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The first wrong thing was my Merle Haggard tape. I knew it the minute Missy slid into my pickup. The pickup itself might have been wrong. I mean, in her neighborhood, most trucks were as welcome, probably, as killer bees, but she seemed to find my Ranger cute, if not exactly sexy.
It's clean and black and polished up so it grabs you like the glare of an eagle—even the stuffed bald eagle in the American Legion Hall, where the timber workers' local used to hold its meetings.
Her thighs hissed across the seat in my cab; her skirt was as dark as my truck and shorter than a Teamster's patience. She flickered a smile, then scowled when Merle burst through the speakers, telling his bosses they could shove their retirement and so-called social security. "What's that?" she said. "Merle."
She nodded. Wrong Thing Number Two: I'd missed the tone of her voice. Her question (I figured later) was really a way of saying Turn the damn thing off. Strike Three: "Listen, I got an urgent call about half an hour ago. I have to make a quick stop before we go to dinner. Is that okay with you?" She fingered one of her amber earrings in a serious and concentrated way that meant she was annoyed. Even I could see that. She was getting less subtle, and we'd only been together two minutes. "Stop for what?" she said. "Some guys are having a meeting. They need me to say a few words to them. It won't take long."
"Will we have time to eat and still make the movie?" "Oh sure, sure." I glanced, a little worried, at my watch. Now she started jerking a curl of her hair behind her tiny left ear, hair that looked like a wig, it was so satiny and blonde and bigger-than-life, but you could smell the summer dampness of her all the way through it. "Maisie said you were a lawyer." I was beginning to catch on. She meant: What the hell are you doing listening to these bozo tunes and going to meetings after work? "A labor lawyer, right." A sprinkle of sweat dribbled across her forehead and dissolved in her perky right eyebrow. She didn't say anything. She didn't want to know any more about me. The date was over already.
I had her figured like this: she thought she'd lost the Friendly Skies and entered the Hick Zone, instead, the minute her first-class cabin hit Texas air space. I knew she worked as a programming director for some Hot Rock radio station in Minneapolis. When she got two weeks off, she decided to visit her cousin Maisie, whom she hadn't seen since they were little. Maisie's an old pal of mine from law school; I was desperate enough to accept when she suggested fixing me up with her cuz. As we passed through the rusty warehouse district on the outskirts of the Ship Channel, with its acrid fish and petroleum smells, Missy's eyebrows jumped even higher. Merle slurred songs about pot smokers, big cities, prison wardens. I love Merle. The man knows his stuff.
The whole time, Missy's lips stayed Ziplocked. I could only guess the vile things she thought about my taste. I wasn't like Maisie. I hadn't gone the glamorous route, with rich divorce cases and property settlements. I didn't make the kind of money that got me into restaurants called maisons or poissons or whatever the hell they are. Clearly, Missy had expected someone else. Her pissiness unsettled me, but in the meantime I was happy with her hair.
The meeting has already started by the time we arrive at the storage house, near the docks. From several yards away, the building smells of bananas and other old fruit, maybe of some kind of pesticide, tart and acidic. Joe France, a big man with skinny legs (he wears a pair of tattered, cutoff Levi's stiff with grease), stands watch at the door. He winks at me, tugging on the frayed orange bill of his Astros cap, and Missy and I slip inside. "—too high, they're just too damn high!" Glenn Golding is yelling at Hughie Clark, who is standing on a strawberry crate in a dark corner of the room. "Glenn, goddammit, I've told you, it's not about the dues," Hughie shoots back. "It's the voting rights we gotta concentrate on. You get it? Priorities." "Yeah, well, my priority is eggs and bacon for my wife and kids in the morning," Glenn says. A few men mutter agreement behind him. "If I'm paying out my ass each month to the union—"
"If you get your voting rights back, you can vote to slash the cockamamie dues!" Hughie says. His hair is a pale, indistinct color, like gum that's been chewed too long. Maybe fifty men are scattered throughout the building, a mix of old and young: thick, thready-armed guys, the weekend-hunter types in red-checked shirts, smelling of Old Spice and Skoal; then the hippies with their tie-dyes, their ponytails swinging out from under oily Peterbilt caps. The heat is enough to knock you flat. Missy sort of folds in on herself against the corrugated steel of the wall, like a notebook slamming shut. I catch Hughie's eye and give him a nod. "Good. Hal's here," he says. "He can straighten this out." He steps to the floor and offers me his crate.
