Continued from 'The Great Possum" ...
place, with a studied absence of “décor;” no anemic pots of ivy, no beer signs, not even a collection of Elvis decanters. The Rumpus Room jukebox was unplugged and dark. A half dozen somber customers sat on stools and at little tables, each alone with his booze, cheery as patients in a dialysis center. As Shag trailed Uncle Tommy to the bar, one of them crawled out of a shadowy booth and approached them.
“Piss Ant!” Uncle Tommy cried, recognizing the little man. “How you doin, squirt?”
“Could be worse—”
Shag quickly maneuvered himself between Tommy and the “friend."
“P-Pink,” said the little man to Shag, apologetically. “My name’s really Pink.”
“Yeah well, nice to meet you and everthing, but we was havin a private conversation here.” Pink looked to Uncle Tommy for corroboration, but the bartender had arrived. Shag turned his back to order a beer.
“Actually,” said Pink, “I had something sort of private to discuss, too.” Shag glowered over his shoulder. “Not private from you, sir, heh heh,” he hastily amended. “I mean private from…” He shrugged to take in the other customers. “Maybe both you gentlemen might be interested.” “Whatever it is, we ain’t,” said Shag, sensing a touch. Pink’s eyes implored Uncle Tommy again, but the bartender had produced their drinks and the old man’s attention followed his nose into his whiskey glass.
“Oh, I’m not selling anything, heh heh. You must’ve thought I wanted to sell something. Not at all. "Salesmen, for chrisakes.…” With a subtle maneuver, Pink slipped beneath Shag’s elbow and popped up between him and Tommy. “I just wanted,” he said rapidly, “to let you gentlemen in on a little card game. Over at the motel.”
“Cards?” Uncle Tommy shouted.
Pink grimaced. “Shhhh!”
“Look here, bud,” said Shag nastily, “we ain’t interested in no damn card game.”
“Where’s a card game?” Uncle Tommy inquired at top volume. “Poker?”
“No!” said Shag.
“Okay, okay,” said Pink, shrinking. “Forget it, okay?”
“Hey Shag.” Uncle Tommy caught his sleeve and hung there. “Let’s us go play some cards.”
“Well screw you,” he said petulantly. Pink squeezed out from between them and retreated to a nearby stool.
“Look here,” said Shag, thrusting his face into the old man’s, “I ain’t gonna stand by and watch you lose your Security check. You know these card games is nothin but sucker bait. That little bastard saw you cash your check is all.” He pivoted on his elbow to glare back at Pink who seemed for the moment preoccupied with a hangnail. Shag drained his glass and banged it down on the counter.
“Pay up, Uncle, we’re goin home.”
He dragged Uncle Tommy off his stool and aimed him at the door. As they went past, Pink whispered, “Room thirteen. Knotty Pine Cabins.”
After a quick stop by the liquor store, they headed home. The sleet storm had moved on to a neighboring county, leaving the pine trees along the highway frosted with a blue crust like thin snow. The air was crisp and cold, and a draft of it whistled up Shag’s leg through a rust hole in the floorboard.
“Where’s the heater in this thing?” When he didn’t get an answer, he saw that Uncle Tommy had twisted around to face the back seat.
“Where’s my damn dog?” the old man demanded, digging frenziedly in the accumulated trash. “What happened to Earl Campbell?”
Two Florida cops tackled a giant naked drunk and wrestled him to the ground. While one fumbled with handcuffs, the drunk got up and carried the other piggy-back down the street. Neighbors stood on their front porches, cheering. More squad cars arrived.
When he heard the Camaro rumble up the driveway, Wally turned off his TV and rubbed a clear spot in the foggy window. Shag was already out of the car, yanking on the passenger door with both hands. It sprang open with a loud squawk and Uncle Tommy fell out onto the ground.
“Get offa me!” he croaked, jerking away when Shag tried to help him. He leapt up with surprising nimbleness and grabbed onto the car door. He clung for a moment, panting, then pulled the cap off the whiskey bottle and poured some in the vicinity of his mouth.
