Hank Johnson arrived at the beach house hours late. He was the only guest we had invited and he was greatly chagrined at having to wait in line on the American side of the border for two and a half hours as the Mexicans trickled cars through. A red sedan had just passed him over the double yellow at eighty miles an hour and these lovely people were the ones with whom he was to spend a good part of the afternoon.
They, of course, were the next car in line and there was something in the way they swilled wine coolers that seemed to add to their quiet charm. The alcohol had a kind of lubricating effect on them and the three women had difficulty keeping various bodily parts in contact with fabric and thus these parts oozed and drooped from their clothing. It was much to their credit that these women accepted the condition with stoicism and did not give in to false or affected modestly and this coupled with the fact that every other word they shyly uttered began with the letter "F" made Hank respect them all the more.
When Hank finally got to the beach house, he locked his little dog, Macaroni inside and met up with my brother Steve and me on the beach in prime time for fishing. We had a darned good round of angling and Hank later recounted the tale in some detail when we attended the Annual Estero Morua Sportsman's Club Fiesta just a three-minute walk from the beach.
Evening fell cool and comfortable and Hank left Macaroni dog in the house as we three walked over to join the party. The Club officials had set out a number of simple card tables whose legs were anchored in the soft sand of the dunes. A canopy was stretched above to protect from rain and sun and the buffet was taking shape. There were plenty of beer-filled coolers and a sign saying "Beer-- $1.00 Each" and a big pickle jar to put that dollar in -- the honor system. It was all set up to be a good party and the three of us planned to help make it so with some good-neighborly jawing and yarning.
We sat where the tables were set close and ten or twelve could socialize and we had a few beers and a couple of rums just to limber up. When there were enough people around and the atmosphere seemed suitably animated, Hank gave Steve and me a look and we returned it with approving nods. It was time for him to begin.
"Folks," Hank said loudly, eyeing his beer sideways and then looking at everyone with one eye closed. "Today the high tide provided us with a rare opportunity to wring some sport out of those bottom-dwelling skates."
He looked around the tables meeting people's eyes and establishing his right to the floor. He pointed to me with his bottle of Bohemia. "Now, Tom here doesn't like to brag, but I can tell you that he hooked a real lunker of a sand shark -- a real lunker -- behind the Davis's house. As you can see, he ain't a big guy... " He put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Tom, that's no reflection on you -- hey what's big anyways? In terms of intellect, sheer intellect -- and all else nonphysical who is bigger, I ask you? No one, I submit!" His smile was a revolting, fatuous thing. ".... but as I was going to say, Tom was bigger than the fish -- as big as it was, of course!-- " He added hastily, "....and his greater strength and sagacity proved too much for that gilled denizen of these quiet gulf waters. Soon, the scaleless, tabular fish, its muscles rippling, was struggling in the lapping shallows at the water's edge."
The crowd seated at the tables was transfixed. "Now, Tom here first assessed the fish. And I might add that you don't know anything -- anything at all -- about fishing if you don't assess each and every fish you catch -- oh, heck who am I talking to? My dog knows that! And since this fish had been assessed, Tom could clearly see that it had swallowed the hook, so he pulled it back over the beach to the water and cut the line and the glistening, sand-covered animal bubbled off.
"I," Hank continued, slapping himself in the middle of the chest and casting his eyes downward with the affected humility brought on by seven beers. "I then sank a number four hook shank deep in the pouting maw of a twenty-pound round ray which minutes later lay gasping on the beach. I assessed it quickly and then popped it over a flat board with my toe and tossed it clean out over the waves where it landed with a fishy slap, a silent holler, and a spray of watery exclamation points!"
Hank's tablemates' eyebrows rose at his galvanizing use of metaphor. Not much was lost on this crowd. The story was getting off to a good start.
"Folks," he went on. "The action continued fast and furious; only seconds afterwards, Tom emerged victorious over a big-mouthed leatherjacket and Steve here --" He gave Steve an elbow that knocked the wedge of lime off the rim of his Cuba libre. "-- proved to be a formidable antagonist when pitted against a yellow-finned croaker. Both of these fish had to be assessed, naturally, and when they had been, it was determined that they should be alternately kicked and dragged bodily back to the water's edge where they, too, bubbled off in search of friendlier company...."
At that moment Mr. Whiteside stepped up under the canopy and said loudly. "Folks, the buffet is just about ready."
Hank frowned at the interruption and so did some of the others at the table.
"I think it is time for us to do what my family always did," continued Whiteside. "And that is to thank our lord, Jesus Christ for the repast which we are about to enjoy."
