“The Pie King isn’t enough anymore,” Big Rosco announced over beers that night. He and Sweeney the Artist, Pete the Razorback, and the Old Timer had all gathered at Mike’s Garage to take stock of the dire situation. They didn’t see much point including Loretta ’til they had a battle plan.
“You think we should go back to the UFO idea?” Sweeney asked.
Pete the Razorback shook his head. “Pewhasset Flats is no Area 51.”
The Old Timer balanced a bottle cap on the gnarled stub that used to be his left thumb. “That’s what you think.”
Big Rosco stroked his chin.
“Besides.” Pete popped open his third bottle of Michelob Light. “You heard the man. Don’t matter what you do. If an amusement park is going up at Exit 21, the Palace is done for.”
Mike the Mechanic idly cranked a socket wrench. “You think they’ll have a Tilt-a-Whirl?” he mused.
Rosco flung his empty bottle into the rusted oil drum that doubled as a trash can. The glass exploded with an echoing smash. “Dammit!” Rosco’s ears flamed bright as two gigantic cinnamon red-hots. “Some nobody waltzes into town in a fancy car and you take what he says as the God’s only truth, roll over on your backs and say ‘thank you’?” He leaned forward, elbows poised on his knees, eyes lit up brighter than the Pewhasset movie marquee, waving that bottle opener around like a six-shooter. “Loretta didn’t build up this business and snare all those snowbirds on their way to Miami just to have it snatched out from under her by some Johnny-come-lately calling themselves an amusement park! She put this town on the map and we are not about to let her down. That midget show-off may think he knows something, but he don’t! He don’t know a damn thing. The Pewhasset Pie Palace is not going down without a fight!” He threw down the bottle opener for emphasis, stood up and stormed out.
After the meeting in the garage, nobody saw Big Rosco for two weeks. Strange sounds and smells came from his backyard at all hours of the day and night. Three different packs of neighborhood kids tried their darnedest to see over that fence, but all they got was an eyeful of plastic. Rosco’d erected a makeshift tent from blue tarps and drop cloth and he’d plugged every knot-hole in the fence with old wine corks.
By the end of the two weeks, a standing crowd had gathered outside Rosco’s fence. Loretta closed the Pie Palace in the afternoons so she could come down and sell apple turnovers and popcorn to the masses. In the third week, Rosco emerged, wild-haired, dark bags hanging under his eyes like used hammocks at a church bazaar. He didn’t say a word to anybody, just staggered through the crowd ’til he found Mike the Mechanic. He grabbed Mike by the elbow and dragged him into the house, slamming the door behind them. From then on, the sounds and smells from the backyard took on a decidedly mechanical feel.
At the end of four weeks, the crowd had settled in with blankets and picnic baskets like a regular Fourth-of-July parade. The local sheriff blocked off the street and the Old Timer rigged up an Italian ice cart. After five weeks, Pete the Razorback climbed the Palace flag pole to get a better look. The crowd craned their necks to watch him like a hoard of baby birds waiting for worms. Pete was Pewhasset’s four-time Flagpole-Sitting Champion. He perched atop that flagpole for a full six hours, straining to catch a glimpse of Big Rosco’s movements. At 3 p.m. that afternoon, he came down white and sweaty as Loretta’s shortening, muttering something about Frankenstein. Folks would’ve listened better if their attention hadn’t been caught right then by the distinct, predatorial roar of a Jaguar convertible pulling up alongside the street blockades.
Taco Charlie stepped out of the car. The rhinestones on his shirt collar glinted in the sun. The crowd drew back. Someone said later that Sweeney the Artist actually genuflected at the sight, but that might’ve been an exaggeration.
Taco Charlie pulled a sterling silver mustache comb from behind one ear and slid it along his slick handlebar ornamentation. “Looks like a little ol’ block party out here!”
Loretta glared, an apple turnover in each fist.