a novelette by Neal Barrett, Jr
On Maggie's seventh birthday, she found the courage to ask Mother what had happened to her father.
"Your father disappeared under strange circumstances," said Mother.
"Sorghumdances?" said Maggie.
"Circumstances," said Mother, who had taught remedial English before marriage and was taking a stab at it again. "Circumstances: a condition or fact attending an event or having some bearing upon it."
"I see," said Maggie. She didn't, but knew it wasn't safe to ask twice. What happened was Daddy got up after supper one night and put on his cardigan with the patches on the sleeves and walked to the 7-Eleven for catfood and bread. Eight months later, he hadn't shown up or called or written a card. Strange circumstances didn't seem like a satisfactory answer.
Mother died Thursday afternoon. Maggie found her watching reruns of Rawhide and Bonanza. Maggie left South Houston and went to live with Aunt Grace and Uncle Ned in Marble Creek.
"There's no telling who he might of met at that store," said Aunt Grace. "Your father wasn't right after the service. I expect he got turned in Berlin. Sent him back and planted him deep in Montgomery Ward's as a mole. That's how they do it. You wait and lead an ordinary life. You might be anyone at all. Your control phones up one day and says 'the water runs deep in Lake Ladoga' and that's it. Whatever you're doing, you just get right up and do their bidding. Either that or he run off with that slut in appliance. I got a look at her when your uncle went down to buy the Lawnboy at the End-of-Summer Sale. Your mother married beneath her. I don't say I didn't do the same. The women in our family got no sense at all when it comes to men. We come from good stock, but that doesn't put money in the bank. Your grandfather Jack worked directly with the man who invented the volleyball net they use all over the world in tournament play. Of course he never got the credit he deserved. This family's rubbed elbows with greatness more than once, but you wouldn't know it. Don't listen to your Uncle Ned's stories. And for Christ's sake, don't ever sit on his lap."
Maggie found life entirely different in a small town. There were new customs to learn. Jimmy Gerder and two other fourth graders took her down to the river after school and tried to make her take off her pants. Maggie didn't want to and ran home. After that, she ran home every day.
Uncle Ned told her stories. Maggie learned why it wasn't a good idea to sit on his lap. "There was this paleontologist," said Uncle Ned; "he went out hunting dinosaur eggs and he found some. There was this student come along with him. It was this girl with nice tits is who it was. So this paleontologist says, 'Be careful now, don't drop 'em, these old eggs are real friable.' And the girl says, 'Hey, that's great, let's fry the little fuckers.' " Uncle Ned nearly fell out of his chair.
Maggie didn't understand her uncle's stories. They all sounded alike and they were all about scientists and girls. Ned ran the hardware store on Main. He played dominoes on Saturdays with Dr. Harlow Pierce, who also ran Pierce's Drugs. On Sundays he watched girls' gymnastics on TV. When someone named Tanya did a flip, he got a funny look in his eyes. Aunt Grace would get Maggie and take her out in the car for a drive.
Maggie found a stack of magazines in the garage behind a can of kerosene. There were pictures of naked girls doing things she couldn't imagine. There were men in some of the pictures, and she guessed they were scientists, too.
Aunt Grace and Uncle Ned were dirt-poor, but they gave a party for Maggie's eighth birthday. Maggie was supposed to pass out invitations at school, but she threw them all away. Everyone knew Jimmy Gerder chased her home and knew why. She was afraid Aunt Grace would find out. Uncle Ned gave her a Phillips screwdriver in a simulated leather case you could clip in your pocket like a pen. Aunt Grace gave her a paperback history of the KGB.
Maggie loved the freedom children enjoy in small towns. She knew everyone on Main who ran the stores, the people on the streets, and the people who came in from the country Saturday nights. She knew Dr. Pierce kept a bottle in his office and another behind the tire in his trunk. She knew Mrs. Betty Keen Littler, the coach's wife, drove to Austin every Wednesday to take ceramics, and came back whonkered with her shoes on the wrong feet. She knew about Oral Blue, who drank wine and acted funny and thought he came from outer space. Oral was her favorite person to watch. He drove a falling-down pickup and lived in a trailer by the river. He came into town twice a week to fix toasters and wire lamps. No one knew his last name. Flip Gator, who ran Flip Gator's Exxon, tagged him Oral Blue. Which fit because Oral's old '68 pickup was three shades of Sear's exterior paint for fine homes. Sky Blue for the body. Royal blue for fenders. An indeterminate blue for the hood. Oral wore blue shirts and trousers. Blue Nikes with the toes cut out and blue socks.
"Don't get near him," said Aunt Grace. "He might of been turned. And for Christ's sake, don't ever sit in his lap."
Maggie kept an eye on Oral when she could. On Tuesdays and Thursdays she'd run home fast with Jimmy Gerder on her heels and duck up the alley to the square. Then she'd sit and watch Oral stagger around trying to pinpoint his truck. Oral was something to see. He was skinny as a rail and had a head too big for his body. Like a tennis ball stabbed with a pencil. Hair white as down and chalk skin and pink eyes. A mouth like a wide open zipper. He wore a frayed straw hat painted pickup-fender blue to protect him from the harsh Texas sun. Uncle Ned said Oral was a pure-bred genetic albino greaser freak and an aberration of nature. Maggie looked it up. She didn't believe anything Uncle Ned told her.
Ten days after Maggie was eleven, Dr. Pierce didn't show up for dominoes and Ned went and found him in his store. He took one look and ran out in the street and threw up. The medical examiner from San Antone said Pierce had sat on the floor and opened forty-two-hundred pharmaceutical-type products, mixed them in a five-gallon jug, and drunk most of it down. Which accounted for the internal explosions and extreme discoloration of the skin.
Maggie had never heard about suicide before. She imagined you just caught something and died or got old. Uncle Ned began to drink a lot more after Dr. Pierce was gone. "Death is one of your alternate lifestyles worth considering," he told Maggie. "Give it some thought."
Uncle Ned became unpleasant to be around. He mostly watched girls' field hockey or Eastern Bloc track-and-field events. Maggie was filling out in certain spots. Ned noticed her during commercials and grabbed out at what he could. Aunt Grace gave him hell when she caught him. Sometimes he didn't know who he was. He'd grab and get Grace, and she'd pick up something and knock him senseless.
Maggie stayed out of the house whenever she could. School was out, and she liked to pack a lunch and walk down through the trees at the edge of town to the Colorado. She liked to wander over limestone hills where every rock you picked up was the shell of something tiny that had lived. The sun fierce-bright and the heat so heavy you could see it. She took a jar of ice water and a peanut butter sandwich and climbed up past the heady smell of green salt-cedar to the deep shade of big live oaks and native pecans. The trees here were awesome, tall and heavy-leafed, trunks thick as columns in a bad Bible movie. She would come upon the ridge above the river through a tangle of ropy vine, sneak quietly to the edge, and look over and catch half a hundred turtles like green clots of moss on a sunken log. Moccasins crossed the river, flat heads just above the water, leaving shallow wakes behind. She would eat in the shade and think how it would be if Daddy were there. How much he liked the dry rattle of locusts in the summer, the sounds that things made in the wild. He could tell her what bird was across the river. She knew a crow when she heard it, that a cardinal was red. Where was he? she wondered. She didn't believe he'd been a mole at Montgomery Ward's. Aunt Grace was wrong about that. Why didn't he come back? He might leave Mother, and she wouldn't much blame him if he did. But he wouldn't go off and leave her.
