Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Skywriting with King Tut down at the Little Egypt

a short story by Erin O'Brien

The pyramid was my favorite thing. It was built out of concrete block, so it was steps all the way up and easy to climb. From the top, I'd look down at the Little Egypt all around and feel like I was floating above the earth. I could stay up there crouched on the rough steps forever, but someone always yelled at me to get down way too soon.

I stared out the window at the faded sign as we pulled into our regular spot. It said, "Little Egypt Drive-In," in fat script letters. Next to that were four ancient Egyptians in headdresses. They were different from the ones in a library book because they had big cartoon smiles and they were sitting in an old-fashion cartoon car. Then there was the movie list and underneath that it said, "Flea Market Every Wednesday and Saturday, 7 am to 2 pm."

The Little Egypt had been there forever. Would it really get mowed over and replaced by a self-storage in a few days? The paper said that the Community Preservation group was trying to save the Little Egypt, that drive-in theatres were becoming extinct. They told that to a judge. It didn't make any difference, though. Demolition was to start the very next Tuesday.

Aunt Phyllis threw the station wagon into park. "Let's get moving, Dolly," she said, "It's nearly six thirty."

Aunt Phyllis was the only one in my family who ignored my real name, Evie, and called me Dolly. "You're so petite and with all that blond hair, you're my little Dolly Parton," she'd say. I told Aunt Phyllis that I didn't want to be Dolly Parton. She said everyone wanted to be Dolly Parton and that I'd understand when I grew up.

"Today will be our finest day," she said. "Labor day weekend always brings the biggest crowd and the kind of people who are least likely to try and talk you down."

I loved Aunt Phyllis.

Her toenails were always painted and she wore halter-tops and had long red hair. She was single, but not divorced single like Mom and Aunt Ginnie. Her apartment was above the Shear Deelite Hair and Body Salon where she worked as a manicurist. When I stayed overnight, she would put my hair in curlers and let me stay up late and watch R movies.

Aunt Phyllis pulled the folding table from the back of the station wagon. "You set up the folk arts, Dolly," she said. "Then you can help me clean-up the ceramics and other stuff."

"Is there a lot?" I asked.

"Sure is," she said. "I went to twenty garage sales this week if I went to one."

There were only six folk arts left, two horse pictures, three bear by the stream pictures and one of the Indian chief overlooking the big rock canyon. I made sure the frames that Aunt Phyllis crocheted around the cardboard backing hung just right on the rack. I had three of the folk arts in my room. They were good to look at while you thought of things, like having your own horse, or seeing a real Indian chief if you were someplace big and natural out west.

"Hey, Aunt Phyllis," I said. "You think this will be enough?"

"Tell you the truth, Dolly," she said. "They haven't been moving so well this season."

I didn't say anything.

It was almost seven o'clock when the King got there. I was worried because more than a couple of people had eyed his usual spot. And if one of them had pulled in, no one could really say anything. As long as you paid your $15 table and display fee, you could set up anywhere. "More honest than church," Aunt Phyllis would say.

"Mornin' Dolly!" called the King from the window of his old primer-gray Astro van. "Labor day weekend, Phyllis. You and me gonna make five hundred dollars apiece and run away to Las Vegas."

"King, you keep saying that, maybe I'll start believing it."

"Now, Phyllis, darlin' you need to get you some righteous faith." He maneuvered into the spot, got out of the van and started shuffling around, setting up his rickety table and spreading out that tattered blanket for his vacuum cleaners. Then he stopped short and turned to Aunt Phyllis. "What time is it, darlin'?"

"Five after seven."

"Well shit-fire," he said. "I'd better get my headdress on."

"For one dollar and seventy-five cents, this egg beater would be the bargain of the century." The King picked it up and whipped the handle around. It made a clickety whirring sound. "This egg beater was the very egg beater used by one of French Paris's greatest chefs there ever was."

"That egg beater's just a regular egg beater." The lady took it from his hand. "I'll give you one dollar for it."

"One dollar twenty five," said the King.

Their eyes locked.

"I'd normally stop right there, old man, but the fact that you wearing that crazy hat erases part of my regular meanness. One dollar and a dime."

"And I'd normally put an end to this transaction right there, but the fact you been so forth right, and on account of it being the last day of the season, I'll accept the price of one dollar and ten cents for this egg beater."

The King could barter like no one else.

"Hey, King," I asked, "what are you going to do after the Little Egypt closes up?"

