Sally Rae and I have about the best jobs in Heartbreak, Texas. She fixes the food at our little town’s only real restaurant. I help out in the ways I can, but chatting up the customers is as important as clean silverware. The Waterin’ Hole Café is a town fixture, just as important as the post office. We’re located 50 or 500 miles west of Houston’s soggy sushi bars, not so much a town left behind as a town that found its identity early on and learned to be satisfied with it.
Most people look forward to the special private time of Christmas. Of course, many people find that, to their surprise, family can be sort of, well, uncomfortable, as folks catch up.
BJ Elkert and Johnnie Ruth were classic Heartbreak types. They married for love (and some necessity) shortly after graduation from high school. One thing Heartbreak has in common with a lot of other places — nice people don’t count the months between the wedding and the baby shower.
Nowadays, BJ Elkert is 250 pounds of lean meat. He can fix most anything, build most anything, and whip most any problem that presents itself. Johnnie Ruth is still pink and giggly.
After five kids, she had lost her schoolgirl figure, but not her sense of humor. Many a Saturday night, I have seen our patrons spend hours telling jokes, mostly so they could get her giggling and jiggling. Her mismatched body rhythms bounced around with more complexity than a tray of Jell-O caught in a bar fight. I know, I got to witness the two phenomena side by side one evening.
BJ and Johnnie Ruth produced four sons in six years; not that remarkable in Heartbreak, but Johnnie Ruth didn’t mind telling you that there was nothing automatic about the process. Each and every step required significant endeavor on her part.
True to his practical nature, BJ invented a machine, a job and a place in the community for each child. His oldest son, Abel, made his living with a complex automatic wood chopper.
Benjamin dragged the larger trees into their shop and rendered them into slabs, boards and finally into some shape or form that made a man want to own a wood shop.
Caleb was a natural-born cabinet maker, a man who started by making Texas primitive furniture, but he soon graduated to something I could only call Texas burled baroque.
Daniel was God’s own stonemason. He started doing gravel driveways, but his life quickly changed as he started hauling larger stones. For a year or two, he made beautiful patios and garden walls. Then his creativity soared, and he started sculpting them into tombstones and then statuaries.
These four sons were fulfilling their individual callings by the end of the seventh or eighth grade; by graduation, they were journeymen in their chosen crafts.
BJ generously equipped each son with the tools of his trade. Having found their places in Heartbreak’s eco-strata, they each showed the potential for being strong, creative men — a real boon to a community like Heartbreak, or any other, for that matter.
Then came a pause in Johnnie Ruth's fertility. She needed a rest. Producing such a crowd of homunculi took a lot out of her. For all her majestic femininity, she was tired.
Genetics have always been like a drunken monkey throwing dice. About 10 years after Daniel’s birth, at age 35, Johnnie Ruth found herself pregnant again.
The result was Ezabelle.
When I first moved to Heartbreak, Ezabelle was turning 12. Like her brothers, she grew early and well. With her doting parents and her many strong brothers, she grew up believing that the world was a safe place — inhabited by good, strong men, secure and willing to protect her. She was slim and beautiful, gorgeous to a fault. If Cleopatra had owned her figure, her face — why, the course of world history would have been far different.
The Bible teaches us that every Paradise has a snake in the grass. In this Paradise, it was Johnny Redink.
Johnny Redink opened a tattoo parlor just off Main Street. He did have a certain “bad boy” charm that ladies of a certain young age find irresistible. Why are the most beautiful women drawn to sure destruction by the shakiest of men?
The first hint of trouble was when Ezabelle showed up at breakfast with a hickey on her neck and a butterfly tattoo on her arm. It was a beautifully crafted butterfly, drawn in passion and love — and it scared BJ and Johnnie Ruth to death.
The confrontation went something like this:
BJ: “What the hell is that? Are you thinking of joining the Navy? Tattoos are forever!”
Johnny Ruth chimed in to her husband’s complaint: “Darlin’, you are just beautiful as you are! Any mark you make on your precious flesh just takes away from it!”
Ezabelle, at just 19, had her father’s stubborn pride. She fired right back, “Johnny Redink is a human artiste! His canvas is earthly skin!”
Suddenly defiant, she stood up and bared her back to her horrified parents. It was a confusion of elves and gargoyles, fairies and nymphs — her shoulder had a nekkid woman that looked uncomfortably much like herself, skateboarding though the planets. The whole mural cascaded down to parts below her cut-offs.
