Many old friends arrived from Doc’s film and TV days who hadn’t come by for years. Bunches of well-wishers, fans, as well as newer acquaintances he’d made at his roadside attraction also came. A few strange types Gus couldn’t recognize mingled in as well.
Bearing a huge pile of packages, Gus threaded his way through the crowd, greeting everyone. As he placed the stack on the table, an older man he didn’t know with a short white beard, an affable smile, and a pipe approached. “I assume this where the gifts go?” he asked, presenting Gus with a blue, beautifully wrapped box. “Sorry, can’t stay but wanted to make sure your father gets this. Please give it to him, won’t you? I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.”
“No problem, but who –” Gus said, meaning to ask his name but a tap on his shoulder made him turn. “Hey Reuben, good to see you.”
The first man was already gone. The pudgy newcomer’s pale skin contrasted with his goatee and black hair slicked back into a ponytail. With the image of the Virgin prominent on his right bicep and a bleeding Sacred Heart on the other, he was undoubtedly Chicano, as his accent confirmed. “Hola, jefe, muy grac�as for the invite.” He gave Gus an elaborate handshake.
“No problem, hombre, glad to. You’re Doc’s biggest fan – heck, the sole fan – in the entire department.”
“There are a few others, but most of those vatos are wimps, you know.” “Hey, for sticking up for me – not to mention finding those books – you deserve it, amigo. Enjoy.”
Nigel snagged a beer and then found Skip, shooting a video. But his subject was oblivious to the camera. The old man squatted in the shade of a gnarled cottonwood tree, ignoring his adult guests, surrounded by a happy bunch of small children digging in the dirt.
Doc appeared to have not a care in the world. He was advising a small blonde girl with a pirate hat eagerly digging in the dirt with a large kitchen spoon. “Careful, now, slow, Darla, honey,” he said, “You don’t want to miss anything.”
“I won’t, if the map’s good,” the girl huffed. A chubby boy squatting next to her wearing an eye patch and clutching a tattered piece of paper replied, “Aye, Captain. It should be here somewhere.”
“Whoa! Hey, I found something�” She dropped the spoon and pawed at the ground in excitement, pulling a silver disk out of the earth.
Gus worked his way through the milling crowd. “What’s up, fellas?” Skip, taping the scene, waved at him to keep quiet. Nigel whispered to Gus, “Roundabout we go again; the little ’uns fall under the old spell.”
Gus chuckled, “Falls for the shill, you mean.”
The girl jumped in excitement holding a silver dollar in her grubby fist, pigtails and pirate hat flying. “Look! I found Yankee treasure stolen by the rebels! A silver dollar!”
Gus half-smiled. “Wow. Good work, Darla, and you too, Billy! You’ll make a better team of archeologists than us!” Skip congratulated his daughter.
“Not yet, but maybe someday.” Doc winked, tousling the boy’s hair.
“I’m going to show Aunt Allie!” Holding the coin high, the girl skipped through the scattered guests towards the sprawling ranch house. Most of the other kids trailed behind although a hopeful few continued to dig.
As Skip stopped recording, Allie appeared from nowhere. “Did I hear my name? Skip, why are you grinning?”
“Let me guess,” Gus said. “She can’t make it?”
Skip’s smile grew. “Yep, terrible news, a storm delayed the Yucatan shoot. The upshot is Maya regrets missing the party, and the chance of a scene. Okay, she didn’t say the last part in so many words.”
“You and Dad are doubtless the only straight males here which will beam at the news,” Allie said. “But I can’t blame you, brother. She is quite the drama queen.”
“Empress more like,” Skip turned and shared a high-five with Nigel. “Ah, now I can relax,” he said. “You were right, Hotfoot. Better done quick than dragged out.”
“Strewth! Like ripping an adhesive bandage off,” the reporter agreed. “Do it right smartly, and don’t wimp out, Monkey-boy.”
“Wounded pride will bleed awhile more,” Skip admitted, lifting his drink high. “But I swear, no more chasing divas for this guy.”
Gus snorted and rolled his eyes.
“I’m glad; this way,” Allie added, “tonight gets to be Dad’s show, not her stage. Now, which way did my niece go?”
Skip pointed toward the kitchen. Gus punched his brother’s brawny shoulder. “Try to be brave for Dad’s sake, will you? This is supposed to be a party.” Skip laughed.
Gus helped Doc stand. “Salting the site again, Dad?” he teased. “Tsk. Scandalous.”
