Lockjaw and Rattlesnakes

Maybe two weeks back I’d encountered my former neighbor, Alex. I’d been strolling along the riverwalk, dodging the tourists and idly snapping pictures with my little digital camera. As I was about to walk under the Augusta Street bridge near the downtown library, I heard someone call my name. It was Alex. He was sitting up on a little region of tier benches halfway up to the street level. He and an old black man were eating hot dogs and drinking sodas. I headed up. Alex introduced me to Mr. Wilkins. I shook the man’s hand. He wore worn and cracked army surplus boots, a moth-eaten pea coat, and an orange knit cap.

“He’s staying over at the SAMM shelter until he gets on his feet,” Alex told me. The man finished the final bite of his hot dog and wiped his fingers and mouth with a napkin which he then placed in his coat pocket. It was mid-January, but, as is often in San Antonio in the winter, quite warm when the sun is out. I thought he must be roasting in that coat.

“Mr. Wilkins played drums for Lightnin’ Hopkins,” Alex said softly, turning to Wilkins with a deferent smile of respect.

“Weren’t nothing more than three months at best,” Wilkins said with a slow and easy East Texas draw. “Back in 1953. Know the year, ’cause that’s when I joined up with the Army.”

Wilkin’s pulled a half-smoked plastic-tipped cigarillo from a shirt pocket and fired it up with a butane lighter.

Alex asked what I had been up to.

I began my current patter of unemployment and poverty, but quickly cut myself off when I looked up to see Mr. Wilkins screw the cap back on his bottle of soda and slip it in his coat pocket to be enjoyed later.

I faltered mid-sentence and changed the subject.

But I guess Alex must have registered my unfortunate financial state, because it wasn’t too long before I got call from him asking if I’d like to help him tear down a barn on his brother’s land out in the country. “It pays a hundred dollars a day. We’re thinking it’s a three day job.” That sounded like two days more than I was capable of putting up with Alex’s manic moods, and I could tell from his voice that he was running turbo-charged at the moment. “Hey,” he added, “we get free room and board.” When he paused for breath, I said, yes, I would do it. He laughed as though that last bit of sweetening the pot had put me over — but the fact was, I had no other idea of how to get enough cash to make my landlady happy, and the end of the month was coming up fast.

The next day Alex stopped by my house early in the morning. He looked hungover as hell, which was fine by me. It kept him subdued. And I like subdued in the morning. He muttered something about how his thirty year old Volvo might not be the best choice of vehicle, so we took my pickup truck. I’d already prepared a thermos of sweet black coffee.

“We’re going to Uvalde,” Alex said. “Take the highway to Castroville, and keep going.”

As I got onto highway 90 and headed west, Alex made his way gratefully through two cups of my coffee. It put life back into him. In fact, it chiseled off enough of the rough edges of hangover so that he could get some shut eye. He curled up like a baby, clutching the pillow he had brought along. He had ducked his head under the shoulder strap of his seat belt so that it brushed his ear, but he seemed not to notice it. I found his soft snores soothing as I sipped coffee and headed into the scrub brush barrens of the lowest reaches of the Texas Hill Country.

Alex’s brother, Francisco, is a doctor, but I have never talked to him long enough to find out what sort of medicine he practices. He’d bought a little ranch along the Nueces River, about thirty miles north of Uvalde. The property fronted the river and moved back maybe a mile and a half into the low hills up from the river valley. It was lovely and lonely. Prickly pear cactus, low mesquite tress, and a little clump of squat cedar trees surrounded by a field of prairie grass.

When me and Alex turned off highway 55 and rolled over the cattle guard at the entrance to the property we saw a doublewide trailer at the end of a caliche road. There was a gleaming SUV parked out front. When I rolled up beside the trailer, the door opened, Francisco, his Italian wife, and their five year old daughter, Martina, came out smiling.

Alex had told me that his brother brought the property a year ago. He wanted to build a proper house as a vacation home. “All they’ve got is a trailer right now, and he’s too embarrassed to invite his friends to come out and stay in a fucking trailer. Can you beat that?”

Francisco, Lena, and Martina invited us inside for lunch. We all had pasta salad and some sort of seafood bisque. I could see that Francisco and his wife were playfully dismissive of Alex — he being one of the black sheep of the family — but Martina absolutely loved him. In fact, the little girl was crushed when her parents announced that they all were going to head out to Lost Maples State Park, a few miles north. But we, Francisco asked in the form of a statement, we would know what we were supposed to do? Right?

Alex nodded, of course. He told them not to worry. Enjoy their afternoon.

