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.
Read all the winning stories from the Great American Fiction Contest 2013:
- “The Decline and Fall”
by PJ Devlin
- “The Wolf Boy of Forest Lawn”
by Stephen G. Eoannou
- “Surface Tension”
by Andrew Hamilton
- “The Battle of the Pewhasset Pie Palace”
by Cynthia McGean
- “A Corner Room at the Y”
by Marvin Pletzke
- “The Conch Shell”
by Caroline Sposto
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.
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.
Loretta cocked her hip at Taco Charlie in a sassy en garde. “What kind of amusement park?”
Charlie rubbed his hands together like a man preparing to dive into a grade-A ribeye. His voice dropped an octave to a prophet-of-doom baritone. “This is more than an amusement park. It is … an EXTRAVAGANZA!” He emphasized the last word with a grand sweep of his arms. “It will reinvent the very notion of amusement parks. It will make every other tourist attraction on the interstate roll over and beg for mercy. It will make Kubla Khan wish he could tear down Xanadu and start over again.” The Palace customers seemed impressed, though only the Old Timer had the faintest idea who Kubla Khan was or that Xanadu was anything besides a bad movie.
“They gonna have bumper cars?” yelled little Joey Magruder, a bristle-headed kid with a missing front tooth.
Taco Charlie chuckled. “My young friend, your dreams are too small. Bumper cars are the past. Think bigger. Think better.”
“Bigger?” gasped the adults. “Better?” cried the children.
Taco Charlie’s head bobbed up and down. “You’ve all heard of Six Flags?”
The crowd nodded as one.
“Well, the establishment going up at Exit 21 is set to have TWICE that many.”
“Twelve Flags?” The murmur ran through the crowd. “Twelve Flags!”
Taco Charlie laid his arms across his chest, slow and deliberate. “That’s Right. The World Famous Twelve Flags Amusement Park and Arcade EXTRAVAGANZA!” His eyes rested back on Loretta. He drove the point home like he was stubbing out a cigarette. “Tourist traffic for the Palace will dry right up. Nobody’s gonna stay on the interstate long enough to see your little ol’ billboards anymore.”
“Little!” Big Rosco threw down the spatula he’d been holding for a scepter. He leapt to his feet in what was meant to be a manly defense of Loretta’s honor. The pie-throne gave out from under him and sent him toppling to the floor in a messy heap of buttery, flaky crust and sweeter-than-summer peach filling. His checkerboard tablecloth cape flung itself over his head. As a final insult, a banana cream pie teetered on the edge of the counter, flipped over and smacked him right in the face.
Taco Charlie snorted.
The customers in the Palace held their collective breath.
Loretta cleared her throat. She pointedly tucked a loose strand of hair back into her carrot-colored beehive. “What’s your interest in all this anyway?”
Taco Charlie flashed his pearly whites. “Just looking to offer a little friendly advice to a fellow epicurean entrepreneur.” He pulled a card from his embroidered shirt pocket and handed it to Loretta like he was offering her a light. “I’m looking for a business partner. When you’re ready to give up on those billboards, you just go ahead and ring me.” He saluted with his right hand. “Mark my words. You better ride the wave of the future, or it’ll swamp you under.” With that, he sauntered out the door into the Palace parking lot.
If the Palace had been a boat, it would’ve capsized right then ’cause everybody but Loretta and Rosco raced to the window to catch sight of Taco Charlie’s wheels. He climbed into an emerald Jaguar with a leopard-print convertible top. The thing was so polished and shiny you had to wonder if he owned his own car wash. Even the hubcaps looked expensive. Taco Charlie started it up and roared back towards the interstate in a puff of diamond-flecked dust.
For one awe-inspiring minute, the Pewhasset Pie Palace’s famous row of picture windows was stacked top to bottom with wide-eyed, slack-jawed wonderment.
“All right,” snapped Loretta, “Show’s over!” She flicked a towel across her shoulder. “This mess isn’t gonna clean itself.” As the customers trickled their way back onto the black patent leather stools along the Formica counter, and into the bubblegum-pink vinyl booths behind the turquoise tabletops, Loretta gave a last glance out the window. She frowned and tucked Charlie’s card down the cleavage of her flamingo print dress.
“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.
The Old Timer, ice scoop in one hand, paper cone in the other, threw back his stooping shoulders. “Nobody invited you,” he said.
Taco Charlie tucked the mustache comb back behind his ear. His eyes wandered up and down Loretta’s beehive ‘do. The right side of his handlebar twitched. He ran a hand through his ocean of hair.
Maybe it was just a sudden chill in the air that sent a shiver up Loretta’s spine. An answering shudder rippled through all the other women in the crowd.
