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As soon as news of the accident got out, ovens all over town were turned on. Even people we didn't know, or were only casually acquainted with, brought a casserole, pie. or cake to the trailer. Foil-wrapped parcels were piled on every available surface; the counters, tables, the fridge and stove. Bereavement in Texas is a time to pull out your best recipes. Many people taped them to the plastic wrap or foil that covered their offerings, which

wasn't usually done, but I guess there was a general agreement that I needed all the help I could get. None of the recipes had more than four or five ingredients, and they were the kind of food you'd often find at bake sales or potlucks. Tamale pie, ugly cake, King Ranch casserole, Coca-Cola brisket, Jell-0 salad.

I was truly sorry so much food was given to us at a time when I couldn't have felt less like eating. I pulled off the recipe cards and tucked them in a manila envelope for safekeeping, and took most of the food to the Cateses. For once I was grateful for Miss Judie's reserve—I knew that no matter how sympathetic she was, she wasn't going to discuss anything emotional.

It was difficult to see Hardy's family, when I wanted him so badly. I needed Hardy to come back and rescue me, and take care of me. I wanted him to hold me tight, and let me cry in his amis. But when I asked if Miss Judie had heard from him. she said not yet. he'd be too busy to write or call for a while.

The relief of tears came the second night after Mama had died, when I had crawled into bed next to Carrington's robust little body. She snuggled against me in her sleep, and let out a baby sigh, and that sound cracked the seal around my heart.

At two, Carrington had no understanding of death. The finality of it escaped her. She kept asking when Mama was coming back, and when I had tried to explain about heaven, she had listened without comprehension and interrupted me by asking for a Popsicle. I lay there holding her. worrying about what would happen to us. if some social worker would show up to take her away, or what I would do if Carrington became seriously ill and how to prepare her for life when I knew so damn little.

I had never paid a bill before. I didn't know where either of our Social Security cards were. And I worried if Carrington would remember Mama at all. Realizing there was no one for me to share my memories of my mother with, I felt tears begin to leak out of my eyes in a continuous stream. That went on for a while until I began to cry so hard that I finally went to the bathroom and filled the tub and sat upright like a child, crying into my bathwater until a great dull calmness had settled over me.

Do you need money?" my friend Lucy asked bluntly as she watched me dress for the funeral. She was going to look after Carrington until I came back from the service. "My family can loan you some. And Daddy says there's a part-time job available at the shop."

I couldn't have made it without Lucy in the days following Mama's accident. She had asked if there was anything she could do for me. and when I said no, she went ahead and did things anyway. She insisted on taking Carrington to her house for an afternoon so I could have some quiet time to make calls and clean the trailer.

Another day Lucy brought her mother, and the two of them packed away Mama's belongings in cardboard boxes. I couldn't have done it by myself. Mama's favorite jacket, her white wrap dress with the daisies, the blue blouse, the gauzy pink scarf she had tied around her hair, these and other things were littered with memories in every fold and pleat.

At night I had taken to wearing a T-shirt that hadn't been washed yet. It still held the smells of Mama's skin and Estee Lauder Youth Dew. I didn't know how to make the scent last. One day long after it was gone, I would wish for one more breath of mother-smell, and it would exist only in my memory.

Lucy and her mother carried the clothes off to a storage place, and gave me the key. The pawnshop would take care of the monthly fee. Mrs. Reyes said, and I could leave everything there indefinitely.

"You could work whenever you wanted," Lucy pressed.

I shook my head in answer to Lucy's mention of the part-time job. I was pretty certain they didn't need any help at the pawnshop, and they had made the offer out of sympathy. And although I appreciated their kindness more than they would ever know, it's a fact that friends last longer the less you use them.

"Tell your parents thank you," I said, "but I'll probably need something full-time. I haven't figured out what to do yet."

"I've always said you should go to beauty school. You would be such a great hairstylist. I can see you with your own shop someday." Lucy knew me too well—the idea of working in a salon, all aspects of it, appealed to me more than any other kind of job. But...

"It would take about nine months to a year, full-time, to get my license," I said regretfully. "And there's no way I could afford the tuition."

