Behind every skyline there are neighborhoods, relationships, people, and stories …
Lucy Come Home
A Yada Yada Journey of Hope
Dave and Neta Jackson
© 2012 by Dave and Neta Jackson
Published by Castle Rock Creative, Inc. 212 Grey Ave., Evanston, IL 60202
All rights reserved.
Belching black smoke and steam, the Grand Trunk Western bore down on the train station in Lapeer, Michigan, with a series of jerks and ear-splitting squeals. But not all the squeals originated from the train's undercarriage where the rusty brakes gripped the huge metal wheels.
The young elephant in the menagerie boxcar squealed too.
The moment the train shuddered to a stop on a siding, the air exploded into new sounds: men shouting, metal doors sliding open, horses stamping, and flatbed trucks gunning their motors as they pulled alongside the train cars to unload the gaudy carnival wagons, animal cages, support poles, electric wiring, and mountains of heavy canvas that would soon balloon into numerous tents.
The Carson Brothers' Carnival of the Century had arrived.
Bo Bodeen jumped down from the sleeping car where he'd been bunking with some of the carny crew, a black-and-white mutt close on his heels. The lanky, good-looking youth with wavy black hair combed straight back from his tanned forehead barely noticed the banner draped across the front of the stationWELCOME TO LAPEER DAYS! Annual Summer Festival Since 1902! He ran along the tracks toward the flatcars loaded with the jumble of machinery for the midway rides. Already he could hear his father barking orders at the roustabouts. Get those straps loose!... Where in tarnation is the rest of the crew?... Pull those cables tighter!... Drop that motor, Buster, an' it's comin' outta your hide!... Easy! Easy! This ain't a junkyard, ya know!... Mickey! Pick four rousties and load those carousel critters onto the next truck ... Bo! 'Bout time you showed up. Get that dog out of the way! Tie him up somewhere. And tell that gilly-truck driver to back up and pull closer to the carousel boxcar!
Bo wasn't worried about Jigger. The starving stray pup he'd found a year ago somewhere along their route in Ohio was a survivor and nimble as a cat. Bo jumped on the bed of the gilly truck in question and guided the truck closer to the boxcar carrying the prancing wooden horses for the popular carousel. Down the line he saw the long metal beams of the Big Eli Wheel being offloaded onto another truck. All in all, Bodeen Midway Rideswhich his father had contracted to travel with the Carnival of the Century for two yearsboasted a grand total of seven rides. The newest one in the Bodeen lineup was the Ridee-O, one of the fastest thrill rides on the carnival circuit to date ... and Bo was determined to prove he could be the ride foreman who operated it.
An hour later, drenched with sweat in the heavy August heat, Bo yelled, Jigger! Get in, boy! He and the dog hopped into the cab of one of the gilly trucks as the loaded caravan lumbered down the main street of Lapeer to the big vacant lot where the carnival was being set up.
The grease-stained driver sneered at his passengers. Your pa ain't shot that dog yet? S'prised he lets him hang around. Thought all the critters on this here show s'posed to work fer their livin'.
Bo ignored him. Half the population traveling with the carnival, performers and roustabouts alike, had made friends with the dog. Why'd the Chief sign on to play this Lapeer Days festival, anyway? he said, gawking at the fluttering flags lining the main street and stalls set up for selling local produce and crafts. Thought the Carnival of the Century preferred its own dates.
You askin' me? The grimy truck driver snorted. Don't know an' don't care. 'Long as they keep this show on the road an' keep ahead o' that letter from Uncle Sam.
Bo cast a quick glance at the driver. Hard to tell his age ... maybe thirty, thirty-five, but still eligible for the military draft that had already nabbed ten or twelve crewmen, plus three performers since the attack on Pearl Harbor last year. The carnival had done ten towns since the last weekend of May, and mail was slow and sometimes took weeks to catch up to them.
The world was at war, after all.
Bo tried not to think about it. He wasn't yet eighteen, and neither were a dozen or so other young gazoonies traveling with the carnival who'd been taken on because of the shortage. And right now they had maybe four hours to get all the rides, concession stands, sideshow tents, entrance arch, fences, show ring, generators and light poles set up and running before the carnival opened at five o'clock that evening. His pulse quickened. He loved the running chatter of the Talkers enticing the crowds into the string of sideshows, the sticky smell of cotton candy, and the strings of lights glittering overhead as dusk fell.
