“You’re my best friend,” Quenten says.
“I know,” Roger says, looking up across the hitch that the two men are hunched over. The nearly-full moon lights Quenten’s face, and for the first time in twenty-five years, Roger notices that his friend has gray hair. Not gray really, but a sort of dirty white, especially the sideburns. As they finish wrapping the chain, Roger grips it tightly, rubs the rust, and says, “I have to go.”
Quenten walks around the back of the semi-trailer, stopping to nudge some of the tires with his boot. As Quenten makes his way toward Roger, Roger feels queasy, but he smiles and reaches out his hand.
“Handshakes are horseshit,” Quenten says, and hugs Roger. Without saying another word, and without looking back, Roger climbs into the cab and shuts the door. He turns the key, careful not to start the engine, holds the clutch, puts the truck in neutral, and lets off the brake. The tires squeak a bit forward as the trailer, heavy with the bulk of the Tilt-a-Whirl, propels the truck down the gradual slope toward the road. Through the side mirror, Roger notices Quenten running up to the cab. He rolls down the window and taps the brakes, and Quenten jumps up onto the step.
“I changed my mind,” Quenten says. “You’re not my best friend. You’re my brother.” He quickly jumps down, and Roger watches as his brother runs off toward the park.
When the truck finally rolls out to the road, Roger pulls the wheel hard to the right, pops the clutch and fires the engine. He’s not sure if anyone can still hear, so he guns it, kicking dust and gravel behind him. It’s about an hour’s drive to Crandal’s place, and Roger can’t see anyone in his rearview, so he relaxes a bit. As a matter of fact, there isn’t anyone on the road at all. Just miles and miles of dark corn-field jungles. Every once in a while, in the bright moonlight, he sees straw hats perked up over the beans, or a rusted pickup—some of the migrants trying to get ahead of the summer heat. He just continues on, keeping to the back roads, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible: a lone semi, hauling a Tilt-a-Whirl through farm country.
Having been up all night loading—it took nearly twice as long with only two men, and was twice as hard to keep quiet in the still night—Roger is feeling drowsy. The soft orange of the sun is starting to glow at the horizon. His hand fumbles behind his seat for his thermos, struggles to untwist the pressure-sealed lid. He stuffs his gas-station plastic coffee mug between his thighs and pours the strong, bitter, campfire coffee he’s learned to love. Black, not dark brown, but black, sludgy, thick, gritty.
A few tears well in his eyes as it hits him: he’ll never see Quenten again. Last night, after hiding from Joe in Quenten’s trailer, Roger snuck out. He ran fast and low behind the trailers on the edge of the park to Jenny’s trailer. Even though the two of them have been separated for a few years now, he still trusts her. They broke up because she thinks that a cat-woman and a regular guy can’t really make it work. He’s convinced that he’ll change her mind. After all, they’ve been together, in one form or another, for more than thirty years. He barges in without knocking and tells her everything that happened nine years ago.
The summer of ’81 had been wicked. Even in Iowa there were heat advisories. Most of the trailers didn’t have air conditioning, so the guys spent a lot of their time in swimming holes. That day, Quenten told Roger that the other guys were going to check out the new bird-girl who Joe got from Santa Cruz the previous week and asked Roger if he wanted to go.
Roger was unsure why Joe got a new girl, since Lola’s act was set to fill that bill. Roger had a special attachment to the kids he helped Joe recruit, and Lola had been one of Roger’s firsts. Her show turned out to be a top-seller, right after Jenny’s of course. Lola took to the persona of ape-girl immediately. Joe didn’t have to train her much, mostly they had worked on ape sounds, and Joe seemed so pleased with her. He even had a special night every week where he’d have her over for a private dinner.
Curious and concerned, Roger asked, “What happened to Lola?”
“Don’t know, dude,” Quenten said.
He felt his ears get hot and it felt like his heart was beating in his fingers. He knew that Lola had been fighting with Joe. Roger had overheard her talking to the bearded lady a few days ago, she seemed a little scared, but he had thought it was usual Joe stuff. Lola was crying and talking about the bruises on her legs and arms. Joe often left some bruises on most of the girls, but he always made it up to them. Roger was sure that Joe never really meant to hurt any of them except when he couldn’t break one, and even then, he’d just take her back to where he found her. But Lola had been with them for nearly fourteen years, and Roger didn’t understand how she could just disappear. Roger stood there a moment, the possibilities running in his head: Maybe she ran away. Maybe she found a new family. Maybe Joe really hurt her. Did he kill her? No. That wasn’t possible. Joe had pummeled many a drunk ride-jock, nearly killed a few, but…Not a girl. Not Lola.
