Sally Rae and I have an exceptionally happy marriage. Not perfect, but way ahead of most. This is despite the fact that she gets up at 5 every morning to run our restaurant, The Waterin’ Hole Café, and often works late into the night to maintain it. I’m not a chump, but I’m old, so she takes any help I can give her. Heartbreak, Texas, about 50 or 500 miles west of Houston’s sushi bars, serves up honest fried meat. Things were going pretty well until I screwed up…again.
Christmas was kind of a first for us this year. We were “empty nests” for the first time in our marriage. My Janey and her Johnny took our Li’l’ Freddy to visit Johnny’s side of the gene pool. It seemed his parents were finally getting over Freddy being about six months “premature” (or Janey’s wedding six months overdue, depending on your point of view).
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These circumstances really didn’t bother me. I was just glad to be a grandpa and to have Janey married, and to a boy at that! I’ve learned not to take anything for granted these days.
But I digress. To our surprise, Johnny and Janey offered to take Li’l’ Billy with them and our preteen jumped at the opportunity for a trip and apparently some time away from us. Do tell.
So, on Christmas morning, we both slept late. For my Sally Rae, sleeping in is rarer than Christmas.
I took a moment to appreciate Sally Rae’s cute face in the morning light. Yes, there were crow’s feet (those glorious balls the color of love) in the corners of her eyes, but her sleep state was still angelic. I got up and made her coffee.
While awake, I performed my own private morning ritual. I checked the spot price for gold. Heck, it was down to mid-$1,600 an ounce. I had an even dozen of those coins in a safe deposit box over in Culver City. Gold is my last hedge against inflation and bankruptcy.
I have found it immensely reassuring to have a supply of cold cashables during these uncertain times. My rule was not to spend it – none of that – unless starvation and doom were imminent.
When she woke up, Sally Rae and I brought out each other’s Christmas presents. Well, in a way, I’m as big a kid as Li’l’ Billy when it comes to the holidays. I had hinted at my longing for a new cowboy hat from Cadaver’s Western Wear. Cadaver’s was far from dramatically overpriced, but I had given some rough hints about their new cream Montana Brim Stetson.
I bought a simple but elegant pearl necklace for Sally Rae. She admired it with just the right woman’s squeak, “Oh, Dave, you shouldn’t have done that.” I got the warm feeling that should follow presentations like this.
What happened next, I have no excuse. Maybe my coffee didn’t work, or maybe I… well, it didn’t matter.
“I traced your lineage back to 1042, Sir Swithen of MossyTree, who fought with William the Conqueror, and I…”
Then she gave me a hat box in a special package. I opened it and – and it was a stack of papers. I kind of pushed her aside as I searched for the treasure I was sure she was hiding inside and said, “I know there’s a hat around here somewhere…”
She dropped out of her dissertation and burst into tears.
And then it struck me – the gift was the papers.
I tried picking them up, smoothing them out and paying attention to them, but the damage was done. Those eyes, the color of love, were rimmed red and filled with pain.
By any standards, Sally Rae had lived a pretty dreary, hard life. Coming from humble folk, she had a pedigree full of horse thieves from Kentucky, shopkeepers from New Jersey and, oddly enough, a rabbi who managed to escape from a shtetl in Poland in 1903, just ahead of the Tsar’s Cossacks.
I always found it a little odd how she would research my family tree and occasionally pull out a “Sir this” and a “Baron von that”. For me, my personal history began around the time of my grandparents. Still, she found a kind of integral satisfaction in discovering nobility or real kings in my family tree. I didn’t understand – and now I had hurt my lover.
I had committed a great lèse-majesté; I had failed to honor my wife.
When I look back I see how it happened. Sally Rae was slightly pregnant shortly after high school and married. Nothing unusual, at least when it comes to people. However, her fiancé had bad taste in dying drunk in the car after the bachelor party. Instead of a wedding, she got a funeral and — a few months later — a baby she had to raise with no help and a lot of judgement.
It could have been any of several dozen of her classmates, but that was no help. She was the dirty dove, the fallen woman, and the moralist of her generation. She was grabbed and casually abused by customers and her boss Gomer over the next 20 years while waiting tables at The Waterin’ Hole Café.
It hadn’t helped anyone that their son was gay. I give Jerry credit; He left Heartbreak as soon as he was old enough. He found meaning and community, and eventually love, in the big city — but that’s his story.
More than a decade ago, a day came that I arrived at Heartbreak after my own dark night of soul. I had a battered old pickup truck and my beautiful 16-year-old daughter Janey with me while fleeing an ugly divorce in Houston. Sally Rae served us eggs over easy, sausage and a double helping of hope on that fateful morning. A few years later we got married and through a series of twists of fate she owned our restaurant.
For the record, I never thought of her as a dirty pigeon; I considered my sweet Sally Rae a godsend, my dear lovebird.
Still, the wear and tear of 20 years of public shame had left its mark. It didn’t take Freud to find out that her research on my family tree was balm for her spirit.
I’ve tried to make it up to you, but words once said can’t be remembered.
On Christmas night we were sitting apart reading, and suddenly an unwanted ditty came to my mind.
It was the night after Christmas
And the whole house
It was freezing cold and still
Johnny’s family lived in Dallas. That was the seed of an idea, and it grew fast.
Usually towards the end of the month Sally Rae would send me down to Culver City to stock me up on food at the restaurant. I used my time there to develop my own plan of salvation.
Let me say a few words about salvation. God’s salvation prepares one for eternity, but when one needs mate’s forgiveness, it is usually far more urgent than something as amorphous as one’s soul’s final assignment. Total mismanagement of marital bliss can push eternity to the fore.
I put up a closed sign at the Waterin’ Hole on New Year’s Eve. Sally Rae was curious, of course, but I just said, “We’re going horseback riding.”
I drove us to the edge of Heartbreak International Airfield. Yes, at the back of Charlie Parker’s ranch it was only a straight stretch of unbroken sod in daylight, but when we got there there was a four-seat Cessna Cub idling.
The “international” part comes from an incident a few years ago involving a shady Colombian LLC, but I digress. Charlie owed me a lot, said ’nuff.
Before she could protest, I shoved Sally Rae in and off we went, flying (literally) into the sunset. Some time later we arrived at Love Field and a waiting Uber took us to the back of a large building.
Inside, I handed her a package and said, “Put that on.” It was a scarlet satin dress with an archaic style. Moments later, when I inquired about her progress, she blurted out, “Dave, I can’t wear this in public! My bosom threatens to break out!”
I had stopped behind a dressing room to put on my own costume. “Perfect,” I said.
Before she could shriek any further, I took her to a middle floor, to a waiting throne.
Yes, folks, I took my sweetheart to Medieval Follies, an upscale reenactment eatery deep in the heart of Dallas’ sushi district.
I was disguised as a fool when really I wasn’t there to get smart.
“Sally Rae, can Your Majesty have mercy on this fool?”
Johnny, Janey and Li’l’ Billy slipped into the room next to her while I wrestled the piece of resistance out of those bright gold tights. It was a ruby red cocktail ring with the inscription: “She is more precious than rubies, and all the things you desire cannot compare to her.
– Proverbs 3:15 (New King James version).
The band intoned “Unchained Melody,” a favorite from our promotional days. I felt the tension ease from her body.
As for me, I flatly refused to reflect on how badly my hoard of golden ducats had suffered to live on happily ever after. ￼