And tonight, he murmured into Jigger's floppy ear as the truck ground to a stop on the carnival lot, if I'm lucky, I'm gonna take over ol' man Cooper's job and run the Ridee-O.
The late afternoon sun bore down on the old Dodge sedan jostling its way over the rutted dirt roads, baking its inhabitants like potatoes poked into the coals of a campfire. Dust swirled through the open windows of the ancient cara beauty in its day, but now held together by little more than baling wire and a prayer. A fine layer of grit settled into the ears, eyes, and hair of the family of ninefive children packed into the backseat, plus two more up front between their weary parents, with most of their worldly possessions strapped to the top, back, and running boards of the old jalopy.
Lucinda Tucker, crammed into the corner by the right rear window with a sleeping toddler on her lap, pushed ten-year-old Willy's sweaty bare leg away, only to have it come pushing back, stickier than ever. Get off me, Willy! the fifteen-year-old hissed. You gonna wake Johnny.
Get off me, yourself, grumbled the boy. You the one takin' up mosta the seat, you an' your big butt.
That's enough, William Tucker. The children's mother spoke sharply from the front seat. You respect your sister.
Willy stitched his mouth shut but gave Cindy a poke in the side with his sharp, skinny elbow.
Cindy gritted her teeth. The heat ... the dust ... having to come back to the sugar beet field ... it was all too much. Pa! Can ya stop the car an' let me walk the rest of the way?
Lester Tucker didn't answer, keeping a tight grip on the steering wheel as the car lurched this way and that over the hardened ruts. The road was barely visible through the dust-covered windshield.
We're almost to the camp, Cindy. Her mother sighed wearily, wiping the back of her hand across her brow. We can all get out and stretch then.
The camp ... ugh! As if the tumbledown shacks of the migrant camp were something to look forward to. Why'd they have to leave the blueberry picking anyway? It was still early August. Blueberry season wasn't over for another three, maybe four weeks. At least she could pop the juicy berries into her mouth from time to time, a sweet treat that made the long hours pulling the berries off the bushes somewhat bearableunlike chopping weeds or pulling up the squat sugar beet plants at harvest. Nothing broke the tedium of having to bend over till her back felt as if it might never straighten out again. Ever.
The towheaded girl hung an arm out the window and leaned her chin on it, hoping to catch a breeze in spite of the dust, making sure she was shading the sleeping toddler on her lap. It had all sounded so good last April when that fast-talking factory man from Lapeer County had talked up the exploding sugar beet industry in Michigan to the desperate Dust Bowl farmers in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas whose farms had failed during the perilous 1930s. Plenty of work! Need workers all season! Good pay! All Pa had to do was sign a contract that the Tucker family would stay the whole seasonplanting, thinning, weeding, harvesting.
Swirling grit thrown up by the bald tires stung her eyes, and Cindy pulled her head back inside the stifling car, untangling her windblown hair with her fingers. The whole season ... huh. Pa said he should've known what that meant for a single-crop farm. Each phase of work was separated by weeks of downtime, for which they did not get paid, and they'd had to move from county to county, finding crop work wherever they could get it. Digging potatoes while the ground was still cool. Beans in late June. Blueberries in late July. But the sugar beet boss man thought he knew how to get his workers to come back when it was time for the next all-important cycle.
He withheld part of their pay until the end of the season ... or perhaps he was counting on them not coming back so he could keep the money.
The overloaded carrattling with the attached galvanized washtub, pots and pans, wooden boxes, Ma's old ladder-back rocker and junior-sized guitar, and all their other worldly possessionsturned off the rutted dirt road and onto pavement as they approached town. The migrant camp sat in a swampy area a couple of miles beyond Lapeer, which loomed ahead of them through the dirty windshield. They headed north along Main Street, breathing in relief from the unrelenting dust. Maybe we should stop by the store and pick up some bread and a quart of milk for the babies, Ma murmured. Long as we're in town.
Pa grunted. Can't we make do with what we got?
Lester, the young'uns ...
I don't know. This engine's way out of kilter, but I'm aimin' to get there 'fore it quits.
But couldn't we at least drop
Ma! Ma! Look yonder! They got a carnival come to town! George, seven, scrunched between his father and twelve-year-old Tom in the front seat, was pointing past his father's nose.
Where? Willy launched himself away from Cindy and poked his head out the other backseat window, practically lying across Maggie's lap, the second oldest girl, who'd been holding little Betty. Betty let out a squeal. Johnny woke up and started to cry.