He took off running, and Quenten ran after him, and grabbed his arm.
“Don’t do it, Roger,” Quenten warned, “He’ll beat you bloody.”
“I have to.”
Across the grounds, Roger stopped at Joe’s door. His legs were shaking, and he couldn’t catch his breath. He rustled up the nerve to knock, Joe said to come in, so Roger pulled the handle and stepped inside the door.
“Yeah?” Joe said, without looking up from the Playboy he was reading.
“What did you do to Lola?”
“I couldn’t give her what she wanted, so she had to go.”
“What did she want?”
“To be left alone. ‘To not be touched,’ she said,” Joe mimicked the whine of a child. “But the thing is, Roger, no one in my carnival is alone. We live, together. Always. There’s only two ways to leave this carnival: with my assistance or over my dead body.” Roger thought he would vomit right then, but nodded to indicate his understanding, and asked Joe if he could have the night off.
“Of course you can! You’re my best guy, Roger,” Joe said with his biggest smile. Roger nodded again, walked back out the door, around the back of Joe’s trailer, and puked. He knew then that he’d never be able to leave the carnival.
As he makes the final turn onto 14 Mile, he can see Crandal’s windows and can hear the dogs. He’s a bit anxious and a bit unsure of how Crandal’s going to react, but Roger doesn’t have a choice; this is his only chance. Jenny knew about Joe all along. Lola wasn’t the first and she wasn’t the only one. Jenny knew, and she didn’t care. She didn’t care.
He slows to a crawl and is relieved to see that Crandal is outside feeding the dogs. It’s barely dawn, and it looks like Crandal has done a day’s work. The old man’s overalls are covered with muddy paw prints, and there’s a wet oval from thigh to calf. Crandal looks up, places his hand over his brow as if the sun were in his eyes, and squints. Roger waves out his window, hoping Crandal recognizes his face.
“Bear muzzle! Is that you?” Crandal hollers as he walks out the gated fence.
Roger nods and smiles. The knot in his stomach breaks, dissolves like fresh cotton candy. He pulls the truck in, puts it in park and hops out of the cab. He walks up to Crandal and shakes his hand. Crandal asks if he came to return the muzzle, and Roger says yes and then asks if he can park the truck and trailer in the polebarn.
“I suppose. Mind telling me why?”
Roger shifts his feet back and forth in the gravel and wonders how to explain. He decides that the less Crandal knows, the better. Joe can’t come after him if he doesn’t know anything.
“Truth: I’m in trouble, Greg. I need to hide for a while, and I was hoping that you’d, that I could stay here, in the barn, for a while.”
“You look hungry. Lemme go move Daphne out the way, then it’s all yours,” Crandal says. “You can tell me the story over breakfast.”
Roger gets back into the truck and pulls into the pole barn. Daphne growls and barks, probably more pissed off that she has to share her space than anything else, Roger thinks. He releases the brakes, shuts down the truck, and gathers his things into his sack: billfold, bathroom kit, the green notebook, copies of Joe’s schedules and maps. He picks up the picture of Jenny on the torn leather seat and puts it back, face down. Crandal hollers for Roger to hurry up because breakfast is on, so Roger locks the doors and heads out of the barn, stopping to say hi to Daphne. He scratches her black, shiny head, and she wags her stub tail. The two men pull the doors shut and head back to the house.
“You hungry?” Crandal asks.
“Yep.” Through the back door is a big kitchen: cedar cupboards and a butcher’s block, dark red granite counters with a bar, recessed lighting, stone floors. Roger asks if he should take his boots off, but Crandal says it’s fine. Roger stamps his feet at the back door anyway, and moves slowly into the brightly lit room.
