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Authors: Luis Alberto Urrea

The Water Museum (6 page)

BOOK: The Water Museum
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1. Keep Honking

  

H
ey, boo,” the waitress said. “What you know good?”

She was being folkloric. Hubbard was supposed to be charmed. But since the demise of The Previous Marriage, about five and a half days ago, he'd been sulky. He once read about a Sioux warrior named Cranky Man, and now he thought:
That's me.

Lafayette, Louisiana, was as hot as the inside of your mouth.

“I don't know a damn thing,” he replied.

“I don't know me too,” she said, not taking to his Yankee-ass tone one bit. “But hey,” she said. “What do I know. I'm just trailer trash from Butte La Rose.”

“Is that bad?” Hubbard asked.

A little dark guy in a red gimme cap watched this, snorted, and nodded his head at her.

“She proud,” he said. “She smacked you good.”

She tossed him a smile and threw a hip in his direction.

Hubbard leaned an elbow on his little round table. It had gold foil ashtrays, with the corners sort of bent down to hold the smokes. Apparently, you could still smoke in bars in Acadiana. Hubbard didn't smoke.

The waitress raised an eyebrow at him.

“Beer,” he said.

She let her gum answer as she turned away:
Pop! Pop! Pop!

The guy in the cap said, “She just tryin' to be friendly.” He was sipping chicory coffee—Hubbard could smell it across the gap between tables.

A stuffed gator stood on a platform in the middle of the restaurant, jaws agape, dust on its marble eyes.

Hubbard ignored Mr. Coffee and nodded when the waitress put his Abita beer down on a napkin and turned her back. It was so cold, some of the foam was ice slush. Oh yes. Oh yes. He took a long pull off the bottle. His eyes watered. She was a handsome woman, no doubt. Boo. He always thought southern women called you “sugar.” He'd seen “boo” in James Lee Burke books, but this was the first time anybody had called him that.

Red Cap called him something different when he sidled his chair closer.

“Hey, asshole,” he said.

Hubbard chewed another mouthful of slushy beer.

“You ain't from around here,” Red Cap said.

“Passing through,” Hubbard said.

“They teach you manners where you come from?”

“Nope. You?”

The dude sipped his coffee and chuckled.

“You funny, son,” he said. He tipped his cap back and set his eyes in slits and regarded Hubbard some more.

Hubbard had spent his morning staring at bull gators and nutria rats in Lake Martin, between Lafayette and Breaux Bridge. It made him feel badass. This whole chunk of the map was written in poems and liquor bottle labels: Whiskey Bay, Catahoula, Atchafalaya. He'd bought a long gator fang from a Chittimacha Indian craftsman at the Festival Acadien and then danced a two-step with a blues singer named Lana. The fang hung on a black leather thong, nice and solid against his chest, making him feel wild and at large on the land. Not to be fucked with: Hubbard, Unbound.

He had the alligator hoodoo.

“You must be a comedian, yeah?” said the li'l dude.

Hubbard drained his beer, belched softly, and looked at him.

“Must be,” he replied.

Red Cap turned in his chair. “See that sign out there?” he said. Hubbard squinted out the window. “What it say?”

“Poo-Yee,” said Hubbard.

“No sir, it do not. It says Poo-Yi. ‘Yi' as in ‘eye,' see? An' you know what that means?”

Hubbard shook his head, thinking:
More beer.

“That there is Cajun for ‘North American ass-kicking establishment.' And y'all about to get a free lesson on how that works.”

“Lately,” said Hubbard, “I have been considering language to be the enemy.”

Red Cap put down his cup.

“Is that right?”

The waitress dropped a coin in the juke: Beau Jocque and the Zydeco Hi-Rollers came on. “Can you really make it stink?” Beau Jocque demanded.

“My wife left me,” Hubbard said. “I never understood a single thing she said.”

Red Cap nodded sagely.

“Podnah,” he said. “No wonder you in such a bad mood.”

*  *  *

Hubbard watched two Klansmen duke it out in Vidor, Texas. He could tell at least one of them was in the Klan because he had a purple KKK tattoo on his neck. The other fellow wore a stars'n'bars Confederate flag on his cap. Hubbard was deeply gratified to see he had a lightning bolt SS on his left bicep. He wanted these assholes to destroy each other.

