Chapter 9

Luke and I did not sleep together often, both from lack of opportunity—neither of us had our own place—and because it was obvious that no matter how I pretended to enjoy it, I didn’t. We never discussed the situation directly. Whenever we did go to bed together, Luke would try this or that, but nothing he did seemed to matter. I couldn’t explain to him or myself why I was a failure in bed.

“Funny,” Luke commented one afternoon, lying with me in his bedroom after school. His parents had gone to San Antonio for the day, and the house was empty. “You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever been with, and the sexiest. I don’t understand why you can’t…” He paused, cupping his hand over my naked hip.

I knew what he meant.

“That’s what you get for dating a Mexican Baptist,” I said. His chest moved beneath my ear as he chuckled.

I had confided my problem to Lucy, who had recently broken up with her boyfriend and was now going with the assistant manager at the cafeteria. “You need to date older boys,” she had told me authoritatively. “High school boys have no idea what they’re doing. You know why I broke up with Tommy?…He always twirled my nipples like he was trying to find a good radio station. Talk about bad in bed! Tell Luke you want to start seeing other people.”

“I won’t have to. He’s leaving for Baylor in two weeks.” Luke and I had both agreed that it would be impractical to continue dating exclusively while he was at college. It wasn’t a breakup exactly—we had agreed that he could come see me when he was home on break.

I had mixed feelings about Luke’s departure. Part of me looked forward to the freedom I would regain. The weekends would belong to me again, and there would be no more necessity of sleeping with him. But I would be lonely without him too.

I decided I was going to pour all my attention and energy into Carrington, and into my schoolwork. I was going to be the best sister, daughter, friend, student, the perfect example of a responsible young woman.

 

Labor Day was humid, the afternoon sky pale with visible steam rising from the broiled earth. But the heat didn’t hinder the turnout at the annual Redneck Roundup, the county rodeo and livestock show. The fairgrounds were filled to capacity, with a kaleidoscope of arts and crafts booths and tables of guns and knives for sale. There were pony rides, horse pulls, tractor exhibits, and endless rows of food stalls. The rodeo would be held at eight in an open arena.

Mama and Carrington and I arrived at seven. We planned to have dinner and visit Miss Marva, who had rented a booth to sell her work. As I pushed the stroller across the dusty broken ground, I laughed at the way Carrington’s head swiveled from side to side, her gaze following the strings of colored lights that webbed the interior of the central food court.

The fairgoers were dressed in jeans and heavy belts, and Western shirts with barrel cuffs, flap pockets, and plackets of mother-of-pearl snaps running down the front. At least half the men wore hats of white or black straw, beautiful Stetsons and Millers and Resistols. Women wore tight-fitting denim, or crinkly broomstick skirts, and embroidered boots. Mama and I had both opted for jeans. We had dressed Carrington in a pair of denim shorts that snapped down the insides of the legs. I had found her a little pink felt cowgirl hat with a ribbon that tied under the chin, but she kept pulling it off so she could clamp her gums on the brim.

Interesting smells floated through the air, the flurry of bodily odors and cologne, cigarette smoke, beer, hot fried food, animals, damp hay, dust, and machinery.

Pushing the stroller through the food court, Mama and I decided on deep-fried corn, pork-chop-on-a-stick, and fried potato shavings. Other booths offered deep-fried pickles, deep-fried jalape?os, and even strips of battered deep-fried bacon. It does not occur to Texans that some things just aren’t meant to be put on a stick and deep-fried.

I fed Carrington applesauce from a jar I had packed in the diaper bag. For dessert, Mama bought a deep-fried Twinkie, which was made by dipping a frozen cake in tempura batter and dropping it in crackling-hot oil until the inside was soft and melting.

“This must be a million calories,” Mama said, biting into the golden crust. She laughed as the filling squished out, and lifted a napkin to her chin.

After we finished, we scrubbed our hands with baby wipes and went to find Miss Marva. Her crimson hair was as bright as a torch in the gathering evening. She was doing a slow but steady business in bluebonnet candles and hand-painted birdhouses. We waited, in no hurry, for her to finish making change for a customer.

A voice came from behind us. “Hey, there.”

