Saturday night I drove out to the hinterlands around Universal City and Converse for the cast and crew preproduction mixer at Robin and Kevin's place.
I finally had a chance to see the sound-booth Kevin made in the garage. There is still room to squeeze in one car. A small car. By the rest has been walled off to make an editing suit / sound-studio, complete with a plexiglas window looking onto a soundproof sound booth that's more cozy than cramped. Very impressive.
There must have been 25 cast and crew, as well as parents of the child actors. We all took turns giving our names and our character or crew position.
Our sound man, Rudolfo showed up a bit late. And after he and his wife Miriam had said their hellos all around, Russ cleared his throat.
“Rudolfo, you came in a bit late. But we all took turns introducing ourselves and sang our favorite song.”
No one in the room made a sound.
Rudolfo was standing by the door. He took a moment, and said: “My name is Rudolfo, and, I hope you don't mind if I sing in Spanish.”
He sang a couple of bars, before interrupting himself.
“You'll excuse me singing to my wife. It's a serenade.”
He returned to the song, directing it sweetly and softly to Miriam who was sitting cross-legged on the floor. After about two verses, he trailed off. “It gets a bit–” He searched for the word. “Racy?”
We all laughed.
Miriam shot to her feet. A few people tried to explain it was all just a joke, that none of us had actually sang. But she wasn't listening. After some thought, she launched into something so appallingly '70s, that I've purged it from my memory cache. Olivia Newton-John? Karen Carpenter? Whatever, it had me grinning. They came to play. I like that.
Tim and Anne Gerber showed up. I hadn't known that Anne was even in the production until someone had told me the day previous. Anne's presence can only help any film. She's cast as the character whose motivations are poorly realized in the script. I'm glad Robin brought her on. Anne will add considerable depth to her character. Also, Anne mentioned that her mother occasionally reads my blog. Apparently to see what's going on in San Antonio. She lives, I believe, in Toledo. If you're reading this, Anne's mom, howdy. Your little girl continues to take this town by storm. I guess the only thing keeping her from hitting the boards on Broadway or basking the lime-lit studios of Hollywood, is the hubby's firm commitment to KSAT TV. Oh, well. I guess some people need to act responsibly. What I mean, is, children, please, don't take a page from my life's playbook.
The desperate lifestyle of the perennially unemployed has, today, reduced me to experiment with the culinary nuances of oatcakes. This afternoon was cold, cloudy, and I had no desire to venture out. Beside, I'd blown my budget this morning on 2 dollars worth of typing paper at the Dollar General Store. So, as I checked the larder, I noticed I still had an ample supply of oat groats. At 79 cents a pound, you can't go wrong. I pulse them in an electric coffee grinder for steel cut oats. But I'm always intrigued with the rustic foodstuffs. Oatcakes? What are they, really? A quick internet search came up with a rock-bottom basic peasant version. Oat flour. Water. Mix. Cook. Yeah. That sounds promising. So I lean on the button of my coffee grinder, until the groats are a powder. Add a bit of water. Make a paste similar to corn masa for tortillas. Then I shape out a thin patty and toast it on a cast iron skillet at medium heat for, I don't know, maybe three minutes a side. It's surprisingly flavorful, even unadorned. Come summer, I think I'll try them with fresh mango and pineapple drizzled in lime juice.
Shit, I think I just managed to make romantic the image of me gnawing away like some species of Glaswegian rodent on a roundel of toasted oat paste.
At least I got a call around 4pm from Russ. He's just finished the first day at his new teaching gig at the Harlandale arts magnet highschool, AKA, The Film School of San Antonio. The campus is located a few miles south of me. And as he still lives way up north in New Braunfels, he called to invited me to a late lunch, while the rush hour traffic subsided. Actually, I was hoping he's do just that, and had gone easy on the oatcake action.
Tito's Tacos makes some kick-ass enchiladas. Just ask young Cooper Barnstrom. They load up the sauce with just the right amount of oregano. And the salsa on the side is positively addictive.
Russ mentioned the absurd ease with which he could take over the entire film department. A bloodless coup. Department head George Ozuna and colleague Dagoberto Patlan were absent. Sundance, I believe. Whatever…. Anyway, it was the time to strike. But he faltered. This is awfully early to show weakness, I thought, but I held my tongue. Hell, the guy was paying for my enchiladas.
