On the shores of a small bay washed out of the eastern edge of Texas—the part that cuts its way down in a point between old Mexico and the Gulf—there drones the sleepy little seaport, Corpus Christi. The name at once suggests the mystic tinge in the blood of the old Spanish discoverers.
In chapter two of her first novel, Clara Driscoll described Corpus as the most attractive location on the southern coast. I wasn’t sure if she meant the Texas coast or all of the United States, but she was probably more than a little biased either way. Of course, in the same chapter of The Girl of La Gloria, she had also written more than a few insensitive statements about Mexican Americans, African Americans, and the facially disfigured—and that was just one chapter. When I shared this bit of trivia with one of the PhDed bartenders in Austin, she had laughed and said, “There’s your master’s thesis right there.”
A few things had changed since Clara’s time, both regarding what was politically correct and just how sleepy and attractive Corpus was. After my ceremonial toe-dipping in the Gulf of Mexico on New Year’s Evening, I rejoined Buffy in the car and went looking for a place to stay. We ended up backtracking a bit up the highway to a motel near the airport. I had assumed they didn’t allow pets, but I also didn’t ask. I smuggled Buffy’s carrier into the room with my coat draped over it, fashioning a passable litter box from a soda flat I found by the Dumpster and some sand scooped from the “beachfront” landscaping. The next morning, I left a twenty on the table with a note that read “There is no cat/No hay gato” on the motel-branded notepad. To cover all my linguistic bases, I drew a picture of a cat, surrounded by a circle marked through with a slash, and hammered home the message with an arrow pointing brashly to the cash. It worked; when I returned from the first fruitless day of apartment hunting, I found the note, but the cash was gone. Buffy sprawled luxuriously on the freshly made bed.
I had another five days before I was scheduled to begin my new job, which I had thought would be plenty of time to find a place. My day-one tactic, driving around the city and stopping at places that looked nice, hadn’t worked so well, so I’d called it early and snuggled up with Buffy and the classifieds, some old movies flickering on the television. The next day got me more looks, but the vision I’d had of a beach view was becoming murkier. If I wanted to hear “the swish of the waves on the shore,” as Clara had written one character’s first night in Corpus, I would be paying nearly twice what I had budgeted for housing.
I was mulling over this possibility as Buffy and I shared a dinner of chicken nuggets and fries. As I set my fountain drink down on the combined desk, dining room, and makeup table, the sight of my pidgin Spanish on the notepad reminded me of one of the classifieds I’d neglected. I flipped through the pages to an ad in Spanish, just basic enough for me to follow: apartamento…playa…piscina. And the universal language: $400. It seemed too good to be true, but I could read the address and had some time, so I opened out my map on the motel bed.
As I got dressed to go out on the third day. Buffy lounged within the folds of the blankets, clearly in no rush to begin her day. I hoped her lazy confidence meant she had charmed the cleaning crew, because when I opened my wallet, I found a single five-dollar bill. “You better work your magic,” I told her with a kiss on the forehead. I left the five next to the bilingual pictograph and stepped out into the sunlight.
I took off driving toward downtown, though I’d had trouble believing such a cheap apartment would be located so close to the financial district. I circled the block completely before I found it on the second pass and burst out laughing. It had been too good to be true, all right: a perfect little beachside apartment complex…with a swanky 1980s high-rise blocking the view. It had probably been a sweet little set-up in the seventies, with the gentle roll down to the coast visible from a two-story complex surrounding a courtyard. Now the drained pool sat in the shadow of the behemoth across the street, which not only obliterated the beach view but blocked the morning sun.
Still, my dad’s words rang in my ears: location, location, location. The building was just a block off the beach and within walking distance of downtown. I’d still have to drive to work, but I would probably do that anyway, since the mall was situated on a major freeway. As I sat in the car, illegally idling at the curb of the fancy building, child laughter floated from the shabbier apartment complex. It was this sound that convinced me to pull into the space marked “RESIDENTS ONLY” with faded paint.
I walked across the courtyard, where there were no children to be found. I thought the laughter had come from the pool area, but all I saw were a few scattered toys. The pool itself had long been empty; a cheap, poorly applied liner cracked and split with the damage of at least a few summers’ heat. I shaded my eyes with my hand and looked up toward the second floor. There, at the end, a sign that read MANAGER, next to the last apartment on the right.
Three hours and way too many cups of coffee later, Natalia and I had agreed to a six-month lease with the first month’s rent due the next morning. Newly widowed, Natalia had long lived in the building while she cared for her bedridden husband, who had been injured on a construction job nearly a decade prior. When he died only a few months before we met, Natalia had taken his life insurance and a small settlement from his employer and purchased the apartment complex outright. She said she had spent years working on the previous owner, who had been eager to off-load the building and just needed a little guidance when it came to what Natalia considered a reasonable price for El Cangrejo, which had been erected in the fifties as a seaside motel. Most of the tenants had remained when Natalia took over as landlady; they’d been neighbors, after all. She said the complex consisted mostly of construction workers living near job sites downtown and young couples still in love enough (or broke enough) to share a studio apartment.
