Too Much, Texas 1970
Nineteen-year-old Mary Dell Templeton pushed her white lace veil away from her face, knelt down in front of the toilet, and seriously considered vomiting.
She could hear the staccato tapping of her mother's high heels coming down the hallway and reached up to click over the lock only a moment before Taffy tried the knob and then started hammering on the door.
"Mary Dell? Open the door. I will not put up with any of your nonsense today, young lady. Cousin Organza only knows three songs on the piano, and she's played them through four times already. People are starting to notice. Do not embarrass me in front of half the town, young lady!"
Taffy Templeton paused, then rattled the knob again. "Mary Dell? Do you hear me? You unlock that door and come out here right now!"
Mary Dell closed her eyes and leaned down, resting her forehead on the cool curve of the porcelain seat. "I can't. I feel sick."
Taffy made an exasperated sound. "Well, of course you feel sick. It's your wedding day. What did you expect?"
It was a fair question.
What in the world was she doing, marrying Donny Bebee? When he'd proposed, she'd immediately said yes, relieved that her problems had been so easily solved by uttering that one little word. But what if marrying Donny wasn't the solution it seemed to be? What if she was just exchanging one set of problems for another? She barely knew Donny. Four months ago, she'd never even heard his name.
Another wave of nausea hit her as she realized that even now, she didn't know his middle name. Or if he even had a middle name! How could she possibly promise to love, honor, and cherish until death did them part a man whose middle name was a mystery to her?
Before she'd met Donny, she was unattached and content to remain that way for the foreseeable future. Now she was engaged, nauseous, and crouched in front of the commode in a wedding dress, minutes away from either becoming Mrs. Donald Middle-Name-Unknown Bebee or busting through the bathroom door, knocking down her mother, and making a run for the nearest pickup truck and the Mexican border.
How had she gotten herself into this mess?
As Mary Dell's maternal aunt, Miss Velvet Tudmore, the executive director of the Too Much Historical Society, would tell you, it is impossible to separate the present and future from the history that precedes it. So to understand how Mary Dell Templeton came to lock herself in the bathroom on her wedding day, you have to take a look back through her personal and family history and, more importantly, the history of the town.
Like a lot of towns in that part of the state, there appears to be no geographic or economic reason to explain the existence of Too Much, Texas. Ninety-five miles slightly southeast of Dallas, it simply rises out of the scrubby brown landscape as though someone of great stubbornness, fortitude, or both simply woke up one day and decided to build a town, like Moses striking a rock and summoning forth water in the desert. According to legend and Miss Velvet, that's pretty much how it happened.
In October of 1962, Mary Dell Templeton and her twin sister, Lydia Dale, along with the rest of the fifth graders of Sam Houston Elementary, took a field trip to the historical society to learn about the origins of Too Much. It was an important rite of passage, one that the town's youngest citizens had taken part in for many years.
The day began with a tour of the society's collection of artifacts, housed in the basement of the courthouse, a mishmash of memorabilia that included a rusty hand plow; a menu from the Blue Bonnet Café signed by Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who stopped in for banana cream pie before robbing the First Reliable Bank; the journal of Justine Tudmore Plank, Too Much's most famous citizen, who wrote a series of children's books in the 1920s; a pine pulpit that emerged unscathed from the flames when the First Baptist Church burned to the ground in 1912; a wheel and axle from a pioneer wagon; and the black leather bag filled with rusty surgical instruments and glass bottles bearing labels for sterile catgut and chloroform that once belonged to the town's first licensed physician.
After the tour, Miss Velvet shepherded the children into the town square, ordering them to form a half circle in front of a bronze statue of a slightly scowling woman dressed in pioneer garb with her arms crossed defiantly over her chest. Then she related the tale of Too Much's founding mother, Flagadine Tudmore, just as she had learned it from her mother, who had heard it from her mother, and so on.
"When Texas was still a republic, George and Flagadine Tudmore and their four children set out from Arkansas to Austin with the intention of claiming the six hundred and forty acres of land that was being offered to new settlers. The journey was hard and long, and George, who never was much of a planner, didn't start off until high summer. By the time the Tudmores reached the Texas border, the temperatures had been above one hundred for twenty-two days running, and the family's water supply was dangerously low.
"On the seventeenth night of August, 1840, George picketed his two tired, lame horses out next to a little patch of scrub near Puny Wallow—"
Without raising his hand, Jack Benny Benton interrupted. "Don't you mean Puny Pond?"
Miss Velvet's flinty features became even sharper as she scowled at the boy. "No. If I'd meant Puny Pond, I'd have said so. Back then it was a wallow, little more than a mud pit with a couple of inches of brown water at the bottom. Flagadine sieved out the mud and boiled it to use for drinking, bathing, and doing laundry.
