After losing her newspaper job in Austin and having her former fiancé unfriend her on Facebook, Josie Callahan scoops up her Chihuahua, Lenny, and slinks back to Broken Boot, Texas. Maybe working as head waitress at Milagro—her aunt and uncle’s Tex-Mex restaurant—isn’t exactly living the dream, but it is a fresh start.
And business is booming as tourists pour into Broken Boot for its famous Wild West Festival. But when a local jewelry designer is found strangled outside Milagro after a tamale-making party, Josie’s reporter instincts kick in. As suspects pile up and alibis crack faster than taco shells, Josie needs to wrap up this case tighter than her tía’s tortillas—before another victim calls for the check…
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Praise for Here Today, Gone Tamale
“Josie!” Aunt Linda’s high-pitched drawl soared like a heat-seeking missile up the wooden stairs from our restaurant below, through my quaint living room, and into my sweet but tiny bedroom.
There are three things Aunt Linda and Uncle Eddie have in common with tamales: they’re unpretentious, comforting, and fattening when consumed in excess.
“Be right there,” I bellowed.
“I’ll believe it when I see it, monkey.”
I groaned, but it was all for show. Long gone were the days of hiding beneath the warm cocoon of my quilts. I was no longer that grieving twelve-year-old orphan, yanked from the concrete glamor of Dallas and plopped into the dust bowl of the West Texas desert. Back then, Aunt Linda forced me to partake in what she knew best, the banality of folding napkins and the comfort of tamales. Now I craved the nostalgic aromas and chaotic chatter that would soothe my eviscerated heart and humiliated pride.
And it was time to boogie downstairs to set up for tonight’s festivities before the stink of self-pity started oozing from my pores. I scrunched up my nose at my reflection. “You may not be a waitress, but you can toss plates with the best of them.”
My dog, Lenny, barked from the doorway in disbelief, his bright button eyes and long, silky coat trembling with excitement.
“Little man, watch and see.” With a sigh, I smoothed the red bandana at my neck and yanked up the neckline of my peasant blouse so as not to inspire a lecture on modesty from the matriarch of our clan, Aunt Linda’s mother-in-law, Senora Mari. I tightened my ponytail and turned to my four-legged confidante. “Where is your bandana?”
“Yip.” Wagging his shaggy, miniscule tail a million times a minute, Lenny trotted to his doggie bed. The bed’s designer had gone to a lot of trouble to create a sophisticated bed for beloved canine companions, and I’m sure in her mind it was a thing of beauty. Unfortunately, it reminded me of a crunchy taco with a golden outside and a brown lumpy cushion. It even emitted the faint fragrance of meaty dog bones and beefsteak with just a hint of flea powder. Lenny nosed around under the cushion until he found his own neckwear, wet from drool.
“You are the smartest Chihuahua in all Broken Boot,” I said, tying his bandana so as not to pull his long black-and-white coat. I scratched behind his ears. “Yes, sirree.”
I know what you’re thinking: Another Latina with a Chihuahua.
Ah, but I am Irish, and Lenny is a Jewish Chihuahua, or so his previous owner told me. And how many of those do you come across?
My Irish-American father, Galen Thomas Callahan, had planned on naming me Joseph, but after my petite mother survived the rigors of her first, and last, childbirth, he was devastated to find that a girl’s name was needed. It was Aunt Linda’s new husband, the young Eddie Martinez, who suggested Josefina.
Scooping Lenny into my arms, I headed downstairs into an aromatic cloud of mouthwatering possibilities.
“Don’t bring that dog down here,” Linda said as she stole him from me only to cradle him in her arms. “You know you don’t belong at our tamalada,” she said in a baby voice reserved for Lenny. “But you are the cutest doggie in all of Texas, so you can stay.”
On Monday nights we closed to refuel after a busy weekend of takeout tamales and endless tables of fajitas and enchiladas. Lenny and I would plop on the couch, prop up our feet, and haze the cheesy TV dating shows. Or if we happened to be in the mood to eat dinner at Casa Martinez, otherwise known as the home of Aunt Linda and Uncle Eddie, we would join my family for burgers and brats while we argued over the culinary choices of the contestants on MasterChef.
But tonight was special. Milagro, our family’s restaurant, was hosting a tamale-making party. Though a tamalada was typically a Christmas holiday tradition in our family, a night of sharing stories and reminiscing about the past year’s events, this year, the Wild Wild West Festival committee decided to celebrate the arrival of their annual weekend shindig by gathering to make tamales. While partaking of yummy Tex-Mex and margaritas, the committee would also be contributing fodder for the festival’s kickoff event, The Broken Boot Tamale Eating Contest, which raised a healthy sum each year for the Big Bend County Children’s Home. Our staff could have easily made the tamales on their own, but we were more than happy to oblige the community movers and shakers who served on the committee.
“That dog should be roasted on a spit and fed to the hogs,” Senora Mari said, more from habit than any actual aversion to Lenny. Shoot, we didn’t even own hogs. She emerged from the restaurant kitchen with her hands on her hips, wearing her usual uniform of a peasant blouse and a red flower in her hair. She had added the apron we gave her for her seventieth birthday that read Get It Yourself.
