Illustration by Eliza Bishop
I’m in the Texas panhandle. I wish I could tell you where, specifically, but I don’t know. Outside Amarillo.
There are no landmarks. No trees. No water. Just dirt, wind, and prairie. I am at a run-down barbecue trailer parked outside a filling station. I am ordering food. My wife is waiting in the vehicle with our bloodhound.
The woman at the window is a gray-haired sweetheart.
When I first arrive, she is smoking a cigarette out front. When she sees me, she moseys into the trailer. I’ve always wanted to use that word—“mosey.”
She gives me a Texas barbecue lesson. Her voice sounds like a tuba.
“Our barbecue’s different than your Southern style, baby,” she says. “You need to know that.”
Fair enough. Since I am a Southerner, I ask her what the regional differences are.
“Oh, lotsa differences. Mainly, in Texas we actually know how to cook.”
“Also,” she adds, “we don’t care ‘bout side dishes like y’all do.”
Say it ain’t so. Side dishes are sacred to people in my parts. Each year local heathens visit Southern Baptist barbecues simply to eat their yearly requirement of coleslaw.
The fourth time I got baptized, for instance, I ate so much coleslaw I had to ask the congregation for forgiveness the following Sunday.
I order a pulled-pork sandwich.
“Pork?” The old lady gives a hoarse laugh. “We don’t do pork. This is Texas. Brisket.”
“OK,” I say. “A brisket sandwich, then.”
“No sandwiches, neither. Brisket.”
I order brisket and ask for extra sauce on the side.
“No sauce,” she says. “Brisket.”
So I’m eating brisket that’s wrapped in foil. And we are having a conversation.
Beneath the woman’s rough skin is a lady who was born in Amarillo. She married a man in the military. She saw the whole world with him. Top to bottom.
“Only place we ain’t been is Japan,” she says. “But we seen everywhere else. Lived in England a few years once.”
Then she tells me about her husband. The first thing she talks about is his defining characteristic: “He gave me lotsa gifty crap.”
What this Texan belle means is he gave her gifts—trinkets, whiskey glasses, and candy. And he did this almost every day, she explains, for 48 years.
“After work,” she goes on, “he always had something for me. Every day. A candy bar, a stuffed animal, a set of salt shakers shaped like goldfish. Shoot, I got about a million shot glasses souvenirs.”
She once asked him why he bought so many gifts.
“Sweetheart, sweetheart, sweetheart,” he would say. “I don’t need a reason.”
“He was a neat guy,” she goes on.
Cancer. It came fast. One day he was fine. The next day, he was dealing with big decisions.
“My husband went from being a strong man to…”
She shows photos on her smartphone. A nice looking fella in uniform.
“Didn’t have us no kids,” she says, swiping photos on her phone. “Only each other. We did everything together.”
After she laid him to rest, she couldn’t figure out what to do with herself. So here she is, with her barbecue pit-master nephew, serving brisket.
“I gotta do something to keep my ass busy.” She laughs and coughs. Then, she moseys (rimshot) from behind the window. Our conversation is apparently over.
“‘Scuse me,” she says. “I gotta go smoke.”
My brisket comes wrapped in tinfoil. My compliments to the chef. This is among the best beef I’ve ever had.
I order some for my wife. I pay. Then, I walk into the filling station to use the Little Roy Rogers Room and buy a souvenir or two.
When I get back to our car, I hug the girl who is waiting for me. My wife is not just my companion but my friend. She smells like shampoo.
I put something small into her hand. Something I picked up in a run-down, dusty filling station.
“What’s this?” she says. “A shot glass? Why’d you buy me a shot glass?”
Sweetheart, sweetheart, sweetheart.
I don’t need a reason.