“Really, would you ever consider wearing this getup?” my sister says to me, pointing to the magazine she’s been reading. A woman dressed in a floral blouse and plaid cropped pants offers a tray of drinks to guests in her glossy backyard. But it’s my sister’s thin hands that catch my attention. They are our mother’s, small and pale.
“I wouldn’t be caught dead in that,” she adds, thumping the photo with a bony index finger.
That expression is our mother’s, too, and when we both laugh now, it’s as if the three of us are making this trip to the Valley together.
We’re headed to Brownsville, Texas, for a look at the dead body of our father, a man others know as BL.
Brownsville has never been my home. In fact, I’ve made this long drive from Austin only once, for a vacation on South Padre almost twenty years ago, and that trip included no sighting of BL at all.
Now, as I partially unfold one of those giant roadmaps to chart our progress, the northernmost half of the Texas panhandle appears to be missing—a couple of inches and a few hundred miles lopped right off—until that section turns up on the back side, as if the state has folded over on itself. Even with this adjustment in cartography, you can trace nearly eight hundred miles from AMARILLO to BROWNSVILLE, located easily at the southernmost point in black letters, all caps, a wavy line of blue running between R and O. The Rio Grande might have been drawn in a shaky hand, its sole purpose to divide the United States from Mexico, where only a handful of cities are identified, suggesting that these are the only ones that exist, or matter; the beginning of an alphabetical listing of Texas cities consumes the space: A-H. INDEX CONTINUED ABOVE.
Thirty years ago BL decided to build a house in Brownsville because it was a cheap place to retire and he could fish there. He once bragged to me that with the single push of a button, he could lower his boat from the dock behind his house and be out on the water in less than five minutes. I’d have to bring my sons down, he told me then, and they’d go fishing together—my father with his grandsons, an ordinary sort of family activity, if you take the words at face value. I can see myself nodding along as BL says all this with that sheepish, lop-sided grin, but however I respond, however it is that I keep up my end of the pretense that this invitation is genuine and there’s a possibility of this event’s occurrence, I’ve forgotten now how all that might have been.
I can’t go any farther anyway with this half-memory, this bit of tossed-off conversation, without considering how pathetic my desire to believe that fish story must have seemed. All these years later, I still don’t know what that house of his in Brownsville looks like. I can only imagine standing beside my father on a wooden dock, watching a boat slowly descend into a gray slip of water.
And in this scene, BL appears much as he always has, even before his death this past Monday: a fragmented apparition, two-dimensional and transparent, like a projection onto a wall.
With the map tilted like this on my lap, the Rio Grande River outlines the bottom of a heeled cowboy boot. El Paso is a spur on the state’s western corner, Brownsville a pointed toe at the southeastern tip, poised to kick all that isn’t wanted out into the improbable-blue gulf.
As we settle in for the next stretch of highway south toward Corpus, I make another fold on the roadmap near our current location just south of San Antonio. Then a hand’s width due east, I find Bay City, that stunted, flat coastal town surrounded by rice fields and grass farms and ranch land. It’s where I grew up, the reason I’m suspicious of all small towns. Despite its name, Bay City languishes thirty miles inland on the Colorado River, and it is the longest half hour imaginable from the courthouse on the town square to the drawbridge across the inter-coastal canal, and another tediously slow twenty minutes alongside the muddy, snake-infested river before it merges with the gulf at a point on the peninsula known as Matagorda Beach. The line of ramshackle fish camps and bait shops and beer joints stops at that same point, the apparent end of civilization except for a few cabins squatting behind the dunes, recklessly thrown up after the latest hurricane and waiting for their inevitable destruction in the next.
The Texas Gulf Coast has its own sort of primitive beauty, if you don’t expect clear water or white powdery sand, but there is a desolation to Matagorda that I’ve always found unsettling. It’s where we went in high school to do all the things we weren’t supposed to be doing, cruising the shoreline with Lynyrd Skynyrd and Fleetwood Mac and Peter Frampton blaring out the car windows. When I was much younger, I know that my mother would sometimes drive me and my sister and some of her friends down there, but I remember almost nothing of those beach trips except waiting for boats to crawl through the canal so the drawbridge could close, the heat and the stillness and the irritating whine and sting of mosquitoes. And my mother’s fretting, beginning long before we got home, about all the sand in the Impala. Despite her vigorous efforts with a whisk broom, the grit on the plastic seat covers and the vinyl floor mats would vex her for weeks, while that blend of Hawaiian Tropic and salt water and seaweed so redolent of summer dissipated as soon as we arrived back at the white house on First Street.
