Except for Norma, Hayley had no friends to speak of. She kept to herself and her husband liked it that way. He was stern with her and thought that the women in town were a bad influence. Though he didn't necessarily forbid her from mingling with them, he had so often given her such a hard time about keeping their company that she had decided that it was best to just disassociate herself; none of them had really wanted much to do with her anyway. But, she drew the line at losing Norma.
They had become fast friends as children and had maintained the bond over the years, leaning toward each other during the hard times of their lives. Hayley's whole life had been one big hard time and she had done her share of leaning on Norma, whose life seemed perfect almost always.
They had both married young; Norma because she had fallen in love and gotten pregnant right after high school and then Hayley because she was lonely without Norma's company. Norma had instantly become consumed with love, then a child and a life-long commitment to her child's father, Rayford Guiles. It had gotten so that Haley hardly saw her dear friend and when she came to visit, her feral ways garnered frowns from Ray. She knew he complained about her to Norma when she left. She was used to it, though.
All throughout her life everyone had frowned at her: the way she looked, the way she dressed, the way she talked, who her father was, how her mother had died.
She was ugly...she just knew it. She was rail-thin; this she knew too. Her family had been poor and so, her clothes were often shabby and she had survived many days of tortuous jest from her more privileged classmates. Only Norma had seen past the outer shell.They had both lost their mothers at a young age and it seemed that once Norma learned this about Hayley, she felt connected to her. They had been there for each other in the times when their mothers could not. Norma had bought nearly all of Hayley's sanitary napkins in high school because Hayley's father did not provide them for her and often she had had to wear soiled undergarments.
When Norma had first started dating Ray, Hayley cried secretly, knowing that their friendship would never be the same, that a chapter was ending for them and she would be left alone…again.
As time went on she was not as dramatic about it, but when Norma told her that she was pregnant and that she and Ray were getting married, she went home and cried again. They were supposed to embark on this world journey once they’d graduated, but Norma had gone and changed everything. No one would ever love her the way Norma did and an even worse revelation was that no one would ever love Hayley the way that Ray loved Norma.
Hayley had known this when Buck-Lee McCoy had asked for her hand in marriage. She hadn't answered him right away. She had needed to see what Norma would say and Norma had nearly spit her lemonade out laughing when she'd told her that."Hayley! You didn't!" She put her glass down and slapped her leg.
"What? You know I'm bad at makin' decisions like that all by myself!" She felt no embarrassment for herself with Norma and actually smiled along with Norma's laughter.
"Well, what'd he say when you asked him to wait?""He said that he understood that matters as serious as these need some thought and that I should take a night and sleep on it. Well, I've slept on it for the past three nights, waitin' to talk to you."
Norma said nothing for a moment, her lips pursed in thought. "Do you love him, Hayley; I mean are you in love with him?"
Hayley picked dirt out of her nails, "I don't know. How am I supposed to know that?"
"Well, do you think he loves you?" Norma leaned forward as she spoke. Hayley looked up in contemplation.
"I think so; wouldn't be askin' to marry me if he didn't, I reckon. And he's nicer than any fella's ever been to me, gives me things and such."
Norma's interest was piqued and she blurted, "Have yall…done it?" Hayley instantly blushed and averted her gaze to the floor. Norma squealed and slapped her leg again.
"Shut up," Hayley mumbled.
She wasn't embarrassed, but slightly uncomfortable talking about her sex-life with Buck-Lee. Her two brief experiences with him had been nothing like one of Norma and Ray's romantic stories. He had been a bumbling mess of nerves and anticipation and by the time Hayley had started to enjoy the sensation he was done. He'd promised it would get better once they were properly married and that sneaking around had him nervous. Fair enough, Hayley had thought. She was worried about getting caught in the act as well and, being honest with herself, she hadn't really been sure why she'd let him have her.
Curiosity had played a part, she'd guessed. She had wanted to see what it was that Norma and Ray had together. Secretly, she'd actually hoped that she would get pregnant just like Norma. It didn't happen.
She did like having a friend other than Norma, though Buck-Lee was hardly what most folks would call friendly. Norma had actually seemed more horrified than surprised that Hayley had taken an interest in his advances.
