Jude, are you up? Because if you are, you need to come in here and eat your breakfast." "Honky-tonk Man" stopped as suddenly as it had started. "Jude?" "I want waffles!" I could hear the squeak of the box spring as he started to bounce.
"We haven't got time for waffles. You'll have to settle for Cocoa Puffs." No reply, just more squeaking. "Did you hear me? Come on, now, or we'll be late."
It got quiet for a minute and then my son appeared in the kitchen doorway, jamming a fist into one eye. His Spider-Man pajamas, brand-new not one month earlier, were already too tight in the chest, riding two inches north of his ankles. He had my brother Bailey's coloring, the same rusty close-cropped hair and gold-rimmed eyes, but his features, his half-cocked smile, were purely his daddy's.
"Tomorrow's Saturday. We'll have waffles tomorrow, okay?" I took a bowl out of the cupboard and set the cereal box in the middle of the table. I was opposed to Cocoa Puffs on general principle, but in the real world, general principle didn't always have the final say.
He took his time dragging out a chair from the table and crawling onto it, dumping a heap of brown pellets into his bowl. I stood at the window sipping my coffee and pretending not to watch him. If he thought you were trying to do something for him, he'd throw on the brakes and start to whine, or pitch a fit. The first whole sentence he'd ever spoken, at sixteen months, was, "I do it myself!"
"Did you hear all that commotion last night?" I asked, watching him splash milk out of the carton over his cereal and onto the tabletop. "Did it wake you up?"
He nodded, picking up his spoon. "That was a big truck," he said.
Having a conversation with a six-year-old, I'd come to learn, was like riding a runaway horse; you had to hang on, throwing your weight from side to side to keep your balance, and who knew whether you'd arrive at your destination in one sure shot or go careening off in some direction you never expected.
"I was talking about the storm," I said. It had moved through about 4:00 a.m., waking me with flashes of lightning dancing jaggedly on the ceiling, the rumble of thunder, rain falling gentle at first and then hard and long, hammering the metal roof. I'd thought about getting up to watch the storm or check on Jude, but he could sleep through a typhoon, and anyway my bed felt too cozy; I'd just pulled the blanket up to my chin and gone back to sleep.
"Yeah," he said. "And then the truck. It was almost as loud as the rain!" He inserted a spoonful of cereal in his mouth.
"I don't know what you're talking about, baby," I said. "Did you have a dream about a truck?" He shook his head, chewing thoughtfully. "Well, listen, I need to go get dressed. Can you finish eating by yourself? Don't dawdle, now. You've still got to feed the dogs, don't forget." They were fickle, and just as likely to wander off to the neighbors if you made them wait too long for their breakfast.
I carried my coffee into the bathroom, where I set it on the edge of the sink while I washed my face and ran a brush through my hair. The medicine-chest mirror had a crack in it, courtesy of a prior tenant, and so the face I saw was bisected, uneven, though on second thought, maybe it was my true one, possibly even superior to the original. I'd never been any good at judging my looks. I was pretty when I got married the first time, and the second, when I was almost six months pregnant, I was beautiful. People would gawk at me in public, whether I was driving the flower van or in the grocery store across the produce bins and the dairy case. Maternity made my skin glow and my eyes shine, made me look almost otherworldly, like I'd been pumped full of juice. "Juicy Lucy," Ash had called me. He couldn't get enough of it, making us both late for work in the mornings, coaxing me home for lunch. Then Jude was born, and I became ordinary again, and we went to Nashville and it was Ash's turn.
I wasn't looking so juicy this morning, though, at least according to the bathroom mirror. There were shadows under my eyes, little fan-shaped lines at the outer corners that I couldn't remember seeing before. The divot over my upper lip looked deeper than it used to. Once upon a time Ash had claimed that baggage was what made a person worth knowing, but I wondered if that still held true when you started to carry it on the outside. There was a shoe box of old makeup under the cabinet, and I dug it out and rubbed Erace under my eyes, brushed some blush on from a crumbling compact onto my cheeks. I couldn't in all honesty say the result was an improvement.
