A FAIR TO REMEMBER
An original fanfic
TaleSpin and its characters are the property of Buena Vista Television/Walt Disney Co. The rest of the non-TaleSpin characters are created by me, and may not be used without permission. As usual, my deepest gratitude to Ted for his fabulous AND honest feedback and support. A big thank you to Cody for reading the drafts I was unsure of, and Dan, for letting me use a reference from one of his fics in this chapter). (Rated PG for mild coarse language and occasional violence.)
As Joanna and Baloo were leaving the fairgrounds, they passed the near-empty pavilion where the band had played. Strummer was alone on the stage, absently tuning his guitar. At the sound of their voices, he looked up; then he gaped after them in hurt amazement.
Joanna asked, “So… where are we going?”
“I dunno,” he admitted. “I ain’t a fussy eater. What kinda food do ya like?”
“Oh, burgers, pizza, anything. Nothing too spicy, though.”
“Well, now… know just the place!” he declared. “It’s a little ways away, but the trip’s worth it.”
“Let’s just make a quick stop, first…”
* * *
Higher for Hire
“We have to fly there?” Joanna stared at the Sea Duck, as Baloo untied it from the dock.
“It’s an island. Don’t worry, I’m a licensed pilot. And an ace, if I do say so myself.”
“Uh…” Joanna’s face, illuminated by the twilight moon, was pale as she eyed the seaplane with dread.
“What’s the matter?” Baloo asked, concerned. “Ya never flown before, is that it?”
“Sure, I have --- millions of times! It’s just…” She bit her lip, obviously unwilling to explain. Bravely, she tried to smile. “Forget it. Let’s go. I’ll be fine. Really.”
“I won’t let anythin’ happen to ya,” Baloo assured her. “I always deliver my cargo in one piece.”
“Gee, that’s comforting.”
“Solid!” he said, relieved. “Let’s go.”
He helped her climb aboard, noticing that her hand was slightly trembling in his. She held on a few seconds longer than necessary before letting go. Baloo didn’t mind.
“What do you deliver?” she asked, looking around the hold. Baloo noticed a half-eaten sandwich on the floor and cringed. Oops. Quickly, he kicked it out the door before closing it. It landed in the water with a tiny splash and was immediately torn apart by a swarm of starving fish.
“Oh, this an’ that. Depends on what the client’s sellin’. Anythin’ from fruit ta crystal.”
He led Joanna to the cockpit and helped her strap into the navigator’s seat.
“Just lemmee make sure yer belt’s good an’ tight.” As he leaned over to tighten it, her subtle perfume tickled his nose… a very pleasant citric scent, like oranges and lemons. His stomach growled and he flushed, embarrassed. Joanna didn’t seem to notice.
“Here, Miz Navigator,” Baloo handed her the pre-flight checklist. “How’s about readin’ these to me.”
“Okay.” Meekly, she complied.
Finally, he started the engines. With a flourish, he hit several switches and urged the Sea Duck forward. The propellers sputtered, then hummed to life. I love that sound! As they ascended, he glanced at her, expecting an exclamation of admiration for his aerial skills. Instead, she was sitting up, her back stiff and her fingers curled like claws, clutching the armrests. She stared ahead, unseeing.
“Ya sure yer okay?” he asked gently, his concern overriding his disappointment that no gushing squeals of delight over his flying prowess were forthcoming.
Joanna didn’t answer. She was somewhere else.
“Marie, come on,” she heard the plaintive voice of her best friend Patty float up to the third-floor bedroom window that she and her sister shared. “Let’s go to the park. I heard the ice cream man’s heading that way.”
“I can’t. My mother’s making me stay home with the brat,” she said bitterly. At twelve, she deeply resented having to keep her eight-year-old sister company. A budding child star, Judy wasn’t allowed to play with any of the kids in the neighborhood, for fear that she might get dirty or injured. She had to look her best for the shooting of her latest talkie, ‘The Cutest Little Colonel’. Marie wished that Mother would just pay someone to protect Little Miss Perfect instead of making her suffer.
“Can’t you just sneak out the window? You’ve done it a million times…”
“Huh? Oh, sorry.” She turned to face him. “I’m just not used to being… up so high.”
“It takes getting’ used to, fer some folks,” he admitted. “Uh, ya ain’t gonna be sick, are ya?”
“No, I’m fine. Really. Just don’t turn somersaults or anything fancy, okay?” She was a little green, but tried to keep her tone light.
“Uh, we pilots call ’em ‘rolls’ not somersaults. I’ll fly real smooth an’ keep’er steady. Nothin’ fancy,” he promised her. However, he couldn’t help but add, “Even though I have been known to skywrite when the situation calls for it.”
“I’ll read your messages from the ground, thanks.”
“Well, I don’t skywrite as much as I used to, ‘cept in emergencies. It’s more trouble than it’s worth. I’m just a cargo pilot, actually.”
“Just a cargo pilot?” she repeated. “Why ‘just’? You must have had some interesting experiences. It’s not like you’re stuck in an stuffy little office or something.”
A strange thought popped into his head: Hmmm… wonder if Becky made it home all
* * *
Rebecca Cunningham’s Apartment
“Mom,” Molly said earnestly, as her mother tucked her in, “I had a good day today.”
“That’s wonderful, sweetheart,” Rebecca smiled. “So did I. Except when I couldn’t find you, that is. How’s your knee?”
“Still hurts. You shoulda seen all the blood!”
“I’m glad I missed it.” She leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. “Give me a kiss.”
