Joyland

The South |

The Little Pink House

by Kevin Grauke

 

The little pink house on Estacado, along with two mangy duplexes out on Coronado, belong to the late O. K. Gummer’s only surviving daughter, Irene, who packed up and moved to Lubbock a week after her husband’s funeral, so it’s Trey Newhouse of Newhouse Management (number of employees: one) who handles everything to do with her properties, rent and utilities and such, everything except upkeep and repairs. For that, she relies on her only son, Zell, who lives in a rusted-out tin can of a trailer partially hidden behind a spiny fence of cane cholla a stone’s throw south of the little pink house. If you rent from Irene and your washing machine goes on the fritz or your commode swamps your bathroom, he’ll get you fixed up, Zell will, but never as soon as you like, no matter how patient you are, and that’s due mostly to him hauling reefer freight all over the Southwest for Montez Transport.

For reasons never too clear to any of us—us being the Wednesday Lunch Ladies (or, as our husbands like to call us, the Out to Lunch Ladies, ha ha)—Zell fancies himself a modern-day Wild Bill Hickok. His hair swings against his shoulders in nasty oily ringlets, and he waxes the tips of his moustache until they’re as sharp as mesquite thorns. In a buckskin jacket that reeks of smoke and motor oil, he’ll saunter through your door without saying a word to snake a drain or replace a blown fuse, his tool belt slung low on his hips and an unlit cheroot disintegrating into black flakes between his teeth. (And let’s just be real honest now, from the get-go: Zell Beers is no friend of ours and never has been, at least not since he turned thirteen, which was when he hurled a brick through the Rexall’s window after our long-time pharmacist, Barry Peters, refused to sell him a pack of prophylactics.)

On the Friday and Saturday nights that he isn’t on the road, Zell is famous for his do-si-do with Della Valentine, the Crippled Chaparral’s muscled mountain of a bartender. To announce last call, she likes to screech Willie’s “The Party’s Over,” which scatters everyone on their various crooked ways—everyone but Zell, who, out of just pure orneriness, it seems, refuses to budge, forcing her to hook him by the belt and collar and then fling him laughing through the door and into the dirt like he’s nothing more than a fifty-pound bag of cattle feed. After then meandering home, he sometimes likes to set up whatever he can find on the limestone wall out behind his trailer—old glass telephone pole insulators, Ball jelly jars, bottles of Big Red, both empty and full—and then see what he can hit by the light of the moon with his granddaddy’s old Colt Model P, which is said to have killed at least six men, all before John Wesley Hardin got gunned down in El Paso.  

Before Irene’s husband, Colonel Wynn Beers (God rest his heroic soul), bought the little pink house on Estacado, it sat fallow for years, thanks to being the scene of the murder of its previous owner, Jack “Cracker” Graham. Not that we much minded the stabbing he got, but Lord, what a gruesome sight. If Vance McCabe hadn’t had cause—and he did, unless you consider catching a man pressing the knob of his pecker against the heinie of your eight-year-old son to be nothing to get in an uproar about—it might’ve been too much to stomach, all that blood and mutilation. By the time Vance exhausted himself, Cracker looked like he’d been worked over by a squad of buzzards. (Sheriff Gilly showed us the pictures, despite our husbands warning him not to.)

Irene would’ve loved to have sold that little pink house to one of our husbands, but none of us married any fools, not even Betty Rondine. And if Cracker’s grisly murder hadn’t been enough to keep them away, the suicide of his father, Clinton Graham, seven years earlier was. After losing his drawers in a shady deal gone sour (we still don’t know all the details), the man hung himself from an exposed beam in the sitting room, and it’s said that you can still hear the knock of his boots at night as he paces up and down the hall, not to mention smell his Vitalis. The Colonel bought it knowing all of this, of course, but he didn’t care; it was cheap, and he wanted a place to escape his chatterbox of a wife (but just during the day, mind you, because not even the Colonel, who’d seen all sorts of hell in Vietnam, had any interest in being there after dark) so that he could finally finish his war memoir, but then a heart attack struck him down right in the middle of Chapter 17: Skin and Bones at Briar Patch (Xom Ap Lo). When he fell—dead already, most likely, said Dr. Mahan—he came down on the sharp corner of his writing desk, which took a not-unsizable divot out of his forehead, and thanks to one hell of a bowed floor joist, his blood streamed to the southeast end of the room and pooled in the corner, permanently staining the baseboard the color of prickly-pear fruit. So that was pretty much that: Irene had no choice but to rent the place to anyone who didn’t know any better, and that meant the professors not comfortable enough with their situation at the college to buy just yet, since it was still too nice—what with its crown molding and wainscoting and such—to rent cheap enough to interest any students.

