Highway Poet Tells Bureaucrat to Hit the Road

ENFIELD, Connecticut.  Mike Abruzzioni is Assistant Deputy Commissioner of Roads and Bridges at State Highway Department District #2 Headquarters here, a position he earned after many years of service, plus frequent contributions to state legislators.  “It ain’t what a lot of people think,” he says of the keys to his success.  “In addition to hard work, there’s a lot of ass-kissing you gotta do.”

Image result for led highway sign

Still, after two decades climbing the bureaucratic ladder he thought he had achieved some measure of personal freedom to do his job as he pleased, including some latitude as to the messages he posts on the Department’s LED message signs.  “Frankly, I didn’t even know Connecticut had a poet laureate,” he says ruefully.  “Seems like a waste of money to me at a time when I got to lay off two brush-hog cutters.”

Image result for brush hog cutter
“I leave a wake where’er I go/That’s what you get whene’er you mow.”

Abruzzioni is referring to the run-in he had with Tristram Morgan, the state’s official poet until December 31, 2017, after he posted “Stay awake/take a break/for safety sake” along Route 1 over the July 4th weekend.  “I didn’t think nothin’ of it, then I get a call the Monday morning after from the Arts & Cultural Council saying they’re filing a grievance against me.”

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“Zombies ahead/fear and dread/pretty soon you’ll all be dead.”

The complaint referred to the terms and conditions under which Morgan took the largely honorary position of state poet laureate, which pays only a stipend of $2,000 plus a 5-minute shopping spree at Annie’s Gently Used Romance Paperbacks in West Harford.  “POET,” the rider to the standard state contract terms and conditions reads, “shall be the official source of all poetry purchased by the STATE until the expiration of the term hereof,” which the assistant professor at Trinity College says entitles him to craft the traffic messages that are flashed to motorists.

“I found Mr. Abruzzioni’s little doggerel to be deficient in many respects,” Morgan sniffs when the question “Who cares?” is put to him by this reporter.  “An elementary, almost banal rhyme scheme.  The abbreviated line length–surely the marks of a poetaster.”

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“Take the detour round West Hartford/or what the hell is all my art for?”

In its place Morgan began to post verse that, in the formulation suggested by Archibald MacLeish, tended to “be” rather than “mean” and echoed the work of the state’s most famous poet, the notably obscurantist Wallace Stevens:

Nutmeg State, Dunkin’ Donuts
Please slow down folks, and don’t go nuts.

When Abruzzioni objected, saying his work was protected by civil service regulations, Morgan began to write poems that crossed the line into advocacy, as Byron’s late work was enflamed by his support of the Greek struggle for independence from Turkey:

Poems written by highway hacks–
They give me bad gas attacks.


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“Hey–slow down/What the fuck?/Don’t you pass my/painting truck!”

Ultimately the conflict between the two public employees will be resolved by binding arbitration before a three-member panel composed of a writing instructor from the University of Connecticut-Storrs, an industrial accidents court judge, and Bob Nash, the driver of a line-painting truck who is hoping to move up from two-lane state roads to four-lane highways eventually.  “I’m gonna try to be an impartial judge,” he tells this reporter as he squints into the sun at the end of the workday.  “On the other hand, that D I got in senior English means I can never get a job at the Registry of Motor Vehicles.”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

A Day at the Fair

The bus came by to pick the residents up early, around seven, so they could make the half hour drive to the State Fair and get them down to the carnival before it got too hot. They would all want to go down to the midway, where the calliope music and the rides got them excited; they were all just children, Sue Ellen thought, and she wanted them to get their fill of it before the sun was too high in the sky.

The residents had been allowed to withdraw ten dollars each from their accounts at the State Home for the Retarded; the nurses would bring a picnic lunch that they would spread out under the trees near the gate. After lunch they would walk through the Arts and Crafts building—the men liked to look at the model planes and cars and the tooled leather belts, the women liked the needlepoint and flower arrangements–and then head back.

Furman was one of the oldest of the males; he had been released to a job as a dishwasher at a country club where he could live in a spare room over the kitchen, but he had wandered off twice, once ending up in a whorehouse in a converted drag strip south of town. It was decided he needed to be back at the school.

Sue Ellen took one group of ten and entered the midway through the left entrance; Mary Louise took the others and started at the right entrance so that they wouldn’t block up the midway for the rest of the fairgoers. Sue Ellen was conscious of the stares as she made her way through the crowds, but her job was to watch her charges, and not worry about whether people thought she was retarded too. Still, every now and then she barked out an order—“We’re not going in that show, Nae Ann”—and she found herself wondering whether she spoke louder than was necessary in order to broadcast to the crowd that she was normal, like them.

She herded her group into a tent with coin-operated games. It was cool there, the games only cost a quarter, and there were no carneys to persuade the patients to spend more than they should in the hope of winning a big stuffed animal.

Lyle, a sandy-haired man of around twenty, went straight for the peep shows, the hand-cranked machines that showed an undressed woman who used curtains, fans and beach balls to conceal her breasts and groin from the viewer’s eye.

“Don’t spend all your money in one place, Lyle,” Sue Ellen said.

“Huh,” Lyle laughed back at her. “Why not?”

“Because there’s other things to do.”

A group of women was playing skee-ball, and strings of tickets issued from the coin box at the end of the game. “I get a prize!” one screamed as she pulled the tickets out.

“We all played,” another said. “We share.”

“Why don’t you let me hold them,” Sue Ellen said as she took the tickets from the woman. “We’ll get a prize on the way out. Okay, let’s buddy up for a second,” she called out to the group scattered throughout the tent. The teenagers firing guns at screens didn’t even look up.

“Who’s your buddy, everybody,” she said when the residents had assembled before her. Two by two, the men and women raised their hands to signal that they had found the person who they were assigned to as a partner. Everyone but Lyle, who remained at his peep show.

“Lyle, come over here.”

“In a minute.”

“Now.”

Lyle made his way over to where the others were standing. “Who’s your buddy?” Sue Ellen asked.

“Furman.”

“Where is he?”

“Don’t know.”

“Aren’t you supposed to stay together?”

“We were, then everybody came in here.”

“All right. Everybody go back to what you were doing,” Sue Ellen said. “I’ll look for him—stay with your buddies.”

The group dispersed back to their games, with the women who had been playing skee-ball rushing into a photo booth to have their picture taken. Sue Ellen went to the entrance of the tent and spoke to the man who was selling tokens.

“Did you see a tall man with a crew cut walk out of here?” she asked.

“What was he wearing?” the man asked.

“Grey pants and a white T-shirt.”

“I ain’t seen him.”

“I’m here with a group from the State Home for the Retarded. Can you watch them for a minute while I scout around a bit?”

“We’re not responsible for lost stuff.”

“They’re human beings—they all have tags on them so people will know where they’re from.”