Mama and I both turned, and my face froze as I saw Louis Sadlek, the owner of Bluebonnet Ranch. He was tricked out in snakeskin boots and denim, with a silver arrowhead-shaped bolo tie. I had always kept my distance from him, which turned out to be easy because he usually left the front office empty. He had no sense of regular work hours, spending his time drinking and tomcatting around town. If one of the trailer park residents went to ask him about fixing things like a clogged septic line or a pothole on the main drive, he promised to take care of it but never did a thing. Complaining to Sadlek was a waste of air.

Sadlek was well groomed but puffy, with broken capillaries spreading across the tops of his cheeks like the mesh of hairline cracks at the bottom of antique china cups. He had enough good looks left to make you sorry for his ruined handsomeness.

It struck me that Sadlek was an older version of the same boys I had met at the parties Luke had taken me to. In fact, he reminded me a little of Luke himself, the same sense of unearned privilege.

“Hi yourself, Louis,” Mama replied. She had picked Carrington up and was trying to pry the baby’s tweezerlike grip from a long curl of her light hair. She looked so pretty with her bright green eyes and her wide smile…it gave me a jolt of unease to see Sadlek’s reaction to her.

“Who’s this little dumplin’?” he asked, his accent so thick it was nearly devoid of consonants. He reached out to tickle Carrington’s plump chin, and she gave him a wet baby-grin. The sight of his finger against the baby’s pristine skin made me want to grab Carrington and run without stopping. “You already eaten?” Sadlek asked Mama.

She continued to smile. “Yes, have you?”

“Tight as a tick,” he replied, patting the belted jut of his stomach.

Although there wasn’t anything remotely clever about what he’d said, Mama astonished me by laughing. She looked at him in a way that sent a creeping sensation down the back of my neck. Her gaze, her posture, the way she tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear, all of it conveyed an invitation.

I couldn’t believe it. Mama knew about his reputation just as I did. She had even made fun of him to me and Miss Marva, saying he was a small-town redneck who thought he was a big shot. She couldn’t possibly have been attracted to Sadlek—it was obvious he wasn’t good enough for her. But neither was Flip, or any of the other men I had ever seen her with. I puzzled over the common denominator between all of them, the mysterious thing that drew Mama to the wrong men.

In the piney woods of East Texas, pitcher plants attract bugs with an advertisement of bright yellow trumpets and red veins. The trumpets are filled with sweet-smelling juice that insects can’t resist. But once a bug crawls into the pitcher, it can’t get back out. Sealed in the crisp interior of the pitcher plant, it drowns in sugar water and is consumed. As I looked at Mama and Louis Sadlek, I saw the same alchemy at work, the false advertising, the attraction, the danger ahead.

“Bull-riding’s gonna start soon,” Sadlek remarked. “I’ve got a reserved box in the front. Why don’t y’all come join me?”

“No, thank you,” I said instantly. Mama gave me a warning glance. I knew I was being rude, but I didn’t care.

“We’d love to,” Mama said. “If you don’t mind the baby.”

“Hell no, how could I mind a sugar pie like this?” He played with Carrington, flicking the lobe of her ear, making her gurgle and coo.

And Mama, who was usually so critical of people’s language, didn’t say one word about swearing in front of the baby.

“I don’t want to watch the bull-riding,” I snapped.

Mama gave an exasperated sigh. “Liberty…if you’re in a bad mood, don’t take it out on everyone else. Why don’t you go see if some of your friends are here?”

“Fine. I’ll take the baby.” I knew at once I shouldn’t have said it that way, with a possessive edge to my tone. Had I asked Mama differently, she would have said yes.

As it was, however, she narrowed her eyes and said, “Carrington’s fine with me. You go on. I’ll see you back here in an hour.”

Fuming, I slunk away down the row of stalls. The air was filled with the agreeable twangs and drumbeats of a country band warming up to play at the big canopy-covered dance floor nearby. It was a fine night for dancing. I scowled at the couples who headed toward the tent, their arms slung around each other’s waists or shoulders.

I lingered at the vendors’ tables, examining jars of preserves, salsas, and barbecue sauces, and T-shirts decorated with embroidery and sequins. I progressed to a jewelry stall, where felt trays were littered with silver charms and glittering silver chains.