You see, ours is what sometimes gets called a college town, at least around here. That sounds fancier than it is, though. We’re not like Waco or Austin or any of those other places you see on Saturday TV during football season, just full to bursting with people all wearing green and yellow or burnt orange and white and yelling their fool heads off at the cameras swooping past. For one thing, it’s five miles north of town, so it’s not like it’s something we drive by on the way to the post office. For another, it barely has a thousand students, most of them dummies from the nearby counties of Kent, Stonewall, and Fisher who couldn’t get into Howard Payne, McMurry, or Abilene Christian. Some of our own sons and daughters go there after twelfth grade, too, but since it’s only a two-year school, it doesn’t do them all that much good. Some do manage to transfer to Tech and make something of themselves (in other words, they escape Yonder for good), but most end up staying here, still in no better condition than the rest of us, though they do love to rub their worthless Associate degrees in our faces whenever they get the chance.  

Nonetheless, even though we can’t pretend to be Ranger (where Ranger College is, of course), we’re still more of a college town than an oil town these days, no matter how hard that is to say. Most of our richest fields tapped out more than a decade ago, so quite a few Yonder folk—the men, at least—who once would’ve been roughnecks on the rigs now work on campus, either at the dining hall or the physical plant or as part of the custodial staff, and all of Yonder depends on it, one way or another. Like ticks on a dog, you might say. Without it, we’d probably all just dry up and blow away like so much chaff, though there’s been talk that wind turbines might start sprouting up around here just like they did near Sweetwater.

The professors who don’t choose to live in Cozzens or Birdette mostly live on the north side of town, as close to the campus as possible, and we mostly live everywhere else. We don’t see them at Fred Grundy Stadium on Friday nights or at the Chaparral on Saturday nights (when, that is, our husbands consent to a night of two-stepping to the sweet music of Roy Buggs and His Cedar Choppers), and because they’re nearly all God-deniers, we don’t see them at First Baptist on Sunday mornings, either. Mainly we see them at Guy’s Texaco (us filling up our pickups, them filling up their creepy-quiet hybrids) and down at Rodney’s Grocery, where they complain about pretty much everything, but especially the sorriness of the seafood selection and the lack of any “ethnic” foods (because Mexican doesn’t count, apparently).

And then there’s all that they complain about that they do get out here, like the dust storms that turn the sky brown and blow grit under every door and into every eye, the heat that bakes the earth so dry that cracks open up big enough to swallow your boot and turn your ankle, and the rattlers that are not nearly as common as they’d have you believe (though they are pretty common). Mostly, though, they complain about how bare and desolate West Texas is. Okay, so it’s bare and desolate. What’s so wrong with that? We like being able to watch our dogs run away for hours before they disappear from sight. And frankly, we find the sight of nothing but miles of red clay, a few scraggly cedar or mesquite trees running along a stretch of barb wire fence, and a lonely windmill in the distance to be a beautiful thing. More would be just claustrophobic clutter.

“What about the buttes we’ve got around here?” we ask. “Don’t you like them?”

They all shake their heads as if we’ve just asked them the saddest question they’ve ever heard. One of them even said, “You call those buttes? They barely qualify as mesas. And no, I don’t like them. They just remind me that this used to be the bottom of the Permian Sea, which dried up two hundred million years ago. It’s been all downhill for this area ever since.”