I rooted through the bedroom closet looking for something to wear. When Jude and I came back to Mooney, my boss at the flower shop, Peggy Thaney, not only gave me back my old job but promoted me to assistant manager, and I tried to make an effort to dress like I thought a businesswoman would dress, even if that woman lived in a town of under a thousand in far northeast Texas and had to make most of her fashion choices at Wal-Mart. I found a plain navy skirt and a white blouse with no stains and a minimum of wrinkles, and slid my feet into flats. Assistant manager or no, I was on my feet all day, and drew the line at heels.
I finished my coffee, brushed my teeth, and swiped on some pink lipstick from a tube my stepdaughter, Denny, had left behind half a dozen summers before.
"Jude!" I called. "Did you finish your breakfast?"
I found him in the front hall, still in his PJs.
"Baby, what did I tell you? We need to get a move on. Miss Kimble will be very unhappy if you're late, and you'll get a yellow square. You don't want another yellow square, do you?" He shook his head. "Did you feed the dogs, like I asked you?"
"Well, hurry and get your boots on. It's muddy out there."
As Jude struggled into his galoshes, I went into the kitchen and put the cereal and the milk away, mopped up the table, and rinsed his bowl and the coffeepot and set them in the sink. When Ash first built this house, he'd been a longtime bachelor, and I guess he never thought about putting in a dishwasher. We always meant to add one, but we didn't live in the house that long together, and when we left for Nashville, it never in a million years occurred to us that any of us, under any circumstances, might be coming back.
I went to the pantry where we kept the forty-pound bag of Purina and filled a big metal scoop. Ordinarily this was part of Jude's job, but if we planned to get out of here anytime in the next half hour, I knew I was going to have to ease things along.
He stood with his nose pressed against the screen door, his pajama cuffs bunched around the tops of his rubber boots, staring dreamily across the porch. A cool breeze drifted in through the screen, like last night's rain had blasted everything clean behind it, leaving the sky as smooth and blue as a Wedgwood plate.
"Jude." I held out the scoop.
"See?" he said.
"It's just like I told you."
I closed my eyes and counted in my head, to five and then back. "What is?"
I opened my eyes and followed his gaze. Sure enough, smack-dab in the middle of our front yard, parked nose-to-nose with my Blazer, was a big, shiny, super-duty Chevy pickup. Brand-new, from the looks of it, still wearing dealer's plates, the upper half was as white and glistening as a spaceship, but from the door tops down it was spattered and caked with wet, red East Texas mud.
"Where'd it come from?" Jude asked. "How did it get in our yard?"
"I don't know." The hair on the back of my neck started to prickle. Nobody we knew had a truck like this, much less a reason for parking it in our front yard. I set the dog-food scoop on the floor. "Wait here."
I opened the door and stepped out onto the porch, then reached back inside and let my hand close around the first thing it found, a golf umbrella with a heavy wooden handle. "It's not raining, Mama," Jude said. I put my finger to my lips and, gripping the umbrella in both fists, went down the steps and into the yard.
I approached the truck slowly, the mud from last night's rain threatening to suck off my shoes with every step. A few weeks earlier there'd been a story in the Cade County Register about a rash of vehicle thefts in the area, work trucks and SUVs mostly, taken from homes and places of businesses and winding up later in the craziest places, stripped of their wheels, stereos, even their batteries and carburetors. But this truck, though filthy, was in possession of all four tires and fancy hubcaps, and as I approached from the rear I could hear music playing, which put to rest any question about the stereo and the battery.
"Is it ours? Do we get to keep it?" Jude came goose-stepping his way around the tailgate, lifting his legs high in the rubber boots.
"Jude, for goodness' sake! I told you to stay on the porch! We don't know--"
I swung the umbrella in front of me, aiming it like a weapon, and threw out my other arm to keep Jude back.
"What? What is it? I want to see!"