“Hola, abuelita.” I ran to give her a kiss on her soft, wrinkled cheek. She wasn’t truly my grandmother, but she had invited me to use the endearment. If she was displeased with me, like when Lenny ran into the kitchen to sniff at her ankles and break several health code violations, I was expected to call her Senora Mari—same as her daughter-in-law, Aunt Linda.
“Don’t abuelita me.” She pointed her finger at the trembling dog. “He’s not going to get under my feet and trip me up tonight.”
“Of course not.”
“Of course not.” A slim young man with dark expressive eyes stepped from behind Senora Mari.
I tried hard not to grin at his cheekiness. “You do realize you have tonight off, right?” Our newest busboy and fill-in dishwasher, Anthony Ramirez, was a cutie pie of charming efficiency. If our newly laid plans for expansion panned out, he’d soon be promoted to waitstaff. When that happened, his pockets would overflow with tips from our female customers.
“Yes, Miss Josie.” Anthony dropped his chin and gazed up at me through his inky lashes. “But with all these people coming tonight, I thought you might need an extra pair of hands.”
Linda slung Lenny under her arm and gave Anthony a motherly pat on the back. “Come on.” And with a patient smile she started for the office. “You can pick up your paycheck.”
As they left the room, Senora Mari raised her eyebrows. “Why didn’t she ask me? I could have used the help.”
“You’re not fooling me.” I gave her a smile. “You’d rather die than have anyone help you tonight.”
“Humph,” she grunted, wiping down the already clean counters.
While her back was turned, I slipped into the office. Amber Rose, my favorite country band, was playing in Odessa in July, and I was in need of someone to take my shift so I could satisfy my craving for their howling blend of Southern rock and Texas blues. It would be the perfect opportunity for our newest employee to gain more experience, if Aunt Linda would agree.
My aunt was planted in her monstrous wooden swivel chair, flipping through one of the many stacks of papers on her desk. “Anthony, I promise,” she said, not looking up, “if we get slammed during the festival, I’ll give you some tables.”
“I’m ready.” He cast a glance my way. “Tell her, Miss Josie. I can handle waiting tables.”
Shooting a look of exasperation my way, Aunt Linda handed Lenny back to me. “He could be the best waiter in Big Bend County, but he doesn’t have seniority. And I’m not going to take a shift from Camille. She has mouths to feed.”
He fisted his hand, crumpling his paycheck. “My brothers and sisters need me. They couldn’t support themselves if they wanted to—they’re too young.”
Aunt Linda’s voice rose. “I’ll give you some tables when we bring in more customers.
“If we want to keep our doors open,” she continued in a quiet voice, “we’d better pray for a stampede of tourists during the festival.”
He looked at me in surprise, and I nodded. We’d tried to keep it quiet, but Milagro was limping along from payday to payday.
After a moment of awkward silence, Anthony relaxed his hand and smoothed out his crumpled paycheck on the edge of the desk. “Thank you, Miss Linda. You treat me fairly. I’m sorry.”
My aunt pushed back her swivel chair, stood, and held out her hand. “No hard feelings?”
I flashed a grin at Anthony. “Uh, Aunt Linda,” I began in my most beguiling tone of voice, “when I go to Odessa in a few weeks—”
“Absolutely not. Everyone works the week of the Fourth.”
My best smile flew out the window with my patience. “Don’t worry. I’m not talking about the Fourth of July. And I have an excellent replacement standing right here.” I placed my arm around Anthony’s shoulders.
In a flash, a “no” formed in her eyes.
I held up a hand. “It’s not as if I’m leaving tomorrow.” With a nod at Anthony, I headed for the door. “You can think about it while we entertain the committee.”
With me leading the way, we filed into the kitchen.
“See you tomorrow night, Senora Mari,” Anthony said, slipping his paycheck into his pocket.
“Wait, wait,” she called as he reached the back door. With a frown in my direction, she reached into the front of her dress and pulled out a folded bill. “Ask Dayssy to bring me a few jars of pickled okra.”
Beaming, he returned to take the fifty from her hand. “How many jars do you need?”
Her brow furrowed. “Ten.”
If memory served, we still had nine of the last ten jars Senora Mari had purchased from Anthony’s sister.
“Gracias, Senora,” he said with a nod and a saucy wink.
I waited until the door closed behind him. “I knew you had a heart.”
“So I like pickled okra. So what?” she said, shrugging her narrow shoulders.
Lenny whined and tried to wriggle out of my arms. “Be still. You’re going to supervise Uncle Eddie while he makes margaritas. Isn’t that right?” I scratched him under the neck.
“Ah, Dios!” Senora Mari narrowed her eyes to slits, once again the tough-as-nails matriarch. “Put him in his box, we don’t have time to dance over his tail all night. You want us to lose our license?”
By box, she meant crate, which I had already hidden in the storage room behind our rustic oak bar. “Say good-bye to the angry lady,” I crooned into his ear.
“Yip,” Lenny said.
We walked into the other room and, after a quick kiss on his delicate head, I placed him inside his spacious second home and washed my hands.
