Crap and a half.
She'd better get used to a mouth that tasted like white gas.. Busk the rest stops in the afternoon and evenings, drive all night, sleep in the morning and day. Maybe see if she could talk the managers of Flying Js or other "travel centers" into letting her work their front doors.
Course, in truck stops she'd also been accused of being the world's most complex lot lizard* when she'd tried it, because obviously nothing turns on lonely truckers more than watching a woman perform human candles and breathe fire. Too bad not enough truckers wear cowboy hats these days: she'd have performed hat-snatches and then stood there with the whip, daring them to try and get them back. She only would try to work truck stops out of desperation. Truckers either tipped fantastic or miserably, not to mention the constant "Set yer tits on farr!" requests.
If she had the time and money, she'd run off flyers in anyplace with a town square and do a few evening shows, when it looks best. Just so long as the local cops didn't give her a hard time for Performing Without A Permit or some other irritation.
But those are all thoughts for tomorrow. Tonight she would entertain a family in exchange for the repair of Reginald, and it would make her happy.... By making others happy. If she could feed herself by performing for the cattle, she'd do it. As it was, performance was a sustenance in itself. Time to warm up some.
Mookie was chinning herself from the rafter of the workshop, when Chet walked in. There was a good chance he was enjoying this display more than the planned one. Mookie had no complaints. She dropped to the floor and said, "Lo, Chet."
He reverted to his usual "bashful cowboy" manner, even rotating his hat in his hands as he spoke. "Ma wanted to know if you mind if a few neighbors came over to watch. I know you said this was simply practice, so if you wish to keep this a private event, it's understood."
"I'd love to have the audience, actually. Nice to be in front of people besides in freeway rest stops, y'know?"
"I'll let Ma know. And thank you." He started heading for the door.
Now or never, thought Mookie. "Just a minute, Chet," she said with a smile. "were you enjoying watching me do pull-ups just now? I'm not trying to embarrass you. But I do want an honest answer."
Roses have never had so many hues. Eyes on the ground, Chet muttered "Yes."
"Chet, would you hand me your hat?"
Confused, he did so. Mookie placed it on the back of her head, leaned forward, and kissed him.... First soft and easy, then the two of them kissed deeply, draining each other's breath, letting their hands explore. After a minute, Mookie brought Chet's hands down to his sides.
"That isn't a promise, but a sign of interest. I won't lead you on, Chet. At the same time, you have me.... interested."
"Even just that moment made me very happy, Ma'am--- Mookie. I can think of a lot of ways we could spend the night, but I will leave those decisions up to you. And I doubt you'll be shy in letting your feelings known," he smiled. "I'll leave you to your preparations."
Mookie jumped up onto the beam and fell right back off. She wanted him so bad she couldn't hold the bar.
Mookie was in the bathroom with a disposable razor and shaving cream. A bit of luxury, shaving her arms with hot water for once. She always shaved the right arm, then the left, and it was pure superstition: right then left, hurt not burnt.. Even her knuckles got the razor treatment.
Brianna walked in and said, "Whoops, sorry!" then stopped. "Mookie, what are you doing?"
"Shaving my arms and hands. I don't wan't anywhere gas can get caught when I'm working with it."
Brianna looked at Mookie's hands. "Mookie.... Are you shaking?"
"Yes I am. I'm scared."
"Y'know, you don't have---- "
Mookie smiled at her. "I always have a bit of the shakes, 'cos I'm always scared. If I went to go do what I'm about to do, and I wasn't scared, there would be something seriously wrong with me. Anyone who works with fire and claims they're never scared is either lying or insane. Like, babbling stupid nuts. The fear is a good thing, it keeps you focused, it makes you think about what you're doing."
"But if it scares you so much...."
"Because I have to win over the fire, I need to prove to myself I can control it. I won't lie to you: I get a high from working with fire, a totally natural one. I'll guess rodeo riders get the same high: controlling something much more powerful than you are, coming out on top, impressing the crowd. It sounds crazy, but controlling fire with your bare body gives me a hell of a rush." She finished the left arm and said, "Your mama may not---- "
"She ain't my mama."
