J. T. Townley has published in Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Threepenny Review, and dozens of other magazines and journals. His stories (“A Christmas Letter,” “My Life as Mark Wahlberg,” and “The Hole That Dave Dug”) have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and another (“Meat Dreams”) has been nominated for the Best of the Net award. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from the University of Oxford, and he teaches fiction writing at Pacific Northwest College of Art at Willamette University.
Bless Your Heart
When I was a kid, I was afraid of Texas. The whole state. I thought if I crossed the state line, cowboys would shoot me.
So what happened? A couple wisecracks in a saloon, and the bullets started flying. Those shots ricocheted off brass railings and jack-o-lope taxidermy, smashing mirrors and beer glasses and bottles of rotgut. Everybody took cover. I ducked beneath the bar for a breath, then pulled a pair of pearl-handled, nickel-plated Colt .45s from the pockets of my board shorts. I squeezed the triggers as if I’d been gunslinging my whole life, though I’d never even shot a BB gun. My aim was way off, so I didn’t come anywhere near the cowboys shooting at me. Through it all, the piano man and saloon chanteuse never faltered, barreling right into the chorus: “Blesss yourrr hearrrt!”
Every word of this is true.
I shouldn’t have been there in the first place. When I was eight, I’d vowed to avoid the Lone Star State, come hell or high water. It hadn’t been a struggle: El Paso, the closest city, was more than eight-hundred miles away. That quake changed everything. I was standing on the beach, surfboard under one arm, sunshine filtering through my blonde locks. Breakers crashed, friends whooped, joy bubbled up inside of me like sea foam. But then came the tremblor, followed by the biggest wave I’d ever seen, and I washed up in an empty brown landscape, ocean in my ears and sand in my mouth. I spat, spluttered, and rubbed my eyes. A dusty desert town. A saloon called El Guapo.
I staggered out the swinging doors, wandering toward the porch of the hotel across the dust that passed for a street. Sixguns popped, gunfighters grunted, glass shattered.
“Violent SOBs,” said a woman in a black dress that stretched from neck to ankles. She fanned herself with a yellowed newspaper. It must’ve been 95 degrees in the shade.
I caught a glimpse of her high lace-up boots. “Are you the schoolmarm in this town?”
She took a sip of lemonade and winced. “Education professional, please.”
“Oh, my bad.”
“Schoolmarm’s a box men stuff you into for their own perverted ends. No light leaks in. It’s like a coffin.” She held herself erect, upright, shoulders back. “Those pigs think they control everything on God’s green earth—including you and me.”
I cocked both pistols and grinned. “Well, they can think again.”
She shook her head, then stared me dead in the eye. Hers were bright, green, jaded. “Put those things away before somebody gets hurt.”
I kept backhanding sweat from my forehead. I didn’t have a trucker cap or visor, much less a straw cowgirl hat. “Hella hot out here.”
The schoolmarm, or educational professional, sighed. “Don’t like the weather? Just give it five minutes.”
A cold wind picked up, blowing my hair into my face. Dust devils danced down the so-called street. Black clouds soon swallowed the sun.
Then a giant funnel cloud dipped out of the black sky.
Windows popped. Storefronts splintered. All at once everything was jumbled up in a whirling vortex: gunslingers and barkeep, piano man and chanteuse and finger-wagging schoolmarm; whiskey bottles, shot glasses, and a deck of marked cards; even my shiny pair of Colt .45s. Through it all, a bunch of white-haired church ladies in crimson choir robes warbled “Why, Bless Your Heart” to the tune of “How Great Thou Art.” We all sang along best we could.
I’m not making any of this up.
I came to at the bottom of a pile of sweaty bodies. A whistle blew. As they climbed off, they wrenched my ankles and knees and punched me in the gut. “Give it up.” “Girls can’t play football.” “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.” They chuckled. Then a pair of behemoths in crimson uniforms that matched my own heaved me off the grass. “That’s on us, Sam,” they said. “Won’t happen again.”
