Alamo House

Overview

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 ...
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Overview

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.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This hilarious novel of the women of Alamo House versus the SUKs (Sigma Upsilon Kappa Fraternity) at the University of Texas in Austin revolves around the narrator, Mary Jo, whose acerbic comments on life and love counterpoint her confusion about both, and her friendship with fat, naive Fayrene from Waco and worldly-wise party-girl Collie, who leads the other two through the ins and outs of relationships with men. In novels like this the tables have a way of turning, however, so it's the age-old story played against the war between the eccentrics and the boozer-jock stereotypes. However, the characters raise this novel above others like it. One wishes Bird's assessment of the library profession weren't so negative and stereotypic, but otherwise an amusing romp.Rosellen Brewer, Seaside Branch-Monterey Cty. Lib., Cal.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781428103238
  • Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC
  • Publication date: 9/27/2006
  • Format: CD

Meet the Author

Sarah Bird
Sarah Bird

Sarah Bird lives with her family in Austin, Texas, where she performs her own material regularly at the Hyde Park Theatre. She is the author of six previous novels, including The Flamenco Academy and The Yokota Officers Club.

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Read an Excerpt

1

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 sign swinging 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?”

“Seoul, Korea.”

“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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First Chapter

1

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?"

"Seoul, Korea."

"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.

Copyright© 2003 by Sarah Bird
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Interviews & Essays

On a steamy evening in early May, Sarah returns to Seneca House Co-op for Graduate Women to visit with current residents about life at a UT co-op. Sarah live at Seneca House in 1974 and 1975 while getting a graduate degree at the University of Texas and then again in 1983 when she went undercover and moved back in to gather material for the book that would become Alamo House.

The first change I notice is that where parking around the university was once difficult, it has become impossible. No wonder I haven't returned in the years since I left 2309 Nueces. I find a spot far from the house and amble back through the West Campus neighborhood of century-old houses and towering pecan trees being rapidly crowded out by snazzy new condo developments. I pass the intersection of 24th and Nueces, site of a favorite old haunt, Les Amis, a sprouts and herbal tea emporium that I knew had been torn down some years back. What I hadn't fully realized was that the counter-culture icon had been replaced by—altogether now—a Starbucks. It is a too-pointed reminder of the mourning for lost innocence quality that all such strolls down Memory Lane are prone to. I imagine that twenty-five years from now some current West Campus dweller will be recalling with misty fondness the golden Starbucks of his youth and lamenting its replacement with a drive-through Botox station.

An afternoon shower has turned the city into a steam bath. I recall the permanently wilted state I existed in while living at Seneca where a few ancient window units churned futilely against the heat and humidity. In fact I further recall, to my astonishment, that my room did not have one.Only someone who has lived in these latitudes can understand the significance of the AC issue.

As I approach the house, something seems very different. Before I can figure out what it might be, an attack of nerves hits as I realize what an essentially bizarre mission I am on. I try to imagine how I would have reacted when I was a resident of Seneca House to the invasion of a decidedly mom-looking suburbanite into my stronghold of bohemianism. I picture the group of high school seniors I spoke to the week before and decide that the giant "Whatever" expressions on the silent faces pretty well covers what I can expect.

On the porch I note the same assortment of dead and dying houseplants that festooned it when I was a resident. A new addition is a serious-looking lock with a security code keypad on the front door. Given the abandoned shopping carts, bundles of clothes hidden in the brush, and homeless men roaming the alleys, this seems a wise innovation.

I brace myself for the sauna and mildew factory of my memory, and knock. The first major surprise is that, after a worryingly long wait, an amiable young man wearing glasses and a yarmulke answers.

"You're not the health inspector, are you?" he asks, nodding at my notepad where I've written the words "dead plants." The dozen or so residents clumped around a long dining room table chuckle agreeably.

They're joking, I realize with intense relief. I pretend to jot furiously. "Yes, I am and I'm shutting you down for a number of violations."

I'm back. With one stupid joke, I've stepped over the threshold and back in time more than a quarter of a century. I'm momentarily disoriented by both this time travel experience and because the dining room is now where the living room used to be and the kitchen has been turned on its side and... Oh my God! Most peculiar of all, the house is cool. It's delightfully, pleasantly cool with not the slightest hint of the mildew-cumin-incense odor that defined my Seneca experience.

