It’s just because we used to see all these moronic looking jerks just strolling around through town trying to look tough with their AR-15s and Sig Sauers for no real reason, and we just laughed at them, because what were they even doing? I mean, they were like cartoons in these stupid trucks with big tires and all these stupid flags waving all over the place and everything. I mean, you know what I’m talking about, right? They were just these fringe idiots trying to get a little attention, and then, you know, these people start showing up dressed the same way and shooting at people and grabbing people off the street, and we don’t know who’s who, anymore. We don’t know what’s going to happen, and no one really knows what’s going on, but everyone knows it isn’t right. I mean, even a little child knows it isn’t right for anyone to just go around grabbing people and terrifying them like that, especially when they done nothing wrong and all, but it ain’t right, anyway, to just take people like that—violating their God given rights and everything. There’s no way to know when they are going to be shooting real bullets or so-called “less lethal” bullets. There’s no way to know if you’re going to jail or the grave. And you sort of just say your prayers, and you say, “God help me now or let me die doing what I know is right.” And you just go and stare them in the face again, because they want to see you run, but you know if you run, no one will ever be free again.
If he were walking around the streets today, the richest man I ever knew might be mistakenly thought to be homeless. His clothes were well-worn, almost threadbare, the leather on his shoes was cracked, and he wore no jewellery. The man who accompanied him might be mistaken for a carer of some sort, except that this man was always wearing a tailored suit with fashionable leather shoes, carried a literal bag of money, and he was never without the aid of a reliable and recognisable timepiece. This sharp dressed man was, of course, was the personal assistant to Mr. Phipps, the bedraggled banker he served quietly and with great decorum.
This PA (let’s call him Johnson, because I never had any idea what his name was) saw to the messy details of Mr. Phipp’s life such as paying for services, food, and the few material items Mr. Phipps might require. Mr. Johnson had an easy job, as Mr. Phipps was as gentle as he was austere. Mr. Phipps also knew that money was about the filthiest thing you could touch, so he never touched it unless it was fresh from the mint. Any previously used money was handled strictly by Mr. Johnson, who took his chances with the germ-ridden currency, but still saw to wash his hands frequently.
I had a fairly intimate relationship with Mr. Phipps myself. At least I guess it was more intimate that what most of the local 12-year-old boys had with him—I shined his shoes. The leather was old and cracked, as I said, but I did my best to restore it and bring the shine back. He always seemed grateful for my efforts, and he’d have Mr. Johnson reward my labor handsomely by the standards of a 12-year-old shine boy.
I think of him every time I hear a salesperson brag about the ability to size up potential customers as soon as they walk through the door. “I can tell right off,” they’ll say, “whether someone is ready to spend money. Or even has any money to spend.” The snap judgement and dismissive following behaviour serve only to fulfil the bigoted prophesy. But I suppose our days are filled with nothing but minor miscalculations. We trip over our own feet constantly but usually carry on to walk again.
She was explaining about how each moment had an infinite number of possibilities and how each possibility existed in an alternate universe where each subsequent moment created an infinite number of following possibilities and how each of these possibilities existed in even more parallel universes where every possible story line for every possible moment was played out with both cosmic justice and celestial irony.
But he was distracted by the movement of her lips. He was watching the flutter of her eyelashes and the dilation of her pupils. He was enthralled, almost thrilled, but appeared bored. She said, “You’re not even listening,” and started to gather her things.
He was disappointed, yes, but it wasn’t the first time a casual social interaction had gone awry. All the same, he wondered what might have happened if he’d only listened a bit more carefully or at least explained that he’d been distracted by her lips.
Betty was the kind of person who kept seeing Elvis all over everywhere. She just couldn’t believe he really died. She’d already visited Graceland twice and seen all the memorials and the so-called “grave site.” But she just thought he was probably hanging around Graceland somewhere watching everybody crying about how wonderful he was and laughing his ass off.
