Wells Tower - On the Show

Wells Tower - On the Show - S TOR Y ON THE SHOW By Wells...

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Unformatted text preview: S TOR Y ON THE SHOW By Wells Tower My boss on the Pirate is a man named Leon Delaney, according to his nametag. Ellis, his lean, fawning lieutenant, calls him Mister Leon, so I call him that too. Mister Leon has a voice that sounds like it runs on gasoline, and it has been going all day, pouring out an epic balladry of lies. "They said I had a cancer on my shoulder blade, and it'd cost ten grand to get it out of there. Instead, I drank some gin, and my buddy opened me up with a box knife. He scraped out a mess of these little purple marbles, and I've been fine ever since." "You ever see that movie with Steve Martin, happens at the circus? Had me a little part in it. One day on the set, Steve Martin came up to me, told me to go get him a root beer and fast or he'd get me canned. So I turned around and poled the son of a bitch." But now Mister Leon stops talking to witness in silence the changing of the light. A girl and a boy walk past our ride. The boy has his face pressed against her neck, and she has her eyes closed in a fever of the dusk. A pretty Wells Tower's last article for Harper's Magazine, "The Kids Are Far Right," appeared in the November 2006 issue. man in suede shoes comes revolving down the lane calling, "Tessa, Tessa." Across the way, the Chinese man who runs the Whacky Bike takes up the cry, crooning, "Tessa, Tessa" as the man goes past. Mister Leon smokes and smiles, disclosing a crescent of worn gray teeth. The Pirate is a fiberglass replica of a wooden frigate's hull with a mast in the center, supporting a crow's nest, a Jolly Roger, and a gaptoothed plastic brigand with a hook for a hand. At one end of the boat is a mock cabin, flanked by a pair of dazed-looking female mascots- busts of towheaded maidens with their bodices pulled down to show their bare breasts. The boat is about forty feet long and twelve feet wide, and Mister Leon says it weighs nine tons. "Come on and ride the pirate ship," Mister Leon hollers at the people., Ellis stands on the railing, throwing his arms in a convulsion of salesmanship. "Come on now, people," he yells with lots of lung. "Come be a buccaneer!" A young mother appears at the gate. A colossal child, his leg in a bright blue cast, stands crookedly at her side. He has a head of black hair and a red mottled face like fresh ground chuck. His mother's hair is a blonde that shines white, and she wears white jeans and a white halter top. Her face is starkly powdered, too, completing a paleness so utter that it makes her hard to see. The boy limps along the landing, and then he crawls up the three shallow steps to the upper deck and pitches himself onto the seat. He sits panting beside three young girls, who look at the boy as though noting a turd in their midst. Down in the tin pagoda that houses the controls, Mister Leon presses a button. Hydraulic hoses twitch in 80 HARPER'S MAGAZINE / MAY 2007 Illustration by Hadley Hooper the engine well. The ship shudders and then begins to move. It swings imperceptibly at first, its movement in one direction magnifying its sweep in the other. The happy terror starts. The girls claw at the lap bar and shriek, their eyes clenched to asterisks. Two teenage boys amuse each other by holding the plastic maidens' breasts. This is nothing new to the maidens, who have been caressed by so many strangers' hands that the greenish hue of the fiberglass shows through. But the boys are not ready for the new momentum of their blood-the feeling of it going from molasses-thickness at the trough of the boat's arc to weightless vapor at the apogee. Panic takes them. They let go the breasts and clutch the lap bar too. Now I notice the fat child. He has slipped out from under the bar, and he's down on all fours on the floor of the boat. He wants off, and he thinks he can just lunge onto solid ground. But there is no telling how many small bright bits he'll be torn into when he falls into the glistening black gears down in the engine well. I yell at Ellis, and he yells at Mister Leon, who hits the brakes, which engage with a plaintive bark. Ellis runs fast up to the top platform, jogging alongside the boat with his arms stretched out. Then he hoists the damp child from the boat. "You pudgy little rascal," he says. "Don't want to be a pirate, huh?" The boy is crying, and his mother is angry. She grabs the boy's wrist hard enough that his flesh swells around her fingers. "Damn it, Randy. Didn't I tell you fifteen times, go on the teacups? Didn't I say that?" The boy's head sinks into his shoulders. His mother tells us she wants her money back. That was four dollars worth of tickets, and