MAYBE IT WAS THE WAY he asked for the scotch and water that caught the fella’s attention on the other end of the bar. He didn’t drink socially often, preferring the cramped confines of his camper away from the talking heads and judging eyes. He hated the bartenders, these barroom frat boys, his interactions with them always anxiety-ridden and strangely insincere, feeling as though he were seeking approval with every drink he ordered.
White Russians were once his drink of choice. Too many smart ass bartender comments about The Big Lebowski forced him to seek alternative booze. Was it the movie that originally inspired his White Russian fixation? Hell, probably.
And now it was scotch and water. It didn’t even sound very appealing, really. Anything that needed to be diluted that heavily with water would likely give him the head shakes going down. And the last thing he needed was an audience to witness him getting spastic with the liquor.
“Hey you. You’re that fucking clown, ain’tcha?” The guy said.
The tavern’s six patrons went silent. Even Molly Hatchet’s “Flirting with Disaster” on the jukebox eased a couple decibels. Nobody liked being called a clown. Even clowns.
“What clown? I didn’t know the circus was in town,” he muttered bringing the scotch and water to his lips.
He took a cringing gulp and JESUS CHRIST! The liquor scorched down his gullet like a volcano in reverse. His face erupted into a mass of nervous tics and spasms. His head bucked left twice. He coughed “cak cak” wincing with the corn liquor exertion.
The guy at the end of the bar smiled at the amateurish display. “You know what clown. The only clown that’s been around. At that piece of shit carnival on the edge of town. You was in the dunk tank. Milo the cocksucking clown or some shit.”
Melo. Melo the redneck provocateur, shitkicker agitator, carnival casanova and clown-faced prince of sarcasm.
“You got the wrong guy.”
“Bullshit. Not too many people around here skinny enough to look through a keyhole with both eyes.”
“Not me.” Though he was certainly skinny. Almost six foot tall, maybe a hundred and thirty pounds.
“Shit. I recognize your yankee voice. You said I oughta take my wife to the petting zoo. Kids pay upward of two dollars to be able to touch a live elephant.”
Melo chuckled. He couldn’t help himself.
“You think that shit’s funny? Me and the wife getting humiliated in front of the community. In front of the folks from the wife’s church, even. That’s funny? That she’s got a thyroid condition… and a bad back.”
The patrons peered nervously at their beers. The bartender edged closer to the elbow in the bar, whispering neutral words of diffusion.
“No, it’s not funny at all,” Melo the dunk tank clown said. “This clown sounds like a menace.”
“Menace my ass! That clown’s an asshole. He’s lucky he was locked up in that cage all night, then the police escort at the end there. Nobody insinuates my Loretta’s a pachyderm and gets away with it. I oughta stomp a mud hole in your ass just for reminding me of it.”
“Easy, Jerry,” the bartender said. “Nobody’s fighting anyone tonight. Everyone knows Loretta’s got a thyroid condition, she can’t help it.”
“Damn straight. Fuck clowns.”
Melo raised his glass in a toast. “I concur,” he said. “Fuck clowns.”
The men at the bar raised their glasses in a toast. Only Melo had white greasepaint on his sleeve.
“Melo needs a cigarette.”
His voice boomed across the Foodland parking lot. The carnival had been erected in a thirty six hour orgy of methamphetamines and power tools. There were three food booths peddling the elephant ears and freshly squeezed lemonade, five cheesy kid rides like The Zipper, The Zig Zag, the Gravitron, all designed to make the kids empty their stomachs for more carnival food. There were eleven game booths manned by desperate chain-smoking lifers, suffering the perpetual indignity of begging kids to play a two dollar game awarding dime prizes. And then there was the jewel of the fest. The money maker. The dunk tank. Home of Melo, the dunk tank clown.
“Hey y’all. Melo needs a cigarette.”
The microphone attached to the lapel of his lime green and silver clown suit amplified his voice across the asphalt expanse. Everyone within ear shot, meaning every goddam soul at the fair, acted like they’d never heard of cigarettes before. Even the carnies gripped their Marlboros tighter and looked away.
