The Rogue Voice

A LITERARY JOURNAL WITH AN EDGE

May 01, 2008

Washing windows across America (episode 32)



Poor old Kmart. Once the country’s feature mart, it was now stuck over here on the alleyways, sharing the gravel with strip joints.

I decide the worst thing I can do is to sit still. I decide to take action. Gambling that my one asset was that I outweighed Drew by fifty pounds, I step out of the vehicle.








Photo Illustration by Stacey Warde

Houma’s big tumor
The missing ingredient to a Friday night


Part 1
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.



Episode 32
Route 182 between Morgan City and Houma coaxes the Plymouth and me along a lazy bayou shaded with drooping cypress. It’s a Friday afternoon in November and there are roadside pecan stands to watch go by, and yellow alligator-crossing signs every 5 miles or so. From the back of prolific lawns, stately mansions look out at humble little neighborhoods crouched along the bayou where small boys lay back on docks soaking up the final rays of autumn. Fishing poles dangle over the water beside them. Timeless drives like these could go on forever, as far as the Plymouth and I are concerned.
Then without warning, the city of Houma (population 32,000) gets us in her clutches, and before we can protest or run back for 182, begins whipping us up and down two gray one-way streets of pawnshops and liquor stores. She unleashes her tailgating citizens upon us, who delight in bullying us into secret turning lanes that force us into the crosscurrent, one street over. For what seems an eternity, we travel in a long narrow circle, and just when we start to find a way around Houma’s exitless amusement ride, identify some landmarks, she lashes us around some more. She bats us around like this till dusk, when she grows bored with us and spits us out into a Kmart parking lot.
We don’t stay for long at Kmart. Something seemed out of whack. It wasn’t even on a street really, but a graveled drive across from two “bikini bars.” Poor old Kmart. Once the country’s feature mart, it was now stuck over here on the alleyways, sharing the gravel with strip joints. These days it wasn’t even allowed near the other marts.
***
It isn’t hard to find Houma’s Wal-Mart and the pulsating cancer that feeds off it. You simply join the flow of vans, trucks and other cars coursing voraciously through the night streets. Like any other tumor, it’s hard to tell where Houma’s ends or begins. During my initial drive through though, I am pleased to find a Books-A-Million, the no-frills, straight-rowed, plastic-couched, southern cousin of Borders.
Coffee and book in hand, I go in search of a reading chair, but find something much better — a secluded spot on the floor behind a tall rack of entertainment magazines. The space was almost too good to be true and I’d hold onto it for dear life. Only narcolepsy or incontinence would make me give it up. I peek into the book I’ve grabbed. Lately I’ve been reading the plays of Tennessee Williams.
But I feel I’m being watched and I look up. Two beady little eyes are honed in on me. They belong to a boy standing next to his mother, a woman lost in the pages of Us Magazine. No more than four, the kid is more stunted adult than child, with pallid skin, dark quarter-moons under severe eyes, thin serious lips, and tiny snot encrusted nostrils. I ignore the little guy as long as I can, but he is unwavering. So I shoot him a quick smile and a wave then cover my eyes with the book. This twofold gesture lets a gawking kid know that while you may not be interested in interaction, you are not at all a bad man.
The unaffected kid holds his stare though. And when I look over the top of the book, I find him squinting doggedly at me. Then real low, lips barely moving, he growls: “Git the hell out.”
His mother looks up from her Us and in a protective reflex, my hand leaps to my mouth and I flinch. I suddenly want to protect the lad from the clout he had coming. I want to intervene before she lifts him off the ground and shakes him unconscious for embarrassing her in public. I’m ready to jump in and say something funny like “Ah, kids. Shit sometimes falls out of their mouth, doesn’t it? I don’t know about you, but it used to fall out of mine all the time.” I prepare to diffuse the situation. The last thing the kid needs however is my help.
His mom doesn’t lay a hand on him. In fact, upon discovering her little darling’s feat, she has laughed proudly, hugged the tyke and led him away, ruffling his dirty-blonde hair.
It sends me back out to the Plymouth where I lay down and hide from Louisiana. With two words that kid had confirmed every gut feeling I’d been dismissing over the past two weeks. I was hated here in Cajun country, was seen as a trespasser. I no longer cared why. What I wanted to know was how they could tell just by looking at me. The constant dirty looks were wearing me down. Not even the checkout clerks or librarians ever cracked a smile or said a kind word. Usually, no matter where you are, you can get a woman to show a little warmth. The stewing tires me into the early stages of sleep.
Shortly in though, the Plymouth begins to jiggle and I hear amorous cooing outside. In the rearview I find that a young couple has chosen the back of the Plymouth to make out against. Thinking they’ll soon move on to better accommodations, I decide to ride it out. But their dry-humping gets furious and starts to rock and sway the Plymouth. I get jostled around. I have to hold onto the armrests! Jesus, I’m on the high seas! I sit up and bang on the back window. The couple unlocks their faces and gives me a pair of piqued frowns.
