Page 15

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 Gates 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 fanner'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.

CHAPTER 11

Mama had no life insurance and hardly any savings. That left me with a trailer, some furniture, a car: and a two-year-old sister. I would have to maintain all that on a high school education with no past work experience. I had spent my summers and afternoons with Carrington, which meant the only employment references I had were from someone who until recently had been riding backward in the car.

Shock is a merciful condition. It allows you to get through disaster with a necessary distance between you and your feelings, so you can get things done. The first thing I had to do was arrange the funeral. I'd never set foot in a funeral home before. I had always imagined such places were creepy and sad. Miss Marva went with me even though I told her I didn't need help. She said she used to date the funeral director. Mr. Ferguson, who was a widower now, and she wanted to see how much hair he'd kept over the years.

Not much, as it turned out. But Mr. Ferguson was about the nicest man I'd ever met.

and the funeral home—tan brick with white columns—was bright and clean and done up like a comfortable living room. The sitting area featured blue tweed sofas, and coffee tables with big scrapbooks, and landscape pictures on the walls. We had cookies from a china plate, and coffee from a big silver carafe. As we started to talk, I appreciated the way Mr. Ferguson discreetly nudged the Kleenex box across the coffee table. I wasn't crying, my emotions were still suspended in ice, but Miss Marva went through half the box.

Mr. Ferguson had the wise, kind, gently droopy face of a basset hound, with brown eyes like melted chocolate. He gave me a brochure titled "The Ten Rules of Grief," and tactfully asked if Mama had ever mentioned having preplanned a funeral. "No, sir," I said earnestly. "She wasn't the planning-ahead type. It took her forever just to order from the cafeteria menu."

The creases in the outside corners of his eyes deepened. "My wife was like that," he said. "There's people who like to plan and those who take life as it comes. Nothing wrong with either way. I'm a planner, myself."

"So am I," I said, although that wasn't at all true. I had always followed Mama's example, taking life as it came. But now I wanted to be different. I had to be.

Opening a book of laminated price sheets, Mr. Ferguson led me into the subject of the funeral budget.

There was a long list of things that needed to be paid for, cemetery fees, taxes, the obituary notice, prices for embalming, hair and cosmetics, a concrete grave liner, hearse

rental, music, a headstone.

Lord, it was expensive to die.

It was going to take most of the cash Mama had left, unless I wanted to put it on credit. But I was suspicious of debt. I'd seen what happened to people who started down that plastic slide to disaster. Most of the time they were never able to climb out. This being Texas, there were no shelters or programs that would afford us a decent life. The only safety net was people's kin. And I was too proud to consider tracking down unknown relatives, all strangers, so I could beg for money. I realized Mama's funeral would have to be done on a shoestring, a thought that brought a pinching sensation in my throat and hot pressure behind my eyes.

My mother had not been a churchgoer. I told Mr. Ferguson, and therefore we wanted a nonreligious ceremony.

"You can't have a nonreligious funeral," Miss Marva protested, shocked out of a weepy spell by the very idea. "There's no such thing in Welcome."

"You'd be surprised. Marva," Mr. Ferguson informed her. "We have a few humanists in town. They just don't care to admit it publicly, or they know they'd find their doorsteps occupied with Bible-bangers carrying potted begonias and Bundt cakes."

"Have you turned into a heathen, Arthur?" Miss Marva demanded, and he smiled.

"No, ma'am. But I've come to accept that some folks are happier not being saved."

After discussing some ideas for Mama's humanist funeral, we went to the casket room.

which had at least thirty of them set up in rows. I hadn't realized there would be so many choices. Not only could you pick out the outside materials, you could choose linings of velvet or satin in just about any color. It unnerved me to learn you could also decide on the firmness of the mattress on the interior bed, as if it would make a difference to the deceased person's comfort.

Some of the more elegant coffins, like the one made of oak with a French Provincial hand-rubbed finish, or the steel in brushed bronze with the embroidered interior head panel, were four or five thousand dollars. And the casket in the farthest corner of the room was gaudier than anything I could have imagined, hand-painted like a Monet landscape with water, flowers, and a bridge, all yellows, blues, greens, and pinks. It had a tufted blue satin interior and pillow, and a matching throw.

"Something to look at, isn't it?" Mr. Ferguson asked, his smile a touch sheepish. "One of our suppliers was pushing these art caskets this year, but I'm afraid it's a little fancy for small-town tastes."

I wanted it for my mother. I didn't care that it was god-awful tacky and ostentatious and that once it was six feet under, no one would ever see it. If you were going to sleep someplace forever, it should be on blue satin pillows in a secret garden concealed beneath the ground. "How much is it?" I asked.

Mr. Ferguson took a long time to answer, and when he did, his voice was very quiet. "Sixty-five hundred. Miss Jones."

I could afford maybe a tenth of that.

Poor people have few choices in life, and most of the time you don't think much about it. You get the best you can, and do without when necessary, and hope to God you won't be wiped out by something you can't control. But there are moments it hurts, where there is something you want in the very marrow of your bones and you know there's no way you can have it. I felt like that about Mama's casket. And I realized this was an augury of things to come. A house, braces and clothes for Carrington, education, things that would help us climb across the deep trench between white trash and middle class...these things would require more money than my ability to earn. I didn't know why I had never grasped the urgency of my situation before, even when Mama was alive. Why had I been so careless and unthinking? I felt sick to my stomach.

Stiffly I followed Mr. Ferguson to the side of the room featuring the econocaskets, and found a lacquered pine model lined with white taffeta for six hundred dollars. We went out back to a row of headstones and markers, and chose a bronze rectangular plate to lay over Mama's grave. Someday, I vowed silently, I would replace it with a big marble headstone.

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***