"Little Egypt's a regular historical landmark, Dolly," he said. "It's against the law to tear down a landmark."

I wanted to believe him.

It was more crowded than ever with tons of new shoppers. We were selling stuff at a good even pace. All eight angel figurines went for five dollars each and Aunt Phyllis cursed herself for not marking them ten. I sold a horse folk art to a lady who said it was for her daughter, who she said loved horses.

"I love horses too," I said. "I'm going to be a vet one day."

"Here's an extra dollar for being so polite and well-mannered," she said. I took it on account of earning it for being polite. I'd never take charity.

Right then, a huge boom roared overhead.

I caught my breath like everyone else and snapped my head up to see. It was a race plane, part of the air show that was being staged downtown. People pointed and squinted.

And for once, King Tut was doing the same thing as everybody else.

I first learned about the King's fixation with airplanes when he told me the headdress story about the prince he'd met while in the Service overseas.

"The prince lived in a great palace bigger than the airport," the King told me. "And he had a hundred wives and five hundred children."

"I'll bet he was sure tired all the time," I said.

The King laughed. "That's right, Dolly."

"And that palace must have been a busy place."

"With all those wives and children, that prince could hardly think," he said. "You should have heard the racket the lot of them made."

"Did he have a room full of treasure?"

"Oh, Dolly, you sure are smart," said the King. "He did have a room full of treasure, sure he did."

"Aren't you going to tell me all about it?" I asked.

"You don't want to hear about some old room full of treasure, now, do you?"

"Come on and tell me, King," I said. "Come on."

"You won't tell no one, will you?" he said.

"No sir."

"You promise?"

"Yes sir."

"When the prince opened the door to that treasure room, there was the beautifulest light I'd ever seen glowing from the walls. They were each one a different shade of crystal and they sent out a dazzling light that was fit proper for heaven.

It danced and bounced off everything in that treasure room. And, oh, Dolly," the King swallowed and closed his eyes and right then, he looked a lot younger than he usually did, "what was in that room could bring tears to the eyes of a saint. There were garlands of rubies there, Dolly, and emeralds and diamonds—lots of diamonds—and there were shimmering fine gold chains and there were goblets too. Some were silver and some were gold. One was solid jade."

"Was it green?" I asked.

"It was the deepest green a person could ever imagine. And it was big enough that a giant could put his whole fist in it and still have room to work his knuckles. And it was filled with pearls, Dolly. Huge pearls of all different colors. Pink and white and black pearls, just spilling out of that jade goblet. And I'll bet you'll never guess what was right next to it."

"What it a jewel-encrusted sword?" I'd read that in a book.


"A bolt of precious silk?" I'd read that too.

"No, but that sure is a good guess."

"An ivory chest full of gold coins?" I came up with that on my own.

"Nope," he said.

"I can't think of what else there would be," I said. The King waited and blinked in order to bubble up the tension.

"Right next to that goblet," he said, "sitting there like it was made for me was this very Egyptian Royal Headdress that I'm wearing right now."

"Really?" I looked at it with renewed respect.

"And that prince turned to me and said, 'George, you take anything of mine you'd like. Anything.' I said, 'Why prince, I can't do that.' 'Please,' he said to me, 'it would do my heart good.' So guess what I took, Dolly."

"You took that hat."

"Headdress, girl," he said, slapping at a mosquito on his neck. "How many times I gotta tell you? It's a headdress, not some simple old hat."

"And you took that headdress?"

"That's right."

After hearing his big story, that that weird beaded cloth thing on top of his head did look like something unusual, something special. "Can I touch it?" I asked.

"Well, all right," he said, "as long as you're real real careful. I don't let just anyone touch my headdress."

As I reached my hand up, something broke the spell and the King's face turned upward. He took my wrist gently and stared up at the sky, his mouth agape. It was an airplane that transfixed him. He stood up and didn't look away until the plane dwindled down to a speck then disappeared all together. Then the King plopped back down into his dirty plastic lawn chair. He looked small and old and hurt and sad and that headdress that had mesmerized me a minute before would have been more at home on a lamppost.

"I'm looking out for my boy--my son," he finally said in a tired voice. "I've always got to keep an eye out for my boy, Dolly. He's a skywriter you know."

And if there was ever a time when King Tut was telling the truth, it was right then.