“Bathroom’s around the corner. Go wash up,” Crandal says. Roger nods and does as he’s told. He passes the breakfast bar and walks through the living room, which in comparison to the kitchen, seems grossly out of place. The olive-green shag rug, tar-stained wood paneling, and 13-inch turn-knob television come from a completely different time. Roger finds that the rest of the house is much more like the living room than the kitchen, and he thinks it odd that a single man puts so much effort into a space traditionally reserved for women. The bathroom is very masculine: there’s both a toilet and a urinal, only a stand-up shower, and cracked plastic yellow panels over fluorescent lights. The mirror is spotty, so Roger wipes it off with the hand towel. “You’re gonna make it,” he says to his reflection, older and harder-looking than he remembers. He doesn’t remember having as much forehead as he does now, either, but the hair he has is still full and fire-red, no gray yet. He already feels comfortable here. Crandal seems like a stand-up guy. This house is far enough from the carnival grounds, so the locals probably don’t know Joe, and the polebarn will hide the Tilt so people don’t start talking. A few days, and Joe will have moved on. He just needs to stay here a few days to make a clean escape.
Roger does his business, washes his face and hands, thankful to feel damp and cool, brushes his teeth, and heads back out for breakfast. As he walks down the hallway, he can smell bacon.
“Ah, there you are. Thought you got lost,” Crandal says. “Grab a stool, breakfast’ll be up in a jiffy.”
Roger sits down. “What are you making? It smells great.”
“My spe-ci-ality: Southwestern Egg Bake.” Crandal pulls a pie pan out from the oven that looks to have scrambled eggs with green and red peppers in it and sets it on a cooling rack on the counter. He slices the pie in fourths and places one slice on each plate, then sets the plates on the bar. He sits next to Roger and tells him to dig in.
Roger forks the large tip of pie-slice and blows on it softly before stuffing it in his mouth. The flaky, buttery pie crust melts into the spicy, salty, crunchy filling. He closes his eyes and chews slowly. He thinks, maybe, this is the best breakfast he’s ever had.
“So?” Crandal asks. “Whatcha think?”
“Mmm hmm,” Roger mumbles, his mouth still full.
“Good shit, right. I tweaked Mrs. Greene’s recipe a bit, but that lady knows her eggs. She’s the pastor’s wife. Here, this is her book.” Crandal hands over a tattered cookbook with a plump woman smiling on the cover, and Roger nods. He doesn’t much care who she is, he’s just happy that Crandal found her book. The two munch on, finishing their slices, and Crandal asks if Roger wants another. He says yes, and Crandal serves up the last two slices.
“So whatcha running from?” Crandal says intently focusing on his plate of egg-bake.
“My,” Roger starts but isn’t sure what to call Joe, “boss, I guess.”
“You stole it, then. The ride?”
“Yep. It’s mine, really. I kept it up for twenty years. Fixed it, cleaned it, ran it. It’s mine.” Roger surprises himself; he’s always thought of the Tilt-a-Whirl as his own, but he’s never said it out loud to anyone.
“Where are you going, then?”
“Dunno. Away from him.”
“What’d he do? Seems like a lot of trouble to haul that big’ol thing.”
“He’s a killer.” Roger is immediately sorry he says this, and hopes that Crandal doesn’t ask any more. The more Roger tells him, the more danger he puts him in. Crandal’s been nice so far, and Roger really doesn’t want anything to happen to him.
“Seems a good enough reason to me. So, how long you staying here?”
“Couple days, until the carnival moves on. They’re headed to Oregon next, so I’ll go east. I can pay you for the space. I’ll sleep in the truck, and you won’t even know I’m here,” Roger answers the next few questions before they’re asked.
“Nah. I don’t need no money. You just help me out while you’re here, and you can stay on the pull-out.” Crandal stood up and stretched. “How about you clean up breakfast. I’m off to nap, then it’s time to tend to the yard.”
The sun is out full now, and Roger doesn’t think he can make it through a day of chores on no sleep, so he washes up the dishes quickly, and lays down on the couch. He’s not sure he can sleep, but he plans to try, so he pulls out his cap from his sack and tilts it over his eyes. The sounds of the morning are vivid, but Roger eventually falls asleep. He doesn’t dream, and when he wakes up, it feels like he’s been sleeping for hours.
