Washing windows across America: Clovis ain't Texas (episode 13)
Two mannequins are in my way. The only way I can pick them up is by the breast and crotch. When the Texan mom sees me violating the mannequins, she shields her son’s eyes with a cupped hand.
She is long-legged, and the kind of ranch-pretty that comes from a diet of steak, green beans, and raw milk.
Clovis ain't Texas
By Ben Leroux
A metal chair squeals under the weight of the quintessential Texan as he leans back behind the desk of his used-car dealership office. He sucks on an unlit stogie, and only the button-snaps of a western shirt contain the rotund gut that bowls over his Haggar slacks. A thin Mexican man in cowboy duds sits across from him, a wide-brimmed hat atop his lap. They stop talking when they see me in the doorway in denim shorts, baggy T-shirt, and worn sandals. A fan blows warm, dim air through the office.
“What kennah do for ‘ya, young man?”
“Your receptionist sent me in here to ask about windows,” I say. “I told her I’d clean them for twenty dollars.”
Where the customary interruption or rejection usually occurs, a profound silence floats. My words are not seized from me, but instead left to hang in the musty air where they are tasted, slowly chewed, and digested. Only after a couple sucks from the stogie is the owner ready to respond.
“Oh, no,” he says. “We don’t need our windas…”
“Don’t you dare!” comes a voice from the reception area.
The receptionist marches into the office, hands on hips, her little boot heels knocking against the hardwood floor. She stands in front of the owner and points a long, red fingernail at him.
“Now don’t chyew dare let this window-washer get away. You know goll-darned well you’re never gonna do those windows. That is, unless I make you do ‘em.”
She is long-legged, and the kind of ranch-pretty that comes from a diet of steak, green beans, and raw milk. Her brown hair is pinned up off her long neck.
She prances out, a prized thoroughbred in high-hugging Wranglers and a tucked-in western shirt. She leaves the men to decide things.
“Well,” says the owner sheepishly, chuckling, looking at me, and the grinning Mexican man. “If the woman says do ‘em, then ah guess you better do ‘em.”
Cleaning the outsides, I am slowed down by a heavier heat than I’ve felt anywhere in New Mexico. And though I am still in New Mexico, I’ve slipped a couple times and called it Texas, only to be reprimanded by proud New Mexicans.
But Clovis is, for all intents and purposes, Texas—Texas heat, Texas drawl, and Texas manners.
After I’m done, I wait with the men in the office as the receptionist prepares a check for me. The two men politely avoid chiding me about California, even after I make a joke about Arnold Schwarzenegger. They chuckle uneasily, but refrain from possible insults.
“Pretty country though, California,” says the owner.
“Yay-ees,” says his friend. “Preety, preety country.”
The receptionist brings my check in for the boss to sign, then leaves us again.
“Now you be careful out there travelin’ around the country, young man.” The owner hands me the check. It comes across as more of a command than a suggestion, but I don’t mind. At my age, when someone calls you “young man,” you take it.
“I will,” I say. “Thank you.”
I’m bushed, and can barely stand as I comb downtown Clovis. There is something weighty and leaden about the sun here. But into my second day, I’ve done all right. The Plymouth sits in a service station, having the wheel bushings replaced. I’ve gambled that I’ll be able to afford the repair by day’s end. The wheel had gotten so wobbly that I became afraid it might fly off as I was rounding a canyon, and that would be the end of me.
Clovis’ downtown streets are immaculate and expansive—as wide as some streets are long. The parking spaces along the sides of the streets are so huge that it’s not clear into which direction they are to be parked.
After getting only the windows of Latina dress store, I move out to an area of shopping centers and mini-malls, where a dry-cleaners, a Mexican restaurant, and a women’s clothing store employ me.
Doing the insides of the women’s clothing store, I have to squeeze myself and my equipment between the front glass and a display wall. A Clovis mother and small son, hand-in-hand, stop in front of the window to watch me. She is another Texan filly in jeans and boots.
I have to move two mannequins out of my way, and since there are only a couple feet between the wall and the window, the only way I can pick them up is by the breast and crotch. When the Texan mom sees me violating the mannequins, she shields her son’s eyes with a cupped hand.
