Over the Border

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II. Austin

This is the 'Woo', a dorm named Goodall Wootenon Guadalupe, the street they call 'The Drag.'Once boys only, eternally rootin' tootin--beers poured from balconies onto the headsof passers-by, and one famous residentwho'd slide down a pole in his boxer shorts;now co-ed and substance free, but low-rentstill and half-empty out of term. I am oldin this company but can stretch my moneyto a month among the manuscriptsif I can bear the noise of intimacy:next door a couple makes hours of lovewith a knocking sound and breaks the clinchat 1 a.m. for post-coital videowhose wailing sound-track is Chinese.But how few among these Texans are likethe yahoo and the red-neck we suppose them:kids of intellect, whose casual talkis subtle: two boys obsessed with tenniswait for Wimbledon to start, and measurechampions: Sampras and Agassi,Becker and Borg, Edberg and Laver:'Don't talk to me about McEnroe,' says one.'John McEnroe is something God did.'And all of them cunning with computerswith odd fields of study, the woolly aphid,the pancreas, a numbered gene, some staryou cannot see, a potentate in Siam--a boy who wants to animate, an engineerwho will make bridges so light and cheapthat famine workers will carry them in trucks.Of course, my room is ragged--two beds,a knee-high fridge, a pair of narrow desks,yellowing stucco and a ceiling fan.My balcony overlooks a basketballcourt, elevated on girders, with parkingunderneath, beyond it an alleywhere street people sleep among the trash cans.

A pay-phone at the 7-11and I am back in touch. My daughterin Frankfurt destined for the Ukraine,she is fascinated by cannot bearthe smell of smoke constantly in her hair.My step-mother numbers off the pills:warfarin that I knew as a rat poison,digoxyn, a beta-blocker, aricept,a steroid for his lungs, but radiationseems to have cleared his prostate,so the latest news is only half-bad.My amusing fiancé fears my travelswill get me put away as sick or madand of my work remarks, 'So you spendyour days reading other people's mail?'

A Gutenberg Bible and the firstphotograph (bitumen of Judeaon pewter, eight hours exposed),the desk of Edgar Allan Poe (don't touch),a picture of Marilyn reading Ulysses(doubtless striving for a shapely mind),and the walls a kind of Parnassus,after-life for poets and novelistswho sell their papers and their likenessesinto the keeping of the Texans.

'There's that ole rascal Rick Greene, one of ourre-peat customers' says Tom Best, underhis cowboy hat, first of old friends I see.Then Pat Fox, photographer, designerand amputee--she runs the Reading Room,having quit the Pentagon after a muggingin D.C.--'He struck my leg with a pipeand wondered why I didn't fall. I kept tuggingon my bag and I wouldn't let it goand he tugged and whacked till he wasbewildered by a leg that wouldn't break.I left the city and the job becauseof the risks .- But I never thought a jetwould crash just in the spot where my desk was.'Here too, I find Jim Watson, English profin a family of surgeons. His fathertrepanned a dying Thomas Wolfe in 1938,watched the fluid shoot three feet from a skullpacked with a 'myriad' of tubercles,and then he faced Julia and her clanwho in madness could only pray and accusethe doctors of killing a healthy man.After work, Jim pours me Johnny Walker Red.Tears hinted, he laments his father's goingand tells me Frost alone got it right:'Just read ."An Old Man's Winter Night.."'

Pat Fox takes me out to the Hill Country,but first we come to the double bill-boardfor micro-surgical vasectomyreversals--this on highway 290outside the town of Dripping Springs.On to Johnson City and the LBJranch and birthplace--we board a little buswhere the presidential voice speaks loudand tells us that in Hill Country we're in'a very special corner of God'sreal estate.' And why not? A sparse heavenof low hills, caves meandering in limestone,juniper and shinnery oak risingfrom thin soil beside the Coloradoand the Pedernales. We watch a filmon LBJ and the western White House,a president hurtling about his own landin a Lincoln, great sheets of splashwhen he fords a brook at reckless speed.You knew you mattered when he called you hereto watch his many televisions and inspecthis longhorns and his pricey Herefords.He is buried, with all his distress,in a family plot with a spot reservedfor Lady Bird, who in blind widowhoodhas rescued the face of the Great Statewith wildflowers that asphalt was killing:antelope horn, baby blue eyes, turkey-foot,knotty pondweed, zigzag iris,big love nolina and kidneywood,false garlic, false nightshade, false gromwell,rabbit tobacco and barometer bush--gracious additions to a legacyof civil rights won and a long war lost.

Another day brings us to the town of Huntthat stands a hundred miles from anywhereon the mind's map, farther than quaintnessthough it is quaint: the bank is a counterin the general store and the restaurantcloses for meals. No, farther--in the landof true oddness, where farmers reapa kind of lunacy with a callused hand,there is a man who took to raisingmonuments in his meadow: cubes of woodlike long coffins stand in a wide circle,some propped up, standing as a human would,supporting others laid horizontal,sprayed with concrete that would fool a druidunless he came up close and knocked forhollowness under the stone-faced plywood.A hundred swallows nest in the high placeswhere coffin on coffin makes a corner,and if anything can surprise me here,it is their sudden flight, the three arrowsof beak and tail out of an aperturein a nest of mud you didn't know was there.Around the monument are faces,all familiar, splayed noses that vanishunder a thick brow; three of them, twelve feethigh, serene where the hawks flourish.It is Easter Island in a sea of grass.In a pen across the lane alpacasare lazily grazing on the things of Texasand wondering who put them there.

