The boy was home from college for the first time, and the town where he lived seemed like a new place to him. Where before it was filled with boring people he wanted to get away from, he now realized it was alive with the stuff of literature; feeble-minded types spouting folk wisdom, glum men hiding dark secrets of incest or worse beneath their impassive exteriors, women leading lives of despair, far from civilization. He lived in the sort of provincial town that had been mined so successfully by so many authors—if he paid attention and took good notes, he could return to the city in the fall with material that would shock the aloof women he’d encountered in his freshman English class.
He got a job where he would get the maximum amount of exposure to the weird country types he’d read about in Faulkner; delivering ice, which was still used as home refrigeration by the poor, and which was needed in huge quantities at the poultry processing plant that was located along the railroad tracks that separated the black from the white side of town, and at the State Fair during the last two weeks of August.
He began to carry a notebook with him wherever he went. No one noticed it in his shirt pocket, since it could have been for use keeping track of sales and receipts. He’d take out a stubby pencil when he heard a particularly choice phrase—“Fine as frog’s hair” was one—and write it down. He would daydream, as he looked out the window of the delivery truck, of the characters whose mouths he would put these words into when he got back to college.
He couldn’t drive the truck because he didn’t have his commercial license, a fact that he hadn’t mentioned to his boss when he’d first been asked to drive a load of three-hundred pound blocks to the poultry plant. He’d missed the loading dock and dented the building on his first trip over, and his boss, a catty-corner neighbor of his parents, had had to send over someone to drive the truck back. He felt awful, but relieved as well; he’d no longer be responsible for backing the heavily-loaded truck down the hill to the bays where they pushed the ice into the plant.
For the State Fair he’d been assigned to ride with Charlie, the foreman who’d been relieved of heavy work after he fell off a loading dock. Once he came back to work Charlie’s role was limited to driving and watching younger men do the loading and unloading, the pushing and pulling the blocks of ice in the cold room.
“The State Fair is good work,” Charlie had said on their first trip out to the fairgrounds. “You get a lot of overtime, and mostly you’re just sitting on your ass driving back and forth.” Easy for him to say, the boy thought, since he wouldn’t be the one lifting and hauling the blocks of ice off the delivery truck and into the many pop stands and beer gardens that bought it.
They first made deliveries to the wooden cafes that lined the long road that led to the grandstands. The boy would haul the ice, fifty-pound blocks at a time, into the places and drop it into the tanks where the soda was kept while Charlie palavered with the owner, usually a father who’d put his whole family to work as counter help. Then they’d get back in the truck, drive a hundred yards or so, and do it again.
They turned right on the street that led down to the midway, where the rides and game booths and freak shows were set up. They made a stop at the beer garden at the top of the hill, then another one on the right hand side at the bottom of the hill. Charlie turned the truck around in front of the midway entrance, parked it in front of a third beer garden and said “Time for a beer.” It was ten a.m.
The job was a big one, two entire blocks of ice, so twelve trips from the truck to the tank. Charlie said hi to the owner, then sat down and ordered. The waitress brought him a brown bottle of beer and a little later, an egg sandwich. He ate slowly, and with a satisfied air.
When the boy was done, he came around to where Charlie was sitting, thinking he would want to get back on the road.
“Have a seat, kid,” the older man said. “I’m in no hurry to make Mr. Cunningham any more money. He already has all he’ll ever need.”
The boy sat down and the waitress came over to ask if he wanted anything.
“Do we have time?” he asked Charlie.
“Sure, unlest you’re gonna order a slab of ribs.”
“What’ll ya have?” the waitress asked.
“A vanilla Coke,” the boy replied.
The waitress left and Charlie gave the boy a nudge, then nodded at a disheveled man sitting opposite them on the other side of the horseshoe-shaped counter.
“See that guy there?” he asked in a lowered voice.
“Right. He’s a carney.”
“One of them guys who travel with the carnival. They’re the lowest form of life there is.”
The boy looked over at the man who was huddled over a cup, sipping from time to time.
“Those guys are so cheap, they’ll come in and order a cup of hot water for a nickel. Then they open up a couple of ketchup packs and make tomato soup,” Charlie said.
“Why don’t they just turn them away?” the boy asked.
“Take a look at him,” Charlie said. The man’s face was dirty, his hair oily, his hands dark with grime. His arms were covered with tattoos. He would stare off into the morning sun as if in a trance, then when the waitress walked by he would leer at her and make a crack that could be heard from where the boy sat.
“You piss off a guy like that, you have to live with him for the next two weeks,” Charlie said. “If he gets mad enough, he yells ‘Hey rube’ and the rest of his gang come running. They tear your place apart and don’t have no conscience about it. They’re on to the next town.”
The boy saw the man in a new light. He looked at him out of the corner of one eye, not wanting to face him directly.
“I’m gonna go answer nature’s call, then we’ll hit the road again,” Charlie said as he got up and walked off to the public restroom halfway up the hill.
The boy heard the man speak as the waitress navigated past him to fetch an order from the kitchen.
“You’re just like the State Fair, Kitty,” the man said.
“And why is that?” the waitress answered as she turned to carry a tray back to her customers.
“Cause you get bigger and better every year,” the man said, then laughed.
The boy realized he should try to get some of the man’s expressions down, and slowly removed his pad and pencil from his shirt pocket and began to write as discreetly as he could.
“Looks like two hogs fightin’ under a sheet,” the man said with a grin as the waitress walked past, her hips swinging beneath a black uniform. He spoke in the direction of another man, cleanly-dressed, who sat a few seats away. The other man ignored him, and the carney turned in the direction of the boy, who was scribbling in his book.
“Hey kid!” he yelled.
The boy looked up, his face flush from a rush of blood to his face.
“Yeah, you,” the man snapped. “You writin’ a book or somethin’?”
The boy started to speak, but nothing came out at first. After a moment he was able to say “no” weakly.
“Bullshit,” the man said. “You was writin’ down what I said, wasn’t you?”
The boy said nothing.
“Well you can kiss my ass and make it a love story,” the carney said, then began to stare at the boy, wild-eyed.
The boy put some money on the counter, then got up uneasily. The man watched him go, and the boy could feel his glare.
When he reached the sidewalk outside Charlie was coming down the hill, whistling. “You all set?” he asked the boy.
“All set,” he replied, and got into the truck with more speed than usual.