Poetry and Prose from the Center for Writers
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* WINNER, FICTION *
by LAUREN OETINGER
He hadn’t meant to die, just to leave. The morning he left he had bread in his pocket, had every dollar he’d ever saved in his wallet, and didn’t say goodbye to his mother. If he said one word it would be fifteen and she would know.
Luke James III knew he had to leave the farm when the government pulled his number the way they’d pulled Ben’s and Frank’s and his father’s. His mother thought they’d understand that he was all she had left and wouldn’t take him, but since the old man’s draft Luke and everyone else knew the military was desperate. After Pearl Harbor it was personal.
He’d heard of ways to avoid going, but they mostly required proof and the ones that didn’t wouldn’t do well in small towns like Nowhere. He’d leave and come back one day when the war was over and his mother would understand. Luke couldn’t risk his life on the generosity of the government, so he had to leave. The impulse to flee was an itch in the arch of his foot, and he was fifty miles from home before he thought to second-guess himself. It had seemed simple in the pre-dawn light: he would just leave for a little while, and then he’d come back. It wasn’t until the sun started to set, the bread gone, no town in sight, that Luke started to wonder if maybe he’d been too rash. His mother always said he was too rash. She always said one day his skin would blister before he realized he was in the fire. But Luke’s nineteen years left him feeling wise, and he ignored the gnawing that told him to go home. He hadn’t even left a note; he’d write his mother when he got wherever he was going. He’d never been outside Nowhere, Wyoming, and around noon he’d passed the wooden fence that marked the furthest he and his brothers had ever wandered away from home. But Ben and Frank were much further than the wooden fence now. Luke tried not to see them in their uniforms and helmets holding guns in a trench. Tried but failed.
He knew that west was the Devil’s Tower and that north was Montana, but they were only words, places that other people had been, dots on maps he’d seen in school. He didn’t know what he’d do when he got where he was going, but it was better than going to a war he didn’t know anything about, a war that wasn’t his and wasn’t his father’s or his brother’s. A war they’d been told was to defend the honor of a country that hadn’t helped them when they needed it, when the cows had all been sick and food was scarce the whole town through. This country said nothing could be done for them, but demanded their aid without even the nicety of choice.
And if it was a world war, why did so many of them have to go – wasn’t there a whole lot of planet left over? Couldn’t they do some fighting, too?
No one had told him why they needed so many, because they didn’t have to. The government that had turned its back on three generations of James men on the farm had taken his brothers and father for cannon fodder. But they wouldn’t take him.
Lying on the cold grass under a tree not far from the road, Luke stretched out to sleep until daylight broke and he could see again. This had to be better than war. He had bet his life on it.
Dear Ma –I’m gone but I’ll be back. I couldn’t tell you I was going because you’re the only person that could make me change my mind. I guess I don’t rightly know when I aim to be back. After the war cools its heels maybe. Pop will tan my hide for deserting the farm, but maybe you can make him understand. You always said I would leave one day, but I don’t imagine this is what you meant. When I come home I’ll tell you my adventure stories, and they’ll be just as good as Ben’s or Frank’s. I’ll send this when I get somewhere.
Luke had taken to walking by day and sleeping by night for a week when a policeman pulled up beside him just outside a town he’d stopped in. Luke kept his stride as the car slowed beside him and the window rolled down.
“Where are you headed to?” the policeman asked.
“South,” Luke said. He and the car slowed to a stop.
“Where’s your family, boy?”
Luke didn’t know where the cop’s line of questioning was going, but he didn’t like it.
“Don’t have one.”
“No family at all?”
“Just one cousin.”
“Where is he?”
Luke felt the cop’s appraisal, held his gaze, prayed for the best. After a long moment the cop gave one terse nod and left Luke behind in a cloud of tan-colored dust. He wasn’t the last cop, either. So Luke took to walking at night instead, but it was cold and the going slower than walking in the day. One night he’d wandered too far from the road and couldn’t find it again in the dark. Luke had decided he was cold enough and tired enough to sleep until the sun rose and to take his chances under the sun another day.