he didn't even get half of any kind of ride. "Can't happen," Mister Leon says. We put the tickets in the lockbox, and they don't trust us with the key. She puts her lips at a tilt and smiles. We could let her go, couldn't we? How about she gets a ride, and we call it square? Mister Leon lifts the chain. "Lady, you can ride all day," he says. "On me." She leaves the boy sniveling at the gate. The ride starts up. The woman's hair is something to see, a brilliant white fan in the wind. Mister Leon joins Ellis and me on the platform to look at her. "Would you?" Ellis asks me, nodding at the woman. "Yes," I say. "God if I wouldn't," says Ellis. "I'd eat her whole damn child just to taste the thing he squeezed out at." "Blonde," says Mister Leon, as though this is a holy word. r["" "Blonde to the bone." ~ his is a county fair, a hayseed fair, sponsored by the firefighters of Indian River County, Florida. Up until last night, I had been living with my mother and my stepfather in their house outside St. Petersburg. I had been there seven months, on a break from college, and my mother seemed glad enough to have me around. My stepfather, a retired pharmacist, treated me with curt indifference, preferring to spend his days in solitude, reading or tending to his rosebushes, which put forth blooms as red and heavy as beef hearts. He is not a selfish man, but he does not see why he should have to spend his retirement supporting a jobless twenty-one-year-old, and last night he told me so. I called him an asshole, and the old man slapped me with a force that made a white light blossom behind my eyes. Suddenly, we were in a leggy scramble on the kitchen linoleum. I pinned him easily enough, and the antique gristle in his biceps creaked under my knees. It embarrassed me, finding myself in that grunting farce with a man three times my age. I was ready to apologize when a demon seized the old man, and he started bawling awful oaths. He said how much he'd always hated me, and that he'd kill me before he let me break his marriage up. This astonished me-I'd always liked him, basically, and I was glad he and my mother had made a life together. I told him I would leave his house for good. The old man gulped and nodded. But when I got off of him, he did a move where he clamped his teeth on my inner thigh. I had to punch him twice on the side of the head to get him to let go. I got him pinned again, and we rested for a little while, him bleeding just slightly from his spotted ear and me trying to make sense of the scene. My mother was out on the sun porch, where we could hear her wailing. When his gasping had slowed, I asked him if I could let him go. "I'd appreciate that," he said, calm as can be. But the instant he was free, he bit me on my forearm. He got pretty deep into the flesh, and he was shaking his . head like a dog, trying to tear the piece free. The vigor of it was sickening. I hit him with my elbow. His glasses broke, but he wouldn't give up the mouthful. I elbowed him again. Something in his face snapped, and he let go. Blood was running out of my arm pretty well. I stood up and kicked him as hard as I could in his side. Then I kicked him again and ran out of the house. I ran past my mother, through the rose garden, where the sprinklers were coming on. After midnight, I snuck back into the house. My mother's purse was hanging on the coatrack. I took out ninety dollars. I caught the first bus I could, which was bound for Norton Beach, on the far coast. What could I do when I arrived in Norton Beach? I wandered around some and then started walking out of town. I had gone five miles when I saw the high radial skeleton of the Giant Wheel rising white and empty above the orange groves. On the railing at the Pirate was a sign, HELP WANTED, written in ballpoint pen on the grease-speckled underlid of a pizza box. "You like to travel?" Mister Leon asked. His eyes panned along my thin arms and narrow chest. "Like hard work, heavy work?" And I said, "Yes, I do." ister Leon is a giant. He has a head like a fire hydrant and palms the size of stove hobs. Brilliant pink psoriasis afflicts his throat and arms. "Hungry?" he asks me during a lull in business. He hands me a ten-dollar bill. "It comes back to me on Friday." He then lists the other sums that will come out of my pay: twenty dollars for a peppermint-striped shirt and red hat, fifteen for an J.D., forty dollars per week for a bunk on the M STORY 81 carnival train. I stand blinking. I've been on the job an hour, and already I owe the giant eighty-five dollars. Ellis, the lean lieutenant, says he's got a spare bed in his berth, and he seems to want me to have it. There is a loneliness to Ellis, or perhaps it is .just the earnest brightness of his eyes and his weak, dimpled chin. Later, he