I don’t believe that things necessarily happen for a reason. I mean, I believe in cause and effect, which usually boils down to basic science. You know, equal and opposite reactions? I think that things should be “rewarded” with a resolution befitting of the action. It doesn’t always happen, though. I know it hasn’t been that way with me. I just keep taking what the universe keeps throwing at me with the wrath of a three-year-old who missed nap time.
In other words, don’t get married, kids. Don’t get married unless you’re prepared for the divorce. Get to know your boyfriend’s family very, very, VERY early. I’m not just talking about his parents, either. Southern siblings are a can of mixed nuts.
I’d never heard of a prenup way back then, but if I had, I might have asked about a few things. One big issue in particular.
We didn’t have much when we first got married. A couch, a table, a couple of chairs, a mattress and box springs, a black-and-white television with a handle and rabbit ears. He was beginning his medical residency in a horrible little hospital next to a pile of tumbleweeds in the Texas Panhandle. I felt like panhandling. The best job I was able to find was selling curtains in a department store. It’s amazing what kind of work you can find with an art degree in the middle of nowhere.
Rob would work his ridiculous shifts and come home exhausted. We always told ourselves that it would pay off in the end. We were going to move to the Ozarks where he would be a country doctor—in REAL, ACTUAL, BEAUTIFUL country, he said—and I could paint to my heart’s content. His family was from the hills of northern Arkansas, and they had a ranch. I’d been there only a few times since we were married. They only used a fraction of the land as a working ranch, and they’d been saving him a plot for when he became a real medical doctor. The town needed one. He liked the idea. I wasn’t so sure.
“Diane, you’ll be able to step out the front door and see deer headed to the creek,” he told me. “The nearest neighbors are about a mile away.”
“The nearest neighbors here are about a mile away,” I countered.
“Yeah, but there’s a view. A real view. With trees,” he said, gesturing at the scrub brush that lined our cracked and crooked sidewalk.
He hugged me from behind.
“Can’t you see it? Green, rolling hills. Trees, creeks, birds singing.”
I’m from Dallas. As nice as the mental picture sounded, I was accustomed to museums, restaurants, and civilization in general.
“And…there’s a great little arts community just down the road,” he said, sweetening the deal.
I’ll admit, I wasn’t crazy about the traffic or the noise in the city. Still, I knew it would be an adjustment, and Rob knew what I was thinking.
“Give it a chance,” he said, kissing me on the neck.
He always knew that little kiss fixed everything.
I started painting green mountains that night.
I spent four years in an ugly town selling ugly curtains to uglier customers while Rob worked the ugliest shifts possible. He’d go to work overnight and I’d work during the days. Some people might argue that we had the best kind of marriage since we didn’t see each other often enough to fight. I was lonely, though. Anyone with an art degree who is forced to smile as a happy couple leaves the store with drapes from the Herb Tarlek collection will eventually be worn down by life, especially when their spouse isn’t home to hear you complain and your esteemed co-workers think polka dots and plaid look “cute” together.
I painted when I could. I usually had to wait until I could get back to Dallas for a visit to pick up the art supplies I preferred. My parents would collect them here and there and send me a care package once in a while.
The day his residency ended, I didn’t say a word to him as he walked through the front door. I reached for the car keys, drove straight to the store, and told them I was leaving before I finally snapped and set fire to the window treatments.
Then I went home. He opened the front door as he saw me pull into the driveway. He was holding a bouquet of tumbleweeds in one hand and roses in another.
I really smiled for the first time in four years.
He threw the tumbleweeds in the yard, handed me the roses, and we embraced, sobbing tears of joy.
“It’s over,” he said. “We made it.”
We kissed. For a very long time.
As I leaned my head back and gazed into his eyes, all I could say was, “I missed you.”
“It’s time to go home,” he said, beaming.
I just knew that anything had to be better than this.
“The Pig Trail?” I asked, flipping through a book about Arkansas that Rob bought me a few days before we left for the Ozarks.
“Oh, that’s across the state,” he replied.
“Your home state is awfully proud of pigs,” I said.
“Did I just mess with Texas or something?”
“I’m a city girl,” I responded. “I don’t consider myself a Texan. I consider myself a city girl. You know that.”
“Arkansas has cities,” he countered.
“A city. Little Rock. It’s a fraction of the size of Dallas. How far will that be from us?”
I gazed through the book as Rob handed me a map. I unfolded it.
“Bald Knob? Someone actually named a town Bald Knob?” I asked, mortified at what surely awaited me.
