Wichita Fallsby Katherine Lieban
A baby blue 1966 Ford LTD with a white coupe top. Electric windows and locks. C.J. was allowed to put the key in and turn it to AUX. We could listen to the radio that way and I could play with the windows. C.J. kept the volume low and pushed the buttons whenever a commercial came on.
I liked the silver of the automatic window button. I liked watching the window slide up – at the touch of a button. It rose and the outside sounds died as the window got higher and higher and higher, until we were sealed inside the new car like a spaceship going to Mars. Then I leaned back on the soft vinyl seat and inhaled the new car smell, ‘till I could almost believe it was my car we were sitting in.
Then I saw Mr. Schroeder put his beer down in the grass and I knew he remembered how long we’d been sitting in the car. He stood up and walked over and said, “I guess you’re going to buy me a new battery when you’re done running that one down, ain’t you? If I have to tell you a hunnerd times C.J., you can’t be running the radio all day. Now you girls get outta my car. Don’t you have chores to do?”
I stared at my feet while he was talking. He was a big man, tall, with an Adam’s apple that moved a lot when he spoke. Once I had looked at his Adam’s apple I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It was like being hypnotized by a cobra, so I tried not to look at his face.
But he was finished now, so I looked up.
“All right, Papa,” C.J. said,
“Have you heard a word I said?” he asked.
“Yes, Papa, I heard you. We won’t run it again so long, will we Billie?”
“Yes sir. It’s just such a beautiful car. We kinda forget the time, you know.”
Mr. Schroeder’s eyes traveled to the car. “Yea, she’s a nice car, all right.”
We watched him as he turned around and headed back to his lawn chair. He moved it more squarely in the shade and sat down. He picked up the can of Jax and took a long drink. I watched the obscene movement of his throat while he drank.
“C’mon Billie, we should go inside.”
We went into the house and Mrs. Schroeder was cleaning the carpet, which I figured she must do every day for a couple of hours. Every time I went over there she was running the carpet sweeper over the thin carpet. I snuck a look, every now and then, for hairs or dust, but I never could see a thing. I thought maybe it helped calm her down. You know, back and forth, up and down. Sometimes just moving could make a person feel better.
Mrs. Schroeder looked up as we walked in. She had blue eyes like C.J.’s, but they were obscured by glasses and you could only get a glimpse of their past glory. We waited, and she looked at us and then down at her hands.
“I’m sweeping the carpet.”
“Yes, Mama, can we help you?”
“Your grandfather called. We might be going up to Wichita Falls.”
“Really?” C.J. looked at me and her eyes got bright. “Could Billie come with us?”
“We’ll have to ask Dad about that,” said Mrs. Schroeder.
I had never been to Wichita Falls. I had never been anywhere. All my relatives lived on the West Coast, which seemed about as accessible as the moon. My parents had left California before I was born and now it seemed like they could never go back. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. Our car wouldn’t make it. They couldn’t close the shop for that long. My mother would get migraines if she traveled far in a car. It was as if the one great migration, from California to the little island off the coast of Texas, had taken away all their strength. They’d made it to Galveston, opened the shoe repair shop, and had me. They weren’t even able to produce another child. I was the only “only child” in my class at school, and I wearied of the pitying looks everyone gave me.
C.J. grabbed my hand and we went to her room.
“You’ll love Pappy and Grandma Mittie. Oh, Daddy has to let you come. It’ll be terrible if I’m stuck with Bubba.”
I knew what she meant. Bubba was C.J.’s big brother. He was skinny and funny, but he had a mean streak. Most of the time he ignored us, but when he was bored, things could get ugly.
“You think your daddy will let me come?” I asked her.
C.J. lay back on her bed. She had a white bed with a pink and yellow quilt. Her mother had stitched pink and yellow curtains to match. Her bed was covered with stuffed animals, which she was continually rearranging. Sometimes I couldn’t believe she was in junior high.
She picked up a gray donkey and stroked its ears. “I don’t know. It depends how I ask him. Will your parents let you come?” she said.
