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Secrets of Sweet Baby Jesus

ISSUE:  Spring 1989

“It’s only for the weekend,” Bucky said.

“I just don’t know,” Willy McCullough told her. “I never really saw myself as a father figure. Teaching is one thing, being responsible for them is another.”

“Willy, what are you talking about?”

“I thought I was talking about me, about how I’m probably not the guy to keep track of two energetic teenage kids for that long.”

“What you are talking about, Willy, is total bullshit. Nobody has to be a father figure if it’s just two days, is Point A. And the fact that if Mississippi had come back from Beaumont the way she was supposed to, then I wouldn’t be in this jam in the first place, is Point B. It’s just a matter of seeing that they eat, the poor things.”

They were sitting on chaise longues beside the pool at Bucky’s condo. No, not a pool for the condo complex. After Bucky got her enormous divorce settlement, she thought that it was time to move out of the sprawling house near the U. of Texas in Hyde Park, a home of stately red brick and white pillars that seemed like it was ready for the Tara look-alike contest. All Bucky’s divorcée girlfriends were moving into condos, and seeing Bucky’s two teen-age kids were away at schools then, she decided that such a life style would be right for her too. But when Bucky found her supposed “unit,” it was this spot, one of the two genuinely luxury-class models studding the ends of the complex with its tastefully gray-stained wood siding and yellow canvas awnings, for which Bucky had yellow canvas cushions on these chaises made to match. The setup had a full four bedrooms, enough fenced-in grounds back there (more of that tasteful gray on the planks) for Bucky to employ a full-time Mexican yardman, and, yes, the private pool. In spring now, the grass greened, the wisteria spilled its purple. It was truly the best time of year in Austin, Willy told himself.

Closing in on 40, Bucky had on a white string bikini. She was tanned, and if you saw her stretched out with one knee cocked up like this, a copy of the new American edition of Elle there on the terra cotta tiles beside her, you would have knocked ten off that. She wore oversized sunglasses. She had her honey-streaked hair pulled back from her forehead, a single looping elastic at the back for a girlish colt’s tail.

Willy closed his eyes. He liked that, well, holiness, to the fragrance of her milky French tanning cream in the warm day, as somehow cut by the chlorine sharpness of the shimmering pool water itself. Birds chirped.

“If it weren’t for this problem with Mississippi, Willy,” Bucky said, softening her approach.

Rich Texans like Bucky were probably the last people in this confused universe of ours, Willy thought, who could believe in things as passé as black maids named after Southern states, without a qualm.

“Willy, are you listening?”

“Of course I’m listening, and of course I’ll do it.”

And of course he must be as nuts as a trapped coyote to agree to it.

“You’re so sweet, Willy McCullough, you are.”

On the other hand, Willy did love that drawl of hers. It was Galveston syrupy and as exotic as Parisian French for somebody like Willy, who had grown up to the twanging of cotton farmers out in the flatter-than-flatness of West Texas, near Odessa.

*  *  *

Bucky believed in Things Eastern, Willy knew. And, with money like hers (old enough, apparently, not to be affected all that much by the current Texas oil bust), such belief seemed to be her option. Actually, the money was her ex-husband’s, Jack Mobley’s. He was directly descended from that pack of Tennessee settlers who were bravely waiting to defend their own mission in San Marcos while the Alamo was being swallowed in orange flames down in San Antonio. Bucky liked to think, even pride herself on the fact, that vicious Santa Anna and his horde of barbaric regulars were nothing to compare to the lawyers she had sicked on Jack after he fooled around with just one 22-year-old too many. Bucky had had her fill, and handsome Jack, in the Texas House and in line for something maybe as big as Washington some day, didn’t want any more bad publicity than necessary over the split. He folded fast. He handed Bucky a deal that in the end she herself said she couldn’t believe.