But the fussing of the two youngest Tuckers was the only sound inside the car as it rattled along Main Street toward the once-vacant lot. Everyone else gaped at the Big Eli Wheel with its rocking seats sticking high up into the air, and the ballooning tents being staked and tied down. Men in sweat-stained A-shirts erected a fence around the lot, leaving only a space for an archway facing the town and a ticket booth standing on a platform off to one side outside the fence.
Then Willy found his voice. An elephant! I seen an elephant! I did! I did!
Several youthful voices started clamoring at once. Can we go to the carnival, Pa? Can we, huh? Huh, Ma?
The car lurched forward, picking up speed. You kids know we cain't afford no carnival. Pa hunched tighter over the steering wheel, nursing the noisy old car along. 'Sides, we gotta unpack tonight and get up at first light to start work in the field.
But, Pa ...!
Ever'body's in the field tomorrow'cept your ma an' the babies.
But, Pa ...!
No Ôbuts.' Now shut up. The car chugged past the carnival lot toward the dirt road that would take them to the migrant camp.
Cindy twisted her head and looked out the back window. A youth about her agemaybe a few years olderwas helping to put up the fence. A black-and-white dog tumbled about nearby, chasing a stick the older boy threw from time to time.
Oh. Longing rose up in her throat. It would be so much fun just to wander around the carnival for one night. Just one night! Forget the dust. Forget the leaking shanties they called home all season long. Forget the backbreaking work and burning sun. Forget the despair in her father's eyes. For just one night ...
We didn't get the bread an' milk, Lester, she heard Ma say quietly.
Pa hit the steering wheel. Well then! One o' the young'uns'll just have ta walk to town an' get it, now, won't they?
Cindy had known who that would be the moment Pa said it. At least she got out of unpacking and setting up. Kicking stones along the road, she grumbled most of the two miles back to town. It was Pa's fault for forgetting. Why didn't he go back? He could even have driven ... if the car could still make it. But as she got closer, the flags above the carnival tents changed her mood. She'd take a little detour on the way back, maybe catch a glimpse of some of the animals or a trapeze girl in her sparkly tutu.
By the time Cindy was returning with her groceries, orange still streaked the western horizon, and electric lights blazed on the Big Eli Wheel as it lifted riders into the cobalt sky of early evening. She crept around the end of an animal wagon parked outside the temporary fence. The smell was definitely not horse. Maybe cats, perhaps big cats! Through the bars, in the far dark corner ... could it be a lion? Cindy took one more furtive step, then tripped over something long and heavy. She went sprawling, landing on the paper bag of groceries, which was the only thing that saved her from planting her face in the dirt. She picked herself up and hurried away before someone caught her snooping around. That's when she realized the brown bag was growing damp. Her mom wouldn't like that. She saved paper bags. But milk was oozing from the split corner of the carton. She upended it to save as much as possible and tried to dry off the loaf of Wonder Bread and small package of baloney as she hurried down the road, past a large white farm house with its even larger barn, and turned down the lane to the migrant camp.
She found her way to the family's shanty and saw that Pa had already pulled the car close to the front door and strung a canvas between its top and the cabin's roof to create a breezeway so the car could act as a second rooma place for the boys to sleepTom and Willy on the seats and George on the back floor.
Cindy stepped into the shanty where a kerosene lamp lit the room that would be home for the next few weeks. Her mother sat in her ladder-back chair in the corner nursing baby Johnny, rocking back and forth, and softly praying her evening prayer for the family.
God bless the corners of this house
An' all the lintel blessed.
Cindy rolled her eyes. Oh, yeah. Bless the corners of this house ... One puff would blow them over.
Seeing her come in, Ma briefly put a finger to her lips, then reached down to gently stroke the back of three-year-old Betty who lay on a tattered blanket beside her.
An' bless the hearth an' bless the board,
An' bless each place of rest.
Bless the board, huh? Cindy put the bread and lunchmeat on the bare wooden table and quietly searched until she found a tin pot to put the upside-down milk carton in before more leaked out. And as for each place of rest, well, if sleepin' on the floor would give any rest, that would certainly be a blessing.
An' bless each door that opens wide
To strangers as to kin ...
The door swung open, and her father stood there, tall, gaunt, and tired ... even before he'd picked sugar beets for one day. His sweat-stained fedora was pulled low over one eye. He looked around, stepped over to the table, and frowned.
