Mr. Williams and the hundred dollar bill
James Williams was grumpy, even for a guy who works in a tackle shop.
He seemed to derive no pleasure in what he did, even though he otherwise did a good job at fixing reels in a shop that had great prices. His partner at Central Tackle, George Russell, was good natured, and seemed to enjoy seeing every customer who came into the shop but James seemed to think they were just interruptions in his day, in spite of the fact they were spending money.
My early experiences with James Williams gave me the impression that he was mean and impolite. Daddy and I had decided to try fishing the surf below the rocks at Fort Fisher at night, hoping to catch a big red drum. My daddy never caught a big drum in his life, but I’d read something in a magazine and he was willing to indulge my fantasy that the place was crawling with 40-inch fish once the sun went down.
Daddy bought almost all his bait from Central Tackle. It was in the little group of buildings centered around the Kure Beach Pier, then-known as downtown Kure Beach. The shop had the usual assortment of rigs, sinkers and plugs. There was a case with spinning reels and one for casting reels. Rods adorned the ceiling, hanging from ropes stretched across the rough cut boards. Central Tackle had fresh bait, too. Normally it was mullet, sometimes little finger mullet, sometimes fish around 10-inches long (which we called corn-cobs) and sometimes huge mullet, some weighing 3 or 4 pounds. Of course, there was also shrimp and blood worms to be had, and squid in the freezer, though no one in my family ever bought any. Sometimes, there were pogies, most folks now call them menhaden, and they were the best drum bait there was for big fish. The bait boxes were on the front porch and the bait fish and shrimp were buried under mounds of white ice. The more expensive blood worms and squid were kept in a rusty refrigerator inside the shop.
We walked into the shop and Daddy asked Jim if there were any pogies in the bait boxes. James Williams looked up with one eyebrow cocked and surveyed us through his black horn-rimmed glasses. “Did you see any pogies in the bait boxes?” he asked, with a sarcastic hook in the question.
Daddy was taken aback and stammered, “Well, I didn’t look. I thought I’d ask first.”
“I don’t understand why folks are too lazy to lift the lid on the box as they walk into the shop,” James continued, but his partner George broke in and explained it was a little early to reliably catch menhaden this far south. George took our order and we paid and left, while James glared at us through those black, horn-rimmed glasses. After that, Daddy always checked the bait box first and pretended to look at the rods on the ceiling until George was ready to wait on him. He avoided James unless he was forced to do business with him, and then James was always complaining about not making enough money from the little shop and how expensive it was to live close to the beach.
We didn’t like James and dodged him when we could even though Central Tackle had the best prices in the little cluster of buildings that made up Kure Beach.
When I was an older boy, I gained the privilege of getting to go fishing with my Uncle Evander. Evander was a real sportsman, with double-barreled shotguns, a big Labrador retriever, and a green four-wheel-drive Chevy truck with a camper. He fished with casting reels and had caught several big drum in his frequent trips to the coast. There were pictures of them in the photo book on the table beside the couch in his house.
On one occasion, Evander and I made the trip to Kure Beach. We were going to fish the inlet as far west as you could go, below the rocks and old Fort Fisher, all the way down. We were going to fish at high tide, even when it came in the middle of the night, and we were going to sleep in Evander’s camper and cook on the beach. I was excited and certain I’d catch my first big drum on this trip. I didn’t catch the big fish, but I did learn something about human nature.
On the way down, we stopped at Central Tackle to get some sinkers and bait. We walked in and I noticed that Uncle Evander didn’t bother to check the bait boxes. He walked in and slammed his hand down on the counter, just in front of James Williams, who was concentrating on putting a Penn Nine reel back together. I flinched, sure that my uncle was about to get a dose of James’s abuse but, instead, James’s face spread into a broad smile.
“Where you been, Brother?” James said, looking over the black horn-rimmed glasses and smiling from ear to ear. “We ain’t seen you in a month or two.”
The two of them bantered like the best of friends and I saw none of the animosity I had always seen from James, not just with Daddy, but with everyone who came in the store. I assumed it was because Uncle Evander was a big-time angler and he caught a lot of fish, or maybe he spent a lot of money at Central Tackle. James told Evander that he had some pogies stashed away for him and they continued to talk as best friends until we left. I was dumbfounded. I’d never seen James be anything but grumpy.
