Excerpt from The Universe is a Very Big Place
Lanie stepped outside of the motel room, a steaming mug of coffee cupped between her hands. She took a sip, letting the drink sit in her mouth for a moment before swallowing. It was decaf but it was still pretty damned good.
Lanie inhaled deeply, breathing in the crisp, fall air. Autumn was the very best time of year to be a fortune teller. Even atheists and agnostics came around to have their cards read or their palms glanced over, come Halloween. Good thing, too. Her wig was fraying and she’d need a new one. Maybe something long and sleek this time. Something Cher.
"Morning, gorgeous," said Ernie, closing the door behind him. He was wearing jeans with holes in the knees and his knockoff Members Only jacket purchased at the Asian district in St. Paul. "Let’s get some pancakes before the girls wake up. I got something to show you."
Lanie followed leisurely behind her husband as he hustled to the Motel diner: The Blue Moose Café.
"Where we going to anyway?" she said as Ernie opened the door for her. The restaurant inside looked very much like any other restaurant Lanie had seen during her years on the road. Red booths and speckled tables, waitresses in outdated hairstyles, and a jukebox near the entrance that serenaded its guests with Johnny Cash. A few of the roadies whose names Lanie couldn’t remember nodded at them as they made their way towards the rear of the place.
"Flagstaff, Arizona, baby." Ernie said as he scooted into the booth. "Home of the Chipotle tribe. The greatest Indian warriors in all the country. More scalping per square foot there than anywhere else in America."
Lanie narrowed her eyes and leaned across the booth. "Let’s make a deal, Ernie. You save the shit for the customers and so will I."
Ernie grinned and snapped his fingers at a nearby waitress.
"So what do you want to show me?" Lanie asked after ordering her hotcakes with extra syrup and bacon. Ernie raised his eyebrows but kept his mouth shut and Lanie was tempted to kick him under the booth. He never gave up his dramatics, even when they were alone. Finally, he reached into his coat pocket and produced a bloated, white tube sock that clattered and clanged when he threw it on the table.
"Ta da! Once again the World’s Most Virile Man has come through for the woman he loves. Check this out." Ernest picked up the end of the tube sock and dumped the contents. Ten cent pieces scattered across the booth, some rolling into Lanie’s lap.
"You’re pilfering from the dime toss, Ernest?" Lanie couldn’t believe it. Ernie could be called a lot of things, but she had never thought of him as a crook. A crock but not a crook.
"What? It’s not like I’m stealing from the church bowl. These people don’t care what happens to their dimes once they toss them into the plates. The only thing they care about is whether or not they win the giant teddy bear. Why do you have to be so negative?" Ernie scooped up the dimes with his right hand and pushed them into his lap. The waitress returned with their breakfasts and gave Lanie a look that said she knew she was going to be paid in change and it wasn’t making her happy. Lanie returned the look with a helpless shrug.
"But what about Don? He okay with this?" Don was the owner of the show and had already threatened to give Ernie a booth at the far end of the midway––the worst possible place to have a booth––if he didn’t cut out his crap. This was Ernest’s fourth booth in the last six months.
"Pfft. I keep the books. It all balances out." Ernie took a bite and considered. "They expect us to take a cut. We’re carnies, Lanie. That’s what we do."
Lanie straightened up and looked at her husband. She was a gypsy. A witch. A prophetess. She was not a carnie. She finished her breakfast in silence and threw a five dollar bill on the table. "That will pay for mine," she said, rising with the dignity of a queen.
She left her husband staring, and a few of the roadies gossiping.
Lanie walked across the parking lot, weaving in and out of the parked trucks bearing the slogan "The Bob Cat Carnival Show." She waved hello to Maria, the Mexican woman in charge of one of the cotton candy stands who was pregnant with her seventh kid and couldn't find the daddies of the first six. Lanie took out her key and opened the door to room 133, the nicest room in the Blue Moose Motel.
Spring and Chloe were propped up on their elbows, watching The Smurfs on their shared double bed. Lanie huffed, wishing they would take advantage of the free HBO. She worked hard to give them nice things and they never appreciated it. "Time to go," Lanie said, turning off the television. "Take a spitz bath and put on your clothes. We can drive through the McDonald's and pick up Egg McMuffins on the way out of town."
Chloe jumped up and ran to her brown grocery store bag, digging for her favorite jeans. Spring quietly sat there, glaring accusingly at her mother. "But we just got here last night," she said. "I’m not going. I’m tired."
Lanie resisted the urge to roar. She wasn't going to get into this with the girl again. Instead, she grabbed Spring by the elbow and pulled her up onto the floor. "You’d think you’d be excited to see all these new places. Most little girls don’t get to sleep in a different room every night. You two are the luckiest little girls in the entire Universe. Right, Chloe?" Chloe nodded and lay on the bed, wriggling into her jeans. She had been making the rounds through the concession stands lately and Lanie hoped she would not need new pants any time soon. "Now hurry up. We have to hit Flagstaff before the snow."
"I hate the snow,” Spring mumbled. "When I grow up I’m living in a house where I sleep in the same bed every night and there is never, ever any snow."
"Be boring then,” Lanie said. “And see if I care."