Lucinda? What's the meaning of this?
What peace there'd been was gone, replaced by the question she'd never been able to answer.
I thought it was Pa shakin' me awake from one of my carnival dreams.
Mmph ... huh? Ouch! I blinked until the pale face came into focus. Oh, yeah, the library woman! Too young to know not to yank an old woman's shoulder 'cause she might have arthritis. Uhh? Whatcha want? But I already knew. She always pretended to be helpfulCan I do something for you? ... Are you looking for a book? ... What do you like to read?when what she really meant was, No hangin' out in here! As though it wasn't a public library! I closed my eyes and let my head drift down onto my folded arms again.
Lady, I told you. You can't sleep in here. This is a library. It's for patrons who are reading or checking out books.
So how am I s'posed to check out books if I ain't got no library card?
She rolled her eyes. She probably knew I didn't have a card because I didn't have a Chicago address. But why couldn't I just stay there and relax? I wasn't bothering nobody.
Lady! If you don't leave, I'll have to call the police.
Grr! The po-lice. Why did people always say they were going to call the police? Was my past stamped all over my face like a permanent tattoo? Don't get yer panties in a knot, missy. I ain't breakin' no law sittin' in this here chair. But ... I threw up a hand in surrender. ... don't want to give you no heart attack, 'cause then I'd hafta call an ambulance for you. With a groan, I hefted myself out of that nice padded chair. Jus' lemme use the facilities an' I'll be movin' on Wait ... my cart! I peered this way and that between the stacks. Hey, you! Where's my cart? It was right here, next to this chair 'fore I dozed off.
The prissy young woman headed back toward her desk. Hey, my cart! Somebody's done stole my A hacking cough cut off my words, and I leaned over, hands on my knees as I tried to get my breath. But it wouldn't stop. I needed a drink of water ... no, I needed to find my cart! I headed down the aisle. Has anybody seen my cart?
Lady! Shh! This is a library! The librarian was following me again. Nobody has stolen your cart. It's not allowed in here. We took it outside. She pointed toward the front door.
You what? You ... you took my cart an' jus' left it out there? Where any Joe Blow could make off wit' it?
The woman shrugged and turned away. No wonder the kids were going wild these days, if adults had no more respect for private property than that woman had. I hustled toward the front door, feeling like a metronome when I tried to walk faster than my hips allowed.
There it was!
Hey! Hey, you kids! Get away from my cart! That ain't yours!
A boy about five was standing on the back of my shopping cart, reaching inside.
Look out! You gonna tip it over! But I was too late. It crashed to the sidewalk, spilling my extra clothes, water bottles, a loaf of day-old bread and three apples I'd rescued that morning.
The kids ran off, but there went my worldly possessions, scattered to the wind. Speakin' of the po-lice, where were the cops when you needed 'em? I bent over to pick up my stuff, and the exertion soon had me sweating and coughing again. I wiped my forehead on my sleeve and then looked at it ... pink sweaterwell, it used to beover flannel shirt, over thermal underwear. I could take it off and not be so hot, but then it was easier to carry clothes when they was on you. And besides, it was only April. It'd be gettin' cold again this evening.
Once I'd retrieved everything and stuffed it in my cartI'd reorganize laterI headed north, slowly enough to keep my cough at bay. Clouds were gathering, thick ones, white and puffy on top, but the bellies of those in the distance were gray and streaked from the bottoms like some meteorological cat's claw had snagged them. You learn to watch the weather when you've lived in the rough as long as I have, and it wouldn't be long ...
I made it six blocks north to the Double-Bubble Laundromat before the rain. But that cough doubled me over againI really ought to get it checked out. When I came up for air, I peeked through the window: no Ramon in sight. Good! I went in and plopped down in one of those orange, molded plastic chairs near the dryers. But I shoulda known. There's no rest for the weary. As soon as Ramon came out of the utility closet, he began shouting. What you doin' in here, Lucy? I know you ain't dryin' no clothes. Now move on. Don't be hangin' out in here.
Ain't these chairs for your customers? What makes you think I'm not drying my clothes?
'Cause, you not been washing anything, that's why. Besides, the only dryer that's goin' is number three, and it's got my cleanup towels in it. See that sign? ÔNo loitering!' That means you.
