To Old Escapes
Story by Tanner Davis / Photography by Steve Piper
The morning before, a snotty barmaid at the Brown Dog Lounge in El Paso had handed Concho a letter postmarked Rosillas, Texas. “You sure gotta wonder ‘bout a person who gives out a hole-in-the-wall dive bar as his mailing address,” the woman chided.
“Where else am I supposed to tell ’em to send it?” Concho reasoned. “It was either here, the laundromat, or the Dairy Queen.” The Brown Dog was the closest thing to a mail-worthy residence Concho had, having an arrangement with the bar’s owner to play guitar for patrons every evening in exchange for the use of makeshift sleeping quarters out back by the ice machine.
The letter was an offer from another bar owner Concho had met at the Dairy Queen who was headed back south on a scenic route from a northern section of the Colorado river. She was an unfortunate-looking lady who, in her travel loneliness, had half-forcedly struck up a conversation with Concho midway through his six-piece steak finger country basket served with crispy fries, Texas toast, and the best cream gravy around.
Despite the lunchtime intrusion and the rat face, Concho found the entrepreneur interesting and let her ramble on while he ate. With no sense for apathy, she talked his ear off about how she had inherited a dump of a cantina in Rosillas when her locally legendary asshole of a great-uncle finally got himself killed in a dispute about a horse. She had bought the adjoining café (another dump) and was going to spruce them both up and make a mint selling beer, chicken sandwiches, and gazpacho to the Rosillans, who she could only imagine were desperate for a decent place to fill their underserved bellies.
Similar to his current arrangement at the Brown Dog Lounge, the unsightly entrepreneur's letter had offered Concho the opportunity to play guitar at her newly opened cantina in Rosillas in exchange for a room above the adjoining café. He would only have to play six evenings per week, leaving Sunday free for the Lord or getting drunk, whatever his piety. In addition, she would add a version of his favorite six-piece steak finger country basket to the café’s new menu, and he could eat for free whenever he was hungry, so long as he prepared his meals himself.
Seeing the offer as a big promotion, Concho folded the letter over to palm-size, stuffed it into the soundhole of his shabby Spanish six-string, and left for the train station without a word of thanks to the Brown Dog Lounge’s owner. Against his mild nature, Concho had considered some kind of departing show of contempt for the Brown Dog’s petulant barmaid but decided her snotty disposition was likely to manifest itself, eventually, in the conventional socioeconomically burdened comeuppance that tends to befall snotty barmaids. Fair enough.
The Chili Pepper at Night 1 by Steve Piper
The next day, Concho rested his chin on the cool metal sill of the passenger train’s window, watching a seemingly endless collection of abandoned oil fields scroll by, wondering if the Rosillas Mountains would present any discernible difference at all from the arid and hellish sting of El Paso’s late-summer. He’d never minded the sun and had spent plenty of time in it, but his tolerance for calefaction had begun to diminish after a bout or two of heat sickness, a factor that seemed to increase concurrently with his age. The potential for relief at a higher elevation was a refreshing delusion, though he knew enough to temper his expectations.
Concho mostly considered himself a Texan, though he was devoid of all but loose hypotheses of where he was born. At the time of his birth, he was too young to be held responsible for remembering where he was; it was enough work trying to comprehend that he was. Understandably, he also wasn’t sure of when it was—who was Governor at the time or whether Kennedy’s spacemen had gone all the way to the moon yet. Babies, for all their many qualities, aren’t reliable chroniclers of those kinds of details. He did feel a little sorry for not taking the time to commit the doctor’s name to memory, as the Good Doctor was owed a debt of credit, at the very least, for Concho’s ease of entry. He didn’t have so much as a scar to show from the delivery, which was damned good considering all the things he’d overheard women saying about what childbirth can do to a body.
The rhythmic clonk and whir of the train’s movement along steel rails was a useful way to fall asleep without whiskey, but it was early. The sun’s position promised a few hours yet, and dinner wouldn’t be taken for at least that long. It was the cursed hour of purgatory between an appropriate nap and a respectable bedtime. Concho’s internal clock reliably synched this time of day with an earworm of the Scottish one-hit-wonder Stealers Wheel's “Stuck in the Middle with You” and a set of weighty eyelids.