Charlie’s boots tapped a slow-step rhythm across the pavement. He walked right up to Loretta and leaned against Rosco’s gate. “Oh, somebody invited me. Isn’t that right, little lady?”
The heads of the crowd swiveled in her direction. “Little lady” was the kind of thing could earn a man a slap in the face from Loretta.
She turned six different shades of pink, from strawberry-rhubarb compote all the way down to cotton-candy-gin-fizz. She crushed the two apple turnovers. Filling splurted across Rosco’s fence. Bits of pastry dropped onto Loretta’s painted toenails. But she didn’t slap Taco Charlie, and she didn’t deny inviting him
Taco Charlie pulled a black silk handkerchief from inside his shirt cuff and held it out to her. “You ready to do business?”
A hush fell over the crowd. Somewhere, a dog growled and a small child whimpered.
Loretta ignored the handkerchief. She wiped her hands on her green checkerboard apron. “You want to talk, we talk inside.” She jerked her head towards the Palace.
It would’ve been the perfect time for Taco Charlie to twirl the ends of his handlebar mustache. Half the crowd reflexively twirled their own stubby excuses for facial hair in anticipation. But Taco Charlie defied expectations. He just folded up his handkerchief, tucked it back in his shirt sleeve, and gave a little nod to the crowd. Then he and Loretta disappeared behind the double doors of the Pewhasset Pie Palace.
After a full 10 minutes of dumbstruck silence, the crowd transmogrified into an angry, buzzing wasp nest.
“Fancy Loretta doing business with the likes of him!”
“What kind of business you think they’re doing?”
“Nothing but monkey business, if you ask me.”
Then, like a trumpet call breaking through the confusion of battle, a voice screeched, “Rosco! Somebody’s gotta tell Rosco!”
The rest of the crowd took up the cry. Soon they were swarming Rosco’s front steps, pounding on the door, scrambling to climb over the fence. “Rosco! Come quick! Taco Charlie’s got Loretta!”
Rosco came barreling out the back gate, ears shooting smoke, covered head to toe in splatters of what looked like green and silver paint. “Where? Where is he? Where’s that no-good, cowboy wannabe so-and-so?”
Like one giant hand, the crowd pointed to the Palace. At that instant, Loretta and Taco Charlie stepped back through the Palace doors. Some say they was arm-in-arm, but that’s a damnable lie.
“Step away from her, you rotten excuse for a Homo sapien!” Big Rosco cried.
Taco Charlie just smiled and put his hands up. “I’m not looking for any trouble.” Another damnable lie. He turned to Loretta. “You think over what I said. It’s a better offer than the bank’ll give when you go under.”
Loretta stood there cool as a mint julep in August. “We’ll see,” was all she said.
Big Rosco and Loretta didn’t speak a word to each other after Taco Charlie left that day. Loretta threw herself into pie-baking with a vengeance, while Rosco threw himself back into his mystery project with renewed vigor. Mike the Mechanic set up a bucket and pully system so Rosco could take in his daily sustenance without leaving off work. The crowd outside the fence developed a kind of pale, apocalyptic desperation. They took shifts bringing Rosco his meals. They pitched tents. They lit candles during the wee hours of the night and sang hymns about the sweet bye and bye.
Week six arrived. Friday night. The air outside Rosco’s yard was thick with anticipation. Opening Day for The World Famous Twelve Flags Amusement Park and Arcade Extravaganza was just 12 hours away. Searchlights from Exit 21 swung across the Pewhasset skyline in mesmerizing metronome arcs of light. The crowd had swelled to gargantuan proportions. Pewhasset’s entire population of 683 and counting must have made their way there. All of Pewhasset Flats hummed with the certainty that tonight was the night Rosco would unveil his top-secret operation and save the Pewhasset Pie Palace from the clutches of Taco Charlie and the destructive forces of The World Famous Twelve Flags Amusement Park and Arcade Extravaganza.
All at once, a new searchlight beam shot into the sky straight from the heart of Big Rosco’s backyard. A sound like the whirring of 50,000 bees emanated from behind the fence. The ground started shaking. The beach umbrellas and lawn chairs and vending carts that had accumulated in the long vigil on the street toppled to the ground. Up through the tarps and plastic sheeting, rising like a magnificent metallic sun over the weather-beaten boards of Big Rosco’s fence, came a shape at once unprecedented and strangely familiar.
“What in the world?”
“Is that a hot-air balloon?”
“Is that a jumbo-jet?”
“Is that … pie crust?”
Up, up in the air it rose. A pie-shaped spaceship. It was 250 feet long, fully automated, levitating with the help of six jet-engines in the shape of enormous forks and four articulated robotic legs that extended three stories tall.
