an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
‘Room 4.202, Garrison Hall, 12am’ flows like blue wispy clouds against a bright morning sun, across the crumpled post-it note that throbs proudly, full of opportunity and hope, in the inside pocket of my favourite grey tweed waistcoat.
I exit through the light glass door, crunch gently along the gravel corridor inhaling the freshness of the over-flowing green creepers, stroking my hands through their waxy leaves, and with a skip I step into the heavy humidity of the hot street.
“Por favor, no cruce enfrente del autobus’ chimes the electronic voice, almost visible as waves of vibration in the steamy air. With a swish and then click of closing doors, the bus commentator confirms what I already know; eleven o’clock. The hour that lies ahead appears calm, as if it will be accompanied by a slow bolero, soft yellow sands, lapping waves, and several rum cocktails, as I drift in a hammock in a cool afternoon breeze. But it was stifling hot, and it was morning, and I was walking now, calmly and with purpose.
A lackadaisical feeling was but one stream in the vast stew bustling in multiple directions along South Congress Avenue this morning; urgency and panic, focus and progress, radiates in the humming car engines grinding by on the six lane avenue. And the click-clacking pair of shoes pacing to pick up coffees from Jo’s Café; shoes emanating shiny wealth, but replicas, and the perception of success is further betrayed by the cheap blue nylon suit of this clerical worker, or junior administrator or am I just being judgmental. Whatever – that would be not my fate, not I Perceval Sinclair. I am a man living without fear, shooting my arrow higher into the mountain of happiness and success, risking missing the target completely. I am destined to pass the days thumbing old yellowing paperbacks in a suit of tweed while playfully adjusting my colourful bow tie as the pretty students shyly enter my office.
But I know that there is more to say about this person in nylon, and all of the other people adding vitality to the organism of the street; just as I know that the coffee at Jo’s would be nothing but ground beans and hot water were it not for the fashions, global capitalism, earnest owners and that army of barristas with bills to pay, and shared delusions of passion for local coffee provision.
Yet in amongst the complexity of forces on South Congress, and there were even more than I can note, I was overcome with a feeling of contentment mixed with the electric pulse of determination throbbing towards a sparkling future… now that I was here, in the land of opportunity.
But once I was there, and over there every path I had chosen had been slammed shut by metal gates, decorated with dismissive gargoyles staring down at me as I caught a glimpse of the bright blue sky distorted through the intricate metallic forest of wires that constituted these barriers. And hanging from the lock, a white sign: ‘thanks for trying, but unfortunately you were not successful this time’.
Unlucky, was how people consoled me, as my failed attempts to enter a boat to ride through life had drifted off into the horizon. These many rejections had eventually left a deep Percival shaped impression on my tired itchy mattress, beneath my sweaty douvee, back over there, an ocean away, in North East London – that place where we had shared so many memories, she and I.
The roar of the plane and the stench of cold artificial air was still with me, my mind pounded by the sixteen hour journey and it seems like I am still travelling: still dragging my baggage behind me through tunnels of hard white tiles; still crossing the deep blue ocean at speeds faster than my brain can adjust; still entering the hot wall of air of Austin Texas, through a whirlwind of shrieking and laughing black grackles; still driving into town, layers of glass and lights piled on top of each other behind the dark gulf where the river flowed; and still thinking that the wind beating the windows of the taxi, was like the desperate last efforts of a dying heart trying to inject life into a body limp of life.
Welcome to a clean city, unpolluted by negative memories, or any experience at all. The muddied entrance of a pig-sty which had been resting in front of my eyes, is replaced by bright white bay windows, through which shone deep blue skies and a future unstained by dark clouds. Though the residue of pain floated nearby, it had been pushed out of sight, perhaps trapped amongst the jungle of my bushy dark eyebrows which had also begun to accumulate sweat, as I continued my stroll past the shops, heading towards the bridge on South Congress Avenue, now.
The early yellow Spring sun invigorates, reminding me of precious times; stony solid horses and men with swords, glistening in the reflection, as we rowed between swans on lake Retiro, Madrid; mint tea with a beloved past, hypnotized by the pink sunset, elongated in the delicate silver spout of a tea pot, as the sun settles behind the rolling Riff Mountains of Morocco; whispering the lines from my favourite poets, as I lean my head over her radiant mane of golden hair as if wrapped in a sun ray, gazing at the curling river and the bright colours of a gothic cupcake castle in the small Bohemian town of Cesky Krumlov – nothing exists to rival travels with the only one you will ever love. An afternoon beer can bring it back; or a rare pocket of time where purpose and the future recedes momentarily from view, replaced by a gothic gargoyle, or the pudding tops and spires of the medieval architectural imagination.
All those shimmering memories of idyllic time sparkle as jewels along the necklace of my personal time-line, until the moment when the deadly disease arrived and chewed the life out of her. The past with her remains imprinted on my memories as tattoos, which come to life when I think of her, or a crab, or the viciousness of cancer’s assault on her young body.
