Life and Death on the Road
Davey lay awake, rigid, unable to relax. On his back on the thin mattress, his arms stiff at his sides, his shoulders tight, his eyes wide open in the darkness. The words of the Head Carny echoing through his young brain. He was just a boy, really, only fifteen. Not even old enough to drive.
“Watch out for the Fat Man. He’ll take your pay if you let him.” The remembered words whispered to him, just above the night noises outside the trailer, people shuffling past, low conversations.
Watch out? How? What should he watch out for? The Fat Man slept in the bunk below his in the trailer. Not tonight, though. The Fat Man hadn’t come in yet. He would soon though. Any minute now. It was past one, maybe past two in the morning.
Davey had been glad to get paid this afternoon, the second time in the four long weeks of toil he’d put in for the traveling show. He tucked the wilted bills into the back pocket of his jeans at first. Then, after the Head Carny warned him, he changed them to a front pocket. In fact, he’d climbed into his bunk wearing his jeans. There was nowhere else to stash his pay besides his jeans pocket. Nowhere that the Fat Man, or anyone else, couldn’t get to it.
The first time they’d been paid, two weeks ago, he’d gone with Wolf Boy and some of the others into the eastern Iowa town, Cedar Rapids, where they were set up on the outskirts. Davey had been surprised he’d been able to walk into a bar with the others and even more surprised when he ordered a beer and no one asked him for ID.
Bart, a short wiry guy who ran the Ferris wheel, climbed onto the stool next to him. “After you finish that, I’ll order you a real drink, sonny,” he’d said, his smoker’s voice raspy, ruined.
Bart growled the order to the bartender before Davey finished the beer. “Give the kid a real drink. He needs some whiskey.”
Davey had choked on the first sip, but kept at it, trying to keep up with his fellow carnies. They were slugging down the whiskey like it was Kool Aid. After that, after some pleasant necking with a couple of pretty town girls, after stumbling back to the trailer, and after throwing up just before he went inside, he awakened the next morning to realize his money was gone. He never knew if he’d spent all of it, or if something else had happened to it. It was just gone. Every dollar, every dime.
This time, he’d resisted the invitations to join them. They were now in western Iowa, outside Council Bluffs, about to cross into Nebraska the next day. They’d broken the rides down and gotten them loaded before they got paid, and he was determined to keep this paycheck. He hadn’t run away to join this carnival just to end up with no money.
He lay in the dark, trying to remember exactly why he had done it. He’d been mad at his dad, wanted to “show him.” Dad had lit into him about not raking the leaves like he was supposed to.
“The grass’ll die, son, if we don’t get the leaves up. Look how thick they are.” His dad bent down, grabbed a handful of dry, crumbling elm leaves and let them flutter to the ground. “The grass can’t breathe.” Their street, like most of the residential ones in Moline, was lined with majestic elms. They arched over the brick streets, making a cathedral ceiling for the whole town. But they sure shed leaves in the fall. They had to be raked up every week or so and piled at the curb.
He had to admit, he liked the smell of burning leaves. Nothing like it. When they burned them at night, he loved to watch the sparks fly and hear the popping. Tommy next door said that was insect bodies bursting.
Davey shut out the pleasant memories and returned to his dark thoughts about his dad—and that precious grass. The man seemed to care more for his lawn than he did for his four children. He gave them yard chores all year long, it felt like. Seed the lawn, fertilize it, mow it, pull the weeds, water it. The whirring of the push mower took him back again, but he pushed that memory down.
Davey’s older brother, Jake, often joked that the blades of Kentucky blue had better not grow crooked if they knew what was good for them. Davey didn’t think it was funny, though. He’d always rather be in his room reading.
When the carnival had come through town, he’d spent all his allowance on the rides, the Tilt O Whirl, Ferris wheel, Bumper Cars, all the time watching the guys who ran the rides. Tough-looking guys with their t-shirt sleeves rolled up and cigarettes dangling from their lips. What a life they must lead, he thought. Going all over the country, seeing everything. No family, no yard, no parents. Some of them looked almost as young as him.
