So was the history of the making of the Bend. Stolen from the Indians, then lost to laziness and stupidity, it had been baptized in blood and deceit. And right in the middle of it all was a small dark man called Juan Sanchez who began clearing his lot near the river to build his hacienda. Claudette’s mind snapped back to the present.
Stillwell had been dead over six years now. She had new issues in her life. Now Michael wanted to be married, and he really didn’t care who the girl was. He had absolutely no common sense! She frankly wondered if she’d picked up the wrong baby at the hospital. How did he center in on June, she wondered. Fact was he had a couple of girl friends in the little town, though he wasn’t as involved with them as he was with June. She was certainly the prettiest, but not the only girl in Mike’s life. The difference in the two perspectives was that June was playing for “keeps” and Mike was playing the field. After he’d been initiated by June behind the catfish house he’d taken his truck around town, in particular to a little lady of seventeen over on Commerce Street. She was from a middle class family and knew how to keep her private life to herself. She was planning to go on to college, or the military and then college, and didn’t want or need any problems with a passing affair with Mike to botch up her plans. Her father was the local deputy referred to affectionately as “Deputy Dawg” because he was so blamed ugly. This characteristic did not carry over to his daughter, however, and Mike was sneaking into her bedroom window at every opportunity.
What Mike, or Claudette didn’t seem to realize was that June was in control of this situation, not them! At the tender age of sixteen, and just barely that, she was still quicker and more determined than most any girl in the little town. While the deputy’s little girl was still playing high school games, June was playing big girl games. She set her sights and she went after what she wanted, and she always got what she wanted! Mike’s mom may have been the big time real estate broker, but June was the small town operator.
Claudette stared at Mike in confusion. “Why do you have to be married? Aren’t you happy with your truck?”
“Well, I love her. I need to be with her. I want her with me!”
“But all you have for a job is your dishwashing job at the catfish house, and you aren’t even out of school yet! You’re only seventeen. You’ll be eighteen before you graduate. You need to wait on these things.”
“Don’t care. Gotta be with her!”
“Sounds like you been around her enough! A kiss or two behind Fat Eddie’s, and you gotta be with her? When will you ever start thinking big, Mike?”
She just sat there and stared at him. He had about eight months to finish high school. She needed to keep him in school, but she knew that the attraction of this girl was very great. She added up the years and she was well aware that Mike was almost eighteen and June was just now sixteen. If he’d been catting around with the “Catter” it was a legal issue that could blow up in his face, her face, everybody’s face! She had to put him off so she told him that she’d give it some thought. What she did was to call her ex-husband in Tennessee. This rubbed her the wrong way, but it was the best place to send him to get his mind off June.
Calling her “ex” took a bit of preparation for Claudette. There had been no real contact between them for the last fourteen or fifteen years. He’d never paid a dime’s child support, and he never contacted her. Mike actually didn’t know how to get in touch with him, and had in fact forgotten all about him. She waited until one Sunday when her husband went to church. He went to Mass about once a month. Claudette, a Baptist, went to church on rare occasions, but watched the preachers on TV. She stayed home to “straighten up” the house, and try to catch up on any work she’d missed during the week. Michael didn’t go with his stepfather because he was going to help her with the project. While Mike was out in the back putting up the yard chairs Claudette placed a call to Memphis. Ed was polite and listened to her dilemma
“Michael wants to get married.”
“He’s only seventeen. He can’t get married. He’s still in school, ain’t he?”
“Yeah, but it’s this June girl. He thinks he’s in love. She’s quite a looker. She could melt the wax off of a Dixie cup at one hundred yards.”
“Well, he ain’t in love, he’s in lust! What do you want me to do about it?”
Claudette formulated a plan with Ed, as much as she didn’t even wish to speak with him. Together they would devise a method to remove Mike from Texas
and hide him in Tennessee away from the ideas he was formulating about marriage.
Later that very day, as she went through some old papers and things from a box, she let a piece of paper innocently fall to the floor. Michael reached down to pick it up, but she said, “Oh, don’t mind that. Let me have it!” She made a grab for it, making a very big deal out of it so as to attract his attention to the paper.
Now, if you want a boy to get interested in something just tell him not to look at it. Mike picked the paper up and looked at the writing on it. An address, and a phone number on a page that he’s not supposed to read will usually do the trick. “Who is it?”
