Washing windows across America: Welcome to Muleshoe (episode 14)
While I grab a bite in Muleshoe’s crowded McDonald’s, two high school girls run through, drunk on team spirit. They wear face paint and “Mule Mania” T-shirts that fit their pudgy, oblong bodies too tightly.
The first spoonful of chili nearly kills me. I don’t care. The sweat pours from my eyes. Goll-damned, here I am feeling Texas—feeling America!
Welcome to Muleshoe
Texas high school football, energetic cheerleaders and game night
by Ben Leroux
In the summer of 2003, I discarded all I owned and loaded a troubled 1975 Plymouth with clothes, books, a guitar, a cat named Reggie, and $17.94 worth of window-cleaning equipment. I drove across the United States, stopping in nowhere towns, pail and squeegee in hand, cleaning windows for another day’s pittance. Free of any attachments, I floated vaguely east, wandering in a private stratum without itinerary or expectation. I became a true outsider, a fugitive from the banal, suffocating cycle of madness that passes for a “normal life” today in America.
By Ben Leroux
If there are “GEORGE W. BUSH” or “DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS” billboards at the border, I miss them. The only indication I’ve crossed over onto Lone Star soil comes in the form of an apologetic road sign that reads: MULESHOE. Predictably, it is followed by a nondescript flange: motel, discount store, McDonald’s.
I ask only two things from Texas: One, I want to eat a bowl of its famous authentic chili—the fiery kind brewed in kettles over open flames on cattle drives, the kind capable of afflicting the toughest of cowpokes with severe cases of the sweats and trots; two, I want to watch a great Texas high school football game. In Texas, you have to figure that where there’s one, there’s the other.
If such a slice of Americana is to occur, it will occur tonight at 7 p.m., when the Mules of Muleshoe host the Lubbock-Roosevelt Eagles. A more Texas-sounding game there has perhaps never been.
While I grab a bite in Muleshoe’s crowded McDonald’s, two high school girls run through, drunk on team spirit. They wear face paint and “Mule Mania” T-shirts that fit their pudgy, oblong bodies too tightly. They come through yelling, “Mule Mania! Mule Mania! Woo-hoo!”
People look up from their value meals with puzzled faces. I check my newspaper to make sure it’s Friday night. It is.
With a couple hours before kickoff, I make a quick twenty bucks between a loan store and a tire shop on a featureless street off the highway. I ask the tire shop owner about the game tonight and he thanks me for reminding him. Something is missing. I sniff at the Muleshoe air. On game nights, small town air is supposed to be pungent with adrenaline, teen hormones, and a cool restlessness. At least that’s the way I remember it.
I pull the Plymouth up next to a city park, and sit and think. I guess that when I left California, I pictured things differently. I guess I pictured myself spending loads of free time pulling off the highway to explore the sites—the monuments, adobe villages, ice caves, and petrified wood forests—the natural wonders of America.
Sure, there was the Buffalo Dance in Gallup. But I’d stumbled upon that accidentally, and it was free. In some ways, life on the road had turned out to be no different than life before. Either way, it was a never-ending scramble to stay afloat, working simply to work another day.
But now there was tonight’s game in Muleshoe. The high school football game was one of the remaining gems of Americana still accessible to the little guy.
As the Plymouth cools in the shade, I picture Muleshoe’s stadium tonight: the fiercely lit field, the blasts of warring pep bands, the smells from the concession stand of the perfect kettle of bubbling Texas chili. Then the mythical Friday night spectacle that Texas is known for: Helmets crack dully and grass flies in mossy clods as wholesome-faced cheerleaders rile up the normally reserved town folk into a frenzy. The first spoonful of chili nearly kills me. I don’t care. The sweat pours from my eyes. Goll-damned, here I am feeling Texas—feeling America!
Something jars me back to Muleshoe’s city park. It is an engine rumbling in my left ear. A towering Ford truck beside me has two rednecks aboard. They gawk down at me and I face them with a scowl. They rip off, revving and burning rubber. They peel around a corner and disappear.
I try to return to my vision of the game, but soon there is another mechanical humming in my ear. I look out to show the rednecks a fist or a middle finger, but this time it is an old Monte Carlo of young Mexican guys. They slow and glance over at me as they pass, their stereo thumping low.
A minute later, the rednecks are back re-marking their territory with their powerful engine. Then the low-riders, then the rednecks. It goes on.
