Read Irish Chain Online

Authors: Earlene Fowler

Irish Chain (3 page)

Miss Violet and Oralee shared a room in one of Oak Terrace’s ambulatory wings, where the criteria for matching roommates was, at best, hit or miss. In their case, it was as unlikely a pairing as Minnie Pearl and Ma Barker. Miss Violet’s frantic whispered voice interrupted an amusing picture of Oralee puffing away on an old stogie.

“Oh, my goodness. Guess who just walked into the room?”

I heard a muted grappling for the phone. Oralee’s coarse, burnt-grass voice bellowed through the telephone line. “Who is this?” It was a voice used to pinballing orders across hills dotted with thick-trunked oaks to men reluctant to oblige the instructions of a woman, even if she did own the ranch.

“Hi, Oralee. It’s Benni Harper. Miss Violet has just been telling me—”

“I heard what Little Miss Rosy-Posy-Pudd’n ‘n’-Pie was tellin’ you. Did she mention that O’Hara is a scum-bellied, cactus-mouthed, card-cheatin’ son-of-a-biscuit?” Only the slight slur at the end of her words gave away that she’d suffered a stroke to her left side.

For a moment, I sympathized with Miss Violet. I’d been on the thrashing end of this voice myself more than once. Eighteen years ago, when I was sixteen, to earn the down payment for my first car, I worked weekends for Oralee as a nightrider checking pregnant cows. She made it clear from the beginning she thought I was a snot-nosed kid with a smartass attitude she was only hiring out of respect for my daddy. She watched me like a savage old prairie falcon from underneath her stained and battered Resistol cowboy hat until I proved to her I knew the proper way to search for cows isolating themselves in preparation for birth, how to monitor their breathing and use my flashlight to check their sad, dark eyes for signs of trouble. She helped me pull more than one calf, her tanned, sun-leathered lips turning up in a rare smile while we watched the cow lick and lick its calf until the spindly legged baby stumbled up for its first milk. Twice when I pulled with her, we lost calves. Once, both the cow and calf. Each time, after a prolonged cussing fit, she didn’t speak for the rest of the night. Then she fixed me warm almond milk and cinnamon toast in her old kitchen before I rode my paint horse, Zelda, home. I loved Oralee like she was one of my own relatives, but I didn’t envy Miss Violet her roommate.

“Yes, ma’am, she did mention Mr. O’Hara once or twice in her conversation,” I said. “Look, I’ll talk to him myself about it tonight. I’m sure it’s all just a misunderstanding.”

“Bull paducah,” Oralee replied. “Brady O’Hara is evil and a crook besides, plain and simple. Always has been, always will be. Thinks that store-bought-oleo tongue and devil smile of his can get him out of anything. You just better call the cops and have him hauled off to the clinker before I kick that Irish butt of his all the way to Tucson.”

“C’mon, Oralee, the police?”

“Bet you know that number by heart.” A harsh noise came over the line—somewhere between a cough and a squawk. If I didn’t know better, I’d have sworn it was a laugh. “We’ll make that young crossbred stud of yours earn his keep by doing something besides sitting there on his sweet little ass”—I heard a noisy struggle through the phone—“Ouch! Don’t you pinch me, old woman. Oh, for pity’s sake—fanny—looking pretty.”

“I’ll talk to Gabe about it as soon as I see him,” I said, stifling my laugh. It would only spur her on. “I’ll see what he can do. Are you ready for the prom?”

“Waste of time. I’m eighty-two. Don’t got much to waste.”

“You have to go. It’s the quilting class’s project. And you
the president.”

“Only because Mittie Barntower bit the big one and you all elected the only other person who has half her marbles around here.”

“Oralee,” I said with mock sternness. That comment probably earned her another black mark on Miss Violet’s mental blackboard. “Look, I have to go. Dove needs to finish fixing the hem on my dress. I’ll see you tonight.”

“Okay,” she said, reluctantly. “You tell Dove ‘hey’ for me and thank her for that deer jerky she sent by Mac. It sure hit the spot. And don’t you be forgetting to talk to that cop of yours, hear me?”

“I won’t. I’m sure he can work something out with you two.”

“Well, I expect results or there’ll be you-know-what-hot-spot to pay.” Her voice became muffled when she turned away from the phone. “That make you happy, Miss Priss?”

“Oralee,” I said in a loud voice. “Try and behave.”

