About a year ago Buster quit fixing track for the Gulf, Colorado, and Santa Fe and took up a job in sales. He’d been with the railroad for ten years, but once he got the notion in his head to quit, that was it. He’s always been like that. There was playing the guitar. He couldn’t play a lick, but by God he was going to have him a guitar no matter what, and he got one too. It’s been in the closet for three years, but he had to have a guitar even if it harelipped the whole damn state. Whatever Buster gets in his head, well that’s it. In some ways it’s a good thing, and in some ways, it’s not. He tends to get what he wants more than most people, but that can backfire, and it sure did on Buster with the selling job.
It happened like this. One Sunday afternoon, while I cleaned up the kitchen, Buster was sitting at the table reading the newspaper. He was a slow reader but enjoyed learning what was going on in the world, and he looked forward to it every week. When he came across something of particular interest, he’d let me know. ‘Stalin died’, or ‘Two men climbed to the top of the world’s tallest mountain.’ I don’t bother with the paper, but the world is always changing, and Buster kept me up with it. About the time I was putting the bowl of red-eye gravy up for supper, he turned his chair towards me and said, “I’m gonna be a Bible salesman.” He’d just read about how young men with “ambition, persistence, and a strong sense of self-worth” – he said that part real loud – had been having successful careers with it for a company out of Nashville, Tennessee that had been in the business for over sixty years. Just like that, everything changed for Buster and me.
After about four weeks he was peddling the word of God. He’d leave before dawn on Monday morning, all dressed up in his suit and tie, and wouldn’t get back until late of an evening on Friday and tell me all about it. He drove that old Packard all over the plains of west and north Texas as far as Borger, Monahans, or Seymour.
The family Bibles he sold were expensive, but Buster cast a wide net. It didn’t matter to him what church the customer went to or even whether they went to church at all – Catholic, Jehovah Witness, Church of Christ – all of them was fair game. He’d go straight to the poorest section in town, even the colored and Mexican sections, and knock on every single door before moving on to the next town. He got a lot of no’s and doors shut in his face, but it only took ten or so a month to make do, and so he could handle it. His first question was, “Are you a Christian family?” The answer was always “Yes.” He memorized what to say next and poured his heart into it ever time. “Then you know what a blessing it would be to have the gospel sitting on your coffee table or on that bookshelf in your living room. I mean the finest family Bible money can buy, and affordable.” (When he was practicing in front of the mirror at home, it was funny as hell, but I didn’t let on.) Then he told them how a 25% down payment and weekly payments would place the Bible in their home on that very day. Selling the Bible like that, and not much of a churchman his self, was always kind of odd to me, but I never said nothing about it to Buster.
The company training brochures covered how to dress, how to greet whoever answered the door, and how to go over certain sales points, but he was on his own when it came to handling the unexpected, and the unexpected happened a lot. One time a drunk teenager threatened him with a pistol, but Buster just kept smiling the way he does when he’s nervous, and when he offered the boy a cigarette, well everything calmed down. Once an old couple broke down crying when they got to thinking on their little girl’s funeral fifty years ago. Buster cried right along with them. He couldn’t help it. The company materials hadn’t covered this sort of thing, but he ended up making a sale anyhow. There was the little man with ringworms, and he had this slobbering blue tick hound sitting in his lap that smelled like stale you know what. Five minutes with those two and Buster ended it. Didn’t even try to make a sale. He dealt with all sorts of crazy things and somehow found a way to say and do something that worked out except for this one time.
This is how Buster told it to me. It was two o’clock in the afternoon, and he’d knocked on the door of a little house that was sitting off about a quarter mile from the other houses in the neighborhood, right on the edge of the town and country. There was an old Ford parked under the carport. That meant somebody was probably at home. Sure enough, a woman about forty years old wearing her nightgown walked up to the screen and just stood there staring at him without saying a single word. Buster smiled and held up a big ole Bible.
“Good afternoon, ma’am, my name is Buster Brooker, and I wonder if you could spare a few minutes to hear about this here beautiful Bible?”
The woman just stood there, looking him right in the eyes, but she was kind a smiling now herself, so Buster took that as a good sign and asked his first question. The answer surprised him.