No one made tamales in our restaurant without the ironfisted oversight of Senora Mari, otherwise known as Marisol Ramos Martinez, and tonight would be no exception. Delicious, traditional tamales were our specialty. They had a secret ingredient. Lard. We weren’t foolish enough to share this secret with others, but everyone who makes real, old-school tamales knows the truth. Real tamales, at least in the Martinez family, are made with pork fat.
Much to Aunt Linda’s chagrin.
After years of towing the Martinez traditional line, she taught herself to make healthy tamales with veggies, brown rice, beans, and healthy oils. At home, she even ventured into dessert and fruit tamales. Uncle Eddie and I loved her cooking, even if they didn’t fill us up in quite the same way. Once, a few years back, she made the mistake of suggesting we add her healthy recipes to the restaurant menu, for health-conscious tourists. Senora Mari threatened to creep into her bedroom while she slept and pull out every hair on her head. I knew she wouldn’t do it and so did my aunt, but sometimes Senora Mari would get that look in her eye, the one that made me think one day the crazy on her side of the family would bust loose. Aunt Linda must have thought so too, for she had yet to ask again, though she often made her healthy and flavorful tamales for the rest of us.
Earlier in the day, Senora Mari had supervised our kitchen staff in assembling and preparing all the precious tamale ingredients: corn masa, succulent pork and beef roasts, roasted chickens with crispy skins, onions, garlic, spices, lard, and our giant steamer, the tamalader. I had only to light the ivory pillar candles in the wall alcoves for ambiance and the restaurant staff would be ready to greet our guests with open arms. I sent up a prayer that Senora Mari’s Saltillo tile had completely dried from its recent mopping. The evening would be an epic fail if the mayor slipped on the wet tile.
In the kitchen, the ladies all laughed, a rare and precious sound. The cowbell above the front door began to clang, twenty minutes before our guests were scheduled to arrive. Their conversation stopped and then continued, and I realized they trusted me to greet the first guests on my own.
At the entrance, a young couple waited. They were tall and striking and— Oh, no, my past had come back to haunt me.
My heart sank into my socks. “What are you doing here?” He was no longer Ryan Prescott, my college boyfriend, study partner, and French-kissing instructor, yet he was still mighty cute in an all-American way. Years had passed, but his blond hair was still thick and curly. Now he herded football players over at West Texas University, and by the look of things he still worked out as well. Guess his BS degree in physical fitness had come in handy after all.
I hadn’t seen him up close and personal since I’d made a surprise visit home and barged into his engagement party at Milagro three years earlier. It must be something in the water, because Ryan never made it to the church with his adoring dental hygienist, just as my ex-fiancé, Brooks, left me with fuchsia pew bows and matching thank-you notes.
“Eddie said you were shorthanded and asked if I’d fill in and tend bar.”
Everyone enjoyed a margarita or a glass of wine as part of the festivities. It made the tamalada more fun. Strange, Uncle Eddie hadn’t mentioned a conflict to me, but I hadn’t seen neither hide nor hair of him since breakfast.
Ryan turned to the woman by his side—the willowy, blond woman by his side. “I think you know Hillary.”
Who didn’t know Broken Boot’s very own beauty queen? Start the drum roll. It was Hillary Sloan Rawlings: the former Miss West Texas University, Miss Texas, and third runner-up to Miss America.
She lunged into my personal space, giving me an air kiss on my cheek before I knew what hit me. “Josie! You are as cute as ever.”
Engulfed in the aroma of Chanel and hair spray, I struggled to speak as memories of our college days rolled through my mind. “Why, how are you? I didn’t know you were in town.” This was not quite true, as a little bird—my aunt—had told me Hillary was teaching English and journalism at the college.
Ryan reached out to give me a hug, but after a quick glance at Hillary he dropped his arms. “Eddie told me you were home. You okay?” His face was open, his voice sincere.
Hillary’s wide eyes gleamed even as her mouth formed a moue of displeasure. “What happened?” she asked, cocking her head to one side. “Things didn’t work out at the Austin Gazette?” By this time, everyone in Broken Boot had heard about my recent layoff and messy breakup.
What was the big deal? I couldn’t be the only reporter to mistake two innocent Slovakian brothers for jewelry thieves? To top things off, a week later, the man I thought I loved, the man who argued over every detail of our upcoming nuptials—from the color of the bridesmaids’ dresses to the satin ribbons on the church pews—unfriended me on Facebook, changed his status to single, and flew to Australia to see the Great Barrier Reef.
“Hillary.” Ryan gave her a look somewhere between surprise and disappointment.
Two years ago, Hillary and I had both applied for the coveted local news reporter position at the Gazette, and I won. Guess she figured she had the right to crow.
She smiled and tucked her chin. “I’m playing.” She flicked her shoulder-length hair from her neck. “We go way back. Right, Josie?”
Way back to me stepping in to save the college newspaper by writing her articles in addition to my own. I wrote my butt off and barely managed to keep my scholarships and shifts at the restaurant while Hillary managed to make it to Atlantic City.
Ryan gave me a nod and a crooked smile. “Where should she report for duty?”
“Aunt Linda and Senora Mari are in the kitchen.” I didn’t remember Elaine Burnett, the committee chairperson, mentioning that Hillary was putting in an appearance, but go figure. Hillary was big news and the festival needed big publicity.
