WHATEVER HAPPENED TO NO-NECK WILLY?
A Mistake to Love
When Mabel looked back on her life, she always blamed her misfortunes on that figure-shaping girdle, that push-up bra, and those red high heels. She didn’t blame that little leather skirt with the slit up the side. She loved that skirt and still had it in the back of her closet, a memento of days gone by when she could actually wear it. She’d fancied herself a huntress that night and had used foundation garments, clothing, and makeup like weapons. God, she was a bad shot.
Her catch that night, William Lyle, had been a weightlifter—a sexy, wild, and wanton weightlifter who, as it turned out, was just passing through. Gone like the handsome stranger were Mabel’s thoughts of freedom, parties, and college. They were replaced with a baby bed, diapers, and a nine-to-five at the local bank. Mabel replayed the night regularly. Penance, she supposed.
She’d begun that night by lying to her strict, devout parents. Her newly eighteen-year-old self had smiled with excitement standing in front of the dance hall and pushing open the old-time swinging saloon doors with a flourish. It’d made her feel all the more a woman of experience as she stood at the door surveying her hunting ground.
The bar was long and paralleled the wall to her right. A country band was playing on the stage at the far end of the smoke-filled dance hall. The sawdust-covered dance floor was already full of blue-jean clad men wearing fancy Western shirts and women dressed in everything from tight jeans and halter-tops to full-length, frilly Western skirts.
A few people were sitting at the bar. One of them was arguing with a bartender who was refusing to serve her. She was a big-haired bleached blonde with a thick layer of makeup and a wide swath of blue eyeshadow, her eyes mere slits in her sagging face. She barely managed to stay on her stool, teetering, though she hugged the bar with both arms.
“Never,” vowed Mabel, “will I become that woman.” The vision, however, remained with her and gave her pause as to her own plans and her own reasons for being here. She shook her head and dispelled the doubts she was beginning to feel. She isn’t that woman. She was young and just looking for a little fun, love, adventure…and freedom.
She climbed up on a barstool, and the bartender, who rolled his eyes and shook his head at the big-haired blonde, turned and walked toward her. “What can I get you, miss?”
That was the moment she realized she hadn’t thought of everything. She’d lied to her parents, borrowed their car with a promise to be home from her friend’s house by midnight, and driven sixty miles south for the sake of anonymity.
Although this was also a one-horse, backwater Colorado town, it wasn’t her one-horse, backwater town. And now, after all her careful planning, she didn’t know what to order. Doubts resurfaced as she thought of her parents; they would keel over and die if they knew she even took a drink, let alone went to a bar by herself to do it.
“A beer,” she finally answered, because she couldn’t think of anything else.
“Tap?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said, not knowing what kind of beer that meant and trying not to care. She’d be even freer when she found a job and moved away from home. She was through with the confinement of living with her parents. They were so controlling and much too religious for her free-thinking mind.
Then she spotted him—tall and broad-shouldered with a sweet smile she watched erupt into a deep laugh. He was in mid-twirl with a woman Mabel didn’t even look at.
Even mid-dance, William Lyle hadn’t missed the entrance of the young thing in the little leather skirt and red high heels. When the dance ended, he thanked his partner and headed to the bar to zero in on what he now thought of as his next conquest.
“Well, how-do, little lady,” he said as he pulled out the bar stool next to her.
He loved her red hair and wondered how long it was. She had it pinned up on top of her head in a mass of curls. Her heart-shaped face made her look young. Her mouth was full and looked as unused as the smooth skin of her face. The look in her big green eyes was innocence, and it dragged him deeper into his fantasy of being a man of the world.
His eyes moved down her long, slender neck as he made his private plans for later in the night. She had a long, lean body, only slightly curved, but that was okay with him. She wasn’t much younger than he was, but he knew she’d be putty in his more-experienced, all grown up, twenty-year-old hands. He liked the packaging; he liked the face; he liked the game.
“Can I buy you that beer?” he asked.
“Sure,” Mabel said, smiling and wishing she could at least sound a little more sophisticated.
