It was Wednesday and this was Wichita, or somewhere nearby. Marty didn’t know and more important, he didn’t care. The bar was quiet, the regulars sitting alone or chatting with the bartender. Sam and Marty had started drinking here when they got into town two weeks ago. Marty like these three-week gigs; he got to know his bartenders better. His ankle ached and his foot itched terribly. Marty turned to Sam.
“I should have brought that coat hanger with me,” he paused, Sam stared at his beer, “you know… to scratch this damn itch.”
Sam nodded and went back to his beer.
Marty slowly swung his leg up and rested it on a barstool. The cast was too damn heavy to sit on the floor. Sam watched him struggling to balance the injured limb.
“That thing heavy?” Sam asked.
“No, asshole, it’s as light as a feather, I’m just fucking around here. Of course it’s heavy, give me a hand.”
Sam put a hand on the cast and pulled the stool into position. Marty heaved a sigh of relief.
“Christ,” he wheezed, “that damn cast is gonna be the end of me.”
Sam quickly forgot about Marty as the bartender came by; he made eye contact and held up two fingers. The barman nodded and turned towards the taps.
“Thanks,” he said as the barman began another pitcher for each of them.
“Don’t waste you breath,” Marty said, lighting another cigarette. He was smoking more now that his ankle was broke. There was just that much less to do. “These guys,” he said, motioning to the barman, “they work for a living too.”
Marty poured more beer into his glass and looked long and hard at the amber fluid. Sam tapped his hands on the counter. Marty could just make out the neon Budweiser sign upside down in the reflection of the glass, it looked odd.
“So what did Brewster say about the thing there?” Sam asked.
Marty looked at his leg and shook his head. There wasn’t much to add.
“Ah hell, I don’t know… I know I can’t drive the mini-rig anymore,” Marty Said.
“How’s about bein’ Ringer for a while?” Sam said. Marty tilted his head and gave it some thought. He let out a long sigh.
“Hell, Deering’s the Ring Master; the faggot. I’ll just have to wear this thing out… That’s all.”
Marty had been in the Circus since he left Iwo-Jima at the end of WWII. The job started out as a labor thing, mostly for the money, but had gotten more serious as the years went on. There was a brotherhood to it. He’d known Sam now for eight years and some of the older guys even longer. If his broken ankle didn’t end up costing him his job he’d probably retire doing this.
A pretty young girl walked into the bar and Sam gave out a low whistle.
“Women don’t belong in bars,” Marty mumbled.
“That type does,” the Bartender said, leaning in. “She’s, uh, anyone’s girl, ya know?”
Marty took a long pull on his cigarette. He knew. You don’t travel all the hell over putting up and pulling down tents without running into your fair share of pro’s.
The prostitute sidled up to Sam and leaned against the bar, her back arched. Sam’s eyes glazed over. Marty made a gesture to the bar tender, miming a glass of water, the bartender winked and shot Marty an “OK” sign.
“You, uh, looking for a good time?” the girl said to Sam.
“Am I!” Sam said.
Marty threw the glass of water the bartender had just given him at the girl and soaked Sam as well.
“Jesus you asshole!” the girl said, throwing her hands rapidly up and down the length of her dress to knock the water off. Sam sat shocked.
“Get the hell out of here, we don’t need your type,” Marty said.
“Well I’d say you do,” she said, storming out.
“Whadja’ do that for,” said Sam with sincerity?
“You wanna’ end up like Jerry? Huh?”
“Jesus, Jerry slept with trash, dogs… that girl was real high quality,” Sam said.
“Yeah, she was high somethin’,” said Marty, his eyed back on his beer.
Sam ate his sandwich and Marty stirred the beans in his soup around and around. Brewster hadn’t pulled any punches with him, and Marty knew it. Circus clowns aren’t too funny when they’re wearing casts.
“People want to see you fall down, drop clubs on each other’s heads, see a dozen of you guys climbing out of the mini-rig… not limping around on crutches,” he had said that afternoon. “It’s not an easy thing, my position,” he finished.