Ryan tried to lead the svelte woman through the swinging doors, but she planted her pink and turquoise cowboy boots on the floor and refused to budge. Before my eyes, her countenance changed from spite to remorse. “Josie, I want to thank you. If the Gazette had chosen me instead of you, I would never have finished my master’s, found this fabulous position at West Texas, or met Ryan.” She tilted her expensive highlights toward his shoulder, her gaze level and clear of malice.
And the Oscar goes to . . .
The football coach beamed with pride at the homecoming queen’s performance. He raised his eyebrows at me, demanding reciprocation.
“You’re welcome?” I shrugged. It sounded like a bunch of hooey to me, but there was Ryan, still watching me with those puppy dog eyes, hoping us girls would be fast friends. “Congratulations,” I offered. “May you enjoy all the success you’ve earned.”
“Thanks,” she said. She looped her arm through his, and they strolled off to the kitchen.
Some people catch all the breaks, and the rest of us eat too many tamales.
Next to arrive was our dedicated committee leader, Elaine Burnett, owner of Elaine’s Pies, where the locals dropped in for homemade desserts, including empanadas, savory pies, and a bit of gossip. She was the ultimate festival committee chairperson. Well-mannered and pleasant, she and her daughters, Melanie and Suellen, handled the tamalada invites and reminder phone calls to the other committee members. Even though she was small in stature, she possessed the Southern knack of asking in such a way that none of them dared to refuse. They knew, as I did, one should try to stay on Elaine’s good side for she enjoyed paddling her fingers in several local pies, like the town council, school board, and chamber of commerce.
“Buenas noches, y’all,” Elaine called out as she and her daughters entered, carrying a white sheet cake decorated with giant blue roses and the words Happy Tamalada. In spite of their confusing decision to bring cake to a tamale party, Elaine’s daughters were no slouches.
“Melanie, don’t drop the dang thing,” mousy-haired Suellen chided as her sister stopped abruptly to wrangle the strap of her Coach bag onto her shoulder. Suellen ran Elaine’s Pies now that her mother had retired to play with her grandchildren while Melanie, the source of those little blessings, displayed her Southwest-flavored paintings at her own gallery, Where the Sun Sets.
“Welcome,” I said, holding open one of the swinging doors to the kitchen. “Right in here.”
“I don’t know why we both had to come,” Suellen murmured under her breath as they proceeded. “She knows I can’t stand tamales.” To quote Katharine Hepburn, Elaine’s oldest was all elbows and knees. She was stretched tall and thin, and I blamed it on working long hours at the pie shop with little time for romantic interludes. Melanie ignored Suellen and presented her cake for all to see. “I thought we could use something sweet as a reward for all the hard work we’re going to put in.” Elaine’s youngest daughter was Texas tall and tuned tighter than piano wire. Her hair was cut in a glossy, chic pageboy with retro bangs, as if she’d just walked out of a Manhattan salon.
“¡Ay! What’s that?” Senora Mari asked, wrinkling her nose as if she smelled a dirty diaper.
My aunt laughed. “Don’t pay her any mind. It looks positively yummy. Y’all are too thoughtful.” Her generous smile went a long way toward smoothing away her mother-in-law’s bluntness. “Bring it right over here.” Aunt Linda opened the large commercial refrigerator and indicated an empty shelf.
I prayed Lenny had gone to sleep. All it would take would be one yip and catastrophe would strike, but leaving him upstairs would have resulted in canine wailing. A banshee had nothing on the six-pound canine. How would Elaine’s clan react? Would they believe that Lenny had never been near the kitchen or the food? If he made an appearance, the committee members might find it hard to believe the setup was sanitary and freak out.
With a slight hesitation, I asked. “How are those grandkids?” Two energetic boys, with Texas-y names I could never remember. Were they Chase and Trace or Coy and Roy?
Elaine piped right up, “Wonderful! Smart as a whip, the both of ’em.” With a graceful movement, she smoothed her teased, white curls with a pale, manicured hand. “The question is, how are you?” She turned to my aunt with a sympathetic shake of her head. “Linda, you must be worried sick.”
“Josie’s fine.” My aunt drew me to her side for a quick, one-armed hug. “You’re ready to skedaddle out of here, aren’t you?”
Well, no. I’d only been home for three months. The slower pace of Broken Boot along with the warm acceptance of my family and neighbors all served as solace to my feelings of rejection and disappointment. Aunt Linda and Uncle Eddie didn’t worry I’d get rusty out here on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. If they had tried to push me back into the wide world beyond Broken Boot, I would’ve dug in my heels. Instead they plied me with work and the mouthwatering comfort food I craved.
Like I said, my aunt and uncle can be fattening.
I smiled. “Time heals everything, so they say.” No need to have a pity party in front of company.
Elaine cocked her head in a dovelike movement and pursed her lips. “No, not quite.”
On the heels of her weighty pronouncement, I changed the subject. “I’m submitting to the Bugle.” Broken Boot’s humble weekly had yet to accept one of my articles. I’d tried a community piece about the Spring Break Chili Cook-off at Bubba’s BBQ, but the editor said it lacked spice. With an attempt at something more intellectual, I followed with a piece on the Texas drought. He said it was too dry and never cracked a smile.