So far, so good, thought Shag. The old fart would be out in a matter of minutes and, the way he was going at it, probably stay out for hours.
“Come on, let’s get inside. My butt’s freezin.”
Tommy allowed himself to be hauled up the steps and wedged against the trailer while Shag got the key in the lock. When the door swung open and the warm, foul air enveloped them, Shag held his breath and shoved. The old man took four arrhythmic, prancing steps, collided with a stack of boxes and slid comfortably to the floor on an avalanche of ancient Hustler magazines.
“Mauuugh… Earl…” He lay on the filthy carpet, whiskey bottle still clutched to his breast like a dead man’s bouquet.
He looks awful, thought Shag, wondering if “Mauuugh… Earl…” had been his last words. Raking paper bags, magazines and cigar boxes out of the way, he knelt down and pressed an ear against Uncle Tommy’s slack mouth. He listened (holding his nose) but heard only a distant burble like water in a far-off sewer. When he prodded and jiggled the frail old carcass, the whiskey bottle freed itself and rolled onto the floor—a bad sign. The idea of mouth-to-mouth was too repulsive. He pounded the bony chest until, at last, a ripe belch erupted and normal breathing resumed. Much relieved, Shag fell back against a bag of moldy shoes.
Then he went through Uncle Tommy’s pockets. His fingers were closing around the wad of cash when someone came up the trailer stairs and rapped noisily on the door.
“I know y’all are in there,” said a disgruntled voice.
Walleye! Tucking the money into his jeans, Shag got up and crept to the door. He didn’t open it.
“You get the money?”
“For the rent.”
Shag tittered idiotically. “Naw, I ain’t asked yet.”
“Why’re you whispering?” Wally pried at the doorknob.
“Where’d y’all go?”
“What’d y’all go to town for?”
“You sure Uncle Tommy’s okay? I saw him fall out of the car.”
“Why shouldn’t he be?” Shag opened the door enough to stick his head out. “If you’ll get the hell outa here,” he whispered furiously, “I might be able to do something, soon as he’s through resting!”
“I sure hope so. If you can’t get anything from him, I don’t see any other alternative than to—”
“Yeah, yeah!” Shag slammed the door. At last, footfalls descended the aluminum steps and plodded away.
Back home, Wally switched on the TV to audience laughter and someone’s home video of a wailing baby sitting in a large bowl of dog food. It was still cold in the trailer, even with the heat on high. He dragged a blanket off the couch and onto his legs. Sure would be a lifesaver if Shag got money for the rent… He dozed off during a clip of grandma sneezing her dentures into the swimming pool and didn’t hear it when Uncle Tommy’s Camaro started up again.
Shag roared up the highway, singing:
“Vole-lah-ray, woah woah wa-oh,
Hey! Contar-ray, woah woah waoh woah…”
He sped past Taco Bell and Burger King and Best Western and Denny’s and Pizza Hut and Mr Gatti’s and Motel 6 and KFC and La Quinta Inn and Days Inn and Jack in the Box and McDonald’s and one local barbecue stand before turning onto the old highway where darkened signs advertised mostly closed-down businesses. One blinking remnant, bordered with dancing neon pine cones, flashed, Kno Pi e…Kno Pi e…Kno Pi e… and Shag realized he had driven past the Knotty Pine Cabins. He felt a minor twinge.
“Nay blue, dependy da blue…”
His plan had been to gas up the Camaro and drop in on an old bud in Alabama. With luck, he’d make Louisiana in an hour and be cruising across Mississippi by the time Uncle Tommy woke up and realized his pockets were empty and he didn’t have a car.
“Feeleechay duh starry lassooo…”
It took another half mile for the twinge to become an itch.
