Author’s Note: With this story I was going for a ‘Dolly Parton meets Phantom of the Paradise’ vibe, so hopefully that comes across.
Dog and Pony Show
Voice 1: Alright Miss, I think we’re ready for a trial run. Can I take you through it one more time?
Voice 2: Sure thing Sugar.
Voice 1: Okay. Act one is pretty simple. All the wires and rigging stay coiled up, well out of the animals’ way. There’ll be no problems as long as your guys don’t do any rope tricks higher than fifteen feet off the dirt. You’re not using any elephants are you? They’re tall enough that it might be an issue.
Voice 2: What kind a’ wild west show’s got elephants?
Voice 1: Had to ask. I’ve seen people pull out the exotic stuff to keep their show in business, no attention paid to thematic consistency at all.
Voice 2: This show is for the ages Sugar. It’s got to work now, then, and a ways away. The good people a’ a ways away won’t like elephants performin’ for them no more. They sympathize with elephants I reckon, and dolphins and whales and such too. Dogs and horses are timeless.
Voice 1: That why you’re recording this? So when your show’s all big in the ways away you can look back and see how it started?
Voice 2: See how I started more like. That way I don’t forget when I run right into someone in this exact spot, down here in the dirt, lookin’ up at the strings before they start pullin’ the performers this way and that.
Voice 1: Speaking of the dirt, all the dust charges are buried under the darker brown patches, so your guys know where to step. They’re all on buried lines that are on timers, so they won’t prime until act two starts. That’s when the arena has to be just your hero and your villain, to make sure nobody steps on anything at the wrong time.
Voice 2: Act two is when the magic’s goin’ to kick in. The people out in those seats won’t even know what they’re lookin’ at, or even if they’re lookin’ at it. They’ll think it’s a broadcast, even as the dust drifts into their eyes, because such fantastic things couldn’t possibly be that close.
Voice 1: No offense, but there are all sorts of theaters in this town, and I’ve worked with all of them. So anything they see here they’ve seen somewhere else.
Voice 2: I’m not gettin’ my magic from you big fella, though I do appreciate your affinity for things that fizzle and pop. I’m bringin’ it in from my home county. It’s a place a’ possibilities; you wouldn’t believe what folks around there manage to pull out a’ the dirt.
Voice 1: Do you… do you mean literally? You didn’t get this dirt from one of the suppliers I mentioned?
Voice 2: No sir. This is dirt from the county a’ Hissyfit and the township a’ Turkey Bank.
Voice 1: Never heard of either of those… They even in the state?
Voice 2: Maybe not in your version or the version on the maps, but if it aint there then where did I come from? I’m just teasin’ you Sugar. Excited is all, ready for the folks a’ this wide world to witness that old dirt-kickin’ magic. Take us to act three.
Voice 1: Well in act three everything settles into its proper place. Once your hero defeats your villain they need to take their marks. Hero standing proud over here, and villain kneeling back here. That way he can turn in contrition for his deeds and walk, head down, straight out the back exit there, the one for the horses. Good symbolism there, putting him with the animals until he learns his lesson.
Voice 2: Then our big beautiful bird descends; I have that right?
Voice 1: Oh yes. The circular track will drop lower, your swan-shaped chariot will stop, and then the little ladder will extend so you can step down. My boys did a real bang-up job on her.
Voice 2: She sure is shinin’ pretty.
Voice 1: We’ve got a guy who used to cast carousel animals from aluminum, and as luck would have it he’d done a swan before. You will look fantastic up there riding in that thing. Can I ask why you picked a swan? In the show you’ll be descending like an angel, so why not a dove? You’re not spitting on thematic consistency like those elephant-obsessives are you?
Voice 2: Did you know that folks, aristocrats that is, used to eat swans? I reckon the swans weren’t so keen on that, so they went and got themselves reinvented. Now they’re all about love and togetherness and beauty and stayin’ far away from the servin’ platter. There’s a good lesson in there I’ve always been partial to.
Voice 1: And what’s that?
Voice 2: That bein’ the center a’ attention means that the audience is full a’ bodyguards. Fame is the safety we all deserve. That’s what a swan is. Turn into somethin’ folk can’t stomach because they’re too busy eyeballin’ it. As a woman, that lesson’s done real good for me. It’s goin’ to do good for my performers. They’ll look up for a blessin’ and get an eyeful a’ me and a melodious earful too.
Her part was very simple; that’s what he told her repeatedly in his dressing room. Slower with each repetition. It was very simple. Very Simple . All she had to do was sit in the seat reserved for her and look elated and frightened at the right moments. Yes, they would all be looking at her, but just briefly.
All the costumes cluttering the room didn’t help her nerves, each so full of personality and statements that they were like a vocal audience already. Most of them were bit parts, the striped suspenders of a rodeo clown or the green oven mitts of a cactus. Her brother had played his parts for years, never questioning a scripted fall no matter how close it put his head to a storming hoof. Tonight was the night where all that changed, where he donned the rhinestones.
Mora gently placed his hands on her pregnant swell, still two months from curtain up. He started to sing in Spanish, not one of the tunes that ever got a chance in the show. It was from their childhood, and his whispered croon helped it resonate, transfer from his chest to his fingertips to his nephew or niece.
She closed her eyes, the song soothing as intended. Yes, she could do that. It was just sitting. The bare minimum considering what he’d put up with. He never talked about it, but she could intuit it from the black depths of his eyes. They got deeper every time she saw him now; he was storing things in there. Things he would never tell her because he always thought it was his job to be the strong one.
Things like his nickname Mora the Mexican. It really was the best all the animal trainers and stagehands could come up with. They weren’t an imaginative lot, which is why they never saw the swirling possibilities in the kicked up dust, why they never got to wear the rhinestones. They’d never be anything more than barrel-divers and nose-honkers. None of that after the next show. Nickname would be transformed to title as he ascended into the cradling attention of the crowd.