“Gotta go through there if you want to get to Little Rock,” he said, his fingers tracing a few crooked highways down to the middle of the state. “Unless you’d rather go the long way.”
“So…we are…there?” I asked, pointing to a small dot near the Missouri state line.
“Yep, that’s it.”
I sighed. On the map, it appeared that we were lodged in our own kind of Bermuda Triangle between larger cities. Memphis, St. Louis, Little Rock. And no straight way to get to any of them.
The phone rang. Rob answered it. It was his sister, Jo.
“Hello…hey. Yes, we’re packing…I don’t know, a couple of days…we have to ship her artwork so that nothing breaks…no, you’re not going to do it…stop that. She’s a very talented artist.”
“She hates me,” I said as Rob covered the receiver.
“She’s just possessive of her big brother,” Rob whispered, turning back to the phone.
He walked away from me, stretching the cord as far as it would go. I couldn’t hear the rest of the conversation. I kept flipping through the book, pretending to be interested.
Rob sighed and hung up the phone. He walked back over to me, pointing at a picture on one of the pages.
“Just wait until you see the hills,” Rob said. “I’m telling you, there’s no place like it.”
“There wasn’t any place like the Panhandle, either. Not exactly a compliment. And your sister hates me.”
Rob sighed and grabbed an empty box, beginning to fill it with medical books.
Life happened, as it always does, and chasing a five-year-old and a three-year-old only enhanced the experience. That part of “life” began seven years after we moved to a greener middle-of-nowhere. I did, however, manage to find part-time work at a small art gallery in town, and I forced some more Panhandle-style smiles while I taught little old ladies how to paint pictures of barns during the weekly classes that I was volun-told to teach. In the summer, we painted barns against a backdrop of green hills. In the winter, we painted barns covered in snow. I was the Bob Ross of barns.
We did build a very nice house on that plot. Big enough to meet our needs and more. I had a big hand in working with the architect and I did most of the decorating myself.
As for that simpler lifestyle that Rob told me about before we packed up for the hills? That was a great line. It turns out that being the only doctor for thirty miles in any direction keeps a guy busy. When he wasn’t working, his old high school buddies were around a lot. A LOT. I really don’t know where they all came from, seeing as how the cow-to-person ratio was similar to what I had figured in the Panhandle.
Guess who was expected to keep them all entertained? Oh, and let’s not forget his parents, his sister, his thirty-four cousins, and their families. I learned very quickly about what it means to be an Arkansas relative. You’re probably related to everyone, and if you’re not, you’re just a divorce and a cousin away.
Falling into the role of rural entertainer didn’t suit me very well.
“What a good day,” Rob happily said as I was angrily cleaning up the remnants of a Fourth of July party.
“Why is this holiday such a big deal up here? In my family, we used to throw a steak or two on the grill, put out a bag of chips, and everyone took care of themselves,” I said, dragging a trash bag around the back porch.
“That’s just the way people do things here. Tradition,” he said from the recliner.
“Speaking of my family, when do I ever get to see mine? I need your help here, please,” I responded, holding out a trash bag.
Rob sighed and got up from his chair, picking up a few paper plates before deciding it was bedtime. He had to be at work the next morning, after all, like I wasn’t working enough between the gallery and keeping two human beings alive in addition to the two of us.
Bobby, our five-year-old, loved going down to the creek to bring back any kind of critter that could breathe outside of the water. Sometimes he brought back a few that couldn’t, which became quick life lessons (or, more specifically, end-of-life lessons). Lydia, who couldn’t stand critters, usually “helped” me at the gallery, meaning she was very good at smearing her hands in the paint and creating abstract art. When I went to the school to sign Bobby up for kindergarten, she asked why she couldn’t go.
“Well, you have to be as old as Bobby before you can go,” I explained as she held my hand while we were in line at the elementary building.
“I can still help Mama paint?” she asked.
“Yes, I owe your future teacher some time to teach you how to clean up after yourself,” I responded.
I looked at Bobby, who had mud on his shirt from his latest trip to the creek.
I never signed up for this life, I thought.
Five more years later, it turns out that Rob’s return to his roots had also meant a return to a high school girlfriend who had recently divorced. How he found the time for all of this, I don’t know, but it happened, and the ensuing battle would have been comical if it hadn’t been reality.
