Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Cornbread & Beans
by Laura Leveque aka Jackass Jill
Story previously published in Gold Prospectors Magazine, Desert Exposure Magazine, and Solar Cooking Adventures.
The morning sun warms the reddish coarse sand speckled with pyrite where I toss my nylon tent. Anne Marie my cat tunnels under the fabric, and Joey the dog flops near the tunneling cat bulge, rolls onto his back and wriggles side to side like a beached fish. I watch laughing, hands on my hips. “Dang you guys, how will I ever get our tent up!”
My pack donkeys, Shaggy and Willy, ten feet away behind their solar-charged polywire corral, eye the rippling fabric, hoping for a chance to play tug-of-war. For now they’ll have to make do tugging on sticks; my tent is off limits.
I planned this weeklong trip of blissful solitude to the Steeple Rock Mining District east of the Arizona state line in search of mineral and rock pigments: the red oxide of hematite; the shades of yellow, ochre, sienna, and umber found in limonite; azurite blues, and malachite greens. When I mentioned to some artist friends in Silver City about painting landscapes using natural pigments found locally, they offered to buy every pigment I could dig-up.
I lure the dog and cat away with liver treats and set the tent up, then I put the solar oven on a folding table in the sun on this April day under an infinite blue sky. I line two black roasting pans with aluminum foil (to save water and scrubbing), then squeeze half of the stiff premixed cornbread batter from the gallon zip lock bag into each pot. To one pan of batter I stir in some olive oil and a can of drained corn and teaspoon of salt—this one to accompany the beans; to the other pot I add safflower oil, two eggs, and quarter cup of brown sugar—a breakfast cornbread. The cornbread will bake to perfection in two hours; three hours if scattered clouds move in.
I drain the red beans I’ve been soaking for two days, add fresh water to the two-gallon bean pot, and turn it to low simmer on the two-burner propane stove. I’ll add spices after I unpack the rest of my kitchen.
A few hours later I hear a vehicle and see dust rise from the road below me. I’m far enough off the dipping and hair-pinning dirt road that travelers shouldn’t notice me, I hope.
Then I see Texas Jack’s faded gray Jeep Cherokee slow, stop, back-up about fifteen feet, then turn into my tracks. One-hundred feet behind him is a late model Chevy truck with an expensive looking overhead camper. As the Jeep gets closer I see curious cat faces pressed against the back-seat window.
I thought Texas Jack was checking out mining claims in the Santa Rita Mountains with some guy called Gerald the Joker—reputably not a humorist but a card shark.
After Texas Jack parks and climbs out of his Jeep I ask, “Why are you here? Did somebody die?”
He smiles, “Makin’ sure you got camped okay. He—” Texas Jack gestures toward the truck that is now backing in, “wanted to stop and say howdy on our way.”
“Oh.” I turn, then look back at him, “I left a voicemail telling you where I was for an emergency, it wasn’t an invitation.” I walk away to stir my beans.
He opens the Jeep’s rear door and three cats jump out and make a dash to my tent, start climbing, wrestling, and chasing Joey and Anne Marie. The animal antics make me laugh. The donkeys watch, curious for awhile, then resume munching the dry tufted ricegrass.
We make introductions. Gerald the Joker is a big soft man, maybe six-feet-five, with pale baby hair, fish-pale eyes, and large pink hands. In contrast his wife is about five-feet tall, desert tortoise skin stretched tight over angular bones, a startling contrast to her chrome blue eyes framed in a well-cut pageboy of shiny auburn hair. She doesn’t smile.
The aroma of baking cornbread floats through camp. My stomach growls.
Texas Jack says, “Something smells right good. Too bad we can’t stay, gotta get goin’ soon.”
Gerald the Joker laughs, “Hell, I’m in no hurry, I’m retired.” He slaps me on the back and says, “Ole Texas Jack says you make a mean red bean soup. Sounds good to me, but I don’t like onions.”
I packed a week’s worth of food for myself and my critters. I expected the beans and cornbread to last me three or four days.
I continue cooking the beans, adding four cans of tomato paste; two cans diced tomatoes; three diced eye burning purple onions—snickering to myself about ‘but I don’t like onions’—yeh, but I do. Then I add a heaping eighth-cup of hot green chile powder, and a heaping eighth-cup of hot red chile powder. I smile to myself, whistling a verse from “Don’t Fence Me In.”
