Grand Stretchers of the Truth
The car had already been parked in the lot now for nearly three days.
“Any y’all know whose car that is?”
The guys in the fly shop looked up at their boss, Eddie. Ralph shook his head and went back to counting the new shipment of pheasant tails.
Nick replied, “I thought it was your son’s.”
Phil asked, “What car?”
It was not unusual for fishing guides to meet their clients at the shop and leave their cars there for the day. But this car had been parked for three days without license plates, unlocked with the keys under the mat, and not so much as a Roll Tide decal in the back window to identify its owner.
A clunker dripping oil on the pavement would have been noticed. A new car surely would have attracted attention, a rare occurrence in this little town. An old pickup outfitted for fishing would just be ignored, not so unusual for one riding down old 273 highway. But a 2001 black Nissan Pathfinder was just an ordinary bird in these parts, an inconspicuous breed, perhaps driven by a tourist or a local community college student.
The guys dusted off the shop’s security camera instructions and rewound the video from the past week. A lot of activity, cars pulling in and out, customers chatting, Cecil Chalmer’s hunting dogs wandering around at dusk. But as for the abandoned car, nothing appeared on the screen, the car carefully positioned on the one singular parking space out of view of both cameras.
“Wouldn’t mind taking a spin in that vehicle myself,” exclaimed Phil.
“This is not finders keepers, my friend,” Eddie said. “Let’s call Frank. He’ll know what to do.”
The balding officer’s salary depended on how many speeding tourists he pulled over when he wasn’t napping. As far as Frank could tell, this was just gonna be another ordinary day. He hadn’t received a 911 call since the late ‘80s when Miss Lilly’s stove caught fire. He had lived in Tyron Springs so long, he was kin to most of its fine citizens. But Frank responded to Eddie’s call in less than three minutes, every light on his car flashing, and the siren waking the dead.
As soon as Frank pulled into the asphalt parking lot, a small crowd began gathering like congregants going to a Wednesday night prayer meeting, along with the guys from the fly shop, Cyrus the mailman with brown paper packages still in his arms, and Charles, the butcher from the IGA two blocks away.
In the twenty-three seconds before he opened his car door, Frank stuffed a white paper bag with two half-eaten jelly donuts under the front seat to disguise the evidence of his morning’s transgression. He shuffled through the glove box to see if his officially delegated firearm was perhaps hiding underneath the car’s owner manual. He found instead his old Timex that still needed a battery.
He eased himself out of his high mileage Crown Victoria police cruiser, just like the vehicle Frank inherited when he was unexpectedly named interim sheriff forty years ago. His father, the town’s only police officer and annual Fourth of July grand marshal, passed away suddenly, shortly before the parade started down Main Street. The very next day, the town clerk asked, no begged Frank, “Just help us out with law enforcement, please, until we can find someone to take your daddy’s place.” He was promised, “It won’t take long.”
The following week, Frank was supposed to start at the state university on a cello scholarship. He never made it to campus. Pretty much the trajectory of his life, he found, had wobbled on the question of “what if?”
But Frank never looked back. He loved this job. He slipped on his mirrored Ray Bans, the buttons on his tan uniform shirt strained, and his belly negated his need for a state-mandated seatbelt. After all these years, he claimed, “I can still smell trouble a hundred miles away and spot a lone wolf by the look in his eyes.”
Every familiar face in the parking lot turned toward him. This was by far the most exciting event to happen since Frank stopped a souped-up car speeding through town, the driver, Dale Earnhardt on his way to Bristol in September ’96. Forgiven and released, of course.
“Finally,” he whispered to himself, “I’ve got a live one.”
“What you got here, boys?” he said.
As he walked closer to the vehicle in question, a half-dozen more F-150’s, Silverado’s, and a few odd sedans joined the fray. Pulling into the adjacent parking lot of the Ace Hardware, Jasper maneuvered his hot dog truck into full view. He wasn’t about to miss this unexpected windfall to supplement his thriving business at county high school football games.
Raymond was just waking up across the street at the Ease-On-Inn Motor Court when he heard the siren. He was on his way to New York for a second interview, another twelve-hour day of driving ahead of him. He had a portfolio of newspaper and magazine clippings of his work, but he knew before he got to New York, he still needed a show-stopper, a story – a big story- to convince the editor to seal the deal and land him the job.
