Deep in the Heart of Texas
The Texas Story Project.
This story includes a description of suicide. If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the Suicide Crisis Lifeline at 988.
The night is never dark. The light is never far.Inscription on Alta Fay Alison-Shows’ Grave
With a mild scrape, Fay pushed an old-fashioned blue-and-white checkered Thermos across my desk. “You need something substantial, teaching two classes back-to-back. And here are a couple of napkins.” Fay raised her eyebrows encouragingly.
I was taking a break between beginners’ German at 5 p.m. and advanced German at 7 p.m. Fay was in my advanced group and over the years had taken all my German classes at Galveston College. I stopped munching apple slices and told my friend, “You’re spoiling me.” The soup that evening was tomato basil. It was delicious. Every Tuesday and Thursday evening between sessions, Fay’s soup energized me. Her homemade vegetable soup with fresh parsley and dill was the best.
Fay was a round-faced woman with a voluptuous body and an infectious laugh. Her hair was always immaculately coifed. She preferred the color red in her hair dye and nail polish. Her eyes were hazelnut brown and protruded slightly. When she smiled, her full lips spread from one side of her mouth to the other. We shared a penchant for shoes, also mostly red, with stiletto heels. She would teasingly ask me, “When will you be wearing your Royal slippers again?” We both loved Grimm’s fairy tales and Cinderella was a favorite with her adorable glass slippers.
Fay had taught middle school for thirty-one years. Following retirement, she turned to managing the gift shop at the Moody Mansion in Galveston. She asked me if I would be willing to volunteer at the Mansion while one of the docents was on maternity leave. I accepted, and Fay helped me familiarize myself with the history of the Moody family and its magnificently furnished home. There were always intervals between tours when we relaxed in the gift shop and talked. She told me that she grew up in Central Texas in a large household with nine siblings. At the age of thirty-three, she married an older man whose 21-year-old son served as Best Man in their wedding. Her husband had died recently.
Fay lived in Galveston in a modest one-story house that her husband had designed and built. I visited her there once a week for a hypnosis session. On my initial visit her two Dachshunds, Liebchen and Schatz, greeted me with boisterous yapping. Fay immediately offered to cage them. “Let’s wait and see,” I suggested. Sure enough, both dogs began to snore as soon as Fay was hypnotized. The house was cozy. There were knickknacks and artificial flowers on display. When I mentioned that I loved fresh flowers, a bouquet was on the table whenever I arrived. I could never leave before having a cup of tea and a few cookies. Fay enjoyed hypnosis and despite being tongue-tied when we happened upon past personal experiences, she assured me that she felt refreshed when she awoke. After each session, we would chat about mundane matters — the weather, her renters, and a rude tour group at the Mansion. Nothing private was revealed. “When I was growing up you never talked about personal things,” she said, side-stepping one of my questions.
We too lived in Galveston and hosted a whirlwind of guests, many professionals related to my husband’s work but also a steady stream of visitors from Europe. Each summer our house swarmed with “Ferienkindern.” Fay loved Galveston’s Outdoor Theatre and shyly confessed that in her younger years, she had volunteered for bit parts in plays when theater groups came to town. She invited many a youngster to the Outdoor Theatre. Following a performance, she would invariably take them to a local restaurant. When guests returned to their home country, she stayed in touch. She especially enjoyed the company of a young girl from Scotland and later visited her and her family there. Taking one or another youngster off my hands for a few hours was a great help. Fay loved surprises. For my birthday she presented me with a flowing gown tie-dyed with rainbow swirls that I could wear to hypnosis workshops. The gown made me look like a flying magician in multi-colors.
There came a time when the benefits of hypnosis had run their course. Fay suggested the Phoenix Cafe for a bi-monthly breakfast instead. We always sat at a window table overlooking the patio. Although we saw each other often, we never delved below small talk. But when both her dogs died of kidney failure in quick succession Fay requested a hypnosis session. During the trance her grief overflowed, tears streaming down her cheeks. Her chest heaved with sobs. I had mentioned in passing that my visit would have to be short that day because I had a doctor’s appointment. When I said the doctor’s name she gasped, “Oh yes, Dr. T was the one who rushed over when Alan committed suicide.” I moved to her side and held her. When she had composed herself she declared, “No more of this” and walked me to the door.
