Sally Hopkins gave up trying to find an NPR station. They didn’t make that kind of radio out here, not on the long road back home … and maybe that was just as well. She stopped twisting the dial when she heard the faint sound of country music coming through the static. It was impossible to make out the words, but she imagined that she was hearing Tammy Wynette, singing “D-E-F-E-A-T," which become Sally’s theme song in Houston.
She didn’t know what she would have done—maybe something desperate—if Ed hadn’t told her he could use her back home in Maryvale. She hadn’t felt needed for a long time, and frankly, his words had caused grateful tears to come. He’d alluded to a problem that he considered “kinda strange,” that was, according to him, connected with her line of work. Which fascinated her, of course. Actually, it also kind of worried her, because little old Maryvale was not the kind of place that had strange problems involving family issues. Surely it was just strange to him—an alcoholic twelve-year-old or something, the kind of thing she saw in Houston every day.
A restless sort of depression had rolled over her like a bitter fog about a month ago, when one bleak night it had hit her: she’d used up Houston … which was a pretty damn big place. She was on a collision course with that dreaded milestone, her fortieth birthday, and there were no princes showing up in her life—not even any frogs to kiss. She’d long ago stopped thinking that sex with strangers was exciting, but lately she wasn’t even getting any offers.
Her first thought had been, Let’s shake things up a little. Get a hot new job. But there were no fast-track jobs to be found online or in the classifieds or anywhere else for a gal with a master’s in social work. In fact, the number of slow-track jobs was about zero, as well.
When a social worker finds her idealism is all used up, she ends up just like Sally was right now, driving down a long, long road in a beat-up old car.
So here she was, sure enough, clattering along the one road that led to some sort of home. At the end of it was her own private heaven, the town of Uncle Ed and the sweet summers of her childhood. Here, in the one happy place of her heart, she intended to find out if it really was possible for a gal on the last frontier of youth to find some real fulfillment.
The car hummed right along. You’d think that the suitcases and boxes and books of a lifetime would put a strain on an old Camry. But after toiling for fifteen years in the big city, it came down to this: she could fit everything she owned into a very elderly compact car and not even make it groan.
It scared her to think how easy it had been to drive away from her old life. When she finally decided to make the break, her first impulse had been to hike up to Dallas and see if maybe they painted the offices of the Department of Social Services something other than Navy surplus gray. Maybe, if she played hard to get, she could wrangle an office with a window, even.
She’s sat at her workstation staring at the transfer request application so long people started to worry that she’d gone into a coma or died.
All of a sudden, she’d picked up the phone and dialed a number she’d remembered all these years, from the age of twelve. Even the ring—brrring-brrring—sounded like old times. And, oh, that, gentle, familiar East Texas twang of his—when he answered she’d choked up so completely that he was just about to hang up before she heard herself say, “Ed, hi, it’s Sally.”
He had been the sheriff in Maryvale for what seemed like forever. After an initial silence, his voice had vibrated frank surprise. “Why, Sally—well, darlin’ … hello. Hello, there!”
She’d left Maryvale behind as the only good part of a hard childhood. He hadn’t heard from her in years, and had no reason to expect to. So she’d just plunged in. “Ed,” she’d said, “I’ve been missing Maryvale for too long. I’m coming home.”
Another silence, then, “You’re in social work, aren’t you?” She told him she’d been working for Texas for all these years. That digested, the old, welcoming smoothness returned. “Why, Sally, darlin’, I think that’s just real fine.”
She’d asked him if there was any work like that in Maryvale, maybe with the county.
He had been surprisingly quick on the uptake. There was indeed money in his budget to take her on. “Heck, Sally, your call came at just the right time,” he’d added. “The truth is, we can use someone with your skills. Most of our troubles are right up your alley, like alcoholism, families beating up on each other and hurting their kids, young people watching too much violent TV and running wild.”
Oh, yes, those were a social worker’s problems, all right. “Seems like those kinds of sins are the same just about everywhere, Uncle Ed.”
