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Oyster Bay, We’ve Got a Problem


By Chase Hart




“Name’s John, an’ I’m a alcoholic.”

Those hard words came with a warm hand-squeeze from my Martha. Yup, I’d changed alright, even wore me a clean t-shirt. See, the fish had disappeared, the price of diesel skyrocketed, and we had us tons a corn. It all started before Brad was born, Oyster Bay, summer a ’93, when they sprung the revising to Uncle Ray’s will on us. .

Me and Martha left the high-rise buildings of Nashville in our Chevy pickup when we got word Uncle Ray went and died. Heck, we was never city dwellers no how, and we had this here chance at the new life. We took it, rode out a town in a rainstorm, but had sunshine in our hearts. Uncle Ray give us the farm. Oh, and his forty foot diesel Ramrod fishing boat, outfitted to the gills.

I figured Uncle Ray thought he owed me because of the way his brother treated me. When Ray got wind that dad had broke my leg bone in two places, he whooped him good and kept an eye on me until liver rot caught dad with his last bottle. I still walk with a limp, but I can do back flips with a smile. Most take a liking to me. I daydreamed these things while coaxing the truck on, takin’ stock of my assets, between pit stops and Martha’s jabbering. That’s my gal.

Two days later we pulls into Oyster Bay, soggy but happy…sorry ‘bout Ray though, mind you. The dark cloud had followed us like we was towing it. Martha put meaning to it the whole trip, but her speculations weren’t no concern to me except when she held that watermelon stomach a hers and let out a yelp at the least little road bump. When we rolled down Martini Boulevard, engine sputtering on fumes, and settled smack in front of Cummins & Cummins, I had my turn.

"See, nothing to worry about, honey.”

The sign over the front door swung in the breeze, squeaking on two rusty chains.“Gone Drinking,” it read. One a them yeller smiley stickers was stuck to the bottom right corner.

“Now that's a different ‘scuse to get out’a work." I jiggled the door knob. "He's closed."

“Yup.”Martha stood on the sidewalk curb an’ held her stomach in with both hands, like it could block traffic. She closed her eyes, sniffed the air, then looked up and down Martini Boulevard. “Big name for a narrow excuse of main drag. Couple a shops. Hmm, workin’ barber pole. That a one-pump gas station? Unleaded, I hope.” She let go a her stomach and it stretched the flowered print of her cotton muumuu to hang into the street. “Town’s deserted. Where’s folks at?”

“Where’s Cummins?” I reached under my belly and hitched my genuine leather belt. The round silver rodeo buckle had rawed an imprint just below my belly button during the long drive.

“Yup. Where, oh where?” Martha hitched her belly, rested her fists on her hips, and tapped her foot. “What now? I’m one pregnant woman needin’ a good meal. See any arches?”

“Lookie there.” I pointed down the street.

A lone soul, hunched, aided by a cane and holding a jug on his shoulder, approached and entered Oyster Bay Bait and Tackle, a ways down Martini. We tried motioning and shouting to him, then catching up, but he was hard a hearin’ or blind, and Martha waddled. Seconds later, we was walking through the same doorway. The place was packed. We felt like we’d invaded some kind a town meetin’.

“This here’s a town meetin’,” someone said. “Can we hep ya?”

People sat on crates, wooden chairs, leaned against counters. Each held a pad, a pencil, and a cup. The old-timer’s jug was making rounds, town folks was filling up.

Martha waved howdy. “Didn’t mean to barge. We’re looking for Mr. Cummins, the lawyer.”

“I’m Cummins.” A ringer for the Kentucky Fried Colonel tipped his Stetson, then started stroking and thinning his white goatee to a point. “Excuse me. Do we have an appointment?”

“Cummins, of Cummins and Cummins, Cummins?” I asked.

Martha nodded. “We was told to deal in strictest confidence with Cummins. There another Cummins? We’re the Purdys. Inherited Uncle Ray’s farm by the bay and….”

Cummins stopped stroking his beard in mid-whisker and chicken feet wrinkled from the corners a his eyes as he smiled, rose fast like, and extended a hand. “Just one of me. But I do the work of two. Been expecting you.”

