Near 45 N at Gulf Bank and Sweetwater
January, 2004–I open the door and right away two thoughts occur to me, “it is damn hot” and ” something is dead”. I climb out of the truck and walk around to the gas pump to put 10 in the tank, doing my best to ignore the stench in the air. My dad walks on into the store to pay for the gas and cash a check. I see through the window that Mike is working today. Mike is a hardworking Korean immigrant who works for Andy here at Andy’s Food Mart. He is about 6’1 and slender with a pair of librarian type glasses that tend to suggest he is very intelligent, not to say that he is not. Mike also seems to have developed a pretty good sense of humor. If you are lucky enough to understand what he is saying, you will usually walk away laughing. He is a sharp contrast to the owner of Andy’s food mart…..Andy. Andy himself is a little older than Mike and much more serious and business like, but with the same librarian type glasses. I believe that they are brothers. If this is truly the case than I am afraid that Andy has received “the short end of the stick” as far as personality is concerned. Andy is about as tall as his brother, though with a little more bulge hanging over his belt. As I look through the window of the store I can not actually see Andy, though I have no doubt that he is currently sitting in the back room reading a newspaper and smoking a cigarette. Mike gives me a half wave as he turns on the pump. I look around as the gasoline fumes replace the dead animal smell in the air around me.
A man I only know as the “can man” has approached me. An elderly man with a slight hump in his back, always wearing a pair of extremely clean blue coveralls and a baseball cap. He carries a large garbage bag with him filling it with aluminum cans he finds as he walks from trash can to trash can. He pulls the lid off of the trash can next to me and begins to sort through the rubbish to find the occasional Budweiser or Coca Cola can. His face is well weathered and wrinkled. I wonder at how often his face has held different expressions to form the collection of wrinkles that make it up today. His nose is swollen and red, which I have always heard is a side effect of heavy drinking through the course of ones life. Whether this is science or superstition, I can not say. He does not smile or say a word to me when I offer him the cans from the back of the truck, but drops them into his bag and resumes his current search. The pump reaches 10 dollars and I hang the nozzle back up. I leave the “can man” there, and walk across the lot to where I will purchase my lunch for the day.
As I leave the shade of the canopy, and the blazing afternoon sun reaches my skin, I see the animal that is causing the stench in the air. It is a dog. A dog laying in the ditch facing Gulf Bank. The same mangy dog that two days ago Mike chased away from the store front because it was bothering his customers, begging for food. I suppose he must have been hit by a car some time between then and now. If I would have known the next time I would see him he would be dead in a ditch I would have bought him a slim jim or something when I had the chance.
I reach my destination, a taqueria. One of those trailer taquerias you can find at every other corner in select areas of town. This taqueria, my taqueria, is an off white color with two large sliding glass windows on either side. It is labeled with the types of food they serve, tortas, tacos, fajitas, etc.., written in old english. There is also a depiction of Mickey Mouse in a grey and yellow sweatshirt with one hand in his pocket and the other held out as if to display something. Looking at him now, under the window next to the tire well, I can almost hear a little Mickey voice say “gosh these tacos are good!”. When has Mickey steered me wrong? I step up to the window and order the usual….two tacos. The woman inside is a nice Hispanic woman who speaks just enough English to get her by in her profession. She has very wide dark eyes, always appears to be wiping sweat from her brow and, unlike Andy and the “can man”, is never without a smile it seems. She smiles at me now, nods, and tells her husband what to prepare. He is a very thin man with a poor attempt at a mustache. They are both about 5’6 but she looks as if she outweighs him by about 30 lbs. How they both are able to stay in that trailer with the grills and ovens, in the middle of a Texas summer, is beyond me. They slave in that trailer daily, cooking and sweating. Looking upon them now I wonder about what has brought them to Houston. Do they have family that has succeeded in a business like this or did they just decide to take their own shot, doing what they know, in the so called “land of opportunity”? Whatever their reason I can not help but admire and respect their resolve. I say she is nice not because of anything she has ever said to me but because she always gives me an extra lime. She knows I like them from previous orders. She smiles now as she slides an extra lime inside the brown paper bag destined for me. She takes my two dollars as she lays the bag on the counter in front of me. We smile at each other and say “Gracias” almost simultaneously. I turn around and walk back to the truck, lay my food on the seat and walk towards the store.
