Skywriting at Night

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Chapter 26

     Newton's First Law of Dynamic Convergence states that for every action or force which separates two objects there is an equal attracting action or force. His Second Law of Dynamic Convergence, which since it has yet to be proven is technically a hypothesis, states that forces of attraction are both random and constant. This helps explain the pushing, tugging, intertwining and general bumper car-like motion of our lives and those around us. Well, to a physicist or mathematician, anyway.

     Newton and his laws were the furthest things from Jet’s mind when he left the house the next morning, for even if he’d been aware that such laws of the universe existed they would have taken a back seat to his desire to avoid Bobby Biggs, Timmy Padgett, Ralph Marconi and the rest of the neighborhood gang who were engrossed in yet another of a long string of stoop ball games, this one using a pink Spaulding ball Job had stolen from Davidson's Toy Store several days previous.

     Jet walked out the front door of the house and slid off the edge of the stairs, dropping behind the big rhododendrons in the flower bed, the plant's large leaves doing a good job of hiding him. He sidled along the front of the house, his back scraping the pointy stucco wall, then inched around the side until he arrived at the relative safety of the back yard. Sticking his head out from between two anonymous evergreen bushes, he looked first to the left, then to the right. The coast was as clear as it would get. He plowed through the branches and sprinted across the back yard, clambering through the rotting split rail fence and slithering on his stomach under the dense hedges to the safety of the Ranson's backyard.

     He made his way to Broad Street, where the day's traffic was starting to pick up. Most stores were open for business, and those which weren't showed bubbling signs of life as they were being readied for another shopping day. Things don’t change often on Broad Street, which is as soothing as it is unsatisfying. Old Man Cordin was putting his jewelry in the window, as he did every morning. Ralph Brunkie was serving eggs for breakfast, a hot counterpoint to his night time business of dishing out ice cream. And Marty Lopasi was selling newspapers and cigarettes and lottery tickets, especially lottery tickets, at a steady clip.

     But this morning something different caught Jet’s eye, for overnight a structure had sprouted up at the point where Broad Street ends by forming a "T" with Brookside Road. He stopped in his tracks and stared straight ahead. Halfway down the block, sticking out like a mutilated thumb in the parking lot of the long-vacant Two Guys store, was the biggest tent Jet had ever seen, standing fully three stories high and covering an area the size of a football field, its wide blue and orange stripes vibrating wildly in the distance. As twelve-year olds are required to do by the immutable laws of nature, Jet had to investigate..

     * * * * * *

     "Jet-et! Jo-ob!" Erta yelled out the front door. It was time for lunch and it couldn’t start without the boys, not so much because as a mother she was concerned about their nutritional needs, but rather that’s the way things were done in the Banker household. Meals were always at the same time—breakfast at seven-thirty, lunch at twelve, dinner at six, and snack at nine—and everyone had to be present and accounted for.

     "Where are those boys?" she asked aloud.

     "Here I am," Job said as he hurriedly crossed the lawn. Missing a meal wasn’t in his script.

     "Where's your brother?"

     "Who cares?"

     "I do."

     "Well," Job said with a sneer, "that makes one of you."

     "Will you please go find him?"

     "Where?" he said impatiently. "He's not with the gang."

     "Is that the only place you know to look?"

     "Yeah."

     "Well, you'd better think of somewhere else fast, because we're not eating lunch without him."

     "Does Dad know that?"

     "Let me worry about that, young man. You just worry about finding your brother."

     Job kicked the ground in frustration, sending a clump of grass flying high as he stomped sulkily across the lawn.

     "Ahem!" Erta said, loudly clearing her throat.

     Job turned and glared at his mother. Then he walked over and picked up the divot, returning it to its rightful spot and gently tamping it down with his foot. He looked up at Erta, who smiled gently.

     "That's much better," she said as she turned and walked into the house.

     Job stood where he was until the front door closed. He counted to ten, then scanning the windows of the house to make sure the coast was clear, reached down and picked up the divot. He turned and walked five paces, then whirled around and threw the dirt-filled clump at the white wall of the house. As soon as the missile left his hand he made a dash across the lawn, rounding the corner of the house as the sound of broken window glass filled the air. For Job, luck was licking the salt which was rubbed into the wound.

     It only took thirty minutes, ten of which was taken up by cleaning up the broken glass, for Erta and Jackson Robert's anger at Job to shift to impatience. It was now twenty-five minutes after twelve and their Pavlovian hunger was increasing geometrically, not to mention that this delay threatened to throw off the rest of their day, a dreadful prospect for two people whose biological clocks didn't have a snooze alarm, better yet a means of being reset.

     Erta went to the front door and once again called the boys, even though she was sure they were both way out of earshot. Of course Job wouldn’t have come even if he’d heard, for he knew the song of the maternal Siren would only lure him to certain destruction at the window avenging hands of his father.

     "Where could they have gone?" Erta asked.

     "Who knows," Jackson Robert said. "Let's just go ahead and eat."

     "We can't eat without them."

     "Why not?"

     "You know I can't eat when I'm worried."

     "There's nothing to worry about," Jackson Robert said, hungrily eyeing the bowl of Erta's famous creamy-smooth style egg salad, colored deep red from the overdose of paprika she'd accidentally dumped into it. "They couldn't have gotten very far. Besides, they're both old enough to take care of themselves."

     "I can't help it if I'm a mother, and mothers are made to worry. We can eat if you like," she said, causing her husband to reach for the slices of Wonder Bread Erta had neatly stacked on a salad plate, "but I won't be able to enjoy a single bite until I know our children are safe."

     Jackson Robert dropped the slices of bread back on the pile and sighed. "What would you like me to do?"

     "Be a dear and go look for them."

     Jackson Robert pushed his chair from the table and stood up. He grabbed a slice of bread and tore off a big bite. "You wouldn't want me to die of malnutrition while I was looking for the little darlings, would you?" He took another slice of bread, folded it in half, and stuck it in his pants pocket. "Just in case it takes a while," he said as he walked towards the front door.

