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As Carrington slept in her car seat, I cried all the way home, feeling inadequate, anguished, filled with love and relief and worry.

Feeling like a parent.

As time passed, Miss Marva and Mr. Ferguson's relationship acquired the knotty tenderness of two independent people who had no reason to fall in love but did anyway. They were a good match, Miss Marva's peppery nature balanced by Mr. Ferguson's stubborn tranquility.

Miss Marva proclaimed to anyone who would listen that she had no intention of getting married. No one believed her. I think what finally did Marva in was that despite his comfortable financial situation. Arthur Ferguson was clearly a man who needed taking care of. He had missing buttons on his shirt cuffs. He sometimes skipped meals because he simply forgot to eat. His socks weren't always matched. Some men just thrive on a little nagging, and Miss Marva came to acknowledge that she probably needed someone to nag.

So after they had been dating for about eight months, Miss Marva fixed Arthur

Ferguson his favorite meal, beer pot roast and green beans and a big skillet of cornbread. And red velvet cake for dessert, after which, naturally, he proposed.

Miss Marva told me the news sheepishly, and claimed Arthur must have tricked her somehow, because there was no reason a woman with her own business should get married. But I could see how happy she was. I was glad that after all the ups and downs of her life, Miss Marva had found herself a good man. They were going to Las Vegas, she said, to get married by Elvis, and after that they would see a Wayne Newton show and maybe the fellas with the tigers. When they returned, Miss Marva was going to leave Bluebonnet Ranch and move into Mr. Ferguson's brick house in town, which he had given her leave to redecorate from top to bottom.

It was less than five miles from Miss Marva's single-wide to her new residence. But she was traveling a greater distance than you could measure with an odometer. She was moving into a different world, acquiring a new status. The thought that I would no longer be able to run down the street to visit her was unsettling and depressing.

With Miss Marva gone, there was nothing keeping me and Carrington at Bluebonnet Ranch. We were living in an old mobile home worth nothing, sitting on a rented lot. Since my sister was going into preschool next year, I needed to find an apartment in a good school district. I would find a job in Houston, I decided, if I was lucky enough to pass the upcoming Cosmetology Commission exams.

I wanted to get out of the trailer park—I wanted it even more for my sister than I did for

myself. But at the same time it would be cutting off the last link I had with Mama. And Hardy.

My mother's absence was driven home every time I wanted to tell her about something that had happened to me or Carrington. Long after she was gone there were moments when the child in me who wanted comfort still cried for her. And then as the grief was weathered by time, Mama slipped farther away from me. I couldn't remember the exact sound of her voice, the shape of her front teeth, the color of her cheeks. I struggled to hold the details of her like water cupped in my hands.

The loss of Hardy was nearly as acute, in a different way. If a man ever looked at me with interest, spoke to me, smiled, I found myself helplessly searching for hints of Hardy. I didn't know how to stop wanting him. It wasn't that I had any hope—I knew I'd never see him again. But that didn't stop me from comparing every other man to Hardy and finding them all lacking. I had exhausted myself loving him, like a blackbird fighting its own reflection in a plateglass window.

Why was love so easy for some people and so hard for others? Most of my high school friends were already married. Lucy was engaged to her boyfriend, Matt, and she claimed to have no doubts at all. I thought of how wonderful it would be to have someone to lean on. To my shame, I fantasized about Hardy coming back for me, telling me he'd been wrong to leave, we'd find a way to make it because nothing was worth being apart from each other.

If loneliness was a choice, what was the other option? To settle for second-best and try to be happy with that? And was that fair to the person you settled for? There had to be someone out there, some man who could help me get over Hardy. I had to find him, not only for my own sake, but for my little sister's. Carrington had no masculine influence in her life. All she'd had so far was Mama, Miss Marva, and me. I didn't know psychology, but I was aware that fathers, or father figures, had a big impact on how children turned out. I wondered if I'd had some more time with my own father, how different my own choices might have been.

The truth was, I wasn't comfortable around men. They were alien creatures, with their hard handshakes and love of red sports cars and power tools, and their seeming inability to replace the toilet paper roll when it was empty. I envied girls who understood men and were at ease with them.

