BY: TIM BRYANT
JT Harrington, a shadowy, world-weary south-of-the-border deal maker, is having qualms about his work and life. Smitten by a dainty Southern belle—she’s a Dawn Wells look-alike—he ships his sailboat to rural South Carolina and parks it near her parents’ generations-old plantation house.
But his transition to the boonies does not go well. His type of guns is not for hunting, his type of boat is not for catching bass. He likes Zeppelin, not country. Nobody surfs. A neighbor’s cow keeps wandering near his stash. And somebody’s watching from the road…
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Blue Rubber Pool by Tim Bryant, JT Harrington is a clandestine operator working for a mysterious colonel on the “Money Trail.” JT wants a break from the grind and tries to settle down in rural South Carolina where a heat wave sends him to Big Lots to buy a blue rubber pool. In it, he lays back and reminisces about past, and present, assignments, overwhelmed by paranoia. Needless to say, he doesn’t fit in very well with the neighbors, thinks a cattle prod is only for torturing information out of someone, and adores his “sweet lamb” Marianne, who is his total opposite. He wants to retire from the life he’s been living, or at least take a break, but the colonel won’t let him, and it’s likely his job will be the death of him.
An intriguing, if sometimes a tad confusing, tale, the story is fast paced and totally unpredictable. You never know what will happen next. A fascinating read.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Blue Rubber Pool by Tim Bryant is the story of a man weary of his life on the edge. When undercover op (I guess that’s what you would call him) JT Harrington meets Marianne Robertson, he sees her as a divine gift, totally unlike any of the women he has met in his line of work—thieves, harlots, and she-devils—and he is smitten. Marianne is from rural South Carolina, so JT relocates, wanting a break from his life on what he calls the Money Trail. Overwhelmed the summer’s heat wave, and his own paranoia, he heads for the lake, but the snakes drive him out. Used to being on the ocean, or close to it, he misses the water and, when he finds a big blue rubber pool at a local Big Lots, he buys, brings it home, and practically lives in it, even building a lifeguard stand—which his country neighbors call a deer stand. Clearly, JT is out of his element in Small Town, USA, but he makes a gallant effort to fit in, parking his sailboat near Marianne’s parents’ plantation house and building his own house in a cow pasture. Still, his boss, Colonel John, calls him back time after time for harrowing missions, which rarely go as planned.
Blue Rubber Pool was unlike anything I had read before, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Fast paced, tongue-in-cheek, and unpredictable, you’ll find it hard to put down.
(Patron Saint of the Marooned)
Marianne Robertson, a lovely and virtuous kewpie doll born and raised in an old plantation house in the red clay boonies of South Carolina, was not at all like the women I encountered on the Money Trail—thieves, harlots, and she-devils who lived slithering, sinewy, shadowy lives in Central and South America. Marianne and I were worlds apart in a hundred different ways but then together in Jonesville—a tiny crossroads speck of a place overrun by kudzu, broken cars, and Southern Baptists—our alliance became proof of the magic of angels and the hypnotic lure of nuns. Yes, you heard it right. I believed her to be divine, her decency a thousand shades truer than mine. My overwhelming attraction to her was that of a child drawn to the aura of Bernadette. Or, similarly, the cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew to the cartoon cat Penelope.
Poor Marianne, sweet lamb. It was love that happened when the gods first painted her across my eyes. Love for the unprotected, the vulnerable. Love for the untainted, the hopeful. Sitting alone at an open-air food bar where the ferry lets you off on Daufuskie, a small sea island off Hilton Head, she was unaware of the wolves all around. Anything could have happened at any time. Yet there she was: pretty white sun dress, large brimmed sun hat of straw, Jackie O sunglasses, hair pulled over her shoulder in a thick French braid.
Poor Marianne, sweet lamb. Prim and proper, nails painted for summer, delicately shucking oysters between bites of a fried bologna sandwich, sips of Corona, pinches of lime, not even breaking a sweat despite the boiling heat. Polite nibbles, little pinky extended. The total Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind.
