Most of the houses in Handsome looked like they were sculpted from the dirt, bleached gray and carved by wind and heat. The town’s population was 883, and that never changed in all the years I lived there. It was a farming town, mostly winter wheat and cow corn. Downtown consisted of the domino parlor that looked etched from sandstone, and the Five Star Milling Company that filled most of a city block. It had a squat pink facade the same hue as a slab of pork. There was the U Drop Inn Café, which claimed to serve the best steaks between Amarillo and Oklahoma City. There are a hundred towns just like it off U.S. 66. Blink and you miss them. Blink twice and you’re in Joshua, Texas.
We lived in a tumbledown farmhouse outside of town. My father worked the nineteen acres he leased from Bennett Crawley, who owned the Five Star. Farm work bored my father, I think, or confused him. He was always on his feet, always looking for someplace else to be.
I remember an old tractor in the barn, a Massey Harris that was as red and flaking as a fresh scab. It was old, even back then, and I heard him start it up only once. Spirals of thick smoke poured out of the barn and scared my mother so bad she filled all her wash buckets in case the building caught fire. The tractor engine made a drawn-out grinding sound and then popped a loud backfire that frightened all our chickens. Dad stepped out of the barn, black-faced and ashamed, and he never tended to it again. It may sit there still, buried beneath heaps of barn boards and tangled chicken wire.
Saturday nights were a treat. We would load up the ’31 Dodge half-ton and ride through the streets of Handsome (it only took a few minutes, if you did it twice), and then have supper at the Clatchy Diner, the only business open after five o’clock. I don’t know if Dad drove around town to quell his restlessness, or if he was looking for something he forgot. It was always the same course. Down Texas Street for the five blocks that used up most of downtown, right on Elm for five blocks, another right onto Hamtree Street for five, right onto Milk Street, and then back onto Texas Street. That was the heart of Handsome. Dad never deviated from it. He drove the same route three times, driving a steady seven miles an hour. Nothing changed. Even as a small boy, I knew we were living in a dying town.
I don’t remember much about my father. I remember the short, circular drives around downtown every Friday night. And I remember he had premature gray hair that fuzzed around his ears in the winter. I remember his soft brown eyes, the same shade as his Georgia boots. And he was a quiet man. I never heard him raise his voice.
So he drove, me and Mom and Dad, drove around Handsome like we were gypsies, riding our own little caravan to nowhere. Scrap houses with cracking whitewash porches and washboard lawns. Buffalograss as yellow as parchment. I felt a primal ache seeing those ragged houses; all of them the same, beaten down by neglect, and I knew we belonged to the same lost tribe. Something ran deep and sad in me those days, like brown tap water. You know you can handle it in yourself, but when you see all that ruination, it brings a catch to your throat. All you can think about is sorrow upon sorrow. I could tell it ran in my father, too, by the lonesome look in his eyes.
I see those oversized streets, cracks streaming through the pavement like spilled syrup, rusted oil tanks skulking behind tangles of horseweed. Everything is the same brown crayon smudge.
Turn onto Milk Street and the hackberry trees cast low afternoon shadows. My father slows down here, almost stopping. He stares at the abandoned Five Star depot, a slack building with decaying bricks and a sign above the door too faded to read.
Excerpt from Ordinary Handsome. Available at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00P46ZPA0
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