When his eyes adjust to the brightness, he’s startled by the unfamiliar rust-colored curtains and forgets for a moment where he is. Recognizing the brown, suede-like recliner to his right, Roger remembers that he’s safe in Crandal’s living room. Then he hears snoring from the back of the house and realizes that Crandal hasn’t woken from his nap yet. Roger rummages for the travel clock in his bag and finds that he’s only slept for forty minutes. Feeling strangely refreshed, Roger tiptoes down to the bathroom and decides to shave and shower, ready himself for a new day, since that’s what today is. Not just a new day, he thinks, a new way of being. He has a chance to be something more than Joe’s bitch. Something more than Jenny’s dog. He can get away, start somewhere new. Maybe get a job, pay taxes, buy a home. He hasn’t lived in a real house, or stayed in one place for longer than a couple weeks in over twenty-five years. He can’t help but wonder what his life would be if he had stayed home so many years ago. What would have happened if he never met Joe?
As he’s toweling off, Roger hears an alarm and a grunt from Crandal’s bedroom, which must be the sign that it’s time to work. He dresses in a hurry, gathers his things in a pile, and moves back out to the living room where he waits for Crandal. Crandal only takes a few moments to emerge from the back of the house and nods a good morning to Roger. Crandal swigs some milk from a glass jug, holding the refrigerator door ajar, lets out a dramatic “Ahh,” and motions to Roger to follow him into the mudroom.
Crandal pulls some old leather gloves off a shelf in the mudroom and tells Roger to put them on. He hands Roger a rake and shovel and picks up another of both for himself. They walk out the back door, toward the back of the polebarn where bags of grass seed are stacked five high all along the side of the building. Crandal tells Roger that he recently moved the dog pen to the other side of the house, and this area needs grass replanted. He instructs Roger to dig up the hills and fill in the holes from the dogs, then smooth it out with the rake. Roger gets right to work, feeling unusually proud to be doing manual labor. There are no complications, no people to deal with, no wires to fix, no bolts to tighten, and most of all, no one screaming at him. He hasn’t felt this way about doing work since he was a boy, when he still respected Joe. The two men work heavily into the afternoon, but when lunch time rolls around, they’ve smoothed and readied a fifty-yard square patch. After lunch, they’ll lay seed.
“Asian-style pork and noodles,” Crandal announces as he tromps down the steps with a plastic bowl in his hand. Roger waits at the picnic table under a patch of great maples, gulping ice water from a plastic jug, eagerly awaiting the next taste of Crandal’s cuisine. Crandal explains that the dish is cooked, but served cold, so he can make it up in batches. This one, he says to Roger, is from two days ago, which is the perfect time to eat it. Roger thinks that any day that Crandal makes food is a good day. Again, the meal is delicious, and they finish the bowl. Roger is tempted to ask for bread to soak up the remainder of the sauce puddle in the bottom, but thinks of his manners and decides against it. He sets his bowl down on the splintered wood top. Crandal offers a cigarette, and Roger takes one, though he hasn’t smoked since he was a teenager.
“My stepdad was a mean mother. Used to tie us up to a tree in a storm when we back-talked,” Crandal says. “Never had kids of my own.”
Roger isn’t sure what to say, so he just nods and listens.
“Bet he’s a bastard. Just like my stepdad, huh?” Crandal asks.
“Worse,” Roger says.
Crandal takes a long pull of his cigarette and drops it on the ground. He stomps on the butt, stands, and stretches. Then he heads up the steps into the house. Roger realizes it’s nap time, so he lays on the grass, tips his hat over his eyes, and sleeps. Thirty minutes later, Roger awakes feeling that odd alertness again, but he stays under the tree. He looks into the branches, admires the symmetry of each leaf, randomly shaped, but all the same somehow. He wiggles his toes inside his boots, which gives him a strange sense of joy, so he does it again, and again. His hands seem to feel different too, so he holds them in the air, above his face, palms up, and wiggles his fingers, and laughs. The sound of the back screen door snapping shut startles him, so he sits up to see Crandal coming down the stairs.