But then he heard the music.
It was only a wisp at first – the catch of melody the mind determines was not actually heard but only imagined or wished for. And then he heard it more fully, a single guitar sounding from deeper in the woods. Luke stepped hesitantly toward the noise, picking his way through the woods. His eyes made out the light from a campfire before he could make out the rows of tents on the other side of the tree line. It was a settlement of some sort, or a large encampment from what Luke’s eyes made out in the dark. There was one large campfire several tents down, the guitar player’s back to him. These were more than tents, though. They were big enough to be actual dwellings.
Luke crept between the tents, peeking in through cracks and open flaps. All he needed was a corner to rest in. Surely with this many tents, and the numbers they implied, one lone sleeper would go unnoticed.
Luke found a supply tent and lay down behind a rack of costumes and feather boas, and closed his eyes. He only needed to rest them for an hour or two.
“Oy, tell Lamar I got a gaucho.”
Luke’s eyes opened. He didn’t remember falling asleep, but now there was a dark figure in predawn light standing over him. Luke worked quickly to rise to his feet, to get his words in order, to get the story straight. In the light of a lantern over the tent’s entrance Luke could see his rouser wasn’t any older than he was. Luke’s eyes focused then, and he flinched. The man seemed to take it all in and sighed his resignation. There was something wrong with the man’s skin.
“What’s your business about?” his voice reminded Luke of gravel.
“I didn’t mean no harm,” Luke backed away.
“I’m Lizard,” the man offered.
“I just needed a place to sleep was all.” The tent’s fabric was under his fingers then, the flap he’d come in by.
The tent’s entrance filled with the silhouette of the tallest man Luke had ever seen. He looked from Luke to the man called Lizard, and with skin like that Luke supposed he knew why.
“This be Ringmaster Lamar,” Lizard offered.
“This is the ringmaster,” the silhouette corrected.
Lizard took off his cap. Lamar stepped toward Luke then, out of the doorframe and into the dark of the tent where Luke had retreated.
“State your business. What are you about?”
Luke whirled the unsecured fabric up and flung himself forward and out of the tent. The spring air was cold with winter and paralyzed his lungs, but the burning in his legs kept him upright and going. They were behind him, the twigs and underbrush crushed like echo beacons that were in a moment underfoot and under cheek all at once. He couldn’t feel the man on top of him; his feet still thought he was running. Yanked up with hands around either arm, Luke’s legs kicked out, his feet still running as a feral thing. Lamar took his face between his hands, held the tremors still, and the world slowed. Fifteen men or more surrounded them.
“Afraid of circus clowns are we?” Lamar let his face go.
When Luke’s eyes focused he distinguished features in a montage of body parts: men with growths on their faces and backs, one with a wooden leg, not all were malformed but not a one of them like a man Luke ever saw. Lamar stood a foot or more above them all, his shaved head adding height in the mind, his skin from neck to ankle covered in tattoos.
“Let me go, I didn’t mean no harm.”
“I just needed to sleep.”
“Who are you running from?”
“I don’t know nothing about running.”
“Anything about running.”
“Let me go.”
“How old are you, boy?”
Luke’s mouth pressed into a thin line. He was old enough to fight, and since he wasn’t that meant questions. Luke had been traveling long enough to know that much. He’d also learned something more: questions were dangerous.
“If you don’t have an age, do you at least have a name?”
“Luke James,” he said, but it sounded like a question.
“Any other bible books in there?” And the company laughed.
Others had joined them, filling in the spaces behind the staggered line of men. Luke saw a girl no more than five slip between two men and tug on a leg to be lifted up. The women were exotic in the dawn light, in their bed clothes and mussed hair that looked nothing like his mother’s. Luke James had never seen women like this with eyes that looked through him like he was cattle in a grazing pasture. He was used to being something special in Nowhere. He didn’t want to get around like Frank, but Luke wasn’t usually lonely. But they also didn’t have the dull eyes of a farmer’s daughter – there was a spark in each of them that made him feel small.