He crunched Corn Nuts and watched the two trade blows and bear hug each other to carom off pickups and panel trucks in the parking lot. He held a banana Slurpee and was finally moved away by a scooting crowd of teens making a break for it when two new trucks sped into the lot. He pulled out and took a last glance at the mullet haircuts of the strangers flinging blood.

*  *  *

America! Motel 8! Motel 6! The World's Largest Cross! The Lion's Den 24 Hour Adult Super Store—Buses Welcome!

He piloted his wife's Volvo west on I-10. Texas lasted for ten thousand miles till he found the San Antonio cutoff. He took a hotel room right at the split in the freeways. Fort Something. The vapor lamps in the parking lot turned his skin a vague shade of purple.

Huge stinkbugs swarmed the lot. They clanked out of the dark in black ranks and mounted each other everywhere around him. He was careful not to step on them because the many he'd already run over were wafting a bitter stench that went nicely with the toxic lights. A car passed by and the stinkbugs crackled like pecan shells. Hubbard held his breath.

He wrestled with the key card. Ground-floor room. He moved ecstatic stinkbug ménages aside with his foot. The door of the next unit opened, and a woman with a long T-shirt and shadowy eyes smiled out at him. He passed seven seconds daydreaming that she was a hooker and he'd spend $50 to show his ex something then pushed open his door and went inside and kicked it shut.

He tossed his duffel on one cardboard bed and threw his own carcass on the other. He thumbed through the channels on the TV—lots of Mexican telenovelas. On the bedside table, a Xeroxed menu from the Fort Something Pizza Palace.
We Deliver to YOUR Room!
What the hell. He called and ordered spaghetti and beer. When it came, the Styrofoam box had a mound of mashed potatoes and gravy tucked in with the spaghetti.

Next door, his gal in the T-shirt was crying, “Kurt! Kurt! Oh my God, Kurt!”

Hubbard's ex had never once cried
Oh my God.

*  *  *

At Las Cruces, he turned north. I-25. Big land, big sky, big spirits. Canned Heat on the deck. He rolled down the window and sang along: “I'm on the road again!” North! Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Pueblo, Denver. That's where he was going, by God.

He'd been eating his breakfast in El Paso, reading a paper with little transparent grease windows stained in the pages. He'd been in the old cemetery to gawk at John Wesley Hardin's grave. Murdering son of a bitch. He'd picked up a pebble from the pistoleer's grave and pocketed it. More hoodoo. And then he'd hopped over the wall and clocked on into the diner and it was chorizo and huevos and papitas and tortillas and Cholula and coffee, coffee, coffee. So what if she thought he was fat. He'd show her some fatness right here.

The paper had said there was a trailer park serial killer who slaughtered the innocent near Elephant Butte, around Truth or Consequences. And the killing fields were not far from the springs Cochise liked to bathe in. Why, hell—he was deep into some kind of strange Italian western. There were patterns moving across the sky, high, where small scallops of cloud shimmered like mother-of-pearl. He felt a part of the great becoming, the revelation of the West.

Up! To Billy the Kid's New Mexico. Up! To Colorado's Buffalo Bill and his grave! Boulder, where Tom Horn moldered beneath the grass! North—to the land of the Cheyenne and the Sioux and the Arapaho and the Crow! He was a killer on the road, he told himself, and when he got in the car to peel out of El Paso, he shoved The Doors into the CD slot and felt the power of the great silence.

Elephant Butte reflected red serial killer light onto its somnolent reservoir.

He took a detour out of Burque and headed west again, where the mesas were black and red and the rivers lay dead as bones under the sun. On the way to Rio Puerco he stopped in a cowboy bar. He thought he'd get drunk. He thought he'd get beat up. It would feel good. Indians looked at him when he walked in and laughed. He sat at a stool and sipped a Bud. A Navajo woman stepped up to him and asked him to dance on account of her old man's feet hurt too much from diabetes to get up off his chair. She came up to his chest, and she grinned at him the whole time. His dancing was apparently hilarious.

“You don't dance too much,” she said.

“Not really.”

“Pretty good,” she said. “Don't feel bad.” She laughed.

When they stepped outside to let the sweat dry, she said, “What are you?”

“Just a white boy.”

“Oh,” she said. “I thought you was a Leo.”

*  *  *

Up the Raton Pass, Hubbard was assaulted by Colorado. It was like some Maxfield Parrish painting, all electric blues and impossible neon clouds, ridiculous snowy peaks and bright yellow prairies. He pulled over and stared at it. By God, the world was full of color after all.

