Hillbilly Show & Tell
Despite our first attempt at buying a boat on Craigslist not exactly going the way we anticipated (see Part I), my buddy Brandon and I decided to try our luck again. This time, the advertised 25-foot pontoon boat was a little further away, but sported a recently-rebuilt 90 horse Mercury motor and proper paperwork to make the transfer legal.
Brandon and I planned to have a look at it early one December morning, this time also taking along our friend Labas. The puppy dog of our duck hunting group, Labas is fun to have around because of his inexhaustible optimism, excitement, and earnestness. His name provides ample opportunities for innuendo, and he’s got a tattoo on his thigh of a seagull doing karate.
“It’s Steven Seagull, get it?”
You want to make fun of him, but he’s so genuine, you can’t bring yourself to cut him down.
The first time I hunted with him, the other guys gave him shit because instead of keeping an eye out for ducks, he sat in the corner of the blind looking at his phone.
“Labas, what the hell are you doing?” one of the guys said.
Labas flashed his goofy-ass, contented smile and didn’t look up. “I’m just lookin’ at pictures of my kids,” he said. “God, I love them so much.”
That’s just the kind of guy he is. While everyone else is talking shit and trading half-truths, Labas is fawning over pictures of his kids in the duck blind.
We piled into Brandon’s truck and headed out of town, stopping once to stock up on gas, snacks, and beer, which Labas paid for. On the way, we discussed plans for the boat and how we would remodel it to our specifications.
An hour into the ride, I realized I had neglected a rather important provision for the trip.
“Yo, did you bring any money?” I asked Brandon.
“I totally forgot to get cash,” Brandon said. “Did you?”
“I forgot too,” I said.
“Damn. My wife asked me if I wanted the checkbook on the way out the door, and I told her nobody accepts personal checks in 2018.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “We’ll just Venmo him.”
We drove the 80 miles west out Route 66 to a town called Strasburg, about 20 minutes outside of Front Royal. Unlike our surprise visit to the set of Deliverance at Terry’s house right down the street, we figured that out in Shenandoah County, we’d be dealing with a good ol’ boy.
Our prediction was spot-the-fuck-on.
The GPS took us down a small dirt road, but dead-ended in a stand of trees behind a small ranch house and pair of dilapidated barns.
Lost and confused, Brandon called Mike, the seller.
“Oh, yeh, that road don’t go to my house no more,” Mike said on speakerphone. “I cut a new driveway down the other side.”
He gave us additional directions, telling us if we hit the 18-wheeler parked in the ditch, we’d gone too far.
“You’ll know it when you see it,” Mike said. “Looks like fuckin’ Sanford & Son.”
Mike was not incorrect. Once we traversed the v-shaped driveway that had a 40% grade in both directions, we came upon a small clapboard house and a dirt parking lot that contained dozens of abandoned vehicles in various stages of disrepair. Directly behind the house, an empty dog kennel on a concrete slab stood next to a rusted trampoline that looked like it had inflicted decades worth of broken ankles and tetanus.
“Jeeeeeeesus,” I said, dismounting from Brandon’s truck and scanning the rubble. A forgotten camper shell, a pair of overturned jet skis, a pile of telephone poles. At the edge of the property, stolen road signs hung on trees, pock-marked with bullet holes.
Labas’ reaction was more positive.
“Oh dang!” he said, running up to the carcass of an old Dodge and peering in the driver side window. “This is such a cool old Challenger. A ’68 I think.”
“Sixty-six,” said a big-framed man rounding the corner of the house. He had a sagging face and gnarled hair and wore a droopy pair of sweat pants and a long-sleeved Harley t-shirt. Meet Mike, the owner of this fine slice of Heaven.
Mike produced a vaporizer the size of a brick from of his pocket and took a long drag. “Y’all found the place all right?”
“That driveway is no joke,” Brandon said as we shook hands and introduced ourselves. “I had to put it into 4-wheel drive just to get up to the top.”
“Yeah, I cut it through the woods last year,” Mike said. “That driveway y’all were on originally went to my house, but I stopped using it last year on account of the guy who lived there shot two of my dogs.”
“Jesus,” Labas said. “That’s terrible.”
