Life & Living II (Houston) Finish

One thing that I disliked about Houston was the way people speak. There are many different Texan accents, and I dislike the sound of all of them. There is no getting round my being an Anglophile, to the extent that I feel sorry about obliging any native British speaker to listen to me. If I have to hear Americans, let them come from the Northeast, where there are also many different accents, quite a few of them more distant from English than anything spoken in Texas. I learned to mistrust the sound of Southern accents in Bronxville, where they were more common than you might think. Texans add loudness. But the culture of the language itself is uncongenial to me. It is a studiously unlettered patois — those are the very words, I suspect, in which a Texan might mock my criticism of his way of speaking. It is still the language of a former independent Republic. Many Texans have second thoughts about joining the United States; I can only wish that they had no occasion to.

Houston is of course the least Texan of places actually in Texas. The fourth largest city in the country (which it became while I lived there), it is home to perhaps as many out-of-towners as New York. But the draw is entirely different. People come to New York despite the fact that there aren’t many great jobs; so that making do until the big break comes along can become a way of life. People are drawn to Houston by the money. When I lived there, to be sure, it was also a cosmopolitan magnet for gay men, but one curious side-effect of this phenomenon was that one learned not to associate sexual preference with artistic bent — a good thing, but also not a reason to stick around. Meanwhile, the Northeast in general and New York City in particular were in a slump. The City almost declared bankruptcy. The future wasn’t promising. It was still the creative capital of the country’s most creative region, but competition from the West Coast was increasing. There were lots of people between Seattle and San Diego who didn’t care what was going on in New York. Inland cities, most notably Atlanta, were learning to import what they wanted and to ignore the rest. The food revolution, which would do more to heighten regional sensibilities in the United States than anything since the Civil War, was just around the corner. I still felt that I had to get back.

And I did, but in a final flare of irony, Houston was going to change on me. As I recall, it began with a trip to New York. My father was flying up on a company plane, and my mother was going, too. She wasn’t really up to it, but she felt that she ought to go. I quite forget why. It may have had something to do with Grace, her father’s second wife, a dear woman who had died recently; was there something to be done in Bronxville? She may have gone because she was expecting to be ill for a while, and wanted a last look beforehand. That it would really be her last look at New York, which it was, she would never have admitted. Right up to the night of her death, the possibility that she might die was never mentioned in her presence. But the rigor with which this ban was upheld may have betrayed that its purpose was to preserve appearances.

It’s possible that I knew how sick she was. I had a conversation with an oncologist at MD Anderson at some point around then. I don’t remember why my father sent me in his stead; perhaps he thought that I would understand what the doctor had to say better than he would. I certainly did understand. The doctor was a Belgian with a wrestler’s physique, possibly the scion of coal miners. Speaking with the requisite disparaging French accent, he told me that my mother would be dead in six months — as if it were her fault. They would do what they could, but they couldn’t do much. He did not say that they would try to make her as comfortable as possible, which was good, because it would have made a liar out of him to offer that consolation. She had non-Hodgkins lymphoma, but she would die of the side effects of chemotherapy, which was more brutal than it is today. It did not take the doctor long to dispatch the discussion of my mother’s case. Then he looked at me more closely, with a bit of a squint.

“You are at the radio station, yes?”

“KLEF, yes. I am the music director.”

“The music that you pick in the mornings is terrible.”

Did I tell him that I didn’t actually program the first two hours of the broadcast day, that it was the former owner of the station, no less, who had held on to the morning slot through thick and thin, who pulled together assortments of music that I couldn’t bear to listen to? Or did I just apologize, shocked by the abrupt change of topics? Here he had just told me that my mother would be dead in six month. Then he complained about the way (he thought) I did my job.

It may have been on the flight to New York — for I was asked to come along, as odd as anything — that we had a powwow in which, without acknowledging the seriousness of my mother’s illness, my offer to come home and help take care of things was accepted. Odder still. I closed down my apartment, for once not moving to another one. I got rid of almost everything, but I held on to my sofa. I parked a few valuables with friends, from whom I was able to retrieve them five or six years later. I moved back into my old room, the original dining room of the house. A few friends came over, but I was more likely to go out — I could borrow my mother’s Mercedes now. It was a quiet time. My mother would go into the hospital for a spell and then come home for a spell. She would rally, but never recover all the lost ground. She was too ill to come to the table at Christmas, but I think that she was at home. For the first and last time, I cooked a goose. My father had always talked about how wonderful Christmas goose was. I am sorry that I did not have his mother on hand to consult.

