Escaping Venus Texas
Eileen always thought the rats would eat the cockroaches — or that the presence of cockroaches would indicate an absence of rats. Imagine her displeasure when both proliferated and partnered together. During the year she lived with Chad, the cockroaches appeared on the walls, the floor and the ceiling. Eileen used Glamour with Reese Witherspoon on the cover. The Happy Issue. She rolled the magazine into a baton. An optimistic headline faced outward: “301 things to put you in a good mood fast.” 1… 2… 3… she crushed three cockroaches that evening. But it was the appearance of the rat that made her decide to leave Chad.
The rat was in the kitchen. It did not scurry when it saw Eileen. It was not afraid of Eileen. This bothered her.
“Go!” She waved her arms above her head. “Get out of here!”
The rat turned toward Eileen and sniffed the air. The gesture said, “Make me.”
“You are such an asshole.” She threw an oven mitt towards the rodent with little effect.
“An oven mitt?” The rat looked away, almost bored. “See how not scared I am?”
Eileen hurried in short quick steps to the closet. She grabbed the broom. Yes, comically predicable, but what else are you going to use against a rat? The broom allowed a degree of distance with her attack. When she returned to the kitchen, the rat was gone. This was much worse.
“I could be anywhere,” the rat teased.
At this moment, Eileen knew she had to leave her boyfriend as soon as possible. “Tomorrow,” she said to no one, “I’ll leave tomorrow.”
The rat was not to blame for Chad, and Chad was not to blame for the rat. The two existed, and Eileen realized she had a choice. She did not have to live here. She did not have to live in Venus, Texas.
Chad and Eileen started dating after their senior year of high school. Chad got a job at the TXI Cement Plant in Midlothian. He and his friend found a trailer home for rent a few miles south in the small town of Venus. Eileen and Chad dated during that year. She did most of the driving from Duncanville to Venus and back again. Her own house was off-limits, because Eileen still lived with mom and Chad refused to be around Eileen’s mom. His explanation made sense whenever he talked about it, but lost its logic as soon as he left the room. Routine lulled their relationship along. Chad’s friend moved out. Eileen moved in.
Now she needed to move out. Packing was easy. Besides clothes, toiletries, and a few books, nothing much belonged to her. Eileen kept flinching. She had this sense that the rat or Chad was behind her. Chad worked the nightshift, and he wouldn’t be home until ten in the morning.
Sleep was not easy. Eileen did not know where the rat was, which meant it was everywhere. She could call Chad during his break, but it wouldn’t help. And she couldn’t go to her mother’s house unannounced at this hour, as if there were no greater crime in the world than arriving somewhere late in the night. So Eileen endured the visions of a rat roaming freely across the blankets while she lay captive in the dark.
Next morning, before Eileen left, she took down her magnet wall.
When Chad moved in, a sheet of the trailer’s siding had fallen off. Eileen cleaned the metal sheet and transferred it to the living room. She used the sheet to display her magnets. Eileen liked to steal magnets. “Liked” is the wrong word. Stealing magnets was something she just did. In junior high, she stole a magnet from Wal-Mart. She grabbed it and put it in her pocket. No alarms went off. No one stopped her in the parking lot. No one cared. From then on, if she was at a store or someone’s house, if there was a magnet, she took it.
Her collection consisted of little cows and farm animals, fat cherubs, cartoon characters, unicorns and dragons, a strawberry dipped in white chocolate, sports magnets, Christmas magnets, plain circular magnets of every color, a rectangular magnet with the quote: “There is no love sincerer than the love of food,” Scrabble tile magnets, numerous Texas-themed magnets, a beer magnet, a bottle opener magnet, a Snow White magnet, a sad clown, a space rocket, magnet word poetry, a magnet advertising a realtor, and so forth. Each magnet she pulled from the metal sheet, she dropped into a trash bag. Eileen evaluated the sad clown magnet, holding it eye level.
“Almost two years,” Eileen addressed the clown, “Two freakin’ years. Two wasted pathetic aimless…” She paused for another adjective, but couldn’t think of one, “…years.”
Eileen could not carry the trash bag. She dragged it across the sidewalk to her car.
— I could have gone to college —
Eileen pulled at the bag and positioned it near the rear door of her VW bug.
— I could have learned a skill —
She shoved the bag into the back seat.
— I could be living in downtown Dallas, meeting better people with better lives —
Eileen looked at the trash bag and saw a metaphor, a wasted life. A fresh start required getting rid of the magnets, but she couldn’t leave them here. If they stayed, Chad might have no proof she left. No. She would return the magnets to the little shop in downtown Venus.
The Venus downtown was more like half a downtown. Some old buildings lined one side of 2nd Street. Across the street, there was a grassy square of land and beyond that, the water tower. Ma’s Antique Store and More occupied the building closest to the intersection of 2nd and Main. Ma’s Antique Store and More was a gift shop with novelty items, local souvenirs, and a mound of Ganz Cottage collectible teddy bears. Eileen, since she had nothing to do with her time and no one to talk to, frequented the store and stole the magnets from the far counter.