Molly obliged, and then frowned. “Mom, if I get hurt too many times, will I run out of blood until there’s nothing left to come out of me?”
“What a question! Of course not.”
“Good.” She yawned, her rosebud mouth forming a little O.
Rebecca stood up, making the bedsprings creak. “Good night, Molly.”
“Yes?” she answered, trying to be patient.
“Is Joanna Baloo’s girlfriend?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Molly!” Her voice was unintentionally sharp, even to her own ears. Quickly, she amended, “Baloo has lots of friends, you know that.”
“You shoulda seen her scare that smelly man back there.”
“Molly, you shouldn’t talk about people that… what smelly… oh… that guy.” In spite of herself, she was curious. “What exactly did she do?”
Molly eagerly explained Joanna’s strange talent for mimicry.
“Good grief.” This Joanna sounded like an overgrown child with a penchant for practical jokes. A lot like Baloo, actually.
He’s probably showing her how he can toss a peanut in
the air and catch it in his mouth. What
I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall right now…
* * *
“Huh? Oh, sorry. Ya say something’?”
“Just wondered how far this place is.”
“We’ll be there in ‘bout a half-hour.”
“Oh.” Her voice quavered slightly.
They flew in silence for a while. The heavens darkened, sharpening the contrast of the glowing stars that dotted the night sky. Baloo sighed happily.
“Pretty night, ain’t it?”
Baloo briefly took his attention from the wheel, about to point out the North Star on their right, and then stopped. Joanna had turned her head to the right, looking away from him. Her side window reflected back at him, revealing that her eyes were shut tight. She was still clinging to the armrests of the navigator’s seat.
“If you don’t play with me, I’m telling Mother.” Judy folded her chubby arms, tossing her blonde curls defiantly. “Then you’ll get the strap!”
“Look, beetlebrain, don’t you know when you’re not wanted?”
“Everybody loves me. Mother says so,” Judy said smugly. “She says I’m prettier than you. I’m her favorite, y’know.”
“Shut up!” Tears stung Marie’s eyes. “I’m leaving! And don’t you dare try to follow me.”
Baloo thought fast. He said casually, “So, Joanna… how’d ya get involved with the carnival?”
“Me? I was just another kid who ran away from home to join the circus, so to speak.” Her fingers on the armrests relaxed slightly. “I’ve always been restless, never did like staying in one place for too long. I’m only here for a few months, you know. Then we’re moving on.”
“Where to, if ya don’t mind me askin’?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Why?” Her eyes were still closed, but she was visibly less tense. Baloo breathed a silent sigh of relief. It was working. Keep her talkin’.
“In case I’m flyin’ thataway and wanna look ya up.” Looking straight ahead, Baloo was careful to keep his attention on his flying.
She opened her eyes and looked at him, smiling a little. “We’ll see.”
Another few minutes of silence, then he announced, “We’re here, Joanna. I’m gonna land now.”
“Louie’s place. Remember the ape that was with me back there? He runs the swinginest joint in these parts. Good food, good dancin’ music, the works… you’ll love it.”
“Sounds great.” Joanna sat up and ventured a peek through the windshield. Down below was a lush tropical island, carpeted with thick foliage and sandy beaches. In the center of it all, a large, yellowish neon sign flashed the words Louie’s. Every few seconds, a huge, rather crude structure made of bamboo and thatched straw was illuminated. She could see people of all species going in and out, laughing and shouting.
Grinning, Baloo slowly began to guide the seaplane to the docks. Joanna braced herself and kept her eyes open this time. As they descended, she felt a little better.
Afterward, Baloo got out first and held out his arms to help her down. The water rocked the docks, making them sway. She stumbled, nearly falling into the water. Luckily, he caught her.
“Oops! This wharf is wobbly!” She tried to laugh it off.
“Here, lemme help ya till ya get yer land legs there.” Taking her arm, he assisted her along the bobbing wooden slats until they were on solid ground.
“Thanks,” she said. “Sorry to be such a pain.”
“Aw, it ain’t nothin’,” he assured her. “Let’s go inside.”
* * *
In the meantime, Kit, Wildcat and Clementine were having a grand time riding the bumper cars. Except for Wildcat, who kept stepping on the gas pedal and driving in place, repeatedly ramming his little yellow car into the rubber buffers around the rink.
“Uh, guys, I think my car’s mad at me. He won’t take me anywhere,” he said plaintively.
“Turn the wheel, Wildcat,” Kit advised, as he passed him. From the corner of his eye, he saw Clementine gun her blue car, aiming straight for his rear. Grinning, he taunted, “Whoops, gotta go! Woman driver at three o’clock!”
“Oh, yeah? I’ll show ya a woman driver!” she bellowed. Her eyes gleamed as she picked up speed. Kit waited until the very last second, then skillfully maneuvered his own shiny green vehicle out of the way. Clementine ended up hitting Wildcat so hard that she knocked him spinning into the center of the ring.
“Oh, Wildcat! I’m so sorry --- I meant to get Kit!”
“Thanks, Clem!” he shouted gratefully, spinning in a wild arc. “I’m going reeeeeally fast now!” Then other riders surrounded him and slammed his car from all sides.
“Hey, none of that rough stuff, folks,” called the bumper car operator as he hit a switch, and all the cars grinded to a halt. “End of the line!” Grumbling, everyone climbed out of the little cars and dispersed.
Wildcat was disappointed. “Aw, just when I was getting the hang of it!”
“Great,” Kit said. “Now what?” He wasn’t as put out as he sounded. Wildcat and Clementine were game for anything he wanted to try. They knew how to have a good time.
