First weekend of June, 2007
Arnault the Third motioned for the waiter in the small, high class Italian restaurant in the Montrose area of Houston, handed him a credit card and waited until he returned and disappeared back into the people stream.
“Hope dinner set you up, Bobby. We’re about to go to work.” Arnault motioned for the black woman in a light blue pants suit and impossibly tall high heels three tables away to join them. He pulled a chair for her without getting up, Bobby stood. “Ms. Annabelle Monette, meet Mr. Bobby B.” She offered him her hand and he got more than the usual lady-fied handshake.
She adjusted her chair and the waiter had a drink in front of her Bobby hadn’t seen or heard anyone order. She smiled at Bobby like his fifth-grade teacher. “Sell many boats today, Mr. B?”
“No ma’am. A couple of maybes. Be back tomorrow or Sunday.”
“They’ll be back to bend you over close of show. Do you have any problems with women? Don’t lie. I know all about your Momma.” She pulled the little stick out of her drink and set it on an unused napkin. “Or problems with African American women, for any reason?”
“No ma’am. There’s some kind of attitude goin’ on with the checkers at the grocery store, acting bitchy and talking all kinds of shit, but I think it’s down to those crazy women on the Housewives reality shows. ‘Cause that’s who they sound like. But that’s all of them, not just the black girls.”
“Observant, synthesized. Fair. That pleases me.” She sipped her drink, kept her eyes on Bobby. “Third, you plan on talking or sitting there all night with a cork in your bony ass?”
Arnault reached in the pocket of his starched shirt, pulled out a folded check, opened it on the table with one hand in front of Bobby.
“Two hundred and thirty-seven thousand dollars? Made out to Swamp Vue?”
“I sold some Swamp Vue boats today, and this is the total of their deposits. I’ll sign it when you hire Annabelle.”
Bobby looked back and forth between them, wished like hell Carrie Louise and Junior had picked another weekend to go meet everybody they’d be going to school with at different places in Atlanta. Third and Annabelle looked at him with blank, unreadable expressions, waited.
“Why?” Was all he could come up with.
“Because there’s no way in hell you’ll ever deliver these boats without her.”
“Ms. Monette can build boats?” He shifted his gaze her way. “Sorry, ma’am. You can build boats?”
“I can build anything. From custom sofas and speaker cabinets to pontoon airplanes and custom carbon fiber motorcycle frames.”
“No shit. Not by myself, but I can turn that barn full of rednecks you have in the swamp down there into a shop that builds custom, enclosed swamp boats, and make enough money doing it to keep them employed. Which is what they’re counting on you to do. You can’t do that buying scrap from your buddies in Tennessee and stopping in the Home Depot for router bits. For a while? Maybe. Long term, no way.”
“I thought we were doing okay. I mean…” He knew that was bullshit. They weren’t doing okay. Swamp Vue was a money pit that was eating a hole in his allowance from the settlement interest.
Annabelle spun a picture out of nowhere of one of Swamp Vue’s four-seaters being welded up, stuck a two-tone polished nail that matched her suit on the bow cover. “How many of this piece right here do you get from a sheet?” She wasn’t being a smart ass, or mean, and he could tell she knew more about what was going on at Swamp Vue from that one picture than he’d ever know.
“I don’t…Well, we don’t buy sheets, exactly. One? Two?”
“I worked for a man who built twelve sizes of speaker cabinets, sold thousands of them all over the world. I got on the computer with the designers and figured out how to cut what we needed for all twelve models out of expensive sheets of birch plywood with nothing left over but sawdust. And that’s what I want to do for Swamp Vue. And your people.”
“What’s that gonna cost me? Us?”
“Honey, money is not why I’m here. What motivates me is working with someone who can see, who involves people of all kinds who want to make it real. Down the road after I’ve made this work, which I will, we’ll turn it employee owned, make somebody a manager. I take a royalty check, add it to my resume and move on. Right now? You need to shut down building anything for a week or two, let me bring in three or four people to meet with everybody, assess what you have and what you need.”
“Or you can lead those people on and shut it down when your next big idea strikes and takes your attention and money away from Swamp Vue.” She kept her eyes locked on his face, sipped her drink. “People like you are my specialty, Bobby. We need each other. Third?”
