A TASTE OF JAKE
At the end of that season the franchise changed hands and we all lost our jobs. I packed up my thirteen year old Jeep and headed south to the winter meetings in Florida. I was going to look for a job with another team.
I didn’t have a plan, never did. I have always believed that life is a series of blind moments, out of the blue, and you can turn left, turn right, follow the moment and just see where it takes you.
I call them ‘Flash Bulb Moments.’ They come quick. You can’t anticipate them. You don’t look for them. You can’t plan for them, sometimes they blind you. You just follow the flash of light and see where it ends up. Don’t think the elite business schools would endorse that sort of thinking, but so far it had taken me to some pretty interesting places.
I had been on the road for two days and it was nearly dark as I eased through traffic in downtown Atlanta when I noticed steam pouring out from under the hood of the jeep. Water pump going or gone. I knew nothing about Atlanta but had to get off and get off quick, so I took the next exit to the left and headed into what appeared to be a pretty bad and weathered section of downtown with night closing in.
I pulled into the first place I saw that looked like a mechanic. It was a faded blue concrete building, surrounded by stacks of old tires, and a hand painted sign over the door that said JUNE BUG’S TIRES. Maybe they would know a mechanic around here. I pulled to a stop, steam rolled out from under the hood.
My headlights landed on an older black man, wearing smut-covered overalls, sitting on a grease bucket eating fried chicken from a box with his weathered hands. I got out and went over to him.
“You June Bug?” I asked.
“That’s what the signs says don’t it,” he said.
“I don’t need tires but I was wondering…”
“Water pump,” he cut me off.
“Yeah,” I said. “Can you help out?”
“Gotta finish my chicken first,” he said and pulled out another drumstick.
June Bug told me that he had closed for the day but would take a look anyhow and see what he could do. I agreed and asked him if there was a place nearby that I could get something to eat while I waited.
“Chicken place done closed,” he said. “Next best place is bout a mile away, 3 PIGS up that way,” he pointed up the street. “Best damn barbecue in ChickenBone.”
“That’s where you are young buck,” he said. “Good living, but hard living.”
“I’ll walk up there while you take a look.”
“Carrying,” he said as he worked on the drumstick.
“What the hell you think big man? A gun.”
“No, I don’t have a gun.”
“Then fellow look like you don’t wanna be walking up this street in the dark.”
I went around to the back of the Jeep, took a 34 inch blonde and brown bat out of my equipment bag, gave my keys to June Bug and said I would be back a little later.
“You one crazy ass white boy,” he said as he shook his head and went back to working on his chicken.
Make a note: A man who eats his dinner with his hands while sitting on a grease bucket will always treat you right.
From HOOCHY KOOCHY
A brightly painted old postal truck rolled into the backyard and stopped at the edge of the old shed. Sweet Thang was in the drivers seat, with the steering wheel on the right side of the vehicle. It squeaked to a stop, but the music kept on playing out of two small loudspeakers mounted on top.
The truck was painted in swirls of light and dark blue, and on the rear panel, a large silver bass rose from the swirls with his mouth about to latch onto a hook baited with a huge red worm. Above that in a mix of red and pink letters it said, ARNOLDS BAIT BUGGY. Below that and across the bottom it said, LIVE AND WIGGLING. On the drivers side sliding door it said, CAN’T WAIT…WE GOT BAIT.
I looked over at JD. He just grinned and popped out another cigarette.
The door slid open and Sweet Thang popped out in a hop and nearly skipped over to where we were. He didn’t even break stride when he reached the hole, just jumped in feet first, landing soft like a cat.
“Hey diddle diddle, goat can’t play no fiddle,” he squeaked loudly. “This is one damn fine snake pit.”
He dropped to the ground on all fours and crawled around, feeling the bottom, feeling the side, and then he sprung up.
“Roadrunner you never told me you knew how to do this gooda work?”
“I don’t,” he said and pointed at me with his cigarette.
Sweet Thang stared at me. “How did ol’ Barnaby Jones over here learn to dig a pit like this?”
