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Sunny Daze

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“Golly, Faron, you should have seen that poor kid.”

 

Marla was getting on my nerves, all friendly today, but not so much last night.

The four- acre field of crabgrass and dandelions we were working was lousy with kids and none of them looked poor to me. I was driving stakes into the ground to hobble the one sorry-ass elephant we had. The afternoon show was just about over.

I asked her, “What was so poor about him?”


She stepped closer but stayed outside the arc of my sledgehammer. “He was crying, he seemed lost, and he had a bloody nose.”

I looped the ropes around the stakes, pulling the knots tight. “So buy him some cotton candy and cheer him up.”

She responded with a little extra Georgia drawl as she stomped off.

 

“Faron, you’re just too damn mean to live!”

 

Marla had a short boy’s haircut that was sexy as hell and she was built just fine but it was really the back of her bare neck that got to me, plus the way she ran hot or cold and nothin’ in between. If she was just playing with me, I didn’t mind all that much. Normally I’m a beer drinker, but her voice, even when she was pissed off, was like a jar of sweet cold tea on a hot day and I thought to go after her but I heard the applause from the big tent. It was saucy little Desiree’ riding out on Simba to hand her over. She slid down off the wrinkled grey back looking damn good in her gold sequined leotards and she knew it, flipping her red ponytail at me and bouncing off to her trailer without waiting for me to pass my rope through the steel ankle bracelet. Simba just stood there trying to pick my pockets with the flared tip of her trunk and dumping a fresh load from her hind end. On a hot day like that I could feel a circus headache coming on, breathing the ammonia fumes from all the animal waste. I had stopped carrying snacks for the animals long ago. It was a waste of my time, besides feeding them was not my job.

That’s when I saw the kid.

 

He was in a restricted area standing behind my Harley Davidson Pan Head, staring hard right at me. I figured what the hell.

“Hey kid! You like elephants?”
 

He said nothing, but came out slowly and approached me even slower. He had a small, dried up trail of blood on his upper lip. I’ve never had any kids that I know of so he could have been twelve years old or sixteen, but on the small side. His eyes were different colors, a brown one on the right matching his curly hair and a grey one that looked like it belonged to a much older person. He stopped about twenty feet away and Simba raised her trunk straight up and let loose a fat trombone blast. It put a twist on the kid’s mouth that could have been a smile but it was hard to tell.

“Come on over son, she won’t hurt ya, she’s friendly.”
 

The kid stepped right up and goddamn if Simba didn’t kneel down and let him stroke her trunk. Something I had never seen before in all the towns from Florida to this one in Connecticut.

 

“What’s your name son, and who bloodied your nose?”

 

 “My name’s Franklin. I don’t know, some other kid.”

 

“Are you here by yourself, Franklin?”

 

He pointed to a thick stand of maples and white oaks a hundred yards to the east and said, “I live past those woods with my mom, come here every day after summer school.” I was beginning to like this kid.

“So, you sneak in then do you?”

He made like he would run so I had to settle him down quick.
“How do you think I got started with this damn circus, Franklin? I snuck in just like you did, twenty-five years ago and here I am.” He seemed to be thinking that over so I made him an offer.

“How would you like a job with me, after school I mean?”
 

He shot me a look that was half suspicion from the grey eye and half oh yes please from the brown. “Will I get paid?”

“Sure you will. You won’t get rich but you might have some fun and learn somethin’. Just tell that girl Marla, the one out front who sells tickets that you’re Faron’s new helper and come find me tomorrow, okay?”


“Okay.”

 

He took off towards those woods, his baggy corduroy pants making that funny washboard sound as he ran. I had a strong feeling he’d be back. Twenty-five years? Was it really that long? It couldn’t be, shit, I’m only thirty-eight or maybe forty. Simba soft tossed a dirt clod hitting me square in the chest. She probably knew the answer but just wanted her back scratched. She flapped her ears at me so I went to the tool wagon for the stepladder and a rake.