“How about the ponies?” Clementine suggested. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen one.”
“Ponies? Me too!” Wildcat said. “I haven’t seen one for a whole hour. Like, that’s almost sixty minutes.”
“Okay,” agreed Kit. “But I bet we can’t ride them. Only the little kids can.”
He was right. When they arrived, the lioness horse trainer regretfully informed them that the rides were for the younger children. Wildcat sighed.
“Can we at least pet them, miss?” he asked. Bonnie’s plain features softened.
“Well… let’s see those hands.” Puzzled, he held them up. Leaning forward, she scrutinized them. “Aha! Airplane grease. Sweat and a trace of catsup under the nails. Evidently you’ve been eating a hot dog and holding a woman’s hand… quite recently, if my deductive skills serve me correctly.”
“Wow,” he marveled. “You sure are smart.”
She gave him a genuine, bucktoothed smile. “Well… maybe a short little ride won’t hurt. You can ride Bluebelle… she’s the biggest. There’s a pump out back. Now, go scrub real good. Up to the elbows, you hear?” Clementine and Kit both declined to undergo this indignity.
“Oh boy! Like, I’ll be right back, man!” Wildcat cried joyfully. He hurried away.
“Go on, Wildcat,” Kit said, waving him off. Amused, he shook his head. The sweet-natured mechanic was such a kid sometimes.
Clementine smiled. “We’ll wait for ya, honey pie.”
“Lance!” Bonnie called. “Get Bluebelle ready to go! And get the big saddle out back.” Lance, who was sitting on a bale of hay, massaging his sore feet, moaned in reply but stood up.
Wildcat washed his hands as ordered, and eagerly rushed back to where the others were waiting. Just as he was turning the corner of the stable, someone ran into him, slamming hard against his left shoulder. He managed to regain his balance, but the other man, Lance, was promptly knocked flat. To the mechanic’s surprise, his hair fell off! Lance was as bald as an egg.
“Oh gee, sorry, man!” Wildcat said, helping him stand. He picked up the dusty dark brown toupee. “That must hurt, ‘cause, like, you’ve been scalped!”
“You bumbling idiot!” Lance snapped, pushing him away and snatching it. He jammed it hard back on his shiny bald pate, where it hung crookedly in his eyes, momentarily blinding him. With a vicious jerk, he re-adjusted it. “Why don’t you watch where you’re going!”
Wildcat hung his head, and his lower lip began to tremble.
“I’m really sorry,” he mumbled. Suddenly, Bonnie, Clementine and Kit were at the scene.
“What’s all the ruckus, Lance?” Bonnie demanded. “We can hear you all the way back there.”
“Uh…nothing! How clumsy of me!” Inwardly he groaned. Of all the confounded luck!
“I did it,” said Wildcat miserably. His face was beet-red.
Kit was furious.
“Hey, who do you think you are, calling my buddy names?” He glared at the jaguar fiercely, who turned
away and wouldn’t look directly at him.
Coward, he thought contemptuously. Kit wrinkled his nose --- it was that man who smelled like
fertilizer, the one he and the others had noticed at the site where Molly was
found. Then he frowned, feeling a sudden warning prickle that seemed to
electrify his fur. The guy didn’t look
familiar, but something about his voice…
I know this guy from somewhere. But where?
Bonnie said, ”Why don’t you folks go wait for me out front? I’ll saddle up Bluebelle for you myself. This one’s on the house.” She glared at the cowering Lance. “Helen isn’t going to like this one bit. You’re in it deep, buster. I think you’d better make yourself scarce. Scram.”
Out front, Clementine tried to comfort Wildcat, who was near tears. Kit had not returned with them. He hid behind a bale of hay, listening to the conversation. He couldn’t believe his eyes or ears.
“…please, I beg of you. It wasn’t my fault. It’s…” Lance was on his knees before a flabbergasted Bonnie, pleading. He paused, offering her a half-truth. “It’s this pesky glass eye of mine. I can’t see anything on my left.”
“Glass eye?” Bonnie repeated incredulously. Again, her severe features softened. “You never mentioned it before. Tell me.”
“It’s not something I like to advertise. I had the most confounded ordeal finding suitable employment. I did find jobs here and there, although not as prestigious as this one, mind you. But eventually, they’d discover my shameful secret and I would have to walk the earth in search of a new vocation… and a new purpose.” Nearly choking on the taste of the words, he added, “Please don’t tell dear Helen. I couldn’t bear to see her upset. I’ve… grown so very fond of all of you and… have no place to call home.”
Oh, pul-leeze, Kit thought in disgust.
Bonnie turned to go. “I have to get back out there, Lance. But I’ll think about it.”
“Very well,” he said sadly. Kit ducked out of the sight before the lioness saw him. When Bonnie’s back was turned, Kit saw the jaguar’s woebegone expression transform into a rigid mask of rage.
“I hate--I hate-- I hate this revolting, foul-smelling, disgusting place!” He hissed the words, but Kit heard him. Slowly, silently, he crept away and joined the others in watching Wildcat gently pet Bluebelle’s velvety nose. The sensitive mechanic seemed to draw comfort from the contact. For a few minutes, it was as though only he and the horse existed.
“You’re a nice horsie,” Wildcat murmured. Bluebelle snorted her agreement. “And so easy to talk to,” he marveled. Clementine and Bonnie smiled at each other.
For the rest of the evening, Kit didn’t say much more than the odd monosyllable afterward. Clementine noticed the change in his mood.