There may not have been a proliferation of cancer sticks, but chewing tobacco was in abundance, every cheek of every man, woman and child, hyper-extended with golfball sized gobs of Skoal long cut. The fairgrounds was streaked with a thousand streams of brown spittle. He’d ask for a pinch if he had somewhere to spit other than the vertical bathtub worth of stagnant water below him.
A three-toothed marvel stepped forward and offered a Marlboro to Donna operating the dunk tank booth. She stuck it in her mouth, made a show of throwing back her shock of black hair hanging down to the crack of her ass, and allowed the fella to light the smoke with his Zippo. From where he perched on the five inch wide metal ledge within the cage, Melo could see the blazing 3 adorning the Zippo. In Alabama, if Elvis had driven stock cars, he’d have been Dale Ernhardt.
Donna slipped the cigarette between the iron bars. Her eyes were gray today. They held each other’s gaze a moment too long and she smiled the sort of smile that could mean anything, but mostly meant she wanted to give at least the appearance of being happy. He noticed the filter carried her shade of lipstick matching the red greasepaint ringing his mouth.
With another flick of her hair she resumed her station at the dunk tank booth counter, offering three throws for two bucks.
“Melo needs a ballplayyyyeeerrrr,” he drew out the last word in as annoying a manner as possible. “Water. Water.”
The unwashed southern rabble milled about, no different than the denizens of any other southern town during the carnival’s tour of the Bible belt. These were the area’s starving class, the middle class dwindling toward poverty, people who couldn’t afford to take their families to legitimate amusement parks like Great America or Southland Adventure. Economically, these places were as far away as Disneyland. God knows, the fifteen dollar wristband for unlimited rides on the rickety contraptions that looked like metallic sculptures feng shuiied by a hurricane in this Foodland parking lot ate a hole through many a families food budget large enough to drive a bread truck through. Now, the task that Melo bent his will toward was separating the marks from their tobacco money by means of insults and a little fairground psychology.
“Hey, Scarecrow Joe, it’s too bad that muscle shirt didn’t come with muscles.”
The scrawny guy wearing the sleeveless shirt looked bewildered as though he’d never been sassed by a dunk tank clown. He glanced around, apparently checking for another skinny fella showing off his guns, until his equally goofy buddies clued him in. Then he got pissed.
“You ain’t no bigger than I am,” he hollered.
“I ain’t the one dressed like Flex Armstrong, buddy.”
Melo figured the logical retort for Muscle Shirt would have been to point out that at least he wasn’t dressed like Bozo, in which case Melo would have responded “but you are”. A battle of wits in this white trash coliseum was sorta like bringing a chessboard into a halfway house for the retarded. Muscle Shirt was too angry to stretch toward cleverness, however.
With folks snickering around him, Muscle Shirt laid two dollars on Donna’s palm and collected three baseballs.
“Now your daddy taught you how to throw a baseball, right?”
Muscle Shirt reared back and threw the baseball with all his strength, missing the target high by about a yard.
“Daddy didn’t raise no athlete.”
The second ball bounced two feet short of the bulls eye and careened throughout the enclosure.
“It’s accuracy not velocity, dummy. Water. Water.”
It’s a sad fact, men who wear muscle shirts learn life lessons eighty percent slower than most sensibly dressed folks. The last throw may have been launched in the target’s general direction, but had no more chance of hitting the bulls eye than if he’d turned a 180 degrees and thrown it toward the Octopus ride.
“Why don’t you get your boyfriends to collect up some quarters for another go. You were soooo close that last one.”
Muscle Shirt flipped him a skinny bird.
“There’s your IQ showing,” Melo mocked. “Water. Water.”
The crowd gathered like storm clouds on an asphalt horizon and Melo flashed lightning insults across the assembled. Everything from ancestry to sexuality brought down Melo’s wrath. His taunts ranged from the mildly sophisticated, referring to a hook-nosed spinster as “Virginia Woof-Woof” to grade school taunts “hey skiddle diddle, look who’s bald in the middle”.
