The Last Days of the Turkey-Men
by Jeff Frawley
People were calling it peace music back then, but meant it derogatorily: Hendrix, Garcia, Joplin, Roky Erickson—only a few of those old snickering aliens were still alive by the early ’80s, reduced to churning out schmaltzy radio-rock.
In that town, white boys usually drove desert roads blaring country radio from pickups, honking at workers in the chile fields just to show that they could, to show that they had better things to do than stoop over crops breaking their backs. Country music, by then, had taken over.
But we still did it the old way. On Saturday nights we visited the Elephant Ranch Bar to watch a band of long-haired young men blast psychedelic free-jazz on electric guitars. There was tambourine, fuzzed-out bass, chugging drums, even a Vox Continental organ bleating over the chaos. The shows filled with dark-haired young men and women who studied art or music at the local community college, defying their parents’ demands they take courses in pecan flood-irrigation or chile horticulture. The guys in the band, who called themselves the Altered Fifths and who deified Sun Ra and the 13th Floor Elevators and those Swedish commune freaks Träd, Gräs och Stenar, were Hispanic or Mescalero or Navajo, or some combination thereof.
Sometimes we caught people sniggering and pointing when we arrived at the Ranch. But we were in on the joke, merely taking our lumps—we’re not like those other white boys, we insisted, we’re on your side, in the same boat.
The Ranch, at the dusty end of Calle Cauce, where town turned to crops and orchards, had a buzzing pink sign: ELEPHANT RANCH RATHSKELLER (& ROOMS-4-RENT). Yet it was neither German nor basement beerhall. Sutured-together adobes formed a horseshoe-shaped compound (complete with cantina, taco stand, shitty studios for rent) that enclosed a courtyard sheltered by scrub oaks and apricot trees. At its edge stood the stage, a precious grass lawn. The place, rumor had it, was once a recovery colony for consumptives or lepers, though more likely it served as halfway house or budget lodgings back when the outskirts housed migrant workers.
By then clubs were hiring ska and electric country bands, plus bands that sounded vaguely European, a sort of klezmer-jig-punk that was, briefly, en vogue. Though the Fifths had built a sizable following, their frenzied improvisation drove many away. One night a group of heckling townies instigated a fight, the band blaring spazzed-out music while townies and crowd rumbled, until one of our own, a wild guy called Whipple, dashed to Moreno’s taco stand and dipped a jar in hot fryer oil, waving it threateningly until the hecklers backed off. Another time someone slipped Whipple’s famous liquid concoction into an unruly cowboy’s drink, the brute sweating and shaking until the noise cycloning from the stage drove him screaming into the night. We were de facto guardians of the Ranch, our contribution to those who’d accepted us for the white boys we were, and every so often Josue Deeds, lead guitarist of the Fifths, gave us a shout-out onstage.
We drove rural roads running east to El Paso, as far west as Boxer, bisecting worn-down pueblos with improbable names: Lagarto, Wurlitzer, Cabbage City, San Francisquito, White Moon. We piled into an ancient F-100 and cruised mesquite and chile and cotton. To the east, a jawline of jagged peaks; to the west, the muddy rio. We blared peace music and shrieked, sampling Whipple’s concoctions. This was ’81 or ’82, back when those beige-green helicopters began patrolling the desert, whomping overhead as we tossed up peace signs and beer cans. Two checkpoints had opened on the interstate outside town, billboards everywhere recruiting new agents, giant sun-faded photos of brown-skinned men in uniform: ¡Hispanos son alentados a aplicar! And yet when the academy opened and recruits flooded town, it was mostly strange old white guys, biceps inked blue and hair buzz-cut, a decade removed from Vietnam. Nondescript squad cars roared about town, lights flashing.
One night a recruit sidled up to the Elephant Ranch cantina, still in uniform. One of us (Bogdan most likely) worked up the nerve to call across the room, asking if he was allowed to visit bars while on duty. The agent, whose buzz-cut revealed ripples of fat down the back of his head, said without turning, Getting a lay of the land. He let a great belch that, a moment later, stank up the tiny room, sweetly rotten like roadkill. Lionel, behind the bar, told the agent to get lost. The man scraped back his stool and sneered, See you soon, boys. But we never saw him again.