“If I see any I’ll tell ‘em they can’t leave, how’s that?” Sue Ellen couldn’t tell whether the man was being sarcastic behind his sunglasses.

“That’s fine, thank you.”

“But we’re not liable if one of them wanders off, understand?”

“I understand.”

She walked out of the tent and looked back towards the midway entrance, trying to see if Furman had lagged behind them. She didn’t see him, and turned her head to look up at the half-way point of the midway where the “Club Ebony” show was set up at the bend. The show had apparently begun, as there was no one—not even the barker—in front of the stage.

She looked across the midway through the electric cables and trailers to see if she could see Mary Louise and her group. As she did so, she saw Furman standing talking to a man running a dart game, with big stuffed animals hanging down inside his booth.

“I’ve found him,” she said to the man selling the tokens. “I’m just going over there to bring him back.”

“Okay. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

Sue Ellen scurried across the gravel to the booth where Furman was standing, his back turned towards her. The carney was talking patiently to Furman, explaining something to him, as Sue Ellen approached.

“You just missed that last time,” the carney was saying as Sue Ellen walked up. “Give it one more try and I’ll bet you get your girl a big teddy bear. C’mon.”

“Furman,” Sue Ellen said sharply as she approached. He didn’t turn around, and when she stood next to him she saw that his face was contorted with a look of doubt and regret.

“I don’t know,” Furman said to the carney. “I only got a dollar left.”

“Furman! You spent your entire allowance here?”

“Why don’t you just butt out, miss,” the carney said. “You can’t win if you don’t play.”

“He’s from the State Home for the Retarded. It’s not fair for you to take his money.”

“It’s a free country—let the man play.”

“He has the mind of a boy.”

“There’s plenty of fun for everyone,” the carney said into his microphone. “Win your girl a teddy bear, right here. Step right up.” The carney looked straight at Sue Ellen with dead eyes as he spoke, as if she were a lamp post.

“How can you live with yourself, taking money from the feeble-minded?” Sue Ellen said.

“Money was burnin’ a hole in his pocket,” the carney said. “I just put the fire out.”

“I think you owe him a refund.”

“No refunds. I’m just a poor-struggling carney, trying to make ends meet.”

“I want you to give him back his money.”

“It’s a dart game, ma’am. The rules are clear. You don’t need to be a genius to play darts.”

“I’m going to report you.”

“The office trailer’s up that way,” the carney said, apparently unconcerned. “If you have any complaints take ‘em up with management.”

“I will. Come on, Furman.”

Furman was in tears, aware that he had lost his money and afraid that he would be unable to buy a snow cone. “I only have a dollar left,” he said.

“I’ll take care of you,” Sue Ellen said.

As they made their way back to the game tent a shrill whistle went up and a cry of “Hey Rube!” was heard over the carney’s microphone. People stopped and turned towards Sue Ellen and Furman, and watched. She turned around and looked at the carney, who glared back at her with a grim smile.

Furman was crying now, embarrassed that he had lost all his money after being warned on the bus to be careful. “Can I get my money back?” he asked Sue Ellen.

“I don’t know. You stay here and when the others come around I’ll go to the office.”

Mary Louise and her group approached from the turn in the midway, and Sue Ellen beckoned to her. “Bring everybody into this tent.”

“Is something the matter?”

“Furman lost all his money at a clip joint. I’m going to the office to complain.”

Mary Louise ushered her people into the tent and Sue Ellen took off towards the office trailer, which was parked behind a row of game tents. She walked up the metal steps, opened the door and saw an overweight man seated at a round table, counting money as he smoked a cigar and cradled a telephone on his shoulder.

“Tell them they don’t play shifts like it’s a junior prom—they’re supposed to start playing when the place is empty, and stop when it’s filled up, okay? Talk to you later.”

The man snapped the phone shut and finished counting a handful of bills before looking up at Sue Ellen. “Can I help you?” he asked without looking up.

“I’m Sue Ellen Walton—I’m here with a group from the State Home for the Retarded,” she began.

The man rolled his eyes up and cut her off. “You don’t look it.”

She felt a surge of heat flowing upwards from her chest. “I’m a psychiatric nurse there . . .”

“Oh, okay, I got ya. Sal Giokaris. What can I do for you?”

“The man at one of your . . . clip joints took one of our residents for all his money.”

“Was it a game of chance?”

“It was some kind of dart game.”

“Did your . . . fellow say he’d been cheated?”

“No, he was in tears.”

“No use cryin’ over a silly game of darts. How much is he out?”

“Almost ten dollars.”

The man smiled, then started to laugh. “You gonna complain about ten lousy bucks?”

“It may not seem like much to you, but it was all this man had.”

“In the world?”

“No—all he brought with him today.”

“That’s different. If he lost his life savings I’d feel different.”

Sue Ellen stared angrily at the man, whose impassive face absorbed the force of her glare without changing expression. “So what do you want me to do?” he asked.

“I want you to refund his money.”

“I can’t do that. I got a lot of hungry carneys out there who need to eat.”

“You don’t have to cheat people to make money.”

“It ain’t cheatin’ just cause you don’t win. If I give him his money back, what’s to stop every hick on the midway from comin’ in here and asking for his dough?”

“Those people are different. Our residents don’t have the mental capacity to understand they have no chance of winning.”

“No chance? You see these girls walkin’ around the fairgrounds with those big teddy bears? Their boyfriends won ‘em fair and square.”

She started to speak, but stopped for fear she’d begin to cry. “Give me five dollars,” she said finally.

“No can do.” The man looked down and began to count his money again. “I’ll give you two tickets to the grandstand show.”

“We have to get these people back to the home this afternoon.”

The man gave out a sigh and looked up again.

“Two dollars. Take it or leave it.”

She looked him in the eye, and the warmth that had reddened her face flowed down into her knees. “I’ll take it,” she said.

The man pulled two singles off his pile of bills and laid them on the table. “I hope your day with Midland Amusements is a pleasant one,” he said mechanically.

Sue Ellen looked at the bills, then at the man’s head as he resumed his counting, trying to force him to acknowledge her anger. When he didn’t respond, she picked up the bills, turned around, and walked out onto the steps. She looked down towards the game tent and saw Furman standing outside, looking back at the booth where he’d lost his money. She felt a bit nauseous, and unclean.

In Training

Will got his job at the ice plant through his dad, who knew Old Man Cunningham, the owner. His dad told Mr. Cunningham that Will played football and wanted to build himself up; Mr. Cunningham didn’t have kids, but he was a big booster, and he tried to give the summer jobs to the football players. “Send him on down,” Mr. Cunningham said. “If he lasts ‘til August 15th,” when two-a-day practices started, “he’ll make the team.”

