At dinner the night before their sightseeing excursion, and after half a frozen margarita, Alice had misspoken the next morning’s destination as the “Amalo.” Her husband, Lee Henry, said “that’s your sense of history,” and exhaled hard with a “hoooooo” sound. “Hate to think how’d you pronounce half the historical places we’ve been to.”
“Appomattox,” Alice replied with exaggerated care, her gray eyes cool, then took a quavery sip from her sloshing, too-heavy glass. “That’s probably the hardest one to say.”
“We never were at Appomattox.”
They’d dropped their gaze from each other then, and concentrated on navigating their nightmarish meals. A laconic girl called Crystal, her black hair streaked alarmingly with pink strands, had brought them piping-hot platters spread with pools of gravylike pinto beans hardening a deeper brown, oily corn tortillas filled with some red-sauced meat too spicy in odor to be safely edible, ominous rectangular items buried in melted yellow cheese, guacamole that Lee Henry devoured on corn chips, but that after one dip of fork tines from green mound into her mouth, Alice had abandoned entirely. Acceptable rice, thank goodness. On each of their plates, deeply puzzling the Thomases, sat a quartered lime about two-thirds smaller than a normal lime.
The restaurant’s patio held umbrella-shaded tables on the bank of the San Antonio River, landscaped concrete walkways on both sides, bars and restaurants, all sort of Spanish, reminding Alice of an old-timey movie set, as though consensus had determined a re-enactment of something quaintly festive. The trunk of a great big cottonwood next to their table was protected by a tiled planter. It must be so much older than all the buildings, Alice thought. Lee Henry watched for bands of young servicemen, discernible even in civilian clothes. He remembered. At intervals, flat motorized passenger barges nearly as wide as the canal glided by, almost close enough for Alice to touch. She waved a fluttery hand at the passengers every time. Somebody always waved back.
But it was so hot on that patio, and no stopping the flies. The Thomases had returned to their hotel room at the Palacio del Rio by seven-thirty. Indistinct crowd noise awoke Alice at a quarter to ten, and she went to the window and pulled the heavy drape. Below the Palacio del Rio, on the dark river, another barge was passing. There must have been a dinner table on it laid for, oh, twenty people, Alice guessed, hearing them laughing, and the put-put of the motor, a glass breaking, unsteady candlelight filtering up at Alice through tree branches, all amplified and warped for a moment as the boat passed under an old concrete footbridge, then all vanished around a bend. Alice felt she’d seen something she shouldn’t, but wouldn’t have chosen to miss. She stayed looking down at the funny little hemmed-in river for several minutes, hoping for another boat.
The next morning, she didn’t spot the Alamo right away as she and Lee Henry made slow time towards it across a broad flat bright stone square. Alice used to be be about three inches taller than Lee Henry but had shrunk down, and walked gingerly; she had a new knee, so her straw-visored eyes scanned for un-evenness in the paving stones.
There was quite a crowd, and no length to anybody’s shadow. Lee Henry thought: Mad Dogs and Englishmen, something something noonday sun. So hot at only a quarter of twelve. A majority of the people gathered appeared Mexican. Where would they be visiting from? Henry wondered. Why would Mexico-Mexicans visit the Alamo? And the San Antonio Mexicans, why weren’t they ashamed to have lost here? Do they not know the story, the battle? He puzzled over this, and startled with sudden shame. They’d won, actually, the Mexicans. At the Alamo, they’d won. It was another battle they lost. But they’d lost everything, then.
Old men sold sno-cones from pushcarts. Lee Henry wished Alice could walk with him as she used to, to get past them faster, these old men, older than they, still working jobs. Sticky children and their parents ate these sno-cones and other things under the shade of a gigantic live oak, or in a gazebo. Babies screamed from their strollers in the heat, while yet more clumped families in unbecoming shorts ambled over from the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum across the street.
Lee Henry’d brought his camera from Athens, the new digital kind that Amy had gotten him for Father’s Day a month ago. He’d spent four days dedicated to learning how to use the damn thing. Now, though, Lee Henry’s idea of photographing himself and Alice in front of the Alamo struck him as mysteriously cheap. And who’d you hand your camera to, anyway, who wouldn’t run off with it?
Alice, finally looking up, squeezed Lee Henry’s arm and chirped, “Why, now, there it is!”