You’da thunk Martha’d broke water. Everyone mumbled t’each other, then all of ‘em looked at us, waved, and smiled a welcome--except for one man. He had a nervous twitch of his left eyebrow, if you was lookin’ at him head on. He proceeded to flatten the only long black hair acros’t his bare skull.

Cummins gulped the contents a his cup. “Set. Welcome to Oyster Bay. We could use some unspoiled opinion.” He motioned for two men to give up their seats. “We’re ready to vote on a brochure for our tourist campaign.”

The old man we’d followed inside, handed us plastic cups.

Cummins raised his notebook, cleared his throat, then read right proper.

The Martini conjures men in white shirts and skinny ties, reminding us of the era of Frank Sinatra non-challance, Sean Connery 007, and Hugh Hefner velvet-robe. There are many ways to a good Martini, shook or stirred, chilled or luke, olive or twist, vodka or gin. Now, bring back memories of lost eras with Hillbilly PoP. Hillbilly PoP, clear as water, smooth as vermouth. Poured into a long stem glass, it’ll make even your bulky mitts look graceful as you clink, sip, and converse with friends who sound more and more like Dean Martin, and you listen to music that has you believing Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime. Hillbilly PoP. It has Pop.”

Everyone but baldy clapped and whistled. Cummins bowed, “Guess that’s a go.”

The oldtimer poured from the jug, filling our empty cups, then set the jug eside his chair, between me and him.

Sip some Happy Sally,” he said. “This here’s skull crackin’ mule kick. It’ll make you see seven stars. Welcome to Oyster Bay. I’m yer neighbor, Josh Randolph, ex-fisherman, expert on the lost art of moonshining.”

“Moonshining?“I sipped, forgettin’ about dad being a alcoholic, and my pledge to never take a drink. That one sip caused two things: my eyebrows took a trip way up onto my forehead and two, I decided right then and there that I had me a good neighbor and a lifelong friend. Well, till he died, anyhow. He was gettin’ on up there. I soon found out that his red suspenders and paisley print tie was on him for a purpose—he was the town sage and had mastered what he knew about his favorite subject, alkyhol, corn, and the fermentation thereof.

“Yup.”Josh turned to the audience. “It’s a art. Okay, jot this down, folks. Half bushel of barley, four of corn meal, couple sticks of yeast, . . .“

“Slow down now, Josh.” A little lady slapped her knee then patted her gray-hair-in-bun and tried catching up with her writing. But you could tell she give up taking notes when she took a sip from her cup and stared at the oak beamed ceiling, just nodding to Josh’s instructions.

“. . . a pound a malt, two gallons of hops. Mix it into ten gallons of distilled water. Let it set six days, till it ferments, and ya got mash.

“Was that four bushels of corn meal?” someone hollered.

I sipped more Happy Sally, and shook my head like a wet dog, liking my neighbor better and better as he continued. My eyebrows settled back after another sip. Hellooo, Sally! Josh was my new buddy.

". . . Put the mash into the copper kettles and set fire under ‘em. Catch the liquid from the coils, in the tin tub. That first liquid’s gonna be clear, 110 proof, high shot.”

My eyebrows rose again. This time because my cup was empty. I picked up the jug for a refill, hoping Josh would take his time. He winked at me like he read my mind.

He wagged a finger at the folks. “It’ll turn gray, mind you. That’s low wines. Don‘t drink it. Repeat. Don‘t…drink…it.” I sipped. Josh was already takin’ care a me.

“When can we test?” Someone asked.

“No testin’ yet. That’s corn liquor. Could poison ya. Needs proofin’ down. Bottle the clear stuff, then add the gray till you see beads in the middle.”

“Beads floatin’ in the bottle? Ha!” The little old lady with netted gray hair slapped her knee again. This time she giggled, took a long gulp of Happy Sally, and passed her empty cup for more.

“That’s right,” Josh said. “Slap the bottom of the bottle, like you’d do a baby’s bottom. The beads! ’ll settle. If beads fall to the bottom, you got weak moonshine. Beads to the top?…”

“Too strong!” Several town folk shouted. You could tell they was experienced and knowledgable.

Josh put a hand up to shush ‘em. “Now you test. Pour some in a saucer and light a match to it. If it burns yeller,…”

“Don’t drink it!” Everyone shouted in concert, laughing.

