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That earned one more hair-smoothing, and then we got out of the car.

CHAPTER 4

As soon as school started, I discovered my polo shirts and baggy jeans qualified me as a fashion emergency. The style was grunge, everything shredded and stained and wrinkled. Trash-can chic, Mama said in distaste. But I was desperate to fit in with the other girls in my class, and I begged her to take me to the nearest department store. We bought thin gauzy blouses and long tank tops, a crocheted vest and an ankle-length skirt, and clunky Doc Martens shoes. The price tag on a pair of distressed jeans nearly sent Mama into shock—"Sixty dollars and they already have holes in them?"—but she bought them anyway. The high school in Welcome had no more than a hundred students in the entire ninth-grade class. Football was everything. The whole town turned out every Friday night for the game, or shut down so fans could follow the Panthers for the away games. Mothers, sisters, and girlfriends barely flinched as their warriors engaged in battles that, had they occurred outside the stadium, would have counted as attempted murder. For most of the players, this was their place in the sun. their one shot at glory. The boys were recognized like celebrities as they walked down the street, and the coach was ostentatiously told to put away his driver's license whenever he wrote a check—no ID was needed.

Since the athletic-supplies budget outstripped that of every other department, the school library was adequate at best. That was where I spent most of my free time. I had no thought of trying out for cheerleading, not only because it looked silly to me, but because it took money and string-pulling by frantic parents to assure their daughter's place on the squad.

I was lucky to find friends quickly, a circle of three other girls who hadn't made it into any of the popular cliques. We visited each other's houses, experimented with makeup, vogued in front of the mirror, and saved our money for ceramic flattening irons. For my fifteenth-birthday present, Mama finally allowed me to have contact lenses. It was a strange but delicious feeling to look at the world without the weight of thick glasses on my face. To celebrate my liberation, my best friend, Lucy Reyes, announced she was going to pluck my eyebrows. Lucy was a dark, slim-hipped Portuguese girl who devoured fashion magazines between classes and kept up with all the latest styles.

"My eyebrows aren't that bad," I protested as Lucy advanced on me with witch hazel, tweezers, and to my alarm, a tube of Anbesol. "Are they'?"

"Do you really want me to answer that?" Lucy asked.

"I euess not."

Lucy pushed me toward the vanity chair in her bedroom. "Sit." I gazed into the mirror with concern, focusing on the hair between my brows, which Lucy had said constituted a linking section. Since it was a well-known fact that no girl with a monobrow could ever have a happy life, I had no choice but to put myself in Lucy's capable hands.

Maybe it was just a coincidence, but the next day I had an unexpected encounter with Hardy Gates that seemed to prove Lucy's claim about the power of brow-shaping. I was practicing alone at the communal basketball hoop at the back of the subdivision, because earlier at gym class I had revealed I couldn't make a free throw to save my life. The girls had been divided into two teams, and there had actually been an argument over who would have to take me. I didn't blame them—I wouldn't have wanted me on my team either. Since the season wouldn't end until late November, I was doomed to more public embarrassment unless I could improve my skills.

The autumn sun was strong. It had been good melon weather, the hot days and cool nights bringing the local crops of casabas and muskmelons to full-slip sugar. After five minutes of shooting practice, I was streaked with sweat and dust. Plumes of powdered fire rose from the paved ground with each impact of the basketball.

No dirt on earth sticks to you like East Texas red clay. The wind blows it over you and it tastes sweet in your mouth. As the clay lurks under a foot of light tan topsoil, it expands and shrinks so drastically that in the driest months Martian-colored cracks run across the ground. You can soak your socks in bleach for a week, and you won't get that red out.

As I puffed and struggled to get my arms and legs working together, I heard a lazy voice behind me.

"You've got the worst free-throw form I've ever seen."

Panting, I tucked the basketball against my hip and turned to face him. A hank of hair escaped my ponytail and dangled over one eye.

There are few men who can turn a friendly insult into a good opening line, but Hardy was one of them. His grin held a wicked charm that robbed the words of any sting. He was rumpled and as dusty as I was, dressed in jeans and a white shirt with the sleeves ripped off. And he wore a Resistol hat that had once been white but had turned the olive-gray of ancient straw. Standing with relaxed looseness, he stared at me in a way that made my insides do somersaults.

