by Dennis Russell
"Steel Guitar" by Violet Sayre
“Under blue El Rancho skies
The morning air is fine
We’ll head out on that trail
Friend by friend, side by side
New adventures we will find
Open pastures we will ride
where the streams and rivers wind
under blue El Rancho skies”
—First Verse of “Blue El Rancho Skies,”
opening theme from El Rancho film and television series
Carlos Garcia pulled open the door of Gary’s Steakhouse and Grill and stepped inside. He took off his sunglasses and put them in his jacket pocket, and paused for a moment to let his eyes adjust to the dim barroom light. He grimaced and waved off the hostess at the front desk and took a quick scan around the front dining room and bar. Every booth and barstool was red diamond-tufted Naugahyde, and the floor was covered in green short-pile carpet. “Gary’s” was spelled in blue stained glass in the lamps above every table. Carlos flashed a smile and waved hello to Darla, who had been working at Gary’s since the place was established in 1959.
She must be the oldest waitress in any diner in any town, Carlos thought. Darla didn’t wave back. She never waved back. He quickly walked through the archway to the second, larger dining room, decorated with historic photographs of the city of St. Hervé and some of its famous residents, and kept on to his final destination. He pushed open the stained-glass doors of El Rancho Sky Room and shut the door that separated the monthly meeting of Los Hermanos Benéficos from the regular patrons of the restaurant.
Most patrons of Gary’s never saw the inside of El Rancho Sky Room, but it was a quite familiar place to Carlos. To his left was the restroom for the exclusive use of El Rancho Sky Room patrons. The next third of the wall was lined with La Cantina, the oak bar that served the banquet room guests. For Los Hermanos Benéficos meetings, the top-shelf liquor was moved to the bottom shelf, as most of the members displayed their financial status through upscale alcohol. Carlos winked and shot his index finger gun-like at the bartender and went straight to the end of the bar, where five chafing dishes held today’s Benéfico buffet. One dish was filled with cheese enchiladas (for the vegetarians), another dish was filled with buffalo chicken wings, the third held slices of tri-tip, the fourth held miniature versions of Gary’s “world renowned” ham and cheese sandwiches, and the fifth contained Gary’s “famous” Hot Tots potatoes (tater tots with bacon and jalapenos). Neither of the world famous dishes were really very well known outside the doors of Gary’s.
There are varying degrees of fame, Carlos thought, as he used the stainless steel tongs to transfer some of the famous wings and Hot Tots onto his tiny plate. A few feet past the end of the bar was a round table where Carlos grabbed a slice of sourdough bread, a pat of butter, and a small paper ramekin with Gary’s special salsa. For those, like Carlos, who didn’t imbibe expensive liquor, there were glasses of water and iced tea. For the sloppy, there were extra napkins. Carlos grabbed a few.
Buffalo wings are pretty sloppy eating, thought Carlos. Before stepping away from the table, he reached down and took a few more. The drunken members of Los Hermanos Benéficos were always bumping into somebody, and with the tiny plates and strong drinks, there was a good chance of getting sauce on your shirt.
Besides the restroom, the bar, the round bread table, the carefully arranged dining tables with red and white tablecloths, and chairs to seat Los Hermanos Benéficos, the rest of the décor was a shrine to Los Hermanos Benéficos founder, Cal Evans. Everyone in the world knew the first verse of the theme song to the western series El Rancho. Between the years of 1952 and 1959, Cal Evans’ voice yodeled it over the opening credits of 125 Sunday night television episodes and five feature films. Cal was the last and the biggest of the Singin’ Cowboys. He was a true icon: a nostalgic symbol of the American West, representing the mythological chivalrous code of the courageous, courteous cowpoke.
A glass shadowbox displayed a pair of fringed tan leather gloves that Cal wore in one season of the TV show, alongside a pearl-handled Colt 45 revolver in a tooled leather holster, a Cal Evans lunchbox, a deck of Cal Evans playing cards, and three different Cal Evans collector badges that had only been available in select boxes of El Rancho Rings breakfast cereal. Next to the case was a beautifully seasoned brown leather saddle, the actual one that Cal swung on to the back of his horse Mercury at the beginning of every ride. Intricate hand-tooled roses and vines offset silver and turquoise inlay.
