WHERE YOU BEGIN
Sad to say, but dogs get killed sometimes. Take a city like Houston, four million people and all those cars, sometimes it’s bound to happen, but if you’re like I used to be, it doesn’t bother you so much. Anyway, before this is over there’s one less dog in the world, so in case you’re not like I was, fair warning.
But if you’re like I used to be, when your fiancée of five months gets home from a day of slaving for that lawyer downtown, the guy who cuts her a check twice a month for the privilege of telling her what to do and watching her cleavage go red with splotches the way it does sometimes when she’s flustered; when she makes it through the door and finds you scribbling your latest on a legal pad, still in your boxers with the newspaper untouched on the porch in its plastic wrap, the classifieds still tucked inside without a single job listing circled; and when a few minutes later she comes half naked and frowning into the hallway, as red-faced and eager for her evening shower as would be a farm wife after bleeding a hog, you know you’re history.
Kaput. Finito. It’s over and you don’t even ask for that ring back. All you think is, Well, dip my dog, because that’s a quarter-carat solitaire with not too damn bad color and clarity. Even so, you just let it go, chalk it up to a learning experience, like the time you bought a quarter ounce of oregano outside the Texaco station from a pock-faced Mexican kid with jeans about half fallen off his illegal brown ass. You chalk it up. You say, “That there’s a loss.” All it can be. Next time — smell the weed before you finish the deed, that’s all.
But this time — this time, when Gloria Jean Thibedeux tells your worthless, workless leeching ass to hit the road and never even mind all that stuff about getting married, that’s exactly what you do. You hit the road. You hit it with all the plop and flourish of a horse turd dropped from a disgruntled gelding on the downtown leg of the rodeo trail ride.
Of course, Gloria ain’t making this easy. No, she’s got to strip right down to nothing but pink satin and the soft white skin that’s been penned up all day behind her lawyer-want-some-coffee? business suit, and when she tells you where to get off, it’s suddenly clear that this here’s no warning. Nope. Turns out you’re on the receiving end of a full-blown pink slip, pink as those panties she’s reaching back to pull out of her rear. Yes, sir, there she stands in some of God’s finest creations: satin bikini bottoms and one of those clasp-in-front bras that even you can get right in the dark. Your Gloria, nothing else on but that ring you maxed out the plastic for, and for once you don’t even think about the bills rolling in.
“Baby,” she says, her hands perched on those breeder’s hips you’ve thought at times might make any stints in the delivery room as easy as lying back for a nap on Sunday, “if you ain’t landed a job out at one of them refineries today — that or sold one of your precious ‘Drama in Real Life’ stories to Reader’s Digest — then it don’t matter how it breaks my heart clean in two, you gonna need another place to stay tonight.”
Nothing altogether new, of course. This ain’t the first time. You’ve been warned before, maybe a dozen times over the past four months, and sure, you’ve been writing, but you’ve got thirty-three stories and so far not a single cash cow. And now — now there’s no sense in begging, so you sit there for a while in the kitchenette, biding time with your elbows propped on the yellow Formica tabletop. The new story you’ve written — a real ringer about a retarded kid trapped underwater in an upside-down school bus at the bottom of a ravine — is almost finished, and guaranteed, you think, to bring home the cash money Reader’s Digest is doling out for this stuff on a monthly basis. You watch Gloria’s pale little hands and those wide-slung hips and somehow none of this surprises you — not the way she’s staring, lips in a tight puckered O like you’ve farted and accidentally drawn mud in your drawers, not the way the a/c snaps to life in the attic and spills its cool rush of air into the room, not even the way four months back you lost your job at Exxon, where you’d spent three years loading fifty-five-gallon drums of Varsall into tractor trailers. Hell, not even the guilt-like squeeze in your conscience you’d felt growing steadily tighter when, to pay your share of this month’s rent, you sold the old El Camino you’d had since high school. Anymore, nothing’s a surprise, but they say the expected ain’t always easy, and now there’s that slow grandfather clock of a feeling you get in your guts, like your heart’s swinging way too low on a thin wet string in the wide-open empty insides of you.
“You best snap out of it,” Gloria says, flipping that long black hair over her shoulder, and you can’t help thinking it — looks like a horse’s tail swatting flies. “I’m serious as murder one,” she says. “Piddle-farting around in your underpants. Home all day writing your little stories. Out with Jimmy two nights already this week doing God knows what. Sweet Jesus, legal pads stacked up everywhere. You can’t even clean up after yourself, let alone scrub a toilet or do a load of laundry. Let alone take care of a wife.