I move the Plymouth closer to Wal-Mart. There would be little quiet here, but there were large vehicles to disappear between. I’m just settled in when I hear breaking of glass, and shouting outside. I sit up and the blurs of two laughing teens sprint past. Seconds later, a fat man in a Wal-Mart vest stops outside my window. Wheezing, he hurls empty bottles after the juveniles, promising them that if he ever sees them on Wal-Mart property again, he will cut their little nuts off.
Starved for a modicum of quietude, I move as far away from vehicles or stores as possible, out into the open spaces of Houma’s vast tumor. There is risk involved here. You are a sitting duck for cops or anyone else who may be curious. But after a few moments I discover that Houma could care less about me and I fall into a nice snooze. It is promptly disrupted by the rumble of a truck that pulls up a good distance behind the Plymouth and parks.
I lay and listen for a while. Over the popping of beer cans I begin to hear the voices and giggles of two couples. By their casual playfulness I can tell I am nothing more to them than an old abandoned car. I keep still and out of sight. No need to spook them. How long can they party here anyway? A few beers and they’ll be gone.
But time passes and many more beer cans pop and the musk of weed drifts my way and I start to get nervous. My knowledge of human nature, and redneck nature in particular, tells me that once discovered I was going to be the missing ingredient to their Friday night. So I decide to get the inevitable over with. I turn on the dome light, sit up, and cough loudly.
For a long, dead moment there is neither sound nor movement from either vehicle. Then there is rustling and tense, layered whispers from the truck. One distinct set of whispers stands out from the rest. One male says to the other: “Git ‘im, Drew.”
Drew doesn’t get out of the truck right away, which I see as a good sign. His hesitation gives me a flicker of hope that reason and peace will prevail this night. But then the little whores have to chime in.
“Yeah, c’mon Drew. Go git ‘im,” they giggle. “Yeah, beat ‘is ass, Drew,”
Damn bitches.
I shut off the dome light and concentrate on steadying my breathing and observe the physiology of the body. Nature has some remarkable ways for preparing us for conflict. Shaking must prime the muscle groups for grappling, striking and tossing motions, I deduce. An essential trait for Homo sapiens’ survival. The dry throat must have given the caveman’s voice a bit of a growl to make him sound ferocious to predators. Crucial. But why do intestines descend in the abdomen? To remind one of death perhaps.
Houma’s tumor assumes the remoteness of Siberian tundra as the cold standoff escalates. Drew, with his reputation on the line, stalls. This is what I imagine at least, since I’ve yet to see. I, on the other hand, have time for a visual search around the Plymouth. I search for assets — anything that could be used in battle. It doesn’t take long. The only potential weapon I had was the guitar, and I needed that.
On the liability side however, I was quite rich. In addition to being outnumbered and having nowhere to flee, my footwear was a pair of flimsy sandals. Just for wearing sandals in November I deserved a good beating. Sandals were no good for fighting or anything else really but walking the beaches of California. Slipping them on, I pledge to dig my old sneakers out of the trunk first thing in the morning. That is, if I survived the ordeal at hand.
The tone of the four voices from the darkened cab begins to change and I don’t like it. It takes on the territorial, self-righteous edge of persecuted rural folk. I decide the worst thing I can do is to sit still. I decide to take action. Gambling that my one asset was that I outweighed Drew by fifty pounds, I step out of the vehicle.
I let Drew get a look at me. I stretch for him and yawn. I widen my stance, spit, scratch, inflate the chest and try to look as tough as a man can in sandals and shorts. I walk around to the front of the Plymouth and open the hood and pretend to check oil. I stare at the Slant-6 engine and think back to that lazy, silky drive along 182 just hours ago and how nice it would be to be back there. The Louisiana bayou air had been just like you hear it described in books — “velvety” or “creamy.” There were only a few fleeting drives like that left in America, where you could go back in time and pretend there were no big tumors.
Drew’s headlights split open the darkness of the tumor and obliterate my vision and his engine screams and revs. I don’t jump to any conclusions. For all I know, Drew is getting ready to hightail it out of here. No, Drew is too far in now. His buddy lets out a whoop and the two girls cheer. He must come for me and does.
There’s little I can do to prepare. The few fighting moves I knew were designed for one-on-one playground combat, not parking lot free-for-alls with hostile banshee-cackling girls in the background. And definitely not for sandals. For my type of self-defense, a stable pair of athletic sneakers worked best. Yet, as the heat of Drew’s approaching headlights thaw my chilled gooseflesh, my fear levels out into a crystal state of expectancy and my hands twitch impatiently. Maybe I’d received one too many dirty looks…. §

Editor’s note: The second part of Houma’s big tumor will continue in the next installment of Ben Leroux’s Window Washing Across America.

Ben Leroux continues to ply his trade as a window washer and writes from his home in Morro Bay. He can be reached at ben@roguevoice.com.


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