Previous: Episode 2
The coat was new. New to Gaspard anyway. Clean lines that hung well on him. Sharp lapels. Brown. The same brown as the dirt, the sky, and the last twenty towns they passed through. Absolutely uncomfortable—at least his balls fit in the pockets.
Gaspard leaned against the newly re-erected front gate, eyes fixed on the ticket trailer not twenty feet away. There was a lot of commotion coming from the closed-off back half, the half that acted as Ringmaster Folley’s office. The door opened and closed repeatedly, the room’s occupants storming out and back in.
Beside him, two roustabouts stood on ladders on either side of the gate, struggling with a thick tarp banner. There were locks, three on each side, which looked to be for securing the banner, but instead were only getting in the way. A breeze caught the banner, slapping it against one men’s face.
“Don’t help or nothin’,” the man called down to him. When Gaspard didn’t answer, the man added, “You going to just laze about all day?”
The tail end of the breeze brought two crow feathers to rest against his shoes. Large feathers. Gaspard brushed them away with the side of his foot.
“You deaf or what?” the man yelled down.
Gaspard replied without looking up, “C’est pas tes oignons.”
“Oh, ho!” the man on the ladder said. “Frog swam all the way to the States?”
“Two more weeks,” Gaspard heard from the office, the raspy voice and drawn out S’s of Mr. It. “I’m never coming back. Here, take it!” More arguing, then another voice, older, calling out, “Folley, you can’t just—it doesn’t work like that!” That was Hank, Gaspard realized, Ringmaster Folley’s right-hand man.
Curious. Gaspard pulled three Spauldeens from his pockets, pressed their pink rubber surfaces against each other until they made their dry squeak.
“You enjoyin’ the show, Butterfingers?” the same man called down. The man spit from the side of his mouth, a darker brown splash on the dry dirt and across the toe of Gaspard’s shoe.
“Ringmaster tells me to put on the coat, I put on the coat. He tells me to wait nearby, I wait nearby.”
“Yeah, you wait. You’re all good at waitin’, ain’t you? My brother died in the war because you were all waitin’.”
Gaspard looked at his hands, realized he had pressed the balls between them, almost flat. He took a breath.
“You want my help, eh?” Gaspard threw the balls in the air, cascade-juggling them. When he reached the ladder he gripped a rung, keeping the balls aloft with only his right hand.
“No! What are you—?”
“You want help, here I come.”
Gaspard didn’t need the rung, was only using it to center himself on the ladder. He let go, felt for the bottom rung of the ladder with his foot, and began climbing.
The ladder wobbled. Already Gaspard had its rhythm.
His steps widened as he climbed, left, right, left, the ladder spinning and swaying to meet his outstretched feet. The man at the top shrieked.
“I’m only trying to help you, friend,” Gaspard chided.
The ladder spun on one leg, twice, thrice. The man above him jumped, catching the arch above the gate and falling into the dust.
Gaspard hooked the ladder with one knee to stop the spin, caught his Spauldeens, and hopped the ladder back against the gate with a wooden clack.
“You sonofabitch!” The man was already on him when he stepped off the ladder, fists pulling at his lapels. Dust covered him head to toe.
Unaffected, Gaspard replied, “I was only helping, like you asked.”
The man’s fist raised to strike, but both men were suddenly lifted off the ground and separated, and placed some six feet apart.
Le Petit stood between them, a large hand resting gently on each man’s chest. The only hair on his head was a well-waxed handlebar mustache. He always wore his red-striped shirt and overalls, and towered over everyone in the carnival—Gaspard was average height, but barely came up to Le Petite’s chest.
“You don’t scare me, giant,” the roustie said. He leaned out to spit beneath Le Petit’s arm, the chaw spittle landing squarely on Gaspard’s shoes this time.
“Aw, it’s in my sock,” Gaspard said, shaking his foot. “I only have the one pair.”
“You tried to kill me, frog! I’m gonna rip—”
A voice boomed over everyone, “No you will not!” It was the same voice that commanded respect in both the back yard and under the big top. Ringmaster Folley strode over, stopped beside Le Petit. Folley stared down at the man, “Donovan, all you are going to do is get back on that ladder and fix my sign.”
The man, Donovan, clenched his jaw in anger, but nodded.
