By Laura Kathryn Rogers
The Vernon family was a multi-flavored mess.
You had Clevus, who for many years was the best hell-raiser the county had ever known. You had Tully who was closest to normal, Julie-Ann who was the first to scandalize the families honor by marrying Yankee, and Bessie Mae, who followed her elder sister’s example after two failed back to back marriages.
Next, there was Georgia Grace, former beauty queen and full-time family black sheep. Johnny Paul was the next to youngest, and the town drunk, who took over where his elder brother Clevus left off as resident hell-raiser.
Then, there was Bobbie Ray.
Bobbie Ray had never known his mother or father. Eula Mae, his mother had died giving him birth, and his father Amos Paul died in a logging accident the same week. Bobbie had only known Aunt Ginny, who was Mother, Father, chief bottle washer and family head, followed closely by Clevus.
Bobbie Ray was a tee-totaler. He was faithful husband to Wilmer (Stuart) Vernon, and worked at the local library after getting a degree (with straight A’s) at Auburn. If you ever even suggested to Sheriff “Plug” Coursey that Bobbie Ray was anything less than trouble free, you would have set the good Sheriff laughing hard and long. Bobbie Ray was so well-behaved that he sometimes made folks in Contentment nervous.
All except for one memorable occasion.
It was a hot July day, and Bobbie Ray had taken the week off from the library to tackle a list of Wilmer’s ‘honey-do’ chores. He was so diligent that he’d already gotten most of her list done by Monday. So, by Tuesday, he had some time on his hands, waiting for a few building supplies to come from Montgomery.
After enjoying a sumptuous breakfast that Wilmer whipped up early that morning, Bobbie Ray was sitting in the shade of their white oak tree about to take a nap. His sooner hound, Elvis Presley Jr. had put his head on Bobbie Ray’s lap about to take a snooze of his own.
Just then, a loud roar sounded, about giving Bobbie Ray a heart attack. Elvis Presley Jr. gave a yip and went running under the porch.
Bobbie Ray, squinting towards the noise, sighed deeply. It was his brother Johnny Paul in his bright blue, rusted out Ford pick-up, with a bass boat being hauled in the back.
In the truck beside Johnny Paul was his own sooner hound dog, George Wallace IV. The truck usually sounded like it was about to throw a rod, but somehow managed to get from point A to point B. Today, a stinky blue-black smoke was issuing forth from the exhaust pipe and it looked for a minute like the front brakes were about not to brake. But Johnny Paul managed to get his truck stopped just before he run over Bobbie Ray’s right foot.
“Brother!!” Johnny Paul hollered out, stepping out of the truck, almost losing his footing, and steadied himself at the last minute. As town’s most intoxicated, he had a reputation to maintain. He was never hung-over, because he never stopped drinking. This morning was no exception. So, it wasn’t just his truck blowing smoke.
“Brother!!” Johnny Paul hollered again.
Bobbie Ray rubbed the ear closest to his brother. “I’m right here, Johnny Paul.”
“Right on, Brother, right on! I’m here to spend some time with you! I cain’t think of the last time we spent time together. Cain’t think of it.”
Bobbie Ray stepped back, trying not to breathe in his brother’s alcoholic fumes. “If you’d come to Brother Holland’s services every once in a while, you’d see me. You’d see Wilmer, and Aunt Ginny too.”
Johnny Paul considered the comment, then rejected it. “Church ain’t on Tuesday. Let’s go fishing, brother! We had that big rain last night, I bet the big ‘uns are swimming right near the top, just waiting for our fishin poles.”
“I, uh….” Bobbie Ray stammered. “Wilmer might….”
“Aw, come on. You can’t be under her foot all the time! You need some time out with the guys.” Johnny Paul insisted. Wilmer came to the screen door, and frowned at Johnny Paul. “How you doin’ brother-in law?” She asked, a touch of warning in her voice. Johnny Paul, well taught from life with Jillian, caught that tone of warning, and got charming.
“Wilmer, I want to take Bobbie Ray fishing. He works so hard, he needs a day to just sit in the bass boat and watch the clouds roll by. Have one of your meat-loaf sandwiches or some of your fantastic fried chicken, and bring you home a mess of fish to fry.”
Wilmer considered it, then looked at her husband, her frown softening. “He sure has been working hard on his week off. Alright. I’ll fix ya’ll a nice picnic basket and ya’ll go have a good time.”
