Normally I love love more than I love the object of my love, but when the 1924 Ford popcorn wagon popped out at me from the showroom window, its brass fixtures aglow, its oak trim deep and mysterious, its candy-apple-red body chock-a-block with maroon curlicues and fancy gold lettering, its copper popcorn popper blazing in the late sun like a giant eye, I fell head over heels.
The dealer sold it to me for a song. "Bounces back like a bad penny," he muttered under his breath before the ink had dried on the contract.
My timing was perfect. The State Fair opened on Friday, and the space against the fence inside the main gate was still available. Herman Hausmeister, the fair manager, sold me on the spot by whispering, "My security chief likes lots of popcorn."
Rhonda and the kids would stay at her mother's an extra week, as usual, and in that time I'd recoup my investment. No more hot-dog stocks or nickel-dime real estate deals. Just an absolutely gorgeous, irresistible, one-of-a-kind popcorn wagon, and a nine-day run before thousands of hungry mouths. I could hardly wait to see the looks on my neighbors' faces.
Brimming with anticipation, I stopped the popcorn wagon smack in the middle of Hawthorne Place, punched out Yankee Doodle on the steam calliope, and proclaimed myself "Open for business!"
Ed Ryles scowled and shook his fist. Little Angel VanAntwerp, scourge of the Western Hemisphere, ran screaming "Mommy! Mommy!" down the block. Joan Ryles wrinkled her nose, hiked up her halter top, and hurled "Lewd!" back over a cocoa-buttered shoulder.
In less time than it takes to say Jack the Ripper, my neighbors, people I barbecued with, car-pooled to Little League games with, and served on the Hawthorne Place Beautification Committee with, swept up their lawn rakes and push brooms, herded their kids inside, and slammed their doors shut, shattering the calm like a string of firecrackers.
I thought they'd be thrilled. Just the day before, Joan had flown like a prima ballerina across the boxwood hedge separating our manicured lawns to see how my rose cuttings were coming along, pretty as a soap star in her skin-tight seersucker sunsuit, her spun gold hair alive with light, her smile wide enough to walk through.
"My!" she'd declared, lifting her silvered sunglasses and gazing down, jogging in place, her knees jabbing at my nose, left-right, left-right. "Ross, you get my vote for Best Rose Cuttings this year, not to mention Best Kept Yard."
Monday morning broke to find me out scrubbing egg yolk off the windows, and picking dried tomato seeds from the red wooden spokes. The prime suspect, Angel VanAntwerp, claimed to have been fast asleep all night, according to her parents, who were the neighborhood's least trusted guides to her whereabouts.
But who besides Angel VanAntwerp would so much as consider the deliberate defacement of personal property? Who besides Angel VanAntwerp had ever thrown a ripe tomato, much less a rotten egg?
Yet why would Angel arise at the crack of dawn for any reason, given her proclivity for late night talk show watching? A neighbor who was kept awake by the constant laughter once warned the Beautification Committee of the aftermath of a tarring-and-feathering, but moved before making good on his promise.
Ed, of course, had scowled, but that was Ed with six beers in his belly, ready to pop his best friend's balloon. Then how about Joan, who one day gave me an eyeful, and the next day burned my ears? Would she stoop so low?
No, it had to be Ed, who got up with the birds. Or Joan, who was known for her pre-dawn streaks across boxwood hedges and picket fences all the way to Elm Street and back, her breath fogging the air, her hair trailing like streamers in a stiff breeze.
And how could I simply dismiss little Angel, when the only thing Angel ever drilled into my brain was the cold, hard fact that from her I could expect anything?
Tuesday I caught Ed in the act of uncapping a can of Day-Glo spray paint. I brushed his chin with my fist, and he stumbled back and tripped on the hedge, flailing his arms before finally falling flat on his precious lawn. Served him right for winning Best Kept Yard two years in a row.
"But why?" I begged to know.
"Because!" snipped Ed.
"Because I bought a popcorn wagon?"
"Because you're violating the By-laws. Article Six."
"Oh yeah? Article Six is very specific. It says you can't leave skateboards or motor scooters or boats or dune buggies in your driveway overnight. It doesn't say word one about popcorn wagons."
Ed frowned. He knew I had him there. This was his one big contribution to the Beautification Committee By-laws, mentioning every last little item that might destroy the spotless reputation Hawthorne Place enjoyed among garbage haulers and others who chanced through before the sun came up.
"Article Three," Ed said, smiling smugly.
I gulped. Article Three was my baby, dealing with noise levels. "I won't touch my calliope within a sixteen-block radius, cross my heart," I said, crossing my fingers.