“I swear, everyone’s trying to get my ire up today.” Ringmaster Folley was already striding away. “Le Petit, give Gaspard the pin. We don’t have time for this, people, gates open in two hours…”
Hank, grey haired and whiskered, raced after Folley. He stopped briefly to look at Gaspard before continuing.
Gaspard and Le Petit looked at each other.
“No, I’ve never seen him move that fast either,” Gaspard replied. A pause, then, “Yes, you’re right. That time with the carousel. But this is…different. Now what was this about a pin?”
Le Petit raised his eyebrows, reached into his chest pocket, cupped something with both hands. He opened them like a clam. A gold coin flashed from inside, the relief image of a two-toothed key upon it.
Gaspard’s eyes opened wide. “No. No-no-no. I don’t want it.”
Le Petit shook his head, pinched the pin between two fingers, and shoved it toward Gaspard.
“No! You take it!” He blocked with both hands, shoving as if he were trying to push away from a wall.
Le Petit blinked.
“Fine. But only because the Boss-man said so.”
The giant man leaned in, took the lapel of Gaspard’s jacket. Gaspard immediately pulled away, snatching the pin from Le Petit.
“You are not my mother. I can do this myself.” Gaspard stuck the pin through his lapel, wriggled at its clasp. Confident as he was with his hands, it didn’t seem to want to catch. If he just wriggled it—
“Merde!” he shouted, shaking his hand free of his lapel. He looked at his thumb, a streak of blood, another large drop already welling from the prick. “That’s it. I’m dead. How old are these pins? Tétanos, for sure. Tell Dr. Fagan, when the lock-jaw sets in—”
Le Petit tilted his head slightly.
“What do you mean it’s called ‘Tetanus’ here? That sounds stupid.” He hit the vowels hard, gutturally, letting the American accent take over. “Tetanus.” Shook his head. “No. Still sounds stupid. And no, I’m not being overly dramatic. How many people have worn that pin over the years? And for that matter, the last person was—well, speak of the devil.”
Mr. It approached from the ticket cart, spinning his cane between each step. “Gentlemen. Gaspard.”
“I know you are trying to insult me, but I’ve never claimed to be a gentleman. I’m far too worldly.”
Mr. It flashed his perfect smile. “Of course. Well, it appears I’ve finally been divested of all responsibility. But the ringmaster did ask that I inform you of your new responsibilities—”
“Le Petit was already filling me in before you interrupted, thank you.”
“So he told you no longer have rotations? You’re in charge of—”
“The freaks. Concessions on the East side. Organization up of the back yard. Back-up for feeding the animals, et patati et patata.”
“And the roustabouts,” Mr. It added, unfazed.
“Pardon?” Gaspard asked.
“You said he told you everything.” Mr. It smiled.
“I said you interrupted Le Petit.”
Mr. It waved dismissively. “You’re in charge of general maintenance. Outside of set-up and tear-down, have the rousties paint, repair tarps, laundry…anything that keeps them busy. Idle hands, and whatnot.”
Gaspard’s eyes lit up. He watched Donovan, on the ladder, who was tying the last corner of the banner in place.
“Well,” Mr. It said. “I’m going to freshen up before my show. Figure I may as well go out triumphant, last few shows and all. I heard there may be some scouts from other carnivals in town this evening.”
Gaspard was already ignoring Mr. It, was at the foot of the ladder when Donovan touched earth. He leaned, lapels pulled taut, pin catching the failing sunlight.
Donovan saw the pin and groaned. “Aww, shit.”
“Ringmaster Folley said your name but I missed it. What was it, again, roustie?”
The man’s lips pressed white in defiance. Finally, he answered, “Donovan.”
“Well, Donovan. It seems I’ve made a mess of my shoes. Clumsy of me, really. Just can’t seem to keep my footing here on these dusty hills.”
Gaspard took off his shoes, flecked tobacco spittle already drying. He handed them over to Donovan. “Be a dear and polish these up for me, yes? And while you’re at it,” Gaspard reached down, pulled off his tobacco-stained sock, “Give this a wash also.”
He shoved the sock inside one of the shoes. Donovan narrowed his eyes, but now he didn’t dare talk back.
“Thank you, Donovan. That’s so generous of you. Just leave them by my trailer when you’re done.”
Donovan left, along with the other roustie. Gaspard watched him leave.
