It was well past midnight when I arrived in Paris and I half expected to find the city dead. But the bars and cafés of St. Germain des Pres were going full blast and the Boulevard St. Michel still vibrated with night people. This was my first visit to the French capital in nearly a decade and although my instincts told me I was only passing through, it felt good to be back. Had I been better fixed, financially, I wouldn’t have thought twice about staying awhile. Paris is my kind of city.
At the time I was on my way up from Morocco and as usual heading nowhere in particular. In Madrid, where I didn’t stay very long either, I’d unexpectedly scored a first-class train ticket for less than half the regular fare. A Danish girl approached me in the railway station saying she was short of money, had this ticket to sell and could I help. She had just been released from prison, having copped six months for trying to run some hashish into Spain, a tricky business even for the pros.
When she laid her story on me I was standing in line waiting to book a second-class seat and explained that was all I could afford. She said that was fine, she only needed enough to get squared away with a room and a decent meal.
It was a smooth, fast, comfortable ride up to Hendaye just over the Spanish border but the subsequent long walk through the night to St. Jean-de-Luz more than made up for it. No cars were stopping, the only hotel open was too expensive and of course I had no sleeping bag. Eventually I made it to Bordeaux, a grand-seeming town where I met some truly beautiful French freaks and crashed overnight in their digs near the cathedral. The following afternoon with some bread and cheese and a liter of red wine in my gut, I caught a single lift going through to Paris. It was in a Morris Minor driven by a young man, a traveler of a completely different order than myself who nonetheless impressed me very much. He took immense pride in his nationality and had no desire to see any country other than France.
“But before I die,” he promised, “I shall have seen every square inch of this country, and then some.”
Well France is anything but tiny, yet this young man had already made a good start toward fulfilling his dream. He began describing some of the places he’d visited, many of them remote little spots unknown even to French tourists. And as he reeled out his tales I suddenly realized what it was that set genuine travelers apart from the phonies, something a lot more meaningful than distances covered.
Where you go and even what you see counts for next to nothing, it’s the way in which you experience events that makes all the difference. At one end of the spectrum there is Lao-tse knowing the whole universe without ever leaving his house. And at the other end, the nauseating one, there are those motley hordes of middle-class tourists who waste enormous sums jetting from one far-flung capital to the next just to relieve the tedious boredom of their humdrum lives. They see everything and nothing at the same time. This fellow had a good thing going, though. Whenever he could get away for even a few days, he’d set off to explore still one more fascinating nuance of everyday French life. The stories he told were marvelously entertaining.
As soon as we pulled into the Left Bank he took me for a coffee and cognac and even proffered some money, saying he was sorry he didn’t have room enough in his small flat to put me up. I said that was okay and still being a little shy about accepting handouts, I politely refused. Thinking back on it a couple of days later I mentally gave myself a swift kick in the ass. Nowadays I wouldn’t look any gift horse in the mouth, and certainly not when a person is sincere about wanting to give. After all, it’s the giver who gets merit. Far be it from me to deny him the privilege.
Once the young man had split I checked through my francs, decided I couldn’t afford another cognac but had one anyway, then set out to find a suitable hotel. The first one, tucked away in one of those romantically sinister side streets off the Boulevard St. Germain, fit the bill in every respect but price. They wanted twenty-five francs for what was left of the night.
“Can’t you make it a little cheaper?” I asked.
“No. Maybe you’ll find somewhere else. Go see.”
So I went but less than an hour later I was back, dog-tired and ready to pay even thirty francs if I had to.
“You win,” I said. “I need a wash and some sleep.”
Taking me to the same room he’d shown me earlier, the concierge then asked to see my money. I held out a handful of notes, from which he plucked a mere tenner and left. Now that’s really far-out, I thought. Why the hell couldn’t he have done it before? But it gave my morale a tremendous boost and I know I went to sleep smiling. It was early afternoon before I woke up.
After indulging in a light but expensive breakfast on the Boul’ Mich’, one croissant and a café au lait, I bought a Herald Tribune from an American newspaper hawker and watched a thin mist settle over the river, nearly obscuring my view of Notre Dame. As nothing especially stunning leapt out at me from the Help Wanted column, I tossed a coin to decide my next move. Heads I’d go to London and sign on the dole for awhile, tails I’d dust off my German and look for a waiter’s job in Munich. Two hours later I was sipping a beer in a bistro across from Gare de l’Est. That evening I arrived in Metz with every intention of hitching straightaway to Saarbrücken and with luck even a ways further. Next thing I knew I was in bed with a prostitute. It was the language barrier that did it.
