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Blocks away, hubcap-deep into a sprawling mud puddle, I parked amid urban blight worse than where I met Loudmouth and Bigfoot less than two days earlier. In their neighborhood, at least, most the decayed buildings had been razed to someday make room for new ones. On this ground-level sewer, remnants still stood as testament to a past which no one considered worthy of replacement.
Night having fallen sooner than I figured on, bonfires flickered off Dreidel's polished beak as I used Moses to furrow a footpath through the putrified refuse. Zig-zagging to avoid a giant stalk of dirty ice that poked skyward from an uprooted fire hydrant, I carefully kept my good eye fixed on the shimmering lights of the distant theater for bearings. My mind was still grimaced with stink when two gungy thugs emerged from nowhere and appeared in front of me.
The fat hoodnik growled that I was off limits. "Hey one-eye, you're encroachin' our turf."
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The skinny one had an idea. "Hey brother Wilvur, maybe the Cadillac Kid is here on business, huh?"
With great determination, Wilvur tried to pull his leather vest down over his pot belly, but failed. "Ya got a shipment from the coast for me and Orbille?"
Walking past the sloppy siblings, I said I was on my way to the show. "If you don't mind, that is."
For a few quiet moments, one of the smelly brothers walked on either side of me and Dreidel fluttered above my head.
Orbille broke the silence (though his breath smelled like he'd broken something else). "So he's here from the suburbs to see a show."
Wilver shook his sanguine head. "I guess our girlie shows are known all over the city."
When I said I was on my way to the Fox, Orbille pulled a barbed chain from his belt and started to twirl it. "Well we think we oughta escort ya to the Midwood Hotel over there and have our girls put a show on for ya. Then maybe we'll take you money. We hate to steal from an invalid, but we don't mind havin our girls earn it for us."
I slammed my boot into Orbille's groin. As he doubled over, Wilver came at me and I jabbed Moses hard into his soft gut. "You and your brother ready for some surgery?"
Orbille struggled to his feet. "Hey, Dr. Feelbad, mellow out. The Wrong Brothers want to make peace with ya. We'll set you up with a date, on the house - over at the Midwood."
I yanked the chain from the guy's limp fist, wrapped it around the hook of my cane, and towed them toward the Fox. "So you're pimps, huh?"
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Orbille took offense. "We like to think of ourselves as entertainment managers."
For the hell of it, I quizzed the asshole. "So what if I have AIDS?" Wilver said they had me covered. "See that building over there, the Midwood? We got healthy girls and boys on the roof and ones with AIDS down in the basement."
Orbille said they aimed to please everyone. "Suckas with AIDS need love too."
Nauseous with disgust, I unhooked their chain and said I might check their establishment out on my way back. "In the meantime, you two screwballs better pray for forgiveness."
Wilver twisted his semi-lipless mouth to one side. "How's that, sucka?"
When I pointed out the disease they had was worse than any known virus, Orbille started to laugh and tossed his brother a butcher knife.
Wilver continued walking and street-talking. "Dude, if ya don't turn you sweet ass right around and leave, I gonna personally carve up you birdie and make parrot stew for me and brother Orbille." Continuing towards me, he slashed a helix through the air with his polished blade.
I stopped and purposely crushed an asphalt pebble with Moses. "Let me pass."
From behind, Orbille queried what I was going to do. "Ya gonna bite my good brother Wilvur?"
While Wilvur laughed nervously and skulked toward me in the declining sunlight, I whirled my cane into his hand - and his greasy knife went flying.
As the grizzly ginzu splashed into a muddy pothole, I pushed my trusty ramrod into Wilvur's bloated gut and made a suggestion. "You and your brother step aside or I'm going to poke you each an extra asshole."
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Wilvur fell back a bit and told me to chill out. "Hey Captain Cripple, we's just ribbin. We gonna go smoke some cloak over at the Midwood with our favorite backdoor boys and await your return, Minister Straight."
Veering off across the disjointed intersection, Orbille flicked an oversized butane lighter in my direction and told me to enjoy the Fox. "Maybe the Wrong Brothers'll give you a free high on the flipside."
