Washing windows across America: Life in Lockhart
Sitting in front of the pane, wearing a straw hat, and leaning back in an old decrepit chair is the store’s owner. It takes only a quick glance between us to sense the bad blood.
The coffee begins pooling at the bottom of my gut where the Krispy Kremes have clotted into a tough doughy sealant.
Life in Lockhart
The town where they used to kill a man every day
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.
Thanks to a car repair and 64 ounces of rotgut, I wake penniless and nauseous in the parking lot of a Lockhart, Texas, Wal-Mart as a dull, cloudy brain tries to engineer plans to get food into an angry, bellowing stomach. The brain comes up with only one thing: washing windows.
So, carrying an empty bucket and supplies squint-eyed across the parking lots of several retail businesses, clothes and hair creased at nonsensical angles, gauzy lips smacking, mining for saliva, facial ticks twittering, I go in search of relief. The first regrets over having spent my last three dollars on malt liquor surface. I’d been about halfway into it when I remembered being out of soap and ammonia. But after 20 or 30 ounces, such things as soap and ammonia become tomorrow’s problems. Now tomorrow is here, and people are coming to their store windows to get a look at the sick, haggard-looking man lurching along.
I make it into the cool air of a supermarket, but as I do what feels like the beginning of a roller derby starts careening around the inside of my skull, and in the frozen foods section I go to one knee while a rush of hot, white queasiness passes. I had gotten myself into a bad way and needed to get some grease or fat of some kind into my stomach just to fool my brain into thinking I could function.
I find a manager, and while looking at him through a hazy veil of tiny twinkling lights, nonchalantly ask him for directions to the town square, and if he thinks I might make some money down there since I am a window washer by trade and, “Oh by the way, what about your windows?” I say it as if it hadn’t occurred to me until just that moment, when in fact even in my state I’d evaluated the windows on the way in. It is a ploy I’ve used a couple times. Some people like the direct approach, others you have to play hard-to-get with.
“When can you do ‘em?”
“Well, since I’m out of soap and ammonia, not until…“
“Go pick yew whatchyew need off the shelf.”
“I could use a couple donuts too.”
“Getchyew Krispy-Kremes. They’s the best.”
I select a bottle of Lemon Joy and generic ammonia, and take two Krispy Kreme donuts from a display case. Outside, I swallow them whole while filling my bucket with water from the store’s spigot. The dough fills a placebic void in the stomach for now. The indigestion, the heartburn, the thirst, the headaches and dizzy spells, I’d worry about later. You see how things come together?
My extension poles, I find, are too short for the store’s windowpanes. No problem. Stacked around the store are 3-foot-high bags of deer-corn. They serve as a ledge that I make my way around the store on. See how things work out?
After the supermarket, I find the town square, park the Plymouth in front of a coffee shop, and follow the smell of brewing java up a set of concrete steps. Wheezing and with heart palpitations, I nearly run into a young Texas bohemian sitting on the steps. He has an open guitar case in front of him and is tuning up a nice six-string. If I were well, I might stop and talk to him. But I’m not, and I need caffeine badly.
Before going in, I again instinctively examine windows. The coffee shops are pristinely clean—obviously recently done. But the windows of the business next door—the first business along the square I will solicit once I’ve had my coffee, are bad. It is a dim-looking toy store with dusty boxes of Lego and wooden trains displayed behind a pane with a good six months worth of crust on it. Sitting in front of the pane, wearing a straw hat, and leaning back in an old decrepit chair is the store’s owner. It takes only a quick glance between us to sense the bad blood.
In the coffee shop, I sink into a sturdy, bottomless couch with a cup of coffee. It is either the most comfortable couch ever made, or months of living in a car have dramatically lowered my standards.
I start throwing down the coffee, and slowly the stodgy gray starts to separate. I pick up a book off of a table—an historical picture book of Lockhart. Through old sepia photos of cattle drives, high school classes, livestock winners, baseball teams, stringent-faced little kids, cotton farmers, and honored citizens, I learn a little about Lockhart. The “Barbecue Capital of Texas.” Part of the old Chisolm Trail. Known in earlier times as “the town where they killed a man every day.” On the first page is a message from the town mayor, and on the back page a short tribute to a family of one-time slaves.
After a second cup, the coffee begins pooling at the bottom of my gut where the Krispy Kremes have clotted into a tough doughy sealant, and when I move I can hear the stagnant reservoir of coffee sloshing around like the last gallon of gas in a tank, but I am at least lucid, and now able to make out my surroundings, and realize: “Jesus, I’m sitting in the Cadillac of all coffee shops.”