The first two days they put him to work painting the back side of the building, the part that faced the railroad tracks, where he couldn’t hurt anything but himself. He was up on a ladder in the hot sun all day, working with thick paint and an old brush. It was boring and he hated every minute of it. On the third day he helped unload a box car with frozen sides of beef—Cunningham told the foreman they weren’t making any money painting the back of the building. It was hard work—the sides of beef weighed seventy to eighty pounds apiece—and by the end of the day his front was wet from his shoulders to his knees. The older men were able to heft the beef around without getting themselves too wet, but he couldn’t because he only weighed a hundred and fifty pounds. That’s why he wanted to build himself up.

After a few weeks Mr. Cunningham figured out that Will belonged on the front dock, selling bagged, block and dry ice to customers, and pulling the 300-pound blocks through the chute. He could use tongs for all the heavy work, like loading blocks on the trucks for the poultry plant; he wasn’t big enough to be of much help unloading boxcars.

Most days it was Will and an older boy Mike, who was going to be a senior, in the front. Mike was a smart-aleck. If some poor hick came up to the dock and said he wanted a bag of party ice, Mike would draw balloons on the side of the bag with a pencil. If they were unloading watermelons to sell in the walk-in cooler, Mike would make a big show of accidentally dropping one on purpose, and they’d get to eat it for the rest of the shift. He showed Will how you could steal ice cream bars from the cold storage room, and he made fresh remarks to just about every customer when it wasn’t busy.

“Carl, your wife is like the State Fair,” he said one day to a farmer who drove up in a truck with a load of watermelons in the back and his fat wife in the front seat.

“How so?” the farmer asked.

“She just gets bigger and better every year,” Mike said, and the woman, not knowing or not caring that the joke was on her, gave Mike a big toothless grin.

When they worked the 2 to 10 shift together, Mike would pull the ice from the floor, bring it over to the scoring machine that would saw cuts in the blocks to make it easier to break it up into fifty and twenty-five pound pieces, and send it through the chute into the ice room. They’d load up a truck together and Mike would take it over to the poultry plant, where he’d unload it himself unless he could find someone to help. On the last run of the night, he liked to take Will over so they could unload quickly and go home.

One night a carful of Mike’s classmates pulled up to the dock and asked Will to send him out. Will went into the plant and yelled for Mike. He didn’t hear Will call over the noise of the compressor, so Will had to walk halfway around the plant to get him.

“Your friends are outside,” Will said loudly when he had caught Mike’s eye. Mike hauled a load of ice over to the chute and dunked it in brine to loosen it up, then went out to the dock.

Will went back to the ice room and began crushing and bagging more ice. He was supposed to bag three hundred bags a day, which if he did a pallet of fifty bags every hour for the first six hours, left him the last two hours to goof off. It was seven-thirty, and he only had one pallet left to go.

He was stapling a bag when Mike came in through the front door and stuck his head through the tarp curtain that hung between the walk-in cooler and the ice room. “Look what I got,” he said with a big smile on his face as he held up a six-pack.

“What is it?” Will asked.

“It’s malt liquor—good stuff.”

“Cool.”

“I’m gonna hide it here in the walk-in, and we can drink it when we make the last run tonight.”

“Sure,” Will said. He had tasted beer when he took his dad’s bottles back to the kitchen and drained the last sip, and he didn’t really like it. “What does it taste like?”

“Like beer, but better—not so sour—and stronger.”

“Okay—maybe.”

“No ‘maybe,’ boy. You’re comin’ with me to unload.”

“I meant ‘Maybe I’ll try some.’”

Mike looked at him with a sneer. “Do I detect a rookie drinker?”

“No—I just never had malt liquor.”

“You’re gonna have some tonight—unless you’re a pussy.”

Mike turned to go push the ice through the door with a sneering smile, and Will went back to bagging. He wanted to get drunk eventually, but not tonight, and not while he was in training. It was hard enough getting his running in every day when the shifts he worked were two-to-ten at night or six in the morning until two in the afternoon. He slept late when he worked the night shift, then it was too hot to run. If he worked the early shift all he wanted to do when he got home was take a nap.

The load of ice started coming in the chute and he grabbed his tongs to pull the blocks through. He had to pull them up the floor that slanted down towards the front-door, and he had to pull them out of the chute fast enough so that they wouldn’t crash into each other. If they did, they’d break and all they’d be good for was crushed ice; what they needed was enough block ice for the last load to the poultry plant. He was pulling a block up the floor when Mike stuck his head in the chute and yelled “Hurry up, pussy—I ain’t got all day.”

Will slid back down to the chute and pulled a block out of the way just as another was about to hit it. He pulled the second block out of the way down to the crushing machine so that the next block wouldn’t hit it.

When the last block was in the chute Mike turned off the conveyor and things quieted down. Will heard voices in the walk-in cooler and, when he went down to see what it was, saw two black guys rolling a watermelon off the dock and loading it into the trunk of a Thunderbird with a red body and a white top.

“Thanks, man,” the driver said. It was Zip Wilson, who worked at the plant when he needed money, and was in Mr. Cunningham’s good graces. “Be cool,” he said as the other two got in the car and they drove off.

Mike came out on the dock for a smoke and saw Will watching the T-bird drive away. “Was that Zip?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Will said. “He and his friends just took a watermelon. Is he allowed to do that?”

“He’s allowed if you want him to do things for you.”

“Like what?”

”Like buy me and my friends malt liquor, pussy.” Will was bigger than Mike, but didn’t want to get into it with him. “You ‘bout finished bagging ice?” Mike asked. ‘Cause I got one more load, then I’m done.”

“I have twenty more bags to do.”

“Until what?”

“Until I have three hundred.”

Mike looked at Will as if the younger boy were simple. “Don’t ever do three hundred bags.”

“That’s what Mr. Cunningham says I’m supposed to do.”

“So? If he told you to do a jackknife off the dock would you do that?”

“He’s paying me.”

“Tell him you can’t do it. He’s not gonna fire you. You’re just here for the summer.” Mike took a drag on his cigarette. “You’re gonna piss off Legs,” he said, referring to an older man who worked the day shift.

“Why?”

“Legs says if you ever do three hundred bags in a day, they’ll make you do it every day for the rest of your life.”

“So what does he do?”

“He does two hundred some, then looks busy doin’ something else. Or he finds somethin’ that’s broken, and goes in and tells Cunningham about it, and says he can’t do any more, or sets to work fixin’ it.”

“Oh.”

Mike threw his cigarette in the street, got up and went in the walk-in cooler. When he came back, he was holding two cans of malt liquor in his hands, and he popped one open, sending a spray of foam into the street.

“What’d you do—run this through the crusher?” he laughed as he held the can at arm’s length.

“I didn’t do anything with it,” Will said.

“Been bouncin’ around in two cars, then they threw the six pack up to me,” Mike said as he took a long sip. “That’s what did it. Here,” he said as he offered the can to Will.

“No, thanks.”

“See, I knew you were a pussy.”

