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Thursday, 7 June 2012

Toad's Road-Kill Cafe - the title story

On to the third extract from Toad.  This is where I got the title for the book - from a little roadside diner in Leakey, Texas, where I stopped on impulse.


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Toad’s Road-Kill Café


It’s one thing to say you’re never going to sully the temple of your body, nor risk that ineradicable sense of guilt and self-loathing, by eating at One Of Those Places, but it’s quite another to draw up, and stick to, a set of standards.  When it comes to FRDs – Family-Run Diners – there’s no way of telling what you’re in for other than to suck it and see.  It grieves me to say it, but I have eaten some excruciatingly awful food at Midwestern Mom and Pop joints.   

In the Case of the Grilled Slipper, of course, the explanation was simple: the family, who were actually a front for a local survivalist cult, had all been massacred and the place was being run pro tem by – oh, a junior FBI agent disguised as an idiot younger sister, I should imagine.  It was in rural Nebraska, I had driven for hours and hours without a break, and I came across a quaint little hovel miles from any habitation. 

I ordered a BLT, and that’s what tore their transparent cover to shreds.  The girl – she was perhaps seventeen, her outfit grubby, her figure shambolic, her command of English somewhere south of rudimentary – disappeared for a time, then returned to tell me that they had no bacon. 

No bacon.  In a diner.  In America.  I still wonder whether the Guinness Book of Records would have been interested, or perhaps the Food and Drug Administration.  “Make it ham, then,” I said. 

I don’t know when they started wearing pig-skin around the house in the Midwest, but what I got in that sandwich reminded me of nothing more than the inner-sole of a cast-off carpet-slipper: slightly blackened, curled up around the edges, tainted with cheese, and a tad too salty.  One mouthful and I was out of there.

So why, you might wonder, would I screech to a halt outside a shabby little place called Toad’s Road Kill Café in Leakey, Texas (pop. 401)?  Was I at risk of imminent starvation?  Was I fighting off the urge to give chain restaurants one more chance?   No, it was cold rationality, a decision based on my need to prove myself as a travel writer.  If I were to make things happen, I surely needed to make myself go where I most feared to tread.  It’s the kind of advice I freely hand out to other writers, to my children, and to anyone else who finds themself balking at critical moments in their lives.  Besides which, I was starving.

I pulled up and got out of the car.  As I approached  the door I was brushed aside by a large man in a crumpled suit.  He looked alarmed – and I could see why.  Close behind him was a small, skinny agitated woman with a dish-rag in one hand and a vicious looking knife in the other.  “I don’t have no New York Jack cheese,” she shouted as the man hurried to his car and clambered in, “and I don’t have none of that Parma ham, and I don’t have no rye-bread rolls, so git!”

As she went back inside I stood in the doorway, eyeing the patina of grease on the counter, the pile of old magazines by the back door, the several empty tables strewn with fading menus, discarded newspapers and grubby salt-cellars.  The proprietor – the skinny woman who’d just seen the fat gent off the premises – was now standing over a little table by the counter, calm as you please, somehow managing to chop onions while she read the day’s paper, her steamed-up glasses perched on the end of her nose.  She looked like most people’s idea of a grandmother.  A modern, feisty grandmother, that is: jeans, a sweatshirt, and a less than reverent attitude to people she didn’t like.  Maybe the clue was in the sign above her head: “God Bless John Wayne”. 

There were only a couple of customers in the place, two elderly men in work-clothes, their broad, callused hands clasped round a matching pair of sandwiches which dripped mayonnaise and disgorged splinters of bacon and dribbles of ripe tomato as they raised them to their mouths.  “Sit yourself down, stranger,” said one.  The other grinned.  “She makes a darned fine BLT.  Jest ain’t so keen on these darned city slickers with their fancy diets.”

Ten minutes later I was munching a truly splendid BLT of my own – it seemed the only thing to ask for, under the circumstances - and poring over a map of Texas with Toad’s reading glasses perched on my nose.  “Here, try these,” she’d offered when I realised mine were out in the car.  And then, because I couldn’t resist asking her, she told me how she got her name.  “Goes back to when I was a baby.  I never learned to crawl.  Just hopped about the place like a little toad.  Been stuck with it sixty years.” 

The guys at the other table had just about finished eating.  The first one wiped his mouth on a paper napkin. “Guess you’re new to Texas,” he said, and held out his hand. 

“Yes, I’m from England.  Just passing through.” 

“Name’s Bob,” he said.  Here, at last, was my chance.  I took a deep breath, reached out to him and uttered the line I’d been rehearsing since I first dreamed this trip up.  

“Call me Slim.”

“How’s that?” Bob asked, cupping a hand to his ear.

I could already feel the steam starting to leak out of me.  I clenched my abdominal muscles again.  Might as well face it, I thought, you’ll never make a liar.  “Slim,” I said.

“Jim, huh?  Hey, same as my buddy here.”

