A month after Marla left Galen to be with Heath, they put Heath’s granny in the nursing home in Cameron. She had Alzheimer’s and got to be too much for Heath’s mother. Since he was the only boy on that side of the family, Heath’s mama made sure he got title to the 1963 Bel Air. When he took possession of the car, his blue-green eyes twinkled, and Marla told him it was another one of his toys. His jaw muscles sagged, and he twisted her hair too tight around his finger when he told her this vehicle was a classic. “But with you being married to a rich man, you wouldn’t know a poor man’s classic.”
Marla wanted to cry, knowing she had paid for the insurance and the maintenance of his old blue piece of junk. He said it was the second vehicle his grandparents ever owned. “Took better care of it than you ever did one of those Sevilles. Oh, I forgot, the last car Galen bought you was a BMW, and you stripped the transmission.”
“Did not, and besides Galen got it fixed,” Marla told him and reminded him of how much he liked parading around town in her orange Beemer, and he said she ruined a good car by making Galen buy an automatic.“Would have been a damned good car, but no, you couldn’t take the time out of your lazy life to learn to drive a standard.”
Arguing with Heath didn’t go anywhere, so Marla grabbed his arm as he drove, and he said to stop playing with the driver. “I got tired of being spoiled by a rich man who didn’t know what a girl wants.” She toyed with the chest muscle that spanned his body. “Never had it so good with Galen.” She called Heath her boy toy and said he excited her in ways Galen never could. “Riches and money, but not love,” she purred to make him see how truly happy she was for the first time in her life.
Heath pushed her away with his arm. “Poor folk like me can’t pay to have cars fixed every time you turn around. We can’t trade in every year like you rich folk.” Then he said, with any kind of luck, the Bel Air would last a lifetime.Galen’s money never meant a whole lot to Marla, but her mama was another story. “You can marry a rich man or a poor man,” her mama told Marla and her sister Molly. “The sex is all the same. The main difference is the comfort you get in not having to worry about where the next dime’s coming from.” Marla’s mama said she was the voice of experience. “Take me, married to your daddy. Not that I’d ever let him know, but life ain’t been what it could be.” All Marla knew was when Galen looked at her in high school and wanted to go to the movies, Mama made sure Marla dressed the part. “We got to keep him interested,” she said. Never mind that Sam, Galen’s best friend, made Marla’s heart dance in her chest. “Sam don’t have family money,” Mama said. “Take my word, and stay with Galen.” When Sam came round with Galen, Mama swooned at Sam’s body muscles, the same way Marla got carried away by Heath’s, but Mama said later, “You can’t date that boy. He won’t amount to much.” Not that Sam didn’t have as much ambition as Galen, just that Galen had the family money, and to Mama that made the difference.
Heath preened and fixed on that car to the point Marla might have been jealous, but it meant something to his family, and Marla tried to convince herself she hadn’t made the mistake of her life leaving a husband of twenty years for a boy five years older than Marla’s son Jason.
After Marla left Galen, Mama said, “I can’t hold up my head at church, knowing what folks are saying behind my back. ‘Her daughter’s shacked up with a boy who should be dating her daughter Anna Lee. He’s half her age mind you. What’s this world coming to?’ And I never thought they’d be saying that about you of all my children.” Mama acted like she was going to take a fall. Papa always came running to hoist her up on her elephant legs and get her circulation moving, but Marla knew it was an act.
Marla turned to walk away, and Mama kept herself from hitting the floor. “It ain’t bad enough your sister leaves her two young babies and starts doing that dope.”
“Mama, that was ten years ago.”
“You was the only one I thought I could count on. You and Galen.”
“And his money.”
“It’ll see you through a long winter’s night,” she said. Then the pock marks on her face turned bright purple, and if Papa had been there, he’d sworn she was about to have a stroke she never had. “Think, Girl, of all you’re giving up—to give into a lust that won’t see you through the night.”
Marla left and drove like the wind to get back to Heath and his pulsing pecs. When she got to the apartment, they romped for most of the afternoon. He pinched her thighs between his fingers and squeezed her cellulite like he was trying to pop a pimple. “Hail damage,” he said and laughed while Marla told him her mama has the same problem, and the only thing she could do is control her weight, not the cellulite bulges that even the gels they sell on TV would not eliminate.
When Heath got the Bel Air from his granny, he didn’t have the car two weeks before he came in one night from the auto shop and said, “The guys keep telling me if I want to keep that car in prime condition, first thing I ought to do is invest in a paint job.” When Marla didn’t say anything, he went to the refrigerator and got himself a cold Coors. “Ah, that just about hits the spot, but you know the boys are right. Granny took good care of it, but cars need paint jobs, and it’s been about thirty years.”