Telling them not to bet on it, I continued straight ahead over the remnants of a sidewalk - leaving the Wrong Brothers way to one side. Limping past the littered path that led to the Midwood Hotel, I couldn't help but remember the days I'd already spent there - cramped into a tiny room.
Less than a year after my family and friends abandoned me at Formington, the state forwarded me to a Color TV repair school in Springfield where I slept in a crowded dormitory. When a homosexual janitor named Cary Hives put the moves on me, I smashed his kneecap and was granted permission by an understanding overseer to live in a spider-webbed basement across the street. Three months later, I graduated television school with flying colors and was ready to go home - but mom and dad banned me from St. Louis.
I was standing at an outdoor payphone, in a winter sleet storm, when dad said he'd made arrangements for me to join a commune in San Francisco. "If you come to St. Louis, son, we have no choice but to call the authorities. For your own good."
I made a deal with dear dad - to drive out to California and stay at the commune for a day. If I didn't like it, I'd be allowed to come home without being handed over to the police.
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The Oakland commune turned out to be a fanatic mind-control cult where a guy named Jones was visiting. He wanted to take me to Guiana and save me - but I was already saved enough to know a genuine screwball when I met one.
So I returned to Missouri and lived in a $2 room at the Midwood. I got used to the cockroaches and rats, but never the alcoholic vomit and drug-induced diarrhea splattered down the narrow corridors - and left to putrefy for generations to come.
That year, my folks finished building their new estate on the Mock Club grounds. At first, they told me I could only visit them one afternoon a month. However, after I started working at Braggs, I was welcome anytime (as long as I let my father boast to his buddies what a chip-off-the-old block I was when my projects went well).
I hated my repetitive job, the sole purpose of which was to earn bucks for Braggs - but I made it to the office every single day for years. Visualizing the allusive caretaker of Formington with a gun at my head helped, and I never took a vacation for fear I'd realize just how much I hated the drudgery and never come back. No one was ever going to lock me up again, not even if it meant eating potted meat and frozen pizza six days a week forever - and chainsmoking my life away in social solitude to dull any ambition for a fruitful life.
Crossing Grand Avenue with rehabilitated lungs, I passed under the glitzy marquee into the grandiose lobby of the refurbished Fox. My heels unwittingly clicked over the marble floor, echoing from the lofty ceiling-sculptures of this monument to Hollywood's golden years. Strolling down the long yards of purple-velvet aisleway and tivoli lights, I felt as if I were descending into the warm womb of Hollywood herself. I found healthy April sitting with Coleen and Marshall in ROW OJ and put my clumsy bones down beside Victoria and Kimmble one row back - ROW OK.
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Victoria asked what took me so long. "Your hair and clothes are all messed up."
I said that I had to park a long way off. "Then the car broke down - or something."
My older sister smirked. "You're a terrible liar David."
As I settled into my seat to watch "SPARTACUS," I couldn't ignore the smell of my niece's root beer and asked for a drink.
She said her mom had some Dr. Pepper. "Why do you always want my root beer?"
I whispered to her that years ago they used to give us root beer at - at camp. "They gave us popcorn with hot sauce too."
Scooping a shaky but determined handful of Victoria's popcorn, I felt extremely fortunate to be free - to be able to go to the movies with my family and leave whenever I wanted.
Back to Formington one last time - we only had a black-and-white console to watch. Some unmedicated client had ripped out the speaker, so the overseers turned up their institutional elevator music to compensate. Almost every Sunday, Nurse Brandy would bring in six packets of instant root beer - one for each weeknight. We'd toss pennies to see which five of the thirty of us would get to share it each night. So, over the course of most weeks, most of us would have a plastic cup of root beer with our sitcom.
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Saturday night was special for everyone. Brandy would fix a batch of popcorn and douse it with a greasy hot sauce - so no one could consume more than a small handful. She called it hotcorn; but a punch drunk patient labelled it Raging Butter.
I suppose some poor souls at the Form would still be having their weekly ration of root beer and popcorn, if Brandy hadn't moved on to Kansas - and even greener pastures. No doubt, I'd been far more fortunate than most my fellow patient/clients. Of the several thousand there at any one time, only about thirty qualified for rehab - the only way out.