“We’re out in public, you idiot.”

Mike looked up and down Main Street, which was deserted. “I think–the coast is clear,” he said facetiously. “Here.”

Will looked at him, then took the can and had a sip. It wasn’t bad—not as smelly as his dad’s Falstaff beer.

“Well?” Mike asked. “Whadda ya think?”

“Pretty good. I like it,” Will said.

“See—I told you. You don’t have to be a goody-goody all the time.”

“I’m not a goody-goody,” Will said defensively.

“Yes you are, but maybe I can cure you. Here . . .”–Mike said as he opened the other can and handed it to Will before turning to go back into the plant and pull the last load–“ . . . knock yourself out.”

“Thanks,” Will said without enthusiasm. He went back into the cooler, took a sip of the liquor, then set it down under the bench on which the watermelons sat along with the other cans. It would be just his luck for Old Man Cunningham to walk in and discover him, he thought. He took another sip, went back to bagging, and had his last twenty bags done and stacked before long. He heard the bell that signaled the last load of ice was coming through, grabbed his tongs and stuck his head through the chute.

“Send ‘em on in!” he said with a grin that didn’t feel like it belonged on his face. That must be the liquor, he thought. It wasn’t such a bad thing.

The blocks came through—six in all—then Mike came around in front and backed the truck up to the dock. “Let’s get ‘er done,” he said as he stuck his head through the front chute.

Will began pushing blocks through the door, starting with the rows that were closest to the chute. They developed a rhythm after that, with Will dragging a block down from higher up and sending it on its way with a push, and Mike grabbing it as it came out the door and using the momentum to get it onto the truck and sliding across the truck bed.

Mike had his can out on the dock and would take a swig from it whenever he gained a little on Will. “C’mon,” he’d yell into the chute. “I’m waitin’ on you.”

Will was sweating, and he had to take a break after a while. “I need a drink” he shouted out to Mike.

“I’m way ahead of you,” Mike called back through the hole. “We got two more rows to do then we’re outta here.”

Will took a couple of big sips from his can, imagining that was the best way to get drunk, which must be the point of drinking, he thought. The alcohol warmed him up and he felt himself sweating freely, but he found his feet slipping more as he pulled the last blocks down the slope to finish the load.

When he had finished he began to close up, turning out the lights and emptying the night’s cash into a coffee can—keeping five dollars to compensate himself for finishing his three hundred bags, now that he knew the day shift didn’t. He dropped the can in the hole in the office wall and, as he came around front, saw that Mike was pulling the ramp away from the truck and setting it up against the wall. “C’mon,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Will locked the office door and dropped the key through the slot, then jumped down in the street and started to climb in the cab.

“Did you get the booze?” Mike asked him.

“Christ, no,” Will said.

“And you just dropped your key through the slot, you dingle-berry,” Mike said. “I guess we’re up shit creek now. If Legs finds the beer he’ll take it, and if old man Cunningham finds it we’re dead.”

“Let me check,” Will said, and got out of the truck and vaulted back onto the dock. He tried the ice room door—it was still open. “We’re okay,” he yelled to Mike. “I forgot to lock the door.”

“Well hurry up you stupid shit.”

Will grabbed the cans, locked the door from the inside, climbed through the ice chute into the plant and walked around to the front door. He opened the door from the inside, took the keys outside with him, locked the door and dropped the keys through the slot again.

“What a fucking genius,” Mike yelled from the cab of the truck, and Will raced around the front and got in.

They turned left up Main Street and drove slowly so as not to rock the ice too much. They passed a bar where men were hanging around outside, drinking from long-necked beer bottles.

“That there’s a bucket of blood,” Mike said with a nod towards the bar.

“What’s that mean?”

“It means guys will sit there takin’ turns, waitin’ for the next guy to come in, then they’ll take a punch at him just for the hell of it.”

“Gosh,” Will said.

“’Gosh,’” Mike said, mocking him. “’Golly.’”

“Shut up.”

“Let’s go past the Sportsman’s Club.”

“What’s that?”

“You don’t know what the Sportsman’s Club is? You are a rookie.”

“So what is it?”

“It’s a whore house, right over the bridge. I’ll show you.”

“Okay.”

They rumbled down Main Street to the railroad crossing at Ohio Street. “I can’t take the bridge with this load of ice,” Mike said. “We’ll cross here and drive up through the neighborhood.”

They crossed the tracks and turned right towards the Sportsman’s Club. A woman emerged from the darkness when they stopped at a stop sign. “Hey, baby, you lookin’ for some action?”

“Well, hello there,” Mike said out his window. “No, we’re just making an ice delivery.”

“Iceman don’t come out by my house anymore.”

“That’s cause everybody got a refrigerator but you.”

“Y’all got any money?”

“I’ve got five dollars,” Will said to Mike.

“I’ll do you for five dollar,” the woman said.

“He ain’t old enough and we ain’t got time,” Mike said. “Nice talkin’ to you.”

“You come back when you got yourself some money,” the woman said to Mike, then was off in pursuit of a car behind them.

“Don’t ever tell them you have money,” Mike said. “Their pimp will just take it from you.”

Will was silent; he apparently had misunderstood the woman. He thought she was asking for charity.

“For five bucks all you’re gonna get is a social disease. You want a high-class whore you need to go to Kansas City,” Mike said, sounding worldly. “Save your money ‘til you got a hundred.”

They took a left turn, then another, and made their way back to the poultry plant, where the lights were on for the graveyard shift. Mike pulled the truck down the road a bit, then backed it into the dock to unload. When they were close, he told Will to get out and open the back doors.

“How they hangin’?” a man in a yellow rubber slicker asked as Mike climbed up into the bay.

“I need two strong men and a boy with me when I go to the bathroom,” Mike said. “How about you?”

The man laughed. “Punk like you, don’t know yer ass from a hole in the ground.”

“At least I can do more than dream about it.”

“At least I got memories, which is more than you got,” the man said to Mike “Help me out here, kid,” he said to Will, and they dragged a metal ramp over to the truck and hooked it up. “Yer all set,” he said to Mike, and walked away.

“I’m pitching, you’re catching junior,” Mike said as he climbed into the truck..

Mike took his pair of tongs and began to push the blocks of ice down to Will at the end of the ramp, who had to drag them over to the cold room. Mike had brought his can around to the back of the truck and would take a sip whenever he had a lead on Will.

“Take your time, pal,” Mike called from the back of the truck. “I’m enjoying the refreshments.”

“I’m doing all the work,” Will said.

“Like hell,” Mike said. “Take a break if you want to.”

Will went around to the cab of the truck, got his can, and took a sip. He came back around to the bay where Mike was sitting on the loading dock.

“It’s good shit, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Will said.

“This is what being an adult is all about. This and pussy.” Mike said. Will drank silently, too quickly at first, then sipping slowly. “Are you workin’ through the fair?” Mike asked.

