“Do you think you could kick up just a little bit more dirt? That would be awesome.”
I turned my head to cough into my elbow, hoping that my flannel sleeve would work as a filter and keep some of the dry dust that rose around me like a cloud out of my lungs. My brother tugged his horse around to face me and laughed.
“You sure have gotten delicate. You can’t even breathe in a little bit of field dirt without having a fit over it.”
“I’m not delicate,” I protested. “It’s just that they’re expecting me up at the bar tonight.”
“Oh, yeah,” Ted said, pulling at the horse’s reins to keep her steady. She didn’t seem to be enjoying the cloud of dirt any more than I was. “I forgot that you’re famous now. What is it that you sing up there anyway?”
I pressed my hat back down onto my head and glared at him.
“It’s not like you’d know. You’ve never been up there to hear me. None of you have.”
I grabbed a bale of hay from the flatbed trailer hitched on the back of my horse and tossed it over the fence into the field for the herd. The bitterness tried to make its way into my mind no matter how hard I tried to fight it. I had been singing at Kinsey’s for more than a year and not once had either of my parents or any of my three younger brothers bothered to come up and listen to me. Sometimes I wondered if they even realized that I was still doing it.
We made our way through the rest of the fields until all of the herd had been fed, and then we headed back to the house. The sun was starting its slow slide toward the other side of the sky, which meant that I didn’t have much time to eat my supper and get washed up before it was time to head to the bar. For all of his faults, and he certainly had plenty of them, the bar owner, Kinsey, had promptness down pat. If he said that he wanted me to start singing at eight o’clock, I better be up on that stage with my guitar on my lap and my mouth open ready for that first note to come out at 7:59.
I crossed through the kitchen on my way up to my bedroom. My mother winced as my boots shook dirt out onto the floor. She gave a sigh that shook the hearts of every Southern woman throughout history and turned back to the pot bubbling away on the stove, stirring with her old wooden spoon, and staring into the chili as if the swirling of the beans and beef through the thick red sauce gave her solace from the dirt-ridden sins of her eldest son.
“Don’t worry, Mama, I’m going to go take a shower before supper,” I said, leaning over to kiss her on the cheek.
“Are you going to take my linoleum along with you?” she asked.
“I would if my shower was bigger than a matchbox.”
“Your shower is plenty big. There are many young men your age who don’t have showers of their own.”
“That’s only because they have to share them with their wives.”
She gasped and put her hand to her chest, splattering chili onto the counter beside her. There was a tense pause as if she couldn’t decide whether she wanted to continue being appalled or if she should immediately jump to cleaning up the dastardly spill. She settled on appalled and turned to face me.
“You shouldn’t say things like that to your mother, Davey.”
“David, Mama, and all I meant is that every man I know that’s my age is either married or has gotten out of this town already. I don’t know anyone who has hit twenty-six and still lives at home.”
“Well, if you hadn’t broken up with Ella, that wouldn’t be a problem, now would it? You know, you really should give her a call.”
I nodded and turned away from the stove, starting my way toward the living room so I could get upstairs, not wanting to hear much more about Ella from her.
She continued regardless. “I hear that she has been visiting with her grandmother for a few weeks, but she might be back. Call her up and ask her over for supper this Sunday.”
She had to lift her voice to a shout by the time she got to the end because I was already halfway up the stairs and doing my best to block her out. I had heard almost that exact same speech approximately a thousand times in the year since I broke up with my former fiancée. Mama just wouldn’t let it go. Of course, she hadn’t heard the entire story as to why I had abruptly called off the wedding only a few weeks after we got engaged, but it seemed that her “supportive mother” routine had shifted into a “please give me grandchildren” campaign sometime in the last six months.
It wasn’t that I was completely opposed to the concept of getting married and having children. It just wasn’t on my horizon anymore. The whole Ella situation hadn’t exactly been kind to my heart, but it had given me fantastic fodder for songs. Silver linings.
Deciding that narrowly escaping my mother’s guilt trip once was enough for one night, I showered, dressed, and snuck out the back door while the rest of the family was setting the table. I would catch hell for it later, but settling for a greasy hamburger and a beer at the bar was worth not listening to my entire family lecture me about not growing up and getting on with my life.
They were good at trying to make me feel guilty about even considering not staying at the ranch for the rest of my earthly existence as well. There was a very small range of choices it seemed they were willing to give me; either get married, produce several strong sons, and stay on the ranch raising cattle until I died, or declare myself a lifelong committed bachelor who was fully devoted to the family legacy, and stay on the ranch raising cattle until I died. “Be a singer” wasn’t even on the spectrum.
I sighed as I pulled into the dusty gravel parking lot at the back of Kinsey’s and turned off my truck. I would have to settle for singing there for as long as they’d let me and I could still come up with new laments to fill my set list. Every now and again I tried to slip in a more optimistic song, but the regulars had low tolerance for that. For the most part, they wanted to hear about the women who had stolen my heart and ground it up with a cheese grater or the life I longed for somewhere outside of the tiny town where I grew up. Fortunately, I had yet to run out of different ways to talk about both of those issues, so my position seemed relatively safe.
Kinsey waved at me from his corner of the bar as I walked in.
I grinned and slipped onto the barstool a couple down from him. It was hard to believe sometimes that he was still kicking. It looked like someone could sneeze in the wrong direction and it would knock him right off his stool, but there he sat, pounding back boilermakers and regaling whoever would listen with his own stories of women who had done him wrong and all the dogs he had managed to lose. I liked to think that my songs had a bit more grit than his stories did, but what his lacked in drama they certainly made up for in delivery.
“Have I ever told you,” he started, swinging his drink along with his body so that the beer sloshed out over the side of the glass, “about when I dated the sisters?”
“The twins or the nuns, Kinsey?”
“Well, I guess I have,” he said, catching himself on the edge of the bar so he could pull himself back into place on his stool.
“Hey, honey,” I said to Lucy, the sweet but somewhat unfortunate-looking bartender who I had known since I was old enough to be aware of knowing other people, “could you grab me a hamburger?”
“You bet,” she said and lowered a pint glass of dark ale to the napkin in front of me.
I took a sip and turned toward the sound of the outdated bells still attached to the top of the door. Danny, the drummer of my band, strode through and settled into place beside me.
“You’re here early,” he said, gesturing to Lucy.
She brought him a beer, and I let him take a sip before answering. “I’m hiding out from my mother. She’s back on her ‘call Ella’ track.”
“When are you going to just tell her why you broke up? It would get her off your back.”
“It might get her off my back, but I don’t know if her heart could take it. Besides, I don’t want to be the one responsible for killing her.”
“So you’re just going to keep listening to it until she gives up?”
I took a bite of the burger Lucy put in front of me and raised my glass in a toast.