For Kym --- Love and Kisses
At least the MG had chosen someplace vaguely civilized to overheat this time. Through the heat-shimmer, she could make out structures, including what may or may not be a gas station. This may mean water and coolant, although she suspected those weren't the problems. It was her opinion the car was angry with her.
Five tire patches. The loss of a belt that had taken two days to be shipped in, leaving her sleeping in a garage lot in the meantime. And ever since the badlands, overheating every 250 miles or so She rested the toe of a Doc Marten on the rear bumper and muttered, "Reginald, you suck.."
|An MG in its natural state ---|
with the hood up..
Nothing else for it. Time to make a go with the eight-foot, work on her skills.
Reginald was probably the most expensive object she owned, followed by her 14-hole cherry-red Doc Martens--- no, that's off. Her eight-foot braided whip was worth more than the boots, and certainly the most valued possession she owned. It was kept coiled under the front seat, out of the sun, and out of the oven that was the trunk. Her five-foot whip was carried as a weapon, if nothing else, with its easily violent throw and metal tip, it would take chunks off any yahoo who tried to take liberties with her....
....Which is why she didn't want or need to work out with it. There was no challenge in it. The eight-foot, on the other hand, that was a professional whip. Something that made the user have to think, to practice, and to work. The trick shots, the ones that impressed and looked good, were all accomplished with the eight-foot. If anything, she wanted a second long whip in order to perform double-handed tricks, stuff that would really wow crowds.
That was her goal. Stunning crowds, making them get on their toes, bringing the amazement that came from good whip-work, bringing to others the same fascination she'd felt at age eleven when she'd seen her first sideshow. She wanted to create in the pit of the stomachs of others what had been created in hers: sword-swallowing, fire-eating and other fire stunts, but especially whip gimmicks. She kept her arms shaved for safety: sweat glistening off her bare arms gave the right effect; her shaved neck had the same degree of drama. She had considered shaving her whole head, but felt that the juxtaposition of the violence of the whip and her short-but-feminine hair was a better contradiction.
Another contradiction in Mookie (nee Melinda) was her gentle, some might say sensual, Georgia accent, which is where she was from. She didn't dislike her home state, but was still glad to be leaving it in favor of Bay Area of California. From the conversations she'd had on line, she had no illusions about living in San Francisco, but Berkeley and various neighborhoods in Oakland would be feasible. Who knows, maybe a room would open up in the house where the girl she knew on line, a younger girl who went by the name of "Glare," lived.
She looked into the shimmer of heat, shapes still vague. She wished internet terminals were like pay phones, one on every corner and took coins. She'd I.M. her friend Glare to get rid of the sense of isolation. Glare, in Berkeley, would certainly cheer up Mookie, who wasn't even sure where she was. She was tempted to walk toward the vague structures but the searing heat convinced her what a terrible idea that was.
She decided to work on speed shots, and the MG couldn't have chosen a better place to crap out on her. On the far side of some barbed-wire fence was some wooden fencing, also decrepit, perfect for lining up cans on. She threw a dozen empty soda cans in a shopping bag, made her way through the barbed wire , and lined up the cans on the wood fence about sixteen inches apart. Two sets of six, perfect. She'd warm up while Reginald cooled down.
She dropped the first six cans nice and slow: Shoot...pull. Shoot...pull. Shoot...pull. Shoot...pull. Shoot...pull. Shoot...pull.
The muscles in her arm felt as though they were coming alive. She was always amazed at the speed they felt as if they flexed and tensed, especially in her forearm. Her bicep was already limber, full of strength. The next six dropped with better speed: Shoot. Pull. Shoot. Pull. Shoot. Pull. Shoot. Pull. Shoot. Pull. Shoot. Pull.
She set up the cans left-handed while flexing and twisting her right arm. She was being lazy, working only with her dominant arm. Both arms were stronger than the arms of most men, a necessity for her work. Ah well, she was killing boredom, she told herself. Wherever she spent the night she'd work out with her left, maybe eat some fire if the rest stop had a decent crowd hanging around. She was short of fuel, though....