It was in January that my mother gave her last party. She invited two couples; I have long since forgotten which friends they were, but one couple had a Company connection and the other did not. I made the dinner and served it; I did not sit down. I could not say which was more remarkable, my mother’s gratitude afterward or my astonishment at her asking for my help in the first place. It would be nice to say that I felt that all accounts between us were settled by this dinner, and I’m sure that I felt something like that at the time. But I suspect that it would have passed on both sides, and our mutual antogonism, which occurred in a grain too fine for either of us to see clearly, would have resumed its irritation.

But that was the last time that she sat at any table. By the end of February, she was dead — about a week before I received the first letter of acceptance from a law school (Oklahoma). She died in the hospital. She was very sick. I remember when people were “very sick.” It was considered rude to press for what it was that was making them sick. It was impossible to distinguish the ill-effects of chemotherapy from those of cancer — if any. Perhaps the doctor could fix a term of six months because he knew what chemotherapy could do: he knew the poison’s dosage. I am not whining here that chemotherapy was or is a bad thing. But I began, with my mother’s final illness, to understood how far from humanism medicine can wander. I think that things are much better now. It is no longer inevitable that your body will be the battlefield on which a doctor and a disease fight to the finish.

On the night she died, my father and I, and possibly my sister, went out to dinner at Dad’s favorite place, a maid’s-night-out steakhouse on Westheimer. We drove to the hospital afterward. My mother was almost absent and yet strangely agitated. She wanted to know what we’d had for dinner, and what we’d had for dinner the night before that. When I told her, the conversation lapsed. Then she said something that I couldn’t quite understand. I leaned in closer and she repeated it. It still made no sense. The third time, I got it. “Did you freeze the leftover ravioli?” she asked. That, I think, is a measure of how determined she was to appear unaware of what was coming.

When we got back to the house, the hospital was on the phone, and we drove back to the hospital. She had died while we were in the car. The next and last time I saw her, she was in her coffin. The coffin was to be closed, but the three of us were called into another room for a final check, I suppose it was. I looked at her and I was overcome by a wave of sobbing the intensity of which I have never known, before or since. Men from the funeral home held me up. I was as surprised by this outburst as I was stricken by grief, and that made the sobbing worse. The accounts were still not quite settled.

Hundreds of people attended my mother’s funeral and most of them followed us to the burial as well. It was a feather in my father’s cap. The funeral of a very prominent toiler in the oil patch was held the same day. He, however, had shot himself.


Not long after my mother died, I drove home from the station, which was now a short distance away, for lunch. I came home for lunch so that I could put on a bathing suit and sit out by the pool. For the first time in my life, I was going to work on a tan. In Houston, you can get that going in March.

I had never had a tan in my life. Only sunburns. I seemed naturally to dislike sitting in direct sunlight — perhaps my body knew something. The skin cancers that have proliferated on my forearms and scalp — pre-cancers, sorry — date from a later period, as was revealed by an interesting therapy that I won’t bore you with. If my youthful exposure to the sun had had a malign effect, my shoulders, upon which coalesced numerous small freckles into one the size of a pancake, would be riddled with squamous cells. But they’re not, and the tan that I worked on in 1977 has not yet come back to haunt me. I was “religious” about it, as my mother would have put it. Unless the sky were cloudy (rare for spring in Houston), I would spend exactly an hour on a lounge chair by the pool. I would even turn over, something I hated a lot more than direct sunlight. By June, I was beginning to be what the French call bronzé. There were no burns, just an even coat of a darkish color that was hard to describe. The color got darker and stranger. By August, when I stopped working on my tan, I had achieved something like the color of red mahogany. My hair was still auburn then, and the combination was peculiar. Today, you might think that I’d been abandoned in a tanning salon, or dipped in an experimental lotion. Everyone agreed: I had not been meant to have a tan.

Kathleen, whom I would meet just a few weeks later, and who might not have been paying the closest attention, says that she doesn’t remember my looking at all odd, ever. So the tan must have faded quickly. That would be poetic justice, for the era of the tan was a unlike all my earlier periods in Houston. It was a time, frankly, of pleasure, of accumulating lots of friends by the pool and then driving with bare feet to the local Rice supermarket and stocking up for a cook-out. When I wasn’t by the pool, I was out of state. There were two big trips, both with Dad. The first, flown entirely on Company planes, took us to New York, to my uncle’s house in New Hampshire, which I’d never been to, and to the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia. The Greenbrier was a revelation on the order of my strange tan. It seemed to be painted entirely in green and yellow, my colors exactly, if you add a dash of pink. The second trip was to Europe. I had thought I’d never get there.

