Sally Rae and I have a somewhat less-than-idyllic life as owners and operators of The Waterin’ Hole Café in a dusty little Texas town 50 or 500 miles west of Houston’s seriously disturbed sushi bars, where a man might be charged $15 for a bit of pickled Japanese seaweed. We serve SERIOUS deep-fried, Texas-grown fried steak and gravy, two vegetables for $9.95. Cobbler is $1 extra, firm. ’Nuff said.
Arney is our sheriff. Arney and I have been friends for a while, ever since I dove into a septic tank of his, hunting for him, but that’s an old story. A sheriff and a barkeeper in a small town have a special relationship about keeping the peace, sometimes on an informal basis.
I was just cleaning up the restaurant as usual when we were open this late. Sally Rae was exhausted. She had gone to bed and she was sleeping with Li’l’ Billy, our special adopted boy, enjoying a day of work done. I served a few drinks that New Year’s Eve, but Arney had been there most of the time.
Free doughnut patrol? No. The presence of Arney meant that there were no fights, no (too) loud drunken arguments. Of course, sometimes Arney had to run out and settle things. It got louder when he was gone, but our place was one of politeness, mostly.
Were the discussions based on reason? Well, some, maybe. Depends on the hour. Late hours can sweeten the enjoyment of an evening, but it seldom helps the logic. Some of the arguments I heard had been going on for two, maybe three generations. Aristotle said that man was the rational animal. I’ve always maintained that Mr. Aristotle was either an optimist or a teetotaler.
I heard gunshots down the street. Arney put on his white hat and ran to his car.
It was about closing time, so I said, "Last call!"
There were several more shots and the sound of breaking glass, then shouting.
“Don’t be alarmed, folks, just go out the back door.” Heartbreak has more guns than I had good customers, so I tried to preserve them best I could.
Since it was New Year’s Eve, I poured a lot of take-home cups and everybody sort of took the hint and drove home carefully (well, that was the theory). It was true that, technically, this was an infraction, but I figured Arney was the only one who could enforce the rule. Since he was the one I was really helping out, I didn’t feel too bad about it. It was time to call it an evening.
I was about ready to put the last chair in place when I heard Arney’s unmistakable knock on my door.
Arney was angry. I guessed it had something to do with the gunshots. He had a trickle of blood over his left eyebrow.
“Dave, give me a shot of whiskey. No, give me a double shot.”
Arney isn’t a drinking sort of guy, so I took him serious.
I slammed his glass down a little harder than necessary, but he upped me one and drained his glass in one gulp. Arney had issues, and friends are friends. I refilled his glass. Arney was het up, and Arney needed to talk.
As Arney gradually sipped his second glass, he slapped his voice recorder onto the table, and hit ‘play.’
“I am at the crime scene, 111 North Main Street, Junebug’s house, a widow with an infant and several blown out windows.”
Arney fast-forwarded several entries,
“I returned fire …”
“... and I disarmed the person inside ...”
“You scared me! Uh, uh….
“Hold still while I handcuff you.”
“No, son, not me!”
“Yes, Daddy, you. Now.”
“Don’t get all het up, boy.
“Well, it’s all a very simple explanation: Junebug has rats, I know, I helped her out when she and Old Swen had to get married ... hell, son, she likes old veterans. Proof is she married Old Swen. Now I never meant to cause Miss Junebug any distress. I wouldn’t go knocking late and bother her. My glasses got all misted up, so I just put ’em on the table and pulled out my gun, real quiet like.”
“You didn’t think shooting up her living room was gonna disturb her?”
“It’s just a .22! And this is New Year’s Eve! I ’spected she’d just roll over and go back to sleep. Anyway, she grew up in Quick Fix, so she’s probably used to a little shootin’. Texas girls is raised right over there! Don’t deny it!
“I even brought my own cheese! I wouldn’t cause her no destress or eat her food, uninvited. I’m a gentleman! And she is young and purty, well, she just naturally needs a real man around the house. I tried to raise you right, boy! It ain’t the amount of shootin’ around a house, but who’s doing it! Proof is, if I need any, she has rats, and I come over here to kill a few. I had my .22 pistol loaded with rat shot and solid shot, just like I taught you. You know, one chamber for solid shot, for land’s sake ... there was just too many rats for clickin' by to a rat-shot chamber. I only wanted to help her. Then you shot through the door …”
“Right after you shot out my windshield on my cruiser.”
“You blew my new leg right off. Why the VA won’t give me another one for two years, at least. It scared me so bad I spit my teeth plum up to the door. And you stepped right on them! It will be another two years ’fore the dang VA lets me eat another steak. Why, if I still had two good arms I’d of bent you over my knee as often as you deserved, raised you right …”
“Pa, DO NOT start telling me about your lost arm again! You tried that with Ma the night you told us about your other family! It didn’t work then and it ain’t gonna work now! Why, you just peed your pants.”
“Ain’t true. That happened earlier…”
At this point Arney stopped the recorder.
“Dave, I was just right at that point of arresting my very own father, for a felony, but Junebug walked into the kitchen. She had Li’l’ Sven nursing her, snackin’ right loud, happy as could be. Calm and cool, she went to the blown-out windows and took in a breath of clean, cold norther. She thought for a moment, and then gave her verdict.
Arney hit the “play” button again.
“Let him be. (Junebug’s voice) ’Bout $50 or $100 for damages, and 50 hours pickin’ up trash, (I heard something that sounded suspiciously like a girl’s laugh) … and never come here again.”
“Fair enough?” (Arney’s voice)
“Seems a bit steep to me!” (Arney’s dad)
“Or two years in prison, suspended veteran’s rights, and pay lawyers? (Arney again) “It’s that, or a ride home.”
That cinched the deal. Arney turned off the recorder.
At that point, Arney looked me in the face. “Did I do wrong, Dave, letting my own father off too light?”
This was a time to choke back my natural candor. Arney’s father put the trash in “white trash.” If I told Arney what I really thought, it would be something like, “Stuff the old coot in a burlap bag and pay anyone a quarter who’ll take a hickory bat and beat the bag.”
Of course, when a friend asks you about family, candor is almost never appropriate. I tried instead for selective compassion, that is, I selected an answer that was compassionate for Arney. Truth was, he had brought himself way up from beginnings way too poor to describe as “humble.”
I answered as best I could.
“One mistake, you get a walk. Two, you get the perp’s walk.”
Then I poured another finger of 100 proof amber nerve treatment solution into Arney’s glass, and I said, “Honor your father, but don’t get foolish. You did right tonight. Happy New Year.”
I gave Arney my own verdict. “Lawmen are about keeping the peace. I knew it burns you something awful that your no-count drunken father has embarrassed you. As with most criminals, the families paid a price that was often as great as the victim.”
I reckoned I had summed it up well enough Arney could live with himself, but then he went and surprised me.
“Well, Poppa better learn his lesson. I just WON’T have him sniffin’ around my girlfriend again!”
Never underestimate small towns for great complexity and downright perversity.