“Well, would it be so bad if I just moved up, on to something else for a while, ‘till it heals?” Marty asked.
“I got Ringling at my heels, Marty, you know that… I can’t afford to carry any extra clowns. That’s all.” Brewster said, looking long and hard at Marty.
“How long?” Brewster said, pointing at the cast.
Marty lied, “maybe three… four weeks, at the worst.”
Brewster sat back in his chair; a long, heavy squeak moaned from the springs as he threw his feet up onto the desk and folded his hands across his chest.
“Tell you what, Marty, since you’ve been doin’ this longer than most I’ll let this go. You can supervise the routines, maybe even full time.”
Marty smiled and shook the asshole’s hand.
A broken ankle shouldn’t mean a thing. Marty had been out before with finger tips that were smashed and broken and he’d nursed Sam through a broken thigh-bone for two months… but those were better times. The littler Circus’ were suffering and Marty had already seen two clowns and three whole acts go in the last four months. There was no room for slackers.
The chili soup had given him heartburn, which he attempted to cure with more beer. It didn’t work. Sam had wandered off with some girl he’d just met and Marty was alone. Well, not really alone.
You’re never alone in a bar.
He watched a group of local kids playing pool for a while and was getting ready to leave when a gorgeous blonde walked through the door.
“Hello,” he whispered under his breath.
The kids gave her a good long look then went back to their game.
Marty waved a hand at the bartender without taking his eyes off the girl.
“Who’s that?” he asked as the barman got near enough to be heard.
“Never seen her before… must be new in town.”
“I like those odds,” Marty said.
The girl walked up to the bar and whispered an order to the bartender. “I’ve got that!” Marty said, smiling at her as she turned. She smiled back.
The girl took her drink and went over to a booth on the far side of the room. Marty gave it a moment then went over himself.
“Mind if I sit down?” He asked
“No, of course not,” she said, her voice soft and delicate.
“I, uh, well… I just gotta’ say that you’re one beautiful woman, I uh….”
“Oh, it’s okay, I don’t mind. Thanks for the compliment.”
They sat like that, in awkward silence for several minutes, staring at their drinks.
“You all right,” Marty said. She seemed sad, he thought.
“Oh, I’m okay. I just moved into town and I don’t really know anyone, yet.”
“Well, you know me.”
“No, actually I don’t,” she said, extending her hand, “my name’s Marjory.”
“Marty, name’s Marty.”
Their fingers lingered in contact for a brief moment after the handshake and there was a tension between them. Marty’s heart raced.
It was tough on Marty not to be in the center ring each night. He’d watch from the side some times or, (lately), hang out at the bar. Things might be getting easier, he figured as he straightened his clip-on tie. Tonight he had a dinner date with Marjory.
“Oh yeah,” he said as he tugged at the tie. It came loose in his hand.
“Damn!” Marty rummaged through his suitcase, its edges frayed after a decade in shoddy sleeper cars and propped open on motel nightstands. There were no other ties.
“Not unless I wanna’ wear this,” he said as he held up a bright red polka-dot tie that reached down to the floor. For a moment his mood dipped and he felt sad. Then he thought of Marjory, and his face brightened.
Outside a horn sounded and Marty parted the window shades; the cab was here. The neon hotel sign lit his face, receded and then brightened again. The red glow left a haunting look to his smile. Marty tossed the ruined tie on the bed and made a last, quick attempt to straighten up in the mirror as he hobbled out the door.
“Where to, buddy?” the cabdriver asked. Normally Marty might rough up a guy up if he called him buddy, but Marty was in a different place tonight. He looked at the slip of paper Marjory had given him
“Freitag apartments,” Marty said.
Tonight may be the best night ever.
“Got a date, eh buddy?” the cabby said.
“Yeah… yeah… something like that.”
“That’s good. It’s good to be goin’ out. I like the ladies too. Hell, who doesn’t, eh buddy!” The cabby cackled and Marty felt like hitting him.