196 minutes after the theater had dimmed (by my Formington Timex), Spartacus met his painful fate and the lights came back up.
Kimmble tugged at her mother's sweater. "Mom, why'd Spartacus have to die at the end like that?"
Victoria told her that it was probably meant to be. "A few seasons in the sun are all any of us can hope for."
Kimmble crossed her arms. "Yeah, I guess - but we better wait until the next picture begins to get more refreshments." Most the audience was already pushing towards the lobby when Stan Kann's platform lifted from the orchestra pit. As Stan played THE MIGHTY FOX ORGAN, Jessie Presley blew his sax on one side of him and Eddy Cole plucked away at her harp on the other. What a small world, I mused - as they began to play "SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW."
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When I asked Kimmble what the next picture was, she popped me in the ribs - just as the lights started to dim again. "Serpico. Good vs. evil. You know the story, huh, Uncle David!?!"
As the platform started to lower and the film flickered on, Jessie and Edith stopped making music, but Stan continued to fondle his organ. Just as the hi-tech sound came up, the film broke - so Stanley continued to play. His stylized tune began to get on my nerves, so I leaned forward and asked Coleen to help me get refreshments for everyone.
Standing, she smoothed her tight skirt and told the others we'd bring them a surprise. Barely, was I able to unfold myself from the seat after three hours of sitting. Limping very slowly up the aisle, I prayed goodhearted Brandy had died before her terrible torture.
Making my way across the the nearly empty lobby, Moses echoed about in the big stone womb (his rubber tip now completely gone). Coleen stopped to inspect a pint-sized replica of Michelangelo's David while I continued toward the middle of the domed portico. I ordered three baskets of Nachos w/Jalapeno Cheese & Sliced Polish Sausage from the pubescent usherette who was manning the concession stand.
I turned around just as Coleen high-heeled herself to my side and smiled wickedly. "I bet you used to look like that statue of David with your clothes off, huh?"
"Maybe even if the statue had my clothes on."
The refreshment girl interrupted our confusing exchange with a heavy Germanic accent. "That will be $19.39, bitte."
I handed her a twenty and whispered to Coleen that I couldn't believe no one did anything about how the movie moguls took advantage of a captive audience.
end page 487
Handing the box of snacks to Coleen, I quizzed her about my father's memoirs. "Did they mention an alabaster egg on a gold chain?"
Coleen licked a fingerful of cheese. "I can't violate professional courtesy."
I clutched Moses. "You mean, confidentiality?"
She swiveled her heavy-duty hips. "Yeah, that too."
After telling Miss Baxter we'd discuss it further back at the house, I asked her to carry the refreshments into the others and tell my sister I'd be gone for an hour to move the car closer. "Lots of people probably left after the first picture." When she asked if she and April could go with me, I explained that I was headed for a bad neighborhood. "You and Coleen are liable to lose your high heels in an open manhole."
Finally, the fraulein behind the counter handed me the change and I gave it to Coleen. "That's for being a good girl."
After telling me to hurry back in time for "ROMANCING THE STONE," Coleen sashayed her way toward the auditorium while I zipped up my jacket. Smoothing Dreidel's feathers as she rode on my shoulder, I headed outside, wondering anew what Morningstar had meant by follow the Tract of Stone.
Dreidel snuggled to my neck as we re-entered the coolness of the urban night. The mid-winter air, now windless, actually felt warmer than when we came. Thousands of Hollywood incandescent bulbs lit Grand Avenue like high noon as I strolled as best I could toward the north end of the overblown movie house. Beneath the Star Showcase, I browsed over the Coming Attractions for awhile.
Until suddenly, the bucolic racket of incarcerated chickens polluted the nightquiet. Looking in the direction of the Skinker intersection, I saw hundreds of poultry cages tied in staggered tiers to the roof of a battered Mercedes bus. Nonchalantly, I moved toward the chartreuse coach parked at the curb. On seeing the driver glance into his dirty vehicle's sideview mirror, I increased my gait.
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And when I was no more than twenty feet from the back bumper, the nightsilence was shattered again. A thundering falsetto of unmuffled engine noise approached from behind me. I stopped and turned, but saw nothing.
