From Part I—“Your Secret Admirer, but not secret for much longer,” is how the note was signed in red, looping cursive letters; folded neatly inside a manila envelope with a hard-to-find Willie Nelson tape that was one of Hooter's favorites. He'd gone through his mental checklist again and again searching for the likely culprit: one of the boys playing a joke on him; his ex, Sherry Waters exacting some extra revenge all these years later; Carolina Colburn the waitress in Lubbock who always made a point of telling him how much she hated men; Lucy Springer, the local ag teacher whom he'd stood up at the 4-H carnival boxed supper. But none of the suspects seemed likely, and Hooter couldn't deny that the prospects of having an actual, honest to goodness secret admirer made his step a touch lighter. Then to hear Aunt Pinkie tell him, not more than an hour after he'd received the mysterious mail, “I know who your secret admirer is. Haven't you figured it out yet?” as if it was common knowledge all around Apache Flats.
“No, I don't know who it is, or if I even have one,” said Hooter, flushing up. Then, adding with a grumpiness only Aunt Pinkey could appreciate, “As usual, it would seem I'm the last to know anything.”
Aunt Pinkey let out a belly laugh that shook the Robert E. Lee Chia Pet hanging from her kitchen window, shedding leaves into the sink. “Bless your heart, you look like you've seen four ghosts and have two rounds left. You know, the older you get the more you get to be a dead ringer for your dad and your uncle, God rest their souls. Show them a horse or a cow and they could give you family history three generations back. Give ‘em a busted piece of tack or equipment and they'd have it back working quick as you please. Give them a fight and there was no one who enjoyed it more or quicker. But make them come to grips with affairs of the heart, try to get them to see the obvious, and they showed as much natural interest and ability as a fence post.” Then she collapsed into another peal of laughter.
“Well, I'm glad I could make your day,” said Hooter. “If you're so smart, fill me in and I'll tell you if you're close.”
“Oh, I'll fill you in alright. But, it's not going to be as easy as 1-2-3, bucky boy. We're gonna take it slow so you might can learn something about the opposite sex. Go on, tell me, who do you think it might be?” Aunt Pinkey warmed up her coffee, poured Hooter a cup and headed for her easy chair.
It galled Hooter that he had to play by Pinkey's rules if he wanted to find out what Aunt Pinkey knew. But, it galled him worse to think that he cared enough to play the game rather than just walk out the door and say to the devil with all this secret admirer nonsense.
Eliminating the Obvious
Having plowed similar fields with Aunt Pinkey before, Hooter knew it was no use to be coy, so he dove right in.
“After what you did to her at the boxed supper? You'll be lucky if she'll ever even let you borrow a welding mask from the school shop again.”
“Hmmm…I can see how you might think that, and that's not all together a stupid possibility. But, really Hooter, knowing her like you do, when was the last time she ever tried to be subtle about anything?”
“Point taken. The waitress in Lubbock.”
Aunt Pinkey collapsed into another fit of laughter. “That's exactly what I'm talking about. She makes no bones about telling you there isn't a man within 200 miles worth wiping a dirty apron on and you think somehow that might be her way of saying she likes you.”
“Izzy and the rest, just foolin'.”
“Again, worth considering, but way too creative for that bunch of goons you run with.”
“That's all the cards I've got to play,” said Hooter sullenly. After a long stare Pinkey knew that it was true.
“O.K., let's take this real slow. In the course of your existence, what single woman have you seen more of in this past year than any other?”
Hooter scrunched up his eyebrows in concentration.
Aunt Pinkey giggled again. “O.K., let's make it the remedial course, break it down into smaller bites. In an average week when you're around home, what do you do, what single women do you come in contact with?”
“Well, I don't come into contact with any single women. If I'm not out at the place, I'm in town with the guys. If I'm not there, I'm here. Aunt Pinkey, you sweet on me?” Hooter said with a grin that he knew would turn the tables if only a little.
“You scurvy dog. No, I'm not sweet on you. I only love you because genes say I have to. Where else do you go?”
“I told you. Well, church on Sundays, but there aren't any single women there.”
“You idiot,” said Aunt Pinkey. “No single women.”
