And the Sign Read “Taters”
by David Nordin
County Inspector Henry Lawson drove his new-to-him ‘97 Cadillac into the parking lot of the Agragenta, Mississippi sheriff’s office. The lot was small and few of the uneven spaces were wide enough for his car. He parked, as he always did, on the side of the low beige building. Lawson swung his door wide. The front of the station had two metal doors that were nearly as beige as the walls.
“I hate coming here,” he said to the front door. “That man is hell bent on being difficult.” James Tallow was the worst sheriff Agragenta had ever seen. He was too fat to catch a purse snatcher, too dim to outwit a cat burglar, and too bad of a driver to be any thing other than a menace. He had wrecked two squad cars and an Oldsmobile in the past six months alone.
He was also widely known to be the worst shot in three counties. No criminal feared Sheriff James Tallow. Yet somehow the little town ran with relative smoothness under his watch and no one seemed to mind that their sheriff was an incompetent, car-crashing, bumbler.
“Here I go.” Lawson checked his clipboard and straightened his red-striped tie. Coughing, he clamped his lips together and pushed open the door.
* * *
“Now Hank, this really isn’t necessary,” said Sheriff Tallow.
“I’m just doing my job,” said Lawson.
“Well I know that, but I’m telling you this thing is under control.”
“Under control like Hell.” Lawson waved his hand at the cramped office. “This is a police station, not a petting zoo. You have no right to keep that thing in that cell. It’s not sanitary.”
“What else am I supposed to do with it? Take it home to Missy? Use what’s left of my budget to put it up in a kennel? Buy a farm and put it out to pasture?” The sheriff adjusted the heavy belt around his large waist. “That’s it, I’ll get a farm. Right of Eminent Domain, that’s what I’ll say. I always wanted acreage.”
“You should have informed the proper authorities, gone through channels, not kept it as a pet.”
“It’s just a llama,” said Sheriff Tallow
“Just? Oh, for Chrissakes!”
“And I’m only keeping it here till Tommy comes to his senses.”
“It’s been here for three months.”
“He’ll come around. Don’t you worry.”
“And how long do you plan to wait?”
“Until he’s willing to cough up the thirty-seven fifty he owes me.” The sheriff wagged his finger, “For the aggravation and upkeep, you understand.”
“So you know this Tommy character well, then?” asked Lawson.
“Aww, everybody knows Tommy.”
“ I don’t.”
“Sure you do, you saw him just a few minutes ago.”
Lawson slapped his clipboard against his leg. “I wouldn’t be caught dead associating with any low cheapskate llama wrangler.”
“You drove in on Route 62 didn’t you?”
“Then you saw him, you had to have. He’s got that big sign right as you get into town. You know the one.”
“The Tater guy?”
“That’s our Tommy.” Tallow smiled.
“Why on God’s green earth would he, of all people, have a llama? And more importantly, how did it end up in lockdown?”
The Sheriff sat down in a cracked leather office chair and propped his feet up on his desk. “Well, as I understand it, it all started when this stranger pulled up there next to that big sign and set to talking quick.”
* * *
“Now let me get this straight,” said Tommy scratching his white stubbled cheek. “You want to trade me that there camel-looking thing for ten bushels of perfectly good taters?”
“Well, yes. Sort of,” the man in a brimmed wicker hat said leaning on the painted ply board sign.
“Not sweet taters, but plain old regular taters?”
“Right.” The man grinned and tugged on the lapels of his checkered jacket.
“Well, I don’t know. I don’t have much need of a camel, no matter how few humps it got,” Tommy leaned his arm against the side of his truck.
“Well now, it’s not a camel, see. It’s a llama. Now they’re going to be big. Big market for llamas in these parts. Why it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if, in the next five years, this whole area weren’t one big llama ranch. Big market. I’ve never seen a place so ripe for llama rearing.”
“That’s the sauce?” asked Tommy straightening his work-stained Cracker Barrel cap.
