When the carnival comes to town

I felt an unusual sense of foreboding on my drive home—my gut trying to tell me something.  I pulled into my aunt’s driveway and the feeling intensified when I saw Fuco’s circus truck parked behind the burnt-out shell of the LeBaron.  What the hell is he doing here? I hurried inside the house and found bedlam.  Helen lounged on the couch, drunk.  A half-empty fifth of Smirnoff sat on the coffee table.  A crimson trail of blood started on a throw rug and led across the hardwood floor and down the hallway.  I could hear the sink running in the bathroom.

‘What the hell happened?’ I said.  ‘I was only gone three hours.’  Helen broke into an inebriated chuckle.  Her hair was in total disarray, sticking up in places, and her eyes were slivered by too much drink.  I could smell the vodka through the room.

‘I kicked that bitch’s ass,’ Helen announced.

‘That bitch?  She doesn’t wear gypsy clothes, does she?’

Helen laughed.  ‘She did.  Before I ripped ‘em.’  Helen burped.  She leaned forward and struggled to her feet, where she was rather unsteady.

‘Why are you drinking?’ I said.  ‘It’s the middle of the day.’

‘That fucker Meg!’ she said it loud and I was glad my aunt wasn’t around.  ‘That fucker.’

‘You need to calm down,’ I said.

‘Nobody better fuck with me!’ she broadcast.  ‘Specially not you.’  Her eyes riveted on me and I saw nothing but evil there.

‘What the hell happened?’

Helen wasn’t bashful: ‘That bitch and the lion tamer came over looking for you.  I don’t know how they knew you were back.  I told her you weren’t around and that bitch started talking some shit, so I kicked her ass.’  She chuckled and sat back down.

‘What kind of shit-talking?’

‘I don’t remember.’  Helen reached down on the floor and came back with a glass of vodka.  ‘That bitch,’ she murmured.  I reached to steal the glass—she’d had about enough—but she lashed out at me.  ‘I’m drinking.  I’ll drink if I wanna drink.  You think you can control me?’

‘Ok fine,’ I said, backing away.  ‘It’s just that I don’t understand why you’re drinking straight vodka.’  I picked up the bottle and returned it to its cabinet in the kitchen.

‘I hope that Cathy comes out of her room,’ Helen said.  ‘I want to beat her too.’

‘You’re not to get into any more fights.’

‘You watch your mouth,’ Helen said, trying to stare me down.  ‘Or you could be next.’

There was no talking to her when she was like this.  I headed down the hall to assess the damage.  I found Fuco attending Meg in the bathroom.

‘Oh my dear, friend Jackson.  What an event you have missed.’

Meg was battered but it wasn’t anything that would leave a mark.  The bleeding had stopped.  Wads of tissue hung from her nostrils.

‘What happened?’ I said.

‘She was all drunk,’ Meg said, close to sobbing.  Bruised pride—metallic and edgy—punctuated every syllable.  ‘I came in minding my own business and she started harassing me, and before I knew it she’d socked me in the nose.’

‘What are you even doing here?’ I said to Fuco.

‘My friend, I called the house to see if you had returned, and your aunt told me you had.  So I came here to say hello—nothing more.’

‘Well I’m sorry Helen socked you,’ I said.  I didn’t feel much like regulating between Meg and Helen and wanted more than anything for this whole situation to disappear.  ‘I saw the banner for the circus.  Are you staying in town?’

‘Yes,’ Fuco said.  ‘We found a very nice room at the Budget Inn.’

‘Great.  Say, where are you holding the circus?’

‘That is yet another reason I’ve come,’ Fuco said.  He rubbed his hands together, plotting.  His hot cheeks radiated under his bushy beard and his eyes shone.  ‘I have asked many people where I might find many acres for my show.  And I have learned of the Hamilton Place.’

‘The Hamilton Place?’  I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about.

‘It is owned by your family.  The pharmacist told me as much.’

‘First I’ve heard of it,’ I said.  ‘I suppose you want to host the circus there.’

‘Yes!’ Fuco intensified the rubbing of his hands.  ‘Will you help us?’

I shook my head, resigning myself to wherever this was heading because I felt bad that Helen had beat up Meg.

‘I’ll see what I can do.’  I walked down the hall to Cathy’s room and knocked on her closed door.  Her voice squeezed through the door.

‘Come in.’  She sat on her bed, looking forlorn.

‘Marty and Monty decided to stay in Poscataw for a few weeks—until the circus.’  Cathy instantly brightened.  ‘You like hanging out with Monty, don’t you?’  I tried to make the question sound innocent.

‘Well,’ Cathy smiled to herself in anticipation of what she was about to say, ‘not the same way I like hanging out with you.’

‘Right,’ I said, trying to stay dry.  ‘Say,’ I tried to cut to the chase, ‘do you know anything about the Hamilton Place?’

‘Sure—what do you want to know?’

‘I heard we own it?’

‘It was one of Grandpa’s properties—it’s a few miles up the road.  They used to grow cotton there but nobody tends it anymore, except Mitchell will go out and do a little work every now and again.  He keeps the weeds down.’

‘I ask because Fuco’s looking for a place to hold the circus, and….’

‘Oh that would be such fun!’

‘Do you think your mom would let him?’

‘We’ll have to ask,’ she said, jumping up and hopping around the room and clapping.  ‘Oh I can’t wait!  Mom should be home in a bit—she went into town.’

‘So she missed the, er, confrontation?’

‘They showed up after she left.’

‘Good, that’s all I needed to hear.’  I turned to go, needing to attend to Helen and hoping I could make it out of Cathy’s bedroom without-

‘Oh Jackson?’

