A broken watch, Jacob thought with a fair amount of bitterness. He took another bite of rattlesnake meat and stared into the fire, wondering how the hell all this happened.
This is how it happened.
He looked in horror at the still hands on his watch – thirteen minutes too late. Sprinting through the streets of El Paso, dodging pedestrians, and jumping over curbs didn’t get Jacob to the train on time. He stared at the departure board. Not a promising start to a career as a corporate lawyer.
Still, he had hope. Uber. The de facto taxi service of the country was at his disposal and he immediately made use of it. His credit card limit was, well, limited, but he had enough room on it to get him to the next train stop on time.
“No problem,” the Uber driver said. “You’ll be there with thirty minutes to spare. Just give me a good rating, ok?”
Jacob vowed he would, if Bobby G. (said driver) delivered. Sitting back in the seat, Jacob sighed and worked on feeling less tense. The job was important to him for so many reasons. Mom and dad would be proud. He would make a lot of money. He would show Lila Mae Grigson what she gave up. It was the last reason that mattered the most.
“She dumped me because I was going off to college. Can you believe that? I would have the means to give her a great life but she left me for Bobby Ray Williamson. Yeah, a dumb-ass cowboy.”
Bobby G. listened patiently but unwillingly. This always happens, Bobby G. thought. Passengers just start talking about their troubles, like he was a damn therapist or something. He looked in the mirror. The man was just rattling on, staring out the window.
Ten minutes later, they were both standing by the side of the road, eyeing the smoke coming from under Bobby G’s car hood. Bobby G. was no mechanic. He had no idea what was wrong with his vehicle, and he was a little put out that his passenger was wailing about it. I mean, it’s my car that’s broken down, the man could show a little compassion.
Jacob felt that sinking feeling in his gut. The kind that comes when you feel like the universe is conspiring against you, no matter what you do. Jacob had felt this feeling when he pleaded with Lila not to break up with him, and he felt it when he realized that he had missed his train.
Darkness was arriving way too quickly for Jacob. Bobby G. had called a friend to come pick him up, but that would take over an hour. Jacob would miss his train and, he thought, morosely, his chance at being someone. Melodramatic, yes. Jacob didn’t care. He had a girl to show up.
Lights came on in the distance. Jacob gazed at the lights, wondering if someone there could help him out. He was desperate and now prone to making bad decisions. With a wave of his hand and a brief explanation of his solo exodus, Jacob struck off across the fields in search of – and there is no better way to put this – salvation. Jacob argued with him, but listlessly and with no real feeling about the outcome. He just wanted to get home and have a beer.
“Sure bud. Just give me a good rating, yeah?”
Jacob walked. And walked. And walked some more. The lights, though, didn’t seem to get much closer. He kept walking, occasionally stumbling over mesquite roots and cacti. After two hours, Jacob stood outside of the Bee in the Bonnet Bed and Breakfast. The symbolism was completely lost on Jacob.
Mavis, the proprietor of the B&B, greeted Jacob warmly. She was old, he thought. Too old to be running a business. But not too old to get him to the next train station.
“Lord, honey, my man’ll get you there,” Mavis said. She placed a tray of cookies in front of him. Jacob ignored the cookies. She handed him a cup of coffee. Jacob sat it down, untouched.
“He’ll be back in the mornin’, hon. Went fishin’ with his brother. Be gone all night. So, can I get you a room for the night? Only $75, and you get a free breakfast.” Mavis was proud of her establishment.
“You’re our first customer. Not that we care how many we get. Me and my man retired a few years ago and decided to buy this place, fix it up. He can pretend to still be workin’ and I can pretend that I’m still keepin’ house.”
“When will he be back?” Jacob cared not one whit about their lives. In fact, Mavis’ voice was starting to grate on his nerves.
Kal, Mavis’ husband, duly arrived at 6:00 the next morning. He was happy to give Jacob a ride to the train station, but he had to see a man about a horse first.
“Two horses, actually. Coupla roans I had my eye on for a while. I figger me and Mavis can ride out of a mornin’ and enjoy the countryside.”
Mavis rolled her eyes as she sat down breakfast for the two men. Jacob’s eyes widened in surprise. His plate had three eggs on it, as well as four pieces of bacon, two sausage patties, and a thick slab of ham. A pile of biscuits rested between the two men, complete with apricot preserves and a huge mound of butter.
Kal dug in right away and ate everything on his plate. Three of the biscuits also disappeared down his throat. Jacob was amazed. The man was as skinny as a rail.
Jacob ate about half of his plate and was stuffed. He wasn’t as thin as Kal. In fact, and he hated to admit it, he was a pasty, pudgy, twenty-five-year-old man who would breathe hard going down a flight of stairs.