“Are there any young families?” I had to ask as I walked out of Natalia’s apartment with my paperwork.
Natalia shook her head and lit a cigarette. She offered me the pack, but I demurred. “I started again when Hector died; I figured secondhand smoke couldn’t bother him anymore. But no, no kids running around, if that’s what you’re worried about. We have one little girl, who lives two doors down, but she’s quiet as a mouse.”
“Only one? I could’ve sworn I heard more…”
“No, just Elena. You’ll see her around—she likes to play in the courtyard, but she doesn’t bother anyone. Barely speaks above a whisper.” Natalia puffed her cigarette. “OK, so I’ll get your key made this afternoon and give it to you tomorrow when you bring me some money.”
“I can write you a check right now,” I insisted, not for the first time that day, but Natalia waved me off.
“Maybe after we get to know each other better. For now, cash is king.”
As I passed back through the courtyard to my car, I did notice that the toys around the pool were gone, but still saw no sign of any children, Elena or otherwise.
I stopped at the bank on the way back to the motel and pulled out enough cash to cover rent and a celebratory dinner with Buffy. Maybe we’d order Chinese delivery to the motel. I walked up to the room with every intention of asking the cat what she would like for dinner, but a note on the door stopped me in my tracks. Management had asked to see me. I already knew, but I opened the door to check anyway. “Buff?” Her carrier was gone, as was the makeshift litterbox which, admittedly, had out-served its purpose. I noticed the fiver and the note were also gone from the table.
I trudged to the motel office, hoping more than anything else that my cat was safe, even if she had been confiscated. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw her carrier atop the magazines in the lobby, an unnatural, everlasting growl emanating from behind the bars. I’d been afraid that Buffy, at the first time of trouble, had bolted out the door into the motel parking lot toward God knew what dangers, but I realized in that moment that Buffy hadn’t willingly gone outside since the day I’d found her in an alley back in Austin. It was as though the mean streets to which she had been born were part of her misspent youth, and she never wished to see them again.
I moved toward the source of the growl and caught a quick glimpse of glowing, angry eyes coiled into the carrier before the woman behind the desk cleared her throat.
“I’m afraid we do have a strict no-animals policy,” the script began, and the tone of voice made clear that this was someone simply doing her job. Easy. I could handle this.
“Sorry, I didn’t know,” I lied, then dug in. “I’ve been here for three days, and no one has said anything.”
She looked at me with exhausted eyes. “Yeah, about that,” she said.
Dammit. That had been the wrong move.
“Our housekeeping staff are happy to take tips in appreciation of service rendered, but I’m afraid they cannot be paid to look the other way.”
I doubled down. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
We stared at each other over the counter, Buffy’s monotone solo launching into its fifth awkward stanza of audible hostility, a perfect soundtrack to accompany the increasingly unpleasant human conversation. The woman at the desk, Hillary General Manager according her nametag, grabbed a walkie from the desk in front of her and called in a request: “Lisa, can you come down to the office?”
“Look, it doesn’t matter, ok? We’re leaving regardless; I just want to point out that this hasn’t been a problem before today.”
“Excellent. Unfortunately, I will have to charge you for tonight’s stay.”
“Whatever, you’re going to have someone else in that room in an hour.”
“What damages? This is bullshit. I want to talk to whoever was cleaning the room.”
The door jingled, and Hillary looked past me. “Here she is now.”
I turned to see a tall woman glowering in the doorway, her strawberry blond braid backlit by the late afternoon sun. She aimed her withering stare alternately past me and toward the cat carrier; Buffy’s pitch lowered below what I had previously believed to be the nadir of her vocal range. She raised her hand to point at Buffy, and that’s when I noticed the bandages. “That beast,” she said, “must go.”
Not only did Lisa have a fully bandaged right hand, but she sported nearly a dozen band-aids on her left shin. I quickly did the calculus on the odds, but the growl behind me, which seemed to oscillate as Lisa continued to point her finger, confirmed what I already knew. The liability of a physical injury signaled to my fight-or-flight reflex that the chance to fight had passed, and now was the time to switch to flight. I quickly signed the credit card slip that Hillary held out to me, purposefully avoiding looking at the numbers, and grabbed the carrier, which howled as we passed by Lisa. I couldn’t resist getting in the last word, so I mumbled to Lisa as I opened the door with my free hand. “You did take the money.”
“What money?” Lisa asked, looking at me blandly. I rolled my eyes and walked out.
Within five minutes, I had packed up the room and gotten ready to go, the still-howling Buffy waiting in the passenger seat. After I finally got in the car, I sat for a moment and tried to soothe my cat. As I apologized for leaving her alone in a strange place, the noise reached a crescendo and suddenly stopped. I turned to see Lisa leaning over the car. She had loosened her braid, probably off work for the day, and even though the windows were rolled up, she had clearly made eye contact with Buffy. The two stared at each other for a moment, completely ignoring me—mortal enemies across a battlefield, not knowing when they might meet again but certain that one or both would not survive.
