~ Wade Peterson
Thomas Rusk gave his insulated tumbler a quick shake and frowned. He’d gone through his morning coffee without realizing it, half listening to Pastor Wigfall’s sunrise service. He’d been busy setting up his smoker on the concrete slab on the park’s south side and must have lost track of time while arranging hickory and post oak in the hot box because when he looked up, the service was over and a dozen people had taken his place, doing yoga with faces to the sun.
It was the sandalwood and sage perfuming the air that had made him look up and take notice. It seemed out of place in Nickel Hill, another Californiacation of his hometown, transplants trading their gridlock and earthquakes for the affordable housing and tornadoes of west Texas. Fortunately, there was a give and take when it came to traditions like carnival day and the newcomers were willing to add to the event rather than remodel it. It was a subtle but important distinction that everyone accepted for the good of the town. A little yoga was fine, so long as nobody forced him to join in.
And even if Thomas had minded the incense, hardwood smoke and sizzling fat would soon overpower it.
Distant thunder rumbled, shaking Thomas from his thoughts. A storm front boiled to the south, pushing darkened anvil heads along its boundary. The weatherman said it should stay below Nickel Hill and give them clear skies by the afternoon, but you could never be sure with Texas weather. Thomas tried taking another swig from his tumbler before remembering it was empty and set it down so he didn’t further embarrass himself. He spared a glance at the other pit masters on their pads scattered around the park, tinkering with their rigs and taking inventory of their meats. He reckoned it wouldn’t hurt for him to make another pass, either.
Thomas checked the bubble levels on the rig’s legs, made sure the vent covers turned free, and used a compass to ensure he was cardinally aligned with the hotbox’s fresh air intake pointing due south. The yoga enthusiasts wrapped up and passed him with mats rolled under their arms and slung over shoulders, wishing him well.
“Thomas!” His buddy Pick Henderson bellowed and broke away from the group. He grabbed a popsicle from Thomas’s cooler and plopped himself in a folding chair.
“I didn’t know you had taken up yoga, Pick,” Thomas said.
“The man on the tee-vee says it’s good for ya. Helps the circulation.”
“Does it? Sure Peggy Whitlow has nothing to do with it?”
“I had noticed her in the front row, matter of fact. A pure coincidence, I assure you.” Pick peeled the white paper wrapper from the popsicle and upon discovering it was orange, wrinkled his nose. He half-rose towards the cooler for another, but sat back down at Thomas’s raised eyebrow.
“I swear you put the oranges on top just to spite me.”
“Not my fault you don’t pay attention, Pick,” Thomas said.
A microphone turned on with a thump and squeal of feedback. Pastor Wigfall stood in the central gazebo, red-faced. “Sorry about that, folks. Electrical gadgets just don’t like me, I guess.
Welcome to carnival day! If it’s y’all’s first time here, you’re in for a treat. It can be a bit much to take in at first, especially for the little ones, but by the end of the day, you’ll all understand what makes Nickel Hill so special, and it’s not just because of the brisket.” The crowd chuckled and Pick hoisted his popsicle in salute.
The pastor pointed to a ring of pink granite stones arranged around a tall obelisk at the park’s very center, the shadows cast by the morning sun creeping along tracks etched into the obelisk’s surface. “Looks like we have a minute or so before things kick off, so I just wanted to remind y’all that after the 5K run/walk, there’ll be a community sing-along with the Wind Riddlers behind me here, face painting over yonder, the art show on the square, and junior rodeo out at the stockyards. Don’t forget to head on back here in at sundown for the barbecue, elotes, and deep-fried Oreos.”
A tinny horn beeped several times behind Wigfall who turned and shaded his eyes. “Is that? It sure is! This year’s lottery winner Clem Haberstroh!” Wigfall waved at a man being paraded around the 5K’s starting line in a side-by-side ATV, accepting drinks and handshakes from runners and spectators alike with a forced smile on his face.
“Be sure to say hi to Clem before the day’s done, y’all. Well, it’s almost time, folks,” Pastor Wigfall said and turned to those gathered at the northwest corner of the town square. “Runners ready?” The starter raised a green flag. How about you youngins at the maypole?” Kids no older than eight shouted and waved their ribbons while their parents sitting on hay bales a few feet away brought up their phones, ready to record. “Pit masters?” Thomas gave a thumbs-up with the others. Wigfall looked over his shoulder at the band. “Ready, fellas?” Wigfall took off his Stetson and held it in the air as he counted down, the shadows creeping ever closer to a particular mark on the obelisk. When they touched the mark, Wigfall dropped his hat.