“Indeed it is the sauce my friend, for the proverbial goose, and you’d be the first one in town to own one. Marvel at the possibilities.”
“I just don’t got the space for no big llama, and I never seen this market you’re on about. No, I just got no use for that critter.”
“Think carefully, friend. You don’t want to miss out on this golden opportunity. Just think what this animal could mean for you, for your family. You’ll be the envy of all your neighbors. I guarantee that none of them have a llama this fine. Its coat is known for its softness and for its ability to provide three times the wool of your average sheep. Her milk is said to have medicinal powers. It’s a well known fact that the Sheik of all India keeps the largest herd in the world so that he can attend to his subjects’ slightest scrapes and sniffles.”
“Damn, you’d think the government’d invest in a herd or two, wouldn’t you? We got folks around here as good as any Indian I ever seen. But I still don’t know, them taters is worth seven dollars a sack.”
“Oh, well then I’m afraid my price just jumped to twelve bushels,” said the man in the hat, lighting a cigarette.
“Twelve? Now hold on there just one minute, you said ten.”
“That was before I found out how much your taters were selling for. Now it’s twelve.” He blew out a long stream of smoke.
“We agreed on ten,” Tommy slapped his leg with his cap. “Say, what kind of man are you that goes back on a deal like that?”
“You’ve got me there, friend. You can have her for ten, but don’t be spreading any rumors of my generosity. It’ll ruin me in the end.”
“I’m no barbershop gossip.”
“I didn’t figure you for one, friend, but you just can’t be too careful these days,” said the man sticking out his hand. “Do we have a deal?”
“For ten,” said Tommy gripping the sweaty palm.
“Fine, now if you’ll just pile those up in the trailer there,” the man pointed to the dull red horse trailer attached to a brown El Camino, “I’ll get her all loaded up for you.”
The man with the hat stamped out his cigarette, and pulled a long sheet of reinforced wood out of the trailer and tilted it against the tailgate of Tommy’s truck. Then he led out a stout, long necked, vaguely off-white llama, while Tommy heaved and lugged the ten heavy burlap bags full of potatoes into the now vacant trailer.
“Easy, easy there girl. Now there, that’s the way. No stop, watch that tater there girl. We don’t want you slipping and busting a leg. All right, there we are. Good.” The man slammed the tailgate.
After he had finished toting the potatoes Tommy stood rubbing his right shoulder and looking up at the llama standing in his truck. “What do they eat?”
“Oh, just about anything,” said the man as he closed the door to his car.
“Like a goat?” asked Tommy bending so that he could see in the passenger window.
“Oh yeah, they love goat.” The man with the hat cranked the car. “Y’all have a nice day.” He turned his car onto the road and sped away, trailer bouncing behind.
* * *
“He actually traded potatoes for a llama?” asked Lawson.
“That’s actually the first time I laid eyes on the thing,” said Sheriff Tallow.
“You were there?”
“Nope, I was down the road aways running the speed trap. I saw it when Tommy was driving it home in the back of that ugly green pickup of his, with its head and neck sticking up over the cab and its fur just blowing in the wind, pretty as you please. You know, I can just imagine what Oogly said when he pulled up with that thing.”
“Oogly. Tommy’s woman. It’s not her real name of course, but that’s what folk call her. Even the pastor at Sunday Sunrise Service. The kids around even call her Aunt Oogly. She and Tommy’ve been shacked up together in that trailer for going on thirty years.”
* * *
“You just turn right around and take that damn thing back to where ever the hell you got it from.” Oogly stood on the front step of their trailer wiping her hands on a dishrag.
“Can’t do it. That fella’s half way to Amite County by now. ‘Sides this here llama is going to make us a whole heap of cash.”
“Tommy, them things ain’t good for nothing.”
“Naw, they is. Indians use them to municipal purposes. Like that quart of Southern Comfort you got stashed in the cupboard behind the flour.” Tommy let down the Chevy’s tailgate.