Bucky had been raised in Galveston, from a somewhat old and somewhat moneyed family herself. For her Things Eastern began when she went away to college, at one of those places in the velvety green hills of Virginia. She said she picked the particular school because it allowed you to board your horses at the campus stables, which could make for a comfortable afternoon of riding after classes in jodhpurs and a peaked black equestrian cap; that was the way Willy liked to picture her. But after her coming-out ball in Galveston, and after she married Jack, Things Eastern took on a purer dimension—New England. For six years the family had spent summers on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, and Willy had seen glossy snapshots of them all sunburned up there. There were pictures of the white clapboard house with black shutters they rented. Bucky explained that it had once belonged to a bona fide Bay State whaling captain, pointing out the little turret and widow’s walk on top. There were pictures of Jack and his pals on the deck of a sailboat during the famed Edgartown Races. Bucky pointed out (proudly) that she was pretty sure that the little stretch of blue, bordered by lime green on either side, was the span that Teddy Kennedy Australian-crawled back from Chappaquiddick that fateful night. Willy was amazed at how short the distance was, nothing at all for somebody with only elementary YMCA credentials, and anybody who said that old square-jawed Teddy was just fanning some Hyannis Port breeze when he claimed he did it, had surely never actually seen the lay of the place.

And then, when Bucky’s two kids were old enough, Things Eastern became prep schools up there. Lane, the older, went to Concord Academy for a while. It didn’t really take. Lane railed against the whole scene of prepdom right from the start there in Henry D.’s home town. And if Concord Academy worked out just fine for toothy, wild-haired Caroline Kennedy (a note Becky added; why were well-off Texans so taken by the Kennedy thing, now that Willy thought of it) it threw up some hurdles for Lane. In short, she went instant punk to show how much she detested the school. Or as punk as she could get, understandably, at a place like Concord Academy, which meant black everything in clothes, death-mask-white makeup as often as possible, and four pierce marks on her left earlobe for affixing assorted dangling paraphernalia. Bucky got concerned. She brought Lane back to Austin, and she enrolled her in a local Episcopal day school. Then all the rebellion effervesced. Out were the ragged black jeans and the black leather jacket heavy with chrome chain of a thickness seemingly strong enough for a tractor pull, and in were tartan-plaid skirts and blouses with genuine Peter Pan collars. And Jesus. Lane joined an evangelical Christian group that met as an after-school activity, and this now seemed to worry Bucky as much as the previous bondage get-ups. “What I can’t stand is the way she goes on with this Jesus, just the word, saying it over and over again no matter what you’re talking about, sounding like some goddamn cracker dirt farmer.” Willy didn’t want to remind Bucky, surely, that not only were his own people such farmers who did try to churn patches of cinammon-brown dirt into something vaguely suitable for a fleshly green cotton crop, but “Jesus” was a common word indeed in their rickety frame house, right down to its being embroidered in the carpet-thick wall hangings of Biblical scenes (always lots of lambs in them) that his grandmother worked on endlessly.

Bucky’s son, Cameron, was at St. George’s School in Newport, Rhode Island. He was a year younger than Lane, a sophomore now. Cameron had his father’s black hair and strong, handsome features, though maybe the pale-green eyes, Bucky’s eyes, betrayed a certain softness. Apparently, Cameron took to St. George’s immediately. He played lacrosse and rowed for the crew, and Bucky said that his literature teacher, genuinely Oxford-educated, had gotten Cameron quite interested in British poetry. “I think he’ll be a poet someday,” Bucky said, proud and entirely serious about it. He was home from the school for spring break right now. And from what Willy had seen of him, all shy politeness. Willy didn’t consider that the kid would be any problem in the course of the weekend that he, Willy, would be staying at Bucky’s condo to keep an eye on them. Willy could ask him more questions about lacrosse and crew. They were sports that Willy, once a decent 440 man on scholarship at the state teachers’ college in Abilene, knew little about, and such questions had made for good conversation starters so far, a little awkward, but overall smooth enough. But Lane. Willy had no idea how he would deal with her, and most exchanges between them so far in Willy’s month or so of dating Bucky had boiled down to Lane trying to engage him in her ongoing heated debate on issues like whether the current AIDS problem wasn’t Jesus’ way of trying to tell the world something.

