L. Desharnais

Clearing the Air

ISSUE 69 | CARBON | OCT 2016

I watched the harbor lights. How could I help it?

                                   —“Harbor Lights” as sung by Frances Langford.

Ortego—that’s how he likes to be called, by his last name—limps into the Vehicle Inspection Center waiting room on West Alabama Street. It’s late afternoon, a full house before the long weekend, with Jeopardy on the TV. He checks in with the attendant while one woman, who had noticed his limp, asks if he would like her seat. No thank you, ma’am. He uses it as an opening to chat since the attendant has dipped back into the garage. He has five cars. Only the newer ones require the annual inspections mandatory in the state of Texas. Annoying, right? he says to the woman who offered her seat. Classic ones, such as his Cadillac that guzzles too much gas anyways to be cost-effective, are exempt. Alleviated of her duty, she nods vaguely, a blonde pseudo-New Agey-looking type—probably an oil tycoon’s wife who likes Sonoma wines—and funnels her attention back into the gameshow. And I’m Jewish, so I like to save money, Ortego continues, at this point without an audience. I’m going back to the Holy Land soon. Israel. Don’t know what it will be like. There’s a question on Jeopardy about bloodsucking “goat killer” animals. Chupacabra! a geeky middle-aged brunette, otherwise absorbed in her smart phone, looks up smiling. She got it. Ortego smiles back at her.

At this point the center’s main attendant, a solemn young man full of facial piercings, has been back and left again without Ortego noticing. Ortego faces the waiting room with his arms crossed. You know, the Federal Clean Air Act was passed in 1974, he says. He’s wrong; chupacabra Google searches it on her smart phone without saying anything. It was 1977. Post-oil crisis. Only cars registered in major metropoles like Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and El Paso are required by law to do the inspection. Only an elderly white man with awkwardly fitted dentures, whose skeletal frame is sunk into one of the comfier chairs, and a twenty-something punkish Tejana with purple hair look up at Ortego. Encouraged by their attention, he pulls his hat off so they can see the words clearly: 26th Infantry Division. That same year I fell out of a helicopter. Machine gun in the back. He turns towards the register, back now facing the door, patting the hand that still has the hat in it across his shoulders. Flesh shows through his transparent, eggshell yellow shirt that is elegantly embroidered. The Vietnam War?, purple hair asks. Now she and a cowboy—well, he has a cowboy hat on covering his face as he sleeps—are the only ones not paying attention to Jeopardy. Skeleton’s old age or conservatism or both prevents any sustained interest in either Ortego or Jeopardy. When Ortego walked in, purple hair had just started reading a short story about an illegal abortion refuge near Juárez where she has family. They’re trying to get us to pay to bury the fetuses now. She was thinking of that and Trump’s wall. But now she thinks about Ortego.

Ortego says yes to purple hair’s question. Vietnam. Then he walks over to show her his Veteran ID card. She looks down into his open wallet, scanning for his name on the card. Ortego. Hispanic? Folded up psalms stick out erratically to frame his earnest gaze. She tries to catch which ones but the words smear as he snaps it shut. People don’t usually believe me, he says, peeking out over his Elvis Costello-style black frames at her. Why, she wonders back without saying it. Her eyes move towards him, up to the ceiling and back down to his feet. His jeans are rolled up too, rockabilly style. No one knows what to say, perhaps purple hair least of all, or they pretend not to notice. Instead of continuing to read, purple hair, like everyone else except the sleeping cowboy, starts to pay attention to the gameshow. Ortego goes back to stand at the register briefly and then crosses back past purple hair to walk out of the waiting room altogether. He’s relieved to be out of the cold. The heat index of the early Houston September sun has dropped since the deadly Louisianan floods, but the AC still blasts regardless. Purple hair watches as he limps across the lot and knocks at the window of a silver Honda. He’s not alone. There was a big guy with him when he first got in, she remembers. Maybe his son and not an inspector like she thought then. If his car is finished is he just waiting to pay? Couldn’t he pay right away if he wanted to?

After ten or so minutes Ortego is still outside talking through the window with the big guy. At one point he takes off the hat and glasses in order to raise his face to the sun. Purple hair, chupacabra, New Agey, the skeleton all look from time to time between his backlit figure and the empty register. Tenga el informe de inspección a mano read signs popping out from the gray painted fake wood paneling with a photo of two pairs of cowboy boots dancing. A new Texas two-step. Karen, who was formerly winning on Jeopardy, is now in the negative. The category of African-American authors was what really got her. She answered Zora Neale Hurston to a prompt whose correct answer was Toni Morrison. In the red now like the embroidered letters on Ortego’s hat. The giant two-pronged TV antenna casts an even bigger V shadow over the linoleum floor along with the panes from the stylized greenhouse—or space ship, this is space city too after all—like curved window. Shadows criss-cross each other out. A pile of styrofoam cups poke out of the trash.