The door was open to the motel office, but no one was around. Raymond helped himself to a styrofoam cup of tar-like coffee. Free Breakfast stated a carefully lettered cardboard sign printed in red Magic Marker above a bowl of suspicious-looking hard boiled eggs. In a pink plastic basket were nestled several cellophane-wrapped cinnamon twirls. The crinkled wrappers made the letter T in Tasty World appear like an N. He gazed out the front window at the gathering crowd across the street. If he had not run out of gas in the middle of the night, he never would have stopped in this backwater town in the middle of nowhere. “Get me out of here,” he said out loud. He picked up a free copy of the Mountain Times in a rack by the door.
“Your biggest story may be right in front of you,” he remembered his journalism professor saying. He thought those words pathetic at the time. He still considered that advice as profound as a Hallmark Card. His professor had obviously missed this particular venue.
He wandered outside and across the two-lane to where the entire town was gathering. Two old-timers standing on the grass were chatting. “Don’t expect much from Frank,” one said. “His dad claimed to have caught James Earl Ray when he escaped Brushy Mountain in ‘77. I didn’t believe him then. I certainly don’t put no confidence in this kid of his.”
Raymond looked for the kid. Frank, the only policeman at the scene, qualified for Medicare on his most recent birthday.
The other paunchy man agreed. “He’ll boast about the fish that got away. But the real question is whether he actually ever went fishing a’tall.”
Raymond walked up to the officer. Frank was looking intently at the abandoned SUV, a set of keys in his hand that Eddie had found under the floor mat. No story here.
And then Raymond heard an older woman say to the officer, “I heard you found a body hidden in the back of the car.”
“Now, Liv,” Frank responded, “I’ve not seen a body at all. You didn’t hear that from me.” He hadn’t seen Liv for a couple of weeks since she called at midnight about someone breaking into her house. Frank saw a party of five raccoons running off as he pulled up in his cruiser. Liv always held a rather loose handle on reality.
Another man added, “Well, I heard on the morning radio that two convicts escaped from the Loudon Detention Center.”
“Not seen any sign of them here,” Frank assured him. “We’ll keep a look-out, Steve, but I don’t think they would have left a perfectly good get-away car sitting in plain sight.”
The crowd of gawkers, drawn by rare local excitement, began to draw closer in a ragged assemblage around the abandoned car, gossip spinning in high gear.
“Stand back,” Frank said, his calm voice a little louder than usual. “We don’t know what we’re dealing with here. I don’t have to tell y’all boys, if it’s wired, we’ll be blown all the way to Cheatham County.”
Raymond whispered to himself, “I’ve stumbled on a winning lottery ticket. Now I’ve got my story.” Bombs, escaped felons, a body in an abandoned car, and James Earl Ray in the middle of somewhere. No need to even interview anyone. The words that he had just heard, even out of context, were wild enough for him. “This article, my friend, is going to write itself and land me right into a new job,” he said to himself, as he scurried back across the road to his motel room. Based, of course, on a true story, the details stretched a bit, but who would ever know?
Eddie, the owner of the now locally famous fly shop, met Frank by the side of the abandoned car and filled him in with what few facts he knew. “I was just showing up for work this morning,” Eddie said. “Wasn’t till today that I even noticed it. And only then, I realized that there were no plates. As far as I can see, there isn’t anything in it, clean as a whistle, unlocked and keys under the mat.”
“Did you touch anything?” Frank asked.
“Just the door handle and the keys poking out from the black floor mat. They were strangely obvious, as if they were wanting to be found. I kept the other boys from messing with the car.”
No one had. Eddie ran a tight ship. He had to. The guys in the shop all had colorful histories, and toed the line, because if it weren’t for Eddie, they wouldn’t have jobs at all. They knew it. Most of them hadn’t finished high school, but had completed many a night in the lockup.
Everyone has stories. Some we know, most we don’t. And even those tweaked a little, have an element of truth to them. Everyone struggles with something. No one knew that better than Eddie.