The only jewelry I owned was a pair of pearl studs from Mama, and a delicate gold link bracelet Luke had given me for Christmas. Brooding over the selection of charms, I picked up a little figure of a bird inset with turquoise…a shape of Texas…a steer head…a cowboy boot. My attention was caught by a silver armadillo.

Armadillos have always been my favorite animals. They’re awful pests, digging trenches through people’s yards and burrowing under foundations. They’re also as dumb as rocks. The best thing you can say about their appearance is that they’re so ugly, they’re cute. An armadillo is prehistoric in design, armored with that hard ribbed shell, his tiny head poking out the front as if someone stuck it on as an afterthought. Evolution just plain forgot to do anything about armadillos.

But no matter how armadillos are scorned or hounded, no matter how often people try to trap or shoot them, they persist in coming out night after night to do their work, searching for grubs and worms. If there are no grubs or worms to be had, they make do with berries and plants. They’re the perfect example of persistence in the face of adversity.

There’s no meanness in armadillos—their teeth are all molars, and they would never think of running up to bite someone even if they could. Some old people still call them Hoover Hogs for the days when the public had been promised a chicken in every pot and instead had to settle for whatever they could find to eat. Armadillos taste like pork, I’ve been told, although I never intend to test the claim.

I picked up the armadillo, and asked the seller what it would cost along with a sixteen-inch rope chain. She said it was twenty dollars. Before I could reach into my purse for the money, someone behind me handed over a twenty-dollar bill.

“I’ll take care of that,” came a familiar voice.

I spun to face him so quickly that he put his hands on my elbows to secure my balance. “Hardy!”

Most men, even those of average appearance, look like the Marlboro man when they wear boots, a white straw Resistol hat, and well-fitted jeans. The combination has the same transformative ability as a tuxedo. On someone like Hardy, it can knock out your breath like a blow to the chest.

“You don’t have to buy me that,” I protested.

“I haven’t seen you for a while,” Hardy said, taking the armadillo necklace from the lady behind the counter. He shook his head when she asked if he needed a receipt, and motioned me to turn around. Obeying, I lifted my hair out of the way. The backs of his fingers brushed against my nape, sending pleasure-chills across my skin.

Thanks to Luke, I’d been sexually initiated, if not awakened. I had traded my innocence in the hopes of gaining comfort, affection, knowledge…but as I stood there with Hardy, I understood the folly of trying to substitute someone else for him. Luke wasn’t like Hardy in any way other than a passing physical resemblance. Bitterly I wondered if Hardy was going to overshadow every relationship for the rest of my life, haunting me like a ghost. I didn’t know how to let him go. I’d never even had him.

“Hannah said you’re living in town now,” I commented. I touched the little silver armadillo as it hung at the hollow of my clavicle.

He nodded. “I’ve got a one-bedroom apartment. It’s not much, but for the first time in my life I’ve got some privacy.”

“Are you here with someone?”

He nodded. “Hannah and the boys. They’re off watching the horse pull.”

“I came with Mama and Carrington.” I was tempted to tell him about Louis Sadlek too, and how outraged I was that Mama would even give him the time of day. But it seemed I laid my problems at Hardy’s feet every time I was with him. For once I wasn’t going to do that.

The sky had darkened from lavender to violet, the sun sinking so fast I half expected it to bounce on the horizon. The dance canopy was lit with strands of big white lightbulbs, while the band let loose with a fast two-stepping song.

“Hey, Hardy!” Hannah appeared at his side along with their two younger brothers, Rick and Kevin. The little boys were grimy and sticky-faced, wearing big grins as they jumped and squealed about wanting to go to the calf scramble.

The calf scramble was always held just before the rodeo. Children crowded into the ring and chased three agile calves that had yellow ribbons tied to their tails. Each child who managed to get a ribbon would receive a five-dollar bill. “Hi, Liberty,” Hannah exclaimed, turning to her brother before I could answer. “Hardy, they’re dying to go to the calf scramble. It’s just about to start. Can I take ’em?”

He shook his head, regarding the trio with a reluctant grin. “You might as well. Just mind where you step, boys.”

The children whooped with joy and took off at a dead run with Hannah chasing after them. Hardy chuckled as he watched them disappear. “My mother’s gonna tear a strip off my hide for bringing them back smelling like cow patties.”