Then he cried.

*  *  *

The car died in Wyoming.

Hubbard was angling northeast toward Fort Laramie. Not Laramie the town, which was a brief mirage on brown plains. But the old historical fort where the great chiefs and the great cavalrymen had parlayed. As far away from his stupid abandoned apartment in Cambridge as he could get. No goddamned tofu sausages in Fort Laramie!

The car got a little rough, then shouted at him and unleashed a stench not unlike the stinkbugs of far Texas. Then it shuddered and died. Hubbard wrestled the wheel as momentum rolled the Volvo into the weeds and a plume of smoke arose. Wind made its low song around him.

The key made the engine crunch and howl and whimper. Then nothing at all.

“Okay,” he said, informing the universe he was ready for decisive action.

Got out. Walked around the car. Looked underneath. Didn't she take care of her car? It wasn't cheap. Used, yes—but not cheap. Cars were not his thing.

He got back in. Nothing.
Graveyard dead,
as cowboys said in books he'd read. He stared at the dials as if they would offer him an explanation.

The radio still worked, though. He turned the dial until he found Dr. Laura. She was of the opinion that a caller who fed his toddler Beano to keep her from farting was a weakling. He turned the radio off.

“Let's try again, shall we?” he announced.

Nothing happened.

*  *  *

He sat on the hood, back to the windshield, reading Rilke. The heat of the dead engine felt good—Wyoming's brisk wind was frisking his body. His nipples were as hard as his John Wesley Hardin pebble. Nobody came down the road. He sipped water from a bottle with French writing on the label. He ate peanut M&M's. At least he had some protein.

Barbed wire twinkled like spiderwebs and dew. The sky went all the way up and over and down. He'd never seen so much sky. It looked like the little sage bushes on the horizon were buttons holding it to the ground.

He'd thought a rancher, a cowboy, somebody would drive by. So far, only crows. They seemed to be laughing at him.

Rilke said:
You are not too old, and it is not too late ….

“Bullshit,” he said.

That circling crow was unimpressed.

A white plastic bag danced in the nearest fence like Casper the Friendly Ghost.

“Wonderful,” Hubbard noted.

*  *  *

Perhaps he would die out here. The Elements, he thought, as only a city boy would. But he was so betrayed, so alone. Suicide was not off the table, either. He pondered the amazing horror of his cold, cold body found here in the back of beyond. Pecked—pecked!—by crows. Rilke in his frozen hand.

Or starvation.

He was hungry.

He slid off the hood. Maybe she had some candy bars stashed in her glove compartment. She used to crack him up every time she announced that the best medication for PMS was chocolate. She called it her drug of choice. Twelve-stepper humor. Damn her.

The chairman of the Porter Square AA meeting had been coming around their apartment. Hubbard writhed a little every time he remembered making this bastard his famous turkey chili. That Cantabrigian had twelve-stepped right into Mrs. Hubbard's bed. They called it a thirteenth step. He had taken a real inventory inside her knickers while Hubbard taught Beast Literature at Harvard Extension. Night school lectures in Apuleius and his use of the common ass in his fables.

Came home to find the Sting CDs gone. Odd. He thought she must have taken the boom box into the kitchen to wash the dishes. But the boom box was also gone. He looked in the bedroom—the bed was stripped. He said aloud, “If the tampons are gone, you have left me.” The medicine cabinet was bare.

A gesture was called for.

He skulked over to the AA pimp's condo in Central Square and saw her Volvo parked outside. He had her spare key on his keychain. Popped the door and drove away, hit the ATM in Harvard Square, grabbed a duffel full of chinos and jeans and polo shirts and his Black Sabbath T at the apartment and headed down I-95 at an admirable clip.

“Grand theft auto!” he cried, half-giddy with himself.

New York: saw a biker with
CHINGALING
on his vest. Virginia: fog and a phantom roller-coaster beside the road. South Carolina: smokestack painted to look like a giant cigarette. Florida: he bought a cap with a gator on it that said
FLORIDA YARD DOG.

In Alabama, he covered his wife's
EASY DOES IT/LIVE AND LET LIVE
bumper stickers with new ones. One of them said
KEEP HONKING, I'M RELOADING!
He had a pair of her panties with him. All the way across the South, he had told himself he could throw them out at any time.

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