“It’s a UFO!” someone shouted.
“A Pie-F-O!” the Old Timer corrected.
“Smells like cinnamon and cloves,” Sweeney the Artist remarked.
“Look! There’s aliens on board!”
Sure enough, marching around the edge of the ship’s pie-tin hull was a crew of 21 animatronic aliens, every one of them sporting Rosco’s big-eared Ugly Mug. It was an animatronic, extraterrestrial, pie-promoting tour de force.
The crowd burst into thunderous applause that echoed down the street and back up again in a boomerang of celebratory sound. The Pie-F-O held steady on its robotic legs for a glorious moment. Then, in a wohosh of jet-propelled splendor, it shot up in the air, drew in its robotic legs, and whirred off in the direction of the interstate, led-crystal lights around the base spelling out “Pewhasset Pie Palace, Exit 24” while a techno-alien voice that sounded suspiciously like Rosco on helium droned the same words from a set of on-board loudspeakers.
Big Rosco stumbled out of the fence gate and fell to his knees in front of an astonished Loretta. He grabbed her hand in his and, with a raspy and exhausted voice, whispered, “Marry me and be my Pie Queen forever!”
Loretta slowly shook her head from side to side. “Rosco, you damned fool,” she said.
The World Famous Twelve Flags Amusement Park and Arcade Extravaganza was scheduled to open at 9 a.m. sharp the next morning. Big Rosco’s Pie-F-O flew up and down the interstate all Friday night and into Saturday morning. When Loretta arrived to open the doors of the Pewhasset Pie Palace at 8 a.m., the parking lot was already full and a line of cars stretched clear down the interstate off-ramp. Loretta sold out of pies by 4 o’clock. Big Rosco held court dressed as the Pie King on his throne all morning and gave free rides in the Pie-F-O in the afternoon. It was a glorious, victorious, undreamed of success. A pie extravaganza.
That day was the swan song of the Pewhasset Pie Palace. When the marketing executives for Twelve Flags got wind of the Alien Invasion, as it came to be called, they offered Loretta a tidy sum for the Pewhasset Pie Palace name, the 331 pie recipes and the rights to use photos of the Pie-F-O in all the advertising for their park concessions, if they could replace Rosco’s face on the aliens. They wanted nothing to do with the Ugly Mug merchandise.
Loretta jumped at the offer. Turns out she wasn’t so keen on spending the rest of her life as the Pie Queen after all. That’s right. She turned poor Rosco down. Don’t hold it against her. Loretta wasn’t one to be beholden to any man. She sold the Palace building itself to Taco Charlie for 10 times his original offer. He opened up a Jumbo Burrito and Burger Emporium and set up billboards on the opposite side of the freeway hoping to catch the tourists on their way to Twelve Flags, which had been his plan all along. The signs weren’t even a patch on the old Palace billboards. The Emporium went belly up a year later and Taco Charlie lost his sequined shirt.
Loretta took the money from the sale of the Palace and its recipes and retired to a condo in Tallahassee. She offered to pay back Big Rosco for what he spent on the Exit 21 Alien Invasion, but he wouldn’t have it. Instead, he asked Loretta for all the Ugly Mug merchandise and the parts from the deluxe billboards. She gave them to him without batting an eye. He kept them all in a storage locker on the edge of town, sold his house and moved into a double-wide in Pete the Razorback’s trailer park.
As for the Pie-F-O itself, once its glorious maiden voyage was over and its service on the Palace’s day of triumph was complete, it never flew again. When Loretta turned him down that first time, Big Rosco dismantled all of it but the crew of big-eared aliens and gave the parts to Mike the Mechanic for salvage.
Every year on the anniversary of the Alien Invasion, Big Rosco proposed to Loretta. And every year she turned him down. At first he traveled to Tallahassee in person, sporting his freshly dry cleaned suit, a clean shave, and a bouquet of roses. When age caught up with him and he threw his hip out, he took to proposing by phone instead. Loretta hadn’t married anyone else, so Big Rosco figured he was still in the running. Then Loretta got engaged to a real estate tycoon. Rosco paid her one final, heartbroken visit. No one knows what transpired between them that day, but when Big Rosco returned, he put the Ugly Mug merchandise, the deluxe billboards and the Pie-F-O aliens up for sale on ebay. It just so happens Ugly Mug merchandise had become collector’s items. Rosco sold the whole lot of them. Made more money than Taco Charlie paid for his Jaguar, more money than Loretta got for the Palace and her 331 pie recipes, more money than the opening day gate receipts of The World Famous Twelve Flags Amusement Park and Arcade Extravaganza.
Rosco told anyone who would listen that he’d ridden the wave of the future.
Yup. Taco Charlie had been right all along.