When I was upright, I checked the scoreboard: 3rd and 15, fourth quarter, a minute and change on the clock. We were down by three. Now I glanced toward the sideline. A guy in nylon pants, golf shirt, and headset consulted a laminated playbook, then signaled in the play. I wiped a cold sweat out of my eyes. Though it had just been sweltering, now the wind was picking up, and the temperature was plummeting. To the north the sky was going blue-black. I took a deep breath, then entered the huddle and called the play. Ready? Break!
As my offense got set, I scanned the defensive formation. Then I was under the center, barking the signals: red 27, set, hut-hut! I reversed out, gave a play-fake to my tailback, then rolled out to my right. As I scrambled and scanned the field, I could feel a defensive end and stunting linebacker gaining ground. My fullback was in the flat at five yards, and I had my tight end barreling across at twelve yards. One wide-out was on a square route at twenty, while the other was on a deep post and already behind the safety. Another two steps, and I let the ball fly. Soon as it was out of my hand, a freight train with two engines flattened me to the turf. The shock knocked my helmet clean off. Still, I popped to my feet and watched that tight spiral land in my receiver’s hands. In two strides he was across the goal line. Touchdown!
Our fans roared. Our sideline exploded. I sprinted down the field with no helmet, my sweaty blonde hair streaming behind me. As I passed the cheerleaders, they did high kicks, herkies, and backflips, then grouped into formation for their favorite cheer: “Our quarterback’s a girl! That girl sure is a pearl! Long bomb, touchdown, boom-boom-boom!” The marching band blasted trumpets, trombones, and sousaphones, and the drill team shimmied. As I made it to the endzone and joined the celebration, a chant rose from the stands: “Sa-man-tha! Sa-man-tha!” Soon our special team's unit took the field and kicked the extra point. Now we were up by four with less than a minute left on the clock.
By then, the sky overhead looked bruised, as a purplish-black wall of clouds had filled the clear blue. The north wind howled. The air smelled icy. Nobody in the stands was dressed for this weather shift, much less the cheerleaders. Yet it might have been worse for us since we were all soaked in sweat. My hands were going numb, and that was a problem. If we recovered the onside kick, I’d have to go back out there and run the clock out.
The wind swelled into a gale that blew that blue norther right into our faces. The trainers scurried around, passing out our cold weather jackets. Crushed cups rattled against the base of the bleachers. Papers in clipboards flapped and fluttered. As our kickoff team took the field, I climbed up onto the back of a sideline bench, twirling a towel and shouting to keep the fans motivated. They were still chanting my name, though the wind mostly drowned them out. The ref blew the whistle. The cheerleaders flipped back handsprings. Just as I heard the thud of our kicker’s foot kiss the pigskin, a gust of gale-force wind lifted me up and blew me clear out of the stadium as if I’d been shot from a cannon.
“That’s why,” I explained, “the Good Book implores us over and over again to exercise kindness and compassion toward one another.”
I gazed out at that sea of faces from the pulpit. The congregation stared back at me. Someone coughed. A baby cried. It was time to wrap this thing up.
“So, I leave you with John 13:34: ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.’” I paused. The AC kicked on again. “Think about that as you move through your days out in the world. Be kind, empathetic, compassionate. Not just to your loved ones, but to the grocery store cashier, your coworkers, the homeless man on the corner. Now let us pray.”
Everyone rose. I said a short prayer about love and forgiveness. “Amen.”
“Amen,” the parishioners repeated.
“Now go in peace,” I said. “But not too far! We’ll reconvene in half an hour in the new wing for this month’s potluck. I hope you’ll join us.”
Then with a flourish, the organist played a four-bar intro, and the choir broke into “How Great Thou Art.” When I tuned into the chorus—“Why, Bless Your Heart”—I glanced up at the choir in their shiny crimson robes. One of the gray-haired church ladies gave me a wink and a smile. I stepped to the side of the risers and tried to sing along.
My stomach growled as stragglers wandered into the sultry day. I sashayed to the front steps, chitchatted with suburban mothers about their children’s soccer league and teenagers about summer camp. The heat was thick, and we were all sweating through our Sunday best. “See y’all in a little while,” I said, then ducked back into the AC.
As I darted down those cool corridors, the smells of hot, homemade food got better and better. I soon discovered tables laden with barbecue brisket and pinto beans, homemade mac ’n’ cheese and hot, buttery rolls. Three folding tables were covered entirely in desserts. We salivated over that food, joking and laughing, until everybody who seemed to be coming was there. Then I said the blessing, and we filled our plates.