“But you have your family,” she continued with a smile for Melanie and Suellen. Her sympathetic gaze turned to Aunt Linda, Senora Mari, and then me. “Family, my dear, is everything.”
In the next few minutes, the rest of the committee arrived and eagerly donned white Milagro aprons. They were a friendly bunch, mostly local business owners, which led me to believe they were wholeheartedly invested in the success of this year’s tourist season. There was also a pastor, school principal, and PTO president in the bunch, if I had to judge from their perfect haircuts and hearty handshakes.
Elaine must have given strict orders for one and all to appear in Wild Wild West Festival attire, for there were enough folks wearing plaid shirts, cowboy boots, and blue jeans to provide extras for the next gun-toting, two-stepping, Texas-based Western. Come to think of it, Mayor Cogburn was likely to blame. According to the Bugle, he’d badgered the town council on a monthly basis to pay for a huge billboard on the highway which read, Welcome to Broken Boot, the Hollywood of Texas.
With the air of a military drill sergeant, Senora Mari clapped her hands. “¡Vamanos! Let’s get started.”
“But we’re missing at least four people,” Elaine said, glancing at her watch.
The drill sergeant frowned. “We start without them.” She waved her right hand in dismissal. “Everyone washed their hands, sí? You listen, I give instructions.”
“That’s my cue to salt some glasses,” Ryan whispered. He gave Hillary a peck, on the lips, and I thought Senora Mari was going to blow a gasket. Her face turned bright red, and when the coach turned to leave she stared at me with raised eyebrows.
“Let’s wash up,” I spun to the sink and began to lather up with the anti-bacterial soap before anyone noticed her disapproval. After washing their hands, everyone listened politely as the older woman issued explicit instructions in a no-nonsense tone. The ground masa would be carefully blended, the tasty roasted chicken pulled exactly so, and the succulent meat chopped to the correct size and texture. By the seriousness of her expression, everyone knew she didn’t suffer fools easily, and they listened intently, as if their one hope of leaving in a timely manner depended on pleasing the four foot eleven tyrant before them. Only Suellen Burnett dared to roll her eyes.
“I’ll make sure Ryan has everything he needs,” I said, making my escape.
I found him behind the bar, slicing limes and humming a hip hop song I’d heard on the radio. “I didn’t realize you were a Drake fan.”
He laughed and the corners of his eyes crinkled in that way that always made me feel so clever and amusing.
“Come on, player, I’ll help you set up.”
“Nah, I got this,” he said and gave me his crooked smile. “I’ve filled in plenty of times.” He stared at me with his dark blue eyes and inexplicably a few tiny butterflies swirled in my stomach. I frowned, reminding my heart it was a glacier, impervious to all male charm.
Wasn’t it a man who’d forced me to un-invite one hundred wedding guests?
“Make yourself at home.” I had plenty of things to do, like wrap silverware, double-check condiments, or find the breaker box and flashlight in case the AC unit blew a fuse again. “Where’s Uncle Eddie? Come on, spill it.”
My uncle liked to watch game film with Ryan while bouncing around ideas for lineups and upcoming strategies. You could say Uncle Eddie had played more than a little football in his day. During his freshman year, the NCAA had named him Rookie of the Year in Division III football, an unprecedented honor for a West Texas University athlete.
Ryan shrugged his straight shoulders out of his navy suit coat and hung it in the storage closet. “Two Boots, where else?”
Uncle Eddie and Aunt Linda were high school sweethearts who had married young. About eighteen years ago, they took over an old barn, named it Two Boots, and transformed it into the town dance hall, where every Friday and Saturday locals and tourists danced to the tunes of some of Texas’s best country and rock musicians. On Mondays, Eddie usually completed his liquor and supply orders by five o’clock. If this were a typical fall day, he would come home early and camp out in the den for his Monday Night Football fix, away from all the chatter over whose culinary masterpiece was going to take the prize.
Lenny barked for attention and I nearly jumped out of my skin. “Shush!”
“Lenster!” Ryan said in a stage whisper as he bent down to squeeze his hands between the crate bars, the better to scratch behind the excited dog’s ears.
“You don’t mind if he’s your barback tonight?”
“He’s not going to bark, is he?” Ryan rose to his full height, six feet and change. “Wouldn’t he be happier upstairs where he can run around?”
“If I leave him upstairs alone, he barks until he’s hoarse or we all go crazy. Down here in his kennel, he’s quiet as a white-tailed deer.”
Lenny yipped in agreement.
I bent down and unfolded an old throw blanket from the back of the kennel and draped it over the entire thing so Lenny would go to sleep. “Okay, Lenster, it’s naptime for you. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Behind the bar, Ryan washed his hands and dried them on a clean towel. “Kennel it is.”
Ignoring one last butterfly in my belly, I grabbed a stack of bar towels from the supply closet and carried them over. “How are things at the college?” I wanted to ask why the hygienist had broken off their engagement, but I didn’t know where to start.
He turned around to open the mini fridge behind the bar. “Same old, same old. Off-season training, lifting, gearing up for two a days.”
