Willard Wiley sprawled out on his front porch alone with his bare feet propped on rotting rails
separating him from untrimmed hydrangeas his mama planted before he was born. His bloodshot eyes, heavy from an all-night slot machine marathon, never noticed the flies swarming around the uncorked jug of moonshine sitting beside his chair, or the dried blood on his shirt sleeve. Most days, his only visitor was usually the mail carrier. Her visit brought him no delight. Day after day, she filled his mailbox with another stack of past due bills and overdrafts. But today he had another caller.
“I’m sitting here on my porch, minding my own business. Ain’t bothering nobody,” Willard told the sheriff.
The two men’s eyes focused in on the jug of moonshine. The sheriff said, “Willard, I don’t care what you do on your porch, or how much moonshine you drink, as long as you don’t harm anyone but yourself but–,”
“I didn’t have nothing to do with startin’ that fight at the casino last night. That sombitch jumped on me,” Willard said.
“I don’t give a damn about that either. The Choctaw Police handles casino matters. I’m here about the bad checks you’ve been floating. I know you’ve had a hard time since your mama died, but you’re either going to have catch up on these overdrafts or go to jail,” Sheriff Bailey said.”
“If you could give me one more week? After I win the Bass Classic this year, I can pay off every one of them.”
“Dream world Willard, you’re living in a dream world. But I’m trying to help you here. I’ll give you till Friday, that’s it. Mr. Mosley at the bank is breathing down my neck.”
“But the Bass Classis’s a week away,” Willard said.
The sheriff looked Willard in the eye and said,
“You be in my office by four o’clock Friday with the eight hundred and twenty six dollars, or your toothbrush. Don’t make me have to come get you.”
No sooner than Sheriff Bailey has gotten into his car, Willard dialed Friendly Loans and Paycheck Advance in Meridian, but he got the same answer he got the last time he tried to borrow money. No!
Willard knew Sheriff Bailey was at the end of his rope with him,
and Old Man Mosely at the bank was impossible. And his cousin J.B. was tighter than bark on a tree. J.B. was always poor-mouthing, but in reality he had ninety nine cents from the first dollar he ever made since he went to work for the highway department twenty five years ago.
Bonnie Ruth Pender poured J.B. Meeks a glass of tea, and called to the cook in her sing-song tone, “Hamburger steak, onions and gravy, Cajun fries, thousand island on the salad.”
“Bonnie Ruth, you never cease to amaze me, the way you read my mind,” J.B. said.
“Reading your mind? You’ve ordered at least a pickup load of hamburger steaks since I’ve been working here, J.B. I know what you’ll order when you walk in the door.”
Two truck drivers sitting by the air conditioner, and complaining about new weight regulations, called for more coffee.
Coming guys,” Bonnie Ruth said. She refilled their cups, collected her tip and drug herself back to J.B.’s table.
“J.B.” she said, in a tired voice and with drooped shoulders, “I don’t know how much longer I can go on with Willard. Fishing and drinking–that’s all he studies, and there is no telling how much he blows at the casino.”
“He won’t be going back to the casino for a while. They kicked him out last night. Got into a fight. Some guy was sitting at his lucky slot machine. Lucky for him, the Choctaw police didn’t’ can his sorry ass,” J.B. said
“He’s mean when he drinks too much,” Bonnie Ruth said.
“I guess that explains the extra makeup below your eye,” Willard said.
Bonnie Ruth blushed, her open hand went straight to her eye as if to conceal the evidence of Willard’s temper, and said, “But since his mama died he’s been really down.”
“Bullshit, how many people did you beat up after your mama died? One minute you’re talking about how mean he is, and the next minute you’re taking up for him.”
Bonnie Ruth changed the subject and said with childlike innocence and dreamy eyes, “All I ever wanted was a good home, like that new double-wide I see advertised on TV.”
J.B. patted her hand and asked, “You talking about the white one, with the black shutters on the windows, and the little porch?”