But she nods at me knowingly. In the adult world, it is sometimes necessary to violate mannequins in order to get windows cleaned. Only after I set down the mannequins does she uncover the struggling boy’s eyes and let him watch me.
Later, while cleaning the windows of a beauty salon, a plump white-haired client in a long, proper dress asks me to come to her house when I’m done. She writes down the address for me.
I walk to her house, amazed and somewhat insulted that someone would ask a complete stranger from California to come to their home, knowing nothing about them.
To get to her front windows, I have to fight with the branches of a spruce tree, and cobwebs, all while keeping my eye on an uneasy wasps’ nest under an eave of the house. While I am doing this, the woman tries to force a cold can of Coke on me. I hate Coke, but accepting it is the only way to stop her incessant kindness.
We pause for proper introductions.
“Ahm Vera Jean Brady. And you?” She extends her hand, very formal like.
“What is your last name, Ben?”
I tell Vera Jean and she chews on my French surname, trying to fit it into the genealogy tree of her mind. As Vera Jean and I chat, she too warns me to be careful out there traveling, because there are lots of weird folks around—lots of dangerous people and you never know when you might walk into the wrong part of town.
“I’ve noticed since being in Texas that everyone is telling me to be careful,” I say. “Yet it seems very safe.”
Vera Jean gasps. “Texas? Did you just say, ‘Texas’? Now, don’t you go around here tellin’ people you think you’re in Texas! Clovis ain’t Texas, Ben Leroux. Just be careful.”
It’s nearing 5 p.m., and I am about twenty dollars short for my car repair, and on a dry spell. One more job ought to do it. I come upon a large paint store.
Waiting at the counter, I see men in matching windbreakers gathered around a corner table where a microphone is set up. I ask the owner what it’s all about. He tells me it’s the weekly radio football show. The big game is tomorrow night. Then he tells me to go ahead and wash his windows.
Outside, working on the glass doors, a squeegee in one hand, brush and towel in the other, hurrying to take the water off before the brooding sun dries it, I hear the sound somewhere behind me, of a woman clearing her throat.
“Oh,” I say, turning to see her. “Sorry.” I step aside so she can go through the double doors.
She doesn’t move. She tilts her head at me. She has a purse over a shoulder and a white donut bag in one hand. Like the receptionist at the used car dealership, her britches are hiked up high and tight, with a checkered rodeo shirt tucked in, and a Laura Bush hairdo.
“It’s open,” I say. “It’s not locked.”
I move further aside for her. She just stands and looks at me.
“Mmmp-HHHMMM,” she says, daintily lifting the bag of donuts, waiting for something.
“Oh,” I say. “Oh.” I set my equipment down and find myself opening the door for her. She dips and says, “Thang-kyew,” and goes into the paint store.
I re-coat the doors with soapy water, and watch her take the donuts back to the men at the table, baffled at how she had gotten me to do that.
The men at the garage have, as a courtesy, rotated my ugly rust-orange spare from the front to the back. The spare had come out of the trunk that way when I blew a flat back near Santa Fe. The orange spare hadn’t helped anything. It had just earned me a little more unwelcome attention and stares, and theorizing, as people tried to figure the Plymouth out. I think that in towns like Clovis and Tucumcari, an old car with California plates may be the closest thing to the rides seen in L.A. gangsta movies. So the youth like to cruise by me, bumping their gangsta hip-hop. They get a good look at the driver, hoping for a crip or a blood, but instead they get me. And they get the orange tire. They bump away thoroughly confused.
With the Plymouth driving steadier now, and a few dollars in my pocket, I migrate naturally to the nearest drinking establishment.
In this trendy bar and grill, another Texan princess struts behind the bar. She is terribly self-absorbed, and lifts and drops a phony smile as she picks up tips off the bar. Her clientele are the clean-cut, well-dressed cowboys and eligible businessmen of Clovis.
The bartender ignores me, and a dirty old German man at the end of the bar named Franz. I have watched him trying to flag her down for a half-hour.
“I vunda if we evva get a fucking drink?” Franz says to me, his accent strong and slurring, and his teeth and breath in bad shape. He is a scraggly eyesore of a human being that does not belong in Clovis, let alone this phony cowboy joint.