That was what I didn’t miss about Ryan, all his football talk. “Glad to hear it.” I turned away. Obviously, he wasn’t waiting for me to say something about his ex-fiancée breaking up with him. Guys didn’t do that kind of thing. Exhibit A: Hillary.
“I’m sorry that jerk left you at the altar,” he murmured.
Or maybe they did. Tears threatened, but I bit the inside of my cheek. The pain saved me from showing my weak underbelly. “Yeah. Thanks.” I racked my brain for something that wasn’t too pathetic to say. “Life sucks, right?”
He lined up the lemons and limes across the cutting board, and then stared at me again as if he were trying to communicate telepathically. “You deserve better.”
My stomach did a slow flip-flop. That guy who bought me three corsages for our spring formal during our senior year at UT, so I could choose my favorite, was still in there somewhere and standing right in front of me. “Don’t we all?”
On a burst of energy, Aunt Linda sailed in from the kitchen. “Any sign of the mayor and his wife? It’s only fifteen minutes to seven, but you know Senora Mari. We’re off to the races.” When Linda Callahan Martinez entered a room, people took notice. Beautiful and slender, with chestnut hair and flawless skin, she often passed for my older and more captivating sister. Ryan started slicing and dicing like a food processor. Was he trying to impress her with his culinary skill or had he learned that her beauty came with an Irish temper?
I expected the busboy for the evening to transport the drinks from the bar to the thirsty tamale makers, but he was nowhere to be seen. Probably smoking in the alley. “I’ll go find Ivan.”
My aunt followed closely on my heels as we entered the kitchen. “Ryan’s looking good, right?” she whispered.
I shot her a sharp glance. “You knew he was coming and didn’t tell me.”
She shrugged. “It’s only Ryan. No big deal.” A smile played about her mouth as she made a beeline for Suellen, who was struggling to pull the cooked chicken from the bone. The others appeared to have things well in hand. Hillary stood at Senora Mari’s shoulder, watching as she checked the corn husks. After soaking for two hours, they would be soft and malleable, ready to embrace the flavorsome mix of corn masa and meat.
With a slam of my hand against the push bar, I stepped into the alley and was slapped upside the head by the cloying smell of greasy Dumpster. “Ivan, come on.” Instead of catching a teenager throwing his cigarette butt into the weedy gravel, I caught Mayor Cogburn and his wife in a heated embrace. It was like watching cowboy Woody and his cowgirl sidekick make out. I was horrified and riveted at the same time.
The mayor released his wife with such speed that she lost her footing and only a quick hand to the wall kept her from falling on the sparkly pockets of her too-tight jeans.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
With a glance of warning at his wife, he straightened his bolo tie. “We didn’t want to arrive too early,” he said, polite as a poker, unaware his wife had left coral lip prints on the side of his mouth.
I had no idea what to say or where to look. Mortified, I blurted, “Great outfits.”
She started to smile, but then realized her leather vest was hanging off one shoulder. If looks could kill, hers would have skewered my gizzard to the doorframe. She thrust her arm back into place. “Why don’t you go inside and fold napkins or something?” With a flounce, she dug out a small mirror and inspected her makeup.
Dutch and Felicia Cogburn frequented Milagro on Friday nights. He never left without making a suggestion on how to improve our tamales, and she made sure to complain about the temperature of the air, water, coffee, and food—all too cold, so it was odd to see her so hot and bothered.
It wasn’t every day I walked outside to find two people making out in our alley, especially not local dignitaries of a mature age. My face burning, I tried to keep it light. “I’m sorry if I, uh, interrupted. You’re more than welcome to come inside . . . when you’re ready. We started early.”
He shoved his hands in his pockets, drew back his expensive shoe leather, and kicked an abandoned soda can with a loud thwack. “Nah, you didn’t interrupt nothing much.”
“You can say that again,” Felicia muttered, withdrawing a tissue from her handbag. “We’ll enter through the front door if it’s all the same to you.”
“You can enter here,” I said with a plastic smile, “or walk all the way around.” I shrugged. “Your choice.”
Mrs. Mayor spoke up, “Why don’t you go back inside and check on your other guests?” In other words, get lost.
“No problemo.” They could stay outside and bark like dogs for all I cared.
None of the gossiping chatterers in the kitchen noticed me as I made my way through the fragrant aroma of onions, garlic, and eye-watering peppers and out the swinging doors into the dining room, grateful to leave the Cogburns behind me.
Five minutes later, the cowbell clanged again, and the mayor and his wife entered hand in hand. “Evening, folks.” They joined us in the kitchen, the pinnacle of marital bliss.
At their appearance, Hillary stopped texting and shoved her phone into the pocket of her ripped jeans. Funny, all it took was an appearance by the town’s power couple for her to perk up and remember how to act right.
Senora Mari stepped forward with two Milagro aprons. “Glad you could make it.”
With a quizzical glance, the mayor retrieved them. He placed one around his neck and one on his wife.
“Would anyone like a margarita? Or a glass of wine?” Aunt Linda asked, raising her hand. “We’ve got frozen or on the rocks, salt or no salt?”
A dozen hands went up.