He snuck out late that night and watched them tear down the rides. Then he summoned up more bravery than he ever had in his life. Walked up to a man who looked like he was in charge, barking orders and going from crew to crew. Asked him if he could work for him.
“Hey, kid, we just lost three men at the last stop. Good timing. Glad to have you. Get over there and give them a hand with the coin toss booth.”
And, just like that, he was hired. Left town the next morning for a life of travel and adventure. Attracting the notice of the young girls was a heady experience. Girls had never given him a second look before. Or a first one.
Even the boss’s daughter gave him flirty looks. He knew to stay away from her, though. When he was at breakfast in the chow wagon the first morning, the Head Carny took him aside and pointed out his daughter. She was beautiful, about his age.
“See that girl over there?” He’d said. “That’s Jori. She’s off limits. She’s my daughter and I’ll tell you what I tell everyone who works for me. Stay the fuck away from her.”
So he did. Ignored the fiery glances she gave him. She gave them to everyone, anyway. She wouldn’t really want him. He was slight, pale, and loved to read. That’s what he wanted to do with his money. Buy a pile of books and read at night in the trailer after they closed up.
So far, though, he hadn’t had any money to spend. Life on the road wasn’t like what he had pictured. He’d heard gunshots a couple hours ago. There was a hole in the pit of his stomach. He missed his mom, his dad. Even the lawn.
He made up his mind. He had to get out of there. He needed to go home. Silently, he climbed down the ladder, slipped into his shoes, and grabbed his duffel. He always kept it packed, had never moved his things into the two drawers the Fat Man had said he could use. Had he always known he would leave like this? Sneaking out in the wee hours?
Without a creak, he edged the metal door open, just a crack, to get the lay of the land. Three other roughies, men like himself who broke down and put up the rides, stood in a circle about fifty yards away, smoking. The tips of their cigs glowed and the smell of the smoke drifted on the damp air, blended with the smell of the hay scattered on the ground, a sweet, exotic mixture. None of the three turned a head toward him.
He slunk away, keeping close to the trailer until he rounded the end of it, out of their sight. No one was in the alley between the rows of jungle buggies where all the carnival folk lived and slept. Once out of the passageway, he nearly stumbled over a couple of lushers passed out on the bare black Iowa dirt.
Looking down to step around them, something shiny caught his eye. There was a full moon overhead, casting his own form as a short, dark shadow before him. Next to his shadow, the moonbeam glinted off a pool of liquid beside the head of one of the passed out drunks. There was a neat little hole in his forehead, leaking slowly.
The back of Davey’s neck prickled and his stomach clenched. His body knew, before his mind did, that he was seeing a pool of blood. It had to have come from the man’s head. The man was huge. It was the Fat Man.
Davey’s heart hammered and his ears rang with alarm. He reached a trembling hand toward the glistening pool, black in the darkness. He drew his hand back just before he touched it, as the acrid stench hit his nostrils and made his eye water. He squinted through the tears to make himself look at the Fat Man’s face. It was flaccid, his eyes half open and his mouth drooping to one side. He looked at the hairy man lying beside him. It was Wolf Boy. He lay on the other side of the Fat Man’s bulk, his shaggy black head by the dead man’s feet, his hairy arms flung out, one in front of him, the other above his head. Had he been fighting someone off? The Fat Man?
Was he dead, too? Davey stepped carefully to the other side of the pile the two figures made in the dirt and peered at him, leaning down and holding his hand over his mouth and nose for the smell. It was strong of alcohol and blood and…maybe the Fat Man had pooped his pants? Davey looked away.
A soft moan came from Wolf Boy. Davey looked again and saw the gun, clutched loosely in Wolf’s Boy’s large hand. He had a hole in his sleeve and blood dripped from it, but not much. Most of the bleeding was from the Fat Man. Had Wolf Boy shot him?
The gun lying in Wolf Boy’s hand didn’t look like the one he’d shown Davey once. This one was small, dwarfed by his huge mitt. The handle was plastic and—Davey squinted at it—pink. It had a pink, plastic handle. The handle wasn’t in Wolf Boy’s hand, the barrel was. What did that mean?
