My grandmother taught me to drive. I mean, she didn’t teach me to feather the clutch or work the stick shift or anything like that, but she set an example. She used to take us on all these back roads in East Texas looking for whatever the woods and winding roads would deign to show us. I remember the exhilaration I felt as we went around curves on dirt roads and I felt the tires let loose of the road and begin to slide in a kind of controlled chaos. It wasn’t rally racing by any stretch of the imagination, but it could spark a few fantasies for a child.
When we weren’t sliding through turns and building better berms, we were exploring graves behind old churches looking for kin. Apparently, my roots run six feet under the East Texas clay and sand with more than a few entanglements. We would almost always find someone related, but I guess she knew just where they’d be, so she wasn’t performing acts of magic, even if I couldn’t figure out the trick.
For sustenance we’d stop along the way to pick blackberries, muscadine (I was an adult before I figured out they weren’t called Musky Dimes), pecans, and sassafras root (for home made root beer). From time to time, we’d also steal a little bark from a zanthoxylum clava-herculis tree, or Toothache Tree. I wouldn’t want to rely on this bark for actual dental work, but it sure did make the tongue tingle and feel a little numb. It’s the same chemical you find in hot Szechuan oil, so you may be familiar even if you never chewed the bark of an actual Toothache Tree.
My grandmother hated her name, Lula Mae, so anyone who knew her well called her “Sis,” even if they weren’t related to her. Anyone who didn’t know her well enough to call her Sis would have to settle for Mrs. Walding, and I never heard anyone complain about that, either. If you stopped to see her, you would get a glass of iced tea immediately and most likely a meal would be offered in due course. If you were really lucky, you’d be offered a slice of freshly made coconut pie. Over the years, people have gotten the impression that I love coconut pie, but I’m really pretty indifferent to coconut pie generally. I loved my grandmother’s pie, specifically. She always shredded fresh coconut herself, and she seemed to have a preternatural ability to sculpt the perfect merengue. I’ve never met anyone who could do it better.
Nobody really liked Connor’s poetry,
anyway. It didn’t really even seem like
poetry. It just seemed like someone
rambling around trying to tell a story
the way Connor did every time we
tried to get a cup of coffee with him.
Anyway, he said that’s what he wanted
from his poetry was for it to sound real
natural like he was just talking to his readers,
and he figured he had a few things he
wanted to say and what better way to say
a few things than in the context of a poem?
But honestly no one ever knew what he was
going on about because he just sort of
started talking and then went around in
circles for a little while with no kind of
point that anyone could see. And instead
of an ending, he’d just sort of trail off.
Like when I go to Starbucks and order a
flat white, and the cashier asks what size
I want, and I say there is only one size of
flat white, pointing at the menu, but the
cashier says, no sir, you can have whatever
size you want, and I say, yes, but any other
size is not a flat white, is it? It’s just some
milk with coffee in it, and the barista is
confused as to why I’m so exercised about
a coffee order.
I predicted the results of the election, and the death of the republic
I warned of financial collapse and the beginning of the pandemic
I shouted right in your face that you needed to protect your investment
I told you the university you chose faced regulatory reassessment
I knew your car was built by underpaid and untrained workers
And I mentioned you’d get heart disease if you ate too many burgers
If you listened, you’d know your new hoover would be recalled
And that the new prescription you filled will make you go bald
I laid out the argument against a global corporate cooperative
But reviewer number two insisted I’m being too negative
It is too depressing, I’m told, to always focus on disaster
We’ll just hope for the best and muzzle the forecaster
If we focused on our impending doom incessantly
We’d be paralysed with fear you declare contemptuously
So stop crying about all the amenities to be lost
We’d rather stroll contentedly to our next holocaust
I know you’re distracted by things much more important
And sometimes my entreaties come across as mordant
So you tune out what is most difficult to hear
And focus on beauty and how to calm your fears
You need clarity and can’t take it all in at once
So I should expect a certain amount of avoidance,
And I know the daily clamour distorts true prophecy
But I still want to be part of the chorus, not the cacophony
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.
She’d always walk up and start talking
as if you were already in the middle
of a conversation. At first, I’d ask her
what the Hell she was talking about,
but I soon learned her explanations
were too long and circuitous to be of
any value. Best to just wait it out,
and eventually the picture would
come into focus. You’d suddenly
get it—like a Faulkner novel,
and then you’d start thinking how
Faulkner probably knew someone
just like her, and it wasn’t about
Freud’s stream of consciousness;
it was just about the way some people
talk. I mean, how they tell a story,
and you start to realize the most
interesting stories are the ones that
seem to have no point at all.
