Volume 33, Number 1


David Larsen

Clay Brumelow had no idea who had called the meeting—he didn’t think it was Winston Morris himself—but the event, held in the Travis Elementary School’s lunch room, not really a cafeteria, but a large classroom with a dozen portable tables surrounded by metal folding chairs, would, for some time, maybe forever, remain in everyone’s memory, not because of what was at issue, but for the deep scar that was exposed that night. A reminder of a wound inflicted and suffered before anyone in town had been born.

It was two days after the election. Forty-eight hours after Clay’s parents had sat in dismay and watched as network after network projected the winner: the genital-groping realtor from New York had somehow won. For the past day and a half, the Brumelow household was shrouded in a thick fog; both his father and mother were lost in deep thought, not at all their usual talkative selves, neither willing to turn on NPR to listen to commentators deconstruct the recent fray.

Clay didn’t really give a damn one way or the other, but he did his best to show concern in front of his grieving parents. Fourteen years old, obsessed with being cool, or at least working on looking cool, he had other things on his mind: beer, weed, rock and roll and getting into the pants of Sylvia Mena, the dark-eyed, rapidly ripening freshman that sat in front of him in Mrs. Dean’s English class, a girl his friends would never approve of—she was Mexican. He wasn’t.

Sorento County had done its part in getting Donald Trump elected: seventy-one percent of the voters in the county voted for the yellow-haired womanizer, almost the exact percentage of white residents in the county. Clay realized that his parents were, perhaps, the only two white Democrats in Sorento County—Winston Morris might have been the third. Misery may love company but the three probably felt downright lonesome since election night.

His father and mother had dragged him to the meeting; Clay wanted to stay at home, turn the stereo up full-blast and sample from his father’s liquor cabinet. His mother had told him that getting out would help all of them get rid of their funk, but Clay wasn’t at all in the doldrums from what had happened. It just happened, live with it. Reluctantly, he went along, just to keep them off his case.

The room was already packed when they arrived; dozens of glad-handing good-ole-boys and their smiling wives milled about, shuffling, bullshitting. The Mexicans stood on the other side of the room, doing much the same. Clay didn’t see Sylvia or her parents, but everyone was shoulder-to-shoulder—he couldn’t pick out individuals. He even lost sight of his parents as they wriggled their way through the crowd to get a good seat. The place smelled faintly of leather, manure, sweat, cheap perfumes and Skoal. Also, of stale cigarettes and beer, though smoking and drinking were prohibited on school property; most men, and a few women, in Chapman, carried the scents with them wherever they went. Clay leaned against the back wall of the room, in his best Springsteen pose.

He never would’ve expected that so many folks would show up for anything in town; there were more people there that night than would have attended the second coming; that was if Jesus decided to make his grand reappearance in Chapman, which somehow, Clay doubted, the poor guy would ever do—no one came to Chapman. It really was a town meeting, of sorts, a rare occurrence. Civic activism was pretty much nonexistent in Chapman, Texas, an unincorporated township of 473 people, a wide spot in the road on Highway 163, usually a pretty laid-back community. An air of expectancy hung over the crowd like angels over a battlefield in the early morning, before the bugles blared.

But there they were, the three of them, his embarrassingly likable father, his often-fretful mother and Clay, along with more than seventy-five of their friends, neighbors and a few strangers from the areas surrounding Chapman, all anxiously awaiting whatever it was that was going to happen.

Once everyone was seated, from the back of the room, with Jody, his goofy best friend standing doltishly next to him, Clay could see just about everything and everyone. He, and, he was sure, Jody, would rather have been home watching TV or diddling with Facebook, but both had insistent parents, though of quite different breeds. While Jody’s father sported a red MAGA hat and flew a Trump flag from the cab of his F-250 truck, Clay’s parents displayed a timid Hillary sign in the front yard of their small clapboard house.

Clay would’ve guessed that everyone would’ve been fed up with politics, so soon after the nasty election, but much of the town was there, jammed into the stuffy room, like sausage in its casing. He suspected that not that many people even knew what the issue-at-hand was; the only explanation for the turnout was that it was a curiosity, a rarity, a good chance to escape the tedium of a November night in a small town, an opportunity to avoid CNN or Fox News or Univision or even Dancing with the Stars for a few hours, especially after the hoopla of the past year.

