The Harley's engine woke Crockett from a sound sleep as it roared past his one-room adobe cabin.
Zoe must be headed down the hill for a croissant, he thought. He knew this as fact because it had happened each morning for the last year. Each morning at exactly 6:00, Zoe would head down the dirt road to the Cosmic Caffeine Cafe and return with a bag of butter croissants, baked that morning by Henry McGinnis, a former pastry chef from the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas. It was perhaps the only reliable ritual left in Crockett's highly disordered life. Crockett rubbed his eyes and tried to remember where he had left his glasses last night. He picked up a dog-eared paperback copy of St. Augustine's Confessions and his glasses fell out onto the concrete slab floor. He got up and walked the twelve feet across the entirety of his home to his four-burner propane stove. He filled the ancient aluminum coffee percolator with water.
His one modern appliance was the electric coffee grinder, which he used to grind French roast coffee beans. He filled the coffee pot and placed it on the burner to boil.
He pulled on rag wool socks and hiking boots and walked out onto the front porch. It was still dark. He looked up. The Winter Hexagon was clear and bright. He glanced at the bright star Albderan, in Taurus, its gigantic V pointing the way to his favorite constellation: the Pleiades, The Seven Sisters.
He walked across the stretch of the Chihuahuan Desert that was his "lawn" and sat on a boulder. The December air was very cool. A cold front had blown through in the evening and it was much cooler than yesterday. His home was on the edge of Eagle Mountain, and he smiled as he looked down across the wide-open desert terrain at the crumbling adobe structures of Terlingua. These buildings had once housed the miners, who had worked the largest Cinnabar mines in the world. Once the mines played out, so did the town. Terlingua was not a dying small town, however. The combination of remoteness and austere desert beauty served as a magnet for the extraordinarily eclectic collection of personalities that called Terlingua their home.
How do you wind up in a place like this? Crockett wondered. He knew the answer: You want to live alone, but not too alone. You want solitude, but in a community. Crockett kept to himself, mostly. He had lived here for ten years, enough time for the Agave plant in front of his house to grow, sprout a fifteen-foot stalk and die. Crockett had lived here for five years before anyone even asked his "story." Everyone here had a story, of course. Everyone was recovering from something here.
Zoe, who in a previous life had been a modern dance teacher, had created a dance which she called the "Terlingua Twelve Step", in honor of the most prevalent social structure in the town. Crockett liked to think of himself as a recovering Baptist. One divorce and one DWI and his life of ministry were over. Baseball has a three-strike rule, but for a Baptist preacher, it's one DWI and you're out. At least that's true in deep East Texas. After a brief stint as a salesman in a funeral home, Crockett had headed his aging Toyota southwest. "The road to nowhere," someone had once called the river road, which snaked along the Rio Grande in far West Texas.
When the car broke down, Crockett decided he might as well stay. He was able to pay the rent in this one-room adobe house with what he earned as a clerk at the Study Butte grocery store, stocking shelves and operating the cash register. As for ambition, he was through with that. Over time, he had come to love this place. Perhaps it was because he felt totally accepted here, flaws, history and all. He sat and looked out over the desert. The only sound was the clear descending call of a canyon wren, calling from the bluffs, rising straight and sheer from behind his house. He closed his eyes.
“Thank you,” he whispered. His prayers had become simpler, but more frequent and sincere, in the years since arriving here.
The silence was broken as Crockett heard the Harley roaring up the dirt road. Zoe stopped her bike in front of Crockett's house and got off. She was slender, about thirty years old, and wore baggy, army green wool pants, tucked into knee-length leather moccasins and a fleece pullover sweater.
Crockett had acquired the nickname Padre when his past career as a Baptist preacher became known. Denominational subtleties were not recognized here in Terlingua, which was just as well, in Crockett's mind.
"Yeah, I'm hungry. Let me guess, Croissants?"
Crockett walked back into the house and returned with the coffee pot and two cracked porcelain coffee mugs. He poured each of them a mug of coffee and they sat on the two metal lawn chairs which Crockett had pulled out of the mud of a sand bar in the middle of Terlingua Creek.
"So, Crockett, what are you doing for Christmas dinner this year?"
"I hadn't thought about it."
"Why don't you have Christmas dinner with me and Wylie? Wylie got a check from his grandmother and he bought a turkey. He's smoking it right now."
For some reason, Crockett got a mental image of Wylie wrapping the turkey in rolling paper, and smiled.
"Why, as long as I'm not intruding."
"No church tonight, though. Father Zaragoza went back to Albuquerque to be with his brother—not that you would be attending, you lapsed Christian, you.”
Crockett smiled at the good-natured gibe.
"You know, I used to feel guilty about eating a butter croissant. When I was dancing, I always had to be hyper conscious of my weight. I ate like a freakin' rabbit. What a stupid obsession. I'm gonna eat Wylie's croissant too.”
She threw back her head and laughed, then took another croissant out of the bag and ate it in three bites. Zoe stood and brushed the crumbs off of her pants. She walked over to the Harley, started it, and drove off without another word. As the dust settled from the motorcycle, Crockett sat and finished his croissant. He was not working today and could do whatever he wanted. I think I feel like a hike today, but first, a little housework.