The rear door on the passenger side was open. Out of the cab floated the voice of Hank Williams, high and thin and far off, like he was singing from another galaxy, and jutting from the backseat, toe toward heaven, was a scuffed-up black cowboy boot.
"Lord Jesus above," I said.
"Should I call 911?" Jude asked excitedly. I ignored him and, still wielding the umbrella, crept forward. The boot's heel was worn down on the outer edge, the sole leather as soft as a whisper from age and wear. I knew this boot well, just like I knew its mate, with its hole in the instep the size of a dime. Topping them was an old pair of Levi's, one leg sticking straight ahead, the other bent at the knee and resting on the seat, and above that, a faded gray T-shirt, arms flung upward to expose a couple of ribs so pale and prominent they looked like they belonged to a doctor's-office skeleton.
Lightly, with the tip of the umbrella, I touched the toe of the sticking-out boot. Ash had always hated mornings, and I watched as he sighed and shifted, squeezing his eyes shut, fighting as long as he could to keep the day at bay. For months now, I'd gone over and over my laundry list of grievances, rehearsing what I'd say if and when this time finally came. Now that it was here, part of me wanted to take the umbrella and whack him into next week and part of me wanted just to stand there, watching his lids flicker and his chest rise and fall, wondering at this feeling in my own chest, like a flint striking against rock, the unexpectedness of its small but steady flame.
"Who is it, Mama?" Jude called. "Are they dead?"
I waved at him to hush. The pickup still had that new-factory smell, the dashboard glinting with Armor All, the leather seats giving off a soft glow like they'd been buttered, but the floor was a mess of empty bottles and fast-food wrappers and clothes, and jammed into the console was a Rand McNally road atlas folded to expose the south central United States, a crooked, dark red line like an artery linking northeast Texas to Tennessee.
Ash let out a low groan, twisting his head one way and then the other.
"Ash," I said quietly, trying out the sound of it. I hadn't seen him face-to-face in nearly eight months, hadn't heard his voice--not counting the radio--in three.
With a grimace he pushed himself up onto his elbows, scraped his hair back from his face with one hand, and gave a dry and rasping cough. He opened one eye, squinted at the dome light overhead.
"What," he said, and then, "Aw, shit. Not again."
He swiveled his head toward me and opened the other eye. His face had a fuzzy look, its hard planes and angles softened by the pink morning light. It was a look I knew well, this pulling himself hand-over-fist toward consciousness. I tightened my grip on the umbrella and watched him settle back into himself, his features taking on their old familiar edges as his gaze came into focus and a gradual awareness dawned behind it.
Slowly, one corner of his mouth crooked up.
"Lucy Hatch," he said. "I must be dreaming." He stretched his arms over his head; I heard his neck pop. A week's worth of silver stubble peppered his jaw.
He reached down and scratched his exposed rib cage, leisurely and deliberately, the way you'd scratch a cat. I couldn't help noticing he was still wearing his wedding band. "Aren't you gonna say something?" he asked.
"I'm trying to think where to start."
"How about, 'Hey, babe, it's good to see you'?"
"That's not what comes to the top of the list."
"Is it still raining?" He eyed the umbrella in my hand.
"This isn't for weather. It's for self-defense."
"Man, that was some storm last night, huh? I thought I could beat it, but it caught me up near Texarkana, and by the time I hit Atlanta, I didn't think I was gonna make it. It was coming down so hard I damn near missed the turn onto Little Hope. Tried to hook it at the last minute and spun off in the ditch. Lucky thing I bought four-wheel drive is all I can say. Good old Chevy." Ash smacked the upholstery with the flat of his hand. "Like a rock."
Suddenly Jude was standing beside me, saucer-eyed. "Daddy!" he gasped, then ducked behind me and buried his face in my hip.
"Hey! Who's that I see hiding back there? Get on up here, buddy, and let me take a look at you."
Excerpted from Heartbreak Town by Marsha Moyer. Copyright © 2007 by Marsha Moyer. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.