We were relaxing and enjoying the Lord’s bounty when it started.
“I don’t see how you do it, Pastor Sam,” said one mother.
Another nodded her agreement. “Shouldn’t you be home with your husband?”
“Who’s taking care of your children?” said a third.
“Why would you think a woman couldn’t do the Lord’s work?” I asked.
“Because a woman’s place is barefoot in the kitchen,” said a stocky gent through a mouth full of brisket.
“Because Our Father in Heaven’s a man.”
“Because his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ? Also of the male persuasion.”
I sat there, a fake smile plastered on my face, as the whispers began: “Bless her heart.” “Bless her heart.” “Bless her heart.”
There was a lot I wanted to say. These God-fearing churchgoers understood so little, and it was my job to disabuse them of their ignorance. I was mulling over bible verses, grasping for the right one, when we heard a loud boom. We all looked at each other. Our conversations trailed off. In the side yard, the oaks and elms put on a frenetic dance.
“I missed the weather report,” I said. “Got a storm blowing in?”
“Minor tropical depression,” a man said, shoveling pinto beans into his face. “Nothing to worry about.”
But then we heard another boom. Shingles frisbeed off the roof. Streetlights in the parking lot swayed in the gusts. The church ladies were already up, shuffling to the kitchen and back, clearing tables, wrapping up food, washing dishes. A few of the men and I stepped out into the wind: it was blowing so hard, I thought it might blast me across the state again.
“See?” someone said. “It’s nothing.”
We pushed around the church’s perimeter. When we got to the front, we watched a fan palm bend and shimmy and snap a quarter of the way up the trunk, then crash down right onto a Ford F-250. Boom!
Two other trees, both huge old live oaks, had smashed a couple other vehicles. Glass sprayed the asphalt. Hoods and roofs were crumpled. My eyes watered in the wind, and my long blonde hair, carefully wrapped in a prim bun for the occasion, whipped around in every direction.
Then with no warning, the rain began. It was as if someone had turned on the tap: one minute nothing, the next a torrential downpour. Although we dashed inside, we were all soaked through by the time we found shelter.
“Look at this,” said the choir director, pointing at his phone. “That tropical depression was upgraded to a Category 4 hurricane.”
“What that means,” mansplained one soaking parishioner, “is a storm powerful enough to cause catastrophic damage.”
Before I managed to round everyone up, the deluge was out of control.
“Get some sandbags,” hollered one man.
“Board up these windows,” yelled another.
They didn’t realize we were completely unprepared. Instead, we all crowded into the kitchen, bathrooms, and closets. Glass shattered, wind roared, rain pounded on the roof like a thousand angry hammers. In fifteen minutes, the water was already pouring in, soaking the carpet, swallowing the furniture. We climbed up to the choir loft that we only used on Christmas and Easter, and when the water filled the chapel, we went up into the attic, then out onto the roof.
Children whimpered, men blubbered, mothers grimaced and consoled them. We all said prayer after prayer, but God wasn’t listening or didn’t care. The waters continued to rise.
“We should’ve built an arc,” someone said.
“But the Good Lord didn’t give us a warning sign.”
“We must’ve missed it.”
Soon people were clinging to the high branches of oaks and elms as the gush of floodwater floated away bibles and offering plates, folding chairs and choir robes. I tread water for a while before grabbing onto a church pew floating by.
“This is all your fault, Pastor Sam.”
“Retribution for your blasphemy.”
“A woman preacher is anathema to God.”
Next thing I knew, I was clinging to a leather strap on a rope tied under the forelegs of a two-thousand pound beast. It snorted and quivered with rage. Murmurs rippled through the packed arena. Rodeo clowns clinging to the walls tensed. The cowboy on the gate gave me a smirk:
“Whatcha say, little lady?”
“What is there to say?”
I sucked in a sharp breath. “Let’s do this.”
That bull exploded from the pen, bucking and whirling, exerting every ounce of power and strength to throw me. My bones shook, and my teeth ached. My hand cramped. It felt like my arm was being torn from its socket. But what was the alternative? If I got thrown, that ton of snarling rage would come straight for me, hellbent on trampling me to death.