A starting pistol barked. The Wind Riddlers launched into the carnival’s official song “Joan’s Fiery Carnation,” and a troupe of women dressed in colorful skirts danced with men wearing black jackets with silver stitching. Thomas didn’t envy them. The song always sounded more like a church hymn than something festive, but the dancers made it work. They always did.
Thomas checked the wood one last time. He’d stacked the hardwood starters like a jungle gym with bits of sage and mesquite twigs snaking between layers, the optimal balance between order and chaos a young fire needed. He struck a match and held it to a packet wrapped in red butcher’s paper at the stack’s center. The packet caught at once and Thomas jumped back, though he had been expecting it.
“Wigfall makes his starters potent,” Pick said.
“He does that.”
A group of teens mumbled past his rig, heads together, clothes rumpled, and bleary-eyed from lack of sleep due to last night’s bonfire. Several had that surprised look Thomas remembered from a night-before-carnival bonfire in his younger days when he and Peggy Whitlow had been sweethearts. Sometimes the more evangelical folk talked about shutting down the pre-carnival bonfire, like they had in Worthington, but when clouds like today’s started gathering and the thunder rumbled, such talk quieted down.
“Fire’s snuffed,” Pick said.
Thomas snorted. “That’s not funny, Pick.”
“If I’m lyin’ I’m dyin’, Tom.”
Sure enough, the starter was out, paper singed only a little and the wood not at all. Wigfall’s wax seal hadn’t even melted. Thomas stuck another match and held the flame against one of the starter’s unburnt corners. It flared a little, then died. He struck another match, then another, with no luck.
“Maybe it got wet,” Pick said
“It’s bone dry.”
“You got the vents closed or something?” Pick asked.
He knew they weren’t, but he checked again. “Airflow’s fine.” Thunder rumbled. The distant clouds had taken on an undulation he didn’t like. Those were clouds fixing to spew lemon-sized hailstones, or worse. Time to stop messing around.
Thomas went to the tool chest in the back of his pickup and brought out an acetylene torch. He sparked it to life and held the tip of the white-blue flame to the starter, which began to glow and smolder.
Pick bit through the last of his popsicle and tossed the stick aside. “Hells yeah, that’s how you do it, Tom.”
“It’s not catching. As soon as I take it away, it dies.”
“Should I go find some newspaper or something?” Pick asked with a shaky voice. “Hell, you could just light the wood direct, you hold that torch on it long enough.”
Thomas waved the torch’s flame over the hickory and oak for several minutes, but not even the splinters would catch. “It’s no good, Pick.”
Pick’s head swiveled over the field. “Everyone else is lit up, Tom.”
“They’re fixin’ to put the briskets in soon.”
“That’s how you barbecue.”
“Maybe I could run my LP rig over here. There’s nowhere that says we can’t use gas.”
“Someone in Worthington used gas once in their carnival. Once.”
“Right. Okay.” Pick bounced from foot to foot.” There ain’t gonna be enough if you don’t do your share, all I’m saying.”
Thomas counted to three in his head before responding. “Tellin’ me the obvious helps me not at all, Pick. How about you go get the pastor?”
Pick nodded and said, “Yeah, that’s a good idea,” before taking off at a run.
Thomas unloaded the firebox and checked the wood over. Each log was quarter-split with bone-dry faces. On a hunch, he waved the torch over a piece of hickory. The grain darkened and smoldered, splinters glowed, and a hint of sweet smoke tickled his nose. Nothing wrong with the wood.
He turned at the side-by-side’s four-stroke chuffing as it pulled up. Pastor Wigfall slid from the passenger seat. “Morning, Thomas,” he said with a nod.
Thomas nodded back. “Pastor. Maxey.” The ATV shook as Maxey Harmelink nodded back from behind the wheel. He was a big boy, was Maxey, junior rodeo champ and all-state defensive tackle in his day. Could have played college ball at UT, but Maxey never felt the need to leave town.
“Pick said your grill won’t light?”