“That’s a good question. How long are you going for? Do you know?”
“It probably depends on how much time Dad can get off from work,” she said.
Mr. Schroeder worked at the petroleum processing plant like most of the men in our neighborhood.
C.J. shook the little donkey. “You just have to come with us. It’ll be wonderful.” She looked at me hard until I felt like I was falling into the blue of her eyes.”
“I better get on home. I have to do my chores,” I said.
I walked down the hall and through the living room. I didn’t see Mrs. Schroeder so I stuck my head in the kitchen. She was standing at the sink, staring out into the back yard.
“Bye, Mrs. Schroeder. I’m going home now.”
She didn’t even turn around.
I thought maybe she hadn’t heard me.
“Bye,” I repeated.
She turned and looked at the space just beyond my shoulder. “Bye, sweetie,” she said.
I was careful not to let the screen door bang as I let myself out. Mr. Schroeder had fallen asleep in the lawn chair. I walked a wide circle around him and crossed the street.
Mr. Schroeder’s military past surfaced as he gave us the traveling rules. He had served in the South Pacific during World War Two and regarded those years as the most glorious of his life.
“We are leaving at 6:30 in the morning. I do not mean 6:35 or 6:40. Everyone is responsible for his own gear. If you forget something, well that is just too bad because I am not turning around for anything, even one of you kids. If you take too long in the can at a roadside stop, you’ll have to hitchhike home.”
I couldn’t tell if he was serious or not. I listened to him, willing myself to stare just above his eyes at a spot on his forehead.
“We will stop at rest stops,” and here he pointed to a map, “in Huntsville and in Alma. Then we swing around Dallas on Highway 287 and you just better squeeze your legs together tight till we get to Wichita Falls. Now you kids see where we are? We are down in this corner of Texas – damn near Louisiana, and we have to go way up here, to Wichita Falls, which is damn near Oklahoma.”
Mrs. Schroeder sat at the yellow formica table playing with the handle of her coffee cup. She winced every time he said damn.
She had been busy for days, cooking and packing. We would not be wasting any money at restaurants. Mr. Schroeder had been clear about that. My pocket was smoking with the twenty dollars my parents had given me. I was thinking about souvenirs and ice cream sundaes.
“Okay. Little Miss Billie you better get your butt home so you can have a good night’s sleep. We’ll see you first thing in the morning.”
“Yes sir. G’night Mrs. Schroeder. G’night ya’ll.”
When I got home, my mom was messing with my suitcase. I hadn’t even known we had a suitcase, until my father had dragged this one out from some closet somewhere. It smelled musty inside and I found a business card when I was cleaning it out. It said Chaparral Motel, Tucson, Arizona.
“Hey Ma, what’s this?” I had asked.
She looked at it, and got a funny smile.
“Aaron Rose! Come look at what Billie found.”
My dad came in and looked at it, and smiled, and then he kissed Mom right in front of me.
My mom was acting like there were no washing machines in Wichita Falls even though Mrs. Schroeder had told her laundry was no problem. She’d stuffed pedal pushers and shorts and a swimsuit and shirts and a dress and one skirt into the small case.
I took a bath and got in my spare pajamas (the regular ones were already packed) and my parents and I said a strangely solemn good night. I climbed into bed and squeezed my eyes tight.
I tried to imagine what the room in Wichita would look like. What kind of curtains would be in the windows? What would it smell like? What sounds might I hear? I knew I was going to have to share a bed with C.J. but that didn’t bother me. I liked sleeping with C.J. She was the closest thing I had to a sister. She drooled in her sleep. It was the only unpretty thing I had ever seen her do.
My parents woke me up at 5:30 and Dad cooked his special pancakes. I felt too nervous to eat, but I stuffed some down my throat just to please him. As we crossed the street to the Schroeder’s driveway, I could feel the lumps of batter sitting heavy in my stomach. I prayed I wouldn’t get carsick. I could imagine what Mr. Schroeder would do if I barfed all over his new LTD.