Betty was 18 when Elvis was said by some to have died, and she’d been a fan her whole life. Her mom, Marylou, was lucky enough to see Elvis perform at Magnolia Gardens before he got famous. Marylou told Betty plenty of stories about how Elvis was just a kind of shy boy who loved his momma and was real friendly but also maybe just a little bit sad.
Of course, Marylou didn’t have to say how handsome he was. Anyone who ever saw a picture of him knew he was handsome. Marylou did say she wished her eyes were as pretty as his, and God that little crooked smile of his would make you go a little weak in the knees.
So, Betty sort of grew up thinking that was kind of the ideal man. You know, shy and a little sad with a sideways smile. It’s not that she didn’t like the later Elvis (she was still driving all over the country and keeping an eye out for him wherever she went), it’s just that if someone in a bar looked nice and handsome and a little bit sad, she kind of almost thought talking to him was sort of like talking to a young Elvis. And if this boy in the bar could sing or play a guitar, she thought even better of him.
Let’s face it, not many men have the talent of an Elvis Presley, but quite a few men are shy, sad, and reasonably good looking, especially after a couple of beers. And Betty met more than one or two of these guys, and Betty met with some major disappointment on more than one or two occasions. If you think about it, you’ll probably agree that Elvis probably wasn’t the best partner you could have in the first place, and there was certainly no reason to think the substitute Elvises would be any better.
So it wasn’t Steve’s fault he was shy and sad and had his haircut like Elvis. Lots of guys were just the same. And Steve wasn’t the best musician, either, but Betty liked the way he played “Suspicious Minds.” She knew it was all a fantasy, but she felt that part of the fantasy was coming true.
It was kind of a fantasy for Steve, too. This was the late 70s, of course, and he was a Teddy Boy. It weren’t no accident he looked a little like Elvis, and he liked imagining he had groupies like Elvis, too. The fact that Betty was a kind of groupie by proxy was not a problem for him. But really, how long do you reckon two people can keep up this kind of role-play?
I guess no one can answer that question, but these two gave it a good go. Some people say you become what you pretend to be, and these two were pretending to be fabulous. They went to all these little clubs and danced and drank and just acted like regular little outlaws. Every now and then, Steve would even get a gig, and he’d be sure to play a couple of Elvis songs.
Betty said she was happier than she’d ever been, but Marylou said it was only pretend happiness. Betty said happy is happy. She couldn’t see any difference between pretend happiness and “real” happiness, whatever that is. We all sort of just make it up as we go along, don’t we?
So these two just went along with their rock and roll lifestyle, possibly living even more like Elvis than they knew in some ways. It was a heady mix of Quaaludes, speed, coke, beer, and tequila. Even after a few months, Steve was a pretty fun guy, even if Betty did find herself short on cash from time to time. She understood that he was focused on the music and his day labor gigs sometimes fell through, so she always kept her eyes and ears open for someone needing drywall work or a party band.
Still, the day-to-day uncertainty can start to get to you. Betty told Steve she didn’t make enough to keep paying for everything, and she didn’t think she could go on not knowing whether they could make it to the end of the month on any given day. He didn’t get defensive or anything. In fact he was very understanding, and he had a solution. He figured he could get a gig pretty near every night in Austin, and houses were going up like weeds there, so he could surely get plenty of work. And that was that. They threw their bags in the car and headed to Austin with a foolproof plan for a brighter future.
Eddie had a beach house in Bolivar. Now, Bolivar, Texas wasn’t exactly a resort. It was mostly retired people and stragglers who like to fish and comb the beach for sand dollars and whatever. It’s not too far from Gulf Coast refineries, so things aren’t exactly pristine, and people don’t go on too much about the smell of the fresh air. It was just kind of a grimy place with gritty people wandering around.
The only place to drink was Bob’s Sports Bar, which was just a bar, really, with a TV, but people seemed to find their own places to drink, though you never saw scantily clad hotties strolling the beach with fancy cocktails. You’d more likely see grungy men and women pushing off in a fishing boat with a couple cases of beer.
