My mother’s cat passed away three days before I came down to visit. It was a shame. I really liked the cat and looked forward to seeing him. Thomas – that was his name – was a member of the family, a big furry lazy joy to be around and yada, yada. But he also had the run of the place – came and went any time he wanted to, ate anytime he wanted, and every time he wanted to come inside the house he would scratch on the front door’s trim and the nearest human would let him in. He did this for almost ten years. The door’s trim was scarred with deep creases and the rubber seal around the door frame needed to be replaced. I did the repairs.
And I did such a good job that you can’t tell the door was ever scratched up, and the new rubber seal actually seals. But after staring at the door for some time I was overcome by a curious feeling – like the world’s smallest bottomless pit was in my stomach. My mom came up to the door, gave a sad smile. She really liked Thomas – even buried him herself – and the door didn’t remind her of Thomas anymore.
We’re cat people – we love cats. Even my dad loved them. I should say, however, that he hated them for most of his life. I don’t really know what happened – maybe he was just getting older – but it started with hesitant petting, then talking to the cats as he petted them, then feeding them, then – by the time Thomas came around – he let them curl up and sleep on him…if that’s what cats really do when they curl up on you. I’m still not convinced they don’t use humans simply as thrones and slaves.
I picked up my tools, turned around and saw the chair where my dad used to sit – outside, in the evenings. One of my last memories of my dad is of him sitting in that chair. It’s a cool evening after a hot day. He’s looking out at the yard – not doing anything, just sitting there. His left hand dangles close to the ground and of course one of the cats is brushing up against it. My dad pets it with his lazy hanging hand, seeing and thinking a thought I will never know. But now the chair looked like the door – like it was missing something. So did the porch, then the house, then the whole damn day. I felt the microscopic bottomless pit again. Damn the cats and all objects that leave no trace because the next day I drove two hours south to my hometown…
…which is Orange Grove, Texas. I didn’t want to go. I only went to get the cats to stop meowing. When I got there, I did what I normally do – cruise up and down all the streets of the tiny town and not stop. I don’t mean to make it sound like I don’t like the place. I do, I will always call it Home. But it’s like most small towns – much has changed except nothing at all and nothing really ever will. Like yours.
A memory played out on every street corner. A good one. A bad one. A pretty stupid one and Jesus I really did that?! There?! With her?! It was a hot day, but a few people were out in their yards or walking in and out of the gas station, grocery or convenience store. They all looked like people I may or may not have known and I may have known if I knew them or not knew them for certain had I slowed down. But I was content to live with the uncertainty.
But I knew Clarence Moore. He was my father’s closest friend. And he mowing his yard. He wore a straw hat and his mouth was slightly open, breathing in the very hot, dusty air. Mr. Moore is a good man. He’d helped my father through some very hard times due to prison and alcohol. I hadn’t seen Mr. Moore since my father’s funeral in December of 2010. I should stop and say hello, I thought. But I convinced myself I needed to go out to the house where I grew up instead.
I slowed down as I drove by the old house, just outside of town. The house looked the same and for a quick moment I could feel myself walking around it, somewhere around ten years old or so. I’m bored and wishing for some excitement but I only find cats. It’s evening, My mom takes the dinner scraps out to the yard for the cats to eat. I count 14 cats in all. 14 cats. I don’t see my dad around. He’s a Mr. Moore’s, my mom says, you should stop by there 27 years later when you’re passing through. Dammit. I pulled a u-turn on the highway, then headed back to Mr. Moore’s place.
He was still mowing his yard – perched atop his mower like a bird, squinting through the sun and dust. I was about to turn into the driveway when I sped up and headed out of town again. He’s busy, I thought, shaking my head. It’d be a real shame if he didn’t get all his lawn mowed before it got too hot. I was about 10 miles out of town when I turned around yet again. If he’s still outside when I get there, then I’ll stop by. Moments later, he was and I did.
“Hey, come on inside and let’s have a coke,” said Mr. Moore, after a few minutes of not recognizing me.
We went inside and he fixed me a glass of ice and gave me a can of Coca-Cola. “Now, do you want any…sweetener…for that coke?” He asked as he pulled from the cabinet a bottle of whiskey. I declined and thanked him. He poured himself a large Styrofoam cup – all I’d ever seen him drink from since I was five – of whiskey and ice and added one or two drops coke for coloring. Then he sat down and smoked one cigarette after another.