The pleasant young people are staring at me. Deeply grateful for their surprising friendliness, I blurt out my strange errand. They don't find it strange in the least. Everyone shifts over and I take a seat at the table.

"Can I get you something to drink?" Kavan Modi, 24, a graduate student in physics originally from India, asks.

"Are you hungry?" Liz Rivera-Dirks, 21, studying computer science, adds, indicating her plate splashed with the remnants of something that looks very much like vegetarian chili.

I assure them I'm fine and plunge in, noting the most obvious difference that had occurred to me when Adam, 27, an Israeli-American philosophy major had opened the door: "The house is co-ed."

Tanisha--"I'm the only white Tanisha you'll ever meet"--fills me in, the house went co-ed in ‘92 and they now have seven men and twelve women.

"The first summer I lived here," I tell them in my best grizzled old-timer voice, "we had trouble filling up the house and let guys in. It was a disaster."

"Why?"

"Lots of romantic turmoil," I answer, telling about the Lothario from Venezuela who left a trail of broken hearts and unwashed pans in his wake but not about my sweetheart. How his summer at Seneca almost, but not quite, saved us. I glance at the stairway at whose top I spent far too much time huddled against a phone receiver, weeping, after I lost said sweetheart to the clutches of Scientology and he left for Los Angeles. Once embedded in that world he took up with an actress who dumped him for another actor who then dumped her and so on in a daisy chain of betrayal that extended right up to some of your better-looking Oscar winners. Let's just say, if I'd only had the foresight to harbor a truly nasty STD, Penelope Cruz would be at her gynecologist's right this moment.

"Everyone just sort of decided that guys upset things too much and that they didn't carry their weight," I say, glossing over the summer of the green toilets and sodden phone receiver. "So, how is the co-ed thing working out for you all?"

"I had a pretty crappy experience," Chad Wood, 23, computer science, says. "I dated this girl then she started sleeping with this guy down the hall and I was stuck living with her."

"It's just difficult living with someone you're in love with," Kavan interjects.

"I would call it hell," Chad maintains.

"When you're in love with someone," Kavan continues, "you tend to spend a lot of time with them and that's not good for the group as a whole." Such thoughts seem to come naturally to Kavan and it's not surprising to learn that he is the Labor Czar, the person responsible for assigning jobs, making sure everyone does their chores and assessing fines when they don't. I ask if they still have "Labor Holidays," and everyone groans at the diabolical oxymoron.

"What did you used to do back in the day?" someone asks.

I like repping for my "back in the day" peeps and recount endless hours spent scraping mildewed windows with razor blades. Window work doesn't figure into the picture much anymore. I comment on how good the house looks and learn that a fire five years ago led to major reconstruction including the blessed addition of central AC. The AC has had the added benefit of making Seneca the most popular of the Inter-Campus Council's eight co-ops.

"What is room and board now?" I ask.

"Six hundred and two dollars."

I'm surprised at how low the figure is since a plank in a labyrinthine university dorm can cost far more and private dorms will run two to three times that amount. I begin to look at my old co-op in a whole new light, the light shed by a parent's brain sizzling away trying to figure out how to pay for college. Seneca House starts to seem like a place where my 13-year-old son might possibly, one day, be very happy.

"What about food?" I wonder. "Given that the house is so much more diverse than when I was here is that reflected in the food? What do you eat that might be out of the ordinary?"

They consider this and Liz answers, "Steamed buns."

A sign from God. My son's favorite food is exactly this Chinese delicacy of puffy dough and red bean paste or barbecued pork all in a handy microwaveable format.

"Mole, curry, Thai. Kavan makes a really good Mee Siam, Thai noodles with tomato and coconut milk sauce."

This all sounds a vast improvement over the unpronounceable whole grains and other bulk food items perpetrated "in the day." I recall an intense yearning from that time for a meal with identifiable components, something mass feeding does not lend itself to.

"The worst was peanut butter casserole," Christy volunteers. "It had zucchini and other vegetables in this pool of oil." There is a group shudder at the memory. Okay, so it's not all steamed buns.

"Was the house always Seneca Falls Co-op?" Leela Ellison, who chose co-op living after a spell in an apartment with a manic-depressive roommate who never bathed, asks.