After he sat on the stool beside her, he bought himself a beer as well. His eyes caught hers and held her spellbound. They were light blue and clear as a sunny day. She felt like she could see into his very soul. He was speaking to her again. She smiled at him and tuned in.
“I’m William Lyle. What’s your name?”
“Mabel.” She still hadn’t thought of anything sophisticated to say.
He turned in his seat to face her, bringing a muscled arm to rest on the bar between them, his hand close to but not touching hers. His other arm was on the back of her chair. “That’s a dynamite outfit.” He was close and talking real low.
“Thank you.” Now, she couldn’t think of anything to say, sophisticated or not. None of her prepared lines came to mind. She hadn’t expected to be so nervous and resisted the urge to tug at her skirt.
William stood, one arm still resting on the bar while the other encircled her shoulders. “Would you like to dance?”
“Sure,” Mabel said. His voice was deep and smooth, and she wanted to hear it again. The dance was the Cotton-Eyed Joe. A line dance would be safe enough and give her a good reason for the sweat building on her top lip.
When the next song started, another hitch in her plan popped up. She hadn’t thought far enough ahead to sidestep the slow dance that followed.
William pulled her to him gently, steadily molding her body against his. His arms were wrapped around her; one held her back firmly so that her breasts were against his chest, and the other was dangerously close to causing her panic as it crept lower down her back.
As his thighs moved against hers and her body began to respond to his, she knew she was way out of her league; he was too fast and too experienced for her. She knew she should stop right now. But she didn’t.
Three drinks later, they were seated at a table. William’s arm was around her shoulders, his eyes were smoldering, and his free hand was caressing her thigh. “You’re such a beautiful and sexy woman,” he said. “I’m a lucky man just to be dancing with you tonight.”
He used that deep voice of his in wonderful ways, and before the evening had really begun, she was comfortable in his company, knew she had been seduced, and reveled in all of it.
“Another beer?” he asked her.
“No, thank you, William. I’m already tipsy,” she said. Then she giggled, and she couldn’t stop smiling.
“Maybe we should go outside, take a walk and get some fresh air,” he said.
“That sounds nice,” she agreed readily, weaving as she stood.
They followed a trail a short way into the woods that surrounded the bar. William steadied her with his arm around her waist. The air was clear and cool, and smelled of pinion pine. Mabel smiled, thinking that this was exactly what she’d been looking for—romance with a warm, friendly, strong, handsome man.
William interrupted her thoughts when he pulled her around to face him. His kiss came quickly, at first lightly, barely touching her lips and then pressing further, communicating his need, his question, his intention.
“I can’t believe how lucky I am to find a woman like you,” he crooned into her ear. “You are so beautiful, so sexy…so much a woman.”
He picked her up like she didn’t weigh an ounce, pressed her body between his and the smooth trunk of an aspen tree and kissed her again. His lips moved to her neck and his hand moved to pull her skirt up and over her bottom. She wrapped her legs around his waist and was awestruck at the rush of hungered desire a million times more potent than she’d ever imagined.
If it hadn’t been for that figure-shaping girdle, he would’ve taken her right there under that tree, and she’d have been very happy about it.
He stopped kissing her and said, “Come with me, Mabel. Let me show you how a man should make a woman feel. I could be with you forever, my beautiful woman.”
Mabel woke the next morning and found herself alone in the motel room. Her fairy-tale romance had disappeared. William Lyle was gone. His suitcase was gone. His pickup was gone. He’d left nothing, not even a note.
Cheap, cheated, used, and alone wasn’t how she envisioned her first romantic interlude ending. She hadn’t planned to get knocked up her first night out, either. She could still hear her mother lament over her own mother’s life of too many men and too much booze. Mabel’s mother was ashamed of her floozy mother. Mabel’s father’s strict, pure, and God-fearing life was everything her mother had craved.
Maybe floozy skips a generation.
Twenty-two years older and wiser, Mabel smiled at the memory. She didn’t know William Lyle well enough to hate him. She even thought fondly of him from time to time. She’d won in the end; she had a son she loved more than anything.
