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There he was, gleaming in places, rusty in others, its history written in its bumps and patches like the history of a person is written in the wrinkles of its face. Rolling and whistling and frolicking to the general merriment of the public. And I’m using he liberally here, since I’m talking about a mechanical man. A mechanical being. A mechanical… gimmick that looks like a man.
I didn’t really liked it or even the idea of it, but I had no other way out than be attached to it. On the other hand, the public… filled with brothers, of my own race, of the other races that had been oppressed since they arrived to this land or since the paleface newcomers arrived. Even palefaces, because all races are one and the same in the People’s Republic, ain’t it?
But I am not a paleface, because my name is Fulgencio Rivera and I was born and raised in California from a Guatemalan mother and a Mexican father. That was twenty and three years ago.
Now I’m here, at the Circus for the People, amusing myself while I bid my time to get hold of the mechanical man, which is the main reason I am here. Here being Freedomville, formerly called Jacksonville, as in Andrew Jackson, a paleface and slaver long dead and now definitely buried.
And now being the tenth year after the revolution that produced the United All Races People’s Republic of Florida, or, if you prefer, la República Unida de Todas las Razas de Florida.
But a free man has to earn a living, or a better living than the Republic is able to provide. That is why I am after Manuel, the mechanical man. A real marvel of the People’s Republic ingenuity. Just look at him. All by himself, he has hushed everyone in this dusty, hot, humid and forsaken place. How can I describe it? I lack words, because there is nothing like it in the whole wide world. I can try, even as I received only the barest of educations before the evil capitalist system started to exploit my juvenile skills back there in awful California of evil America. But I have no words to describe the urgency with which I have to grab hold of it, since tonight is the night it’s going to be removed from here to places unknown and likely more dangerous than here.
But OK, OK, don’t complain, I see that I am jumping over myself. Let me tell you how it all started.
So this is what you hobos do, right? Sit around the fire in this rail yard… Jungle? How come you call this a jungle? It’s a rail switchyard! OK, jungle. And you tell tall tales around the fire, right? And you want to hear mine? OK, Duke, I owe you. So here it goes.
What do you mean, Gummy? It’s the plain truth. I will tell it to you exactly like it happened. Yes, sir, I’m sure, what are you, a fuckin’ people’s court? Do I have to take the oath or what?
Alright, then. This is the real story of how I came to be in the possession of Manuel the Man-Made Man starts in Mobile, which is only fitting, given the circus obsession with phrases with words that all start the same. Mobile, yes, time ago it was in Alabama, but now is a rough and tumble harbor town close to the border of the United All Races People’s Republic of Florida. That’s a pretty long name for a place that starts at Pascagoula in the West and and goes no further than Brunswick in the East, if only our people have their way. Which they will, I have no doubt as a loyal citizen of the Republic. Every dawning day brings new brothers to our new republic, brothers of all races, creeds and dispositions.
OK, you all know that, no hooting, on with the story. But you all reckon now I’m a loyal Republic citizen, ain’t I?
So. It was early winter, but the weather was still sunny and mild. I was walking
in the docks, as I was wont to do. The air was clear and I could see ships
docking and leaving,
ships from all our sister nations of the world, Spain, Cuba, Colombia, Puerto Rico, but also from not-so-friendly places who decided the buck needn’t stop here and had resumed trade as soon as the smoke from the Freedom War settled down and become the smoke of the smokestacks built during the Planazo, formerly unfriendly places like
the imperialist United Kingdom, the Austrohungarian Empire, those bohunks… The air swarmed also with the airships about to dock or leave from the airship port, the Spanish clover-fronted ones, the elegant Cubans, even the odd bulky and slumbering American, you could just spend the whole day looking at them, slowly realizing they were no longer in the place you had first spotted them, in the middle of a cloud, or watching them appearing nose first from the middle of another. Yes, Gummy, they do look like that sometimes. If that’s what you’re thinking about. Which you, no doubt, are.
I was there, looking up and down while strolling alongside the docks, minding my own business, which was precisely what I was looking for at that early moment of the day. I needed a hire, was looking to work for somebody who needed a quick mind and a strong pair of arms, but meanwhile I kept dodging the sun and keeping myself in the shade, because the sun made my clothes too warm for comfort. What was it? Big Winter? Winter’s younger brother? Rvfo Cuse or Rakko, can’t tell, even less so now that all months have changed their names and places to something that does not have gods or umpirators or unpopular names and reminds us of our brothers that were here before we arrived. But it’s always little this or big that or whatever berry, so… It’s Otowosk-rakko now, right? Otowoskuce, you say, Gummy? Can’t be Ehole, Captain no way, not so cold… Well, you see, people no longer know the month they are in. Not that most of us had ever cared, anyways. And not that I have a grudge with that, either. It’s all for the greater good of the Republic, ain’t it? Keeping capitalists names out of the Republic and putting the names the great spirit of the people gave them. Whatever.
So, sunny it was and I was walking in the shade. OK? Don’t say I keep repeating myself, you don’t stop whining and yawning! Here comes what happened then: these two dandy types came up to me from the sea shore, maybe they had alighted from a ship, maybe from one of the airships that had landed a bit farther up the docks, they were dressed to the nines and sweating as if they were going to melt right there and then. Sticking out as a sore thumb, if you ask me, no way to walk in this place crying “Mug me.” Adding insult to injury they were also yelling “I’m a capitalist pig.” But I was minding my own business, which was for the time being not related to those guys, but could be.
No, Gummy, they were quiet, not even talking to each other. But they had their eyes set on me and their walk was taking them towards me.
What did they look like, you say? Well, they had a pretty normal face and hair and cloth-colored cloth; they were nondescript besides what I have already said. Although they had probably not been mugged yet because one of the dandies had his demeanor bolted on, instead of having been born into it. Strong but nondescript too. Or nondescript for a those-fists-mean-business meaning of the word.
Being approached by these two guys I kind of put myself in a position where, if bad came to worse, I could have many options. Walked away from the wall, squinted to see what they were up to, put my hands in a fist and out of the pockets. Was not afraid, though, although they also seemed to avoid the glare and had their caps set just so you could not really see their face. So that you could not describe it later. That is why they were nondescript. Hey, said that already. You weren’t listening?
As they approached, the non-strong non-descript guy seemed to be the one that was going to do the talking, which he started to do as soon as he possibly could without shouting. After touching their caps managing not to reveal even a tiny bit more of their faces and exchanging pleasantries, which was the right thing to do for well-educated gentlemen that we all were, they offered me a cigar which I rejected because I don’t smoke, as you might have already noticed, and went down to business, not-strong in front of me and fists-mean-business by my side and slightly behind me. He really meant business that way too. Still not afraid, because I still had options. One of them, by the way, was to listen to them and eventually do business.
No, Gummy, I didn’t hit them. Why should I? I was down on my luck. If two nondescript persons make an offer, or one does while the other has an slightly threatening posture, you listen to them. One’s got to earn a living, and I was just thinking about doing the same the Republic did with those imperialistic airships. No harm done if no harm is done, right? Well, you know now that some harm would be eventually done. But I didn’t know back then.
Besides, their words and general demeanor told me that a good living it might be, too. Ten thousand pesos on the spot, ten thousand more when I got them something, which they really, really wanted for no particular reason. They were collectors. They had a hardware store. They liked shiny, rolling things. Those were a few of the reasons they offered for wanting the mech, which they called Manuel the Mechanical Man. Which they told me was, metaphorically speaking, I know, Duke, you like when I speak metaphorically, kicking dust in a circus.
Before that sunny day in the Mobile docks, I had never heard of the thing. What was my business before that day, do you want to know? Dock hand, I just told you, Dale. Damn, do you want to hear the story or not? You had heard about that Manuel that is now stashed in the moored wagon before I showed up here with it? Well, I hadn’t, I was not so well informed and educated as you all apparently are in this jungle. Why did they ask me? I was strong and young and confident. I still am. Do you want to wrestle? Gee, Dale, how the fuck do you want me to know that? For all I knew, they had asked every other guy walking in the docks! And I might have been the only one wanting to listen to them and to the job, even if I had never heard about anything like that.
Which is why the speaking non-descript man described it for me, just in case I got it wrong and got them a kicking watering can or the tin man from the Wizard of Oz.
“This gimmick Manuel you’ve got to get us is like a a rolling teakettle with ears,” he told me.
revise and write
Think about the Tin Woodsman. Did you all read it? You didn’t? Too old for it, Duke? Nobody did? Doesn’t matter, because this Manuel was almost, but not quite, completely different from that. And not made of tin, either.
Think now about a teakettle. You got it? That’s it, thicker on the bottom and not so much on top. Yes, Count, we all know you served tea to royalty in your castle in Central Europe. Alright, south by southwest Europe. Whatever. You picture that, right? That would be a milk pail for you, Gummy. Please stop smiling or I’ll never ever say your name aloud again. You all got the milk pail? Well, now put it on top of the teakettle. A small one. Two milk pails for you, Gummy. Lost you? Aw, what the hell, just go to sleep again.
Lost you all? Big, roundish, thick-on-the-bottom, metallic, upside-down bucket with another on top, body and head. Which goes to account for the name mechanical man, but when I first saw him that what I though about. It was even steaming a little bit, because he’s not actually mechanical, you see, it’s also fuel-powered ad some electrickal cables to spark it to motion whenever it’s needed. Or something like that. I didn’t built it, I just carry it from one place to another.
And, you see, it ain’t have any legs. I don’t know why, man, but those four wheels it has on the bottom just save me a lot of work. Yes, it did have some sort of midget legs at the beginning, but they made him, er, it, a piece of larry on stilted legs so they were ripped of and substituted by this bogie rigged from, gee, I really don’t know. A toy train? A streetcar? But the wheels, they had real tires on them, lest it could move only on rails. Come to think of it, I’ll have to patch them, they seem the worse for wear now…
Of course the legs didn’t go to waste! They were used for a sideshow in the ten-in-one called Robbie Lee, the Half-Mechanical Wonder of the New Century!
So what we have here is a teakettle with ears on wheels. A mechanical hobo. A hobo mechanical organism? Count, I like that. Cut it down to hoborg and you’ve got it! Pass the bottle, man, don’t hog it all for yourself!
Arms? Gee, I forgot that. Of course it did have arms! Just two of them, yes. I always wondered why. Come to build a thing with arms, you could make it with three or four or what have you. But no, it had to be two and they looked like those in mannequins, with a joint in the elbow and another at the shoulder and a grip at the end. No hands, just a grip. I didn’t try to wrestle with him, no way. It was four hundred pounds of iron and copper. The grips were made with copper, and they could be so delicate as to grasp a pigeon egg without breaking it. Great machine, I tell you.
Yes, let’s make it dance for a while, let me just get my driving box. Eyes. Did I say anything about the whole fucking face? No proper face to speak of, really, but as soon as there’s something on top of the body, not that it’s a proper body either, but you get my drift… so if that upside down bucket is a head, the grilled gap on the bottom, that would be a mouth, right? On top of that a strut could be the nose, and two holes covered with glass the eyes. Some dummy painted two lines on top of that that could go for eyebrows, and then there were two holes on the side of the head with two half-moons behind them. The head could move left and right, that’s it, couldn’t nod at all. If it wanted to look down it had to bend all over. And when it moved it made a screeching noise, like a door closing. A teensy door closing. Well, a teensy but heavy door closing.
When it walked, or rather rolled, there was smoke coming out of its neck. Some dummy put it initially in the ass, but it made the eyes of whoever was driving it sting, so somebody else rigged it to have the exhaust as hight as possible. Not in the head, it wouldn’t look healthy, people would be all “Your dummy is burning!.”
Anyway, the noise. It could honk, did I tell ya? Yes, he can do stuff all of its own when he wants. When there’s something in front, I don’t know how the hell it does that, but he notices and honks the same way that he avoids to crash into people by just stopping. How do I know how it does that? Am I a fucking mechanician? So, all things considered, it sounded like a car coming at you if you didn’t see it coming. A honking, screeching, clanking little car.
And now, for all of you, a honking, screeching, clanking and dancing mech.
Well, enough with the dancing. We’re going to spend the fuel, and I don’t have that much to go. Yes, it runs on petrol, like any other machine. And electricity. And spit. And that’s what the two average guys told me. Well, not all of that, I added a little bit on my own, and you can see the rest. Including the back.
And enough with the talking. Tomorrow, or the day after that, I’ll
tell you how I became a
revise and rewrite
That’s what they told me, and gave me the ten thou. And a neat and very official looking printout of where this marvel could be found, since, to top all that, it didn’t stay in a single place, but kept moving all over the map. Along with a circus.
“A circus?” I asked. “What’s its act? Bite chicken heads off?” I asked them.
“As far as we know, it could rip off the head of something considerably bigger than a chicken.” Talking-guy said, while Fists-means-business smiled in a nondescript way. “But yes, we are pretty sure it can do that too.”
I got the money. No receipt, Duke, man, what are you talking about? We just shook hands and looked each other deep into our eyes. Can’t remember the color, they were rather nondescript. White around and darker stuff in the middle, all I can remember. After that I told them I would take it from there, and they were on their way and I never ever saw them again, and I won’t until I do the delivery in a few days. Now that I’ve got what they want I’ll have to look for them when I arrive at my destination. Or rather they will look for me.
Whatever, that’s not going to be today. No, tonight I’m not gonna tell you about my joining the circus either. Which, by the way, at that precise moment I didn’t really think it was going to be necessary.
Ladies and gentlemen, or just gentlemen, nobody of the fair sex today in our distinguished company, our dear Fulgencio seems to be a bit under the weather today or just plainly fed up with telling stories, so it’s going to be my pleasure to delight you with the story of my life before the Call. No, Gummy Eddy, you’ve never heard this before, I promise. I just made it up anew, I mean, this is the real deal, all I’ve told you before was a tall tale. Besides, I haven’t even started to drink today! Oh my, I haven’t even started to drink today! Somebody buy me a drink, oh please. Captain Cabo?
That’s better. So, it’s my pleasure now to tell you the story. When I was a little boy…
Gentlemen, gentlemen, please behave yourselves. I will cut it short and to the chase. To my chase, how I was chased by that ragtag band of robbers and rustlers. During the War I was in the Glorious Confederate Army, what’s with it? That was Macon, Georgia, it was part of a confederate state, I was conscripted! I never had any slaves! We nobility abhor slavery! I’ve told you!
Thanks, Captain, we former soldiers have to respect and care for each other. I’ll go ahead with it. So I when I left my ducal home in Georgia, all smartly dressed in gray to which I added a foulard which really suited the rest, I went to the railway station and instead of being shipped somewhere else in the train I was assigned on the spot to a crew of railway artillery. I was back and forth, never leaving the iron path for as long as there was a war, so I learned the trade from one tip of the train to another: where to consign, who sells coal, how much is a load of cotton worth.
I was several times on the brink of being seized by the damn yankees, I mean the gringos, but the end of the war found me on a southbound train. Somehow, I made the new authorities believe it was mine and that I was a loyal yankee citizen. They even paid for repairs, once all was over.
That was my first train. I still have it, you can see on the lawn of the castle I own in the Big Rock Candy Mountain, near the Lemonade springs. But all that is lost to me. When Florida was no longer a state of the Union all was taken from me, all the train lines I had painstakingly gathered were, overnight, property of the people of Florida. I lost fuck-all. It was robbed by these damn fanatics!