Marla was hungry and wanted to order out from Domino’s. She said they could order one of those pizzas with the cheese-filled crust, just to see what it tastes like. “We could use Galen’s card.”
“You want to waste a perfectly good credit card on food?” Heath flexed his muscles inside his shirt, and Marla forgot about being hungry. “Ike could do the paint job, and we could put it on the card.”
Marla said they couldn’t expect to keep the card long if they started putting $600.00 charges on it, but he mumbled under his breath so she could hardly hear. Marla asked what he said, and he yelled, “Rich bitch. What do you think I said?” He added that he’d be back when he got good and ready. Marla pulled at his shirt and begged him to stay and talk things out. He pulled away and ran to the driveway. He skidded out of the drive in her BMW, leaving a black mark on the road as he fishtailed around the corner. Marla didn’t have the keys to his granny’s car, so she cried, pulling at her forehead with her hands until she bruised her left eye. She couldn’t keep from thinking, And I left Galen for this? Sam would never have treated me this way.
An hour became two, then three, and it was six o’clock the next morning before he came in and showered before going to work at the auto shop. “All right, we’ll put it on the card,” Marla said before he left. He didn’t say a word about where he’d been, and Marla was scared to ask. He might say he took up with an old girlfriend again. That afternoon, they began priming the car to be painted, and two months passed, and the charge must have appeared on Galen’s bill, but he never said a thing about it.
Once that charge went through, Heath took it into his mind that the tires weren’t just perfect. “Granny had to live within her means. To make this car sizzle, we need to get vintage tires and rims,” he said. Marla held her breath, watching his chest pulse. His blue eyes carried her into his world, the same way Sam’s used to. “Yeah, we’d be the envy of the street,” he said.
“We might be, but we can’t afford the things you want.”
“No, sure can’t, Rich Bitch.” He flexed his chest, and Marla tried to tell him they were living on borrowed money. He said, “Rich men don’t pay no mind to their credit cards.”
Just like before, there was no changing his mind, and Marla didn’t want to spend the whole night worrying where he was, so she gave in. He had to work the next day, and no place in Lindsey carried the tires he said were made for that Bel Air. At work, the boys told him of a place in Fort Worth, and he took the next day off. Marla tried to tell him this was different from having the boys at the shop make charges on Galen’s card. “In Fort Worth, they check IDs, and I could get arrested.”
“Won’t happen. Just follow my lead.”
But he didn’t give Marla a lead to follow. The whole time the girl was putting the charge through, he made jokes about rich men and how they get all the breaks. He even mentioned Galen’s name, and Marla tried to get him to hush by darting her eyes at him. She couldn’t keep her left leg from moving up and down as they waited for the charge to go through.
All the way home, Heath played Snoop Doggy Dog while Marla curled in her corner and thanked God they were on their way home. “Can’t wait to show the guys at the shop what I got,” he said. She tried to tell him one more time they couldn’t expect to live off Galen’s credit for much longer. He put on the brakes, and she grabbed the front dash to keep from hitting her head. “Quit your nagging,” he yelled. “You sound like my mama, and I don’t need another one.” He quoted the words from the bumper sticker he put on Marla’s BMW when she wasn’t looking. “Life’s a bitch, and then you marry one. Except in this instance, I’m just living with one, and I could leave anytime. That what you want?”
If he left, Marla would have to move in with Mama and listen to her saying, “Mama knows best. You left a perfectly good man for scum.” Only, Galen wasn’t Marla’s choice. Not like Sam, who got killed the summer after she married Galen. He joined the army; it was one of those freak accidents, the kind that happens to others, not anybody you know. In the middle of nowhere, twenty soldiers on a training expedition, and the vehicle veered off the road. The others suffered minor scrapes and injuries, but Sam was killed. Marla went to the funeral, though Mama told her she didn’t have to—but Marla had to be there, and she put a flower in his lapel and grieved for the only man she would ever love. In his army uniform, Marla envisioned his pectoral muscles, his broad shoulders, and the mane of shoulder-length blonde hair they shaved into a crew cut for the Army.
Marla couldn’t stop from shuddering as Heath put the car in gear. She tucked her arm under his as he drove and told him he was the man of her dreams, with his broad shoulders and copper mane that flowed down his back in a river of hair. He switched stations when they started to lose the Fort Worth rock music. “Damn country and western shit,” Heath said. He fiddled with the knobs to find a station that played rap. To Marla, his music sounded garbled, but he said that was because she was just like his mama who only wanted to listen to old stuff like “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Marla knew not to tell him that Puff was way before her time, so she sat in the corner and tried to tune out the static of the last verse of a rap song before they lost the station entirely. And she couldn’t help wondering, What music would Sam listen to? Rock, country, blues? She’d never know. She kind of remembered that once Sam told her to listen to something by Jim Croce. Time in a bottle, time in a dream. Maybe that was the song he liked, but she just didn’t know.
