Other than becoming an unplanned mom at an age when smart women should know better, there is a plenty lot of my life that I am proud of.
I pretty much raised myself after Mother died, and I did an upright job of it. Daddy did hire Mrs. Hazelbaker to come in and clean once a week, but I kept things up real good in-between, and I made good grades, and anything extra-curricular I wanted to do like the swim team or choir or school dances and such, I made the arrangements and coordinated rides, to and fro.
I was a good girl, for a long time. I never tried alcohol until I was 19 years old, and didn’t care much for it after I did. Didn’t sleep around. Never did drugs and didn’t care to hang around those who did. I never smoked cigarettes. The one clear memory that I have of my mother is her leaned over coughing, shoulder bones pokey as plucked chicken wings, and hocking up a blob of brackish slimy paste. She spat it into a Folgers can lined with newspaper, and then wiped her mouth on the tissue she kept in her sleeve, then took another drag off her Winston. So, big surprise, I never did see much “sex appeal” in smoking tobacco. Or anything else. I was a very good girl.
Daddy would not agree with my self-assessment, of course not. To this day, he will bitch and moan about what a burden, what a mess, etc. etc. etc. I was. How I talked back to him, and how I could not keep house properly (no matter that I was just a child ), and how I nearly food-poisoned him and what-all it cost to bring in Mrs. Hazelbaker extra to teach me to cook. One would think that after a year of TV dinners and cold sandwich suppers, a man would be grateful that his daughter showed an interest in cooking at all, but gratitude is not Daddy’s way. He will go to his grave denying that he got the sweet end of the deal because even at a very young age, I took to cooking like I took to breathing. Like I was born to it. And I can cook, I mean. Tee says I put five pounds on him every time I turn on the stove.
I still do go by Tee’s place every Sunday and make up heat-and-eat meals for him and my two redheaded god-daughters, who are nearly 12 years old now, just a month younger than Shu’s son Bernard but unlike Bernard, they have never called me a blue-collar whore.
Here is what I do not understand. Shu’s mother and father love me. His brother loves me, his sister loves me, his daughter loves me. His son does not love me.
I thought at first it was a matter of pedigree. I have none, and Bernard Kraus is extremely proud of (some would say “psychotically obsessed with”) his family’s Texas roots. I was born in Waxahachie, which is in Texas, which does indeed make me a Texan, but this does not matter (to Bernard) because my mother’s people are from Oklahoma, and Daddy’s a native Arkansawyer. Mother was an only child and her parents were dead before I was born; Daddy’s estranged from everybody in his family. So even if I was directly kin to Pocahontas, I’d never know it. By contrast, the Krauses know every name in every generation all the way back to the “Texian” ancestors, wealthy merchants from Germany who fought in the Battle of San Jacinto (a very big deal to us native Texans), and settled in Galveston. The original Peter Kraus opened the original Superior Tire Company in 1891. They sold bicycle tires back then, of course. Nine years later, the store and most of the Krauses were washed out to sea in the 1900 Galveston hurricane. Grieving patriarch Peter I, his two surviving children, and Peter II’s young widow and infant daughter moved inland to Houston. They dug in and started over, and Superior Tire Company has been a solid presence all overTexasand the South-Central states every since.
Some years ago, Shu’s father Peter III (only grandson of Peter II) retired and retreated to a house with a golf course for a back yard. Shu, his younger brother Martin and younger sister Lizbet took over the company. Martin’s the CEO, Lizbet’s talent is special events. She keeps investors and bigwigs happy and keeps herself in the Houston society pages. Shu’s gift is resurrecting failing stores. Martin and Lizbet call him “the Jesus of Superior Tire.” They’re joking, of course.
So anyway, here is how Shu and I met.
I was in my late 20s, working part-time at the Waxahachie Public Library, thirty-two hours a week organizing and reshelving books, manning the circulation desk while the librarians took their lunches, that kind of thing. (I do not have a library degree so I cannot claim that I am a librarian, even though there is hardly any job in a library that I cannot do.) I’ve never been a party-girl. I rarely went out after work, and never had a steady man in my life except for a sort-of relationship with Glenn Kelly, the head of nonfiction. Glen and I were each other’s itch relief. That’s a very base thing to say, but it’s the truth. My life was okay, kind-of boring and sad sack, but normal enough. Satisfactory, even. I mean, I was not looking for a job or a man. I had sure as shooting never considered working as anybody’s cook and housekeeper, having had plenty of that at home.