When I went to law school in '82—I was twenty-eight, full of pluck the brisk spring morning I enrolled at the University of Houston—I dreamed of addressing large crowds on matters of justice and fairness and hope. What I spend my time doing, instead, is showing up at sweltering old buildings like this, trying to persuade defeated men not to take their losses so hard. Of course, I never put it that way. I use the words "hope" and "justice," but then so does the President, and these fellows were savvy enough to tune him out a long time ago. In '82, bad as things were, none of us figured American labor would end up this flat on its ass.
When I take the crate, turn, and see Missy, wilted and angry next to the door, I feel, even more than usual, the tin cup full of ashes I call my career swirling around in my belly. I want to tell the men, "Go out, get drunk, and laugh, boys. That's all you've got. I'm all out of answers." But I don't. I stand up straight, smooth the sleeves of my T-shirt. Wrinkled blue numbers tumble down the front. "You want results?" I ask. The men all nod. Either that, or they're shaking the sweat from their hair. One old fellow waves his arms, thin and wan. "We're going to get results! This is a fine local, and the union leadership ought to be proud of it. This little glitch—it's nothing, it's piss water. Don't worry about it." "But what are you going to do?" someone says. Leap at the raggedy moon. Stop a speeding bullet with my teeth. Raise old Lazarus from the dead, treat him to a Happy Meal at the nearest Mickey D's. And all on minimum wage. "I'm going to meet with the leadership on Monday." Hughie's shaking his head. Missy looks like she might throw up on her shoes. Her hair has fallen at least an inch. "I'll get your dues lowered," I promise. "It's not about the money!" Hughie erupts. "I know," I say. "But Hughie, man, one step at a time. Slow and easy. Play it smart." Even I'm starting to tune me out. "If we limit the amount of cash the leadership gets each month, the rest of what you're after will follow." "We've tried that!" a young man yells from the back. He's standing next to a bright- yellow forklift with an empty box in its arms. His hip is cocked, his hands loose and meaty by his pockets: a rough, don't-fuck-with-me stance, volatile, precise. "Didn't do doodley-squat!" "There'll be no meetings on Monday," Hughie tells me. He tells me he's seeking solid action tonight.
"So," Missy says, pacing the dock. Broken glass cracks beneath her heels. The air smells of gasoline, oil, thick and rich as the glaze on the blueberry doughnuts Driscoll's used to serve. The diner was right next to campus. I'd study there, dawns, before my contracts class, playing Merle on the nicked old Wurlitzer. The six A.M. folks—bus drivers, bank tellers, security guards— tapped their booted toes to his twang; like a bowl of dirty rice, his spicy voice made my reading go down easy with my always lukewarm coffee. "Is this, like, where the Teamsters come to beat people up?" Missy asks.
"They don't really do that. That's just a myth. Well, sometimes they do. But not here." Beneath the sodium lights, her hair looks crinkly and sharp, like several layers of tinfoil, as many as you'd need, say, to keep the pieces of a small chicken fresh in the fridge. "I'm sorry," I say. "I guess I've spoiled your evening. I'll take you back to Maisie's as soon as they're finished in there."