It was an unspoken rule that everyone selling at the flea market would tune their radio to WHLK Oldies 95. That way the people shopping would be in a pleasant atmosphere. "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was playing as I walked to refreshment stand and the weem-a-wops followed me as I passed by the cars and vans and pick-up trucks.

"Why it's the little Dolly!"

It was the scary guy with the movies and collectible magazines. Aunt Phyllis said his magazines had nothing to do with collecting and that was the reason they were in plastic sleeves with pieces of white paper covering most of the fronts. I gave him a nod and stepped up my pace. I hated the movie guy with his oily hair and tobacco-chew spit. "Dolly?" he called again, but I acted like I didn't hear and ran over to Billy and Mrs. Billy's stand.

"Here comes Dolly," said Mrs. Billy.

"Dolly?" said Mr. Billy, "What's that I see?" He reached around the side of my head and pulled a chocolate dinner mint from behind my ear, the rectangle kind in the green foil wrappers.

"Thanks, Mr. Billy," I said. I loved those mints.

"You don't have to thank me, Dolly," he said. "That confection was peeking right out of your ear. I just retrieved it for you."

"Take a handful of mints for your pocket," said Mrs. Billy. "We got a whole box of cartons fell off the truck."

Billy and Mrs. Billy sold stuff that fell off the truck Mr. Billy drove for a restaurant supply company (Aunt Phyllis told me the stuff didn't really fall off the truck, but to just go on and act like it did). Today they had gallon cans of ketchup lined up in a perfect row, then boxes of the dinner mints in front of that and hundred pound sacks of flour piled on the ground.

"Sure is an amazing thing, Mrs. Billy," I said.

"What's that, punkin?"

"That those sacks of flour didn't bust when they fell off the truck." Then I smiled so she'd know I wasn't some dummy.

Mrs. Billy laughed at that and started to say something, but the sound of the airplanes overhead was too loud. There were seven of them flying really fast and close to one another. Billy nudged Mrs. Billy and pointed over at King Tut. He was on top his van watching the planes with one hand shading the sun.

"Probably looking for that so-called skywriter son of his again," said Mr. Billy.

"Crazy old junk-picker," said Mrs. Billy.

"Well thanks for the mints," I said.

"Take a few more, Dolly," said Billy. "For Phyllis's sweet tooth and for that crazy old man."

I bought my Pharaoh fries and Coke and took them to the playground, which was right up against screen number one. I sat on a swing—making sure not to get the splintered one—and watched the other kids. They laughed and ran and went around the merry-go-round that dipped so bad on one side it barely cleared the ground. They slid down the slide and played on the chipped plaster camel.

Then I saw a girl from school.

Denise Warner was wearing a matching short set and white shoes. Her mom looked like the lady on the Betty Crocker boxes and carried a neat leather purse tucked under her arm. Her daddy's shirt was the brightest yellow I'd ever seen. They were walking down the aisle right next to the playground.

I sprang off the swing so fast I spilled my coke all down my front. I didn't even stop to pick up my cup and napkins. All I could think was: hide quick.

I watched from between the wood support beams of the movie screen as Denise stopped and pulled at her mom's arm and pointed at the playground. Denise's mom shook her head "no." Denise pulled again and her mom yelled something. Denise stamped her foot, then shuffled off behind her parents, who had already started walking away.

"Go over to the playground?" said Aunt Phyllis when I got back. I nodded. "Something wrong Dolly?"

I shook my head. "You sure?" I nodded and fiddled with the miniature spoons. "Okay baby," she said, unconvinced. The crowd started to thin.

I should have been happy. It had been our best day all summer. But even $32 (my ten percent) couldn't stop the bulldozers. Saturday mornings from now on would mean stale Captain Crunch and reruns on Nickelodeon. I hunkered down on the tailgate of the station wagon and started picking bits of rust from a flaky hole in the metal.

"Hi, Evie."

I looked up, startled. No one at Little Egypt called me Evie. "Hi Denise," I said.

Denise's mom looked at me and at Aunt Phyllis and at Aunt Phyllis's purse--a gigantic macramé bag that sat open next to me with the lipsticks and cigarette packs and candy wrappers in plain view. She gave us a tight-lipped smile and picked up one of the folk arts.

"This a friend of yours, Dolly?"

"Denise, this is my Aunt Phyllis," I said. "She calls me Dolly."

"Oh," said Denise. "Hi."

"The craft items are going for the special half price of two dollars and fifty cents for any friend of Dolly's," she said.

