Surviving Texas Read an Excerpt
Surviving Texas by Anne Carey
CHAPTER 1 – BOBBY BRAYDEN, JR. aka B.J.
“Darn, how’d that happen? How’d daybreak come so quick?” I gripe at the rising sun. Busy casting dawn’s colors across the horizon, it pays me no mind. A lone bird cries out, waking dozens more. They rejoice in the promise of a new day in a frenzy of chirping. The early-morning bellows of a few of the cattle resonate off the surrounding hills. My old horse, Cole, answers with a whinny.
I jab my key at the lock with a shaky hand––the unwanted side effect of drinking tequila and snorting cocaine all night long. Out of nowhere, my chocolate lab, Bullet, bounds onto the porch almost bowling me over. He jumps up, putting one paw on each side of my chest and licking my face. “I love you, too boy, but down,” I tell him, scratching behind his ears until he sits.
I manage the lock. Bullet nudges the solid oak door open with his snout, pushing inside ahead of me. I follow him into the guest house my folks let me live in for free, situated on the Double Bar X Ranch, the big spread they own outright.
There it sits smack-dab in the middle of the entry hall table, the small package whose arrival I’ve been dreading. I take off my woven summer cowboy hat, wiping the sweat from my brow with the cuff of my sleeve. I set my hat down next to the package as gingerly as if it contained explosives that might blow at any second.
Am I sweating because the thermometer reads eighty-some degrees at sunup or from pissing the night away or because of what the package contains? On account of all three, I reckon.
Feeling sick to my stomach, I pick up the box, carrying it over to the sofa and sinking into the overstuffed cushions. I hear Bullet lap water from his metal bowl in the kitchen. Then he hops up next to me, wrangling his head in my lap for some petting. I give him his due before he curls up over on his side of the couch and falls asleep.
I stare at the package in my hands, too weary and too shaken to make a move. For how long, I don’t know. The grandfather clock in the foyer keeps track, ticking away each second aloud. Bullet whimpers in his sleep, moving his front paws in the air, digging at the imaginary dirt in his dream.
The doorbell chimes, startling me so bad I jump right off the sofa. I want to jump out of my skin, too, into a new skin, free from the trouble my sorry behavior stirred up. The doorbell wakes Bullet, sending him off the couch cushion in a roll on the floor. He rights himself, letting out a gruff, “Woof!”
Mother busts in, her small entourage of tiny lapdogs, decked out with colorful bows and painted nails, trailing along behind her. Before I can muster up so much as a howdy, she lights into me, “Have you seen it? Did you open it? Can you believe it? I’m fixin’ to have a heart attack here, B.J.”
I sink back down into the sofa. The tiny herd of lapdogs chase Bullet around in circles, round and round the couch they go, pausing every now and again to sniff each other’s bottoms.
Mother paces back and forth in front of me, holding the very same book, I am one hundred percent certain, my package contains. She reads aloud, “February 24th, 1971, my sixteenth birthday. Daddy comes through, delivering the perfect present, a bottle of aged whiskey older than me, a jaunt down to Mexico, and a roll in the hay with a two-bit whore. My raunchy initiation into the Good Ole Boys Club.”
Mother throws the book down almost nailing one of her precious pups. It lets out a yelp, snarling at the book and nipping one corner of it. Then it rejoins its pack in pursuit of poor Bullet around the couch.
Mother stands there, staring at me. My mouth feels dry like I swallowed a bucket of sawdust. My stomach does a loop, letting out a nasty growl. The taste of bile rises at the back of my throat.
With the blue sky, the birds take flight, scattering to parts unknown. I’d give anything to fly away with them. For a moment, quiet fills the void. Until hundreds of cicadas take up where they left off, their relentless cacophony saturating the still air.
The very notion of my spurned sweetheart’s book chaps my hide. Now in print, for all the world to see, it forces Mother and me to face things we best leave buried. Down in Texas, we keep our problems private, paste a smile on our faces, and live under polite facades. I feel exposed, naked. I reckon Mother does, too.
I hang my head in shame. A drop of sweat rolls down my nose, plopping onto the package. “Well, don’t just sit there. Speak up. Tell me true,” Mother barks.
Tight-lipped, I give her a look blank as a slate.
“I’ll skin your daddy alive,” she snaps. As if on cue, her army of little lapdogs join in, with a chorus of high-pitched yipping. “Curse you, Bobby Brayden Junior. Didn’t I warn you? You can’t trust a damn Yankee,” she hollers. Then she heads out the door, with her furry entourage in tow. Slamming it shut so hard, she shakes the guest house to its foundation.
CHAPTER 2 – JANET BLAKE
“It’s such an honor to meet you, Janet Blake,” my interviewer says, standing and shaking my hand. She sits back down, and I take a seat in the empty chair across from her.
I believe everyone has at least one book in them. Still, I’m pleased to join the realm of published authors. It all comes down to commitment, devoting enough long hours to hammer it out in writing. Those with a passion for it keep at it, producing book after book. Most let time slip away until death devours untold tales.
I refocus my attention on the attractive young woman sitting across from me, disillusioned over how interviews go from exciting to tedious so fast, with interviewer after interviewer posing the same set of questions. I force a smile on my face, looking her in the eye, “I’m sorry, what was that?” I ask.
“How did you come up with the idea for your book? Did you draw on personal experience?”
I fire off my pat reply, “As a writer, one combines personal experiences with the experiences of those around her, and experiences in the news and throughout history, weaving in enough imagination to create a compelling and entertaining story. A bit of reality wrapped up with a little magic. Even so, some people might say parts of my novel ring true.”