"Well, if you like him," had been her response, so as not to hurt her best friend’s feelings.
"If he's nice to you, that's all that matters," was what she had said after Buck-Lee had given her the cold shoulder at their first introduction by Hayley. He had simply tilted his head in her direction and then looked away as if he had no further business with her.
But, did he care for Hayley? Norma had guessed so, because she had seen him defend Hayley's honor against a group of young boys who were teasing her at the county fair one time. And he held her hand when they were out. He at least cared for her.
Personally, she thought Buck-Lee was a nightmare to be with, but he had made Hayley happy and she didn't want to deter her from doing the proper thing and marrying him so, she once again played the safest position by saying, "Well, if yall are doin' it, you might as well make it right in the Lord’s eyes and marry him if you want him to be yours."
Hayley went that night and told Buck-Lee 'yes' without having even thought a bit more on the matter.
"Ah'ight then," was his response, standing on his family's front porch. He offered her a seat on the bench swing and they sat in silence together.
Hayley was neither excited nor specifically elated, but she was content and that was more than she was used to being so she settled for a life with Buck-Lee, even if he was a little weird. He was willing to provide for her and treat her with more respect than any other man, including her father, had ever treated her with.
Maybe Norma was right, she had thought. The first time he beat her though, she had known Norma had been wrong, but it was too late then. She was his.
Buck-Lee had never put his hands on Hayley in a violent manner before they had gotten married. On the contrary, he had been most gentle with her. It was the fact that Hayley could not bear children that had fed and driven his rage; that and the drinking.
They had tried for six years and she hadn't so much as had a late period. Every 28 days, like clockwork, she relentlessly failed him, or so she thought of it as failure. Evidently, he did too, because after trying for so long to have a child, nothing but hatred had been conceived. Buck-Lee hated Hayley.
He hated her for not bearing proof of how much of a man he was. And that was important to him.
He had grown up in a tradition of men who were overly masculine. They didn't cry, show affection, laugh in an octave above baritone or most certainly have problems making babies. In fact, Buck-Lee was one of 12 and to make matters worse, his mother had recently become pregnant with what would be his 12th sibling. It was so embarrassing for Hayley to visit with her own mother-in-law who, at her age, was still able to do what she was not.
"It'll happen when God's ready," Norma soothed one afternoon as Hayley broke down. Ray was gone fishing and Buck-Lee was off somewhere, probably drinking, Hayley had reckoned.
"I just don't know what to do anymore. I try to be a good wife to him, but he won't let me be. Like, cause I ain't had him no babies yet I can't please him. He hates me, Norma," she wailed into her own skirt hem as Norma wept too and rubbed her back.
"Aw, Sweetie, he still loves you. He's probably just hurtin' too and don't know how to deal with it."
"What do I do? He's drunk nearly all the time that he ain't workin' and…he…he scares me sometimes…like he's gonna hit me or something."
Norma took her by the shoulders, "Hayley Grace McCoy, has he put his hands on you rough any? Cause I'll get Sherriff Ailey over there…"
"No! He ain't done nothing! He just scares me sometimes, is all. Look, Norma, I just wanna know what to do. I mean, what if I can't ever get pregnant?"
"Just read in the Bible where God gives Sarah a baby when she's 80-something." Norma nodded slowly for emphasis. Hayley was not encouraged.
"I don't wanna have to wait 'til Buck-Lee is dead before I can make babies." She’d muttered.
Norma had not been able to console her that afternoon. Having three boys of her own by then, she had never experienced not being able to bear children. She had tried to relate, but found the concept beyond her grasp; she couldn't imagine her life without her children, Lil Ray, Gerald and Jordan.
That night, closer to that morning, Buck-Lee came stumbling in. Hayley had sat up; he had never been so late coming home and she was worried sick that something bad had happened to him. In fact, she was a few minutes away from calling Norma and going to look for him at the liquor house on the outskirts of town near Pleasant Lake. But, he had made it in, though he was belligerently drunk. He lashed out at Hayley immediately, but she paid him no mind as she guided him to their bed. Then she watched his mechanical breathing as he slept in a stupor.