"You got any pointers?" I asked.

As soon as I spoke Hardy looked sharply at my face, and his eyes widened. "Liberty? Is that you?"

He hadn't recognized me. Amazing, what removing half your eyebrows could accomplish. Suddenly I had to clamp my teeth on my inner cheeks to keep from laughing. Pushing the loose hair back from my face, I said calmly, "Of course it's me. Who'd you think it was?"

"Damned if I know. I..." He tipped his hat back on his head and approached me cautiously, as if I were some volatile substance that might explode at any moment. That was certainly how I felt. "What happened to your glasses?"

"I got contacts."

Hardy came to stand in front of me; his broad shoulders creating a shadowed lee from the sunlight. "Your eyes are green." He sounded distracted. Disgruntled, even.

I stared at the front of his throat, where the skin was tanned and smooth and dappled with a glitter of moisture. He was close enough that I could smell the intimate salt of his sweat. The crescents of my fingernails dug into the pebbled surface of the basketball. As Hardy Gates stood there looking at me, really seeing me for the first time, it felt like the whole world had been snatched up in a great unseen hand, its motion arrested.

"I'm the worst basketball player in school." I told him. "Maybe all of Texas. I can't make the ball go in that thing."

"The hoop?"

"Yeah, that."

Hardy studied me for another long moment. A smile curled one corner of his mouth. "I can give you some pointers. Lord knows you couldn't get any worse."

"Mexicans can't play basketball," I said. "I should be given a waiver because of my heritage."

Without taking his eyes from mine, he reached for the ball and dribbled a few times. Smoothly he turned and executed a perfect jump shot. It was a show-off move, looking all the better for being done in a cowboy hat, and I had to laugh as Hardy glanced at me with an expectant grin.

"Am I supposed to praise you now?" I asked.

He retrieved the ball and dribbled slowly around me. "Yeah, now would be a good time."

"That was awesome."

Hardy managed the ball with one hand while using the other to remove his battered hat and send it sailing to the side. He came to me, catching up the ball in his palm. "What do you want to learn first?"

Dangerous question. I thought.

Being near Hardy brought back the feeling of heavy sweetness that robbed me of any inclination to move. I felt like I had to breathe twice as fast as normal to get the necessary amount of oxygen into my lungs. "Free throw," I managed to say.

"All right, then." Hardy motioned me to the white line that had been painted fifteen feet from the backboard. It seemed an enormous distance.

"I'll never make it," I said, taking the ball from him. "I don't have the upper-body strength."

"You're going to use your legs more than your arms. Square up, honey...spread your feet about as wide apart as your shoulders. Now show me how you've been—Well, hell, if that's how you hold the ball, no wonder you can't shoot straight."

"No one ever showed me how." I protested as he arranged my shooting hand on the

ball. His tanned fingers covered mine briefly, and I felt the strength in them, and the roughened skin. His nails were clipped short and bleached white from the sun. A working man's hand.

"I'm showing you how," he said. "Hold it like this. Now bend your knees, and aim for the square on the backboard. As you straighten up, release the ball and let the energy come up from your knees. Try to shoot in one smooth motion. Got it?"

"Got it." I aimed and threw with all my might. The ball went crazily off course, frightening the wits out of an armadillo that had unwisely ventured out of its hole to investigate Hardy's discarded hat. The armadillo squeaked as the ball bounced too close for comfort. Its long toenails scored the baked ground as it scuttled back into its hiding place.

"You're trying too hard." Hardy trotted after the ball. "Relax."

I shook my arms out and grabbed the ball from the air as he passed it to me.

"Square up." Hardy stood beside me as I took up position at the line again. "Your left hand is the support, and your right hand is—" He broke off and began to chuckle. "No. damn it, not like that."

I scowled at him. "Look. I know you're trying to help, but—"

"Okay. Okay." Manfully he wiped the grin from his face. "Hold still. I'm going to stand behind you. I'm not making a move on you, all right? I'm just going to put my hands over yours."

I went still as I felt his body behind mine, the solid pressure of his chest against my

back. His arms were on either side of me. and the feel of being surrounded in his warm strength drew a shiver from deep between my shoulder blades. "Easy," came his quiet murmur, and I closed my eyes as I felt the rush of his breath in my hair.