“Here we are. That’s two-fifty, buddy,” the cabby said as the cab rolled up to the curb. Marty reached into his pocket and pulled out a fiver.
“You’re lucky I’m in a good mood,” Marty said through clenched teeth as he handed him the bill. “Keep the change, buddy.”
The cab sped away and Marty turned to look at the fourplex apartment, one of four on the street. Each unit was a different color, all were bright solids, and this one was fire engine red. He scanned the building for the apartment numbers, hers was #13, a flight of stairs (with a railing ready to fall off with a firm tug) awaited him; he sighed as he began to climb.
After beating the cast on every step he finally made it to the landing, her door was open and he could see boxes and packages strewn around on the floor. He knocked.
Marjory appeared; she was wearing a floral print dress with a small white flower in her hair. Marty held his breath lest he lose it all together. She was like an angel. His heart raced and sweat filled the palms of his hands.
He was at a loss for words.
“I, uh, I mean Hi!”
“Hi, Marty,” Marjory said, looking at the ground. “Sorry about the mess, I’d ask you in but…”
“No, really… it’s okay, hell I understand. I know what it’s like to be on the go.”
“Yeah, I don’t even have any furniture,” she said sheepishly.
“No, really, it’s okay. You ready!” She was so beautiful that Marty couldn’t wait to be seen in public with her. Marty made as if to take her hand and then paused; the crutch was in the way. He felt awkward.
Marjory put a hand on his back, like a gentle guide. Marty relaxed and began to move away, she at his side. It felt comfortable.
“It’s a nice place you’ve got there. You did pretty good.”
“Yeah, a friend of mine helped me find it. She lives a couple of hours away.”
“That’s some color, though,” he said, motioning at the building, ‘looks like a brothel,” Marty laughed. Marjory shuffled her feet and tried to laugh along.
“Oh geez,” Marty said, “where’s my manners. I shouldn’t be using such language around a beauty like yourself. You know, I don’t meet a lot of nice girls.”
“It’s okay, I understand,” Marjory said. “I don’t go out much myself.”
They strolled down the street, she braced him and he couldn’t be happier to be in the cast at that moment, knowing there’d be no excuse to be this close otherwise. The apartments gave way to small businesses and the smell of hot foods made Marty aware that he was hungry; his anticipation of the evening had kept his appetite down.
They had stopped outside a little Italian restaurant.
“Yeah, this must be the joint.” Marty said as he held the door and watched her go in. “Sam don’t know what he’s missin’ with those chicks,” he thought to himself. “poor bastard.”
Marty hobbled in behind her.
His ankle was itchy and so he took out the tired old coat hanger and went to work. The dead, white skin of his calf collected on the hooked end of the hanger and Marty shook it free. He glanced at the tiny calendar on the wall.
“Three more days,” he sighed. Time had flown, and he didn’t want this stop to end. Marty looked around the room; fresh flowers on the table and a new tie on the doorknob. She was already spoiling him.
“Boy, I guess I must be something special.” He began to hum as pulled on his pants. It was hot out, and Marjory would tell him to wear shorts. That might be okay for some, but for Marty shorts were for kids. He stuffed the cast through the cuff and limped out the door as he tugged at the waistband of the trousers. Grabbing his crutches he went out to await the cab.
The tents were sagging from the weight of the rigging. Marty knew it was nearly time to go by the dip in the canvass roof. The longer the tents stayed up the sloppier they looked. Marty stamped out his cigarette and entered Brewster’s office.
“Marty, how’s it going?” Brewster said it without a smile. He didn’t even look up from his pile of papers.
“Hey, yeah, not to bad,” Marty said. He held his hat in his hand, the brim passing from finger to finger. Marty stammered, then paused.
“Yeah,” Brewster said, looking up at last. Marty plucked up his courage.
“Listen, things have gotten kinda’ complicated here, I’ve met someone,” he said.
“Yeah, you and every other bum in this operation. I hope you took care of yourself, if you know what I mean. You don’t want to end up like old Jimmy.”