Concho had always felt a vague kinship to the American soldier, General George Smith Patton, who said that it was foolish to mourn dead men and we should rather thank God such men had lived. This was a man with a grave understanding of both sides of mortality and was unafraid to see another man cross. Remembering G.S.P.'s assertion that a good plan violently executed right now is far better than a perfect plan executed next week, Concho decided to take a walk in an effort to combat his rhythm-induced sleepiness. If there’s one thing a soldier knows, he thought, it’s combat.
Aware of his arguably less-than-sufficient memory and oft inconvenient habit of getting himself turned around, Concho counted the steps he took away from the car containing his assigned seat on the train. At step 36, he politely pardoned himself in passing a young lady pulling a toddler behind her on their way back from their umpteenth trip to the shaky train’s poorly lit lavatory. He stooped to pick up a quarter at step 93, careful not to let the “25” imprinted on the coin derail his step count. At his 138th step, Concho found himself at the end of the passenger car, peering out the exit door’s window across to the engineer’s cabin, the motor unit with the heavy job of lugging the rest of the apparatus along the tracks.
As Concho lifted the solid steel handle opening the entry door to the engineer’s cabin and stepped across the gap created by the conjoining cars, he glanced down to see the wooden ties between the tracks’ rails flipping by like a child’s bicycle spokes tapping a poker card stuck in for effect. He stepped into the cabin, making his way down the narrow corridor leading to the engine room. The train’s engineer, a large middle-aged man with a red beard and hair stuck to his forehead with sweat, sat on a stool next to a small barrel across from the train’s brakeman, a spindly-built younger man of dark complexion. The engineer and brakeman were in the midst of a violent game of dominoes, played along with what Concho assumed was their customary accompaniment of red wine and brie.
Concho concluded there was some money or property at stake, due to the tense mood of the game. In an unusually inquisitive mood but not wanting to interrupt, Concho decided to break the ice by politely suggesting that the half-empty bottle of Chateau Lafite Pauillac must have set them back quite a bit. The startled men, only now noticing Concho, rose from their barrel, angrily directing Concho to return to his seat. The brakeman pushed past Concho, demanding Concho follow, commencing to lead the intruder to his assigned train car.
142 steps later, Concho entered his assigned car alone, contemplating the rapidity with which life zigs and zags, the comedy in how brittle we are, as we plod around recklessly in a world full of sharp edges. A man wakes up in the morning, pours his coffee and goes to work, completely oblivious to his own impending mortality. As he passed, Concho politely smiled at the young lady and her toddler sitting in their seats, quietly reading a children’s book about Wild Things and their location. Back in his own assigned seat, Concho allowed the gentle rocking of the train car to coax him to sleep, fittingly humming to himself a Robert Earl Keen song about the failure of kindness.
Concho awoke in the morning to a commotion toward the front of the passenger train. He found himself alone in the rear of the car, with most of the train’s passengers grouped by the forward exit, nervously chattering, with their hats on and holding their belongings. What was with all the fuss surrounding a routine end-of-journey debarkation? Seemingly not intrigued by the presence of a Rosillas Sheriff’s posse questioning the unloading passengers, Concho decided to take the rear exit and avoid inconvenience.
After the overnight train trek, Concho made his way leisurely down the half-restored ghost town’s main boulevard, lined on either side by various establishments: a nearly empty apothecary that doubled as the town’s post office, a savings and loan satellite branch with marauder-deterring steel bars across the windows, the Rosillas Daily Gazette newspaper office where one of the train’s passengers was being interviewed by an excited reporter, and a boutique where an attractive older Caucasian woman sold convincingly authentic Native American turquoise jewelry.
When he reached the end of town opposite the train station, Concho fished around inside the sound hole of his old guitar for the meal-interrupting ladypreneur’s letter to review her description of the cantina’s whereabouts. After a bit more wandering, he found her sweeping the porch of the café with a corn broom, humming pleasantly and looking not quite as homely as he remembered. The absence of Concho’s aggravation over his new employer’s previous steak finger disturbance had done wonders for her physical appearance. “Morning, ma’am,” Concho greeted.