I just sat there, lookin' around. You know, Ramon, the first time I was in one of these establishments, I was just a little girl. It was afore we come north. The drought had hit, and we didn't have enough water on the place to wash our clothes, so Ma took us in to town to the Ôwash-a-teria.' Yep, that's what they called it, a wash-a-teria, but it weren't automatic. No siree Bob. Had to do it all yourself
What're you talkin' about? Do I look like Bob? Now you git! He shooed his hand at me. Go on!
Ah, come on, Ramon. Look outside. It's gonna rain any minute. I can't get wet again.
Ay Di—s, I don't do the weather, but if you get wet, then you can come back here and dry your clothes ... for a buck, four quarters in that little slot! Move on, now!
I rose slowly, shooting Ramon as many daggers as my rheumy old eyes could fire. Someday you gonna be the one who needs a place to sit, and they gonna chase you off too. Then see how you like them apples!
Outside the Double-Bubble, I looked both ways. I was tired, tired in body and tired in spirit. People always hassling me. It was time to retreat to someplace where no one would bother me. I hobbled to the corner and turned east toward the lake.
As the afternoon's light faded and the first sprinkles began to fall, I wedged my shopping cart between two large bushes in the park near the walk-through tunnel that sneaks under Lake Shore Drive to the beach. Then I upended one black garbage bag over my cart to keep off the rain and split another one in half to wrap around my shoulders like a cape. I took as deep a breath as I dared and kneeled to crawl back under the bushes where no one could see me ... I hoped. But the cough attacked me again. If I kept sleeping rough, I'd never kick this cold. It'd been houndin' me all winter.
I felt my forehead, trying to figure whether the fever had returned. Could mean pneumonia if it had, I s'pose. But there weren't much I could do till I got to the county clinic on Tuesday. 'Course, there was always the ER, but they were so mean there. And 'sides, you might catch somethin' worse while you was waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting.
For now, weren't nothin' I could do. I pulled the plastic over my head and let the crackle of the rain landing on it lull me to sleep. Sleep's good. Gotta take it when and where you can, ya know. Who knew what the rest of the night might bring.
What it brought a few minutes later was a crash that nearly knocked over my cart and yanked me roughly back to consciousness. What!? If it was those gang kids attacking me again, I'd But the howl of pain I heard came from a woman, who'd thudded to the ground not two feet away.
Hey! Whatchu go kickin' my cart for? I made my challenge as strong as I could, still thinkin' it might be some thugs, let them know they better not mess with me. But all it did was produce a coughing fit big enough to scare off anyone with germaphobia.
In the dim light, I watched between the leaves as a youngish woman rolled over and sat up. Seemed like she was the only one there. Sorry, came a feeble voice as she wiped her mane of wild hair out of her eyes and squinted at my bush. Didn't see it ... where are you, anyway?
With a sigh, I pushed some branches aside and poked my head out. Keepin' dry is where I'm at, tha's what. I tightened the plastic bag around my shoulders and stifled another cough. Leastwise I was till Orphan Annie came along ...
Having finally spotted me, she seemed to lose interest and reached for her bare right foot.
Uh-oh. That foot's bleedin', girlie. Here, lemme see it. I crawled out from under the bushes and grabbed the woman's foot for a better look. Aiya. Gotta stop that bleedin' ... hang on a minnit. I pulled the plastic off my cartdon't know why she tripped on it. It wasn't stickin' out that farand began looking for a cloth to bind up the wound. A clean one had to be in there somewhere. Finally I found one, but another coughing fit took my breath away. Ah, it was getting worse. I shouldn't be out in this wet weather.
Oh, don't bother. The woman stood up, the mop of reddish hair falling over her face. I really have to get ... She tried putting weight on her foot.
I shook my head. Crazy woman! The foot probably wasn't broken, but I knew that cut on her foot could get infected real fast. Oh, don't get your mop in a knot. Siddown. She sat. I grabbed the bleeding foot and began wrapping it when she jerked her leg away. It's clean, if tha's wha's botherin' ya. She relaxed ... a little, but I barely tied the knot before another cough convulsed me again, and I dropped the foot. Once I caught my breath, I said, Now git on with ya an' leave me be, and turned back to crawl under bushes, hoping for a little peace.
Wait! This is ridiculous. It's raining, and you've got a terrible cough. Come on with me. I can get you dry clothes and some cough syrup.
I stopped, half in, half out. Dry clothes, something for my cough? But I knew ... if it wasn't on my terms, there was always a hitch. Nah, I'm okay.
