Texas always seemed like such a larger than life place to me. In my mind’s eye, when I saw the United States, the vision appeared in the form of an animated map, but the map went rubbery, like a Tex Avery cartoon. But Texas broke out and went all jailbreak on me, absconding from its normal boundaries so that the Lone Star state sprawled out across half the country. The rest of my American map looked as flat and two dimensional as a slow amblin’ armadillo run over by an eighteen wheeler loaded down with fifty thousand pounds of pig iron, while Texas popped up in gloriously detailed three dimensional topographical relief, from the high dry desert mountains west in El Paso, to the wet low flat coastal plains down east skirting the Gulf of Mexico from Houston down to Brownsville.
I arrived in Texas on Wednesday, July 5, 1967 to visit my grandparents who lived in what the locals called the Old Gates Home, a Queen Anne at the corner of Shoreline Drive and Gates Street, a short three blocks from downtown Pair O’ Dice. That stately old house radiated a bright airiness, painted a sparkling cloud white with sky blue shutters and gutters, and featured a huge covered porch across the front of the house. The downstairs included a kitchen, dining and living rooms, as well as a master bedroom and bath for granddaddy and grandmama. The upstairs where I stayed, consisted of three large bedrooms, one bathroom with an old claw-foot tub, and an attic fan that pulled the cool night air across a screened in sleeping porch for the hottest evenings.
The other side of the upstairs highlighted a three story turret that looked more like a lighthouse than anything else. There was also a large flat front yard that gave way to Shoreline Drive paved with crushed oyster shells, and across the road our private fishing pier stretched for 120 feet out into Aransas Bay. I say private, but anybody who voted for granddaddy as Mayor of Pair O’ Dice, which was pretty much everybody in town, was guaranteed unofficial fishing rights on our pier. They were grandfathered in you might say.
The very next day Jessup drove his old forest green 1951 Ford F-1 pickup truck into Pair O’ Dice. Lord his truck shined like an emerald in the sunlight. Jessup polished that truck to where you could see your reflection as clear as day in the hood. As he made the drive into town, he passed the sign on the outskirts of our little beach burg with the nine foot longhorns on top that said, Welcome to Pair O’ Dice, Texas, Feelin’ Lucky Today, Cowboy?
Jessup’s pickup carried a handmade camper rig in the bed of the truck constructed of the finest exotic American hardwoods: curly elm, bird’s eye maple, burled black walnut, and wormy chestnut. This portable turtle’s shell of an abode had intricate windows, cedar shake shingles in odd patterned shapes on the roof, and exquisite, some would even say magical gingerbread carpentry details. The truck also had glass packs, fiber glass mufflers, so it sounded as badass as it looked. I first laid eyes on Jessup as he rolled up to the Old Gates Home that day about twilight. Jessup parked his truck on the side road, Gates Street, and walked over toward me.
As crazy as it sounds to me now, a half a century later, I remember standing in the front yard having my own home run derby whacking lightning bugs with a plastic whiffle ball bat. Hitting the lightning bugs with the bat killed them instantly, but their tail lights lit up, and stayed on for a few seconds when they died from the impact of the bat, so they arced through the early evening night, and looked like low level front yard shooting stars.
Then their tail lights went dark, forever. I still can’t quite explain it, maybe their illumination pissed me off, because at the time my world harbored only darkness. With the light, I could see things I didn’t want to see. The lightning bugs seemed to represent creation, constant re-creation, and my thoughts tended to be of the hell bent on destruction variety. For whatever reason, smashing those lightning bugs made sense to me at the time.
Jessup came over to where I swung at the lightning bugs and offered his hand, “My name’s Jessup, what’s yours?”
“Billy, Billy Waters,” I said, but didn’t reach out to shake his hand. I kept on swinging that plastic bat and sending those lightning bugs into the cheap seats of the nether worldly bleachers.
“Well, nice to meet you Billy Waters. It looks like you’re hittin’ a thousand against those lightning bugs, batter up.”
Jessup observed me without much expression, only a faint smile. It disappointed me when my anger didn’t get a rise out of somebody, so I swung the bat even harder at those lightning bugs, trying to extract the reaction I craved. Jessup moseyed over toward the house and up onto the front porch, then knocked on the screen door. Granddaddy didn’t open the door. He just eyeballed Jessup through the screen.
“Good evening sir, I’m a carpenter by trade, Jessup’s the name. I was wondering if you had any odd jobs or handyman work that needs doing around here?”
“Kathleen, have you got anythin’ on your honey-do list?” Granddaddy yelled back over his shoulder.
“Not at the moment, and since when did you get to be all that honey-do handy?” My grandmama hollered from somewhere off inside the bowels of the house.
