Read an Excerpt
I'll Know When I Get There
A faded red car came up the entry ramp on her right. A little piss-ant economy job that looked as if it had been through the wringer. The driver door was primer gray. Giving out a puff of black smoke, it pulled right over in front of her.
Highly annoyed, Rainey thought that the driver obviously did not know the foremost rule of the road, which was that the biggest vehicle had the right of way. She would have moved over to make room for the little red car, but there was an eighteen-wheeler coming up on her left that would, she was fairly certain, mow her down without compunction.
Her nerves went to twanging as she came up on the little car that seemed incapable of gaining speed. It had a fluffy pillow in the back window . . . no, it was a cat, and a tennis shoe. The cat's head came up, its eyes widened, and it fled.
She tapped her brakes, harder and harder, to keep from running over the car, and she imagined her mare, her mother's mare, back in the trailer, trying to suck her hooves on the floor in order to stay on her feet.
The eighteen-wheeler moved on ahead, leaving room for Rainey to pull into the left lane. Looking at the open road ahead with satisfaction, she began to press the accelerator.
The next instant, to her immense surprise and alarm, the little red piss-ant car pulled to the left, right in front of her again. The only reason she could come up with for this erratic move was that the driver felt the need to try out both lanes before settling on one.
Hands gripping the steering wheel, she again tapped the brake. She pictured running up on the little car's bumper and pushing. If her sister Charlene had been beside her, she would have been saying, "Now, Rainey . . . now, Rainey."
Charlene accused Rainey of being an aggressive driver. "Road rage. It's the epidemic of the modern age," Charlene said. "I saw all about it on CNN, and you've got it."
"I don't have rage . . . Don't blow annoyance at inconsiderate drivers into rage. I am a considerate driver and expect others to be so. That's not too much to ask, if you ask me."
Maneuvering back to the right, she pressed the accelerator more forcefully this time and edged ahead while keeping a sharp eye on the faded red car for further signs of foolish behavior. She was ready to repel the little car if necessary.
Like a big ocean liner, her diesel truck took a bit to pick up speed, but once it got going, it really went down the road. She glanced in the side mirror and saw the little red car fighting the buffeting winds in the wake of her passing. She felt a little guilty. It might have been inconsiderate of her to pass so quickly that she blew him off the road.
Leaving the little car behind, she headed on down the interstate highway out of San Antonio, breezing along with the sedans and semis and Winnebagos in her mother's old dingy white Ford one-ton pickup truck and the matching gooseneck horse trailer with the name Valentine painted in flowing turquoise across each side.
The truck and trailer were both twelve years old, and for the first years her mother had driven the dog out of them. The truck was on its second engine, and that had nearly a hundred thousand miles on it. The air conditioner worked when it took a notion, which it did not right then, so she had the windows down, allowing the warm, end-of-the-day wind to blow her hair and bat her silver feather earrings. The sun visor no longer stayed in any one place. When not in use, it had to be wedged up with a piece of wood, and when in use, it wobbled so that the sun's rays blinked at her. It was quite disconcerting.
Driving into the western sun, as she was doing at that moment, she would sit up straight and dodge and bob, trying to keep the best position behind the visor, which kept rapidly changing, since she was going nearly seventy-five miles an hour down the highway. She had been driving the rig for over a month, and it was her name on the title now, but she still considered it her mother's truck and trailer. Her mother's ragged brown sweater and faded lavender satin pillow were tucked behind the seat, and she still hadn't brought herself to clean out her mother's classic Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline cassette tapes from the console, nor had she removed the pocket New Testament and wad of napkins -- the two things Mama always referred to as her "emergency kit" -- from the glove box. They would pop out like a jack-in-the-box every time it was opened, as if to remind her of their presence. Here, save your soul and wipe your greasy hands at the same time, sort of like Mama was still watching over her.
Once she cut her finger, and the first thing she grabbed were napkins from that wad. After that she was careful to replenish the wad with two extra each time she stopped for a meal.
She had even returned to her maiden name of Rainey Valentine. It was easier than making the explanations that ended up sounding so tawdry.
Just then, despite her own top rate of speed, a pale pink Cadillac with Mary Kay in pink script on the side window came flying past. Drivers in Texas didn't waste time.
The cotton-candy-haired woman at the wheel of the Cadillac tooted and waved. She had obviously seen the Mary Kay bumper sticker on the back door of the horse trailer.
Rainey returned the wave happily in the camaraderie of the road and Mary Kay users.
How her mother had put so many miles on the truck was by traveling all over Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and a few points beyond, selling Mary Kay cosmetics and riding barrel races. That could be considered something of an unusual combination, but it didn't seem unusual next to the fact that Mama had raced barrels and sold Mary Kay until the age of seventy-five. On the back of the horse trailer Mama had stuck a collection of bumper stickers.
