I was like a lot of kids right out of high school, no clue what to do and not trying too hard to figure it out. Growing a beard and playing video games had been the plan but about three months after graduation, my parents caught on.
“Jeff, your mother and I are okay with you not going to school right now, but you need some direction. You can’t just fart around all the time,” my dad said. “I got you a job. Uncle Frank’s friend Mike needs some help loading a crate onto his boat and then getting it in the water. Fifty bucks for two hours work.”
Walking the tight rope between total slacker and minimal effort was a job unto itself, but I couldn’t push my folks too hard. It’s not like I could even afford my own car, so my dad dropped me off at the marina.
“Dad, I know nothing about launching a boat and Uncle Frank hangs out with weirdos.”
“I’m sure it’s fine. Think of it as a life lesson. You never know, you might discover your true calling,” he said patting me on the back.
A guy in a Whitesnake t-shirt waited for me next to a pickup with a busted headlight and a plastic bag duct-taped over the passenger side window. A 17-foot fishing boat with an old beat up outboard motor sat on a trailer behind him.
“I’ll take good care of him,” Mike said waving to my dad. He turned to me. “Thanks for the help, man. Frank said you were a good kid.” He waited a minute until my dad drove away. ”You think you could help me deliver this? It’s going to be a pain on the other end. I’ll throw in an extra twenty.”
I begrudgingly agreed.
Written across the side of Mike’s crate in big red letters were the words Live Animals. He told me they were dogs. Didn’t sound like any dogs I had ever heard, but what did I know? After he schooled me on how to launch a boat, we loaded the crate, backed up the trailer, and eased the fishing boat into the water. The plan was to rendezvous with another boat near the bay and drop it off. Easy seventy bucks.
I climbed aboard and we drove it downriver, past the harbor and followed the coast for a mile or two until we found what we were looking for.
The seafaring vessel we came upon might have been considered a boat by some, but to me it looked like a ridiculously huge luxury yacht. We pulled along the starboard side and tied off. A dangerously tanned older gentleman with sun bleached blond hair and a gold chain around his neck leaned over the rail. He was not happy to see me.
“Who the hell is this, Mike? You know the rules. Our employers do not like new people,” Mr. Coppertone said.
“He’s my brother’s kid,” he lied. “The shipment was bigger than usual, and I needed an extra hand. I know you’re not going to help me.”
I kept my mouth shut while everyone talked about me like I wasn’t there.
“If they find out, it’s your ass.” The grumpy man with the leathered skin ordered us to bring the crate aboard. We hoisted it onto the yacht and then we both grabbed an end to stow it below deck. It was just heavy enough that I had to watch my balance.
Why I chose to wear flip-flops that day is beyond me. Guess it was evidence of my level of commitment to hard work at that time in my life. The toe of my flop bent under my foot and I surged forward, shoving Mike back into the rail. He squealed when the corner of the crate dropped and smashed his toe, then it toppled over and spilled everything out onto the deck.
I imagine the packing slip attached to the side of the box might have read: two small and very excitable howler monkeys, because that’s exactly what appeared. No bigger than house cats with jet black fur and wide mouths, those little creatures rolled out of their prison, screeching like banshees. They were gone in an instant.
“Shit,” Mike cringed and raced off after them, grabbing me by the arm. “We gotta get ‘em.”
Mr. Coppertone went into a rage. He barked at me, “Go topside and cut ‘em off.”
Who was I, The Crocodile Hunter? I had no idea how to wrangle a vine-swinging primate from the Amazon. I acknowledged the order with a feeble “sure thing” like an idiot and bounded up the stairs. I reached the second level lounge and found the howlers yelping and screaming, tossing couch pillows back and forth and ripping them apart with their teeth. They were having the time of their lives.
That’s when I heard the sirens. I ran to the window to see what was going on. “Hey guys,” I shouted. “Why is the Coast Guard here?”
Approaching quickly over the horizon was a speedboat driven by intimidating looking men in uniforms holding large rifles. I heard a loud bullhorn and the words “STOP” and “ILLEGAL ACTIVITIES.”
Mr. Coppertone charged into the lounge and shoved me aside, yanking open a cabinet. To my dismay, inside were numerous machine guns hanging on racks which he then proceeded to remove and load with banana clips. I swear I heard him utter the words “they’ll never take me alive,” but I could be wrong.
Mike ran in and pointed me to a door at the far end of the lounge. “Kitchen! Fruit!” he ordered in desperation.
Took me a second to realize he didn’t need a snack. I ran through a fog of down feathers floating in the air and burst into the galley kitchen. I dumped a box of produce onto the counter and discovered nothing but massive amounts of Kale. Who the hell needs that much Kale? I flung open the fridge. It was packed with at least fifteen bottles of Cristal champagne but no fruit. Don’t rich people eat? I slammed it shut in frustration.
