Excerpts from Stories
These excerpts from Dancing on Barbed Wire illustrate the quality of the writing as well as the interconnectedness of the stories, though each story is complete in itself.
“Sandjack Carson and the Schoolmarm”
The beginning might be said to be the return of Sandjack Carson, his riding into town on a hot August morning, wearing blue duckins trousers, a shirt too heavy and dark to be sensible in the East Texas summer heat, boots a Yankee soldier might have worn into battle, and a Johnny Reb cap. The minute I saw him ride past the courthouse up the Main Street hill, I knew he was heading for trouble, maybe worse than the evil he carried within him, for he surely rode toward the schoolhouse where a woman awaited, one who might make the mistake of offering him welcome, lodging, and more than lodging.
Sybil stepped around Augie to another photo. “And that man there is Sandjack Carson, most likely who you saw last night, too.”
Engrossed, Augie studied that photo even more closely than the first. The man stood with two others, all with their hands in their coat pockets, all unsmiling in front of what appeared to be a saloon.
“He was that preacher man’s legitimate son,” Sybil added.
“He looks sort of familiar.”
Sybil waved his comment off. “Likely just because you saw the pictures while eating last night.”
Augie scrambled to remember the pictures from the evening before. He had noticed the number of pictures on the walls, of course, but he couldn’t recall looking closely at any of them. Then again, he had sat across from Sybil, facing that wall. He might have noticed them without registering what he saw.
“The kitchen is closed for the night, but I can feed you a bowl of the best chili in Southwest Texas. How does that sound?”
“But I don’t have any money. And the credit card company just cancelled my account.”
“Tell me your story instead. You can start with your name.”
“I’m Lily,” the woman says, meeting my eyes for the first time.
“Howdy, Lily. I’m May Belle Stiles. That wasn’t so hard, was it? And what’s his name?”
I glance pointedly at the baby bump that’s pressing against the wooden tabletop.
“Augie,” Lily says and the sobs start again. “His . . . name is . . ..”
“Augie? Well, that’s a beginning.”
The aroma of bacon and eggs and biscuits still saturates the inside air.
“Cat bait,” my father called the breakfast smell, black-dark early, when we sat down to eat at 5:30 and the first plaintive meows began on the back porch. By the time my mother served steaming cups of black coffee, the caterwauling had reached a fever pitch. The old man winced, shook his head at the sound, met my eyes across the table. “Chum,” he said, nodding down at the bright yellow platter between us piled high with breakfast food. He shook his head again, this time at me. “Are you and Cecil sure y’all want to do this cat-fishing thing?”
“Yes sir.” I raised my coffee cautiously, blowing steam from its surface. “Cecil’s bringing a casting net. Says he’s been practicing. He’s supposed to be here at 6:30, and I’ve got a bundle of towsacks already stacked on the carport.”
“Fair enough. But I don’t want your mother to’ve made all this extra food for nothing. And I won’t put up with that plague of porch cats even one more day. Get it done with the casting net this morning, or I’ll handle it myself with the shotgun this afternoon.”
“Cat Man and the Mystic”
Oscar told himself again that he rather liked this boy Cecil, especially since he agreed to try returning the cats he stole. “This lady is Kittykens Eighteen,” Oscar said. “She’s a tortoise-shell calico.”
“You introduced us already.” Cecil started the truck, backed down the driveway beside Jesse’s two-story house.
“All cats with three colors are female. All of them. Males have one color and at most two.”
“You told me that, too.”
“I know. I forget. She’s a favorite even if I shouldn’t have favorites among the tribe of kittykens. But this girl is a sweetheart. Never bites or scratches me. Isn’t afraid of anything, even riding in cars. Or trucks. And she always has things to teach me.”
Oscar could feel the rumble of the cat’s purring, and he regarded the purr as a gift for its bringing him more completely into the present moment. That, Oscar knew, is where cats live: in the eternal present. Oscar repeated the words to himself: In the eternal present, in the eternal present.
The cat crowd had grown to fifty or more, and not one of them appeared at all interested in the open cans of tuna. The way they slunk, the way they crouched, the way they warily eyed either Cecil or Augie indicated that their interest lay in live prey, not in any processed fish mush. Bad, Cecil thought, this is really, really bad.
Again he wondered how he’d allowed himself to get involved in this mess, and again his mind wandered. Well, he remembered, he had left Austin and headed for home. As he passed through Dripping Springs, phantom pains prickled his chest and he seriously considered turning around. God, he really, really loved Austin, had since the first day they’d arrived. It felt right, felt like his future—but mostly felt like a sort of forever present. Whatever he did there, he felt fully in the moment, living the now without anticipating the later, but simultaneously feeling the future there, feeling his destiny there. He realized that his thoughts had drifted into Oscar Carlson territory, all that yammering about the eternal present. He gritted his teeth and pressed on toward Southwest Texas.
Needham was fourth-generation owner of about fifteen-hundred acres with cattle, a few sheep, and three pump jacks. He also leased part of the place to hunters in the fall. He’d beaten the ever-loving hell out of three hunters who didn’t see any bucks on a weekend hunt and demanded their money back. They pressed charges, but their contract clearly stated that payment was not dependent on a successful hunt, and Needham claimed they threatened him and he beat them in self-defense. He was, to say the least, anti-social, and he had lived alone on his place for the past twelve years.