She couldn’t have been more than eighteen or so and as she spoke even less English than I did French, there wasn’t much happening by way of conversation. I was standing alone checking out the street guide in the big plaza in front of the train station, right across from the hotel where seven years earlier I’d holed up for three foodless days with a German girlfriend and a stalled Mercedes, relighting Gitanes fag ends and waiting for money to get wired from Frankfurt.
Having got my bearings I turned ready to walk to the main road heading east and there she was standing alongside me, looking up into my eyes like I was the great white father come to put every mean thing in her life right again. She said something which I should have understood but didn’t, so instead I invited her for coffee and eclairs and a couple of fun games on the flipper machines in a noisy café down the road.
I don’t know why it is, but in France you always find the best pinball machines, even better than in America where they make them. One game we played was on this super-new Bally with up to five balls banging about at the same time. I won hands down of course, but we both laughed like hell. I shouldn’t be surprised if it was her first hearty laugh that year.
Hookers are a big weakness for me actually, especially down and out ones like this girl was. After an hour or so we walked around town for maybe another hour, then I found this fleabag hotel and checked us into a double room with big cobwebs, cracked plaster walls and an attached bath. When you come right down to it, it was about the last thing I needed.
As soon as I locked the door she stripped off her clothes, a thin cotton dress, soiled panties and a torn man’s undershirt too big for her bony frame, and hopped under the shower. I waited till she’d finished then did the same. When I came back she was already in bed and sleeping. I crawled under the covers, said bonne nuit and pulled the light cord. We slept until mid-morning, got dressed and left.
At a nearby bake shop I bought her a bag of sugar doughnuts, kissed her goodbye on the forehead and trucked out to the highway. I had twenty francs left and was starting to feel hungry. It didn’t look like too good a day for rides either. I let my small shoulder bag drop onto the asphalt, lit a cigarette and prepared to wait. And that’s when I saw René.
When you’ve been on the road as long as I have, and even then I already had four continents and more than a few thousand miles of tramping under my belt; and especially when you’ve been used to handling money like it was going out of style tomorrow, there’s one thing you can always spot and that’s a broke traveler. Not that there are any special marks or moods by which you can pick us out, mind you, and even our apparel might tell an entirely fictitious story.
More than once I’ve bummed rides clear across Europe looking like the last Mohican without his tomahawk and yet had a cool grand stashed away in my boot heel. On other occasions I’ve been decked out in a two-hundred dollar suit while breaking my last twenty-mark note in a Bundesbahn dining car to buy a drink for some spiffy lady I’d just met. Last time I pulled that trick I ended up spending a week in Baden-Baden lighting her Black Russians with a gold-plated Ronson and placing hundred-franc bets on the roulette five hours every night. Time before I had to hock half my wardrobe in a Hanover pawn shop. The road is like that. It offers every possibility yet promises nothing, only vicissitudes.
Of course, had you been driving one of those trucks that picked me up at intersections and roadhouses between Hamburg and Torremolinos or saying dankeschön for a five-mark taxi tip after a short drive inside Heidelberg, you very likely wouldn’t have known how well or badly off I was. On the other hand, had I been in your shoes, I’d have known at a glance. Call it an aura if you like, one that dims and brightens according to how heavy your change purse is. Saint or sinner, we all have one. René certainly had, and even though he was smiling broadly as he shuffled toward me, turning now and then to try flagging down a car zooming too fast by to stop, that aura was pretty dim.
I slipped a hand into my jeans pocket, crinkled my two remaining banknotes and blew a farewell kiss into the grey Alsatian air. It must have been then that I gave myself that kick in the backside I mentioned. At three o’clock the following morning two cops were hustling René and me out of the Saarbrücken Bahnhof for not having any train tickets and by first light we were gazing at each other over two glasses of beer and wondering where our next meal would come from.