Denise's mom set it down and hitched her purse up on her shoulder. "They are lovely," she said, "but I'm afraid they're not for us."

She'd set the folk art back crooked and instead of looking like an important picture of an Indian chief, it looked like a piece of preprinted fabric glued onto cardboard with some yarn fringe.

And Aunt Phyllis's toenail polish was chipped. Her high-heeled sandals were scuffed.

There was me with my Coke stain, frayed cut-off shorts and dirty sneakers.

"How's about this for a pose!" boomed King Tut.

"One more, King!" said a man with tons of camera stuff. "For tomorrow's paper." King Tut had his head to one side and his hands at right angles to his wrists, like he was trying to imitate an Egyptian hieroglyphic.

But what Denise saw, what I saw, was a silly old man with a beer belly and a sequined towel on his head with a bunch of cruddy junk vacuum cleaners all around him posing for a newspaper picture that would have him looking like a fool.

Denise's mom cleared her throat and said, "Nice meeting you."

"Bye, Evie."

"Bye Denise."

It was time to start packing up. Aunt Phyllis brushed the hair from my forehead. "Aw, Dolly," she said and hugged my shoulders. "I know, baby. I know."

I wanted to cry, but I didn't.

I was moping and gathering the unsold merchandise when the stranger came over to us. "Twenty dollars," he said.

"Excuse me?" said Aunt Phyllis.

"I'll give you twenty dollars for the rest of your items," he said. "I'm a dealer."

The stranger studied a commemorative plate of U. S. Route 20 that we'd had since the middle of July.

Aunt Phyllis looked at it too and I knew she was going to give it all up. "Twenty, you say?"

"For everything left here on the table," he said, then looked at the folk arts. "You can keep the handcrafts."

Aunt Phyllis snorted a laugh that wasn't happy at all. "Twenty five," she said.

"Deal," he said.

I walked around to the front of the car, not wanting to watch the rest of it.

A flash of anger started at the top of my head and tore through me like lightening. I kicked the tire of the station wagon as hard as I could. Tears stung my eyes. I sat down on the hot vinyl of the front seat, took off my shoe and rubbed my foot. At least no one saw my dumb tire kicking.

"Dolly," came Aunt Phyllis's voice from the tailgate, "bring the cooler around and get yourself a paper cup from the glove compartment."

I brought the cooler out and sat down. Aunt Phyllis pulled out a beer. It opened beneath her fingernail with a ffFFFFfft. "Don't tell your mother," she said as she poured some into the Dixie cup and handed it to me.

"Hey, King," said Aunt Phyllis, "I got two more cold beers and damn if one of them doesn't have your name on it."

"Don't mind if I do."

And then they appeared.

Five planes flying in parallel, probably part of the air show. The King was watching them like an eagle, but Aunt Phyllis and I looked once and didn't pay any more attention, we just sipped our beer and kicked at the gravel.

"Look," said the King.

The exhaust smoke coming out the back of those planes was starting and stopping in a specific pattern. I couldn't believe it.

"Let's go a little ways up the pyramid and watch," said Aunt Phyllis.

"Fine idea," said the King.

"I'll carry the beer," she said.

We didn't climb to the top or even halfway, but it didn't matter, we were still floating higher above the earth than that rusty tailgate could lift us.

The smoke took up form. First came an E, then a V, big huge letters, hanging there in the blue, blue sky.

"I'll be damned."

"Would you look at that."

"This is beautiful, what I'm seeing."

When they finally finished, I would have bet that lettering spanned five miles across the sky.

EVERGREEN LAWNS 216 555 7698

"Doesn't change the fact that the first two letters of your very own name are written in the sky," said Aunt Phyllis. The King nodded.

Pretty soon the first E was no more than a wisp and it wouldn't be long before the rest would disappear. The smell of gasoline drifted in the air. The sun shone hot and yellow. The last sip of beer was bitter and awful and wonderful.

The way I felt.

I couldn't touch these things or keep them. It didn't matter. They were mine forever.

This story first appeared in Santi: Lives of Modern Saints, 2007 Black Arrow Studio and Press. It was inspired by the Memphis Triple Drive-In.

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Anonymous said...

Hiya Mz E-Not finished with this yet, already love it.

'Egypt'=>'Memphis' is lovely.


Sean Craven said...

Very nice. It would have made it into my magazine!

Erin O'Brien said...

Thanks so much for reading and commenting, gents.