“I was pretty mad. Pulled the fucker out of his house in the middle of the night and beat the shit out of him.”
I nudged Brandon’s toe. He swallowed a laugh.
“Guess he won in the end, though,” Mike said. “Got me on felony assault. Now I can’t have no guns or hunt or nothing.”
Mike looked directly at me when he said this, narrowing his eyes in a way that didn’t exactly convey aggression, but definitely suspicion.
I knew why. Good ol’ boys have a strong sense of when their homestead is being invaded by a Yankee, and it took Mike mere minutes to size us up.
Labas and Brandon were safe. Labas drills wells for a living, and Brandon is the project manager for a residential construction company. They wear their blue-collar professions in the cut of their clothing, the slope of their shoulders, the cadence of their speech. But despite leaving my tortoise-shell glasses and cardigan at home in favor of battered workboots and Carhartts, I had the stink of English teacher all over me, and Mike had sniffed it out.
So what do you say to ingratiate yourself to a man lamenting his arrest after admittedly committing what sounded like a pretty heinous act of violence?
“That’s some bullshit,” I offered. Mike nodded solemnly. I had passed the test, at least for now.
We crossed the yard, past several more cars, a lacrosse practice net, and a cavernous steel shipping container filled to the brim with God-knows-what. Labas kicked at a square metal box I couldn’t identify that was partially covered in dead leaves.
“You selling this diesel transfer tank?” he asked Mike.
Mike stopped and hitched up his sweatpants and took a long look at the abandoned box. “I use it to fuel up my 18-wheeler, but you can make me an offer. My motto is that everything’s for sale when you’re broke, and brother, I’m broke.”
“I have a feeling this guy doesn’t take Venmo,” Labas whispered to me.
We reached the top of a hill where the boats were parked.
Yes, I said boats. Just like Terry in Alexandria, Mike had TWO pontoon boats sitting side-by-side.
I really don’t get it. Why do these people always have multiple pontoon boats? Are they sold in pairs? Is buying a pontoon boat addicting, like sneakers or tattoos or golf equipment?
Mike took Brandon and Labas on a tour of the boat sitting on the left (“the one on the right ain’t for sale ‘cause I use it for fishing…unless y’all want to make me an offer on both”) and I stayed back out of the way. I know zero about boats and wouldn’t know what I was looking for anyway, and I also didn’t want to risk falling out of Mike’s good graces by looking ignorant, or accidentally correcting his grammar.
From the house came a hunched figure, a sloppy guy I swear walked like Igor. He introduced himself as Adam, Mike’s truck mechanic. Adam was younger than Mike and had the look of a dude who had definitely tried crystal meth more than once in his lifetime. A bouquet of multicolored wires sprung from his breast pocket.
Brandon mounted the boat and checked out the deck, but not without a stern warning from Mike.
“Don’t go too far back over them wheels,” Mike said. “She’ll tip and start rolling. I almost went surfing down that hill couple of weeks ago.”
Aside from rotting furniture and a pile of shin-deep leaves, the boat looked to be in good shape, Brandon said. The only thing left to do was to hear the motor.
Starting the ol’ Mercury up proved to be a bigger problem than anticipated. Over the phone, Mike had told Brandon we were welcome to test the boat on a nearby lake, suggesting the motor was more or less turn-key. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
For the better part of two hours, Mike and Adam wrestled with this and that in the engine compartment while Brandon stood at the helm and awaited the signal to give her a try.
Ever the faithful assistant, Adam hauled a battery from the bowels of the shipping container and attempted to connect it.
“Is this the hot or the ground?” he asked, holding one of the two green wires snaking from the labyrinth of machinery in the aft.
“Give it a try,” Mike said. “You’ll find out in a minute here.”
Everyone laughed and I joined in, inferring — but not knowing — the result of putting a hot terminal on a ground post or vice-versa was not good.
“Goddamn Mike,” Adam said. “I got kids now. I can’t be fuckin’ with this.”
“Suggesting that if he didn’t have kids, he would fuck with it?” I whispered to Labas. Labas giggled and shushed me.
The battery now attached and the potential for Adam’s children becoming orphans at 50 percent, Brandon cranked the motor. Nothing but clicks.
