NOTE: This story, “Troubadours,” is linked by characters to Terry Darymple’s “Bastard Children.” Be sure to read “Bastard Children” before you read this story.
It isn’t just the fact that she’s a stranger.
No, the fracking boom that’s fired up on the Eagle Ford Shale, and the building boom that followed, have brought a lot of unfamiliar faces to Jordan. And I couldn’t be happier to see them. A lot of the roughnecks and construction workers come into the Second Chance Café. I serve the best chili in Southwest Texas, in three varieties—a three-alarm shredded beef with fiery red peppers, a two-alarm ground venison with jalapenos, and a one-alarm ground beef and pinto beans with mild green chiles—with thick slices of homemade sourdough bread on the side. There are half-pound burgers and wedge fries, chicken fried steaks, spicy catfish stew, spicy-battered fried catfish filets with hushpuppies, and ice-cold beer to wash it all down. I serve the beer and run the register, hire perky girls from Jordan High School to serve the food, and the hungry young men come in droves. But that doesn’t explain the dark-haired woman in the corner, casing the place with nervous eyes.
I noticed something odd about this particular stranger the minute she walked in out of the seething summer air lugging a black backpack in front of her instead of clutching a purse at her side, as if trying to hide the baby bump I spotted in an instant. She lowered herself carefully into the corner chair at table 15, ordered decaf coffee and a water, asked for the Wi-Fi password, and started watching everything that went on. No small-talk, not even a hello—which was unusual in and of itself in a little town like Jordan—and with a jittery edge in her voice, along with an undertone of something else. Hostility? Secrecy?
Something. Enough to set off a blip on my people radar.
As the restaurant filled and emptied with a mix of roughnecks in dirty coveralls and locals herding kids—Beau and Wanda Mulebach were among them, rocking their brand-new baby son in his car-seat carrier in the booth at 25; and Corlis and Rosemary Holybee as well, pulling 41 and 42 together to make a six-top, their little daughter so delicate in pink as she toddled into her booster seat beside those three big shaggy boys—the skittish stranger kept her back against the wall, her baby bump beneath the table, and her backpack at her feet. She drank decaf and water but ate nothing, seemingly absorbed in her cell phone but glancing up every time someone walked in, and eyeing the other customers and me around the edge of her phone screen.
Now it’s after ten. I’ve already flipped the OPEN sign in the window that faces the state highway around to CLOSED, and let Lydia Rodriquez, the head cook, and Jenny Thompson, the late-shift waitress, go home. The only people left in the Second Chance Café are myself, standing guard at the cash register, and the dark-haired woman in the corner with the unpaid check for her coffee face-down on the table.
“Ma’am,” I say at last, “I’m going to have to ask you to settle up. The café closed at 9:30, and it’s 10:15.”
Instead of replying, the woman starts tapping with both thumbs on her cell phone screen, rapid-fire.
The only answer is more tapping, and the echo of my voice off the green-and-white checkered floor tiles.
I’m not the jumpy type, but I’ve taken in two thousand dollars tonight if I’ve taken in a dime, and the roughnecks and construction workers mostly pay cash. The pregnant woman’s baby daddy could be lurking outside like a wolf spider ready to burst into the café and shove a gun into my face. And the state highway that bisects downtown Jordan runs straight down to Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras, so the pair could be in Mexico inside of an hour.
When the woman reaches into her backpack and starts fumbling around with something bulky, the blip on my people radar balloons to fill the entire screen. I snatch the telephone off the counter, start dialing Jim Thompson’s personal cell—Jim is Jenny Thompson’s father, chief deputy at the sheriff’s office that’s just a block away—and glance over into the corner, certain that I’ll see the business end of a pistol pointing back at me.
But what the dark-haired woman holds instead is a black leather wallet. Empty, from the blank way she’s staring down into it. Tears are streaming down her cheeks. And it comes to me as I set the receiver back into its cradle that the emotion I heard in her voice earlier, underneath the jittery edge, wasn’t hostility or secrecy. It was heartbreak. The rush of relief that comes hard on the heels of that realization fades slowly into sympathy. I walk to the waitstation, pour myself a cup of high octane, and carry both coffee pots over to the corner table.
“Do you mind if I join you?” I ask.
“Are you the manager?”
“Manager. Cook. Cashier. Bartender.” I pull out a chair and sit down. “I own the place. Although sometimes it feels more like the place owns me.”
“I can’t pay you for the coffee,” the woman sniffles.
“I kind of figured that,” I say gently, “from the look on your face when you opened your wallet.” I know enough about heartbreak not to mention the tears that are dripping now from the woman’s chin down onto her wrinkled shirt. “Can you sing?”
