OH, MOOSE

                                                     A Harry Bartlett short story

                                                      by Robert J. Ainsworth, Jr.

Maine                                                                   A Sunday in  June

     The moose antler was close enough to the brim of Harry Bartlett’s white Red Sox cap that he could count individual velvety hairs. Megan Webster freed several entangled strands of her long auburn hair from the wriggling hoof that protruded through the windshield. The giant animal writhed on Harry’s car.

     “You okay?” Harry asked.

     “Better than our hitchhiker,” Megan said.

     A few seconds before, Harry was accelerating out of a sharp right curve on Lovell Road in Bridgton, Maine. The flat straight-away ahead was clear of traffic for at least a mile.  The roadside trees were packed together like riders on Boston’s Green Line trolley at rush hour.

     Somehow the moose found an opening and bolted out of the woods like it was fleeing a fire.  

     Harry had never been this up-close and personal with a moose before. The first time he saw the “Beware of Moose” signs along the Maine highways he thought the Department of Public Works was having fun with gullible tourists. His opinion changed when he saw one at the Maine Wildlife Park. It was gigantic, taller than a horse, with a solid body on spindly-legs and a head the size of a five-year-old child. The animal’s shoulder was as tall as Harry’s Crown Victoria sedans roof , and he was wider than the car from the tip of his nose to the end of his butt. His antlers could easily hold a dozen coats and added several feet to his height.

     The giant head turned as Harry leaned on his horn and stomped on his brakes. They were eyeball-to-eyeball for a split second before impact. The moose showed no recognition of the impending doom. Maybe it wasn’t afraid of a puny car or didn’t know what a car was. Perhaps it was just plain dumb.

     The front grille and bumper crunched into the legs and got the beast airborne. Of course, airborne is a relative term when applied to a 1,200-pound mammal.  Post-accident examination of scratches showed that he actually slid along the hood.

      Like many accident participants, Harry saw the collision in slow motion with legs and antlers and torso spinning wildly in a brown blur. In later story-telling, Harry said this was the opposite of Rocky and Bulwinkle: flying moose, not squirrel.

     The only lucky thing that happened was that the windshield didn’t buckle back into them; they wouldn’t have survived if it had. Instead, the body and head slid up the windshield. An antler and a leg caught the seam to the roof and peeled it back like a can of sardines.  Blue sky poked through the spots in the sunroof not occupied by fur. The animal’s gamey smell was overpowering at this close range. It bleated and bellowed and shuddered, rocking the car back and forth until the volume and strength rapidly diminished and then stopped entirely.  

     The engine was still running, but it was smoking and steaming. “We’d better get out of here,” Harry said.  

     Harry turned sideways. He laid across the front seat and Megan’s lap and kicked out the passenger window. Megan wormed her way out, avoiding the limbs that poked into the passenger compartment. Harry turned around  so his feet were six inches from the driver’s window; it let go with one solid kick. His big body was a challenge to squeeze through the small opening, but with twisting and turning he was finally out. Megan had already called “911” when he joined her across the road.

     They expected the police car. Harry and Megan told the officer what happened, and he examined the road, the Crown Vic in the roadside ditch, and the carcass to corroborate their story.

     “You’re lucky you drive a tank,” the officer said.

     Megan shot Harry a “don’t you dare say one word, not one damned word” look, and he refrained from commenting. When they were planning this romantic weekend get-away, Megan had suggested taking her bright red Mini Cooper, Harry had said that was fine except for needing to use the car’s front seat for their golf clubs. They’d taken his Crown Victoria sedan instead.

     They expected a tow truck for a haul to the nearest garage; the Crown Vic clearly wasn’t drivable in this condition. They didn’t expect the tow truck to have a BMW chassis combined with the usual back-end ramp setup.

     “Nice truck,” Harry said to the driver.  

     The tow truck driver introduced himself as Ray Junior and said they specialized in fixing moose-vehicle collisions.

     A few minutes later, a Mercedes-Benz pick-up truck with a winch attached to the bed parked next to Harry’s car. The license plate read “Rays Toys.”

     “Nicer truck,” Harry said and Megan nodded.

     “How did they know to show up?” Megan asked the officer.

     “They’re on the list,” the officer said.

     “List?” Harry asked.

     The officer removed a sheet of paper from his cruiser. “They listen to our calls. The Sheriff loves it. They get three months of moose steak without freezin’ their ‘nads off in the woods at dawn. We get a clean road. Simple. We call the next guy on the list. Ray Senior’s on it, but he gets first crack at it if they don’t answer, and Uncle Ray always picks up.”

     “Uncle Ray?” Megan asked.

      “Second cousin on my mom’s side,” the officer said.

     Harry watched the moose-removal operation. The first thing they did was shoot it between the eyes. It made sense to put the animal out of its misery, and moving a bucking moose couldn’t be a picnic.

     After the coup de grace, they ran a strap around the torso and tied the four limbs together. Then it was hoist away and into the back of the pick-up. It ended up six inches closer to the ground after the new load was added.    

     Harry crossed the road. Ray Senior was flicking a piece of moose carcass off his alligator boots.

     The woman passenger leaned across the driver’s seat; the diamond in her ring could’ve doubled as a sugar cube.  “Ray, baby, we’ve got that charity event to get to.”

     “They’ll wait for us, honey pie. We’re the donors.”

     Harry introduced himself. A giant Rolex clattered on Ray Senior’s left wrist. “You don’t see many of those around here,” Harry said, pointing to the truck.

     “It’s great in the snow,” Ray said. “You’re lucky to be alive, you know.”

     “Maybe I should tell Crown Vic to advertise it as “Moose Resistant,” Harry said.  

      “Junior will drive you back to the garage. We’ve got a car you can rent.”