What little Clay knew about the event before that night didn’t pique his interest; Winston Morris, a peculiar little sixty-something nerd, had circulated a petition—without much success—that addressed the issue of wild hogs that had been pestering farmers and ranchers not that far from Chapman. He wasn’t at all thrilled to be there; he knew his mother, a third-grade teacher at Travis Elementary, and his father, a math teacher at Whistler High School, twenty-five miles away, a three-quarter-hour daily commute for him and for Clay and all of the high-schoolers in Chapman, both brown and white, were among the few that had scribbled their names on the peculiar little man’s supplication.

Once everyone was seated and some semblance of order was attained, Don Richardson, a friend of Clay’s father, opened the meeting with words of welcome and a reminder that everyone needed to be respectful of the opinions of others. A good choice to facilitate the affair, Don Richardson was considered a decent man by nearly everyone in town, white and brown, but Clay was a bit skeptical about the wisdom of having a taxidermist moderate a meeting concerning the fate of animals.

When Mr. Richardson introduced Winston Morris, to a smattering of applause—Clay feared it could only have come from his parent’s table—the little fellow stood and studied the anxious crowd with a not-too-certain look on his face. Not everyone, in fact, very few, knew the loner from Ft. Worth or Austin or wherever it was he’d come from, an Anglo who had the temerity to live on the Mexican side of Highway 163, the only paved road in Chapman. The dork was a relative newcomer, fewer than three years in town, and, apparently, retired from some sort of fancy job, probably in government. At least, that’s what the rumors about the man suggested. No one, other than Clay’s parents, had bothered to get to know him.

The man just seemed weird to most everyone, especially to Clay and his friends; they sometimes tossed empty beer and soda cans at the twerp from the beds of pickup trucks as he walked, in his bird-watcher get-ups, the dusty, unpaved back streets in town. Sometimes they yelled obscenities and shouted cat-calls. They were teenagers, and he was an easy target.

In his high-pitched voice, Winston Morris made a surprisingly good presentation—Clay had to give him that. “Pearls before swine,” thought Clay, though he had no clue where the expression came from or what it meant. Some comic strip probably. It just seemed appropriate considering the topic of the evening. That the little man showed up in a pair of slacks and a plaid, long-sleeved shirt helped. His customary cargo shorts and Nature Conservancy baseball cap would have put everyone off. He’d been unable to do anything about his grey, frizzy hair, a real turn-off to most people. His wire-framed glasses still rested precariously on the tip of a narrow nose that boldly stuck out from a peculiarly long, thin face, making him appear like some predatory bird; but Clay doubted he really cared too much about how he looked. He was just one of those guys that can’t get it together when it comes to his appearance. That night he did his best to look as close to normal as possible. Chapman is a Wrangler-jeans, cowboy-hat, western or work-boots, kind of place. Mr. Morris, in his odd L. L. Bean outfits, was, in Clay’s mind, a freak.

Feral hogs, Winston Morris explained as forcefully as he could with his faulty vocal cords, had been discovered two counties east of Sorento, and with their population growing as rapidly as it was, it would only be a matter of time before they’d show up around Chapman. He warned that, though they were not a danger to people, unless the animals were cornered, they were a disaster when it came to farmers’ crops, and sometimes to livestock. He, deliberately, Clay suspected, omitted that they couldn’t be domesticated. This Clay knew from the Internet; he’d done a little research on his own.

That they could be trapped caused a few locals to squirm in their chairs. When he announced his proposal to make it illegal to shoot the animals in Sorento County, a low, grumbling murmur began to build on both sides of the room. There was outright laughter, from every corner, when he suggested that the citizens of Chapman could present a petition to the county officials, a statement proposing that the hunting of feral hogs would be an illegal act. In spite of the obviously dismissive grunts and groans that rose from the audience, he continued. He showed the assemblage a series of interesting photos of the hogs and some pretty professional-looking drawings of the traps that could be used to capture them.