Thus blessed, the two men were soon in Johnny Paul’s truck which had stopped spewing black smoke, and acted like it wanted to be respectful. Elvis Presley Jr. had even come out and got in the back of the truck with George Wallace IV. They’d come from the same litter a few years back, and so they got along fine back there.
Hogwalla Lake was about four miles out of Contentment, and was a man-made lake dug out by the Army Corp of Engineers from over at Camp Rucker. It was a 40 acre lake that was fed by the Mulberry River. Some fancy folks kept summer cabins there, but mostly it was a long-time favorite for locals to fish the catfish, bass and bream stocked there.
Some of the best places to fish were on the less traveled sides of the lake near the dam where only trucks could get on dirt roads. Johnny Paul knew this area like the back of his hand. And it was there on the wild side of Hogwalla Lake that the two men unhooked the bass boat, and set out with the picnic lunch and their fishing gear. The two dogs lay down at the edge of the water, and watched the two men go out to a spot that Johnny Paul swore would get them a boat full of fish in no time flat.
Bobbie Ray had gotten thirsty on the way over, and so he’d started drinking from one of the large thermos’s Wilmer had packed along with their lunch. However, in the packing, he hadn’t seen his brother spicing up the fruit punch Wilmer had mixed together. And that ‘spice’ just happened to be near about 95 proof.
Johnny Paul knew that his brother would object to any alcohol going into his beverage. He didn’t want to upset his brother, so each time he poured more moonshine into his fruit punch, Johnny Paul would distract him.
Bobbie Ray thought it was strange that his brother was suddenly at one with nature, but he obligingly looked each time that Johnny Paul swore that he saw a new type of bird, plant or even a pole cat never seen before in Alabama.
Only Bobbie Ray never saw anything. He’d kept drinking his curious tasting fruit punch, and by the time he got to the boat, he didn’t really need much convincing. In fact, Bobbie Ray was practically a new person, you could say. The old Bobbie Ray was no where in evidence.
By the time that they got to their spot, Johnny Paul didn’t have to hide his spiking. In fact, Bobbie Ray was helping him mix the ingredients.
The two bonded like they never had before. They sang, they told tall tales, in fact they did everything but fish. The lush and the former tea-totaler were having the time of their lives.
Until the unthinkable happened.
It came out of the lake, near them. Bobbie Ray saw it first. He was just finishing the first jug of mixed up fruit punch when he dropped the jug in his lap. He started making a gasping sound like the punch had gone down the wrong pipe. Johnny Paul looked at him, and then in the direction where he was pointing.
Johnny Paul started to scream.
Later on, they weren’t sure what it was that they saw. Some said that it might have been a large size beaver. Others were sure that it was a turtle. But they were never able to convince the boys of either reasonable solution. Johnny Paul’s hootch and Billy Ray’s imagination (and education) combined to form only one possible conclusion. It was Nessie–the Loch Ness Monster. Somehow, she’d found her way from Scotland to Southeast Alabama.
And she was headed straight for them.
Just then, Sherrif Plug Coursey was coming ’round in the county truck, looking for poachers. He saw the uproar in the lake, and jumped out of his vehicle. The two men half swam, half walked on the water to get to him. They screamed, and cried, then started getting sick, pointing back to the creature that surely was going to eat them for lunch, a creature that Sherrif Plug could not see at all.
The boys dogs got upset at them, because of the carrying’s on, and started barking at them. The Sheriff managed to get Bobbie Ray and Johnny Paul in the back of the truck, and hand-cuffed them to the tool box to keep them from jumping out. Because the dogs were much better behaved, they got to ride up front with Sheriff Plug.
There was really only one way to get Bobbie Ray to his home, and that was straight through town. The men continued to holler and vomit all the way to Bobbie Ray’s, telling all shocked onlooker’s about the ‘monster’ in the lake. The tale got better the more people were looking on.
A red-faced Wilmer drug her inebriated husband into the house, much like a Mama Cat will get after an errant kitten. Jillian, used to Johnny Paul’s antics drove up in her multicolored VW van, unceremoniously threw him in the back, and took off to their trailer. The Sheriff went back to the lake, didn’t see anything at all, and then returned to his office shaking his head.
By the end of the week, Bobbie Ray was over his first (and the only) hangover he would ever have. Johnny Paul was still drinking, swearing that they had found something life-threatening and hideous in the lake. Neither man would ever go near the lake again.
And Nessie, if that was what she was, never made another appearance, perhaps going back to Scotland where folks took pictures rather than losing their minds when she made her rare appearances.