In the name of the people, Duke, just stop crying like a sissy. Somebody buy him more to drink or take him to sleep or both. Besides, you all wanted hear to my story, right? Here it goes…
The circus with the mech seemed to be not too far, somewhere in West Florida. There I went. This was going to be easy as peaches. Go there, get in, grab it, get out. Except it was not.
The ten thou I had when I arrived at Panama City, where the circus happened to be a few days later, weren’t even enough to have bought a ride or a privilege with the circus. Which, come to think of it, was what the two guys would have done to start with if it had been even possible. They wouldn’t have needed anyone to do it for them. Or maybe they did, so I had to check anyways. For some reason I later discovered, concession prices had shot to high heaven, even for the concessions on the left hand side of the ground, which for some reason had the lowest prices.
Besides, at the moment it was no longer possible to spend the full amount. I didn’t have the ten thousand any more, a man has got expenses and love is not always free, as you may know. Yes, young men like me don’t have it that difficult but I was in a hurry and that hoochie koochie girl looked like she could give me some information, and boy, did she give me all she could… so I gave her a few pesos. A few dozens. I got the gist of all that from here, but to tell the truth I got most of it from the other guys on the line for the price of sharing a cigarette, which I carried in quantity even if I don’t smoke.
But the information I received from the guys was correct. It was late winter in Panama City, and it was one of the first cities in their 1915 tour. All tents were shiny, all guys seemed jolly and all girls beautiful and caring. I came in through the gate, yes, the arch, but I didn’t know to call it that way that back then, and I found the carnival in full swing, tents forming an U with the circus and menagerie at the very end. It was still a bit windy and kind of chilly, so people didn’t loiter among the tents, speeding from one to the next to end at the skin show or one of the gambling tents if it was a man or a couple of friends or at the circus if it was a whole family.
I would have done the man route, but I needed to get acquainted with the layout and the possibilities. Stealing something is not too difficult, but the problem is that always you have to invest. That’s quite American, I know, and I’m a well-behaved Floridian citizen, but I tell you that happens here and there and everywhere.
The problem is to know how much to invest and where to do it. Sometimes it’s just a ladder. Others you might need to get strong and arm yourself. At best, you might need a smile and a certain among of time with a good-smelling but bad-looking girl, or maybe the other way round. And sometimes you just need to pay the right man.
But where was the right man? Who was the mechanical man tamer or whatever you called him? And how much was it worth?
Because it seemed quite obvious that ladder or weapons were going to take me nowhere. Too many people, too many fences, and I expected the mech to be heavy enough to not be able to lift it. I was wrong by two or three men, but I didn’t know that back them, so I just thought about cows and how rustlers would have done it. Not that rustlers even had to do it inside a carnival, but this mech didn’t have horns either, so I guess it was even, right? Stop mooing, Gummy, it’s not funny and I was really tied in knots there. Short of hiring a small army and a truck, for which I was a good few thousands shorts, I just couldn’t see the way.
But that didn’t stop me from wandering around looking for the mech, the watchers, the way to get to that and eventually walk away with the prize. I visited the menagerie, where the mechanical man was exhibited and actually saw it in the flesh, yes, Duke, in the metal and brass or whatever, point taken, for the first time.
It was given a privileged position within the menagerie tent, right at the end of it, where the two rows met. It got the most light, with a spotlight right below it that made it look like, well, like a statue, which it was in way, except for the moving thing. I was not awed; I actually liked the most the cute and fearsome Siamese twins that were right beside him.
What did it do? Well, it was in a cage and the barker spent most of the time in front of him saying that it had been studied in the biggest and baddest, his very words, of the world and found to be a real marvel, that it had acted in front of the bohunk emperor and the king of Siam, and that the popists where studying if it had soul or not. While the barker talked, the mech rocked back and forth, sometimes striking the jail bars and making everybody step back with cries of surprise and fear and joy. Nice show it was, really. The Siamese twins looked actually kind of pissed off and from time to time threw gobs of snot or worse at him, making the bearded woman and the rest of the sideshows laugh and mock them.
I stayed there for three or four pitches, checking visually the bolts on the cage, looking how far it was from the door, whether there were any roustabouts lounging around with nothing better to do than watching it, and so on. But if there were, I didn’t pay enough attention to them, so that explains what happened next, when I got out, intending to walk around the tent and loiter there waiting for the sideshow to close and see where everything went.
“I sure am” I answered the besuited man that was calling me from behind a carriage corner. You’d be well advised if you walk off calls made from behind a carriage corner. Hell, you’ve probably called marks from behind carriage corners a few times anyways. Yes, you laugh, but look at it from the point of view of the lugen. Hey, stop laughing! Lugens do have a point of view! OK, OK, they probably haven’t or they wouldn’t be so incredibly dumb.
So I was dumb, and I know now, but I didn’t know them. The whole circus mission, I mean gig, got into me and it seemed kind of so out of the way that I just jumped to the opportunity.
“You like that, metal, right? Are you sure you don’t want warm, expert ladies that are able to do what no doll would ever do?” By that time, I had already had a taste of that, so I just smiled and said “Just the mech. Can I see it?”
“You can do more than that. You can take it for a ride if you want, take it home and paint it pink.” He had probably seen my enthusiasm and raised his offer. What the hell, he could have offered me the whole fucking circus. “How much is that worth for you?”
“American dollars?” I replied, and the suited man snorted. Now I could see that the suit had been recently cleaned, ironed and starched, but was the worse for wear and frayed in places. And his hair was not greased back, just dirty and greasy. He was a lot louse, probably, somebody wandering around circus lots looking for somebody that can be easily conned.
Enough with that. I know better now. But maybe you can learn from me, yes, a young man like me. Stop laughing! Stop rolling on the floor! Aw, go to hell.
I’m alright now. Liquor and spirits soothe my soul, because I have a soul and I don’t give a rat’s ass if you are going to run to the next comisaría and denounce me for anti-popular activities. What could they take from me? My freedom? My life? They can have it all and good riddance, I’ve always lived next to a rail yard and, before I’m caught, I’ll do myself and die in them.
As a point of fact, I was about to do exactly that the day they took my railway from me. The name of Jacksonville had just been changed to Freedomville and I had a ungodly amount of schedules and train plates and tickets to reprint, the exact amount I had to retire and pulp lest it went to waste. I really didn’t listen to the wireless when they talked about factories and plantations and everything becoming people’s property; I didn’t know what they meant either. People’s property? I was the people, and that was my property, right? So nothing to fear although I noticed that day the employees were either lazy or jittery or both. When was that? Nineteen o seven? Eight? Hell, eight, ten years ago. Besides, I though, that was for Tampa for the show, they were not going to go so far as Baldwin, where our offices were conveniently located, close to the railroad junction.
But they did, for the life of me, they did. It was quite early in the morning, what, seven or eight, I had been already there for two or more hours, missus and kids still sleeping with all likelihood. An injun entered my office without knocking, followed by Ralph, the general manager of the airline and then so many Guards that you could think they were going to stage a parade just there. But if that was the case, I didn’t want to know what role I was going to play in it. Either the parade clown or part of the chain gang.
Initially, they were quite civil about the whole affair. A bespectacled man elbowed his way to the front row and stood by the Injun commander, who just stood there without so much as a good morning.
“Mr Miles Higgins,” yes, my name is Miles, I got the railroad from the baptismal pile, you know, “by this bylaw the People’s Government of Florida becomes the sole proprietor of the West Florida Railroad and Wagon Company, formerly owned by one such Mr. Miles Higgins.” I stood up, but the Indian gestured to make me sit down. “Comrade Higgins will be appropriately compensated by being allowed to work in the Conglomerate of State Railroads in any posts he thereby chooses, constrained by his stated abilities and the appraisal of them performed by the Republic Workers Bureau.” So they were taking the whole thing from me and I’ll be allowed to be a conductor if I was considered smart enough to make holes in tickets.
I tried to stand up again, but this time the commander did not even bother to assuage the situation. He drew his revolver and pointed in my general direction.
“You can stay here for some time. People’s Comisario García here,” and he nodded in the direction of the bureaucrat that had just talked, “will take charge and you’ll have to show him the ropes. No hurry, man, two or three days will be enough.”
What could I do? My wife and family left me the very next day, and they took everything that could be loaded into a carriage. The authorities didn’t like that and seized my home and land, too. I was left homeless, so when I left the office the last day and assigned a depot in the middle of nowhere, I took a train and called it home. And you are my family.
I have never been in the army. Did you hear me saying I was a soldier? No way, Captain, I would have said that if I had been in the army, which I wasn’t. The point is, in the army the mates, or so I’ve heard, try to con you into cleaning their boots, out of your food sent from home, whatever. So you learn the looks of somebody who is turning a confidence trick on you.
I learned the lesson there and then. He had a look of contempt towards me, but at the same time he looked desperate. As if that was in dire need of something. But then, who was I to say anything, I looked as if I needed a mechanical man then and there.
He led me into a dark part of the circus, behind the carriages and we started to dodge chairs, rests of food and forgotten toys. We arrived at a carriage which didn’t stand in any way from the rest; it was freshly painted but didn’t have any mark that indicated that was it, the mech carriage. He purposefully knocked on the door, looking at me and moving his mouth in the first phase of a smile that tried to instill trust but would have failed if it weren’t for the fact that I was beyond worrying about trust, My mind could only focus on what was inside that carriage. And he saw that.
“So, how many pesos, real money, is this worth for you?” he asked me.
I didn’t answer straight away. But that was probably the wrong answer, because he knew that, come this point, I wasn’t gonna get back.
“Hell, man, I don’t know. I’ll have to get me some ride or something to carry it away, and that’s gonna cost me… So, listen, say I give you one hundred pesos…” He was looking away, and drawing his hand away from the door. I was losing him, and it. “Can’t go tops of two hundred.”
“Show me the money.” He said, rubbing thumb and index of his right hand at the same time. Luckily, I had cached a wad of notes in the front pockets of my pants, which is what you want to do if you don’t want to have it spirited away from you when you visit full of quick fingers and long arms like a carnival. That is, you want to secure it so that it’s easy to get it conned away from you, as it was about to. I gave it to him and he made the money disappear in a rustle of its clothes.
He told me to follow him inside the carriage. Nobody had answered the knock from inside, which I should have interpreted as the knocks being a warning call or a check, but I didn’t. He opened the door slow and carefully and we got in. It was dim inside and it smelled sweaty and rusty; I could barely see anything from the light that entered from the already dark evening. He lighted a match and waved the other hand in the direction farther away from me.
“You see? It’s right here.” He said, but I barely could see where he was pointing; I moved in that direction and kept bumping into things that made a racket that apparently nobody cared about, which I should have interpreted as another warning sign, but being still wet behind my ears of circus ways and humbugs, wasn’t.
“I can’t see a damn thing, man. Can’t you turn on the light?” I yelled, but not louder than the noise we had already made.
“Afraid not, it could damage the mechanical man, my friend has said,” he answered, coyly.
“Damage it? How come? It does its act in broad daylight,” I told him.
“Yes, but it’s now being kept off anything bright to be repaired fixed, it’s larry due to a light… surplus. You see? It’s right here.” I didn’t even know who Larry was. Back then.
What I could see there was, indeed, a teakettle. Not a whole teakettle, just a part. I couldn’t even see if it had ears or not. It was big, though.
“That’s a fucking teakettle, that’s what it is.” I launched myself at him, but he expertly ducked and was talking as he did.
“No, it’s not. It’s a head… apparatus. See, here’s the… belly engine.” Which looked like a stovepipe, or a part of it that was visible by the match that he has lighted, anyways.
“You’re full of shit, man.” I told him. “Give my money back and I’m out of here.”
I turned to leave and wait for him outside, by the light where I could see if he was giving me my money back or a couple of newspaper clips. Giving him the back, I opened the door and immediately spotted another guy loitering by the door. He spat a cigarette from his mouth and blocked the end of the stairs that descended from the carriage, arms loose at the sides of the body, hands into fists. Ready to mug me out of whatever I had left in my pockets. But I was not going to make it easy: I jumped from the carriage door on him and made him fall. I fell too, but stood up pretty quickly and started running. The two scammers were older than me, and anyway I didn’t think they would make much more than shouting abuse at me for a while. Which they did, along with a friend of two, for quite a long more than a while, at least until I was out of the circus grounds.
So I was out of that circus pretty fast. Same speed I was left without a plan and two hundred pesos short. Yes, Gummy, there’s always a lesson to be learned and you often learn them the hard way. But learn I did.
“So you’re saying the circus is like an office?” I asked the old clown who had the strange ability of laughing and crying at the same time, and make you do the same. We were in a cargo wagon, surrounded by cotton bales on a train bound for Pascagoula, where I was going following the circus, on the thought that it was a good idea to follow it and wait for the mech to drop from a carriage or be sold in an auction or something. Hoboing was a way of doing that and not make a dent on my budget. The clown had been a silent companion for hours, but he became jolly the moment I offered him some drink. Making chitchat, he told me that he was what is called a tramp clown, one of the three types of clowns that are out there. You don’t know what are the other two, don’t you, guys? Ask the Duke, he’ll know for sure. No? Well, tough luck. So I asked him what made a tramp clown become just a tramp and we continued from there.
“Man, the whole country is like a fucking factory! Haven’t you noticed?” He cried again.
“And all that because you made fun of the governor?”
“Yes, and I think I could because he was white, you see? All races and all my ass.”
“What did you say?”
“Something along the lines of him being circumcised by a precise kick to her sister in the jaw.”
“He, that is funny. I met these guys up in the hills in New Mexico, I mean Mississippi, that… “ It was funny that I had found this particular guy in the train, but chance didn’t play a role in it. He was also following the circus, which was a few wagons in front of us, bumming things out of them or of the people attending the carnival, making laughs for centavos.
“It’s funny because that what clowns do. They make fun of people. It’s not about making fun of the right people, that takes all the fun out of it. Like making a circus a factory.”
“Come again, how’s that office thing?” I needn’t tell you that the cotton cargo wagon is the most comfortable of all. To top it, it’s also quiet. Only problem is you can’t smoke or you’ll become a ball of cotton fire in no time. Ain’t that true, Eyebrowless Eric?
“Well, it’s not called the People’s circus for no reason.” he said. “It belongs to the state, as this railway does. So the very next day that had happened this mean person, dressed in combat clothes, came up to me and he said.
“Teach me everything, from now on I’ll be you.
“That he said. I don’t know what the rest of the clown posse said, but I think they’re not there anymore. And they the new ones look mean…” But I was only half-listening by now. I had a plan.
“Funny thing is, that new clown was also white,” he continued saying.
Not quite. Although seducing one of them would be a way of marrying into the circus, I was not amused by that prospect. So I have two words for you: Fake. Papers. With them in hand, a good buttoned-up shirt and my scant belongings in a burlap bindle over my shoulder I crossed under the circus arch, which had just arrived to the city of Ferry Pass.
“Let me check that.” said the improbably named Boris, the circus manager, a big, dark brother with shoulders one mile long that could have stood for the strongman or the lion tamer if there was a need for that. The papers with purple official-looking seals carried me into the carriage that served as office and as ticket booth, these circus guys like to keep all money matters close together, lest they contaminate the rest of the stuff. I had made a beeline from the circus arch, which I didn’t know yet was called an arch, to the office. The less people that could intercept you and ask questions about your business, the better. Circus people aren’t known for cheerful treatments of strangers.