As the family went about loading picnic items into their SUV, I followed Alex down a path and over a hill and came upon a humble shack. Not a barn, nor a cabin. Something in between. It possessed a rustic beauty and I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to destroy this building.

“Well,” Alex explained, “they say it’s infested with black widows, rattlesnakes, and rusty nails infected with tetanus. They worry about Martina. You know how it is.” He led me to a pile of tools and handed me a twenty-pound sledgehammer and he took the largest crowbar I had ever seen. “Where do you think we should begin?”

“What?” I asked. “But you’ve done this before, right?”

“No experience necessary, man,” he said with a grin. “We’re tearing down, not building up.”

I entered to see what we were up against. There was no foundation, and that was good. A dirt floor. One entrance. Inside there were three rooms. The pitched a-frame roof was visible, as there was no proper ceiling. The walls that divided the rooms were more like horse stalls with very high sides. Rooms as cubicles. Two wooden pillars helped to support the roof beam. They were fixed into the ground with concrete, as were the four wooden corner posts.

Alex seemed under the impression that we’d hook up my truck to these center posts and pull the whole place down and then smash the boards into small pieces with the sledgehammer.

“That’d stretch it out to three days, right?” he asked.

“What don’t we just douse it with gas and torch it?” I mused.

“No fucking way,” he hissed, looking around like someone had heard me. “That’s the obvious, of course. But we’d be out of here tomorrow. It’s a hundred dollars a day, man. A day!”

I told him we’d need to remove every board from the outer and inner walls, and every board in the roof. At the end of each day, we could make a bonfire of the pulled boards. “‘Cause if your brother’s afraid of spiders and snakes, a big pile of lumber is just as bad — probably worse.” And then, and only then, we could drag down the supports.

Alex was nodding excitedly.

“That’s why I brought you along. You see the big picture. This is exactly what we need to do. And now you’re making it into a four day job. Maybe five! Brilliant!”

Alex was wrong. It was a three day job. Well, three and a half, if you count our first day.

It was quite an ordeal. And, indeed, we found a few rattlesnakes (one buried his fangs into the toe-leather of my left boot, and I dispatched the poor critter with a small ball-peen hammer). However, that little piece of Uvalde County history — that humble cedar board abode — was, as agreed by all parties, stripped down and burned, and even the rusty nails, doubtlessly pre-dating the Coolidge administration, had been yanked free, gathered, and placed in a plastic trash barrel for Francisco and his family to use in any manner they desired.

On the last night at the ranch me and Alex were tending the bonfire of the roof slats. We were both exhausted and drinking beer that we had managed to sneak past Francisco, who was strangely puritanical in these matters (or, perhaps he knew his brother too well).

I turned to Alex.

“Remember that guy, Mr. Wilkins?” I asked.

“Who?”

“Lightnin’ Hopkins.”

“Oh, right. A righteous guy. Ends up homeless. Fucked over by the American dream.”

“His one claim to fame,” I said. “Playing with Lightnin’ Hopkins. I can’t stop but to wonder if maybe there was more to his life–?”

“He was in the military. Must have killed some Japs.”

“Joined in the fifties, so he said.”

“Maybe saw action in Korea,” Alex said. And then he lowered his beer and looked to me. “What you getting at?”

“What is your Lightnin’ Hopkins story?”

“Um, I guess that’s it. That Mr. Wilkins guy.”

“No,” I said shaking my head until I could feel just how drunk I had become. “What makes your life important. You know, your mark on the world.”

“Hey, screw you,” Alex said forcing a smile, but I could see his lip trembling on the edge of irritation. “That old fuck — Wilkins was it? — was probably lying. And what do I care? I fucking hate the blues!”

The next day we drove back to San Antonio. And much like the drive out, Alex kept silent. He was dozing because of two quarts of Carta Blanca he picked up at the Shell station in Uvalde where we gassed up for the ride home. It was the one time I wished Alex was awake and chattering and full of his own brand of excitable giddy bullshit, because all I was left with was the chatter of my own mind, asking again and again, what have I done with my life … after four decades? I’m not even a bit player in the successful life of another.

As we passed Lackland Air Force Base, Alex roused himself.

“You know, I might not be Lightnin’ Hopkins’ drummer, but in February me and Billy Martin are going to do a guerilla performance art piece at the Alamo.” Alex turned to me. “You want in on the action?”

“Is any one gonna get hurt?”

“Naw,” he said, and he fluffed his pillow and twisted around to get comfy again. “But we’ll probably get arrested. Fuck. It is the Alamo. Goddamn Daughters of the Republic of Texas!”

“Sounds fun,” I said. And I smiled at Alex, but he was turned away from me. “Count me in.” I’m not sure, but I thought I could hear his soft snoring.

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