Wolf Boy raised his shaggy head from the ground, his eyes still closed. He was alive. Davey froze for a moment. Did they fight each other? Did someone else attack both of them? The Head Carny had warned him that the carnies often fought on payday, after they liquored up. He hadn’t said they killed each other. Davey wouldn’t have to worry about the Fat Man stealing his money.
Davey’s first instinct was to holler for help, to try to save Wolf Boy’s life. Davey straightened up, shocked that he would want to do that. He sorted out his thoughts. Wolf Boy looked like he was dying. But, if Davey were on the ground dying, Wolf Boy would never stop to help him. Or anyone else. Even though he was called “Boy” he was a grown man, and a big one. He had a snub nose and big brown eyes and his face looked young, innocent, faintly boyish. He was popular with the marks, but there was nothing innocent about him. He was a mean son of a bitch. He’d knocked Davey down more than once for not moving out of his way fast enough.
Just tonight, he’d grabbed Davey by the arm and shaken him for refusing to come out carousing with them.
“You too good for us, city boy? Maybe you don’t belong here. Maybe you’re a softie.”
Davey hadn’t looked at him, just stood there with his arm clamped in Wolf Boy’s paw. “Don’t feel too good,” he mumbled.
Wolf Boy laughed, his signature howl. “I noticed you couldn’t hold your liquor last time we went out.” He’d let go with a shove and sent Davey sprawling on the ground. While Davey lay there, Wolf Boy had stepped close and opened the long coat he always wore, just enough so Davey could see the thick, black pistol.
“The boss’s daughter’s is going to come with us. Does that interest you?”
Davey scrambled to his feet. Did Wolf Boy want the boss to shoot him? No one was supposed to mess with Jori. No way would he go with them tonight. He remembered thinking that someone might end up dead.
Now, looking at the two men on the ground, Davey wondered if Wolf Boy had shot the Fat Man in the head. Davey turned his back on them and hurried away, as fast as he could without making any noise. He wasn’t going to help them. He didn’t like either one of them and the Fat Man couldn’t be helped. His mind spun, working out how he would get out of here and get home.
He passed the Head Carney’s wagon at the end of the row. The boss man’s ’55 Chevy was parked beside it, as usual. Davey stopped to run his hands over the sleek, red front bumper. He loved that car. White top and white inset at the square back bumper. That car made a statement. It was new, this year’s model. Davey loved it. He ducked his head to look in the window and saw that the keys weren’t in the ignition. If they had been, he didn’t know if he would have taken it or not.
A chill crept up his spine and he whirled around. Wolf Boy was ten feet from him. “Too good to stop and help a fella, kid?” he growled. “Where do you get off walkin’ away like that?”
“I…I thought you were…I’m going to get help.”
“Pettin’ the boss’s car ain’t gonna help me.”
He lunged at Davey.
Davey sidestepped and started running. When he looked back, Wolf Boy stood glaring after him. Maybe he was too injured to chase him down. Maybe he would try to shoot him. Davey didn’t see any gun, and Wolf Boy wasn’t coming after him, but Davey ran faster.
He left the grounds and stumbled onto the highway. There wasn’t much traffic in either direction this time of night.
As he walked through the night, listening for an approaching automobile, serenaded by locusts in the trees by the road, he tried to figure out what had gone on. Had the two men messed with the Head Carney’s daughter, Jori? Even though the boss threatened to shoot anyone who came near her? Had she really gone into town with the rough carnival men. Almost all the carnies were men. The women, the midget lady, the Bearded Lady, and the contortionist, never went out with the guys.
If the boss caught the two men with Jori, he might have shot them. But he would have used his shotgun. And then Davey would probably have seen a lot more damage, the Fat Man’s big head blown apart and brains all over. No, he hadn’t been shot with the boss’s shotgun.
If Wolf Boy had shot him, wouldn’t he have used his own snub-nosed, black pistol? An evil looking thing. Why was he gripping that little pink-handled pistol? Looked like a toy. But it would make a little hole like that. Why was he holding the barrel? And why was Wolf Boy shot, too?