A perturbed expression rippled across his face. A circumstance granddaddy frequently suffered from when he talked to grandmama. He seemed anguished, as if he were afflicted by some troublesome gas in his guts he needed to pass, break wind, and hope only wind came out.
They appeared to enjoy pissing each other off. My Texas grandparents never actually argued, they just jousted, like the Arthurian Knights, but with sharp tongued wit as opposed to lances. Their interactions pulsed and throbbed with an odd form of romantic energy, almost a sexual rhythm to their verbal thrust and parry. But hey, when you’re fifteen years old, everything seems sexual.
Granddaddy couldn’t think of a good barbed retort to sling back at her, so he finally turned toward Jessup again. “Sorry buddy, no work around here. You might try down the street at the McLean’s, third house down Gates Street, on the right,” granddaddy said as he pointed with one of his gnarly fingers, “’bout half a block that away.”
“Thank you, sir.”
At that precise moment, the screen door on the front of the house — which was only inches in front of granddaddy’s nose — came off its hinges, and fell with a big bang onto the front porch, barely missing Jessup as it fell. An instant later the chain holding up the left side of the front porch swing snapped, and the heavy wooden swing dropped onto the porch with a thud. The chain swung wildly and broke a nearby window with a crash.
This unexpected front porch-aclypse of pocket-sized biblical proportions left granddaddy a bit shaken up, like a man who’d just walked away from a three car pileup out on the brand new interstate, so he stepped cautiously out onto the front porch, by that I mean, he tread ever so lightly on top of the fallen screen door. He inspected the damage caused by the demise of the screen door and the porch swing, spontaneous destruction that did not fit neatly within normal rational constructs for thinking about such things, but granddaddy was also not a man to question the unknown forces of the universe beyond his control.
“Eight a.m. tomorrow morning,” granddaddy said with the conviction of a man who could accept the fact that he was often wrong, but never undecided.
Grandmama stuck her head out the hole in the front of her house that used to have a screen door on it and asked, “Earl, what in the world is going on out here?”
“Kathleen, meet our new handyman, Jessup.”
“Pleased to meet you, ma’am. I’ll be back first thing tomorrow morning, sir.”
“Eight a.m. sharp, we’ll feed you breakfast.”
“Yes, sir,” Jessup said, and then he headed over in my direction where I continued to whack the lightning bugs with the whiffle ball bat. Twilight transitioned ever closer to darkness so the street lamp on the corner flickered on as Jessup picked up the dead lightning bugs off the grass one by one, placing them gently in the palm of his left hand. Their tail lights had faded to black by then, and no illumination remained.
Jessup’s voice lilted with this lyrical sing-song quality to it, but that’s not quite the right way to say it. His words swept over you with a hypnotic fluidity, like waves splashing up onto the beach. But you can judge for yourself. Here’s what Jessup said about the lightning bugs.
“People call these wonderful creatures fireflies, or lightning bugs, but they’re actually neither. They’re beetles, called Lampyridae, over 1,900 species worldwide. When they blink, they’re in search of a little romance. It takes the guys about seven nights of flashing to find a hot date, but for the chicks looking for some action, it only takes about ten minutes.” Jessup paused for a moment, and cocked his head back and slightly to the side to contemplate that thought. “It’s kind of funny how that works.”
Jessup stopped to take particular interest in this one lightning bug. He held it up to the light from the street lamp as if he could see right through the bug, almost as though he were determining the extent of the lightning bug’s internal injuries.
“But back to the blinking, it’s a chemical reaction called bioluminescence that takes place in the cells of their abdomen called photocytes, which contain luciferin, a light emitting molecule, and luciferase, an enzyme. The lightning bug pushes oxygen into the photocytes, combining luciferin and luciferase with magnesium and adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. You see, ATP is like the juice in a battery, the very energy current of life. The Chinese would call it lightning bug Qi.” He pronounced the word Qi as chee. Jessup paused for a deep breath, and a long exhale, before he looked me straight in the eye and continued.
“The point being, there’s plenty of really cool shit happening while you’re out here in the front yard doing a very bad Mickey Mantle impersonation. All these lightning bug ladies and gents wanna do is make some whoopee. They wanna get down and boogie. You get it? You’re interrupting the glorious boogie. It’s just plain rude, dude.”
Jessup opened his left hand, and dozens of previously dead as a doornail, but now born again lightning bugs flittered off into the early evening sky flashing their groovy little tail lights as they went, shaking and baking each and every winking blinking lit up booty advertising their intentions to do the glorious boogie. The plastic bat dropped out of my hands and onto the ground as my mouth fell open, and I watched the lightning bugs flutter into the night.
