The Journal of Prevarication
Here lies Jim Cook
Our foreman, Carpet Tack, slammed the screen door as he stomped into my office, muttering, “I quit!”
Carpet Tack said that Sister Julia, in a fit of pique, had disemboweled a ripe cantaloupe and put the proceeds into his bed in the bunkhouse. He brought a paper plate of seeds and slimy pulp to show me.
I swear, some days running the Wickenburg Institute for Factual Diversity is like running a day-care center, not a think tank. I majored in English when I should have studied crackpot management.
Our foreman has always been called Carpet Tack because in full costume, he resembles such a tack. He is thin and wiry. He wears old-fashioned cowboy boots with a 24/8ths heel–that’s three inches–and his lid is a broad-brimmed black hat.
The Tack is something of a legend. For about a century, Humphreys Peak north of Flagstaff, the highest point in Arizona, was purported to top out at 12,672 feet elevation. In 1986, the U.S. Geological Survey revealed that the peak was only 12,643 feet tall.
There are lingering rumors that Carpet Tack took the top twenty-nine feet off the mountain and sold it to Kansas. That state wanted a mountain range so Kansas school kids could experience mountains.
The Tack was never prosecuted, but when he confessed to me that he had stolen the mountaintop and shipped it to Topeka by rail, I had to hire him. He’s not only a master storyteller, but the best frog wrangler around, and a trustworthy frog wrangler is not easy to find in the West.
The Hassayampa River Frog Farm is the only profitable part of the Looking Cross Ranch. The ranch has supported the Institute and its subsidiaries since Miss Ellie and I ran through our personal fortunes.
The WIFD also has under its umbrella the Hearsay Trust, a bonanza of misinformation about Arizona; the Cholla Project, which seeks to determine why there are twenty-nine kinds of cholla cactus and what can be done about it; and Miss Ellie’s endeavor, the Atkins Foundation, which collects things. Her collection rivals the Smithsonian Institution, but operates less expensively.
Sister Julia, our librarian and archivist, is a case. She’d argue with a rock. However, the former nun is our liaison with the Wickenburg campus of the University of Maryland, and we rely on UM-W for research support.
Sister Julia tries to sabotage Carpet Tack because she is an animal rights zealot. She thinks it’s cruel to raise frogs just for their legs. But upscale Scottsdale restaurants pay a premium price for the frogs, and we need the money.
Miss Ellie is chancellor of the Institute, and I could not ask for a more loving and supportive partner. However, she sides with Sister Julia on the matter of the frog legs. I walk a razor’s edge.
Fibber, the tap-dancing schnauzer who is our mascot, also lobbies for animal rights, but he’s not fond of Sister Julia. I hired her because she had the audacity to sneak a bust of W.C. Fields in among the statuary at a Phoenix cathedral.
A husky fellow named Cap, who used to command the U.S. Coast Guard station here in Wickenburg, is our all-around handyman, troubleshooter, I.T. specialist and bouncer. Cap has a pet pelican named Rusty, and a wealth of fish stories.
Our full-time staff is rounded out by Melanie, the business manager. She’s gorgeous and stable, a former astronaut who is also a direct descendant of Scarlett O’Hara.
Melanie and I often compare genealogy. I rarely boast of my lineage, but I’m a descendant of Captain James Cook, the famed English explorer; on my mother’s side, I am descended from the Mogollons.
Captain Cook discovered Australia and Hawaii. The Hawaiians claimed they had already found the islands, and in 1779, they killed Cook.
Aside from that one unfortunate incident, Cook was a good leader, and I wish I had inherited those skills. I worked my way through the latest crisis with Carpet Tack. I told him I’d talk to Sister Julia about putting cantaloupe innards into his bed, but I was purposely vague about when that conversation might take place.
We both knew that Carpet Tack didn’t really want to quit. He’s in love with Melanie. I see them down by the ponds in the light of early evening, holding hands and listening to the mating calls of the frogs.