I was happy on the day he left us. Clomping about the lobby of the bus station in my new boots. Making exact miniatures of the sound his own boots made as he walked away. I know we were heavy baggage. A rodeo cowboy travels light or not at all.
His name was Joe. He gave me a tiny leather saddle on a key chain when he patted my head and said so long. Lost the key chain down the road. Still have his name.
Don’t know why he thought she’d want it but he gave Mama his wedding ring back at the Greyhound station downtown Dallas in the year 1960. She sat on that bench with one battered blue suitcase and her flowered dress and cheap flat shoes. Tossed her red hair and made her face hard as his boots clunked on the wood floor until they didn’t anymore.
It was me broke them up, I’m sure. She’d have rode the winds around the world with him if not for that. I know it for a fact because we rode some wild winds ourselves. It was in her blood.
At that moment she belonged more to me than him and he wasn’t having it. But it got her off the bench, I imagine. Got her reaching inside and coming up with the rage to tell him to screw himself good. The guts to go. The intention to get on that bus and take me home to Cow Creek, Texas.
If there’s a God I expect it was Him that sat us down in the back of the bus by a cowpoke, name of Tom. Rolling through the desperate night between Austin and San Antonio, Mama made some kind of decision. Instead of going to Cow Creek, we went west to the Davis Mountains. Landed outside Fort Davis.
Tom was a hand on a ranch out there. Mama set her lifetime record by marrying him and living in his cabin eight years. He loved her well and got me on a horse early. A mixed blessing, I’d say. Never have been much at home anywhere else. I also got his name. Mama did that out of respect and from Baby Joe, I got to be Baby Joe Tom.
Tried for years to be just Joe Tom where she’s concerned and sometimes I am. But Baby I’ll always be, especially when she’s wanting something and it slides out through that twist of a smile that’s inspired some good men to swear off red-heads. If Mama had met Merle Haggard in her younger days, she’d have given him some serious song material.
At least she chose other ways to show her appreciation for the lovers that came along later and I didn’t acquire any additional names.
Life in the Davis Mountains was good. I grew up happy there. Spent a lot of time in the saddle. Tom tended cattle ahorseback in the high ranges and I worked with him soon as I was old enough to handle a cowpony. He got to be the closest thing I ever had to a real father and watched out for me, as did the other hands. But boys aren’t babied out there and pretty quick are expected to be of some use.
Something in Mama never could be still. She had a restless spirit and convincing dreams. A bad combination.
About the time I was eleven we got on that bus again. This time it was Tom who sat on the bench, twisting his old Stetson in his leather hands, staring down the highway as we sailed toward California. Mama had a few dollars he made her take. Said he couldn’t stand to have her leave him broke. I had his name and his veneration for a good horse.
What I left behind was a big piece of me.
The kids in California were a long shot from the west Texas boys and girls. Didn’t fit in and didn’t want to, but when we left the Davis Mountains, I’d sent a lot of me down inside to bide its time. Nothing could touch that part of me.
I don’t know if Mama liked it there. For a while we lived alone in a shabby bungalow. She waited tables at a diner not far from the track at Arcadia. At night she’d sit at an old green Royal typewriter pounding out page after page while I played outside.
Sometimes she’d read me a story she’d written. Never did understand them. They never had endings I liked. I was old enough by then to be of some use to her in her conversations and she’d tell me how we were going to hit The Big One. Then we’d have some fun.
She had big dreams.
She threw away her jeans and boots and Sears Roebuck shirts and took to wearing long, flowing brightly-colored skirts and loose lace blouses. Grew her hair long and wore it in a braid. Jangled with necklaces and bracelets and such.
She was finding herself, she said.
One day she was packing our bags when I got home from school. Said to say hi to Paul. Told me we were headed to San Francisco. Before we climbed in her new love’s Volkswagen bus, she stuck a purple flower in the hatband of the battered straw cowboy hat I’d acquired from my second namesake.
“You’re a flower cowboy now, Baby.”
Hated San Francisco. We lived on a hill in the Haight in a house with people who came and went. Mama insisted on having a room just for the two of us. She didn’t spend much time there at night, but she did sit there most days pounding on that Royal, making stacks of pages that she’d read to the others while they lounged, passing joints and drinking wine.