You had a fair mix of retired people, refinery workers, laborers, and a few artists and musicians. From time to time, you could see music at Bob’s. If you wanted a nicer restaurant or bar, you’d have to take the ferry over to Galveston. I used to like walking out on the jetties and just taking in the sights, sounds, and smells. You’d hear the horns on the ships approaching the ship channel, the sound of rats scuttling across the rocks, and the bickering of older couples loading up their boats to try their luck at the trout, red fish, and flounder just beyond the breakers.
And you could smell, always, the remnants of dead fish, shrimp, crabs, and so on. When people would clean their catches, they’d put them in barrels at the marina, but of course various predators would also leave carcasses scattered about, which would add to the pungent aroma that is Bolivar. And, yeah, the refineries added their own sweetness to the miasma.
If you looked around, you’d see a bunch of clapboard houses on stilts, many a little worse for wear. You’d also see a shipwreck out in the water. Some of the locals could tell you how it got there and how long it had been there, but most people just thought about it the way you might think of a mountain in the background. It was just always there. Something you expect to see.
The beach was named Crystal Beach because it was crystal clear and clean in someone’s imagination. In reality, it wasn’t the worst beach. It was usually covered in driftwood and seaweed, but not as much litter as you’d find on a commercial beach. Most people on the beach lived nearby, so they weren’t interested in making a mess of it.
So Eddie loved Bolivar. It was a great getaway for him, and he spent as much time as possible there. He loved the fishing, walking out on the jetties, going to Bob’s from time to time, and just hanging out on the porch with a cold beer. He liked the sights, sounds, and even smells of Bolivar, but he didn’t like his next-door neighbors.
To be honest, I personally never even understood his grievance with them. His kids said they didn’t think he even remembered why he was mad at them, but he was mad at them all right, and he did everything he could to cause mischief. Understand that Eddie was a gruff and ruddy sort of guy, never really in a good mood, but I can’t remember ever seeing him do anything that actually hurt anyone in any way. Maybe when he was younger he did, but he was pretty harmless in his middle age.
So when he caused mischief, it didn’t amount to much. His neighbors had a big century plant on the border between their property and his. If you don’t know what a century plant is, it is a large agave plant. It’s a succulent, so it just looks like a big, blue cactus in the shape of a flower. They’re popular around the Gulf Coast because they grow well and impress the eye. They’re called century plants because folks say they only bloom after 100 years and then they die, so it’s a real treat to see one in bloom.
Well, that’s not how Eddie saw it. He hated the God damned neighbors, and he hated their God damned century plant. He’d sit out on his porch every night and drink a few beers and then go relieve himself on that plant. No one really understood why he thought the best way to kill a plant was by pissing on it. Sure, maybe it seemed disrespectful, but it wasn’t poison in any way.
At least, it didn’t seem to be poison for the plant. That thing grew up like Jack’s magic beanstalk, which delighted Eddie’s kids to no end. They teased him constantly about how he helped that plant grow. He had five daughters, and they really enjoyed annoying him, and annoying him was easy, but I guess it was all affectionate in the end.
Of course, other neighbors got wind of it and started asking Eddie to come pee on their tomatoes and everything like that. They would say that and just laugh in his face. He always acted like he was so mad he might blow up the world or something, but nobody ever believed he would do anything more harmful than fertilizing a despised neighbors plants.
“I guess I’m just too innocent,” she said. She was looking through the sex ads in the back of one of those independent papers all the cool kids used to read in whatever city you happened to be in, and for reasons you can only guess, she’d never seen any independent papers the cool kids read. She’d never seen ads for “hot, wet bisexual babes waiting for your call” before, so she figured she was pretty innocent.
The courts disagreed, of course, but she didn’t seem aware of the irony of her being too innocent for the commerce of the flesh but guilty of attempted murder. I mean, what’s a little attempted murder between friends? She never would have gone through with it, surely. Truth be told, and I think it was, she didn’t even know how to do it the right way, which is surely why she got caught. It’s safe to say a real criminal would have handled things a little differently.
