From the edge of the swamp

Location: marengo, il, United States

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Wild Daisies

Here you gather to sway in the breeze
Magical beauties at ease
Gentle, peaceful
How do you do?

My good fortune happened coming this way
Most grateful I found you at play
Wondrous sweetness
So perfectly true

Right from the start
Chasing off blues
Sing to my heart
That's what you do

Your balance gives agreeable charm
Oblivious to hazards or harm
Facial colors
Do restore mine

Living here among your butterflies
Sleeping under star-dusty skies
Offers hopes
Made without words

Providing so much
So much from so few
Before I must go
How do you do?

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Itinerant Hippies

First time I met Zack, he was relaxing on a worn-out couch in Eyeball’s cramped living room. I had swung by the trailer that night to see if I could score me a lid.

Zack wore one of those low-crowned leather hats, and he looked exactly the way a true hippie should, especially with the lit joint he was holding. As soon as I took a seat, he leaned forward and passed the thing over to me, so I took it. Amanda stayed over by the stove in her kitchen, stirring at a skillet while the two of us on the couch waited for Eyeball to finish his shower.

Zack holds his breath, and as I hand the joint back he tells me confidentially,

“He has some really good shit this time, man.”

Eyeball is the lead foreman at the plant where I work. I’m stuck inside, sitting all day at a drafting table in a small office. There I draw up plan-and-elevations for the fiberglass tanks they make out in the large metal building, which stands right outside my window. Him and Tiny oversees a crew of around twenty people, and both of them two men seem to be feared by everybody out in the shop.

I go out there occasionally, just to stretch my legs and see what the guys are working on, and right from the start, I suspected most of them probably smoked weed.

It turns out I was right.

I asked this one Mexican kid one day if he knew where I could buy some, and he stands up from where he had been rolling out a large, wet sheet of woven glass, and he nods over at where Eyeball was standing before he gets back to his task.

Eyeball is an intimidating character. He never wears any sort of patch over his bad eye, and when you talk to him, he looks right at you like he knows exactly what you want to ask him, but all he does is stare and wait, like he is daring you to get up your nerve.

When I said what it was that I was after, he just spit on the dirt floor, and then he told me to drop by his trailer after work. He sounded disgusted when he said it, too.

So here I am, trading a doobie back and forth with Zack while Amada is cooking, when Eyeball comes walking down the hall. He’s all dressed except for his bare feet, and he scowls when he tosses a bag my way. I think I was supposed to roll one to share with everybody, but I was having such an uneasy feeling by then that I just paid the man and took my stuff and left.

The next day I run into Zack out in the shop, and we both got to talking for a bit. He ends up inviting me over to his place later. He seemed like an okay sort so I took him up on it. Besides all that, him and his old lady lives in a school bus they own, so that had me curious too. I hadn’t been around any hippies ever since leaving Texas, and to run across a couple here in this small town in South Carolina brought back some fond memories. Later that night I went over to see Zack and meet Sara, and to check out what sort of place they had.

They took a regular old school bus, removed all the seats, and then fixed it up pretty much the way they liked it. They had traveled all over the States, they said, and usually stayed in any given place for awhile before moving on. Zack had just hired on at our shop, and for now, their current address was a quiet stretch of a country road on the outskirts of town.

Their friendly German Shepherd dog nuzzled my hand almost the whole time I was being shown around, and I listened while Sara told me about something that happened late one night, after guessing their animal must be a pretty good guard dog.

“Oh, he’s a real coward, I’ll tell you what. Whenever anybody comes along, he might perk up his ears and look where the sound’s coming from, but then he goes to hide.”

“You mean he never even barks?”

“Nope. He don’t have to, though.”

And she looks over at Zack and smiles.

Now Zack, he is not much bigger than me, so I ask what she means.

“Well, one night Rebel’s ears shoot up, and with me an Zack laying there in bed with him, he jumps down and goes up underneath it. We could see headlights outside shining in through the windshield, and pretty soon we heard a bunch of voices outside. Now most of the time, folks we meet are pretty tolerant, but this night we could tell was different.”

“Whoa! So then what happened?”

“Oh, nothing, really. As soon as I spoke, they took off like a pack of scared rabbits.”

Sara looked like she could run a five-hundred-yard dash inside a phone booth, which makes anything she might say sound pretty harmless when it comes to sounding tough, so I asked her,

“What was it you said?”

“Oh, no Zack! Don’t be using the shotgun!”

Saturday, May 28, 2005

If the End Fits, Print It

I should probably write an epilog to add to the many chapters I just finished, and someday, perhaps I might. For now though, I will be brief, knowing that us bloggers can be an impatient bunch of blobs.

After catching several rides with kindly motorist who could not bear the sight of a poor man pushing a bicycle along the roadside, I met the family of Alicia. They, and as I had earlier suspected, were not too impressed with my unannounced arrival, nor any of my verbal credentials, although they all acted civil enough from the start.

But after marrying their one and only daughter months later, I have managed (so far) to not get beaten up by either her dad or any of her five brothers for over twenty years now.

Friday, May 27, 2005

A Farewell

Frank stops by my tent early, and he starts right off by asking me nosy questions.

“Hey, you awake in there?”

I crawl outside and zip the screen shut while he hovers a few feet away. Then when I turn around, I see Frank looks worried about something.

“Didn’t Alicia say she was a school teacher?”

“Well yeah, she did. Why?”

He eyes me suspiciously for a moment, and then he motions up the beach toward the pavilion.

“You haven’t heard about the murder that happened last week?”

“What are you talking about, Frank?”

I get the impression he is ready to take off running.

“They found some woman schoolteacher up there in her tent with her throat slashed a couple of days ago.”

Frank can get excitable at times, but my words eventually convince him Alicia really did leave here safely, and he calms down some.

“Look. I’m about ready to leave Malaquite myself. So whenever you want, let’s take a ride into town so I can sell my cans.”

His face lights up at that.

“You decided you’re going up to Illinois, huh?”

I offer to buy him gas for the trip, so he tells me to be ready around noon. He turn to leave then, and for the next half-hour I go take a last solitary walk down the beach.

A steady off-shore breeze has already begun to blow, and it feels refreshing. The sun is now starting to heat up the air around me. Off on the horizon, a bank of dark clouds stretches from north to south, while overhead, the sky is clear.

The shoreline itself looks almost deserted except for a few washed-up jellyfish and the scattered clumps of golden-brown seaweed I pass on by. Tiny crabs crawl in and around the tangled masses, all searching for food among the wet leaves. Down closer to the water, beds of periwinkles have been exposed by the receding tide. Spent waves still lap at their numbers, leaving them wet and sparkling.

Farther on I meet and disturb a couple of stray gulls who stand facing the morning sun, warming themselves. Each laughs as they both rise into the air and fly off. Out in the flattened parts of the surf, a lone black-winged skimmer expertly plows his bright-orange and black beak through the foaming waters, flying just above the surface. All in all, it looks to be a typical but most glorious kind of day.

On the way back to the tent I pick up my pace.

Once there, I begin packing up the few clothes I own. That takes little time to accomplish, and I start to feel the excitement well up as I arrange things inside the knapsack. Next I go down to Frank’s car to drop off my two bags in his back seat, and I put the bike and my knapsack in the trunk. Then, taking my shaving kit, my only towel and my new Mello Yello tee shirt I won, I go visit the pavilion for one final cold shower before we hit the road.

Just for old times sake, I scrounge a few cans on the way there, and after trading them for cash at the snack bar, I buy one more burrito and a last carton of chocolate milk. Then I go outside to sit and watch the tourists while my hair dries, and I eat.

As soon as I have a seat on top of one of the picnic tables, a blue school bus pulls up in the parking lot. On the side of the bus is painted the name of a high school, along with a name of some town or city up in far-away Michigan. After the door swings open, a mob of loud teens begins to spill out, and they immediately stampede toward the shade of the pavilion, all the while yelling and screaming and laughing. The place goes into an uproar for the next ten minutes as they dash and dart between the snack bar and the gift shop.

One group gathers near the rail overlooking the beach, and there they jostle each other for a better view of the expansive gulf. I chew slowly while observing all the madness.

Then an adult in charge claps his hands and announces that it’s time to leave.

“Back on the bus, guys. Let’s go, let’s go!”

One of the girls, her camera held focused on the beach and waves below turns her head and begs the man for a little more time.

“Please, please? I just want to get a few more pictures of the lake.”

A few minutes later, the area returns to normal again as students and the blue bus leaves the parking lot. Then I notice the two men wearing suits. And they are both noticing me, as well, and they stroll over to my table.

The one that speaks first has a set of steely eyes.

“What are you doing here?”

I stare right back and reply.

“I’m finishing my burrito.”

He gives my bare and tanned chest a once-over.

“No, I mean here at the beach. Have you been here long?”

“Yeah, for a few weeks. Why?”

The second man leans over and peers down into my shaving kit which sits opened beside me. My tee shirt lays neatly folded next to my towel.

“Do you mind if I look through that?”

I have nothing to hide from the cops, so I nod.

He rummages inside the bag for a moment. The other man’s eyes glisten when the first one pulls out my pair of scissors, and Detective Steel Eyes demands to know.

“What are those for?”

It is hard to keep from grinning at these two.

“To keep my beard trimmed.”