The next morning I woke up and wandered downstairs. I found my sixty something year old grandmama decorating a dozen or more fancy whiskey bottles on her dining room table while she read the local newspaper, the Corpus Christi Chronicle, she’d spread out on the table to catch any errant drops of glue. The chairs were pushed back against the walls of the dining room, giving grandmama free access to the bottles on the table as she circled the outside edges. She added colorful velvet ribbons and bows, as well as fake pearls, diamonds, rubies, and other exotic plastic jewels to those decanters. The bedazzled cut crystal bottles were actually quite beautiful in a gaudy, over the top, way too much Texas kind of way.
“That’s a lot of whiskey,” I said, still groggy and only half awake.
“Earl and I drank every drop, a heckuva party, and I’m nursing a doozy of a hangover as a result of my injudicious behavior.”
“No, not really, my friends gimme the bottles. I dress ‘em up a bit, and then give the bottles back to ‘em. The delicate work helps keep the arthritis from completely stealing my hands,” grandmama said as she wiggled her fingers.
“What do you want for breakfast?”
“Bacon and eggs would be fuckin’ bitchin’.”
“Fuckin’ I understand, believe it or not, but I’m not familiar with the connotation for your use of the term bitchin’. Please elaborate if you don’t mind.”
“You know, bitchin’, cool, sweet, hot, spicy,” I said as I dawdled out of the dining room, through the foyer and onto the front porch to greet the day.
“What’s for breakfast?” Granddaddy asked as he walked into the dining room a few moments later.
“Quit your fuckin’ bitchin’,” grandmama said to granddaddy.
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“You wanna talk to Billy about his foul fucking language, or do I have to do it?”
“I’ll fuckin’ do it,” granddaddy said and smiled at grandmama as he gave her a peck on the neck and hugged her with a bold enthusiasm from behind as she leaned forward onto the dining room table to brace herself.
“Wanna go for a ride on my big pink Cadillac?”
“Well, fuck yeah,” grandmama said as she kind of wriggled her butt up against granddaddy’s glory root, but then she got distracted, and stared back down at that newspaper spread out on her dining room table.
“Well, you’re gonna have to show a little more spark than that for an old boy like me to get it in gear, and rev up my motor.”
“I’m sorry. I was reading the Chronicle, and that damned old Hugo Herren’s really gone bat shit crazy this time.”
“What’s our not so friendly neighborhood Nazi newspaper owner got to say?”
“He says Lyndon’s a Communist because of his War on Poverty, only free markets will save the world, blah, blah, blah. And there’s more in here about Medicare and Medicaid being socialized medicine that’ll make us all burn in Hell.”
“Old people can afford to see a doctor. Sounds reasonable to me. Did Hugo happen to mention that his daddy made their money sellin’ black market fuel to all comers during World War II, regardless of which side of that war they were fighting on?”
“Nope, he left that part out.”
“He’s opened up a readin’ room in downtown Corpus called the American Opinion Bookstore.”
“Why does that name sound so familiar?”
“Cause the right wing nuts have got ‘em openin’ up all over the country now. These so called bookstores pass out John Birch literature brandin’ everybody from Lyndon Johnson to Martin Luther King, Jr. as communists. Jesus H. Christ, the Birchers even advocate the impeachment of Earl Warren, the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court because of that Brown versus Board of Education school desegregation rulin’ in Topeka, Kansas.”
“I’m of a mind that Hugo Herren has way too much influence around here.”
“Amen to that,” granddaddy said as he lifted one leg slightly and farted.
I plopped down in a rocker on the front porch, about the same time Jessup drove up in his truck. The noise from the mufflers announced his impending arrival long before the pickup got there. Jessup gunned the engine a few times before he killed the motor, then strode across the yard and onto the front porch. He wore cut off blue jean shorts, and a tattered Longhorn football jersey with the number 7 on it, huarache sandals and John Lennon shades. I had on a short sleeve madras shirt, chino shorts, a brown alligator belt, and Bass Weejun penny loafers, with no socks. Us Raleigh boys might as well have been Catholic school girls because we all dressed alike.
“What kind of motor have you got in that rust bucket?” I asked.
“This sweetheart has over 400 cubic inches of the finest Detroit steel.”
“You sure that thing is street legal?”
“That depends on what road you’re traveling, little brother,” Jessup said as he set about measuring the fallen screen door, and the window with the broken glass. He spoke to me calmly as he worked. “What was the greatest Texas high school football game ever played?”
“How should I know? I’m from North Carolina, the Tarheel state, where they’re over the moon for basketball.”
“Well, you’re in Texas now, son, and what we care about here is high school football. From the pregame prayer before opening kickoff, to the last second game winning Hail Mary pass, why it’s pret’ near a religion around these parts,” Jessup said as he continued to make his calculations and write in a small notebook. He finished writing, stuck the pencil behind his ear, and tucked his hair neatly back into a ponytail.
