Farewell to Cracker Eden
The Oak Cliff of my childhood had broad streets, narrow minds, and God-fearing people. Today it is a mockery of the place I knew.
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HISTORY AND LEGEND BIND US to the past, along with unquenchable memory. Growing up in Dallas’ working-class suburb of Oak Cliff in the forties and fifties was the second experience in my life that I never got over. I hadn’t been back to those boyhood haunts in thirty years, and I wasn’t as calm as I thought I’d be about returning. Under a patchy October overcast, the houses along Marsalis Avenue looked beat, maybe even whipped. I had to slow down to read the sign for my old street because all of the landmarks were gone.
When I first saw East Ninth in 1948, the street was a leafy tunnel running past tidy bungalows and well-kept Victorian mansions dating back to the original settlement of the City of Oak Cliff before the turn of the century. Now it was food stamp country—a jungly midden with a Third World flavor. I knew in advance that the house where Spook and I lived had been demolished during the Latino incursion of the seventies, so I eased past its replacement, not ready to look at it yet. I turned south on Patton, and the area changed from merely seedy to wasteland.
At Tenth and Patton, I pulled over in shock. The devastation was total—an entire neighborhood sunk in rot. The surviving houses were vine-choked, boarded up, literally atomizing in a ghastly mocker of the thriving community I recalled. The burned-out hulk of an apartment warren stood on the site where Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly killed Officer Tippit after the Kennedy assassination.
Leaving the car, I paced up and down the broken sidewalks, searching in vain for the duplex where my best school pal had lived. The blasted terrain looked as though war and pestilence had swept through, leaving behind only feral silence.
Turning away, still on foot, I started back toward Ninth. Oak Cliff’s soul had changed or maybe died, I couldn’t tell which. And what exactly had been lost? Well, a civilization … Growing up on these streets, I had started learning about all the things I was still trying to comprehend—love, sex, money, art, death. But, then, I knew a thing or two about death when I first came to Oak Cliff.
In 1943 my parents—Grover Lewis and Opal Bailey Lewis—shot each other to death with a pawnshop pistol. Big Grover had stalked us for a year, fighting divorce tooth and nail, and when he finally cornered Opal alone and pulled the trigger, she seized the gun and killed him too. They’d started out as Depression kids who had eloped from the Trinity Heights area of Oak Cliff, where they’d both been friends with Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Like Clyde, my father was an unschooled country jake who fell—or jumped—into low ways in the big city. Opal, like Bonnie, was a bright student who left school early to help support her family—a moral girl with high ideals. Like Bonnie’s, Opal’s main crime seems to have been picking the wrong guy. In the end, she managed to save my father from everybody but himself.
The fatal events took place in my hometown of San Antonio when I was eight, and I became the ward of a brutish Fort Worth in-law who amused himself by trying to break my body and spirit. By today’s standards, he would have been deemed abusive enough to serve jail time. After five years, when I realized that my options were either suicide or homicide, I ran away and refused to return if I died in the process. Many of my mother’s kin considered me unsalvageable because I was a “pure Lewis.” They’s give me that look: “Just like his daddy.…”
Spook—my great uncle, C.E.Bailey—saved my life. When he took me in, I was badly damaged—withdrawn, lacking confidence, blind as a bat, smart as fire, dumb as hell. Still, with a friendly home base only a block’s walk from my high school classes and the local library also close at hand, I began to mend. My case was extreme but hardly singular in a workingman’s district where a lot of families got blown to smithereens.
A sagging condo pile with a “No Drugs” sign out front occupied the lot where our old family boarding house had steed. Spook and I had lived upstairs in a bare room with a bare bulb above the iron bedstead. When I started working after school, I bought us reading lamps, feeling grown-up about pitching in.
Spook’s insight—his special grace—was to treat me as a younger brother instead of a ward. In is fifties by then, a union machinist and a lifelong bachelor, he kept his mind sharp by studying the Bible and parsing out “the lies in the papers.” Half a Wobbly in his secret heard, he taught me a multitude of useful things, one of the germinal ideas being that decency and common sense were most likely to be found in common people. He offered general advice, specific if asked, and never raised his voice or hand to me. In the long haul, I think I was less trouble to him than his batty sisters, both of whom constantly schemed to lure him into their religious cults.