“I might be or I might not be. It depends on who’s asking,” the woman said.
He told her his name again. “My name is Buster Brooker. I’m a Bible salesman.”
“Then I’m a Christian, Buster, come on in and sell me a Bible.”
In my way of thinking, a Bible-reading woman would be dressed by that time of the day, and that should have been a red light right there, but Buster said he was too flustered to think straight.
He’d been all ready to say how affordable the Bible was and how good it would look in her living room, so when she caused him to skip over that part, it got him all mixed up. At least that’s the way he explained it to me. I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for certain. When I tried to get him to tell me what he was thinking at the very second he took that first step into her living room, he gave me a lot of this, that, the other, and what have you. You make of it what you will.
So, anyhow, Buster said he took a seat on her couch, still holding the Bible, but left the sales satchel out on the porch he was so shook up. She stood looking at him for a couple of seconds and then sat right down next to him, not in the chair across from the couch, which he fully expected.
“Now, let’s see your Bible,” she said. “I like them with pictures, Delilah and what not.”
It was hotter than blazes in there, and Buster was sweating clean through his dress shirt. She must’ve noticed, cuz she reached up, and took his hat off his head, and started fanning him with it back and forth, back and forth, slow and easy. Next thing Buster knew her thigh was touching his.
Now, when Buster was telling me all this it was late on a Friday night after he’d come home for the weekend. We were lying in bed with the lights out, so I couldn’t see his face, but I tell you what. He didn’t sound exactly like the bull of the woods the way he usually did when he was going on about all he’d seen and done that week. Fact is he sounded kind a like a little boy who was just about to commence bawling his eyes out, so I reached over and patted him on the hand. He was so pitiful sounding. A couple of times I nearly asked him, “Where’s this heading?” but I didn’t. I figured if it went where it could have gone, Buster wouldn’t have even be telling me about it, so I just kept quiet, patting his hand and hoping he didn’t break down on me.
Are you getting all this? Let me know if I need to slow down.
One thing to keep in mind is that Buster was not experienced with women, not at all. Before I come along he hadn’t ever been kissed on the lips, not even by his own momma or daddy. He spent all his time roping calves and riding bulls and such as that when he was a teenager while most of his buddies were out chasing young girls.
No wonder he was just about paralyzed sitting on the couch with that woman. She knew exactly what she was doing, and the thinking lights had just about shut off in Buster’s head. The lizard brain he’d read me about out of the paper once was all that was working. That means he was still able to breathe, swallow, and have other natural reactions to the situation, but that’s about it.
Now, he says he doesn’t remember exactly how he got up off the couch and out to his car, but somehow or another he made it. There’s a few minute’s gap in his recall, but he tells it like he’s sure as rainwater that he didn’t go past that couch, and that except for their thighs through their clothes, there was no touching between the two. I wasn’t party to any of it, but I’ll go along with that. He says he remembers little snatches of this and that, but nothing real clear until he came to about fifty miles down the road. He pulled over, got out of the car on the passenger side, leaned back on the front fender, and stared for quite a while at an ole oil pump in the field next to the road. They look like big ole dippy-birds in case you never saw one, which would be odd, because they’re scattered all over the country side. He said he was there for who knows how long until he gathered himself and then drove on to a neighborhood on the east side of Salt Creek to try to sell Bibles.
When he pulled up to the first house, he reached over to get his satchel, but there was no satchel to get. Like a bolt of lightning and clear as a crystal he remembered getting up off that hussy’s couch without taking the Bible with him and walking right out to the car, leaving his satchel with all his forms and brochures plus two more Bibles right there on the front porch. This was late Thursday afternoon, and he had another day’s worth of selling to go before coming home, so he felt like his only choice was to go back to get the satchel off the porch, if it was on the porch anymore, which it may or may not have been. There was no way to know, unless he went back, so that’s what he did. Here’s another example where Buster makes his mind up about something and there’s no stopping him.