Besides Boris, that had been fetched from his office, a man and a woman were idling at their desks, rustling papers and listening to the wireless, which was broadcasting a speech by one of the high-ups in our Republic. I tried to listen intently, but couldn’t make out the words. He didn’t seem angry, so he was probably cheering up the soldiers, workers and farmers of our land. I probably had heard them anyways.
I saw Boris, my not so evidently fake papers in hands, go to its office at one of the ends of the carriage. I
knew the assignment would check out. The official at the People’s Party in
Pascagoula had been paid dearly to request an assignment of one
Fulgencio Ribera, 23, to the Number One Glorious People’s Flying Circus, Menagerie, and
Moral Popular Exhibition Featuring Karl the Elephant and the Mysterious
Mechanical Man. Took less for him to take the bribe than to write the
name of the job where I wanted to be transferred. Took him a bit
more to endow the paper with all kinds of stamps and produce a good amount of copies and leave a huge
paper trail all the way to Tampa.
A second bribe would be needed for the archivist, but that was all. Yes, capitalista ways in the people’s republic and all that. I didn’t like it as a citizen, but I like even less the umpirialist ways of the United-not-for-long States. Did I say umpirialist? I meant umpirialistic. Imperialist? You made that word up, Duke, didn’t you? OK, OK, OK, imperialist, so what gives?
I could hear the circus manager talking to somebody in his office, and he was taking so much time that I started to think that what’s bad about crooked officials is that they can bend two or three different ways. Yes, Duke, and sometimes it’s them that make you bend and bugger you, I know, old chap… And this Boris was having too long a conversation with the official in Tampa or whoever the hell he had decided to talk. It was not helping that the clerk and the secretary kept looking at me with that look of “You don’t belong here” which I tried hard not to return, because that was exactly what I wanted and needed, to belong there. And this was starting to look like a situation in which I would have to fight my way out, so I edged a bit closer to the door because you never know.
To avoid their gaze I started to look around. In the walls of the office hanged posters of announcements and features. “Manuel The Mighty Mechanical Man” featured what looked like a guy sheathed in gold foil lifting an elephant. “Ray, the Human Radio Receiver” was on another poster, dressed like a sailor for no good reason and with a hat from which several wires sprouted; from those wires, wavy lines came out (or in, who knows) while he seemed to be speaking, arms wide open. I’d heard about that one, and it looked like a scam. But then I was not buying this circus, I was here for a reason. A heavy, metallic, mechanical reason.
I realized Boris had stopped talking; shortly he came back from his office at the end of the carriage. And he did not seem happy.
No, that’s Fulgencio Ribera, with a b. I don’t know any Rivera with a vee from anywhere. Where did I spend my school years? I went to school in… What’s with it, Wireless? Why do you want to know? Did I ask you where you served, Captain? Does anybody know the whereabouts of Duke’s castle? Yes, yay, in the slopes of the Big Rock Candy Mountain by the Lemonade Springs.
Just go to hell. I’m off to sleep.
“Sorry, boy. This does not check out.” The circus manager said, handing the papers back to me. The clerks nodded and continued their rustling and radio listening. From another poster, Mento the Mystical Miner, eyes wide open, was looking at me trying to find out what I was thinking.
Which was “What a fucking waste of money.” I picked up the paper and started to rip them out, meanwhile thinking that the paleface clerk that had taken my money in Pascagoula was going to suffer three different kids of hell when I laid my hands on him. If hell actually existed, of course, which I really don’t think it does, and you don’t either, right? You have been there, Gummy? That might account for your lack of hair, for sure!
“Hey, hey, hey. No need to make a racket out of this.” Boris told me and I stopped and started to fold the papers with exaggerated care while looking at them. I really didn’t know what to do. I’d have to hire a band of rustlers to get the iron dummy out of here. Disappointment probably crept to my face, and Boris said
“These things happens. Wires go down, Circus Commission clerks gets asleep, forgets to file the folder where he should. Tell you what: we need strong and young hands like you around here, the Party knows we do. So just stick around, I’ll pay you by the day, and will check back in a few days to see what happens. Does that sound fair to you?”
I just smiled and revisited my non-conformant thoughts on the paleface clerk. This republic is the republic of all races and peoples of America and the whole wide world, and palefaces, sorry, white people have also been oppressed. All of you have, even the Duke. Isn’t that true, Duke?
So that’s how and why I entered the circus. Until my cover was blown or I was off with my prize, whatever happened first.
Do you think it would be easy to steal an elephant from a circus? They are big, they are heavy, they can trample you or slug you a good one with the trunk. Plus you need to know how to ride them or it will end up somewhere else than the circus, but not where you want it. Well, a mechanical man is pretty much the same, less the trunk. And the shit. Man, do they shit… The elephant bulls, Gummy, how could a mechanical man shit? Bolts, you say? Ha, that’s rich.
Elephants shit their fucking weight and that of two pregnant sows for good measure every fucking day. This I know because that was the gig I was given when I started kicking sawdust. Which I did in spades. And laying. And wiping. And producing. And fucking breathing and shitting sawdust all the fucking day, in the company of beasts and sometimes of comrades. That was all for the greater good of obtaining my prize, which I could barely see, not to mention touch, during those first two weeks.
“Gaucho” was one of the words I learned early and heard often during those days, sometimes from closed lips, sometimes accompanied by a sideways spit. That’s how they call the people that is not born into the circus, people sent from the circus commission specially, which they call red gauchos. That’s why I did not have other way out that stick with them when sticking needed to be done.
That was usually at lunchtime or when any food was served. As was done in the army, we went to the mess tent, lined for food and went to a table to eat. What? No, I haven’t been in the army, in no army, indeed. How do I know about that? People talk, you know.
As a matter of fact, somebody told me that in the table where we gauchos sat. There was Jay, who had actually fought in the Patriotic War and transferred to the circus, and now took care of animals, Bill and Vince, two roustabouts that helped with anything that was needed, and Gina, who rode horses. Why do you want to know how Bill and Vince were? Just your average Bill and Vince, Bill a black Seminole and Vince a black, strong guy from Virginia or somesuch. He kept talking about his pa being a guerrilla fighter during the civil war. Couldn’t stop, somehow.
But back to the story: sometimes, Rufus the mechanical man man, the one that took care of the mech, Rufus three-M himself, joined us. He couldn’t have been born into the circus, no mechanical men in the previous generation, no way. So, despite have been for years in circus life he was still considered a gaucho. He didn’t do it himself, so he joined us reluctantly and when there was pussy to be smelled.
That didn’t allow him to focus too much on the information I wanted from him. Which was all for the better, People would have suspected if I did. So I threw questions at him to see if they stuck, and they did from time to time.
Did he score? Why are you interested? Hey, stop touching yourself, Gummy you old pervert! I’m out of here!
Nobody understands Gummy Fucking Eddie, so I will tell his story for him. Yes, I’ll be telling you all my story in the army and why I’m a Captain and a Corporal at the same time, but be patient and all of you will be satisfied. Gummy, if you don’t stop doing that right now I’m not going to act as your puppet now or never. Really.
What he was saying is that he was fighting for freedom in Cuba. He came back like this. OK, don’t throw a tantrum, I’ll start again and tell the whole story straight.
It was 1905 or 1906, and Gummy was a jobless musician in Chicago. Then everybody and his mother started talking about war this, war that, Cuba, defending American interests, and all of a sudden I was in a train all dressed in khaki with an old winchester and a bag in my hands, bound for Florida. OK, not me, Gummy, but I’m translating him, so I is gonna be Gummy from now on. You get it? Yes, you too, Gummy, I’m so very happy you understand this.
In Tampa we were met by a big, open air camp, filled to the hilts with black people like me. No surprise here, most people fighting in Cuba seemed to be black, at least from the sergeants down, although I couldn’t tell, we didn’t see anybody with heavier brass than that. It was sergeant this, corporal that, sometimes a sergeant mayor, always a cracker, and that was that. They barked their orders, clean this, do that drill, but mostly it was wait on our butts and roam around. Roaming stopped fast enough, because as soon as we set step outside the camp whiteys screamed abuse at us and we couldn’t do much, no bars, no candy shops, no nothing, everything was closed in front of our nose stubs. So we stayed at the camp, one worry more for sergeants and corporals and whatnots and one less for us.
But the problem with going to war is that you end up doing it. And on a boat, to top it. We spent like a day puking our guts off so we saw fishes in the sea literally get so fat they sunk to the bottom with all the half-digested stuff we were throwing up and at them. It didn’t help that we were so packed in the boat that people just fell of the brim from time to time, and some were so wasted they just stayed there for the fishes to feast upon. Somebody surely missed them, but not us, we were too busy keeping our guts together and worrying about what was going to come next.
And that was hell, plain and simple. And I was lucky. The 17th Colored Infantry didn’t run into battle, we rather run from battle. After a few skirmishes in, hell, in somewhere too hot for human beings, we established a rearguard supply base in Guantánamo, One Ton of Ammo we called, some smartass came with that because that was what they kept telling us, we would be receiving one ton of this, one ton of that, but the only thing we got was malaria and scurvy.
Yes, scurvy. The supply base didn’t even have fresh supplies for itself and whatever fresh we had was reserved for our sick brothers, but at the end everybody was sick; we couldn’t even move out of the base because as soon as we did we heard the crack of the sharpshooters. Many people did anyways, it was better to die quickly than to do it slowly, painfully and stinking to high heaven.
I lost most of my teeth there due to scurvy. But I lost whatever I had left when I was ferried back to Florida and was just left there. “Honorably discharged,” I was told, which I gather means “unloaded,” and that is what I was, they took the load off them and I was weaned off any GI supply and left on my own, not a penny on me. Couldn’t even keep the rifle to shoot for food, just the clothes and the boots.
I don’t blame them, anyways. They had quite enough on their own, being chased away by the rebels and all, I mean the Glorious Revolutionary Army, hell, the government snitch must one and for all stand up and fess up, I’m fed up with having to put with all this revolutionary crap. We’re between hobos, right? We don’t have to keep blabbing this way… no, that’s not Gummy, that’s just me. Why do you want to know, Hatless?
“We usually play to a full house here,” Vince told me while we were on the road to post papers to announce the circus around town. Elegant people came after us to check them out. “Look, we are scoring good hits.” Vince told me.
We were very lucky to be there. There were heavier and less amusing things you could do in the circus that very morning, in the stifling Miami heat. Besides, I was supposed to learn stuff. There was a method to posting paper, I was discovering. You couldn’t just paste them anywhere; barns, fences, some buildings, corners, always at eye’s height, those were the places to do it. As a matter of fact, sometimes they were occupied by other posters announcing past or present shows. They were promptly ditched, and this was accompanied by war stories of when two circus met in that place or that other and two posting parties met and mayhem ensued. I soon get bored of his talk and started to think whether this could be the day and place where I could finally escape alive and with a plus one called Manuel.
We had a fair amount of ducat to invite beautiful girls to come to the attractions and bring the local marks in tow. And man, they were beautiful. So much cream colored flesh, and so much of them in plain sight. We run out of ducat much before we run out of money and we extracted so many promises…
We had had to turn down a few, specially gringas. We didn’t want them there at the circus, but if they did show up, their pesos would be as good as the next one, so we weren’t gonna stop selling them tickets. Besides, they had their special seats just for them, they had to be filled, right?
So, by the time Tracy came up to us, we weren’t either ready for conversation or in the mood for gifts. So much paper to post… Besides, we had considered a couple of times to charley it.
Who is Tracy? You’re about to know her and we were about to do it, too.
For starters, Vince and me didn’t feel like talking to her because honkies, even honkie girls, were always walking around bumming things and whining about this and that. Besides, she was not that beautiful to deserve one of the ducats we kept; she was nice, in that transparent way the gringas had; her hair was flat and hay colored, and her hips and boobs were way too small, although not disagreeably shaped. She didn’t smell good, a bit musty. And her face had bumps and scar marks where it shouldn’t have had any; her white skin had purple and blue bruises in places. Nothing unusual for white people, anyways.
Vince sent her on her way, and we went on ours, but she clung to us on our way back to the circus. Which pissed us off even more since now she would be witness to us ditching the paper; yes, that’s what charley means, weren’t you listening? Am I not talking in fucking English? OK, Duke, I’ll keep it easy, only I get all fired up when I recall all that.
“How long are you staying?” she went, from a couple of steps behind us.
“It’s right there on the paper, gringa. Can’t you read?” She probably couldn’t. These palefaces were too ignorant and rebellious for their own good, they just liked to spend their days shooting squirrels and drinking. And fucking their sisters, I tell you. Many of them couldn’t read just because they hadn’t enough in their heads to be able to join the lines to form a letter. Yes, I know, Duke, it’s an all-races republic. But including them does not mean I have to like them, right? I could have liked this one, though, if only she’d had a nicer and bigger rack. Nothing personal, Duke, you’re my man.
But she continued in our footsteps, asking us where we were from and what we did in the circus and so on and so forth until we were so close to the circus that we had either to charley the paper or take another path and start to paper it. We didn’t feel like doing the second and we needed some independence.
“You want to earn a few pesos, girlie?” I asked her. If she came around maybe we could check her for the revue. After seeing her naked, we could either do her or hire her, or hire her and then do her. Not that I would have the chance to do either, but I could at least check her out thoroughly. And besides, she didn’t know squat, so I could play the part. If was not as if Vince was going to tell her. At my question, she had opened her eyes and was smiling broadly; we had her on the hook. She nodded a vehement “yes,” opening her eyes and smiling broadly.
“So, do you have a name to go with those beautiful eyes?” I asked her. Vince went along with me.
“Tracy.” She said while he blinked. Yay, we had her on the hook. Or the other way round.
“What do you say if you meet us at the circus in, say, two hours.” She stared blankly, as if the concept of “hour” was something too difficult to grasp…“OK, to there after a good while, when you see people coming up to the circus, and you tell the girl at the ticket counter to send for us. We are Fulgencio and Vince. Can you remember that? OK, bye now.” I waved her with my hand, just in case it was not clear enough.
She nodded again, and turned back. When she disappeared around a corner we could finally charley the paper, and we might even manage to score tonight.
As we had expected, that evening the carnival was going full throttle, but I still could spot Tracy, these gringas really don’t know how to mix with the crowd. She was so white and blond and she had put a white dress on top of that just so that she could be made out even by night and with closed eyes.
Trying all the time to look as if we owned the place, Vince and me got her to the ringmaster, with whom we had negotiated as a commission we got to see her naked while she was checked for the nudist colony. That was the only act she could make her do on short notice, because there’s nothing much that needs to be done, just be pretty and naked. Beautiful girls and some ugly with big boobs usually started their career at the circus that way before they learned something and graduated to the revues or jig shows if they were whites, or even real circus acts if they were good at it, and got and assignment from the government.
But no government job was needed to lay stark naked and pout, which she seemed to be good enough at. She wasn’t too reluctant to undress when the ringmaster told her, and she only lingered at the unbuttoning at the interesting parts. She had no bra, as we had been able to make out under her white dress, but she wore panties that had seen so many washes that they were threadbare here and there. She eventually took them off also, standing there on her moccasins. She quickly fell into a pose.