Eddie had turned up in town one ordinary day because that previous week, he had been accused of absconding with roofing equipment left for the night at a construction site. Eddie wandered into this strange little town to wait until things settled down. Twenty years later, he was still here. No one was the wiser. There was a lot about him no one could imagine.
All that most of the guys in the shop knew was that Eddie showed up at the fly shop some time ago, alone and broke, looking for work. “I’ll do anything,” he told Big Bob, a short, slightly older man who was the sole proprietor.
“But can you fish?” Big Bob asked him.
Without hesitation, he nodded. Eddie figured that nodding didn’t really count as a lie. Big Bob put him to work cleaning out the store room. The shop wasn’t much, not obvious how it could stay in business. Three days later, some clients of a fishing guide named Ethan showed up for a day of catching big ones. But as was his custom, Ethan was sleeping one off. He was nowhere to be found. “Eddie, your turn,” Big Bob told him. “I can’t tend to their needs. I’m expecting a shipment of reels today.”
“O Lord, don’t let me mess this one up,” Eddie said under his breath.
But where do I go? There was only one place he knew in these hills. Eddie took the group out south of town down a pitted gravel road and along a lone stretch of river. Without a place to stay, and wanting to remain under the radar, it was the exact place where Eddie camped under the stars for three nights, crying his eyes out for what a sorry lot he was, and just gazing at the gentle water, yellow sallies hovering over the surface. It was the most unlikely fishing spot, not a speck of beauty in the surroundings, but it was all he had. “Despairing places,” he remembered his granddad telling him once, “are where the biggest fish hide.”
The truth was that Eddie had never actually fished before. He had watched his granddad a few times enough to get bored. But when he took out that first group of those wanting the notoriety of big fish stories, he gave them a haul of narratives and a hook of hope on which to hang their tales. He became Big Bob’s regular guide, even though he had never held a rod or tied a fly, a minor fact that Eddie never mentioned to Bob.
Details. Just details.
The group returned to the shop by end of day with stories of fish that didn’t get away, and grew bigger by the moment. These men were duly initiated into the fellowship of the grand stretchers of the truth. They measured their trout that day not by inches, but by pounds.
And Eddie discovered his spiritual gift in spotting a prime fishing hole, in so much as a puddle.
Eddie had found his niche. Big Bob gave him all the work he wanted, and never asked what brought him there. In small towns, everyone pretends to know your business, at least what they surmise to be real. Some stories are wrapped so tightly around the past, no one knows anymore what actually happened. And to some, the past was not what defines you.
Two years later, Big Bob didn’t show up for work one morning. Eddie opened up the store and set the day in motion. Bob probably went fishing. But he hadn’t.
Bob’s wife found him peacefully asleep and on the other side of life. She handed Eddie an envelope with a letter dated the day Eddie first asked for work. Bob had bequeathed the store to him, not knowing Eddie’s past, nor even caring from whence he had been saved.
Big Bob’s name was the biggest disguise of all. Bigness had nothing at all to do with his physical appearance. He was a tiny man, five foot three on a good day. But he was woven into every person in the town, either by some far-off blood relation or by grace.
And yes, Bob’s wife Margaret whispered to Eddie, he saw you swipe that twenty out of the drawer that first hour you were in the shop.
“But why this?” Eddie asked, waving the envelope.
“Big Bob was always tipping the scales, just because he could,” Margaret explained. “Our only son left us high and dry so many decades ago. And then, you came. He wanted to give you another chance. He was the only one at the shop at the time, barely hanging on. But you changed the course of a lot of lives through it, as somehow he knew you would. Even if you didn’t know a stick about fishing.”
“You mean he knew that?”
“Couldn’t tell a fly rod from a hiking pole, he told me. That’s why he sent you out with that group that day to see if you’d run away or run with it.”
And now so many years later, there was a mysterious car to deal with. Whose life was tangled in this mess? What was someone trying to hide in plain sight? Eddie didn’t want to know. Never betray honor among thieves or discount a day of small things.
Frank copied down the VIN number from the dashboard, examining every window, door panel and bumper like a physician trying to detect any sign of life. He didn’t find so much as a scratch. The car had been sold four counties west several years prior, but then the trail petered out. It had been most recently registered to an empty house at the end of a farm road. The closest neighbor had never seen the car before, nor anyone living in that house for at least twelve or thirteen years. Shrubs were now taller than the front porch, and part of the roof was drooping like an undercooked pound cake.
