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.

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.

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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.”

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“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!”

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“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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

A Place to Practice

It was spring, and they had just won the Battle of the Bands.  They were excited to think that if they stayed together and practiced maybe they would someday be playing college dances, not crummy affairs in their high school cafeteria that only paid $125 to split five ways.

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They had resolved to take things seriously, to try and get a booking agent who could get them steady gigs that would keep them busy, so they wouldn’t have to take summer jobs.  They’d work on new songs so they’d be able to play for a full three hours, plus another half hour if people wanted it–and were willing to pay for it.  They had played one night for adults at the local country club where no one danced the first set, then people slowly warmed up as they drank.  By the time they finished the third set the old people were drunk and yelling for more.  They refused to play until someone came up with another fifty dollars, which the president of the biggest bank in town finally produced.  They played the same songs they’d played earlier in the evening and no one noticed.

What they needed, they all agreed, was a place to practice—a place where they could leave their instruments instead of having to haul them down into someone’s basement every time they got together.  That way they could just drop in and hang out every weekend, they wouldn’t need to take their amps home and then drag them to somebody else’s house the next time they practiced.

There was a big shed behind David’s house where he kept his drums.  He practiced by himself there, but there was so much clutter in it there wasn’t space for the whole band.  David told the other guys that if they helped him clean it up there would be room to store their stuff and play, but they’d have to be careful not to touch the lumber and tools.  His dad had been planning on fixing the place up, maybe renting it out as an apartment.  That way the family would have a little money in addition to what he brought home driving a delivery truck.

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The boys agreed they’d get together Sunday afternoon and work on it for awhile.  Tom, Kurt and Mike showed up in two cars.

“Where’s Larry?” David asked.

“He couldn’t make it.  He had to go to Columbia to see his sister.”

They went inside where David’s mom and dad were sitting at their kitchen table, a platter piled high with brown things set in front of them.

“Well, look what the cat drug in,” David’s dad said.  “How you all doin’?”

The boys all replied in a non-committal way.

“You want some mushrooms?” David’s dad said.  “We just picked ‘em yesterdy.”  He had a big can of beer in front of him and was wearing a sleeveless undershirt.  He hadn’t shaved.

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Kurt looked at the mound of mushrooms and felt nauseous.  He didn’t like it when his mother put mushrooms in chop suey or spaghetti sauce, and the sight of the greasy, breaded morels made his stomach churn.

“The best part is—they’s free!” David’s dad said with a laugh.  Kurt mentally corrected the man’s English in his head, but said nothing.

“No thank you,” Tom said.  “We just ate.”

“What’d you have, a greasy hamburger?”

“Yeah,” Mike said.

“You guys are gonna get pimples if you keep eatin’ that stuff,” David’s dad said with a laugh.  “You sure you don’t want none of these mushrooms?”

“There’s plenty more where that came from,” David’s mother said.  She wasn’t drinking beer.

“No thank you,” Kurt said.

“They came over to help clean up the shed,” David said.

“Well that’s mighty kind of you,” David’s dad said.  “Lord knows my shiftless boy’d never git it done his self.”

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“C’mon,” David said as he motioned to the others to follow him out the back.

“Nice to see you,” Tom said, and Kurt and Mike echoed him.

“You boys are always welcome here, you know that,” David’s mom said as his dad resumed eating.

They went back to the shed and David got the key to turn in the lock with difficulty.  They could barely squeeze in the door; there was wood stacked to the left, storm windows to the right.  You had to step over and around stuff to get to David’s drums, which were arranged in a little space between a sawhorse and some plywood.

“This is gonna take forever,” Tom said.

“It’s not so bad,” Kurt said.  “We don’t have to move everything.  All we need is to clear spaces for each of us.”

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“Just don’t break anything,” David said, and they quietly went to work, moving objects from the middle of the room to the walls, stacking things where they could.  After an hour or so, during which they spoke of how they’d have money, girls and nice instruments soon, they had succeeded in clearing a space perhaps as big as four freight elevators in the center of the room.  They would still have to stand back from the door to let someone in, and there was no place for anyone to sit except David on his drummer’s stool, but they had to stand while they played at dances so this didn’t strike them as a defect in their new place to play.