If Spook was our family Samaritan, Matthew Bailey—my mother’s father—was our scourge. A Snopesy little jackleg-of-all-trades—he had been Bonnie and Clyde’s favorite bootlegger—he worked for thirty-odd years as a maintenance engineer at the Wholesale Merchants Building in downtown Dallas, where he routinely slept with maids as a condition of their employment. With a flame of rage perpetually flickering in his head, he once put a black man off a city bus at knife point for sitting in front of him. I loved the old devil regardless and helped him out sometimes on weekend plumbing jobs, mostly just handing him his bottle. Matthew approached everything with a maximum violence required for the job, he never swatted me around, because as a rule, he only beat on the people who lived under his own roof.
I lived on the outskirts of the family, craving acceptance but shrinking from ties that didn’t bind so much as strangle. The pervasive racism of the time was part of the rub with me, but then the Bailey clan encompassed a whole panoply of bonehead prejudices. None of the Baileys had a dime’s worth of schooling, and few showed much regret about it, rejecting out of hand any view that didn’t strike them as “comp’terble.” The women tended to be pop-eyed with faith in one nostrum or another, the men long-winded dullards. The backwardness I figured they couldn’t help, but I resented their willingness to like the hands of their oppressors. By Spook’s dictum, they were just plain people muddling through as best they could. Over time, I came to regards them—tribally, anyway—as patsies on a treadmill. Trying to reason with them was like slamming into a wall of soft cheese.
My people, holy and profane, were “pure-dee Oak Cliff,” of course. In mind-set, our community on the hard-luck side of the Trinity was a paradise of the deepest redneck dye. The fear of race mixing was a constant topic because the district’s communal identity hinged on being white, conservative, “saved,” and married with children.
The gabble of bigotry thus became a daily canticle, a sacred text. The ethos of the place—what it promoted—was absolute white supremacy, reinforced by old-time religion and male chauvinist prickism. In our primary-color culture—97 percent white in 1950—the number one rule was, Don’t mess up. If you swerved from the True path, you messed up. Above all, you had to “cut it.” Cut the yard, keep your hair cut, cut the mustard…”cut the crap, boy,” when you s poke out of line. Docility was preferred over intelligence, guaranteeing the whittling down of the individual to fit unvarying social molds. This bred the kind of multi-edged boredom that comes from poverty locked into place by spiritual poverty. As a jumpy adolescent, I was starved for ideas in much the same way that I yearned to sleep with somebody besides Spook—some like-minded, bookish girl, I hoped. But if racism was obligatory, sex without benefit of clergy was out of the question.
Following a zigzag route, I walked to the intersection of Marsalis and Jefferson Boulevard, where the Carnegie branch library had once stood. The building, erected in 1914, had been bulldozed in 1966, when as someone later told me, “Dallas was tearing down everything old and throwing up junk.” It had an elegant little sanctuary set in a wooded park—one of the community’s few true gems. The structure located there now—a Dallas Department of Transportation cubicle—resembled a post-modern pillbox.
The old library had saved my life as much as Spook had. I found my own sacred texts in there, groping for direction in that period when the self doesn’t really know what it is yet. A precocious reader by the age of twelve, I read an average of four or five books a week all through high school, including trash, the classics, and everything in between. Above all, I leaned how to read and think critically, with no clear sense of vocation yet, but at least the ghost of an ambition forming. Predictably, my hard-shell relatives claimed I was ruining my mind by “thinkin’” too much. Doggedly I read on. Since I worked a night job, I sometimes skipped school to read because reading was as essential as breathing to me.
On my walk through the streets, I passed no one and there was little traffic moving on the boulevard at nine in the morning. Squirrels danced on the power lines. Up the block, a sign over a car lot read, “Kars Fur ‘U’—Muchacho Motors.” With a sense of sorrow and anger that made my heart race, I realized I still missed the clanking spectral streetcars hat had stopped running along Jefferson for good back in 1956.
