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Cowboy Boots and a Three-Dollar Bill

Cowboy Boots and a Three-Dollar Bill

By Dragonskinner

Cowboy Boots and a Three-Dollar Bill

I asked Momma for the hundredth time, “Momma, can I have some cowboy boots, you know, like the ones Audie Murphy wears?”
I really wanted a pair of those boots.
She sighed and rolled her eyes. “No you may not, ‘specially if you can’t use proper southern English to ask for ‘em!”
I was a persistent kid. “Please, Momma, may I have some cowboy boots?”
She huffed and puffed, then drummed her fingernails on the bakelite steerin’ wheel. She turned her head to glare at me ev’ry ten seconds for a minute, then she asked, “How many times have I told you ‘no’, Buddy? Ten dozen? The answer is still ‘no’. It won’t matter if you ask me another ten dozen times. You are not wearin’ cowboy boots! Don’t ask me again, you’ll just be wastin’ your breath!”
There were no willow switches in the car, which was the only deterrent that actually worked on me. “Come on, Momma! Why can’t I have some? Pretty please? I’ll do anything you want, just get me some Audie Murphy boots!”
Mouth pursed, Momma squinted at me for a second, then sighed and slowly shook her head. “I’m gonna tell you a story, Buddy-boy. You may not understand all of it, now, but it’s a true story and has to do with why I can’t stand cowboy boots, okay?”
I slumped in the seat and frowned. I liked her stories, but I doubted she could change my mind. I pouted and folded my arms on my chest, resigned to hearin’ her out. “Okay, Momma, but...”
She arched her pale eyebrows. “No buts, Buddy. When I’m done, you will never ask me for goddam cowboy boots again. Do you get my drift? Have I made myself clear?”
I sulked, but she was serious. Momma only said ‘goddam’ when she had a strong opinion ‘bout somethin’.
“Did. I. Make. My. Self. CLEAR?”
Resistance was futile. “Yes, Momma.”
She made sure I understood there would be consequences. “You know what will happen if you ever ask me again after I tell you this story?”
I knew exactly. “Yes, Momma. You’ll make me cut a willow wand and you’ll use it to blister my butt.”
She arched her eyebrows again and nodded, blue eyes open wide. “You’d better believe it, Buddy-boy!”
Momma was silent for a moment. I could almost hear the gears grindin’ in her head. Finally, she glanced at me from the corner of her eye. “You can never tell another soul what I’m ‘bout to tell you, nobody, okay?”
Oh, now this was an interestin’ development! “Okay, Momma.”
She stuck her hand out, pinky extended. “Pinky-swear!”
Drat! A pinky-swear was unbreakable. So much for more ammo in my chest. I locked pinkies with her. “Okay, Momma, I pinky-swear.”
She breathed out a long sigh, then shook her head. “I’m prob’ly gonna regret this, but I’ve never told this to another soul and I’ve been itchin’ for nine years to tell somebody. I’m trustin’ you here, Buddy-boy. This is a grown-up story. I expect you to act like a grown-up and keep your word.”
My eyelids popped wide-open. Grown-up stuff? Alright! I crossed my heart so she’d know I was serious. “Cross my heart and hope to die, Momma. Your secret is safe with me!”
“And no more ‘bout cowboy boots, right?”
I shoulda seen that comin’, and somethin’ told me I’d never get a pair ‘til I was old enough to buy ‘em myself. I sighed, stared down at my bare feet on the floorboard, and wiggled my boot-denied toes. “That, too, Momma, my lips is locked.”
I pressed my lips together, pretended I was lockin’ ‘em, and threw away the imaginary key.
“Lips are locked, Buddy. Say it right.”
Sometimes, havin’ a first grade teacher for a mother stank. “My lips are locked, Momma.”
Jeez, Louise!
She took a deep breath and began, “You know I was only sixteen, and I’d been recoverin’ from my broken legs, when I graduated high school, right?”
“I ‘member.”
“Well, ev’ry graduatin’ class has a dance called a senior prom. It’s a big deal. Because Big wouldn’t let me date ‘til I was sixteen...”
“What’s date mean, Momma?”
