Well, whatever you do, keep the gas mask

So I gotta ask, how did I get so lucky to find you free on a random Tuesday?

You know there are towns all over the world populated by just old folks and babies?

Well, this little fishing village of ours is one of them.

Shrimpers competing with Southeast Asia. Aging chemical plants dot our coast, and then out to our north arise the looming towers of glittering new gold rush.

I am a slave to that new rush. Work in mud tech up close to Cuerpo.

She shakes her head and laughs.

That has always cracked me up–Body, Texas. I mean I know we have Corpus and Padre, but Cuerpo?!

Yeh, well no one but you is laughing at Cuerpo now. The place we knew when we were kids is gone. Antebellum mansions have given over to Quonset hut villages where men drive hard and play hard.

All the other little towns in Texas feed into the workforce and scramble to find able-bodied men to fight fires and break up bar fights.

I work seven on/seven off and do handyman work on the seven off.

You should talk to Robert Cartwright. I mow for him.

That sounds good. I figure I should probably sort out at least some of the family mess before I bring in a realtor.

Well, whatever you do, keep that gas mask.

Good work, Home Girl

Well, that’s lunch, he said finally, with a look in his eye that suggested he was hungry for more than a grilled cheese sandwich.

She shook herself awake. Stammered a little, uh, yeh, can I treat you? I think I owe you–big.

No need, actually, I have a cooler in the truck. Why don’t we go down to the marina?

K. Sounds good.

She put Betsy Lee in her harness and Chris got the cooler and they walked down Orphanage to Main through Old Town right down to the slope of the sea.

She had forgotten how lovely the water could be–this was a fishing, not a tourist town, and the marina was deceptively photogenic–rich people from the big cities parked their boats there. There was a newly minted park with a pirates’ ship and cascading water feature. A fishing jetty, and a series of stone steps washed with the constant tide.

Oh my gosh, this is amazing, she exclaimed as he shared his cache of pulled pork sandwiches and peach cobbler.

You cook too?

Actually, yes. But this cobbler is mom’s.

Yum. How is your family?

He says nothing. She thinks he has missed the question. Finally he says,

Alright. Everybody doing their thing.

She assesses the way he says it. All the words string together to indicate normal, but his look suggests otherwise.

Safest to veer back to cobbler.

Your mom always could cook.

True…so whatcha gonna do with the house?

Good question. She says aloud. In her head she completes the thought–

I was gonna dump it for a dime and then beat the heck outta town, that was what I was gonna do…until you came along, Chris Graciano.

And then again out loud–I guess I will have to clean it up, sort it out, then see where I am with it.

I will be honest, every last piece of it feels exhausting.

I bet.

Years ago I went through a program of sorts. They were big into the “our daily bread” thing–just worry about today’s trouble. Gotta focus I that.

And what are today’s troubles? Food and water? Electricity?

She nods. Actually, I called about all of that. Should be on today or tomorrow. I just have to be at the house to verify the work orders.

Hm. Sounds like you got things covered. Good work, Home Girl.

Cut grass and sunshine

It turned out to be a water moccasin, drawn to the cool of the empty house with its absence of humans, presence of easy rodent meals, and proximity to water.

After uttering another string of syllables that could not rightly be described as English. she looked up with him with a mixture of fear and wonder.

How did you do that?!

He cocked his head towards her and raised his eyebrows. Not so much in astonishment at his alacrity but with her question.

Started hunting javelina with a sling shot when I was five. Guess you chuck things at varmints enough, muscle memory kicks in.

He grins at his own use of the word, “varmint.”

You pitched ball as well, I remember now.

Yep, arm and shoulder took a beating. Couldn’t compete clean so I eventually let it go.

Thank you, she said, as the force of what he had just done sank in she sank as well–into his chest.

He smelled pretty good. Cut grass and sunshine. The worn cotton of his shirt was so terribly comforting. For the first time in years and years she felt safe:

Wondered if there was any way to umbilically attach herself to this man?

They remained that way for an endless time–her eyes closed, face burrowed in his shirt, his right arm completely supporting her weight as he slowly ran his left hand from the crown of her head to the base of her neck.