For the rest of the afternoon, Crandal walks the seeder across the patch of smooth dirt, and Roger follows with a wheelbarrow full of dry grass to cover the seed. Crandal tells him that the deer and birds will eat the seed if it’s left uncovered. Crandal goes inside to make dinner, and tells Roger to finish by hauling out the hose to water the seed. Roger attaches a sprayer to the hose and makes high sloping arches of sparkly water. He feels like he could stand there forever watching the water reflect colors from pink to blue to red and back again. It reminds him of confetti on a birthday cake. He hasn’t had a birthday cake since he was seven, the year before he joined the carnival. His mother used to bake him a cake every year, but in the carnival, he got elephant ears decorated with icing. He misses cake, and for the first time in a very long time, he misses his mother. Thinking about cake makes him realize how hungry he is again, so he winds the hose and goes inside to wash up.
As he nears the back door, he hears a woman’s voice coming from inside. It’s a voice he’s heard before, a crackly, dry voice. Through the rusty screen, he catches a glimpse of Sue from the corner store in Elma, and he can’t quite figure out what she’s doing here. What if Joe found her, threatened her, and sent her here for Roger? She’ll tell Joe where he is and then this is all over. In a panic, Roger turns to run for the pole barn; he’ll fire up that truck and get as far away as fast as he can. But before he makes it off the last step, Crandal calls to him through the window and tells him to get ready for dinner. Roger hesitates a minute, but then realizes that Joe wouldn’t have sent “a woman to do a man’s job,” so he climbs the stairs into the house.
Roger nods when Sue greets him at the door, and he soon finds out that Sue and Crandal have been “going steady” for some time. Today, Sunday, is their date night. Sue tells Roger that he’s welcome to join them for dinner, she doesn’t mind. Roger feels awkward, but accepts the invitation.
Dinner is pleasant enough. Conversation with a couple of old sweethearts gets a little mushy at times, but Roger is happy to have been included. He listens intently to the story of how they first met, how Crandal spilled an entire bag of dog food in Sue’s grocery, and she had to clean the mess.
“He was so sweet. Embarrased and fumbling on his hands and knees picking up Kibbles and Bits,” Sue says, as she demonstrates by clawing at the table. Roger laughs so hard his face hurts. He can’t remember the last time he’s been so happy. Other bits of conversation don’t include Roger, but he listens anyway. The two lovers recount their days at work, talk about who is running for county commissioner, and giggle at inside jokes. Roger remembers his mom and dad like this: comfortable and happy.
After the dinner plates are moved and Crandal’s “famous” raspberry pie is served, Sue’s smile fades a bit.
“I’ve got some bad news, Roger,” Sue says. “A couple of those grimy grubs were in the store today asking around about a missing carnival ride.” Roger clamps his teeth down on a raspberry seed.
“What?” Crandal asks.
“I told em I didn’t see nothin. But they were pretty scary. Even cornered poor old Mrs. Greene in the corner of the frozen foods. I had to ask them to leave, and they were not happy.”
“I’m sorry about that, Sue.” Roger says. “I guess that means I ought to be leaving soon.”
“Fuck em!” Crandal says, and lets out a deep chuckle. “You’re safe here. Ain’t nothin they can do, right?” Roger agrees, but he knows he can’t stay. He’s pretty sure Crandal knows it, too, but the two men finish their pie. After dessert, Crandal walks Sue to her car. When he comes back in, he sits in the recliner next to the TV and drops his head in his hands.
“I know, Greg. I’ll go.”
“Dammit. Alright. Goodnight.”
The sun’s only half down in the sky, but Roger’s thankful for rest. He wants another glass of milk, and goes to the kitchen but as he’s about to pour, he realizes he’s grabbed a bowl from the cupboard. The knot reemerges, this time lower in his gut. He thinks of Jenny’s picture out in his cab, and wished things could go back to the way they were when he first found her.
Two years in the carnival had taught Roger a lot. They had done a few towns in California, a small string down the west side of Nevada, and were just setting up thirty miles from the Navajo Army Depot. Folks may come round from Tuscon, but mostly the locals would come to see the shows. Joe liked to keep it small, stay “off the radar.” He and Joe were having fun together, but Joe was strict, and he sometimes would get so mad he turned purple. Roger had only made Joe that mad once, and he never wanted to go without dinner again. Besides, Joe had begun to give Roger more responsibilities. He already knew how to operate all the kiddie rides. It was easy work; all he had to do was push buttons. Joe had just started teaching him to work the Zipper and told him that soon he would begin teaching Roger the Tilt-A-Whirl. When he did what he was told, Roger got his own money, all the Ho-Hos he could eat, and he always got to help pick the new recruits. That was his favorite part. Finding new kids and teens to work the food carts, and sometimes even help Joe decide about a new ride jock. He was happy in the carnival because Joe was so different from Roger’s brother Michael. Not that Joe didn’t yell a lot, but he gave Roger confidence and reassurance, things he found out were important to feeling good.