“What?” I said, and only then did she look at me. It was as though I could reach through the window and touch her face, which, in the setting sun, looked older than I had realized.
Lisa looked back at Buffy, who I now noticed had shifted so much in her carrier that it was threatening to wobble right off the passenger seat. “She knows what she did.” And with that, Lisa turned and walked away, leaving the parking lot on foot and disappearing down the street behind the motel.
I sat in the parking lot, stunned. I wanted to process everything that had just happened, but I also wanted to get the hell away from there. I navigated to a fast food drive-in with a view of the ocean, and only after the food had arrived at the car and I’d rolled up the windows to seal out the increasingly cool air did I turn to Buffy.
“Well, what happened?” I lifted the latch on her carrier, and Buffy immediately slinked out, more liquid than cat and obviously tired of being cooped up in her cage. I fed her morsels of chicken and tried to guess what scenario had prompted her attack on Lisa. It was stupid, but I felt better talking to someone about it, even if the conversation was one-sided. By the time we finished eating, Buffy and I both seemed to be in better moods, and our next stop was a superstore to buy a brand new, top-of-the-line litter box with a jumbo bag of fresh litter. When we arrived at El Cangrejo, I took the carrier straight up to Natalia’s door and announced, “I need to move in tonight. And I have a cat.”
“Honey, I don’t care if you have a peacock, as long as you brought me some cash,” Natalia said. I paid her, and she handed me the key to apartment 215, right next to hers at the end of the second floor. As I made trips up and down the staircase with my belongings, neighbors occasionally poked their heads out their doors or stepped aside to let me pass with my burden. I boisterously greeted everyone I saw, and one guy helped me with the last load, offering to carry the giant bag of cat litter while I balanced a pile of linens and locked up the car. I didn’t have any furniture, but the blanket and pillows I’d used since college would make a fine floor pallet, at least for this first unexpected night.
As I unpacked my suitcase of clothes, Buffy made the rounds of the studio. She seemed to like the kitchen windowsill best; it overlooked the courtyard and allowed her a view of everyone who came to the door. So when I thought I heard a small knock on the door, I glanced over for confirmation from Buffy, who seemed captivated as she stared out the window and toward the threshold. I opened the door to a toy sand bucket sitting on the ground, full of small items.
I picked the bucket up by its handle as I stepped out on the balcony. The door to the apartment next door was open, so I poked my head around the corner and saw the man I’d been introduced to as Elena’s father seated in an armchair, bathed in the glow of a TV. He waved but didn’t get up, a beer can balanced on the cushion. “She made you a welcome basket,” he called. “Everyone chipped in.”
“Oh, well, tell her thank you,” I called, leaving him to his TV and shutting my own door. I turned my attention to the bucket, which, though improvised, held some very thoughtful and practical gifts—a can of soup, some candy, instant coffee crystals, a candle, a lighter that I had to assume had come from Natalia, and a pack of brightly colored cards with words in Spanish to correspond with the cheerful little drawings.
Buffy had migrated to my makeshift bed and the pile of clothes I had dropped on it when Elena had come to the door. She rolled around on the pile until I shooed her away, not wanting cat hair on every surface of my life. But she came back and seemed particularly intrigued with the black skirt I was planning to wear on my first day of work. When she suddenly took a swipe at it, I screamed involuntarily (and a bit overdramatically) as a black thread trailed behind her extended claw. “Buffy, what the fuck?”
I shooed her away again and took up the black skirt in my hands. The errant loose end was easy to find, but as I inspected, I found more dangling threads. There was no way even Buffy could wreak this much havoc with one swipe of a paw. I lay the skirt flat on my blanket; the rip in the seam was right along the hip, and though I was grateful to find the fabric still intact, I could not remember having done anything at all to the skirt. True, I did a lot of things I didn’t always remember, but the skirt wasn’t part of any of my drinking ensembles. My going-out clothes tended to be cheap and somewhat flammable; this skirt was vintage. I turned it over to inspect the zipper. A single strawberry blond hair clung to the back of the skirt, and I instantly knew what had happened. Though not fat, Lisa had been formidable, and, I was willing to bet, at least a size or two wider at the hip. I glanced up at Buffy, who had settled on my pillow and tucked her paws underneath her. She had been watching me, and when we made eye contact, she blinked slowly. Her stoic, graceful expression seemed to say: You’re welcome.
I stared at the mysterious creature until she yawned, which made me yawn as well. I picked up the skirt and brought it over to the kitchen counter, where I laid it flat next to the bucket. “I can fix this,” I said to Buffy, who no longer cared now that her part in the drama was done. All I needed was a needle and thread, and I could easily get those when I shopped for groceries the next day. The offending hair streaked through the black fabric, catching the light in mesmerizing ways as it curled. It felt like evidence, somehow, and I didn’t dare remove it.