will tell me that he is only thirty years old, but his face looks like a crumpled paper bag smoothed by a dirty hand. "I appreciate it," I say. "That's the top bunk, understand? Bottom's mine. I haven't slept on a top bunk since I was a kid." His voice is hostile now, as though to atone to the giant for his generosity in offering up the bed. "No, look, I didn't do anything at all." Ellis gives me a comforting squeeze. "But even if you did." Mister Leon brushes off the stool and turns to me. "Ever do any time?" "No." rr' ~ wo policemen with heavy belts and squawking radios come down the sandy boulevard. They stop at the Pirate. They murmur to each other and then beckon me over. They haven't seen me here before. What is my name? The lady officer asks for my driver's license. "So tell me," she says. "Do you like to get-it young?" "Do what?" I say. She asks me where I was around 4:00 P.M. I tell her I was here. She looks at Mister Leon, who turns up his palms, as though to say, "Search me." "But I was here," I say. "Or I was walking here. I was out there on Route 5. I'm sure there's people who saw me." "That's real good," she says. "They're gonna love you to pieces at the D.A.'s." "Now hold on-" "Own up to it or don't," she says. "We'll get it all straight when we come back to take samples of your all's blood and hair." Then the officers recede toward the Ghost Train. "What the hell was that?" I ask Mister Leon. He is busy with his psoriasis, rasping the sloughings onto the vinyl cushion of his stool, heaping the yield into a little mound with his finger. "Somebody took a little boy into a portajohn and put it to him," says Ellis mildly, as though he's discussing an onset of cool weather. "They been saying it was someone on the show." He puts a hand on my shoulder. "Hey, bro, don't look so gut-shot. They can't take your hair and all that shit without a court order or probable cause." The giant nods. "Question: where's the best state in America to get executed?" I say if I was getting executed, it wouldn't make much difference to me which state I was in. "Like hell it wouldn't," says the giant. "Tell him, Ellis." "Maryland," says Ellis. Mister Leon screws up his cheek. "Not Maryland," he says. "Delaware. I mean Delaware." "Why's that?" I ask. "In Delaware, you get a choice of how they kill you," Leon says. "You can still choose hanging. If they miss on the first shot-leave you paralyzed, whatever-they have to let you free. That's the law. And I've never heard of anyone making it through lethal injection. At least with hanging you've got a chance. You'd be in funny shape, but you've got a sporting chance." ing the cages by mere inches, harvesting fallen riches from the sand. His dance is full of weird and swooning grace, vaguely Oriental, a feinting dream of wind. If Gary were not lightly retarded, as I am told he is, Mister Leon and Ellis conjecture he could make good money on a stage in Las Vegas or New York. Instead, fate laid a finger on his brain, so Gary dances here for the people on the show. girl, fifteen perhaps, or younger, with thick red hair and freckles across her nose, rides the boat twelve straight times. She has an all-you-can-ride pass, which costs fifteen dollars at the gate. She wears a white sweater. A gold chain glimmers at her throat. She makes me nervous. She puts me in mind of all the cruel beauties of my high school days, and I cannot look upon our red-haired rider without suffering old hot-hearted fears. At her thirteenth ride, the girl stops and looks at me before she gets on. "Hey," she says. I say hey back. And then all I can think to do is ask her how she likes the Pirate. "Obviously, I hate it," she says, laughing. She is sucking a cube of phosphorescent candy, which throws a green light from her mouth. "I don't know how you ride it so many times without getting sick," I say. "It doesn't make me sick. It relaxes me, just clears out all the thoughts to where there's nothing in my head. I love it." "Sounds nice." "Can you make it go extra long this time?" "I'll see what I can do." I give the signal to Mister Leon. The ride starts up, and this time she keeps her eyes on me as she swings past, her lips parted, her mouth a radiant green blur. A rr' ~he eyes of the fairgoers stay large with looking. They are starved for sights in this part of the state, where the only things to look at are citrus orchards, the empty stadium where a major league baseball team used to do its spring training, and . the green void of the sea. Tonight they watch the air, which teems with spinning steel and wailing bodies. They watch the World's Largest Steer, and the young people parading their livestock in the 4-H bam, and also the Weeki Wachee Girls, three pretty ladies dressed as mermaids who swim in the