Then he’d added the little something that she hadn’t expected. “Well, we got kind of a special problem here.”
A tone had entered his voice that she didn’t like to hear. Really did not like. “What problem?”
“Might be your kind of problem. I’ll tell you about it when you get here.”
What could trouble Ed so much his voice would get all tight like that? She knew stress when she heard it. “I hope Maryvale’s not turning into South Houston.”
He’d chuckled, and his old East Texas style slipped back into place like a well-kept old Ford pickup sliding through its gears. “You’ll still find a lot of the old Maryvale around here, darlin’. I’ll be waiting for you.”
The closer she got to Maryvale, the clearer the radio station became. Where was it from? Not Maryvale itself, surely. There couldn’t be more than two thousand people in the whole county, if that. Somewhere farther down the road, then. East Texas is a big stretch of country that contains some of the most isolated corners of the whole United States.
She hit the scanner on the radio, and it swept right around to the same station again. Fine, she’d loved country and western when she was a girl. Who knew, maybe there were still square dances on Saturday nights. Course there were, what could she be thinking? Texas was still Texas, at least out here.
With Johnny Cash rumbling in the background, she thought back to her last week on the job, when the truth about her life had just plain struck her in the face. She had just visited her favorite client, Rashanda Martins, spent half an hour more than she should, sitting across from her in her cigarette-choked little kitchen with that rotted green curtain on the window and the screen door that let the flies in.
Why not get another curtain? A couple of bucks at Wal-Mart. Or fix the damn door, a project of an hour, maybe two?
Sally knew what Rashanda’s monthly check was—about two hundred bucks less than her own salary. It was all in the attitude, and Sally’s job was just that: change their attitudes.
She didn’t know why she enjoyed talking to Rashanda so much, since her life was pretty much the same as all of Sally’s other clients. Rashanda’s project was a disintegrating warren of concrete block apartments along dark halls scarred by eerily beautiful and violent graffiti. “DOS EZE,” in fluorescent purple and orange, with blood falling from the letters. “Git me Rad Ate,” whatever that meant.
Rashanda supplemented her aid with a little drug peddling and hooking on the side, so she did have a flat-screen TV in the living room and a curious, round bed with satin sheets, so crammed into the tiny bedroom that it looked like it had been grown in there.
The state of Texas wanted Rashanda to get off her rear and quit spending all her time smoking joints and watching daytime TV. It was Sally’s job to inspire her.
“Miz Hopkins! How you doin’?” she would crow, her smile too wide to mean anything but “Hello, enemy.”
Most of Sally’s clients were so hopeless and glum, giving them suggestions was about as effective as kicking a snail. They couldn’t wait for her to write up her damn report and get the hell out. However well she might conceal it, they knew that she felt contempt for the way they’d screwed up their lives. Texas wanted these people to get off their tails and get a job scraping dishes or rendering fat or something. The nobility of labor—minimum wage, minimum benefits, no unions need apply.
Sally, however, could relate to Rashanda, largely because she was so refreshingly straightforward. When she started her standard lecture about the pride to be gained from earning an honest living, Rashanda said, “Hell, Miz Hopkins, I know I’ve messed up by playing around, but that don’t mean I got to be punished in this life by going out to clean public toilets. Ain’t no way what I do’s gonna make any difference in this world, so I may as well enjoy myself as best I can. Trouble is, I like men too damn much, and they ain’t never been any good for me.”
She had left that last visit in a sour funk—and not because Rashanda was stubborn. For another, darker reason: as she bypassed the broken elevator and walked down the long flight of stairs to the parking lot, she reflected on the idea that maybe Rashanda was dead-on right.
Truth be told, Sally’s middle-class life was, in fact, no better than Rashanda’s poor one, and it was certainly a lot less fun. She lived in a tiny, sterile hole of an apartment with a grouchy roommate, and she had the same problems with men that Rashanda did. She liked them too damn much, and they were never any good for her.
This new realization was the little flutter of breeze that brought the whole house of cards down. She’d done a slow-motion meltdown in the office, erasing files, pulling records, doing whatever she could to make her clients disappear into the system.
