Previous: Episode 10
In a world of vagabonds, loners, and freaks, Ringmaster Folley was followed for a reason. America’s interest in freak shows and carnivals had gradually decreased in the last decade, yet the bossman always attracted just enough of a crowd to put gas in the automobiles—though they often arrived on fumes. The cast and crew were often hungry, but not unbearably so, and never starving. It was like a strange penance.
And just when the carnival seemed at its breaking point, this. Austin, and success.
With Folley’s encouragement and the plastering of a thousand flyers, the phrase, “exploding cow” had wormed its way through the populace. When evening came, so did the people. They arrived in tens and twenties, whole neighborhoods, it seemed. There were so many people that there were legitimate lines at every stage and stall.
The cast and crew were in high spirits, too. They had slept well and were full on beef stew: the ringmaster could play his crew as well as he played any crowd.
Gaspard burped. His visit with the doctor had taken too long. By the time he made it to the mess there wasn’t much stew left. Probably just as well, the few spoonfuls he did have weren’t sitting well.
He burped again. Ringmaster Folley glanced at him sidewise, briefly, but didn’t move his head or break from the fires he was putting out.
“Fairy floss vendors on the East side are low on sugar,” Viera said. There was joy in her voice, despite the fact that she received no take from any of the concessions. “They’ve got some ridiculous lines. Freaks had to split their crowd and bring them in shifts, there were so many.”
“Gaspard? Tell Viera where the sugar is. Next!”
It was an unusual number of problems to deal with, but Gaspard chalked it up to the volume of visitors. Folley was handling it skillfully, and was still making his own curtain calls. A few words to bolster Daniel, and Folley was already on to the next problem: Charlene, the youngest of the Triplet Revue. There was an uneven sweat on her brow, and she held a hand on her sternum. At first Gaspard thought it might be exhaustion or excitement, but she had a pale green in her complexion.
“Can you believe this?” Viera asked. “So many rubes. They’re practically throwing their money at us.”
Gaspard snapped back to attention.
“Le Petit,” Gaspard called. The big man had been standing by, Gaspard’s own right-hand-man this evening. “Is the sugar in my trailer?”
“Go with Viera. Get, get a lot of boxes, whatever you can carry. Leave them all at the East concessions. We’ll redistribute them from there as needed. But hurry back.”
“Gaspard, Juice man,” Folley called.
The Juice man had just entered the tent. He didn’t wait at the back of the line, so Gaspard guessed that Folley wanted Gaspard to delay him.
“Juice man, excusez moi,” Gaspard called, jogging to intercept him.
The Juice man spat, grainy brown chaw spittle that splattered in the dust. He was an older man, close shorn hair with a squinty eye. He was probably the only man at the carnival older than Hank, and walked with self-importance. He was the sole owner and operator of the generators for the whole of Folley’s Circus—if he had a problem, it needed to be addressed immediately.
“I’m sorry?” Gaspard asked. The Juice man had said, well, something, in that gritty voice of his, but Gaspard couldn’t make it out.
“Frenchie?” the old man asked. The same word Donovan had used, but without any of the disdain. “Où est-ce, um, Ringmaster Folley?”
“Your French is atrocious, mon amie. What monster taught you to ruin my language?”
The corner of the old man’s mouth, the one near his squinty eye, turned up in a smile.
“You can blame your people. Great food, beautiful women. Terrible teachers.”
“You have been to my country?” Gaspard was between the old man and Folley, walking backwards, slowing the old man’s progress.
“Spent some time in Caen, with the Second Canadian Corps.”
“In Caen?” Gaspard was surprised, pleased even. He raised his hand to his head, beside his eye, palm facing toward the old man.
A full smile this time. The old man removed a black cap from his back pocket; when he placed it atop his head, Gaspard saw it bore a metal badge: laurels, and the overhead image of a tank. The old man saluted back, then shook Gaspard’s hand.
“Thank you, sir.” Gaspard said.
“Any time, every time, son.” He then tucked the cap back into his pocket. He looked Gaspard up and down, and added, “You look a bit young to be a soldier.”
“Some of us did not have a choice.”
