Sally Rae and I run The Waterin’ Hole Café, a fine little eatery in downtown Heartbreak, Texas. We take pride in making an honest living in our little hard-scrabble town. Heartbreak is 50 or 500 miles west of Houston’s sushi bars. We pride ourselves on selling an honest steak, not too crisp. It’s a tough life, but it can’t be as tough as those strange people who came to Texas selling raw fish. Just sayin’…
I used President’s Day to further Li’l’ Billy’s education. I took him to Gert’s Quick Stop, the main food store in Quick Fix.
Quick Fix is more of an area, not a town, south and west of Heartbreak. Quick Fix specialized in bootleg liquor, shady dance halls and lots and lots of young ’uns. Every mile had a half-dozen dilapidated mobile homes. Each one teemed with children, a haggard grandmother, and at least one shockingly beautiful 16-year-old with dreams of becoming a movie star.
Gert was a whole story all in herself. She had shanks like a Holstein’s. Her hair went from white to gray to dull blond, in that order. Gert insists on wearing “wife-beater” sleeveless tees and raggedy cutoffs. She has bat-wing flesh hanging from her underarms to such an extent that if she tripped, she would just glide toward the floor.
It was her own snide joke to the world that they were tattooed with feathers. When she laughed, they rippled like a hummingbird’s wings. She had one talent that she displayed with frequency and abandon. She was known as “Dead-eye Spit.” She could nail a roach with tobaccy juice like some pros shoot skeet.
I used the day to explain to Li’l’ Billy how her particular market share worked.
“Her son-in-law Dean Hecox, or ‘Detox’ as most call him, is a local boy made good. He owns lots of Quick Stop food stores all around here. Now, most places have food inspectors, and when something expires it is a dead loss for him. Food enforcement never quite heard of Quick Fix, so he and Gert made a deal: he and his pretty wife live in Amarillo, Gert never comes to visit, and he ships all his expired food back to her store. He gets a percentage and they all are about as happy as their own nature allows.”
What I told Li’l’ Billy was true: all food is at least four years out of date. The little white sugar donuts could be ground and added to water to hold brick together. Some of the meat was probably moving under its own power when Texas declared independence.
The best buy in her store were the wines. Local tasters could determine with some accuracy when the expired Annie Greensprings went from vintage to vinegar. The Crockett’s Cask was tolerable in a pinch, but even the desperate people of Quick Fix preferred it for pickling cucumbers and the like.
The power drinks got more and more sour as they aged; still, they were known for keeping the young ’uns profoundly regular.
Probably the only bad market move she made was in ordering Armadillo jerky, for which she was still blamed for a sudden, mysterious outbreak of leprosy. It could have caved in her little food empire, for sure. She saved the day by selling it to the U.S. Army for MRIs.
There were good buys to be had there: Barney’s Bubble Brew, for example. She was a recycler; folks could bring back bottles that she had rinsed out and poured in homebrew. It was rumored to be mostly Mustang grape squeezin’s, fortified with a few shots of Uncle Jack’s moonshine.
Quality had improved over the years, Uncle Jack had gotten so much more scrupulous about NOT causing blindness that hardly anyone lost their sight anymore. After it had aged sufficiently, Barney’s Bubble brew was re-branded as Gert’s Vinegar Mix. Five years later, what was unsold became Gertrude’s Guaranteed Weed-killer.
An interesting aspect of her economic scheme was that people could pay with scrap iron. She considered herself a pioneer of “primitive recycling” before it was chic.
I tried to explain Gert’s operation to Li’l’ Billy: “Detox has managed to follow a sort of differentiated oligopolist model; with exchange totems, that are significant in their market similarity to the Oblisky Theory of Exchange …”
I knew I had lost him, so I started over.
“Detox has a string of about 20 such shabby shacks within a 30-mile radius of Quick Fix, and he wasn’t doing too bad a job of keeping the money flowing. But the food that got aged under his watch always ended up back in Quick Fix. Detox was not entirely without civic responsibility, so he sells the expired stuff cheaply back in his hometown.”