The old man grunted as he rose but managed a chuckle. “Fiddlesticks; there’s nothing wrong with providing a little incentive, son. Must inspire the next generation, you know. It worked great on you, didn’t it?” Gus nodded. He helped his father shuffle slowly to a throne-like white rattan chair under the tree. Once seated, Doc looked tired and a little gloomy.
“This ought to cheer you up, Dad,” Gus said, bringing a stack of mail. “Look at this stuff. Somebody must be having a special occasion.”
Approaching the cooler, Skip stopped and turned. Asserting his rights over his younger brother, he teasingly demanded, “Hey, let me see that, punk.”
“No, Skip, let me do it.” The men tussled for a few moments while their sister came from behind to pluck a large envelope effortlessly out of the fray. Gus kept hold of the others.
“Ah ha! Here’s a big one from Bellegraal!” “Lovely, greetings from dear old Henri or Benoit, I expect,” Doc said, patting his pockets with an expectant smile. “Oh dear, I misplaced my reading glasses again somewhere. Could you read it aloud, please, Alix, darling?”
Skip plucked the spectacles from atop their father’s head and presented them. “Oh that’s right,” Doc said. “How could I forget? My old comrades are gone. Benny’s still around, but he never writes any more�”
Allie looked away, and examined a fat envelope in the reddening light. “Yeah, sorry, Dad, it sure doesn’t look like it’s from any of the Montc�lances. Sorry Gus, not Angelique.”
Gus said nothing, but he scanned the rest of the pile before passing it to his father. In an aside to Nigel he explained, “A few graaleurs always send Dad cards around this time, most often admirers, but there’s occasionally a few nasty religious types.”
“‘Graaleurs,’ you mean, those Maundy Grail nutters? I thought they called themselves ‘tubbers.’ Don’t they hold a big whoop-te-do in Bellegraal every summer?” Nigel asked, the picture of innocence.
“You know it. Speaking of which, this is from something called,” Allie squinted as she read, “‘The Tenth Annual International Nipterological Conference Planning Committee,’ whatever it is. Sounds impressive.”
“No doubt by intention,” Gus said, opening a beer. “But if it’s what I think, it’s just an announcement of the next big tubby pow-wow.”
“Tubbies?” Skip frowned. “Oh no, the fans are worse than the crazy-ass pothunters.”
“Come on, Skip, it’s fun if you don’t take them too seriously,” Allie said. “Like those who object to ‘tubby’ usually do. Some say the term comes from ‘T.B.s’ – ‘true believers.’”
“We went to the first convention they held, you know, and it was interesting,” Gus said.
“That’s what you call falling hard for a French girl?” Skip teased. Gus turned pink.
“I suppose if your idea of enjoyment is arguing all night with people who either passionately believe everything or nothing whatsoever, over details of obscure events which may, or may not, have happened an awful long time ago, it’s a great time.” Skip took a long sip.
“So that’s why you climbed the steeple?” Allie asked.
“Yep, had to get away: Felt like death by a thousand paper-cuts, or lawyers’ talking.”
“Makes it all sound a bit potty,” Nigel commented.
“Let me tell you, pal: tubbies give ‘crackpot’ a whole new meaning,” Gus declared.
Allie ripped open the big envelope and extracted a letter. “Hey, this is great! Not just congratulations on your anniversary, they want you to be their guest of honor next year, Dad. Room and board and convention costs included! Family too; we just need to get there.” She passed it to her father, who peered at it in suspicion, lips moving as he read in silence.
She poked through the rest of the packet. “There’s more – here’s yet another letter from the Cardinal.” She passed it to Doc also. “Oh, what’s this one with a coat of arms? Nice,” she appraised the embossed seal of a white horse rampant in all members on a black background.
“It’s from a Count Roland,” Allie announced. “Again, congratulations and an invitation to you also, blah, blah and something about a grand banquet and ball he holds every year.
“We should go,” she said. “We haven’t been back to Bellegraal in ages.”
Skip and Gus both looked doubtful while Nigel could not help but smile. “What? Why not? What could be wrong with that?” Allie asked. “Sounds fun to me.”
“Not for me to dispute your feminine intuition, but don’t let your enthusiasm carry you away, sis.” Skip said.
Gus said, “We should at least talk with them, see if they really mean to honor Doc’s achievements. No more ambushes like today.”
“Sure,” Skip said. “It could be a great opportunity but I don’t trust them either. They can say anything now to get him to come, and once there it’s too late. Let’s not get hasty.”
Gus’ reply went unvoiced as Doc interrupted. “Yes, why not go? Why not indeed? I realize you’re trying to be protective, children, but I’ve done with hiding. Sixty years of talking behind my back is enough. The time has come. Let’s go to Bellegraal!”