You see, this whole concept of Arkansas relatives came into play when Rob finally agreed that he had been a total idiot and that I should continue raising our two offspring on my own and on my own terms—in the house that I spent YEARS trying to turn into our home. The kids knew it as home, and I couldn’t just take that away from them. My plan was to stay until they were both out of school, then sell the house and use the money to buy myself a nice place in Dallas, closer to my own family.
“Well, you can stay in the house for now, but…” Rob said one night over the phone.
“But…what? I’m sorry that I ran off with the head cheerleader? I’m sorry that I made a big mess and still haven’t learned how to clean it up—which, by the way, both of your kids inherited that trait,” I said.
“I thought they were your kids the last time we talked.”
“What is the ‘but’? Just tell me,” I said.
“I have to talk to Jo about this,” he replied.
“Your sister? What does she have to do with any of this?”
This was a moment I would replay over and over in my mind for years and years.
“Well…her property line runs right through the master bedroom and bathroom.”
“The contractors were looking for the best spot for the house when it was built, and that was it,” he said.
“Wait a minute. You never…this wasn’t…WHAT?!?”
“Yeah, I think I’m gonna hang up now,” Rob said, very nonchalantly.
He hung up the phone. I stared at mine.
I’m not sure what happened next, but once I regained full feeling in my extremities, I made a note to call my lawyer in the morning.
Four years after we “discovered” the little property line issue, I was still in the house. Rob mostly left me alone. Our contact was usually limited to kid exchanging. I’d had a few interesting conversations with Jo, however. She never liked me in the first place, so she launched a campaign of sorts to get as far under my skin as possible.
She was very good at it.
And she was a Grade A nutcase to boot.
You see, the way it works in their family, Jo’s level of crazy was generally accepted by their father. He never expected as much out of her as he had out of Rob, and he threw money at her instead of trying to fix the problems.
If you’re not familiar with “Southern crazy,” you’re about to find out how it works.
Jo started calling me frequently early on after we moved up from Texas. Sometimes, she would just tell me she needed help sewing a button back on a pair of pants or asked to borrow a cup of sugar. The calls grew more and more frequent, and she would ask me to do really bizarre stuff, like folding the fitted sheets she was about to put on her beds. She said it made them smoother once they were on the mattresses.
Other times, she would call to stir up the local gossip, and it always involved Rob and that “sweet girl who’s living with him now.”
When Rob found out I had started seeing someone, that’s when Jo really ramped up the crazy.
She called one Saturday afternoon with her new idea.
“I’ve been talking with Rob, and we think you should be paying me rent for the bedroom. We’ll throw in the bathroom for free.”
“I’m sorry, what?” I asked her one evening over the phone.
“Well, see, I pay taxes on that property. We could stretch it out over the year if you’d like. It’s not much in proportion to the rest of land. It’ll come to about six dollars a month if I’ve done my math right,” she said.
“Are you for real?”
Another time, Jo showed up with a sleeping bag in the middle of the night and knocked on the bedroom window.
“I need to get into my bedroom. I don’t have a key for the front door. I don’t own the front door,” Jo explained through panes of glass.
I squinted and wiped the sleep from my eyes, lifting the curtain.
“Are you crazy?” I asked, knowing the answer but waiting for her confirmation. I mean, the crazy list was getting pretty long. A day earlier, Jo put a bear trap near her water meter when she forgot to pay her bill. Then she drove several hours to buy gasoline in Oklahoma because it was ten cents cheaper there. When she arrived home, her husband almost stepped in the trap trying to clear some brush from the yard.
“According to my husband, yes. I think I’m fine, though, but he didn’t like the bear trap. Says the meter reader didn’t do anything wrong. I know better than that, though. I drink bottled water. Better for you. My bill shouldn’t be that high. That’s why I’m here. I need a place to sleep. I thought to myself, ‘Say, you own a bedroom out on the ranch.’ So, here I am.”
“You’d better leave before I call the po—”
“The police? For what? Trespassing? This is my bedroom. Open the window.”
I opened the window and threw a pillow outside.
“You own the front yard. USE IT,” I yelled.
She slept in her car that night. Bobby saw her in the driveway the next morning.
“Mom, what’s Aunt Jo doing here so early?”
“She’s taking you to baseball practice. Go grab your stuff and tell her hello!”
After that, things escalated. I came home from an early summer trip to Dallas with Rick (my new boyfriend) and the kids to find my/her bedroom full of cats. I had already dropped Rick off at his house when this happened, but he found out pretty quickly (small town) and decided he didn’t want to be involved now that my ex-sister-in-law was overly involved.
