“The Smash-Up” is a re-imagining of ideas from a Fitzgerald novel, set in Colorado in the 1970s. It is one of the stories in my collection coming out next year. You can read it now by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and joining my email list (you can opt out at any time). Try to guess the famous novel this takes off from!
It started when someone smashed the windshield of Buck Thompson’s Corvette. Glass shattered. And lives.
Buck had brought it in the previous night so we could R & R the mufflers and tailpipes the next day. But the next morning, first thing, we stood, George and Hippie Phil and I, in the cool quiet of the three-bay garage looking at a saucer-sized impact in the passenger side, cracks running in a sparkling web all across the glass. Shards and sparkles had showered down on the dashboard, but not on the seats, or on the gray felt cowboy hat sitting on the passenger seat . . .
In late June Bob Sunshine rolled in, driving a two-donkey, canvas-top wagon with rubber tires. Sunshine was a one-eyed no-patch cowpoke who ambled all over the west appearing at rodeos and church fairs, an oddity and a showman. Of course he had known George and Toni for years. Everyone knew George and Toni, or wanted to.
Bob parked his little conestoga behind the shop, and began turning up at the five o’clock beerfest, where he showed he could sling it with anybody. Sunshine had been in western movies in the forties and fifties, and played a comic ranch hand character on the original Mouseketeers show.
“Even then I was a wiry little SOB,” he told a group of us in his scratchy drawl. “I named my mules after the two sweetest little gals on the show, though truthfully not so little if ye ketch my meaning.”
One of the yokels said, “You mean Annette and, uh…”
“Dor-eeeen,” we all repeated.
George knew Sunshine’s act, and loved playing the straight man. “Uh, Bob… those animals ain’t mules.”
Bob did a stage whisper. “Well, I know that! But they don’t.”
Surprisingly, everybody in the room laughed. Bob sucked you in like that. Bad jokes, veteran timing.
For more than a week, Bob stuck around, and Annette and Doreen thinned the weeds in the fenced lot next door. On the Fourth of July Bob decorated the donkeys and the wagon in patriotic colors, and drove the rig in the parade downtown.
“That’s why I came,” Bob told me. He was helping me clean up the back lot around where his wagon was parked, where the junk cars sat for years.
I wanted to know how a person like him could even exist anymore. “That’s quite a life you’ve got.”
“It’s a life I chose. I almost died in Hollywood. I’ve only got one lung.” He pulled up his shirt to show me slashes of pink over his scant torso.
“Valley fever. It was supposed to kill me but it didn’t. It freed me. I think I’ll take these.” He picked up a disintegrating cardboard box of empty beer cans, and dropped it beside his wagon. “They’ll pay ye for these now.”
“I had always wanted to see the real west.” He swept his hand out. “I’d been a TV cowboy, but I grew up on a dairy farm in LA. I wanted to see the mountains of Utah, the high plains, the red rocks. In fifty-nine I took a bus to Las Vegas, and just started walking. Eventually I acquired the burros. Or they acquired me.”
One of animals honked at us from across the fence. “Hush, Doreen,” Bob honked back. He winked at me. “She’s the jealous type.”
“How far have you traveled?”
“I don’t count the miles.” He squeezed a can to flatten it. “The funny thing is, before too long, I was back to playing the Hollywood cowboy I’d been before. But for real. Up close with people in small towns and along the road. It just evolved into a thing.” He tossed the flattened can onto the tailgate of the wagon.
“It’s strange. Facing death led me to a life I couldn’t imagine before. And then living that life led me back to the character I’d created for show.”
I heard some irony there, or maybe some karma.Just beyond my grasp.
His voice turned extra twangy. “That’s why I always say, be a flapjack. Let the spatula of life flip you so you’ll be golden on both sides, and tasty with syrup. That’s the kind of crap I tell people. They love it, and some of it might even be true.”
I had to smile as I carried and raked and piled. A warm, sunny morning in God’s Country, and Moses or somebody filling me with the wonder of life. Bob disappeared into the hills soon after that. “Me and the mules,” he said. “We got places to go.”
Note: this dialogue and situation is made up, but Bob Sunshine was a real character who roamed the west for years.