Short Story Pages from Before
Three days, our people had agreed: a real, old-school, ‘Rolling Stone’–style profile.
That first day, we fumbled with our itineraries in the lobby of the Tio Albares Hotel. My features editor and Johnny Jay’s PR person had struck a deal, determining that we’d begin our interview by walking the sights: the Bayou Walk, the Spanish cathedral, the standard tourist loop. J.J. shook my hand, hitched up his jeans, and said I don’t know about you but I say it’s too fucking hot for that BS, let’s get you a drink and oh I guess I’ll have one too.
So, that first afternoon, we defied orders. His was a recognizable face and the hotel a popular landmark, so instead of hitting the hotel bar, with its dangling palms and neck-craning tourists, we went to his room, pushed the painted shutters shut, set the ceiling fan to high, and watched anything not pinned down by a shoe or an ashtray flutter.
Three days, our people had agreed: a real, old-school, Rolling Stone –style profile. No journalist in their right mind would turn down this byline, was my reason—but after the year J.J.’d had in the papers, he had his reasons too. On paper, it was a win-win—but under the heavy Spanish beams of that room, three days was already looking a hell of a lot longer than, I was guessing, either of us had imagined.
The forecast hadn’t prepared me for the way a hundred degrees can feel like a blow to the chest, and the mosquitoes were a force that I hadn’t anticipated—although J.J. seemed unbothered. He would say later, and maybe he was right, that it was only because he’d grown up in Texas that the local mosquitoes buzzed right over him and headed straight for my bare shoulders and ankles instead.
I don’t suppose we’ll ever get over our lust for northern blood , he said, lighting a cigarette and stretching his boots out across the coffee table with a look in his eyes that felt a bit like a dare.
A true southern mosquito, he said, would know enough to know he’d never in his life see a forest like that.
But that was all back on day one, before we’d given up on the list of questions my editorial team back in Chicago had assembled, and before we’d abandoned the high-backed chairs in his room to lay on our backs against the cool, clay-tiled floor instead. And it was definitely before I’d given in to sharing those cigarettes, and the ritual of passing one between us—my head resting inside his arm, his fingers tracing the edge of my ear—watching our exhaled smoke get sliced away by the fan directly above.
But, to that thing earlier, about the mosquitos, I said: Northern what, now? Put your Civil War away; I’m from Manitoba , and he’d laughed as if the word Manitoba was a punchline of its own. He even repeated it: Manitoba! —before saying but darlin’ that’s what he’d meant by northern— real northern, sweet northern—and any mosquito worth its salt would know the difference.
A true southern mosquito, he said, would know enough to know he’d never in his life see a forest like that, nearly blue for its greenness, for as long as he’d live—( About a day , I interjected. About a day , he agreed)—and that’s what made getting a taste of whatever flowed inside of someone like me so irresistible.
I’d only just met him, I wasn’t used to how he talked, so I laughed at the ridiculousness of it all, and he laughed because I laughed, and I thought about how hard it was gonna be getting down that list of questions. (Which, when all was said and done, it wasn’t. We found our way, in our own time, and most of the answers, in the end, I kept to myself.)
So I just said Well, no wonder then and tucked my bare ankles up under my skirt, and he said Well, no wonder then .
He was a real cowboy, it seemed to me, in a way I’d never experienced in person. He said things like that, with no irony, and let them hang there with no shame, and I’d feel, for a moment, as if I was on the brink of understanding something—while also already knowing, somehow, that anything I ended up writing down during my days there would be lost, even to me, once I stepped foot outside of Texas.
Back home in the real world, my notes would tell me what he’d called those trees from Manitoba— real, tall, untamed things, with pure-green leaves and sweet sap, and sun rays fighting to slip between them . And back home in the real world, reading those words, I’d have to push my office-gray chair away from my office-gray desk and take the elevator down five floors just to hyperventilate in the alley between my office-gray building and the identical building next door.
They fascinate me, these pages, from before. Things I wrote down when we were strangers.
But back on that very first day, with him on one side of the coffee table and me sweating through my crumpled linen dress on the other, we’d done the obligatories: his favorite guitar, his lucky belt buckle, his writing process, and where to get the best Mexican food in West Texas. We’d done country music’s singular capacity to accommodate great storytelling. We’d even found our way, as most interviews eventually did, to his infamous father, his mystery-shrouded mother, his unorthodox upbringing outside of Galveston. I wrote it all down. I still have the pages. They fascinate me, these pages, from before. Things I wrote down when we were strangers.
Then, when the sky turned lapis and the temperature dropped fifteen degrees in the span of a breeze, I packed up my bag and stood, and he stood too and said wouldn’t it be a sin if I didn’t end up seeing the Bayou Walk after all? So I grabbed my backpack and he put on his hat and we walked, and he smoked, and eventually we stopped talking and instead watched the empty tourist boats bob and knock against one another at the dock, and the overnight mosquito trucks spray poison mist into the air, and this is where he slid a hand around the side of my ribcage and said he’d like to write about me someday. I said Turnabout’s fair play, I guess , and he said Something like that.
I was sorry about the things I’d have to ask the next day—the relapse, the marriages, the loss of his son—and told him so, and he said not to be, that I had a job to do—and I said I did, that was true, but I was sorry anyway—and he said don’t be, and he kissed me for the very first time.
That stupid thing about the trees? I laughed out loud when he first said that—as he surely expected me to. I said You sound like a songwriter and he smiled and shrugged and said something like, Got me . Or not something like. That’s exactly what he said. He said, Got me .
Back in my room, I called home—I called you—and we compared our days. My smooth flight, your easy time picking up the girls, doing dinner, baths, and tuck-ins. And then we hung up and I googled the lifespan of a mosquito: ten days for males, six to eight weeks for females. It seemed unfair but also probably right, and longer than I’d given any of us credit for.