I was shocked by the revelation of Fay’s husband’s death. How did the suicide happen, and why? Were there other secrets in Fay’s life? I resolved not to pry. Instead, the next time we met, I asked, “What would make you happy”? Without a moment’s thought, she said “to find another Dachshund.” So, one bright Saturday morning we drove from shelter to shelter. By late afternoon we were about ready to give up when we spotted a dog with Dachshund features — short legs and a long stubby body. Only the foxlike plumage of a tail betrayed a mix. Fay dismissed the odd tail. “He looks just fine.” With that, she wiped away my reservations. The dog was frisky and jumped wildly against the mesh fence as we approached. He also licked Fay’s hand when she reached through the wire, ignoring the “DO NOT TOUCH” sign. “This is the one,” she announced joyfully. His name will be Donner.” So Donner came into her life, but with a twist. Once our vet had examined him and administered the necessary injections, he lowered his chin, looked over his glasses, and said, “Fay, you are getting up in years, you know. Donner is young. What if something happens to you? Who will take responsibility for him?” Their eyes turned toward me. I had no intention of taking on another animal. I had enough of my own. But after a moment’s hesitation I reluctantly consented, “I’ll sign for Donner.” Fay paid, and I drove them home, wrapped in merriment. All the while Fay’s hand rested on Donner’s head, her fingers alive with love.
It was a beautiful spring with a myriad of Texas wildflowers studding the meadows. The famed Bluebonnets and Indian Paint Brush were all decked out for our weekend trip. Fay wanted to show me her childhood haunts near Yoakum, Texas where she had been born during the Depression. The region had been settled by Czechs and Germans. Her parents had earned a meager living as white sharecroppers, her father as a farmer and part-time railroad worker. “It was mainly tomatoes we planted and harvested,” Fay recalled, “and I still favor tomato dishes to this day.” On our way through Yoakum we stopped for chili seasoned with ripe tomatoes.
Our trip in 2007 took place after many country folks had moved to the city. The old ways were left to the few remaining residents, and the countryside was engulfed in unspoiled nature. We passed by blooming meadows and drove through a Bermuda grass prairie dotted with herds of cattle. We wound our way down rutted roads, bumping over potholes, dodging overhanging branches and mossy garlands dangling like snakes from live oaks. We spotted a broken-down grocery store, and there Fay’s story began. “I used to walk barefooted to the store which had everything a child could dream of — candy, reams of colorful hair ribbons, and a chair where books were piled for the taking. It was where I got my first taste of reading.”
A splintered wooden sign directed us to the Hebron Baptist Church and Cemetery, our main destination. The graves of Fay’s husband and parents were in a small plot, nearly overgrown. But rakes stood ready, so we groomed. We lingered at the old church. Built by Fay’s great-grandfather Adam Shows in 1852, it had withstood raw and blistering weather and had aged. The church once was a house of worship as well as a school. Fay’s great-grandmother Nancy, the wife of Adam Shows, was the first person to be buried in the cemetery. She was only 38 years old when she died after having given birth to eight children. Her casket was borne by an oxcart.
Fay had two more special things to show me, a great, now withered, live oak tree, and Bear Creek. “When I was ten I would climb this tree, its ample leafy canopy hiding me from below,” she mused. “Sitting on a sturdy limb I would read and watch my brothers and sisters tumble about on the vast green lawn and beyond. I also dreamed of a wider faraway world that I would visit one day.”
We walked to Bear Creek, so named by a pioneer who swore he had seen a bear there. A sluggish stream meandered along. The former road had washed out and the sandy cove Fay remembered was now overtaken by vines and bushes. Still, we could imagine several families following the minister down to the creek in their Sunday best. One-by-one the newly converted were baptized in the murky water. Their clothes clung to their skinny bodies and they shivered in spite of the sweltering heat. Only after each of the newly anointed had been dipped did they all sing hymns of praise which echoed across the land far and wide. “It was an unforgettable experience,” Fay recalled.
