Friday, June 24, 2016

The Odds are 50/50

From the moment Alan walked into the trading post I could tell we had a character on our hands. There were three other groups of people wandering the floor of the store with which Miss Priscilla and I were having intermittent conversations. There was a threesome from Taos; dad, mom and a teenage daughter; a small group of visiting missionaries who were in town doing service in Montezuma Creek at Saint Christopher's mission; and a leather-clad biker touring the Southwest on his Fat Tail Harley Deuce. While Steve was tied-up in his office doing accounting, Priscilla and I were busy mining the browsers for information and getting to know them better. When Alan entered it was as if he were walking onto a stage.

Alan is a short man, maybe 5' 6", but his positive attitude and forthright approach made him seem larger than life. He is 70-something years of age, has white hair and a mustache with aged blond highlights. He wore khaki tourist shorts over an army green polo shirt with a Chisholm's Trail Gun Leather emblem printed on it. He also sported funky patchwork loafers with socks matching his shorts. Alan wasn't stylin', but he was clean and well pressed. Entering the trading post, he effortlessly merged into traffic and began asking questions: "What's that? Who made it? What's it made of?" No matter who was talking, Alan's questions overrode everyone else. He was not rude, just extremely curious and appealingly engaging.

In our display cases are conversation starters such as antique cobalt glass bottles, pea knives, steel traps and rusted-out pistols. It was the pistols that caught Alan's attention, and he knew exactly what they were. "That one is an Italian reproduction of the Colt Navy model 1851, 36 caliber black powder pistol. A percussion revolver with a 7 1/2 inch barrel made in the 1970’s, $179, new, in the box. Since I bought it as such, I knew its history and was impressed with his knowledge. He probed, "How much is it?" "It's not for sale,” I told Alan, mentioning it was worth far more as a display piece than I could get for it. Alan was undeterred, and kept pressing me to put a value on the relic. "Not for sale," I persisted. To allow time with our other guests and get him off the subject, I sent him on a short quest, "Go take a look at the Army model in the other case. You might appreciate that as well."

 Italian reproduction of the Colt Navy model 1851 

As Alan went in search of the other pistol, I refocused on the folks from Taos. The man was dressed much like Alan, in a polo shirt, khaki shorts and flip-flops. He was much younger, taller and thinner, approximately 6'4". His wife and daughter were similarly tall. The entire family was soft spoken and seemed fascinated with our cocky guest. As I spoke with them, getting to know the threesome better, Alan found the antique pistol. It too was an Italian reproduction that had been artificially aged. It had fallen on hard times, i.e., been lost in the dirt for decades. The guy I purchased the gun from remembered his father buying it in the late 70s and promptly losing it. When it was rediscovered, the pistol had spent nearly 30 years out, in the weather, and it looked the part. It was rusted-out, deeply pitted and locked-up.

You could not have fired that beast if your life depended on it; the cylinder and trigger were jammed as was the loading ram. The original grips were gone and had been replaced by a pair that were roughed-out of stained pine. The pistol was only good for a doorstop, a head knocker or in a Native American jewelry display. "What will you take for this?" Alan queried. "Not for sale," I reiterated, "It's a conversation piece, and worth more for that purpose than the few bucks I might get for it. Look how it has interested you." "Don't be like that," Alan admonished, "I create antique leather holsters and would love to make one for this piece. It would look fabulous in my showcase." "Exactly!" I said. "That's why it's not for sale."

By now, everyone in the store was paying close attention to our exaggerated conversation. The folks from Taos, the missionaries and the biker were all interested to see how this scene would play-out. Weirdly enough, Alan was getting a little tense. Being told "no" was not something he understood. Although he did not seem the type to ask for or need emotional support, he called his wife in from the porch to show her the pistol and seek advice. She was unimpressed and informed her husband, "He said it's not for sale, let's go" and walked out the door. Not Alan though, he had made the decision to press on regardless of the consequences. He reached into his back pocket and laid out $150 in cash. "Not impressed," I assured him. In $20 increments Alan began to stack the cash. The onlookers leaned-in closer and Priscilla added her two cents, "Tell him no Barry, tell him no." Before long Alan had emptied his wallet, except for 5 one-dollar bills. "Get the singles," said the man from Taos. Alan threw the ones onto the pile as well. The amount on the table was now $300. "Nope!" I said, "Not interested."

