The subject of a work of art is not the most critical thing. The attitude of the artist is more important. And attention. For best results, you’ll want to bring all your faculties to bear on the task at hand: your mind, your emotion, your freedom of movement. The work will take every bit of effort you can muster.
The windmill stood silent in the dead calm of morning. Two men walked through the pasture, kicking up a cloud of caliche, one man tall and crisp in slacks and white button-up shirt, the shorter man dusty as the Texas hill country, from the sweat-stained hat to the worn-down boots. A dribble of snuff leaked through the patchy stubble on his chin as he limped along the two-rut track, recounting events of the previous evening.
“I heard the sound of the plane. For a minute I listened, trying to get the direction. I knowed somethin’ was wrong. The engine cut out, then started again, like it was runnin’ out of gas. I seen the glare as the plane banked and straightened up, headin’ this way. By then, I knowed it was comin’ in too low, so I run over to the bank there for cover, such as it is. I seen it pass in slow motion, like a dream. Read the numbers, N34TZ. Bullet holes in the fuselage. So close I could almost touch it.”
The two men stopped fifty yards from the crash site beside the windmill’s galvanized water tank. Across the track, a ’55 Chevy pick-up sat rusting in the weeds. The rancher paused and lifted his hat to wipe his weathered forehead with a shirt sleeve, leaving a streak of ochre on the faded blue fabric. Then he continued, “I seen a flash and heard thunder. The earth shook, I’m a tellin’ you. I hit the dirt flat out. A heat wave passed over me and I got the shivers. I’d been holdin’ my breath. Run, I thought. No. Get help! Maybe someone’s alive. I must’ve froze for a minute, maybe longer. When I stood up, I could see the plane had wrecked my house. Fire everywhere, hot as a pistol. Nobody could’ve survived that.”
Grayson, the tall man, slapped a horsefly on his neck and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to clean up the mess. He gazed beyond the scorched liveoaks to the pile of ashes where the house had stood. He wasn’t eager to move any closer. The muscles around his anus clinched involuntarily, and waves of revulsion passed through his body as he processed the event that had taken place. Please God, he prayed, let it be someone else in that cockpit and not my sons. Blaine, the older one, had taken combat hits in Vietnam and never lost an aircraft. He wouldn’t have screwed up like this.
“Must’a been tryin’ to land on the highway up there.” The rancher pointed to the top of a low bluff across the creek-bed, then paused to pull a sand burr off his jeans and flick it away. “The thing is, I got a look at that pilot when the plane passed. It was almost dark, and I only seen him for a second, but I’d swear he was a Mexican.” The rancher spat on the ground and drifted away toward his pick-up.
Remains of the old farmstead were strewn over half an acre. The plane’s wings had been ripped away on impact and the fuselage had blasted straight into the single-story farmhouse, drawing fire along with it. A thin cloud of white smoke still lingered and the odor of burning leaves permeated the air. Beside a smoldering tree trunk someone was bent over a five-gallon bucket, peering inside. The man wore a Stetson and a white western shirt with a star pinned on.
He straightened as Grayson approached and held out a hand. “John Pierce.”
“Wayman Grayson, sheriff.”
“I notified the FAA and FBI, Mr. Grayson. We have a crime scene unit on the way from DPS. The coroner is coming when he gets loose. Newspaper man will be right behind.”
“Can I see the bodies?”
“What with the intensity of the fire, getting an ID will be difficult. I’ll show you what I’ve found, but don’t touch anything. Until the state boys arrive, my job is to protect the scene. There’s at least one crime been committed here.” Pierce turned to the wreckage. “It looks to me like the plane hit the butane tank and flipped over, belly-up. The explosion drove it through the wall of the house and telescoped the engine into the cockpit. What’s left of the bodies is under there.”
Grayson followed the sheriff’s nod to the upside-down fuselage lying among the ashes alongside the remains of a blackened refrigerator and cookstove. The burned and crumpled piece of scrap-metal seemed incredibly small—no protection for vulnerable flesh and blood. Imagining bodies burnt to a crisp, Grayson’s gut lurched, and he turned away from the other man to empty the contents of his stomach. After wiping his mouth and gathering himself, he sensed the sheriff beside him.
“Sir, I’m real sorry about your son, if it was him in there. You must be as wrecked as the plane.” The sheriff held his hat in his hands and fiddled with the brim. “I follow our Texas boys over there, you know. Across the water. Major Grayson was a fine airman. Someone to be proud of . . . an American hero.” At that point, Pierce ran out of gas for giving speeches and concluded quickly, “Stay as long as you like. The coroner should be here any minute, and he’s bringing coffee and doughnuts. Looks like I’ll be around for awhile.”
Sheriff Pierce started to walk away, then circled around Grayson to indicate the remnants of a gunny sack. “Sir, I found evidence of smuggling here. These bags of marijuana—what’s left of them—were still smoldering when I got here. I’ve hauled water for days trying to put out the fires.”
