“As he watched, the schools of fish began to notice him and swarm around him. In a flash, he realized that they were his children, and that they had come to devour him. He woke up saddened, because he knew that he could never have children. He would never know the pleasure of being devoured for a greater purpose.”
Leon finished with a strange smile as he looked off at nothing. The dopey Sweeney sisters gawked at him in amazed admiration. The Duggans exchanged a conspiratorial glance. They had a theory that the Sweeney sisters had murdered their parents to be with Leon and the circus and this story seemed to confirm this to them. Honestly, the idea didn’t seem too far fetched.
Phil leaned over to me and whispered, “The Fish Man should have dreamed about women with better personal hygiene.” I answered that a woman with good personal hygiene is an impossible dream for any man in the circus. Samantha Sweeney overheard me and shot me a look of pure hatred. I took a big pull of wine from a prop goblet. Samantha Sweeney and her idiot sisters were seven year old girls trapped in 30 some odd year old bodies. Samantha Sweeney might kill someone for any stupid reason.
Lulu sat slightly apart from the rest of us.
“I have excellent personal hygiene.”
“You’re a rotten snob!” said Samantha Sweeney.
“Go fuck a bee you whore!” said Sarah Sweeney. The sisters giggled and smiled at each other like this was the most clever insult in the history of the world.
“Yeah,” said Sue Sweeney, “go fuck a bee. Maybe it’ll shake the bug out of your ass.”
The Duggans laughed. Lulu already seemed preoccupied with something else. Maybe she was a bit of a snob. Leon was strangely out of it. Normally he would have intervened and smoothed everything out but lately he didn’t seem to care about the circus or us or anything. This was as disconcerting to all of us as any of our petty grievances and worsened them. We had had an okay run in upstate New York. Leon should have been spewing optimism. His crazy fish story should have had a happier ending or moral, or at least a comprehensible one.
“Sarah, what the hell are you feeding under the table?” asked Phil.
Sarah set her face in a scowl and looked down at the table defiantly.
“For the love of God, Leon. Leon! I’ve told you a hundred times, you can’t let those girls play with Jim. Jim is not a toy.”
Jim was an old Capuchin monkey. He was nominally still a part of our small zoo but was treated more like a pet at this point.
“Why are you yelling at him! Why don’t you talk to me? Do you think I’m too stupid to understand?” asked Sarah.
“Well it appears that way, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it? Honestly, I don’t know why I bother speaking to any of you, but I’ll say it again.”
“Yeah yeah yeah, a monkey is not a toy, blah blah blah.” said Sarah.
“That monkey will cause a disaster someday! Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but one day, one of you won’t tie his leash well enough or lock his cage properly, and then it’ll be anarchy!”
The Sweeney sisters started laughing uncontrollably, as did the Duggans, Lulu, myself, even Leon. Jim popped up from under the table and perched on Sarah’s shoulder. He wasn’t wearing his leash. Phil’s face turned bright red.
“And I’m the idiot.” he muttered before swallowing hard and continuing. “Jim is old and cute and friendly as monkeys go, but you know the expression “monkey see, monkey do?” Well it’s true, and when it comes to the animal enclosures, old Jim probably knows just as much as I do.”
There was another eruption of laughter.
“Don’t you think you’re being a bit paranoid?” I asked.
“You know what? Fuck all of you.”
Phil drained his prop goblet and stomped out of the tent. He wolf whistled from outside and Jim scampered off behind him. In a second we were all laughing again, except for Lulu. She looked at me and moved her chair closer to mine.
“It’s funny when Phil gets angry, especially about Jim, but I think I understand.”
“What I don’t understand is why Phil doesn’t just buy a decent lock.”
“A lock those skanks couldn’t pick wouldn’t fit on Jim’s cage.”
Sue Sweeney overheard this and another fracas followed. I saw Garbageman Mike peek in and hurry away and wished I had whatever it took to do the same. When dinner finally ended I lingered. I knew I would regret asking but also sensed that it was unavoidable at this point.
“Mind if we have a chat, Leon? Leon?”
“Of course. Follow me, I think we’ll be more comfortable in my personal chambers.”