The woman who owned the shop was old. She was either too old to notice the thievery or to give a damn. Eileen said hi to her almost every day, but Eileen did not know her name. Was this Ma? Eileen loathed the southern gesture of adopting friends and neighbors into your family, inviting them to call you “Mom,” “Ma,” or “Mother.” If older, they might become “Grans” or “Nana.” While it had the pretense of hospitality, assuming motherhood over people also smacked of forced matriarchy. It said, “I’m the one who calls the shots.”
Eileen parked at the curb. She struggled to move the trash bag from her car to the front door of the shop. The trash bag would be waiting for Ma when she opened for the day, and Eileen would be halfway to her own mother’s house. A surprise return paid back with a considerable dividend. The trash bag was two feet from the door. Eileen grunted and swung the bag the final distance. The bag crashed against the kick plate, shaking the door. The glass shattered. Glass shards fell and punctuated the morning silence with a high-pitched splash. The trash bag tore open, and the magnets scattered across the sidewalk and into the void of the closed shop.
The mischievous rush of property damage overwhelmed her. Eileen laughed, a flood of anxiety and adrenaline cracked her brain. The laughter morphed into uncontrollable giggling. It felt like a nervous breakdown. She was leaving Chad. And she was losing it. She terrified herself.
A voice behind her: “You’re the bitch who’s been stealing my magnets.”
Eileen screamed while still giggling. Her hands shook. Tears filled her eyes. Her chest hurt. She looked around to see Ma, the old woman who owned the shop. Ma wore a thick gray cardigan. Her glasses were also thick, causing her eyes to bulge. The glasses had a silver chain on them. Her white hair was long, past her shoulders. Eileen noted how she rarely saw an old woman with long hair, and thought it made Ma look somewhat hipper, more liberal.
“I’m… so… sorry.” Eileen was shaking. She was giggling. She was crying.
Ma tilted her head to the side. A wordless question mark floated towards Eileen.
“Bless your heart,” Ma said. She held out her hands. “Come here.”
Ma hugged Eileen, and held her until she stopped shaking. It felt strange and necessary.
“All right.” Ma let her go. “You’re coming inside. You’re gonna clean up this glass. And then, you tell me what this is all about.”
They stepped through the door where the glass once was. A key was pointless now. They took delicate steps to avoid glass shards and magnets. Eileen followed Ma along the narrow aisle to the back where there was a utility closet. Ma handed Eileen a broom, Eileen’s second broom in twelve hours. Ma grabbed a trash bag and a dustpan.
“First we need to move those magnets out of the way, then you can sweep the glass.”
As Eileen leaned over to grab each magnet, she told her story. She talked about Chad, their two years together, and living isolated in the trailer home while Chad worked the night shift.
“How does that all lead to a pile of magnets on my floor?”
“I stole them.”
“I’ve been doing it for years.” Eileen picked up a hand-painted ceramic magnet. “I stole this one from a doctor’s office.”
“I thought before I leave Venus. I should return them to somebody. I didn’t mean to thrown them into your door.”
The tears started again. Eileen tried to continue picking up the magnets while Ma watched.
“Have a seat.” Ma pulled over a stool from behind the counter. “Let’s wait for you to get your head straight. You’re leaving your boyfriend?”
Eileen sniffed to say “maybe, yes.”
“I met my husband about sixty years ago,” Ma smiled, “I was eighteen.”
Elizabeth always thought picking cotton was the worst job in the world. In its raw state, cotton was coarse and irritated the skin. Her hands would be bright red at the day’s end. After several hours, her back would be sore from bending over. The heat overwhelmed the fields. The work was tedious. The cotton she plucked from the boll, she dropped into a burlap bag. Elizabeth observed the cotton and cursed it. She graduated from secondary school two years ago. She wanted to attend East Texas State Teachers College, but did not have any money saved. Instead, she stayed home and helped her younger siblings pick cotton.
Elizabeth saw her whole life in front of her. Her mama picked cotton, and her grandma did too. They were a modest family. They never hired Negroes to work the fields. They did the work themselves. (Years later, Daddy got a bank loan to purchase a motorized cotton picker.)
On Saturday, Daddy would allow Elizabeth to drive the kids into Cleburne where they had a drug store with a soda fountain. The store also sold magazines and comic books.
Every time Elizabeth went to the drug store, John T would happen to stop by and pick up a copy of the Dallas Times Herald. John T worked at the appliance store across the street. Home television sets were a big deal at the time, and working the store made him something of a big deal. John T was not an attractive boy. He was skinny with an awkward angular face. Elizabeth thought of Ichabod Crane when she saw John T.
That Saturday, John T walked in, grabbed his newspaper, nodded shyly in the direction of Elizabeth, and then walked out. Elizabeth sighed. She put down her purse and followed after him. Out on the sidewalk, Elizabeth called him.