My mother must not have taken photos of us on Matagorda Beach because if she had they’d have ended up in that cardboard box, the one with all the gold-and-white Kodak envelopes filed upright in precise rows. As a child, sometimes left alone at home, I might gather up the courage to open the door to the hall closet; to make a space between the wool coats hanging in plastic dry-cleaning bags from the rod above; to hold my breath and crawl down into the impenetrable darkness that smelled of moth balls and the pasts of dead people. The moment my fingers grasped hold of the box of photos, I’d propel myself backwards and shoot back out into the safety of the hallway. Then I could get lost for hours, jumbling people, places, and time inside that box of treasure.
My mother saved all photos, even the blurred, or overexposed, or not fully developed, just as she did those with precisely cut-out squares instead of faces, strange headless male torsos standing beside the more intact, familiar figures of my mother or my sister. Sometimes I came across other finds, like those rectangular black-and-whites with deckled edges, bound at the top with black cardboard in an old-fashioned sort of booklet: In these my sister is a sturdy, round-eyed child of four or five, squatting in the sand with the murky Gulf of Mexico behind her, surrounded by a group of smiling adults that includes young married versions of my mother and BL.
Years later, after my mother died and I’d sorted with impunity through her box of photographs, I located this tiny album and gave it to my sister. She identified one of BL’s younger brothers and his wife; she remembered that beach outing, that afternoon with them and her parents. What caught my attention for the first time, though, in my sister’s hands was the faded blue ink on the top photo, “Matagorda Island” written in my mother’s tall, slanted handwriting. While there is a Matagorda Island—located south of the peninsula and accessible to birders and fishermen only by boat—this wasn’t it, I knew. And I’d wondered what else my mother had mislabeled, what other information she’d relayed wrongly that I never thought to question.
And it’s only just now, in remembering a place and the photographs of others’ taken on a summer day years before I was born, that I consider this: How is that during all my surreptitious rifling through that box kept hidden in the dark of the hall closet, I hadn’t envied my sister? And why do I still hold on to photographs of people I never knew, others’ keepsakes kept safe even now, tucked into the darkness of one of my own closets?
The distance that has always existed between my father and me was captured in another photo, taken only a few days before our family imploded. A scalloped white border frames a partial view of the living room of our house on First Street, where BL perches on the edge of a couch I never knew. This BL is dark-haired and thin, much younger and more attractive than I can remember him being, and he stares down at newborn me—swaddled and propped at an awkward angle, half on his lap, half hanging from the crook of an elbow. With his downcast eyes and that oily cowlick spilling over his forehead, he looks sheepish. I’ve wondered if, at the very moment my mother pressed the shutter on the camera, he was planning his escape, his mind busied with lists and packing, readying to shove off and leave our family.
This photograph—the only one I have of the two of us—is part of a series. My nine-year-old sister, my mother, then my mother’s mother poses with me-the-newborn. My face is obscured by the tightly wrapped blanket, but each of theirs is pointed directly at the camera; no one is smiling.
While the precise details of this joyless photo shoot are unknown to me, I can construct enough of a story from another of my mother’s, one that I don’t remember ever not knowing. I think I knew it even before I was born, that my body developed around this story and embedded it within my cells and tissue. This story begins with my mother’s being hugely pregnant—“as big as a house with you”— when she makes the unfortunate discovery that my father is “seeing someone else.” Since the tale was always as familiar as my own hands, I never had to ask for a retelling, or for clarification and a few more specifics (for example, how did my mother determine the identity of the other woman?); I knew how my stomach would have clenched, seeing my mother’s lips thinned into a straight line of accusation aimed, it seemed, directly at me. But I didn’t know what would invite my mother to insert this narrative into everyday conversation, what might make her suddenly go hurtling down memory lane toward the expected but abrupt dead end—much like the one outside our house where First Street suddenly petered out without a barrier, not even a reflective warning, into the tangle of low-hanging trees and scrubby brush alongside Cottonwood Creek.
“And there I was after all those years. On my own. With a nine-year-old little girl. And a baby.”