“You feelin’ okay, there, Kit?” she asked worriedly.
“Sure.” He tried to sound cheerful, not wanting to be a
party pooper. “Just tired, I guess.”
After escorting Clementine back to her hotel room, Wildcat and Kit went
home. As he climbed sleepily into bed
and drew the covers up to his chin, Kit lay awake a long, long time, thinking.
* * *
Cape Suzette Haley’s Carnival
When his shift was over at last, Lance quickly bathed and dressed in clean clothes. Ugh, cotton! Then he headed to the dining hall where all employees congregated to chow down and gossip. After carefully piling his tray with a greasy hamburger, fries and a cup of lukewarm coffee, Lance tried to find an empty table in the corner, away from the raucous conversation of his co-workers. Helen, who was sitting with Nick, Bonnie and Violet and Pearl, suddenly spied him.
“Lancie, what are ye doin’ all by yerself? Come join us. Don’t sit all by your lonesome. We need an extree man at the table.”
Strummer scowled at that.
Oh, well. With a sigh, he complied, keeping a stiff smile on his face.
He was careful to sit as far away from Pearl as possible. She still looked hurt, but he threw her a quick secret smile before he sat. One o’clock, he mouthed to her. She nodded once and turned her attention back to her salad.
“Did you hear the latest?” Pearl asked Bonnie. “Guess where Joanna is.”
“I know. Violet told me.” Uninterested, Bonnie bit into a French fry. She gave Lance a nod, a subtle signal that she had not reported his rude behavior to Helen. He gave her a grateful look and breathed a sigh of relief.
Pearl continued, undaunted. “She left the fair with some fat pilot. Is that too funny or what?”
Baloo? Lance wondered.
“How odd,” Helen commented. “He hardly looks… like the sorta feller our Joanna would fancy.”
“What sort does she fancy, Ma?” When he was with his mother, Nick’s slight Oztralian accent sometimes resurfaced.
Violet stole a sly glance at him, elbowed Bonnie lightly in the ribs and grinned. Everyone knew about his crush on Joanna. Everyone, it seemed, except Joanna herself.
Helen looked at her only son fondly. “Oh, I don’t know, Nicky.”
Violet said sweetly, “Maybe she likes musicians.” He blushed crimson.
Helen gave the tigress a warning look, then continued, “I really wish she’d introduced her young man to me before taking off that-away. I ‘ave no idea where they went.”
“She said she’d be late,” Pearl said innocently. “She might even stay out all night.”
All night, eh, my darling? Lance bit daintily into his greasy hamburger, stifling a shudder. How opportune.
A vein in Strummer’s forehead throbbed. “Joanna is not like that.”
“Pearl, what a wicked thing to say!” Helen was shocked. She banged her cup on the table. “That’s enough! I know ye girls don’t get along but that’s no excuse to be spreadin’ vile stories.”
“She doesn’t even unpack, did you know that? All her stuff is still in her bags, like she’s planning to leave without saying goodbye.”
“Oh, dear. Is she still doing that?” Helen fretted.
“I’m worried about her, Ma,” Strummer said quietly. Helen reached across and patted his hand.
“What a surprise,” Violet muttered to Bonnie. “Think he’d worry about her if she looked like Whistler’s Mother?” Bonnie shushed her, glancing nervously at the boss’s son.
Lance delicately wiped his mouth, squirming with revulsion at the touch of a paper napkin, instead of a linen serviette.
“Well, cheerio, everyone,” he said, standing up. “I have to attend to some… errands.”
* * *
Louie was wiping the bar when he spotted them. “Baloo! And ‘Joanna on the pianna’, if I remember correctly! Welcome to Louie’s place.” Tossing his rag over his shoulder, where it landed on a passing waiter’s head, the ape bustled over, beaming.
“Hello, gorgeous! This place needs a little decoration.” Before the startled Joanna could react, he caught her hand in his own, planting a wet, noisy kiss on it. “Remember me? I’m Louie, by the way. I’m this here club’s proprietor and all-round fun guy.” When he wasn’t looking, she quickly wiped the back of her hand on her slacks with a grimace.
“Believe me, I wouldn’t forget you.”
“Why, the feeling’s mutual, sweet thing. You’re about the best deboppin’ piano player I’ve heard in a long time. Anytime you want a job here, just say the word!”
“But you already have a pianist,” she protested. “That guy over there.”
“Montgomery? Yeah, but he’s part time. It’s a long, lonely while for the joint to be silent when he ain’t here.”
“I don't think so.”
“Uh, Louie, how ‘bout a table?” Baloo reminded him.
“Oh, sure, man. Right this way! It’s the table I reserve for headhunters… and pretty piano players.”
With a flourish, Louie pulled Joanna’s chair out and she sat down.
“Easy with the fancy manners, pal,” Baloo hissed at him. “You’re makin’ me look bad.”
“Not possible, fuzzy,” Louie hissed back. “Havin’ her on your arm can’t help but make you look good.”
After taking their drink orders, he finally left them alone.
Baloo cleared his throat nervously. “So, uh, where ya from?”
Joanna paused for a beat before answering. “Otisberg.”
“Otisberg? Otisberg?” Baloo scratched his head. “Don’t recollect ever hearin’ of that place.”
She shrugged. “It’s one of those small towns nobody’s ever heard of. I got out as soon as I could. You?”
“Born and raised in Cape Suzette. Homegrown Baloo, that’s me,” he said. “Though, bein’ a pilot an’ all, I’ve flown nearly everywhere.”
“Do you ever deliver passengers?”