“But you won’t name any names?” she asks. I shrug my shoulders, and a look of disappointment clouds her face.
Let me stop right here. Either I confide in someone or explode from the inside out. How about I tell you what I won’t tell her or any of the others? If you promise to keep it to yourself, that is. Let me start from the beginning. Once you learn how the whole sordid story unfolded, then we’ll see whose side you’re on.
Eight cups of coffee a day plus a high-strung personality, not the best combination, cut back on the caffeine, I lecture myself every morning. The waitress pours my third refill, and the sun’s not even up yet. On the plus side, all the caffeine kills my appetite, keeping me slim. Nervous and thin beats mopey and fat any day, if you ask me.
After taking a red-eye from New York to San Antonio for my latest assignment, I need the caffeine to stay vertical. I talked my way into a job on the writing staff of Main Street and Ranch magazine straight out of college. A tough sell and a Catch 22 because positions like mine call for a portfolio of published articles, which requires a career in publishing to acquire. Telling me, I should have gone into sales instead. I’d have made a fortune by now.
You guessed it. Novice journalist for a magazine pays squat, but I love what I do and enjoy traveling even more than writing, plus assignments like this spell good fun. A semi-nude photo shoot and article entitled, Where Have All the Cowboys Gone? Corny, right, I know but do you expect me to complain about it to my editor? Our subscriber base of middle-aged housewives’ love this stuff.
My first task, finding six sexy cowboys sporting six packs, before Ronald, my favorite staff photographer and best friend, joins me for the photo shoot. Ronald looks like a model, with smooth brown skin, piercing black eyes, and strong features. I swear he’d earn more money in front of the camera instead of behind it, but does he ever listen to me?
When a guy looks like Ronald, being just friends sucks, but he refuses to date women he works with. I give up after a hundred failed attempts to seduce him. Ronald’s smart, he’s fought off every one of my drunken advances. He likes to keep things simple.
Simplicity, the number-one reason his photography is so moving. Not the professional photos he shoots for the magazine. They’re great, don’t get me wrong. I mean the true photographic art Ronald sells in a downtown gallery on commission.
My favorite, a close-up of a dew-kissed rose unfurling, covers one wall of our loft. Did I mention Ronald and I are roommates? Another reason he insists on keeping things platonic.
I jot down another angle for my new article when the bell on the door of the old-fashioned diner jingles. A rowdy bunch of guys pour in, filling up the small space. They look a little ragged like they partied all night, and tomorrow’s taken them by surprise.
They flirt with the server in her super short, skin tight, pale pink waitress uniform topped with a white ruffled apron. Only someone this young and hot pulls off all those ruffles, what a girl won’t do for better tips. And her hair, can she tease it any higher?
Did the best-looking one of the bunch just smack her on the butt, how demeaning? Thank you, Grandma Shultz, for establishing my college fund the day I was born. Guaranteeing I’ll never schlep meals for a living.
The ass-smacking jerk stands up, letting one of the other guys out of the booth. He looks lean and rock-hard. On second thought, six packs might prove scarce in such a small town. I’d better make nice with every potential candidate I run into, in light of my new assignment.
I go into unbiased reporter mode, studying the table full of guys with fresh eyes. All of them look pretty cute. How many six packs lurk under those Western shirts, I wonder? Putting my personal feelings aside, I smile at them. Anything for a story, right? Well, either that or lose my job.
CHAPTER 3 – B.J. BRAYDEN
After another rowdy all-nighter, we claim our stake at our regular booth in Sunshine’s Diner. “Mornin’, B.J., how y’all doin’?” my favorite restaurant entrepreneur with the tiny figure and big hair asks as she pours ice water into the clear plastic tumblers sitting on our table.
“Just fine with your sweet face brightening my mornin’,” I tell Sunshine, patting her on the behind. She beams her wonderful smile my way, and I catch a glint of hope in her eyes. Even though I made love to her once and then never asked her out again. Not that there’s a thing in the world wrong with Sunshine. It’s just the way I roll.
Jake nudges me, saying, “Let me up. I need to use the restroom.” I accommodate him before sitting back down.
“How ‘bout some coffee, strong and black?” Sunshine asks, doling out a menu to each of us as if we don’t already know it by heart.
“Yes, ma’am, all the way around,” I tell her. The rest of my posse nod their heads in agreement. Sunshine fetches the coffee pot, filling our mugs to the brim.
Donny feeds quarters into the jukebox on our table. Moe Bandy’s new hit song, I Cheated Me Right Out of You, fills the diner. The lyrics amount to nothing more than a bunch of lovesick hogwash. Meaning all the ladies love it, including Donny the romantic. And every wannabe country singer in every broken down watering hole from here to the border of Mexico includes it in their nightly set.
Sunshine returns with her order pad, its thin slip of indigo carbon paper tucked between her copy and the customers. “Y’all ready to order?” she asks as Jake slides back into the booth. The Posse put in their requests. When she gets to me, Sunshine tucks her pad and pen in her pocket. “Huevos Rancheros, as usual,” she says, stating the obvious and gracing me with another smile.
“You know me too well, darlin’,” I reply with a wink, handing over the laminate coated menu.
Sunshine’s real name is Sally Mae. Her parents passed the diner down to her when they left to see the world in their R.V. Always a happy soul, she grew up inside these four walls, greeting everyone with her sunny smile. One of the old-timers, who’s put in even more time at the diner than Sally Mae, nicknamed her Sunshine. It stuck.