Leon had a well stocked bar and cigars. His tent was filled with old posters, pictures and chairs, the pictures and chairs of former circus members long dead and gone. There were also second hand Tesla coils, small hand cranked generators, antennaed horror movie props, and old televisions from the 50′s and 60′s. He’d always intended to reincorporate them into an old circus act but admitted it was more of a hobby at this point.
Leon fixed us two large whiskey drinks and cut us cigars. He took a long pull from his drink.
“You’re in love with Lulu. You should do something about it.”
I laughed in his face.
“I’m too old to be in love with anybody. And what I do or don’t do is none of your goddamn business as long as I drive the train from point A to point B.”
“You’re too close to see it, everyone else does, except for maybe Lulu. It’s like me and this damn circus, I love it too much to see it clearly, or to accept what I see. I’m not a fool, Scotty. I’m not completely blind, although sometimes I wish I was. I wish I had that kind of conviction, but in the end, I’d rather be a liar who can see than some blind asshole telling the truth about being blind.”
Leon took a big puff of his cigar and I couldn’t help laughing at him.
“Don’t laugh at me, don’t give me that look. I’m not being politically incorrect and even if I am, blind people know the truth. They know that they’re a bunch of annoying assholes with their stupid canes, glasses, and neutered dogs. They’ve got bigger problems to worry about, namely, being blind, and the sad truth is that we are all blind in one way or another. Figuratively, at least.”
I was reminded of a conversation I’d had with Lulu. She didn’t particularly like anyone, but had told me that Leon was especially creepy if you paid attention to him. The longer you spoke with him, the more he spoke with your voice and ideas until it became hard to tell the difference, whether the ideas were coming from him or from you.
“Leon, I wanted to tell you to forget about the money. I don’t care. I don’t know and I don’t want to know. And thank you for not implicating me.”
Leon laughed sadly.
“The last thing I would ever want to do is to implicate anyone or expose anyone to harm, but in this case, with you and I, I’m afraid there’s no longer a choice. Whatever you decide, I’ll abide by, and I apologize for putting you in this situation, I didn’t think it would be necessary.”
“Leon, just spill it.”
Leon stared sadly into his drink before gulping it down.
“The circus is a lie now. It’s a sham. We’re a garbage truck, or train. We’re being paid to haul garbage. The Duggans were going to handle it but there’s too much, it has to go on the train. I’m sorry, Scotty.”
“What kind of garbage?”
“I’ve been assured that it isn’t dangerous, but I honestly don’t know, and it’s safe to assume that if this was safe or legal they, whoever they are, wouldn’t have had to hire us to haul it.”
“Leon, you asshole. You’ve already paid everyone. It’s already too late and you know it. You aren’t asking me, you’re telling me.”
Leon fixed himself another drink.
“You might be alright out in the world. You might never conduct a train again, but you would find a job, maybe as a mechanic, maybe even with the railroads again. The world forgets faster than you realize. The same goes for Phil. He will never be a licensed veterinarian again, but he would find work. The Duggans, Mike, all of you would survive. But Lulu, the Sweeneys, Hector, the grounds crew? The world might forget, but it will never forgive them. And even if it did, they wouldn’t make it. How the hell could they take care of themselves?”
“Lulu could be a fortuneteller in the city, I see lots of those places, they somehow function.”
“Those places are all literally fronts for whorehouses.”
“Well, that takes care of the Sweeney sisters.”
“You’re too rough on those girls. They’ve had difficult lives. You can’t even begin to imagine”
I finished my drink and fixed myself another large one.
“One thing Leon. If you could’ve snuck this crap on the train, would you have told me about it? Would you have told anyone?”
Leon slugged down his drink.
“Honestly, it’s impossible to say. Either way, it would’ve been a rotten thing to do.”
I thought to myself that it is a rotten thing, and you’re doing it. You tried it one rotten way and now you’re trying it another. Probably both depending on who he could get away without telling. I wondered how many other rotten, twisted things were inside Leon. He could see the nobility in telling me and the Duggans, in letting us “choose” to take the risk. He could also see the nobility in keeping us in the dark in order to protect us, in carrying the burden alone. What he either couldn’t or wouldn’t see was that he hadn’t actually done either. In reality, he had done the rotten opposite of both. Or maybe, now that he knew it was happening for sure, he just didn’t care.