She made a half hearted grab for it, “Oh, nothing. Let me have it!”
“No, who is it?”
She gave a long lingering “somber” look, and said, “It’s your father’s address and phone number. I never wanted you to see it ‘cause I didn’t want you to worry about him, that’s all!”
Mike stood up and ran his fingers over the paper, yellowing with age. “He still there?”
“Yeah, he’s still there. His mom and dad gave him the house he lives in. But you don’t wanna call him. He don’t care about you!”
Mike walked out of the room, carrying the paper with him. He left the house and went to the golf course. As he walked past the golf carts, he stared at the little piece of paper. All these years, and all this time he had never heard from his father. How long had she known where he was? What hadn’t she told him? How could he know that his mother was counting on these very thoughts to work their way through Mike’s mind? She wanted it to be just enough to work June out of his mind. He wandered around a bit and then the curiosity got the best of him and he took his cell phone and called the number. His father was nice and led him right into Claudette’s trap.
By the time that Bill came back from church Mike had been on the phone with Ed for quite a while. The three of them met in the kitchen and Mike asked, “Would you mind very much if I went up to see my dad.”
Bill was surprised, “What brought that up?”
“He found a paper with Ed’s name on it. He went out and called him from his cell.”
Bill didn’t like Ed. He didn’t need any help supporting the boys, but he had no respect for a man who deliberately lost contact with his children. “Well, I don’t think that you should have any contact with him.”
Mike took a defensive posture, “He’s my dad! I can see him if I want!”
Bill’s first instinct was to slap the wise cracking boy, but he held his temper. Like his sons, he knew that Michael had Claudette’s full support. And, besides that, maybe this would get the little troublemaker out of the way for a little while. After years of disruption in his house the builder could see a small vacation might be good for the family. He knew deep down that Mike didn’t have the fortitude to stay in Memphis for long. The soft life he’d had at the Bend would call him home, but the break would be nice.
“Well, you just do whatever you want, but don’t think that we’re going to support you while you’re up there. Let ol’ Ed feed you for a while.”
Mike turned to Claudette, “Do I get a new truck before I leave?”
Bill left the room in disgust. He could see Mike tooling around Memphis in a brand new truck, which he would run into the dirt. By contrast, his son Buddy never asked for anything and in fact drove an old Chevy truck he had had the entire time he was in high school. Tommy just drove whatever he jumped into at the time. Only Mike had a personal truck.
A few days later, a few more phone calls were made, and the ex-husband, Ed, came to get Mike and take him to Tennessee. He was properly intimidated by the homes of the Bend. Claudette found it hard to imagine she’d ever been married to such a loaf of a man. He had gotten fatter, if that were possible, and had a beard that he thought made him look like Santa Clause. He looked like an inflated version of Mike. Soon the thrill of going somewhere different took over the idea of marriage, or a new truck, which was not purchased. Claudette was not going to provide Ed with a new truck to drive around in. Mike settled down in Tennessee. He went to high school there, rode horses there, and “cruised the strip” there. He forgot all about June. But June was not the type that would be easily forgotten. She began to plan, scheme actually, to get Mike back to Texas. Not knowing exactly where he was, or anything about the details of how he was suddenly spirited from her grasp, June was forced to wait until Mike contacted her.
As soon as the “new” wore off of Memphis Mike began to miss June. The girls in Tennessee didn’t have the ability that June had. They talked slow, and to Mike’s way of thinking, they were slow! There was something about the little feisty west Texas girl that kept Mike thinking about her all the time. She became more beautiful in memory even than she was in life! She was certainly freer than the Memphis girls, who were actually more “big city” than Mike was ready for. They wanted to date, and spend time, and his style of a hot dog and two minutes in the back seat of a car guaranteed that the first date was always the last. The horses were fun, the girls were there, but life in the Bend was far better than living in a shack outside of Memphis. Mike was beginning to understand deep within his soul that he was indeed a spoiled brat. He began to miss the life he’d known, and the money. Borrowing Ed’s old car was far different than driving around in a nice truck. He actually had to check his wallet when he went into a café to eat, and no one knew him. At the Bend, he was Claudette’s son, Mike. Here he was Ed’s son, and his father was not influential at all. When mixed with his lackluster personal style, the minute the girls saw just where he lived and met his father in all his chicken-dripping glory they split for higher ground.