"When George was hitching up the horses the next morning, Flagadine, whose thinking had been cleared mightily by rehydration and clean undergarments, grabbed the reins of the bay horse and said, 'It's just too much, George. Too much sun. Too much wind. Too much heat. Besides, there's something about this place, don't you agree? But whether you do or you don't, this is as far as I go.'
"And George," the old woman went on with a proud tilt to her chin, "knowing the kind of woman she was—and being the kind of man he was—figured there wasn't any point in fighting her. He unhitched the horses while Flagadine unpacked the wagon. And that, boys and girls, is how Too Much, Texas, got its start: on the conviction of a strong-willed woman and the indolence of a handsome but shiftless man. Which," she concluded with a sorry shake of her head, "pretty well describes the makeup of our population to this day."
Elbowing the boy next to him, Jack Benny Benton, whose father spent his days sitting on the porch at the Ice House, nursing a bottle of Lone Star and tying knots in a length of rope, asked the plain-featured old lady, "Is that why you never got married, Miss Velvet? Because the men in Too Much are too lazy?"
"Yes," the old spinster said without a trace of irony. "Yes, it is, Jack Benny."
When the children lined up for the walk back to school, Jack Benny Benton jockeyed for a spot behind Mary Dell and Lydia Dale. He was about to give one of Lydia Dale's blond braids a tug when Miss Velvet's voice rang out from behind.
"Lydia Dale! Mary Dell! Come back here for a minute."
The two girls ran up to the old woman. "What is it, Aunt Velvet?"
Miss Velvet crouched down low and whispered urgently, "You steer clear of that Jack Benny Benton."
"Why?" Lydia Dale asked. "He's all right."
"And Momma says the Bentons are richer than Midas," Mary Dell added.
Mary Dell didn't have a clear understanding of who Midas was, but she did understand that the Bentons, the largest and, aside from the Tudmores, oldest family in town, were rich-at least in comparison to everyone else. It wasn't that the Bentons owned everything in Too Much, just everything that was worth owning: the Ice House, which sold more beer and whiskey than ice, the Tidee-Mart, the Texaco station, the Feed and Grain, and pretty nearly every commercial building in downtown Too Much, which gave them influence and garnered them a good income without engaging in much actual work.
It was a strange thing that in a town full of lazy men, it was the laziest line of them all that had accumulated the most wealth, but the key to the Benton fortune lay with the Benton women, who were shrewder and tougher than any of the menfolk, and not just the women who were born Bentons, but even the ones who'd married into the family. Jack Benny's mother, Marlena, born a Pickens, was a case in point. It seemed to be part of their makeup, a trait that ran through their bloodlines. Every family has them. As a student of history, genealogy, and human relations, Velvet knew this for a fact.
Her studies had helped her to identify a Tudmore family trait, actually more of a weakness, that ran all the way back to Flagadine, and it was this: At some point, and sometimes at many points, nearly every woman in the Tudmore lineage, herself a notable exception, allowed lust and biology to trump morality and reason. Miss Velvet had dubbed this weakness the Fatal Flaw.
But at age nine, Mary Dell and Lydia Dale were too young to understand such things, so Miss Velvet just said, "You just stay away from Jack Benny. Stay away from any of the boys from Too Much. You hear me?"
Though impossible to prove scientifically, Miss Velvet's theory of the Tudmore Fatal Flaw cannot be dismissed entirely. But even more than this, it was an unusual codicil in the will of Flagadine Tudmore that most profoundly influenced the history, character, and fortunes of her descendants.
Flagadine Tudmore outlived her husband by three decades. She spent those years raising children and buying more land, eventually accumulating twelve hundred acres. In that part of the country, depending on weather, the ratio of cattle to grazing acres may be eight, ten, even fifteen to one, so the F-Bar-T was not a huge spread by Texas standards. But it was some of the best grazing land in the county and enough to provide a modest but independent living for the Tudmore clan. Figuring her sons could fend for themselves, Flagadine willed the ranch in its entirety to her daughter, Calico, stipulating that Calico should pass it on to her daughter in turn.
And so the tradition began. Each succeeding generation of Tudmore women signed the title of the ranch over to her daughter upon the younger woman's marriage, yielding the house and land to the newlyweds, with the understanding that the older woman's financial needs would be met in her lifetime. It was an unusual arrangement for the times, and if challenged in a court of law, it's doubtful that the wills of the Tudmore women would have been allowed to stand. However, no one ever did challenge those wills, perhaps because they had too much sense to try to separate a Tudmore from her land.
