Unlike most of my stories, this one ends with me in court.
Like most of my stories, it centers around my boobs.
I’ve spent most of my life denying the fact, avoiding it, and trying to stop saying “fixin’ to,” but the hard, cold fact is that I am a hillbilly, born and Texas-bred.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Foxworthy or Cable Guy, that’s fully-realized hillbillization. They’re Jedi Zen Master level hicks. I’m the other kind. The secret kind. I’ve learned to look like you, and in most cases sound like you. I read, for example. In fact, I read McSweeney’s and Sedaris. I read Pulitzers and Oprah books. I don’t always understand it, but I put in the time.
I’m from Grand Prairie, Texas. I went to Grand Prairie High School, home of the mighty fighting blue gopher. I always thought it was kind of mean, to give a bunch of hillbilly kids a bucktooth mascot. But, so it was.
One of the best things about being a hillbilly is the company you keep.
One of my very best friends, Ray, is full-on redneck, in the best way. He fills horse troughs with water, heats it with propane tanks, and calls it a hot tub. He hosted a New Years’ Eve party at the original chicken ranch (that’s a whorehouse, friends). And when he sends you an invite to his houseboat party that says: Come to Naked Island, bring beer, you hightail it out to Lake Austin.
When I say houseboat, don’t get too excited. Ray’s not rich; he’s crafty. He likes to buy things at police auctions. And he likes things he can “party” on.
This is the most rickety-ass, barely-floating houseboat ever to leave shore, and it barely did that. It’s basically a flat, barge-like bottom, maybe thirty feet long by fifteen or twenty feet across, with a shack on top. It was the kind of thing that if it were to all crumble into pieces and sink to the bottom, no one would be surprised and we’d have only ourselves to blame. It holds about eight people comfortably and we had upwards of twenty at any given time.
Life jackets. Ray was VERY particular about life jackets. We bought extras. When new people joined us, they had to bring their own. Ray likes to party, but like anyone committed to the long-term party lifestyle, he knows you have to follow the rules to get to keep doing it.
And we’re off.
Clothes, that is. Once we set sail, everybody showed skin. Out came the beer and off came the clothes as we floated downstream. I was shy at first, but luckily everyone supported me by throwing ice cubes at my head till I took off my top. The music was loud as the boys danced around, in their Animal Speedo’s. This is a boy-thong with an animal on the front. Little felt pieces, like you might use to make a puppet, depict an animal, such as an elephant, right on the junk part. Guess what goes in the trunk part? You get it. The guys were heroically representing the animal kingdom with their crotches.
The night of Fourth of July, we parked amid a big group of boats, yachts and houseboats in a large, lakey cul de sac. All were bigger and nicer than ours, but none more fun, drunk, loud or nakeder. We were part of hundreds of Austinites, all out to enjoy the city’s best view of our nation’s celebratory fireworks.
I’m not sure when the singing started. There’s something about having been drunk for two days, semi-to-fully naked, waterlogged, sitting atop a barely-legal houseboat in the middle of lots of people at night that makes you think you can do whatever the hell you want. We’d worked our way through all the America songs we could think of, and were possibly in the middle of a top-of-our-lungs rendition of “Rainbow Connection” when Texas Parks and Wildlife officers boarded the boat. They boarded us for just being loud (technically: disturbing the peace) but what they found was that we were also naked, drunk, and possibly a few life jackets short.
Law enforcement is a big party bring-down. It went from festive to bummer in a nanosecond. We all had to go inside and sit while the water cops counted the life jackets. He claimed we were two short.
We sat a moment in tense silence, until it was broken by a drunky voice belonging to my buddy Colby who said, “Laura has big boobs, maybe they could count as flotation devices.”
Turns out, they couldn’t. We were all hauled back to shore, four at a time, on cop boats. And Ray was given a ticket.