Along with the one touting Mary Kay, there was one for each state to which she had traveled to barrel race. There was one for the American quarter horse, another for barrel horses and another that said, Cowboy Up. One said Love from Valentine. Below that were the ones that said, Trust in the Lord, and Honk if You Love Jesus. Then there was the one that said, American by Birth, Southern by the Grace of God.
Charlene thought the conglomeration of bumper stickers was tacky, and Rainey had to agree with her.
"Lots of people might start botherin' you for the Mary Kay, and you don't sell it," Charlene pointed out. "And that Southern saying is in poor taste. Somebody might pick a fight with you over it. I always worried about that with Mama, but you couldn't tell her anything. You ought to go ask Freddy to have the boys down in his body shop get them off," Charlene suggested.
Freddy was their older brother; he owned the only Ford dealership for fifty miles.
Rainey didn't care for the idea. "If they're taken off, there will be all these rectangle places all over. I'd need to get the trailer painted, and then the truck would look awful next to it."
She wasn't going to touch those bumper stickers. For one thing, Freddy most likely would make her pay for the job. Freddy was not noted for his generosity, and on top of that, he considered her the spoiled late child who had always been given too much.
Removing the stickers herself would have been a major undertaking and would have ruined her fingernails, about which she was quite particular. And despite their being so tacky, she rather liked those bumper stickers. They seemed a testament to Mama, who had died in the spring, suddenly, of heart stoppage.
Heart failure was what the doctor said, but Rainey rejected that term. Her mother's heart had never in this world failed. When people said that Coweta Valentine's death had come as a surprise, she would think of how her mother would have laughed about that. Her mother had been eighty-two, and she would often say, "When I kick the bucket." When people would try to hush this kind of talk, she would say, "The one sure thing is that a person starts dyin' soon as they're born. Why, dyin' is a part of livin', might as well get used to it."
Her mother had lived more thoroughly than anyone Rainey had ever known. And what Freddy said was true -- Rainey had been her mother's favorite, her late child, and the one closest to her.
Mama always said that Rainey was her twin soul, and Daddy said Mama carried on whole conversations with her from the time she was in the womb. She and Mama would finish up each other's sentences, driving Daddy and Freddy wild, and call each other at the same exact moment, so that their phone lines connected without ringing.
She was the one who knew the instant Mama was stricken. She had thumped the bottle of Glyco-Thymoline she had been pricing down on the counter and listened, just as if hearing someone call her name. Then, hollering to Mr. Blaine as she ripped off her white coat, "I think somethin's wrong with Mama," she had dashed out of the drugstore like the wildly alarmed woman that she was, running the entire four blocks to her parents' big home and around back to the little apple orchard, to find her mother lying on the moist ground, holding her chest and whispering desperate, shocking things, until Rainey had said, "Shut up, Mama, and hang on."
She had thought at the time that her mother had been out of her mind with pain and talking crazy. It was later, during her mother's final hours, that she was faced with the profound shock that what her mother said was true fact.
The picture of her mother clinging to life and to one final ordering of everyone else's lives returned to her again and again -- her mother lying in the hospital bed, her father holding her mother's hand, Freddy looking from their parents to Rainey, and Charlene sobbing loudly over by the doorway. In this memory she would see her mother's mouth moving, revealing the shameful secret, but Rainey truly did not hear a sound, except for Charlene's sobbing.
Mostly Rainey found any of it too painful to think about. As original in death as in life, their mother had skipped over their father and left all she owned to her children. Coweta Valentine had been listed as one-eighth Chickasaw on the rolls, although she had argued for years that she was one-fourth. The old Indian way was to trace the blood lineage through the women rather than the men. It was figured that the mother of a child was certain, whereas exactly who was the father was not. This was a practicality that had seemed to escape a number of societies in this world, as well as turning out particularly apt in Coweta Valentine's case, Rainey thought a number of times.
Charlene got the family Bible, dating from the mid-1800s and listing births in Mississippi, before the great Indian hater Andrew Jackson (history books said Indian fighter, but Mama always vehemently corrected the term) forced the family off their land and out west, a pair of earrings said to have come from Georgia gold, and the old house and acreage on Church Street, even though their daddy remained alive and living there. Daddy had his own money, but he really didn't have many belongings. Mama had trusted Charlene and the rest of them to take care of Daddy.