 Whispering amongst themselves (though we hear them), they also complain about what they call “the locals”—our cowboy boots, our drawls, our politics, our love of beef and beer and hunting and football, our quilting and antiques stores, our general lack of sophistication. If they could leave for somewhere else, they would in a heartbeat, and this they make clear to us every opportunity they get, whether they ever say it or not. We nod and think, Well, if you’re so goddamned smart, why ain’t you at Harvard instead of here, halfway between nothing and nowhere?

Regardless, every August, just like clockwork, a few new professors show up to replace the retired, the dead, and the occasional escapee, and we always have fun piecing their stories together. Take, for instance, a recent renter of the little pink house on Estacado. His license plates were from New Jersey, and he brought only a small U-haul’s worth of stuff, all of which he carried inside by himself, sweating his ass off during the worst heat of the day instead of waiting for the sun to go down like anyone with half a brain would. His mail, according to Chester Blanks, who delivered it, indicated that his name was Howard J. Callowhill. A graduate of Rutgers University (lah-dee-dah!), he was a member of the American Chemical Society and subscribed to a magazine called The Economist, which seemed kind of funny to us since he also apparently received his fair share of “past due” bill notices, especially from American Express. Meanwhile, Barry Peters, over a hefty plate of Ivory’s barbecued brisket and fried okra, muttered that, maybe, just maybe, someone new to the area found it necessary to swallow seventy-five milligrams of Zoloft a day just to get by.

Since Callowhill (along with all of his fellow professors) no doubt prided himself on being the rational, scientific sort, he never said a word to any of us about ever having any run-ins with Clinton Graham, he of the board-whomping Noconas and the aromatic hair tonic (or his son Cracker or Colonel Beers, for that matter, since there’s no law saying that no more than one haint can put down its roots in the same place), if indeed he ever had any. “One night, though,” said Lenore Crow, “way on past two or three in the morning, Wilma”—Lenore’s sister and Callowhill’s next-door neighbor, who, come hell or white frost, spends every waking minute parked out on her porch in her wheelchair, which she’s in thanks to the diabetes that forced the doctors over in Big Spring to lop off her feet just below the ankles—“said she watched that boy turn on every last one of his lights and then for the next hour run around from room to room, peering out through the windows all chalk-faced and jittery. He was naked as a jaybird, too.”

“Sounds like he was on drugs,” said Donna Scudder, who’s convinced that someone once snuck a marijuana cigarette into her pack of Marlboro Menthols while she was shopping in Midland, because otherwise that shoplifting mishap at Kohl’s wouldn’t have ever happened.

“Well, if he was,” Lenore said, “he sure wasn’t enjoying them. Wilma said he was jumpier than a long-tailed cat.”

Though he might not ever have complained to us about any unaccountable sights or sounds or smells, Callowhill still put the rest of his fellow professors to shame in the whine department. Not even a week had passed after he unloaded his U-haul that he wrote his first letter to the Yonder Horizon’s editor, Wink Weller, moaning about the absence of curbside recycling and good cell phone reception in his new hometown. More letters on more topics followed, and he soon became a dependable irritant at city council meetings, too. Down at Dooley’s Skillet, over her standard dish of huevos rancheros, our Mayor, Jo Nell Moley, joked about needing to put a restraining order out on him. “Or,” she added, spooning salsa onto her plate until it looked like fresh roadkill, “maybe a bullseye, more like.”

But Callowhill’s complaining hardly limited itself to these civil enough venues. For instance, he had no problem at all with letting the Hester brothers across the street know that he’d call Sheriff Gilly if they ever ran their noisy skill saws for even five minutes after sundown, and he had the pound’s number on speed dial so that he could report in a whipstitch any dog that had the bad luck of snuffling down Estacado unattached to a leash. His loudest complaints, though, were directed toward Zell and his rig. When Zell was between runs, Callowhill didn’t like how the man parked it smack-dab in front of the little pink house, and he made sure that everyone who would listen understood this. “It’s an eyesore,” he’d say, even though Zell kept that Sooner-red Peterbilt cleaner than a hound’s tooth. “A hideous eyesore!”

