I REMEMBER CARLTON STOKES
In his prime
As he drove toward his ranch in the June heat, he looked out at the land and it was almost like an extension of his body: solid, stable, enduring. The pastures, the fences, the gates–all were as they should be: All were as familiar to him as his hands on the steering wheel. Occasionally he glanced out at the cattle in the fields, at the coloring-book blue of the sky. The sun was shining on the oak trees, and their leaves were like mirrors of light.
On this stretch of highway the road toward Harper was straight as a ruler, narrowing to a point on the ridge in the distance. From time to time the road eased down into dry branch crossings where the sumacs grew close to the pavement and towering Spanish oaks bent together in shading arches. Carlton Stokes drove into the brief shadows, then his Plymouth rose again into the sunlight of late afternoon. He drove steadily, without hurry: He was comfortable behind the wheel. His Stetson was set squarely above his eyes: his polished boot was pressed firmly against the gas pedal.
He did not feel the 51 years of his life. They had folded naturally, properly into his body, leaving no bothersome trace. He ate well, slept well, bedded well his wife and, occasionally, other women of the ranch community. His livestock had good grass and good water. His fencelines were still stretched tight. And without being told he knew that he was still a fine figure of a man.
Thinking of the sliced garden tomatoes, roasting ears, and pork chops that he would be having for supper–and then sitting out on the cool porch slab after sundown in his bare feet, watching the deer graze in the oat field down by the creek–Carlton Stokes pressed a little harder on the pedal.
Past his prime
He lay in the bedroom–the blinds shut against the summer sun–and gasped for breath. The large white mound of his stomach rose and fell, rose and fell, rapidly, through his unbuttoned pajama top. He turned to look at the clock on the bedside table: 2:30. It was still 30 minutes until he could put on the mask and take his medicated mist treatment. As he leaned back into the pillows the plastic tube from the oxygen tank pinched sharply into his nostrils.
At age 84, this was what he was doing now: lying on the bed waiting for the next partial breath, the next partial medical relief. But no breath was ever enough, no relief lasted. His emphysema and his asthma clamped his chest and would not let go. He reared back with each half-breath, his face and nose distorted into puffy caricatures, his once-handsome features swollen by Prednisone. He could still make it to the bathroom by himself and could still lie for a while on the front room couch to watch a little television. But there wasn’t much left in his life that he could do, or cared to do.
He heard his neighbor’s pickup drive up the hill and park out front. Carlton called his wife’s name: not a yell, just a strained burble of cough. He waited, then called again. He heard the door of the pickup slam and then Milton Weatherby’s boots coming up the front walk. As Carlton was calling again, his wife was already wheeling herself slowly out of the guest bedroom that was now her own. She inched forward past the dining table and the TV set toward the front door.
Milton Weatherby knocked, waited, then knocked again as he began to open the door. He was carrying a paper sack of peaches he had picked that morning from his trees. He came inside and put the peaches on the table, saying hello to Carlton’s wife as she held out her hand to him from the wheelchair. Milton Weatherby had started talking about the noon weather report when both of them heard the sound and turned, looking toward Carlton Stokes.
He had gotten himself out of bed–to visit a bit, to be social, but this afternoon the getting up was more than he could handle. He held on to the bedroom doorway, trailing his oxygen tube. He was heaving and gasping, throwing his head back, his white hair wild, his stomach bulging out of his pajamas.
Milton Weatherby rushed toward him as Carlton’s wife, her hands together in her lap, began saying over and over, in a level, almost monotone voice, as if speaking to a terrified child, “It will be all right, Carlton”–as if she really believed it would be, or as if the time had long ago passed when what she said made any difference.
I sat underneath the downtown plaza trees in the heat, my library book under my arm. I was prepared to sit and read awhile, to look up now and then at the downtown regulars who made San Jacinto Plaza their daily resting places–their afternoon open-air homes, their social club beneath the mulberry trees.
I was there among them, the El Paso loners and drifters, old men mainly, Mexican-Americans mainly. On a nearby bench, a white-haired, white-bearded man slept with his chin on his chest. Another man, beside him, with the dark, brick-red face of a serious drinker, held a section of a newspaper far out in front of him in an effort to read it.
The afternoon preacher was in the public preaching place, walking about in his constrained semi-circle. Bible in hand, he shouted out a message in Spanish first to one side, then another: “Señor!”–this and “Cristo!”–that. The people on the benches did not react. They heard him, of course, but paid him little mind. They had other business at hand, the business of sitting in the space of their lives beneath the plaza trees on a springtime afternoon. The preacher was something apart–loud, inescapable–but like an exhibit in a zoo. They had heard him, and the others like him, too many afternoons before. The man could yell and jump about and exhort all he wanted to. They passively regarded the air in front of them and tuned him out.
