Authors: Irene Pence
One time when he came home drunk, he quietly let himself in the back door only to be surprised to find Betty waiting in the kitchen. She stared at him in disgust and said, “There’s got to be a good man out there who’s looking for a good woman like me.”
Betty’s family continued to see changes in her. Keeping herself slim, trim, and attractive became an obsession, and she gobbled increasing amounts of Dexatrim. Her mood alterations were obvious. Bobby, now twelve, told a friend, “One moment we got along fine, and the next thing she’s a different person. It was like she got hateful all of a sudden, and I mean all of a sudden.”
He questioned his mother about these abrupt changes, but when she came out of the distressing moods, she had no recollection of them.
Bobby noticed it didn’t matter whether or not she had been drinking, she would change in the middle of a sentence. Her features tightened and her voice grew strangely deep and coarse. She even used harsher words. Betty, not given to cussing freely, now would say “fuck,” a word her children had never heard her utter. Two different people lived inside of Betty.
The family had heard stories of Betty’s mother who had spent time in mental institutions. They didn’t want to think that their own mother had inherited any of their grandmother’s psychological problems.
The move to Dallas gave Ronnie Threlkeld the opportunity to know all of Betty’s family. He marveled at how Betty’s daughters—Faye, Connie, Phyllis, and Shirley—could so easily upset her. Although the young women weren’t living with them, Betty complained, “The girls are always getting into trouble, then coming to me asking for money to bail them out of their jams.”
Betty also saw her daughters as competition. She became jealous when they were around her husband, so jealous that she accused Threlkeld of sleeping with the girls.
Then one ominous night, he sat at the kitchen table having a drink when one of Betty’s daughters sauntered into the room wearing a robe. Whether she intended to tease Threlkeld or to spite her mother, the young woman stood before him making idle chatter, while slowly untying the silken green sash around her tiny waist. The robe dropped to the floor. With timing from hell, Betty came into the room at that moment and saw her daughter standing completely nude in front of her husband.
“You sorry son of a bitch,” Betty screamed at the top of her voice. “I knew something like this was going on. You were always giving my girls the eye. But to do something like this right here in my home! Well, that takes it all.”
Threlkeld tried to protest, but Betty’s screams drowned out his words. Her daughter had grabbed her robe as soon as she spotted her mother, and trying to cover herself, frantically dashed out of the kitchen.
When Betty stopped to inhale, Threlkeld said, “Now wait, Betty, it’s not what you think. There’s never been anything between me and your daughter. With none of them for that matter.”
Betty refused to listen, and as she unleashed her tirade, Threlkeld got the unmistakable message that he’d just been given his walking papers. Dating Betty had been a lot more fun than being married to her. She had changed from the upbeat, happy girl he had first met, to the sullen, negative woman, given frequently to venting her rage. Because of her metamorphosis, he found it easy to leave the hellcat nobody messed with.
Had Threlkeld known that Betty had shot her last husband, he might have been more concerned with what Betty would try doing to him.
The next day, Threlkeld busily loaded his belongings into his car. His mind was occupied with trying to find a place for everything so he would leave nothing behind. When he heard the sound of an engine coming closer, he looked up and saw Betty’s car roaring toward him. Quickly, he dashed between two cars in just enough time to avoid being hit as Betty swerved past him, spraying him with gravel.
Moments later, he left for Little Rock, grateful to be alive.
By August of 1979, Betty had pulled herself out of the doldrums and gone to Charlie’s Angels Bar, located in the shadow of Dallas skyscrapers, but in a rough neighborhood. She watched a woman on stage shed her clothes. The idea hit her that she possessed all the necessary attributes for the position.
Betty picked up her drink and left to find the manager. The potbellied, balding man listened to Betty’s verbal application, all the time eyeing her curvaceous figure.
“Lady, you can’t just show up here and go to work,” he told her. “You gotta audition. And auditions are held on Thursday nights. Actually we have a pretty good crowd because people like to see amateurs on the stage. Some don’t know what the shit they’re doing, and it can be pretty funny,” he said, and chuckled. “How old are you?”
“Thirty-two,” Betty said, shaving off ten years. She held in her stomach and assured him, “I’ll know what to do.”