"Okay." She holds my gaze long enough to confuse me—it's like she's checking me out, interested. But then she walks away, down the dock. Joe France emerges from the storage house to tell me the men have taken their vote: on behalf of the membership, Hughie and Joe are going to pay a midnight visit, tonight, to Frank Wilson, the union president. "I'm sorry, Hal," Joe says, baleful and repentant. "I know you think this is wrong." "Just watch yourself, okay? Frankie's no pushover, man, and he's got all sorts of people watching his back." Missy stares at me skeptically, like someone who can't believe her CD player is stuck on the same tune, and I'm aware that all my lines are clichés. I have nothing more to offer, I want to tell her. Believe me, I've tried. For years I've tried. But she doesn't care. All she wants to do is get home. "Pasties Cline?" she asks, back in the truck. She rattles one of my plastic cassette cases. "Patsy," I say. "You know, 'Crazy'?" She squints again at the label on the case. "Your handwriting's terrible." She turns and watches the warehouses in the dark. "So were you, like, born around here?" "Out west. Oil country. Tumbleweeds and dust. Little town called Merkel." I grin at her. "That's the way Texans say 'miracle.'" For the first time she looks at me carefully in the yellow lights of my dash. I wonder if my curly hair's out of whack, or if my mustache is springy. "You're kidding me," she says. "Yes, I am."
She straightens her skirt across her thighs. "Those men? Your friends? What are they going to do?" "They're going to get themselves in a passel of trouble," I say. A tugboat engine coughs in the bay. I never use the word "passel": another Texas tweak for Missy's benefit, but it gets no rise from her. "The packers' union they belong to is snapping up their dues, but it won't let them govern themselves," I explain. "Their president's hopped into bed with the shippers, taking God knows what kind of perks. He's lost touch, completely, with the rank and file." She studies me like someone just discovering she hates the wallpaper she's hung. "So Hughie and Joe are going to roust him out for a heart-to-heart tonight, and demand a bigger voice in choosing the board. I can't imagine that'll go over too well." I turn north onto the Loop, toward Houston's suburbs and Maisie's neat little neighborhood, ringed by freshly painted wrought iron, blessed by the powers of Miracle-Gro, patrolled by squadrons of rent-a-cops hopped up on caffeine. By now, the freight docks with their cramped warehouses are shadows, slipping far behind us. "Trade unionism's probably done for," I say. I see I've lost her now. She's pulling rhythmically on her lips—a more thoughtful stroke than the diddling with her hair. "Maisie's had to work late every night," she says quietly, almost a pout, rubbing moisture off the windshield with her thumb. It's a pretty thumb, I notice, smooth as a curtain rod.
"There's no food in the house. I'm thinking . . . I don't know . . . we might as well stop and eat or something?" By the road (we haven't reached the suburbs yet), billboards advertise strip clubs, investment firms, pregnancy counseling. The signs are stolid and impressive, like the squared-off shoulders of the sleek Armani suits I've seen on corporate sharks. "I mean, you know . . . so the evening's not a total bust," Missy says. "Okay," I answer, surprised. "What's your pleasure?" "There." She points, impulsively, at a steak house next to a hot-tub dealer. Her face, squinchy and pale, tells me she's embarrassed to have suggested prolonging the evening, after being so snooty before, and worried at her quick choice of establishments. As I kill the truck's engine, I consider the possibility that she's interested in me—or at least a little curious—in spite of everything. Maybe, I think, she's as lonesome as I've been since Linda "lit out for the Territory." (That's really how Linny put it when she left. I had the presence of mind, in my stupor over our falling-apart, to groan at her speech, delivered as loudly and as ruthlessly as a union hall rouser.) Grady's Steaks and Brew House is an utter hole, but a damned popular one. We settle into the only space available, a pickle-and-mustard-colored booth. With a whispery wobble in her throat, Missy orders Buffalo Wings. A toxic Texas concoction, she's thinking, but what the hell, I've slipped this far into purgatory, might as well run the whole nine yards. That's how I've figured her now, and I like her pluck.