“Well,” I said. “To be truthful finding folks don’t pay all the bills. This isn’t my only job.”
“Yeah, what else you do?”
“Make baseball bats,” I answered.
“Yeah, wooden baseball bats for pros.”
He let out a laugh that turned into a spit.
“Baseball bats. And everybody think I got a silly willy damn job.”
He took one step and launched himself right out of the pit in one move, dusting his hands off with a double clap.
“Got things to do, stew to brew,” He said as he headed back to his truck. “Eats at nine, be on time.”
“Think Sweet Thang has taken a shine to you boy,” JD said.
I shook my head. “Arnolds Bait Buggy,” I said. “Who the hell is Arnold?”
“I told you he really liked that pig in Green Acres.”
From MudCat Moon
“The last time a dead man called me I hung up on him.”
“Last I checked I’m not dead but the night is young,” I said into the crackling phone.
“That’s not what’s on the TV news,” Catfish said.
“The news says I’m dead?”
“Watching it now.”
“Any details you care to share?” I asked.
“Yep,” he said. “Says you were killed when Billy Ray’s security goons rescued Cissy.”
“Rescued Cissy from me?”
“You and your associates, they say.”
“I have associates?”
“And we’re all dead?”
“According to Channel 10.”
“Breaking news,” I answered.
“Tragic. They still got your name wrong.”
“So, I suppose now would be a good time to fill you in on what’s really going on up here?”
“I was standing by for your call.”
“Billy Ray has been lying out his fat rear end since he was knee high to a billy goat.”
“And now he’s lying about this. You ready for the real story?”
“Talk fast. You running out of time.”
“How can I be running out of time if I’m already dead?”
“Cause Billy Ray has called the GBI, and every damn news truck in two states.”
“How much time?”
“Hour at the most.”
“We need to get a move on, but can I ask you a question first?”
“Make it quick,” Catfish replied.
“Did you just say this wasn’t your first call from a dead man?” I asked.
“I was drinking one night and I think I got a call from my dead high school football coach.”
“You’re not sure?”
“Could’ve been a dream or it might have been the whiskey.”
“Well you did start up with the bourbon two hours before kickoff today. You still drinking?”
“Why stop now?” Catfish said. “I’m talking to a dead man.”
From BirdDog Boogie
“I know dead, and she’s dead.”
The man who made this pronouncement leaned in for a closer look. Ashes from the cigarette in his lips dropped off. He poked at something. I cringed at the sound.
“Yep, she’s dead,” he said.
He looked at me, cocked his head, and pointed at his partner.
“Tell him, Henry.”
“He knows dead,” Henry said and wiped his face with the sleeve of a dirty white t-shirt.
I stood in the ditch next to the road. The sun had drifted below the pine trees behind me. Nothing in view, left or right, except a long two-lane tar and gravel road. The man asked me where I was from. I told him.
“What you doing way down here?”
“Was on my way to see a man about a piece of machine gear.”
He looked me over and rubbed a hand across the stubble on his face.
“So, what do we do now?” I asked.
“Well, getting dark.” He looked up at the sky. “I guess me and Henry can haul it back to my yard and take care of it for you.”
“How much is that going to cost me?”
He took a long drag off the cigarette and tossed it in the ditch. “Five hundred dollars.”
“Look, son.” He turned to face me. “I don’t know where you’re from, but where I come from, five hundred dollars is a lot of money to give somebody for a 1974 Ford truck with a blown engine and rusty parts and I’ve still got to haul it back to my junkyard. A tree will be growing through it before I make my money back. Five hundred. Take it or start walking.”
“I’ll take it.”
“Go get the tow truck, Henry.” He fired up another cigarette.
An hour later, I was sitting on a stool outside a convenience store in the dark. I had five hundred bucks in my pocket. I was one hundred miles from home. I had a cardboard box with the remains: two screwdrivers, a hammer, a handsaw, three cans of motor oil, four baseballs, two bats, and a soon-to-be-empty bottle of Wild Turkey to mourn the loss of a good truck. May she rest in peace.