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WHEN THE BUS SLOWED to turn off the highway at Cross Roads, Mary Lee was the only passenger awake. Or so she believed. It was hard to tell about the man across from her. He had climbed on at Amarillo. In the brief time it took him to find a seat, she had seen that he was tall, lean and unsmiling, with a level, direct gaze.
Now he sat sprawled in the double seat, his head back, his hat covering his face, awkwardly trying to sleep on a seat designed only for sitting. He seemed vaguely familiar, and she wanted to keep looking at him.
Mary Lee's worry for the last hour had been that she might throw up. The lurching, swaying vehicle and the fumes from the motor were a combination she'd had to endure since she got on the bus in Tulsa. Now she had a throbbing headache, her back hurt and her stomach was queasy as well.
Thank God, the journey was almost over.
Before the bus came to a complete stop at the station located in the lobby of Roads Hotel, the cowboy was up and standing at the door. She didn't know why she knew he was a cowboy. Boots and Stetsons were worn by most of the men in New Mexico whether they were bankers, bootleggers or ranchers. The distinction lay in the quality of the Stetsons and the boots.
The lights came on in the bus, and the door folded back. The cowboy bounded down the steps while Mary Lee was gathering up her purse, hat and a small sack that contained the last of the crackers and cheese she had brought along to munch. She stepped off the bus onto the dark street illuminated only by the street lamp on the corner and the light coming from the hotel lobby. When she looked up and down the street and saw no one, her shoulders slumped. She moved wearily to the side of the bus and waited for the driver to remove her suitcase from the luggage compartment.
"Here ya are, ma'am. It's pretty heavy for ya to be carryin'. Got someone meetin' ya?" The driver had obviously observed her condition.
"No, sir. I was intending to leave it here at the station. I'm going out to the Cross Roads Motor Court. I know I can't carry it that far."
"I'll be goin' right by there. Get back on, ma'am, and I'll stop and let ya off. I ain't supposed to, but ya ain't ort to be walkin' out there this time a night."
"Thank you. I was dreading the walk. It's been a long ride from Tulsa."
The driver set the suitcase inside the bus and went into the hotel. Mary Lee got back on and sat down on the front seat. She was so tired that her legs were trembling, her nerves were raw, and she feared that given the slightest provocation she would burst into tears. Her mother had surely received the letter saying she would be arriving on the eleven-thirty bus. She had mailed it over a week ago.
It would be strange going home to the motor court when her father was not there. She blinked away the tears that came to her eyes. Six months had passed since she received word that he had died suddenly while shoveling snow, and at times she couldn't believe that he was really gone.
She had not been able to come to the funeral. The little money she made at the five-and-dime had covered the rent with not much left over for food. She couldn't have arrived there on time anyway. He had died on a Thursday, and her mother had had him buried the following Saturday.
Now her husband, Bobby, was gone as well. Poor, weak Bobby, killed in an alley behind a beer joint. What a waste of a young life. Gambling was his passion. If he thought he had a good hand and had nothing else to bet, he would wager his life. He seldom drank, but the police said that he was drunk when they found him. The police didn't hold out much hope of finding his killer, and it wouldn't do her or Bobby any good if they did.
The driver returned, and the bus moved up the main street, turned and headed back out toward the highway. It wasn't much more than half a mile as the crow flies from the center of town to the motor court, so only a few minutes later the bus stopped again. The lights came on, and the door opened.
As Mary Lee was getting off, a voice came from the back of the bus. "Jesus Christ, why are we stoppin' here?"
"Just hold your horses. This'll take only a minute." The driver set the suitcase beside the drive leading to the house. "Thank you. I appreciate the ride."
"You're welcome. Will someone be down to help you?" He glanced at the lighted house.
"Yes. I'll be fine."
With a nod and a tip of his cap, the driver got back into the bus. Mary Lee waited until it went some distance down the highway before she picked up the case. With slow steps and several stops to rest along the way, she finally reached the house. Exhausted, she leaned on a porch post to catch her breath.
The front door was open. Light shone from the kitchen. Voices, both male and female, carried to where she stood. Her heart sank to her toes when she recognized the slurred, giggly laughter coming from inside the house. It was a dreaded sound from her childhood. She felt the old hurt creep around her heart.
