I COULD ALREADY SMELL LILLARD’S hog farm.
At the crest of the hill we would be able to see the roof of Top O’ the Hill Terrace, that mysterious, long abandoned casino with its iron gates, secret tunnels and disappearing decor. That’s where we had our senior class party. On the opposite side of town on the edge of the old Waggoner spread would be the ruin of Arlington Downs, to my knowledge the only thoroughbred horse track in Texas history. Whatever else Arlington had going for it, it had geography.
The three of us were riding crowded in the cab of the pickup truck that actor Cliff Robertson had conned from Ford while he was freewheeling around North Texas scouting locations for the movie J. W. Coop, a film that Robertson would produce, direct, star in, and, finally, claim to have written; it was the story of a cowboy who returns home to Arlington after doing 15 years in the Big Rodeo at Huntsville. Bud Shrake, who co-wrote the script with me, was driving, I was in the middle, and Robertson was on the passenger side, talking a blue streak.
For the moment, however, I was directing, feeling that unique coming-home rush, watching the Cross Timbers flatten into black patches, indulging in a free stream of memories as the institutions of my youth flowed in review.
My plan was this: we’d run Death Crossing, then head out Davis Drive and turn back on South Cooper, past the University of Texas at Arlington (Arlington State, we called it, and before that North Texas Agricultural College and before that Grubbs Vocational. Arlington has been a college town since 1895.) Then we’d drive past the old high school, past the old Cooper mansion, east on Abram along the path of the long-dead Interurban trolley that once connected Fort Worth and Dallas, past the fine old homes deliberately constructed so that the gentry of those easier times could watch the Interurban from their front porches and the T&P Special from their back porches.
We’d hang a left on Center at the Western Auto. Then we would see it, what we drove all this way to see—the mineral well. It would be there in the exact center of Center and Main in downtown Arlington, a chalk-white Hansel and Gretel cottage buttressed by the heads of four lions, which were equipped with four drinking fountains used only when the college cadet corps was initiating freshmen. They dug the well in 1892 as a public water supply, but the water was so foul that even the horses refused to drink it.
When they used the water to dampen the dusty streets, a white crystal formed and that’s how the city serendipitously discovered it had drilled into the same strata that put Mineral Wells on the resort map. Somehow, the mineral water industry never took off in Arlington; perhaps Mineral Wells had more than enough to supply world demands. No one in Arlington thought of the mineral well as a water supply, but rather as a landmark, a place, something that was there, and presumably would be there forever. It was a place where old men gathered and chewed tobacco and cussed Eleanor Roosevelt and played moon and watched the world go around.
The town—town meant downtown, a place that hadn’t changed much since the turn of the century—the town radiated out from the mineral well like points of a compass:
Terry’s Drug, where we sat on the Coke box under a sluggish overhead fan waiting for the Rainbow Girls to get out…Coulter’s Drug with its fading photographs of Arlington Downs in its glory, and the fat Persian cat who hopped among the perfume bottles without incident…Mac’s Cafe where Harold Saxton tried and failed to eat three dozen scrambled eggs…the bowling alley where I stacked pins for 10 cents a line…Purvis’ Variety where the Guinea and his Friends made justice ring…the bank, the Texan, the Aggie, the gas company, Rockeyfel1er’s Hamburgers, Albert’s Pool Hall, the feed store…and past the feed store a grove of trees signifying what trees always signify, that sanity prevails. I remembered wide downtown streets where cars parked slant-in to the curbs or parallel in the middle. And I remembered high curbs where you could still see iron rings used to hitch horses.
“It’s just up ahead,” I told them. “Take a left at the Western Auto.”
“What Western Auto?”
“There used to be a Western Auto…just about where that bulldozer is sitting. Never mind. I’ll take you to city hall. Barney the horsetoothed janitor will fix us a mayonnaise sandwich and let us slide down the fire pole. Then we’ll look up Marshall Morton and go to the movies.”
“Who is Marshall Morton?” Robertson asked.
“Why the village idiot, of course. He’s…I don’t know, 35, 36, this beautiful, willing, shriveled little man who wears two cap guns and a hat and a badge. You can usually find him directing traffic around the mineral well or at the bus station helping people with their luggage or over at the college getting himself fondled by coeds. You ought to see his collection of girls’ pictures. He’s sort of the town mascot. He performs at halftime at all the football games, running from end zone to end zone firing his pistols.”
“A highly respected member of the community, I take it,” Shrake said.
Later, when I thought back on it, I realized that Marshall Morton was dead and they had razed the mineral well years ago, 1952 in fact, a year after I graduated from high school. My mind had played me a trick. But now my eyes and my heart were playing tricks. My town wasn’t there. You could still see the hollow shells of what had been the bank and drug stores and the pool hall, but they were gone, life was gone. Broken bricks and glass littered the wide sidewalks. And at the end of the street the grove of trees was a parking lot.
“Some location,” Robertson said.
“What was that village idiot’s