Lucius was in the cage wearing nothing but a stained jockstrap and gnawing on what looked like a piece of turd. Looking closer, it did me good to see it was a chocolate candy bar that he was eating.
“You about ready?” I asked.
He came out of the unlocked cage and stripped off the jockstrap. I tossed him a sliver of soap and rinsed him off with cold water from a garden hose. Shit and chicken blood glazed and slid off of his skin into the mud of the carnival grounds. He scrubbed furiously at his own skin grinning away. He rubbed the sliver of soap through the ringlets of his hair.
“Clean that butt hole good.”
“I am. This water’s cold!”
“Better than coffee.”
I tossed him some thrift store clothes that were two sizes too big for him.
“Get them britches on. That shirt too.”
“That’s my good shirt. Nash, what we doing?”
“I’m taking you out for a civilized drink. You aint’t got to bite no head off of a chicken to get it neither.”
He paused buttoning up the shirt. It was his only clean shirt.
“We ain’t had no time off for a while. Figured we’d go on into this Oven City and see what there is to see. Have a few drinks.”
A smile raised his lips up revealing a row of very even corn yellow teeth.
“Try and do something with that hair, Lucius.”
He raked his fingers through it and kept on smiling.
The Johnny Paul Bullock Amusements carnival was set up just outside of the factory town of Oven City, West Virginia. You could smell the river from here. Fishy, heavy, something chemical like bleach that seared the eyes and lungs. People living over there were looking for something to point at. They wanted something to talk about outside of their oven factory lives. Sometimes politics or TV shows wouldn’t cut it. We provided something nasty to talk about. Not everyone wanted that anymore.
Ford was in the White House and in this America there was no more room for geeks or freak shows no matter how far away from the midway they were hidden. Some still hungered and looked for it and we still had it to give to them.
Those people would watch Lucius gnaw and shake his mouth on the neck of a chicken, feathered wings flapping, the bird screaming it seemed like. Blood running down his fingers stained from picking his butt-hole or who knows what. Lucius twisting that wild mop of dark curly hair and baring his teeth so people could see the actual chicken head held between his teeth and he would pluck it out to show everyone. The headless body dropped and flopping around on the bottom of the cage among bits of dirty hay.
I was Lucius’ hype-man and I got the people to pay their dollar and come behind the curtain to the cage. I got a percentage of that money at the end of the day like a salesman of encyclopedias or vacuum cleaners got. It kept my head above water and kept life interesting for a preacher’s boy from Northern Alabama.
The people who had paid a dollar to watch had a look of disgust on their faces. They could not look away. They knew only a series of misfortunes could put them on the other side of those bars.
The tavern was at the end of a slanted street. It had blacked out windows and a slab of wood hanging from the red brick outside wall that said BO’S. The door was propped open and the sound of glasses digging into ice, a woman’s laughter and Mel Street on the jukebox came out. There was the smell of cigarettes and stale tap beer. It seemed like heaven to me. I felt a jolt inside me like Christmas morning to a kid.
We went inside.
Lucius pulled up a barstool and I claimed mine. The tiny old lady bartender limped up slowly and I ordered us two shots of Jim Beam and two of Falls City drafts. She nodded and creaked off to get the drinks.
“I wonder if that’s Bo,” I said, nudging Lucius with my elbow.
Lucius kind of laughed and shook his head.
The old woman came back with the drinks and set them down. The glasses of Falls City were set on cardboard coasters with some kind of joke on them.
We clicked our shots of Beam and slammed them down. I felt the burn go down the throat to my chest and then my belly. Finally, it hit something deeper inside of me than just plain innards.
Two ladies in their late twenties were down the bar. One had on blue eye shadow and big hoop earrings that I expected a parrot to be hanging off of and squawking away. She had dark straight hair and some kind of denim vest and shorts outfit. I tried not to stare.
The other one had puffy hair the color of blood on red clay. She also had blue
eye-shadow. She was wearing some kind of britches made out of patches alternating brown, yellow, burnt orange and so-on. She had on an aqua-colored tube top that hugged her tight. She didn’t have on no earrings. She was looking at Lucius like she knew him from somewhere. Maybe she had been at the carnival last night and had paid her dollar to see the geek.
She leaned over the empty barstool to him.
“You look like Cat Stevens. Are you all hippies?”
Lucius looked startled and looked to me for the answer to the question.
“Uh-Uh. We’re traveling salesmen.”
“What d’youns sell?”
I smiled and said, “Cooking stuff. It makes supper taste better. Mostly chicken recipes.”
“Oh, I see. Must be exciting doing all that traveling. Seeing the country and all.”