Thomas led the pastor through the morning’s attempts. Wigfall’s frown lines deepened as the story wrapped up. The pastor glanced south before heading for the ATV and returning with a forked stick from the storage box. Fine copper wire coiled along the stick’s length, ending in a thin strand that Wigfall wrapped around his wrist. He closed his eyes and murmured to himself as he passed the stick along Thomas’s barbeque rig. A tremor began along Wigfall’s arm as he crossed to the other side and he lunged forward suddenly, going to one knee and yelping as his knee barked on the concrete. The pastor opened his eyes and clucked his tongue.
“It’s not your wood, or your setup, it’s the rig itself.” He reached under the rig’s angle iron frame and came away with a tiny idol wrapped in silver cloth.
“Mesquite covered with Nomex,” Wigfall said.
“Sumbitch,” Thomas said.
Wigfall set the idol across the forked stick and slowly turned in a circle. The stick began twitching and Wigfall began passing it back and forth in smaller and smaller arcs until the stick vibrated constantly. The pastor sighted along its length before removing the idol and untangling himself from the divining rod’s copper wire.
“Maxey, why don’t you ask the gentleman wearing runner bib 349 for a private word?”
Maxey started the ATV up and glanced over his shoulder. “The guy with the orange bandana? Doesn’t look local.”
Wigfall nodded.”That’s the one.” Maxey fiddled with a walkie-talkie and began speaking into it with clipped tones. As he spun the ATV around Wigfall called out, “Alive, mind!”
“How much you want to bet he’s from Worthington?” Wigfall said.
Thomas turned his head and spat. “No bet. Damn fools.”
“There comes a time when FEMA just can’t help you anymore.” Wigfall cut a piece of kitchen string from Thomas’s BBQ kit and tied the idol to Pick’s popsicle stick. The Nomex covering went into the trash. “Here’s your new starter.”
Thomas built a hickory and oak cage around the idol and lit a match. The idol smoldered with an oily flame for a few seconds before erupting and setting the kindling alight. Something like a car’s backfire cracked and he turned in time to see the runner in the orange headband stumble and fall. The man pushed himself up and ran off the course, only to be taken down with another shot from Maxey’s bean bag gun, followed by a tackle. Maxey had the the man with the orange headband hog-tied and loaded on the the ATV’s rack within moments.
“You got the offering from here, Tom?” Wigfall said.
The pastor clapped him on the shoulder and smiled. “I’ll leave you to it. I’m off to find Clem.”
Later that day, with the briskets casting their siren’s call on the breeze, Clem stopped by. He pumped Thomas and Pick’s hands with gusto and inquired after the briskets. Would they be ready on time? When Thomas assured him they would, he broke into a grin too crooked to be fake. They talked football over a beer, though Clem’s gaze kept drifting to a group of cheerful overtired teens stacking hay bales against the maypole and its criss-crossed ribbons.
Tom frowned at his beer and gave it a shake. Empty. The foam coozy had fooled him into thinking he had a sip left. His phone chirped, and he dug it from his pocket. “Weather service says the county’s due for large hail, flash flood warning, possible rain-wrapped twisters.”
Pick sat up straighter. “Heading our way?”
“Nah, more down Worthington area, then up to Bowie.”
Clem tapped at his nearly empty beer and glanced back at the maypole. “You ever think about moving?” Clem asked.
Pick and Thomas shifted in their chairs and shared a glance. “Move where?” asked Pick.
Clem waved his hand. “I don’t know. Somewhere a guy doesn’t have to worry about tornados, hail, and such.”
Thomas rose and fished out a couple of cold ones from the cooler. “If such a place exists, it sure ain’t in Texas.” He cracked a can and handed it to Clem.
Clem sipped at the foam and scooted his chair to face away from the preparations. “Yeah, I expect you’re right.” He gave them a weak smile. “You hear out in Carolina they use mustard and vinegar on their barbecue?”
Pick shook his head slowly. “That ain’t right.”
“Blasphemy,” Thomas agreed.
Wade Peterson is the author of the Badlands Born series and lives in Dallas, Texas. When not writing, he’s in the back yard trying to master the arcane mysteries of Texas barbecue while also wrangling two over-scheduled teenagers, serving the whims of two passive-aggressive cats, and agreeing with whatever wine his wife picks to go with dinner.
You can find more of his stories at wadepeterson.com.