Each morning he would rise as his father came in from his job at a local nursing home. He now worked the night shift, getting off about six in the morning, which gave him just enough time to get home and get Mike ready to go to school before he turned in for the day. In no time at all Mike did have a car of his own and stopped borrowing his father’s. It wasn’t much, but it got him around. He would cruise the “strip” and try to pick up girls, but he found that this was always a disappointment to him. He simply could not understand that he was also a disappointment to them too!
He began to grow during this time, and the world of adult relationships began to take their effect on his education. Since he hadn’t settled on just one girl he had to constantly cruise for new game and his grades slipped as his nightlife became more important than anything else. Mike wasn’t very concerned about school, anyway, but he had to come to the understanding that in this town he couldn’t rely on who his mother was to get him by on anything, not even school. About that time, he began a late night habit of calling back to Texas to talk to June. This was the very opportunity that June had waited for! At first, he did it when he told his father he was going to “cruise,” but later he did it from the house when his dad was at work. Then, in a moment of guilt about the bill he came to the realization of the collect call. June was more than happy to oblige him in this, and accepted every call. She led him through the paces of the stages of loneliness as only a West Texas firecracker could muster. Before too long Mike could actually smell her baby powder perfume over the phone.
“Hey, it’s me.”
“Hi Mike. You know, I could almost feel you today. I was in school, and Jeremy, you know him, well, he asked me out for like Friday, but I told him, ‘no,’ because you might come in town and see me by then. I didn’t let him think he could just come in like that.”
“I’ll get him when I come back!”
“Oh, could you just talk to me a while. I’m laying here on my bed and when you talk to me I can really feel you touching me.”
“Special places. I’ve got my pink gown on and it’s so hot here, I just want to take it off, you know?”
Mike’s heart was beating like a sledgehammer. As the sweat poured from his forehead, and his hands trembled on the phone, June was actually reclining on the living room couch, fully clothed and eating popcorn while watching an old movie on TV. She put the phone on the back of the couch so she could just make out when he stopped talking. She knew him so well she’d give him a moment alone.
Between short, gasping breaths Mike said, “I gotta get back down there, June. I can’t see my life without you.”
Statements like this proved to June that the hook was in, and it was in deep. Mike was repeatedly saying phrases like, “when I come back,” not even bothering to say, “If.” It was a done deal as far as he was concerned, and that’s exactly what June wanted him to feel. Slowly but surely those Tennessee hills looked less, and less inviting, and Mike began to find little things wrong with his life in that state.
As the calls progressed he knew he had to get Claudette to agree for him to come back. Over the last couple of months he’d figured out that it really wasn’t his idea to come to Memphis, that in point of fact he’d been duped to remove him from June. Knowing this, he quickly figured that he had to turn Claudette’s thoughts toward bringing him back home. He knew his mother well enough to know that if she’d schemed up a way to get him up to Tennessee that it would take a fair amount of talk to get her to let him come home before he got out of high school.
“The mosquitoes are killing me. I can’t take it. Can’t sleep up here.” It was one complaint after another on the phone to his mother, who was beginning to miss him a little bit. Claudette had visions of Mike being a great real estate agent. She saw him heading up the family business and all the others falling in behind him just hanging on to every pearl of wisdom that dropped from his lips. Still, she knew that he had to graduate, and she knew that June was waiting in the wings.
“You’ve got to stay for graduation, Mike. You’ve only got four more months to go.”
“I don’t want to stay for graduation, mom. I want to come home!”
She wanted him to finish school and possibly come home after that. After all, that was the whole idea of his going to Tennessee in the first place was to finish high school. If he wanted to be with June after that, it would work out maybe, but not as a drop out. Ed didn’t really care. He had never really cared. The only reason he’d allowed Mike to even come to Tennessee was that he thought that it would get him into the bank account a bit. He was a huge insult to Claudette. Not only did he never support his own children in any way, he would now leap at every available opportunity to have her pay him for any thing he might do for his own son while the boy was residing there. The boy was a burden on him. He’d been free of this task since the divorce, and didn’t like the idea of anyone intruding upon his “space.” Claudette had been deliciously free of this slug until Mike had said he wanted to marry June, and her life was fine without him. He was even more of a deadbeat as an ex husband! It didn’t surprise her. He would call her (collect) and tell her how miserable Mike was up in Tennessee, and how he needed to be with her.