     As soon as she heard the door close, Erta took a piece of bread, coated it with egg salad, added lettuce and tomato, and cut it in half. She was the Queen of the Open-Faced Sandwich, having only eaten a two-slice sandwich twice in her life, the first being when her parents introduced her to the food group and the second when she was in the hospital after giving birth to Job and she was so groggy from Demerol she was barely aware she was eating, better yet that someone had slipped her a sandwich with a second—and to her thinking, completely unnecessary—slice of bread.

     After finishing two open-face sandwiches, a plate full of potato chips, and three Oreo cookies, Erta looked up at the clock. Twenty-six minutes had passed since Jackson Robert had gone to find the boys, an appropriate amount of time to elapse before worrying about where her family had disappeared to, though nowhere near long enough to call the Missing Persons Bureau. She walked to the front door and opened her mouth to summon them. She stood with her mouth agape, then snapped it shut; not only did calling them feel awfully futile at this point, but she was afraid that the power of her yell might propel her just eaten lunch from its satisfied resting place in her stomach. She went down the steps to the sidewalk and looked in both directions but didn't see a soul. She walked to the broken yellow line in the middle of the street and looked, but still couldn't see anyone. She stood with her hands on her hips and frowned. Walking back to the house, she went around to the backyard as if expecting to find the three missing family members sitting in webbed lounge chairs laughing riotously at their successful practical joke.

     The yard was empty, as it should be.

     Erta went into the kitchen and picked up the bowl of egg salad. Tearing off a piece of Saran Wrap, she covered the bowl and placed it in the refrigerator. She picked up her purse, fished around inside for her car keys, and walked to the back door. Next stop: downtown. Stopping with her hand on the doorknob, she bowed her head. "Lord, please protect my family, wherever they've run off to. They may not be the best, but they're what you've given me, and I'm doing what I can with them. I'm going to search for them in the name of my Lord Jesus Christ, so please help bring us together. At least let us all be sitting in the same car before the afternoon’s over. Amen."

     * * * * * *

     "If I can't find my shoes I guess I just can't go," Hanner told her mother.

     "They've got to be around here somewhere," her mother said. "Think. Where was the last place you remember seeing them?"

     "When I got home last week I took them up to my room and hung them on the hook inside my closet door like I always do."

     "Well they didn't jump off the hook and dance away."

     "You never know."

     Hanner's mother raised her left eyebrow and scowled. Hanner did an excellent—and extremely unflattering—imitation of her mother, which was neither a brave nor foolishly rash thing to do since it was largely hidden from her mother's view by her sheep-doggish bangs.

     "Okay, okay," Hanner said, "I'll go look again. But I know they're not up there."

     She trotted up the stairs to her room and sat on the bed. Picking up a dog-eared copy of Tomorrow's World Science Fiction Magazine, she leaned against the wall and brushed the hair from her eyes, knowing it was a safe bet she could finish the story she'd been reading before her mother finally gave up on the shoes and let her skip ballet class.

     Hanner had taken her first ballet lesson two weeks before her seventh birthday. From the very start she demonstrated absolutely no talent, aptitude, interest, or curiosity in the dance; the only reason she continued was her mother had once held aspirations to be a dancer and always regretted having given them up to marry Hanner's father, and what was good enough to cause Mom's frustrations was good enough to do the same to her daughter. Traditions, you see, are often borne out of vindictiveness.

     For five years she’d been sent to ballet class once a week, and for the first two years she actually went. After that she dutifully carried her pink leotard, tights, tutu, and ballet slippers through the front door of Miss Myra's Academy of The Dance and stood just inside until she was sure her mother had driven away. Then she left the building, skipped the two blocks to the Bowled Over Lanes where she proceeded to shoot pool for the next hour—never walking away with less than seven dollars in winnings—and skipped the two blocks back so she‘d be sitting on the front steps of the academy waiting patiently for her mother to pick her up.

     Hanner would have felt guilty about both the elaborate subterfuge and the wasting of her father's hard-earned money were it not for the fact that she wasn’t paying Miss Myra for the unused dance classes. At the beginning of each month her father gave her the tuition money in cash, for as the president of a bank he felt strongly that cash was the only true representation of money, resorting to checks only when money had to be sent through the mail and never—but absolutely never—using a credit card. And each month Hanner would dutifully deposit the money in a secret passbook savings account in a branch of her father's own Penultimate National Bank, an unfailing discipline which would result in a balance of $2445.30 including interest compounded quarterly. At home, Hanner insisted on "practicing" in private, and her parents—who had neither the time nor the interest—never seemed to notice the lack of dance recitals.

     But on this day Hanner didn't want to go to ballet class or to shoot pool, for she felt like she was going to break out in tears any second. It wasn't that she was upset, depressed, or in a bad mood, though in fact she was a bit of all three; the truth was those feelings were the byproducts of her soon-to-be bloating, cramping, and menstruating, for Hanner was on the precipice of womanhood, a mere twelve hours short of experiencing her first period. Thus she devised the famous lost ballet slippers ploy.

     "Come on, honey," her mother called from downstairs.

     "I can't go," Hanner yelled back, "I'll break my toes if I try to dance without my shoes."

     "That's okay."

     "It's okay if I break my toes?" Hanner said incredulously. "What kind of thing is that for a mother to say?"

     "No, honey, of course I don't want you to break your toes," her mother said as she entered her bedroom, dangling a pair of pink ballet slippers in front of her. "Look what I found."

     "Well what do you know? My slippers!"

     "They were jammed up behind the washing machine. How they got there I'll never know."

     "Gee, me neither Mom."

     "Let's get a move on or you're going to be late," her mother said as she looked at Hanner's magazine and shook her head disapprovingly. "And while we’re downtown remind me to buy you something decent to read."

