You would open the door to mingling aromas
of coffee, toast, perfume, and disinfectant.
After the shock of the olfactory assault,
You’d see a few toys to attract the kids
alongside perfume and various toiletries
to attract their moms. Three aisles
pretty much stretched the length of the store.
Items became more personal as you made your
way to the back. After the toys and toiletries,
you’d find grooming products, followed by
over the counter medications, with “feminine”
products, haemorrhoid creams, and laxatives
at the absolute end of the aisle. To get condoms
or prescriptions, you’d have to go to the counter
that stretched across the back of the store.
These were the earliest days of the birth control pill,
and it was only purchased in silence with no hint
given to prying bystanders that the customer at
the counter might be in search of childless sex.
To the left of the three aisles of products, you
would find two fairly comfortable booths,
big enough for six people to slide in,
three on either side with room to read a paper
or magazine while eating breakfast or lunch.
Behind the booth was a long counter with
bolted barstools inviting a brief reprieve,
but not comfortable enough to encourage lingering.
Behind the counter, you’d find the usual:
Soda fountain, griddle, toaster, sandwich counter.
You could get a standard assortment of bacon, eggs,
toast, coffee, soda, grilled cheese, or maybe a tuna sandwich.
No one complained about the menu. People rarely
complained, except to get a rise out of the soda jerk,
just for amusement and to pass the boredom.
I guess some people thought (and I was one of those people) I might lose my accent after moving to the UK. I was sort of hoping I might lose it, because I associated my East Texas accent from my youth with ignorance, bigotry, and violence. And, yes, I have been assaulted more than once or twice by someone dripping with the twangy tones of east Texas intolerance.
I always knew, but tended to put aside, the fact that my suppressed accent was similar to the voices of people like Molly Ivins, Jim Hightower, John Henry Faulk, Ann Richards, Robert Earl Keen, Dr. Red Duke, Ray Wiley Hubbard, Joe Ely, and many more. Now that I’m further away from the KKK-loving shit-kickers, I often miss the sounds of home. I miss a voice I strangled more than 40 years ago.
Lately, I’ve been trying to write and speak in the voice I lost so long ago. Coming out of the closet, so to speak. I’m stepping from the shadow of shame, I guess. It turns out you can sound like that and not be a total asshole. You can be queer, embrace religious tolerance, celebrate your neighbours’ differences, and just try to be a decent but hopelessly flawed individual (just like everybody else).
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.”
A sock of sulfur by the door,
And you better not ignore
It before going out in the woods,
Or it’s certain you would
Pick up hitchhikers in the form
Of ticks, chiggers, and no-see-ums.
It really made no difference,
You’d be facing weeks of itching,
And soaking in Calamine lotion,
Epsom salts, bleach, magic potions,
Or anything you could find
To soak in and hope to die.
Chiggers are the worst,
They’re a sentence or evil curse
From the God’s of wooded adventure
Or the demons of dark overtures.
Burrowed just under the softest skin,
Dissolving flesh and turning it to poison.
So, anyway, don’t forget the sulfur,
Before you go stomping through briars.
And be sure to take a shower when you get back
To wash off the ticks and prevent an allergy attack.
And when your done you better be sure,
To thank God for the blessings of nature.
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.
On the Texas Gulf Coast
You do a lot of laundry
In the Summer.
Humidity stays at or near
And temperatures hover
Around where skin melts.
Step outside your office,
And you’ll be drenched
Before you reach your car.
Better get the AC on full blast
And point it at the steering
Wheel until it’s cooled down
Enough to touch so you can
Drive home, cooler, but with
A persistent damp patch
In the small of your back.
Know how in the 1970s the televangelists
All had perfectly sculpted and blow-dried hair?
Well, my Daddy was at least partly responsible
For all that glitz and fancy get-up.
He didn’t do hair for anyone as famous
As Pat Robertson or Jim Bakker, but
Styled hair for some big traveling evangelists
Like Gene Williams. These guys would take the
Word of God around the world, but come back
To Galena Park to get their hair done right.
Sometimes they’d come to the house, too,
And they were always downright charming.
I used to like playing “The King is Coming”
On the piano because it started soft but
You’d be banging on the keys pretty hard
By the end of it, and my parents liked me
To play it for the preachers, even if
I wasn’t very good. And they’d always say,
“That was real good. You should be very
Proud of your boy. He’ll grow up to
Be a great Christian.”
They were always so sweet, and I think
They believed it. They made me believe
The magic. They made me believe I could
Fly when I died or even burn eternally.
They said they had to travel the world
Telling people about Jesus or else
Those people would burn forever.
They would burn forever just because
They hadn’t heard the good word.
“Why would Jesus do that,” I asked.
They said, “Because he loves us.”
In a previous century my grandfather died
Only weeks after my great uncle.
A few weeks later, my grandmother
Made a quick trip to the grocery store
And returned to find her house in flames.
Having lost her brother, husband, and home
In a matter of weeks, my uncle Skeet
(so known because as a child he was
No bigger than a mosquito or “skeeter”)
Tried to comfort his sister.
He was a country preacher with a small congregation
In the Piney Woods of East Texas, and he
Always turned to Jesus, of course, in times like these.
Attempting reassurance, he said, “Ain’t it wonderful, Sis?
This just shows that the Lord always watches over us.
No matter what, Jesus is always by your side.”
He meant, of course, that she was lucky not
To have been burned alive, but I sort of thought
The loss of everything she loved might have
Compensated for the joy of continued existence,
But people say I am just too negative.
In the current century, my grandmother
Eventually died just a few years short of
Becoming a centenarian, so I returned
To Livingston, Texas one last time.
As we gathered at my grandmother’s house
To mourn, one of my aunts complained bitterly,
“Well, we’re gonna have to fire our preacher,
‘Cause he keeps saying the BI-ble says to
Give our money to the poor. They can work for
Their own money like we did!”
Upon learning that one of her new in-laws
Was Mexican, she demanded, “Well, are ya
Legal? If you’re legal, it’s all right, but we
Don’t need any wetbacks in the family!”