Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Fiji Mermaid, the Tamale Lady, and Mr. Barnes

Today there is a long line of fast-food restaurants on that stretch of North Main, but 47 years ago the street was not yet completely commercial; there were still a great many homes—older homes tall and stately, with well-groomed yards, framed by trees, and occupied mostly by older people.
We moved into one of those homes, a two-story brick affair with a large front porch, a screened “sleeping porch” in back, a huge living room, and six bedrooms. We used only four of the bedrooms—one was my parents’, one my sister’s, one mine, with the one in front used as an office—the first office of my father’s weekly newspaper, The Johnson County News. This room did not remain an office for long, however; within a few months, the business moved downtown to West Henderson, just off the courthouse square, leaving three unused bedrooms in that vast old house.
My bedroom was upstairs; it was the largest room in the house, a T-shaped room with pale gray wallpaper and a row of small, roll-up windows high over my bed that caught the North Main streetlights at night. I remember looking up at those windows one night, listening to trucks roar through town, unable to sleep, mourning the friends I’d left behind in Mansfield (I was having trouble making new friends in this larger town of Cleburne), weeping quietly, until the windows began to streak with rain. I took comfort in the rain—I don’t know why exactly …
“Rain good,” I said to myself—in Tonto-speak, because I had lately become fascinated with Indians, thus had taken to speaking as I thought they spoke—yes, I was trying to be an Indian, stoic and brave, able to read omens and signs in nature (“Rain good, rain bring good things”), living free, hunting buffalo, and with no school or homework to worry about. Thumb-tacked to my wall were color-pencil drawings I’d made of Indians, and their tee-pees, tools, weapons, peace pipes, headdresses, and what-not—and piled up on the floor beside my bed were Indian books I’d borrowed from the library downtown.
The Carnegie Library, as it was called, was the best thing I’d discovered in this town. It was bigger than the Mansfield Library, which was just a medium-sized room in the city hall; this library occupied the entire lower floor of a grandly-columned 1904 building, while upstairs was as entire museum—the Layland Museum. I spent many an hour in that museum—always alone, for I never saw another soul enter that silent, musty, tall-windowed room—it was just me, alone and wandering past the glass cases, studying the arrowheads and pottery and fossils and unusual rocks, admiring Buffalo Bill’s and Kit Carson’s saddles, and standing in entranced wonder before the Actual Petrified Remains of a Mermaid.
The Mermaid was small, no more than a foot-and-a-half long from fin to head; its lower body that of a fish and its upper, deeply-ribbed body that of a scrawny monkey, with spindly arms and a shark-toothed grin on its little face, and a scraggly mane of ancient hair still stuck to its head. It amazed me no end.
It was a fraud, of course—no authentic fossil at all, but a relic of bygone carnivals and dime museums, one of many “Fiji Mermaids” (as they were called) created to fool the rubes in the early part of the century—a fraud which apparently fooled Mr. Layland, the wealthy man who bought it and bequeathed it, along with the rest of his collection, to the city for his eponymous museum … and it fooled me, too—a 12-year-old boy in the year 1965, fooled me so thoroughly I returned time and again to gaze upon this marvel, imagining the time, eons ago, when the oceans teemed with these creatures, millions of them riding the waves, baring their teeth and shrieking, long hair flying in the wind …
Though I missed my friends in the old town, I had to admit this new town had its advantages. Mansfield’s population was 1,000; Cleburne’s was 16,000, meaning not only did it have a larger library than Mansfield, it had things Mansfield did not have at all—this museum being just one. Mansfield did not have a City Newsstand, for instance. In Mansfield, I bought my comics, paperbacks, and monster magazines at the drugstore or the two grocery stores that carried them. But here, not only were there several drug and grocery stores that carried these items, the City Newsstand had the largest selection I’d ever seen.
I didn’t like the old gnome who ran the place, though—sitting on his stool, chewing a cigar and watching every move I made, hurrying me up: “Are you gonna’ stand there reading all day, or buy something?” But I was willing to put up with him, because here were things I couldn’t find anywhere else. Also, to his credit, he had no scruples about selling me adult material. He would not let me behind the counter where the hard stuff was kept, but he did not care in the least if I perused the soft-core section—Humorama digests, Playboy, Bachelor, Gent, and other men’s magazines, which I would buy and study avidly for hours on end.