Grayson cocked his head at Pierce, thinking, days? and said, “I thought I recognized the smell of pot, walking down here. You just got here this morning, right?”
The sheriff seemed confused for a minute. “Yeah, well it feels like a week.” He took off his hat and scratched his head. “There’s one thing about those bags of dope that puzzles me. Some of it’s just hay. I don’t know much about marijuana, but I’d know Johnsongrass anywhere.”
They say the part of the brain that stores memories is situated right next to the part responsible for the imagination. That must be why it’s so easy for one part to borrow from the other—for an axon or a thought to wander across that scant border in search of freedom or truth or fiction . . . Like a Oaxacan cook, say, crossing the Rio Grande to look for work.
My name’s Clifford Grayson, or Cliff for short, but since I started flying under the radar, I’ve been going by CJ MacRae. This story is half mine. At the time of the plane crash in sixty-nine, I’d just graduated from high school in Travis County, Texas, where I was a good student and a fair athlete. I’d always been sheltered from most of the world’s harsher realities, but that was about to change. And the troubles that were coming my way? I brought them all on myself.
Before I ever thought about telling a story, I painted, first in watercolor, then oil. Before that, I drew, with fingers, crayons, and pencils—whatever was at hand. It’s all the same, really, making a picture, leaving a track. So here I’m learning to paint with words, instead of brushes, looking to capture an elusive trail of light. I expect I’ll write the same as I paint, by plunging in and thrashing around until the words start to make sense. But I do know this—before you begin a story, it helps to have a picture in your mind of how the story goes. Then the words just come, like prayers to a believer.
I wasn’t there on the scene, so I must have dreamed it, what happened that Saturday in Texas with the rancher and my dad. Or maybe they told me the details later. After my brother’s airplane crashed the night before, Mr. Cole the rancher had driven three-quarters of a mile to his neighbor’s house. From there he called Sheriff Pierce, who told him to sit tight until morning and keep quiet. Pierce sent a deputy to guard the crash site overnight and had himself arrived at 6 a.m. and sent the deputy home. From the numbers Mr. Cole had seen as the plane passed, they’d checked the registration and discovered the owner was Blaine Grayson, my brother.
Someone knew he was the son of a State Representative from Travis County. The DPS was called in and Hal Watkins, the director, made a phone call to Wayman Grayson, his old college football buddy. Grayson, my father, had taken the call in his office near the State Capitol building in Austin, where he’d gone in on a Saturday morning. He was hoping to get away before noon.
“Wayman, I have some bad news,” Watkins had said. “We had an airplane crash yesterday evening down near Pearsall, by the state highway. Two jets from Lackland Air Force Base confirmed the location after dark, when the fire was still burning. It looks like your son’s plane. There’s not much left of it. I’m sorry. There are two bodies . . . I.D.’s going to be difficult. You might want to get hold of your son’s dental records.” Watkins went on, “We’re trying to shake loose our unit that deals with crashes. Normally we’d be right on it, but my people are slammed, and the FAA is busy with two situations right now, one in Hebbronville, and one near Houston. Don’t know when they’ll get around to us . . .
“There’s one more thing,” Watkins said. “The aircraft was loaded with marijuana. Probably came from Mexico. The FBI will be involved, so I thought you’d want to get down there. The county sheriff is there now. He’ll need to ask you some questions.”
My father was already packing his briefcase and planning his next moves while he listened to Watkins. He checked his watch at 8:30 am, made a quick call to his wife, Martha, then called the airport to ask for a plane and pilot . . . Then the dentist, to have records sent. By 10:30 AM, my father had landed at the tiny Pearsall, Texas airport. The deputy who was waiting drove him to the crash site where they met the rancher, Mr. Cole.
It feels like getting my wisdom teeth pulled, exposing this part of my life, with all the remorse around my carelessness and the dire way it affected other people. My nature is to keep secrets, not to spill the beans—that’s how I stay safe and maintain control. But at the same time, I feel the urge to lay down my burden, come clean, and tell it all. Maybe not the truth, exactly, but a truth.
Earlier that same week of the crash, I’d had a minor scrape with the law, and to let things cool off, I’d persuaded Blaine to take me with him to Mexico. We’d flown to Acapulco and checked into a fancy hotel for a short vacation—body surfing in the Pacific, eating enchiladas, playing volleyball in the sand—and I tried to forget about the incidents that led to my departure from Texas. Well, not all the incidents. There was a girl . . . a woman, I mean. No chance I’d be forgetting her after what happened at the waterfall that night.
If I could have time-travelled backward three months from the day the plane crashed, and landed in New Orleans a week or so before Mardi Gras, I might have wandered along Magazine street, stopped at Joe’s Po-Boy Shop and ordered a bowl of gumbo. If my timing had been right, I might have seen her then—hazel-green eyes, dark blonde hair, spirited and strong.
I know her as Mariah now, but I knew her before I knew her name, and before that I didn’t know her at all.