The whole house had sunk on one side so if you were to place a marble in the middle of the floor it would roll down to the right until it hit the skirting board; everything I dropped rolled this way; pencils, pennies, bottles, fags, rings & chopped carrot heads; coming in drunk I had the weird sensation of actually standing upright since the walls were also sideways. The water dripping from the shower curtain (which clung like a sea anemone) also flowed downhill til it hit the back wall, a way away under the freestanding iron bath tub that had clawed feet: it was impossible to mop, unless I lay on my stomach and reached under it with a broom – every fucking day – so the bathroom smelled of stale water which filled the whole house & had a nice way of cultivating big Texas mushrooms.
I slept in an iron bedstead with my head downhill at that gentle tilt, underneath the window full of a big Texas moon. The windows didn’t fit into the sills properly, so there was always a space for the bugs to get in, and no screens anyhow, so I had to sleep with the windows closed & stuffed up even in Summer, when the blades of the electric fan slowed down like a propeller in mud – in fact it would have been easier to breathe underwater. The sun came in the east windows and the heat was trapped in all day, under the tin roof; some days the grey walls seemed to sweat. In the bathroom the walls were tiled up to the middle, and the tiles were all jutting out and overlapped slightly like a yokel’s teeth; one day I peeled a strip of mould like tape from between two tiles and three of them fell off and cracked on the floor, so I got the impression it was in fact the mould holding the place together; if the house ever dried out in Summer it would turn immediately into a bone dry carcass, collapse in on itself, and I would be left in the iron bedstead covered with the moon and a Tokay blanket amongst quaint period debris and reeling dust.
In the evenings I’d sit out on the splintered back porch to smoke with my feet in the crab grass, as though it were a raft. The folks next door had a cat who still left presents for the old lady there. About one quarter of a cat’s kills are for food, another quarter are gifts (unwanted) and the other half are pure murder, which is to say that this cat was Jack the Ripper. I had a deal with the retarded boy of the folks next door (whose cat it was) that he come on over ever coupla days and take away the mutilated mice (heads off, or as clean in half as a sausage) with his sand bucket & spade; I even promised him a dollar if he did it regular; needless to add that he didn’t come at all after the first week, so the tiny carcasses piled up, spread in a ring around the porch and stayed there so long in the sun that the mice dried out and split open – right down the middle like a seed. The ants carried the juice away, then they were quite flat and brittle. One day I picked one up by its tail – just like a dry leaf – and turned it over so I could look at its beautiful tiny, white ribs, which were so pristine, and not joined in the middle like ours are – but they have very human little hands, four fingers and a thumb. Once when I was walking (high in the hills around Shitsville Ranch) I saw a big bush mouse sitting hunched in the middle of the path. It didn’t move when I came near so it must’ve been sick – just sat there with its eyes closed tight ( & wet) and hands clasped as though it were praying. In the end I had so many mice bones, perfectly picked over by the sun, I thought about making little mice tableaux of scenes from history: Napoleon mouse instructing his mouse army, or the retreat of said army from Russia (fields of dead half buried in the snow), or religious scenes like they do in Texas wax museums: The Annunciation, the Last Supper, Judas the Betrayer & the Kiss in the Garden, etc.
For a while I thought it might be admirable if I took some time to actually live in one of those friendly Texas towns rather than just pass through in order to add colour and variety to my narrative and heap scorn upon the locals. Jerkville is closer to a Southern town than the dried out Old West ones you imagine in Texas; it was once a bustling centre of trade which revolved around the river and the ferries, all until that dried up and the railway companies in the 1900s decided to circumvent it, quite arbitrarily, so the whole town died at once. After a long process of conning I was given a house that had belonged to an old lady, not recently deceased – in fact the house had been standing empty for over a year while her family in Arkansas debated what to do with it – whether one tarted it up and rented it out or knocked it over and sold the lot, it was pretty much worthless whichever way you looked at it. At first appearance it didn’t look so bad, though – behind a tall, leaning, picket fence with only every second rail loose – a little lemon-coloured wooden house with period sconces and a bay window in front – under a blue sky, a Spring breeze, and the magnolia bush in the front yard dropping massive, pink flowers onto the red brick path; magnolia flowers are so improbably shaped and huge and thick they almost look like they’re made of paper. Inside the walls were lavender, and the yard out back was empty and square and flat, pinned out with geometric perfection, like a lawn for bowls; there was nothing by way of flora except a lemon tree in the back left corner, by a pile of refuse (red bricks); old people always like to have lemon trees, but I can’t see why; one requires the rind of a lemon about once a year; most of the time the fruit turns brown on the trees, or rots beneath it, where the rats eat it, and there’s a continuous deadly hum of bees, so you shouldn’t go near, or even reach in to pick the flowers; to make lemonade seems like the sweet and simple thing only someone truly mad would do, like lawn bowls (as above) and riding the trolley to the end of the line just to see where it goes. The family of the old lady who had owned the house abounded with tales such as these.
