Sim and Mom were already firmly ensconced in our preferred back corner booth at the 4 B’s Café when Sissy and I got there. This was made evident by two things: Their big new blue Dodge Ram in the parking lot and Mom’s raucous laughter filling the dining room. There was only one waitress on duty, it being a slow midafternoon hour for customers; Jenny was pretending Louella Bowles’ amusement was nothing out of the ordinary.
Not the overly curious type, that Jenny, but she knew how to sling hash, keep the coffee coming, and mind her own business. I’d have hired her if she’d had the slightest interest in working way out in the boonies.
We slid into our places opposite the older couple. “So,” I said, “what’s so funny?”
They looked at each other. “You tell him, Lou,” Sim suggested.
Mom snorted, trying to keep from cracking up all over again. Whatever this was, it must be good. “I couldn’t possibly. It’s your tale, dear.”
“Hunh,” the former rancher–and onetime CIA agent, however briefly–grunted. “You know your mother and I went to Butte to pick out a new toilet, Tree?”
“A new toiletry?”
“Not really.” I caught Jenny’s eye, held up two fingers to let her know my lady and I’d be having our usual. She already had our coffee on the table. Must have seen us coming. “You just said you had some shopping to do.”
“Oh. Okay. Let’s see, where to start…a few weeks ago, I came to the realization that this old man was going to have to get himself a deep well toilet. See, the one in our master bedroom…well, how do I phrase this delicately….”
Sissy chuckled at that. “Consider your audience, Sim. We’re not exactly wilting violet types.”
“No. Guess you’re not at that. Okay. Um. A few weeks ago, I sat down on the toilet one morning, sat there relaxing, reading the paper, been there a minute or two, and all of a sudden I was sharply reminded that it ain’t only old women’s breasts that get to sagging, if you get my drift.”
“Huh?” I wasn’t following.
“Treemin, you jackass, my ball sack had finally stretched out just enough to dangle the tip of the right one a little too far down. Grazed the surface of the lake, okay?”
“Oh!” I can be a bit slow at times. Mom was about to lose it again. I struggled to keep a straight face. Didn’t dare look sideways to see how Sissy was taking this bit of information. “So….”
“Well, being scientific minded and all, I experimented some. Tried holding everything up out of danger, but then I couldn’t manage my constitutional in any way whatsoever. Eighty some years of doing it one way, the body’s reflexes don’t change all that easy, right? And I sure didn’t want to start getting constipated every time I came near a high water toilet bowl. Especially in my own home.”
Strangled sounds from my left indicated Sissy wasn’t completely succeeding in containing her mirth. I was managing so far…barely. “So….”
“So you see this hand?” He held up his right, long fingers pointing downward, thumb out square to his left, palm facing his body. “I real quick-like got into the habit of measuring water depth. If the surface of the lake comes about this deep,” he indicated the thumb, “it’s all good. But if there’s an inch or so of space left above the seat to reach that thumb, I’m in trouble. If I sit down on one of those and relax, it’s going to be ball surfing time.”
Mom and Sissy and I all cracked up completely.
“New Olympic sport,” I managed after a bit. “Ball surfing!”
“You’re not helping!” Sissy gasped, utterly out of breath yet unable to stop.
“Some might consider that to be TMI,” the waitress observed calmly. She’d snuck up on us with that coffee pot, ready to pour refills.
Neither Sissy nor I had touched ours and Mom was drinking Dr. Pepper, but Sim nodded his appreciation. “Some might,” Sim agreed, just as straight faced as Jenny. “Then again, it might also be considered a public service. I’m betting there’s a whole army of saggy-sacked old men out there who know what I’m talking about and just never let on. But I figured out one thing, Jen.”
“Them jacked-up seats in public toilet stalls for the disabled? They aren’t just there to help out folks who can’t get back up if they get down too far. They’re there to make sure the elderly male victim of gravity can keep his powder dry.”
“You might have a point,” she said, and let it go at that.
“You ought to have seen him,” Mom put in. “He asked every clerk he could find, in just about every store in Butte that sells toilets. Got kind of irritated when none of them could tell him anything about deep well toilets. Snapped at a couple of poor innocents; I’m pretty sure they figured he was around the bend.”
