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Page 13

A voice came from behind us. "Hey. there."

Mama and I both turned, and my face froze as I saw Louis Sadlek. the owner of Bluebonnet Ranch. He was tricked out in snakeskin boots and denim, with a silver arrowhead-shaped bolo tie. I had always kept my distance from him, which turned out to be easy because he usually left the front office empty. He had no sense of regular work hours, spending his time drinking and tomcatting around town. If one of the trailer park residents went to ask him about fixing things like a clogged septic line or a pothole on the main drive, he promised to take care of it but never did a thing. Complaining to Sadlek was a waste of air.

Sadlek was well groomed but puffy, with broken capillaries spreading across the tops of his cheeks like the mesh of hairline cracks at the bottom of antique china cups. He had enough good looks left to make you sorry for his ruined handsomeness.

It struck me that Sadlek was an older version of the same boys I had met at the parties Luke had taken me to. In fact, he reminded me a little of Luke himself, the same sense of unearned privilege.

"Hi yourself, Louis," Mama replied. She had picked Carrington up and was trying to pry the baby's tweezerlike grip from a long curl of her light hair. She looked so pretty with her bright green eyes and her wide smile...it gave me a jolt of unease to see Sadlek's reaction to her.

"Who's this little dumplin1?" he asked, his accent so thick it was nearly devoid of consonants. He reached out to tickle Carrington's plump chin, and she gave him a wet baby-grin. The sight of his finger against the baby's pristine skin made me want to grab Carrington and run without stopping. "You already eaten?" Sadlek asked Mama.

She continued to smile. "Yes, have you?"

"Tight as a tick." he replied, patting the belted jut of his stomach.

Although there wasn't anything remotely clever about what he'd said, Mama astonished me by laughing. She looked at him in a way that sent a creeping sensation down the back of my neck. Her gaze, her posture, the way she tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear, all of it conveyed an invitation.

I couldn't believe it. Mama knew about his reputation just as I did. She had even made fun of him to me and Miss Marva, saying he was a small-town redneck who thought he was a big shot. She couldn't possibly have been attracted to Sadlek—it was obvious he wasn't good enough for her. But neither was Flip, or any of the other men I had ever seen her with. I puzzled over the common denominator between all of them, the mysterious thing that drew Mama to the wrong men.

In the piney woods of East Texas, pitcher plants attract bugs with an advertisement of bright yellow trumpets and red veins. The trumpets are filled with sweet-smelling juice that insects can't resist. But once a bug crawls into the pitcher, it can't get back out. Sealed in the crisp interior of the pitcher plant, it drowns in sugar water and is consumed. As I looked at Mama and Louis Sadlek, I saw the same alchemy at work, the false advertising, the attraction, the danger ahead.

"Bull-riding's gonna start soon." Sadlek remarked. "I've got a reserved box in the front. Why don't y'all come join me?"

"No. thank you." I said instantly. Mama gave me a warning glance. I knew I was being rude, but I didn't care.

"We'd love to," Mama said. "If you don't mind the baby."

"Hell no. how could I mind a sugar pie like this?" He played with Carrington. flicking the lobe of her ear, making her gurgle and coo.

And Mama, who was usually so critical of people's language, didn't say one word about swearing in front of the baby.

"I don't want to watch the bull-riding," I snapped.

Mama gave an exasperated sigh. "Liberty.. .if you're in a bad mood, don't take it out on everyone else. Why don't you go see if some of your friends are here?"

"Fine. I'll take the baby." I knew at once I shouldn't have said it that way, with a possessive edge to my tone. Had I asked Mama differently, she would have said yes.

As it was, however, she narrowed her eyes and said, "Carrington's fine with me. You go on. I'll see you back here in an hour."

Fuming, I slunk away down the row of stalls. The air was filled with the agreeable twangs and drumbeats of a country band warming up to play at the big canopy-covered dance floor nearby. It was a fine night for dancing. I scowled at the couples who headed toward the tent, their arms slung around each other's waists or shoulders.

I lingered at the vendors' tables, examining jars of preserves, salsas, and barbecue sauces, and T-shirts decorated with embroidery and sequins. I progressed to a jewelry stall, where felt trays were littered with silver charms and glittering silver chains.