My eyes traveled to the toy bucket next to the skirt on the counter, and I had a thought. I grabbed the bucket and started digging through it, removing the larger items and setting them on the counter. There at the bottom, almost as if I had conjured it, I found a tiny traveler’s sewing kit, halfway stuck into the pages of an out-of-date magazine. A few needles, some thread, and the world’s smallest pair of scissors. It looked like the kit my grandmother had once given me, when I was a little girl who need essentials to pack into my first purse. I’d carried that sewing kit for years, even using it a couple of times on trips in high school, but by the time I got to college I was less concerned with appearing responsible and put-together. Besides, ripped jeans and clothes with holes were in, so who would want to patch them?
Still, the knowledge came back to me so quickly that nobody but me (and Lisa) would ever know the skirt had a busted seam. By simply cinching the loose threads, tying off the ends, and making a fresh set of stitches in the gap, I undid the damage and felt a weird rush of self-esteem. I’d done something constructive for once. It hadn’t been hard, but it felt meaningful. I hung up the skirt and, as a final flourish, pulled the long strand of hair off the backside. “Buff, do you want to a trophy from your vanquished foe?” Buffy barely budged when I removed her collar, but as I twisted the hair around the metal clasp, making a kind of sheath, she cracked on eye open to watch. I secured the ends of the hair with a dab of clear nail polish and fell asleep waiting for it to dry.
“Now who is Clara Driscoll?”
Jenny and I had just taken our seats in the food court, two trays of pizza and sodas between us. We were on our Saturday lunchbreak, which was really no break at all, the way the mall filled up with shoppers. I much preferred Sundays, when the mall didn’t open until 12. But we had thirty minutes to get out of the store and find some food, so greasy pizza and screaming kids it was.
I’d been at the Corpus store for a few weeks, and Jenny was the only person I had anything in common with. She was age appropriate, and she sometimes made work fun: mostly by making fun of customers, which got a little too mean-spirited sometimes. I usually just laughed and tried not to get sucked into it, but that didn’t always work. Still, Jenny was the closest thing to a friend I had, so I wasn’t about to alienate her with my condescending Clara Driscoll lecture, usually reserved for impressing academics and one-upping Austin girls who claimed to be “artsy.”
“She was born here and wrote a couple of books.” I bit into my pizza, crust first, and ignored the weird look from Jenny. “She saved the Alamo from a bulldozer.”
“Did she chain herself to the bulldozer?” Jenny folded her pizza lengthwise, after soaking up the grease with a napkin.
“No, but her friend did chain herself to the building…although they weren’t really friends at that point.” I shrugged. “It’s a long story, which is why I think I should study it.”
“I’m glad to be done with school. Why would you want to go back?”
I chewed for a moment as I admitted something to myself. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at,” I said after I swallowed the dry lump of dough.
“Good for you. I did fine in school, but I just never wanted to be there.”
We finished and took our leisurely time getting back to the department store. Along the way, we stopped at a giftshop for alternative middle-class kids, full of smartass t-shirts and lava lamps. We both giggled at the sight of an elaborate figurine: two skeletons on a bed, as though they had died mid-coitus. Or perhaps it was skeleton love? Either way, the plastic sculpture was goofy but weirdly titillating, like finding a friend’s parents’ porn, and I wandered over to the other side of the story to avoid staring at it like a teenage boy. I picked up a pack of tarot cards and started reading the instructions on the back.
“You can’t buy those.” Jenny had followed me and was now speaking uncomfortably close to my ear.
“I wasn’t going to,” I protested, putting down the cards.
“Good,” she said, picking them up. “You can’t buy your first deck of tarot cards.”
“What makes you think it would be my first?”
“You were reading the instructions, nerd.” We both laughed. I was relieved to break the tension, though the sight of the sexy skeletons over Jenny’s shoulder still unnerved me. “You’re supposed to steal them.” She dropped her voice lower for this last part.
“We can’t steal from the mall; we work here,” I told her, brushing past on my way out of the store. We were about to be late anyway, and the juvenile delinquent behavior only entertained for so long. Maybe she was younger than I thought.
“Anyway,” Jenny said as she caught up with me, speaking as though she’d never missed a beat in the conversation I’d walked away from, “I can take you to a better place downtown that has all that stuff. Maybe you won’t mind stealing from them.” She stuck out her tongue at me as we crossed into the makeup counters of the department store. The perfume spritzers knew us by sight and lowered their weapons, but more than one had overhead what she said.
“Shut up, Jenny,” I replied, splitting off from her toward my section of the store.
She was back at the end of the day, her shift ending thirty minutes before mine. “Come on, what else are you going to do on a Saturday night?”
“Hang out with my cat,” I grumbled, and it was true. That was all I had planned.
“Don’t you want to see the real Corpus Christi? Isn’t that what your ghost lady would want?”