As I had already noticed with her clothes on, she did not have a great body, even for a paleface. Too whitey, cute pair of boobs, those pink nipples could win her a good pouch of pesos, and flat booty. But hey, she was white, what could you expect. She had a bushy crotch that extended almost up to her belly button. Nudist colony girls had it shaved, but there was going to be no time today, the sideshows were about to begin.
Vince, the ringmaster and me just left her there while we talked in whispers among us as if we were examining a horse, appraising hers. She started to cover herself and we knew it was time to hire or kick her off, because if we let it linger for too long she could change her mind.
Yes, I knew all that by that time. You learn fast in the circus and you learn a lot of trades, but the first thing you learn is people, what they do and what you can do to them. That includes girls. But I know much more now. I know that you can’t trust no man and you can’t trust women any more. By doing that, she forced us to action. And by forcing us to action, she commanded the situation. What’s with girls, I don’t know, they always make them do what they want and you end up thinking it was your idea.
So of course she was hired for the day. Vince and me led her to the carriage that was shared by the nudist colony girls that came with the circus. Another day hire, or at least some girt I hadn’t seen before, and, boy, had I seem them all in front of me and in my dreams, was also there and she was getting explained how to pose and what to do and advised on how to avoid farting, conceal warts and things like that. Just guessing that; we couldn’t stay, of course, the mistress shooed us away. I understand that, we men could be there the whole day and do no work. Except maybe touching ourselves. Please, Gummy, you’ve already done it today once, can’t you please stop?
That night I went to the girl show tent more than usual. I took advantage of every errand to escape for a few seconds and go there to see how Tracy was doing. Not that I could actually get in there, you know. We roustabouts and circus mates weren’t allowed in there, we couldn’t see the girls we shared a table at the mess room (not that it was usual, but even so…) or a seat at the train completely naked and in fetching poses. However, nobody could prevent us from ripping a triangle off the tent and check it, from time to time. Before packing they were checked and fixed, but new ones were open until after some time the tent had so many patches at eye level (and a few at midget-eye level) that it was on the brink of ripping the bottom part off all by itself, so it had to be changed. That goes to say that circus people are pretty much like the next guy, only a bit dustier and a bit more skilled on separating marks from their hardly-or-softly-as-if-anybody-cared earned money.
I had to push Vince and some other circus guys who had heard about the new flesh from time to time to check on her. She was doing great, of course. The barker was barking the presence of new girls to the four winds and gents were elbowing each other to be on the first row. Tracy and the other new girl was there, in front of the rest, apparently playing a table game, or resting, or doing silly dances which didn’t matter because, well, the important thing was the booby swing. The professor talked about how important that was for health and how everybody did that in Sweden or Siam or in old Greece or wherever, but nobody paid much attention to the words. The important part was the swinging. Yes, boys, what a swinging. Don’t sigh, men, you’ve all been young and smelled fresh pussy. Not anymore? Well, tough luck!
I happened to be there, pushing aside one other guy, when the show was interrupted by a racket at the tent gate. I couldn’t see what was going on there, but I could see near the scenario that several guys came into view shouting, and I first though they were protesting about high prices or too much time waiting in line or whatever. But they were yelling something about daughter and honor and I think I heard the name Tracy and I could see they were wielding clubs and baseball bats and even a machete. Tracy just stood there, and the men came up to her, grabbing her arm and covering her with a blanket. The other girls run to the back of the tent, and I was left there with the professor, who seemed to be more elsewhere than there, and a few marks who seemed to think this might be a part or the show or just liked to be in the middle of things.
When I arrived at the main tent door I pushed aside the people flooding out from inside and came in, there was a standoff situation. One of the attackers had put a hand over the shoulders of Tracy and another was holding another girl, one of our own. The barker was laying on the floor, bleeding from the head. And I didn’t know very well what to do. First thought was run, but second though is that the circus always protects their own. I then shouted: “Hey Rube!”
No, Rube was not the circus strongman, although come to think of it, it might have been some time in the past. He was… have no idea. If you shout “Hey Rube!” you’re saying there’s a fight and everybody bodily available should come to help fellow circus folk.
Of course we outnumbered them. But this was a losum game, we might lose even if we won.
There were on my count three, no, four, no, half a dozen guys in front of the scene. I couldn’t handle them all by myself, no way. So I made the call for other guys to join me and try to solve the situation.
Which didn’t seem easily solvable without a broken limb. Or head. However, it might be solvable without that limb breaking being mine, if I only got a few more guys from the circus to lend a hand.
Guy “Indian Giver”, the layout man, was the first to arrive, as he always did. That was one of the reason why he was allowed to boss everyone around even being white, octoroon he said, but we knew he was white as white wool, that he was. Hey, all races and all that, no problem, awright? Besides, he was always there. He didn’t even made a fist or expected other guys to arrive, just pushed me aside and started to talk.
“What the fuck do you want with us?” He asked in the general direction of the kidnappers. One of them, with overalls, a dirt-colored shirt, cordless boots and and a baseball bat, a middle-aged guy going on old age with a single tooth that we could see, hissed and kind of said:
“The honor of my daughter Tracy, who you’re showing here naked an’ all for all niggers and spics to see…”
“Hey, hey, hey, mind your language, ol’ mate. It’s also there for you honkies to see if you pay the price, matey!” He answered, raising his hands, palms front and laughing. Not the right answer, apparently, because all six or seven or them started to wield their weapons and one of them picked up the professor from the floor and put the machete by the side of his neck.
“You’se a funny one, you. But you’se paying for this, and you’se paying it dearly because the honor of a daughter has no price”
“You don’t want anybody else but your own family banging her, do you, matey?” Guy the Indian Giver said. The machete drew closer to the professor neck, the baton closer to the other girl head, and one of the arms of Tracy was released, just so the guy that had her, presumably his brother, could shake the bate more freely with the other hand.
“That’s what you niggers do. We white folk respect each other and God, we do!” Guy could be only proud of being called a nigger, since he was just getting out of his winter paleness. That might be the reason why he seemed to change tack and stop insulting them.
“So you’re all brothers and fathers, right? What if we call the Guard and have all that checked out and we see who’s right or wrong here?” Asked Guy, making emphasis on the Guard. More people had arrived, but the circus act was in full swing, so not many of them were available. In fact, I think I could see a flicker of Rufus somewhere to my left.
“You call the Guard and before they arrive this girl has a new face and that guy has no face. And any of us escapes alive, and everybody will know that you called outside people to take care of your business.” Said the old guy. Ouch, that hurt. Guy the Indian Giver didn’t flinch.
“Now we’re talking, matey. How much is that honor thing worth to you?”
“No less than twenty and five thousand” The old toothless guy answered, straight away.
“Dollars? That’s how much, thirty seven pesos?” The folks around Guy laughed. In fact, it was closer to fifteen thousand, I reckon. Eighteen thousand, you say, Duke? OK, around that. But it was funny anyways.
“You know better than that, nigger, you know what I mean, don’t you,” replied the old man.
“She’s hardly worth half that amount. You seen her tits? Stupid question, that’s what you have at home instead of radio, as civilized homes do.” The old man took this in stride. It was money talking now, and that was a language they both understood very well.
So it became an auction, except for the witticisms and the bludgeon shaking from time to time. Guy was really having a great time, but I was completely lost. Every word seemed to get them angrier and, besides, nobody else seemed to be coming to help. I was about to run to the carriages to fetch anybody when I saw the canvas of the tent be ripped open to the right hand side of the honkies.
Manuel the mechanical man came in faster than I thought he could through the rip, shaking his grips like a mill and buzzing like a pissed off old drone. It pushed the honkey that was closer to the opening, making him drop the machete. The other guys released the girls, and came to him, starting to batter them with their clubs. They made one or two dents, but all of a sudden one of them, the father, realized their prey had fled and their power to bargain themselves out of the situation had dropped to nil.
So they used instead the opening left to escape. But he stopped a moment before going out to waggle his finger at us and yell.
“You’ll end up blacker than you are now, you machine-loving mother raping niggers, when we set you on fire. If you don’t give us our daughter or our money back”
He shouldn’t have done that, because that gave Manuel time enough to turn around, not an easy thing, I must say, and grab one of the braces of his overalls, ripping them off, which gave us a sight of his white-as-pissed-snow hairy butt. He kept his boots on, and he used them for running.
We didn’t bother running after them. I actually run towards Tracy, who wore an expression difficult to describe. No, it was absolutely not nondescript. Rather the other way round.
Somebody told me that Rufus had been hurt by the honkies, and I went to the office where Guy was tending to him. He had been outside the tent, driving Manuel from there, when one of the guys that was escaping hit him in the head. Guy was stitching him, while he said:
“It’s a badger game. And we shouldn’t have fallen for that. It’s us who badger them, not the other way round.” A badger game, something I know now, is when you sell a mark the key to your girlfriend carriage and, when he opens the door and finds her there (or not), you threaten him to give you more money or else.
The door opened violently and Ted “Cracker” Armistead, the blackface clown, the big boss of the clown posse, came in. He didn’t seem happy. He never did, because he was an old grumpy whitey, that, when not in character, looked as if he was permanently sucking a lemon. When in character, he was the clown that always wanted the other to do something, eventually being duped by them, which didn’t make him seem happy either. And, in real life, he was the enforcer of the party line on the circus, the one that wanted everything to be done by the book, and, as a reward, got very much the same he obtained in his act. However, some people in the circus seemed to just vanish when he was in the same room. And Rufus was one of them.
His unhappiness had gone up one notch, his mouth an inverted V foaming with spittle that was started to give his black mask a ragged appearance, like monster teeth. Rufus started to shiver when he appeared in the cracked-open door.
“Why? We were about to get them” he shot, straight away, looking at Rufus.
Rufus smiled a sad smile. “I know. And I know what would have happened. That’s why I came in. Or rather Manuel did.” He seemed a bit defying, but only managed to flash it for a brief second.
The inverted V in Ted’s face became a cruel line.
“That’s funny. Ever so funny.” But nobody was laughing. “So you think you can do our act, don’t you?” Rufus did an aborted shrug. “You want to be one of us, right? You think you’re funny enough?” Rufus started shivering again, and I tried to disappear just by force of will. “Or maybe your apparatus is?” Guy tried to appease him.
“Hey, Ted, he solved the situation, didn’t he? All our guys are now safe, only hurt was him”
“He solved it, did he? All crackers escaped, and cracked him, instead of us cracking them” I almost smiled hearing Ted “Cracker” talk about crackers. Guy started to say something about the Guards, but Ted continued. “Since your doohickey is so good at acting, what if we put it in the clown posse? Wouldn’t that be just great?”
Rufus just opened his mouth, not daring to say anything.
“Tomorrow I want to see you both in front of my carriage. We’ll start right away to rehearse. Guy, they’re out of the menagerie.” Guy threw his hands up, as if to say “Whatever.” Rufus showed a face of pain, but Guy had finished stitching.
I said nothing, but was already thinking about possibilities and I didn’t like them a bit. I felt my cheeks burn and I first though I had flushed, but then I realize there was light and heat coming from the open door. Something was afire out there.
I was out of the door a fraction of a second after Ted. One of the midway concession shops was afire, and we run there. There were horses and confusion and what looked like a bonfire, right next to the concession.
A jointee run up to Ted, shouting.
“The Klan! It’s the Klan!” Ted slapped him in the face. To calm him down, or just for the hell of it. Maybe that was the reason he went into clowning. They slap a lot.
“There’s no such think in the people’s republic! Just shut up and fetch the ringmaster!” I could see that the bonfire was actually a cross on fire. And that the riders that were running had pointed white hats and white robes.
Ted started to run catercorner to the fire. The jointee went past me, looking for the ringmaster, which was still at the office carriage, tending to Rufus. And I could either try to stop the fire, or go in pursuit. And then I heard cries coming from the jig show tent.
Actually, cries and shouts were coming from all directions; It was late already and most customers had left, but the few dyed-in-the wool marks were still pouring out of the skin shows and gambling tents. And some of them were crying their heads out. I noticed those particular ones for some reason; that cry was kind of different.
Yes, I know cries. I worked the cows, and know when a cow is calling its calf, when she wants a hump, when she’s broken a leg or when she’s just mooing her happiness. A woman crying is no different, and I heard that whoever was shouting from the jig show was crying surprise. And she was probably Tracy. So I made the choice and run in that direction.
When did I work the cows? No, I never did that. Did I just say that? No way, I was raised and lived in California and there are no cows to speak of there. Just oranges.
So, as I said, run up to the jug show and what I found there was a group of circus girls beating senseless one of the honkies that had tried to scam us before. He was still dressed in white rags, so he was part of the raiding party. Which, come to think of it, was probably just a distraction to get again at the same person: Tracy.
Tracy was telling them to please stop. The guy was in a pretty bad shape, lying on the floor and trying to stand up, but he was being kicked in the general area of his bollocks and was not going to be able to stand straight for a good amount of time. But for the time being it was quite clear that he was not going anywhere, either with Tracy or without her.
“OK, OK, ladies, let me take it from here.” I picked up the guy who spat a tooth out as he stood. He started to curse me and the girls and tried to look sideways at Tracy, but I slapped him good.
But once I’ve done that and pushed him outside, the truth was that I didn’t know what to do with him. I was taking him to the ringmaster when Vince came up to me with a saddled show horse.
“We’re after the Klan guys.” He said, and handled me the ride.
“But…” I tried to say.
“No buts. Mount and come with us. We need all hands.”
“And what about this one?”
“Tie him up somewhere, we’ll take care of him afterwards.” That’s what I did. When I came back, he’d flown away, obviously. He was the luckiest one of the whole group.
We galloped together in the direction of Miami, following the path the
Klansmen seemed to have taken. What we were going to do once we caught
up with them I had
no idea, but I was pretty sure the rest of the posse did, and that seemed to be the reason they were holding the reins of the horses more than their will to take proper care of the circus property.
write and revise
A few hundred yards down the path the clown car sped past us, apparently also in pursuit of the attackers in their horses. Wigs and big shoes were coming out of its windows and they were honking and laughing and shooting all at the same time. It was not going to take long for them to reach our attackers and in due time we could see light arising from somewhere in the path, a few hundred yards ahead of us.
I would have stopped right there but didn’t, afraid of being uncovered by the other circus hands. Well, you know, I mean uncovered as not being part of the circus brotherhood. Nobody could have a hint of what I intended to do, I hadn’t tell no one.
Not that I was under a cover, mind you. I just didn’t want them to know that my purpose in life was not to live in and by the circus, just to get something out of it.
But I should have left everything right there and then, because I didn’t like what I saw down the road. It was not nice, you know. Not that they didn’t deserve it, but one thing is thinking that somebody deserves what comes his way and another wanting him to be done in front of you.
It didn’t take long for us to arrive there, but the whole time we listened to laughs and explosions and shoots. And yells, some happy yells, some not. The yellow light coming out of it and above it danced, as if something was burning. And the smell.
One of the horses the Klansmen were using came in our direction and it very nearly made us fall from our ride; that along with the smoke and smell frightened them and we could not make them walk back again. So we tied them to some bush stalks and took from there by feet, half running.
Not that we could do much when we arrived at a small clearing at the highway, from where the laughs and smells and smoke seemed to be coming from. The four Klansmen, robes on fire, were lying down, writhing. One of them was still trying to stand up, yelling, The clown posse was going around them, using their squirt guns to douse them with something that kindled the fire, while they were laughing. And doing the routine.