A train in the distance toots its horn as it approaches the city, the regular rhythm of the whining traffic maintaining the flowing texture of the atmosphere like a background drum driving the song forward further.
A hip girl, flexible, confident, a real no nonsense taker, pitch black hair spiked in the centre but with strands sweeping down the length of her pale face, past the chrome bar bolted through the top of her nose. Bumping into Jerry, the musician who occupied a room near to mine, they smile at each other but go separate ways as lime green parakeets tweet. How could he afford a room in this hotel, never sold a song so he said, perversely contented by his failure.
Jolted backwards, jumping out the way, just in time, from the rolling wheels; a plain smiling face looks back over his shoulder, beneath his baseball cap, as the bike jumps of the curb. Disdainful of my brown brogues, in his cut off denim shorts and plain white t-shirt. Saved by the screeching brakes of another bus heading South to where the meat is ‘carne’, and beer is ‘cerveza’. I move forward, walking downtown.
Walking tall, adjusting my glasses, and shielding my sympathetic reaction to the embarrassment and suffering that shouted from the newspaper’s front page, being distributed the whole length of the street. There had been so much shame at the poetry reading, people were so cruel. To forget the lines to your own poem, to stumble over something that fails to illuminate, it can happen to anyone, that poor man, how he had been heckled, sharp jolts slicing his weak armour. He had not needed to lash out, and how the ambulance had caused such a racket as it arrived. The headline read ‘attempted murder at the Book People’, but that could never capture the whole story.
“Howdy Percy” bellows Pedro Dominguez over the traffic, tilting his white cowboy hat as I approach him at the intersection. A giant bat looms next to us. I had known Pedro for just a few weeks but his smile suggests childhood friendship, as if we had grown up together eating Tamales and Burritos, smashing piñatas and dressing pristinely.
“Isn’t it a beautiful day,” I reply. “I love crossing the river on days like this”.
“I, to Gueros”, up the hill from where I had just descended, Pedro says listless and shaky, with an inkling of hope. Dark lips suffuse across his saturnine face, corn colored popcorn teeth reveal excessive coca-cola consumption. The bump projecting from above his silver eagle belt buckle hints that cervezas had increasingly become the tonic for his dejection.
Pedro smiles, and tilts his hat once more, asking a question as he begins to continue his journey: “You doing well my friend? Settling in?”
“Yep. Great”, I call after him, my voice chasing his melancholic walk, “and good luck, amigo!”
He was looking for work, of course. I hadn’t said anything with a sympathetic tone but I could understand; the hopelessness of lacking an anchor to root oneself by, but I knew Pedro would not believe my empathy, un-purposely disguised by my arrogant English accent.
Poor Pedro. Forever having to seek something new, must be tiring for him, but so calm, in his face, the mask of smiles never in short supply. Noble Pedro, stupid deluded Pedro, a caped crusader, macho conservative with a deep sense of justice, fighting tiny battles but never would he improve himself enough to stop moving. Not like me. I check the time: I am making good progress, halfway there.
No bats swarm the bridge by day, perched, asleep and out of sight, resting for the evening show at dusk. And what a show! Nature’s precise timing at dusk, synchronised movement; flapping through my mind as I cross Congress Bridge, I hear the sound of thousands of black leathery wings: flip, flop, pick, pock – oh, it is impossible to convey. Would this attraction ever cease? Will there be a future when their awakening is simply a part of the natural scenery, like the wind rustling the leaves on the riverside path that runs beneath the bridge?
Chalked on the floor: ‘Give love, receive love’ in beautiful swirling caligraphy; ‘Give blow jobs, get cunnilingus’ had been added below. I chuckled to myself, just like the ragged long haired mad man shuffling on the pavement on the other side of the street. Though I was un-amused by the mindless graffiti on Congress Bridge, it reminded me of an appended sign back in my home town: ‘Bill Stickers will be prosecuted’ had been qualified with the affirmation that, in fact, ‘Bill Stickers is innocent!’. That poet last night had been innocent too, just not given a chance by that bar of hyenas baying for his neck. I wonder how he feels in prison? Would he write again? I didn’t write, but I had always wanted to. Instead I organize other people’s carefully considered words into theories, and summarise them all in lengthy papers. Well, that is what I would be doing, if I could just be let inside the circle. Positive thinking: I will succeed today.
It was sunny and hot, but there was something baleful about the morning. In the distance, outside of the city limits, dark clouds were gathering. Was it going to rain? It sometimes does at this time of year, the last spring hurrah before summer.
Great towering buildings of glass, cast a shadow over me as I exit the bridge. These great banks block out all sun light the whole way up the street, until eleven blocks up the great red tinted dome of the State Capital bathes proudly in full sunlight.