The other detective holds the scissors up to the light and turns them slowly while his partner crowds in for a closer look. One points to a smudge on the blade.

“That looks like blood right there.”

I lean forward to see.

“It looks more like rust to me.”

These guys must think I murdered that schoolteacher.

They step back and talk low for a second. Then the friendlier one asks,

“Do you mind if we keep these?”

“How am I supposed to trim my beard?”

They talk again before he makes an offer.

“I’ll tell you what. How about if we give you ten dollars in exchange for them and your name and a current address. That way we can run some tests later.”

“I don’t know, guys. Those are some good scissors.”

It makes both of the bright men happy to get my pair of scissors, along with my full name and only my social security number for their records, and I become more than pleased to end up with a crisp twenty-dollar bill -- three times what my old shears were worth.

Frank is both astonished as well as tickled to hear what just happened.

“Somebody up there must really like you, man.”

“I think you might be right, Frank.”

The car lurches and bounces as we drive through a cut in the dunes to reach the main highway, and soon we are both soaring towards town with all of the windows rolled down. We begin the approach to the same bridge where the Opal first began acting up. Frank gets to the crest, and as we cruise over the top, he pounds the dashboard and curses.

The wind is fierce, and I have an arm held back on one of the bags, and I shout.

“What’s the problem?”

He yells over the noise,

“The frigging car just died on me.”

How can this happen twice, and in the same location?

We coast to a stop at the bottom of the hill, and for a few minutes he goes under the hood to have a look before he slams it back down again. He crawls back behind the wheel with a long look on his face.

“Looks like we are going to have to hitchhike into town. One of the belts broke.”

I have my two huge bags of cans. Frank has his blood he wants to sell.

“Let me get my bike out, and we’ll catch us a ride easy.”

“Forget about them cans, dude. That’s too much for us to carry.”

He is right about that, too.

We both arrive at the blood bank together, Frank and me. I have my pack on my back and my bicycle at my side. We both agree that he gets to keep the cans to help pay for any repairs to his car. I go inside and get myself another twenty dollars for giving blood, and an hour later I am on the road, peddling myself north.

I have forty dollars in my pocket now, so I know I’ll get by.

Somehow, I always do.

Thursday, May 26, 2005


Martin and Modge drag the dome back closer to the dunes late Saturday where they have now decided to sleep, and after recounting the day’s events around another bonfire, we all manage to rest soundly during the second night.

Today is Sunday morning. The sun has been up for less than an hour when I find Martin sitting on the hood of the Opal. Both car doors are open, and Modge is laying on his back, sprawled across the front seat. Martin glumly tosses a Frisbee up in the air.

“Where are all these girls you promised?”

An old brown sedan stops on the beach road between the car and the surf. Frank is behind the wheel, and he saves me from an embarrassing explanation when he calls out,

“I’m heading over to Laguna Madre for a couple of hours. Anybody want to come along?”

Frank knows a great place to fish, he tells us, so Alicia and I decide to leave the two teens behind and let them fend for themselves for awhile.

“Sure, we’ll go with you.”

The two of us then spend the rest of the morning wading barefoot out in the shallows of the huge lagoon while Frank stays closer to shore, casting his pole. Windsurfers glide by us as she and I search the murky waters with out toes.

Then Alicia calls out excitedly,

“I have another one!”

While she stands still, I carefully feel around her feet until I catch the little thing, and then as I hold it up, we both let out a cheer.

This makes almost a dozen of the blue-eyed scallops we have caught so far, and the creatures seem to be laying on the bottom everywhere.

“Here’s one! Here’s one!”

A jeep pulls up next to Frank’s car and stops, and then a ranger gets out. By now our count has nearly doubled.

The man acts friendly when he asks,

“What are you folks catching today?”

We proudly open my knapsack to show off the amount of shellfish inside.

“Do either of y’all happen to have a fishing license on you?”

I look at her and she looks at me.

“But we aren’t fishing.”

And I quickly add on,


The ranger is a friendly sort, and he proves it by letting us off with a warning.

“I really should confiscate those, you know. Those are technically considered fish here in Texas, since they never anchor themselves to the bottom like clams do.”

He goes on to explain how the scallop will propel itself through the water when threatened.

Maybe our taking a big interest in everything he had to say saved us, or maybe he felt compelled to let the two young lovers escape unharmed, or maybe our promising not to collect anymore did the trick. In any case, we three return to Malaquite afterwards, and with a bag of fresh and very delicious scallops to steam and enjoy.

Monday morning, Frank follows the Opal with his car as we drive in search of a mechanic. After a twenty-minute wait inside a local garage, a bearded man stands beside the engine compartment where he gives us the bad news.

“This might take a couple of days just to locate the parts.”

I can live with that. Alicia seems to be fine with it, too.

The only bad thing about the next two days is that they fly by much too fast, but every hour -- each and every minute -- she and I spent together.

She looks at me dreamily as we consider what to do.

“You could come back to Illinois with us.”

I think about how I look, and who I am.

Hi, mom. Hi, dad. Look what I found laying on the beach down in Texas.

“I don’t think anyone would approve, do you?”

My next words sound hollow, and she looks doubtful.

“Maybe I’ll come up later. I would have to get a job here and save up some money first…”

On the way to pick up her car on the last day, Frank speaks his mind.

“He is acting a lot more friendly ever since you got here, Alicia.”

Martin and his pal Modge climb inside the packed Opal, and both are ribbing me good-naturedly about the girls who never once showed up. I give the driver a goodbye kiss, and then watch as the little white car leaves the beach for the last time.

Frank brings two beers by my tent later.

“You should have went with her, dude.”

He pops open a can and hands it to me.

“I still have the sand castle contest coming up in a few days, Frank. And besides that, I’m broke.”

He raises an eyebrow.

“Want to make some cash?”

I take a long drink before answering.

“What do you have in mind?”

The week passes by quickly. Anxious to get back to my project, a giant octopus made down on the beach is followed the next day by a huge spiraling whelk, and as the final weekend approaches, I fashion a larger-than-life-sized mermaid, which lays seductively close to the water. Her gloriously nude form faces out to sea, and she looks just gorgeous.

I stop building after that, confident that by now I know the sand well enough to do the subject I have in mind on the big day Saturday.

I have also been busy looking for aluminum cans for several hours daily like Frank suggested. The recycle place in town pays a premium, he claims.

However, I did turn down his other idea of visiting the blood bank there. That is twenty dollars I would never want to earn, and besides, sorting through trash bins is easy.

Usually I collect only soda cans that were sold here at the beach. Those each have a small label attached that identifies where the can was purchased. The people at the pavilion came up with their nickel exchange idea to discourage litter out here on the beach, but since most tourists usually bring their own anyway, the trash cans are always filled with empties that I would normally overlook.

So by the end of the week there are two huge plastic garbage bags laying behind my tent, packed with aluminum cans.

I wake up early Saturday morning, and I am excited and ready to go. After filling up a plastic gallon jug with enough tea to last the day, I head down to where the crowds are starting to gather. There an official assigns me a number and a my own spot, and soon after, while sitting along side of about thirty other contestants, I begin to scoop out my final pit in the damp sand while the sun bears down hot on my back.

I know exactly how I want this subject to look. I have been giving it lots of thought over the past few weeks. Oblivious to gawkers standing around, or to the comments from passers-by, or to the heat or the steady breeze blowing, or to even the laughing gulls floating overhead, I work steadily on my pile of sand for a couple of hours before taking a break.

I stop to pour a cup of tea to take with me, and then I quickly blend into the throngs of people strolling around. I want to check out the competition. In a short time it becomes obvious that most are amateurs at this, so I feel pretty encouraged with what I have made.

Most plots have at least two people busy working on something. I come to a spread-out sand castle where a father-and-daughter are both involved, but the thing lacks good details. Farther on, three teen-age girls have fashioned two figures in bas-relief, but the proportions are all wrong. The only thing I can find that looks half-way interesting is a huge cityscape scene built by a group of college students from Corpus Christi. Most of them are mad at work adding some finishing touches to a giant-sized bug when I turn to go back to my site.

I started my project by first making an oblong pile of sand, stacking and packing the mound firmly using only my hands. My plan is to make a large, detailed crab sitting in a defensive position.

He now waits on me to complete an undercut beneath one of his fierce claws, so using a pair of scissors, I begin to carefully remove damp sand from below the one that is held highest in the air. The claw itself is poised open.

At both ends of his shell, two long horns protrude, upturned slightly. Along his front side, a ridge of sharp teeth adds a look of realism. His two massive claw arms are both flanked with a set of segmented and pointed legs, while a pair of flattened swimming legs balance him from the rear. His two round eyes, mounted on thin shafts of sand, stare at me as I lay on my side and slowly cut away and remove the excess sand.

Over my shoulder I can see three judges who have gathered around the sand castle display next door, and they all hold clipboards and take notes.

Just a little bit more, and I will be finished.

There. It looks perfect now, so I sit back and dust my hands off as the two men and one woman approach.

That is the moment when the claw decides to fall off, and a gasp goes up from the crowd as it splatters on the ground at my feet.

The judges all three witness the act, and I can tell by their expressions that they are truly disappointed.

I don’t know how I might have felt later if they had merely turned around and walked away then, but one does confide to me before they leave,

“We were considering yours for first prize.”