“Oh my oh my oh my, my guests are on fire” said Clippo, the Auguste.
“They are just keeping warm, my boy,” answered Ted, the Blackface clown. The other six were dancing around them, keeping a distance and amusing themselves. Another one had gone to fetch the Klansmen’s horses.
“Oh my, they seem a tad too warm, ain’t they.” Said Clippo.
“Here, help them with a blanket.” Answered Ted, giving him a handkerchief. Clippo made all a show of throwing the handkerchief on what seemed now just a pile of ashes of a man.
This went on for a while, and the rest of us that had arrived later on horseback couldn’t do anything but look. Eventually Ted produced a gun with a barrel as long as his leg and shot one of them, the one who still was whimpering and moving, in the head.
All was quiet after that, except for the fire crackling and the laughs of the clowns getting back into their car and driving back to the circus.
“Let’s go. Let the Guard take care of this mess.” We walked back to our horses, not speaking at all. We arrived all tired and sooty back at the circus and we went straight to our carriage; we could hear laughs coming from the clown carriages for a while still.
Fortunately, nobody was badly damaged by the fire at the circus. And you have to fight fire with fire, so no big deal here. But didn’t mean I had to breath the same air as the clowns, and I tried to keep as far away from them as possible.
As did, apparently, Rufus. Back then I did not know why, but he became a bit twitchy every time a clown was getting close to us. And if that was Cracker, the boss, he was invaded by twitches so bad that he was incapacitated. That made him almost a permanent fixture in the gaucho crew, even if there were no revue girls around.
He even paid attention sometimes when I talked to him, but he seemed to have some difficulty staying focused, trying always to steal the focus of the conversation to talk about other stuff. Which was just a well, since from time to time he gave me tidbits I could later one use to grab hold of Manuel.
And then there was Tracy. Couple of days after the incident, when we were moving somewhere else, she was found under a carriage, a true possum belly queen.
The morning after her real or make-believe family all went to wherever those guys go where they die, ha, ashes to ashes, that’s rich, Captain, she hanged around the circus grounds and the back lot looking derelict and not doing much else, a lot louse among many. I let her stick around and gave her some food, hell, she was not guilty of what had happened, at least not completely, and she was an oppressed minority all by herself in that family that used, and probably abused her. But the rest of the circus mates thought she was gaucho, she was not trusted, and for them she was like the fly that buzzes around you and your food, you just wave and wait until it finds a bigger shit to hang around. But hell, she was pretty and she didn’t seem to have any place to go, why the hell would she hang around a circus otherwise, for hell’s sake. If somebody bothered to think about her, which they probably didn’t, they would think she’d had her day in the sun but but now she’d probably be somebody else’s problem.
And that somebody else happened to be me for no other reason that Vince was nowhere to be found when she was discovered as a stowaway under the belly of one of the carriages. When did that happen? Well, couple of days after the arson and the Klansmen barbecue. We had loaded the carriages into the flatcars of the train that was taking us to Fort Lauderdale. That was late Tasahcé, it was becoming hot and we had to stop to water after a few miles and one hour, we were barely past Aventura, that’s a little town up the East Florida Coast, never mind the name… And those trains are shit, people’s technology and all that, but man, are they older by the day… Yes, Duke, that wouldn’t have happened if you’d been in charge, but people’s got priorities…
So we stopped there at the watering depot and everybody was down their carriages to stretch their legs, clowns started shooting at a tree trunk just for the hell of it, elephants were bellowing and from between a flatbed and a carriage, so black with soot she seemed almost beautiful, there came our friend Tracy.
Somebody fetched me and a few moments later, there she was in front of me, after the find went down the command line from manager to ringmaster to whoever wanted to be in charge of her. Which, barring anybody else, happened to be me.
I was pissed at the beginning. She was a piece of work, and she was white on top of that. But she knew how to earn a living if we only gave her a chance.
Plus she was pretty. Bad hair, but pretty. Yes, I already said that.
So she was adopted. By me.
¿Manuel? He was somewhere else in the train. Should be, at least. And Rufus with him. I couldn’t care less about it in that moment.
Neither I did care for a week or so, but I’m not going to talk about that, you jerks. We were talking about Manuel, right? Well, I was. So that’s all the talk you’re gonna get today or tomorrow.
So we were going back to the United States of America. What was left of them, anyways. They still seemed all too happy to shoot the odd border patrol or even taking an useless pop at an airship, but was mostly happy to get rid of second-rate citizens, or so it seemed.
That was apparently not enough to restore the broken railway links between the Republic and the US. Beyond Mobile, the railroad was blown up to, at least, Red Bluff. So the easiest way to go from here to there, from the real Land of the Free to the purported Land of the Free, was to sail from Pensacola.
So it was Noah’s Ark all over again, as Boris the circus manager said at least one zillion times before, during and after boarding. Not that we did not know already that all that Noah stuff was a big steaming pile of elephant dung, but if you put lions and horses and bearded women and whatnots inside a steamer they’re gonna get mighty nervous, I tell ya. So no way Noah would have made it for forty days. Unless he got him a circus manager like we did. Friend of saying platitudes, but a good organizer all the same.
Yes, I would have preferred an airship. The circus comisario was on its way to New Orleans already. But, pray tell, how the fuck do you expect to put an elephant in an airship? You did it once? Really? Why didn’t you stick a couple of wings and a rocket up its butt and made it fly? No way, man, absolutely no way you could put the thirty-odd carriages in airships, you would have needed so many of them. Yes, you love airships, Commodore, that’s a fact.
This was my first chance to actually drive the mech. Aw, man, we are calling it a hoborg, but just from a couple of nights ago! Just let me call it the way I’ve always done. You want to hear the story? As I was saying, you already know it has to be driven. On its own, he is barely able to repeatedly bump into a wall or wander aimlessly like a chicken whose head has just been bitten by a geek. Or a frog, yes, Frog-Eatin’. Grease was the one usually driving the mech, but he was too busy disengaging carriages from the tractor, securing them on the deck and trying at the same time to put the poor beasts at ease. The space occupied by the mech was needed for something so I got to drive it for the first time.
No, it does not even come close to driving a horse and I ain’t never piloted a car. It’s a metal box with a wheel and several levers and knobs. I was told to never get farther than a dozen feet from from it, this wheel for turning, this lever forward, this knob to make it faster. Grease gave it to me, and I swear it turned its teakettle head to look at me. Yes, it does that. It’s not only levers and knobs and whatnots. I still don’t know what half the driving box does, but I do know that the fucking mech has a mind of its own. No soul, Blackie, no soul, man. No man’s got a soul, nobody. It’s humbug the American capitalistas have been feeding you. So how come a fucking mechanical contraption have a soul if not even you have it! But, boy, does it have a mind. A cat’s mind, if you ask me.
So after checking me out he mostly did what it was told, turn right, turn left, up the plank, to the prow. To tell you the truth, it kind wanted to get to the very end of the prow; every time I veered away to let it rest near the castle it kind of tugged to the right, as if wanting to be there, looking at the sea. Ever seen the sea? Yes, Count, you watched it for hours on end from your own boat. It’s mighty beautiful. No wonder even a mech would want to stand where he could watch it. Or maybe it was just a bit cranky. Who knows. He could not have gone there, anyways, because the space was taken by a bulk covered with a tarp. Nothing related with the circus, it should have been there before us, because the tarp had a different color, ours were green, this one was tan.
I didn’t have the time to stay around to watch it any more because the Boris the circus manager grabbed me again and had me doing Chinese, putting things in cabins, covering the carriages with tarpaulins and hauling supplies belowdecks. Which is a nice word that somebody shouted while we were doing there and means in the basement of the ship.
I got myself a cabin with Shorty and one of the windjammers, if one played and the other danced we could keep ourselves amused during the whole trip. Which I only discovered after I woke up to the sound of explosions somewhere. Some mighty thunderstorm might be happening, but that was unlikely since the boat did not seem to be swinging too much. Something completely different might be going on, and I got dressed and went up to the deck to check it out.
When I arrived at the main deck, everything seemed to be quiet for a few seconds. The sea was calm and deep blue, the sky only sported a few wispy clouds, and the ship was rocked just a bit back and forth. I took a breath and thought about going back to my cabin to properly finish the dream I was dreaming when I heard a second explosion and started to see what looked like the whole roustabout crew running to both ends of the ship. Some of them were pointing up and above, a bit to the left, “fore and port,” somebody was yelling.
It was difficult to make out, but a few hundred of feet in that direction was an airship. It was mostly painted in blue, sky blue but its cabin had some struts coming out of it that were pointing directly at us and apparently popping some rounds.
“Some mark that has not been happy with our act, apparently.” Raúl the ringmaster was by my side, smiling with part of his mouth and smoking his pipe. I hadn’t heard his coming, as I never did. This guy was the master of the ring and made himself heard and seen but his special skill was to make that happen only when and if he wanted.
“The airship was not on the table, then.” I answered. “Or he would have lost it.” That made his smile extensible to almost three quarters of his mouth. And he snorted, too.
“They are probably pirates from Texas. The airship model is not Spanish, They will fold as soon as they realize we can resist their attack” He said, while returning his face to the standard smirk, and he was on his way to the deck or wherever he was meant to be, leaving me alone.
The mystery of the tarp to the front of the ship was soon revealed along with the long tube that was below it. It was quite obviously a gun, and it didn’t even need to be loaded; it had a big gunsight in front of a seat which was quickly occupied by what I thought to be a deck hand before. It didn’t take long to have it shot; something came out of it sprouting flames and unrolling a cable while the guy manning the gunsight was moving a stick and turning knobs from time to time.
“Looks like we are going to hunt us a big fat evil capitalista whale.” Raúl said, the crooked smile never leaving its face while the harpoon wiggled towards the airship, which seemed to be getting farther and farther up. Small geysers raised above the otherwise quiet surface of the water, and we all seemed like the public of a lion taming act without a jail, just looking on as if the air was protection enough to what could happen. I knew it was not. And I knew I had to protect what could be my property, so while everybody was looking up I run to the mech, which was just a few feet behind the harpoon gun, unfastened it from the deck, retrieved the driving box and started to move it.
It was stupid, of course. But nobody was there to tell me that at that moment. No, it didn’t sink, Gummy, you moron. Can’t you see it is right there. Please stop crying!
Give me a mud puddle and I can tell you how to pull a wagon out of it. Give me a mare and I can get a foal out of her pussy. Give me fourscore of bulls, and I’ll tell you how to iron them in no time flat. How do I know that? You know, people talk.
But don’t you give me anything over the water. Because it fucking rocks and moves and can fucking sink to the bottom. So, get my advice: grab anything that floats and don’t move away from it. That’s exactly the opposite of what I did. I went for the most sinkable thing there were, and I unfastened it and started to move it using the box.
The damn guy wanted no part of it. I pushed the forward lever several times, and it kind of shivered, but stayed there. I heard the faint sound of voices and the fizzling sound of something being dropped into the sea; sometimes a zing here and there, but nothing to worry about since it didn’t look as if it was getting closer. So when Three-M eventually decided to move I just had to worry about keeping my two feet and its four wheels on deck, which was not the easiest thing on earth.
I moved to the left, which was starboard I think, trying to keep the bulk of the deck cabins between us and the airship, a good amount of Spanish steel, but we were moving in fits and starts and I started to hear some muffled thuds not so far away from me, like metal drums covered in blankets. And I started to get worried, but not enough to avoid the seasickness that was growing from my belly and swelling up little by little.
It was not helping that I was walking backwards, keeping Three-M in front of me and moving towards me. It didn’t help either that Three M was not helping. It moved sideways, trying to keep itself away from the sea, and kept bumping with things, hatch locks and rivets and loose tools, at the same time it kept turning its head to try and look at the airship. And, I swear, I didn’t touch the head-turning knob, I didn’t even know which one was used for that, forward and turning and backwards was all I knew back then.
So, unhelpful and all, cursing through my teeth as I was, he eventually saved my life.
The sound of bullets hitting on us was getting too close for comfort and soon I was more intent on dodging bullets or rather the sound of them than trying to move Three-M, although I was trying to bring him to a ramp that led to the belly of the ship, where at least there would be a few inches of steel between us and the rest of the world, where all people who still had their wits about should be now, except maybe the guys manning the gun. But Manuel turned slightly his head to kind of look behind me and blink, buzzing at the same time. I turned my head to see what the hell was that about and I saw some strange shapes in the direction we were heading, towards the back of the boat and right between the ramp that was my destination and where I was standing now. I then turned completely, oblivious of the mech and paralyzed like the rabbit caught in front of a light.
Those shapes revealed themselves into three guys, dressed in tights; one of them run to stern (abaft, I should say if I knew the first word about nautical terms, which I don’t), gun in hand, and the other two just started to shoot.
No, Captain, they hadn’t descended from the airship, that was well and away and it had stopped shooting or I wasn’t hearing anything. We later gathered that they had used the airship as a bait so that everybody got undercover and didn’t see them approaching and boarding the ship from a speed boat. Its intention then was run and look for valuables that could be easily loaded and get on their way.
Except that in this occasion they had found me and Manuel. Either they considered Manuel a strangely shaped buoy or they chose not to do anything about him, but no sooner had they spotted me they started to shoot their guns against me. But at the same time, Manuel had decided to move forward and pushed me aside, making me fall face first on the ground, from where I couldn’t do anything, I didn’t even dare to raise my head for fear it got a new hole that afforded me a change of jobs to the shop of horrors of the circus.
But the whole thing didn’t take long. I heard them cursing and yelling and then the sound of an object falling to the water. I then raised my head and saw Manuel was rolling past where the guys had stood and was slowly coming to a halt.
I really didn’t find out what had happened, other that there were smears of blood in Manuel’s claws. If he had just kept going, the two pirates could have dodged him or pushed back. He did something to throw them into the water, I just didn’t know how or what. And he was not gonna tell.
The third guy? He was given to the clown posse. I am not gonna talk about it. No, really.
No more pirates until we arrived to the port in New Orleans, where My main concern was to keep an eye on Manuel, just in case these capitalist pigs wanted to lay their hands on it and keep for them. How did I know they wanted it? Well, who wouldn’t? Yes, myself a few weeks before, but I wasn’t a capitalist but a loyal Republic citizen, so what would I know? That is why I stayed at the circus all the time and I mostly missed what I am about to tell you. But is as true as it gets, since I knew it from a first hand account. Where was I? You know, here and there, doing stuff, busying myself.
I expected to be busier than usual, since a dockworkers strike had been announced. However, we were surprised to see mainly black fellows, but also the occasional whitey coming up the plank and helping us unload our shit to the docks. No shortage of workers was available, indeed, and we had everything ready at the harbor in less time that it usually took to unload a train.
It was all for the sake of workers’ union and stuff, so we were expected to join the demonstration that was going to take place as soon as the parade was ready. A demonstration with elephants, the world hadn’t seen the like of it before that. It was going to be awesome, but I wasn’t going to participate in it, since just the cages and floats and artists were participating in it, we roustabouts went straight to the circus grounds to take care of laying out the circus grounds, set up the big top and all the rest of the business we usually did.
So I didn’t see but the start of the parade and demonstration, that formed right there on the docks, and it was slated to go march through the French quarter, place of vice now and ever, but that rhymes with circus, right? Yes, in Latin, ha ha you’re fun, Duke. And smart.