Mike and Adam scratched their heads, paced, took hits from their gigantic vaping devices.
Another 30 minutes of monkeying and another battery carried out of the shipping container yielded no progress. On the edge of giving up, a lightbulb lit over Mike’s head.
“Well shit,” he said, “the fuel line’s disconnected. It ain’t gonna start with no fuel going to it.” He looked at me again, this time with an expression seeking sympathy. “I’m dumb as fuck,” he said.
I had to tread lightly. I knew a statement of agreement was appropriate, but I thought saying something like hell yeah you are! was probably not the way to go. Good ol’ boys are creatures of nuance, and I knew even the slightest mis-intonation of my voice might send the man into an ass-kicking, felonious rage.
I settled on a laugh, a kind of aw shucks guffaw and a shoulder shrug, complete with upturned palms that I hoped conveyed a what are you gonna do sentiment. Mike put his hands on his hips and spit, grinning like a teenager getting caught looking up a girl’s skirt.
I entered solid footing in Mike’s good graces when Brandon told him I grew up shooting and was the hunting group’s firearms expert. Upon hearing I was a “gun guy,” Mike’s eyes lit up. “Oh shit,” he said, “I got somethin’ you wanna see. Hold on.” He wobbled toward the house and out of view.
For those of you without a Y chromosome, every man on the planet is imbued with an instinctual desire to show off his toys to other men. This impulse is amplified when it comes to firearms. Maybe it’s something about their symbolic power, I don’t know. But I spent a good chunk of my formative years standing in a semi-circle with a dozen other guys, staring at my father’s friends’ new rifles and handguns and oohing and ahhing.
I also knew that, despite Brandon’s flattering label, my gun knowledge and interest was pretty limited to my own tastes, and that whatever piece Mike was about to bring from the house was going to require a significant amount of feigned interest.
“Dude, I don’t want to see his guns,” I said to Brandon. “And also, didn’t he tell us less than an hour ago he wasn’t legally allowed to own guns?”
“Let him get it,” Brandon said. “He’s excited he’s got company over. It’s hillbilly show & tell.”
As predicted, Mike came marching from the house with a lever-action brush gun I couldn’t give two shits about.
“This here’s a Browning .358. My grandfather give it to me when I was a kid. Never been shot.”
“Wow, she’s pretty,” I said, turning the rifle in my hands and pretending to admire it. I played my part, working the action and shouldering it to sight down the barrel. “Nice little piece of machinery you got here.”
“They go for fifteen hundred or 2,000, but I could let her go for a thousand.”
Ay, there was the rub. Wiley Mike wasn’t a showman, he was a salesman.
“I’m good,” I said, handing the rifle back and flipping through my file for an excuse to say no. “My wife would kill me if I came home with another gun.”
“It’s handy for the yard,” Mike said, putting on the hard sell. “Good for varmints and snakes.”
“Not a whole lot of varmints in Alexandria,” I said. “Sorry.”
Mike frowned and retreated to the house. And just like that, our relationship was back on unstable ground.
The motor sufficiently primed with gasoline, Mike took a break while Adam and Brandon pulled out the garden hose to attach to the motor. Mike crouched down behind a white BMW and lit a cigarette, taking a drag and letting out an exaggerated sigh.
“You okay back there?” Labas asked.
“Just trying to get a cigarette in before my ol’ lady sees me,” Mike said, pointing to the house. “She gives me all kind of shit when I smoke.”
This was perplexing to me, as Mike had been openly and aggressively vaping since the moment we arrived. But, in the interest of continuing to kow-tow myself to my rural host, I wasn’t about to parse the semantics of various nicotine delivery methods and the dynamics of his marriage.
“Don’t worry, I won’t tell,” I said. Mike gave a confused grunt.
“What the hell you doin’ over there behind my Beamer?” Adam yelled, elbows deep in engine compartment.
Mike stood up and thrust his hips into the car’s rear quarter panel. “I’m fuckin your car. What are you gonna do about it?”
I chuckled. “You know, that’s a real thing. I read this article in the New York Times about people who…”
Adam interrupted with a Jethro chortle and applause that encouraged Mike to vigorously simulate coitus with the vehicle’s gas tank, cigarette dangling from his wide grin.