“Yeah, it’s exciting all right. God bless us. Especially in this Bicentennial year and all.”
I raised my beer glass and she clinked it and Lucius also raised his and some of the beer slopped over the edge of his glass.
“To 200 years of America!” he stammered.
We guzzled deep from our fingerprint stained glasses.
I tapped the linoleum bar and said, “Can we got some more shots? Two more for these ladies.”
The old woman barmaid came over and poured us four shots of Jim Beam.
We stayed in that tavern and drank with the young ladies and put most of our dimes in that jukebox. Lucius danced with “puffy hair” and I danced with the girl with dark hair. The Hamm’s clock on the wall turned to 2 AM and the old lady bartender flicked the lights on and off.
We went outside and “puffy hair” leaned against the brick wall and pulled Lucius to her. She French-kissed him like his mouth was full of candy. Lucius kissed her back as hard as a love hungry man could and felt of her ass in her patch-britches. I took the hand of the other girl and led her along the sidewalk.
“So, uh, you girls got a place?”
I looked to her for an answer when I felt the thump and I thought that I had fallen down drunk and hit my head on the damn sidewalk. Before that thought had left my mind I knew I was wrong. A black dude stood over me with a snot rag full of rocks or pennies or something. He was straddled over me and his lips pulled back. He hit me in the head again and I could hear Lucius yelling and through the blood in my eyes I couldn’t see nothing but just heard the sounds of a beating and the whispered encouragements of the girls to the two brothers. I wiped the blood out of my eyes and I could see another black dude, a heavier bald guy, punching him in the face again and again. I could see that Lucius was smiling even though the other dude was wailing on him. The bald guy kept punching him square in the face. There was a lot of blood on that face and a smile that got bigger and bigger with every punch.
“Bring it on. I had worse. C’mon, pussy,” Lucius said.
The dude that was punching him stopped and said, “Man, this boy crazy.”
“Keep on then,” the black guy said. “Knock the crazy out of him.”
Lucius kept getting punched in the face and he didn’t fight back. His good shirt was ripped down the center and the buttons lay on the sidewalk. They shone plastic and white in my blood.
The guy who had been beating me with the weighted snot-rag was now standing over me with a .22 in his trembling hand. I could see he had on some kind of faded pink matching corduroy outfit. There was even a hat on top of his Afro. I tried not to laugh. I could feel a throbbing behind my right eye. I felt like I was going to pass out from the drinking and the beating.
“Need to give it up now.”
I didn’t want to die on the streets of Oven City, West Virginia that night or any other night, for that matter. My hand went into my pocket slowly and pulled out the wadded bills and change and I let them fall to the broken sidewalk.
“That watch, too.”
I slipped the cheap Timex off my wrist and handed it to him.
“That other cracker crazy?”
I didn’t say anything.
He kicked me in the side.
I could still hear Lucius hissing through broken teeth, “I’m used to this. Fuck you. You crippled, you pussy fag or what?”
The girl with dark hair stepped up and kicked Lucius in the side with a high-heeled cork wedge shoe. She called him a “piece of shit” and kicked him again. She spit in his face and stood back. “Puffy hair” came up and hit him in the side of the head with what looked like a heavy purse made out of some kind of woven straw.
“Son of a bitch! It was like having my damn tongue plumb down a commode!”
“Fucking bitches. You can’t hurt me. You never can. Keep on giving me your dollars. Come on. I don’t feel nothing. Nothing at all.”
The other guy stopped beating on Lucius and let him slump down the bricks to the sidewalk. The girls were standing there watching everything and encouraging the guy to keep beating on Lucius. There was only so much blood their men were going to give them tonight.
“Come on. Let’s get,” said the dude in pink.
“Man, I done told you he’s crazy,” the other one said, shaking his hurting knuckles.
He bent over and went through Lucius’ pants pockets. He pulled them inside out.
“He ain’t got no money. Nothing!”
I closed my eyes and when I opened them again they were gone. The two dudes and the girls. I could hear a woman’s laughter in the distance and then the someone said “crazy motherfucker” and then “tasted like ass when I kissed him. Lord have mercy, it’s true.” I could see Lucius on the sidewalk with his bloody mess of a mouth like he’d just bitten the head off of a live chicken. He smiled through the blood and tried to raise his arm as if to say to the world that he was still here and there would be another show away from the carnival’s main drag.
They got my last little bit of money and watch but they beat Lucius and stole the last bit of his dignity and with it the possibility of him ever being happy in this world. Every woman’s smile was a lie. Every stranger was setting him up to be used in some way or another. The only sweet thing for him to look forward to were the taste of candy bars in his broken mouth.