“Children are supposed to get good and dirty every now and then.”

Hardy’s smile turned rueful. “That’s what I tell my mother. Sometimes I have to get her to loosen up on them, let ’em run around and be boys. I wish…”

He hesitated, a frown weaving across his forehead.

“What?” I asked softly. The phrase “I wish,” which came so naturally and frequently to my lips, was something I had never heard from Hardy before.

We began to walk aimlessly, Hardy shortening his stride to match mine. “I wish she’d brought herself to marry someone after Dad got put away for good,” he said. “She has every right to divorce him. And if she’d found a decent man to be with, she might have had an easier time of it.”

Having never known the nature of the crime his father had committed to get put away for life, I was hesitant to ask about it. I tried to look wise and concerned. “Does she still love him?”

“No, she’s scared to death of him. He’s as mean as a sack of snakes when he drinks. And he drinks most of the time. Ever since I could remember, he went in and out of jail…come back every year or two, knock my mother around, get her pregnant, and leave with every cent we had. I tried to stop him once when I was eleven—that’s how my nose got broken. But the next time he came back, I’d gotten big enough to beat the tar out of him. He never bothered us again.”

I flinched at the mental image of Miss Judie, so tall and skinny, being knocked around by anyone.

“Why doesn’t she divorce him?” I asked.

Hardy smiled grimly. “The minister of our church told my mother that divorcing her husband, no matter how abusive, would be giving up on her chance to serve Christ. He said she shouldn’t put her own happiness before her devotion to Jesus.”

“He wouldn’t believe that if he was the one getting beat up.”

“I went to lay him out about it. He wouldn’t budge though. I had to leave before I wrung his neck.”

“Oh, Hardy,” I said, my chest aching with compassion. I couldn’t help thinking of Luke, and the easy life he’d had so far, and how different it was from Hardy’s. “Why is life so difficult for some people and not for others? Why do some people have to struggle so much?”

He shrugged. “No one has it easy forever. Sooner or later God makes you pay for your sins.”

“You should come to the Lamb of God on South Street,” I advised. “He’s a lot nicer over there. He’ll overlook a few sins as long as you bring fried chicken to the Sunday potluck.”

Hardy grinned. “You little blasphemer.” We stopped in front of the covered dance floor. “I suppose the Lamb of God congregation believes in dancing too?”

I hung my head guiltily. “Afraid so.”

“Lord Almighty, you’re practically a Methodist. Come on.” He took my hand and led me to the edge of the dance floor, where shadowed couples glided in rhythm, two steps slow, two steps fast. It was a circumspect dance with a careful distance maintained between your body and your partner’s, unless he slid his hand to your waist and spun you in a tight circle that brought you flush against him. And then it became something else entirely. Especially if the music was slow.

Following Hardy’s deliberate movements, my hand lightly caught in his, I felt my heart thump with dizzying force. I was surprised that he would want to dance with me, when in the past he had taken every opportunity to make it clear that he would allow nothing more than friendship. I was tempted to ask why, but I didn’t say a word. I wanted this too badly.

I was nearly sick with giddy apprehension as he eased me closer. “This is a bad idea, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Yeah. Put your hand on me.”

My palm settled on the hard ascent of his shoulder. His chest rose and fell in an uneven rhythm. As I looked into the beautiful severity of his face, I realized he was giving in to a rare moment of self-indulgence. His eyes were alert but resigned, like a thief who knew he was about to get caught.

I was dimly aware of the bittersweet song once played by Randy Travis, desolate and angular and wounded as only a sad country song could be. The pressure of Hardy’s hands guided me, our denim-clad legs brushing together. It seemed we didn’t dance so much as simply cut ourselves adrift. We followed the current, keeping pace with other couples in a slow, seemly glide that was more intensely sexual than anything I had ever done with Luke. I didn’t have to think about where I would step or which way I would turn.

Hardy’s skin smelled like smoke and sun. I wanted to push beneath his shirt and explore every secret place of his body, every variation of skin and texture. I wanted things I didn’t know how to name.

The band took the pace even slower, the two-step fading into another song that curtailed the dancing into a standing, swaying embrace. I felt him all against me now, and it filled me with agitation. I laid my head against his shoulder and felt the touch of his mouth on the apple of my cheek. His lips were dry and smooth. Transfixed, I didn’t make a sound. He crowded me closer against him, one of his hands sliding low on my hips and imparting a gentle pressure. As I felt how aroused he was, my thighs and hips settled against him hungrily.