    

Our small, half-assed circus was a mixed bag, roustabouts and riggers, mostly from Cuba by way of Miami, trapeze flyers and catchers from Lithuania, wire walkers from Portugal, contortionists from India, plate spinners from China, and some crazy cat trainers with their doped up tigers, and of course clowns from every dive bar in America. To be honest, the Sunny Daze Traveling Circus was no more than a mud show. We did have a small sideshow with Monkey Girl, The Pinhead Twins, Lobster Man and a fire- eater. Our most popular attraction, at least until last summer, was The Pickled Punks, deformed fetuses in cloudy jars of formaldehyde. Some church people in Cape Charles, Maryland threw a fit and the sheriff seized every last jar. Our whole outfit figured that Big Boss Ed would put up a fight and get them back. He did try and reason with them, pulling out his laminated license saying that we were a legal registered travelling amusement organization in good standing with Chambers of Commerce all up and down the coast and of course the fetuses were all rubber fakes but it didn’t fly. Some deputies drove up and started loading the punks into their cruisers, real careful to hold the jars away from their crisp uniforms. Our roustabouts were a rough bunch, but whenever the law showed up they scattered. Something to do with outstanding warrants. The church people were tougher looking than the lawmen and they were hissing, calling us carneys and swamp trash and to leave town, pronto. So we did. Big Boss Ed blew his boat whistle and we struck everything in record time. The confiscated punks could be replaced and the sheriff paid off, but the damn Christians would not be moved, leaving the Sunny Daze Circus no choice.

The only way to survive in a job like this is to build a private world of your own. Circus people are like tigers, they have a tendency to eat their own. Those who survive do so by living in a tiny cage and come out only when they have to perform. We mind our own business and nobody else’s. So I just retire to my trailer after the show and pull my curtains, unless Marla is feeling extra friendly that is.

 

At 6am, I flicked on my little transistor radio and the first voice I heard said that Marilyn Monroe had died. It just pissed me off. Show-biz people never get a break. I promised myself to get the hell out before it was too late. I stepped out to wash up and the kid was sitting on my steps.

“Hey, aren’t you supposed to be in school?”

“Yeah, but they won’t miss me.”  

I sat on the top step and lit a cigarette and out of habit offered the kid one. He shook his head and set his old grey eyeball on me. I was beginning to regret the job offer.

“What was your name again?”


He squared himself and jutted out his chin. “Franklin.”
 

I stood up and saw Marla coming around the animal wagons straight for us, her tall rubber boots punting clods of mud in front of her. Franklin just stood there at attention like a West Point cadet.

 

“How old are you Franklin?” I asked him quietly.

 

“I’m thirteen.”
 

“Well, if anyone asks you’re sixteen, okay?”

 

“Yup, that’s what Marla already told me to say.”

 

And there she was, smug grin and all.
 

“Good morning Faron, good morning Franklin! Did y’all hear about Marilyn Monroe?”

 

I was too tired to answer that one and kept quiet. She pulled a pair of worn, leather work gloves from her windbreaker, handing them to Franklin and strutted off like she won the damn lottery. I needed some coffee. Franklin followed me to the cook tent where Cookie was slinging hash and eggs better than most jugglers. The grease and lard stains on his apron and undershirt must have added at least five pounds to the 250 he already carried. In fact, I couldn’t recall ever seeing him in a fresh apron all summer. Was the wet cigar in his teeth the same one he started with in Florida? I grabbed a mug of coffee while Franklin stood staring at Cookie.
I took a plastic chair at the first folding table and called to Franklin.

 

“So how do you like your eggs, Franklin?” Still staring at Cookie he replied, I like ‘em just fine.” Good answer, I thought.

 

Cookie stared down at Franklin. With his bug-eyes and big waistline he looked like Jackie Gleason. He shouted over his shoulder at me,

“This kid your green help, Faron? He looks a little young to me.” Just then Franklin found his voice.

 

“I’ll have two over easy, bacon and rye toast.”
 

I nearly choked on my coffee as Cookie’s cigar dropped from his mouth onto the griddle. We had a few minutes left and I watched Franklin work on his breakfast quickly but with good table manners. Sleepy John, our chief mechanic came over moving like a crab on his bent out legs. The odor of machine oil and whiskey shimmered around him like a cloud. He was sizing up Franklin over the lip of his coffee mug planning something I was sure.

 

“This your new prat boy Faron?” He kept staring at Franklin, never looking at me.