She got off pretty easy, because the jury found her guilty but basically too incompetent to take out one of her neighbors by hiring a backstabbing cousin who wouldn’t lift a finger for you, much less kill someone. She later admitted she was crazy for thinking this layabout cousin could kill a mosquito, much less a neighbor lady. So she was back to her more or less suburban life, living two houses down from the woman she tried to have taken out. And her daughter was still good friends with her intended victim’s daughter, so they all just continued to live their suburban lives, except with lots more publicity.
These are the kinds of things you are driven to, she explained on television, when you love your children a little too much. That’s exactly what she was guilty of, she said, loving her daughter too much. You know, if you love your kids, you should be willing to hire someone to kill their friends’ mothers. Otherwise, can you really say you care at all? Donohue seem sympathetic but unconvinced, and that irked her even more. What did he know about her or her life? He acted all sensitive and everything, but he was still a man, and no man can understand the love between mother and daughter.
So there you have it, the picture of innocence, sitting in a Mexican restaurant while being scandalized by the idea of bisexual women taking money from desperate men. Some sins really seemed worse than others in her eyes. She was counting on the fact that Jesus would see a mother’s excessive love as the way of God and not at all like flaunting perverted sexual proclivities in ads that could be seen by children. I mean, good God, can you imagine a family eating in that restaurant and having to explain those ads to their six year old?
So she just went about her business, taking classes at the community college and hoping to work up to a better job and everything. Maybe make enough to send her daughter to a good university. Of course, it was a little awkward at the community college. The mother of her intended victim was the supervisor over at the college food court. She couldn’t eat lunch at school without seeing her, so she ate at home, in her car, or just on a bench in another classroom building. It was a small sacrifice but worth it.
Of course, everybody knew her business, anyway, seeing as she’d been on national TV during and after the trial. Even after the Donohue fiasco, she’d accepted a few interview offers, and she’d again tried to explain about how much she loved her daughter and all that, but the audiences never really want to hear the truth. They just all thought she was some kind of joke, and she made her way into more than one comedian’s monologue. Luckily, she could laugh at herself, too. After that all the hullaballoo had died down, the local video store had the movie about her in the bargain bin.
She walked right up to the cashier, waving that video around, and said, “Hey, this movie is about me. I’m a local celebrity! I think I’m worth a little more than $1.99, don’t you?” The cashier doubled over with laughter and said, “I sure do, lady. I sure do. Y’all have a good day now, y’hear.”
Maureen was at the door in a flood of tears. Jan didn’t know Maureen. They’d never met. Maureen lived two doors down, and there she was on the front porch crying her eyes out. She was crying because he left her. Why did he leave? Because she was so afraid he was going to leave.
That’s about all Jan could get out of her for the longest. She was just sobbing and going on and on about how it was all her fault. That’s what he said, of course. He said it was all her fault. He didn’t want to leave her, but she gave him no choice, see? He just couldn’t stay with someone acting the way she was acting.
How was she acting? She was acting like she was afraid he was going to leave her, and the circle just went on like that for the longest. It went on that way because Maureen was ashamed to say how it all started, but eventually she got her composure enough to explain the situation to a neighbor who was also a near complete stranger. Maybe it’s easier to unburden yourself to a stranger, anyway. I think that’s probably what I would want. Maybe you feel differently.
So, anyway, Maureen finally explained that she met Carter when he was still married to Marie, and she and Carter carried on quite the affair right under Marie’s nose without Marie really suspecting anything for the longest time, and Maureen did not want to be like Marie—how could anybody be so unsuspecting and trusting in the first place? Maureen didn’t want anyone thinking she was naïve or too innocent or anything like that.
So, you know, she kept her eyes wide open. She looked for signs. Did he always take his phone to the bathroom with him? Did he answer his phone before work? She and Carter had enjoyed some pretty intense conversations when he was commuting to work, so now she would call him in the morning just to see if he answered. She didn’t want to be stupid about anything. Not the way Marie had been.