I trudged through leaves to the drinking fountain on the corner. You could see the scars in the granite where the old “White” and “Colored” markers had hung. Now the signs were gone, and there was no water al all. I started back toward the car. I was in Texas for a week’s time—to take a look around my old Oak Cliff and feel for its pulse, if there was one left. I also wanted to pay my respects to some unquiet Oak Cliff souls, people I’s measured myself against on one level or another in deep dreams, in freer climes.
THE SHAPE OF THINGS IN OAK Cliff was essentially the same, but the lines had run eerily. Nothing—and everything—had changed. The ethnic configuration now stood at 40 percent white, 40 percent black and 20 percent Hispanic in a district containing roughly one third of Dallas’ area and population. I drove all over the down-fallen suburb, numbed by the decay and patchwork balkanization. Most of the neighborhoods I’d known were now streaked with phantasmagoric blight and filled with desperately poor and sometimes dangerous people—the latest incursion of have-nots from jacales and East Texas slums. Billy Lee Brammer’s old boyhood home looked intact in a modest cul-de-sac behind Greiner Junior High, but the block bristled with For Sale sign—not a good sign. My daily forays were depressing, educational, and at times very touching. I found no road back to the cracker Eden of the fifties, but at every turn I encountered Oak Cliff’s famous hospitality—and the smell of cooking red beans. Those things hadn’t changed.
The Jefferson business community was part of the overall mess. Its decline marked the transition from backwater to stagnant pool. Dallas’ virtual cessation of city services to the area, spanning roughly thirty years, had all but assured the evolution of two almost perfectly segregated worlds—the white power domain of the new downtown towers and the rainbow-hued world of the faded boulevard. Fair or foul, boom or bus, the shyster pols and bidness savants favoring North Dallas interests kept Oak Cliff on a short ration.
I made two sweeps of the business zone, one with Laura Mulry, the executive director of the Jefferson Area Association (JAA). The nonprofit group, jointly funded by the Texas Urban Main Street program and the City of Dallas, was the sold semi-official agency promoting local restoration and revitalization, its major aims being capital reinvestment and cultivation of an old-town flavor. In daily practice, the JAA functions as a watchdog and fixer-upper organization, coaxing local merchants towards improvement.
A savvy, articulate guide, Mulry pointed out some of the small victories the JAA had wrung from Dallas’ bureaucracy: a walking-beat police substation, repair of the plaza across from the Texas Theater, rebricked crosswalks, and a number of old shops and offices that had been successfully rehabbed. As we strolled along the block, Mulry hailed David Hudgins, a fiftyish JAA volunteer whom she introduced fondly as her “original streetlight watchdog.”
“That’s right,” Hudgins said. “in 1989 there were sixty-five streetlights out on Jefferson in the mile just between Marsalis and Polk. I called downtown to complain and they said, ‘How do you know the lights are out?’ I said, ‘Because my wife and I drove up and down and counted.’”
“And they wondered why we had such a crime problem out here,” Mulry put in. “It took us six months and [the work of] our council person [Dr. Charles Tandy], but they finally got them lit.”
Later I made a second swing through Oak Cliff’s downtown, thinking about Laura Mulry and her clients. After three years in charge of JAA operation, she conceded her job was discouraging. Many of the Latino retailers didn’t want to deal with a gringa. Blacks often said, “What does this little white chick know?” Mulry was a pleasant young professional woman—bright, dedicated—but there was a sadness coming over her face that matched the dreary street she was trying to regenerate.
Jefferson’s shopping district had been second only to downtown Dallas in the early fifties. Now it was a shell without a kernel. I hiked a mile from Willomet to Beckley and back on both sides of the boulevard. A seedy Western Union office and a McDonald’s were the only national franchises I passed. Skillern’s, Sears, J. C. Penney, and all the other blue-chip concerns, had decamped by the mid-seventies, leaving in their place, all too often, marginal businesses operated by immigrants selling cheap goods produced by cheap labor in places like Hong Kong and Korea. There was no shortage of 99-cent stores, herberías, pawnshops. TV rental outfits, and bridal-gown salons. The two most common signs were “Se Habla Español” and “Se Aceptan Estampillas.” The JAA’s organized face lift seemed a brave first step, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that Jefferson had more of a history than a future.
