Monday, July 25, 2011

FICTION: Along For The Ride By Jason E. Hodges

Oddly enough, the gun barrel Jimmy had placed in his mouth felt and tasted exactly how he imagined it would. As the gun rested softly on his tongue, and his lips wrapped around its muzzle, a somewhat metallic, yet bitter flavor from the spent gunpowder filled his senses. Making him acutely aware of the task at hand. But the strangest thing Jimmy recalled about that moment was the cold steel of the gun slowly warming to the same temperature of his mouth as he tried to work up the courage to squeeze the trigger. Suddenly snapping back from his dark memory to the present time, Jimmy thought, “I’ve got to stop thinking of these things. I’ve got to move on.”

“Jimmy, you look like you’ve seen a ghost. You okay?”

“I’m fine, just thinkin’ is all.”

“Alright, I’ve got to get ready. The show starts in ten minutes and Lady is never late for her show.”

Jimmy had never been with a woman before. He sat nervously while Lady Blue prepared to go on stage. In his mind, he was still just a kid that hadn’t made it past the football stadium nights of cheerleaders, and prom queen hopefuls. There weren’t many women to pick from in his part of rural Mississippi, especially if you were marked as being different like Jimmy was.

“Jimmy, you goin’ to be around after the show?” Lady Blue asked, breaking his thoughts.

“Yes, ma’am, I’ll be around.” Jimmy dropped his head, his voice barely audible.

“Sweetie, you don’t have to call me Ma’am, just call me Lady,” She snapped her power compact shut and tossed it in the makeup bin. Turning to face him her eyes gave him a once-over.

Jimmy squirmed under her inspection. “Okay, Lady it is.”

“How did you end up with us anyways? You seem a little young to be on the road.”

“I can hold my own,” Jimmy spit out.

“Sugar, I didn’t mean to offend. I just meant you look young is all. I did notice you have a limp, and your hand don’t work that well. What happened?”

Jimmy remained quiet, not uttering a word.

“There I go again, sticking my nose where it don’t belong. Never mind what I said. We’ll have a drink after the show, and if you want to talk, we can talk, okay,” Lady smiled.

Jimmy finally looked up. “Okay, I could use a drink.”


Jimmy watched as Lady Blue pulled her fishnet hose slowly into position. Narrowing her toes, she slipped into her four inch stilettos. Standing up, Lady walked gracefully over and then leaned into a kiss with Jimmy. His heart raced as her full lips touched his cheek, and his mind ran wild as her beard scratched his face.

“See you after the show.” Lady said, as she exited the tent right on cue to the Circus Caller’s Booming Voice.

“Step right up to see the show of a lifetime folks, LADY BLUE, the woman with whiskers. That’s right, she’s not a werewolf, and this ain’t no full moon. She’s got a busty body with long lean legs, and bristles on top.”

Jimmy stood near the tent’s opening, on the edge of the stage watching Lady’s performance. Jimmy thought to himself how it wasn’t that long ago he was standing on the edge of life. Walking its sometimes tricky balance near death.

Lady finished her show and walked off stage. “Alright, Jimmy, I’m glad that’s over. Each performance seems to get harder as the years go by. My body can’t keep going like this night after night.”

“Awk Aaaawk.” A strange sound, from an even stranger looking man interrupted their conversation. His hair was greasy and slicked back. What teeth he still possessed were badly decayed and crooked. But most distinguishable of all about him was the soured smell coming from underneath the multiple fat rolls cascading down his body.

Jimmy’s stomach roiled as the man grew closer. He would certainly never get the drop on someone, even in the shadows of a dark alleyway.

“Sam, don’t you know how to knock?” Lady cut her eyes at the reeking man.

“I do, Awk Aaaawk. Is that the new worker? Awk.” Sam looked at Jimmy with his one good eye. The other eye was covered over with some type of milky film and drifted without control.

“Yea, that’s him, but he ain’t working tonight. You’ll get him in the morning. Jimmy, this is Sam.”

“Nice to meet you, Sam.”

“Aaaawk Aaaaaaaaawk. You just be ready to help with the, Awk, elephants in the morning. By help I mean, Aaaawk, clean out their pins, Aawk.

Sam pushed the tent’s flap aside and walked out. He was finally gone, but his smell lingered for several minutes afterwards.

Lady reached for her smokes. Putting the pack's open end to her mouth she gently grabbed a filter with her teeth then tugged it into a soft clinch with her lips. Jimmy could hear the slight crackle of tobacco as the flame brushed the end.

“Man, I’m glad Stinky Sam is gone. He is a big pain in the ass, especially with all that damn squawking he does constantly. He thinks he’s thinks he’s a bird of prey or something, which would be fine if he weren’t such an asshole. You better watch yourself around him. I’ve seen how he treats those animals with that cane of his, burying that sharp little hook into the backs of those elephants' legs to get them to move, and believe me, if Lucky could find a replacement for Stinky Sam, he would.”

“I’ll watch out for him.”


Trying to change the subject, Jimmy leaned forward and said, “I liked your show, Lady.”

