It will not surprise me one bit if you don’t believe what you are about to read. I have been known to stretch the truth now and then, but this happened just the way I’m going to tell you. I swear it did.
The day was like many before it, and I’m sure many after it. I was making my way through the delta region of California at the time, just wandering here and there, stopping now and then, admiring the views. You don’t get a lot of views on flat land. Did you know that? But, I think it was the effort that counted.
Damn, it was hot, though. I’ve been in hotter places, I surely have. The heat felt different here. MaryBeth, my neighbor at the time where I was staying, thought it might have been because there was no top on Old Grey. Old Grey is my Jeep. We’ve been together for quite a long time now. I used to call her Silver, in her younger days. You could hear me yell, if you’d been around, “Hi ho, Silver,” as I’d ride her for all she was worth when we bounced up and down the mountains, and out across the deserts of this fine country. Now days, though, she does more sleeping than she does anything else. I guess, at my advancing age, I’m not up to riding her like I used to, and I kind of think she might need the rest. She can still bounce and buck like a young un, but I’m kind of tore up after I’ve strapped myself in for a good ride. Takes me a couple of days to recover.
Well, it appears I’m getting off track. I want to tell you about that day in Rio Vista. Rio Vista is a quaint little town in the delta region of California, that place east of the San Francisco Bay that is intertwined with rivers, sloughs, farms, and roads, and not about some of the good times strapped in, behind the wheel, of the love of my life. No, I want you to experience that day in Rio Vista the way I did. I’m not sure you can do that, though, because my story telling days are many years in the past. I can’t spin a yarn like I used to. But, I’m going to try. It would probably be better, though, if you’d take the time to acquaint yourself with this fine town, and the gentleman who will soon take his place as the centerpiece of this story.
I started down Main Street of that friendly, little town, and came across the idea that I might be a tad bit thirsty. And, lo and behold I spied an establishment that looked like it just might meet my needs. You see, there were a couple of words associated with this lovely looking place that I am quite fond of. Food. Beer. Maybe not in that exact order, but I think you get the idea. Food and beer kind of go hand in hand, don’t you think? Or, should I say from hand to mouth?
I parked Old Grey in the first shady spot we happened upon, and wandered across the street to a friendly looking door that hung in a row with other friendly looking doors. I pulled the door open and stepped inside. At the time I didn’t pay the place much attention. I was thirsty and, given past history, I’d soon be hungry, so I propped my aging body onto an equally aging stool on the customer side of a polished bar. There were about half a dozen other people in the place, nursing drinks from bottles and glasses that sat on white little squares of paper on the bar, directly in front of them.
A couple of men were playing some sort of dice game where they’d drop their dice into these leather cups and shake the shit out them. Then they’d slam those cups down on the bar, open end down. You could hear those ivory cubes inside crashing onto the bar. Then those guys would pull the cups up and examine the dice that lay on the polished wood in front of them. They were talking about horses, and coming up, and maybe getting down. I don’t know. I didn’t pay them much attention. I was thirsty and figured it would behoove me to direct my efforts towards obtaining a beverage that would rehydrate me so that I might consider the food part of the advertisement that was displayed in the front window of this fine establishment.
The young lady that was tending the bar was nice enough to place the beer I ordered in front of me in an expeditious manner. At the time I thought she was concerned about my health, seeing as to how dehydrated I might have looked. But, after awhile I realized that she was just very good at her job. When glasses and bottles got close to running dry this vivacious young lady was there with a refill. She flirted with the men, talked to the ladies, and kept everyone well hydrated.
With my bottle of beer came a menu. I was seriously contemplating a bacon cheeseburger with all the trimmings when bursting through the door was a 5’2” whirling dervish who filled the room with his presence.
“Hot damn. Tina, my sweet love, can you grab me a cold one, and wander on down this way so you can warm this place up?”
He turned to me, sitting two stools away, and whispered, “I think that young lady could melt snow by just looking at it, don’t you? She’s what I’d call hot, don’t you think?”
The little guy jumped down off this stool, and transported himself from where he’d been to where he wanted to be without touching the ground. I swear it appeared as though he just floated on down to the other end of the bar. Quick, too.
