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Last Mango in Texas
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Kyle is torn between managing his business — and being left lonely in the Lone Star state — and risking everything to fly to Alaska to pursue Gretchen. The young oil man soon discovers that oil slicks are nothing compared to relational slicks. The early bird may get the worm, but the oily bird can ruin romance! Through it all, Kyle explores faith in God and His power to change lives.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2009 by Charles "Ray" Blackston
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: March 2009
Many thanks to the talented editors who guided this book to completion: Holly Halverson, Anne Horch, and April Stier. You're a blessing in triplicate. Hugs also to my agent, Beth Jusino, for her advice and encouragement.
A PROBLEM WITH SAMENESS
I lived on the second floor of the preppy, fashion-conscious frat house.
But just nine days into my freshman year, I already hated it. I hated the conformity, I hated the secret handshake, and I hated the smothering frat clothes, all of us sporting the same three letters day after day. The members —those so-called brothers —recruited me. Said they liked my conservative haircut, and that I "fit in physically" —whatever that meant for a blue-eyed, five-foot-ten freshman. My initial interest stemmed from common collegiate reasoning: they seemed friendly, hospitable, and promised all pledges a "home away from home." After they offered me a bid, however, they told me what to wear and said I wasn't a real man unless I dated a Chi-O.
I had to ask a fellow pledge the meaning of Chi-O. He asked if I was from the sticks. Then he muttered, "Chi Omega, dude."
The Sigmas were also big on family legacy and held in high regard the vocational status of a pledge's parents. Since at least two of Uncle Benny's buried coins came from Canada, I told the frats that my family had a long history of trading in the international commodities markets. Affirmative nods told me that I'd given a satisfactory answer, though I kept to myself the fact that I'd taken out student loans to supplement my partial academic scholarship and had only sixty-one dollars to my name.
The brothers didn't tell me, however, that three times a week I'd be awakened from my bed at 3:00 a.m. and taken into the basement. They didn't tell me I'd be yelled at for being a pledge and that twice I would stand against a wall with a handkerchief tied over my eyes while someone threw beer bottles high over my head, bursting them against a brick wall and showering me with glass. I was sworn to secrecy and got little sleep.
"What happens here stays here!" the house president yelled at the pledges.
"Yeah, little pledge!" shouted his senior buddies, "Take it like a man! Tell no one!"
Friday nights we all acted as if we got along, because on Friday nights the men of Sigma house hosted socials. My second weekend the brothers threw an open party, a retro eighties bash open to anyone on the Texas Tech campus —although the Chi-Os were the only sorority who received personal, mailed invitations. By 9:00 p.m., more than two hundred collegians packed into our long, first-floor party room. Streamers hung from the ceiling and over the buffet table, where Chi-Os huddled together, maneuvered for position, and laughed too hard whenever a brother said anything, no matter how corny.
It was like they were all predisposed toward one another. I hung out on the perimeter of their coolness, trying to figure out to what I was predisposed. It certainly wasn't Greekdom. I figured that, like my uncle, my predisposition lay in the area of adventure and risk —and this life felt at odds with that vision. I sipped from my drink and noted the condescending stares of brothers. In obedience to their authority, I let my gaze fall to the floor and sipped a second time. A third.
It felt like relief when a fellow pledge asked me to help set out more cups and napkins. I retreated to the pantry, and just then someone cranked the music. I had only vague familiarity with retro eighties music —was there really a band called Kajagoogoo? —but the synthesized vibes rocked the walls, and all the people cheered.
Various independent sorts wandered into the party, grabbed a drink, perhaps some food, then stood against walls and looked around for a friend. Few friends were available, I supposed, mostly frats and sorority girls beholding their own, oblivious to commoners and destined to marry well.
While setting out plastic forks at the buffet table, I once again felt the brothers watching me. One of them, a senior with a beer gut worthy of a fifty-year-old, asked me to fetch him a brew, and I did so with efficiency and haste.
"Thanks, Kyle," he said, and he said it nicely only because two girls stood nearby. "Now go find yourself a Chi-O freshman and ask her to dance."
Two other brothers toasted the instructions with raised mugs.