It was the longest eight seconds of my life.
When the horn blared, the crowd roared. I kicked my left leg over to dismount, and I was sprinting soon as my boots hit the dust. As I clambered up those steel bars to safety, the rodeo clowns were already plying their trade.
After that, other cowboys took their turns on the back of that beast. As one after another got thrown, and a couple sustained concussions and broken bones, I suffered the silent treatment. Most of the other competitors, not to mention the cowpokes working the rodeo, glared at me and snarled. Others spat. Still others looked me up and down and made lewd gestures.
Once that bull had bested every other rider, and I was announced the winner, the fans let me have it. “You oughta be ashamed.” “Go home to your husband.” “Your children need a mother.” Then one little girl tugged at my vest and said: “Girls can’t be bull riders, miss. It’s too dangerous.”
After I got my trophy belt buckle, I tried not to call attention to myself as I made my way out to my pickup, keeping my head down and avoiding eye contact with anyone, but it was all for naught. A group of three cowboys trapped me between an old ranch dually and a new Silverado.
“Not so fast, darlin.”
“Where in hell you think you’re going?”
“You got sumpin belongs to us.”
“I’ll just be on my way,” I said.
“Like hell you will.”
They closed in around me, stinking of Lone Star and funnel cake grease, Old Spice and sweat. I thought they were after my first prize until they started pawing my parts and pressing their bodies against me. Soon I could barely breathe. If only I had my pearl-handled, nickel-plated Colt .45s. Then again, they had my arms pinned behind me, so what good would they do me?
“Now come along like a good little girl.”
I didn’t know where they were taking me, but I was sure nothing good would happen when we got there. Panic knotted in my chest. I struggled to formulate an escape plan. None of the cowboys coming or going seemed to notice I was being held against my will, and I doubted they’d help anyway—spit on me, was more like it. I was outnumbered three to one: what was I going to do?
The cowgirls came out of nowhere. Seriously, one minute there was nothing but darkness, the next, six tough ladies in boots and jeans, vests and dusters and hats blocked the path. The cowboys stopped and spat, annoyed.
“What’re y’all up to?”
“We ain’t got time for this.”
“Mind pointing them things elsewhere?”
Those gals didn’t mince words. The only sound was the click of pistol hammers being cocked. Then one dressed in head-to-toe crimson said: “The girl.”
“Y’all can’t hijack what we commandeered fair and square.”
Those cowgirls stepped in close enough to press steel barrels to flesh. “Now.”
They pulled me to safety, then pistol-whipped those cowpokes down into the dust and introduced them to the toes of their Tony Lamas.
Then we piled into their Ford F-350 and rumbled over to their favorite watering hole. A neon sign on the roof flashed Las Comadres. They ordered whiskey shots and Lone Stars, and we drank them at the bar, at the pool table, at a big round booth in the back with a table shaped like a horseshoe. Those cowgirls sang my praises all night: “What a ride.” “You’re a badass.” “Showed up all those swinging dicks.” They toasted me, I toasted them. We danced and sang along to the country music—Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton—blasting through the speakers. At some point, I noticed the place was filled entirely with other cowgirls.
All of this really happened.
A little later, as I stumbled back from the bathroom, I got turned around. It was through a door, around a corner, and down a long hallway, so it was no wonder I couldn’t find my way back. Plus, I was tipsy. The lights were low and flickered blue. Music thumped through the walls and made the air vibrate. Everything stank of stale beer.
I groped around in the dim light for longer than seemed possible. My boots made hollow thuds on the concrete floor. When I finally found my way, I pushed inside and traipsed back to our table. How long had I been gone? The place was packed now with both women and men, and the music was live and cranked to high volume.
I slid into the booth and guzzled a glass of water. The cowgirls were out there somewhere, but I couldn’t see them through all the bodies, not to mention the low light and haze of weed smoke. Instead of country music, this band was playing the blues. A cocktail waitress sidled over and served me an ice-cold Lone Star.
“Just what the doctor ordered,” I said.
“Drink up, okay? You’re on in ten.”
