Essay One: The Stopover
The sun rises hard on the Llano Estacado. It does not ease gently into the morning sky, but bursts onto the infinite blue canvas, brutal and brilliant. By mid-morning, the inevitable wind that sweeps the west Texas plains is super-charged with the kind of heat that reminds you of opening a bag of microwaved popcorn. Only it’s not microwaved. It’s macro…wave upon sun-burning, lip-cracking, throat-parching wave.
Even a tree’s shade is no match for the heat-conducting wind. Not that you would find more than a couple trees every hundred miles or so that could honestly wear that title.
“Dadblast this heat. Hell is a bitch named Andrews.”
Charley Hogan squats in the receding shade afforded him by the wall against which his sweat-soaked back is pressed – the wall of Walgreens, where he has just traded all the money he has in the world for a Dr. Pepper and a pack of Kamel Reds. The first cigarette out of the fresh new pack, half-smoked, dangles in the corner of his mouth and bounces as he mutters expletives to himself.
The wizened, leather-skinned old coot is all gristle and bone. His ribs are outlined in the tight-fitting pale blue button-down hand-me-down shirt, of which the sleeves are neatly rolled to the elbows. The jeans appear not to be from the current generation or even the previous. They are worn thin in the butt and crotch and clean through at each knee. The blue in them is mostly white, though in places a dingy brown.
Charley squints into the ill-placed sunlight and bids good morning to the fat lady in shorts and tank top. She gives him a wide berth, which means she is less worried about the shortest distance between her car door and the Walgreen’s front door than she is the distance between herself and the man she assumes is a panhandler.
She does not return the greeting or make eye contact. In no way does she acknowledge his greeting or even his existence.
As the last of her ass disappears through the automatic door, Charley mutters, “You coulda at least stood still a minute and blocked this damned sun.”
She doesn’t hear him and he doesn’t care. He thumps his cigarette, which spins, end over end, like a football kicked through the uprights and then skips, sparks flying, on the concrete a couple of times before rolling to its death in an unclaimed parking spot.
Charley’s knees snap, crackle, and pop as he winces and cusses his way to a standing position. Long, skinny legs carry him to the corner of 4th and Main. It’s just 100 steps for a normal person of standard height and 67 steps for the 6’7 67-year-old man in the sweat-stained Stetson, sweatier-still blue shirt, tattered jeans, and Mule-brown leather boots.
He could not remember how he came to be the 11,042nd soul in Andrews. He remembers the sign that welcomed him to town – was he riding a Greyhound bus? – because it still stands proud at the city’s eastern edge. The whitewashed billboard is about 100’ wide and 10’ tall and is supported by 13 posts.
“ANDREWS LOVES GOD, COUNTRY, AND SUPPORTS FREE ENTERPRISE,” the thing proudly boasts.
Charley looks up Main Street and then down it, trying to decide if he meant to cross to the other side or why he had come to the street corner at all. While he waits for the light to change and inspiration for his next move, he thinks about that sign on the city’s edge and wonders if it speaks for all of Andrews’ citizens, including the fat lady in Walgreens.
He had come to Andrews for a job.
No. Wait. He got off the bus in Andrews because his money had run out and he hadn’t the fare to go further. Yeah, that was it.
He rubs his chin and watches the “walk” sign begin to flash, count down from 10, and then get replaced by the hand.
He needs a cigarette.
He came to Andrews…that was the point. No. The point was he left somewhere else. Yeah. Lubbock. He left Lubbock at high noon in the middle of one of those dust storms that turns the sky red, hides the sun completely, and sandblasts the enamel off of every foolish grinner’s teeth.
He left because there was nothing left.
That was 2000 and…no…it was 19…and 90…six? No, seven. 1997.
He was just passing through Andrews. Just long enough to collect bus fare. Twenty years later, he is watching the light turn green and the hand go up to signal don’t cross the damn road for the fourth time.
He palms a cigarette and shields the lighter’s flame from the wind, which ought to have enough heat in it to light the thing and save him the trouble. Three flicks of flint on steel and the dollar ninety-nine lighter makes good on its given purpose. He takes a deep draw, exhales through his nose like smoke billowing from the tailpipes of a street rod, purses his lips, and remembers her.
Charley was not from west Texas. Heck, he was not from Texas at all. He grew up in the Louisiana bayou. When he graduated high school in 1967, he was offered scholarships from a dozen schools. A tall, thin drink of water with a cannon for an arm, he was maybe three inches too tall for some people’s liking when it comes to the ideal size for a quarterback.
He chose Texas Tech University…or it chose him. Something about the lonesome feel of the wide-open plains whispered peace into the lanky, rawboned footballer’s soul.
Good thing, too, because a knee injury his freshman year ended his football career. He stuck around to collect his business degree and fall in love with a girl named Sonnie Sue Simpson. Sonnie Sue How D’Ya Do, he called her. They married in 1972 and built a life together. A life and a business. And two daughters.
But that was then.