“Sometimes. It ain’t my favorite thing, though. Tours --- they’re the worst! Once we had these so-called rich clients hire us to take’ em to Hyenasport to deliver some diamonds. Man, ya shoulda seen Becky runnin’ around tryin’ ta impress ‘em.” He chuckled at the memory. “She even wanted me ta paint the plane before takeoff…”
“Huh. This Becky sounds like quite a… character.” She had already lost interest in the subject, and was now wondering why he was talking so animatedly about another woman.
“Oh, she’s that, all right! Real sweet gal, but crazy. Oh, yeah, an’ then there was that time she got this nutsy notion to buy a pig instead of a pontoon…”
“What?” After he told her the story, both were laughing so hard that mirthful tears soon followed. He found himself amusing Joanna with “Becky stories”, and began to feel more comfortable. She was easy to talk to, and asked him all kinds of questions about himself.
It didn’t occur to him that this was a ploy to distract him from asking questions about her.
“…did I tell ya about the mid-air refueling service she set up? Man, was I lucky to get outta that one alive!”
“Yeah, it put you off Krackatoa Specials for a month!” Louie was back with their drinks. He eyed Baloo’s ample belly wryly. “But you seem to have made a full recovery.”
“What can I say, Louie, old pal? Ol’ Baloo’s just a healthy, red-blooded he-bear!”
“Fuzzy, before I forget… did you get the invitations?”
“Huh? What invitations?”
“Two Saturdays from now is my club’s sixth birthday.”
“Just your regular blow-out, complete with fancy food, divine dancing, and the induction of my new game room. And it’s a special night, so ask everybody at Higher for Hire to come too.”
“I dunno… everybody? Even Becky?”
“Especially the bodacious Becky… I bet she misses me.”
Baloo snorted. “Sure, Louie. She was sayin’ that just the other day.”
What’s so great about Becky? What’d she do, cure the common cold? She sounds like a royal pain in the butt.
“Just got a pool table that needs breaking in. Go and try it out tonight if you want.”
“Uh, maybe when I’m not entertainin’ a lady friend, Louie.” He glanced self-consciously at Joanna.
Finally! She was beginning to wonder if they knew she was alive.
“Okay,” Joanna said trying to be a good sport. “Let’s have a game after dinner.”
“Huh? Ya sure?”
Louie added to Joanna, “And if you want to invite a few friends, sweet thing, it’s just fine with ol’ Louie. Especially if they’re as pretty as you. My customers need dancing partners.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” She thought of Bonnie. Maybe she wouldn’t mind the smell. She might even invite Pearl. It would earn her Brownie points with Helen, and it would be fun to see if Pearl would try to make it with a monkey. She began to cheer up. “I think I know someone who’d be a perfect dancing partner for you, Louie.”
“Really?” A broad, toothy smile lit up Louie’s homely face. “That’s awfully fine of you, Joanna.”
She managed to hide a smile.
Then he caught Baloo’s eye and loudly cleared his throat. “Well, now… you folks ready to order?”
When he left, Baloo grinned at her. “Lady, I think ya made his day.”
“Glad to hear it. Most guys hate to dance, in my experience. You’re obviously not one of them.”
“Not this guy,” he declared. “I’m a regular dancin’ bear!”
“Good. That was so cute, you dancing with… the kid. You two had the whole joint hopping. My band was talking about it after afterwards.”
“Awww…” Baloo ducked his head in embarrassment. “I just like havin’ fun, that’s all.”
“Me too,” she answered, sipping her Peach Fuzzy Fizzy. “And I am, Baloo.”
To her surprise, for once she was telling the truth.
An hour passed.
During dessert, Baloo found himself doing most of the talking. Joanna obviously disliked flying, but seemed
interested in hearing about the places he had been. Since they both traveled often in their line of work, it turned
out that they’d been to many of the same places.
“Is that the only thing you’ve ever done --- fly?”
“Well, it’s true I love bein’ a pilot, but I’ve had other jobs too.”
“Such as?” she prompted, taking a bite of ice cream.
Baloo hesitated; he wasn’t too proud of the rest of his resume. “Well, lessee… I’ve bussed tables, pumped gas, and operated an airplane ride at the old amusement park… oh yeah, and I was an elevator operator. Of course, I only did those things ‘cause my pilot’s license had expired. I had to re-take the pilot’s test before I could fly again.”
He didn’t mention that he was fired from all of those jobs in a matter of days. Yikes, he thought, remembering the time he crashed a dessert trolley, pumped his flight instructor’s tires full of water, terrorized the children on the airplane ride and sent the elevator plunging into the shaft, nearly killing two passengers and himself.
Man, it is a miracle I’m still alive!
“What about you, Joey? Ya always play piano at the carnival?”
“Joanna. For about five years. I’ve been playing since I was about three or four. My father taught me. He was a music teacher.”
“Yer real good. That ‘I’ve Got Them Flat Broke Sticky Shoes No Banana Blues’ is my favorite song. Was my daddy’s too, before he passed on. Kit bought me the record.”
“Who’s Kit again?”
“The kid I introduced ya to earlier. Green sweater and a baseball cap?”
“Oh… yeah. That kid.” She actually didn’t remember, but decided that it probably wasn’t very tactful to admit that most kids looked alike to her. After years with a traveling carnival, she never bothered to remember sticky little faces with mouths that never stopped yammering and whining one more ride, one more ice cream cone, my feet hurt, carry me.
Baloo added, “I’ve got the last copy on earth, y’know.”