Josh was the Pie Piper. He had ‘em goin’. He nodded again. “! Wood alcohol makes great anti-freeze. If it burns blue?”

“Good liquor!”

“Zactly.”Josh clapped for empathis. “We want pure blue Hillbilly Pop for the Blessing of the Fleet. Remember.”

The old lady slapped her knee a third time, giggling until someone nudged her to grab her Happy Sally refill. She took it gingerly with both hands and watched it to her lips.

Martha sat with her mouth open, eyes wide and stared at her cup before she decided to take a sip. Her eyebrows was a travelin’ too. Her feet thumped the floor. “Ahhh!”She gulped another. Her head rolled back, an she pounded her breast with her open hand, then held it there. She lifted the cup with the other, but I grabbed it to save my darlin’ from harm.

“Can’t be good for a pregnant woman, honey.” I drank her last an shook my head, before the Exorcist came out my mouth: “Smoooothe!” Everyone laughed an’ I felt like a new stranger, like I was accepted into the fold. Josh, my best buddy, slapped my back. “You’re gonna fit right in. To hell with fishin’.Ain’t been bitin’ for years no how. We got us a new economy.”

The bald headed man finally cracked a smile. “There’s money to be made,” he said. Then the smile left, fast as it came.

Cummins stretched a hand again. “Welcome to Oyster Bay. I’ll have that deed transfered in a jiff. Know anything about corn?”

“Nope. Why?” I didn’t care about no corn. I was gone fishin’ soon’s I could crank the boat Uncle Ray left us. We’d already decided to name it Bradley, which was the name we was giving our newborn, which we were sure was gonna be a boy.

“That’s okay. We’ll take care of everything. If we get a good rain or two, your money worries are over.” Like God-speak, a thunderclap shook the winders and the dark cloud we towed burst and let loose its shower.

I scratched my head. “I don‘t get it. Uncle Ray said this was a fishin’town.”

“Fishing? Now that’s a problem,” Josh laughed. “That dried up, the price of diesel skyrocketed, and your Uncle Ray?—why he had plenty a corn. Plenty.”

Martha grabbed my cup, turned it up to her mouth and urged some condense from the bottom. She licked her lips. “Looks like we couldn’t ask for better neighbors.”

By next town meeting we was settled in, our corn crop was picked, and we had money, just like Mr. Cummins said. I’d fallen in love with Oyster Bay and Happy Sally, sipping and talking with Martha every day as she developed her new recipe for the upcoming Blessing of the Fleet. My pregnant city-slicker-turned-moonshiner called her jiggly concoction, Cosby Cubes. She made ‘em every color of the rainbow, too. Josh was over for dinner and desert—Cosby Cubes--every night. Weeks passed and in her tenth month, I became a father. Martha and her midwife! brought Brad into the world, eleven pounds, thirteen ounces, an’ I’d turned into a jelloholic. Martha later told me it was like having two new people in the house--“An you was the baby.”

Thousands of drinking tourists were expected to see the decorated boats as they paraded past Bishop Taminany so he could sprinkle them with holy water. Our boat was chose to take up the anchor spot. I was hoping the bishop would have enough holy water left for me in that little silver hand-held sprinkler system. I needed blessing. I was poppin’ Martha’s jiggly reds, and thinkin’ Happy Sally all the time. She’d become more important to me than Martha, an’ I was hidin’her everywhere. Under my piller, till Martha caught me in bed with ‘em.

The Blessing of the Fleet finally rolled around and the entire town put their best feet forward, though hardly any could put one front of the other in a straight line. Cludin’ me. We were a happy bunch. And me and Josh? We was tighter than Martha’s gritz an’ gravy, her specialty, next to Cosby Cubes. I admired Josh for his extraordinary knowledge about the moonshine business and the history of it all. Early that morning, Bishop Taminany stopped by with his aid, the baldheaded guy at Bait & Tackle that first day. Had the honor of the good bishop to come into our house for coffee.

Good morning, Bishop Taminunany.” I’d been popping already. Had some reds hid from Martha floatin’ in the toilet tank. Words was slurrin’.

