I ran into Curtis and Duwayne the other day out on the ranch road. They seemed more than usually confused, standing there in the grass looking down at a duck. “What y’all doing?” I called from the window of my car.
“Looking at a duck,” Curtis said. “The thing that’s interesting about this duck is that it’s all alone. You don’t see a duck hanging around by his own self much.”
Duwayne agreed, “Nope, they’s pretty much flockers.”
I pitied the poor duck. Since the boys eat every animal they find alive (or freshly dead on the road), I knew that duck didn’t have a prayer. Seeking to distract them from the inevitable slaughter, I asked, “What else you been up to?”
“Me and him is just back from brunch,” said Duwayne.
Acquainted with these two good ol’ boys for years, I had long ago formed an opinion regarding the length and breadth of their sophistication. It stretched about as far as I could throw a mule. When contemplating the rustic lifestyle of Curtis and Duwayne, what comes to mind is a double-wide trailer held up by cement blocks. Also the habit of heeding Nature’s call outdoors. Never did I expect to hear the word brunch fall from either of those whiskered-over lips.
Even though the hour was 10:30ish, the time city dwellers deem correct for partaking of a meal that’s neither breakfast nor lunch but a charming portmanteau of both, the reckoning didn’t scan for my happy yokels. Now, if Duwayne had said they’d gone for a second breakfast, like the way hobbits justify eating between meals, I’d have no reason to quibble. But brunch? Brunch just wasn’t done around these parts.
“Not brunch,” I mumbled. “Something else, not brunch.
Curtis corrected me, “Yep, it were.”
Duwayne threw in a bucket of the surreal, “Yep, brunch over to the ice house.”
For those not familiar with what an ice house is, in Texas it’s a tradition of serious moment. Originally a place to fetch a block of ice for the purpose of cooling down the kitchen ice box, the ice house began in rural parts of the state as a combination grocery store and a place a fellow could go to sit, read the paper and drink a beer while shooting the breeze with other fellows reading papers and drinking beer. Also known as a beer joint, the fact that you can buy a loaf of bread, a package of sliced ham and a jar of pickles before weaving out the door to go home makes it more than simply a joint. An ice house is like visiting a kindly aunt who doesn’t mind the beer guzzling, especially on a hot day, and she lets you take food when you leave.
A 1998 New York Times article claimed “Ice Houses in Texas are Vanishing.” But don’t you believe it. They may be vanished from the city scene, but they’re alive and well out here in the sticks. And Curtis and Duwayne claimed they had just brunched at one.
“What did y’all have for brunch, Duwayne?” I asked knowing ahead of time that I’d rather not know. That I’d be better off driving on down the road and leave whatever fate awaited the duck to the duck.
“Corn dogs and slushies,” he said.
Instantly I thought of my friend Gordon. A sophisticate of exquisite taste and aplomb, by elevenses of any Sunday Gordon would be busily arranging a gorgeous array of canapés on a silver tray in his pied-à-terre in The City (what Gordon calls Manhattan) waiting for the doorbell to ring, announcing the arrival of a half-dozen friends endowed with similar taste and aplomb.
They’d begin by nibbling tiny rounds of quiche Lorraine, toast points topped with rare filet mignon and horseradish cream, and caviar blinis the size of Oreos. There would be a choice of a mimosa, a mojito or a brandy freeze to sip with the overture, followed by Gordon’s operatic flair with eggs. For the coda, éclairs served with Irish coffee. The conversation would be hip and filled with sly double-entendres; everyone would be dressed in colorful silk or linen shirts that matched their sockless loafers; and by the third drink everything they said would be quotable. Now that’s brunch.
“Duwayne got bit in the neck by a water moccasin,” said Curtis, “twice.”
The announcement was a non sequitur. Weren’t we talking brunch here? Slow to register the proper commiseration, it took me a minute, but I finally was able to voice distress. “Good Lord, why isn’t he dead?”
“Him and I are immune to snakes,” Curtis explained. “Been bit so many times, we’re snake-proof. We done brunch right after Duwayne took a shovel to its head.”
“Water moccasins is easy. What I like to do is cut the tails off rattlesnakes,” Duwayne said in a tone that suggested he might be bragging. “The rattlesnake crawls away tailless, and I stick the critter’s rattler in my hat.”
“But the tail on a rattlesnake is Nature’s warning signal,” I cried, shocked and amazed. “Once deprived of it, wouldn’t the snake be more dangerous? I mean, you’re just asking to be fanged in a sneak attack!”
Both of the boys took on the confused look that most accurately defines who they are. “Never thought of that,” said Curtis.
“Me neither,” said Duwayne.
The bright spring day heard nothing but silence for an extended time. I must admit I had also cratered into a sinkhole of confusion. Then Curtis broke the pondering in which all three of us were engaged. “I ate three, and Duwayne ate six.”
“What are we talking about now?” I asked. “Still snakes?”
“Corn dogs, I guess,” said Curtis, scratching his beard.
In a sudden spurt of zeal, Duwayne piped up, “But we do eat ’em. In a soup Ma taught us, with chrysanthemums and fungus.”
Curtis caught his brother’s enthusiasm and, to my relief, dropped brunch completely. Keen now on snakes, he expounded, “Ma says it’s the protein that’ll fix you right up, and they’s get rid of the phlegm.”
Again I thought of the brunch conversation at the New York home of my debonair friend Gordon and tried to imagine one of his guests bringing up phlegm. At that moment the duck too had had enough. It honked and flew off.
“Durn,” said Curtis.
“Durn,” said Duwayne, “there goes tea time.”