For three months I dragged myself out of bed to deal Hold’em at Whitey’s and then dragged myself back home to bed again. I literally forced myself to pretend to be living my life but all I lived for was sleep, total oblivion. I was disappointed in life in general and men in particular.
My poker table was no longer the most popular one in Central Texas. I had lost my edge and attitude. I couldn’t even get my hair to spike anymore. Whitey and Angelina hovered over me like I was their ailing child, and I guess I was sick ─ sick at heart.
Dante came in several times. He had that old glint in his eye but I didn’t glint back.
“Hey,” he said. “How’s my girl?”
“I wouldn’t know,” I replied. “What’s her name?”
“Now, T.R. Be nice. How ya doing?”
I continued messing with my tip chips and didn’t say anything.
“Making conversation sure is hard with you lately, T.R. Usually it’s a give and take thing, ya know. I ask you a question. You answer, then ask me a question. Then I answer. You get it? Let’s try it again. I heard Runt left town. What do you hear from him?”
“Nothing. Not a damn thing.”
The morning after I shot Casey, Runt had sneaked onto Shade’s ranch to get back his big duelie. Then he loaded his horses into a neighbor’s trailer and rode backwards into Texas.
All his horses except Tonto. Whitey heard that Runt sold his supposedly beloved pinto to someone he met at the roping arena, probably that man I saw him talking to.
Damn that brother of mine! He didn’t even have any loyalty to dumb animals, selling Tonto to that stranger. I would have loved to have that horse. I did get his dogs, though. Runt dropped off Bud and Red in my back yard that same night.
Mom and Dad are paying his bills at The Barely Legal until they hear from him. They’re also buying the neighbor a new horse trailer. As usual, Dad said boys will be boys and things couldn’t have been as bad as I thought they were.
Want to bet on that?
Don’t they wonder why they don’t hear from him? Not having children, I guess I just don’t understand the kind of unconditional love they have for my brother. Parental blindness to everything except dealing poker, I guess. Go figure.
“See? That’s a little better,” Dante said, pleased that I had tersely answered his question. “Conversation’s easy. Next question. What’s Shade up to? I haven’t seen him since the night we almost got into a fight over you.”
Dante reached over and ran his fingers through my hair, trying to get it to stand up but it just flopped back down again. I slapped his hand away.
“Don’t touch the dealer!” I said, making up the new rule.
“Hey, that’s not conversation,” he responded. “Answer my question.”
“Shade? I’ve only seen him once since then myself,” I replied. “He came in a couple of weeks ago and played a few hands. Didn’t stay long.”
“What’d he have to say?”
“Nothing. Not a word.” What was there to say?
“He probably left here to go to Snoopy’s,” I said.
“Nah,” said Dante. “Sonja said she hasn’t seen him either.”
“Well, she should know.”
“So. With Shade out of the picture, you available again?” Dante asked.
“He never was in the picture. You just thought he was.”
“He thought he was too. That’s not what I asked. The question was, are you available?”
I wrinkled my nose and shot him a dirty look. “You sitting at my table to talk or to play Hold’em? If it’s to play poker, buy yourself some chips ─ with cash.”
“Girl, you hold a grudge against a man for a long time, don’t ya? Hmmm. Not available yet, I take it. Well, welders are patience guys. They wait until the temperature heats up just right before they apply their tool.”
“Good grief, Dante,” the man next to him said. “That’s disgusting!”
“Hey, just telling the truth about my trade. Take it any way you want.”
“Buy chips or move on, Dante,” I said.
“What happened to the snake-handler that beat me set-over-set? She was real sexy. You know, that wild girl with the big balls?”
The guy next to him gave him another weird look. If the man hadn’t had such a big pile of chips in front of him, I’m sure he would have moved away from Dante to another table.
“That was my twin,” I said abruptly. “She left.”
And so did Dante, after tossing ten hundred dollar bills on the table to clear his hot check debt. “I’ll be in touch,” he said, as he walked away. “You can bet on that.” I didn’t even look up.
I justified my abruptness with the rationalization I was doing him a favor, because, to tell the truth, Whitey’s room is a little too high-dollar for Dante. He earns good money, just not good enough for Whitey’s poker room. Him with little welder’s burn holes all over his clothes Even his dress clothes, although I don’t know how he manages to do that.
Casey was the only person I really wanted to talk to but, after all, she had a family and a job of her own to deal with. And, anyway, you might say she’d already given at the office ─ Sirlo’s office.
I couldn’t talk to Weeba about my problems. She was so happy and I didn’t want to bring her down. It turned out she’s totally delighted with her situation. So is Sirlo Senior.
Casey and I went to see Weeba at her apartment a couple of days after Runt left town. When we knocked on the door, it was opened by a very attractive, white haired, older man I took to be Tom Senior himself. I definitely could see what caught Weeba’s attention. She picked a doozy to finally look in the eye and show her chickchismo, even if he did look totally out of place in Weeba’s bland digs. Let’s face it. The man was slumming in this neighborhood.