Those were the years the strip-malls went up, the old adobes came down. Our fathers and uncles warned it was a matter of time before the next war flared up to dash our boneheaded idyll, as it had theirs decades before. (Josue Deeds, leader of the Fifths, once sprayed a bottle of concoction-dosed water onto the crowd during an improvisational climax, sing-shouting: The vortex is coming! / Open your eyes!)
Then, May or October of ’82—the month hardly matters, the seasons all the same—we struck out for something new amidst the heat-bleached landscape. The earth hummed. The high, booming sky made us question whether we’d been dropped inside some experimental geodesic dome. It wasn’t uncommon, as we drove, for thuds to ripple across the valley, like pounding fists. We invented wild sci-fi speculations as to the pounding’s source—people knocking on the dome!—despite the fact we knew it was missile tests across the desert, that rugged land that once served as home to a remote sect of Apaches, later requisitioned by the military in exchange for tribal water rights.
Whipple’s concoction, stirred into a gallon of lemonade, rearranged the sky: little brain-shaped clouds marched in formation, one brain leapfrogging another, causing the others to break file and scramble together, then separate again. We melted with hysterics, rolling, howling, ripping up sage. On the F-100’s cassette deck bellowed a recording by the Shivering Tommys, a song that went It’s your birthday, baby alien, sweet seventeen, the music sounding like a spaceship about to implode. When a chopper roared overhead we thrust up middle-fingers. Later, one of those booms shuddered across the desert, dispersing the cloud-brains. The guy we called Mudshark vomited. There were blue-tinted flies everywhere, a massive hatch by the rio, ravenous for our sweat and Mudshark’s puke. We tried to converse, couldn’t speak. Another boom, another reverberation, and just like that the effects of Whipple’s moonshot lemonade wore off. We collapsed in the sand, suddenly sober. Then we rose and went for a drive.
There were five of us total, maybe four, even six, people constantly coming and going in that ramshackle group. Whipple drove, our guru and apothecary, hands ever-steady. Crammed into the cab were likely Mudshark plus Grant and French Lieutenant Longley, brothers whose father was vaunted by our group for dodging the draft back in ’69. (French Lieutenant got his name after fighting off a feral dog by the rio with a bottle of Merlot.) In back, maybe Dupree and Bogdan Zovko. Bogdan was from some Balkan or Baltic place gripped by mountain warfare. He’d received a measly one-year scholarship to play college basketball in El Paso, where he’d quickly quit the team and went to work for a camposanto blocks from the Juárez border, digging graves and clearing headstones. Saturdays he drove over to see the Altered Fifths—why move all the way to El Paso, we asked, for a one-year scholarship? But Bogdan loved his life in west Texas, better than that violence back home.
Whipple, shouting over music, whipped the F-100 eastward onto a ragged dirt road. We passed a small pueblo: ramshackle houses and horse pastures and pecan farms, everything sheltered by miraculous cottonwoods whose spores flitted through the truck like fairies. We tittered and reached, fairies eluding our grasps, then passed a hand-painted sign at pueblo’s periphery: WHITE MOON/LUNA BLANCA. (Many years later, we’d learn that the pueblo was engulfed by those ever-expanding town limits.) We passed shuttered adobes and two homestyle cafés, a post office no larger than a toolshed, a small grocer’s. Then family orchards, chickens and goats meandering in the shadows. Down the narrow side-streets glinted shanties made of corrugated metal. We turned down one, Calle Secundaria Estrada, which dead-ended in a cul-de-sac jutting into a field plowed to make way for luxury ranchitas. Or so claimed a giant nearby real-estate sign. Two big ranchitas already orbited the cul-de-sac, backdropped by red soil and bony mountains, like some hacienda on Mars.