Maybe Willy simply didn’t relish the whole idea of it. First, even if Bucky had to see her own mother in Galveston that weekend, and even if Bucky didn’t want to drag the two kids through the ordeal of having to put in time with the old woman who was pretty tough to deal with now that she had slipped into that perpetual blue smoke of sad Alzheimer’s disease, Willy didn’t like to see himself being a glorified baby-sitter. It seemed to emphasize the situation of his being so nakedly unemployed now, having a while back quit his job as a junior high history teacher and assistant track coach to go into a partnership on a ridiculous attempt at a Cajún cuisine restaurant. Naturally, that went flat quickly enough, and Willy, who knew nothing about the food business, later thought that at least he might have had a chance if it had been a restaurant that stuck to West Texas home style or even fiery Tex-Mex, rather than that trendy blackened redfish on dirty rice, the okra-laden oyster gumbo and the rest, all of which he knew less than nothing about. Secondly, being asked to oversee the kids indicated something in his relationship with Bucky, that when she proposed that he fill in for the maid Mississippi, who was still up in Beaumont with a family illness problem herself, Bucky brought out the fact that, after all, Willy had been using Bucky’s new red Dodge convertible for the last week, so he sort of owed her.

But who was Willy trying to kid? In a way his real uneasiness had nothing to do with this weekend. In a way it had everything to do with the fact that Willy had done more than watch that restaurant business go under after his partner hurriedly bailed out. Willy got so scared that he lied on both tax and bank refinancing forms to try to save it all, and there was a good possibility that now Willy would land in prison.


*  *  *

Willy was wearing a sort of white jumpsuit. He was in a sort of lounge, a room of orange fiberglass scoop chairs (those pressed-out things), functional masonite-topped tables, and a white linoleum floor.

In the lounge were a lot of other men in white jumpsuits. Some were Anglo, but more were black and Hispanic. Yet the jumpsuits gave everybody a veritable uniformity, even if, Willy noticed, they all seemed to be wearing different kinds of shoes. And they were all in groups at those tables or clusters of those chairs, except for Willy, who sat in a corner by himself. Willy was worried that they didn’t understand him, and it seemed that he couldn’t even explain who he was, what he thought, because of a severe case of laryngitis. Willy was worried that they suspected that he was an informer, and he felt so alone. And then it seemed that Willy had one of those little writing pads kids used, a flat board with a milky plastic sheet that had a waxy coating behind it, so when you bore down on the plastic via the leadless red wooden stylus provided, you could etch out something. Willy wanted to write, to tell them he was simply Willy McCullough—and certainly not a snitch. But it seemed that each time he went to put down words to that effect on the plastic, a light breeze would lift up the sheet and the writing would disappear. He tried again, and the breeze lifted it again. It blew gently through a half-opened window, and when Willy looked over that way with a gesture that signaled he was going to get up and close it, a lot of the faces of the dark men looked right at him. The mean eyes of one thick-necked specimen said without words that he better not fucking attempt to shut that window.

Willy tried writing again, and again the breeze lifted the sheet in a slow crackle, like satin ripping. Or maybe it was more than that. Maybe Willy wanted to tell something more than just his name and that he wasn’t an informer to these men. Maybe Willy was trying to write down before him a message to himself as to just who the hell he was, what he was all about. But now, when he merely touched the stylus to the plastic, the breeze lifted it again.

Willy told his lawyer about these dreams he had been suffering lately. Dreams about prison in general, maybe Huntsville specifically. The lawyer was a bearded man who wore eight-hundred-dollar python boots with his cheap suits. He told Willy flatly, “Don’t get into that, pal. That ain’t gonna help one goddamn bit, that dreaming shit.”


*  *  *

By that Saturday afternoon, Willy had to admit to himself that he was doing all right.

Lane read her Bible in the kitchen most of the day, which was fine with Willy. And Willy and Cameron headed out to Zilker Park for some elementary lacrosse.

“Indian ball is its real name,” Cameron said.

“I know,” Willy said. “Or, I remember you were telling me that before.”

“It’s the national sport of Canada.” Cameron spoke so politely.

“Come on, what about ice hockey?”

“I know. It’s easy to get somebody on that, isn’t it. But a guy at St. George’s showed me in a World Almanac of Facts. At first I didn’t believe it.”

“I guess it’s at least some concession to the Indians,” Willy said. “More than we made here. Rip off their land, but at least give them a national sport.”

“You’re right.” Cameron smiled. What a gentleman.