At which point I gave it up.  “No,” I said.  “Alan.”  And then, reminding myself that you can’t win `em all, I thought I might as well try another line I’d always liked the sound of.  “But you can call me Al.”

They asked where I was heading.  If I had a destination in mind it was Junction, by way of Telegraph, which they agreed was a `purty liddle place`.  “But,” I added, “I’m not in a hurry, really.  I want to see as much of this country as possible.  They told me Texas was all dust and tumbleweed, but look at it.”

“Oh sure, it’s real purty round these parts.”

I learned years ago that the straightest way into a stranger’s heart is to praise his children, his livestock or his homeland.  I learned it twenty years ago in my rat-catching days, when I was doing the rounds of farms, smallholdings and out-buildings in North Lincolnshire.   It works fairly well with garden produce too.

“By heck, that’s a fantastic patch of rhubarb you’ve got there.” 

“Aye.  Not bad, is she?”

“Not bad?  Mine’s all thin and – why, it’s hardly worth picking.”

“Well, you want to try some of mine, lad.  Go on – take a few sticks.  I’ve plenty of it.”

And so on, with cabbages, tomatoes, green beans, strawberries, farmyard muck, puppies, young cockerels  – anything you care to think of, according to the time of year.

And here in Toad’s place, true to form, once we got to talking about how wonderful Texas was, they were away.  And before long Bob was telling me that he’d spent his working life up north – somewhere in Wisconsin – and had finally saved enough to retire to the place he’d dreamed about.  “I got a little cabin back there a ways.”  He gestured vaguely in the direction of Cottonwood Creek, which I’d crossed on the way up from Garner State Park. 

“Sounds great,” I told him, looking as wistful as I could.  I don’t know why I bothered to affect any sort of look, really, because I was to find that westerners put very little effort into being the way they are.  Theirs is a casual kind of hospitality.  The door’s always open; it’s up to you whether you walk through it or not.

“Listen,” Bob said, “if you’re not in a hurry why not come up to my place there and take a look around.”

“I’d like that.  Be nice to see some of the country after all that driving.”

“I built a bunkhouse for my grandchildren when they come to stay.  No-one there this weekend.”

He was not only offering me a tour of his spread, but an overnight visit.  “You bet.”  Bob was spending the afternoon in town.  He and Jim had a spot of fencing to see to out at a friend’s place, and we agreed to meet up later.  I told him that to kill a little time I’d take a ride up to Camp Wood on the eastern fork of the Nueces river.  Bob corrected my pronunciation.  “We say `Noo – ay – says`,” he said - pretty much what I thought I’d said in the first place.

It was delightful country, the road winding between forested hills, the verges sagging under the weight of yellow flowers.  And up there I found another hotel under restoration, this time a guy with a couple of women in tow who not only knew how to bake and haul timber but also how to move around their café like goddesses.  Goddesses in shorts, that is.  It was no place to hang about when you’re single and on the move, especially when one of them’s saying “Oh, you’re a writer!  How neat.  I’ve always wanted to write.”  No place at all.  They’d have little trouble pulling weary hunters – and writers – in out of the rain once they got the place up and running. 







“Wait Till You See My Master-Key”


Back in Leakey, I met up with Bob, stashed a change of clothes in his truck, then followed him round the corner where he said there was a good place to park.    “Ain’t nobody going to take it from here,” he said.  “Not from right outside the sheriff’s office.”

It wasn’t many miles to Bob’s place, but it was quite a ride.  “County grader comes down here once a year,” he told me as we splashed across a ford, skidded over loose rocks and ground our way up a steep-sided gulch cut out of the limestone.  “They stir the gravel around some, and that’s all you get for your taxes.”  He stopped the truck, got out and opened a gate.  “Another flood now and I’ll just have to wait till next spring before they fix it.” 

He had a twenty-acre spread set in the valley between two spurs, and running up the side of a wooded mountain.  It cost him $15,000.  “But that was three years ago.  There’s nine realtors in this town – lotta people retiring out this way now – and the one who sold me this parcel of land, she’s been back more than once.  `I can double your money for you – if you’re thinking of selling`.  But it suits me fine.  Only have to spend twice as much to get another patch.”  He had a couple of neighbours within half a mile, their houses just about visible amongst the trees, and a couple of horses down in a piece of pasture.  He had a feral cat that came by to be fed from time to time, a woodpecker that tried to steal the cat food, and a selection of humming-birds and scarlet cardinals flitting about the eaves of his house. 

The house itself was prefabricated: styrofoam panels pinned to a wooden frame and all sitting on a concrete base.  His porch was supported by stout cedar poles he’d taken out of the wood.  Indoors it was dry and warm, adequately furnished, but there was no stove.  “Do all my cooking out there,” he said, pointing to a makeshift barbecue pit and grille set right into the earth.  “Guess it’ll be steak for supper.  Again.”

We gathered an armful of sticks and dragged a few fallen branches up to the pit, lit the fire, and then sat on the porch drinking beer.  “If we’re real lucky we might see a white-tail deer,” Bob said. “They come down to browse sometimes.”  From across the valley the sound of a car door slamming, and a man’s laugh drifted in.  I wondered how he got along with his neighbours. 

