Final Cover with Lettering(Working away at the two upcoming book projects – and have completed a chapter of the Luna City chronicles … yes, what happens at the Luna Moths Homecoming game this year … an event which seems to be erratically cursed.)

Autumn had begun to touch the oaks and sycamores with gold; the nights and days were already cooler by several degrees. Both Luna City schools began their fall term; once again, the strains of Sousa, Alford and Orff floated on the early morning air early on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, for Coach Garrett was a martinet when it came to band practice. The new school bus – with all the latest and most high-end bells and whistles available – circulated through the streets and country roads like some mammoth orange fish, retractable stop signs on either side flapping open and shut like monstrous gills, and all lights blinking on and off. Petra Gonzalez, the regular Luna City School District bus driver had not quite gotten the hang of the new bus, being that it was a considerable leap forward, technologically-speaking from the previous iteration. (The previous bus had become unreliable in the extreme, to the point of barely making it out of the school bus barn, and so the Luna City PTA held a series of fund drives.)

“It’s quiet,” Joe Vaughn complained one morning, as he sat with Jess Abernathy at a sidewalk table out in front of the Luna Café and Coffee. “Too quiet; like the lull before the storm.”

“You always say that before Founder’s Day,” Jess reminded him, and Joe scowled.

“It’s not Founder’s Day,” he replied. “That’s only a matter of practicing good community policing … and keeping ready to drop on visiting dirtbags. It’s the Homecoming game that keeps me up at night.”

“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,” Jess quoted their conversation of the night before. “’Come to bed, sweetie,’ ‘Sorry babe, I can’t sleep’ – because you are walking the floor, worrying about what fresh hell awaits. Nothing happened last year, the year before, or the year before that.”

“But something will happen,” Joe scowled even more. “That it didn’t happen last year, or the year before – that just ups the odds that something will happen this year. Something always happens, every three or four years.”

“I think you’re being unnecessarily paranoid, Joe,” Jess argued, although she was also well aware of the erratic series of disasters which had plagued Moths homecoming game since time immemorial.

“It’s not paranoid to take a realistic view of the situation,” Joe replied, and began ticking off events on his fingers. “The plague of frogs in ’84, Hurricane Gilbert in ’88, the sudden sink-hole in the end zone in ’91 or ’92, the *sshole prankster with the live beaver in ‘96 … and no, that was not my circus and not my monkey.”

“I don’t think Falls City has ever forgiven us,” Jess sighed.

“They damned near lost two mascots in a row,” Joe observed, and continued his countdown. “The nilgai stampede in 2000 … what did I say about keeping an eye on the dirtbag element? I still have my suspicions of Sefton Grant that he let Doc Wyler’s prize bull out in 2003 on account of his whacko animal rights sympathies…”

“But the hailstorm in ’07 – that was a natural disaster. There was no human agency involved in hailstones the size of baseballs … it was just pure bad luck.”

“Human agency? I’ll give you human agency – how I had to beg the city council afterwards for the extra funds in the police department budget to pay Gonzalez’s Body Shop for pounding out the dents in the city cruiser…and no one ever figured out who or what was responsible for the food poisoning in ’10.”

“Tell me about it,” Jess shuddered. “I’ve never been able to stomach a chili-dog since. Once you’ve gotten sick on something, you can never face it again …”

“And the accelerator jammed on the open convertible carrying the Homecoming queen and her court in ’13 … fortunately it was in first gear, and the driver and girls all had time to bail out.”

“And then it hit the field house …” Both Jess and Joe contemplated that vivid memory, until Jess made a determined effort to change the subject. “Look, sweetie – you should try the sweet rolls. Richard is really making a go of the café. The baked goods are scrumptious.”

“Thanks, but no thanks – I’ve heard enough jokes about cops and donuts to last a lifetime,” Joe replied, but he compromised by taking a bite from Jess’s. He took one last swig of his coffee, dropped a brief kiss on her forehead and said, “Gotta run, babe – crime waits …”

“For no man,” Jess completed the sentence. “Don’t forget about the planning meeting for Founders’ Day. It’s the last one before everything gets crazy.”

