New Zealand writer Anna Rankin writes from Winnsboro, Texas
My uncle collects me from Dallas-Fort Worth airport close to midnight and we drive the two-hour trip to Winnsboro. We stop at a gas station the size of a mall. 72 pumps and what amounts to a mini shopping centre for a pay-station. The kind of Walmart-adjacent store where people buy their weekly groceries, clothes, gifts, homeware, and niche specialities like eggs pickled in turmeric along with their gas. As the standard maxim declares, everything is bigger in Texas and like most clichés it’s true and I had forgotten that here the prevailing attitude is there’s “Texas and its 49 bitches” as a proud man—Texan first, American second— remarked to me several days ago during a conversation about tax, a favoured topic in a state that levies no income tax and which is, consequently and to their chagrin, importing Californians along with the threat of their blue politics—another favoured topic of scorn.
Winnsboro is in the heart of the piney woods of East Texas and typical of small towns settled in the mid 1880’s—modest and set out roughly 20 miles apart so residents could reach the county seat, and courthouse, within a day’s horseback ride. I’m here for several reasons: respite from LA, to be in a red state for the forthcoming election, to write and spend time with my uncle who I’ve not seen for a year or so and who I last stayed with in the greater Los Angeles desert where he, an Angeleno, lived until his retirement from his profession as high school teacher. He sought a quieter life near the water and purchased a secluded and rambling, mid-70s manor positioned on the water, at the end of a long gravel road on a peninsula, encircled by a lake.
We drive dark and unmarked roads deep into the woods and emerge from the thicket to a rickety white-wood manse. Inside it’s unmistakably the set of those kitsch horror films I watched as a child. High ceilings, wood-panelling, a long stairwell with carved supporting beams, more rooms than I can recall, undisclosed wardrobes, hidden nooks, at least 13 wood and brass ceiling fans, a wet bar, handmade white lace curtains covering small square windows set in doors, or flounced across the edges of window frames. Folk art applique, an old hearth and two enormous conservatories; one downstairs through a door separating the dining room, and another upstairs, attached to my room, or rather, my entire floor, its centrepiece a large bed complete with wood columns on either side. A side door leads to a balcony, to an apartment where my uncle lives rather than the main house due its cavernous size.
On my floor, there are three mirrors in the shape of a child’s basic drawing of a house, framed in wood and impressed into the wall, following the decline of the staircase. A drastic change from my studio apartment, there are more chairs, tables, rooms than I know what to do with. The windowed front of the conservatory looks right across the lake. There is a thin wood-planked jetty affixed from the lawn bridging out over water, where it yields to a wooden platform covered by a handcrafted wooden hexagonal gazebo, a steel weathervane atop its pointed roof.
This is red country, fall, and Texas, so metal stars are applied to the houses and trailers on the road along with Trump 2020 signposts and flags, often a crucifix, both a Texan and American flag erected in the front yard. Pick-ups parked in drives. Stacked hay bales, oversized orange pumpkins arranged alongside ghostly decorations assembled for Halloween decorate front yards. I look in the direction of the neighbours’ A-frame cabin and see a wooden birdhouse in the shape of a cross nailed to a tree. My uncle’s place is the final house on the road, which broadens out into a grassy park where people fish and freedom camp. Most nights I hear the soft twang of country songs playing and the crackle of a campfire, orange sparks floating skyward. The house is surrounded by ancient trees—Sumac, Cottonwood, Elm, Hackberry, Cypress, Sweet gum, Oak, Magnolia. Squirrels run across the lawn and rose bushes bloom in red and yellow on earth caked in fallen leaves, golden and crisp in this turning season, blown round by a cold wind. Two doe graze. Across the lake, each house has its own jetty and they stretch out into the water, shaded by trees with leaves that brush the lake’s surface.
It’s so still, so quiet, other than the high tune of cicadas, the odd gunshot, fish jumping in the lake, the ignition roar of a pick-up, coyotes moaning their eerie pitch in the woods, the swish of high wind in trees, voices travelling across the bay, Mockingbirds in the morning. I come up with the sun, watch the moonrise over the water, a blackened inkwell. In the chill of dawn fog rolls in across the lake like a veil of ghosts. The first night here through a clearing I watch an electrical storm across the bay where a thunderhead in the distance is alight. The puffed mass glowers pale purple like a lantern, flashes of forked lightning thin as witches’ veins slice the sky. Here in this humid air these fronts are common; the electrical charge pushes between cold and warm, the more pronounced the temperature difference the more violent the interaction. It lasts around two hours before moving on, and the sky once again darkens.
