“Darlin,’” she said, “I’ll get that.  Go ahead and take it.”  She was a weathered-looking woman with mousy light brown hair drawn back in a bun and the plain, honest look of one of those faces you see in Depression-era photos from the Dust Bowl, faces that don’t smile—they are just themselves, making the best of circumstances as they are.  I was in a rundown convenience store attached to a truck stop near Huntsville, Texas, on a dreary, damp Saturday in February, trying to buy a Dr. Pepper with a credit card, since I was cash poor on a road trip.  The cashier lady couldn’t get the store’s new machine to read the chip.  A middle-aged black man in a battered old baseball cap was leaning against the wall opposite the counter, apparently a local just hanging around.  I looked over at him.  He grinned, and I saw lots of gold.  I told the lady that maybe I had some change in the truck, but she waved me off, “It’s all right, it’s all right.”  So I told her thanks, picked up the Dr. Pepper, and walked outside.

I was driving a big rental truck on my way to load up and haul furniture from a house in Houston—my wife and I were moving her sister—but I walked over to the pickup my wife was driving, making a cranking motion with my right hand, signaling her to roll down her window but forgetting that windows don’t get rolled down anymore.  A man out of his time.  She looked a little perplexed, then caught on and the window came down.  I explained my predicament and asked for a dollar, which she handed over to me.  Then I walked back inside.  The black guy with the cap was gazing off into the distance as if he were recalling a misspent youth, then he saw me and pulled up his friendly grin and put it on again, so I grinned back at him.  He nodded, slowly, faintly.  My grin had satisfied him.

The cashier lady was taking some money from a huge black man in khakis, work boots, and a massive, tent-like shirt.  She didn’t look over, so I gently picked up a stapler off the counter, slid the dollar under it, and started to walk out, when she caught me with the corner of her eye and, not looking at me, said, “I told ya I’d get it, Sweetie.”  I said that she was a very nice lady and walked out the door.

Thank God for weathered-looking cashier ladies working at Texas truck stops, ladies who call you “Sweetie” and “Darlin’.”  I had felt for a moment like I was home again.

In the parking lot, a truck driver was playing tug-of-war with a small yellow-haired dog.  The dog was pulling with all its might on a short length of rope the driver held.  I could hear the little dog’s low growl as it tensed up and pulled on the rope.  It was a friendly fight, like in an old John Ford movie.  It looked to me like the dog was having more fun than the man was, but it was hard to tell.  When I climbed up into the truck, the man whistled and motioned with his hand, and his dog raced to the man’s 18-wheeler and waited for him to open the door.  Some things never change.

We’d been driving down country roads to reach Huntsville, cutting over from College Station, passing through little dots in the road with lots of abandoned buildings, old houses, and churches, churches it seemed like every hundred yards or so: Church of the Nazarene, Church of Christ, Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, and Lutheran churches, a Pentecostal church with a hand-painted sign, and a church in an old building that seemed to be leaning a little with a big sign in front that read “Galilee Church of God in Christ.”  Some things haven’t quite gone away, and thank God for that.

We were heading into southeast Texas.  The landscape changed to pastures with sad-looking cattle, ringed by increasing numbers of pine trees.  Beyond were the East Texas piney woods, but we veered south from Huntsville, past the prisons lined with tall fences and barbed wire and the truck stops and the strip malls lining the highway, down I-45, past the giant statue of Sam Houston at the exit for Huntsville, Sam’s great head looking like that of an old Roman, albeit one dressed in 19th-century garb and toting a cane.  The tall pines rolled by, and I recalled my brief time in Huntsville forty years before, a time when you might see prison work gangs around the various penal units and along the highway, watched over by men on horseback armed with shotguns.  My father told me once about his attending the prison rodeo in Huntsville a long time ago.  An uncle of his was getting practice riding bulls on state time.  The rodeo eventually closed in the 1980’s.  I’d heard Johnny Cash once played at the prison rodeo.

Houston was just ahead.  It used to be my hometown, but it’s not now, and not just because I don’t live there anymore.  I can’t really detect any there there any longer, that any discernible cultural entity one could call “Houston,” named after the man himself, still exists.  Ugly strip malls and layers of concrete have consumed the city like a malevolent mass that has metastasized, rendering much of the place unrecognizable.  “Houston” left me and my parents as it steadily morphed into the kind of polyglot, multicultural mess neocons and neoliberals celebrate as the Diverse Glorious Future.  It appears to my eyes a sprawling, alien, and hostile post-American nightmare.  I guess I don’t appreciate Ethiopian, Thai, Indian, or you-name-it foreign cuisine—the lamest justification I can think of for the diversity-first crowd to celebrate the demise of an American city and the dissolution of real communities like the one I grew up in.  They’ve managed largely to replace us, and I know now (nobody is hiding it any longer) that that was the aim all along.