“A lot of people pick the semifinal game in ‘43 between Highland Park and San Angelo. That Highland Park team starred Bobby Layne at quarterback and Doak Walker at running back. Both teams came in 12 and 0. Highland Park was up 20 to 7 in the third quarter, but San Angelo rallied to win it 21 to 20. Layne and Walker won two Pro football championships with the Detroit Lions, but they never won a single Texas high school football championship.”
“I’ve heard of Bobby Layne and Doak Walker. I’ve seen ‘em on TV.”
“There’s hope for you yet. Maybe the 1954 Texas Panhandle playoff game between the Amarillo Golden Sandies, and the Pampa Harvesters was the best game ever. The Harvesters were down 21 to 7 at half, but came back behind Dickie Mauldin to go ahead 28 to 27 with 4:45 to play. Then the Golden Sandies get the ball on their own 25 with the game on the line. They move up the field ‘til it’s fourth down and four to go with 1:36 left to play. Bob Crump streaks around left end for 18 yards and a touchdown for a 33 to 28 victory.”
Jessup took a break and hustled over to his truck. He brought back a scuffed up football, but instead of coming over to the front porch, Jessup walked toward the huge tree on the far side of the front yard, past the turret end of the house and a little closer to Shoreline Drive. He motioned for me to come over there too, so I did.
“In my humble opinion, and I must add that I was there in person to witness this particularly thrilling game, the greatest Texas high school football game ever played occurred on Friday night, November 29, 1963, at Alamo Stadium in San Antonio, not too far from the Alamo itself, the birthplace of Texas freedom, between San Antonio Lee and San Antonio Brackenridge. They considered canceling the game because of President Kennedy’s assassination, but decided to go ahead with it. Brack, the defending state champs, have Warren McVea, a nine five burner with great moves, and Lee has a bull of a runner named Linus Baer. Lee is up 34 to 19 at the half, but McVea starts off the third quarter with a 48 yard scamper for a touchdown.”
While he told the story, Jessup acted out the game dashing about with amazing speed and dexterity, dodging and darting his way around and under the outstretched limbs of the giant windswept coastal oak in the side yard of the Old Gates Home everybody called the Truth Tree. That was the largest live oak anywhere on the Texas Gulf Coast, over two thousand years old, the trunk more than thirty-five feet in circumference, forty-five feet tall, and with a crown spread covering ninety feet.
Oh, why did they call it that, the Truth Tree? When Pearly Gates’ kids got in trouble, he’d march them out in the side yard, make them put their hand on the tree, and tell him what happened. Some way or another, touching something that old, that wise, and that connected to the earth, encouraged a body to tell the truth.
The folks around town figured if it was good enough for Old Pearly, then by God it was good enough for them too, so they’d bring their kids to the tree when they misbehaved. Soon the girls brought their boyfriends, and women showed up with their suitors, who would have to ask for their hand in marriage with their other hand on the Truth Tree.
They’d leave their gris gris trinkets and treasures, love letters with proposals accepted, hanging on a string, cheap rings and necklaces rejected and dangling carelessly from small branches, plus all the maybes and might have beens in between, trying to find their place somewhere on the Truth Tree.
Grandmama contributed a few touches of her own over the years. Every time she found a different set of wind chimes she liked, she’d buy it, and mount it up in the Truth Tree. There were chimes made from wood, bamboo, cut metal, tubular metal, beautiful stained glass, ceramic shards, pots and pans, beer bottles, wine bottles, whiskey bottles, spoons, knives and forks, brass bells, even wind chimes made from sea shells. When the wind kicked up its heels, a sea breeze during the mornings, and a land breeze in the evenings, the Truth Tree tuned up and sounded like an orchestra conducted by a playful ocean zephyr, albeit with very odd instrumentation.
“The game seesaws back and forth, and finally, it’s tied up at 48 a piece with a couple of minutes left. Lee rams the ball down Brack’s throat with Baer doin’ most of the damage, and scores with 18 seconds left to go up 55 to 48. The last thing Lee wants to do is kick the ball to McVea see, so they kick it short to Don Coffee at the 35. Well, Coffee wakes up all 20,000 fans in the stands when he runs back toward his own goal, and hands the ball to McVea, who weaves his way through ten of Lee’s players, and only has one man to beat. That man, Gary Kemph, makes a shoestring tackle. I’m tellin’ you, boy, them 10,000 Lee fans might near had a heart attack.” Jessup sweated profusely, taking deep breaths. Then he scanned his imaginary surroundings as if he was soaking up the energy from the crowd at that stadium.
“So, there’s three seconds left and Brack hands the ball to McVea again. That whirling dervish does the same thing, beats ten of Lee’s eleven men, but the last man standing tackles him as time runs out.” Jessup leapt over imaginary tacklers, and side stepped others, but finally went down hard in the front yard, as the result of an invisible diving tackle.