“May I help you?” he asked. I couldn’t help but think he could almost be our grandfather ─ if he’d had a baby early in life and that child reproduced early too. OK, maybe I was pushing that a little bit. Of course, I could also see how losing this sophisticated man could drive poor Aunt Lois crazy. But maybe she was crazy before he went astray with Weeba. Jeez, I’m totally confused about other people’s relationships, let alone my own.
“We’re here to see Weeba,” I said. I thought I might as well get the introductions over with as soon as possible. “I’m T.R. and this is Casey. You must be Tom.” Meeting him under any other circumstances I would have called him Mr. Sirlo. As Weeba’s beau, he was just Tom.
Tom Senior just stared at me and I knew he was trying to think of something to say. I’d called him the day after all the action hit his place and told him everything as I saw it. He was quiet on the phone. Unbelieving, really. I gave him a couple of facts he could check out that would verify my account of the story.
Hadn’t he wondered how I knew about all that red on the carpet that morning? Didn’t he worry about who had squished his wife and nephew into his warehouse bathroom with his own son’s monster truck? OK, he probably didn’t really care about that one.
Oh, well. Believe me or not, Senior. At least it’s over for me. My part in his mess was done. Except for the Weeba part. She’s my friend, now, yesterday, and tomorrow.
Weeba came up behind him. She looked pale and distraught, like we’d caught her in the act of doing the deed itself.
Nobody said a word. Finally Casey broke the awkward silence. “Congratulations! I mean about you two having a baby.”
Casey shot me a look that said, if you’re wrong about this, I’m going to kill you. I shot her one back that said, if I’m wrong, what’s Senior doing here.
Weeba burst into tears and everybody started talking at once.
“Dear, come sit on the settee,” said Tom Senior. Settee? OK, that word alone proves he’s too old for her. But, hey, at least she has a love life. Unlike me.
“I hope those are happy tears,” said Casey, handing Weeba the box of tissue that was on a nearby table. “But then, I remember what all those baby-related hormones do to your emotions.”
“Jeez, Weeba,” I said. “I thought you were a virgin.” Ca-rap! Why’d I go and say that?
Casey let out a hoot. Weeba started laughing through her tears. Tom just looked bewildered.
“You’ll get used to T.R., Tom,” Weeba said. “But it’ll take a while. Guys, I tried to tell you two about the baby a hundred times. I was afraid of what you’d think about me. I’m so sorry.” She started to cry again.
Tom was sitting on her right, patting her hand. Casey sat down on her left. “What’s there to be sorry about?” she asked. You don’t need to apologize to us.”
“I’m just so ashamed,” Weeba wailed.
“Ashamed! What’s there to be ashamed about?” I asked.
Another wail went up from Weeba. “I’m pregnant by a married man?”
“Hey,” I said. “In most people’s book, getting preggers by another woman’s husband is a step up from being an underground poker dealer. You’ll get no judgment from me.”
“Nor me,” said Casey. Tom Senior leaned over and kissed Weeba on the ear.
Weeba gave a weak smile. “I just could never find the right time to tell you so I let you guys go on thinking I had the flu.” She took a hold of Tom’s hand. “We’ve known for quit awhile. I just didn’t think you guys would find out and come tell me I was pregnant!”
Conversation paused and Weeba cocked her head at us. “How did you guys find out I was pregnant?”
Apparently Senior was keeping Weeba out of the loop about the latest happenings. I assumed he would tell her everything. Guess not.
“T.R.,” Tom said. It was the first time he’d spoken to me. “I’m not much good in the kitchen. Would you help me make iced tea for everybody?”
“Sure, Tom.” I looked at Weeba. “We live in a big small town, girlfriend.” She smiled at me and nodded her head, accepting the explanation.
As Tom and I walked into the kitchen, I heard Casey start in on wedding plans for the prospective parents. She was carried away by the romance of it all ─ and the tons of money involved. If she has her way, it’ll be the wedding of the century. And, of course, it will mean a new wedding tradition. Weeba will need two maids of honor ─ one to hold the bouquet and one to hold the baby.
Me? I won’t need any maids of honor. I’m never getting married. I’m never falling in love again. I doubt I’ll even fall in like.
Kissing’s OK, though. Kissing’s good.
“I am so sorry for all you had to go through, T.R.,” Tom said as he put a kettle full of water on the stove. “I can’t possibly make it up to you. But I want to thank you for…for…everything but especially for not upsetting Weeba with all of this. Being unwed and pregnant hasn’t been easy for her.”
“Sure.” I thought of a couple of hundred cutting remarks I would have made if he had been someone our own age. But he wasn’t and for once in my life I kept my mouth shut.
“But at some point you’ll have to tell her about all this,” I told him. “I wasn’t exaggerating when I told Weeba this is a small town. She’ll hear about it from someone and if that someone isn’t you, she’ll lose faith in you. She’ll give you back that big diamond ring real fast.”
I was guessing about the ring. I hadn’t noticed one but I felt sure if it wasn’t on her finger, it was safely tucked away in a drawer in her bedroom.