As though Lee Henry hadn’t seen from the beginning, hadn’t already had his heart broken. They’d gone and mis-re-built it somehow, set it amid encroaching hotels and cheap curio shops, all wrong. Lee Henry had always imagined the Alamo as squatting massive and austere, its defiant gaze cast over a desert, mournful-like, its perfect shadow slicing red dust, walls a garland of prickly pear and, Lee Henry realized, dead Mexican soldiers in blue Napoleonic uniforms. That’s part of what was missing. Also other, live Mexican soldiers fixing their smooth-bore muskets at the… Lee Henry squinted up against the white sun at the flat-faced buiding. Where would the Defenders have stood? Davy Crockett, James Bowie, Whatsit Travis, and Lee Henry’s very own great-grandmother’s brothers: Asa and Jacob Walker, of Rockridge County, Tennessee. A lifetime of imagining Asa and Jacob, nearly-identical in their buckskins, bayonetting to the last, and now he couldn’t place them. The roof was sloped, and new; they couldn’t have hunkered down up there. Lee Henry believed that the walls the Texians had defended had been high-up, second-story like, and hard to scale; where would they have been?
Alice Thomas didn’t mind Alamo Square, though; indeed, found herself touched by the human scale of this historic mission, and the families enjoying themselves, the regular everyday people walking by on their lunch break, maybe. She sang in a high hoot, swinging Lee Henry’s hand,
“Across the alley from the A-lamo, lived a pinto pony and a Na-vajo—”
He tugged her along. She giggled.
“But isn’t it funny to think of all those men fighting and dying for that little old thing?” she asked.
Lee Henry customarily enjoyed Alice’s companionship on their vacations together. She charmed him with her gift for enjoying herself, her unfailing politeness, how she’d lean against him, wearing her newest dress, while he’d explain to her about the volume of Niagara Falls with its mist kissing their faces, or the complex maneuvers of the Second Manassas while the sun set on her hair. But Alice had always seemed happy to go anywhere —history was just a dead thing, or divergent, inessential. Lee Henry always knew it, too. Knew he was a beloved obstacle to the orderly and present-day conveyor belt of thought that made up Alice’s mind.
Finally, clutching hands as they stepped through the arched doorway, and panting a little, the Thomases ventured into the refreshing semi-darkness of the Alamo. The doorway opened into a sort of chapel, with a vestibule, and a short, barrel-ceilinged hall, all of sand-colored limestone. There was an improbable, if attractive, electrical wrought-iron chandelier above them. Plaques, flags and wreaths were placed ahead where the chapel’s altar would be. Lee Henry was conscious of a cool, profound relief; the embrace of the historical, and the air conditioning, and man-made light, and the soft echo of visitors who spoke in stage whispers.
“This is lovely,” Alice said. “It’s not at all what I expected.” She made her halting way to where the flags were, and bent to examine the wreaths of flowers in their stands. Lee Henry set about the perimeter, glided his shaky fingers across promising holes in the walls, recoiled at graffiti etched into the soft stone, peered at the glassed-over cases full of maps and pistols, espied with pleasure that some of the explanatory plaques, verdigris-tinged, seemed older than he did. This was all proper and correct. Whatever happened outside the Alamo, this grave quiet space held court here forever, however small.
Lee Henry had always wanted to feel something of the Walkers, to touch some tangible history in his living life. It was hard to explain. It was near impossible to explain to Alice. He’d seen mimeographs of Walker letters, the handwriting over-stroked and hard to read, and none of them about the Alamo, but about mundane things like crops and livestock purchases. As a boy, he’d seen a miniature painted portrait of both, a lens-like glass oval of young men, set in a tiny, tooled leather box. He’d even bestowed upon his only son, now forty-seven, their names — all their names. He called the boy Jacob Asa Walker Thomas. Lee Henry’s firstborn. He had even given up a possible Lee Henry Junior, that’s how strong he felt about the Walkers. He would have liked to make Jacob and Asa know it, somehow. And maybe he could: Asa and Jacob Walker had surely stood where Lee Henry now stood, facing with steely, inheritable character the specter of certain death, as they readied their weapons in the cool of the…morning?
“I’m heading over to the gift shop,” Alice whispered, suddenly very close.
“What?” said Lee Henry, though he had heard her.
“The gift shop. It’s out the back way. There’s a nice garden out there, too. I wonder if they don’t have those little Mexican girl dolls like they had in Santa Fe that time. I’ll bet you that Hunter and Shelby would just love one of those little Mexican dolls, with the braids?”
Lee Henry stared through her, not not-listening. Or not deliberately. Alice sighed. She patted Lee Henry’s chest, and made a half-laugh.
“Well, I’ll go-on and go, and you come find me.”
He was alone in this mission. He had hoped Alice might take special interest in this landmark sacred to his mother’s family. Jacob and Asa Walker had made their way to the West, and now he had retraced their steps. By car, but pulled by fellow-feeling and destiny in their direction. Lee Henry knew that Alice had made allowances to come to Texas: she would have just as soon have gone to Louisville again. But that the Alamo held no more allure to Lee Henry’s wife than any historical marker he pulled off the interstate to take proper note of, bruised him. This hushed and reverent place where, if there were ghosts, there’d be so many and of such importance — she’d like an aquarium just as well. And while Lee Henry had no idea what the hell dolls Alice was talking about, Amy’s girls were twelve and fourteen now. Even Lee Henry knew his granddaughters were past dolls. Long past.
