Michael was nearing a turning point in his life. He had some big choices before him. He told his mother one day, “I don’t know if I want a four-wheel drive truck or to just get married!” Claudette just stood there in her dyslexic perception of the world and tried to take in that statement. How does one compute such a statement? How does one understand, except to say that this is the ultimate link between the child and the man? Michael had always been his mother’s pet. The other boys had taken a back seat to him. Buddy and Tommy, her stepsons had always been very close to their father, Claudette’s second husband, Bill. Michael’s younger brother George was too addicted to food to even worry about it. He stayed in his room and out of the way until dinner, when he would make a quick appearance, eat, and retreat back to his room again. The older sister, the adopted Angela had simply left for boarding school, and later went to college on the insurance money her father had left her to avoid the hassle of competing with Mike’s hold on his mother. While the family became more and more dysfunctional, Claudette just knew that Michael would be something if she just propped him up enough.
The inevitable consequence of this was the obvious fact that Michael was not very mature. He couldn’t put off personal pleasure for five minutes. He would regularly sneak into the kitchen of the big house and eat everything in sight. When all of the boys entered into puberty, he was the one most often in the bathroom with the door locked while the others complained to their parents about his behavior. Claudette’s husband grew tired of explaining, and simply ignored the boy. Buddy whipped on him at every opportunity, and Tommy, while more sympathetic than Buddy, knew that Michael was extremely hedonistic.
He’d been carrying on his affair with June for a number of months now. He was addicted to her body all the while thinking he was mastering this relationship, but it reality it was June, herself, who orchestrated it. The driving force behind this was to “be” married, and not much more. Somehow, if the marriage occurred then everything would be all right; everything would work out. This is the dream of the little Texas girls that drift through high school, that somehow a marriage will come along that will make everything else make sense, but in point of fact it almost never does. Babies are born, divorces happen, boys leave their “wives” to “find” their teenage years they somehow “missed” and the babies grow up to be little Texas girls who think that somehow a marriage would make it all work out!
Michael had another woman in his life, Claudette. He had grown accustomed to her picking him up even before he fell. Mentally he was too young to be thinking about being married, but he was thinking about it. It was on his mind, and his momma could buy him anything he wanted. Now he wanted either a truck, or June; either “toy” would be acceptable. Enter into the mix June’s mother, and stepfather, Ray. While her mother was not all that panicked by the advent of a wedding, Ray was a man who worked construction in the hot Texas sun every day, and would be more than happy to tear Michael’s heart out over his little “angel!” June was everything to Ray. She was everything pure and good to him. There are some things worth killing for and probably the only thing that saved Michael’s physical life was the fact that Ray stood in awe of Claudette all because she was in real estate and thus he perceived her as rich, which indeed she was. At his level anyone who did not collect a paycheck every Friday, and wasn’t on welfare somehow had to be “rich.” He was correct in assuming that Claudette could destroy his livelihood, which indeed she would have if her precious Michael were threatened!
Claudette, on the other hand had other ideas for him. She saw him finishing high school, and going on to college, perhaps in Austin. Destined to attend the University of Texas. After graduation, he would take the three real estate classes mandatory to sit for the state real estate exam, and then he’d move into the family real estate business where he would stay until he died. Of course, he’d marry some nice young lady from the Bend with equal education, and an equal interest in the family business.
Rays perception of Claudette’s wealth was justified because Claudette was rich! Looking at her son that day she remembered when she’d first come to the little desert community from Tennessee. She had a high school education and little more than that. She’d left everything back in Memphis after the death of her brother. She’d filed for divorce and made her life in the little desert town just off the main road. She’d never really known what had drawn her to the town, or Texas at all for that matter, but she’d felt a compulsion to come. A vision she’d never revealed that told her how to get there. All this was seventeen years ago, when Michael was two and his younger brother was six months old. In the nearby towns, malls were sprouting, and communities growing. She went to work for a builder named Bill as a sales representative. It was a new career. New! Ha! She’d had no career before that. She’d been a factory worker in Tennessee. She’d worked two jobs to make ends meet while her worthless, fat, red-faced husband ate everything in sight. Bill introduced her to a completely different world. She had her own two sons, and her brother’s daughter, Angie whom she’d adopted after her sister- in-law, the widow of her brother, had died of breast cancer. They lived in a mobile home out on the edge of town. Bill was divorced with two boys of his own, Buddy and Tommy. One thing led to another, and one day they went into the judge’s office and got married during lunch.