Then René thought of the blood bank and said we should try, reckoning a pint each wouldn’t do us much harm. To me it sounded like the worst idea he could have had but I agreed to go along, secretly hoping they’d say no. They did too, at which point René’s aura switched right off. God knows what mine was like but I felt okay.
René was a truck driver by trade but it seemed he didn’t practice that or any other occupation very regularly. The day we met he was still uncertain of his destination although Frankfurt and maybe a spell of hustling in and around the Kaiserstrasse bars were vaguely on his mind. For a man with a mouth, and I believe René had one, there’s often a bit of bread to be made in red-light districts. When I mentioned Munich, however, he decided to tag along and give Bavaria a whirl. Though otherwise well-traveled, he’d somehow never been there. I told him sure, why not, I could use the company. Like a hole in the head, I probably thought.
Soon thereafter a young chick driving a beat-up Citröen took us to a border village René knew well, having been raised in the area, and after downing a few beers and buying marks with my remaining francs we crossed into Germany through a vacant lot. A bilingual Frenchman, a common phenomenon only among border people, René spoke no English so of course we conversed in German. I was anxious to hit the Autobahn before dark and he also thought it wise. Two or three good rides and we could be in Munich the next day. In actual fact I needed ten days to get there. For all I know René never made it.
There are very few places in this world I hate and Saarbrücken is one of them. Parts of its environs are nice enough, especially some of the villages up closer to the Rhineland-Palatinate, say around St. Wendel, but in the city itself there is nothing happening and in my memory never has been. Cars and bars, factories and flash department stores, tidy office buildings neither too big nor too small, rows of prim little houses and sidewalks full of bored people leading dull, uninspired lives. Even the youngsters are as straight as they come. Try saying “Du” to one instead of “Sie” and get cut dead. Sophisticated Saarbrückeners are the urban yokels of Germany, perpetually ten years behind the times. And there isn’t even a decent whorehouse, a sure sign of metropolitan stagnation. Cities are redeemed by their sordidness.
Saarbrücken also rates high as a hitchhiker’s nightmare, in my experience running a close second to Granada, the only place that ever defeated me outright and that includes several dozen cities and towns throughout Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. For years now I’ve heard France put down as a dead loss for copping rides while for me it’s never presented a problem. I’m sure somewhere there’s a roadrunner, even one with more miles notched up than I have, who reckons Saarbrücken is first class. So it goes, we’ve all got our tales.
Figuring not to waste time we caught a bus into the city and after stocking up on bread and cheese took our positions on the entrance ramp. Five hours later the food was gone, night had long since fallen and we hadn’t moved an inch. So we packed up and went to the Bahnhof. René, who kept waving his little green trucker’s book at every rig that rolled by, couldn’t understand it.
“It’s Saarbrücken,” I said, “the place sucks.”
I guess the motorists picked up my vibes. I certainly would have.
Next morning, after the blood bank fiasco, we tried again. Zilch. Then it started to rain.
“Let’s go,” I said. “I still have two marks left. That’s enough for three beers.”
After two beers and a packet of pretzels it stopped raining. I felt like walking.
“Walk to where?” René asked.
“Who knows? Anywhere. I need some exercise.”
René was worried. Strangely enough it was the first time he’d ever touched rock bottom as far as money went, whereas for me it was getting to be an old story. In the beginning it used to freak me out, just like it was freaking René, but after several instances of finding myself in some strange town with no friends and neither a pot to piss in nor a window to toss it out of, a certain truth began to penetrate my thick skull. No matter how dire the circumstances, in the end things always work out. And they work out much quicker if you keep cool. Except in a famine, there’s no way you can starve.
“Now what?” René asked with impatience after we’d been walking aimlessly for two hours or so and seen maybe half the dullest streets in the city.
We were just then rounding a corner.
“Now this,” I answered, pointing to a wide gateway leading through a makeshift wooden fence surrounding what I instantly recognized as the local fair grounds.
“This,” I repeated. “Our headaches are over, buddy boy. We’ve got ourselves a job.”
It was a carnival, one of the oldest and hokiest forms of entertainment in the world and the only one where kids of all ages, from six to sixty as the barkers love to say, can pay for the privilege of making fools of themselves. Even the circus with its clowns and acrobats, the best of whom are true artists in every sense of the word, does not afford such pleasurable release from the monotony of daily routine. At the circus you are as much a spectator as when you’re in front of the television set, whereas the carnival forces you to participate, to lose yourself in trivial adventure. It’s the poor man’s acid trip.