     Hanner stood up and followed her mother to the car, carrying her pink leotard, tights, tutu, and new-found slippers. She winced as the walls of her uterus contracted, a mild precursor of what was to come like clockwork every twenty-eight days for the next forty-three years. She knew she was going to have to find something else to keep her occupied today, somehow she just didn't think she was going to be in the mood to shoot pool.

     * * * * * *

     "Nice fuckin' car," Johnny sneered as he lit a fresh cigarette with a bent and diminishing butt.

     "What the hell's wrong with it?" the Turk asked defensively, steering the car with one hand while the other hung out the open window.

     "Listen to the piece of shit," Johnny said, turning down the radio. "It sounds like it's gonna rattle itself apart any second."

     "Ya don't like it, ya don't have to ride in it. I don't see us ridin' around in your hot shit wheels."

     "That's 'cause they're being fixed."

     "The fuck they are," the Turk said. "They're grounded for the rest of your fuckin' life and you fuckin' know it."

     "Hah, whada you know?" Johnny said as he reached over and nonchalantly dropped his lit cigarette in the Turk's lap.

     "What the fuck?!"

     The Turk frantically brushed at his crotch trying to knock away the glowing ember which had come off the cigarette and attached itself to his now burning Levi's. He raised himself from the seat, the fireless cigarette falling to the floor as the hot burning tip rolled underneath him, wedging itself in the crack between the seat back and the bottom cushion.

     "Careful you don't burn that little thing," Johnny taunted, "one day you might need it."

     "What the fuck'd you do that for, you airhole?"

     "Airhole?" Johnny said in mock insult.

     "Hey, get that thing outta there before it burns the damned seat."

     "Airhole??!?" Johnny asked incredulously.

     "Yeah, airhole."

     "What do you care about the seat for, anyway?" Johnny asked. "It ain't your car."

     The Turk steered as he half stood up, sneaking glances at the seat underneath him and brushing it with his right hand. "Where the hell is it?"

     "That's the same thing the girls ask you, isn't it?"

     "Real fuckin' funny," the Turk said, looking from the road to the seat and back again. "You're as funny as a pay toilet in a diarrhea ward."

     "Watch where you're goin'," Johnny said as he grabbed the steering wheel and jerked it hard right. "You tryin' to kill us or what?"

     "Where's the fuckin' cigarette?"

     Johnny reached down and picked it up off the floor. "Here. Feel better?"

     "The lit part, damn it."

     "Sit down. You'll find it."

     "Shit, I already burned my pecker, I don't need to singe the hair on my ass too."

     "You haven't got a hair on your baby-smooth ass," Johnny mocked. "Just sit down and shut up."

     The Turk took his eyes off the road again, looking down at the seat as he twisted and arched his body. As he began to untwist, the heel of his right foot slipped, ramming his foot hard on the accelerator. As the car lurched forward, Johnny grabbed the steering wheel, forcing the Turk even farther off balance.

     "Hit the brakes!"

     "I can't!" the Turk shouted, his foot wedged tight between the accelerator and the brake, pumping a steady stream of high octane gas into the four-barrel carburetor.

     The car jumped up on the sidewalk, missing a parked car by inches. As it plowed through a wire mesh trash can and onto the grassy lawn in front of TV station WMDP, Johnny thrust his foot to the Turk's side of the console to hit the brakes.

     "Oww! That's my fuckin' ankle!" the Turk screamed.

     "Well get it the fuck outta my way!"

     Johnny hit the brake pedal with all his might, releasing the Turk's stuck foot and in turn letting up the gas pedal. The Turk plopped down in his seat and stomped on the brakes.

     "You're breakin' my foot, asshole!" Johnny yelled.

     The brakes locked as the car skidded across the newly resodded oh-so-perfectly-kept lawn, the tires digging deep as the sod squares lifted up, popped out, and flew into the air behind the car. They steered hard to the left, both of them gripping the wheel and trying to turn it farther than any engineer had intended. The car skidded towards the retaining wall around the building, the large aluminum letters "WMDP" looming large in the windshield.

     "Jesus Mary and Joseph!" the Turk yelled. "My ass is on fire!"

     He pressed even harder on the brake pedal as he stood up and brushed the embers from the seat of his pants. As he did, his other hand grabbed the steering wheel, knocking Johnny's hand off. The Turk spun the steering wheel around the other way, causing the car to spin 180 degrees. The rear of the car smashed into the brick retaining wall, knocking the "W" and the "D" from the wall while crushing the "M" and the "P".

     The car convulsed hard, then became perfectly still. Johnny looked over at the Turk.

     "You okay?" he asked.

     "I think so," the Turk said tentatively as he patted his arms, legs, and head. "'Cept my foot's crushed and my ass is burnt."

     "Don't forget your pecker."

     "How could I?"

     "Everyone else has," Johnny said as he turned and looked at the rear of the car. "Lookin' good back there."

     "Shit, now we've done it," the Turk said. "What are we gonna do about the car?"

     "Leave it," Johnny said as he popped open the car door. "Whoever owns it is can get their insurance company to cough up the bucks. Hell, that's what they got insurance for, right?" He got out of the car, dusted himself off, and looked curiously at the large blue and orange tent that had sprouted up on the next block.

     "Besides, it was a piece a shit anyway."

     * * * * * *

     "It's a great little car," Rubber Boots’ father said into the telephone. "It may be old, but it's reliable. It's our only means of transportation and it's been stolen." He placed his index finger next to his temple and rotated it in a circle.

     "Those are the cops you're calling crazy," Rubber Boots protested.