Mr. Schroeder was checking the tires and Bubba had the hood up like some expert mechanic. Mrs. Schroeder was wearing sunglasses and she’d tied a blue scarf around her hair, making her more glamorous than I had ever imagined her to be.
“You kids better go to the bathroom before you get in the car.” The cigarette in Mr. Schroeder’s mouth waggled as he spoke.
C.J. and I were glad to have a minute alone. We took turns on the toilet but were too nervous to produce anything.
“Hurry it up in there!”
It was Bubba.
“Okay, we’re coming out.”
He slouched against the wall with his T-shirt sleeves rolled up. He had started smoking like his papa and his hands were greasy from the car engine. As I walked by, he reached out and threatened to smudge my cheek with dark oil.
I dodged him, and he bared his teeth in a weird kind of smile.
The parents were all waiting impatiently in the driveway.
My mom squeezed me tight. Then she held me by the shoulders and looked me in the eye.
“Be a good girl, Billie. Be safe. You’ll call us when you get there, right Abby?”
I was surprised to hear Mrs. Schroeder’s name. Some times I forgot she had a name.
My dad gave me a bear hug, lifting me off the ground. “Bye, Billie.”
I felt the scrape of his cheek against my skin and for a moment thought I might cry.
Bubba came out.
“Lock the door son. Did you check the back door and the garage?” his father said.
Bubba nodded and climbed in the back seat. C.J. was between us for now.
Mr. Schroeder sat behind the wheel, adjusting the mirrors. He nodded to my parents and backed the car out into the street. Lights were on in a few of the houses. Some of the men were working the seven o’clock shift. My parents stood waving in the street until we reached the corner. Then we turned and I couldn’t see them anymore. We were traveling.
Mr. Schroeder drove ninety miles an hour all the way to Wichita Falls. It seemed like we were burning a streak through Texas. At first Bubba, C.J. and I played games – 21 Questions, I Spy With My Little Eye, Alphabet Game, but then we got tired and fell asleep.
When I woke up I stared out the window, waiting for something to be different. Traveling wasn’t like what I thought it would be. The Schroeders didn’t talk in the car. Mr. Schroeder smoked, and drove with his hands tight on the wheel. All I could see of Mrs.Schroeder was the blue of her scarf. The front seat seemed to belong to another dimension. I realized I missed the sound of my parents’ voices. How we joked and played and talked about so many things when we were together. Homesick, and I wasn’t even there yet. The air in the car felt thick with silence.
We stopped to pee in Huntsville and Mr. Schroeder drove us past the state prison. The barbed wire towers impressed me. I imagined the desperate men inside, with their tattoos, and shimmies, a word I’d heard in a crime movie. I could hear Johnny Cash’s voice. I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die. I wondered if there were a souvenir shop at the prison, but was too scared to ask.
After Huntsville, the great state of Texas unfurled in all its monotony. The landscape got drier and browner as we headed north, and the vegetation grew sparse. There was so much emptiness. What I had hoped for was hills. The flatness of the landscape exhausted my eyes. The plains stretched out and met the sky and there was nothing to break the tedium.
We finally got into Wichita about four in the afternoon. Pappy and Mittie lived in a small white frame house, surrounded by a pretty yard. They had a big front porch with chairs out front. Pappy was sitting on the porch like he’d been waiting for us. C.J. ran over and gave him a big hug. Bubba shook his hand, as did Mr. Schroeder. Mrs. Schroeder was already carrying boxes out of the car. She and her father embraced awkwardly.
I was hanging back, but C.J. pushed me forward.
“Pappy, this is Billie, my best friend.”
“Billie? You look more like a Rosarita with all those pretty brown curls. What kind of a name is Billie for a little girl like you?” Pappy winked at me so I’d know he was joking.
My cheeks got hot anyway.
“Her parents named her after some singer,” volunteered Bubba.
“Well, come on in. You all must be hungry.”
“Pappy, we brought food enough for an army,” said Mrs. Schroeder.
“Where’s your grandma?” I asked C.J.
