Remember Joe, my old friend from Alpine? He would be 80 years old this year, but he’s long gone. Survived cancer long enough to see the truth of God-he’d finally asked to see a priest after a lifetime of avowed atheism-and watch the twin towers fall. A month later I was driving to Midland for a burial in a place he never wanted. But Joe haunts me still. Especially when the economic news gets bad. I can hear his voice: Do you know what a derivative is, Michael? A liquidity put? Phantom envelopes mailed from Alpine arrived filled with clipped newspaper articles and forecasts of human greed highlighted with yellow marker. The words in my ears: Michael, you need a gun, and cash, small bills.
So you don’t remember Joe. Let me bring him back for you, then. In 1995 I moved from Austin to Alpine, a small town on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert in West Texas, to spend a summer reading and doing some writing, far away from the city and a girlfriend who didn’t know how to love me. I moved into a stone cottage at a place called Cozy Courts, where Joe also lived. Just five years earlier, he had hitchhiked from Milwaukee, living under bridges and in shelters, to escape the snow and a wife he’d hated for 40 years. When I met him he’d just gotten back from a steamer trip through the Panama Canal. He told me stories about how he mocked the senior citizens at the senior center. This, I thought, is the way I want to grow old; this is how to stand up to life. He was 68; I was 26 and impressionable.
A self-taught man, he read Erasmus at 14, and his spiritual life fed on Charles Darwin. Give me reason, logic, and common sense, he always used to say. In the 1970s he bought yen and made a killing, but he’d grown up during the Great Depression in Brooklyn. To the end of his life, he kept most of his cash at hand, all in small bills, stuffed in boxes of soap and cereal. The man with cash is king, he used to tell me. The man with cash in his house becomes paranoid, I replied. He kept a .22-caliber pistol in a hollowed-out Bible on his dashboard and used to get up early on Sunday mornings, drive to a railroad bridge east of town, set up a limp piece of cardboard, and shoot it full of holes in five seconds. He was practicing for a gunfight, he told me. In the corner of his one-room cottage leaned a baseball bat, a broom, and a black matte double-pump shotgun. He kept a photocopy of the state laws about use of deadly force folded in his wallet. He wasn’t bug-eyed paranoid, but stiff and unapproachable, his back leg always cocked to flee or strike when anyone approached. He may or may not have been a cop in Milwaukee. But he had sold washing machines and taught high school science.
Joe had come to Texas so he could live the life of a boy again: tromp in the desert as he pleased, eat beans from a pot off the stove, read books until dusk sitting under the eaves of a cottage with his dog at his feet and the Southern Pacific rumbling into town on the tracks nearby and the swallows swooping down over the swimming pool and creasing its surface with their thirsty beaks. When I write about Joe I inevitably give more attention to the guns and the money, because I like breaking the dictum that a gun that shows up in the first chapter must be fired by the end of the story. Not so here. For me his character is plot enough.
I want you to know that he was a voracious reader. Entomology. Forensic sciences. Histories of the stock market and the Federal Reserve. Bible studies, mainly books that showed how the Bible recycles Mesopotamian myth. I also want you to know about his generosity and his disdain. If you were a widow or a kid or someone genuinely deserving but were having bad times, he would drive you anywhere and even give you money. If a book was particularly good he would buy an extra copy and donate it to the library. If you were a priest or Christian believer, a stockbroker or a drug addict, he would cross the street before saying “hi.” I don’t want to entomb him in a caricature, but look: This was a man who cackled with delight when he proposed dressing as a devil in red pajamas, horns, pitchfork, and forked tail, and dancing down the aisle of the Baptist church on a Sunday morning. He read so avidly about the crimes of stockbrokers and the madness of crowds, you’d think someone had cheated him out of millions. He was an excellent student of human pride and its kaleidoscopic delusions, a dogged critic of all that was pretentious and vain, a bulldog and a lover of the desert who left not a thing behind beyond what I do to memorialize him. Michael, people are people, you can’t change people.
One day that summer I was outside talking to Joe, leaning on his pickup (which he called, mimicking a Mexican accent, his peekup), when Dennis, a guy in his 30s who was one of our neighbors, lumbered by on crutches like a giant uncomfortable bug. Dennis was a Mormon who went into trances every afternoon around 4 and spoke in tongues. Ha-hee-hee-ko-kuu-me-mee-maa-aa, he chanted, the nonsense syllables drifting among the cottages like bewildering dust. Six months before, while crossing the street, he’d been hit by a bicycle. Both his hips had been broken. Later in the summer I heard a cop say, “That guy? If he didn’t have bad luck, he wouldn’t have any luck at all.”
Dennis turned to us: “Hey Joe, you know what?”
“No, what?” Joe said, after a long pause. Once he’d called Dennis a “space cadet” and a “minister of Gawwwd.”
“They told me I can’t get unemployment benefits anymore,” Dennis said. “What am I gonna do? I can’t get money unless I’m homeless and out on the street. What’m I s’posed to do? How’s a guy s’posed to pay rent, ‘specially if he can’t work?” He said this in a thick, slobbery voice, and for a moment he sounded like he might cry. He pleaded, “What am I gonna do, Joe?”
Joe looked toward the street, up into the tree, down at his boots. Finally he said, “I don’t know, Dennis.”
Without a word Dennis turned away, as if he were familiar with this desert of sympathy, and lumbered on his crutches back to his cottage. When I tried to defend Dennis, Joe turned on me. “We’ve all had a hard life,” he shouted. “I could tell …” Then he fell silent. I saw and heard flashes of the truth of his life and do not underestimate his resentments or the authenticity of their source. Who knows what he could have told me if he had ever told it all?
Joe wanted his ashes spread in the dry creek beds near Alpine, but maybe it’s just as well that he’s buried in Midland, where he can keep his eye on human conflicts, the sort that defined his life.
Listening to the priest at the funeral, I wanted to grab him and say, “If Joe were alive he’d smack your gilded missal and dance a jig on the Astroturf of his own grave, fling dollar bills to the wind and moon the slabs of granite soon to be his neighbors.”
These days his voice still comes to me: Michael, if you want to write about immigration, you should try the cemetery. They just won’t stop coming.
Michael Erard is a contributing writer. He hopes The Road isn’t your retirement plan.