“Way to build up your husband,” Sim remarked, but he was finally starting to crack a smile of his own. “A little emotional support here, how about it?”
“Honey, it’s not emotional support you’re needing.”
I decided it was time to wean ourselves off the subject before our meals arrived. But first, “So, did you find a workable toilet?”
“Damfino. Think so, but can’t be sure till I get it bolted down and fill the tank. We’ll be sure to let you know, since you’re so all-fired interested.”
“Why, thank you.”
Thunder rolled outside, getting our attention for a moment. Clouds rolling in. Way early in the season for a thunderstorm, but the weather hadn’t been overly predictable for a while now. Sim stirred a bit of sugar in his coffee and asked, “So, how’d Anaconda go?”
“Not bad. The Rodeo Committee is committed to replacing the old arena fencing, including the perimeter, the chutes, and the catch pens. May consider doing something about the stands, but probably not this year. Too big a strain on their budget.”
“Rodeo Iron get the contract?”
“No decision yet. They have to take it to their people. But at least they’re not putting the project out for bids as such. Believe it or not, they’re smart enough to realize the lowest bidder isn’t always the guy you want building fencing that’s expected to last for decades and keep both livestock and humans relatively safe in the process. I got ’em to admit they know we’ve got the best product and we’re the only outfit that can honestly guarantee to get everything done in time for this year’s show. But whether they’ll bite the bullet or not, I have no idea.”
“Another day in the life.”
We fell silent then, the four of us at ease in that condition. The chow came, we cleaned our plates, and it was time to mount up and head for the barn. After another cup of coffee. And maybe a piece of apple pie. It was raining outside now, not hard, just enough to be more enjoyable from the inside, looking out, kicking back.
A young couple came in, started to sit down in one of the up-front booths. Pretty girl, mid-twenties, olive skin, dark hair, striking features. Not that I noticed. Her guy was stocky, maybe five-eight, blond, blue eyed. A study in contrasts, yet they looked like they fit together. The sitting-down process was never completed, however. The man saw us and did a double take.
“Incoming,” I said quietly. None of us tensed up or anything, but we all perked up our antennas a bit.
He stopped at a respectful distance, off to the side so he wasn’t sneaking up behind Sim. Good positioning on his part. “Excuse me,” he said, kind of nervous-like. “Would you happen to be Mr. Treemin Jackson?” He didn’t have a hat, yet gave the impression that if he’d had one, he’d be turning it in his hands.
“I’m Jackson,” I admitted. “About the Mr., I’m not so sure. And you are?”
“Uh…Herschel Ware. If…if I could have a minute or two, I, uh…I’ve got a possible order for Rodeo Iron.”
There was a lot more going on here than a young man trying to place an order with a manufacturer. Unless he was a salesman on direct commission and one paycheck away from starvation, but somehow I didn’t think that was it. Or not all of it, anyway. I gestured to the rain outside. “We’re in no big rush to hit the road, Mr. Uh Herschel. Go get your lady if you like. Pull up a couple of chairs.”
He did. I had no idea that the tale he was about to tell would take our company, or at least part of it, in an entirely new direction. Once they were settled in, Herschel handed me a slim purple binder and said, “Can Rodeo Iron manufacture this, and if so, for how much?”
I took my time, going through the dozen pages of draftsman quality designs while Sim kept the conversation going with the Wares and Sissy leaned on my shoulder, scanning the material right along with me. There were two basic products, albeit in varying dimensions. The big hitter was a steel security door and extremely innovative. A single thirty-six inch home entry door would likely weigh close to two hundred pounds, based on all the steel involved in its construction. That explained the required four industrial grade hinge mounts per door. I pulled out a pocket note pad and started scribbling. Outwardly, the dimensions were the same as any other door, but it had to be mounted in its own steel frame; no mere wood-framed doorway would stand up to that much freely swinging weight. Inner and outer door skins were solid steel, sandwiching a stack of steel ribs, each rib a mere six inches apart from its neighbors above and below. A simple but decorative design, more steel–intended to imitate wood molding–adorned both exterior sides as well; once painted, the door would fool the eye of any but the most expert observer. Latching and locking hardware would be purchased separately from a specialty company, allowing a faux residence doorknob to throw and retract three one-inch bolts.
