I spent ten days in Texas. I had spent almost all the days from summer 1978 to autumn 1994 there. Many were much, much hotter.
Here is a list of places I did not go and things I did not do:
- My middle school, the great black mass of dark rectangles combined together in one impregnable form like burned blocks dropped from a height, their strange magnetism locking them together. In years past, I would look in the windows and stand in the vestibules and imagine myself in the seventh or eighth grade, vibrating with anxiety and already possessed of an unshakable sense I was doing it all wrong. The cavernous halls, windowless and black when I was there, have been painted an institutional brown: lighter, but even white would not overcome the inherent shadow. The place is still huge. I didn’t drive past it.
- My high school. I did pull off into the band hall parking lot, but I was on my way somewhere else and was using the phone safely. My destination was somewhere I had not been before; I count it as a success, even if it was in the same neighborhood. I took a picture of the sky glowing from the city to the north. Buses left from here, overlooked by a concrete arcade where I had waited for Mom or looked across the street to freedom. Once, another guy and I moved our English teacher’s green diesel Mercedes. She sent us with her keys to get something and I moved it exactly one spot. The other guy was afraid: for once, someone other than me. No one was around then, and no one was around now. I could have walked around and looked in whatever I wanted, but I had no interest. I am told Texas allows driving and talking on the phone, but just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
- My friend’s old house with the aquamarine shag and the bathroom with the hole in the floor, a side street down from one of the nation’s first outdoor malls. I remember the last time I drove past it–four years ago, I think. The little sticks of trees had filled out and grown higher than the house, but the church across from it was even more peeled and decrepit, the park a half-block away brown and flattened-feeling like everything feels out in the Plains. This is the house where my friend and I retired after class or mowing lawns or bowling. Burning July afternoons we would argue about a thin line of West Texas thunderstorms revealed by The Weather Channel’s Atari-looking radar, me insisting there was a chance they could get this far. He would be two or three beers in, easy with disagreement. The house was always more ramshackle than a house. I’m sure it’s still there.
- The deep country where some friends I had lived, out beyond police and society, out where people believe in land and more land and no City Hall tell you to mow the grass. The land is there to have the trees removed, the native grasses replaced with tall hay that turns to golden straw. This was the house of exactly one successful bonfire: I remember the cold, how bright the stars were, high school kids with blank eyes holding beer cans that glittered from the flames. It is my favorite memory of that place. I think I have gone there looking for it, whatever it means to look for a memory in the same place but different time. The subconscious, reads the part of me that knows how to read, does not understand time and lives in an eternal present, always driving us toward something it cannot understand is gone. At the second, unsuccessful, bonfire, instead of diesel as accelerant, unleaded was used. There was the apotheosis of the high school or college late night emergency room visit. There was no lasting injury nor subsequent bonfires. I wished there had been, but not any more, not really.
- The house where my ex lived when I met her. Four years ago, when I came for my high school reunion (no one remembering I hadn’t graduated, or being too thoughtful to mention it), I parked across the street and walked the block a little. The outpost of square brick boxes with high peaked brown roofs had softer edges, the brick a little weathered, the concrete oxidized tawny grey. A man across the block watched me. We struck up a conversation, his pale white feet glowing in his front door oak shade. The house was managed by an absentee landlord and was now “full of Mexicans”. Friday nights their cars whined and thumped up and down the wide suburban street, and the oil puddles annoyed him. He was a year away from retirement, teaching at Crowley High School. His opinion of the latest generation was low. His early twenties daughter was AWOL and he was raising his young grandchildren. “It’s all gotten a lot worse,” he said. He invited me back any time.
- I did go to my old college, but I was not there. Let me explain. Thanksgiving weekend had deserted the place, leaving it to wind and thin traffic. The place was just different enough to be not exactly the same. The leaning sheds to which the drama and art programs had been banished were gone, replaced with modest, comely structures. I walked the lawn northwest of the imposing Administration Building and realized this spot of lawn was once a house. It had been exclusive on-campus living restricted to delicate, upstanding women of the Nineteenth Century Plains type, some specimens apparently still around in 1990 and requiring such quarantine. Time had worked long enough that the grass showed no sign of the little house. A big tree a friend and other students had saved from the axe by tying themselves to it still lived, now joined by green-turning-gold rows of new trees. The Sid W. Richardson Building was open but dark, the only sound the fan blowing up an inflatable Snoopy Santa, the place still smelling of pool chlorine, overcooked grease, wood paneling, and dust. The dark yellow light and unfinished wood reminded me of my grandmother’s farmhouse, but not college. Outside, the dazzlingly ugly library featured trees with plaques in honor of donors or graduates, the metal gouged by mowing. I looked in the science building and smelled its strange fusty odor, a smell of chalk and worry and other things never quite nameable: a unique smell. Someone sees me, shouts across the parking lot if I need help. No, I used to go here, just looking, thanks. He moves off. I walk a little faster. I take some pictures by the car, of sunsets and deep light playing on the live oak trees, but am more interested in not being hassled.