I did receive a new tee shirt for my efforts, but the college students down the beach took the winner’s place with their version of The Giant Cockroach that Ate Corpus Christi.


Wednesday, May 25, 2005


Several times during the night, a complaining voice from somewhere outside the tent keeps waking us.

“Knock it off!”

“Stop it! Go away!”

“Are you crazy? Scram, I told you!”

Around daybreak, she and I both suppress a laugh after hearing,

“For the last time, stay out of my ear, you little freak!”

Alicia and I emerge from our tent just as the morning sky begins to lighten. When I stand upright, Alicia points to where a form lays huddled on the sand several yards away, fast asleep under a blanket. It’s her brother’s pal, Modge. She holds a finger up to her lips and she takes my hand as we both walk quietly toward the beach where her car is parked. She spies her brother Martin before I do.

“Why is he laying there?”

Martin is sprawled out across the hood of her Opal, flat on his back but sound asleep.

Several feet away, the dome tent floats in a large pool of water, and the thing has partially collapsed.

“Oh my gosh!”

She breaks into a trot so I follow along quickly.

“Martin! Martin, are you okay?”

The boy sits up, stares at us tiredly and yawns. He is shirtless and barefoot.

“What happened to our tent?”

He rubs both eyes before looking at the buckled dome.

“A wave got me, I guess.”

He begins to describe his rough night just as Modge approaches.

“I turned over, and thought I was dreaming about swimming. I could feel the water with my feet, but then it went away so I must have went back to sleep.”

As Martin is telling his story, I realize too late that last night was a full moon, which means we had a higher than normal tide. I can only stand by quietly and listen.

“Then the next thing I know, the tent fills up again and I’m floating around on my air mattress in the dark inside.”

He points to a gash in the screen door.

“I was scared I'd get washed out to sea, so I guess I panicked, and I had to rip a hole to escape.”

From the scowl on the boy’s face, Modge looks even unhappier than Martin.

“I hardly slept. All night long, some crab kept trying to crawl inside my ears.”

Relieved that Martin survived his ordeal, and while laughing about the tiny ghost crab Modge had met, we go to removing all of the wet clothing from inside the tent. Then after laying things across the car to dry, we walk up the beach to the pavilion to get something to eat. By the time we return, everyone seems to be in a much better mood.

My trio of new friends had left Southern Illinois to visit Padre Island, but their plan was to stay for one day only before heading back. I must somehow convince them to stick around longer.

“We could ride in to Corpus today, and I could show you guys around the city for awhile.”

Neither of the boys acts too excited over my idea, but Alicia does, and she even asks me to drive.

After a long day in town, and on the way back to the beach that afternoon, the car begins to sputter. By the time we reach Malaquite, the engine is sounding terrible, but it’s too late in the day to do much of anything. Tomorrow is Sunday, so the garages will all be closed.

This is not exactly what I had in mind, but I have now been given at least two additional days and nights to spend with her.


Sunday, May 22, 2005

An Intelligent Question

A station wagon pulls up bright and early. Just as it parks, all of the doors fly open, and the air instantly becomes filled with noise. I laze in my hammock and watch as a mob of young children spill out and run toward the surf, calling out excitedly to each other. Two women stay behind to gather up towels and chairs, and I turn my attention back to the waves when I hear a sudden piercing scream.

One of the little girls comes running through an ankle-deep wave that courses its way toward me. She has tears streaming down her terrified face, and she is shrieking and hopping around on one leg. Both women immediately drop everything to look at the wailing girl’s foot. Things then get tossed back into the wagon and the doors all slam hurriedly. Within seconds, the car backs up, turns and whizzes away, and I am left once more with only the gulls for company.

I meet lots of different types as I continue to build my sand-creature sculptures.

A motor home parks close by, and a retired British couple become new neighbors for awhile, and of course I get to sample their idea of tea.

A jovial Mexican and his family erect a large screen tent next to my day camp for the weekend. Frank invites them to join us at the bonfire one night, and as the family packs up to leave Sunday afternoon, the man stops by my pup tent. He cradles a large cardboard box in his arms, and it’s weighted down with left-over groceries.

“We just don’t have any more room left.”

I take his kind offer, and then he adds,

“Say, we are throwing away a good mattress too, if you want…”

The thing fits perfectly inside my tent.

People come, and people go.

Around mid-morning one day, a strange lady walks up, and without a word, she takes a seat next to me and begins to pack and smooth sand onto the dolphin I am working on. I sit back and stare at her before standing up and leaving her to attend to her therapy.

An angler drops off a string of fish late one evening, allowing us all to eat a good meal. Ten aluminum soda cans I pick up daily are worth the price of a burrito and a small carton of chocolate milk, so survival here is becoming an easy task.

Today I found a pair of ping-pong balls that washed ashore during the night. They might be useful for something. I place them on the sand beside me and stir instant tea into a cup of water while thinking of a new project to work on. After a while I get a whimsical idea, and with my backside facing the waves, I dig a new hole.

The questions people ask me as I work are funny.

“What are you making?”

“Is that supposed to be something?”

“Is that some kind of sand castle?”

“Where do you get your ideas?”

“That looks nice, but what is it?”

“When will you be done?”

“How long did that take?”

Where do you people get all these questions, I keep thinking.

I’ve been noticing the high tide mark since I’ve been here. The first day I set up my tarp, it came no closer than twenty feet from the two hammock posts, and it seems to be advancing by a foot or so daily . At some point during the night it crested less than six feet away, so I see no need to panic just yet.

Laughing gulls hover nearby as I carve out two small holes in the broad face of this beast. I then insert the two white balls for a set of eyes, and sit back to examine the effect. It helps a little, but I’m not too happy with this one. Starting out as an alligator, it now resembles an odd-looking salamander.

Horse and Frank come along on their way to go fishing. Horse stops to laugh, but he also offers me a cold beer from a cooler he carries. After they leave I continue to add a few more details, and in the middle of this, I hear a pleasant voice coming from behind me.

“Would you mind if I took a picture?”

I look up to see the fine shape of a female form standing before me. She is silhouetted against the late afternoon sun, and I ask myself,

“Who would resist such a polite request?”

Her name is Alicia, I discover. She, her teen-aged brother and his friend have just arrived at the beach, but have yet to find a good spot to set up their tent.

“We wanted to take a walk to check things out first. Do you know of any?”

I wave at the vacant sand all around me and my day tent, and I smile.

“Anywhere along here looks fine with me.”

One of the two teens speaks up, and he is looking up and down the beach suspiciously.

“How about girls? Are there lots of girls that hang out here?”

I lie to the boy with an assuring nod.

“Tomorrow this place will be crawling with them. It will be hard to walk anywhere without tripping over one.”

Tomorrow is Saturday, I think, so who can really say?

Alicia leaves the two youngsters with me to go get her car, and then I help them set up their dome tent not far from my hammock. Frank and Horse return just as we finish hammering in the final stakes. The pair carry fish they both caught, and after being introduced, they invite everyone to come to the bonfire later.

When the light begins to fade, and as the fire begins to flicker over near the dunes, the four of us walk over to join them. The talk and laughter there continues on late into the night, but I soon find I am hearing only one voice above all of the rest, and it belongs to the girl with the camera.

She speaks of books she has read, and she quotes lines from movies I have seen, and the firelight causes her face to glow. The others in the crowd fade into shapeless shadows as the fire roars and crackles, and time seems to slow down as I sit beside her and listen.

Someone later points to the full moon rising over our shoulders, and the two of us eventually slip away for a stroll down the moonlit beach. We hold hands as we walk, and few words need to be spoken. I cannot remember my past, nor do I see into the future -- only this moment holds any meaning.

Her gentleness makes me feel easy, and I am uncontrollably drawn to her.

Tonight, my little tent sleeps two.


Saturday, May 21, 2005

Hole Wars

My hammock begins to attract a steady stream of visitors.

A woman shows up one morning wearing a large-brimmed straw hat. She keeps one hand on the crown to prevent the wind from whisking it away. I have a cup of tea to drink, and I am busy resting while watching repetitious waves approach.

“Oh, this is so nice.”

Her name is Sharon, and she hails from Vermont. Her brother, and she indicates with her head toward a large tent set back by the dunes, is still asleep, the silly boy. The two are here to camp for the week, and she begins to ask a million questions as well as tell me all about her life back in Rutland. I offer her some tea.

Sharon is not at all unattractive, but she talks constantly, so I must devise a defense -- I take her out in the waves to do some body surfing. The strategy works well until she sees the shark.

After a vigorous swim we are both trying to stand on the second sand bar as waves batter our bodies, and Sharon faces me several feet away while I attempt to dig my toes in the sand, searching around for sand dollars. It’s much too noisy to talk with the constant crashing of waves, which makes me smile happily.

Then suddenly, Sharon looks out to sea past me, and her eyes grow immense with fear. I don’t even bother to ask -- I can read exactly what she is thinking, so I instantly bolt for the shore.

For some reason, she cools to me afterwards, which is fine -- I still have plenty of my tea left.

But the incident does give me an idea.

I spend the next day scooping out a large hole at the top edge of the wet beach, and I pile up a long length of damp sand along its rim. By mid-morning I have a replica of what I imagine Sharon saw the day before, and when she sees it later, she gives a shudder.

Horse drops by that afternoon too.