I continued folding jeans in silence, but she was right. It was almost February and all I’d seen of Corpus was the mall and my apartment. I hadn’t even been back to the beach since the first night.
“Fine, but you’re driving.”
Twenty minutes later, I met her out in the parking garage, her hand-me-down Corolla waiting just outside the doors. We took a circuitous route along the seawall before arriving at a curiosity shop.
“Jenny, they’re closed,”
“Well, how was I supposed to know? I swear, working Saturday nights has me so messed up. Do you want to get a drink anyway?”
“Why not,” I said, and Jenny drove around for a bit until she found street parking near a string of bars.
I realized, sometime between pool and karaoke, that I hadn’t had a drink since I’d moved to Corpus. When I shared this epiphany with Jenny, she ordered us some shots, convincing a few young men near the bar to join us and pay for the round. It was coming off the backspin of that vodka-based, psychedelic-colored mistake that I decided I needed some air, regardless of what our gentlemen patrons felt they were owed. I bummed a cigarette, realizing as I took the first drag lit by a borrowed flame, that I hadn’t had a cigarette since I’d moved to Corpus either. The drinking and smoking had kind of gone hand in hand, and I hadn’t even seen a hard drug since I’d left Austin.
I contemplated this as I paced the sidewalk to stay warm, my business-basic work clothes—now slightly disheveled going-out clothes—too lightweight for the chilly evening. I stopped to look in the window of a tattoo studio when a set of tarot-inspired specs caught my eye, reminding me of the fool’s errand that had brought us out tonight. I could have been home with my cat. I was cursing Jenny when, to speak of the devil, she came out of the bar and yelled my name.
“Why did you leave? Those guys are buying us another round.”
“Frat boys do nothing for me.”
“Your loss, then. I’ll have more to choose from.”
“That’s fine, Jenny. I’m going in here to see if I can call a cab. Don’t get abducted.”
Jenny yelled as I opened the door of the tattoo studio: “She needs a tattoo that says bitch!”
A tattoo artist and his customer in a chair looked up at me, nonplussed, as I shut the door behind me. They had clearly seen this kind of thing before, and probably much-worse behavior in the busy summer months. The artist went back to touching up the guy’s arm, but a voice to my right asked, “Friend of yours?”
A third guy sat behind the counter in the lobby area, half hidden next to a desk set-up wedged behind the shop window
“Can I use your phone? I need to call a cab.”
“Over here,” he said, standing up and motioning toward his chair. “Numbers are stuck to the wall.”
As I made my call, I surveyed the shop and the three dudes in it. The first, the customer, was old enough to be my father and potbellied. The second, the guy tattooing him, would have been just my type a year earlier—a skinny white guy with tattoos and piercings and a greasy blond hairdo that parted right up the middle and flopped into ear-skimming waves on either side of his face. Even his face, so full of apathy, set off a habitual reflex. I started fingering my hair in an almost absentminded attempt to get his attention. Not wanting to be too obvious, I continued to scan the room, and my gaze landed on the third guy, who was watching me with a bemused expression as he counted cash.
“Yep, fifteen minutes, thanks,” I repeated into the phone. I hung up, then turned back around. Nobody was looking at me. “Mind if I wait in here?”
“Not at all,” the off-duty artist said, “but we close at midnight.”
As if on cue, the buzzing stopped, and the other artist made one final blot of the customer’s touch-up. I busied myself with the specs on the walls. As they closed up shop around me, I caught glimpses of the guy that I hadn’t initially noticed. He had a shaved head, which I normally considered off-putting, and at first glance appeared to boast fewer tattoos than his compatriot. I soon realized that his tattoos were astonishingly detailed, almost geometric in their growing patterns, as though he were constantly practicing minute details on his own skin. As he turned to load the cash drawer in a giant gun safe behind the desk, I read the words HECHO EN MEXICO stamped in copperplate on the back of his neck.
“That’s funny,” I said when he turned around to face me again. I made a hooking motion with my pointed finger to indicate what I meant, then awkwardly tapped my own shoulder when he didn’t seem to understand. “Because everything is hecho en Mexico these days…”
He half-smiled and nodded, then glanced out the window. “Cab’s here.”
“Oh, well, thanks for your phone,” I said, but he just nodded without looking up from the bundle of receipts in his hands. The other guy had disappeared somewhere to the back of the building.
I walked out the door to just in time to see Jenny climbing into my cab with one of the guys from earlier. I had no idea which one it was. I pounded on the driver’s window, but he had turned back to whatever Jenny was saying in the backseat, then waved me off as he put the car in drive. Jenny, leaning across the lap of her new friend, knocked on the backseat window and gave me the finger. I did the same, an ineffectual punchline that got a good laugh out of the people on the street who witnessed our little scene.
“Someone took my cab,” I said as I walked back into the tattoo studio.
“Yeah, I saw,” he said, chuckling as he flipped off the black lights in the window.
“Can I borrow your phone again?”
“Yeah, I can wait here with you. Or I can just drive you. It would be a lot quicker.”