Both men shuddered at the reference.
“No, this is different, Mr. Brewster. This girl’s a real angel.”
“They’re all angels to start, Marty… it’s later, after they’ve got you hooked that the real bullshit comes out.”
Marty wasn’t sure but he felt that his original point was mislaid somewhere in that conversation.
“Listen, I uh…”
“You want that last paycheck so you can make a little nest together here in Podunk, huh?” Marty nodded and held his breath. Brewster licked the tip of his pencil and went back to the mound of paper and receipts. Mart noticed that there was a lot of red ink in the ledger book.
“Yeah, that’d be great. I’m getting’ too old for this stuff anyway,” Marty said, his eyes locked on the floor. “Is there any chance that I could get it all,” he paused, waiting to be shot down, “you know, the severance package we talked about?”
Brewster looked up at Marty and turned his head to the side, like a dog hearing a sound a human couldn’t.
“That was three months ago, Marty… I thought you knew that was a one time thing?” Marty only stood and waited. He looked pitiful, or so he hoped. Brewster looked at the calendar on the wall, then back at the desk of papers.
“No problem, I could use the money saved not paying you each week to maybe make this son-of-a-bitch show break even.” At that Brewster threw the pencil at the opposite wall and pushed his chair back from the desk. He had a look on his face that made Marty think that Brewster had forgotten there was someone else in the room.
“So I’ll pick that check up on Friday, then?”
“Yeah, yeah… you do that, Friday… whatever.”
Marty left the trailer, his feet not touching the ground. Marjory was his angel and a long deserved severance and paycheck would put that angel in heaven. He heard nothing bad, saw nothing wrong and felt nothing but happiness as he strolled back into town, his crutches rising and falling like rolling waves under his arms.
Marjory wasn’t at home, and she wasn’t at the café where she worked. Marty asked Sam and got nowhere:
“Are you sure?” Marty said.
“What are you, a private dick? Of course I’m sure. I said I aint seen her and that means I aint seen her. Jesus, you quit your job for this bimbo and I’m supposed to baby sit her for you?”
Marty wanted to hit Sam and made a fist. Sam slowly backed away, his eyes locked on Marty’s fist. Sam took a long breath.
Marty backed away.
“She’s not a bimbo, Sam.” Marty sneered, “We don’t all date whores, Sam.”
“Well la-de-da, Marty. Aren’t we all high and mighty? You aint so special, we all slept with whores before, buddy.”
Marty lashed out and caught Sam on the chin.
Sam hit the ground and clasped his hand to his face.
“Fuck, Marty… what the hell was that?” Sam said, the blood pooling in the cup of his hand as he held his jaw.
“That’s for forgetting who your friends are… and for calling her a whore,” Marty said, his anger falling and a heavy feeling of warm guilt pouring over him. Sam pulled himself to his feet, his glass of beer un-spilt.
“Marty, I never said….”
Sams apology never hit Marty’s ears; he knew where he’d gone wrong.
“I don’t need that shit right now,” he thought and pushed his embarrassment to the back of his mind, where it would stay.
Marty sought out Marjory. He had to see her.
“But Baby, what’s wrong?” Marty said, his head full of worry.
Marjory sat on her couch, her face devoid of color. She had not returned his calls in two days; Marty was desperate.
“Honey, I’ve quit that silly job, I’ m ready to be with you now, to make this… us, work….” Marty held his breath.
“Oh baby… not your job… that’s not silly….” Marjory sunk back into her seat. The August sun cut through the window’s lace and left a paisley pattern on the shiny, wooden floor. Marty let out a long, slow breath.
“What?” Marty said. He had been on his way to collect his pay-package when he got her message. He rushed straight over.
“My life… my life,” tears formed in her eyes and she quickly wiped them away. “Look at me,” she said, a laugh escaping from her lips.
Marty let lose an uneasy laugh, half hoping that that would make things better.
She looked him square in the eye, her demeanor shifting to something much more mature. Marty felt worried.