The last time we had been in Houston, arranging for the move, we talked to a little Indian man who was working at a truck-rental outlet.  He said he had previously worked as a welfare inspector, so I asked what he had inspected, and he told us: He was supposed to investigate Medicaid and food-stamp fraud.

I nodded at him.  Is that so?

Yes, it’s so—as a matter of fact, that’s all there was.  Fraud, he meant.  His supervisor told him he was investigating far too much.  He was told not to look so closely.  As a matter of plain fact, he was told, don’t really look at all.  Since he was an honest man, he quit.  And he landed at the truck-rental place, where he said another guy who worked there—a young guy, also from India, according to the little man—only wanted to work so many hours a week, not too much.

Is that so?

It’s so—it’s because he wants to keep up his qualification for food stamps.  The little man nodded knowingly, raised his eyebrows, and said, “And you know who is paying for that, yes?” and we both said, yes, we know.  And he nodded knowingly again.  I heard a police siren in the distance.

As we walked out, without feeling any personal hostility for that particular little Indian man, I thought that, as praiseworthy as his attitude was, an American could be holding down the job he had.  According to “conservatives” of a certain persuasion, he’s probably a better “American” than a lot of real Americans, since he’s “hard working” (he will work for less), and he’s for “welfare reform,” and, anyway, he’s not white, so there, we “true conservatives” are not “racists,” which is the worst thing anyone can be or be accused of, which is the same thing.

I walked away from the truck-rental establishment thinking about the equestrian bronze monument of Sam Houston in Houston’s Hermann Park.  It’s a statue of old Sam sitting on his horse, Saracen, arm outstretched, pointing toward the prairie near the San Jacinto River where the Texans defeated Santa Anna’s Mexican army, avenging the Alamo heroes and winning our independence.  I’d read that a pack of anti-American jackals were howling complaints about the statue, and I wondered how long the Hermann Park monument, at one time emblematic of the “Bayou City,” would stand—and how long we would stand for the hatred that’s continually spewed at us.  Maybe someday soon we might be referring to “the city formerly known as ‘Houston,’” since old Sam was a slaveholder and one-time protégé of Andrew Jackson, now nearly universally recognized as a Very Bad Man.  Of one thing I have no doubt: The people who are replacing us, even “nice” ones like the little Indian man, have no attachment to our history, to our symbols, to old Sam or to anything that he and the people who followed him built here.  America is just one big discount superstore for them, or a global jobs fair, not their one and only home.

A feeling of homelessness, of home sickness, really, came over me, a feeling I’ve had more than once, especially when I see again what I was seeing then.  We are losing our country.  It’s slipping away, and the slipping away has been so fast, so overwhelming, so disorienting, and so terrible to contemplate that many ordinary people tended to pretend that it wasn’t happening, like they couldn’t see the disappearance of America, of Texas, of Houston that was happening right in front of them.  Until recently, that is, when the election of Donald Trump signaled that America wasn’t done just yet.

As for the others, our homegrown anti-Americans, they are like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, people whose American bodies have been inhabited by alien souls.  Like the “true conservatives,” they are lost in a mire of abstraction and ideology.  They have no real home any longer, if they ever thought of themselves as having one at all.  When they screech “Treason!” (via “foreign interference”) at Trump for his alleged “collusion” with the Russians to “steal” the 2016 election, a storyline that grows more preposterous with every supposed “bombshell” revelation made in the “Russia probe,” I wonder just what the word foreign can possibly mean to people who think that anyone, anywhere can be an “American” by virtue of their good standing in an ideological and victimological pecking order.  What can treason mean to people, be they on the pseudo-right or the left, who want to erase American sovereignty, American borders, and, indeed, America as an historical entity, a real place, rather than an “idea”?  With that kind of thinking, “America” vanishes into the ether.  What can treason mean to a globalist?

We were late getting to our destination on the west side of town.  The two men we had hired to help load were there waiting for us.  Isaac was a short, thick-set black man with a shaved head and a big smile who called my wife “Miss Stacy.”  As it turned out, he wasn’t from Houston—Isaac lives in Cleveland, Texas, and drives all over to get work as a mover.  He also does handyman jobs and uses his work vehicle to make deliveries as well.  Isaac’s a busy guy.

He had a helper, a very quiet, younger black man, lanky, with a thin beard, named Chad.  My wife asked Isaac whether Chad was his son, and Isaac said no, not my son.  He paused.  “There’s some history between us.”  What history?  “Well, I used to be married to his sister.”  Uh huh.  Chad looked on pleasantly, not saying a word.  “Oh, he gets mad at me sometime, when I fuss at him, but we make up.”  Isaac smiled, and so did Chad.

