The sight of a sullen teenager is common no matter where you go. Teenagers want things so powerfully and can never seem to get them, and to add insult to injury, people make light of your feelings because you’re a teenager. They say time will mend a broken heart and they’re often right. But not where my feelings for Hardy were concerned. For months, all through the winter holidays and beyond, I just went through the motions, distracted and gloomy and of no use to anyone including myself.
The other thing feeding my sullenness was Mama’s flourishing relationship with Louis Sadlek. Their pairing caused me no end of confusion and resentment. If there was ever a moment of peace between them, I never saw it. Most of the time they got along like two cats in a sack.
Louis brought out Mama’s worst tendencies. She drank when she was around him, and my mother had never been a drinker. She was physical with him in a way I had never seen before, pushing, slapping, poking, she who had always insisted on her personal space. Sadlek appealed to a wild streak in her, and mothers weren’t supposed to have a wild streak. I wished she wasn’t pretty and blond, that she would be the kind of mother who wore aprons and went to church socials.
What bothered me as much as anything was the vague understanding that Mama and Louis’s arguing and tussling and jealousies, the small damages they did to each other, were a kind of foreplay. Louis rarely visited our trailer, thank God, but I and everyone else at Bluebonnet Ranch knew that Mama was spending nights at his red-brick house. Sometimes she came back with bruises on her arms, her face worn from lack of sleep, her throat and jaw scraped red from unshaven bristle. Mothers weren’t supposed to do that either.
I don’t know how much of Mama’s relationship with Louis Sadlek was pleasure and how much was self-punishment. I think she regarded Louis as a strong man. Lord knows she wouldn’t have been the first to mistake brutishness for strength. Maybe when a woman had been fending for herself as long as Mama did, it was a relief to submit to someone else, even if he wasn’t kind. I’ve felt like that more than a few times, aching under the weight of responsibility and wishing anyone was in charge of me except me.
I’ll admit Louis could be charming. Even the worst of Texas men have that amiable veneer, the soft-spokenness that appeals to women and the flair for storytelling. He seemed to genuinely like young children—they were so ready to believe anything he told them. Carrington giggled and grinned whenever Louis was near, thereby disproving the notion that children instinctively know who to trust.
But Louis didn’t like me at all. I was the only holdout in our household. I couldn’t stand the very things that impressed Mama so, the masculine posturing, the endless gestures meant to convey how little things meant to him because he had so much. He had a closet full of custom-made boots, the kind the bootmaker starts by asking you to stand in your sock feet on a piece of butcher paper and trace around the edges. Louis had a pair of eight-hundred-dollar boots made of elephant hide from “Zimbab-way.” They were the talk of Welcome, those boots.
But when Louis and Mama and two other couples went dancing at a place in Houston, the men at the door wouldn’t let him bring his silver liquor flask inside. So Louis went to the side and drew out his Dozier folding hunter knife and cut a long slit right through the top of that boot, so he could wedge the flask inside. When Mama told me about it later, she said it had been a stupid gesture and a ridiculous waste of money. But she mentioned it so many times in the months afterward that I realized she admired the flamboyance of it.
That was Louis, doing whatever it took to keep up the appearance of wealth, when in reality he was no better off than anyone else. All hat, no cattle. No one seemed to know how Louis got his spending money, which surely amounted to more than the income from the trailer park. There were rumors of casual drug-dealing. Since we were located so close to the border, that was fairly easy for anyone who wanted to take the risk. I don’t believe Louis ever smoked or snorted. Alcohol was his drug of choice. But I don’t think he had any scruples about siphoning poison to college students who were home on break, or locals who wanted a more potent escape than could be found in a bottle of Johnnie Walker.
