In truth, Fred was worried; he just didn’t let on. Folks just didn’t have money to spend on anything. It had even begun to occur to him that the whole show might fall apart, that they’d just disband, which was not something he wanted at all.
He was many things. He wasn’t particularly honest or trustworthy—in fact he had terrible things on his conscience that bothered him. He’d suffered from nightmares most of his life, nightmares, and the jitters, as he called them. He had no idea they came from things he had done that he no longer recalled.
Despite this, he was affable and fair toward those he worked with. And because they had suffered as much as they had—his show people—he felt downright responsible for them. What would happen to them if they had no home with him? Still, he couldn’t afford to keep them as things were. He was down to the last bit of money.
Where would Alice go, poor kid, or any of them? The clowns would wind up being killed one way or the other, and the boys, too. They were out of their heads sometimes. Too fucked up from all they had been through.
As for Al and Hank, they’d eventually broken out of the mental facility they had lived in and joined up with circuses, fairs—whatever they could get into.
Fred ran into them one night when he stopped to pick them up. He had thought they were children. They knew he did and accused him of all sorts of crazy shit. After a while, they came round. It took time though. Both of them had suffered a lot.
The crew, as he often thought of them, had been with him for four years. It was two years since the ’29 Wall Street crash and things were bad. His father was worse. What else was going to happen? He often wished their luck would change though he doubted it could.
But things did swing another way, as a matter of fact. Yet, there was nothing to indicate a profound change was going to take place. No premonitions of any kind. They were sitting around the fire waiting for their food. Al poked the fire to get it to cook faster. “Yay!” he cried. “It’s ready!”
The meat was fatty though because it was cheap but it smelled as good as it tasted. Happy said it was almost as good as flesh, but not quite. The clowns laughed—including Happy.
They were just razing one another. Then they started to talk. Baby Alice spoke about movie stars she liked. She was a real fan of cowboy films.
In the early days, Fred used to sometimes take them to the movies and they’d get the works: popcorn, grape soda, whatever they wanted. No more, though.
Baby Alice asked Fred if he felt alright. He said he did. She looked unconvinced. Fred smiled to show her he wasn’t as worried as he actually was.
The food was good and they were grateful for it. After they ate, they stared into the fire as if to read the future.
The boys were shooting crap with the dice they stole from a Woolworths and the clowns were drinking some bootlegged gin. Fred didn’t mind as long as they didn’t get drunk out of their heads. They weren’t good when they ended up like that.
Still, it proved a fine evening, another evening for sitting under the stars and having a decent meal. Fred decided to be positive. He hoped he’d stay that way.
It had to have been past nine when a voice called out. A man’s voice. Everyone stopped what they were doing; they just froze and looked at one another.
None of them liked strangers poking round. For one thing, they could be cops. No, they didn’t want strangers asking questions. Fred stood and spotted him. A figure was just coming into view.
The man held up his hands. “I mean you no harm,” he said. “I just was out walking and I came upon your fire. That is, I smelled it and whatever you cooked…it smelled real good.”
Fred didn’t know what to make of him at first. Of course, he was relieved he didn’t look like a cop. He was dressed kind of shabbily, with a shirt and mismatched jacket, paired with trousers worn at the knees. He was carrying his jacket. “Sure is warm tonight.”
“Yeah, but that’s the way June is hereabouts.”
They both reckoned so. Everyone else did also and they continued to as they all sat around the fire. Just then, the man excused himself and said his name was Joe. “Joe Sabba.”
Sabba, Fred thought. It sounded like some kind of Hindu name, exotic: Sabba, the Magnificent. Joe cocked his head and said he could read Fred’s mind. Fred laughed. “No, really!” he said. “It’s what I do. Let me show you.”
The clowns started to guffaw and the boys did, too. Baby Alice called them rude and the stranger smiled and thanked her, calling her ma’am, which made her blush. “No, ma’am, I’ll show them. You wait. I think you were wondering if I was some kind of magician, Sabba the Magnificent, wasn’t it? Is what you were thinking?”
Fred nearly swallowed the unlit stogie he had been gnawing on. “What did you say?”
“I bet I was right!”
Fred nodded dumbly.
No one said anything. It was quite a moment. “Well, sir,” the man said. “Looks like I impressed you all. It’s just a talent I have. Been like that all my life. Even as a sprout growing up in Amarillo.”
Happy was impressed. “Amarillo way? I come from Lubbock!”
“Do tell. Like Lubbock, been there many times.” There was a pause although it wasn’t a long one. “Carny folk, are you?” Heads began to nod—even Fred’s. “I bet you all have a story or two to tell! Nothing like it, fires and storytelling.”
That was when it started. A complete stranger broke the proverbial ice. They were soon all chatting for the next three hours, the men interested to learn that Joe had been a carny most of his life.
“Yes, always liked carny folks. Best people there are.”
Everyone agreed, including Fred. When Old Pa stuck his head out—he had been in the truck because of dizzy spells, which he got every now and then—Joe Sabba grinned. “Well, hello there, sir. I am mighty glad to meet you. I was wondering when I might.”
Fred laughed at that. “Hey, you can’t prove you knew he was in there.”
Joe agreed. “You are right. Damned if you ain’t. But I will say this and let God be my judge—I do surmise that your father there won’t go nowhere without his little box of mementos.”
Fred winced. He couldn’t speak for quite some time. This would be one night during which he wouldn’t sleep at all.
(end of chapter)
Damaged people, torn up in one way or another, an old man with a box of mind-blowing secrets--and a stranger--just on the road or on the road to hell?
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