May 14

‘Sellouts’

(First Published by Cyclamens & Swords Magazine, April/May 2015)

Tilt Jackson preferred the straight-truck over a horse trailer any day of the week. He was a third generation trader that scoured the far corners of West Virginia buying and selling back then. A straight-truck could run up and down hills where big rigs and trailers wouldn’t dare go, especially in foul weather. The difference between a straight-truck and trailer was weight distribution, meaning the horses were carried directly over top of the wheels, and this made for superior traction, especially in snow.

Horses or livestock rode in the eight foot hardwood box, generally known as a cattle-rack, which was bolted to the straight-truck frame. Suspended out over the cab hung the overshot, about four by six with three feet of head-space bottom to top. It was used to store saddles, bridles and tools of the trade and occasionally served as the trader’s motel. From the side-view, the cattle-rack resembled the state of Oklahoma sailing down the road, pan-handle first.

Under the cattle rack rumbled Tilt Jackson’s pale green sixty-one Chevy trimmed in egg shell white with its blistered chrome plated bumper bent and twisted up on both sides like a pock-marked silver toothed smile. The outfit pitched and rolled down the road belching smoke on six bald tires. It was a spectacle you might say, a sight to see.

When Tilt Jackson spoke you immediately figured him to be as down home, down to earth as any man could get. As some would say, “country as a bale of hay.” Once you’d met the man, you couldn’t possibly forget him and though thirty years might pass without so much as a fleeting glimpse of his rawboned frame, you’d remember his expressive unpretentious face like it was last week and if you had the chance to see him tomorrow you’d pick up the conversation exactly where you left off those many years ago. The man made that kind of impression on you. The most remarkable thing about Tilt’s appearance was his large droopy basset hound eyes that near begged you for his kindness and trust. This, despite the fact that his always clean shaven face was narrow and framed with short cropped sideburns dense as berber carpet. But it was Tilt’s voice and his manner of speaking that would leave the most indelible impression on you. It was low and slow, evocative of his birthplace somewhere deep in the hills of West Virginia.

Tilt Jackson was known in horse sale circles as a pin-hooker. Now there exist many different definitions for the term, pin-hooker depending upon your age or location whether north or south. But suffice it to say that regardless of the particulars most would agree that it was one of the lower forms of horse trading. Downright predatory was the way some folks thought of it.

A pin-hooker begins by building a story with information that he has but others lack. He also takes advantage of what’s known in white-collar circles as, market uncertainty. And like a small time Wall Street trader, a pin-hooker knows that the average Joe fears uncertainty with such a passion that the only thing for certain is that Joe will behave irrationally with near certain predictability when placed in an uncertain situation. So the pin-hooker plays the certainty card to the hilt by making uncertain situations even more uncertain until Joe finds the situation utterly intolerable.

To get a real life picture of the pin-hooker in action, imagine now some poor old woman, having finally decided to part with her beloved equine companion, ‘Old Dobbin.’ Upon arriving at the horse auction, she realizes that she may, or may not, receive what she believes old Dobbin is worth depending on the ebb and flow of prices that day and that was always a source of great anxiety. This on top of the anguish brought about by the thought of parting with her dear old friend. She just couldn’t be certain how much old Dobbin would bring or what she was really worth for that matter. Dobbin could bring fifty or she might bring a hundred. Newcomers to the sale, especially first time sellers, never knew for sure. So the first thing the pin-hooker offered was absolute certainty. A bird in the hand, so to speak. The second thing he offered was immediacy. Together with certainty, the perfect remedy for the horse owner’s sudden onset of angst.

The pin-hooker always had a keen sense of the current day’s prices. Horses may be high, low or somewhere in between. The trick was to strike a deal in the parking lot, or better yet the barnyard, before the owner of old Dobbin committed the horse to the sale. In other words, the pin-hooker would transact the deal with Dobbin’s owner, say buy the old nag for fifty dollars, then turn around and immediately enlist old Dobbin in the sale where he might sell her for a hundred or more, sometimes a lot more and all in the same day. On occasion old Dobbin would sell for less, and in that case the old woman made out better while the trader took a loss but such occasions were rare. Traders seldom lose.