Joanna smiled. “So you’re the one who bought it. If I want to hear a song, I just learn to play it by listening to the radio a couple of times. As long as the piece isn’t too complicated, I can sort of pick out the tune. We can’t take things like record players and all that stuff on the road. I suppose I’m doing it the hard way.”
“Ya ever do anything besides entertainin’ people? Like a secretary?”
She looked at him as if he was out of his mind. “Ew… a secretary? No way. I wouldn’t last a week in some crummy little office.” With exaggerated daintiness, she wiped her mouth and stood up. “Come on, let’s shoot some pool.” Briskly, she headed for the game room that Louie had pointed out. Guiltily, Baloo glanced at Louie.
Louie nodded at him, and made a little waving gesture. Go on.
The big bear flashed him a grateful look and hurried to catch up to Joanna.
Louie smiled to himself. He would hit Baloo with the bill later --- when he wasn’t with a lady friend.
Some of the regulars watched them curiously; their physical disparity made the two of them an odd-looking pair.
“Nice renovations,” said Joanna approvingly, as they entered the new game room.
“Yeah, real nice renovations,” Baloo agreed, his eyes tracking the undulating movement of her hips.
On one wall hung a large mirror; on another one was a shiny black chalkboard for scorekeeping. And, in the middle was a handsome new pool table with a forest green felt cover. The balls were already racked up and ready to shoot.
“You want to break?” Joanna asked, chalking up the cue stick she’d selected from the wall rack.
“Ladies first, I always say.”
“Are we keeping score?”
“Naw, that probably wouldn’t be fair.” Just in time, he stopped himself from finishing with to ya.
“You’re probably right,” she said, smiling a little. Then she leaned over the table and aimed carefully, sliding the stick lightly along her index finger and thumb. Then, like a gunshot, she struck the balls with surprising force. Baloo’s eyes popped with astonishment as he watched two tiny colorful cannonballs slam into the corner pockets. Thunk! Thunk!
“Sure you don’t want to keep score?” she asked smugly.
“Uh… naw, that’s okay,” he said sheepishly. “Just save a couple of them balls for me, will ya?”
This time Joanna laughed out loud. She aimed and hit again. This time, unfortunately, she applied too
much force, and the ball went flying off the table and hit the opposite wall. He had to duck to avoid being hit and
“Shoot. There goes my world record. I think the table’s lopsided.”
He hid a smile. “Yeah, that must be it.” He chalked his cue stick and stepped up to the table. “Let me show ya how it’s done.”
Baloo promptly sent the white ball into the side pocket, which resulted in a “scratch”, which would deduct points… if he had any in the first place.
“Wow,” she said, completely deadpan. “Gee, you sure showed me.”
“Try again,” Joanna suggested.
He gave a rueful chuckle and waved to her to take her turn. “Thanks, but I ain’t much of a pool player. Boxin’ was more my sport.” He sat down on one of the foldable chairs and leaned his cue stick against the wall. Might as well take it easy, he thought. This could take a while.
“Boxing? What do you mean, ‘was’?” asked Joanna, eyes narrowed in concentration as she angled the stick behind her and managed to sink the blue ball.
An hour passed, and between them, they finally cleared the table. Then they racked up the balls for the next group of players --- three panther pilots from Khan Industries who were impatiently waiting their turn. They had watched her, lips curled in identical leers, then glanced at Baloo, who was sitting exhausted in the corner. One of them snickered.
Baloo tried to ignore him. “I used ta be in the ring when I was younger. By the time I reached my mid-twenties, I was a heavyweight.”
The Khan pilot smirked. “I believe that!”
“Me too. I bet you could snap a guy in two with those meat hooks,” Joanna archly remarked. The speaker turned red and glanced at Baloo nervously. The big gray bear winked at her and casually stood up and stretched, then cracked his knuckles with a loud, unnerving crrackkk. All three panthers shrank back.
“That’s true. I was known in certain circles as ‘Iron Paws’.”
Joanna pretended to have suddenly noticed the three cowering panther pilots. She placed both her and Baloo’s cue sticks back on the wall rack. “Gee, I’m sorry. Did you want to play? We’re done here.” The band in the other room began to play; she took Baloo’s arm. “Let’s dance… Iron Paws.”
Joanna pretended to have suddenly noticed the three cowering panther pilots. She placed both her and Baloo’s cue sticks back on the wall rack. “Gee, I’m sorry. Did you want to play? We’re done here.” She took Baloo’s arm. “Let’s dance… Iron Paws.”
A few people were already forming pairs as the monkey band struck up a slow-paced blues number. As they joined hands, Joanna said, “So tell me more. How long were you in the boxing racket?”
“About ten years in the amateur circuit. Had ta give it up when it interfered with my flyin’. Once my hands got so swollen that I couldn’t touch the controls on my plane for a month. Joey, I was up for the title, the main event! Man, I coulda been a contender!”
“Joanna,” she corrected absently. “What happened?”
“Aw, just plumb bad luck. By the time I was done healin’, I got replaced in the ring by some bozo called Steelhead ‘cause his skull was so thick that he couldn’t be knocked out. His opponent actually broke a hand doin’ a right cross to this feller’s jaw. Ol’ Steely didn’t even break a sweat --- he just flicked the guy’s chin, watched him keel over down for the count.”
“So this Steelhead won the title.”
“Yep. I reckon I was about thirty when I hung up the gloves. That was the end of my career as a big palooka.”
“Well, you’re still a big palooka. How old are you now, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Me? Turned thirty-eight a few months ago.”
“So we’re about eleven years apart then.”