My uncle plans to head out of town, meaning I’m here alone for two weeks—and as it happens his house is on the market, the seclusion a little too pronounced for one so social. He’s here for a week yet, and we have dinner at a local crawfish bistro set on a highway, gravel pit out front, on the outskirts of town with his friends, a very nice couple also originally from Los Angeles who, like so many of their generation, are concerned with notions of space, personal liberties, a sense of safety from what they see as the decline of cities—the homelessness so unsightly, the air so filthy is the refrain delivered with pity. Here, they get more land for their dollar, no one to bother them, no tax dollars spent on healthcare for illegals. By their own admission, their wild, younger days eased to a more conservative position and they fled the city of their birth at the urging of what they saw as the liberal politics of California sweeping the state, the high tax, the comparably larger house one could purchase elsewhere.
The recurrent fixation on tax is troubling insofar as the locus of concern—being that Americans are taxed in such recondite ways—federal, state, local, sales, income, property, and yet appear to lack meaningful civic benefits and basic care—is legitimate. This nation once revolted against an empire on account of taxation bereft of representation yet the complacency of citizenry is observable in the acceptance of such terrible statistics across all fundamental aspects necessary for a functioning society: healthcare, education, housing, in the wealthiest nation on earth. Yet the presiding attitude on tax that I encounter in my conversations is that it amounts to government theft.
I am the sole wearer of a mask in this crowded bar, filled with young people, mostly. Within my company, I am the recipient of light jeers at my insistence on the mask, and en route to the restroom I am regarded by some with scorn, comments muttered. Here, in my unsightly blue medical mask I am a reminder that there is a contagious pandemic which is exactly what these patrons wish to avoid acknowledging. There appears to be a unified agreement that despite the significantly rising numbers it is a plague fallen upon cursed cities, craven places of socialism, depravity, crime and filth. Bernie actually wants people in food lines, a man informs me: “He thinks it’s a good thing, I saw it, he said it on TV”.
The only other mask wearer is a young guy in a wheelchair, in a black cap, no doubt a vet, and he acknowledges me with a smile telegraphed from his eyes. Over fried catfish, coleslaw, shrimp in boil, spicy corn and iced-tea I approach the contours of the unfolding conversation with the couple with tentative trepidation. My uncle is mostly quiet and I am aware of which topics not to breach. There is the sense that one comment, one misunderstanding, could act as a detonator and this feverish spectre haunts most of the conversations I have around politics over these weeks.
Prompted by the George Floyd protests in Los Angeles earlier this year, she tells me she remembers the Rodney King uprising—she was working in South Central in an office at the time. They were pulling white people out of cars and beating them, was her first comment, I was terrified, she continues, that’s not the way to do things. I note that this was her primary thought about the entire phenomenon—her safety, the mass ‘they’, the centrality of white safety affixed within the narrative. Her husband, a Mexican-American Vietnam vet who wears a Raiders cap, recounts the racism he experienced growing up and some of the comments she and he received as a mixed-race couple in that era. Privately, I wonder about the inconsistencies and cognitive dissonance that compresses within the collapse of time. How quietly that must occur, how passively. “Look at all these trees”, he says, sweeping his hand in an arc across the grounds as we walk towards the truck, “and they think climate change?”
We spend several days prior to my uncle’s leaving running errands, sightseeing, visiting the county seat with its imposing courthouse and historic brick work, its grand churches, its archaic jailhouse, its ancient leafy trees sweeping over history. Walmart, which, incidentally, is removing all guns and ammo from its shelves in preparation for the coming election, feels like Covid HQ despite the warnings for masks. A man inquires about a price: ‘It’s worth something even if it’s nothing”, “just like people,” another man interjects.
There is the fear that the battleground state of Texas will turn in this election due to record early voter turnout—46 percent of registered voters have cast early ballots— a phenomenon more generally attributed to blue voters, but I count only three or four Biden/Harris signs planted in front yards in a blue and red sea of Trump 2020, Trump/Pence God and Family. That this state might turn will, I think, have a shattering effect on how it sees itself. It will not recognise itself. If it turns, there will be a significant reckoning with state identity and its emphasis on personal liberties and distrust of federal government intervention; there is not a prouder state than Texas and doubtless many will argue to cede at some point: it was, after all, once a Republic and that mentality holds.