By the time he got there a few houses had their lights on, but he could still see well enough to drive without his headlights. I can just see him now. Driving slow as molasses down that caliche street, nerves all tore up, a lost ball in tall weeds. He said he hadn’t been that scared since the war. He stopped the car in the street right in front of the house and squinted to see if the satchel was still on the porch. He could barely make it out, leaning up against the wall next to the door, which was closed. This gave him great comfort, and for the first time in his life, he said he thanked Jesus and meant it.
His sincere hope was to get the satchel without ever seeing the woman again, or at least that’s what he made a big point of to me. I’m no mind reader, and I know that was the smart thing to say, but I accept it as gospel more or less. Anyway, as his story goes on, he parked his car around the block next to an open lot and walked back to the house. He knew to be really careful, even if there were no lights on in the house, cause the Ford was still there, so he sneaked up as quiet as he could. Once he got on the porch he was extra, extra careful to not make any noise, moving real, real slow. He reached down and picked up the satchel and was feeling a little relief because there hadn’t been a peep from inside the house, and by this time it was pretty near dark.
Buster said he didn’t get two steps off the porch, still trying to be as quiet as a church mouse, when a pickup pulls up fast and brakes hard in the driveway, catching him full bore in its headlights. He just froze up.
The lights were in his eyes, so he couldn’t see anybody, but he sure as heck heard a man’s voice yelling, “You motherfucking son-of-a-bitch.” Excuse my French; I’m just saying it the way Buster said he heard it to give the full effect. Now Buster’s a big man, but he’s not exactly tight wound like this little guy was, so he was slow to react. He just stood there holding the satchel with his mind racing a mile a minute.
The guy runs right up to Buster, still yelling and cussing like all get out. The main detail Buster remembers about the guy, and this is just like him, was that he wore a welder’s cap with the bill flipped up like one of the Bowery Boys. Anyhow, the guy started yelling, “I’m gonna kill you. I’m gonna kill both of you.”
Buster held his one free arm up and took to waving it like he was saying hello, and said in a real loud voice that came out real high pitched, “Now looky here. I’m just a Bible salesman trying to make a living.” That didn’t do any good whatsoever.
The guy ran back to his pickup and pulled a crowbar from a toolbox and then took two steps towards Buster before he stopped and shifted his attention towards the house. About that time Buster heard the woman’s voice sounding just as smooth as silk. “Leave my boyfriend alone.”
Well, you can guess how the ole boy took to that. “You motherfucking son-of-a-bitch.” I apologize again, but I’m not going to sugar coat it like Buster. He just said, “mother f’n son-of-a-b”, but this whole situation here don’t call for watering down.
Then the woman spoke up, just a hair louder, but still calm as a cucumber, “You ain’t my husband no more, Bobby Ray, so you ain’t got no say so about my boyfriend being here. Him and me was just saying good night when you pulled up here like a goddamn crazy man. Now, get back in your truck and leave us both alone.”
Bobbie Ray busted out crying at that, blubbering is the way Buster said it, and yelled, “I ain’t going on like this, and you ain’t neither.”
This whole time, Buster hadn’t moved an inch. It was the woman’s turn then, and she said, “You got that right.”
Then she went back in the house, and turned the light on in the living room for just a couple of seconds, and then turned it off and marched right out the front door, off the porch, and right up to where Bobbie Ray was down on his knees, bawling and carrying on. He’d ripped all the front buttons off his shirt and tore the pocket clean off. Buster was feeling real bad for Bobby Ray, who had a suffering look on his face like the way Jesus had starring down from the cross, when there was a “pop-pop-pop”, and Bobby Ray jerked a little bit, and then swayed for a couple of seconds, and then keeled over right at Buster’s feet.
The woman, Buster, and Bobbie Ray all stayed where they were, nobody saying a thing and it was real, real quiet. Then Bobbie Ray moaned a couple of times. Buster bent over to pat him on the back, and there was another “pop”, and something wet and warm splattered all over Buster’s face. You can guess what that was.
The woman just started walking back to the house as calm as could be. Just as she stepped on the porch she turned and looked toward Buster and said, “Honey, I done it for you. Now you got to help me clean up this mess.”