Jessup lay flat on his back gasping for air, then sat up and said, “So, the greatest Texas high school football game ever played ended with San Antonio Lee winning 55 to 48 over San Antonio Brackenridge. Baer accounted for 37 points and McVea for 38. The greatest game ever played, and some would argue, the fans at that gridiron classic witnessed the two greatest individual performances ever, in a Texas high school football game.”
Jessup heaved a sigh of relief and tossed the football over to me. “After breakfast, I need to make a trip to the lumberyard. You wanna ride shotgun on this stagecoach?”
“I guess so,” I said, “nothing else to do.” Jessup sure did get all worked up over this whole Texas high school football thing.
Two fuzzy day glow orange dice swung from the rear view mirror in Jessup’s truck, and underneath stood a plastic Jesus glued to the dashboard.
“The dice are a bit much don’t you think?” I asked.
“The dice remind me that life’s a gamble. Every moment of every day is full of choices and opportunity, but there’s also a lot of risk. Some days you roll seven and some days you crap out, snake eyes, but you gotta keep on rollin’ the dice. You gotta just keep livin’.”
Sitting on the front seat was a book entitled, The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I picked it up and read a passage. “Liberation by listening on the after death plane, also called the intermediate state, or the between. What the hell does that mean?”
“The Tibetan Book of the Dead title is probably incorrectly translated, but that’s come to be the most common name for this book in our part of the world. The Tibetans call this the Bardo Thodol.” He pronounced the words, par-doe toe-doll. “They believe in reincarnation, that we come back again and again until we work out our karmic issues, our life lessons. A monk named Padma Sambhava wrote this book. He’s said to have introduced Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century. He intended this as a guide to help us through the time between each death and rebirth, so we might make more progress with every lifetime.”
“That’s a mouthful.”
Jessup regarded me patiently and continued. “To relate it to science, you could say that matter is neither created nor destroyed, merely transformed. This is a book that teaches you how to transform your matter positively from lifetime to lifetime. It’s a manual for turning lead into gold. Metaphysically speaking, it’s alchemy for the soul.”
“Wait, I don’t understand. Is this a book about dying…or living?”
“Yes,” Jessup said, in a way too matter of fact manner to suit me.
“I don’t really get it?”
“You can borrow the book if you’d like to read it.”
“Yeah, I might as well.”
“Speaking of the dead, have you heard the new Beatle’s record, Sgt. Pepper? It came out last month,” Jessup said as he fumbled under the front seat of the truck searching for something.
“I spent some time in London this past January, when this gonzo rumor circulated around town that Paul McCartney had died in a car wreck, and they replaced him in the band with a look alike. The rumor never escaped the city limits of London, and petered out after a few weeks, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it resurfaced again in a year or two. Rumors are funny like that, almost like they reincarnate too.”
“Paul is dead?”
“Supposedly. They say if you play the record backwards, you can hear somebody, John Lennon maybe, repeating over and over again, Paul is dead. Paul is dead. Paul is dead. Of course, you can’t play an eight track tape backwards. You’d have to get the album for that.”
“You’re kidding, right?” I couldn’t believe this about Paul McCartney.
“Well, who really knows? Stranger things have happened. I mean, death comes to us all, sooner or later.”
“Exactly, but don’t let this disturbing news ruin your enjoyment of the music. It may even enhance the experience? What you’re about to hear is the finest audio technology ever produced for the open road, an eight track tape deck. Try as they might, in a hundred years, they are never, ever, gonna be able to invent any better audio engineering for an automobile, any better stereophonic sound. This is state…of…the…art,” Jessup said as he pushed the tape into the eight track player.
Sgt. Pepper soared out of all six speakers creating a womb of sound in the cab of that old truck that carried me away to an other worldly place and time. I listened to the music with my eyes closed, and my ears and mouth open, as we drove to the lumberyard.
I heard “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and one amazing mind bending, heart rending, soul mending song after another.
We picked up the building materials at the lumberyard that Jessup needed to fix the screen door, the window, and the porch swing, and went back to the house where we parted ways. I needed some time to be by myself, and to think. I decided to make a trip into town, and maybe see about buying a Beatles’ record.
“Lemonade?” Grandmama asked as she carried a pitcher, and three ice filled glasses on a tray. Jessup was making great progress in crafting a new screen door on the front porch, working with a carpenter’s best friends: a rule and level, a saw and shim, a hammer and nail.
“Yes ma’am,” Jessup said as he hunkered down in one of the rocking chairs, wiped his brow and reached for a glass of lemonade.
“He said something about going to the Woolworth’s store to get a record album.”