"I like your hair," I say. "Thanks." She slurps her Coke. "So, um . . . Maisie didn't tell me what kind of law you did." "So I gathered." "What did she tell you about me?" "Maisie loves you. Nothing but praise." Which is true. At a table next to us, a red-haired teenage girl with a goose-white complexion bites fiercely into a plastic packet of catsup. Most of the talk around us—"real Texan," I imagine Missy thinking, appalled—targets football, motorcycles, deer rifles. Cautiously, she and I share our histories. She graduated from the School of the Chicago Art Institute in 1990 (she's four or five years younger than Maisie and me), tried painting for a while, then singing, ended up as a DJ. "I've always believed art could change the world," she says, straight-faced, with the sullen, tight-voiced timbre of youthful ambition. I remember sounding that way, once. I wanted to save the planet too, I tell her now. Fresh from school, I practiced Indian law, working out of a small, sulfur-smelling office in Shiprock, New Mexico, suing Anaconda, Union Carbide, Kerr-McGee for poisoning Navajo lands. "Uranium mining," I say. "It was contaminating all the groundwater on the reservations, milk from the cows . . . but I couldn't get my clients to stick with me long enough to win a case. The young people were hip, but how do you explain alpha particles to a Navajo elder?" I catch myself tapping my paper-wrapped straw on the table, like a teacher with a silver pointer at a blackboard. "I'd tell them radiation's sort of like steam, but steam is good to them—they associate it with their ceremonial sweat-baths." Anxiously, trying to gauge her reactions, I scratch my head until my scalp begins to hurt. "So I took up labor law, thinking it might be another way to bulldog Big Money. You saw, tonight, how successful I am."
"This idealism—if that's what it is—where'd it come from?" Missy asks distractedly. She's staring at herself in the maison window, purple, then yellow, doused in neon from the beer signs above us, fixing her hair. Her lipstick, dark as the baked little ridges on soda crackers, flakes in the corners of her mouth.
"I don't know. My uncle's a priest," I tell her. "Golden Rule, I guess. Plus that old idea: to whom much has been given, much is etcetera etcetera? It's somewhere in the Bible." "Sounds to me like you're too naive to be an effective lawyer." Missy offers this coolly, like a public service announcement. "Maybe," I answer. I don't know, right away, if she's hurt me or pissed me off. My not knowing this kind of thing was one of my problems with Linda. "And your divorce?" Missy's asking me now. "Let me guess. Fatal romantic. Your wife needed someone a little more practical?" She's smiling sweetly. Meanwhile, I'm betting on anger. "I mean, after all, anyone who listens to country music—" "What about it?" "Come on. It's the very seat of sentimentality, you've got to admit." An art school tweak, for my benefit. The waitress, round as an oak stump, brings our platters of meat. The food steams like dewy sod in an open field. "The truth is, what happened tonight's what happened with my marriage," I say, determined to stay polite while we eat. I've had plenty of practice in union meetings pacing my feelings, whenever I've figured them out.
Maybe I did that with Linny, I think—too much holding back. "I was always putting work ahead of my wife, hoping next time I'd accomplish something with the unions . . . or at least make a bunch of guys feel better about themselves for a day." "So. We're a couple of do-gooders, deep at heart," Missy says. "That's it," I answer. "It's a merkel."
She shoves her plate away. I take a chance with her—the hair, I guess. In my twenties, to get through school, I worked a lot of jobs—construction, furniture moving, house painting—that made me feel like this: cranky at first, then you catch a second wind, and the exertion, stunning, gorgeous, starts to exhilarate you. "You know what it's like, spending time with you?" I say—swiftly, before I change my mind. "Like Tejano music. Loud, silly—all wrong, to my ears, but still, I'm tapping my foot and grinning."