Mookie stared at the cans and thought, "Screw this. Start to kill 'em." Shoot pull shoot pull shoot pull shoot pull shoot pull shoot pull. Good speed, go for broke: Shootpullshootpullshootpullshootpullshootpullshootpull.
"Yes!" she said in a hoarse whisper. Mookie went to retrieve the cans, to set up for some left-hand work; why wait until evening? Not like she had an audience out here....
.....and the sound of applause put the lie to that. She spun around, whip up and ready to strike at anything human-sized. Her love of horses kept her from making a swing. Two men on horseback had been behind her for a minute or two. "Cripes, cowboy," she scolded, "you nearly lost an eye."
"Heard someone swinging a whip, we got curious. Nothin' hu-mane to be swinging at around here," said the stout one.
"Just me working on my aim and my speed. I'll guess this is your land; I apologize for the trespass. I'm just killing time while my engine cools down again," Mookie said, gesturing at the MG. "Wants to get hot every 250 miles, like clockwork."
"That an older MG Midget, ain't it?" said the lean one. "Hell, Pappy'd love an excuse to work on it, if you don't mind. He always had a thing for MGs. Probably a blockage. If you don't mind, pick up your cans and turn in, in about a mile, we'll meet you there. Any cattle in the road, just honk at 'em."
The heavier of the two rode back over the ridge where they'd come from; the lean one eased his horse down closer to Mookie. "I do have to ask...."
"What the hell is it I'm up to?" Mookie smiled at him
He blushed and said, "Yes ma'am."
"Working on my high-speed aim. Taking down targets --- the cans --- as fast as possible without missing, both underhand and overhand. I was going to start working left-handed when you arrived, stop overtraining my dominant arm.."
"Not to sound rude, ma'am, but.... Why?"
"No offense taken, as it's an unusual answer. I'm going to become a circus sideshow performer. I focus mostly on whip gimmicks, plus fire-eating and I want to learn sword-swallowing. I need a mentor for sword-swallowing and also for fire-eating and general fire tricks, although that I sort of learned the hard way."
"Mostly I've taught myself. I've read the basic techniques , and I understand how to control it --- like heat rises --- so I've avoided any serious injuries."
The lean cowboy gave her a quizzical look. "The serious injuries, huh?"
Mookie gave him a tinkling giggle. "Like they say, if you play with fire, you get burned. It's more about avoiding injury, but you will get hurt. Just a difference between mere pain and actual injury. Live with the pain, avoid being injured."
"Really, it's just a matter of overcoming that primal fear of fire, planning ahead, managing your flame size, knowing what gimmick to do when.... I'll show you when we reach your house."
"Well ma'am ----
"Please, call me Mookie."
"And you may call me Chet; my brother's name is Roger. Much like your hair style, I will enjoy it from a distance, but not take part."
"How about Roger, think he'd like getting his hair dyed like this?"
"We'll have to hold him down and try it on him." Tthey both laughed.
Chet had galloped ahead as soon as he'd seen Mookie behind him. she followed him (and his dust) up to a large workshop which seemed to be inhabited by a man constructed entirely of saplings. His face split into a wide grin when he saw the MG Midget, exclaiming, "She's a beaut, young lady, a true classic! A '65? '66? So what seems to be the problem with her?"
"Overheats every 250 miles like clockwork. I check the coola---- "
"Blockage. No question. Blow it out, fresh coolant, you're good as new. And I'm guessing by the blanket and pillow behind the seat, you're tired of sleeping in the damn thing, so why don't you wait until morning to take off again."
"Sir, I don't know what to say. I don't know how to repay you for your kindness."
"Roger says you're an entertainer of some sort. We wouldn't expect a full show, but even being able to watch you practice would liven things up around here."
"I'll do some fire-eating and some whip-work for you, sir." She smiled and added, "Fire-eating always gets a crowd's attention. It got mine, that's why I started." The MG was already being put up on jack stands, pans for old coolant at the ready.