What sealed the deal was her proficiency with that shucking knife. I could not resist watching. My eyes went to her, bewitched, the way they lose themselves in the dancing skirts of late night flames along the darkest runs of the Money Trail.
Only this time they found Goodness where before they were lost in Evil.
What a pair we were that day at the ferry landing, opposites balanced on the fulcrum of time and place. Marianne, a daisy freshly plucked from the field, sweet and clean as an ad for Ivory soap, innocent as the Dawn Wells character Mary-Anne on the television series Gilligan’s Island. What a contrast to myself: hands dirty from the sailboat’s engine room, cargo shorts dirty from too little time ashore, faded surfing tee with one armpit torn out, cheap yellow sunglasses with blue lenses propped up on hair standing up from a dive—checking the zincs before departing to St Kitts then, from there, Swan Island off Honduras then, beyond Swan Island to places undetermined.
I was leaving. She had just arrived, having come over on the Calibogue Ferry, and was waiting for a ride to her rental, the friend running late, dead battery in the golf cart. If not for that, we’d never have met. I’d be island hopping, bopping around in jungles. Marianne might’ve wed a small town lawyer, a preacher perhaps. But, no, Daufuskie—known for neglected batteries leaving people stranded at all hours in the oddest places—facilitates a version of musical chairs wherein the most unlikely of matches are made. Although natives take it in stride, it made me uneasy. Where I had been, a thing like that could’ve ruined my health.
Anyway, there she was, poor Marianne, sweet lamb, waiting like bait. And there I was, tuned to her subtle nun-like vibe and clearly aware of hungry wolves circling, closing in.
Already, I loved her: part rose petal on a church pew, part Hemi powered oyster eater. Already I knew it was hopeless. Beyond my reach and out of my league. As improbable as God seemed to me then despite a whispering sense that God had brought us together. In the instant of that inkling—and it happened in a snap, the way sunlight glints off steel—I became her protector. Her Knight Templar. Or whatever.
I did next what any man would’ve done. I ordered food—a basket of fried okra, the perfect enticement in that part of the world, a strategic door opener that predictably worked. She asked if it was good. I told her yes it was, offering the basket while introducing myself.
“JT, originally from Chicago.” That’s all the ice breaker needed and, as a result of its success, I never made it to St. Kitts or on to Swan Island and beyond. Not as scheduled anyway. No. Dog that I am, at the end of her vacation, I followed her home. Lingering behind but keeping up. Sniffing the ground, tail wagging.
Not wanting to frighten her off yet yearning to be tamed. Marianne, a willing partner, coyly encouraged. Never too much. But always enough. No, friend, I was not a stalker. What these Southern women, these belles, pull off is subtle but strong. Voices sweet as sugar cane, eyes sparkling with mischief. Suggestive juicy peaches. Finger tips touching your wrist just so.
No, I was not alone in this. She played a part too. And in addition there were other forces.
I mean in addition to God. Some other interloper hid behind the scenes. What pietist? What savior? Bernadette, the Patroness Saint of Orphans? Or the lessor known Dwynwen, Patroness Saint of Lovers, healer of injured animals too, and island-dwelling keeper of the magic well?
Or might Marianne have been divine on her own merit, the Patroness Saint of the Marooned, siren to lost sailors washing ashore on stormy seas?
I bought a bit of land: an honest-to-goodness cow pasture half a klick down from where Marianne lived with her parents. I decided to build a beach house on stilts, eleven feet up off the ground, and then trucked my boat to Jonesville. A forty-foot ketch in need of repairs. I planned to live aboard while getting the house on its feet.
Talk about a grand entrance. Boat and I arrived on a trailer pulled behind a semi. I stayed in the cabin from Charleston to interstate, interstate to South Carolina’s Up Country, and then on back roads meandering out to the boonies. As we got in line behind logging trucks, I fried eggs, enjoyed a late breakfast, then napped on the final approach to Jonesville, but a dot in Union County. I put on my favorite Hawaiian shirt, the blue one, ready for when the driver laid on the horn signaling me to step out and wave.