There is the sense that the Lone Star State is excluded from the national statistics of the moment: a plague so ubiquitous and diffuse health officials can’t keep up; contact tracing all but abandoned. 230,000 dead, increasingly surpassing milestones—more than 1000 dead in one day, an average of more than 7000 cases a day, the highest number of hospitalisations since August. There is the depraved delusion and equivocation by a President openly predicting which is to say suggesting bedlam, intent on claiming re-election through lack of clarity, blatant corruption and ballot theft; sowing uncertainty and confusion until there is so much disinformation and competing narratives flooding the minds of a citizenry that truth becomes some archaic and naïve concept, reduced to a relativistic handmaiden to the catch-all fake news, a conversational red light frequently applied in my exchanges with people and is so debased and wielded with such conviction it strong-arms basic principles of logic and reason.
It is an administration hailed as one of the worst failures of leadership in history. Six million in poverty and millions jobless, cities preparing for civil unrest following the election result by boarding up stores days prior to the election. Here in Texas, there has been rampant corruption with ballot counting and cavalcades of armed Trump voters lining streets in trucks. Today, the day prior to the election, a federal judge rejected Republicans’ attempts to invalidate thousands of ballots cast through drive-in voting. In this state, Republicans are committed to limiting voting options in Democratic-led counties.
Regarding Covid, there is the sense of not if but when, regarding voting there is the understanding that one’s pen signature must be perfectly aligned to the most minor detail to that of one’s identification lest one’s vote be rejected, there is the acceptance that one must wait in line for hours to vote alongside citizens armed with guns, that this arcane voting system is at all normal in a nominally constitutional democracy by any measure; there is the sense it is perfectly standard to don a T-shirt emblazoned with Jo And The Ho Vote No—as though this isn’t indicative of an utterly depraved nature, of the collapse of basic discourse and decorum. And of course we know the great irony is that such flagrant disabuses of democracy the US has imposed on countless nations over decades have now been sanctioned here and it is no intermittent departure from basic norms but a new era and we should not be at all surprised by any of it.
We pass an older woman in a red T-shirt and white capris outside the county Republican party headquarters in humid heat waving a Keep America Great sign. We pass rows of fluttering Trump flags, a parked bus covered in various Trump-themed garb, circling turkey vultures, low plains, pine woods, civil war sites replete with solemn statues, Halloween garb adorning houses which further endows a macabre tone to the prevailing atmosphere, desolate towns with more churches than houses and set signs out front—Come On In, Jesus Isn’t Quarantined—Pregnant? We Need Foster Parents. I note how intrigued I once was with this particular culture so prevalent here, it was so strange a distortion and cultural tenor baked into the psyche of the nation that I wanted to consider it, arrive at some semblance of understanding, but now I am indifferent; it just feels sad; the last days of a great delusion where the people turn bitter.
Towns are silent, emptied, establishments closed permanently. A general store plays Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road and sells cups of coffee for five cents and bags of coffee beans labelled MAGA and Deplorables lines shelves. A blue Ford pick-up out front is filled with bright pumpkins. My uncle buys donuts at a drive-through which cost 49c apiece. We pass wide, empty streets lined with turn of the century houses, historic architecture, swampy bayou. Ranches spread across acres, their respective titles spelt out in iron cursive over manicured lawns. During these few days I am plagued with ill health and end up at an urgent care in Arkansas, a venture in money laundering where each benign procedure adds more to the bill already paid upfront and I am reminded how easily you can lose everything in a day in this country; that there is no net to catch you should one bill set you over the limit.
Back in Texas, we go to an outdoor flea market on rodeo grounds one crisp morning and sift through genuinely incredible wares that elsewhere would cost a fortune but here a few dollars. Men wear cowboy hats, Levis and boots; women puffer jackets and sneakers and we all regard one another in informal but apparent accordance with whom is masked and who is not. Almost unanimously Texans are friendly, warm and hospitable and Covid cannot be underestimated in accounting for the distinct difference in the ascendant tone of the moment from that of years prior. Regardless of how the pandemic is resolved, there will surely remain lingering traces of these shifting interactions; this inherent suspicion in the atmosphere. Many believe the pandemic will simply be endemic; a statistical inevitability and again, not if, but when. There is acceptance of that—and it’s difficult to argue against such resignation when you read account after account of those who did everything right and still succumbed to the illness.