“Josie’s going to come by and take your orders so there’s no need to take a break just yet.”
Suellen Burnett lifted her fingers from a bowl of shredded chicken. “I’ll take a rum and coke,” she said with a grimace. Surprisingly, she didn’t complain about her greasy task and went right back to tossing chicken bones into a nearby pan.
The kitchen doors burst open. “I hear we’re having a party!” A statuesque wild woman stood in the doorway with her arms out wide and an ear-to-ear grin on her round chubby face.
“We are, now you’re here,” I said, and I meant it. Now that Dixie Honeycutt, well-known artist, hellion, and pain in the establishment’s backside, had arrived, things would liven up a bit.
“Aren’t you going to save the rum for the pirates, hey, Suellen?” she chortled, clapping the younger woman on the back. Judging by her speech and the state of her clothing, Dixie had started her own party earlier than the rest of us.
One never knew if Dixie was going to show or not when it came to the WWF committee events, but knowing her as I did, I wouldn’t put it past her to show up a bit drunk simply to shock those in charge. She wore her usual attire, hippie chic straight from Haight-Ashbury circa 1967. Like dozens of musicians and artists of her generation, she’d migrated to the stark beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert and its austere twin, the Chisos Mountains, searching for inspiration. Where others had found unforgiving heat and monotony, Dixie had shed her urban roots like a rattler shedding its skin, finding success using rocks and precious gems to create her own handcrafted jewelry.
She whipped around to greet the rest of us and tripped over her floor-length, tie-dyed skirt.
I lunged to her side. “Dixie,” I said, grabbing her arm and scooping her cloth bag from the ground. “Let me help you.” Whoa, someone had been tipping the grain alcohol. When you work at a dance hall, you know what whiskey smells like on someone’s breath and oozing out their pores.
“Hey, go easy,” she said, pulling away from me to rub her upper left arm. “I’m a bit tender right there today.”
“Making a grand entrance as usual, I see,” Mayor Cogburn gave her a droll smile as he rolled up his sleeves.
“Only way to fly,” she said, her chest rising and falling as she tried to catch her breath. She dug under the hem of her tank top and adjusted the waistband of her skirt. Flinging her long white braid over her shoulders, she quipped, “I’m fine. Thanks for asking.” Back in the early seventies you might have called Dixie a flower child, but in the past forty years or so she’d grown in girth. Demonstrated by her tie-dyed skirts, plaid shirts, and bold jewelry, terms like Hippie Momma or Earth Mother had become a better fit. She and the artists who remained in town had transformed this small ranching community into a mini Austin with a cool, relaxed vibe.
Aunt Linda placed a hand on my arm and squeezed. “Let’s go ahead and take everyone’s drink order.” She pinned on a hundred watt smile for the rest of the committee.
“Y’all must be powerfully thirsty.” With a nod and a wink in my direction, my aunt started for the back of the room.
I thought I heard the whole room breathe a sigh of relief. They’d obviously been watching the show while soaking up juicy tidbits to share with their friends and neighbors at the first opportunity. Oh, they wouldn’t go so far as to pick up the phone, for the good Lord knew that would be gossiping. But if a friend or acquaintance should ask what’s new over morning coffee at Elaine’s Pies or a cold Coors during happy hour at Two Boots, well, that was a horse of a different color.
“Make it four margaritas without salt for me and the lovely Burnett ladies,” Dixie said, making a grand sweeping gesture.
Suellen spun toward the older woman, hands clenched, not caring that bits of chicken still stuck to her fingers. “I don’t want a margarita, thank you.” Her words might have been polite, but her tone was somewhere between shut up and let’s take this outside.
“It’ll loosen you up, prissy pants.” Dixie laughed and glanced around the room as if she expected the committee to join in.
Suellen’s jaw fell open in horror and snapped shut in rage. “At least they make pants in my size,” she said, her voice as quiet and threatening as a roll of thunder over the desert. She turned to where I stood with my jaw hanging open. “I want a shot of Jack Daniels, a shot of Jägermeister, and a shot of Dr Pepper in a tall glass with ice.”
Without drawing my attention, Elaine had appeared at her daughter’s side. “That’s enough, little sister,” she said in a gentle voice and squeezed Suellen’s hand. Under her breath, she added, “Sticks and stones.”
Suellen tore her gaze from the inebriated woman to her mother’s disappointed face. “Oh, alright,” she muttered through her teeth. “Give me a margarita.”
“Whatever Dixie says goes,” Melanie’s sarcasm could have melted iron.
Yesterday, I’d heard from a customer that Melanie and the jewelry maker had had a huge blowout in front of Bubba’s BBQ. I made a quick note on my pad. “Ohh-kay. That’s four without salt. Anybody else?”
The mayor chimed in, “Two with salt.”
Felicia Cogburn fidgeted with her sparkly bangles, her eyes wide and unblinking as a gecko, smiling at no one in particular.
“Diet coke, please.” Of course, Hillary needed to watch her calories to prevent her head from growing any fatter. Oops. That thought wasn’t very Christian. I’d better watch it or one day I might say something to Hillary that I’d live to regret.