In addition to being a crybaby, Lenore said that Wilma said that Callowhill lacked all sense of neighborliness and good spirit. On Halloween, he didn’t carve a pumpkin or leave his porch light on for the neighborhood trick-or-treaters. At Christmastime, his was the only house on the block with no lights on the eaves or baby Jesus on the lawn. On Texas Independence Day, no Lone Star flag, and on Fourth of July, no American one, either. When the Girl Scouts knocked on his door selling cookies, he sent them away with no orders of Thin Mints or Samoas, and just like all the other professors, he stuck a sign in his yard telling us to vote against Proposition Two, which none of us did, of course, but especially not Wilma Crow, who had several lawn signs of her own, all of which reminded everyone that our pastor, Brother Jerry, wanted us to vote in favor of it.

The best Callowhill story that Wilma passed on to Lenore, though, was the one that started with Zell’s bulldog, which he’d bought from a widow over in Birdette a few months after Callowhill moved in. Now, when Zell was home, Feleena lived the life of a queen on her very own bean bag chair there in that drafty trailer. Hell, for dinner, he’d buy her ground chuck and himself nothing but tortilla chips and bean dip, so that should tell you something. But because Montez Transport has a strict policy about there being no pets in the cabs of their drivers, when Zell was hauling frozen freight here, there, and yon, Feleena had to make do with a life tethered to the end of a fifteen-foot tie-out chain. Three times a day, a Mexican with teardrops tattooed on his cheeks would mosey down to feed her scraps of cabrito and whatnot from Manuel’s El Rancho Grande, where he washed dishes, and let me tell you, except for when Zell was home, those three times a day were the only times of day that that ugly bitch was ever quiet. You should’ve heard her. Just about anything would set her off—pickups rumbling past, hammers whacking planks somewhere nearby, scissortails flying overhead, the sun going down, the sun coming up . . . .    

Needless to say, Callowhill hated that dog from day one. He called Ronnie Kilgore at the pound, but she couldn’t do anything, of course, seeing as Feleena’s tags were all in order, and he called the police, too, but Deputy Dan, who was well-known for getting good and cross-eyed with Zell down at the Chaparral on a fairly regular basis, told him in no uncertain terms to mind his own damn business. According to Wilma, Callowhill tried talking to Zell, too, but Zell shut the door in his face, and why wouldn’t he? Feleena was as quiet as a setting hen whenever her daddy was home.

But then one afternoon in October, Zell came home from a run to find Feleena dead on the end of her chain and just crawling with flies. No surprise, he stomped down to Manuel’s with his granddaddy’s Colt Model P to rid Yonder of a second life, but before he’d hardly pushed through the swinging doors into the kitchen (and all of this we learned from Manuel himself, who speaks better English than all of us Wednesday Lunch Ladies put together), that Mexican was pleading that he’d found her like that the night before and hadn’t known what to do. “I was scared, esse, because I know how much you loved her. I loved her, too.” They hugged, thumped each other’s backs with their fists, and then after Zell polished off a Guadalajara platter, several Tecates, and a couple of sopapillas (all on the house, per Manuel’s orders), Zell went home to bury Feleena not three feet away from the door of his trailer.

Wilma said he cried great big tears the whole time he dug that grave. After lowering a blanket-wrapped Feleena inside the hole and filling the dirt back in, he made a cross from a busted broom handle tied together with twine and then hung her fancy stainless-steel food bowl from its top, where it spun and clanked in the wind, which had kicked up with the imminent arrival of the season’s first blue norther. With his long hair flapping about, Zell got down on his knees, shut his eyes, and prayed silently for a good five minutes, ignoring the temperature dropping and the light dying beneath the black bank of clouds overhead, and then after walking a few tight circles around that rectangle of fresh red dirt while he clenched and unclenched his fists, he flew toward the front of the little pink house, where he kicked his boots against the door, shouting, “I know you killed her!” Callowhill wasn’t home, though, or at least he was smart enough to pretend not to be.             