She goes and turns in our order when the gal sitting in the booth catty-corner from ours catches my eye. I know for a fact she’s not from these parts because I’ve made time with every pretty gal between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four this side of the Pecos.
I jab my elbow into Jake’s ribcage, nodding my head at her. He lets out a low whistle. She stops writing in her notebook, staring at us, her pencil midair. My heart skips a beat, a reaction that’s new to me where the ladies are concerned. “Good morning, darlin’,” I say, grinning at her and asking, “How ‘bout a little sugar?”
Fire in her startling blue eyes, she shoots me a look, telling me she’d rather tar and feather me then give me the time of day. She tucks a lock of thick, sandy blonde hair behind one ear, composing herself. She looks back over at our table like she’s had a change of heart. Maybe something over here piqued her curiosity…me?
She picks up the ribbed glass container full of sugar with its metal cap and pouring spout, crossing the aisle to our table. “Here’s your sugar, wise guy. What a lame attempt at a pick up. You have a full jar sitting right there,” she says, smirking and slamming it down real hard.
What the heck?
The Posse busts out laughing. The bewildered look on her face makes them laugh all the more. I sit there grinning, trying my best not to join in. Jake, our group clown, slides off the bench, rolling on the floor on his back and kicking his legs in the air, hysterical, which clears the way for me to stand up.
“No, darlin’, I’m asking you to give me some sugar,” I tell her, tapping my cheek and winking at her.
“Sugar. You mean…a kiss,” she stammers, blushing.
The whole gang cuts up all over again as she gives me a quick peck on the cheek. The Posse hoots and hollers for more, so I take her into my arms, giving her a big ole kiss.
Her name is Janet Blake and much to Mother’s chagrin, “She’s from Chicago or Cleveland, or some doggone place way the heck up there,” as she’s fond of complaining to any of her lady friends who aren’t sick to death of listening. I don’t remember where she’s from either. I’ll have to ask her the very next time I see her, which won’t be soon enough for me.
Since meeting Janet, I can’t seem to go a day without having her, leaving me confused and bewildered. No female’s ever affected me like this. After all, I’m not some love sick teenager. “Get hold of yourself, boy,” I say out loud to hammer home my point.
“What’s that, Bobby, Jr.?” Bobby, Sr. asks, moving his newspaper aside and looking at me over his leftover chorizo and egg breakfast burrito.
“All the sweet gals I try fixing you up with over at the church, B.J. At twenty-five; you decide to get serious and break your mama’s heart at the very same time,” Mother says. “Cavorting with that Yankee,” she adds, rolling her eyes. For the first time, I notice a few gray hairs at her temples; no doubt brought on by my impromptu romance.
“Cavorting?” I ask, giving her my helpless look.
“C’mon now, Peggy Sue, cut the boy some slack,” Daddy says, setting down his paper and rushing in to defend me. He winks at her, melting her heart the very same way he did over twenty-five years ago. The first time he met the innocent, fifteen-year-old version of the hardened woman she’s become. Daddy’s the only one capable of cracking the tough outer shell Mother hides in but on a good day, I suppose I manage it, too.
Yes, Mother’s real name is Peggy Sue. And no, she’s not named after the hit Buddy Holly song, which came out in 1957 because she was born in 1938. Although she likes to tell people, she inspired Buddy Holly to write his song, her very favorite tall tale.
If you do the math, it means Daddy knocked-up Mother at sixteen. At seventeen, her daddy rushed them to the altar, giving her just enough time to elope and grant me the privilege of being born a legitimate son versus a fatherless bastard; God forbid.
Someone forgot to tell Bobby, Sr. he got married, though. Because he never stopped dating or more practically cheating. Why let a little thing like matrimony interfere with your love life?
Who can blame him? At eighteen, he stepped up and took full responsibility for a brand-new wife and child. Even though we’re more like running buddies than father and son. I have to give him credit; Daddy’s always been a good provider. Earning a ton of money is the one thing Bobby Senior does best.
It never ceases to amaze me how Mother still falls for Daddy’s charms and bull crap after all these years. It just goes to prove how big a part denial plays in the survival of a long-term marriage.
Bobby, Sr. follows Peggy Sue around the kitchen, whispering one of their inside jokes in her ear. She giggles, forgetting all about my new sweetheart, for the moment. He steers her out of the kitchen and I hear them laughing all the way up the stairs until their bedroom door slams shut, my signal to get the heck out of the main house. Sometimes living right under Mother’s thumb and working for your Daddy isn’t worth the free rent and easy money.
“Cincinnati. Geez, how many times do I have to tell you? I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. Then we moved to New York City before I started high school,” Janet says, looking at me with those sea blue eyes. She shakes her head in disbelief over my incapacity to remember all her tiny little details.
Like most women, she fails to realize men don’t care to pay attention long enough to remember everything they say. Wait that doesn’t sound quite right. Let me put it this way. Men are too preoccupied with sex to pay attention long enough to remember everything a woman has to say. Dang, that might not sound any better.
“How in the world did you steal my heart, Ohio? You’re the only one to even come close,” I tell her, and she laughs. I pull her down onto her motel bed, on top of me, thinking how she spoiled my game plan of remaining a free agent in this big wide world of amazing women.
CHAPTER 4 – JANET
B.J. winked at me in Sunshine’s Diner, his smile taking my breath away. His friends were laughing at me so hard. I felt like ducking under my table and hiding. B.J. just stood there smirking and expecting that kiss while I stood there blushing.
