathed in the delicious scent of her, tea and skin and some powdery perfume.
“No. Your hair is beautiful, Liberty.”
I stood quietly against her, willing the moment to last. Her voice was a low, pleasant hum, her chest rising and falling beneath my ear. “Baby, I know you don’t understand why I was so mad about the dress. It’s just…we don’t want anyone to think you need things I can’t get for you.”
But I did need it, I was tempted to say. Instead I kept my mouth shut and nodded.
“I thought Marva gave it to you because she felt sorry for you,” Mama said. “Now I realize it was meant as a gift between friends.”
“I don’t see why it was such a big deal,” I mumbled.
Mama eased me away a little, and stared into my eyes without blinking. “Pity goes hand in hand with contempt. Don’t ever forget that, Liberty. You can’t take handouts or help from anyone, because that gives people the right to look down on you.”
“What if I need help?”
She shook her head immediately. “No matter what trouble you’re in, you can get yourself out of it. You just work hard, and use your mind. You’ve got such a good mind—” She paused to clasp my face in her hands, my cheeks compressed in the warm framework of her fingers. “When you grow up I want you to be self-reliant. Because most women aren’t, and it puts them at everyone’s mercy.”
“Are you self-reliant, Mama?”
The question brought a wash of uncomfortable color to her face, and her hands fell away from my face. She took a long time about answering. “I try,” she half whispered, with a bitter smile that made the flesh prickle on my arms.
As Mama started to make dinner, I went out for a walk. By the time I reached Miss Marva’s trailer, the afternoon, fierce and kiln-hot, had drained all the energy out of me.
Knocking at the door, I heard Miss Marva call me to come in. An ancient air conditioner rattled from its berth on the window frame, spurting cold air toward the sofa where Miss Marva sat with a needlepoint frame.
“Hey, Miss Marva.” I viewed her with new respect in light of her mysterious influence over my stormy-natured parent.
She motioned me to sit beside her. Our combined weights caused the sofa cushion to compress with a squeak.
The TV was on; a lady reporter with neat bobbed hair stood in front of a map of a foreign country. I listened with only half an ear, having no interest in what was happening in a place so far away from Texas. “‘…heaviest fighting so far occurred at the emir’s palace, where the royal guard held off Iraqi invaders long enough for members of the royal family to escape…concern over thousands of Western visitors who have so far been detained from leaving Kuwait…’”
I focused on the circular frame in Miss Marva’s hands. She was making a seat cushion that, when finished, would resemble a giant tomato slice. Noticing my interest, Miss Marva asked, “Do you know how to needlepoint, Liberty?”
“Well, you should. Nothing settles your nerves like working on needlepoint.”
“I don’t have nerves,” I told her, and she said I would when I was older. She put the canvas in my lap, and showed me the way to push the needle through the little squares. Her vein-corrugated hands were warm on mine, and she smelled like cookies and tobacco.
“A good needlepointer,” Miss Marva said, “makes the back side look as good as the front side.” Together we bent over the big tomato slice, and I managed to put in a few bright red stitches. “Good work,” she praised. “Look how nice you pulled the thread—not too tight, not too loose.”
I continued to work on the needlepoint. Miss Marva watched patiently and didn’t fuss even when I got a few stitches wrong. I tried to pull the strand of pale green wool through all the little squares that had been dyed a matching color. As I stared closely at the needlepoint, it appeared as if the dots and splashes of color had been strewn randomly across the surface. But when I pulled back and looked at it as a whole, the pattern suddenly made sense and formed a complete picture.
“Miss Marva?” I asked, scooting back in the corner of the springy sofa and hooking my arms around my knees.
“Take your shoes off if you’re going to put your feet up.”
“Yes, ma’am. Miss Marva…what happened when my mother came to visit you today?”
One of the things I liked about Miss Marva was that she always answered my questions frankly. “Your mama came here breathing fire, all riled about that dress I made you. So I told her I meant no offense and I’d take it back. Then I poured some iced tea and we got to talking, and I figured out right quick she wasn’t really mad about the dress.”
“She wasn’t?” I asked dubiously.
“No, Liberty. She just needed someone to talk to. Someone to sympathize about the load she’s carrying.”
That was the first time I’d ever discussed my mother with another adult. “What load?”
“She’s a single working mother. That’s about the hardest thing there is.”
“She’s not single. She’s got Flip.”