“Now remember, the most important thing is that once the second act starts you cannot look away from the show. You don’t look left and you don’t look right and you don’t look up no matter how enticing her voice is. You keep those eyes glued to me or the dirt or a cute little doggy until the heel disappears into the horse gate. You understand Coral?”
“Don’t say anything to anybody. We’re going off the script, and Mary’s not partial to that some of the time.”
“How much of the time?”
“That doesn’t matter right now. This is where you want to be right? Where you want the kid to grow up?”
“They deserve it,” she said, expression firming. “No one can tell me otherwise.”
“That’s the spirit. Get going now. Your seat’s got your name on it.” He helped her down from the makeup desk she was sat on and escorted her out before returning. With her gone he could look right in the mirror behind the desk and see the depths she saw. Deepened from abuse, but not just that. They had more to hold than your average eyes now, because he’d seen what the magic could do.
His costume practically called to him, hung up on the wall, pushing all the weaker ones away, forcing them to cower in clumps like they were nothing more than dirty laundry. The coat was a work of art, sequins red as poinsettia from top to bottom with just a mustache twirl’s worth of black trim.
The pants were a work of genius, cloaked in the same shimmering sequins and combined with a glassy jeweled belt actually fashioned at an angle so he would look most natural leaning up against a fence post.
The boots, well they couldn’t even be discussed with someone who didn’t have the equivalent of a college degree in tanning.
The hat… he couldn’t make it through conversations anymore without mentioning the hat.
His own image was the last thing to prepare, so he slowly donned each piece, slipping into his new persona with a tingling rush that dried out his lips and robbed him of breath. He actually whirled around, looking for the thief who had nicked his nerves, because he wouldn’t be the first person that had happened to, though the magic usually had to kick up first.
The costume wasn’t complete without his microphone tucked under his hat, and as soon as it was in place he heard a crackle and the chatter of the show’s staff in his ear. Most of that chatter was the yip of the dogs, most of them of the herding variety, but with a few little chihuahuas that could climb a man like a ladder and perch proudly atop any part of him as if surveying a fiefdom.
Last he needed his whip, coiled on its railroad nail in the wall. Mary Annette had commissioned them more than three decades ago, and he’d never heard of one losing even a single sequin no matter how many times they were cracked. Red to match his costume, the layering of its scales was so tight that it genuinely resembled a Broadway boa constrictor more than a bullwhip. Once it was on his belt, and once he scrounged enough breath to feel at least paper thin again, he was out the door and headed up toward the arena.
He was met in the emptiest basement hallway, the one that smelled like sawdust and roof leaks, by another glittering figure with a costume and whip every bit as assertive as his own. The man in it used to have a bushy mustache, before he was a performer, that the magic had slowly taken from him because it liked him better clean-shaven. Still, the man had never learned to smile properly from all those years of propping it up.
It was all teeth, like a tent flap lifting to reveal piles of improperly stored antiques. He was never very much outside the arena, or outside that costume, but inside either he had everyone’s attention. He grabbed Mora’s hand and shook it, smacking him on the shoulder as well.
“Big night huh?” he asked, not waiting for an answer. “No matter what crowd we get tonight, I’m sure they’ll hate your guts.”
“Thanks Wade,” Mora said, suddenly finding his foundation again. There was no time to be nervous when things were actually happening. That’s why he put in the long hours, and it was how he squeezed in just enough good will with Mary to earn his debut before Coral’s kid had theirs.
“Being the heel is a big responsibility,” Wade added. “You never saw me when I was wearing black and gold before this number,” he did a twirl in the blue and white masterpiece that wowed people from hundreds of states, “but I was pretty fair at being unfair.”
“They called you Wicked Wade didn’t they?”
“Yes sir they did, and I’ll tell you I was glad when I got to hang that one up and become what I am today. You’ll get there too. You just got to make it through all the booing for a while.” He paused and rubbed his upper lip. The man had broken in countless horses and new recruits, but he’d never broken that habit. “Mora, can I give you some advice?”
“Sure.” He could give it all he wanted.
“There’s more to being the heel than just being the bad guy. There’s a thousand ways to be bad, but you’ve got to be bad in a way they respond to. You have to be the kind of bad they expect of you, or you’ll confuse them. It’s not good for the crowd’s energy.”
“Are you suggesting something?”
“Well,” he rubbed his lip again. “I know it’s not really my place, but I really want this to go well for you. Feeling obligated to make sure you recognize your advantage.”
“You’re a Mexican.” Mora didn’t blink, but Wade’s jaw tensed as if he’d wanted to see it. “You know I’ve got nothing against your people myself, but this area… it’s still got a few tortilla chips in its craw if you know what I mean. Now these folks would sooner stop in the middle of traffic than step on a June bug, but-”
“I get it. If they see a bandito out there they’ll cut loose.”
“That’s right. It’s not pretty, but it’s what they want. Back when I was Wicked they wouldn’t believe the worst of me unless I was twirling the ends of the stash.” His fingers went through the motions, lingering, practically sighing in reflection. “You pay your dues now and you can prove them wrong when Mary makes you the hero.”
“I won’t forget that Wade.” They both noticed it wasn’t a thanks, but suddenly each of their cylinders was fresh out of words. Wade nodded, tapped the toe of one boot on the ground, and then went on his way. There wasn’t any silence left, the crowd above too worked up already, probably elbow deep in shrimp and grits, wondering when the show was going to start.
Five minutes later the horse gate opened and the dogs and clowns flooded out. After them came the horses, with Wade and Mora as just two of the seven riders. There was a different hero and heel every night, but everybody rode in act one, as the people had come to expect every costume when they shelled out forty-five dollars per person for their dinner theater.
Boontime Betty sparkling in green and amber like a lime wedge splashing in a glass of rum. Roscoe the Railroad Rascal in stormy blue and foggy nickel. Greyhound Greggs in sunset orange, though when the magic was really going it often faded to the purple of dusk. Coachgun Carrie all in hide and tassels, dogs jumping and nipping at her ornamentation.
