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Igms issue 15, p.16

IGMS - Issue 15, page 16

 

IGMS - Issue 15
 


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  She waited.

  "I thought I ought to fix the heater fan."

  Still she waited.

  "I want to see the show."

  She raised an eyebrow. "Katie had nothing to do with it?"

  "Katie's a pretty girl."

  She sighed. "And funny. And lonely. She thinks she wants to get away, but she doesn't. There is no Broadway anymore. The rats have taken over the theatre buildings. They chewed up the NBC peacock and didn't leave a feather." She giggled at her own joke.

  Then, as if she knew she'd lost the thread of her own conversation, she fell silent and stared off into space. Deaver wondered if maybe he ought to just go back to the truck or take a walk or something.

  She startled him by turning her head and gazing at him again, her gaze sharper than ever before. "Are you one of the three Nephites?"

  "What?"

  "Appearing on the road like that. Just when we needed an angel most."

  "Three Nephites?"

  "The ones who chose to stay behind on Earth till Christ comes again. They go about doing good, and then they disappear. I don't know why I thought that, I know you're just an ordinary boy."

  "I'm no angel."

  "But the way the young ones turned to you. Ollie, Katie, Toolie. I thought you came to --"

  "To what?"

  "Give them what they want most. Well, why don't you anyway? You don't have to be an angel to work miracles, sometimes."

  "I'm not even a Mormon."

  "I'll tell you the truth.," said the old lady. "Neither was Moses."

  He laughed. So did she. Then she got that faraway look again. After he waited awhile, her eyelids got heavy, flickered, closed. He stood, stretched, turned around.

  Scarlett was standing not five feet away, looking at him.

  He waited for her to say something. She didn't.

  Voices off in the distance. Scarlett glanced toward them, breaking the silent connection between them. He also turned. Beyond the truck, the first group of townspeople were coming -- looked like three families together, with benches and a couple of ancient folding chairs. He heard Katie call out to them, though he couldn't see her behind the truck. The families waved. The children ran forward. Now he could see Katie emerging, out in the open field. She was wearing the hoop skirts of Betsy Ross -- Deaver knew the Betsy Ross scene because he'd had to learn the cue when to raise the flag, so that Janie could help Dusty with the costume change. The children overran her, turning her around; Katie squatted and hugged the two smallest both at once. She stood up then and led them toward the wagon. It was very theatrical; it was a scene played out for the children's parents, and it worked. They laughed, they nodded. They would enjoy the show. They would like the pageant family, because Katie greeted their children with affection. Theatrical -- and yet utterly honest. Deaver didn't know how he knew that. He just knew that Katie really did love to meet the audience.

  And then, thinking about that, he knew something else. Knew that he'd seen Katie play out some scenes today that she didn't mean, not the same way, not with that fervency that he saw when she greeted the children. This was real. Her flirting with Deaver, that was false. Calculated. Again, Deaver didn't know how he knew it. But he knew. Katie's smile, her touch, her attention, all that she'd given him today, all that she'd halfway promised, it was an act. She was like her father, not like Toolie. And it tasted nasty, just thinking about it. Not so much because she'd been faking it. Mostly because Deaver'd been taken in so completely.

  "Who can find a capable wife?" asked Scarlett softly.

  Deaver felt himself blush.

  But it wasn't a real question. Scarlett was reciting. "Her worth is far beyond coral. Her husband's whole trust is in her, and children are not lacking."

  He could see how the children clung to Katie. She must be telling them a story. Or just pretending to be Betsy Ross. The children laughed.

  "She repays him with good, not evil, all her life long. When she opens her mouth, it is to speak wisely, and loyalty is the theme of her teaching. She keeps her eye on the doings of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her sons with one accord call her happy; her husband, too, and he sings her praises: Many a woman shows how capable she is; but you excel them all."

  It might be a recitation, but it had to have a point to it. Deaver turned to Scarlett, who was smiling merrily. "Are you proposing to me?" asked Deaver.