Spacious, opulent, plush, with dark hardwood floors, a baby grand piano, overhead jazz piped in from Austin, and off to one side an Internet room where people clack away at supercharged computers. When I look over at the deep mahogany bar and see men in farming caps, cowboy boots, and cutoff sleeves standing around sipping Joe and talking shop, I fear I am hallucinating from the DTs.
The busy eyes and smile of a woman are standing over me.
“This your place?” I ask.
“Yes?” The smile stays in place while the eyes brace for conflict.
“I hope you don’t take it the wrong way,” I say. “But it’s as if your coffee shop is out of place here in Lockhart. I bet you’d be hard-pressed to find a coffee shop this nice in San Francisco or Seattle or anywhere.”
The woman blushes. “Oh, oh. I am so glad to hear it. Now if I could just get the rest of the square to revitalize along with me. I mean, just look at the beautiful architecture we have here on the town square.”
She and I look through her windows out onto the grassy lot in the center of the town square, where glowing cream, brick and black in the late-morning sun stands the Caldwell County Courthouse. A person with no architectural taste whatsoever could tell that building was something to look at. A miniature gothic Disney castle. It was the same way in most of the squares of these little Texas towns. While half the businesses around it were empty, and the dollars and souls of communities were gravitating out toward the Wal-Marts, Sonics, and Dollar Worlds, and the only thing flourishing here were the weeds rising from the cracks in the sidewalks, these marvelous old steepled buildings stood proud and sturdy in the middle of what was once called the “town square” but was now called something more marketable like the “old historical district.”
“I bet this old timer next door isn’t much for revitalization,” I say to her. “The toy store guy?”
“Who? Ol’ Toy Store Bob? He’s one of ‘em I was tellin’ you about would like to keep the square, ahem–the ‘historical district’—the way it is. A real old fuddy-duddy.”
She leaves me and I take a long look at the town square. Sentiment aside, that square was nothing to me than a stage. Once I climbed these stairs with my gear and started going door to door, word would start to spread around the square, and what one lonely merchant couldn’t find out about me through the grapevine, another could find out by simply observing my body language and work habits as I progressed from shop to shop. So it helped to get off to a good start on the square, where I wasn’t only cleaning windows, I was also auditioning.
Halfway down the stairs I stop and drop a dollar into the bohemian’s case and listen to him for a second. He’s not very good. Can barely hit the chords and his shrill excuse for a voice sends a knifing sensation through my temples, and at this point if I tried to barf up the Krispy Kremes I probably could.
“Already got someone,” Toy Store Bob says, spitting out into the street, looking past me, rocking back and forth in his chair. I stand in front of him, while staring at the dirty window behind him. I look down on his sour, dumpy face and suddenly want to grab a handful of it. In his features I see some of the waxy-pale, ovular noggins I’d seen in that picture book, with round spectacles, and a little portal for a mouth and a bit of double chin. I want to pinch the chin and twist it. Something about the guy I don’t like.
I let it go though, and start to move on to the gift shop next door. But Toy Store Bob has something to add.
“Don’t bother goin’ ‘round this squay-er, neither.” He spits. “There’s a feller out of Luling does all these windas.” His drawl is tinny, and buried in his throat are little warbles of Old South-caution and plantation leisure. My pulse starts skipping, and the coffee at the bottom of my gut starts to bubble, and as my mouth goes sandy, I remember I’ve forgotten to drink water. I am near the steps, heading back toward the Plymouth in retreat, when a hairline combative streak in me that Toy Store Bob doesn’t know about kicks in, and makes me stop. I go back to the opaque layer of white window-film on the gift shop’s windows, and say to Toy Store Bob: “Really? Your feller must not do all of them.”
Toy Store Bob doesn’t look at the window. He just rocks back in his chair. “Prob’ly ain’t got to it yet,” he says. He chortles.
“Well, he ain’t got to it in about two years then,” I say, hot, moist air streaming evenly through my nostrils now.
“Suit yerself,” he says, jiggling like jelly. “Best just to move on though.”
Shaking, jaws clenched, I walk through the gift shop, praying, unbeliever that I am, that in the name of all that is just and right that I come back out of here with the job. Because the just, right thing to happen at this moment would be for Toy Store Bob, a guy who could care less about a Yankee drifter and the car repairs, food, Advil, Rolaids, and medicinal booze he might need, to have to watch as I come out of this gift shop and start lathering up these windows with soapy water. Toy Store Bob just wanted me to move on.