     Harry climbed in the back of Ray Junior’s truck, and Megan took the front. That must’ve been to Ray Juniors' liking because he didn’t stop talking to her the entire half-hour ride.

     Harry was happy to be ignored. He pulled out his cell phone and opened up the Maine Wildlife Preservation website to the “Moose Accidents” tab.

     “Say, Ray, how many moose repairs do you do a year? Harry asked.

     “Geez, I don’t know, at least one or two a week,” Ray Junior said.

     “Must be a complete bumper-to-bumper job?” Harry asked.

     “Oh, yeah, 5 thou easy,” Ray Junior said. “A whole bunch over ten.”

     Harry did the simple math. 75 accidents times $7,500 per car equaled $625,000. 

     “And you sell the meat?” Harry asked.

     “Hey, we can’t eat it all,” Ray Junior said.

     Harry did more math: 500 pounds times $5 per pound times 75 accidents equaled $187,500.

     $812,500 went a long way in Maine.

     Ray Junior pulled into the collision company’s parking lot.

     “Ray, where’s your bathroom?” Harry asked. He followed the directions to the back of the building. Two rows of mangled cars and a working refrigerated cargo container were up against the back fence.   

     Harry locked the bathroom door behind him and pulled out his cell phone. He hit FL, and Frank Lawless’ dulcet tone answered. “ Frank Lawless, US Attorney for New England, speaking.”

     “Frank, Harry here.”

     “I thought you were on a romantic trip with Megan to see the puffins,” Frank said.

     “No, we decided to go moose hunting with my car instead,” Harry said. Harry gave Frank a blow-by-blow of the last hour. “Do you know someone you trust up in Portland?”

     “Sure, I went to law school with the local D.A.,” Frank said. “Why?”

     “I need someone to meet me at Ray’s Collision Repair in Bridgton,” Harry said.

     “He won’t just show up because you’re a swell guy,” Frank said.

     “What would you say if I told you that 25% of the reported moose accidents happened in Bridgton?” Harry asked.

     “I’d say it’s the moose equivalent of Miami Beach,” Frank said.

     “There’s another explanation,” Harry said and went through his reasoning.

     Frank gave Harry the D.A.’s number. “Tell Fred he wouldn’t have passed Contracts without me.”

     Harry called Fred Saugus, introduced himself, and passed along Frank’s remark about their Contracts course.

     “He’s a liar,” Fred said. “I helped him pass the damned course. Now, what do you need me for?” They talked for about ten minutes, and Fred agreed to meet Harry in an hour.

     “I’ll stall until you get here,” Harry said. He opened the bathroom door.

     Ray Senior was sitting on the hood of a damaged Tesla. “Tummy troubles?” he asked.

     “Maybe. Looking at moose antlers through a windshield is a new thing for me, “ Harry said. “But I’m okay now. Is there a place to grab a sandwich near here?”

     “Right across the street,” Ray Senior said.

     “Great, we’ll have something to eat, then rent one of your cars,” Harry said. 

     Megan was waiting patiently in the office part of the repair building, reading two-year-old copies of Skinners Journal. The cover story was “Working Around the Ears.”

     “I thought you’d fallen in,” Megan said.

     “You want details?” Harry said.

     “No way. Just commenting. New subject. I’m hungry. A moose burger might be interesting.”

     “Lobster sounds better,” Harry said, and they dodged traffic and entered an old-fashioned dining car across the street. They ordered lobster rolls with coleslaw and fresh corn on the cob and agreed not to talk about the moose incident. They kept to their word until about an hour had passed.

     “You keep looking for something across the street. What are you up to?” Megan asked. “And don’t tell me nothing. You’re as easy to read as a Dr. Seuss book.”

     “I’ll give you one clue,” Harry said. “How many moose are killed by cars and trucks in Maine?”

     Before she could answer, an official-looking gray sedan pulled into Ray’s parking lot. Two Maine State Police SUV’s parked alongside.

     “The cavalry has arrived,” Harry said, and they crossed to meet Fred.

     They’d finished their introductions when Ray Senior approached.

     “Okay, I’ve had enough of this crap,” Ray said. “You can have your car back, mangled and all. Get someone else to fix it. And you,” he pointed to Fred,” you can drive them there.”

     “You’re the only one going anywhere,”  Fred said and showed his D.A. id card. “You’re under arrest for insurance fraud.”

     “What, I help the moose’s family double-dip for their injuries and for life insurance?” Ray Senior asked.

      “I only have one question,” Harry said.  “What does a collision repair shop need with a  walk-in freezer? Speed-cooling beer for the boys after work? More space for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream?” Harry pulled a frozen block of something from his backpack and tossed it to Ray Senior. “I think it’s to hold moose meat and fur for your productions of “Moose I’ve Killed while Driving.”, a continuing play in as many acts of insurance fraud.”   

      “I fix cars and trucks. Simple business.”

     “You’d need to fix 10 Bentley’s and sell enough moose meat to feed an army to pay for your cars and jewelry,” Harry said.

     “Get the hell off my land,” Ray said.  

     “No problem,” Harry said. “Megan has one question, and then we’ll leave.”

     Ray stood with his arms folded like the Mr. Clean character.  

     “How did you pay the car owners to let you beat their car with a sledgehammer and slop moose blood and fur all over it? Was it a flat amount or a percentage?” Megan asked, cell phone  in hand.

     “Get the hell out of here,” Ray said and swatted at the device.

     Megan was ready and jerked out of his range. “Did you get that, Harry?”

     Ray turned. Harry had his cell phone pointed at them. “Got it,” Harry said.


There once was a couple who liked bling

Their money came from insurance lying

They faked damaged cars

And spent like movie stars

‘Til Harry exposed their false billing.              

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