Texas was planning to abandon them sooner than they thought. Texas was getting real uneasy about folks supping at the public trough, yes ma’am, she surely was. But now these few, these precious few, were going to be real hard to find. Their checks would keep coming for years, probably, maybe unto death. Maybe after.
She’d been working there long enough to know she’d better leave before she got canned, so she handed in her resignation prior to somebody figuring out that her clients had all been “ghosted” off the rolls.
She’d gone home to find her roommate pounding away in her bedroom with her latest sex toy, a guy named Harry or Frankie or Seth or Jason or whatever. Whoever. She’d listened to the jungle drum of it, her roomie’s transparently fake cries, the guy’s gasping and yelling, and had decided there was no choice: she had to leave here and she had to do that right now, this instant.
She’d pulled down her suitcases and started packing, and then realized that she wasn’t just leaving this apartment, she was leaving this whole life, Houston, her job, everything.
As she packed, she’d sort of assumed that this would be the first of three or four days of moving, during which her friends would find out and try different ways to make her stay.
In fact, the packing was done in an hour and over the three days until her Friday departure, the only comments she’d gotten had been good-byes.
Her roommate could scarcely conceal her delight. She could ask Will-Mark-Todd to move in. Think of it, he could get drunk and slap her around right here at home instead of doing it out behind the bowling alley on Riverside and Old Spanish Trail.
Actually, when her last day arrived, the office gained an atmosphere of celebration. She faced a hard reality: people were relieved to be rid of her and her dark moods.
Sally had told herself, It’s okay, you will get through this, you will not break down and cry. She should be used to feeling unwanted. That had been the story of her childhood, after all.
She was always kind of baffled by the way people congregated, by all the friends they seemed to have, by the laughter and the delight with which they greeted each other. Before Sally spoke, she would compulsively clear her throat. And if she was in a crowd, she’d feel the need to first tap the shoulder of anybody she wanted to address.
Shyness, she thought, attributable to a lonely childhood and a lack of parental affection. Until she’d left home, heading for the University of Texas in Austin, she hadn’t realized that most children didn’t get up in the morning unsupervised, get dressed and make breakfast by themselves, without glimpsing an adult, then go off to school without so much as a wave good-bye. She’d learned from the way people talked about their pasts that her own family had qualified way high on the Dysfunctionality Scale.
Her parents had been like ghosts drifting in a ghost world of their own that only intersected with hers in the deep of the night, when long, drunken arguments, pitched low in the wee hours, would ebb and flow through her dreams like a poisonous smoke. But that had only been at first. Later, it was not as good.
When she came home after school, she’d let herself into a dark and empty house. After a makeshift supper scrounged from whatever she could find in the refrigerator, she’d do her homework to the droning accompaniment of the television, then get herself ready for bed. Sometimes her dad would look in on her when he came home, sometimes—precious memories—actually kiss her good night.
But an atomic bomb had gone off in the family when she was seven: the simple horror of it was that her mother had killed herself.
To this day, she remembered the moment she’d found her, the strange coolness of the room, the way her hand lay along the bed, soft late sunlight gleaming on the empty skin. She had touched her face, and it had felt like the cool rubber skin on a doll.
In her college psych courses, she’d learned that her mother had been “bipolar,” a nicer term than “manic-depressive.” But manic-depressive gave a more accurate picture of what life with Mother was all about. There were long, slow storms of weeping, and Sally couldn’t comfort her and Daddy stayed away, and the desperation came to seem like a sort of weather, with gray clouds forever.
Then there were the times when, all of a sudden, the sun would come out, and Mother would enter the living room dressed and ready and sing out cheerily, “Sally, let’s go!” Off they would go to see a movie, assuming there was an old musical at the Texan or a comedy at one of the multiplexes.
Afterward, they always stopped at Baskin-Robbins and had hot fudge sundaes and fed each other and fought over the cherries. Occasionally, while channel surfing late at night, Sally would come across one of the films they’d seen together and her heart would be struck as if by a blow.