Her mother was drunk.
All the way from Tulsa she had hoped against hope that the shock of her daddy's sudden death had caused her mother to stop drinking. She should have known what would happen without her father here.
Mary Lee sighed. She ached in a hundred different places. Pushing herself away from the porch post, she opened the screen door and went through the front room to stand in the doorway leading to the kitchen. Her mother, another woman and two men were playing cards at the kitchen table.
Her mother's back was to her. The man opposite her was grinning and pouring whiskey into her glass from a tall bottle. Mary Lee recognized him at once. He looked up, saw Mary Lee, and the grin left his face. The bottle tipped in his unsteady hand.
Her mother licked the whiskey from her hand, then turned toward the doorway to see what the man was looking at. She gave Mary Lee a blank stare, then stood and held on to the back of the chair.
"Hi, hon. When did ... ya get here?"
"Just now." Mary Lee hated the silly grin on her mother's face.
"That's nice. Didn't know ya was ... comin'."
"I sent you a letter telling you what time I would be here." "Ya did? I don't remember it. We was just playin' a little cards. Bobby with ya?"
"Bobby died two months ago, Mama." Mary Lee couldn't keep the irritation out of her voice. "I wrote and told you about it."
"Oh, yeah. I did hear somethin' about that. This is my girl," she said to the others, still looking at Mary Lee. "She's come on a visit."
Mary Lee looked directly at Frank Pierce. His thick black hair was streaked with gray. He might have been a handsome man long ago, but now dissipation had reddened his eyes and slackened his jaw. His whiskered cheeks were sunken. He had only four lower teeth, and a few upper ones were missing.
She had known who he was for most of her life. He was what her father had called a ne'er-do-well, a man who never held a job for very long and always seemed to get by without working. She hadn't liked him when he was the school janitor, and she didn't like him now.
"I'm Pearl." The woman who spoke had black penciled eyebrows and thin blond hair looped behind her ears. Her dress was so low in front that you could see the tops of her breasts, and probably more when she bent over. The word "trash" came to Mary Lee's mind.
Mary Lee glanced at her and nodded. "Mama, I'm tired." She was also hungry, but she didn't mention that. "I'll get my suitcase and go to my room."
"Pearl and ... ah ... Jim-Pearl's been stayin' with me. You know, I don't like bein' out here on the highway by myself."
"You won't be by yourself now." Mary Lee's eyes scanned the messy kitchen, then back to the four people at the table. "I'm here now."
"You stayin'?" Frank Pierce asked.
Mary Lee ignored him. "Mama, I noticed that there isn't a car parked at number one. I'll use it tonight. We can make different arrangements in the morning."
"Number one's mine." Frank Pierce spoke again. His voice held a belligerent tone.
"You've rented it for the night?" Mary Lee looked steadily at him.
"For the month," he retorted crisply. "Are all six cabins full, Mama?"
Dolly's eyes were on the floor. "Number four is empty, but it's not been cleaned. We ... ah, had a little fire in number three."
Mary Lee stepped around the corner to reach the board where the cabin keys were hung. All the hooks were empty. "Where's the key?"
"It's in the door so it'd not get lost." Mary Lee turned frosty eyes on Frank Pierce. "I asked Mama."
"And I'm tellin' ya." She bit back a reply. Something was going on here that she didn't like at all, but there was nothing she could do about it tonight.
"I'll take clean sheets and go to number four, Mama." "I don't have any, hon. I've not washed this week."
"See you in the morning." Mary Lee abruptly turned on her heel and went back through the living room to the porch. Tired and disappointed, she couldn't hold back the tears that blurred her eyes. She sat down on the steps and wiped her eyes on the hem of her dress. Her mother had not even noticed that she was pregnant, but Frank Pierce had. Once when she was looking at him, he had deliberately lowered his eyes to the bulge below her waist.
Knowing that she shouldn't carry the heavy suitcase all the way down to number four, she fumbled in her purse for the key, unlocked it and took out a nightgown, two sheets, a towel and soap. After locking the case she scooted it into the living room.