Without that. I knew from the tone of her voice that I was in trouble.

‘Yeah?’

‘Shut the door,’ she said.  I did as told.  Cathy got up from her bed and came to me and wrapped her arms around me.

‘I’ve missed you,’ she said.  Her eyes were closed and she rested her head on my shoulder.  ‘I’ve missed you so much.’

‘Look,’ I started to say.  ‘Helen’s out there and I-‘

‘Don’t worry about Helen,’ Cathy said, opening her eyes and revealing an unspoken blue menace.  ‘I’ll never tell Helen about us.’

‘Right,’ I said.  I took a step back and bumped up against the door.

‘Jackson,’ Cathy said, stepping forward so she had me pinned against the door.  ‘When we find some time, some time alone I mean, I want to be with you.’

I shook my head.  ‘Didn’t you see what just happened?’

‘Happened?’ Cathy said, tilting her head and closing one eye.

‘Helen just beat the hell out of Meg.  That was for shit that happened five years ago.  Contemplate for a moment what Helen would do to you if she found out we’d slept together.’  Cathy’s frown was pure disgust.  ‘She would destroy you.’  The threat of violence was enough to get Cathy back on her heels as she considered the bear trap she’d almost stepped into.  I took the opportunity to escape.

‘What were you doing in there?’ Helen demanded as I came down the hall to the living room.

‘Nothing,’ I said.  ‘Let’s go lie down for awhile.’

‘I’m not tired,’ Helen said.

‘Just for a while,’ I said.  I reached down, offering my hand.  She looked at it, then looked up at me with venom, then back at the hand.  She shook her head and took my hand and I pulled her up.  Once again she was shaky on her feet.

‘I’m trashed,’ she said, wobbling toward the bedroom.

‘I noticed.’

I got her inside the room—away from Cathy and Meg—and shut the door.

‘Kicked that bitch’s ass,’ Helen said, flopping down on the bed.

‘I wish you wouldn’t be so aggressive.’  I sat down next to her.

‘Yeah whatever.’  She nestled into the bed and closed her eyes and shortly passed out.  I rolled her onto her side before going on cleanup duty.  The blood had dried and didn’t come up at first, but after twenty minutes of furious scrubbing I managed to get the floor clean.  I gathered Fuco and Meg and Cathy in the living room to strategize.  Meg had managed to pull herself back together.   Other than an abrasion on her neck, Meg showed no ill affects of the fight.

‘Cathy, you should ask her,’ I said.  ‘And I’ll be there to back you up.  And Fuco and Meg—you can explain the concept if she has any questions.  Understood?’  Everyone agreed it was a good, simple plan.  We chatted idly in the living room until we heard my aunt’s Honda in the driveway.

‘Everyone’s here,’ Faye said as she came through the door, although the smile she extended Fuco and Meg was obligatory.  We played at polite conversation for a time until Cathy broached the subject.

‘Mom, did you know Fuco’s circus is opening soon?’

‘Why yes—I’ve been hearing about it all day.  It’s the buzz in town.’

Cathy looked sidelong at me, hesitant, before jumping into it.  ‘Well I was talking to Fuco and Meg and they don’t have a place to hold it yet, and then I was thinking about the Hamilton Place and how we never use it, and—I don’t know—it just kind of made sense.’

Faye stared her daughter down.

‘You’re asking if they can hold the circus in the field at the Hamilton Place,’ she said.

‘Yes,’ Cathy said, almost breathless.

Faye focused on Fuco.

‘What kind of show is this?’ she said skeptically.

‘It is marvelous,’ Fuco said.  ‘It is a showcase for the animals—they perform great tricks.’

‘So it’s a children’s show,’ Faye said.

‘Why yes.’  Fuco smiled.  ‘The children love it most of all.’

‘And what’s your alternative location.’

‘We have none,’ Fuco said.  He cast his eyes down and struggled for the words.  ‘I…I fear the show will not go on if we do not find a place soon, and I have run out of options.’

Faye’s lips pursed as she considered it.  She wanted to please—really she did.  It was her whole aim in life.  I could see that with just a bit more prodding she would agree.

‘It would be such a shame if they had to cancel the circus,’ I said.  ‘What would the children think?  It’s not like most of them have ever gotten to see anything like this before.’  Faye started to shake her head.  As I saw that motion my body tensed.  Our eyes met in an unspoken exchange of the name Peter Bingham.  I could see how much she despised this moment—trapped by her secret.  I winked; she flinched.

‘I suppose,’ she said, resenting the words, looking at Fuco rather than at me.  ‘I suppose you can hold it there if you want.  What’s involved—you just need a spot, right?’

‘That is all,’ Fuco said with triumph.  ‘We shall set up a tent and the show will go on under the big top.’

‘I suppose that sounds reasonable,’ Faye said.  ‘Why not.  Cathy will take you over there tomorrow.’  Smiles were shared all around.  The show would go on.

I walked Fuco and Meg out to their truck.

‘I hope that’s what you wanted,’ I said to Fuco.

‘My friend,’ he said, ‘I want nothing more than a place for my circus.  Thank you.’  He bowed.

‘Get up.  It was no problem.  Now I think you should be on your way, before another fight breaks out.’  I glanced at Meg.

‘Yes yes,’ Fuco said.  ‘Well my dear…’  He offered his elbow to Meg, who took it without looking at me.  She seemed frail and defeated, so unlike the Meg I knew.  Helen had a way of doing that to you.

When I got back into the house I found a phone number waiting for me. The hotel, of course. The boys were calling, and just as he needed a distraction.

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