Thursday, December 24, 2009

More Attic Tapes, ii

More from my story "Bitterroot," followed by a Patty Loveless soundtrack. Call this one for the Duchess and my Lovelesslorn brother AVD...

They stopped off in Taylor at the Whore and Crackhouse Bar-B-Q for ribs. Not the name of the place, mind you, but so dubbed years ago by Traci, in honor of the two-legged rodents that frequented the place. Big Depot, said the sign on the rat-trap across the alley from the old train station. Traci swore the house sauce was good enough to cure the STD’s she was sure were on the counter seats they sat on.

“God and Mary couldn’t make a better sauce,” said Traci, her chin dripping with the essential oil.

“Hell, God and Mary are in the sauce,” said Ray. In his zest for slobbering up the sauce and bones, his Monte hit the floor.

“And there it will stay,” said the den mother.

Ben, as sanctified by the holy meat as his partners, just ate. And swiped white bread across his and their plates.

“Cleanest these will ever get,” said Ray, admiring Ben’s technique.

They made San Antonio by late afternoon, wrangled through the loop traffic, and then drove down McCullough to the corner of Basse, right next to the Optimist Club baseball diamond. Clay Jenkins never disclosed just how he managed to commandeer such a fine piece of real estate for the season. The chain link fencing was up, as were the first round of trees standing in military formation, remnants of Clay’s twenty years as an army warrant officer. That was about all that was left—the rest had turned to gray ponytail, ear stud, and an unadorned passion for Patty Loveless. He scorched the earth in pursuit of Patty concerts like a one man horde of Deadheads. Several tree lots across central Texas kept Clay flush for the rest of the year, and in hot pursuit of his fleshly grail.

Clay was talking to a pair of men as Ben maneuvered the truck up onto the curb and backed the trailer into position beside the trees. Clay walked over to the truck and leaned up against the driver side door.

He smiled big, flashed his gold tooth, with the PL inlay. “Queen and her court. How you doin’, Miz Traci?”

“I’ll be better, soon as you give me a big hug,” she said.

They all climbed out of the truck, and six foot four Clay bear-hugged Traci off the ground.

“Mmm, patchouli,” said Traci. “Nice spice.”

“The one time I found myself in the elevator at Austin City Limits with Ms. Patty, I could have sworn she was wearing it. I hope to God it wasn’t her bass player. Hadn’t been for him, I’d have been on my knees swearing fealty.”

“Surprised that stopped you,” said Ben.

“Me, too,” said Clay. “How you doin’, BenBoy?”

“Been better. Trees smell nice.”

Clay nodded over to his truck. “Have a beer. Cure what ails you.”

“I’ll pass,” said Ben. “The trees’ll fix me up.”

“It’s a nice crop. I slept on a pile of them last night. SAPD tried to run me off, until I saw the palms out for greasing. Lemme introduce you to your crew.”

Jacinto was an honor student and fullback over at Edison High School, son of a drinking buddy of Clay’s. They’d both finished up their twenty years together at Fort Sam, the local army base. Victor was about fifty-five, stout as an ox, and like Ben, a yearly victim of seasonal downsizing by a local landscaper.

Ben and Ray and the two crewmen got the trailer all hooked up and ready, while Clay and Traci browsed the trees and then sat on his tailgate with a couple of Lone Star longnecks. Patty’s Mountain Soul was playing on the truck’s CD player, sending just the right poignant touch into the dimming light. She wore him like a lock and chain /Only in dreams she spoke his name. The traffic lights and brake lights kept it all from turning thoroughly maudlin, though things never got maudlin around Clay Jenkins. When the trailer work was finished, Clay joined the other men and piled a cord of wood next to the trailer. Nothing like an outdoor fire in a fifty gallon barrel when the nights turned bitter.

Prep work done, Clay treated everyone to dinner over at Café de la Rosa, where Rose the owner was second only to Patty on Clay’s list of beauties he would die for. He’d nearly died for his country in Nam, and swore he would never nearly die for anything that foolish ever again. Rose Hinojosa was a dark beauty in her early fifties, who could certainly give the younger Patty a run for her money. Clay joked that he was glad Rose had a lousy singing voice or he’d be in big trouble.

