Prompt-A-Palooza First Place Winner: Dusty Boots by Pam Fulton
Momma said I was trouble even before I was born. “My belly was out to here,” she had said, holding her hand out in front of her thin cotton sundress, “and you would push against the counter with your little feet, buckin’ and knockin’ things over, makin’ a mess like the Wallets.” Wallets were the tourists that came to our little resort town to spend their money like it was nothing. They loved coming into Dusty Boots to buy Rose’s custom cowboy boots that were more like pieces of art than something to scuff in the dirt.
Momma and Rose were besties; Rose said she hired Momma to tidy up the store in the afternoons when the Wallets were in the store trying on boots and leaving a rainbow of leather scattered across the worn floorboards of the shop. But I knew Rose had another reason, she was just like everyone else, drawn to Momma like hummers to nectar. Rose’s sewing machine would clatter loudly from the backroom while Momma talked in her musical voice to the Wallets and laughed at their stories.
Momma wouldn’t talk about my daddy, so I asked Rose. She said he was just like all the others who cast a spell on Momma, that she couldn’t stop talking about him and how he did everything just so. I was too little to remember much other than a stranger in white t-shirts and the sour tang of beer on his breath when he leaned in close. “She got married on the Tilt-A-Whirl,” Rose liked to say meaning things between Momma and my daddy had been topsy-turvy from the start. Momma said I had always been a pile of trouble for them, but Rose just shook her head. “Your momma’s blue days and fits are what pushed your daddy out the door for good. End of story.”
There was a string of uncles that Momma brought around after that but she didn’t get married again until I was almost twelve. “This time is going to be different,” she promised. “It’s all sunshine ahead.” I prayed she was right. I was too old to be a flower girl, but Momma insisted. My best memory of that day is Momma letting me walk down the butcher-paper aisle in her borrowed bright blue cowgirl boots with pink and silver hearts on the toes, just like a Wallet. I marched down the middle of Grady Park and scattered red rose petals soft as kittens. I remember that entire day feeling like a fairy girl, pretending that I was part of the Wallet families that drove up in their shiny cars and fancy clothes, not like the ones in our town, the ones that sweated in stained shirts and did work that showed in the dirty creases of their leather faces and under their broken nails.
It didn’t take long for things between Travis and Momma to go bad. “You’re causing trouble again, Chandra-Lynn,” Momma said. She blamed me for how he looked at me, but Rose said it wasn’t my fault.
The shop became my escape. Rose taught me to run the machine and cut out patterns in the stiff colorful hide. “You’ve got a real knack for this,” Rose said when she saw my work. I liked the way the tools started to feel like they were meant for my hand.
When Momma refused to get out of bed, it was Rose that took care of her, not Travis. He was just like the others and stayed out most nights when the going got tough. “Don’t you worry, girlie,” Rose said, “I’m not going anywhere. We’re going to be fine, I promise you.”
Rose had me spending more and more time in the shop. When the Wallets came in asking for Momma, I told them her stories but hated the way my false laughter echoed off the wooden walls. The Wallets noticed it too; they made excuses and skittered out like scared ponies. I didn’t blame them. Sometimes I wanted to run, to put on Momma’s blue Dusty Boots with hearts on the toes and disappear like my daddy, Travis and all the rest.
Summer came and Rose had me working full time. I put a smile on my face and did my best to give the Wallets what they wanted, a chance to walk out in a new pair of boots. How I envied them, being able to slip on a pair and maybe walk a new road. I wondered if it could be that easy.
Momma took pills when Travis finally ended it. “We’re in it now, Chandra-Lynn,” Rose said. She kept a sharp eye on Momma and stuck by her side, only slipping away in the evenings to fill orders at the store. The days in the shop were mine. Soon I was spending all of my time with the Wallets. I watched the way they moved and listened to how they talked with one another. Eventually I learned their language. They started to laugh at the stories that were Momma’s first but were mine now with so many tellings. I learned how to tie my hair and press my clothes until I was sure that at first glance the only thing that separated us was the money in their pockets.
Just before Rodeo season, Rose came to me with the news. “Your momma’s better, she’s gonna be fine. Thank the Good Lord the worst is behind us.” I noticed for the first time the deep lines in Rose’s brow, the hollowness of her cheeks, the streaks in her hair that hadn’t been there before. Working in the shop, being with the Wallets, had become my new world. I realized it had been some time since I’d even seen Momma and that Rose had been paying the price.
“I’ll be back in the shop to help now,” Rose said, “and your momma, too, when she’s a bit better. It’s going to be just like old times. I told you everything would be fine.” Her words fell like stones in my stomach.
I went to see Momma in my first real pair of Dusty Boots, a special pair I made just for this reunion. She smiled at me when I walked in the room. She noticed it right away, the change in me, but didn’t know who I was now. “How pretty you are, Chandra-Lynn. Your hair looks nice up like that. I’ve missed you, my darling girl.” I tensed when she reached out to me with thin arms and pulled me into a tight embrace. I felt her heart beating strong against my chest. Rose was right, she would be back and it would be like old times. The Wallets would know Momma again, Rose would run the shop, and things would be just like before until the next Travis came along. I would be cast out along with the cowhide scraps in the backroom.
Momma didn’t notice the special holster on the side of the boot, weaved to look like a twisting vine of a thorny rose. She didn’t notice when I pulled the leather awl from its place and slipped it into her neck. Her cry was soft as a bird, her mouth a surprised “o” as she slumped in my arms. I always suspected that life could be different in a pair of Dusty Boots and now I knew the truth.