“Look around you, Luke James. Do we look like the kind to cast stones?” With a single hand gesture, the men released Luke’s arms. Luke could only assume he had convinced the man called Lamar that he was no threat.
The one called Lizard approached with the sack he’d left behind in his hurry to flee. Lizard handed the sack to Lamar.
“Nothing but letters to his ma and extra socks, boss,” Lizard reported.
“I won’t be no more trouble to you.”
“I run a tight ship with an open tent policy. Anyone willing to do their share is welcome in my company. Stay or go: the choice is yours.”
Lamar turned and walked back toward the encampment with most of the company trailing behind him. Lizard was at his side then.
“Breakfast’ll be colder than what, if we don’t hurry.”
“What was he saying about clowns?” Luke muttered to himself.
“This here’s the best traveling circus you’ve ever seen.” Lizard’s chest puffed with pride. “Took me in when no one would even look at me, Lamar did.”
“Three rings, a proper sideshow too.”
“He wants me to join the circus.”
“About sums it.” Lizard handed Luke back his sack. “Don’t them letters need to be mailed?”
Luke looked at the bundle in his hands. “These can’t be sent.”
“I can smell the fires – are you coming?”
Luke felt very sure he was standing at a crossroads. He could go it alone – sleep by day, travel by night, pray like hell the cops didn’t find him on the road and ask questions, writing letters he could not send, setting traps for rabbits and squirrels and hoping his luck held out. Or he could take a chance and come along with the circus, even just for a day or two. Just long enough for a belly full of food he didn’t kill himself, and a bed under a roof and maybe even a blanket. He’d only stay a little while, he promised himself. Just long enough to get his bearings, get his head sorted, and figure out what to do next. He promised his mother an adventure story, after all.
“Ok,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“You’ll find no better place,” Lizard clapped him on the back. “No better place.”
Now that he could see it in daylight, Luke saw Tent City for what it was. The grouping of gray tents behind the large yellow and white-striped big top housed the entire company – some 300 men, women, and children, Lizard told him. Tent City was always alive. Even in the dead of night music wrapped Tent City in a fog of life. It had been that music that had drawn Luke out of the woods and into the unsecured tent. The daytime commotion hid an outsider more easily than Luke could have hoped. He felt glances and heard their stares when they picked him out, but Lizard’s nod sent the glancing eyes away.
“We’re smaller’n most. Lamar don’t like a fuss made and that’s what you got when too many folks get to living together too long,” Lizard said.
He led Luke through breakfast, but Luke strained to hear him over the commotion and talk. Luke tried to find a place to put his eyes, but everywhere there was a man no higher than Luke’s thigh, or a misshapen face, or a woman with a beard. Lizard found them a place to squat among the others. In the growing morning light Lizard’s skin was less alluring than it had been in the lantern light. Lizard caught his eyes once too many and shrugged.
“It’s not catching or nothing.”
“In the cold, after a bath mostly.”
“You don’t look like a lizard.”
“I do my face up green-like for shows.”
“Are all of you?” He paused. He’d never been afraid of words before. “Different?”
“No more than you are. Same insides, different design.”
“They don’t take to outsiders much.”
“We got reasons to be cautious. Once a reporter snuck in, tried to put our pictures in the paper.”
“Didn’t think with so many of you together you’d spook so easy.”
“They like you alright, between you and me. But the fastest way to them is to compliment the cooking.”
“You got another name?”
“Eddie Strom, but I’m Lizard Man to most everyone.”
It was a fast friendship, though Eddie got along with everyone. But one night, some two weeks later, Eddie got to asking hard questions.
“How’d you end up so far south?”
“I left home.”
Eddie let out a low whistle. “Leaving’s for peace-time boys. Slackwire needs adjusting.”