Amused, Miss Marva gave a little cackle. “Tell me, how much help does he give your mama?”
I pondered Flip’s responsibilities, which centered primarily around the procurement of beer and the disposal of the cans. Flip also spent a lot of time cleaning his guns, in between the occasions he went to the flamingo range with other men from the trailer park. Basically Flip’s function in our house was ornamental.
“Not very much,” I admitted. “But why are we keeping Flip if he’s so useless?”
“For the same reason I keep Bobby Ray. Sometimes a woman needs a man for company, no matter how useless he is.”
From what I knew of Bobby Ray, I liked him pretty well. He was an amiable old man, smelling of drugstore cologne and WD-40. Although Bobby Ray didn’t officially reside in Miss Marva’s trailer, he could be found there most of the time. They seemed so much like an old married couple that I had assumed they were in love.
“Do you love Bobby Ray, Miss Marva?”
The question made her smile. “Sometimes I do. When he takes me to the cafeteria, or rubs my feet while we watch our Sunday-night programs. I guess I love him at least ten minutes a day.”
“Well, it’s a good ten minutes, child.”
Not long after that, Mama kicked Flip out of our trailer. It was a surprise to no one. Although there was a high tolerance for shiftless males at the trailer park, Flip had distinguished himself as a major league underachiever, and everyone knew a woman like Mama could do better. It was just a question of what the last straw would be.
I don’t think anyone could have predicted the emu.
Emus aren’t native Texas birds, although from the number of them to be found, both wild and domestic, you’d have been excused for thinking otherwise. In fact, Texas is still known as the emu capital of the world. It started around ’87 when some farmers brought some of the big flightless birds to the state with the ambition to replace beef as a cash crop. They must have been slick talkers, because they convinced just about everybody that the public would soon be clamoring for emu oil, leather, and meat. So emu producers raised birds to sell to other people to raise birds, and at one point a breeding pair cost about thirty-five thousand dollars.
Later on when a contrary public didn’t take to the idea of replacing a Big Mac with a Big Bird, the bottom dropped out of the market and dozens of emu ranchers turned their worthless birds loose. At the height of the emu craze, there were plenty of birds to be found in fenced pastures, and like any animal in a restricted area, they occasionally found a way to get past the fence.
As best I could make out, Flip’s emu encounter happened on one of those narrow country roads in the middle of nowhere, while he was driving back from a dove lease someone had let him in on. Dove season lasts from the beginning of September to the end of October. If you don’t have your own acreage, you can pay someone else for the privilege of hunting their land. The best leases are covered with sun-flowers or corn and feature a water tank, which brings the doves in fast and low, wings flashing.
Flip’s share of the lease had been seventy-five dollars, which Mama had paid just to get him out of the trailer for a few days. We hoped Flip might be lucky enough to hit some doves we could grill with some bacon and jalape?os. Unfortunately, while Flip’s aim was dead-on when an object was holding still, he couldn’t get the knack of hitting a target in motion.
Heading back home empty-handed, his gun barrel still hot from the day’s shooting, Flip was forced to stop his truck when the road was blocked by a six-foot-tall blue-necked emu. He honked the horn and shouted at the creature to move away, but the emu wouldn’t budge. It just stood there looking at him with beady yellow eyes. It wouldn’t move even when Flip got his shotgun from the back of the truck and fired in the air. The emu was either too mean or too puny-brained to scare.
It must have occurred to Flip as he waited in a standoff with the emu that it looked a lot like a giant chicken with long legs. It also must have occurred to him that there was a lot of eating on that bird, about a thousand times more than a handful of tiny dove breasts. Better yet, unlike the doves, the emu was holding still. So in a bid to restore his injured masculinity, his aim fine-tuned by hours of flamingo practice, Flip hefted the gun to his shoulder and blew the emu’s head clean off.
He returned home with the huge carcass in the back of the truck, expecting to be hailed as a conquering hero.
I was on the patio reading when I heard the familiar putter of Flip’s truck and the sound of the engine being cut. Skirting around the trailer, I went to ask if Flip had caught any doves or not. Instead I saw a big dark-feathered body in the pickup bed, and bloodstains all over Flip’s camo shirt and jeans like he’d been slaughtering cattle instead of dove hunting.
“Looky here,” he told me with a big grin, tipping the bill of his cap back on his head.
“What’s that?” I asked in amazement, inching closer to view the thing.