Gaspard had backpedaled as long as he could, bought as much time as possible. He glanced back, saw Folley was sending Charlene on her way. The bossman caught Gaspard’s eye, nodded with an approving eyebrow.
“The Juice man, Ringmaster Folley. Top priority.” Gaspard was learning to play at pageantry with the crew as well.
“Wilfrid,” Folley greeted. “What’s the problem?”
“I’m hungry, Frank!”
“Francine!” Frank jangled his way to his sister.
“I didn’t get a chance to eat, Frank.” She had been so scared and upset by Celia that she ran straight to her brother. She cried for a good hour, Frank trying to console her. By the time she regained her appetite, lunch was long over and the people from the nearby city were already arriving.
“It’s your own fault,” Frank started, but then surrendered. “I’m hungry, too, okay. Here.”
He reached into his leotard pocket and pulled out a fistful of change.
“Oh my goodness,” Frank said. “I can’t move like this. Get the bag.”
Francine shuffled over to the curtain near Daniel’s seat, eyed the crowd passing by the platform to make sure no one was looking at her hiding place. She pulled half a potato sack from behind the curtain, already heavy with coins.
Frank dropped the coins into the sack, then reached into his tiger leotard again and again., dropping handful after handful of nickels and dimes into it. He had sold nearly all of his “hand bent nails”—that’s how he said it, with a weird sound in his voice, “hand bent nails”—to the two crowds that had visited the freak show, and most of the night was still left.
“Okay, here,” Frank said, plucking the last few coins from his pockets. “This is twenty, thirty-five, ah. Forty cents. Once the crowd goes inside the tent, you run and get us something to eat.”
Francine paused. “Concessions?”
“Yes. Get me a dog and, oh, here.” He tossed two more dimes into her palm. “A Coke. And whatever you want with the rest. But if you eat a bunch of junk, I don’t want to hear about you being hungry. Or any tummy aches.”
Francine wanted to push the last stragglers into the tent herself. As soon as the tent flaps closed behind them, she leaped down the steps. She crossed in front of the stage, the emptiest she’d seen it all night, only a few dozen people milling about.
Dogs first, she thought, but if she had to wait too long in line for fairy floss they’d be cold. She turned the opposite direction, feet skidding in the dirt, and started that way, coming back across the stage front. Popcorn and floss first…but what if she didn’t have enough money left to get Frank’s food? No, best to get the dogs, regardless—she paused, again in front of the stage. Blue and yellow ruffled curtains hung from the raised stage, starting just above her head. There was a strange smell coming from beneath the stage, sort of a static smell mixed with warm car grease.
More people gathered, early for the next show. Some she recognized, people who were visiting for a second time, bringing friends and family. If she didn’t hurry, Frank would make her stay and work this crowd.
“Dogs!” she shouted, beelining for the concession. Above her, the strings of bulbs that hung overhead buzzed, dimmed briefly. A second of silence when the lights and all music cut out, maybe not even a second, and it all quickly returned. The crowd hardly seemed to notice.
There were multiple issues getting power out here, “a safe distance from the rest of the carnival.” Folley’s admonishment to get it done, “by whatever means necessary,” seemed to inspire the Juice man. Within ten minutes he had a solution.
Folley’s Circus was accustomed to fat times and lean times. During the fat times they replaced old equipment, hired on new acts, ate well. During the lean times they repaired and jerry-rigged, and made the most of what scraps they could find. The genny that the Juice man brought them looked like it was made from the scraps of scraps. It had been lean times for a long time.
Le Petit lifted the genny from his shoulder, placed it beside the previously assembled grandstand.
“This the backup?” Gaspard asked, eyeing the machine. It was half as tall as he, and the paint on its parts indicated at least three different generators had been cannibalized to make this one.
“Backup backup,” the Juice man replied. “But I need this back soon as you clear out this arena. Got my truck running part of the power back there.”
“Backup backup?” Gaspard watched its parts settle while Le Petit shuffled it into place.
The Juice man spat. “It’ll run. Now, if you’re done smart-assing my machines, could you hand me the strings?”