He’d been trying to say goodbye when he sat down next to Eddie. He’d been trying to find the words to thank him for sharing his tent, for waving him over to sit by the campfire each night. They’d traveled a hundred miles or more south toward warmer weather. Luke figured it was time he left. But Eddie stood and turned to him, waiting for him to come along. They were almost ready to leave for the next town, and standing to join Eddie to ready the Big Top for performance night, Luke decided he’d stay until they reached the next town worth staying in.
What could it hurt?
Ma – I woke up this morning and thought I was at home in my own bed. I thought I heard you at the stove frying bacon, heard Pop at the table reading you the paper. Thought I heard Frank’s snoring and Ben’s sleep talking. It’s been a while since I’ve been so disappointed to wake up somewhere else. The thing is, the people here are a family. None of them knew each other before they came here, but somehow they’re all one family. I thought by now they’d have gotten used to me, but some of them still spook when they see me. It’s like getting to watch a family eat Christmas dinner together from outside their window. I’m close enough to touch them, to talk to them, to make them smile, but I don’t get to sit at their table with them. Lizard’s an OK guy, but he talks a lot. He’s closest thing I’ve got to a friend, but he’ll talk to anything. You’d like him.
I’m clearing out of here soon. They’re nice enough, but I’ll always be on the outside of the fence. Didn’t mean to stay so long but time has a way of slipping out from under feet here. Like that story you told me once about the man who lay down at the foot of a tree to rest his eyes and woke up three hundred years later. What was his name?
I’m going to go to Georgia and work the farms there. Lizard says there are farms for days there and they always need hands, especially with warm weather around the corner. By the time I’m done picking peaches, maybe then I can come home.
The men of Tent City liked to play cards on nights when weather was nice and they didn’t get caught up in music or women or telling stories and drinking and dice. But they played one night after the drinking and the dice which meant tempers were already hot and tongues loose. Luke hadn’t played dice, but Eddie put the cards into his hands and told him to cut the deck. The camaraderie was tangible on these nights, making Luke more apt to play along. It was harder to remember he was an outsider when he dealt the cards around the fire. There were moments, brief though they were, when Luke forgot he had another home with a mother waiting for him to come home and a sack full of letters.
But this night they’d all been playing for too long and drinking too much. Richard worked with the animals and was particular about his gambling, and he thought Luke, who had won three hands in a row, was a cheater.
“You deal yourself rather pretty cards, gaucho,” Richard said, looking at him sideways.
“Cards are luck,” Luke said.
“No one is this lucky.”
“Leave it alone, Richie,” Eddie said.
“You’re going to let this boy take your money and rob you blind?”
“It’s just cards,” Eddie said.
But the tension around the campfire was rising like steam. The other men around the circle – four all told – had the beery wisdom of too many hours in the bottle and too much money lost at dice. Luke had enough of his own liquid courage to numb the edge of fear down to a vague inclination that something might be wrong.
“Take your damn money back if you’re so worried about it,” Luke spat. “But you lost fair and square.”
Richard’s fist made impact with the side of Luke’s face before he got all of the words out. One of them – maybe Eric or Steve – held Luke’s arms to steady the target for Richard’s blurred aim.
“No outsider is going to come into my house and take my money and my women and think he doesn’t have to pay the price.” Richard was near to roaring.
There was nothing to be done but let Richard’s anger coast out. Though later Lamar would chastise them for having held Luke’s arms, the men of Tent City settled their affairs with their own law and code. But Luke wore his bruises like badges and didn’t complain. Whatever Richard may have said, that night seemed to ease the tension between Luke and the people of Tent City. The next week they went through a sizeable city. But still Luke stayed on.
Eddie offered to take Luke on the advance team if he could clear it through Charlie who never minded having extra hands. Sent out a day or two ahead of the rest, the advance picked their way through towns, down well-worn roads, and through fields and forest when there wasn’t one of either. Eddie was the arrow man, and it was his job to leave markers for the rest of the company to follow. The days were long, but Eddie showed Luke how to leave the markers and it passed the time.