“She’s stubborn,” I continued. “Stubborn enough to raise this kid on a dry cleaner clerk’s salary. Do you want visits with the baby on the first and third weekends of the month or the second and fourth weekends?”
Senior passed his hand through his hair and studied on what I’d said. I could tell he knew I was right. Finally, he nodded his head and picked up two of the glasses of tea we’d been making. I grabbed the other two and we went back to the living room. He sat down beside Weeba again.
“Dear,” he said. I could only imagine my response if Shade or Dante started a conversation with me like that. But then I’m not Weeba. And Shade’s not speaking to me and I’m not speaking to Dante.
“Maybe we’d better go,” I said to Casey.
“No. Please. Stay,” Tom said. “You can help me with the details.”
Weeba looked from Senior to me and back again.
“Dear,” Senior started again and he actually got a long way into the story all by himself. He told her about how Lois ─ somehow she’ll always be Aunt Lois to me ─ recruited Runt to bypass the biometric security system at his company and do a little computer digging. He didn’t gloss over his son’s part in the problem, or his nephew’s. Or what had happened to me. I’d have to fill her in later on Shade. And Toni. And Dante.
He told her about my little old phone call to him and how I had given him a head’s up on the computer mess. He’d hired expert help to get it fixed. Believe it or not, Runt’s program actually was helpful to the company in the long run, he said, although neither he nor I were technical enough ─ OK, I’m not technical at all ─ to tell anybody how exactly it was helpful.
At least Sirlo’s had gotten rid of a major virus ─ Tom Junior. Senior said Junior left town unexpectedly and must have taken Eddy with him because nobody he knows has heard a word from either one of them.
He told us lots of other stuff I’d been wondering about as he sat there holding a stunned Weeba’s hand. Consuelo had gone back to Mexico as she had planned to do anyway but she went with a bonus in her pocket, which she hadn’t planned on. She’d given Senior an earful since she’d seen quite a bit during her night shifts at Sirlo’s.
Senior also told me that Aunt Lois and Eddy were rescued by Shade’s men from the warehouse bathroom the morning after I locked them in there. She was furious, as you can imagine, and promised all kinds of hell upon me, Tom Senior, and Weeba, especially after someone told her Weeba and I were best friends. Luckily, Senior committed her to a loony bin way over in West Texas before she could carry out any of her threats.
I bet she has the cleanest, best-pressed wardrobe of all the patients there.
We drank our iced tea and Weeba told Casey and me that she’d quit her job at the cleaners and that Tom had bought her a grand house in an extremely nice part of town. They’d be moving in soon.
With a promise of marriage on her finger ─ and a big promise it was, five whole carats worth ─ she was looking forward to motherhood and being Mrs. Sirlo the Second, after, of course, Mrs. Sirlo the First was out of the picture. Their marriage wouldn’t be too soon, though. The baby would be born by the time the divorce was final and they could get hitched.
It was another month before Weeba started feeling better. By then the poor wallflower of Bryan High School was living large with the man of her dreams. Casey was back to her pure life, the one that was the nuts.
Me? It took awhile for me to get back to what I call normal. One afternoon I rolled over in bed, felt Red Bull’s warm body next to me, and moaned, waking myself up. “Shade,” I said, before I had a chance to think. I sat up in bed and realized my brain had cleared of its toxic fog. My heart was beating pure blood again instead of a lethal mix of contaminated distrust and poisonous hate.
For the first time in a long time I felt human. The world appeared bright again. I looked around my little house, saw the filth and clutter I’d been living in lately, and started cleaning. I showered, spiked my hair, and sat down on the living room couch with a cold beer.
Something was missing from my life. Oh, I still had my house, my Mustang, my addiction to dealing poker. I had adopted Red and Bud and loved them greatly. But something deep inside me was missing.
The missing part wasn’t Runt. I was totally better off with that no good brother of mine completely out of Texas. Well, I guess he was out of Texas. He was certainly out of my life.
It wasn’t sex I was missing. I’d gone without sex before and for longer periods of time than this. OK, I’ve never really had a lot sex and definitely no good sex. Yet.
No, that missing something was Shade.
I smiled when I thought of him standing on the trash can at my bathroom window and wagging his finger at me. How he first told me he loved me. I’d seen him drive by my house a couple of times and I wondered if he still felt the same way about me.
When I was trying to say goodbye, he’d told me there’d be a sign to tell me when I was ready to love again. Well, calling the warm body of Red “Shade” was my sign and I knew I was ready for that cowboy to come back into my life. I wondered if he needed some sort of sign too.
I got up off the couch and went to the garage, the dogs at my heels. I took two old garage sale signs, stapled them worded sides together, and nailed them to a tomato stake.
With a large magic marker I wrote:
Saddle maker wanted.
Must play poker.
I took the sign out to my front yard and hammered it into the lawn. The dogs and I stood back to admire my work.
It needed something else. I took the marker out of my shirt pocket and printed again on the sign: