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Mr. Skrabanek’s Phone

By John Troesser

The store was one of those gas station / pool room / grocery hybrids that used to be so common in Texas. It was a board and batten structure with a corrugated iron roof and a covered porch. One side was covered with 1947 license plates – a weatherproof metal wall made from surplus tags found in the courthouse basement in 1958 and brought home by the proprietor’s wife when she worked there. The proprietor was Emil Skrabanek Jr. but the place was known far and wide as “Junior’s.”

Engle Texas Store
Not the actual store but close enough
TE photo

Emil Skrabanek, aka Junior, had inherited the business from his father after Emil Sr. was pinned under a livestock trailer while changing a flat. Had it been on a highway, he may have survived, but the loaded trailer was behind a barn on private (leased) property and it was days before he was found. The cows lost some weight, but survived – only to be driven to slaughter after being fattened at a feed lot.

Both Skrabaneks had played football for their county seat team, but Emil Sr. taught his son that business came first. “Treat everyone equally, he said, “but don’t take any checks from those #*&% panthers.”

Junior’s had the ideal crossroad location. It was also (more or less) equidistant between two county seats. The two towns provided most of Emil’s business. Both towns had been high school football rivals dating back to the days when they wore leather helmets.

The pool-playing, beer drinking clientele would abruptly change from time to time. It would be a hangout for one team for 18 months or so and then abruptly switch to another. No one could point to a reason. It just happened. The old timers that played dominos in the back room didn’t care who used the pool tables – and neither did Junior. As long as everyone paid in U.S. currency, everything was jake.

Junior kept a phone under the bar. It was a beige “Princess” model that he had picked up at a garage sale. It had an exceptionally long extension cord that reached all the way back to the domino tables – a convenience for Mr. Broussard, the area’s token Louisianan. “Buddy” Broussard was crippled while changing a tire on a livestock trailer and never made it back home to Beaux Bridge. It was just as well since it was rumored he was heavily in debt for a failed crawfish farm. His wife had him declared legal dead – which in Louisiana takes about ten days. The arrangement suited Buddy fine.

Junior had tried to get a pay phone installed, but the phone company said it wouldn’t make enough to justify sending a man from Houston to collect the money. So Junior had to settle on his business phone. But he didn’t advertise the fact that it was there.

Still, the regulars knew it was there. Sometimes the phone’s presence would be forgotten, but every few weeks (or whenever someone got himself pinned under a livestock trailer) it was remembered. Perhaps it was the phases of the moon, but sometimes it seemed everybody and his nephew had to make a call. Junior hinted that he should be paid for the phone’s use, but nobody took him seriously. The pool players would use the phone to call their girlfriends or their bail bondsmen - or both. Kermit Zapalac, who happened to be dating a bail bondswoman from Brenham, could make both calls at once.

When they gave the phone back to Junior, the patrons mumbled their thanks. Junior mumbled back – but it wasn’t “you’re welcome.” They were aware of Junior’s dirty look, but they kept their quarters in their pockets – to use in the juke box or the pool table. It was when the girlfriends and bail bondsmen started calling Juniors for their lovers or clients - that Emil really got steamed.

Junior never was considered talkative. He spent words like they cost money and he saw no reason to speak when a nod, a shrug or raised eyebrows could do the talking for him. Therefore, it was a surprise when he struck up a conversation with Joe Fraga one evening. Joe was another guy who didn’t talk much. Their conversation drew even more attention when Emil opened the cash register and slid a $10 bill toward Joe.

Two nights later, there was a new piece of “furniture” in Junior’s Place. It sat next to the juke box in the corner. It was (as Groucho used to say) “A common item – something you see everyday.” What it was was a newspaper rack – a used one purchased from Joe Fraga. It was the wire cage type – the one where the front opens down. It was painted red – just like the ones in Houston.

The paper rack had been dented when it was struck in a livestock trailer accident, but the mechanism that accepted quarters still worked. Instead of newspapers – the rack held Junior’s beige Princess phone – with its extension cord coiled like a fireman’s hose. For the first time ever, Junior was asking patrons if they needed to make a call.

© John Troesser
November 9, 2014 Column
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