For now they were all just escorts for the lady on the white horse, in god’s costume if god were a tacky cowgirl. Mary Annette, patron saint of southern wholesomeness, face wrinkled in the most forgivable places, lips still full and pink, voice still squeaky and exuberant as her start a lifetime ago, squealed a howdy hello that hit everyone in the audience as if she’d just sat down next to them and apologized for being a teensy bit late.
“How y’all doin’ tonight?” Half the crowd declared that they loved her, and though she turned her head shyly nobody, in any of the interviews probing specifically in that direction, had ever seen her blush.
She was intensely scrutinized outside the theater, mostly by the jealous. Fake hair. Fake hot air balloon breasts. Lip nips and suck tucks and a hundred other things she would happily admit to if anybody ever caught her outside anywhere else. Inside the theater, her house, all those insults dribbled out of their mouths and onto their plates. Yes she had professional help of every kind, but really, how did she do it?
“I hope you’re ready for the best show you’ve ever seen, ‘cept for the one we did yesterday and the one we’re doin’ tomorrow.” Whistles. Beer bottles banging on sun-aged picnic tables chopped up and turned into booths facing the arena and big enough for the whole family. “Me too. Hope you don’t mind if I just sit back and watch along with you. I do have the best seat in the house.”
The music, not live yet, faded in. It was time for her ascendance, but the swan’s slow glide down left plenty of time for the dogs and clowns to show their stuff. Face-painted hopefuls scurried on top of open barrels, terriers running the other way on the inside. Greyhound Greggs rode by with his shimmering lasso, a hoop so big that they half-expected a hippo to come trotting out of the horse gate and hop through. For now it was just the dogs, though after the dirt kicked up the occasional hippopotamus or rhinoceros had been attested to.
Plenty of fun tricks to be sure, but just enough to keep them all distracted while the servers brought out their entrees and took away their appetizer plates. Mora could sleepwalk through act one, so he used his gallops around the edge to check on Coral. She had found her booth, reserved just for her, one of the stage lights positioned over her head.
She waved when she noticed his efforts, putting on a smile for him. She was ready, and he had faith in her, yet his chest tightened. None of the other performers would pick up on it, of that he was sure, but Mary might. She knew everything that went on there, even when there was somewhere else and even a periscope couldn’t see through the dust.
Just to be safe he pulled on the jeweled reins of Thistle: an obedient horse if ever there was one. She didn’t mind going off script, which was why he’d requested to saddle up on her beautiful spotted back. It was also the kind of detail that Mary might’ve noticed. He couldn’t tell her the truth, not all of it. It was her script after all, but she was a sucker for subtext, so maybe if he hinted enough she wouldn’t interfere.
Thistle pulled up alongside her white horse Songwriter and they trotted together. Mora wrapped a fist around his microphone so nobody else would hear.
“I want to thank you again Mary, for letting my sister be in the show. It’s been a dream of hers since we were little.”
“Well it’s lucky you were her brother then,” she squeaked, not taking her eyes from the crowd.
“I don’t need to worry about her getting lost in act two, do I?” he asked cryptically. “If I lose her I’m going to get an earful from our parents.”
“Don’t you worry Sugar. She doesn’t fall in the dirt, she doesn’t go anywhere.”
“Good. I want her to stay right here where I can keep an eye on her. I’ll never stop looking out for her, or that kid of hers.”
“They won’t get free tickets every night,” Mary warned.
“Tonight’s all I need Miss Mary. I’ll make you properly ashamed.”
“Spoken like a true heel. Now giddyup on ‘fore my swan flattens you.” Mora obeyed, cracking the reins to slip back into the circle of the other riders. He did it just in time to slow to a stop. All the dogs spun around once and sat, staring at the mechanical bird as it made its final descent.
Cast from aluminum, covered in cascading plastic pearls, and seated for only a very special one, the swan stopped inches from the dirt. Mary Annette descended from Songwriter. Her steps were light, so as not to disturb the magic too early. She stopped and put her hand to her ear, swishing away her curls white as whipping cream.
The audience boomed, urging her to take flight, to achieve. They were rooting for her, no matter what the world outside said about her chest, or her high voice, or whatever that whining about her being in a kitchen instead was. None of them could imagine, Mary Annette… in a kitchen instead of out here?
The mechanical wings beat once, a real beat instead of the flap pantomime it had been doing before. Dirt rose in a circular cloud around it, passing through all the horse’s legs and making it look like the taller dogs were trying to paddle through it.
The performers had dismounted too, that first wave of dust better than a hot shower. They let it wash over them, get up their sleeves, curl up in their ears… While their feet were hidden from the audience they stamped or twirled, kicking up their own little cloud of Turkey Bank dust. Mora was no exception, swishing his toe back and forth, feeling it rise. That was his magic, the mess he made, what he kicked up into the eyes of those who would control him.
There was no feeling like it, that old dirt-kickin’ magic. It made you understand that all those fairy tales about magical gemstones were true, and it really didn’t matter what those stones were cut from or from which quarry they were pulled. Every rhinestone on him was one of them, and they sparkled like the clinking champagne flutes of tipsy gods.
Mary’s winged shadow passed overhead. She was out of reach now, untouchable, by anyone and anything. Safe to shepherd them to act two with her usual speech.
“Some a’ you likely learned that this here nation is composed a’ fifty united states.” A cheering wave as she circled. “Whoever told you that was full a’ it. This is a country a’ opportunities, and there’s a heck lot more opportunities out there than a measly fifty. It’s more like fifty thousand! You’ll see some a’ the ones you ain’t ever seen ‘fore tonight, right here and right now. Let’s zoom in on opportunity number 35,333.”
