Each new arrival to the growing crowd gawked up at Willy Two-Toes and posed similar questions to the one who had arrived only minutes sooner: “What's going on…Who said he could…What's he talking about…Lord, what's he up to now…”
Willy seemed oblivious to the people and their wonderments. He just continued painting the face of the billboard with short practiced strokes of the roller. Of course, he wasn't the subject of discussion, exactly.
It wasn't even 9 a.m. on a bright late winter's morning just south of Apache Flats' city limits and Hooter McCormick had already drawn an indignant crowd without even trying.
“As to what I'm up to, if it's anyone's business but mine and Willy's at this point,” began Hooter, “I'm test-marketing an idea that could very well place Apache Flats slap square in the middle of capitalistic revolution.”
The crowd gasped as Willy propelled himself away from the billboard, swinging himself in his harness from left to right.
“As to what this is,” continued Hooter, pointing up at the billboard, “That is an idea taking flight.”
For perspective, the billboard—about three-quarters finished—sported a woman's ruby lips, forming a suggestive pout. Below the lips were ebony black letter: “Home of the McMonster.” Above the lips were the outlines of letters that added up to: “Bet You Come Back for More!”
“As for who said I could do this, as you know, Peetie Womac happens to own the ground.”
Before anyone could assemble Hooter's explanation into something coherent, squealing tires and a blaring horn scattered the assembly as Nelda Isselfrick herded her Town Car off the road. “This is the end, and I bet I know who's responsible!” shouted Nelda through her window, even before she'd got it all the way down. “It's an outrage! Right here in our own town. Obscenity! Plastered 30 feet off the ground no less for all the world to see. Get that man of yours down here this instant or I'll, I'll…”
Another bleating horn, but from the pasture-side of the billboard. Aunt Pinkie's Mercury skittered to a stop, just missing one of the main supports, a cloud of dust catching up with her as she piled out, red-faced and scowling. That got Willy Two-Toes' attention.
“Hey! Have some respect; what's with all the dirt? Do I come over to your house and throw stuff around?” glowered Willy.
“That dirt's the least of your worries,” growled Aunt Pinkie. She popped the trunk and drug out a splintered but top-heavy axe. “If you don't get down here right now, once I'm finished with that abomination you've seen fit to inflict on us, I'll use it to take your scalp.”
That really got Willy's attention.
With a sound like a missed dally playing, “Follow those horns,” and searing flesh along the way, Willy repelled to the ground in an instant. He unhooked the harness, stomped over to Aunt Pinkie, jerked the axe from her hands: “Nobody, and I mean nobody, especially some prune-faced, pale-faced squaw had better ever say anything about my scalp.” He climbed on his Harley and gassed it across the prairie.
Now it was Hooter's turn to get mad. “Aunt Pinkie, now see what you've gone and done. Do you know how long it took me to get him down here from Amarillo?”
“You no-count little idgit, you tell me all about it when I get through this fence.”
As she struggled with the barbed wire and some of the gentlemen in the crowd tried to help, yet another vehicle rocketed forth from a rolling cloud of dust and skittered to a halt next to Aunt Pinkie's Merc. It was Peetie Womac's caddy, tumbleweeds, Mesquite branches and shattered Prickly Pear plastered to the chrome grill.
“What in the name of Sam Houston's going on?” shouted Peetie. “Lord, all these cars stacked up, it looks like we're fixing to have an auction. And what, what is this?” He gazed up the length of the billboard.
“Hooter, you got some explaining to do,” said Peetie. “You told me you wanted to stick up a for-sale sign, not this…this. Put it this way, I just got a call from the county sheriff's saying there'd been reports I was advertising some girly show.”
Only about half the crowd was listening. The others were watching and listening to Aunt Pinky, snagged astraddle the barbed wire and letting everyone know the consequences of them laying a hand on her.
“If you call trying to preserve hamburgers and an American tradition smut, then take me away,” said Hooter, grinning and holding out his hands, wrists limp and criss-crossed in mock surrender.
“Hamburgers!” roared Peetie, who once again was serving as the town's mayor of the week. “Everybody get these cars off the road. Head to Town Hall. We'll get to the bottom of this.”