If you asked me then why I was still living with and doing for an ungrateful and cantankerous old man, I could not have told you. I could hardly tell you now. It wasn’t out of affection, that’s for damn sure. or even a sense of duty. I wasn’t a wild woman, but I wasn’t a prude either, or one of those lonely TV characters who wear black-framed glasses and no make-up and frumpy pajamas, and eat ice cream out of the carton in a cute way. I was not the type to stay home with Daddy and watch wrestling on TV. Or even if I ever was that type of person, Tee never let me just sit around and mope for long. He and I take care of each other that way. We just always have.
Anyway, it was Saturday evening after the library closed and I was about to head home. Glenn Kelly was gone to Wimberly to visit his family at their Hill Country retreat that he talked about all the time and never once invited me to. Tee and some of his work buddies were headed to The Rusty Spur for cheap beer and loose women. I had planned to go home and re-read “Oral History” by Lee Smith, which I re-read every year at least once. But I’d gone and and drunk too much ice tea at lunch and had to make “one last trip” to the ladies room before I got on the road home, and suddenly there was Shelley Skelly from periodicals in my path. I was trapped. Shelley begged me to meet her at the Sandpiper Inn bar for a drink and without a doubt, a monologue about her most recent tragic romance. Shelley Skelly is a lightning rod for bad men and hard times.
So, I went to the Ramada. Shelley was supposed to be right behind me, but she wasn’t. And she did not arrive by the time I got my first margarita, nor my second – which I’d only ordered because I thought surely she’d be along soon. I was not keen on being alone in a motel bar on a Saturday night, but I sure wasn’t going to waste a four-dollar cocktail either. The bar was about half-full, plenty of men there, but I went unbothered as I am not the kind of woman who attracts men unless they’re tipsy or – more often than not – middle-aged married Mexican men. (Why middle-aged married Mexican men? I do not know.) So, there wasn’t much for me to do, but finish my drink and read the newspaper that somebody’d left on the bar. The crossword was already filled in, so I flipped through the classifieds, which I normally do not ever do.
Private chef wanted for traditional Southern fare/home cooking. Duties include some light housekeeping. Excellent salary for the right individual. References required.
I had just enough liquor in me to be curious and brave, so I called the agency meaning to leave a message but the headhunter was there, in her office, working overtime on a Saturday evening. Does this not sound like FATE? She said her client was a “prominent businessman” who wanted to start eating healthier, “but he really wants a person who knows their way around a chicken-fried steak.”
I got chill bumps on my arms. Chicken-fried steak is my thing. I do not fry it as is so commonly done. I bread it, brown it in a cast-iron skillet, and then bake it in the oven according to Mrs. Hazelbaker’s Rule of Meat: “Low and slow.”
Still, housework is not my thing at all, and I was just about to say thanks and hang up when she mentioned the salary. It was enough to make me sit straight up on the bar stool. Even the low-end figure was double what I’d make in two years at the library.
“If you do decide to live-in, you’ll have your own bedroom, bathroom, den.” said the headhunter. “And of course, you’d have access to the pool and Jacuzzi-slash-hot tub, whenever you wanted.”
A swimming pool. A swimming pool. A swimming pool.
I’d spent my life forced to share public pools with children whose parents refused to teach them the art of personal hygiene. And I love to swim, I love to swim. Give me a sunny day, let me sink up to my eyeballs in a chlorinated, smooth-bottomed pool – heaven on Earth.
“Mr. Kraus happens to be home this weekend. I know tomorrow’s Sunday, but would you like an interview, Miss Tye?”
“Yes I would.” I already had the perfect lie already ready for my father. I’d say I was too sick from my lady business to go to church. He could get a ride on the senior bus, which meant he’d also be going to Luby’s afterward. That gave me just enough time to drive up to Plano and back for the interview. If Daddy happened to get back before I did, I’d say I had to go to the drugstore for “things” and he would not even begin to ask what.