His hands coaxed mine into position. "Your palm goes here. Rest these three fingertips against the seam. Now, when you push against the ball, you're going to let it roll over your fingertips, and then you'll flick 'em down in the follow-through. Like this. That's how you give the ball a backspin."

His hands covered mine completely. The color of our skin was almost identical, except that his came from the sun and mine came from within. "We're going to throw it together now so you can get a feel of the motion. Bend your knees and look at the backboard."

The moment his arms had gone around me, I stopped thinking entirely. I was a creature of instinct and feeling, every heartbeat and breath and movement attuned to his. With Hardy at my back I threw the ball, and it rose in the air in a sure arc. Instead of the hoped-for swish, it bounced off the rim. But considering I hadn't even gotten close to the backboard before, it was a big improvement.

"Better." Hardy said, a smile in his voice. "Nice going, kid."

"I'm not a kid. I'm only a couple of years younger than you."

"You're a baby. You've never even been kissed."

The word "baby" rankled. "How would you know? And don't try to claim you can tell by looking. If I say I've been kissed by a hundred boys, you'd have no way to prove

otherwise."

"If you've been kissed even once, I'd be amazed."

A great all-consuming wish burned inside me, that Hardy would have been wrong. If only I had the experience and the confidence to say something like "Prepare to be amazed, then," and walk up to him and give him the kiss of all time, one that would blow the top of his head off.

But this scenario wasn't going to work. First, Hardy was so much taller, I'd have to climb halfway up his body before I could reach his lips. Second, I had no clue about the technicalities of kissing, whether you started with the lips parted or closed, what to do with your tongue, when to close your eyes.. .and although I didn't mind Hardy laughing about my klutzy basketball moves—well, not much—I would die if he laughed at my attempt to kiss him.

So I settled for a muttered. "You don't know as much as you think you do." and went to get the ball.

Lucy Reyes asked me if I wanted to get my hair cut at Bowie's, the fancy Houston salon where she and her mom got their hair cut. It would cost a lot, she warned, but after Bowie started me off with a good cut, maybe I could find a hairdresser in Welcome who could maintain it. After Mama gave her approval, and I had collected every cent I had saved from babysitting the neighbors1 kids. I told Lucy to go ahead and make the call. Three weeks later

Lucy's mom drove us to Houston in a white Cadillac with tan upholstery and a cassette player, and windows that rolled down at the touch of a button.

The Reyes family was well-off by Welcome standards, due to the prosperity of their shop, which they had named Trickle-Down Pawn. I had always thought pawn shops were visited by derelicts and desperate people, but Lucy assured me that perfectly nice folks went to get loans from such places. One day after school she had taken me to Trickle-Down, which was run by her older brother, uncle, and father. The shop was filled with rows of shiny guns and pistols, big scary knives, microwave ovens, and television sets. To my delight, Lucy's mom had let me try on some of the gold rings in the velvet-lined glass cases...there were hundreds of them sparkling with every stone imaginable.

"We do a big business in bust-up engagements," Lucy's mom had said brightly, pulling out a velvet tray pebbled with diamond solitaires. I loved her thick Portuguese accent, which made it sound like she'd said "beeg beesiness."

"Oh. that's sad," I said.

"No, not at all." Lucy's mom had gone on to explain how it was empowering for women to pawn the engagement rings and take the money after their no-good fiances had cheated on them. "He scroo her, you scroo heem," she said authoritatively.

Trickle-Down's prosperity had given Lucy and her family the means to go to the uptown area of Houston for their clothes, manicures, and haircuts. I had never been to the upscale Galleria area, where restaurants and shops straddled the city's main loop. Bowie's

was located in a luxurious cluster of stores at the intersection of the loop and West-heimer. It was hard to conceal my astonishment when Lucy's mom drove up to a parking attendant's station and gave him the keys. Valet parking for a haircut!

Bowie's was filled with mirrors and chrome and exotic styling equipment, the biting scent of perm activator hanging thick in the air. The owner of the shop was a man in his mid-thirties, with long wavy blond hair that hung down his back. It was a rare sight in South Texas, and it led me to assume Bowie must have been tough as hell. He was certainly in great shape, lean and muscular as he prowled through the shop dressed in black jeans, black boots, a white Western shirt and a bolo tie made of suede cord and a chunk of unpolished turquoise.

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