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Al Pennyback travels to East Texas to help a cousin who has received an offer to buy some of his land. There are two problems:  the land is worthless despite the buyer offering a hundred thousand dollars for it, and his neighbor strongly objects to him selling it--for reasons he can't determine. The more Al learns about the two situations, the more confused he becomes. The more he pries into it, the more he antagonizes someone who just might kill him to stop him from learning the truth.


The highway sang beneath my tires.

     I, however, did not feel like singing. What I felt like was doing a U-turn, going back to the George Bush Intercontinental Airport on the north side of Houston, and catching the first flight back to Washington. Sure, I was more than halfway to my destination, but it was only a two-hour drive back to Houston down U.S. 59; and significantly less than that to the airport.

     My memories of this highway were mixed. I vaguely recalled being piled in the back of our old Ford station wagon for the five hour drive from our little town in Shelby County, hard by the Louisiana state line and more Cajun than Texas, to Houston, which was, in the 1960s the biggest city in Texas, but not yet the fourth largest city in the United States, and except for Third Ward which was the predominantly black section of the city, not all that hospitable or welcoming to people of color, but was nonetheless friendlier than Shelby County or any town in Louisiana. Back then, the high buildings, constant traffic and concrete sidewalks were a novelty to a kid accustomed to one- and two-story buildings and dirt roads, and my mom liked to shop at the big stores like Dillards, even though, just as they did in Shelby County, she had to wait for white customers to be served first.

     “If I have to wait, I should at least be able to buy first-class merchandise,” she always said. And, that was true. The little clothing store in our town sold dresses that looked like they’d gone out of style when Woodrow Wilson was president.

     In 2003, Houston had changed. Now, officially the fourth largest city in the country, after gobbling up many of the small towns encircling it, and with two beltways, the outer one large enough to include Washington, DC and Baltimore, people of color could live anywhere in the city they pleased, and no longer had to wait to be served in department stores. Unlike the rest of Texas, which was controlled by Republicans, Houston was a stronghold of Democrats, and now they weren’t the ones wearing white sheets and burning crosses like they’d been when I was a kid.

     In other words, it was almost a nice place to visit. Unless it’s where you came from, or near where you came from. Then, as a cousin of mine whose name I can never remember always said, “The best view of Houston, or anywhere else in Texas, for that matter, is the one in your rearview mirror as you’re leaving.” According to him, there were only two kinds of Texans, regardless of their color; the ones who never left, and the ones who never came back.

     When I graduated from high school and, against my mother’s wishes, joined the army instead of going off to Prairie View College on the valedictorian scholarship I’d been offered, I vowed to be in the second category. When my parents were swept away in a hurricane that hit the coast south of Galveston while they were visiting a relative who had a house on the ‘colored’ section of the beach, I’d broken that vow to attend the memorial service. Their bodies were never recovered, so there were no ‘graves’ to visit, and when the service was over, I jumped in my rented car and left, again vowing never to return.

     I’d broken that vow a second time a few years back when a distant relative left me some property just north of Houston, and I’d had to personally present myself to the court to settle the estate. During that visit, I’d gotten caught up in a murder case that, fortunately, turned out okay, got the property settled, and when I settled back in my seat on the plane flying me back to DC, thought I was finally done with the place.

     It was not to be. Family came first; even distant relatives that you could barely remember had a call on you. When they asked for help, you helped. Wherever you were, unless it was in the middle of a war zone in the middle of a battle, you dropped what you were doing and came to their aid. That’s just the way I was raised.

     Winston Jones, first or second cousin on my mother’s side of the family, I could never figure it out, had to be in his late seventies by my reckoning. He lived in the little town of Poseyville, near the intersection of US Highways 59 and 69, southwest of the town of Diboll. Diboll is a town of less than 6,000, and is in Angelina County, while Poseyville has about 1,200 inhabitants and is in Coquilla County. So, while the county government authorities responsible for things in Poseyville are in the Coquilla county seat, Jacksonville, they’re closer to Diboll, so except for the sheriff, who has no jurisdiction outside the county where voters have elected him, they get most everything from Diboll. If that sounds confusing, it is, but then, almost everything about Texas outside the big cities is confusing unless you live there, and then, that’s just the way it is. In Winston’s case, though, it was this geographic and jurisdictional conundrum that motivated him to look my phone number up and call me.

     When Heather, my partner, who also handles incoming phone calls—a holdover from being originally hired as my secretary and administrative assistant, and the fact that she’s a hell of a lot better on the phone than me—informed me that my Cousin Winston Jones from Texas was on the line, my response was all too predictable.