“Well, I’m just about to turn 83,” he said. “I’m not gonna quit now. I’ve lived a good long life and hell I’m not hurtin’ anybody. Hell, I’m right here in this chair most of the time. But I still go to the VFW on Friday nights, play 42 and get drunk.”
As we visited he began to look more and more like he did when I was a kid. He was my first boss – $4 an hour to clean up a shed and a yard and to roll up a bunch of fire hoses. He gave my dad a job cooking bar-b-que after he got out of prison. But as Mr. Moore got younger, I became hyper-aware of the present. The yellow veneer of the old metal kitchen table glowed so bright. The table was cool to the touch. The house was cool but warmer by the door. I smelled the cigarette smoke, felt the condensation on my glass of coke. I felt my age. I had a beard for Christ’s sakes.
“I tell you,” continued Mr. Moore, “I was so proud of him when he got out of the pen. He never touched the stuff again. And it didn’t matter one bit to him that I still did. He’d just laugh at me and say, You’re still alive? when he’d see me. He was a real friend.” His eyes got wet like they did at the funeral. Then he held up a finger. “You’re daddy was number one…was a good man.”
On my way out, I told Mr. Moore I would visit him every time I came through.
“I don’t care if it’s three in the morning,” he said. “I’ll answer.” I told him I’m not up past 3AM much anymore. “Well, I am” he said, shrugged his shoulders. “I’m am.”
I was about to round the corner of the house when he stopped me.
“Hey!” He was laughing to himself. “I made your daddy swear to me that he would give my eulogy. I told ‘em he should get up at the front of the church or wherever and to tell everybody there, everything, man. All the drinking and wild times. Just let ‘em all have it! He said he would, too.” He laughed a bit then stopped. I waved and got in the car.
I drove to Alice. My grandfather – my mom’s father – lived just south of Alice in the early 1900s. South Texas was bandit country, then. My grandfather and his brothers had to take turns each night keeping lookout for Pancho Villa and other banditos and revolutionaries that were raising hell in Texas at the time. South Texas is basically the same today. It’s a wild and crazy place and the Texans and Mexicans that occupy it will bitch at each other while coexisting in relative peace until an asteroid hits the Earth. Two oceans of culture colliding and the many fringe creatures that are birthed from that kind of violent embrace – banditos, bikers, oilfield roughnecks, rednecks, evangelists and chupacabras – that is South Texas. From Alice, I turned onto Highway 44 toward Corpus Christi to see if any of the oak trees my grandfather had planted along the road – while a member of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930s – were still standing. There weren’t.
From there, I drove to Taft to check out the many giant windmills that grace the area. It was a windy day and they were spinning fast. These huge structures mesmerize me to dizziness and I can’t pass through them without thinking of Don Quixote. After enough literary reflection that got me feeling really, really smart, I left for Sinton – the place of my birth – five miles away. I thought it would be a fitting conclusion to such a meandering day through memory. But when the town appeared on the horizon, I pulled another u-turn and headed toward the Gulf of Mexico.
At Padre Island, beer-gutted, sunburned men hung out by pick-up trucks. Beer-gutted women held cigarettes while dancing about between the trucks and you had to look twice to see that they were – in fact – wearing thongs underneath their tramp-stamps. In some cases, three times. I thought I’d come out to the beach and find calm introspective solitude – how foolish, trying to create an ocean before reaching its shores. I arrived at a beach where people lived their good life as the waves crashed in, shouting happily to each other with husky voices, running from one car stereo to another. Thongs and beer have a way of bringing people together. At the end of the day on the edge of the country, in the blowing sand and salt air, why not let it all go? If tomorrow comes, so comes the same old social corset. So tonight we love, you don’t even need a name, all it takes is Hello and we love. But I didn’t say hello. I stood at the waves, mute, in my cowboy boots and misanthropy. I was Quixotic.
On the ferry from Port Aransas back to the mainland, I leaned out the car window. The sun was low but the heat still lingered. I breathed in hot air as saltwater mist cooled my sand-caked face. Rising, falling. Floating, floating. I came up with some deep and prophetic statement about the nature of life just then, but didn’t write it down. I just floated.
When I got home, I told my mother I stopped by Mr. Moore’s. She smiled, sadly. After I told her I drove down Highway 44 and didn’t see any of the old trees her father’d planted, she gave another sad smile.