Kal’s pickup truck had seen better decades, Jacob thought ungraciously. Kal never drove faster than 45 mph, and the truck shook him violently at that speed. The radio worked – barely – and Jacob found out that his cell reception out here was nonexistent. A perfect morning, he thought.
It was about to get perfecter. You know what I mean.
“I can’t ride a horse!” Jacob’s voice verged on strident. Kal told him to stop bitchin’ like a woman and get up on the horse. After several unsuccessful attempts and amidst a lot of chuckling, Jacob was astride the smaller of the two roans.
“You traded your pickup for these two things?” Jacob was incredulous, but he shouldn’t have been. The truck was practically worthless and the roans were young. Kal chuckled at his slick dealings, well satisfied with himself. The horses would outlast the truck by twenty years.
“How in the hell will I get to the train station now? It’s thirty miles away, Kal. These horses can’t make it there by noon.”
Kal was unperturbed.
“Don’t worry, son. I got a brand new truck out back in the garage.”
Jacob fumed, as one would expect.
“Why didn’t we go to the train station first? Jesus!”
“Had to make this here deal before old man Simpson came to his senses. Hell, son, you’ll get there. Keep your britches on.”
Jacob didn’t quite know what that meant, but he figured it wasn’t complimentary.
“Give that horse a little kick, son. That’ll get him movin’.”
Jacob did as instructed. Unfortunately.
“I don’t know where he ended up, Mavis. The horse just took off. I follered for a while, but I couldn’t catch the damn thing.”
Mavis shook her head and slapped a huge steak on Kal’s plate. He dug in right away.
“I reckon he’ll show up sooner or later.”
“I hope so. I worry about ‘im, out there all alone.”
“Now Kal, don’t get your blood pressure up. He’ll be fine.”
“I suppose so. Hope the kid’s ok too.”
Jacob had finally stopped the horse. Rather, the horse decided to stop of its own volition; Jacob didn’t seem to factor into the horse’s chosen actions.
Climbing down off the horse presented its own dangers, but Jacob got to the ground without much physical injury. He tried to shoo the horse away but it stuck with him as if they were bosom buddies. Jacob gave it up and started walking back the way he had come from. Or so he thought. Nothing looked familiar. He kept on walking, hoping that Kal would find him.
Kal didn’t find him but an old man named Chester did.
It was almost dark and starting to get cold when Chester found Kal wandering around, muttering to himself. The kid looked a sight in his dirty, ragged suit and raising his fist to the sky. Chester watched the kid for a while before approaching him. When he did approach him, the kid jumped about a mile in the air.
“Settle down there, son. I’m just makin’ camp.”
Jacob eyed the old man warily. He was a little intimidated by the man and a lot intimidated by the gun on his hip. The old man ignored him while building a fire and making coffee. It was quite cold by now, and Jacob welcomed the warmth of the fire and the coffee. Jacob was also hungry but he didn’t say anything until the old man brought out a frying pan.
“I’d be thankful for something to eat, sir. Hadn’t had a bite since this morning,” Jacob said. He was still frightened of the old man with the gun, but he was also hungry. If the old man wanted to shoot him, he reasoned, he would have already done it.
“Have a seat, son. Got plenty,” Chester said. He then pulled out three dead snakes from his saddlebag and started skinning them. Jacob was horrified and skittered away from the fire.
“Mighty fine eatin’, son. Don’t be skeered of these here dead snakes. They can’t hurt ya’ none now that they’re dead.”
Chester threw the meat into the large skillet and added some salt and pepper, turning the pieces from time to time. Jacob watched in fascination.
“Aren’t they poisonous?”
“Sure, but when ya’ cut off the head, that’s where the poison is. Cut off the tail and toss the rattles away. Then skin it. The rest is good food.”
“Say, why you out here a wanderin’ around for anyway, son? And in those church clothes?”
Jacob took a bite of the rattlesnake meat and thought about what Chester had asked. How he had wound up here was a mixture of bad luck and bad timing. The bad luck was the broken watch and the bad timing was in being unsuccessful in getting to the train station.
“Just a series of unfortunate events, sir. But thanks for the food and the fire.”
Chester leaned back on his saddle after eating, sipping his coffee and smoking a cigarette that he had rolled himself. He seemed very content, Jacob thought. The old geezer must be pushing Methuselah for the old age crown, he didn’t seem to own much, but he seemed happier and more at peace than Jacob had ever been in his life. He wondered how that could be.
