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. “
I don’t think she ever loved me.
We’d sleep together, but she
never touched me in bed.
If I tried to stroke her face,
she’d pull away in disgust
with a violent shake of contempt.
From time to time, she’d run
away but return in due time.
She didn’t seem interested in
anyone else, so we appeared
doomed to share grudging company.
Maybe she was happy cohabiting
in shared shelter with no feeling.
Maybe she really longed for love,
but dreamed only of joining
a tight pack of her own kind.
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?
The bulwark is protection
from him, not for him.
He sidles along
Touching the sides,
looking about furtively,
imagining tunnels and
catapults that could,
in another time and
circumstance, be his aids.
He’s come this far,
but in his old age
he has no choice
but to keep searching
for an opening,
for he’ll have no
ingress without invitation.
And at last, he finds
the wound in the wall,
slides through the
and follows what appears
to be light.
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.”