The lot, which was a good size, was bustling with activity. Most of the rides were already set up, there were at least two big beer tents, several fun houses and dozens of those competition galleries where you’re bound to blow your bills and get nothing but kicks and penny-ante plastic junk in return. Numerous small food and drink concessions, the ubiquitous schnell imbisse so beloved of a race grown portly on wurst eating, dotted the topsy-turvy landscape but were mostly draped and temporarily abandoned. Waves of metallic carney music flooded the damp air. Led by a nose apparently accustomed to sniffing out easy scams, René made a beeline for the bumper cars. Not long after I was wishing I’d done the same.
“I’m looking for work,” I said to the first person I caught sight of who wasn’t moving.
He was a weather-beaten Dapper Dan, short and balding, maybe in his early fifties, just the kind of slicker you’d expect to find in any 42nd Street pinball arcade. He was standing there in a pair of striped trousers and a white T-shirt, arms crossed and eyes intent if not quite sober, looking as though he were actually expecting me.
“You can work with me,” he replied and then gave his trim black moustache a slight tug.
“What’ve you got?” I asked, though in fact I couldn’t have cared less.
“That,” he said, jerking his thumb behind him toward a medium-sized tent fronted by a tatty stage, “a bullfight show.”
“Yeah, along with a couple of other acts. It’s our first gig of the season, but you can travel with me all summer if you like.”
“Could be all right. What do you pay?”
“Room and board, ten marks a day and a share in the takings. We work seven days a week.”
It sounded just lousy enough to accept, so I did.
“C’mon, I’ll show you around.”
In back of the tents, his and all the others on that side of the grounds, a narrow plateau cluttered with house trailers overlooked a grubby dirt field. A few trees, lonely reminders of a once thriving wood, and an odd smattering of briar patches bordered the excavated area. The nearest trailers were bunched around a large electric water pump that emitted a confusing tangle of rubber hoses, each slithering off in a different direction. Washing hung everywhere, on lines, over shrubs, even across the sinewy ropes by which the tents were held fast to a motley parade of crude wooden stakes. It looked like a gypsy camp. It was a gypsy camp.
“Who fights the bulls?” I asked.
There was some shouting from atop a half-assed set of scaffolding that covered a portion of the tent. Two bare-chested men were scurrying about trying to string up several rows of colored lights. Midway across the field a spotted pony and two Asiatic oxen were tied to a hitching post. My question was rhetorical, prompted by nothing more than idle curiosity.
“Ja, dass mach’ ma’ alle (we all do that),” the boss replied.
I don’t know why but at the time it never occurred to me that I might be included in his family of bullfighters. After all, I’d been hired to shovel shit, wash the animals and do general schlep labor. When we finally opened two nights later I got a rude awakening.
“Tonight, ladies and gentlemen,” called the boss through a hand microphone to the small crowd gathering before him, “tonight we have a special treat for you.”
Dressed to kill in a swanky one-button zoot suit, pacing the gaudily lit stage while haranguing his audience, he gave the appearance of an appropriately comical cross between P.T. Barnum and Willie Sutton, the classical con man and the still classier crook. Dipping my hand into a bag of popcorn laid on me by one of the concessionaires, I angled closer to the edge of the platform, vaguely wondering what great treat was in store for us.
“Yessir, tonight an intrepid American has accepted the challenge to fight the big bull in hopes of winning the top prize money of five hundred deutsche marks. Now who among you is at least brave enough to try and outwit the little white bull for a possible reward of three hundred marks? How about you, sir?”
And he pointed into the suddenly swollen crowd at a hefty bruiser who seemed capable of taking on both animals at once. The man just laughed, somewhat drunkenly, and took a swig of beer.
“Let’s see the bulls,” someone cried out.
“I bet they’re nothin’ but a couple of cows,” yelled another.
“What the hell is he talking about?” I heard myself muttering.
“The bulls, let’s bring out the bulls,” the boss bellowed to the crew waiting backstage for their boisterous cue.