Davey stuck his thumb out the first time a car came by. An older sedan, the skirts of its fenders rusted on the bottom from salted Midwestern winter roads, slowed and stopped in front of him. He ran to the driver’s window. The man cranked it down and the smell of beer wafted out the window.
“Need a ride son? It’s pretty late for you to be out here.”
“Yes, I’d like a ride. Just to a payphone.” There had to be a gas station somewhere with a payphone outside it.
“There’s one just ahead. I’ll drop you there.” The man looked like he was a farmer coming home from a night at the local bar. His face was sun-ruined and smile lines had been etched into it, making Davey feel safe with him. Until he started driving.
The man’s car wove from lane to lane, but there wasn’t any other traffic, so they made it to the closed gas station without hitting anything. It was only a half mile down the road. Davey realized he could have walked there and that would have been safer.
He thanked the man and scrambled out of the car. As the taillights meandered down the road, he hoped the friendly man made it home safely.
The payphone was in a booth next to a pole. He opened the door and started to step inside. Something was on the floor. It was a person, huddled, and shaking with soft sobs. A tear-streaked face looked up at him. It was Jori. The boss’s daughter. The one everyone was supposed to stay away from. The one who flirted with everything in pants.
Davey’s first instinct was to get away from her. That’s what he’d done every time he found him anywhere near her, not wanting to get his head blown off. He stepped back and started to close the door. She grabbed the edge of it.
“No, don’t go. Don’t leave me.” Her voice was thick with crying.
Did she even know who he was? “Do you want me to call your dad?”
“No! Don’t call him! He’ll kill me.”
Davey started breathing hard. He looked around for…what? There wasn’t any help here.
What was he supposed to do? He had to stay away from her. But he couldn’t leave her here on the floor of a phone booth. Could he? Anyway, he needed to use the phone. He had to get out of here. Get home. Call his own dad.
“Please stay here for a little bit, okay?” Jori turned her blue eyes, big as saucers, on him. She batted her eyelashes, wet with tears.
“What’s the matter? What happened?” He held the door open. There wasn’t room for both of them with her taking up the whole floor. “You want to come out of there?”
“I don’t want my pa to find me.” Her voice was hoarse. She must have been crying for a long time.
“Why not? He’s probably worried about you.”
“I wasn’t supposed to go with them. I’m not supposed to do that.”
Davey waited for the rest of it. He knew this part.
“I always thought Pa was being mean, never letting me do anything. I didn’t know they were like that. Didn’t know they would do that.”
Davey tried to imagine what had happened. He wanted to know and he didn’t want to know. Before he could make his mind whether or not to ask, she supplied the details.
“I thought we were going into town, but we went to Wolf Boy’s trailer. They both started drinking something from a bottle.”
“Whiskey?” Davey asked.
“I guess. It smelled awful. But after the first couple of sips, it tasted okay. We sat around drinking for a long time. I don’t know how long. Maybe an hour. I thought I should go, so I tried to stand up, and I was trying to make it to the door, but I couldn’t walk straight. Then the Fat Man came up behind me and held my arms and Wolf Boy started kissing me.”
She wrinkled her mouth like she was tasting something bad. “He was all slobbery. Just like a dog. A wolf, I guess. It was gross. Then…” She was breathing fast, reliving the assault. “Then they both took off my tee shirt and started grabbing my breasts and…other places. I ran out. All of a sudden I could run straight and wasn’t dizzy any more.”
New, fresh tears streamed down her soft face.
“I guess they chased you, huh?”
She nodded. “I had my little gun with me and…” Sobs shook her shoulders and she covered her face with her hands.
Davey could imagine what that had been like for her. “Are you okay?” That was probably a stupid question, he thought, as soon as he said it.
But she nodded. “I’ll be all right. But I don’t know what Pa will do.”
“Your pa loves you. He wants you to be safe. I have some change. Do you want me to call him?”
She stopped sniffling and wiped her cheeks and nose with the back of her hand. Pushing herself up with the corner seat, she stood and straightened her shoulders. “I can’t go back. You don’t know what I’ve done.”
