Part 2: THE FATHER Chapter 1
My Father sat on one of the seats of the concrete picnic table inside the steel wigwam.
Technically, the roadside rest arbor was a metal teepee because it was a large upside down cone. Wigwams are also cone-shaped sometimes... but they are usually huts that are shaped like half of an upside down peanut shell, and they are permanent homes whereas tepees on the other hand, are portable dwellings.
He glanced over at our 1956 Ford Fairlane that was parked at the curb that bordered the asphalt parking lot about thirty feet away. He’d opened the hood of the car to the air but since we’d only been there for a few minutes there were still tufts of steam hissing and spitting up from the radiator. The car was not that old really but the day was pretty hot. Texas is known to be one of the three hottest states in the US, so even south Texas, which is where we were still, gets pretty hellish. My father surmised that the thermostat had gone bad and gotten stuck in the closed position and was failing to properly regulate the flow of water through the engine block and that was what had caused the car to overheat. Fortunately, we were only a few miles away from the rest area when the dial of the temperature gauge started slapping all the way over into the red, so we had a convenient place to pull in and park until the engine cooled down enough for my father to remove the thermostat.
Those tepee rest areas were scattered everywhere along the highways and byways once upon a time in Americana. This particular example of cultural misappropriation was two-toned brown and white and decorated with quasi authentic Native American symbols that more resembled the figures one might see on the traffic signs at crosswalks or in a child’s grade school coloring and sketch pad. And some culprit or culprits had helped themselves to a section of the perforated metal sheeting that skinned the tepee on the side facing away from the highway so that this particular rest arbor offered little real relief from the sun and heat in addition to the fact that it provided no water.
As soon as we’d parked almost, my father and mother discovered that there was not a fountain or spigot or nada, and my mother was thirsty- a lot in her pregnancy. There was however an outhouse: a real live made out of wood outhouse that looked so old that probably it had been cobbled together by settlers or hammered together by the cavalry with the butts of their revolvers and maybe even Davy Crockett had shat in it on his way to the Alamo. And this particular, old decrepit shitter appeared so disgusting that likely even the Black Widow Spiders that normally abide upside down on the underside of the wooden seats of such hoary commodes had abandoned it for a better shitter... or something somewhere... if there was one. And of course, from her much consuming of liquids, my mother needed to pee.
My father realized quickly enough, unfortunately that if he was to replenish the H20 in the radiator and engine block that he would have to do so from the supply of water that had been brought along for me and my mother and him to drink. And there wasn’t really all that much of that. We had one of those old red ice chests that was made out of metal and had a vector type, star graphic on the side next to the word “Thermaster” written in a streamlined fancy cursive. There was some ice and melted ice water still in the cooler and a couple of old thermos type jugs in the trunk of the car... and that was about it.
“How far is it to Llano?” my mother asked. She really did not want to go out into the brush and drop her drawers and squat behind a bush.
“A good ways still.’ My father said. “About ninety miles.”
“That’s not so bad.” My mother said not believing her own words cause she had to go. “We could take a detour and head over to Fredericksburg.”
“That’d put us closer to Interstate 10,” he said. “The way we’re going is faster.”
“If we get there.” My mother said glancing back at the car. The steam had almost stopped rising by then, there was only the occasional hiss, like that perhaps of an old cat missing some of its teeth but recalling that it is the responsibility of a feline to spit now and then.
“It’s just the thermostat.” My father reassured her. “Once the engine cools down enough, I can take it out in thirty minutes tops.”
“If it doesn’t get too dark.” She said fretfully touching her stomach. My mother was not generally a worrisome woman but the new life in her belly had given her new cause.
“It’ll be fine.” My father said: not typically one to assuage or mollify but in the teeth of our present circumstance, prompted by his own new cause. “But you’re going pee here whether you like it or not.”
I, per usual, was want to explore and even though my father had instructed me not to get too far away from the tepee while he and my mother chewed over the family’s situation, I’d managed to wander off far enough that I could no longer see them or hear them; and they, of course absorbed in their parental convo about our predicament, could no longer see or hear me.
So naturally, that’s when I found the snake... or snakes as it turned out.
In the failing light, I thought that the first serpent I saw was a stick, a small tree limb or something because it was sort of a dirty, reddish brown color and mottled. But then it moved, kind of dramatically, and I realized it was being swallowed by another snake, a much more colorful serpent- a red, yellow and black serpent- a Texas Coral-snake.