luminous aquarium that throws trembling bands of light onto the pony rotary. Mister Leon, Ellis, and the other ride jocks and concession folk watch Gary, the man who runs the Zipper. The Zipper is a chainsaw-shaped ellipse with tumbling wire cages along its length. When the ride is running, the cages spill a silver hail of coins, or wallets, or sunglasses, or sometimes drugs, so Gary slips beneath the Zipper. He sways and topples to the rhythm of the ride, duck- "T , 'hen the fair shuts down at midnight, I carry our ticket boxes to a truck parked behind the haunted house, and then I jog over to the bus that will carry us to the carnival train. The bus is an old red-and-white Trailways. It smells of sweat, old beer, and 82 HARPER'S MAGAZINE / MAY 2007 piss. The seats list into the aisle. The windows are cataracted with grime. The destination window above the windshield says PALM BEACH TOUR. Standing in the aisle beside my seat, two Mexican men are shouting at each other in fast Spanish. One raises his hands to the other's throat and presses his thumb against the windpipe. The choking victim is smiling. He has flipped open a knife and is touching the point to the other man's belly. The man drops his hands. They laugh, a good joke. The carnival train rests in a pine barren on the shoulder of a lightless blacktop road. Ellis leads me to our berth, which is five feet deep and six feet long, too short to accommodate the sheetless rubber mattresses, which lie on the bunks in crinkled, obtuse Us. I climb onto the top bunk. Being off my feet is ecstasy. I would like to sleep, but words keep coming out of Ellis, who starts unspooling the story of himself-the farm he grew up on in Kentucky, the hundred acres his family still owns there. "I can skin just about anything," he tells me. "Squirrel, deer. Even skinned a boar once. Blocked it out myself-hams, shoulders, side meat, all that stuff. Nobody here knows that about me." He says he did some time for selling LSD, and some more time for beating up a cop. He used to install carpets for a living. Maybe once I've saved some money, Ellis suggests, we can pool our cash and he will carpet our berth, the floors and the walls, and ours will be the finest room on the carnival train. He has been on the show three weeks. "So you think you'll stick around a while?" "Yes," I say. "Har. Talk to me after teardown." He explains that two days from now, when the fair ends, we will dismantle the boat and put it on the train, bound for Alpharetta, Georgia. Ellis's hand appears in the crevice between my mattress and the wall. Three of his fingers are black to the second knuckle. "That fucker Leon dropped a beam on it, and afterward he laughed about it. If he killed you or me, I don't think he'd even look on that as being a bad day." I tell him I'll look out. "No disrespect, but you don't know what to look out for. I'll look out for you. I'll do all the high-steel work, for the next stop or two, anyway. We'll help each other out. Nobody survives out here by theirself. You need a partner on the show." Ellis cracks a beer. "Here's the deal: can I trust you?" "Sure." "You like working under someone else, or are you the kind who likes to be his own man?" "Own man," I say. "Me, too, and I've got a plan in mind to do something about it. Leon is a drug freak. Anytime the boss ain't looking, he goes under the ride and eats a ball of dope. If I can rig it up to where the boss can catch him at it, Leon's out, and you and me run the boat how we like. Me as the foreman, you as lieutenant, we'll both of us be making real money. Listen, we'll have the world by the sack." wake me up. "You got on my wrong side, Lucas," a man's voice says. "I am really going to fuck you, friend." A crash, and the tin wall buckles under my feet. "Look, I don't even know you, man," a high male voice cries out. There is one more loud thud. A simpering moan goes up. The door slams shut. The night goes quiet again. I wake around 4:00 A.M., wondering if the throb in my bitten arm is the onset of infection. At 5:00 A.M. a train passes on the next track, a sound so close and apocalyptic that my heart beats wrong for a time. The sun returns at six, and wild parakeets squabble madly in the pines. Through all of this, Ellis sleeps as deeply as a child. His grinding teeth declare the depth of his slumber, a sound like someone eating chalk. t nine o'clock, the bus carries us back to the fairgrounds. It is a day of wicked clouds, sooty crags, and canyons darkening overhead. By noon the sky opens, and the fairgoers shrink like melting snow into little drifts under the concession canopies, and then disappear entirely. The midway is vacant. Mister Leon is sitting on the steps of the pagoda, watching the raindrops pock the sand. He tilts a can of