“I don’t know.”
“I buy you one if we evva do. Dis bitch, she nevva evva wait on me. She treat me like dis evvy time. Maybe I not klee-een enough for her to look at. Tell you what. Come to my house. I have beer. We drink all we want.”
I follow Franz through a boring neighborhood to his house where he claims to have more beer. I take it as a nice offering. His house is one of many back in a square grid of square Clovis homes.
It is a boring, lifeless house. His wife is gone, and I look around for a picture of her to see what kind of American woman would marry a dirty lush like Franz. But there are none.
Franz and I sit at his kitchen table and drink cans of Old Milwaukee. He tells me about the big motel he and his wife own, and to prove it to me, he takes out the motel keys and grins and jangles them in front of me.
“I bet you’d like deez, ay? Fifty-five rooms. You’d like a room, wouldn’t you? Den you wouldn’t have to stay in your car, he-he.”
Franz is tolerable for a while, but the key taunting starts to get under my skin.
“I gotta go now, Franz,” I say, killing my Old Milwaukee, crushing the can, and tossing it into the kitchen wastebasket. “I need to go stake out a spot at the Wal-Mart.”
“But why go so soon? I like you, Ben. You are a hard worker, I can tell. You keep your goatee trimmed, and I like de peoples who work hard and keep klee-een. I like klee-een people. Come, I show you what I own.”
I follow Franz out into his garage where he shows me his Hemmy truck, an elaborate tool set, and two antique printing presses.
“Bet you’d like deez tools, ay? Or my Hemmy? What have you brought to smoke?”
I tell him nothing, so he goes to his six-foot high toolbox on wheels and fishes out his hidden stash and pipe and we smoke a few loads standing in his garage.
“Bet you’d like to take some of dis stuff wit’ you, ay Ben?” He dangles the baggie in front of me.
“No, it’s okay Franz. I really gotta go.”
“One more beer,” he says, taking me back into the kitchen. We sit down and have another.
“Did I show you my computer? That’s her right there. I love her. When you leave, I will play on my computer. Bet you’d like deez?” He jangles the keys again, and shows me his disastrous fangs.
“Alright Franz, that’s it.” I stand up.
“Come here, I want show you one more thing.”
I follow him into another room that has nothing in it but a couch and some reproductions of paintings stacked against the walls and in the closets.
“Dis is our sitting room,” Franz says. “Me and my wife, we come in here and just sit.”
He finds his favorite painting, which is a haunting pastoral of an old German church. He nearly weeps.
We go back to his kitchen table and drink another Old Milwaukee together while he dabs his eyes with his shirt.
“Dat’s our sitting room,” he weeps. “We don’t do nutting but sit in der.”
The phone rings and it is his wife calling from the motel. Franz tells her he has a friend over—one of the guys from the bar, and I can hear her reaction from where I sit: “Oh, that’s wonderful, Franz! That’s just wonderful!”
Franz’s tears dry, and he smiles like the child of a proud mother, then tells his wife that he has to go. He doesn’t want to keep his friend waiting.
“Yah, you are a good person Ben—a good klee-een friend. You not like de people who come to get all de food stamps and you have to wait in de line behind dem. You work hard and have a klee-een beard. I bet you’d like deez, though.”
“I’m leaving now, Franz.”
“I’m going to put them away.”
“I still have to go. I’m hungry.”
“Okay, I’m going to play on my computer then. Goodbye.”
Franz writes down his email address for me, and I get to the Plymouth and crumble it up and toss it in with a garbage heap of wrappers and receipts. I leave, and go find a nice spot in the Clovis Wal-Mart parking lot.
I find a little light, and read the sports section of the Clovis newspaper and think about staying for the big game tomorrow night. One of the things I want to do is to see a good old-fashioned Texas-style high school game. I’m tempted to settle for Clovis though. I’ve heard good things about their program.
But I don’t just want good football. I want Texas football. And just across the border tomorrow night, games will be played between teams with names like Lubbock, Amarillo, Plainview and Muleshoe. Clovis was close, but somehow it just wasn’t Texas. §
Ben Leroux writes from a motel room in Morro Bay, and still plies his trade as a window washer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more of his "Washing Windows Across America" series here:
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