BJ and Johnnie Ruth were horrified.
They immediately grounded her, which worked about as well as one might expect for a 19-year-old goddess-in-the-breeding mood. Two months later, she showed up with a new tat on her ring finger.
“What’s that?” BJ demanded.
“It’s an engagement ring, of course,” she replied.
“Forget it, darlin’,” said BJ. ‘That man is a wrong ’un and I know it!”
Ezabelle stood up and opened her robe to a lump in her tummy. There was a yellow sign tattooed there that proclaimed, “Baby on Board.”
For once, BJ and Johnnie Ruth were speechless.
All of Johnnie Ruth’s jiggles had turned to sags, and she felt her 54 years with all their force. “When will the wedding take place, then?” Johnnie Ruth asked.
“Next Tuesday, at 10 o’clock at the courthouse in Culver City,” Ezabelle said, with a smirk of triumph.
BJ flexed all his 250 pounds of manly muscle, “You know, with one hand, I could beat that squirt into yogurt.”
Ezabelle replied, “Is that what you want for the father of your future grandchild?"
Johnnie Ruth had been down the reproduction path a few times herself. She spoke up, for one of the few times in their marriage.
“We need Johnny Redink here for Christmas dinner,” she said. “Tell him we’re having brisket and sausage with garden vegetables.” (This was her “special guest” meal.)
“That's good,” said Ezabelle. “Heavy on the veggies, please,” she chirped. “Johnny’s a vegetarian!”
Christmas dinner lacked its usual light-hearted joy. The atmosphere was thicker than Johnnie Ruth’s brisket.
Caleb was something of a peacemaker. After a silent dinner he offered, “I can build y’all some baby furniture.”
Benjamin said, “I've got an excess of center-cut oak we can cut up into a right-fine cabin … I’m just sayin.’ ”
Then Abel pledged enough firewood to “keep y’all warm for the first two years.”
For the first time, Johnny Redink got some color back into his face; he’d seriously thought he’d might die that night.
He stood up — a slim young man who hadn't found his place yet but was getting there. And he put his arm around Ezabelle, who kind of melted into his embrace.
“I know this is a rocky start,” he said, “But I love this woman like I never loved before. With your help, maybe I can be the kind of man I want to be for her.”
For the first time, a little hope showed its face.
Daniel said, “You know Jenny Mae, that pretty gal down in Quick Fix? Well, I was waiting to tell y’all, but now seems the time … we’re getting married real soon, too. Same reason as my little sis, BTW. We’re real happy, too!”
Caleb, looking sheepish, confessed: “Well, me and LaVerne, are kinda in the fambly way, too; Daddy. I hope y’all can be happy for us.”
Astonished, BJ rumbled, “Anybody else ready to rock our world?”
Benjamin offered, “I've got a girl I’m kind of sweet on, only I’m not tellin’ about her yet.”
Abel had the biggest surprise of all.
“You know Miss Scarlett’s fourth boy, Jesse? Well, we’ve been kinda lovers for years; but we wuz too afraid to mention it before now.”
After this heartfelt confession from his first (and favorite) child; BJ was remarkably silent, not unlike Vesuvius before a certain famous explosion in Pompeii about 79 AD.
BJ walked with solemnity to the first aid cabinet; over the years it hard grown quite large. Using the special key on his ring; he opened the snake bite box. Ezabelle started to say something, but he held up his hand (signaling absolute silence).
He withdrew a fifth of Jack Daniels and broke the waxen seal on it. He walked next, to the china cabinet, and withdrew six shot glasses and two ice tea glasses. He carefully poured his wife, four sons and his future son-in-law a shot of whiskey. He served Ezabelle a glass of tea, and poured most of the remaining whiskey in his own tea glass.
BJ did not get to be a patriarch by just producing children from a fertile woman. He was a Texas gentleman in the finest sense of the term. … A long silence ensued as the level of liquid in his tea glass dropped. Finally, he spoke, and had Zeus been there, he could have admired the gravitas.
“We don't need one new house; we need five!” BJ pronounced. “We’ll build ’em along the river where our land spreads out a little; this is gonna be hard, but we’re family! Now, unless someone wants to announce that they are eloping with a Martian, it’s time for our Christmas prayer.
“Oh Lord, you have given me a lot of blessings. Please give me the strength to bear them.”