She moved into Bill’s old, dusty ranch-style home. Her husband was a builder, but he couldn’t sell penicillin in a V. D. clinic. Claudette had that knack. A lifetime of “making do” had made her a natural at convincing people to take what she had to offer. Still, she needed to get her real estate license. Her new husband had his broker’s license and as long as she sold only for this one builder, the laws of the state of Texas allowed her to do so, but to move into the areas that she wanted she had to have her license. This meant she had to pass the test for it, and that was the problem.
Claudette couldn’t read her own name! She was hopelessly dyslexic! She’d memorized her way thorough high school, actually returning again and again until she graduated at the tender age of twenty- one years. Her first husband had told her family that she was actually retarded because she couldn’t read and the fact that she stumbled over her words as she spoke. Her speech was an endless array of slang and half words. She’d confuse words and once referred to condominiums as condoms! Her new husband read all the real estate books into a cassette tape and she’d listen to them in her car every day. Bill, being a broker himself, was very familiar with the real estate books and in addition to that he understood Claudette’s way of thinking and more than that her understanding. He could explain the books as he read and this took her a long way toward eventually passing the real estate exam. Taking the three weekend courses were no big deal because a person who was comatose could probably pass them. For two days, they taught you the answers for the test on the third day. She had to take the state real estate test thirteen times in order to pass it. The letters danced across the page of the test document, and she eventually just took it so many times that she couldn’t make any more mistakes.
She began to sell homes in the little town and she and her husband developed a fine business with a good reputation. The years rolled by and they built the business up as far as it could be built in the little desert community. They would frequently slip away to a spot out at the edge of town where the river took a turn that looked like a horseshoe. Like all west Texas rivers it had a sandy bottom and there were sand bars all over the place. They’d lay a pallet down, eat their chicken or sandwiches, and enjoy each other’s company. The land belonged to an old rancher who no longer ranched it and had let it go considerably. The land had been in his family for generations, but he had lost interest since the death of his wife, and his housekeeper, June’s mother, Barbara had moved out and got married. As they enjoyed lunch there over and over again Claudette began to notice that the ranch was in need of upkeep. All the cows were long gone and the ranch house was in extreme disrepair.
Claudette was frankly amazed that anyone could still live in the house. She knew that old man Stillwell, the owner, could not be up on things as far as keeping up any financial obligations on the ranch if the physical condition of the house was this bad. One day Juan Sanchez came into the little real estate office and began asking questions about land in the area. During the conversation he asked if the Stillwell Ranch was for sale. Claudette checked around and told him that to her knowledge it was not for sale. Sanchez mentioned that he’d heard the taxes were stacking up on the place. The rancher didn’t want to pay the taxes, and in fact had prepared to move out of the dilapidated old shack he used to call a ranch house before his wife died, and into an apartment in town to live out his days on his social security. The wheels began to turn in Claudette’s head. In a flash of brilliance she realized that this was the reason she’d been drawn to the area in the first place! In a single moment of time the idea that was to become known of as the Bend formed itself in her mind. Sanchez had planted a seed that would blossom into a mighty oak.
She knew how large the ranch was. It had been passed down for generations, and this old man was the sole heir to it now, having no children by his wife. Claudette discussed buying the place from the old man, but Bill told her the idea was not feasible because the sheer size of the track would place it in the two hundred thousand dollar mark and they could never secure financing on a parcel that large. It is hard to sell land in Texas if the buyer doesn’t have ready capital, and though Bill and Claudette made a good living, they did not have that kind of money and besides, they weren’t sure if Stillwell would even consider selling the family acreage to them. Combine that with the fact that Claudette had a plan, and it wasn’t raising cattle and watching the grass grow. She was a Memphis girl, and try as she might that part of her wouldn’t die. She knew that there was a big world outside of this sandy nowhere, and that if people had the seclusion that the area offered, combined with comfortable living, there just might be a future in west Texas after all! Claudette had been in real estate for a little while now, and she had seen the small, flat homes that the locals built. She had a vision of something more. A community of mansions, all nestled by the only river in the area, all resting comfortably under the Texas sun. She could stand on the sand after eating her lunch and look out at the Stillwell ranch and imagine all the buildings that would be there someday. If old man Stillwell had an inkling of this he’d go to someone else and try to do it on his own. That would put him back into the prime of life for sure!