"Actually, the name changed while I was living here. When I first moved in it was Varsity House or something fairly dopey like that. A movement was started to change it and since the house was all-female at the time, a feminist slant was favored. Lilith House, Suffer Jet City, Sojourner Truth House. Though I do recall a contingent that lobbied heavily for Middle Earth. Eventually Seneca Falls House was chosen in honor of the first women's right convention held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. Somehow the Falls got dropped and the official sign read Seneca House."

"So why did you call the book Alamo House?" Liz asks.

I laugh and answer truthfully, "That was the publisher's decision. They pretty much gave me two choices: Magnolia House or Alamo House. There was a lot less awareness about Texas at that time, a sort of general crunching together of Texas and the South. Joking with my editor, trying to get him to see how wrong, how ‘Southern' Magnolia House was, I said, ‘Why don't you just call it Kudzu House?' Unfortunately, the joke was lost on him. He was very disappointed when I informed him we don't actually have kudzu in Austin. Of course, my hardcover publisher for The Mommy Club wanted to put a saguaro cactus on the cover of that book and wasn't pleased when I informed her that saguaros only grow in some tiny area in Arizona. But tell me, do you still have the same problems we did with the fraternities?"

"What fraternities?"

That is when, looking out the front window, I realize what is so very different: the twin fraternities--both evil--that used to squat across the street are gone. The entire block they occupied is vacant. A parking lot. I think of the beefy crews who tortured us with all-night parties, obscene epithets, and raids on the bamboo jungle that once surrounded the house. Apparently one house burned down and the other was put on a sort of permanent probation for hazing violations. Then, or so the story goes, according to Mr. R., 27, a Mexican-American law student wearing a t-shirt with the Hindu elephant god Ganesha on it, when the national chapter sent money to jolt the monster back to life, the officers absconded with funds and went on safari to Africa!

I love this unverified story and answer with one of my own recounting how when Alamo House was first published I received a call from the president of the national chapter of the house that the SUKs were based upon. (I add that I found it very telling that they were able to identify the house simply from the depredations mentioned in the novel.) At first I was slightly worried that they were going to sue me. But only slightly as they would have been dipping into some of the shallowest pockets imaginable. But no, the president had called to tell me that they were putting copies of my novel into every chapter across the country! As a cautionary tale!

"It's different now," the irrepressible Mr. R. assures me. "Every time we have a party that sorority back there, Pi Beta Phi, I think it is, calls the cops."

"The Greeks are calling the cops on you!" I explode. This is too delicious.

"Oh, yeah." They tell me about the mammoth blow-outs Seneca hosts: two, three bands, five kegs, open to all comers.

"This is so amazing," I gasp. "There we were, all these timid graduate women just tortured mercilessly by these Greek thugs. The police would come over and trade secret handshakes with the guys and there didn't seem to be anything we could do to retaliate. So, essentially, my novel is this big revenge fantasy. And now, here you are living my fantasy. The Greeks are calling the cops on Seneca House."

Even as I am delighting in this better-than-fiction twist, Kavan, the Labor Czar, leaps out of his chair, bolts across the front room, and out the door. I worry that he might have deep hidden Greek attachments that I've offended. Instead, a moment later he comes back. He'd seen the homeless man who had been hanging out in the laundry room putting cleanliness next to scariness and run out to have issue a stern warning about spending his spin cycles elsewhere.

I take the opportunity to visit my old room upstairs with its current occupant, Suzanne Julian, 21, a particularly kind sociology major from San Antonio who wears her graciousness as lightly as the stud on her tongue. The room, a converted porch that once housed three and had the fiendish ability to amplify both noise and heat, is now a serene hideaway for one with gleaming new wood floors, leaky walls all nicely sheetrocked and plenty of blissful AC pouring in.

As I note and photograph the changes, Suzanne talks about how she moved in because of a desire to be involved with an "intentional community." How she was excited about the commitment to cooperation and being respectful of everyone's needs that participation in such a community implies.

This, too, seems the realization of a fantasy, this one implicit, in the book I wrote. The felicitous phrase "intentional community" rolls around my brain as I jot down a poem a former resident has written on a nearby door.