She had opened the window, let herself in, and stacked crates from the floor to the ceiling along one of the walls. I counted at least a dozen crates and a dozen howling, hissing cats in various states of, well, disrepair.
Jo was sitting in the middle of the floor on my phone. I walked into the room, mouth agape, with the kids right behind me.
She turned and looked up from the phone, making a note in a large legal pad.
“What…are you DOING?!?” I screamed, throwing my bags onto the ground. No less than six cats hissed.
“I’ll have to call you back,” she said into the phone, smiling and hanging up.
“Mom, can I have a kitty?” Lydia asked.
“OUT!” I yelled, and she and Bobby sprinted towards the living room.
“I have a few rescues I’m trying to find homes for,” Jo said, smirking. Can’t keep them at my place. Fred’s allergic. So, I thought about it, and I realized that I own a nice little space outside of town and—”
“I LIVE HERE!” I shouted.
“Daddy always told me and Rob never to walk away from a good piece of land,” she replied.
“GET OUT OF HERE!”
Jo stretched and looked at her watch.
“You know, it might be time for me to get home to cook supper. Fred wanted fish,” she said as she walked towards the window.
“TAKE THE CATS WITH YOU! FEED THEM THE FISH!”
“They’re not really outside cats…”
“LYDIA! Get in here!” I yelled. I turned to Jo, trying not to have a stroke. “Lydia is going to help you move the cats,” I said, slowly and staring through what was left of Jo’s soul.
Lydia crept into the bedroom.
“Mom, can I please keep a kitty cat?”
“I think one would be fair,” Jo said, cackling. “You never did pay me any rent. This one’s real sweet,” she added, pointing to a massively overweight orange tomcat with a snaggle tooth and only one eye.
Lydia walked to the crate. The cat hissed.
“See? He likes you,” Jo proclaimed.
Lydia spent the next thirty minutes moving and arranging crates into Jo’s car. We put the orange tomcat on the porch. Lydia was a little disappointed in her new pet. He didn’t do much except hiss. He also had a digestive problem and walked in circles on account of the eye, so the porch was his domain.
I tried my best to deal with her and keep the kids in the house that was their home, but it eventually became too much. I called Rob at the Christmas after the cat incident.
“I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you half the value of the house so that you can buy your own place. That’s more than enough. I’ll move into the house and that’s that. You won’t have to worry about the mess of straightening out the property issue before trying to sell it,” Rob mansplained.
“I suspect that was your plan all along, wasn’t it?”
“You know I’m not dumb,” he said.
“What do you want me to say? Congratulations? You’ve gone out of your way to ruin my life, both in person and by proxy,” I said, exasperated.
“You never liked Arkansas. You don’t like anything, come to think of it. This will make it easier for you to leave,” he responded.
“Housing prices in Dallas are far more expensive than they are here, and you’re offering me half the value of three-quarters of a house,” I said.
“You can’t sell it,” he said.
I didn’t trash the house—per se—when we left. I might have fed chili to the very overweight orange tomcat with one eye before locking him in the master bedroom with extra food and no litter box, however.
Six more years later, both the kids are happily in college in different parts of the country. We finished out those last few years in Arkansas living in a small rental house just a few blocks from the high school. I figured that was going to be the easiest way to pick up and leave after I heard the last few notes of “Pomp and Circumstance” at Lydia’s graduation.
So, here I am, sitting on the balcony of a tiny studio apartment in Dallas. I checked the lease very carefully before I moved, and the landlords have to have permission before they come into the apartment for anything.
I visit my parents every weekend for Saturday lunch unless I’m working. I found work in a gallery. Our most recent display featured an artist who explores expression and emotion through polka dot and plaid window treatments.
Financially, I get by. Nothing spectacular. I do miss owning at least three-quarters of a home, though. And I wonder if I might have been the one traveling through cities with my own art on display if I had never met Rob. I think about that a lot.
I recently heard that Rob’s hospital was temporarily transferring some of its doctors in an effort to help with a health situation in the Panhandle. Because of his experience there, he was the first one they sent for a year-long assignment. Jo moved into the house in his absence.
I’m thinking of mailing him a tumbleweed bouquet to celebrate his return.
That’s hardly an equal and opposite reaction, but at least it’s full circle.
Sara Garland holds degrees in Journalism and Music Education from Arkansas State University. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Potato Soup Journal, Funny Pearls (UK), Mystery Tribune, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Blotter, and is forthcoming in Defenestration, Horn Pond Review, and Adelaide Literary Magazine.