I probably made them all mad when I began dancing with Gretchen, the bead-wearing girl who lived in a dorm but snuck into frat parties whenever she heard good music and knew there'd be free food. "Better than the cafeteria fare," she'd said when I met her at the previous weekend's party. She seemed oblivious to peer pressure.
That first evening she'd dipped a celery stalk in a saucer of honey mustard, used it to make her points about the quality of Texas Tech food in general, and convinced me to try it. I crunched a stalk, liked it, and in that moment she and I had made some sort of connection. A new friend? More? Who knew?
Tonight, among all the soft-cottoned conformity, Gretchen had returned in her throwback hippie jeans, her frilly brown shirt draped again with her nonconformist beads, a thick mane of honey-colored hair spilling over both shoulders. Even the way she scanned the room after we'd finished the dance —as if she couldn't decide if the scene was worth her time —made her stand out from the sorority types gliding by in front of her. Something in me triggered —I just had to get to know her better —and so I squeezed past a huddle of brothers and dipped two more celery stalks in honey mustard.
I offered one to Gretchen, and she accepted with a smile. But then she pointed back to the dance floor, I nodded, and we crunched our stalks en route.
"What do you think of these people?" she asked over the music, and just then the dance floor emptied.
The brother playing the role of DJ had taken a request, popped in another ancient CD, and suddenly an undanceable Talking Heads song sent everyone to the sidelines. But Gretchen and I just stood out there in the middle of the floor, crunching our celery amid the retro music, awash in blue and yellow lighting. The lights combined to turn us both a ghostly green, a flirtatious green even, while all around the good citizens of Greekdom watched us like we were both impossibly self-sufficient.
The music grew louder —and the brothers continued to eye me with skepticism. Twice I turned and raised my cup in a toast to them. None of them toasted back.
Gretchen appeared to sense their skepticism —she impressed me as highly observant —and as the song played she leaned near my head and repeated herself. "What do you think of these people, Kyle?"
I scanned frat brothers whom I doubted would ever truly love me as a brother. Next I scanned the sorority women before speaking my thoughts into Gretchen's hair —which smelled like honeysuckle with a dash of cinnamon. "They're all so much alike that I believe any one of those guys could date any one of those girls, and it wouldn't make any difference."
Gretchen laughed, nodded her head with enthusiasm. "Exactly!"
A spark, high voltage, something, surged through me in that instant, what I would later discern as the early stages of chemistry. "So," I asked, my mind spinning to grasp the right words and to transfer those words efficiently to my vocal chords and out through my lips, "how many frat parties have you wandered into this week?"
She beamed. "Five! But this one is the most fun."
I leaned into her hair for another brief sniff and raised my voice over the singing Talking Heads. "And just why is that?"
With a blue-lit face she leaned toward me. We were lean-flirting. "Because I met you!… You're the only independent guy I've talked with all week."
"I'm flattered, Gretchen, but I'm not truly independent. I pledged this frat, ya know."
She feigned shock. "Maybe so. But are you really going to stay?"
Two senior brothers stood against the wall, observing me as if assigned the duty of overseers. I turned my back to them to prevent them from reading my lips. "It's like this, Gretchen: once a pledge moves into the big house, they won't let him leave. If you tell them you don't want to pledge any longer, the brothers physically force you to stay."
Over the music she blurted, "But that's absurd!"
Under the music I continued talking into her ear. "They keep you up all night talking about how important it is not to give the fraternity a bad image, that Sigmas aren't quitters. I'm not supposed to tell anyone this, but the brothers caught a pledge Wednesday morning packing his bags before class, then they kept him in the basement for nine hours until he agreed to stay. They convinced him that his future happiness and success rested upon whether or not he completed his pledge and became a brother."
Gretchen stepped back and stared at me blank-faced, fingering her beads as if she could not fathom such treatment. "But . . . but you want to leave, right? You can't just stay trapped here with the cookie-cutter people."
I'd never heard that expression before, cookie-cutter people, and on this night it felt so appropriate that I moved even closer to her and whispered, "I fear I've made a mistake, that I'm really a dorm rat at heart."
That beaming grin again. This killed me. It felt good to make her laugh, even better that she could return the favor with seemingly no effort at all.