Shu likes to say that I “bewitched” him. He always says, “I open the front door, and there’s this wild woman with her crazy curves and curls all over the place, and hip-hugger jeans and her mom’s bowling old shirt that has Eddie Mae stitched on the pocket, and her key ring on her thumb, and a plate of hot meat in her hands.” Shu says, “One second she’s handing me a chicken-fried steak, and in the next, she’s running past me saying, “Let’s skip the intros so I can use your litter box because I’m real nervous and I drank a Diet DP Super Big Gulp on the way up.”
He also loves to tell people how he “Watched those jeans allll the way down the hall. And I was done for.”
He can say whatever nonsense he wants about his alleged instant attraction to my alleged allure. I know it was the chicken-fry. I’m not complaining, mind you. I love that he loved my cooking, and frankly I was not looking at him much that first day either because – besides having to pee like a Russian racehorse – there was a six-burner, double-oven Viking stove set into the gorgeous center island of a kitchen more perfect than Jesus. All my life I had been cooking in a kitchen the size of a bedroom closet, on an electric Kenmore with half the burners out. When I was able to stop ogling the room, I did note that Shu was ogling me.
He is a man who likes curves and I am that, all boobs and hips. And, unfortunately, belly. I have been up and down the scale like most women, but even at my smallest, I’ve always had a belly, always. Shu himself is also above average in weight. Not fat but soft.
Except where it counts. Yes, I am speaking sexually. Peter Shumard Kraus IV is the horniest man I’ve ever known. Not horny in any sicko way, but I’m willing, the man is ready. I told him, I said, “Peter Kraus, you’re the horniest man I’ve ever known” and he said “Only for you.” I laughed but then I stopped because Shu held my face in both his hands and said to me, serious as church, “Only for you.”
I don’t know if he still feels that way, or if he ever will again. I don’t really know.
Anyway, so we had just met, he was sitting at the counter eating chicken-fry and I was eyeballing a stove that cost more than my parents paid for their whole house back in 1949.
“Queen Vashti.” Shu said, his mouth full of chicken-fried steak. I finally peeled my eyeballs off that stove and took a real look at him. Shu is tall and broad in the shoulders. His hair is reddish-blond and a little shaggy, and he wears wireframe glasses kind of like John Denver wore. I noted that he was barefooted in his fancy kitchen, which to me said that he felt at home there, and that he was comfortable in his own skin. I don’t see that in many people, rich or poor.
“You knew about Vashti, right?” Shu said, wiping his mouth. He pushed his glasses up with his knuckle. “Your name’s from the story of Esther – in the Bible?”
“I know about Book of Esther.” I said. Of course, I lied. “But my mother named me after the fat girl in “Giant,” the one who played the plumber in commercials, who had money but Rock Hudson didn’t marry her because he eloped with Liz Taylor.” Shu laughed at this. “No, really.” I said. “Mother pronounced the name Vash-tie, like they did in the movie. Thank god nobody else does.” What I did not add on to the story, which I do usually add on, is that the one person who does sometimes call me “Vash-tie” is Tee, especially when he wants to get my goat. I realized that I did not want to talk about Tee, not at all. This was a lifetime first.
“Queen suits you better.” Shu said, low, to himself. When he realized that I’d heard, he smiled at me, a well you caught me smile that made me smile, and then he broke out into a real grin, the most beautiful grin since Dennis Quaid. I am lifelong nuts about Dennis Quaid.
“…Mind you,” I told him, scraping some-something dried off the countertop with my thumbnail and working hard not to blush. “I am only interested in part-time.” I’d come prepared to argue. I am very good at negotiating. Ask my father or Tee, neither of whom will buy a car without taking me along to deal.
Shu said whatever worked for me was fine by him. “And what are you wanting?” He asked this at the same time I was asking “When do you want me?” Then I was blushing and he was blushing, and he’s saying “Salary, I mean salary!” and I’m saying “I mean days, what days work for you!”
“Time-wise.” I said. “What do you want?”
“Honestly.” Shu said. “I’ll take whatever you want to give me.”
