Money can’t buy happiness, but it can substantially upgrade the quality of your misery. Take me, for example. It’s a crisp morning in southwest Georgia, and I’m holding a slim Italian-made 20-gauge at port arms as I stride through the brush. The engraving of quail and dogs on it cost the eyesight of untold craftsmen, and the Circassian walnut stock has a grain like a Damascus blade, flashing purple highlights when the sun hits it. A hundred yards ahead, past the wire grass and plots of milo and sunflower, I can make out the well-muscled haunches of English pointers that receive more daily attention than those of Jennifer Lopez.
Suddenly, the dogs turn to marble. Jack, Thommy, and I pull even with each other. Jack Unruh, whom I had never met before, is the illustrator whose depictions of me as a clueless nimrod on this page have brought squeals of joy from my daughters. We arranged to meet in Georgia so I could finally confront him about this, man to man. But he disarmed me by sneaking up on me at the baggage carousel at the airport and whispering, “You’re even uglier in real life.” Thommy is a friend of Jack’s from way back. He owns about 9 billion acres of land managed exclusively for wild quail, and I am looking for the right moment to tell him that I want to be his new best friend.
We pause, awaiting Thommy’s nod, then advance. The birds erupt-always the same, yet always startling-and scatter like jazz musicians, each riffing wildly on the theme of “downwind and fast.” Jack is a pretty good shot. Armed with this self-pointing stick, even I make a pretty sight every so often. But Thommy, toting a .410 soda straw (albeit a Purdey), plucks them down with a single-mindedness that Old Scratch himself would admire. He is the best shot I have ever seen. After a while, even the .410 seems like too much gun.
Growing conditions below the Mason-Dixon Line are especially suited to larger-than-life characters like Thommy, who combines scandalous amounts of old money and charm, plenty of horsepower upstairs, and a hint of insanity from having been on the losing side in the Civil War (don’t take this the wrong way; it runs in my own family).
“My ancestors were quite successful raising cotton and tobacco, and Daddy did the same in peanuts,” he tells me while we rotate in a fresh pair of dogs. “But my personal cash flow improved dramatically upon my father’s death, when I was 19.” Thommy’s father, a flinty fellow who could afford any gun on earth, hunted with a battered Remington Model 11 with a Cutt’s compensator. Fancy guns were for fools. You showed your respect for the birds with your shooting ability. His pleasure must have been keen when his only son took to quail hunting right out of the box. Thommy shot his first limit by age 9 and was a nationally ranked skeet shooter as a teen. He knew without being told to conceal his yearning for fancy firearms.
[NEXT “Story Continued…”] “There are people around here who will tell you that I ordered my first Purdey before my father was in his grave. Not so. It was the Monday morning after the service. At which time I ordered three.
“I knew Daddy wouldn’t have approved, and I regret that. In fairness to myself, however, he had his own secrets. One was that his grandfather had come to Georgia to escape hanging for horse thievery in Virginia. Another was that I am actually the child of a woman he met only once and sent off to New Orleans with a trust fund.” Although this seemed quite a confession, it was clear Thommy wasn’t telling me anything he hadn’t told many others. And you don’t really talk to men like Thommy. You listen, nodding in the appropriate places.
I made a double late in the hunt, a sensation so sweet that I wanted nothing so much at that moment as the financial wherewithal to experience it regularly. But time moves fast in Fat City, especially with a shot like Thommy. We had our limit by earlly afternoon, and he left soon after, driving north to check out a promising dog.
Jack and I drove back to our motel, where I found the smell of Lysol unexpectedly welcome, returning me to a world I recognized. We cleaned the birds outside and iced a dozen. The remaining 12 we dredged in flour and pan-fried in the kitchenette. We sat on the parking-lot curb just outside our room, the grease spot on the paper towel between us spreading as the birds disappeared. Sipping pricey bird-trip Scotch from paper cups, we watched the red sun slip into the slotted horizon. I found myself envying Thommy, yet relieved to be back from cloud nine. “You know what it is?” I said to Jack. “I’m too screwed up to have that much money. I couldn’t handle it.”
Jack sipped his whiskey and smiled. “Aw, don’t worry. I don’t think it’s going to happen.” We touched paper cups and drank again. Then, realizing I’d just been insulted, I leaned over and took the last bird for myself.