Everything with Lillian was familiar, from her linen sheets to the citrus scent of her hair when I finally fell asleep buried in it. I was even hoping I might dream of her for a change, the way I used to. I didn't.
The dreams started out like a slide show--newspaper photos of my dad, Express-News
headlines that had burned themselves into my memory that summer. Then it was a late spring evening in May of '85 and I was standing on the front porch of my father's house in Olmos Park. A battered gray Pontiac, probably a '76, tinted windows and no license plate, was pulling up by the curb as my father walked from the driveway to the front door, carrying two bags of groceries. Carl Kelley, his deputy and best friend, was a few steps behind him. For some reason I remember exactly what Carl was holding--a twelve-pack of Budweiser in one hand and a watermelon in the other. I was opening the front door for them, my eyes red from studying for my last round of freshman final exams at A & M.
My dad was at his very heaviest--nearly three hundred pounds of muscle and fat stuffed into oversized jeans and a checkered shirt. Sweat lines running down his temples from the rim of his brown Stetson, he lumbered up the steps with a cigar drooping off the corner of his mouth. He looked up and gave me one of his sly grins, started to say something, probably a wisecrack at my expense. Then a small hole blew open in the grocery bag in Dad's right arm. A perfect white stream of milk sprouted out. Dad looked momentarily puzzled. The second shot came out the front of his Stetson.
Fumbling for his gun, Carl hit the ground for cover about the same time my dad hit the ground dead. Dad was three months away from retirement. The watermelon made a bright red starburst as it exploded on the sidewalk. The gray Pontiac pulled away and was gone.
When I woke up alone in Lillian's bed the conjunto music from next door had stopped. The cranberry glass night lamp was on, making the squares of moonlight pink against the hardwood floor. Through the open bedroom door I could see Lillian standing naked in the living room, her arms hugging her body, staring at one of her photos on the wall.
She didn't seem to hear me when I called. When I came up behind her and put my arms around her shoulders, she stiffened. Her eyes never left the photo.
It was one of her early college pieces--a black and white photo-collage of animals, human faces, insects, buildings, all of it hand-tinted and merged into one surrealistic mass. I remembered the December weekend when she'd been putting it together for her end-of-term project. I'd done my best to distract her. We'd ended up with photo scraps scattered all over the bed and clinging to our sweaters.
"Naive," she said, absently. "Beau used to take me out into the country--we'd be shivering all night in sleeping bags on some godforsaken hilltop in Blanco for one shot of a meteor shower, or we'd trudge through twenty acres of pasture outside Uvalde so we'd be in just the right position at dawn to catch the light behind a windmill. He used to say that every picture had to be taken at the greatest possible expense. Then I'd look back at my old collages like this one and think how easy they'd been."
"Maybe naive gets a bad rap," I said.
We stood there together and looked at it for a minute.
"It just feels strange," she said. "You being here."
She leaned her head against me. The tension in her shoulders didn't go away.
"What else is it?" I said.
She hesitated. "There are complications."
I kissed her ear. "You asked for me to be here. I'm here. There's no complication."
Until Lillian looked around at me I didn't realize her eyes were wet.
"When you left San Antonio, Tres, what were you running from?"
"I told you. The rest of my life stuck in Texas, the idea of marriage, the careers everybody else wanted me to take--"
She shook her head. "That's not what I meant. Why did you go when you did, right after your father's death?"
I hugged her from behind and held on tight, trying to get lost in the citrus smell of her hair. But when I closed my eyes against her cheek, I still saw the old newspaper photo of my father, the caption that I knew by heart. "Sheriff Jackson Navarre, gunned down brutally on Thursday evening in front of his Olmos Park home. Deputy Sheriff Kelley and Navarre's son watched helplessly as the assassins sped away." My father's face in the photo just smiled at me dryly, as if that caption was some private joke he was sharing.
"Maybe because when I looked around town," I told Lillian, "all I saw was him dying. It was like a stain."
She nodded, looking back at her photo-collage. "The stain doesn't go away, Tres. Not even after all these years."
Her tone was bitter, not like Lillian. I held her a little tighter. After a while she turned around and folded herself into my arms.
"It doesn't have to be a complication for us now," I whispered.
"Maybe not," she murmured. But I didn't need to see her face to see that she didn't believe me.
She didn't let me say anything else, though. She kissed me once, lightly, then more. Soon we were back in the linen sheets. I wasn't sleeping again until almost dawn, this time with no dreams.
Excerpted from Big Red Tequila by Rick Riordan. Copyright © 1997 by Rick Riordan. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, 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.