After stuffing myself, I headed to Gemini Ink, for their monthly free writing group. I had prepared myself with ten copies of the piece on which I wanted feedback. This explains my trip earlier in the day to the Dollar General Store.
The rules are simple. No more than 4 pages, double spaced. (Actually, I hit them with 1.5 spaces — double space makes me feel like I'm reading Weekly World News headlines (and, on a good day, the content of my stuff makes me feel that as well).)
The turnout was the largest I'd yet seen. Tonight was my third or fourth visit. We had ten people in all, including me and the guy who runs the event. What a stroke of luck.
As often is the case, there were some strong writers, and some who were struggling (and not always aware of the fact). There was only one participant I recognized from previous visits. He's an older guy, and he has a strong, uncompromising voice. His work is dense and challenging. He speaks favorably of Dreiser and Rabassa (the great translator from Spanish into English).
Eventually the group leader began to squirm like we were going long. I was the next person to read, and he mentioned something about how those who didn't get a chance, would be placed at the top of the list for next month. I followed his eyes, and realized that there was a clock on the wall behind me.
Someone spoke before I had a chance.
“The web site says we meet from 6:30 until 8:30.” It was eight o'clock.
“Really?” the leader asked, dubiously.
I and half a dozen others agreed with the protester. And thus, I was allowed to read my four pages. I'll stuff it in the body of this blog entry. Those incurious can tune out now. Nothing new to see here. Just move alone.
I mainly wanted the folks at the table to let me know if I was making a huge blunder in my attempts to write first person in the voice of a 40 year old woman. So, here we go, the first 1600 words of a current novel in progress:
They don't like the processed inmates hunkered down by the front gates, and I sure as hell didn't want to be hanging out there. I had already arranged to meet my ride in front of the old train station on the Gatesville town square. I had on what I came in with. Black denim holds up pretty well in a dry-cleaning bag for 17 years. The jeans fit tight at the hips and my jacket, in the shoulders. I'd got a bit fat, I guess. Also, put on some muscle. My watch needed tightening one hole back. And my Doc Martins seemed a bit loose. The yellow canvas courier bag slung over my shoulder was empty. I had some money, not a lot, in my pocket. That was it. Not even a drivers license. Strange, I was free. Walking on the streets, a free woman, and not a single piece of identification.
I'd been a longtime resident in this city–just on the outskirts–and I knew nothing about it. Some of the girls, who'd been in and out, drilled the routine in my head. Left at the gates, three miles to the courthouse, a left and a right. The train station, now a museum. It had plenty of parking. No one ever visited the museum. The perfect place for a friend or relative to take you … wherever. Away.
I sat on a woodrailed green bench and waited for my cousin, Frank. And I kept my eyes just to the left of the bank sign that told me the time (3:23 pm) and the temperature (87 degrees). People would occasionally stroll past. I don't know what cues they might have to work with, but I have no doubt my history was laid bare. They see us all the time, awkward, pale, and broken-hearted. Happy for being outside? Sure. I guess. But there are other things you feel that aren't about liberation. There is that absolute certainty that not a single citizen of this town could confuse you for someone normal, someone good.
Frank showed up at the arranged time. Three-thirty. He'd not changed a bit. Always reliable. I bet he circled the square a couple of times before angling into the parking slot. At first I thought he was driving the same battered pickup truck he'd had back when, but on closer inspection, I knew it was a newer model. He got out, grinning, and came around to my bench just as I was standing up. He grabbed me in a hug and spun me around a couple of times. We were never that close, and had hardly spoken or written in the last 17 years. But he had put a five year stint here at Gatesville back when I was a teenager . So, I guess we had a connection. Also, I could smell beer on him. Beer always made him happy.
“Janie! You haven't changed a bit.”
I didn't believe a word of it. But he was pretty much as I remembered him. Stick-thin, Buddy Holly glasses, a weeks-worth of stubble, and a paint-splattered flannel shirt over a heavy metal t-shirt. He had wrinkles around his eyes, now, when he smiled. I liked that. And he had flakes of grey in his hair and his beard. I liked that too.
“So, you want a drink?”
“You got a cooler?” I asked, assuming it to be a rhetorical question.
“Huh? Oh, no. I was thinking a bar.”
“I forgot. So, let's get the fuck out of town. Place gives me the creeps.”
We never did stop for a drink. For the best, really. That was a vice I wasn't keen on falling back into.