She had fallen asleep like that: sitting up, watching him. When she awoke, it was still dark and the hairs on her arm were already standing alert. He was standing over her, naked. She attempted to stand, but he pushed her back down with force.
"Buck-Lee, now you just go on back to bed. You've had too much to drink again." She tried to sound in control.
"You don't rule me woman." He swayed slightly. "I drink what I please and go where I please and do what I please. I drink cause I ain't got no sons: cause you can't give me none." Hayley looked away at this remark because it was true and she desperately wanted it not to be.
"Why can't you just gimmie one, huh? Just one young'n to carry the McCoy name. That ain't askin' much is it?" She had never seen him cry before, but he sounded very close to tears now and her heart reached out to him.
"Oh, Buck-Lee, I'm sorry, Honey. I'm tryin', you know it."
"All I know is that I married a dried-up-well of a woman," he said, then turned and fell face first onto the bed, snoring instantly. Hayley cried softly into the hem of her nightgown.
Why had God even bothered making her? She wondered as she wept in self-pity. What good was it being a woman if you couldn't even have a baby?
So the years went on like that, Buck-Lee running away from Hayley, and Hayley feeling sorry for herself.
It was a frosty Saturday evening and Buck-Lee had decided to go out...without Hayley, which suited her just fine. She had stopped trying to be a good wife to him long ago; around the same time she started suspecting that he was being unfaithful to her. She had been confused at first, torn between feeling hurt and relieved that he no longer needed her. She had secretly wished that he would leave her, so that she wouldn't have to put up with him anymore, though a part of her was afraid of being alone again or worse, forced to depend on her father again.
"Where's my tan jacket at?" He stepped into the kitchen where she was frying chicken.
"What…your Sunday jacket?" Hayley looked up from the stove to find Buck-Lee dressed in his best pair of slacks and nicest shirt, all of which she had just given him for Christmas a few days ago. "Where you goin' all dressed up?"
"Out. Now where's my dang jacket at?"
Hayley looked him up and down once more without answering him, put down her prongs and brushed past him out of the kitchen. By the time he could ask 'where the hell' she was going (which is what he was thinking), she returned, jacket in hand and pressed it to his chest.
"Should I wait up?" she asked as sarcastically as she could.
"What's that supposed to mean?" he muttered.
"You know exactly what it means, but I doubt that you care, Buck-Lee."
He shifted nervously. He had no idea that Hayley knew, but then, he hadn't really concentrated on the covering-up part of his affair, just the having sex part.
"Well if you know so dang much, what you askin' for?" He flipped the collar of his jacket.
"Goodnight, husband, have fun wherever it is that you're going."
"I thought you knew everything."
Hayley was about to respond but decided better of it. He’s almost out the door, she thought.
He peered over her shoulder to see what she was cooking; something he used to do lovingly and wrap his arms around her waist. Instead, he snatched a piece of chicken from the platter beside the stove and grumbled what sounded like some sort of good-bye.
When he left, Hayley smiled. She was so glad to be rid of him for the evening. After she had eaten, she had plans to meet with Norma in town for a picture show, Norma's Christmas gift to her this year.
Let him have his whore, or whoever she was. Maybe she could give him the child he wanted so badly, she seethed to herself. Yet a pang pierced her heart at the thought of another woman giving him what she could not.
At the theater, Norma and Hayley quickly found ideal seats. They were early and the lights still shone brightly as people arrived.
"You want some popcorn?" Norma gushed as soon as they sat down, "I'll go get us some before the show starts."
She made her way to the concession and Hayley settled down for the show, looking around the theater at the people filing in. It felt good to be out. She was glad that Norma had invited her. She hadn't been to a picture show in ages; Buck-Lee had stopped taking her out years ago.
A familiar-faced lady from church looked at her quizzically and Hayley nodded, feeling proud to be seen at such a venue. It seemed as if everyone in town was there that night with a friend or special someone. Even Buck-Lee. Buck-Lee!
Hayley did a double take as her husband strolled in proudly with another woman on his arm. The woman wasn't what Hayley would call beautiful, but she was more attractive than she assessed her own self to be, more voluptuous and currently glued to her husband's arm like a third hand.