For a long moment she gazed past me at the brothers and sisters gathered at the food table, eating, talking, sipping their drinks. There was something huge going on in this massive frat house on this Friday night in September. Something way beyond the usual socializing and dancing at a begin-the-semester party. Here the upper class sorority girls hunted not just for a boyfriend, but appeared on a quest for genuine pedigree. Here they cooed and flirted and sized up the men of Sigma house, and behind their glossy lips and excited eyes an urgency to ensure their futures pressed forth. I saw it in their body language. Heck, I even heard it outside the restrooms.
Gretchen asked to excuse herself a minute because she had to go, and of course I said I had to go as well. In the first-floor hallway we split off; she pushed the door marked W, and I pushed the one marked M.
No brothers in the men's room. I exhaled my relief.
I finished first and waited in the hallway, greeting faux brothers, faux sisters, some wandering strangers, and acting in general like I belonged. Then the W door flew open. Instead of Gretchen, however, out came a pair of bejeweled and stylish Chi-Os, a red sundress speaking excitedly to a pink sundress, all of it gushing forth in hurried whispers. "I hear Paul Ford's dad is, like, a major executive with a beverage company!" said red sundress.
With great urgency, pink sundress said, "Maybe Paul already has a job lined up there when he graduates!"
Paul was my so-called big brother, the senior with whom I shared a room, the guy whose job it was to show me the ropes and instruct me in the proper ways of pledgedom. I wondered how many of these girls wanted him, and if they truly knew what they were getting. Both sundresses reentered the party and made a beeline for Paul and his buddies.
I had no idea what I wanted to be when I graduated. Plus I had no precedent; my dad's software sales job never really struck me as a career path. To follow Uncle Benny's lead —selling pools and hot tubs —seemed interesting though. Lots of outdoor hours, warm weather, not to mention time to be eccentric on the side. But I was only eighteen and hadn't given career much thought —and such thoughts disappeared completely when Gretchen bolted out of the restroom and grabbed my hand.
"Kyle?" she asked, and cunning filled her voice.
For a second I could only observe her with a mix of suspicion and infatuation. "Okay," I said as partygoers weaved around us in the hall, "I don't know you all that well, and I'm sure you're not drunk because you haven't even had a drink, but your mind is really spinning."
That grin again. "Yes… yes it is."
We meandered back into the party and propped ourselves against a wall, facing the buffet and a bevy of brothers —who stood too far away to hear us talking.
Gretchen perused their Greekness and spoke from the side of her mouth. "Would you like some help getting out of this place?"
I didn't know what she meant, but the idea sounded good. Dangerous, but good.
Just then three brothers moved closer, picking at food from the buffet, glancing at me between nibbles. I grew more and more uncomfortable. So I grabbed Gretchen's hand, and we strolled out to the dance floor —the safety zone, since out there the music drowned out conversation —and once again we stood alone while the last strains of a long, undanceable song wound down.
I glanced quickly at the brothers, who seemed to always have one eye on the girls, one eye on the pledges. "What are you gonna do, Gretchen —hold 'em all at gunpoint while I scram out the front door?"
She shook her head and stifled a laugh. "No, but I can help you escape this place." She said this loudly into my ear, paused a moment, and continued. "That is, if you really want out."
For a third time I caught a whiff of honeysuckle. Combined with the cunning in her voice, the sheer boldness of the topic caused my pulse to race. I knew this because I'd let go of Gretchen's hand to feel my pulse, and it wasn't one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, but thousandOneTwoThreeFourFive.
Caution and logic merged and gave me pause. "They're always watching me!" I blurted. "Plus all my stuff is upstairs."
She raised her left wrist, pointed at her watch, and traced the second hand around the perimeter.
"You mean tonight?" I asked, unprepared for such aggression. "Like right now?"
She nodded. "Where's your room?"
"Second floor, but I share it with — "
She shushed me. Right there in my house of residence —which did not feel anything like a home —I'd been shushed.
Gretchen motioned at the khaki-clad brothers, all sipping their beers and observing their kingdom. "Which one is your big brother?" she inquired.
Again I leaned close to her. "How'd you know I had a big brother?"
"All you pledges have one." She motioned at them again. "So, which one?"
I whispered in her ear. "The tall one in the light blue button-down."
She gazed past me again, and soon her smallish frown grew into a larger frown. "Kyle, there must be twenty-eight tall guys in light blue button-downs."