I realized I wasn't going to find a man until I was willing to expose myself to possible harm, to assume the risks of rejection and betrayal and heartbreak that came along with caring about someone. Someday. I promised myself, I would be ready for that kind of risk.

CHAPTER 13

Mrs. Vasquez said she wasn't a bit surprised that I'd passed the written and practical exams with near-perfect scores. She beamed and bracketed my face in her firm, narrow hands as if I were a favorite daughter. "Congratulations, Liberty. You've worked very hard. You should be very proud of yourself."

"Thank you." I was breathless with excitement. Passing the exam was a huge boost to my confidence; it made me feel I could do anything. As Lucy's mom had said, if you can make one basket, you can make a hundred baskets.

The academy director motioned me to sit. "Will you be looking for an apprenticeship now. or do you plan to rent an operator's booth?"

Renting an operator's booth was like being self-employed, requiring you to lease a little part of a beauty shop for a monthly fee. I wasn't crazy about the idea of no guaranteed salary.

"I'm leaning toward the apprenticeship." I said. "I'd rather have regular pay...my little sister and I—"

"Of course," she interrupted before I had to explain. "I think a young woman with your skills and beauty should be able to find a paying position at a good salon."

Unused to praise, I smiled and hitched my shoulders in a shrug. "Do looks have anything to do with it?"

"The most upscale salons have an image they prefer. If you happen to fit in. so much the better for you." Her considering stare made me straighten self-consciously in my chair. Thanks to the incessant styling practice the cosmetology students had done on each other, I'd had a lifetime's worth of manicures, pedicures, skin treatments, and hair-coloring. I had never looked so polished. My dark hair was artfully highlighted with shades of caramel and honey, and after what had felt like about a thousand facials, my skin was so clear I had no need of foundation makeup. I looked a little like one of Barbie's ethno-friends, all fresh and shiny behind a clear plastic dome and a hot-pink label.

"There is a very exclusive salon in the Galleria area." Mrs. Vasquez continued. "Salon One...have you heard of it? Yes? I am well acquainted with the manager. If you are interested, I will recommend you to her."

"Would you?" I could hardly believe my luck. "Oh, Mrs. Vasquez. I don't know how to thank you."

"They are very particular/' she warned. "You may not make it past the first interview.

But..." She paused and gave me a curious glance. "Something tells me you will do well there. Liberty."

Houston is a long-legged city laid out akimbo like a wicked woman after a night of sin. Big problems and big pleasures—that's Houston. But in a state of generally friendly people. Houstonians are the nicest, as long as you don't mess with their property. They have a high regard for property, that is to say land, and they have a particular understanding of it.

As the only major American city with no zoning code to speak of. Houston is an ongoing experiment in the influence of free market forces on land use. You're likely to see strip clubs and triple-X stores cozying up to circumspect office buildings and condos, and shade-tree mechanics and shotgun houses sidled against concrete plazas studded with glass skyscrapers. That's because Houstonians have always preferred real ownership of their land over letting the government have control over how things ought to be arranged. They'll gladly pay the price for that freedom, even if it results in undesirable businesses springing up like mesquite trees.

In Houston, new money is just as good as old. No matter who you are or where you came from, you're welcome to the dance as long as you can afford the ticket. There are tales of legendar\' Houston society hostesses who came from relatively humble backgrounds, including one who was once a furniture salesman's daughter and another who had gotten her start in party-planning. If you have money and you value quiet good taste, you'll be appreciated in Dallas. But if you have money and you like to throw it around like fire-ant bait, you belong in Houston.

On the surface it's a lazy city filled with slow-talking, slow-moving people. Most of the time it's too hot to get stirred up about anything. But power in Houston is wielded with an economy of motion, just like good bass fishing. The city is built on energy, you can see it in the skyline, all those buildings reaching up as if they intend to keep on growing.

I found an apartment for Carrington and me inside the 610 loop, not far from my job at Salon One. People who live inside 610 are regarded as somewhat cosmopolitan, the kind who might sometimes see an art house movie or drink lattes. Outside the loop, latte-drinking is seen as suspicious evidence of possible liberal leanings.

The apartment was in an older complex, with a swimming pool and a jogging trail. "Are we rich now?" Carrington had asked in wonder, awed by the size of the main building and the fact that we rode up to our apartment in an elevator.