Were the glass banks meant to shine like attractive pieces of silver, beckoning to the customers? Or did they distract, compelling me to look back at myself, perhaps to see my meager clothes, and a person shrouded in un-dramatic poverty? I would succeed, and then I would be the person I should be and I would return to this spot to look in the mirror and be proud. But the ghost of my lost love, Maria, would still stand behind, with a look of no emotion. And here I am distracted, answering my own question as the glass diverts me from probing the inner workings of their operations and dodgy dealing, compelling me to contemplate my own failures, losses, and expectations.
Wandering down this mirrored corridor, cars catch my eye in the reflection, the whole street being reproduced- constant increase, another key trick of this business district – oh how deluded we were, my friends and I, or should I say comrades, as we had crammed into that finely furnished pub in the Angel Islington, North London. With youthful enthusiasm, we had dissected the monster of imperialist global capitalism: chastising those delusional career politicians led on a leash by the unscrupulous fat faced villains of big finance. I fall violently, swirling like the wind of a hurricane through a roulette wheel in my mind, spinning towards a fatal hole as I remember these times, and crash from those days full of excitement. I had fallen more and more away from my family, and then from my comrades as everything had become a mere superficial reflection of a treasured theory; it had all seemed corrupted and compromised, until only my bed and books were true to purpose. I would not be distracted by such folly here in Texas.
April had drawn out clusters of white flowers in the hanging baskets adorning the odd shop front. Packs of Austin’s homeless huddle together at the bus stops with worn out mouths suckling on brown bag covered cans. I can’t look at them. I used to care, to try and attack the poverty disease that caused the world’s endemic suffering. To rally; to inform; to fight the power; I had loved it all until life had drained. Their cracked faces are as vacant as a black hole in space, to me their blank blackness embodies the months of darkness that followed that death which I had confined to outer orbits of my memories.
Their skinny frames rattle about, like the day of the dead skeletons that had filled this street with joy just a few months ago; these real life skeletons had not been welcome then, their sporadic incomprehensible shouting would have been unsettling against the carnival music. The streets are quiet now, except for the spectre of these ghosts.
I reach Congress and 11th and halt at the crossing. Standing on the corner, waiting for light to change.
The State Capitol grounds are full of green vitality: birds caw, squirrels leap from tree to tree, to war memorial: playing amongst the history and power. Perched on the end of the long rifle of a metallic frontiers man, a squirrel nibbles at something clasped in its hands. Strolling lightly up the curling hill, I quietly hum: “Rule Britannia, Britannia Rules the Waves, la, da, ladi, dadi da, da, …” Triumphant! And I would be today. The sunlight and trees lift my vitality back up to the positive bubble of earlier …
“Can you spare a dollar for a war veteran, sir?” asks a ragged old man in dirty green fatigues, carrying a crumpled American flag scattered with burn holes. His face looks weathered. What was it that Virginia Woolf had said? “From the contagion of the world’s slow stain” or was it Shelley? The old man’s face was polluted by pain, and I saw his past life of desire and loss, and I understood how this can happen. But I was not extinguished yet and I reaffirm to myself that, today, I would break my cycle, and be accepted into something that could take me forward, and I would be happy. I shake my head, I don’t have a dollar to give, but I will return if I get the job today. So many good things will be done, if I get the job today.
I pass the buildings housing the whole infrastructure of the state – police, education, workers, history, archives – as I walk the final road towards the Academic Factory. Boys in vests zigzag between the straight paths of men in suits, a pack of Zeta Beta girls canter past with blonde manes flowing, and lank haired Goths crawl by with ‘fuck’ scrawled across their chest. Well not in my class, that will be frowned upon, unless they have a gun. They shouldn’t be allowed to carry a gun.
The bells of the tower chime, greeting me as I hop gaily up the broad white dramatic stairs and face the tower, the Garrison building to the right. I have arrived. Looking back along the straight line I had just taken, drawing in a deep breath, the whole view is obscured by a man in a white linen suit, with a red beret and bushy moustache. Crossing my path, carrying piles of books and smiling, and how happy he was. That was the dream, my determination heightened. Something had to let me in, to smell at stable happiness sometime soon. I entered the Garrison building for my interview, on time. This was the moment that would change my life, or so I had come to hope …
Mark Sheaves is a creative writer and Ph.D. student in the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin. He holds a first class degree in History from the University of Exeter (UK) and an MA in Latin American history from the University of London. Following spells living in Barcelona, Prague, Madrid, and rural Andalusia he moved to Austin in 2011. Fascinated by his new environment he contributed short pieces about the city for the Guardian newspaper (UK), and engaged with the local arts scene by working as an editorial reader at American Short Fiction literary journal. Now completing a PhD in History at UT Austin, he researches medical history in the early modern hybrid Atlantic world, with a particular focus on the roles played by merchants, Africans, and indigenous Americans. In small pockets of spare time, he is working on a novel exploring immigration and identity in locales in Texas, England, Spain, and Mexico. He is also working on a short story collection on the transnational communities of Andalusia over three centuries of history.