“In the middle ages, there were poets who traveled the south of France singing songs about courtly love in return for their room and board. They called themselves troubadours.” I reach the decaf pot over, refill the woman’s cup. “I thought maybe . . .”
“I’m afraid I don’t sing very well. And I don’t really know much about poetry.”
“Me either. But I’ve traveled the south of France. My favorite place was Cannes on the Cote D’Azur.” I sip my coffee, a rich French roast ground fresh from beans I have custom roasted at a shop called the Mystic Café on the San Antonio River Walk. “After my husband died, it was my lifetime goal to retire there and open a restaurant on the Boulevard de la Croisette just off the beach. I was going to call the place the Café le Coq after my late husband—his nickname was Rooster—and there was going to be a big red neon gamecock out front that would be visible a mile out at sea.” I feel myself smile, thinking about Rooster and about the turquoise water and powdery sand. “I opened the Second Chance Café here in Jordan instead.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I guess what I’m trying to say is that sometimes things don’t work out like we planned. And that can be okay.”
“I don’t . . . I don’t know what I’m . . .” The silent tears become choking sobs. “I just feel hollowed-out.”
I fetch a cloth napkin and hand it to the woman. “Sometimes the troubadours told stories of their travels instead of singing. So tell me: How long has it been since you ate a meal?”
“I had a box of Triscuits this morning. The chili pepper thin crisps.”
“Hmm . . . So you like spicy?”
The woman nods.
“The kitchen is closed for the night, but I can feed you a bowl of the best chili in Southwest Texas. How does that sound?”
“But I don’t have any money. And the credit card company just cancelled my account.”
“Tell me your story instead. You can start with your name.”
“I’m Lily,” the woman says, meeting my eyes for the first time.
“Howdy, Lily. I’m May Belle Stiles. That wasn’t so hard, was it? And what’s his name?”
I glance pointedly at the baby bump that’s pressing against the wooden tabletop.
“Augie,” Lily says and the sobs start again. “His . . . name is . . .”
“Augie? Well, that’s a beginning. You still owe me a middle and an end. But let’s get some food in you first.” I lead Lily back to the kitchen, heat a bowl of the one-alarm chili in the microwave, butter a thick slice of sourdough bread. Then we walk back out to the corner table, and I sip coffee while Lily wolfs her meal.
“I didn’t realize how hungry I was until I started eating,” she says, swabbing the bottom of the bowl with the last bit of bread. “Thank you. That’s the best chili I’ve ever had.”
“I make it myself,” I say, frankly pleased, as I top off our cups. “I’m more partial to the three-alarm recipe, but the one-alarm is probably better on an empty belly. Now that you’ve finished, I’d like to hear the rest of the story. Your name is Lily, and his name is Augie. Why don’t we pick up from there?”
“Augie and I met in Fort Worth, which is where I’m from, and we fell in love. Anyway, I thought we were in love. Every minute we didn’t spend at work, we spent together. Then I got pregnant. And he left.”
“So you followed him?”
Lily shakes her head. “Not at first. Augie grew up in an orphanage and in foster homes—his mother gave him up—and when I told him about our baby, he said he needed to get out of town for a few days and think the whole fatherhood thing through. He texted me the next day and told me that he loved me. Then he called from Jasper, in middle-of-nowhere East Texas, and we talked. He said he was on his way back to Fort Worth, that he was ready to give family life a try.” The tears start to flow again. “That was two months ago.”
“He never showed up in Fort Worth?”
“No. But he’s still paying his rent. The man who owns the house Augie lives in, and who introduced Augie and me, is an old friend of my family. He lives right across the street. He’d tell me if Augie came home.”
I find myself studying Lily. She’s young—early twenties, I guess—and thin, naturally pretty, with pale delicate skin and a fiery intensity in her eyes despite the tears. She reminds me of myself thirty years ago. Wild. And crazy in love with Rooster. I’ll never forget the way I felt when I lost him. Heartbroken. Hollowed-out.
“I was born in Jasper,” I say, “and I spent my girlhood there, before my father came to Jordan for the last oil boom. The thing I remember most, besides all the pine trees, was a parrot named Pal. He belonged to a retired sea captain who lived next door, and he would perch in a chinaberry tree in the front yard every morning and curse the mailman. It was only the mailman he cursed. I never understood why.”
“The captain probably had credit card bills,” Lily says. “I’ve cursed the mailman once or twice myself.” For the first time since she walked into the Second Chance Café, she smiles. “I was in Jasper last week. I found the bed and breakfast Augie stayed in. The lady who owns the place remembered him. She said he’d gone to the library to try and track down his family.”