The skin around her eyes tightened and she drummed on the steerin’ wheel. “A date is when a boy asks a girl to go somewhere with him, like to a church social, or a movie, or a dance at school.”
“Like boyfriend and girlfriend?”
“Yes, Buddy, somethin’ like that.”
“Anyway, I’d never been on a real date...”
How could that be? Momma was pretty and I’d never seen anybody else that looked remotely like her. Surely somebody had wanted her for a girlfriend. “Not even with Ollie?”
Momma sighed, then glanced at me from the corner of her eye while she negotiated traffic through Wylam. “Not even with Ollie. Oh, we went off and did things, like pickin’ blackberries and fishin’ and skinny-dippin’ in the moonlight. Like I’ve told you, we even practiced kissin’, a lot! But a date means bein’ seen together out in public, and he just couldn’t seem to do that with me, I guess.”
I wasn’t much on mushy stuff, or girls, ‘cept for Annie Oakley, but I’d heard Momma talk like this about Ollie several times before. It seemed to upset her. I wanted to hear, “Why, Momma?”
She fidgeted on the bench seat and frowned. “I guess some of it was my own fault. I never tried to fit in ‘cause I thought I couldn’t, or maybe I was just contrary and wouldn’t.”
“I looked differ’nt, bein’ orange-blonde and small and flat-chested and wearin’ differ’nt clothes.”
“I’ve always been free-spirited and unconventional in a time and place and culture that frowns on such.”
“I made straight A's without even tryin’ and I was two years younger than ev’rybody else in my class.”
“They thought I was a freak and shunned me like I was cursed or had the plague or somethin’.”
“Did Ollie think you were a freak?”
Momma cut her eyes at me, then ran her fingers through her hair. “I didn’t think so at first, but I was wrong. I was blinded by what I wanted to be true rather than what was true.”
The tiny crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes deepened slightly and her lips pressed together, forming thin, pink lines. “Then I thought he just wanted me as a secret lover, but I was wrong about that, too. I gave him too many hints and opportunities, even tried to show him what I was willin’, wanted, to do that day at the log camp ‘cross the river. I thought if he saw me in the daylight, he... Well, he missed his chance, didn’t he, and I wasted my time.”
Her voice was bitter, but I’d heard most of it before and knew it made her sad. Time to move along. “So why didn’t you find another boy?”
Momma sighed. “None of them wanted me, Buddy, or I didn’t want them. Some of the kids at school said bad things about me that weren’t exactly true and it wasn’t long ‘til ev’rybody in west Jefferson County believed and added to ‘em.”
She cut her eyes at me again, hands on the wheel so tight the tendons of her wrists looked taut as drawn bowstrings. “That’s one of the reasons why I don’t like clothes, Buddy. If people went around buck-naked they might be more prone to tell the truth and be less judgmental ‘bout what people look like on the outside.”
I actually understood that. Momma was a stickler for truth and what she called “reason”. Big and Uncle Jube laughed at her and said she was over-educated and read too many books.
I asked before she could continue, “What was it they were sayin’ ‘bout you Momma?”
She sighed and hunched forward over the wheel. “Because I was younger and smaller and had small breasties and no hair on my legs or under my arms, a lot of girls made fun of me for some reason. They called me ‘Little Orphan Annie’ and ‘rugrat’ and ‘weirdo’.”
“I...I whupped a couple of the worst ones for it, like Betty Lou Spurgeon and Susie Sawyer, and they started makin’ up stuff so nobody would like me.”
Now, that made me mad! “Well, that was just mean!”
“Yeah, it was, sweetie.”
She frowned and stared out the windshield for a minute, then went on, “You know how I like bright colors and short, tight dresses, right? Well, I made a few on Mother’s old pedal Singer machine once in a while.”
“You know I never wear goddam bras or girdles or panties and I didn’t with those dresses, even though I didn’t wear them often.”
“All the boys stared at my little butt and my pokey nipples and all those goddam cows, who dressed like Dotty, and painted on their masks, and were trussed up like Christmas turkeys, couldn’t stand it, so they started sayin’ I was a slut...”
“I don’t think I know what ‘slut’ means, Momma.”
