The Big Texan
A couple of weeks after John died, I drove over to Redlands to see how Sally was doing. I’d attended the funeral, of course, but I knew she’d be a mess there at the gravesite and decided to pay my respects later, alone. I’d watched her clinging to friends and bawling afterward, mascara streaming down her perfect little flood-plain face until the pastor, a hireling of some nondescript flock or other, gave her his hanky. Sally’s friend Kay, who had been calling herself Phoenix since her high-altitude affair with a shaman in the Andes, held her and kissed her and patted her all over. I confess that I envied Phoenix.
I rang the bell at the only pink house on the street. A regular ring, a wait, then a ring as long as a beer commercial. Nothing doing, so I walked down the driveway, jumped a wrought-iron gate I recognized from their previous house and stepped into the back yard. I expected to find Sally spreading gravel or cussing her neighbors, but she was sitting alone on their stone garden bench. She appeared to be studying her toenails.
She wasn’t quite alone; Larry, her cat, lay at her feet, resembling a stole, or boa—a fur thing women drape around their necks. Larry had six toes on his front feet and was the longest, most laid-back cat in California. I walked over and as Sally looked up, I leaned and slid one hand under Larry’s chest and lifted him. It was like lifting a wet towel, although I felt a rumble commence inside Larry.
I slung him over my shoulder. I said, “About time to plant your bulbs.”
She nodded slightly and tilted her head toward the garage. That is, she conveyed to me: They’re still on a shelf in the garage, thank you, wrapped in wet burlap. I occasionally check the moisture and refresh them if necessary.
Sally was originally from one of the Dakotas, and of Scandinavian heritage. She was so fair and blonde that she wore overalls, a man’s shirt, and a broad-brimmed hat to the beach, rented an umbrella, and still came home pink. She was small and slim as a porcelain figurine, had great legs and an ass I wanted to celebrate by sacrificing oxen to pagan gods. I had been in love with her for maybe twelve years, since just after she divorced Lee, just before she married John.
She stood and gave Larry a pat. His ear twitched. She walked past me and up three steps to a screen door and disappeared. I wandered around, wanting to smoke. The hedge that closed her yard off from a dirt alley needed to be chopped back. Some hardy grass was choking the God out of the perennials she’d planted in a small bed. I wondered why people didn’t just let the plants that would grow, grow. And pull the damn petunias. Seemed easier, more sensible.
I didn’t hear the screen door. She unfolded one of those little aluminum tables that people put their frozen dinners on so they won’t miss Wheel of Fortune. On it, she placed three cans of no-label, no-ringtab beer and an aging half pack of Winstons. She nodded at them, sat back down, and patted the bench beside her.
“I don’t know how to open these cans,” she said, as if picking up a conversation we’d been carrying on all afternoon. “John used this relic. I would like to drink one with you, if you please. It is scathingly hot in this horrid state.”
She handed me a church key and I opened two. I wondered who would get the third. Larry had slithered back to earth, making no request. I fished out a stale cigarette. “You sure?”
“Of course I’m sure! Do you think I would let them go to waste when they could be killing another man dear to me? Flare it up, or whatever you men say.” She swallowed some beer and looked huffy.
Sally looked less like her voice than any woman I ever knew. It wasn’t high or deep; it was scattered. Husky, squeaky, all over the map. And a great laugh, when she chose, or when she was tickled by something. She didn’t appear to have been tickled much recently.
So I kept company with the woman. I leaned back and put my beer arm around her, cigarette in my other hand, looked around. Like the gate, the bench was from the big house they’d lived in, in Corona. It weighed a ton; they had borrowed me and my pickup when Sally’s daughter, Kirsten, who had an artistic eye, had spotted it online at an estate sale in Torrance. Centered two feet in front of it was an old iron manhole cover I’d likewise helped fetch. It was from a junkyard in Southgate and one of John’s customers had mentioned it to him. Damn if it wasn’t heavy, too, but we’d horsed it into their Corona yard and Sally had slid out a patch of grass with a flat spade and John had set it right there in the back lawn.
John could lift anything. He was a big man to begin with, and his body had gotten used to moving his four hundred pounds around, so a manhole cover didn’t pose much challenge. And he smoked like a chimney, and by the time his heart gave out, he was over five hundred and got around in a wheelchair wide as a loveseat. He couldn’t get up and down the stairs in their big house in Corona, so they moved to this little one-story in Redlands, maybe twelve miles. Kirsten was off to college anyway. I’d helped them move, of course, but then John took to his bed and I couldn’t go over there any more, not to watch him lie there smoking and eating and dying.
So I talked to the woman. “He was a fine man,” I said.
“He was an imbecile! He was the most enormous three-year-old who ever roamed this planet! He ate himself to death and smoked himself to death and left me here alone, and oh, Bill, I begged him to stop—didn’t I beg that man?”
“He didn’t die for lack of nagging.”