“Hey, valavo, valavo…”
And less than that for the itch to spawn a plan worthy of going back. Why settle for Alabama? thought Shag as he pulled into the blaze of an all-night Chevron to turn around. A man with his skill at the card table could parlay Uncle Tommy’s four hundred dollars into a real holiday. Hawaii was not out of the question.
After parking in an inconspicuous corner of the Knotty Pine lot, he cut the engine and prudently stashed all but a hundred dollars in his underpants. If he lost the hundred, he promised himself, he’d drop out of the game and go back to plan one. That would still leave him with three hundred-fifty dollars, enough for a hell of a time in Bammy.
It was Pink who opened door 13, as far as the security chain would allow.
“You’re Uncle Tommy’s friend,” he said without cordiality.
“Yeah, he couldn’t make it,” said Shag. “Game still on?” He’d only worn a flannel overshirt to Uncle Tommy’s and hadn’t gone back to Walleye’s for his jacket or any of the rest of his stuff. He hunched in the cold, hands stuffed in his jeans.
Pink looked dubious. “How come? Seemed like he was the one wanted to play and you didn’t.”
“Family dropped by unexpectedly,” said Shag, recalling the photograph of the Marine MP. “His boy showed up with four a the ugliest kids you ever seen.” He thought about saying, “His dog died,” but knew he wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face.
“Who’s there, Piss Ant?” someone in the room yelled. It was a scary voice, enough to cause Pink to immediately shut the door and make apologetic noises behind it. After some argument, the security chain clattered and the door swung open again.
“In or out, mister,” commanded a female giant in a stiff and dusty blonde wig. Shag went in.
“Piss Ant here was supposed to arrange things,” she said, by way of introduction.
“Now we can play,” said Pink. “Three’s enough for poker.”
“No it ain’t!” the giant blasted, sending Pink to cringe against a Formica dresser. “I come here to play for money. You said you could get a game together. Hah! One old man and he don’t even show. And who the heller you?” she said, turning on Shag.
“Henry J. Clutter,” he said meekly. “Folks just call me Sha—”
“Scuse me for sayin so, but you don’t look all that prosperous.” Her eyes narrowed. “Unless you're a cop.”
Shag didn’t dignify that with an answer.
“This is Astrid,” said Pink, quickly. “Her last name’s German or Dutch and, what was it, honey? Kerfunkel, Derkunkel—”
“Shut up!” Astrid went to the bed, stooped with a manly grunt over a soiled white patent purse. She grubbed out a pack of menthol cigarettes and lit one with thick fingers tipped with artificial nails. “All the way to this godforsaken shit hole for zilch.”
“Hey! I’ve got an idea, Astrid,” said Pink desperately. “I brought my dice. Why don’t we play a little craps instead?”
“On a towel,” said Astrid.
“On the bed. We’ll stretch the bedspread real tight.”
“Towel or no deal. I’ve seen you.” Two streams of smoke came out her nose like exhaust out of a Harley.
“You sayin I cheat?” said Pink, his voice ascending.
“How bout on the floor?” Shag offered diplomatically. No one paid him the slightest attention.
“Towel for the first six.”
“Bed for the—”
“Oh screw this, anyway. I ain’t no craps player,” Astrid huffed.
“Five dollars minimum,” said Pink.
Pink’s mouth fell open. “Fifty!”
“I paid for the room—”
“That was only twelve.”
“The bus down here, meals—”
“You haven’t eaten any meals!”
“Oh screw this,” Astrid said. She plopped heavily onto the bed and sulked in a haze of her own smoke. Pink and Shag exchanged a glance. “I got to pee,” she announced unceremoniously, heaving herself up and crossing to the bathroom. The door shut. In unison, Shag and Pink’s eyes went to the dingy purse.
Shag gave the little man a fraternal smile. “You thinkin what I am?”
“She don’t play no penny ante,” said Pink in an excited whisper. All four hands groped for the purse, but one of Shag’s came out with the prize.
“Son of a bitch!” he gasped, ogling a thick wad of bills fastened with several rubber bands.
