“There are Sweetmeats which rot the eater;
in man’s nostrils Poison’d perfumes.”
It was an early July evening, a Friday, about twilight, a Texas night, where the stars look so close you want to pluck them like lilacs from the black sky.
Preston was sitting there in wringer-washer clean, line-dried, board-stiff Levi’s putting away Lone Stars. Beer cans back then were tinned steel. It was impressive to see Preston crush them in his fists.
Most ranchers brought their own liquor in brown bags to the Cabaret. Rockabilly music, thick-planked wood floor, cedar walls. Above the long bar, mounted twin bucks, their heads locked forever in the twisted combat that had killed them over a doe — Kitty Wells on the jukebox. It was a dry summer, the seventh year of the worst “droughth” in south Texas endurance. He’d always wanted to see an ocean. The Lone Star was good and cold.
Every so often the darkness in the Cabaret would open to a shot of light from Highway 16 as a new cityslicker dude ranch woman would come in: women who didn’t wear boots that took forever to pull off just when you needed them to.
Preston had his eyes on the floor, and her sandals and her red painted toenails when Karen first set foot in the Cabaret.
It was not until she was about to walk by that he shot a look at her face.
What he saw doomed this man, perhaps there is a place in nature for free choice. But at that moment Preston forgot he had a choice, like a grey jackrabbit frozen by the eyes of an old rattlesnake, just roused from winter’s sleep, poison sacks overflowing with the first and most potent venom of hunting season.
“Hello,” she said.
Her eyes. His look. Their gaze.
She must have sat.
The table is hardwood. The wood is cypress, hewn from one of those one hundred plus year-old trees shading the banks of the Guadalupe from the burning south Texas sun. The alternating bands of light and darkness show the parched, bark-scorching summers and spirit-sapping winters. Winters brought northers. These winds roar down from Manitoba with Arctic chill across half a continent with no hills to block them till they are stopped here at the old frontier that had kept the Comanche and the Apache from being infected by the settlers’ killing frenzy and slaughtering each other –Bandera Pass. The northers toughened the trees and hardened the people, drying women’s skin in the sun into leather. The worst stresses left as scars the richest beauty. He couldn’t go on looking at the wood all night: what does she want? He looks to Karen’s eyes for an answer. Her gaze breathes on him. It’s like sunlight waking you: Come and play with me. It’s daylight: am here to be devoured like breakfast in bed. He rubs the wood hard with his fingertip, feeling every crease of the skin.
Can you remember? Your first moments? Flirting with danger? What thrills you is what pleases you is what troubles you. Any moment you might be seen, you’re with someone else, but you’re not. You look into the eyes that search yours. You look to her questioning look for your answers.
Her eyes probe, and welcome, and wonder. You see in her eyes the eyes of a friend. It’s the kind of still night on which you end an old love. Or begin a new one.
Preston makes conversation. She listens with her brain, but she hears him with her eyes. Those green irises twinkle with promise. The feathers of her irises spin and flutter. He’d have to see her again and again. I can’t be doing this. I have responsibilities. I have to be getting to my home. Every moment burns for another. It feels perfect; it feels wrong.
The important things, you can’t put them in words. If you put words on them, you couldn’t do those things. So you talk about whatever. And lock arms in each other’s eyes. You look, and her eyes happily answer with anticipation. No sense of clock time. What’s that song playing? “Something in your eyes makes me want to lose myself in your arms.”
“Did you come here to take a woman in your arms, and dance? Or just swallow beer?”
“I come here to raise hell.”
Her eyes dared him.
“That bar,” he said, “is one, solid plank of hard pecan wood. You can hardly scratch the sucker. But do you see that dent?”
“That’s mine. The night I bumped into the bar with Calvin Wedgeworth’s head.”
“Who was she?” she asked.
He looked at her. “I never fight over a woman, never have to. We were not fighting. Just, improving this place. You think it needs to be improved some more?”
Saying yes was awfully tempting to her. “You remember your first time here?”
“I surely do.” Preston looked right at her. “This is where I met my wife.”
“You still married?”
“This morning I was,” he smiled.