“This was a bad idea,” Gaspard said.
Le Petit approached, rested a hand on Gaspard.
“No, it wasn’t excessive. I meant that I can already feel the dust between my toes.” He looked down, wiggled both feet and tried to pinch the dirt from between his exposed right toes. “Okay. Let’s see what I’ve been gotten into.”
The lights were humming above, large amber bulbs that attracted so many moths. Buttery popcorn and the sizzle of sausages filled the air around them.
“What’s the Juice man’s take?” Gaspard asked, pointing to the bulbs.
Le Petit began pointing out individual booths with his left hand, raising one or two fingers for most of them. Pointing at the freak’s tent, he raised three fingers but pinched the thumb and little fingers together.
“That much? Who pissed him off?”
A raise of nearly hairless eyebrows.
“Oh,” Gaspard replied. “Well, that scaly bastard is a shit. Any way we can renegotiate that?”
“Gaspard! I found you!”
Gaspard turned, saw Dr. Fagan jogging toward him, cigarette dangling from his mouth. The man was broad-shouldered, muscular like the wrestlers were. Out of his white coat, as he was now, he could easily be mistaken for the base in an adagio act, or any number of other athletic performers.
“Good doctor, what do you need?”
Dr. Fagan held an amber bottle in his hand. “I’ve got a lot of expired medicine. I really need to change this out, order some new stuff.”
The doctor pulled out a small pair of spectacles, rested them on his wide nose. He extended his arm and squinted. “If you look here, these are over a year past expiry. If I used these, there might be some adverse effects.”
“Can’t we use them on the last day in town, then?” Gaspard shook his head as if he were talking himself out of something. “You know what, that’s not my job. Just to talk to Ringmaster Folley.”
“I did. He told me you were taking over for Mr. It.”
“I’m in charge of the Medicine show, too?” Gaspard eyed Le Petit.
The big man shrugged his shoulders, held his hands palms-up.
“Yes, you should be. I will—look, Petit, we will talk about this later. Doctor, I can’t fix it tonight. Can you get some in town tomorrow?”
The doctor clenched his teeth and sucked in. “I’d…rather not go into town while we’re this far south.”
“Why—no, never mind. We’ve all got our pasts. But if you’re so concerned about going into town, perhaps you should be laying low tonight, yes?”
“But, if I don’t do a show, my take—”
“I’ll talk to the Ringmaster. Tell him you were ill or something. Or tell him you had visitors.” Gaspard let the word hang, with all the weight that it meant to too many of the cast and crew. “I’m sure the Boss-man will understand.”
The doctor nodded. He walked away, sheepishly, probably to hide in his trailer for the evening.
“Okay, last one before we open. Show me the new show.”
Le Petite led the way to a raised wooden platform. The two dwarves were waiting there in matching tiger-stripe leotards: the girl sat with her legs crossed, dangling at the edge. The boy stood behind a barbell, rotating his shoulders. The talker started in as soon as Gaspard approached.
“Step right up on stage, gentlemen. Come see the strongest man in the world! A power so mighty, the Almighty saw fit to hide it in this condensed—”
“Can it, Mick,” Gaspard said. “I’m all out of nickels. So, what is this?”
Mick dropped the spiel, answered in a straight voice. “Strongest man in the world. Try lifting the weight.”
Gaspard took off his coat and handed it to Mick. Removed three Spauldeens from his pockets and laid these atop the coat. Another three from behind his back, and then another three seemingly from nowhere.
“If I split my pants, Mick, I’m not going to be happy.” He looked at the weight, two large black spheres marked ‘500 lbs.’ with a chromed pole between them. “How much does this really weigh?” he asked.
“Merde,” Gaspard muttered under his breath. He squatted to lift, and was startled by Mick striking the ground with his cane. “What was that about?”
“Lift it already!” Mick said.
Gaspard pushed with his legs—no give. He pulled with his arms, and when that didn’t work simply tried rolling it either direction. Still nothing.
Panting, he stood. “No. I can not. The boy?”
“Yeah,” Mick replied. Then, “Francine, you’ve got to pay attention!”
“Oh, sorry, sorry,” the little girl replied. She feigned a wave to a crowd that wasn’t there.