“So you’re… uh… aw heck. Never could do math in my head…” Baloo reddened. “Maybe I shouldn’t try ta guess a lady’s age…”
“Who says I’m a lady?” She spoke without thinking, and mentally kicked herself. Clearing her throat, she said, “Twenty-seven in October. I suppose a lot of people think that makes me an old maid.”
“Aw, ya ain’t no old maid, Joanna,” he said with feeling. “Not in a million years.” The song ended and he dipped her backward. She yelped in delighted surprise, startling him. The sound reminded him of the way Rebecca squealed when she got twirled and dipped during the few times they had danced.
Must be a girl thing, he thought.
“There’s some good shaboozies ta be made in the ring, if yer good enough,” Baloo continued. “But after a few too many broken bones and black eyes, I had ta do some thinkin’. I ain’t got it in me enough ta beat another guy into puddin’ night after night. And I’d rather fly than anything in the whole world.”
“Yeah,” Joanna said. “I had to make a similar decision.”
“About what?” he asked curiously.
“Let’s just say that I led a very full life before joining the carnival and leave it at that.” She shrugged. “I will say that I’d rather play music than what I… um, was doing before. Helen is the closest thing I ever had for a mother, and nearly everyone else there makes it a family… sort of.”
“Higher for Hire is like that too,” he said. “I mean, Kit is the closest thing I’ll ever have for a son, even if he ain’t mine.”
“Kit…? Oh, right.”
“Great kid. He’s gonna be one heckuva pilot someday, er, pardon my language.”
“That’s okay. I’ve heard worse.”
“And now,” Louie announced from the stage, “Here’s a little number for all you lovebirds out there. Hit it, Montgomery!” The simian pianist couldn’t sing due to his laryngitis, but could certainly tickle the ivories. He began to play a romantic ballad.
Peering over Joanna’s head, Baloo saw Louie wink at him.
Oh man, he thought. Louie was an incurable romantic.
“After this, I should get back,” murmured Joanna, as they danced. “It’s late.” She rested her head against his chest and closed her eyes.
“Okay,” he said, “after this.”
They spent the rest of the song dancing in silence.
* * *
Hours later, as they left the nightclub, Joanna walked a few feet onto the beach and suddenly stopped when she saw the Sea Duck tied to the dock.
“What’s wrong?” Baloo asked worriedly. “Ya gonna be okay ta fly?”
Her face was pale, and not because of the moonlight. “I don’t know… I mean, yes. Just give me a minute.”
“It’s okay,” he said gently. “I’ll give ya all ya need. Ya wanna sit down?”
Gratefully, she sank to the sand. “Thanks. I know this must be silly to you, but I’ve never flown before tonight.”
“Is that all? Well, don’t you worry. We’ll take it real slow.”
She shot him a quick look, regarded him for a moment, then relaxed. From the few hours they'd spent together, she realized no innuendo was meant.
“You know, this was fun. Thanks.”
“Anytime, Joey, er, Joanna.”
“You’re a nice guy.”
are.” And she meant it. Clueless, but nice.
She suddenly noticed something, and pointed upward. “Look.”
The sky was indigo, glowing with even more stars than before. “Yeah,” he said. “I see what ya mean. Kinda humblin’, ain’t it?”
“You know,” she said casually, choosing a spot and sitting down on the sand. “I really didn’t get a good look at them on the way over here. Could you tell me about it again?” She patted the ground and he sank down next to her.
“See that group of stars that looks like a soup ladle? That’s my favorite --- the Big Dipper. The smaller one near it is the Little Dipper.” He pointed out other constellations, glancing at her every once in a while to check if her interest was flagging. It wasn’t.
The ‘minute’ Joanna requested turned into an hour as they sat on the sandy beach and talked, mostly about travel and his brief career as a boxer. Baloo noticed that very slowly, she had inched her way closer, until they touched. It both thrilled and terrified him.
“So… have you ever been to Oztralia?”
“Uh… no, er… wait! I did go there. I was deliverin’ kangaroos.”
“Why would you deliver kangaroos to Oztralia?” She wrinkled her nose. “Don’t they live there anyway?”
“No, it was from Oztralia.”
Becky again? What else is new? she thought sourly.
“Don’t tell me. Some crackpot idea of Becky’s.”
She was annoyed. “No! I mean, okay, tell me.”
“She had this nutsy notion that deliverin’ kangaroos and ice cream made milkshakes. The jumping mixed the ice cream and…”
“Milkshakes?” She looked at him as if he was out of his mind. “Did it work?”
“Yeah, but that dadburned bouncin’ made me hit the roof more times than…”
Dadburned? Where am I, Bearberry?
A frown crossed her brow, but she asked politely, “So… how long have you worked for her?”
“I dunno --- a coupla years, I guess.” Chuckling, he added, “Although sometimes it feels like a hundred.”
“That bad, huh?”
Baloo suddenly felt guilty. Ol’ Beckers ain’t that bad. Just… insane.
“Aw, she’s pretty decent, as far as bosses go. Just kinda high-strung, that’s all. Easily riled, y’know?” he said ruefully. “Makes a big deal over bein’ on time and everythin’ bein’ done just so.”
“What a monster.” For some reason, he felt compelled to soften the harsh picture he created. “Hey, we have fun too… with the kids of course. Movies, picnics, stuff like that. And goin’ to carnivals.” He grinned at her.
“You don’t get tired of seeing each other every day?”
“Naw, we’re used to each other. Why, don’t you go shoppin’ with yer girlfriends from the carnival or anythin’ when yer in town?”