“Wow, man! That looks great. You going to be entering the big contest?”

And he tells me of an up-and-coming sand castle event that is scheduled to take place here next month.

"They got cash prizes and everything, dude."

Park rangers drive by my site occasionally. A uniformed man stops to join my small crowd of admirers, and we all soon learn a few facts about the beach. One is a friendly reminder that there is a two-week limit on tent camping, but I get the impression it’s seldom enforced. I can always move my tent thirty feet down the beach, if I must.

Someone then pipes up.

“Are there really sharks out there?”

The officer replies by pointing to a small plane that flies over our heads.

“We patrol the beaches here regularly, and if you could see the things we can see from up there…”

That draws a nervous laugh from the crowd.

The sea is a great housekeeper, and overnight it takes away my creation as well as filling in the hole, so today I start another. Therapeutic as well as fun, I begin fashioning a new creature; this one, a fanciful sea turtle, and by day’s end he lays perched next to the large hole I scooped out by hand. And again the sculpture draws a few people who stop by to comment.

A young thing in a bikini comes along, and while she attempts to draw my favor by sitting close to me up under my shade tent, I notice her companion who is standing near by. He is a much older man, and he stays off to the side but doesn’t say much, so I think little of it. That night, they both join the gang around a huge bonfire for awhile before mysteriously disappearing again.

The next day I arrive back at the day tent, and get busy building another creature out of sand. I am starting to like this idea of entering the contest.

Later that night, as I return to my dome tent, I find it gone. All my clothes, the guitar, my large backpack and a carton of cigarettes have vanished. I can see the drag marks that lead off into the dunes, and I follow it some distance before giving up and returning to the empty site.

The only thing left behind is my bike parked beside a large board where I display the collection of things I find on the beach, plus a small knapsack I keep with me during the day. At least I still have my wallet and a full pack of smokes, I think, as I sit on the board to consider my next move.

What kind of people do such things? I wonder about this as I lay on the bare sand and sleep fitfully, knowing that come morning, Jennifer will have her three avocadoes hand-delivered, and I will get myself another tent.

It takes the better part of the next day to make the trip and collect what I need, so I crash on her couch one more time. Naturally, she is tickled to get my gift, and she eats one of the pears right away. Jim is amazed that I am still alive, as is the crew at the diner across the highway.

I get back to Malaquite in due time and set up a pup tent in the same exact location. This time I secure the thing better, and lay out a new bedroll inside. My funds are getting low by now, but if I can hold out until the contest…

I tackle the sand the next day with vigor. I claw out a monster hole, and begin to build a huge mound made of this marvelous Padre Island sand. I am finding that it holds extraordinary details well, and by mid-afternoon, I have finished a fine dragon, complete with sharp claws, leathery wings furled along its fat, scaled sides, and one who sports a proper snarl upon its hideous face.

The crowds that day grow larger than normal, and I am enjoying all of the attention until a jeep pulls up behind the throng of onlookers and stops. A lone ranger then gets out and approaches us slowly.

He stands back for a few moments before he speaks up, and when he does, the crowd goes silent.

“Who dug this hole?”

Well. What can I say?

And so he orders me to fill it in, citing some potential danger to either joggers or motorists. That brings a few dismayed moans from the crowd, as well as an argument from me.

But he leaves with a stern warning: Either cover this up tonight, or I will revoke your camping privileges.

That night, back at Jennifer and Jim’s apartment, I complain for the next three days until I am ready to go back and see how well Mother Nature did the job for me.

Of course I continue with my artful quest, but I do stop making such large projects. They are becoming tiresome to build, after all.


Friday, May 20, 2005

London Homesick Blues

Taking a slight detour here, I am posting one of the slowest-tempo country and western song perhaps ever written, and if the reader can imaging the bawdy background noise of a drunk-filled bar, then all the better.

Jerry Jeff Walker penned and sold this piece for the price of airfare home, I am told, which makes the words sound even more appealing.

When you're down on your luck
And you ain't got a buck
In London you're a goner.
Even London Bridge has fallen down
And moved to Arizona
Now I know why.
And I'll substantiate the rumor
That the English sense of humor
Is drier than the Texas sand.
You can put up your dukes
And you can bet your boots
That I'm leavin' just as fast as I can.


I wanna go home with the armadillo
Good country music from Amarillo and Abilene
The friendliest people and the prettiest women
You've ever seen.

Well, it's cold over here
And I swear
I wish they'd turn the heat on.
And where in the world
Is that English girl
I promised I would meet
On the third floor.
And of the whole damn lot
The only friend I've got Is a smoke and a cheap guitar.
My mind keeps roamin'
My heart keeps longin' To be home in a Texas bar.


I decided that
I'd get my cowboy hat
And go down to Marble Art Station.
Cause when a Texan fancies
He'll take his chances
Chances will be taken
That's for sure.
And them Limey eyes
They were eyein' the prize
Some people call manly footwear.
They said you're from down South
And when you open your mouth
You always seem to put your foot there.

Repeat the chorus 'til the cows come home.

Bunk Cocaine

Before setting up camp, I want to explore my area first. There is still plenty of time left before dusk, so I continue peddling to investigate a pavilion I can see up ahead. There I find a place that, along with shaded tables, has a small museum, a gift shop and a snack bar. There are also clean restrooms, and to my delight, free showers. I buy myself a burrito to eat while resting at one of the tables.

The crowds are thin today. But this is the middle of the week, and I know the up-coming weekend will be different, so I return to the beach below and climb back on the bike. It is time to go find a good spot to set up my tent one more time.

I head back south and pass by the few campers who have already claimed their spots. Another hundred yards or so beyond the last one I find a clear area bordered by two large patches of morning glories. The site sits in the cool evening shade of the dunes. My small dome goes up fast, and I unpack the bike.

Although I am pleased to find this site apart from the crowd, I still have an uneasy feeling of being too close to people, and while busily arranging my things, I am wondering if I made another mistake when I hear a voice out front.

“Hey there, in the tent.”

I turn and look out my doorway to see a pair of hands resting on a pair of tanned and hairy knees.

“You have a lighter we can borrow?”

I go out to meet Frank who has a big pile of driftwood set up not too far down the beach. Loaning him my lighter gets me invited to a bonfire he tells me he is preparing. He seems friendly enough, so I accept. But before he leaves, he adds,

“Oh, and if you have a spare can of beans lying around, bring it along with you. I’ll be cooking up some fish.”

This is how I get to meet a loose band of beach bums that inhabit this place called Malaquite. Frank quickly opens the can I donate and sets it near the coals to heat while he prepares his catch of the day. The others lounge in the sand around the fire, and on no time we all begin to feast and swap stories of how to survive on the beach.

Frank has two main methods -- fishing in the surf daily and donating blood in town every other week. Horse has a part-time job close by where he cleans out the holds of ships, along with collecting aluminum soda cans the tourists here are always tossing away. Each can, he tells us, is worth a nickel up at the pavilion snack bar. Frank and Ray both go dumpster-diving in town on Thursdays. That’s the night the bakeries pitch out all of their old baked goods, Ray tells me.

“Man, everything is wrapped in its original package, so it’s all still good.”

Horse gets up to push a log into the fire, and as he goes to sit down, he jumps up in the air and yelps, and then he laughs as he hops around in the dark on one foot.

“What’s the matter?”

“I just got sand-bit.”

I have to ask.

“What is that?”

He grins and explains.

“You are always stepping on something out here that either burns, bites or stings. I call it getting sand-bit.”

On the way back to my tent, I vow to keep my flip-flops on for awhile.

A steady breeze blows during the day, but dies off in the late evening. In order to keep from getting sunburned, I put up a shade tent down close to the water. It is nothing more than a lean-to made from a tarp. Over the next several days, I add to the spot by burying the ends of two large pieces of driftwood, and then attaching a hammock between the two posts. Now I have a sleeping tent set up back near the dunes, and a day camp here next to the waves.

Frank comes walking by one morning, carrying a pole and wearing his hat filled with fishing lures, and he shakes his head at my set-up.

“Now that is style.”

I can only toast him from the swinging hammock with a tin cup filled with my tepid tea.

The tide always brings new things to the shore, so the early mornings I go beachcombing. One day it’s jellyfish. Some days it’s tar balls or thousands of small crabs. A man recently found a valuable gold coin, so I keep my eyes opened.

Today is a strange one, though. I see what looks like a large head of lettuce laying up ahead, and as I get close I discover that it is indeed just that. The thing looks fresh and crisp, too.

A little farther I come upon several bunches of carrots laying on the beach. Then I spot some nice tomatoes. Then I find cucumbers and oranges and radishes and lemons scattered here and there, and each and every item looks perfectly fresh, as if they had just been gently placed on the sand at the edge of the ocean. But by whom, I wonder? And is it fit to eat?

I do collect three firm avocados that I come across, but I dismiss the other items. I hate avocados myself, but Jennifer is quite fond of them.

Horse stops by my tent early one morning.

“Hey, we are going to go look for cans. Want to come along?”

My food supply is starting to get low, mostly due to my new-found friends’ forthright way of constantly asking for donations, as well as my inability to say no to them. And it’s an unpleasant task, reaching inside garbage cans and stirring it around just to find a empty can, but I get used to it soon enough.

