By the time we had come about and approached the junk, a burly shaved headed guy in cut-off jeans had stationed himself at the aft rail and was waving his arms. Abner had recognized his brother and was motioning for me to come up on his starboard rail. He rushed to put out two fenders, one was dirty yellow and the other used to be white. After releasing the line and harness to Bert’s boat and handing it to Abner, I’d made full circle around the junk and brought my bow around so as to be able to raft up along my starboard, facing in the same direction and on the opposite side of the anchored junk. By the time I had my fenders in place Abner had tossed me a couple of cleated lines and Linda and I were soon “snug-up to Chinatown”.
Abner liked Calypso music and may have fancied himself the ladies man. Put these two traits together in a surrounding of scantily clad beautiful women–stir in a tape deck, two huge antique living room combo speakers and a floating red-neck pagoda– and you get…
“Gave my lady a sugar cane, Sweets to the sweet I did explain, Gave it back to my surprise, Said she liked the flavor but not the size … She want the big bamboo, always long, The big bamboo grows so bold and strong, The big bamboo…
He had one speaker mounted on top of the cabin facing forward and the other near the stern. Only after we had dispensed with, what passed for, formal introductions and Linda had retired back to Bert’s sailboat, did I feel comfortable suggesting that he turn down the sound. Even then, the only place you could carry on a conversation was inside the cabin of the junk.
I was surprised. Abner’s housekeeping was better than expected. The space below deck was cluttered but not dirty and even the galley passed a cursory inspection. It was only after I accepted the invitation to sample some rum “run off by some buddies of mine in Hialeah” that things got challenging. My drink was served in a rim chipped, coffee stained, ceramic mug complete with a circular blue and white Pure Oil Company decal. What ever happened to Pure Oil gas stations? “Sorry about the mug. I don’t have many utensil on board cause my last girlfriend stole them all when she checked out a few weeks ago. I found these java jars in a box of old fuel filters down at the City Cab Company garage. They washed up pretty good and the price was right.”
I looked over at Bert to see if his mug was as sorry as mine, and if he was going to venture a sip. It was and he didn’t bat an eye. The rum was about what I figured it would be–terrible.
Breaking the silence, I turned to Abner;
“I understand you’re in transportation?”
I had a hard time saying that with a straight face but my good-natured sarcasm went unnoticed.
Bert jumped into the fray:
“Yeah, he’s a cab driver right now but he’s got something big working and as soon as it takes off he’ll be in tall cotton.”
Shrugging, biting his upper lip, and shaking his head, Abner looked at his brother and began a family update.
“No Bert, things haven’t worked out too well with Billy. Everything was set to kick off on Sunday a week ago but it didn’t happen the way we planned. Billy said we screwed up the rollout. I’m still not sure what he means by “rollout” but, whatever it is, we screwed it up and I guess I’ve lost all my investment.”
“What do you mean you lost it, I thought you went all the way to Arkansas to be with Billy when church got out in Scarcity or where the hell ever it was? Last time I talked to you everything was good-to-go and you had your bus ticket and a 7-Eleven money-order!”
“Yeah, the name of the town was Searcy, I had forty-six hundred yeats and everything was on schedule but, like I say, we screwed up the rollout.
I was starting to feel right at home with these two. This was getting interesting and, feeling certain that I was in little danger of violating any Wall Street insider trading rules, I asked for some insight:
“Slow down Abner and fill me in from the start. What kind of investment did you make, who’s Billy, and why did you go to Arkansas?”
Head lowered, he continued:
“Billy’s my partner. He lives in Memphis. A year or so ago, he and I decided that we were tired of living by “the sweat of our brow” and came up with this idea to make a killin. Billy travels all over Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas as a traveling salesman and he’s the one that first thought of it. The way it worked was real simple, at least it was supposed to be. It went like this:
First we find a little town in the Bible-Belt South that has an abandoned worthless old building right across the street from, or next door to, the biggest Baptist Church in town. After that, we find out who owns the derelict property and negotiate a five-year option to buy and, most important of all, a rental contract along with a ninety-day rent free guarantee. We’d sign the contract and get the option for $1 because everybody would know that we were fools and that they couldn’t sell or rent the damn thing to anyone else in a hundred years! Having accomplished this in one town, we would move on to the next and so on! We had targeted seventeen locations in three States but so far we only had four around Little Rock ready to go.”
This was bazaar–I interrupted. “What in the hell were you going to do with these contracts and options?”
“No, hear me out. While all this is happening, we go to AT&T and sign up for a 900- Premium Call phone number. I even made a $350.00 deposit and had a number reserved: 1-900-244-3425. The way this phone number worked was that everybody that dialed the number was charged $2.99 for the first minute and $ .99 for each additional one. We had a long dragged-out rambling recording set up to answer all calls and we would get paid 85% of the gross billings less fees, taxes, and some other crap.”
I couldn’t stand it–“Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, now you’ve got a partner, a bus ticket, a money-order, a nine hundred phone number and four shacks in Arkansas – either you’re crazy or there’s more to the story.”
“There’s more, let me finish. The day I got off the Greyhound in Little Rock, it was Saturday week before last, every thing was supposed to be ready. Billy met me at the bus station and we drove out to the motel in Searcy where he had set up our headquarters.
The first thing we did was call our 900 number to make sure it worked. By then it was getting dark so we drove over to the local high school football field because we needed a lot of space. I hadn’t gotten the money to Billy ahead of time so he couldn’t get the banners done by a professional … we had to do them ourselves. I wasn’t sure what we were going to put on the banners but I didn’t have to worry, Billy had hired a consultant on business start-ups back in Memphis. He met the guy in some bar and, best as I could tell, for just $250.00 we had both a banner design penciled out on a cocktail napkin and a detailed rollout plan to boot. Billy and I spent half the night, with only his car’s headlights, painting four four foot by forty foot signs on some white plastic roofing under liner that he had gotten a good deal on. He had two hundred foot rolls, so we had a bunch left over.
Once we had the banners painted, rolled up, and put back in Billy’s car we returned to the motel to go over our rollout plan and get a little sleep.”
At this point I was looking around to see if I could locate the “Candid Camera.”
Dead serious, Abner continued–“According the rollout plan, we had to strike hard and fast. The next morning, Sunday, we started our run at 6:00 and by 10:30 we had all of our banners strung out. We had them in Searcy, Conway, Malvern, and Pine Bluff and all but one were hung high up on the third or forth floor. Each banner was located so that, after services, the church goers would be looking straight up at them as they were standing on the church steps, shaking the preacher’s hand, and telling him how much they enjoyed his sermon. We even gave our business a name … INDIGNATION INDUSTRIES.”
Now he had me totally confused. Holding my hands out, palms up, in questioning resignation–“The banners, Abner – what was on them?”
Reaching over his brother’s head, he brought a manila envelope down from a shelf and pulled out a Polaroid snapshot. It was a picture of an old red brick four storied hotel complete with arched windows and black iron fire escapes. I wasn’t sure what town it was in but it could have been Atlanta before Sherman struck the match. What was also in the photo was something that you would never find pictured in any old Civil War tintype … a dirty grass stained white banner with crude red lettering spread between the broken paned corner windows of the top floor.
I didn’t hang around for much of the final installment. As I climbed up and out of the cabin, Abner was telling Bert about what went wrong with their rollout. I didn’t catch the details but he said something about a Monday morning article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and an FBI probe into possible RICO act violations.
… Gave my lady two coconuts, She said to me … this is okay–but, I know you want to be nice to me, But what good are the nuts without the tree…