Buck-Lee had the nerve to actually nod his head at faces he recognized, like it was the most normal thing in the world for him to be with this woman who was not his wife. Hayley had had her suspicions and it wasn't the fact that he was with another woman that really hurt her right then; it was the fact that he was out with her in front of the whole town…in front of people that had teased her in her youth and avoided befriending her now. He paraded his affair like it was ordained by God.
Hayley stood, wanting him to see her. 'She' saw Hayley first and the shock was recognizable on her face immediately.
So she knows who I am, Hayley thought, though the woman didn't look a bit familiar to her. The woman stopped abruptly and yanked Buck-Lee's arm to halt him. When he turned to see what the matter was, she pointed at Hayley. Buck-Lee's mouth fell open for all of a split second before he closed it and regained his composure. Without even acknowledging his own wife, he turned and exited the theater with the woman.
Hayley wanted to scream his name. The locals who realized what was happening would have loved such a live show before the picture show.
Lies and exaggerations would be told about what had happened there that night, but one thing that they said would be true, and that was that Buck-Lee McCoy had been caught cheating by his wife...and she had done nothing.
Hayley stood there half-hoping that Buck-Lee had enough respect for her to at least come back and try to explain or even lie about what she had just seen not being what it had looked like. Of course he didn't and when Norma returned from the concession Hayley was still standing, staring at the exit.
Women in the theater who knew Hayley and Buck-Lee felt a twinge of pity for her. They all looked at her as poor and uncultured, but no woman deserved for their own husband to drag them through the muck and mire publicly like he had just done to her.
The ones that had known of the affair felt guilt pool in the pits of their stomachs for not having told her. It was evident to Hayley, at this point, why Buck-Lee didn't like for her to socialize with the women of town; he'd had a whole other life without her and everyone knew…everyone but her. Did Norma know?
"Everything okay?" Norma asked. She followed Hayley's gaze and noticed how the audience was looking at them.
"Buck-Lee was here…with some woman…I don't know who she is…was…is…was…"
Norma had to shake Hayley to get her to stop repeating, "is…was".
"C'mon, let's just go." Forsaking the popcorn and pop, Norma ushered her stressed friend up the aisle of the theater as people stared, unashamed. Norma fumed.
"There you go folks. How about some applause for the grand show! Now y’all have something to talk about after church Sunday," Norma glared with indignation at as many faces as she could while she and Hayley exited the theater.
"Maybe I should have said something", she thought aloud without meaning to.
"About what?" Hayley still stared out of the window. Norma fidgeted, not knowing what to say having been caught off guard.
"Nothin', just thinkin' out loud."
Hayley paused a moment before she turned to face her friend and asked, "You knew about Buck-Lee...didn't ya?"
Norma hesitated, and then nodded with uneasiness.
"Why didn't you tell me, Norma; you're supposed to be my best friend. I'd have told you about Ray if I knew," she huffed with disappointment.
"That's just it: I didn't know for sure. I only heard some things here and there from time to time, but I never saw Buck-Lee with anyone else with my own two eyes, so I asked Ray and he thought it was best not to say anything that I wasn't sure about."
"So now you need instructions from Ray on how to be my friend?" Hayley was still looking at her intently.
Norma contemplated the question honestly, because before she'd married Ray she had never needed a second opinion on how to approach Hayley about anything. But…
"…This is different," she spoke the rest of her thought.
"How so?" Hayley propped up straight in mock attentiveness (she was really angry).
"Well, I ask you your opinion about me and Ray sometimes…"
"Because I'm your best friend; always have been," Hayley said matter-of-factly.
"But Ray's my best friend too, so sometimes I ask his opinion about me and you."
"But he's a man; that's different. He's gonna think different than you and me. He's gonna think like a man…like Buck-Lee. He just didn't want another man to get caught up, so he told you not to tell me." Hayley nodded with assuredness as she spoke.
Norma's voice raised an octave, "What? Anybody could have come and told you what was going on with Buck-Lee…"
"But they didn't. And you know they didn't, cause you know that I would have told you," Hayley added. "You should have told me, Norma." Hayley shook her head sourly.