The cheese enchiladas were just right, onions cooked inside the drippy tubes, just the way they should be. Woodsmoke in the refried beans, wet rice, and guacamole that Ray wanted to smear on his face, it was so good. Ben ventured past the usual cheese enchiladas and ordered the chicken enchiladas con mole. Halfway through the dish, he asked Rose to forget about Clay and marry him instead. Margaritas—no ice—and then coffee with chicory to go with the flan and tres leches. They stumbled around the corner to Paco’s for bluegrass and conjunto, a combustible combination. An Irish accordionist stepped on stage during the last set and unleashed glorious and downright apocalyptic mayhem. It was three in the morning before Clay dropped the three travelers back off at the tree lot. Ray climbed into the Ram cab to sleep, leaving Ben and Traci to the two cots in the trailer. Traci, barely able to stand straight, started digging into a pile of boxes at the back of the trailer.

“What the hell?” said Ben, whose world was spinning.

Traci, who would have preferred an autistic silence at the moment, slurred out, “I’m trying to … I’m … try … ing … to … to … find that … god … god … damned … goddamned box!”

Ben thought he answered, “What box?” but he didn’t. Not out loud, anyway.

The goddamned box was a shoe box with two strands of colored Christmas lights inside. In the obsessive way of all drunks teetering on the abyss, there was no way in hell Traci could go to sleep until the lights were up. She slipped outside into the cold night and started unraveling the lights. The trees kept her company, as did a couple of cars that slowly cruised through the intersection. An odd little crossroads Clay Jenkins had nicked for his seasonal business. On the southwest corner, past the baseball diamonds was a sleepy little neighborhood of duplex bungalows. Northwest was an open field of shaggy grass and mesquite trees. Northeast, across from that, an old doddering golf course, and on the southeast corner a handful of soccer fields. Train tracks were just beyond the fields and cutting through the golf course—a squeal of wheels came rolling through just as Traci started hanging the lights from the corners of the trailer, nothing fancy, just a single wraparound. She sat on the tiny stoop and looked up at the big Optimist Club logo painted on the two story building behind home plate. A door on the first floor was open just a crack: mudroom and toilet, a sink good enough for spit baths. Cold water only, so quick spit was about all you wanted.

Three words circled the Optimist Club logo: Character. Courage. Loyalty. Traci marveled, as only a four o’clock in the morning inebriate can, at the clarity of such optimism, and wondered what three words might encircle a Traci Augmon logo, should her name ever be splashed on the side of a baseball diamond storage building and press box. Treacherous. Foolhardy. Lost. Not exactly words to inspire you to sacrifice bunt or slide into home base. How, she wondered, do you find the courage or foolishness inside to slap the moniker of optimist on your forehead or pin its logo to your lapel? Father Al Durbin, who roamed the halls of Mercy back in Montgomery as its chaplain—now there was a relentless optimist, constitutionally incapable of complaint or despair or seeing anything but a silver lining in whatever threadbare trailer trash life story came his way. Hospice wing, perinatal ICU, fifth floor locked ward head cases, the leper colony of mothers who’d lost their babies in Labor and Delivery—it did not matter what site of human misery he wandered into, even the staff lounge on a bad knife and shotgun night in Emergency, the man’s big moon face shone brightly, words of blithe encouragement spilling from his lips, a stat injection of mirth into the bleakest gloom. Traci had first thought him an abject lunatic and, for the first six months she’d known him, had wanted to take him outside to the dumpsters and beat the shit out of him with a two by four. Dedicated roving insomniac that he was, he managed to ruin far too many of her night shifts with his hapless porridge of Kahlil Gibran, Rod McKuen, and come to Jesus drivel. Then that first Christmas Eve night on a floating shift down with the leper mothers, she’d watched him coax a woman back to life who had eluded all the efforts of a phalanx of goons from the Psychiatry and Social Work departments, bow-tied tweedmongers and sailor-suited matrons who after two weeks of failure even to get to first base with their Elizabeth Kübler Ross death and dying song and dance, had decided why not a little electro-shock cocktail, the default position of every tweedy-bird constitutionally incapable of shutting up and sitting still in the presence of a grief that knows no bounds and doesn’t cooperate with a hefty splash of Prozac and a five day authorization of benefits. The thirty-six year old woman was sitting in the day room by herself in front of a snowy TV screen full of singing Mormons. Her hair was a greasy mess, her naked ass peeking out from the back of her patient gown. The first time Traci saw her, she’d thought of Van Gogh’s painting “Sorrow.” Even the leper colony’s own Nurse Rommel clone had given up on trying to get the woman to bed and simply left her in her chair in front of the TV. A week before Christmas, after six years of treatment with Montgomery Infertility’s finest, the woman gave birth to three stillborn babies. From the nursing station, Traci had cringed when she saw Al Durbin plant his fat ass in the chair beside Sorrow and begin to croak along with the singing Mormons at the top of his lungs. Fifteen minutes later, Traci looked up from her charts to see Sorrow standing in front of her with the sweetest smile on her face. “I hate to badmouth the good father, Nurse,” she said, “but isn’t that the godawfulest noise you’ve ever heard? Could you please offer him my apologies and tell him I just had to get some sleep?” Winked as she walked off. Traci was ever so happy to shut down the padre’s concert, and add to her list of things that irritated her about him, missing entirely the miracle of the woman sashaying off to her bedroom with a wink. The next evening she heard laughter from down the hall in the woman’s room and a gorgeous tenor voice singing it’s the most wonderful time of the year. A few minutes later, Al Durbin walked out of the room and wished Traci a very merry Christmas. And winked as he walked off. Never again did she mistake optimism as a neurological variation on mindlessness. She took to making extra pimento sandwiches to share with Al and was frankly moved by his assurances that he was praying for her, despite what she presumed were the ineffectual results.