"I don't want to be dead," she said aloud. "I can think of a lot of people who it's okay if they're dead, but not you."
She dropped pieces of sandwich into the olive-colored water. Fish came up and sucked them down. When the sun cut the river half in shadow, she started back. There was a road through the woods, no more than ruts for tires but faster than over the hills. Walking along thinking, watching grasshoppers bounce on ahead and show the way. The sound came up behind her, and she turned and saw the pickup teeter over the rise in odd dispersions of blue, the paint so flat it ate the sun in one bite. Oral blinked through bug spatters, strained over the wheel so his nose pressed flat against the glass. The pickup a primary disaster, and Oral mooning clown-faced, pink-eyed, smiling like a zipper, and maybe right behind some cut-rate circus with a pickled snake in a jar. He spotted Maggie and pumped the truck dead; caliche dust caught up and passed them both by.
"Well now, what have we got here?" said Oral. "It looks like a picnic and I flat missed it good. Not the first time, I'll tell you. I smell peanut butter I'm not mistaken. You want to get in here and ride?"
"What for?" said Maggie.
"Then don't. Good afternoon. Nice talking to you."
"All right, I will." Maggie opened the door and got in. She couldn't say why, it just seemed like the right thing to do.
"I've seen you in town," said Oral.
"I've seen you, too."
"There's a lot more to life than you dream of stuck on this out-of-the-way planet, I'll tell you that. There's plenty of things to see. I doubt you've got the head for it all. Far places and distant climes. Exotic modes of travel and different ways of doing brownies."
"I've been over to Waco and Fort Worth."
"That's a start."
"You just say you're a space person, don't you," said Maggie, wondering where she'd gotten the courage to say that. "You're not really, are you?"
"Not anymore I'm not," said Oral. "My ship disintegrated completely over the Great Salt Lake. I was attacked by Mormon terrorists almost at once. Spent some time in Denver door-to-door. Realized I wasn't cut out for sales. Sometime later hooked up with a tent preacher in Bloomington, Indiana. Toured the tristate area, where I did a little healing with a simple device concealed upon my person. Couldn't get new batteries and that was that. I was taken in by nuns outside of Reading, Pennsylvania, and treated well, though I was forced to mow lawns for some time. Later I was robbed and beaten severely by high-school girls in Chattanooga, where I offered to change a tire. I have always relied on the kindness of strangers. Learned you can rely on 'em to kick you in the ass." Oral picked up a paper sack shaped like a bottle and took a drink. "What's your daddy do? If I'm not mistaken, he sells nails."
"That's not my daddy, that's my uncle. My father disappeared under strange circumstances."
"That happens. More often than you might imagine. There are documented cases. Things I could tell you you wouldn't believe. Look it up. Planes of existence we can't see, or not a lot. People lost and floating about in interdimensional yogurt."
"You think my father's somewhere like that?"
"I don't know. I could ask."
"Thank you very much."
"I got this shirt from a fellow selling stuff off a truck. Pierre Cardin irregular is what it is. Dirt cheap and nothing irregular about it I can see. Whole stack of 'em there by your feet."
"They're all blue."
"Well, I know that."
"Where are we going now?"
"My place. Show you my interstellar vehicle and break open some cookies. You scared to be with me?"
"Not a lot."
"You might well ask why I make no effort to deny my strange origin or odd affiliation. I find it's easier to hide out in the open. You say you're from outer space, people tend to leave you alone. I've lived in cities and I like the country better. Not so many bad rays from people's heads. To say nothing of the dogshit in the streets. What do you think? You have any opinion on that? People in small towns are more tolerant of the rare and slightly defective. They all got a cousin counting his toes. I can fix nearly anything there is. Toasters. TVs. Microwave ovens. Everything except that goddamn ship. If Radio Shack had decent parts at all, I'd be out of here and gone."
Oral parked the truck under the low-hanging branches of a big native pecan. The roots ground deep in the rigid earth, squeezed rocks to the surface like broken dishes. The tree offered shade to the small aluminum trailer, which was round as a bullet. Oral had backed it off the road some time before. The tires were gone, tossed off in the brush. The trailer sat on rocks. Oral ushered Maggie in. Found Oreos in a Folger's coffee can, Sprite in a mini- fridge. A generator hacked out back. The trailer smelled of wine and bananas and 3-In-One oil. There was a hot plate and a cot. Blue shirts and trousers and socks.
"It's not much," said Oral. "I don't plan to stay here any longer than I have to."
"It's very cozy," said Maggie, who'd been taught to always say something nice. The trailer curved in from the door to a baked plastic window up front. The floor and the walls and the roof were explosions of colored wire and gutted home computers. Blue lights stuttered here and there.
"What's all this supposed to be?" said Maggie.
"Funky, huh?" Oral showed rapid eye movement. "No wonder they think I'm crazy. The conquest of space isn't as easy as the layman might imagine. I figure on bringing in a seat from out of the truck. Bolt it right there. Need something to seal up the door. Inner tubes and prudent vulcanizing ought to do it. You know about the alarming lack of air out in space?"
"I think we had it in school."
"Well, it's true. You doing all right at that place?"
The question took Maggie by surprise. "At school you mean? Sort of. Okay, I guess."
"Uh-huh." Oral hummed and puttered about. Stepped on a blue light and popped it like a bug. Found a tangle of wire from a purple Princess phone and cut it free. Got needle-nose pliers and twisted a little agate in to fit. "Wear this," he told Maggie. "Hang it round your waist and let the black doohickey kind of dangle over your personal private things."
"Well, I never!" Maggie didn't care for such talk.
"All right, don't. Run home all your life."
"You've been spying on me."
"You want a banana? Some ice cream? I like to crumble Oreos over the top."
"I think I better start on home."
"Go right up the draw and down the hill. Shortcut. Stick to the path. Tonight's a good night to view the summer constellations. Mickey's in the Sombrero. The Guppy's on the rise."
"I'll be sure and look."
When Maggie was twelve, Aunt Grace went to Galveston on a trip. The occasion was a distant cousin's demise. Uncle Ned went along. Which seemed peculiar to Maggie, since they wouldn't eat together, and seldom spoke.
"We can't afford it, God knows," said Aunt Grace. "But Albert was a dear. Fought the Red menace in West Texas all his life. Fell off a shrimper and drowned, but how do we know for sure? They'd make it look accidental."
She left Maggie a list of things to eat. Peanut butter and Campbell's soup. Which was mostly what she got when they were home. Aunt Grace said meat and green vegetables tended to give young girls diarrhea and get their periods out of whack.
"Stay out of the ham and don't thaw anything in the fridge. Here's two dollars, that's for emergencies and not to spend. Call Mrs. Ketcher, you get sick. Lock the doors. Come straight home from school and don't look at the cable."
"I'm scared to stay alone," said Maggie.
"Don't be a 'fraidy cat. God'll look after you if you're good."
"Don't tell anyone we're gone," said Uncle Ned. "Some greaser'll break in and steal us blind."