Pink danced from one foot to the other as if in need of the facilities, himself. “Put it back, hurry!” Shag put it back.
After a series of unfeminine noises, Astrid exited the bathroom.
“I’m outa here,” she announced and began gathering her things off the bed. Automatically, she glanced inside the purse before adding the cigarette pack and snapping it shut.
“Oh now, Astrid,” said Pink. “Come on, honey, let’s just roll a few and see how it feels, you know, just—”
“Jackin off, Piss Ant. I ain’t got time for jackin off.”
Astrid was the most unladylike lady Shag had ever met—like a longshoreman in a wig. A horrible thought struck him.
Pink said, “But where you gonna go? Aren’t you staying overnight? Maybe we could all go to dinner--you’ve already paid for the room, why waste it?” He appealed to Shag for reinforcement.
“I could eat,” said Shag.
“Y’all take the room. Maybe you and Rags can rent a couple a two-dollar whores and have a party.” Astrid struggled into a voluminous rabbit-fur coat and opened the door. She didn’t say goodnight, she didn’t even close the door behind her.
“Where’s she goin?” said Shag immediately.
Pink made a hopeless face and spread his fingers. “I don’t know… Bus station?”
“Gotta be. Come on.”
“What? Where to?”
Shag squeezed the little man’s shoulder. “Think we can handle her?”
“You and me. I know she’s a big ol thing, but there’s two of us, and she’s just a gal.” Shag lowered an eyebrow. “She is a she ain’t she?”
“Well, come on.”
Astrid wasn’t difficult to follow. Her heels clicked harshly across the Knotty Pine’s parking lot and into an alley behind the cabins.
Trotting to keep up with his accomplice, Pink said breathlessly, “Looks like she’s makin a beeline to the bus station, alright.”
Shag grinned smugly as they darted into the alley after her. Like a hound trailing a rabbit, albeit a very large rabbit, he was oblivious to the cold. Visions of palm-fringed beaches led him on, a little grass shack, girls in skimpy bathing suits. Once they secured the prize, he could probably bully Piss Ant out of the better part of his share, if not all of it.
“Wait up, wait up,” said the little man, plucking at his sleeve. “Listen!” Astrid’s footfalls had inexplicably stopped. The only sound now was their own labored breathing.
“Where’d she go?” whispered Shag. He was suddenly aware of the cold and hugged himself, shivering.
“Be quiet, be quiet.”
They stood in the dark among piles of frosty rubbish, ears pricked. Twenty yards ahead, the alley opened onto the highway. A truck lumbered past.
“She ain’t got a gun, does she?” said Shag.
“You and me both looked in her purse.”
“Yeah, that’s right.” But he was less than reassured. They crept forward, straining for the slightest sound.
“Hey,” said Pink, “gimme a hand.” Before Shag understood what was happening, Pink had grabbed his wrist and twisted it painfully behind his back.
As they struggled, Astrid’s blonde wig floated out of the gloom. It hovered above them like an evil spirit.
It was too dark in the alley to see the ham-sized fist wind up, Shag never knew what hit him. But neither did Pink. They both fell backwards onto a pile of forklift flats.
“What the Goddamn hell!” cried Pink, angrily thrashing his short legs. He scrambled out from under Shag’s crumpled form and got to his feet. “You almost broke my damn neck!” Astrid was already digging into Shag’s pockets. She paused to strike a cigarette lighter.
“Hey lookit this.” She gave the nudie pen a shake and held it up to the flame. When the girl’s swimming suit floated off, she made a distinctly unladylike snigger.
“This isn’t right,” said Pink, fanning out the hundred dollars like a hand of cards. “Hey!” he lifted Shag by the collar and shook him. “Hey, asshole! Where’s the rest?”
“You better tell us!”
“S’all… S’all I got.”
“I run into that old bastard every time he comes in to cash his check,” Pink said viciously, “I know how much he gets.” He turned to Astrid who stooped over them, hands on her knees. Shag groaned. He was vaguely aware of walls looming overhead, a square of blue-black sky, two cold, glittering stars.