They decided to bring their instruments in and practice when they were done.  Even with only four of five band members present it was crowded, and they saw that they would have to do more work in order to squeeze in Larry, who had both an amp and an organ they had to make room for.

They tuned up and decided to run through the songs in their first set list, starting with “Midnight Hour.”  David played the opening drum roll on his hanging tom drum, and they launched into it.  It felt good, and as they looked around the room at each other there was a feeling of shared accomplishment; they had done it, they were together, they were on their way.  There wouldn’t be the kind of resentment that had held them back in the past, when one of them would go away for the summer or would take a job in a restaurant that would keep him from playing weekend nights.

As they came to the end of the song Kurt, standing nearest the door, heard a bumping sound that grew louder.  He wasn’t sure what it was until they played the last chord together with a crash; then he realized that someone was trying to get in.  He stepped behind the door and opened it, and David’s father came pushing through.

“God dammit, who told you kids you could take over my place?” he yelled.  He was red in the face, and Kurt could smell the scent of beer as he brushed past him.  “I got all this good lumber here I don’t want you messin’ with, you hear?”

“Dad, you’re never gonna use this place.”

“Like hell I ain’t,” his father said, and David looked down at his snare.  “This here is my shed and I paid for it.  I’m gonna fix it up so it’s nice.”

The boys were silent as the man looked around the room.  David’s mother appeared at the door, a look of concern on her face.  She mouthed something to David; he gave a slight shrug and looked back down at his drum kit.

“Why can’t I have a nice place of my own,” David’s father continued.  “Kurt there, he lives in that big house on Magnolia, I bet his dad’s got somewheres he can go to get away—ain’t that right?”

Kurt didn’t want to answer but David’s father glared at him, as if it was his fault.  “Actually, he doesn’t.”

“Well, I bet he can go to his store up there on Main Street,” David’s father continued.  “I’ll bet he can go up there and get away and nobody’ll bother him.”

“He’s got a little office there, but that’s where he works on his books.”

David’s father said nothing; the boys could hear him breathing heavily in the closeness of the room.

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“Why don’t you come on back in the house,” David’s mother said into the room without much conviction, as if tossing a penny into a fountain.  “Darla’ll be home here shortly, don’t you want to shave?”

“No I don’t, and if I don’t want to I don’t have to.”

They were all silent then, the boys waiting for the lowering clouds of anger to burn off, the man unsteady, staring at his son.  The air outside was wet, and when it blew into the room it cooled their skin, hot with exertion or rage.

“C’mon, honey.  Them boys didn’t know any better,” David’s mother said.

“This one here sure did,” David’s father said, nodding at his son.

“You’re never gonna finish it,” David said.

“Don’t you talk fresh to me,” his father said, breathing more slowly now.  He looked at the other boys, then took a sip from the can in his hands.  “You can just leave it like it is, David’ll put it all back the way I tell him,” he said, then turned and, after one last look at his son, went out the door.

Beer and Cancer

There was a light wind off the water, just enough to turn the tips of the waves white, not enough to make it choppy, as the fishing boat took off from the pier with the guide, the two young boys and their grandfather.

“You’re gonna catch some fish today, little fella,” the guide—Bubby—said to the younger of the two, while his brother eyed the bait in the bucket.  “I guarantee it.”

The boy didn’t know what that meant but he wanted to catch a fish.

“What kind of fish do you catch around here?” the old man said.

“Oh, all kinds,” Bubby said.  “Jacks, lotta ladyfish–trash fish not worth eatin’.  Snook, snapper.  Maybe get a grouper if we’re lucky.”

The old man looked off down the channel to where the open water lay ahead.  “Is it all right if the boys sit up on the deck there?” he said of his grandsons, who had climbed up over the housing of the boat and were sitting with their backs to the cabin glass.

“Sure—we can’t make wake through here.  Gotta go slow because of the manatees.  Nobody gave a you-know-what about ‘em until a few years ago,” Bubby said to the old man.  “Then all of a sudden they’re more important than the humans.”

