Two days home from the hospital, my coughs muted but my chest still ablaze, feeling as though I had just lost a marathon, I crept to my front window to locate the racket’s source. Speedy Montoya was dragging a fifty-five gallon steel barrel along his drive toward the street. CCRAKkkk WHOOM CCCrrakkkk.
The Montoyas live directly across from me on one of those dead-ended Silver City streets that threaten to dump drivers into an arroyo. My shack backs up to the arroyo, close enough to funnel skunks into my back yard. Buck, the official house dog, enjoys skunk visits, and, as a result, smells like bargain tomato juice.
The Montoyas’ tiny frame house sits on the far back rim of their lot, which is rank with a jungle of horsebush, buckwheat, and yuccas. Annually Lencha Montoya raises a forest of geraniums in rusty Folger cans standing in a scarlet line along their entry sidewalk. Speedy has created a cage of used poultry netting in one corner of his lot where tomatoes and chiles can peacefully ripen without assault from our herd of deer that amble and nibble from one house to the next. Spring and fall Speedy gets his cousin Gummy Ortiz to haul over his tractor and brush whacker. Twenty minutes pass and Gummy has reduced every pretense of greenery to stalks and clouds of dirt.
On the day of my interrupted recovery, Speedy wrestled his barrel to a stand of three oaks that years before had escaped Gummy’s relentless machine. Speedy was obviously aiming to capture what little shade exists in his yard. About as wide as he was tall, a powerful man despite his age, Speedy tipped the barrel against an oak, placing its base on the street’s crumbling asphalt.
I returned to bed and slept the rest of the afternoon, dreaming of the taste of a peach. The next day I saw that Speedy had hoisted the barrel atop two flat boulders and that it wasn’t just a barrel but was what he later told me is a Mexican barbecue, a steel drum halved and then hinged.
Possibly a good week later, when I was leaving the house to walk Buck, Speedy was jumping on a shovel, trying to crack the crust of his yard, about ten feet from where the barbecue tilted on its rocky base. Someone had stacked cut pine branches and split logs between the grill and Speedy’s proposed hole.
“What’s going on?” I shouted to him.
“Making for a Coahuila lonche,” he said. He leaned on the shovel handle. A big square of wire lattice, intended for plaster walls but now obviously destined to grill meats, lay across some rocks substituting as the cook’s prep table. Speedy was assembling a kitchen.
About the first week when I moved in, I learned that Speedy was determined to make clear his roots. He was the only Coahuilan I’ve ever known, but he sure didn’t want to be confused with a man from Chihuahua, Sonora or Nuevo Leon. It was fine with him that Florencia, who we called Lencha, was from the Valley in Texas. She was a Starr County native, but she was also a woman. That made a difference to Speedy. Women didn’t necessarily have to be from Coahuila.
“You feeling better?” Speedy asked. He tossed the spade into the ditch he was making, and in the rolling sailor way of walking that he had, he headed toward me and Buck. Buck obviously remembered what good meals he ate under Montoya care while I was in the hospital. He leaped up and drooled on Speedy’s shoulder as an affectionate greeting.
I told him I was feeling stronger. The July sun burned through my tee
Speedy squinted at me. “Kinda lonely these days?” It was a statement and a question at the same moment. I thought I had gotten over Sylvia’s leaving, but at Speedy’s statement I felt a gripping at my chest.
“Yeah,” I admitted.
“Well, she was a nice girl,” Speedy said. “But sometimes…” Speedy stopped. He didn’t know how to complete the idea, and neither did I.
“What’s with the hole?” I said, to change the subject.
“That’s to cook the heads.”
“Heads?” I said. I can’t tell you the image that popped into my brain.
“Cow heads. Junior is coming home and he told us that he’s bringing heads.”
Junior is Espiridion Montoya, Junior. I had met him in 2016, when I first moved in. He works in a Nebraska meat processing plant. As the least member of the butcher department at a local supermarket and hearing of Junior’s visit, I suddenly felt a brotherhood with a fellow meatcutter.
“I thought that ever since mad cow disease you couldn’t cook cows’ heads.” I tugged at Buck’s leash so he would stop snuffling at the barbecue barrel.