“Hey, Tamby,” our young bartender was trying to get his attention, “you want your beer down here, or down there?”
“Just sit it there.” And, before long he was back again, two stools to my left. He picked up the longneck bottle and drained half the beer in one gulp.
“That lady, the one in the the red dress, that’s the mayor’s wife. Don’t tell him she’s been in here, though. We keep it a secret. She’s happier that way, you know. Tom’s the name. You’re new around here, aren’t you?”
I was having trouble keeping up with the man. Oh, I couldn’t help but see him. It was just that he was constantly moving, fast, and talking even faster. I should have known something was wrong right then, and there. The little guy was wearing tan shoes that curled up at the toes, bright green pants with a wide black belt and gold buckle, white shirt, and perched upon his head was a green hat. Did I mention that he had a head full of red hair and a neatly trimmed beard, red of course?
Before I could answer the little man was off the stool again, and back down to the other end of the bar talking to the mayor’s wife. I called the bartender down to my end of the bar.
“Excuse me, miss. Can I get another beer. And, who is that guy?”
“Tamby? He’s a doll. That’s not his real name, though. I’ve known him as Tambourine Tom for as long as I’ve worked here. He’s a regular fixture around this place. Him and the mayor’s wife. Maybe you can find out why he’s called Tambourine Tom. After a couple of years I just gave up asking. He doesn’t sit still long enough to carry on much of a conversation, though. Be right back.”
Tambourine Tom. He looked more like a leprechaun to me than anything else.
“Tina, bring me another.” He was back yelling down the bar to Tina. She was down there where he’d just been.
“Excuse me, sir. Did you say your name is Tom?”
“Yep. Been Tom as long as I can remember. Hey, Iris. You’re not leaving, yet, are you?”
He was off his stool, and headed towards the mayor’s wife who looked like she was trying to sneak out the back door. She didn’t make it.
“Dammit, Harry. I think you cheated. Ain’t no one can get that lucky that many times in a row.”
“Rod, you know damn good and well that I’m a better player than you. That’s two horses to none. You owe me another beer.”
There they went, talking about horses again. I was beginning to wonder what world I’d just stepped into.
“Yep. My momma named me Tom, but my daddy called me Jack. I never did know why because he left when I was four and I never got the chance to ask him.” He was back. I didn’t see him walk up. He just appeared.
“Didn’t the bartender call you Tamby?”
“Yeah, she’s the only one that does that. Has something to do with that Tambourine label Ellis hung on me back when I was in college. Harry, you and Rod up for some liar’s dice? You play liar’s dice, don’t you, stranger?”
Before I could answer Tom, Tamby, Jack jumped off his stool and was opening the front door. Everyone in the bar turned to look. In walked a man and woman as much out of place as I felt. As they stepped across the threshold Tom, Tamby, Jack swept his hat off his head, bowed deeply at the waist, and announced, “Welcome to the den of thieves, and the house of liars. Keep your hand on your wallet, and your lady at your side.” He turned towards the bar and yelled, “Tina, can you serve this handsome couple? And, put it on their tab.”
Before the door had a chance to close he was back, two stools to my left. He picked up his second beer, the first bottle resting, empty and alone, forgotten until our lovely bartender might rescue it from an inglorious existence showing off its emptiness for all to see, and drained a third of the cold brew in the bat of an eye. I was still trying to understand how Tom became Jack long before the arrival of the Tambourine. And what the hell did a tambourine have to do with all this in the first place when Tom, Tamby, Jack disappeared. Just like that he was gone.
A longneck bottle of beer, sat on the bar in front of an empty stool two spots to my left. I looked down to where the mayor’s wife had been sitting and she, too, was not where I had last seen her. The back door silently clicked shut. My newfound friend, Tom, Tamby, Jack was probably just escorting the lady in red out to her car. That’s what I thought, and that was the thinking I was going to stick with. At the time I didn’t realize that my thinking was like teflon, and was going to slide into another realm of existence when Tambourine Tom walked back into the room, with the mayor’s wife.