Auralee Biggins headed north to Sunray from Lubbock, 192 miles south, to visit Aunt Auralee Biggins, for whom she’d been named nearly twenty-seven years earlier. As she drove north on I-27, she’d kept an eye on the western sky, suspecting that she would not arrive at Aunt Aury’s before the approaching storm.
She was right.
The clouds coming in from the west were darkly colored and threatening and reminded Auralee of an enormous bruise as it begins to heal, darkly purple, black, yet edged in painful yellow. As she passed Exit 74 to Tulia and her last chance to refill her coffee at Rip Griffin’s before hitting Amarillo, a light rain began to fall. And even though the sky continued to darken, the full force of the rain held back. She hesitated in turning on her wipers; if she turned them on too soon, they would turn the fine layer of red dust to mud, thoroughly obscuring her vision. She’d forgotten to refill the washer fluid before leaving Lubbock and was forced to wait until the rain fell more evenly before attempting to clean the windshield. She calculated that if she could maintain her present speed, she’d arrive just as the worst of the storm had passed.
By that time, however, she was quite certain that Aunt Aury would be ensconced in the storm shelter where she’d have gone with her weather radio, her flashlight, and Buster, her large grey mouser. Auralee would have phoned her aunt that she was little more than an hour or so from her Aunt’s front door, but that would have been pointless. Aunt Aury would never answer the telephone, stand by a window, or turn on the television with a storm anywhere in the vicinity. Summer storms in West Texas came quickly and often and even though Aunt Aury had nearly eighty years of living to become accustomed to them, she never had.
Auralee had been making the drive to Sunray by herself since just after her sixteenth birthday when her father finally decided that even though she wasn’t old enough to drive the interstate alone, she’d more than likely do it anyway. Under pressure from both his daughter and his sister, he bought Auralee a slightly used car that he knew would get her there safely, insured it for more than it was worth new, and handed over the keys with much trepidation. The route from Lubbock to Sunray was nearly a straight line, even when the Interstate merged on to Highway 87 north. With only one right-hand turn onto FM 281 and a slight jog near the end within view of the grain elevator at Sunray, there wasn’t much planning to do.
Today, as Auralee continued north into the darkening sky, she recalled the exhaustive preparations made for that first trip, her trunk filled with various emergency paraphernalia and three separate maps, routes highlighted, on the front seat. She was quite certain that all those years of working with mortality tables had made her father, the owner of a small insurance agency, more than a bit paranoid. Since those early days, she had driven the route so often that she never would have thought to consult a map.
As she continued north, the rain finally arrived with sufficient force to wash the red mud from the window, leaving Auralee free to turn on the wipers. As she entered Amarillo, she looked for an exit so she could exchange her coffee for a cold soda. Spying a Toot N’ Totum, she exited the highway and pulled into the nearest empty space.
She noted a pick-up filled with hay bales at the edge of the lot. “Ranch hands,” she said aloud to no one in particular. She got out of the car, double checked the door lock, and walked toward the entrance. Just as she reached the door, it opened from the inside revealing a tall, good looking cowboy wearing a black hat, boots, one of the bigger belt buckles she’d ever seen, and she’d seen more than her share, and spurs. “Ma’am,” he smiled, as he held the door, and tipped his hat. “A workin’ cowboy,” she thought to herself and returned his smile. Spending summers on Aunt Aury’s ranch had left her with a general disdain for “drugstore cowboys,” but this fellow clearly wasn’t one of those. As she waited in line, Auralee became increasingly anxious to continue her trip, shifting her weight from foot to foot and staring out the window at her locked car to the right of the entrance. Without warning a bakery truck pulled in and parked at an angle blocking her view of the car. Just as she was prepared to set down the Coke and leave, the line cleared and Auralee heard herself assuring the clerk that she’d found everything she needed. She collected her change and headed out.