“He’s my green help today John, and mine alone.” John unfolded himself one limb at a time and slowly walked away.

 

“Well, I might need to borrow him over at the shake machine tonight if business is good.”


Franklin watched him pass clear of the meal tent and asked me, “What’s the shake machine?”

“It’s the big ride called the Tilt O’ Whirl that spins people all around so their pocket change falls out. They get too dizzy to care. Sleepy John can’t crawl under the rig to get the coins anymore, that’s why he needs you.” Franklin cleared his paper plate and plastic fork, neatly dropping them into the trash barrel.

“Do I get to keep some of it?”

 

“Sure, just put it in your sock when Johns not looking because he’ll go through your pockets for it later.”

 

Since we had plenty to do before show time I had Franklin follow me close. Breakfast for the animals was job one. I showed Franklin how to pull thick pieces off a hay bale for the horses and zebras that were hobbled in a pen and use the big scoop to add oats to their rubber feed buckets. We moved on to the big cat cages. Nobody can feed them but the trainers and they do that just before the first show. No performer wants to share the ring with a trio of hungry tigers.

Our tank trunk had six valves for two-inch canvas hoses that are just like fire departments use but not as heavy. They are just long enough to reach all the cages and wagons. Everybody got a bath whether they wanted one or not. The horses and zebras  had their own grooms to make them look show pretty. The cats started pacing as we approached. I showed Franklin how to hold the brass nozzle with both hands so the hose wouldn’t flop around on him. The cats laid their ears back and hissed knowing what was coming. Franklin planted his feet and when the water pressure straightened out that hose it damn near lifted him off the ground. But he did just fine and gave those cats a good soaking. As soon as I shut off the water the cats calmed down and started licking each other like some old lady’s pets.

Franklin watched a moment and asked me, “How much do they weigh?”

“Which one?”
 

“The big one that’s looking at me.”
 

“That’s Razor, he’s about six hundred pounds.”

 

“Why’s he looking at me?”
 

“He’s never seen you before. Look right back at him, but don’t smile, he won’t like it if you show your teeth.”

 

We moved on past the performer’s trailers that were shut tight and quiet as usual. The stars of the Sunny Daze Circus liked to sleep late to avoid mingling with the workers. They considered us a bunch of low-life drunks so we kept our distance, knowing full well that when they became friendly it was only because they were low on downers and fat girl pills. They wouldn’t be caught dead talking to all the townspeople they entertained so it was up to me and a couple of the Cubans to score for them. When I delivered they were happier than pigs in shit and offered me a taste but I demanded cash. So far this summer the arrangement was working out.

 

Our next stop was the big tent to pick trash. I gave Franklin a pick stick with a nail on the end and sent him up to the cheap seats and went to roll in the four-wheel trash cart. He was having trouble getting a beer can off his stick so I shouted up to him.

“Just throw the cans down to the ring and try not to hit me. Use your pick for everything else. Anything too small to pick is what the brooms are for.”

 

He got the can off his pick and sent it clear to the far side of the ring. The kid had

a good arm. While Franklin picked and I collected cans, Mutt McDonald shuffled in and sat in seat A1 at the end of the front row. Mutt was our senior clown and had been with Sunny Daze way longer than most of us. With his straw hat and plum colored Hawaiian shirt he looked like a fisherman from the Florida Keys, which he had been at one time. He scooped up a fistful of dirty sawdust, brought it to his nose let it run through his thick lumpy fingers.

 

“You ever smelled the ocean, Faron?” Franklin had nearly reached the last bleacher row and was watching and listening.

 

“I can’t remember, Mutt, maybe once or twice.” Mutt turned to Franklin who was right behind him.

“What about you boy, you ever smelled the ocean?” Franklin shook his head.

 

“Well that’s too bad because it smells like the world before we fucked it all up, when it was clean and new. Faron! Give me a cigarette.”
 