Mora was back on Thistle’s saddle, urging her to their mark. All the others headed for the horse gate, except for Watershed Wade, hero of the day, who took up his mark opposing that night’s villain. Between them stood something huge. Some in the audience squinted. When did that get there? They must’ve rolled it in while the dirt cloud was obscuring everything; they were clever like that. It was a massive black barrel, taller than a man, wrapped with what looked like fireworks.
Mora took a deep breath. Once he’d known the magic, the good-natured smack of it against the inside of his lungs, he wondered how he’d never figured out the clues before. They were peppered in the language all over, especially in the southern states. Whenever someone small-town got their start, and really took off, people always said they ‘came out of nowhere’.
But they had to come from somewhere, right? Maybe that somewhere was nowhere to you, because you just haven’t been everywhere, not to every last one of those fifty thousand. ‘Out of the blue’ just meant from a red, white, and blue you weren’t used to, a slightly darker or lighter shade.
Mary came from one of those, of that he was sure. Early on he’d tried to find Hissyfit County and Turkey Bank, looking for so much as a spoonful of the dirt that made him feel that way, but there was none of it anywhere but that theater. Just what he was allotted, just under his villain’s mark.
“What’s this I see in the settlin’ dust?” Mary asked as Mora and Wade faced each other down, explosive barrel between them. “Why, I know these two, and so do you. Far and wide and deep their names go, echoin’ in the caves and canyons. The man in blue is our hero, a thousand times over… It’s Watershed Wade! Y’all give him both a’ your hands.” Wild applause.
“And opposite him, oh he’s a nasty fella. Barbecue you as soon as look at you. Eyes like wasp stings, temperament like a wolverine. A beautiful voice to be sure, but that’s how he gets close to you. He can’t hide it for long: his rage. He’s none other than Madrigal Mora!” The boos howled like the wind, coming from every direction, and even Thistle reacted, her ears twitching. She didn’t like being the heel.
“It’s okay,” Mora soothed, patting the side of her neck. “You just hang on. We won’t be for long. You’ll see.” Mary wasn’t done setting the stage yet, so the both of them had to chomp at the bit for a few moments more.
“Wade was just out patrollin’, keepin’ the peace he baked into the little town a’ Gravyboat warm. He was the best sheriff they’d ever had, because he was a very understandin’ man and he only wanted the best for everyone. He’d swear that up and down and diagonally even as he put you in your place.
Mora wanted to disturb that peace that evenin’. He was awfully controllin’, especially a’ his legacy. You so much as say his name wrong and he’ll erase yours from the public record. He’d called up his sister Coral from down in Mexico, wantin’ to be around for the birth of her first precious child.”
The light over Coral kicked on and Mora’s heart skipped a beat. She just smiled at him, refusing to look at the thing buzzing and heating her dark hair, drawing the attention of every last paying customer. She leaned back a little and stroked her stomach. There were cheers, which let Mora breathe a little easier. They could hate him, but if they tossed so much as a toothpick at her he might do something foolish like crack his whip and banish a whole section to the least favorable of the fifty thousand opportunities: a place where bear traps could legally be placed on any sidewalk and hotcakes were served cold.
“Old Madrigal thought it best that a boy carry on his family name,” Mary said, elaborating on his evil plot, “and he knew Gravyboat had a little twist a’ magic here and there that he could steal from its good people. He hatched a scheme, after seeing one a’ those gender reveal stunts at a neighbor’s.”
It was nearly impossible to tune Mary Annette out, and literally impossible if she was aiming her voice at you in particular, but Mora managed as she went on. He knew it already, present as he was at every planning meeting for his debut, around the only conference table in the whole building: a worn out thing tucked into a dark break room stained with a lot more coffee than ink.
They had a writer on staff, but their job was mostly to take whatever ideas Mary had that week and squeeze them into a story that could be told between courses and finished just as the caramel sauce on dessert started to cool and solidify.
This month her obsession was videos on the internet where expecting couples took ever more ridiculous measures to reveal whether the newest member of their family would be a boy or a girl. Sometimes it was cutting into a cake and finding pink or blue filling. Other times it was setting off an amateurishly built explosive to generate a pink or blue cloud.
Mary had talked about them several times, but she only brought them to the conference table after terrible news of a fatality at one such event, where a blue-dyed piece of shrapnel struck a woman in the stomach.
Everything that made Mary sad got destroyed in their theater, so she was inspired to integrate them into the shows that month, with her argument being twofold. First off, if people could come see a big fancy dyed explosion, properly set up, they would feel a lot less compelled to do it themselves.
The other reason was that, of the fifty thousand opportunities she always talked up, more than half of them had moved past putting so much weight on boys versus girls. She wanted to help nudge this opportunity along, so she would attach the stunt to the heel.
That was actually the exact moment he had thrown his hat into the ring, elbows on the stained table, begging Mary to give him a chance at the heel. Inspiration had come to him just as it had her, but he was more interested in the undifferentiated power of a dyed charge during the show. They almost never did ones that big, and the bigger they were, the bigger the magic.
As Madrigal Mora his plan was to abuse the magic of Gravyboat, his banging blue cloud actually changing the sex of his sister’s unborn to a boy. Mary thought that was a good evil plan, taking god’s and Coral’s say out of it.
As regular old Mora, hard-working head-down Mora, his plan was a little more complicated, with a whole two other colors thrown in.
“Watershed Wade has just gotten wise to this pop and swap,” Mary told the crowd. “He has ridden up and found Madrigal Mora poised with a match, ready to make a decision no man should ever have in his fumblin’ hands.” Mora reached into his pocket and produced a match, holding it up in the air. It was specially made, ten times larger than a regular one, so the audience could see it properly.
With a flick across Thistle’s saddle he set the miniature torch alight, riding around with a snarl on his lips to absorb more boos. He pulled up alongside the barrel, holding it close to a striped prop fuse.
“I’d advise you to put out that fire Mora,” Wade declared into the microphone hooking under his ear. The tip of his whip unfurled all the way to the ground.