He postured a little. “Shot me an ostrich.”
I wrinkled my nose at the smell of fresh blood that wafted thick and sweet in the air. “I don’t think that’s an ostrich, Flip. I think it’s an emu.”
“No difference.” Flip shrugged, his grin broadening as Mama came to the door of the trailer. “Hey, honey pie…look what Daddy brung home.”
I’d never seen my mother’s eyes turn so big. “Holy shit,” she said. “Flip, where the hell did you get that emu?”
“Shot it on the road,” he replied proudly, mistaking her shock for admiration. “Gonna be mighty good eating tonight. Tastes just like beef, they say.”
“That thing must be worth at least fifteen thousand dollars,” Mama exclaimed, putting a hand on her heart as if to keep it from leaping out of her chest.
“Not anymore,” I couldn’t resist saying.
Mama glared at Flip. “You’ve destroyed someone’s private property.”
“No one’ll find out,” he said. “Come on, honey, hold the door open so I can bring it inside and butcher it.”
“You’re not about to bring that into my trailer, you crazy dumbass! Take it away. Take it away now! You’re going to get us both arrested for this.”
Flip was plainly bewildered that his gift was so unappreciated. Seeing the storm about to come, I mumbled something about returning to the patio and retreated to a spot behind the corner of the trailer. In the minutes that followed it was likely most of Bluebonnet Ranch heard Mama screaming that she’d had it, there was no way she was going to put up with him another minute. Disappearing into the trailer, she rummaged around for a short time, then came back with an armload of denim and boots and men’s underwear. She flung the lot of it onto the ground. “Take your stuff and get out of here now!”
“You call me crazy?” Flip shouted back. “You’re out of your gourd, woman! Quit throwing my things like—Hey, stop that!” It began to rain T-shirts and hunting magazines and foam beer can holders, the effluvia of Flip’s life of leisure. Swearing and huffing indignantly, Flip gathered the objects from the ground and hurled them into his truck.
In less than ten minutes Flip had driven away from the trailer, his wheels spinning, gravel flying behind him. All that remained was the hulk of a headless emu, deposited right in front of our door.
Mama was breathing heavily, her face crimson. “That useless jackass,” she muttered. “Should have gotten rid of him a long time ago…an emu, for Christ’s sake…”
“Mama,” I asked, coming to stand beside her. “Is Flip gone for good?”
“Yes,” she said vehemently.
I stared at the mountainous carcass. “What are we going to do with it?”
“I have no idea.” Mama scrubbed her hands through her pale, rumpled hair. “But we’ve got to dispose of the evidence. That bird was worth a lot to somebody…and I’m not paying for it.”
“Somebody should eat it,” I said.
Mama shook her head and groaned. “That thing is one step up from road kill.”
I thought for a moment, and inspiration struck. “The Cateses,” I said.
Mama’s gaze met mine, and gradually the scowl on her face was replaced by reluctant humor. “You’re right. Go get Hardy.”
To hear the Cateses tell it later, there had never been such a feast. And it went on for days. Emu steaks, emu stew, emu sandwiches, and chili con emu. Hardy had taken the bird to Earl’s Meat Market, where the butcher, after promising strict confidentiality, had a high time processing it into fans, fillets, and ground meat.
Miss Judie even sent over an emu casserole for Mama and me, made with Tater Tots and Hamburger Helper. I tried it and thought it was one of Miss Judie’s better efforts. But Mama, who was watching me with a doubtful gaze, suddenly turned green and fled the kitchenette, and I heard her getting sick in the bathroom.
“I’m sorry, Mama,” I said anxiously through the door. “I won’t eat the casserole anymore if it makes you sick. I’ll throw it out. I’ll—”
“It’s not the casserole,” she said in a guttural voice. I heard the sounds of her spitting, and the gurgle of the toilet flush. The water spigot was turned on as Mama began to brush her teeth.
“What is it, Mama? Did you get a virus?”
“We’ll talk about it later, honey. Right now I need some—” She stopped for another spit. Pt! Pt! “Privacy.”
It puzzled me that Mama should have told Miss Marva she was pregnant before she told anyone else, including me. They had become friends in no time, despite the fact that they were so different. Seeing them together was like watching a swan keeping company with a redheaded woodpecker. But they shared a certain steeliness underneath their dissimilar exteriors. They were both strong women who were willing to pay the price for their independence.
