Years later, Big Rosco would admit Taco Charlie had been right all along, but by then it was too late. Every trace of the Palace was gone. Even the memories only hung around in Big Rosco’s dilapidated, beer-stained brain. He still insisted that owning his mistake made him the better man. Loretta said it just proved he was the stubbornest cuss in the county. And everyone said she oughta know.
Back in the day, the only thing that set Big Rosco apart was his ears. Loretta swore she never would’ve given him a second look if it hadn’t been for those jumbo head-handles of his. Pete the Razorback called him Dumbo once, but Loretta wouldn’t have it.
“Elephant ears are loose and flabby,” she said, demonstrating by flapping her arms and hands like a double-jointed chicken. “Rosco’s got muscle in them things. He could hang from the Tuscaloose Bridge by ’em, safe as you please. A crane could pick him up from one just like a coffee cup. You could eat my three bean soup off ’em and never spill a drop.”
Loretta commissioned Sweeney the Artist to make double-handled mugs and bowls in the shape of Big Rosco’s face. She sold ’em for a buck a piece as Palace souvenirs. The Palace Gift Shop had never sold more than the occasional recipe book (which didn’t include a single one of Loretta’s top-secret patented pie flavors), but everything graced with Rosco’s awe-inspiring auditory organs flew off the shelves. Soon mugs and bowls weren’t enough. Folks wanted postcards and bumper stickers, clocks and thermometers, letter openers and door knockers. One fellow even asked for a coat rack. With Sweeney’s help, Loretta obliged them all. Nobody could ever say Loretta didn’t know how to turn a profit off her friends.
She marketed the stuff as Ugly Mug merchandise. Even got a passing lawyer from Atlanta to file the trademark papers in exchange for a year’s free membership to the Pewhasset Palace Pie-of-the-Month Club. A lesser man than Rosco might’ve been hurt or insulted by the name Ugly Mug. But Rosco took it as an honor to be singled out for such distinction by Pewhasset’s number one businesswoman.
“Loretta turns on the charm for all her customers,” he insisted. “But you don’t see her investing in their likeness, now, do you?”
It wasn’t long before Big Rosco’s Ugly Mug made it onto the billboards. The Palace billboards were legendary. The Old Timer said they were better than Burma Shave signs. It took Loretta six months and half her life savings just to get them installed, but she maintained they were worth it, and not a soul in Pewhasset Flats would’ve said otherwise.
The first billboard was planted at Interstate Exit 22. Glittering silver letters spelled out “See the Pie in the Sky at Pewhasset Palace.” There was a cartoon of a wide-eyed freckle-faced kid about to take a bite out of a flying slice of boysenberry pie. The pie even had angel wings and a halo. The best part about the deluxe billboards was the animatronics. The wings on that boysenberry pie actually flapped. On the billboard at Interstate Exit 23, “Keep your Eyes on the Pies,” two huge eyeballs rolled round in their sockets while a giant arm scooped up a piece of lemon-ginger meringue over and over in an endless ode to the gastronomical prowess celebrated at the annual Pewhasset Pie-eating Contest. The last billboard stood just before Interstate Exit 24. A flock of wooden blackbirds arced back and forth over the slogan “Try Our Four-and-Twenty-Blackbird Special.” Beneath the slogan, a giant set of mechanized teeth chomped a half-moon bite big as a bus in a slice of chocolate-espresso cream.
Each of the deluxe billboards had a distance countdown in fake neon:
“Only 10 miles to the Pewhassest Pie Palace!”
“6 more miles to the Pewhasset Pie Palace!”
“You’ve reached the one and only exit for the Pewhasset Pie Palace!”
Once folks got off at Exit 24, there were mini-billboards all the way to the Palace listing every one of Loretta’s 331 pie flavors (“Better than Baskin Robbins!”). But it was the deluxe interstate billboards that pulled in the tourists.