Scott Finley had built the motor court back in 1929 just before the stock market crashed. At that time Route 66 was just a gravel road and already the main highway through New Mexico to California. With the promise of pavement, Scott was sure that the traffic would increase, and it had. The drought and the dust storms had driven thousands to leave the farms and head for a better life in the fertile fields of California, and the highway had gained another name: Route 66, America's Mother Road.
The Cross Roads Motor Court was made up of six identical cabins, strung out in a row, with spaces between them for motor cars. The entrance to the road fronting the cabins led to the main house.
On her way down the lane to number four cabin, Mary Lee could see weeds in what used to be carefully tended flower beds. Partly hidden in the high grass were sundry items of trash. A mattress with a large burned spot in the middle lay outside the door of number three. Seeing the rundown condition of the motor court stirred her to anger.
A car was parked next to number five, and a truck next to the last cabin, where lights shone from the windows.
The key was in the door of number four, but the door wasn't locked. Mary Lee went in, turned on the light, shut and locked the door. Why in heaven's name would her mother leave the key in the door? Was a friend of Frank Pierce coming in late?
The odor from cigarette butts and from a coffee can that had been used as a spittoon sent Mary Lee hurrying to open the window in the back and reopen the front door. Anger held her tears at bay as she took the ashtray and coffee can outside. She yanked the soiled sheets from the bed and piled them beside the door. After remaking the bed with her own linen, she washed her face, then turned off the lights before undressing and putting on her nightgown.
Mary Lee would have preferred to leave the door open, but fearing tentative arrangements might have been made for the use of the cabin, she closed and locked it. She wedged the one straight-backed chair beneath the doorknob and sank down on the bed.
Lying on her side with her knees drawn up, she rubbed her rounded stomach and let the tears flow. She cried because her back hurt so badly that she felt as if it were being stabbed with a thousand pitchforks. She cried because of the sorry mess she had come home to.
Her mother obviously hadn't been glad to see her. She hadn't even noticed that she was going to have a grandchild. And how had she become tangled up with that sorry, good- for-nothing Frank Pierce? Mary Lee's mind went in a dozen different directions.
"It's going to be hard, baby." Mary Lee had assumed the habit of talking to her unborn child. "Daddy worked hard to build this place. I'm not going to let her run it into the ground. He loved Mama and tried to help her. Even when she came to my high school play so drunk that she staggered, he'd said she couldn't help her craving for alcohol. He had taken her home. I'd had to stay and endure the whispers of my classmates and the pitying glances from their parents.
"I'm not going to let Daddy's motor court go to wrack and ruin. The first thing I've got to do is to go see Mr. Morales and find out what authority I have here. You're all I have, baby, now that Daddy's gone. I've got to take care of you, and the only way to do it is to make this place pay."
Mary Lee drifted off to sleep thinking that she and her daddy were a lot alike. He had married her mother hoping to cure her drinking habit. She had married Bobby thinking that he needed her, that she could make him face up to his responsibilities. Both of them had failed.
Mary Lee awakened to the sound of a car. Someone was revving the engine. By the time she swung her feet off the bed, a flatbed truck was passing the window.
The person in number six was leaving early.
In the light of day, the cabin was even more filthy than she had noticed last night. Thankful that her father had bullied the Cross Roads city council members into bring sewer and gas out to the motor court, Mary Lee used the bathroom, squatting over the toilet because she couldn't bring herself to sit on it.
Feeling better, although she was so hungry she was weak, she washed and dressed, putting her bare feet in her shoes and carefully rolling her hose into a ball to take back to her suitcase. She combed her fingers through her hair and looked at herself in the mirror hanging above the lavatory.
She knew that she was no beauty, but she was passably pretty, or so she had been told numerous times. Her hair, dark red and curly, came from her daddy; eyes, slate blue from her mother. She was of average height, small-boned and slim, except for the rounded abdomen where she carried her baby. She was still able to wear two of her dresses if she didn't belt them.
Leaving the cabin, she locked the door and put the key in her pocket. Walking up to the house, she realized how weak she was. She'd had only crackers and cheese the day before. When the bus stopped in Amarillo, she had been tempted to buy a hamburger but chose to wait because she was only a few hours from home.
It was broad daylight when she reached the house. Cars were going by on the highway, their tires singing.
Excerpted from Song of the Road by Dorothy Garlock Copyright © 2004 by Dorothy Garlock. Excerpted by permission.
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