Our little town of Heartbreak is a long way from the power centers of the world. We’re just honest people, mostly, but when you get to know humans, well, “honest” is a variable sort of thing. Still, we have all the makings of a good place: fresh air, a good work ethic and almost unlimited chicken-fried steak. Sally Rae and I run The Waterin’ Hole Café on the Main Street in Heartbreak. And yes, chicken-fried steak was the first item on our menu.
Some things aren’t much different in Heartbreak than Houston, or Minsk, or Peking for that matter. Some people do the public works, and some people get to go first. Some, much, much later.
If you needed your street paved, giving $500 to Boss Plemons could get you to the front of the line. He ran all the digging and paving equipment in our county.
Boss Plemons was almost the caricature of a redneck. He had perfected the week-old neck stubble 30 years before it was stylish. He lived in blue-jean coveralls that had weathered to a dirty gray years before. I bet that if he washed them, they would disintegrate.
His curved belly began just under his third double-chin, and he spat his raw tobacco into perfect arcs with deadly accuracy.
Now, I’m not a real judgmental kind of guy. After all, God made prickly cactus and rattlesnakes; I wasn’t going to become an agnostic over a smelly redneck like Boss Plemons. He probably served some purpose I could never fully appreciate. Like cactus and snakes, I just tried to avoid him, as best as possible.
My avoidance came to an abrupt halt one Monday morning in late June. Sally Rae was getting ready for the lunch rush when a huge clamor jolted us. Backup “beeps” from a large digger ruined our morning calm. It tore huge chucks of dirt and asphalt from the street just in front of our little restaurant.
I ran outside in time to catch a large splat of tobacco juice down my shirt front. Boss Plemons stood on my covered sidewalk as the digger excavated down to four feet deep, right in the prime parking spot in front of my business.
“Boss, what the heck are you doing?” I yelled above the machine noise.
“Morning Dave. I’m starting the new sewer line.”
With that, he handed me some papers. I didn’t have to read them; I knew what they said. Any way it was written, it meant that I was shut down for as long as Boss wanted to shut me down.
Sure, it’d have something about “projected completion dates,” but not a word about my lost revenues since customers couldn’t get in. Of course, pipe would go on back order, emergency jobs would override this job, and if I went to court, well, I wouldn’t serve chicken-fried steak from any cow living today. He could drag this out for years.
“Boss, call your man off. Come inside, get some ice tea with me. We got to talk.”
Back inside, I tried to keep my panic down.
Paying bribes in modern America is an art form. No one can go at it directly. There were too many recorders. There were still enough honest people around (thank goodness!) that getting caught carried stiff penalties.
The whole thing had to be approached with the same delicacy of a Young Gentleman suggesting something interesting to A Woman of Virtue.
I knew all this, but I was exasperated. I fouled up and went too fast.
“What’s it going to take to make this go away?” I blurted.
“Why, what are you talking about, Dave? This is Public Works. We have a responsibility to protect the people of this fair city. You understand that, don’t you?” he asked, his baby blue eyes looking at some undefined point on my ceiling.
Then he belched, awful and loud. I sat back, my ears ringing. Then he belched again, slower this time. And then I got it. In among his corrosive sounds and breath, he had said “5,000.”
Like many boys he had, no doubt, been able to recite the alphabet in one long burp back in high school. Since then, he had been able to monetize this awful talent. A court might get a man for asking for a bribe, but not for bad manners. Darn, Boss was good at this!
“Boss, I might be able to do it, but I can’t just walk over to my cash register and pull that much money out. I mean, heck, I hardly get that much a month just traveling through our place. What can I do?”
“Better think of something. The tea is good, but we need to get back to work.”
“Wait right here. I’ll be back,” I said.
I ran upstairs to our living quarters. By raiding our rainy day fund I managed to come up with $500. I hastily stuffed the cash in an envelope.
“Ah, would this help out a little bit?” I said, passing it to him under the table.
“Well, it might get you a reprieve. We could start on the other side of the road,” he allowed. “Of course, me and the crew eat here for free for the month you just bought, starting today.”
Sally Rae hustled out from the kitchen while I explained out situation to her.
“What are we going to do, Dave? We just don’t have that sort of money!”
“I’m thinking,” I said. Actually, I was panicking. Tearing up a road wasn’t a crime. Paying bribes, and taking them, well, that was a crime. This was shaping up to something awful.
Boss Plemons was good to his word, sort of. The hole in front of our café filled up as quickly as it appeared. In short order, Boss had about a dozen trucks and as many pieces of heavy equipment lined up on the other side of the street, covering the whole block, right in front of Great Aunt Katy’s place. They marked their territory by digging a deep hole right in front of her house.
One after another, his dirty crew filed in. Lordy, these guys could give a prison a bad name! Not all road crews were like this one, but their body odor drowned out the smells of diesel and hot tar. They were a throw-back, creatures from a time when most road workers wore blue-and-white-striped prison dungarees.
We cooked and served chicken-fried steaks until we were ready to drop. Those men ate with a passion bordering on religion. After a month of this, if they dug a hole in our dining room it wouldn’t matter. We would be broke.
Midway through what I was starting to think of as “The Last Supper,” Arney came in. Arney was the law in Heartbreak, a good friend, and sometimes an ally, as well.
“Arney, what am I going to do? I’ve only been here a few years. What would it take to get Boss Plemons out of here and back on the back roads again? I’m sort of — no, I’m real desperate.”
“Don’t worry so much, Dave. Boss has been pulling this sort of thing for years. He’s not much for towns, even little towns like Heartbreak. Why don’t you just relax with me here, see how this plays out.”
Just before 1 o’clock someone yelled, “Fire!”
I started to get up, but Arney put a hand on my arm. “Sit tight,” he whispered.
I looked over my shoulder. All that heavy equipment was blazing, even that new quarter-of-a-million-dollar digging machine. Strangely, none of the trucks were on fire.
“Save the equipment!” Plemons yelled.
The crew ran outside and began moving the trucks away from the blaze.
“Time for me to direct traffic, I guess,” Arney drawled. A few moments later I saw him directing the trucks on out of town before they could catch fire, too.
About then Great Aunt Katy came in.
“Dave, bring be some ice tea,” she said. When I got back to her table, I smelled a distinct tang of gasoline.
“Sit down with me, Dave. You’re looking a might peaked.”
Great Aunt Katy had to be in her 90s. In many ways she was more the soul of this town than Cottonwood Baptist Church. She stared off toward that same undefined spot on my ceiling that seemed to so fascinate Boss Plemons earlier. Beneath her frail exterior was a soul of high-tempered steel that foolish people often failed to see.
“You know, Dave, I taught here for years. Back then, it was just Buster Plemons, not Boss. Even in the teacher lounge we called him “Bluster Plemons. He was a bully then, part of him just never grew up.
“He never has been what you might call, well, popular. Anyway, in his senior year he bought a new used pickup truck, bright red. That first week my Buick had a long crease put in it. There was red paint rubbed on to it, too. Then the same thing happened to Mr. Woods, Bluster’s math teacher. Then something like that happened to Mr. Jones’ car. He was the coach.
“I guess you never met either of them … well, after three cars were badly marked, we teachers all got together and talked. Right at 2:45, just before school let out, Bluster’s new red pickup caught fire and burned down to the tires.”
Now Great Aunt Katy’s eyes came down from the ceiling and met my own.
“I just don’t know if that boy is ever going to grow up!”