The crowd was small. Hadn’t they seen my flyers? They stood in groups of three or five or seven or two in front of Pete’s and then The Café in front of the coin op laundry mat and then the Tru Value hardware store. I bowed and tipped my hat, notorious and glorious. I threw Mardi Gras beads to a few old guys wearing overalls and John Deere caps, to a few overweight hunters in camo, to a kid on a bicycle. They caught them, if only by spontaneous reaction, or they let them fall at their feet.
A Baptist said to a Methodist, “He ain’t from around here.”
The Methodist answered, “Yankee, I bet.”
The kid on the bike waved back.
They gaped as I passed. I gaped too. Meeting the new neighbors.
What’s wrong with these people? Where are the surfers?
I shrugged it off, popped open a beer, and sat at the helm for the rest of the ride to my land. I lit a cigar, listened to the local country station then decided screw that and cranked up a Santana tape given by a friend for my going away.
Getting close, we slowed to cross railroad tracks—a neighbor stopped his tractor, way off in a field, to watch what I’m sure was the first forty-foot ketch to come down that road. A mile later Marianne and her parents waited with champagne bottles. Per my instructions, as the semi crept onto the rutted path leading out to the old barn, they shook them up and let them go. I dumped what was left of the Mardi Gras beads on Marianne and Mr. and Mrs. R.
(Dairy Cats and Hawaiian Longboards)
Moving to the boonies was a true leap of faith, I explained to my friend Alaska. In addition to miles, there’s cultural extremes, a venture not unlike Captain Cook exploring the unknowns of the South Pacific.
On my first evening, beside a small campfire near the boat, under a full moon, I said to Marianne: “Check out that big dog moving through the trees there.”
She giggled and hugged my arm. “Silly man, that’s no dog, it’s a deer.”
All the persuading in the world couldn’t get her to stay with me on the boat that night. There would be no celebratory affection. The next morning, instead of waking to Marianne at my side, looking out a porthole, I woke alone, looking out the porthole at turkeys: one group of five, another of seven. A first. Later, Marianne named them, collectively, The Wilsons because they resembled Tom Hanks’s handprint on the soccer ball in Castaway. Whenever they arrived, one of us would call happily to the other “Look, honey, the Wilsons are back!”
But in the beginning, my arrival was met with unexpected resistance. Apprehension on the part of Mr. and Mrs. R. and stiff disregard by the many cousins and friends of the family along our road and all around town including outright anger by one that threatened to burn me out if my house blocked his view. My response was to play dumb but dose him with ayahuasca, a spiritual medicine from early Amazonia that caused him to disappear, leaving an anemic wife and five hungry kids sobbing on the steps of their trailer. He returned three days later, a significantly changed man with serious hallucinations under his belt and a revised understanding between us.
Yes, those early days were rough around the edges. For instance, within the span of two hours I joked to Marianne that Wednesday night church meetings might best be called “Snake Night”—that really pissed her off—then at dinner with her parents, I referred to the War of Northern Aggression as the “Civil War”—pissing them off too.
But I pressed on, broadening my horizons after buying an old Jeep from a guy named Bubble Gum. No top, no carpet. Holes in the floor let water run out just like scuppers on my boat. Marianne didn’t like wind messing up her hair, and didn’t like so much sun and tanning oil, so I went out solo just to look around.
It seemed there were white cats with large gray or black spots everywhere—one here and another there, laying in the grass, rubbing up against trees, crossing streets, resting on cars, stalking birds, sleeping on roofs. I named this new species Dairy Cats because they reminded me of the dairy cows that dotted my childhood in Illinois. As for dogs, the first I saw belonged to the town: a black lab that lounged in the middle of Main Street or in front of the Kangaroo gas pumps. No one but a Yankee would honk expecting it to move.
I saw an old black man with a head full of wooly, yellowed hair and the matching wooly beard. He was stumbling along the railroad tracks—jerking and flopping like the scarecrow in Wizard of Oz—feeling his way home with a bottle in a brown sack.
Turkeys flew up to roost in an oak. I didn’t know they’d do that. Now the trees had Tom Hanks’s hands up there.