Speedy grinned and his stainless steel front tooth glinted in the sun. “It’s who you know, Esteve.” He turned to look at the pit in progress and the beginnings of his kitchen. “It got too lonely, Esteve. No work. All shut down. So I told Lencha that we need to do something. So when Junior calls and says the plant’s going to close for a couple of weeks and he’s bringing the kids, Lencha and I know what we want to do.”
Several days later I looked out and saw a picnic table shaded by a tarp sagging on two plastic pipes, stuck into the ground at angle and crossed at the top tepee style. Speedy stood behind the barrel and clouds of white smoke billowed through the oaks. I couldn’t smell but I could imagine. I grabbed two aluminum lawn chairs with webbing bleached pale on my back porch and took them across the street.
Sweat ran down Speedy’s round face, and he jerked off his crushed cowboy hat and wiped his forehead with his right arm, holding the long spatula aloft.
“Hey, Esteve,” Speedy said in greeting. I unfolded the chairs and Speedy shoved a cheap paper plate into my hands. A mound of shredded meat, rich brown and oozing a sauce, lay under two fresh corn tortillas.
“Hay más tortillas,” Speedy said.
I headed for the picnic table. Lencha had put some bowls inside a tray of ice. Sliced green onions. Jalapenos. Cucumbers. Pico de gallo. Cilantro. I made two tacos, meat and vegetables spilling over the top of my left hand as I shook on some Cholula hot sauce. I ate both tacos, one after the other, as I stood in the sun and watched Speedy. He was a custodian at the middle school, but I could tell by his knife work and the way he moved the meat on the plaster lattice that he had done this before. A lot before.
When the batch of meat was cooked, Speedy came over to me. I told him the tacos were the first things I had tasted in a month. The complexity of the flavors reminded me of happiness. The tacos were like a meal after a daylong pack in the wilderness. But where did he find the meat, for it was certainly not beef.
“It’s Gummy’s elk that he shot last fall. Every year Gummy goes hunting up north. He’s a big hunter, Gummy. He brings home all this meat he has paid some butcher to wrap. Steaks. Roasts. Everything. Theresa, Gummy’s wife, puts it all in the freezer. Then, next year, he goes hunting again. While he’s walking through the woods, Theresa goes to the freezer and throws away last year’s elk to get ready for the new one. Theresa, she refuses to cook elk.”
While Speedy was accounting for his free meat, a low, black Malibu pulled to the curb, going the wrong way on the street. The bass of the Malibu’s stereo thumped out a go-go beat. The driver was Speedy’s friend he had called to share elk tacos. While I was telling the girlfriend of the friend my pandemic story, my masked neighbors from three doors down edged toward the table. I had waved at Charlie and Marcos plenty of times while walking Buck but I didn’t know their names. That late afternoon, the sun slanting across the ragged horsebush, the flowers glowing like leaks of yellow light dancing atop the spiky plants, gave the moment a theatrical quality, as though Speedy had designed it all, which in fact he had. As through some magical process, the neighborhood gathered by one’s and two’s.
Lencha appeared with more taco contents, including sliced little potatoes sauteed to a crisp and the summer’s first tomatoes. She looked radiant. Taller than Speedy, with skin that shown in the dusk, Lencha sang out our names as her smile landed on each of us. All responded by shouting “Lencha,” for her presence validated our presence.
Kids showed up to chase through the yard and their laughter wove like golden threads running through the gray murmur among the adults, now about 20 persons keeping conversational distance, some standing in the street, some next to the table, all with those flimsy paper plates, the tacos about to slide to ruin.
Someone had brought store-bought potato salad. I think there were cookies. Yes, I’m sure of it. Not the big frisbie things from a coffee shop but homemade style, a bit burned on the bottom. An early member of the crowd had produced what looked to be several gallons of wine; the name on the bottles said “Roja” and it was, a wine not to remember but a match for the paper cups that came with the bottles. Marcos walked to his house and when he came back he lugged an ice chest full of ice and bottles of Tecate.
I suddenly realized I could smell the pine smoke. My life had retrieved a lost dimension. I don’t know how Speedy kept the flaring wood from charring the marinaded meat to leather strips, but he did. When he needed a break, Speedy called to me. “Esteve. You went to cooking school. Take over here.” He handed me a long-handled fork as he was disappearing. I promptly allowed the fire to consume the meat that Speedy had begun to sear. The next batch fared better after I found cool spots on the awkward grill. I promised myself that I would buy the Montoyas a proper, smooth grate.
