- The Last King of Texas
In the main room, Christmas lights were blinking in the exposed rafter beams. Folk music was playing. Over at the pool table, the normal coterie of young rednecks was breaking setups and pouring each other shots from my mother's liquor cabinet.
I'm not sure where she gets the guys. Her liquor supply and pool table have just always attracted tan, muscular men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five, three or four a night ever since my mom got her divorce. As near as I can tell, Mother doesn't know these guys, never calls them anything but "dear," has no recollection that most of them went to school with me. The man pouring the shots at the moment had once traded lunch boxes with me in third grade. His name was Bobby something. Or at least it had been. Probably Bob, now. Mr. Bob.
Every piece of furniture had been removed from the center of the living room. Mother's Guatemalan-patterned sofas were piled in the entrance of the den. Her pigskin chairs were lined up on the back porch by the hot tub. The upright piano had been pushed into the hallway. In the middle of the now-bare floor, Mother was kneeling on her twenty-by-twenty Persian carpet, folding large pieces of marbleized paper into origami hats.
Jess stepped over several of the finished products and retrieved a Lone Star longneck from the fireplace mantel. "Tell your mother she's obsessed."
Mother carefully made a fold in the paper, pressing out a long isosceles triangle. "Please, Jess."
She was dressed in jeans and black turtleneck under a red-and-orange dashiki. Her Birkenstock clogs were nearby on the carpet. Mother's Cleopatra haircut had been newly frizzed in what was either a perm or the aftermath of an electrical storm.
She pressed another triangle into the paper. "The Crocker Gallery sold two yesterday, Tres — Samurai Moon and Plum Dragon. The buyer owns a hotel in Florida. He wants to see five more that match the color schemes of his suites by the end of the week. I'm simply swamped."
Jess mumbled some obscenities about Florida, looked at me to share his disgust. "I told her let's just hire some Mexicans, get 'em folding the damn things in the backyard. Set up a damn art factory."
My mother sat on her haunches and glared at him. "This is my art, Jess."
Jess plunked his beer back on the mantel. "They're fucking paper hats, Rachel. Get over it."
Before she could respond, he stormed off toward the bedroom hall. It's difficult to storm properly when one has to squeeze sideways past an upright piano, but Jess did his best. I heard seven more heavy footfalls, then the door of the master bedroom slammed.
Over at the pool table, billiard balls clacked. New beers were opened. Joni Mitchell sang softly on the stereo behind the rednecks, telling them all about Paris and flowers and Impressionism.
My mother stared into the empty hallway, her face stony with anger.
"He's learning to take time-outs all by himself," I said. "That's encouraging."
The comment didn't even get her attention, much less a rise.
The creases in her origami unfolded slowly, the paper trying to find its original shape. Mother closed her eyes.
She reassembled her composure — a weak smile, chin higher, wisps of black hair pushed away from her face.
Then she stood and gave me a hug. "I'm sorry, dear. You shouldn't have to see our little squabbles."
Their little squabbles. As if she hadn't been married to my father. "It's okay, Mother."
She pushed me away gently, wiped something out of her eye. "Of course it's okay."
She stared down the hall.
"Isn't it?" I asked.
"Of course! Or it would be if you wouldn't keep scaring your poor mother to death. Look at your face."
She ran her finger down the three new stitches on my cheek.
"The day picked up after that," I told her.
"I don't want to hear it."
She glared at me. "Of course I want to hear it, Jackson. Kitchen. Now."
I followed her down the Saltillo-tiled steps. The smell of boiling shrimp was overpowering — brine and allspice and Tabasco. Mother stirred the pot, reset the timer, then sat me down at the butcher-block table with a beer in my hand and a fresh red wine in hers and commanded, "Tell."
Several times during the story her eyes drifted toward the sliding-glass door that looked across the patio to the master bedroom. The curtains on the other side stayed shut, blue TV light flickering behind them.
I told Mother about the UTSA job, the police assurances that the Brandon case would be wrapped up quickly, the arrest I'd witnessed this morning. I told her about my double date tonight.
She stared into her wine.
I waited for half a Joni Mitchell verse. I found myself studying Mother's hands, the way they cradled the glass, their raised veins and faint age spots the only real indications this was a woman in her mid-fifties. "You missed your cue."
She refocused on me. "What, dear?"
"Your cue. For pestering me about my date. Asking me how soon I can quit P.I. work now that I've got a real job. Lecturing me on why I shouldn't go riding with Ozzie Gerson. Stuff like that,"
She plinked a fingernail against the blue-tinted rim of the Mexican glass.
"Please, Jackson. I am never that bad."
"What's up with you and Jess?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Did you hear my story at all?"
Mother's eyes drifted away. "I remember Ozzie. Your father and he hunted out at Sabinal many times — Jack used to say that Ozzie's hobby was collecting bad luck."
