Hecho en Brownsville

I wanted my first book to be available to the people I was writing about. That’s how I ended up signing copies between the produce aisle and the food court at the H-E-B.

August 2012By Comments

Illustration by Mike Benny

Getting lost and showing up late to the grand opening was bad enough. Getting lost and showing up late with my aging parents in the car was a whole other matter. We had left Brownsville with enough time, but a couple of the smaller towns to the north weren’t so small anymore, and somewhere along the way I had exited too soon or too late and gotten completely turned around. Nothing seemed to be like it was before. In the almost twenty years since I’d left, all the cultural landmarks I’d felt were sorely lacking during my youth had arrived—IHOP, Red Lobster, Shoney’s, Target, Chili’s. Between the sprawling strip malls, glimpses of irrigation canals and cotton fields retold the story of how it used to be. 

My father, who was about to turn 89, tended to be lulled to sleep in any moving vehicle, unless the vehicle happened to be traveling in the wrong direction. This is a man who once made an ambulance that was rushing him to the emergency room pull into the parking lot of an abandoned Taco Bell because he was convinced the driver was headed to the wrong hospital (which he was). It was as if at some point my father’s pacemaker had been replaced with a tiny GPS device, one that alerted you only when you went the wrong way. 

My mother, in the backseat, was also worried about arriving late, but for her own reasons. We were on our way to the grand opening of a new H-E-B in McAllen, not far from the little town where she had grown up. This new H-E-B was several times larger than the one she’d worked at in Brownsville, beginning in 1955. In those days, the company was still regional and much smaller than it is today, with its more than three hundred stores across the state and in Mexico and new ones opening all the time. My mother had spent the past few days calling my cousins who lived in the area, some of whom I hadn’t seen in the twenty years since I had moved away, to tell them we would be attending the grand opening because the owner of H-E-B, Charles Butt, or as she referred to him, el señor Butt, had asked me to be there to sign copies of the new book I had written.  

A year earlier I had explained to my publisher that it was one thing to write a collection of stories called Brownsville, and it was another thing to find a place to sell the book in the actual border town of Brownsville, where there was only one small bookstore and the closest Barnes and Noble was fifty miles away. What was the point of writing about the place where I had grown up if the people still living there had trouble finding the book? If I was giving a voice to their stories, it seemed like there should be a better way to offer the book to them. As luck would have it, I happened to meet Charles Butt at a Christmas party in San Antonio, which led to my sending him an advance copy of my book and the book being ordered and stocked at several of his stores, sharing prime space next to the tabloids, recipe books, and Harlequin novels at the checkout aisle.

Before we were lost and running late, my mother had been telling us how she learned to speak English while working at H-E-B. It was there, speaking to the few Anglos who lived in Brownsville and bought groceries at the store every week, that she gained the confidence to express herself. She had already learned English in school, but in the fifties, Spanish was more commonly used along the border, as it still is in many of the areas along the border today. It was all she and my father and older sister and brothers spoke at home. But my father worked outside the home and my sister and brothers had school, where they could talk to people in both languages. So it was working in the drug department at the first H-E-B in Brownsville, just four blocks from the international bridge to Mexico, where, selling shampoo and perfume and cough syrup and Band-Aids, my mother first learned to use her English.

Quick to make friends, she had her regular customers who came by looking for her. These were the ones who were patient when she would run out of English words—“Se me acababa el inglés,” as she says—to describe a product, a salve or laxative, that might need a bit more explaining. It took a couple of years before she was comfortable asking if she could help a customer without fearing she might not have the English to answer. 

On coffee breaks, she would sometimes cross our main street to mail a letter at the post office, which also served as the federal courthouse. Walking back, she might window-shop at Sears or the Three Sisters that faced the H-E-B. 

Then there was Christmas 1956. All the decorations and pretty lights were strung up across the aisles when, late one night, the store and everything in it, including the perfume boxes and pen sets her customers had put on layaway, burned away in a fire so fierce that the Matamoros firemen rushed across the bridge to help the Brownsville firemen contain the blaze. It was one of those events people of my parents’ generation still talk about as if it was Pearl Harbor. While some people wondered if the holiday lights had been the source of the disaster, the fire chief blamed it on a faulty air-conditioning unit. But whatever it was, one thing was certain: the center of Brownsville burned that night. In time, the store was rebuilt and was followed by others as the company grew. (The old-timers, those whose loyalty to the stores has weathered a border economy subject to recessions on one side of the river and peso devaluations on the other, like to say that
H-E-B really stands for “Hecho En Brownsville.”) My mother worked for another six years in the rebuilt store and then a newer one, until she learned she was pregnant with me and needed to stay home again.

When we finally arrived at the grand opening, the parking lot was full, even the handicapped spots. The last time I’d seen this many people in a grocery store was during hurricane season. It was a big event—these people were getting their own H-E-B. They wouldn’t have to drive halfway across town to buy a gallon of milk or some diapers. Now they had a store in their neighborhood, one they could call my H-E-B and mean it, in the same way they referred to their team as my Cowboys or my Astros. Most of them had at least one kid in tow, either riding in the shopping cart or running circles around the cart as it moved forward. Others brought a grandfather or grandmother who tagged along at his or her own pace. And although a few of these shoppers looked as though they could’ve stepped out of the pages of my short stories, something told me they weren’t there to shop for my book. I was supposed to read part of a story, but with it being so loud I didn’t know how that would happen. Who would listen to me? How was I supposed to compete with the free balloons and lemonade?  