Something settled beneath his feet, beneath the stage. Gaspard looked at Francine, her attention turned back to Le Petit. She curtsied, and Le Petit bowed. They continued like this several times, the girl giggling every time the giant bowed.
Mick leaned behind a curtain. “We good, Daniel? Okay. Frank, go ahead.”
Gaspard was putting it together. The cane strike was a cue, and probably Francine’s wave. Daniel’s little crab-claws were on some mechanism somewhere—he was out of sight of the crowd, but had eyes on Francine.
The boy barely came up to Gaspard’s waist, but he squatted down and lifted the barbell with ease. For a moment Gaspard wanted to believe the spiel Mick was selling.
“How old are you, boy?”
“Forty-three,” the boy replied, his voice cracking.
Clearly not forty-three. “What if Le Petit tries?” Gaspard asked.
“Let’s…no. Let’s not do that. He won’t be able to lift it, but the big man’s got more endurance than our magnets do.”
The scam fell into place. “Show me.”
Mick hopped off the platform, lifted the purple skirt that reached to the ground. There were several copper coils beneath the platform, two iron posts mounted just beneath where the barbell’s weights were.
“Clever,” Gaspard said. He leaned against the platform, motioned back with a thumb. “Juice-man feeding this, too?”
“Of course,” Mick replied. “They keeping you busy with the new duties?”
“I did not know what busy meant until today.” Gaspard leaned back farther, stretching his back—and pulled his hand away immediately.
“Merde!” He looked at the back of his hand. A small square of flesh shined where he’d been burned, and a thick, acrid smell filled his nose.
“Watch it,” Mick said. “Something’s wrong with the coils down there. They shouldn’t be getting as hot as they are.”
“Le Petit, we’re done with our inspection. Let’s go get ready before the rubes arrive.”
The rubes never came. Or they came, but in ones and twos, not the hundreds they were getting a few years ago. Not even the tens and twenties they had been getting the last few months. For most of the evening the thoroughfares were mostly empty, and the lack of an audience brought down the energy of the performers. Most of the popcorn was uneaten, and the sausages—no, hot dogs, Gaspard had been corrected—were being packed back up for sale tomorrow night.
Gaspard sat in a corner in Ringmaster Folley’s office, Hank in the other. Folley poured over the ledger. In eyesight was a short line of performers waiting for their cut just past the ticket booth.
Folley slammed his fist onto the ledger.
“Pack it up.”
Hank replied, “But Al—Ringmaster Folley—we’ve only just gotten here.”
“Town’s dead. You think we’re going to squeeze anything more from their pockets? Maybe we’ll get some repeat customers, have a night just as good as tonight?”
Hank hung his head, pulled his flat cap down over his eyes. “I’ll tell the crew in the morning.”
“Tonight,” Folley insisted. He stood, putting his top-hat back atop his slicked down hair. “We shake the sand of this damned place from our sandals by morning.”
“Tonight,” Hank agreed. He stopped in the doorway on his way out, turned. “You’re really making yourself beholden to your crew, eh?”
Folley’s face turned sterner, if that was possible.
“Gaspard, pay the crew. Lock box is in the bottom drawer.” He tossed a key in the air and left, never looking back.
Gaspard caught it, palmed it, made it appear in the other hand. “Yes, Boss-man,” he said to no one.
He sat at the ringmaster’s desk, pulled out the cash box and shouted, “Who’s first?”
Mr. It entered, eyebrow raised. He looked back the way he entered. “Everyone’s in good spirits tonight.”
Gaspard sighed. “Look, you lizard shit. I’m not in the mood for—”
“Frenchman, so far as I’m concerned, you don’t even exist. I’m only here to collect my money.”
Gaspard was almost offended, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. The sooner he paid Mr. It the sooner he left. He scanned the ledger, finger tracing the rows.
He handed Mr. It two and a half dollars.
At first Mr. It’s face was indignant—the small joys, Gaspard thought—but then Mr. It began chuckling. He slammed his hand on the money, scooped it up.
“What are you laughing at?”
“You know what this is?” Mr. It pulled a dollar away, held the rest of the money in Gaspard’s face. “It’s a bus ticket out of here. And this?” He waved the other dollar. “This is a steak dinner wherever I end up. But you?” Mr. It stood, claws scraping the roof as he exited. “You’re stuck here.”
Next: Episode 4