“I don’t like shopping. And I’m not good at being friends with other women… I have Violet --- she sells hot dogs, but most of them don’t like me much.”
“Aw, now, that ain’t true,” he protested. “Yer a real sweet gal.”
“No, I’m not, but thanks for saying so. But I don’t care. I get along better with men --- well, most of them, anyway. I do like bookstores, though. But sometimes even that’s no fun if I don’t know my way around a strange city. Part of me is worrying about how to find my way back to the fairgrounds afterward.”
She did not mention that she was afraid to return and find that Helen and the carnival might pull up stakes and disappear, leaving her stranded. It would be different if she left, but not the other way around. Nor could she explain that logic to anyone.
“I hear ya, sister. Becky’s always draggin’ me around stores, makin’ me carry stuff around like I was a pack mule…” Suddenly, he had an idea. “Saaaay, Joanna. I know Cape Suzette like the hand of my hand. I could give ya a tour… uh, if ya want, that is.”
“Really?” She brightened, then her face fell. “But I thought you hated tours.”
“Depends who I’m showin’ off to --- I mean, showin’ around.”
“Well… all right.”
“And we don’t have ta fly. We can walk instead, maybe check out a couple of diners? I know a place that makes the best barbequed chicken in the world, bar none. Let ol’ Baloo treat ya right.” That reminds me, gotta hit up ol’ Becky for a raise…
“Okay. How about next week, say, Wednesday? That’s my day off.”
“Maybe I should come by your place instead. So you don’t have to wade through all those people to find me?”
She got to her feet. “Oh, gee, it’s late. I’d better get back.”
“Yeah,” Baloo said reluctantly. With a grunt, he hoisted himself up as well. But neither took a step toward the seaplane. For a moment, they stood there looking at each other, smiling a little and uncertain what to do next. The pale moonlight backlit her long coppery hair, creating a halo effect. Baloo shuffled his big feet.
Man, she’s… oh, man! Wonder if I should steal a kiss --- do something’, ya dope! Aw, where’s dancin’ music when ya need it? I was doin’ just fine before. Now she’ll just think---!
Joanna seemed to read his thoughts. “Oh. Do you want to kiss me?”
“Huh?” Baloo blinked, not sure he’d heard right.
“I’d like you to. That, and I’d like this awkward moment to be over with,” she said. “But not in front of my dumpy little trailer with candy wrappers and horse doody all over the place. Right here. Now.”
“Uh… are ya sure?” he said, happily dazed. What a gal. She was fun, easy on the eyeballs and hated shopping --- the chances of meeting another gal with these qualities were zero to one. Too bad she didn’t like flying, but hey, nobody was perfect.
“I’m only here for a few months, Baloo... I don’t expect promises or candy and flowers, or anything like that. I just need, um, want someone to talk to sometimes… someone who isn’t another carny. Can’t we just have fun until I have to go?”
Baloo was confused, but did not care. “Uh… okay.”
“Good. Besides, it would be a shame to waste this romantic backdrop,” she murmured, standing on tiptoe and wrapping her arms around his neck.
“Whoa! I mean, yeah,” he agreed, automatically pulling her close and lifting her up. “A real shame.”
Joanna kissed him hard and passionately, without tenderness. To some men, it wouldn’t have mattered. He was too startled and overwhelmed to wonder what it all meant for more than a few seconds.
What’s someone like her doin’ with a guy like me?
“Come on, silly,” she chided him. “This is your lucky night.”
“Wha—!” His startled reply was effectively muffled by another attack of soft, warm lips.
The delightful citrus scent of her subtle perfume wafted through Baloo’s senses. He was glad his stomach didn’t growl this time. They took their time, enjoying it. Then she gave him a push and they both went down, him yelping, and her laughing.
“Shh!” she murmured huskily, “You’ll have everybody out here taking pictures.”
For a few seconds, he didn’t want to think about anything all --- he just wanted to surrender --- so he did.
She pressed against him, her body moving sensuously against his. Dimly, he realized that they were barely a hundred yards from the nightclub and broke off the kiss with reluctance.
“Uh, Joey, maybe I should take ya home now.”
Disappointed, she sighed, but allowed him to sit up, winded and out of breath. “Too bad. Could have been fun.”
“It was fun. Don’t get me wrong, you’re real pretty and all that…”
“Yeah, I know. Somebody had to put on the brakes. It would have been me, but you beat me to it. Congratulations.”
The torches around Louie’s were getting low, and he had trouble seeing her expression. “Are-are ya mad?”
“No… not exactly. Just… confused.”
Why couldn’t it have been me to stop it? Now I look like some stupid bimbo! I’m like – like Pearl!
“Nothing,” she said sullenly. After a moment: “Don’t you… like me?”
“Sure, I do! It’s just…” He struggled to find the words.
I don’t know what I’m doing.
He gave up. “Okay… maybe we should go…” Baloo stood up awkwardly, then sank down on the sand, feeling dizzy. “Oof!”
“What’s wrong?” She forgot her pique. “Are you alright?”
“Sure… just got up too fast. Blood rushed to my… head. Wow. Guess I ain’t used to this kind of thing.”
“What ‘kind of thing’?”
He gestured helplessly at her and suddenly noticed that his shirt was unbuttoned. “Oops! How’d that happen?” Quickly, he re-fastened it, buttoning it wrong. “Um… this.”
She smiled, enjoying someone else being flustered for a change. “You okay, Iron Paws?” she teased.
“Just… give me a minute.” Man, I can’t…feel…my…legs…