“Mike!” came a voice from the house. “Where are you?”
“Fuck!” Mike said. He shoved his cigarette into the pocket of his sweatpants.
A bowling ball-shaped woman wearing a Harley sweatshirt and a black military hat descended the front porch. “I’m going to the store,” she said.
“Alright,” said Mike. “Don’t spend all my fuckin’ money.”
The ol’ lady rolled her eyes, got into one of the dozen cars, and drove off.
Mike pantomimed wiping sweat from his brow. “That was a close one!” he said. “I woulda never heard the end of that if she caught me with a smoke.”
He started toward the motor where Adam was standing, then suddenly jumped into the air and howled. He danced in a circle, tugging at his sweatpants before finally removing his still-lit cigarette. “Goddamn that hurt,” he said. “Forgot about that fuckin’ thing.”
At this point, we had been at Mike’s for more than three hours. Still a ways from actually hearing what the boat sounded like, I was getting antsy.
I went back to Brandon’s truck and grabbed a beer from the backseat. It immediately set to work unwinding the tension coiled between my shoulder blades.
“Y’all drinking?” Adam said, pointing to my beer.
“Yeah,” I said. “Five-o-clock somewhere, right?”
Five-o-clock somewhere? Seriously? What was I, a fucking Jimmy Buffet lyric? I had to recover. “I’d offer you one, but this is the last of what we had.”
Adam waved me off. “It’s all good,” he said. “I had a blunt before y’all got here.”
“Right on,” I said.
As though my tacit response was an endorsement he’d been seeking all morning, Adam turned and pulled an unlit blunt from his shirt pocket. He lit it and held it between his teeth and puffed while coaxing the boat motor to life with both hands.
“Oooh, something smells good,” Labas said, returning from a self-guided tour of a nearby ’82 Dodge pickup.
“Oh, that’s just my cologne,” Adam said. “Eau de can-uh-bees.”
Over the potent aroma of Adam’s blunt then wafted a much worse scent, emanating from somewhere near the engine compartment.
“The fuck is that?” Adam said. He took the blunt from his mouth and stared at it, trying to deduce if it was his weed that smelled like a turd covered in burnt hair.
Mike overturned a plastic bin filled with rainwater, and a wave of death hit us. The stench was so overwhelming I retreated to behind Adam’s Beamer to gag, lest Mike see me and think me weak.
“What the hell is that?” Labas asked.
“Oh, that’s the guy, right there,” said Brandon, pointing to a decomposing mouse in the bottom of the bin.
“Jesus Lord Almighty,” Adam said. He toked his blunt and coughed.
Mike reached down and picked up the mouse by the tail. “I’ll knock 500 off the price if one of y’all eat this here mouse right now,” he said. Once again he looked at me, his droopy, high school dropout eyes staring directly into my soul.
This was my third challenge? To eat a desiccated mouse? I wanted Mike to like me enough to not dismiss me as a Yankee pretty boy, but this, sir, was a bridge too far.
My anxiety softened by the beers, I felt comfortable issuing my genuine response:
“Fuuuuuuuck that, man.”
Mike laughed and tossed the mouse into the automobile graveyard. “I was just fuckin’ with you. If you actually ate it, I’d think you were fuckin’ crazy.”
Just in case you’re keeping score at home: eating a rotting mouse = fuckin’ crazy. Committing felony assault on a neighbor for shooting your dog = just another day in Paradise.
Brandon and Adam finally wrangled the hose and earmuffs onto the motor, and after a few tries it coughed to life. Brandon stared into the distance, listening intently at the motor’s hum.
Having no idea what I was listening for, I looked at him for approval. He finally cut the motor and I caught his eye.
“We good?” I said.
He nodded grimly. “Alright Mike, let’s do this.”
“Fuck yeah,” Mike said. He came over and clapped me on the back.
I stared at my shoes. “The only catch is that we don’t have any cash,” I said.
“Bank was closed today,” Brandon offered.
“It’s all good,” Mike said. “Y’all got a check?”
Brandon and I exchanged glances. Goddammit.
“What about Venmo?” I said. “Do you take Venmo?”
“What the fuck is Venmo?”
— To be continued —