Alan's face fell. "That's way more than it's worth, and all of the cash I have," he said, "Please sell me the pistol." Priscilla said again, "No, don't do it!" Alan looked puppy-eyed and said again, "Please." The crowd closed in and I looked into their eyes to determine what they were thinking. Half were shaking their head in the affirmative and the others were dissenting. "All right," I told Alan, "here's the deal. We will flip a coin, if I win you will put the gun back in the case and walk away. Alternatively, if you win I will take your money and you can have the metal art." "Deal!" said Alan, "Who flips the coin?" "I will," said the tall guy from Taos. He tossed the quarter into the air and Alan called, "heads." As the coin landed on the Navajo rug spread out in front of the Kokopelli doors, Alan rushed in to see the results. It was too far for me to know if it was heads or tails and Mr. Taos reached for his glasses to see more clearly. With that hesitation Alan reached in, grabbed-up the quarter and yelled, "Heads, it was heads!"

Alan threw the quarter on the counter, pushed the stack of bills in my direction, grabbed up the pistol and headed out. "I think it was tails," said our flipper. By that time Alan was out the door and halfway across the parking lot. Everyone in the store gave their opinion, and they seemed equally divided; half saw heads and half saw tails. As the crowd dispersed, I pocketed the cash, smiled at Priscilla and said, "That was fun."

Steve was standing near his office shaking his head, "First you sell our wooden Indian and now you gamble away our pistol. Selling things that are, 'Not for Sale' has become a habit." "No worries," I said, "It's about the experience, not who wins or loses. You have to admit that guy was quick on the draw. I had a great time, and I only gave $20 for that old doorstop anyway. I should be able to buy a dozen more with the profit. Well, at least two." At that Priscilla cautioned, "You better hope Laurie doesn't hear about your gambling habit." "Yeah," I admitted, "that could cause a misfire."

With warm regards from Barry Simpson and the team:
Steve, Priscilla and Danny.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Two Stories

Many years ago Jana and I decided to visit historic Southwest trading posts with Kira and Grange, have them research and write a summary of each enterprise, and publish their thoughts. We felt it would be a good introduction into their ancestry, teach them better sentence structure and grammar, and help them understand how we make our living. Trading comes to them from both sides of this marriage, and one can never write too well, so it seemed an interesting project for them and us. That, however, like numerous other proposed adventures, was put aside and eventually abandoned. English literature, Boy Scout badges, chemistry, cross country races, mathematics, wrestling tournaments, biology, tennis matches, anatomy, standardized testing and the myriad other things young people do during their adolescence became more pressing.

It would not, however, be fair to say Kira and Grange never learned their heritage. Since Jana is proud of what her family has accomplished she regularly tutors the kids on those achievements. For my part, I have generally tried to bury the numerous misfires, misappropriations and misdemeanors associated with the Simpson clan. Some stories are better left untold, so after a time I concluded silence was the best path. Kira and Grange eventually came to understand I maintain a "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy when it comes to my side of the family and we all coexist in blissful ignorance.

Before discarding the historic trading post idea altogether, Jana, Kira, Grange and I visited one called Two Story, which was located near St. Michaels, Arizona. The title, as one might guess, results from the nature of its structure. Apparently not much has been recorded about this particular location, because the many books in Barry’s library only mention its name, not its history. Perhaps the operation came and went quickly because it was not notable for any specific process, incident, or event. Whatever the case, the business apparently became irrelevant at some point and was consigned to the circular file of the past.

