by John Aleknavage
The glass door to DeRay's Riverside Restaurant jerked open, causing the bells attached to its frame to announce the arrival of a new customer with a violent clang.
A man swaggered in as if he owned the place. He was dressed in camouflage from head to toe except for a dingy, blaze orange cap he wore propped high on his brow, its curved bill framing a set of clear blue eyes that bespoke a single, agitated purpose. He sauntered up to the bar and sat down on a stool a few places removed from the stranger whom he had only just noticed. They were the only customers in the rickety, old place, propped up on pilings that stretched out over the tidal river.
The shack was so ill- constructed, the frothy waves of the water below were visible through the chinks in the uneven floorboards. The stranger noticed the man's wading boots were coated with sand frosted mud from the beach. Stained a dark brown from dried silt, it appeared they had once been made of a yellow rubber, but that was inconclusive. He smelled of cigarette smoke and gasoline and the murky depths of the brackish river.
He produced a pack of Marlboro reds and placed a cigarette in his mouth, letting it dangle there in his lips.
"Hey buddy," he barked, "can you pass me one of them ashtrays?"
"Sure, here you are." The stranger slid the ashtray down the dark wood bar top and noticed the recipient had a handsome, weathered face that looked perpetually burned by sun and wind. The room was dark, but the smoker's eyes fixed on the stranger. This one was nicely dressed in a suit and tie, had light brown hair neatly parted on the side, and looked like he was well accustomed to prep schools and country clubs.
"Thanks. Hey, you ain't from around here, are ya?" He lit his Marlboro.
"No, this is my first time out this way."
"You from the power company?" The power plant lay a few miles down river. It owned all the shoreline in the area and half of the wooded hills surrounding the remote place where fishermen lived in old houses, their yards strewn with crab pots and rusted cars propped up on blocks.
"No, I'm a real estate attorney," he answered in a polite but uncomfortable manner.
"Real estate? Aint nobody sellin' around here I know of."
The stranger returned only a muted smile so as not to encourage further conversation. It seemed to work.
"Heidi!" yelled the smoker, craning his neck to see into the kitchen. His gruff voice echoed through the small establishment.
"Where the hell is she?"
A heavy-set woman with a kind, careworn face peered out of the doorway, "Hey Vern. ..The usual?"
"Yep, gimme a Bud."
"Coming right up, hon."
Then reaching over with an outstretched hand, "I'm sorry, I'm being rude, my name's Vernon Whitman."
The lawyer extended his own hand and they shook in an awkward greeting.
"I'm Lawrence Brown."
"Nice to meet ya ,Larry. Mind if I call you that?"
"Sure," then after a momentary pause, "Are you a fisherman?"
"Why, do I look like one?"
"Uh, well no, I just assumed."
"Ah, ha," laughed Vern, "I'm just riling you man! Of course I'm a fisherman, among other things."
Heidi appeared from the kitchen and placed an open bottle of beer in front of Vernon.
"Why aren't you out on the water, Vern?"
"Oh," he bellowed, wincing in pain, "my God-damn back is actin' up again. I'm sorry; I don't mean to use no curse words in front of strangers." He turned to look at the man seated next to him.
"That's ok, I'm not offended."
"Your food will be out in just a minute sweetie," Heidi assured the lawyer, then turned and went back into the kitchen. The smell of frying grease and burnt coffee filled the empty bar. The windows framed a view of the lazy brown river as it flowed by and stretched for miles in every direction.
A steady drizzle shrouded the far banks.
"I don't never cuss in front of strangers," continued the fisherman. "That's plain bad manners. My momma didn't raise me that way." Again, the other just smiled politely, his hands folded as he leaned into the bar.
"No sir," Vern continued, "I'm just a good old country boy, and we don't talk like that. The other day, I was down at the Seven Eleven and a couple of Mexicans was cussin' out the cashier, and I told 'em to shut the hell up before someone whooped their asses and taught 'em how to behave in public. I don't stand for that, especially in front of a lady."
The lawyer shifted nervously in his bar stool. He was to meet with some hick land owner that afternoon to make him an offer on a tract of property, and was beginning to regret ever having stepped inside the small dive of a restaurant. Realizing he had already ordered his food, and could not extricate himself without causing a scene, he decided he had no alternative but to play along.
"So what happened?"
"With the Mexicans? They jumped me when I went out to my truck! I laid two of 'em out right off, but then one snuck up behind me and smacked me in the head with a crowbar or somethin', and the next thing I know, I'm picking myself up off the asphalt! Them boys lit out of there though, they weren't nowhere around when I come to. It's a good thing too, 'cause I'd a killed one of them sons-a-bitches, oops, there I go again, my apologies."
Lawrence feigned interest with a raised eyebrow and a forced smile. "Wow, you knocked two down?"
"I'd a whooped 'em all except for that coward little son-of-a biscuit, what snuck up behind me."
The lawyer looked at the man trying to decide if he was for real. Vern took a long swig of his beer.
"Mind you now, I ain't a fighting man! I don't never start up with somebody who don't have it comin' to him."
"Yeah, you should be careful, you could have been killed."
"Killed!" bellowed Vern, "Nah, I've fought five boys at a time, been shot twice, hit in the head with a two-by-four, hell they ain't never killed me yet!" There was a brief pause and the fisherman's face grew contemplative. "I'm getting too old for such carryin' on. I've got to change my redneck ways."
"Aw, there's nothing wrong with being a redneck," consoled the lawyer. The words had not escaped his lips when he began to regret them. There was an uneasy silence as Vern took another swig from his beer and his eyes narrowed as he sized up the lawyer. The steady hiss of French fries boiling in fat resonated from the kitchen.