You start to think you could tell
a story like that. You’re thinking how
it would be greater than Faulkner and
all that when she puts her hand on
your shoulder and says, “Slow down, partner,
you done lost me a long time ago.
A Hell of a long time ago. “
Most stories for children
are insanely cruel.
Filled with baby-eating witches,
and lawless fledglings flung
to the winds, we whisper our
reassurances that their worst
nightmares will never be real
so long as they trust us
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.”
I tell you, Bobby could be so bashful he’d stick his foot in the can and piss down his leg to keep anyone from hearing. At least that’s how he was sometimes. He seemed to have moods or something. It probably just depended on who was around or what the situation was, but sometimes it was like he just couldn’t bear to be in the vicinity of other human beings unless he knew and trusted them, and he didn’t know and trust very many people, I can tell you that. He mostly liked his own company. He was quite content to be on his own. The only problem, as far as he could tell, was the crushing loneliness.
So he sort of always liked to have at least one companion. Now most people like you and me seek out a sort of constant companion who keeps us company, gives us emotional support, and provides a sexual release. I don’t know about you, but sexual release was usually the first thing on my mind when I was Bobby’s age. I figured the emotional support and all that would come eventually, but getting my baser needs met was pretty much my first priority.
But Bobby wasn’t like you and me. He just wanted someone to talk to. He was quiet most of the time, but once he got on a roll, he would just ramble on for days. And I don’t mean he would always hog the conversation, either. He could listen. A lot of women said he was a good listener, you know, when he wasn’t spewing out his stream of consciousness out loud to some vessel or other.
Some women liked how respectful he was on account of how he could listen and talk without immediately putting the moves on them. They thought he was “quite the gentleman” because he seemed to suppress his need to get in their pants for some time after meeting them, and they found that kind of refreshing.
Others weren’t so complimentary. After getting no response from what they considered quite obvious flirting, they would tell Bobby in no uncertain terms that he was a “God damned faggot.” Those were the words they used, because women can be homophobic, too. Women can be homophobic and mean and abusive, and Bobby had some stories to tell, but he never really told them.
So that’s how Bobby was. He tended to be oblivious to flirting, and he never really thought of sex at all until he got to know someone. If he felt someone really cared for him and really cared for them, his feelings were intense. He wanted touch, and he wanted as much of it as he could get. You can see how someone might feel flattered by that. On the other hand, some people might think it is a bit clingy. And, hey, maybe it’s a little of both, right? You can be all those things, can’t you? Characters aren’t always one-dimensional.
But then there’s the dissociation. And the depression. And the distance. So it’s all complicated, really. Someone who listens and talks and craves physical touch can sort of disappear somewhere for a time. So many times Bobby suddenly became aware of a woman touching him and asking, “Where were you just now?” He wanted to just say, “I was right here,” but he knew what they meant. He would just say, “I don’t know.”
And he probably didn’t know, or at least he couldn’t explain it. He couldn’t just say, “Oh, I was just thinking about my dog that died,” or anything like that. His thoughts didn’t always have words associated with them. It was like he was just kind of separate from everything. Some people described meditation that way—like they were just being with empty thoughts and all that. Well, Bobby didn’t think that was any great thing to achieve. He often felt about as aware as a stone, but he couldn’t see any great advantage to it. He had a feeling there was something wrong about what meditation was trying to achieve.
On the other hand, he often got lost in his own thoughts, which tortured him to no end. Well, sometimes they tortured him. Other times they were just thoughts, if you can get your head around that. They might be thoughts about infinity, cars, the sound of running water, God, or the durability of denim. Bobby wasn’t really focused. If you asked him what he was thinking, he’d just say it was nothing and try to move on. He was often embarrassed by the banality of his thoughts, the obsessiveness of his thoughts, or the emptiness of his mind.
And all this is to sort of explain his complicated relationship to sex, because sometimes someone would do something that would trigger something in Bobby that just made him shut down. Really, like someone flipped a switch or something. Like he’d go away. Sort of like having a flashback to something he couldn’t remember. You might see how that could be inconvenient for a lover. Inconvenient, I guess, or even alarming. Some people couldn’t really deal with that shit, or even want to. So, it wasn’t easy, see?