She giggled, then shook her head. “I stepped in the deep doody with that one, didn’t I? You remember me explainin’ how babies are made with the pictures in the encyclopedia?”
How could I forget that? Ewwww! “Yeah, I ‘member.”
“You remember what it’s called?”
“Okay, sometimes, people have sex for other reasons than to make babies.”
“Oh, Momma! That’s just gross!”
She smiled, but her neck and ears were bright pink. “No it’s not! It’s a beautiful and natch’ral thing ‘tween two people that like one another!”
“Is that what you wanted to do with Ollie?”
Now her face was pink, too. “Toirdhealbach McPhaul, you are too goddam smart for your own good!”
How was that possible?
She rested her forearms on the wheel and chuckled deep in her throat. “That’s exactly what I wanted, Buddy. When boys and girls reach their teen years, they start havin’ sexual desires, worse than an itch between your shoulder blades that needs scratchin’. Those desires can be hard to control.”
“There are other reasons, too. It’s complicated. Some have sex ‘cause they think it will make them popular, like your Aunt Dotty. Others try it and like it so much they just can’t stop, like your Aunt Dotty. Some even do it cause they confuse sex with love, which is what they really want, like your Aunt Dotty. Does any of that make sense?”
I frowned and fidgeted. “Sorta, Momma. Which were you?”
She snorted and giggled again. “Sometimes it’s a combination. That’s the way it was, still is, for me. I just have more control over it than she does and far fewer opportunities, and even fewer admirers.”
I didn’t really want to know that after all. I stuck my fingers in my ears. “Lalalalalalalala...”
Momma glanced at me, eyes sparklin’, and laughed. “Okay, Buddy. Let’s just say a slut is a girl that gets her itch scratched by a lot of boys and does it often, okay?”
I could see where havin’ an actual slut for a momma could be a problem. “Okay, okay, I got it, but it wasn’t true ‘bout you, right?”
“No, but those good Christian girls said it was, and since I don’t go to church, and I swim naked, and don’t wear a bra or panties, and don’t feel a need to impress anybody, ev’rybody believed ‘em.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong. I surely wanted to get my itch scratched, but not by ev’ry boy in west Jefferson County! I just wanted to know what it was like and to share somethin’ special with somebody, like Ollie, but I just never got the chance!”
I could live with that, but “Why didn’t the boys come after you to get their itches scratched.”
Momma chewed on her lower lip for a few seconds. “Two reasons I think. The first is that most of ‘em saw me as a tomboy, just a white trash river rat ‘cause I mostly wore Jube’s old jeans and t-shirts and didn’t get my hair permed or wear make-up, ever.”
“I thought most of them were silly, dumbass jerks and I told ‘em so, even the ones in my own class who were two years older than me. I wanted somethin’ more than they could offer.”
“So that led to reason number two. I liked to be around older boys, young men really, ‘specially the ones who’d been in the WWII, like your Uncle Joel, so I hung out with him and Jube and their friends and listened to their stories and learned the boogie woogie and let them tell me about this girl they liked or that other one, you know?”
“Those fellows always treated me like a mascot, or a little sister, ‘specially since they thought I was younger than I was ‘cause of my swimmer’s build and hairlessness and all. It frustrated the hell outta me, Buddy! They just weren’t interested in me that way, though they loved to watch me swim in the moonlight. They said I was like a little Tinker Bell, or a pixie from a fairy tale, but not one of ‘em ever tried to scratch their itch with me.”
This whole cowboy boot business had turned into somethin’ I didn’t care to ponder. My head was spinnin’. I had to get this back on track. “Momma, I don’t want to hear anymore about sluts and sex and itch-scratchin’. If you want to get your itch scratched, I don’t wanna know about it, okay?”
She laughed so hard she nearly ran off Birmingport Road as we passed by Pleasant Grove Park.
Finally, she wiped her eyes and reached over to pat my leg. “Okay, Buddy. I’m glad I have your permission, but I don’t have any prospects at the moment and haven’t for a loooong time.”
“What does all this have to do with me not gettin’ cowboy boots?”
“I’m sorry, Buddy, sometimes I need to talk through stuff so I can get it straight in my mind, okay? You’re pretty much the only person I can do that with and not be judged for what I say.”
