Neal Barrett, Jr. is the author of more than 50 novels, including the post-apocalyptic novels Kelwin, Through Darkest America, Dawn’s Uncertain Light, and Prince of Christler-Coke. He’s published dozens of short stories, in venues such as F&SF, Galaxy, Amazing Stories, Omni, Asimov’s, and a number of anthologies. His work has been collected in Slightly Off-Center and Perpetuity Blues.
This story, which was a finalist for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, introduces readers to Ginny Sweethips and her traveling roadshow that makes its living selling sex, tacos, and dangerous drugs. Her companions are her driver and carnival barker Del, and Possum Dark who lives for the moments when he can spray lead across the land.
So, without further adieu, here she is, gents: Ginny Sweethips. Isn’t she all you ever dreamed of?
This excerpt appears here courtesy of the author.
Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus
by Neal Barrett, Jr.
Del drove and Ginny sat.
“They’re taking their sweet time,” Ginny said, “damned if they’re not.”
“They’re itchy,” Del said. “Everyone’s itchy. Everyone’s looking to stay alive.”
“Huh!” Ginny showed disgust. “I sure don’t care for sittin’ out here in the sun. My price is going up by the minute. You wait and see if it doesn’t.”
“Don’t get greedy,” Del said.
Ginny curled her toes on the dash. Her legs felt warm in the sun. The stockade was a hundred yards off. Barbed wire looped above the walls. The sign over the gate read:
First Church of the Unleaded God
& Ace High Refinery
The refinery needed paint. It had likely been silver, but was now dull as pewter and black rust. Ginny leaned out the window and called to Possum Dark.
“What’s happening, friend? Those mothers dead in there or what?”
“Thinking,” Possum said. “Fixing to make a move. Considering what to do.” Possum Dark sat atop the van in a steno chair bolted to the roof. Circling the chair was a swivel-ring mount sporting fine twin-fifties black as grease. Possum had a death-view clean around. Keeping out the sun was a red Cinzano umbrella faded pink. Possum studied the stockade and watched heat distort the flats. He didn’t care for the effect. He was suspicious of things less than cut and dried. Apprehensive of illusions of every kind. He scratched his nose and curled his tail around his leg. The gate opened up and men started across the scrub. He teased them in his sights. He prayed they’d do something silly and grand.
Possum counted thirty-seven men. A few carried sidearms, openly or concealed. Possum spotted them all at once. He wasn’t too concerned. This seemed like an easygoing bunch, more intent on fun than fracas. Still, there was always the hope that he was wrong.
The men milled about. They wore patched denim and faded shirts. Possum made them nervous. Del countered that; his appearance set them at ease. The men looked at Del, poked each other and grinned. Del was scrawny and bald except for tufts around the ears. The dusty black coat was too big. His neck thrust out of his shirt like a newborn buzzard looking for meat. The men forgot Possum and gathered around, waiting to see what Del would do. Waiting for Del to get around to showing them what they’d come to see. The van was painted turtle-green. Gold Barnum type named the owner, and the selected vices for sale:
Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus
*** SEX * TACOS * DANGEROUS DRUGS ***
Del puttered about with this and that. He unhitched the wagon from the van and folded out a handy little stage. It didn’t take three minutes to set up, but he dragged it out to ten, then ten on top of that. The men started to whistle and clap their hands. Del looked alarmed. They liked that. He stumbled and they laughed.
“Hey, mister, you got a girl in there or not?” a man called out.
“Better be something here besides you,” another said.
“Gents,” Del said, raising his hands for quiet, “Ginny Sweethips herself will soon appear on this stage, and you’ll be more than glad you waited. Your every wish will be fulfilled, I promise you that. I’m bringing beauty to the wastelands, gents. Lust the way you like it, passion unrestrained. Sexual crimes you never dreamed!”
“Cut the talk, mister,” a man with peach-pit eyes shouted to Del. “Show us what you got.”
Others joined in, stomped their feet and whistled. Del knew he had them. Anger was what he wanted. Frustration and denial. Hatred waiting for sweet release. He waved them off, but they wouldn’t stop. He placed one hand on the door of the van–and brought them to silence at once.
The double doors opened. A worn red curtain was revealed, stenciled with hearts and cherubs. Del extended his hand. He seemed to search behind the curtain, one eye closed in concentration. He looked alarmed, groping for something he couldn’t find. Uncertain he remembered how to do this trick at all. And then, in a sudden burst of motion, Ginny did a double forward flip, and appeared like glory on the stage.