“We’re keeping a close eye on him. His daddy committed suicide last fall. He hasn’t been…” Her voice trailed off when she couldn’t find the words to finish her sentence.
“Death seems to be the cruelest when it’s sudden and unexpected.”
Grandmama poured herself a lemonade, then rocked back and forth in the chair next to Jessup. She pulled a whiskey flask out of her apron pocket and tipped a little nip into her glass. “You want a little toddy for the body? It helps me with my arthritis,” grandmama said, winking toward the flask, and wiggling the fingers on her other hand.
“No thanks, ma’am. I’m using power tools today, and I like my fingers right where they are, attached to my hands,” Jessup said as he wiggled his fingers too. “Have you ever heard of acupuncture?”
“Nope, never, what’s that, some new-fangled arthritis treatment?”
“Actually, acupuncture is over 5,000 years old. Let me get my kit,” Jessup said and then made a trip to his truck and returned with a small leather pouch. Grandmama’s hands rested on the arms of her rocking chair, but she snatched them back as soon as the old girl spotted the thin needles he pulled out of the pouch.
“Relax, Miss Kathleen, this not only won’t hurt, it will actually ease your pain,” Jessup said as he inserted five acupuncture needles in first her left hand and then the right.
She felt the healing energy flowing into her fingers, and acted like a little kid enjoying the acupuncture treatment, amazement on her face and amusement in her voice as she said, “I can feel the pain subsiding.”
“We’ll leave the needles in for a few minutes while we talk. All discomfort and pain comes from energy blockages in the body. We’re rerouting the energy, allowing it to flow where it’s needed most for healing.”
“You know, there was a big time quarterback out of Palestine, Texas named Jessup,” grandmama said as she noticed the nasty scar on his right knee. If they threw an ugly pageant for knees, Jessup’s scarred up knee would have been the flat out winner, and relegated poor old Frankenstein’s knee to runner up status. “Buddy Jessup, if memory serves. He went to UT up in Austin and managed to tear up his knee somethin’ awful as a freshman in an orange and white spring scrimmage. That boy never played a down of varsity Longhorn football. They say if he hadn’t of gotten hurt, he’d of been the second coming of Bobby Layne. Some say, maybe even better than Bobby Layne.”
“Yeah, well if if’s and buts were candy and nuts, what a Merry Christmas we’d all have,” Jessup said with a smile as he rolled the cold glass of lemonade across his forehead. A long pause enveloped the conversation as grandmama delighted in her acupuncture needles.
“Where have you been all this time?”
“You mean, around the country?”
“The day I tore up my knee, I was real distracted, kind of like when you know something’s wrong, but you don’t know what it is. Right before I left for UT, I bought an old beater car, a Chrysler DeSoto, beautiful in a grand old dame sort of way, but I could see the road underneath my feet through those rusted out floorboards.”
“Be careful now, I’m one of those grand old dames.”
“I’ve always been fond of grand old dames. I gave my Indian Scout motorcycle to my younger brother, Jackie. I made him promise he’d always wear a helmet. That day he didn’t. He was going too fast around a blind corner when a farmer on a tractor came out of his corn field and onto the road. Jackie slammed into the side of the tractor…and died that day. The same day I tore up my knee.” Jessup paused and drank some lemonade.
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake, I’m so sorry.”
“Bad knee and all, I started running, trying to outrun the guilt, I guess. I was a history major at UT, so my first naive notion was to track down the seven ancient wonders of the world. I saw the Great Pyramid of Giza, but good luck finding the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, or the Lighthouse at Alexandria. So I made up my own list, and saw everything from Stonehenge to the Roman Colosseum, and Machu Picchu to the Great Wall of China. I checked out the seven modern wonders too, like the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, and the Panama Canal. The seven natural wonders, places like the Grand Canyon, and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, from Niagara Falls to the Amazon Rain Forest.”
“That’s quite a journey.”
“In the process, I sailed all seven seas, and then decided I’d climb the seven highest mountains on all seven continents, like Denali in Alaska, the coldest mountain in the world. That’s a place so cold Mr. Fahrenheit and Mrs. Celsius have to snuggle up at night to keep warm. Kilimanjaro, pushed up out of the African plain by three volcanoes, and fifty miles across. Then there’s Mount Everest in Tibet, the magic mountain. The Sherpas call it Chomolungma, Tibetan for Holy Mother.” Jessup inhaled a deep breath, and sipped a long drink of his lemonade.
“Did you ever find what you were searching for?”
“When I’d climbed to the peak of Mount Everest, feeling dead tired, I tried to suck some oxygen out of that freezing cold thin air. On top of the highest mountain in the world, fighting to breathe, I felt like I was drowning in a dark bottomless pool of blindingly black water. My lungs burned like I’d swallowed fire, and Jackie came to me, as real as you sitting there. He said the seventy times seven was done. Jackie assured me my journey to forgiveness was complete. He told me I was free to lay my burden down. Jackie wanted me to forgive myself.”