The Dallas Morning News tells of Bill Pickett,the immortal cowboy who could wrestlea steer with only his teeth. As a childhe watched the ranch dogs tugging steers, bulls,calves and cows, and learned to bite the upperlip, then twist it down, no sweat at all.There he stands in the photograph, showmanwith his hands in the air and his teeth clampedon the steer's lip and the beast not knowingwhat is coming next from this rodeo champ.He made all the money he could handleand then the Wild West Show went bust.Will Rogers said everyone loved old Bill--and that may have included animals,except for the horse that kicked his skull,which, sadly, was his last unbroken bone.

At the Renaissance market at 23rdit is the summer of love again:beads strung as they do it in Ecuador,hemp necklaces, tie-dye, scented rocks,lava lip gloss, magnetic bracelets,horseshoe nail business card holders,potpourri, candles, Guatemalan hats,and the works of 'Fluteman Eric' in bamboo.I walk in a forest of gray pony tails,and marvel at their will to continuein the creed of their youth: peace and free loveand Hendricks on guitar and Kent Stateand Woodstock and My Lai and Chairman Mao.These are the flowers of 1968.

At C.C.'s coffee shop on Austin's Drag,a man sits with books and muddy papersthat he carries about in shopping bags.On a table by the sidewalk he propshis ikons and translates, or says he does,the psalms of David from ancient Hebrew.He is a man of huge emphasis,and says that the Palestinians must becrushed, and as if it fell to him, insists,'I don't like it, but they leave me no choice.'My attention wanders from this war-likescribe, and I look to the sniper's towerand imagine Charles Whitman's bullets strikeup and down the Drag as they did in sixty-six.Depression, rage, a tumour in his brain,nothing accounts for his day of madness,thirty-one wounded and fifteen slain;I'd have thought him more sane than my psalmist,marine, bank clerk, and an Eagle Scout--I'd have missed the point, until I had seenbodies, one with a bullet through his mouth.

I slip in to Mass at St Austin's Churchbeside the dorm and hear a young priestsay that today is the feast of St. Norbertwho lived nine hundred years ago;he turns to an aged concelebrant,'Father Phil knew him well.' The old man glowsand the congregation convulses.He says, 'Norbertines are an orderdedicated to pure liturgiesand when asked what they would die fortheir answer will always be elegance.'Laughter sits on the Lazarus willand the sickness of the year is less,but I think, 'Lord, the man you love is ill.'

I am in dispute with Austin's birds;at morning, a starling fights me at Starbucksfor a pastry--wins a scrap from my handand I become this small bird's Daddy Warbucks.I will feed a bluejay by the Ransom Centerbecause of loyalty to a baseball team.But under the trees I confer with a scholarwho fears my work will trespass on his themeand in the midst of diplomatic talka pigeon swoops down to bite my sandwich;I throw him the crust and he withdraws to somehigh bough and from his terrible vantagedischarges on the bald pate of the poorprofessor who mops his scalp with a hankyand goes off, still anxious and unsure.At evening I eat at a taco standwhere a grackle lets out a cruel shriekand flies at me like a Messerschmitt,nakedness of appetite in its beak.Another Mass, another priest, this onefrom Japan, describes a peasant convertwho grasped Father and Son but of the thirdasked, 'Who is this strange, honorable bird?'

Elsewhere I'd fill an evening with talkbut without work or love or televisionI am compelled in Austin to walkaway the heaviness of shapeless time,so face south towards the ColoradoRiver where the Congress Avenue Bridgepours out into the first hint of shadowa million and a half freetail batsseeking their thirty thousand poundsof bugs and flies each night to make fatthe nursing newborn 'pups' who must migrateto Mexico in the fall. From gaps inconcrete and steel they shoot like twistsof black paper in a savage windor a billowing of ash, and they are goneinto the hunting ground of residential streets.Most nights, I amble back by the Capitol,its red arches and dome of graniteall vast, as if in 1888they uttered its dimensions like a vowor statement of purpose in a placethat seemed empty, ungoverned and remote.On the grounds, the bones of memory:tributes to the Alamo, firefighting volunteers,the Texas Rangers and disabled vets,the cowboys and the female pioneers.And then the blinkered boasting for the dead--a monument to confederate comradesin what it calls 'The War Between the States.'

I see the poor men on Guadalupe:one half naked by the Baptist Churchwho sits cross-legged through the days of heat,his skin exposed but still untouchedby a sun that is furious till dusk:his legs and arms are thin but not like deathand his eyes are empty though intent .-I think of snake or grackle when I pass,as pass I must. I see another man besidethe Wells-Fargo bank, probing its machinewith folded envelope, a search for moneyin its lair. Then he forces a stick in--to no avail--and he ends by shoutingagainst the steel and striking with his fist.Another day, there is a chance to help:I come upon a woman slipping fastinto a coma, her young husband stoned,and I do the little that I may, callfor paramedics from a merchant's phone.The poor are with you always when you walk.

I wake to good-byes. The files are closedand put away--not a word more to type.An hour left, I am in the grip of ghostsand with a ten-dollar Kodak pursuefriends and strangers with a tearful snap.I am troubled by a sense of something owed,though bills are paid and no one's left to thank.I climb aboard the train, my bags are stowed,and I settle my limbs in the last seatamong the bodies headed north and east.

© Greene Richard