In the glow of the neon above us, Missy smiles a purple smile. A family at a table near the emergency exit screams that its orders are wrong. "We said rare! That means bloody, you hear? Spurting!" The whole family's screaming—two pudgy boys, a prim little girl, a chunky man, and his pregnant, pear-faced wife. Missy's telling me her desire to change the world probably began as a craving to change the school lunch menu when she was a kid. "I remember, every day it was tacos, taco salad, taco pizza, taco burgers . . . "
When the waitress brings our check, Maisie's lovely baby cuz and I slide into our first long silence of the meal, wondering what to do next. Finally, Missy says, "If I hadn't been with you tonight, what would you have done? After the meeting?" "When I drop you off, I'll head on over to Joe's. Just to see how the confab went." "With what's-his-name, the union president?" "Right." "You're worried about those fellows, aren't you?" "A little." "What could go wrong?" "Wilson's paranoid. He thinks, any minute, he could be the next Jimmy Hoffa—" "Was Jimmy Hoffa that 'Been to the mountaintop' guy?" I stare at her. She's pretty, even purple, even yellow. "I'm kidding," she says. "Can I go with you? I mean, it's like I've told Maisie, who knows when I'll be back? I should witness the whole shebang, right? The Lone Star thing." "Absolutely." I draw the word out slowly. Somehow, from an evening of errors, between the sweaty meeting on the docks and a dusky, deep-fried dinner, it's become a night of promise. A night of solid action.
As we're spinning along the bayou, I explain to Missy—my date!—that Houston's labor history is a sorry saga of stumbles: from the gas rate disputes of the 1860s, which idled the skilled and delicate workers mining gas from oysters and coal; through the botched streetcar strikes of 1904, when a parade of drivers was stoned to death by scabs; to the failure of the unions in the 1960s to woo the mayor's office. I studied these events in the public library, in legal volumes so dusty they wheezed, when I first came to Houston with Linda; soon I was adding to the long, silly film reel of pratfalls. I sued the Direct Navigation Company, a shipping firm, on behalf of a waterfront local, and lost.
I sued the Houston Labor Council on behalf of fifty consolidated unions, for failure to represent them properly, and lost. My support of the Transport Workers Union ended in bitterness, recriminations within the local, mass firings. I figure I'm not a bad lawyer. But these days, there's not much an independent can achieve. The National Labor Relations Board has lit out for the Territory. The unions are putzing around like stray animals on the streets, and I guess the best thing to do is put them to sleep. I love them, God knows, I tell Missy. They used to be frisky and effective, but now the old legs are thinning, scabby and pale, and I hate to see them suffer. I wheel into the old steel district, south of downtown, with its shallow blue shadows and rust, the brittle ribs of its girders, the riotous smell lifting in mist from the bayou (an odor like moss and paste and rotted eggs). New Deal, Reconstruction finance, rank and file—the Old Leftie rosary can still move me with its Carl Sandburg music of sweat and grunts and hopeless faith.
Missy's right. A sentimental fool. I pick a tape. "Woody Guthrie." I glance at her, but can't see her features in the dark. "I'm shocked," I say. "I didn't think a mosh-pit rocker would know this old Okie." "My first job in Minneapolis," she tells me. "KSNF. K-Snuff, we called it. 'Your Country Connection.' Tammy and George, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Jeff. Sometimes we'd slip in a few old folk tunes. Not my kind of deal, but it was steady work, midnight to eight. I'd get these phone calls from truckers, bread bakers—people on all-night shifts? They were exhausted," Missy says. "I heard it in their voices—but most of them also seemed . . . I don't know . . . centered? Sure of themselves? Something. Not like the wackos in the morning calling Dr. Lois, our on-air shrink, wondering what the hell to do with their lives." "You still got Lois's number?"
She laughs, a low rasp like a laptop computer warming up. "I remember nights when I was little—this was about the time Maisie and I met—my dad used to come home, whipped. He'd put some Benny Goodman on the hi-fi, flop into his easy chair, shut his eyes . . . " "What did he do?" "Carpenter. I'd rub his shoulders—which wasn't easy; I could barely reach the top of his chair—and hum to the clarinet until I heard him snore." "That's nice," I say. "Made me feel needed. While he slept, I'd draw pictures of him measuring 2x4s. He kept my scribbles in his truck—said they always cheered him up on the job." All night, I realize, I've figured Missy wrong. "So, earlier, when you asked about Merle—" "I knew who he was," she admits. "It was you I didn't have a handle on. I mean, Merle's great about the blue-collar stuff. But he's also into drinking and whoring and stealing—" "Got you."