Neither of us caught a big drum that trip. We did catch some puppy drum and a little run of bluefish came through. Evander caught three or four for every one I beached. He could cast all the way into the school while I only managed to catch the edge every three or four casts. We did fish at night, putting out two lawn chairs and four sand spikes, and fishing the two hours before and after each high tide. The big drum didn’t cooperate, but it was nice fishing on a balmy October night with a sky full of stars and the moon glistening on the oily surface of the Atlantic.
It was quiet and we talked, not as a man and a boy, but as two men, one with a little more experience, and eventually the issue of James Williams came up. “Does James at the tackle shop treat you nice because you catch so many fish?” I asked Evander.
Evander seemed surprised. “Why no, he treats me like that because he likes me. He’s really a nice person. Some people are just different and don’t think people like them. It makes them defensive. A long time ago, I let James know I liked him and he’s never forgot it.”
“How’d you do that?” I asked, and I wondered why Evander liked him or wanted to like him, he seemed so grouchy.
“You know how James always talks about not having enough money?” Evander asked, and I saw the red tip of his cigar glow bright in the dark. The moon was bright enough I could see the white cloud of smoke that he pushed out in a puff.
“Sure,” I said. “He’s always complaining about not having enough to pay his bills.”
Evander laughed. “James and George both make good money at the tackle shop and I figured it was just a way for James to have something to say. Some people don’t like to be cheerful, even though they have nothing to be grumpy about. I thought James was like that, so I decided to find out. One day when he complained about money, I took a 100-dollar bill out of my pocket and gave it to him.”
I was shocked. A hundred dollars was a lot of money then. Not a week’s wages, but a lot. “You gave him $100? Why would you do that? Did he start liking you because you gave him money? I wouldn’t want a friend I had to pay for.” I always saw Evander as a smart man who knew about life, but now I was questioning his wisdom.
“I was willing to bet he wouldn’t keep it,” Evander chuckled. “And I was right. He took the money, but he looked surprised. He said he was going to use it to pay bills and I was a fool for giving him money and thinking he’d feel guilty to take it. I said that if he needed the money, I wanted him to have it and I didn’t expect it back. I told him I had enough right now and I hated to see him stress about something like money.” Evander began reeling in one of his rods to replace his bait for a fresher piece.
“You mean he really did give it back? I’d have thought he’d be the kind of guy who’d keep it and never think twice.” I took Evander’s cue and began winding one of my rods in for a bait change.
“Oh, he didn’t give it back just then.” Evander laughed again. “He put it in his pocket and called me a fool again. He said I’d never see that money again and he was going to enjoy spending my money. I told him not to worry about paying it back and that I gave it to him because I knew he needed it and I could do without it.” I paid for my bait and left the shop. I didn’t come back for two days.”
“Did he give you the money back when you came back to the shop?” I asked. I was amazed that Uncle Evander would do such a thing, but he was the kind of guy who was willing to try things to see what would happen. I thought I might have experimented with a ten dollar bill but not a hundred.
“No, he didn’t give it back the first time I went back,” he said. “But he did threaten to keep it again. He kept telling me he was going to spend it and I kept telling him that’s why I gave it to him. He was still acting grouchy but I kept saying to keep it. He didn’t seem genuinely grouchy now, it seemed he was now pretending to be grouchy to scare me, but I kept smiling and telling him to keep the money.”
By now, Evander was standing at the little table that jutted out from the side of the camper. He was cutting bait and smiling to himself. I could see it because the lantern illuminated his face.
Evander continued, as he cut up another pogie and salted it down, “I went back to the shop again two days later and this time, when I came in he was smiling when he saw me,” he said. “He said I was crazy and he didn’t know anybody else who was as crazy as me but that I knew a lot about how people were. He begged me to take the money back because he was afraid he was going to lose it carrying it around in his pocket all the time. At first I told him to keep it, but he got serious and thanked me for the thought but he had all the money he needed. Eventually I did take the money back. We’ve been close friends ever since.”
Evander had now finished re-baiting his hook and he walked down to the surf to make a cast.
I watched him check his feet, swing the line and sinker back until it was straight behind the rod and push the rod over his head in a long arc in the moonlight. The reel whined as the sinker launched out past the first bar off the beach. I knew why James Williams liked him. He was crazy, but he did know a lot about people.