One evening I have dinner across the road at Mickey and Ann’s house, along with the two former owners of my uncle’s house Joe, a charming vet originally from New Jersey, and his wife Pat, a spritely ex-dance teacher who tells me it took years before Joe would even acknowledge her presence, but she persisted and eventually managed to seduce him away from his girlfriend. Joe recently suffered a stroke and under Covid his recovery process has been slowed given the rehabilitation centre is closed. He’s frustrated and it’s excruciating to watch someone struggle with basic tasks, and I wonder how many more there are like him, whose various conditions will worsen when they could easily be improving. He tells me Pat once shot 12 water moccasin snakes, pervasive in the area, in a day—she has perfect aim, he remarks.
Mickey, in a cap with an American flag and black T-shirt with a decal of the flag alongside script reading I Will Never Apologise For Standing is loquacious and kind and is a man who does not romanticise his suffering though he could. I met him the first night here, while sitting with my uncle on the jetty as he fished at dusk. Mickey stopped to yell out for a chat. Around 60, he walks his dog several times a day, inches along with an elaborate cane. He talks at great length dragging out vowels in his Texan drawl. He and Ann live in a low wooden house replete with Trump flags and crosses and signs emblazoned with all kinds of phrases and are two of the most decent people I’ve met.
Mickey has pancreatic disease and thus has a restricted diet which incidentally mirrors my own—he bakes he and I fish, and had previously asked my uncle what I drank, rosé, a version of which they picked up at the store. Pat and Joe didn’t last long, nor did my uncle, who grew tired of Mickey’s extensive soliloquies. The three of us sat around their outdoor table lit with citronella coils for hours. Ann, who went to community college, taught children with learning disabilities at high school but after some year it grew too much, too hard on her, and her rolodex of stories are harrowing. She tells me of a group of teens at her school who murdered their piano teacher for cash—abducting her from her house, driving around for hours while she lay tied up in the trunk. Eventually they tied bricks to her feet and dumped her in the river.
We talk about art—years ago they went to Paris to visit the Louvre. She took an art history class in college and had always wanted to visit. Then, as now, Mickey had to use his cane to get around and they said they could not believe how accommodating, how kind everyone was in Paris. Several days later, she drops by with two large books on the history of art, and the complete collection at the Louvre and offers to take me to the farmer’s market seeing as I’m here, in the middle of nowhere, without a car.
Mickey, Indigenous-American, French and German is uniquely acquainted with grief and grew up riding bulls. At 18 he had an incident wherein the bull compressed him against the wall of a barn. Many years later, he began experiencing blinding headaches and blackouts both driving and while at work at the Coca-Cola bottling plant where he worked on the line for thirty years bottling the dark liquid. His doctor told him paralysis was inevitable without surgery, but the risk of surgery on the neck also entailed such a risk. He took the gamble, and ended up half-paralysed hence the cane. He too was undergoing rehab for walking previous to Covid, and misses it—his progress is regressing and it was also something he enjoyed.
There isn’t much to do. He told the doctors he would learn to walk again, he was convinced. The pancreatic diagnosis came after the surgery. He tells me about a workplace incident where the level of incompetency, negligence and corruption involving addressing the accident is astounding. Briefly, he was forced to see a workplace aligned doctor, who told him his mangled hand would improve, that it was merely bruised. In accordance with workplace regulation and lack of a union he wasn’t allowed to see his own doctor; part of the workplace agreement. His hand swelled to the size of a baseball mitt, and yet he was forced to continue working.
As it happened, the hand had also been infected through a small gash which made its way through to bone. When a private doctor finally saw Mickey’s hand he was shocked. Mickey went through a chain of complaints, and only found relief when the head of the presiding factory over his particular site heard what had occurred, and, wanting to avoid a hefty lawsuit paid him out, but really it was pittance. A while later, his daughter, in her 20’s, was diagnosed with cancer, and he and his ex-wife had to pay for her treatment, which sounds as though it cost him more than what he had.
Concurrently, she was going through a divorce, from a drone operator husband who, Mickey says, was so traumatised by the job it broke up their marriage. He was always strange, Ann remarks, to which he agrees, but confers that he had notably declined in that job, where each day he had no idea who he was killing, civilian or otherwise, or how many, from his little booth. He grew incredibly paranoid, Mickey comments, and he later found out the FBI had undertaken checks on their entire family.