Near dusk the day before opening, Joe took Roger out on a cruise through the desert that stretched west and north of the depot.
“Some of my best customers come from out here,” Joe said as he showed Roger a few weathered houses along the sandy road, one or two every few miles. Joe drove slowly over the packed sand and rock, and Roger looked out over the vast emptiness. Roger played connect-the-dots out his window with the green blobs of midget cacti, the only thing that penetrated the tan, flat sand. He counted blue houses. That was the color of his old house, and he liked them best of all. There were always many more white ones than any other color, but white was boring. Blue was the color of summer sky.
“It’s important to know who your customers are. Pay attention to the cars they drive, son. That way you can find out where they live.” Joe often took Roger to the local bars where he’d make friends with the townspeople. Everyone loved Joe. They invited him to community barbeques, to the church fish-frys, sometimes even to their homes. He watched as Joe would talk about a farmer’s wife’s earrings or shoes. Sometimes he’d compliment the daughter on her pretty eyes—that one always worked. Roger especially liked these drives, this short time of silence before a week of work and noise and people. He learned the most during his quiet time with Joe. Roger stared out the window at the red dirt, the mountains in the distance. On the side of the road, a group of black vultures were picking at the carcass of what must have been a coyote. Roger could see the tufts of fur, and a long tail of dry bone. The birds screeched and lunged at each other, vying for the half-rotted meat. A few hours went by, and Joe took a right at a two-track that would circle back to the carnival grounds.
“Look there, Roger.” Joe pointed to a small house with a long drive a few miles off the main drag. Joe told him about the old couple who lived there, who made ends meet by collecting government checks for foster kids. The husband and wife didn’t talk much, he said, just sipped lemonade and only watched the side shows. He said they were fascinated by the pin-heads, and they always went to see the bearded lady.
“These are the sort of people you need to know.” As Joe crept past the house, Roger noticed a little girl, about five or six years old, playing on the patchy grass in front of the small yellow house. She had a black hooded cape and gloves. Most of the other kids he had seen at the carnival were barely dressed. The summer heat was stifling. There was a boy who looked like he had a hump on his back, though Roger wasn’t sure since he was crouching near the porch. The little girl turned to look as Joe and Roger passed. She had hair on her face! Roger turned himself around to look longer through the back window, but the furry girl was lost in a cloud of orange dust.
Joe pulled into the grounds and back toward his trailer. Roger hopped out and hurried to help finish set-up on the rides. He always wanted to show Joe that he knew what needed to be done. Most everyone was set, a few of the wire runners were testing out the electrical, and some crews were tightening the last bolts on the ride cars. Roger helped by coiling the extension cords and tying them with jumbo zip-ties. He felt important when he didn’t have to ask what he needed to do. Joe told him to always “anticipate the next move,” and Roger had listened. They were ready to open in the morning, so Roger made his way back to Joe’s trailer where a few ride jocks were bullshitting and drinking after a snag-free set up.
“Checked and double-checked,” Roger reported to Joe with his arm raised in salute.
“All right, nice work, everyone,” Joe said. He gave Roger a firm pat on the back and then cracked open a beer. Whenever they did a gig in the desert, Joe bought lots of beer. He did everything he could to keep the crews from driving to Vegas. “If they go out to that blasted city, I don’t see them for days,” Joe said.
Over the next hour, more ride jocks and game workers trickled over toward Joe’s trailer. Big tubs of ice and beer were set out, and people brought lawn chairs. Joe even let them build a fire. The night sky was clear and the moon was bright, so after a while they let the fire burn out. The young couple from the balloon game brought their guitars and harmonica, played familiar tunes. Everyone sang along and clapped in rhythm. “A Girl I Once Knew” was one of Roger’s favorites, and his mind drifted to the little girl at the house that afternoon. He needed to see her face, her whole face. But these were Roger’s favorite nights—the family gathered together, being together, so he stayed and watched.