"For God's sake, Ned, don't tell her that."
Uncle Ned tried to slip a paper box in the backseat. Maggie saw him do it. When they both went in to check the house, she stole a look. The carton was full of potato chips and Fritos, Cheetos and chocolate chip cookies. There was a cooler she hadn't seen iced down with Dr Peppers and frozen Snickers and Baby Ruths. There were never any chips or candy bars around the house. Aunt Grace said they couldn't afford trash. But all this stuff was in the car. Maggie didn't figure they'd be bringing any back. When the car was out of sight, she went straight to the garage and punched an ice pick hole in the kerosene can that hid Uncle Ned's stash of magazines. She did it on a rust spot so Ned'd never notice. Then she went out back and turned over flat rocks and gathered half a pickle jar of fat brown Texas roaches that had moved up from Houston for their health. Upstairs she emptied the jar where Aunt Grace kept her underwear and hose. Downstairs again she got the ice pick and opened the freezer door and poked a hole in one of the coils. In case the roasts and chickens and Uncle Ned's venison sausage had trouble thawing out she left the door open wide to summer heat.
"There," said Maggie, "y'all go fuck yourselves good." She didn't know what it meant, but it seemed to work fine for everyone else.
When Maggie was thirteen, Jimmy Gerder nearly caught her. By now she knew exactly what he wanted and ran faster. But Jimmy had been going out for track. He had the proper shoes, and it was only a matter of time. Purely by chance she came across Oral's gimmick in the closet. The little black stone he'd twisted on seemed to dance like the Sony when a station was off the air. Why not, she thought, it can't hurt. Next morning she slipped it on under her dress. It felt funny and kinda nice, bouncing on her personal private things. Jimmy Gerder caught her in an alley. Six good buddies had come to watch. Jimmy wore his track outfit with a seven on the back. A Marble Creek Sidewinder rattler on the front. He was a tall and knobby boy with runny white-trash eyes and bad teeth. Maggie backed against a wall papered with county commissioner flyers. Jimmy came at her in a fifty-meter stance. His mouth moved funny; a peculiar glaze appeared. A strange invisible force picked him up and slammed him flat against the far alley wall. Maggie hadn't touched him. But something certainly had. Onlookers got away fast and spread the word. Maggie wasn't much of an easy lay. Jimmy Gerder suffered a semimild concussion, damage to several vertebrae and ribs.
She hadn't seen Oral in over a year. On the streets sometime, but not at the extraterrestrial aluminum trailer by the river.
"I wanted to thank you," she said. "I don't get chased anymore. How in the world did you do that?"
"What took you so long to try it out? Don't tell me. I got feelings, too."
Nothing seemed to have changed. There were more gutted personal home computers and blue lights, or maybe the same ones in different order.
"You wouldn't believe what happened to me," said Oral. He brought out Oreos and Sprites. "Got the ship clear out of the atmosphere and hit this time warp or something. Nearly got eat by Vikings. Worse than the Mormons. Fixed up the ship and flipped it out again. Ended up in medieval Europe. Medicis and monks, all kinds of shit. Joined someone's army in Naples. Got caught and picked olives for a duke. Look at my face. They got diseases you never heard of there."
"Oh my ," said Maggie. His face didn't look too good. The bad albino skin had holes like a Baby Swiss.
"I taught 'em a thing or two," said Oral, blinking one pink eye and then the other. "Simple magic tricks. Mr. Wizard stuff. Those babies'll believe anything. Ended up owning half of Southern Italy. Olive oil and real estate. Not a bad life if you can tolerate the smell. Man could make a mint selling Soft 'n Pretty and Sure."
"I'm glad you're back safe," said Maggie. She liked Oral a lot, and didn't much care what he made up or didn't. "What are you going to do now?"
"What can I do? Try to get this mother off the ground. I'm thinking of bringing Radio Shack to task in federal court. I feel I have a case."
Maggie listened to the wind in the trees. "Do you really think you can do it, Oral? You think you can make it work again?"
"Sure I can. Or maybe not. You know what gets to me most on this world? Blue. We got reds and yellows and greens up the ass. But no blue. You got blues all over." Oral put aside his Sprite and found a bottle in a sack. "You hear from your daddy yet?"
"Not a thing. I'm afraid he's gone."
"Don't count him out. Stuck in interstellar tofu, most likely. Many documented cases."
"Daddy hates tofu. Says it looks like someone threw up and tried again."
"He's got a point."
"What's it like where you come from, Oral? I mean where you lived before."
"You said you been to Fort Worth."
"Once when I was little."
"It doesn't look like that at all. Except out past Eighth Avenue by the tracks. Looks a little like that on a good day."
Maggie did fine in school after Jimmy Gerder left her alone. He cocked his head funny and walked with a limp. His folks finally sent him to Spokane to study forest conservation. By the time she reached sixteen, Maggie began to make friends. She was surprised to be chosen for the Sidewinderettes, the third finest pep squad in the state. She joined the Drama Club and started writing plays of her own. She was filling out nicely and gave Uncle Ned a wide berth.
They were still dirt-poor, but Uncle Ned and Aunt Grace attended several funerals a year. Two cousins died in Orlando not far from Disneyland, a car mishap in which both were killed outright. A nephew was mutilated beyond recognition in San Francisco, victim of a tuna-canning machine gone berserk. A new family tragedy could be expected around April, and again in late October when the weather got nice. Maggie was no longer taken in. She knew people died year round. They died in places like Cincinnati and Topeka where no one wanted to go. What Aunt Grace and Uncle Ned were doing was having fun. There wasn't much question about that. Maggie didn't like it, but there was nothing she could do about it, either.
When Maggie was eighteen, her play Blue Sun Rising was chosen for the senior drama presentation. It was a rousing success. Drama critic Harcourt Playce from San Angelo, Texas, told Maggie she showed promise as a writer. He gave her his personal card and the name of a Broadway theatrical producer in New York. The play was about a man who was searching for the true meaning of life on a world "very much like our own," as the program put it. There was no night at all on this world. A blue sun was always in the sky. Maggie wanted to ask Oral but was sure the principal wouldn't let him in.
Aunt Grace died a week after graduation. Maggie found her watching reruns of M*A*S*H. She secretly wrote a specialist in Dallas. Told him what had happened to her mother and Aunt Grace. The specialist answered in time and said there might be genetic dysfunction. They were making great strides in the field. He advised her to avoid any shows in syndication.
Life with Uncle Ned wasn't easy. With Aunt Grace gone, he no longer practiced restraint of any kind. Liquor came out of the nail bin at the store, and found its way to the kitchen. Girl and scientist magazines were displayed quite openly with National Geographic. Maggie began to jump when she heard a sound. There was a good chance Uncle Ned was there. Standing still too long was a mistake.
"You're going to have to stop that," said Maggie. "I mean it, Uncle Ned. I won't put up with it at all."
"You ought to get into gymnastics," said Uncle Ned. "I could work with you. Fix up bars and stuff out back. I know a lot more about it than you might think."
Maggie looked at Uncle Ned as if she were seeing him for the first time. His gaze was focused somewhere south of Houston. There seemed to be an electrical short in his face. His skin was the color of chuck roast hit with a hammer.