I mowed three acres of grass without lowering the blade on Mr. R.’s tractor. Sorry. Never rode one of those before. My inaugural knowledge of mowing began with swim trunks and ended with suntan lotion. I loved the sound the engine made, loved getting lost in that white noise while sorting out my moves. But I could not have cared less if the grass was short or tall.
Goats stood on top of their shed and made a sound like babies crying. The Census Bureau said there were three—count ’em—three South Pacific Islanders around. That seemed a start, at least. I couldn’t wait to meet them, to see their Hawaiian shirts, and maybe share some kava from half a coconut shell. Yes, I would reach out to those Tongans, Fijians, or Vanuatuans, perhaps incite them to riot, declare a separate nation of like-minded sinners, a Conch Republic all our own in Jonesville. We’d build bonfires at the edge of town, maybe roast a few of those Dairy Cats, bring our bright colored long boards to the town reservoir to show them off and indoctrinate an expanded rank and file.
I built a lifeguard stand, complete with platform, ladder, and bench, painted red just like at the beach. In a box I found my original pair of lifeguard trunks, gotten off a dead lifeguard. I wore them all the time. Even so, my neighbor called my lifeguard stand a deer stand.
“Can I use your deer stand?” he asked.
I pretended to mull it over. “Got lifeguard trunks?”
“Well then, no.”
(Seizing the Day ~ My Morning)
I got a hammock going, tied to a boat jack on one end and the barn on the other. I was in it late one morning catching rays while catching up on news from Honduras. Specifically, the situation with Mel—Manuel Zelaya, El Presidente. According to radio airwaves passing over Jonesville, he’d been tossed out late the night before. Tossed out of Honduras into Costa Rica and, rumor had it, still in his pajamas.
The S-Phone rang. I tumbled out to answer, hoping for a call from my builder. We’d been playing a lot of tag. He’d been impossible to pin down but, no, this caller was my Alaskan friend wanting to know right off, loud and pretentious “What exact-o-lackity is a Jonesville anyway?” The way he said “Jonesville” sounded like he was pinching his nose while taking out the trash.
“Bugger off!” I yawned, hanging up.
It’s a game we played, assuming make-pretend roles through which alter egos were freed of all restraints. On the Money Trail we’ve sometimes used disguises and fake accents. But off the clock, it got old real fast so off the clock, I just hung up.
I knew he would call again but was more interested in getting back into that hammock—drink in one hand, book in the other—without upsetting the cat. Had that been an Olympic sport, I’d be good for getting the gold.
Alaska called again three times in fifteen minutes, no doubt drinking and dialing from some dive saloon, letting his demons run free.
I didn’t pick up but saw the irony: our circumstances so similar yet he kept on the move while I had stopped to make my last stand.
When the S-Phone rang yet again I let it go to voice mail with the others. It was too lovely a day for sparring long distance while whomever—good guys or bad—listened in. I was too far downstream for mind games, having already made the sudden, unexpected decision to open a beer very early in the day and see where the day went from there.
By noon I was buzzed and in the boat, up on its jacks, sitting at the salon table. It had raised “fiddle” edges so things wouldn’t slide away when heeling up or getting jostled at sea. Of course, she wouldn’t be heeling up any time soon. No, we were bolted down snug to the land.
I switched on the radio, dialed through several gospel and country music stations until finding a salsa channel speaking Spanish at the speed of greased lightning. Nothing tells the gut who’s in charge like ice-cold beer at the break of dawn, nothing says carpe diem like a big breakfast of eggs, baleadas and Coban chili sauce.
I listened to a salsa song sung by a young girl who claimed to want my love. I packed fifty rounds of FMJs into an aftermarket Uzi clip—a fifty-rounder a friend, the colonel, gave me saying, “Keep it. It’s crap. Falls out right when you need it most.”
“Gee, thanks, Colonel,” I told him, wondering if he knew he could get me killed gifting me risky hand-me-downs. That afternoon, as with so many others in my life, duct tape was the answer.
Marianne’s cat finished her bowl of cat cereal then gave herself a bath.
