Alamo Houseby Sarah Bird
The sorority sisters of Alamo House at the University of Texas may be at comic odds with each other, but at least they have one thing in common: They all hate the fraternity rats across the street, the Sigma Upsilon Kappas—aka the SUKs. But amid the collegiate turmoil, Alamo House is also the scene of an extraordinary, endearing friendship among three women: Mary Jo, hilariously confused about life and love but determined to get both right; Fayrene, flushed with freedom after her escape from Baptist Waco; and Collie, party girl and self-proclaimed guide to the ways of the world. Together they embark on a roller coaster of escapades that changes them all—and galvanizes Alamo House into an all-out counterattack against the SUKs. The result is infectious, side-splitting fun sure to convince everyone that Mary Jo, Collie, and Fayrene are the best southwestern mixture since tequila, lime, and salt.
- Recorded Books, LLC
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Maybe I expected too much from Roger Halpern and our live-together trial. I knew when I moved in with him that he was as ignorant about housework as Louis XIV. What I hadn't bargained on was ending up as the entire janitorial staff at Versailles. At twenty-seven I had close to a quarter of a century of field experience on him. I probably should have started him off with a basic understanding of dirt, what it is and why we do not like it in our houses.
I'd run the gamut of approaches for coercing Roger into shouldering, if not half, at least a fraction of the care and maintenance of the shelter we shared. I'd started off very New Age with a contract dividing duties: Roger take out trash. Mary Jo mop kitchen floor. Roger mow lawn. Mary Jo vacuum and dust house. Roger pick up his socks. Mary Jo clean bathroom. The terms were generous. Roger agreed to them. As soon as I'd moved in, however, he paid as much attention to his contractual obligations as a Trobriand Islander.
In the few months I'd cohabited with Roger in our single-family dwelling in bucolic Travis Heights, I'd systematically trimmed away all the flourishes. I was down to the essentials of sanitation. They represented less housework than I'd have done if I'd lived alone. The problem was I wasn't living alone and I was doing all the work. The real problem was, I felt like a chump doing it.
Maybe the housework issue was only the messy symptom of a much greater ill.
Such were the thoughts that wheeled through my mind as I pedaled past Alamo House, pumping my fat-tired bike further into the overheated miasma that settles upon equatorial Austin for three-fourths of the year. A signswinging from the porch roof read "Vacancies for Graduate Women." Half a block later I remembered that I was a graduate woman, not Roger Halpern's live-in domestic. I started classes in photojournalism next week. Alamo House applied to me. Though I'd ridden by it on my way to work at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library every day for a month, I had never really looked at the house until that moment.
She was a dowdy dowager out of place on a street full of Greek-columned fraternity and sorority houses with BMW 320i's out front interspersed with condominiums bought by Dallas daddies looking to get a tax write-off and an education for Bubba at the same time. Alamo might have been marginally regal a hundred years ago with a horse and carriage out front and an acre or so on either side. Now, with her grounds sliced practically up to the porch and one motley pecan tree, naked and scarred from the ground up except for its leafy top, on what remained of a brown and abused lawn, she looked distinctly frumpy.
I didn't know anything about architectural periods and styles, cupolas and portcullises. Alamo House was just a huge old house painted the drabbest of olives. Still the moldering edifice held a certain charm for me. I was certain she would be cheap. Cheap enough to make Roger start believing in the possibility that I might actually leave. I leaned my bike against the one surviving tree of those that had given the street its name, Pecan. A member of the nut family. How often in life do we ignore the obvious?
I entered planning only to gather basic facts about things like rent. All I wanted were a few details to add a bit of ballast to my increasingly empty threats about throwing in the towel (and the sponge mop, and the toilet brush), and moving out. Since I was merely gathering props for my Potëmkin emancipation, I was spared the jolt that other graduate women earnestly in search of reasonably priced shelter must receive upon entering Alamo. The living room looked like the lobby of a welfare hotel. It was steeped in the shabby gentility of graduate students whose sole luxuries are their recherché dissertation topics. The room was dominated by a poster of a cow's head staring with mournful Elsie eyes. The caption: "Love Me, Don't Eat Me." A flurry of notices about Campus Co-op League meetings and U.S. Out of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and South Africa protest marches were tacked to the wall next to a pay phone. It was like walking into a sixties time capsule. Only the names of the Third World countries had been changed.
A small, wiry woman uncurled herself from her perch on one of the greasy armchairs and approached me. From a distance her eyes seemed darkly outlined in kohl. Closer inspection revealed that the coloring was natural; a kind of permanent bruising of the lids made her gaze sensitive and haunted and piercing. Your basic borderline schizophrenic.
"Hi. Looking for someone?"
Those eyes. Pits of perception. She seemed to know all, judge nothing. I came close to telling her about my life as an indentured servant, about my search for the man within the man I loved, who would happily massage Pledge into our furniture.
"No," I stammered, pointing behind me to give her a clue as to my mission. "The sign. I saw your sign."
Her laser stare did not waver. I spewed out more clues.