One afternoon when her father was away on a business trip, Momma had come into Sally’s bedroom and said, “Promise me that if anything happens to me, you’ll go next door to the Trumans.”
The Trumans were a strange little couple who had built their house themselves. It was a fifties-style box with a flat roof, and they were kind of box-shaped themselves. The house leaned a little to one side. Years later, Sally drove by and noticed it looked sort of okay since the new owners had put on a traditional peaked roof.
That evening, her mother was unusually quiet. When Sally went into her bedroom and called her, then touched her hand, she remained eerily still. Then that other touch, the one that still lived in her fingers and always would, of her cool, lifeless cheek.
She promptly went next door, just as she had been instructed to do. After going over to check on her mother’s condition, Mr. Truman got hold of her father, who rushed home. The funeral was held a few days later. Sally could not remember crying. Her father had been polite, shaking hands with family members. And there had been those low voices again, murmuring the incantations of loss that seemed to her a special, secret adult language, a language that meant only one thing: the little girl will now be completely alone. Momma had taken so many sleeping pills that she’d died. To this day, Sally refused to take them, even when the ghosts of the past sobbed in her memories and sleep would not come.
Uncle Ed was her mother’s brother. She had begun visiting him in Maryvale during the summers, because her father didn’t know what to do with her once school was out. Ed was a lifelong bachelor, but nevertheless he was happy to entertain his little niece for a couple of months every year.
That had been happiness—looked forward to from the moment she had to leave in the fall to the moment she came back after school was out. Then, by the grace of God and the calendar, she would return to her wonderful little room that looked out on the old elm with its squirrels and its mockingbird who would trill on moonlit nights with a sweet demon’s fervor.
Maryvale, named by its founder for his long-lost wife. Sort of English-sounding for a Texas place. But so lovely: the Vale of Mary. Orange Indian Blanket swarmed the roadsides, and bluebonnets marched the long valley itself, and on stormy nights, the hills around conversed in their ancient, rumbling tongue.
Her father remarried two years after Mom died, and if her suicide had been an atomic bomb, this was like opening a flamethrower on the broken little soul that still survived, because her stepmother just plain hated her.
During the courtship, it had been “Oh, Sally, love, come sit over here with me.” She’d smelled of Arpege and Camels, and her nails were blood red.
Before the coming of her stepmother, Sally had never doubted she was loved, because children have a hard time doing that, but afterward, she knew what it was to be despised. She’d never been cared for, but her poor momma had certainly loved her—and her dad, too, in his dry and distant way.
Once the new woman entered her world, though, Sally made a horrifying discovery: this was someone who could not be pleased. Suddenly Sally wasn’t athletic enough, didn’t clean her room well enough, read the wrong kinds of books. Babies poured out of her stepmother like an avalanche, and Sally soon found herself caring for howling twins and a curly little boy who understood by the time he was three that this house contained a real-live Cinderella to kick around.
As Sally reached her teens, it became clear that everything would be perfect if she would simply vanish.
She tried to oblige by running away from home. Time and again, she took off from the house, from school, from wherever she happened to be, heading for vaguely imagined nirvanas like the streets of New Orleans or New York or San Francisco, dreaming of passage to India, of the byways of Paris … but always ending up in the backseat of a cop car on her way home.
When at last she got her letter of admission to UT, she took off for real and with their full and complete approval.
“Be good,” was how they put it. Sentimental to the end.
She never returned home again, not even for Christmas. She tried not to hear the relief in her father’s voice when she told him she’d be visiting Uncle Ed for the holidays instead.
The Maryvale exit came up suddenly, and she had to brake hard to avoid passing it by. She made it though, tires squealing as she turned. Once off the highway, she slowed the car, rolled down the window, and sucked in the country air, rich with summer heat.
That scent, the dry grass of high summer, the faint tang of sweating East Texas pine, filled her with a burst of emotion so powerful and so unexpected that she sobbed. She almost had to stop the car. But there was no way she would do that. She went on down the road, toward the one place in the world that had always treated her well.