I say my good-byes and head back outside. The Austin evening has cooled. I bounce back to my car far perkier than when I'd left. The "dowdy dowager" I'd described in Alamo House seemed considerably spruced up in ways that go far beyond AC and new floors. Ready to forge her way through the new millennium or, at the very least, I hope, long enough to get my son through college.

Seneca Falls Co-op! Come in! Come in!
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Reading Group Guide

1. Circa 1800, self-styled “Texans” fought for their independence from Mexico in the Battle for the Alamo. At the time, the Texans branded themselves revolutionaries. In what ways can the contemporary Texan women in this novel also be described as revolutionaries?

2.Feminism creates a strong sub-theme throughout Alamo House. Discuss Mary Jo’s ambiguous feelings about feminism.

3.Alamo House in located on Pecan Street, which Mary Jo thinks is a prodigious metaphor. Discuss the idea that the women in the house were “nuts.” Do you think they were? Or were they independent and self-expressive?

4.Among the many women who lived in Alamo House, Mary Jo, Collie and Fayrene quite distinct from each other, yet their threesome friendship made sense. Discuss the dynamics between these three women.

5.Collie is the novel’s most enigmatic character. Did you find her enigma enticing, repulsive, or both (like Mary Jo)? Who do you think Collie really is–Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin, Sylvia Plath, or Cordelia Mohoric?

6.Much of Mary Jo’s time is spent on the fifth floor of the LBJ Presidential Library. Yet, as an archivist, her work includes stacking small pieces of petrified wedding cake rather than filing important presidential memorandum. Discuss possible political messages behind this paradox.

7.There are many examples of perfect femininity given throughout the novel: Mary Jo’s collection of Ladies’ Home Journals, the SUKs anthem of “California Girls,” and the infamous females that Collie imitates. Do you think that only one of these can be the correct example of feminine perfection? Is there such a thing as feminine perfection? Can a woman be both Marilyn Monroe and Sylvia Plath?

8.Mary Jo leaves Roger for Alamo House because of Roger’s sloth. Yet, Alamo House is much dirtier establishment, and Mary Jo ends up committing to live there by the novel’s end. What happened to her obsession with cleanliness? Was it simply a problem in her relationship with Roger, or was it something else entirely? What do you think signals this change in the book?

9.Collie tells Mary Jo and Fayrene that the only way to relate to men is through The Axiom — “The party of the most interest is the party of the least power.” Is The Axiom correct? If so, how? How do Collie’s experiences with men embody and/or defy The Axiom?

10. Collie states “Men are such Trollops.” Do you agree with this statement? Who in the book would you describe as a trollop? Do any of the women qualify? Or, as Collie’s evaluation seems to imply, are women always nicer than men?

11. Collie and Mary Jo engage in a lot of casual sex, as well as the SUKs across the street. What do you think about this part of the story? Although Alamo House was written in the mid-1980s, there is no mention of the AIDS crisis that beginning to grip the country. Do you think these students were unaware of the crisis, or simply thought themselves immune to it? Would these attitudes be acceptable within current social norms? If written today, what sexual attitudes might the characters in Alamo House exhibit?

12.Do you think Alamo House’s retaliation against the SUKs was well-deserved? Or do you think they went overboard? Did you ever find yourself in a similar situation in college?

13. During an ad hoc house meeting, Mary Jo narrates “For the next half hour the group batted around terms like womb envy and homophobia, misogyny and aural rape.” Given these basic points of 1980s feminism, how do you think feminism is depicted in Alamo House? Is it shown as something that advances or hinders the progress of women in society? How do you see it?

14. Collie and Tommy are the two most important people in Mary Jo’s life after Roger. In what ways do they influence her life for the better? For the worse? Which one do you think enables her to become a better person?

15.Fayrene shows up at Alamo House as a Bible-beating virgin. Yet, a few months later, she loses her virginity in a one-night stand with an Arab national. What does this signal about the change in her character? Do you think this is due solely to Collie’s influence on her? Why, or why not?

16.After Collie’s departure, Fayrene tells Mary Jo that Collie did not tell her the truth about her identity because she’s “normal.” What do you think Fayrene meant? Was it a compliment or not? Did you think Mary Jo is “normal”?

17. At the end of Alamo House, the women engage in their own Battle for the Alamo. Unlike the original battle, the women win. Why were the women successful? Was it simply ingenuity, or something else?

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