Horse gets another bright idea one evening. He wants to write a book someday, he claims, and is certainly a creative person in his own way, so I won’t fault him for that particular idea. But he goes over the top with his next scheme. He devises a plan that he claims will make us all a big pile of money.

He says he knows how to make up a concoction that will pass for cocaine, and of which we can sell to the tourists here. It is simple, he tells us, so we listen.

All he needs is enough cash to acquire specific over-the-counter drugs, mix them together, and we can then make hundreds in return. We have a ready market here, he reminds us, so after some persuasive arguments we agree to go along.

He borrows Frank’s old car, and he and our cash both take off for town.

After three long days of silence, we get concerned about our money. Frank is more worried about his rusty beater. But Horse does finally show up on the fourth day, empty handed and grinning all crazy-like. After he calms down a little, we get the lowdown on what happened.

He succeeded, he tells us, in step one and two, and with no problem at all. But when it came time to selling the stuff, he hit a slight snag. Outside a convenience store, he encountered a man who had a big interest, but the fellow wanted proof. So they went to this buyer’s apartment nearby to test the goods.

It looks like cocaine, the man said to Horse.

It tastes like the real deal, they both agreed.

It even had the burn that followed after snorting it up your nose, Horse excitedly claims to us.

Apparently, it was some high quality stuff too, but that is when temptation set in. For at that point, and over the course of the next few days, they both sat back and enjoyed the whole batch until it eventually disappeared.

Horse will tell anyone who wants to listen that it was indeed the best damn cocaine he ever had, and his only real regret is that it’s now all gone.

Bunk cocaine is what he made, and bunk cocaine is what he got; Horse just never seemed to get the irony.


Tuesday, May 17, 2005

An Attempt at Social Suicide

Drive south from the city of Corpus Christi, and in less than thirty minutes you will reach uninhabited Padre Island. There you will find a narrow strip of land that hugs the lower Texas Gulf coast, extending all the way down to Brownsville. Sunbathers, surfers, beachcombers and fishermen alike come to the island often, while the more-adventurous folk in their four-wheel-drive vehicles take to exploring its miles of untamed wilderness for their pleasure. Driving on the beaches is allowed, as is tent camping.

Carolyn leans both of her stout forearms on the steel countertop and begins to drum her long fingernails incessantly. She looks totally bored with everything, as she usually does.

“So what are you doing after work?”

I have my back turned to the girl, and I am trying to figure out her sloppy handwriting.

She keeps at the irksome noise, knowing how it irritates me.

“I was thinking of going out to the beach Saturday. Would you like to come?”

I ignore her prattle by hurrying over to a locker to take out two steaks I need. The things both sizzle nicely as they hit the hot metal surface.

She cups her chin in both hands and watches me.

“Me and my cousin went to see Poltergeist last night. Have you seen it yet?”

A second waitress comes by and slaps a ticket down next to Carolyn before darting off.

I ladle an amount of oil in the proper spot near the back, and then throw a fist-full of shredded potatoes on top. Ice crystals melt and begin popping loudly.

Carolyn stops her drumming for a second.

“How do you like my new nails? See, I just had them done.”

I turn to grab the other ticket, barely glancing at her dancing, painted fingernails.

“I’d like to get you back here and put your ass to work, if you don’t stop that yakking.”

She scoffs and tosses her head as she walks away.

At least she didn’t run off crying and quit like that other twit did. Some of these waitresses we have are plain silly.

Carlos returns from the back room carrying a full bucket of pancake mix which gets stored up under the prep counter behind me, and as he stands, he looks out over the diner while wiping both hands on his apron front.

“Carlos, if you want to play…”

“Yak, yak, yak!” He grins and picks up a tomato and a knife.

It’s five o’clock, and the rush has yet to start.

We have a new cook we are supposed to break in tonight. Deever is his name, and he is the only other Anglo working here besides myself. Quiet and studious-looking, he handles himself well during the shift, so we two go out to the back to share a joint afterwards.

He motions toward the closed door with his head.

“So who is this Carolyn chick?”

I shake my head and try snorting back a reply while trying to hold my breath.

“Man, she is all yours, if you want her.”

That brings on a coughing fit for the both of us, and since the younger man owns a car, we start to pal around over the next few months.

Deever lives with his aging grandmother. I start spending some of my free time there, and he soon introduces me to an odd little book called The Screwtape Letters. From that point, the two of us get involved in several deep conversations about religion and theology, which frankly, begins to depress me. I am really not in the mood to examine the state of my life right now.

The old boardinghouse starts to become a strain. A pensive man named Harley moves in, and right away this guy smells like trouble. Tall, blond and broad-shouldered, he carries within him a smoldering attitude he hides in plain view behind a walrus-sized handlebar moustache, and even Johnny tries to steer clear of the brooding bully.

I attempt matching wits with the stranger a couple of times as we sit at a chess board one afternoon, but after winning a couple of games and receiving only his disconcerting looks afterwards, I decide to stop having anything to do with Harley altogether. I have even taken to using my up-stairs window to come and go, just to avoid bumping in to the man.

Jennifer lets me know that it’s fine with Jim if I want to come and crash on their couch across the street, and after giving it some thought, I decide to do just that. Neither one mentions any need for money, so as soon as I am able to pack, I leave Luis and the wild bunch gratefully behind.

Jennifer laughs as I set my backpack near the front door, and tells me I can use the living room window to come and leave, if I so wish. Things go well there for the first month, but I seldom see either Jim or Jennifer anymore, since she works days now.

And then I arrive at the apartment this very evening, after getting paid and being given a rare night off, and I find a weird scene awaiting me.

I had swung by a bank earlier to cash my check, and then stopped off at a pawn shop where I spent a few bucks on a second-hand guitar, and being anxious to try it out, had raced home for a quiet evening of putting on a new set of strings, and then plunking out a few tunes afterwards. They, however, have company over tonight, my friend Jim and his lovely Jennifer, and Jennifer is fairly dancing around the living room with excitement.

“This is Molly. Molly, this is the guy I was telling you about.”

Molly looks young and is a complete unknown to me, and she also looks rather used.

Jim hides behind a shy smile as Jennifer goes on to explain how they are about to indulge in a threesome for the night, and I, of course, am invited to join in their fun.

(You might well raise an eyebrow at this point of the story -- I would have too at the time, were I able to do that smart trick. But let me finish describing the remainder of the evening by stating that I simply re-string my little flat-top and do a bit of fun finger-picking on my own, thank you very much, and all the while sitting cross-legged and alone on the floor against a wall. And, I should add, with most of my clothes still on.)

The worst part is that several hours have to pass before I am able to turn in and fall asleep on my couch.

The next day, I wake up before anyone else, and my father’s words are running through my head: Look before you leap, son. I reach for my shaving kit and count up the roll of money stashed there. I have an ample amount saved up, I discover, so I am thinking now is a good time to make my next move.

I leave the bike parked next to the wall near my backpack. I cram the cash in my pocket, and after slipping on a pair of sandals, I exit quietly through the window and walk across the highway to call Deever from a pay phone.

“Come pick me up. I’ll be waiting at the counter.”

He arrives shortly, and I ask him to take me around to do some major shopping. Later in the day finds him, myself and my belongings all speeding along down a hard-packed beach road out on Padre Island. We have gone way past all the beachfront homes, way farther than the hotels and other commercial signs of tourism, and way beyond the last of any man-made structures, and at this point, Deever is beginning to look a little worried.

“How much further?”

I tell him to keep going.

“Man, this is pure craziness.”

And he shakes his head, but he keeps on driving, for Deever understands my state of mind. I have had it up to here with everything. I have had it with stupid people. I have had it with humanity, and I am sick of them all.

I had been out to the island before, mostly on the weekends and during weekdays, and if there is one thing that Padre has to offer, it is seclusion for the asking, and that is exactly what I plan on looking for, and that is what I am taking.

“Just keep driving, Deever. I’ll tell you when it’s time to stop.”

We pass a lone tent pitched near a dune, and I smile. I own a brand-new one of my own now, laying back in Deever’s trunk, along with my bike and the rest of my possessions. The orange backpack rides in the seat behind me, and it presently bursts at the seams with a load of canned goods.

“How about here?”

I motion him on, so we keep riding. What feature am I looking for exactly, I cannot say, but I remain confidant I will know the moment I see it.

Strange Magic is playing on the radio when I sight a series of sand dunes that rise higher than the rest.

“Slow down some, Deever.”

He stops when I hold up a hand.

The pair of us then carry all of my gear up into the hills. After arriving at the crown of the second one, we arrange everything in an orderly pile, and then we both stand and face each other. The air feels hot and dry, and only the slightest breeze moves. I look around and see nothing but the wind-sculpted dunes surrounding me.

Deever cocks his head just a little, but his expression is unreadable at this point.

“You sure this is what you want to do?”

I nod, and so we shake hands firmly, and then he turns away and trudges down the side of the hill.

I turn around and begin breaking open the carton that contains my dome tent, and in a very short time I have a new home set up. Then after placing the heavy pack, my sleeping bag and the guitar safely inside, I step back out to look around the immediate area.

I begin to think, this is all free. Free of people -- free of worry, and I spin around in a circle to scream it out loudly,

“Free! Free! Free!”