“I don’t want to.”

“Why not? That’s when you make the real money.”

“Football starts August 15th. I want to quit before then.”

Mike snorted. He was a baseball player. “Football’s too much like work for not getting paid,” he said.

“Did you ever play?” Will asked.

“About a week my sophomore year. I puked my guts up the first day. It was downhill from there.”

“I’ve played two years already. I was defensive captain both years.”

“Big deal,” Mike said. “It gets a lot tougher real fast when you’re playing varsity. You’re not playing against kids in your class. You’re playing guys who are two years older than you.”

“I can handle it.”

Mike laughed. “I’d like to see you go head-to-head with that 240-pound Samoan kid who flattened me.”

“When you’re up against somebody bigger than you ya gotta use leverage.”

“What position do you play?”

“Linebacker.”

“Okay, Tommy Nobis. Let’s see you stop a 300-pound fullback.”

Mike stood up, climbed back in the truck and positioned a block of ice at the top of the ramp with his tongs.

“Here comes Jim Brown,” he said.

Will took a position at the bottom of the ramp as if he were standing behind his defensive linemen, ready to stop the run or drop back to cover a pass. “I’m ready,” he said.

Mike pushed the ice down the ramp and Will stopped it with a forearm, then grabbed it and pulled it into the cold room.

“That’s called a forearm shiver,” he called up to Mike.

“Here comes Jim Taylor,” Mike said, and pushed a second block down the ramp. Will dropped his tongs and stopped it with his hands, then pulled it backwards with his tongs into the ice room.

They continued in this manner until the truck was unloaded. When Mike had pushed the last block off the truck, he jumped down and whistled loudly for the man in the yellow slicker, who turned when he heard and came back to the bay. Mike grabbed a clipboard out of the cab and handed it to the man, who made a perfunctory count of the blocks of ice, then signed.   Mike took the clipboard back, tore off a copy for the man and handed it to him, saying “Pleasure doin’ business with you, as always.”

“When’s Cunningham gonna call me ‘bout the dent you put in the side of the building?”

“That dent’s been there for years,” Mike said with a look of mock offense.

“It’ll be years before Cunningham will pay for it is what you mean. You boys be good, and if you can’t be good be careful.”

“We will,” Mike said. He seemed mature to Will, who hoped he would carry himself the same way when he was as old as Mike. They threw their tongs in the truck, Mike drove forward and Will closed the doors.

“Let’s drive around and finish the rest of the six-pack,” Mike said.

“I don’t want to drink three beers,” Will said.

“You don’t have to, I’ll drink four in the time it takes you to drink two.”

Mike drained the last of his first can and reached under the seat for another. “You need to get goin’ there buddy,” he said. Will took that as a challenge and drank the last of his can so fast that he almost spit it back up.

“That’s the spirit,” Mike said as he handed Will another can.

They drove around the north side of the tracks and drew stares from black men, young and old, walking the streets. At one point Mike slowed the truck down to greet one.

“Hey, Bird Dog!” he yelled out.

“Mr. Mike. What you been doin’ with yourself.”

“Little of this, little of that. When you comin’ back to work?”

“I caught on at the cemetery. Won’t be comin’ back.”

“What?”

“Too damn cold for me.”

“Nothin’s colder than a grave-digger’s ass.”

“You out in the fresh air at least. Not cooped up in some cold storage room rollin’ turkeys up a ramp.”

”I’ll grant you that. Where’s the action tonight?” Mike asked.

“Goin’ over to the Sportsman’s Club, where it usually is,” Bird Dog said with a smile.

“You wanta rub my head for luck?” Mike asked, leaning his head down a little.

“All I get from rubbin’ your head is a handful of lice.”

Mike laughed, then said “Take it easy” and put the truck back in gear.

The man waved to them and they drove off.

“That’s old Bird Dog, he used to work at the plant.”

“Pullin’ ice?”

“Sometimes. Sometimes they put him in the back, or in cold storage. I thought he’d be there forever.”

“Why?”

“’Cause whenever he got paid Friday he’d lose all him money playin’ craps Saturday, or get so drunk he wouldn’t even know somebody took his money. He’d have to go into Mr. Cunningham Monday morning and get an advance on his next paycheck. We called it ‘job security.’”

“Why?”

“Because they weren’t gonna fire him as long as he owed them money. You sure you don’t want this last beer?”

“Naw. I’m in training.”

“Okay. I’ll hide it in my coat and drink it up in my room.”

They drove around for awhile more, with Mike drinking steadily and Will nursing his beer. “You about ready to go back?” Mike asked.

“Sure, whenever you are.”

“My mom should be showing up pretty soon. Somebody picking you up?”

“Uh, no. My mom and dad are out of town–I was gonna walk home.”

“We’ll give you a ride.”

Mike drove up to Main across from the bar he had called the bucket of blood, took a right and brought the truck to a stop slightly before the ice plant, out of the way of morning traffic at the dock. There was a car parked in front of the plant with a woman in the driver’s seat and a girl in the back. The boys climbed out of the truck and Mike locked it, dropped the keys in the slot, then signaled for Will to follow him.

“C’mon, that’s my mom up there.”

They walked to the car and Mike got in the front seat. “Mom—this is Will.”

“Hello, Will,” she said. “Nice to meet you. That’s my daughter Teresa in the back seat.”

“Hi,” Will said as he got in the back.

“She don’t bite.”

The girl gave him a smile. She was wearing a wet bathing suit.

“We went over to the town pool to cool off,” the girl said. “We don’t have air condition.”

“Oh,” Will replied.

“Do you?” the mother asked him.

“We have one in each bedroom, and the living room downstairs.”

“Hoo-wee,” the mother said. “What does your daddy do?”

“He owns a store downtown.”

“Mom—please,” Mike said. “I have to put up with this dipshit all day long—don’t encourage him.”

“Well, I was just complimentin’ his family is all. No need for you to be a smart-mouth.”

“Just drive,” Mike said as he looked out the window.

“Aren’t you gonna take your coat off?” his mother asked him.

“It takes me a while to warm up after spending all day in the cold,” he replied. Will knew he was hiding the last beer.

“Where do you all live?” Mike’s mom asked.

“Over on Broadway.”

“There’s some nice homes over there,” she replied.

“I know your sister—she’s head cheerleader ain’t she?” the girl asked him.

“That’s right.”

“Teresa, be quiet,” Mike said to his sister. “Don’t let her attack you,” he said to Will. “She’s a nympho.”

“Shut up!” the girl snapped at Mike.

“What kind of grades do you get?” Mike’s mother asked him.

“He gets his name in the paper for Honor Roll,” the girl volunteered.

“I wished my kids got good grades,” Mike’s mother said.

“You can let me off here,” Will said.

“I thought you lived on Broadway,” Mike said.

“I do, but I want to walk from here—clear my head.”