I hear clattering and Gerald the Joker talking. I turn to look and Mrs. Joker is unfolding two yellow lawn chairs. Texas Jack is perched on his beat-up metal folding chair.
The three guests now seated face the fifty-mile view of rugged peaks, mesas, rust red, purple and pink canyons with iron streaked tailing dumps, and sharp silhouettes of soaptree yuccas; the scene softened by weathered hills veiled in the wispy lime and avocado greens of Gambel oak, cherrystone juniper, and Apache and piñon pine.
“Hey, Jill,” I hear Gerald the Joker call, “any chance for some of your famous bad ass coffee?”
Looking at the back of his head I call back, “Don’t you guys have coffee in your rig?”
“Yeh, but travlin’ and all, everything is packed, got boxes strapped on top of the stove.”
“Sorry, just rinsed the pot out, can’t spare the drinking water.”
Then he adds, “Maybe tomorrow morning then.”
“Tomorrow morning? I thought you guys were on a mining claim mission?”
No one answers my question.
The baby haired man looks at his wife, “Woman! Get me a cold diet coke from the cooler, the red cooler with ice, under the table.”
Mrs. Joker rises slowly, she adjusts the steps then climbs into the camper, moves some boxes around; I hear a lid squeak, and she comes out, two cans dripping. Hers is a root beer.
“Thanks for the offer,” I mumble to myself. I look at the back of Texas Jack’s head, he is talking about a lost gold ledge in the Santa Rita Mountains.
As an afterthought I decide to add ten jalapeño peppers to the beans, seeds and all; burns going down, and if you are afflicted with hemorrhoids burns like the fire of hell going out, so I’m told.
The beans bubble, releasing the smell of roasted green chile and the nutty sweet smell of beans.
I haul water to the donkeys from the five-gallon cans in my truck bed, use my makeshift privy with camo curtain, grab the toilet paper and stash it in my tent just for spite, then call the cats and dog into the tent and zip it up so I can eat in peace, wash my hands in the dish water, go back to the bean pot, stir and check the beans for softness and say, “Soup’s on. Find yourself a bowl and spoon. I only have one spoon and one chipped enamel bowl,” I lie.
Again he orders his wife, “Get me that big ceramic bowl, the blue one, and a big spoon.” He turns his head slightly and looks at me with one eye, “Is the cornbread done?”
“Woman. Grab me a plate, knife, and the tub of butter. How about a TV tray too.”
When I glance into the open camper door, I see the glint of a large knife that Mrs. Joker lifts and looks at for a moment, then slowly puts down. She pauses, then gathers the plates, TV tray, and silverware.
I cut the steaming cornbread into four pie shaped hunks. I’m not concerned with hospitality, so I plunk my cornbread in the bottom of my bowl and ladle the bean soup over it. I walk to my lawn chair and sit. My guests remain seated, waiting. With my spoon I motion for them to get up and fill their own bowls and plates.
Texas Jack says, “Where’s my bowl?”
“Gee, I don’t know? Where is your bowl?”
Laughing, he pushes himself up and says, “Just kidding,” goes to his Jeep and rummages around and comes up with a mess-kit pan and silverware.
I put a big spoonful of beans in my mouth. I almost gasp. This is hot, hot, hot. Whoa. But I keep a straight face. After a few more bites my taste buds adjust and relax. Hmm, tastes pretty good.
I watch while Mrs. J puts the cornbread on Baby Hair’s plate, lathers it an inch high with margarine, expressionless she brings it to him. He says, “I need another coke after you get my beans.” Then I watch while she ladles the beans into his ceramic bowl.
She moves slowly to the camper and delivers another dripping soda. “You forgot the napkins.” She trudges back to the camper for napkins. Meanwhile Texas Jack is loading his pan with cornbread and beans. Texas Jack likes spicy food almost as much as I do. After Baby Hair is served and napkined, Mrs. J gets her cornbread and beans in a kid-size plastic bowl.
Then I hear the roar. “I said no onions!”
I calmly remark to the back of his head, “Just pick them out—”
I’m interrupted by gasping. “You’re trying to kill me!”
Obviously the delayed sting of the jalapeños hit his lips, tongue, and throat. He chokes, coughs like he’s about to dislodge all his innards, struggles for air and turns his head toward me, his eyes are popped out like in a cartoon. By then I’m laughing so hard my eyes are running and I’ve got to stop so I don’t pee my pants. I blow my nose and cough. He mistakes my tears and chokes of laughter for shared pain.