I figured out Mama’s secret one evening when she was talking in our kitchenette with Miss Marva, who had brought over a delicious peach cobbler with layers of sopping juice-soaked crust inside. Sitting in front of the TV with a dish and a spoon in my lap, I caught a few whispered words between them.
“…don’t see why he should ever be told…” Mama said to Miss Marva.
“But he owes you some help…”
“Oh no…” Mama lowered her voice again, so I could only hear a little here and there. “…mine, has nothing to do with him…”
“It won’t be easy.”
“I know. But I have someone to go to if things get bad enough.”
I realized what they were talking about. There had been signs, including Mama’s queasy stomach and the fact that she’d made two doctor visits in the space of a week. All my wishing and longing for someone to love, for family, had finally been answered. I felt a pinch in the back of my throat, something like tears. I wanted to jump up to my feet, I was so filled with happiness.
I stayed quiet, straining to hear more, and the intensity of my feelings must have reached Mama somehow. Her gaze fell on me, and she broke the conversation with Miss Marva long enough to say casually, “Liberty, go and start your bath now.”
I couldn’t believe how normal my voice sounded, just as normal as hers. “I don’t need a bath.”
“Then go read something. Go on, now.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I made my way reluctantly to the bathroom, questions darting through my mind. Someone to go to…An old boyfriend? One of the relatives she never talked about? I knew it had something to do with Mama’s secret life, the one she had led before I was born. When I was a grown-up, I vowed silently, I would go and find out everything I could about her.
I waited impatiently for Mama to break the news to me, but after six weeks had passed and still no word, I decided to ask her directly. We were driving to Piggly Wiggly for groceries in the silver Honda Civic we’d had ever since I could remember. Recently Mama had gotten it all fixed up, all the dents and dings pushed out, new paint, new brake pads, so it was good as new. She had also bought new clothes for me, an umbrella table and chair set for the patio, and a brand-new TV. She had gotten a bonus from the title company, she explained.
Our life had always been like that…sometimes we would have to count every penny, but then little windfalls would come. Bonuses or small lottery winnings, or something left to Mama in some distant relative’s will. I never dared to question her about the pockets of money that came our way. But as I got older I noticed they always happened right after one of her mysterious disappearances. Every few months, maybe twice a year, she would have me stay overnight at a neighbor’s house, and she would be gone for a day and sometimes wouldn’t come back until the next morning. When she returned, she restocked the pantry and the freezer, and there were new clothes, and things were paid off, and we could go out to eat again.
“Mama,” I asked, staring at the delicately stern lines of her profile, “you’re going to have a baby, aren’t you?”
The car swerved slightly as Mama shot me an astonished glance. She returned her attention to the road, her hands gripping the steering wheel. “Good Lord, you almost made me wreck the car.”
“Are you?” I persisted.
She was quiet for a moment. When she replied, her voice was a little unsteady. “Yes, Liberty.”
“A boy or a girl?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Are we going to share it with Flip?”
“No, Liberty, it’s not Flip’s baby, or any man’s. Just ours.”
I relaxed back in the seat while Mama’s quick-stolen glance darted through the silence. “Liberty…” she said with effort. “There are going to be some adjustments for both of us. Sacrifices we’ll both have to make. I’m sorry. I didn’t plan on this.”
“I understand, Mama.”
“Do you?” A humorless chuckle. “I’m not sure I understand it.”
“What are we going to name it?” I asked.
“I haven’t even started thinking about that.”
“We need to get one of those baby name books.” I was going to read every name there was. This baby was going to have a long, important-sounding name. Something from Shakespeare. Something that would make everyone aware of how special he or she was.
“I didn’t expect you would take the news this well,” Mama said.
“I’m happy about it,” I said. “Really happy.”
“Because now I won’t be alone anymore.”
The car turned into a parking space in one of the rows of superheated vehicles, and Mama turned the key in the ignition. I was sorry I’d answered that way, because it had brought a stricken look to her eyes. Slowly she reached out and smoothed back the front of my hair. I wanted to nudge against her hand like a cat being petted. Mama was a believer in personal space, her own and everyone else’s, and she was not given to casual invasions of it.
“You’re not alone,” she said.
“Oh, I know, Mama. But everyone has brothers and sisters. I’ve always wanted someone to play with and take care of. I’ll be a good babysitter. You won’t even have to pay me.”
That earned one more hair-smoothing, and then we got out of the car.