“What in the world led you here? I’m guessing you didn’t come to Jordan for the oil boom.”
“After Jasper, I drove to San Antonio, to the orphanage Augie grew up in. He’d been there and looked through their records. He searched through the files at the county courthouse too. Augie works in the construction business. He’s a subcontractor, a framer, and I figured he’d need money. So I checked with the big home construction companies. Turns out he’d worked as a framer for Toll Brothers. A guy he crewed with said that Augie had a contract to do framework on one of the hotels they’re building here in Jordan.” Lily fiddles with her cell phone, then reaches it across the table. “That’s Augie. He hasn’t been in here, has he? This is the kind of place he likes.”
I look at the photo on Lily’s cell phone. The man I see is lean and dark-haired, with green eyes and a strong jaw, his skin darkly tanned from working in the Texas sun. He looks an awful lot like Rooster, and I feel a stab of pain in my chest—the same mix of longing and of loss that I felt a week and a half ago when Augie first walked into the Second Chance Café and ordered coffee and breakfast tacos, which I serve from 6-9 a.m. He’s been in every morning since, except for Sunday when the restaurant is closed.
I shift my eyes carefully from the photo to the eager look on Lily’s face. “Sorry,” I say at last, shaking my head for emphasis. Then I look back at the phone. “Arthur has a cell phone just like that. I don’t have much use for one myself.”
“Arthur is my partner.”
“Is he here?” There is pleading in Lily’s voice now. “Could I ask him if he’s seen Augie?”
“Arthur doesn’t work in the restaurant. We own the building together, and he runs the antique shop next door. He’s kind of a silent partner, I guess. In more ways than one.” I pause, lock my eyes onto Lily’s. “But before we get to the end of your story, there’s a question I need you to answer: What are you hoping to get from this man who keeps running away from you?”
“Love,” Lily says, glancing down into her cup. “What else?”
“How about a father for your child? A life partner. Someone you can count on not to go hop-scotching across Texas the minute things get tough. What if Augie can’t give you any of those things?”
“But he can! When Augie took me out on our first date, instead of dinner and a movie, he took me swimming and hiking at Cedar Hills State Park. It was early spring, and we were driving out there in Augie’s old Ford truck with the windows down. All of a sudden he pulled over to the side of the road and bounded out of the truck into a field of bluebonnets.” Still staring down into her decaf, Lily half-smiles, as though she can see the memory reflected on the dark surface. “He picked an armload of flowers—as many as he could hold—and stood there grinning back at the truck until I got out and walked over to him. Then he handed me this mass of bluebonnets, and as our arms linked around the flowers, he kissed me for the first time. And I knew, right there and then, that he was the one. It wasn’t just the flowers and the kiss. It was the promise of that kind of life, and that kind of love, you know? Full of grand romantic gestures. I knew I’d spend the rest of my life loving Augie.”
I have to press my lips tight together to keep from saying what I’m thinking. Except for the baby bump, when I look at Lily, I see myself thirty years ago. Loving Rooster. I remember the peaks and valleys of our fiery, turbulent, cut-short married life—full of grand romantic gestures—and although the peaks were incredible, I’ve learned enough about living to know now that the valleys were deeper. And the financial hole Rooster left me in when he died from an early heart attack took me the better part of three decades of hard work to dig out of.
“And if the love isn’t still there?” I ask finally. “Or if you can’t find him?”
Lily starts to take a sip of decaf, hesitates, puts the cup back on the table. “How far is it to Laredo from here?”
“A couple of hours, depending on how fast you drive. You’re a lot closer to Piedras Negras than you are to Nuevo Laredo, if you aim to cross the Rio Grande. Why?”
“I’m thinking of disappearing. Just crossing the river and keeping on going. If Augie won’t have me, I’ve got no place to go.”
“What about your parents?”
“They won’t even speak to me. And anyway, I don’t want my parents. I want Augie.”
I reach across the table and pat Lily’s hand that feels slender and delicate, a child’s hand. “Do you have a place to stay the night?”
“I was planning to sleep in my car.”
“You sit right here while I put these dishes away and rinse out the coffee pots. Then you can come home with me. I have a spare room you can stay in for tonight, and maybe—just maybe—tomorrow will take care of itself. In the meantime, there’s something I’d like you to see.”
I shut down the restaurant and lock the front door, then we walk to our cars and I lead Lily through downtown Jordan, past the post office and the historic courthouse that hulks like a castle in the light of the full moon that is rising, and out South Prospect Street to my house on the edge of town. Arthur has left the porch light on, but the moon blazing just above the tops of the mesquites lights the low ranch-style house and the close-cropped grass and the ocotillo that is in full bloom as I lead Lily up the sidewalk—she’s pulling a suitcase with wheels—and across the front porch into the living room.
