Late Night at the Texas Grill
“it is my belief, formed upon experience, that the lowest and vilest London alleys do not present a more dreadful record of crime than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” Sherlock Holmes
I have been passing, up and back, between Austin and Houston, the Texas Grill ,in downtown Bastrop, for thirty three years. I estimate that I have probably driven by it some 200-300 times. Until last night I had only stopped there once. There were a couple of reasons for that. First, it is only thirty miles from home and so too early to stop when you are leaving on a trip , and too late to stop when returning. The second reason is that the one time I did stop there, the food was lousy.
I am a sucker for small town diners and cafes and the Texas Grill fills that niche. They have a big billboard just past Columbus which says that you are only 44 miles from the Grill. You start thinking about chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes with the skin on it and homemade rolls and you think about stopping in. Over the last 33 years, I have stopped at a number of these type places on the Houston/ Austin route. For years it was the Cottonwood Inn and later, the fabled Bon Ton of La Grange. After the bypass came in, Schoebles in Columbus became the primary eatery for us. I have recently discovered that, in a pinch, Tony’s in Sealy will do. There are a couple of places in Fayetteville which are good, but that adds about 30 minutes to the drive.
It had been a tough day in Houston on Tuesday, a day I thought was going to be the first of several for me there, occasioned by surgery on my mother. The surgery was postponed and so I drove home that evening. By about 9:00 I had not eaten, but worse than that I noticed that I had only 9 miles left in my tank of gas, as estimated by the little electronic printout on my dashboard. I pulled off of the highway into an Exxon station and found myself next door to the Texas Grill. Since Rayda was still in San Antonio visiting our daughter, I decided to eat there.
The sun had just set on what was the second or third longest day of the year and so it seemed earlier than it was. As I walked into the café, I noticed there was an end of the day feeling in the place. There were three booths taken, one by a married couple, one by an extended family and the one, opposite me, by a guy who could have passed for an English Prof. at Concordia Lutheran. Small and owlish, bald and in his early 60s with a kind of unshaven patch between his chin and his lower lip. I thought that he was probably not a teacher after I noticed that he was dressed in camouflage.
I had been directed to the booth next to him, but I could have chosen to sit with my back to him. For some reason I sat down facing him and noticed that he was finished with his meal, except for a beverage he was still sipping from a straw. Let me be more accurate. He was finished with the beverage, at least all of the liquid part of it, but he was still sucking pretty aggressively on the straw. “Sluuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurp”. You know that sound. You might accidentally make that noise at the end of your drink, but most people over the age of five, quit ,or refill , once they hear the noise, “sluuuuuuuuuuuuuuurp”. This guy neither quit nor refilled. Just kept slurping. After a couple of minutes he got a napkin and began wiping up his table, He was very fastidious about this, he wiped and then wiped elsewhere and then come back and wiped where he’d been before and then stop for a second to “sluuuuuuuuuuuuuuurp” and then he’d get another napkin and start the whole process over again. The only other thing on his table was a credit card which was sitting square in front of him and which he would clean under and straighten up every couple of minutes, making sure that it lay exactly in the middle of the table, not leaning in either direction, “slurrrrrrp”.
After what seemed like an hour and a half, the one waitress in the place came over and asked him if he’d like another drink. It was a strange conversation:
Waitress: would you like some more tea ?
Customer: (indistinct mumbling as he continued to stare at his credit card, followed by “sluuuuuuuuuuuurp”).
Waitress: So you don’t want more tea then ?
Customer: now silently looking directly at her and fingering his credit card, “sluuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurp” (followed by waitress walking away).
The closer I looked at this guy, the more uncomfortable I got. What had at first appeared to be a small academic type, oddly dressed but harmless, had changed appearances. The more I looked at him, the more I was sure that this guy was a registered sex offender there in Bastrop. He had the look about him. Sneaky little pervert, fingering his credit card and slurping from a cup filled with nothing but melting ice. I looked around the room to see where any children were seated so I could protect them should the guy leave his booth. There was only one, a little blonde haired one year old boy with his parents and grandparents. Every few minutes this kid would shake his head furiously causing his long blonde locks to fly around like George Harrison’s used too during the chorus of those faster Beatle songs. I thought that the kid was going to throw his neck out, but his family seemed quite taken with his activity.
At any rate, the slurping continued and I began to wonder just when it was , in a Bastrop Café, that a customer crossed the line from eccentric to nuisance. They seem to be more patient about these things in Bastrop, or maybe he was a regular. Finally, he picked up his credit card and ambled over to the cash register to pay his bill . He walked with a very strange slouch, bent at the knee and sort of bent back above the waist. He looked a little bit like an arm chair that had decided to move around on its own. That is, if an armchair would carry a cup of melting ice around slurping on it while it paid its bill. The bill was paid, I heard some low mumblings and the man turned toward the door, “sluuuurp”. The door shut behind him, cutting off the noise, but I could still see him sucking away as he walked past my window. Now there were nine of us left, plus the owner/manager behind the counter, ands the waitress who looked like she’d worked a double shift and still had to get home to feed the kids and do the laundry. The manager addresses all of us. “Any of you know anything about the fire behind Home Depot tonight ? It was huge. I wondered what started it.” I did not know what started it, but I was already forming some suspicions as to just WHO started it. “Sluuuuuurp”.