I motioned with my head. "Dark curly hair, big teeth. His name is Paul."
She looked again. "Okay, I see him. So, Paul is the guy you room with?"
"Yep. And he'd never let me escape. Nor would his buddies. And all but one of them is bigger than me."
She moved around me so that now her back faced the Greek Squad, and I faced the enemy. Suddenly the undanceable song ended, and a fresh dose of retro music burst forth. "Thriller" boomed through the speakers.
A horde of collegians rushed toward us on the dance floor, heads and knees bobbing, a gaggle of Greeks all trying to mock the song's infamous video —the mummy dance, we called it.
Gretchen tugged me to the center of the crowd beneath an old chandelier, where we found ourselves next to Paul and some inebriated Chi-O. In seconds the floor grew fully packed, Gretchen and I surrounded by the horde, most of them with the same dance style, if you can call feet-planted-firmly-while-swaying a dance style.
Gretchen waited for the second verse before she tapped Paul on the shoulder. Her voice grew loud, a near shout competing with "Thriller"'s chorus. "Paul, would you mind if Kyle and I use the room for a little while?"
She winked at him, an exaggerated wink that caused me to mimic her enthusiasm and offer Paul a hearty thumbs-up. Inside I shook with nerves.
Paul at first looked as if he could not believe what he'd just heard, as if a freshman like me should not be so lucky, never mind that the attractive female before him wasn't a sorority type. Michael Jackson's screaming chorus vibrated the walls. Indeed, it was a "thriller" night.
Paul met my glance, winked once, and gave us both a nod of approval. "Yeah, sure. Just don't trash the room, little freshman."
Gretchen said over her shoulder, "Thanks, Paulie!" and reached for my hand again.
But Paul grabbed my shoulder and said, "You need to pay more attention to a Chi-O, little bro. Hey, that rhymes."
I had no reply —to his demand or his first-grade poetry skills —plus there was no time to reply anyway since Gretchen was pulling me off the dance floor. We simply left Paul to dance with the Chi-O, she in her own little world, eyes shut, mascara thick, head bobbing in the patented sorority-girl bob.
Gretchen and I pushed through dancers and drinkers and some lonely independents, past the celery, the honey mustard, and a platter of chicken wings. Past the beer kegs we went, out into the hallway and up the stairs to the second floor.
We found the hallway empty, just worn floors, graffitied doors, and the throb of "Thriller" reverberating off the walls. The Sigmas' Big House was home to fifty-four men, sixteen of us pledges. The hallway smelled of Pine-Sol. I was sure of the scent since I'd been the one who cleaned the hall two hours before the party —while four brothers took turns spitting on the sections I'd just cleaned, insisting that I rescrub all obvious flaws. They'd even taken turns kicking my mop bucket, shouting over each other that a strong work ethic was central to a successful pledgeship.
"I've rarely seen a fratty's room," Gretchen said in the hallway, and she giggled when she spoke, as if the concept amused her.
"Keep expectations low."
I opened the door to my room, and Gretchen bolted past me. She looked left and right at the two beds. "Which one?"
"On the left."
She wasted no time. She yanked the blanket off my bed, then pulled off my sheet. "Any of this furniture yours?" she asked.
I helped her spread the sheet on the floor, as wide as possible. "No. It's all Paul's."
"Toss all your belongings into the sheet," she ordered. Then she dropped her two corners. "I'll help."
Paul and I shared a four-drawer chest of drawers. The bottom two drawers belonged to me, so I pulled out the fourth as Gretchen handled the third. Two heaves of clothes from me, two overhead tosses from Gretchen, my sheet filling fast. Likewise my level of fear. "If I get caught, Gretchen, they'll haze me for weeks on end. I may not even survive it."
With finger to her lips she shushed me and tapped her watch again. I rushed to the sink and began clearing my vanity. Toothbrush. Combs. Shaving cream —I used shaving cream twice a week.
Gretchen hurried over beside me at the sink. "This your aftershave?" she asked and held up two bottles.
"The blue bottle, yeah."
She removed the cap and sniffed. "You shoulda worn this at last week's party, when we danced to that Blackie song."
"It was Blondie, Gretchen. They were an eighties sensation."
She wheeled around, checked the walls. "What about the Tech posters?"