We pulled over, perched against a fence. In the distance two Appaloosas grazed the paltry grass. We cracked cans of beer from a cooler in the truck. From across Calle Secundaria Estrada came a shrill whistle. We turned and studied a dilapidated compound beside the road, a small disintegrating adobe with antennae jutting from its roof and ancient AC units from its windows. To its left, a multi-room structure made of cinderblock and mortar, stitched to a third house by a crisscrossing of wires. Metal drums collected rain or trash. In the dusty yard was a chickenwire pen and several rusted-out jalopies. And there, underneath a lone pecan tree, sat three old men withered by lifetimes of sunlight, their pearl-snap flannels tucked into trousers and ochre skin stretched across bones. One wore a stetson and waved us forward, his bald buddies trembling in their chairs. Grant Longley, as we approached, said they looked at least a hundred. Bogdan whispered to shut up. The man with the stetson said, We aren’t a hundred, boys. His ancient pals laughed, ashing little cigars into a tuna can. One said, I built this house, back before the war. Which war? we asked and he replied, Who can remember?
The man in the stetson said they’d all grown up in White Moon, stayed in White Moon, witnessed the pueblo rise and swoon multiple times (soon it would rise again, he added, but in a way they didn’t like). Over time they’d grown old together. With wives and second wives dead, even a few children, they pooled money and added onto the original house’s structure, then moved in together. They smiled, showing teeth orange from age or tobacco. (Whipple whispered Stop staring, for traces of his concoction were causing the men’s faces to part and constrict and calcify.)
Now, declared the old man in the stetson, our families gone, we keep pavos.
Indeed, we’d grown aware of a funny warbling coming from the chickenwire pen. We drew closer, peered inside: slender, brown-feathered birds cooed and pecked about, overseen by a big dark male with a sheeny emerald breast and a blue, leathery mask. The female turkeys were slathered in dust, gobbling like mad.
The old men on their chairs puffed with pride, exhaling smoke, squinting towards the mountains bronzed by late-afternoon light. For two decades, one said—which is to say, as long as we’ve lived together—we’ve raised turkeys, the finest companions in the world: loyal as any dog, happy to forgo comforts as anyone must in the desert. We rear them on soya and mealworms and acorns, let them out to roam once the heat lifts, let the tom onto the roof to overlook his kingdom. We even let the hens inside the house to visit poor Rigo.
Who’s Rigo? we asked and the man in the stetson answered, My grandson. Rigo, we learned, had Down’s Syndrome, nearly forty, rarely slept—we took Rigo to a lab, said the old man, where we learned he wakes ninety times a night. The turkeys, he said, console Rigo and he in turn consoles them. You’re looking, said the man, at the eighth or ninth brood we’ve raised.
We asked what they did with the meat, if they sold it at the farmer’s market. The men looked aghast. French Lieutenant Longley said he could put them in touch with his father, who’d helped open the local grocery cooperative. To which the men, cigarillo smoke curling around their faces, announced they released them, raised then freed the birds to do as they wished—flee to the rio, slip into the desert, roost in the pecans, stay right here. We’d never kill them, said one man. Whoever amongst us lives longest will have the birds and poor Rigo for company, not to mention all our bones—we’ve got the municipal paperwork for on-property gravesites, we’ll stay here forever, the very thing the rezoning commission and developers don’t want. He pointed his cigarillo towards the distant ranchitas. Then the man in the stetson asked what music we’d been playing in our truck. Mudshark went over, cranked up the Tommys, fetched beer. Feedback and drums boomed. What is it? one man asked. Another said, It’s good.
We told them rednecks in town called it peace music, rumbling their pickups through the plaza and throwing eggs at people gathered around portable stereos. One of the men said it didn’t sound like peace music but music of war, so much fuzz and chaos. Then he said the people in this valley were covertly preparing themselves for a new war, unlike any seen before, a different type of war. He shook his head, relit his cigarillo, offered us his pack, said to drag over stumps and sit and listen about the untroubled life they’d fashioned for themselves.
Untroubled at first, added the man in the stetson.
Untroubled for years, said the other. You gringos are hippies, no? he asked and we snickered. We shared that new term preferred by our ilk, neotistas. Now the old men grunted with laughter: You gringos are envious, no? Of our lives here by the rio?