He then did a quick two-step and waved his skinny hand as though it were a magician’s wand. His wife, a somewhat emaciated Sophie Tucker type, leapt up from her ticket table alongside one of the wings and commenced cheering and applauding. From across the proscenium she was joined in her rakish antics by their daughter, a sweetheart of a looker if ever there was one and about the last person in the world I’d want to throw knives at. Obviously her father felt otherwise since three or four times a night he did just that. Yet the faster she twirled on the big wooden disk to which they fastened her with metal braces, the surer was the old man’s aim, even when he was tipsy. The day I left she told me how much she hated it. And him. Carney people, however jolly they may appear to us, are seldom happy.
Led by the boss’s son, a spoiled but very handsome teenager whose only contributions to the company were a bad temper and a ten-minute prance routine he did with the pony, and by the son-in-law, Walter, the captive beasts bounded onto the stage.
I guess it’ll hold, I thought. Just that afternoon I’d twisted an ankle and ruined my only pair of shoes slogging around in the mud trying to prop up the slapdash planking from underneath with barrows full of dry sand and concrete blocks almost too heavy to carry. Until now no one had tested the stage and had the whole shebang collapsed then and there I knew I would have cracked up with laughter. My traveling bag was of course always packed, another trick the road soon teaches you. Half an hour later I surprised even myself by not taking the option.
“Where’s the young man who challenged the black bull? The American, where is he?”
I heard the words and knew what they meant but still couldn’t believe he was referring to me.
“Here he is, here’s our bold young Amerikaner. Step right up under the lights and let everyone get a good look at you.”
Sure enough the bastard was pointing right at me. So too were dozens of nearby eyes. A girl giggled and someone else hollered “Idiot!”; which in German sounds a lot more certain than it does in English. That share of the takings better be pretty damn good, I thought. Two seconds later I was standing alongside my adversary, a ton-and-a-half of hunky meat and a pair of horns that would have made great handlebars for any Hell’s Angel’s souped-up Harley. I took a deep breath and tried hard to fasten on some of my meditation teacher’s most telling phrases.
“No matter how grim the situation,” he had always said, “just remember this: It’s all an illusion and, like everything else, it too will pass.”
Then I glanced back at the bull and wondered whether my meditation teacher had ever worked in a carnival. Strangely enough a sudden mental image of him doing so helped put me at ease. I waved to the crowd and especially to René, whose friendly face I’d just spotted grinning at me from near the bumper car concession across the dirt roadway, already littered with drinks tins and paper cups and an excess of milling fun makers. Then I brazenly flexed my nonexistent muscles, for me a most uncharacteristic gesture, seeing as how fear of bodily injury and a weak set of biceps are among my more notable traits. I don’t even enjoy heroics in others and will applaud the skill of a talented racing driver or of a mountain climber in spite of his daring and not because of it.
As there were no legitimate volunteers to fight the white “bull,” actually a short-horned cow who was both younger and more dangerous than my opponent, Peter leapt onto the stage. He was a Bavarian, the dumbest one I’d ever met, and the only other member of the troupe who was not strictly family. For two days I’d watched him laboring like a horse and heard him chide me at every mealtime, calling me a lazy good-for-nothing because I didn’t gulp down my food in five minutes and hurry back to work.
“You just go ahead, Peter,” I’d tell him in his own earthy dialect which I love dearly, having first learned German in the Lower Bavarian town of Landshut. “I’ll enjoy my after-dinner cigarette and catch up with you by and by.”
“Ach, du bist ja ‘na Faulenzer, du,” he’d cry before scampering away to do half my jobs along with all of his.
Whenever the boss shouted at him, which he did with maddening regularity from early morning till we knocked off an hour or so before show time, Peter would simply shrug and redouble his efforts, none of which ever seemed quite satisfactory. He was grateful for his employment and especially for having been kept on, though at half pay, over the long winter. He didn’t even mind sleeping on damp straw in a cold and dirty pack wagon (we were the only workers in the whole carnival without clean bunks in a heated trailer), probably because it was no less comfortable than what he’d been raised with.
Of course I’d put up with worse conditions myself from time to time and with a minimum of grumbling, but I doubt seriously that any mid-twentieth century urban American ever completely outgrows his early insulated conditioning. My mind may know it’s unhealthy, but my body really digs central heating and always will.
