Washing windows across America: Slow grinding war in Lockhart
I didn’t like being told to move on, so I spent the morning working the town square with the sole purpose of humiliating Toy Store Bob.
There’s a point in a man’s hangover where he can go either way. Certain trigger situations may push him into a fight-or-flight response more abruptly than it might the clear, well-rested man.
Episode 21: Slow, grinding war in Lockhart
The barbecue capital of Texas, where they used to kill a man every day
By Ben Leroux
Editor’s Note: This is final part of a two-part series in Lockhart, Texas, that started in last month’s edition.
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.
A woman owes me forty dollars. I am concerned about her. She runs a farm supply store on the town square of Lockhart, Texas, and strikes me as the type that might stiff a traveling window-washer. After all, Lockhart was once known as the “town where they used to kill a man every day.” It’s near noon when I return to her store, irritable from a debilitating hangover–a hangover that I refuse to stop and address with rest, liquids, food, or medication.
I pull on the door and get nothing. I tug. It’s dark inside and on the glass is a plastic “Will Return At” sign, which points to 1 p.m.
I throw a little tantrum. I stomp and cuss, roll my head, and pace back and forth, stopping to rattle the door. I make it a good one. Let off a little steam. Nothing changes. I kick the air. Good thing nobody’s watching. Good thing Toy Store Bob isn’t watching. It might give him the upper hand–a little hope. I peer through the glass.
But Toy Store Bob is watching. In the reflection, I see his pale, egg-shaped mug across the town square. At some point he must have slipped back outside of his toy store, to come and gloat. His round glasses shimmer and his little pie-hole is opened in a perfect “o” and his doughy belly bounces as he laughs “oh-ho-ho” and that jiggling neck-fat, how I’d love to get a handful of it and give it a twist. Watching him jiggle like that causes my head to crash with pain, and I reach for the railing to avoid passing out. A less forgiving hangover, there has never been.
The trouble between me and Toy Store Bob had begun early in the morning when he advised me not to bother going around this square asking about windows. A “feller out of Luling does all these windows,” he had said, “so just move on.” I didn’t like being told to move on, so I spent the morning working the town square with the sole purpose of humiliating Toy Store Bob.
I have succeeded too. And each time I come out of a store, with cash in hand, I stand in full view of Toy Store Bob and tauntingly arrange the bills, press them out, and count them. While doing this, I periodically look up at Toy Store Bob and smile. He watches despondently from a rickety chair outside his idle toy store, his Old-South notions being scrambled with each of my victories. He knows I’m a Yankee. He’s seen my California plates. Sometimes I recount the bills a second time or third. War is not pretty.
But now Toy Store Bob has won a small battle—I had failed to collect some earnings. Laugh while you can, Toy Store Bob. It’s early on the town square. I will collect my earnings, and when I do I will count them in front of you and smile.
One thing that people like Toy Store Bob and his feller out of Luling don’t understand is that no one likes an extortionist. No one likes a price-gouger. In the early afternoon heat, on a section of the town square hidden from Toy Store Bob by the county courthouse, I uncover and start to profit from seeds of rebellion that are growing against the feller out of Luling and his tyranny of high prices. Around 2 p.m., I reemerge into Toy Store Bob’s view, and immediately get hired by a cable TV office. I lay water on the glass and turn and wave to him with the brush. It’s good to see the enemy again. A beaten man. I notice that a couple townfolk, a woman and a man, have come to stand by him and watch me, perhaps for support. Sure, I’ll give them a show.
But no one likes a gloater. No one likes showboating. And hornets don’t like you cutting into the homes they have built underneath awnings, with your wooden brush dripping of water and chemicals. They resent that. Yet, as the first platoon of them descends upon me I react with great grace and composure, leaping from the curb and landing smoothly in the street, all the while holding onto my dripping brush and keeping my eye on Toy Store Bob and friends.
I then show them a little of the old agility from the football days. I show them how quickly I used to plant a foot and change direction on a dime. I hot-dog it a little by running in half circles, dodging the confused hornets. It goes well until I catch some loose gravel under a shoe, and tumble to the asphalt.
There’s no time for embarrassment or anger as the hoots come from across the square, because hornets have surrounded me and their wings are in my ears. From a seated position, I bat at them with the brush. Backup platoons emerge from the nest, some flying off but most coming for me. I get up and swat the air while dashing for the front door of the cable TV office. I close the door behind me.
“Problem,” I say to the woman behind the counter, the one that had hired me for ten dollars. “Hornets nest.” I now assess the damage. Blood oozing from a knee and elbow. Tiny black rocks embedded in the heel of a hand. Somehow, a scraped shoulder.
