Authors: Patricia Snodgrass
Published by Mundania Press
Also by Patricia Snodgrass
The Man Who Loved Yolanda Dodson
Copyright © 2012 by Patricia Snodgrass
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Edited by Judy Bagshaw
Cover Art © 2012 by Mary Williams
First Edition May 2012
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For Jeremy, Shan-Shan and the 3 E’s
Rapides Parish, Louisiana 1958
Ruby Thibodaux extracted the shotgun from the gun rack and emptied the shells. She stomped into the kitchen, cursing under her breath. Her sister, Cally, looked over the rim of her coffee cup, her expression unreadable.
“Who is it this time, Robbie or Jake?”
“Who do you think it is?” Ruby grumbled as she took a box of rock salt out of the pantry, then fished out some bacon rind from the grease can sitting on the stove. She stuffed both items down the business end of the shotgun’s barrel. “I peppered Robby Fray’s boy last month, good enough to set fire to his butt. His dad had the gall to come over afterwards, don’t you remember?”
“I do and you shot him too.”
“Damned right I did. If he causes any more trouble, I’ll shoot him again.”
Cally watched as her sister finished loading the weapon.
“You’re gonna ruin that shotgun stuffing it full of rock salt and bacon rind like that,” Cally observed after a lengthy pause. “Besides, what are you going to do if it goes off in your face?”
“I still think you should stop shooting boys who show up around here. Folks will think you’re unfriendly.”
“Would you rather I use real bullets?”
Cally set her cup down on the white and gray marbled Formica table. “If you’d just let Althie date like all the other girls, you wouldn’t have boys sniffing around like this.”
“If I let Althie do that she’d be knocked up in no time, just like most of the girls in this parish.”
“That’s hardly fair. Give the girl some credit for having good common sense.”
“It’s not her I don’t trust,” Ruby grunted as she stuffed more rock salt down the barrel.
“It’s the boys,” Cally said, her voice lowering
. It’s the same argument,
. It’s always the same old tired, worn out argument.
“Boys and dirty old men,” Ruby acknowledged, her face crimson as she finished packing down the wadding. “God, what is wrong with the male species? Is sex all they think about?”
“I think the better question is what’s wrong with you.”
“You know the answer to that,” Ruby replied. She hefted the gun’s butt onto her scrawny hip, hiking up her floral skirt mid thigh. The pose might have been seductive if it weren’t for the permanent scowl on her face. Ruby’s expression reminded Cally of one of those fierce warrior statues she’d seen in Chinese travel magazines.
“That’s the point; nobody else does. Maybe folks’d be more sympathetic if you just told everyone about what happened to you,” Cally replied.
“Not on your life.” Ruby scowled deeper, her naturally large eyes bugging. “I’ll never make that mistake again.”
“It’s not like anyone can take Althie away from you now. She’s grown.”
“That’s beside the point.”
“I don’t know what you’re fussing for,” Cally said, breaking the silence that descended upon them. “Jake’s a good boy.”
“That may be so, but he’s not good enough for my Althea, and he knows it too. I’ve said it often enough.”
“And to his face,” Cally finished.
Ruby stalked back to the foyer with Cally following behind her. She stood against the wall, like a pioneer woman preparing to fight off a gang of robbers and glanced out the left side window once again. She used the gun barrel to move the thin white curtain further aside for a better view. “Althea doesn’t have a daddy to defend her honor. All she has is you and me. She deserves far better than what we got.”
“We do all right.”
Ruby continued to gaze out the window. “I know he’s out there, just beyond the tree line. Once he gets onto the lawn I’ll have a good shot.”
“You most certainly will not,” Cally stated. She moved to snatch the shotgun out of her sister’s hand, which led to a brief but spectacular scuffle. “Do you really want Sheriff Pickens back up here again?” Cally asked as Ruby yanked the gun from her sister’s grip.
Ruby did not relinquish the gun, despite Cally holding out her hand for it, but she did place the weapon’s butt gently on the floor. She looked out the window again. “He’s coming up to the gaslight,” Ruby said. “Look at that, just as bold a brass. You should let me pepper him good. It’s not like we don’t know what he wants.”