Peter had another advantage over me, he actually enjoyed tussling with the bulls. I think if it hadn’t been part of the job he would have even paid for the pleasure, though with what I can’t imagine. No matter how good business was, our earnings, I soon found out, remained at the pittance level.
As soon as enough of the crowd seemed hooked, the animals were run back inside and the entrance curtains thrown open. Another son, a large fellow who did a lot of the manual labor along with Peter and myself and who also handled the knife-throwing act when the old man was too soused to be trusted with it, rushed up from the throng to buy the first ticket. It was his turn to play shill. Once inside he would duck back out and again mingle with the people in front, where the boss was still haranguing. It took him three or four goes to build up a full house. When you’re hustling small groups, a shill is essential. No one ever wants to be first.
Next time around it would be my turn, then Walter’s, then Peter’s. We four made up the rear guard of the con game, we led the suckers through the toll gates then pretended to be one of them for fighting the bulls. Once in a while there was a legitimate volunteer, some ego-tripper showing off to his mates and hoping to make a fast buck to boot. I seriously doubt anyone ever succeeded. Only Peter was capable of bettering those mighty if lumbering beasts and he practiced it every day. For me one week was plenty.
The show lasted half an hour, if that. The kid did his tricks with the pony, making it count to ten, roll over and play dead and one or two other oddball stunts. Then Peter jumped into the arena, a small roped-off clearing around which the audience sat on folding chairs, and did his thing. There were no red capes or long swords and of course no picadors on black chargers, just Peter and his bare hands, his broad shoulders and his dumb, happy enthusiasm. The object was to toss the animal on its back and this Peter accomplished in about one minute flat. The crowd roared. They just loved being taken to the cleaners.
The knife-throwing act was over almost as quickly and then it was time for the Amerikaner to show his mettle. I looked over at Peter and saw he was laughing his guts out, no doubt hoping he’d have to rush in and rescue me. I rubbed my hands together but they wouldn’t stop sweating. Even to me my fears seemed silly, since surely no one ever got hurt in these shows. And then I thought of the roller coaster I’d seen collapse at Savin Rock in New Haven when I was a kid and I wasn’t so sure. Maybe thirty people had been killed, all of whom must have believed those rides were nothing if not safe. What the hell, I thought, the most I can lose is my life. And I jumped in.
For the first few seconds the bull simply stood there checking me out. From the look in his eyes it seemed he’d sooner lie down and go to sleep. The boss, who was standing just inside the ropes holding a ten-foot whip, reckoned so too.
“Go in there and grab him,” he yelled. “Tackle his haunches and dump him.”
You must be kidding, I thought, and took hold of the ox’s horns instead. This made him move and for the rest of our brief routine we must have looked more like dance partners than opponents, with the bull doing all the leading. Round and round we went, the bull snorting and pushing and me back-pedaling like crazy. Had someone started playing a waltz it wouldn’t have been inappropriate. The boss was profoundly disappointed and that night insisted I should try harder, if not to win then at least to put on a better show. But I stood my ground. And I adamantly refused to go in the ring against the white bull, whose short horns and fiery temper might just have done me a dirty turn.
“You’re not only lazy,” Peter said later, murdering my eardrums with his typically loud carney voice, “you’re a coward as well.”
“You can say that again, brother,” I told him with a laugh. “Believe it or not, it keeps me healthy.”
“Feigling!” he yelled after me as I walked off toward the midway to grab a beer and see if I couldn’t find René.
“Leck mich am Arsch!” I called back jocularly, realizing as I said it that such grotty expletives would be better directed at the boss.
We’d done four shows that night, each time to a packed house, and all Peter and I got for it was five marks apiece, enough for a few lagers and a pack of fags. Had I known that the following night, when intermittent cloudbursts knocked us down to two shows, we’d get nothing extra, I might have left then and there.
As for René, he was in much better shape. The guy he worked for apparently believed in treating his help right, even if he was as greedy a bastard as all the other carney entrepreneurs. He already had two big concessions on the road and was getting ready to set up a third. But René was making twice my wage and scoring up to twenty marks bonus money a night, all for half as much work and a lot less hours.
“And he says if I’ll agree to stick with him for the whole tour, he’ll make me a foreman and raise my salary.”
“Gonna do it?” I asked.