Ronald always nags at me, “Lighten up, Janet. Be more impulsive. Learn to live in the moment.” Besides, I was doing serious research for my article, working my way up to peek under those Western shirts. I figure Ronald’s got a point, why not keep things fun?
After giving B.J. a smooch on the cheek, he gathered me into his strong arms, kissing me. Not just any kiss, it was a heart-stopping, riveting kiss that filled me with electricity.
Now things are moving way too quick. B.J. seems great, but falling this hard or this fast for anyone scares me. How do I know true love from lust this early in the game? Once infatuation wears off, bad habits and serious flaws rear their ugly heads. By then, I’ll be too far gone to walk away without my heart breaking into a million pieces.
My broken heart, I can fill a thick book with that topic.
In all honesty, it’s too late. I’m hooked. I love the way B.J.’s jet-black hair falls in soft curls around his handsome features and gentle, green eyes. He out rivals all in bringing me to climax after earth shattering climax with his chiseled body. The man sports a serious six-pack.
Which means one cowboy down, only five more to go.
Nestled in the heart of the Hill Country, Buena Vista features a large landscaped park on an island in the middle of the spring-fed Cristal River. Upper Main Street runs along one side of the broad river and Lower Main the other, both lined with quaint shops and family-owned diners. Not one single franchise store or fast-food chain spoils the small-town charm of Buena Vista.
Hundred-year-old Cyprus trees hug the riverbank, their gnarled roots twisting and turning down into the lazy swirling water. Wide wooden foot bridges, perfect for strolling, stretch across the river, connecting the island park to one main street on either side of it.
In the springtime, Buena Vista’s fields, hills, and byways explode in a riot of color––thanks to Lady Bird Johnson’s undying love for her native Texan wildflowers. I purchase a coffee-table book, full of their photographs from As the Page Turns. Spotting many of the flowers I see in Mother Natures live show on its glossy pages.
Outside of town, spring-fed rivers wind their way through live oak and cedar covered hills on their never-ending search for the Gulf of Mexico. Dammed-up lakes and exclusive summer camps for children of the wealthy dominate the area and surround a tiny town called Hill.
Hill contains just one establishment, Lefty’s Trading Post. It’s comprised of an ancient post office attached to a general store and restaurant-turned-dance-hall every Saturday night. Established by Lefty Hill in 1913, it’s still run by him to this day.
El Fuerte or The Fort is a new cutting-edge rehab center tucked away in a valley near Hill. So many of the addicted rich and famous pass in and out of their doors with repeat business they should install a revolving door.
If you tire of the country life, it’s a straight shot down Interstate 10 into downtown San Antonio, a mere twenty miles away. I understand why Texans flock here on their weekends and holidays. Buena Vista is the best-kept secret in Texas.
Someone at the magazine did their research before sending me down to this scenic oasis. Real cowboys still work the ranches in and around Buena Vista. Plus, it boasts a state-of-the-art sports and fitness center. A rare find in such a tiny town, kept in the black by members with oil money to burn who own second homes throughout the area.
A fully-equipped weight room occupies the entire first floor of Sonny’s Sports and Fitness Center. According to town gossip, many of the working cowboys pump iron here, in addition to B.J. and what he likes to call his Posse.
B.J. and his friends exercise like fiends, two hours a day, five days a week, or more, often doing two-a-days. A training technique drilled into them during their glory days on the Buena Vista High School football team. No wonder B.J. and two of his buddies, Donny and Dwayne, all boast six-packs.
That’s three Cowboys down, only three more to go.
I purchase a week-long visitor pass for Sonny’s Sports and Fitness Center, courtesy of Main Street & Ranch magazine. Totally justified, what better place to search for six-packs than the gym? And boom, in no time, I line up three more Cowboys and invite Ronald down for the photo shoot.
I throw my rental car into park as Ronald exits the airport terminal. Ignoring the security guard, I rush over, greeting him with a hug. The security guard goes ballistic, waving his arms around like a windmill. He singles me out, pointing at me with his whistle shrieking non-stop and his face turning beet red.
I jump behind the wheel, popping the trunk for Ronald. He loads up his stuff and gets in. I make my escape from the gung-ho guard with the eager whistle, leaving the San Antonio International Airport and merging onto I-10 West.
“I’m thrilled with my six Cowboys. Let’s hope they’re all photogenic, if not, the search continues. Like you always say, the camera either loves you, or it doesn’t,” I tell him. “Hey! Are you paying attention? Do you have your eyes closed behind those sunglasses?” I ask.
“Huh,” Ronald mutters, half asleep, reclining his seat all the way back and resuming his catnap.
“You take enough Valium to knock out a horse when you fly,” I say, frustrated. No point in attempting a conversation with him in this state, instead I blast the radio. I’m starting to like country music…a little.
Growing up, my big brother, Michael, took great pleasure in torturing me with it. He would roll up all the windows in his cherry red Camaro and sing along to Hank Williams and Patsy Cline at the top of his lungs. Where he developed his love of country music in the age of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, I have no clue.
I pull into the Kum and Go, situated near the intersection of the freeway and the two-lane highway leading into Buena Vista, or what B.J. calls his stomping grounds. I jam on the brakes, hoping to jolt Ronald awake. Nothing. I turn off the music and hear him snoring. I draw out his name, yelling at him, “R-O-N-A-L-D!”
He lets out a snort, waking with a start and bolting upright. “I’m going in for some water and gum. Want anything?” I ask as he looks around, trying to get his bearings.