I had seen one before so I realized almost immediately what I was looking at, but also because of the rhyme I’d been taught: “Red and yellow kill a fellow! Red and black friend of Jack!” The Texas Coral and Corn Snakes are similar enough in appearance to be confused for one another. The Coral Snake is poisonous. The Corn Snake is not. The Texas Coral Snake has red and black rings that touch one another- the Corn Snake does not.
“Momma!” I shouted. “Daddy”. But they did not hear me. “There’s a snake over here eating another snake.”
All I had to do was turn around and walk, or run back to the tepee but I was too fascinated at the macabre struggle for life and death that I had stumbled upon, so I just stood and watched. I didn’t yell for my parents anymore. It didn’t really matter. I was in no danger. There was no way that the Coralsnake could bite me since he had a Copperhead down his throat just a couple or three inches from its anus by then. That’s when I saw the Indian.
I just glanced up, for no reason it seemed, and there he was, standing in the shadow a Live Oak tree or maybe it was a Spanish Oak, I don’t really remember. I just know it wasn’t a mesquite tree. And I assumed he was an Indian or the ghost of one anyway. It could have been a Mexican, a Bracero maybe that had come to Texas either legally or illegally and had died for some reason, somehow out here in the middle of nowhere, or was murdered and his ghost still walked the earth... but it wasn’t. It looked more like a Black man than a Mexican. A lot of Native Americans had Negroid facial features. It was not uncommon at all.
I wasn’t afraid of him at first but then he started walking toward me. I am not certain if his approach was menacing or not but I got goosebumps on my arms and the hairs on the back of my neck began to stand up. He was mostly naked and I could tell that his body had been battered and bruised. It looked as if his face was caked in dry, white mud, cracked and peeling like a parched creek bed. I wondered what had killed him and remembered what Paulina Frost had told me about how some ghosts were unable to free themselves from the place where they had died.
And that it is when it struck me... This was not a place I wanted to die.
I had already, at that tender young age, grasped the concepts of infinity and eternity: I knew they went on forever and ever without end... whatever that meant. And I also knew then, at that moment, that there were always going to be places where I just did not want to die.
“What are you doing out here?” my father said.
“I was just...” I stammered. “Looking around.”
The ghost of the dead Indian had vanished and I would never see him again, though he would appear in my dreams a few times after that, as enigmatically as he had appeared to me in the woods.
“I found a Coral-snake eating another snake.” I said and pointed to the ground where I had seen them. They were still there.
My father reached down and snatched the Coral-snake up by the tail and lifted it and looked at it. “It’s a Copperhead,” my father said. “They’re both poisonous.”
It sort of seemed like the Copperhead had managed to back itself out of the Coral-snake’s throat a few inches, but I doubt that is possible.
My father studied the two snakes for a few seconds, maybe a minute, curiously, and then drew his arm back and swung them hard against the trunk of tree once and then again to make certain that both of them were dead.
“They are both poisonous.” He repeated. “C’mon. Let’s get going.”
It’s almost like I had experienced an unaccounted for lapse of time. The engine in the Ford had cooled and my father had removed the faulty thermostat and we were ready to get back on the road. And it seemed much darker than it should’ve been.
Before long we would be in Llano, Texas and we would replenish our supply of water. My father would not replace the defective thermostat immediately. There were no auto parts stores open in the small town by the time we got there and the car was doing fine without it. We would stop at a Stuckey’s restaurant and I would order a hamburger and my mother would have some soup, I think, if I remember correctly. My father would just eat a Pecan Praline, one of the things that Stuckey’s was known for, and drink coffee. He wanted to drive all night to avoid the heat on account of the car, for one thing, and he was also eager to get to Odessa as soon as possible for another. My mother and I would take turns sleeping in the back.
I dreamt the weirdest dream. It was like something out of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. My father and my mother and I were all naked and standing at the edge of the ocean or something like that, and this whale came up out of the infinite water on two legs and leaned over and swallowed my father, headfirst. I remember seeing the whale’s open mouth descend down over my father’s body.
There is this bizarre theory, called the Phantom Time Hypothesis. This dude put forth this idea that in reality it is the year 1720- that we are not in the 21st century at all. That’s on account of the fact that the Middle Ages were faked... according to Herbert Illig’s theory. The Catholic Church wanted the Anno Domini to place them in AD 1000 or something like that.
Some folks still believe that the United States faked the moon landing.
Some folks believe that everybody has a doppelganger- an exact duplicate somewhere in the world or other places.
And here’s a good one: some folks believe that that all our memories were created last Thursday- literally the Thursday past, a week ago Thursday. It’s called “Last Thursdayism”. Mostly the people who believe that are the ones living in the hollow core of the Earth.