Concho City, Texas—October 2, 1953
That Friday evening would have been entirely unremarkable had it not been that it was storming for the first time since spring, and that an unfathomable event would be taking place in the wee hours that would mark the 3rd of October unforgettable. But as far as anyone knew, the next morning would be like most other Saturday mornings on Bobwhite Lane: sun shining, dogs barking, kids yelling, and mothers shouting at them above the noisy weekend traffic up on Old Oak Road.
In the nearby countryside lightning flashed on endless miles of gnarly mesquite. In town, from his wobbly lean-to of weathered boards and tar paper, the young dog on the corner whimpered, then growled at every roll of thunder. The only other sounds breaking the usual after-supper quiet on the lane had been a couple of cars splashing through puddles on their way somewhere else. In picture windows families could be seen milling about, gesturing to one another, getting children ready for bed, or gathering around the neighborhood’s few television sets to watch the Friday night fare of Beat the Clock or Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour.
It was almost 9:00, and sprinkling again, when the music started at Alice Bock’s tiny frame house on the corner of Bobwhite Lane and Angelus Street. On a Friday night, three years before, Alice’s husband Ernest had disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again. Every Friday night since, she’d paid homage to him with her music, convinced that it would eventually lure him home to her. Her 78 record crackled and wobbled under the phonograph needle and, with what seemed like a hundred violins, a crooner’s voice drifted out the front windows, past their red shutters, and into the empty street.
She had kept the 1926 recording of “Always” in the top left drawer of her chiffonier since marrying Ernest Bock the same year. Between uses, the record had been wrapped in its overused tissue, then tucked into the folds of a silk bed jacket that had been her mother’s. Other than a small brown stain on the edge of one sleeve, the jacket was in pristine condition. Not even the fine silt of the wicked West Texas dust storms, known to steal into the best-built homes, had ever found a way into the sanctified contents of that drawer.
Alice, who looked far older than her forty-six years, had once been pretty with an easy smile, dancing eyes, and lustrous copper-colored hair coiled loosely at the nape of her neck. But when Ernest left, her smile went with him, her eyes went dull, and her shiny locks went gray and brittle. She’d had her hair “hacked off,” as one neighbor lady described it, to just below her ears, as though serving some sort of penance. She’d rarely left the house. The only time anyone could count on seeing her was on those Friday evenings when she’d dance past her front windows, her arm positioned high on her phantom partner’s shoulder (Ernest was a tall man), wearing the once-white dress and silk gardenia pinned behind one ear that she’d worn the night they married. The same neighbor lady had described Alice’s displays as “downright pitiful,” and the elderly man next door said that her Friday ritual gave him the “willies.”
Diagonally across the way, young Sweezer Riley, just hours away from turning thirteen, had come out on his front porch to listen to the music. The porch overhang was just wide enough to keep him dry. He’d never met Alice Bock, but he figured they had something important in common—his mother, Faithful Abbott Riley, had died the same year that Alice’s husband had disappeared. Sweezer had overheard a couple of the old ladies in the neighborhood talking about how Ernest had taken off and left Alice the summer of ’50 for some other woman. Sweezer believed that the words of “Always” held a message for him from his departed mother—that even though he couldn’t see her, she was always with him.
He nestled into the metal fan-backed chair that had been hers. It was badly in need of a fresh coat of light green, but he didn’t want to paint it because doing so would be like painting the last of her away. The only other personal items surviving her were a flowered apron with a handkerchief in the pocket, and a diary titled The Day Carl Abbott ‘Sweezer’ Riley Was Born. Her apron remained on the hook in the kitchen where she’d left it. Joe Riley, Sweezer’s father, had forbid him to touch it. Sweezer had kept his mother’s diary hidden. Joe remained inside that night keeping company with the only thing he honestly cared about—a good stiff drink. By that time, any night of the week, he’d be three sheets to the wind. That Friday night was no different.
Sweezer remembered the day his mother died. On that very day, she’d repeated the story of how she’d derived the name Sweezer from his given name of Carl: he was born sweet and innocent, but wise like old geezers often were, hence the nickname Sweezer. He remembered the old man Ray Tubbs who had lived down the road from them. Ray had taught him how to fish, to feed four or five lambs at the same time, and to hunt for arrowheads. After Ray passed, Sweezer overheard the old men at the store talking about how much they missed the “old geezer.” Sweezer left the store that day feeling proud.