Traci liked the glow of the Christmas lights on her hands, and was tempted to light a fire in the barrel and stay out longer in the shivering cold. In the end, she simply walked once through the artificial forest of spruce and fir and pine and then climbed into the trailer where Ben was half on, half off his cot. There was as much icy air in as out of the trailer. She climbed into her cot fully clothed and pulled on a couple of extra Mexican blankets—toasty enough, except for her face. She felt like she was lying in Candyland, the Christmas lights sugarcoating the otherwise dismal little camper. Train wheels squealed again a quarter of a mile off, a car stopped at the intersection, Brubeck’s “Take Five” piping into the night from its speakers. Windows open in that wind?, thought Traci, trailing off with Desmond’s solo. Had to be—a voice from the car says, “Dig that cat!” Traci dug him, too, and like a light was out.

Sunday morning, Jacinto and Victor were on the job bright and early, tending to a few stray customers, but mostly putting last minute touches on the lot. The travelers were dead to the world until Clay rolled in on his Harley, bumped Ben out of bed and onto the back of the hawg for a business meeting at Rose’s. Bloody Mary with pickled okra and a stout jalapeño started the resuscitation, followed by an incendiary plate of huevos rancheros and refrieds, flour tortillas hot off Rose’s comal for sopping up the fiery mess. Half an hour into the meeting, Ben had a nice sweat going and could just begin to stand the light outside. Ben and Clay had been through this last minute drill enough times that it was really just one more chance to visit before Clay took off for his circuit of half a dozen other tree lots up in the hill country. Ben’s lot was not the plum, not by a long shot, but it suited him just fine.

Traci had coffee and hot milk going in the trailer’s little galley kitchen when Ben and Clay got back to the lot; Bob Marley CD on the boombox. Clay declined the coffee, but gave her a big squeeze. It was clear that Jacinto was the latest adolescent to fall for Ms. Augmon. He tried to keep his mind on the work at hand, but kept coming around to see if he could lend Traci a hand, blushing like a merry elf. Victor was not smitten, but he’d completely given up on working for the moment. He rigged up an awning for the trailer, laid out a large square of Astroturf, and sat in a rusty folding chair beside a card table, playing Spit with the tag team of Traci, Jacinto (who blushed even more when their hands accidentally touched), and a still beleaguered Ray.

Clay harleyed off, Ben made rounds of the lot, greeted a pair of customers. He told Victor and Jacinto to take it easy for a while longer, since they’d carried the load through most of the weekend. Pulled on a pair of rawhide gloves—his customers were interested in Scotch pine. “Porcupine trees,” said the young daughter of one of them. She had the wide open look that Brooke had at that age, before life—pitiful schools and boys and Ben’s own melancholy—slammed into her. Under Gothic makeup and a shambling wardrobe, it was hard for most to see that seven-year-old Brooke anymore, but Ben could, which was one of the reasons she still came around his apartment to visit. Usually about two in the morning, rousting him out of bed, mercilessly teasing him about his pajamas, introducing him to her latest partner in gloom, invariably another girl in Dracula garb, drinking up all the packets of Swiss Miss he saved for just such occasions, while gabbing on about poets and authors and folk singers that Ben knew she would only know about from the years she spent snooping in his books from the library and in his CDs out in his old Honda before it finally died and rendered him footloose. Melanie was not a reader, nor oddly enough was librarian-in-training Vanessa who, smart as she was, had the mind of a savvy file clerk. Ben had the pleasure of meeting their father Brad in between his stays at Parchman. Clearly a brilliant man to have twice almost pulled off the ambitious robberies he planned, but no evidence that he was ever moved by the likes of Kerouac or Hardy or Li-Young Lee. Or Greg Brown, for that matter. The two o’clock visits, Ben realized, were a bit of show and tell for Brooke, never one to deny her impenitent father, but still proud to show off her quirky and bookish stepdad, his social ineptitude notwithstanding.

