Goon Dust Love
Michael’s favorite episode of Deadly Pastures was the one where Dr. Poppins died in a zeppelin fire. The penguin was smoking his cigar and trying to evade the pursuing fighter planes when the balloon finally exploded over the old Hamilton windmill. Even though the penguin was a villain and had put drugs in the punch at the Halloween carnival and made all the kids think that skeletons were attacking the clocktower, Michael still liked the way he twirled his long mustache and always had a clever comeback whenever someone made fun of him. In the end, with the flames starting to creep under the cockpit door, Poppins just stared into the sunset and laughed. Michael hoped that’s how he would go out: cool all the way to the end.
Deadly Pastures came on every Tuesday at midnight, a new episode first and then reruns until early in the morning. After his parents went to their room, Michael would get out his walkie talkie, unroll his sleeping bag and spread it out on top of the dirty clothes on his closet floor. He’d climb inside, pull the soft flannel over his body and reach into the bottom drawer of his dresser, feeling under the socks and underwear for the little TV set his brother had left for him. It was old, but when you lifted the antenna out of the top a couple of fuzzy channels came through.
Michael’s parents kept the house cold. His fur had gotten a little thicker in the last year, but he and his dad still fought over the thermostat, each sneaking down the hall a few times each night to set it how they wanted. Michael sank deeper into the sleeping bag, put his feet up against the dresser and propped the TV on his knees. He pressed the orange button on his walkie talkie and whispered, ”Come in, Elaine.“
Elaine answered immediately.
”Come in, Michael.“
”I keep thinking about last night’s episode,“ Michael said. ”When Caroline mentioned her vacation home on the coast. That had to be a slip-up. She’s got to be the kidnapper, right?“
”I doubt it, but it’s almost time. Ready?“
Michael didn’t have a watch, so Elaine counted them down every night.
”Five,“ Elaine said.
”One,“ Elaine said, waiting until the second hand was just in front of the twelve.
”Go,“ they said together and turned on their TVs.
On his screen, the opening credits were so small that Michael couldn’t read the actors’ names. Elaine had found an old magazine at the library book sale with an article about the show, though, and they liked to talk about the actors now, pointing out episodes when you could tell Janet Crowe had taken too many pills or inventing off-camera romances between minor characters like Oscar, the chauffeur, and Maryanne, the event coordinator the Clifton’s used for their fundraisers. As the shots of rolling green hills, speeding cars and dramatic confrontations flickered behind the words, Michael pretended to read the credits.
”Starring Michael Burbank as Thurston Stewart. Elaine Richy as Laney Stewart. Tom the Dalmatian as Tom the black lab.“
”Michael, shhhhh,“ Elaine said. ”I like to listen to the music. And you know those aren’t the right names. Over.“
”No way they’d let them get away with that casting anymore,“ Michael said, but he stopped talking as the first scene came on.
Michael and Elaine had been watching Deadly Pastures every week for two years now. They were always quiet for the new episode, but then they talked through the reruns until they both fell asleep. They would wake up to find that, at some point, Deadly Pastures had been replaced by infomercials, and then they would say good morning to each other over the walkie talkies and get ready for school.
That night’s episode was about a ball the Stewarts were throwing for their youngest daughter. She had disappeared three episodes ago, so now it was a charity event to raise money for the search. Except Michael said the Stewarts were crooked and were probably just pocketing the money. He was sure Caroline Stewart had taken her niece and was holding her for ransom.
Elaine wasn’t sure who had done the kidnapping, but she thought she liked the new detective character the show had introduced. As the partiers drank and danced and joked in the Stewart mansion, Detective Cloud slipped between them, peeking his head around corners and slinking behind couches to eavesdrop on conversations. Elaine liked the way his long red fur stuck out around the collar of his trench coat and how his big ears swiveled to catch secrets being told across the room. She didn’t like to talk about Detective Cloud with Michael, though, because she was afraid he would figure out how she felt about the fox’s bushy tail or long, elegant nose. Michael liked Detective Cloud because sometimes he had to corner suspects in laundry rooms and punch them until they gave up a clue.
The episode ended with Laney Stewart fighting with her sister on a balcony overlooking the party. Big paper lanterns lit the grounds below, and the guests’ faces all turned up when a glass shattered and Caroline screamed. It was dark on the balcony, and the women’s shadows danced back and forth, arms and tails tangling in the dark. At one point Elaine was sure that they would both fall over the low railing, but then Laney started to laugh and Caroline did too, and the guests went back to their conversations. The last shot showed a fox paw slipping into a Louis Vuitton purse and coming out holding a small pearl-handled revolver.
Michael and Elaine started talking over each other as soon as the closing credits began.
”That had to be Cloud, right? I bet he’s about to…“
”… and the way that Thurston looked at Maryanne when she brought out that cake …“
”No way Caroline’s getting away with it. Cloud’s on to her!“
They stopped and laughed at themselves, and Michael pressed the walkie talkie into the sleeping bag to muffle the sound while he listened to make sure his parents were still asleep. The next episode started. They had seen it a few times before; it was from early in the series, when Harrison was in trouble for taking steroids and crashing his father’s car into the barn.
”You know prom’s in just a couple of weeks. Over.“ Elaine said.
Prom was a problem. Elaine didn’t want Michael to ask her to be his date or anything like that. Sometimes Michael thought that Elaine’s ears were cute, but he mostly just worried about people having fun without them. He imagined being there, surrounded by everyone they had spent high school with, laughing and dancing and hugging at the end of the night. Elaine imagined walking in and the crowd going quiet, turning together to look at the little mouse they had always ignored. But they both knew that it wouldn’t be like that, that they would probably just stand together in a corner and leave early. It was a problem.
”I just wish it could be awesome somehow,“ Michael said. It felt strange to say out loud that he might want to go, but he could tell Elaine anything when they were talking like this, late at night.
”I know, right? We’re totally awesome. Over.“
”We are totally awesome. You’re totally awesome, Elaine. Over.“
They were quiet for a while, sometimes making a joke about Harrison’s mane and the dumb way he combed it up in the front. Michael never knew exactly when Elaine fell asleep, if it was before or after he did. At some point they would just stop talking, and in the morning they would meet by the vending machines outside the library and walk to first period together.