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.
We used to chase roadrunners. Actually, I don’t think “chase” is the right word. We rode our dirt bikes around the dirt roads and trails, and sometimes a roadrunner would jump out and run along in front of us or alongside us. We never wanted to catch them or hurt them. We just liked seeing them.
It’s kind of like when dolphins escort a ferry you’re on. It sort of gives you a warm feeling to take the trip with them. The roadrunners made us think of the cartoon, of course, but we never worried about the coyotes. They only came out at night, anyway, and I don’t think they really had any particular interest in roadrunners in the first place.
So we liked to see the roadrunners and the rabbits that would run along the trail. I don’t think I ever saw a roadrunner get hurt, but rabbits had a habit of running into the spokes or under the wheels. It’s no fun having a rabbit run into the spokes of your wheel. It’s a bloody mess, and not at all pleasant for a boy who’s squeamish. Other people, of course, would just pack them home, skin them, and have a little fried rabbit for dinner, but that was never to my taste.
So, those were the main animals we’d see, except for the copperhead snakes. I don’t know why they like to stay in the trails, but they do, and they’ll fight to keep the spot. We had thick boots, of course, but they always gave me a little shiver, anyway. If you’ve ever felt that thud against your boot, you know what I’m talking about. That’s just involuntary.
All this happened at the cow lease out on farm road 942. You’d only drive down 942 if you owned land there, leased land there, or wanted to buy drugs. If you ever saw a car pulled over on the side of the road out there, you could pretty much bet any money it was someone waiting to buy drugs or sell drugs.
I was never a customer or a dealer, but I thought it was a pretty bad arrangement they had. If I knew what they were doing, surely the local law enforcement knew what was up. It was just so obvious, because no one had any other reason to be stopped on the side of the road, unless their car was broken down.
It was years before I found out law enforcement definitely knew what was going on, because they were in on it. They were an integral part of the East Texas Drug Distribution Network, such as it was. I know now what I never suspected then. If an out of towner came in and tried to sell drugs on 942, that person could be guaranteed a night in the Polk County jail, and Polk County hospitality might not live up to the stories you’ve heard about southern hospitality in the US.
The Polk County Sheriffs were really nice people, but that description pretty much applies to locals only, see? The whole area was sort of overseen by the Ku Klux Klan, and you’d be naïve to think the local cops weren’t part of the KKK. In fact, if you went the other direction on 942 from where the cow lease was, you’d come to a dirt road that led off to the left.
If you turned down that road, you’d see a big banner that said, “Welcome to Klan Kountry,” or something like that. It was both a welcome and a warning, depending on who you are. I was pretty much local and had lots of kinfolk around there, but I still found it intimidating. The area was familiar to me, all right, but I never did feel at home there. What’s more, I never wanted to feel at home there. I like having friends, you see, but I guess I prefer people who are a little more open minded.
So I drove around and enjoyed the roadrunners and rabbits and such, but I kept to myself mostly, and I learned to never really trust anyone. And I learned to never really feel safe. Don’t get me wrong, I could pass for one of them easily enough, but I had to focus. I had to watch what I said and how I walked.
It was easy enough to fall foul of their good graces. Any suspicion that you were a heathen or a pervert, rather broadly defined, would be enough to put you at risk, so you had to be careful how you walked and how you dressed and everything. This is why you can’t trust what you see in East Texas. Some of those rednecks who look like KKK members are actually liberals, atheists, gays, and so on, but the closets in East Texas are larger and more securely sealed than in other places you might have been.
And that’s why stuff kept going down, you know? Steve would get a little high and start shooting his mouth off. Oh, man, he had a black girlfriend when he was in Tennessee. He thought organized religion was for sheep, man. Che Guevara was his hero, or at least he really liked those posters with his face on them. And what’s the big deal about sex, anyway? If it feels good, go on and do it. There’s no God to tell you it’s wrong.
So the law enforcement, you know the ones who dealt drugs?, didn’t really like Steve. They kind of followed him around and gave him a lot of shit. It pissed him off, but he also kind of liked it. He had enough family around there to sort of protect him from real harm, but he didn’t have enough connections to avoid constant harassment. Or at least that’s what he thought.
So he’d go to the bar in Seven Oaks and talk trash all night while sipping beer and slipping out for a few hits off a joint from time to time. Everything seemed okay. It was all right. The local women liked Steve well enough. He was good looking, and he could make them laugh, so everything seemed fine and dandy. He was in the catbird seat.
And, hey, no one ever knows how things are going to turn out, do they? And no one ever really knows what causes what or who wants what. I mean, some people don’t think Michael Hastings crashed his car. Not everything gets solved. Sometimes you’re just left to wonder. You just move on with your life, and tell yourself you’re free. I mean, it’s not like you live in some kind of God damned communist country or anything. Is it?