When I wasn’t preoccupied with Mama and Louis, I was absorbed in Carrington, who had lurched into toddlerhood and had begun staggering around like a miniature drunken linebacker. She tried to stick her tiny wet fingers in electric sockets, pencil sharpeners, and Coke cans. She tweezed bugs and cigarette butts from the grass, and petrified Cheerios from the carpet, and everything went into her mouth. When she started feeding herself with a bent-handled spoon, she made such an unholy mess I sometimes had to take her outside to hose her down. I kept an oversized plastic dishpan from Wal-Mart on the back patio, and watched over Carrington as she played and splashed in it.
When she started to talk, the closest she could get to pronouncing my name was “BeeBee,” and she said it whenever she wanted anything. She loved Mama, twinkled like a lightning bug when they were together, but when she was sick or cantankerous or afraid, she reached for me and I reached for her. It was nothing Mama and I ever talked about, or even thought much about, we all just took it for granted. Carrington was my baby.
Miss Marva encouraged us to visit often, saying her days were too quiet otherwise. She had never taken Bobby Ray back. There would probably be no more boyfriends for her, she said, since all the men her age were getting to be sorry-looking or feebleminded or both. Every Wednesday afternoon I drove her to the Lamb of God, because she was a volunteer cook for their Meals-on-Wheels program and the church had a commercial-rated kitchen. With Carrington balanced on my hip, I would measure out ingredients and stir bowls and pots, while Miss Marva taught me the basics of Texas cooking.
Under her direction I scraped milky sweet corn off fresh cobs, seared it in bacon drippings and added half-and-half, stirring until the aroma caused tickles of saliva on the insides of my cheeks. I learned how to make chicken-fried steak topped with white cream gravy, and okra dusted with cornmeal and skillet-fried in hot grease, and pinto beans boiled with a ham bone, and turnip greens with pepper sauce. I even learned the secrets of Miss Marva’s red velvet cake, which she warned me never to make for a man unless I wanted him to propose to me.
The hardest thing to learn was how to make Miss Marva’s chicken and dumplings, which she didn’t have a recipe for. They were so good, so rich and gummy and melting, they could almost make you cry. She started with a little hill of flour on the counter, added salt and eggs and butter, and mixed it all up with her fingers. She rolled it out into a flat sheet, cut the dough into long strips, and added it to a boiling pot of homemade chicken stock. There is hardly an illness that chicken and dumplings can’t cure. Miss Marva made a pot of them for me right after Hardy Cates had left Welcome, and they almost provided a temporary relief from heartache.
I helped deliver the Meals-on-Wheels containers, while Miss Marva looked after Carrington. “Ain’t you got homework, Liberty?” she would ask, and I always shook my head. I hardly ever did homework. I went to the bare minimum of classes to avoid truancy, and I didn’t give a thought to my prospects beyond high school. I figured if Mama had stopped caring about my good mind and my education, I wasn’t going to care either.
For a while Luke Bishop asked me out when he came home from Baylor, but when I kept refusing him, he gradually stopped calling. I felt as if something in me had been shut off after Hardy left, and I didn’t know how or when it would turn back on. I had experienced sex without love, and love without sex, and now I wanted nothing to do with either of them. Miss Marva advised me to start living by my own lights, a phrase I didn’t understand.
Coming up on one year since Mama and Louis had started dating, Mama broke up with him. She had a high tolerance for fireworks, but even she had her limits. It happened at a honky-tonk where they went two-stepping on occasion. While Louis was off in the men’s room, some drunken cowboy—a real cowboy who worked on a small ten-thousand-acre ranch outside of town—bought Mama a tequila shot.
Texas men are more territorial than most. This is a culture in which they put up fences to defend their land, and sleep with shotguns propped against the nightstands to defend their homes. Making a move on someone’s woman is considered grounds for justifiable homicide. So the cowboy should have known better even if he was drunk, and many said Louis was justified in beating the crap out of him. But Louis lit into him with singular viciousness, walloping him to a bloody pulp in the parking lot and kicking him half to death with his two-inch boot heels. And then Louis went to his truck to get his gun, presumably to finish him off. Only the intervention of a couple of friends kept Louis from committing outright murder. As Mama told me later, the odd thing was how much bigger the cowboy had been. There was no way Louis should have beaten him. But sometimes meanness wins out over muscle. Having seen what Louis was capable of, Mama broke up with him. It was the happiest day I’d known since before Hardy had left.