It was the first time fourteen-year-old James Pike ever skipped school. But he couldn’t pass up the chance to ride shotgun with Tilt to see how it was done. He’d dreamt of becoming a trader himself and was eager to watch the master ply his craft. The sale was thirty miles to the west and they had one stop to make along the way. “Some ole girl’s got a pony fer sale,” said Tilt. “Gas money if nothing else.”

The buying and selling would be a first-hand introduction to capitalism for young James Pike, a form of arbitrage though at the time he had no idea what the word meant. Tilt however with his basset hound eyes, was a pin-hooking master of disguise.

It was a sideways blizzard that morning but the weather didn’t matter to a trader like Tilt. The defroster, no match for ten degrees, burned two holes the size of grapefruit through the frosted windshield. Through the two oval holes, the road was scarcely visible. The berm and ditches lay hidden under two feet of snow. Maples and oaks lined the road but passed by unseen, obscured by fernfrost covering the side-door windows of the old dilapidated truck that rolled and clanked and banged down the unforgiving road on six, rock-hard, frozen tires.

There lay vibrating a pack of unopened cigarettes, KOOLs, on the green metal dashboard that buzzed in a circle to the humming of the flat-head six. A second pack stationary on the driver’s side lay open. A fresh one from the pack hung limp from Tilt’s lower lip. Its smoldering ash occasionally dropped between his thighs as his eyes bored holes through his portal to the outside world, all the while encircled in mentholated smoke.

They drove through the thrashing wind for what seemed like an hour. There was a left-hand curve ahead. To the right, snow piled high on each side of a freshly plowed lot out of the center of which peered a gingerbread style tavern, its windows glowing yellow and inviting through the wind whipped snow. A sign hung flapping at the edge of the lot that read, “Draft Beer and Ten-cent Wings.” Tilt veered into the lot and went in, apparently to relieve himself though it took him a quarter hour. He climbed back into the truck, threw his gloves on the seat and they continued on. Further down the road there leaned a metal post bearing a black and white sign gyrating in the wind that read, “Route 87, Ellenville 16 miles,” the half way mark to the sale.

Tilt pumped the clutch with his sharp-toed boots and downshifted fourth to third to second then turned up an old dirt road where he repeated the shifting in reverse order, the truck chugging and hesitating and lurching with each change of gear as they climbed the hill to Seth Olg’s widow’s farm, a woman whose husband had been killed in a high speed chase after he’d been drinking and whoring which surprised young James that he could’ve done such a thing, sweet as the old woman seemed. When they arrived she came waddling out of the house with an enormous coffee mug between her heavy mittens wearing a hand-knitted coat with a matching scarf wrapped about her gray hair. A lovely, almost shy expression on her shiny pale face.

Tilt tromped the clutch, popped the gear shift into neutral and rolled the frosted window down as it screeched with each crank of the handle.

“Pony’s in the shed,” Mary said, motioning with her giant mug.

Tilt nodded as he guided the truck to the side of the driveway, clutched it twice and put it in reverse. Then he backed the truck near a slope, a sharp rise in the yard.

“Make her easier to load,” he said, looking past James to the passenger side mirror.

“But we ain’t bought er yet,” said James.

Tilt finished taking a drag from his cigarette, uplifted his eyebrows and let out a quiet laugh.

“Oh, we will,” he said, bending his head in such a way that he looked out the tops of his eyes. “You kin be sure a that.”

Tilt and James stepped out the truck and walked through the snow to the shed. The wind had stopped but the air was so cold the vapor from Mary’s breath rose and covered her face.

She handed her mug to James, placed both hands on the shed door and with all of her weight, heaved it clear of the snow when a lone pigeon, apparently startled, came flapping, hurtling sideways out the crack.

“Good lord!” she said. “The little guy scares the daylights outta me every morning! I swear he gets a kick out of it!”

The shed, warm and wonderfully comfortable, was piled high with sweet smelling hay. The odd company of one lamb, a pie-eyed kitten and a red banty rooster shared the hay pile with a fuzzy white pony with dark ebony eyes who lifted her head munching a mouthful of hay and blinked her dark eyelashes off and on, seemingly in slow motion in response to the incoming light.