Marla wished the new tires would make Heath happy, make that smile that showed his chin dimple stay on his face. It’s been over twenty years—she kind of remembers Sam had a dimple on his chin when he smiled. Nothing makes Heath happy permanently, just for a little bit until a new toy comes along. No new toy came between them, not in the final analysis—just that Bel Air.
Without letting her know, he took the BMW. That day was the first time in weeks that she got to be with her kids. Jason and Anna Lee took Marla to the movie and out to eat. Marla knew not to ask if Heath could come along.
Afterward, they left her at the apartment complex. It was early, and when she noticed the car was missing, and she thought Heath had taken it to Jiffy Clean Car Wash since he’s never liked a car with dust on it.
Then the 10:00 news came on, and Marla normally wouldn’t listen to the news, but Heath wasn’t home, and her Beemer was gone. She tuned in, breathing hard and shaking when the local news came on that they’d announce that a missing body had been found. But there was no word.
And then she told herself, he must have gone out with the boys for a beer. He’d be back soon, but then it turned midnight, and she held her breath, praying he wasn’t with one of his old girlfriends from high school. Finally, at four in the morning, he called. “Granny took a turn,” he said, like that explained everything.
“What do you mean?”
“They called Mama at work today, and she called me. We had to drive out to Cameron to stay with Granny—Mama and her sister Eulla and her other sister Mae. The only car that could fit everybody comfortably was yours. I didn’t think you’d mind.” It wasn’t that Marla minded; just that his mama never spoke to her, and Marla knew the woman never mentioned her name to her sisters, but they had taken her car and didn’t let her know what was happening—just like she had no reason to be there. “Now don’t go getting riled. Eulla and Mae have their husbands here, and I’m staying for the duration, but I thought maybe you might want your car back.”
Marla wanted to tell him he was damned right she wanted her car back, but then he started talking about how his granny’s pulse went down to near nothing. “She’s tough as leather. Doctor expected her to leave us yesterday, but she’s hanging in.” Marla could hear the pride in his voice, and all her anger faded. “The family’s all here, and I can’t get away, but I know you need your car, so why don’t you take the Bel Air and drive out here?”
He’d never let her so much as sit in the driver’s seat before, and here he was asking her to drive his pride and joy thirty miles to Cameron. “We could exchange vehicles,” he explained. “Besides, it’s an automatic. You ought to be able to do that much for me.”
His wheedling voice was back, so she told him sure, she’d be there soon as she could. Only she wasn’t used to the car, and the line that said it was in drive wasn’t clear, and the car made a whirring sound as she drove, but she thought it was old, and old cars do that. The sun was setting, and she was about two miles from Cameron when smoke rose up from the engine. She thought it’s just two miles. She kept driving, and the smoke got worse. The engine whirred and puffed water vapor. She pulled over at the Fina station, and the man there said, “You should have stopped miles back. I can’t exactly tell what’s happened.”
Marla started shaking and crying, and she didn’t want to call Heath, but she didn’t know a soul in Cameron, and it was getting on toward night. She asked the man what was the number at the hospital, and he looked it up. She punched in numbers on her cell phone. When she asked for Heath, the first words out of his mouth were “What the hell have you done to my granny’s car?”
“You heard me,” he yelled. “It don’t take two hours to drive from Lindsey to Cameron. So what the hell have you done to my Bel Air?”
“Nothing. It wasn’t my fault.”
He started yelling into the phone. When he came and got her, he yelled some more. Words she knew Sam would never have used, and he told the man he’d be back the next day to have it towed to Lindsey. Marla sat in the front seat as he drove back to the hospital. He told her to stay in the car, and he left her to count the minutes until he came back. Finally, she thought it wouldn’t hurt if she went into the hospital to see how his granny was doing. Between her salty tears and the smell of rubbing alcohol, her nose burned and her eyes watered, but she had to find Heath and his family. Maybe if he saw her taking care of him and his family, maybe he’d forgive her.
Soon as he saw her, he turned away and told his mama, “She couldn’t be satisfied with running her own car into the ground. She had to go and do the same to Granny’s. Only the second car my granny ever owned. She couldn’t tell when she had an automatic car in drive. Have you ever heard anything so stupid in your whole life?”