"Oh! I thought.... um...."
"My mama died when I was tiny. Roger is my Pa. I don't even remember her, that's how young I was."
"Oh Brianna! I'm so sorry, I didn't mean.... well...."
Brianna smiled and said, "Don't feel bad, Mookie! Like I said, I never knew her. All I know is she was kinda reckless."
"In a good or a bad way?"
"Brianna stared at the floor and said, "Bad. Drinkin' and drivin' was what killed her."
In a voice that had suddenly gone hoarse, Mookie said, "I promise I'm the good kind of reckless. I don't do things without thinking 'em through. I promise, all the stuff you see me do may look reckless, but is all planned out. They're tricks, y'know?"
Brianna hugged her and said, "Please don't get hurt."
"Oh, I always get hurt. It's getting injured that concerns me.," Mookie said, drying her arms for about the fourth time, then applying a good layer of lipstick to prevent burns
There was certainly a crowd, at least for the area. The population of four ranches --- about thirty people --- were milling about, chatting, passing around a bottle.... It would feel good to have an audience not consisting of half-bored tourists or horny truckers.
Looking out from the shop (she'd already arranged the use of the white gas and kerosene) Mookie spotted the most useful object she could find: a ten year old boy; They were easily recruited to stack cans, were old and smart enough to put the cans up quickly and not too old to feel patronized by the request.. Mookie crouched down and asked if he'd help, he could start right now. As they always do when asked such things by a grown woman, the kid readily agreed and leapt into action. He'd put them up perfect.
It was time to call for attention. Mookie gave a loud CRACK into the air with her whip and loudly announced, "Good evening, all! I am Mookie, I come from Atlanta, Georgia, and I like to play with fire!" There was a good round of applause. "I also like whips, and target practice.... Like this." She took three cans down slowly. "But that's not very interesting. Taking them down quicker --- " Crack! Crack! Crack! " --- is a little bit better. Also when you can't see what you're doing...." she faced away from the row of cans, swinging the whip backwards and underhand, three more down ".....Is more of a challenge. Of course, you can simply get it over with...." and using high-speed swings, just like she'd first been practicing when she arrived, took down the remaining cans in maybe four seconds. The speed-strikes always drew attention.
"You sir, may I borrow your hat?" Before the man could react, Mookie had looped the whip around the crown and whipped it off his head, to the laughter of the audience. She pulled the gag on two more men, then gathered them up and began juggling the hats in various styles. "I don't gamble, so this is the only hat trick I know," she told the audience.
She then returned the hats and began her fire tricks: the human candle (a small amount of white gas ignited in her mouth by one of her wicks) to start. She then filled her cupped hand with burning fuel, passing it back and forth while asking, "Any smokers here? Come get a light!"and poured the fuel back in her mouth, leaning back so as not to burn her lips or mouth. Three men lit cigarettes from Mookies open mouth. She closed her mouth to extinguish the flame. She picked up her two burn sticks (sort of like juggling batons) and, filling her mouth a bit further with gas, dribbled it out of her mouth and over her lit wick so that burning fuel ran down her arm , down the stick and igniting the fire stick's kerosene. Holding the wick in her teeth, she began spinning and twirling the sticks in dramatic arcs and swirls, creating patterns of light against the night sky. It was by far the safest thing she did, but always got lots of ooohs and aahhhs.. After a couple minutes of this, she did a mouth-extinguish on each stick, and gave the finale shot: She filled her mouth with kerosene, grabbed two wicks, lit one off the other, and blew a huge geyser of fire. She did this four times: north, south, east, west, so that everyone would get a good view. She bowed, and was rewarded with louder applause than she though possible from the small crowd. Applause like that made her feel she could continue all night. She yelled out, "Thank you all! And kids? Don't do this!"