"Apparently that hasn't changed."
"He also said Ozzie was one of the few deputies he'd trust with his life. If Ozzie advised you to stay out of this matter—"
The patio door slid open and Jess entered the room, an army-green duffel bag over his shoulder. He swiped his Cowboys cap off the television. "I'm going."
Mother stood, unlacing her fingers from the wineglass. "Jess?"
He trudged up the steps into the living room.
The front door slammed. Over the Joni Mitchell and the poolroom chat and the bubbling of shrimp we could just barely hear Jess' truck engine start in the driveway.
Mother turned, sank back into her chair. Her eyes had gone blank.
"I could call off my plans," I offered.
"Don't be silly. Everything's fine. Go on your date, dear."
She stared at me, daring me to contradict her. "I'm sure." Her voice was tin. "You go on."
I looked at my watch. George Berton was on the South Side, our dates back in Monte Vista, reservations at Los Barrios for eight-thirty. I could stay here maybe another ten minutes. Safer if I just canceled.
Mother reached over and patted my hand, tried for a smile. "Don't worry."
"Jess will probably just drive around awhile, blow off some steam."
"Yes," she agreed.
When I met her eyes, I realized how completely clueless I was about their relationship, about what they were like the ninety-five percent of the time I wasn't around. I'd never wanted to know before. Now I felt about as useful as a paperweight in a wind tunnel.
I left Mother at the kitchen table with a refilled glass of cabernet and the new Texas Monthly. The kitchen timer was still going next to her, ticking off the minutes until the shrimp were boiled. I followed the smell of Jess' cologne all the way through the house and into the front yard, where it finally dissipated.
I tried to convince myself that it was only my shitty day, my strung-out nerves that were giving me the urge to ram my VW into Jess Makar, if I could've found the bastard.
Cultivating that sense of well-being, I got in my car and started the engine, heading out to be a lucky lady's dream date.
George Berton stood in his front yard looking like an extra from Dr. No. His Panama hat brim cut a black ribbon across his eyes. His pencil mustache was newly trimmed. He wore a pink camp shirt with the obligatory Cuban cigar in the pocket, black slacks, polished white shoes, and a tiny gold cross in the V of hairy chest at his open collar. He carried a bouquet of wildflowers wrapped in cellophane.
I pulled the VW up to the curb.
"For me?" I asked.
George leaned into the passenger's-side window. "I been standing here so long I got three other propositions. I was starting to think you'd chickened out."
"That would've been the smart choice," I agreed.
George dropped the flowers on the seat. "Reminds me. I do have something for you. You want to wait or come in?"
"You think we have time?"
"Not my fault."
"Hey, you could've picked me up, Berton. I was on the way."
I pointed to the carport, where George's restored red 70 Barracuda convertible sat enshrined.
George looked appalled. "Drive her? I spent all last weekend on that chrome, ese. It's supposed to rain tonight. I'm talking mud and everything."
"I'll come in."
George's front lawn was a quarter acre of colored fish-tank gravel lined with aluminum edging. Pyracantha bushes made perfect cubes underneath the windows. The cottage itself was white stucco with blue-and-white awnings, white drapes on the picture windows. Like George, it could've shifted back in time forty years and no one would've been the wiser.
I followed Berton into the living room.
"Hang on a sec," he said. "It's in the back."
There wasn't much to look at while I waited. The walls and floors were bare, the furniture consisting of two papasan chairs, a TV on the floor, and a glass coffee table with nothing on it. George's only clutter was carefully confined to a coat closet by the front door — a space that held the altar for his wife at Dia de los Muertos, and the rest of the year held George's Sinatra CDs, his car magazines, his gothic novels, his cigar box, and everything else dear to his heart. It was a space he could close off quickly and make it seem, to the casual visitor, that he was a man living in complete austerity.
The closet was open tonight. I peeked inside. Unpainted Sheetrock was pinned with photographs of George and friends. One showed George and me on our trip to Corpus last Christmas. George was grinning and pointing at the marlin he'd goaded me into catching. Another showed George and the kid he was Big Brother to on the weekends — Sultan, I think his name was, eleven years old, already flirting with gangs. Another photo showed George's forty-third birthday party at Pablo's Grove, where I and about five hundred other well-wishers had shown up chewing Cuban cigars and wearing Panama hats and the loudest golf shirts we could find. Interspersed with these photos were years of thank-you letters from the Elf Louise program, the local charity that collected Christmas toys for poor kids.
"Close that damn thing," George said behind me.
George handed me a brown bag with something rectangular inside.
"You're a damn saint," I said. "Why do you care if the closet is closed?"
"Just open the bag."
Inside was a paperback novel — Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. I asked, "Do I get to choose between this and the flowers?"
"You're missing out on the greats, ese. And you a damn English professor now."