“You better go,” she says, crossing her arms over the mess of red splotches on her chest. “For good. Right goddamn now.”
Still you’re waiting, leaning on the table like it needs holding down and waiting until it comes, the end-all to your be-all: “Toot sweet,” she says, the thoroughbred Cajun twang alive in her voice, and you reckon that’s all she wrote, so there ain’t nothing left but to call your pal Jimmy Love, tell him to come do his duty as your only real friend, former coworker, and owner of the ’92 Chevy truck that’s seen you riding shotgun while drinking off no less than three major league cases of what Jimmy always calls the post-poon blues.
What happens next, you might say, is about as predictable and necessary as a toothpick after corn on the cob. There’s your father’s old army duffel bag on the street beside you and you’re kicking the curb, flipping pages of your legal pad when Jimmy Love comes rumbling up. Reaching over, he swings the passenger door open and pulls the hairs of his mustache down over his lips with a cupped hand.
“Well,” Jimmy says, “don’t know about you, but I’m picking me up a little hint of that déjà vu,” and when you toss the duffel into the back and climb in he pats the two six-packs beside him as if they’re the fair-haired heads of sons who just caught a greased pig at the state fair. “This make four?” he says. “Damn. Four women? In two years? And your sorry ass actually wanted to marry this one? Level with me, man. You having problems getting it up?”
Jimmy can be like this, all that sprawl-on-the-couch-and-tell-me-all-about-it bullshit. “Just drive,” you say, slamming the door, because you get it up just fine, and besides, the details ain’t none of his business. “Do the loop.”
It’s not something that needs saying, of course. All the elements are in place. Jimmy’s behind the wheel, steering that old truck out of Gloria’s rent-house neighborhood and up onto Highway 225 where the stainless pipes of refineries and chemical plants wind and shine under the evening’s last dose of sun. With the black spill of their smokestacks, you’d swear they were bent on hurrying the night along. As for Jimmy, he drives with the Southwestern Bell Yellow Pages balanced on his lap, and when he accelerates over the ship channel, there’s Loop 610, thirty-eight miles of five-lane highway that never ends but just keeps circling the Houston skyline from six or so miles out.
“We’re on,” Jimmy says, merging into traffic behind a dump truck with them Haulin’ Ass babes on the mudflaps, and when he gets the phone book balanced on the gas pedal and checks the speedometer, he goes, “The Ma Bell cruise control’s a go, you homewrecker. Let’s drink.”
You crack the window and out come the beers. The whole town smells flammable. “Yeah, keep talking,” you say. “But I don’t exactly see you settling down.”
“Nope,” he says. “Don’t see me buying diamonds every time some coon-ass gets my dick hard neither.” He swigs his beer and hits the wiper/washer. “Me and this Chevy, we can flat squash some bugs, ain’t it?”
When you don’t answer he pulls on his mustache and makes a clicking sound with his tongue. “Come on, now,” he says. “You know me, I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”
You know Jimmy, all right. Here’s a guy with — as he’ll tell you — a truck and some luck and on good nights a fuck. A guy just far enough out of his mind to own the Exxon shipping and receiving record for blindfolded forklift driving — all hundred and five feet of the loading dock and down the ramp without ever putting on the brakes. Yup, Jimmy’s got more bowling shirts than sense, but you’ve been knowing him a long time, and when tit turns to trouble he ain’t ever late in that truck. He’s good people, Jimmy, never mind all his ribbing.
“Don’t go to fidgeting,” he says. “Relax and drink your beer.”
You do, and it’s not as cold as it could be, but it slides down just fine so you take all twelve ounces in one pull and watch the Texas flag flapping on the can as you crumple it with one hand. Yup, still Lone Star, because it don’t matter that some pantywaist snow bunnies from up north own the brewery now — it’s still made in Texas and you’d just as soon raise your voice in the Alamo shrine as drink some mule piss from Milwaukee. Gloria, you know, is wrapped in a towel a few miles back, and the can in your hand can’t help but remind you of the dark beer she buys by the case. “Blackened Voodoo,” she’d said, “from N’Orleans,” and when she poured some into your bellybutton once, it set you to tingling from shin bones to shoulder blades. It was one of the first nights, when the sheets were all crumpled up on the floor and she sat upright atop you, your legs pinned beneath those hips. And before she slurped the beer from you, she reached down, easing you inside of her, and while she rose and fell, tightening those magic muscles around you, you’d caught yourself thinking some pretty silly goddamn things — something about love, love for chrissakes, and how you might could get used to this. About how, when she lowered herself down on you, she made a little piece of you disappear in such a slow and painless way you didn’t care if she ever gave it back. About how, because of that pool of dark beer in your navel, you couldn’t see down to where way back yonder something had stopped and you’d begun.