Fay was excited to treat me to a real Texas dinner at Werner’s Restaurant where she had made reservations. The day had been eventful. It was dark when we entered. A smoky atmosphere filled the crowded room, though nobody actually smoked. We found a corner booth surrounded by stuffed deer and wild boars’ heads mounted on the walls. The steak Fay recommended was scrumptious. As we enjoyed a glass of wine, then another, Fay began to reminisce. “We were so poor and crowded in our small log cabin with no electricity and only outdoor plumbing. In summer we stayed outside as long as daylight allowed before coming into our shared bedroom. In winter we piled blankets and quilts onto the straw-covered bedding. We walked barefoot everywhere except in the depth of winter. Our two hardy horses were used for field work and as a team when we needed to drive the 15 miles to Yoakum. Our parents allowed us the freedom to roam but also expected us to help with chores, hauling water from the well and splitting firewood, harvesting tomatoes, and picking wild berries. My mother loved us children but she tired easily after so many pregnancies. My Dad worked from dawn to dusk and fell asleep after supper.” As Fay talked, I was moved by their pioneer spirit, dirt poor laboring on uncultivated earth, and still holding on to their faith and determination to survive. Distractions were few, except at community gatherings such as weddings and funerals. Only on holidays did the mood soar. The dance hall was an exception, a rare place where the drudgery of daily life could be shed for a few precious hours on Saturday evenings.
After ordering dessert I dared to ask, “Fay, what happened to your husband?” She stared at me, let her head sink into her folded arms, and pausing, said, “Alan was very ill, his body riddled with cancer. He was a proud man who refused extensive treatment. He got very depressed about his helplessness. When I came home from the grocery store one day I found him slumped across the kitchen table with a pistol in his hand and blood oozing from a head wound. I called Dr. T who rushed over. From then on everything swam together in a blur. I was told later that I had fainted. An ambulance had taken my husband to the hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival.” “Oh, Fay,” I murmured and reached for her hand. Shaking her head, she said, “No, no, it must be the wine. Why did I tell you this? Aren’t we supposed to be enjoying our outing?” “Of course,” I replied, unable to smile. Fay collected herself and picked up the story of how her family had moved to Galveston in 1942 where her father found work at Todd Shipyards. She attended Ball High school, went on to college, and became a teacher. As one of her younger brothers later said, “She was the studious one among us. The one who loved to read and study. No one else did.”
Fay and I ended our adventure in a motel where we were the only registered guests. We called each other as soon as we had settled in. “Are you alright?” Fay asked, to which I responded in the affirmative, not mentioning that I had pushed a chair against the door.
Over the following years, we stayed in touch from a distance. When Hurricane Ike destroyed our house in 2008, we relocated to Austin. Following that disaster, Fay decided to sell her property in Galveston and move into a nursing home in Webster, with Donner, of course.
We celebrated Fay’s 80th birthday at Gaidos, a renowned fish restaurant in Galveston. I had flown down for the day. In her self-effacing way, she mentioned in passing that she had been diagnosed with stomach cancer but was in good medical hands. With no time to waste, she continued to travel, including a trip to Albisheim where she traced her German roots.
In the midst of household chores, the phone rang. It was Fay. Very briskly, she informed me, “It is time for you to take Donner. I have not been able to walk him in recent weeks. I can’t part with him yet, but I’ll tell you when… soon.” I had to take several deep breaths. Our little grandson was spending part of each day with us and I had just adopted two cats. But I had made a pledge. My husband assured me that we would manage, “cats and dogs can get used to each other.” A few weeks later I answered another call from Fay, expecting that the time had come to fulfill my commitment. But to my surprise, she began haltingly, “Ute, I know I promised you Donner but a maintenance man here at the nursing home has fallen in love with my dog. He has taken him on walks when I was unable to and now he would like to adopt him.” Did I respond too quickly with “of course”? I exhaled with relief.
In January 2015 I received a final call. “I want you to come to say goodbye,” Fay demanded without a hint of sentimentality. “I still have a few days.” That weekend my husband booked us into a hotel in Houston. The next morning we drove to Webster. Fay was surrounded by family. As I hugged her she whispered, “Take my diary. It’s in my nightstand. Tell my story.” Finding the situation too awkward, I left without the diary. We stopped at a flower shop and had a bouquet of white roses delivered to Fay’s room. She received them before she died the next day. The diary was never found.
Years later the past surfaced in an unexpected way. Sorting through some dated correspondence, a note from Fay fell into my hands. I had admired her elegant cursive handwriting, a mark of her teacherliness. Then it hit me. I hadn’t written her story. Fourteen years had passed since our trip into the heart of South Central Texas. I vowed to remedy my neglect.
I thought it would be easy to tell her story. I would simply recall our many conversations and retrace the steps of our journey. But I was stunned by how much I had forgotten. So, my efforts required some detective work. What had been her maiden name? Her birth date? Or the name of the Yoakum cemetery that we had visited together and where she wanted to be buried? Wherever I turned I was rebuffed by privacy laws, first by the nursing home in Webster and then by the funeral home. Frustrated, I confronted the funeral director. “All I need is the name of the cemetery?” He didn’t budge. “I’m not going to rob the grave,” I fumed. “It’s the law,” he countered.
