The evening began innocently enough. Two campers, on the road for 30 days, decided to get fancy and walk into town for a proper meal. It’s a modest hike of less than a half mile before you can walk out of the onrushing darkness into the bathing warm lights of the local hotel and grill. The inner sanctum, beyond the dining room, is a bar, ten small tables with doors and windows trimmed in cedar branches and a fireplace centered in some beautiful blonde limestone fitted together with a casual precision that is both subtle and sublime. On the west wall hangs an enormous and beautiful albino Buffalo head.
Dinner was delightful and mellow, as we had hoped. The bottle of Argentinian Malbec was soon drained and we contemplated our walk home hoping to catch our first glimpse of the famous naked west Texas skyscape. As our meal progressed, so too did the ebb and flow of the room, but the patrons almost always exhibited a trace of Texas country fashion; big silver belt buckles, cowboy boots and always, those cowboy hats big enough to hide under from bad weather or bad hombres.
Eventually a party descended on the corner table near ours. Three big men with huge hats made a place for themselves in a manner that somehow reminded me of those black birds with the red necks that lurk on the side of a trail; yes, vultures. The party was complete when a bird of color, a gal in a red baseball cap sporting a rhinestone cross, sat with them. These birds were clearly old friends as they joked with each other. We would later learn that this foursome was winding down from the town’s annual fish fry and dance. It turns out that the previous night’s drinking had resumed early Sunday morning. Now, twelve hours later, this was to be their nightcap.
I’m fascinated by cowboy’s felt crowns which, in my experience, do not get removed, even indoors. With my eleven dollar blue beret in my hand I nudged the guy closest, a mountain of a man who I soon learned was named Chance. Extending my hand I proposed with a big grin that we trade hats. Chance, who was under the deep influence of his day of indulging gamely removed his black Stetson, gently perched th
e too small chapeau and posed for a hilarious picture where he seems to intuitively imitate an overweight French cabaret comic. Soon he was remembering his own beret from 13 years of naval service. He was a man drawn to easy melancholy as well as sudden outbursts of indignation. We learned that Chance and “The Gal” were married. As a matter of fact it was her third marriage and the fifth for “the big guy”. My imagination was flummoxed picturing the vulture and the prairie warbler in connubial embrace.
As the evening wore on, three things happened: first, as if taking turns, each man would find a time and opportunity to initiate a private conversation with my mate, Barbara. Minor intimacies were occasionally referenced to the rest of the table followed by general laughter. Second, the conversation around the table turned slowly but distinctly from the common references of passing strangers into the dark vortex of politics, guns and religion. Third, the procession of drinks arriving and empty glasses departing from the table verged on awe inspiring.
Chance sat to my left in jeans, a Carhart jacket, a swollen face with glasses that seemed stretched to nearly breaking on his bloated face and, of course, his big black hat. “how much you pay for your hat?” he crowed. I paid $750 for this one but hell, I just had a new one made.”
To the left of the big guy was Eric. This man embodied the notion of an enigma. He seemed pretty fit in his cowboy’s checked shirt, cool blue eyes and a stare that suggested boredom or anger or a native aloofness. Eric couldn’t seem to decide whether to avoid the discussion or to jump in with gusto. He vacillated but eventually broke into the rhythm of the banter saying in an awkward non sequitur “who told you those glasses looked good on you”?
Apparently Eric was a rancher but the implication from his friends was that he was one of some wealth with a private jet and exotic sports cars. If there were truth to these claims Eric was a good poker player, his expressions bellying little. However, in all cases he was ready to pounce on any claims made by his new east coast liberal acquaintances that he deemed bogus. As the evening wore on he frequently rose from the table only to return moments later with another round of drinks.
“The gal” was a woman full of apology but always eager to initiate a private sideline conversation that reminded me of an off-stage voice attempting to provide the backstory to what was being said around the table. When the talk turned to religion I expected her to assert her opinions but instead most all comments from her and the others were muted and thoughtful. To a person each was unsurprised by our agnostic opinions. Leyland, the last member of our conspiracy, said he was a Methodist but went to services only once every two or three years. He believes that the bible is a good guide to life and when I suggested “or the Koran?” he said sure. The gal said she has bought the hat with the cross for $3.75 at a market while liberally sprinkling her comments with curses and an occasional “motherfucker”.
The Wall was a topic of great interest. Each of our amigos wanted to know where we stood on the president’s fetish object. Despite showing great affection for the country of Mexico and claiming that most residents in their small town had “mixed blood” (including those around our table) they talked about the cross border infiltrators as dangerous and “using my fields as a bathroom”. Leyland lives deep off the grid south of town within miles of the Rio Grande. He generates his own electricity from a jerry-rigged solar panel and a wind generator with a home-made battery pack. His little ranch grosses half of a million each year yet his net is about $60,000. He is thoughtful, describes himself as an independent voter and seemed very curious about our points of view. Still he holds the invaders as a danger that needs to be thwarted.
Chance was both the most obviously inebriated but also the most radical Trump Republican. He, like his friends, saw themselves as hard working “salt of the earth” folk. When I suggested that kids need to learn some new technology skills for the coming economy he called me “the dumbest son-of-a-bitch ever” and later when he was walking out for a smoke, I spoke of my respect for the presidency of Barack Obama. From the middle of the barroom Chance wheeled his ungainly 300 pounds to shout “that god-damned nigger…” The gal, his wife, immediately began another litany of apology.
In a private conversation with Barbara, Chance told of walking away from the Catholic Church as a kid “because they beat me”. When his mother prodded him to return to the church he pulled her up on his horse, rode out on the range to a high promontory and said this was his god.
We ended the evening discussing guns. Our new pals were very concerned that we were unarmed. Leyland said they usually kept their own weapons in their pickups and, in fact, he had an extra he would gladly give us. When we politely declined he followed up with “you do lock your camper doors at least”.
We walked out into that dark night heading west. We talked about the stars in the sky but we impulsively looked behind at the fading town lights. We began to walk quicker for it seemed that their community of fear had been contagious.