Thursday, February 14, 2008

Creature from the Swamp.


By the Fates, the two of us ended up working in the same little shop in St. Petersburg. Don was the enigmatic guy formerly in charge of a competitor's shop. I was the greenhorn salesman recruited from Detroit to Tampa to sell plastic across the state. Both of us, because of the politics of where we were and, in part, because of who we were, had been put out on the street by our former employers. I don't recall how Don found the company. I had an impending marriage and actually paid a fee-based employment agency for the privilege of working for idiots.

The idiots were three. First, was a nasty woman whose supposedly loaded east coast family shipped her to Florida to get her out of their hair and out of their sight. She lied to her new husband that she would front the business and let him run it.

Next, the husband, a hoosier doofus, and former General Motors Middle Management Useless Pencil Pusher, he had been sleeping on his nephew's couch and bumming cigarettes until he met the nasty woman at a Baptist Church Singles Night. They married and he was suddenly Donald Trump. He lied and told his nephew that the wife was going to front the business and the nephew could run it.

Lastly, the nephew was an Indiana Hilljack living in a trailer in Florida. He lied to his Uncle that he knew the plastics business; piece of cake. He didn't know much about vacuum forming, the machine his new aunt just bought, but he'd done some acrylic fabrication. I got the impression that the real acrylic talent was his wife who was home raising their brood.

This shop was one of two places I could have committed a grisly murder. I suppose, occasionally, suicide wasn't that far off either. The morning news broke that Stevie Ray Vaughn had died in a Wisconsin helicopter crash, we were moping around the break room before work started, staring in our coffee. The nasty woman walked in, felt the somber mood, looked from face to face to face . . .

"What's the matter with you guys?" she growled in her three-pack-a-day Vegas hooker voice.

"Well, a terrific, promising, young musician died last night. We can't believe it," I volunteered.

"Who," she asked, or maybe she just belched. I wasn't sure, but it sounded like "who?"

"Stevie Ray Vaughn, a blues guitar player," I said.

Turning to open the fridge, she grunted "Well, at least it wasn't Neil Diamond."  A Diet Coke and a package of pink Hostess Snow Balls from the freezer was her morning ritual.

As she reached for the Snow Balls, I lunged, knocking her into the shelves of the fridge. Lunches and half drank sodas exploded around the room. We wallowed in the debris as I struggled to roll her over. She smacked at me with the Coke bottle, but I knocked it away. Fear welled up in her bulging eyes. Digging past the wattle and the folds of her generous neck, I gripped her throat closed and . . . in my head.

Don and I started escaping the shop at lunch. It was no fun coming to work there and some of the other stories are just bizarre. Bitching over lunch at the All-You-Can-Eat-Chinese-Buffet turned into plotting and planning. We met after work, wrote a business plan and started shopping a prospectus around.

After several weeks, we got a bite. A friend of a friend from Don's church wanted to talk; the alarms should have already gone off. We were to drive down and meet him at the marina he owned on Gasparilla Island, south of us on Florida's Gulf Coast. It was an evening meeting as we were still working and he has running his empire.

That day was one of the longest I've been through. The shop where we worked with the three idiots was more like the Crafts Room at Bellevue than a real business. It was a good hike to Gasparilla, so Don and I drove separately to a rendezvous point. From there, I rode with him in his pickup.

It's always a nice drive when you're near the coast in Florida. We ambled down the coast and then waited behind a couple cars in line for the last private bridge in the state. Three bucks gets you across but it lets the locals think they are keeping the riffraff out. There was a long causeway across the tarpon flats and then we were on the island proper. All the requisite components of Florida were there: Condo Resorts, Hotels, Golf Resorts, Fishing Resorts and plenty of Seafood Joints. We found the marina and his house just across the street.

Our meeting seemed to go well. We had a good rapport and similar goals. Then it happened - we scratched an agreement out on a piece of three ring notebook paper and he wrote us our first check. That hand written agreement would later save Don and I $560,000 but that's a story for another day.

The bridge toll is for both ways, so we were down the causeway and off the island in no time. Our meeting had gone long. These were the days before cellphones were ubiquitous so we were looking for a convenience store pay phone to call our wives. It was a beautiful clear Florida night as we drove through some rural miles just north of the Everglades. Coming around a curve out between streetlights in the swampy darkness, the lights came on. The dark was replaced by the surreal red and blue and pink and purple of the sheriff's lights bouncing into the woods on either side of the lonely road. We pulled over and the sheriff sauntered up to Don's window.

"You boys just sit tight a minute," he barked putting his hand on the window sill of the pick up. Then he just stood there, looking down the road.

Another squad car pulled up.

They put Don in the first squad car. To divide and conquer, the second sheriff walked me about 75 feet down the road.