“Yeah, sure. Need to stretch my legs,” he says, yawning and getting out. He follows me into the store. I grab what I need while Ronald takes his time, wandering up and down each aisle like a zombie.
I walk up to the register along with a woman in her early forties. She’s dressed in a sharp two-piece beige blazer and pant suit by Calvin Klein, her slacks the perfect length to give everyone a peek of the suede-fringe trimmed heels of her platform shoes. She wears enough diamonds and gold to open a small jewelry store. She fishes her Louie Vuitton wallet from her matching Louie Vuitton leather bag, both trimmed in real rattlesnake skin.
She turns to me, removing her Thierry Mugler cat-eye sunglasses, holding them in her hand instead of sticking them on her head the way I do. For fear of ruining her perfectly coiffed hair; I assume. Her expertly applied makeup enhances the true Southern beauty still visible beneath the tiny wrinkles, starting to form at the edges of her flawless face. She looks fit. No doubt thanks to a buff, young personal trainer.
She looks me up and down, before glancing over at Ronald. “Honey, do you know that man?” she asks, in a whisper.
I catch a whiff of floral scented Enjoli perfume from Charles of the Ritz, following her gaze towards Ronald. Thus far, he’s accumulated a toothbrush, a pack of disposable razors, and a small can of shaving cream on his hunt for whatever else he now realizes he forgot to pack. “My friend, Ronald?” I ask, puzzled, and then add, “Sure.”
She leans into me, her perfume stronger and the volume of her whisper lower, “I’m glad to know he’s just a friend, and not your…you know.” I don’t know, but I’m speechless. “Around these parts, you don’t go running around with a nig…” she says, catching herself as my mouth hangs open. “A black fella like that,” she adds, tilting her head towards Ronald, who remains oblivious in his quest. “It’s just not proper. Folks will believe you’re having relations with him. You don’t want to sully your reputation, now do you?” She asks, patting my arm like she just did me an enormous favor by clueing me in.
Before I reply, she grabs her bottle of Jim Beam bourbon off the counter, heading out the door. “Tell Bobby and B.J. I said howdy, now, ya hear?” the store clerk calls after her. She waves one hand at him before she disappears.
The clerk looks at me, shifting back and forth from one foot to the other. “Aw, don’t pay her no mind. She’s all thunder without no lightning strike,” he says, busying himself with ringing up my purchase.
The smell of her too sweet perfume lingers in the store, making me queasy. “Excuse me. That’s not Mrs. Brayden, wife of Bobby Brayden, Senior, and mother of Bobby Brayden, Junior, also known as B.J.?” I ask.
“Yes Ma’am, one and the same,” he says, nodding his head up and down and stuffing my items into a small paper bag.
CHAPTER 5 – B.J.
“Tubing?” Ohio asks, looking confounded and then burying her head under the covers.
“Tubin’,” I tell her for the second time, pulling on my jeans.
“Ronald is spending the day looking for studio space and setting up for the photo shoot Monday. I should help him,” she says from beneath the quilt in a muffled voice. “Why get out of bed on my Saturday off for this tubing, whatever it is?” she asks.
“We get a bunch of us together. Grab a mess of inflated tire inner tubes. Strap a cooler of beer into a couple of ‘em. Then we take our time drinking, swimming, and floatin’ down the river.”
She comes out from under the quilt, sitting up in bed, declaring, “Ah, I see. You’re saying my life won’t be complete until I experience tubing.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I reply, grinning.
I manage to get Ohio up and out of her motel room. “I don’t know what all you’ve got in here, but it’s as heavy as a bag of rocks,” I tell her, throwing her overstuffed beach bag into my truck bed.
“This from a guy who lifts weights in his sleep,” she joshes, walking over towards the passenger side of my pickup.
I grab her hand, pulling her back towards me and taking her into my arms, telling her, “My word, I can see that itty-bitty bikini of yours right through your sheer cover-up.”
“Yeah and what are you going to do about it?”
I kiss her, getting aroused. “I think there’s a little matter we need to tend to before we go tubin’,” I whisper in her ear, my voice husky.
“I’d say it’s a big matter,” she says, laughing.
I lead her back into her motel room after spending over an hour trying to get her out of there in the first place.
Afterward, I pull out of the motel parking lot, driving through downtown Buena Vista. “Why are those people gathered in front of the church?” Ohio asks.
“Protesting, see the signs?”
“Picketing the church,” Ohio declares before reading a few of them out loud. “Less drinking, more thinking. You booze; you lose. Stay sober for Jesus.”
“Baptists. Out here every year.”
“Mexicans are Catholic.”
“You lost me.”
“Catholics sell beer at their annual school fair fundraiser. More money-makin’ happens when you involve alcohol. I can testify to that, but it doesn’t sit right with the Baptists.”
We drive on, arriving in scenic Utopia. I pull into the store parking lot. “I’m gonna stop here. Concho’s a dry county,” I tell Ohio.
“It’s illegal to sell alcohol in a dry county.”
“Even in a bar?”
“No bars allowed in a dry county, you gotta join a drinking club. That way you can drive over to the adjoining county, buy your alcohol, and then bring it back in and drink it at the club.”
“That makes no sense,” Ohio says, and I shrug my shoulders at her. “Is this building divided into two stores?” she asks as I exit my pickup.
“Yep. Ol’ Matt Lander owns ‘em both.”
“One side says liquor for sale. The other says guns for sale.”
“Seems like a bad idea,” she states. I shrug my shoulders again before going inside.