“Typical,” she thought. “He never was any good at all, and now he can’t even to this one little favor for four more months!” She became angry with Mike for ever starting this entire mess, but even more angry with herself for contacting Ed in the first place. She had secretly hoped that one day she’d just hear from someone that he’d been found bloated and dead in his little shack and that would be the sordid end of Ed!
Around February, it all came to a head. Having exhausted all other tricks and moves June confided in her mother one afternoon.
“Mom, I gotta talk to you.”
“What about dear. What’s on your mind?”
“Well, it’s me and Michael. We, uh, we been, uh, well, together.”
“Are you telling me you’re pregnant?”
“Well, I don’t know.”
“He’s been up there in Tennessee for a long time. Why you telling me this now?”
“I’m spotting now. Mom, I’m scared. I ain’t ever been this way before.”
Barbara was being cool about the whole thing, but inside she was scheming. If June had been with Michael in that way, it gave her a hold on the prize of all prizes. Not only to marry into “a” family at the Bend, but to marry into “the” family at the Bend! She knew that Mike was seventeen and June was sixteen, and all in all that didn’t look too bad, but soon, when he turned eighteen, things would be a tad different. For the few months that June was sixteen, and Mike was eighteen, Mike would actually be messing with a minor and he’d be an adult. That would give Barbara the advantage she needed to pry her daughter into the Bend!
She wasn’t actually concerned about any misgivings concerning June’s chastity, which she was sure had been left on some sand bar down at the river a long time ago, but she could put up the front that she was very outraged, and besides that, the judge wouldn’t care at all about June’s past, or present. She was sixteen years old! That was all that counted! She really didn’t want Mike to be in any trouble, but she did want him sufficiently scared enough to marry June. She knew that June couldn’t be pregnant by Mike, but she could string along the statutory rape thing just enough to put the fear of God in him and his family. It was an old Texas trick. Teenage girl comes up saying she’s been with someone. The families get together to work it out under the ever-present shadow of the law, and they come to the brilliant conclusion that the couple needs to just get married to “make it all right!”
Barbara viewed the Bend with envy. Years ago she had slept on the very same ground that Claudette’s home rested on now. Her jeans were tighter back then, and her blood ran hotter. She followed her lust instead of her mind and lost what little hold she would ever have on the Stillwell ranch. She could not see that Claudette’s business savvy had manufactured the myth that was the Bend. She, and she alone had sold this myth to the councilmen that day long ago. In point of fact the Bend was whatever it became in the mind of man. All Barbara could see was what the area had become, and she actually hated Claudette for it! To her it was as if there were some magical seed somewhere on the ranch that later took root and became the enormous subdivision with all the wealth, and power. But now God, in His wisdom, had placed the Bend within her reach! And she would take that shot.
She had a love affair with old man Stillwell during his late wife’s illness. With the old lady in her bed dying, the voluptuous Barbara would meet Mr. Stillwell in one of the far rooms and fill his every need. After the lady of the house died Barbara hung with the older man for a while, but when Ray came back from prison she’d found herself slipping off with him to scratch the itch that the older man just couldn’t seem to help her with, and in time her lust clouded her ambition and the entire thing blew up in her face. Only problem was at the time of the breakup she was already with child. A child she would name June, for the month she was born. Inside, Barbara knew whose child it was, and by then Stillwell was so mad about it he wouldn’t even talk to her. Combine that with just a little bit of guilt over how he’d carried on with his maid while Mrs. Stillwell died, and you have one very bitter old man!
Over fifteen years of living in the shacks behind Fat Eddies had prepared Barbara for the eventuality of getting a chance, any chance, to break out and get a piece of the proverbial pie. That was one reason she paraded June around like she did. Inside she knew that her beauty had fled, but June still had it, and that beauty would snare someone someday that would put her where she felt like she deserved to be. The affair with Stillwell was forgotten, or at least not spoken of in open company, and time and tears went by. Little June grew and knew that this man, Ray, was not her actual father. Barbara, not wanting to tell the little girl of her fling out at the Stillwell ranch, concocted a story about a “gambler” who came through town and romanced her. She told little June that the man was a big time dealer in Vegas, and that he swore to come back and get them all and take them up there some day. With enough repeating the story became carved in stone, and June accepted it as the truth.