Of course, some say it was to poison his more-needy relatives. I expect Detox saw it as a sort of slow-motion euthanasia.
We walked in as Gert was playing an 8-liner. As her arms worked, her wings fluttered.
“Have a piece of my ham, Dave. It’s just 50 cents a slice,” she said, without turning around. Rumor had it that she had eyes in the back of her head.
I paid, then took some. It was good, all right, but a might salty for my taste.
“Where do you get this ham, Gertie?” I asked.
“Every month my health insurance company sends me a free one.”
“Why on earth would they do that?” I wondered aloud.
“Back when I just turned 75 I had a triple bypass and two knee replacements. The next year I got my hips replaced, and my left shoulder. Then the next year I got a pacemaker and eight weeks of rehab down in Houston. I let them know that coming up soon I wanted to get to work on my teeth and these darn cataracts. About halfway through rehab an agent from the insurance company – the Nathanial Bedford Forrest White Cross Insurance Company – showed up and offered me $100,000 to drop any future claims.
“Did they think I was stupid or something? I bought a locked-in payment back in 1952 for $29 a month. I never missed a month. Now they seem to think I owe them a profit. Anyway, since they couldn’t buy me out, they just send me a big ol’ salty ham every month. I expect it’s some sort of cost containment, so I ain’t gonna touch it. That stuff will kill you. Have another piece, Dave?”
With that sort of recommendation, I declined, though it was tasty and not out of date.
“Gert, I’m a bit short of time,” I said whilst dropping a $10 bill on the counter. “I need a little market advice.”
“You gave me a waitress tip, Dave. Market tips are $25 – cash!”
Chastised by a master, I dropped another $15 on the counter.
“Twenty-five dollars MORE, Dave. You know how to do the math.”
“Okay,” I grumbled as I fumbled through my rapidly shrinking wallet. “Is it time to buy gold?”
“Pressure from the East Asian markets makes gold, in the short term, a good bet. Taxation policy will raise the national debt, grooming us for a drastic stock readjustment, as much as 60 percent downward. Market disruption from Harvey and Irma will force up spot gas prices and building material costs over the next 48 months.”
Anxious to show my knowledge, I retorted, “So, the price of scrap metal should rise as well, seeing as it is linked to energy costs.”
She turned her milky-white eyes to me and gave me a death stare: “If you mention that to anyone around Heartbreak, I’ll cut you off, period.”
I knew when I was warned.
Gert continued, “Market prices will continue to rise in direct correlation with the president’s exportation of our labor force back to Mexico. And he might actually build that dang wall. That’s a lot of iron, I tell ya.”
“Anything else you care to share?” I asked.
“You want a lot for $35, don’t ya,” she retorted.
“You’re about to clean me out, Gert. This here boy of mine has to eat, you know.”
Bargaining is an art form. The uninitiated merely see haggling. For Gert it was more of an affirmation of her wisdom, an homage to her knowledge.
“Well, I’ll give you one more thing, Dave, seeing as I like ya – even though that gut of yours is kinder gettin’ disgusting. If you’re into the high-risk end, start buying $200 computers and slabs of lead. Store the lead on top of the computers. If that kooky guy in North Korea does an EMP attack on the USA, they’ll be worth their weight in gold – provided, of course, you’re not a pile of cinders right next to them.”
She looked me dead in the eyes again. “That’ll be another $5, Dave.”
“Hey, I thought I already paid for your market advice, Gert.”
“Yeah, but this is for all those gum drops that Li’l’ Billy has been slipping into his pocket whilst we talked,” she said. “By the way, I would recommend y’all don’t eat them. You might try scattering then in your attic to keep the rodents down, though.”
Riding back to town, Li’l’ Billy was unusually quiet. Clueless as I usually am, I picked up enough body signals to tell him as we pulled over, “SPIT, boy!”
Li’l’ Billy spat and then asked, “How’d she know so much about money and stuff?”
“She’s got a library card, and she’s not afraid to use it. It’s one of the few things this country has done for a long time and does just about right. Now, spit again.”