Cameron wore chinos, tastefully scuffed boatshoes that had maybe seen some time there on the Newport, R.I. docks where the sleek twelve-meters once made their home, and a light-blue oxford-cloth button-down shirt, the sleeves rolled to the elbow. He had on teardrop Ray-Ban sunglasses.

Half the city seemed to be out there this weekend enjoying games, the other half sunbathing there or flying kites snapping like happily untethered neckties up in the blue. The park was huge, an ongoing spread of greenness right to a distant brace of leafy old live oaks, behind which rose the pastel high-rises of the city’s skyline that featured all that whacky, somehow fun too, postmodernism put up in the last few years.

Willy, once such a track man, had played only one game in which you used any implement you held in your hands, and that was plebeian baseball. He had never attempted tennis or golf, let alone the strangeness of lacrosse or ice hockey. But he liked the way that the whole trick now to moving with this lacrosse stick was to make sure that the ball was always gently swaying in the worn rawhide net on the stick, its handle taped with comfortable white adhesive. Cameron said the move was dubbed “cradling it,” and that made sense, as it did feel strongly akin to rocking to keep an ever-so-tiny baby content in there so it wouldn’t bounce out as you jogged. And before long Willy had the hang of simple tosses to the patient Cameron, and not long after that they had found a stretch of open, daisy-speckled grass for themselves, and they spread a good 30 or so yards apart. They let go with mile-high pop-ups. Willy liked that too. The ball seemed to hang aloft forever, almost not moving at all, like a beeping satellite, while he slowly circled and circled—till he detected the very crest and the inevitable drop, which happened with all the sudden velocity that Galileo himself discovered letting go with that red McIntosh from the Tower of Pisa. Willy savored the final gentle thud, the way that he was getting the hang too of recoiling a bit when it hit, using that elastic give to keep it spongily socked smack in the sweet spot and not out again in an instantaneous ricochet.

“Nice!” Cameron called from across the way.

“Sure is!” Willy shouted back.

“You’re a natural!”

And Willy wondered. He wondered if he hadn’t maybe missed the message of America. Wasn’t this the whole idea? Not end up an even 40, a bachelor and busted to boot. But to have locked up something earlier, to have established a family, surely, and every week to find yourself in a city park on a day that was right out of a Chamber of Commerce promotional film, relaxing with, in a way, a son.

Riding back in the Dodge convertible, Willy felt nicely tired. He thought about a good shower., thought too that maybe they shouldn’t have let the strange Lane stay at the condo by herself. Even if she had said that she had no desire to go to any park, Willy should have pressed her some and at least gotten her out of the house. But she did have her Jesus. Garrieron scanned on the car’s radio and found some jazz on an FM station.

“You like jazz?” Willy asked him.

“Yeah, I really do, I guess,” Cameron said, from behind those dark Ray-Bans.

So they talked some about music. Willy remembered the names of some of the be-boppers, like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie of that upturned custom horn that could have been trying to poke out its easily whispering riffs to heaven itself. How gentlemanly Cameron was about this too. And as with the lacrosse, Cameron realized that Willy had no expertise, but he seemed to listen to everything Willy said with good nature and give-and-take. The guy was what every parent wanted their kid to be—a considerate adult.

At the condo, Willy started making plans for dinner. He had proven a hit with brunch, preparing about the only brunch in his slim repetoire. Huevos rancheros. Which basically meant fried eggs, fresh chopped onions added to basic tomatoey Pace brand picante sauce, Old El Paso refried beans, and his coup, corn tortillas. He drove clear over to the Mexican neighborhood in East Austin to buy the fresh tortillas and then warmed them up between moist aqua-and-white-checked dishtowels in the oven; the towel method was the only way to ensure the things kept vaguely supple and didn’t turn fiberglass-hard in the course of the heating. But now. Willy wasn’t encountering such smooth waters, and though Cameron appeared to like Willy’s suggestion that they grill up some chicken, Lane, in her challenging way, would hear nothing of it.

“Chicken’s full of bacteria. Each one of them is just a pimply bag of salmonella. I saw it on “Sixty Minutes.” They had these guys out at some chicken processing plant in Missouri who blew the old whistle, claimed that if truth be known 50 percent of the stuff isn’t fit for humanoid consumption.”

