Friday, August 16, 2013

Thunder and Barbeque -- Part 1

Image by M.Minderhoud via Wikimedia commons
If there was one thing Corncob enjoyed, it was pumping gas. The way the gasoline kept the spigot's handle cool in the summer heat, the reassuring throbbing of fuel surging into the tank, and the heady vapors that reminded him of cut grass and, for some reason, licorice. Corncob glanced around the pump to make sure Michael was still inside the store and eased the spigot's latch back a notch. He closed his eyes and leaned against the car. He could fall asleep like this, he thought.
The pump shuddered and came to a stop with an unpleasant jolt.  Corncob sighed as he opened his eyes and put the spigot back in its cradle. He got back behind the wheel and hung onto the last moments of peace until the his partner slid into the passenger seat with his third extra-large coffee of the morning, slamming the door behind him
"What the hell is it with Oklahoma ?" Michael said.
"The heat? The oil wells? I'm sure I have no idea."
"It's the cowboys."
Corncob paused, thinking.
"They play in Texas, not Oklahoma, Michael."
"Not the Cowboys, the cowboys, Corncob. You know, Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, High Plains Drifter –"
"Oh, like Lonesome Dove."
"No," Michael said as he slammed his coffee into the cupholder, "Ow!" He sucked some coffee from his thumb. "Not that sentimental claptrap. I mean real manly-man cowboys."
"Brokeback Mountain?' Corncob pretended to check his blindspot so Michael couldn't see his smile.

"Gah! You know what that was? George Lucas."
"George Lucas."
"Yeah, Greedo fires first, and it's all downhill from there."
"You lost me."
"So in the orginal Star Wars..."
"Episode IV."
Michael spit out the window. "Yeah, that one.  Han Solo has the best entrance in the history of film, a classic. He shoots that bounty hunter, Greedo, with a blaster under the table, thereby setting him up as an unscrupulous, sneaky bastard for the rest of the film. So what does Lucas do years later? He messes with the classic and makes Greedo fire first. Totally ruins Han's character, and the guy has the chutzpah  to call it progress."
"What does that have to do with Brokeback Mountain?"
"Well if Lucas can screw up his own classic, what's to stop the rest of Hollywood? And where does Tinseltown start?"
"Cowboys?" Corncob said.
"Damn straight," Michael said.
"Or not, in the case of Brokeback Mountain."
Michael stared at him for a moment, shook his head and turned away to look out his window.
"So what is it about cowboys and Oklahoma that's got your undies in a bunch?" Corncob said, turning onto the street.
"Think Louis L'Amour: tall, tough men on horseback with Stetsons on their heads and pistols on their hips."
"Okay, so?"
"So everyone around here fancies themselves a cowboy. They have the jeans, the boots, the western shirts, and yes, even the Stetsons. But they go around driving pristine diesel pickups, beer guts hanging over gaudy belt buckles, and wearing iPhones clipped to their belts."
"Bursts your bubble, does it?"
"And those are the most convincing. The others are skinny teens in used Hondas faking their way with pathetic mustaches and hats that swallow their heads."
"We could go back home if this is going to distract you," Corncob said.  "We can tell Mister Mortimer that we couldn't find our mage."
"Or witch," Michael added. "Nah, let's just find our marks, deliver the warning, and get out of here before it starts raining."
Corncob looked at the clear sky. "Looks fine to me."
"That's because we have a coven of mages running around, drawing attention to themselves."
"I thought covens were only for witches."
"Whatever. All the brotherhood knows is there's been about five years of subtle stuff, like keeping this town's rainfall right at the state average when all around is drought, a couple tornados veering left or right to miss the town, the kind of stuff that makes the meterologists scratch their heads, but they're never right anyway, so who cares?"
"The brotherhood," Corncob said.
"It makes them wonder, that's for sure. But it could just be coincidence. Weather is a tricky thing, even for mages. So they decide to wait and see what happens, and now something has."
"The opposite. Storms intensify, tornados veer towards the town like it's a giant trailer park. "
"Maybe it's God's way of evening things out."
Michael gave Corncob and incredulous stare. "Cornelius, don't go around ascribing the unknown to divine will when it can be explained perfectly well by magic. It makes you look like a superstitious peasant."
Corncob shrugged and drove on.