“Jest throw soapy water on ’em and it’ll kill’em,” she says. “That’s what ma husband does.”
“Well, I have soapy water. But is it necessary? Maybe I could work around them.”
“Nope. You gotta kill the nest. Get ready to run just in kay-eese.”
I look out her windows and consider walking away from the job. It was only ten dollars. Then I see Toy Store Bob and his two friends over there, watching the door, waiting for me, the celebratory smiles on their faces, the hope, the joy. My headache moves into my eyebrows, and I swallow some burning puke that has risen into my throat. Krispy Kreme donuts for breakfast.
Back outside, the old-timers snicker as I pick up my water-bucket and study the nest. It seemed impractical to throw a bucket of water up there. There was no way of telling if there were any hornets left, and even if I could hit it them, would it do anything besides further piss them off? I take a practice swing and succeed only in losing half of my water onto the sidewalk. A chorus of laughter from across the square. I go back in to regroup.
“How much soapy water does your husband throw on them?”
“Look, you’re gonna have to kill ‘em. Kay?” There are now three aerosol cans and a plastic cup on the counter. The woman stands behind them, arms folded across her chest.
“Cup,” she says, picking up the cup. “You can use it to throw a little bit at a time up there.” She demonstrates. “Or bug-killer. Your choice.”
I decide to just break the thing apart with my wet brush. That was how it had started, anyway.I whack at it and jump back, and four lethargic hornets come out and fly around drunkenly and fall into the puddle on the sidewalk. I whip at their home with the end of a towel and demolish their paper-like womb. They struggle in the puddle to dry themselves and regain strength but I save them the trouble. I step on them and kill them.
Then I walk away from the job. By the time I’d finished, those hornets could have all dried out and come back to their home. That woman had gotten me to do it. That was why she’d told me about her husband. She wanted me to get rid of that nest for her, and was challenging my competitiveness. And Toy Store Bob had gotten a good hoot over it and scored a couple points in our slow, grinding war.
A block off the square, the secretary at the Dodge dealership is getting off work for the day, and pays me 50 dollars in advance to clean the windows of the showroom. She says that while I’m outside she’ll have “the boys” pull all the furniture away from the windows inside. “They’s stayin’ late to watch the baseball on TV,” she tells me. She is ecstatic to have found someone so much cheaper than the feller out of Luling, who is due tomorrow. She laughs as she conveys how she will send him on his way when he shows up.
“I’ll make up some kind of excuse or something,” she snorts as she puts her purse over her shoulder. “Thanks again.”
The sun takes on a vengeful angle as I start on the outsides, but is to my back. I am near collapse, and bitter at myself for taking on this one last job. But I had to leave Lockhart on a winning note.
When I get inside the showroom, “the boys” are gathered around an old console TV watching the American League Championship Series from couches. No furniture has been moved. They are hefty, broad-assed boys in Levis and western shirts. Maybe during the commercials I think, and start pulling things away from the windows. There are archaic metal desks, dying ficus trees, dusty cardboard displays, and mammoth Venetian blinds covered in decades of lint. The lint finds my eyes and nostrils and attaches to my sweaty forehead. Ego, and growing contempt prevent me from asking the boys for help.
The sun then starts slashing through the panes like a laser beam, logging my shirt down with a new outbreak of sweat that seeps into the cut knee and elbow. I stop and eye a water cooler across the showroom. A good, long drink could probably get me through. But the owner, a large man in a large cowboy hat who has been spying on me, stops and looks at me and then at his watch. Earlier he’d given me a hard time about pressing too hard on his one bad window. He’s already on my nerves, and I don’t want any dealings with him. I feel I know him from somewhere.
“Should we help ‘im move them desks?” I hear one of the boys say from the couches.
“I ain’t. It’s his job.”
Approaching the 7 p.m. hour, it’s long past a fifty-dollar job, and it is long past a hundred dollar job. I go into a loopy state of shutdown and start dropping things, and forgetting which windows I’ve cleaned. My mind keeps returning back to this morning, even before Toy Store Bob, in the town coffee shop and the historical picture book I looked at. The faces of the kin of all these people were in there. And then on the very back page, the photograph and brief narrative of the old black couple that were once slaves, like afterthoughts to the historical cotton boom, back when a black man that got killed probably didn’t even figure into the statistics. For the first time since being in Texas, I feel like I’m in the South, and everyone I look at embodies every bad Southern stereotype there ever was.