My mother would punctuate this with her hands splayed in front of her, palms outstretched and empty. Mouth twisted to one side, gray eyes widened, she’d slowly shake her head to indicate how dumbfounded she remained, no matter how many years separated her from those two conjoined events: finding she was pregnant after so many years of trying for a second child, followed almost immediately by my father’s betrayal and abandonment. If my mother’s mystified head-turning did not signal closure, the gesture suggested resignation, perhaps, an ending to the story for her, however unsatisfying. Yet there you were. Here I am still, apparently, her story in my hands now as if it belongs to me.
I’ve examined this story a thousand times over the years, turning it over and trying to look at it with unbiased eyes. But its truth was obvious: BL had left town and taken with him the “other woman,” a former Miss Texas runner-up who’d most recently been employed as my father’s secretary. She’d “hooked him like a fish,” as my mother put it, always sucking at her teeth, marveling at her stupidity, while I visualized a woman with silvery fishhooks for hands.
If I’ve entertained myself by imagining that I call up BL, or corner him at some excruciatingly awkward “family” get-together, and request a quick verification of a few of the finer points, I haven’t gotten very far with those fantasies. I’ve never had access to the precise words necessary for asking what it is I think I want to know. How do you ask how it was when, fifteen years later, exactly—one month after I’d turned fifteen—that second wife with the fishhook hands caught another man? Now it’s too late to schedule the interview. BL is gone—genuinely dead, this time.
* * *
My sister is napping, her mouth slightly open, her head on a pillow propped against the passenger-side window of this blood-red rental. I admire her ease in drifting off, regardless of location or conditions—such a useful skill! I’ve been trying to remember when I was very young and my sister and I slept in the same room, in matching white French provincial twin beds, but that was such a narrow span of years. It’s easier to recall our sharing that bedroom as middle-aged women in the early spring of 2000, when our mother was dying. In the white house on First Street, we kept the days tidy and orderly to comfort our mother, but also each other, and held tightly to our familiar circle of three. Gradually, all those hours structured by the quotidian were stripped, pared down to the essential, completely emptied, finally, when, all too soon, that circle suddenly contracted and our mother let go.
* * *
How our mother had stayed in Bay City after the divorce, I don’t know. Everything about everyone was common knowledge in that too-small town, and my family’s difference was obvious. If BL had been dead, that would have been one thing, but in the early 1960s, the reasons for his perpetual absence were not common or relatable. I knew only one other kid in elementary school, Carolina Simmons, whose father was also “somewhere else,” and whose mother, like mine, worked as a secretary. Carolina had no siblings, which felt much the same as my having the one sister so much older and already in college by the time I was eight. But Carolina lived with her mother and her grandparents on the outskirts of town in a ranch house filled with overstuffed chintz and painted portraits of family members; they looked like a family. Drawn together by the recognition of our otherness, our marked difference from other classmates, Carolina and I spent hours turning over the few clues we had about our fathers, until the summer I was going on ten, when BL was passing through town one hot afternoon and thought to call up and take me for a Coke. Then Carolina and I began to imagine making long distance calls to these fathers we found so mysterious. The main problem (of many) with this was that we didn’t know where hers was.
It seems to me that whenever I spent the night at Carolina’s—infinitely better than sleepovers at my house because her grandmother offered a staggering variety of junk food and sugary breakfast options—the reassuring figure of her grandfather was always visible, frequently astride a John Deere riding lawn mower, a cigar in his mouth. He’d drive Carolina to my house with her bike in the back of his Jeep, then return later and, with no complaints, wait until she was ready to go home; he helped with the construction of elaborate dioramas and paper mache projects for school, including a particularly impressive two-foot bright-blue whale I remember I admired immensely.
If my mother worried about my friendship with Carolina, I don’t think her concern was from serious consideration of what trouble two fatherless daughters might find to get into together. That was part of a much more complicated subject that my mother and I never discussed.