Thirty minutes later, I was ready. Sim and Herschel cut their animated conversation short, the younger man looking at me expectantly.
“We can make these, all right. The materials aren’t hard to find and the welding is all pretty straightforward. Cost is a horse of a different color. If the order was large enough, say fifty or more doors–I see you’re looking at window security, too, but clearly you’re most concerned about the doors–we should be able to crank them out at around a thousand per, based on today’s steel and diesel prices. Can’t say how long that figure would hold. That said, it’s your turn to answer a question or two. You’re not from around here, are you?”
“No. Holly and I are from Cleveland. The price…it’s going to be steep for a lot of our customers, but I’m pretty sure they’ll pay it. At least those who can, and I’ve got early commitments from more than four hundred families already.”
“Uh huh. And these customers in need of doors that would stop anything short of a tank would be?”
“Um.” He looked at his woman, whom I assumed must be Holly. She nodded, giving him permission to spill the beans. He still looked around, wary as a jack rabbit who’s smelled a coyote, before he explained. “They’re for some really good people, um…guess you’d call them, uh…moderate Muslims.”
“Uh-huh.” He met my gaze, looking almost ready to fight.
“Not suicide bomber Islamic extremists, I take it.”
“Not at all. In fact, the dead opposite. Though that’s, um, a poor choice of words. I–oh, foo, honey, you tell it better than me.”
Holly Ware did indeed tell it better than her husband. She spoke in a clear, smoothly modulated voice, explaining that her people–she being Muslim despite her name, though her husband was not of that faith–had very good reason to fear for their lives. “This year’s election cycle, coupled with the terror attacks ranging from ISIS to lone wolf actions here in the United States, has tipped the scales. In our home town, we are now being looked at as enemies by neighbors among whom we’ve lived for years. Sometimes decades. That’s one danger, but the Jihadi are worse. Some of us have been talking among ourselves, my parents included. We believe it’s time we stood up for our country, for America. But some see us as potential bomb makers and others see us as traitors to the faith. Blasphemers, worthy only of being put to death. So, Herschel came up with this door design–and the window protection designs, too–and began talking to people.
“What we all decided was that we must take steps to defend ourselves, but not look like we were doing so. That’s why these doors will be sneaky. Two of my cousins are home builders; they have their own company. This company will turn its efforts toward replacing ordinary house doors with the American Security Special–I couldn’t talk Herschel out of that name, even though it makes an acronym that is spelled A.S.S. Their goal will be to do each door switcheroo without the neighbors realizing it’s any kind of special thing, which is a challenge in itself, but those two can do it.”
Herschel had gotten his nerve back; he took over to finish the explanation. “There are so many good Muslim people afraid of the home invasion with intent to kill, whether it be by extremists who consider them traitors to the cause, or misogynistic Americans convinced they are the face of evil, or even by the police themselves with their infamous no-knock warrants.” He shrugged. “If it’s S.W.A.T. that comes calling, naturally the homeowner will have to open up sooner or later, but at least the hardened door will slow the officers down enough for the residents to demand to see the warrant first, or to call a lawyer or a TV newsroom via cell phone, or something.”
“Interesting,” I said, and I meant it. “Herschel, I like the design. In fact, it’s better than most doors we have on our own buildings right now. If we start building these for you, we may end up being customers as well as manufacturers. But tell me…what’s in it for you?”
He didn’t seem offended by the question. “First, the very first doors we install, will go to protect my mother and father in law, in Indianapolis. Second, I’ve applied for patents on these designs and hope to use their success as bragging rights on my resume. Quite frankly, Holly and I are maybe three tanks of gas short of being dead broke, so I may have to go dig post holes or something until this gets off the ground, but that’s my dream. And thirdly, my, um, inner guidance made it pretty clear I needed to do this, and I’ve learned not to argue with that guidance if there’s any other option whatsoever.”