Please, I mean it. Come on. Just until the rain stops, at least.
Until the rain stops. That'd be good, but still ... The good Lord knew I wasn't too proud to take handouts, it was just that you had to keep everything on your terms. Never let those do-gooders get the upper hand. I backed out and stood up, choking back another coughing fit. The park lights had started to come on, and I studied the woman. Why not? I could handle her. I grabbed the handle of my shopping cart and headed across the park.
In a moment Fuzz Top had caught up with me, limping along and pointing toward the high-rise apartments overlooking the park, the Outer Drive, and Lake Michigan. So she was one of those rich people, was she? Well, maybe there would be something in it for me, after all.
My name's Gabby Fairbanks. Yours is ...?
Ha, not that easy, honey! A name has power, and I wasn't gonna give up mine without knowing the implications, not if I could help it. Keeping the initiative, I plodded across the frontage road and glanced back for directions, though by then I was pretty sure we were headed for the building with all that black glass and curved edges. Fuzz Top pointed toward its revolving doors. I bounced my cart up over the curb, grateful for even a brief reprieve from coughing.
But when I pushed my way through the revolving doors, a man in a uniform saw me immediately. I stopped. Didn't need no more trouble with the law. But as I squinted at him, I saw he wasn't the policeno gun, no badge, no macejust the doorman. Ha!
Still, he had that determined look in his eye and scowled. Hey! Get that rickety cart outta here. Lady, you can't come in here. Residents only.
Yeah, well ... whatever. It's what I should've expected, thinking I could get something from that rich girl. I started to turn when a timid voice from behind me said, Uh, she's with me, Mr. Bentley ... Mrs. Fairbanks? Her voice went up like she wasn't even sure of her own name.
Fairbanks? Penthouse? The doorman's frown deepened, but did he say penthouse? Ooo, this girl was money. His tone had changed. Whatchu doin' with this old bag lady? Then he looked down and cocked his head to the side. Are you all right, ma'am? What happened to your foot?
It's all right, Mr. Bentley. I, uh, we just need to get up to the, uh, apartment and get into some dry clothes.
Money or not, I was ready to back out. I didn't need any more drama tonight. But the woman grabbed my arm and hustled me toward the elevator.
Pain stabbed me in my left ear as we went higher and higher. I swallowed, trying to adjust the pressure. Like when I was a little girl and had so many earaches. Fuzz Top was staring at me as though I was bleeding from my ear or somethin'. I wiped at it. No blood. So what was the big deal? She looked like she was dizzy or something. Poor kid. Never should have come with her. Maybe I owed her for getting me past that guard downstairs. Maybe ... I closed my eyes, thinking. Guess I could've been a little more friendly. Without opening my eyes, I said, Lucy.
It took a moment, then, Lucy ...? Oh! Your name. Thanks.
I opened my eyes. The shock was gone, but she still looked worried.
The elevator came to a stop, and the doors opened on a gleaming hallway. Had the woman brought me to a doctor's office or somethin'?
Well, come on, Lucy. She led the way to the only door, one with huge pots on each side with flowers. Beautiful. I reached out and touched one. Fake! Figured!
Let's get you into some dry clothes and do something about that cough. Fuzz Top opened the door with her key and led the way.
Oh, my! Oh, my! What had I gotten myself into? If that doorman downstairs wasn't a cop, he'd soon be calling one to get me out of here. We'd walked in on some kind of a high-class party. Through the archway, in the middle of an enormous living room, stood a tall man with dark hair and the good looks of one of them fashion models. The sight of him shocked me. He was what my Pa might've looked like if it wasn't for all those back-breakin' years of wind and weather that etched deep lines in his face and left him as gaunt as a scarecrow. But this smooth devil held a glass of wine in one hand while he swept his other arm like he was God a-paintin' the lakefront for his two guests.
In the same instant, they must've heard us, because all three turned and stared right at us. Silence hung in the air for a split-second. Then the tall man came toward us, eyes glarin'. Gabrielle! he hissed between his teeth. What's the meaning of this?
Luck had nothing to do with who operated Bodeen's Midway Rides. James Earl Bodeenknown as Jeb around the carnivalwasn't about to let anyone but himself handle the new thrill ride until he knew all its quirks, how it should sound running at maximum speed, and exactly how much grease was needed to keep all its joints and wheels and moving parts running slick and smooth. Not to mention timing the ride with the three-minute hourglass so the riders felt they'd gotten their money's worth, but not so lengthy that he ended up with long lines of grumpy patrons who'd been made to wait beyond their patience.