As soon as it left Jackson Square, the people started gathering around the parade, some palefaces but mostly brothers. The stiltwalkers that went on front gave out ducats pretty much to everybody on sight who was a shade darker than chalk, the circus management wanted to be a big party for America’s workers, a gift from the All Races Republic of Florida to the workers of America. Not all of America. Just the workers. Of course, all folks in the demonstration got their ducat and even helped to carry placards saying “More workers, why not more jobs?”, “Screwmen or bust!” or “Union shop or no shop”. A general strike had been called by the workers, and in the middle of the morning of a working day there were many able young men who, apparently, had skipped work and joined the strike or simply didn’t have one to go to. They started to swell the ranks of the ranks of the demonstration, and soon there was more people on the parade than outside it. And those who did were armed and had a sideways look that spelled trouble for the demonstration.
But that was later. The parade was great and dramatic and epic and millions of people participated in it and mingled with the elephants and the camels and even some smart watched it from the balconies and perched on top of street lights. It proceeded down Royal street and then went right on Canal street to go left again on Loyola Avenue. People cheered all the way to the train station esplanade, where the circus was due to mount again in carriages and go back to the esplanade. Apparently the Southern Pacific railway workers, who were also on strike, were going to help us anyways. People told me that it was all beautiful and pacific and a bit workers party.
But elsewhere, trouble was brewing and already brewed. And I didn’t see it or anything, but I’m pretty sure it was not our fault.
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The capitalist press said afterwards that we had been inciting the masses to rebellion, but that was not true, well, not completely. The only papers they posted were circus paper, nothing that told the emaciated, overworked and exploited brothers of the still United States of America that workers’ paradise was just a hundred miles away, in the Republic of Florida. People talked in the parade, exchanged addresses for keeping in touch, all normal among educated workers. And yes, people and elephants held a few placards. So what? Is that forbidden now in democratic America?
Maybe it’s not so democratic, and maybe they heard the paper posters talking, or maybe they were just on the brink of rebellion, all the United States are, ain’t they? Yes, I see you all nodding, you know it’s true, people were just asserting their rights and that was that.
It was nobody’s fault either but the repressive Louisiana cops that a couple of our own clowns ended up in jail, but that was somehow how it all started. Why the clowns were sent to that jail in a neighborhood called Tremé and inhabited by brothers is not clear, since as I said they had not been on the parade, I said that, right? They might have been drunk and on the wrong side of a police officer, or just too black for the Irish copper that apparently arrested them.
So it was not our fault either that Ted, as white as it gets but all dressed up and with the blackface makeup on went, or rather should I say paraded down Claiborne Avenue, up to there in the circus clown car followed by the marching band and the elephants and a few acrobats and eventually a few thousand locals to demand early release of his mates.
When they arrived at the police station, it was very unlikely that jokes would be the only thing to be cracked. Never was when Cracker was in charge.
The metropolitan police locked and bolted all doors of the police station and started to crack windows and put stuff behind them to prepare for the siege.
But the action didn’t take long to start. The clowns, to the blaring music of the marching band and much dancing from locals and circus people alike, unloaded the mech which Ted had commandeered. Then the clowns went around the mech singing “Police home is coming down, coming down” while the coppers where kept at bay by distractions and the occasional shot to make them hunker down. Which they did, mostly, until a slightly bent forward Manuel crashed into the main door, prying it wide open; elephants eliminated one of the main floor windows by tearing them up, they were angry after taking useless pot shot from the coppers. After that, everybody came in. And everybody came out. Clowns and not a small amount of brothers who had been detained for no good reason.
Yes, I said I was keeping an eye of Manuel, but to keep it from the capitalist pigs. I couldn’t do anything about the circus people. Even if I had known. Yes, sometimes I’m a lousy eyekeeper, but what the hell, I can’t keep it company for ever! Well, I do know. Where is it, by the way? Wireless took it for a ride? Aw, c’mon, Wireless, bring it back! You’re going to break it!
That night’s act would have been quite a success if we hadn’t got wind that the national guard had been called and was likely to crash our party. So we had to leave too soon.
But I didn’t know any of that I was putting up a tent pole at the circus site and I saw them coming, still parading, with the band in a truck bed playing fast and loud. Rufus came running from my right to retrieve the mech from the clowns, who were with their car in front of the convoy. Manuel was in a truck bed, still but with its claws up, and somebody had given him a ball cap that sat precariously on top of his head. Rufus climbed up and started to untie it, making the cap to finally fall down and the mech itself to swing dangerously.
The clown car stopped and Ted “Cracker” Armistead, the chief of the clown posse, came out of it. tiptoeing on his apparently too small dancing shoes. His blackface mask was starting to melt due to the New Orleans heat and it was becoming a pink and gray mess leaking goo on his white gown. He came up to the truck where Rufus was struggling to get Manuel loose.
“Leave that thing alone.” Cracker said, not very loud, but so clearly that I could hear it among the din of the parade and the rest of the circus. Rufus shivered, but kept going at the straps.
“Stop the truck!” He yelled this time. The truck shuddered to a stop, and Rufus fell back on his bottom.
“I would ask you to let that go and come down from there. You don’t need to worry, you’ll get it back in time for the show. For now, let it bask in the glory of the people. He’s a hero. Manuel, the Manly Mechanical Man!” Ted said, extending his arms in a way that managed to be threatening at the same time it asked for the applause of everybody surrounding them.
“But…” Rufus said, while trying to stand up.
“Boy, get it running again!” Ted said to the truck driver. Rufus was barely crouching and fell down again.
“But… It’s dented!” Rufus managed to say from the floor.
“Yes. You don’t dare repair it. They are combat wounds, and must be worn with pride!” Ted said while walking back to the clown car.
Rufus didn’t dare to try anything after that. He lied there for a while and eventually, when he noticed the truck was picking up speed, crept down from the truck and walked crestfallen back to his wagon. The rest of the parade proceeded loudly and I continued doing my job and wondering if this was a chance or a trap. I would discover soon enough.
After New Orleans, something had become loose in the head of Rufus the mechanical man man, mirroring whatever had happened inside Manuel when he had rammed is way into the New Orleans police station. Besides, now the clowns were taking the mech away from time to time and every time it happened he became increasingly nervous and jittery. The circus assembly was approaching so he decided to take the matter there to see if it could be settled.
You probably have been in an assembly, right? Did you, Captain? Yep, you probably had them in the army all the time, didn’t you? Not any more? Why, they’re such fun. The assemblies at the circus were a hoot. They were held in the circus tent, and sometimes they were used to present new acts and let us vote on them, have people ask for change of shifts, present their grievances with their bosses… yes, and sometimes for self-criticism that led to circus exile and sometimes to other things I didn’t really wanted or cared to inquire about. Nasty things, probably, but that is what awaits the enemies of the people.
We were in Freedomville, and assemblies were held right after the show, that show I mentioned at the beginning of my story, don’t you remember? Hell, I don’t even know why I bother to amuse you with my story, I could as well be talking about cucumbers and pink ponies and you would remember exactly the same…
Don’t know why do I care, but once I’ve started, it’s better to end, right, Duke. Hey, wake up! If we did an assembly here I’d get you blacklisted from the fire and taken to sleep in the flatbed car!
OK, the assembly. Circus of the People’s assembly, everybody sitting in the bleachers, a few matters brought to the circus manager and the ringmasters, Bobby, one of the Siamese twins owed money to the other one, Bob, who said he had returned it to him, putting it directly in the pocket his side of the body, but Bobby was saying he didn’t find it there, so he might have stolen it from him or just plainly used some sleight of his hand, while Bob said that he wasn’t handling the hand at that particular moment, so it was probably himself who has stashed it somewhere and forget it, and they went like that for a while until Boris told them to shut the fuck up or they would be exhibited as the Siamese twins which also shared a mouth and he was personally going to sew them together. They would share all the money and that was that.
A few stuff like that was settled in a similar way; the elephant tamer wanted to become the smart dogs caretaker, and the professor that was presenting the jig show wanted to switch with the one that presented Frank Fuertote, the strongman, and there were a few laughs here and there because we all knew which side of the road the professor was on and that was precisely the reason why he was doing the jig show.
And then Rufus was called to talk about his problems with the clowns. And silence descended on the bleachers. Even the gamblers stopped gambling, and the smart dogs that were frolicking here and there hushed and sat down on their butt.
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“Rufus, be short and to the point. We all know what’s going on, so tell us only what we don’t know.” Said Boris. Rufus was visibly shivering. Cracker and his sidekick Clippo had came down and where now at the other side of the center of the circus ring of where Rufus was. Boris, ever the master of ceremonies, was in a lectern placed close to one of the ring gates. Cracker was in his full clown suit and had even retouched his black makeup to look as if he was going to do his act. And Clippo seemed to be there for no reason other than to laugh at every movement.
He opened his mouth to talk several times until he managed to produce a sound.
“Manuel the mech was assigned to me by the People’s High Commission of Science and Technology. I was specially trained to command it and make repairs that don’t require special machinery. I am the only person qualified to do that in this circus”
“But you are, aren’t you, Rufus? You’re the greatest mechanical man man there! Let’s all give an applause to this most excellent of mechanical men men!” Said Cracker, and Clippo started to walk around the ring clapping his hands over his head. All the people followed, clapping and hooting. It actually took a while until it died down.
“So all I’m asking is to let the most qualified person… “ Continued Rufus.
“Which you no doubt are, Rufus. Let’s give him another round of applause for qualification!” Same thing again, although it took less for it to die down.
“The mech is about praising and showing the people’s technology. It can’t be used for…” Rufus tried to say.
“But it can’t, can’t it?” He moved away from his position and started to make a ceremonious introduction, “And now… with all of you… Manny The Mechanical Clown!” And into the ring came Manuel, all painted in checkered maroon, blue and white colors, the colors of the republic, waving flags with both hands. After him came the full troupe of clowns, who tried to ride him, climbing on him and falling down, legs up, to the general merriment of the circus people. The band started to play and highlighted falls with bass drum strokes.
“Can’t… I can’t do that!” Said Rufus, and started to try and follow Manuel, who had now changed to pursuit mode and was trying to catch the clowns who were all running in a row in front of it. A game of cat and mouse followed, whenever Rufus was approaching Manuel it slowed down and when it was about to grab it it sped back again, to the sound of the band and the roll of the drums. Cracker started to go around the ring making people clap their hands, and it was all laughs and cheers and the discussion was pretty much over.
Cracker had the last word, as he always did. After a while like that, Manuel turned around and caught Rufus off-guard, surrounding him with its arms and raising it a few inches over the floor. Rufus’ face contorted, trying to escape. Manuel brought him to confront Ted.
“Who’s controlling who, now, Rufus? Who’s more qualified? Who should be in charge? We’ll let you have it alright, but only after and when we want. Is that right, Boris?” He said, addressing the circus manager.
“I couldn’t care less and I had a great time here, so whoever attends will too,” replied Boris.
Manuel dropped Rufus, who fell to the floor. “All out and over, all out, all over.” That was the sign that the assembly had finished and that we had to clean up whatever we dirtied and go to our carriages and sleeping tents, so people shuffled out of the ring, the clowns circled it with Manuel in tow, and Rufus was just left there, a rag of a man. I came down to him and helped him to stand up, brushing his clothes. His eyes were all rage, but his mouth was clapped shut. He let himself be helped for a moment, but brushed me off and walked briskly to his carriage.
Yes, Captain, I really felt bad about him. He would probably feel worse when I took the mech away for him, but I didn’t plan on humiliating him first, it would probably not be necessary. By the by, what’s happened to Gummy? It’s been a few nights already he’s not been around, ain’t he? Just a day?
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After that day, Rufus was to and fro, sometimes waiting at the clown quarters for a good while before getting Manuel back, lost for hours when he was not in possession of the mech, and looking lost the rest of the time. I wasn’t feeling very good either. since the clowns didn’t let me anywhere near the mech, but at least I had some chances as long as it was returned to Rufus from time to time. But I thought he was just moody until one day, when we were taking the mech back from the clowns to the menagerie, he flatly told me that he was taking Manuel away from the circus to have it fixed for some reason or other.
There was something funky going on there. Funkier that whatever the clowns, or myself were up to, at least. Yes, I am not a people’s guard, but funky is funky, OK? Up until a few days before it was working perfectly and all of a sudden the mech breaks down and has to be taken somewhere for repairs. To tell the truth, it had been dented and had chipped in some places, but it wasn’t that bad. Well, it was also a bit rustier than before it had sailed; the hot funk of New Orleans and the sea are no good for him, I tell you. But nothing a bit of paint and a hammer here and there could not mend.
“Where again is it going?” I asked Rufus. He looked to his right and answered.
“Well, he can only be fixed at the Estación Naval at Pensacola, that’s the only place where…” He was shuffling his feet and looking as if he wanted to be somewhere else.
“Can’t we have a look? I’ve seen you mending it from time to time, so maybe I can help you with…” I said, groping for a way to keep it close.
“No way. This time it’s broken real good. It’s the photoelectric cell that activates head movement so… Besides, the Torres Quevedo engine has to be revised and reprogrammed… and while we are at it we’ll repaint, grease, change a thing here and there…” Maybe he didn’t say those words, but it sounded like that or something that sounded as queer.
“How long will that take?” I asked. Maybe not too long. I could stand that.
“Who knows. It will be on the workshop queue along with other military mechs, and while it is refurbished I have to undergo retraining and… “ He said this while he was leaving. So no joy here. But still I couldn’t allow that to happen. It couldn’t go anywhere, not for long, maybe for ever. I had to look for a way of keeping him in so that I could get it out. I went to Boris.
“I can’t do a damn thing, son. He’s given me a wad of papers that seems legit as far as I can tell. Besides, neither me nor anybody else in the circus know squat about those things, so it’s got to be taken elsewhere to have it fixed real good.” I tried to “but” him, but he waved his hand to shut me up. “So enough with that, if you’re our of that job until he returns you can go back to help the rest of the crew, don’t worry about that.” But I wasn’t worried about that part. That was indeed the least of my worries.
“But, gee, I don’t know, It kind of didn’t seem to have any kind of problem, so…”
“What do you mean?” Said Boris.
“Well, what I was saying is…” What I was saying was what? That I intended to take it away myself? That if I didn’t manage that, just out of spite I was going to snitch on Rufus to the clowns who were going to maim and slay him? Couldn’t do that, either. If the clowns knew about it and didn’t suspect anything it wasn’t going to be this son of Tarsicia who was going to put them on the track.
“I understand you’re worried about falling back to a less qualified work, Full. That’s a genuine concern for a worker and citizen of the Republic, and I will address it in due time. But let me check back with the ministry and I’ll see what I can do, whether I can get some other act or something, OK?” Out of a robot and in a dancing poodles act, I was seeing myself doing that. Yes, they are cute, Captain. Get yourself a dozen and make them dance a nice polka.
I didn’t expect anything out of that, if he even cared about doing what he said. So I went back to Rufus to try another angle.
He was in his carriage workshop, tweaking at things inside Manuel, who was slightly bent and with a hatch in the back wide open. He closed it tight when he heard me opening the door to his workshop.
“You’ll need help for the transport.” I told him.
He looked up and dropped his hands from the mech, who turned around and looked at me, too, wide open eyes.
“A truck from the Estación will be sent with two Navy orderlies to help me. Don’t worry about that”.