The turkeys warbled in their pen. We heard that unseen man, Rigo, groan from inside the compound. It’s no longer fun and games, said one of the men. We’re being harassed. He described townspeople in pickup trucks dumping trash on their property, graffitiing their doors: CLEAN UP YOUR DUMP; GET UP TO CODE; RENOVATE OR RELOCATE. People from real estate firms stopped by to repeat grinning offers that, when the turkey-men merely responded with exhaled smoke, turned to subtle threats: the city would soon get involved with the derelict or squalid or negligent conditions (some such nonsensical term, said one of the turkey-men). They should, they were told, take compensation while they could.
In the pen, two hens began squawking and tussling until one of the men, leaning forward, fluttered his tongue against lips and the turkeys stopped squabbling. Another man, sighing, said the special ways of life found in this valley were being swallowed up by expansion. He pointed to the mountains and even from this distance, across the massive desert, we saw the white tumors of imitation adobes metastasizing across foothills—soon they’ll be everywhere, the man said.
The Shivering Tommys blasted from the truck. We ground out our cigarillos, cracked and passed more Lone Stars. The sun hit that late-afternoon angle above the west mesa, scouring the valley with the day’s hottest heat, the distant peaks obscured by haze.
Then at some point, as we cracked the last Lone Stars, a sedan came creeping down the dirt road, one of those nondescript patrol cars now ubiquitous throughout town. The turkey-men stiffened in their chairs. The sedan crawled to a halt. Out stepped a burly man as indistinct as his car: big shades and beige uniform, a thick leather belt draped with tools. Is he armed? whispered French Lieutenant. Pinned to the man’s chest, we saw as he drew close, was a nametag that simply read BELMOND. This Belmond kicked the base of the chickenwire pen. Two hens darted over, expecting feed.
Is he an agent? we whispered. An official? Some sort of city representative?
Belmond withdrew a notepad and pen, checked his watch, ticked something off, said, That was your third notice. He scribbled on the pad, tore off a sheet, tucked the carbon-copy in a pouch on his belt, held out the original. When the turkey-men didn’t take it he released the citation and it fluttered off in the wind. He shook his head, said, One simple thing was all I asked. One simple thing that would’ve saved your asses…
Bogdan dropped his beer and stood from his stump. In his deep, accent-emboldened former basketball player’s voice he demanded the man identify himself: Are you with the city, asked Bogdan, the police, border patrol? Sounding drunk, he waved a big hand and said, You can’t talk to them like that.
Belmond glowered, touched his belt. We all ducked (though afterwards we’d agree: it was just pepper-spray clipped to his waist). He first studied us, then the old men, then he said we were a bit old to be playing cowboys and Indians. One of the turkey-man made a sound like an old tortoise gasping its last breath. Beer and Whipple’s lemonade had turned our words to mush. Belmond grinned at our silence. Then, to the turkey-men, he said, You know what to expect next. With a repulsed glance our direction he returned to his cruiser and peeled out.
We’d stay a while longer, the old men hardly talking until Grant Longley asked what Belmond had written on his pad. Only then did one of the turkey-men speak, saying the thing the developers or township or whoever it was that ultimately pulled such strings was able to nail them on was the turkeys, which were now technically considered Class C livestock under new pueblo zoning, when their old paperwork, filed years ago, was only good for up to Class B. One of the men gestured to the skinny Appaloosas across the road and said, Do you know how much horse permits cost nowadays? When one of us asked why they didn’t just give up the turkeys, he smiled and said, That, boys, tells us all we need to know about your little group.
Then his buddy somberly asked if we’d be so kind as to depart. We’d like, said the man, to enjoy the sunset alone. We looked to one another, hurt. But we like sunsets too, we replied. The man shook his head, said, We prefer to do it our own special way.