Pinkie finally got herself extracted with a mighty yelp, then did three full rolls before stopping at the bottom of the bar-pit flat on her back. “What're you looking at,” she snarled.
Tornado in a Skillet
Town Hall was whatever building was large enough and available enough for the occasion at hand. Being Monday, that meant Delmar Jacob's old body shop. He didn't work on Mondays, although some speculated the same could be said about the other six days of the week, too.
“Well, go on, explain yourself,” said Peetie, once the crowd had found places to lean, sit and perch.
“Like I said, I'm simply trying to preserve an American institution,” said Hooter.
“Public indecency may be an institution in some parts of this depraved country, but it will not be one in Apache Flats, as long as I'm alive,” croaked Nelda Isselfrick, jaw set and arms folded on defiance.”
“Indeed,” echoed Aunt Pinkie.
“Order!” said Peetie. “There will be plenty of time for the hangin'. Continue, Hooter.”
“Well, it's like this,” said Hooter, pulling a tattered newspaper page from his back pocket. “Is there anything more American than a hamburger?”
A few subtle shakes of the head.
“And, do you reckon there's a story of success any more American than that of McDonald's and its golden arches, and a mom and pop joint growing to a global corporate giant, buying more beef than anyone else in every country they do business in?”
A few more clandestine motions of agreement.
“Why I bet that in his day even Ali Baba himself ordered up a few Happy Meals for the youngins at the Persian drive-thru.”
“Persia no longer exists,” piped up Nelda. She'd spent too many years teaching kids, Hooter included, to stay silent.
“Point is they've stood for what's right about America for lots of years. Now, I'm afraid they're caving into an element of society that's the least right thing about the American way.”
With a flourish he shook out the newspaper page and held it up. “McDonalds to Downsize Super-Size Menu,” said the headline.
“What's that got to do with your perversion on the highway?” demanded Nelda.
“Order,” said Peetie.
“First off, it's not perversion, and I'm getting to that,” said Hooter. Then his eyes twinkled with an irresistible thought. “Really, Nelda, you need to get your mind out of the gutter.”
“Why, I never…”gasped Nelda.
“That's not what old man Clarkson says,” chimed in Izzy.
“Order! Order! Decorum people, please some decorum,” said Peetie, banging an old paint can on a metal workbench. “Izzy, another crack like that and I'll have you removed. Same goes for you Nelda.”
“Well, I…” began Nelda before catching herself and glaring at Peetie.
“Look, it's like this,” said Hooter. “A bunch of lazy walruses too busy sitting on their haunches to do a decent days work team up with a bunch of cutthroat ambulance chasers too ignorant to make a decent living in the honest law, and next thing you know there's talk of suing hamburger joints for making people fat. Next thing you know McDonald's cancels their Super Sized stuff. How long before the other restaurants follow suit? How long before you can't buy a Coca-cola because a band of those idiots threatens to sue because it's causing an epidemic of tooth decay? Or they take Rice Crispies off the shelf, claiming the snap, crackle and pop is decimating the nation's hearing?”
Many in the crowd were openly nodding in agreement, now.
“Hooter, you're preaching to the choir. I doubt you'd find any disagreement in this room,” said Peetie. “But what does any of that have to with that billboard, that billboard on my very own land I might remind you.”
“Pure grass roots,” beamed Hooter. “It's a way of getting behind the folks who buy our product and supporting them to keep on doing what they've done all these years. Plus, how long you figure it will be until some folks get disgusted with all this activist nonsense and start hunting the biggest burgers they can find, in protest? Kind of like Prohibition turning folks who didn't care about alcohol one way or another into sure enough booze hounds in order to make a statement?”
“Go on, we're with you so far.”
“Well,” continued Hooter, “I got Jackson to agree to rename his Buckle Buster the McMonster, and add a quarter-pound to it. He's going to start serving it today.”
“And the billboard, I mean the way you're depicting all of this?”
“Oh that. I just told Willy Two-Toes the message I wanted conveyed, then left it up to him to figure out what was best.”
Nelda was just ready to begin lecturing about suggestive advertising when the door at the back of the shop opened. It was the new Circuit Preacher. “Sorry to interrupt, but it's going on lunch time and I saw the new hamburger ad on the highway. Where can I get one?”
“I rest my case,” said Hooter.