“Well, anyways,” I said, “they are not skilled, you know, they might…”
“They won’t, don’t worry. If I need you, I know where I can find
you. Don’t worry.” Too many don’t worries to not actually worry. I
stood there, thinking what to say. Rufus resumed his tinkering with
sparks flying out of the wires;
Manuel looked away from me. I left.
If Manuel left, this could be the end of my circus days, which I expected to arrive anyways sooner or later, but not like this. But the first day I was there came back to me. That day I saw Manuel for the first time and I was conned out of a good amount of pesos.
And then I knew how to grab hold of Manuel. So the circus day would truly be over, but it would be over my way. And a good way it was, too.
I couldn’t build it myself, of course. But if you’ve got the money and the determination and the original model, nothing is impossible. What I was thinking about building? Wireless, you were here the first day, a week ago, ain’t you? When I told everybody how I was conned in the circus using a gaffe that looked, in fact, nothing like the real Manuel?
So the idea was not to recreate the mech, but to create something that looked like the mech, at least from a distance and weighed like the mech, so that when Rufus asked me to help him load it somewhere, I would give him the gaffe instead of the real thing. The second part of the con was, of course, to coax Rufus into having me help him take the thing away.
Rufus himself helped me to get away with it. He wanted so much to make everybody think Manuel was broken, that he loosed a screw or something so that he, I mean it, Manuel, stopped working altogether. That made easier to substitute it: I couldn’t for the world make something that looked and acted like the mech.
Luckily, there were bits and parts of the mech in Rufus’s workshop and I took them to the circus blacksmith together with a wad of pesos to keep his mouth shut and instill due diligence in him, at least for a while. Since everybody knew that sooner than Manuel was going away soon I told him we were building a replica for the menagerie, but since Rufus was very jealous of his act we didn’t want him to know what we were doing, right? That was a few pesos more. And then a few more when the diligence vanished after just a day. And then it was the act part the one that had to go. No way something that actually moved could be built in so short a time and by a blacksmith.
And the questions increased in the same proportion that the will be build it went down. Who was going to be in charge of the gaffe? Did I want just one or several to sell? Could the thing be traced back to him? I had to answer yes to that one, there were nobody else in the circus with the tools to do it, and that answer had to have more pesos attached.
But he eventually could not get himself to finish it. A day in which his sweat could not entirely be justified by the heat in his workshop, he gave me a burlap bag stuffed with clanking things and sent me on my way.
I was then at a loss. Rufus could leave any time now. And then I remembered Tracy.
I needed Tracy to keep him busy and focused on something other than the gaffe. I talked to her, she owed me, and, honkie and all, she paid her dues so she not-so-reluctanctly agreed to keep Rufus distracted when needed. Which might be any time now.
But her abilities didn’t lie in the building trade, so I had to have the other part of the business covered. I took everything to a city car mechanic and gave him the sack and some money up front, and a dozen of ducats to watch the show so that he could see the mech in action and have an idea of how to rig what I gave him together to make it look like that. And to have him keep his mouth shut, no question asked, no sideways looks when I was bullshitting him about what I wanted the stuff for.
I didn’t have much confidence in the guy, but actually it didn’t take him long to have something that if seen in the dark, and from a distance, and if you really had seen Manuel just a couple of times, could pass for the original. He did a really good job on the driving box, though. It really looked like the original one, wear and tear and all. It couldn’t work a damn thing, but made all the right noises so if you worked it you could think something was larry somewhere. All in all, there was no fucking way Rufus could be fooled for a long time, even if he didn’t have all his wits about him. And I had spent two days and lots of pesos doing this.
That day, at dinner after the show, Rufus told me that somebody from the naval station was coming the next day at dawn to pick them up. I had actually seen him talking to a couple of look-alike guys with moustaches that look exactly like what you saw in your mind when you thought about a bohunk, and nothing like what you see when you think “sailor.” Yes, they had that. No, not that. Well, a bit. But, you know, we are the rainbow republic, bohunks and whiteys and everything it between, so what the hell.
Besides, I was relieved. Dawn was good. I was damn good. Yes, a damn good dawn. Why are you laughing?
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“I just wanted to have a nice and wet farewell from you.” Tracy told Rufus with a voice and hip motion that would have had the Pope of Rome convert to a life of sins right there and then. Tracy was good at this, she had been born for this. Honkies were not good for much else, Gummy, are you smiling? Can’t tell, without all the teeth.
Anyway, the face of Rufus and his dropped jaw told me that he’d fell bait, hook and switch for it. But, at the same time, he was stealing looks back to the carriage where Manuel was stored, it was just a couple of hours away to dawn and the other honkies were coming to get him away. Come to think of it again, it was queer how many honkies were there in the Navy, two of them. And they had worn nothing that looked like an uniform when I had seen them before.
But I didn’t care. “Rufus, should I help you with Manuel? I can drive it to the truck, while you, er, do other stuff” He didn’t even look back to me since his mouth was anchored to Tracy’s by a long line of tongue and concomitant fluids. That was what I needed to make the first switch.
That part was easy. Most people were sleeping or doing nasty things in their beds, so they were beyond care when I drove Manuel to the tigers cage and hid it there. This might seem more difficult than it actually was. Tigers sleep very soundly, not having a care in the world, and the only thing you have to care about when entering their cage is not to step on them. This they don’t like. revise and write I put the gaffe in place of Manuel and covered it with a canvas.
The difficult part was going to be to drive the gaffe into the truck bed. But I still had Tracy.
“Not only I have to hump that drooling geek, but I also have to help you to haul stuff.” Said Tracy.
“You owe me.” I told her. She opened her mouth to say something. Then she closed. She looked lovely when she did that. Then she opened it again and she stopped looking anything like lovely.
“How much do you reckon I still owe you?” she said, crooking her mouth and joining her eyebrows until they formed a thick bush in the middle or her forehead. In fact, she had a single eyebrow, so frowning made her look as if she had a moustache. Which, come to think of it, she also had. Man, do cracker women have hair in all the wrong places…
So well, she helped me to carry the gaffe to the truck bed; a truck that didn’t look either like a Navy truck, but who knows actually what Navy trucks look like. I had seen the sailors coming off it, maybe to have a quickie with the girls as the sailors are wont to, yes, Gummy, as any man does, well, whatever, they were not there and we managed with a bit of work and a few ropes to load it up the truck and stow it there.
We were finishing when the light was starting to shine in the horizon and the circus was, lazily, coming out of their wagons and rummaging through the grounds to start their daily chores. I could hear the elephants baying and the horses neigh but yawns were even louder. I could also smell animal smells and tobacco smells and could hear and smell at the same time the sound of fat on frying pans. A new day kicking sand in the circus, a day less for me.
Tracy vanished with a yawn and left me loitering around the truck. The sailors came back after a while, buttoning their pants, laughing and giving each other palm strikes in the back. Happy and sleepy, just the way I wanted them, and in pretty much the same shape Rufus showed up a while after that.
But the sun was already over the horizon and that’s a situation in which gaffes shine just the way they are: humbugs, hoaxes and plainly not the thing they’re supposed to be. So I had to make them not look under the burlap.
Easier said than done. No, Captain, I couldn’t hit them, they were three and I was one. No, Duke, I couldn’t bribe them, my pesos had run out and I only had the money I had managed to oach when handing the popper.
In fact, the very moment Rufus looked at the covered lump in the truck the only thing I could think about was to start and cry.
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I cried like I’ve seen the clowns doing in their act. Close your eyes just so, open your mouth, and wail a trembling a for as long as you don’t care to breath. That might be a long time, indeed, just enough to be noticed by Rufus, who came up to me and put an awkward hand in my back.
“What’s up, man?” Glancing sideways I could see the bohunks were growing restive and showing it by standing by the truck and casting their own glances back and forth.
“You’re leaving… and Manuel… and the circus…” I repeated this over and over between sobs that were also interrupted by some non-words I put in for good measure.
“Well, yes, but I, you know, I will… well, I mean it’s got to be fixed, so it shouldn’t take long… “ He paused here and I took the cue to continue sobbing all over again; damn tears, they resisted to get out. “Well, it could take, but when, er, we come back I’ll let you, er, drive” As if. Meanwhile, the not-quite-revolutionary sailors had started the truck and were stepping on the pedal making noises for good measure. I stopped crying and hugged the guy.
“Gee, thanks, Rufus. It’s all I need now. Have a safe trip, and so long” I pushed him lightly on the shoulder. “Goodbye.”
He didn’t even look at the lump the truck was carrying. I had some time until they noticed. At least, until they stopped to take a pee, which might take long, as long as they’ve had all their piping well cleaned before leaving. They left through the gates of the circus, being waved here and there by some people. Nobody waved back, and the truck left among a dust cloud.
I went back to the cage, where I was received by a few hungry tigers doing the rounds and roaring and moaning. I was going to need some good time to get the real Manuel back from there. I was only hoping I could do that before Rufus realized something was amiss with their cargo.
Yes, folks, you’re about to enter the tale, but you know that part already, you don’t want me to tell you, right? Yes? You want? Gee, guys, you’re so full of yourselves… Yes, man, stories is all we’ve got. We’ll, I got a mech! Just kidding…
So you want to know how Manuel went to be in a jail with tigers to where you found us. First thing you need to know about tigers in cages: they don’t spend all the time there. And when they’re not there, nobody pays attention to the cage. Which is the moment you can use to sneak in the back lot dodging any task you had assigned, which weren’t any for the time being, since the circus manager hadn’t found yet a new job for me.
That’s usually the moment when somebody comes in looking for a quiet place to poop or for a quick hump or just lay there under the cage for a nap.
So that’s exactly what happened. It was Bill, the black Seminole who had a taste for conversation while pooping, something I had had to endure several times at the beginning, when we shared a crew. And we talked about old times, he laughed and exerted himself, and I sweat because tiger stretching and training never took too long. Hopefully, longer than Bill’s pooping.
He finally took a round stone from the floor and cleaned himself, hey, Duke, no fuss about that, how do you clean yourself? Newspapers? No wonder you’re nobility, man.
Enough laughing, so I was sweating black ink because I could hear what was either the tiger roaring or Bill’s fart factory functioning, which, come to think of it, would make a nice name for a circus attraction. But then he left and there were no more roars and it took me a second to draw the straw-covered canvas away from Manuel, make it stand up and use the gear box to get it moving somewhere else.
There was no other way of doing it that make it move by itself to my carriage, where I intended to hide it exactly where we had found crazy: in the possum belly.
Of course, in my way to my carriage with Manuel in tow I found everybody and his mother. But I had expected that, so I disguised Manuel with a burlap bag, a dab of paint here and there and a bit or mud thrown over liberally over it all. As soon as I didn’t find the circus manager or Ted, everything would be OK.
write and revise
“What the hell is that, boy.” Boris asked when he met me a few yards away from my carriage.
So far it hadn’t gone too bad. Whoever cared enough to ask me something received a tale about this being a substitute for Manuel, Manuel’s twice removed cousin, not knowing anything about Manuel having been taken anywhere else, or replies about why the hell do you want to know.
But Boris was Boris, He was the second worst person to meet, with Cracker being the first, but he was rarely seen mingling with the crowd, exactly the opposite of Boris, who was seen in his office only if absolutely necessary. He was always where something, like the transport of a mech that was going to be eventually misplaced, was going on.
“Well, it’s exactly what you see, boss.” I answered, noncommittally. My body tried to say the same, I tried to seem completely relaxed, although I was starting to sweat again. He probably smelled fear somewhere.
“So, it’s… Manuel’s poor cousin.” He said, after pausing a few heartbeats.
“Exactly!” I answered happily, and turned to continue walking. But he was again at it.
“But where did you get it?” He was frowning, and that was not good. It wasn’t good either that people were starting to notice us on the back lot and were starting to gather around.
“Me? I didn’t, it was just there, so…”
“Where do you mean?”
I haven’t gone so far as to invent a whole story. So I started to make it dance, moving one of the wheels at the same time it spun one of the arms. The pebbles on the ground made its head bob. Somebody started to beat his feet and clap their hands, yes, the first mechanical jig in history. Do you want me to make it dance just the way I did it then? Of course you do.
Do you remember what I was talking about? Yes, Manuel and something or other about him, right? The manager left us alone after that, although he didn’t seem amused when he elbowed his way out of the ring that had organized itself. He was probably busy or something, and I was relieved. The small crowd that was milling about there remembered they were required somewhere else as soon as I stopped the show and were also on their way to something more exciting or their duties, whatever came first. So I was left alone with Manuel in shallow disguise.
Sometimes the easiest way to hide something is to show it in plain sight. But you don’t have to push it too far: from there I took it to my carriage, and in a while it was in the possum belly of my carriage, something he did largely by himself by catching the beam under the carriage belly and pulling himself up. It was only the second or third time I was let with Manuel all by myself, and I really started to why the thing was so wonderful and was coveted by so many people. So flexible, so strong. So obedient. And so cute. Why aren’t there so many of them? They’re the spawn of capitalism, you say, Dale? Please, go ahead. I’m listening. It might seem as if I’m sleeping, but I’m not, I swear, I love revolutionary rhetoric as much as the next man.
Don’t you what this spawn of capitalist evil is really like? I, Henry Dale, don’t call me Hatless, call me Daring Dale, since I dare, and I dare for the revolution, which is freedom for all people. Freedom that will be taken away from us if this nefarious thing takes over from the honest worker.
Can’t you see it? Never sleep, never die and if they do they are fixed or replaced. Never tire, never do anything that is not required from them. How can you not see that? They don’t drink, they don’t dance… well, they dance, OK, they dance, but listen to Henry Dale, they dance to the tune of capitalism! No worker will be able to earn his wage if all industries, all companies are subdued by these tireless robots! They must be destroyed and I’ve heard enough. Help me or I’ll do it all by myself!
Hey, hold that guy! What’s with him? Take the torch away from him or he’ll, well, do not much to Manuel, but maybe make him a bit sooty. Anybody? Nobody? Well, since I have the driving box right here, what do you want? A cat-and-mouse game or an uppercut? Uppercut it is, then. Yay! Sorry, guy, didn’t want to hurt you, but you seemed out of your mind. Don’t run!
Well, he’s run so he’s going to miss the last part of the story. Where was I before the rant? Yes, the perfect worker was under the belly of the carriage, where we usually carried clothes and whatnots and the occasional Tracy. I covered it with lots of stuff, ropes, cabling, and anything I could find there. The platform was sagging due to weight. It probably couldn’t stand a long trip, but I intended to alight it as soon as I possibly could.
We were going to the train station as soon as the performance was over. Next stop for the circus, DeLand. Next stop for me, freedom and financial independence. By way of Hobos Jungle, where I am right now. But that was not gonna happen. At least not as intended.
The camp was lifted a while after the last show. Carriages were dragged using horses and trucks to the train station, and I struck a conversation with Guy Hillcrest, the octoroon, who always knew everything and was a good proxy for the trainmaster, who was the one that actually organized the trip.
“Take a good pee, Full.” They called me Full. Not Fool. You are fools.
“Why? Ain’t we stopping after a while?” I asked as if I cared. Which I did.
“No, not this time. We’ll try to make good time to Lake City. Please get your stuff together and get ready for the long haul.” Not the long haul, please, I thought. No way I could make it with everybody around when we arrived. No way. I was going back to take a pee by the rail tracks. And then I saw you. Yes, you, Duke.
