Squirrel Arkansas Big Country

Three bucks and four words. Things change, no doubt, but in the opening days of September 2018, these three sawbucks adorned the edge of a shelf behind the bar at Harry’s Tinaja in Alpine. Harry, a native of Hamburg, Germany, operates one of the finest establishments in the Trans-Pecos, and while the first word in his tavern’s name presents no linguistic difficulty, the second word probably is unfamiliar to most readers. Pronounced TEE-NAH-ha, the word refers to an essential feature of the Chihuahuan Desert. In the relatively soft layers of limestone that form strata of the region’s geology, weathering carves out shallow basins over the course of long time, and as such a tinaja collects precious rainwater. Every specie of flora and fauna in the desert is equipped with fangs, talons, spines, quills, thorns, claws, needles, and all imaginable anatomical features to survive, but moreover to capture water. El agua es vida, and nowhere is this basic fact a more stark reality than in the desert. So when rain falls in Arid America and pools in small oases, very short time passes before the whole spectrum of desert denizens can slake their thirst at a tinaja’s rejuvenating edge. Likewise for the region’s bipeds. While out and about on the trails and the river in the big region, many wayfarers carry a canteen or two filled with ample water, but while in town a canteen such as Harry’s provides readily available comparable sustenance. Typically, though, that staff of life includes barley and hops and is served in glass bottles. “So it goes,” as the great fellow Texan Linda Ellerbee is fond of saying.

But back to the three bills in question. Stapled to the shelf, I contemplated them for a few nanoseconds before snapping a picture or two of their placid likeness. On that occasion, mi esposa y yo were in the Big Bend to celebrate our wedding anniversary, and I asked her what she thought about those dollars bearing the words Squirrel Arkansas Big Country. My questions for her abounded. Do you think one person graffitied each dollar? Or do you think three dudes jotted those notes? Maybe Squirrel is one of their nicknames? Maybe one is a native of the Land of Opportunity? And maybe the third one is a big fan of the band from Scotland that scored a huge hit in 1983? Quien sabe on all counts. And yet their arrangement on the shelf’s edge suggested refrigerator poetry and an unknown terrain of deeper meaning. “Who are those guys?” Sundance and Butch repeatedly asked each other during pauses in that ceaseless pursuit. As for Christina and me, there we sat at a nearby table in Harry’s Tinaja talking about an array of topics wholly unrelated to those consuming the couple in a similar setting in “Hills Like White Elephants.” At that moment, the mid-afternoon crowd was sparse, and the bar exuded an air of peaceful tranquility. Perhaps more importantly, I suppose, the atmosphere inside Harry’s aligned more closely to “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” than with the ironically named Harry Hope’s Saloon in New York City in that famous play. [An aside: drink for drink, Hemingway’s 1926 novel, unlike the two short stories alluded to above, and O’Neill’s play from 1939 knock out any contender in American literature for the number of intoxicatingly sodden references that stir up levels of unrecognizable envy known only to great boxers such as Gene Tunney or Joe Louis; or Bob Fitzsimmons, who fought Peter Maher on a sandbar in the Rio Grande in late February 1896 down the embankment from the Jersey Lily in Langtry.]

But let’s not neglect the all-important three portraits of President Washington. The color palette for the lettering features red and black, perhaps the greatest color combination in American intercollegiate athletics, and in mute testament those three dollars hung there looking at us while we sat at that table talking and looking their way now and again. She and I talked about the wonderment of our first decade together, about our little boy and our little girl, about our hopes and aspirations for the future, and about all those things a couple ought to talk about. And we relished the great good fortune to enjoy that conversation in Alpine, Texas. And even though we were not celebrating a “Gringo Honeymoon” as the lyrics go, our anniversary was quite good, needless to say. But there is one thing that I ought to clarify. For those who don’t know Harry, you need to know that he truly is a good man; no evidence exists that he rents pigs. Hell, I can testify to that point, and somewhere in the great cosmos Captain Augustus McCrae is smiling, y’all. But there is one thing Harry’s a bit shy about, and that’s dusting. I’m pretty sure the next time we saunter into his gin palace not only will the dust caking the steins and bottles above the dollar bills still be there, but it’ll be thicker as well. So it goes, que no?

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