Freddy, the eldest and only son, was pretty upset about Charlene getting the house. Although he had received the bulk of his mother's portfolio, he felt the house, one of the grandest in town, with a cupola and wraparound porch, five acres of lawn, orchard and corral, and a border of lilacs, should have been his. No doubt he thought it fitted his station as owner of the Ford dealership, and his wife Helen thought this even more. Helen was all the time throwing dinner parties, and Rainey imagined Helen saw herself having parties out across the porch, the kind with Chinese lanterns and waiters in black tie, although God knew where she'd get them.
"I am not about to move out of my modern home into that big old museum," Charlene told Freddy in the firm way she had of talking with her hand on her hip. "Joey's spurs would gouge the floors in no time."
Charlene's husband Joey was a professional horse trainer. His spurs never came off his boots, and when his boots went on in the morning, they didn't come off until he went to bed. Charlene worshiped her wool wall-to-wall carpet because of this. She was also a walking advertisement for heat pumps and modern insulation.
"You and Helen can live there when Daddy's done with it," Charlene assured Freddy, then added, "Of course, I'll keep the deed."
Rainey's inheritance had been Mama's truck and horse trailer, her old barrel racing mare Lulu, and her considerable stock of Mary Kay cosmetics. There were probably enough cosmetics to last a lifetime, which was a pretty good thing, because Rainey had always enjoyed makeup. Nature had been good to her, but nature does often require a helping hand.
She guessed her mother had wanted her to have at least some small security for life all the way around, because she also left her oil leases that currently brought in nearly eight hundred dollars a month. This income would go up drastically if those Mideast countries got crazy again.
Oh, Freddy'd had a lot to say about that. "She'll piss it away like she has everything else. Mama should have let me take care of it for her."
Freddy looked at Rainey, and everyone else, with more scorn than usual during the weeks following their mother's death, while Charlene loved everyone more than ever, and their daddy went along in his silent sorrow.
As the days passed, the length and breadth of their loss sunk in. Their beloved wife and mother, who had always been there with a ready ear and wise answers and strong, loving arms, was gone.
For Rainey's daddy, this meant that his wife would never again warm her cold feet on his thighs or yell at him to take his cigarette out on the porch, put his vitamins in his hand or find his discarded jacket.
For her and her brother and sister, it was a stark reminder that they were no longer children. It meant that they now carried around a permanent empty hole in their hearts, that they had to solve their own problems, and that they had taken their place in line for old age and death.
Her daddy spent a lot of the first month of his widowhood rocking on the front porch. Rainey knew this because she went over to clean for him and to make certain that he got at least one hot meal a day. It seemed as if all life had gone out of him. He looked like a deflated bag of skin rocking there. He didn't say more than five words to her on any one day.
Then one morning barely four weeks after Mama had left them, Rainey went over and found widowed Mildred Covington sitting with her daddy, and words were pouring out of his plumping up body. It was like with every breath he took to speak, his body filled a little more.
Five weeks after Mama died, Freddy broke off with the girlfriend no one was supposed to know about and took up taking Helen to the Main Street Café for breakfast each morning and sitting beside her on the pew of the Southern Baptist Church each Sunday.
Charlene started looking in the mirror and crying because she was turning forty-five, and then she began to pester Joey when he came in from work, dragging him into the bedroom in a desperate attempt to hold the years at bay by trying for a fourth baby.
Rainey looked into the mirror, too, playing with all the Mary Kay, and she saw a woman who was almost thirty-five, twice divorced, had lost the only child she had ever conceived, and was living in a forty-year-old run-down farm cottage behind her sister's house. Gazing back at her from every plate glass store window she passed was a lost woman who did not know who she really was, nor where she belonged.
A few false starts will make you stronger, her mother had told her a number of times.
"How many of those, Mama? How many mistakes and wasted years? What if I never get it right?"
Her mother was not there anymore to give the perfect answers. Rainey did as much crying as Charlene, but there was only her own pillow to soak up the tears.
After about a week of crying, she got out and washed and waxed her mother's legacy of the truck and trailer. She very carefully waxed a second time around the bumper stickers, and then she loaded up Mama's eighteen-year-old mare and took off to race barrels. It was the only action she could think to take.
She and Mama had raced barrels together the entire time she was in high school and until she'd gone off to college, where she had met and married Robert, who had considered any horse activity other than the Kentucky Derby the preoccupation of the lower classes. From that time on, she never really got into the sport again. She guessed she'd stayed too busy trying to earn a living and deal with her second husband, Monte. Later she guessed she'd just been too busy dealing with regrets.
Thinking back in the despondent manner one always falls into after a loved one dies, Rainey felt so many regrets and questions. Racing barrels gave her something to do in which she could lose her grief and confusion, and at the same time connect to her mother. Also, racing barrels gave her somewhere to drive to and away from home. Something to make her forget the pain of lost years behind, the confusion of present life, and the fright of the uncertainties in life ahead.END