Sadly, on the last day that anyone remembers ever seeing Callowhill, Lenore had to take Wilma into Big Spring to get her glaucoma checked, so they had nothing to tell us. At first we just assumed that he’d fled town for one of those fancy professor conferences up north, which they all like to go to whenever they get the chance, but it wasn’t two days later that Daisy Greendale, the hatchet-faced girl who empties the trash cans in the building where the Chemistry Department is, started hearing worried chatter in the hallway: Where’s Howard? Did he call in sick? Soon enough, Sheriff Gilly rolled up to the little pink house on Estacado to investigate, and after prowling around inside with Deputy Dan for fifteen minutes or so, he came out to inform us in his best dictionary talk (since Wink Weller was there to cover the story for the Horizon) that the “domicile rendered no manifestations of foul play or malfeasance.”

And before you could say Jack Robinson, Callowhill’s parents, decked out in identical black and gray fanciness, descended upon us like two screeching grackles, demanding answers and proclaiming Sheriff Gilly (and by extension, all of Yonder) the most backward, ignorant, and worthless thing alive. Along with a posse of Callowhill’s fellow faculty members, they proceeded to staple-gun every telephone pole within a fifty-mile radius with a picture of Callowhill that looked nothing like the one we knew—theirs was thin and smiling, ours was lumpy and sour—but who were we to say anything? After harassing everyone on Estacado to no avail, the Callowhills next besieged the square, where they buttonholed anyone they could get their claws on, running through a list of questions like census takers with rabies, but nobody had heard or seen anything. All anyone knew was that one day he was here, and the next day he wasn’t.

And then, just as we thought Frederick and Elizabeth Callowhill were going to become permanent annoyances, they gave up and cleared out. A strange sort of quiet sat in Yonder for a spell of a few days, as if the noise they’d kicked up was taking its time echoing off into nothingness, but life returned to pre-Callowhill normalcy soon enough, which meant that the stray mutts returned to Estacado with no fear of being chased by Ronnie Kilgore in the pound’s white GMC, the Hester brothers ran their saws until way past midnight, building whatever it is they spend all their time building, and Wilma Crow swiveled her wheelchair until it was pointing southeast instead of northwest, returning her attention (and sometimes her binoculars) to the Bledsoe house, where Stace and Kimberly were known to engage in fairly regular and entertaining dustups, some of which spilled through the front door and out onto the lawn.

We don’t know for sure what happened to Callowhill, of course. Sometimes we figure that he just up and decided to make a new life for himself without telling anybody. Maybe he was sick of being a professor. Maybe one day he said to himself, “You know what? I’m sick to death of Bunsen burners and beakers and eye protectors and all that bunk. I’m hitchhiking to Mexico.” Maybe he’s stretched out on a beach down there somewhere, toasting the sunset with a gigante margarita in his hand. Our husbands tend to agree with this notion, though they usually add a pretty little co-ed to the equation.

Other times, we think that maybe something happened to him because of the little pink house being haunted. Maybe Cracker, liking the looks of him, spirited him off to wherever it is that the likes of Cracker exist after committing their sins here on Earth. Or maybe Cracker’s father, Clinton, sucked him up through the rafters where he hung himself, or down through the once blood-soaked floorboards, which gleam now so immaculately for the eyes of every stranger, thanks to Hubert Dobbs and all of his magical oils and sanding machines. Or maybe Colonel Beers didn’t take kindly to him working at his old writing desk, which had stayed put in the house because it was too heavy for anyone to want to move. We doubt this, though, because of how nice a man the Colonel was. Except when he drank too much Southern Comfort, that is. Then he’d sometimes pull out his necklace of dried Viet Cong ears and talk about how much he missed the sport of it all. But that wasn’t very often. Mostly, he drank ice tea.