Which meant Bo ended up taking tickets and throwing the lever on the carousel that night for the horde of farm kids swarming into Lapeer for the opening of its annual festival. What a bore! Not that he could show it. If there was one rule a carny man lived by, it was flash and dashkeep that smile flashing and keep your feet dashing. Work the crowd. Generate excitement. Make them laugh. People came to a carnival for only one purpose: to have a good time. And it was the only thing that would bring them back.
Hey, there, missy! You want to ride the silver horse? All right, up you go ... Mom and Dad! Make a memory for the whole family! You can ride too, just ten cents!... Who's next?... Hey, there, big fella, grab that black stallion over there ... All right! Hold tight! Here we go!...
The carousel was positioned near the front of the midway, just after the initial group of concessions and games of chance where customers could try to win trinkets and stuffed animals. It was a family-friendly ride to get the carnival-goers relaxed and in a festive mood. Though by the time the carnival closed at midnight, Bo was ready to take a sledgehammer to the steam-driven calliope pumping out the same tune over and over and over.
As the concession booths and side shows zipped up, Barbara the Bearded Lady waddled past, cracking jokes with a couple of the midgets who did tumbling tricks and clown acts. An animal handler led the young elephant that'd been giving rides to children back to its sturdy pen, alongside the cages of the rest of the carnival's menagerie, which included several chimps, an ostrich, five big cats, and a performing bear. Teams of heavy workhorses plodded past the midway. Even the pampered dancing horses had lost their spark, heads and tails hanging as they were quartered in their canvas stable. One by one, the strings of lights winked out.
Only the cookhousean enormous tent at the back of the lotstayed alive during the night to be ready to feed the large crew of roustabouts and performers at first light.
Fighting heavy eyelids, Bo shut down the carousel. He'd have to pick up trash, swab down the platform, and polish the dozens of glittering mirrors Saturday morning before the carnival opened at noon. C'mon, Jigger. Let's get some sleep.
It was a half-mile walk back to the train and the sleeping cars. Bo was tempted to find a grassy spot behind a tent and get some shut-eye ... but a flash of light in the night sky changed his mind. A storm was headed their way. He groaned. It'd better be a light rain, or the lot would be a sea of mud the next day, which always meant more work, padding the soggy ground with straw and laying planks over the worst of it. At last he crawled into one of the lower bunk tiers in the sleeping car. Jigger curled up on the floor beneath him, before the first pings of rain started to drum on the metal roof.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Bo sat up with a start, cracking his head on the bunk just above. Someone was banging on the doors. He heard muffled shouts. Chimps loose! Chimps loose! Everybody out!
He rolled off the bunk, hitched up his trousers, and felt around in the darkness for his shoes. A minute later he hopped out of the car along with a dozen other crewmen. A faint gray light brightened the sky along the eastern horizon. The rain had stopped, but the sky was still mottled with heavy clouds.
The word passed from group to group of bleary-eyed roustabouts tumbling from the sleeping cars. The chimps got frightened by the thunder!What thunder? Bo hadn't heard anythingMust've rattled their cage doors too. One wasn't securely fastened. Huh, some poor chuck's gonna get sacked, Bo thought as the head animal trainer barked orders, sending two teams to comb the carnival grounds, and four teams to fan out north, south, east, and west of the lot. Two of the missing chimps had been captured already, but the biggest chimpa copper-faced beauty named Rubywas still at large. And don't let me see your mugs till that big mama's back in her cage safe an' sound! the trainer shouted. The Chief spent a pretty penny on that ape, an' he ain't gonna take it kindly if she gets hurt.
Bo was assigned to a team combing the carnival lot. But the groggy roustabouts seemed to be poking around hit-or-miss, idly lifting canvas and peering under tents, banging on barrels, or climbing through the metal rigging of the midway rides. Jigger! C'mon, boy, he hissed quietly and headed straight for the menagerie cages at the back of the lot. Sure enough, the door of Ruby's cage hung open. He pulled a tuft of black hair from the wire cage. Here, boy ... take a good whiff. Got it? Okay, Jigger, find her!
Excited, the dog took off like a shot, nose to the ground, zigzagging this way and that around equipment, and disappearing behind the side-show tents. Grabbing a length of rope, Bo ran, trying to keep the dog in sight. The next thing he knew, he caught a flash of black-and-white tail disappearing around the front gate.