The grandfather let out a “Hmph” of agreement, and was silently thankful that the guide had kept his language clean in front of his grandsons.  He’d catch hell if he brought the kids home with new swears in their vocabulary.

They glided past the houses on the shore, with the guide making a comment every now and then about some illustrious person who lived in one, or some outlandish feature that had been added to another in recent years.  The old man took it all in and seemed impressed, but not excessively so.  He must have a lot of money of his own, Bubby thought.

As the neared the mouth of the channel the guide knocked on the glass and motioned for the boys to come inside.  The grandfather asserted himself in response, calling to the boys to get in the boat for the rougher ride on the ocean.  The boys obeyed, chattering to each other, eager to submit to manly discipline on their high seas’ adventure.

They rode for awhile in silence as Bubby sought out the most fertile fishing grounds.  He was sensitive to the tides in a way that the old man, who’d been fishing since he was a boy but mainly on fresh water, was not.  They came to a stop on the leeward side of a sandbar a football field’s length from the shore and Bubby cut the engines.  “See them birds up there,” he said to the boys.  “They know there’s fish here.”  He dropped the anchor, then said “Let me get you guys started.”

“Make them bait their own hooks,” the grandfather said.  The older of the two boys screwed up his face in distaste.

“You don’t wanna stick your hand down in there, little buddy?” the guide said.

“No,” the boy said quietly as he squinted into the sun.  It wasn’t clear to Bubby whether he wanted to be fishing, unlike his brother.

“I made your mother bait her own hook when she was growing up,” the old man said.  “You can learn to do it too.”

Bubby knelt down and helped each boy slide a mud minnow on the hook, then showed them how to cast.  Their lines didn’t go very far out, so Bubby took each one’s rod in turn and guided them with a sidearm motion.

“Now let that bait bounce along the bottom, bounce it,” he said to the younger, who was reeling in his line quickly.  “Slow it down if you want to fool them fish.”

Bubby asked the grandfather if he wanted to fish some, and the old man said sure.  He pulled a rod out of the tubes that ringed the cabin, and started to get it ready.  “That’s okay, I’ll take care of it,” the old man said.  He knelt down by the bait box and, with a sureness that his other motions in the boat lacked, got a grub on his hook and, with a cast that looked like it was encumbered by arthritis, sailed the hook a good twenty yards past where the boys’ lines landed.

The old man was intent on his work but attentive to his grandsons at the same time.  He would cast them a sidewise glance from time to time, encouraging them, telling them to be careful when their hooks neared the boat.  After a while the grandfather caught a yellowfin, then the younger boy got a ladyfish, but neither was big enough to keep.

“I think we better try another spot,” Bubby said. “I thought the tide would bring ‘em in, but they musta gone somewhere else.”

They secured the rods and the guide started up the boat again, heading now for deeper water.  “There’s a reef out here,” he said to the old man as he pointed to the screen on the fish finder.  The boys gathered around to watch, happy to have an excuse to get in out of the bright sun.

As the boat bounced over the waves the old man allowed himself to stare at Bubby’s hat from where he was sitting on the seats, each arm around one of the boys.  It had a flap in the back, like the ones worn by the French Foreign Legion.  He’d never seen one like that except in a movie or on television.

The guide stopped the boat once they reached a point near the reef, and once again they readied the rods, this time just two, and started to fish.

“That’s an interesting hat you have,” the old man said.

“Interesting ain’t the word for it,” Bubby said.  The old man was taken aback by the guide’s tone, which had until then been deferential and friendly.  “I’ve had two lesions removed from my neck, don’t wanna be cut up any more.”

“Oh,” the old man said, chastened.

“Yep.  Bubby don’t like spending money on cancer.”

The elder boy looked back at him.  He knew cancer wasn’t a good thing, and wondered why anyone would spend money on it.

“Bubby’d rather spend money on beer than cancer.”

The old man smiled wanly.  “Sure, I know what you mean.”