“That guy?”  He glanced in the direction of the noise.  “We had a little misunderstanding when I first came out here.”  He smiled.  “Remember that gate we came through?  It’s on his land.  But I have an easement through it.  A right of access, deeded at the Land Office.  First time I came along I found him putting a lock on it. 

`Why, you don’t need to come through, do ya?` he says. 

`Oh yes I do,` I  told him.  `I bought that land through there.` 

`Well, I aim to keep this locked, all the same.` 

`That’s fine,` I said.  `I’ll just use my master-key.`  

`Master key won’t do you no good.  It’s a combination lock.` 

`You seen my master key?`  And I took out the fourteen-pound sledge hammer.”   Bob crushed an empty can.  “We get along real good now.”

The thing about his neighbour, he told me later, was that he gets edgy certain times of year.  “He generally hires a couple of Mexicans when he has a job to do around the place.”

“You mean illegals?”

“Yeah, wet-backs.  Everyone does.  You won’t get anyone round here to work for minimum wage.”  We had the fire blazing now.  He threw on a log.

“So, you know about this, and you’re a new-comer, right?”

“Yeah.”

“That means everyone else around here knows about it.”

“Oh, sure.”

“And that means the sheriff’s going to know too.”

“Course he does.”

“Does he ever feel like doing anything about it?”

“Not unless there’s some kind of trouble.  Otherwise he figures it’s none of his business.  Besides, once they’ve done the job they move on.”

“Where to?”

“I’ve never asked.”

But then the canyons round here have always been home to outlaws.  The Texas Hill country was for a century a natural haven to anyone on the run.  According to Bob, there are still one or two old-timers around who rode with the Newton gang back in the 1930s.   “Harmless bunch, really.  Held up banks with a shotgun, but they never had more than bird-shot in it.”  His own father had been out this way in the old days, not on the run exactly, but certainly looking for adventure.

“It’s one of the main reasons I’m here today.  Dad was thirteen, my uncle fifteen, and they wanted to be cowboys.  This would be – oh, about 1900, `cos he was fifty when I was born, and that was 1937.   Hopped a freight in South Bend, Indiana, and wound up herding cattle in Frio canyon.”   He laughed.  “He came home around 1904 or 5, but he never stopped talking about this country and how pretty it was.  Soon as I was coming up to retirement and scouting around for a place to buy, I just naturally wound up here too.  Just wish I’d made it a hundred years earlier. Guess that’s another bit of my Dad I’ve got in me.  `Cos he was an ornery old cuss too. 

“He farmed our spread till the nineteen-forties and never had a tractor on the place.  Right up to when I left home I was still taking a team of horses and a buggy into town to fetch the groceries.  Six miles each way.  Turned over a load of potatoes one time when the team bolted.  We did try to get Dad to use a car, but it didn’t work out too well.  I remember one time he wanted to get the thing out of the barn to drive somewhere or other, and we heard such a commotion – banging and shouting.  We ran outside and there he was, with a two-by-two, whacking the rear end.  `Godammit!  I said back up – d’you hear?`  And after he’d given it a few cracks he got in and, d’you know, the darned thing backed up right away!”

The fire was glowing now, the smoke all driven off.  Bob threw a couple of beef steaks on a grille and perched it on top of the hot coals.  “Dad was a hard man in a fight.  We had a neighbour.  Said our beagle pups were disturbing his livestock.  They weren’t doing any such thing, of course.  He just didn’t like them being around.  But he came raging and storming and told Dad they had to be shot or he’d get the sheriff on the case.  I was six years old, and I loved those dogs.  There were two of them.  Well, Dad just listened to what the guy had to say, then told me to go to the house and fetch the shot-gun and three shells.  I was in tears of course, but when Dad told you to do something you didn’t question it.  I brought out the gun and Dad loaded it up, took aim at the dogs and cocked the trigger.  Then he looks at the neighbour and says, `You want these dogs dead?` and the neighbour says `That’s what I said`, and Dad says, `Cos I’ll kill `em both right now.  That’ll take two shells.  Then my boy here’s got another one in his hand.`  `Oh?` says the neighbour.  `Yeah, that’ll be for you,` says Dad.  We never heard another word about them dogs unsettling any livestock.”

As soon as we’d eaten I started to feel drowsy.  There was a fat moon rising over the pine-trees, and despite the sudden coolness in the air a few cicadas were starting to chirrup.  In the bunkhouse Bob showed me the kitchen, a fridge full of soda-pop, a shower, and pointed to a mound of bedding in one corner.   “Grab a mattress and make yourself at home.”

Later, as I lay on my bed up against the window, I could see him move about his house.  On the ground between us every blade of grass, every little rock, every fallen pine-bough was illuminated by the piercing light of the moon.  When I looked up at it it was so bright it almost hurt my eyes.  In the end I had to draw the curtain across the window before I could get off to sleep.