“Guess your feller missed this one,” I say to him, remerging from the gift shop and laying water on its windows.
Toy Store Bob’s reaction couldn’t be more perfect. After a double take at the windows, followed by the sight of my ill-willed smile, his stung face droops in stages into a paralysis of humiliation. As he stands and picks up his chair, he looks down and mutters. I make out the words “smart” and “aleck.” Toy Store Bob then takes his chair inside his store, locks the door, and turns over his CLOSED sign.
Bilious fluids surge for my throat as I cackle triumphantly, and with the shakiest of hands, put the squeegee to the glass.
After the supermarket and the gift shop, I’ve got enough money to get solid food in me from one of Lockhart’s award-winning barbecue houses. I could even buy Ibuprofen and a gallon of Gatorade, and go back and lay in the Plymouth for the rest of the day.
That is probably what I should do, but I am instead standing in a musky farm supply store, bracing myself on a rabbit hutch to keep from fainting while waiting for a woman behind the counter to get off the phone. And as I stand here I can see Toy Store Bob, that little waxen devil, across the way, sitting outside his store again with his OPEN sign turned back around, glaring over here, waiting to see what’s going to happen when I come out. My mission now was not only to show Toy Store Bob that I could get work in Lockhart, but that I could get it with relative ease. The fact that I was now on the cool, shaded side of the square, I felt, worked in my favor.
I’m not sure about this woman behind the counter though–something judging in her behavior. And she’s one of these that, rather than tuck the mouthpiece under her chin for a second or tell whoever’s on the other end to hold on for one goddamn minute, prefers to talk to both of us at the same time, nodding, smiling, shaking her head, not looking in any particular direction, saying “mm-mmm,” and “mm-hmm,” and “no not you,” without anyone knowing who’s being spoken to. The only way to cut off the confusion is to go outside and start cleaning her windows.
Before I dunk brush into bucket though, I’d be remiss not to turn and wave to Toy Store Bob and watch the hope fall from his face once more. So I do.
She’s still on the damn phone when I finish and go back in. “Mmm-hmm,” she says.
“Three doors down now,” she says, looking out ahead nowhere, but pointing to her left.
“Three doors down?” I ask, not knowing if she hears me.
“Mmm, furniture warehouse three doors down” she says still pointing. “No not you,” she says. “Mm-hmm.” I’m still not sure who she’s talking to.
Then I catch onto the pattern. “Mm-mmm” is for me, and “mm-hmm” is for her friend. It makes sense. Using “h” on the common laborer would be a waste of a perfectly good consonant. I don’t get the hmm, I get the mmm and I am fine with that.
So I walk three doors down to an empty old furniture warehouse and start washing. First though, I stop and turn and look for Toy Store Bob. Not there. Unable to stand the degradation I suppose, his CLOSED sign is turned back over and he is gone.
Even so, I beam with gladiatorial pride while toiling feint and pale, and still rather drunk probably. Bristling with a feverish cold sweat, I swear off malt liquor for life, knowing that most likely it was just the malt liquor talking. The Krispy Kremes try escape, but the combative streak won’t let me stop washing windows for one second–not even to shit or puke.
About halfway through the job, I level out enough to comprehend that I had been very foolish with the farm supply lady, a woman I didn’t know and hadn’t even talked to yet. I’d let her send me off on some wild goose chase to clean the windows of an old furniture warehouse that belonged to god-knows-who, without even agreeing on a price.
I finish hurriedly, imagining all kinds of scenarios. No one had stiffed me yet, but there was always a first, and she seemed like the type. That was probably her MO. Instead of using the feller out of Luling, she just waited around for wayward fools like myself to come through, and pretending she was on the phone, started sending them all over town to clean her dirty windows, waiting for them to come back for their pay at which point she would smile hospitably and say: “Don’t you know about Lockhart, honey? Why they used to kill a man here ever-day.” You picture yourself getting chased out of Lockhart by trucks of rifle-bearing cowboys.
I’m shaking again by the time I start marching back to the farm store, eyes aflame, bowels atremble, tongue swollen to the size of a bath towel, almost wishing the woman would try it. I ask myself if she did, what my next move might be, concluding that the only recourse I really possessed was the threat of such juvenile acts as sabotage, vandalism, or psychological terrorism. I ask myself would I, a peace-loving man of middle age, in the name of all that is just and right, resort to such acts? Such threats? Maybe it was still the malt liquor talking, but after some soul-searching the answer comes back darkly, sweetly: “Yes. Yes I would.” §
Ben Leroux lives and works and writes from his hovel in Morro Bay.