"Both mine. Grab 'em."
She rolled them up, swiped two rubber bands from Paul's top drawer, and tossed the posters onto the sheet.
"What else?" she asked, and just then I noticed the sweat weighting the tips of her hair, then I noticed the glow of her skin, and I paused amid my anarchy and decided that she was beautiful. Gretchen had a face that, if she were hitchhiking, would produce immediate offers of free rides.
"What did you say?"
She frowned, pointed around the room. "What else is yours, Kyle?"
"Um… just my books."
We grabbed the stack of six books and laid them one by one around the pile of clothes in the middle of the sheet.
Gretchen grabbed all four ends of the sheet and hoisted the bundle, which by now looked quite heavy. Too heavy for her to tote alone.
"Let me do it," I said, but just then footsteps pounded in the hallway. "Shhh."
The footsteps grew louder, louder still, then stopped outside the room. We knelt on the floor against the back wall of room 212, my right hand on the window latch, Gretchen leaning into the air vent. "Oh no," she whispered. "Please oh please, no."
We heard laughter, more loud steps, as if the party had bubbled upward to the second floor. The door across the hall opened and shut.
"Out the window," Gretchen whispered. "Let's go."
She raised the window, and I shoved my bundle out onto the roof. The frat house roof was not steep; I knew this because the first weekend's party spilled out onto it —where the brothers took turns bowling beer cans off the edge.
Other brothers down below, in the yard, caught the cans, popped the tops, chugged the spray and, when finished, locked arms and sang, "Fun, fun, fun till Daddy takes the keg fund away." Not very original, I thought at the time. A rite of passage, perhaps.
Gretchen stooped and stuck one leg through the dorm window, then the other leg, and when she'd made it out onto the roof she turned and reached for my hand and gave me an assist. I ducked through the window, stepped out, and inhaled the cool night air. Beside her on the roof, my sheeted bundle at our feet, I felt liberated, released from bondage.
"I can't believe I'm doing this," I gushed. "My heart's racing."
She pressed an imaginary stethoscope to my chest. "Over me or your escape?"
The music throbbed through the roof, into our feet and up through our ankles.
We moved down the roof some twenty feet until we stood directly above the party. For a moment we even mocked them and did the mummy dance right there in the moonlight —the way it was intended. Gretchen watched my moves for a second and said, "Not bad for a prison escapee."
Across campus the giant Texas Tech Red Raider mascot snarled from the side of a building, a pair of spotlights illumining its face. I felt like a Red Raider this night, raiding my own room for the cause of freedom.
Time to go.
Gretchen led the way to the side of the roof. I hoisted the bundle and had it balanced over my back when I remembered that I'd forgotten something.
"Wait, Gretch, my Dallas Cowboys lamp."
Back through the window I went —and tumbled headfirst into my former room. I snatched the lamp but forgot to unplug it first. The lamp snatched back and jerked my elbow socket. Regrouped and listening for more footsteps, I proceeded in proper order, unplugged the cord, and turned to see Gretchen kneeling outside the window, her hands reaching back inside, fingers flexing.
"Hand it to me, Kyle," she whispered. "Quick, we need to hurry!"
I passed her the lamp, and she stuffed it into the sheet, whose girth offered a striking resemblance to Santa's sack. I climbed back out the window and shut it behind me. Then I dragged the sheeted bundle farther out onto the roof and over near the edge. Beyond the campus the lights of downtown Lubbock glowed softly, and for a moment I felt like one of the men in Escape from Alcatraz as they stood on the shore staring across the water before swimming away.
I snorted from laughter —this seemed so ridiculous, but I simply had to part ways with the brotherhood. Gretchen peeked over the roof's edge and said "Shhh," but then she snorted as well. I was too tickled to shush her back. Escaping a frat house while the Greeks danced to "Thriller" was the wildest thing I'd done since helping Uncle Benny excavate silver.
"Are we having fun yet?" Gretchen asked. At the edge of the roof she lay on her stomach and peered down over the edge.
I scooted beside her, also on my stomach, one hand on the bundled sheet, one gripping the roof's gutter. Together we peered upside down at the dancing Greeks. "Yep," I said in reflection. "No more cleaning spit off floors."
- On Sale
- Mar 13, 2009
- Page Count
- 272 pages