The Devil Went Down to Austin
I'd snuck some things from the kitchen—vials of food colouring, Dixie cups, a pitcher of water. I was in my bedroom mixing potions, watching how the dyes curl in the water.
That doesn't sound like much, I know. But I'd spilled a few cup full’s onto the carpet. My fingers were stained purple. It was enough to give the Old Man an excuse.
He came in so quietly I didn't hear him, didn't know he was standing over me until I caught his smell, like sweet smoked beef.
He said something like, "Is this what we clean the house for? We clean the house so you can do this?"
Then I realized water was running in the bathroom. I remembered what my friend had said.
I tried to apologize, but the Old Man caught my wrists, dragged me backward, using my arms as a harness.
I kicked at the carpet and walls as he pulled me down the hallway. When we passed the bathroom doorjamb, I got one hand loose and grabbed at it, but the Old Man just yanked harder, ripping a nail off my finger.
The ceiling sparkled white. I remember bare avocado rings on the shower rod, plastic starrivets holding up the mirror.
The Old Man lifted me, squeezed me against his chest. I was clawing, grabbing at his clothes. Then he dumped me in.
The cold stopped my blood. I floated, wet to my armpits, my clothes grafted to my chest, heavy.
I knew better than to try standing. I lay low, crying, the water nipping the backs of my ears. My mouth tasted salt.
There was a comma of blood from my ripped nail on the Old Man's shirt pocket, purple smudges from my dyed fingers on his chest.
He said, "What did you do wrong? Tell me what you were doing. "
His voice sounded kindly in the tiled acoustics of the bathroom, rich and deep.
I couldn't answer. I cried.
"I don't want to hear that," he scolded. "Until you can tell me what you did, I don't want any sound from you "
I kept crying—knowing it was the wrong thing to do, but crying more because of that.
So he leaned over me, pushed my chest, and the water closed over my head. Sound turned to aluminium. I could hear my own struggling and splashing. Water lapped into the overflow drain, rushed through pipes in the walls like underground machinery.
The Old Man shimmered above me, his hand keeping a warm, constant clamp on the middle of my chest. I clawed at his wrist, but it might as well have been a mesquite branch.
I held my breath, which is hard when you're facing up, the water flooding your nostrils, gagging you.
I tried to be still. I thought maybe if I were still, the Old Man would let go.
I studied the hazy balls of light above the sink.
My lungs burned.
And finally—the first clear decision I ever remember making—I gave up. I breathed in the water.
At that moment, as if he knew, the bastard lifted me out, rolled me onto the tiled floor.
I curled, cold and trembling, belching water, my throat on fire. "Be grateful," he said. "Be grateful for what you have. " That was only the first time.
Over the years, he taught me that drowning a thing you hate— drowning it well and drowning it completely—is a slow process. It is an art only the patient can master.
And I learned to be patient. I'll always credit the Old Man for that.
Lars Elder looks like a banker the way I look like a private eye, which is to say, not much.
He was waiting on the porch of my family ranch house, flicking a switchblade open and closed, a computer disk and a can of Budweiser next to him on the railing.
Lars' hairline had receded since I'd seen him last, but he still sported the earring, the Willie Nelson beard. His shirt, vest, and jeans were faded to the colours of a dust storm, and his eyes gave the same impression—dry and turbulent.
"Tres," he said. "Thanks for coming. "
"No problema. "
What I was thinking: The Navarre family banker drinking beer at ten in the morning is not a good sign.
Lars closed his knife, looked out toward the wheat fields.
Fifty yards away, past the tomato garden, the ranch caretaker was putting hay into the cattle feeder. Harold Diliberto stopped to watch us, his pitchfork suspended, dripping straw.
"Harold showed me the work you've been doing inside," Lars said. "You've been spending a lot of time out here. "
"Some," I admitted.
I tried not to feel irritated, like Harold had betrayed a confidence.
Truth was, I'd been out at the ranch every weekend since the end of April—scraping old paint, filling in the spreading cracks in the original section of the house that had been my greatgrandfather's
homestead in the 1880s. I'd neglected both my jobs in San Antonio, ditched the cell phone, dropped out of my social life with little explanation to my friends.
"Place was overdue for some maintenance," I told Lars. "You ask me out here for the Home Beautiful tour? "
He didn't smile. "Talked to Garrett recently?"
"Maybe four, five months ago. "
"But you'll see him soon. You're teaching that summer class in Austin, aren't you?"
Another surge of irritation. "British lit, for six weeks. May I ask how the hell you know about it?"
Lars brought the switchblade up like a conductor's baton. "Look, I'm sorry. I had to talk to you before you left. You know what Garrett's been up to?"
"You mean like Buffett concerts? Smoking pot?"