The first question came from Del Sampson, a rancher with more acres than anyone could imagine, a few miles west of town, yet still in Sorento County. The huge white-haired man slowly rose from his chair, like Moses in a Stetson, and asked, “Can people eat ‘em?”

“As I understand it,” answered Mr. Morris, “they are good to eat. The meat is leaner than farm-raised pork… but I don’t eat meat, so I shouldn’t be the one to comment on that.”

“Would a twenty-two bring one down, or would you need something bigger?” The question came from the front row; Clay couldn’t see who it was that made the inquiry. The accent was redneck, not Mexican. Baptist, not Catholic.

Winston Morris paused before responding. “It’s my intention to try to prevent them from being hunted. So, I shouldn’t answer that, and since I’ve never hunted, I’d have to say I don’t know. That’s why we’re all here, to try to treat the animals humanely.”

“You’d better take a thirty-aught-six. Them suckers are pretty big. Some get over three hundred pounds.” The gruff voice came from the front corner of the white side of the room. “You’ve got to have a hunting license, but shooting ‘em is allowed all year. There ain’t no season when it comes to wild hogs.”

The discussion went on for ten minutes; even a few on the Mexican side of the room offered opinions on the best way to bring down one of the creatures. Winston Morris slumped in his chair up front. Things weren’t going well for the bookish man. Clay could’ve told him it wouldn’t, but who listens to dopey teenagers?

There was a nearly deafening rustling of chairs and a hell of a lot of boisterous one-on-one chatter in the echoey room. The shear mass of the crowd muffled the sound somewhat, but chaos seemed to be the order of the day. The noise level had risen pretty fricking high. Clay could barely hear Jody, next to him, when the pimply simpleton bitched about how bored he was. It was loud, but nowhere near as deafening as the Dwight Yoakam concert Clay, Jody and Fernie had gone to in Midland last year. Clay’s ears had rung for nearly a week after that night. He didn’t want to go through that again, especially due to something as unimportant as hogs.

“I’d like to get a grip on what it is we’re talking about.” Roger Spencer called out from the left of Clay. Clay hadn’t seen Roger come in.

Long-haired and bearded, Roger Spencer was about the coolest guy in town. The cashier at the Jiffy Stop gas station and convenience store allowed Clay and his friends to hang out inside the store, in the coolness of the refrigerated air conditioning, on those endless hot summer afternoons when there were no teachers or classes to distract them from more important matters. They drank Coca-Colas and Dr. Peppers, told dirty jokes and crumpled the pages of magazines, mostly the men’s magazines with pictures of naked women. With two years of community college under his belt, back in Odessa where he’d come from, he was what Jody, Johnny, Fernie and Clay all wished they would someday be: He was a dude. Instead of Garth or Waylon t-shirts, he sported Grateful Dead and Robert Crum images on his chest.

Roger continued, almost shouting to overcome the din of the assemblage, “Am I to understand that the debate here tonight is whether to shoot the damn hogs or to trap ’em?” He paused, sniffled Robert Redford-like, then continued. “If you trap ‘em, what are you going to do with ’em? Take ’em to a butcher. That would be my guess. And if you go ahead and shoot ’em, then they still go under the knife. I guess you could trap ’em and truck them suckers up to Oklahoma and let ’em go, but then some Okie asshole will shoot ’em and have pork chops for supper. To me, this whole discussion seems pointless.”

An even greater clamor spread across the room. Both sides, white and brown, were uncertain whether to be outraged or amused by the would-be hippie. It was as if a rattlesnake suddenly appeared in the middle of the room, a not-so-uncommon occurrence in Chapman.

“And what would you propose?” Don Richardson called back to him. Clay didn’t think the taxidermist cared much for Roger.

“Well, the solution seems pretty simple to me.” Roger grinned, looked around the room, and again sniffled. “You just build a fucking wall… and you get the goddamned hogs to pay for it.”

The Mexican side of the room erupted. Hoots, cheers, laughter, whistles. Clay’s father looked back at his son; the math teacher actually had a smirk on his face. Clay would have sworn his father might have winked at him.

