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.