CLAYTON LE CLAIRE AWOKE LISTENING to the chimes of the grandfather clock strike ten. Must have gone to sleep, he thought. He yawned and stretched his masculine legs far out in front of him. He settled back in the chair, feeling the stiffness in his limbs. I'm tired, he thought and his hand came up slowly, fumbling with his cravat. He drew it off and tossed it on a table. Then he unbuttoned his starched collar, and slumped back in the chair. His face glowed with a healthy color that only the sun and the wind could give, and his dark black hair glistened with oil. A small curl fell carelessly over the broad forehead. He looked more like a spoiled boy than a father of a seventeen-year-old son, but his tightly drawn, wrinkled, trousers plainly showed his manhood. His deep blue eyes, set close together, were shadowed by heavy lashes, full dark eyebrows, and under his Roman nose the thin, pencil-line mustache moved.
I'm tired, he thought again. Too damn tired … wonder if they're coring? Guess I should be there … oh, to hell with the damn well … they know what to do … I'd like to sell out and take a long trip … wonder if Gay would like to see Europe? The rewards of hard work … we all need a trip and I can afford it now … Carol's worked hard too … she's helped me. Damn, she's helped me so many ways … and Gay …
Gay. Even to think the name was like a cry in the brightness of his heart. Gaylord … he was almost grown now … time flew by so swiftly … too swiftly. He looked at a tinted picture in a silver frame on the carved mahogany breakfront, remembering the day it was taken. Let's see, he thought, was Gay only three when that was taken? He recalled his wife had made the white dress … he had fussed when she had put lace around the neck and sleeves; and he remembered who the outstretched hand, holding a rubber ball, was pointing to …
He sat there grinning, remembering. There had been a day when Gaylord was small. Five, he was, he thought. That day they had been lying on the front porch of their oil-field shack and Gaylord had yelled to a neighbor … "Mrs. Marks," Gaylord had cried, "look at all the hair on Daddy's legs."
"Gay …" Clayton Le Claire had laughed … looked at Mrs. Marks and asked, "Now what do you think of my son?"
"I think he's going to be a devil just like his hairy daddy," she had chuckled. "But I bet he's going to be better-looking."
"Daddy," Gaylord had cried, "when I grow up, will I have hair on my legs like you?"
"You probably will."
"I wish I had some now."
"That'll come fast enough; then when you're all hairy like Daddy you'll be sorry you ever wished for it."
"I like to wish."
"Don't you want something besides being hairy like Daddy?"
"I'd like a new doll."
"Wouldn't you rather have a football or a steam engine?"
"No, I'd like a doll better."
"How about a train?"
"Oh … I've got one, Daddy."
"But you've got a doll too."
"I know I have, but I'd like lots of dolls."
"I'll buy you a doll if that's what you want, but I'm going to make a roughneck out of you yet. You're going to grow up into a big man and Daddy's going to let you take care of all his oil wells."
"Do you have oil wells?"
"I will, son … They're going to be yours, too, and I'm going to teach you how to take care of them." He had looked out over the derrick tops and then back at his son's small form. When he spoke again his voice was deep and tender. "I'm going to hit one of these days … and when I do you're going to forget all about dolls and go with Daddy … Daddy'll take you with him and we'll just make lots of money."
"Then we can buy lots of dolls, huh Daddy?"
"Yeah … we can buy lots of dolls."
Carol's roots, planted deep, would be hard to change, he had thought … but I'll get him interested in oil … I'll get him interested … he's young … he'll change. Change? Why do I want him to change? What's wrong with me … I love him as he is … I don't care if he plays with dolls the rest of his life … but he won't … he's just young … let him play while he can. Life's not easy after you're grown … when I think about the way I used to hustle … about my childhood …
In the bloom of his manhood, he had come to Texas. Had gone to a country dance and met a girl named Carol Bender. That was over sixteen years ago. He was a stranger in need of a companion.
He was away from home and those he knew … but the dance and Carol Bender had suddenly changed all this. A good girl was a novelty in Le Claire's life. He had always gone with those who would give him the things he desired. Carol Bender had been different. He had been surprised to find her a virgin when she had finally given into his pleading. It had taken several weeks and he was almost ready to give up trying … then that one evening she had been pathetically eager for his affection. Her moods of gaiety and her lovely face got him and before he knew it, he was deeply in love with this country girl who plowed cotton fields and still retained a freshness, a desirable softness that had been lacking in other girls. The evening she told him she was pregnant, he was glad. What the hell. He was old enough and he loved her. It would be good to have a home and settle down. He'd never had a real home or love. Not the kind of love he could read in this girl's sparkling eyes.
So he had married her and immediately after the ceremony there had been a big reception at her house. Her parents had been very nice to him. So had all her friends.
All this was as clear in his thoughts as if it were happening again. Above all, it brought back one long-remembered buggy ride. He was a fresh married man again, sitting close to his bride, sitting there under the buggy's tasseled top, heading for the oil field and their new home. The day was warm and her cheek was soft and fragrant against him. "I don't care what kind of a house it is … I'll love it … I'll fix it up with curtains and maybe we can paper one or two rooms," he thought mechanically, certain that those had been her exact words.