“You treat Althea like a dog in heat,
,” Cally remarked, “which is downright insulting if you ask me. It’s no wonder that she’s mad at you all the time. Besides, he’s down on the lawn and she’s upstairs. What could happen?”
“They’d talk,” Ruby stated as if that were a mortal sin. “They’d talk, and then they’d scheme and then the next thing you know she’d be pregnant with his bastard and he’d run off. And there’d be Althea, with her reputation ruined, and us with a baby to raise.”
“You know none of that’s gonna happen. Besides, you’ve already got her engaged to—what’s his name—Hank something...”
“Hank Cathar. And he comes from a good, solid, well off family.” Ruby scowled, the kitchen lights emphasizing her sharp angular face and frizzy black hair. “A very well off family, and I intend to make sure that this wedding goes off perfectly, and with my daughter unspoiled by some neighborhood river rat.”
Ruby got a firm grip on her shotgun with one hand and twisted the glass doorknob with the other. “
” she shouted as she stepped onto the porch. She hefted the rifle onto her thin shoulder. “You’d better get on outta here, boy, before I put a load into your hind end.”
Althea sighed. She leaned against the balcony’s railing and gazed out across the darkened lawn. Her hair, soft reddish brown and somewhat less curly than her mother’s perpetual frizz, spilled over her shoulders. The straps on her sheer white nightgown had fallen down as well, and she left them dangling against the soft flesh of her upper arms, the way she’d seen Rita Hayworth do. Her small breasts puckered into a dainty cleavage as she leaned outward over the railing, resting her forearms, strong, lean and tanned a soft golden brown, upon the paint-peeled banister outlining the balcony.
Below her, the gas light spilled a soft warm yellow glow out onto the grass, reminding her of a fairy ring. A boy stood in that ring now, his hair a halo of reddish gold as he admired her from afar. She was a princess. She lived in a castle. She was unattainable. Her mother and official wicked witch as far as Althea was concerned, had seen to that.
played on the radio sitting next to the balcony’s large French doors. She sighed.
I want to be Jake’s girl,
But I can’t
. Mommy Dearest
, Althea thought, her jaw set,
so do I
And none of them include her.
She leaned farther over the balcony, partly to expose more cleavage, and partly to make sure he got the point.
She jerked her head towards the front door.
Jake moved away from the gaslight (and further still from the front porch) and stood where the edge of the lawn combined with elderly crepe myrtles and pines, delineating the glistening waters of Bayou Beauf. The moonlight traced his slim features, making him look more like a fairytale creature than before.
“Coward,” she called down. Jake shrugged, helplessly.
Althea would celebrate her eighteenth birthday by marrying a man whom she never met. Arranging a marriage for Althea was no secret. Ruby started looking for suitable partners when her daughter reached her fifteenth year. The last man Ruby brought home for her was ten years her senior. He was balding, with sweaty palms, and full lips that reminded Althea of a bloated catfish. Althea shrieked at the top of her lungs when she saw him. She ran to her room and bolted the door. She listened as Ruby and Cally sparred downstairs in the foyer, probably in full view of the man still standing on the threshold. Althea was never sure if he stayed or fled for his life, especially when Cally screamed at the top of her lungs that she’d call Child Welfare on her sister if she attempted to make a marriage out of that sordid deal. Ruby backed down, decreed firmly that Althea would go into a convent on her eighteenth birthday and that’d be an end to it.
Althea was relieved and thought the matter was dropped.
Ruby hadn’t said another word about prearranging a marriage until late this past May, when she sold the car, the remains of their meager valuables and keepsakes, and announced at suppertime that she’d found the perfect match for her little girl. He was young, she stated, handsome (
like an Adonis!)
Ruby exclaimed and best of all, the family was loaded.
Later that evening, Althea overheard her mother and aunt discussing this loudly while she eavesdropped against the kitchen door. Of course, Althea told herself, it’s not eavesdropping if the discussion in question was loud enough for everyone in Rapides Parish to hear. Most of the conversation was in Cajun French, but Althea got enough of the snippets of Cajun she knew grafted into the English they were shouting in, to figure out that her
Cally was none too pleased about the arrangement.
Althea felt a chill, which had nothing to do with a faint breeze coming off the nearby bayou. It was eerie, hearing plans being laid out, and without her consent. Althea, as far as she was concerned was a participant only in a peripheral way. Althea wanted nothing to do with it.