Corncob pulled up in front of the clubhouse and eyed the shiny Mercedes in the next spot over.
"Don't ding his door," Michael said with a smile. "They'll repossess this clunker and then some."
"That's not funny," Corncob said.
"Hey, we're doing him a favor parking here. It makes his car look that much better."
They got out and walked into a lobby filled with dark oak furniture upholstered in red leather. It reminded Corncob of the supper clubs and midrange steak houses his family visited when he was a kid. At the time, he thought it the height of opulence. Today, it just looked old and sad.  A man in a yellow golf shirt and navy slacks waved at them from behind a counter.
"Help you boys?"
Michael smiled and leaned against the counter.
"Here to sign up for the festivities," he said.
"Sprit of the West Fest? Sure." He rummaged behind the counter and brought out a plastic binder.  "What events?"
Michael hooked a thumb over his shoulder. "He's cooking, I'm racing."
"Right," the man said. He shuffled though some papers and handed a bundle to Michael and fished two golf pencils from a box near the register. "Just fill these out and return them with the entry fees."
"Michael," Corncob said, but was cut off as Michael grabbed his arm and led him to a table.
"They have two events that fit our needs perfectly," Michael said. "A barbeque competition and a five-kilometer race."
"I don't know how to cook much more than nachos and hot dogs," Corncob said.
"Hot dogs? Well there you go!" Michael said. "Can't be all that hard, especially once you convince the equipment to do what you want."
"But we don't have a grill."
"That's the beauty of it! This is a stock smoker competition. They make everyone use the same smoker, which they provide. Probably a business write-off scam, if you ask me. But we don't have to worry about that angle."
"Mm-hmm. And this race? Can you even make it five miles?"
"Kilometers, Corncob, it's a lot shorter. And I used to run track in high school." He slapped his thighs. "I made it to the state finals my senior year in the four hundred. I'm a bit rusty, but I think I'll manage."
"Let's just hope there's not a headwind," Corncob murmured.
Michael filled out their paperwork and handed it back to the man behind the counter.
"Wonderful," the man said. "And your fees?"
Michael elbowed Corncob and jerked his head. Corncob sighed and reached for his wallet.
"So the barbeques are all stock?" Corncob said.
"Yessir, all stick-fed counterflows."
Corcob frowned as he handed over the money. "I see. I've never used one of those before."
The man behind the counter laughed. "Don't worry, fella. I dare say even those that have used counterflow smokers won't have any advantages with these. Tricky buggers, they are."
Corncob winced as Michael 's slap caught him on the shoulder. "No problem, there ain't a contraption on the face of the earth my buddy can't figure out inside of five minutes."
The man shrugged. "Best of luck anyway, fellas. See y'all tomorrow."

"So what do you think? Can you work one of these things?" Michael said the next morning.
"I will in a second," Corncob said.
Corncob pressed a hand to the blackened metal and concentrated. A minute later, he removed the hand with a puzzled look on his face.
"What is it?" Michael said.
"Nothing," Corncob said. "So what should I do?"
"Keep your eyes open for anyone looking like one of our kind. From what I read, these guys have to operate over a large area to make anything happen.  Once you get your barbeque started, roam around and mingle, check out the park for anything odd."
Corncob eyed the smoker. "But what if something happens to my pork roast and brisket while I'm away? Can't you do the recon?"
"I have to race the five-kay," Michael said. "The race winds through most of the town. Between us, we'll have the town covered. We're not here to win anything, understand? If your meat burns, it burns. Call it a sacrifice to the barbeque gods. Who  cares?"
As Michael walked away, Corncob frowned at his back. Michael ate (or drank) whatever was in front of him. Corncob felt that on some level, food was meant to be enjoyed, not wasted or burned. He rubbed his paunch and hoped that he wouldn't embarrass himself.