“No single women,” said Hooter with the confidence of a man counting three cows for the banker standing beside him. “There's school kids, their moms, and women like, well like you.”
Pinkey let his reference to the county's growing number of golden age widows pass. “You're almost on the path, boy. Aren't there younger versions of women like me at church?”
Hooter cringed at the thought. “Younger old ladies? I reckon there's some age variation but still…”
Aunt Pinkey's laughter drowned out the rest of what he had to say. “You really do win the prize. Not younger senior citizens, boy, isn't there at least one widow lady who's not all that different from you in age? A widow lady, I might add who has the attention of more than one bachelor in these parts?”
Dr. Watson, We Have a Bingo
Hooter's heart froze up tighter than a piston in a dry crankcase. Claire Riggins? It couldn't possibly be, not someone like that.
“But, what would she…”
Aunt Pinkey cut him off: “What in the world would she ever see in someone like you? That's one of those mysteries that only the good Lord will ever be able to explain.”
Hooter was more confused than a Democrat at a tax cutting convention. He did see Claire every week on the road and she always waved and smiled big. And, even when he wasn't substitute teaching the pre-Kindergarten Sunday School class, one way or another he always ended up visiting with Claire and her five-year-old daughter, Katherine, or Bugsy as everyone called her. He'd had a soft spot for Bugsy ever since the first Sunday he'd taught her in class. A disagreement over paste and a paper angel resulted in Bugsy throttling the older and much larger Homer Jacobs. She had enough wildcat behind that angelic face to make Hooter smile.
Then there was Claire. She was the only one who ever made Hooter feel like his appointment as a substitute teacher was a wise choice rather than a mediocre compromise. She was the only parent who came to collect her youngin' on time, and she was the only one who ever thanked him. Outside of class, she was the only one who seemed genuinely interested in what he'd been doing that week, sniffles from a cold or his thoughts on a particular subject. That alone had made their weekly chats something he looked forward to enough to notice when she was absent.
She also happened to be sweet. You couldn't find anyone to say anything bad about her. Right after she became a widow when her husband wound up on the wrong side of a horse wreck, such niceties were easily explained. But two years later, gossip veterans like Aunt Pinkey had dirt on everybody, true or not.
As if that wasn't enough, as far as Hooter was concerned, Claire was gorgeous; a mane of auburn hair, dazzling green eyes, dimples, a pearly white smile and all the rest. In fact she was so far beyond what Hooter figured he could ever hope for, he'd never thought of her in that way. Besides she had to be several years younger. Nope, such a thing was too wild even for dreams. There had to be some mistake.
“But, she'd never be so bold as to make the first move,” he tried.
“You're exactly right, Hooter, but I reckon it's like this,” said Aunt Pinkey. “Say there's a section-wide gate that you need or want to get some mangy old renegade bull through. Give him enough time and you'd think that even by accident the old worm magnet would drift through. If he doesn't, though, you've got two choices: forget about him or go on the offensive, no matter how meek and mild you are.”
“I'm not buying it,” said Hooter, picking up his hat to go. “You've got too much time on your hands to concoct some notion like Claire Riggs and me. You're just guessing, same as me.”
“If I'm guessing,” said Aunt Pinkey nonchalantly, “How do you suppose she knew that Willie Nelson tape was your favorite and that you'd been looking high and low to replace the one you shredded?”
“That's my point,” said Hooter with satisfaction. “She couldn't know about it, so it rules her out.”
Aunt Pinkey leaned forward in her chair, a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye. “Oh, Hooter, you poor misguided little man, I wish my life was as simple as you try to make yours. How could she ever know such a thing? Did it ever dawn on you that she might have asked me? That she sat right where you are a week ago, told me she wanted to know how to finally get your attention? Or that it wasn't the first or only time she sat in that chair as I and others commiserated with her over your ignorance of the obvious?”
Hooter had the look of a jackrabbit that has just seen the underside of a pickup whistling over the top of him, four wheels and 300 horses that should have squashed him like a bug and would have 99.9 percent of the time, except this once, a rabbit who has just been given an unexpected and undeserved chance for another trip across the road, yet wondering if he'll ever have guts enough to try again.
“It's true, then?”
“All of it. And, I might add, 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.”