I hesitated, wondering if I should just walk.
“Look, if I try anything, you’re on every camera in this place.” He pointed to each corner of the building, mounted with cameras aimed at the door, the cash register, and out the window. My evening had been well documented. “It’s not worth losing my job.”
“What happened to the other guy?”
“Gone for the night,” he said. “I get to lock up, but if you can wait five minutes, I’m parked in the back.
“OK, then. Thank you. I won’t distract you.”
I busied myself with the specs on the walls again, finding familiar symbols from the card game Elena had slipped into my welcome basket. He caught me looking.
“You ever play?”
“Lotería? A few times in Spanish class.”
“You ready to go?”
“You sure you don’t mind?”
“Nah, my night’s just getting started.”
His vehicle looked like a souped-up station wagon. I read the words Ram Charger before crawling into the passenger door. The ram theme repeated with the giant hood ornament that tracked the center of every road he took. In five minutes, we were pulling up to El Cangrejo.
I looked at Cherry’s empty parking spot and it finally registered. “Shit! My car is still at work.”
“Where do you work?”
“At the mall.”
“I mean, I can take you, but do you think you’re OK to drive it back?”
“Probably not, seeing how my luck is going tonight. At least I’m off work tomorrow.”
“What kind of car do you drive?”
“Hmm, what color?”
“Flashy. Think it’ll be ok overnight?”
“She’ll be fine. Round-the-clock security in the parking garage.”
“Tell you what—I’ll swing by when I wake up and see if you still need a lift. Sometime around ten.”
I turned to look at him in the dark.
“And if you’re not here or you don’t want to come out, that’s fine too,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
“OK,” I said. “I think that will work.”
“So I might see you in the morning,” he said.
“Sure.” I climbed out of the Ram Charger and waved up at him as a I shut the door. Only after it slammed did I realize that I didn’t know his name.
I woke up early, but not too early, and spent my post-shower prep time peeking through the blinds every few minutes to look for the Ram Charger. Around 10, I finally just went outside, borrowing Natalia’s outdoor smoking chair to sit on the balcony. While I waited, I flipped through my notebook of Clara Driscoll notes.
There were some morbid aspects to both her writing and her career. She went to French finishing school, and her mother died during their post-graduation grand tour of Europe. She accompanied her mother’s body on the ship home at the age of 17, then bought the Alamo with her father’s money at 22. She wrote two novels and the story and lyrics for a Broadway musical, all the while engaged in a legal battle over the Alamo buildings with her former ally in saving the land, Adina de Zavala. She calmed down a bit as she aged, building Laguna Gloria, getting involved in the Democratic Party, and accompanying her husband on his ambassadorship to Chile. They divorced after thirty years of marriage, and Clara moved back to Corpus, where she built a hotel in honor of her dead brother, her last relative. When she suddenly died in the hotel’s penthouse at the age of 64, her body was moved to the Alamo to lay in state.
Her novels, too, were full of Tex-Mex folklore and some downright spooky shit. Reading her, I learned of la lechuza, a malicious female spirit that took the form of an owl to torment humans. Disembodied voices, generational curses, and some astonishingly racist language showed up in nearly every chapter of her stories. She clearly had a deep desire to explain the heritage of south Texas, especially the fact that many Mexican families had been on the land longer than the land had belonged to the United States, but terms like “swarthy Mexican” could be distracting.
I’d been wrestling with the argument that “it was a different time” with increasing levels of difficulty as I read up on the life and works of Clara Driscoll. If she had been so eager to share the stories of real Texans of all colors, but got in a huge public fight with a former friend of notable Mexican descent, how closely could she have been listening…and was it more than a little self-serving?
In my most frighteningly sober moments, I wondered if striving to research this at an academic, career-advancing level made me culpable as well.
Natalia swung open her door and stepped out into the sunlight. Before I could get up, she lit a cigarette, taking a loud and luxurious drag, and blew the smoke at me as she spoke: “Whoever you’re waiting for, honey, he ain’t coming.”
I checked my Swatch, and sure enough, it was past 10:30. “Have you been checking on me this whole time? I’ll get out of your chair.”
She pressed a hand lightly on my shoulder to imply that I needn’t bother, but she reached past me to flick the end of the cigarette into her clay ashtray. The rudimentary attempt at a seashell, which more closely resembled something out of Beetlejuice, swallowed the ash into its gaping maw. I had never once seen her empty it, but I felt confident that it would survive a hurricane, not only remaining intact but also anchoring down the cheap plastic table upon which it rested.
“I named her Audrey,” Natalia said, noticing my fascination with the objet d’art. “She looks like the man-eating plant from that movie.”
“Little Shop of Horrors,” I said, trying not to scan the horizon for Ram Chargers. “It was actually based on a Broadway musical.”
“Which was actually based on a movie from the sixties.” Natalia looked at me pointedly. “You don’t have to know everything all the time.”
