Susana de la Pena - Fiction

Leopard Skin Skin-Tight Pants: Marble Falls, Texas

by Susana de la Pena

My dad helped build the roads of Texas. In the summers, my mom and one of my sisters and I would follow him at his work. We were out of school in the summers and Mom wanted us to be with Daddy. My two older sisters who were already in high school could be left at home, under the care of relatives. I remember so much about those trips. Like when we went to Marble Falls, near Austin, Texas. We rented a motel there for a couple of months while my dad worked for the Dillinger Company, tarring and paving roads. In the evenings, Daddy would get home and oftentimes would take us to the Dairy Queen for ice cream after supper.

Marble Falls is known for its granite rock. Beautiful, purple rock. Marble Falls is a small central Texas town. One of those small sleepy towns, as they call them. Not much going on. Every one of those towns has a Dairy Queen. I’m reminded of Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways as I write this. He wrote about those roads, the little ones, that are oftentimes not on the map. The ones that wind through dusty little towns all over the United States. You meet some weird people in those towns. That was the fun part. So, in Marble Falls we met a couple of young girls like us (my sister Glo and I). I think Glo must have been about nine or ten and I was about six or seven. These two sisters who lived next door to the Marble Falls motel we were living in for the summer had what I know today is called platinum blonde hair. They didn’t dye it, though. It was just like that, naturally. They had a nun doll, which I thought was kind of strange. I’d never seen a doll that was a nun. They turned her all over, lifted up her skirt, and inspected the hell out of her. They ended up taking her head off and leaving her headless. I never understood that. What was that about? I wondered what my mother would say about that, so I never told her, because I knew she would be mad about anybody treating a nun that way. Mom said her rosary every day, kept her faith, went to Catholic Church on Sundays. Always. The early morning mass that was still in Latin. No California Sunday guitar-masses that came later on when the church tried to stay “relevant” and keep people from leaving during the music-laden ‘60’s. Anyway, that was the Marble Falls nun doll incident, as I’d call it today.

One of the really weird people we met... well, she was weird to me at the time... was the motel owner, I guess she was. If not the owner, she ran, or managed, the place. She wore leopard skin skin-tight pants. I’d never seen such a thing. And she had red hair piled high on her head in that 1950s/60s teased up way high style with a long pony tail hanging in the back. Her eyeglasses were pointed at the ends and were a red-brown. Seems lots of things back then were pointed like that. Like the fins on cars. I think they called it “streamlined.” But what was with all those pointy, pointed upwards, fin-like glasses, bras, and car “tails”? Anyway, she was really thin and I never saw her without a cigarette in her mouth. (My mother recoiled at that, I remember.) She also jangled when she got near us. We could hear her coming. She must have had on, it seemed to me at the time “a hundred bracelets.” Today, I think it was probably closer to ten or so. Gold, orange, brown, to match her leopard skin skin-tight pants. And her high heels were black. And higher than any heels I’d ever seen. She looked funny trying to walk across the grounds in between pebbles and things on the ground. I was sure she would fall any minute but she never did. I think she thought us curious, as well. I don’t think she was used to seeing “brown people” like us that much. There were more of us the closer you got to the South Texas-U.S./Mexico border, where we lived. She looked at us like she was trying to figure us out, with a question on her face all the time.

There was a constant droning sound coming out of motel air conditioners that were always on. Summers in Texas, near Austin, were hot and humid and unbearable. After a while you forgot that there were air conditioners on because the noise didn’t sound new or different anymore. It was always on. If you walked a little away from one of them you could hear the cicadas. The chicharras we called them. Their constant, non stop, chirp chirp chirping in the air. I read somewhere that it’s the sound of their rubbing their legs together that we hear but I have a hard time believing that that alone makes that sound. Maybe I just imagined reading that. Overhead, too, were the “alambras”. the hot electricity wires that “snapped” every now and then in the heat. Texas is a lush cacophony of sounds in the summer. You never forget them because if you move away you miss hearing them. You’re like, “Wait. Where are the chicharras? Why don’t I hear the wires snapping?” The sounds in the air are as lush as the greener parts of the state can be in the hot tropical parts with overgrown greenery. Not all of Texas is like that. Much of it is flat and dry. But some places, like Marble Falls and Austin, for example, have those greens.