“Yeah that’s the one. I’ve dreamed of owning my own little diner too. But at my age, what are my chances.” She ran her fingers through her hair, exposing the gray roots beneath the dye, and said, “You have to admit J.B., I’m not that little cheerleader you used to know. Just look at me.”
“I am looking at you, Bonnie Ruth. You’ll always be that same little cheerleader to me.”
Tears gushed from Bonnie Ruth’s swollen eyes and she said, “You’re too kind J.B, but you know what Willard will do if I try to break up with him?”
“You deserve better Bonnie Ruth. Why do you waste your time with Willard? He blew every cent Aunt Lorene left him. He brags on that boat like he bought it with his own money. I don’t know which will get him first, his ego or that rot-gut moonshine of Old Man Killabrew’s.”
“Hamburger steak up,” the cook yelled.
Bonnie Ruth served J.B. his plate and sat down across from him at his table, “After my husband Bud died, Willard was so good to me. He was there any time I needed him. He kept my old car going and lord only knows how many times he came over to my trailer and fixed the air conditioner or plumbing. He can do anything, but then there’s another side of him too.”
Their eyes met for a hurried second. But the moment is put on hold at the sound of bellowing exhaust pipes.
She turned from his reach, but not before J.B. squeezed her soft hand.
Bonnie Ruth blushed and told J.B., “That’s Willard.”
“I know. We’re meeting here. The Bass Classic’s next week, we’re going for a practice run over at the lake.” J. B. said.
Willard Wiley wheeled his 84 Dodge pickup to the front door of Claude’s Truck Stop with his boat and trailer in tow. He paraded around his prize possession, wiping off every little speck of the red dust with his shirt tail, and then burst into the café where Bonnie Ruth waited tables for twelve hours a day.
Willard slung one leg over the back of the chair, plopped down, and said, “Hello you good-looking babe.”
Bonnie Ruth kept an arm’s length distance from her boyfriend—probably to keep him from patting her on the butt in public. “Willard, I done told you, I ain’t Miss Kitty and this ain’t the Long Branch. Mr. Claude said you had better stop coming in here all loud, with booze on your breath. You’re going to get me fired. Lucky for me, Mr. Claude’s not here right now,” Bonnie Ruth said.
When Willard looked at J.B. and told him he needed a little privacy with Bonnie Ruth, she shook her and said, “No need to excuse yourself J.B.” She looked at Willard, “The answer is NO. I’m not loaning you any more money so you can blow it on moonshine and those one-armed bandits at the casino.
“Forget the moonshine, forget the slot machines. They got a warrant for my arrest. If I don’t come up with eight hundred and twenty six dollars by Friday, I’m going to jail for bad checks.”
“I’m sure selling that boat of yours would be out of the question. And by the way, what about the other fifteen hundred you owe me?” Bonnie Ruth asked.
“Look Sweetie I gotta have my boat. Bought a new secret lure and fish finder at the bait shop. Can’t lose this year. I’ll pay back every cent I owe you, and buy you that double-wide too, just like I promised.”
After a quick sigh of disgust, Bonnie Ruth raised her eyebrows and asked, “How many times have you told me that same tired old line, and then came back with nothing but a boat full of empty beer cans? Why can’t you get a real job Willard?”
“You mean like J.B., at the highway department, driving a bush-hog tractor, or flagging traffic”? Willard sneered. “Not me, I ain’t cut out for that type of work.”
She put her arm around him, batted her brown eyes and said, “You ain’t cut out for any kind of work, but I tell you what I’ll do Baby. I’ll let you have the money, under one condition. Sign your mama’s fifty acres over to me.”
“Are you crazy. Mama’s land? Ain’t no way, that’s all I have left,” Willard said.
“And after you pay your lawyer, that’ll be gone too. And you’ll still be sitting in jail. I’m looking out for you. Look at this way Honey, if it’s in my name, nobody can take it from you. And when we get married it’ll be ours together. Just think how good that little double-wide would look sitting there under that big oak tree.”