On Thursday, August 27, 1979, Betty arrived early to learn the ropes from the professional dancers. A teenage boy directed her backstage to a dressing room. The open cubicle had dirty, peeling paint on the walls. A large room filled with mirrors and lights served as the communal area for dancers to fix their hair and apply makeup.
An experienced stripper, a tall redhead named Candy, gave Betty pointers. “Honey, when you’re out there onstage, try not to think about being naked. The first time’s always the hardest.”
Betty smiled. “Don’t you worry about me. This ain’t my first rodeo. You think I haven’t taken off my clothes in front of men before?”
Everyone laughed, and Betty pulled out the string bikini she brought with her. Candy told her to shave everywhere; then she’d be back to show her how to apply the pasties.
Betty busied herself shaving and smoothing on body makeup, then went back to her new friends. One of the experienced dancers dabbed a bit of rubber cement inside a silver-sequined pasty and told Betty to place it over her nipple. The dancers laughed hysterically as they watched Betty try to cover the large dark areola of her massive breast. She didn’t get it right the first time and tried to pull it off to adjust it. She winced.
“Don’t worry,” Candy said, “the rubber cement will peel right off afterwards.”
Betty felt her stomach flutter as she waited backstage for the master of ceremonies to call for “Sexy Tiger,” her new stage name derived from her CB handle. She peeked through the curtains to watch other novices strut awkwardly over a stage carpeted in a distracting plum-and-gold floral pattern.
The audience, three-fourths male, looked much like the people she had served in bars. Many wore tired cotton T-shirts and jeans. A few businessmen had come in for quick entertainment and a cold drink. They had removed their suit coats and loosened their ties.
After forty-five minutes, Betty heard: “Ladies and gentlemen, I now give you someone we might find dangerous to play with, ‘Sexy Tiger.’ ” A smattering of applause greeted the recorded bump-and-grind music belting from a tape recorder. Betty pranced on stage, gyrating her hips, and waving her raised arms back and forth over her head. The air conditioning chilled her bare body, despite the hot floodlights ringing the stage. But after a few minutes, she found the coolness refreshing, remembering how sizzling it was outside.
The audience warmed to her with chants of “Take it off, take it off.” She reached around for the tie on the back of her bra, but found it knotted and awkward to loosen with one hand. She wanted to look professional, but instead she fumbled as she tried to separate the ribbons. The task became particularly difficult because she tried to keep in step with the music at the same time. Finally, she jerked off the top, only to pull away one of her pasties too. The crowd went into hysterics. Betty couldn’t understand their laughter until she looked down at the stage floor and spotted the glitter of silver sequins in the stage lights.
She had to think fast, and she didn’t want to appear like some embarrassed teenager. She twirled around, bent down, and in a flash picked up the pasty and waved it in the air. The crowd roared its approval. Then she slithered up to the microphone and said in her sexiest voice, part Marilyn Monroe and part Mae West, “Is there some nice gentleman in the audience who’d like to assist me in putting this thing back on?”
Seven men rushed the stage. The first one to arrive took the pasty from her, and with his other hand held on to her breast. Half drunk, he awkwardly aimed for her nipple. The audience screamed with laughter.
Suddenly, another man in a black suit shoved him away and approached Betty. He opened a leather wallet that held his identification: “Dallas Police Vice Squad.” Betty’s shoulders slumped. When she had seen him earlier in the audience, he appeared to be thoroughly enjoying the show.
“Come with me,” he said as he escorted the angry woman off the stage. The police arrested Betty and charged her with public lewdness. She gave them her first married name, and her charge read, “Betty Lou Branson knowingly engaged in an act of sexual contact with Archie Phillips by allowing him to touch her breast while said person was in a public place.” Later, a judge fined her $250, and unbelievably slapped her in jail for thirty days, and put her on probation for a year.
Six months after Betty’s failed dancing attempt, her matrimonial prospects were back on track. She called Ronnie Threlkeld in Little Rock and told him she had filed for divorce. Threlkeld didn’t object, even when Betty said, “I’ve finally found someone who’s good to me and treats me right.” She further insulted Threlkeld by telling him she had refused to use his name as soon as he left town. It didn’t matter, she was going to have a new name before long.