chicken soup against the purple cushion of his lip, pouring the cold yellow broth past his teeth. Then he sighs with satisfaction, a burstvalve noise. "I love days like this," he says. The boss of all the ride jocks comes by and loans us money for lunch. For three dollars, I buy a slice of pizza, slick with pooled oils. A young woman is at the counter, drinking half-and-half from a pint box. Her face and neck show a plague of violet hickeys. A man comes over, eating a chicken leg. Still chewing, he leans in to kiss her, and she turns away. He winks at me, then endeavors to pull her collar down to expose a full breast. His fingers leave a cordovan smear of sauce on her neck. "Would you quit?" she says. "You're embarrassing me." I rJ"'" A ~ he light goes out at last. Someone reclines in the next room, pressing on the sheet-metal wall I'm resting my head against. Through the wall, I can hear the snapping, fibrous strife of a brush being tugged through tangled hair, a comforting, womanish racket. One of the windowpanes is broken in our berth. Mosquitoes come and go freely, but so do fireflies, sparking brief green constellations in the dark. I have hardly slept at all when the door in the next room opens and slams shut. "I mean, you ate my heart," a woman's voice is saying. "Ate it like a buzzard, straight out of my chest." There is a gagging back of tears. "Oh God, Wade, why do I love you so goddamned much? Only thing I love more than you is my kids." Now the sobbing comes. "No, fuck it, Wade, I love you more than my kids." "I've already spelled this out for you, Dana, a thousand times." "You got any cigarettes?" "Here, take the pack, and don't say I didn't ever do nothing for you." Perhaps an hour later, noises in the other berth, the one at my feet, STORY 83 recognize her voice. She is my neighbor on the train. "You're embarrassing yourself," the man says. I recognize his voice too: he is Wade, her beloved. I eat my pizza in the barn where they have the animal shows. There's a pay phone in the far corner. I should call my mother, but I don't want to think about what's gone on in that house since I left. No doubt they've talked things around to where the blame for the fight is mine alone. The thought fills me with nausea and fatigue. I leave the pay phone be. The rain departs, and the ochre glare of the muddled carnival lights once more infests the sky. Ellis, it would seem, has abandoned his scheme of getting the boss to catch Mister Leon doping on the job. When the giant slips down beneath the platform to take his dose, Ellis follows. The men are all bleary cheer when they resurface. "Hey, you like magic tricks?" Mister Leon asks me with a grin. "Yes," I say. He sucks mightily on his cigarette, and then he taps a long caterpillar of ash on the front of my shirt. "Abracadabra, you're an ashtray." "Now come on, Leon," says Ellis. "This is our buddy here. This dude's on our team." Mister Leon squints at Ellis rheumily, as though catching a faint whiff of Ellis's concealed treasons. "Nobody's on my team," says Mister Leon. A sudden abstracted melancholy grips him. "Shit, there's such nobody on my team, I'm not even on my team." woman stands at the gate, gazing at nothing. "Come on, lady," Ellis howls at her. "Come be a buccaneer." Her face is as blank and guileless as a peeled apple. "What type of ride is this?" she asks me, and I realize she is blind. "It's a kind of a boat," I say. "It swings back and forth." "Does it go upside down?" "No, but it goes really fast." "But not upside down?" "No." "Would you help me on it, please?" She clasps my hand and presses her warm, solid forearm to mine. We make our way up the platform. With each step, her foot hovers in the air, searching for treacherous changes in the ground beneath her. Ellis starts the ride. I keep a close eye on the blind woman, ready to throw the brake switch if I see her start to panic. But she doesn't. Even as the ride goes vertical, and everyone else is screaming, she wears an easeful look, as though she'd just recalled the answer to a question that had been worrying her for a very long time. When the boat subsides, I help the woman off the platform. She is giggling uncontrollably. She keeps saying, "Thank you, thank you." And I start giggling, too. She could not have enjoyed riding the Pirate as much as I enjoy the sight of her laughing face .. ow it's dark. This is an instant when the carnival lights have finally bullied the sun away, and the sky glows the colors of infection. The egrets notice, and all at once they flee the drainage canal behind the parking lot. They settle, pale and watchful, in the high limbs of the live oak trees behind the Giant Wheel, but they cannot sleep with the midway lights on them. For a time, the trees are whitely restless