I stopped by Ramon’s, near Madison, for a haircut and maybe a breath of comfort. “What happened to your street?” I asked the barber, a sandy-haired man named Bob.
“Aw, just wore out, I guess,” he said. “This damned recession didn’t help much.” Bob pointed east with his scissors. “Guy got killed up here at Zangs the other night for a piece of jewelry. Gang deal, yeah. …I tell you one thing, we need a change all the way along the line or there’ll be some real trouble.”
CORRUPT POLITICS DEBASES THE plain truth, and debased language in turn empowers corrupt politics. As I walked to Adamson High School, two blocks north of Jefferson, I was thinking about my grammar teachers there in the fifties. Stiff old biddies, they showed you the muscle and blood of language—Latin, even—through strict and frequent class drills, backed up by unceasing homework. What I hadn’t understood at the time was that it’s rare for the establishment to grant its misfits access to such useful and subversive knowledge. In the decades since, “dumbing down” along with the rest of America, official Dallas had moved in to plug the leak.
Time and attrition had picked my old alma mater to the bone. In my time, Adamson dwarfed the neighborhood. Now it was the other way around. The school stood like a becalmed ship in a sea of rotting tenements, two blocks from Tenth and Patton and about the same distance from scabrous slums along West Davis—“hooks and crooks” territory.
I talked with Martin Riogjas in his office, across from the padlocked auditorium. In his mid-forties, a sixteen-year veteran of the Dallas school system, he had served as Adamson’s principal for only two months but long enough to sort out the school’s stark problems. A genial man with a worried air, he said that almost half the student body—more than 500 out of 1,300—participated in the poverty-level free lunch program. “We’re about eighty-three percent Hispanic,” he said, “and we have a tremendously high dropout rate. Two thirds that start in the ninth grade don’t finish. One of my goals is to at least reduce that.”
The campus surrounds reminded me of a day-long pep rally held before an Adamson-Sunset football game in the fifties. Was that tradition of intense rivalry still cultivate?
“No,” Riojas said sadly, “we don’t do that anymore. I think it’s nice to feel that kind of spirit, but I’m afraid right now we’re at the other extreme. The spirit’s just not there. Our team is not doing well, no sir.”
I kept encountering the strange dwelling within the familiar. What was once grand about Adamson had dimmed to utilitarian drab. I made my way upstairs alone and found my old locker, then leaned for a minute in a window well, lost to memory if not exactly to nostalgia.
The third-floor corridor was empty, silent. I peered into an unused classroom, recalling one of the stiff old biddies who had taught me how to diagram sentences. I’d worked and reworked an English theme for her about my chance discovery of Clyde Barrow’s grave and what it meant to me. Mistaking her shock for enthusiasm, I blurted out my hopes of becoming a novelist or maybe some kind of a roving correspondent. A kindly woman in most things, she tapped me on the shoulder with a blunt finger: “You’d best think about something you can actually accomplish.” She marked my paper A for composition, D minus for content.
THE NORTH OAK CLIFF LIBRARY at Tenth and Madison, which had replaced the old Carnegie facility in 1987, looked somewhat incongruous in a neighborhood given over to services for the homeless and mentally handicapped. Built in a trendy modular design, the new building called to mind an upscale shopping mall—all glass and reinforced concrete. Oak Cliff, I’d found,was rife with such surreal juxtapositions, a fever dream of rust and spanking new billboard fantasies.
Annette Curtis, the branch manager, offered me coffee and a thoughtful assessment of a local culture that had turned into its opposite in a generation’s tick. She said that it saddened her most to see the level of education creeping down. She rated the work required of students at Adamson and Sunset as “shallow,” lacking in “intellectual substance,” compared with the more demanding work assigned to college-bond North Dallas students.
“Can I add a personal note?” Mrs. Curtis asked, her cheeks reddening. “I live here in Oak Cliff, and it just burns me up when people dismiss it without knowing a thing about it. A lot of them react negatively to the name, you know, without ever bothering to cross the river. People in Dallas need to change the way they related to each other.”