"Tell ya what, girl, g'wan in the house, introduce yourself to the ladies. I'm sure they'll appreciate the company of someone besides some dust-caked ranch hand. Maybe help them in the kitchen."
Mookie's primary experience in the kitchen was dialing Pizza Hut; hopefully "the ladies" didn't mind giving a lot of instruction. "Look at the bright side, sir, instead of trail dust, I could reek of accelerant." she smiled.
"Beggin' your pardon?"
Chet laughed and told his father, "Remember, the young lady does fire-breathing tricks, using...."
".... Either white gas --- camp fuel --- or kerosene, depending on what is trying to be accomplished. Spinning or juggling sticks you use kerosene, and white gas is for fire breathing, fire eating, plus doing runners and other open-flame gimmicks. For reference sake, you do have a fire extinguisher around? There's one in the trunk of the MG if you don't."
"Weeellll.... Depends on what you catch on fire." The man, who Mookie took to be as the patron of their ranch, looked worried.
"My only concern is setting myself on fire, not your ranch. But don't worry about either one. These are gimmicks I've worked with before, and just like anything, you have to keep in practice. Something you learned five years ago has stopped being learned at all. Fire gimmicks you need to always stay on top of, always keep your confidence up. Working with whips, you can pick up the gimmick in an hour or two. Playin' with fire is something you've got to keep on constantly. Let yourself get rusty, and you will get injured. It's not a maybe." Mookie pulled out her lower lip, displaying a mass of pink scar tissue. "That there is what happens when you get over-confident. So is this," she said, pulling her cheek out and displaying more burn tissue. "That comes from having the inside of your mouth too dry, not enough saliva." She stopped and chuckled. "And you're right, you do have to be a little crazy to do the work and think it's fun. But all entertainment has its risks. I consider stunt drivers to be reckless idiots, and they've got the safety equipment, y'know? I still think anyone who gets paid to wreck cars to be a damn fool. All a matter of perspective. Besides, stunt drivers don't get to hear the applause, and that's why I'm learning to do what I do. I'm enough of an egotist that I want the response from the crowd, right then and there. I want to make the people in front of me happy, not be aome anonymous dude seeing my act on a screen nine months later.
"But I'll stop talking and see if I can be of help inside. Thank you for working on Reginald!"
Chet watched her back view longer than would be considered appropriate, with Roger smirking at him. "Wild hair, whips and three inches above you," said Roger. "You think that girl would want some shit-kicker farm hand?"
"She's a girl passing through, Stumpy. Who knows, maybe she'll get to wherever she's headed and decide she doesn't want to be there, that the Wyoming badlands aren't a bad place to be. Stranger things have happened."
Roger said, "Don't call me Stumpy. She catch you in the head with that whip, Chet, make you all dizzy? Got you thinking some city girl's gonna take an interest in a badlands cowboy?"
Chet began stomping across the workshop, a determination in his eyes that anything with a Y chromosome recognizes, and braces for the results of. "Been a couple years for us, hasn't it, Stumpy? Still as slow as always?"
An ear-ringing whistle bombed through the garage; Pappy wasn't in the mood. "The two of you acting like grade-school kids! Knock it off! We got work to do on that young lady's car!"
Roger and Chet did as their father said. Unlike too many Western men, Pappy would be right about something.... Because he was. .His own father, who spent a lot of time wishing there was cheaper booze than Old Crow,died while his son was doing something he hated: attending college. "Alla them colleges do is breed faggots and freaks!" He didn't attend the funeral, but neither did his mother; the random beatings left nothing but anger, and a feeling of loss that never died.... Just a handful of fellow juicers from the local bar attended the service. Pappy had seen to it both sons attended college. His instruction to them was, "It doesn't matter a hoot in hell what you study, but you study hard, and you work hard. You're not just learning the subject, you're learning how to think." His sons took Pappy at his word, and were now both businessmen as well as cattlemen.