- I did not drive around Fort Worth streets I frequented through all those years, light and seasons changing with my shifting perceptions. Fort Worth was never exciting but a car helped construct an illusion of verve: all these cars are going somewhere instead of just going. Down West Seventh turning to Camp Bowie there was a coffeehouse opposite the museums, the first coffeehouse I’d experienced where sitting and talking was encouraged by fat furniture and board games. I didn’t drive down Lancaster Avenue, a street notable only for its width, the endless stream of fast food joints, car lots, and semi-abandoned retail strips along its banks indistinguishable from anywhere else in suburban America–yet elevated in my mind, twenty years ago. Much is new. Downtown seems sharp and polished, free of the fin de siecle neglect I knew. There are places, stretches I drove often, though now I am not sure where they are in space. Places that no longer exist are firm in memory, and I don’t try to find them.
- I did not go to blank places: unused corners of shopping strip parking lots, gravel turnarounds under overpasses, empty streets gone-broke developers had filled with flat concrete foundations. Years ago I had stopped at such places to take pictures, to wander around, to sit in the car listening to the radio. I remember daydreaming, or being angry, or possessed of a sadness as rich and present as the humidity. It would sit in the passenger seat, silent and comfortable, spreading out the long plane of its glass into the world. Winters it was better, the air lighter, the light not so tired from struggle. I would sit in the car alone then, relieved. I can’t remember where these places were. My forgetting them is like remembering a fun fact, a little happy pinch but reversed: oh, it’s gone.
- I did not drive up and down the streets of Burleson, Texas, (32°32′9″N 97°19′38″W). Of course I drove them, meaning directed the car along them, but I drove none with intimacy. Had I examined my old middle school or high school, driving between them would have connected memory’s circuit and indulged the grabby, fitful subconscious. I would have inevitably driven more, charting the past’s fuzzy map over a physical present only half-compatible. The thing looking for something would not have found it–just like it never found anything before, when the past was much newer. Now I drove the streets like grumpy East Coast Puritan tourists–not quite that indifferent toward getting out and looking around, but happy to continue on. I did stop in what was the Wal-Mart and Winn Dixie parking lot, the now cracked and unevenly repaired concrete leading to a Hobby Lobby and a different grocery store. But again this was safety, returning texts and calls to dark Seattle, where the present is. How is Texas? Holding my breath inside the new rental car, I had thoughts too big for words, and nothing. It wasn’t unpleasant. It’s funny–I don’t know. I watched the road and drove very well.
- I did not pound up and down the streets of my parents’ neighborhood in determined walks; did not devote intense divination to this or that sector of their yard where friends had played or bullies had invaded; didn’t thrash around the back lot where my father has a garden and stores his woodpile. Inside I didn’t examine what had been my room now stacked with extra bookcases, a chaise, and desks stacked with books; in what was my sister’s room, where the thin futon is, I didn’t sit on the phone contacting a long list of people I felt I needed to see. (And it was a need my last long trip here: a desire for connection, or to repair something.) I believe there is a cheap blue imitation steamer trunk in the attic, accessible by fold-down stairs. Over the years I have thought of going through it with my oldest friend Matt, looking at old school papers and printouts from long-gone dial-up bulletin boards. There is far too much junk to move out of the way. I looked once at the rope dangling from the stairs, then never thought of it again.
- I did not stand out under the streetlight at the end of my parents’ block and fret, or worry, or feel lost, or alone, or overwhelmed with failure.
You may say, rightly: that’s a lot of not doing. Did you do anything?
- I walked with my father, up and down the neighborhood and out dirt roads now turned to gravel by the gas drillers.
- I was present for the leaves to move from their branches to the ground, and make that bony skittering scrape as they tumbled across the pavement.
- I saw the little historical museum my mom and dad donate time and energy to, and the two interurban cars up on display.
- I went with my mom to the Kimbell Museum, where the sun was impossibly warm and where I eked out a little more of an abandoned phone conversation we had started early this year. (It was more than I had and offered an ending, and it was enough.)
- I had early Thanksgiving dinner with a friend, her children, significant other, and guy who knew me from high school but I had no memory of.
- I walked downtown Fort Worth and trails along the Trinity River.
- I sat in the car in my parents’ driveway and had fabulous phone conversations with several friends, old and new.
- I drove to Austin and saw someone I had not seen since 1988.
- I stopped at a freeway rest stop that doubled as a memorial for the 1997 Jarrell tornado: a massive cinderblock structure with two aboveground storm shelters.
- I wondered what that storm was like. I wondered why nobody builds basements there.
- I inhabited a new, expansive space, in my current present of class and writing and looking for a job while being in a different physical space for a while.
- I got some sun.
- I remembered how as a teenager by November incessant sun would have me despondent. Will cool never come?
As much happened as did not happen, all of it past now. Where I am now it is cool. The sun was out until early afternoon. My dad emails: lows in the twenties coming. Thanksgiving has turned to Christmas, but Christmas as a grownup, and that’s fine.