Kitty Vasek was an early riser. She took her coffee with a splash of Baileys and liked a schmear of peanut butter on her toast. Every morning, Mike knocked on her door, eager to start clearing her yard. She’d come onto the porch with her coffee and toast, and invite him to sit with a promise to begin as soon as she finished her breakfast. She’d sip her coffee slow, nibble delicate bites from her toast, and waste away the coolest part of the morning listening to the birds sing.
After breakfast, Kitty would declare it too hot to work in the sun and insist they wait for the yard to fall into afternoon shade. Sometimes, she’d invite Mike inside and they would watch court shows or listen to records. Other times, they would drive to the Goodwill and check out the latest donations, or walk through the park to collect rocks and fallen pine cones.
With each passing day, Mike fell a bit more in love with the pixie eccentric with greying hair that matched her hypnotic, grey eyes. She was flighty and nimble, with slender fingers and a delicate laugh. When she got excited, she’d talk so fast she’d lose her place and have to start all over. She drove with two feet, played the piano well and the trombone poorly. In her teens, she’d traveled the Midwest circuit as a barrel racer. She’d come close to the championship, but gave it up when she met a rodeo clown named Wilson and became pregnant with their son, Tommy.
Wilson was a jealous man. His family owned pasture land on the county line, and he kept Kitty there while he worked the rodeos. For too many years, through the birth of two children and the loss of a third, Kitty lived a lonely life in a one-bedroom bungalow without central heat, a vehicle, or even a telephone. Her closest neighbor lived four miles down the road. Seven miles more would take her to the village of Given.
The sole business in Given was a single-pump gas station with a cramped store that sold everything from basic groceries to fishing tackle, toiletries, holiday decorations and school supplies. Any non-perishable item placed on a shelf remained there until it sold, or decayed, turning the shop into a faded, dusty time capsule of small town Nebraska. On occasion, as he headed out of town, Wilson would give Kitty a ten-dollar bill to buy herself something nice. She would slather Tommy and his baby sister, Marissa, with sunscreen, prop them up on blankets in their little red wagon, and make the daylong journey to Given.
Together, they would stroll the aisles of the gas station, searching for that perfect treasure. Kitty most loved the porcelain dolls and horse figurines, reminders of the happy days of her own childhood, before she’d severed contact with her family for Wilson. She’d hold the delicate figure in her hands, admire it in the sunlight, then return it to the shelf and spend her gift money on a game or a doll, some colors or candy for the children. Often, when Wilson returned from the road, he stepped on, ran over, or threw away whatever fun Kitty had purchased, leaving them teary-eyed and broken-hearted.
As one lonely, colorless year passed into another, Kitty grew tired of the jealously and anger, of the bitter winters and dark nights, of the perfume she’d smell on Wilson’s dirty laundry, of the deep bruises she started to find on Tommy’s skinny body, of the way her sweet Missy would avoid eye contact and shy away from her father’s touch. One morning, just after Wilson climbed in his truck and pulled out of the drive, headed for a monthlong stint in Oklahoma, Kitty loaded the kids in their wagon, walked the long road to Given, and used her ten dollars to buy three bus tickets out of town. The money got them as far as Allman Falls, where Kitty found a job, enrolled the children in school, and they started a new life of sunshine and laughter.
Almost six months passed before Wilson came looking for them. He appeared in the middle of the night, his temper so volatile it took the chief of police and two of his deputies to haul him bodily off Kitty’s porch and into the back of a cruiser. Handcuffed, he smashed his head against the window until it shattered. Marissa trembled with such fear she soiled her nightgown. Tommy, at six years old, simply spit on the ground and turned his back to his father.
Wilson never signed the divorce papers Kitty sent through the courts. He also never tried to contact them again. He simply disappeared. But, like the hauntings of a bad dream, they carried the memory of Wilson with them in every breath. Kitty purchased pretty things to decorate her house and hide the ugly in her heart. She started with the porcelain dolls and horse figurines she’d coveted, then quickly expanded to Precious Moments, jelly jars, marbles, purses, silk flower arrangements; her collections filling every dark corner, spilling off shelves, cluttering the floor.
Marissa expended her negative energy by bullying the other girls in her class until she grew old enough to discover being nice to boys was much more fun. Tommy held onto his anger, burying it deep, allowing it to brew hotter and hotter. He collected a gang of like-minded, miscreant friends who shared his love of paintball, vandalism and joyriding.
At the age of eighteen, flat broke and low on gas, headed home from a busted hunting trip in Kansas, Tommy and his buddy pulled into a secluded gas station with old pumps. They filled the truck with the intention of just driving off without paying, but they were braver together than alone, and much more stupid. They headed inside, pausing only to pull down their camouflaged ski masks to hide their faces. Tommy brandished his hunting rifle while his friend rushed the counter with a Buck knife, screaming for the elderly clerk to open the register drawer.
They ran off with the day’s earnings, a case of beer and a carton of Jack Link’s jerky. Their entire heist was caught on camera, including their fill up with gas and unmasked journey across the parking lot, into the store. Two miles outside of town, they were chased down by a state trooper and arrested.
For seven years, once a month, Kitty traveled to Kansas to visit her son, who had been convicted of armed robbery. Less than a month before his scheduled release, he got caught up in the middle of a brutal fight between four other inmates. When the chaos cleared, and the prison had been locked down, only Tommy and one other man remained in the yard. Neither survived their injuries.
Unsure how to stop, Kitty continued her monthly journey into Kansas. She’d sit in the parking lot outside the prison, imagine her son walking out into the sunshine, finally coming home to her. She’d sit alone, tears falling, until visiting hours ended, and then she’d shop her way home, stopping at all the thrift shops and antique marts littered along the highways.
Over the years, Kitty found plenty of treasures to fill up her van and the void in her heart, but her most beloved discovery was an eight-foot Bob’s Big Boy statue she’d spied in the back lot of an overlooked roadside mall. The statue’s paint had chipped, and was covered in a decade of grime, but the Big Boy still had spirit, the same sparkle to his eye as her Tommy. She’d circled around the statue, inspecting his damage, weighing his potential, and paid for him in cash. Her next trip down, she planned to rent a U-Haul and bring her boy home, where he belonged.
Mike used that revelation to finally spur Kitty into action.
“Kitty, your boy deserves a place of peace, a place to rest and feel the love and beauty in your heart.” Mike stood in the middle of her collected mess and gestured to the deepest, darkest part of her hoard. “You don’t want him to feel you suffer like this, do you?”
Her eyes sparked and her face flushed, and she started in on her usual arguments of personal property, beholder’s beauty and innate human rights, but as she tripped over her tangled, weedy mess of tomato cages, as her foot punched through a rotten piece of plywood and she sliced her ankle on the jagged wood, she lost the fight and crumpled in upon herself.
Mike rushed to her and held her tight as her thin shoulders shook, her sob coming from so deep inside it had no voice, only wrenching pain.