"His programming project. "
"Must've missed it. I tend to phase out when Garrett talks about RNI. "
Lars winced, like I'd just told him the price of an expensive gift. "Tres, Garrett isn't working at RNI anymore. He quit over a year ago. "
I stared at him. My brother had worked at the same software company for sixteen years. He practically ran the place, took all the days off he wanted, had a retirement package.
"Got himself involved in a startup company," Lars told me. "That was two years ago—spring of '98. Then last year, May of '99, he decided he couldn't keep working both jobs anymore. Garrett just left RNI—no severance, no benefits. "
"Not possible. "
"He's working the startup with Jimmy Doebler. "
I studied Lars' eyes, tried to tell if he was joking. Apparently, he wasn't, and beer for breakfast started sounding like a good idea.
Last I'd heard—maybe three years ago—Jimmy Doebler and Garrett hadn't even been speaking to each other. When they were speaking, they got along about as well as electricity and gunpowder.
"You're sure?" I asked him.
Lars picked up the computer disk, handed it to me. "Some files—things I was able to find on the Internet. They're calling themselves Techsan Security Software. Three principals in the
company—Jimmy, his wife Ruby, and Garrett. They've been designing an encryption product. The betatesting started in January. "
I wagged the floppy. "It's news to me. Why the dossier, Lars? What's your interest?"
He rubbed his beard with his knuckles.
"I've known Jimmy and Garrett for a long time. I was around when Garrett—" He faltered. "Well, you know. I was around for the bad times. But when I called Garrett last week, I'd never heard him sound so bad. He and Jimmy are fighting again. Jimmy and his wife have separated—all because of this company they've started. I asked Garrett how they were holding up financially. He just laughed. The last few days, he won't even return my calls. I thought maybe you could talk to him. "
I looked over the split rail fence, down the pasture toward the woods. The Charolais were grazing in the dry bed of Apache Creek. The
I thought about the hundreds of times I'd watched the sun come up over the Balcones Escarpment from here, the topography like an onion, layer upon translucent layer—my first hunting trip with my dad, a dozen Thanksgiving dinners, my first night with a woman, three hurricanes, two fires, even a snowstorm. I remembered my grandfather, over there by the northern property line, digging holes for fence posts.
And even after six weeks of manual labour, rebuilding my relationship with the ranch, I could still feel that Sunday afternoon last April, down in the clearing, when I'd almost died at the hands of an old friend.
All I wanted was a few more weekends, time to scrape paint.
"Look, Lars, I won't say I'm not worried. But Garrett and Jimmy—what you're describing. Unfortunately, it sounds pretty typical. I appreciate your concern . . . "
"You don't understand," Lars said. "Garrett needed capital for his share in the Techsan startup. A lot of capital. With his financial record, nobody else would help him. I hate even talking to you about this, Tres. I know you don't have a lot of money. "
I tried to hand back the computer disk. "If you made my brother a loan, I'm sorry, Lars.
I don't see how I can help you. "
"I couldn't talk him out of it," he said. "The deed is in his name. He made me promise not to worry you, but when he signed
the papers he still had a steady job. Now . . . He hasn't made a payment in over a year.
It's just—I don't know what I can promise, come July first. My boss is breathing down my neck. "
My heart twisted into a sailor's knot. "July first?"
Lars pinched the blade of his knife, threw it toward an old live oak stump, where it stuck straight up.
"Garrett mortgaged this ranch, Tres. And Unless I see something—a sign of good faith by the end of this month, I'm going to have to foreclose. "
San Antonio and Austin are like estranged siblings.
San Antonio would be the sister who stayed home, took care of the elderly parents, made tortillas by hand in the kitchen, wore cotton dresses until the colours faded.
She's the bigboned one— handsome but unadorned, given to long afternoon siestas.
Austin is the sister who went away to college, discovered rock 'n' roll, and dyed her hair purple. She's the one my mother would've warned me about, if my mother hadn't been an exhippie.
That afternoon I figured out why God put the two sisters seventy five miles apart. It was to give irate siblings like me a coolingoff period—an hour on the road to reconsider fratricide.
Around two o'clock, I finally tracked down my brother. A friend of a Hell's Angel of a friend told me he was staying at Jimmy Doebler's place on Lake Travis.
Sure enough, they were down by the water, building something that looked like the third little pig's house. It was a kiln— pottery being Jimmy's second oldest hobby, next to getting Garrett in trouble.
From fifteen feet away, Jimmy and Garrett hadn't noticed me.
Jimmy was hunched over, tapping down a line of bricks.
Garrett was up on a scaffold, five feet above, doing the chimney. His ponytail had flipped over the shoulder and gotten stuck in a splot of wet mortar. Sweat glistened in his beard. He made an odd sight up there, with no legs, like some sort of tiedyed polyp grown out of the board.
The afternoon heat was cooking the air into soup. In the crook of a smoke tree, a jam box was cranking out Lucinda Williams' latest.