As an apprentice at Salon One. I would earn about eighteen thousand dollars a year. After taxes and a monthly rent of five hundred dollars, there wasn't much left over, especially since the cost of living was much higher in the city than in Welcome. However, after the first year of training I would be promoted to junior stylist, and my salary would be bumped up to the low twenties.

For the first time in my life I was filled with a sense of possibility. I had a degree and a license, and a job that might turn into a career. I had a six-hundred-and-fourteen-square-foot apartment with beige carpeting and a used Honda that still ran. And most of all I had a piece of paper that said Carrington was mine, and no one could take her away from me.

I enrolled Carrington in preschool and bought her a Little Mermaid lunch box and sneakers with flashing lights embedded in the sides. The first day of school I walked her to her classroom and fought to hold back my own tears as my sister sobbed and clutched at me and begged me not to leave her. Withdrawing to the side of the doorway, away from the gaze of the sympathetic teacher, I crouched on the floor and wiped Carrington's streaming face with a tissue. "Baby, it's just for a little while. Just a few hours. You're going to play and make new friends—"

"I don't wanna make friends!"

"You're going to do artwork and paint and draw—"

"I don't wanna paint!" She buried her face in my chest. Her voice was muffled in my shirt. "I wanna go home with you."

I cupped the back of her small head, holding her securely against my damp shirt. "I'm not going home, baby. We both have our jobs, remember? Mine is to go fix people's hair, and yours is to go to school."

"I don't like my job!"

I eased her head back and applied a tissue to her runny nose. "Carrington, I have an idea. Here, look—" I took her arm and gently turned it wrist up. "I'm going to give you a kiss you can carry with you all day. Watch." Bending my head, I pressed my lips to the pale skin right below her elbow. My lipstick left a perfect imprint. "There. Now if you start to miss me, that will remind you that I love you and I'm coming soon to pick you up."

Carrington regarded the waxy pink mark dubiously, but I was relieved to see her tears had stopped. "I wish it was a red kiss," she said after a long moment.

"Tomorrow I'll wear red lipstick," I promised. I stood and took her hand. "Come on, baby. Go make some new friends and draw me a picture. The day will be over before you know it."

Carrington approached preschool in a soldierly manner, regarding it as a duty that had to be performed. The ritual of the goodbye kiss persisted, however. The first day I forgot about it, I received a call at the salon from the teacher, who said apologetically that Carrington was so distraught she was disrupting the class. I raced to the school on my break and met my swollen-eyed sister at the classroom door.

I was rattled and out of breath, and thoroughly exasperated. "Carrington, did you have to make such a fuss? Can't you go one day without a kiss on your arm?"

"No." She extended her ami stubbornly, her face tear-streaked and mulish.

I sighed and made the lipstick mark on her skin. "Are you going to behave now?"

"Okay!" She bounced and skipped back into the classroom while I hurried back to work.

People always noticed Carrington when we went out. They stopped to admire her and asked questions, and said what a pretty little girl she was. No one ever guessed I was related to her—they assumed I was the nanny, and they said things like '"How long have you been taking care of her?" or "Her parents must be so proud." Even the receptionist in our new pediatrician's office insisted I would have to bring Carrington1 s forms home to be signed by a parent or legal guardian, and she treated me with open skepticism when I said I was Carrington's sister. I understood why our link seemed questionable: our coloring was too dissimilar. We were like a brown hen with a white egg.

Not long after Carrington turned four, I got a glimpse of what dating was going to be like—and it wasn't pretty. One of the stylists at the salon, Angie Keeney, arranged a blind date for me with her brother Mike. He had been divorced recently, two years after marrying his college sweetheart. According to Angie, Mike wanted to find someone completely different from his wife.

"What does he do?" I asked her.

"Oh, Mike does real well. He's the top appliance salesman for Price Paradise." Angie gave me a significant glance. "Mike's a provider."

In Texas the code word for a man with a steady job is "provider." and the one for a man who doesn't have or want a job is the all-purpose "bubba." And it's a well-known fact that while providers sometimes turn into bubbas. it seldom goes the other way.

I wrote down my phone number for Angle to give to her brother. Mike called the next night, and I liked his pleasant voice and easy laugh. We agreed he would take me out for Japanese food since I'd never had it before.

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