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.