Most of the Tudmore women lived their entire lives within a tight radius of the ranch without a desire to roam farther. It was their Eden, their context, the lens through which they saw the world and themselves. A few did travel across the country and even the world, and enjoyed the scenes, scents, and sights of exotic lands, but in the end, the daughters of Flagadine never found a scene to match the beauty of the sun setting over the small ridge of hills on the western edge of the ranch, or a perfume as intoxicating as the scent that rose from the thirsty soil of the pasture and the leaves of the velvet mesquite trees after a rare hard rain, or a deeper sense of satisfaction than came from being granted temporary stewardship over the land that had nurtured and nourished them and eventually passing it intact to the next generation.
Mary Dell was not born with a complete appreciation of her inheritance or a full understanding of the honor and solemn responsibility that was her birthright, but it would come to her in time. There was no avoiding it. Like the Fatal Flaw, it was all part of being born a Tudmore and female.
Still, Mary Dell was her own brand of Tudmore. For one thing, she was the first of the line who, teetering on the brink of matrimony, actually stopped to ask herself if this was a good idea. There had never been a Tudmore quite like Mary Dell, though it took some time for people, her mother especially, to realize it.
When the twins were born, Taffy intended to carry on with the family custom of naming female children after fabric, in homage to the Tudmore tradition of producing women who were experts with a needle, even though she personally had no talent for sewing. But her husband, Dutch, objected.
"Hell, no!" he exclaimed. "You're not doing it, Taffy. All the good names are gone. Your cousin got the last one-though I'm not crazy about Organza. But it's sure better than Corduroy. Or Hopsack. Or Flannel! That's about all that's left."
"I was thinking of naming them after Momma and Aunt Velvet," Taffy countered.
"Silky and Velvet Templeton?" Dutch spread his boot-shod feet and crossed his arms over his chest, aping the bronze resolve of Flagadine Tudmore. "Do that and these will be the last babies you have a chance of getting off me. I mean it."
Dutch was not a man inclined to making proclamations and even less inclined to follow through with them, but Taffy sensed that he was serious. Only hours before, in the agony of childbirth, she had sworn never to allow Dutch to touch her again. But now, as her eyes traveled from his handsome head, his sandy hair streaked with sunlight streaming through the hospital room window, to his wide shoulders, to his trim waist encircled by a dark leather belt and the largest of silver belt buckles, then down his long, lean legs, clad in jeans so tight they might have been denim skin, her resolve melted like ice on a hot skillet.
"All right, Dutch. You pick the names," she said as she passed the pink bundles into her husband's arms.
"I was thinking about Mary Dell and Lydia Dale. Should sound real good together, you know? Dell and Dale? But," he said with a frown, "which name for which baby?"
Taffy shrugged. "Does it matter? They're just as alike as two peas in a pod."
Taffy's observation was accurate, at least regarding the twins' appearance. Though they were fraternal twins, knit together in the same womb but from two separate eggs, at birth Mary Dell and Lydia Dale were almost identical in appearance, sharing their mother's bluebonnet eyes and their father's full lips and blond hair. They were undeniably pretty, even a little bit beautiful. Taffy had been pretty too, once, prettier even than her daughters.
Taffy was one of the most popular girls in her high school— at least as popularity was measured among the boys. She was not loose, but she was a tremendous flirt, able to keep any number of boys angling for her attentions without them ever realizing that she was the one who had set the hook and held the line. It was all a game to her, one she relished and played recklessly, honing her skills through multiple readings of her favorite book, Gone with the Wind, as well as assiduous study and emulation of the heroine. In the process, she ended up repeating many of Scarlett's mistakes. It was not until after her marriage that she realized that no one man, however handsome and doting he may be, can take the place of a brace of admirers. A married woman needs friends, and Taffy had none. Her careless antics had earned her the enmity of nearly every woman in town. And though she tried her best to make amends, it was too late. The ladies of Too Much, especially Marlena Benton, had long memories.
Marlena Benton, née Pickens, could not forget the humiliation of spending the night of the senior prom sobbing in her room because her date, Noodie Benton, canceled on her, enticed by a last-minute promise to serve as Taffy's escort. Noodie was miffed when he got to the dance and realized that he was one of three young men who had been offered this privilege. But when Taffy chose him as her partner for the first slow dance, he forgave her. Marlena never would.
And though Noodie proposed to her not long after Dutch and Taffy's wedding, Marlena never entirely forgave him either. Some in town posited (but never within Marlena's hearing) that she married Noodie just so she could spend the rest of her life punishing him. That wasn't wholly true, but the seed of resentment Marlena carried within her, coupled with an unhealthy devotion to their only child, Jack Benny, did nothing to help their marriage. And what is certain is that Marlena, who, by virtue of being a Benton as well as president of the Too Much Women's Club and the Episcopal Church Altar Guild, was the most influential woman in town, and she was more than willing to use that influence to make sure Taffy Tudmore Templeton would live her life on the lower rungs of the town's social ladder.
Excerpted from Between Heaven and Texas by MARIE BOSTWICK. Copyright © 2013 by Marie Bostwick. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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