I kick off my flip-flops and go running down the hill and up the side of the dune closer to the beach. At the crest, I plop down to catch my breath and sit while looking out over the magnificent blue gulf waters that spread out before me. I hold both arms up to the stiff breeze for a while and let the sun shine down on my bare head, and I rejoice in my surroundings for some time.

From here I can catch the sounds of waves as they each crest and fall on their march to the shore. Far out to sea, a line of puffed clouds extends off to my right and far to my left. Down below, a lone sanderling runs along the wet strip of the beach as it feeds, and I feel content to do nothing but just observe and be warm.

After awhile I leave my seat on the dune before the light begins to fade, and go down to walk the beach in search of firewood.

And later on, after building a fire and heating my first meal here, I feel compelled to do something extraordinary as a full moon rises high into the sky.

Strange magic

I remove all of my clothes, and I spin around naked across the sand while sparks from the fire rise and twirl into the night.

Oh, what a strange magic

I dance as I sing.

Got a strange magic

Got a strange magic

And I am feeling completely free.

The next morning comes softly. I open my eyes to see the ceiling of my tent overhead. The circle of light there glows brightly from the first hour’s sun. I want to lay still and take it in longer, but something forces me to get up instead.

I slip on just my jeans, and then I unzip the screen flap and crawl outside. Nothing around the camp appears to be disturbed. I walk a safe distance from the tent to relieve myself, and I study the sky. There is not a cloud anywhere. Then I realize -- it is the absence of any sounds that awoke me.

After making a quick cup of instant tea (with lemon and sugar already included in the mix), I take the cup and go up to the other dune to sit and drink and watch as small waves come ashore. The scene is restful to my eyes, and the tea I drink tastes palatable. But as I sip the last of it, an unexpected and disturbing feeling begins to nag at me.

I am looking to my left and up the beach. It lays empty of life and void of moving objects. I glance to my far right where my eyes follow the curve of a coastline that simply disappears into a haze of nothingness. I lean back and look up to stare at the sky for awhile, and I see no birds up there; no gulls hover, close by or even far away.

I have a too-active imagination, I tell myself. No, everything on the planet did not die overnight, and then vanish off the face of the earth. That is an absurd idea; don’t even think about it. Then the last swallow of lukewarm tea seems to go flat.

I wheel the bike down to the beach first. I park it there and make two trips back into the dunes to collect all my things. With the added weight of all the food, the bike acts wobbly from being top-heavy, and it is extremely difficult to pedal, but I manage somehow. Panic can be quite a motivator, as I have learned, and it takes me half the day to arrive back at the Malaquite campsite where I spotted the last tent yesterday.

Needing people, I have determined, will have to do.


Monday, May 16, 2005

A Fork and a Bullet

The pancake house stays busy, and naturally, I end up volunteering for night shifts. That way I can sleep soundly during the day back at the boarding house.

I was forced to make some changes right after the stabbing incident happened.

I had been upstairs napping in my room at the time, so I didn’t witness anything but the yelling parts, which occurs too routinely downstairs to cause any alarm.

Later on, when I went down to use the shower, I stopped by the kitchen to say hey to the gang. Juan was sitting at the table, bent forward and breathing hard, and he had his shirt pulled up around his shoulders. Luis stood next to him, aiding Juan by keeping a folded towel pressed to his back side. Johnny was no where around at the time.

“What’s going on, Luis?”

That was the only time I ever saw the old man look worried. He shook his head before nodding toward the back door.

“That Johnny, he go crazy today.”

“What? What are you talking about?”

He looked across the table to a place on the floor near one of the counters, and then he lifted one corner of the towel. I saw a red stain on the underside of the cloth, and on Juan’s lower back, two small puncture wounds.

“He stab Juan with a fork.”

I walked around the table to see, and there on the linoleum laid a two-pronged serving fork.

“What in the world -- Johnny did that?"

“Yes, and I call the cops and everything."

"So then what happened, Luis?”

"Johnny, he run out the back door right away.”

Juan stayed quiet, but he scowled down at the floor.

I went and talked to Danny at work later that same evening, and he agreed to go along with my request. Nights are usually a lot less boring than days, anyway, so I’m more pleased with this newer arrangement.

Carlos is our lead cook, and a most energetic sort of person. He stands six inches shorter than me, and has a wicked smile along with an infectious laugh, so he and I get along just fine. The first time my burnt toast pops up, he screams out,

“You want to play, go home!”

And of course he cackles at full volume as soon as he says it.

The second time around, he lowers his head and does a loud imitation of the announcer from the Saturday morning musical program, Soul Train.

So-o-ul toast!”

It’s a war zone here for at least four hours every night during the week, so we do what we can to try to stay sane. Friday and Saturday’s are even worse, and it’s no wonder half the crew is doing drugs. On a slow night I’ll step out back with Jennifer and share a joint with her sometimes, but on the weekends I can’t function at all doing that.

Jennifer has an apartment across the highway from the restaurant, right next to a bar where the local chapter of Bandito’s hang out. Her boy friend claims he rides too, but to tell you the truth, he looks washed up. Gaunt and nervous, he comes in here a lot to hang out with Jennifer when things get slow, and the three of us have become good pals lately, but he doesn’t look all that tough.

I told them both one night about my screw-up in Midland, and they both laughed.

Jennifer especially thought the fears I shared sounded hilarious.

“Hell, that guy has forgot all about you by now.”

Jennifer is tall and clumsy, but she is a dear person when you get to know her. Moody and somber at times, she has a weird sense of humor as well as a hot temper. She has an opinion on everything, and I’ve never seen her act shy at all.

It’s a Saturday night, and late. The drunk crowd is in full swing, and the noise throughout the place is nothing but a constant roar. Carlos and me are filling plates and setting them up on the shelf as fast as we can, and if he’s not doing that, he’s wiping his hands on his apron and leering at any young waitress that approaches.

“Hurry up! Hurry up! You want to play, go on home!”

I’m standing behind our counter facing the crowd scene, putting together a club sandwich. Who in their right mind eats these dainty little things, I wonder. I look up briefly to see Jennifer standing over by one booth, and she has both hands set on her hips. That doesn’t look good. Nobody has time to stand and rest, I think, as I reach for a cutting knife.

The next thing I hear causes the whole building to go silent.

“Hey, if you don’t like it, then get the fuck out!”

Jennifer's voice rings out loudly over the din, and then the phrase seems to bounce off the hushed walls several times.

Carlos turns to look around from his grill, and then chuckles merrily as he goes back to flipping a row of eggs.

I slice down through my sandwich, but I keep an eye on Jennifer and her station.

She doesn’t budge an inch. She just stands there, looming over the two seated couples, and the four are grabbing for coats and purses and scrambling to get out of the booth. They are all obviously embarrassed over whatever just happened, but Jennifer keeps giving them a devil of a look.

She then turns and stares meanly at their backs as they head toward the front, her hands still planted firmly at her hips. One of the men is in the act of folding a jacket over his arm as he walks past my counter.

I go to stick four toothpicks into my new creations when I hear the popping sound. A flash goes off, too, and the room lights up for a second. Then something lands on the tile floor between Jennifer and departing group.

At that moment I see her look down, and her eyes follow something that skitters toward her on the floor. The thing slides past her feet and goes all the way to the rear of the room before coming to a halt. At the same time, the man with the jacket follows the path of the same object with his eyes.

Jennifer glances up at him. He looks across the room at her. Then he takes a step in her direction.

But in an instant, she bends over, picks the object up, gives the man an open-mouthed look, and then darts behind the counter and runs into the back storeroom.

The man just as quickly turns on his heels to follow his group outside. I look around at Carlos and grin as I quip,

“Don’t even say it, pal.”

The cops show up before we get to see Jennifer again. She went and hid out in the office until they arrived, and she’s the one that called -- we cooks are too busy to take the time.

She hands over the little derringer she captured to one officer while another goes up under the round booth over by the front door. He backs out later and comes over to show us -- in his hand he holds the fragments of a bullet that launched the little pistol across the diner.

“Good thing that booth was empty,” He mentions.

So now I got a story to tell to Luis tomorrow morning, and I bet he smiles.

Next: An Attempt at Social Suicide

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Taco Flat

It’s just past three in the afternoon, and I am sweating from exertion. I coast the bike to a stop near the entrance, and while parking it out of the way, a young woman comes out and holds the front door open.

After securing a lock and chain to one wheel, I stand up and wait to go in -- her attention is focused on two small children dawdling inside the foyer. She scolds both of them with what sounds to me like impatient Spanish -- I assume to hurry the little tyke and his sister along. I silently cheer for the mother. Inside, the restaurant looks idle and almost unoccupied at this hour.

Elias sees me from his station behind the counter when I walk by. Trying to appear busy, he nods as I slip into a back booth, so I wave back. Outside a large window to my right, a cabbage palm blocks a view of the main highway. A waitress comes over carrying a menu and a pot of coffee, and she smiles as she pours.

Being almost broke, I disregard the menu.

“Is Danny around?”

“No, hon. But he should be along any minute now.”

I add some sugar, stir my cup and wait.

The manager arrives shortly, before the evening rush begins, and he goes right to the register. While he totals up receipts from the morning, Elias goes over, and the two talk briefly. Danny finishes his counting, closes the drawer, and then he comes back to say hello. I tell him all about my recent misadventures; he listens and laughs, and then Danny does a most amazing thing -- he graciously offers me my job back -- and I can start today, if I want.