In the end, even easy-going Cameron had to admit that the harangue hadn’t exactly left him in the mood for poultry either. So they all somewhat agreed on Wendy’s hamburgers, a common denominator. Both Willy and Cameron were obviously enjoying the square-cut things with genuinely golden fries and genuinely extra-thick vanilla shakes. A shake was something Willy hadn’t had since who knows when, yet it reminded him of relaxed nights as a teen-ager with his pals in his dusty West Texas town at the Dairy Queen, one of those standard places featuring red-and-white trim and yellow fluorescent bug lights along the sloping roof, a spot that was as much of an institution in the Lone Star state as the armadillo or Bob Wills himself. Lane was having her problems with the burger.

“Thick and juicy is what they advertise,” she said. “Which is another way of saying thick and greasy. Look.” She had the corner of her burger in its seeded roll remaining, and she held it atop the white styrofoam carton. She tugged out a couple of lettuce shreds, then she let it all drip, drip, drip that supposed juice. She even squeezed it some, as if it were a kitchen sponge, saturated.

“Seeing is believing, huh?”

Eventually, what Willy feared would happen did happen. Cameron was on the phone for a while at the condo with a friend of his, and when he hung up and asked if he could use the Dodge convertible to drive over to the pal’s house, Willy consented. Bucky had given Willy no directive on the use of the car by either of the kids, but who was he to deny Cameron? After all, Willy himself had indeed been freeloading on using the new red thing with its rolled leather upholstery for a week. So why shouldn’t the kid have access to it when it belonged to his own mother? But, again, that brought about Willy’s worst apprehensions, because for the evening he and Lane would be left solo. This could turn out to be a few hours as long as one of those interminable European wars of succession that Willy slogged through in the classroom for ninth-grade World History in the old days.

Lane once punk. Now Lane close to a Jesus freak. Maybe it was her edge that led to these extremes. It certainly didn’t grow out of any reaction to or rebellion against what had been doled out to her in that looming category called “looks,” of ultra-importance to a teenage girl. Lane may have been slightly pudgy, simply because a good deal of her time spent hanging around the condo with her pebble-grained Bible, the size of an overnight suitcase, was also devoted to big-league snacking. A lot of the diet Pepsi that Becky insisted on rather than the regular cola, along with a lot of Chip-Ahoys or, her current favorite, the new cheeze-filled cone of a corn chip called Corn-Quistos; the product was apparently being test-marketed only in Texas, the way that Dallas-based Frito-Lay stuck to their home territory for trying out all new fare. Yet Lane’s dose of extra weight was to be expected in a kid her age, and, in essence, if she hadn’t opted for scrubbing her face free of nonexistent make-up till it was almost beet-raw and wearing those outfits of pleated skirts and pressed sleeveless cotton blouses (intended to be Ail-American, but looking austere as any post Vatican II nun’s attire) she would have been another true Texas beauty. All of it from Bucky: the strong cheekbones, the even white teeth, the long, slim legs that even this temporary pudginess couldn’t alter.

Willy sat with her in the condo’s airy living room. It was an expanse with walls painted gray, 15-foot cathedral ceilings, tasteful bone-white broadloom in the center of the waxed kiln-tile floor, and just enough gray, German-designed furniture. Two of the bold modern paintings, all abstract angles, on the far wall were so valuable they were actually insured with Lloyds of London. When Bucky first told Willy that, he thought it was a joke; yet she assured him that as her ex-husband Jack had told her long ago: “When it comes to art, honey, I don’t know much about it, except you don’t piss around with Dallas or Houston for insurance. You got to call Lloyds, go that extra mile.” She was adept at putting on Jack’s wheeler-dealer voice.

“Christian TV?” Willy asked Lane now.

“What are we supposed to watch, MTV? It’s all soft porn, anyway.”

“You could have a point there,” Willy acknowledged. Besides, she held the remote for cable channel selection.

“Preachers?” Willy asked.

“Not on Saturday. It’s family entertainment now.”