I judged she was a great Momma and I’d put up with a lot ‘cause of it.
She sighed and continued, “Anyway, I didn’t think anybody would ask me to the Oak Grove prom. Jube offered to take me, but that didn’t really count. I was gonna ask Ollie, but he had already asked Becky Gunn, so I was just gonna stay home, but a week before the big night, Reggie Gilbride asked me to go with him!”
“And you said ‘yes’, right?”
“I said, ‘Hell yes I will!’ I nearly peed my jeans I was so excited, Buddy!”
“What was he like?”
“He was tall and pale and pimply and gawky with buck-teeth and glasses, but he was the smartest boy in our class and shy. As far as I knew, he’d never said a bad word about anybody. He didn’t have many friends, either.”
“His daddy worked at the Mulga mine and they lived back in the sticks near the strip pits at Silly Creek.”
I grinned at her. I loved to tease her when she left herself open for it. “So he was goofy.”
Momma threw her head back and laughed. “Yes, smarty-britches, he was goofy, but you know I don’t judge people by the body God gave ‘em! He seemed sweet and I really wanted to go to prom.”
A photo Big had framed on his dresser suddenly came to mind. “You wore a short, black dress, and high-heeled black shoes, and Grandma’s pearl necklace and earrings. Your hair was pulled back and tied with a black bow.”
Her sky-blue eyes opened wide, as did her mouth. “That’s right, Buddy! You saw the picture Big took of me and made the connection. Very good!”
“Anyway, I made that dress myself and Big took to me to Routmann’s in Fairfield and bought me the shoes.”
“Dotty had a fit, said she should get new shoes, but for once, Big told her no, that this was my special night.”
“Reggie brought me a corsage his mama made, a... a white camellia that he pinned to my dress right here.”
She pointed to her left breast.
“You looked mighty pretty, Momma.”
She smiled and reached over to muss my hair. “Why thank you kind sir.”
Then she hunched her shoulders slightly and giggled. “Big had a fit, but I didn’t wear a bra, or a girdle, or panties. What was the point? My belly was already flat and my butt was firm, and you could barely even tell I had titties, ‘cept for what looked like a pair of pancakes with a dollop of cream in the middle and a cherry nipple pokin’ out the thin material of that tight dress.”
“I told Big I didn’t see any point in bein’ uncomfortable for no reason and it was my prom and that’s how I wanted to look.”
That was typical Momma.
“You know my friend Miss Marie from Pleasant Grove?”
Miss Marie talked to me like I was an adult, like Momma did. I nodded.
“Well, she was one of my only two friends. Most of the other kids made fun of her, too, you know, ‘cause of her wanderin’ eye. Her parents wouldn’t let her come down to Big’s though, said we were river wild and white trash crazy, but Marie and I hung out together at school.”
“She was the only person to ever ask me personally if the rumors about me were true. I told her, ‘hell no, that a person shouldn’t be judged by their looks.’ That was all it took. She’s been through a lot and I respect her greatly.”
“She was already engaged to be married to li’l Shorty Cobb, and offered to double-date with us. I said ‘yes’, then Marie and I made some treats, called hors d’ouvres, from recipes we found in Southern Home and Garden magazine. We fixed up Billy’s house in Sylvan Springs for after the prom...”
“Why’d you do that?”
Momma turned pink again. “Part of prom night is to go somewhere with your date and do some kissin’ and maybe some itch scratchin’.”
I wrinkled my nose and made a face. “Ewwww...”
Momma laughed at me. “Sorry, Buddy that’s part of the story.”
I sighed, rolled my eyes, and folded my arms on my chest. I’d had ‘bout enough of all this mushy stuff and talk of itch scratchin’, but I was a captive audience and still wanted to know why I couldn’t have cowboy boots. “Just get on with it, Momma.”
“Okay, okay, so, we went to the prom. It was in the gymnasium and some of the girls had decorated it real nice...”
“You didn’t help ‘em?”
She shook her head. “I wasn’t invited, and they wouldn’t’ve liked my ideas any way.”