“’Bout as much chance of that as a coyote at a jackrabbit convention.”

“Spare me the Western homilies. And wear a dress tonight. If I have to, so do you.”

“When a bull fills a milk bucket,” she said cheerfully and hung up.

I was standing in front of the mirror, studying the ridiculous-looking dress, envying the freedom from vanity people Oralee’s age had, when Dove and Elvia walked back into the room. Elvia settled back down on the bed, a china-blue bowl of peach cobbler in her hands.

“Who were you yelling at?” Dove asked.

“Oralee Reid. And I wasn’t yelling. I was just trying to get her attention.”

“What’d that cranky old biddy want?” Dove asked, an indulgent smile on her face. Dove was one of the few people who never let Oralee get under her skin, probably because she gave as good as she got.

I gave a
Reader’s Digest
version of the incident.

“Well, it’s a real shame she’s having a hard time adjusting to Oak Terrace, but poor Mac didn’t have any choice. Even though her stroke was a small one, she was getting to where she couldn’t run that ranch. And she refused to move in with him. One time he came to visit her and all the burners on the stove was going full blast while she was out in the barn repairing a hay crib. About scared him to death.” Dove picked up the apple-shaped pincushion from the dresser, her face pensive. “I really feel for her. Leaving your home is hard.”

“I know,” I said, remembering the slow, satisfying tempo of ranch life—how Jack and I would lie in bed and laugh at the scratching of the squirrels playing tag on our wood-shingled roof, the new-fabric smell of fresh hay, the clump of his heavy work boots hitting the wooden service porch floor at the end of the day.

“Still having trouble sleeping?” Dove asked, reaching over and brushing my curly bangs out of my eyes.

I turned my head and didn’t answer. Jack’s death wasn’t something I felt the need to talk about anymore. You get to the point where it seems as if everything that could be said, has been. What no one ever told you, and maybe couldn’t, was how much grief was like one of those long, slow illnesses where bad and good days were as unpredictable as a pull on a slot machine. Just when you thought you had it licked, when you weren’t paying attention, some memory hit you right between the eyes and your senses throbbed with the loss, leaving you trembling with an emotion not unlike fear.

But the good days were finally beginning to outnumber the bad. Having Gabe in my life helped. He had an arrogantly zany twist to his personality that could make me laugh sometimes when nothing else could. On good days, I could almost forget how Jack died, lying in a ditch, killed by alcohol and stupidity. Instead, I liked imagining him with my mother, who died when I was six, both of them sitting together on a long white front porch somewhere, shelling peas and watching over me. Oh, I had sleepless nights, but it was the still-unaccustomed city noises as well as getting used to sleeping alone that kept me punching channels into the early morning, cruising the cable stations from
The Donna Reed Show
to old Gary Cooper movies. I understood what Oralee was feeling. Losing a way of life is a lot like losing someone you love.

“Change isn’t ever easy,” Dove said softly. “Human beings are surely fond of what they already know. But the good Lord helps us adjust.” She gave me a gentle push between the shoulder blades. “Now, you hop back up on those phone books and let’s get this done. I got to get back to the ranch and cook your daddy’s dinner. And don’t you worry none about Oralee Reid. She’ll be just fine. That woman is pure seasoned oak.”

“Speaking of Oralee, how’s the church liking Mac?” I asked. Oralee’s grandson, MacKenzie Reid, had just been called as minister a month ago to the First Baptist Church over by Cal Poly University. It was a radical move for the conservative four-hundred-member church where I’d been baptized and married, then cried at both my mother’s and husband’s funerals. They were hoping, I’d heard through the grapevine, since I hadn’t been the most regular attender lately, to attract a younger crowd into the aging congregation. Mac Reid was a hometown boy, just turned forty, and widowed five years ago when his young wife died of a brain tumor. He was a big man, ruggedly handsome and too charismatic for his own good. He and my Uncle Arnie, both six years my senior, had been best friends in high school. They used to tease me until I screamed, causing Dove to march them out to the barn to shovel manure. In the seventies, Mac played a pretty mean defensive tackle for Baylor University, and right before graduating, shocked everyone when he received and accepted a higher calling than even the NFL. Definitely not your typical Baptist minister.

“He’s good,” Dove said, bending down and going to work on the rest of the hem. “Which you’d know if you darkened the church’s door more than once every three months.” I didn’t answer. “Talks real loud,” she continued. “Keeps most folks awake, even that lazy back-row bunch.”