But Carter wasn’t unaware of her snooping. Even worse, though, was that she was constantly nagging him about what he was up to. She was constantly asking if he still loved her. She was constantly asking him to compliment her looks. She just needed lots of reassurance.
And, of course, she made the odd accusation or two. Where were you? Who were you talking to? Can I see the texts? Can I see the office email about the work lunch you said you were on? You get the idea.
So Carter told her he loved her, but he couldn’t go on with all the suspicion and nagging and all. It was like that Elvis song. You know, “we can’t go on together with suspicion on our minds” or however it went. And Maureen went nuts over this, but she tried to calm herself. She tried to show that she trusted him, but she thought maybe he would meet someone else like her who would be able to keep secrets and be available at odd hours and all that.
Maureen was just afraid he’d meet another Maureen. He told her he’d been down that road, and never wanted to go again, but he was really breaking under the pressure of constant surveillance. And so there you go. You have Maureen crying her eyes out at Jan’s table and telling all her secrets. Well, she told some of her secrets, anyway. I guess they both thought they might become friends after that, but it never happened.
They didn’t talk again. Six weeks later, a for-sale sign went up in front of Maureen’s house. And that was that.
“I’ve had plenty of anonymous sex before,” she said, “and I still know how to find it.” Jan intended this as a threat or warning, obviously, but she also knew it stung in its own right. She first learned to weaponise her own sexuality when she saw the crestfallen look on her father’s face when she knew he knew what she’d gotten up to with John one night. Since that day, she had learned a number of ways to use her own numbness to sex to devastate men. Not that it made her feel that much better, but it was something.
Maybe it was revenge. Maybe it was something else, but it gave her a feeling of power, and who doesn’t want to feel that sometimes? Everyone wants to feel a little control over things. The way she told it, she had always controlled her own sexuality. She was 12 the first time, she said, and she knew exactly what she was doing. Her parents were gone for the day and she called her school band director on the phone and asked him over. It was her idea. That’s what she said.
She said it hurt, but he was very nice. He took care of her. When he lost his job at the school, she and some other girls formed a group to get signatures on a petition to get him his job back. They really liked him. When she graduated high school, she wrote to him to let him know she was doing all right, and he wrote back and said he was glad to hear it.
Bobby couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He told her she was only 12, for God’s sake, and definitely no child could be responsible for what she described. She had obviously been groomed and manipulated, and so had all the other girls. She was raped, he said, but she averred. “But I knew what I was doing was wrong,” she said, “That’s why I never told anyone before now.” Bobby told her it wasn’t her fault, but he wasn’t prepared for this conversation.
Somehow, he made her feel more judged than supported, not that he was trying to, but he really wasn’t equipped to respond to this information, and he felt a little sick. But Jan didn’t notice that. She was just trying to make a point about her prissy classmates who acted so shocked to find that a professor was having an affair with a student. She was just wanting to say, “Hello! I was having sex with a teacher when I was 12! Grow up.”
After a pretty much fruitless day of hunting that big trophy buck Johnny said he saw, the guys were just sitting around the fire doing all the things you’d expect a bunch of grown men to do around a fire: you know, drinking beer, pissing on the fire, throwing pennies in the fire to watch the flames change colors—the usual stuff. The only difference was that Ricky had one of those new Q-Beams, I think they were called. It’s like a flashlight, except it has the brightness of a thousand suns or a million candles or some other damned thing I can’t remember.
The idea was that you could shine this light around and see animals in the dark, especially if you happened to catch their eyes. So they were just shining it around, not expecting much of anything, especially with all the noise they were making, and sure enough they picked up some reflections.
They suddenly went all quiet and started shining it around more slowly to see if anything jumped out at them. They were all cool about it. They were like, “Hey, man, maybe it’s a bobcat. I’d like to have a bobcat to mount on my wall.” But they were getting a little more serious about their search for wildlife or game or whatever. They were aware, also, that a few black bears were moving back into the area, and it would be nice to get a glimpse of one.