Ed's face fell. Everyone was entitled to three violations before the fine schedule kicked in, and this was my first. Ed already had reached the limit, once for running his lawn mower past the six-o'clock cut-off, and twice for shouting down the pre-dawn street for Joan to get back home and put her running briefs on.
"Article Nine," Ed ventured boldly.
He had me there, and he knew it. Article Nine covered everything not covered by Articles One through Eight. It stated simply that all differences of opinion between or among residents were to be settled by a simple majority.
"If I call an election," Ed said, folding his arms like the Jolly Green Giant, "your goose is cooked."
"Not if I put a second item on the ballot," I shot back, folding my arms. Talk about a stroke of genius.
"Oh?" said Ed, squirming. "It wouldn't have anything to do with my...wife...would it?"
I would never in a million years try to bottle up Joan's free spirit, much less bring it to a popular vote, so I took the easy way out. I slapped Ed on the arm. He dropped like clockwork into the old neighborhood ritual and punched my shoulder. A couple of feints and jabs later, he headed for home. I wasn't off the hook, but at least I'd laid the By-laws to rest.
At half-past six that evening, with Article Three in full force, I cranked the popcorn wagon over, revved it up, and punched out Yankee Doodle.
The popcorn wagon stood dripping from its last bath before the fair when Joan streaked across the boxwood hedge Friday morning. She stopped in her tracks, and after wigwagging a number of cover-up combinations, threw her hands in the air and ran on. Ed soon followed in his bathrobe and slippers, waving her running briefs high overhead, and whispering at the top of his lungs, "You forgot again!"
By eight o'clock, I'd laid in a good day's supply of napkins, paper cups, lemons, sugar, corn, vegetable oil, butter, and salt. After double-checking the change in the brass cash register, I rushed inside and threw on my brand new ice cream suit, the white flannel trousers, the red-and-white striped blazer, the straw boater. Dark thunderheads rolled across the face of the sun as I pulled away.
Neighbors poured out of doors and buzzed me with wet raspberries. I knew how Gulliver must have felt when the shower of Lilliputian arrows landed. But why should anyone object to my parking a work of art in my driveway overnight? And what's wrong with a little noise, anyway? Life is full of noise.
I stuck my head out the window just as little Angel VanAntwerp loosed a water-filled balloon. It burst on the door, spraying my face. "Who cares?" I shouted, shaking my fist.
Baldo, the security chief, grinned up at me from the gate house like a gourmand at an all-you-can-eat buffet. "Popcorn!" he chuckled, rubbing his chubby hands. Dollar signs danced in my eyes. "Melted butter!" I bubbled. "Fresh lemonade!" His eyes narrowed to slits. "Popcorn!" he grumbled, grinding his teeth.
I pulled up close to the fence, opened the windows on both sides against the sudden mugginess, and flipped the popcorn popper switch. Butterflies danced in my stomach. In another hour, customers would be clamoring for service. But no matter how fast the action, how furious the pace −
Hausmeister hadn't exaggerated. Baldo was nuts about popcorn. "Go guard the gate," I said, waving him away. "I'll holler when it's ready." Baldo gnashed his teeth. "Better yet, wait around."
Ten minutes later I scooped up a jumbo bag, gave it an extra shake of salt, and handed it over like a bartender in an Old West saloon. My first sale! Watching Baldo wolf it down, I was reminded of a time management seminar I'd attended, taught by automatons.
A second bag went the way of the first...and a third. I rang up three jumbo bags on the cash register. Baldo crumpled the empty bags and slam-dunked them on the counter, then turned and stomped away, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. My first promotion, a give-away. Thunder rumbled in the distance.
I looked for the source of the strange voice. No one was near. "Ralph?" I said cautiously.
I peered over the counter. A shaggy little black and white mutt with a red bandanna and enormous brown eyes peered back. He was the spitting image of the dog I'd had as a kid. "Ralph!" I cried.
I grabbed a handful of popcorn and dropped a fluffy puff over the edge. The dog caught it in midair and hit the ground dancing like a dervish. I ordered him to roll over, but instead, he flipped to his front paws and walked in circles. What a dog!
With a lingering flash and a galloping thunderclap, the clouds parted. Rain poured from the sky the way water spills from a leaf-choked gutter. I opened the door and ushered Ralph up the steps. He rolled over and sat up like a proper beggar, tucking his paws under his chin, and showing his teeth and the pink tip of his tongue.
I tapped the counter. He jumped up and claimed his reward. Together we watched the early birds scatter like flies, some to the livestock barns, but most to their cars and trucks. "Well," I said, shaking my head, "there's always tomorrow. Right, Ralph?"