The old man started the genny. A black cloud and the smell of diesel filled the air, but it ran relatively quiet. He plugged in the string of lights, and the lot was filled with fuzzy yellow light. At the center of the makeshift arena stood Ringmaster Folley: tall black top hat, red coat and ever-white shirt. Beneath him long, slender shadows reached out in every direction.
It was the cornerstone of tonight’s performances, so of course Folley himself was going to announce this event.
“The cow?” Folley asked.
“In the backyard,” Gaspard answered. “We corralled it in. It was sleeping when we left it.”
“You said it was ill? You’re certain it’s sleeping?”
“Le Petit?” Gaspard asked. He was met with rapid nodding.
“Hidden in a crate at the far end of the grandstand, behind you. I’ve already rigged up a harness.” Gaspard’s sentence was punctuated with a long burp. “Um. Excusez moi.”
Folley lowered his brow, blinked slowly. “Perhaps steer away from the pop, Gaspard.”
“I apologize, Ringmaster Folley. I don’t know what—”
“Gaspard!” someone called from beyond the circle of light. “Have you seen Ring—Ringmaster Folley!”
Hank and a roustie stepped from shadow into the arena, Nicolo hanging between them. The wrestler was pale, no, he had that same tinge of green that Charlene had earlier.
“Boss, I’m feeling ill,” Nicolo murmered, clenching his stomach. His legs bowed with each step, providing minimal help. Hank and the roustie were bearing most of Nicolo’s weight.
“No, no, no,” Folley said. “You’re in the main tent in an hour. Is it your stomach? Go see the doctor, he’ll get you some bicarbonate, fix you right up.”
“That’s the thing, boss,” the roustie said. “The doctor’s arm was dislocated not twenty minutes ago.”
“We were…practicing.” Nicolo burped, a burp that could have been a performance in itself.
“He was howling about the pain, mixed something up and himself—”
“The medicines…oh, no,” Gaspard said.
“…And now he’s blubbering. We left him sprawled out behind his trailer.”
“Alright,” Folley said. “We can fix this. Nicolo, drink some water. A lot of water. Go be sick if you have to, but do it away from the crowd. I’ll move your show back to give you some time to recover.”
“You got it, boss,” Nicolo muttered. He waved a hand aimlessly.
Hank spoke up. “He’s in no condition to perform.” As if to prove a point, he let go of Nicolo. The wrestler slumped onto his ass and rolled to his side. He continued waving.
“You,” Folley pointed to the roustie. “Take a truck. Get the doctor to a doctor, make sure he didn’t poison himself. But first have Nicolo reset his arm—no.” Folley paused, realized his error. He steepled his fingers and placed their tips against his forehead. “We can fix this,” he repeated, seemingly to himself.
Hank spoke up. “Al, uh, Folley. Doctor Fagan was in two shows tonight. Even if Nicolo recovers, he doesn’t have anyone to wrestle, and no one is going to handle the medicine show. That’s a big gap in our lineup. The crowd—”
“They’ll leave, I know. Give me a moment.”
“Don’t force it.” Hank kept his voice low, eyed Gaspard and the pin on his chest. “Let it go, we’ll have another chance.”
“We can fix this!” Folley repeated, almost a roar. He paced away a few steps, removed his hat and balled his fists. He stormed back, fire in his eyes.
“Get your tails,” he ordered Hank. “You’re going to bark here. Get whoever is free, I’m going to fill Nicolo’s stage time. Who do we have?”
“In an hour? Benders are free by then.”
Gaspard chimed in, “I can pull a Freak or two. Once Le Petit brings the cow you can take him with you. Gives you five folk. Is that enough?”
Ringmaster Folley looked at Hank. “I need seven.”
A pause. Gaspard didn’t know what Folley had in mind, but behind Hank’s eyes puzzle pieces were clearly falling into place.
“No!” Hank ordered back. Hank, who normally conceded to whatever the ringmaster decided. “Folley, you fool. Don’t!”
Folley outright ignored Hank. “I wish Mr. It was here, he knew the bit. That means I’ll do the talking.” Folley lowered his hat, pinched the bridge of his nose. “We’ll give them a show. We’ll bring him out.”
Next: Episode 12