“I always thought it was funny that Oralee’s grandson became a minister,” Elvia said, setting the blue bowl down on my nightstand.

“Probably a reverse kind of rebellion. You know kids,” I said in a pointed tone. “When you push them one way, they tend to go the other.” Dove just grunted.

“Is he living out at the ranch?” Elvia asked.

“Nope,” Dove said. “Oralee doesn’t know it yet, but he’s put the place up for sale. He’s got power of attorney since his dad died.”

“Does he have to sell out?” I asked, feeling sad because I already knew the answer.

“He can’t run the ranch and the church too. Besides, that place hasn’t turned a profit for a long time. I heard he’s been sending Oralee money for years. Even used up the money from his wife’s insurance. You know most of the Reid land is leased from the oil companies and they’re starting to sell it off now to developers. A plain old cattleman can’t live off the land anymore.” She looked up at me. “But then, I don’t have to tell you that.”

“That’s for sure.” I was still in the midst of helping my brother-in-law, Wade, dissolve the holdings of the foreclosed Harper Ranch. Wade and his family had gone ahead and moved back to Texas to live with relatives, and we were transacting most of the business through the mail or over the phone.

“Are you really going to tell Gabe about Oralee and that card game business?” Elvia broke in. I smiled at her gratefully. She knew how much thinking about losing the ranch bothered me.

“I guess I’ll be forced to, since he’ll see them tonight and he hates walking into situations cold. You know, since he and I have been seeing each other, I’ve had more people stop me in the street and tell me their problems. Mr. Treton next door grabbed me yesterday and told me he thinks the electric company is increasing voltage to the homes of senior citizens in an effort to cause more static electricity, which short-circuits their hearing aids. He says the electric company owns all the hearing-aid manufacturers, and he wants Gabe to set up a task force to investigate. Offered to go undercover himself.”

“That crazy old fool,” Dove said. “He couldn’t find a cowbell in his own bed.”

“Then I find it hard to believe you’d find
he has to say worthwhile....” I gently tapped the top of her pillowy white hair with the back of my fingers. She didn’t raise her head.

“He has something of interest to say every now and then. I just like being there when it happens.”

The fact that she bribes Mr. Treton with home-baked bread and jars of her clover honey for information on my daily activities still tends to rattle my cage once in a while. Not that it stops her.

“All done,” she said, standing up. “All I have to do now is whipstitch it real quick.” I turned and studied myself in the mirror.

“Well, look at me. All Scarletted up and ready to face whatever.” I pulled at a strand of my curly reddish-blond hair. A little over two months ago, in a mindless, emotional moment, I’d cut my waist-length hair up to my neck and now had no idea what to do with it except poke at it once in a while. “Maybe I shouldn’t have cut my hair.”

“It looks fine,” Elvia assured me, inspecting a strand of her own shoulder-length mink-black hair. “You look very contemporary. Very . . . cute.”

I cringed inwardly the minute the word popped out of her mouth. Though I didn’t usually spend much time thinking about my looks, at thirty-four and seeing a man eight years my senior, cute wasn’t exactly the look I was striving for. Wirehaired terriers were cute. Opie Taylor was cute.

“Besides,” she added, “anything is better than that boring old braid you used to wear everywhere.”

“You’re really pushing it today, Suzie Q,” Dove said, shaking the tip of her own white braid at Elvia.

We were laughing at Elvia holding up her hands in playful surrender when a triple rap on the front door interrupted us. I looked over at the clock-radio on my nightstand. Eleven o’clock on a Saturday morning. Some things were getting as predictable as spring onions.

“Dove, will you answer it?” I picked up my full skirt and dashed into the bathroom, just off my bedroom.

“Benni, watch that hem,” Dove complained.

“Please,” I called. “I’m unarmed.”

“You’re what?” Elvia asked.

A minute later, I stood in the doorway of the bathroom and watched Gabe follow Dove into my bedroom. He looked especially attractive and unprofessional this morning in his tight black running shorts and a faded gray sweatshirt displaying a peeling picture of Albert Einstein.

“Hey, Chief Ortiz.” I walked sedately toward him, hands behind my back, hoop skirt bobbing around my ankles like a bell around a clapper. We locked eyes and exchanged big smiles.

“Hey, Benni Harper.” His eyes scanned me from head to toe. “You look like . . .” Words appeared to have failed him.

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