Though it’s fun to imagine these other possibilities, we’re fairly sure we know what happened, even if we have no proof. What we know for certain is this: being a chemistry professor, Callowhill probably poisoned Feleena, and the day after Callowhill disappeared, Zell left on a run for Montez. As far as we’re concerned, that pretty much settles it. Sheriff Gilly, on the other hand, never pursued this angle, as far as we know. We considered telling him about our theory, but then we thought better of it. After all, we didn’t really want to add to our reputation as nosy busybodies with nothing better to do than strap on noontime feed bags once a week and trade juicy gossip.

Since we kept our mouth shut, you might think that we hated Callowhill, but we didn’t, no matter how much of a pain in the ass he was.  We didn’t like him, either, though. How could we? It wasn’t like he wanted to be here, after all. We were his last resort. We’re all of their last resorts. After a lifetime of high-class university education, our town’s not one outsider’s idea of the perfect destination—hell, we understand that, we’re not stupid—but they don’t even have the decency to pretend otherwise. And, no, they’re not simply oblivious to the effect of their spitefulness on us. They know full goddamn well the effect. Even when we don’t hear the words they say, we see the looks on their faces, the way their jaws clench and their eyes roll ever so slightly at the sight and sound of us.

Zell might not be one of our favorite sons, but he’s a son, nonetheless, a son who didn’t necessarily choose to be born here, but born here he was, and he’s chosen not to leave, and there’s something to be said for that, which is why we’re comfortable enough with the image of a cold and blue Callowhill leaving town that next morning in Zell’s empty reefer, a bullet from an old Colt Model P lodged in him somewhere vital. More than likely, there’s a body moldering in a hole somewhere along that day’s route, but what good would pursuing that do anyone? What’s dead is dead, and since his parents never came back to town, maybe they knew something we didn’t. Maybe we don’t know nothing from nothing after all.

Anyway, life goes on, and a week ago, a new professor moved into the little pink house. This one’s name is Jerome Greene-Abrams. He drives a Honda Civic with license plates from Michigan and a rainbow-colored flag on the bumper. Della Valentine says that this means he’s a homosexual, but we don’t know how she would know this. Regardless, we don’t like this one bit, especially since only two months ago Bobbie Pfluger’s son ran away to Dallas with a boy from Roby to become a hairdresser or some such. Meanwhile, back at the trailer, Zell has a new bulldog, and if it wasn’t for the broom-handle cross still there by his door, you’d think Feleena was back from the dead. He even named her Feleena again, so it’s almost like nothing ever happened. She barks just as much, too.    

As is our custom, the Wednesday Lunch Ladies brought pecan pies over to welcome Greene-Abrams to town. He was polite and all, but we could tell that, just like all the professors we’ve ever brought pies to, including Callowhill, he didn’t quite know what to think. It was as if he’d never seen such a thing before. Once he realized we weren’t going anywhere, though, he eventually scooted far enough out of the doorway to invite us in, and since it was clear that he didn’t know what to do next, we took it upon ourselves to head for the kitchen to gather the appropriate number of plates and forks, all the while looking around admiringly, as if we’d never set foot in the place before.

“My lands, what beautiful floors!” exclaimed Betty Rondine.

“Would you look at this fancy desk?” said Velma Queens. “Is it yours, Professor Greene-Abrams, or was it here when you moved in?”

“And did you get a load of those exposed beams?” asked Bobbie Pfluger. “I hear they kill for that look up in New York City. Professor Greene-Abrams, you don’t happen to be from there, do you?”

While some of us petted his two puffy cats that we knew the new Feleena was going to love, the rest of us handed around the chintzy slices that Jo Nell Moley had cut from the first pie.

“Have you met Zell yet?” asked Betty, pointing in the direction of the trailer. “That boy’s a sweetheart.”

“I haven’t,” Green-Abrams said, and then hesitantly, almost as if he was afraid it might be poisoned, he raised a bite of pie to his mouth.

“Welcome to Yonder,” we said, and then we all set our plates down and clapped.