Europe was a confirmation. I don’t think that I saw anything that I hadn’t seen photographs of before. On the whole, everything was as I’d imagined it; the differences were all of scale. Europe was broader than the United States; it wasn’t so upright. We went to London, Paris, Vienna, and, with a stop in Dublin, the West of Ireland. London alone seemed strange, doubtless an “uncanny valley” reaction. The Queen was celebrating a jubilee, and the Tower Bridge had been painted purple. (Can that be right?) Paris was brilliant, but the important thing was going to Versailles for the day by myself. I didn’t then realize that Versailles was the modern West’s first stab at a national capitol, but when the idea dawned on me later, the vast majesty of the place made complete sense. Vienna was cobblestones that Mozart might have stepped on. In each city, my father had too much to drink, fell down, and had to listen to the hotel doctor tell him to lay off the sauce. His response was to threaten to go to American Express the next day and book an immediate return home. This he never did. I could have been a much more gracious companion, but I always had dinner with him, and when we finally got to Ireland I learned how much better the trip would have been had we stuck to the original plan, and driven from Paris eastwards, through Bavaria and the “Sound of Music Country,” which he’d been to with my mother and loved, onto Vienna. That road trip fell victim to Dad’s little collapses. But the morning after we arrived in Dublin, we drove back out to the airport, loaded our rented car, and drove across Ireland. I drove. I had never driven on the left before. It didn’t seem to be too hard to do. I never hit anything or anybody. And from our hotel in County Clare, Dromoland Castle, we drove all over the place.

Ireland was very beautiful, but I had the impression that all the smart people had emigrated. And that was true, in a sense; anybody capable of seizing an economic opportunity abroad took it. The de Valera dispensation, about which I knew nothing, was just beginning to wind down. It was still an overtly Catholic country, and there was still an overall air of heads-down diffidence. I knew that American money had a lot to do with such luster as remained — our hotel, for instance, an Ascendancy pile in the Gothic mode — and for a long time after I got home I would refer to Ireland as a theme park for Americans. It would be wrong to say that I didn’t feel Irish, because I didn’t feel anything else; I was a one-off who belonged nowhere. (Or so I thought, until I discovered Amsterdam, where I very much felt like the native that I was so often taken for.) My adoptive family’s American experience, bleached of Irishness in the Midwest, almost made Ireland into just another country. But of course it couldn’t be. The language was too familiar. I’d heard it all my life in New York. And understood it for nearly as long.

Over the Atlantic, on the flight back to New York, the pilot announced that the city was experiencing power problems, but that we would probably be able to land — not to worry. And so we did, in the great blackout of that summer. I have always chosen to regard this coincidence, of my just happening to be in New York, a city I hadn’t spent any time in for more nearly ten years, for this particular occasion, as a Janus-faced event, drawing past and future together, and eliding Houston altogether. It is, as is said, pretty to think so. It would be more apt to see that dark touchdown as the last thing that happened in my childhood and the first thing that happened to me as an adult. I never lived at home again, or anywhere near it. When I went back to Notre Dame in late August, I began the maturing experience that ought to have taken place there when I was an undergraduate. Going through law school seven years after I had gone through college at the same place had a reiterative quality. I have to do everything at least twice.

About the blackout itself, I’ll tell a story about Dad that was utterly typical. We made our way to the Company flat on Madison Avenue, and the porter and I lugged our luggage up to the tenth floor. I called up Fossil Darling — I had seen him on the earlier trip in the spring — and he invited me to a party in Greenwich Village. I don’t know what arrangements were made about giving Dad some sort of dinner, but I didn’t trouble myself about them. I hailed a cab and went downtown. But before I left, I got my father’s attention.

“Now, listen,” I said. “Pay strict attention.”

Some sort of assent was expressed.

“When you use the toilet, do not flush it. Do not turn on the taps to see if water comes out. Unless the lights are on, there will be no water. But above all, do not flush the toilets.

I left to the sound of mumbling.

The party downtown was great fun, and, in the middle of it, the lights came back on. There was food and drink everywhere, and everybody seemed to be interesting. I did not leave early. When I got back to the flat, I found the scene that I expected. Dad himself was passed out in a chair. There was no evidence that he had flushed the toilets, but the showers in both bathrooms were streaming, as were the bathroom sinks and the one in the kitchen, too. I was very tired as I turned everything off, and very glad that there had been no overflowing.


End: Houston stands between my childhood and my maturity.


By the time I had to leave Hawthorne two, I had a small black-and-white television and an air conditioner in the bedroom. Until then, I had lived largely without.

and itching for good conversation. The result was a fair amount of hanging out with friends. Aside from colleagues at the radio station, with whom I didn’t socialize much (socializing at work was enough), I had two groups of friends. One consisted of two fellow graduates from Notre Dame. One of them had grown up in Houston; the other was drawn to it by a wealth management opportunity. The other group extended from a woman whom I got to know on Oak Place. There was some, but not much, interaction between these three groups.

It is very hard to write about music.

“Traffic” is another word for scheduling — scheduling everything that wasn’t, in KLEF’s case, music chosen by me.