Running his fingers through his mop of sand-colored hair, Sweezer shut his eyes and rested his head on the back of his mama’s chair just as giggling and muffled conversation began coming from the yard next door. Annoyed at being disturbed, yet more curious, he got up from his comfortable position to creep through waist-high weeds, to sneak a look over the hedge that separated his house from the Randolph house next door.
Six-year-old Cady Frances Randolph was perched on the tops of her father’s shoes as he waltzed her down the sidewalk to the music coming from the Bock house. He was being careful to avoid the mound of dirt that was piled high at the end of the walk. A good-sized hole waited for the live oak shade tree that was scheduled to be planted the next morning. They sang “Always” together.
It was fascinating to Sweezer that a child as young as Cady would know the words to such a song, and that she could carry a tune so well. Dr. Jonas Randolph’s voice was entirely drowned out by his daughter’s enthusiastic warbling, yet he smiled patiently down at her, twirling her round and round. Watching them had left Sweezer aching for his mama.
He thought back to the time he had met Cady and her father seven months before, when his house was delivered on a flatbed trailer to the lot next door. Cady had stood outside all day that day watching the two-story, yellow frame house get planted on the corner. When he asked her what she was so curious about, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “I think ’cause your house is like in the Wizard of Oz . . . came from somewhere else. That’s all I guess. I’m gonna go find that wizard man someday. Yep, I sure am.”
The house had actually been Sweezer’s mother’s country place, left to her when her father, Sweezer’s grandfather Abbott, died in ’39. Sweezer had grown up there. His parents had raised chickens and goats, and had worked the land into pretty good alfalfa crops. Faithful had been an unusually graceful woman for having been raised poor in the country. Her father’s death had left her both penniless and motherless when, soon after the funeral, her mother left town with a new man. Faithful dropped out of high school at sixteen and married Joe. All she knew about him was that he was a good dancer, had a steady job as a welder, and promised to take care of her forever. On the day Sweezer was born, a year later, she wrote in her diary: My beloved son, Carl Abbott ‘Sweezer’ Riley, my second chance in life and my only hero. It was her only entry.
A couple of years after Faithful died, Abbott relatives sold the land on which her house sat. With part of the small amount of money that she had squirreled away and left behind, Joe had the house ripped up from its roots and moved, along with twelve-year-old Sweezer, the twenty-some-odd miles into Concho City. That’s how the house came to live on Bobwhite Lane’s last empty lot. Had there been a tree, a patch of grass, even a bush around it, the place might have seemed more to belong.
• • •
Afraid of being seen, Sweezer stole back through the weeds to his position on the chair. He’d had a strange feeling watching Cady and her father dance. He’d had strange feelings before, like the time he dreamt about his mama drowning in a swirling area of Salt Brush Creek right below the big boulder from which she loved to fish in real life. When she was found floating face-down in the exact spot that Sweezer had seen her in his dream, Joe took seriously to the bottle and accused Sweezer of being the devil incarnate.
Alice played “Always” a full four times in a row that night, and danced alone to every play. But when she played “Goodnight, Wherever You Are,” popular during the war, it signaled the end of the music for the night. She didn’t dance to that one. She sat motionless until nothing could be heard but the scratch and thump of the needle at the end of the record. And then, like clockwork, the house went dark.
Sweezer listened to the rain on the overhang for a little while longer, stretched his gangly arms over his head, and peeked out to catch some raindrops on his face. The porch light was out at the Randolph house. He locked the front door and walked toward the light from the kitchen that formed a yellow triangle on the hall’s wood floor. He could see Joe’s head on the table, his outstretched arm on the checkered oil cloth, and a glass turned over by his hand. The only thing standing was a vodka bottle, almost empty.
Joe spat and snorted while Sweezer put the glass in the sink and wiped up the few drops of liquor that had beaded up on the cloth. He knew from experience not to disturb his father; it never turned out well. Climbing the stairs to his room, he stepped carefully on each, to avoid the creaks that could stir Joe.
Still dressed, he stretched out on his bed and imagined his mama downstairs baking a cake for him; he could even smell it. When the phone began ringing, he sprang off the bed, ran into the hall, and managed to pick up the receiver before the third ring, and before it awakened Joe.