“Honey, I am not your pretty little angel,” she began.
“Sure you are baby. What has got you so worked up?”
“Oh honey…” she lit up a cigarette. Mart hadn’t ever seen her smoke, though she said she had: once.
A long quiet descended on the room and Marty cocked his head to listen to the grandfather clock tick away the seconds. His mind raced.
“Baby,” she began again, her tone serious, “baby you just don’t know me.”
“But….” He said, as she cut him off.
“I love you,” she said, and his face brightened. “I love you but I cannot not say this.” She bit her lip.
The clock ticked as its pendulum swayed through the humid air.
“Honey I told you my last boyfriend was…” she trailed off.
“An asshole,” Marty finished for her, his anger filling in the awkward blanks for him.
“More than that, sweetie,” she said. Marty waited.
“He was… He was….”
“He was what? What could he be that made you run away, that’s made you act like this today… hell, these last few days?”
“Honey, he was my pimp, okay,” she said, her voice rising and dying off. “He was my goddamned pimp and I had to leave. Hell, one of the other girls had to help me find this place.” Her voice cut off. “Thank god I saved some, who knows where I’d be.”
Marjory sunk back into the couch and took a long drag on her cigarette.
Marty was shell-shocked.
He quaked with anger.
He took his crutches.
He left her there.
“Marty… No!’ She said, rushing at him, pulling at his arms and pleading with her hands. “Please, I love you!”
“Love me!” he shouted, shaking her free of him, “love me! What the FUCK do you know about love? You rotten fucking whore!” Marty thundered the words, his voice an ocean in the tiny red apartment. He pushed his way out of the room like a heavy wave washing the shore.
His heart was racing.
Marty stood at Brewster’s desk and waited for the prick to address him.
“Oh, yeah, the check. Listen, I’ve got some things going on here….”
Marty felt a pressure rising in his chest.
“You see, I have to wait for some things to clear the banks, see I’ve got loans all over the place, Buddy.” Brewster said.
Marty felt his stomach sink.
“Yeah, I guess it’ll be a few weeks, at least, before I can get that check to you…”
“A few weeks?” Marty knew he was in no place to argue or make problems with Brewster. “Man, a few weeks… that’s gonna’ be….”
“Gonna’’’’ be what? Tough? You got your little girl-friend there, dontcha’?”
Marty pressed back until his shoulders met the wall and he sank into a slouch.
“Don’t worry, it shouldn’t be more than a couple of months wait, after all… you’ve got your angel, haven’t you?” Brewster laughed.
“No, no… not really,” he muttered, his thoughts growing cloudy.
“That’s a shame. I hear she was real nice!”
Marty’s head swam. He didn’t know where he was, or why he was there. He was a circus clown, wasn’t he? Where were the laughs?
“Tell you what, big guy, I’ll mail the checks to you. You can afford a motel or something ‘til then right?” Brewster paused; Marty’s mind was somewhere else.
“Don’t tell me you drank it all away Marty? That would be so unlike you.”
Brewster sat down in the swivel chair with the rusty spring and beamed. Marty stood stock-still.
“Frietag apartments, number thirteen,” Marty mumbled.
“What was that?” Brewster said.
“You heard me,” Marty said. His voice rising. “Send the fucking thing there. That’s where I’ll be.”
Marty stormed out, his crutches not touching the ground.
If he was to be a fool, then maybe that was what he’d always been.
Marty caught a cab.
He leaned forward, ready to tell the cabby his destination when the cabby swiveled around to face him. “Number 13, Freitag apartments?” the cabby asked, a mushy cigar clamped in his teeth.
“Uh, yeah” Marty replied, puzzled by the cabbies familiarity with things. Had he used this cabby before, Marty wondered.
“Getting’ to be a popular destination, you’re the third guy heading there today, know what I mean?” the cabby said, giving Marty a wink and whistling as he pulled the out into traffic.
Marty turned around as the cab sped away and watched the big-top came down for the very last time. Another town, another soul.