with the labor of the egrets stowing and unstowing anxious wings. The darkness brings the redhaired girl back to me. Again she is sucking her incandescent candy. She takes a seat next to where I'm standing. I can smell the lemony-piney scent of her shampoo. "Remember me?" she asks. "Nope," I say, grinning. "Shut up. Yes, you do," she says. "I'm Katie. I've seen you so many times I thought we should get to know each other." "It's good to know you then," I say. She slips her cool bouquet of fingers into my hand. We talk while the ride fills up. "Do you know any secrets?" she asks. "Yes." "Fair stuff, I mean. Like, can you show me how to win at the games?" N "Yeah. Don't mess with them in the first place." "Oh, don't be stale. They don't show you the tricks?" . "Yeah, but I can't tell you." "Why not?" "I don't know. They'd feed me to the mermaids." "Sounds like a thrill for you." She cocks a coquette's eye at me. "Do you get a break, or do you just work all the time?" I tell her I get a dinner break at nine. "Why?" She shrugs. "You could win me some crap. I'm wild about crap." I ask where she'll be at nine. "How about over there, at that thing where you toss the dimes? You can meet me there." "I will." The felonious old electricity crackles in my groin. A heartsick brine builds behind my eyes. Katie swings once more and trots off into the night. reak time, and I am off and joyous. I run first to the parking lot, where I piss in the lee of a semitrailer. Since yesterday's run-in with the law, I am careful to avoid the portable toilets at all costs. Then I go to meet my Katie. But I do not find her at the dime pitch. Two old women stand at the rope, flinging coins at red circles on a linoleum mat. The dime pitch offers a wretched bounty-thrift-store crockery, cloudy pilsner glasses, coffee mugs bearing obscure slogansDILWORTHCOLLEGE GRANDDADand WEAVERCOUNTY RECYCLINGPROGRAM-and heaps of yellowed Tshirts. One says in hand-scrawled letters, beneath a portrait of Angela Davis, KEEP ABORTION SAFE AND FUNKY.While the attendant isn't looking, one of the old women places the toe of her loafer over a mistossed coin and draws it back under the rope. I toss four of my own dear dimes, and Katie does not appear. I linger for twenty minutes under the dimepitch shanty, and then stalk off hot with shame and anger. On my way back to the Pirate, I spot a column of siren lights creeping up the midway. The ship is B A 84 HARPER'S MAGAZINE 2007 / MAY docked, and in fact there is a circle of stillness, a stillness of catastrophe, radiating out from the boat. Satan's Choir is empty and not moving, and the Chaises Volantes do not swing. lt occurs to me that Ellis and Leon, under the influence of drugs, perhaps forgot to close the lap bars, spilled a load of patrons into the engine well, and somehow I will catch the blame for this. I jog the rest of the way to the boat. Mister Leon and Ellis stand on the top deck, staring down behind the boat. As it turns out, it's the Zipper that has drawn the EMTs and the strobing cruisers. I mount the deck to see an ambulance departing. "What happened?" I ask. Mister Leon glares at me briefly and turns back to watch a young boy nibbling the last of a candy apple. "It's Gary, man," says Ellis, shaking his head, though I can see in his face a certain grave pleasure at bearing the bad news. He explains importantly that Gary's dancing failed him tonight, and that he was struck on the skull by a spinning cage. "Dropped him like that," Ellis says, snapping his fingers and uttering a sharp cluck in the deeps of his cheek. "Took a rough knock, but he's a tough little fucker. He'll be back out here in two weeks. Ternporary setback is all it is." Mister Leon snorts. "And I mean temporary. If he makes it to the hospital, I'll buy you a lemonade." For an interval, the police and firemen mill around. They rope off the midway twenty feet on either side of the Zipper. Then the uniformed officials saunter to their cars. The rides start up again. Mister Leon returns to the control pagoda, and the Pirate is back in business. We are mobbed with customers. Somehow, word has gotten out that the Pirate gives the best view of the accident scene. t midnight, we are packing up to go back to the train when the boss pays us a visit. He is here, I'm assuming, to shore up morale among the ride jocks after Gary's injury, to notify us of new precautions to forestall future accidents. In fact, he has come by to tell us we'll be pulling an A all-night shift this evening. With Gary down, there will be no one to dismantle the Zipper tomorrow night when the fair packs up for Georgia. The Pirate crew will have to break it down tonight. "Like hell we will," says the giant. The boss grudgingly hands Leon forty dollars. Ellis smiles and holds