Through it all Donna stood her ground, collecting money, offering the insulted three chances at redemption. Melo imagined her smiling sweetly, offering words of encouragement, the nurturing angel to his clown-faced demon, as ignorant rednecks hurled baseballs, poorly, because they couldn’t stand having their idol, Bear Bryant referred to as a “houndstooth wearing homosexual”. He imagined running his hands through that long black train of hair, whenever she turned to smile at a witty bon mot or grimace at a particularly cruel taunt.
The third cigarette she handed Melo, he whispered “you wanna grab a beer with me tonight once we shut down?”
“Sorry, honey, I’m bushed. It’s been a long day in the sun.”
Melo let his eyes wander away from her chameleon eyes, gray to match her sweater, and looked across the street where there should have been a view rather than a Waffle House billboard.
“Ok.” He even managed a smile to match the big red one painted across his face. Two false smiles more threatening than amusing.
Once Donna returned to her sentry position at the counter, Melo focused his attention back on the sea of marks, specifically upon a gaggle of Mexicans walking past.
“Hey, somebody call immigration. I bet there’s not a green card among these chicken farmers.”
Their heads raised up and turned toward the dunk tank in unison like a pack of prairie dogs illegally surfacing in the kingdom of the squirrel to cull dead chickens for slave wages.
“Second shift at the Tyson chicken plant must have let out early.”
Without the aid of translation, the Mexicans were unable to comprehend the taunts. They exchanged nervous shrugs (immigration being one of the words they did understand) and continued wandering. The good Christian white folks in the vicinity were momentarily amused. Since the Mexicans looked like decent hardworking men dressed in the fashion of the cowboy, the rednecks felt it was safe to laugh in their faces.
“Long Island Iced Tea, please.”
The bartender smirked, or maybe Melo just imagined the slight upturning of his lips. He hated any sort of prolonged eye contact, which made gauging facial expression difficult.
He’d debated with himself whether or not he should ask for the Long Island Iced Tea, fearing the bartender would plead ignorance and ask which liquors comprised the drink. Melo had no idea. Tequila, he was certain made up one of the five pieces of the tasty puzzle. Rum, maybe? Why was it you were expected to know the ingredients to enjoy an alcoholic beverage? No one ever asked you how to bake when requesting a chocolate cake from the bakery.
Wordlessly, the bartender tossed his dirty dish rag into the sink and set about mixing the concoction. Melo could tell by his body language, anything more than fetching a bottle of Miller High Life or pouring out a shot of Jameson whiskey was seriously putting him out.
Melo studied him, surreptitiously, wondering if he’d seen this man from his cage, how would he go about insulting him.
There was nothing about the bartender that differentiated himself from anyone on the other side of the bar. He wore Wrangler blue jeans, a Dale Ernhardt Jr. T-shirt, a John Deere gimme cap. The patrons lining the mahogany engrossed themselves in the ESPN news on the flat screen television suspended in the corner. The bartender looked as though he would have been perfectly content to be sitting right beside them.
Nothing, Melo decided. The man was a blank. One hundred and eighty pounds of anonymous flesh. God had given up the creation racket a long time ago, outsourcing the industry to a mammoth celestial factory somewhere above China. Low prices at the expense of individuality. Not exactly an idea that lends itself well to a dunk tank sound bite, however.
“Here’s your drink, buddy. Eight dollars.”
Melo counted out eight crinkled singles from the contents of his pocket, feeling mildly exasperated by the expense. You can take your tip out of the drink, dummy, he figured.
He wished the son of a bitch would come to the fair. He’d love to rank down any man who could charge eight dollars for a mixed drink without batting an eyelash, or being crippled with guilt.
The bartender took his time ordering the bills to his satisfaction before approaching the cash register. Melo sipped his drink. It tasted like no other Long Island Iced Tea he’d ever touched. But not in a good way.
Poisoned? What the hell was that jackass doing behind the bar? Squeezing his dishrag into a glass?
It didn’t even look right, the liquid being far more transparent than he was use to.
Melo took another rueful sip, glancing at the bartender. The guy kept a professional caliber poker face, he could say that much for him. Not so much as a smirk.
It was the rest of the bar that gave away his scheme, the way the drunks held their collective breaths every time his lips touched the glass. Tonight’s entertainment, again.