Ben sold and loaded the two porcupine trees with only minor cuts and accepted a hefty tip from the little Brooke-alike, which he promptly put in the communal tip jar. He could see that a brew-renewed Ray was itching to hit the road, while all the while Traci was dragging her feet. They’d finished Spit and she’d pulled out the dominoes, sure fire revenge on Victor’s domination of the tag team.

“Let me put this communist in his place, Mr. Barnes,” said Traci, winking at Victor and nudging Jacinto at her side. “You might want to do something about that hair, Ray—and change out of those nasty clothes. Nothing against last night’s fun—I had a great time myself—but, I’d rather not smell it all over again on the way back to Alabama.”

Ben sat down for another cup of coffee on the other side of Traci and watched her hands on the tiles. Nothing fifty about those hands, there had always been something downright girlish about them, smooth, unwrinkled, clean simple nails. She was rightfully vain about them, bragged that she’d never bothered with nail polish, always quick with the refrain of “why bother with perfection?” In the middle of the back of her right hand there was a tan birthmark about the size of a silver dollar; this, too, she was proud of—swore it mesmerized her domino foes, not to mention the likes of not a few of the many who’d fallen for her through the years. It looked more like a miniature painting than a blemish. An Indian mehndi artist in Houston once complimented her for the mark, mistaking it initially as a lovely bit of hand painting. “Who did this for you?” the woman asked, fearful of a competitor in her midst. Traci laughed and said, “God,” and showed the woman her mistake. The artist touched her clasped hands to her forehead, bowed and replied, “Indeed, the ultimate painter.”

About four in the afternoon, Ray finally pried Traci loose from the table. She kissed the hand Victor extended to shake, and kissed a swooning Jacinto smack on the lips. Ray and Ben completed their ritual bear hug and back slap, and then Ray climbed behind the wheel of the truck. No one had told Jacinto or Victor of any of the history or politics of the three travelers, but both of them sensed that Ben and Traci were in need of a little privacy for their farewell. A pair of customers drove up just in time to occupy them.

Traci looked for the boy, saw that he was safely hidden, not even peeking. She reached to hug Ben with one arm around his neck, but he pulled her close with both arms around her and held on. Tears filled her eyes; she couldn’t see the tears in his, but she could feel the little jump in his chest that always signaled he was trying to hold them in.

“You just let them go, baby,” she whispered into his ear, and put her other arm around him.

Ben was afraid that if he let go of her he would break apart. Normally impatient Ray refrained from tapping on the horn, knowing full well Traci would have his head if he did. She stroked her ex-husband’s back up and down his spine, felt his struggle to keep everything in, and saw, oddly enough, a flash of the image of him and Cindy in her bed—saw it as God might have seen it in His own living room, beer in hand, big body leaning back into His lazyboy recliner, blip of a summer rerun on His old twenty inch Magnavox, haven’t I seen this before?, mildest of curiosity, reach for the remote, surfing away.

The shuddering finally eased; Ben patted her back his trademark three times and stepped back. She put a hand behind his head, pulled him to her and kissed his cheek.

“Merry Christmas, Bennie,” she said, and walked to the truck. He watched their taillights head down Basse, cross the tracks, and curve off to the freeway around the bend. To give himself something to do, he walked back to the card table, put the dominoes back in their box and drank off the dregs of Traci’s coffee cup.



Blogger Teresa said...

Something about this one sure struck a chord (I won't tell you whether or not it was the devil's 4th.) Where is your MERRY christmas spirit?

3:50 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Teresa: At the end of the story, naturally. I'll track down the rest of the pieces for easier access, but they were posted in last year's December archives. You're reading your way in that direction.

8:27 PM  
Blogger Dee Martin said...

more like bitterSWEET - there's something about these amethyst folks, shells cracked, broken open where the beauty lives. Favorite line :"kahlil Gibran, Rod McKuen, and come to Jesus drivel" - loved that Traci wanted to take a two by four to him.

10:51 AM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Dee: I have to admit that I did indeed love reading that paragraph again, after not seeing it for a while. Glad you're romping with the gemstones...

10:57 AM  

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