Hank's face fell and then turned a coral red. "Your family?" he muttered. His mouth and brow twisted into an evil frown.
"Now, Hank," someone said.
Hank mumbled something about his family again and about being Jewish -- which he wasn't -- and then he rose, hands on the tabletop to steady himself. He tried to push his chair out from behind but the legs caught in the sand and he almost went over with it. But then he was up, his knees banging the tabletop with force enough to send everyone diving to save their drinks as rum and cola slopped over the plastic rims.
"Lord Jesus ..." the man began loudly.
Hank had to move fast. Whiteside was already on his second "Jesus" and this, he knew, could not stand.
It was pretty dark up there under the canopy and what happened all looked so natural. There was a bump and a clank as Hank's Bohemia cracked into the man's Coors and there was an oath from Whiteside ("My Lands!") and one from Hank ("¡Hijo de la Malinche!")
And then Hank seemed all full of effusive apologies saying, "¡Discúlpame, cuñado -- estimado cabrón!”
"It's okay!" grumbled Whiteside.
The man tried to slough it off, but then he made the mistake of trying to resuscitate the prayer whereupon Hank just sort of accidentally on purpose stepped on his foot as he pivoted to leave.
Whiteside must have had an inflamed hangnail for his screech sounded like someone tearing a sail in half and at that screech the man's dog roared out from under a table in an explosion of sand, but Hank wheeled drunkenly at the sound and advanced on the cur with the silver moonlight gleaming in his fierce, moist eyes. His Bohemia, the bottom broken out of it, hung dripping and forgotten in his hand and when the dog took in this scene, its hair that had once bristled menacingly lay flat as it shrugged back under the table.
The prayer successfully snuffed and no dog about to argue the point, it was now safe for Hank be first in line for food. After what Whiteside had done, there were no rules -- no civilization. All controls were forfeit. The prayer had created a new and utterly lawless realm.
Hank loaded his plate with as much as he possibly could, taking two of each item and even three when there was a sign right there that said "Just one item at a time, please." Enchiladas, tacos, burritos, flautas-- he had them all and for good measure he stole a whole bowl of salsa and grabbed himself a stack of napkins a foot thick.
It was a miracle he didn't choke the way he bolted the food and had the plate clean before he got back to the table. Finding himself unsated, however, he never even sat down; instead, he turned following the trail of spilled napkins and salsa back to the buffet where he muscled into the newly forming line for seconds before anyone else had even had firsts.
"Beans?" He slobbered. "Well, let's see if they eat like beans!"
There were grumbles all around, and more grumbles when Hank started fishing beers two and three at a time out of the coolers and chugging them down without paying.
Back at the table only minutes later, he eructated a sigh of utter contentment. The others at the table all said, "Finish the story, Hank. Finish the fish story!" But at this point Hank could not be bribed. It was a matter of honor. It was not long before his anguished tablemates could hear him singing hoarsely to himself -- and it was not a hymn. The song began with "Ole Molly crawled under a big pile of lumber.."
The party began to break up at only nine o'clock.
Hank waddled back to the beach house, heart filled with joy, stomach distended and the scent of ale whispering from his nostrils. His dog, little Macaroni was glad to see him and practically licked the first and second layers of skin off of him along with several layers of beer. Hank tied the dog to his belt loop and dragged a couple of sleeping bags out on the sand and fell asleep there.
Dawn found Venus twinkling brightly over their hunched and shivering bodies. Steve came out early and espied a dark shape on the sand over which rose a thin wisp of vapor. From within came a coarse croaking snore and the little struggling sounds of Macaroni as she attempted to free herself from the dank, icy tomb that was the evening's bed, but Hank held her fast as she was needed for warmth -- and “Perhaps,” he thought grimly, “as food later on.”
When the day grew bright and Hank was in the kitchen on his fourth breakfast beer, neighbors came by to compliment him on the restraint he showed at the fiesta.
Hank thanked them all right back in a big hearty voice rich with good humor and a decidedly hoppy overtone. "I won't be lied to," he said." I won't be cheated. I won't be led in prayer and I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people and I require the same of them."
Everyone agreed and thanked him again. As for my part, I was sure to invite Hank back for the next Annual Estero Morua Sportsman's Club Fiesta. The food was great and the beer flowed freely everyone paid for it too. There was no prayer and Hank made sure he sat at the table right next to Mr. Whiteside.
And the wonderful stories he told. Oh, the wonderful, wonderful stories!