Loretta took a special pride in keeping those deluxe billboards clean and spanking fresh. She paid double for the mechanics from Mike’s Garage to maintain the motors in good working order and spot-check the boards after every big storm. On the weekends, she’d be out there with a long-handled mop to scrub off the pigeon droppings and a pair of hedge clippers to cut back any overgrown kudzu that might obscure the view. For special occasions, she gave each board the once over with Lemon Pledge and a custom-made dust mop.
When the Ugly Mug merchandise took off, Loretta gave the kid on the billboards Big Rosco’s giant-eared face. Hardly had to change it at all, and Sweeney the Artist did the touch-ups on a discount. The whole thing put a swagger in Rosco’s step and swelled his head ’til it just about matched the size of his ears.
The day Taco Charlie blew into town, Big Rosco was posing for a new deluxe billboard set to go up at Interstate Exit 21. It was fixing to be bigger and better than all the rest. Big Rosco was paying for it himself with a second mortgage on his house. Rumor had it he’d taken more than a liking to Loretta and the billboard was his idea of a grand romantic gesture. Couldn’t keep it secret from Loretta, of course. She had to have her say every step of the way.
Sweeney the Artist helped rig up a throne made of pies and Big Rosco sat on top wearing a pie-tin crown. There were two slogans in the running for the new billboard: “Get Crowned at the Pewhasset Palace” and “Visit the Pewhasset Pie King.” At the moment Taco Charlie walked in the door, Rosco and Loretta were haggling over the wording while Sweeney wrestled to balance that pie-tin crown on Big Rosco’s ears.
Taco Charlie stood about five feet tall in his buckaroo boots. He dressed like a high-class rodeo clown—silver spurs on his heels, brown and white cowhide chaps over store-bought black jeans, starched scarlet shirt with white embroidered lassos on the pockets and mother-of-pearl buttons, a set of 24-karat cuff links in the shape of bucking broncos, and a snakeskin belt with a brass horseshoe buckle big as two fists. The one thing lacking was a 10-gallon hat. Taco Charlie kept his head bare to show off a full mane of the thickest, waviest blue-black hair you ever saw. Wasn’t a woman in town wouldn’t own a secret desire to run her fingers through Taco Charlie’s matinee-idol locks.
Then there was that handlebar mustache. It stretched from one side of his face clear to the other. Some say it was the mustache made Big Rosco cast Charlie as the villain at first sight. Too many dime-store westerns. Others say it was Taco Charlie’s first words that set Big Rosco off: “Still hanging onto the past, I see.”
Sweeney the Artist dropped the pie-tin crown. It clattered to the floor and wobbled round on its edges for a good 30 seconds. Sweeney turned to Loretta with a look of panic. “I told you we should’ve gone with that UFO theme!”
“There’s never been a single UFO sighting in Pewhasset Flats!” Loretta countered.
The Old Timer raised a finger like he was fixing to argue the point. Taco Charlie cut him off. “Wouldn’t matter if you used flying pigs.” He hitched his thumbs through his belt loops. “In six weeks’ time, those billboards will be ob-SO-lete.”
Loretta’s skin pulled tighter than a bad face-lift. Mouth, eyes, even her nostrils, narrowed right down to penciled-in lines. She drew herself up to supermodel height, taking full advantage of her silver spiked heels. “Are you casting aspersions on my advertisements?”
Most red-blooded males in Pewhasset Flats naturally approached Loretta with a healthy mix of fear and respect. Taco Charlie either had too little brains or too much guts; nobody could figure out which. He just sidled up to her, calm as you please. Didn’t blink nor stammer nor shake. “Haven’t you heard, darlin’?” he said.
Loretta winced. Nobody called her darlin’.
“They got a world-class amusement park moving in. At Exit 21.”
A collective gasp escaped the lips of every customer in the Palace. Exit 21. One exit before Loretta’s prized billboards. Exit 21. The intended site of Big Rosco’s grand gesture. Exit 21 would become a Destination Exit.