At the head of the starting line, surrounded by racers, a woman stood with a microphone.
"How y'all doing today?" she said in a warm and confident voice.  The crowd clapped and cheered. "Well that's just fantastic! Now before we can begin, the organizers would like me to go over a few little rules." She rolled her eyes and gave the crowd a wink.
Michael felt a flutter in his chest.  "Who is that?" he asked a runner next to him.
"Valerie Harris," he said. "Used to be on the local news as the weather girl."
Valerie began covering the race instructions, smiling and making eye contact with nearly everyone.
"Used to be?" Michael said.
"Yeah, she held on for over twenty years until they finally replaced her with someone prettier."
Michael didn't see how that could be, he could have stared at Valerie all day. Her movements and gestures were all anchorwoman, yet somehow natural. Flirtatious even.
"Tough break," Michael said.
"Not really. She was wrong most of the time, but no one seemed to mind. I think the boob job and aerobics classes helped. Then the station went high-def and no one could ignore the wrinkles. Now she just does PR and some old-ladies' show before the soap operas."
It was too bad, Michael thought. Valerie had a presence like a single-malt scotch; she deserved better than being underappreciated in the middle of Oklahoma.
"... and best of luck!" Valerie said. She stepped down and disappeared behind the runners gathering at the starting line.
A man in a Stetson took her place and raised a shining six-shooter in the air.
"Runners ready! Three–Two–One..."
The gun went off with a boom rather than the typical starter pistol's crack. Michael wouldn't have been surprised if the yokel was using a live round.
"Cowboys," he muttered . As he passed the starting line, he caught a glimpse of Valerie.
She seemed to be smiling at him.

Corncob hadn't sworn at an inanimate object in years though he was close to ending the streak.
No matter what he did to the smoker, the temperate kept rising. Closing the vents didn't help, opening the lid made flames shoot from the firebox. Corncob couldn't talk to the unit anymore with his gift, the steel sides were too hot to touch with a bare hand. He got the sense that the smoker was angry, but that didn't make sense. Machines as a rule enjoyed their own function. Cars liked to drive, clocks liked to measure the day, egg beaters loved nothing more than spinning around a bowl. It wasn't like an emotional state of giddiness, more like zen assurance that one was doing exactly the right thing in the world. For a smoker to be angry just seemed odd.
Fortunately for him, it seemed that he wasn't the only one having problems, gauging from the faces of his competitors. Furrowed brows, heads gathered in muttered conferences, cursing, and overt threats were all coming from the pits. Corncob cracked open his smoker's lid and stuck a stick near the hinge to keep it from closing all the way. He eyed the firebox, waiting for sparks. Corncob chewed on the inside of his cheek as smoke poured out like a curtain. How much flavor could he afford to lose? How much heat could his pork shoulder tolerate before it turned into a meteorite?
An older couple stopped by his table. The woman wore an oversized t-shirt featuring a pig in a chef's hat. Below the pig, it read 'I'm one smokin' Grandma!'  Her husband removed a straw cowboy hat and wiped at his brow.
"How goes it?" the woman asked.
"I don't know," Corncob said, nodding at the smoker, "this thing is giving me fits."
 "I don't know why they chose those rigs for y'all," she said, "They're probably Chinese counterfeits. My friend Lauren thought she got a great deal on one of those iPhone things, and it fell apart the day after she got it in the mail. Turned out to be a fake, isn't that right, Ronald? Don't you think it was one of those Chinese counterfeits?"
Her husband shrugged as he fanned himself with the cowboy hat. "Did you pick this spot to set up yourself?"
"They assigned me to this spot," Corncob said, "Everything was here this morning when I showed up."
Ronald shook his head. "Well then whoever thought scattering the pits all over hell's half acre like this oughtta be shot."
"Has the competition always been set up this way?" Corncob said.
"No sir," Ronald said, "Last few years they set up near the pavilion over there and had rides for the kids out here. Last year, the city cut the budget and this is what we get. They must think they can fool us into thinking the festival is bigger by spreading everyone out like this. Time to vote the bums out of office, I say."
Politics always made Corncob feel queasy. He didn't know what to say, so he just smiled.
"Come on, Ronald," his wife said. "Turpentine Tom's pit is just over there." She nodded at Corncob. "Happy smoking, son."
Ronald placed the cowboy hat on his head and rubbed at his chest. "Fine. I'll like as not get the big one walking over there, though."