“Nag? Oh, fine, Bill Tyler, call me a shrew! If that isn’t just like a man—give me a drag of that cigarette.”
I stared at her. “And poison you?” But I held the cigarette to her lips before she could say another word. She inhaled deeply, then opened her mouth wide to watch the smoke drift away. I thought of a child with soap bubbles.
After a little time, Sally laid her head on my shoulder. “Oh, Johnny,” she said. “Oh, you stubborn fool.”
They had lived to argue. When they visited me in my pre-fab, they would arrive arguing and leave the same way. Rollicking laughter most of the time, John ignoring Sally’s near-constant pestering, or rumbling with quiet laughter, just enough to make her furious—this is so; it is not; how do you know? and how do you know I don’t?—John, no more wine; you’ll only begin blubbering about that silly bitch you married in the Navy, or your precious war! Say, Bill, did you hear someone say something to me? And would you care for more wine, as long as I’m pouring some for myself?—They would invariably go out the door fighting for possession of the car keys: I’m driving, Sally. After all you’ve drunk, do you honestly think I’ll get into a car with a menace like you? Give me those keys! No. You give me those keys this instant, John, or I swear to you that I’ll—
She told me once that they kept it up all the way home, parked half on the lawn, and ran into the house, shrieking with laughter and shedding their clothes all the way up the stairs to bed.
So I held the woman. Stroked her fine hair, noticing a few strands more silver than blonde, patted her. And thought about all the good times, none of the bad.
I drank a little beer and, just thinking out loud, I said, “The Big Texan.”
She was still for a moment, then began shaking. I looked at her, wondering if I’d struck a nerve, but she wasn’t sobbing; she was chuckling, and trying not to. Then she sat up and laughed a good laugh, ha ha ha, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. I thought of the mealy mouth pastor as I gave her my hanky and watched her dry her face. She wore no makeup; she seldom did. She just knocked me out.
She faced me, eyes glittering. “Oh, do you remember that, Bill? That crazy evening?”
I grinned. “Hard to forget.”
“Tell me again: exactly how big was that obscene slab of flesh?”
I quoted from one of the four million billboards we’d passed on I-40 heading into Amarillo. “The Big Texan Steak Ranch! Home of the FREE 72-0unce Dinner Steak!”
Sally laughed again, and her pale blue eyes got big. “Remember him slavering in the back seat, roaring his Neanderthal challenges at all those absurd signs? Oh, my stars!”
That had been one time Sally had gotten to drive. John needed the whole back seat of his old Buick Roadmaster as a place to train. I said, “Yeah, getting all pumped up for dinner.” I laughed too, just thinking about it. “Weird goddamn place, Amarillo.”
“Oh, I should say. The Cadillac Ranch...that bizarre Big Legs place...and that insane steak house.”
You walk into the Big Texan, it’s all laid out. Up on a platform there’s a table and one chair. On the table are two full salt shakers, nothing else. On the wall behind it are two items: a digital timer and a huge longhorn steer’s head. The deal is, if you can eat their 72-ouncer, salad, potato, roll—in an hour—it’s free. If you try and fail, it’s fifty bucks. And, of course, there’s the ignominy, folks there having a regular dinner and hooting at you, making you feel like a fool. John did not intend to fail.
She giggled. “Well, he did it.”
“That he did, with minutes to spare. I still think the quart of beer was a bad idea, but John prevailed.”
“And ruined himself for sex that night. I was going to reward him for his heroism. You’d think the man would show some appreciation.”
“You know what?”
“He ruined himself for sex. And you raised hell about it.”
Sally drew away from me, as from a snake. “He told you that?”
I smiled at her. “Oh, hell no, Sally. We stayed there the night, remember? They must make those motel walls of pasteboard.”
I had the rare pleasure of seeing Sally color just a bit. And then grin wickedly and give my chest a pretty stiff punch. “You devil,” she murmured, not bothered in the least.
I asked her if she wanted the other beer. “No, you take it. You only want to get me drunk and have your way with me.”
I looked her in the eye. “If I thought I could,” I told her, “we’d be in bed right now. Don’t you go fooling with me, Sally.”
She held my gaze for a moment. Then looked away. As easy as everything had been a moment ago, it was all that awkward now.
After a bit, I stubbed out my cigarette and stood up. “You need anything,” I said, “you know my number.” I turned toward the gate, feeling old.
She said, “Bill.” I stood still, my back to her. “I had a husband who beat me. I stuck with it until he threatened my baby. Then I had a husband who loved me, and he killed himself and left me here alone.”
Then Sally was behind me, head against my back, arms tight around me. She was crying again. She said, “I know you love me. I might love you, if I let myself think about it. But I just can’t do it again, Bill. I just can’t.”
There wasn’t a thing to say. So I let the woman be.
I knew these people, loved these people, and oh my God I wanted the woman. Sometimes things dont work out. As a matter of fact, that is how the cosmos usually functions.