The only jewelry I owned was a pair of pearl studs from Mama, and a delicate gold link bracelet Luke had given me for Christmas. Brooding over the selection of charms, I picked up a little figure of a bird inset with turquoise.. .a shape of Texas.. .a steer head.. .a cowboy boot. My attention was caught by a silver armadillo.

Armadillos have always been my favorite animals. They're awful pests, digging trenches through people's yards and burrowing under foundations. They're also as dumb as rocks. The best thing you can say about their appearance is that they're so ugly, they're cute. An armadillo is prehistoric in design, armored with that hard ribbed shell, his tiny head poking out the front as if someone stuck it on as an afterthought. Evolution just plain forgot to do anything about armadillos.

But no matter how armadillos are scorned or hounded, no matter how often people try to trap or shoot them, they persist in coming out night after night to do their work, searching for grubs and worms. If there are no grubs or worms to be had, they make do with berries and plants. They're the perfect example of persistence in the face of adversity.

There's no meanness in armadillos—their teeth are all molars, and they would never think of running up to bite someone even if they could. Some old people still call them Hoover Hogs for the days when the public had been promised a chicken in every pot and instead had to settle for whatever they could find to eat. Armadillos taste like pork, I've been told, although I never intend to test the claim.

I picked up the armadillo, and asked the seller what it would cost along with a sixteen-inch rope chain. She said it was twenty dollars. Before I could reach into my purse for the money, someone behind me handed over a twenty-dollar bill.

"I'll take care of that," came a familiar voice.

I spun to face him so quickly that he put his hands on my elbows to secure my balance. "Hardy!"

Most men, even those of average appearance, look like the Marlboro man when they wear boots, a white straw Resistol hat, and well-fitted jeans. The combination has the same transformative ability as a tuxedo. On someone like Hardy, it can knock out your breath like a blow to the chest.

"You don't have to buy me that," I protested.

"I haven't seen you for a while," Hardy said, taking the armadillo necklace from the lady behind the counter. He shook his head when she asked if he needed a receipt, and motioned me to turn around. Obeying, I lifted my hair out of the way. The backs of his fingers brushed against my nape, sending pleasure-chills across my skin.

Thanks to Luke, I'd been sexually initiated, if not awakened. I had traded my innocence in the hopes of gaining comfort, affection, knowledge...but as I stood there with Hardy. I understood the folly of trying to substitute someone else for him. Luke wasn't like Hardy in any way other than a passing physical resemblance. Bitterly I wondered if Hardy was going to overshadow every relationship for the rest of my life, haunting me like a ghost. I didn't know how to let him go. I'd never even had him.

"Hannah said you're living in town now," I commented. I touched the little silver armadillo as it hung at the hollow of my clavicle.

He nodded. "I've got a one-bedroom apartment. It's not much, but for the first time in my life I've got some privacy."

"Are you here with someone?"

He nodded. "Hannah and the boys. They're off watching the horse pull."

"I came with Mama and Carrington." I was tempted to tell him about Louis Sadlek too and how outraged I was that Mama would even give him the time of day. But it seemed I laid my problems at Hardy's feet every time I was with him. For once I wasn't going to do that.

The sky had darkened from lavender to violet, the sun sinking so fast I half expected it to bounce on the horizon. The dance canopy was lit with strands of big white lightbulbs, while the band let loose with a fast two-stepping song.

"Hey, Hardy!" Hannah appeared at his side along with their two younger brothers, Rick and Kevin. The little boys were grimy and sticky-faced, wearing big grins as they jumped and squealed about wanting to go to the calf scramble.

The calf scramble was always held just before the rodeo. Children crowded into the ring and chased three agile calves that had yellow ribbons tied to their tails. Each child who managed to get a ribbon would receive a five-dollar bill. "Hi, Liberty," Hannah exclaimed, turning to her brother before I could answer. "Hardy, they're dying to go to the calf scramble. It's just about to start. Can I take 'em?"

He shook his head, regarding the trio with a reluctant grin. "You might as well. Just mind where you step, boys."

The children whooped with joy and took off at a dead run with Hannah chasing after them. Hardy chuckled as he watched them disappear. "My mother's gonna tear a strip off my hide for bringing them back smelling like cow patties."

"Children are supposed to get good and dirty every now and then."

Hardy's smile turned rueful. "That's what I tell my mother. Sometimes I have to get her

to loosen up on them, let 'em run around and be boys. I wish..."