He’d been married four times. One wife left him within a year of discovering what ranch life was like. One he apparently beat occasionally, and she divorced him after they had two boys. She took the boys with her, and none of them ever contacted him again. Another lasted about eight years and then ran off with some man he’d hired to haul cattle to auction. After three years, the last one shot him in his left shoulder, supposedly aiming for his heart, and reportedly sat in prison somewhere with no regrets. Worst of all, as far as I was concerned, he had killed my dog Bo.
Old man Needham deserved to die, and I thought really hard about doing the honors.
But mostly, Beau cursed himself. After all, this was the heifer’s first calf. She hadn’t known any better than to panic. He, on the other hand, knew from long experience that a dystocic cow’s hormone levels were sometimes so wacky, and her pain so intense, she decided he was an enemy to vent her frustration on instead of a source of relief. Once again, Beau could relate. He’d certainly treated Tammy like an enemy, something he knew deep down to be unfair despite her coaching style and her takeover of what was supposed to be his castle. The reason Tammy had left her own home was to escape an abusive husband—a rancher named Needham she met and married while attending Howard Payne up in Brownwood, but who took to beating the living hell out of her and their young sons with increasing frequency and fervor. She filed for divorce not long after moving in with Wanda and Beau. Despite the negative impact on their marriage and on Beau’s daily life, it was hard to blame Tammy for wanting to feel like she was in control for a change.
James held the letter up. “I’ll make copies later for both of you. Rose starts with names. She says the name on this tombstone became ours, says we might have wondered why our aunt Wanda and Uncle Beau Mulebach sometimes call Rose Tammy. I’ll admit that I wondered about that. Rose says her parents named her Tammy, that she became Tammy Needham when she got married. Says here that he was a terrible man whose only good deed in his entire life was to father Ralphie and me. The letter says that Needham abused Mom, and he took to striking me and Ralphie until one day without any planning she put her boys in her car and left.”
“What about Keith?” Ralph asked. “I thought she married Keith.”
“Rose never married Keith,” Laverne said.
“I’ll get to that,” James said. He scanned the letter while he spoke. “That same day, driving away from Needham’s house, she saw the sign on Highway 16 pointing to Baby Head Cemetery, and in her woo-woo way she somehow knew the cemetery called out to her, so she drove in, took Ralphie and me among the graves to look around. She was feeling so highon her new freedom and so happy to be away from Needham that when she saw this grave marker, she knew in a flash that her family’s name should be McKneely.”
“Tangled Up in Blue”
But there was road construction on Highway 377. They were working on an overpass, and dump trucks and heavy equipment lined both sides of the roadwork-narrowed lanes. As I cleared the construction zone, I glanced to my right and caught sight of a field of blue in the rain.
Bluebonnets, I realized, royal blue and beautiful, stretching away under the lead-gray sky. Despite my resolve to focus only on feeling, I suddenly found myself thinking about promises instead—about all that went with them, about what they sometimes meant we had to do without—and I realized, with a pain that was as physical and real as a spear through my chest, that I was making a terrible mistake. I still loved Augie, and I always would. And seeing nothing but Augie with his arms brimful of bluebonnets on a clear April day, I slammed on the brakes. I felt the SUV start to slide sideways toward another patch of road construction, guardrail work on the Hickory Creek Bridge. The world started to slow, then to spin, then to flip over and over, blue then gray, blue/gray, black.
* * * *
“I’ll be back around noon, about the time the doctors release you. I should have you home by two or earlier.”
“You’re doing so much for me. Too much. But I appreciate you more than I can say.”
Ralph nodded, understanding her gratitude, liking it. He had, after all, saved her from drowning. Or his brother had saved her, he corrected himself. But he did help, he knew, enough to enjoy her gratitude.
When Lily had regained consciousness and the docs allowed Ralph to see her, she listened with great intensity to how Ralph and James pulled her from the car, revived her, and took her to the hospital. When he finished the account, Lily astounded him by talking about what led her to the accident, her troubled decision to start an affair with a colleague, and how, at the last minute as the car flipped into the water she knew in a flash that the decision to have sex with Nick was a bad one.
Ralph felt pleased that she confided in him, that she trusted him, and trust was something he knew he had seldom earned. Lily’s trust, he thought, just might be worth all the crappy therapy he had to endure recently.
* * * *
“Shit,” the man on the ground said. He cupped his hands over his nose and mouth. “You broke my damn nose!”
Augie sucked blood from his knuckle and spat on the knee of the stranger’s jeans. “That’s not all I’ll break, you son of a bitch.” He stepped up the curb, cocked his knee, and raised his booted foot, aiming the toe at the man’s ribs. “You’ll wish you’d never screwed my wife.”
The man shoved bloody hands, palms out, toward Augie. “Wait. I’m not the guy. I saved Lily’s life.”
Augie dropped his foot to the ground. “Her life? What happened? Is she okay?”
“Yes. Some cuts and bruises, but she’s okay.”
“The kids. What about the kids?”
“Not in the accident. With her mother.”
Augie offered a hand to help him up. The man clutched it and grunted as he hauled himself up. Blood splattered his cheeks and ran from his nose and lips. “Talk fast,” Augie said.
“My name’s Ralph. Lily flipped her car at Hickory Creek Bridge. Where the construction is. Ended upside down in the water. My brother and I, we saved her.” Ralph paused, gently laid a finger against his bloody broken nose, winced. “I just brought her home from the hospital and am on my way to pick up prescribed pain killers.”
Augie grabbed for his wallet, slid out three hundreds, and shoved them toward Ralph. “Go get the meds. And stop at a clinic to have that nose checked.”