The span of three or four minutes is pretty insignificant in the scheme of things. People lose hundreds of minutes every day, squandering them on trivial things. But sometimes in those fragments of time, something can happen you’ll remember the rest of your life. Being held by Hardy, suffused in his nearness, was an act of far greater intimacy than sex. Even now as I look back on it I can feel that moment of absolute connection, and the blood still rises to my face.

When the music snapped into a new rhythm, Hardy led me away from the dance canopy. His hand cupped my left elbow, and he murmured a warning as we crossed bulky electrical cables that crossed the ground like uncoiled snakes. I had no idea where we were going, only that we were headed away from the concession stands. We reached the boundary of a red cedar rail fence. Hardy fitted his hands around my waist and lifted me up with astonishing ease. I sat on the top rail, so that we were face-to-face, my closed knees pressed between us.

“Don’t let me fall,” I said.

“You won’t fall.” He grasped my hips securely, the heat of his palms sinking through my summer-weight denim. I was seized by a nearly uncontrollable urge to part my thighs and pull him forward until he stood between them. Instead I sat there with my knees primly cinched and my heart hammering. The dusty glow of the fair lights fanned out behind Hardy, making it difficult to see his expression.

He shook his head slowly, as if confronted with a problem he couldn’t begin to solve. “Liberty, I have to tell you…I’m leaving soon.”

“Leaving Welcome?” I could hardly speak.

“Yes.”

“When? Where?”

“In a couple of days. One of the jobs I applied for came through, and…I won’t be coming back for a while.”

“What are you doing to do?”

“I’ll be welding for a drilling company. I’m starting on an offshore rig in the Gulf. But they move the welders around a lot, wherever the company has a contract.” He paused as he saw my expression. He knew my father had died on a platform rig. Jobs on offshore rigs were high-paying but dangerous. You have to be crazy or suicidal to work on an oil rig with a blowtorch in hand. Hardy seemed to read my thoughts. “I’ll try not to cause too many explosions.”

If he was trying to make me smile, the effort flopped. It was pretty obvious this was the last I’d be seeing of Hardy Cates. There was no use in asking if he’d ever come back for me. I had to let go of him. But I knew that as long as I lived, I would feel the phantom-pain of his absence.

I thought about his future, the oceans and continents he would cross, far away from everyone who knew and loved him. Far outside the sphere of his mother’s prayers. Among the women in his future, there was one who would know his secrets and bear his children, and witness the changes the years worked on him. And it wouldn’t be me.

“Good luck,” I said thickly. “You’ll do fine. I think you’ll end up with everything you want. I think you’ll be more successful than anyone could begin to guess.”

His voice was quiet. “What are you doing, Liberty?”

“I’m trying to tell you what you want to hear. Good luck. Have a nice life.” I pushed at him with my knees. “Let me down.”

“Not yet. First you’re going to tell me why you’re mad when at every turn I’ve tried to keep from hurting you.”

“Because it hurts anyway.” I couldn’t control the words that burst from me. “And if you’d ever asked what I wanted, I would rather have had as much of you as I could and taken the hurt that came with it. But instead I’ve gotten nothing except these stupid—” I paused, trying in vain to think of a better word. “Stupid excuses about not wanting to hurt me when the truth is you’re the one afraid of being hurt. You’re afraid you might love someone too much to leave, and then you’d have to give up all your dreams and live in Welcome for the rest of your life. You’re afraid—”

I broke off with a gasp as I felt him grab my shoulders and give me a little shake. Abbreviated as the motion was, it sent reverberations through every part of me.

“Stop it,” he said hoarsely.

“Do you know why I went with Luke Bishop?” I asked in reckless despair. “Because I wanted you and couldn’t have you, and he was the nearest thing I could find to you. And every time I slept with him I wished it was you, and I hate you for that, even worse than I hate myself.”

As the words left my lips, a sense of bitter isolation made me shrink from him. My head ducked, and I wrapped my arms around myself in an effort to take up as little physical space as possible.