Lawrence wasn't sure, but he thought he saw the butt of a revolver sticking up from the waistband of the fisherman's pants. He shifted his eyes to avoid staring.
"That your car out there?" Vern asked, motioning to the late model Mercedes parked in the gravel lot.
"Yes," answered the lawyer with a sheepish grin. He loved the car.
"A man's got to make a lot of money to drive a car like that one, don't he?"
Larry squirmed in his barstool and gazed out at his shiny masterpiece of German engineering.
"No, not really. You can buy them used, pretty cheap."
"You buy that one used?"
"No, no. I bought it new."
"But you say a fella, what like me, would have to get one used to afford it right? Aint that what you was sayin'?"
"Oh, no, no, that's not what I meant. I was just saying you can get them cheap, if you wanted to." He sipped his iced tea to wet his suddenly dry mouth. It was far too sweet. Vern was looking at him again, a blank gaze on his face as though he were deciding whether or not to take offense, and that made the lawyer all the more unsettled. A heavy tension hung in the air now, not unlike the steady drizzle outside, and Lawrence wished his food would come out soon so he could eat and not have to talk anymore.
The fisherman took a drag from his cigarette and called out to Heidi, "Hey, did you hear Jack shot a ten point buck yesterday?"
"Did he?" came the muted response from inside the kitchen. "He better bring a cut to me."
The lawyer had gone pheasant hunting once, so in an effort to patch things up a little, he made a friendly inquiry.
"It's not hunting season yet, is it? I mean, it's the middle of the summer."
"Huntin' season?" Vern chuckled, "They aint no huntin' season around here, well, except for waterfowl. Way I look at it, a deer steps foot on your property, he's yours for the takin', don't matter what time of year it is."
"Oh, so you're a.." the lawyer checked himself.
"I'm a what?"
"Oh, nothing, I was just."
"You was going to call me a poacher, weren't you?"
"No, no, not at all. I was just going to say, um, they say venison is very healthy for you," the lawyer tried desperately to change the subject. "You know, with all the fatty food we eat these days, it's supposed to be low in cholesterol."
"Well, I don't know nothin' about cholesterol," Vern's face grew red and agitated, "but I can damn well assure you any man what calls me a poacher had best be ready to back it up. I don't stand for that!"
"No, no, Vern, you misunderstood. Look, I apologize if I offended you. I just wanted to come in here and have a little lunch, that's all."
"Well, I don't know why you'd bother comin' in here in the first place if all you want is to pick a fight!"
"First you call me a redneck, then you go showin' off that fancy car of yours and saying how a fella like me would have to get one used to afford it, and now you go and call me a poacher! I'll be God-damned but if that ain't a hell of a way to meet up with a fella!"
"Please, Vern don't be upset. Here, let me buy you a beer." Heidi emerged from the kitchen just in time like a corpulent angel, carrying a plate heaped with steaming, hot fries, a tuna fish sandwich and a pickle.
"No fighting in here Vern," she chastised while setting the plate before the lawyer.
"I ain't startin' no fight! This here lawyer", he pronounced it law-yir, "is all full of hisself, braggin' and boastin' and passin' out insults. He just went and called me a poacher!"
Lawrence was confounded. He looked to Heidi for support, but her face took on an expression of shock. She appeared as though she had just heard a loved one had passed away. "Oh no honey, we don't use that word around here."
The lawyer's heart raced as adrenaline surged through him and he struggled to find a way out of the uncomfortable and potentially dangerous situation.
"Heidi, give this man a beer on me, and while you're at it, I think I'll take this food to go."
He stood up from his bar stool and unfolded his wallet. He placed a twenty dollar bill on the counter, being extra careful to avoid the eyes of his camouflaged nemesis.
"You have to leave?" asked the waitress. "You just came in."
"Yes, I'm sorry, but I have to meet someone in a few minutes. I'm afraid I don't have time to stay after all."
He gazed at the glass door across the room with longing as Vern stewed in silence beside him, a cloud of smoke wafting above his head like the fumes of a smoldering fire. Down on the beach, a group of fishermen were on the shore unloading their catch into a refrigerated truck.
"Well, there you go again, Vern," complained the waitress as she disappeared with the lawyer's food.
"Went and chased off another good paying customer!"
"Hell, it aint me," he mumbled to himself. "I didn't do nothin' but be friendly. I don't see why folks can't just leave me alone."
He pulled out another cigarette and lit it as the waitress returned with a paper sack and handed it to the lawyer.
"You want your iced tea to go too, honey?"
"No thanks, I'm not very thirsty," he lied. "You can keep the change."
As the jingling of the bells on the door closed off behind him, Lawrence felt a sense of relief wash over him with the humid mist outside. He got into the Mercedes and drove away from the dark brown river, and left the little shack of a restaurant behind in the drizzle. The winding road led him up into dark, forested hills where it was nearly impossible to find street numbers, let alone the houses set far back off of the road. Finally, he located the address he was searching for painted on a battered old mailbox and drove up the muddy lane. He parked before a one level shotgun shack with a pair of pink flamingos perched within a worn tire flower bed. His lunch sat on the passenger seat unattended.
Opening a manila folder, he scanned the document from the courthouse with all of the information about the property he was to acquire on behalf of a small developer. "Probably wants to build a gas station or convenience store," he thought. He reviewed the data: twelve acres, well and septic, two bedrooms, one level house, owner: Whitman, Vernon.
Bio: John Aleknavage is a small business owner who lives in the Tidewater of Virginia. He is married to his college sweetheart and together they have a son and daughter. His writing has been featured in the webzine Gryphonwood.