"I'm going to go," said Maggie. "I'm getting out of here."
"On what?" said Uncle Ned.
"I don't care on what, I'm just going. You try to stop me, you'll wish you hadn't."
"You haven't got busfare to the bathroom."
"Then I'll walk."
"You do and you'll get raped and thrown in a ditch."
"I can get that first part here. I'll worry about the ditch when I come to it."
"Don't expect any help from me. I haven't got two dimes to rub together."
"You will," said Maggie. "Some cousin'll get himself hacked up in a sawmill in Las Vegas."
"Now that's plain ignorant," said Uncle Ned. "Especially for a high-school graduate. There isn't a lot of timber in Nevada. That's something you ought to know."
"Good-bye, Uncle Ned."
It took maybe nine minutes to pack. She took Blue Sun Rising and a number two pencil. Left her Sidewinderette pep jacket and took a sensible cloth coat. It was the tail end of summer in Texas, but New York looked cold on NYPD Blue. She searched for something to steal. There were pawnshops all over New York. People stole for a living and sold the loot to buy scag and pot and ludes and whatever they could find to shoot up. There was no reason you couldn't buy food just as well. In the back of her aunt's closet she found a plastic beaded purse with eight dollars and thirty cents. Two sticks of Dentyne gum. Downstairs, Uncle Ned was watching the French National Girls' Field Hockey Finals. Maggie stopped at the front door.
"It was me poured kerosene on your magazines," she said. "I thawed all the meat out, too."
"I know it," said Uncle Ned. He didn't turn around. A girl named Nicole blocked a goal.
Hitchhiking was a frightening experience. She felt alone and vulnerable on the interstate. Oral's protective device was fastened securely about her waist. But what if it didn't work? What if she'd used it up with Jimmy Gerder? A man who sold prosthetic devices picked her up almost at once. His name was Sebert Lewis, and he offered to send her to modeling school in Lubbock. He had helped several girls begin promising careers. Many were now in national magazines.
When Sebert stopped for gas, Maggie got out and ran. There were trucks everywhere. A chrome black eighteen-wheeler city. They towered over Maggie on every side. In a moment she was lost. Some of the trucks were silent. Others rumbled deep and blinked red and yellow lights. There was no one about. She spotted a cafe through the dark. The drivers were likely all inside. It seemed like the middle of the night. French fries reached her on a light diesel breeze.
"I don't know what to do next!" she said aloud, determined not to cry. A big red truck stood by itself. A nice chrome bulldog on the front. It wouldn't hurt to rest and maybe hide from Sebert Lewis. She wrapped her coat around her and used her suitcase for a pillow. In a moment she was asleep. Only a short time later, a face looked directly into hers.
"Oh, Lord," said Maggie, "don't you dare do whatever it is you're thinking."
"Little lady, I'm not thinking on anything at all," the man said.
"Well, all right, then. If you mean it."
He was big, about as big a man as Maggie had ever seen. Dark brown eyes nearly lost in a face like a kindly pie. "You better be glad I'm a bug on maintenance," he said. "If I'd of took off you lyin' there under the tire, I'd a squashed you flatter'n a dog on the road to Amarillo. You got a name, have you?"
"I'm Maggie McKenna from Marble Creek."
"You running away?"
"I'm going to New York City to write plays."
"You got folks back home?"
"My mother's dead and my father disappeared under strange circumstances. I'm a high-school graduate and a member of the Sidewinderettes. They don't take just everybody wants to get in. If you're thinking about calling Uncle Ned, you just forget it."
"Not my place to say what you ought to do. I'm Billy C. Mace. How'd you get to here?"
"A man named Sebert Lewis picked me up. Said he'd put me through modeling school in Lubbock."
"Lord Jesus!" said Billy Mace. "Come on, get in. Nothing's going to happen to you now."
Riding in the cab of an eighteen-wheeler wasn't anything at all like a '72 Ford. You towered over the road and could see everything for miles. Cars got out of the way. Billy talked to other truckers on the road. His CB handle was Boomer Billy. He let Maggie talk to Black Buddy and Queen Louise and Stoker Fish. The truck seemed invulnerable. Nothing could possibly reach her. The road hummed miles below. There was even a place to sleep behind the driver. Billy guessed she was hungry, and before they left the stop he got cheeseburgers and onion rings to go. Billy kept plenty of Fritos and Hershey bars with almonds in the truck, and had Dr Peppers iced in a cooler. Maggie went to sleep listening to Waylon Jennings tapes. When she woke it was morning. Billy said they'd be in Tulsa in a minute.
"I've never even been out of the state," said Maggie. " And here I am already in Oklahoma."
Billy pulled into a truck stop for breakfast. And then to another for lunch. He measured the distance in meals. "Two hundred miles to lunch," he'd tell Maggie, or "a hundred seventy to supper." Maggie read him Blue Sun Rising while he drove.
"I don't know a lot about plays," said Billy when she was through, "but I don't see how that sucker can miss. That third act's a doozie."
"It needs a little work."
"Not as I see it, it don't. You might want to rein in the Earth Mother symbolism a little, but that's just a layman's suggestion."
"You may be right," said Maggie.
She already knew Billy was well read. There was a shelf of books over the bunk. All the writers' names were John. John Gunther. John Milton. John D. MacDonald.
"John's my daddy's name, God rest him," said Billy. "A man named John tells you something, you can take it for a fact."
She told him about Uncle Ned and Aunt Grace. She didn't mention Oral Blue, as they had not discussed the possibilities of extraterrestrial life. Billy was livid about her experience with Sebert Lewis.
"Lord Jesus himself was looking after you," he said. "No offense meant, but a girl pretty as you is just road bait, Maggie. That modeling studio thing is likely a front. I expect this Sebert's a retired Red agent and into hard astrology on the side. Probably under deep cover for some time. I imagine there's a network of such places spread right across the country. Sebert and his cohorts cruise the roads for candidates, like yourself. Couple of days in a little room, and you're hopeless on drugs, ready to do unspeakable acts of every kind. There's a possibility of dogs. You wake up in bed with some greaser with a beard that gets military aid from this godless administration. That's where your tax dollar goes. I don't want to scare you, but you come real close to a bad end."
"I guess I don't know much, do I?" said Maggie. "I feel awful dumb."
"You learn quick enough when you drive the big rigs. There's things go on you wouldn't believe. The Russians got the news media eatin' out of their hands. I could give you names you'd recognize at once if I was to say 'em. There are biological agents in everything you eat. Those lines and numbers they got on the back of everything you buy? What that is is a code. If you're not in the KGB or the Catholic Church, you can't read it. Don't eat anything that's got three sixes. That's the sign of the beast. I wish to God I had control of my appetite. I can feel things jabbing away inside. White bread and tomatoes are pretty safe. And food isn't the only way they got you. TV's likely the worst. I can't tell you the danger of watching the tube."
"I already know about that," said Maggie.
Billy Mace had it all arranged. As good as any travel agent could do. He left her with a Choctaw driver named Henry Black Bear in St. Louis. Henry took her to Muncie, Indiana. Gave her over to a skeletal black man named Quincy Pride. Quincy's CB handle was "Ghost." He taught her the names of every blues singer who had lived in New Orleans at any time. He played their tapes in order of appearance. At Pittsburgh she transferred to Tony D. Velotta, a handsome Italian with curly hair. Maggie thought he was the image of John Travolta.