Buster says he was trembling like a hound dog passing a peach pit and figured he’d be next if he didn’t do what she said. He made a big point of telling me, in fact said it twice, that he did not go back in the house with that woman. Well that would go without saying, wouldn’t it? I mean if everything else happened the way he told it, who on God’s green earth would go back in there? It was all a little bit fantastical, I admit, but there’s no way for me to know for sure.
Just like she ordered, Buster turned the pickup lights off and shut off the engine. The woman went in the house and then in a couple of minutes came back wearing clothes this time. Both of them picked poor ole Bobby Ray up and put him in the back of his own truck.
I asked Buster if she still had the gun, and he said he thought she did. Said he thought he could see it bulging in her front pants pocket. Who knows? Buster drove the pickup, like he was told, and she followed real close behind in the Ford. She had given him directions on how to get to a lake but had to pull him over twice to get him back on track.
After three quarters of an hour they came to the lake. Then they drove the pickup right up not twenty feet from the end of a dock in the deepest part of the lake, and put Bobbie Ray in the cab with the windows up, and let a good bit of the air out of the tires. Then Buster put a big ole rock on the foot pedal to rev the engine all the way up, put it in first gear, and jumped out as soon as he let the clutch out. He said it was a close call, but he was able to shut the door as he jumped out. The pickup and Bobbie Ray run right off the end and sunk pretty soon after splashing in.
That’s the way he told it to me, so I guess it happened like that, but I do still wonder a little bit why he didn’t just drive that pickup straight to the police. He said he was scared of being shot in the back of the head. Again, a little fantastical, but I could see it I guess. Anyway, of course she didn’t shoot him and in fact let him go on his way once they got back to her house. I guess so.
As the story goes on, Buster drove back to Salt Creek and checked in the motel, just like he’d planned before all this. It was his intention to just put it all behind him, just wake up the next day, try to sell some Bibles, and then drive back home like nothing had happened. When he told me this part, I jumped right in and asked him if acting like nothing had happened meant not telling me about any of it, and he patted my hand then and told me that he’d always planned to tell me the whole story. I allowed as to how that was the right thing to do.
Well, guess what? He couldn’t find the damn satchel anywhere. Buster figured he must have dropped it in the yard during all the terrible things that were going on. Now he had him a real crisis. First of all, there was what would happen if he never got the satchel back, career as a Bible salesman over after only a few months and no job to fall back on. Then there was the matter of the law getting hold of it and seeing his name and address and then coming after him. Then, of course, there was that woman who may or may not have the satchel and may or may not have even noticed it. Before he could go on with the story, I asked him point blank, “Do you have the satchel or not?” He just busted out bawling just like I was afraid he might, and I knew right then and there what we had to do.
Since I figured we had to move fast, we got right out of bed and got dressed. I told Buster to wash his face and dry it up, and he did just like I said. In a few minutes we were out on 87 headed to Lamesa. I come up with the details on the drive. It was a simple plan. We were going to pull up in the driveway with the lights off, and I was going to run up real quick and stand next to the door, hiding, and then Buster was to turn the lights on.
When the woman came out the door to see what was going on, I was going to jump her from the back and then Buster was supposed to either grab the satchel off the yard or go in the house and look for it. Then we were to run to the car and take off. It didn’t quite work out that way.
Well, as you know, it was our good luck that the satchel was still out in the yard but our bad luck that the woman ran out and grabbed the backdoor handle before Buster could get out of the drive. She sure as hell wasn’t planning on turning loose, so I told Buster to stop the car, which he did, and I got out and grabbed the woman by her hair with both hands and drug her over into the ditch beside the road. I had to beat her up pretty bad before she’d let loose of me, and I know a woman doing something like I did to another woman, putting her in the hospital with missing teeth, and a broken nose, and big ole welts and bruises is wrong, wrong, wrong. The good thing is that she’s doing fine now. I saw her the other day when I was lead past her cell, and she was reading the Bible.
You been listenin’ real good, but I noticed a kind of doubting look on your face a few times. As my lawyer, aren’t you supposed to stand up for me, whether you believe all this or not? That’s what Buster said he read in the paper. I swear to God.