“Inner guidance, eh?” My coffee, I noted, was cold. No matter; the rain had stopped and it was time to get moving toward home.
“Yeah. Holly says I have this compulsive honesty thing going on, so maybe this is TMI, too much information, but I’m an Eckist. Not that you’ve necessarily heard of it.”
Aha. Eidetic memory, do your stuff. That, and getting to know Ghost a wee bit. “Religion of the Light and Sound of God?”
“That’s it.” His eyes widened in surprise.
I considered for a moment. Compulsive honesty could be a problem, but only if we let this man too close to our closely held secrets. On the other hand…. “Our headquarters is a bit of a drive from here, but…Mom, Sim, would you mind putting these two up for a night or three? Long enough for the office to crunch numbers on this project, get the costs and timing figured out to the last penny?”
Neither Bowles was any sort of fool; they both understood immediately what I was asking. Their dwelling was definitely in Rodeo Iron country but far enough away from the shop to keep prying eyes off their target, should the Wares turn out to be something other than eager young innocents. Diamond Paws wouldn’t be likely to pop up there, either. Our guests would not get a look at our daughters unless or until Philip’s background checks (in extreme depth) cleared them completely. And so on and so forth.
Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. These two were probably potential friends, but we all knew that old definition of “assume”, that it makes an ass out of you and me: Ass-u-me.
“Don’t see why not,” Sim drawled. “Wouldn’t mind Herschel giving me a hand with my deep well toilet exchange.”
Holly maintained a serene countenance, but Herschel blinked rapidly, several times. “You’re offering us a place to stay? I wasn’t fishing when I mentioned our finances.”
“Never thought you were,” I replied, lying in my own teeth. Of course he’d been fishing, but none of us were about to embarrass the fellow by admitting we knew that. Besides, I really liked this kid. Not that he was a child or anything like that; it’s just a figure of speech. One I’d hated hearing from anyone other than my formerly esteemed uncle B.J. Hennessey. “We just want to get this right if we’re going to do it at all, and it’s a heck of a lot easier to put our heads together when you’re a few minutes away instead of all the way down to Drummond or over to Lincoln.”
“Oh. I see.” His relief was palpable.
“One final question before we make sure you’re gassed up and head on out of here.”
“Yeah. Why’d you drive all the way out here to Montana from Ohio to talk about quotes for the A.S.S. door? Surely there are competent welding shops closer than us.”
“Oh. That. Um…two things, I guess. One, we’re kind of leery about talking to a lot of places about this. If they talked, especially to the media, we could stir up more trouble.”
Not likely, I thought. Herschel had no idea how unlikely it would be for a welding shop to hang out with, say, a TV news reporter. Half the welders I knew had felony records; those men mostly preferred to keep their heads down, make a living, and call it a day. “That’s one. And the other?”
“That would be the Welding Journal issue with your picture on the front cover. When Holly and I read that article, it just felt right. Highly successful black welding entrepeneur in mostly white country. It felt like, you know, you’d maybe be able to understand where somebody a little different was coming from.”
“Can’t argue with that,” I said, getting up from the table. Time to pay the check. The Wares hadn’t eaten and were probably starving, but Mom would stuff them to the gills when she got them home. “I don’t really much care if you’re a Muslim, an Eckist, a werewolf, a wizard, or a witch, as long as you play it straight.”
“That’s quite a list,” he replied, smiling. “All you left out was an alien.”
“The alien comes and goes.”
He laughed then, convinced I was a great kidder with a fine sense of humor; little did he know I was completely serious. Or that I’d neglected to mention the (former) assassins.
Once we were all strung out on I-90 West, convoy style, with Sim and Mom leading, the Wares occupying the rocking chair position in their rather disreputable old Ford sedan, and us riding drag, Sissy summed it up. “Sim surely doesn’t need any help changing out a toilet, deep well or otherwise, but wait until Mr. Ware hears about ball surfing.”
The late Waylon Jennings was singing Will the Wolf Survive on the CD player, but we couldn’t hear a bit of it. We were laughing too hard.