Two benches away from me a little figure with Down’s syndrome sat holding her hands in her lap. She wore a frilly pink-and-white dress and white socks; a small pink-and-white bonnet was tied beneath her chin. Her legs and her black shoes did not quite reach the concrete of the plaza.
Her face beneath the bonnet was fair but aged. There were circles underneath her eyes and lines that drew her mouth down. Doll-like, she looked straight ahead and from time to time rubbed one hand against the other–little pudgy hands. She moved her mouth, as if silently talking to herself, and when she spread her mouth into a smile she showed a tooth here and there in an otherwise toothless mouth.
The woman next to her–short, gray-haired: a relative, I assumed–stayed turned away from the small figure on the bench. They sat that way–together but apart, the little doll figure in her frilly dress moving her hands, occasionally sticking her tongue out and then smiling widely. The woman, turned away, kept looking frequently across the plaza to the bus stop to check the marquee signs on the buses as they came down the street.
Transients crossed the plaza in a slow drifting-about. A man with a frazzled goatee shuffled past me, holding a plastic Coke bottle half-filled with water. He was sunk into a dirty gray jacket and a hooded cap that almost covered his eyes. He limped along, leaving his monumental body smell in his wake. He was making his rounds through the plaza, smiling to himself, chanting in a breathy whisper: “The Ayatollah, yes…the Ayatollah, yes….”
A thin man without any teeth stood apart, smoking, his hollow mouth collapsing with each puff. He frowned at the people who were in line waiting for a bus–as if puzzled by the idea that people still had definite places to go to, still had routines and obligations. He shoved his hands deeper into his khaki pants, paused in front of another transient sleeping on a bench, stared down at him, put out his hand as if to jiggle the man’s stocking feet, decided against it. A gust of wind blew swirling bits of paper and dirt and sand across the plaza, and the thin man’s hair–rather handsome-looking actually, with a high roach to it–blew wildly for a moment in dancing waves. The gust passed, the hair collapsed, the man moved on.
Behind me, on the western corner of the plaza, a man in a neat turned-down golfer’s hat, light-blue knitted shirt, and blue denim pants sat on the edge of a tree planter. He was leaning forward on his aluminum walking cane, facing the sun, singing songs from Broadway shows: “…You and the night and the music.”
Poised on the planter’s edge, not concerned with the people moving past him on their way to the bus stop, the man shifted easily, smoothly–one could say professionally–from one song to the next, crooning in a tremulous baritone to the sidewalk pigeons eating the spilled remains of popcorn: “…If I loved you, time and again I would try to say….”
GOING TO CENTER POINT
I wanted to leave El Paso.
I wanted to drive 500 miles to Center Point, near Kerrville, and find a small frame house to live in on a side street near the Guadalupe River: a house on a small lot with a modest yard, no fence around it, with several pecan trees near the street.
I wanted to go there and turn my back on all that I was, on what I had tried to be in my life. I wanted to shrink my awareness and live in this pecan-shaded, unprepossessing place.
I wanted to be there in the spring, near the river, standing under my trees on my narrow street.
I wanted to look out the kitchen window and see tomatoes growing in the back garden.
I wanted to be private, limited, circumscribed.
I did not want to think any more.
But first I wanted to get into the car and drive down side roads past the maize fields of Center Point in the spring sun. I wanted to see the sunflowers along the fences and cedar trees on the nearby hills.
I wanted to turn onto the lane I remembered from years before that ran straight for a while between the fields and then gradually climbed through roadside oaks and sycamores. As it wound along, leaving the fields, entering the privateness of the low caliche hills, I wanted to look out at the shaded places among the cedars and then, finally, I wanted to stop the car.
I wanted to get out and stand in the intimate, familiar stillness of the afternoon. I wanted to be again in a personal place that–like so many other countryside, personal places that I had sought out over the years–seemed to have buried within it the truths I was searching for. I wanted to stand near the sun-warmed trees and grasses and let the silence of the moment tell me that no answers had ever been waiting for me there, or anywhere.
I wanted to drive back to my frame house in Center Point and sit for a while on the front porch as the afternoon faded into hill country darkness. Then I wanted to get up, go inside, and close the door on my life.
Contributing writer Elroy Bode lives in El Paso, where he teaches in the public school system. He is the author of several books, including Home Country: An Elroy Bode Reader (Texas Western Press).