She desperately needed a drink, a beer or soda, which Brianna was delighted to retrieve for her. A Miller would do just fine, something to get the taste of gas and kerosene out of her mouth and cool down the mild searing pain she had, and would always have after performing. People came to shake her hand and ask the usual "How'd you do that?" questions; she answered honestly: with a fair amount of pain...
Mookie found herself doing something of an encore, doing tricks that look best close-up for a smaller but fascinated audience. She did some fire kisses, finger transfers, a couple shotguns (which she loved performing for an audience, but hated performing, as it involves lit gas running down your arm to ignite a wick or torch: always sent her adrenaline pumping because of the serious burn risk). She also did some more speed shots with the whip and cans, plus a hat spin, where she kept a man's hat aloft by spinning it on the tip of the whip, ten feet off the ground. She noticed Chet in the small crowd, applauding and smiling at her. It was a smile every woman recognizes, and could simply say "Yes" or "No" to, and the man would understand. When she had him alone, she would be telling him "Yes about fifty times; hopefeully it would break through his shyness.
She was doing about her tenth human candle when she saw something that scared the shit out of her. Roger, well-fueled by Early Times whiskey, was trying to blow fire using the same liquid he'd been drinking. She ran over and yanked the bottle away with one hand and the lighter with the other. "Christ Roger, are you nuts? This crap, you'll just set your face on fire! There's a reason you don't see fire eaters with beards, especially full ones like yours."
"Hell girl, I did that shit in college, why not now? You ain't the only one who can play with fire."
With a sneering smile, Mookie asked, "Tell me Roger, you were using Bacardi 151 when you breathed fire in college, right? And you were clean-shaven? And you still ended up with first and second-degree burns on your chin sometimes?"
"Well.... Yeah.... But what you do still ain't that hard."
"And neither is roping cattle. It's something that learned. Doesn't mean I could do it. Look, dammit, you wanna set yourself on fire, the kerosene is right over there! Just shave first, it'll make life easier on the EMTs!"
Mookie stomped off. Roger muttered, "Uppity bitch." One of Roger's companions told him, "C'mon, Roger, better uses for that bottle than spittin' it in the air." "Yeah, let it go, Roger."
After a while she found Chet in the workshop sitting on the reassembled MG. She asked him, "Roger always been kinda reckless? Had to jump from the high rock into the river?"
"Well.... Sort of, yeah. Lemme guess, he was trying to breathe fire with that mediocre rot-gut he's been sucking on."
"You saw him."
"No, I just know my brother. And you saw him doing it and got him to stop, which he wasn't very happy about.."
"You did see him and me!"
"No, but I've gotten to know you. You know how dangerous your stunts are.... But you told the kids to not try any of this because they'd get hurt --- I liked how you phrased that, not 'could get hurt', but 'would get hurt'. And you warned 'em about four times. Don't need to expect to have to warn the adults, even if a bottle's been passed around."
Mookie turned to Chet with a smile, and asked, "So what else do you know about me?"
Chet chuckled and said, "I know you like being the center of attention. You can't deny that, with the red and white hair and your hobby of playing with fire in public. I know you walk a straight path, that's for sure. You got a goal and you'll make it, even if you have to push the MG all the way. I know you make fast friends.... Look how fast you blended in with my family, and trying to be helpful where you can. And uh, I know you are a beautiful woman. That one's hard to ignore."
Mooke drew in air. "Chet? This will be forward of me, but I'd like to go for a walk with you. I've got you on my mind like you wouldn't believe. Am I being too pushy?"
Chet was going red around the ears again, but worked up the courage to ask, "Would it be forward of me to suggest bringing a blanket?"
"I think that's a very good idea," she said, and gave a Chet a strong kiss. Chet grabbed a saddle blanket and the two of them went out the back door.
From around the corner of the shop, Roger took a pull at his bottle of Early Times and watched them leave.
* Lot Lizard: a prostitute who works out of truck stops, often using their own vans or trucks.