So, it was Claire Riggins who'd sent Hooter the Willie Nelson tape and a note signed with the ominous words: “Your secret admirer, but not for much longer.” Aunt Pinkey had confirmed it, and then gone on to inform her nephew there was no explaining why such a sweet, beautiful, young and apparently intelligent widow would be smitten by someone like him.
“If you screw this up I'll tan your hide with barbed wire and creosote. Now close your mouth, open your eyes and get busy, you don't have much time,” is what Aunt Pinkey had followed the revelation with.
“Not much time…not much time…” thought Hooter over and over as he peeled gravel away from Aunt Pinkey's house, before it dawned on him: “not much time for what exactly?”
Before he'd gone a mile, headlights were flashing and a horn was honking behind him: It was Peetie Womac.
“I was just in at Lonnie's. Heard a great one,” said Peetie. “You OK, Hooter?”
Hooter noticed that he was holding his steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles were as white as the spots on a guitar. “Yeah, fine, Peetie. Get on with your story, I got to get home.”
“Well,” says Peetie, ignoring Hooter's abruptness, “Seems this gospel group sings at Lonnie's in-laws church last weekend. They tell the folks they were going through a little town in Alabama two weeks ago and they see this sign up in a window of business that says, ‘We'd rather do business with 1,000 Al Quaida members than a single American.”
Hooter's jaw clenched.
“Know what kind of business it was? It was a mortuary!” shouted Peetie as he beat on Hooter's door with glee. “Ain't that a deal? Just wanted to tell you before somebody else did.”
“Thanks, Peetie. I'll keep it in mind.”
A Breath of Fresh Air
As Hooter topped the small rise in his drive his heart jumped a mile, plummeted to the bottom of his boots, then jumped up again, waiting for a decision: Claire's pickup was parked in front of his house. Not much time indeed, but how did Aunt Pinkey know?
Hooter gulped hard, slowed his ride down to an idle and coasted to a stop beside his visitor. He mustered up his best forced, albeit, scared and sincere grin and peered into the passenger side of Claire's pickup. No one was there.
Hooter recovered, climbed out and headed for his door. Should he knock? Barrel right in? Maybe she was out wandering around. He was ready to head for the shop for some think time when he heard Willie crooning on his stereo. Here goes nothing.
Hooter had barely cracked the door when he heard Bugsy scream with delight, “Mr. Hooter! Me and mama been cookin' for you. How you been?” She ran at him as she said this and jumped into his arms, her standard greeting when she saw him at church each Sunday.
“I've been fine, Bugsy, just fine. You?” But he wasn't looking at the girl; he was staring directly into the soft green eyes of Claire.
“Just fine, Mr. Hooter,” said Bugsy.
“I guess the cat is out of the bag,” said Claire with a smile. “I hope you don't mind us letting ourselves in. However you took the news, Bugsy and I had been meaning to make you a nice meal for some time.”
“M…m…mind? N…n…no, I don't mind,” stammered Hooter. “What a nice surprise.”
Claire laughed, not nervously, but all the way up from her toes: “Judging from the whites of your eyes and that boot scraper in your hand, it's a surprise at least.”
Sure enough, when Hooter looked down he was holding his boot scraper; must have picked up on his way across the porch, why, he had no idea. Spooked, the mind will run its own show sometimes.
“Well, I could tell you I bring it in every night to keep it out of the wind,” said Hooter with a more familiar smile. “Or I could just admit, I don't have any idea why I toted this inside or when I picked it up.” He was holding on to Bugsy for dear life. Bugsy seemed to be enjoying the spectacle without realizing exactly the show she was watching.
“Supper's about ready. I took a chance on what you might feel like tonight.”
Hooter's heart took off again. She said tonight, as opposed to what he might feel like tomorrow night, and the next night and… “I just came from Aunt Pinkey's,” announced Hooter. If Claire blushed, it was well hidden.