Norma thought about that for a moment, chewing her bottom lip as she drove. After a few minutes she finally said, "Look, Hayley, I'm sorry I didn't tell you what I heard. Ray didn't tell me not to say anything because he was taking up for Buck-Lee, but because he thought that if I was wrong, you might be angry at me. He didn't want me to lose my best friend over some gossip that may or may not be true. Maybe that wasn't the best thing for me to do, not tellin' you and all, but I thought it was...and I was wrong about that."
She looked at Hayley, who was staring back out of the window again. She reached over and placed her hand on top of hers and they rode in silence like that for a while.
"Where are we going?" Hayley asked after they had passed all the turns leading home.
"Just a little place I know of in the next county. It's not much further."
"What kinda place?" Hayley raised an eyebrow.
"The kinda place that'll get your mind off of that awful mess you have waitin' to attend to when you get home." Hayley still looked skeptical.
"Trust me," Norma smiled, "it'll be fun." Hayley resigned to letting Norma chart their destinations for the night. As far as she was concerned, she was a free woman again anyway. She didn't want Buck-Lee back even if he wanted her, which she highly doubted was the case anyway. Still, the thought of being alone frightened her.
"Look in the glove box and hand me one of Ray's cigarettes, will ya," Norma said easily.
Hayley did as she was told and lit two, handing one to Norma. She blew smoke out of her mouth and then asked, "Since when ol' Ray let you smoke cigarettes…his cigarettes?"
"What's his is mine, even cigarettes." Norma shrugged and they laughed at that.
"I haven't seen you smoke a cigarette since that time we sneaked one behind William Hanner's store; remember?" Hayley laughed at the memory Norma had brought to mind.
"I thought I was gonna cough my dang-gone lungs out! Those things didn't even have a filter. They'll kill you," Norma shook her head as she spoke.
"My Grand-daddy smoked like a chimney and he lived to be 87." Hayley had told Norma this at least a million times, plus Norma had been at the funeral.
"A pack a day near bout," she continued as if her friend had never heard. Norma listened as if she had never heard. It was a familiar way of passing the time as they rode in the cold, dark night in Ray's old Ford truck. They would remember some the best memories that they shared together and laugh, and for the moment, Hayley forgot about what she was going to do about her unfaithful husband.
For the moment, it was just like old times with Norma. The night was still young, though they had aged a bit since last enjoying the meaning of that phrase. Hayley didn't know where Norma was taking her, but she didn't really care either. She just wanted to get away from her reality for as long as she could and she was grateful for Norma being her friend when no one else was.
Norma had taken Hayley to a juke joint about an hour away from their home town of Holly Woods. The place was set way back in a heavily wooded alcove. Though it was hardly an ideal spot for anyone who wanted business, when the two friends pulled up the joint sounded full and the savory smell of frying fish engulfed them.
"Where in the world are we," Hayley asked with a meek grin on her face as she waited for Norma to re affix her make-up.
Norma closed her make-up case with a final look in the side door mirror and replied,
"A little place Ray used to take me when we first started courting. The fish are fresh and the beer is cold." She looked away from her reflection, satisfied with her appearance, faced Hayley and frowned. Without a word she unpinned Hayley's strawberry-blonde hair. It was her best feature and she always kept it pinned back, which Norma, with her flat, brown hair, never understood. She'd fling her hair from there to Texas if it was as healthy and shiny as her friend's was.
Without effort Hayley's golden ringlets cascaded around her slender face and gave it an instant youthful glow that actually made her somewhat pretty. She would never be gorgeous, but Norma saw, with her hair down, how Hayley was much prettier than she assessed herself to be.
She blushed Hayley's cheeks and rouged her thin lips to give them fullness. She smoothed her un-arched brows and secretly promised herself to take Hayley to the salon and get her unibrow terminated as soon as her budget allowed.
"There," she said, proud of the transformation she'd created. "You know Hayley, you are so pretty. I expect to see cherubs in heaven with hair like yours."
Hayley smiled half-heartedly, "If you were a man saying that to me I'd sleep with you on the back of this truck." Norma laughed heartily at that. Hayley had always had a knack for creating an odd punch-line out of reality.