Leaning her broom against the wall of the dog-run between the café and the cantina, the lady raised her hand politely to Concho. “Well, good morning, Mr. Concho! I take it my letter found you. Come along and I’ll show you to your room. How was your trip?”
Concho lifted his guitar and followed the lady up the short flight of wooden stairs on the side of the café. “Uneventful, ma’am.”
Concho close behind, the lady entered the meagerly cozy efficiency room and opened its only window, letting the bright sun do its best to fill the modest space. She pushed a small bookcase, loaded with an assortment of secondhand novels and outdated magazines, a few feet aside to reveal a dusty potbelly stove. “I estimate you won’t be needing this for a few weeks yet, but its flue is clean as a whistle, and it warms the room sufficiently when winter sets, according to my uncle’s vexingly detailed will,” she said. “Even in death, the neurotic old shit gives ceaseless instructions, but he left a business to me – and patrons for you to entertain. I’d like you to begin this evening, if you will.”
That evening, after a long and satisfying rest, Concho stole down the wooden stairs to the café below his room and ate a big bowl of the lady’s cold, spicy gazpacho with gusto. With his stomach full and the taste of the gazpacho’s ripe roma tomatoes, red onion and garlic lingering in his mouth, he walked across the dog-run to the cantina, snuck behind the bar and poured himself a generous glass of Pappy bourbon. He took his place on a hard, wooden stool in a drab corner of the little cantina, brought his Spanish guitar to tune and began to play coarse renditions of “Cielito Lindo”, “El Triste” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” between sips.
Forgetting himself in his own music, Concho played for several hours, sipping and getting drunker by the song, while the cantina’s five patrons played a fringe variation of poker at one of the seven otherwise empty tables, leaning back or slumping forward in their chairs, indifferent to Concho’s effort. When the cantina closed for the night, and its five patrons shuffled out into the street, the lady brought Concho another sizable glass of Pappy bourbon with a smaller one for herself. She lifted her glass to the cantina’s unremittingly dusty air and asked, “What shall we drink to?”
Concho stared musingly at his glass, lifted it to hers, and toasted, “To new beginnings – and old escapes.” Concho stepped carefully and purposefully up the wooden stairs to his room, stripped clumsily down to his threadbare, dirt-stained thermal underclothes, and fell into a deep and peaceful bourbon sleep.
Concho awoke the next morning to a thud on the wooden landing outside the door to his room. He pulled the door open, shielding his eyes from the early sun, and found the lady had delivered a fresh copy of the Rosillas Daily Gazette, along with a foil-covered plate piled with fat-fried red potatoes, sliced green bell peppers, and big hunks of sautéed purple onions for breakfast. Concho leaned down to retrieve the lady’s gifts and brought them back to his bed, leaving the door partially opened to let the sun enliven the dark room. Lighting a half-smoked Belicoso cigar left behind by one of the cantina’s patrons the night before, Concho unfolded the paper to read the headline: “Brakeman Found Murdered in Vacant Train Car, Killer at Large”. After a few satisfying draws, Concho snuffed the cigar to finish before his next shift. He filled his belly with the breakfast potatoes, propped his hands comfortably behind his head and fell back into a quiet sleep.
The Chili Pepper at Night 2 by Steve Piper
Tanner Davis is a native Texan, utility analyst, outdoorsman, and short story writer living between Austin and Terlingua Ranch. When he isn't holding the end of a fishing pole, Tanner can usually be found having adventures with his wife and daughter, exploring the Big Bend and everything else Texas has to offer.
Steve's portrait by Mickey Lemle
Steve Piper is a native of southeast Kansas who is currently living in Rochester, NY. He is a freelance documentary photographer and a musician/songwriter. Steve holds an MFA degree in photography from Rochester Institute of Technology. His personal documentary photo projects have included photographing rural county fairs, minor league baseball, dogs, and railroads. He and his wife Julie Gelfand, a photographer and writer, fell under the spell of Big Bend and Terlingua while visiting friends there recently.