“Her name is Mindy,” said Mary. “Isn’t she the sweetest?”

James pressed his back against the wall while Tilt walked around the adorable fat pony. He looked at her feet and checked her teeth, quizzing Mary about such matters as whether she was safe with kids and quiet around cars.

“She’s the most trustworthy pony,” said Mary. “And she loves children! I’d never dream of selling her but they said they’re gonna turn my electric off the end of the month and then my water will freeze and my pipes burst and God almighty I just don’t know what else to do.”

Tilt dropped his chin to his chest, pursed his lips and shook his head slightly side to side. He let out a long, slow sigh.

“It’s a bad time to be sellin her, Ma’am,” said Tilt. “Really bad.”

Tilt softened his basset eyes and shook his head slowly to convey the great sorrow that had evidently welled in his heart.

“Ma’am,” he paused, “I kin tell you whut I’d do if’n she’s mine.”

Mary looked up.

“I’d put me an ad in the paper and git er sold private. Make sure she gits to a good home.”

“But that could take weeks. They’re gonna shut my electric!”

“I’m just saying that’s what I’d do, Ma’am. It’d just tear my heart out to see your Mindy go to the sale where you ain’t got no idea who’ll end up with her.”

The old woman asked Tilt how much it would cost to haul Mindy to the sale that day and he responded that it would cost her ten dollars. She said that she didn’t have ten dollars but if he could wait until the check came in the mail next week she’d give him an extra dollar for his trouble. That’s when Tilt started shuffling his feet and mumbling about other options in his slow, soft-spoken, trustworthy drawl.

“Ma’m, I sure hate to say this. But they ain’t likely gonna be many buyers on accounta this weather. Roads is near drifted shut in spots. Ain’t that right Jimmy?”

You could see the old woman reading the writing on the wall, she took a step back, her eyes searching.

“Oh lord. How much do you think my Mindy’l bring?” she asked.

“Can’t say, Ma’am. If this durn weather don’t clear maybe thirty or forty dollars. Maybe less, you just can’t know.”

“But that would leave me only nineteen dollars after hauling. That just barely covers my electric bill.”

“There’s commission too,” said Tilt. “Durn commission these days is seven percent.” Tilt turned to James who stood with his hands in his pockets looking at his feet, “Ain’t that right Jimmy?”

James nodded but other than that didn’t respond.

Mrs. Olg wrapped her arm around the pony’s neck and pressed her face to its cheek. Tilt leaned against the wall chewing a wisp of hay.

“Lemme tell you whut I kin do Ma’am. If this here pony’s everything you say she is, meanin good with youngins n’ all, I’d give forty dollars cash for her today. You kin avoid the haulin and the commission and get your lectric paid. That a way you can pay it today or tomorrow if you want to.”

Mrs. Olg snapped a rope to Mindy’s halter and slowly, deliberately, handed it to Tilt.

The snow was belly deep to the pony as they walked her to the straight-truck. Tilt handed the money to Mrs. Olg and when he closed the ramp of the truck James looked back to see the old woman standing braced up against a tree, all red faced with her arms hanging out rigid like an upright shivering snow angel.

Tilt was stone silent until they hit Route 87. The snow was still falling but the wind had stopped. The roads were clear. He fired up a KOOL and let out a half cough, then leaned his head back and blew out the smoke.

“Ain’t gonna be but killer buyers today. Slim pickins for sure.”

“Killer buyers? You mean dog food?”

“Yeah, I reckon.”

“What’ll they pay?”

“Least a hundred, maybe more. She’ll weigh six and a quarter, maybe a shade better. She’s a fat ole girl.”

“But the woman’s a widow.” said James. “And her electric… and she’s in bad need of the money, and it’s a beautiful pony.”

Tilt feigned the sign of the cross with his pack of KOOLs and punctuated the gesture with two muffled taps on the metal dashboard then fixed his basset hound eyes to James.

“She pays her lectric, I pay mine. Maybe you ain’t settled on how to pay yours.”

 

Thanks to Johnmichael Simon and Helen Bar-Lev for publishing ‘Sellouts’ in Cyclamens and Swords Magazine. A special thanks to my friends and readers in Israel, home of this fine magazine.