Mookie stood at the door feeling flummoxed, and --- worse yet --- self-conscious. Usually it was her height which made her uncomfortable, but that would pass within a few seconds. But it had occurred to her that this was not a beer party at a squat she was walking into, but the home of very kind people (at least judging by the men), she didn't know what sort of reception she would receive, or.... Anything. Besides her hair (which had a natural wave to it, even as short as it was) in white and red leopard spots, she was wearing a Hirax t-shirt, somewhat battered Levis, and the 14-hole cherry Docs. And, of course, her whip on her belt, like always. Her urban appearance did nothing for her self-confidence. She felt ambivalent about her whip. She didn't expect to have any use for it, it was a sense of security it brought on. She felt bad about feeling the need for it.
The discomfort of standing there feeling like an idiot finally outweighed the discomfort of her appearance. She opened the door, knocked, and called out, "Hello?"
A woman's voice called back, "One moment!" Footsteps came through the house and Mookie was face to face with a woman about Pappy's age, wearing Wranglers and a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt. The woman seemed shocked and slightly frightened by Mookie's appearance: it would seem no one had let her know of Mookie's arrival.
"May I.... help you, young lady?" the woman asked. Mookie was half-tempted to to tell her, "Yes, your husband suggested you and I get together and discuss how much we hate each other's music. You wanna go first?" Instead, flustered, Mookie said, "Well, Roger and Chet found me sorta trespassing on the edge of your land where it hits the highway, um, my car broke down, and when they saw it was an MG --- I guess their father and them have a thing for MGs --- they volunteered to fix it for me, that's really cool of them by the way because I have just the money I make busking and I'm low on white gas for fire gimmicks, um, I'm even low on kerosene, uh, they said I could come up here and help you with.... uh..... cooking, I guess, I don't know how to cook though, but I follow instructions well....Um, we could go to their shop and they'll tell you who I am, I'm not just some crazy chick that wandered onto your property, that's totally cool with me, I'd, you know, understand."
The woman stared for a few seconds and said, "Please don't take this personally, I mean no offense, but I would like a word with my husband right now. Do you mind?"
"Not at all! I totally understand!"
"May I ask why you're wearing a whip?"
"Well, I'm working on becoming a sideshow performer. A lot of the time I hook it there and forget about it. I do tricks with whips and with fire, and I want to learn sword-swallowing. In fact, in exchange for fixing my MG, the gentleman named Pappy just wants to watch me practice. No real routine, just me doing various gimmicks, and I'll explain them to you. It'll be after dark, so my fire gimmicks will look really sharp. Especially the ones using white gas, which puts off a blue flame."
Mookie wasn't sure, but would've swore the woman muttered, "Manna from heaven for the old bastard" as they walked into the workshop.
"Patrick," the woman said, "this young lady just arrived at the house. I'm not sure who she is, or what you wish of her. Would you care to explain?"
"I'm sorry Melissa, I thought one of the boys [the "boys" were both over thirty] had gone to the house to let you know we had a guest for dinner. My apologies. She's an entertainer."
Melissa said, "All right; I simply wanted to know who she was. I had an unusual girl show up and tell me she was there to help cook. So you have a new MG to play with, do you?"
"Her car just needs a repair, I won't be rebuilding it." There was a stressed point in his voice. Mookie was guessing that Pappy and MGs had been a sore spot in their marriage off and on for a while: they had a difficult tinge probably for decades. "Listen!" Pappy said, lifting out the radiator and shaking it. "Something's rattling around inside. Damned if I could think what it is, though." The boys took turn shaking the radiator upside down, until three quarters fell through to the floor.
"Any idea how they got in there?" Pappy asked.
Yeah. One bitter ex--boyfriend," growled Mookie, and said no more.
Mookie could not remember having such a meal; she felt it an honor to help do the dishes afterwards. Beef stew with dumplings and candied carrots, homemade cole slaw, and frosted cinnamon rolls with vanilla ice cream. Being fed like this, no wonder everyone here could work so hard. For the human body, this was high-octane fuel.