Willy thought about suggesting the Cable News as a compromise or even trying one of the regular networks. They always liked to run those television movies about the life of Jesus or sometimes even remakes of Spartacus around Eastertime. But he didn’t want to provoke any argument. As it turned out, family entertainment meant old black-and-white reruns. Willy did fine with “The Donna Reed Show,” which in the early 60’s ran on the one network station that could be barely picked up in his West Texas town. He had more problems with “Leave It to Beaver,” which should have been the more known, but wasn’t hooked up to his town via that solitary network station. So it failed to qualify as even a nostalgia trip for him, as he watched the supposed intrigue about whether or not brother Wally would invite the freckled, overcute “Beav” to a party Mom and Dad had agreed to let Wally have in their evenly lit living room.

It finally, mercifully, finished, and Lane flicked off the set just as the hoppy theme song started to sound and the white credits rolled up the screen.

“About an hour of television is right, wouldn’t you say,” Lane said.

“I guess.” What else could Willy say?

“Families should spend less time with television, more with just talk.”

And though Willy wasn’t part of the family, he should have spotted this coming. There was no way he was going to dodge that AIDS debate. Lane had just been waiting to confront him, the proverbial cornered squirrel—or maybe skunk. Willy watched as she first staked out her territory by heading to the kitchen and returning with a bag of Corn-Quistos (on the side it announced in huge letters, “The One-Pounder”) and a Dr. Pepper. It was the original stuff distilled from sugary syrup as thick as 10—50 motor oil, to be sure. She had that afternoon bought a six-pack of it rather than of the Diet Pepsi, now that Bucky and her orders were gone for the weekend. Lane set the chow on the glass-topped coffee table, tucked her legs under her skirt, and prepared for a good session of it.

“It seems to me that there are two questions,” she said, taking a sip. Her true blonde hair was done in a big braid, tossing as she spoke. “First, just the simple matter of sex education in the schools, whether all this talk of safe sex is just something to promote sex in the end. Second, the bigger question I always think of. Is Jesus trying to tell the world something, maybe America more than anybody else, with all this stuff about AIDS. Scripture says, John X:24, that He will watch them in their wicked ways, and then He will talk to them with a sign.”

“Talk to who?” Willy asked. “The Central Africans? The Haitians who are supposedly living in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere? Jesus’ own poor who suffer if ever there was a poor who suffer. He’s trying to tell them something? Because those are the places where the incidence is so high it was already of epidemic proportions before we ever heard of it here. So why isn’t it them, not America, He’s trying to tell something to?”

“Because.” She paused. She scooped out more of those squiggly corn cones, popped them in our mouth. She reached for another long belt of Dr. Pepper, maybe to give her the power that she needed to fuel her for what she saw as the long and yummy argument on the way. “Because. . . .” And without even listening, Willy knew that he had made the big mistake, bitten for her bait. An hour later, Lane continued to do most of the talking, and Willy would have gladly settled for the Beav (slighted and eventually deciding to buy some rubber ice cubes for the otherwise harmless punch bowl at brother Wally’s party, to get even with Wally for not inviting him to hang out with the older guys) rather than this talk, or what soon became an ongoing bombardment, aimed point-blank at Willy, of more chapter and verse.

Nine-fifteen; nine-thirty; nine-forty-five; ten; ten-fifteen; ten-twenty . . . and by five-of-eleven Lane herself admitted she was growing tired of the blab, and Willy suddenly felt that without his noticing it he had made it over the hump of his duties for the weekend. And now that he had let Lane vent what she had to, Willy admitted he had done a good job, told himself what he had told himself earlier out at the park with Cameron playing lacrosse catch, those white dots of the high flies still playing slow on the forever blue of the screen of his own drifting imagination at the moment, softly announcing to him that he too was close to sleep, and . . . .

And then the call from the police station downtown. Cameron was being held at that new yellowbrick mausoleum right on Fifth Street, and he was physically OK. But just about everything else was wrecked.

“Between you and me,” the cop admitted to Willy, for whom he must have felt bad, “the kid is a real Captain Destructo if I ever say one.” The cop’s name was Sergeant Kells.