With a better perspective, she’d have changed some things…especially the name thing. She always pretended that Willy was short for William. Truth was, she was feeling a little put out the night little Willy was born, and the idea struck her like a labor pain. Willy wasn’t short for William; it was how the absent William Lyle had referred to his…little Willy. Mabel smiled like she always did when she thought about it. After all, a guy should name it if he didn’t want a stranger making his decisions for him for the rest of his life.
Mabel’s resigned and regretful sigh at the memory was as telling as any confession she could make—to herself or anyone else. All that had happened was just a fact of a very distant past. And William Lyle, God bless him, she loved the boy he’d left her with. From the first moment she’d held her newborn son, all was forgiven as her new little one became her world.
How her little Willy turned out, how his life turned out—well, it could have been her fault—maybe, maybe not. She didn’t know but she took responsibility anyway. He was her mistake.
She rued the day Willy had started hanging out with those Caleb boys. It was the first time she’d laid the law down about with whom he could and could not associate. He trampled that law into the dust. She knew then that she was in for a few tough teenage-boy years. But tough didn’t even come close to describing those years.
All through school, Willy had made good grades, but only because she always made him do his homework. If it’d been up to Willy, he’d have never cracked a book. Oh, he was smart enough; there was never a question about that. He’d just rather play ball, go fishing, ride his bike, hang out at the feed store…anything but do school work.
She hadn’t objected when Willy took up weightlifting at sixteen. But, before long, he looked remarkably like his father. That was when the other kids, half in jest and half in admiration, started calling him No-Neck. With all the muscles in his back, his shoulders, and his chest, it was hard to see his neck; she’d admit that. Willy loved it. He had respect; he had a job; he had girls. Best of all, he had a car. He was finally the dude.
He was the dude until that afternoon out at the Holley place. Mabel figured he’d somehow gotten caught up in the vendetta between the Caleb and the Holley boys.
She’d had a bad feeling the night Willy’s fate had been sealed. The next morning, she saw that he hadn’t slept in his bed, but that certainly wasn’t a first. When she hadn’t found him by late morning, she’d called the sheriff, and he’d found Willy barely alive.
She’d thought the sight of Willy’s car crumpled at the bottom of the cliff was the worst thing she’d ever seen until they’d started hauling cutting equipment down to it. Her anxiety skyrocketed; she’d never forget the sound of ripping metal as they cut Willy out of his car. Then worse went one better as she watched her unconscious boy being hauled up the cliff.
The sheriff had questions about whether it was an accident or not. Maybe Willy had driven over that cliff on purpose. Was he depressed? Was he upset? Was he in some kind of trouble? Was there a reason he’d want to kill himself? How was he doing in school? Who were his friends? Were you getting along with him? Did he do drugs? Do you do drugs? Why was he mixed up in the trouble between the Caleb and the Holley families? What was his relationship with Sandra Holley?
Mabel didn’t have enough answers, but she had a lot more guilt. Maybe she’d missed the signs of suicide, depression, or drugs. Was it her fault? Had she destroyed her child’s life? What had she done? Not done? Where had she gone wrong?
One thing she did know was that Sandra was a good girl who hadn’t deserved to be used as an object of revenge against her brothers. They’d thought Willy a coward, said he was attacking Sandra and then ran away. She knew better. He must have felt sick about what he’d done, and poor little Sandra deserved none of it.
Mabel never got to hear the story from Willy himself; the plunge over the cliff had taken everything but his life. And Willy had been trapped in his coma for five long years now.
Each and every day, Mabel’s parents went to the nursing home and talked to him, and she was grateful. They talked about how much they and God loved him, and how they knew he was a good boy who would never hurt a living creature. They told him how he was meant to love life, to love and care about others just like they loved and cared about him. He was their little angel put on Earth to be the best person he could possibly be. They also told him, time and again, that they knew he had a mission in life, and that it was not yet fulfilled. He had to come back to them.