“She’s sick in bed,” said C.J.
That was the first I’d heard that Mittie was sick.
After we’d put our things away, we were ushered into the sick room. Grandma Mittie lay in a big mahogany bed covered with a white chenille spread. The curtains were drawn and it was dark and the room smelled of powder and sweat. She was wheezing real bad. She offered a hand to C.J. who leaned down and kissed it. Mrs. Schroeder fussed around, smoothing pillows. Bubba kissed his grandma on the cheek.
“Where’s Howard?” Mittie rasped.
“Oh he’s checking the engine after that long drive.”
“No, I’m right behind you. Hello, Mother. I am sorry to hear you are ill. “
I had never before heard Mr. Schroeder speak so carefully.
That night at dinner I figured out that Grandma Mittie was dying, though nobody said those words exactly. We could hear her wheezing from the sick room, as we passed the butterpeas and biscuits around. Mittie couldn’t eat anymore, Pappy explained, and she didn’t want to go back to the hospital. Mrs. Schroeder was trying to convince Pappy that maybe her mother would be better off in the hospital with some oxygen.
“Abby, she doesn’t want to be there. It’s uncomfortable and she’s told me many times that she wants to be home in her own bed. You know how stubborn your mother can be,” Pappy said.
Mrs. Schroeder had barely touched her food. I felt like maybe I shouldn’t be eating, but it was all so good. Bubba and C.J. were forking it down.
Mr. Schroeder stayed completely quiet during this exchange. He stolidly chewed his roast beef and ate his potatoes, peas and two biscuits. Then he got up and went out on the porch to smoke. Bubba followed him.
That night I lay in the unfamiliar bed and listened to the mosquitoes whine through the screen. C.J. and I were on cots on the sleeping porch. Pappy had turned the air conditioning off, so the air was still and heavy. Neighborhood dogs started howling at something that was moving around in the alley behind the house.
C.J. had fallen asleep almost immediately. I turned to look at her to see if she was drooling. She looked like a baby to me. Her hands were clasped under the side of her face, her mouth hung open in abandon, and a sliver of drool was creeping down to her chin. I had the sudden desire to lick it, even though I knew that was disgusting. I wondered if it might taste salty.
I turned over and sighed. Sometimes I thought I must be half-crazy and wondered if it was because my parents had named me after a crazy singer. Billie Holiday had been black and a drug user. My fourth grade teacher had told me that. When I got home and asked my parents about it, they had played me some of her records. My father told me to listen and see what I could hear. I liked her slow and sad voice, but it made me feel kind of weak and hopeless. Like now – wanting to lick drool like a pervert.
Later I woke up because I needed to pee. At first I was scared to move because I couldn’t remember where I was. There was a terrible sound I couldn’t identify. It was like in a horror movie, when the vampire gets hit by sunlight, and falls to the ground and there is an exhalation without end. Then I remembered Grandma Mittie.
Why hadn’t anyone told me she was sick? I tiptoed down the hall to the bathroom. I had to pass the sickroom and I held my breath as I walked by. A lamp was on and I saw the silhouette of Mrs. Schroeder sitting in a chair.
In the next couple of days we all seemed to get used to the fact that an old lady was dying in our midst. Mrs. Schroeder stayed by her mother’s bed, as did Pappy. A lot of neighbors came by and brought food and sat a spell. Grandma Mittie wanted to see Preacher Bob, but he was away at a camp meeting.
Mr. Schroeder seemed happy enough to sit on the back porch with his own cooler of beer. C.J.’s job was to bring food to her daddy. He usually pushed it away, but she would offer it again. Her mother had trained her. I watched C.J. as she watched her papa. Mr. Schroeder always started out as a jovial drunk.
Other times Mr. Schroeder and Bubba would go off on errands, which suited C.J. and me just fine. We were free then, to explore the town.
I liked Wichita Falls. It had a small downtown with a barbershop and a drugstore. Galveston, a port city, carried dirt from all over the world. Wichita Falls made me feel like I was on TV. Then I realized why.