Hayley had eaten some of her own fried chicken before she'd left out for the evening, so it was not hunger that had compelled her to eat fish, but simply the desire to taste and see how good the fish really was. She didn't have any money, (Buck-Lee didn't allow her to have any of her own without specific reasons as to why she needed it). She'd even had to have an explanation just to get his Christmas gifts, and she had had to show him the receipt.
Norma paid for everything they ate. They ended up eating so much fish and drinking so much beer that Hayley's stomach actually bulged.
A regular patron, who'd been eyeing them since they came in, approached their table and said, "I've never seen two gals enjoy themselves so much in here." He smiled and put his hands on his hips.
"Well you've certainly 'seen' enough of us tonight, as much as you've been looking. And by the way, even though you took it off, your fat finger is still as white as snow where your wedding ring usually is," Hayley commented back to him and took a swig of her beer, then stared at him as she slowly swallowed the gulp. His face instantly reddened and Norma burst into hilarious laughter and the man frowned at her as if he was sorry he'd even bothered wasting his time ogling either of them. He huffed away as Norma's raucous laughter echoed behind him. She'd nearly fallen off her chair.
"Let that teach you better than to be tryin' to tom-cat around on your old lady," Norma yelled when she had regained her composure, though the man was out of hearing range by the time she was straight-faced enough to say it.
"Can you believe that bastard?" Hayley took the last sip of her fourth bottle of beer. It had never taken much for her to get drunk and tonight was no exception: her head soared heavily and she had the urge to say everything that came to mind, (which is why she didn't really drink too often). Norma loved it, which is why she was never gun-shy to drink with her.
Ray hated it. The girls had sat up one Christmas Eve, before Hayley had married Buck-Lee, and gotten drunk off of Ray's father's home-made holiday wine. Hayley had ended up telling Ray that he only wore a mustache because he had no upper-lip to speak of. Norma, as if on cue, had roared with laughter as her husband turned two shades of red.
She knew that Ray's upper lip was thin to non-existent. He'd had a mustache since she met him, but she had once persuaded him to shave it off because she wanted to see his whole face. He put up a fuss for quite a while but Norma, with her womanly ways, finally convinced him to do it, though he had not mentioned that he had done it, and only showed up in front of her one evening minus his facial hair.
When he emerged in the kitchen bare-lipped, Norma had nearly cracked her side. She had tried to hide her amusement at his weird appearance without his mustache, but the fact that he had read her immediately, sent her into hysterical laughter. She'd only smirked when he appeared, but he knew right off that he was the expense.
"What's so damn funny," he had asked, instantly offended at her smirk.
"Nothing, I…I just wasn't expecting you to look so…different…without your mustache. It's nothing, really Honey." She'd turned her back to him, no longer able to conceal her amusement. Her shoulders shook with silent laughter for a few seconds and when she turned back around to face him laughter was about to burst from the seams of her face.
"Why bother to even turn around…just laugh," he had said sourly.
"Oh, Ray, I love you so much, please don't be mad at me for laughing," she had gushed out as she laughed. His upper lip was so thin he looked as if he were permanently pouting, and the child-like expression made him seem boy-like in his seriousness.
That night, after they'd made love and Norma had sufficiently proven to him that she wasn't out of love with him because of his lack of a fleshy upper lip, he had laughed along with her as she described how tickled she had been when she first saw him without his mustache.
Between Ray and Norma was one thing, but for Hayley to tease him was over the line. He felt a little betrayed by Norma for laughing at something that she knew he was sensitive about and he had taken it out on Hayley by asking her to leave and not come back.
Norma had semi-sobered up enough to realize that Ray was spitting mad, so she had escorted Hayley to the door and spent the rest of her drunkenness loving on Ray for forgiveness. He forgave her, of course, but he was never quite friendly with Hayley when she came by to see Norma and the kids.
The memory caused Norma to think about the fact that Ray was going to be more than just spitting mad about what hour she made it home tonight. She had called home before leaving the theater, but no one had answered and there wasn't a phone within miles of the small shanty. Ray would surely be worried by now. Norma's stomach churned as she grabbed Hayley's arm and told her that it was time to go.
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