People have gone to Texas for many reasons. In the past, people went because they were running from something, such as Johnny Law or Jerry Influenza, while others went to get rich by digging in the ground for valuable commodities, such as oil and Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, which are buried in rich cheerleader deposits that run the length of the Brazos River Basin from Lubbock to Houston. As for me, I came to Texas for a much less noble reason, which was to try to be a writer.
It was 1999, and I’d been studying acting at Ole Miss, where I learned a great deal, such as how my acting angered people. Everything seemed like a big joke to me, they said. And I was like, “No it’s not! Your haircut is the big joke!”
So I made a change. I would be a writer. I sent letters to every graduate school where I could study playwriting, and I narrowed it down to 8,000 universities, and I sent each one a letter about my dreams, and I got one response.
The postmark said Texas.
I knew little of this state. In 1990, I went to Six Flags Over Texas, which felt like a large experiment concerning the effect of humidity on people with diabetes. I drove through the state in 1995, and I learned that the best way to get across Texas is with a spaceship. I also knew that Texans, generally, did not like to be messed with. I knew this because of the signs: DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS.
In college, my roommate and I were presented with a DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS bumper sticker by a friend who was proud of his home state. The sticker made us wonder: What if we did mess with Texas? Would it hurt us? Would it punch us in the head? Or would it just stand there, like people at Six Flags? I cut up the sticker and rearranged the letters: DON’T SEX WITH E.T.
My friend from Texas said he was disappointed in me.
I arrived in my new home on a bleak winter afternoon, greeted by miles of fence line. I’d been admitted to Texas A&M University-Commerce, similar to the original A&M in that both institutions enroll many students who wear cowboy hats on days besides Halloween. A&M-Commerce was considered something of a satellite by Aggies, a lesser place, smaller and poorer, although in many ways it felt more authentically Texan, the livestock outnumbering the faculty by a large margin.
I had been invited to study with a cowboy playwright, which sounded exciting. Wow! What did a cowboy playwright do? He’d wear a cowboy hat, for sure, and would ride a horse to the theater, and would probably have a gun and shoot the bad actors.
The town lacked all the accoutrements of most college towns—the bookstores and art galleries and Greek Revival structures where one might be sexually assaulted by the sons of plutocrats. I did find the most amazing coffee shop in North America. You could smoke there, and you could order a special drink called a “Blizzard.” The name of this place was “Dairy Queen.” It became my refuge. Every day, I sat there reading the plays of Beckett and Ionesco, their spiritual declension deepening my own.
“More coffee?” the girl said, in her Texas-y way.
“No, ma’am, just Diet Coke.”
“How much ass you want in it?”
“Ass,” she said.
I didn’t normally put ass in my Coke, but felt I should be open to new experiences. She took the cup back to wherever they kept the ass, and I thought: Texas is full of surprises. But all she brought back was a cup of ice, and I got even sadder. I’d met so many kind and warm people in those first days, but couldn’t shake the desolation of the place, the nowhere-ness. Don’t mess with Texas? Gladly. All I’d found so far were free refills of ass.
“You should come to karaoke tonight,” said a young man outside the theater building. Generally, I was not a fan of karaoke and found the people who liked it had some sort of birth defect. Yet, what might Cowboy Karaoke look like? I pictured frolicsome men in neckerchiefs and large hats singing “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” while others hooted and hollered their cowboy approval.
“Sounds fun,” I said.
A few hours later, my eyes adjusted to the reds and browns of the barroom and the blues of the smoke in the neon. I found a quiet table in the corner and bought a beer. The cowboys sang Waylon and Possum and Garth. A cowgirl sang “Strawberry Wine” so loud and bad you thought she might be suffering from gallstones.
I studied the karaoke book, but I was too sad to sing, unable to shake the strange feeling that I’d come to the wrong place, that I’d left my Mississippi homeland to wander this vacuous winter prairie and dry to a husk, a cotton boll flung from the trailer by the roadside, trampled underfoot. I had no talent. I could not act. I could not write.
Then my eyes passed over a song title, and something inside me came alive.
Karaoke. It all seems so silly until you get up there. Sitting at your table only moments before, you had been so strong, choirs of angels inside you. And then you’re up there, unable to hear the music or locate your ears or even your face.
Why was I standing on this stage? Why was I not somewhere more appropriate, such as an asylum? Why had I come to Texas at all? I had selected the wrong song, and the wrong life. The words appeared on the screen: “AN AMERICAN TRILOGY” BY ELVIS A. PRESLEY. The music started, a gentle guitar, those first familiar notes. The crowd got silent. Reverent, almost. I began.
Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton
If anybody in the room had not stopped their honkytonking by then, they did when they heard the sound coming out of my face, because to my great surprise, it was the voice of Elvis Aaron Presley. I’d never done an impersonation of the King, but now my larynx was filled with a strange Holy Ghost power.
Look away, look away, look away, Disneyland
Had I just said Disneyland? Bottles no longer rattled. Billiards no longer cracked. All eyes turned to see what damage I was doing to this most sacred of Southern hymns. Did I see violence in their eyes? It was hard to tell, due to a recent therapeutic injection of five Coors Lights into my liver.
“Sang it, Elvis!” a cowboy jeered from the crowd.
A girl in front began to laugh. Others, too. I wanted to run, but laughter has always driven me to reckless behavior. When the opiate rush of it hits my bloodstream, I become animal.
The second verse started—from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—and the drug hit me. I began marching in place, then saluted a flag that wasn’t there, then started trying to pull-crank an invisible riding lawnmower to the rhythm of the music, after which I mimed the spanking of a small disobedient pony.
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Live performance has always bifurcated my soul. There’s the performing half, the visible one, that’s swept up in the rapture of the moment, and then there’s the half that’s more philosophical, wondering why, for example, I had begun to mock-lasso a woman near the stage and then have pretend-sex with an empty chair. The performing half performs, while the philosophic half prays to Jesus and asks for help. Because surely I would need help, having profaned so many venerated symbols in this place: the flag, and country music, and the furniture.
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
I saw a very tall cowboy stand and take a few steps toward the stage. He did not look in the mood for fun, unless it was a new sort of country line dancing that involved facial reconstruction surgery for certain people such as me.
I stopped. I was ashamed, had never felt more like an outsider, every life decision to that point seeming a folly, an ironic desecration of something somebody somewhere loved. This cowboy, and everyone else in the bar, could see every ugly secret inside me. They knew I was a phony. They knew I thought their hats looked like large baskets on their heads, designed for carrying puppies and fruit. I fell to the floor, hands and knees and everything.
But it was too late to stop now.
So hush, little baby, don’t you cry
I was swept away again in the searing flush of the song, and I got up and removed a roll of paper towels from one of the tables and wore them like a fancy scarf. And I draped my fancy paper-towel scarf around the monitor, and then I kissed it. I kissed the monitor.
His truth is marching on!
All the sadness and feeling and longing poured out of me like a great saccharine volcano, until I was supine on the stage, spent. Let them kill me. I would be crucified. I deserved it.
When I opened my eyes, the giant cowboy had removed his hat, ready for a fight.
“God bless America!” he said.
“Amen!” said someone else, to cheering.
The cowboy came over to me. “Hot damn,” he said. “You got talent.”
That night, I learned a lot about Texas.
I learned that some of its cliches are true: Texans like things big, and that includes their hats and their skies and their karaoke and their great big cowboy hearts.
Don’t Mess With Texas. It wasn’t a warning. It was a reminder. This place is weird, they were telling us. Let it be.
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