Surrounded by silence and light, the crushed body of the serpent lying prone at their feet.

So what is the plan, Chief?

The back room of the house is a cavernous addition with a complicated history.

Just as she can peruse the lawn and pinpoint where the old washing shed and canning shed used to be, she can also recount the history of this room with its high ceilings and slow-moving fans.

Her grandfather used to repair boats here.

Back then the room was not a room per se, but an open structured workshop. Local fishermen would back their boats into it and Papaw would work on whatever ailed them.

It was not until his health began to falter in his late 70s that Uncle Weaver and Aunt Rhonda talked their parents into making it into a room.

They saw rows of long tables and a barbecue pit in the back. Weaver and his brother-in-law oversaw the construction and the walls and windows took shape. Everything went smoothly until they realized they had made no provision for a flue. The pit they had half finished had no outlet. There would be no way to vent the smoke.

They were resourceful men, and would have concocted a reasonable solution if Mamaw’s illness had not intervened.

Suddenly the collective vision of family reunions was derailed by a protracted battle with terminal cancer, with all the pain and indignity eclipsing any thoughts of normal life.

She stood in the room–cavernous, a room with chipped and peeling cement floors, stacks of old magazines, and the collected detritus of decades of living.

She sigh, this is going to take forever.

Chris was examining a small suitcase with a petrified gas mask and a motley collection of toy trucks.

He used his sleeve to wipe off the gas mask and then proceeded to strap it across his face. How could someone look so comical and sinister at the same time?

So what is the plan, Chief? he asked, his voice echoey and remote inside the mask.

Then several things happened simultaneously, with the stop-motion precision of adrenaline saturating her recollection of it later.

Betsy, who had opted for the relative cool of Papaw’s old leather recliner went from curled and somnolent to full-throated whoof!

Chris, in one continuous motion grabbed the metal suitcase he has fished the gas mask from, and charged at her, slamming it with lightning force and precision at a 45 degree angle to where she was standing.

She had no time to process the dog’s sudden alarm or the man’s violent swing. What had just happened here?

Before Betsy’s barking had subsided, he peeled the mask from his face and said, snake.

She turned to look at the suitcase and saw that the still writhing body of the dying snake lay trapped by the weight of the suitcase. Chris had somehow managed to throw the suitcase with such speed and precision that the snake had not had time to move or strike. It’s crushed head and upper body pinned between the weight of the case.

Shotgun habitations

The house is old. Older than air conditioning and central heat, built back when the town had a steady stream of vacationers coming down from Houston each week on an excursion train.

People came in droves seeking any relief they could from the summer heat.

They call the style of the house both tidewater (wide porch, pier and beam foundation) and shot gun, because the rooms run in a line with doors between them so that the whole house could be opened with a straight path for the gulf winds to blow through.

Shotgun because you could stand at the front door with all the others open and shoot a clean bullet through those doors without hitting a thing.

As though you could see a man do this in his own house.

I am so sorry about your uncle. Chris says as they walk through the sunroom into the dimly lit kitchen.

She nods but says nothing. The house is a story. She is afraid of the last chapters. Afraid of what she will find.

You done got purty gal

Well if it isn’t little miss thang, he sang out in an exaggerated drawl.

All grown up. You done got purty gal.

She assumed he was mocking her, in the way he would tease her when she was small and deeply peripheral to his orbit.

Once her eldest cousin had abandoned her in exasperation after she slammed a door on her little finger. He had gotten her a bag of frozen peas and then a bowl of cool water. As she could hear the sounds of laughter and a game of some sort in the driveway, he told her stories about getting up early in the morning to set decoys out for duck hunting and the way a man could lure a bird forth by working on his call.

She hated the dove hunts when the men would come back with mounds of bloodied doves, their bodies so small and helpless, shorn of all life, but still warm if you touched them.

Were there recipes for dove?

Her sympathy was with the ducks, but because he was beautiful and kind and the balm of his voice made her forget the throb of her swollen pinky, because his passion for hunting came through, she listened and remembered. Not just or even especially, his words, but the rapt fascination in his tone.