I show her the guest room, and once she’s dropped off her things, we walk through the kitchen and out onto the back porch. The night air is still and warm. The glow of a candle on the wrought iron table lights an open bottle of wine and two glasses, and softens the sharp angles of Arthur’s profile as he startles up from one of the two chairs.
“Well, um, this is—”
I press a finger against his lips and then kiss him deeply, savoring the taste of red wine and the warmth of his hand as I reach down and squeeze it. When I step back to introduce him to Lily, I lace my fingers into his. “This is Lily. Lily, meet Arthur, my partner. Lily is in a bit of a fix, and I’ve invited her to spend the night in the guest room.”
“Ah, hello Lily.” I make out a hint of confusion, but no hesitation, in Arthur’s voice. “Welcome. Would you, um, excuse me while I fetch another chair?”
“Hello Arthur,” Lily says. “Thank you.”
I sink into the seat Arthur vacated and motion for Lily to take the other. He comes back out with another chair and a wine glass, sets the chair next to mine, and pours three glasses of wine. Then he raises his glass.
“A more civilized welcome,” he says, smiling at Lily. “I hope you like pinot noir.”
Arthur and I sip our wine, but Lily sits with one hand on the stem of her glass and the other on her belly. “I do,” she says. “But I don’t think I should have any. I’m pregnant, you see.”
“I should’ve, um, asked first,” Arthur says after a too-long moment. “I’m, ah, I’m sorry, Lily.”
“It’s my fault,” I say, feeling as awkward as Arthur sounds. “I ought to have remembered. Can we get you something else?”
“How about a cup of hot apple cider?” Arthur offers.
“That would be nice.”
He takes Lily’s wine glass and heads back inside.
I wait until the screen door slaps shut behind him, then turn to Lily. “Would it be okay if I shared your story with Arthur? I promise you that it couldn’t be in safer or surer hands.”
“Is Arthur your husband?”
“Arthur would like that. Very much. But Rooster was the only husband I’ll ever have. One was enough.”
“But the way you talked about your late husband back at the restaurant,” Lily says, “about Rooster I mean, made it seem like—”
“Rooster was the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen. A hell-for-leather cowboy, and the best dancer I’ve ever had the pleasure of two-stepping with. We fell in love at a rodeo dance, and he made my life an adventure.”
“I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want that again.”
“I don’t want love to be an adventure. Life is hard enough as it is. What I want from love is companionship, stability, trust,” I raise my wineglass, “and a little romance. The rest is mostly hormones. It took the better part of a lifetime for me to realize that. And I never would’ve learned it without Arthur.”
The screen door swings open, and Arthur bustles back out onto the porch carrying a steaming mug that he sets on the table. The scents of apple and cinnamon fill the night air, and Lily leans her face down into the steam. “It smells wonderful,” she says. “Thank you.”
Lily sits sipping hot apple cider while Arthur and I drink our wine, and I recount what she said about her search for Augie. “I told you earlier that Lily was in a bit of a fix,” I say at last. “I guess I should’ve said that she’s come to a crossroads.”
“So you’ve called and you’ve texted and you’ve crisscrossed Texas,” Arthur says. “What now?”
“Now I’m flat broke,” Lily says, “and it won’t be long before the phone company suspends my account. I’m way past due on the bill. But I’m so close to finding Augie. I know that he’s working at one of the construction sites here in Jordan, and tomorrow I’ll go around to them all.”
“What if I offered you a cashier job at the café, and said that you could stay in the guest room until you get your first paycheck?”
“I’d rather have an old Ford truck and an armload of bluebonnets.”
“Fair enough,” I say. “But I’ve got to open up for breakfast at 6 a.m., and it’s going on midnight. I told you that I had something I’d like you to see. It’s time.” I turn to Arthur. “I thought we’d show her the Queen of the Night.”
“The queen of the what?” Lily asks.
“Queen of the Night,” Arthur chuckles. “It’s a cactus. Its proper name is Night-Blooming Cereus. Some people call it deer-horn. And for most of the year it looks like a deer horn, or a dead bush. But one night a year, usually around midsummer, it blooms. And the blossoms are the most majestic and fragrant flowers I’ve ever seen or smelled.”
I rest a hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “Do you think they’ve opened up yet?”
“I was out there just before you arrived. There were five or six buds that looked like they were about ready to pop. I’d be willing to bet that we’ve got some blossoms by now. Shall we go and see?”