Once things settled down a bit, Sam Whitaker, Jody’s father, a former sheriff in Sorento County, until he lost his reelection bid to some hotshot from Whistler in the Republican primary—there was no Democrat candidate in the general election that year, or any year for that matter—stood beside the table directly behind Clay’s parents and pointed a finger toward the Mexican side of the room. “From looking around this room… I’d have to say that it seems we should’ve built a wall a long time ago.” It was the white side of the room’s turn to explode in whoops and high-fives.

“Cabron!” Maria Mendoza, Fernie’s older sister, yelled at Mr. Whitaker. She stood firmly in the center of the room, her hands on her hips, her face, wrinkled and weathered from years of working in the fields of the local melon growers. Though she couldn’t have been any older than thirty, about Roger Spencer’s age, she seemed ancient at times, especially when she was mad—and she was angry quite a bit of the time. Maria had run for state representative two years before and lost, but Democrats always lose; everyone, even the most right-wing fanatics, had to admit that she ran one hell of a campaign. She glared at each face on the other side of the room, before she continued. Staring directly into Sam Whitaker’s blue eyes she said, “When your great-grandmother was still turning tricks back wherever it is you came from, my family was right here and had been here for hundreds, maybe thousands, of fucking years. So, who’s the invader, asshole? Unless you’re some kind of goddamned Indian—and you don’t look like no Indian to me—I’d say you’d better just shut the fuck up about building some pinche wall.”

One redneck—Clay had seen him around town, but didn’t know his name—shouted, “This is America, goddamn it. It’s got nothing to do with Indians or whatever. If you Mexicans don’t like it, you’re free to go back where you came from.”

Hisses and boos from the other side of the room, the brown side. “You son of a bitch,” cried Juan Ochoa, the owner of Ochoa’s Garage, usually a quiet, extremely polite man. “Don’t you get it? We are where we came from. We’ve been here forever.”

“Not in my book, you ain’t,” the yahoo retorted. “My people came from Kentucky and fought their way across this country. They didn’t come all this way to be surrounded by a bunch of taco-bending illiterates.”

“And now that we’ve heard from John Fucking Wayne,” Maria yelled in her heavy accent, “we can all just shut the fuck up and go back to wearing sombreros and kissing gringos’ asses. To cleaning your shithole toilets and washing your fucking clothes. Is that what you think, Mr. Alamo? If you asked me, Mexico should have built a wall at the Red River two hundred years ago.”

It was Sam Whitaker’s turn again. “You see. That’s it. You still think you’re in Mexico, goddamn it. This is the United States of America, sister.”

“Pendejo,” shouted Maria, “I ain’t your sister.” She stood no more than five feet from Mr. Whitaker. “And don’t tell me this is America. My grandfather lost a leg in Vietnam for your America. I would think that makes it our America too. And my brother, Chuy, is in Afghanistan right now. While you’re sitting here on your fat ass waving your pinche flag and voting for one racist asshole after another. We’ve been doing your dirty work around the whole goddamned world. Don’t give me that shit.”

Clay looked at poor Winston Morris. Does the nail see the hammer coming? Mr. Morris didn’t have a clue when he showed up for the meeting an hour earlier that he was going to take a pounding. The man stood in the front of the room frantically waving his hands, next to him red-faced Don Richardson fumed over the whole mess. The clamor was too great. No one paid either of them any mind. It was rumored that Mr. Richardson had to be rushed to the emergency room in San Angelo after the meeting, but Clay couldn’t say for certain that that really happened.

From that point on nobody behaved any better. Insults were shouted back and forth across the room. Clay was pleased that he knew just about every cuss word in both English and Spanish. Without that knowledge he wouldn’t have had any idea what was going on in the chaotic debate. No punches were thrown, but there was some shoving. Later, Jody told Clay that there had been a ruckus in the parking lot, but Clay never knew whether to believe Jody or not. From what Clay knew, no one was injured that night… luckily. The fracas was still in full swing when his father came to the back of the room and told him it was time for them to leave.

On the ride home his father laughed out loud behind the wheel. “Well, that was something, wasn’t it?” Clay’s mother chuckled. At that moment, it dawned on Clay that his parents weren’t the up-tight weirdos he’d thought them to be. They were almost cool.