For years now, when the sun gets hot and the middle of the month approaches, my dad asks me the same old question. “It’s about time for reading meters. You want to help?”
I don’t always answer yes, depending on what else is going on, but I like to when I can. And it always starts the same way. Early in the morning, when the sky is still grey, the harsh beeping of an alarm or the loud bark of my dad’s voice will jerk me out of a peaceful sleep. Groggy and liable to snap, I grunt my way out of bed and stumble around in search of clothes.
Next I thump down the stairs, where Dad tells me I should eat breakfast, and depending on how fuzzy my mouth feels, I shrug off the advice. He also recommends I fill a water bottle. After a few years, I started listening.
Mt. Enterprise is a little town of about five hundred souls somewhere just across the Rusk county line. Ancient houses and chicken farms radiate out from it like cattle wandering from an untended herd. And after enough hot days in those pastures and woods, I know a thing or two about wandering cattle.
The first hour or so is always the most picturesque. It’s a bit cool, and the dew is still on the grass. This means I get soaked to the bone as I struggle through the weeds after misplaced water meters, but it also means everything feels new and fresh. Thankfully, the first route is usually on the highway headed into town, so a fair number of lawns are well-clipped and thorns and bullnettle aren’t much of a problem.
Reading meters is a simple task, and it starts to take on its own rhythm. The truck moves and then stops. My eyes scan the ground for the nearest square of black plastic or rough concrete. By now each house is familiar and I hardly have to look. There are new buildings though, and sometimes I have to ask Dad where the additions are. Then I walk to the box, bend over or squat, remove the lid and let a series of numbers slip into my head for just long enough to walk back to the truck and rattle them out. My dad takes them down, and we move on to the next meter.
As the day winds on and the sun lifts itself above the tree line, we follow farm to market roads out in every direction. None of the houses flanking the roadsides or the little trailers hidden around curving blacktop corners really deserve the title “ranch.” Their acres certainly count as more than a subsistence farm, and they have more cattle than I would know what to do with, but they are neither vast nor opulent, and few hired hands, if any, count themselves authentic cowboys.
Ducking through barbed wire is fun enough, as is staring down cattle, but that’s not the exciting part of reading meters. That gold medal belongs to the dogs. Most houses have them, especially out of town, and some have several. Though they are occasionally fenced in, virtually none sport leashes. They are free to roam, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I say this as the stranger who invades their territory on a regular basis.
Most dogs are polite, if not friendly. They may grow nervous or bark a little, but only a very few snap to rigid attention and let loose a low, rumbling warning growl. My dad knows which ones these are, and we have the pepper spray to deal with them, if necessary. Then there is the occasional pooch that knows no stranger. Curious and friendly, they walk right up without saying a word and promptly sniff my by now filthy shins. I give these a scratch behind the ears and move on. And I talk to them all.
As the rhythm pounds on and the sun climbs higher, it begins to get hot on top of the humidity, and the sticky thorns and leaves become less tolerable. Some boxes are filled with bees or ants, and others have dirt or water covering up the meter. Occasionally someone is startled by the stranger in their yard. More often than not these folks give a friendly wave and make some variety of small talk. But sometimes a young black lady will look very concerned as I explain just what exactly I’m doing there.
There are, of course, the notorious stops. An enormous, impenetrable thicket surrounded by cars, farm equipment, old couches, and pieces of carpeting has the potential for being the world’s worst snake pit. And I can never remember quite where in the cane and saplings the meter is hiding.
Then, of course, there’s the old Nam veteran, whose chain link fence is topped with barbwire and supplemented a low-lying line of steel that I can testify is very effective at tripping intruders. The gate is barred and has a good three or four locks for which we have the keys. Once I get past there and beyond all the signs about invisible dogs, mysterious cameras, and the holy wrath which has never come down upon our heads, I go to the corner of the quiet lot and read the meter. Nothing much ever happens at that house, but I’m always expecting it to.