“Okay—whatever suits your fancy,” Mike’s mother said.

She stopped the car and Will got out and closed the door behind him. The girl smiled broadly at him, and he gave her a polite smile back. “Thank you very much for the ride,” he said as he looked over Mike at the mother.

“You’re very welcome—any time.”

“See you tomorrow,” Mike said. “Same shit, different day.”

“Mike!” his mother exclaimed.

“You’re right, mom,” Mike said. “I should wait ‘til I get home to talk like that.”

“See you tomorrow,” Will said to Mike.

“Okay.”

The car drove off and Will waited until he saw the tail lights glow brighter as the car came to a stop. It turned left on Lamine to go to Mike’s house. He set himself, took a deep breath and started running, because he was in training.

Tractor Pulls Gain New Fans on Urban Streets

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.  First it was Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, an inexpensive lager favored by poor rustic whites and immortalized in the country song “Red Neck, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer,” then adopted by hipsters.  Then it was the music of Johnny Cash, whose rural noir look and tough guy attitude caught on with a generation of urban twenty-somethings more familiar with country clubs than country music.

pbr

Now another institution originally associated only with the sticks has come to the big city: tractor pulls, a motorsport in which self-described “po’ white trash” drag a heavy metal sled along a dirt track until they can go no further.  The competition has come to urban centers with a twist, however; instead of snarling, turbo-charged farm vehicles, city “power pullers” are limited to hybrids such as the Toyota Prius in deference to the green prejudices of highly-educated post-adolescent types who live in zip codes where the only cash crop is marijuana.

tractor

“There’s no way I could keep my girlfriend Lilith if I drove one of those gas-guzzling carbon-spewing monstrosities,” says Evan Wilentz, a barista at the Central Square Starbucks who’s thinking of going back to school to get a masters degree in phenomeno-phrenology, the study of what the study of philosophy does to your head.  “When she takes a cab she asks the driver not to idle at stoplights,” he recounts with an air of chagrin.
hybrid
273.6 volts of snarling environmental sensitivity!

 

Tractor-pulling season typically reaches its peak in August around the country as the event is a staple at county and state fairs, and so the organizers of the first Green Power Pull in Cambridge history have followed suit to stage their event in unseasonably cool summer weather on Massachusetts Avenue, the busiest street in the town where brains are more highly valued than brawn.  “We need our students to get in touch with the rest of America,” says Eliot Shawn, a retired dean at the University of Southern New England, a “Gold” sponsor of the event.  “They’ll be bossing them around in a few years, so it’s important they learn how to relate.”

The finals pit Wilentz against Tynan Bigbee, a bartender at Paul’s Pub in Porter Square, whose Honda Accord Plug-In model has been modified, just like the midwestern tractor jockeys he sort of emulates.  “I added a lot of cool stuff,” he notes with pride.  “There’s a sun-roof, and a 6-CD changer and Blue Tooth.”

The two take their places at the starting line and, with the drop of a flag they are off, each dragging a sledge behind him onto which denizens of the Athens of America climb as their respective wussmobiles make their way down the street.

“I’m on!” squeals Melinda Pickets, a jewelry-maker who crafts earrings out of discarded bottle caps and road kill she finds in the street.  “It serves a dual purpose,” she tells this reporter.  “It gets ugly trash off the street and onto the earlobes of my customers.”


“You made earrings out of a dead pigeon?  Awesome!”

 

“So am I!” shouts her friend Amy Fenster-Bender, a buyer at a used record store across the steet.

The two women are joined by others until the hybrid vehicles begin to slow, sputter and then peter out as they approach the Cambridge City Hall, famous for its outdoor musical chimes that annoy nearby residents at taxpayer expense.

“I’m gonna beat you!” Wilentz shouts at Bigbee over their engines’ whine, and it is indeed the Prius that triumphs over the Plug-In Accord by a nose.

But, like angry NASCAR drivers who have “swapped paint” down the straightaway at Talledega Superspeedway, the two are at each other’s throats as soon as the winner is declared, with Bigbee playing the part of the aggressor.

“You bastard!” he shouts and lunges at the Prius owner, grabbing him around the neck before an official from NEHTPA–the New England Hybrid Tractor Pull Association–separates them.

“What is your problem, man?” Wilentz counters, genuinely mystified as to the source of his rival’s anger.

“I woulda won if . . .”

“If what?”

“If I’d had a longer extension cord.”

Coming soon on amazon.com as part of the collection “From NASCAR to NPR: Bringing Blue and Red States Together With Purple Prose.”

Bud Zaremba, Pitcher and Practical Joker, Dead at 87

KEOKUK, Iowa.   Elwood “Bud” Zaremba, pioneering knuckle-ball pitcher, died in his sleep in a nursing home here Sunday night after a brief illness.

Zaremba played with five major league teams over a 17-year career during which he gained a reputation as a solid middle-reliever and a practical joker par excellence.

“Bud was always up to something,” said Red Rodney, his manager when Zaremba was with the AA Sault Ste. Marie Frost Heaves.  “One time he beat me home from the ballpark and got into bed with my wife to pretend they were having an affair.  I had to stop for gas and a quart of milk and got back a little late and, well, let’s just say nature took its course.”  Rodney’s wife had twins as a result of the gag gone awry, but his manager never begrudged Zaremba the indulgence.  “I raised those kids like they were my own–Bud was such a fun guy to be with.”

On another occasion Zaremba gave umpire Jim Barnes a “hotfoot,” a trick that involved sticking a wooden match between the sole and leather of someone’s shoe, and then lighting it.  Barnes’ pants caught on fire, causing third degree burns over most of his right leg and an end to his career as an umpire.  “That was just Bud being Bud as they’d say nowadays,” Barnes said from his wheelchair.  “Some people thought he was mean, but he was really just a cut-up.”


Lenny Bruce:  “Bud, you crack me up!”

Zaremba’s career paralleled that of Moe Drabowsky, another pitcher of his era who liked to pull zany pranks on his teammates.  “If Drabowsky was the Bob Hope of baseball practical jokes, Bud Zaremba was the Lenny Bruce, because his jokes would really sting you,” said baseball historian Peter Arsdale of Iowa State University.  “Moe would put a snake in your shoes, but Bud once put a live alligator in the back seat of an opposing pitcher’s car.  The guy lost half his hand, and they started calling him Leonard ’Two Fingers’ Curley.”


Moe Drabowsky

Zaremba didn’t leave his sense of whimsy in the dugout either.  “One time I went out to the mound and called for an intentional walk,” Red Rodney recalled.  “Bud said ‘Why waste my energy on three extra pitches?  I’ll just hit him.’”  Zaremba wound up and fired his mediocre fastball at the batter’s head, producing an injury that required a three-inch Band Aid to close.