Yes, young man, just that day I had felt the need to be on the road again to visit the ducal house and since that was the first train that was getting formed in Freedomville, I thought of buying myself a ticket in first class to travel as far as it would take.
These kinds of vehicles are, to tell you the truth, not my favorite way of conveyance to my destiny. Razorbacks might be worse than brakemen and they can be brutal if they find you in their train. Plus you can be shanghaied and surgically changed to become part of the menagerie. Don’t protest, I know it from first or maybe no more than second or third hand, that happens.
But the ducal house was beckoning and I couldn’t find anything else that precise night a couple of days ago. Jesus! Just a few days and you are like the child I had and was taken away from me by these revolutionary bastards! I thank God Hatless has gone away for good, I couldn’t stand his very sight! That bastard cheap bum! I could curse him all the way to Chattanooga and still have some to go. Leech!
In fact, he will continue cursing this way until dawn if we just give him a chance, which will not help us hear the story. Allow me, Wireless Jim, to continue with it for the benefit of those of you who weren’t there. I wasn’t either but I got it, you know, from the radio, I can hear the radio in my mind and it tells me about things that have happened or could happen or will happen in the future. It’s talking right now, for you, for all, about war, war in Europe, which is not of our concern, but could be, you know.
But, unlike our Duke here, I don’t let myself be carried by the voices, wireless is here to keep you company and I’m here to relate what happened. After being spotted by that guy named Guy, you dig it, guy the Guy, ain’t that a crack, and the guy a cracker, that’s even funnier, I can hear the laughs, this guy spotted Duke or maybe he just smelled it as a distance, really, Duke, take a hike to Lemonade Springs and dive there, fully clothed, or hear this word from our sponsors, Ivory Soap, makes your skin smell like something it’s never done before, back to the Duke who was spotted crouching there, by the side, and ready to run and this guy Guy was going to call somebody to kick him in an artistic way but then Full, our very dear Half and Half, jumped up to the occasion and there he was, “Let me take care of him, I’ll show him.” Or something to that tune, but instead of kicking him in the ribs, he took him to his carriage, bought him a drink, yessir, a drink for our Duke, and then asked him a question. “You know trains, do you.”
Why did he ask that question, you say? Or better, why did he invite and treat our Duke? Out of generosity, since we all know this Half and Half of ours is the kind of guy who is always generous to fellow citizens with boobs, and that’s not the case of our Duke, or rather is, man, you’re fat, ain’t you, there he is, still cursing, it will not slim you down even a bit, but there you go, our Half and Half wanted to stop the train not to far and Duke, who knows trains as if he owned them, that is rich, because he actually owned them, and you’re not laughing, explained him how to create a hot box. Which I’ll explain in a moment, as soon as this station starts the Popular Mechanics program. Right now… it’s happening.. now.
Well, I’m glad you ask that question, dear Juan from Palatka, because having a hot box is not something that should be wished on anybody except maybe whatever capitalist pig comes your way. Well, well, a hot box happens, when it does, when whatever carries an axle, you know what’s an axle, right, you should since you seem to be acquainted at least with these terms, gets too hot for comfort and maybe for continuing being solid. Well, you say here you want to know how can that happen, right? I expect that if you want to actually do it, my dear friend, is only for the greater good of the Republic but anyways rest assured your friendly neighborhood Guard has been duly notified, ha ha, just joking, we all know you’re a good citizen even if your real name is not Juan but Jaime, ha ha, actually not joking at all now. So I’m not telling you how to do that. And that’s all from your Popular Mechanics program.
But our Duke, yes, our Duke, didn’t have any qualms about telling this young boy, yes, for a good reason, maybe for a good reason, let’s just all agree that’s it’s a good reason, will we? Well, well, so he up and told him that it was a matter of taking a few rags out of the box or just cleaning up the oil. Easy as peaches, right? And then you have a train running in the dark, there goes the train, full of hopes, of dreams, of elephants, oh boy the stink of the elephants, and what will happen to then when the train derails, oh boy, what will happen to them?
We’ll tell you. After the break for public service announcements.
And this is your friend Wireless Jim, talking from the People’s Voice, or rather My Own Voice, but I am part of the People, so it’s People’s Voice anyways, don’t you think so? Yes it is and I remind you we left our heroes, Fulgencio and Reuben Poole, also known to his friends and foes alike as Duke of Poo, don’t take this in a bad way, a Duke is a Duke and he know his shit, ha, ha, that’s rich, which in this case is how to derail a train, something he know so well he might as well have done it a couple of times, no offense, here, Duke, we’re all fellow hobos in the Jungle here, don’t care if you did it out of spite after they were oh so callously taken away from you, no? Ah, before that, for insurance, and it was a coal train, so no death of human being involved, only a big payment from the insurance company, which is good and well and even revolutionary if you ask me! Three hoorays for our friend Reube Poole The Comrade of Poo!
This comrade was rather worried, after a while, a good while, of what was going on a few carriages in front of him. He could see the sparks, o beautiful sparks, lighting the night, but harbingers of doom and derailment and general maiming. And he asked Fulgencio about the trainmaster and his whereabouts and whether anybody was checking for that kind of things, which is what any sensible person in charge of trains should do, but nobody was doing squat and the Duke was fretting and Fulgencio was fretting and the little mech was just sleeping under the carriage, oblivious of anything happening around him or not, who knows what’s in the gear and machinery mind of those things.
It was exactly the opposite which seemed to be in our friend Fulgencio’s mind, as if there were anywhere else there any time. “Save the mech, he though, save him.” Not save it, he was “him” already for him, what with having saved his life and all, you know, his buddy, his friend, a friend he had been paid to retrieve and he was going to give back after the second installment, but friends to that for each other all the time, mainly if they have no say in it, right? Is that the way of the revolution? Well why not? Besides, he wanted to save it and he picked up the driving box and, blindly, moved it back and forth from under the carriage until he could see his face, and then, deftly moving it in the flatbed platform, jumped in the direction of the train. Yay it jumped!
What happened then? You all want to know? Did he crash and burn and killed an elephant puppy? No he didn’t! Did he fall straight on another rail and kept running parallel to the train, extending its arms and picking the Duke and Fulgencio in his arms with love as if he were his tin grandfather? No he didn’t! Did he…?
Will you shut the fucking fuck up, Jim? Hell, we could be here the whole night listening to your description of a train whistle! Here, have a drink on me, and let me continue with the story, our story. Duke, want to say something? He’s asleep, which is just as well.
No, Gummy, Manuel didn’t pluck us from the train with its strong arms and deposit us safely in the ground. In fact, he was first to go and then we jumped a few hundred yards from him when the train slowed down to go uphill. And then it was a matter of walking down the tracks until we found him lying in the bushes. There was much whining and huffing by the part of our Duke, whose feet are not made for this kind of things, but other than that it was no big deal.
No, we didn’t turn back to say goodbye to all that. Goodbye to Tracy, to sawdust and elephant dung and to waking up and not knowing where you were or, what’s more important, where the reason you were there was at that particular moment. From that moment until now and from now until delivery, Manuel will be close to me and that will be that.
The train didn’t say goodbye to us, either. If they didn’t crash, I doubt they would notice me missing. Or the mech, for that matter, since whoever cared to thing about it would think it was in the Navy station at Pensacola. Maybe, some time from now, somebody will find a Manuel poster among others and will wonder where the hell it will be and why it’s not returned.
Rufus, that’s another story. Their deal with the bohunks must have gone sour. But it’s not as if he can go back to the circus and say, “Hey, did I happen to leave a mech lying around somewhere? I need it for, you know, the naval station thing” because by that time somebody must have called the naval station and the guards must be on him. If I pity him, you ask, Gummy? Well, if I stop to think about it, yes, well, a bit. But, you know, it’s a tough ride. At least I did it when he was away from the clowns.
Tracy… well, she’s a piece of work, she’ll manage pretty well without me or, for that matter, without anybody else. Mark my words, she’ll get far, is what I say.
All that left with the train. Except Rufus, who was somewhere else. And we had to get somewhere from Nowhere depot, where we had fallen. And all we had was a little money in the kick, a veteran hobo and a perfectly serviceable mech that was, in fact, a bit the worse for wear.
The cool part was when we actually rode the mech. No, not in the actual rails, but the track was wide enough to ride inside. And the mech was strong enough to fit us riding piggyback on it. Well, one of us piggyback, that was me, and the other standing somewhere and hanging on to his arms. That was way cool. No, we hadn’t thought what we were going to do if another train came our way. I guess jump and fuck the mech to hell. But it just didn’t happen.
Besides, we didn’t ride all the way back to the station, the fuel in Manuel, hey, that sounds nice, was petering out and we just went to the closest water depot and waited for the next train, inbound or outbound, did not matter. And eventually we arrived here.
End of the story. Applause, applause. Tomorrow I’m taking the weekly coal train to, well, does not matter, away from here and we might not see each other again. So let’s drink and dance and be merry. Yes, Manuel will dance too.
“I’m gonna get me one of those dummies, I’m gonna do it” The first hobo announced, with just a hint of a threat in his voice, veiled by the amount of moonshine he had already taken. Manuel sat slumped a few steps away from the fire, out of fuel or simply not working. Frank, also known as Fulgencio just spat at the fire, raising a small flame that made José look alive for a brief moment.
Frank had found this group in the rail yard in Tallahassee, trying to be unobtrusive. But there was no way he could pull that out while being trailed by a two hundred and fifty pound walking cash register. He was immediately hailed by them and asked to join them by the fire even before they saw the Duke. Liquor was passed, bread and cheese shared, mulligan stew cooked and histories and local tips swapped. Then, more alcohol had flowed and everything became a bit blurry as Fulgencio started to tell them his history, as hobos do when gathered around the fire.
Now it was time to leave this jungle and deliver the goods. And it was not going to be in a coal train to somewhere, but by foot to the city they were in. Enough time had passed for any pursuer to quiet down and in a few hours he would be reporting at the Pinkerton office in Tallahassee. They would be taking care of him and the mech and he would get a few months of rest in his home base in Albuquerque. And he eventually would get to meet his parents and a few friends.
He loaded Manuel in a buggy, secured it with ropes and covered it with burlap pieces and blankets he had gathered these past few days in the jungle. It was heavy, tiring work best left to beast or to Manuel himself but the best way to go unnoticed when he made his way walking towards downtown.
He left the switchyard through a convenient opening the hobos had shown him and started to drag the buggy towards the city. Nobody noticed him getting out and nobody paid him any attention after that, he could be any worker from a collective farm or factory doing an errand in the middle of the day. He passed armed guards, party officials in uniform, American refugees begging, being this town close to the border; it would not take long before they were picked up by Guards and forcefully assigned some job somewhere. Quite a few cars surrounded by smoke plied the streets, but there were even more bicycles and more than a few horse-drawn carriages.
From Railroad Avenue he made a right in Neamathla street, where he noticed some armed mechs guarding the doors of the official buildings there. They had that tarnished look, and the legs, Manuel had had at the beginning of its life, but their arms ended in blunt guns and sharp bayonets. When he went past them, Manuel started to shake and move towards them with its wheels, all by itself. It was well tied and it did not manage to worry himself loose, but if he kept trying for a while he would probably manage to do it. And the mechs were starting to turn their heads in their direction. That wasn’t good. He started to hurry, but there was not much he could do with so many pounds in tow. Pinkerton office was not so far away, at All Races and Boulevard St. a couple of blocks away, but he was seeing a few more mech guards and he doubted he could make it.
And then a white truck, dirty with mud, stopped by him. On its bed a woman dressed in overalls and a straw hat stood up and jumped to land by him. She was muddy and dirty and smelled of cow dung, but it was Tracy.
“Need a ride?” She said without blinking and a nod to the closest mechanic guards.
“Hell, yes!” They slid down the truck bed a couple of boards to be used as ramp and dragged the buggy up it to a rest in the truck bed. They secured it there with a few more ropes and chains.
He opened his mouth to question Tracy, but she just sat down and looked pointedly at some Guards that were approaching them from behind. She remained that way until they entered a warehouse in the outskirts of town. The door was half open, and when the driver came down from the cabin he realized it was the same person that had debriefed him in the Pinkerton Albuquerque office, a big black guy that went by the name of Cyrus. That was the one he expected so he directed all his attention to Tracy.
“How come? I mean, how come? Are you…?” Tracy was cleaning her face and didn’t even make an attempt to greet him in anyway. She seemed about to leave to an office at the end of the warehouse, which was filled with machinery of different kinds, some covered with tarps.
“Same as you, Frank.” He was a bit startled to listen to his real name spoken by her, whom he had met in very different circumstances. “A Pinkerton agent on a mission.”
“And a successful mission, Frank. Congratulations!” Cyrus interjected, shaking his hand with both his. A couple of persons were descending from the office, one of them shouting.
“Here’s my man!” He hugged Fulgencio, or Frank, and patted him in the back. “I knew you would make it.”
“Did you?” Frank pushed him away. “Yes, you did, did you? So you sent Tracy…”
“Claire. In fact, her name is Claire and she comes from our office in St. Louis.”
“Thanks, Gary, many thanks, I was doing pretty well without her, thank you, and in fact, I put my ass on the line for her several times…”
“Yes, Frank, you acted as a team, that’s all we ask from Pinkerton agents. Even if you don’t know you’re in the same side. Rest assured, Frank, we all acknowledge your contribution to the cause an’ all…”
“If you had told I had a team we could…”
“Yes, of course, it would have added a kink more to your lovemaking, wouldn’t it? Fucking a Pinkerton agent and all… Not to mention it would have made you an asset being able to spill the beans on your two team members?”
“Two? Was there another one besides Tracy, I mean, Claire?”
“Did I say two?” Said Gary, acting surprised. “Silly me, I meant one, our beautiful and loyal Claire, as good as two.”
He’d lost sight of the white muddy truck with Manuel on it.
“What now?” Said Frank.
“In a couple of days you’re traveling to Albuquerque via airship and a few stops in the middle. Don’t worry, it’s going to be safe and, for the time being, nobody seems to have missed a mechanical man anywhere, although the circus may have reported your other identity missing for work. No big deal, anyways. When you’ve arrived there, take one week, or two, and then report to the office.”
“I knew that, man. I meant what is going to happen to Manuel.”
Gary smiled broadly.
“I don’t think you should be concerned with that. You mission is over, and we are all very grateful for it, your country is too, and you’ll be duly rewarded. But I can tell you that he’s going to be taken to one such Doctor Tesla for examinations. And then, who knows.”
“This Doc. Will that doc break it up? It’s working perfectly, you know.” Frank Said.
“Of course it is, my good boy, of course it is. What it’s not is your concern right now or any time in the future. Take a rest now, write your reports when you’re done with that, and then go back home.” Said Gary, giving him the back and returning to the office. He motioned the man who had come with him. “Clark, show him around and keep him comfortable, cuddle him if he asks to. He’s a hero of the democracy and the American dream, you know.”
“And who isn’t?” Clark said. “C’mon, boy, it’s over now, let’s go.”
“Yes, over and out. All over and all out.” Answered Frank. He accompanied Clark without saying another word.
This book started one fine day of May, but would not have been possible without the help of many people around me, most of them unknown. So I would like to dedicate it to the people that answered my question on symbols on the History StackExchange and then another question on circus layout. Marian, the librarian of the Clarke College was also incredibly helpful.