“Well, did you?”
“Jackie encouraged me to open the gate to my heart. Let God’s love flow through me, and then I’d understand. So now that’s what I do every day. I try to open the gate, and let God’s love, and the breath of life itself flow through me, every single moment of each and every day.”
There weren’t any words left to say on the subject, so Jessup pulled the needles out of her hands. Grandmama shared her love with Jessup the best way she knew how, pouring them some more lemonade, as he said, “I also realized I love livin’ in South Texas. I love the hot weather. The sun and the heat seems like it makes people friendlier. And we’ve got some good fishin’ down here too, and God knows I love me some fishin’.”
“So, you’re a fisherman?”
“Fish are the only creatures Noah didn’t have to gather up two by two onto the Ark, because they were already swimming around in the ocean. Fish are too cool for school. At the risk of offending modesty, some folks would tell you I may be the world’s greatest fisherman.”
“That’s bold talk for a hippie boy with one good leg. Would you care to drown a worm some afternoon?” Grandmama fancied herself a queen in the fishing realm, so she got her royal hackles all ruffled up, as she responded in a challenging tone.
“Let’s hook ‘em.”
Houses dotted the landscape between the Old Gates Home and downtown Pair O’ Dice, interrupted only by the First Methodist Church at Third and Elm. I trekked past the train depot and the feed store, and that little hole in the wall joint called the Hot Tamale House #2 where Georgia Cortinez sold hot tamales and even hotter hot link sausages notorious for burning at both ends, going in and coming out, which must have had something to do with the #2 part of the name, because there was no Hot Tamale House #1.
The heart of downtown was the courthouse, a commanding presence of a building with four giant columns across the front, and I always wondered why: four corners of the earth, four seasons of the year, the four dimensions of modern science with length, breadth, width, and time, on the fourth day of the first week God created the material universe, and rainbows were only mentioned four times in the scriptures. All reasonable answers.
A copper Lone Star hung above the huge front doors of the courthouse, and the entrance to the building was presided over by an old clock that occasionally ticked, but seldom tocked, and almost never told the right time. A dome topped off the grand building where stood a bronze statue of my great-great-grandfather, Pearly Gates, his own by God self with a book of some kind in his left hand, and the index finger of his right hand pointed up toward the heavens like somehow he knew what the whole mystery was all about. Most folks guessed it must have been a Bible in his hand, but from what I’d heard about old Pearly, it could have just as easily been a racing program from the horse track over there in Opelousas, Louisiana.
The stately First National Bank of Pair O’ Dice stood catty-corner to the courthouse at the junction of First Avenue and Main Street, which ran for about ten blocks with a Tastee Freeze and a brand new Dairy Queen down at the far end. The various storefronts up and down Main peddled the standard small town merchandise from dry goods at Danbury’s, to wet goods at the Dew Drop In Lounge. I walked toward the Woolworth’s at the corner of 7th and Main.
The red marble facade on the storefront featured large gold letters that proclaimed the store’s name boldly, F. W. Woolworth & Co. That store sold anything and everything, cheap, from a lunch counter offering sandwiches and fountain drinks, to toys and candy, jewelry and perfume. Even today, how many places are there where you can buy an ice cream cone and a pet turtle. We called it the five and ten cent store, the five and dime, or just the dime store, and yes, you could buy records there too, singles and albums, or LPs, the Long Playing records, but the albums cost more than a dime, usually $3.49 back in 1967.
I made a beeline for the record section and located the Beatles tab. I flipped through the albums, and finally found it buried in the back, almost as if someone had tried to hide the album, their last copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I recognized many of the celebrities from every walk of life pictured on the cover: Edgar Allen Poe, Bob Dylan, Laurel and Hardy, H.G. Wells, Marlon Brando, Tom Mix, Johnny Weissmuller, Lewis Carroll, Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia, Shirley Temple, Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, and Marilyn Monroe, but so many others I didn’t know. Lost in the moment, staring at the album cover, I didn’t hear the clerk talking to me. He tapped me on the shoulder.
“Excuse me, but that record is sold. You can plainly see there’s a sticker on the bottom left hand corner there,” said the nervous young clerk, who appeared to be about my age, as he pointed to the bright yellow sticker that said SOLD.
“No, you don’t understand. I have to buy this record.”
“Are you deaf? I told you, that record is sold.” He noticed the pained expression on my face I guess, felt sorry for me, and explained the situation further. “Look fella, I’d like to help you out, but my girlfriend asked me to save this copy for her until she gets her allowance on Saturday. You get it right, no Sgt. Pepper Saturday morning, no smooching Saturday night?”