Eddie and Frank decided to leave the car where it was for a couple of days to see if anyone showed up. Maybe someone went hiking and got lost, easy to do in these parts. Maybe it was stolen. Maybe there was a bigger reason. There’s always some kind of curious misdeed buried in a legend.
All Eddie knew was that his fly shop was bustling with new customers. The abandoned car drew people from forty miles around like flies to a picnic.
Frank was busier than ever, tripling his income by strangers who did not see the 20-mile-per-hour speed limit sign. Granted, it was hidden partially by an overgrown mimosa tree on the side of the road.
And all that was before the helicopters arrived later that week.
In his 8 by 8 foot motel room across the street, Raymond wove together a tale of epic dimensions. He didn’t interview anyone. He just stood on the sidelines and listened. He wandered into the IGA that afternoon and heard the truth being espoused by the locals with all the authority of a traveling preacher. And he discovered the intricacy of the gospel truth in what would be gossip anywhere else. He was privy to even a few sacred truths totally unrelated to the mystery at hand. Pam did not go on vacation to Atlanta after all. She was having her nose done. Mamie’s brother in law’s cousin was not in a band in Nashville, but occupying a room at the Escambia County jail, sentence unknown. And last week, a stranger broke a tooth eating overcooked brisket at Miss Lilly’s so-called café.
Raymond had no idea what the truth was anymore, just that it was pretty much always the other guy’s fault. He wrote up a fantastical one-column story, submitted it for publication at the Mountain Times, spent his twenty-dollar compensation by filling up his tank with gas, and rambled out of town just under the speed limit.
His time there was done. Or so he thought.
It was a slow news week at the Mountain Times, other than the article about the abandoned car and another UFO sighting by 97-year-old Ol’ Man Wilson over his neighbor’s chicken coop.
And then, the narrative grew like a fish story of extraordinary proportions, a tall tale that only got bigger over time.
It was even a slower news day at the Knoxville News Sentinel. They needed to fill some space on the front page, and so the editor picked up the odd story about a car in a no-nothing town, added a few elaborations, particularly highlighting a mention of James Earl Ray’s escape in 1977. That alone would draw more readers. Far-fetched stories filled up valuable space on the page, and drew not just readers, but brand-new crinkly advertising dollars.
And then, the national networks, desperate for something newsworthy on what appeared a rather lackluster day of nothing happening, picked up on this otherwise odd little story. James Earl Ray had been found in an abandoned car, apparently not dead after all these years, wreaking havoc in a small town, breaking into an elderly woman’s house, and staying in a local motel with a couple of recently-escaped bank robbers, dangerous if confronted. The whole case was cracked by fingerprints left on the cellophane wrapper of a Little Debbie honey bun, the skillful detective work of the town’s only policeman.
The helicopters began arriving about 3 pm, just in time for the nightly news to unfold a homespun story of crime and intrigue from a little town, population 102.
Once again, Frank’s afternoon nap was interrupted. His siren rang loud and proud. A revival tent would not have drawn a bigger crowd. And Jasper never had it so good, grilling more of his specialty pimento cheese hot dogs in a day than he did on a Fourth
And Frank, well, he indeed had a live one. Journalists from three different networks surrounded him, their cameras just a few feet from his face. “Well, I never actually said that,” Frank explained over and over, not feeling like he needed to add anything to the truth or subtract from the ongoing story. It had already been stretched enough. But oh, he had never been so proud. Nothing could beat this, he thought.
The journalists were busy on their phones. “There’s no story here,” they reported to their editors.
“Then make it one,” demanded the executives in their air-conditioned, high-rise offices in New York.
It had just been an ordinary Monday. The fly shop was closed as usual after a busy weekend. Eddie and the guys were missing all the excitement. They had gone fishing for the day.
The car had disappeared the previous evening as if running off to elope. Turns out a used car dealer from Seymour, the next town over, had arranged a drop-off and just plain forgot to pick it up.
There was no story after all.
Most fish look bigger in the water, Eddie learned over the years.
And sometimes they are.