"You could borrow—"

"No." I pulled on a black sleeveless acrylic top and tucked it into the top of my skirt. "I can't start by borrowing, Luce, or I'll just keep going on that way. If I don't have the means for it, I'll have to wait until I've saved enough."

"You may never save enough." She regarded me with patent exasperation. "Girlfriend, if you're waiting for a fairy godmother to show up with a dress and a ride, you're not going to make it to the party."

I picked up a brush from my dresser and began to fix my hair in a low ponytail. "I'm not waiting for anyone. I can do it by myself."

"All I'm saying is, take help where you can get it. You don't have to do everything the hard way."

"I know that." Swallowing back the irritation, I managed to haul the corners of my mouth up into a smile. Lucy was a concerned friend, and knowing that made her bossiness a little easier to take. "And I'm not as stubborn as you make it sound—I let Mr. Ferguson upgrade the casket, didn't I?"

The day before the funeral, Mr. Ferguson had called and said he had a deal for me if I was interested. Seeming to choose his words carefully, he told me that the casket manufacturer had just put its art models on sale, and the Monet casket had been discounted. Since the starting price had been sixty-five hundred, I said I doubted I could afford it even on sale.

"They're nearly giving them away," Mr. Ferguson had pressed. "In fact, the Monet is

now the exact same price as the pine coffin you purchased. I can switch them out for you at no extra expense."

I had almost been too stunned to speak. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, ma'am."

Suspecting that Mr. Ferguson's generosity might have had something to do with the fact that he had taken Miss Marva out to dinner a couple of nights before. I went to ask her exactly what had happened on their date.

"Liberty Jones," she had said indignantly, "are you suggesting I slept with that man to get you a discounted coffin?"

Abashed, I replied that I'd meant no disrespect, and of course I didn't think such a thing.

Still indignant. Miss Marva had informed me that if she had slept with Arthur Ferguson. there was no doubt he would have given me the dadgum coffin for free.

The graveside service was beautiful, if a little scandalous by Welcome standards. Mr. Ferguson conducted the sendee, talking a little about Mama and her life, and how much she would be missed by her friends and two daughters. There was no mention at all of Louis. His kin had taken his body off to Mesquite. where he'd been born and many of the Sadleks still lived. They'd hired a manager for Bluebonnet Ranch, a shiftless young man named Mike Mendeke.

One of Mama's closest friends at work, a plump woman with tea-colored hair, read a poem:

Do not stand at my grave and weep

I am not there, I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow,

I am the diamond glints on snow,

I am the sun on ripened grain,

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning's hush

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circled flight.

I am the soft stars that shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry,

I am not there; I did not die.

It may not have been a religious poem, but by the time Deb had finished, there were tears in many eyes.

I laid two yellow roses, one from Carrington and one from me. on top of the coffin. Red may be the preferred color of roses everywhere else, but in Texas it's yellow. Mr. Ferguson had promised me the flowers would be buried with Mama when it was lowered into the ground.

At the end of the service, we played "Imagine" by John Lennon, which elicited smiles from a few faces, and disapproving frowns from many more. Forty-two white balloons—one for each year of Mama's age—were released in the warm blue sky.

It was the perfect funeral for Diana Truitt Jones. I think my mother would have loved it. When the service was over, I felt a sudden fierce need to rush back to Carrington. I wanted to hug her for a long time, and stroke the pale blond curls that reminded me so much of Mama's. Carrington had never seemed so fragile to me, so vulnerable to every kind of harm.

As I turned to glance at the row of cars, I saw a black limo with tinted windows parked in the distance. Welcome is not what you'd call limo country, so this was a mildly startling sight. The design of the vehicle was modern, its doors and windows sealed, its shape as streamlined and perfect as a shark's.

No other funeral was being held that day. Whoever was sitting in that limo had known my mother, had wanted to watch her service from a distance. I stood very still, staring at the vehicle. My feet moved, and I suppose I was going over to ask if he—or she—wanted to come to the graveside. But just as I started toward it. the limo pulled away in a slow glide.

It’s me. The thought that I would never find out who it was.