It didn’t last long though. Louis wouldn’t leave her—or us—alone. He started calling at all hours of the day and night until our ears rang from the sound of the phone, and Carrington was cranky from constantly interrupted sleep. Louis followed Mama in his car, dogging her on her way to work or out to eat or shop. Often he would park his truck right outside our house and watch us. One time I went into the bedroom to change, and just before I pulled my shirt off I saw him staring at me through the window in back that faced the neighboring farmer’s field.
It’s funny how many people still think stalking is a phase of courtship. Some people told Mama it wasn’t stalking unless you were a celebrity. When she finally went to the police, they were reluctant to do anything. To them the situation looked like two people who just couldn’t get along. She was embarrassed by it, ashamed, as if she were somehow to blame.
The worst part is, Louis’s tactics worked. He wore her down until going back to him seemed like the easiest thing to do. She even tried to convince herself she wanted to be with him. To my mind it wasn’t dating, it was hostage-taking.
Their relationship had undergone a sea change though. Louis may have had Mama back physically, but she wasn’t his like she had been before. He and everyone else knew that if she’d been free to leave, if there had been some assurance he wouldn’t bother her anymore, she might have bolted. I say “might have” instead of “would have” because it seemed there was a terrible fracture in her that still wanted him, was caught by him, just as a lock tumbler is engaged by the bit of a key.
One night, I’d just put Carrington in her crib when I heard a knock at the door. Mama was out with Louis to a dinner and a show in Houston.
I don’t know why a policeman’s knock is different from other people knocking, why the sound of their knuckles striking the door tightens all the vertebrae in your spine. The grim authority in that sound told me immediately something was wrong. I opened the door and found two policemen standing there. To this day I can’t remember their faces. Just their uniforms, light blue shirts and navy pants, and shield-shaped patches embroidered with a little planet earth crossed with two red bands.
My mind shot to the last moment I had seen Mama that night. I had been quiet but irritable, watching her walk to the door in jeans and high heels. There were a few meaningless remarks, Mama telling me she might not be home before morning, and me shrugging and saying “whatever.” I have always been haunted by the ordinariness of that conversation. You figure the last time you ever see somebody, something of significance should be said. But Mama exited my life with a quick smile and a reminder to lock the door behind her so I would be safe while she was gone.
The police said the accident happened on the east freeway—this was back before I-10 was finished—where eighteen-wheelers went as fast as they wanted. At any given time at least a quarter of all vehicles on the freeway were trucks, carrying loads to and from breweries and chemical plants. It didn’t help matters that the lanes were narrow, and the sight lines were almost nonexistent.
Louis ran a red light on a feeder road just off the freeway and collided with an oncoming truck. The driver of the truck had minor injuries. Louis had to be cut out of the car before he was taken to the hospital, where he died an hour later of massive internal bleeding.
Mama was killed on impact.
She never knew what hit her, the policemen said, and that would have comforted me, except…just for one second, she would have had to know, wouldn’t she? There must have been a blur, a sense of the world exploding, a flashpoint of receiving more damage than a human body could endure. I wondered if she hovered over the scene afterward, looking down on what had become of her. I wanted to believe an escort of angels came for her, that the promise of heaven replaced the grief of leaving me and Carrington, and that whenever Mama wanted, she could peek through the clouds to see how we were. But faith has never been my strong suit. All I knew for certain was my mother had gone somewhere I couldn’t follow.
And I finally understood what Miss Marva had said about living by your own lights. When you’re walking through the darkness, you can’t depend on anything or anyone else to light your way. You have to rely on whatever sparks you’ve got inside you. Or you’re going to get lost. That was what had happened to Mama.
And I knew if I let it happen to me, there would be no one for Carrington.