As I recently considered the demise of Two Story Trading Post, a woman walked into the store, greeted me warmly and said, “Hi, who wrote that story about the guy and his dog?” “Barry,” I replied, pointing in the direction of his office. He was, as usual, banging away at the keyboard, tapping out the next installment. “Oh, that was funny” she said, “do you write as well?” “Yes,” I answered, acting disaffected, “every other week.” On a regular basis people stop us on the street or come into the trading post to comment on the musings, and it is always interesting to hear what stories resonate with them. Over the past several months we have had number of people ask the question I have come to dread. “Who wrote the story about . . . the Jester?” “Barry.” “Oh, who wrote the one about the . . . ugly dog?” “Barry.” “You know, my favorite is from years ago, about . . . a large pitch pot. Who wrote that?" “Barry.”
Steve & Barry Simpson

A few years ago Father Ian, the then recently retired Episcopal priest of St. Christopher’s Mission emailed a request to use a few of our stories in his autobiography. As is our habit, we readily consented. “Sure, use whatever you want,” we told him. We have always been fond of Ian and were flattered to be included in his personal narrative. When we were young we spent a lot of time at the mission, so we also have an affinity for the place. When our personal copy of the book arrived, I snatched it up and began reading chapter-by-chapter, eager to know which stories had been selected. Having reached the climax, I found there was not a single sentence of mine in the book, not even one. Instead, there was Barry’s description of our southern Utah landscape, Barry’s thoughts on one of his winter walkabouts, Barry’s memories of . . . well, you get the picture. Musta’ been an oversight I concluded and put the text aside, grudgingly acknowledging the selected stories were actually pretty good and fit well into the story Ian was telling.

Like Two Story Trading, Twin Rocks also has two stories, some are physical and some are emotional. Barry and I have decided Twin Rocks is a great stew of people mixed together to form a delicious feast, and since he and I have diverse views on many topics, we end up telling widely differing tales of our daily life here at the post. As a result of all the recent attention, Barry has begun advocating for a book featuring all the best Tied to the Post stories. While I think it is an interesting idea, I have begun to worry what might go into that book and whether my history, like that of Two Story, might end up in the circular file. Hoping to ensure that will not happen, I have retained an agent and am considering writing a story about a funny man with an ugly dog who wandered into the trading post to buy a pitch pot. If that doesn’t get them talking, nothing will.

With warm regards from Steve Simpson and the team:
Barry, Priscilla and Danny.

Friday, June 10, 2016

She Doesn't Talk to Strangers

It was late Saturday afternoon and I was manning the trading post on my own. Several years ago Jana and Laurie decided working seven days a week was altogether too much time for Steve and me to be spending at Twin Rocks. They came to believe we needed at least one day off each week. Because he and I are grateful for the wives we have and desire to maintain healthy relationships, we figured it best to listen to their wise counsel. So now, as a general rule, Saturday is Steve's day off and Sunday mine. On that schedule, I come in early to check on the cafe and once that inspection is complete open the trading post by 8:30. Since we have excellent staff at the restaurant, and, as Steve likes to say, "Either of us can run the trading post standing on our heads," this arrangement works well. On Sundays the trading post is closed and Steve can be found managing the cafe from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. That is why on Saturday evening I found myself walking the wide front porch, watering the fountain grass, moisturizing the hanging plants and soaking the lizards that wandered too near my jet-stream.
Navajo Chief Basket - Peggy Black (#408)

As I proceeded with my project, a fairly new Chevrolet pick-up truck with matching camper shell and Florida license plates pulled up to the far end of the porch. As the vehicle rolled to a stop, a mature gentleman plopped out. The man looked to be in his late 60s or early 70s. Curly silver locks protruded from under a faded and ragged Florida Gators ball cap and aviator sunglasses shaded his eyes. He wore a short, but still shaggy, salt and pepper beard. Thick, similarly mottled body hair matted his forearms and legs. He looked to be around 5' 8" and maybe 250 pounds. His stretched out Polo shirt was striped with white, pink and green horizontal bands of color and his off-white, sweat-stained knee-length cargo shorts did their best to contain his ponderous paunch. Well-worn, once white deck shoes covered his sock-less feet.