Michael's gums felt like they were bleeding. His lungs couldn't take in enough air. The other racers flowed around him with a mix of too cheerful shouts of encouragement, muttered oaths, and one 'what's wrong with you?' Though he hadn't thought he could run his normal racing pace from high school, he couldn't manage even his old warmup pace. It was disheartening; only a third of the way into the 5K, and his second wind had evaporated.

     He could have blamed his gear: mismatched socks, flat-souled running shoes whose black and white colors had conspired to meld into a dirty gray, or his (newly) cut-off jean shorts. Maybe it was any one of these things or a combination, but deep down Michael knew that it was his body failing him. Maybe he had failed his body. Years of alcohol and cigarettes had burned his muscles away, leaving only enough left to walk across a store parking lot before fatigue set in.

     Michael distracted himself by trying to figure out what madman had designed the race course. He had started at the edge of the city limits, ran down the highway a few hundred feet before taking a sharp left turn into a bank's drive-through lane. They all hopped the curve and continued on weaving between farm machinery on a dealer's back lot. From there they had all followed back streets, alleyways, and across lawns, following blaze-orange flags stuck into the ground every 50 feet. Maybe the intent was to give the community a feeling of participation, but it made no sense.

     Worse, it looked like it was going to rain.He wondered if the rogue mages had something against the race, or knew he and Corncob were in town, because a rising thunderhead thousands of feet high like a cobra with elephantitis was bearing down on the town, seemingly materializing from a clear sky.  Coils of rain swept to the ground, promising a good soaking to anyone caught outside when it reached town. There was big magic at work, but where?
He knew large-scale weather magic needed a lot of area and at least a dozen or more mages, warlocks, or witches depending on their abilities. The average storm threw millions of tons of air and water into chaos over a hundred square miles. Fighting storms required organization, a source of energy, and a focal point large enough to handle the mystic forces but small enough to control. In this town, the signs should have been obvious, but nothing stood out.
Michael would have to think about it more after the race, assuming he was in any condition to do so when he finished. He slowed down to a walk, gulping air. A whirring behind him made him turn, and he found a beaming Valerie Harris riding down the street on a golf cart. He noticed her white tennis shorts showed off legs that looked twenty years younger.
"Keep going there, partner! It's not much farther!" Valerie said.
Michael forced a grin and started running. He would wait until she passed before he slowed down again.
"You're at the back of the pack, partner," she said.
Michael gave a little shrug and kept running. "S'okay...Don't....mind."
If anything, her smile brightened. Michael struggled to keep his pace.
"Well aren't you just filled with the Spirit of the West! You know what? I'll just stay right here . We can finish together!"
Michael groaned to himself and wondered if Valerie knew CPR. He might need it before long.

          Corncob touched the air vent on the smoker a fraction of an inch, then headed over to his table and dumped a bucket of water over his head. Between the reek of smoke in his clothes and standing next to a three-hundred-degree smoker in high humidity, he almost welcomed the dark clouds coming. The only bright spot was that he managed to balance out the temperamental smoker's heat and smoke enough that he might just turn in passable barbeque.
As far as he could tell by looking around, there weren't any mages, warlocks, witches, incantors, or any other sort of magic-user around, just a bunch of barbeque heads, festival goers, and stressed-out barbeque chefs. He wondered how Michael was faring.
A golf cart driven by forty-something woman dressed in a white tennis outfit was weaving her way through the pits. People waved at her as she passed. When she got closer, Corncob adjusted her age to fifty-something. He wondered if she was an actress or someone who had oil money to spend on a plastic surgeon. He bet Michael would have a few snide comments to make, people like her set him off. It was just as well he wasn't around, because she stopped at his pit.
"Are you Mister Corncob?"
"Yes ma'am."

"I'm afraid something terrible has happened to your friend Michael. They just took him to the hospital in an ambulance."

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