Yes, there was more of everything in Cleburne—not only books and magazines, but interesting people as well—“town characters,” as they were called—oddballs, eccentrics, people with back stories that could be funny, fascinating, grotesque, sad, or all of the above. The strangest of these, I think—and the saddest of all—was the Tamale Lady …
She lived down the street from us in a one-story white house surrounded by a yard barren of all vegetation save grass—there were no shrubs or flowers, not even a tree, just a few scattered tree stumps—nothing in that sad little yard but a small metal sign that read, "Hot Tamales 12 for $1."

I would ask my mother if we could buy some tamales. The answer was always no, until one day, too tired to cook after working at the newspaper office all day, she sent me and my six-year-old sister down the street to buy some tamales.

I knocked, and waited, then knocked again. No answer. We were about to leave when the door slowly opened, and peering out of the dark interior was a thin, white wraith of a woman dressed all in black.
“We’re here to buy some tamales,” I said.
She smiled and said in a whispery voice, "Come in, children ..." 
We entered. I gave her the dollar and she disappeared into the kitchen, leaving us alone in a large living room, heavily curtained to keep out the sunlight and devoid of any furniture—but not empty, oh no ...
Instead of furniture, the room was filled with artwork—dioramas created by the woman herself. The centerpiece of each diorama was a small, wooden coffin, decorated with buttons and beads, with a plastic baby doll lying inside, eyes closed, dressed in handmade burial clothes, and behind each coffin was a large painted square of ply board with Bible verses lettered on it and lined with blinking Christmas lights, the only source of light in the room.
My sister and I looked at each display, and soon discovered there were even more in an adjoining room (what should have been the dining room), and still more in another room, and all the same: dolls in coffins, Bible verses, and blinking Christmas lights.
We said nothing. We didn’t know what to say, or think. The cheery Christmas lights evoked one mood, the little death scenes quite another. I felt I had to say something, and felt it should be something nice, so I said to my sister, "These are pretty, aren’t they?"—but not with a lot of conviction. My sister, staring at everything with wide eyes, only nodded.
The woman returned and handed me the newspaper-wrapped tamales. She whispered sweetly to us to come again. But we never went back.

Later, I learned she was known as the Tamale Lady. Her story was this: years ago, she had a baby, but it died—and from that day forward she made these dioramas, and with each one relived the day she dressed her little baby for burial …
Winter passed, and spring came. School let out—and, though I had made some friends, none were close. I had no one to hang out with that summer, no social life of any kind.
Some of the time I spent working in my father’s office—odd jobs, sweeping, emptying the trash, running errands, basic office work, and on Wednesdays when the paper came out, rolling papers and helping my father deliver them. But the rest of the time I was on my own. I visited my favorite haunts: the library, newsstand, record shop, variety store, or went to a movie—but mostly I just wandered the town.
I would wander to the city park, buy a snow cone, look through the fence at the kids swimming in the city pool—but not seeing any friends there, didn’t take part.
Or, I would wander up Boone Street and stand on the viaduct overlooking the Santa Fe Railroad Shops and watch the trains below, moving back and forth on multiple tracks, northbound, southbound … and wishing that, wherever they were going, I could hitch a ride and escape this town.
There was only so much wandering I could do—only so much to see—so as the summer wore on, I spent more time at home, reading or drawing, or writing—filling up a spiral notebook with stories about two buddies, Sam and Zeke, and their adventures around the world—or watching “Where the Action Is” on TV, or listening to my transistor radio (“I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” felt like the story of my life), or target-practicing with my B-B gun in the back yard.
It was while engaged in this activity that I met Mr. Barnes. I’d seen him before working in his back yard, and seen him a few times talking to my father. But I had never exchanged a word with him myself, nor would it have occurred to me to strike up a conversation with an old man working in his yard, or that he would be interested in talking to me. Therefore, it was a surprise when he stepped into the yard one day and introduced himself.