She had been filling her truck with gas at a truck stop in Mesquite one day when Doyle Wayne Barker, a tall, good-looking man, noticed her and struck up a conversation. He worked in construction as a roofer, and lifting heavy tiles kept his body lean and taut. He fit the mold of Betty’s other husbands, with his brown hair and eyes, and tan skin. He had a shy but ready smile, and wore a small goatee.
Barker had previously been married for eight years and had two sons from that union. Once Betty invited him to her Dallas apartment, he immediately took to her son Bobby.
Barker worked for Jerry Kuykendall, who owned a roofing company. The company was a forty-five-minute drive from Cedar Creek Lake, but Kuykendall had a farm outside of Mabank within shouting distance of the lake. He considered Barker his lead roofer and his most valuable employee. Barker never minded staying an extra hour or so on a job, not wanting to leave a roof half protected if a storm blew in, and he never complained about hammering down roof tiles when the weather turned glacier cold and made his fingers so numb he could barely feel the hammer in his hand.
Jerry Kuykendall’s son, Jerry, Jr., was Bobby’s age and the boys became “running buddies.” The families frequently visited the lake area, and the boys hunted in the big pasture behind Kuykendall’s farmhouse, went fishing at Cedar Creek, and frequently spent nights in each other’s homes.
Betty told everyone, “Wayne is just the man I’ve been looking for,” but she said that about each of her husbands. With little fanfare, she and Wayne married in Dallas on October 3, 1979. However, Betty and “just the man she’d been looking for” fought constantly and separated seven weeks after the ceremony. The husband of Betty’s oldest daughter, Faye Branson Lane, told Betty that Barker was a big drinker in the Seven Points bars and would intentionally bump into other customers just to start a fight.
They eventually divorced in January 1980.
Shortly afterward, Betty almost died from head injuries received in a serious car accident. She had a basilar skull fracture, lacerations, and a cerebral concussion. Migraine headaches she’d experienced as a child returned and her hearing loss worsened, forcing her to wear hearing aids. She always wore her hair down, so now she fluffed it more fully over her ears for camouflage.
Now even more vulnerable with her physical problems, she listened to Barker when he came to her, saying he was sorry for all their problems. If she’d only give him another chance, he pledged to be a new man.
Betty, wanting desperately to believe the roofer whom she had fought with during their first marriage, remarried him the following year. Her family told her they couldn’t understand why she’d remarry someone who had caused her so many problems. She tried to allay their fears by saying, “We’ve talked over our relationship and we know what our troubles were before. This time it’ll be different. We’re going to move.”
Since Betty and Wayne Barker had frequently been guests of the Kuykendalls at their Cedar Creek home, that was the area where Betty wanted to live. She promised to buy a densely wooded, half-acre lot in the Cherokee Hills section for $8,800 if Barker would match that amount for a new trailer. Betty had her eye on a cream-and-brown, two-bedroom trailer. Barker agreed, and they moved to Cedar Creek Lake at the edge of Gun Barrel City.
Betty had never lived in anything brand new before, and she delighted in decorating the trailer. She bought a matching gray sofa and chair that looked pretty on the fresh-smelling new tweed carpet. She created silk flower arrangements in dainty vases and placed them on tables. In one corner, and perhaps reminiscent of stories her mother had told her of the lovely homes she had cleaned, Betty bought a round table and skirted it with a heavy velvet tablecloth of cut red roses on a black background and fringed with heavy, looping cord.
She enrolled Bobby in Mabank Junior High where he seemed to fit in well. Regardless of his mother’s many moves, he always kept up his high grades.
At night, Seven Points was their playground. Seven Points, one of the few “wet,” or liquor-allowed regions of the lake, was labeled the honky-tonk of Cedar Creek. The parking lots of the one-story, neon-crested bars were frequently full. Although the majority of the lake’s permanent church-centered residents traditionally voted down bars and liquor stores for their areas, they had no hesitation in going to Seven Points to stock up.
Wayne and Betty got along well at first, and they continued a close relationship with the Kuykendalls. Betty drove Wayne to Kuykendall’s home each morning at five o’clock for his ride to work with his boss. Each evening, Kuykendall dropped Wayne at his home.