“Etched on my heart, babe,” Joe said, and made his escape.

 

“So – what does this town’s Founders’ Day all about?” Richard came out from the café, wiping his hands on a towel, after the morning rush was finished. He and Jess had a regular appointment to review the budget and expenses for the café. While Araceli bustled about inside, collecting up dirty crockery and crumbs – of which there was not actually very much left on various plates and napkins. Even Abuelita Adeliza acknowledged with pleasure that he had an excellent hand with the pastry and breads. The café freezer was now packed full of trays of unbaked frozen cinnamon rolls, hot cross buns, Danish pastries, tartlet and pie shells of every size and composition, waiting to be finished off and baked on the day they were wanted. The Café was more crowded in the mornings than it had ever been.

“Pretty much the standard community bash,” Jess explained. “The churches and fraternal organizations all have food and game booths set up in the square. There’s carnival rides for the kidlets, and live music at the bandstand … the Moths Marching Band, Los Maldonados – they’re a conjunto band from Karnesville, the Sons of Herman polka band…”

“Polka?” Richard shuddered. “Should I top myself now or wait until the day?”

“God, no, Richard – it would make a mess and Joe would kill you himself for causing extra work. It’s also a hell of an opportunity for the café – run out some extra tables, and Doc Wyler will allow the budget to cover a couple of extra temp waiters for those days, and you’ll sell pastries and sandwich lunches, hand over fist. We have visitors for the day come all the way from Houston, Corpus and Dallas … it’s a lot of work, but it’s fun, when everyone joins in. It might be a good strategy to open for dinner on those two days. But think about serving anything but BBQ, since the Pryor’s will have a booth, too.”

“So … what is it all in aid of – these founders?”

“Didn’t you read Dr. McAllister’s Brief History of Luna? Never mind … much of it is pretty dry. Luna City was established in the 1880s, when they were planning to build a railroad line from San Antonio to Corpus Christi and Brownsville. One of the best routes for it would have been through here, where a local consortium of landowners got together and decided they would establish a town and that it should become the county seat as well. Back in the day – having the railroad come through your town was golden. Dr. Wyler’s great-grandfather was all for it. The Lazy W owned a lot of the land hereabouts, and what they didn’t own, Antonio Gonzalez did … he was the descendent in the main line from the original grantee, Don Diego Manuel Hernando Ruiz y Gonzalez or Gonzales. Please don’t ask me exactly how he is related to the Gonzalezes and the Gonzaleses – answering that question has reduced any number of genealogists to tears and psychotic breakdowns. They’re not even certain if he was a Gonzalez with a z or a Gonzales with an s. The handwriting on the original paperwork was so bad, it could go either way. They found his tombstone, about twenty years ago in Mexico City … but the corner with the last letter was broken off. It’s a controversy doomed never to be settled. ”

“I know the feeling,” Richard sighed, and Jess continued, in full lecture mode.

“As I said, Senor Antonio held the last bits of that original Spanish land grant. He and Dr. Wyler’s great-grandfather assumed they would make a fortune. They brought in some investors, and hired an engineer-architect to design the whole city. Cleverly, they paid him in advance, with a good few acres of land. Arthur Wells McAllister; Miss Letty’s grandfather. He saw to surveying the whole tract, marked out the square and the streets, drew up plans for the major buildings, including a courthouse. They planned on this to be the county seat, of course. Miss Letty donated her grandfather’s scale model that they built to show investors to the Historical Society a couple of years ago.”

“Thought big, did they?” Richard scratched his jaw, and Jess nodded.

“A bit too faux-gothic for my taste, but never mind. Just when half the town plots were sold, and buildings were going up on every street … disaster. Or that’s what everyone said at the time.”

“Flood? Fire? Famine? Jimmy Savile visiting the local orphanage?”

“That’s not funny,” Jess tried to look severe, but blew it by giggling. “No, even worse; Miss Bessie Wyler – that’s our Dr. Wyler’s great-aunt – eloped with a handsome engineer on the GH&SA railroad, as she was coming home from a turn in a finishing school in New Orleans. Doc has a picture of her in his place at the ranch.”

“Pretty?”