     “Hang up on him,” I said. “I don’t know anyone named Winston Jones.”

     In my defense, the name, when she said, rang no bells at all, but then, in rural Texas, just about everyone is everyone else’s cousin. At the memorial service for my parents nearly 300 people came and half of them introduced themselves to me as a cousin.

     “Come on Al,” she said. “That would be rude. Besides, he said you probably wouldn’t remember him.”

     “Well, he got that part right. What does he want?”

     “He wants to speak to you. He says it’s family business.”

     “Ask him to prove he’s my cousin.”

     She made a snorting sound over the intercom. “How am I supposed to do that?”

     “Hey,” I said. “You’re now a hotshot private eye like me, you figure it out.”

     With an unladylike growl, she broke the connection. A few seconds later, the machine made a warbling sound. I answered.

     “Okay, smart ass,” she said. “He said your mother had a friend named Aletha, and the two of them used to play dress up like English princesses.”

     That brought me up short. I remembered my mother telling that story when I was little, and my father ribbing her about two little black girls in rural East Texas pretending to be white English royalty. It had been a story told only inside the family, so whoever was on the phone, if not related, had been close enough to have heard it.

     “Put him through,” I said.

     There was a crackle, a kind of ‘zzt!’ sound, and a click, and then a gravelly voice, “Hello, anybody there . . . hello.”

     “Al Pennyback here,” I said. “To whom am I speaking?”

     “Oh, hey, I ain’t been cut off,” the voice said. “This here’s Winston Jones, Cousin Winston, is you little Al?”

     “There is nothing little about me, sir, and I’m afraid I don’t recall having a cousin by the name of Winston Jones.”

     A long pause left me expecting to hear a dial tone indicating he’d hung up, but then his voice came back on the line.

     “Aw, I see. Last time I saw you, I reckon you was ‘bout ten or so. You pro’bly remember me as Cousin Wide Body.”  

     Then it all came rushing back into my mind. Wide Body. The cousin everyone snickered at behind their hands because he was so big. To ten-year-old me, he was like a man mountain. His shoulders were so wide he had to turn sideways to enter our living room. He had arms and legs like tree trunks, and hands so big one of them could engulf your entire head. I remember my mother stage whispering to my father that Wide Body . . . Winston . . . weighed at least 300 pounds, and at that time he was somewhere in his mid-twenties.

     “Ah, yes, Cousin Wide, er Cousin Winston, I remember you. My partner said you wanted to discuss family business; what’s the business?”

     His response was vague; something about an oil company and a neighbor trying to evict him from his property, a modest-sized farm outside the town of Poseyville, and him getting no help from local authorities. He’d read in some magazine, or seen something on TV—I didn’t get that part clearly—about this detective, Al Pennyback, in Washington, DC, who helped people in need, and he’d wondered if that was his little cousin, so he’d had his daughter track down my phone number and called me. I’m not great on getting things out of people over the phone, which is why I usually let Heather deal with that aspect of our business, so when Cousin Winston asked if I could come to Texas and help him out of a pickle, I thought about it for all of thirty seconds before agreeing.

     Now, as I got farther and farther away from Houston, into an area where low, wood-frame houses sat hunkered down among trash-littered yards beside the road, I was beginning to question the wisdom of my decision. A nasally voice came over the rental car’s radio singing a song enjoining mamas not to let their babies pick guitars or drive old trucks, advice that was apparently completely ignored by the mothers in East Texas, because there were two old pickups to every other kind of car on U.S. 59, almost all of them with gun racks and being driven by crusty looking characters wearing battered Stetsons. The main livelihoods of the people of East Texas, at least when I was a kid growing up there, was farming, cotton, sugar cane, and melons; the lumber industry, mostly converting the local evergreens to pulp for the paper industry; and livestock, mainly chickens and dairy cows. That didn’t stop every man, woman, and child, black, white, or Mexican, in the area of thinking of themselves as cowboys.

     In his book, You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe wrote, ‘Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same.’ Driving through countryside that in 2003 looked depressingly the way it had looked in the 1960s as I peered at it through the grimy window of a Greyhound bus taking me out of the state to start army basic training, I felt that Wolfe, who was born in North Carolina, but spent most of his time in the northeast, mainly Boston and New York City, had been writing about East Texas. After more than 40 years, I had the feeling that I could find my way around without a map or asking directions, because nothing seemed to have changed.

     Doubts were beginning to creep in.

     But, I wouldn’t turn around. Family was in trouble, and Al Pennyback never leaves family or friend in the lurch.



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