I’d love to tell you that him and me had a real courtship, but the true is that I started working for Shu on a Tuesday morning, and at about 3:30 Friday afternoon, he stopped me from leaving out the back door and pinned me up against the dryer with a kiss that even today makes my knees go soft to think on it. If Shu’s kids hadn’t been flying in from Houston for the weekend, and if my father wasn’t recovering from hemorrhoid surgery unable to drive himself to the liquor store and 7-11, I might have never left at all. As it was, I drove home feeling what I imagined being drunk on champagne must feel like, giddy and silly and feeling like a real pretty girl.
I had three long days to daydream and worry and wait for Shu’s call. It never came. The following Tuesday morning, I let myself in his front door, turned off the alarm, and went straight to the garage to see if his car was there.
It wasn’t. Shu wasn’t there, waiting on me to come.
As I am a practical-minded person, and it was 10 a.m. on a weekday, it was easy enough to talk myself down. Why on earth should a hardworking, important man be at home? I made a decision to stop being an idiot, and went on about my work. I have never been so efficient in my entire life. Right up until quitting time came and he still wasn’t home and I could not make myself leave. I slowed down what little work I had left, then made more work for myself by undoing some of what I’d already done in hopes that Shu would get home. By 7:30 p.m. I had to leave, or risk looking like a combination stalker-housekeeper.
Wednesday passed the same way. Thursday, too. Friday came, and…nothing. Then another week, and then another. For a solid month, the only contact that I had with Shu was finding my paycheck on the counter with “Thanks for doing a great job!” written in his secretary’s handwriting, and her signature on bottom line.
Clear enough now, I knew that – spectacular kiss or no – Peter Shumard Kraus IV was in no hurry to get home to me.
“Nobody need hang ears on me.” I said to the stove. I was mad, finally, and 100% done with pining for him I’d been sitting at his kitchen table like a bump on a log for a solid hour, keys on my thumb, pretending that I was just sipping a little iced tea before hitting the road home, and that my pulse wasn’t accelerating every time a car passed by outside.
“Girlfriend, you are done.” I told myself. I got up and grabbed my purse, and slapped the light switch three times: bright, brighter, off. Standing in the dimness, the lingering smells of my best lemon-butt chicken (score the rind of a lemon, shove it up the chicken’s rump, rub the chicken down with olive oil, salt, pepper and ginger and bake) made me feel sad beyond sad.
I’d made enough for two.
My anger came back to me, and I fought the impulse to snatch it all up, all of it, sour cream mashed potatoes, mixed steamed vegetables with garlic butter, tart apple pie, and the two loaves of faux French bread cooling on the countertop and throw it all into that natural-rock swimming pool that I’d been hankering for almost as much as I’d hankered for him, standing in the kitchen looking out through the glass doors and counting down the days until the weather got warm enough for me go out and just dive in, clothes and all.
Whatever the kiss at the dryer was to him, whatever desire the man had expressed, no matter what he whispered in my ear – begged for my company- then, clearly he was now done with me. It made me wonder if he had been drunk that Friday afternoon. Or high on something. I hadn’t smelled anything on him, but you never know.
“He could be a drug addict. Or a wife beater. Or Gay.” I told myself as I tied my black and white bandana scarf on my head like a doo-rag and picked up my purse. I love driving with the windows down but I sure hate what it does to my hair. “He’s done you a favor. You made an idiot of yourself, and he is clearly doing you a favor by not showing up and embarrassing you, or letting you embarrass yourself any further.” That was it, had to be. Shu was just being a nice guy and making it possible for us to avoid a very awkward situation, and for me to keep my very well-paying job. Which I needed. It wasn’t like I could go back to work at the library. Shelley Skelly had already shoe-horned herself into my old position, both in the library and under Glenn Kelly. (My consolation: if they got married, she’d have to endure being Shelley Skelly Kelly.)
“I am grateful, and I am done with this stupid crush.” I said to my reflection in the patio door.
So why did I keep standing there in the dim light, like I knew in my deepest heart that leaving was the wrong thing to do? Before I could figure it out or leave, I heard the garage door opening.