The thunder grew and the echoes multiplied. The windows of the Diamond Exchange across the street seemed ready to shatter and burst from the incessant eruption that was now nearing. It had to be some seasoned bunch of piston-heads taking their hotrods for a latenight spin. Hands grabbed at my right arm - and I jumped a bit.
It was April and Coleen - one after the other, they yelled in my ear. "What is it?" "What's that noise?"
I had no idea, but became increasingly curious as the reverberant echo made it impossible to even guess as to its source - until Dreidel soared into the air and spiraled south. Whereupon, three fire-belching Harleys slipped around the turn from Market Street. One after the other, each of the thundering chariots dropped into a lower gear and amplified their nocturnal racket-making by mixing it with the whirring and churning of high-speed, straight-cut cogs. Less than fifty feet from where we stood, the machines shifted into neutral and coasted towards us. As each of their long-stroked engines settling down to a domesticated idle, I admired their beauty.
Sandwiched between two gold-flake Low Riders, there rolled a sleek candy-apple-purple Sportster. Abruptly, the rearmost Low Rider banged back into low and blasted to the head of the pack.
Thrusting his tight-fisted hand high into the air, the leather clad muscleman yelled above the chatter of his own drivetrain. "Yooooo!!! Yoooooo, Davis!!!"
end page 489
The three thunderous, untamed beasts belonged to Stone and Company - Granny's friends from tinseltown. Hitting neutral again, gutsy Sly dropped back into the star-studded cartel. Graceful Sunshine blew me a kiss as she passed, while nutty Paco laughed and flipped me the finger.
As the three troubadours idled past the poulty express, it pulled away from the curb and disappeared to the northeast. After circling the block, the immaculate Milwaukee machinery reappeared and killed their engines before skidding to a rubber-peeling halt at the curb - where April and Coleen awaited their pleasure.
Edging up behind the overaged groupies, I watched Sly and Paco dismount like a pair of seasoned cowboys. They unzipped their heavy vests and swaggered over - as the girls swooned and dropped to the cold pavement, resembling two twitching piles of virgin molasses.
The guys, shaking my hand with their rights, lifted the girls to their feet with their lefts. Momentarily, April laid motionless in Sly's mighty arm and Coleen dangled as a bauble about Paco's rigid neck.
Sly, pulling a toothpick from his lumberjack shirt, smiled and began picking and talking at the same time, asking how I'd been. "It was real nice of ya, Davis, to let us lost souls camp out in your apartment last month."
Paco massaged his new-found sweetie's nape. "Yeah, even if it was sort of cold with no electricity, Pretty Richard." When I didn't laugh, Paco jabbed my shoulder a couple times and told me to lighten up. "We're indebted to you, big guy."
In agreement, Sly jabbed playfully at my gut as a sweet voice willowed through the night air. "David Daniels, what a pleasant surprise."
Turning toward the street in unison, we watched Sunshine slide gracefully from her Sportie's saddle and flow towards us. As her heavenly legs moved our way and her nimble fingers manipulated onyx buttons, the lady's purple racing jacket split open in front. Between cashmere midriff and beltless jeans, a narrow stripe of peach-colored abdomen showed itself.
end page 490
As I thought what a wonderful soul she must have, she came to a smooth halt, only inches away. "Why thank you, David."
Without warning, April and Coleen let loose of their male idols and grabbed Sunshine's hands, then smooched at her cheek and neck as they sighed in turn. "Ohhhh, it's really Sunshine." "Ohhhh my God."
Pushing them away and smoothing her black nylon collar, Sunshine told them to control themselves. "Girls, we don't even know each other."
As Paco's laughter rattled off the Diamond Exchange across the street, Sly shook his finger at April. "You listen to Sunny."
Still laughing, Paco pinched Coleen and amended the directive. "Unless Sly or me happen to be around."
With a sigh, Sunshine stepped into the giant shadow of the Fox marquee. "Well, ladies and gentlemen, and I use those terms in the most general sense, may I suggest we go eat."
Sly petted Dreidel and turned toward me. "Know where we can find some good Gateway grub, Danny Boy?"