His mama’s eyes turned to ice cubes as she narrowed her lips and hissed something in Heath’s ear. He turned to Marla and said, “She thinks we ought to take care of personal disagreements some place else besides the hospital.” He grabbed her arm and shoved her ahead of him. No matter how fast she walked, he kicked the back of her heels with his work boots. When they got to the car, he said, “You can just leave. It’s over.” Marla cried and held her head, and he said he didn’t want her going back to the apartment and taking everything else that meant something to him, so she told him she’d get a hotel room for the night in Cameron.
“Don’t matter what you do, Slut.”
She told him she’d go to the Tour’o’tel next door and get a room. “I’ll put it on Galen’s card. You can stay till visiting hours are over, and then we can talk things out. After we’ve both had time to calm down.”
At least, he didn’t say no. He nodded and said, “Yeah, you do that.” He walked back into the hospital. Somehow, she knew to stop at the Exxon station next door to the hotel and fill the nearly empty tank with Diesel. She went to the Tour’o’tel and took a room for Mr. and Mrs. Galen Sanders. Otherwise, they might wonder why she was using a card that didn’t have her name on it. She told the lady at the desk if a tall, good-looking fellow with long copper brown hair and a tattoo on his left arm came to send him to their room.
She walked next door to the Burger King at the Exxon station and ordered a hamburger and fries to go. Back in her room, the hamburger turned to grease on her stomach, and the fries hung in limp sticks on the paper. She couldn’t swallow the Coke without hiccuping, and she waited as the hours passed, telling herself, Mama was wrong; their love amounted to more than an old blue Bel Air that belonged to his granny. Then she told herself, he’s not coming, he’s never coming. That’s not the way she’d ever been with Galen, not even with Sam. But then again, she’d never been in love before. Not in her whole life, not with Galen. Sam was just a memory—it wasn’t love, not like Heath.
Marla had just about given up when he knocked on the door. “Heath,” she whispered. “It’s all my fault.” She gushed while the tattoo on his left shoulder rippled and turned like it had a life of its own, and she loved this man, more than anything, more, more, more.
His smile curled down as he pulled her hair too tight. He seized her and pounded his body into hers. He forced himself into the corners of her jeans, and she screamed. “Shut up, bitch,” he snarled. “You want this.” He had to be right; she had to want this. He stopped before taking off his own jeans, and she thought he would forgive her. He would love her, and that made it all worth the pain, the anger, the hours alone.
But he didn’t. He said the same things he said on the day he got the Bel Air. My granny’s car. Her pride. Mint condition. And then, you bitch. Marla thought once the words were finished, she’d lie in the bed, eyes swollen and black. She’d put on Este Lauder coverup the next day, and tell everyone he was the love of her life. She’d use Galen’s card and get the car fixed, and Heath would love her again. To prove it, he’d yank her hair too hard around his fingers and pretend it was a joke.
But that’s not what he did. He turned to the mirror, picked up the Japanese flower vase from the bed table, began to twirl it around. She tried to tell him, “You’re the only good thing that’s every happened to me.”
“If you loved me, you would have learned to drive a standard. It’s not that hard you know.”
“I know, I know.”
Again, he turned the vase in his hands. She moved toward the door, keys in her hand, not thinking about leaving, just about protecting herself until his temper turned back. “We love each other. People forgive when . . .”
“You’re a dumb bitch. I don’t want people saying behind my back, ‘Why does he put up with such a dumb-butt.’” He hurled the vase at her. She half shut the door to keep stray glass from hitting her face. The vase shattered in pale blue chips at her feet.
“You left a perfectly good man for this,” Mama would say. But Marla never loved Galen, never. Her hand moved toward the largest chip. She rotated it over and over. She felt the pulse of her radial artery on her left wrist, wrinkled from years of dieting and purging to keep from even resembling her mama with folds of flab. “Mama, I never loved Galen. Sam’s dead. Mama, it’s your fault,” Marla wanted to scream while she stood outside the door.
The manager came by and asked if he could help. Marla pushed back her hair, pulled the night air into her lungs, and said, “Nothing’s wrong.”
He walked back to his office, whistling a song Sam used to play on his eight-track cassette, but Marla couldn’t remember the words, just the tune. For the first time, she would not use Galen’s credit card to make that Bel Air spin like an angel. Time in a bottle, she wanted to save time in a bottle, but the bottle broke when Sam died, and she couldn’t put the pieces together again with Heath. She crawled down the dark alley, feeling the cement pebbles grinding into her knees; she reached the BMW, put it in gear, intending to get as far away from Heath as a full tank of gas would take her.
Donna Walker-Nixon founded Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature in 1997. She co-edited the Her Texas series with James Ward Lee, and she co-founded The Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas. In 2010, her novel Canaan’s Oothoon was published. And she was the editor of Her Texas: Story, Image, Poem & Song.