Willy tried to picture the details the cop recounted. The way Willy understood it, Cameron and his pal, high on something, had headed out into the already charged Austin Saturday night, downtown with a mission. Or at least Cameron had a mission. It seemed that his pal, Kirk, wanted to abandon ship when he realized that Cameron was really going through with it, and Kirk bounded out of the convertible at a red light at Guadalupe and 24th. Cameron slowly continued on. Past the university, and past the pink stone dome of the statehouse, and past the starry slabs of those new highrises downtown, right to the parking lot of Basil’s, the poshest club in town. Luckily, the valet for the valet parking was loafing inside, so there wasn’t any personal injury. Cameron managed to repeatedly floor the accelerator of the Dodge and repeatedly slam it into a half dozen shimmering specimens of sky-high-priced German sheet metal (two Mercedes and four BMW’s, according to Sergeant Kells’ count) even some Italian fare (yes, there was the inevitable red Ferrari).

“You know what he told me?” Sergeant Kells asked.

“What’s that?”

“It was just work he had to do.”

Willy agreed to come down there fast, and he hung up, rattled. He gave Lane a brief summary, as he jumpingly waited for a taxi. Her first response was that it was definitely “X,” a tablet of so-called Ecstasy, that Cameron’s blood corpuscles were thumpingly supercharged on; she said that it was true, he did the stuff all the time. Her second response was that Cameron did not, in fact, have a driver’s license. Willy had been conned into letting him use the Dodge, though she didn’t want to say anything at the time; she was just hoping for him to go out and return safely, that it would all blow over.

But it was stranger than that. Suddenly, there was no edge to what Lane said, and this was a Lane Willy hadn’t seen before. She had softened, seemed so sadly concerned that Cameron had that problem with “X,” seemed so sadly concerned that Cameron didn’t possess a laminated document from the Texas Department of Public Safety attesting that he was legally allowed to operate a vehicle. She was crying softly, scared.

“He’s a good kid, Willy. Except all this divorce stuff has hurt him a lot more than me. He wants a family, and these drugs and this hating of rich people, something like this wrecking their expensive cars, is maybe not his fault, because—”

The driver of the Yellow Cab leaned on the horn again. Willy didn’t have time right then to take this in, with the driver already pulling away. Willy shouted that he was coming and jogged to catch him, thinking that Lane had surprised him so, the poor kid, and thinking too that those mirroring Ray-Bans on Cameron that afternoon were probably a clue—Willy should have known that behind the mirrors that bounced back only your own image when you looked, the kid was slightly crazed.

*  *  *

The next afternoon the trio of them were moving along a two-lane road through freshly planted farmland so flat that it could have been drawn with a draftsman’s rule. On bicycles.

Bicycles of very differing qualities. Lane had her Raleigh twelve-speed, silver metallic and new enough that the spokes shimmered in the sunlight like rolling rainbows you weren’t quite sure of. And in front of her was Cameron on what at first appeared to be a two-wheeler small enough for a clown, seeing he was an even six-feet tall. But he said before that he didn’t mind a bit; he had had the thing with its yellow vinyl banana seat when he was about ten, and he was surprised as anybody else when Willy found it in the condo’s garage. And in front of Cameron, leading this parade of sorts, was Willy himself atop a true crate, a repainted, wide-tired blue thing made by a gone American company called Columbia and probably weighing as much as some luxury sedans; it was all he could dig up in his door-to-door quest to find a third bike back at the condo complex.

Willy had known around two that weird afternoon that they had to get out. To do something. And he got the idea of a bike ride, remembering how Lane herself had gone on her Raleigh that morning for services at that Pentacostal church she had joined on her own. Otherwise, the day would simply degenerate to more ongoing naps. On Lane’s part, seeing she had waited up for Willy and Cameron to return from the police station the night before then rose so early for church. And on Cameron and Willy’s parts, seeing they didn’t leave the station till close to four, and even if they didn’t get up early, that ordeal had taken its toll. Was that station ever a mess. Actually, with Willy simply signing a few documents, the cops were almost ready to release the “juvenile” to his custody—without Willy having to resort to a phone call to his sleazy lawyer of those python boots. And all that Sergeant Kells wanted was to be certain that “the kid has come down” from whatever he was on. Though while they waited in the front lobby of the place that was as busy as a Greyhound terminal on a three-day holiday weekend, it seemed that Sergeant Kells forgot about them entirely, before they did receive—a full two hours later—his “permission” to leave.

The bike ride developed its own inevitable problems.