The sirens and the bullhorn were getting louder and by the sound of it, the monkeys were enjoying themselves way too much. Finally, I grabbed something off a shelf and ran back to the lounge.
“What the hell are those?” Mike shouted.
“Crème brulée, I think?” I responded. “With raspberries.”
He snatched a ramekin out of my hand. “Get that one.” He pointed to the closest monkey. “We just need to calm ‘em down.”
We approached with soft voices trying to coax the monkeys off the couch. They noticed the treats in our hands and dropped the remnants of their pillows. My monkey moved a step closer and sniffed his dessert, then took a taste. He liked it.
Mike whispered, “Pick him up.”
Pick him up? We didn’t even have a dog at home. He urged me on, so I reached out and petted my little hairy friend. He looked at me and licked a little raspberry compote off my finger. It worked. The monkeys climbed into our arms like a couple of toddlers. Mike quickly snapped leashes onto the collars around their necks.
“Somebody talked,” Mr. Coppertone fumed. He stared out the window, loading ammo into an excessive number of rifles and becoming more agitated by the minute.
“Hey Mike, are we in trouble?” I asked in a shaky voice.
He grabbed me by the shoulders and took me aside. “If they find those monkeys on board, we’re all going to jail. I’m sorry I got you into this, but we have to get them out of here now.”
“Get lost,” Mr. Coppertone said. “I’ll handle these jerks. No way in hell they’re taking me back.”
I couldn’t argue with that. We left Rambo in the lounge lining up grenades along the windowsill and ran to the fishing boat. I shimmied down the ladder on the side of the yacht as fast as I could. Mike handed me the monkeys one by one. They were pleased as punch to plop down on the bench seat and finish their creamy delicacies. I secured them to the rail with the leashes.
“Start it up,” Mike hollered as he rushed to climb down the ladder.
I got the motor running and fumbled to untether us from the yacht. The bullhorn was much closer, and I could clearly hear what was being said: “TURN OFF YOUR ENGINE! YOU ARE TRAFFICKING IN ILLEGAL WILDLIFE!”
Mr. Coppertone was evidently trying to evade capture because the yacht began to move. The fishing boat drifted and within seconds, it was too far away for Mike to jump from the ladder. I hit the throttle to try to inch closer, but being the stellar helmsman that I was, I widened the gap by accident.
“Get back here,” Mike shouted.
It was too late. I was a good forty feet away. On the other side of the yacht the Coast Guard shouted, “SHOW ME YOUR HANDS!”
Mike did what any reasonable person would have done in his situation and dove into the ocean.
I had no idea if he was dead or not, but there was no time to look for him. I ran through the options in my head: (a)surrender the monkeys and most likely go to jail, (b)join Charles Bronson and go down in a hail of bullets, or (c)creep away as quietly as possible. I chose the latter.
While the authorities had their hands full with my new leathery skinned friend, I discreetly nudged the gas and steered towards the shore like I was out for a leisurely stroll around the bay. The size of the yacht camouflaged my measured escape until I was out of view. It wasn’t long before gunshots echoed across the water in the distance. I managed to bushwhack my way back to the marina and dock next to the boat launch.
I felt terrible for taking off on Mike, but I had the cynical suspicion he might have done the same. The keys to his truck were hanging on the ring in the ignition of the boat. I cut the engine and glanced around the docks. Lucky for me, I was alone. But for how long?
“What now, guys?” I said to the howlers. I found a backpack in the boat and lured them inside with a half empty bag of Doritos.
There was no way I was turning myself in. At that age there was nothing more important than not getting caught. I couldn’t just ditch the monkeys and I had no idea if Mike would ever show. There was about half an hour before dad was going to pick me up, so I had to do something fast. With no other option, I hopped in Mike’s truck and headed to the zoo. Sounds stupid, but it was the best I could come up with at the time. I bought a ticket, found the exhibit, and let them loose. They headed for a hammock and made themselves right at home. Anything was better than being a prop on some rich guy’s yacht. I said my goodbyes and made it back to the boat launch minutes before my dad showed up.
“Where’s Mike?” he said.
“He had to go find an ATM. It’s all good. I’ll get it later.”
“So, you going to be a sailor now?”
“You don’t sail a motorboat, dad.”
“See? Already an expert,” he said with a fatherly chuckle as we parked in the driveway of our house. Mom was in the window waving at us.
I stopped him before he got out of the car. “I was thinking about something today,” I said.
“Maybe I’ll go to veterinary school?”
He smiled and patted me on the leg. I never did get my seventy bucks.