I make my purchase, returning to my pickup. “How ‘bout a cold one?” I ask, twisting the cap off a bottle of beer and taking a swig before pulling onto the highway towards Concho.
“You can’t drink and drive.”
“Can too, long as you’re not drunk.”
“You can drink and drive in Texas as long as you’re not drunk.”
“That’s crazier than selling guns and liquor in the same place.”
Again, I shrug my shoulders at her. I finish my beer, passing through Eden and then pull over on the outskirts of Concho.
“Why are we stopping?” Ohio asks.
“I need to check the tires.”
“The tires? They seem fine to me,” she says, looking confounded.
I choke back a laugh, telling her, “Ohio, it’s my polite way of sayin’ I need to relieve myself.”
“Hah, gotcha,” she says, chuckling.
I get back in my truck, with Ohio frowning at me. “What?” I ask.
“Please tell me that sign over there does not say, Nigger, don’t let the sun set on your ass in Concho town…”
“Aw, that old sign? Nobody pays it no mind,” I say, shifting uncomfortably in my seat. I rev the engine and crank up the music. Then I pull back onto the highway, speeding through downtown Concho as fast as I dare, without risking a ticket.
We arrive at Boot Hill Ranch on Del Claro River, right behind the Posse and their gals. Devoid of cattle or any other livestock, Rusty’s grandparents stuck one old cowboy boot on each of the fence posts before naming their spread.
Everyone delivers a covered dish to the kitchen of the main house for the barbecue planned after tubing. My contribution, a crock pot full of Maria’s homemade pinto beans. She’s the wetback in charge of cooking and keeping house over at the Double Bar X Ranch.
We leave half the trucks behind, piling into the other half with our tubes and coolers of beer. I lead the caravan up to Rio State Park. Then we haul everything down to the water where our tubing excursion commences.
We spend the rest of the morning into the early afternoon drinking beer and floating down the river, taking a dip in the cool, clear water every time the sun bakes us dry. Before we know it, we arrive back at Boot Hill Ranch a tad sunburnt and half-drunk.
Donny and I get the horseshoe pits ready. Rusty stuffs the big old barbecue full of mesquite wood and lights it up. Dwayne seasons the meat. Jake primes the pony keg, and everyone helps themselves to ice cold beer poured into red plastic Solo cups.
Ohio and the other gals fetch some of the food from the house, setting it out on the massive, solid oak picnic table. We enjoy a mess of appetizers meant to hold us over until the fire burns down, and the wood turns into red hot coals. Pico de gallo, picante sauce, guacamole, queso with sausage, and refried bean dip all served up with tons of tortilla chips; along with deep fried jalapeño poppers stuffed with cream cheese, deviled eggs with chili powder in place of paprika, and spicy buffalo wings with homemade ranch dip.
I notice a strange pickup with a trail of dust following it winding down the ranch road. The truck grinds to a stop and a weathered looking man wearing a tattered cowboy hat gets out. I recognize him as the owner of the adjoining ranch, but his name slips my mind.
“Hey there, Rusty,” he says, walking up to us.
“Howdy, Joel,” Rusty replies. He introduces the handful of us standing around with him, “You remember my fiancée, Lindy Lee, and Donny and B.J. This, here’s, Donny’s gal, Tamara, and B.J.’s gal, Janet.” Joel nods at each of us as Rusty names us off. A wad of chewing tobacco protrudes from one of his cheeks. He shoots a long brown stream of spittle in the dirt beside his worn boots.
“Pleasure to meet y’all,” Joel says, taking off his cowboy hat and circling one hand over the brim as he turns it around and around, with the other.
“What are ya up to?” Rusty asks.
“Rounding up folks for our meetin’ tonight. Clyde Smith’s niece goes to college up in Dallas. A serial rapist got hold of her last night. Same fella got two other tow-headed gals prior. He wears a ski mask. The police say if none of the gals can identify him, they might not catch him, let alone lock him up. We’re thinking of forming a posse to patrol the area around the campus at night. Blasted niggers make me sick. Havin’ their way with our women folk like that,” he declares, shooting another stream of chewing tobacco spit into the dust.
Ohio looks like she’s fixing to have a hissy fit. “Excuse me. I know we enjoy the freedom of speech here in America, which gives assholes like you a right to your opinion, but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t say shit like that in front of me,” she says, fighting mad.
For a second, Joel looks stunned like he just got hit in the face with a shovel. A good ole boy, he’s not accustomed to females who use foul language, let alone one who speaks her mind. He shakes it off, telling her, “You ain’t from around here, are you? You’ve got an accent. You’re one of them nigger lovin’ Yankees.”
“Stupid redneck prick, my best friend, Ronald’s African-American,” Ohio hollers at him and the rest of the posse, and their gals gather around with their mouths hanging open in shock.
“Rusty, what’s she doin’ here? Do your grandparents know you’re running around with the likes of her?” Joel asks, adding in a high-pitched voice, meant to mock Ohio’s, “My best friends a nigger.” He spits out a long stream of tobacco juice almost nailing her. “My word, what’s this world comin’ to?” he asks, shaking his head in disgust.
“We were having a good time before you showed up. Get the fuck out of here,” Ohio shouts, lunging at Joel. Is she planning on throwing a punch? I grab her from behind, wrapping my arms around her waist and lifting her up off the ground, with her feet kicking in the air.
Joel places his hat on his head, retreating to his truck. He leans out his open window, hollering at Ohio as he pulls away, “Damn Yankee, go back the way you came. Get the hell out of my county.”