Carlos had been a huge fan of Cal Evans and El Rancho when he was a kid. He and his father watched reruns every Saturday morning. He thought it was worth donating his time to be the accountant for Los Hermanos Benéficos just to be able to marvel at the saddle once a month. Even better, hovering like a halo above the saddle and the case was one of Cal’s grey felt ten-gallon cowboy hats, with a beaded band that also contained a fair amount of turquoise and silver. Carlos glanced over to a modest corner that displayed the poncho, sombrero, and fake oversized moustache of Cal’s comedic sidekick, Pedro “Pappy” Sanchez.
The other walls of El Rancho Sky Room were lined with enormous photographs, mostly group photos, taken during the yearly Los Hermanos Benéficos charity horse rides and parades. Cal Evans and Pappy Sanchez were central figures in most of them. Carlos had never been on one of the rides. He was more of a desk jockey than any kind of vaquero. Looking at the photos, though, he could imagine the ride: the smells of leather, horse shit, beer, whiskey, and barbecue.
Carlos stood, studying the photographs one-by-one while eating his wings and tots. By looking at them sequentially, he felt he was looking at a time lapse photo of these men’s lives. A single moment stood out to Carlos, blown up, poster-sized, glass-covered, and wood -framed. A small plaque below that particular picture bore the etched words “Music on the Trail.” Though he had seen it many times, today for some reason, this photo particularly intrigued him. It made him think of the bridge to the song “Blue El Rancho Skies.”
“Out on the breeze, there’s a pretty melody
If you hear it, come on, sing along
We’ve got no cares, just some stories to share
And a place where we all belong.”
Carlos looked deeper and deeper into the photograph, trying to join with the black-and-white images behind the glass. There were several men in it. Cal was there with his guitar, singing. An unknown, hatless cowboy plucked a banjo. A plate of fried chicken and a few beer bottles sat on a barrel head. Carlos settled his eyes on a man in the foreground, in profile, squeezing an accordion. Carlos studied the face of “Pappy” Sanchez. He mimicked the beaming smile Cal’s co-star always had when he was playing accordion and singing. Carlos shuffled closer to the glass of the photo, his own face superimposed its reflection on the glass. It was as if he was there among them. Carlos also saw in the reflection the one remaining buffalo wing on his plate; it looked as if was stacked with the fried chicken in the photo. Feeling like a cowboy on the trail, he heartily took an enormous bite out of it.
Just at that moment, Justin Clay passed by on his way from the restroom back to his seat. He slapped Carlos’s back and said “You hear music out of that, dude? Isn’t that the best kind of accordion? The silent kind?” Justin laughed at his own joke all the way to back to the table where all the car-dealing Los Hermanos Benéficos sat.
With Justin’s slap, the bite of buffalo wing shifted from Carlos’s mouth to the back of his throat and wedged there. He tried a quick cough to dislodge it, but no luck. The sauce was dripping into his trachea and started to burn. He gave a couple of coughs with no better luck. He hurried to grab a glass of water from the banquet table. He downed it. Still stuck. He downed another. Still no luck and the water caused more sauce to dilute and drip further down his windpipe, causing it to burn even more. He grabbed a napkin and coughed into it. Nothing came up.
Does Carlos ever make it out of El Rancho Room? Read Hurricanes & Swan Songs to find out! Santa Barbara-based singer-songwriter Dennis Russell has released 5 albums: My Little World, Primitive-Acoustic-Sensitive-Singer-Songwriter-Type-Guy, Golden, 7 of Townes, and Plain: Primitive-Acoustic-Sensitive-Singer-Songwriter-Type-Guy, Too. He has also self-published a book of short stories, That Fourth of July, and a book of poetry, Surfer Songs. For concert dates and recordings, visit dennisrussellroad.com