Drenched by sheets of rain, Auralee nevertheless stopped to peer into the backseat before unlocking the door. She noted with relief that everything was precisely as it had been when she’d left Lubbock. She unlocked the door, got in, fastened her seatbelt and started the car. Even with the rain, it was too warm to run the heater. She patted her face dry with a napkin, slipped on a dry sweater that she’d thankfully left on the front seat, and headed back onto the highway. Only after she’d accelerated to highway speed did she allow herself to sip the cold Coke. The initial sting against her lip startled her, but slowly she relaxed and allowed herself to settle back into the rhythm of the drive north. The rain was beginning to abate and she noted that the clouds which had seemed suspended over the highway only moments before now continued on their move east. She thought of the ranch.
Auralee had grown up in Lubbock, but had spent her summers on Aunt Aury’s ranch, working alongside the drovers, learning the business as much as summers would allow. During the winter months, she attended high school and later college, never leaving Lubbock, as nearly everyone in the family had done. Her granddad Coffee claimed to have been personal friends with Buddy Holley with whom, he assured anyone who would listen, he had gone through 7th and 8th grades at Hutchinson Jr. High, even though according to Auralee’s calculations, Granddad Coffee had graduated from high school three years before Holley entered junior high. Auralee never doubted that Grandpa knew the Holleys, nearly everyone in town did. And, those who claimed to know them and spelled the name Holly without the “e,” a result of a typo on Buddy’s first recording contract, were immediately identified as phonies. Although Maria Elena Holley, Buddy’s widow, had kept his image from being tarnished by turning down several lucrative advertising ventures which would have put the image of Buddy smoking his favorite cigarette or drinking his favorite beer, her diligence was not as appreciated in Lubbock as it might have been.
Grandpa Coffee, being Buddy’s “best friend” could go on for hours about Buddy’s widow, a woman he’d never met, but for whom he held an “unbiased” opinion. In addition to his fame as Holly’s best friend, Grandpa Coffee was also well known as the father of eight daughters, born of his one and only love, Miss Louisa Brazelton Coffee, who had died shortly after the birth of their ninth child, a girl, whose death followed within days of her mother’s. Although Grandma Coffee had passed long before Auralee was born, she felt as if she knew her well, based solely on Grandpa Coffee’s stories. As long as she could remember, Grandpa Coffee had lived in the only downstairs bedroom from where he told stories and freely dispensed advise. Trips to Aunt Aury’s were the breaks from Grandpa Coffee that she relished.
Aunt Aury was the favorite of Auralee’s seven aunts and the one to whom she turned in various crises over the years as well as the only one she had to travel to visit. The rest of the aunts lived in Lubbock or in the surrounding towns, but Aunt Aura Lee Biggins held to the one-hundred mile rule against living any closer to kin. She had escaped most of the Biggins’ family turmoil, driving to Lubbock only on the occasion of a funeral or wedding. Graduations and the births of babies were handled with an appropriate card and check. Although none of her aunts were as stalwart as Aunt Aury, each was a character in her own right. It was Aunt Aury, however, who had left the fold, married young, and become the sole owner of a working ranch. Auralee had only a vague memory of Uncle Fulton who had not been seen on the AFB Ranch since Auralee was a young girl. Although she had never asked Aunt Aury about Uncle Fulton, she had heard the stories at family gatherings told in hushed tones and barely muffled conversations filled with repeated variations of “good-for-nothin’ mean drunk” and “wife beater.”
As she passed under the I-40 and picked up Highway 87, Auralee observed the changes in downtown Amarillo since her last visit noticing several subtle improvements that a less keen eye might have overlooked—a restaurant closed, a new one opened, roads refinished, new buildings going up. Observing others was a skill she’d learned as an undergraduate psychology major. Looking inward was a different issue; it was her unwillingness to undertake the sort of emotional dissection required of graduate work that prevented her from continuing beyond her Bachelor’s degree.