“John T, get your ass back here!”
He looked around confused. He saw Elizabeth, and the color drained from his already pale face.
Elizabeth put her hands on her hips to communicate the frustration. John T would come to know this posture well.
“Do you like me or not?”
“I said do you like me or not, and you damn well heard me. If you like me, you should go ahead and ask for my hand. I don’t have the patience for courting, ’cause if I work in that damn cotton field another damn day, I might go mad. And it won’t do for you to court some loon.”
Elizabeth was near tears. John T smiled. He got down on one knee, and Elizabeth grabbed his shoulders and lifted him up.
“Not now, you halfwit.” Elizabeth straightened his shirt. It was the first time she had ever touched him. “Do it proper. Come to my house and ask my daddy. Do it on Monday, and don’t do it too late in the day, because that means more hours of your damn bride in the cotton field.”
On Monday, the morning took its time. Elizabeth watched the road. Then, as promised, John T arrived, before lunch. He drove a sea foam green Chevy Club Coupe. Elizabeth later learned he borrowed the car from his boss. John T walked into the house and ten minutes later Mama stepped outside.
“Elizabeth, come inside and help this poor boy out.”
Elizabeth left her bag of cotton in the field and walked to the house. Her mom held the door. Elizabeth stepped inside and saw her daddy sitting at the kitchen table across from a witless John T. For twenty minutes, John T explained the appliance business and the growing popularity of television. Daddy was a cotton farmer; he wasn’t an idiot.
“What’s your name again?”
“John Thibodeaux, sir.” Then he said his name again in case Daddy didn’t catch it the first time.
“Are you trying to sell me a television or marry my daughter?”
John T offered Daddy a great deal on a television set and eventually got to the point. John T and Elizabeth were engaged and, a few days later, married.
It wasn’t a happy marriage, not at first. Elizabeth never knew how mean-spirited she could be until she became a wife. Whenever they argued, Elizabeth would remind herself that John T was better than picking cotton. If she had to choose between being married and picking cotton, she would rather be married. However, on their weekend drives, Elizabeth would sometimes contemplate the cotton field outside her window. John T would ask her what she was thinking; he was always asking her what she was thinking. She said nothing.
Elizabeth grew sweeter with age and John T, a little more intelligent. They had children. Their children had children, and their children had children. Then finally, at the moment Elizabeth could not imagine life without her John T, he died. Elizabeth’s heart forever broke when she thought of the boy who invented reasons to stop by the drug store so he could see her.
Silence returned to the store. Eileen finished picking up the magnets and swept the glass. She didn’t know what to make of Ma’s story. Then Ma spoke again.
“When I married my husband, I didn’t love him. I just wanted to escape my situation.”
Eileen laughed even though it was rude.
“The time was different,” Ma said.
“You don’t think people still get married to escape?”
“You want to leave that boy, then leave. Be your own person.”
“What if I never find someone?” Lifelong loneliness was such a silly thing for a twenty year old to worry about. And yet, the concern was twisted into her DNA.
Ma’s flippant attitude made Eileen want to defend her relationship with Chad, but she couldn’t find any reasonable counter. Truth be told, Eileen was uncomfortable with the realization that two years together meant nothing — uncomfortable with being comfortable, a problem for people without real problems.
“I want to know what a lifetime looks like, when it’s lived with someone else.” Eileen thought these words sounded profound, but Ma did not take notice.
“At least, you’ll have yourself,” Ma said.
Eileen shrugged her shoulders.
“I’ll pay for the door.”
Ma wanted to say “damn right you will.” But before the words left her mouth, she changed her mind. Insurance might cover the damage. Instead she said, “Don’t worry about it.”
Eileen left the store. She got into her VW bug, and turned onto highway 67. She drove past the trailer home and saw Chad’s truck parked in front. She kept driving. She left Venus and continued past Midlothian, and then Cedar Hill.
Eileen thought about something she once heard from a spokesman for one of those feed-the-children programs: “Poverty is not defined by a lack of finances, but a lack of options.” When the whole world narrows and no choices are viable except to tolerate the situation a person is trapped in, that is true poverty. And Eileen had been living in a self-imposed poverty, refusing to acknowledge that she had options.
The drama of it all embarrassed her. Her suffering was not special or unique. Wasn’t every relationship a condition of poverty of options? By choosing one path, she restricted the choice of another life. The ghosts of an infinite number of unlived lives would crawl around the walls of her brain. Wasn’t that life? Not making any choices seemed like poverty too. It was too much for her to process during one drive. 301 things to put you in a good mood fast: #1. Get out. Go for a drive. Turn up the radio.
Eileen drove past the Duncanville exit. She drove until she saw the Dallas skyline. The buildings illuminated her rich imagination as a child. Every light on every skyscraper looked like another opportunity and another life. She could be anywhere. She could have anything. What was it like to live in a city?
Eileen would have to find out.
This short story originally appeared in We Miss All the Great Parties by David Hopkins, copyright 2015.
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