At the core though, pricking away at me like a thorny undergrowth, is what they were going to do with that feller out of Luling tomorrow when he showed up to wash their windows. That secretary is going to come in early and invent some kind of lie and send him on his way. And afterward, she’ll tell the dealership owner about it and he will compliment her on her resourcefulness and frugality and then compliment himself on his genius for employing her. It’s the kind of shit people pull anywhere, not just in the South.
Normally, after the last window, I go back and replace everything and wipe up any water from the floor. But this time, in everyone’s best interest, I leave.
“Fifty bucks,” I say to Toy Store Bob, waving the bills at him as I load my things back into the Plymouth. My shirt and hair start to dry in the cool shade that now covers the retiring town square. “Makes about a hundred for the day.” The aroma of nearby barbecue houses flavors the air, and a Bohemian that has been playing guitar poorly all day on the steps of the coffee shop next door, continues to do so. I walk up the steps and drop a five into his open guitar case.
It pushes Toy Store Bob beyond hurt. The dagger had been the waving of the fifty bucks, but to walk up to the Bohemian and drop that five in his case, when Toy Store Bob probably hadn’t sold five dollars worth of toys all day, was a spit in the face. His face deadens and I suddenly wish I could take the five back.
But then his beady little eyes start to glimmer with life again. He is looking over my shoulder at something. And the bohemian has stopped playing. There is the sound of wicked angriness approaching from behind, and I don’t have to turn around to know from whom it is coming. The Dodge man comes at me in a speed walk, arms wide, fists clenched, face flushed. Toy Store Bob starts to jiggle behind me. He’s got a little hope again.
“Hey! Where the hell you think you’re goin’?” yells the Dodge man.
There’s a point in a man’s hangover where he can go either way. Certain trigger situations may push him into a fight-or-flight response more abruptly than it might the clear, well-rested man. Remember, he still has some of the poison in him. The wrong thing can set him off, and envenomed by the sort of feverish euphoria that sometimes possesses a rogue circus elephant, he may become unpredictable and find himself descending stairs as if on air, advancing on the source of irritation, finger pointed, a bit of spittle coming from his lips, saying hoarsely: “What’s your fucking problem?”
Now the Dodge man wants a little piece? So do I. We approach each other like two snarling bulls. We were about the same weight, but his was mostly belly, and I was primed for violence.
Sensing perhaps my irrational mindset, the Dodge man pulls up and stops at a curbside. He turns slightly aside, so I stop on the opposite curbside. The only thing that separates us now is a narrow Lockhart side street.
“Well,” he says, gesturing in the air, his voice gone from threatening to persecuted. “You didn’t move no furniture back and you left water all over the damn floor.”
“Hey, how about I dust your furniture and wax your floors while I’m at it?” I don’t know where the line comes from, but I like it. Color and warmth are coming to my face and head and my legs shake, but in a good way now, from adrenaline. I feel alive and weightless. “Furniture, shit. You were supposed to move that furniture out for me!”
He huffs and turns back toward the dealership, raising his hands to God.
“Ain’t even put the blinds back down.”
“Ah, go to hell, you and your boys. And you’re welcome for the great deal, by the way!”
When I get back to the Plymouth, Toy Store Bob is a set of frightened eyes peeking at me through his darkened windows, the CLOSED sign swinging and the sound of a latch locking. The Bohemian shuts his case and gawks at me in utter dismay as I slam the trunk of the Plymouth.
I start walking toward the farm supply store, even though I’d written off the forty bucks, and had nothing left in me for revenge. I felt like the town square looked–empty and on its last leg. The toys were being sold out at Wal-Mart and the windows were being cleaned by fellers out of Luling, and for the bullheaded there was only the big punch-line at the end of the day.
I look through the dark glass door of the farm supply store and knock. While I wait I pick the remaining little rocks from the heel of my hand, and remember where I’d seen the Dodge man before. He was on the inside flap of that picture book, wearing the same cowboy hat and same type of shirt. Had I just damn near killed the mayor of Lockhart, Texas? Well, it had been that kind of day.
The farm store lady comes to the door and lets me in. She’s been waiting for me. She asks me questions about myself and I answer them guardedly. Then she pays me fifty instead of forty and walks me out. As she is locking up, and I am walking away, she says: “Don’t you pay no attention to no one gives you a funny look’r nothin’ in any of these towns. Most people in this world won’t never have your humility.”
I guess I’d been wrong about her. I guess she understood some things. §
Ben Leroux lives and works and writes from his hovel in Morro Bay. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of his Washing windows across America series here: