Toni was passing a couple of orders to Judy at the kitchen pass-through window when the bell hanging above the entrance door tinkled, indicating someone entering the restaurant.
“Oh lord,” sighed Toni as she spotted the newcomer.
“What now?” asked Judy, T’he Scruffy Dog’s premier chef.
“It’s Little Joe huffin’ and puffin’ like he’s running from the law again.”
Even though it was mid-October and a bit crisp outside, Little Joe was indeed breathing hard and little drops of perspiration popped out on his forehead. He quickly strode over to an ancient round table that had definitely seen better days, where a few of what the management referred to as “overhead” were huddled over our afternoon cups of what Toni charitably called coffee.
“What’ll it be, Joey,” asked Toni, as if she didn’t know.
“A glass of your Special Lemonade, if you please,” replied Little Joe, still a bit out of breath.
“Now Joey, you know we don’t have any ‘Special’ because we can’t afford to get busted for serving hard liquor.”
“I know that, Toni. Just get me something to settle my nerves. I’ve had a hard couple of hours, here.”
“Okay, we’ll see what we can do for you, but if Scruffy Jim Carley shows up, you’d better finish it off real quick like,” Toni replied. “One Special for Little Joe, Judy,” she shouted to the cook.
Dutch Van Zandt was one of those spending time at our table. “What kind of a game you been running today,” Dutch asked. “You’ve got such a guilty look on your face that I half expect the sheriff to show up here any minute.”
“It was so easy, so darned easy,” Little Joe began. “I had the beginnings of a good day until someone tipped off the sheriff.
“You know that old flat area around the curve by Mike’s Dance Barn?”
“Right, the place where the bikers used to have hill climbing competitions?”
“That’s the place, all right. For years that old parking lot has been growing weeds. There’s this glassed-in shack near the road where they used to sell tickets to watch the hill climbs. Well, last week I was downtown after passing by that lot and a thought occurred to me.”
“Ha ha ha,” laughed the rest of us at the table. “That must’ve been a first,” said old Ben, who had been nodding off.
“Now you shut up or I won’t tell you what happened.” We got real quiet now ‘cause we knew that Little Joe had a good tale to tell. Either that or he’d get banned from The Scruffy Dog for about a week.
So I had this great idea, (Little Joe began) about how I might use that little shack. I went over to the sign painter, who owed me a little favor, and asked him to print a sign on a two by three board. White background. Plain red lettering: Today Only! Parking $1.00.
Once it was finished I got Jimmy Smallwood to load it in his pickup. We got some braided wire and a few screw-in eyes to hold it down. Then we headed out there this morning and affixed it to the roof of that shack.
“ ‘Affixed’ it? Haw! Where did you learn that word, Joey?” interrupted old Ben.
Anyway, we got out there bright and early today (continued Little Joe, ignoring the disruption), figuring that the usual parade of tourists would be heading into town on a Friday.
After we got the sign attached, Jimmy and I called a few other friends and had them come over and park their cars to sort of salt the lot — make it look like there were already people there.
Then I put on my old white Standard Oil gas station shirt that had the name “Buzz” sewn into the right pocket. And then I just sat there waiting to see what would happen.
it wasn’t five minutes before the first car cruised up and paid the dollar fee. I handed the driver a ticket stub from an old roll of generic raffle tickets and told him to put it up near the window on his dash.
While this was going, another couple of cars rolled up and paid. Then a big old Class A RV. He asked if RVs got the same price as the regular cars, and I told him that was the case, but he’d have to park off to the left a bit.
By about noon, there were some thirty cars parked there with folks just wandering around, looking at the lack of scenery; some of them sitting on old logs eating picnic lunches and all. A couple of groups were even trekking up the hill-climb mounds taking pictures.
Of course a few tourists had left by then, one even stopping to say thanks and took a picture of me in the glass booth.
Round about quarter to one I got a call on my cell from Charlie, who was on lookout a couple of miles toward town. He told me that the sheriff had just passed his position, which he cleverly called Checkpoint Charlie after some ancient Cold War location.
I whistled to Jimmy and he rushed over with his truck, and we quickly cut the lines supporting the sign, which was dumped unceremoniously in the bed of his pickup. I jumped on my motorcycle and peeled out of there, heading west to the turnoff to Stinkwood State Park, the back roads and bike trails of which I know like the back of my hand. I headed up over the pass at the end of the reservoir and down onto Route 45, then accelerated like greased lightning over her to The Scruffy Dog.
“Now that’s some crackerjack tale, Joe,” said Scruffy Jim Carley, the owner of The Scruffy Dog, who’d kind of sneaked up behind us as we were listening to Little Joe. “Now let me have a taste of your lemonade, Joey.”
Little Joe gulped the last bit down and belched a bit of it back up into the glass. “Oh, hell, now that’s as good as an admission of guilt,” declared Scruffy Jim. “But seein’ as how you’re going to need all the courage a Special can muster, I’ll let it go. The Sheriff drove up a couple of minutes ago and has been checking out your bike.”
Just then the doorbell tinkled as the Sheriff heaved his way into the diner. At the same time, Little Joe was slumping lower in his chair, trying to find a hole in the floor that he could climb into.
“Joey, I need to have a little chat with you,” said the Sheriff as he sat down at the end of the round table next to Little Joe. “Seems someone was pulling a con on tourists out at the old hill climb lot. What do you know about it, Pal?”
“Well, you tell me what you know and I’ll tell you if you’ve got the facts right or not,” Little Joe blustered.
“Well, let’s see, we got a call in a couple of hours ago about someone charging a dollar a car to park out at the old hill-climb.”
“Is that illegal?”
“Not particularly but it’s not good for business around here. People who get conned are gonna pass right through town and not spend their dollars legitimately.”
“Legitimately. Hah!” Little Joe shot back. “Buy a few trinkets made in the Far East and eat some outrageously-priced food? That’s more legit than renting a parking space?”
The Sheriff ignored this last. “Out in my prowl car is a newcomer to the force, one Sergeant Munk, came to us from back East somewhere. He was checking the mud in the tires of your bike and some of it matched samples taken at the parking lot. Plus there are weeds and such stuck in your bee-you-tee-full chrome spokes that match those around that old ticket shack. And to top it off, we’ve got a photo of you in that shack waving to some tourists who were leaving. Sergeant Munk is filling out the paperwork so we can charge you. But since the con was a real original and since it probably didn’t fleece too many people, I’m thinking that if you left off your take at the Community Church poor-box, that we needn’t do anything official. Don’t you agree, Sergeant?”
Sgt. Munk had just entered the diner, wrinkling his nose at the accumulation of years of stale odors, but then suddenly his eyebrows shot up a few inches in pleasant surprise.
“That’s right Sheriff. But first, I must find out about that wonderful aroma that smells like the best coffee I’ve ever sniffed.”
Toni came over and explained that they get it freshly roasted and ground every morning from a local roaster.
“Would you like a cup, Sergeant?” Toni asked.
“You bet, young lady,” said Sgt. Munk. “But first, could you pour the cup full of hot water from your tea kettle and let it sit for a moment or two?”
“Sure. You mind explaining why?”
“Oh, not at all. I just don’t want to shock the coffee with a cold mug.”