If Donna had agreed to join him for just one beer, it wouldn’t have been this way. Just one beer, instead of sitting in her camper, reading Clive Cussler paperbacks into the night.
He wasn’t going to be their fool. Not tonight. He pushed the drink aside, stood up, and walked out without a word, willing himself not to hear the laughter whether it was there or not.
“Arab, Alabama. Some reason, I was expecting you people to be a little darker.”
Melo knew he was in for a rough night when the police shut down The Spin Cycle for an inadequate seat belt violation an hour after the fair opened to the public. It was one of the few rides popular with children and adults.
Arab, Alabama, the last bastion of white America, where the citizens didn’t even tan in the sun, and where crime was so nonexistent the police force had to patrol the fairgrounds in the parking lot of the town’s park to ensure no one had fun.
He’d clowned in dunk tanks in a hundred towns no different than this one, populated by folks so religious-minded even their pets wore crucifixes dangling off their collars.
“Be careful,” Donna warned, handing him another cigarette bummed from the passerby. “They’re just looking for an excuse to shut us down.”
“We can’t make any money keeping quiet.”
“I think this is gonna be a wash either way. I’d just as soon it not end with the cops.”
Her chameleon eyes were blue today, matching her blouse. Her eyes held his. Did she not feel the electricity between them? How could she feel nothing when he felt everything?
“Hey, Donna, there’s this karaoke club in the basement of the Holiday Inn near the lake I saw when we were coming into town. It’s just a short drive down the mountain. What do you think about stopping in?”
“Honey, you know I don’t like karaoke.”
“We could go there to listen. Have a laugh. Drink a few beers.”
“I get all the laughs I need here.”
“We could go to The Yellow Ribbon. I don’t think there’s any laughs to be had there.”
“I appreciate the offer, darling. I really do. But I’m gonna pass.”
“All right, Donna. But the invitations open if you change your mind.”
“I’m not gonna change my mind.”
Melo flicked the half-smoked cigarette into the tepid water below and exhaled the last plume of smoke in a sigh.
And then -- manna from heaven -- a retarded kid stumbling past with his keepers caught Melo’s attention. Down Syndrome. The kid bore the universal face of the Corky.
“Hey folks,” Melo laughed. “Don’t ever let your kin tell you inbreeding doesn’t have its consequences.”
Everybody within earshot froze in place. Eyeballs ping-ponged between the clown and the handicapped kid. The predominant expression was sincere disbelief. Even the retard looked more stunned than usual. Donna turned toward Melo, her jaw hanging.
“What? Someone had to say it. Water. Water.”
In a matter of seconds, the gathering near the dunk tank multiplied exponentially as word of Melo’s insensitive exploits spread. Money flew into Donna’s hands. Baseballs caromed within the dunk tank enclosure.
A redneck wearing a Carrie Underwood T-shirt wasted his three balls, throwing them at the cage. Melo never flinched.
“Those bars are iron, dummy. You ain’t gonna break it with a baseball.”
The crowd quickly became belligerent. Threats on his life were hurled with the same consistency and incompetency as the baseballs. The cops abandoned their ride inspections in order to hover on the fringes of the great white horde, looking to give the illusion of control. For the better part of an hour, there was no pause in the onslaught of baseballs.
Melo hit the water three times. The second time he twisted his lower back something fierce. The small metal bench he perched on for hours was no less cruel than any number of medieval torture devices those good Christian folks would have been more than happy to treat him to.
The crowd thinned out some once the sun descended and the streetlights flicked on. Melo would have liked to eat a Philly Cheese Steak sandwich from the roach coach on the other end of the fairgrounds but wasn’t sure it was worth the trouble securing a police escort to run the gauntlet of remaining agitated townsfolk.
Donna offered him half of her chicken salad sandwich earlier. He’d declined off-handedly, not sure why, he loved chicken salad, but at the moment decided he didn’t want anything from her. He could no more bring himself to ask Donna to grab him a sandwich from the roach coach, than he could go himself.