“On?” I asked, but she’d already sauntered to the next table. Next thing I knew, this grizzly old guy was dragging me across the bar into a little backroom behind the stage. Stained couch cushions, busted chairs, a wooden table with graffiti carved into it by knife point. Two dudes with sleeve tattoos, funny hats, and sunglasses lounged in the half-light.
I ripped my arm free. “What the hell? You can’t shanghai me.”
Grizzly gave me a nudge, and I toppled into a beat-up papasan chair. “Get your head on straight, little girl. All them folks out there’s here for you.”
I chewed on that for a minute. My brain was pickled. “What’s that spozed to mean?”
But he was already gone. The two dudes stared at me from behind their sunglasses.
“Hell’re y’all lookin at?”
One lit a joint, took a drag, then passed it to his buddy. Otherwise, nothing. It wasn’t long before they adjusted their goofy hats, then passed me this big, wide-brimmed black felt number with a sterling silver band. I tried it on: perfect fit. In the mirror above an old, cracked sink, I sported a puffy shirt, tight black jeans, and that hat, along with silver jewelry galore.
Something was coming.
The music died down, and the crowd whistled and hollered. Then through the PA, we could hear Grizzly working the room. It was all muted and incomprehensible until he said, “Give it up for Sammy Dawn & The Trouble!” Applause roared. The two tattooed dudes stood, slapped five, then made for the door. The first patted me on my shoulder. The second gave me a fist bump and said, “Let’s do this, Sammy.”
Next thing I knew, I was center stage, strapping on a Fender Stratocaster. One dude got comfortable behind the drum kit, while the other picked up an enormous bass and adjusted his amps. As the stage lights came up, I noticed three women in crimson choir robes slide onto risers off to stage right. They resembled those church ladies, only younger and with more tattoos. Then the drummer counted off, and we exploded into a raw mid-tempo number that opened with a dirty guitar solo. A measure before the verse, I emerged from my trance and stepped to the microphone.
You tried not to come to Texas,
Thought that you were so smart.
You got lost down here in Texas,
Thought that you were so smart.
Well, there ain’t no going back now,
Oh, little girl, bless your heart.
That’s the way it went. I launched into another flaming solo, then reemerged to sing a verse. Those choir girls backed me up. The guys in the funny hats and sunglasses hammered out a pounding rhythm. We were the real deal.
When the song ended, the crowd showered us with applause. We took it upbeat for a few numbers, then went down tempo for a blues ballad or two, before blasting the place with two smoking hot songs for the finale. Everybody was up dancing and singing, clapping and stomping. I wondered if we might blow the roof right off.
After we wrapped up our set, folks started buying rounds of drinks. We swilled and cussed and discussed the rest of the night. Nobody seemed the least bit tired.
When the day’s first sunlight dribbled through the smudged windowpanes, Grizzly himself roused everybody with mugs of strong, hot coffee. Then he ushered us toward the door.
“Good show,” the drummer said.
“See you tonight,” said the bass man.
I stood there in the sunshine, pondering. Buses growled, pickups honked, pedestrians hollered and shot them the finger. Still, I didn’t budge or even flinch. An idea was beginning to bloom.
Then the cowgirls were right next to me. The one in head-to-toe crimson said:
“Helluvan idea, darlin.”
The others nodded.
I blinked once, and the church ladies, young and old, had joined us. They were still sporting their choir robes. I blinked again, and the cheerleaders were there, too, along with the schoolmarm (educational professional) and saloon chanteuse. By now, I didn’t worry the whys or wherefores. I just tipped my cowgirl hat back and wiped the sweat off my brow. When I looked again, a whole gaggle of other women had gathered—from the nightclub and rodeo, from the church, football game, and saloon. We must’ve been a hundred strong. It was a sight to see.
I reached down, drew my pearl-handled, nickel-plated .45s from my holster, and fired them both straight up into the air. They were only cap guns, but they made my point loud and clear. The State Capitol, where a bevy of old white men were holed up making laws to control our every move, was just north up Congress Avenue.
“Let’s move out, y’all!” I cried.
The cowgirls whooped and hollered. The cheerleaders chanted and high-kicked and waved pompoms. The saloon chanteuse launched into a ditty, and the church ladies backed her up: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” And as we marched, arm-in-arm, up Congress, we all joined in.