The silence between us was different than any silence I'd known before, full and warm and waiting. "What are you afraid of?" I dared to ask.
There was a flicker of surprise in his eyes, as if it were something he'd never been asked before. For a moment I thought he wouldn't answer. But he let out a slow breath, and his gaze left mine to sweep across the trailer park. "Staying here." he finally said. "Staying until I'm not fit to belong anywhere else."
"Where do you want to belong?" I half whispered.
His expression changed with quicksilver speed, amusement dancing in his eyes. "Anywhere they don't want me."
I spent most of the summer in Hannah's company, falling in with her schemes and plans, which never amounted to anything but were enjoyable nonetheless. We rode our bikes into town, went out to explore ravines and fields and cave entrances, or sat together in Hannah's room listening to Nirvana. To my disappointment I seldom saw Hardy, who was always working. Or raising hell, as Hannah's mother, Miss Judie, said sourly.
Wondering how much hell-raising could be done in a town like Welcome, I culled as much information as I could from Hannah. It seemed to be a matter of general agreement that Hardy Gates was born for trouble, and sooner or later he would find it. So far his crimes had been minor ones, misdeeds and small acts of mischief that broadcast a frustrated voltage beneath his good-natured exterior. Breathlessly Hannah related that Hardy had been seen with girls much older than himself, and there had even been rumors of a dalliance with an older woman in town.
"Has he ever been in love?" I couldn't resist asking, and Hannah said no, according to Hardy falling in love was the last thing he needed. It would get in the way of his plans, which were to leave Welcome as soon as Hannah and her brothers were old enough to be of some help to their mother, Miss Judie.
It was hard to understand how a woman like Miss Judie could have produced such an untamed brood. She was a self-disciplined woman who seemed suspicious of pleasure in any form. Her angular features were like one of those old-time prospector scales upon which were balanced equal amounts of meekness and brittle pride. She was a tall, frail-looking woman whose wrists you could snap like cottonwood twigs. And she was living proof you should never trust a skinny cook. Her notion of fixing dinner was to open cans and ferret out scraps in the vegetable drawer. No wilted carrot or petrified celery stalk was safe from her reach.
After one meal of leftover bologna mixed with canned green beans and served on warmed-over biscuits, and a dessert of canned frosting on toast, I learned to take my leave whenever I heard the rattling of pans in the kitchen. The strange thing was, the Gates children didn't seem to notice or care how terrible the food was. Every fluorescent curl of macaroni, every morsel of something suspended in Jell-O, every particle of fat and gristle disappeared from their plates within five minutes of being served.
On Saturdays the Cateses went out to eat. but not at the local Mexican restaurant or the cafeteria. They went to Earl's meat market, where the butcher dumped all the scraps and cuts he hadn't been able to sell that day—sausages, tails, ribs, innards, pigs' ears—into a big metal tub. "Everything but the oink," Earl used to say with a grin. He was a huge man with hands the size of catcher mitts and a face that glowed as red as fresh ham.
After collecting the day's leftovers, Earl would fill the tub with water and boil it all together. For twenty-five cents you could pick out whatever you wanted, and Earl would set it on a piece of butcher paper along with a slice of Mrs. Baird's bread, and you would eat at the linoleum table in the corner. Nothing was wasted at the meat market. After people were through with the tub, Earl took what was left, ground it up. added bright yellow cornmeal, and sold it as dog food.
The Cateses were dirt poor, but they were never referred to as white trash. Miss Judie was a respectable God-fearing woman, which elevated the family to the level of "poor white." It seems a minor distinction, but many doors in Welcome were open to you if you were poor white and closed if you were white trash.
As a file clerk to the only CPA in Welcome, Miss Judie earned barely enough to put a roof over her children's heads, with Hardy's income supplementing her meager earnings. When I asked Hannah where her daddy was, she told me he was in the Texarkana State Penitentiary, although she'd never been able to find out what he'd done to get himself there.
Maybe the family's troubled past was the reason Miss Judie had established a spotless record of church attendance. She went every Sunday morning and Wednesday night and was always to be found in the first three pews, where the Lord's presence was the strongest. Like most people in Welcome, Miss Judie drew conclusions about a person based on his or her religion. It confounded her when I said Mama and I didn't go to church. "Well, what are you?" she pressed, until I said I thought I was a lapsed Baptist.
