LOVE AND BETRAYAL
A Novel of Love and Violence
The seventh of July began like any other day for Peter Spaulding, with no hint of the tragedy ahead.
Midland was sweltering in a savage heat wave. Clouds of swirling red dust swept across the West Texas prairie, covering the parched brown grass and asphalt sidewalks of the town like layers of rust.
"Drive carefully, honey," Ruth Ellen said. She stood in the doorway, her pink cotton maternity smock sticking to her bloated body. Her ankles were swollen and her light brown hair was damp with perspiration. Beads of sweat formed on her upper lip. "You know I worry about you."
"I'll be all right."
He pulled out of the driveway. Ever since the accident she'd been nagging him. He was driving home from the oil fields and on a dangerous curve he had to swerve suddenly to avoid a truck that was coming straight at him. The car went out of control and the next thing he remembered was waking up in a ditch with a concussion.
He felt guilty about the sharpness of his voice and the hurt expression on Ruth Ellen's face. She was always trying to please him, she was patient and understanding when he got depressed and moody, it was not her fault that she wasn't his type and that he was always comparing her to Valerie and wishing that. . . .
What the hell good is wishing? he thought, and again he felt trapped.
"Midland is one of the last frontiers . . . a man can make a fortune there if he's lucky," he'd been told.
He'd arrived right after the war, twenty-six years old and determined to make it on his own. That was nearly two years ago. He had not made a fortune and the golden dream had disillusioned him. And now he was caught, choked with the smell of oil and sandstorms in this place with its newly-built skyscrapers rising like a mirage on the desolate plain.
He would never be a Texan as long as he lived, though sometimes, at first glance, he was taken for one because he was tall and lean and when he was in the oil fields he dressed like the natives and wore rumpled trousers and a sports shirt, with pointed Western boots and a light-colored Western hat. But the minute he spoke his voice gave him away. Well, he was tired of the drawling way they talked and the climate and having to pick sand out of his teeth all the time. Hell, you couldn't even barbecue a steak in your back yard unless you wanted it garnished with a fine coating of sand.
Texas. You can have it, he thought. All of it.
Oh, there were some pretty parts of Texas. The River Oaks section of Houston with its Colonial mansions and flowering redbud trees. Green grass and trees. How long it had been since he had seen anything green, like his father's place on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. "Wynwood" it was called. His father had sold it during the war. "Impossible to get servants to keep up the place," his father had written him. The letter reached him when he was fighting in Italy. He had hoped that someday Wynwood would be his and now it was gone. He had not even been consulted. It was typical of his father. Yes, there were many reasons that had brought him to Midland. When he was discharged from the Army he had no home to go to. But then had he ever really had a home? he wondered. A real home?
He thought of his mother, now living in Rio de Janeiro. Senhora Roberto Moreiro Carvalho. Her picture appeared often in Town and Country and she always made the list of the Ten Best-Dressed Women. How hard she had tried to catch Roberto Carvalho after she divorced his father, and she finally succeeded where so many women before her had failed. For they said in Washington that Carvalho would never marry anyone. He was the Brazilian Ambassador then, handsome, sought after, and his affairs were notorious.
He remembered how nice Uncle Roberto was to him before he married his mother and how everything changed afterward. The Brazilian Embassy was never a home to him, only a brief stopover between boarding schools and summer camps.
This was the first home he had ever had and Ruth Ellen was the first person who had ever really believed in him. She was with him all the way. That's what made him feel so awful.
If only I loved Ruth Ellen the way I did Valerie, he thought. Or if only Valerie had loved me the way Ruth Ellen does.
Valerie. . . .
"All women are only good for a one-night stand," his father used to say. But then he was bitter after the divorce. He had never remarried. Lathrop Spaulding, the aging playboy, habitué of El Morocco and "21", he saw his father's name in the columns with this model and that showgirl. What was he trying to prove?
Or are we all trying to prove something?
She pulled into the parking lot beside him and rolled down the car window. Her flaming red hair was tied back with a ribbon and she had on dark glasses.
"Hi ya, handsome."
"Billie . . . what are you doing here?"
"I wanted to catch you before you went in the office and I didn't want to call you at home." She lowered her voice. "Listen, I have to talk to you."
"It's not about us. I know that's over."
"I can't talk here. Meet me at my place."
"I don't think that's a very good idea."
"Look, he's out of town."
He wasn't about to get involved with this dame again. It wasn't fair to Ruth Ellen.
"It wasn't an accident," Billie said.
"The car. It wasn't an accident. Now do you follow me?"
"Do you have any proof?"
"Yes. My place at noon?"
"All right," he said.
He walked in the Stanolind Oil offices with an uneasy feeling. He'd been in tight spots before and he'd always been lucky, but something told him his luck was running out. He tried to appear nonchalant, but he found he was perspiring and not just from the heat.
Mr. Garrison's secretary came up to him with a worried expression. "The boss would like to see you," she said.
Chet Garrison was a man of sixty who had come to Texas from Indiana. No matter how early you got to the office, he was always there first. He was studying a map on the wall of the latest drillings.
"Did you want to see me, sir?" Peter asked.
Garrison turned. He had a craggy, weather-beaten face under thinning gray hair and large hands with heavy callouses from his boyhood days on a farm. "Yes, I did." He motioned to a chair in front of his desk. "Sit down."
Peter wondered what was coming next. Garrison lit his pipe and then walked around and put his hand on Peter's shoulder.
"Are you in some kind of trouble?" he asked.
"I hope not, sir."
"You can level with me, my boy."
"I'm not sure what you mean."
"Yesterday two federal agents came in here and asked a lot of questions about you. I don't know what they were trying to find out." He paused "You know, I never had a son. Only daughters. Always wanted a son. If there is some way I can help . . . ."
"I appreciate that, sir." Now he was starting to have chills. He wondered how much Garrison knew.
"How's Ruth Ellen?"
"Pretty good. The heat's been getting her a bit."
"A nice girl. One of the best secretaries we ever had around here. You take good care of her, make her get plenty of rest. How much longer before the baby's due?"
"Five weeks. The middle of August."
"Say hello to her for me. Tell her we miss her."
"I will, sir."
"You're sure there's nothing you want to tell me?"
Peter shook his head. He wanted to get out of here, away from Garrison's probing look. Garrison trusted him, thought of him as the son he had never had, and he had let him down. There was a suffocating stillness in the room that was almost unbearable, and then the telephone rang.
"That's all, Peter."
Peter started toward the door.
"Remember, we all make mistakes." Garrison picked up the phone and started to talk to the person on the other end.
We all make mistakes.
He walked out of Garrison's office and down the corridor to the drinking fountain.