Some songs can take you right back to a place and a moment, just as surely as if you had entered a time machine. The world as it is falls away and in its place is a memory come to life. It can stop you in your tracks, and you hold on to it as tight as you can. Like a dream you don't want to wake from. It's your only way to call that loved one back from the grave and you play the memory over and over again until you have to let it go.
The song is Freddy Fender's Before the Next Teardrop Falls. Even though it was recorded 4 years later, I long ago attached this 1970 memory to it, I guess because of his background. A South Texas boy from a poor neighborhood, alcohol addiction, service in the Marines, a working man, a mechanic, many things that make him "my kind of people". And a voice that can make you cry no matter what he's singing.
The song came on as I returned from town today but for me it's Summer, 1970, in Brownsville, Texas.
It's the end of the day, the quiet twilight time, when what's going to be done that day has been done and now all we have is either regret or hope. The cicadas are slowly beginning their music. The little motel is made up of tiny sagging cabins, clustered together around a shady grassy area that hasn't seen a lawnmower in a while. The paint is peeling outside and in, the crowded furniture worn and well used. It's not very bright inside, even with the lights on. Each cabin has a small kitchenette, old pots and pans with uneven bottoms, a sink stained and chipped, the faucet leaking. Cigarette smoke hangs in the air, and there's a moldy stuffy smell. A smell of people that worked and didn't bath, of old beer and old dreams.
There's no swimming pool, no coffee bar with continental breakfast, no gym where guests can workout while they travel. There's no parking lot, just the street off Central Blvd. There are tall skinny palm trees stretching toward the sky, the first ones we've ever seen like that. They sway in the constant breeze and Daddy jokes that they don't give much shade. There's a resaca nearby and the breeze carries the smell of the water and the flowers that grow along its banks. Resaca is a new word for us, this local name for the old channels of the Rio Grande, cut off and no longer flowing to the Gulf.
My dad was sitting on the steps of one of the units as the darkness settled around him. His worn and dirty cowboy hat was pushed back on his head. His jeans were dirty as were his hands. When you work with your hands for a living they never appear to be clean no matter how many times you wash them, how much GoJo you use. He was a handsome man with a youthful outlook, even at 45. He almost always had an open face; he loved people and he never met a stranger. Most of the time he was singing, little snippets of song that he started and didn't finish. Tonight he wasn't singing.
I had made some spaghetti and came to tell him supper was ready. As I came around the corner I caught him at one of those moments we all have where we think no one is watching us. When we let our face reveal things we don't want anyone else to know. He leaned a little forward with his forearms resting on his knees. One hand held a cookie or cracker that he was eating without noticing. He was staring off into the open area at the ground but he wasn't seeing it.
When he did see me, his face changed and he smiled and said, hey, sweetheart, as he always did. But I knew something was wrong and I knew what it was.
Though most of my family would be there off and on during this Summer, only my dad is there now. I'm with him, as are my boys, so young then; Larry was 2 and 9 month old John took his first steps that Summer. I didn't realize it then, but I was young too. The next to oldest in my family of seven kids, I had left home when I was 17 years old. I turned 21 that Summer. My family was working as contractors on the building of the Fort Brown Motor Hotel.
My dad had a monkey on his back and that monkey was alcohol. He fought this demon all his life like a survivor in a zombie movie, going 15 years sober at first; then he made 3 trips to the VA for it after I was a teenager. Each trip held it in bay for less than a year. Mama fought it with him and if she could have fought it for him, she would have. He had been sober for almost a year and we had begun to suspect he had started drinking again. But we didn't dare confront him. That would make it real and so far this episode hadn't sent our family into the downward spiral that we knew would come soon enough. Denial was one of the tools in our arsenal of battle and we used it because we had to.
I used it then. As the night crept in and the sunlight left us once again, I sat down beside Daddy on the steps and leaned my head on his shoulder. We shared a story about the day, something inconsequential that I don't recall. We stayed that way for a while longer, hesitant to break the spell of that South Texas moment, both of us knowing somehow that as long as we stayed there on those steps, we could keep the hard times away.
Though this sounds like a sad story, it's a happy memory for me. Daddy eventually sent his demons to hell and shut the door on them and I stood up to some of mine too. That Summer I acquired a love of South Texas and the people that live there that has never left me. And today I've returned to those steps with my dad and stayed a little longer. The teardrops fell but I had already turned to the back of the book and I knew it had a happy ending.