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A Texas Twofer
It’s no secret that writers (almost all of them) are not paid a living—or any other kind of—wage for their work. Invariably, they must find some other way to support their writing habits. There are many pages devoted to that subject in How to Write a Great Book—but that’s not what we’ll be sharing in today’s post.
I have a seasonal “day job” that, for several months each year, excludes most of the hours I would normally spend writing. While I am usually introverted and reclusive, my non-writing employment requires me to spend long hours talking to complete strangers. You might think that would be hard for me to bear, but it’s not.
Introversion is only a problem for me when I’m in a crowd of people. Crowds force me into a catatonic shell, but, one-on-one, I’m fine.
Besides, the technical side of my job allows me to wear the mask, to be someone else. I’ve heard that many perfomers are intorverts, but—when they act or sing—their shyness does not hinder them. I suspect it’s a little like writing under a pseudonym (something I’ve discussed at length in How to Write a Great Book). Being able to temporaily assume some other identity is freeing.
Once again, that’s not today’s topic.
Curiously, over the past few days, I’ve met several people from Texas. Two unrelated individuals in one day, in fact. It was great fun swapping tall (is there any other kind in Texas?) tales with them. While half of my family is from Texas, most of my experiences in that state were acquired when I was a child. Consequently, they all have a rosy tint that probably doesn’t accurately reflect what Texas is now.
The memories upon which writers draw are, by their very nature, filtered through layer upon layer of other thoughts and memories. The resulting stories are not, literally, true—but they are literarily true, which makes them all the better.
Or, at least, different.
Today’s post consists of two Texas separate memories that have, over the decades, merged into one. They have been filtered through many, many, years of non-Texan experience, and have also been written under a pseudonym. Dr Sanscravat often strikes an undeserved Texan pose—and accent—so don’t read them in search of any literal truth. Both stories appear, in somewhat different forms, in The Digressions of Dr Sanscravat.
Once, I was fishing for crappies (pronounced “croppy”) with my father and grandfather in Texas. We were sitting in a rowboat, on the shady side of some mesquites that grew on a crumbling chunk of masonry in the middle of a tank. A tank, for those of you who are unfamiliar with Texas, is a man-made pond used for waterin’ cattle. Texans bein’—for the most part—serious about fishin’, always stock these ponds with bass an’ croppy.
This particular tank had grown some, over the years, which explains that spot of shade out in the middle. In the water, all around us, dark swimming heads—some as large as my child-sized fist—made their way toward the island.
Were they turtles?
Grandad explained that they were water moccasins. Concerned, but trying to appear nonchalant, I asked what he would do if one of the snakes decided to come into the boat. He answered, just as nonchalantly, that he’d “gittout an’ lettim’ HAVE the damn boat.”
A practical man, my grandfather—'though, in retrospect, it seems to me that there were a lot more snakes in the water than in the boat.
Did I ever tell y’all my mesquite story?
I have no recollection of having told the story—but that’s never stopped me from retelling a story before. If you’ve heard this before, feel free to wander off, an’ don’t go whinin’ about it afterwards.
Mesquite is best known as the classic Southwestern fuel for smoky-flavored barbecue. When I was a child, visiting the Texas side of the family, long before I knew there were such creatures as gourmets—and certainly before gourmets knew about mesquite—I knew ALL about mesquite. It was just common knowledge that mesquite provided the hottest, best-smelling, and tastiest firewood for outdoor, Texas-sized, feasts.
Everbody knew it.
The morning of a big barbecue would begin with lots of kids jumping in the back of my grandfather’s old cream-colored pick-up. We all wore sneakers and blue jeans, rolled at the bottom, and clean white tee shirts.
We were always cautioned about rattlesnakes. Grandad’s hands and arms bore a network of X-shaped scars, so we knew that there really were rattlers out there.
Some years, there would be black and white Texas farm plates on the back of the truck, some years there wouldn’t be any plates at all—it didn’t much matter. After all, Grandad’s brother drove his entire life without once suffering the indignity of a road test. Driving, like ‘most everthing else, was entirely natural—especially driving out to someplace in the middle of nowhere (Texas, fortunately, being well-endowed with such places) to collect mesquite.
As I recall, the preferred method was to put a chain around the stump of a dead mesquite, dragging it out with the pick-up. The stumps, toughened by the hardship of Texan summers, were reluctant to give up their rocky homes. The frame of the pick-up groaned from the effort. The tall, old-fashioned tires spun, raising a very satisfying cloud of rocks and yellow dust. We screamed with delight as the twisted trees broke free of the crusty dry soil—all the time imagining volleys of rattlesnakes blasted into the air, guided as by some irresistible fate, directly at us.
It was a thoroughly festive occasion.
Sometimes, since the truck was filled with children, there would be no room for the firewood. That meant that all the mesquite, lashed together with a chain, was dragged in a great jingling clatter behind us, all the way back to the house. There it was used to cook, or cajole the essence of Texas from, the kind of meats that the cholesterol-conscious can only dream on.
Those barbecues always ended with hand-cranked ice cream, made with glowing fruit from Grandad’s peach trees. It was the only fitting conclusion to a gustatory event that mixed, without contradiction, innocence and unabashed hedonism, the purest kind of lust and unselfconscious communion.
Mere cookin’ an’ eatin’ is a poor substitute for such an experience.
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