This led to another tricky question. "Progressive Baptist or Reformed Baptist?"
Since I wasn't sure of the difference, I said I thought we were progressive. A frown appeared on Miss Judie's forehead as she said in that case we should probably go to First Baptist on Main, although from what she understood, their main Sunday service featured rock bands and a line of chorus girls.
When I told Miss Marva about the conversation later, and protested that "lapsed" meant I didn't have to go to church, Miss Marva replied there was no such thing as lapsed in Welcome, and I might as well go with her and her gentleman friend Bobby Ray to the nondenominational Lamb of God on South Street, because for all that they had a guitarist instead of an organist and held open communion, they also had the best potluck in town.
Mama had no objection to my attending church with Miss Marva and Bobby Ray, although she said it suited her to remain lapsed for the time being. It soon became my habit on Sundays to arrive at Miss Marva's trailer at eight o'clock sharp, eat a breakfast of Bisquick sausage squares or pecan pancakes, and ride to the Lamb of God with Miss Marva and Bobby Ray.
Having no children or grandchildren of her own, Miss Marva had decided to take me under her wing. Discovering my only good dress was too short and small, she offered to make me a new one. I spent an hour happily sorting through the stacks of discount fabric she kept in her sewing room, until I found a bolt of red cloth printed with tiny yellow and white daisies. In a mere two hours Miss Marva had run up a simple sleeveless dress with a boatneck top. I tried it on and looked at myself in the long mirror on the back of her bedroom door. To my delight, it flattered my adolescent curves and made me look a little older.
"Oh. Miss Marva," I said with glee, throwing my arms around her stalwart form, "you are the best! Thank you a million times. A zillion times."
"It was nothing," she said. "I can't take a girl in pants to church, can I?"
Naively I thought when I brought the dress home that Mama would be pleased by the gift. Instead it set off her temper and launched her on a tirade about charity and interfering neighbors. She trembled with anger and hollered until I was in tears and Flip had left the trailer to go get more beer. I protested that it had been a present and I didn't have any dresses, and I was going to keep it no matter what she said. But Mama snatched the dress from me, stuffed it in a plastic grocery sack, and left the trailer, marching to Miss Marva's in high dudgeon.
I cried myself sick, thinking I wouldn't be allowed to visit Miss Marva anymore, and wondering why I had the most selfish mother in the world whose pride meant more than her own daughter's spiritual welfare. Everyone knew girls couldn't go to church in pants, which meant I would continue to be a heathen and live outside the Lord, and worst of all I would miss the best potluck in town.
But something happened in the time that Mama was gone to Miss Marva's. When she returned, her face was relaxed and her voice was peaceful, and she had my new dress in hand. Her eyes were red as if she'd been crying. "Here, Liberty," she said absently, placing the crackling plastic bag into my arms. "You can keep the dress. Go put it in the washer. And add a spoonful of baking soda to get rid of the cigarette smell."
"Did you... did you talk with Miss Marva?" I ventured.
"Yes, I did. She's a nice woman. Liberty." A wry smile tipped the corners of her mouth. "Colorful, but nice."
"Then I can go to church with her?"
Mama gathered her long blond hair at the nape of her neck and secured it with a scrunchie. Turning to lean her back against the edge of the counter, she stared at me thoughtfully. "It's certainly not going to hurt you any."
"No. ma'am," I agreed.
Her arms opened, and I obeyed the motion at once, speeding to her until my body was crowded tightly against hers. There was nothing better in the world than being held by my mother. I felt the press of her mouth at the top of my head, and the tender shift of her cheek as she smiled. "You've got your daddy's hair," she murmured, smoothing the inky tangles.
"I wish I had yours," I said, my voice muffled against her fragile softness. I breathed in the delicious scent of her, tea and skin and some powdery perfume.
"No. Your hair is beautiful. Liberty."
I stood quietly against her, willing the moment to last. Her voice was a low, pleasant hum, her chest rising and falling beneath my ear. "Baby, I know you don't understand why I was so mad about the dress. It's just.. .we don't want anyone to think you need things I can't get for you."
But I did need it, I was tempted to say. Instead I kept my mouth shut and nodded.