Now that she was old she understood better that men reserved that sort of passion for football and fishing, but she couldn’t help but wish that someone would…

Love her like duck hunting? What the hell was happening to her thought processes?

She could not afford these sorts of reveries.

She gestured toward the house. Have you been in there lately?

His face had been animated and full of fun until she asked him this. Then there was just the most naked pity. She hated it, not because she was proud, but because she knew his face meant the story told so concisely by the law offices of…was true and the details of it were going to be there in this old, beloved house.

She wanted to cry, but told herself to focus. Too much work to be done.

Looks like you do a nice job with the yard. Mamaw would approve. She gestures toward the freshly mowed grass, deep and lush, and an explosion of trees, azaleas, and Texas lilac framing the house like a glorious Elizabethan collar.

I’ll have to show you the saplings in the back. He gestures toward the narrow space between the carriage house and the main house.

She follows him that way, with Betsy Lee coming along behind.

Sure enough Papaw’s tool she’d has been transformed into a tree nursery. Little shoots of hack- and mulberry trees, ash, lilac, and pecan.

Chris tells her he uses root growth hormone to grow the genetic clones of trees from shorn branches, and others are from seeds.

They call the earth around her gumbo–soft and alluvial, with rich nutrients from a long ago sea.

They are beautiful, Chris. She says as she examines this nursery cache.

I noticed so many beautiful trees already out there.

Well some come up of their own accord. You gotta just watch for them when you mow.

Is the water on? How have you managed all of this since…?

Well, city water isn’t on anymore, but there is an old pump…hand-levered, miracle worker era. A real antique.

She remembers it now. Out by the old fig by the back fence.

She pulls the mailer from her bag and the keys from the envelope and moves toward the back porch of the house, fumbling a bit to get the keys out and into the door. The lock slides open and she turns the knob, smells the hot wash of sun and old wood before the door has even opened.


That River

You don’t realize it until you are old. Older.

That all those years of homey witticisms were mostly cadged from Herodotus.

He shaped the stories. Mixed in gumbo and racial prejudice. Played fast-and-loose with the Indians. Real and Native American.

The first because he could and the second because they were blood.

Honey, you some Dr. Pepper? He had a way of drinking it that more resembled rodeo riding than drinking. He shook the bottle hard with his mouth already over the opening.

Fizz shooting he called them. But it looked dangerous to you.

You drank your soda pop like a regular lady–with a straw and an even draw.

He is in the middle of the story about a local minstrel who ran afoul of some nefarious shrimpers. They got drunk and ornery and demanded he pay more for his trip back from The Island to Point Comfort.

Made him put his tuxedo on. Then made him jump overboard anyway.

But you know that man made it home? Said dolphins nosed him all the way to Palacios.

When he told the local justice of the peace, it took him three hours and a trip to the local doctor to convince them it was true.

Pirates, girl. This world is full of pirates.

Cousins with fancy toys

Uncle Reid, Aunt Rhonda’s husband was a quiet man with a knack for capitalizing on the infrastructure needs of the oil boom.

This meant a steady stream of gifts of accelerated value and then horsepower for the cousins from Dry Creek.

They had a wealth of family on their father’s side as well, which meant that when Mamaw and Papaw and sometimes Uncle Weaver visited them the sense of smallness you felt was magnified by the rich amusements of your cousins.

With their voices like sugar cubes in ice tea and their fearless beauty.

They sang loud, played hard and attracted boys like shoo-fly pie.

And you, in your quiet watchfulness found yourself lapsing into the vaguer similes of southern matrons.

Durn the road.

And there was Chris Graciano, Adonis of your long-forgotten childhood, standing there before you all real-and-growed-up. But so much like the boy you once knew who tucked you into his overalls hanging in your cousins’s closet so you could stay still and quiet and win a game of hide-and-seek.

So many years ago.

