Friday, January 29, 2010

The Prodigal Son

     My mother is 82. She lives in a 2-bedroom duplex that I own, with the love of her life, a Shih Tzu mix by the name of Nugget, next door to my nephew’s school teacher girlfriend and across the street from a quarry of misfits who may or may not operate a meth lab or fence stolen auto parts. More than likely, they work construction and resemble backwoods Crips because they can’t afford Tommy Hilfiger. Either way, they haven’t gone unnoticed by the White Oak police, which is no small accomplishment inasmuch as most small-town cops couldn’t find black hair in China.
     They sit in their front yard under a canopy of Loblolly pines, smoking and swilling Miller Lite and pointing at this or that on their cars or trucks or Harley’s or girlfriends’ breasts. They don’t bother my mother, so they don’t bother me.
     Here's what bothers my mother: her health, though it's generally good, given that she chain-smoked for 40 years. She gave them up after two rounds of vascular surgery that almost killed her. When they wheeled her out of the operating room the second time, she resembled a raw oyster. They’d sliced her, neck to knee, and a week or two later, one of the surgeons asked her, “Did you enjoy that? Because if you did, keep smoking, and we’ll do it again in a year or two.”
     So she quit. Still, she has back and leg pains and insomnia and a couple of other ailments common to the elderly, but she’s still smarter than any of her kids, even though she watches too much Fox News, particularly Bill O’Reilly, who, in my opinion, is a cow turd.
     “I can’t believe you watch that crap,” I say.
     “I get news from that show that I can’t get anywhere else,” she says.
     “That’s because he’s a hack,” I say.
     “No, he’s not,” she says. “He tells it like it is. He’s fair and balanced.”
     Maybe she has a crush on him. If so, fine. She hasn’t been all that well served by the men in her life — me included — so if she thinks Billo is cute or funny or smart or fair and balanced, what do I care? Apparently, he’s good company, which is more than I can say for myself. I don’t get up to White Oak as often as I should, even though it’s only a five-hour drive from Austin, one that I’ve made a hundred times since my junior year at UT.
     For whatever reason, I can’t seem to find time to squeeze it in. My three brothers and their families live in or around White Oak, a bedroom community of 3,000 or thereabouts, sandwiched between Longview and Gladewater. My parents moved us there from Longview in 1968, the summer before my sophomore year. I didn’t want to leave, but it was for the best. I’d muddle through my first nine years of public education in Pine Tree schools and needed a new start in a place where a young man with a little spunk and grit and determination could do and be whatever he set his mind to. Want to be in the band? Grab an instrument. Want to play football? Suit up. Want to be on the newspaper staff? Sit down here. Want to date Debbie Havins? Dream on.
     I had a great time there and was successful beyond anyone's wildest dreams, so successful that my teachers thought it a waste of their efforts for me to attend East Texas State or Stephen F. Austin. “Go to A&M or Texas or SMU,” they advised me, but I was broke. My parents were broke. So I attended Kilgore Junior College for two years while working full-time as a sportswriter for the Longview News Journal, then transferred in the fall of 1973 to UT as a junior.
     Once I arrived in Austin, I knew I’d never return to East Texas, not that there’s anything wrong with East Texas. I have relatives and friends who never left there or who left and returned as quickly as possible. To each his own. I run into them now and then, and they seem to be happy enough. We’re all turning into our grandparents. Our kids are turning into us, and the jury is out on the grandkids. They’ll either be smart and creative and sweet and mostly perfect like mine or they’ll be locked up for microwaving kittens or some such. Time will tell.
     I’m heading home to White Oak in a couple of days, if the weather holds. There’s another major cold front on the way, and I can’t leave my old cat for too long because he’ll go nuts in the house alone, and I just spent $1,000 on dental care for him, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let him freeze outdoors. He owes me two or three years of whatever it is that cats do to make us put up with their bullshit. At any rate, here’s the itinerary for the weekend, assuming we go.
     My wife and I will arrive late Friday afternoon. Mom will have baked a bushel of Rio Lace cookies, which are as addictive as cocaine cigarettes. I gorge on them, so I’m buzzed on sugar all night, which is the last thing an insomniac like me needs. If I’m lucky, Mom will toss me a Halcion, which means I’ll be in a stupor the next day. Mary will read or chat with my mom about the grandchildren or Nugget's latest trip to the vet or the grooming parlor.
     I’ll wake up Saturday to the barking of neighborhood dogs or to the skinny dude down the street gunning the engine of his Ford 550 pick up. He needs a monster truck. He stocks shelves at Brookshires. I’ll grab a cup of murky, burnt coffee that my wife made three hours earlier, then thumb through the local newspaper, particularly the letters to the editor, most of which regurgitate right-of-Mussolini talking points. Obama this. Pelosi that. Pointy-headed liberals turning America into a Communist rat hole. That kind of thing.