How many couples had sat across from each other at this table? He couldn’t just keep watching the woman’s eyes. Karen watched Preston’s sun-reddened hand reach across the table. It stopped at the bottle of beer. Empty. She sat up, tall, still. She looked directly at him. His hand put the empty bottle down hard with anger and moved towards her. Karen saw he had the biggest hands of any man she’d ever been with. Huge.
“So this is Texas.” One hand could cover her belly, rubbing gently. She couldn’t think about anything but whether he would.
What would they do now? Where could he take her? The Cabaret was staying open till two tonight.
Her heart stopped breathing, Where was a clock? There must still be time; A beer can stand close to her bare left arm. He reached for it. Her lungs stopped beating. Did he notice how she was staring at him? Didn’t he notice her at all? Didn’t he want her? With each inch of his hand’s journey, she welcomed and dreaded the first moment he might touch her — each moment to be savored. Blood rushed to her heart, cooling her skin. Torment. Delicious.
His fingers closed on the Jax beer can, Empty. His fist wrapped it tightly till it succumbed to his grasp.
“Okay, Cowboy, I’m impressed.” She was still watching him, her deep eyes dancing with his, playful, gauging, inviting: not asking for anything at all, other than when and where.
Then, finally he found his way to her fingers; her hand felt so warm and good to hold. “Oh,” she, taken by surprise, felt a gasp escape, moaning as she lost her heart to him.
The look from her eyes makes him want to go and conquer the range. He stands. He hears himself say, “Can’t stay here all night making cow eyes. I’ve got a home to go back to.”
He saw her back to her knotty-pine cabin at the Flying A Dude Ranch.
How do you figure this woman out? Except by her yes, that look measuring him like a look at the rain gauge after the thunderheads exploded, her eyes raised to the lip. He let his fingers wander along her soft cheek — such softness. She was his wife when he first knew her. She was so young. He felt so old.
What memories these fingers held. Of a wife fighting back yellow fever clawing its fingernails on the door to take them, coming up the Guadalupe from the Gulf, slowly, slowly. Betty had clung to him. She would not yield him. She would not give up to death, then. She’d look out, check those screens for holes. Those hot nights, breathing air sifted through screens black with mosquitoes too puffed up with blood to get inside. Outside, silence. Like now. Darkness – like now. No moon, those nights. It was a night disease. Just as much a part of the night as darkness, striking a body when he’s at his lowest, her hand warm and good in his, willing him to stay alive, her arms holding him close.
Like now. Anticipating and feeling the warm nearby presence of each other till there is nothing else. Her lips. His touch. Their kiss.
Darkness sheltered them. He met her soft, wet lips in the warm, misting rain. Was he kissing Betty, who had ventured into their fields and strung the barbed wire tight and good? Or was he breaking the heart of the girl he held now, in his arms, happy and hungry for him, now?
“Preston?” She whispered his name. Her eyes closed, he watched tears rise at the rims of her eyes. She sniffed at his face. She clung to him. “You’re the person I’ve always dreamed would want me. Why do you pull away? Don’t leave, yet.”
“Each time you talk, you throw a lasso around my heart,” Preston tells her. “Can’t tell whether you feel better than you look or you look even better than how you feel to me. You feel so good you look like you got all the beauty nature meant to give all the creeks and the live oak trees and the white-tailed deer of this valley. Beauty in how you feel in my hands, beauty in your skin, in your eyes. Can’t have this.”
But it wouldn’t hurt to extend the moment another moment. A moment was a stolen kiss, a single chew. He’d stay a very little while. Then there was a home he must return to. He would hurt no one.
Karen took forever to unlatch the door. She went in. Did she expect him to follow her lead?
He waited out on the stoop. The light rain had stopped. Rain. Had it really rained? The sky felt bone try. She turned and looked at him.
Her look. His eyes. Their gaze.
What was at stake? Bordering on twenty years of memories with his wife. With whom he had kept every pledge. Meanwhile, he felt he was casting off winter’s husk from his embalmed future. “But I can’t spit on my whole past.” No matter how blissful this feeling.
So there was the ranch, his wife, their boy, twenty years of memories laid up like heaven’s treasures, more than all that: the happiness, trust, and peace of the woman who had devoted herself and given everything in her power to him and without whom – if he strayed from her – that would be a sentence of death for Betty’s heart.
He looked down at his boots and followed them across the threshold inside.