“Don’t any black folks live here?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I guess I’ve never seen any. You’re funny, Billie,” said C.J.
There were all kinds of alleys to explore, and trees to climb, and dogs to run from. C.J. took me to the witch’s house on the outskirts of town. It had once been a grand manor – one of the nicest houses in town. But the woman who lived there had been jilted by her lover and set the whole place on fire, including herself. But they had never found any bones. A broken-down windmill creaked forlornly in the pasture and gave me the creeps.
“Let’s go get ice cream, C.J. I still have that twenty dollars,” I said.
I had been unable to part with my twenty. Every time I was tempted to buy something, the wholeness of the bill deterred me. The desired object diminished next to the promise of that folding green.
C.J. seemed entranced by the burnt remains of the house. “I dare you to run up on the porch,” she said.
I didn’t want to go anywhere near that porch. It sagged, and I was sure it was full of rusty nails ready to poke into my foot and give me lockjaw. Somebody’s cousin’s sister had got lockjaw and never could talk again.
“I don’t want to. Let’s go get ice cream,” I said.
“You’re just a chicken, Billie. I thought you weren’t afraid of anything,” C.J. said.
“If I run up there, you have to pay for the ice cream,” I said.
“Are you trying to jew me?” she said. Her eyes flashed at me in a way I didn’t recognize.
I turned and started walking back to town. I swallowed hard. I knew the way to the drugstore. I didn’t need her help. I didn’t turn around to see if she was following me, either.
When I got to the drugstore I sat at the counter and ordered the Sundae Surprise. The waitress brought it to me and I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Three scoops of vanilla ice cream towered in a sea of whipped cream, with dark streams of chocolate lava running lavishly down the sides. Multi-colored sugar sprinkles floated on the waves of cream and a cherry crowned the peak.
I had just taken my first bite when C.J. entered the store. She sat next to me. I ignored her.
“C’mon, Billie. It was a joke. Everyone knows you’re just half a jew, anyway.”
I kept eating, though it didn’t taste as good as it looked.
“Can I get you something, honey?” the waitress asked.
“I’ll have the same as her,” C.J. said.
My sundae had started to melt and it looked like barf. I mashed at it with a spoon until it was a muddy sea, small chocolate seals swimming below the surface.
When it came time to pay, C.J. didn’t look at me. I took the twenty out of the small envelope my father had given me, and handed it to the waitress. I was too embarrassed to count the change. Stuffed it all in my pocket and we walked home.
When we got home we found that Preacher Bob had arrived. We heard a powerful, soothing voice in Mittie’s room. C.J.’s grandpa hollered for us to come in. Preacher Bob had his hands on Mittie’s forehead and he turned and smiled at me with the whitest teeth I’d ever seen. A jagged scar raked his eyebrow, and his face shone with sweat.
“Laurence,” he said.
At first I didn’t know who he was addressing, but then Pappy stepped forward.
The preacher continued. “I need everyone in this house to join hands.”
C.J. and Mrs. Schroeder and I made a little circle.
“Where are the menfolk?” asked the preacher.
Mrs. Schroeder and her father exchanged a glance and then Pappy went out onto the back porch to talk to Mr. Schroeder and Bubba. A few minutes later the men walked in, and we all joined hands under the dark ceiling of the sickroom. I was stuck between C.J. and Bubba.
“Lord, we are gathered here to ask in Jesus’s name that the suffering of Your servant, Mittie, be relieved and that You bring her to the bosom of the Lord…”
When the preacher said bosom, Bubba squeezed my hand and I had the terrible feeling that I might laugh. I kept my eyes squeezed tight and held my breath.
He went on and on until my hands were sweaty and my shoulders ached trying to hold myself still.
Finally, I heard him say, “In Jesus’s name we pray, Amen.”
We all dropped hands and Mr. Schroeder was the first to head for the door.
“Brother Howard,” the preacher said.
Mr. Schroeder stopped and turned to Bob. “Mister, I know you mean well, but I am not your brother. I appreciate you coming out here and all, and praying for my wife’s mother, but I don’t cotton to any personal proselytizing.”