“I know it sounds as off as week old roadkill for breakfast, but Annabelle and I talked it through, and decided Swamp Vue is a winner. You’re an idea man, Bobby. Knew it two minutes after I met you. And you’re as cheerful and honest a young soul as ever was. But otherwise, you ain’t got no more of a clue than a four-year old with a big ol’ bucket of Legos and too much free time.”
Bobby still couldn’t put it together. “You guys want to buy Swamp Vue?”
Annabelle put her hand on top of Bobby’s. “No. Hell no, baby. Third doesn’t want to be in the boat building business, he wants to be your boat distributor. I don’t want a boat company. I want to make yours work.”
She looked at Third, back to Bobby. “We have two more days to generate serious pre-sold boat numbers, gentlemen. I don’t want those people in Houma having time to look up. Bobby, leave the suit in the room and bring me Tom Sawyer the idea boy. I’ll call Montagne in for tomorrow and Sunday to close a few big players. We’ll take a day off, meet Tuesday morning in my office. Then we go to Houma for a spell, and it’s on.” She pushed her chair back.
“How come you and Third and some guy you know can sell my boats and I can’t?” He knew he’d come off as a kid when they gave each other that adult-parent look, and he started to get pissed off. Third grinned.
“Bobby, salesmen are just like lawyers. Everybody in business needs one, nobody likes them. Particularly crazy ones. To everybody who might be lookin’, you’re a crazy swamp kid in a new suit that don’t fit right, with a handful of pictures of crazy boats that are a crazy idea, and a machine shop full of crazier people building them for you like you’re the crazy boat Messiah. Which makes you the poster boy for crazy. You can’t sell your own boats because nobody wants to talk to you but other crazy people.”
“Then what am I supposed to do? Quit? Sell out? Let Swamp Vue go dead in the water ’cause it’s crazy?”
“Stop your worrying and listen to me, Mr. Bobby B.” Annabelle stood, picked up her clutch with one hand, finished her drink with the other. She set the glass down, locked his eyes with a look in hers that would have sent a Voodoo priest into the diaper service business. “I am Annabelle Monette. And I am how crazy gets done.”
Following Tuesday – Jackson, MS
“Goddam.” Bobby sat in the passenger seat of Arnault the Third’s F-250 after the longest Tuesday of his life, rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. “I just wanted to build some cool boats. I didn’t know about any of this shit…Computer assisted butt-wipe vendor selection. I mean, what if I like to have Charmin in the shitter in case I get a late starter? What if I do pay too much for it at Rouse’s? Lightbulbs? Router bits? Damn, Third…” He looked around the parking lot of the smallish three-story office building surrounded by trees just east of the Jackson airport. Third took a short swig from a silver flask, didn’t offer.
“Whatcha gotta do if you want to stay in business. Business people have to talk their shit. Like it’s a religion or something. Talk, talk, more talk. And we gotta listen. Get lawyers and salesmen and marketing or money folks involved and they talk some more. You got lawyered smart up front on the business end, cuts down on a lot of that shit, and between you and me nobody wants to do business with Liz Vernier. That’s good, ‘cause no matter who or what else you round up for day to day lawyering, knowing she’s there is enough to keep everybody honest.” He handed Bobby a business card. “This man here stays on top of who’s honest for you, including Annabelle and me. Even Liz Vernier.”
“Background Checks. Forensic Accounting Services? Why do I need all that?”
“Vendor and placement kickbacks, vendor financial stability, true discount structures. He’s an ex-FBI accountant who knows or can find out all about everybody you’re dealing with, can read your books forward and backward and reports to nobody but you. Spot a half-point skim all the way from Chicago. Best friend a business man can have. Honest, too. He shot a man once who tried to bribe him. Well, actually now, he shot the man twice. Or maybe three times. Anyways, once was just the only time anybody tried to bribe him and lived to tell about it.”
Third hit the flask again. “Ya know, Bobby. I don’t mind doin’ business. But if had to listen to business motherfuckers talk about doin’ business all the time like they do, I’d be an alcoholic.”
Bobby understood how Third felt, offered to drive. Third took him up on it, hit the flask again. Bobby glanced over and Third was gone before they got out of Jackson. He was a nice man, and no shit thank God Third and Annabelle had taken Swamp Vue of his shoulders and kept it real. But when Third slept in the car? He wasn’t angelic like Carrie Louise. In fact, along about Hattiesburg Bobby rolled the window down again and left it.