“Hell no,” Willard said.
Bonnie Ruth stood, up popped her hands on her hips and said, “Okay, have it your way. I have customers to wait on. And don’t count on me to bail your ass out of jail either.”
Sheriff Bailey’s words came back to haunt him, pounding his brain.
“Wait a minute. I’ll go to the courthouse right now and have the deed put in your name,” Willard said.
With Willard gone, J.B. said, “He thinks everybody’s an idiot but him. He’ll outsmart himself one of these days.”
A week later, high dollar motorhomes and SUVs crowded every parking spot at Lake Willoughby. Men sporting neatly cropped beards wearing golf shirts and matching shorts washed down rib-eyes with Maker’s Mark and single malt Scotch. Their wives and girlfriends sipped wine, and bragged on their husbands’ oversized SUVs.
“Look at all them college boys over there J.B. Not one of them knows jack about fishing this lake. Hell I grew up fishing and frog gigging in this mud hole. I know every bream bed, bass hole and alligator in here from the levee to the shallows. We going home with the money today Cuz.”
Willard’s old Dodge stuck out like a swayback horse at the Kentucky Derby among the showroom-new rigs, but that didn’t bother Willard Wiley. He wasn’t the only contestant at the Lake Willoughby Bass Classic with all the state of the art fishing gear, but he was the only one pulling a twenty-thousand dollar Bass Boat with a twelve-hundred dollar truck.
The prize money was big–big enough to make a down payment on the double-wide Bonnie Ruth had her heart set on. The time had come, and Willard gave the nod to J.B. They launched his boat alongside the big-boys from Jackson and the Coast, and then pointed the powerful outboard toward his favorite fishing hole.
The day flew by. Before Willard realized it, the four o’clock weigh-in time was closing in, but Willard’s magic lure failed to produce. Bonnie Ruth’s words about the boat load of empty beer cans kept ringing in his sunburned head.
Willard looked at his watch and said, “J.B., things ain’t looking very promising. Pull the anchor, We’re moving to the mouth of Turkey Creek, and be quick about it.”
Willard fired the engine up and kicked her to full the throttle past his fellow fishermen, and their protests.
When his wake tossed a woman angler out of her boat, J.B. said, “That was Mr. Mosley’s wife. I think she lost her spinning reel.”
Willard laughed and said, “Too bad, I’ll send her a check for it.”
With less than an hour remaining until the four-o’clock weigh-in time, Willard packed his jaw with a fist size wad of Red Man and dropped anchor.
Willard spotted the swirl of a monster bass near a half sunken log and pointed. “That’s him, J.B. That’s the down payment on that double-wide at Happy Trails Trailer Sales.”
With his adrenalin spiked, and his eyes focused on his mark, Willard flung his lure toward the swirl and ripples churned up by a giant bass.
The anxious angler trained his eyes on the trebled-hooked lure sailing from the tip of his rod toward its target. Willard’s eyes zeroed in on the flight of his lure. He imagined himself strutting into Mr. Mosley’s bank, and cashing the winner’s check. The sight of the airborne bait against the blue sky was like slow motion, until slow motion turned into fast forward. The lure flew past its mark and came to rest on the log. Willard’s last hope stared back at him clinging to its perch. He snatched his line to free the lure. All nine hooks planted themselves deeper into the soaked wood. His broken line hung limp, and dangling in the muggy breeze.
Willard’s nasty temper emerged. He yelled, “Paddle over to that log so I can retrieve my lure, J.B., and hurry up will you? You’re the slowest person I ever saw. No wonder you can’t get a girl.”
“What are you going to tell Bonnie Ruth, Willard?” J.B. asked.
“You let me worry about that.”
“That’s funny. That log looks just like an ole alligator lying there,” J.B. replied.