     His father stuck his hand inside the front of his shirt and his tongue out of the corner of his mouth: Napoleon files a stolen vehicle report. Rubber Boots started giggling. It might have been the Scottish blood which dominated his veins, or it might have been a defensive response to being force fed kilotons of organ-enriched haggis by a grandmother who was born without taste buds, but the only thing Duncan took seriously was that nothing was to be taken seriously. Most adults, including Boots' mother, would have been ranting and raving and demanding immediate action. Duncan, on the other hand, had spent most of the phone conversation patiently—and ramblingly—explaining why locating an aging family car in dire need of a ring job, transmission overhaul, and four new tires should be the top police priority.

     "I would dearly love to come downtown and file a full report, but in order for me to do so you'll have to find and return my car, which is, after all, my primary, secondary, and tertiary mode of transportation," Duncan explained. He put his right hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. "Tertiary: the big cage in a zoo where they keep the wild tershes," he whispered to Rubber Boots. "A taxi?" he asked into the phone. "Why I don't recall ever having the good fortune of seeing one of those beasts in this fine—and until today, amazingly law-abiding—hamlet." He looked at Rubber Boots. "Ever seen a taxi cab around here, son? You know, those big yellow things with a light on top that only pick up riders in nice weather?" He spoke into the phone again. "My son's never even heard of a taxi, though I must say I expect his ignorance will only increase if he can never go to school again because his poor father no longer has a car in which to drive the poor lad. So, you say you can send a policeman to come take our report in the convenience and privacy of our own living room?...Of course you didn't say that, and I'd never put words in your mouth. My mother—rest her soul whenever she may finally decide to die—taught me that was a very unsanitary practice, and I hold my mother's teachings to be very very dear. It was merely a suggestion, and a rather good one at that, should I be so humble as to say so myself."

     Duncan put his palm over his mouth to stifle a fake yawn as he closed his eyes and pretended to fall asleep. "So where would you suggest I find one of these cabs of which you've been speaking so highly?...The phone book...And I suppose the yellow pages would be the proper place to find a yellow cab, is that correct?...There are no Yellow Cabs, only Paradise Cabs...Well, thank you very much for your help, it's been a little teeny-tiny sliver of heaven. What was your name again?...Josetti. Is that one word or two?...Excellent choice of a name, Scottish, isn't it? I'll be sure to ask for you when we arrive at your place of employment. Ta-ta."

     He hung up the phone and stuck his tongue out panting. "Ho-ly Mo-ly! What you don't have to go through to talk to a law enforcement officer these days. You'd think we were the robbers instead of the robbees."

     "What now, dear father of mine?"

     "Don your galoshes and pop open the champagne, my boy, for today we are a-celebrating. You and I are about to embark on an adventure to discover the wonderful world of Paradise Taxi Cabs." He looked absolutely invigorated. "We're taking a trip downtown."

     * * * * * *

     "Shaftner goes to Guadeloupe and I get to go downtown. That, my dear son, is what's known as the pecking order." Neckless' mother sat in the driver's seat of her car speaking to no one. "Honey, where are you?"

     Neckless was slowly making his way along the outside of the car, his left hand caressing the well-waxed sheet metal, guiding him towards the front door. Fumbling for the handle, he pushed the button and opened the door, climbing in next to his mother.

     "I'm sorry, Mom. What'd you say?"

     "I said if you'd pull your shirt down from around your head we could get a move on."

     "That's not true."

     "Why of course it is," she said as she started the engine. "The way you keep your face buried like that you end up moving like a paraplegic snail, feebly groping your slowpoke way through life. And besides that, it's next to impossible to hear a damned thing you say. Why in the world would you want to handicap yourself like that?"

     "That's not what you said."

     "What's not what I said?"

     "Before I got in the car you said something about Mr. Shaftner. I may not be able to see, but I'm not deaf."

     His mother put the car in reverse and backed out of the driveway, trying to set a new land speed record for accelerating from 0-60 mph in reverse. Neckless' mother knew two driving techniques, hard acceleration and locked brakes, making a simple trip to the store with her more nerve-wracking than trying to take a nap on the track at the Indy 500.

     "Oh, I don't remember," she told him. "Whatever it was wasn't important. What is important is that we take care of this mess and get out of the station before we get trapped. You know how it is down there; everyone and their grandmother has something that just has to have my attention and it always has to be right away. Sometimes I think if I wasn't there the station would just dry up and blow away."

     "We almost there?" Neckless asked.

     "No, pumpkin. Do you want me to tell you what we're passing?"

     "At the rate you drive, it's probably just a big blur," is what Neckless wanted to say, but instead he just mumbled, "Sure."

     "We just went past the library. I don't know why we even have to go down there. I mean, so what if someone drove into the wall? What do they want me to do, rebuild it? The cops are there, they'll handle the crime. The TV cameras are only twenty feet inside the building, so they've got the story—if there’s a story to be had. And the phone numbers of the brick masons, gardeners, and maintenance people are all on Shaftner's Rolodex. Besides, no one will show up to fix anything until Monday morning anyway, so what do they need me for?"

     "'Cause you're indispensable?"

     "One day you'll learn that a person's indispensability is merely the reflection of everyone else's incompetency."

     "So that's what it is down there..."

     "Hey," she said in mock insult, "who's side are you on, anyway?"

     "Who's winning?"

     "Not you, buster. By the way, we just passed some big orange and blue tent, so we're almost there."

     "Orange and blue tent?" Neckless asked.

     "I don’t put them up," his mother said matter-of-factly, "I just report them as I see them."

     As the car careened around the next corner, tires squealing as usual, Neckless' mother let out a chuckle. "Holy shit!...I mean shoot. Is that it? They called me down here on my day off for that?. Big effin' deal. You ought to take a look at this, sweetie."

     "That's okay," Neckless said calmly.

     She pulled into the parking lot and jammed on the brakes. Neckless jerked forward, his head barely missing the dashboard, then flopped back. There were four police cars, one paddy wagon, a mobile crime lab, twelve cops—including two canine officers—and camera crews from two TV stations, neither of which was WMDP. Neckless and his mother got out of the car.

     "I'd better get a reporter out here before we're scooped on our own front lawn," his mother said. "After all, it’s obvious this is the crime of the century."