Senora Mari stepped into the center of the room, twitching with the need to get the tamales rolling. “Back to work, por favor. No breaks until the drinks arrive.” Among the volunteers I detected a few groans.
With a wide smile, my aunt added, “But when they arrive you can take a nice long sit down.” Someone let out a whoop.
“Lord knows, I could use one of those,” said Mayor Cogburn, turning from the restaurant’s industrial, double-sided sink. He was drying his hands thoroughly with paper towels from the nearby dispenser, and though his comment was clearly sarcastic, his delivery was so dry it was hard to take offense or think less of him.
“You’re welcome,” Senora Mari hadn’t caught the sarcasm. She smiled encouragement to him and the other volunteers as she circled the room, yet again, inspecting the committee’s progress.
Walking toward the group, the mayor balled up his paper towels and lobbed them into the trash can. “Hurry up with them drinks, now, ya’ hear?” he said in a campy Southern drawl.
Dixie barked a brittle laugh at his remark as Aunt Linda whisked her over to the sink to wash her hands.
“We wouldn’t want to deprive Miss Honeycutt of anything her heart desires.” Cogburn turned and gave his wife a tight-lipped smile. “Would we, sugar?”
“No, definitely not,” Felicia said. The mayor’s wife turned her head toward me and whispered, “Not while we’re waiting for the witch to finish the auction necklace. She’s two weeks late.”
The laughter died in my throat. “Don’t go away,” I said, infusing my voice with false cheer. “I’ll be right back.” I broke through the swinging doors, relieved for any excuse to skedaddle away from the melodrama.
* * *
An hour later, Senora Mari had stacked the first batch of tamales in two tall steamers, and folks were feeling mellower. Alcohol had done the trick.
“Does anyone know why in the Sam Hill we don’t have more traffic on our WWWF page?” I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing. The mayor’s abbreviation made our Wild Wild West Festival sound like a wrestling event. “It should be really rocking this close to opening day.” Only a stern look from Aunt Linda kept me from rolling my eyes.
Melanie shook her head in disgust as she headed for the sink. “A website needs to be current and easy to navigate.” She rinsed her hands of masa and dried them. “The festival’s next week, for pity’s sake. Why don’t you update the fool thing?”
Hillary sidled up to where Dixie perched on a tall stool from the bar. “I love your work, I really do,” she cooed, pointing to the handcrafted necklace Dixie wore. The jewelry maker had created a series of tiny horses in the Native American style, each one carved from a different rock or precious stone indigenous to the Southwest.
Tilting her head to the side, the inebriated woman swayed forward as if trying to figure out from which planet Hillary hailed. “You got a cigarette? Filtered or unfiltered, dudn’t matter to me.”
The beauty queen wrinkled her nose in disapproval. “No, I don’t smoke those things.”
Dixie cackled. “Why, Hillary, what things do you smoke?”
With lips thinned in a painful smile, Hillary pressed on. “I’ve been meaning to ask you.” She drew in a breath. “What does your necklace for this year’s auction look like? Is it turquoise or topaz?”
“Why would I tell you, Miss Goody I-Don’t-Smoke-Those-Things? It’s a secret, same as always, and none of your dad-burn business.”
Hillary turned to Mayor Cogburn and his wife. “I thought you said you were going to display the necklace online to build up anticipation for the auction.”
After a quick glance at his wife, Cogburn stuck his thumbs in the belt loops of his designer jeans. “Well, you see . . . we’re still debating the matter.”
“You mean there’s still no photo on the website? I thought the whole point was to generate publicity for the auction.” Mrs. Burnett was rarely critical, which made her quiet comment hit home.
“Um . . . well . . . I haven’t received any photo.” Felicia Cogburn raised her hands in a helpless gesture.
“Heck to the no.” Dixie slid from the stool to stand before the mayor like a rooster at a cockfight—chin raised, eyes narrowed, and plump hands fisted. “The debate is over. It’s going to be a surprise just like every other year.”
From the corner of the room, a voice muttered, “What a diva.”
“Who said that?” Dixie swung her girth first to one side and then the other, but not one of the committee members would admit it, though several struggled not to laugh. The remark had come from the direction of the shredded chicken.
Melanie Burnett stepped up with a toss of her head, flinging her razor-cut bangs out of her eyes. “I don’t see why you won’t let them show it on the website now that you’re famous. It’s for a good cause.”
Dixie had recently hit the big time by scoring a contract with Neiman Marcus. And as a result, The Texan magazine was writing a feature article on her turquoise and tribal style jewelry. Hoping to ride on the coattails of her newfound acclaim, the festival committee had commissioned not only a necklace for this year’s auction fundraiser, but matching earrings and a bracelet, with the hope that someone would donate at least five thousand dollars to the cause.
Like a sonic boom, Dixie slammed her hand on the metal prep table by her side. “Maybe I’m sick of no-talent hacks stealing my designs.” She leaned forward, exposing a bit too much of her bountiful bosom. “Are you folks worried I won’t deliver the necklace in time for your precious auction?”
Jumping in to soothe the troubled waters, Cogburn said. “Now, now, don’t get riled up about it.” He turned to his wife. “Felicia and I aren’t worried, are we, hon?”
The mayor’s wife tried to smile. “Why, no.”