For a few days I enjoyed the idea of the little yellow house; it looked picturesque when I sat in the yard, at the furthest point, to see the house like Dorothy’s homestead in Kansas with a mountain of clouds piling up in the blueness above it; I smoked ceaselessly and was careful to grind my fag ends out lest I set the place on fire. Then one day as I stared at the wall in my bedroom I realised that the paint was not lavender after all but grey; the walls had simply picked the colour up from the purple bedspread when the sun came in in the afternoon. Nevermind (thought I), though you have to wonder what kind of nihilist would choose grey paint out of all of the possible permutations of the rainbow they can mix up for you at the general store.
Diner coffee sits on the burner all day, so it has a particular taste consistent across the state; that is, of soaking ashes; you can tell the places where fewer folks pass through since the coffee is even less often refreshed and congealed into a piping hot black ball of carbon like sucking actual brimstone; the man in the black suit takes advantage of the free ‘refills’ after your first cup, while giving his goggling son a lecture about fiscal responsibility: rich people never pay more than they have to for the cheapest things, and expect a lot of things free. He tips the waitress at the precisely calculated rate that is enough to not appear cheap but low enough that she must maintain minimum wage without health care or a pension with a smile as bright as the sunburst breaking through clouds… expressive of the beautiful feminine eternal hope of just a little bit more. Back East folks seem to have forgotten God invented working as a punishment; the Puritans made a virtue of it, so they run around with their eyes cast down all day praising the Lord for their sixteen hour days. In Texas they maintain that work is God’s punishment for folks who are poor, and too cynical to share the American Dream, the American Dream being roughly analogous to having been born wealthy and stoking your shares in oil companies while bemoaning the laziness of single parents in two casual or part-time jobs. For some reason, the poorer folks like to imagine that they belong to this club and echo said economic sentiments.
The man in the red cap, engaged in sucking the shells off complimentary pistachio nuts, called to me across the speckled linoleum: “Say, what do you do?” and when I told him, “Art? Like pictures and stuff? You actually expect to get paid for that?”
“Some people get paid for playing football,” said I. “Does that bother you as much?”
“Footballers are all good god-fearing folks and they train real hard. And they make a lotta people happy. I won’t hear nothing said against them.”
“I see,” said I and asked for more coffee. You get the taste for it after a while, especially when there’s nothing else on offer. A universal truth is that it doesn’t pay to argue with idiots, wherever you are.
For the first week or so I stuck to the Texas tourist traps: I had a guide book from with all of the Groupon coupons torn out and a little stop-motion cartoon in stick figures drawn in the bottom corner. Everywhere in Texas is the home of the famous something – designated by a sign twenty foot high – the Friendly Carpet Cod, the Distinguished Cave Owl, the Laudable Ridges, a Balancing Rock or Bugtussle – actually famous for being boring – Big Tex – a truly frightening thing – towers above the entrance to Texas State Fair in Dallas (four little sisters, in dresses all made from the same material, follow each other like ducks between his legs, while chip packets flitter across the gravel.) Twin fish leap over the entrance to Galveston, and a pair of little pigs delightedly share in their own oppression as they carry a plate of ribs, adding the frisson of cannibalism to the mouth-watering prospect of the six ways of they serve pork in Sugar Land (the most World Famous being the fact the Bar-B-Q can be Eat-In or Carry Out). The superlatives are bigger in Texas, and it seems to me that the acclaim of certain ‘world famous’ hamburger joints far exceeds their actual reputation outside of Texas. The guide took great pains to find a notable attraction or restaurant in every place: Greenville has “The Blackest Land, The Whitest People”. ‘The Smithville area offers recreation such as shopping and sightseeing. You will enjoy exploring the local craft shops, or enjoy the relaxing view of the Colorado River from the city park, or enjoy touring a world class museum at the Central Texas Museum of Automotive History; your endless dining choices include enjoying Mexico Lindo, the Backdoor Café, and Zimmerhanzels Bar-B-Que’ — exactly like a junior high cafeteria in orange portables replete with stacks of Styrofoam cups, buckets of slaw covered in plastic wrap, dried out bits of cream cake, questionable pastries, and depressed cafeteria workers – the crowd were Smithville locals getting take-out, and after sampling the vittles the only distinction I could see was that the place was definitely worse for the amount of people who passed through it, stuck their gum under the tables and used the bathroom without washing their hands. I am at a loss as to why some things are considered ‘amusements’. Line dancing is far less amusing than pitiable. The cinemas in Texas show only films about star quarterbacks who save their small towns from terrorists concealed in the silo, and the movie tickets are twenty bucks a pop. The wax museum in Dallas has a religious tableaux and a chamber of horrors – the kids who wail in the dark get told to shut up and keep walking. There was an exhibition of Ancient Egyptian artifacts touring around the state, it was in Dallas when I got there, and on the way out I overheard a boy ask his papa how the mummies had died; the man replied, “For not believin’ in Jesus, son.”