     "Maybe it's got something to do with the robberies," Neckless said.

     His mother looked at him, raised an eyebrow, and shook her head. "Out of the hidden mouths of babes..." she said as she sprinted across the parking lot towards the TV station. "Don't wander off," she yelled back to him, "I won't be long."

     Neckless opened the car door and slid across the seat. He pulled the rubber band from the top of his turtleneck and pulled the shirt down just enough so he could peek out and get a glimpse of the blue and orange tent they’d passed two blocks back.

     "Take your time," he said to himself. "I can keep myself occupied."

     * * * * * *

     Tripoli climbed into the red, white and blue Jeep which sat in the Post Office parking lot. Behind the seat was a stack of mail trays which had just taken him an hour and a half of sorting to place in the exact order of his route. He started the engine and backed out of the space, driving through the lot toward the guard house but turning right just before reaching it. At the far end of the parking lot he pulled up behind a red Chevy Malibu convertible. He jumped out of the Jeep and looked around, making sure no one was watching, then opened the trunk of the Malibu and grabbed a brown grocery store bag. Nervously looking around again, he jumped in the Jeep and made a quick U-turn.

     Slowing down as he reached the small guard house, Tripoli waved to the security guard as he drove by. In all the years he'd been with the post office, Tripoli had yet to see the guard stop anyone from entering, make anyone sign on their way out, examine a vehicle's contents, or do anything to make him feel more secure other than wave and smile at each passing vehicle. Waving and smiling. Here was a job Tripoli could set his career sights on: Homecoming Queen of the United States Postal Service.

     He pulled out of the lot and made a left, the sun streaming through the windshield warming the inside of the Jeep. He made a right on Broad Street and was headed towards the starting point of his route when he spotted something out of the corner of his eye. Several blocks down Broad Street was a large tent, the size of a good-sized circus, with wide blue and orange stripes. He strained to see if there was a sign, but his efforts ended abruptly when the sound of a car horn startled him. He looked in his rear view mirror, then noticed that the light had changed and there were no longer any cars in front of him. He stepped on the gas and made a wide U-turn.

     He spun the car around and turned left on Elmwood, pulling to the curb halfway up the block. The houses along this stretch were set way back from the street, being surrounded by huge grassy lots which the owners would never dream of personally mowing. He stopped the Jeep in front of the perfectly manicured hedges which marked the property line between two houses. He opened the paper bag, then looking around to make sure no one was walking a dog or mowing a lawn, he unbuttoned his shirt. In less than three minutes he had stripped down to his underwear, no mean feat considering how hard it was to take off his pants and shoes while sitting behind the steering wheel, then neatly folded his post office uniform and placed it on the floor. He pulled the fresh clothes from the brown grocery bag and put them on over the lacy black tap pants and camisole he'd worn under his uniform.

     Feeling rejuvenated, he drove to the first house on his route, which was right down the block from the blue and orange striped tent. As he stepped out of the Jeep, he looked at himself in the murky reflection of the side window of the vehicle. He straightened the shoulder pads under the white cotton blouse with the Peter Pan collar and adjusted the pleats of the dark blue wool skirt. He leaned down and smoothed the wrinkles from his navy blue panty hose, then spit on his finger and rubbed away a scuff mark on his deep blue flats. He'd really rather have worn his new Papaggallo pumps but with all the walking he was going to have to do, he knew he’d made the sensible choice.

     He reached into the Jeep and pulled out a brown leather satchel, filled it with mail, and stepped back to admire his reflection in the window of the Jeep.

     "Damn it," he said to himself as he slung the satchel over his shoulder, "I just hate carrying a brown bag with a navy blue outfit; it looks so tacky."

     * * * * * *

     Nina at Nine wasn’t a pretty sight. Not this morning, anyway. Normally by nine o’clock in the morning she’d already been awake for three hours, during which time she drank three cups of coffee, ate a soft boiled egg (which she hated with a passion but ate religiously because the sight of it made her husband sick and that meant delaying his company at the breakfast table by at least twenty minutes), spent fifteen minutes with cucumber slices on her eyes to get rid of the morning puffiness then another ten with tea bags to complete the impossible task, and had her hair and makeup done at A Cut Above Hair Salon ("It'll look fine in two weeks") on her way to the TV station.

     But at nine o'clock on this particular Saturday morning Nina stood in a strange bedroom, looking from the sheet-covered figure lying in the bed to the dreadful image she presented in the full-length mirror: eyes more swollen than toasted Sta-Puft marshmallows, hair spiking out from her head at obtuse angles, and last night's make-up smeared into an otherworldly fashion that even Vogue couldn't handle. She looked like hell's reject.

     She sat down on the edge of the bed, massaging the hangover from her temples.

     "You want to go out for some breakfast?" a voice asked.

     "I really don't think my stomach could stand any food right now," Nina said. "Besides, I can't go out in public looking like this."

     Crunchy Castleton sat up in bed and began to gently massage Nina's neck. "I see blueberry pancakes with boysenberry syrup and a big pot of coffee at the Waffle House coming into your life."

     "Don't start predicting the future again, I don't think I can take it this early in the day."

     "But I was right, wasn't I?" Crunchy asked as she lightly ran her fingernails along Nina's spine. "I said you'd wake up in a strange place with someone new, didn't I?"

     "Yes, but..."

     "And I said your sex life would improve. Did it?"

     "Yes, but..."

     "And I told you your TV show would be syndicated very soon, right?"

     "We'll have to see about that one."

     "Trust me," Crunchy said.

     Nina thought about her husband, still in Las Vegas at the National Association of Broadcasters' convention doing God-knows-what with God-knows-who and God knows Nina absolutely didn't give a good goddamn. She felt Crunchy's fingers softly massage her scalp.