In the main reading room, I sat down at one of the computer terminals and nervously tapped in the names of a couple of Oak Cliff writers who were important to me—talismans of a sort. There were three books listed by Horace McCoy, but not his hard-to-find autobiographical novel about Oak Cliff in the twenties, No Pockets in a Shroud.
I typed in my friend Billy Lee’s name, and the title flashed up: The Gay Place, by William Brammer. The book had won the coveted $10,000 Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award in 1961—extraordinary recognition for a native of Oak Cliff’s provincial world. In his palmy days of literary celerity, Billy Lee, five years older than I, was already launched on a national career, but I recognized him at once as another solitary schoolboy who had stayed home to read, forging out of the common language a voice purely his own. Charming, reckless, crazy Billy, pressing the bohemian flesh at Scholz’s beer garden all those storms ago.… I was still fond of him, still mad at him.
I WAS INTERESTED IN MORE THAN just change, more than just how surface appearances alter over time. Oak Cliff remembered and Oak Cliff disintegrating sprang at me, had me by the throat halfway through the week. By then, I had visited four cemeteries. The dead included my kin and familiars—Oak Cliff’s wild cards, spectral heroes and villains, phantoms I had loved, deplored, never stopped wondering about.
I was standing over Matthew Bailey’s marker in the Sunset Gardens section of Restland, near Richardson, within an hour of touching down at DFW. It was eerie to think of that man of wild commotion enshrouded in such stillness. I had attended his funeral in 1960, too old to cry by then and not about to break down in front of the pecksniff Baileys. Matthew was in hell now, I presumed. Wherever. Thinking about him made me realize how little our explanations explain. In the years since, I had worn his shade like an inner skin—like memories of the ghostlystreetcards on Jefferson or Oak Cliff’s furnace-red sunsets—and scarcely a month went by that I didn’t recall his smell of cheap pipe tobacco and whiskey. During our last conversation—he’d taken on a load of hundred proof to deaden his pain—he blurted out his rancor at the world, or perhaps it was his vision of eternity: “The women won’t screw you, sonny boy, but the men will. Ha! Watch out for the sons of bitches!”
Bonnie Parker’s grave in the Crown Hill Memorial Cemetery, facing a run-down pod mall in Dallas’ Walnut Hill area, was decorated with a little dime store American flag on a wooden staff. She and Clyde had died in a mythic squall of bullets the spring before I was born, but they were still a presence in my mother’s house when I was a child. Opal responded viscerally to their narrow, doomed lives, not so much with reason as with hear. I remembered tears coming to her eyes when Bonnie’s name would come up, and once, years later in a strange Yankee city, I’d dreamed of the two of them together, smoking cigarettes without inhaling, and making up poems.
The Barrow family plot, including the graves of Clyde and his luckless dumbbell brother, Buck, lay in the old West Dallas Cemetery overlooking a gruesomely sleazy stretch of Fort Worth Avenue on Oak Cliff’s northern verge. When I’d first discovered the place around 1950, it was overgrown with brush and tangles of knee-high grass—a quiet, murmurous glen sunk in birdsong and neglect. Finding Clyd’s marker there had rocked me with a primal force, offering a direct link to my own folks. Afterward, I would return to the cemetery time and again, making it a private sanctuary where I could mull over my feelings about Opal and Big Grover, mourn them, make peace with them a little.…Now the old grounds were fenced and fresh-mown, courtesy of a local church, but the smell of fast food, oil, and metal hung over the tombstones, and dead-eyed pimps watched me come and go from off-plumb doorways.
At the other end of Fort Worth Avenue—the Forth Worth end—Lee Harvey Oswald was buried somewhere in the 87-acre Rose Hill Cemetery, the exact location kept secret to discourage kooks. I searched fitfully for his plot, then gave it up and spent an hour or so just wandering the rows of stone, letting my thoughts wander too, hearing what sounded like explosive bursts in the distance. Oswald’s “crime of the century” lay 29 years in the enigmatic past,and Lee himself had since disappeared into a blur of disputed roles, his true connective threads obscured by decades of cloud cover—myth bleeding into legend, turning into smoke. According to the Warren report, he had been a misfit driven to kill by resentment, envy, and madness. Perhaps—that’s not wholly inconceivable. But I“d known a dozen Lee Oswalds when I was growing up—quintessential Oak Cliff losers mired in a hopeless system that denied lateral entry. The bottom line was always drawn just above their names.…I sat for a while in a patch of shade, smelling gunpowder. Whether Oswald was guilty or not, I just wanted to bow my head an instant for the poor bastard. The crump-crump-crump in the distance, a passing caretaker told me, was the sound of gunfire from a police training academy across the road. It went on every day. Even unto the grave, Oswald was destined for steerage—the ultimate patsy. “Family,” I wrote in the cemetery registry.