“Just remember,” Jimmy said, “If it IS a black bear, you don’t want to run a way from it. If you run, it WILL chase you, and it WILL catch you. No, you want to stand up to it. Show it your ready to fight it—man on bear.” At that, they all laughed, “Don’t worry, Jimmy, we’ll punch it right in the nose if it tries to get you. There ain’t no black bears around here, anyway, though.” But Jimmy still thought they’d better take a minute to verify that fact.
So, anyway, they kept shining that light around and just looking for bears or bobcats or whatever. Hell, I guess they would’ve been excited to see a ‘possum or armadillo or anything really. And sure enough, they picked up another little glint of something. They kept shining until they could see a set of eyes just as clear as if it was the light of day.
And then they saw another set. And another. Pretty soon they saw seven or eight pairs of eyes, but they thought they saw much more than that, because their adrenaline production had picked up a bit, if you know what I mean, so they were convinced they were surrounded. And then they heard a little sound that was kind of like a dog but different enough for them to know they were surrounded by a vicious pack of wolves. At least that’s how it seemed to these drunk boys who’d been pissing on a fire all night.
They weren’t too worried, though, because they had guns and everything. They were on a hunting trip, after all. It was about that time that Ricky remembered they’d left the guns in the cab of his truck, and he thought it might be a good time to go get some of them out. So he walked slowly out to his truck as Bobby shown the Q-beam on it to light the way.
Once he opened the truck, Bobby started shining the light off at the trees to see if he could see any more animals. About that time they heard a bark or a howl and a crashing sound over by the truck. They were a little worried and Johnny called out, “You good, Ricky?” Ricky shouted back that he was and then came back to the fire without his gun and didn’t say anything.
After that, they all decided it was time to get some shuteye, so they all just got in their respective campers and went quiet. They next morning, when Ricky got up, Johnny was waiting for him. He said, “Looks like you had quite a night fighting them ol’ wolves, Ricky! The barrel of your gun is clogged with mud and the whole gun looks like you dropped it in slop. There’s also about 8 or 10 holes punched in the dirt by your truck.”
By this time, Johnny was laughing so hard I worried he might have a cardiac. They still give Ricky a good ribbing about that every time they go to the hunting lease.
Someone said Jim lived in Seven Oaks. Now, to some people that might sound like a compliment or, at least, a nice comment on account of the fact that some pretty nice places are named Seven Oaks, but Seven Oaks, Texas isn’t one of them, and Jim didn’t own or rent any kind of home in Seven Oaks.
Jim lived in Livingston, Texas, which was a few miles south and happened to be the county seat of Polk County, which was a dry county, meaning you couldn’t buy a drink of alcohol in Livingston come hell or high water. If you liked to imbibe a drop or two of spirits, wine, or beer, you’d have to drive north or south on highway 59 until you got out of Polk County.
If you drove north on 59, you’d cross the county line and be greeted by a sign saying, “Welcome to Seven Oaks.” If you drove a tiny bit further, you’d see the Seven Oaks bar. I don’t think it is there anymore, but you’ll still find a liquor store there.
Anyway, that Seven Oaks bar didn’t exactly have a concealed parking lot, so your car would just be sitting there for God and all the world to see.
So if any of your nosy neighbors or family saw your car there more than once in a week, they might start gabbing around about how you lived up there or something. It was a not so nice way of saying you were a drunk.
I don’t remember anyone ever saying he was an alcoholic, though. In fact, his sister insisted that he most certainly was not an alcoholic, though she did concede that he made a habit of being drunk, so she was willing to say he was a habitual drunk, but he never got the DTs if he didn’t have a drink for a few hours or anything like that.
And he could clean up and get through a Sunday sermon all right if push came to shove, and alcoholics can’t really pull that off, so he just stayed drunk because he wanted to—not because he had to.
And I guess that’s all that matters sometimes, you know? We’re all just trying to do good enough to pacify the family and the neighbors. If you can keep that up, you might just have a pretty good life. And who knows, someday you might hit it big with one of those scratch-offs you keep buying at the Seven Oaks bar.