When night settled in, the party broke up. The Malibu, thumping away, pulled from the curb like a prowling cat, and Marcos and Charlie, an empty ice chest between them, walked the dark street toward home. I helped Lencha carry the bowls and tortilla servers to her kitchen.
“So, Esteve, have you heard from Sylvia?” Lencha said.
“Not since I got out of the hospital,” I said.
“You know, Esteve, that she and I talked a lot before she left.”
I fiddled with the bowls, rinsing a couple in the sink.
“You want to know what we talked of?”
I didn’t turn to face Lencha, but she could see me nod.
“Sylvia told me of her great disappointment. When you lost that chef’s job because the virus closed everything, she said that you had just given up. Yes. Those were the words she said. ‘Esteve has given up.’”
I turned toward Lencha. Her face had wrinkles of sadness that pulled at her luminous eyes. She twisted a dish towel.
“But Lencha, you know that wasn’t true,” I said. I admitted that I hadn’t talked about my career with Sylvia, except to complain about the meat department hassle, but she had her own job worries. I was trying to protect her.
“Well, Esteve, when you really care for a person, you and that person protect each other together, not alone. Sylvia, she felt abondonada. I think you should call her, Esteve. That’s what I think.”
I told Lencha that I might do as she suggested. When Sylvia left, it was after a big argument. Now, later, it had been more than two months since we had talked, and the last conversation was stiff, almost grim, mostly about mailing some papers that she had left in a drawer. Even my story about Buck’s latest skunk escapade had failed to remove the chill from the call.
The following weekend the crowd at the Coahuila barbecue was a little smaller, but a woman played her harmonica and the notes of an Irish melody on the evening air stirred a loneliness and a longing in me. Speedy showed four or five guests how he was going to cook the steer heads. He had put a sheet of plyboard over the pit and he pulled it back and pointed to the large, round stones that covered the bottom. When Junior arrived, Speedy would build a fire in the pit on Friday morning and we were to have a meal of the gods the following day.
Junior and his family did arrive. He had brought a big tent because the Montoya’s house would not hold the entire brood. As promised Speedy prepared the barbecue by igniting a bonfire in his pit. After embers replaced the flames, Speedy dropped in two foil wrapped bundles bigger than basketballs, layered on moist burlap bags and shoveled the pile of dirt back into the hole.
“Looks like a lot of work for barbecue,” I told Speedy. “Some guys just light the propane nozzle.”
Speedy and Junior stared at me. My remark lay beneath deserving a reply.
It may have been the succulent Coahuila barbecue and Lencha’s flan heavy with cream. It may have been the stunning panoply of masked guests milling about. It may have been the Western teacher, an African American woman, whom Lencha and Marcos helped to scramble onto the picnic table, reciting more poetic lines than I had ever before heard from someone’s memory. Our minds were dizzy during those days of protest after the murder of George Floyd and the woman standing on the table unfolded words to reveal what we must not forget. I especially recall one reverberating line from Langston Hughes, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
I was standing in the dusk, whispering Hughes’ words, when I bumped the elbow of the man in the street next to me. “Sorry,” I said. “It’s OK,” he said, which was generous because my jostle had knocked a half-eaten taco off his plate. We both looked down at the wasted morsel smeared on the asphalt. “I was paying too close attention to the poem,” I said. “Easy enough to do. Miya could distract anyone.” “Oh, you know her?” I said. “Well, yeah,” he said, in a knowing way.
“I’m Steve. I live over there,” I pointed with my head toward my shack.
“Roman,” he responded. “Miya’s office mate at the university heard about Speedy’s barbecue. What, with my thing about food, Miya said we just had to try it out. Here we are. Trying it out. And Miya’s doing her thing while I pay attention to mine.” Roman’s eyes again looked down at the taco remains.
“Thing about food?” I remember saying. It set Roman off. If his girlfriend had a headful of protest poetry, he had lined up a regular discourse on the role of eating together as the ultimate expression of community.
When Roman paused to catch his breath, I said, “Whoa. You’re preaching to the choir, there. I spent a year at culinary school because I wanted to …”
Roman interrupted me. “…You wanted to do what Speedy and Lencha are doing.”