The words comprised a condemnation, but they were delivered as a statement of fact. I let them sink in, uncomfortable as it was to do so.
“Where’s your car?” she asked, gesturing with her cigarette toward my empty parking space.
“Still at work. I went out with a friend and didn’t need to drive.”
“All right. Let me put on a bra, and I’ll take you.”
Twenty minutes in Natalia’s car guaranteed I would never smoke again, but the trip through Whataburger opened new horizons for me. Natalia introduced me to the taquito, screeching into the parking lot sideways to make sure we made the 11 a.m. cut-off. I watched in fascinated horror as she juggled the breakfast taco, her Styrofoam cup of coffee, and a cigarette. Somehow, with all this going on behind the wheel, we made it to the mall’s parking garage without incident. After waving her goodbye, I drove to a bookstore while eating my taquito. I stopped in the Texas History section first, a habit I’d developed as my interest in Clara grew, then asked for help finding a tarot guide. I assumed the spirits would allow me to at least purchase a guide, but I flipped through the pages to double check that it wouldn’t curse me.
Back at El Cangrejo, I ignored the slight flickering of hope that I would find a note on my door or even a Ram Charger parked on the street. I barricaded myself in my apartment with the boombox tuned to the radio station I’d grown fond of. Reading up on the tarot, I learned that each deck carried energy and could be cleansed with crystals or sunlight. Jenny had been half right, but the vibes off a stolen deck didn’t seem all that conducive to peace and prosperity. I also read about daily draws of a single oracle card, which could be helpful in giving shape to the day: one symbol to focus on, with all the connections it may conjure.
I was feeling homey enough to finally cook the can of soup Elena had provided in my welcome basket. It was plain old tomato soup, but the comfort of a grilled cheese was tempting and well within my culinary grasp. I grabbed the can from the basket where it had remained on the kitchen counter, a lonely little centerpiece to my sad dinners for one. The pack of cards lay underneath the soup can, forgotten. I untwisted the little girl’s elastic hair tie that held the deck together and spread the cards in an arc across the counter. These cards were completely out of order, but I was willing to bet they had good energy. I’d caught glimpses of Elena playing sometimes, out in the courtyard where Buffy could watch her with fascination from the kitchen window. The child seemed kind, if painfully shy; just that morning I had observed her rescuing and rerouting a snail while I waited for the date that never came.
I gathered the cards back up and knocked on them three times, which was supposed to wake them up, then shuffled the deck to the best of my ability. Since some of the cards were facing up, I turned my head and looked away as I split the deck, recombined it, and drew the first card off the top. Gingerly and without looking, I lay the card flat on the counter, took a deep breath, and opened my eyes. I laughed out loud when I saw it was facedown. Now I got to decide whether to flip it vertically or horizontally. I made up my mind when Buffy entered the kitchen, stopping next to the counter to meowing at me for dawdling with her dinner. I hooked a nail under the card and flipped it horizontally in Buffy’s direction.
The card showed a bloody, anatomically correct heart, shot through with an arrow and facing away from me: el Corazon, reversed. “Well, that’s accurate,” I said aloud to Buffy, tracing the valves and arteries in the illustration, my finger stopping to rest on the single drop of blood falling from the tip of the arrow. As I said it, I realized I had been thinking of the guy in the Ram Charger, and not the guy who’d dragged my heart all over Austin. It still hurt, but I guessed it was progress.
“That singer you like was just here,” my mom said. I hadn’t bothered to set up a phone in my apartment, so I let my mom call while I was at work. I could really only listen and occasionally communicate some news about my life in a hushed tone, but I would sometimes have to say something like “I’m sorry, we are sold out of that item,” or “Of course, please bring your receipt with you for a full refund.” Even when I had to put her on hold, my mom was a champion chatter, picking up again right where she left off in the relaying of crucial San Antonio gossip. I learned which of my high school friends had received plastic surgery for their college graduation presents, as well as the latest round of engagement and/or pregnancy announcements.
“She played the grand opening of the Hard Rock Café. I read about it in the paper.”
I was barely listening, running through inventory numbers in someone’s illegible handwriting, but couldn’t stop myself from murmuring “We have a Hard Rock Café?” into the receiver.
“On the River Walk! I heard they have all sorts of memorabilia on the walls, even from movies, too, not just rock and roll.”
I winced at the term “rock and roll” but kept quiet as a manager glided past, giving me her frosty-best tight-lipped smile.
“Did you know she has a fashion line? Sharon told me she has a boutique on Broadway.”
“She’s got one here, too,” I mumbled, though it was news to me that there was a second location in San Antonio. “Roses on everything.”
“Speaking of roses, any plans for Valentine’s Day?”
She’d slipped it into the conversation so expertly and casually that I didn’t even think to defend myself against her prying. The word “no” was out of my mouth before I caught up to what she was doing: this was her way of asking if I was seeing anyone. She’d manipulated the entire conversation to catch me unawares. She was that good.
“Oh, what a shame. Why don’t you come home for a few days?”