“It all comes out of Bubby’s pocket one way or another.  Being a fishing guide don’t come with no health insurance.”

“No, I know,” the old man said, then hung his head a bit and looked away.

“I made my choice,” the guide said.  “I’d rather be here than sittin’ at a desk, or working a drill on an assembly line.  I’m out in the fresh air every day, doin’ what I love, so you won’t hear Bubby cryin’ about it.  Still, if I have a choice, I’d rather spend my money on beer than cancer.”

“Can we have a snack?” the older boy asked his grandfather, and the old man said “Sure.”  He went to unpack the cooler he’d brought with them, which contained juice and crackers.  “Why don’t you get down in the cabin, out of the sun, while you eat,” he said.

“That’s right, boys, you don’t want to get what I got,” the guide said.

When the boys were taken care of the old man climbed back up to stand beside the guide.  He wanted to show he was sympathetic to the fellow, and it was the only way he could think of.

Tomcattin’

It was late, later than usual.  Rain was expected the next day and so the farmers had been told to bring their seed to the warehouse and not to the fields where it would ordinarily be shaped into windrows.  Nobody wore a watch when they were working back by the pits, so they didn’t know what time it was until there was a break between trucks.  When they went back to the office to get a soda to clear their throats from the dust they saw it was ten o’clock, later than they’d ever worked before.

They walked back to where the doors opened out into the night and hoped they were done, but there was a pickup truck backing into the building.  It wouldn’t take long but it was still a disappointment to see it.

The man who got out of the cab was known to both Bill and C.J.; it was Mr. Reeves, who’d been their social studies teacher in eighth grade.   They said hello and the man, who believed he possessed a dry wit, said “I’m not keepin’ you up, am I?” with a wry smile.

“No load too big or too small,” Bill said, but from the tone of his voice you could tell he’d lost his sense of humor.

They thought about calling George, the feeble-minded man they worked with, to come help, but the load wasn’t that big and he was high atop a mountain of seed that was being augered further into the building from the spot where it had been dumped earlier, when the pit was busy.  “Forget it,” C.J. said.  “There isn’t room in the truck bed for the three of us.”

When Reeves took the board out of the back end of the truck a good portion of the seed poured out onto the floor, and Bill started to shovel it into the pit.  C.J. got up in the truck bed and started in, first shoveling space out around the tailgate, then moving seed using his shovel to push like a locomotive at the rear of a train.  They were done soon enough, although they would have finished much faster five hours earlier.

Reeves went to the office to get paid for his seed while they shoveled, but returned just as they finished.  “You made pretty quick work of that,” he said as he replaced the board in the rear end of his truck.  “You boys tryin’ to get in shape for football?”

“No, I’m over that,” Bill said.  He’d quit after freshman year.

“I don’t know if I can play anymore,” C.J. said.  “I hurt my back.”

“Then whatta ya doin’ shovelin’ seed?” Reeves asked.

“You get paid for doin’ this.  You don’t get paid for tackling dummies.”

“Aw, some of those senior boys are smart enough,” Reeves said, and gave them a look that invited a smile back.  The boys managed a nod of a head in Bill’s case and a half-snort from C.J.  They were too tired to show much enthusiasm.

“Well, you’ll have something to put on your resume when you get out of high school,” Reeves said as George ran up, scurrying down from the mountain of seed.

“What?” Bill asked.

tomcattin1

“You worked with a village idiot—as an equal.”

As Reeves drove off George approached, an expression of grave concern on his face.  “I’m about to run out of room up thar,” he said.  He’d been shoveling the top off the pile and spreading it around, down into the corners of the building.  His face was black except for a white oval around his mouth, where he’d been wearing an air mask.  He looked like a sad clown, Bill thought, which fit his demeanor.

“Don’t worry about it,” Sam the boss said as he walked into the cleaning room from the office.  “Close the doors, we’ve done enough for the day.”  It seemed to C.J. that this summary was insufficient gratitude for what he counted up quickly was sixteen hours worth of work.