We push ourselves hard, and get the meters read quicker than my dad usually predicts. Partway through the day, usually at some point after noon, we stop for a bite to eat. This is probably my favorite part of the day. Sweaty as a jogger in the swamps in high summer, and covered in dirt, scratches, and bug bites, I get to sit down in a cushy chair in the air conditioning and eat some food.
Our usual place, just about the only place, is a Mexican restaurant. Before we make it across the threshold, the owners have recognized my dad and started fixing his sweet tea. I’m a stranger in Mt. Enterprise, a long time observer, but never a participant in the mysteries of the little community. Ergo, I have to remind them that I will have a Dr. Pepper. It’s a tiny little hole in the wall, fairly clean but not showy. There’s a television in the corner with Mexican game shows or Spanish soaps. I can catch half of every fifth sentence, and it amuses me greatly.
By the time the salsa is gone and my miraculous apparition of holy shrimp in enchilada form touches the table, a diner or two has joined us. My dad knows them all, and they know him. Some of them recognize me, having watched me grow up one summer at a time. One of them is a gunsmith. That’s not his job, it’s his vocation. He works at some plant or another, but fixes up all sorts of rifles, pistols, and shotguns in his free time. He reloads shells, too, and lets us use his firing range. One of these days I will use his name often enough to remember it.
When lunch is over and my stomach is filled to bursting, we hit the road again. Back before the meter books went digital, there were four of them. We split them up into two or three days, and worked through them one by one. The lines are fuzzier now, but there are still routes. Doing them after lunch makes me slow and lethargic in the summer heat, but once we get to the in-town routes I’m moving often enough that there’s no fear of nodding off. These are less pretty than the countryside scenery, but sometimes more entertaining. People are funny, and there houses reveal a lot of that.
Not every meter belongs to a house. Some belong to gas stations or churches (the East Texas Baptist Convention has a building across from the Missionary Baptists). There’s a fire department, and the Mexican restaurant. The high school’s meter box has a big metal cover with a little lip underneath that keeps it from coming off right. It’s a chore, but I enjoy going through that side of town.
When all is said and done, I’ve learned a good bit about Mt. Enterprise that the locals might never know. I’ve seen every nook and cranny. I know which dilapidated shacks are inhabited and which are not. I’ve seen the inside of pump stations and know how to tell whether a leak is the water company’s responsibility. I’ve crouched beside the corners of every business in the area and spoken reassuringly to every dog, from the smallest yipper to the biggest, meanest elkhound. Sometimes I even know who’s struggling financially.
But all that aside, I really know very little. The names on the mailboxes filed away in my memory have no faces attached, and no stories. The high school has a team, but I don’t know how they’re doing. The businesses have owners who know me on sight as John Henry’s boy, but I couldn’t tell you one thing about them. I’m an observer, an outsider looking in. This small town has plenty of memories that tug at my heartstrings, but I am not a part of it so much as it is a part of me.
My dad has other towns these days. Murvall, South Murvall, Lake Murvall, or some other Murvall. I’m not sure which. That’s a town I’ve never seen. He’s picked up Sacul, too. It has three churches and a restaurant that’s been voted the best mom-and-pop place to eat at in the state by Texas Monthly. There are one hundred and fifty people, one water tower, and a half-dozen bridges across one of the creeks that feeds into the Angelina. I don’t know it half as well as I do Mt. Enterprise, but I guarantee you it does not know me.
Some people spend their lives escaping small towns. I’ve spent my life observing them. I grew up eventually, and did move away. But I didn’t move away to escape them. I moved away to mature, to work the stupid out, and the arrogance, and the dissatisfaction. I moved out so that when I came back, I wouldn’t have to be just an immature observer. I could be participant.
I will probably never live in Mt. Enterprise or Sacul. It is not likely that I will take over the water systems when my dad retires, if he ever does. But I will be sad if I never go back there, just to drive the backroads, here the cattle low, and pet the dogs. I will be sad if I never know the store owners and town crazies as well as they know me. And the day I stop thanking God for those little towns in their quiet counties is a day I never want to see. I may not be from those small towns, but they are mine, and I’m proud of them.