He asked how old I was. “Twelve,” I said.
“That’s a good age to be,” he said. “You know how old I am? I’m 85 years old. I was born in 1880 … in a log cabin in Kentucky.”
I was impressed. “1880? You were born before Billy the Kid was killed.”
“You know your history, don’t you?” he laughed. “How do you like Cleburne?”
“It’s okay.”
“Well, I came here when I was five years old, and I’ve been here ever since. I was an engineer on the Santa Fe railroad for a long time. But now I’m retired.”
He sat down in one of the lawn chairs. “I’ve seen a lot of change in my time,” he said. “We didn’t have cars when I was a boy. Those were the horse-and-buggy days. Didn’t even have radios yet, or movies. And this was a real Wild West town. You’re interested in the Wild West, aren’t you?”
I said I was, and told him I’d seen Buffalo Bill and Kit Carson’s saddles at the museum.
“Oh, that’s nothing!” he said. “I saw Buffalo Bill himself. I was about your age. He brought his circus here to Cleburne. I remember there was a big parade downtown around the square, and there he was big as life, Buffalo Bill. Oh, he was a handsome devil with that long silver hair of his. People say the Beatles have long hair, but their hair isn’t half as long as Buffalo Bill Cody’s.”
We talked a while longer, then Mr. Barnes said, “I could show you some interesting things if you’d like to see them. I could show you the Santa Fe Shops. They don’t let just anybody in, but I can get in. I’ll talk to your dad about it.”
He made good on his promise, and on a Sunday (when the Shops were closed), he took me on a guided tour. It was interesting, I recall, but the details have mostly faded from my memory. What is more memorable, however, was the time he took me and my sister on a drive into the country south of Cleburne.
We drove to the top of Bee Mountain in Bosque County (just south of Johnson County), then down to Kimball Bend on the Brazos River. “Right here,” he said, “is where the great Chisholm Trail crossed.”
“Did you know any cowboys?” I asked.
“Oh yes, I knew many a cowboy, and not the drugstore kind either. I knew real cowboys who really went up the trail. But, you know, the heyday of the big trail drives was pretty much over by the time I was a boy. There wasn’t any need to drive cattle all the way to Kansas after the railroads reached here.”
Before going on this drive, my father had told me to ask Mr. Barnes about some Indian fighters he had known. So I asked him.
Mr. Barnes frowned, thought a moment, then said, “You know, I always thought the Indians got a bad deal. And those two fellows you’re talking about—they weren’t heroes, not to me. Yes, I remember them. I was about your age, but I remember them all right—a couple of loud-mouthed old drunks is what they were, sitting in front of the saloon all day. Everybody thought they were such heroes, but not me, no sir. All they did was go in and kill a peaceful village of Kickapoo up where Arlington is now. It wasn’t any kind of a fair fight. No, the Indians got a bad deal all the way around.”
Several months after this ride with Mr. Barnes, we moved away from North Main to another part of town. Before we left, Mr. Barnes gave me a piece of furniture he had made in his workshop. I’m not sure what to call it, or if it even has a name. It was an invention of his own: a sort of cushioned bench, with train car springs inside. All these years later, I still have it.
I last saw Mr. Barnes when I was a teenager. We met in the post office. He must have been 90 by this time, but he was still getting around by himself, still driving, still mentally sharp, but there was a tremor now in his voice, and his face was gaunt—his ears, I remember, were now long and stuck out from his head—but he was still sharp, as I say, and he recognized me right away, and was happy to see me. We talked for a few minutes—I don’t remember what we talked about—then we shook hands and parted.
In later years, I read about the Indian fight he described. It is known as the Battle of Village Creek--the creek so named because a village of Indians was located on its banks. In 1841, these Indians were blamed for a series of depredations against the white settlers who were just moving in to the area. As a result, they were attacked and suffered heavy losses. Most historians today doubt this tribe was responsible for the depredations. So it seems Mr. Barnes was right: the Indians got a bad deal all the way around ...