out his hand for a share, but Leon has already slipped the bills into his pocket. The fair empties out, and we get to work. We take down the light stuff first, the railings, the racks of lightbulbs, and pile them in a trailer. We hoist the decking, which is fourby-eight sheets of quarter-inch steel. Nobody works with gloves, or offers them. When the decking's loaded, my fingers are numb, and I've got deep red creases in my palms. We take up the steel joists beneath the platform, beams that take two men straining hard to move, so heavy that when we set them down, I feel dizzy and unmoored, as though I'm going to float off like a soap bubble. No one talks to pass the time. Ellis keeps up a stream of mumbled curses, swearing oaths against Mister Leon when his back is turned. Leon works relentlessly, in silence. Ellis and I are humping a joist, Ellis in the lead. He's moving fast and carelessly. He pulls me into a stray 1beam lying in the dirt. My shin racks hard against the beam's sharp lip, and I drop the joist in the sand. "Hell's the matter with you?" Ellis says. I lift my cuff. Blood is darkening my sock. "Walk it off," says Ellis. We work without stopping until the blue of morning comes. We've been on our feet for nearly twenty hours. One leg of my jeans has tom from hip to ankle. My face is black with axle grease, and my skull pulses and buzzes with fatigue. I consider sprinting for the woods, but I am not sure what the men would do if they caught up to me. Leon announces that somebody, Ellis or me, he doesn't care which, has got to climb up into the ride to lash the Zipper's cages against its chassis with ratchet straps so that the whole piece can be lowered safely with the crane. "I ain't doing it," says Ellis. "Let the new man have a shot." The giant gives me a weary look and hands me a dozen looped straps. "Go on, get up there then." "Damn it, Ellis," I say feebly. "You said you'd do the high climbing." He coughs and spits an oyster onto the sand. "I changed my mind," he says. I climb into the Zipper's rusted spars on trembling arms. Halfway up, my foot slips on a greased bolt. I tumble backward, just barely getting hold of a carriage pin to arrest my fall. If I'd missed, I'd have rattled down through thirty feet of steel spans like a pachinko ball. The sound of the men's laughter rises up to me with the crying of the egrets as they stir. When I make it back to earth, the giant claps me on the back. "Enjoying yourself?" the giant asks. "Not so much," I croak. He raises his lip,. exposing a darkened tooth like a sunflower hull. He says, "I guess that's why they call it work. The best part is, you get to do it all over again tonight." efore the fair opens for its final day, we crawl beneath the ride to sleep. Ellis and Leon doze on sheets of splintered plywood. Preferring grass and sand beneath my cheek, I sleep on bare ground. Before I nod off, a beautiful, tiny green lizard walks across my hand. I grab for him and he springs free, but before he runs off I manage to pin him with my thumb in a patch of brittle grass. He turns his head to look at me. He has a long impassive face and a deep-set mouth, which gives the impression that he's smiling. His tiny rib cage, made of bones no larger than a human hair, heaves like a bellows. His skin, I notice, is a mosaic of tiny yellow and blue discs; he isn't green at all. I let him go, and he skedaddles off toward the Crab Rangoon stand. I sleep so deeply that it takes me a while to stir even when Leon starts the ride above me, a noise like an air bombardment. I sit up and brush away the sand. My arms and ankles, I see, are broken out in B · STORY 85 dozens of searing, pearly boils. Ellis, awake on his pallet and drinking a beer, beams a jeer at me. "Got a little itch?" he asks. The ground around me, I notice now, is a bustling realm of fire ants. I jump up and swat at my clothes while Ellis laughs and laughs. ary, the dancer, is in a coma and is not expected to last the night. We learn this from a young man with a notepad, covering the accident for the local press. "Hey, so talk to me," the young reporter says, wanding the butt of his ballpoint pen at Leon, Ellis, and me. "What can you tell me about Gary Mason? The kind of guy he was?" The giant looks back at him with lightless eyes, then goes to smoke in the pagoda. Ellis is happy to talk. "Gary was a seriously generous person," says Ellis. "He would give you his last dollar if he was starving to death." The reporter gives a cold, superior smile. "You know what I heard from the company lawyer? That a few years back he pulled a bid in Jackson Correctional for putting his hands on a six-year-old." The young man lights a cigarette, seeming to relish his custody of this ugly information. "So naturally, they're trying