Styrofoam—polystyrene—is made from petrochemicals and can be used for all sorts of stuff. The sleeping cowboy, or the man with the cowboy hat across his face, knows about that and even knows about it as he dreams. Despite the oil crisis downstream work continues. More than 1 million square feet of empty office space, thousands of jobs lost, but there are always pipes to fix. Always. And always styrofoam. Fifty-something, he has lived on the Houston Ship Channel his whole life. He lives in Baytown, fixing pipes with his brother, but now he’s in the city more since he started to drive for Uber occasionally. The son of a sailor and a barmaid, he was even conceived in a Ship Channel tourist court. A tourist court has nothing to do with legal matters—that’s an old word for the type of motel made up of clustered tiny one-room buildings, each separated by the width of an automobile. His father was a Norwegian sailor. The kindest ones, his mother liked to reflect after he died. Never fighting, good people that respected my place and were good to me. She’d receive Christmas and New Year’s telegrams from all over the world. Howard Hughes, who desperately hated the Houston swamp air, would come in dressed like a bum to drink with the sailors and slip her $100 bill tips. His daddy had invented the two-cone roller drilling bit. This wasn’t her only brush with Texas oil fame. After the restaurant closed she worked as a cleaning woman in the de Menil family home, carefully feather-dusting around Max Ernst paintings and pocketing spices.

Under the cowboy’s hat and under his eyelids rest two great big baby blue saucer eyes, rolled back. Two great big hands scratch his jeans on and off as he dreams, his legs spread. With each war the shipping channel had to be dug deeper to fit new, bigger types of boats. Business boomed. Now it’s 45 feet deep and 50 miles long. Few boats fit these dimensions these days and those that do don’t let the sailors off post-9/11 regulations. Plus the work that used to take a whole crew of longshoremen has been made obsolete by shipping containers and cranes. Houston was the first port anywhere to use containers, which, by the way, are sometimes lined in polystyrene. Restaurants pumping chicken blood-soaked agave mescal and Elvis’ rendition of “Harbor Lights” along the Ship Channel, such as the ones his mother worked at and his father frequented like his father before him, are long gone. So too are all the Texas souvenir shops sailors took home something from for their loved ones and the noodle joint set up after ’75 by a couple fleeing Saigon. Houston was America and America was Houston. His father would stop in Houston eventually, because of his mother or because of him or both, and give up the sailing life. Snubbing any work on the port, he worked as a valet at the Lamar Hotel throughout the 1960s, watching men like Lyndon B. Johnson and Jessie H. Jones—who was the one to secure funding for the shipping channel that opened in 1914—make their way up to Suite 8F. They spoke here of how to keep Texas for the white and wealthy, how to keep their guts oil-glutted, his father used to say laughing at this English word play.

Someone nondescript has left in the meantime. No one noticed this person except Ortego, who, watching him cross the parking lot to his car, registers that there is now an empty seat available. Ortego walks back in and sits himself down next to the sleeping cowboy. The facial piercing attendant calls a name, then when no-one responds, the type of car model. Nothing. Ortego nudges the cowboy, or the sleeping man with a cowboy hat over his face, who wakes up with bleary eyes. No, that’s not me. He’s this name and he’s got this type of car. The New Agey woman, feeling her duty called once again, looks at Ortego. Who did you say, did you say, she says the name and the car more loudly. Chupacabra looks up from her phone, oh that’s me, and goes to the register. Ortego grins at New Agey and then purple hair. Skeleton is absorbed in the TV but not really and sleeping cowboy has gone back to sleep. Excuse me, he says. I hear an order from the master and I answer it. At this, New Agey and purple hair look away like they did before. Ortego checks his watch, which has one of those expandable elastic bands, and then takes out wooden prayer beads. He’s praying, I didn’t know Jews used prayer beads, New Agey thinks while watching his mouth move. She’s put on her sunglasses—Chanel, a gift—so he won’t notice her watching. The cowboy’s name is called. He darts up immediately to the register. As he’s on his way out Ortego stands up too. The cowboy holds the door open for him. But Ortego shakes his finger, no no. I’m just tired of sitting. Looking back out to the parking lot he puts on one of those polarized plastic things you get from the eye doctor under his glasses. $1000 Chuck Berry, 1959 Back in the________. Back in the USA. Karen’s climbed up from negative. Ortego sits down again, this time listening to the TV—not praying—but without turning towards it. His mouth keeps mumbling along.

It’s purple hair’s turn to pay. Her car is ready. As she gets up, a news break comes on the TV. The Stanford rapist walks after only three months. She feels sick. In the story, the protagonist was three or so months pregnant but decided not to get the abortion after all. Now at the register she’s the one on stage. Well, she says loudly to the black manager who took facial piercing’s place while he’s on his break, I guess if you’re rich and white society will accept you again. Well, he responds, he won’t be finding a girlfriend, that’s for sure. Purple hair smiles down, focusing on her debit card. Society but no girlfriend. Why is it taking so long. While she’s signing the receipt, Jeopardy’s back on. $1400 Dead Kennedys, 1980 Holiday in _________. Cambodia, says purple hair before the answer, and everyone in the waiting room turns towards her, including a now wild-eyed Ortego and even skeleton, as if suddenly awake. Purple hair stands there frozen, facing the room. Think! music plays in the background.

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