I ignore them until I feel a third presence—a police car cruising slowly by. The officer plays it cool, waiting till he’s past me to look in his rearview. He then goes around the block and joins the circling welcome-wagon parade.
With about a half-hour till kickoff, I look up and notice the police car ahead, tucked into a cluster of little shacks. I realize I’m being staked out and decide to leave Muleshoe. I get out and check my oil, then drive away, past the nose of the police cruiser. I pull onto Highway 84, and head southeast for Lubbock.
I know hicks and hick-cops and know that there is a primate section of their brain irreversibly provoked by the sight of lone strangers. I know that if I stay, I’ll be followed into the stadium tonight. Goodbye, Muleshoe.
But Muleshoe isn’t done with me yet. The cruiser is on me the instant I pull onto 84. It keeps a distance. I want to pull over and get it over with. Then again, I don’t want to spook a Texas cop on a Friday night. I know he’s waiting for me to do something stupid. I outwait him.
When the blue-and-whites finally flash, I pull aside on to a tall grassy embankment.
“How yew doin’ today, sir?” the officer says, approaching my open window. He is Anglo-Mex—Eric Estrada with a drawl. He seems tentative, like a rookie or a volunteer.
“Fine,” I say, keeping my hands on the wheel.
“Seen you parked at the park up there,” he says.
I wait for a follow up, but there is none.
“Was I doing something wrong?” I ask.
“Well,” he says. He looks down the road as if searching. He then leans down and surveys my gutted vehicle, now laid out like the inside of a hippie van.
“Did you want to see my license?” I ask him.
“Yes, I was just going to ask you for that. Thang-kyew.”
I hand him my license and he squawks into the receiver on his shoulder. Then he leans over to me.
“Reason I pulled you over is I ain’t never seen you before. Where yew headed, mister…Leroux?”
“Now?” He looks at me. “What do you mean now? And what was you doin’ up there at our park?”
“Waiting for your football game. I’m traveling across the country washing windows, and I wanted to see some Texas high school football. They say it’s something.”
“Now, you’re tellin’ me you come to Muleshoe to watch a football game?”
“And just how did you hear about our football game tonight?”
“I read about it in the Clovis paper.”
“Clovis? Clovis, New Mexico? Now what was you doin’ readin’ about Muleshoe football in a Clovis, New Mexico paper?”
“I guess they cover it. It’s pretty close.”
“I know it’s close. I know that.”
“And you say you is what, mister Leroux, a travelin’ winda-washer?”
“Yes, you can see my squeegees and buckets and rags in the back.” I hike a thumb toward the back, wondering if he will notice or care that there is no back seat, nor front seat for that matter, and that I am sitting on an old living room chair.
“And a gee-tar,” he says, gleaming at my guitar. “You play that gee-tar, mister Leroux?”
“Sort of? What songs do you play? Country and western?”
A backup car arrives and saves me from answering. It pulls in front of me. A tall, angular white cop with tinted sunglasses and a moustache comes and stands by my passenger side so that all I can see of him are his flexing hips and the hand he keeps on the butt of his pistol.
The two men talk about me over the hood of the Plymouth as the Tex-Mex cop receives word from headquarters about my status.
“Okay, mister Leroux,” he says, handing me back my license. “Like I said, you wasn’t doing nothin’ wrong. It’s just that you looked like somebody we’ve been looking for.”
“I thought it was because you’d never seen me before.”
“Well, that, and you was up at our park there, just parked.”
“Yes, I was parked. It was a park.” I want to take back the words as soon as I’ve said them.
“Yessir, you was parked at our park,” he says, agitation creeping into his voice. “Now you’re welcome to come back into town and enjoy our football game. Our team’s okay this year—not the best though.”
“I think I’ll pass.”
The officer’s chest swells. He looks at the other officer. “Now why is that?”
“I guess I don’t like so much attention,” I answer, starting the Plymouth.
“You’ll like Lubbock. It’s growin’. Startin’ to get a few weird people though.Don’t get me wrong, ain’t near as bad as Austin nor San Antone. Guess you’re useta weird folks though where you’re from.”
“Weird folks? In California?”
“Welcome to Texas, sir,” Ponch says as he taps the roof. He and his partner stand and watch me leave.