“It’s Tamin-any, Tam-in-any.” The bishop smiled. He was an okay fella. “Lovely house, and what a view you have of the bay. Do you enjoy sunrises?”

“Sure do. Damndest one this morning. A long lean cloud looked like a dagger piercing a orange bowl. Beautiful. Just beautiful. Me an’ Martha held hands till we started seeing yella spots. We’re still seein’ ‘em. There! There’s one on your jacket.” I swiped it off for the good bishop. Baldy looked at me meanfaced.

“Coffee?”I motioned to Martha.

“Yes, please.” The good bishop said. “Sugar and cream. I heard about Martha’s jello cubes. People are buying them like crazy. You two have hit on one of those market niches that just seems to have taken off on its own. Did you know that your Uncle Ray contributed much to the Holy Church—to Saint Margarets?”

“Nope. Didn’ know that. How much?”

This time the bald guy spoke up. “Ray Purdy was supposed to leave us this land before he located you. Or did you locate him?”

I sobered a little. Something smelled an’ it was about to rear its head. We sat at the kitchen table and Martha brought three hot cups, then she got back to work on a slew of Cosby Cubes with her ears wide open. The Bishop kept admiring the rainbow of colors she’d created.

“Mind if I have one? Just to test.” He picked a red and popped it before Martha could answer. He liked it because he went for a blue, which had Kentuck Grass, 80 proof written on the sticker of its bowl. “The yellows look very interesting. Lemon flavored?” He popped one and smiled. “Yes, of course. We thought we’d stop by on our way to the Blessing to show you something we should have shown you months ago.” Bishop Taminany motioned to the bald guy and he pulled out a piece a paper. “Ray wrote this on his death bed as I gave him his Last Rights. It’s a will—dated and signed.”

“You get last rights before you die? To what?” I’d heard of everything now. Religion’s gone bonkers.

It says that in the event John Purdy could not be located or that you were incapacitated by some sickness of the brain or not in your right mind, that this property is to revert to the Church. John, we have reason to believe you are an alcoholic, and that Missus Purdy is also, and that your son is in danger of neglect and mistreatment.”

The good bishop handed me the paper.

“So you’re sayin’ you got last rights? Looks like scribbling to me.” I sobered by degrees and drank more coffee.” Yer not sayin’ me and the Catholic Church’s got a battle pending, are ya? No one, hear this, no one is gonna take our Brad away from us . . . or our property. Martha, show these gentlemen of the Church the door. See you at the Blessing.”

As they rose, baldy spoke. His words was chilling. “See you in court.” He must have been a witness for the Church, and a bad egg that needed keepin’ in line because Bishop Taminany give him the kind of square look that said he’d showed their hand. By the time the two walked out the front door, Martha was cryin’and I was pouring another cup a black coffee, and thinking soberly.

“Martha,”I said, “don’t you worry honey. I got a plan like an ol’ Possum in trouble. I got a go see Josh for a few minutes. Be right back.” I could see her in the winder, holding Brad and crying, watching me cross the corn patch to Josh’s place. Right then and there I swore I’d never pop another red again or take one sip of Happy Sally. As far as I was concerned, Sally was dead. Martha’d always came first in my life and now Brad was in a tie with her.

The sun warmed the faces of a huge crowd on a fine April day. A breeze was blowin’from the ocean. You could smell the salt and hear the seagulls squawk. Me, Josh, Cummins and my deck hand chugged in The Bradley at the rear of the line of shrimp and fishing boats that glided down the canal toward open water. Bishop Taminany, in his funny tall hat, stood on a high pier and slung holy water from that sprinkler contraption. Baldy, stood behind him. When we approached, we slowed, and pulled alongside the pier.

I hopped onto the pier and approached the bishop. Both he and baldy reared back like they felt threatened. “Listen,” I said, “me and Martha been considerin’. We can settle the whole question of Uncle Ray’s intentions in a jiff. I know Uncle Ray loved the Church and I’d like to honor that. Come aboard for a short ride and by the time we get back we’ll all be happier than pigs in slop.” I put on my best smile and nodded my head toward The Bradley.

Cummins and Josh waved the bishop to come aboard. “It’ll be fun. You can wave to everyone from the boat.”

Bishop Taminany broke a smile and motioned to baldy. “Can he come?”