Powerful fingers clawed at his belly, making him howl and double up. Something grabbed his ankles. He felt his belt go slack, his jeans yanked down around his knees. The same brute fingers tore at his underwear. Astrid said, “Bingo” and struck the lighter again to inspect the cash. Something about the flickering light must have struck a romantic note—before they hustled their separate ways into the night, Pink stood on his toes and kissed her. Shag lay on his back staring at the two merciless stars, then rolled onto his side and vomited.
For the next few minutes he drifted in and out of consciousness, once imagining that Astrid had returned to stand over him. Terrified, he dragged himself across the alley before he collapsed again. When the cold brought him to, he managed to get his pants back up and limp back to the Camaro.
He woke at sunrise, listening to water in a downspout—dink-donk, donk-dink, ka-dink—every dink and donk like a mallet on his tender skull. At least the air felt warmer, and the night’s accumulation of sleet was melting and sliding off the windshield. Propping himself on an elbow, he watched a stream trickle down the center of the alley to a drain, past what first appeared to be a dead cat—Astrid’s wig.
Shag crawled out of the Camaro and sat down against a wall in a patch of warm sun. The side of his face ballooned, and he worried that his jaw was broken. When a nearby door swung open and a Knotty Pine maid stepped out to smoke a cigarette, he got up and limped back to the car. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the keys because Astrid had emptied his pockets. He would have to hoof it back to the trailer camp.
It was shaping up to be a warm, sparkling day. The cold front had moved on and a forgiving sun lay like a balm on his shoulders. The air smelled of pine and, courtesy of a truck stop on the highway, pancakes and frying bacon. He was almost “home.”
When the first scattered trailers came into view he quickened his pace. Nothing had ever looked so good. Anticipating Walleye’s solicitous fumblings, he pictured a lengthy recuperation during which he could order him around like a rented nurse—hot soup and soda crackers, whiskey and honey, bed rest... Walleye’s trailer was gone.
It was like a mirage in reverse. What should have been there wasn’t. A couple of wires dangled from a utility pole beside a rectangle of dirt in a patch of wet, brown weeds. Shag felt faint. The great possum had fled.
Uncle Tommy! The old geezer had been drunk, awful drunk, passed out cold. He would recall nothing. Shag would sit beside him on the nasty couch, commiserate about the lost Social Security money, help him recount the evening (a revised version, anyway) to see if together they could remember where he’d lost it. His injuries would be an asset. Good old Uncle Tommy!
And Uncle Tommy’s trailer, except for a woman in an Oakland Raiders jacket sitting on the stoop and a station wagon parked nearby, was just as he’d left it. Shag readied a lopsided smile and tottered forward.
“Hey, mornin, ma’am!”
The woman squinted into the sunlight. The door opened behind her, and Earl Campbell stood on tiptoe to scratch at the screen. The little bastard had found his way home! Inexplicably, Shag was glad to see him, glad he hadn’t been smushed out on the highway. Good old Earl!
“Hey, Uncle Tommy,” he called out endearingly, “think you can gimme a hand, here?”
But the face which next appeared at the door was not a familiar one—at first. There was minor commotion inside; a tin can bounced, boxes capsized. Then came the unpleasant sound of Uncle Tommy’s rage.
“That’s him, boy!” the old man shrieked. “Cocksucker stole my money!”
The screen exploded outward and the ex-Marine MP vaulted past his wife and down the steps. Shag hobbled for the fence. The MP was so huge, so weighty, the ground seemed to quake beneath his feet. Shag let out an awful cry, like a wounded rabbit that knows it’s done for.
Bob Brown © 2017
Artwork: Charlie Loving © 2017
Bob Brown is a legendary musician from the 60’s Austin Music scene. He is also a writer and continues to live in Austin.
You can listen so some of Bob's classic recordings HERE.