“Are you saying this thing can help with my arthritis?” she asked.
“She’ll cure it easy. All you need is a glass of her milk and your joints’ll be popping like you and they was twenty years younger.”
“Would I lie to you?”
“Well, no,” said Oogly twisting the rag into a knot. “But exactly where are you planning to keep that beast? We ain’t got much room in the yard and it’s not stepping one hairy foot inside my house.”
“If you’d leave me be and let me get about it, I was fixing to build it a pen out back,” he said leaning the plank against the truck and coaxing the llama down.
“Build it a pen? Out of what? You got some secret stash of lumber I don’t know about?”
“No, but I’ve got that roll of chicken wire that’s been sitting under the shed since last spring.”
* * *
“He built it a llama pen out of chicken wire?” asked Lawson crossing his arms over his clipboard.
“No one ever said Tommy was a genius.” The Sheriff leaned farther back in his chair.
“Or an architect.”
Tallow shrugged. “Anyway, that night the llama diabolically escaped from its pen and went wondering around the countryside.” The sheriff paused.
“Well?” asked Lawson.
“You know how trailers have those octagonal windows in the bathrooms. Well, that llama found him one of those windows up at the Johnson farm and just, plop, put his hairy head right there in it. He was sitting easy with his face turned sideways looking all around with one of his big old google-eyes. About that time, old lady Johnson who’s wearing nothing but a brassiere and bloomers looks up and sees him there. Oh, man, how she musta been hollering.”
* * *
“Peeping Tom! Argyle, there’s somebody looking.”
“Who is it Peggy?” Argyle stopped half way through the door. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.”
“It weren’t no boy. He had a beard.”
“That was no beard,” said Argyle who had seen the face in the window before it had vanished into the dark. “It was a werewolf.”
* * *
“A werewolf?” Lawson put his clipboard down on the desk.
“I kid you not,” said Tallow.
* * *
“I saw it plain as I see you.”
“Argyle, there just ain’t no such thing,” said Peggy covering up with a fuzzy yellow housecoat.
“There is too, I saw it on the Discovery TV,” he rummaged around in the open closet next to the toilet. “Here we go.” Argyle pulled a shotgun out of a corner.
“What are you to doing with that?”
“I’m going to hunt down that werewolf. For my wife’s honor and the safety of the community at large. You go wake up the boys while I roust the neighbors.”
* * *
“Do you have any idea what it’s like being called away from the dinner table to hunt down a werewolf?” asked Sheriff Tallow.
“I guess not,” said Lawson.
“Not many people do, I’ll tell you, except me.” Tallow put his feet on the floor and leaned forward in his chair. “So, while I’m on my way, old man Johnson is getting up a hunting party.”
“You mean a mob.”
“With Mag Lights for torches and twenty-twos instead of pitchforks.”
* * *
“Alright Tommy, Frank you go out wide and the rest of us’ll swing in from the south and catch this thing in the crossfire.” Seven nearby farmers and his oldest son had come out in response Argyle’s raised alarm.
“Dad, Dad, I brought you a knife,” said a boy running up from the Johnson’s trailer.
“August, that’s a butter knife,” Argyle frowned at his son. “I swear boy, sometimes I don’t know what you think.”
“It’s silverware, Dad. It’s the only thing that’ll hurt a werewolf.”
“Yeah, I heard that,” said a man in overalls and long johns.
“Shut up Frank. Fine, I’ll stab it after we shoot. Does that make everyone happy? What now boy?”
“Shouldn’t the moon be full?” asked August. “Maybe it wasn’t a werewolf.”
“Don’t you sass me boy. Now get on inside an protect your mother while we men hunt this sucker down.”
Blue and red lights reflected off rows of corn and fields of potatoes. Sirens wailed twice as the three cop cars settled in front of the farmers.
“What in the Sam Hill are you folks doing?” asked Sheriff Tallow.
“We’re out to rid the community of a menace, Sheriff,” said Argyle.