     My brothers and their wives and children and possibly a dog or two will show up for breakfast, and we’ll consume enough cholesterol to clog a French drain. Fried eggs. Piles of crisp bacon. Hash browns. Grits. Biscuits and gravy. Jimmy Dean sausage rolls. If we’re lucky, cinnamon rolls or Krispy Kreme donuts.
     The dogs are accustomed to being fed scraps, but because my mother frowns on it, my brothers aren’t feeding them from the table, so the dogs beg in a high-pitched yelp that sounds like a coyote being circumcised with a Coke bottle top, and it goes on and on and on until my younger brother screams, “Goddamnit, shut the ^&%$ up,” which in dog-speak means, “Bark louder," and so the barking never ceases, only crescendos when a stray cat wanders by a window or when a neighbor’s car door slams shut, but we get used to it. It’s like living next to a railroad or airport or stockyard or Dick Vitale.
     Afterwards, we stagger outside for a breath of fresh air, assuming that the guys next door aren’t cooking a batch of meth. If so, we pile into my Tundra or my brother's SUV and go to the Wal-Mart superstore in Longview to check out the DVDs, the camo gear and the weapontry. My mom buys paper towels and mushroom soup and Cheetos and milk. I buy a 12-pack of Shiner Bock and a copy of the Dallas Morning News. My sister-in-law buys another "Support Our Troops" car magnet.
     Soon enough, we stop for lunch — brisket or ribs at Bodacious Barbecue if I'm lucky. Afterwards, we might go for a walk, or my youngest brother and I might hit a few tennis balls, or we might just flop about the living room. Around 4, I open a Shiner and grab the Cheetos and a handful of Rio Lace cookies and the remote control while mom begins dinner, generally a roast or a ham casserole or maybe a batch of fried chicken. She’s an excellent cook and always has been, although she often insists on preparing at least one dish that no one eats or has ever eaten or will ever eat. Generally, it contains canned English peas. My mother understands passive aggression.
     Of course, the family again shoehorns itself into mom’s tiny duplex. The TV is blaring. The dogs are barking. My older brother and his daughter are engaged in an ridiculously loud debate as to whether Gladewater and Chapel Hill are in the same football district.
     "No, I done told you Chapel Hill is not in Gladewater's district," bellows my older brother, a graduate of the University of Houston where English apparently isn’t a required course. He’s as certain that Chapel Hill is not in Gladewater’s district as he is wrong. Chapel Hill is in Gladewater’s district.
     Since I’m only mildly buzzed, I sit this one out. In fact, I’ve learned to avoid family debates until I’m drunk enough to pick a fight that'll turn everyone in the house against me, not that that takes much prodding. It's generally held that I'm a Commie and an atheist and possibly even an al Qaeda operative, which, of course, I am not. I'm a smartass and a snob and a sarcastic, cynical, insufferable bore, but I’m not a socialist. I’m too selfish to be a socialist, and I drink too much to be a Muslim. My family seems to love me anyway.
     In all fairness, I do know better than to talk politics with them or hometown friends because East Texas political discourse generally rises above of a string of profanities used as adjectives to modify “liberal” or "Democrat," and her neighborhood is littered with "Prayer: America's Only Hope" yard signs. So I keep my mouth shut until the booze tells me to chime in with something pithy like, “That's the dumbest goddamn thing I've ever heard,” at which point everyone turns on me, which is what I want anyway. I love the attention.
     Eventually, we wear ourselves out and agree to disagree and laugh at how stupid all this is anyway, and everybody staggers home, so it’s just my mom, me, and my wife. I pour a Jack and Coke and try to get in the last word about Obama or CNN or the Dixie Chicks or the Catholic Church. If I’m lucky, I will be ignored. Mom and I watch as much Saturday Night Live as we can stand, which isn’t much, and then mom will retire to her room with Nugget, and an hour or two or five later, I crawl to bed, thrash about for much of the night. About the time I get to sleep, one of the guys down the street will gun his Harley, and that’s that. I stumble out of bed, polish off the Rio Lace cookies and the last couple of cups of mom's murky, burnt coffee, pack and prepare to hit the road to Austin, not sure when I’ll get return and pretty sure no one except Mom is in a hurry for me to do so anyway.
     She stands at the door of the duplex holding Nugget and waves goodbye until my tan Toyota Tundra disappears around the corner, and then she goes back in and watches Fox News. My mother is 82, and it scares the hell out of me knowing that these days won’t last forever.