"Which Merle jangled your little bell?" "Take the measure of your man." "Something like that." "Smart." I wish I'd been as bright with the sharks. The Armani army. Linny. Woody's telling us now that it takes a worried man to sing a worried song. It's a bad recording; his riffing sounds like a shaky phone connection, crackling, in the chilliest part of the night, when you get an urgent call from a friend.
Joe France's neighborhood, a cul-de-sac just east of Main Street, downtown, is easy to spot: there are a fair number of wheel-less cars propped on cinder blocks in damp gravel drives; three or four washer/dryers rusting in pyracantha bushes; several hail-damaged roofs. Their unshingled spaces look like gaps in the mouths of pasty children waiting for a raise from the Tooth Fairy. Missy shifts uncomfortably in the seat beside me. Light from a Fiesta Supermarket two streets west filters through the top of a row of elms, giving the bitter air (it smells of grease and stale coffee from a nearby shirt factory) a powdery shimmer. Joe's lawn is clipped, the eaves of his boxy house freshly painted, warmly gray—he's a conscientious man—but still somehow the place looks tattered, like his baggy old cutoffs. He's sitting, as I feared—as I expected—on his porch, bleeding from his mouth and ears. His wife, Carla, compact and nifty as a backyard Hibachi, dips around him, dabbing his red, raw face with a Baggie full of ice. As we leave the truck, Missy finds my hand.
"Hal, Jesus, I'm so glad you're here," Carla says, straightening up, resting her fingers on Joe's right shoulder. We've done this dance before, Carla, Joe, and I—it's not a tune I like. "That low-life, rat-nosed bastard, Frankie Wilson, with his little pea-shooter eyes, he sent his bullies after Hughie and Joe." I nod. "Joey just wanted to talk to the man." Nod. "Hal, some major readjustment's gotta be made!"
Missy squats next to Joe—I hear the hiss of her hose—plucks a Kleenex from her skirt. She scoops crimson bubbles from the creases of his ears. "It's okay," she says, and I imagine her little-girl body, skinny as a pogo stick, curled over her daddy's wing-backed chair, the heartbreaking paleness of the backs of her thighs. Behind her, Benny Goodman breathes sweetly. "It was very brave of you to try to do something," she says. "Hughie?" I ask. "Same as me." Joe's mouth is a tiny box of pain. He winces as he speaks. "Pretty banged- up, but he'll live." He looks at me the way a thousand guys in a thousand broiling buildings have cut their eyes at me over thousands and thousands of hours. "Hal, what do we do now?" I feel like my left front tire the morning a shouting longshoreman named Mike, stoked with bennies and too little sleep, sliced it into neat piles of jerky with a busted Coors bottle and a bowie knife. He thought I'd sold him out on a contract. I'd tell Joe to quit, to walk the fuck away, but I know what he'd say: My pension, Hal. For Carla. For the girls. A light sneeze'd blow his pension away, but he doesn't want to hear that. Crazy for trying, crazy for crying. Missy's whispering now, "Things'll be fine." "But what are we going to do?" "We'll work it out," she says. She strokes his face with the Kleenex. Carla shakes a yellow Bic lighter. It's stubborn at first, then a flame pops out. She tilts her head, and I get the wild idea she's praying. Asking for a miracle. It's the wrong idea. Her cigarette kindles like the Queen of the Fireflies. "Damned ratty-nosed bastard," she mutters. I want to drive somewhere, with the radio low. I want very much to do nothing. I want to touch Missy's hair. Joe groans.
I give his arm a squeeze. For a moment, glancing at Missy, I hold him; my gesture doesn't feel routine. She's busy with the tissue, looking up my way and smiling, like it's a real fine night.