“The four of us, plus Regina Olivetti, who was I-talian and tall and dark-complected, sat at a table by ourselves. I danced a lot with Shorty. Marie claimed she could really only dance the slow ones, but she was bein’ a good friend and makin’ sure I had fun.”
“Reggie could only dance the slow ones, too, ‘cause he just didn’t know how to do anything but stand in one spot, sway from side to side, and step on my feet, but he danced ev’ry one of those with me.”
Momma’s eyes sparkled. “Every boy in the gym watched me like I was a movie star and all those goddam hypocrite Christian girls pursed their painted lips and cut their eyes at me, then they whispered back and forth behind their hands about me.”
“I didn’t care, Buddy. I realized maybe I was pretty after all.”
“I toldja you was pretty, Momma.”
“Were pretty, Buddy, were pretty.”
Jeez! “You were pretty Momma.”
“That’s better.”
“After the dance, Shorty drove us to his house, near Rock Creek. He was twenty-one and worked for Sears downtown. He’d bought a case of beer for us.”
“We listened to WAPI radio, drank a few beers, and ate some hors d’oevres. Marie and Shorty started kissin’ and, and stuff.”
“Reggie eventually worked up the nerve to kiss me, too. I was really excited. He wasn’t very good at it, though, so I took the lead, you know, ‘cause of all that practicin’ with Ollie.”
“Reggie caught on fast! I guess I am a good teacher, huh.”
I couldn’t disagree with that. She’d taught me all sorts of stuff. “Yep, Momma, you’re a good teacher, but what does this have to do with my cowboy boots?”
“Wee-eell, when Shorty and Marie retired to his bedroom to make love together, I took Reggie’s hand and led him to the tiny guest room.”
“We kissed for a while on the bed, then I decided maybe it was time to get my itch scratched. I was afraid I might never have another chance!”
I wanted to crawl in a hole and die. There’s some things a boy just don’t need to know about his momma!
She had a faraway look in her eyes, now. She was blushin’ again and breathin’ hard. “I took off my dress and shoes, then I lay back on the bed.”
I’d had me enough sex talk to last a lifetime, but I just let it go. There was no stoppin’ her anyway.
“Reggie stood there starin’ bug-eyed with his mouth wide-open ‘til I told him, ‘Reggie, you better get those goddam clothes off and get your goddam ass in this bed!”
I groaned and slumped down in the seat, but Momma wasn’t through tellin’ me her secret.
“He hopped around and got his clothes off over his cowboy boots, which he refused to take off.”
“I started laughin’. I couldn’t help it, what with him standin’ there all pale and gawky and wearin’ those stupid boots with his little John Henry at attention. It was the funniest thing I’d ever seen!”
“I tried to stop, ‘cause I had no intention of hurtin’ his feelin’s, and I was still prepared to let him scratch my itch, but he turned red as a beet, grabbed his clothes, then he lit out for the livin’ room.”
“I cussed myself and followed him as fast as I could, but the front door slammed and Reggie was gone. I sat there on the couch, naked as a jaybird, with my head hung low, starin’ at my feet, listenin’ to the radio and the sounds of Marie and Billy makin’ love, and wishin’ I was dead!”
My chin dropped to my chest and I shook my head. “Momma, you don’t have to worry. I’ll never tell that to anybody.”
She patted my leg. “That’s why you can’t have cowboy boots, Buddy. They just look stupid, ‘specially if you’re naked otherwise. I don’t want some girl laughin’ at you like I laughed at Reggie when you’re tryin’ to get your itch scratched some day.”
Drat! She got me good this time. I no longer had any desire for cowboy boots.
After a brief moment of reflection, Momma added, “Nobody saw Reggie for two weeks, ‘til he showed up for the class of ’47 graduation and got his diploma. After that, he was gone.”
Momma frowned and said, “I ran in to him a couple of years later and apologized. He said how he’d realized he was a ho-mo-sexyal and thanked me! Can you believe that?”
I didn’t know what that was, so I didn’t say anything.
Momma sighed and drummed her fingernails on the steering wheel. “You know, Buddy, I can’t help thinkin’ that when Reggie saw me up close and naked, it turned him queer as a three-dollar bill!”

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19 Feb, 2013
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