In 1987 I left Texas to spend the summer working at Disney World, selling “taco salads” to tourists at Frontierland. I was lonely and homesick and thought things couldn’t get any worse. Then the unthinkable happened.
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My childhood ended the summer I was seventeen and working the counter at the Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe at Walt Disney World’s Frontierland. I wore black garters on the sleeves of the candy-striped, button-down shirt that served as a uniform, but otherwise this was just a glorified fast-food gig no different from working at Whataburger. Over the clatter of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad—and the screams of all the thrill-seeking riders—I filled drink orders and got yelled at by moms from Buffalo who’d asked for no beans in their taco salads.
I’d never seen a taco salad in my life. I was from Mission, the birthplace of legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry, where the only cafe I knew was called Pepe’s. I’d spent previous summers working at a photography studio, washing the large windows at the downtown chamber of commerce, and cleaning out mobile home trailers for $50 each. That summer in 1987, I’d gone to Florida to live with second cousins and gotten hired at Disney. I think they stuck me in the Pecos Bill simply because I was from Texas. The Disney laundry service provided crisp Western shirts at the start of each shift, but I wasn’t much into playing “cowboys.” My mom had tried, dressing me up in country-western “kicker” drag from Mission Dry Goods, but I always felt as ridiculous as a member of the Village People.
Among my high school classmates, the trend was Roper boots, but I was a loner geek who continued wearing his penny loafers. My sister, Michelle, a cheerleader, school paper staffer, and homecoming queen also-ran, had big hair, a huge smile, and impossible dreams of getting out. Our overprotective parents made it hard for her to go anywhere other than chaperoned school trips, and none of us were allowed to stay out later than ten o’clock. She hollered for most of her life that she couldn’t wait to finish high school and leave. But until then, she would make efforts to fit in. She joined the Future Farmers of America and raised a sheep for the livestock show in Mercedes that sold to a local slaughterhouse. She slipped in and out of her school-club jackets and sequined gowns with all the ease of the professional model and actress she hoped to become one day.
I had no real ambitions of my own—at least I never announced them like she did—and blindly followed when she signed up for drama class, thinking it’d be an easy A. I also thought it would be a way of getting her approval. I landed every male lead and placed at speech tournaments, finally outshining my sister, but only onstage. On campus, I was still a bit of a loser, with just a friend or two, while she maintained an almost oppressive popularity.
I can’t say going to Florida was my conscious attempt to set myself free, but maybe my sister’s ceaseless rebel call to “get out” had stirred me to run off ahead as she continued the battle at home.
Michelle had graduated that summer and had fought to go upstate for college, but because she was a girl, my parents felt she’d be safer in the Valley, where she could attend the local commuter college that everyone derided as Taco Tech or Harvard on the Rio. For the first time I felt sorry for her, guilty that I had more freedom because I was a boy.
But mostly I missed her, and my little brother, Marco. This was the first time I’d been away from both of them, the first time I’d ever left Texas. I was reminded of it each time I turned on the radio. The rock ballad “Alone,” by Heart, was a huge hit that summer, and everywhere I went the Wilson sisters wailed, pounded the keyboards, and pulled the strings of their electric guitars as if they were my own veins. I grew increasingly homesick, recalling the grumbling crop dusters that banked low over our colonia as they made repeated sweeps of the nearby fields, hot afternoons spent making backyard “swimming pools” out of heavy garbage bags, and trying to finish rainbow-colored raspas before they melted into a brown puddle.
The weekend of the fourth of July, my Florida cousins went off to a Sunday barbecue. I stayed at the house, listening to firecrackers and illicit gunshots, and eventually cried myself to sleep to memories of childhood sparklers that never burned out. A neighborhood dog howled throughout the night.
The following morning, a Monday, I was awakened by a knock at my bedroom door. Mom was on the phone long-distance. She said Michelle was missing.
My sister, who’d been to a cookout with her boyfriend, had come home Sunday night to an empty house. Mom was working a late shift at H-E-B. Dad and Marco were at the family ranch. By the time everyone returned home, my sister’s Camaro was still in the driveway, but she was gone. When I arrived home on Tuesday, she still hadn’t turned up. I spent the afternoon driving Dad’s pickup truck around town, posting flyers that read “HAVE YOU SEEN HER?”
At dusk, my sister was found, her abandoned body lying in a mesquite-studded pasture behind our house. I shouted her name into the darkness, trying to pry myself loose of every hand holding on to me as I struggled to reach the backyard fence and, just beyond that, the flashlight beams cutting through the dry grass.
At my age, I’d attended a few funerals, including those of my dad’s parents, but this was the first time I was forced to make the arrangements. My parents just couldn’t. So on a hot, rainy morning, lulled by the squeaky wipers smearing the windshield, I rode with a sales agent from Valley Memorial Gardens to the mortuary and picked out a rose-hued, copper-toned casket. I remember thinking stupidly how much I wanted my sister to be happy.
After the burial, our house went silent, feeling as locked up as the roadside fireworks stands now closed for the season. We blamed ourselves for not being home the night of my sister’s initial disappearance, but as the one who’d been the farthest away, the guilt left me feeling even more alone amid the family. I rode back to Florida with my cousins, who’d made the cross-country drive to offer their condolences. I never reported back to the Pecos Bill. Instead, through a neighbor, I got hired at a local nursery, where I pruned and repotted and shipped out orders of ivy, hibiscus, and lilies of the valley.
I worked long hours in sweaty, suffocating greenhouses, ate brown-bag lunches with immigrant co-workers, and then waited out the terrible thunderstorms that rolled through every late afternoon before heading home. Having come from sturdy norteño stock, laborers who could barely scratch an X for their name, I told myself that this was where I belonged, with my hands in the dirt—not in front of the painted backdrops of a fantasyland amusement park. What had I been thinking?
My sister’s murderer was never found, and when I returned to high school for my senior year, I kept a tearless, resentful front. I pushed everyone away, focusing on schoolwork and the speech and drama tournaments, ultimately winning the state championship medal (the first time in 25 years that anyone from our school had won anything at state). I received an appointment to West Point and was set to report for summer Beast Barracks in June.
At my high school graduation ceremony, held out on the football field that once echoed with my sister’s cheers, I could no longer contain my sorrow, and so after tossing up my tasseled hat, I huddled with my family and cried under the harsh stadium lights. Fellow students and their families kept their distance.
I haven’t spent another summer in South Texas since.