When I asked what kind of food, Sunshine rested her hand on Moses. "American food. And I'd be flattered if you'd scooter with me, Mr. Daniels."
I told them I'd like to. "But I have the flu - or something. My muscles are killing me."
Paco growled. "Don't be a pansy."
Sly told me to shape up. "I got a place for your cane under my tank."
end page 491
I zipped my jacket tight and turned the collar up. "How's O'Grady's Grill across the lot from the Salvation Army sound?" With no further fanfare, Sunshine took my arm and led the group over to the street-machinery. Sitting on the rear of her narrow saddle, she motioned for me to take the controls. Clumsily, I climbed aboard, handing my cane to Sly and flexing my cramped hand. Hopefully, I hadn't taken on more than I could handle.
After helping April and Coleen mount the rear of their respective steeds, Sly and Paco kick-started their massive mills. Amid the horrific rumble, I kicked the Sportie with all my might - but it didn't even pop.
Sunny tapped me on the shoulder and bellowed in my ear. "Push the red starter button on the right."
Pretending not to hear, I inhaled jasmine from her hair, jumped up - and kicked the beast to life. When I revved the engine and looked at Sunshine in the mirror, she smiled and wrapped her lithesome arms around my hungry waist. Grabbing the clutch, I stomped the transmission into low and took the lead slot.
As we scootered across Skinker towards Delmar, I kept my eye peeled for the Empire Express, but saw no sign of the elusive chicken-coach I'd so recently encountered.
Sly pulled into the right half of my lane and called out. "Yoooo, Davis, I'll cover your blind side on my Low Rider Guts."
I steered the crew around a tight U-turn at the Delmar intersection and headed back south to catch the highway. Coming to an open stretch of Grand Avenue, I goosed the hell out of it and fish-tailed around the on-ramp.
Sunshine begged me to take it easy. "You need to get used to my Sportster Grace."
I told Sunny to hang on tight. "I used to race these things."
end page 492
Lifting her front wheel toward the stars, I discovered exactly how much power Grace had as our pack of nostalgic nightriders raced down the passing lane of Highway 40.
My psychic cycless hugged me tight. "You naughty boy."
Dreidel flapped along off my left handlebar as we sailed downtown. After I pulled far out front for awhile to jump onto I-55 South and semi-circumnavigate the city, we rolled side by side again. With our engines resonating in tight formation, I noticed the namesake painted on Paco's tank - Nuts. Rolling the throttle open, I accelerated our rat pack to a breath-taking clip aboard GUTS, NUTS, and GRACE.
As we circled back north and approached the Gateway Arch, Sunshine tugged on my belt and yelled that it was too bad it was past sunset and there was no full moon. "At sunset on the eve of a full moon, David, you can see your reflection off the full height of the north leg of the Arch - if good luck is in your stars."
I didn't consider myself superstitious, but I could have sworn I saw a familiar reflection as I glanced at the north leg in Grace's mirror - full moon or not.
In less time than it took starlight to cross our solar system, we were bumping over the inner-city streets again. Down-shifting into second, I cut our speed to 20 as the Salvation Army came into view. After I bounced to as smooth a stop as possible, I discovered my right hand nearly frozen to the twist grip. I had to twist the ignition off with my left. As soon as Paco and Sly shut their own barking bikes down, I explained that O'Grady's Grill was a block up but there were too many potholes to park any closer.
April and Coleen wriggled off the rear of their wide saddles, and pushed their miniskirts back down as Sunny slid off sidesaddle. My leg all cramped up, I was unable to get Grace up on the centerstand and had to settle for swinging the sidestand down.
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Sly tossed me Moses and rubbed his mighty hands together. "Time for chow everybody. Gotta keep the protides high!"
As we moved slowly and quietly over the broken sidewalk, recuperating from the high-speed wind, I noticed an aquamarine teepee beside the Vet's hutch.
Finally, Sly asked what I was looking at. "Yooo, a one-of-a-kind special story somewhere?"
I explained that Veterans of two foreign wars lived under the tarp to our right. "I'm sure they have a very special story for you - an all too-common one."