I tossed Mutt a Marlboro and he pinched off the filter and sent it spinning into the trash cart. He motioned Franklin closer and with an empty hand reached behind Franklin’s left ear and produced a shiny gold lighter. Mutt lit his smoke, winked at me and walked slowly out to the midway. Our reefer trailer that held all the frozen hamburger patties, corn dogs and ice cream cups was all the way back where you couldn’t barely hear the generator keeping everything cold. We loaded boxes seven high onto hand trucks and hauled them over the bumpy field to the concession stands. The food servers were opening up the propane tanks and heating up the grills like they could do it in their sleep. Some of them probably were. After our sixth and final trip I hung our hand trucks on the side of the trailer and asked Franklin what time it was. He just shook his head.

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Well, I’ll tell you then, it’s half past beer thirty, get up on the lift gate.” The lift groaned as it rose up to the bed level and I raised the roll-up door half way.

 

“Now scoot on in there so we can cool off for a minute.”
 

I stepped in behind Franklin and lowered the door almost all the way, letting in just enough light so we could see. I kept a Coleman cooler under a few wooden pallets and hauled it out. There were still eight cans of Ballantine Ale bobbing in the icy water. I kept a church key around my neck on a string of rawhide for such occasions. I punched one open and passed it to Franklin.

“I’m too young to drink beer, Faron, besides I don’t think I like the taste.”

 

“Oh you will someday, might as well get a head start.” It didn’t agree with him. He handed it back to me.

“Forget it Franklin, it’s okay, you got your whole life to drink beer.”


I finished his and crushed the cans for the trash and hid the cooler. I let Franklin pull the door up and lower the lift gate. We stepped off onto the ground and he hauled up on the lever, raising the lift like a pro. “I like this part”, he declared.


“Well, don’t like it too much,” I said, “You might end up runnin’ an elevator up and down in some office building and never get to see the light of day.” We walked behind the row of game booths where kewpie dolls and stuffed animals were being lined up and Monkey Girl appeared blocking our way. She was fixated on Franklin and practically drooling. Being a bit deaf she hollered, “He’s cute!” I made the introductions.

“Doreen, this is Franklin, Franklin, Doreen.”


I was afraid she would try and kiss him but Franklin kept his cool and shook her hand, as long and hairy as it was. Underneath her beard she actually blushed. Then she ran off. I expected Franklin to ask why she had all that body hair but he didn’t, but looked at me for some sort of explanation.

 

“It takes lots of different people to make a world, Franklin”, was the best I could do. I could tell that wasn’t enough so I tried again.

 

“Someone like Doreen has a hard time with it. She can’t fit in with regular people like you and me, so Sunny Daze is her home and her job. She’s friendly and gets along. Now Curtis, the Lobster Man, is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.”  As we got closer to Big Boss Ed’s trailer, Lobster Man was proving my point. There he was, standing on the top step banging his claw on the Bosses’ door. We were all used to him cussing and moaning but this time he was in his underwear for all to see. The Midway was filling up with customers. The big tent would be packed in an hour and I had to deal with Curtis so I sent Franklin to the clown tent.

 

“Go find Mutt and tell him to put you in the front row. Enjoy the show and come back to where I take Simba when it’s over. We still have work to do.” 

 

Curtis was a miserable person and usually impossible to deal with. He was squat and round with short, fat arms and pincers that were covered with irregular patches of warts that looked just like barnacles from an ocean somewhere. His dyed red skin completed the whole lobster look. Even his shiny head could have been a shell. I stood on the ground below the steps and tried reasoning with him.

 

“You know Boss isn’t coming out, Curtis.” Curtis turned to me but stayed on the steps, we were eye to eye and he liked it that way.

“I ain’t taking no more bullshit from him, Faron. He don’t come out, I don’t work.”
 

“You don’t work, you don’t get paid, Curtis, it’s that simple. Come on let’s get your wetsuit on, Midway opens in fifteen minutes.” He just wouldn’t budge.

 

“You think I give a good goddamn? I’m tired of being wet all the time.”

 

“I don’t blame you Curtis, but just think of it as an occupational hazard.” He hopped down the trailer steps and chugged off toward the costume tent.

 

He shouted back at me, “Same shit, different day!” I replied, “That’s the spirit Curtis!” But he was an old man and I almost felt sorry for him.

 

Curtis wasn’t the only entertainer who was unhappy. I headed for the animal cages where the cats were roaring about something. When I got there, Razor was pacing and taking swipes at the other tigers, Queenie and Junebug, who were smart enough not to fight back. They should have been sleeping off a big meal an hour before show time so what the hell had happened? Dirk, a poor man’s version of Tab Hunter and our tiger tamer, joined me and shook his head.