Isaac needed some straps to cinch in the furniture once it was all loaded, and he advised us (or was it a warning?) that there was a “nicer” home-improvement store not too far off, but my wife and I drove over to a big “superstore” close by.  I could see what Isaac may have meant—there was a police car at the entrance, its lights on.  There were beggars at each corner of the parking lot, and the multicultural crowd at the “superstore” was living testimony to Dr. Putnam’s indicating, try as he might have to hide it, that “diversity” means the end of the “high trust” society—or of any coherent society at all.  The sights at the “superstore” were somewhat reminiscent of the famous bar scene from the original Star Wars movie.

We were late finishing up, but my wife and I decided to move on and head for College Station, where we spent a short night, rising the next morning to head north by northwest into North Central Texas.  Our unloading help at the cabin on my mother-in-law’s place (there’s a main house as well; her husband passed on a few years back) in Hamilton County was Paul, a friend of Gilbert’s, the man who keeps up the place for her—tending cattle, mending fences, whatever odd jobs need doing.  People here need work, and it’s apparently not uncommon for them to have more than one job.

I drove the truck over to a dilapidated old house that belonged to Gilbert.  Paul stays there on weekends.  Paul works in San Angelo during the week and, as he told me when I picked him up in the rain, he likes to stay busy.  He was wearing an old raincoat over his jeans, work boots, and a Western-style shirt.  He looked to me to be in his forties, though it was hard to tell.  His face was lined and had that weathered look like the woman in the convenience store.  He was short and stocky and had a thin, white beard.  His bright blue eyes were behind tinted, wraparound glasses and he wore a black Stetson hat that had seen better days, but sat comfortably on his balding head.

I gathered that he had no vehicle of his own.  “My boss drives me to work in San Angelo,” he said.  “Ever Friday I get home at night, and ever Monday we’re on the road early.”  The rain was coming down heavily.  I said it didn’t look like a good day for hauling furniture.  “It is what it is,” said Paul with a smile, and he noted, “We need the rain.”  I told him I had forgotten how dry it was down there.  He asked me where I was from, and I said that I lived in Keller these days, but had been raised in Houston.  I told him that it was time to get my sister-in-law out of there—it was no place for her anymore.  And Paul adopted a serious, thoughtful look, nodded in agreement, and said, “The Devil’s done took hold down there, and that’s for sure, yessir.”  I told him that she couldn’t make a life there, and Paul began praising Hamilton County as an improvement over the big city—something I don’t think any neocon or neoliberal would understand at all, no sir.  That ground was home to him.

We drove on in silence until I got to the gate to the property and crossed over the cattle guard.  “There’s the cabin,” I told him, pointing, and Paul just nodded and said, “Yessir.”  I honked to get the cattle to move out of the way, and Paul said they were good-looking stock.  He seemed to approve of them, nodding affirmatively as we drove past.  The cattle didn’t seem to mind either way.

We had more luck than sense that day—the rain let up, and Paul and I worked fast unloading the truck.  Some of the furniture was to go to a storage unit in Stephenville, so we had to sort that out.

Paul and I hauled out furniture and set it up in the cabin, not stopping much, just trying to get some help from my sister-in-law on what went where.  At one point, we were hauling in a couch, standing in the door while the ladies, my sister-in-law and my wife’s aunt, debated where it should go.  The narrow walkway outside the cabin was covered in some spots by rain water, cracked and muddy in others, the ground saturated, so we couldn’t set the couch down.  I sighed and looked over at Paul, who smiled a wide smile.  I said, “Patience, patience” in a half whisper, and the smile got a little wider still.

Two hours later, I pulled into a convenience store to gas up before heading to Stephenville over in Erath County.  Paul said he wanted a beer and a smoke, so I told him to go ahead.  I filled up the truck and watched Paul come out of the store carrying a tall beer can in a brown paper bag.  He stood on the sidewalk, tilted his hat back on his head, and lit up a Marlboro.  He gave me a half wave with his cigarette hand, like he was holding a wand.

I finished gassing up and waved him over to the truck.  He climbed in and popped the top on the beer can and took a sip, then let out a satisfied sigh.  “You like a beer yourself now and then?” he asked me, then he stopped himself and said, “I was thinkin’ you might want one—but you’re drivin’, so it’ll have to wait.”  I noticed that he rubbed his right arm from time to time.  An old injury?