“It’s your fault,” I said, words that would cause me infinite shame later, but I was too worked up to care.

Hardy’s grip tightened until my muscles registered the beginnings of pain. “I made no promises to you.”

“It’s still your fault.”

“Damn it.” He took a ragged breath as he saw the slide of a tear on my cheek. “Damn it, Liberty. That’s not fair.”

“Nothing is fair.”

“What do you want from me?”

“I want you to admit just once what you feel for me. I want to know if you’ll miss me even a little. If you’ll remember me. If you’re sorry for anything.”

I felt his fingers clench in my hair, tugging until my head tilted back. “Christ,” he whispered. “You want to make this as hard as possible, don’t you? I can’t stay, and I can’t take you with me. And you want to know if I’m sorry for anything.” I felt the hot strikes of his breath on my cheek. His arms wrapped around me, stifling all movement. His heart pounded against my flattened breasts. “I’d sell my soul to have you. In my whole life, you’ll always be what I wanted most. But I’ve got nothing to give you. And I won’t stay here and turn into my father. I would take everything out on you—I would hurt you.”

“You wouldn’t. You could never be like your father.”

“Do you think so? Then you have a hell of a lot more faith in me than I do.” Hardy caught my head in both hands, his long fingers curving around the back of my skull. “I wanted to kill Luke Bishop for touching you. And you for letting him.” I felt a tremor run through him. “You’re mine,” he said. “And you’re right about one thing—all that’s ever stopped me from taking you is knowing I could never leave once I did.”

I hated him for regarding me as part of a trap he had to escape from. He bent his head to kiss me, the salt taste of my tears vanishing between our lips. I stiffened, but he urged my mouth open and kissed me more deeply, and I was lost.

He found every weakness with diabolical gentleness, gathering sensation as if it were honey to be lapped up with his tongue. His hand coasted over the seam of my thighs and urged them apart, and before I could close them again his body was there. Murmuring softly, he helped me to wrap my arms around his neck, and his lips returned to mine, ravishing slowly. No matter how I squirmed and strained, I couldn’t get close enough. I wanted nothing less than the full weight of him on me, full possession, full surrender. I pushed the hat from his head and sank my fingers into his hair, pulling his mouth harder, harder against mine.

“Easy,” Hardy whispered, lifting his head, gripping my shivering body against his. “Take it easy, honey.”

I fought for breath and sat there with the wooden rail digging into my backside, my knees clamped on his hips. He wouldn’t give me his mouth again until I quieted, and then his kisses were soothing, his lips absorbing the sounds that climbed in my throat. His hand moved up and down my spine in repeated strokes. Slowly he brought his palm to the undercurve of my breast, caressing me over the fabric of my shirt, and his thumb swirled gently until he found the hardening tip. My arms became weak, too heavy to lift, and I lent more of my weight to him, resting on him like a Friday-night drunk.

I understood how it would be with him, how different from the times I’d slept with Luke. Hardy seemed to drink in every nuance of my response, every sound and shiver and respiration. He held me as if the weight of me were precious in his arms. I lost track of how long he kissed me, his mouth alternately gentle and demanding. The tension built until low whimpers broke from my throat, and my fingertips scrabbled over the surface of his shirt, desperate for the feel of his skin. He took his mouth from mine and buried his face in my hair, struggling to control his breathing.

“No,” I protested. “Don’t stop, don’t—”

“Hush. Hush, darlin’.”

I couldn’t stop shaking, rebelling against being left high and dry. Hardy folded me against his chest and rubbed my back, trying to ease me into stillness. “It’s okay,” he whispered. “Sweet girl, sweet…it’s all right.”

But nothing was all right. I thought when Hardy left me, I would never be able to take pleasure in anything again. I waited until I thought my legs would support my own weight, and then I half slid, half fell to the ground. Hardy reached out to steady me, and I pulled away from him. I could hardly see him, my eyes were so blurred.

“Don’t say goodbye,” I said. “Please.”

Perhaps understanding it was the last thing he could do for me, Hardy kept silent.

I knew I would replay the scene countless times in the years before me, each time thinking of different things I should have said and done.

But all I did was walk away without looking back.

Many times in my life I’ve regretted the things I’ve said without thinking.

But I’ve never regretted the things I said nearly as much as the words I left unspoken.

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