I ended up on the same boat as Ray and his friend Jamie, a semi-reformed hillbilly who works as an artist in Virginia. If it were me, I’d be so glad it was only a ticket, not an arrest for being drunk and naked and loud around a bunch of families on Independence Day weekend, but Ray was livid. He swore he’d fight the ticket. He had life jackets, dammit, and they couldn’t prove he didn’t have enough. Jamie announced her revenge, she was going to pee on the cop boat. Then she did.
Six months later, I found myself back in Austin and Ray asked me to testify in court. It’s unbelievable to me he was still fighting the ticket, but there’s no stopping a hillbilly who believes he’s been wronged. I agreed because I was there doing stand-up and didn’t have anything else to do that day. Except maybe, one errand. It’s not important.
We go to court, not the downtown courthouse, but one of those strip mall numbers with the plywood paneling. I believe ours was tucked between a Ninety-nine cent store and a newly remodeled Tantastic. Ray opted to represent himself and chose to wear a vintage off-white suit. Why he felt he needed to dress like Boss Hogg, I don’t know. I think he was going for effect. What effect? I can’t say.
Only a few of us were willing or able to make it. They’re fair-weathered friends, the naked houseboat party crowd. We met out front and Ray told us the game plan: say whatever you have to so he doesn’t have to pay the ticket. Simple enough. I was in. Jeff, our tall hipster friend, was in until he realized this is a real court, and this could involve real perjury. He was out. Chuy said he’d say anything to anyone at anytime. He was double in.
The judge welcomed us and started the proceedings. We were counting on the officer who boarded not showing, so it would all be dismissed. But there he was. Man, that guy must’ve hated us. He took the stand, said he didn’t remember a lot of the details, but they did get complaints of noise and boarded the boat. When he did, he found it was over capacity and there were not enough life jackets. He counted only twelve. He added that many people on board were extremely intoxicated. As proof, he cited an example of what someone said. He turned his copy of the ticket over, because he’d written it down. He read, “Laura has big boobs, maybe they could count as flotation devices.’” The judge asked if Laura was present. I stood, “I am Laura, and these are my boobs.” There were titters.
It was Ray’s turn. Baby Matlock walked to the front of the court. He asked the officer a simple question: How many people were on the boat?
He hemmed, he hawed, he wasn’t sure. At least fifteen, but possibly twenty.
Ray pressed, “But you didn’t write that number down? So you don’t actually know that we were short any life jackets, do you?”
The officer didn’t.
I was called to the stand. Ray made a point to remind the court of my god-given, non-regulation chest floaties, then asked me if I remembered how many people were on the boat. I didn’t.
Chuy took the stand and emphatically said the same.
Ray made a plea to the judge. I’m pretty sure he was pacing back and forth effectively working the room as he said, “Your honor, no one knows how many people were on the boat. No one can know. It can never be known. I read the ‘Texas Parks and Wildlife’ handbook. I took the safety course. I went out of my way to follow the rules so my friends could have a good time, but people came and went and who knows exactly who was there when the officer boarded. He didn’t write down the number. I don’t think I should be punished when there’s no proof of wrongdoing.”
If he’d had a mic, he woulda dropped it.
We forced ourselves to maintain composure and not applaud. But it was that awesome movie moment when you know you want to. Ray sat, silently victorious.
The judge, one of the good good ol’ boys, grinned and said, “You know, I got a boat myself and I like to head out to the lake and raise a little hell now and again. But you got to follow the rules. It’s dangerous out there. Add in some drinking and it can get crazy pretty dern quick. But you seem to have tried to follow the rules, and, truth is, we don’t know how many people were on that boat. Dismissed.”
We jumped and applauded and cheered and whooped. The prosecuting attorney leaned across to Ray and said this was the most fun she’d had at work in years. We headed off to some sort of gator-themed Cajun place to celebrate with fried food and Hurricanes. The bill: $257. What the ticket would have cost: $150.
Cuz that’s how hillbillies party.