But Alice loved gift shops. She particularly liked buying gifts from the shops in museums. Back in Athens, she had a desk drawer with a folded-up canvas tote bag from the Spartanburg Art Museum, a blue-and-red spherical Murano glass paperweight she’d picked up at the National Gallery, and a commemorative enamel pen from the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum in Savannah, all wrapped and at the ready just in case somebody’s birthday crept up on her.
Alice liked the gift shop at the Alamo very much. It was housed in a spacious stone structure with another high barrel-ceiling, a very handsome architectual detail that Alice looked forward to describing to Amy, and surely it used to hold something useful, too, in olden times. Grain, horses. And the Alamo gift shop’s selection of merchandise was particularly funny. Scorpion lollipops! And “Texas-sized” this and that; a giant pencil, a hugely outsize pair of sunglasses, a monstrous flyswatter. Plastic guns and plastic knives and plastic army men and plastic… dinosaurs? Davy Crockett faux-fur hats with real raccoon tails. It had been just forever since Alice had seen anybody wear one of those, and she racked the photo album of brain, seeking a little boy for whom she might purchase it. Alice always ignored t-shirts, as the images and tag phrases thereupon increasingly proved either vulgar, or incomprehensible. One in this shop had read, “Texas Women: the Best-Kept Secret in the South.”
How could that be? Alice thought. Why would they be kept a secret in the South?
A middle-aged light brown lady with her thick ponytail in a white cotton scrunchie and a red gingham smock materialized near the racks of t-shirts and said to Alice, “Ma’am, these t-shirts all in here are 40% off.” She patted one with a photo of bluebonnets on it and smiled. “These right here.”
“Oh, I hardly ever buy t-shirts,” Alice heard herself explaining. She hoped she didn’t sound judgmental. If she did, the gift shop lady, whose nametag said “Dolores,” didn’t let on.
“Where are y’all visiting from?”
“Oh! I hear it’s real green up that way. Real purty. Wish y’all would send us some of that rain.”
“I wish we could!”
Both women laughed a little longer and louder than they otherwise would have. Amy would say that they were glad to have “made a connection.” Dolores observed that there seemed to be an Athens, Everywhere. There was an Athens, Texas, she said, but allowed as to how most of the people from Athens she met in the gift shop were from Georgia. Dolores always enjoyed meeting all the different vistors in the gift shop, she said. Often people would ask her where the basement was. Alice couldn’t fathom why people would ask that.
“It makes no sense whatsoever. They have basements up North,” Alice stated, with conviction.
Dolores admitted that her son had told her — several times — why people would ask about the basement, but it was something silly from TV and Dolores always forgot.
Alice told Dolores that she and her husband, “he’s still in the museum,” had been to Athens, Georgia, and to Athens, Alabama, but never to Greece, because Lee Henry didn’t like to fly.
Dolores’s husband’s family lived in Piedras Negras, just across the border, three hours away, on the Mexican side of the river.
“Oh!” Alice said, uncertainly. “Do you often go visit?”
“Girl, not anymore,” Dolores said, mysteriously. Alice wasn’t sure what she meant. Was this woman afraid of Mexicans? Was her husband’s family all dead?
There was a pause, then, and both women ran their hands over things; Dolores straightened the t-shirts, and Alice fondled a child’s Indian headdress of dyed feathers.
Finally Alice asked, “Why are Texas women the best-kept secret in the South?”
Dolores cocked her head, and smiled attentively. Her teeth were very good.
“Well, I don’t know! Why?” she said.
Alice stood for several seconds. “Oh! I just meant… one of those shirts…”
“…You know, you’re right,” said Dolores, remembering. “I never have understood that one either.”
Instead of finding the Alamo’s rear exit, Lee Henry stumbled back out the front door, and was immediately sunblinded. There was no garden.
“Dammit!” Lee Henry said, a half-gurgle. It was so hot, so hot he could barely catch his breath. More sweat than he ever knew he had came pouring down him, even squishy in his shoes. I’ll make it over to the bench by that tree there, he thought, and sit down. I’ll buy a cold drink in a minute. Waves of shimmering heat rose from the stone and cement plaza, making it hard to tell how far away the tree was.
Alice had decided to buy a Davy Crockett coonskin cap for Cody, the boy who mowed the Thomas’s lawn. Alice thought he must be twelve or so. Although, she reflected, he drove a pickup truck. Dolores wrapped the hat in hissing tissue paper, and was saying, “We do sell an awful lot of these,” when both women heard the sirens.
Sarah Fisch lives in San Antonio, TX, where she writes about arts and culture for the San Antonio Current. Her writing has also appeared in McSweeney’s.