“Looked like Evelyn Nesbitt’s twin sister … anyway, she ran off with the train engineer, and from what her father had to say about it, you’d have thought this was Sodom and Gomorrah, part two. He went on about vice and debauchery of every kind, the railway was a threat to the virtue of womanhood … and the eventual upshot was that he backed out of the deal, and refused to sell land for the right-of-way. There’d be ice-skating in Hell before he would back down, and the railway people shrugged and said ‘fine’ and the railway went through Karnesville instead.”

“What happened to Miss Bessie and the engineer?”

“Married him at a Justice of the Peace in Fort Worth, they settled down in California, she had ten children, got plump, and her father never relented. Don’t think she cared a bit, which might be why he never relented. Anyway, it meant that Luna City would never be the county seat … and so things just developed in the normal way. Founder’s Day is the anniversary of the unveiling of the town model – they had a nice little festival where the square would be … and it just seemed natural to have a celebration every year. People who have moved away from Luna City come back for the weekend. Some of them even park their RVs in the Grant’s campground.”

“Any excuse for a party will do,” Richard observed, and Jess replied,

“Well, there is that … anyway, the next day – Sunday – that is the Homecoming game for the Luna Moths. There’s kind of an unfortunate tradition involved in that, too.”

“What kind of unfortunate tradition?”

“Best not get into it,” Jess said. “Don’t want to draw bad luck … but getting back to the Café; think about starting out dinner service then. Maybe some nice prix fixe selections, for Friday and Saturday evenings, since there are a lot of people staying at the Cattleman.”

“Fine,” Richard nodded. “I’ll talk it over with Araceli. Just a personal question; you and Chief Vaughn – are you an item?”

“Just very good friends,” Jess answered, in a particularly curt manner which indicated the question was a closed one. “Come and sit with us at the Homecoming game, if you are free on Sunday afternoon.”

She gathered up the contents of the folder, and departed with a crisp nod. Richard looked after her for a moment, and when Araceli came out to clear away the table, he asked her.

“Just how good friends are they? Miss Abernathy and Chief Vaughn.” Araceli burst out laughing. She held up her hand, the first two fingers crossed together.

“You have to ask, Chef? She’s spending half the nights at his place or him at hers.”

“Jesus … sorry Araceli, forgot myself – why don’t they just get married?”

Araceli’s face went from amusement to a somber expression. “You’d have to ask them yourself, Chef – it’s probably to do with them both having been in love with other people, once. Joe’s girl married someone else, and Jess … her boy got killed.”

“Ah. Small towns, everyone knows everyone else’s business. What did I have for breakfast this morning?”

“Coffee, two cups, cream and no sugar,” Araceli replied at once. “A bran muffin from the Costco in Karnesville and half a grapefruit.”

“Jesus!” Richard could only stare at her in horror, until she burst out laughing again.

“You forget, Chef – my Auntie Conchita cleans your place every Tuesday, and takes out the trash.”

“For a minute there,” Richard was still feeling the prickle of cold sweat, “I was sure you must have planted a spy camera in the caravan.”

“No, that would be Cousin Sylvester,” Araceli returned, gathering up the remaining detritus from the table. “He’s the one with all that computer and camera stuff.”

 

* * *

 

Founder’s Day passed in a blur for Richard; a blur of music coming from the distant bandstand, of a constant cacophony of voices, and carnival rides, the odor of food – funnel cakes and BBQ, cotton candy and corn-dogs – and faces at constantly-crowded tables in the Café. He reckoned that he had only gotten three or four hours of sleep on the two nights leading up to Founder’s Day. After closing on Saturday – after an eighteen-hour day in the Café kitchen, he had pedaled home in a daze sometime after midnight, and slept as if dead. Araceli and the three temporarily-hired waitresses – all of them cousins of hers, would open Sunday morning, and serve up only the usual pastries and coffee, so he could sleep in, oblivious to the unaccustomed lights and music coming from the gaggle of RVs and caravans parked in the normally empty field by the Airstream. Although there was someone tapping on the Airstream door at 7 AM, asking if he had any milk to spare. Richard couldn’t remember if he had thrown the half-gallon of milk at them or not. Probably just as well. It was almost empty anyway.

