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  • Texas: The Vinegar State

    It loomed dead ahead like the towering fortress my sister had once erected with her Legos; The city that dominated the state where everything was big. Now I believed it. I didn’t have to resort to the vision of the blue map of the state that hung in my seventh grade classroom. Here it was laid out in front of me. Texas had been understated; It wasn’t big, it was colossal!

    My family and I moved from Winnipeg trading the blizzard of April for the searing heat of Houston, all within four days. In Winnipeg, snows covered the ground in thick-layered sheets in early October; the ground would heave its way out with the warmth of May. Texas; the state so barren there was no place to hide from the sun, it would find you and bake your skin like some sort of southern hemispheric ritual. We rolled in shedding our winter skin. I wondered if my family had driven so far south that we passed the equator and entered hell instead of stopping at the Lone Star State.

    I hated Houston the minute we arrived. Highways extended up and over, crisscrossing, one over another, each over-riding the next like some futuristic scene that I once saw on the Jetsons. I stared, gapping in amazement. Houston’s highway system looked like a suspended spiraling mass of concrete spaghetti. My mom drove our car loaded with four kids and a dog; Dad hauled our “home” loaded in the moving truck through the pandemonium on the interstate. Mom’s eyes were mechanically fixed on the moving truck that had traveled in front of us for days. She knew not where she was going; her knuckles white with the eagerness to leave the mass of traffic, entrances, exits, and merges. We had never experienced the enormity of big city traffic like this. Becoming separated from our truckload of possessions, our Dad included, was inevitable. And there it was. The truck with U-HAUL printed in orange lettering, rolling by on the highway maze that spilled out over our heads heading west. My mom, gripping the steering wheel so hard I thought it would come off in her hands, watched in horror as she drove under the highway, heading south. The four of us and the dog looked out of the rear window and watched the truck being herded like Texas steer down the highway through the heavy flow of traffic; mom cried.

    They weren’t kidding when they said that everything was bigger in Texas. Women wore their hair in sticky, large, mounds plastered with lacquer shielding the mass from the heat and humidity. In the sun the hair glistened; fly paper strips always came to mind. It was like a shiny lacquer festival to see groups of women assembled in one area. Bees loved it; they were attracted to the sweet smell of the heat resistant hairspray. Men wore huge, shield-like, belt buckles that looked like they could be severed at the waist if they sat down. Women wore tight jeans; men wore even tighter jeans. I’m not sure that breathing was involved in Texas Wrangler apparel; Texans did a lot of standing.

    It was my good nature that propelled me to try to find something good in everything. In this city I believed had to make up half of the southern globe, I found nothing. It seemed to me that most anything that moved had at least six legs and crawled. It was not uncommon to be awakened in the middle of the night to find a Texas sized tree roach moving across your skin. These could be up to five inches long. They were so large that you swore to your Winnipeg friends that they could carry you off in the middle of the night, hauling you up to their nests in the treetops. I used to raise an eyebrow and look to the trees when I heard about people who had gone missing. I personally harbored the nightmare of awakening in the upper boughs of a pine tree encased in a tree roach cocoon as an army of insects pounced upon me and commenced their Texas sized feast. They could also fly which added to my terror. Often times you would hear about a tree roach that had to be surgically removed from someone’s ear. This too haunted me. I grew accustomed to sleeping with cotton balls in my ears, duct tape over my mouth. It was imperative to keep the nasal passages clear.

    They say that southerners are slow to talk; this is very true concerning Texans. I myself have always had the tendency to be a fast talker. Words tumble out of my own mouth like someone is perched on the back of my tongue pushing them out. My new Texas neighbors were quite the opposite. In their own good time, their words would seep through the stale, muggy air as if smothered in thick molasses, only to be suspended, while you stood there, plunged your hands deep into your pockets... and waited.

    This new world offered unique sayings too; "He’s slicker than a boiled onion," and "He’s the only hell his mama ever raised," and one in particular I would stow in my memory bank for future use. One day, my brother and sisters and I headed to the beach for the day thinking we could peel off the heat and humidity that stalked us like a shadow. It seemed to rain all the time; humidity took over when the raindrops ceased. If I were a cow, I swear I would have contracted hoof disease because my sandaled feet were always wet. This day was searingly sunny; we hit the water hearing only the faintest whisper of a sizzle; the water was as hot as the air. All we had to show for our outing was severe sunburn.

    Returning home, our neighbor spied our newly reddened skins and called over to us, “Land sakes, ya’ll go on in that house, I’ll be right over.” She entered our home armed with a large bottle of white vinegar, and her son who was about five years old. He blew in like a big Texas twister. He bounded in jumping up and down on the couch, running all over our house, and yelling like he had something big to say. We were in such pain we hardly noticed. In her thick southern drawl, she ordered us to the tub having us strip down to our swimsuits. All four of us, lined up shoulder to shoulder like a four pack of hot tamales; she poured vinegar all over our sun-baked skin. Immediately, like pressure stored in a sealed container, I felt the heat release from my body. Eyes stinging from the odor, the four of us released so much heat the bathroom filled with steam. The small tiled room smelled like a pickling plant, and we were the pickles. She told us that we could not shower for at least an hour, but the heat was gone, the sunburn short lived. We ventured out of the steamy bathroom to find the “twister;” he sat perched on the kitchen counter eating a bag of pigskins, the only thing left from our “Welcome Wagon” basket. His mother spoke to him in her slow, velvety voice, “I see you are showing yourself.” I would hear that term a lot in Texas, it seemed to reference unfavorable, or highly motivated, or even highly ambitious behavior among anyone. I remember hearing men say it to their wives and vice-versa. Mothers would say it to children. Teachers would say it to students. Those words settled in my head. I heard the saying so much that I actually came to like it. I wanted to say it slow and silky in my newly acquired “thick as mud” accent, “I see you are showing yourself.” I can’t recall ever using it, nor was it ever aimed at me, but that was the one thing that I came to like about Houston. I always thought it was too bad that I had to use the thick accent that resembled the thick Houston air to spill out a saying that I had grown fond of.

    I spent sixteen years in the place that I called the boiling pot. In those years I dubbed Texans as the ones who knew nothing of Columbian or French roast coffee. They only knew of “slow roast.” I had the best-kept secret in how to heal sunburn; it was called bathroom pickling. I knew of pigskins and couldn’t fathom why anyone would voluntarily eat them. I had acquired a slow, syrupy drawl that I could tuck away and summon at will. I have been back to Texas only once since I left, I entered with the idea that I just might cut loose and “show myself.” I took with me my very own “Texas Survival Kit.” It contained, cotton balls, duct tape, French roast coffee, and a Texas sized bottle of white vinegar.

    Pamela Wilonski

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