AT THE AGE OF SEVENTEEN IN 1926 Clyde Barrow worked briefly as an usher at dallas’ palace theater but soon quit over the paltry $12-a-week salary. Twenty-five years later, I started work as an usher at the Texas Theater for $19 a week—a pittance but enough to see me through high school. The experience jerked some complex knots in and out of my young life, and I finished growing up very quickly.
In the early fifties, the Texas was the principal seat of allowable public pleasure in Oak Cliff—a spit-and-polish place where Daddy took Mama to the show on Sundays. Already twenty years old by then, it was well kept up, not even close to being run-down. But as Jefferson withered, the once-venerable movie house started falling to pieces too. In 189, to avert demolition, the nonprofit Texas Theater Historical Society (TTHS) with aid from the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce, bought the old landmark, pledging its restoration and development as a cultural arts center. To meet the $3.000 monthly mortgage, TTHS volunteers—many of them teenagers from the area—reopened the theater as a $2 rerun venue. (This past February the TTHS board filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.)
On a late weekday afternoon before the evening show, Maxine Burroughs, the matronly manager, showed me around. She was a veteran Texas employee, along with her husband, the doorman who had been on duty when Oswald was apprehended. “Butch and I got involved,” she explained, “because there’s no place left in Oak Cliff for families and kids to go.
The lobby looked frayed, sad, smaller than I remembered. We mounted the foyer stairs, passing a mawkish amateur mural of JFK, and climbed to the balcony. “Were you here when the stars still worked?” she asked, pointing to the mud-colored ceiling. “I’ve only seen pictures of it-little planets and clouds outlined in electric lights. The architects said everything’s still up there, just stuccoed over.”
I wandered along the center aisle, glancing by reflex toward the last rows in front of the protection booth where the riffraff of Oak Cliff’s hillbilly gene pool had traditionally gathered—the dreaded “balcony rats.” In a watery light, I found my old spot by the A stairwell. While I was still a green hand, but a tall one, I was stationed there to keep a lid on the general anarchy. After a couple of grueling break-in shifts, less terrified of the badasses than worried about failing, I bought an oversized flashlight that suggested a club. The bluff worked pretty well for a year, until a beered-up lummox from West Dallas flung himself at me over four rows of seats, and I did the first thing that Matthew or Spook would’ve done— bobbed him on the ear. The injured party ran bellowing to the lobby, alerting the manager, who had him hauled off for drunk. As a sort of reward for “cutting it,” I was transferred downstairs to the candy case, a choice job compared with standing aisle.
On a fall night in 1952, as I was closing up the candy case, Tess Tyler came out of the auditorium and stopped to shoot the breeze. I called her that because her own name was so student-nursey, and she had the brisk stride and ginger bangs to go with it. She was a neighbor, in her mid-twenties, divorced, familiar enough at my boardinghouse to sit down at meals. We had a casual, jokey acquaintance, and we decided to walk home together.
On the way, having our first private conversation, I saw her clearly as a person instead of a as a remote adult. She had married a well-off Oak Lawn jerk who bruised her around and then threw her away. Under the blowy elms on East Ninth, slowing down to light one of the Tareytons she chain-smoked when her relatives weren’t around, we bumped into each other accidentally and then embraced impulsively. We stood holding each other, kissing, both of us shaken. I was speechless. In the shadows, her face was pale and a little too lean—pure-dee Oak Cliff. “You wouldn’t tell anybody, would you?” she asked in a faint voice. “No, I swear.” “Wait for fifteen minutes. When you come up, be sure Mama’s lights are out.”