As I looked on, the man strode around to the left side of the truck and began an animated conversation with who ever sat in the passenger seat. I could hear what sounded like faint murmuring from inside the cab, but because the windshield was tinted could not see inside. I observed the side window was partially down and that a figure moved about inside the vehicle. That, however, was all I could discern. From where I watered, I heard snatches of the man's conversation. He loudly expressed thoughts about the towering Twin Rocks and the marvelous country they were traveling. He asked if his companion was hungry enough to eat. As I moved further down the porch, away from the truck, the man's conversation became less cognizable. His enthusiasm and exaggerated manner, however, continued unabated.

I finished watering, rewound the hose and went back inside the post. Before long the man wandered into the store through the Kokopell doors, his companion notably absent. I struck-up a conversation with him and he explained, "We are on a grand road trip." He then described a roundabout pattern of travel from Florida to Chicago, Chicago to Seattle, Seattle south through California, finally winding up in Vegas. Throughout his travel log, he kept mentioning "her." I was curious as all get-out who "her" might be, so after he explained how he nearly lost his trousers playing Texas Hold'um at the "Lost Wages" casinos, I asked what his wife thought about that situation. "Wife," he nearly shouted, "who said I was married?"

"Well," I explained, "you were talking to someone in the truck and you have been commenting on, "she" and "her" since you arrived in the store." "Oh that," he chuckled, "I was talking to my dog." I laughed along with him and said, "Sorry about that. By the way you were talking I thought you were having a conversation." "We were," said the man as cooly as you please and then detailed why he was no longer, "bonded." He explained that during his last relationship he brought home a steak for himself, another for the dog and kibble for his girlfriend. Upon finding he was indeed serious about feeding their dog a slab of prime beef and serving her dog food she invited him to move out. "But I told her," he said, "not without the dog." Her reply? "If that's what it takes!" After a long and caustic explanation about the departure of his three ex-wives, and several subsequent girlfriends, he came to this summation, "None of them, I say, none of them, could understand my needs!" "Alrighty then," I said, thinking how a statement like that might go over with Laurie, "I am beginning to see the light."

During the matrimonial tirade, my mind kept coming back to his conversational canine. So, as he prepared to leave I asked, "Do you think I might come outside and say 'hello' to your friend? I have never seen a talking dog." "No," exclaimed the man, shaking his shaggy head, "she does not talk to strangers." "I shouldn't wonder," I mumbled under my breath. After he departed, I watched as the sketchy gentleman opened the pick-up door, observing a white and tan English bulldog hop out. The animal waddled over to the rocks in front of the trading post and jumped up on one, facing the man. There they resumed their dialogue, the man speaking loudly and vigorously motioning with his hands and the dog yipping back to him. I doubt they fully appreciated what the other was saying, but they definitely communicated. It is said there is someone, or, in this case, something, for everyone. It seems fortunate this guy finally found a female he could get along with.

With warm regards from Barry Simpson and the team,
Steve, Priscilla and Danny.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

A Blessing

It was a late May afternoon at Twin Rocks Trading Post and I was sitting in my office trying not to nod off.  The last time I fell asleep at my desk the resulting crash raised a bump on my forehead, causing Barry and Priscilla to unkindly referred to me as “Knothead” until the lump disappeared a week later.  As our operations have expanded, the time I spend on bookkeeping has also grown, which seems to have had a direct impact on my waistline.  There must be a mathematical explanation for this phenomenon, something like girth = hours at cubical per day squared.  It could also have been all those cookies, so maybe the formula would actually be, circumference = cookies per day + daily cups of coffee/pie.  As one might guess, math and nutrition were not my strongest subjects.

As I glanced out the window that overlooks the store, I noticed a tall, slender man of about 70 years stroll in through the Kokopelli doors.  He was dressed in a blue Nike tech shirt and corresponding dark trousers, both slightly rumpled.  He wore a few days’ salt and pepper stubble on his cheeks and a somewhat longer goatee surrounding his mouth and chin.  There was a look of casual, confident intelligence about him.  Close on his heels was a late-50ish, attractive women, also slender, but more carefully fitted out.  They seemed to mesh well, and comfortably interacted as they perused the turquoise jewelry, she pointing out bracelets and necklaces, he distractedly nodding his head.