And then very early in the morning, she woke to the bright sun in her eyes and crawled down from the bunk and Tony pointed and said, "Hey, there it is, kid. We're here."
Maggie could scarcely believe her eyes. The skyline exploded like needles in the sun. A lonely saxophone wailed offstage. She could see the trees blossom in Central Park. Smell the hot dogs cooking at the zoo. They were still in New Jersey, but they were close.
"Lordy ," said Maggie, "it looks near as real as a movie."
As they sliced through upper Manhattan, Tony pointed out the sights. Not that there was an awful lot to see. He tried to explain the Bronx and Brooklyn and Queens, drawing a map with his finger on the dash. Maggie was thoroughly confused, and too excited to really care.
"So what are you going to do now? Where you going to stay?"
"I don't know," said Maggie. "I guess I'll find a hotel or something."
"How much money you got, you don't mind me asking?"
"Eight dollars and thirty cents. Now I know that's not a lot. I may have to look for work. It could take some time before I get my play produced."
"Holy Mother," said Tony. "You'd better stay with us."
"Now I couldn't do that. I'll be just fine."
"Right. For six, maybe eight minutes, tops."
The Velottas lived in Brooklyn. It might as well have been Mars as far as Maggie was concerned. There were eight people in the family. Tony and his wife Carla and little Tony, who was two. Tony's father and mother, two younger brothers and a sister. They took in Maggie at once. They said she talked funny. They loved her. Carla gave her dresses. There was always plenty to eat. The Velottas had never heard of peanut butter. Maggie ate things called manicotti and veal piccata. Carla made spaghetti that didn't come out of a can. Nothing was like it was at Aunt Grace's and Uncle Ned's. The family was constantly in motion. Talking and running from one end of the house to the other. Everyone yelled at each other and laughed. Maggie tasted wine for the first time. She'd never seen a wine bottle out of a paper sack. Everyone worked in the Velotta family bakery. Maggie helped out, carrying trays of pastry to the oven.
Tony stayed a week and went back on the road. Maggie talked to Carla one evening after little Tony was in bed.
"I've got to go see my producer," she said. "You all have been wonderful to me but I can't live off you forever. The sooner I get Blue Sun Rising on Broadway, the better."
"Yeah, right," said Carla. She looked patient and resigned. The whole family conferred on directions. An intricate map was drawn. Likely locations of muggers and addicts were marked with an X.
"Don't talk to anyone," said Tony's mother. She crossed herself and gave Maggie a medal. "Especially don't talk to blacks and Puerto Ricans. Or Jews or people with slanty eyes or turbans. No turbans! Avoid men with Nazi haircuts and blue eyes. Anyone with blue eyes."
"Watch out for men in business suits and ties," said Papa Velotta. "They carry little black cases. Like women's purses only flat. There's supposed to be business inside but there's not. It's dope, is what it is. Everybody knows what's going on."
"Don't talk to anyone on skates with orange hair," said Carla.
"A Baptist with funny eyes will give you a pamphlet," said Papa. "Don't take it. Watch out for white socks."
"I'll try to remember everything," said Maggie.
"I'll light a candle," said Mama Velotta.
Maggie called Marty Wilde, the Broadway producer. Wilde said she had a nice voice and he liked to encourage regional talent. He would see her at three that afternoon.
"What's the name of this play?" he wanted to know.
"Blue Sun Rising," said Maggie.
"Jesus, I like it. You don't have an agent or anything do you?"
"I just got in town," said Maggie.
"Good. I like to work with people direct."
Her first impression was right. Manhattan was as real as any cop show she'd ever seen. It was all there. The sounds, the smells, the people of many lands. There was a picture show on nearly every block. Everything was the same, everything was different. The city changed before her eyes. A man lying in the street. A kid tying celery to a cat. A woman dressed like a magazine cover, getting out of a cab. She watched the woman a long time. Maybe she'll come to see my play, Maggie thought. She looks like a woman who'd see a play.
Marty Wilde had a small office in a tall building. The building was nice outside. Inside, the halls were narrow. There was bathroom tile on the floors. A girl with carrot hair said Mr. Wilde would see her, and knocked on the wall. Marty came out at once.
"Maggie McKenna from Marble Creek, Texas," he said. "That's who you are. Maggie McKenna who wrote Blue Sun Rising. Hey, get in here right now."
Marty ushered her in and offered a chair. The office was bigger than a closet and had faded brown pictures on the wall. Maggie realized these were Broadway greats, people she would likely meet later. There was very little light. The window looked out on a window. Black men in Kung Fu suits kicked at the air. There were piles of plays in the room. Plays spilling over tables and chairs and onto the floor. This sight left Maggie depressed. If there were that many plays in New York, they might never get around to Blue Sun Rising.
Marty Wilde took her play and set it aside. He perched on the edge of his desk. "So tell me about Maggie McKenna. I can read an author like a page. I can see your play right on your face. A character sits down stage right. The phone rings. I can see that."
"That's amazing," said Maggie. Marty Wilde seemed worn to a nub. A turkey neck stuck out of his shirt. His eyes slept in little hammocks. "There's not much to tell about me. I think my play's good, Mr. Wilde. If it needs any changes I'm willing to do the work."
"Every play needs work. You take your Neil Simon or your Chekhov. A hit doesn't jump out of the typewriter and hop up on the stage."
"No, I guess not."
"You better believe it. Who's this guy give you my name?"
"Harcourt Playce, he works on the San Angelo paper."
"Short little man with a clubfoot. Wears a Mexican peso on a chain. Sure, I remember."
This didn't sound like Mr. Playce, but Maggie didn't want to interrupt.
"You say you haven't got an agent."
"No, sir, I sure don't."
"Let's cut the sir stuff, Maggie. I'm older than you in years, but there's a spirit of youth pervades the stage. You're a very pretty girl. How you fixed for cash?"
"Not real good right now."
"My point exactly. Here's what I suggest. It's just an idea I'm throwing out. I take in a few writers on this scholarship thing which is, hey, my way of paying Lady Broadway back in a small way. You stay at my place, we work together. I got a friend can give you good photo work. He's affiliated with a national modeling chain. All semi-tasteful stuff. You'd know his name the minute I said it."
"You want to take my picture?"
"Just an idea. Let's get you settled in."
"This sounds a lot like girls and scientists, Mr. Wilde. I don't see what it has to do with my play."
Marty came off the desk. "I want you to be comfortable with this."
"I'm not very comfortable right now."
"So let's talk. Tell me what you're feeling."
"You just talk from over there."
"You remind me a lot of Debra Winger. In a very classical sense."
"You remind me of someone, too."
"Jesus, what a sweet kid you are. We won't try to push it. Just let it happen." He took a step closer. A strange, invisible force picked him up and hurled him against the wall. Pictures of neargreats shattered. Some crucial fault gave way in the stacks of plays. Acts and scenes spilled over Marty on the floor.
"I think you broke something," said Marty. "Where'd you learn that hold? You're awful quick."