A hawk circled the pasture. Cows were scattered, black dots faraway.
Still wearing the lifeguard trunks I slept in, I laced up boots then stuffed a backpack with an Uzi micro-carbine, the colonel’s clip and its related tape, plus some twenty-round clips too.
I pulled the pack up on my shoulders. Marianne’s cat jumped on the table, sniffed my dirty plate, and rejected it, preferring the canned stuff Marianne gives her. I climbed down from the boat remembering a line from the movie Captain Ron. “If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen out there.”
A heady breeze was blowing through. It felt good on top of beer instead of coffee while shirtless in the stirring air and wearing steel-toed boots with a plan to bust out that fifty-round clip. I was lord and king. The universe spun at my whim.
I crossed the field toward woods and took the clay path leading to the Jonesville Reservoir, keeping an eye out for pottery shards, having heard the local legend of coins buried in a jug—a Money Trail of a different type right there in my own back yard. I’d found a dozen pieces in recent days: brown ones still showing swirls from the potter’s wheel, tiny white ones from delicate teacups with blue, salt-glazed designs. As for arrowheads, they had a jar of their own. Both collections were kept in an olive green ammo box where other jars held sharks teeth, sand dollars, pieces of eight, a few gold molars, and a glass eye.
Walking these paths looking for shells and stuff felt like beachcombing. The way the woods stirred and rustled in the fresh morning air sounded like the shore. Somewhere on this land was once an old cabin but I’ve seen no traces of it. Scholars claim DeSoto came through here. As did the patriots headed to Cowpens and victory over King George’s army. But this time it was only me, until a dog barked, on the hunt, running obsessed in my direction. Closer and closer it came, a wee beagle. Bark-bark-bark! Yip-yip-yip. It passed, not even noticing me. It evaporated into the thicket, in hot pursuit of a truth only beagles understand, until the sound died off and again, it was only me.
The sun beat down through branches.
I stepped past a spider web.
I watched sun light shimmer on the lake: a zillion shards of glass.
It was quiet for the longest time.
In another life, another man would sit awhile, absorb the silence.
But I had other plans.
I stopped to make my stand, racked the slide, planted my feet, then ripped the day wide open. On the other end of the reservoir, an old man had a fish on the line when he heard the full auto burst from that Uzi.
(Seizing the Day ~ My Afternoon)
I got up on the lifeguard stand to call builders. “Ever built a beach house?”
“Ever been to the beach?”
Marianne said I was being picky, said to just ask if they could build a barn then, if they came out to meet me, explain the total concept. Based on my calls so far, I could see how it might come to that, but for the time being I committed to higher expectations.
I brought a book, A Trip to the Beach, to read while waiting on beach house builders to call me back. It described the many obstacles and booby traps incurred by the Blanchards, a husband and wife team that moved to Anguilla to open a restaurant. As foreign to that place as I was to Jonesville, they had to try extra hard to make a go of it but eventually overcame a gauntlet of resistance—and without ruining their livers like I was ruining mine.
The Blanchards learned it takes a certain type will to live happily-ever-after in paradise. “Going native” is different than going on vacation. You have to adapt, surrender things you’ve grown used to, do things as others do them instead of how you want them done.
As for me, from what I had seen of Jonesville so far, there would be a tremendous amount of alcohol involved or, if that didn’t work, ammunition.
Looking through binoculars—seeing something move far off—I wondered what awaited ahead and where I should go to pay the bribes.
(Ending the Day ~ An Intruder)
The news from Honduras had not been good. In an early morning raid, soldiers stormed the palace. Mel was tossed out by the seat of his pants—the first military coup in South America since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
It was dusk. I was up in the lifeguard stand again, aiming a Crimson Trace red dot at the early moon. Marianne’s cat was with me on the bench.
She nudged my ribs then whipped around and swaggered to the other end, John Wayne-style, then decided to sit and lick herself.