We watch him speed back down the road, spewing dust in his wake, speechless. Even Ohio grows quiet. A look crosses her face like something just clicked on in her head. She turns to Rusty. “Oh my God. I’m so sorry. I lost my temper. He’s your grandparent’s neighbor, maybe even their friend,” she says.
“Nah,” Rusty replies, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “He’s been coming ’round here for years bothering us. Not a one of us in my family cares for him. You did us a favor, Janet,” he tells her, patting her on the arm. A look of relief crosses her face.
Rusty returns to his place at the head of the barbecue. Tamara goes inside the house to make her secret barbecue sauce. A few of the gang gravitate over to the keg of beer, the rest to the horseshoe pit.
Ohio sidles up to me. “Does that man belong to the KKK? Does it still exist in this day and age?” she asks. I just stare at her, so she keeps right on talking, “If no one likes him or wants to hear his racist bullshit, why didn’t they ever tell him? Why did it take me to speak up and chase him away?”
“It’s not proper, Ohio. We don’t speak our mind like that. Don’t ask me why. It’s just not the way we do things here in Texas,” I tell her, kicking at the dirt with one foot.
“Unbelievable,” she says, looking as bewildered as she did the first day I met her in Sunshine’s Diner.
Attempting to lighten the mood, everyone heaps a ton of food on their plate. Barbecued brisket, chicken, pork ribs, and cabrito served up alongside potato salad, pinto beans, cornbread, and Texas toast. We keep right on drinking, blenders full of frozen margaritas for the women-folk and shots of hard liquor for us boys along with our keg beer.
After supper, some of the gang settle into the hammocks down by the river. A few filter into the bunk house. I pull Ohio into the guest casita. We make love and then fall asleep.
When we wake up, I walk out onto the porch, yawning and stretching while Ohio takes a quick shower.
We rejoin the gang. They’ve restarted the party since they plan on staying at the ranch overnight and tubing another stretch of river in the morning. On account of Ohio’s run-in with Joel, we decide to head back to Buena Vista. Rusty tosses me the keys to his granddaddy’s ranch truck. I drive Ohio to Rio Park, pulling in beside my pickup and stashing Randy’s keys underneath his gas cap.
Bobby, Sr. whisked Peggy Sue and her entourage of lapdogs away for a shopping spree up in Dallas early this morning, trying to make amends for his latest indiscretion, no doubt. I figure now is the time to kick things up a notch. “How ‘bout instead of me dropping you off, I take you on home with me, Ohio?” I ask.
“Why, B.J. Brayden, I thought you’d never ask,” she replies, smiling at me and my heart skips a beat.
We pull into the ranch after dark. Bullet is so happy to see us; he jumps all over us. Lucky for him, Ohio loves dogs.
She asks for a tour of the guest house, so I show her around. Maybe Ohio expects a typical bachelor pad in its place because she sure seems surprised. “What a beautiful home. Wow, four bedrooms and three baths all to yourself,” she declares. I keep quiet about the fact Mother’s interior decorator fixed the place up right after Daddy’s contractor built it. “You’re immaculate,” she adds. I also keep to myself Maria is the one who tidies the place. She’s been cleaning up my messes since I wore diapers.
“You didn’t try out my Texas-sized bed,” I tell her, taking her hand and pulling her into my room. Bullet pushes past us, bounding onto the bed, but I shoo him right back off.
“I’m starving,” Ohio declares after we make love. She jumps up, going into the kitchen with Bullet trailing along behind her like a lost puppy. Hungry myself, I join them. Ohio opens the icebox, declaring, “My God, your refrigerator’s full. You shop and cook, too!” She shoots me a skeptical look, asking, “Are you a momma’s boy? Does she take care of all this?”
“Nope,” I tell her, and it’s the God’s honest truth because it’s all Maria’s doing. She’s looked after me, better than Mother in many respects, right from the start. Why not let Ohio assume the best? With my track record, it won’t be long before I give her something to gripe about.
Before dawn the next morning, I wake up and plant kisses all the way down Ohio’s spine, rousing her. Bullet jumps off the bed, curling up on the rug and going back to sleep. Ohio and I make love. Afterward, I force myself out of bed, pulling on my jeans and telling her, “Come on, Ohio, get up.”
“Ugh, what time is it, you crazy Texan?”
“G’tting close to sunup.”
“Coffee,” she croaks, face down in the pillow.
I feed Bullet and get a pot of coffee started. Then I head into the restroom, splashing cold water on my face. “Ohio, I’m fixin’ to leave you behind in that bed if you don’t get moving,” I say, returning to the master bedroom and waking her again.
“Slave driver,” she gripes, dragging herself from the bed. She slips her clothes on while I put on my shirt, boots, and hat. Bullet runs around in circles, chasing after his tail and barking at it before bolting out the door ahead of us.
I walk Ohio toward the barn, each of us carrying a steaming mug of coffee in one hand. We crest the hill, and my folk’s house comes into full view as the sun peeks above the horizon, painting the colors of daybreak upon the wide-open sky. Ohio stops dead in her tracks. Bullet runs back, sitting at her feet.
“Your house is great, B.J., but your neighbor’s house is huge, maybe six or seven thousand square feet,” she says, gaping at it.
I swallow hard before speaking up, “Seven thousand, eight hundred forty square feet, to be exact.”
She laughs, telling me, “I guess you know them pretty well.”
“Ohio, I thought you knew,” I reply, staring at the ground and adding, “I live on my folk’s ranch. Over yonder is the main house.”