With a break in the action, he tried to take his mind off his hunger by concentrating on the pain in his lower back. The narrow bench he perched on allowed little movement. Stretching out his back would slide him right into the water.
“That looks uncomfortable.”
A female voice. Not Donna. Donna sat on the counter, chatting with the foreman/maintenance man, Carl.
Melo craned his neck, sending lancets of pain shooting down his right leg. A slim blonde stood near the side of the cage where the parking lot ended and the park’s walking trail dipped down to the edge of the asphalt.
“It’s not so bad, I guess. Being in this cage. Once you get use to it.”
“I don’t think I’d ever get use to it.”
A clown groupie? Melo had given up hope such a creature existed. An old friend who freelance clowned for store grand openings use to brag about all sorts of sexual conquests his profession resulted in.
“Hey, if I give you a few bucks could you get me a Philly Cheese Steak, real quick?”
The bartender cracked open the beer and set it in front of Melo. He took a long swig and set it back down on the coaster. Quarter after midnight the Budweiser digital clock read. Sera was late.
“Hey, Buddy, you got a smoke?” The guy asking the question looked like he was having a difficult time balancing his crystal meth, cigarette and alcohol addictions.
“I don’t smoke,” Melo said.
The man smiled a mouthful of fish scale teeth. “Well, how about a beer, then. C’mon, I’m a veteran.”
“Leave’em alone, Albert, before I put your ass on the road, again.”
The veteran grimaced and trudged back to his stool muttering darkly.
Melo went easy on his beer, unsure how long he would have to baby it, resisting the urge to admit to himself, Sera wasn’t likely going to show.
Five long minutes, the door swung open and Sera hurried inside, seating herself beside Melo on the side nearest the door, quickly before the drunks got the chance to focus their bloodshot eyes on her and get any ideas. She’d changed since the fair. Rather than the form-fitting Aeropostale baby T-shirt and sweatpants, she wore a dark blue hoodie that hung off her shoulders like a garbage bag and black shapeless slacks.
“What can I get you, honey?” The bartender smiled, flirtatiously.
“Nothing.” She kept her head down. She wouldn’t even make eye contact with the bartender. There was nothing of the vibrant personality she displayed when she first spoke to him from the side of the dunk tank. “We’re on our way out.”
Melo didn’t stay to finish his beer.
“I parked around back,” she said as they exited the tavern.
“I didn’t think you were coming,” Melo said.
“Yeah,” was her answer.
There were two vehicles parked in the alleyway. A burnt orange Dodge Avenger and an older model Silverado pick- up truck. He could see the back of two mulletted heads in the dirty gray truck.
Melo began walking toward the smaller orange car.
“Where you wanna go?” He asked, smiling slyly. “I’m not familiar with what’s around here.”
Sera didn’t say anything. As she rushed forward, the doors to the pick-up opened simultaneously. The men stepped out, each one gripping an aluminum baseball bat.
Ex-boyfriends, Melo immediately suspected. No. That didn’t make any sense.
“Hey, carnie clown, remember me?” The driver spoke.
Sera had all ready faded away, rushing past the vehicles, down the alley. Get help… Melo thought.
“You got the wrong guy,” Melo croaked.
“No, I don’t think so. You thought you were so fucking funny making fun of retards didn’t you. You think you can just blow into town and talk shit about our retards.”
“I didn’t make fun of anybody.”
The man talking circled to Melo’s left, while the other man flanked his right side. I don’t even recognize these people, he thought glumly. Couldn’t remember even singling them out of the crowd.
“You know how easy we can make a bug like you disappear?”
“Please. What did I do wrong?”
“You got something smart ass to say about my hair, now? Say it, bitch.”
“I didn’t… C’mon, man. It’s a mullet.”
The man swung his bat. Melo brought up his arms to ward off the blow and felt his left forearm shatter with the impact. He cried out.
He’s swinging too hard, Melo thought. He’s not going to just try to teach me a lesson. And on the heels of that thought, the man from the passenger seat connected with Melo’s belly. He bent forward and vomited sour mashed Philly Cheese Steak onto his shoes.
Melo didn’t feel the next swing connect at all.
by Bill Pieper
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