At fifteen Carolina ran off with a twenty-five-year-old Vietnam vet, and I’ve often wondered what became of her, if she ever found out where her father was and called him up, as we’d imagined. I know Carolina’s mother married twice more, and to whom—this was Bay City, after all, and for years, my mother was still there on First Street to gather news and provide updates. I’d thought I was escaping from that town when I drove off two days after my high school graduation, desperate enough to have pre-registered for college classes that summer. Even today, seeing the name of that town on the map, I can remember the visceral relief of pulling away from the white house all those years ago, the Eagles blasting from the rolled-down windows, and the old silver Impala packed with everything I thought I wanted. It was years before I wondered what my mother must have felt, standing in the driveway and watching me go, waving until I had turned the corner and was out of sight.
But I think I know why my mother stayed in Bay City in 1960, when, “overnight,” she found herself a divorced woman with a whiny nine-year-old and a colicky newborn, unable to get a credit card, even, because without a husband she suddenly had no value: she had nowhere else to go. She’d settled into that small coastal town at twenty-two—a newlywed—then eleven years later, she stayed because that’s where she’d made home; her displacement was not a physical one. I can close my eyes right now and effortlessly situate myself in that house on First Street: It’s always summer and I’m always alone (although obviously neither can be true); my skin smells of chlorine from the public pool where I take swim lessons. The house wears that scent all its own, a blend of pork roast, pine cleaner, and my mother’s White Shoulders, a bottle always on the stout mahogany dresser, its image reflected in the curved mirror. The quiet in those darkened, chilled rooms is thick and heavy, the Venetian blinds and drapes shut tight for as much protection as possible from the sun’s heat and the town’s gossip, and the only light in the living room comes from the flickering television and those three small rectangle windows in the front door, stair steps pointing the way of escape—out onto the front porch with its single wrought iron post, through the thick green St. Augustine, into the street. A heavy drone-like silence, never quite dissipated by the canned laughter of television reruns or the tinny country-western tunes on the kitchen radio turned low; the brass door chimes in the hallway, three dangling cylinders of varying lengths that make a cacophony of clanking brass when accidentally struck; the hollow echoes of the black rotary phone on its built-in shelf, jangling too suddenly, too loudly, jarring everyone’s nerves.
What I didn’t know until after my mother died and we started sifting through all her things was that BL had designed that house on First Street. When the rolled-up plans were discovered in the attic, I’d immediately recognized his engineer-precise handwriting, and then, almost supernaturally, as if summoned into presence, there was BL a few days later, in the living room with us in our recently deceased mother’s house, sitting in her chair. Again I unrolled the plans, offering them to him along with a university yearbook also unearthed; I’d located his photo in that year’s junior class and bookmarked the page to show him who he was all those years ago.
Here’s the contradiction I’ve always intuited, I suppose: Loss isn’t always merely the regrettable absence of what’s gone missing. Sometimes a shadowy but distinct presence sticks around, a thin, specious incarnation of its former self, a malingering Might-Have-Been taking up residence within some abrupt vacancy. There, the negligent Ne’er-Do-Well grows quite at home, subsisting on others’ words and stories. And then loss—that shady, lazy revenant—may prove itself both surprisingly dependable and constant.
He’d learned of our whereabouts from his sister, our aunt with whom my sister stays in touch, and he wanted something from us. He looked much the same as the last time I’d seen him, almost ten years before, dressed in one of his old-man onesies, a light-blue zippered jumpsuit, with a strangely formal pair of cordovan-colored dress shoes.
He was too at ease in that living room, sprawled in my (dead) mother’s chair. He took little interest in any of what we had to show him, not even the yearbook, which turned out never to have belonged to him at all but to my mother’s brother who was also at the university that year. And while he remembered sitting at a kitchen table “somewhere else” and drawing out the footprint of this house to be built on First Street, he’d lost interest in this home and its contents long ago.
We are descending into the tornado-shaped part of the state, and the landscape flattens as mesquite and scrub replace the live oaks of the hill country we’ve left behind this morning. We have another five or six inches to travel on the road map.
I could say that my sister and I are dutiful daughters, trying to do the right thing after a parent’s death. But we know we’re making this long journey for my mother, who’ll be invisible in the pew beside us at BL’s viewing tomorrow, unnoticed by whoever else shows up. I’ll wear that silver bracelet of hers and we’ll imagine her holding her two girls firmly in her arms.
We find our way to Route 77, a straight black line on the map descending through the King Ranch. To the east and west of that vast property, the state begins to narrow, forming a long, distended triangle—a swirling funnel, I imagine, that will suck this red van into the sky and spin us southwards for another hour and a half.