I squeezed a double lemonade, and laid another handful of popcorn on the counter. "You probably don't remember this, Ralph, but in your previous life, you used to follow me everywhere. You'd even sneak upstairs when I was sound asleep, and curl up at my feet. I know I got a bit upset with you at times, but we sure had fun, roaming like a couple of gypsies, all over creation. Remember the log we fished from, Ralph?"
"Those were the days." We gazed out over the sea of mud to where the carnies wrapped up their rides, hoisting tarp like sailors on a windjammer, topping off Octopus pods and whirligigs.
Baldo sloshed toward us wearing his hungry grin. At the sight of him, Ralph sprang to the opposite counter and slid, scrambling, over the edge. I bolted to the window. Ralph glanced back before disappearing down the basement stairwell at the back of a ramshackle stucco house.
I turned as Baldo banged a fist down on the counter, showering my ice cream suit with water from his mackintosh. Normally I would have told him, in polite terms, to take a hike, but I needed information. I scooped up a bag and handed it over. "What's on the other side of this fence?"
"Uhbafskirdrsmthn," he wheezed, spitting bits of kernel on the counter.
He opened his mouth and pointed inside. I focused on the first distant object. "A back yard or something," he mumbled, sloshing his boots in the mud.
"Do you know if the house is−"
I scooped up a bag. "Occupied?" I said. "Do you know if the house is−"
He grabbed the bag and stomped off, laughing as if his worst enemy's mother had died.
I turned. No sign of Ralph. Just an empty back yard. A sheet of mud spread like chocolate frosting, fence to fence. My blood raced. My arms hung limp at my sides. My legs tensed like coiled springs.
I banged my head on the popper. Herman Hausmeister swam before my eyes, his mug puckered, his jowls quivering. "Move it!" he barked. "I'm locking the gate!"
"I can't leave!" I pleaded.
"You can't stay!"
"I have to stay!"
"Give me one blasted reason why!"
I played the rheostat up and down, first flickering the lights, then dousing them. "My battery's dead," I lied.
Hausmeister splooshed off through the mud. "I'll get you a blasted jump!" he boomed back.
The pouring-down sky closed over the Fairgrounds like a garbage can cover. I crawled out onto the counter, dangled my feet over the edge, pushed off, and flew to the ground, flapping my arms. Down I went! Back up. Down again!
I started crawling toward the black recess of the basement door. My blazer hung on me like a horse blanket. My flannel trousers dragged. My boater floated somewhere back by the fence.
"It's just a dog," I told myself. "Just a dog!" I mimicked, laughing. Being with Ralph was like having my carefree youth splashed before my eyes. Like reliving ten years of my life. Like seeing the dear departed.
The basement door banged open. Ralph raced up the steps. I struggled to my feet, ready to throw my arms around him. But a pair of bull terriers burst from the stairwell in hot pursuit. The wet hair on the back of my neck stood straight out as Ralph shot past and the bull terriers bore down, snarling.
I jumped. They skidded under me, snapping at the air, their paws spinning like buzz saws. I skated to the fence, put a foot through my hat, hit the boards head-on, bounced off, and spread-eagled in the mud.
Ralph faked left and dodged right, sending the bull terriers slamming into the stucco. I grabbed him. He squirted out of my arms into the popcorn wagon, home safe.
With no time to spare, I swung a leg over the counter − only to find my other pant leg anchored by sixty furious pounds of bull terrier. I struggled free and watched the dogs make off with my trousers, in two directions. Rrrrrrrrip! Ralph danced at my feet as I dropped into the popcorn wagon.
The realization struck like a pie in the face: My keys were in my pants! My damn keys were down in the damn yard with the damn dogs! I
grabbed a jumbo bag, blew it full of air, and POP! flattened it against my hand. The dogs dropped my pant legs and scurried for the basement stairwell. I stuck a dozen bags under my arm and dropped back into the yard. The dogs reappeared, breathing fire. I blew up a bag and popped it. Back they went.
I skated to the first pant leg and groped in the front pocket. Empty. I blew up another bag and skated toward the other pant leg, left foot and right foot, left foot and right foot, as Miss Dalrymple had taught me at Bettendorf's Pond when I was eleven. Another empty pocket.
Lights flashed on! The bull terriers rumbled like motorcycle mufflers. I spotted my keys, close to the house, glittering like sin. Flipping the bags, I skated to the far corner, pirouetted, pushed off, and raced for the keys. The bull terriers broke straight toward me.
Drawing on my one failed attempt to clear six barrels − the most painful experience of my youth − I launched myself at the last instant, tucked my knees to my chin, and sailed clear of the snapping jaws.
Sweeping up my keys, I pushed off from the stucco just as the dogs crashed face-first into the fence. Now they were really angry, spitting clay bullets as they charged across the yard.