He rasps, “You can’t even eat your own food.” Then he chokes out the words, “I need more cornbread, another soda. Quickly, quickly!”
With insincere sweetness I say, “I’m so, so sorry. I accidentally dropped the other pan of cornbread, the donkeys are eating it now.” Another lie, the cornbread is safe on the floorboard of my truck. I stashed it while everyone was admiring the scenery.
Mrs. J gets up, puts her plate on her chair and her root beer on the ground next to her chair, she turns, looks at me, grins with perfect white teeth, but her conspiratorial smile disappears when he tells her to hurry.
After our memorable late lunch I gather two five-gallon buckets with digging tools and zip lock bags for specimens. While the men are talking I leave unnoticed, followed by the cats and dog, into the purple and red canyon behind camp. Anne Marie my tabby reluctantly acts as Pied Piper to Texas Jack’s young cats. She turns, hisses, and swats at them. I imagine she is asking the energetic cats to go home. “Anne Marie, I know exactly how you feel.”
I dig samples from weathered deposits of deep red oxides and rich yellow ochres and watch the cats and dog chasing and pouncing on each other under a pyramid shaped Arizona cypress. As I look in the wash I see oxidized azurite float and follow it into a side canyon thick with alligator juniper and piñon pine.
The cats follow behind me, dashing from cover to cover. At the end of this narrowing side canyon is a banded rhyolite wall thrust conspicuously into the maze of crumbling mineralized deposits in massive purple and green andesite. I’m ready to turn back when Joey races by and disappears behind the rhyolite wall. The cats zip past. I follow taking a hard left turn, dragging and scraping my buckets on the rock wall, then a right turn into a three-foot to four-foot wide trail with ankle to knee-high blue, green, and chalcopyrite rocks. Joey runs back to me scrabbling over and around the colorful copper ore boulders, and I notice his feet are covered in red mud.
This bucket scraping trail opens into a sixty-foot by one-hundred-fifty-foot box canyon with rice, fluff and needle grasses flowing around silverleaf oak, and a cluster of Arizona ponderosa pines; on my right Fremont cottonwoods with new spring leaves grow along a vertical wall. The canyon wrens, pine jays, and sage sparrows stop singing, flit for cover, and watch the cats. A few minutes later the canyon birds resume their songs.
Joey’s red mud footprints lead to a cleft in the wall behind the cottonwoods. I look up and see green algae with clear water dribbling into a washtub size shelf basin. The overflow seeps into the red clay at my feet.
Hmm, I think to myself, I might move camp here after everyone leaves. If I remove the donkeys’ panniers before the first tight turn they should squeeze through. I will tell Texas Jack about this happy valley, but not now.
The next morning I sit in my lawn chair next to Texas Jack. We look at the scenery and sip my fresh boiled Italian roast coffee.
Then I hear bellowing and cursing coming from my curtained-off privy hole. Gerald the Joker is yelling, “Where is the toilet paper!” More moans and bellowing.
I comment to Texas Jack, “Sounds like he has hemorrhoids the size of pomegranates.”
Meanwhile I notice out of the corner of my eye Mrs. J moving in slow motion putting one yellow lawn chair in the back of the camper. A bit curious I watch her lock the camper door, and without a glance back she climbs into the truck, slides the seat forward, cranks the engine, releases the emergency brake, rolls over the bumpy track, and turns left onto the gravel road. The gravel crunches and pings, leaving a low drifting dust cloud. Texas Jack and I watch silently. A single yellow lawn chair faces the view.
Then more yelling from the outhouse area, “What the hell is going on out there?”
Choking with laughter I yell back, “I think your wife went to town to get toilet paper!”
Texas Jack with his coffee cup in hand gets up and walks toward the road; he stops, and watches as the dust trail fades.
Pomegranate Buns yells something about bringing him some toilet paper, I yell back between gasps of laughter, “Use your underwear!” I hear more cursing.
Texas Jack returns, “Yep, she’s gone.”
“Yep, and it’s time for you to take Pomegranate Buns home. I’ll see you in a week or two.”
I’m anxious to pack the donkeys and move to the little oasis Joey found, do some test panning for gold, and see if any well formed crystals are hidden in the oxidized azurite before I pulverize it for paint pigment. If I run out of food I’ll take a half day and go to town. The little drama of Pomegranate Buns’s wife driving off into the lavender morning was well worth the brief inconvenience.
Posted by Laura Leveque at 7:18 PM