In a flash Davey knew what had happened. The men had caught up to her. That little toy-looking thing was a lady’s gun. It was Jori’s. She had shot them. Wolf Boy must have grabbed the gun away from her by the barrel.
“The Fat Man is dead,” Davey said.
She nodded. “And Wolf Boy?”
Yep, she’d shot them. Davey shook his head. “He’s probably okay. Just a wound in his arm, from what I could see.”
She stepped out of the booth and Davey backed up to give her room. “So, see? I can’t go back. Wolf Boy knows I killed the Fat Man.”
“I’m sure…I’m…you…but he was…”
“Yeah. He was. But I shot him.”
“You were defending yourself, weren’t you?” She was a killer. And he was here alone with her. But Wolf Boy had her gun. “Did Wolf Boy take your gun from you?”
“They both ganged up on me. I couldn’t fight them off. After he grabbed my pistol, I ran. I thought he might shoot me. I ran and ran, until I got here, and hid in the booth.”
Davey didn’t think Wolf Boy would do Jori any favors. Probably wouldn’t tell anyone he and the Fat Man had attacked her. “I think everyone will believe you. That they went after you. Everyone knows what they’re like.”
“They do? I didn’t. They’ve always been nice to me.”
“That’s because your pa was there. They wouldn’t step out of line with him there. They weren’t nice to everybody.”
Jori frowned, thinking about that. Davey was getting the impression that she wasn’t too smart. He’d always thought she was so cute, that he’d love to have a girlfriend like that. But now…
“Really, I can call him. I can tell him what I saw.”
She tilted her head at him in that flirty way she had. “What did you see?”
“That Wolf Boy had grabbed your gun. He was laying there, holding it by the barrel.”
“But he’s not dead?” She didn’t sound like she would be upset if he was.
“No, he got up. He wasn’t dead when I left.”
She peered at him. “What are you doing out here? Did you shoot somebody?”
He almost laughed. “No, I just…I decided I need to leave the carnival and go back home. I came along because I was mad at my Dad. He’ll be worried. Him and Mom.”
“They don’t know where you are?” Her mouth formed the prettiest little O.
“No. I need to call them.”
“Yeah, you do.” She stepped aside so he could get into the booth.
His dad wasn’t mad. He was glad to hear from him. Relieved, and maybe crying a little, it sounded like. “Sit tight, son. Stay right there. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Your mom and I are leaving now.”
He stepped out of the phone booth feeling good about facing up to what he’d done. And what he had to do.
It would be hours before his dad got to this side of Iowa. It had to be at least three by now. The gas station would open when it got light and Davey would be able to get something to eat. But what about Jori? What was he going to do about her?
“Jori,” he said. She was sitting on the ground leaning against the phone booth. “You should call your dad. You can do it. You can own up to what you did. I guarantee it’ll make you feel better.”
She should go back to the carnival. “I’ll bet your dad will drive here to get you.”
“Could you come back with me? We can walk. It isn’t that far.” That coquettish tilt of her head again.
“I can’t.” He could, but he wasn’t going to. This was progress, though. She was agreeing to go back. “I have to stay here. My dad is coming to this station to get me.” She didn’t know how far away his family was. He hadn’t told her where he lived.
“Maybe he could drive me back?”
Davey shrugged. This night was one problem after another. Was it ever going to be over?
Jori stood up. “You’re right. He’s probably worried about me. I’ll call him.”
Davey had to give her money for the coin slot. She had to call information first. The carnival always set up a phone in every town for the few days they were there. She got the number and called. She had to hold the receiver away from her ear, the man shouted so loud. At first. Then he calmed down when she said she was okay.
After she hung up, she gave Davey a gentle kiss on the cheek. “He’s going to meet me, so I’ll leave now. I’ll tell him you’re not coming back.” She smiled, turned, and started walking
Davey watched her walk away, glad to see the last of the carnival people.
Then, in case her father came looking for him, he hid in the phone booth until the station opened. He’d never been so glad to see the sun come up and the night end.