Zaremba holds one major league record that is unlikely to be broken.  Every team he played on subsequently moved to another city, changed its name or both.  He spent his rookie year with the St. Louis Browns, now the Baltimore Orioles; four years with the Milwaukee Braves, who moved to Atlanta; four with the Kansas City Athletics, who moved to Oakland; and seven with the second coming of the Washington Senators, who became the Texas Rangers.  In 1969, his final season, he appeared in 23 games for the Seattle Pilots, who a year later became the Milwaukee Brewers.  “I don’t know that Bud had anything to do with it,” historian Arsdale notes, “but after you’d played with him for awhile, most people wanted to get out of town.”

Funeral arrangements will be private.  In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Institute for the Study of Beanball Induced Head Trauma.

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Fauxbituaries.”

Boring Our Children to Safety

“They’re at it again,” my wife said with concern.

I looked up and saw flames rising from a pile of dead branches off in the  distance. Another Friday night, another bonfire in the woods beyond the stone wall that  separates our property from conservation land.

“They’re just kids being drunken, destructive, nihilistic kids,” I said as I  knocked back the spit hit at the bottom of my bottle of Bud Light Lime and returned to Paradise Lost, the special 350th anniversary edition that  comes with the free t-shirt of John Milton.


Milton: Preferred his bonfires on the  beach.

 

“We should do something to stop them,” my wife said, growing alarmed as the  flames climbed higher.

“I cleaned out the brush at the back of the lot,” I said. Maybe it was the Milton, but I seemed to speaking in blank verse.


Bud Light Lime: Cleanses the pallet for late night blank verse slams.

 

“No, I’m thinking someone will get hurt,” she said. “One of the boys will get  drunk and fall in it, or maybe one of the girls will get too close and her scarf  will catch on fire.”

“Well, what do you suggest I do?” I asked.

“You could go out there and bore them away. You’re pretty good at that.”

I stood up and squinted, the better to see what was going on. “I don’t know,”  I said. “It’s been a long time since I took on a crowd that big.”

“When was that?”

“The American Society of Chiropodists convention, 2009.”

“Please, do something,” my wife said. “If anybody gets hurt we might be  blamed–for doing nothing.”

She was right about that. In today’s litigious society, because of obnoxious lawyers like me you can’t be too careful.  Still I hesitated, but then I reflected that I’m in the seventh decade of my life; I’m somewhat concerned about my legacy as a bore, my place in the history of boredom.  When I die, I’d like to be remembered as one of the greats, like William Haley.  The sentimental, interminable versifier, a patron of William Blake, not the Father of White Rock ‘n Roll.

Bill Haley
Not that Bill Haley.

 

“Okay,” I said grimly. Like Gary Cooper in High Noon, I was too  proud to run.

I hacked my way through the tall grass and came to a clearing where the kids  were seated around the fire. I recognized a few of them; Derek, the scrappy,  pass-first point guard from my U-12 CYO basketball team; Chris, the pot-smoking  son of pot-smoking aging hippie parents; Meghan, the nimble vegan vixen who  introduced my elder son to the joys of . . . uh . . . BK Veggie Burgers in the  front seat of our Toyota Highlander.

“Hi kids,” I said affably as I ducked under a pine tree branch. “How’s it  going?”

The gang looked up at me with surprise. They thought they were beyond the  prying eyes and censorious looks of old farts like me.

“Hi, Coach,” Derek said. There was silence; I think they expected me to be  judgmental, to tell them to put the fire out and go home, but that’s not how I  operate. I accept teenagers as they are, in the fullness of their adolescent  stupidity. It’s why we get along so well.

“What’s up?” I asked, my voice a model of equanimity.

“Uh, we came out here because we got bored playing video games,” Chris  said.


Tennessee Tuxedo and Chumley

 

“I don’t blame you,” I said. “You know, when I was a kid . . .”–I hesitated  for just a moment to see if I had their eyes rolling yet–”we didn’t have video  games, but we had great cartoons.” I waited for someone to say “Really?” or “No  kidding?” Hearing nothing, I continued.

“Tennessee Tuxedo, Top Cat, Underdog.”

Again, silence. Finally, the vegan girl spoke. “I think I saw Underdog in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade once.”

“That’s him!” I said with enthusiasm. I was glad I was getting through to  them. “Those cartoon shows had great theme songs,” I said, as one of the boys  stood up, tried to conceal a quart bottle of malt liquor under his shirt and  shuffled off.  “Come on and see, see, see–Tennesee Tuxedo!” I sang.

They were good listeners, those kids. They sat there and seemed to hang on my  every word.

“The Top Cat theme went like this: ‘Mmmmmmmm–Top Cat! The indisputable  leader of the gang! He’s the boss, he’s the king, but above everything, he’s  the most tip-top–Top Cat!’

“I’m not really into cartoons,” one of the kids said when I was done.

“That’s okay,” I said. “There’s plenty of things we can talk about. How  about–life insurance?”

To say that the kids were stunned by this segue would have been a  gigantic understatement. I truly don’t think they’d even  considered life insurance before.

“You know, there are basically two different kinds of life insurance,” I said  quickly, before I lost their attention.

A kid whom I’d heard the others call “Dragon” on the soccer field spoke up.  “What difference does it make if you’re dead?”

“Good question.  Well, there’s whole life, which has an investment component, and there’s  term life, which is just a basic death benefit,” I said, passing on the wisdom  of the ages. “Pretty soon, one of your classmates will become a life insurance  saleman, and he’ll start hounding you to buy whole life.  Don’t let him do  it!”  I said this with a stern tone of admonishment.  I didn’t want these  kids to go down the wrong path in life.  “Buy cheap term life, and put the  difference between the premiums into an S&P 500 index fund!”

“You really seem to know a lot,” said a Goth girl in a black S&M restraint-style bodice. “I’m going to go home and write this all down before I forget it.”

“Good idea,” I said cheerfully as she walked off with three others. I noticed  that the fire was dying out, but some of the hard-core kids were holding on,  hoping for something to break the dreary monotony of the sheltered lives they live in our upscale zip code.


Paul Goodman, sticking burning leaves in his  mouth out of alienation.

 

I looked into their eyes and saw a great void–a blank where their imaginations should have been. “Do you guys have summer jobs?” I asked  after a while. As Paul Goodman wrote in Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth  in the Organized Society, one of the reasons adolescents rebel is the lack  of meaningful work available to them.

“I’m working at the snack bar at the country club,” one of them said after a  while.

“You know,” I began, “that reminds me of the summer I spent driving an ice  cream truck. That damn jingle–‘Ding, ding, ding–da DING ding  ding’–drove me crazy!”

I turned to face them with an avuncular smile–and they were gone!

Just another day at the office, for a full-bore bore.

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Kids: They’re Cute When They’re Young.”

Lizard Boy

The carnival was in town for the State Fair, and the boy Brad had gone out to the fairgrounds trying to find his first job, at the age of 12.