“Your mom’s not home is she?” Ohio asks, with a panicked look.
“Out of town for the weekend,” I answer, taking her free hand and pulling her along behind me. “Come on; we’re burning daylight,” I tell her. Bullet barks, taking the lead and racing for the barn.
We reach the tack room with Ohio as silent as her shadow. I set our mugs in the sink and grab a small bag of apples out of the icebox. “Here,” I say, handing her one.
“I’m not hungry,” she whispers. What’s happened to put her in such a sullen state, I ponder? Ohio usually talks non-stop and can’t sit still. I reckon the very idea of meeting my folks must unnerve her.
“Silly, it’s not for you,” I declare, steering her into the barn.
A smile lights up her face. “Horses,” she squeals like a little girl.
Bullet gets busy sniffing out the barn inch-by-inch. Ohio holds her apple in front of Cole. He stretches his neck out, biting down on it and jerking it from her hand. She jumps back, startled. Cole drops the apple inside his stall, chomping it down in one gulp.
“Easy now, you don’t have to be afraid of ol’ Cole,” I tell her, handing her the bag of apples. I rub his nose and scratch his neck. Bullet comes over, whining for some of the attention I’m granting Cole. Ohio sets the bag down, coming to his rescue. She kneels, petting him and roughing up his ears.
“Try again,” I say, taking another apple from the bag and handing it to her. Ohio stands her ground, not moving an inch. “It’s okay, let me show you,” I add, feeding it to Cole. I try sweet talking her into doling out a few apples to the other two horses, but she flat out refuses.
I cajole Ohio into going for a ride, saddling both Cole and Bobby, Sr.’s horse, Star. Cole’s a gentle soul, so I help Ohio mount him. She’s a little skittish as we trot along in the early-morning light, but Cole’s a patient old horse. He puts up with Ohio for my sake.
Bullet tries to keep pace, running along with his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth. He takes side trips in and out of the woods before disappearing. We reach the trail near the river, leading back, and Bullet comes racing up the hill, soaking wet. He cuts us off at the pass before tailing us all the way to the barn.
CHAPTER 6 – OHIO
At first, B.J. and the other cowboys feel uncomfortable posing for the camera half-naked. Ronald, ever the consummate professional, coaxes smiles and laughs from them with his lame jokes and charming personality. Once each of them loosens up, he gets serious about his assignment. The individual photo shoots, spread out over the course of the week, progress one after the other without incident.
Ronald judges all of my picks photogenic, and on Friday evening, we call it a wrap. “If I didn’t know you so well, I’d say you were gay,” I tell him, studying his proofs of our six Cowboys.
“Amusing,” he replies, in his sardonic tone of voice.
“Look at these photos. Who knew you possessed a talent for bringing out the coy sex appeal of rough and tumble Cowboys?”
“Shut up now or I’m burning the prints of your new boyfriend, I planned on surprising you with.”
Why does every straight guy I know become so unnerved at the mention of homosexuality, I wonder? I change the subject knowing Ronald’s good for his word. “Let’s go to a bar we can walk to from our hotel,” I suggest. Per our tradition, Ronald and I plan on celebrating the successful completion of another assignment by getting hammered.
“Great, I hate calling for a cab at the end of the night,” he replies.
I help Ronald clear out the temporary studio he set up last week. Then we stash his photography equipment in his hotel room and walk the few blocks over to the Buena Vista Inn.
We take in the sand colored, hand-hewn stone walls, the massive wrought-iron chandelier covered in deer antlers, and the myriad assortment of mounted dead animal heads. We pass the full-size stuffed grizzly bear, continuing through the two-story lobby into the dimly lit bar.
“Marvelous! Karaoke night,” I whisper to Ronald as we take our seats. “That explains a dozen locals, turning out,” I add, rolling my eyes.
“I happen to have a divine singing voice.”
“Do you know how gay that sounds?”
“It better be good enough for both of us. I suck.”
“You can’t be that bad.”
“People tell me, sing, sing, come on join in. Then once they hear me, they say, please, be quiet.”
“Like you’re ever quiet,” Ronald says, looking around. Since no one materializes to wait on us, he goes up to the bar, returning with two chilled mugs and a pitcher.
In between beers, Ronald wows the audience with his singing voice. Toward the end of the night, we get loaded, and he drags me up on stage for a karaoke duet. The small audience boos me, which doesn’t shock me or faze me. I boo right back until Ronald declares our little party over.
We stagger out the side door of the bar, holding on to one another and teetering through the parking lot. All of the sudden, three rough-looking, tattooed guys step from behind their big red Ford truck, circling us. “Take your hands off her,” one of them says. I notice a swastika tattooed on the top of his left hand.
“Hey, we don’t want any trouble,” Ronald replies, removing his arm from around my shoulder.
“You’re in the wrong place at the wrong time then,” Swastika says.
“What’s your problem, asshole?” I snap at him.
“How dumb are you?” The one with a scar across his face asks.
“So stupid she couldn’t pour piss out of her boot if I told her the directions were on the heel,” the biggest, ugliest one says, and they all laugh.
“What the fuck,” I yell, catching fear in Ronald’s eyes, which silences me.
“White trailer trash, that’s all she is,” Big-n-Ugly says and then shoves me.
I fall to the ground, scraping my knee and landing on all fours. Before I get up, the three guys start in on Ronald. Swastika and Scarface hold his arms while Big-n-Ugly punches him in the stomach. He knocks the wind out of Ronald; I hear him gasping for air.