     "Come to think of it, going downtown for blueberry pancakes with boysenberry syrup and a hu-u-u-uge pot of coffee at the Waffle House sounds real good," Nina agreed as she turned and gazed mischievously into Crunchy’s eyes. "For dessert."

     * * * * * *

     "Where are they?" Jem Marconi asked.

     "In my office," the slight, balding man replied.

     "Can I talk to them alone?"

     The man nodded as he opened the glass-paneled door. Jem walked in and looked at her son Ralph, who stood next to his friends Bobby Biggs and Timmy Padget, all lined up with their hands clasped behind their backs and their heads bowed in fearful supplication.

     "Exactly what is going on here?" she quietly demanded.

     The boys stared at the floor in silence. Actually, there was a simple explanation which they could have offered up had any of them wanted to spend the rest of his life raking leaves, washing dishes, and doing every other menial chore his parents could dream up—and Lord knows parents are experts at that, having majored in Chore Assignment before getting their degree from Parental University.

     The boys had come to Davidson's Toy Store for the express purpose of stealing a pink Spaulding ball to replace the one which had so rudely rolled down the storm drain to join its 1,423 brothers and sisters. Although Ralph pitched the ball, and Bobby hit it, they took a telepathic vote and decided that Timmy would be the one to do the shoplifting since, according to them, he was the one who should have caught the ball before it committed sewercide.

     While they'd been suspiciously roaming the aisles full of toys, Ralph handed Timmy a blue plastic maze filled with mercury and told him to stick it under his shirt, glaring hard to let him know he didn't have a choice in the matter. Not if he wanted to live to see thirteen, anyway. Then Bobby walked up behind him and stuck a balsa glider under the back of his shirt. Timmy eyed the gauntlet, more commonly known as the checkout counter, that stood between him and the safety of the street when a bright red Crash-Mobile caught his eye. For months now, maybe even years, he'd been dying to have one of the plastic cars that explode into a pile of pseudo sheet metal body parts when it collides with a solid object like a table leg or a wall, and hell, what's a little bigger heist in the budding world of adolescent petty crime?

     Looking around to make sure the coast was clear, he quickly stuck the Crash Mobile down the front of his pants. Ralph and Bobby were standing by the front door motioning for Timmy to hurry and make his getaway. He took a deep breath and walked by the front counter as nonchalantly as possible, which wasn't easy thanks to the pink Spaulding ball in his left pocket, the mercury maze under the front of his shirt, the glider under the back of his shirt, and the Crash Mobile down his pants which gave him the appearance of having a large, rectangular erection. Not to mention sporting the guiltiest expression since Al Capone held a six-digit number under his chin and said "Mozzarella".

     As anyone with an ounce of sense could have predicted, he was stopped. Within seconds he started crying. Before you knew it he ratted on Ralph and Bobby. And for the rest of his life he would never live it down.

     No one was home when the manager—glaring at the boys as if they were the brains behind a tri-state crime ring—called Timmy's house. Neither did he have any better luck at Bobby's. This being Ralph's lucky day, his mother answered the phone on the second ring and made it to Davidson's in less than ten minutes.

     "I didn’t come all the way downtown for nothing," Jem said impatiently. "Now someone tell me what is going on here."

     The boys continued to stare at the floor.

     "We were framed," Ralph finally said without lifting his head. "I swear we were."

     * * * * * *

     "But why do we all have to go?" Jet’s older cousin Jello whined from the back seat of the car.

     "Because it will make your mother happy," his father said, knowing that the more they could keep Aunt Doris happy the better chance they had of not finding her in the kitchen with the gas on again.

     "Well if she’s so happy, why do we have to see the shrink?" the younger cousin Jello said as she got out of the car. His mother was standing on the sidewalk looking at the red brick Miland Medical Center building.

     "Come along," she said as she started walking up the concrete steps. "I don't know why this has to be such an ordeal every week. You'd think we were coming here to have a family root canal or something. Tie your shoelaces before you trip and break your neck and button the top button on your shirt, you're not going to play with your little school friends, you know." She stood at the front door tapping her foot impatiently until Uncle Jello came up and opened it for her. She barged into the hallway, followed by the three Jellos. "The only reason I'm coming here today is because I need to get my prescription refilled and he won't do it over the phone. He's so picky about that I just can't stand it. It seems to me a phone's as good as a visit anyway, I mean it's not like he needs to use some fancy equipment or anything, all we do is talk. I think it's all a plot—all doctor's do it, you know—they make you come in for your prescription so they can charge you for an office visit, take some blood and tinkle, and make you pay outrageous fees to the lab that wouldn't be so high except for the huge kickback the doctor gets just so he can buy another fancy schmancy new car while we have to drive around in that ka-ka-mobile because someone I know can't seem to get ahead in his job."

     She stopped in front of a wood door and turned to wait for her family, who rather conveniently walked just far enough behind her to be out of earshot. When they'd all straggled up, she shook her head and gave them a dirty look, glaring at Uncle Jello until he remembered to open the door for her. She marched right up to the receptionist-who-was-dressed-like-a-nurse who looked up in surprise and dropped the copy of Proletariat Passion in St. Petersburg Prison she was reading.

     "We're here to see Dr. Kricko," Aunt Doris said, as if the receptionist hadn't seen them come in every Saturday for the past three years.

     "I'm terribly sorry, but the doctor was called out on an emergency," the receptionist told her. "I tried to call you several times, but I guess you'd already left because I didn't get any answer." She looked at the blank stares. "I really did," she added defensively.

     "What kind of an emergency does a shrink get called out on," the elder cousin Jello asked, "a coming out party for a schizo's new personality?"

     "‘Thanks for coming to my party Doc, but I think I’d better split now’," his sister said as they both broke up laughing.

     Aunt Doris glared at them, burning huge, smoldering lobotomy holes through their foreheads with her eyes. They froze.

     "Well, this is a fine howdy-do," she said, "not that I'll miss having the appointment, but we did get dressed and ready bright and early and now I won't even be able to get my new prescription, which is the only reason we came here anyway."