Stillwell had seen her at the catfish house, but knew her only as “the real estate lady,” and he, like everyone else in town, knew she was divorced! That stigma followed her down from Memphis. Being urban she hadn’t thought it was such a bad thing but when she found herself in this simmered down environment she quickly discovered that a divorced woman was a bit under the covers so to speak in a place where gossip is the main pastime. By the time she found this out it was too late because the story was out. At any rate, she’d not be able to do business with Stillwell because of this lack of respect, and it was one that Bill couldn’t get around. Bill and Claudette turned it over again, and again, and then the wheels in Claudette’s head began to turn. She came up with a way to buy the ranch and never have to worry about Stillwell, or her divorce again!
Claudette had a friend, Chip, who worked as the county tax assessor collector and he had confirmed that the entire amount owed on the land was only thirteen hundred dollars. If the land were auctioned at the courthouse for taxes she could pick it up for that amount. There was no lien on the track, so the back taxes and county fees were all that she would have to pay. She was fully aware that the owner had two years after the fact to purchase his land back for that amount if he so chose to do so, but that didn’t matter. She’d work around that. So long as she had that Sheriff’s deed in her hand she could go with that. That would just give her two years to do the planning for the little project she had in mind. During this two years she just had to keep the entire project low key so that the old man didn’t realize that his dilapidated old ranch was worth a bit more than he’d supposed.
A phone call was made. “Chip?”
“Listen, are you sure the Stillwell ranch is in arrears?”
“Yeah, but nobody wants it. I mean, old man Stillwell is just counting the days, if you know what I mean.”
“Maybe I want it, Chip. What do I have to do?”
“Why don’t you buy it?”
“I don’t have the money right now, but I do have the tax money.”
“Well you need to get with the lawyer. We hire a lawyer to do these things. It’s gonna need notification, and a few things to protect you, you know?”
“Well, we only give you a sheriff’s deed. Now that’s not a warranty deed in any sense of the word. You have to pay to make sure there are no problems with the land. Then Mr. Stillwell has two full years to come back and pay you the taxes, interest, and fees associated with the land, and just take it back. You understand, Claudette?”
“I know real estate law, Chip. Can you just get the thing auctioned?”
“Sure, no problem. I’ll get right on it. But what are you going to do if old man Stillwell shows up and pays his taxes? He can just walk up to the courthouse steps and pay me, and your plan goes down the crapper.”
“Chip, I’m counting on you to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“Now Claudette, I can’t do anything illegal. You know that.”
“I’m not asking you to do anything illegal. Just don’t shout it from the rooftops, ok.”
“Well, I gotta mail him a notice.”
“So mail it.”
“Isn’t he living in town in an apartment?”
“Yeah, but mail it to his last known residence.”
“His ranch house.”
“They’ll just forward it.”
“Put do not forward on the envelope! God! Do I have to tell you everything?”
“Now the big question; why should I do this?”
“Chip, do you still live in that little two bedroom house over on First and Hackberry?”
“You know I do.”
“Well, if I pull off what I want you’ll have a nice big home down on the river. Do you like the sound of that?”
“Claudette, I have never done anything like this.”
“Chip, when you retire from working with the county, they’re gonna give you a gold plated watch and you are going to go home to a two bedroom place that is only getting older, just like you! I can help you to a better way. Now, if you don’t help me I’ll just find another way and you’ll be in that place forever. Chip, let’s be friends.”
“Claudette, I’m not mad, just a little scared.”
“Relax. That old man won’t pay those taxes. He’ll rock along and lose that place. If this ever comes to light you can cover your tracks easy enough. Just show that you mailed the letter and gave the old man a fair shake.”
“I still don’t see why you don’t just ask him.”
“I don’t have that kind of money. Do I have to keep saying that? He’ll want tons of money. If I thought I could just buy it I would. That old man’s crazy. You know that. He still carries that old Colt Walker forty-four. C’mon. We’re talking about old man Stillwell here! About the only thing he ever did that made sense was shacking up with Barbara that time.”
“Ok, ok, but this really has to stay between us.”
“Hey, no problem.”
On the first Tuesday of the following month, on the north porch of the courthouse Chip came out and called out the conditions of the tax lien on the land. As usual, only a few people were there that day, and particularly on this day because a “norther” had ripped through and the temperature was dropping to the teens with a nice wind to boot. Claudette wondered just why the sale had to be conducted on the north porch. When Chip had read his customary spiel, he asked if the owner was there, which of course he wasn’t, and then he asked if anyone wanted to pay the taxes and receive title to the land. Claudette nodded and the deal was done right there. Claudette would buy the land that would become the coveted “Bend” for what she would later refer to as “milk money.”
The Butcher Shop