The girl with carrot hair came in.
"Call somebody," said Marty. "Get me on the couch."
"I don't think we can work together," said Maggie. "I'm real displeased with your behavior."
"I can see you don't know shit about the theater," said Marty. "You can't just waltz in here and expect to see your name in lights."
"You ought to be in jail. If you try to get in touch with me, I'll press charges."
Carla said she could stay as long as she wanted. There wasn't any reason to go look for another place.
"I've got to try it on my own," said Maggie. "I believe in my play. I don't believe everyone on Broadway's like Marty Wilde."
Carla could see that she was determined. "It's not easy to get work. Tony thinks a lot of you, Maggie. We all do. You're family."
"Oh, Carla," Maggie threw her arms around her. "You're the very best family I ever had."
Carla persuaded her to wait for the Sunday Times. Mama Velotta filled her up with food. "Eat now. You won't get a chance to later."
The room was on East Twenty-first over an all-night Chinese restaurant. Maggie shared it with three girls named Jeannie, Eva, and Sherry. They all three worked for an insurance company. Maggie got a waitress job nights at the restaurant downstairs. There was just enough money to eat and pay the rent. She slept a few hours after work and took the play around days. No one wanted to see her. They asked her to mail copies and get an agent. Maggie cut down her meals to one a day, which allowed her to make a new copy of Blue Sun Rising every week. She even started a new play, using Sherry's old Mac computer and the backs of paper place mats from the job. The play was Diesel and Roses, a psychological drama set in a truck-stop café. Billy Mace was in it, and so was Henry Black Bear and Quincy Pride and Tony Velotta. Carla called. There was a postal money order from Marble Creek for $175 and a note.
"It's not good news," said Carla.
"Read it," said Maggie.
" 'Dying. Come home. Uncle Ned.' "
"I'm real sorry, honey."
"It's okay. We weren't close."
The thing to do was take the money and eat and make some copies of Blue Sun Rising. And forget about Uncle Ned. Maggie couldn't do it. Even Uncle Ned deserved to have family put him in the ground. "I'll be back," she told New York, and made arrangements to meet Carla and get the money.
The first thing she noticed was things had changed in the year she'd been away. Instead of the '72 Ford, there was a late model Buick with a boat hitch on the back. Poking out of the garage was a Ranger fishing boat, an eighteen-footer with a big Merc outboard on the stern.
"You better be dead or dying," said Maggie.
The living room looked like Sears and Western Auto had exploded. There was a brand new Sony and a VCR, and hit tapes like Gymnasts in Chains. The kitchen was a wildlife preserve. Maggie stood at the door but wouldn't go in. Things moved around under plates. There were cartons of Hershey bars and chips. Canned Danish hams and foreign mustards. All over the house there were things still in boxes. Uncle Ned had dug tunnels through empty bottles and dirty books. There were new Hawaiian shirts. Hush Puppies in several different styles. A man appeared in one of the tunnels.
"I'm Dr. Kraft, I guess you're Maggie."
"Is he really dying? What's wrong with him?"
"Take your pick. The man's got everything. A person can't live like that and expect their organs to behave."
Maggie went upstairs. Uncle Ned looked dead already. There were green oxygen tanks and plastic tubes.
"I'm real glad you came. This is nice."
"Uncle Ned, where'd you get all this stuff?"
"That all you got to say? You don't want to hear how I am?"
"I can see how you are."
"You're entitled to bad feelings. I deserve whatever you want to dish out. I want to settle things up before I go to damnation and meet your aunt. Your father had an employee stock plan at Montgomery Ward's. Left your mother well off, and that woman was too cheap to spend it. We got the money when she died and you came to us. We sort of took these little vacations. Nothing big."
"I guess we wronged you some."
"I guess I grew up on peanut butter and Campbell's soup is what happened."
"I've got a lot to answer for. There are certain character flaws."
"That's no big news to me."
"I can see a lot clearer from the unique position I got at the moment. Poised between one plane of being and the next. When your aunt died, weakness began to thrive. I didn't mean to buy so much stuff."
"I don't suppose there's anything left."
"Not to speak of, I wouldn't think. All that junk out there's on credit. It'll have to go back. The bank's got the house. There's forty-nine dollars in a Maxwell House can in the closet. I want you to have it."
"I'll take it."
"I wish you and me'd been closer. I hope you'll give me a kiss."
"I'd rather eat a toad," said Maggie.
Maggie saw Jimmy Gerder at the funeral. He still had a limp and kept his distance. She walked along the river to see Oral. It was fall, or as close as fall gets in that end of Texas. Dry leaves rattled and the Colorado was low. The log where she used to watch turtles was aground, trailing tangles of fishing line. The water was the color of chocolate milk and the turtles were gone. Oral was gone, too. Brush had sprung up under the big native pecan. The place looked empty without the multiblue pickup and the extraterrestrial trailer. Maggie wondered if he'd gotten things to work or just left. She asked around town, and no one seemed to remember seeing him go. After a Coke and a bacon and tomato at the café, she figured she had enough to get back to New York if she sold a couple of things before Sears learned Uncle Ned was dead. Put that with her forty-nine-dollar inheritance and she could do it. There was fifteen dollars left from the ticket. Even dying, Uncle Ned had remembered to pay for only one way.
Winter in New York was bad. The Chinese restaurant became an outlet for video tapes. Sherry and Jeannie and Eva helped all they could. They carried Maggie on the rent and ran copies of Blue Sun Rising down at the insurance company. The Velottas tried to help, but Maggie wouldn't have it. She got part-time work at a pizza place on East Fifty-second. After work, she walked bone-tired to the theater district and looked at the lights. She read the names on the posters and watched people get out of cabs. There was a cold wet drizzle every night, but Maggie didn't mind. The streets reflected the magic and made it better. When the first snow fell, she sewed a blanket in her coat. The coat smelled like anchovies, and Sherry said she looked like a Chinese pilot. "For God's sake, baby, let me loan you a coat."
"I can manage," said Maggie, "you've done enough."
She could no longer afford subways or buses, so she walked every day from her room. She lost weight and coughed most of the time. The owner asked her to leave. He said customer's didn't like people coughing on their pizza. She didn't tell the girls she'd lost her job. They'd want to give her money. She looked, but there weren't any jobs to be had. Especially for girls who looked like bag ladies and sounded like Camille. She kept going out every day and coming back at night. Hunger wasn't a problem. She felt too sick to eat. One night she simply didn't go home. "What's the point? What's the use pretending? No one wants to look at Blue Sun Rising. I can't get a job. I can't do anything at all."
The snow began to fall in slow motion, flakes the size of lemons. Broadway looked like a big Christmas tree someone had tossed out and forgot to take the lights.
"Look at the blues," said Maggie, "Oral liked the blues so much."
A man selling food gave her a pretzel and some mustard. The pretzel came up at once. A coughing fit hit her. She couldn't stop. First-nighters hurried quickly by. Maggie pulled her coat up close and looked in the steamy windows of Times Square. Radios and German bayonets were half off. There was a pre-Christmas sale on marital aids. She could still taste the mustard and the pretzel. A black man in sunglasses approached.
"You hurtin' bad, mama. You need something, I can maybe get it."