June, in all honesty, didn’t entirely create the reputation she had. Barbara in her younger days was the “spittin’ image” of June, and her carrying on with the old man and the “dealer,” made many a lively conversation around the little desert community over the years. As Barbara’s beauty faded, little June came along and the reputation naturally attached itself to her, giving her looks a “timeless” capacity that men, both young and old enjoyed as they watched little June serve catfish on Friday nights.
She knew that her daughter had been carrying on with Mike, but to be honest she hadn’t really thought that Mike was “man” enough to have an affair with her little June. She viewed him as slightly effeminate to say the least. Now, that view would actually assist her in achieving her goal.
Mike was a born coward; hell everybody in town knew that. Buddy actually got thrown into jail once in high school for fighting to take up for Mike who was too chicken to defend himself. If she could raise the specter of deputy Dawg before the trembling boy’s eyes he’d do anything she asked. And, besides that, he’d get to marry June, who in her opinion was the best looking girl in town, if not the county, if not the state of Texas, even if she was only sixteen!
The phone rang at the little real estate office in town.
“Hello, this is Barbara, June’s mother. I’ve been talking to June, and I think you and I should have a little chat.”
“What about?” Claudette was being cool. She knew perfectly well what this call was about! It could only be about one thing. The two women didn’t run anywhere near the same circles, and the only reason a “have not” called a “have” was to “get!”
“Well, June tells me that they’ve been intimate. I think that Mike is just a little too mature to be carrying on with a sixteen year old girl, don’t you think?”
“Well, I don’t think anything. He knows better, and he’ll suffer the consequences. Well, you’ve told me, now what do you plan to do about it?”
“I just think we need to get together and talk this over. We need to see if these two kids really love each other, or what.”
“They are not old enough to love each other Barbara!” Claudette felt her temper rise, but then she calmed down and asked, “Would you like to meet at the catfish house?”
“Just me and you, Claudette. I’m not telling Ray. He’ll go nuts, and I don’t need that right now.”
Claudette knew that Ray would not “go nuts,” but she’d rather meet without all the cussing and table banging. Her husband was the biggest builder in this part of the state with the most connections. Ray wouldn’t destroy that income base over this, and besides, June being a part of such a family would actually benefit him. Claudette knew that Ray wasn’t as mercenary as Barbara, but she also knew that he really did want the best for his little girl, and to be perfectly honest a life at the Bend just beat the hell out of life in the shacks behind Fat Eddie’s!
Ever since Mike began his campaign to return to west Texas Claudette had been waiting for this news. She knew that Mike had been alone with June, and the whole problem of marriage or new truck had gotten him to Tennessee in the first place. Mike was seventeen, and in Texas that was an adult. Depending on the Judge (And Claudette owned them all) he could be charged with God knows what in this mess, and it would take a fair amount of “lawyering” and money to untie the knot! Mike’s stepfather, Bill, was another matter. He had always suspected Mike as being “low slung” in morals, and though he actually liked the little blonde from the other side of the tracks the most alluring thing about her was that after she popped in for coffee she went back to the other side of the tracks! He didn’t shout, but his opinion was firm.
“He took off out of here because he knew he was in trouble. So now, we have your ex-husband on the tit, and June about to move into my house. Do you think she’s really pregnant?”
“I don’t know. No, she can’t be. Not by Mike anyway. He’s been gone five months. You know her reputation out on the flat. We don’t know how many cowboys she’s been with. But we see her every Friday night at the catfish house, and she don’t look like she’s swelling up none.”
“She’s a small girl. I knew a kid once when I worked at the college who got pregnant. She was so small that no one knew she was pregnant until she just didn’t come to work for a week in the snack bar and showed up with a baby. I honestly thought she must have carried it in her pocket. June could be that way. You never know!”
“I don’t think so. I think Barbara would have pulled that rabbit right out of the hat. I don’t think she has the smarts to hold anything back.”
“She’s not smart, but she’s trash. Trash makes up for smart any day of the week.”
