Part I of “Midway” was published in last month’s issue of the Ames Progressive. Read it online here.
Kate came home at five. I was dozing at the table, torn between passing out or nursing my anger and what was left of the bourbon a little while longer. I watched Kate step out of her purple boots and toss them into the corner.
“Were you here all night?” she asked me.
“I went out for a little while.” I pushed the bottle away from me and noticed my hand was trembling. “Have a good night?” I asked her.
“It was all right. I went down to some local bar and hung out with a few of the girls.”
“Girls, huh? When you say girls, do you mean Dennis and some skeazy looking old man?”
Kate squinted at me. She looked pale and exhausted under her make-up. Weak daylight was just beginning to show in the little bit of sky I could see through the window.
“Red, are you drunk?”
“Obviously.” I stretched my legs out, feeling for the floor in case I wanted to stand up in a hurry. “Are you sleeping with people for money?”
“What the hell is the matter with you, Red?” Kate spat. “Who do you think I am?”
“Shaun and I saw you at the bar, leaving out the back door with Dennis and some nasty guy. What I am supposed to think?”
“You,” Kate said, slowly and loudly, “are anÂ Â Â Â asshole. What, you think you can’t trust me? You have to follow me out at night?”
“We didn’t follow you. We just went to get a few drinks. You walked right by our table and never saw us. You were looking at that guy the whole time.”
“Did it ever occur to you that you don’t know shit about my life? Did it ever occur to you that I have a good reason to keep some things to myself?”
“I don’t keep anything from you!” I exclaimed, standing up. I had to steady myself on the table. “I’ve never kept anything from you!”
“That’s because you don’t have anything to keep from me. You don’t do anything. You just hang around and, mostly, you’re a big pain in the ass.” Kate stepped right up to me and lifted her chin so that it was level with my shoulder.
“At least I’m not a cheap, lying slut.” I’d barely gotten the words out when Kate lifted her open palm and gave me a stinging slap in the side of the face. I felt my eyes go watery from the impact.
“Fuck you,” she said and one big drop of spit projected itself from her mouth straight onto my chin. “I don’t know why I even bother. Everyone says I could do better than you.”
I only meant to slap her back with equal force, but I drew my arm back and swung and she stumbled against the refrigerator with the force of it. I was sorry the instant it happened, but when I tried to reach my hand out she gave me a mighty shove.
“Get the fuck away from me!” she shouted, emphasizing with an angry grunt as she pushed me toward the door. I grabbed my boots and went. As much as I wanted the satisfaction of slamming the door, I just let it flap quietly shut behind me. I stood disoriented by the plastic patio set until I saw the guy in the camper next to us peering out, his face unshaven and accusing. I gave him my best “What the hell are you looking at?” face and set off for the fairgrounds.
The midway was completely abandoned. The rides seemed twice their usual size, creaking a tiny bit in the wind. The House of Freaks was as peaceful a place as any to sleep off a bad night. We wouldn’t open for another four or five hours and there was an inviting pile of hay just behind the goat pen. I arranged it the best I could and lay on my side. Nat watched me curiously, poking around in his own hay pile. I could live here, I decided. The goat obviously appreciated my company more than Kate did. Maybe I could teach him some tricks in my spare time.
The hay was scratchy on my arms and my mind was going too fast for sleep. I’d get up and pee, I decided, maybe get some water to help ward off the massive headache I knew I was going to have in a few hours. I stumbled outside and started my trek down the midway towards the little cement bunker that housed the bathrooms and drinking fountains. The game booths I passed looked shabby and strange. Most of them had blue or silver tarps pulled down over the fronts, protecting the giant stuffed animals and inflatable toys from the elements. The cork gun and beer can game was the exception. The tarp was up and I could see one giant teddy bear swaying in the breeze.
As I got closer I heard voices coming from inside.
“That’s good,” one said quietly. “Just these two pink ones and we’re done.”
“Sun’s almost up,” the other voice said. It was a familiar voice, but I wasn’t entirely sure until I heard, “Hey, fuckface, that’s not the way to do it. That looks like crap. What’s the matter with you?”
The Insult Clown.
“Well, you do it then,” the other voice said.
“You’re the one who has two working eyes, buddy. It’s pretty pathetic you can’t sew a straight line with two working eyes. How hard is it?”
I crouched down behind the free-throw basketball game and peeked through the netting, my body hidden behind a bouquet of blue and red inflatable hammers. Dennis was sitting behind the counter, with a gigantic stuffed pink-and-yellow panda bear in his lap. The Insult Clown was next to him, but he must have been sitting on the ground, because all I could see was the top of his head.
“Yeah,” Dennis said. “We did some good business last night. Just load these all up in the van. Kate will be here around noon to make sure they get where they’re going.”
“Must be nice, making such a bundle when all she has to do is hand out big prizes and show off her boobs,” the Clown griped.
“You’ll get your share.”