As I pulled out of the parking lot, he took his hat off and propped it on his knee and began to talk about his life.  “Me and ol’ Gilbert, we was pretty wild in our younger days,” he said.  “Yessir, we was wild in them days.  Not no more though,” claimed Paul.  “I go to church on Sunday, work in San Angelo durin’ the week, and try to stay busy on weekends,” he said.  “Only beer now, no hard stuff.”  He rubbed his arm again.  He told me about a woman who worked at the store we just pulled away from—she was always flirting with him, he said, and today he gave it right back to her.  I looked over at him, and he grinned wide: “She said she finally got me to smile.”  And?  “Nothin’—I think she’s got a husband.”  And I said that sounded like trouble to me.  And Paul nodded and said he aimed to stay out of such trouble, seeing as how he had had plenty in his old life.  He and Gilbert had been trouble.  “I guess you could ask my ex about that,” he said, a trace of regret in his voice.

Paul was looking a bit wistful, I thought, and he added, “I got two daughters.”  He pulled his cellphone out of his jacket pocket and flipped through some pictures with his index finger.  I asked how old they were, and he said they were fourteen and twelve.  He held the phone up so I could see, and I told him they were pretty girls.  He pulled the phone back and just stared at the screen.  “They live in Arizona now, near Tucson, with my ex.”  Paul said he didn’t like that much—it was too close to the Mexican border for his taste.  “Them cartels kidnap pretty young girls, you know,” he said, and I told him I knew, and that I felt the same way since my younger daughter lived out there, too.  He told me how one of his girls was out with her aunt—someone he didn’t care for much—and damn if her car didn’t get hauled off and impounded for unpaid tickets, and them stuck out on the road someplace, and that being too close to the Mexican border.  He wasn’t happy about that, and I said I knew what he meant.

“I wanted to be a good daddy to my girls,” he said.  “Now I’ll just have to help them when I can.  I’d like it if they stayed away from their aunt.”  He said he would have to talk to his ex about that.  He flipped through the pictures again and showed me one of him and his ex in better days.  It was a thinner Paul with light-brown hair together with a young woman with the fresh country-girl face you see around there.  I didn’t know what to say, so I just smiled faintly and nodded.

I was straining in the loaded truck to keep up with my wife, and Paul said, “She’s got a heavy foot, don’t she?” and I said yes, she does.  Then I told him a story about how I had struggled to get my wife a gift—birthday, Christmas, you name it—that she really liked.  Sure, she had pretended to like some stuff I bought her—a watch, some jewelry, the usual kind of gifts you might think a woman would like—but I got lucky once when I got her something she really liked.  Silence.

“So what was that?” Paul asked.  And I told him: It was a radar detector.  He hooted with laughter and said, “I like her, yeah, she’s all right.”

The land was brown and gray, with rocky bluffs in the distance, dotted with mesquite, cedar, and oaks, and with prickly pear cacti and old tin buildings and forlorn windmills standing watch in the late winter breeze.

Paul talked about rodeoing a bit, pointing out where a calf-roping champion lived as we drove past, and he said he had gone to high school in Hico, but spent his childhood in Stephenville.  We pulled into town at a crossroads, and I told him we were close now.  He looked to his right and told me that his mother lived just down that road a ways.  Home again.  I felt a bit more at home, too, in a place that was still recognizably Texan and American, the people much like the ones I grew up around, my father and mother and their kinfolks, gathered in our modest little house my father built.  You can’t beat home.  And you can’t really replace it, not for anyone who has any real roots or sense of place.

We still had some heavy items to unload and some boxes as well.  I pulled into the lane in front of the storage unit, opened up the truck, and Paul and I got to it.  My wife was there, and she and her aunt talked about what went where.  I shrugged at Paul, grinned, and told him I was staying out of that, and he told me that was surely a wise decision.  We hauled chairs, tables, and odd boxes into the unit and Paul called Stacy “boss,” as in “Where ya want it, boss?”  He would set a chair or box down and ask, “Ya like that?”  I liked it just fine.

We finally got done, and I paid Paul, handing him his cash, and he said “Thank you, sir.”  He doffed his hat at the ladies, “And thank you.”  Stacy told him not to spend it all on beer, and I patted him on the shoulder and said, “You spend it on whatever you want.”  He seemed to like that.

Two nights later I was sitting upstairs in my home office, thinking of the house I grew up in.  The house is gone now.  So is the town.  I was listening to Jerry Jeff Walker singing his low, moaning, half-whispered prelude to “Wheel”:

If I took a rollin’ wheel

And rolled it ten times round

Would it travel far from here

Or would it just go round and around

I turned and looked out the window.  It was full dark, and I could just make out a fuzzy reflection in the glass.  Is it me?  Or is it Paul?