On the drive back one of us said we ought to do something, ought to share the turkey-men’s plight. Bogdan cleared his throat, cracked a can of Lone Star. Then, slurping, he described his home back in the European mountains, a little industrial town overlooking the sea—a beautiful place, said Bogdan, but not without its problems. Its outskirts, as with many industrial towns in that part of the world, held a sizable Roma encampment that had blossomed over the years: first cinderblock and sheet-metal shelters, hundreds of people sharing portable stoves and water spigots, until the encampment swelled beyond its aluminum-fence walls. Mud pathways were laid with gravel, then paved. Houses grew second stories to hold multigenerational families. Encampment inhabitants rose the factory ranks until the nearby town’s council voted to impose quotas: no more than five percent of administrative positions throughout town could be held by non-citizens, whereas up to ninety-five percent of factory hourly-wage positions could continue to be occupied by non-citizens. (Even though, said Bogdan, by then many Roma were born within the country and indeed the county.) In spite of these restrictions, the people of the encampment flourished. Though I do not wish to imply there wasn’t considerable poverty, Bogdan clarified. Within a decade there was running water and electricity and even satellite television, plus little market stalls and a performance hall, with buses running day and night to the factories. Houses grew grandiose—a point of pride amongst the Roma, said Bogdan, miniature palaces built from what others consider scrap. Meanwhile, nearby locals grew warier. Then, the thing that set townspeople over the edge, Roma families took to stenciling their surnames in brass above their houses’ entrances, golden names visible from the highway, a symbolic pride and permanence that, one night, sparked a considerable mob, including community leaders like the postmaster and school vice principal, who stormed the village and set to trashing property, ripping down trees and shattering windows, until someone took the inevitable step of hurling a flaming bottle of spirits. And from there, as you might imagine, said Bogdan, things took a tragic turn…
It was dark when we reached Elephant Ranch. Whipple asked, Is there something between your people and the Italians? Bogdan crushed the Lone Star can and asked what Whipple meant. Roma, replied Whipple, Rome. Bogdan said Roma was what the Gypsies wanted to be called—not Italian, Gypsy. He looked at us in disbelief. For a moment no one said anything. Then someone asked why he didn’t just say Gypsy instead of Roma, and Bogdan, blinking, said, Because that’s not what they want to be called.
It was the strangest thing, climbing out of the truck and hearing not the psychedelic jazz of the Altered Fifths but some sort of klezmer-fueled punk, that oompah up-beat-down-beat stuff suddenly popular throughout town that sounded broadcasted from beyond the Berlin Wall. Out here in the desert, backdropped by night-blackened orchards, it sounded menacing, indication of something terrible soon to happen. Even Bogdan, whom we imagined stomping about to just such music back home, wrinkled his nose and said, What’s this?
The doorman explained the Fifths had been stopped outside town on their way back from Arizona, trouble at one of those new checkpoints causing problems for everyone. The doorman shrugged when we asked the band’s current whereabouts. All he knew was the Ranch had had less than thirty-six hours to find a replacement, which was how they paid through the teeth for the town’s most popular band, the Humbuckers, who agreed to tack on a few extra nights as part of their outrageous fee. We peeked through the cantina into the courtyard and saw the quad twice as packed as normal. Dour men skulked about as musicians in button-down uniforms belted abrasive Celtic punk, one shrieking a fiddle and another an accordion for the fist-pumping crowd. This ain’t no hippie show, said the doorman, and when we asked for our cover charge back he only sneered and said, Beat it, scags.
The following day, or the day after that, one of us asked, Are we doing good? So we went back to check on the turkey-men, certain we could help. Rumor had spread the Fifths’ gear was confiscated at the checkpoint inspection station, some trumped-up smuggling investigation.
Though we brought beer and cigarillos, the old men looked confused when we arrived. To break the silence we asked how Rigo was doing. The turkeys, we noticed, had been let out to run, nowhere in sight. One of the men, extending a hesitant hand to accept a Lone Star, said the birds always returned to the sound of a particular pot-call. We asked if there’d been more trouble with inspectors, but the men only shrugged. At dusk one man produced a series of clucks by scratching a glass disc with a peg: like dogs, the birds came trotting in from the plowed-under field. We laughed as they waddled into their pen, the men patting their backs as they passed.