“You better make it worth my while, asshole. I’m on a nine-hour shift tonight. I bet I get dunked at least ten times. Not even blow this good makes that worth my while.” He waved a small packet of something in Dennis’s general direction.
“You pick up that stuff when we get to Lincoln and we’ll split profits three ways. You can retire in style, Clown.”
I imagined the Insult Clown on a cruise ship, sipping a large tropical drink and loudly insulting the other vacationers from his lounge chair.
The Clown chuckled. “And Kate can leave that redneck faggot with the big ears and shack up with me.”
“Ha. Right. She’ll get that money and be long gone,” Dennis sighed. “She probably would have taken off after the last deal, if I hadn’t promised double the cash this time.”
My knees were starting to ache from crouching on the dusty ground. Dennis and the Clown fell quiet as they worked and after a few minutes I edged my way around the other side of free-throw game, darted behind a ticket-selling shack and took off as fast as I could.
Shaun slept in the back of his truck, under a brown and white cap that looked like it was manufactured long before his birth. He stretched out on a camping mat, diagonal across the length of the truck bed, feet hanging off the end of the mat a good twelve inches. I reached in through one of the little windows and shook his leg. He sat up fast, hitting his head.
“Aughh! What the fuck?!”
“Sorry!” I said. “Sorry. It’s important, I swear.”
Shaun kicked open the tailgate and slid out. He was dressed in his fluorescent pink T-shirt and a pair of faded pink boxer shorts with tropical drinks printed all over them.
“What?” he asked, rubbing his eyes and fumbling around in the corner of the truck bed for his jeans.
“Shaun, there’s something weird going on.”
Later the day took on that surreal shimmering quality that it does sometimes when you’re a little hung over. We pulled our hats down and squinted a lot and tried to kill time. We decided the surest way to do that was to take a few rides in the midway, but the ferris wheel was pretty much the only thing my stomach could handle.
From up above, the midway looked like an over-exposed photograph. The crowds seemed to be moving in patterns, clumping up here and there, forming slow-moving lines at the more popular rides. The sky was bright white and the air was completely still. At the top our seat swayed a little and I wondered if it was my hammering heart moving it and if Shaun could tell. We looked down at the cork gun game and saw Kate inside, leaning her hip against the counter. We watched a steady flow of people move past, not even slowing down to look. Kate did nothing to draw them in. She just stood there. A little boy and his father finally paid for their chance to shoot a few cans and Kate handed them their cork guns, then leaned against the counter, looking bored. They left a few minutes later with what looked like a little stuffed banana and she continued to stand there, hand on her hip.
“She’s a bad worker,” Shaun volunteered. “She could have gotten them to spend more money, upgrade to a bigger prize. She just doesn’t even bother.”
“My stomach hurts,” I said.
“Hey, you did the right thing. They all had it coming to them.” Shaun patted my leg.
“It’s not like I’ve never broken the law,” I said. “I mean, that’s how I got here in the first place. We were on the run, basically.”
“Me too, man. But what have I been doing since I got here? I’ve been working my ass off, twelve, fourteen hours a day. I’ve been playing it straight and narrow, just like you, Red.”
“And what do we have to show for it?”
Shaun and I were still stuck way up at the top of the wheel when the steady stream of people carried three police officers to Kate and then three more and some of them stepped inside the booth. Kate backed up against the wall, knocking a few beer cans down. One of the officers pulled what looked like a knife from his belt and Shaun gasped, but it wasn’t Kate he pulled it on. I watched openmouthed while he yanked a large pink panda from the corner of the booth and, with one violent motion, split it from the top of its oversized head to its white furry crotch.
The ferris wheel began to turn again and by the time we’d come back up people began to gather around the cork and beer can game, watching the officers as they tore the big prizes apart. In a few minutes time the ground in front of the game was littered with debris from the mutilated stuffed animals. Finally, one of the officers found what they were looking for, nestled deep in the poly-fill guts of a big green bear. Packet upon packet, sealed tight into one big ziplock freezer bag.
Kate was standing with both hands on the counter, her head down, hair hanging loose. The Ferris wheel dipped us low and we lost sight of her, but when we came back up she was being handcuffed. One turn of the wheel later they were leading her away and I almost felt sorry for her when I saw how loose the cuffs were on her skinny wrists and how she held her chin out, not looking down at all, so that she stumbled a little here and there and the officers had to prod her along. On the next turn, she was gone. My insides ached.
Shaun and I stayed on for a second ride, because our friend Steve-O was the operator and he would let us go for free all day if we wanted to, but I didn’t want to look down anymore. Shaun narrated for me.
“The cops are searching every inch of the booth. One of them is popping the inflatable bats with his boot. They’re totally trashing the place. Fuck. This probably means I’m out of a job, huh?”
The word was out by nightfall. I walked my sorry ass back to the mobile home, chewing on a hotdog that tasted like rubber and sawdust. People kept calling out to me from their patios, where they were grilling dinner and drinking cheap beer.