I gratefully accept, for now there is no need to pay for this coffee, or any more future meals.

But for the next few nights, I have to plan on secretly camping in the shrubbery out behind the restaurant. During the cool evenings I’ll spend looking around town for a cheap place to rent.

Elias looks on cheerfully as I tie a pair of apron strings. Suddenly, it feels great to be back in Corpus again.

Luis is one of several regulars here. He comes in to escape the sunlight, kill time and drink coffee while forever smiling at the mad world in which he lives. A retired insurance salesman, the happy-faced customer lets it slip out that he owns a boardinghouse, and the next thing I know, he hands me a business card and invites me to stop by and check out his place. Located not far from here, the suggestion gets my attention. The price he quotes sounds fair enough also, so after my shift, I bike over to see.

Highway traffic flows sparse late in the day, and I pedal the distance easily. Numbers painted on a silver mailbox tell me I have the right address. There I dismount and steer the bike across a sand driveway that follows beside a weed-choked fence. Then as I arrive at a metal gate, I get a close look at the two-story, un-painted gothic.

Large trees stand watch in a large, unkempt yard, flanking all sides of the antiquated building. Up under one edge of the roof, a rain gutter protrudes from the house, swung a foot away and perilously supported by a lone rusted downspout. Several of the steep roof’s wood shingles have come loose and seem ready to fall. One pane of glass on a lower floor window is absent, and so are a few of the window screens. The only other things missing from the scene are proper claps of thunder with attending flashes of lightning.

But there is no breeze to be felt, nor are there any disturbing noises about, other than the singular squeal of a kickstand.

I follow a short path leading to the front door, dodging several creeper vines that hang from overgrown bushes. After knocking twice, I wait. An ornate oak door before me is decorated with elaborate but weathered carvings, along with an admirable stained glass window. I hear shuffling sounds from the other side just before the door swings open and a chubby face peers out. There stands Luis, wearing a loose tie, and he greets me with his beaming smile.

“You found us! Come in. Come in.”

I glance up to see a fancy chandelier hanging overhead while he closes the door, shutting out the bright sun. Then, going from the dim-lit hallway, we enter into a darkened, larger room. Curtains on a far wall are drawn shut. This parlor we are in, crowded with an assortment of furniture, looks worn but unused. A small television on a brass rail table sets gray and silent. Luis shuffles on through the room, heading for an open doorway, so I follow close behind.

He speaks with an accent, and he acts apologetic as he flicks on a light switch.

“This is our kitchen in here.”

He waves a hand and laughs uneasily.

“The guys, they no ever clean up.”

The stove is covered with stacked pots and dirty dishes. A flat, cast-iron skillet sits alone on one burner, with a single spatula for company. The rest of the clutter piled throughout the entire room amazes me.

“Come. I show you the bathrooms.”

We pass by walls where large sections of brown wallpaper are ripped and missing, exposing a pale blue print underneath.

At the end of the hall, Luis steps back so I can inspect a small lavatory. The shower stall inside is lined with dark-green tiles. Some close to the cement floor are covered with black mold. Luis maintains his fixed smile as I turn one of the squeaking faucet handles mounted on a stained wash basin.

“The sink, she no work yet. We use the one in the kitchen for now.”

Next to the toilet rests a green five-gallon bucket, half-filled with clear water.

Luis smiles and shrugs his shoulders as I jiggle the useless handle.

“There is two more baths up the stairs.”

I step out into the hallway, and he switches the light off as we leave.

He leads the way, but we trudge slowly up the steps. We have to stop and rest on the landing so he can take a minute to catch his breath. But by the time we reach the top, he has told me all the details of how he ended up with the huge house after his wife finally left him, plus all of his many plans to remodel the place. The evidence of modernization lays heaped on the floor in front of us.

We pause at the head of the staircase for a moment to look around a great central room. Two unfinished stud walls stand as future dividers between the top of the stairs and an existing wall farther on -- in the center of the room lays a large stack of lumber. Next to that are various tools spread in a tangle, piled atop dusty sheetrock. Against one far wall, a row of cardboard boxes go almost to the ceiling, and I recognize a pair of water skis among additional debris that leans in one corner.

“Now I show you the other two bathrooms.”

I look in the first one. A new shower stall holds a number of small boxes of tiles.

“That shower no work, not yet. But it's going to be nice, no?”

The commode is missing off its base.

“I have a man who comes to to fix.”

I turn both hot and cold handles at the sink. Sweat appears on his cheeks, but his smile stays.

“See? That one, she work okay, huh?”

We go into the next bath. An old claw foot tub contains a thick layer of reddish dust, along with tubes of caulk and several sacks of rusted nails. I don’t bother to ask. But I do find the flush handle is loose and inoperable. The bowl itself contains less than a cup of foul-looking water.

“You can use the bucket from downstairs, if you need. This one toilet, she still works pretty good.”

Only the cold water faucet for the sink operates.

Luis looks surprised and smiles proudly at that discovery.

“Let me show you all our sleeping rooms now.”

“Everybody still at work,” He explains, pushing a door part-way open. Inside on the floor I catch a glimpse of an old mattress, along with a crumpled blanket strewn among piles of clothes and other litter. He pulls the door shut, but acts eager to show off each of his guest rooms, three of which already have a tenant. The last one waits for us empty.

“Go ahead -- you go on in and look around.”

I swing the door open. Half of a new strap latch hangs from the inside of the door jam. The other section I see bolted securely to the door. I walk inside the room to investigate.

Bright sunlight streams in through a bank of windows. Their gauzy curtains hang limply in the air. A hook rug covers the wooden floor next to a double bed, and the bed itself is matched by a single dresser and a night stand. This room looks surprisingly neat.

I try opening the drawers, all of which are empty and clean. I test the windows next. Each one opens and closes fine, although a screen for one is gone -- the others have some rips and a few small holes. I turn to look around the room with a grim expression fixed on my face. It will certainly beat sleeping outdoors among cabbage palms, I think.

“How much is it again?”

I pay my beaming host with cash from the paycheck I had been waiting on for so long, open up all the windows to let in fresh air, and then hurry down the stairs to collect my belongings from the bike. After emptying out the backpack and arranging my things, I spread my bedroll across the bare mattress. Then, and for the first time in a long time, I stretch out across my very own bed, and there I drift off, comfortable and content.

A noise wakes me up. My eyes open to a much dimmer room, so I lay still and listen.

There it is again. A muffled shout from somewhere, but then nothing more.

I sit up and slip on my shoes, and after softly closing the door I walk down the staircase.

Passing through the dark parlor, I head toward voices and a light that shines from under the kitchen door. A tempting smell of tortillas float in the air as I ease the door part-way open. I notice three things right away: the spatula lays in a different spot on the pan amid all the same clutter, a small pan half-filled with a mixture of refried beans sets close by, and a drunk talks loudly somewhere beyond my view. Then I see my host.

Luis sits leaning back in a metal folding chair near another doorway, and he is trying to steady his portly frame by grasping the edge of a near-by counter with an outstretched arm. He still wears his smile and the same loosened tie, and he holds a can of beer on one knee with the other hand.

At a table in the center of the kitchen sits a young Mexican man, hunched over and busy eating.

Across the room stands another Mexican who is leaning against a second counter. He is in the act of guzzling a beer, and his head is tilted far back.

Luis brings his chair down when he sees me, and for an introduction he holds his can with an outstretched arm and points to the man seated at the table.

“That’s Juan.”

Juan turns briefly and waves a fork.

“And him over there…that’s Johnny.”

The other Mexican weaves as he looks across the room at me, and he stares at me darkly. Then he takes another long drink, kills the beer and crumples the can nosily. He tosses the thing across the room to a trash can close to Luis. It lands on a pile of others, but bounces out and clatters on the floor.

Luis begins to rock back and forth in his seat, smiling complacently.

Johnny then glares across the room at his host.

“What I say is the damn truth, old man, and I don’t care if you believe it or not.”

Luis keeps rocking, and he chuckles and nods his head.

“I believe you, Johnny. I believe you. Go and get another beer.”

With this, Johnny’s apparent irritation turns to sudden joy.

“That’s the first good idea you had tonight!”

And at that, he stumbles happily across the room toward a refrigerator that stands next to me. He takes out one beer as he leans hard on the opened door for support, and then he turns his head to look me up and down.

“Say, gringo. You want a cold one?”

Johnny is about my age, but muscular and twice my size. I take the can from a huge fist, and then he reaches inside and grabs two more. He flashes me a toothsome smirk and tells me,

“I don’t want to have to make the same trip two times.”

He swaggers back to his original spot. Luis tilts his chair again and watches him as he goes. The younger Johnny shoves aside some of the clutter on the counter and places one beer near the edge before he opens the other, and then he takes a long drink from the can.

After he stops, he looks across at me again, and he furrows up his brow.

“Hey, gringo. Do I know you?”

Luis speaks softly while he holds onto the counter and balances his chair.

“He just moved here today, Johnny. Why don’t you listen sometimes?”

Johnny shrugs, spreads his hands apart and his face becomes as dark as a thunderstorm.

“Well, I didn’t recognize him, so forgive me for asking, old man.”

I am able to speak for myself, so I do.

“My name is Harry.”

Johnny continues ogling me with his sinister but puzzled stare, and then his face lights up suddenly.