He hesitated, a frown weaving across his forehead.

"What?" I asked softly. The phrase "I wish," which came so naturally and frequently to my lips, was something I had never heard from Hardy before.

We began to walk aimlessly, Hardy shortening his stride to match mine. "I wish she'd brought herself to marry someone after Dad got put away for good," he said. "She has every right to divorce him. And if she'd found a decent man to be with, she might have had an easier time of it."

Having never known the nature of the crime his father had committed to get put away for life. I was hesitant to ask about it. I tried to look wise and concerned. "Does she still love him?"

"No. she's scared to death of him. He's as mean as a sack of snakes when he drinks. And he drinks most of the time. Ever since I could remember, he went in and out of jail...come back every year or two, knock my mother around, get her pregnant, and leave with every cent we had. I tried to stop him once when I was eleven—that's how my nose got broken. But the next time he came back, I'd gotten big enough to beat the tar out of him. He never bothered us again."

I flinched at the mental image of Miss Judie. so tall and skinny, being knocked around by anyone.

"Why doesn't she divorce him?" I asked.

Hardy smiled grimly. 'The minister of our church told my mother that divorcing her husband, no matter how abusive, would be giving up on her chance to serve Christ. He said she shouldn't put her own happiness before her devotion to Jesus."

"He wouldn't believe that if he was the one getting beat up."

"I went to lay him out about it. He wouldn't budge though. I had to leave before I wrung his neck."

"Oh, Hardy," I said, my chest aching with compassion. I couldn't help thinking of Luke, and the easy life he'd had so far, and how different it was from Hardy's. "Why is life so difficult for some people and not for others? Why do some people have to struggle so much?"

He shrugged. "No one has it easy forever. Sooner or later God makes you pay for your sins."

"You should come to the Lamb of God on South Street," I advised. "He's a lot nicer over there. He'll overlook a few sins as long as you bring fried chicken to the Sunday potluck."

Hardy grinned. "You little blasphemer." We stopped in front of the covered dance floor. "I suppose the Lamb of God congregation believes in dancing too?"

I hung my head guiltily. "Afraid so."

"Lord Almighty, you're practically a Methodist. Come on." He took my hand and led me to the edge of the dance floor, where shadowed couples glided in rhythm, two steps slow_. two steps fast. It was a circumspect dance with a careful distance maintained between your body and your partner's, unless he slid his hand to your waist and spun you in a tight circle that brought you flush against him. And then it became something else entirely. Especially if the music was slow.

Following Hardy's deliberate movements, my hand lightly caught in his, I felt my heart thump with dizzying force. I was surprised that he would want to dance with me, when in the past he had taken every opportunity to make it clear that he would allow nothing more than friendship. I was tempted to ask why, but I didn't say a word. I wanted this too badly.

I was nearly sick with giddy apprehension as he eased me closer. "This is a bad idea, isn't it?" I asked.

"Yeah. Put your hand on me."

My palm settled on the hard ascent of his shoulder. His chest rose and fell in an uneven rhythm. As I looked into the beautiful severity of his face, I realized he was giving in to a rare moment of self-indulgence. His eyes were alert but resigned, like a thief who knew he was about to get caught.

I was dimly aware of the bittersweet song once played by Randy Travis, desolate and angular and wounded as only a sad country song could be. The pressure of Hardy's hands guided me. our denim-clad legs brushing together. It seemed we didn't dance so much as simply cut ourselves adrift. We followed the current, keeping pace with other couples in a slow, seemly glide that was more intensely sexual than anything I had ever done with Luke. I

didn't have to think about where I would step or which way I would turn.

Hardy's skin smelled like smoke and sun. I wanted to push beneath his shirt and explore every secret place of his body, every variation of skin and texture. I wanted things I didn't know how to name.

The band took the pace even slower, the two-step fading into another song that curtailed the dancing into a standing, swaying embrace. I felt him all against me now, and it filled me with agitation. I laid my head against his shoulder and felt the touch of his mouth on the apple of my cheek. His lips were dry and smooth. Transfixed, I didn't make a sound. He crowded me closer against him, one of his hands sliding low on my h*ps and imparting a gentle pressure. As I felt how aroused he was. my thighs and h*ps settled against him hungrily.

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