"No, thank you," said Maggie.
I can't just stand here, she thought. I've got to do something. She couldn't feel her feet. Lights were jumping about. There was a paper box in the alley. The thing to do was to sit down and try to figure things out. She thought of a good line for Diesel and Roses and then forgot it. A cat looked in and sniffed; there were anchovies somewhere about. Maggie dreamed of Daddy when he took her to the zoo. She dreamed of Oral under a tree and riding high with Billy Mace. The cab was toasty warm and Billy had burgers from McDonald's. She dreamed she heard applause. The cat started chewing on her coat. Oh Lord, I love New York, thought Maggie. If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere . . .
Carla looked ethereal, computer-enhanced.
"I guess I'm dying," said Maggie. "I'm sorry to get you out in this weather."
"Oh, baby," said Carla, "hang on. Just hang on, Maggie."
Everything was fuzzy. The tubes hurt her nose. The walls were dark and needed painting. Sherry and Eva and Jeannie were there and all the Velottas. They bobbed about like balloons. Everyone had rings around their eyes.
"I want you to have Blue Sun Rising," said Maggie. "All of you. Equal shares. I've been thinking about off-Broadway lately. That might not be so hard. Don't see a man named Marty Wilde."
"All right, Maggie."
"She's going," someone said.
"Good-bye, Daddy. Good-bye, Oral," said Maggie.
The room looked nice. There was a big window with sun coming in. The doctor leaned down close. He smelled like good cologne. He smiled at Maggie and wrote something and left. A nice-looking man got up from a chair and stood by the bed.
"Hello. You feeling like something to drink? You want anything, just ask."
"I'd like a Dr Pepper if you have one."
"You got it."
The man left and Maggie tried to stay awake. When she opened her eyes again, it was late afternoon. The man was still there. A nurse came in and propped her up. The man brought her a fresh Dr Pepper.
"You look a lot like Tony," said Maggie. He did. The same crispy hair and dark eyes. A nice black suit and a gray tie. Maybe a couple of years older. "You know Tony and Carla?"
"They ask about you every day. You can see them real soon. Everybody's been pretty worried about you."
"I guess I 'bout died."
"Yeah, I guess you did."
"This place looks awful expensive. I don't want the Velottas or anyone spending a bundle on me."
"They won't. No problem."
"Hey, I know a swell place like this isn't free."
"We'll talk about it. Don't worry." The man smiled at Maggie and went away.
Maggie slept and got her appetite back and wondered where she was. The next afternoon the man was back. He helped her in a wheelchair and rolled her down the hall to a glassed-in room full of plants. There were cars outside in a circular drive. A fountain turned off for the winter. A snow-covered lawn and a dark line of trees. Far in the distance, pale blue hills against a cold and leaden sky. Men in sunglasses and overcoats walked around in the snow.
"I guess you're going to tell me where I am sometime," said Maggie. "I guess you're going to tell me who you are and what I'm doing in this place I can't afford."
"I'm Johnny Lucata," the man said. "Call me Johnny, Maggie. And this house belongs to a friend."
"He must be a friend of yours, then. I don't remember any friends with a house like this."
"You don't know him. But he's a friend of yours, too." He seemed to hesitate. He straightened his tie. "Look, I got things to tell you. Things you need to know. You want, we can talk when you feel a little better."
"I feel okay right now."
"Maybe. Only this is kinda nutsy stuff, you know? I don't want to put you back in bed or nothing."
"Mr. Lucata, whatever it is, I think I'll feel a lot better when I know what's going on."
"Right. Why not? So what do you know about olives?"
"Olives. They got olives over in Italy. There's a place where the toe's kicking Sicily in the face. Calabria. Something like a state, only different. The man lives here, he's got a lot of the olive oil business in Calabria. Been in his family maybe four, five hundred years. You sure you want to do this now?"
"I'm sure, Mr. Lucata."
"Okay. There's this city called Reggio di Calabria right on the water. You can look and see Sicily real good. A couple of miles out of town is this castle. Been there forever, only now it's a place for monks. So what happens is a couple of months back this monk's digging around and finds this parchment in a box. It's real old and the monk reads it. What he sees shakes him up real bad. He's not going to go to the head monk because Catholics got this thing about stuff that even starts to get weird. But he's a monk, right? He can't just toss this thing away. He's got a sister knows a guy who's family to the man who lives here. So the box gets to Reggio and then it gets to him." Johnny Lucata looked at Maggie. "Here's the part I said gets spooky. What this parchment says, Maggie, is that the old duke who started up the family left all the olive business to you."
Maggie looked blank. "Now that doesn't make sense at all, Mr. Lucata."
"Yeah, tell me. It's the straight stuff. The experts been over it. I got a copy I can show you. It's all in Latin, but you can read the part that says Maggie McKenna of Marble Creek, Texas. We got the word out, and we been looking all over trying to find you. But your uncle died and you came back to New York. We didn't know where to take it after that. Then someone in Tony's family mentions your name and it gets to us. The thing is now, the man lives here, he doesn't know what to make of all this, and he don't want to think about it a lot. He sure don't want to ask some cardinal or the Pope. What he wants to do is make it right for you, Maggie. This duke is his ancestor and he figures it's a matter of honor. I mean, he doesn't see you ought to get it all, but you ought to be in for a couple of points. He wants me to tell you he'd like to work it where you get maybe three, four mill a year out of this. He thinks that's fair and he knows you're pressed for cash."
Maggie sat up straight. " Are you by any chance talking about dollars? Three or four million dollars?"
"Five. I think we ought to say five. He kind of left that up to me. Don't worry about the taxes. We'll work a little off-tackle Panama reverse through a Liechtenstein bank. You'll get the bread through a Daffy Duck Christmas Club account."
"I just can't hardly believe this, Mr. Lucata. It's like a dream or something. No one even knew I was going to be back then. Why, there wasn't even a Texas!"
"You got it."
"This castle. There's just these monks living there now?"
"Palazzo Azzuro. Means blue palace. I been there, it's nice. Painted blue all over. Inside and out. Every kind of blue you ever saw."
"Blue? Oh, my goodness!"
"Oral," said Maggie, "Oh, Oral, you're the finest and dearest friend I ever had!"
When she was feeling like getting up and around, Johnny Lucata helped her find a relatively modest apartment off Fifth Avenue. Five mill or not, Maggie had been poor too long to start tossing money around. She did make sure there were always Dr Peppers and Baby Ruths in the fridge. And steaks and fresh fruit and nearly everything but Chinese food and pizza. Carla helped her find Bloomingdale's and Saks. Maggie picked out a new cloth coat. She sent nice perfume to Jeannie and Sherry and Eva, and paid them back triple what they'd spent to help her out. She gave presents to the Velottas and had everyone over for dinner. Johnny Lucata dropped by a lot. Just to see how she was doing. Sometimes he came in a cab. Sometimes he came in a black car with tinted windows and men wearing black suits and shades. He took her out to dinner and walks in the park. Sometimes Maggie made coffee, and they talked into the night. She read him Blue Sun Rising and he liked it.
"You don't have to say that, just because it's me."
"I mean it. I go to plays all the time. It's real, Maggie. You don't have to wonder what everybody's thinking, they just say it. I want you to talk to Whitney Hess."
