A swift carriage, of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can't see, that's my idea of happiness.
Breakfast and a Cigarette: A Novella in Four Directions
-Henry James, from Portrait of a Lady
EUSTICE JOHNSON SLIPPED two bowls of bubbling oatmeal beneath the less-than-excited noses of her twins, Vaughn and Raymond. The boys' expressions came to life only with the arrival of the blueberry muffins steaming in their rounded depressions, the fruity goo still erupting over the top of each perfect brown dome. As the warm aroma filled the tiny kitchen, Eustice made one last visit to the bathroom. Facing the full-length mirror on the back of the door, she smoothed the wrinkles from the shoulders of her uniform and tugged at the bottom seam of the gray jacket. Her cigarette was balanced on the white porcelain rim of the sink surrounded by the shadows of its predecessors. Her image, framed by wispy ribbons of smoke, remained separate from the woman. The reflection, like the silvered glass into which she glanced, was all surface. If she had not immediately moved away to busy herself with makeup, clothing, peanut butter sandwiches in crinkly brown paper bags, if she had lingered there for another moment ...
Just outside of Ozona, as the orange sun melted in the distance between streaks of pink and blue clouds, he realized that most people had but two choices: you can either sit on the porch watching traffic—or you can be the traffic.
Satisfied, at least, with her appearance, she returned to the kitchen, kissed each boy on the cheek and gathered up her things while simultaneously reciting her daily list of reminders: Wait for Ms. Blanchett from across the hall to take you to school...come right home afterwards—no hanging out—do all your homework and do it neatly...no rough housing...and don't use the stove, only the microwave...get to bed by nine. Closing the door behind her, she promised to call them that evening as usual. Three blocks from her apartment, at the Main Street deli, she filled her thermos with coffee light and sweet. At 7:30 she flagged down the bus to the terminal. Twenty-eight minutes later, with a clipboard bulging with dog-eared paperwork, transfers, and ticket stubs, Eustice Johnson was carefully backing Schedule 1098 out of the narrow bay with thirty-two hound jockeys riding the dog from Sierra Blanca, Texas to the Promised Land and all points in between.
The bleak Texas landscape rolled beneath the bus as Florida's breezy tangle of green fronds and palms disappeared behind gritty clouds of Chihuahuan desert dust. It congealed in clusters and clumps; landing, blotting, and clotting with an opportunism that hinted at some latent, long ago evolved predatory instinct, familiar now only perhaps to initiates of secret cults, of Druids or Wiccans; of days when rocks and trees and mountains and even the Earth herself was thought to be more than what they looked, were other nations unto themselves. And teamed with that relentless east Texas wind, the persistent dust dispersed itself into bazillions of micro-particles, invading every orifice with the subtlety of a George Romero movie. It covered everything that moved and everything that didn't. It obscured road signs so completely and so predictably that long and satisfying careers were made by men and women at removing it. Children were sent to college, mortgages were lifted, and packs of orthodontists acquired dream boats with funds extorted from the fruits of that particular labor.
Ray watched the cacti roll by, watched the few towns suddenly appear then vanish. He glimpsed solitary people moving across the landscape in hunched and hurried motions as if they might be carried away like some random, dusty Dorothys. He sighed at the rambling shacks on the outskirts of depressed towns with their smoke stacks sputtering a sooty stream into the air. Wood smoke, tinged with bacon fat, with fried eggs, with sides of scraggly home-grown beef and pork, mingled with the dust, drifted from stove pipe to stove pipe, from rotted chimney to rotting chimney. Scrub brush and creosote, sage and yuccas, littered the horizon. Like gossips, they spread their pessimism in ever-swelling radii; cast their indolence with the speed of rumors.
But every town has its bastion of cleanliness, of hope. Always, there is “the one.” A trailer, rarely new but freshly power-washed, with its Astroturf, with its shasta daisies and spinning yellow petals of plastic sunflowers, with its birdbaths and plywood cutouts of bending garden ladies and bandana'd black silhouettes of dogs and cowboys. It sits contentedly on the edge of the highway that runs through town. Here, the garden kitsch and chintz rebels, defiant and rigid against the wind and the dust and the traffic. It screams back at the silent melancholy: “People live here!” These were the happy-face buttons pinned in plain sight on the shit-brown open-collared work shirt of the Texas landscape. It was here, into those picture-perfect plastic palaces (and the secret lives of their inhabitants) that Ray's mind would wander. Just outside of Ozona, as the orange sun melted in the distance between streaks of pink and blue clouds, he realized that most people had but two choices: you can either sit on the porch watching traffic—or you can be the traffic. Ray closed his eyes and imagined sitting around the dinner table in that trailer listening to the conversation that unfolded night after night. A twangy mixture of lyrics from country songs invaded his ordered dialogue. No one it seemed could even pass the peas without singing about Billie Jo McAllister. He couldn't escape the stereotypes and in his failure, realized that he had not the slightest idea of who these people were. And that seemed to him a good start after all.
Breakfast and a Cigarette, Part IV continues...