“I’m breaking no law,” Mora answered in a gravelly voice. Wade stared, urging him to reconsider the end of the sentence. “…señor.” The boos could’ve knocked over an outhouse, which put an honest smile on Wade’s pale naked lip.
“Be that as it may,” the hero countered, “I think if you read between the lines this is still something of a crime. Don’t you think this should be up to your sister?”
“He’ll carry my name, and he’ll carry it far Wade.” Whu-tash! The crack of Wade’s whip put out the giant match and also snuffed the breath of the whole theater. Hearts held their beating so they didn’t interrupt the next retort. “You’ll regret that,” Mora growled, wiping the back of his hand across the cascading red sequins of his shirt. His own whip came out, flourished like an ornery viper woken from its nap. “The first thing my new nephew’s going to see is your broken body.”
He tried not to feel the performance. It was important to keep his anger tamped down, and not just because that old dirt-kickin’ magic could have him literally breathing fire if he wasn’t careful.
Even with a plan, analyzing was important. There were fifty thousand things that could change at any moment. Mora glanced down and saw that Wade was on the back of Cinnamon Roll. He was a sweet horse, and he occasionally shied away or flinched from anything too exciting. That could work in his favor if Wade wasn’t happy with the color of the clearing cloud. First thing was first: the planned fight that he had to lose.
Both horses charged, each whip spinning as a glittery pinwheel on opposite sides. They cracked simultaneously, neutralizing each other as their mounts slowed and turned for another pass. Dust and dirt exploded behind every hoof beat, endless possibilities in every geyser.
They both felt the rush of Mary’s vision. You never had to be wrong if you could pluck a new reality out of the air like a peach off its eyelash stem. There were so many to choose from, and nobody could see the borders between them through the cloud she carefully cultivated.
Each crack of their whips really could split flesh from bone, and it might not land on the ground they’d be returning to. Even when he was just a clown Mora had seen the animals run across air, the performers lift impossible weights, and details shift as soon as he wasn’t looking, like stagehands changing bits of scenery whenever the audience blinked.
A lasso and a whip were different animals, yet in Mary’s show one could tie or untie itself and become the other. That exact trick happened on their next pass, Wade’s new blue lasso dropping right over Mora and tightening, holding his arms to him. He squeezed his heels against Thistle’s side: her cue to pretend to lose control. The horse stopped abruptly and bucked, tossing him in the dirt.
As a former clown he knew how to fall correctly, so it didn’t hurt at all. The important part was holding his breath, to keep too much dirt from getting in his lungs. Mary had it arranged so that none of it ever leaved the theater. How that was arranged was from one of the sky high opportunities she kept to herself, but they did know that if you swallowed too much of it you could find yourself excreting it from the most or least convenient opening when you tried to exit.
Down there in his defeat, through the haze, he saw a few more Moras from other opportunities doing the same thing. Like mirrors, but each one had different memories making their expressions subtly different, all apples from the same tree.
“Miss Coral Mora,” Wade’s voice boomed, reminding Mora to wriggle into a sitting position and scowl. The blue and white rider slowed to a stop just in front of his sister. “Would you be alright with your little one being a girl, just to show your rascal brother what women can do?” She played her part, nodding. The crowd roared, and her neck tensed, but she didn’t look away.
“This ought to do the trick,” Wade said, pulling a flask out of his vest and riding around with it aloft, just as Mora had with the match. One talisman to another. “I’ll have to thank Mrs. Wade for making this tasty batch of pink lemonade.” He took a swig and smacked his lips into the microphone. Mora knew that flask actually contained whatever he wanted it to, thanks to the magic. Probably flavored water. If Wade’s personality was a beverage it was definitely flavored water, like someone had just eaten a strawberry and then breathed into the flow of the tap.
Whatever it was he drank down, and didn’t stumble on his way back to the barrel, just as the script prescribed. Right next to the fuse there was a cork leading to nowhere in particular. He plucked it out and turned the flask over, vibrant pink liquid disappearing inside. Then he struck a giant match of his own and lit the fuse.
“When will these outlaws learn?” Wade asked the crowd as he circled it, Cinnamon Roll galloping faster and faster. “This is my town, and my rules. Here a babe is a babe, and we try and let them find their own way, with nothing more than a helpful nudge in the right direction.” The sparkling disappeared into the barrel. “Say howdy to our newest little cowgirl!”
The plume of smoke rose like a volcano’s belch, so high that Mary’s swan went right through its cap like it was walking through some shrubs. The audience was so stunned that some fell out of their seats, which was never very easy to do in booths. Those that did scrambled around like rats, fearing some kind of fallout from the surprising colors.
The charge that went into the barrel thirty minutes before the swan took off was full of pink powder. If Coral wanted to be in the show she had to be at its whim. Mary made that clear. It would cost her any ambiguity in the form of her baby. They had agreed on pink. Twenty-five minutes before the ascent Mora had made the switch to the one he’d made himself, a mix that would disperse in perfect stripes of red, white, and blue.
The show had to go on, and to finish, if any of this was to be permanent. Mora hopped up skillfully, lasso turning to slack as his breath gently whistled out; he turned that whistle into a call for Thistle. She came to his side and he mounted all at once without her slowing.
“I don’t know what you heard Wade,” Mora told his microphone, without so much as a hint of the caricature accent, “but I just want that kid to have every opportunity in the world.” The American colors were still visible in the air, the tan kicked-up dirt of Turkey Bank eating away at their edges like like a swarm of voracious moths. “So I brought them into this great nation, these stupendous United States of America!”
Scattered slow clapping. Cheers, but only from half the children. There had to be some approval of a statement like that, otherwise who where they?
“Well what have we here?” Mary’s voice drizzled down. Her swan hadn’t slowed, and she hadn’t so much as looked over the side. Just from hearing her everyone could tell she was leaned back on its cushions, hands behind her head, still basking in the rays of the days she made. “Looks like Madrigal Mora’s thrown Watershed Wade for a loop. He says there’s only one gender that matters: American!”