We met that way for five or six months, fugitives in the dark, risking everything not so much for sex as for deliverance from love-starved isolation—some shared connection to stave off loneliness. Our times together were tender, painful, glorious, wretched wise, and foolish—but redeemed, I thought, by the solace and comfort we gave each other. Tess taught me to tie a Windsor knot, comb my hair without a part.…Sometimes I went to her place to write while she slept with the radio low.
But we were tap dancing on the edge of disaster, and the dread of exposure bore in on us. We both knew that her holy roller mother would shoot us in the name of God if she ever figured things out. After a couple of close calls, we backed off, saw each other less, then not at all. For a while, we took pains to avoid meeting. Then we began exchanging guarded greetings in passing. In the end, we went back full circle to being casual strangers across the boarding-house table.
MRS. BURROUGHS BECKONED ME downstairs, into the main auditorium, with an expression between a frown and a smile. We stood regarding the infamous spot where Oswald was captured. “It’s the fifth seat in the third row,” she said. “People come from all over to see it, you know—police officers, school groups.”
I walked ahead down the main aisle, resisting a sudden urge to tell her I had seen enough and had to leave. As I descended deeper into the dingy gloom of the theater, another pocket of memory opened up, and I crossed to the side aisle and hurried to the fire exit. I parted the mangy curtains and peered inside at a chest-high door set low in a peeling wall.
“What in the world was this place used for?” Mrs. Burroughs asked. “Do you remember?”
“The usher’s dressing room,” I said. “It’s were we stowed our coats and ties, personal things.” The tiny wooden door, unopened for decades, was locked tight as a tomb. Turning away, I let the curtain drop. I realized I was shaking a little.
In my final semester at Adamson, a cheap zippered notebook crammed with my writings disappeared from the cramped little cubbyhole. My old manager, Jimmie Rawlins, thinking it was schoolwork, helped me search high and low, but it was gone without a trace. The contents included photos of Opal and Big Grover, stories, poems, and part of a novel I had started at Tess’s apartment. Sixty-odd pages long, called Midnight Show, it was set in the upper balcony at the Texas on a violence-wracked Saturday nigh. Writing it, I had felt fully in possession of myself for the first time—exalted by the idea of work that was a calling.
The loss of the manuscript seared my soul. In dry despair, I didn’t have the heart or the know-how to start it over. In dreams, I kept finding the pages and losing them again. I got drunk and bawled at the West Dallas Cemetery. I tried concentrating on Hemingway’s concept of grace under pressure, but that didn’t help either. For a long time, I felt unable to assign any meaning to works.
As graduation neared, Spook bought me a “dress-up” suit at the Penney’s on Jefferson. When I tried it on for him, we were already set on separate paths. He was about to retire, and he’s recently joined the church of his sisters’ dreams. I hid my true feelings about it, but a gulf opened between us that would widen over the years. At my June commencement, we shook hands and patted each other’s shoulders, and he said he’d pray for me.
By then, I’d left the Texas and found a slightly better-paying job at the Pig Stand drive-in on Colorado and Zangs, where one of my uncles was the boss. I was going fairly seriously with an Adamson belle whose guiding lights were sanctimony and matrimony. I longed to get away—to make tracks for freer climes—but how? Oak Cliff closed around me like a fog off the Trinity. Counting false starts and dead-ends, it would be ten years before I lit out for the real territory of my life.
BACK IN THE LOBBY, A CREW OF young volunteers was busily preparing to open the concession stand for the night’s show. Mrs. Burroughs walked me to the main door.
“It’s sort of hard to put into words,” she said, “but the Texas is still really a special place. To me, it represents entertainment, people having fun—not just Oswald and all that stuff. I hope you enjoyed the visit, hope it brought back pleasant memories for you.”
“Yes,” I said. “Thank you very much.”
Outside, the darkness was lowering on Jefferson, and except for the theater sign and the marquee advertising Naked Gun 1 1/2, the neighborhood looked abandoned. A DART bus rattled by with no one aboard but the driver. Halfway to my car, I felt a sudden stab of alarm, a prickle at the back of my neck…whirled around. Nobody there.