A Forthcoming Novel
Clump 1936 represented the hamburger of Texas culture, a workable mix of the sub-prime and the fatty average. Here lived your day-labor cowboys, your retired agriculturals, a few of your failed artistic types out from UT, your evangelical zealots, your matrons – men died early around here, it seemed – your merchants, and your governmental types. Such citizens recognized Clump’s possibilities, found them wanting, but decided not to sweat it. And so life day to day often came as a pleasant surprise, just as long as expectations were kept tamped down, nothing more than a reasonably comfortable survival ever asked for.
Founded knee-deep in buffalo squat in 1892, the Commanches threatening to maraud one more time just outside the city limits, Clump had lived to celebrate its tenth birthday only because of the timely arrival of the railroad, which cut the town in two, thirteen streets north of the track, fourteen south. Its decline begun five minutes after its uptick, Clump woke one day to some gentility. The town was startled to discover that, somewhere, sometime, it had acquired a few manners. Then, within weeks it seemed, there seemed sudden envelopment by one church right after another. The Lutherans had come first. St. John’s next, jubilant cultists by contrast.
A non-denominational, strictly Bible-based church, had begun to gather Sunday mornings and Wednesday and Friday evenings in the old Schmittberger smithy, where the pastor urged his little congregation to “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desire, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully. That is all. Good night, my children.” Unfortunately three gap-toothed ladies – the Baobao triplets — and their mouth-breathing husbands had by mistake come to hear about the more physical rewards of spiritual advancement, “blessed daily intercourse” and “free love” among them. After the service, they confronted the clergyman, but abstemious to the end, he gave them no sway.
Little abstention around town otherwise, now or then.
Upon his election in 1929, old Farrell Dag, Clump’s fourth mayor, appended a sign of his own making beneath the wide standard railroad rectangle “Clump Elev. 1702.” Dag had painted the base of his sign bright red, onto which in Christmas green he calligraphied “The future ain’t what it used to be.” Farrell thought that every respectable town needed a motto. “I admit that my slogan is a little down in the mouth,” the new mayor had said. “It’s because I have become a student of honky-tonk.” No one in the saloons seemed to mind Dag’s take on the town’s tomorrows, and the matrons who did were told to shut their damned, infernal mouths.
After the railroad’s initial enema to the regional economy, Clump had settled into its role as a place entirely too big for its britches, had continued to bray in all its come-hither advertisements, had enjoyed the exaltation of self that persisted until the arrival of new citizenry who saw Clump for what the town truly meant to them.
An improvement, for damned sure.
These weedy people appeared out of the rough country to the west, following the boom. They, or their fathers and uncles and loser cousins, had swarmed upon Mitchell County in 1923 with the discovery of the Santa Rita No. 1. When the oil was taking the crown off rigs in Wasson, Slaughter, and Seminole Counties, they were there, working for a year or so at top wages, only to hitch their sodden trailers to rusted trucks and tug on down the road to the next gusher field where the drillers’ luck might spill once more on them. Till Clump, their locales had accumulated on wooden sidewalks and buildings on skids. A makeshift school appeared, with largish teachers capable of restraining for a few hours every weekday the less criminal of the boomtown brats. Now and then there might be a bank to accommodate the wages not lost to the saloon or paid out in fractions at the oil company’s general store.
By 1938, only the developmental wells remained on the big leases, their drilling methodical and slow as the geologists looked deeper into the seismography. The wildcats played out or down and no need any more for the random roughnecks of the wild days. And so the excess labor — the really hard drinkers, the weak and the halt, the inbred lazy – they learned their way here to Clump. And they stayed, this beginning second-generation oilfield trash.
The community could not raise itself, marketing-wise, to the levels, for instance, of Hastings, Nebraska where a new drink called Kool-Aid had been invented by chemist Edwin E. Perkins. Or for example, Marlin, Texas — a hundred miles north and east of Austin – where, in 1913, Andrew McGrew, a one-legged black hobo, bought the farm after an unplanned dismount from a high-balling freight train. Embalmed but unclaimed, his body was purchased by a traveling circus and exhibited as “The Amazing Petrified Man – the Eighth Wonder of the World.” Such great and newsworthy stuff had ever once occurred in or near Clump, Texas.
So there came major excitement all across town as handbills appeared announcing the imminent arrival of a male cadaver full of arsenic and other preservatives, yet another unclaimed corpse, but this one “identified as most certainly the remains of Virgil Earp himself who fought with his brothers Morgan and Wyatt, Billy Claireborne, Ike and Billy Clanton, Doc Holliday, and Frank and Tom McLaury in the Gunfight at O.K. Corral.” In his travels Finn had toured Tombstone, had found the vaunted drawdown a cluster of some exceptionally bad shooting, leaving spent cartridges cluttering the present-day intersection of Third and Fremont Streets. Finn’s Uncle Seamus could shoot the cap off a beer bottle at a hundred feet, but then Uncle wasn’t there when all revolver hell had broken out in Arizona.
Clumpian Higgins Huntley had created a bit of stir when he married Grace Lair, the first of the Coca Cola girls, as she toured Texas in a vaudeville show. Their wedding brought press coverage from as far away as Lubbock, when the reception turned into an all-night hoodedoo. Evidently, the needlessly unspoiled bride had brought along a large stash of her sponsor’s product containing the now-forbidden ingredient which had given Coke its name. Less than a year later, Higgie thought better of the whole deal and persuaded his actress wife to move on back to Butte, Montana, her birthplace. “Never forget,” Hig said, missing some point in her departure, “old George Armstrong Custer died up in that country. He died missing a finger, with half-a-dozen Sioux arrows sticking out of his ass.”
Hig was fond of telling anyone who would stand still that Clump had become a town with too many lawyers, about the right number of guns, and way too little money. Finn himself worried almost never about the status of his own finances. His salary from the city paid his bills and gave him the wherewithal to court several on the sly. On the fifteenth day of the month he settled up with Rip Bunch who, for sheer volume of business as much as any other motivation, honored Constable Nangle with the only tab he had ever allowed to any customer. Ever.
Finn’s house stood, paid for, a half-mile past the Texaco station at Clump’s western extremity. Finn kept the department’s automobile account at the Texaco station, his cruiser ringing the bell next to the ethyl Fire Chief pump on a near-daily basis. He liked to keep the tank full. He liked to chat with Hun Skoalsquat, the station’s owner. Even more he liked the greeting afforded him by Havoline, the guard-duck who lived at the station and who met certain, select customers with a fast waddle and quacking to beat the band.
Finn loved his house, the tall windows, the big kitchen with the high cabinets, the wood of the floors and interior trim – dark oaks throughout — his garret of a bedroom, the long porch with its swing and, out in his yard, the stately old trees that stood sentintel over the place. He enjoyed playing the show-off with the range of his flowers and the production of his garden. The good citizens of the town ran from him in the early fall as he threw a surplus of squash at them, big zucchinis landing like the Sunday New York Times on his neigbors’ front grass.
Bird culture thrived in Finn’s backyard. Cardinals chirped and wrens sang, as bluejays divebombed the nests of fellows whose feathers offended them. Much in the manner of the Stukas training in central Europe, where a madman with a dumb mustache schemed horrors.
But here in this little town, among these lovable goofs, working a job that afforded him far more entertainment than challenge, with a heart waiting to open to a woman who might show him exactly how to feel, he went about his days with the calm assurance that, but for an hour or two every other day, he was exactly where God wanted him to be and, living in the moment, the man simply could not have been more content.
He found himself the star of provincial dreams.