Besides, she’d already agree to move to Southern California with Jonathan who was convinced that living close to the ocean would inspire him. Although she’d read only a little of his poetry, Auralee knew it was good. She’d been immediately attracted to Jonathan the first time she heard him read his poetry at J&B’s, the small coffee house that she regularly frequented and a place where she could read in quiet. Jonathan was like no one she’d ever known. He was originally from California, had been in Lubbock for only a few weeks, and wore socks with his Birkenstocks—a point which Auralee found amusing as well as charming. Although Auralee would never say that Jonathan had swept her off her feet—too cliché—she easily admitted to Aunt Aury, one of the few family members to whom she’d confided, that Jonathan was the most exciting man she’d ever known. A quick marriage at the county courthouse alarmed her family, but she was certain that Jonathan was her soul mate. After a year and a half of angry accusations, rampages ending in violence, and beatings hidden from her family, she’d confided her misery in Aunt Aury.
As the rain slowed to a fine mist, Auralee leaned a bit toward the rearview mirror, holding the wheel in place with her left hand and steadying it with her knee as she touched the puffy tissue under her right eye. The heavy foundation she’d used to cover the bruise two hours before when she’d left Lubbock was beginning to fade. The small cut on her lower lip was sufficiently close to the corner of her mouth to be mistaken for a recent cold sore, effectively hiding the deep gash on the inside of her right cheek where the blow from Jonathan’s knuckles had caused her to bit into her own flesh. She felt the inside of her mouth with her tongue, no longer tasting the remnants of bloody saliva that she’d been occasionally spitting into a stash of napkins during the drive north. Suddenly a loud crack of thunder jolted her reverie and she turned her attention back to the highway and the rain. She glanced over her right shoulder to the large quilt-covered object on the back seat. It had not shifted. Although she could barely ascertain that he was still breathing under the heavy quilt, she no longer feared that he would awaken during the trip. Aunt Aury had been right about the dosage of hog tranquilizer.
Earlier that afternoon, Auralee had hesitated for only a moment when she’d opened the small baggie of white powder that had arrived in the mail from Aunt Aury. “Pour all of it into the pie filling,” Aunt Aury had instructed Auralee, “all of it” she’d repeated. Auralee had done exactly as she’d been told. If she’d had any last-minute reservations, his repeated warnings that he’d never let her leave him, erased any lingering doubts. Aunt Aury had dismissed concerns of overdose as being of “no concern.” She was right, of course.
As she continued north, now only minutes away from the ranch, the rain let up. The sky was clearing, and up ahead the sun had broken through the clouds. For the first time that day, Auralee reached for her sunglasses to shade her eyes from the glare of the highway. She noted that the ground was drier and concluded that the storm had passed much earlier at the ranch. “Perhaps Aunt Aury will have left the storm shelter by now,” she wondered.
As she turned left onto the ranch road off FM 281, Auralee began to feel the weight of fatigue from the trip. She pulled closer to the barn than to the house, placed the car in park, and opened the door to the smell of wind cleaned of everything foul by the recent rain. She heard Aunt Aury approaching on her riding lawn tractor before she saw her. “The problem?” she asked. Auralee motioned to the backseat. “Go on in the house,” Aunt Aury ordered, “I left a cobbler warming in the oven for you. Go on and get yourself some.”
Without uttering a sound, Auralee walked the distance to the house, entered the kitchen, and slid into the nearest chair. After resting for several minutes, she retrieved the cobbler from the oven and as she slid the knife into the center of the crust, she heard the unmistakable sound of a single gunshot. Aunt Aury’s dogs, of which there were several, began a loud chorus of barking and wailing, followed by the sound of the lawn tractor receding in the distance. After some time had passed, Auralee heard Aunt Aury stomping her boots on the back porch mud room.
“Is it finished?” Auralee asked.
“Yep,” Aunt Aury replied, “just had to use the tractor to drag some garbage into the hog trough. I do believe those hogs’ll eat anything,” she affirmed, scooping out a large portion of cobbler for herself and sitting down opposite Auralee. “How’s the cobbler?” she asked.
“It’s good,” Auralee responded, taking a deep breath. “Real good,” she repeated, exhaling slowly and letting her shoulders relax against the kitchen chair.