The men broke into shouts of wild abandon. Ginny led them in a cheer. She was dressed for the occasion. Short white skirt shiny bright, white boots with tassels. White sweater with a big red G sewn on the front.
“Ginny Sweethips, gents,” Del announced with a flair, “giving you her own interpretation of Barbara Jean, the Cheerleader Next Door. Innocent as snow, yet a little bit wicked and willing to learn, if Biff the Quarterback will only teach her. Now, what do you say to that?”
They whistled and yelled and stomped. Ginny strutted and switched, doing long-legged kicks that left them gasping with delight. Thirty-seven pairs of eyes showed their needs. Men guessed at hidden parts. Dusted off scenarios of violence and love. Then, as quickly as she’d come, Ginny was gone. Men threatened to storm the stage. Del grinned without concern. The curtain parted and Ginny was back, blond hair replaced with saucy red, costume changed in the blink of an eye. Del introduced Nurse Nora, an angel of mercy weak as soup in the hands of Patient Pete. Moments later, hair black as a raven’s throat, she was School teacher Sally, cold as well water, until Steve the Bad Student loosed the fury chained within.
Ginny vanished again. Applause thundered over the flats. Del urged them on, then spread his hands for quiet.
“Did I lie to you gents? Is she all you ever dreamed? Is this the love you’ve wanted all your life? Could you ask for sweeter limbs, for softer flesh? For whiter teeth, for brighter eyes?”
“Yeah, but is she real?” a man shouted, a man with a broken face sewn up like a sock. “We’re religious people here. We don’t fuck with no machines.”
Others echoed the question with bold shouts and shaking fists.
“Now, I don’t blame you, sir, at all,” Del said. “I’ve had a few dolly droids myself. A plastic embrace at best, I’ll grant you that. Not for the likes of you, for I can tell you’re a man who knows his women. No, sir, Ginny’s real as rain, and she’s yours in the role of your choice. Seven minutes of bliss. It’ll seem like a lifetime, gents, I promise you that. Your goods gladly returned if I’m a liar. And all for only a U.S. gallon of gas!”
Howls and groans at that, as Del expected.
“That’s a cheat is what it is! Ain’t a woman worth it!”
“Gas is better’n gold, and we work damn hard to get it!”
Del stood his ground. Looked grim and disappointed. “I’d be the last man alive to try to part you from your goods,” Del said. “It’s not my place to drive a fellow into the arms of sweet content, to make him rest his manly frame on golden thighs. Not if he thinks this lovely girl’s not worth the fee, no sir. I don’t do business that way and never have.”
The men moved closer. Del could smell their discontent. He read sly thoughts above their heads. There was always this moment when it occurred to them there was a way Ginny’s delights might be obtained for free.
“Give it some thought, friends,” Del said. “A man’s got to do what he’s got to do. And while you’re making up your minds, turn your eyes to the top of the van for a startling and absolutely free display of the slickest bit of marksmanship you’re ever likely to see!”
Before Del’s words were out of his mouth and on the way, before the men could scarcely comprehend, Ginny appeared again and tossed a dozen china saucers in the air.
Possum Dark moved in a blur. Turned 140 degrees in his bolted steno chair and whipped his guns on target, blasting saucers to dust. Thunder rolled across the flats. Crockery rained on the men below. Possum stood and offered a pink killer grin and a little bow. The men saw six-foot-nine and a quarter inches of happy marsupial fury and awesome speed, of black agate eyes and a snout full of icy varmint teeth. Doubts were swept aside. Fifty-caliber madness wasn’t the answer. Fun today was clearly not for free.
“Gentlemen, start your engines,” Del smiled. “I’ll be right here to take your fee. Enjoy a hot taco while you wait your turn at glory. Have a look at our display of fine pharmaceutical wonders and mind-expanding drugs.”
In moments, men were making their way back to the stockade. Soon after that, they returned toting battered tins of gas. Del sniffed each gallon, in case some buffoon thought water would get him by. Each man received a token and took his place. Del sold tacos and dangerous drugs, taking what he could get in trade. Candles and Mason jars, a rusty knife. Half a manual on full-field maintenance for the Chrysler Mark XX Urban Tank. The drugs were different colors but the same: twelve parts oregano, three parts rabbit shit, one part marijuana stems. All this under Possum’s watchful eye.
“By God,” said the first man out of the van. “She’s worth it, I’ll tell you that. Have her do the Nurse, you won’t regret it!”
“The Schoolteacher’s best,” said the second man through. “I never seen the like. I don’t care if she’s real or she ain’t.”
“What’s in these tacos?” a customer asked Del.
“Nobody you know, mister,” Del said.