Sally Rae and I run The Waterin’ Hole Café, an important establishment in Heartbreak, Texas. Or at least it was, until we had to close up because of the killer virus. Most folks are just fine with having Houston 50 or 500 miles due east of us; however, sometimes it reaches out and spreads its troubles to us. Now, like most people selling cooked food, we are gradually going broke.
Sally Rae and I were part of the 1 percent; we had it good in a time of bad. We had enough to eat, our restaurant could (almost) make ends meet on take-outs, and we had Li’l’ Billy to entertain us.
Still, a sense of ennui gradually wrapped its gray wings around us. I didn’t want to complain, but Blursday the someteenth seemed to smear into someday, a time that we all wanted to end. We had it good, but we were discontent.
God punishes us who get impatient with His grace.
In the middle of all this, the government sent me $1,200. Hey, that might not sound like much to some folks, but I still liked it better than when the government sent me a draft notice!
By chance, I found an ad for used boats the same day the check arrived. Most of the last three months I spent reading, and reading, and, did I mention, I’ve been reading a lot. I love reading, but really! Enough is enough!
All I wanted was a little mud skipper sort of a thing, something with a 5 horsepower motor. However, the boat in the picture had a 115 horsepower motor, a trailer, and it was a bass-busting beauty if I ever saw one. Best of all, the owner only wanted $600! What could go wrong?
Well, I hadn’t been born yesterday. I figured that the motor was shot, but I could live with a much smaller motor. What I was sure about getting was a hull, trailer and steering mechanism far superior to my fondest imaginings.
I need to make something clear: I am not a Great American Mechanic. My father was. My brother is. Many uncles and cousins are, but I have never been one of those noble, greasy-handed fellows that can overhaul a Cummings diesel engine with a screwdriver and a bottle of hair tonic. It is probably a broken chromosome, and throughout my life it has plagued me.
The Great American Mechanic has earned prestige throughout the civilized world. Russia produced the Great Peasant, India the Great Holy Man, and Europe has its Great Intellectuals. None of the above can make it across town unless a Great American Mechanic has worked on his car, or more often, designed it.
Nevertheless, I went to work on the motor in the backyard. I thought it was worthwhile to give the motor (and myself) a chance. I drained the old gas, put in new spark plugs, and played Beethoven to it. I immersed the motor in a large garbage can filled with water to test it. To my wonder and joy, the thing cranked right up!
As my father said anytime he saw me with a pretty girl: “Even a blind hog finds an acorn every once in a while.” Bless his heart.
Sally Rae’s only comment was, “We’re up to $832 on this good deal of yours, so far.”
So, a fine day came along, and I grabbed Sally Rae and Li’l’ Billy and we went to a river.
About a mile from the launching ramp I noticed that my left-rear trailer tire was smoking. I pulled over to examine it. Trailer bearings are especially undependable because they were so often immersed. I thought I might put off that one expense until I had a trial run. Oops.
Sally Rae said, “$1,032.”
I was fairly sure that, as a child, her father, Old Homer, had physically abused her. Before the day was out, I was willing to give Old Homer the benefit of the doubt in a way I had never before considered.
The engine started the first time and off we went!
Lordy, it’s fun to shove the speed lever forward, get the big “warp factor 5, Mr. Spock” sort of boost that men love! We went about 10 miles upstream and I shut it down.
We broke out our fishing poles, but first Li’l’ Billy and I dove in for a cool-off.
No sooner than we got back in and baited up that a Texas game warden putted up.
“I need to see your fishing licenses.”
Well, I was busted, fair enough. It didn’t make me like the $200 ticket any better, though.
His last words were, “Have you considered reading instead of boating?”
Sally Rae said, “$1,232.”
As she brought out some fried chicken, a large cloud rolled up overhead. It turned suddenly colder and darker. As lighting struck, I counted under my breath, it hit about one-and-a-half “Mississippis” away. My math told me that this was too close for comfort.
“Reel ’em in, Li’l’ Billy. I’m going to get us shelter up that creek over there.”
Sally Rae was silent with dread. She tied one end of the anchor rope around Li’l’ Billy in case he fell over.
Then the engine didn’t start. There is a drama that all men know when they are in charge: first a long rattle as the battery tries to do its thing, followed by shorter and shorter attempts until it just sort of clicks.
I did all the right things: prayer, a shot of engine starter fluid, prayer, choke, prayer, banged the flywheel with a hammer … if you own a boat, you know the routine.
There are two schools of thought on boat motors. One is that they are the natural nesting place for gremlins. The other is that they come from the factory demon-possessed. I tend to lean toward the latter theory, though that does not necessarily rule out the possibility of free-range gremlins.
I pulled the shell off the motor and started the “wrap, yank, and pant” routine that presages obscenity and a heart attack.
The rain began in earnest, so I hooked up the trolling motor. We (very gradually) began to approach a low-hanging tree.
About then I noticed that water was washing over my feet. I must have missed plugging one of the outside ports that serviced the several live wells.
Not overly alarmed, I switched on the bilge pump. Funny, but the water seemed to rise faster. I looked into the rear well, and I could actually see the water rising. I must have wired the pump backward, so that it pumped water into the boat! I slammed the switch off, and it broke off in my hand. The pump kept up its happy, suicidal hum!
A few quick observations: Li’l’ Billy loved every minute of it. Sally Rae, well, not so much. As her fried chicken got soggier and soggier, her eyes (you know, that I have described as “the color of love”), well, they changed color. So did her expression and her overall demeanor. God must have had a similar shock as his favorite angel transformed into Lucifer.
We arrived under the overhanging tree and got a little relief from the downpour. I felt stressed and humiliated. Indeed, I wished for something to “change our channel,” while I thought about what to do next.
“I wish this boat had a bathroom,” Sally Rae said.
“Just jump over the side,” I said. “That’s what everyone else does.”
About then, a very large golden water snake dropped into the bow of the boat. He coiled up around a red-and-white-striped chicken tub. Perhaps he liked its warmth. He seemed happy enough about being there, I noted.
Sally Rae was somewhat less happy, to judge from her screaming.
At such moments a sort of displacement occurs; for example, I noticed that Sally Rae’s eyes were even more slitted than the snake’s. Also, it appeared that the bathroom issue had become a moot point.
“Sally Rae, darlin’, please quit screaming,” I said.
I don’t know if she actually heard me, but she did sort of slack off to more of a gasping noise.
The snake seemed to appreciate my efforts. He coiled up right on top of the bucket, getting more comfortable.
Do water snakes eat soggy fried chicken? I honestly had no idea, but the point seemed to diminish in relevance as time passed. The snake flicked his tongue experimentally. I could not determine which family member held his attention.
Meanwhile, Sally Rae had diminished her screams down to a plaintive sort of gibbering.
Just when I thought things could not get worse, a bolt of lightning struck the overhanging tree we were sheltering under. The force of the strike threw me forward, a good thing, since the tree fell and sheared off the motor into the murky water below. Our boat began floating away from the shore toward mid-river.
Li’l’ Billy grabbed the anchor and threw it over. Before I could react, the anchor went to the bottom and yanked Li’l’ Billy with it!
I lunged for him, missed, and tripped; my face just inches from the golden water snake’s mouth.
The snake smiled broadly and in an aristocratic Englishman’s voice said, “Well, Dave, I rather believe you have ‘screwed the pooch’ on this family outing.”
* * *
“Dave, Dave, wake up!” Sally Rae said as she shook me. “My mother is here for her annual visit!”
I suddenly longed for the safety and amusement of my nightmare.