Mabel wasn’t so sure she believed in the whole mission thing, but if they did, that was okay with her. Now she understood with profound clarity why her parents had been so protective of her as a child. Once again, she felt a fool.
What a wry twist of fate it was that she and her parents had moved to Denver to be near Willy in the care home where he finally landed. She’d thought about moving to Denver for many years because the man-market seemed better and maybe, just maybe, she’d find a father for Willy.
She chuckled aloud when she thought about fate’s next twist. Out of the tragedy had come one ray of light. Mabel finally met Mr. Right. Two years into Willy’s silent journey, Mabel and Mr. Right, a.k.a. Henry Winchell, tied the knot. Henry was a physical therapist at the nursing home where Willy slept.
Mabel finally learned what real love was all about. Henry eagerly took on her burdens as his own and firmly believed in the miracle of Willy’s full recovery. They married in Willy’s room, accompanied by Mabel’s parents, Dr. John Grearson, and Nan Cline, Willy’s primary nurse.
Theirs was a story of love long sought, and born of respect, desire, and need. Their first night together had her re-thinking the meaning of the word virgin. It really had nothing to do with the act of sex and had everything to do with the fulfillment of sex, the finding of a soul mate. And now she was home. She’d found that long-desired, most-evasive chemistry between a man and a woman. Mabel finally had her man, and she hadn’t even needed that silly little leather skirt to get him.
One year later, Mabel and Henry were blessed with a daughter, Paula. Mabel quit her job at the bank and fell effortlessly into active motherhood, balancing her time between Willy and Paula with a renewed spirit.
Henry Winchell was from El Paso, Texas. He was four years older than Mabel and had been a medic in the army. He’d been an on-the-ground, in-the-action participant in America’s oldest war—the war on terrorism. Terrorism, as defined by the movers and shakers in high politics, encompassed many people, many countries, many nightmares, and many regrets…regrets that shaped him into the man he was…lonely and searching for significance.
When he returned to America, he’d already decided to dedicate his life to helping others. He went to college in El Paso and then focused all his attention on his internship as a physical therapist. He wasn’t a confirmed bachelor; he’d just never found the right girl. Most women he’d had relationships with were too flighty and superficial…too young for how old he felt. He’d seen so much pain, suffering, and tragedy that he couldn’t abide a fanciful life.
Yet, through the years, he’d also seen enough miracles to know that doctors didn’t have all the answers and that there was a higher power or whatever people wanted to call it that affected some people’s lives, guiding and watching over them.
Even today, he couldn’t talk about his military experiences, but they played a part in his attraction to Mabel. It had started during Willy’s stay at the hospital and continued to grow through the first year Willy was in the nursing home. Henry and Mabel began to date.
Falling in love had been easy. Mabel had the caring and commitment he was looking for in a woman. Before her, he hadn’t even realized exactly what it was he sought. She told him all about her life, her mistakes, and her guilt.
One mistake had determined the course of her life. A huge swell of emotion engulfed him. The very thought of her fueled his own compassion. How could he not admire a woman who was paying for a single mistake with love and commitment like he’d never seen? Yes, he loved this woman, so small of stature and bearing such great burdens.
Today, as she did every morning, Mabel sat at the bedside of her son, looking out over the lawn of the nursing home. Willy’s life hadn’t turned out like she’d imagined, either, and it tortured her to watch her son waste away. She wanted there to be a purpose to life. What purpose was served with Willy spending his in a coma? She asked herself that question every single day.
Her thoughts turned serious as she recalled the trip she and Henry had made to El Paso to meet his family. It was the first time Mabel had ever been away from Willy.
She was sure the unsettled feel of that trip was due to that fact alone. She tried not to dwell on the encounter with the old Native American woman in a restaurant down near the Tigua village the night before she and Henry had returned to Denver.
The old woman had dared to walk right up to her and plant in her mind the words that would haunt her for who knew how long: “Your child is in a struggle between good and evil. Follow the miracle. Everything is connected, and the circle will finally close. Remember me. My name is Sakani Nambe.”
Now, what on earth did that mean? She dismissed it from her mind over and over again.