“Please let me know if there is anything else I can assist you with. Thank you. Goodbye.”
I evoked our code for when I could no longer safely talk and hung up. I’d never cried wolf before, but I just had to get off the phone. Her words haunted me for the rest of my shift—not the ones about Valentine’s Day, but the idea of going home for a bit. Of course, she meant home to San Antonio, but I was thinking of spending a weekend in Austin.
“There’s no shame in not having Valentine’s plans, right?” I said to the husband waiting in a chair outside the dressing room. I was looking for commiseration, but he was asleep. His wife had used her special day to score a shopping trip, and she had chased each of us out of the dressing rooms twice with her phantom screams from behind the closed door.
Besides, I did have plans. In my Clara Driscoll research, I’d learned about an underground tunnel that ran under what Corpus Christians referred to as “the bluff.” As far as I could tell, it was a small hill in the middle of downtown, but the difference in elevation was enough that most people used it as a landmark. Though closed to the public, one tunnel exit opened into the basement of the building that had once been the Robert Driscoll Hotel.
After she’d moved back to Corpus, divorced, and resumed her maiden name, Clara had constructed the Robert Driscoll Hotel. At twenty stories, it had been the tallest building in town, made even taller by its placement on the bluff, and it boasted air conditioning. Clara had taken up residence in the penthouse, which was where she died in 1945.
In 1974, the hotel was turned into a bank. It received a new façade, but the original structure remained intact. To me, that gave the building a Ghostbusters vibe, as though Clara’s spirit were still very much calling the shots from the top-floor rooms where she allegedly threw wild soirees. Her mad cap final years in Corpus appealed to me, and I wanted to get into that building more than anything.
I’d read about the tunnel in the local paper, which Natalia occasionally abandoned on the balcony, securing it beneath Audrey the Ashtray until she came out for her next smoke break. Natalia had remembered when the tunnel was first closed, and how she’d been warned against walking down there as a young woman.
Leaving work that afternoon, I headed downtown and parked the car in the shadow of the bluff, not far from the tattoo shop, an area I’d been avoiding for weeks. After some aimless wondering, I found the tunnel entrance, which was locked behind iron bars. Rumors of drug deals, graffiti, and “hippies” had surrounded the closure, but the tunnel had also fallen into disuse when the shoppers abandoned “uptown”—meaning up on the bluff—for the strip centers, and, in 1980, the mall.
The tunnel had been around since 1929, and staring into the cavernous abyss, I wandered about speakeasies and bootleggers. By the time Clara opened the Driscoll Hotel in 1942, booze was once again legal, and the public tunnel was extended to reach a bar in the newly constructed hotel’s basement. From that club, called the Deep Six, a spiral staircase led up into the hotel. I’d found a few old black-and-white pictures of the tunnel, but I desperately wanted to get in and look around
I pressed my face against the iron bars, straining to see as far as I could along the pedestrian walkway. I had half-convinced myself that I could see a flickering light around a slight bend in the tunnel, just far enough out of sight to be certain. I felt a slight poke between two ribs and jolted, rattling the iron bars.
“What are you doing?”
I turned, rearranging the keys in my hand to jut out of my fist like brass knuckles but only managing to get one sticking out like a prong. I need not have bothered; it was the guy from the tattoo shop. “Don’t touch me,” I snapped anyway.
“Right, sorry,” he said, backing away a few steps and putting his hands where I could see them. “Didn’t mean to scare you, but what are you doing?”
“I just,” I shrugged, opening my hand and letting the keys jingle, “wanted to see the tunnel.” I stole another look over my shoulder. Whatever flickering light I’d thought I’d seen had been startled away by my rattling the iron bars. “What are you doing here?”
“I work down here, remember?”
“Yeah, of course I remember, but what are you doing right here?”
“I’m on a break. Saw some chick acting strange in the park, saw your car parked on the street, put two and two together.”
“How do you know my car?”
“You told me—come on, you weren’t that drunk. That night I drove you home.”
“Thanks for following through, by the way. My landlady had to give me a ride the next morning.”
“Yeah, sorry. It was noon before I woke up. I did come by for about five minutes, but I didn’t know which apartment was yours, and I think I was starting to scare the little girl by just waiting in the car.”
“Playing out by your empty pool? Probably.”
“OK, I believe you.”
“Well, thank you. Now, what are you really doing?”
We’d started walking back toward the street, and the horizon opened up again. We could see the tops of the buildings on the bluff, so I pointed to Clara’s. “I’m obsessed with that building.”
“The lady who built it is kind of a project of mine.”
“So why the tunnel? That thing has been closed for as long as I’ve been alive.”
I told him about the basement bar and the tunnel entrance as we walked slowly toward my car.
“Just go in the front door,” he said, shrugging.
“I want to see parts of the building that aren’t necessarily open to the public.”
“You’ve got to start somewhere. Just walk in.”
“It’s a bank now, and I don’t have an account there.”