Andy’s is a red brick building shaped like a square with one corner cut off, where the entrance is. The over hang, which never provides quite enough shade, is a light grey with the words ANDY’S FOOD MART in dark blue directly above the door. The windows hold advertisements which, judging by the hair styles and fashions, have been there for a long while. Andy’s windows themselves, as always, are in desperate need of cleaning. As I open the door and the wind chimes above the door ring. I am relieved by perhaps the greatest invention ever to be introduced to South East Texas; air conditioning. The store smells like potpourri, suggesting that Mike is doing his best to combat the odor from the ditch. Walking around to the counter I pass the magazine rack which for the most part seems to hold nothing but porno mags. My dad is at the counter waiting on Mike to cash a check and playing scratch off lottery tickets in the meantime. He is 61 years old, 5’10 with a grey head of hair and an even greyer mustache. The majority of those 61 years have been devoted to the air conditioning business, the hottest damn job on the planet. Over the course of my life he has been able to achieve and maintain an impressive beer belly, despite the frequent sweat drenched shirts. He talks with an obvious East Texas accent and wears a pair of aviator sunglasses. I can almost see him in a scene from Cool Hand Luke. Mike tells him he should grow a beard and get a leather jacket if he wins the Harley and laughs hysterically at his own joke. Laughter is contagious, especially when it is as rare and as girlishly high pitched as Mikes. Between the image of my biker father and Mikes laughing I can’t help but to laugh along with him. The wind chimes ring behind me.
A middle aged black man in a UPS uniform has stepped in. Upon seeing my father yells an enthusiastic “Scratch Man!”. This is a nickname given to my father by the man due to his frequent playing of the aforementioned lottery tickets. I am thankful that I am not the only one who notices how often he is at work uncovering his “lucky numbers”. My dad pauses just long enough to realize who has just startled him and with a sigh acknowledges his friend with a fairly non enthusiastic “Hey”. As they begin conversing about each others recent winnings, the UPS man grabs two Busch beers from the giant ice chests in the front of the store and heads to the counter. His shirt is soaked with sweat and judging by the fresh droplets on the side of his face it is not the last of it. There are a number of pits and little scars over his cheeks suggesting some type of skin disorder must have troubled his youth. As their conversation goes on I remember that my lunch is waiting for me and decide to get back to it. I grab a bottle of water, give a dollar to Mike and walk out hearing the wind chimes for the last time today all the while thanking God I don’t have to wear a UPS uniform.
I arrive back at the truck and climb into the blistering hot cab. I turn on the ignition to lower my window and turn it off again. I hear the traffic from I 45 N and know if we are going to beat rush hour we better leave soon. The heat is that stifling mid summer afternoon heat. That heat that comes from not just the sun but radiates from everything that has been baked by it all morning. With these thoughts in mind I begin to wish that my Dad would hurry the hell up because the last place I want to be is stuck in Houston traffic, in a black ‘93 chevy pickup with no A/C, ironic isn’t it?. Finally the driver side door opens and he climbs in complaining about how he never wins on that ticket. The starter turns the engine over and the truck comes to life. He slips it into drive and we pull out onto Gulf Bank toward 45. 45 wont be bad but 10 west will more than likely be terrible. Packed with people going home. Shopkeepers and taqueria chefs. A/C repairers and delivery men. All going home. And can men and mangy dogs, where do they go? I take the last bite of my last taco as this question enters my mind. Of course I know the answer for one of them, don’t I?