In advance of the publication of Stand By Your Man on February 24, here is a short excerpt:
HER PARENTS NAMED her Tammy after the singer of Stand By Your Man, a song which she never had much taste for. Country had never been her thing. In high school she acquired another nickname, “trucker fucker”, after a rumor started that she waited outside the hotel bar in Loverna for the truckers to come out so she could give them blowjobs. That was not true, or at least not entirely. There had been one guy she gave head to, but she was fairly certain he worked on a seismic rig.
It hadn’t mattered though, the name and the story that went with it had stuck and for the rest of high school she was one of those girls. The girl that every guy thought he should try his luck with at a party, whether or not he had a girlfriend. She played the part a few times, mostly out of spite with the boyfriends of girls who taunted her for her sluttiness. It all backfired predictably, with the blame all coming her way.
After high school, lacking the grades and the money to go off to college, she moved into town off her father’s farm and took a job at the UFA gas station out on Highway 41. She decided she was done with school and boys and all the drama and nonsense that went with. Now that she was out of school, not interacting with the same one hundred or so horny, judgmental idiots, the nickname and her tawdry reputation began to seem things of the past. She was treated as an adult, accorded that respect, and she began to get it into her head that she deserved a man not a boy, though she did not quite know what that meant.
It led her into the arms of Gary Seedstrom, the UFA store manager, a married man with two young kids. He told her he would leave his wife, that he loved her, but he was no different than the high school boys who leered at her and looked her up and down, asked for a blow job and called her a slut when she didn’t comply. Worse, he was a crook and a murderer and tried to use her as an alibi to cover up all his schemes.
That all ended in disaster when Gary was killed himself. Before that, Tammy had the satisfaction of exposing his lies to his wife. That had proved a fleeting and ultimately hollow victory, for soon after the whole town knew about her and Gary.
The fact she was discovered, bound and naked in Russell Pedersson’s bed, the night Gary’s killer was caught also became general knowledge. Never mind that Russell had been tortured and she had been threatened, the whole thing was so sordid no one in town could stop talking about it. Walking the streets of Loverna felt like high school all over again.
Tammy left after that, unable to face everyone’s stares, the way they seemed to be accusing her of some crime, as though her continued presence implicated her in some way. She was tired of the way conversation would lull when she approached, and of the whispers that were forever behind her. I know you’re talking about me, she longed to turn around and say, but she never did. The hurt in her mother’s eyes had been the worst of all, worse even than her father calling her damned fool.
She went to Medicine Hat, intimidated by the idea of going to a big city like Calgary or Edmonton, and not knowing where else to go. It was a place she had visited often while growing up, so it offered the comfort of familiarity, with enough of the unknown to still be enticing. Most of all she got something like the anonymity that she craved, with no one that she passed on the street knowing or caring who she was.
Her first job was at a bar named Checkers, where she worked as a waitress. The tips were good, especially after she followed one of the other girl’s recommendations and bought herself a couple of short skirts that accentuated her legs. It was more than enough to live on.
She made a mistake her second week, sleeping with one of the bar managers in his office at the back. Somehow everyone knew within the space of a day and, unbeknownst to her, the manager had also been sleeping with one of the other waitresses. The other girls all turned against Tammy, giving her looks that she was only too familiar with.
After that she kept to herself on the job, minding her business and being careful not to go home with any of the staff, or even the customers. That did not stop them from trying, but she soon became adept at slipping out of grasps and removing hands from where they were not wanted, all while keeping her smile firmly in place. She learned how to keep her guard up around people, gradually adjusting to the disorientation of being in a place where everyone didn’t know each other and where you didn’t have conversations with people while going to get the mail or buy groceries.
It was all very strange and she was left feeling lonely. In spite of everything, she found herself missing Loverna. That all changed when she met Kevin Burscht. He was not like the men she had met before. He was different.
