Sally Rae and I run the Waterin’ Hole Café in Heartbreak, Texas. We are located about 50 or 500 miles west of Houston’s degenerate sushi bars; down a side road, in one of those odd places that GPS and time has sort of missed. People in Heartbreak help each other, sort of, when they aren’t gossiping about each other. We have the internet, but we hardly ever need it with the town grapevine in place.
I admit it. I was happy. I’m getting sort of old, even outright creaky, but life was sweet. There was a sameness of days I just loved. Every morning Sally Rae started the coffee pot next to our bed. Then, like a bullet, she was off making biscuits, gravy, eggs and the occasional sirloin for our protein-starved customers. Some people read newspapers, but most talked (mostly about each other).
Here’s a hint about life: Don’t ever trust good times. They are as fleeting as pretty weather on a spring day.
All this comfortable existence ended abruptly with a phone call from Clyde, one of Sally Rae’s (too) many sisters. Clyde had gotten married for the fourth or fifth time, I sort of lost count, and this time she really wanted a baby.
Now, Clyde was definitely a little long in the tooth for such an enterprise, but that didn’t stop her trying. Sure enough, about eight months after she wed Dan (or was it Don? I get confused) she called us in tears. She had had a miscarriage, she was depressed, Dan had left her, and she needed her big sister NOW!
I have some sound advice about in-laws, motherhood and freight trains: Stay out of the way!
“Why can’t Death Ray look after her?” I asked.
“Just once, can’t you call my mother ‘Beth May,’ like she’s named? Anyway, Clyde asked for me, not Mom.”
Well, I understood that. I didn’t want Death Ray, either.
“Well, what about Penny, or Bonnie?” I asked.
“Penny is vacationing with her new boyfriend in Sierra Leone. Bonnie thinks she’s finally reeling in the big one, a fisherman over in Florida, and Dave, she asked for ME!”
I immediately started to back up. Sally Rae and I almost never had cross words, and I wasn’t to go down in her family history as a bad ’un. Such things could have repercussions over years.
“OK,” I said, “well, how are we going to do this? We have a boy in school and a restaurant to run, and loan payments to make.”
If General Custer could have retreated as fast as I did, he might have written his own history.
So now, every morning Mrs. Arenas showed up and made the biscuits, chicken-fried steak at lunch and supper, and fried catfish every other Friday. We didn’t make any money with Sally Rae gone, but sometimes just holding even is a victory.
Li’l’ Billy got sort of whiny and lonesome for momma. I had to help him with his homework, but he and I got on pretty well.
After two weeks several truths struck home. The house was a mess. We had hired Mrs. Arenas for the cooking, but the café was developing a distinct odor. Spiders crawled out of the unwashed laundry. In short, I was getting a lesson in the reality of living in a Sally Rae-free world. I just wasn’t keeping up with the bills, the reorder on food from Culver City, and about 2 million other details.
Now, I’m not lazy, but I had my own chores and a set way of doing stuff, and it just weren’t working. By the time I noticed something out of whack, I was behind. I slept a lot less and I worried a lot more. At night I reread “Paradise Lost.” Somehow, it fit.
Besides everything else, our big old bed was cold and lonesome. I missed my Sally Rae.
Into the third week I decided something. Maybe I could go for a visit and persuade Sally Rae to come back home.
I worked extra hard all week, almost to the point of catching up. I farmed Li’l’ Billy out to Junebug for a couple of nights. Saturday morning, I hit the road. It was 150 miles to get to Sally Rae and I had a mission!
As I drove I decided that music had taken a definite wrong turn in the early 1980s. I tried some talk radio shows, but they just made me mad. Also, I found that going only 5 miles over the speed limit was sort of a death wish. People passed by me so fast I was in danger of being blown off the road. The sky darkened and it got colder. Soon, rain was falling. Not an honest, real rain, just enough I couldn’t use my cruise control.
Now what happened next doesn’t reflect well on me, but I do try to be honest. As I got more and more depressed, my brain sort of defaulted back to some childhood memories and attitudes I thought I were over years ago. My parents were good people, but on ideas of race, well, they were people of their times, and not in a good way.
About 1965 we had a big family discussion, led by my older brother. It lasted about three days. He lowered the boom on us about words and jokes and attitudes that should have been retired (or kicked out) years before. The upshot was that we all agreed to not use race as a basis of judgment about a person.
Our eventual agreement about this put an end to the family fighting, but simple agreement didn’t do near as much good as one might hope. Decisions -- good ones -- were made, but attitudes took longer. I tried my best to live without ever counting race into my calculation about a person, and I taught Li’l Billy that same lesson, but as my depression deepened, old stinkin’ thinkin’ crept back in.
I wanted my wife back, and I was off thinking thoughts I had disavowed years ago. My mood worsened as the weather worsened.
About Hillsboro I was downright glad I hadn’t brought Li’l’ Billy with me. I’m always careful about what I say around him, but children are perceptive. Then, I heard a new noise. I was doing 80 miles an hour, an often-fatal speed for a crash, when I started moving over, lane by lane. A thought skittered by: I hope this isn’t it for me. I doubt I’m in a state of grace at this moment.
I stopped and backed up an entrance ramp. Line of sight was not too good, but I made it. I stepped out, and sure enough, one tire was beyond flat. It was shredded. How I hadn’t lost control was a minor miracle by itself.
I dug around in my trunk and pulled out my jack and spare. I also had a few choice words for cars, my own car in particular. About then a raggedy old pickup stopped, and two large Hispanic women jumped out.
“Hey mister, need some help?” one of them said.
“I guess I do.” My arthritis was cranked up and if my manhood took a beating, well, that’s what was going to happen. From their size, though, I had an uncharitable thought. I hoped it was my manhood and not my body that got beaten.
I shouldn’t have worried. Maria and Consuela were just getting off a construction job. In less than 10 minutes they had my tire changed.
I do try to be a gentleman. I pulled out two $20 bills and said, “Ladies, can I offer ...”
Maria interrupted me. “Don’t ruin it. God will pay us more.”
They gave me their cards, in case I ever needed their services, and I thanked them about five times as they got out of the rain and hit the road.
About two hours later I got to Clyde’s house. Sally Rae ran to my arms and we had a long, wet kiss, liked it so well, we went and had another.
Inside in the warmth Sally Rae asked, “Well, how was the trip?”
I gave her an honest answer. “It was humbling. I got a lesson directly from God. My head was in a bad spot, and He screwed it back on right for me.”
She laughed, “Well, did it hurt?”
I thought about that. Finally, I answered, “Yea, it hurt, but not as much as it should have. When God humbles a person, it may be a good thing, but is usually isn’t pleasant.”
I told her my story, about how I missed her, how the house went downhill without her, how I selfishly resented her sister’s needs, how I realized I couldn’t do well without her, how two women who I might had held in low regard in other circumstances had, well, basically saved my bacon.
I felt small, because I deserved to feel small.
About that time Clyde walked in from the next room. “Yeah, I’ve been eavesdropping. Sounds like you need your wife back.”
I looked at Clyde. She was in a ragged housecoat and she looked all her years. Gray streaked her hair and she had a haggard look.
“Clyde, well, yes, I want Sally Rae back, but I expect right now you need to keep her a while longer for yourself.”
Sally Rae sat next to me. “You know, I always remember what you told me on our first date, ‘A wet dog needs petting the most.’”