Something moving in the woods made her stop. She’d been rather skittish lately. Two nights before, there had been a wild crazy ruckus underneath my sailboat, the cat hissing and making kung-fu-fighter sounds, spine arched, ears back, in a Mexican standoff with what—Marianne told me later—was probably a coyote. I went out on deck, firing into the air, and the coyote ran off. I squeezed off a few extra pot shots and got a yelp in response. When I checked the next day, I found nothing: no blood trail, no tracks.
I’ve never been much of a cat person, but didn’t mind Marianne’s hanging around. What a trip she was—one minute sprawled half dazed in a sun beam, the next fending off bad guys. All in a day’s work. Just like me.
The cat finished bathing and made a sound I interpreted as “bored.” She paced the bench on the lookout for danger, stopped, and sat, taking notice of something. She then made a sound I equated to “You might wanna come take a look at this.”
Squinting in the fading light, I saw it: a big, black blob chewing on my precious banana trees again, the little patch I put in to feel at home while still homeless and scouting builders. This beast was not just an intruder, it was a connoisseur, having chosen musa bashoos from the mountains of Japan, a house warming gift from Alaska. I thought it interesting that a cow eating a banana tree sounds like I do eating celery. I enjoyed watching the big dumb beasts while they stayed in the neighbor’s field, just loafing. It relaxed me. Especially after hard day at work shouting into the S-Phone at some guy speeding across the desert, or at some guy shouting back under heavy fire in the jungle. Cows took the edge off the fact that good help had become hard to find, nobody willing to go out delivering duffle bags anymore.
But a cow on the loose in my yard—Scooby snacking on my plants—screamed out for countermeasures. But which ones?
I dialed in the colonel. He answered right away.
“Well, what kind of cow is it?”
“Black. Built like a tank. A boy, I suspect, stocky and close to the ground. And short tempered. Not particularly glad to meet outsiders.” Beyond that, I was clueless to the ways of cattle—I was an alien who landed amongst farmers, just there for the farmer’s daughter.
“Just shoot the damn thing and be done,” he advised. That was always the colonel’s “go to” Plan A.
“I don’t want to kill it. Just want to save my bananas.”
“Call in an air strike,” he added, screwing with me now. The colonel thinks he’s funny.
“Too over-the-top. I need a ground-level solution, something low key that won’t unnerve the natives.”
“Do you still have that cattle prod I gave you?”
“The one with the broken amperage adjuster? Yeah. How’s that guy doing anyway?”
“Never mind that. You’re sure you still have it?”
“Of course I do. But I don’t need intel. I just want the cow to go away.”
“Use the cattle prod.”
“Seriously, Colonel, what’s a friggin’ cow going to tell me?” I was on a roll. Too much bourbon, I guess. The thought of interrogating a cow still cracks me up. Who’d want to torture a cow? What’s next, waterboarding chickens?
I heard Colonel John calmly light a stogie, take a long draw, then chase it down with bourbon of his own. I could see him in my mind, shaking his head the way he does.
“Listen to me, son. Two words: cattle and prod. Do the math.”
After that, he was gone. A mirage again on the Money Trail.
Weird, I hadn’t made that connection about the prod, always assumed it was meant as a brand name—like Rhino brand truck bed liners, implying the product stands up to a rhino.
You wouldn’t actually put that on a rhino.
Hmmmm. Cattle plus prod.
Well, I’ll be damned.
Always thought it meant “More than you’ll ever need for reluctant villagers because it’s strong enough for a cow!”
(Murph Doesn’t Surph)
It took a bit of patience finding the suggested device. It took pulling tarps off a big stack of crates, and climbing up to pry the lid off one, but before getting to the cattle prod, I found the mother-lode of bandoliers. Out of boredom, I was modeling them when I heard an engine and then saw headlights coming my way.
Shirtless, wearing only lifeguard shorts and bandoliers, I reached to the small of my back expecting a .45 but found only emptiness the size of my life. Before I leapt back into the barn, I recognized my neighbor on a four-wheeler.
He stopped a short distance away, shut the engine off, then shined a flashlight on his face, pointing up from his chin the way kids do at camp. “Don’t shoot! It’s Murph!” he said. “I’m looking for one of my cows.”