Needing a chance to clear the cobwebs generated by looking at reports too long, I got up and walked into the showroom.  As I did, I heard the gentleman ask Barry, “Are you a brethren?”  When Barry responded, “No”, the man replied, “Well, then you must be a sinner.”  Historically Barry has not responded well to such comments, so I edged closer to the stool on which he perched.  My fear was that an argument might erupt and I would be forced to intervene.  Instead, Barry just sat there like he’d never heard a sound.  Acting not the least put off, the man gave out a slight cough and spoke once again.  “So, if you’re not a brother, you must be a sinner.”  This time Barry, cool as a cucumber, replied, “Oh?”  The visitor, also placid, was clearly intending to open a dialogue, not incite a confrontation.  Continuing along his earlier line of thought, however, he announced, “Well then, I can give you a blessing.”  About that time his partner came to life, gently touching his shoulder and saying, “Honey, not now, not again.  These guys are going to get mad.”  Barry, obviously amused, said, “Not us, we never get upset."
Navajo Ceremonial Basket - Mary Holiday Black (#383)

Thinking I would get ahead of any potential controversy, and at the same time wondering whether there might be something in it for me, I interjected, “Can you bless me too?”  The gentleman scooted closer to Barry and told him this story.  “You may not believe it, but I am a distinguished lawyer, recognized as the top three percent in the nation.  I watch out for my clients, I make sure nothing bad happens to them.  During the Great Recession of 2008 I helped a high-ranking member of the predominant religion in this state with some serious financial problems, saved him a great deal of money, kept him from collapsing.  If you know what I mean.  He was grateful.  Now I’m not a particularly religious guy, but this spiritual leader gave me a blessing and told me I can use it to bless others.  Funny thing, it works.”

Up to that point Barry had been slumping on his stool, acting the part of disbeliever, but that statement caused him to sit up a little straighter and pay closer attention.  The woman, sensing there might be something coming she could not control, tried to redirect the conversation by pointing to some coral earrings and saying, “Those are nice, I’ll take them.”  To her husband, she said, “Honey, I need the credit card.”  When he did not immediately respond, she began to relate the tale of a man who tried to divorce his wife because she spent too much money.  “He was discovered chopped to bits and scattered across three states”, she concluded.  “No need for divorce after all.”  Winking at her husband, she prompted him again, “You don’t want that to happen to you, do you?”  He reached into his pocket, fished out his wallet and gave her the card, moving away from Barry to stand face-to-face with me.

As we talked about how he had spent over $1.5 million educating his daughter, putting her through Columbia University, Wharton School of Business and Finance and a variety of other prestigious institutions, I thought I sensed alcohol on his breath.  “Guilt over the break-up of my first marriage.  I’ve had three”, he admitted.  "We won’t name names”, he said, “but just understand my daughter has become extremely successful.  You would recognize her work.”  He continued, “So I sent her an invoice . . . for all the money I paid.  She just laughed.  Didn’t send me a dime.”  All this time his wife was trying to maneuver him out the door.  “I’ll leave him”, she threatened, “I've done it before.”  Ignoring her altogether, he continued with his story.  Sensing something dramatic was needed to end the conversation, she walked outside and got into their car.  As she began to back out of the parking lot, I said, “Hey, there she goes, she’s leaving us.”  “Oh, I better go”, he said, turning away.  “Wait, what about our blessing”, Barry called out.  Like a moth to the fame, he could not help but return.  Coming back to the counter, he held up both hands in anticipation of performing the solemn ceremony.  Barry and I bowed our heads.

As the car inched further back towards the street, the man looked at us soberly and said, “Dear Heavenly Father, please bless this food.  In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”  The ritual came so swiftly Barry and I were caught off guard.  As he quickly headed out the door, Barry and I gazed at each other in amazement.  Later in the day we began to question whether we might soon be invited to dinner with the cannibals.

With warm regards Steve Simpson and the team.