They liked it better out of Mary’s mouth, but the audience was still far from the enthusiasm of the last epoch: all of two minutes ago. Mora was the closest to celebrating, for the biggest battle was already won. Mary hadn’t descended to stop him; she’d allowed his use of the dirt-kickin’ magic to stand. Whoever that kid was, boy or girl or alligator hatchling, they were now a legal American citizen. As soon as they came into the world, no matter where, Coral would look at the birth certificate and see the location listed as one of fifty thousand opportunities on the right kind of soil.
“He’s not a bad guy!” one kid yelled, voice that much louder thanks to three missing teeth. “Red’s my favorite color and bad guys don’t wear re-” He was shushed by a parent stuffing a biscuit in his mouth and pulling him back into the booth. It was just one symptom, a minor eruption in their confusion, but Wade was not so plagued. He saw right through the whole game, though from his gaping mouth he looked like he could hardly believe it.
“Better cover that up; the hero needs his composure,” Mora taunted as he rode up to his costar, unable to stop himself. Wade put his hand over his mouth and rubbed, manually molding his expression to something more presentable. The two riders circled each other, giving the audience the illusion that they were sizing each other up once more, despite having a fight behind them already. They both had their microphones bent away from their mouths.
“What’s this bullshit Mora!? This isn’t Mary’s script! You just blew your only shot here!”
“If Mary’s got licks for me I’ll take them,” he answered. “The rest of you use this place all the time to get what you want. Greyhound would be bald ten times over if he wasn’t out here every Thursday reinvigorating himself, sharing hair with all the other Greyhounds galloping through.”
“That’s different,” Wade spat, strangling his reins. Cinnamon Roll’s head shook. This didn’t feel right for act three. His reward apple at the end of the show seemed to be slipping away. “We’ve earned it! Nobody pulled this on their first big show, and definitely not as the heel! And all that stuff stays in here.”
“You mean Greyhound doesn’t take his hair with him when he goes home?”
“God damn it Mora that doesn’t matter and you know it! Changing documents, breaking laws, that matters! You just made your sister’s kid an illegal alien.”
“No, they’re legal. You wait and see.”
“Dirt-kickin’ is not the proper channel amigo!” He glanced at the audience. They looked lost, and some of them had already been switched out. They weren’t quite where they started. Some of them looked like city folk now, from a richer opportunity perhaps.
Mary had been clear about that; every opportunity was welcome. They came from all sorts of places, coming in and out usually when they went to find the bathroom. With freshly washed hands they would return to their seat, engrossed by the show, unaware of who they sat next to or where exactly they came from.
Sometimes the audience was truly strange by the finale. Dressed like Eskimos. Playing with phones that looked too old to be cordless, or phones so new they were thin and flexible as straws. On rare occasions, usually solstices and equinoxes, the majority of them would suddenly have shimmering eyes and pointy ears just like Santa’s elves. Wade saw his folks slipping away, and it lit a fire that would’ve burnt his mustache clean off were it still present and accounted for.
“I’m still the hero here,” he spat at Mora. “I never stop thinking on my hooves… and I’ve got an idea already.” With a flick of his head his microphone dropped back down. “So, you’re even worse than I thought: a human smuggler!” He drew in the wailing boo that followed, puffing out his chest. “Have no fear my fellow Americans! I’ll send these fiends back where they belong!”
Mora didn’t even hear the cheers and jeers. They were background noise, the quicksand he’d always kept his head above. The magic would stand, unless Wade countered it with a spell of his own. He followed the sparkling cowboy as he rode back toward the horse gate, through the last stripe of blue from his naturalizing stunt.
Fweeeeeeeet! Wade’s whistle through his teeth was powerfully loud, and would have been so without the microphone. It tore through the dust in the air like a bullet, even leaving a curling trail. A few seconds later some of the dogs appeared from the backstage darkness, three of the biggest ones to be precise. Mora recalled that Wade didn’t start as a clown, but a trainer. In his spare time he was a hunter, and the kind that liked to use dogs to boot.
He whistled again, the note traveling up and down, the dogs nodding along with it. The magic was kicked up, so they were even smarter than usual, maybe even different breeds already, ones that didn’t exist in this opportunity and could do things like arithmetic and seeing in color. They turned tail and vanished back into the darkness.
Mora didn’t attack yet; he reclaimed his whip and kept his distance. Acting before he knew exactly what sort of spell Wade was going for was folly. Wade’s face was smug, but under it he saw swelling hate that the man rarely showed. Enough for a hot air balloon to achieve liftoff. Perhaps enough to kill a man during the show and let it stick. Mary would let that stand too; it was the risk you took when you lived your art.
The dogs returned, each with something in their mouths. Mora squinted, only able to make out what they were thanks to the strip of color on each one. One red. One green. One white. The heel swallowed hard. So that was his game. The animals had brought three colored smoke charges from the stores, ideal for recreating the Mexican flag.
All he had to do was repeat it. If he placed all three in the smoking top of the barrel and lit them, the naturalization would be reversed. Coral’s kid would be stuck where she didn’t want them to be, at the whim of some government stooge on the border who could stretch a paperwork chain into the next three decades.
No, it would be worse than that, because she was a Mora and they were too determined. Asking her to not make an attempt on a crossing or on a visa was like asking him to to settle for being a waiter at Mary’s, just watching the magic from a servant’s distance.
One way or another she and the kid would cross, and in this opportunity that meant a world of trouble. Here and now, almost like there was another darker magic to counter Mary’s neutral dirt, there were cages at the border made for people like her. People, who had no idea how to use a microphone as charismatically as Madrigal Mora, had a hobby of excusing such things as really not all that bad, because the cages were very clean.
“You ready Thistle?” Mora asked his mount. She kicked up dirt and whinnied in response. “Let’s keep fighting and let’s never stop, yaah!”