  "Charm is a delusion and beauty fleeting; it is the God-fearing woman who is honored. Extol her for the fruit of all her toil, and let her own works praise her in the gates."

  As best Deaver could figure out, Scarlett was trying to get Deaver thinking about a wife when he looked at Katie. "You hardly know me, Mrs. Aal."

  "I think I do. And call me Scarlett."

  "I'm not a Mormon, either." He figured she'd probably been told already, but Deaver knew how much store Mormons set by getting married in the temple, and he also knew he never planned to set foot inside another Mormon temple in his life.

  But Scarlett seemed to be ready for that objection. "That's not Katie's fault, now, is it, so why punish the poor girl?"

  He couldn't very well say to her, Woman, if you think your daughter's really in love with me, you're a plain fool. "I'm a stranger, Scarlett."

  "You were this morning. But Mother Aal told us who you really are."

  Now he understood that she was teasing him. "If I'm an angel, I got to say the pay isn't too good."

  But she didn't really want to play. She wanted to talk seriously.

  "There's something about you, Deaver Teague. You don't say much, and half what you say is wrong, and yet you caught Katie's eye, and Toolie said to me today, 'Too bad Teague has to leave,' and you made a friend of Ollie, who hasn't made a friend in years." She looked away, looked toward the truck, though nothing was happening there. "Do you know, Deaver, sometimes I think Ollie is his uncle Roy all over again."

  Deaver almost laughed out loud. Royal? The hero of the outriders shouldn't be compared to Ollie, with his mocking smile, his petulant temper.

  "I don't mean Royal the way he is now, and I especially don't mean his carefully constructed public image. You had to know him before, back before the collapse. A wild boy. He had to put his nose in everything. And more than his nose, if you understand me. It seemed as though anything his body craved, he couldn't rest until he got it. Terrible trouble. Stayed out of jail only by luck and praying. Mother Aal's praying, his luck."

  As she spoke, Deaver noticed that her voice was losing that precision, that studied warmth. She sounded more like a normal person. Like as if just remembering the old days made her talk the way she used to, before she got to be an actress.

  "He couldn't hold a job," she said. "He'd get mad at somebody, he couldn't take getting bossed around or chewed out, couldn't stand doing the same thing day after day. He got married when he was eighteen to a girl who was so pregnant the baby could have tossed the bouquet. He couldn't stay home, he couldn't stay faithful. Right before the Six Missile War, he up and joined the army. Never sent a dime home, and then the government fell apart and all that time, you know who took care of his wife and baby? Babies by then."

  "You?"

  "Well, I suppose. But not by my choice. Marsh took them in, they lived in our basement. I was so angry. There was barely enough for Marsh and me and our children, so every bite they ate, I felt like they were taking it out of the months of little Toolie and Katie and Ollie. I said so, too -- not to them, but to Marsh. In private. I'm not a complete bitch."

  Deaver blinked at hearing her use that word. "What did he say?"

  "They're family, that's what he said. Like that was the whole answer. Family looks out for family, he said. He wouldn't even consider turning them out. Even when the university stopped classes and nobody had jobs, when we were eating dandelion greens and planting the whole yard for a garden just so the rain could come down and rip it all out -- that terrible first year -- rain tearing it out again and again --"


  She stopped a moment to remember, to live in those days again. When she finally spoke again, she was brisk, getting on with the story.

  "Then he came up with the idea of the pageant wagon. The Aal Family Pageant was the very first, you know. Not a truck, not then -- a trailer in those days, so it really was a kind of wagon, and we built the sets and Marsh wrote Glory of America and adapted the old Hill Cumorah pageant so we'd have a Book of Mormon show and we went on the road. Oh, we were always a theatrical family. I met Marsh when his mother was directing plays at church."

  She looked down at her mother-in-law, asleep in the chair.

  "Whoever would have thought play-acting would keep us alive! It was Marsh took the Aal name and made it stand for something, one end of Deseret to the other. And somehow he made it -- we made it pay enough to raise our own kids and Royal's too, kept bread on the table for all of us. His wife wasn't easy to live with, never pulled her weight, but we kept her the whole time, too. Until she ran off one day. And we still kept her kids, never put them in foster homes. They knew they could count on a place with us forever."