The store’s book and magazine section stood behind the long row of cash registers. Twenty or so copies of Brownsville were displayed on a small stand next to the table where I was supposed to sign them. My photo was framed in a chrome floor sign, the kind used to advertise a special on cantaloupes or bran muffins. The only thing missing was the microphone they had promised to set up. I realized this meant I wouldn’t have to read. But I also knew my reading was the reason my parents had come with me and why my mother had spent so much time calling people. And the truth was, at their ages, this was one of the few chances she and my father had to hear me share my work.

One of the managers walked up to say hello and check on things. With all the people and excitement in the store, he smiled as if it was the best day of his life and it might never end. Even so, I apologized for getting there thirty minutes late and blamed it on the confusing directions I’d found online.

“No, no, we’re just glad you made it,” he said, still beaming. “The only thing is, Mr. Butt had to leave.”

I was about to say I was sorry we had missed him, but he told me to hold on, that he had something for me. Then he reached behind the book stand and brought out a four-by-six-inch framed photo of Charles Butt smiling next to the same stand filled with my books. 

“One of our other managers took the picture,” he said. “We thought maybe your family would like to have it.” 

My mother thanked him and slipped the frame into her purse. For the next year or so she kept her photo of el señor Butt on the end table with some wedding and baptism pictures, and eventually placed it on the nightstand in the guest bedroom, where it was the last thing guests saw before they fell asleep and the first thing that greeted them when they woke up. 

The manager was paged, and after he rushed off, my father announced that he needed a cup of coffee and, with my mother, headed to the food court in the distance, near what I could barely make out as the deli or frozen foods section. Earlier, one of the bag boys had offered him a mobility scooter, a red one with a wire basket in front, but my father ignored the kid and kept shuffling forward, gripping my mother’s hand as if she were the one who needed to be steadied.  

I sat at my table and signed the small stack of books the manager had requested for his employees. As I sat there, people walked by with their shopping carts full of groceries, not sure what to make of me, a guy scribbling in books at the H-E-B. Other customers smiled but kept walking without making much eye contact, the way they might have done if I were sitting in an airport handing out religious literature. 

One woman finally did stop her loaded shopping cart in front of my table. She wore a baggy tank top and gray sweatpants, the sort of clothes she might have been sleeping in recently or would be as soon as she finished her shopping.

She picked up a copy of my book and fanned through the pages as if she were looking for a lost bookmark. 

“Is it any good?” she asked. 

“I guess so,” I said. “If you like to read stories.”

“You guess so?” 

“Can we get it, Momma?” her young son asked. “You promised I could get something.”  

I hadn’t seen the six- or seven-year-old boy at first because he was riding in the bottom rack of the shopping cart, a space generally reserved for packages of jumbo paper towels and hefty bags of dog food.  

“Is it for children?” she said. “Any nasty words in there?” She flipped through the pages again, as if she might spot some foul language. 

“It’s actually not a kids’ book.”

“Momma, please,” the boy said, sticking his head out the back end of the cart so he could look up at her.

“All right, already,” she said, and flung the book into her cart where it landed next to a pack of lady razors.

I was sitting alone again when my parents came back. We had been there close to an hour and only a couple of people had bought books. The manager seemed surprised that more customers weren’t snapping up my stories, considering they’d placed a large discount sticker on the front cover.

“Maybe if they heard you read from the book,” he said. “Didn’t someone say you were going to read?” 

“That was the idea,” I said. “But there’s no microphone.”

“Is that all you need, a microphone?”  

“It’s kind of loud in here.”

“Then here, take mine.” He unfastened from his belt what looked like a nineties-style cell phone but was really a walkie-talkie, the kind used to page “Price check!” or “Cleanup on aisle four!”

My parents were looking at me now, waiting. For just a second, I thought of my mother paging someone in the store for the first time, how uneasy she must have felt, the quake in her voice as she tried to enunciate her limited and imperfect words, then heard them crackling over the intercom. It seemed like the least I could do was read a page or two, especially after showing up late. So what if the microphone was still warm from riding all day on the manager’s hip? 

I found the passage I had thought I might read. It came from the only story in the collection that happens to mention H-E-B: “My mother got along with Yolanda okay and even helped her get a job at the H-E-B store where she had worked since before I was born.” Yolanda was made-up, but the part about my mother’s having worked at H-E-B wasn’t. Although she had quit working after she realized she was pregnant, some part of me wanted to believe I had spent the first few months of my fetal life listening to the amniotic hum of her voice, now more confident with her new language. I liked the idea of coming full circle, of my having listened to her when she worked and of her listening to me today over a similar speaker system, even if this was a brand-new store and my work involved reading fiction under the fluorescent lights.

I read for only a couple of minutes. But slowly people came around and parked their shopping carts as if they were at a drive-in theater. The woman who had taken a book earlier for her son was already in the checkout line but stopped to listen before making her purchase. Even the cashiers seemed a little curious to know what was going on near the magazines. Carts continued to circle around, their owners staring up toward the ceiling, trying to figure out where the voice was coming from. I can’t say if they enjoyed it or just found it strange that someone was reading to them inside a supermarket. I had wanted to offer the stories to the people I had written about, but maybe I had gotten a little too close. 

I was somewhat surprised when a few of the customers stuck around and asked me to sign books for them. They might have thought this was just another giveaway for the grand opening. I was signing a copy for one of the cashiers when my friend Melinda showed up with some other people. She had recently moved back to the area and had been all over town trying to find us. When they pulled into the parking lot, they still weren’t sure this was the store, so they rolled down the window to ask someone.

“That’s when we heard your voice on the loudspeaker,” she said. “And then we knew we were in the right place.”

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