Every place he’d asked he’d been turned down; he didn’t understand, he’d see other boys and girls about his age wiping down the counters and helping at little soda pop and hot dog stands–why wouldn’t anybody hire him? He didn’t understand that those were family affairs; the mother and father were on the premises working too, otherwise the children wouldn’t have been.

carnival3

He tried picking up deposit bottles for a while, walking between the tents, but there was always a black boy who’d beat him to it when he spotted one. After a while he realized that all the kids working in the stands were white like him but he couldn’t get a job there, and all the kids scrounging for bottles were black but faster and tougher than him.

He made his way down to the midway from the last beer garden that he tried and started to walk the circuit from the big entrance down to Club Ebony, the black show at the end, beyond the tent with the loudspeaker that blared “Live models, in the nude, definitely not for Junior,” around the bend to the Snake Woman, who “walked and talked and wriggled on her belly like a reptile.”

He stopped to watch the workers putting up the Cage of Death for the motorcycles, and a man came out of the Snake Woman tent and stood behind him.

“Your folks with the carnival?” the man asked after eyeing the boy.

“No sir. We live here all year round.”

The man looked at the boy’s arms and neck. “What’s wrong with your skin there?” he asked, pointing to dark purplish patches

“I have Darier’s Disease.”

carnival1

“Is it contagious?”

“No. It’s hereditary. I got it from my dad’s side of the family.”

The man looked at him like he was some kid’s 4-H animal being sold at auction.

“Do you think he’d mind you working in my tent?” the man asked.

“Doing what?”

“In the show. I need somebody for the intro to the Snake Woman. Part of the bally-hoo.”

“The what?”

“The build-up. You can’t charge people three dollars to see one thing and tell them to go home. They’ve got to think they got their money’s worth.”

The boy thought silently about this for a moment. “What would I have to do?”

“You’d be Lizard Boy,” the man said. “You get to wear a mask like the Creature From the Black Lagoon. Can you swim?”

“Yes.”

“Well, you put on that mask and some flippers and a wet suit. You swim around in a tank for awhile while I talk you up. I say we captured you in the Amazon River in a titanic death struggle.” The boy smiled at the absurdity of the pitch, and the man got down on his haunches as he continued.

“See, we create an air of mystery, then we bring you out of the tank. We tell folks you’re the spawn of a beautiful botanist who disappeared on an expedition and never came back. For a long time they thought she was dead, but now we know better, because we took your blood sample—and it’s the same as hers!”

carnival2

“Is anybody gonna believe that?”

“Sure they are—they’re all rubes. They pay a buck to see the two-peckered billy goat in formaldehyde across the way, you’ll beat that any day!”

“But I’m not a lizard.”

“Don’t matter—I’ve worked this before. You got that skin there. It ain’t icthyosis but it’ll do. When you get out of the tank we wrap you in a cape and I talk some more.”

“About what?”

“I say we’re taking up a collection for your education. We’re gonna get you the finest schooling to be had in these here United States because your learnin’ has been neglected in the jungle. Then we pass the hat and we give people a little card with a drawing of a creature who’s half-human, half-lizard.”

“Then would I be done?”

“Naw, we’re just getting to the climax. We tell people you greatly appreciate their contributions. You nod and act like you’ve got something to say to me. I lean over and you make like you’re whispering in my ear. Then I announce that you’re about to shed your outer skin, like a salamander. You face the audience and peel off the wet suit real slow, then you turn around, I whip off the cape and people see your disease.”

It sounded wonderfully exciting to the boy. He could imagine himself on stage, striking poses for the audience. If he wore a mask no one would know it was him, so he could go back to school in the fall without embarrassment. It might even enhance his reputation at school; where before he’d been ashamed to undress for gym class, now he’d be an entertainer, and a professional one at that.

“How much is the pay?” the boy asked.

carnival

The man cocked his head to one side and narrowed his eyelids, as if making a complicated mathematical computation in his head. “Let’s see, the fair runs ten days, probably five shows a day. I could give you . . . $125 plus half of the collection.”

The boy was astounded. He’d never heard of anyone making that kind of money at the fair. “I’ll take it!”

“That’s great, you’ll be real good, I can tell. Now, how old are you?”

“I’m twelve.”

“Okay, well, in that case I’m gonna need one of your parents to sign something.”

The man went back into his tent and came back with a form that said “Parent Consent for Minor” across the top. “Get your mom or dad to sign right down here,” the man said pointing to the right corner of the paper. “You sign over here,” he said, pointing to the left.

“Okay,” the boy said. “I’ll be right back.”

He took off running towards the chain link fence that surrounded the fairgrounds; there was a gully where the fence didn’t reach all the way to the ground that he and the other kids in his neighborhood knew about. He’d been caught sneaking in once by a highway patrolman on a horse, but nobody would stop you from sneaking out.

Once he was under the fence he walked through the culvert into the new subdivision where he lived and ran the two blocks to his house; past the barber’s house that faced the highway, past the dentist’s house further along, then up the driveway to his house.

Carnival4

He went through the garage into the kitchen, where he found his mother.

“Mom—I got a job!”

She turned around from the sink. “That’s great sweetie,” she said. “Doing what?”

“I’m going to be in a show, with a snake lady. I need you to sign this.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know. Permission I think.”

His mother took the form and scanned its text, then looked down at her son. “What do they want you to do?”

“I’ll be the Lizard Boy. I get to wear a mask, and swim around in a tank, then show people my disease.”

His mother groaned a little and her brow became furrowed. She put her hand on his shoulder and said “I can’t let you do this.”

“Why not?”

“Sit down,” she said and led him to the table where they ate. “This is a freak show—people would be gawking at you all day long.”

“It’s a lot of money—at least $125 plus half what they get from a collection for me.”

“Honey, there is nothing wrong with you except you have a disease. Only tacky people stare at you.”

“Tacky?”

“People with bad manners who don’t know any better.”

He was quiet for a moment. “I don’t care—I want the money.”

“You don’t need the money that badly. I can give you money for one day at the fair—that’s enough.”

“But I’d have enough money to buy stuff. I wouldn’t need an allowance.”

“They want you to work all day, all ten days of the fair. School starts the Monday after it’s over. You’d be so worn out you wouldn’t be able to study.”

carnival5

He didn’t see why that mattered. Nothing important happened the first week of school anyway.

“Why don’t you go up to your room and take a nap. You’re hot and tired.”

“The man’s waiting for me to bring that paper back.”

“You’re not going back—do you understand?”

“But mom . . .”

“No buts. No child of mine is going to be in a freak show.”

He knew that meant the end of the discussion, so he went up to his room and flopped on his bed in disgust. He put his arm over his eyes and listened to himself breathe heavily. He wasn’t going to cry, but he was winded from running up the stars, and upset at his mother.

He imagined he could have been a good lizard boy, a scary one.