  She couldn't possibly know how those words stung deep in Deaver's heart, reminding him of foster homes that always began with promises of "you're here for good" and ended with Deaver putting his ugly little brown cardboard box in the back of somebody else's car and riding off without ever even a letter or postcard from one of the old families. He didn't want to hear any more talk about places you could count on. So he turned the conversation back to Ollie. "I don't see how Ollie's like Royal. He hasn't left any children behind and run off."

  She got a hard look in her eyes. "Hasn't he? It isn't for lack of trying."

  Deaver thought of what the mayor said to Toolie this morning. The Aal family was implicated. Getting girls pregnant and running off, that was no joke, that could get a man in jail. And here Scarlett was as much as confessing that the accusation wasn't just small-town rumors, it was true and she knew it. And after what the mayor said, Deaver knew that if Ollie got caught, it would surely mean the loss of the family's license. They'd be dead broke -- what value would their costumes and set pieces have to anybody else? They'd end up on some fringe farm somewhere. Deaver tried to imagine Marshall getting along with other farmers, fitting in. Tried to picture him covered with dirt and sweat, mud high up on his boots. That was what Ollie was flirting with, if Scarlett's accusation was true.

  "I bet Ollie wouldn't do that," said Deaver.

  "Ollie is Roy all over again. He can't control himself. He gets a desire, then he'll fulfill it and damn the consequences. We never stay in the same place long enough for him to get caught. He thinks he can go on like this forever."

  "You ever explain it to Ollie like this?"

  "You can't explain things to Ollie. Or at least I can't, and certainly Marsh and Toolie can't. He just blows up or walks away. But maybe you, Deaver. You're his friend."

  Deaver shook his head. "That's the kind of thing you don't talk about to somebody you met this morning."

  "I know. But in time --"

  "I just got my chance to apply to the outriders."

  Her face went grim. "So you'll be gone."

  "I was going anyway. To Moab."

  "Range riders come into town. They get mail. We might keep in touch."

  "Same with outriders."

  "Not for us," she said. Deaver knew it was true. They couldn't stay in touch with one of Royal's Riders. Not with Marshall feeling the way he did.

  But still -- if Ollie was really like Royal when he was younger, they could find some hope in that. "Royal came home, didn't he? Maybe Ollie'll grow out of it."

  "Royal never came home."

  "He's got his wife and kids now," said Ollie. "I've read about them. In the papers."

  "That's how Royal came home -- in the papers. We started reading stories about the outriders, and how the most daring one among them was a man named Royal Aal. In those days we were famous enough that they used to put in a little tag: 'No relation to the theatrical Aal family.' Which meant they were asking him, and he was denying it. His kids were old enough to read, some of them. We never denied him. We'd tell the kids, 'Yes, that's your daddy. He's off doing such an important work -- saving people's lives, destroying the missiles, fighting the mobbers.' We'd tell them how everybody sacrifices during hard times, and their sacrifice was doing without their daddy for a while. Marshall even wrote to Roy, and so did I, telling him about his children, how they were smart and strong and good. When Joseph, the oldest, fell from a tree and shattered his arm so badly the doctors wanted to take it off, we wrote to him about his son's courage, and how we made them save the arm no matter what -- and he never answered."

  It made Deaver sick to think of such a thing. He knew what it was like to grow up without a mother and father. But at least he knew that his parents were dead. He could believe that they would have come for him if they could. What would it be like to know your father was alive, that he was famous, and still have him never come, never write, never even send a message. "Maybe he didn't get the letters."

  She laughed bitterly. "He got them, all right. One day -- Joseph was twelve, he was just ordained a deacon a few weeks before -- the sheriff shows up at our campsite in Panguitch, and he's got a court order. A court order, listing Royal and his wife as co-complainants -- yes, they were back together now. Telling us to surrender the children of Royal Aal into the sheriff's custody or face kidnapping charges!"