Your face only older

It is in the midst of a dream about swimming–the pool in the subconscious has been partially drained, the rules tell her she must wait, she labors to perform the Australian crawl in what amounts to inches of water, she sees a drain at the end of the pool hemorrhaging water. How can she staunch the flow? And what is the tick, tick, tick growing louder and more insistent?

She is startled awake by the trio of real-world sensations–knocking on glass, heat and a human face peering down at her with a blaze of sun eclipsing any shot at distinct facial features.

Where the hell is Betsy Lee?! she wonders as she instinctively swings at him.

Whoa there, Tex, he chastens her calmly, preventing her slap but then holding her hand in a way that was disconcertingly inviting.

You look familiar. He says squinting at her features and using his free hand to make a frame through which to examine her.

Not from around these parts?

She means to say–my dog-gone birth certificate is from around these very parts Mister. Now where is my dog?!

But what comes out resembles air being released from a tire more than English.

He shifts a little and she sees he is grinning. Grinning and still holding onto her hand.

She pulls it back and purses her lips.

Who the hell are you and where is my dog? This time in actual English.

He moves his chin casually in the direction of the front porch where Betsy can be seen sniffing the canna lilies in the flower boxes.

Her annoyance deflates in the relief of seeing the dog and the steady sense that man and dog have gotten acquainted during her sleep-swim.

You often run dry and end up sleeping in old folk’s driveways?

Yep. Actually I do. I am writing a book–private drives of the coastal plains I have met and conquered.

I admit the title is unwieldy.

Hm. He glances up in a look of studied concentration. Maybe could use some tweaking.

But seriously, you do look familiar. You know the folks who live here?

Maybe. You know, I could ask you the same question. What are you doing out here on Orphanage Road so early in the morning and uninvited to?

Hm..not the right tone, little missy. 11 am is not exactly the crack o’ dawn and I am in fact invited.

I have been mowing this lawn for the last couple years, now, I reckon.

She rubbed her face in rhetorical defeat. Best fess up, she guessed.

This is my grandparents’ house. I drove down to…

It seemed way too complicated to explain her reasons for driving down.

Chris Graciano, he announced, grabbing her hand with both of his and pumping it vigorously in an exaggerated gesture of welcome.

You must be…Laura or Julia? Miss Rhonda’s daughters? I used to hunt with Jack and Dwayne when they went down to The Land.

No…those are my cousins.

She looked straight ahead as she said this, almost wishing she had said yes and gone with impersonating one of her pitch-perfect cousins.

His eyes widened and his mouth dropped at the same time in what would have been a comic gesture of surprise if she had retained an sense of humor about her own identity.

Cindy Lou Who?!! Is it really you?!

Durn She thought. Durn that road.

Never the same river twice

You want a place you love to stay the same forever. You want the people to be there—the same. The coffee brewing in the kitchen–the same. The old black rotary phone on the recessed shelf in the hallway by the bath, a dial tone still on the phone…the same number…same area code, the ring and click of each digit a reminder of the years of calling home.

The slow, even tick of the clock on the wall in the kitchen, a heartbeat.

Uncle Weaver comes through from the back porch, careful to close, not slam, the screen door or Mamaw will give him what-for, careful to extract yesterday’s brisket and beans from the ice box.

Girl, he says to me, you wanna go fishing?


We get down to The Land and drive the pickup down across the field to where the river runs. The cows regard us with sleepy suspicion.

He has already begun asking me if I think the alligator will be lurking in the shallows by the red cedar.

All the rivers in Texas run to the sea all with their pretty names, women and saints with hibiscus flowers in their hair–Trinity, and Guadalupe, and Sabine and Angelina.

He hands me stuff–tackle box and styrofoam bucket full of minnows. I wonder what would happen if we just let them all go free. Do we even like to eat fish? We come for other things.

You don’t realize till afterward that the story telling is a blood and bones thing, that it is a piece of him and will be a piece of you. That the danger is in who you tell and how you tell it, that facts are immaterial and always have been. That fishing for nothing and fishing for significance are both activities that do not require a license.

Only what you catch and hold and skin and kill requires the intervention of the state.

Never mind that anyway, girl, he says, this is private property here. A testament to what happens when rich men have only daughters.