“I heard your girlfriend and her boss went and got themselves arrested. Heard they’d been dealing coke out of that booth since Johnston City,” one of the women from the fried snickers bar stand hollered. “Is it true?”
“I guess it is,” I said, eyeing their tropical-themed furniture and tiki torch set-up.
“I heard they were making meth in the taffy stand,” added the girl from the kiddie rollercoaster that looked like a dragon.
“No, I heard she was fucking the taffy guy, but he didn’t know nothing about the drugs,” the fried snickers lady countered.
“You gonna go bail her out?” her mostly toothless boyfriend asked me.
“No way,” I said.
They leaned together, whispering, as I walked away. Two doors down from them one of the Gravitron guys offered me a can of Budweiser and told me I looked like hell.
“It’s been a long day,” I said.
“Hey,” he said. “What happened to the clown? Did they get him?”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s gone,” the Gravitron guy said. “They were down there searching that Winnebago when I got off a few hours ago. Cops couldn’t find nothing.”
“Yeah, for real. Jean, from the beer garden, said she thought she saw him driving off in a Buick. Said he had a bunch of big stuffed animals in the backseat.” He shook his head. “What a freak that guy was.”
Inside the Beast I paced, looking at Kate’s stuff – her fancy new boots, her clothes, old gas station receipts. There had to be some kind of clue, I thought. Something I had been too dense to see all this time.
I opened the dresser drawers one by one and checked the pockets of all her pants, then threw all the clothes out onto the floor. I stuck my head under the bed, pulled out a few pairs of old sneakers and checked inside them for good measure. Rummaging through the plastic bins where Kate kept her make-up I found nothing interesting. I had my head inside the cabinet under the sink when Shaun came in.
“What are you doing, man? Did you make this mess?” He picked up a bright blue satin bra from the kitchen floor and examined it closely.
“There’s got to be something here,” I exclaimed. “It just doesn’t make any sense. How could something like this just happen, without me even noticing?”
“Want a beer?” Shaun asked. He was holding a twelve pack of PBR.
We went and sat on the patio, just like everyone else. I took two sips of the beer and realized too late that I shouldn’t have. I leaned over the side of my plastic chair and puked on the dry grass.
“Shit,” Shaun said. He took the can from my hand and set it on the table. “Are you all right?”
“I think I should go to bed,” I said, standing up on wobbly legs. Shaun guided me back inside, where I shoved all of the clothes and junk off the bed and crawled under the covers.
“She’ll be all right,” Shaun said. “She’ll probably blame it all on Dennis and get off easy.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” I said, shivering. “And I’ll probably never see her again.”
When Shaun left I pushed my face into the pillow, smelling the scent of Kate’s hair. The new Kate’s hair, not the old one’s. The old Kate had already been gone for months and her hair had smelled like mint and oranges, not cheap drugstore hairspray.
The new Kate deserved everything she’d gotten, I told myself. But if that was true, why did I feel so bad? Why had I told Shaun to make the call? I’d stood guard behind him at the pay phone that morning, watching him scuff his boots in the dirt while he waited for the call to go through to the local police.
“I don’t know how to do this,” he’d said into the phone. “I’ve never done this before. I want to give you an, uh, anonymous tip? I know these people who are up to something big…”
I missed my shift at the House of Freaks the next day. I didn’t get out of bed. I slept some, but mostly I lay there sweating and staring at the motor home ceiling, which was saggy and water damaged. In one corner it looked like someone had ripped a panel down and then taped it back up with white duct tape. I wondered about that and why I’d never noticed it before, but I didn’t have the strength to get up and take a closer look. It felt like my head was on fire and all my limbs were made of lead. Time passed very slowly until Shaun barged in that afternoon wearing his fluorescent green T-shirt, his Wranglers dusty and his arms sunburned. He took off his hat and I saw that his hair was plastered to his forehead with sweat.
“Some guy paid me $40 to dig some post holes over behind the poultry building this morning.” He sat at the foot of the bed. “Man, are you all right? You look like you’re dying.” He handed me the giant-size Pepsi he was carrying. I took it and drank. It felt good. I sat up against the wall, then took another sip.
“Shaun, look at that ceiling tile over there.”
“Yeah? What about it?”
“Doesn’t it look like someone taped it up there?”
“This vehicle isn’t exactly in prime condition, Red. Wasn’t there was a leak up there or something?”
“Yeah, I know. I fixed that last spring. But I used caulk.”
Shaun reached up and gave the strip of tape a yank. The tile came lose and something that looked like a green brick smacked Shaun in the head.
“Is that money?”
Shaun examined it.
“A lot of money,” he said, his eyes widening. “It’s, like, a bunch of hundred dollar bills.”
I put the Pepsi down and crawled over to the loose tile. Kneeling on the bed, I could just about put my head right up inside the ceiling. It looked like someone had removed the foam insulation and completely packed that section with bricks and bricks of money.