The full moon lights the cactus garden in the backyard, and the combination stable and hay barn on the far side of the fence, and the open land beyond that stretches away west into the pale distance. Arthur takes my hand and leads me along the stone path that snakes among the cactus beds with Lily walking just behind.
“Watch out for the thorns,” Arthur says. “The cacti are beautiful, but they bite.”
“Did you plant all of this, May Belle?” Lily asks.
“I’m no gardener. Arthur gave me the plants, and he’s the one who tends them. But I do use the peppers that he grows for my chili.”
“The Queen of the Night cactus is right over here,” Arthur says. “I’ve trained it to grow up the fence.”
In the moonlight I make out the spindly stems of the Queen of the Night that are lead-gray. Speckled like stars against the gray background, I see a half-dozen white flowers. Three of the buds are open—two fully, one partway—and the trumpet-shaped blossoms, waxy and white and many-petaled, smell unbelievably sweet.
“Oh Arthur,” I say, “it’s gorgeous.”
“Come on up, Lily, and have a look,” Arthur says, moving aside to make room. “You can lean in close to get the full impact of the fragrance, but be careful. The stems are covered with spines.”
“Okay.” Lily steps up next to me, and the two of us press our faces against the open blooms.
“It takes about a half-hour for the flower to fully open once it starts,” Arthur says. “It’s too slow for you to see. But if you look away for a couple of minutes, and then look back, you’ll be able to tell that it’s moved.”
“And they only last one night?” Lily asks.
“Yes. They’ll close forever with the first rays of the sun.”
“It seems like such a shame,” Lily says, stepping back.
“The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” Arthur takes out his pocketknife, cuts the two fully open flowers, hands one each to Lily and me. “You’ll be able to see the colors better in the candlelight. You two can stay out here as long as you like, but I’m off to bed.”
I brush my lips against Arthur’s. “I’ll be there in a little while,” I whisper. Then I catch his eye and smile in a way that Lily doesn’t need to see. Or maybe she does, I realize. Maybe she does at that.
“Thank you for the flower,” Lily says. “And for everything.”
“Good night,” Arthur says, giving me back that same smile.
“Shall we go and have a look at the blossoms in the candlelight?” I ask Lily. Instead of waiting for an answer, I wind my way back through the cactus beds to the porch. Arthur has taken the wine bottle and the glasses, and the only thing left on the table is the candle, blue-flamed at the wick and flickering yellow-orange with each faint breath of the warm night air.
Lily lays her flower next to the candle. I set mine next to Lily’s, and we both sit down and study the blooms. The thin creamy outer petals surround broader pure-white inner petals, which in turn surround bright yellow stamens that protrude in a delicate ring from the center of the blossom. The sweet scent of the flowers wafts up into the air, and in the candlelight I can see that Lily’s eyes have filled again with tears.
“This is how I feel inside,” she says, nodding down at the flowers, “when I’m with Augie.”
“Oh child,” I murmur, just loud enough for my words to carry across the table. “Until a minute ago, I had no idea what to say about that feeling. But hear this. There are two kinds of love that I’ve felt in my life, and two men I’ve shared that love with. What I had with Rooster was a brushfire, white-hot and fast-moving, and we lived every minute like it was the last one we’d ever get. Arthur and I were good friends before we became lovers. What we have is more like this candle flame: warm and steady, and longlasting. I’m happier with Arthur.”
“And yet you won’t marry him.”
“He has his house, and I have my house. We spend a lot of time together, but we both have our own spaces when we need to be alone.”
“But I don’t want to be alone,” Lily says.
“Be that as it may, I can tell you for sure that you do have options. I meant what I said earlier about the cashier job and the guest room. Love is more than wildflowers and grand romantic gestures. And your whole life doesn’t have to revolve around one man, although it may not seem like that now.”
“Then I’ll tell you one more thing before I turn in,” I say. “I have seen Augie. He comes into the Second Chance Café every morning at six for coffee and breakfast tacos.” I stand up and take the flower Arthur gave me off the table. “I’ll be heading in at 5 a.m. to open up. You’re welcome to come with me. What happens after that is up to you.”
“What would you do, May Belle?”
I pause at the screen door and look back at Lily as she presses her own cactus flower against her cheekbone. I see the lifepath she’ll start down tomorrow blaze out ahead of her: the fiery peaks and the valleys of ashes, the pleasure and the pain, the heartbreak. And nothing that I’ve said or done tonight will change it.
“I’m going to bed,” I say. “Goodnight.”
“I’ll see you in the morning,” she says, and the creamy outer petals of the blossom and the paleness of her cheek seem to blend into a single skin.