There are those in this world who visit old acquaintances and those who get visited. Hooter was one of the latter. Squeak Jablowski was one of the former.
“Lord, you're a sight for sore blinkers,” said Squeak, sipping the iced tea Hooter had served up.
“You too, Squeak,” said Hooter filling his glass again. “What's it been, 10 years, 15? Me and everybody else lost track of you.”
Squeak gazed out the window, searching for the past, then shuddered like he'd
“I just had to leave it all behind, Hooter. I didn't plan to just run off, but
I knew unless I broke clean, I'd be right back there; my nerves wouldn't have
Squeak was alluding to his former lives, first as a would-be bull rider, then
as a pretty fair yet reluctant rodeo clown. The reluctance was borne by the
fact that Squeak turned deathly terrified of bucking bulls. The clown part
was one of those instances of everything going exactly right and horribly wrong
at the same time.
He was never the bravest of riders, but he held his own until one of his best
friends and roadmates barely survived a trampling. Within two months of that
Squeak was so scared that he'd pitch his cookies at least twice before climbing
on. Soon as the gate opened he was looking for a way off, which led to a couple
of dandy wrecks. The end came when his hand froze so tightly to the back of
the chute in Silver City that it took hot oil and a pry bar to get him loose.
Squeak turned the bull out, then he huddled behind the chute and cried like
rotten water hose.
As fate would have it, one of the clowns got banged up during that same performance.
The call went out for some extra help during slack. Squeak's buddies figured
it might help him get his nerve back if he could spend some time in the arena
with the bulls without being on top of them. Long story, short, Squeak made
his debut that night. Always agile and wiry, he found that he had a new gear
fueled by fear. He was the perfect decoy to keep the bull occupied while the
other fighters tended to the hung-up rider.
Then he just disappeared.
Balloons and Rubber Chickens
“Well, I can sure understand a feller needing to get away,” said Hooter. “I reckon I've done that a time or two myself. But how did you stay so invisible? None of us had any idea where you'd gone.”
Squeak plucked a business card from his shirt pocket and handed it to Hooter. “Squeaky the Clown—Tomorrow's
Stars Preeminent Entertainer.”
“You're a clown?” grinned Hooter. “A real honest-to goodness clown?”
“Well, I always liked magic tricks,” said Squeak, spooning yet another hefty spoonful of sugar into his almost empty glass. “I always liked kids, and I always liked a crowd.”
“What this tomorrow's stars stuff?” wondered Hooter, squinting at the card.
Squeak related his evolution from a kiddy clown and balloon artist, to a barely passable table magician to his current standing as the must-have entertainer for the children of Austin and San Antonio's most well-heeled.
“It turned out that at one the parties one of the guests was the son of a well
known Texas legislator. There was something about the way I exploded a rubber
chicken that just sent that kid to the moon. Next thing you know, his daddy is
calling me to do a show for his kids and their friends; most of their parents
being at least minor celebrities. Then those kids' folks would call. Next thing
you know…” Squeak pointed to the card.
“Congratulations,” said Hooter, and he meant it. “Sounds like you went off and
made something big out of yourself.”
“Not many folks get flown to an exclusive resort to perform a routine with whoopee cushions,” laughed Squeak. “I
enjoy it. But about a year ago I found myself wanting to become something more.
I was becoming more interested in magic. I started reading lots more and traveling
to interview folks about the greatest magicians in the world, people like David
Devant and Howard Thurston. I started putting together my own magic show, not
for kids, but for grown-ups. That's why I'm here. I mean, besides seeing you.”
“What have I got to do with it?”
“I've got the show put together, but I need to construct some of the tricks,
and I need to practice. I need to present it to some audiences to get the bugs
worked out,” explained Squeak. “I remembered you mentioning one time that the
folks around here were always interested in having some kind of entertainment
pass through. And I got to thinking this might be the perfect spot to try it
out. It would all be free, of course. I just need some audience feedback.”
Hooter refilled their glasses. “Feedback is one of the things we do best around here, whether anyone wants any or not,” said Hooter. “Where do I fit in?”
“You know everybody around and what facilities are available. I need a manager to help me pull it together. And I'll pay,” said Squeak, hopefully.
“Oh, you wouldn't have to do that. How much time are we talking?” asked Hooter
with only half-hearted conviction. Between the drought and some unanticipated
breakdowns, his budget was tighter than a rusted hinge in the winter time.
“Hooter, if it's not you, I'll be paying somebody else. Besides needing the help,
I need the expenses. Like I said before, I'm making plenty.”
Hooter thought about it. “I tell you what, I'll do my best for you. We get all said and done, if I've been of some use, just pay me what you think it was worth.”
“Deal,” said Squeak.
P.T Barnum Would Be Proud
Securing a workshop was easy. Squeak was barely out of the drive heading back to Austin for is gear, when Hooter headed to see Delmar Jacobs. Between his fascination with engineering and chemistry, not to mention one of the most successful moonshine operations in three counties, Hooter knew that Delmar had more hidey holes on his place than a paranoid rat terrier.
“Sh, Sh, Sh…yes,” slurred Delmar when Hooter asked him is he and Squeak could set up shop at his place. “I can make things disap—diasapp—diiiisap---go poof, too,” grinned Delmar, waving to a pile of empty bottles.
Figuring out a theater for Squeak's coming performances was another matter. For
one thing, there weren't a lot of choices. For another, the most obvious choices
were either too small or too large for the purpose. The kind of magical entertainment
Squeak had in mind was for an audience of 30 or so at a time.
Finally, Hooter remembered the old Thayer place. Its eerie but perpetual presence
on the North side of town had rendered it almost invisible. When people did
remember to look at it they looked away as quickly as possible.
It was one of those rambling three-story affairs with peeling paint, overgrown trees and shrubs and the look of eternal vacancy. Broken shutters rode the breeze, clacking and scratching against the house. By night, the silhouette of dead branches grew from the roof like a bad haircut. The rusted gate opened onto a broken and buckled sidewalk, which led to a rickety porch with missing boards. In short, the old Thayer Place was Apache Flats own haunted house. At least those were the rumors.
As such, Hooter knew if he could figure out a room that would work for Squeak,
and how to put it in shape to host an audience, the town would be buzzing.
No matter how good or bad Squeak's show proved to be, Hooter knew people's
morbid curiosity about the Thayer Mansion—he was already playing with the words—would keep the place packed.
It wasn't so much that a sucker was born every minute, as P.T. Barnum said. It
had to do with another of the legendary showman's observations: “More
persons on the whole, are humbugged by believing in nothing, than by believing
…To be continued