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The tattoo caught my eye. A fairly reasonable rendition of the Alamo, in faithful colors, along one forearm, left arm. He had on tan pants, and in the twilight, it was later revealed, these were khakis. Dirty, or dusty anyway, from yard work. Landscaping, first guess. His unruly black hair, brown, maybe, looked like barber school hair cut, maybe a bowl cut, at one time, short with a long shock hanging over his right eye. Eyes were blue but did not twinkle in the evening’s haze.

His other arm had more ink, mostly of the prison-yard variety, India ink, maybe just an old ball-point pen, heated up with a torch, dug into the flesh, blobs and shapes supposed to be wheels and angels, or a devil, crosses and barbwire-wrapped hearts. Probably not really prison ink, but he did have twin nautical stars behind his ears, barely visible. Men without hats.

Sitting on a bench, outside the Salvation Army in North Austin. A few errant bats taking wing, chasing invisible dinner, hunting with radar. It’s an Austin thing.

“I’m from Refugio,” he said, almost to no one.

Addressing the dark, on the bench. He flipped open a cell phone, looked at the lights, maybe noted the time, or saw that no one called.

“Grew up there. Half hour away, go south east, there’s the bay and the coast. Beer. Babes in bikinis. Soft sand to frolic on. Yeah, right.

“Spring break was more work and hoping that stupid college kids would leave some of tip instead of hot sex on the beach. Don’t let it fool you.”

He called it “Roof FAIR eh-oh.” Pronounced it with a proper Spanish pronunciation.

At well over six-foot, he’s tall. Built out and bulked up, but carries himself with an ease, as if he knows his body well. It’s not steroid muscles, and it’s not a tanning booth shade of brown. It’s not from a gym membership.

“Grew up around Mexicans, all there is, swore I would leave as soon as I could.”

There should be a sigh to punctuate his monologue. There isn’t. Dirty white t-shirt, covered by plaid flannel shirt, sleeves rolled up well-past the elbow. Not sinewy arms by any stretch. Strong, muscles, but not sculpted and toned.

“You would think,” he says, flips open his phone again, pausing, “you would think, that in Austin, I’d escape what I grew up with.” He snaps his phone shut, either anticipating a call, or unhappy with the display’s message.

“I was big in school, which was okay, damn near a foot taller than most of the other kids, but I didn’t like playing ball, mean little bastards, all had something to prove.

“Me? I don’t got nothing to prove to no one. Period. No sir, I’m happy. Happy to be out of there. I waited, you know, I worked at that Quick-Mart, it’s now a Speedy-Mart, right there on the highway through town. All through high school. Worked there.

“Soon as I got my paper, I headed up here. Worked at Dell before the last round of lay-offs. That was easy money. Sucked since then; can’t catch a break.

“You know what it was like to grow up there? Small town. Small town bullshit.”

He turns his phone over in his hands, a nervous energy that needs direction. He looked over.

“Small town like that? Everyone is up in your grill. No matter what. Knows what I did before I did it. Or even if I did it. Or not. Even.

“You like that? The Alamo? Did you see the whole picture?”

The very last sentence carries an extra emphasis on it. Added weight. The image, there’s a miniature caricature of an old-school Atom Bomb, a tiny, detailed Fat Boy. The image evokes memories of the Cold War and its threat of imminent world destruction.

“See that? Blow up the Alamo. I just want out of here.

“I hated it. Only half an hour to paradise, that’s what they would say, go the beach. Sure.

“There’s a refinery, just a couple of miles out of town, the other way. Have you ever seen what one of those looks like, all lit up at night? Especially with the flares burning off the bad gas, the sulfur smell?

“Half hour to the coast, yeah, right. Ten minutes to hell.”

He flips his phone around, it slides down from his hand, and he catches it against his thigh, a small cloud of dust seems to grow out of the place where he slaps his pants to catch it.

“The funny thing is, see, that tattoo, the bomb, the Alamo, everything? See? The mexicans, they all like it. Where I work, they all like me.”

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  • “khaki” is a Hindi/Urdu word (from the Persian) meaning “dust” or “dusty”. Khaki uniforms adopted by the British in India in the mid-19th century. Now you know. Aren’t you glad?

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