It took us about fifteen minutes to catch up on the last 17 years, and after that, the rest of the two hour drive up I-35 was pretty much quiet.
Somewhere near the Midlothian exit, Frank asked if mom was expecting me.
“Yeah. I mean, I guess. She knows I'm getting out today. Where else does she think I'll go?”
“Maybe we should pull off and call.”
I shook my head.
“Charlie's not going to let you stay there,” Frank said softly.
“I don't know anything about the guy. He's not even married to her.”
“She does what he says, pretty much. And he's doesn't think kindly towards you. He's military, you know that? And to listen to him talk, you'd think he's still in uniform.”
Momma never had any money. We were poor growing up. She worked for an impound lot, doing all the paperwork — still does, in fact. She calls herself a secretary, but she pretty much runs the place.
She didn't have the money or the time to come down and visit me often at the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville Prison. After the first year, we came to an agreement. She would come twice a year. My birthday and her birthday. None of that holiday crap. That was when the visiting room most crowded … and sad. Especially at Christmas.
It was on one of her visits about four years ago, that my mother first mentioned Charlie. I was thrilled that she'd found a man she cared for. The only guy I remembering her with all throughout my childhood was Lanny. He was a permanent fixture in our lives from when I was about nine until I was twelve. He wrote art history textbooks and taught at Texas Wesleyan University. He made me laugh and my mother blush. In the summer of 1978 he parked his car, an old Nash Rambler, at the shore of Lake Worth, and he shot himself in the head. No one ever knew why.
But even though I was happy for my mother, Charlie didn't sound the sort of man who would ever make her blush. Or me laugh.
Momma shed a few tears as we embraced on the porch. The house had a new coat of paint, a pale orange that made me sick to my stomach. The huge pecan tree in the front yard was no longer there, not even a stump. She didn't invite me inside, and things weren't looking good. Frank slipped by us and I could heard him talking to someone inside. A couple of minutes later, Frank came out sipping on a tall boy. He straddled the weathered wooden railing and looked across toward the Hulen Street bridge over Vickery. The sun had just dropped behind it.
“You should have called,” said the large man who followed Frank outside. He was pale as a corpse. Balding with a buzz cut, and more solid than fat. He wore khaki trousers with pressed seams and a peach guayabera shirt. “She's been fretting all day.” He extended his hand and said his name was Charlie. We shook.
I just went ahead and blurted it out.
“Momma, I need a place to stay.”
She stiffened and turned from me.
“Not going to happen, little lady,” Charlie said with a cardboard smile as he looked straight into my eyes.
I felt my throat clamp up, but I did not cry.
“Doesn't she had some say?” I whispered.
“Your mother and me have been all over this. We are of one mind.”
Momma turned to me, wiping her nose on her sleeve.
“I assumed you'd be staying with Frank until you got on your feet,” she said.
Frank was in mid-guzzle and he almost choked. He held up his hand until he swallowed. Then he placed the can on the rail.
“Fraid the state of Texas'd have some issues with that,” he said with a smile.
Charlie nodded. “Guess felon with felon would be violating little missy's parole.”
“I've served my time,” I said, meeting Charlie's eyes full on. “There's no parole.”
“Janie's right there,” Frank said. “She's free and clear. It's me that'd be in violation.” He turned to me. “Sorry, kid. Thirteen more months.”
I let momma buy me a couple of tacos al pastor at a little taquaria I used to love. They tasted exactly as I remembered.
We sat, just the two of us, at a table outside the little shack of a restaurant as the sun sank.
“I don't have any place to go,” I told her, looking at the tabletop. “What the fuck is his problem?”
She shushed me, looking nervously around, but we were the only people there.
“I mean, he let Frank go in and help himself to the refrigerator. Grand theft auto. Possession with intent to distribute. And whatever Frank's done that has him on probation. What makes me the pariah?”
Momma looked at the street as the cars sped by.
“Charlie thinks that your crime was … more egregious.” She turned to me with a strained smile. “That's him talking, honey. That's him talking.”
She gathered up my paper plate, napkin, and styrofoam cup and placed them in a trash barrel.
“You still have Sammie. She'll put you up until you get a place.”
I never remembered my mother being that weak. She gave me some money and drove me about a mile down Vickery to a seedy motel I'd never have visited even at the lowest ebb of my miss-spent youth.