I'd seen enough movies to know what to do next: Grip the counter, spring into the popcorn wagon, and blow a kiss to the terrorists raging out of reach. Rewriting the script, I gripped the counter, sprang halfway up and in, and did the splits.
"Owwwwwwww!" I shouted for the benefit of everyone in the six contiguous counties.
"Marcia Friendly," said a throaty voice in my ear. "Channel Two News."
Wiping tears from my eyes, I squinted back at my reflection in a huge camera lens. "Shut off the lights!" I cried.
"Ross Hastings, right?" said Marcia Friendly, her voice turning syrupy. "We got some great shots of you down in the mud."
"The fair manager called us over. You saved his dog."
"What with the weather and all, we're short of news, so I'd like a bite on what it feels like to be a hero."
"You'd like a bite?"
Marcia Friendly rubbed her neck. "A few words."
"I'll give you a few words."
She flicked a pinky. The camera whirred.
"I can't tell you what it feels like to be a hero. All I did was save a dog. Not that he was your ordinary dog. I mean, this is a dog I would die for! But I didn't start out to save him, because I didn't know he needed saving. I was trying to retrieve him."
"Yes," said Marcia Friendly, her voice taking on an edge. "And as for being a hero?"
"As for being a hero...it's always been my dream. That's why I bought the popcorn wagon. Because it wasn't enough, just keeping my lawn trimmed and serving on the Beautification Committee. I wanted my neighbors to look at me behind the wheel and say, 'Wow, what a guy!' I wanted them to admire me for taking a chance, for daring to do something different. But look at me. Do I look like a hero? Do I?"
"Ralph!" I hadn't noticed him sitting at my feet. I swept him up, and he slurped my ear.
"There you have it," said Marcia Friendly, a smile tugging the corners of her thin lips. "A rainy day at the Fairgrounds, and a man who would drop his pants for a dog."
The lights blinked off. The cameraman laughed. The Channel Two News van crept away. The rain drummed on the popcorn wagon's tin roof. I no longer cared about my pants, or the looks on my neighbors' faces. I hugged Ralph and listened to the rain's rhythmic beat.
I spun about. My nose soft-landed on Hausmeister's chin. My eyes came to rest half an inch from his teeth.
"About my dog," he muttered.
"It was nothing."
"You want him?"
"Yeah, I won him off a carny. What do I need with a blasted dog?"
"I love your dog!"
He shrank. "Take him, he's yours."
"I can't," I moaned. "Rhonda hates the sight of dogs. The Beautification Committee By-laws prohibit dogs. And Ed faints at the mere mention of dogs."
"It's that or the pound."
"Rhonda will learn to love you, Ralph. And we'll probably have to sell the house anyway. As for Ed−"
"As for me," said Hausmeister, backing toward his battered pickup truck, "I'll jump your buggy, you'll get in and drive away, and everyone will be happy."
"I forgot," I said, lying again. "I have an auxiliary battery." The second battery, which powered the popper, was a fact. Saying I'd forgotten was a lie.
Hausmeister pulled a slouch hat from his jacket pocket and jammed it down tight over his ears. As he eased away, he stomped the throttle. The pickup fish-tailed. Its tires splattered ooze and goo over every square inch of the popcorn wagon. Great gobs of muck plastered my face. Groping, I found a tea towel and cleared rings around my eyes. My beautiful popcorn wagon! A wreck! A mess!
Ralph and I drove around for hours, eating popcorn. Rain fell so fast the old windshield wipers had a hard time keeping up. How would I explain to Rhonda and the kids? How could I ever hope to show my face to Ed? How would Joan vote in the Best Kept category? Why did I care?
When at last I rounded the corner to Hawthorne Place, my jaw dropped: Every light in every house along the double block, every house but mine, was lit! My neighbors, even the children, stood in the rain in their nightclothes, huddled under all manner of umbrellas. Beach umbrellas, golf umbrellas, bumbershoots and frilly parasols.
All eyes followed me as I crept along in first gear, down the street and up my driveway. I tried to imagine dropping from the popcorn wagon, mustering my last ounce of dignity, and stepping from flagstone to flagstone across the picture-perfect lawn, my faithful dog hard at my heels, as if this was just another day at just another fair, and I, as usual, was rolling in, way-weary.
The neighbors swept down their walks, gathered in the street, and streamed toward me, waving umbrellas and babbling like idiots. Ed actually grinned! "N-nice d-d-dog," he burbled. Joan, her hair jelly-rolled around enormous pink sponge curlers, clutched her nightie tight at the neck and reached out, imploring with unlined eyes.
Out of the crowd stepped little Angel VanAntwerp, who beamed up at me. "Play Yankee Doodle, willya, huh?"
[First published in Bellowing Ark]