“You should have been an investigative journalist,” my husband teased. I refused to give up and went on a hunt. I telephoned three funeral directors in Yoakum. One joked, “We have 26 cemeteries in the county. Where did you go--North, South, East, West?” All I remembered was the name of the restaurant. And that was enough of a clue. It brought a response from a longtime resident who knew of Werner’s Restaurant. He also suggested looking up old obituaries in the local library. There we discovered Fay’s maiden name and important dates. We also met a gravedigger who recalled having seen the name “Shows” on tombstones. He offered to take us to the cemetery. One lead led to another until the search began to bear fruit.
In 2021 my husband and I made the trip back to Yoakum. It was a different season. We were as enchanted by the blazing yellow fall colors and the fiery Shumard oaks as Fay and I had been by the Texas wildflowers in spring. But something had changed. People had returned from the city to the country. The wind still rustled in Fay’s “hiding tree,” and the sky was cobalt blue. But the dilapidated charm that had hovered around the original church, grocery store, and school was gone. Now gleaming white, the restorations reflected a different era. There was a fence around the cemetery and the lane to it was paved. In Werner’s Restaurant, the mounted stuffed animal heads had been replaced by a television. Rusty windmills cluttering the fields looked with envy at the solar installations around wells and ponds. Was I nostalgic? Did I miss the ricketiness and disrepair? We couldn’t find the sandy cove under the abundant thicket, and the brook was reduced to a barely audible trickle. My imagination needed a push to awaken the past. And then it happened as we stood by the gravestones where the sand-colored surfaces bore names, dates, and inscriptions. I felt Fay and me standing here in 2007, holding hands. A ring chiseled into the stones connected the names of Fay and Alan. A shadow had darkened the couple’s lives. But the emblem was hopeful. What had lain beyond the graves? Even though Fay had briefly shared her husband’s tragic end with me, I knew nothing about their prior relationship.
It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. A photo of the couple at their wedding reveals a smiling Fay leaning into her husband. Her arm is intertwined with his. And suddenly I remembered another faded photo, the Yoakum dance hall. Once, admiring a pair of newly bought pumps, Fay had exclaimed, “Oh dancing! Would I ever have fallen for a man who couldn’t dance?” So she had fallen for Alan! I imagined them in that dim dance hall swirling to the music, her heart opening to a partner. Fay never told me anything about her much older husband nor about her love for him. I worried I couldn’t do their marriage justice in this story. But looking at the photos I understood that some things cannot be expressed in words. When Fay stretched her arms toward me for a final hug I sensed intensity and a warmth that she surely had also shared with Alan.
PS. My thanks for helping with the pictures and grave search go to Lisa, Tom, and Robert.
A writer from youth and an M.A. graduate in comparative literature from the University of Rochester, German-born Ute Carson published her first prose piece in 1977. "Colt Tailing," a 2004 novel, was a finalist for the Peter Taylor Book Award. Carson’s story “The Fall” won Outrider Press’s Grand Prize and appeared in its short story and poetry anthology "A Walk through My Garden," 2007. Her second novel "In Transit" was published in 2008. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and magazines in the US and abroad. Carson’s poetry was featured on the televised "Spoken Word Showcase" 2009, 2010, 2011, Channel Austin. A poetry collection "Just a Few Feathers" was published in 2011. The poem “A Tangled Nest of Moments” placed second in the Eleventh International Poetry Competition 2012. Her chapbook "Folding Washing" was published in 2013 and her collection of poems "My Gift to Life" was nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Award Prize. "Save the Last Kiss," a novella, was published in 2016. Her poetry collection "Reflections" was out in 2018. She received the Ovidiu-Bektore Literary Award 2018 from the Anticus Mulicultural Association in Constanta, Romania. In 2018 she was nominated a second time for the Pushcart Award Prize by the PlainView Press and a third time by the Yellow Arrow Press in 2021. "Gypsy Spirit" was published in 2020 as was her essay "Even A Gloved Touch." Her Chapbook "Listen" was published in 2021.
Ute Carson resides in Austin, Texas with her husband. They have three daughters, six grandchildren, and a clowder of cats.
Posted January 15, 2023