  Tears flowed down her face. They weren't beautiful, decorous actress tears; they were hot and bitter, and her face was twisted with emotion.

  "He didn't come himself, he didn't write to ask us to send the children, he didn't even thank us for keeping them alive for ten years. Nor did that ungrateful bitch of a wife of his, and she ate at our table for five of those years."

  "What did you do?"

  "Marsh and I took his kids into the tent and told them that their father and mother had sent for them, that it was time for them to be together with their family again. You've never seen kids look happier. They'd been reading the papers, you see. That's who they thought Royal Aal was, the great hero. Like finding out that after years of being an orphan, your father the king had finally found you and you were going to be a prince and princesses. They were so happy, they hardly said good-bye to us. We don't blame them for that. They were children, going home. We don't even blame them for never writing to us since then -- Royal probably forbade them to. Or maybe he told them lies about us, and now they hate us." Her left hand was in front of her face; her right hand clenched and unclenched on her lap, gathering folds of her dress in a sodden mass. "So don't tell me how Royal grew out of it."

  This wasn't exactly the story folks usually told about Royal Aal.

  "I read an article about him once," said Scarlett. "Several years ago. About him and his oldest son Joseph riding together out on the prairies, a second generation of hero. And they quoted Roy about how he had such a hard family life, that there were so many rules he always felt like he was in prison, but that he had rescued his boy Joseph from that prison."

  Deaver had read that article, the way he read everything about Royal Aal. He thought he understood it when he read it; thought how he was in prison, too, and began to dream that maybe Royal Aal could rescue him, too. But now he'd spent a day with Royal's family. He could see how confining it was. Fights and squabbles. But also working together, everybody with a place that nobody else could fill. The kind of family he always wished for as a kid.

  A thousand times over the years Deaver had imagined going to the outrider headquarters in Golden and going up to Royal Aal and shaking his hand, hearing Royal welcome him as one of his outriders. Only now if it really happened he'd be thinking of something else -- like Marshall and Scarlett being served that court order. Like kids growing up without a word from their father. Like telling lies to make folks who'd done good to you look bad.

  At the same time, Deaver could also see how it might look different
to Royal, how as a kid he might have come to hate his brother Marshall -- the man really was hard to take sometimes -- and Deaver could guess that Parley wasn't the nicest, most understanding father in the world. This wasn't a family full of perfectly nice people. But that didn't mean they deserved dirt from him.

  So how could Deaver become an outrider, knowing all this about Royal Aal? How could he follow such a man? Somehow he'd have to put all this out of his mind, forget that he knew it. Maybe someday he'd even get to know Royal well enough that he could sit down by a fire one night and say, What about your family? I met them once -- what about them? And then he'd hear Royal's side of the story. That could change everything, knowing the other guy's side of the story.

  Only he couldn't imagine any story Roy could tell that would justify what Scarlett went through -- what she was still going through, just remembering. "I can see why you don't like to hear much about Royal now."

  "We don't use our name much anymore," said Scarlett. "Do you know what that does to Marsh? Everybody thinks Roy's a hero, while every town we go into, they treat us like we're all thieves and vandals and full-time fornicators. Someone once asked us if we stopped using the Aal name on our pageant wagon in order to protect Roy's reputation." She laughed -- or sobbed. It wasn't too easy to tell. "It near eats Marsh alive. We still live from the charity of the Church. Every bit of food from the bishop's storehouse. You don't know this, probably, Deaver Teague, but back in the old days, you only ate from the bishop's storehouse if you were down and out. A failure. It still feels that way to Marsh and me. Roy doesn't eat from the storehouse. Nor does his family these days. Roy doesn't move from town to town in the fringe."

  Deaver knew something about how it felt when every bite you ate was somebody's charity, when you being alive at all was a favor other people did for you out of the goodness of their hearts. No wonder there was such a touch of anger always under the surface in this family, ready to lash out whenever something went even a little bit wrong.

  "And the thing that hurts worst about the way they treat us in these pitiful little towns is that we deserve it."

 
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