KEVIN WORKED in the oilfields, though he was vague on the specifics of what he did. Something about well site reclamation and parts. He didn’t talk much about it, which suited Tammy fine. They met at a Tim Horton’s, where Tammy had gone for breakfast late one morning after working till close at Checkers. The line up was long and the service terrible and she fell to talking with the genial young man with a smile that made her go weak in the knees.
He invited her to join him for breakfast and they talked for over an hour, long after they both finished their coffee and bagels. Kevin asked for her number and they arranged to meet for a drink later that week. It all felt so different from the happenstance and calamity of her other relationships, which she now realized had not been real relationships all. This one was.
Kevin traveled a lot for his work, which meant Tammy saw him only a day or two a week, but that was fine by her. She was learning to enjoy the time she spent on her own, after so many years living underfoot at home and in Loverna. It was surprising to realize how suffocating that had been and how freeing this felt. Her, as yet, ill-defined relationship with Kevin felt of a piece with this new life she was constructing.
Jennifer, the one girl at work who still talked with her, told Tammy to watch herself. “Who knows what he’s getting up to when he’s out there traveling. You can’t trust him.”
Tammy knew as well as Jennifer what men like Kevin got up to in the small towns they traveled to for work, but she didn’t worry about him. She trusted him, for reasons she couldn’t put into words. He was different. Maybe it was his attentiveness, the way he listened to what she said and considered it. Most of the men she had known had seemed only to be waiting for her to finish whatever she was saying so they could start taking her shirt off. He wasn’t like that.
When they were together, during dinner or after sex, Tammy would go on and on about her future and her dreams, things that she had never shared with anyone. Kevin would listen and encourage her, but he shared little of his own thoughts. Tammy was so caught up in the emotion of actually being able to say these things to someone that she didn’t notice. And when she did, she pushed that thought aside, telling herself it was because he was a guy. Men don’t like revealing themselves, she told herself.
One night, when he had come over very late, after the initial urgency of passion had left them and they were lying in each other’s arms, Tammy mentioned that she wanted to move to Vancouver.
“Why?” Kevin said, his voice dim, as if he were already starting to drift off to sleep.
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen the ocean before. I’d love to see it. And it just seems so cool. There’s so much happening there.”
“Mmm,” Kevin said.
Tammy looked over and could see his eyes were half-closed. “What about you? Where do you want to live?”
“I’m from there,” Kevin said, a pained frown crossing his face and then vanishing.
“Really,” Tammy said. “And you wouldn’t go back?”
There was a long pause, during which she wondered if he was asleep, before Kevin replied. “I can’t.”
“Why not?” Tammy asked, but received no reply as Kevin’s breathing deepened and slowed.
“WHAT DO YOU think he means?” Tammy asked Jennifer when they were next on shift together.
Jennifer was only a year or two older than Tammy, and with her sleight frame she looked even younger, but she seemed to have decades more experience, at least to the girl from Loverna. She had, it seemed, dated every kind of bad man—and every man was bad in some kind of way, according to her. That was a fact as inescapable as gravity.
Everything about Kevin was a mark of suspicion for her. His absences for work, his refusal to share much about his feelings or his life. All of it was proof that he was no good.
“You only can’t go back to a place if you’ve done something wrong. Vancouver’s a big place. If he’s worried about being found there, it must be something really wrong.”
Jennifer had a way of speaking that gave her an authority. She sounded like she knew what she was talking about. And yet Tammy wasn’t sure.
Nothing more came of the conversation, no matter how Tammy tried to pry and steer Kevin in that direction. He seemed oblivious to her attempts and wouldn’t say anything more on the matter. Not when she brought up his parents, or high school, or his friends. It was as if that part of him had ceased to exist once he left British Columbia.
Tammy told herself not to let it bother her. There could be a lot of reasons for that, after all. Not everyone had happy childhoods they wished to return to, as she well knew.
She did not dwell on the matter. For all his reticence and his frequent absences, he was the most present of the men she had been with. After three months she contemplated telling him she loved him, but her courage failed her. It seemed perilous to risk upsetting something that was so precious to her and seemed so perfect. For she knew nothing this good could last forever.