“Used to was we could leave them in the open. But people got ideas about the circus now, so we got to be real sneak like what we’re about,” Eddie said. He tied a piece of red cloth to a post on the side of the road. It wasn’t always flashy, most anything could do: a symbol in dirt or clay, rope tied around a tree, or pieces of torn programs. Eddie only used the easy markers when it could be seen from a distance like a lighthouse.
Luke preferred the steady pace of the advance to the stop stop go that came with traveling with women and children and animals. And when they got where they were going it was the advance that put up the big top and most of Tent City. Building the circus was tedious work, but at the end there was something to be shown for it and Luke liked that.
Luke and Eddie were helping with the last of the tents when they heard a car engine. The encampment was far enough from the road, the twilight quiet enough, their nerves frayed enough that the sound was out of place and every back of the advance went straight. Luke and Eddie reached the edge of the city in time to see Charlie striding out to meet the Cheyenne police car. If twilight had been quiet, the city was now silent with ears straining to hear what the tall man stepping out of the car had to say.
Charlie’s outstretched hand and smile seemed to put the law at ease.
“What’s this you’ve got going up in my city?” the officer asked. His shake seemed too brief to Luke.
“Circus, sir. I’ve got the papers.” Charlie always had the papers.
“We’ve already got a circus in town, started yesterday or the day before.”
“I’ve got the papers.”
“Don’t know that a city needs more than one circus.”
“Why don’t I set you up with two of the best seats in the house opening night? You and the missus can come see whether you do or don’t.”
The cop stood there, watching Luke and the rest of the advance stop their work to watch him. Luke wondered if the cop realized he had just become the sideshow.
“I’ll get your tickets,” Charlie said.
“These are able-bodied men, why ain’t they fighting?”
“We run a clean show.”
“Bunch of queers?”
“We’ve got pachyderms all the way from India.”
“Circus is the only place for people like you.”
Eddie shifted closer to Luke, leaned in to speak, but Luke was already gone. He didn’t have words, didn’t have a coherent thought save the sound of his heart in his ears. He walked the perimeter of the city, heard the song of pans. Supper would be ready and he would have to do something. Standing outside reach of the lantern light, Luke trembled. How had he thought he wouldn’t get caught? He knew the penalty, but it wasn’t until this cop, in this town, on this early evening at dusk stepped into this circus that Luke James had any concept of what he’d put himself at risk for.
It wasn’t until supper was gone that the men began to settle back in to their own skins. It wasn’t unusual, Eddie told him, for them to get a little harassment now and again from the cops. Didn’t mean it didn’t rattle them. They could take anyone for just about anything, and there wasn’t much Charlie could do. If one of them was taken it had to wait until Lamar got to camp, and even then sometimes the law had made up its mind and the circus had to resolve not to return to that city again.
“They figure most of us is criminals, or could be. Don’t think about it much. The world’s too big for Uncle Sam to find you here,” Eddie said.
But when Luke’s heart settled to a rhythm that didn’t shake his voice, he sidled up beside Charlie.
“Don’t stick your neck out for me,” he said.
Charlie’s gaze locked on Luke’s face.
“Company will be here tomorrow, and Lamar will be none too happy there’s a damn dog and pony show across town.”
“Lamar knows what I done. Did. Am doing.”
“Get some sleep, Barnes.”
But that was all there was to it.
It was the first town they’d seen in months that had a movie theatre and two restaurants.
“This place’s a bona-fide goddamn metropolis,” Eddie said as they walked through town.
When they got close enough to a real city like this one, the people of Tent City tended to keep less to themselves than when they were in more remote towns. So it wasn’t a surprise to Luke when he found his feet taking him in the direction of town one afternoon before the show. He sat at a service counter in a restaurant – something he’d only done a handful of times in his life – and ordered a milkshake from the pretty brunette waitress.
“Haven’t seen you in here before.” Her smile winked at him and Luke could tell he was back in the same kind of world he had come from.
“Just rolled in,” he said.
“Well you should have come next week,” she confided, leaning closer. “This week the circus is in town.” Her penciled eyebrows lifted.