Soon after the funeral Carrington and I were visited by a guardian ad litem. or GAL, who had been appointed to assess whether I was fit to be her legal guardian. The GAL's fee was one hundred and fifty dollars, which I thought was pretty steep considering she stayed less than an hour. Thank God the court had waived the fee—I didn't think my checking account would cover it.

Carrington seemed to know it was important for her to behave well. Under the GAL's observation, she built a block tower, dressed her favorite doll, and sang the ABC song from start to finish. While the GAL asked me questions about the baby's upbringing and my plans for the future, Carrington climbed into my lap and pressed a few impassioned kisses on my cheek. After each kiss, she glanced significantly at the GAL to make certain her actions were being duly noted.

The next phase of the process was surprisingly easy. I went to Family Court and gave the judge letters from Miss Marva. the pediatrician, and the pastor of the Lamb of God, all offering good opinions as to my character and my parenting abilities. The judge expressed concern over my lack of a job, advised me to get something right away, and warned me to expect the occasional visit from Social Services.

When the hearing was over, the court clerk told me to write out a check for seventy-five dollars, which I did with a purple glitter pen I found at the bottom of my purse. They gave me a folder with copies of the petition and information release forms I'd filled out, and the certificate of guardianship. I couldn't help feeling like I'd just bought Carrington and been handed the receipt.

I went outside the courthouse and found Lucy waiting for me at the bottom of the steps, with Carrington in her stroller. For the first time in days, I laughed as I saw Carrington's chubby hands clutching a cardboard sign Lucy had made for her: PROPERTY OF LIBERTY JONES.

CHAPTER 12

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I have always hated flying. The idea of it is an affront to nature. People are meant to stay on the ground.

I put down the classifieds and glanced at Carrington, who was sitting in her high chair and feeding long strands of spaghetti into her mouth. Most of her hair was fastened into a sprig of hair at the top of her head and clipped with a big red bow. She was dressed in her

diapers and nothing else. We had discovered that cleanup after dinner was a lot easier if she ate topless.

Carrington regarded me solemnly, with a big orange smear of spaghetti sauce across her mouth and chin.

"How would you like to relocate to Oregon?" I asked her.

Her small round face split into a grin, displaying a set of widely spaced white teeth. "Okeydokey."

It was her latest favorite phrase, the other being "No way."

"You could stay in day care." I continued, "while I go up in a plane and serve little bottles of Jack Daniel's to cranky businessmen. How does that sound?"

"Okeydokey."

I watched Carrington meticulously pick out a shred of cooked carrot that I had sneaked into her spaghetti sauce. After divesting the strand of pasta of as much nutritional value as possible, she put the end in her mouth and sucked it up.

"Quit picking off those vegetables," I told her, "or I'll make you some broccoli."

"No way," she said, her mouth full of spaghetti, and I laughed.

I pored over the notes I had made on the jobs available to a girl with a high school diploma and no work experience. So far it seemed I was qualified to be a Quick-Stop cashier, a sanitation pump driver, a nanny, a cleaning lady for Happy Helpers, or a cat groomer at a pet clinic. They all paid about what I had expected, which was next to nothing.

The job I wanted least was to be a nanny, because it meant I would be taking care of someone else's kids instead of Carrington.

I sat there with my limited options spread around me in the form of newspaper pages. I felt small and powerless, and I didn't want to get used to that feeling. I needed a job I was going to keep for a while. It wouldn't be good for me or Carrington if I hopped from place to place. And I suspected there wasn't going to be much rising through the ranks at a Quick-Stop store.

Seeing that Carrington was depositing her carrot bits onto the newspaper in front of her, I muttered, "Quit doing that, Carrington." I pulled the paper away and began to crumple it up, and stopped as I saw the orange-speckled ad on the side.

A new career in under a year!

A well-trained beauty technician is always in demand, in good times or bad. Every day millions of people go to their favorite stylists for cuts, coloring, chemical treatments, and other necessary cosmetic services. The knowledge and abilities you acquire at East Houston Academy of Cosmetology will prepare you for a successful career in any aspect of the beauty business you choose. Apply for a place at EHAC, and let your future begin. Financial aid available to those who qualify.

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