“Look, I know Red McKinney can be a little onerous but that don’t make him a menace.”
“Not McKinney, the werewolf.”
“The one that was peeping at my wife.”
“At Peggy?” Tallow waited for Argyle to nod. “Smithe, go take a look around see if you find any trace of this... werewolf, was it?”
“Yes, sir,” said the deputy going around the side of the trailer.
* * *
“You should have seen the look on Argyle Johnson’s face when Smithe came back with that llama in tow. That thing was just standing around behind the trailer munching on the grass over the septic tank. If we had gotten there a few minutes after we did then Argyle would have shot the damn thing in his own backyard.”
“So that’s why you have the llama in the back? You’re protecting it from a lynch mob?” asked Lawson.
* * *
“Who belongs to this critter?” Tallow asked the crowd.
Off to the side near the rear, Tommy slowly raised his hand, “I do, Sheriff.”
“Tommy? Why do you own a... a....”
“It’s a llama.”
“Of course it is,” said Tallow. “And I’m gonna need to see some paper work on it.”
“Papers? That fella didn’t give me no papers.”
“So what you’re saying is that you own an unregistered llama that’s been disturbing the peace. Oh, there going to be a fine for this one. Thirty-five ought to do it,” said Tallow.
“Thirty-five dollars! I won’t pay.”
“That’s thirty-seven fifty now. Want to go for a even forty?”
“Nope. I won’t, it just ain’t right. I didn’t pay for the thing in the first place, and I got no more taters to spare.”
“Fine, Smithe you bring that llama up to the station. We’ll keep it till Tommy here comes round.”
“Damn, and I didn’t even get to try any of her municipal qualities.”
* * *
“Not that they’re real, I’ve been drinking a whole glass of milk a day and I still got the post nasal drip. It’s a heap of buggerboo if you ask me,” said Tallow
“You’re despicable. What will it really take to get that thing out of here and be done with it?” asked Lawson.
“It’ll take exactly thirty-seven fifty and about three minutes.”
“What if I just paid it?”
“I don’t want your money. I want Tommy’s. It’s his damned llama, and his responsibility.”
“In that case, I’ll be back tomorrow with animal control,” said Lawson grabbing up his clipboard and walking towards the door.
“Hey, could you wait until about one. I’m due for a haircut in the morning and Stan won’t appreciate it if I’m late again.”
The beige door swung slowly closed behind Lawson and clicked into place.
* * *
The Cadillac sped down Route 62. Lawson turned the car off the road next to the large hand painted sign. A scruffy looking old man walked towards the car.
“You Tommy?” asked Lawson through the rolled down window.
“I’m County Inspector Henry Lawson and I’ve just come from talking to Sheriff Tallow about your llama.”
“You tell that old windbag that he can keep that llama till Judgment Day and I still ain’t going to pay him no thirty-seven dollars and fifty cents.”
“I thought as much. So. Um, look, I’d like to buy a bushel of potatoes.”
“Sure thing,” Tommy reached over to his truck a hefted a sack. “I got the finest taters in the county, everyone says. There.” He passed the sack to Lawson through the window. “That’ll be seven dollars even.”
“Here,” said Lawson handing over a wad of bills. “Keep the change for the Llama Liberation Front.”
“Huh?” Tommy asked counting the money.
“Isn’t that enough?” Lawson felt his empty wallet. Looking around the car he bent over the ashtray. Counting out dimes and nickels he said finally, “Here, there’s a bit more.”
Tommy stuffed the change into his pocket, nodded, and frowned. Their business was done.
Lawson drove back onto the blacktop without raising the windows. The tater sign and Agragenta quickly faded in the distance. Lawson looked at the sack of potatoes slumped in the passenger seat and said, “Well, you’re either worth thirty-seven dollars and fifty cents or one farm fresh in-hock llama. Either way I expect you’ll be good fried baked, buttered, or broiled.”
Copyright © 2007 by David Nordin