My new novel is called Tequila Highway, and I am so excited to share it with you. Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing, “Books are uniquely portable magic.” If like me, you believe this to be true, I plan to post a chapter or two a week and hope you will join me on this new adventure!
A Brief Synopsis:
In the summer of 1977, Clay Davidson vanishes during a botched drug smuggling operation along the Mexican border in Arizona. Clay’s best friend, Patrick Waters, publishes a memoir about the events some thirty years later, and his conclusions dismantle everything the ranching community of Santa Rita has believed for decades. After reading Patrick’s book, Sofia Covington leaves a successful career behind in Chicago to return home in hopes of finding answers to long-buried family secrets tied to Clay’s disappearance. Excerpts from Patrick’s debut memoir, Border Cowboys shed light on the past while Sofia struggles to make a new life for herself.
Lake Michigan delivered thunderstorms to Chicago each summer like premeditated assaults on its victims. I slipped into O’Hara Bookshop where I was met with a blast of cold air. Water dripped from the hem of my skirt, down my bare legs, and into my sandals. I felt violated, standing in the cramped store among the ancient wooden bookshelves lined with new releases and forgotten titles. A girl working the register studied me with mild interest.
On a round table next to the door, a photo of Juniper Falls peppered a dozen identical book jackets. I picked up a copy. “What is this doing here?” I asked the girl.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Do you want to buy it?”
Wind-driven rain slapped against the storefront window. An older man with a Basset Hound face and sad eyes stood on the other side of the table. “Are you alright?” he asked.
The title Border Cowboys was branded in bold, bronze letters across the photo. The author, Patrick Waters, grew up on a ranch adjacent to my family’s place. I hadn’t thought of him in years, but our lives were entangled. Without opening the book, I knew he’d written the story of a life I had deliberately left behind. An impulse to steal the remaining books I reasoned, would not erase what Patrick had done. Without thinking, I slid the book I held into my backpack.
“Hey, you need to pay for that,” the girl said.
The man with the sad eyes produced a credit card and handed it to the girl. He turned to me and winked. “It’s my treat.”
I thanked him before running out into the rain.
The outdated window air conditioner in my tiny living room was no match for the heat and humidity left in the wake of the storm. I changed out of my wet clothes into a dry sports bra and a pair of boxer shorts. My backpack was soaked. I dumped the contents onto the kitchen table and poured a shot of tequila. Border Cowboys sounded like the title of a spaghetti western. I picked up the book and read the synopsis.
Brought up on a cattle ranch in southeast Arizona, Patrick Waters believed in hard work, the importance of family, and helping neighbors. All this was laid to rest in the summer of 1977, when his best friend, Clay Davidson, went missing after the boys found bales of marijuana dumped by Mexican drug mules in a remote corner of the Waters’ ranch. After years of searching for answers, Patrick discovers his best friend may not have been the person he’d claimed to be. Border Cowboys is a remarkable memoir of childhood friendship and betrayal.
I had always believed Clay was kidnapped by drug runners and killed over in Mexico. Everyone in our community assumed it had happened that way. The word betrayal felt wrong, like a bump under the skin that shouldn’t be there.
Clay’s disappearance was one of three tragedies that summer, each wrapped in something soft inside me that split wide open with the least bit of provocation. I tossed the book on the table where it sat like a cholla cactus—intriguing but painful if you got too close. I was certain he’d weaved my family’s story within its pages. “This place lives in our bones,” my nana Natalia said when someone who’d left for the city came home to Santa Rita. I’d been gone fifteen years and suddenly yearned for the quiet of the desert to ground me before reading Patrick’s account of what I lost that terrible summer.
I walked the six blocks to work with the sensation I was headed in the wrong direction. The book was in my backpack and bounced against my hip like a heavy stone.
My sous chef, Francie Marino, met me at the backdoor of Tavolino. “Pucci’s Market delivered a case of spoiled lettuce and Antonio called in sick,” she said. “We’re booked solid tonight. It sucks to be us.”
I handed her the menu for the specials I’d written out earlier in the day. “See if Sal can help out through the rush.”
“You got it, boss,” she said, and disappeared through the swinging doors into the dining room.
As the executive chef, the Marino brothers deferred to me in kitchen matters. Sal hadn’t worked the line in over a year. He was in his late sixties and had a heart condition. I prayed he’d be able to keep up. Sal and his twin brother, Johnny, came to the United States when they were just kids. Johnny went back to Italy annually on what the family called a pilgrimage. For reasons he kept close to himself, Sal refused to join his brother.
As co-owners of Tavolino, the two men argued constantly about changes to the menu. Fifty years had passed since the men first left Italy. Sal’s recipes, as well as his memory, were old world, whereas Johnny returned from his trip each fall with new ideas. Like Sal’s, my childhood memories had remained frozen in time. A slow thaw warmed my insides as I stuffed manicotti shells and fed dough through the pasta maker.
Sal joined me on the line and took instructions like a seasoned cook. Francie didn’t have her uncle’s calm demeanor and barked out orders causing one of the servers to burst into tears. The only consolation on a chaotic night was that it went fast.
Images of my family and the desert interrupted my focus while I took inventory in the walk-in cooler. After counting blocks of mozzarella for the third time, I untied my apron. Francie walked in. “What’s going on?”
I handed her the apron. “I’m going home.”
“What? This place is a mess.”
I brushed flour off her cheek. “Tell your dad and uncle I’m sorry.”
She swatted my hand. “I don’t understand.”
No one in Chicago would. I’d sealed my past in a vault. Francie, like everyone else I knew in the city, had no idea where I had come from. I stepped out of the cooler and for moment didn’t recognize a thing. In a flash I’d been transported back to the ranch, my old room, and my nana’s kitchen.
“I’ll call Sal in the morning,” I said.
I walked out the back door into the muggy night. By the time my apartment building was in sight, I had made a plan to leave the city and prayed my old pick-up would make the long trip back home to Arizona.
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