The Main Things


In the Big Thicket of East Texas, where men still hunt deer with Walker hounds and rickety juke joints slowly decompose, a white wooden house sits atop a small hill. This truncated reincarnation of what was once a 40-room mansion belongs to my in-laws and bears the odd handiwork of a lunatic. When a kitchen fire reduced the original compound to charred rubble in 1958, my wife’s great-grandmother hired a brilliant architect named Birdsall Briscoe to match the dimensions of the original structure. He designed a plausible replication but, after adding the first story, managed to lose his mind. My wife’s great grandmother, with the rock-ribbed pragmatism of a second-generation Texan, dismissed the senile architect, slapped a roof on the squatty structure, and called it complete.

It was nothing of the sort. As my wife and I (and young Owen, strapped in according to precise legal specifications, facing backwards) turn right off W.T. Carter Drive and head up the rock-strewn hill, I notice, as I always do, that the roof rests on the house like an oversized top hat. The grand columns on the porch burst skywards with commanding architectural authority but strain against a ceiling that won’t give. The facade’s stretched, outsized features plead to be civilized by a second story.

For all its oddness, though, this half-house blends seamlessly into its environment. Camden, Texas is incomplete. I discovered it in 1989, when my wife took me to this depressed corner of the state right after we started dating. “You’ll love it,” she said, and then told me a story about how she once watched from the porch as her precious dog Tigger chased down and mauled a feral pig. (After we married, I came to learn that Tigger was an incomplete dog–half wolf, in fact–not to mention the progeny of a beast owned by Dennis Hopper. But that’s another story.)

But now, as I sit on the porch, I realize that–as usual–she got it right. I did come to love the Camden House. There’s a rugged charm to the place, and as we continued to make routine visits over the years it generously exposed me to all manner of unusual experiences–most of them alcohol drenched. There must be a scientific explanation for the phenomenon, perhaps something Pavlovian, but when the sun drops on Camden, the house’s dim lights, bare pine walls, and 1970s decor create an irresistible pull to a little white fridge stocked with booze. Randomly stop and assess your physical condition while stomping the Camden House grounds and there’s a good chance that you’ll find yourself with an elevated blood-alcohol level and a goofy grin on your face.

And so it was one evening–again, back in the courting days–when I followed my bliss to the tune of multiple Tequila shots out by the swimming pool, where I counted stars with people I’d never met. I eventually lost count, got tired of making small talk with strangers, and found a bed. Eight hours later I awoke to discover that I’d crawled into the sack with a family of mice. Shreds of yellow sheets covered the floor. And there were the unmistakable pellet-like droppings around my feet. My wife, who had slept in the opposite twin bed, investigated the scene with all the scrutiny of a forensic specialist and concluded, “I see what happened: the mice decided to chew their way to freedom rather than cuddle up with the likes of your feet.”

“You didn’t check?” I was admonished that morning by the extended clan as I gulped a plate of eggs and nursed black coffee from a tin cup like a wounded Civil War soldier. I shook my head “no.”

“Did you wear socks to bed?” Again, I shook my head. And with that the entire table of future kinfolk (fourth- and fifth-generation Texans) burst into laughter.

Camden is steeped in a progressive past. Frankie Randolph, founder of the Observer, once owned a house in these woods. As did Agnes Nelms, a crusader for birth control known in these parts as “the Margaret Sanger of Texas.” Charles McCune fired up the Texas populist movement right down the road with his jarring speeches of eastern elitism and banker corruption. Scott Joplin filled these very woods with unprecedented and boldly appropriated European piano licks. But those days are long gone. Crystal meth labs notwithstanding, Camden is now all about wood. International Paper rises from the forest like a grotesque Phoenix. Its massive buzz saws strip the thicket with systematic precision, leaving sandy bald spots marked by a few sclerotic saplings that hear no music, inspire no rebellion, spawn no new ideas.

International Paper justifies its existence by obeying the second law of thermodynamics. Nothing out here is created or destroyed, just transformed. Beholden to such logic, the belching plant transforms pine trees into the plywood that feeds sprawling Texas suburbs. For every tree that falls in the forest of East Texas a gaudy McMansion pops up as a conspicuous marker of someone’s dubious accomplishment. International Paper is what the business folk like to call a “facilitator.” It turns lemons into lemonade. It’s an “impactful” enterprise.

To be all about wood is to be all about loss, and Camden is on the wrong end of the equation. It lays itself bare every day of the year and slowly disintegrates as the gated civilizations that it nourishes vote Republican, drive SUVs, and flourish. On its better days it just stagnates, leaving the cicadas to sing undisturbed dirges to that bygone era of piano rags and populist orations. It’s a place where the other cheek is perpetually turned. A palpable sense of loss and longing hangs over East Texas and the Camden House has thoroughly internalized it, feeling the pain like the dull throb of a phantom limb.

It’s not a malicious dwelling. The Camden House is just honestly pissed off at being incomplete. And so it generally exacts its revenge in petty ways: tick nests hiding in the gutters, snakes coiled in the front yard (“red-nexta-yella-killa-fella”), a sulfurous trickle of a cold shower, wild dogs that pace the yard when we walk to the cemetery to see the jagged tombstones of slaves. But the real pound of flesh that it takes is something much more primal.

Every now and then, usually in the Camden House dining room over a huge pile of meat, the rarified air of privilege fills with the subjects of complacency from those of us who have beaten the game: yearly summers in the South of France, elite pre-schools, the latest show at the MoMA, restaurants in Santa Fe, the virtues of the new Lexus.

This highbrow cant of civilization, full and satisfactory, clashes against the groaning wooden walls and brings the physical laws of the universe to a screeching halt. The mill’s clangs and spews intensify to deafening levels, mocking our barriers, flooding the complacency of our conversation. And then suddenly, briefly, the world tilts. Visions of stock market plunges, housing busts, free trade, and genuine corporate reform drown out the smug din of success. We defend ourselves with more booze, more gossipy chatter, more diversions from what Whitman called “the main things.”

The situation generally leaves me–with my middle-class-old-southern Democrat pedigree–swirling and swooning and gasping and searching for my bed where, as I stare at the ceiling, the boozy giddiness becomes an existential gaze. The playful country mice become demons, mocking my security. The main things. What were those again? So I sweat on a creaky mattress as the hard hum of the mill fades. And then slowly, quietly, the incompleteness of life becomes evident in this strange, chopped-off house.

A maimed house for the privileged few. . . .

But screw all that. It’s late morning and I’ve already been to the little white fridge. The porch is casually littered with books and art magazines. Late model cars pull in and out of the driveway, going who knows where. The mill drones (“Housing starts are up,” says my wife.) I sit on the porch, yelling at my nine month-old boy to watch out for anthills in the grass. Which is a totally ridiculous thing to say to a nine-month old boy. He laughs at my worried gestures. Actually, I’m really yelling at my wife to watch out for him because there are indeed vicious anthills in the grass. And Christ, what about those snakes! And did you know that the dog has a tick in her nose? But at the moment I’m too comfortable in my porch swing to deal with any of these pressing matters.

My wife rolls her eyes and throws a blanket on the ground, scoots little Owen onto it, and snaps photos. She pulls the tick out of the dog’s wet snout and says, “It couldn’t find any flesh to grip onto in there.”

I smile at her, secure in the knowledge that nothing incomplete can be completely destroyed. And–on this day at least–I’m thankful for the main things.

James McWilliams is a writer in Austin.

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