Four had joined them for dinner. One was a teenage girl named Brianna who had arrived and immediately began helping in the kitchen, no instructions necessary. Evidently she'd just gotten off the school bus. (No time on the phone, no stereo, just straight to work.). Also present, to Mookie's alarm, were three young hands who had been out on the land, keeping the cattle herded and their eyes peeled for predator animals, primarily bobcats and coyotes. After dinner, they would ride back out to keep an eye on the herd, sleeping on palettes . When they'd arrived, they'd put Mookie on edge to the point of panic, her backing up her chair and unhooking her whip: they still had their rifles with them, which had very different associations for her. The idea of "go down fighting" was what first lept into mind. She nudged Brianna, the girl next to her who had also been in the kitchen and muttered, "Why do these guys have guns with them?"
Brianna, recovering from profanity delivered by a woman, said, "They ride herd. If there's any wolves or bobcats or coyotes 'round, they shoot 'em." She stared down at Mookie's hand, the one holding the whip, with a worried look. Mookie brought her hand slowly back up to the table.
Mookie answered, "If one of them had pulled up, yes. Damn right. I will protect myself with whatever I have hand on hand --- in this case my whip. Look at it from my perspective. They were three guys with large-calibre rifles I've never seen before. I've had guns pointed at me , and I really hate it. Look at this...."
Mookie pulled up her shirt, displaying a large puckered scar below her shoulder. Any American over the age of five would recognize the scar, and its source. "I knocked down two of three. The third put that hole in me, all of them ran. Being young and stupid, we sold the rifles on the street for about $150 total and told the cops at the hospital it was just one of those random things. We were punks, they didn't care.
Brianna asked, "Did you try to find the guys that shot you?"
"To what point? We'd shown we could handle ourselves and we didn't have any money, so going to war would have been a bigger hassle than it was worth. Street wars are for people who have a lot of money at stake, not crackheads trying to pick up fifty bucks for some rock. And believe it or not, I consider Atlanta to be a good town. Just depends where you are. The humidity sucks, though," Mookie said.
"But.... Dear lord, you got shot! Why not move to a better area?"
Mookie laughed bitterly. "Stereotypes notwithstanding, you don't get to be in a better neighborhood just by being white. Especially being a white punk rocker. We took what we could get. I was working in a piercing studio on commission, none of my friends were doing better. Violence was part of existence where we were, all we could do was try to stay out of the way. You learn to push out the emergency glass and dive out the window of a moving bus right quick.. That's why seeing those three guys at dinner had such a bad effect on me. If the window behind me had been open, I'd have gone through. You see a gun, you expect shit to go down. It took me a few seconds to process no one else was bugged by them. When we finish here, I'll show you something.."
They finished the dishes and Mookie took Brianna out to the workshop. Retrieved the five-foot whip, the one with the blade tip. Sat an empty can on a work bench.. Drew back and shot, hard.. The can was all but sliced in half.
Mookie explained, "This was the first type of whip I ever worked with, and it was for exactly that purpose. I hate guns. I saw too many of them when I was a kid, then when I was young. Then I saw my first sideshow and figured out how to protect myself. When I got older I took up whip gimmicks for real, how to use whips to entertain and not just threaten or maim."
"What did your mom think?" asked Brianna.
"Mookie gave another bitter laugh. "People who live in a fog of marijuana and Royal Gate vodka don't don't do much thinking at all. You have no idea how jealous I am of you and your mom. You know how to cook something besides frozen pizza, and I'd always do that, else it'd get burned. Cherish these people, 'cos they love you." Tears began running down Mookie's face. "You can be around guns and not wonder what liquor store they're planning to rob that night."
Brianna had decided she really liked Mookie, with her wild hair and her whips.... And she chose to remain silent. She wouldn't tell Mookie that what she saw as a home was in fact a hell. The house, the yard, the outbuildings, the land, the town of Evanston, all of it was hell, and she could think of nothing but escape. It would wait for another day.