     The receptionist handed her a slip of paper. "The doctor left this for you and said he was really sorry he couldn't be here, but you're more than welcome to go into his office and talk among yourselves if you'd like."

     "I don't think that'll be necessary," Aunt Doris said, "but thanks for the offer. No, since we're already downtown and dressed up I think we can find something better to do, don't you?"

     Uncle Jello raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders. The elder cousin Jello made a face and shook his head ‘no’. His sister Jello practically jumped up and down as she nodded her head energetically. Aunt Doris walked to the door and waited for Uncle Jello to open it for her.

     "Surely there must be something else to do downtown on a Saturday afternoon," she said.

     * * * * * *

     The cream colored van made a right turn onto Broad Street. Perched on the roof were four grey metal loudspeakers, lashed together with electrical cord so one faced in each direction. The driver was very clean cut in his short hair and dark blue suit. He reached over and switched on the tape recorder that sat next to him on the car seat.

     "Do you ask yourself, 'What is happening to thiS world that I Know and love?'," the smooth, accentless voice blared, jolting the driver as he grabbed the volume control and turned it down. "Do you wonder why the very foundation of our society appears to be crumbling beneath our weary feet? Are you afraid that the insidious creeping of moral decay is taking hold like the roots of an evil weed that grows at a wild rate and takes over everything in its path? Do you go to bed at night and lie awake wondering whether there is an answer to the questions THAT we ask? Well, tonight you WILL BE ABLE TO sleep better, for you will BE SAFE IN THE KNOWLEDGE that there is INDEED an answer."

     Jose Rosenbloom stood at the side of the road and watched the van. It didn't look or sound like it belonged on Broad Street, but then again, at the moment neither did Jose. He'd been on his way to his grandmother's house for what had developed into a Saturday tradition: mowing the grass, raking the leaves, shoveling the walk, or any other chore his grandmother could dream up that he could complete in about two hours in exchange for $10 in good old American cash.

     Since no one was home to drive him, he walked the two blocks from his house to the bus stop. He sat on the bench, drifting off to sleep, his humongous head dropping to his chest. Jose had been up late the night before futilely trying to convince Lockjaw Jamison that French kissing didn't qualify as "going all the way". Suddenly, Jose was jarred awake by the sound of a bus driver releasing his air brakes. He jumped up and clambered aboard, riding with his eyes closed while his hands massaged away the agonizing crick that can develop in a neck that sustains the weight of the Earth's Largest Head.

     When Jose opened his eyes and looked out the window he discovered the sights of Broad Street, a sure sign he'd gotten on the wrong bus. He pulled the cord above his seat and got off at the next corner. As he walked down the street towards the blue and orange striped tent he put his hand out with his thumb cocked hoping to catch a ride, for Jose had blown the last three coins of the previous week's chore money getting on the wrong bus.

     * * * * * *

     "THE ANSWER IS NOT DIFFICULT," the voice blared from the speakers on top of the van. "The answer is not a classified secret. The answer is as refreshing as an ice-cold glass of lemonade AFTER mowing the lawn on a hot summer's afternoon. It's as simple as a new-born baby's smile, yet as all- inclusive as the twenty-volume set of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. It can slip through your fingers like the sands of life, or be saved up and earning interest like the Rockefeller's bank account. Yes, the answer is right before your eyes and it's yours for the asking."

     "Did you see that?" Old Man Cordin’s wife asked as they drove past the van.

     "See what?" he asked in return.

     "You saw it, didn't you?" she asked Whitey Heppelwhite, who was sitting in the back seat.

     "You mean the van?"

     "That's right."

     "What van?" Cordin asked.

     "The one we just passed."

     "I missed it. I was driving."

     "That’s good," Whitey said. "You just keep your eyes on the road."

     "I wonder why it had those big loudspeaker things on the roof."

     "Probably so the driver wouldn't have to yell at all the idiots on the road," Cordin said.

     "Now that sounds like a good idea," Whitey agreed.

     "Or maybe some kids put them there as a prank and he doesn't even know it yet."

     "You two are both crazy," Mrs. Cordin said, shaking her head.

     "May be, but we're also cute as the dickens," Cordin replied.

     The three of them had been at a meeting of the Central Merchants' Association, a social group masquerading as a civic association which included most of the town's store owners. They made it a point to get together in the so-called banquet room of the Thrif-T Motel once a month, generally getting no more accomplished than if they'd stayed home and slept, except of course that this way they had the pleasure of not accomplishing it together. As the CMA's motto declared, "United to Sell, Dividing the Profits."

     This month's non-meeting had gone beyond unproductiveness and ventured into a new frontier called nonexistent, which fit right in with Whitey's long-standing feeling that there are only two types of good meetings: postponed and canceled. It seems that CMA president Babe Davidson, who owned the eponymous toy store on Broad Street where Ralph and his friends were presently under house arrest for shoplifting, had changed the meeting to the coming Wednesday night because it was to be their first ever awards banquet. Although he dutifully mailed the notices to the members, no one got them, for the stack of sixty-four envelopes had been used by a clerk at the post office to temporarily replace a caster which had fallen off his sorting cart. He wouldn’t remember them until Monday morning, at which time he cast them into the ever-flowing mail stream, leaving them to arrive one day before the dinner and three days' after Saturday’s canceled meeting.

     Thus everyone showed up for the meeting except Babe and the six other people on the awards dinner planning committee. When they couldn’t reach Babe—who was in his office preoccupied with Jem, Ralph, Timmy, and Bobby—they adjourned the meeting before it was called to order, for there wasn’t a single officer in attendance who was capable of holding the meeting.

     "Well, at least we got away from work for a little while," Whitey said optimistically as they passed a young hitchhiker with an oversized head trying to catch a ride down Broad Street.