It had been fun fixing the place. Hanging paper, putting curtains over the small glass panes, painting the woodwork. They had even hung a new door on the outside privy. He remembered her words.
"Darling," she had said one afternoon, "that sack looks awful … let's put a door in its place."
"Then we'll have to open and shut it," he had grinned back. But the new door had been added.
He recalled her saying, "Darling, don't squeeze me so tight. Remember?"
She stood there in his vision, a travesty of the slim willowy girl he had possessed … the girl who was soon to become the mother of his son. It would be a boy … it had to be.
While she was pregnant, he had been going out quite a bit, playing poker with "the boys." In fact, he had been on a spree the night his son had been born. He had rushed to the hospital soon afterwards. She had been kind and sweet and when she had told him the name she had selected and asked if he liked it, he had answered in the affirmative.
Then suddenly he had hit. He had bought an oil lease very cheaply and it had rewarded him with a big profit. He bought more. Each one turned out just a little better than the past ones. He was on his way.
Clayton and Carol Le Claire had arrived in Cotton with their son, unknown to many in the sleepy town; but that was before he had drilled a well close by … a well that had gushed in, the best producer in the county. After that the Le Claires were well established.
From the big chair, Le Claire looked at the ceiling, at the rich draperies, at the room's expensive furniture. Gosh, Mom, I wish you were alive … I wish you were here so I could give you …
He thought of a face darkly tranquil in the Louisiana earth. He recalled in a clear vision the living face of his mother, Marguerite Le Claire. And with this vision, there came to him, like a sound of cool stillness, the events of his days in Louisiana. The old days came back; the days of his childhood on the low, swampy lands of his home. Clearly, he saw his mother bending over an ironing board. She smiled at him from a prehistoric past. This lovely dark-complected woman with the affectionate smile, spoke and uttered his name. With that word, he thought of his father, Clayton Le Claire, Sr. He could see him again, walking out of the home place, dressed in beige trousers and puffing on a long, dark cigar. How handsome and vain he had looked. Even now, in his memories, he strutted and held his head high as a peacock.
Like floating myths, the figures of his mother and father moved before him, moved on the earth where he was born. He remembered the roughness of his home; the sand road before it; the great cypress and pine forest; the silent bayou running through it; the things that crawled under its greenish water; and the mud chimney of his grandfather's home. His grandfather—how good and kind he had been when he had brought his few belongings into the little room that was to be his … after the pine box had been placed in the hole dug deep in the crusted earth.
The word "Mother" formed on his moving lips now as he sat there, eyes closed. Again, he felt the grief of that day. It was a grief of time past. It was a man's dream of being a child again … but it was impossible to be a child any longer.
He heard the hollow loud knocks the chunks of dirt, tossed into the hole, had made on the pine box. He saw again the fresh mound between the high weeds and grass. The small group of people surrounding it. The grave of his mother with only a few bouquets of garden flowers around it; one of roses, tied with a string; and another, some yellow-centered blooms squeezed tightly together and placed in a cracked fruit jar. He saw the freshly-turned red soil surrounding the two bouquets; the muddy bayou laying so silently between the old cemetery and the pine woods; and they wove themselves again into his wandering mind.
"Your mother wants you to come live with me, Clayton," his grandfather had said in French. "She's going to sleep now. Don't cry, no. You'll be my boy … you want to, yes?"
Bewildered over the strangeness of everything, the absence of his father, the place they had lowered his mother; and, afraid of what his father would do to him now that his mother would no longer be home, the seven year old boy had clung to his grandfather. "I'll go home with you, Grandpa … I don't ever want to go back to our house. If Mama's not there, I don't want to."
Clayton Le Claire stiffened suddenly. A light patter of feet on the porch brought him back from the past. There was a sound of a doorknob turning and Carol came into the room. She stood looking at him, her lovely face as soft and kind as a fawn's.
"You look tired, honey," she said. "Why don't you go to bed?"
"I was just sitting here."
"Feel all right?"
"I'm all right … I was just thinking … " Le Claire said heavily.
Carol walked to him. "They must have been unpleasant thoughts … is there anything wrong?"
"No … there's nothing wrong … I was just thinking of my mother."
She came over and sat on the edge of his chair, stroked his hair … said, "I wish I had known her … she must have been a wonderful woman."
"She was. Not a damn thing out of life … just work … work …"
"She had you."
"I was too young to help her."
"But she had you … I'm sure she got more out of life than you think she did."
"Maybe so … I'd give anything if she were alive today. I could treat her like a queen now."
"I wish she were too, Clay."
To him, at that moment, Carol Le Claire was the most beautiful thing in the world.
"You've been good for me, Carol," Clayton said. "I want you to know that."
Their eyes met in complete accord.
"For me too, Clay," Carol answered. Then she reached up and kissed him. "Clay …"
"Let's go to bed … I'm tired and so are you."
They walked the rest of the way to the bedroom in silence.