Then, as though also summoned by the call, an old pickup came rattling down Estrada. Beside the beefy driver sat an ugly teenage boy who, we saw, cradled a shotgun in his lap. Jesus, said Whipple. Bogdan tensed up. Those of us who’d sampled Whipple’s stuff nearly pissed our pants. The turkey-men didn’t move, leaking cigarillo smoke. The driver called out to ask if animals had gotten into their birds—coyotes were on the prowl, he shouted, nabbing chickens and cats, even a few lambs. People were banding together, he said, hoping to blast the things to hell. Come help the hunt! he shouted before speeding off. But the turkey-men didn’t move.
We’d stay past nightfall when, suddenly, we heard music from Elephant Ranch all the way out there in White Moon, watery noise shifting on wind, deadened by distance. What a privilege, we said, to hear the Altered Fifths out here in the sacred desert. The men said they often spent nights listening to music from the distant bar as though it were being played on the radio, and though they hardly knew what they heard they felt soothed by the sound, like those songs their now-dead wives used to sing.
Stars emerged. The sound carried clearer. Only then did we realize it wasn’t the Fifths but that expensive popular stand-in band with their thudding klezmer-punk. We apologized for the racket. The turkey-men shrugged, said, Sounds like any other night. The ranchitas in the cul-de-sac gleamed like space stations, consumed by surrounding darkness. During an extended silence between songs we heard two or three blasts crackling from the south. It was, we realized, that cowboy gang shooting coyotes. When we stood to go the turkey-men rose too, grasping our hands and thanking us for the beers, for the cigarillos and sympathetic ears, for understanding the value of their property and way of life out here. Then, patting our backs and guiding us to our truck, they politely but firmly asked us not to visit again.
It was one of those towns that, once you left, you never returned to, though you spent lots of time thinking about it, remembering, wondering if it was all still there.
One of us did go back, not long ago: a side-jaunt during a business trip, a few nights at the new Drury Inn off the interstate, visiting old haunts and enjoying a few Lone Stars out in the desert. The Elephant Ranch, he reported to the group, was still there on Cauce, though Cauce could hardly be considered the edge of civilization anymore. The place was now a hip retro motel, though the cantina still stood, decorated with ristras and calaveras. The turkey-men’s house on Estrada, naturally, was gone—in fact, Estrada was now Avenida Alameda, connecting several fields of Spanish-style estates. On the turkey-men’s lot now stood a stylish black adobe, several raised beds of vegetables. Later, at the Ranch cantina, our friend noticed a framed photo on the wall: a party or celebration to commemorate, according to the bartender, the thirtieth anniversary of the Elephant Ranch Rathskeller, just before it was converted into a motel. (The bartender bragged the motel had already made several tourism magazine lists.) In the photo, said our friend, were more than one-hundred people, many familiar faces including the band’s—our band’s, the Altered Fifths’—who judging by their guitars had performed at the party, although in the already-fading photo, so he claimed, the bandmates looked considerably worse for wear, instruments yoked to fattening necks.
We learned of these developments via an online group video-chat, or whatever they’re called, set up by Whipple in his home up in Michigan. Bogdan beamed in from Colorado, someone else from somewhere down south, another from Washington state. The Longley brothers had remained closest to home, a city three hours to the north. Some of us, on the chat, seemed wounded by this revelation, the anniversary celebration—why hadn’t we heard about it, been invited? But our glumness was quashed when someone asked if we’d like a virtual tour of his family’s new house.
Only towards the end of the night did our friend circle back to his trip: though the town was unrecognizable it had been a pleasant visit, one of those occasional reminders we ought to stay in better touch, ought to rekindle that integral kinship. We would’ve loved it, he insisted, running into folks who’d never left town and could give full reports on adventures more unbelievable than even ours: the rise and fall of the peace music movement, the unfettered extent to which those mysterious agents eventually emerged from the shadows, slapped decals on their sedans and set to ruling over town. We would’ve fit right in, said our friend, been accepted back into the fold as though we’d never left… He rattled on in this manner until, at long last, Bogdan or Whipple interrupted to say it was getting late, and then, one by one, we hung up, logged off, and haven’t spoken since.
Jeff Frawley's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Gettysburg Review, Faultline, Portland Review, Western Humanities Review, South Dakota Review, Storyscape and elsewhere. He now lives and teaches in southern New Mexico.