I take a sip of my drink.

“Yup. That’s me.”

The swarthy-hued man stumbles forward a step, and while trying to maintain balance, he puffs up his chest and sticks a thumb up to his work shirt.

“And my name is John-NEE.”

His thumb jabs at the embroidered name over his shirt pocket.

“Johnny McGraw.”

Luis giggles and his chair slams to the floor.

Johnny takes another drink, wipes his moustache with a sleeve, and then announces to the room in an authoritative voice,

“McGraw is Irish.”

Luis begins to rock.

Juan gets up from the table and carries his plate over to the sink. It goes onto the growing pile, and he turns around then and leaves the room without a word. Johnny raises his can up in a jeering salute before focusing his attention back on me.

“I bet you never meet an Irish Mexican before.”

Johnny laughs at his own statement. Luis laughs too, and stops his back-and-forth rocking long enough to take another sip while Johnny gulps down his second beer. Another toss, another miss, and the full can gets popped opened.

The three of us continue on into the night for a time; me nursing my drink along while Luis gently rocks in his folding chair, and Johnny, trying his best to stand upright, loudly proclaiming an Irish heritage to a small but confined audience.

Safe in my bed afterwards, I drift off to sleep wondering how long I might survive this new place.

Next: A Fork and a Bullet

Saturday, May 14, 2005

A Rare Canadian Visitor

I rekindle the fire before dawn. Three cups of instant coffee brace my spirits for the day, and at first light, I set out once again. That check should be arriving soon, so rather than dawdle along the way, I pump hard and begin to make pretty good time.

According to the map, I have covered over half the distance to Corpus today, and I get to a small state park on the outskirts of a coastal village by nightfall. It feels strange to have the whole site to myself, but at least the close proximity to civilization seems wise.

I wish I had sweet butter to go along with my oatmeal. I need to buy salt too. But after forcing down a warmed bowl of the tasteless mush, I bed down on the sand with the sounds of the Gulf of Mexico splashing softly on a near-by beach. A strong off-shore breeze forces me to arrange the bag just so, with my toes taking the brunt, and the powerful wind helps to lull me into a deep and restful slumber.

Then at some point before dawn, my eyes open. I am both alert and curious. Something in the cold air feels different, so I raise up to look around. Rhythmic waves close by still surge and hiss, but I discover the thing that disturbed me is the wind -- it must have stopped blowing at some point, and now a silence lays over my moon-lit camp.

Satisfied, I snuggle back down inside my warmed cocoon and go back to sleep.

I wake up next at daylight, and my whole body feels miserably cramped and cold. The wind has returned again, but this time it howls from out of the north. My sleeping bag is snapping noisily around me, and the thing is puffed up like a balloon, filling with brutal blasts of frigid air. For a few groggy minutes I try pulling the opening tight around my head, but it’s useless against the onslaught so I give it up.

By the time I roll up the bag, both hands go numb, and it’s a struggle just to tie the thing onto the back of the bike. I hurriedly fumble through my pack next, searching for a jacket, and I also take out a pair of socks that I can use for mittens.

When I reach the road, I find out that I can only go in one direction, due to the astounding force of the wind, but at least it’s blowing in the direction I need to travel. And as soon as I swing onto the seat, I begin sailing along at a most incredible speed.

Several miles further down the highway is a coffee shop I recall passing on the way up, but by the time I reach the warm refuge, my whole face feels frozen and both eyes are burning; I can barely mutter a hello as I take a seat at the counter.

Rather than take a chance on cracking a tooth by drinking the steaming coffee I order right away, I decide to wrap both hands around the cup and wait for my body to stop shaking.

Later on, and half-way through a third cup, I overhear one man who drawls to another about an Alberta clipper that blew in from Canada during the night.

“It’s going to be down around eighteen degrees around here for pert near a whole damned week, the radio was just saying.”

I twist on my stool to look behind me. The plate glass windows are completely steamed over on the inside and being jarred by strong gusts. The waitress comes by to refill my cup again.

“What time do ya’ll close?”

“At ten every night, honey. This is a small town, you know.”

I have to do something, but I can wait for my toes to feel better before going out in that ordeal again.

After a couple of hours my brain begins to thaw, so I ask,

“Say, where is the closest church around here?”

She points over her shoulder and tells me the way, and I take the socks out of my pocket after buttoning up my lightweight jacket to the collar, and then head out the front door. It’s a struggle to ride the four blocks, but at least I have confidence in where I am heading.

Inside, a secretary gives my pair of socks the eye.

“Is there anyway you can put me up for a few days?”

And I briefly try to explain my situation.

“I’m terribly sorry, sir, but we have no facilities for doing that here.”

It’s apparent the woman didn’t ride a bike to work today, by the way she is dressed and by the blithe look on her face.

I get a sudden thought that matches the frightening weather outside.

“Well, where’s the police station in this town?”

Minutes later I speak to a sergeant who looks warm and cozy behind his desk.

“You guys want to put me in a spare cell till this blows over?”

The man is a cop, so he asks me back,

“Did you commit a crime or something?”

I nod toward the howling coming from the other side of the door.

“Not yet, but I am thinking seriously of doing something rash, and real soon too.”

He gives me a set of narrow eyes also.

“You might try the Red Cross down the street. Maybe they can help.”

Thirty minutes later I have a motel room. It takes almost as long to warm my feet as I stand and soak up a hot shower.

The fierce front dies out at the end of three days, and so I emerge from the safety and warmth of this cheap motel, my life spared by a small cash allotment provided by some stranger who really cared.

The forty-degree weather now feels bearable and almost pleasant, but I wear my jacket as I ride out of town, just in case.


Friday, May 13, 2005


Toward evening of day three, the road I am traveling on swings inland and away from the gulf. Growing bored with the changing landscape, I decide to return back to Corpus Christi. I have, by now, witnessed more than enough of this featureless place, and I think I am beginning to miss humanity again.

With less than an hour to go before dark, I sight a small clump of what recently have become hard-to-find trees, but they are placed several miles off the main highway. Up ahead, a deserted two-lane blacktop offers to lead me northward to the grove where I can sleep securely tonight.

Next to this side road lays a wide channel -- what appears to be a deep canal. Its still water supports a number of lily pads, and along the banks grow cattail reeds. From its surface, patches of pinks and golds reflect from a peaceful but stunning sunset. I peddle down the quiet road at a leisurely pace while taking in all of the beauty.

Farther on, a high embankment blocks my view of the setting sun. Midway along this earthen barrier, a wooden bridge crosses over the canal, and from there a dirt road beyond disappears into a field of tall weeds.

I stop and dismount to walk the bike across, when suddenly and from out of nowhere, a long line of vehicles begins to approach from the north. As odd as the noisome sight looks, it makes sense -- this is oil country I have invaded, and the rowdy mob passing by both looks and acst like typical roughnecks.

As the procession with its various radios blaring their songs roars on past me, I push across the bridge and through the weeds, heading for a spot marked by silent treetops that wait not too far away.

I make my camp close to the base of a large elm. A small fire soon heats up a quick meal, and afterwards I sit staring into the glowing embers, trying to relax from this long day of cycling. The night air chills as I wind down, and a nice little shiver runs up my back.

Unrolling the sleeping bag, I spread it next to the smoldering fire, and after first removing my shoes and socks, and then while laying back and watching a multitude of stars overhead, my eyes grow heavy, so I drift off to sleep.

A faint rumbling sound of an idling motor startles me awake. I glance to the left and hear the motor revving once, along with shouts of faint laughter. Then someone yells out,

“Go ahead! You can make it.”

And then a loud “Yee-ha!” follows after the voice.

I raise up on an elbow to look back toward the embankment. A set of headlights there are see-sawing through the cut. Someone guns the engine again. The vehicle bursts through and stops for a moment. From what I can gather, it looks like I now have some unexpected company.

In a split-second I spring from the bag and leap over the hot coals, and I land in the blackness of a thicket that surrounds the base of the closest tree. From here I squat low and wait.

Seconds later a pickup truck comes barging its way toward my camp, crashing through my weeded barrier. The truck then slides to a halt less than a foot away from the empty bag. For a few moments, dust swirls forward from under the bumper, and it continues to drift on through the air, lit up by two steady shafts of light. The motor growls ominously in the dark behind the pair.

I remain frozen in place, and with eyes cast downward, I become mindful of something else -- thorns are pricking my bare feet.

The dust settles over the sleeping bag as the engine continues to gurgle.

I hear someone ask,

“Where is he?”

A thought of how handy a slingshot might be right now occurs to me.

The motor guns again, and I overhear a murmured but short conference taking place.

“You getting out?”

“Hell no, not yet -- I can’t see the dude. How about you?”

I imaging them drinking beers while they make up their minds.

“It looks like that son-of-a-bitch has took off somewhere.”

A moment later the motor races twice, and next comes a sound of gears trying to mesh. The truck then begins to back up slowly, and I close my eyes just before the brilliant headlights sweep across my face. I hear the gears grind one more time, and then just as quickly as they first appeared, the truck and its occupants abandon me and my area.

I can open my eyes again, but I remain crouched down and unmoving. Only after the set of taillights leave by the cut in the distant embankment do I realize how bothersome these thorns are becoming, but regardless of that, the winner is allowed to smile just a little.

NEXT: A Rare Canadian Visitor