"Whitney Hess the producer? Do you know him?"
"Yeah, sure I know him."
"I don't want to do that, Johnny. I don't want to get help from somebody just because he's a friend of yours. That's not right. I want Blue Sun Rising to stand on its own."
"Are you kidding?" said Johnny. "Whitney Hess wouldn't buy a bad play from his dying mother. Besides, I want five points of this up front. You're not going to cut me out of a winner."
Tony and Carla and Tony's brothers and his sister and Mama and Papa Velotta dressed up for opening night. Johnny Lucata sent a limo to pick them up, and another to get Jeannie and Sherry and Eva. Tony got out the word, and the truckers found Billy Mace and Henry Black Bear and Quincy Pride. They all had seventh-row center seats.
Maggie thought sure she was dreaming. Her name up in lights at the Shubert Theatre. Ladies in furs and jewels dressed up for opening night. Spotlights and TV cameras and people she'd only seen in the movies. She stayed outside a long time. Standing in the very same spot where she'd thrown up pretzels in the street. Not far from the alley where she'd curled up in a box and nearly died. You just never know, she told herself. You just don't.
There was no need to wait for the reviews. After the first act, Whitney Hess said they had a smash on their hands. After the third-act curtain, even Maggie believed it was true. The audience came to its feet and shouted, "Author! Author!" and someone told Maggie they meant her.
Johnny hurried her out of the Shubert by the side door. He wouldn't say where they were going. A black car was by the curb around the comer. There were men in overcoats and shades.
"I want you to meet somebody," said Johnny, and opened the rear door. "This is Maggie McKenna," he said. "Maggie, I'd like you to meet my father."
Maggie caught the proper respect in his voice. She looked inside and saw an old man sitting in the comer. He was lost in a black suit, a man no more substantial than a cut-rate chicken in a sack.
"That was a nice play," he said. "I like it a lot. I like plays with a story you can't guess what's going to happen all the time. There's nothing on the television but dirt. The Reds got people in the business. They built this place in Chelyabinsk looks just like Twentieth Century Fox. Writers, directors, the works. They teach 'em how to do stuff rots out your head, then they send them over here. This is a great country. You keep writing nice plays."
"Thank you," said Maggie, "I'm very glad you liked it."
"Here. A little present from me. Your big night. You remember where you got it."
"I'm very grateful," said Maggie. "For everything." She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek.
"That's very nice. You're a nice girl. She's a nice girl, Johnny."
Johnny took her back inside, and on the way home after the big party Whitney Hess gave at the Plaza, Maggie opened her present. It was a pendant shaped like an olive. Pale emeralds formed the olive, and a ruby sat on top for the pimiento.
"It's just lovely," said Maggie.
"The old man's got a lot of class."
"Why didn't you tell me that was your father's house, Johnny? I kinda guessed later, but I didn't know for sure."
"Wasn't the right time."
"And it's the right time now?"
"Yeah, I guess it is."
"Whitney Hess wants to go into rehearsal on Diesel and Roses next month. I'm going to ask Billy Mace and Henry Black Bear and Quincy Pride to come on as technical advisers. There's not a thing for them to do, but I'd like to have them around."
"That's nice. It's a good idea."
"Whitney says everyone wants the movie rights to Blue Sun Rising. Which means we'll get a picture deal up front for Diesel and Roses. Oh Lordy, I can't believe all this is really happening. Everything in my life's been either awful or as good as it can be."
"It's going to stay good now, Maggie." He leaned over and kissed her quickly. Maggie stared at the tinted glass.
"You've never done that before."
"Well, I have now."
Maggie wondered what was happening inside. She felt funny all over. She was dizzy from the kiss. She liked Johnny a lot, but she'd never liked him quite like this. She wanted him to kiss her again and again, but not now. Not wearing Oral's protective device, which she'd worn since her very first day in New York. It was something she'd never thought about before. What if you really wanted someone to do something to you? Would the wire and the black stone know that it wasn't Jimmy Gerder or Marty Wilde? She certainly couldn't take the chance of finding out.
The phone was ringing when they got to her apartment.
"You're famous," said Johnny. "That'll go on all night."
"No, it won't," said Maggie, "just take it off the hook. I can be famous tomorrow. Tonight I just want to be me."
Johnny had a funny look in his eyes. She was sure he was going to kiss her right then. "Just wait right there," she said. "Don't go away. Get me a Dr Pepper and open yourself a beer." She hurried into the bedroom and shut the door. Raised up her skirt and slipped the little wire off her waist. Her heart was beating fast. "I hope you know what you're doing, Maggie McKenna."
Johnny gave a decidedly angry shout from the other room. Another man yelled. Something fell to the floor.
"Good heavens, what's that?" said Maggie. She rushed into the room. Johnny had a young man backed against the wall, threatening him with a fist. The man wore a patched cardigan sweater and khaki pants. He was trying to hit Johnny with a sack.
"Who the hell are you," said Johnny, "what are you doing in here!"
"Oh, my God," said Maggie. She stopped in her tracks, then ran past Johnny and threw her arms around the other man's neck. "Oh, Daddy, I knew you wouldn't leave me! I knew you'd come back!"
"Maggie? Is that you? Why, you're all grown up! Say, what a looker you are. Where am I? How's your mother?"
"We'll talk about that. Just sit down and rest." She could hardly see through her tears. "I'll explain," she told Johnny. " At least I'll give it a try. Oh, Oral, I hope you're wherever it is you want to be. Johnny, get Daddy a Dr Pepper." She gave him the sack. "Put this in the kitchen and you come right back."
"It's just catfood and bread," said Daddy. "I think that fella there took me wrong."
"Everything's all right now."
"Maggie, I feel like I've been floating around in yogurt. Forever or maybe an hour and a half. It's hard to say. I don't know. I'm greatly confused for the moment. I ought to be more than five years older'n you."
"It happens. There are documented cases. Just sit down and rest. There's plenty of time to talk." Johnny came back with a Dr Pepper. She gave it to her father and led Johnny to the kitchen.
"I don't get it," said Johnny.
"You got all that business with the monks, you can learn to handle this. Just hold me a minute, all right? And do what you did in the car."
Johnny kissed her a very long time. Maggie was sure she was going to faint.
"I'm a real serious guy," said Johnny. "I'm not just playing around. I got very strong emotions."
"I like you a lot," said Maggie. "I'm not sure I could love a man in your line of work."
"I'm in olives. I got a nice family business."
"You've got a family in overcoats and shades, Johnny Lucata."
"Okay, so we'll work something out."
"I guess maybe we will. I keep forgetting I'm in olive oil, too. Maybe you better kiss me again. Johnny, there's so much I want us to do. I want to show you Marble Creek. I want to show you green turtles on a log and the Sidewinderettes doing a halftime double-snake whip. I want to see every single shade of blue in that castle, and I've got a simply great idea for a play. Oh, Johnny, Daddy's back and you're here and I've got about everything there is. New York is such a knocked-out crazy wonderful town!"
© Neal Barrett, Jr, 1987, 2000
This story first
appeared in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, May 1987,
and was reprinted in Neal Barrett, Jr's collection Perpetuity Blues
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