He spent most of the day cleaning his small house. He washed the dishes, stacked them on the open bookcase which served as a bookcase and kitchen cupboard, and swept and washed the concrete floors. He took all of the sheets off of the iron-framed single bed and washed them in the metal tubs serving as washing machines. The difficulty of these menial and mundane tasks was the price for the simplicity which he so valued in his new life. After finishing all of his chores, he ate a small but satisfying meal of tomato soup, corn tortillas, and water. Crockett decided his hard work deserved the reward of a good hike. He packed his daypack with water, a warm sweater—in case it got cooler—and his Psalter.
He walked out the front door and headed up the dirt road. After a few hundred yards, an older Jeep trail branched off, climbing down a gradual slope and across the desert. After walking for about an hour, the trace of a smaller trail branched off to the left towards an even larger mountain. Crockett had climbed it many times. As far as he knew, it did not even have a name. Like most walks around here, the destination was less important than the journey and was much farther off than it appeared. It took almost two hours to summit the mountain this time. It was already getting late in the day and the sun was playing hide and seek with a large billowy cloud, keeping it cool.
At the top, Crockett sat on the ground with his back against a flat boulder. He took a long drink from his plastic water bottle and stared across the austere landscape. As far as he could see in every direction was the desert, stark, open, beautiful. He took out the worn copy of St. Augustine. For years he had not been able to read anything of a religious nature. Father Zaragoza had given him a book of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. He enjoyed the simplicity of these fifth-century hermits. The sparing use of words contrasted nicely with the wordiness of most preachers he had encountered, including his own sermons. He had also rediscovered the Psalms. He sat the Confessions down and opened the Psalms. He enjoyed the beauty of the writing and the sincerity of the writer's emotion. He opened to Psalm 104:
“He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent…”
It's not hard to believe David lived in the desert, Crockett thought.
It was getting late in the afternoon, so Crockett packed up and began walking back. Crockett had just made it to the beginning of the Jeep trail when the sound of a motor startled him. He could see an ancient Chevy pickup making its way up the road. As it neared, he could see Ramon Cardoza was the driver. Ramon was one of the only people in Terlingua with any knowledge of heating and air conditioner and made a decent living doing repairs.
Ramon pulled over and rolled down the window. "What are you doing out here, paisano?"
“Just doing a little walking. How about you?"
Ramon didn't answer.
"Want a lift?”
He climbed in the cab of the truck. Ramon was about forty years old, close to the same age as Crockett. He had a lovely family with two beautiful girls, about seven or eight years old, Crockett guessed.
"Tell me, Ramon. How long have you been out here?"
"I've never heard what brought you here."
"It's an interesting story. I was born in a small town in northern Mexico. My father, like many men from our village, made his way to El Norte to find work. He found good work in an auto parts plant in Michigan. There were only two problems: one, he was not legal here, and two, it was very cold. The cold was very hard on him. One of the plant owners took an interest in my father, since he was such a reliable hard worker, and arranged for him to obtain work authorization. Eventually, he was able to become a resident, and brought my mother up here. Me and my brothers were all born here, and are therefore citizens of the United States. It was something my father was very proud of."
"Where is your father now?"
"He is dead."
"He was diagnosed with lung cancer. He wanted to see his family one more time and so we all went back to Mexico. His health steadily deteriorated. I was about ten when he went into the hospital in Saltillo for the last time. He knew he was dying, so the whole family gathered around his bed. He told us goodbye and fell asleep. You know, in Mexico, you can do all kinds of crazy things, so we could take his body with us. We took his body in the back of the pickup truck to bury at the church plot in our small village. I lay in the back of the pickup and hugged my father until I fell asleep. I know he was dead, but I felt much better laying next to him one last time."
"What a sweet story. It doesn't explain how you wound up here, though.
“Well, after Dad died, we went back to Detroit. My brothers and I all graduated from high school there. I got a job where I learned this air conditioner and heating repair business. The only problem was I have a heavy Spanish accent. I never felt comfortable in Michigan. In school, people always made fun of the way I talked, and when I started working, the customers sometimes complained, “Sorry, I don't speak Spanish.' I would explain that I was not speaking Spanish; I was speaking English. I decided to move closer to the border. One of the neighbors was from a little town in Texas called Terlingua, so here I moved. Sometimes I speak English, sometimes I speak Spanish. Sometimes I do not speak at all. Here no one notices my accent. In fact, here people accept me for exactly what I am. This is home."
"Yeah, I know what you mean."
Ramon stopped in front of Crockett's home. "Here we are. See you at church tonight, I hope."
"I hear Father Zaragoza is gone, so there will be no service." Crockett said.
"I heard you are a priest."
"Oh, I used to be a Baptist preacher, in an earlier time. I haven't done that in years, though.”
"It's a long story. Let's just say I no longer feel I have anything to say."
"Of course you do. Crockett, I would come to hear whatever you have to say."
"You're a kind man, Ramon. People want to hear someone they respect, someone qualified."
"People want to listen to a friend here, Crockett. This is what Father Zaragoza is and what you are. I will spread the word. We will have Christmas Eve service, after all, tonight."
"No, no, no, Ramon. It is a nice thought, but I am not going to do this."
"Well, you cannot stop people from coming to the church. You will either be there or you will not."
"I'm afraid you are going to be disappointed." Crockett opened the door and walked towards his house without looking back.
He could hear Ramon's words as he drove off, "See you in church, Crockett."