Fweeeeeet! One dog ran through Cinnamon Roll’s legs while the other two took the sides. Wade rode up behind them to back them up, escort them to the barrel so they could leap over it and drop their charges in. All three needed to be lit simultaneously, so there was no point in splitting his focus. If one color was prevented it would stop whole trick.
Watershed was guarding white, and red was the furthest, so Madrigal narrowed his sights on green. A collie had that one, silky white mane unsullied. It looked as nimble as a cat, so protective of the work of the animal furdresser backstage that it absolutely refused to stumble or land on its belly.
It was already halfway to the barrel, and Thistle didn’t have the footwork to get in its way. Mora readied his glittering red whip, cracking it once, like thunder across the arena. With another swirl it tied itself into a lasso, like a portal made from Dorothy’s ruby slippers. With his free hand he pulled the brim of his hat down, so he could look at Coral without her seeing the worry etched in his eyes.
She was still there, locked in place by the spotlight as the audience blurred around her. She hadn’t blinked in more than a minute, and while the dust was magic it wasn’t any kinder to sensitive tissues.
The dogs with the red and white leapt, barely missing each other, dropping their charges in the barrel. The collie jumped just behind them, but the lasso made it too. There was no need to hurt the critter, and points with the audience were always valuable no matter the play, so Mora had called upon the magic once again.
With his wrist flicking endlessly the whip’s loop swallowed up the animal but never tightened. It just spun and spun and spun, suspending it in a marble of air. With a flourish Mora pulled it back, but the kennel of spherical dust remained. The confused dog tried to run, succeeding in rolling along like a hamster in its ball. Startled gasps moved through the crowd. It wasn’t every day you saw something like that. They would definitely tell their friends: actually, the bad guy had one of the best moves.
Watershed Wade hooked around the barrel, his own whip at the ready. One strike would break the flourish barrier, so that dog needed to be gone. Mora swirled his weapon overhead again, freeing the loop. He cracked it at the dog’s feet, popping the invisible marble up into the air.
Whitish! Krak! Whitish! He juggled it higher and higher, Thistle obediently spinning in place so he didn’t lose sight of it. With one final swing he sent it flying. What went up had to come down, though the amount of time varied between opportunities, and the collie only went down enough to land right in Mary’s lap as her swan swung majestically by.
“Well hey there cutie!” she squeaked. “Things gettin’ a little too rowdy down there for you?” The bubble about it broke with its bark, the force enough to fling the red smoke charge out. She made no attempt to grab it, letting it roll across the wing and fall back toward the hotly contested patch of Turkey Bank.
“Damn!” Mora cracked the reins instead of his whip, making it just in time to snatch the charge out of the air. He had to get rid of it, and just tossing it through a cloud and into another opportunity wouldn’t work when Wade was right there to chase after it. There wasn’t time to think of anything else, with the sparkling hero closing in right behind.
Madrigal was forced to hug the wall when Wade rode up alongside. Whitish! The red whip kicked up more dust, and when that dust hit the wall Mora willed it to warp, stretching the front row of seats out of the way to give him a little more room. With the arena now more of a rubber band than an oval he had room to stop Thistle and get her turned around.
There was a second cloud, Wade sticking out the top of it. The hero’s smile was gone, but determination still burned in his cheeks. The man lorded over his foe, and did so more with every passing second. Mora craned his neck. How did he get so high? Cinnamon Roll was not that tall.
Two blasts of air broke up the cloud under the man, from two nostrils big enough to be gravy boats. Thick mane braids hung over the side of its muscular neck, twice the size and three times the strength of any horse named after a baked good. Its hooves were boulders, likely to disintegrate any toes stepped on rather than flatten them.
In that cloud Wade had swapped out his steed for something sturdier, a draft horse, and not just one of those beer cart pullers that might be seen on this opportunity’s city streets. The braids, extending onto its tail, held together with bone charms, looked like they came from a place where the Vikings made it to America before the pilgrims and never left.
The monster thundered forward, its great bulk neutralizing the extra space Mora had made. Before he could respond he and Thistle were pressed against the wall, his left leg crushed. The limb felt like a match after ten failed strikes, especially as Thistle pushed forward to escape and repeatedly struck his kneecap with the nail heads between the boards.
“Give it up Mora! Give me that smoke! These things have to happen Mary’s way!”
“This is Mary’s way!” Mora snarled back.
“Bullshit!” Wade reached down and grabbed at the charge. Back and forth they fought over it, knuckles going white, grips tearing hair out of the back of their palms. Slapping and scratching. The draft horse pushed harder, squeezing Thistle so much that she couldn’t run anymore. The arena wall stretched, pinning her in a little pocket of wood that should’ve never behaved that way. “Mary keeps the magic here Mora! She doesn’t send it out to picket lines and senate hearings! She doesn’t make it political! It’s all supposed to be in good,” he reared back for a punch, “fun!”
When his fist struck Mora’s cheek it took off his hat, which sailed away and landed in Coral’s lap. Both men looked up without relinquishing their grip on the charge. They’d stopped in front of her, the magic stretching her table and trapping her legs. She didn’t look pained, or troubled. She just stared at her brother intensely. No doubt. No fear. The real hero always won according to Mary, mother of dirt on your face and elbow grease.
Mora made sure his microphone was in place, and he spoke like he was full of wild wind, like a national anthem belted from a mountaineer at the summit, bouncing off purple peaks and blazing in an orange sky.
“There’s something you don’t understand, Watershed Wade!” The blue and white cowboy scrunched his nose. “It’s what a chance means to somebody who’s never had one.” He relinquished the charge to Wade, whose double take only delayed him a second before he pulled his behemoth horse around and thundered for the barrel. Mora ignored the pain in his leg, the dust caking into the blood, and rode around the edge instead, looking as many members of the audience as he could straight through the eye and into the spirit.