Now, he lost himself in thought, having chosen to walk the quarter mile or so from the Age of Aquarius Campground to the Luna City High School athletic field. Today was the first genuinely cool and comfortable day; he would have opened the windows of the caravan to let fresh air in, but for the unaccustomed noise of the for-once-occupied campground. He could rest assured that Araceli would be running a tight ship on a Sunday; from the way that festivities in Town Square were still roaring on Saturday night, there likely wouldn’t be many customers lining up during the day, between hangovers and church services. The Homecoming game was scheduled to begin at 3 PM, on Moth Field. Richard had no notion of what, exactly, to expect – although he was fairly certain that it would be thoroughly not what he had been led to expect.

At about halfway through the walk, and just past a bend in the road where he could see the top of the blocky brick and concrete main building of the school, he was suddenly overtaken by four schoolboys on bicycles – about fifteen or sixteen of age, Richard reckoned, although he was not all that good at estimating the ages of the less-than-legal. (There had been a brief scandal in his past over this, involving his alter-ego and a girl who appeared all of a jaded 25, but was actually twelve years younger. Of this, the less said the better.)

Alerted by the skimming sound of their bicycle wheels, Richard had already turned around to greet them with a cheerful ‘hello’ – as was the apparent custom in these parts, but instead they all looked startled at his presence. Apparently, they had not expected to encounter anyone else on this back-road short-cut to Moth Field. Only one boy – and very nervously – replied “Hi!” as they flashed past. As they passed, Richard noted each of them them carried a bulging black Hefty trash bag over their shoulders, or bungee-corded onto the back of their backs. Well, that was curious … Richard thought for a moment, then recalled the overflowing drums of trash in various strategic locations on Town Square – the boys must be part of the trash-removal detail. In another moment, the boys were ought of sight.

This road paralleled the high-fence line of the Wyler property, and eventually terminated in the back reaches of Luna City High School – the athletic field, the service area where the dumpsters were parked, a high-fenced area with a lift and a couple of dismembered motor vehicles which served as the school auto shop. On this momentous occasion, a row of four bright-blue porta-loo chemical toilets had been brought in for the use of an expected overflow crowd, backed up in a row, right by a pair of school trash dumpsters some distance from the bleachers. Ah, that’s what the boys were up to – rather than taking it to the dump, they were sneaking the filled bags into someone else’s dumpster. As Richard came around the last bend, past the auto shop enclosure, he saw the four boys who had passed him on the road, riding around the perimeter of the football ground – and the trash bags were gone. He wondered if he should stop in at the porta-loo, but the faint chemical odor, even at a distance, dissuaded him.

It didn’t seem to have discouraged Clovis Walcott, though; lingering out of sight of the bleachers and smoking a cigar with evident enjoyment. Likely the cigar masked the miasma emanating from the chemical toilet.

“Hey – Chef Richard!” he called, when Richard was in earshot. “Good to see you – nothing like taking an interest in Luna traditions! I meant to have a quiet word, if you have a moment.”

“Right, Colonel – a quick moment, then.” Richard concealed a small sigh. He supposed that Colonel (Ret.) Walcott wanted to bring up the question of catering a special private dinner.”

“You given any more thought to my proposal?” Clovis Walcott ventured.

“I didn’t have time, what with the rush over Founder’s Day,” Richard admitted, trying not to breath in too much cigar-smoke or porta-loo stink. “And I wanted to talk it over with Doctor Wyler before I committed to anything. He is my regular employer, you see – I’d definitely want to know that he had no objections to my catering your dinner.”

“Understood, understood,” the older man drew deeply on the cigar. “I doubt he’d have anything against it. He’s a close friend of mine; he’ll understand. Matter of fact, this is one of his cigars … a damned good Havana, too. A bit past the best, but still … if you got ‘em, smoke ‘em, as they used to say in the Army. It’s just that my Little Bride has been bending my ear about getting an answer, eti-wah-chop-chop-balli-balli.”

“As soon as I can talk to Doctor Wyler,” Richard said again, as a steam-whistle screech cut through the distant hum of the crowd slowly assembling in the bleachers and on the field.