“And, I'll bet she had your full attention,” said Claire, turning away. Then over her shoulder, “Why don't you and Bugsy grab a chair and we can talk all about it.” Just like that.
Bugsy squirmed out of Hooters arms. “This is my place,” she said, climbing up the side of one of the rickety dining room chairs to perch atop the Rio Rojo County Yellow Pages.
“Hooter, I don't know where you usually sit, but if you wouldn't mind, why don't you sit there at the head of the table,” called Claire.
The Shape of Things to Come
Chicken fried steak, sweet ranch beans, mashed potatoes, gravy, sourdough biscuits, and some purple Jell-O with cherries in it that Hooter hoped was mainly for Bugsy.
“We made apple pie, too,” said Bugsy, rocking back and forth on the phone book, holding the table in front of her as if she was afraid that left to their own devices her fingers would snatch something before Mr. Hooter offered thanks.
Which he did, making a special point to thank the Good Lord for friendship and asking for help to never lose sight of the many blessings showered upon us, and to see those that often exist right in front of our faces without us realizing it.
Although still nervous, dishing up victuals and small talk helped take the edge off.
He was just savoring his first bites of the best chicken fried steak he'd ever tasted inside his own house when Claire looked over a forkful of beans and asked nonchalantly, “So, what did Aunt Pinkey allow about this whole sordid affair?”
Whatever Hooter was eating—he'd forgotten—went down the wrong pipe and he started coughing and gasping like the Marlboro Man after a footrace. He was mortified that he'd put on such a display, at a time like this. Thankfully, neither Claire nor Bugsy were trying to pat him on the back and keep him from choking; they were too busy laughing.
As Hooter's ticklish cough began to subside, Claire wiped the tears of mirth from her eyes, reached over and took Hooter's arm. “I am so sorry, Hooter. Are you all right? Please forgive me. If you could have seen the look on your face, though…” And she keeled over in laughter again.
Once everyone had calmed down, and even Hooter had managed a giggle or two, he took a gulp of sweet tea. He winked at Bugsy, “Glad you could laugh at my demise.” She just grinned.
He turned to look at Claire, finally feeling that calmness that comes with knowing the chute gate is open, your smack dab in the middle of a storm and there's no turning back. “I really am sorry about making such a spectacle.” He eyed the boot scraper he'd set by the door. “And, I mean everything. I guess it's just that I'm not used to getting any attention from pretty ladies like you two. And for that matter, I still don't know for sure what all the attention is about. I do appreciate all of this, though. You're one mean cook.”
“Hooter, I wish I could explain it myself,” said Claire. “And, for what it's worth, I wouldn't be here without Pinkey's encouragement. I treasure our friendship, the time we've spent together at church, the way you teach Bugsy, and I sure don't want you thinking I'm some forward type that sets her sights and goes off chasing a man. It's just that I feel something more than friendship for you, I wanted to see if there was a chance you felt the same, and I didn't know another way of going about it. I enjoy being with you.”
Hooter felt the tops of his ears burning. He hoped his face wasn't the color of a sunburned albino but he knew better.
“'Sides that, I could use a daddy,” piped in Bugsy.
“Bugsy,” said Claire, casting a hard look at her daughter, then a pardoning one at Hooter.
Now it was Hooter's turn to laugh. “Hmmm…Bugsy girl, you might be just a mite like your mama. To the point. I like that.” Then, looking at Claire, “I'm glad to see I'm not the only one that can change colors. What you just said, I don't know why I'd be so lucky. I can tell you I feel the same, and there's nothing I'd like more than to get to spend more time with both of you.”
“So you're gettin' married, then?” chimed in Bugsy.
“Well, ah, er…” tried Hooter.
Claire was collapsed in another heap of laughter that said there is no answer either of them could give without digging the hole deeper. Claire finally managed, “Bugsy, try some Jell-O.”
Reaching over to pat Hooter's hand, Claire cocked one of her green eyes, “So, how was your day?”
“Getting better by the minute,” grinned Hooter.