Ruby's not on the lot! Bo yelled over his shoulder, but he didn't wait to make sure the other searchers heard him. He had to keep Jigger in sight.
To Bo's consternation, the dog ran down a side street and then darted between two small houses, windows still dark in the early morning stillness. He almost caught up to Jigger when the dog paused, sniffing at the dented metal garbage cans sitting behind each house along the dirt alley ... then the dog took off again, nose still to the ground, came to the end of the rutted alley, and disappeared around a corner.
But when Bo followed around the same corner, he nearly tripped over Jigger, who stood stock-still. The dog whined softly and took a step forward. Bo squinted into the dim light of morning. A black shape halfway down the block was digging into another metal can sitting along the paved side street. Easy, boy ... stay, Bo murmured and moved past the dog, creeping quietly toward the black shape, which was busy tossing out paper and cans from the garbage and stuffing bits of something into its mouth.
As Bo drew closer, he began to talk to the chimp in a low voice so as not to startle her. Hey, there, Ruby ... now why you want to eat that garbage for, eh? You got a nice breakfast of fruit and vegetables back in your cage.
The chimp raised her head and stopped pawing, watching Bo approach. Bo held out his hand with the rope and kept talking. Was Ruby friendly? He didn't know much about chimps, had only seen their handler carrying some of the smaller ones around. Was this one?
The chimp suddenly bolted, heading for a six-foot fence across the street. Head her off, Jigger! Bo yelled. The dog shot across the street. The chimp leaped for the fence, but before it could get over the top, Jigger leaped up and caught it by the foot. Howling Helga! Such a squeal! Sounded like a fancy lady being terrorized by a mouse. Jigger held on. Ruby came tumbling down off the fence.
Bo was right there with his rope and dropped a loop around the chimp's head as a collar. Good boy, good dog! Let her go now. Come on, let her go. Jigger released his grip and sat down on his haunches, one ear flopped forward, panting a doggy smile. Bo reached out a hand toward the chimp, who was huddled against the fence, whimpering. Easy ... easy, now, Ruby. You're all right. We're not gonna hurtcha ... Bo stroked the wiry hair until the chimp calmed down. Could he carry her? No, too big. They'd just take it slow.
He noticed Ruby favoring her hind leg as the trio made their way back to the carnival lot. Had Jigger hurt her? Well, he'd check it out as soon as he got her back in the cage. She'd be all right.
Cheers went up as Bo led the chimp through the main gate and headed toward the menagerie cages at the back of the lot. Atta boy, Bo! someone yelled.
Yeah, now we can go get some breakfast! yelled another, to general laughter.
Bo led the chimp back to the cage and made sure the door was latched tight. You stay here, Jigger, he told the dog. Make sure she stays in that cage till the Chief sees her. Got it?
The dog whined a little as Bo headed for the cookhouse but then lay down and put his head on his paws. I'll bring ya some breakfast! Bo called to the dog, heading at a trot for the cookhouse. That run had given him an appetite!
Bo was shoveling a second stack of pancakes into his mouth when a hard hand closed around his arm and jerked him off the table bench. Now you've done it! hissed his father, pulling Bo to his feet and dragging him out of the noisy tent.
Bo stumbled after his father, trying to keep his balance. Wha ... what's the matter, Pa? Didn't you hear? I'm the one who found the runaway chimp!
Outside the tent, Jeb Bodeen spun his son around and leaned into his face. His eyes were narrow slits under the slouch cap he wore. I heard all right. Got a tongue-lashing from the Chief 'cause the chimp's got an injured foot! Dog bite, the vet says.
But ... but, Pa! Jigger's the one who caught her! She'd be long gone by now if it weren't for my dog.
Oh yeah? I told you that dog was gonna be trouble for us. Chief said he better not catch it on the premises, or he'd shoot 'im on sight. But I took care of it.
Bo thought his heart was going to lurch right up into his throat. What do ya mean? Pa! Where's Jigger? What'd you do to him?
Jeb Bodeen didn't answer, just turned and stalked away. Took care of it, is all, he tossed back over his shoulder. Now get to work! We've already lost a couple hours gettin' the equipment ready for opening. The man suddenly turned back and shook a finger at Bo. An' don't you go lookin' fer that dog, neither. He's gone, I tell ya. Gone for good!
© 2013, Dave & Neta Jackson