"Buddy, it cold that winter. It was damn cold, know what I mean? Just about froze my ass off, pal. Livin' in an ice-house in the middle of winter ... we're talking cool here. Frosty. Colder than a well-digger’s ass. Savvy?"
"Sure, man. I can dig it." Ricardo fumbled with the top of his quart of beer as the Professor got wound up for his story.
''I’m not shitting you, Senor – it was the grey banks of the Arkansas River and no mistake … ice chunks bobbing in black water, frigid, gelid, dad. Whew!"
“What the hell you want to stay in that kind of place for, dude?" Ricardo chuckled and took a long swig off his bottle of beer. He looked out the window of the 1941 Chevrolet sedan at the rugged terrain dim in the moonlight. They were entering the Canadian River breaks on the high plains of West Texas.
"It was a roof, Ricardo. That was just after my ex requested my absence, but before she took the baby and a truckload of ratty furniture and went south like a big bird. After she did that, I sold the house in front and laid up in the adobe out back. Falling down piece of shit it was too, but it was the Ritz compared to the icehouse I'm telling you about."
"An icehouse is a good place on the west side of the San Antonio, dude, you can buy happiness there." Ricardo raised his eyebrows and his beer bott1e when he looked at the Professor. He was slumped in the corner between the door and the seat, the most comfortable posture for a man with a hunchback.
"Different kind of icehouse, amigo. No cerveza. No water, no heat -- or not much. Walls a foot thick filled with sawdust. Perched on the riverbank across from the blasted landscape of Smeltertown. They used to cut ice out of the river when it froze over and store it there for use of the residents of the poorhouse next door."
“Poorhouse?" Ricardo cracked a grin. "I know you weren't rich, Professor, but chingala! La casa de pobres!"
“The poorhouse was closed, Ricardo. It was a big two-story brick structure all shuttered up. You could barely make out the words on the sign over the door: ‘Eleemosynary Institution.’"
"Eleemonastary Institution. What it is? I thought you said poorhouse. Sounds like a place for priests."
Professor Boaz swung the old Chevrolet four-door off the highway into a roadside park on the banks of the Canadian River north of Amarillo. "Never mind,” Boaz went on. "I lived next door in the icehouse with a couple of hippies named Heckle and Jeckle -- that’s what I called them anyway. They lived downstairs, only there weren't any stairs, just a hatch that dropped onto the kitchen table."
"No stairs? Strange house. dude.” Ricardo tossed his empty beer bottle into a trash can beside the parking space the Professor had pulled into.
“There was a set of stairs outside in back that I used to get to my room. My ex took pity and let me have the electric blanket. Only reason I didn't freeze to death. Man, I was blue. Had to get up early to sign on at the radio station where I worked. Goddam ‘48 Dodge pickup wouldn't start half the time, had to flag a ride. When you're late to work at a radio station everybody knows it, especially when you're supposed to sign the fucker on. Get in back, Ricardo. Let’s catch some zzs."
“Ah, que guero pendejo," Ricardo muttered as he half-stumbled to the rear door and tumbled in.
The Professor stretched out in the front seat of the roomy old sedan and resumed his story. “Anyway, these guys let me sleep upstairs in the old icehouse after my ex gave me walking papers. Heck and Jeck were would-be mechanics – they kept a twelve-cylinder engine out of a D Jag on the kitchen table. At least they had style."
Ricardo cracked the twist-off top on his bedtime quart of "happiness" and belched loudly.
"But it’s the cat I'm getting around to," the Professor continued. "It was an Egyptian cat – a Manx, no tail.”
"No tail?" Ricardo giggled drunkenly. “What happened to the gato's tail, dude?"
"It didn't have one. I'm telling you, pendejo. Manx cats are born without tails, only this one was worse off than most because it only had one ear."
"Pobrecito gato," Ricardo muttered from the back seat. "No tail and only one ear." He laughed loudly and stuck his mangled looking right hand over the seat back and dangled it over the Professor's face. Ricardo's right hand had no thumb, a congenital error. "Sounds like my kind of gato, dude. Give me four."
The Professor gave the hand a weak slap and Ricardo pulled it back. “This was one expensive cat, Ricardo, worth lots of bucks. It had belonged to an heiress to the Neiman-Marcus fortune."
"Neiman-Marcus – how come it was living at the poorhouse?” Ricardo hiccupped.
"Heh-heh. Good question. See, that cat was like me, pal, a refugee. The heiress had a husband who was a friend of mine. Guy was an artist. The Manx sharpened his claws on a painting he was doing. Pete got so pissed, he tossed the pussy into the street during a snowstorm. That’s how it lost its ear. Frostbite. Heckle or Jeckle found it and brought it out to the icehouse. An act of compassion. Pete caught hell from the cat lovers, especially his wife, but he was unrepentant."
Ricardo turned over in the back seat. He was lapsing into his nightly alcohol-induced coma. "Good for the hippies, man," he said sleepily.
“Yeah, and they saved my ass too," continued the Professor. "So there we were ... me, Heckle and Jeckle and a frost-bit cat living in the icehouse in the dead of a Rocky Mountain winter."
"So what happened then, dude?" Ricardo was hanging in there in an attempt to finish his quart.
“Well, one weekend Heckle and Jeckle split for Denver to visit friends. I shacked up with a girlfriend in a real house. It turned out to be the coldest two days of the year, froze the fuck out of everything."
“What happened to the gato, dude?"
"I’m getting to that. It used to sleep on top of the hot water heater to keep warm, but while we were gone the propane ran out. Heckle and Jeckle found the poor sucker frozen stiff up there by the pipes. It was a hard winter, man."
Ricardo's first snore came rattling over the front seat.
“What kind of place is this, dude?" Ricardo was standing beside the ’41 Chevrolet taking an early morning piss. The sun was barely over the horizon.
Boaz snorted sleepily out of the remnants of a dream. “What? Oh hello Ricardo. Up with the birds eh? Whew. What did you say?"
"I said, what kind of place it is? This river looks like the Rio Grande – no water." Ricardo chuckled and zipped his fly.
"This is a place called Old Tascosa on the Canadian River, amigo. The Comancheros used to meet here before there were any settlers out here on the Llano Estacado."
"Comancheros? You mean banditos?"
"Gun-runners. Slavers. Hombres muy malo, senor. They used to lay up here to parley with the Comanches, get drunk and shoot each other. Dig?"
"Oh. Pinche cabrones. I hope they're not coming back. I'm hungry, dude."
"There's a cafe a few miles up the road near Dalhart. Let’s hit it."
The old Chevy coughed to life. Boaz let it idle until the rods quit knocking, then slowly pulled out onto Texas 385.
"This is the back road through the Panhandle, Ricardo," the Professor remarked once they were underway. "It misses Lubbock and Amarillo to the west. Smuggler's route."
"Ah que guero, we're not smugglers."
"Not today, but I like this way. Scenic and not much traffic."
The old Chevy pulled the last rise out of the Canadian breaks and emerged onto the rolling high plains of the Texas Panhandle.
(Dedicated to Richard Elizando)
H.H. Howze © 2017
Not a boomer. H.H. Howze is a writer/photographer and disruptive political presence in deep red Round Top, Texas.