Anyway, I still see Miss Leopard-Skin Skin-Tight Pants walking across the motel yard like a bird traipsing across trip wire, some motel mine field. Those stiletto heels landing you weren’t sure where. When she was far away I could see two spindly legs against the sun that looked more like stilts because she walked so unsteadily through the little gravel rocks along the pavement. There was lots of stuff strewn along that pavement and she gingerly and masterfully... humorously it seems to me now... stepped here and there and got through it all.

There was one day I remember most. My older sister, “Glo,” got the big idea to make some “jelly.” There were blue berries... I don’t remember what kind of plant or whatever they were... but she decided they might be edible and so we got a bunch and mashed them on the front porch to our motel room to squeeze some juice out of them and into some jar she’d found in the kitchen. Soon enough there was purple all around us. We must have been at it for at least several hours or more. Who knows. Time is so different when you’re young. It could have been one hour, or six, for all I know, now. Well, it soon became 4:00 in the afternoon, and my mom poked her head out the front window to remind us that we had to shower and be ready for Daddy to come home because we would be going out to eat. All the kids, now that I remember, had to be cleaned up and “ready” before “Daddy” got home. I don’t know what that was about, but I guess it had something to do with his being the “head of the house” and “king of the castle” or something like that....

Anyway, so my sister and I started to clean up. Only thing is, the purple wouldn’t wash off. We tried and tried but no way. It wasn’t goin’ nowhere no-how. Our porch was one big purple splash. It was supposed to wash out like everything else did, but it didn’t. This was worse than the headless nun doll, for sure. Maybe they wouldn’t notice, we thought? Maybe nobody would see that we’d basically painted the whole front porch purple when we weren’t supposed to? We talked about it and thought that, yeah, maybe they wouldn’t notice. I looked at Glo and felt safe knowing that if they did notice, she was the one that was going to get in trouble because she was the oldest. My arms went limp because I knew it was useless to get the purple out. At around that time Daddy pulled up in the driveway. I think he immediately sized up the situation and, of course, had a fit. Mom poked her head out again and I saw the horror on her face. Uh oh. I looked at my hands and there was no use saying I didn’t do it because I was purple all the way from my finger nails to my elbow. I really don’t remember much after that except that there was a lot of yelling and Mom shaking her head and Daddy looking so tired just having gotten home from a hard day of work to this. To us. Our mess. He yelled out lots of Spanish cuss words that we knew we weren’t ever supposed to say. But I do remember that soon after that we had to apologize to the Leopard Skin Skin-Tight Pants lady. Glo hung her head, I remember, when she spoke. And I just basically repeated what she had said. And we were very sorry we repeated for having made her porch all purple.

That day we were kicked out of the motel. Even before we got to go out to eat. It was bad. Daddy was cussing the whole time he was turning the wheel to back up and drive out. I looked out the of the car’s back window and sooo remember her, still, Ms. Leopard Skin Skin- Tight Pants, just standing there in front of her purple porch with that same question on her face. Like “Who were those people?” I thought of the Lone Ranger on TV: “Who was that masked man?” And I waved to her from the back seat of the car as we drove off. I think my sister and I were in trouble for at least a couple of weeks or maybe more and there was no Dairy Queen during all that time. We had to go to bed early and couldn’t watch TV and nobody laughed or smiled.

There were lots more hair-brained ideas we had growing up. And traveling with Daddy was always an adventure. I saw so much of central Texas that way. I may get my love of traveling from those times. Years later, when I attended the University of Texas at Austin, I remembered Daddy’s welding/road-building days. How he had built those roads all around Austin and the University and beyond. Somehow, I got onto one of those privileged roads that took me to the University and I thought of the White House that was built by slaves. We did the building and sometimes they let us in to the special places the roads all led to. But I always felt like I was still always getting in trouble. Like it was the purple porch all over again. Like a pachuca who mistakenly got invited to and showed up at a Daughters of the American Revolution Tea. I saw, and still see, lots of professors with those questions on their faces just like Ms. Leopard Skin Skin-Tight Pants. When we integrated Harlingen, Texas, it was the same. “Like who are those people?” all over again. They can’t figure us out. Especially when we move into their neighborhoods. Or get Ph.D’s. Or speak English without an accent even better than they do. “Who are those people?” Not like it was at home, south of Austin, closer to San Antonio, where we were all more alike. And then there was the move to California... but that’s a whole other story.