It was dusk when we finally arrived at our campground. The main tent and most of the booths and personal tents had already been set up. The Duggans dropped me off at the edge of camp so I could check in with the others. My first stop was at Lulu’s, our fortuneteller and bee-earded lady. For my money, Lulu was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen. It made perfect sense that she spent 90% of her time covered in bees. She was just finishing up her beekeeping duties when I arrived.
“Just give me a second.”
She put down her smoker and took off her mask.
“Are you going to dinner tonight? I’m not going to dinner. I’m going to eat pancakes with honey.”
It was a loose tradition for all of us to eat together our first night in, but only Leon and The Flying Sweeney Sisters, who’s families had been with the circus for generations, stuck to this tradition consistently.
“Maybe I’ll put in an appearance. It is free food.”
“I can’t eat with those perverts.” Lulu winked at me.
“What about this pervert?”
Lulu rolled her eyes and waved me into her tent. We sat down opposite each other, her crystal ball between us on her small, purple covered table. She popped up suddenly and returned promptly with two ready made plates of pancakes covered in honey.
“I knew you’d be stopping by. The crystal ball told me.”
“The crystal ball have any stock tips? Career advice?”
She looked down into the ball and then up into my eyes slowly.
“Trial and tribulation have brought you here, and there is worse yet to come. At this place, at this moment, you feel you are the sum of all of your mistakes and regrets. But remember, always remember, that your fate is your own. Move with your fate, not against it, and someday, you will be free.”
Lulu delivered these lines with the eerie conviction of her trade.
“Are you hitting on me?”
“Maybe.” She winked at me. “Eat your pancakes.”
She gazed back into the crystal ball and passed her hands over it as she rolled her eyes back into her head until only the whites were visible.
“Well that’s attractive.”
“It’s supposed to be.” She winked again with her eyes still rolled back.
“And that is really attractive.”
She laughed, cut a big piece of pancake, and stuffed it into her mouth.
“Please roll your eyes back down.”
“Why don’t you just roll your eyes up?” she said as she chewed. “It’s easy once you get used to it. It just takes practice and dedication. Mental instability helps, too.”
She rolled her eyes back down, smiled at me sadly, and swallowed.
“Fine, you big baby.”
She started to hum as she ate and her bees began to accumulate on her face. In seconds she had a full beard of bees.
“You should do that in your act.”
“What act?” She held my gaze a few seconds before giggling. “You’re a funny guy, Scotty.”
Next I stopped at Hector’s booth. He was our resident strongman/fat man, but he was never really fat enough to replace our last fat man and had lost too much weight to pull it off even with padding. People want to see naked rolls of flesh when they see the fat man, and in contemporary America 1000lb men and women aren’t novelties anymore anyway. I found Hector sitting in his cage, staring out toward the line of trees ringing our camp.
“Why are you sitting in the cage?”
“Louis died in this cage.”
Louis was our last fat man. Staggering before a show, he had gripped onto the cage for support and fallen in, or more accurately, pulled the cage down around himself. Hector, the Duggans, and I had had to haul him into his tent before the crowds showed up. Cause of death was a heart attack.
“I know Louis died in there. I was there.”
Hector stood up and stretched, he was nearly seven feet tall and at least 400lbs.
“You bring my scrap pile?”
“The Duggans will bring it by later.”
At every small town, we stopped at the local Salvation Army to buy kiddie bicycles, aluminum ironing boards and other assorted junk for Hector to bend into pretzels or maul in front of the spectators.
“I could do with some scrap right now.”
“Christ Hector, what the hell is it?”
“Don’t mind me. Maybe it’s the weather here, the dead trees. Every now and then, I can’t help wondering what went wrong, why life seems to work out for some people and not for others. Maybe the further down you go, the more you can see it, how senseless it all is. I know in some ways I should be grateful, or angry, or miserable, but lately I feel something close to nothing.” Hector sat back down. “I think Louis might have had the right idea.”
If he hadn’t already known, I would’ve told Hector that we all feel that way sometimes. Maybe I should have told him anyway.
“What do you think about all of us getting paid?” I asked.
Hector let out a long sigh.
“Leon is shady, you worry too much, and me? Today, next week, next year, what’s the difference? I don’t see the point in giving a shit.”
I was about to say something but Hector cut me off.
“You have the Duggans bring me my scrap. I’ll save some for the show, don’t you worry.”
On the way to the animal enclosures I ran into Mike, our head garbageman and would be conductor. The rules of the rails are that there should be at least two people aboard who can drive in case one of you keels over in transit. The railroads argue that information technology systems have made a second man redundant, and they’re the ones who usually check the trains and enforce, or don’t enforce, the rules.
Much like the small children of yesteryear, Mike was fascinated by trains. He had been a conductor, just as we all had been something else before whatever personal catastrophes had brought us here. So sometimes, under my supervision, I let him conduct the train through the relatively straight, flat, and lonely stretches that make up most of America.
“Still hauling shit Garbageman Mike?”
“You know it. You still lingering around Lulu? Making a general menace of yourself? And how is young Roger doing?”
Mike always seemed to know what everyone was up to and it made sense in a way. The one thing all of us have in common is garbage.
“I was going to ask you about Roger, anything funny come out of his asshole lately?”
“Unless you think tiger shit is funny, no.”
“What’s going on with Hector?”
“Nothing funny came out of his asshole either, glum bastard.” Mike pulled a pint of brand name bourbon from his back pocket and took a long pull. He handed it to me and I did the same.
“You know what I realized lately?” asked Mike. “Everywhere I’ve ever been, everything I’ve ever done, I’ve fucked it up. I’d move to a new place, try something new, tell myself it’d be different this time, and fuck that up too.”
“You’re just realizing that now? Christ.”
“Hear me out. What I realized is that I’m cursed. Don’t laugh at me, I’m not an idiot, I’m not going to hand you some horseshit about all of us carrying our problems with us. It’s true, but everybody knows that. I take responsibility, I know I have to change, I wanna change more than anything in the world, but you know what I realized?”
“I barely know what you’re talking about.”
“I realized that I don’t really wanna change at all. And not because I love myself or even like myself. But if I did change, I’d just wanna change back. And you know exactly what I’m talking about.”
“Yeah. You’re afraid of change.”
“Of course I’m afraid of change! But I’m afraid of life, too. We all are. But the same goes for all of us. None of us really wants to change.”
We shared a final drink.
“I’ll see you around Garbageman Mike.”
“You give my finest regards to Phil and Roger.”