"Sure. We got lots of room.” Cummins helped the bishop aboard and baldy and I hopped on. We was off, catching up to the rest of the fleet.

 

I thrust a bowl of red Cosby Cubes in front of the bishop. “Have a red. You deserve it.” He took one and popped it, then another since I kept the bowl in front of him.

 

When all the boats were out in the bay they turned and started back, reversing their path down the canal. The bishop had six reds by then. You could tell he liked them better than wine. Martha’d laced ‘em extra. Happy Sally took her hold.

 

“Have another,” I said.

 

This time baldy put his hand up. “I think Bishop Taminany has had enough.”

 

The bishop gave him that look again. “One or two more won’t hurt. I feel fine. And the breeze is delicious.” He popped another. Then another. “So, John, what do you have in mind?”

 

“Fishing,”I said.

 

Both he and baldy looked at each other, then noticed we had not turned back with the rest of the fleet. We was headed to sea.

 

Baldy cleared his throat. “What’s going on?”

 

“Before we talk,” Cummins said, “We thought you might want to catch some mackerel. John saw them running. Maybe even a King, to show the crowd back on shore.”

 

My deckhand and Josh threw the chum bucket out to trail my boat. It was full a ground up sardines and squid and left an oily slick behind us.

 

“Yeah,”Josh said. “The chum will stir ‘em. Ten minutes on a line and I bet we start catching some. Have another red.” Josh grabbed the bowl and popped one himself before the bishop could get his.

 

He popped two. “I’m not dressed for fishing. Why, I’m, I’m still wearing my hat. And my robes--they are embroidered in gold thread.”

 

Cummins patted the bishop on the back. “Relax. I bet you ten dollars I catch one before you do. We’re almost there. Can you see yourself holding a record breaker?”

 

Baldy pleaded. “We should turn and head back now, Bishop Taminany.”

 

The good bishop, now a little wobbly, gave baldy his square look again, then turned to Cummins. “First fish?”

 

“First fish. Get the bishop a rod, Josh. This one’s mine. Have a seat, Bishop Taminany. How about another Cosby red?”

 

“Ex’lent. I’ll hab two.” The good bishop was reachin’ a peak.

 

Now Cummins and the bishop went at it. And don’t ya know, the bishop, looking like a Saturday Night Conehead, caught a mackerel right off. He reeled it in, dressed in all those white robes and that tall funny lookin’ pointed hat of his. It was a sight to behold. And he was enjoyin’ it. He caught another and another before Cummins got his first bite. The water was churning with king mackerel.

 

While they were busy reelin’ ‘em in, me and Josh had a fast talk with the bald guy.

 

“You have two choices,” I said. “You can swim back: There’s been sharks in this water. Or you can hand over that so-called will. Which is it?

 

He looked down at the water. “You wouldn’t dare.”

 

“Well then,” Josh said, “those pictures and home movies that Martha and the boys are ready to take when the good bishop gets off the boat will make great news.”

 

The bald guy hesitated, then looked at the bishop who had just hooked a King Mackerel and was struggling to bring it in.

 

Bishop Taminany braced both feet on the boat rail as his hat fell off. His robes were gathered high up on his thighs, exposing hairy calves. He was laughing. “Got this son-of-a-witch. Mus be fify pounds. Wahoo! God bless. Hail Mary. Who the hell’s the patron saint of—hic—fish?”

 

My deck hand snapped a digital moment with his Nikon.

 

The bald guy looked back at me. He reluctantly pulled the paper from the inside pocket of his jacket and handed the paper to Cummins’s outstretched hand.

 

Cummins looked the document over for a few seconds before speaking. “John, as your lawyer, I advise you to bring suit against the bishop and the Church. I know your Uncle Ray’s handwriting. He was my client for years. He didn’t write this.” Then he reached into his pocket and took out a tape recorder. “And I’ve got everything on tape.”

 

We got rich on Martha’s secret recipe, but now I’m a happy papa and a recoverin’alcoholic turned fisherman. Babies do that. Yup, and Brad was exceptional in that respect. I was first to radio the fishing pier the day I decided to mend my ways.

 

"Oyster Bay, we got a problem! The mackerel are back.”

 

Copyright Chase Hart

 


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