Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ghosts don't haunt me, that cheeseburger does

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What with it being so close to Christmas, I thought today would be the perfect time to share a holiday ghost story.

It's not the story of the three ghosts who saved Ebenezer Scrooge from his humbug life of cold-hearted greed; it's the story of two ghosts I met during a recent vacation in southern New Mexico.

There we were -- me, my wife and our dear friends Danny and Sonia -- poking around in the blistering heat and checking out the adobe buildings that form the tiny historic village of Mesilla, one-time stomping grounds of Pancho Villa and Billy the Kid.

It was mid-afternoon when it occurred to me we hadn't had anything to drink in more than an hour, so I bravely strolled over to an ancient structure bearing a wooden sign advertising the Double Eagle Steakhouse.

A sandwich board at the door boasted the restaurant was home to "the World's Largest Green Chile Cheeseburger" -- one-and-a-quarter pounds of the finest aged beef, slathered with roasted green chilies, half a pound of Queso Fresco cheese and parked on a bun the size of a manhole cover -- so I poked my head inside for a look.

There, I beheld the most amazing bar you have ever seen. Carved from oak and walnut, decorated with four gold-leaf-covered corinthian columns, with mirrors the size of recreational vehicles, two two-metre-by-one-metre French baccarat chandeliers and an antique brass foot rail, it went on for as far as the middle-aged eye can see.

We parked our parched Canadian bodies in front of the attentive New Mexican bartender, who, after serving us four outstanding margaritas, sized us up and shared a terrifying true tale from the heritage building's dark past.

"This place is haunted," he whispered, while casually polishing glasses behind the gleaming bar.

It seems back in the 1850s, the restaurant was home to a wealthy Mexican family and their large entourage of servants. The family had a teenage son, Armando, who fell head over heels in love with their Mexican maid, Inez, a union that drew the outrage of the boy's overbearing mother, known only as Senora.

As it happens, one day Senora came home unexpectedly and found the young lovers entwined, so to speak. In a blind rage, she grabbed a pair of shears from her sewing basket, stabbed the maid and, in the process, fatally wounded her son, who was desperately trying to shield his true love.

"The ghosts of Armando and Inez are still here today," the barman declared firmly, pouring me a small shot of apple-pie-flavoured moonshine. "Sometimes, when my back is turned, glasses on the bar will move by themselves, or tables left in one spot will be in a different place the next morning. Sometimes you'll hear your name called and there's no one there."

Intrigued, that night we had a memorable, ghost-free dinner in the Double Eagle's Maximillian Room, which has a ceiling painstakingly leafed with 15-centimetre squares of gold. At night's end, our friend Sonia visited Armando's former bedroom, where diners can eat and keep watch for the doomed lovers. The salon's walls sport eerie paintings of its ill-fated residents.

Minutes later, a jittery Sonia returned, looking pale as, well, a ghost. Eyes as big as saucers, she blurted: "I tried to take a picture of the painting of Armando, but my camera wouldn't work!"

"Uh huh," the rest of us muttered as we staggered out into the village's now ink-black streets.

"I'm serious!" Sonia snorted, waggling her camera with righteous indignation. "But it's working perfectly fine now. Don't you think that's a little spooky?"

I looked at her and rubbed my bulging stomach. "Maybe a little," I sniffed, stifling a polite belch. "But, with apologies to Armando and Inez, I'm going to be haunted by that green chili cheeseburger for the rest of my life."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 17, 2012 A2

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