"I thought Marva gave it to you because she felt sorry for you," Mama said. "Now I realize it was meant as a gift between friends."
"I don't see why it was such a big deal," I mumbled.
Mama eased me away a little, and stared into my eyes without blinking. "Pity goes hand in hand with contempt. Don't ever forget that, Liberty. You can't take handouts or help from anyone, because that gives people the right to look down on you."
"What if I need help?"
She shook her head immediately. "No matter what trouble you're in. you can get yourself out of it. You just work hard, and use your mind. You've got such a good mind—" She paused to clasp my face in her hands, my cheeks compressed in the warm framework of her fingers. "When you grow up I want you to be self-reliant. Because most women aren't. and it puts them at everyone's mercy."
"Are you self-reliant, Mama?"
The question brought a wash of uncomfortable color to her face, and her hands fell
away from my face. She took a long time about answering. "I try," she half whispered, with a bitter smile that made the flesh prickle on my arms.
As Mama started to make dinner, I went out for a walk. By the time I reached Miss Marva's trailer, the afternoon, fierce and kiln-hot, had drained all the energy out of me.
Knocking at the door, I heard Miss Marva call me to come in. An ancient air conditioner rattled from its berth on the window frame, spurting cold air toward the sofa where Miss Marva sat with a needlepoint frame.
"Hey, Miss Marva." I viewed her with new respect in light of her mysterious influence over my stormy-natured parent.
She motioned me to sit beside her. Our combined weights caused the sofa cushion to compress with a squeak.
The TV was on: a lady reporter with neat bobbed hair stood in front of a map of a foreign country. I listened with only half an ear, having no interest in what was happening in a place so far away from Texas, '"...heaviest fighting so far occurred at the emir's palace, where the royal guard held off Iraqi invaders long enough for members of the royal family to escape...concern over thousands of Western visitors who have so far been detained from leaving Kuwait...'"
I focused on the circular frame in Miss Marva's hands. She was making a seat cushion that, when finished, would resemble a giant tomato slice. Noticing my interest, Miss Marva asked, "Do you know how to needlepoint, Liberty?"
"Well, you should. Nothing settles your nerves like working on needlepoint."
"I don't have nerves," I told her, and she said I would when I was older. She put the canvas in my lap, and showed me the way to push the needle through the little squares. Her vein-corrugated hands were warm on mine, and she smelled like cookies and tobacco.
"A good needlepointer," Miss Marva said, "makes the back side look as good as the front side." Together we bent over the big tomato slice, and I managed to put in a few bright red stitches. "Good work," she praised. "Look how nice you pulled the thread—not too tight, not too loose."
I continued to work on the needlepoint. Miss Marva watched patiently and didn't fuss even when I got a few stitches wrong. I tried to pull the strand of pale green wool through all the little squares that had been dyed a matching color. As I stared closely at the needlepoint, it appeared as if the dots and splashes of color had been strewn randomly across the surface. But when I pulled back and looked at it as a whole, the pattern suddenly made sense and formed a complete picture.
"Miss Marva?" I asked, scooting back in the corner of the springy sofa and hooking my arms around my knees.
"Take your shoes off if you're going to put your feet up."
"Yes, ma'am. Miss Marva.. .what happened when my mother came to visit you today?"
One of the things I liked about Miss Marva was that she always answered my questions frankly. "Your mama came here breathing fire, all riled about that dress I made you. So I told her I meant no offense and I'd take it back. Then I poured some iced tea and we got to talking, and I figured out right quick she wasn't really mad about the dress."
"She wasn't?" I asked dubiously.
"No. Liberty. She just needed someone to talk to. Someone to sympathize about the load she's carrying."
That was the first time I'd ever discussed my mother with another adult. "What load?"
"She's a single working mother. That's about the hardest thing there is."
"She's not single. She's got Flip."
Amused, Miss Marva gave a little cackle. "Tell me, how much help does he give your mama?"
I pondered Flip's responsibilities, which centered primarily around the procurement of beer and the disposal of the cans. Flip also spent a lot of time cleaning his guns, in between the occasions he went to the flamingo range with other men from the trailer park. Basically Flip's function in our house was ornamental.
"Not very much," I admitted. "But why are we keeping Flip if he's so useless?"
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