The beer ran out and everyone staggered home to sleep. Roger started collecting the bottles in trashbags. He would collect and keep bottles until they visited a state where he could return them for money. There were a lot of places he couldn’t. When they got to California last month, he had nearly $200 in bottles. Roger liked making extra money, and no one else cared to. Roger made sure to scan a long way around Joe’s trailer to be sure that no one left bottles out where customers might see. Joe always said “Make sure they get what they pay for,” and Roger was always sure to do what Joe said. Someday, he knew, he’d be in charge. Joe would give Roger the keys, and like a father to a son, trust Roger to carry on the tradition.
Roger sighed at the thought of his inheritance, and then trudged back to Joe’s trailer with his bag of cans. Joe was snoring at their kitchen table, which was also Roger’s bed. The table had a crank, and it lowered it to be level with the benches. He had a foam topper that he stretched across it, and a small couch pillow. But he didn’t dare wake Joe. Joe always seemed more angry after drinking, and he’d often get in fist-fights with the teenaged boys. So Roger plopped down on the steps outside the door and thought of the young girl. Joe would be so happy to have her.
Roger walked the few miles to the house with the patchy grass. The road was rough to walk in the dark, and he tripped over rocks and twigs. It was best to walk at night because the desert air cooled and even felt a little damp. Roger felt like the darkness was wet, and he missed the moisture like it was back home. The orange porchlight from the tiny house came into view, and before he knew it, he was sneaking up the long driveway. From out in the dark, just beyond the glow of the light, Roger heard a noise. “Hey, who’s there?” He began walking toward the noise and could make out a few small figures moving toward the edge of the light, just beyond the porch.
“Hey, kids. What are you doing outside so late?” Roger continued walking toward them.
“They like it better if we play at night,” a young boy said.
Roger still couldn’t quite see them; the clouds had come in and doused the moonlight.
“Come over here by the porch so I can see you.” The children walked into the light. The boy speaking was the one with a large hump on his back. One eye open wide, the other eye socket empty and black. Another little girl, one Roger hadn’t seen earlier, had a very long torso attached to 12-inch legs. She was probably eight or nine years old, but she was no taller than a four-year-old. Her arms dangled down her sides. Roger did recognize the last little girl from the drive earlier that evening. She had a black hood on, and he could see the hair on her face. Long, bushy black fur, really, covered her entire cheeks and a bit of lighter colored fuzz was across her forehead. She had beautiful eyes, dark green that shimmered just a bit in the soft light from the porch. He guessed that she had to be about seven, and the excitement built in Roger’s chest, he felt his heart start thumping, and his hands were clenched in tight fists. When he brought these kids back to Joe, he was sure to make him happy.
“What’s your names?” Roger asked, calming himself enough to smile welcomingly, just like Joe had taught him.
“I’m Bud, this here’s Lola, and the little one is Jenny.”
“Hi, Jenny. I’m Roger.”
Jenny looked toward the ground, twisting her foot, and then up again at Roger. Her eyes were so green it reminded Roger of the carnival lights. He noticed her twisting her fingers, and they were covered in fur too. He wanted her to pull off her hood, but he didn’t want to scare her. He wanted to keep her. Jenny said, “Hi,” in a soft voice. She smiled, and a low hum began to sound from her throat.
“She likes ya,” Bud said, “she’s purrin’.”
“Aren’t you the prettiest girl in the world!” Roger smiled. Jenny looked down at the ground, and Lola giggled and turned red. Roger was amazed; these kids would be stars. He had to take them; Joe would be so proud.
“Why don’t you three come with me. To the carnival? I’ll get you a glass of lemonade, maybe a cookie? You can help me test the rides in the morning.” Roger put his hand out to Jenny.
“I love lemonade!” Bud said. The three children and Roger made their way down the dark dirt road toward the dim lights of the carnival.
Amee Schmidt, a flash-fiction writer, aspiring novelist, and occasional poet, holds an MA in Creative Writing. In her spare time, she is Owner/Editor/Publisher of One Wet Shoe Media and Associate Editor of Mayapple Press. She is co-editor of and contributor to Greenhouse: The First 5 Years of the Rustbelt Roethke Writers’ Workshop. Her work has also appeared in Cardinal Sins and The Ambassador Poetry Project.