 

“Razor’s been pissed off since last night and now he’s got the girls upset.” I didn’t want to ask an obvious question but I had to.

 

“They did eat today, right?” Now Dirk was pissed off.

 

“Jesus, Faron of course they ate!” When he got angry Dirk snapped his words out with a touch of Bavaria.

“You tink I’m to be putting my head in da mouth of dat bastard if he missed his supper?” It was time for me to back off. It really wasn’t my problem.

 

“Of course not Dirk, but maybe when you give him the shot you could up the dose a little?”
 

“Ya, ya Faron, I can handle dis, okay? The cats weren’t the only ones who were cranky, the zebras were nipping each other and the whole equine pen picked up on it, show horses tossing their heads and rolling their eyes. Was it a full moon? I had no idea.
 

Gintas, our lead trapeze artist was sitting on his trailer steps, bare-chested in a sequined purple leotard slurping a bowl of soup. He pointed with his spoon toward the animal cages.

 

“What the hell is going on Faron?” I kept walking.

 

“Beats me, they’re just animals. Try not to drop anyone tonight, okay?” He cursed me in Lithuanian and it sounded a lot like “fuck you”.

 

I cut through the gaming booths and headed against the incoming crowd towards the main entry. Marla was doing plenty of business. Suburban dads, moms and kids were streaming in eager for some exotic entertainment. It all depressed the hell out of me. They all looked the same in every town we pitched in. I was not much older than Franklin when I signed on and I was getting tired of the life.

The midway was crowded but most people kept their distance from the exhibits out of a mix of respect and revulsion. Doreen sat in her tire swing, peeling a banana and winked at me like she always did. It made me want to fucking cry. Curtis bobbed in his tank, eyes unfocused his mind a million miles away. The Pin-head Twins sat demurely on their hay bale in matching pink smocks looking back at the crowd unsmiling. Big Boss  Ed would ask me later if they were lively and I would lie as usual. He wasn’t reluctant to take his thick bamboo cane to a less than enthusiastic performer.

 

I could smell the exhaust and hear the chugging tractor motor that ran the Tilt o’ Whirl thirty yards away. Sleepy John had the thing at top speed with a full load of screaming riders. He spat a thin stream of Redman to the grass when he saw me approach.

“Where’s your goddamn prat boy Faron? I seen him crawlin’ under there grabbin’ my money! Where the hell is he?” I ignored him. I just didn’t give a damn. It was looking to be a strange night all around. Any damn thing could happen. But nothing much did. Dirk got an unintended laugh from the crowd when a slack-jawed Razor could barely stay awake for Dirk to put his dyed blond head in his mouth. Better too doped up than feisty. The plate spinning family from Beijing were all business and bowed to the crowd more than they needed to. They barely spoke English but were the most reliable act we had. I watched from the entry and took note of a cracked chair leg I would have to repair for them before tomorrow. I had to jump out of the way when Desiree charged out atop Pinky, her muscular albino mare. A horse that white with a floor length tail dyed hot pink always impressed the locals. Desiree tossed me the reins without looking and hustled off to where Simba was waiting between two roustabouts. She wasn’t a big elephant but she was old and reliable. Kind of like me.

 

The gaming booths were shutting down and the midway performers were headed to the cook tent for a meal before settling into their wagons for the night. The PA system from the big tent was blasting God Bless America to end the show.

Franklin was already waiting next to Simba when I got there, holding the heavy Manila tie down rope. I figured Desiree had run off for a hot date with Dirk, the perfect couple, both as phony as three dollar bills.

I was impressed with Franklin’s composure. How many suburban kids would stand fast holding a rope with an elephant on the other end?

“I think she likes you more than me, Franklin.” Franklin replied, “I think she’s just tired.”

“You got that right.”


  Franklin didn’t know the half of it. Simba had been with Sunny Daze for too many years to count. If you got close enough to look into her eyes you could see the pain. I avoided doing that for both of us.