The preacher held up his hands in supplication. “I will pray for your eternal salvation.”
Mr. Schroeder snorted and turned to his wife. “I’m going down to the VFW Hall.”
And then he was out of the house.
Preacher Bob stayed for dinner. I didn’t like the way he looked at me. Most grownups don’t really look at you, but Preacher Bob stared at my eyes like he was trying to see inside my brain. He caught me like that a few times, and then I just stared at the yellow of the corn. I never knew how yellow corn could be.
We had to pray again after dinner and then Bob left.
Mr. Schroeder came home a few hours later, as drunk as I’d ever seen him.
“Is that preacher gone?” Mr. Schroeder just couldn’t abide preachers.
“He’s gone, but he’ll be back in the morning,” Mrs. Schroeder said.
“We’ll be in Dallas by then,” Mr. Schroeder said.
“What are you talking about, Howard?”
“I have to go back to work,“ Mr. Schroeder said.
“But Mama’s hanging on by a thread. She’s going to go any day now.” Mrs. Schroeder wrung her hands like I’d seen women in movies do.
“You just better pray that your mama dies tonight because we are leaving tomorrow morning at 6:30. You kids, start packing up your stuff.”
We stood there a minute, not sure what to do.
His face darkened and C.J. and Bubba looked at their mama.
Mrs. Schroeder stood there, like all the air had come out of her.
“I’m going to take care of my mama,” she said.
“You go right ahead and do that. We don’t need your help for packing.”
Pappy stood in the doorway of the sickroom. He shook his head, but he didn’t say a word.
Mrs. Schroeder tried again.
“Howard, you and the kids can go on ahead. It won’t be but a few days. I can take the Greyhound home.”
“I’m going to be working. I can’t be cleaning and cooking and watching over these kids. That’s your job and you know it. We are leaving tomorrow morning at 6:30 and I don’t want to hear any more about it. Now you kids get to packing. I want that car packed tonight.”
We worked like demons packing the car. Without Mrs. Schroeder’s help, it was a daunting task. Mr. Schroeder sat with a beer in his hand, criticizing our efforts.
Bubba, C.J. and I slipped out to the sleeping porch as soon as we had packed the car. We could hear Mrs. Schroeder crying and Mr. Schroeder yelling. Mittie sounded like a suffocating animal, and Pappy wandered out on to the sleeping porch with different medicines in his hands. He looked at us, confused, and then went back to the sickroom.
We tried to be as invisible, and quiet as possible. We stared at the ceiling and rolled over and over in our cots. I guess I must have dozed off at one point because when I woke up I saw that Bubba had pulled the pillow over his head to block out the noise. He lay there, with his skinny arms stretched out, and that fat pillow on his head and I almost liked him then.
The next morning when we all woke up, Mrs. Schroeder was already dressed and wearing her sunglasses. I was relieved. I didn’t want to see her eyes. She told Mr. Schroeder that she was going to take some dishes back to the neighbors.
“Isn’t it a little early to be visiting people?”
“Oh, they’ll be up. It’ll just take a minute.”
We all watched her as she walked down the street. She stopped when she got to the corner and turned and waved. Then she disappeared.
We waited for a while, but she didn’t come back. Mr. Schroeder asked Pappy which house she had gone to.
“I don’t rightly know, Howard. Abby has a lot of friends in Wichita Falls.” He smiled a little as he said this and I knew he was proud of his daughter.
Mr. Schroeder scowled.
“You kids stay put. I don’t want anyone else disappearing, you hear!”
And then he walked off down the street in the direction his wife had gone.
The three of us looked at each other. Bubba pulled the keys out of his pocket. We got in the car. Bubba turned the key to AUX. C.J. sat in the passenger seat and played with the radio. I climbed in the back and took a deep sniff to see if the car still smelled new. It was fading a bit – that smell. Then I pushed the silver button and watched as the window slid up and our world became quiet. We were ready for Mars.