I sprint for Lubbock, wondering how I am going to withstand what could be months in Texas. I fear that I have made a big mistake by coming to Texas at all. You hear things about redneck ways and backwoods justice, and the country’s contempt for Californians, but you figure it has to be exaggerated. For the time being though, I give up on the football game idea. It’s okay. At least I had window washing. Window washing was one thing that the little guy would always have.
Flying past the dirt fields along 84, it grows dark, and I see some columbines plodding along, their drivers lit up like rock stars. The flat, lonely blackness makes me long for a drink or two.
But then, beckoning off in the south, I see some flickers of white light. They appear to be tiny stadium lights that, according to my atlas, are in the middle of nowhere. My crushed hopes are resurrected.
I take the next side road headed off in that direction, and I follow those stadium lights. The road seems to belong to no town. I pass no stores, no homes. I end up at a gravel parking lot to a stadium.
It’s eight dollars to get in, but I don’t mind. I stop at the concession stand for my bowl of chili. I don’t see any chili though, just stale popcorn, gooey hot dogs, and expensive candy bars. I get a can of soda for three dollars. For an additional three dollars, I purchase a program containing the names of players I do not know.
I sit on the home team side, and glance at the scoreboard. It’s early in the first quarter, and the home team is ahead 7-0.
Before I can get my soda opened, a long, swift black kid for the home team has picked up a fumbled ball, sidestepped a half-dozen small, flailing white kids and pranced into the end zone. A second black kid runs in the two-point conversion.
I wait for the rowdy Texas football-crazies around me to erupt. But only a few old-timers clap. I look across the crowd. It is mostly young, white middle-class families that could be from any American suburb. They seem distracted from the game.
In the program, I learn that I am at the stadium of Syria High School, and that their opponents across the field are from the town of Peace.
Syria versus Peace?
One of Syria’s two black kids pulls an interception out of the sky, then stays on the field to throw a sixty-yard flea-flicker to the team’s only other black kid for another touchdown. The receiver who caught the pass stays on to kick the extra point.
Syria’s band does not celebrate with deafening blasts of brass and percussion, but with the anemic beginning of a flute-heavy fight song that peters out a few bars in.
Minutes later, Syria blocks a Peace punt and one of the merciless black studs scoops it up and takes it in for six points.
I look across the taciturn crowd again, and try to trace the source of their distraction. It appears to be the cheerleading squad. I look at them. They are a hodgepodge of misfits. At one end, a gum-chomping beauty queen talks on a cell phone. Near midfield, an obese freshman with hams for thighs performs flat-footed hand gestures. There are even two preschoolers on the squad. They pick bugs out of the sideline grass. There is one more cheerleader though, and it is her I realize that the people are here to see.
She’s a petite redhead—probably a senior. She gulps from a bottle of water as she waits for the referee to signal a touchdown. There is a hush of anticipation. Even the Peace cheerleaders across the field have stopped, their eyes on the redhead. A few of Syria’s benchwarmers turn to look over their shoulder pads.
The touchdown is signaled, and the redhead presses her legs together, faces the crowd, and flaps her arms out to her sides once.
She takes two long skips, bounds two of her own body lengths, somersaults, swivels, and lands on her toes feathery light. Without gathering herself, she launches into thirty yards of cartwheels past the agape preschoolers and the chunky freshman. She then rockets vertically, tucks her legs and hangs motionless for seconds.
“Seer-yah! Whoo-hoo!” she yells, landing and pumping a fist.
The crowd grins collectively and shakes their heads.
She goes to her duffel bag and gets another sip of water and turns to watch the field. Her chest heaves as she waits for another opportunity. These are the nights she lives for—nights when Syria runs up the score.
The rout goes on and the closest I come to my Texas football experience is bitching with a local man about a roughing the kicker call. And because I can’t bear to watch the decimation those two black kids are putting on poor Peace, I too end up just watching the redhead.
Syria picks off another Peace pass with a minute left till halftime. I get up to leave. Just as I do, Syria scores on a running play. The redhead launches into a series of flips from handstands. On the last one, she taps her feet on the rubbery track, and leaps into the heavens. The preschoolers watch her rise with their mouths open. The freshman looks like she’s seen a ghost. The oblivious beauty queen though, still on her phone, waves into the stands. The redhead hangs in the air long enough to do the splits, and point one tiny white sneaker toward Dallas and one toward Muleshoe. Looking at her, you get the impression she could stay there forever, but that she probably wouldn’t stay long in Syria. §
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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