“There ain’t nothing funny about that log you idiot. I don’t care what it looks like. But then, J.B. could see Willard’s mind freezing in mid-thought No, wait a minute!” Willard’s eyes lit up, and that grin J.B. was all too familiar with came across his face–the grin that made him nervous. He knew what the next words out of Willard’s mouth would be.
Willard spit a mouth-full of black syrupy brown tobacco juice into the water, wiped his lips, and ordered, “toss me a beer J.B.”
“We’re out of beer”
“J.B, how many times have I gotta tell you, always bring an extra-six pack?” Willard said and then explained his new plan to win Bonnie Ruth’s heart. “Can you imitate an alligator’s growl? Oooomp oooomp. Kind of like that?
“Good,” Willard said. “I can’t give Bonnie Ruth up. She was counting on me to win this contest and buy her that double-wide. I lost, but I have a plan to win her heart forever.”
Is this a great night for a moonlit boat ride on the lake, or what Bonnie Ruth,” Willard said. “You bring the ice chest and I’ll get the paddle. And hurry up will you?”
“Willard, did you buy a new battery for that old Dodge, like you promised before I agreed to this?” she asked.
“Of course baby.” Willard took a quick look at his watch and sneaked a glance toward the dam. It was time for J.B. to be in place behind it. Willard slid the canoe across the muddy bank, and into the water where the moonlight danced in the ripples from the gentle breeze breathing across the water. The canoe glided in silence as Willard stroked the paddle, and anticipated J.B.’s alligator growl.
“Don’t you just love it out here Bonnie Ruth? You just sit back and enjoy the ride Honey Dumpling. And don’t you worry about nothing. Old Willard’s got everything under control.”
“But I’ve heard there were alligators in this lake,” Bonnie Ruth said.
Willard changed the subject. “I’ve been thinking Bonnie Ruth. I am gonna quit drinking and get a real job, and just fish on the side. We can live in Mama’s old house till we can we can afford the double-wide. One of these days you can quit that extra shift at the truck stop.”
Bonnie Ruth made herself comfortable as possible on the canoe’s narrow seat, and then reached deeply within herself to find the courage she needed when she heard a loud splash and a deep guttural bellow coming from near the dam.
Willard grinned, “Did you hear that Bonnie Ruth? I know that sound. That was a bull alligator, and he’s mad. I’ve heard it a thousand times–but don’t you be scared.”
“Let’s get out of here Willard.”
“Nope! That gator is between us and the boat landing. I can’t put you in danger. Hold my beer. I’ll take care of that overgrown lizard. I may not be Matt Dillon, but you can call me Tarzan.”
“Willard, have you gone crazy. That alligator will eat you alive. Oh, one more thing! You better leave your wallet and keys in the boat. You wouldn’t want them to get soaked would you? And pass me the boat paddle too.”
Willard emptied his pockets, shucked his shirt, pounded on his chest, and with a Tarzan yell, he dove into the black waters of Lake Willoughby with his Bowie knife clenched between his teeth.
Swimming toward the dam he turned and said, “After I cut this gator’s throat, you paddle to shore. I’ll meet you at the boat landing.”
Willard’s heroic claim had barely cleared his lips when Bonnie Ruth heard a loud splash. Bull frogs and crickets fell mute. A dead silence hung over the lake until Bonnie Ruth hit the starter on Willard’s Dodge. The engine bellowed as soon as the new battery spun the starter.
Sitting at his favorite table, J.B. recognized the sound of the Dodge pulling into the truck stop. As he took the last bite of his hamburger steak, Bonnie Ruth strolled in. She stared at J.B. for moment, shrugged her shoulders, and took a deep breath before she sat down at his table. And asked, “You got it?”
J.B. reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out the bill of sale to his new double-wide from Happy Trails Trailer Sales and said, “It’s the one with the black shutters and the little porch. They’re supposed to set it up on your fifty acres tomorrow.
Bonnie Ruth gave J.B, the smile he’d been waiting and said, “Let’s call it our fifty acres J.B.
J.B. grinned and said, “And now we know. It was his ego that got him.”