     "Why don’t we stop for a cup of coffee before we go back to work?" Old Man Cordin asked. He took the silent response to mean they liked the idea, when in fact they were preoccupied by the large blue and orange tent they spotted off in the distance.

     * * * * * *

     "BUT YOU MUST ASK, OR YOU WILL NOT RECEIVE," the voice continued from atop the van, "for while the answer is available to every man, woman, boy, or girl, it is only FOR those prepared to accept it, to take it in, and to nourish it. You must welcome it with open arms. You must be able to say to yourself, 'I am ready to hear and accept the answer.' Then, and only then, will you learn the truth."

     Miss Hellstrom looked up at the van, broadcasting its message to everyone within earshot, regardless of whether they were receptive, interested, not paying any attention, or just sonically assaulted. She looked at the piece of paper in her hand which held the only answer she needed this morning. She'd waited all week for this moment. Because of her school schedule—which due to faculty meetings, department meetings, planning sessions, etc. wasn't the simple eight to four o'clock job everyone thought it was—she'd had an impossible time trying to set up this appointment. And because of the desperate need she felt to keep it, she had absolutely no compunction about taking up her normally cherished Saturday morning leisure time.

     She stopped in front of a narrow doorway sandwiched between the Randy Bar and the Help, Grape! wine shop. She looked at the piece of paper, then back at the door; this was the place, okay. She took a deep breath, smiled to herself, and reached for the doorknob. It wouldn't turn. She pushed hard on the door, but it wouldn't budge. Looking futilely for a doorbell to ring, she knocked hard on the wood door while rattling the knob.

     After several minutes of banging and turning, she took a step back and looked at her watch. She was positive this was the time they'd agreed on, and this was definitely the place, for the sign on the door read:

     Nu-Life Career Placement
   We don't find new jobs,
     we start new lives"

     Frustrated, she kicked the door as hard as she could, then looked around to see if anyone had been watching. She turned and walked away, surely she could find something to do on Broad Street to waste a little time before coming back to try again later.

     * * * * * *

     "MANY PEOPLE CLAIM TO KNOW THE TRUTH, CLAIM THEY KNOW THE ANSWERS," the voice continued over the loudspeakers, "but few of them do. Most are false prophets, misguided malcontents, or your run-of-the-mill know-it-alls. How do you know the truth when you hear it? You just do; it's as simple as that. The truth will make you feel good. The truth will make you smile. The truth will set your mind at ease and relax your body. The truth is the tonic that cures iron-poor blood and the sedative that makes you sleep like a baby. The truth will not only set you free, it will blast you into a rapturous orbit like a rocket ship. The truth is your freedom and the guided missile of life."

     A white car with the large letters "WMDP-TV" on the side drove past the van.

     "What the hell was that?" Steady Steadman, cameraman and reporter's chauffeur asked Christie Enhart.

     "An early form of radio," Christie told him with a straight face, "from back in the days when very few people had receivers."

     "Damn. If that had caught on I wouldn't have me a job."

     "Nah, you would've been okay; a few years later they added the visuals to it."

     Steady laughed. "I can't believe we're covering this thing," he said.

     "You know how it goes, some joker calls and says it'll be worth our while and the powers-that-be don't want to take the chance of missing a story," Christie said as she lit another cigarette. "Besides, it's a slow news day."

     Steady heard a horn honk and looked over to see a van pull up beside them with the letters "WKHK-TV6" painted on the side.

     "Someone must have spent a busy morning on the phone," Steady said.

     * * * * * *

     "THE TRUTH WILL BE TOLD TO THOSE WISE ENOUGH TO ACCEPT IT," the voice continued over the loudspeaker. "Health for the infirmed, faith for the sick at heart, an uplifting experience for young and old alike."

     Officer Milo Jenkins picked up the microphone in his unmarked police car. "Dispatch, this is Jenkins, patch me through to the D.A."

     "Hang tight," the disemboweled voice replied, "I'll put you through."

     After a brief pause, assistant District Attorney Mary Charles Scott's voice sputtered across the airwaves, "What's the emergency, Jenkins?"

     "No emergency, M.C., I need some expert legal advice."

     "You've called the right person," she said. "What's up?"

     "I need to know if a van driving down Broad Street with loudspeakers on top blaring some obnoxious tape recorded shit is violating any laws. I'm figuring on disturbing the peace, but I wanna know if there's something more specific."

     "I'm amazed you're calling," she said. "I thought S.O.P. was to pull 'em first and ask questions later."

     "It is," Jenkins said with a smile. "But since I’ve already gone ahead and pulled them, I figured it was time to find out what to charge them with."

     "TODAY THROUGH WEDNESDAY ONLY," the tape went on, nearly drowning out Jenkins' radio conversation. "in the parking lot of the old Two Guys store. Look for the big blue and orange tent. It's wholesome fun for the whole family!"

     A car pulled to the side of the road across the street from Jenkins. A man jumped out holding a Nikon camera with a long lens. He leaned up against his car and waited for Jenkins to get out of his car and approach the van with the blaring loudspeakers.

     "This'll make a great story, even if the photo's kinda weak," the photographer said to himself. "But they can always retouch a name on the side of the van. I can see the headline now: 'God Pulled For Spreading The Gospel'. Shit, the Scene'll love it!"

     Jenkins spoke to the driver of the van, pointing towards the blue and oragne striped tent in the distance. The van pulled away from the curb, the police car following close behind. The photographer jumped in his car and made a sharp U-turn, falling in behind the police car.

     "YOU'VE SEEN HIM ON TV, now witness him in the flesh," the loudspeakers trumpeted. "Come praise the Lord at an old fashioned revival featuring the Quite Reverend John Joseph Matthew Paul III, live and in person."

     * * * * * *

     As it so often does on light gravity days, Newton's Second Law of Dynamic Convergence was working overtime.

      

Chapter 27 ]



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  Skywriting at Night - a novel by Mad Dog

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