to pin that thing from the other night on him, but to me, there's something about it that doesn't pass the smell test." He takes a languorous drag of his cigarette and narrows his eyes at the Chaises Volantes, as though the Chaises Volantes do not pass the smell test either. Then he goes across the way to Wade's Hoop-La, the basketball toss. Amazingly, the reporter sinks three shots out of five, even though the hoop is rigged and shaped like a kidney bean. t dusk, one of the high brass from the carnival office stops by. He is an old man with a kind face, a bow tie, and a clean white shirt. He looks at me, my face and torn jeans, and winces. "My God, son. You need to put some new trousers on." "Want to give me yours," I say. "What's that shit all over your face? You look like a chimney G A sweep. Get yourself cleaned up if you want to keep your job." I go to the 4-H pavilion. I call my mother's house collect. Her voice comes on the line. "Hello," I say. "Aha," she says. Her voice is hard. "Good to know you're still breathing." "How would you like to drive to Norton Beach?" I ask her. I explain to her about the carnival, that I need to get out of here. "Well, I think it sounds enriching, honestly." "Come and get me," I say. "David has a fractured rib and a crack in his cheekbone," she says. "It's not all your fault, I know. You're both barbarous idiots, as far as I'm concerned. If I weren't the fool that I am, I'd tell the two of you to go fly a kite and live out my cronehood in solitude." "Will you please come and get me?" "What you ask is impossible. I can't bring you back here." "Could you wire me some money?" "A hundred dollars is missing from my purse." "Ninety," I say. "Ah, my apologies," she says. "Just get in the car," I say. The line is .silenr a moment. She sighs. "Look, darling, I'm sorry, but now isn't a good time. The Hendersons will be here in an hour, and I've got a dozen crabs to sniff. Call me in two or three days, and we can talk things over. David's still in a fury." "In two or three days I'll be dead," I say. "Don't be ridiculous. I love you, and check in soon." She hangs up. I emit a sob. I should run for the forest and sleep in the orange groves. Instead, I go and watch the Bengal tigers that live in a cage in the back of a trailer across from the Jolly Flume. The big male is in a fix of his own. He paces ten steps forward in his cage, turns, and paces ten steps back. The smaller female stands in his path and tries to nuzzle his cheek, but he has lost his mind and won't be put off his route. Then, through the wire mesh of the cage, who do I see but the girl Katie, the green glow in her teeth bobbing like a beacon. I set off after her. The midway is crammed with moist, plodding crowds on this last night of the fair. I dodge through the people, past the Dime Toss and the Jungle Girl. I call Katie's name, but she cannot hear me over the din of people and machines. She has a boy with her, I see. They are walking briskly down the empty part of the midway, past the Forty Niner, the trough where for five dollars you can pan a sack of rigged dirt, prestudded with unprecious gems. I run after her on aching knees. I call Katie's name. I am just behind her now. She turns and stares at me. Her face goes hard, sieved of all warmth and recognition. I reach for her, and she yells something that I do not hear. The light in her mouth has gone out. • May Index Sources 1 Terror Free Tomorrow (Washington); 2 World Public Opinion (Washington); 3,4 Magnet America (King, N.C.); 5 National Security Archive (Washington); 6,7 Government Accountability Office (Washington); 8 World Public Opinion (Washington); 9 LevadaCenter (Moscow); 10,11 Olga Kryshtanovskaya, Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow); 12 Ethics and Public PolicyCenter (Washington); 13,14 U.S. Department of justice, Office of the Inspector General; 15 New YorkCivil Liberties Union (N.Y.C.); 16-18 ABC News (N.Y.C.); 19 Center for Respon-: sivePolitics (Washington); 20 New Yark Times (N.Y.C.); 21 Standard & Poor's (N.Y.C.); 22 Bank of America Corporation (Charlotte, N.C.); 23 Building. Democracy Initiative (Chicago); 24,25 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints (Salt Lake City); 26,27 Saranam India Private Limited (Chennai, India); 28 Costco (Issaquah,Washington); 29 Robert West, VillanovaUniversity (Villanova, Pa.): 30 Luton First (Luton, England); 31,32 UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre (Florence, Italy); 33 U.S. Census Bureau; 34 Embassyof the IslamicRepublic of Iran (Ottawa); 35,36 El-Zanaty & Associates (Cairo); 37 British Association of Aesthetic PlasticSurgeons(London); 38-40 Ministry of Defence (London). 86 HARPER'S MAGAZINE / MAY 2007 ...
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