Imagine the scrawny, red-headed kid from school who never said "boo" to anyone. Now imagine that he is a sheriff's deputy in Florida. This modern day Barney Fife was guarding me as I was getting eaten alive by hummingbird-sized mosquitoes coming out of the swamp. Barney had one of those microphone speakers on his walkie talkie, clipped right by his ear on the epaulet of his crisp, if somewhat baggy, uniform. The palm of his gun hand rested on the butt of his Glock 40; fingers splayed, ready for anything. "Anything" must have been really scary in Barney's head because every time the radio squawked, he jumped. Lee County is a big county; there were lots of squawks.

A third squad car showed up.

When the fourth squad car showed up, it was a drug sniffing canine unit.

I stood on the shoulder of the dark lonely road in the swamp and tried to swat at mosquitoes quietly. No sense in making Barney even more jumpy. I watched as the cops went, page by page, through my briefcase. The dome light in the cab reflected on the inside of the windshield, making it like the overhead mirror at an outlet mall cooking demonstration. I could clearly see everything in the cab.

I don't have anything against the police, in general, but these guys were goons. One was sucking on a drink from Burger King. When it went almost dry, he gave it one last giant suck; to make a Hoover jealous. His cheeks drew in around his molars. Afterward he shook the cup to show off the dry clink of the remaining cubes, and pitched the cup and straw into the swamp.

You begin to have doubts about a guy you've only known for six months when he's in the back of a squad car and you're standing in the road by the swamp. Somehow, one thing I knew, was what he had for breakfast every morning. Don's wife kept him supplied with cheap, store brand powdered sugar donuts in the bag. Every morning, Don grabbed 3 or 4 little donuts and a cup of coffee in a normal ceramic mug; no travel mug. His shirts and the bench seat of his truck usually showed the aftermath of his struggle to eat, drink, and shift on the way to work while juggling his breakfast. It was a running joke at the shop.  What was causing us trouble that evening was the powdery white residue the sheriff was looking at on the floor, on the steering wheel and in the upholstery of Don's truck.

The Goon Squad Sheriffs were scooping up the powdery white residue in these little vials. They would cap a vial, shake it, hold it up in the air like Dr. Stangelove and shine at it with their great big D cell Mag Lite. Then with a cuss, they would throw the vial in the swamp and start over. Apparently, they were expecting that the cocaine would change the vial's chemicals a certain color. After five or six vials, each with a frown, a grunt and a pitch into the swamp, they put the dog in the truck.

Up to that point in my life, I had had no previous experience with narcotics trained canine units. Really. But I had had lots of experience with dogs. I'm a proud card carrying dog person. This cute Golden Retriever got shoved up into the pickup cab. She spun around a couple times, walked the length of the bench seat and back. Remember the cooking demo mirror. Finally, she stopped and stood looking out the window at her handler, wagging her tail. I took a small slice of comfort.

The main deputy, a sergeant or something, walked down the road in his best John Wayne swagger. I'm still swatting mosquitoes. Barney is still jumping out of his belt.

"The dog hit four times in that truck and your partner has already come clean, so you might as well," he stated with flat authority. In the wind whispering through the swampy air, I could almost hear the echo of "You pilgrim."

I wasn't about to confess to trafficking in powdered sugar. Little did I know, they were telling Don that I sang and he might as well come clean. Neither of us did.

A little while later, Don was let out of the squad car. I finally knew we were O.K.

The John Wayne sergeant came back down the road. "I can't get you this time," he threatened, "but I will . . . next time."

The dog crawled back in her carriage. The canine unit left. The sergeant barked a few orders and he left. Barney settled down and he left. Just around the curve, where they all disappeared, the glow of a street light struggled to shine from around the pines.

"By the way," the first sheriff chimed, "the original reason I pulled you over, you've got a headlight out.

He smiled and walked back to his car; which wouldn't start. So after at least three hours on the side of the road for an unreasonable search and seizure, [ok, there was no seizure except perhaps our wives' reaction], we had to pull around in front of the goon's car and give him a jump!

We found a pay phone and called our wives. In time, we were forgiven. Although indirectly, the company later had a hand in a divorce for each of us.

In the ensuing six months or so, we began to realize our financial partner had got most of his money in the low-flying-plane-import-business. This was the actual reason we got pulled over that night. It took us a while to connect the dots, but his house was being watched. We had spent several hours there one evening and got caught in the net on the way home.

Next time, our heroes steal the equipment and molds from themselves and start all over again across town. The evil empire sues and the magic of a piece of notebook paper is revealed. Tune in next time to catch all the action!

Hey, Spork, I'm happiest when I'm spinning yarns!

1 comment:

  1. I'm cheesing ear to ear :D

    Loved it. Write more. I can't get enough.

    So where's the other place you could've committed a grisly murder??

    ReplyDelete