Willy had thought he had done right in suggesting they head east of town. There Texas turned to farmland flatness all the way to the green-and-aqua coast; on the west side of Austin, it started off with some Hollywood-style hills, which soon gave way to the High Plains, then, much further on, real mountains out toward El Paso. Willy said that he knew for a fact that due east was a great catfish farm and restaurant (man-made “tanks,” the local vernacular for ponds, where hundreds and hundreds of massive sacks of Purina catfish chow were lugged to feed the critters to fatness); that would give them a destination, a goal. And nobody had eaten much of anything since those maligned burgers of the evening before, except for Lane and her Corn-Quistos con Dr. Pepper. But on the way, first the slim, gum-walled tire of Lane’s Raleigh blew. Probably a goathead burr popped it. Which meant, to protect the aluminum rim, they all walked a full mile to the intersection of this farm-to-market road and another one, where at a Texaco station in the true middle of nowhere the attendant finally dug up a patch kit. Then the Sunday National Guard convoy. The phalanx of olive-colored vehicles, their turned-on headlights looking like watered down scotch drinks in the daytime bright, chugged along in the throbbing heat, slow as a jam, giving Willy a lot of time to dwell on the phone call from Bucky that morning and how he told her everything was just fine. The lie had seemed sound then, but now it also seemed worse and worse, in the course of the three of them on this goofy collection of bikes actually becoming blanketed with soot from the trucks. Willy could grind it like pummice between his molars. Add to that the situation that the whole operation seemed to have slowed even more, while the drivers took their time in checking out Lane in her white tennis shorts and white tank-top shirt. Her chubbiness must have seemed nothing more than tanned Playmate-of-the-Month plenitude to this crew.

“I’m sorry,” Willy said. They had stopped, the truck convoy having finally passed, and, as before, the road empty. Lime-green spring sproutings, a white barn with a white farmhouse, and some huge shading liveoaks out there.

“Big deal, some trucks,” Cameron said.

“They did wreck this shirt,” Lane said. Loose strands of that golden hair stuck glued to her sweaty forehead. She tugged out on the cotton lisle to examine the polka-dotting of black. “But you don’t have to worry, Willy.”

“No, really,” Cameron said, “you’re the last one who should worry about anything.”

“He’s right, you know,” Lane said.

Gentlemanly Cameron, then whacked-out Cameron. Aggressive Lane, then softly crying Lane, who seemed to understand so much about the world and its sadness when Willy rushed out the door the night before. One-eighty turns from both of them in the last 24 hours. And now all of that gone. They were just kids now, willing and grateful to follow Willy wherever he led them. Despite Willy watching that confidence in him sink some when they discovered that the catfish place had apparently shut down months before, the farm itself foreclosed on, as attested to by an auction sign.

“Closed?” Cameron said, staring vacantly at the placard.

“This shirt is really ruined,” Lane said; she looked down at it more.

But then there was a Seven-Eleven miraculously waiting at the intersection of two more farm-to-market roads further on. They stopped. And then they found a field of fresh alfalfa beyond a gully of roadside wildflowers—red Indian paintbrush, yellow false daisy, and those so-blue Texas bluebonnets, all benevolently planted like this by the highway department—and then they were picnicking on soft drinks and sandwiches they made of cold cuts, loaded with mustard, on Mrs. Baird’s white bread; they agreed it had to be the best meal they ever tasted. The smell of the grass’s sugary chlorophyll, the softening of the light on the trio of them beside the bicycles that shed surreally long shadows. Stretched out, they ate.

In a half hour, they would be caught in a cloudburst on the long, long way back, exhausted and soaked. But right now there was just the alfalfa, the technicolor of the wildflowers, the fluttering of a wave of delicate white butterflies that they gawked at in dreamy silence.

And suddenly it hit Willy. He maybe didn’t notice himself talking out loud.

“I haven’t thought of it in two days. I haven’t thought about the fact that this time next year I could be in prison. You know, I don’t know when I last went through two full days without thinking about it.”

The other two didn’t seem to listen. Cameron was back in his own private universe. Lane was saying something about the fragile butterflies being special, “like little secrets of Sweet Baby Jesus,” though Willy wasn’t sure if that was exactly what it was.

Ah, spring in Austin, Willy assured himself.


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