Ann’s father was an artist and a cook at a state prison who taught prisoners how to butcher, so they might find work once released. A carefully rendered pencil portrait of him hangs in the kitchen, because he loved to cook, she tells me. I ask Mickey how the Trump administration’s policies square with his own history, how he feels about his life as a worker for a billion-dollar conglomerate. He tells me that the decline of manufacturing in Texas has been devastating, and of course he’s right. I’ve seen empty steel factories, and there was a substantial textile industry here, now gone. He agreed that his labour was used disproportionally in service of yielding huge amounts of profit for a select few.
But he is circumspect about such things. With Mickey, there is no need for tentative language around politics, and we talk for hours until he is too tired to continue. While I’m curious as to how he arrives at his particular voting decisions which seem at odds with his lived experience we both agree that at this point a vote for Biden amounts to a vote against Trump—for many here, Biden represents the loss of manufacturing and industry, and advancement of those policies that devastated their communities. They don’t support Trump’s racism, rhetoric nor political tactics but they’re willing to set that aside for such reasons and for those moral issues and overall few seem convinced that any outcome will deliver anything edifying.
I encounter similar topics again, a week later, while talking with a man here for a house viewing. He’s an hour early, and accompanying his friend who is the potential buyer. I’m on the porch playing with the cat in the afternoon sun. He approaches and we begin talking—I ask whether he’s from Texas, which is he is. Tall, broad, in an faded open shirt with a handsome face. He grew up here, and tells me that until fairly recently he and around 30 families lived in an area that they’d held on a year-by-year lease. The exorbitantly wealthy owner of a national sports team decided he wanted the land, and kicked them off. That’s legal? I asked. He said they’d fought it to the highest court, but they were up against too much money, and they lost and had to disperse around Texas.
Blinking in the sun he regards my face, my attire, and with his head askance asks where I live. I tell him Los Angeles, to which he immediately recoils and peers at me as though I’m ludicrously quixotic, asks whether I was “at those protests” and when I tell him I was, launches into a speech about looting, how “those people aren’t the ones who have lost anything”. I ask him what he thinks about intergenerational theft, but this point doesn’t land. A gun is a necessity, he comments, because if made illegal, they would still be in the possession of gangs, and so, stage mass break-ins, I suppose.
Yes, he would shoot anyone who broke into his home and I inquire as to what it is about property that ignites such a heated response. He asks whether I’ve had my home broken into, which I have, which apparently isn’t the answer he hoped for so we move on. Like many, he appears to have a fear of what he perceives as a new social order.
He continues with his grievances and this is a conversation I approach with caution because while he’s interesting and verbose and at times good-natured, there’s something not quite stable in his cadence, something sharp in his eye in a certain light. There is, predictably, a discussion on tax—again, surprisingly common in a state that eschews income tax— government theft, he declares. I ask him how he thinks hospitals, schools, roads ought to be paid for. “Have you seen the state of Texas roads?” he asks, I tell him I have, and that’s my point—which he scoffs at and transitions to the reasons why his taxes shouldn’t pay for someone else’s healthcare. I ask him whether he believes his health is only as good as those around him and he answers that he has healthcare.
We agree that Biden is no desirable candidate, and he softens. He tells me that he too loathes money hoarding capitalists and I tell him that my uncle thinks along many similar lines as he—that in fact, we disagree on almost everything—and yet we’re close. Ultimately I have to care less about what what he believes and more the blueprint for how he arrives at those beliefs, and that is how we can get along—for the most part. I ask him what it is about property, and theft, that engenders such an incendiary response, that I would genuinely like to hear the central logic. He tells me that growing up he was very poor, didn’t have much at all, and thus had to work for everything he had so it means a great deal to him. I wonder aloud whether that’s partly generational, and that with the invention of credit we lost something, the value of made things, we became abstracted from some idea of value and over time it grew distorted, manifest into myriad forms.
I don’t know whether there is any primacy in this thought but we continued and when the hour drew to a close he asked who I would vote for and when I answered he slowly shook his head, laughed with incredulity and told me he was “the guy who wants breadlines” and said “ok—we’re done”, and that was that and he was sure to check that I did not, indeed, live here in the neighbourhood and in any case, his friend didn’t buy the house but someone else has.