I went to school most of the time. The rest of the time I played with six or seven other little guys who lived with us. Mama had me grow my hair to my shoulders but she seemed to understand that I couldn’t give up Tom’s old hat.
“You’ve got to be who you are, Baby. We don’t have any choice about that.”
Paul and Mama had a kind of wedding in a garden. Paul wore his best white robe and sandals. Mama wore something with lace. Their friends passed joints and strummed guitars. I was flower boy. Held the rings, braided leather—soft, Mama said, to represent the fluidity of their union.
By that I guess she meant they could still do lots of partying with other people because they did. She’d take me along sometimes, on outings around the city with various males who looked a lot like Paul. They’d go to a park and get high and play the guitar while I climbed trees or explored. Some of them wanted me to ask people for money on the streets, but Mama never allowed it.
Sometimes she’d take me to the zoo, just the two of us, her prancing along telling me how life was just made to be thrilling and that’s how it was going to be when we hit The Big One.
I know she meant to be a good mother. Had her lines she wouldn’t cross and if I interfered with her plans, she never made it known. God help the guy who tried to give me a toke or slug of booze. She made me go to school, too, some twelve or fifteen over the years. And she never would take a man into any bedroom we shared. I did spend a lot of nights alone.
Sally told me once that Mama warped me in those early days, made a dreamer and drifter and worse out of me. I don’t know. You work with what you’re given. Nobody’s to blame for the choices we make. I told her that not every boy has a mama who loves him. Sally said in my case that might not be such a good thing.
After a while Mama decided Oregon was the place to be. She gave Paul a weepy goodbye hug and we climbed on the bus north. Ended up in a commune in the mountains, more to my liking than San Francisco.
After that it was Canada for a while, then somewhere in the north California woods. A couple of other places. Eventually we ended up back in LA, where Mama met a guy named Peter Horace Alderman the Third—that’s how he introduced himself.
Mama could be anybody she wanted according to the dress she wore and the man beside her.
They married in a church ceremony attended by his tight-faced parents. We moved into Peter’s house on the beach.
He was all right. He had a lot of money from his parents even though they never took to us. If he worked, I never knew it. He bought Mama new clothes, city stuff that made her look like a movie star to me.
They went out most nights. Slept a lot during the day or strolled the beach. Sat by the pool with pretty people. Peter liked to throw parties. Sometimes there were other teens. We’d steal the necessary ingredients from the bar. Head for the beach where we did things we’d have gotten in trouble for.
Peter got me scuba diving lessons. Taught us to play tennis on the court out back of the house. Mama had to be careful not to beat him too much or he’d get sullen.
Now and then we’d fly to Acapulco. Bake ourselves on the beach at a fancy place he liked to stay.
He bought me a Connemara Pony. Said it grew up on the moors of Ireland. I liked him a lot for that. The only bad part was the English riding lessons and sissy outfits. I resisted at first. How can a man ride proper without his hat?
But we finally got to the jumping and that was great. The old Russian who taught the class helped my riding considerably, smoothing out rough edges, teaching me some form. Said I rode like a crow.
I was getting into competition when Peter dumped Mama for a socialite his parents brought into his life. We were back on the road, ponyless and otherwise broke.
Mama took it hard. I’m sure she loved Peter Horace Alderman the Third in her way. Being broke again had to hurt, too. She could have gotten money out of the deal but Mama never asked anybody for anything.
Except me. One way or another she was always asking me to love her.
We left quiet. I dragged that old blue suitcase and she wore a backpack she’d acquired in our travels. She threw that old Royal in the river as we walked across the bridge to the bus station where she bought two tickets to Cow Creek.
She held those tickets in one hand and studied them. Pulled me to her with her free arm. “A man’s got no dominion over the rain. That’s what your Pa-Pa says, Baby.”
She didn’t cry then and she didn’t cry on the way. But when the bus pulled into Cow Creek and we saw Pa-Pa Sam standing there in his felt hat and overalls squinting through the morning sun to see us through the windows of the bus, then she did. We had to sit until everyone was off the bus to give her time to build that smile for Pa-Pa Sam.