“Wah-cott! Where are you! Wah-cott!” Yes, that was Sook Walcott, five-foot-two inches of imperious Tiger-motherhood and towering social ambition, now marching across the field and the now-assembling band parting like the Dead Sea before her. Clovis Walcott started, guiltily, stubbed out the half-smoked cigar on the sole of his shoe, and tossed it into the nearest dumpster.

“She doesn’t like me smoking,” he explained, while his spouse was still out of their earshot.

“I didn’t see a thing,” Richard excused himself in some haste. He nodded to Sook, who brandished a digital camera in one hand and the tripod for it in the other.

“Wah-cott – I can no’ get this camera to work! You know; you must come, Homecoming Queen arriving any minute!”

All the more reason to hasten to the bleachers, to where Dr. Wyler – head of the Moths Booster Club – Jess Abernathy and Chief Vaughn had seats on the first tier of benches, with Martin Abernathy, in his official capacity as acting mayor next to them. There were the Steins, Richard noted, and Miss Letty, impeccably dressed as ever and holding a dainty parasol over her head against the thin afternoon sunshine. Araceli and Patricio sat on the highest row in the bleachers, with Mateo and Angelica sitting on their parents’ laps.

“Glad you could make it,” Jess greeted him. She seemed a little distracted. Richard assumed it was because the whole pageantry of the arrival of the Homecoming game was about to begin. He based the assumption of pageantry on the curious sight of the Karnesville Knights mascot – who was indeed wearing half-armor, greaves, breastplate and helmet (with a plume). He and the Knights cheerleaders were working up enthusiasm in the guest bleachers … but curiously, it seemed to be an uphill job. Most of the audience seemed to be looking around with nervous attention even as they cheered.

A mighty roar erupted from the home-town bleachers as the decorated carriage bearing the Homecoming queen and her court hove into sight. No, it really was a carriage; an antique loaned from the Luna City Historical Society exhibits, normally on display in the Old Fire Station, just off the Square, which housed the Luna City Museum – and thrillingly, not drawn not by a team of spirited horses, but the spirited starting squad of the Fighting Luna Moths at a dead run, resplendent in their colors. (A sort of pale mint green with sea-blue and white trim, if you absolutely must know.)

“Not taking any chances, after ’13,” Doctor Wyler growled at Richard’s elbow. “Nothing mechanical to break down or animal to run amuck … I’m getting tired of paying for therapy.”

The Moth Marching Band – likewise resplendent in pale green with sea-blue and white trim – struck up a lively marching band version of Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba as the Queen and her court were seated. The home crowd roared in lusty approval; if truth were to be told, the Moth Marching Band was several degrees more highly thought of than the football team itself, although no one would actually come out and say so. Because – tradition; back in the day, most of the fit men of Luna City had played on the Fighting Moth team, or wished devoutly that they had.

Richard noted that the Homecoming queen and her court of four attendants – all pretty and self-assured teenage girls dressed in formal evening-wear which showed just a little bit more of their shoulders and arms than he thought absolutely essential – given the massive sunburn that he had suffered on arrival, on a summer morning passed out cold on the riverbank. Everyone rose in deference to the Homecoming Queen (which he thought faintly ridiculous, having had done several times in earnest to Her Highness, Elizabeth II), then sat down, then rose again for the invocation, sat again for opening remarks by Martin Abernathy, and then rose once more for the playing of the National Anthem.

“I think I am getting more of a workout, standing and sitting, than the footballers do,” he murmured to Jess, at his right hand; she neatly elbowed him in the ribs and told him to shut up. Next to Jess, Joe Vaughn stood at rigid attention, bringing up his right hand in a salute – and then his cellphone rang, shrill and insistent.

“I gotta answer that,” he hissed, as the Moth Marching band crashed into the opening bars of The Star Spangled Banner. “It’s Milo … he says there’s been a break-in at the evidence trailer.” The evidence trailer was nothing but a locked metal shipping container moldering away in the yard behind the City offices, holding a rag-bag assortment of materiel and objects confiscated during the course of various investigations.