“You once told me this was all in good fun,” Madrigal informed the audience, leaving out how recent that statement was, “but people like me can’t afford to do anything in good fun. We’ve got eyes on us. I’m famous among my people, notorious among yours, but that’s beside it all. Their eyes are on me because there’s nobody with actual power for them to look up to.” Thistle didn’t know what he said, but she surely knew how he said it. She did her best imitation of the draft horse’s thundering, heart beating in rhythm with her rider’s.
“I have all the opportunities they were denied, and it’s my duty to make this a Madrigal Mora moral matter!” A giggle from a few opportunities that knew how to appreciate quality alliteration. “All good fun to you, but life and death to us.”
Wade was at the barrel, horse roaring more like a bear as it reared up on its hind legs.
“It’s just like what happened to Mary, that convinced her to take to the wing and ascend to heaven!”
The green charge hung over the smoking volcano crater, all too close to being an infant sacrifice to its dark and molten god.
“People didn’t like her because she was a woman in the man’s world of entertainment, but they made a mistake. They wanted to mock her! They couldn’t resist, so they called attention to her!”
The charge vanished and hit the bottom. Wade pulled a big show match from his pocket and struck it across the carved dragon figurehead on his borrowed saddle.
“And then she had them! Locked up tight in her embrace. Before they knew it they liked her, and she wasn’t so bad for a cowgirl after all!”
Down tumbled the showman’s flame.
“So you got it mister! I’m using my reputation to make something happen! To make another little American who believes they have a shot at the spotlight too!”
Coral threw her brother’s hat. It sailed not just on that old dirt-kickin’ magic, but on the deafening cheers and applause as well. It punched straight through the pillar of green. He caught it and shook it back and forth, getting the wisps of moldy smoke off before placing it on his head like a crown and pulling the brim down like a ball cap.
Watershed and Madrigal faced off again, right on their marks, dust settling back to dirt. Puny Cinnamon Roll was back, but Wade’s posture looked victorious anyway. He took off his white hat and held it against his chest, humble before Mary.
“Nobody breaks the law in my town Mora! Why don’t you-”
“Go back where you came from!” The hero choked on his brag, sweat cooling on his skin. He’d never heard that in his life, and certainly not from his adoring fans. Looking out at the booths he saw the truth.
They’d kicked up an awful lot of magic, evidenced by the musicians sitting where there had been speakers at the start of the show. It was a five piece ensemble headed by a woman with an acoustic guitar dressed up more than Elvis in his prime. They weren’t playing now of course; the theater was dead silent. They glared at the man who killed the mood and stilled their strings.
As cross as they were the audience liked Wade even less. They were an eclectic bunch, clothes from all over the quilt of fifty thousand squares. Hats that could hold far more than ten gallons and wouldn’t measure it with gallons anyway. Uniforms for a sport, a little too lively and colorful to be for a version of baseball that didn’t involve mile long home runs or alligator moats in the outfield.
From all over. Light and dark. Young and old. Round ears and pointy. All American, and all watching Wade make an ass of himself. Whoever they were, they weren’t his audience, and he wasn’t their hero.
If he wasn’t fighting for them, then he was fighting for himself. It wasn’t an honest effort, and nobody from Turkey Bank had ever told a lie. When he finally looked at Madrigal Mora he saw what had really happened. The cowboy in red was smiling, and there wasn’t any hate in it at all. The green smoke rose, but nothing had changed. Wade ripped his microphone off and tossed it in the dirt, riding up to his rival.
“Where did you take us?!” Watershed seethed, choking his reins.
“It’s the same place Wade,” Mora assured him. “These are just the people you’ve never seen, even looking right at them. They like a show every now and then, same as everybody else.” He looked at Coral and her beaming smile. The kid was in the right place, and not because he’d bested Wade on the battlefield, but because he’d bested him on the stage. He’d read the room and flipped the page until he found a more hospitable one.
Mary’s swan, all too real at this point, swooped lower to draw their attention. The collie jumped down for Mora to catch. Just as he did the feathery tip of the bird’s giant right wing struck the dirt, blasting one last cloud at Wade. He coughed, the dust foreign in his mouth and throat. When he was done hacking he opened his eyes and saw how low he’d gone. Cinnamon Roll was gone, a donkey in his place. An ass for an ass.
“And so,” Mary declared from on high, “the villain, defeated, slunk off into the shadows, to think things over.”
“Mary…” Wade muttered, tears in his eyes.
“Nobody has to be the heel forever, amigo,” Mora reminded with a nod and a tip of his sparkling red hat. Wade rubbed his lip, hiding something under his hand, perhaps a thin smile.
“At least folks like it when a villain has a mustache.” With that he straightened his shoulders and flicked his reins, donkey braying dutifully and heading for the darkness of the horse gate, now so empty that it certainly didn’t leak backstage. Moments later the shadows swallowed him up, and he was off to an opportunity to grow.
The band played. The lights shone. Everyone was on their feet doing grievous harm to their hands, applauding with abandon. Madrigal Mora and Thistle took one last round, joined by the other riders and all the dogs for Mary Annette’s descent. By the time the swan stalled it was back to being machinery, and Mora was back to nervous shaking hands.
He waved Coral over. Boontime Betty helped her over the side and onto her horse, taking her straight to her brother and Mary. They all dismounted. The lord of the show strutted over to her and laid her hands upon the fledgling American within.
“Welcome home kiddo,” she said before glancing at the two of them. “That’s quite a stunt you two pulled.”
“When you have your shot you take it,” Mora declared. “You taught me that Mary.”
“And you made it big-time,” she said, leaning back, the only one aware of how big big-time could get. “I just hope you know what you’ve done. I’ve got my strings on this kid now. They’re American alright, and they’re a performer now too. They’re goin’ to see every opportunity, good and bad, and all the cold cuts in between.” She reached up and wiped the happy tears out of Coral’s eyes, still pink from irritation.
The audience slowly filed out, back to their dull lives with no shimmering vests, no leather boots, and no cracking whips. Those were for tomorrow, and for the price of a ticket, and for the price of fame.