Claudette took offense at this remark. “I was raised up on Woodward Street in Memphis. Before that I was raised on a sand bar out in the Mississippi. Am I trash, too?”
He looked at her and smiled. “You and I are no different from them, hon. I was raised up in Briggs in a little house that just barely had a floor. But look around you. Do you see all we got? We are trash, too. But we are rich trash! Barbara’s attacking the only way she knows how. Heck, I don’t fault her. She’s just trying to survive. Make the best for her kid, that’s all. Can’t hold that against her. Still, I don’t want to just hand over my pile to someone like her.”
“We can’t just let them waltz in here and take all we got.”
“True. See, that’s trash for you, and Barbara’s not expecting that. She thinks we’ll be all righteous and scared, when really it don’t mean nothing. She’s just trying to marry off one of her kids. In a way, we’re lucky. Have you seen June’s little sister? ‘Moooooooooo!’ I’m just glad Mike didn’t get involved with her.” He laughed, but Claudette didn’t see what was so funny.
He knew that Barbara would not actually put Mike in jail. That was not the plan at all, because she wouldn’t get what she really wanted out of them. She wanted position, stature, and security for June, and Mike sitting in the county jail would not provide any of those things. Not to mention that the lawyers would come out, and the trial would be very bad publicity for June and family.
He thought a bit more, “Isn’t he involved with that other girl over on Commerce Street?”
“Oh, God! I don’t even want to think about that right now. That’s just what we need is to have that come crawling out of a sewer and bite us in the ass with this going on.”
“Sewer? Are you insinuating that she’s trash, too? Wow, a whole town full of trash. Isn’t that the deputy’s daughter?”
“Oh God! Let’s don’t open that can of worms. Deputy Dog’ll kill Mike!”
“Hey, I figure he’d be glad to get rid of that ugly little girl. Remember them big ears she had in the sixth grade? They’d hold up her baseball cap”
“No, that was Anna, who dated Buddy, and it was not the sixth it was the ninth.”
“Yeah, you’re right. You know, with all the ugly girls in this town, no wonder June looks so good to Mike!”
“Yeah, it is. Mike got himself into this. All he has to do is stay in Tennessee and he’ll never have a problem. Barbara’ll just find another mark and marry her little girl off to him.”
“What if he loves her?”
The man looked amazed. “Love? You honestly think he is capable of such a thing. I believe he wanted a new truck not six months ago. Threw the biggest fit in the world for it. Now that’s maturity. I can just hear you and him talking that one over. ‘Oh, mom, I want a truck; no, make that a wife. A truck, or a fuck.” He smiled contentedly to himself at the little rhyme he’d come up with but Claudette didn’t think it was so funny.
“Do you have to talk like that around me? I hate that! You know I hate that.”
“But, it’s the truth.”
“I’ll admit he’s a bit childish.”
He stared at her. “A bit?”
“Well, maybe a lot. But that’s not the problem here. I know he’s coming back, and he’ll want to be with June.”
“Oh, he’ll come back. That’s in the cards. That boy always wants to be somewhere he’s not. When he’s here, he’ll want to be there. Then back again.”
“Can we leave the subject?”
“No! I’m sick and tired of every time Mike’s little world turns around we all have to put our lives on hold.”
“That’s not true.”
“It is true and you know it. My boys paid all these years. Every time Mike sneezed, they paid. Your precious Mike got what ever he wanted.”
Claudette put her head in her hands, “Stop it! I just want him to be happy.”
Bill pulled her hands away from her face, “Why can’t we all be happy just this once? Why do we all have to play Mike’s little game?”
Claudette didn’t answer. She walked out through the French doors at the rear of the house and sat in a lawn chair, staring at the greens that she had built with her own intellect and sweat. How had Mike screwed up like this? She wondered how bad it would be having him marry the little blonde. She wasn’t bad looking, and she did come over to the house a lot. Claudette didn’t dislike the girl. She was just against being blackmailed. Bill came out on the porch.
“I’m sorry. I know this is hard for you.”
“Bill, I know he screwed up. I’m as mad about it as you are. We just gotta get through this thing the best way we can.” She reached up and held his hand.
“I think you need a sandwich down at the bend.”
“I used to know a man who’d take me there.”
“I still can.”
The Butcher Shop