George could walk home to his father’s house from the seed house, but the boys lived in a town fifteen miles away, not far from where Sam lived.  Their parents would normally have come to pick them up, but they had called home earlier–when Sam had asked if they could stay late–to say that they’d be coming back with him.  The prospect of time-and-a-half pay had seemed enticing at 4 o’clock.

“Y’all ready?” Sam called to them as he stood by the door.  They were in the one bathroom, washing the dirt off their arms and faces over the sink.  “You don’t have to worry about my car,” he said.  “It’s got more dirt in it than some counties I could name.”

The boys got in, Bill in the front, C.J. in the back, and Sam pulled out onto the county road that led out of the little village.  The one restaurant was closed, as was the gas station.  There were some kids hanging around the horseshoe pit in the town square, but that was the only sign of life.

They drove past George walking by the side of the road to his father’s house.

“Poor old George,” Sam said, shaking his head.  “Wonder what he’s gonna do when his daddy dies.”

The boys were silent.  They were exhausted, but not too tired to talk.  They didn’t have anything to say to the older man, the one who paid them money to work.  He could talk to himself the whole way back for all they cared.

They crossed what constituted the visible edge of where they were coming from, the last streetlight before you were out in the darkness of the unincorporated land between the village and the town.  You could detect the rise and fall of the fields to either side and the road ahead, but the only guide to where you were going was the soft phosphorescence, a whitish-purple color, off in the distance that was the county seat.

Sam fiddled with the radio, but he wasn’t looking for music.  He was trying to get the agricultural market report in the last half hour before the radio station went off the air.  C.J. wondered why people stopped listening to music when they got old.

The county road ran parallel to the state highway, with the distance between the two closing as they got closer to the southwest city limit of the town.  You could look off to your right and see the neon lights of the truck stops and diners; the one country-music hall; the abandoned turkey farm that someone had tried—and failed—to turn into a drag strip.

They crossed another county road, which meant they were getting close.  Off to the left a gigantic house was being built by the owner of a car dealership.  Sam shook his head and said “Some people got more money than sense.”

They came over the ridge and passed the cemetery on their left, and then the motel that had lost its franchise loomed up in front of them as they came down the hill to the five-way intersection.  Now that they were bathed in the artificial brightness the silence seemed more oppressive as they waited for the light to change to green.

They were back in what the boys knew to be civilization; a country club, a go-kart track, drive-in hot dog and hamburger stands.  Bill thought of how much money he’d made over the long day, but couldn’t hold the pleasant prospect of spending it in his mind for long.

They turned right on 16th Street; C.J. knew they were two miles from home now as he’d clocked it on his odometer to know how far he’d gone before he ran out to the football coach’s house to lift weights.  The houses were big at first—there was the home of the man who owned the ice plant, who had silver dollars in his front patio he was so rich; then they got small as they drove further away from the new part of town, into the older neighborhoods.

They stopped at the only stoplight on the street, at an intersection where a tavern was located.  There were cars and trucks parked outside, and a man had a woman backed up against a pickup where he was pushing his hips against hers.  Sam looked up from his driving and over at the two shortly after the boys noticed them; a smile crossed his face.

tomcattin

“Gettin’ a little late for tomcattin’, don’t ya think?” he asked, then winked at the boys.

Bill smiled, involuntarily.  “Not too late for them, I guess.”

Sam turned right, drove a block down and took Bill home, where his mother was standing outside on the porch under a bare yellow bulb, the kind that doesn’t attract bugs.

“Got a good day’s work out of him for once,” Sam yelled to Bill’s mother.

“Thank you, he needs it,” she called back.

“See ya tomorrow,” Bill said as he closed the door.

Sam turned left three times as he went around the block and they passed by the bar again.  The woman who’d been kissing the man was fixing her hair as the two prepared to go back inside.

“Some people no sooner get it than they spend it,” Sam said.  “Like the guys who trade cocoa futures.  One day they’re drivin’ a Cadillac, next day they’re drivin’ a cab.”

C.J. nodded but he didn’t understand what Sam meant.  The stoplight changed to green and he was home before he could work up the nerve to ask the old man why.

 

From “The Flight of the Wicked.”