“More or less,” I admitted.
Roman snorted. It was a sound that said, “Fool. More or less? MORE OR LESS?”
“You’re right. Exactly what Lencha and Speedy are doing,” I said, surveying scattered groups of diners, chatting and laughing, trying to catch falling fragments of tortilla, wiping their lips, waving a taco to prove a point or to cap a story. “And you, Roman?”
“Right now I’m just an out of work short order cook. But that don’t matter. Sooner or later, Coahuila barbecue is in my future.”
“So you’ve been talking to Speedy?”
“Oh, yeah. The man’s got a story all right. But you know, his stuff works.” Roman too fell silent and watched the crowd and Speedy at the grill, laughing and sipping a Corona as he flipped the zucchini strips a guest had brought.
“So, Steve,” Roman said, returning after a time of thought, “what are you doing with your chef’s training?”
I told him about the supermarket and the routine work of putting out pre-cut slabs of meat. I told him about the petty jealousies and the incompetencies of the meat department team, snarling at and snitching on one another.
Hearing my list of gripes, Roman lifted his paper plate and said, “Let’s go and drown our sorrows in some more Coahuilan barbecue tacos.” He waved at Miya, now off the picnic table, and I followed him to meet her. Lencha’s and Speedy’s two Nebraska grandsons were whooping nearby, apparently for no reason other than sheer joy.
It may have been the barbecue and the flan or the poems shouted into the evening or Roman’s seriousness and levity or all those things. I returned home that night, resolving to call Sylvia the next day, to say that I was sorry that I had been a self-centered jerk.
As life turned out, I let the next day and then the next slip by without acting on my resolution. Junior had returned to Nebraska. My work schedule distracted me and I failed to notice that neither Speedy nor Lencha was puttering about their yard as I walked Buck. The tarp over the picnic table flapped like a hurt gull during a brief wind storm and meticulous Speedy did not fold it for storage.
The weekend passed without a Coahuila barbecue. On Monday I was returning from work and found two ambulances parked next to the oaks. I ran to the Montoya’s front door just in time to see Speedy being wheeled down the porch steps on a gurney. Lencha, gaunt and crooked, leaned against the door frame.
The fireman with a clipboard asked me if I could take Lencha to the hospital. Of course I agreed and on the way Lencha said that she thought Speedy had contracted the virus, probably from Junior. The news made the air thick, hard to breathe.
“And you?” I asked. Fear had seized me.
“I’m not well,” she admitted. At the hospital Lencha reported to the nurse that she, like Speedy, had difficulty breathing and felt a heavy, heavy fatigue. The day ended with both Montoyas in Gila Regional. I called Junior and suggested that he might want to return.
Within a day, before his son could arrive, Speedy died. I walked Buck for a long time and could scarcely bare to look at the silent, dark little house that filled my front window. When Junior, alone, moved into his parents’ house, I sometimes visited him, to share grief and to assuage mutual anxiety. On each morning for more than a week, we believed Lencha was going to come home. Each evening brought a sobering retreat from hope. Then crises, reported to Junior by phone from the intensive care nurse’s station, rose and fell. At the end, after days on a respirator, the vivid, sparkling Lencha died.
Sylvia sobbed when I told her the news. For the first time I heard Sylvia describe Lencha as the grandmother she never had.
“Lencha told me that you both had talked and that you said that I had given up.”
Sylvia said nothing. “Well,” I said, “I’ve been thinking you were right. At least then. But I think you and I should have another try. Lencha thought that as well.”
We talked for hours that night. We talked for hours during the coming days. I told Sylvia of my time with Junior, of putting away his parents’ belongings and of saying aloud the memories his parents had bequeathed.
It was fall before Sylvia returned. It was fall before Junior could cut through the legal tangles of having no will, to dispose of one little house and one dinted and scraped Ford 150.
One bright October Sunday, as crystalline as such days can be in Silver City, Sylvia and I rolled a dolly across the street, passing the for-sale sign, and I balanced the Mexican barbecue on the dolly with Sylvia walking beside. We lifted and rolled and dragged that steel drum to the yard behind my shack. That’s where it is today until such time as I can claim the elk steaks from Theresa and Gummy for some memorial Coahuila barbecues.