“Is there anything missing?” Jess asked, while her father said, “What did they take?”

Joe pressed the cellphone closer to his ear, shook his head and listened intently. Far across the field, beyond the porta-loos, Richard wondered if that wasn’t a tiny thread of smoke, rising from the dumpster … or perhaps just the potent chemical reek from the porta-loos manifesting itself in visible form. Out on the field, some of the young football players – absurdly weedy figures under their massive shoulder-pads and helmets – were singing along with the band.

“… Rocket’s red glare … the bombs bursting in air …”

“They took what?” Richard heard Joe exclaim, and then everything was lost in a single, earth-shattering roar and a blinding flash of light in that space where the porta-loos were. Every military veteran on Moth Field at that moment hit the ground. The last notes of the national anthem were extinguished unheard in a secondary explosion, and screaming from the audience in the stands and the players and band on the field.

“What the …” Richard could only gape, stunned to silence. Joe Vaughn had dropped himself on top of Jess, sheltering her with his own body – but had retained the presence of mind to keep ahold of his cellphone.

A single porta-loo arched gracefully up, up, up into the serene blue sky, the centerpiece of a brilliant red fireball, broken by showers of white-hot sparks falling gracefully back to earth, as larger sparks arched higher, higher into the air, to burst into more chrysanthemums of gold, green and red, accompanied by a shrill demented wailing. The top, sides, door and interior parts of a second porta-loo shot in a separate but loose formation across the end of Moth field, and the hinged lid of the dumpster spun lazily in the air like a thrown Frisbee, before gliding down, down, down and crashing into the auto shop enclosure.

As his hearing returned – and the din of smaller explosions lessened, Richard heard Doctor Wyler cursing with an almost literary inventiveness. Someone – Coach Garrett? – begged for calm over a bullhorn, and for everyone to evacuate the area immediately in a calm and orderly fashion.

“I think I know what they took from the evidence trailer,” Joe Vaughn said into his cellphone, as he helped Jess to stand. “Better come over here, quick. Notify the county sheriff, and the Karnesville Med-center. I’m on scene, I don’t see any immediate casualties … oh, wait. The Karnes City mascot just got beaned by a flying toilet seat. Good thing they got that helmet thing going, eh? Gotta go, babe.”

He set off at a trot in the direction of the fallen mascot, intersecting the path of Chris from the Icehouse, also at a trot. Chris carried a substantial bag of First Aid equipment, and was followed by a pair of Moths band-members carrying a rolled-up stretcher between them, and Miss Letty at a more dignified pace. The crowd in the bleachers slowly emptied out, streaming on foot towards the school’s main gate. Only a handful remained, watching the fireworks cook off, to the tune of a distant but approaching fire engine.

“Well, you might not have a game this afternoon,” Richard said, recovering his composure, his voice, and his hearing more or less simultaneously. “But I have to admit, you chaps do put on a first-rate fireworks exhibit.”

“The Moths Homecoming curse strikes again,” Martin Abernathy sighed. “You know – we probably won’t get the deposit back on those portajohns.”

“What do you mean, Pop?” Jess said, in tones of bleak humor. “There’s deposits all over the field.”

“No shit, darling,” Martin answered, with a complete lack of humor. “And it looks like the Booster Club will be covering the cost of another team mascot’s therapist.”

Doctor Wyler ripped off one more particularly vivid and scatological obscenity, and regarded a particularly spectacular water-fall of sparks raining down upon the demolished porta-loos and the dumpsters, which could not be clearly seen for the cloud of billowing, multi-colored smoke surrounding them.

“Between us,” he snarled, “Martin, Joe and I thought we had covered every single and possible angle. Weather-forecast clear for a week in advance, come down hard on food-safety with the vendors; double-checked the city water mains; patrolled the fences … but some idiot setting fire to a dumpster full of fireworks?”

A vivid mental image of the boys with the trash bags, and Clovis Walcott and his hastily-snuffed cigar came to Richard’s mind. He opened his mouth – and then thought better of it.

 

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I am really enjoying these! ☺

  2. Celia

    There’ll be about three more installations, and then they’ll be in my next book!