On Mother’s Day 2013 there were a bunch of hung-over women in the pews of Huntsville’s churches, having drunk hundreds of gallons of chardonnay the night before.
The night before, two-thirds of those who turned out said NO to almost $70K in bonds to be used to build a brand new middle school with a fine arts center and a lot of electrical outlets. And the ladies and gentlemen of the city’s tony neighborhoods began slamming booze as soon as they made it home from the Hawkins Administration Building, where Saturday night’s victory party turned to shit as soon as early voting results came in.
“We thought we had friends in this town,” said my sister, Patty, a teacher, who had come with her husband, Ben, to my parents’ house for Mother’s Day brunch after church.
But the night before, they learned some of their friends were not their friends at all. They found out, watching the results from that Elkins Lake box come in, that some of those who voted to scrap the bond, some of their Vote Yes partners, had lied. They had given lip service to the bond, staked Vote Yes signs in their yards, traipsed cheerfully into “leadership parties” hosted by the Vote Yes PAC chairwoman. And then voted NO in the privacy of the voting booth come May 11.
Drinking was the first response of a wounded elite that was used to getting its way. Here’s the second.
“You know what this town deserves? Total annihilation,” said Ben, an asshole wearing a golf get-up in pimp daddy colors. “We should rain down napalm on the entire town. Just kill everybody.”
“If you’re serious, I bet I can get a hold of some napalm,” I said. “My friends have assault rifles and a variety of small arms. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have napalm, too. And some of them are Democrats. Isn’t that cool?”
“Mother,” Patty said, “make him shut up.”
But it was Mother’s Day, and Mom had a headache, so my father said, “Shut up, Bob.”
I poured champagne into my mother’s glass of OJ and handed it to her because I am a good son. “Here, Mom. Hair of the dog.”
“Don’t tell me you voted no,” Patty said. “Even Kendall Scudder voted yes.”
But I hadn’t voted at all because I couldn’t make up my mind. It was a choice between kicking children in the teeth with hobnailed boots or depriving a prison guard’s family of milk and medicine for the next twenty-five years.
“We needed that bond,” my mother whined, lowing like dairy cattle in Chupacabra country. In her mind, the bond was the lone antidote to a Dickensian educational landscape in which hundreds of Huntsville public school students suffered daily indignities that kids just 20 miles down the road were spared. “Why our kids? Why us? I’ll tell you why. It’s the haters and the naysayers.”
“And more,” I said. “The naysayers just picked up a whole lot of new friends.”
“Indeed,” my father said gleefully. “Me.”
In the cold light of morning, the Yes bond people were facing their worst fears. Huntsville was slipping farther and farther from the shores of economic redemption and the consequences would be apocalyptic. But you couldn’t blame Superintendent Steve Johnson or PAC chairwoman Sally Nelson for this. Oh, no! This would be the legacy of selfish earners and old family property owners, not — as some would have it — their cash-poor counterparts in Huntsville’s trailer parks who, as everyone knows, don’t vote. This bond defeat was the work of Tea Party contrarians and outside agitators who had convinced even crusty old conservatives like my father to vote against a brighter day.
“I went to school in a building that’s still standing,” Dad said. “Look at the White House. It was built more than 200 years ago! By slaves and Scotsmen! Do you think the Obama Administration doesn’t have enough outlets to run their socialist computers and their socialist laser printers? How stupid do you think we are? Schools have to be torn down and rebuilt every fifty years? Come on!”
“Napalm,” said brother-in-law Ben. “Raining down on the whole town.”
I remember when Ben and Patty were hippies and wanted to move to Oregon to live on a commune. I remember them taking me to the state lake on a picnic and listening to them read from one of the nonsensical counterculture novels of Richard Brautigan, either Trout Fishing in America or In Watermelon Sugar. I remember in one of these books, there were rats eating the bodies of their dead comrades and one of them said, “When my mother was young, she sang like Deanna Durbin.” To which I replied, “Who the hell is Deanna Durbin?” Ben and Patty didn’t know. They didn’t move to Oregon, either.
“And who the hell is Donna Piñon, and when did the libertarian fringe get such a voice in local politics?” Patty said.
“Raising taxes to improve public schools is a Democrat move, isn’t it?” I said. “This county votes two-thirds Republican. These bond results make perfect sense to me. Unless it really was just about economic development, and then it’s a Republican idea and that means it wasn’t about Huntsville’s kids at all.”
“It’s the Item’s fault,” my mother said. “They could have published the pictures we took of the terrible state of these schools and that would have convinced even your father that we needed to do something.”
Of course, everything that goes wrong in HTX is the newspaper’s fault. We all know George Russell, the Big Mashugana, owns a controlling interest in the Item. And George is a hater of all things bright and shiny. You can tell by his collection of historic eyesores lining 19th Street and University Avenue.
“How much napalm you got, Ben? We can start with the Item,” I said. “We can park a catapult over at the post office and just start lobbing — ”
“You watch. A bunch of teachers are going to leave HISD this summer and move to Conroe and Willis and The Woodlands,” Ben said. “The whole town just gave every teacher in this district the finger.”
“And every kid,” my sister said.
“And every person who worked so hard to get that bond passed,” my mother said.
“The whole town just gave the finger to bond salesmen and contractors and people who want to raise our taxes,” my father said. “Don’t be so damned dramatic.”
In In Watermelon Sugar, the sun changes color every day, which makes watermelons of different colors. The watermelon sugar is used as the building blocks of all civilization, or what’s left of it after an apocalypse just like the one facing Huntsville after May 11 when Sally Nelson and J.D. Davis and Brian Smith and the rest of the gang did not get their way.
Except for that, In Watermelon Sugar has nothing to do with the bond failure, but I liked the thought that instead of disaster, Huntsville might be evolving into something more sustainable on a scale its citizens could afford, something that might be free of all this bickering over what really amounts to nothing more than money. Filthy lucre.
What would it be like if, with all the greedy speculators, the grandest assholes left town in a bilateral purge of ill will and gridlock? Maybe Sally would tear down the multimillion dollar behemoth she and Ivo put up on the shores of sweet little Sunset Lake before they go. Maybe the Big Mashugana would sell his old houses before he moved to Italy to live out the rest of his crazy life in the midst of wine grapes and olive trees.
“Dream on,” Patty said before slipping outside for a cigarette. I followed her. “You look better,” she said. “You’ve gained some weight.”
“Africa, Bob?” she said, smirking. “I hear you have a girlfriend.”
“It’s more like she has me.”
“Well, little brother, you’ve always been whipped.”
“You’re not really moving to Conroe, are you?” I said.
“Don’t listen to Ben. He’s just pissed,” she said and then she ground out her cigarette under the sole of her sandal. Her toenails were painted gold. “After the dust settles, we’ll regroup and try again. This was just a fluke.”