"You have a vacancy listed."
She nodded sagely.
"Well, I was wondering, just wondering," I added tentatively, "how much is rent?"
Her eyes held mine. "Two-twenty a month."
In the university area that was approximately what a converted barbecue pit went for. Her eyes bore more deeply.
"That includes meals."
My jaw slackened, but I did not allow it to swing open. She moved in for the kill.
"We all share duties. Cooking. Cleaning. Everything. It's all written into the contract."
After a summer of Dumpster Love the vision was irresistible: beaming graduate women, shoulder to shoulder, comrades in cleanliness, scrubbing out the tub together, inching the fridge forward to delve behind it for some deep cleaning, cracking fresh sheets over a bed.
"My name's Judith Feldman. What's yours?"
I hadn't planned to divulge that, but Judith's eyes drew it out of me. "Mary Jo Steadman."
"Listen up, folks." Judith raised her voice to capture the attention of the half-dozen residents draped over books at various spots around the living room. They had the pasty phosphorescence of those whose daylight hours are spent in library carrels and stacks. "This is Mary Steadman."
Mary Steadman? Isn't Mary Jo dreary enough? I didn't bother to correct Judith. I wouldn't be around long enough for any of these escapees from Night of the Living Dead to call me anything, much less Mary Steadman.
"That's Hillary." Judith indicated an emaciated woman with long, straight, carroty hair parted down the middle and lankly framing one of the gauntest faces I'd ever seen outside of a Dorothea Lange Dustbowl photograph. Hillary had the sickly, drawn-out look of fanatical vegetarians. I assumed Carrot Girl was responsible for "Love Me, Don't Eat Me."
"And Toni and Barb." Judith's hand swept over to a couple clumped together on the middle cushion of a lumpy three-cushion sofa. Both wore denim overalls and both had the kind of scalped-to-the-bone gamine haircut that Mia Farrow had once made popular. One in blond, Barb, one in brunette, Toni. Mia with her delicate bone structure had looked like a big-eyed waif in her pixie cut. Barb and Toni, big, meaty gals, looked like hillbilly gas station attendants.
"Toni is House Maintenance Person and Work Manager. She's the one you see about work duties." I smiled. Work duties. Yeah, right. They nodded in my direction and went back to thumbing through a book of David Hamilton's gauzy portraits of young girls.
"And Josie Guzman." A curly-haired Chicana in a string T-shirt glanced up from her Analog magazine and waved a cigarette in jaunty circles at me by way of a greeting. She took a long tug on the Lone Star long-neck at her side before diving back into the science fiction story she was reading.
"Josie's in law school," Judith whispered approvingly. "And Byung Duk Soo." From across the room a chunky Oriental woman in her early twenties bounded forward, her hand extended. She gripped mine and give it three tick-tock-the-game-is-locked shakes. Her smile creased her eyes into two happy parabolas floating over her cheeks. "I am very hoppy to make your acquaintance," she announced, releasing my hand and stepping back expectantly. A whooshing sound accompanied the announcement as though she were trying to suck her words back in even as she spoke them.
"Yes, me too." I was overcome to find such vitality here amidst the undead. "Where are you from?"
"I'm from Albuquerque. New Mexico."
Byung Duk Soo beamed as if my point of origin was a source of vast merriment. Unspeakably pleased with our exchange, she nodded and returned to her chair.
"And I'm the house disgrace," a woman in her mid-forties volunteered.
"Heh-heh." Judith sawed off an imitation of laughter. "This is Esme," she said. "Esme is working on her dissertation in philosophy."
Esme, well into her forties, was curled up with a copy of Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism. She was decked out in a hot pink and turquoise mini-skirt that exposed ghastly yards of varicosed leg. A torn sweatshirt bearing the message that "The Fab Butthole Surfers Ride the Rim!!!" slid off her wrinkled shoulder. Her hair, hennaed to a violent purplish orange, had been terraced into an upside-down stairstep cut like an inverted ziggurat. Meeting this menopausal woman in her abrasively trendy gear was like seeing a progeric, one of those prematurely aged kids, bald and wrinkled as a lizard, beneath a Cub Scout uniform.
I twinkled my fingers in hello, but Esme was too engrossed in Hannah Arendt to notice.
Judith faced me, took a deep breath, then launched into a soliloquy that had the canned flavor of many past renditions. "We're a community of women here. What we're about here is growth—personal and academic. Alamo House is a sharing, giving kind of a thing."
I tried to look like I cared.
"If it's a concept in living that you think you could be comfortable with, that you feel you could invest some of your energy and your self in, come for dinner this evening. We eat at six. Everyone in the house has to meet and approve new residents."
Fat fucking chance, I thought as I left. Alamo House sheltered the largest collection of academic eccentrics, sixties throwbacks, and social retards I'd ever seen at one time. I was more than ready to leave them behind when I was stopped dead on the porch by an overpowering clove-scented cloud. It was coming from the stairwell off the porch that led up to the second floor. I peeked up.
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