“Who doesn’t like a good circus?”
“There are just so many freaks in them,” she said. Her voice was hushed but clear enough so she was easily overheard by anyone sitting at the counter.
“I bet they have elephants,” he said. “And popcorn.”
She put his milkshake in front of him. He was trying to make her smile, but her lips stayed in their stained red line.
“Well you won’t catch me there. They probably pick everyone’s pockets anyway.”
“You’ve got funny ideas, lady,” Luke said. His tone was sharper than perhaps he’d meant it to be.
“I just think it’s unnatural is all. So many freaks in one place. Like the gathering of God’s mistakes.” Luke knew girls like her back home. They rehearsed their ideas half-borrowed from their parents and added a spray of racy perfume and thought they were smart thinkers. Luke couldn’t pin point why, but he slammed both hands palm-down onto the counter.
“Ever think maybe you’re the freak, lady?”
“You’re one of them, aren’t you?”
He took the straw of his milkshake into his mouth, raised his eyebrows.
“We don’t serve your kind here.” She yanked the glass from his hand, but the condensation on the glass made it slide right out of her hand. It fell and shattered on the floor. If everyone hadn’t been staring before, they were now.
Luke and the waitress stared at one another, like lawless cowboys at high noon. Luke shook his head and stood up from his barstool. She wasn’t worth it. None of them were.
In his anger Luke almost missed Lamar from across the restaurant. Almost missed the way his left eyebrow raised and head tilted forward. Luke paused a moment at the door, then pushed it open so the bell that hung on the doorframe smashed into the glass.
Eddie came over in a rush holding a newspaper. Eddie pointed to the bottom of the page, the obituaries, holding it in front of Luke’s eyes to see.
And there it was:
Funeral services for Luke JAMES III, 19, of Nowhere (WY) were held on Tuesday morning. He is survived by his mother and father, Mr. and Mrs. Luke JAMES II, and one brother, Frank JAMES. Mr. JAMES’ body was found in Sibley Lake early last week; cause of death is unknown.
He felt snuffed out from the inside. His mother thought he was dead. A body – whose body? – found in the lake and they thought after all this time he’d fallen in and drowned?
“How in the hell did you get your hands on this newspaper?”
“Lamar said it was your mail.”
“He read it first?”
But then he was reading the whole thing again. His father and Frank were still alive, then. But no mention of Ben. Ben hadn’t known where they were sending him before he left, and no clear sense of what they expected him to do when he got there.
“You’re free, man,” Eddie said, putting an arm around Luke’s shoulder.
“Luke James is dead. When was the last time anyone called you that?”
“My mother thinks I’m dead.”
“You can go anywhere, do anything.”
“I don’t have papers,” he said, but inside his chest hope filled each nook.
“Papers ain’t the problem.” Several of Tent City’s denizens could forge anything for anyone for a price.
“Somehow I thought I’d go home when the war was over,” Luke set the paper down.
Eddie snorted. “Work to do, Barnes. Slackwire won’t hang itself.”
Ma – I should send this one. I should send them all. I should send them so you know I’m alive, so you know the man they pulled from the lake isn’t me, but it’s ok to let everyone think he’s me because I ran away from home instead of going to war and I’m not sorry for it. All I’m sorry for is hurting you the way I imagine I did. And now you think I’m dead. Maybe I am dead and the circus is heaven or hell – I can’t tell which right now. I will come back one day, but it’s going to be a while isn’t it? I will come back from the dead. I just hope you’ll understand. But you always do.
Luke sat in the afternoon sun and wondered which was worse: to know your son was a wartime dodger, or to think he was dead. He chewed it until the two didn’t look so very different. He realized then that leaving home had always meant not going back, and wondered where Ben was. Luke Barnes considered the paper. The want ads asked for farm hands, clerks, companions, bankers. There were spaces in the world for him outside the city. But the sounds of the calliope warming up, the smell of supper cooking, the screeches of children in the weeds bathed his nerves in a thick kind of honey never tasted but felt, and knew he would stay.