He’s a quick learner. This happened once before: after a long day when I was mentally drained, up late in the barn because sap was dripping from a tree, tap-tapping on the barn’s tin roof, sap-sap-tap-tapping, driving me mad.
And having recently finished Capote’s In Cold Blood—a book passed around on the Trail because it’s the true story of country folk slaughtered by crazy-ass kids on a joy ride—hadn’t helped.
Let’s just say that on the night I first met Murph I was in peak paranoia and, on top of that, had never heard of bush hogging and hadn’t known it’s sometimes done at night to avoid the summer heat.
So, when we first met, I went out to face him armed to the teeth. I stepped in front of his bush-hogging tractor, planting myself like a post, pointing a big gun. Starting then, we formed an odd alliance. He kept better track of his cows, I paused my finger at the trigger. So on this latest encounter, things went much more smoothly.
“Okay, Murph! Come on in!” I gave him a friendly wave, and he rolled up on the four-wheeler.
“One got away,” was all he said, straightforward on the subject.
Embarrassed, I bet. Poor guy couldn’t even control a dumb cow.
I pointed to the bananas. He hit them with the lights, the black blob crunching down with big square teeth. “He eats them,” I said with added pain in my voice. “When I complain, he just stares back.”
“Well, I better get him back through the gate then.”
“Need any help?” I asked, hoping he would. “I’ve got just the thing,” I continued, “a cattle prod.” I had it ready for action on a crate near the barn door. “I’ve had it all this time,” I continued, blathering on as if desperate to purge that information. “Never knew it was really for cows. We can use it if you like.”
Murph, unflappable country dude, must’ve been running the numbers but not accepting the answer, must’ve not known what else a cattle prod could be used for. Probably didn’t want to go there. “Naw,” he said. “I got it.”
He tipped his hat, a cool Stetson type, and then the Marlboro Man rode over to that beast and gave it a swat which, turned out, was all it took.
The cow came unstuck from the ground and, as if in a trance, let Murph herd it to the gate like cowboys always do. Murph talked to that ’lil doggie, probably describing how close it had come to being made to talk at the end of a cattle prod in the hands of a nut job—meaning me.
Murph and I are from completely different worlds. He doesn’t surf, not even with that name.
(316 Says Goodnight)
I watched Murph and the cow cross my lawn heading home, pretty sure it was cow number 316 again, according to the tag stapled to its ear. It trotted across my putting green, pooping as it did. The poo hit the grass with a thud. What a fitting end to the day.
When the S-phone rang a little later, I hated giving Colonel John the bad news.
“Okay, so am I getting steaks?” he asked.
“No. Murph-That-Doesn’t-Surph got to him first.”
“Too bad. I was going through my wine cellar and found—”
That’s when a chopper broke from the treetops at the bottom of my field.
“Hold on, Colonel! Gotta situation here!”
It approached fast, coming in low without lights. The bastard stopped and hovered half a football field away. I ran into the barn to arm myself, but by the time I came out it was gone.
I lowered the FIM-92 Stinger shoulder-fired anti-aircraft gun to my side and got back on the phone with Colonel John. “Did you hear that racket?”
“Yes, but I was talking about the pinot.”
“A chopper. Not black. White. With no numbers on it.”
“Yes. That’s the third time! It comes in low and buzzes the house.”
“Probably a TV news team. Probably investigating a guy in a beach house where there’s no beach. A local whack-job story. They do them all the time.”
I wasn’t amused. And I sensed Colonel John mulling over the possible truth: the Money Trail probed my defenses the way a shark will brush close, testing the water.
“One of ours or one of theirs?” I asked.
“I’ll see what I can find out,” the colonel finally said. Then “click,” he was gone.
I went up into the lifeguard stand, rested the Stinger in my lap, and listened to darkness as it colored the empty sky, filling in between the lines with sounds of crickets and frogs.
Marianne’s cat jumped up to sit beside me.
Then cow number 316 mooed good night from far away.
Later, as I faded into the abyss of sleep, my mind began working on that number—316—chewing on it with my big square teeth. Why was it familiar?
© 2018 by Tim Bryant