Once the show was over we hand trucked the leftover food back to the reefer truck. It got frozen again until the next show, which wasn’t too healthy but there were no visits from the health department coming anytime soon. The only fresh food was in Cookie’s mess tent. That’s why everyone on the payroll ate there and nowhere else.

The big tent seemed real quiet after a show. It was time for us to shovel shit. Horse shit, zebra shit, tiger shit, leopard shit, and elephant shit. The sawdust made it easier and with Franklin’s help it would go faster. We pitched a layer of fresh sawdust within the ring curbs and out the entry and exit. The outside ring that met the first row of seats was plain dirt, for clown use only.

 

We finished up just before midnight. I decided to give Franklin a ride home, wherever that was. He said he could walk but there was no moon and it was dark as hell. I gave him a five spot for his help and he seemed okay with it. We walked to my bike and it started on the third kick. It was loud with the straight pipes so I had to raise my voice.

“You ever been on one of these Franklin?” He climbed right on behind me.

“Yup, my dad had one.”


“Does he still have it?” I asked.


“I don’t know, maybe, he left when I was a little kid.”

“Well hang on, then and tell me where to go, okay?”

 

We rode down a two-lane about a mile with the woods on our right and some fancy old Victorian homes on the left behind low river rock stonewalls. Only a few had lights on upstairs and just one had the cold blue glow of a TV set. We came up to a four way stop and Franklin pointed to the right. Before I dropped into gear I heard what seemed like a million tiny peeping frogs. You could stand still at night in any country town on the east coast and those frogs always sounded the same.

A row of six tin mailboxes stood leaning on each other at the mouth of a dirt road on the right. Franklin tapped my shoulder.

“This is it, right here.”


I took us in slow, avoiding deep ruts, probably from heavy pickups. It never did smooth out and after going a quarter mile with dense woods on both sides my headlight lit up a scattering of singlewides on concrete blocks all facing different directions like they fell out of the night sky. Five of them were dark and one had a sour yellow light glowing behind cheap curtains. The door swung out over three wooden steps and a woman stepped out.

“That’s my mom”, Franklin said as he climbed off. The kitchen light shone through her thin bathrobe outlining a slim, rounded, youthful figure. She crossed her arms, holding her elbows and came down the steps.

 

“Jeez Louise, Franklin I can smell you from here! Leave those shoes outside and go take a bath, I need to talk with your friend here.”


I sat on the bike listening to the motor ticking as it cooled and watching her watching me.

 

“You must be Faron.”
 

“Yes, ma’am, I am.”
 

“Oh, please, I bet I’m younger than you, my name’s Carol.”

 

I stepped off the bike and let it lean on the stand. I could feel bugs in my hair. “Okay Carol, it’s good to meet you.”

She put a hand to her mouth to cover her laughter and asked, “Do you always wear fireflies in your hair?” I shook my head and two of them floated away, blinking on and off.

“No, that’s just from riding at night.”


“Well that’s good, I thought it might be a circus thing.” She tossed back her shoulder length brown hair. It had nice copper highlights all it’s own. She looked back at the trailer, and at the ground, then back at me. Even in the dark I could tell she was pretty despite the serious look she had on her face.  

 

“Don’t look for Franklin tomorrow, he missed summer school all week and now I have to talk the principal into letting him back in class for September.”

 

“I’m sorry if I caused you any trouble, he just looked like a lonely kid who needed some help.” Her voice got a little ragged and I was afraid she was going to cry.
 

“Well, Faron, he is and he does, but it’s just him and me now. He’s a smart boy, and kind too, but he’s going to be a full-on teenager soon and, well, you know what that means.”

 

“I guess I do.” I fished another crumpled five spot from my jeans and offered it to Carol. “I forgot to give him the rest of his wages.”

 

She stepped back and shook her head. “No, I can’t accept that.”

 

“It’s Franklin’s, he worked hard for it.” I thought we would stand there till dawn but she finally took it. I kicked started the bike and backed up to turn around.

 

“Tell Franklin I’ll see him next summer if he still feels like working.” I think she smiled at me before she turned and went back inside. I kept the revs low as I rode out to be as quiet as I could, thinking about me and Franklin and Carol and wishing things were different and wondering what could be. When I got to the main road I opened up that pan-head and blew all those fireflies to hell. Maybe next year, maybe next year.

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