We paused as an old timer in a tattered uniform approached from the Salvation Army and offered Sunshine his soup. "Missy, you take half my potato chowder, 'cause there might not be none left by the time you get through the line."
Sunshine whispered something to the old soldier, took our leave, and accompanied him to the soup kitchen. April and Coleen danced on toward the restaurant while I led Sly and Paco over to meet the Vets.
After dredging through ankle-high mud, Sly lifted up the side of the tarp and grumbled. "Nothin' but a couple unconscious winos. They ain't no Vets!!"
A strong voice called from the nearby teepee. "We've been awaiting your return, David."
Sloshing painfully over, I pushed the vinyl flap aside and crawled in. Standing upright on firm soil and green grass, I asked how they knew it was me. Clean-shaven, save for matching mustaches, they smiled.
Momentarily, Loudmouth, who had his vocal chords burnt out at Puson, invited Paco and Sly in without having seen them - by name. Not knowing what to make of it, I introduced Paco and Sly to the Vets.
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When I asked where they got the teepee, Bigfoot stood up straight and said they bought it from a veterans' magazine with the money Marshall loaned them. "Air-freighted it from Big Top Products at Puberty Park."
When Loudmouth, with perfect articulation, claimed the teepee was supposed to have some kind of special power, Paco said it sounded like the real nuts of a story to him.
Not knowing how much credance to place in the whole affair, I left the four of them to talk and stepped outside to be alone with my pain. As a small shooting star (or wasted satellite) streaked across the sky, I kept my eye peeled for Sunshine. Shortly, Paco and Sly rejoined me in the mud and I asked if they got a lead on a good story.
With a slap on the back, Paco said they sure did. "Every last detail for an epic with real nuts, Captain Courageous."
When I pointed out they'd only been in the teepee a minute or two, Sly reached over and felt my forehead. "Yooo, you sure must have a case of the flu, Davis. We were in there half an hour goin' over the details."
Paco agreed - so I shut up. Afterall, I was the outsider. Slopping toward the sidewalk, I decided Mr. Sam's Big Top teepee must induce a time warp on anyone inside.
Suddenly, a screaming cut the nightquiet. Running towards us with a hundred people in tow, Sunshine shouted out. "Sttooooooppp!!! Stop that bus someone!"
Instantly, Sly sprinted in pursuit. Catching the Broadway Shuttle in no time, he pounded on its sidemetal until the driver finally squeaked it to a lazy stop. Sunshine hustled over, and by the time Paco and I arrived on the scene, all of her followers were loaded. After paying the chubby driver, she handed the old soldier who'd offered up his chowder a large fold of currency.
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From the sidewalk, Sly called out for her to give the driver another C note. "For the dent my fist put in his bus, sis."
After the dealing was done, Sunshine climbed out and a jet of compressed air swished the door shut.
The driver poked his head out the far window. "And away we go!!!"
As the bus churned away, when I asked if the driver was Jackie Gleason, Sunshine put her hand on my cheek. "You've been spending too much time watching latenight televison alone, Great One."
Interrupting our burgeoning romance, Sly asked Sunshine the story with the good people from the Salvation Army.
She said they ran out of chowder so she sent them over to Ruggeri's for a few nights - until a better kitchen could be built. "Paco and Sly, we made a small donation to humanity on behalf of Pentacular Productions. Maybe we can work out some sort of joint-venture with Rosie."
Hugging Coleen, Paco queried lopsidedly. "Rosie??"
Refastening her moneybelt, Sunshine asked what he would expect the owner's name to be, and pointed to a line of red-and-green letters florentined across the yellowed storefront: O'Grady's Grill, est. 1906.
Sly said it sounded like good bio-rhythms to him. "Yoooo kiddies, let's go into Davis's favorite grill and palaver with Rosie O'Grady while she feeds our starvin' faces."
Paco gave Coleen a facial goose and snarled. "If anyone messes with Guts, Nuts, or Grace, we hold Pretty Richard responsible."
Sunshine took my hand and corrected her easy-talkin' sidekicks. "My date's name is David and he lives at Poor Richard's - until facilities befitting a soul of his stature can be found."
Flattered to have a follower, I told everyone to hang loose and led the way in with Moses.
end chap 28
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