“Young man, can you help us please?” Two blue-haired old ladies were interested in some costume jewelry and wanted the clerk’s assistance. The clerk gave me his best stern look, and quick stepped over toward the two old ladies in the jewelry section.
Without thinking it over too carefully, I slipped the album up the back of my madras shirt, and tucked my shirt tail in to keep it there. I staged a production of putting a different Beatles’ record back in the rack so the clerk thought I’d returned Sgt. Pepper. I kept my eyes fixed on the clerk and smiled as I casually strolled backwards toward the exit. Just about the time I figured I was home free, I bumped into something, or somebody, near the front door. I turned around slowly to see what, or who, it was.
The tall man with a parsimonious mustache and a nifty narrow name tag that read Frederick Fitzhugh, Manager asked, “Can I help you with something?”
“No, no, I don’t really need anything today,” I said, but all I could hear was the beating of my heart pounding so loudly in my ears it sounded like the big bass drum on the front cover of that Sgt. Pepper album.
“Come, come, now. There must be something in our store you want to buy?” Frederick Fitzhugh asked, as he eyed the sharp corner edge of the album pushing out the fabric on the side of my shirt.
After the manager called her, grandmama motorvated over to the Woolworth’s store in a matter of a minutes, but it seemed like years before she got there. I wish he’d of called the Pair O’ Dice Police instead. The cops would have locked me up, maybe beat me with a rubber hose under bright interrogation lights, and starved me with only bread and water for weeks, a vacation compared to dealing with grandmama.
She thanked the man for calling her, and paid for the record. I guess Frederick Fitzhugh concluded that making one of the town’s most influential citizens happy counted more heavily into the situation, and his future career plans, than whether his teenage clerk was lucky enough to get some lipstick on his collar Saturday night. Grandmama singed me with a look that would have melted a freight train, and we drove back to the Old Gates Home in a deafening silence.
Grandmama parked her Caddy in the driveway, and marched me over to the base of the Truth Tree. I knew the drill so I placed my right hand on the trunk.
“Why did you try to steal the record?”
“Because I thought the answer might be in there, somewhere.”
“The answer to what?”
“Something, anything, everything…crazy, huh?”
“I may know only these two things. Sometimes, you find answers to your questions about life in some funny places you don’t expect.”
“You said two things? What’s the other thing?”
“You can’t ever stop searching for answers. But, let’s take today’s events as evidence that perhaps you’re not too good at stealing. You might want to consider setting that aside as a career option. If you insist on perpetrating thievery as a means of livelihood, then I’d suggest you become a lawyer, at least it’s legal that way, and lucrative as well.”
“I’ll take the career counseling under advisement,” I said, all the while thinking to myself, I would pass on stealing as a profession, legally, or otherwise.
After grandmama and I finished our chat at the Truth Tree, we walked over to the house, up the front steps, and into the Old Gates Home through a newly repaired screen door when she said, “Put the record on the stereo.”
“You heard me. I wanna hear a record that’s so bitchin’ you’ve got to steal it.”
I peeled off the plastic wrapper, and pulled out the record. Grandmama grabbed the album cover from me so she could look it over. I assumed she wanted to hear the music forwards, as opposed to backwards, which would have been my personal preference.
“Okay,” I said as I opened the lid on a gigantic wooden stereo cabinet the size of a Lincoln Continental, and slid the record down on the spindle.
“The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” grandmama said. As we listened to song after song, her mood eventually lightened up, a smidge. By the time the record spun around to track number nine called, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” she asked me to take her for a spin.
“Let’s dance, kiddo.”
“I can’t really dance very well,” I said, trying to get out of it.
“I paid for the dad gum record. The least you can do is dance with me.”
“This music is outstanding. The arrangements and orchestration are first rate. If this is rock & roll, I don’t think it will lead to the ruination of civilization as we know it after all,” she said as we began to dance, awkwardly.
“My granddaddy, old Pearly Gates, used to say that passing judgment is just as bad as passing gas. They both stink. So I’m not going to tell your mama about this escapade of yours, or Earl either, for that matter. Let’s keep this little misadventure between the two of us. Are you gonna lead, or do I have to?”
“I’ll lead,” I said and tried to summon up anything I could remember from those godawful cotillion dance classes mom forced me to take. I eventually got my rhythm going, and gave a go at having a delightful dance with my grandmama. It made her happy at least.
“Remember this, William Gates Waters. You’ve got my name, Gates. There are quite a few of us who are very proud of that name, and we’ve done our best to pass it along from one generation to the next in good working order. I’d appreciate it if you’d try to do the same thing.”
The preceding passage was approved by gastronomic survivors of the Hot Tamale House #2, and includes the full text of Chapter Three in The Gates of Pair O’ Dice.