“You bet your life. I’d be a fool not to, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, this was sure a good idea, coming in here. Glad we thought of it. Say,” he added before taking off after a couple of young chicks who seemed to be giving him the eye, “could you spare two marks till tomorrow? I blew all mine in a crap game just before.”
“Story of my life,” I said, handing over a two-mark piece.
“Nothing, man, nothing at all. See you tomorrow.”
I guess, somewhere in the back of my mind, I’d always had this idea about carnival and circus life being very romantic, in a low-down sort of way. And maybe, if you stick with it long enough, it is. But sticking with things, especially when there’s physical work involved, has never been my trip. Nor could any amount of romance, raunchy or otherwise, compensate for the shekels that weren’t going into my pocket. Only the fact that I’d started with nothing prevented this deal from becoming a losing proposition. Anyway, I reflected, at least someone is gaining here. And René really needed it, if only to bolster his spirits. Mine were pretty much at an even keel.
I spent most of the next five days getting dirty and doing my best to avoid rupturing myself. The weather stayed generally foul, which necessitated lugging heavy loads of sand and gravel to shore up the stage and keep the numerous potholes filled. Then one afternoon I talked the boss into letting me go into town for a hot shower at the train station. The only bathing facilities on the grounds, aside from a few cold water pumps scattered here and there, were in some of the private trailers. And the boss
wasn’t about to let me use his.
“Come on, Peter,” I said, “we’re going to town for a wash.”
“What, me too?”
“Yeah, you too, you lunkhead. I’m sick of smelling your rotten feet at night.”
“And make sure Peter washes his hair,” the boss’s wife shouted to us as we trudged off across the muddy field.
Her concern for his welfare, which seemed genuine enough, made the Bavarian’s eyes sparkle. Somebody cared about him, even if they did treat him like shit the rest of the time. He was just a big overgrown baby and yet, for all his boorishness, a good enough guy. Like most people, he needed something concrete to lay hold of, a tangible source of security. For better or worse, these folks were his family and his only steady friends.
Then again, how many of us in this upside-down world aren’t orphans of one kind or another? Faith in the universe doesn’t always come easily, no matter how many sages we listen to with one ear half cocked. It takes experience to learn that everything is really quite okay. Sometimes it takes sweaty hands as well.
The day I left, after somehow getting screwed out of an extra day’s pay I had coming, Walter, the young son-in-law, took me aside for a beer and told me how sorry he was to see me leave. We’d never really spoken much but for some reason he liked having me around.
“I’m only staying here until my probation is up,” he said, “then I’m taking the old lady and going somewhere. I only hope that lout doesn’t miss with one of those stupid knives first. If he does, I’ll be right back in jail, this time for murder instead of theft. Sometimes I feel close to doing it anyway. Maybe that’s why I like you being here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, I just feel calmer is all. Well, good luck. Could be we’ll meet up again somewhere. I think you have an interesting life. I mightn’t mind doing a little traveling myself. Maybe someday I will.”
“Sure,” I said, “someday.”
We shook hands.
René was nowhere to be found so I asked one of his co-workers to tell him goodbye for me.
“Say, you wouldn’t like to work here, would you? We need another hand actually. I’ll go ask the boss.”
“That’s okay,” I said, “I’m off to Munich.”
“What’s in Munich?”
“Good question. I’ll let you know when I get there. Tschüss.”
When I looked back from halfway across the field he was still scratching his head.
In town I spent half my bread on a new pair of shoes. Then I went to a swank café and blew another eight or ten marks on a pot of strong coffee and a large slice of Black Forest cake. That left me with twenty marks, hardly more than I’d had when I met René. Thankfully, Saarbrücken opened her miserly heart for an instant and let me catch a ride after only waiting about twenty minutes on the ramp. From then on it was clear sailing.
When I got to Munich late the following evening, the first thing I saw, parked on the city’s edge near the Stuttgart Autobahn, was a carnival. Not for a while yet, I thought, a long while if I can help it. Two days later I was working at a streetside snack bar in Schwabing, Munich’s Left Bank, serving hot wursts and cold hamburgers to rough-hewn Bavarians. And I’m a vegetarian.
© 2010 by Eddie Woods
This story was first published online in Exquisite Corpse