“Time for numero dos,” Jimmy says now, crumpling his first can.
It’s practically instinct. Loop 610, thirty-eight miles round trip, six beers apiece. With the evening traffic thinning out, get that phone book just right on the gas pedal and you can figure on a steady seventy mph. Do the math, you get five and a half minutes per beer and, by God, if all’s in your favor you’ll still be thirsty when you make it back round to the ship channel. Then there’s no telling, maybe a night at Frogs, the bar where the Exxon boys go after the second shift, maybe nothing more than twelve more beers and another half hour driving the loop.
“You still ain’t given me the skinny,” Jimmy says, wincing back the first sip of his new beer. “Was it the work thing again? ’Cause you ain’t found a job?” Checking the rearview, he steers past a rusted tanker truck and all eighteen wheels are screaming to beat all, so he takes a swig and waits, smiling at you like maybe you’re a sweet young thing he’s grown suddenly fond of. “Go on,” he says. “Ain’t nothin’ to be ashamed of, got dumped is all. Happens.”
You’re thinking, You bet. Real deep, Jimmy. But you know there ain’t nothing to say. Should have looked for work today instead of doing all that scribbling. But goddammit, you think, this is some kind of story and she was getting a little uppity anyhow and then, well — then you’re off to the races.
“I’m-a tell you what, Jimmy, this one’s for real. This story, the one I’m writing today? Got this bus driver in it, and he been known to tilt a few back, you know? Well, kids ain’t stupid so they take to calling him Boozer, right? And Boozer’s first and last stop — this is down in the Valley, you know, long-ass bus rides down there — and anyway Boozer’s first and last stop is this retarded kid. Small town, they ain’t got one of them short little buses, you know? Them tard buses?”
A little chuckle from Jimmy now, and you know you’ve got him.
“So, Boozer likes this kid, right? Feels sorry for him and all, but he’s a stomp down, pure-D-fucking miserable drunk, and he’s already been about waist deep in the bottle the day it happens. What happens is this — got this part from the news last night — Boozer’s looking back at this retarded kid while he heads out toward the ravine, making sure the other kids ain’t picking on him and the like. He’s cruising this long stretch of highway out west of Harlingen, nothing but caliche and sod farms, and he keeps checking the rearview, looking after the kid when Wham!, there’s this horn and old Boozer’s way over into the wrong lane with this gravel truck about to drive right down his throat. And then — ”
“Then he jerks the wheel,” Jimmy says, swirling his beer, “and all them poor little bastards break through the guardrail.” He takes a swig and smacks his lips. “And off they go into the ravine and end up breaking their necks or getting knocked silly and drowning themselves.”
Jimmy moves into the right-hand lane around, best I can tell, about twenty-five Mexican folk, so help me God, in one old beat-to-shit Ford Tempo. “Must be going to Walmart,” he says, pulling on his beer.
You go, “How’d you know?” and he looks at you like all of a sudden maybe you’re not answering to your own name.
“Where else?” he says. “Been to Walmart lately? It’s all Mexicans. You’d think piñatas was on sale permanent.”
“Jesus, Jimmy,” you say. “About the bus, how’d you know about the bus?”
“Like you said, man. TV news.”
It smarts a little, this guy busting into your story when he’s supposed to be listening. “Yeah,” you say, “but in my story the retarded kid lives. Sure, he’s pinned underwater awhile and Boozer’s about ten sheets to the wind, but that’s why it’s drama, man. ’Cause Boozer keeps diving after the kid, just keeps diving and diving, coming up for air, and he can see the kid down there, alive and wide-eyed and pinned beneath one of those bus seats that’s come loose in the crash. Old Boozer’s gasping for breath, spitting water, but he ain’t giving up. He keeps going down, diving again and again as the bus fills up higher with brown water, and the whole time his head’s just swimming with a three o’clock drunk. He’s maybe fucked up royal, but you better believe he’s gonna save his little friend.”
Now Jimmy takes the phone book off the gas and puts his foot down hard. “But that ain’t real life,” he says. “No one lived, you saw the news. Facts is facts. That’s what your folks at Reader’s Digest is after. ‘Drama in Real Life,’ get it?”