And now, Jake was slinking back toward the woods, instead of stepping on the porch like a confident and righteous man ought to. A man like Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant would never ever let some skinny
of a mother stand in the way of true love, oh no. Bogie’d stomp up the steps, kick the door in and read her mother the riot act right before taking Althea away into a world of light and love where every day was a happy ending.
But then again, Althea reasoned, Mom was ornery enough to stand up to Bogart. And she would too, with that shotgun of hers punching him in the chest for emphasis.
One thing was certain, though. Ruby Marie Thibodaux had not one frightened bone in her body when it came to the men on the bayou; least of all, horny teenage boys, whom she detested most of all.
, Althea’s heart hoped as she watched Jake slide back into the woods.
Maybe he’s waiting for everyone to go to sleep. Maybe he’d bring a ladder and climb up onto the balcony and get me. We’d run off together, perhaps to Lafayette, or maybe up north to Shreveport, get married and live happily ever after without ever seeing Mom or Cally again. Maybe the two of us would have an eternity of happy ever afters.
That thought made her feel strange and bittersweet. Despite everything, she loved her mother dearly, and adored her aunt—her
—Cally as well. How could she just abandon them?
She raised her hand, as if to signal Jake, and then let it drop. She could tell by the way he hid in amongst the tangle of sweet wild jasmine, red honeysuckle and cypress knees that he did not have the intestinal fortitude to take on the witch in the castle. Instead, he’d stand by and watch Althea be handed over to a man whom she’d never met.
Hank was a man who was (theoretically at least) young and handsome and well connected. After the wedding, Althea would be a lady of substance, residing in a fine house in New Orleans, or maybe even Paris, France. Or perhaps she could be wealthy enough to have both. After all, a lady has to go somewhere during hurricane season. She’d have tea with equally oppressed and equally wealthy high society ladies, take boating trips out on Lake Ponchatrain and fret over spoiled mosquito ridden children and whether or not the upstairs maid was making more than just the beds.
Everything was arranged as far as the wedding went; the dress was altered and the cake ordered, the caterers paid, the hall at the Grand Beauregard Cathedral was reserved. A small orchestra would play at the wedding and the reception afterwards. Ruby had taken out a substantial loan at the bank, nearly two thousand dollars, in order to make sure Althea was married in the most fashionable way possible. Of course nobody on the bayou would be invited. That would spoil the illusion of being a lady of means and substance, and Ruby couldn’t have that. So the bride’s section would be woefully small. However, Ruby told her daughter earlier that day that the groom’s section would take up most of the slack
As if hearing her thoughts, Jake moved closer to the house. Hope welled up within her. Could it be that Jake had finally grown the testicular equipment needed to defy Ruby Thibodaux? Moonlight filtered down on him making his already pale skin ethereal in the darkness. It was as if an elf from
Lord of the Rings
had stepped out of the forest and was gazing as longingly up at her as she looked down at him.
She straightened, her heart pounding, her mind made up.
I’m going down there right now. I’m leaving with him. We’ll go away together where nobody has ever heard of us and—
Directly below her, she heard the front door slam open, heard her mother’s indignant shout, and Jake, taking his cue, slunk back into the woods. Althea sat down again, crestfallen. Once again, her knight refused to confront the angry witch.
Althea withdrew into her room, which was decorated in faded pink wallpaper with huge blue flowers. She tossed herself face first down on the bed and cried into her pillows. She grieved for herself, for being forced into a marriage to a boy she’d never met. She grieved because the boy she truly loved (or at least thought she did; these days Althea wasn’t quite so sure) didn’t have the courage to speak up. She wept, not only at the inability to captain her own destiny, but also for a vague indescribable feeling that lingered even after she laid her doubts about Jake to rest. She dozed for a while, letting the sadness and longing flow out of her like dank branch water.
It was hot and the air was heavy and profoundly humid. Outside the balcony an owl hooted its sad inquiry. It was late July and Althea felt wrung out and exhausted by heat and inner torment. Oh if she could only take a car ride down to town where she and Jake could be together for a short while, if nothing else to share an ice cream soda and maybe listen to Elvis on the jukebox.