“I reckon I can git you to my daughter’s house tomarrah and she can git you to town. I don’t know what else to do with ya, kid.” And with that pronouncement, Chester tossed Jacob a not-to-clean blanket before rolling over to sleep.
Jacob tried to sleep, and eventually did, but he wondered if snakes would come near the fire. His only comfort was that Chester seemed to have depopulated the venomous creatures that day. He also wondered if he would ever make it to San Antonio. Fate, he figured, liked to dick with lawyers. Even new ones.
Estelle Robbins didn’t much look like her dad, but she had the same brusque manner and lack of sensibility that were the hallmarks of Chester’s pronouncements. All along the way to Estelle’s house, Chester mocked Jacob for a variety of things, not the least of which was his choice of being an attorney for a big oil company.
“I reckon the entire universe is shuddering because an oil comp’ny shyster is missin’. Lord help us all,” Estelle said as she and Jacob climbed into her ancient Oldsmobile. The car shook and rattled all the way to…well…a small conglomeration of ramshackle buildings that Estelle, with no irony at all, called ‘town.’ The street was unpaved. Of course, thought Jacob. A sad little café greeted them as they entered the town, followed by a general store. On the other side of the dusty avenue resided a feed store. Various small buildings were further down the road, many of them shuttered and looking extremely forlorn.
“I’ll ask around, see if anyone can git you to the train station. You just go sit over there and try to not git lost again,” Estelle said, striding off and disappearing around a corner. Jacob looked around the corner. Nothing there.
He waited for over an hour, feeling like the abandoned buildings down the road. Sighing, he went to the café and ordered an iced tea. He peeked in his wallet. Thirty-seven dollars. He ordered a hamburger, no fries. Cancel the tea, just bring me water.
The burger was a full half-pound of meat, and fries came with it at no extra cost. The tea was free as well. We call it a lunch special, son. That’ll be four dollars.
Jacob paid for the ridiculously inexpensive meal and left a hefty two-dollar tip. He sauntered back outside, but he still couldn’t find Estelle. That disturbed him. Where could the woman be in such a small place? Jacob decided to look around while waiting.
The empty buildings used to be a barbershop, a drugstore, a business building, and a doctor’s office. Jacob wondered how this town survived without these things. It just didn’t seem possible.
Estelle returned with good news. Jerry, a ranch hand in the area, had an airplane and could take Jacob to San Antonio tomorrow. Jacob agreed to the ride, but unwillingly. He didn’t like airplanes, especially small ones. But he had a job to get to.
“Oh, and we have no cell reception, so you might as well put that thing away,” Estelle gestured to Jacob’s phone. “Never had it, prob’ly won’t have it for another ten years.”
Jacob scoffed at this. Technology and progress couldn’t be denied. The modern world would have to catch up with this place. Estelle was dead wrong about her prognostication.
Estelle was right.
Jacob never left the area. The promised plane ride didn’t materialize because the unnamed ranch hand crashed it that night, drunk and trying to impress a girl. The injuries to the couple were minor enough that the girl agreed to a second date. They got married a year later.
Jacob kept on trying to leave, but everything fell through. He eventually gave up and opened a practice in one of the abandoned buildings in the ‘town.’ He drafted wills and took care of land deeds. He even did taxes for people. The town was grateful enough for this that they gave him a place to live, carte blanche at the café, and enough time off to go fishing with Kal and his brother.
Estelle was in his office one day to get Jacob to write her will. She had a lot of land and a lot of money from her father. Jacob was surprised that Chester was a rich man; he seemed like the west Texas version of a homeless man. Estelle set Jacob straight on that.
“My daddy loves what he does. Roamin’ the land and livin’ by his wits. Ain’t nobody can tell him what or what not to do, and that’s freedom, son.”
Jacob smiled at Estelle and nodded. He liked Chester and he was almost to the point of not being frightened to death of Estelle.
“You’re lookin’ a site better’n you did when you got here. You was a fat one weren’t you?”
Jacob agreed, and his loss of weight was as surprising as anything else. He ate massive meals at the diner – that was the only kind they served – and he still lost weight. He didn’t know why. Estelle said it was the good air. Chester said it was not being stressed. Jacob figured both were right.
At times, Jacob wondered how the rest of the world was getting along, but those times were becoming less and less frequent. After a few years, he just didn’t care. It stopped mattering.
Jacob went to bed that night after working on Estelle’s will. He had grown used to the stillness and the absolute darkness that this place seemed to own. It had permeated his soul to the point that it seemed natural. Somewhere in the distance a coyote howled. Jacob thought of Chester out there with all the wild animals.
Lila rolled over and kissed Jacob before falling back to sleep. Jacob smiled and went to sleep himself, his desert heart content to be where he was.