Lady took a long drag from her cigarette, then placed it on an old ceramic plate that still held part of that day’s lunch. “It’s hell on my body, but it’s something I like to do. You want a drink, Kid? You seem a little tense.”

“Yea, a drink would be nice right about now,” Jimmy said, as Lady grabbed a bottle of whiskey from under her dressing station. She slowly poured the golden brown liquid into two shot glasses.

“So, Jimmy how the hell did you get linked up with the circus? Other than that strange walk of yours, and that hand that don’t seem to close all the way, you seem pretty normal.”

“Lucky hired me to work with the freaks in the side tent. But, for now, I have to clean up after the animals. He said he needed a little time to fit me into the act.”

“I’m not so sure I would classify you as a freak, Jimmy.”

Lady’s eye’s narrowed as Jimmy grabbed the brim of his hat and then slowly pulled it back to expose what he had been hiding from her. Jimmy could see Lady’s eyes were now wide and full of question.

“Wow, Jimmy, what happened?” Lady said, as she gazed upon Jimmy's uneven skull that was decorated with long lines of surgical scar tissue. Its top was recessed, and looked like a ball that air had slowly leaked out of.

Jimmy leaned in and touched the sunken part of his skull. “Lucky said, that I would be perfect to pass off as someone who had put his head in the lion's jaws, and the lion bit down on.”

Lady looked a little bewildered. “So, what really happened?”

“I use to be a severe stutterer growing up. School was a living hell for me. I had fallen in love with a beautiful girl named Tasha, and I thought she had fallen in love with me. But then our classmates got to her and started to tease her for just talking to me. The school jocks would walk up to us and say, Ji, Ji, Ji Jimmy’s in love with Ta, Ta, Ta, Tasha,” Jimmy said, as a single tear streaked a wet line down his face.

“You don’t have to say anymore, sweetie.”

“No, you should know my story. You’ve already seen its scars.”

“Okay, let’s hear it.”

“I had finally reached the point where I didn’t want to go on anymore. In my mind I had no reason to live. So, I did it.”

Jimmy put his hand now in the shape of a gun up to his mouth, then his thumb dropped down like a hammer.

“The only mistake I made was, using too small of a caliber. That 22 went right through my head, and I was still alive. I thought I was dead at first. Then I could taste the gunpowder and blood drooling from the side of my mouth. It felt like a thousand bees were in my throat stinging me over and over, and my head was being squeezed in a vice,” Jimmy calmly said, as he took another shot of whiskey.

“Damn, Jimmy. What happened then?” Lady Blue was now on the edge of her seat.

“All I remember from that point was immense pain shooting through my body, then nothing but darkness. There was no magical place I was suddenly in. No other side, at least I don’t remember there being one. I woke up twenty-two months later lying in a nursing home, a ward of the state of Mississippi. And until you’ve been a ward of the state, especially in Mississippi you don’t know what fun you’re missing.”

“I bet,” Lady then shook her head. “So, what happened to your stutter?”

“My stutter was gone. The bullet must have changed something in my brain but it gave me something new to deal with,” Jimmy said touching his leg.

“So, that’s why you walk with a limp.”

“You got it. I was paralyzed on one side of my body.”

Lady grabbed the bottle off her dressing table and poured two more shots. She then reached in her purse for a new pack of smokes. Smacking them upside-down on her palm, she packed the tobacco to her liking. Unwinding the cellophane, Lady pulled a cigarette for herself then Jimmy. The room was filled with the faint smell of fresh tobacco and the strong smell of whiskey. After lighting both of their smokes, Lady stepped out of her heels. Sitting down she moved her hand to the top part of her hose, pinching with her thumb and forefinger, she slid each stocking down carefully then placed them back in their egg shaped containers.

“Sorry, my man. I’ve got to get out of this outfit and into something a little more comfortable.”

“Not a problem.” Jimmy could feel the liquor had finally relaxed him. Lady step out of her dress, then pulled on a t-shirt with the words, Soccer Mom across the front. After sliding into some cutoffs Lady plopped back down in her seat.

“Wow, I’m glad to be out of that outfit. Some of the things Lucky has me wear are ridiculous. So, what happened next? How did you regain the use of your body?”

“One day a new nurse came into my room. There was something about her that I liked instantly. She looked at me differently; treated me differently. She looked past everything that was wrong with me with complete kindness. Her name was Callie and she was beautiful.”

Lady started to chuckle. She propped her feet up on the stool next to her. “So, she found a way to get you up and moving?”

“She wasn’t that type of nurse.” Jimmy laughed. “No, Callie never gave up on me. Every day she would come in and move my legs and arms like the physical therapist would do. Finally, I got to where I could sit up on my own.”

Lady brushed her beard softly with her hand, pondering Jimmy’s story.

“So, let’s get down to it. What happened between you two?”

“Well, I started to notice strange things about Callie. She would come into my room late at night when she thought I was asleep. Not moving, I would slightly lift my eyelids and watch her sitting in the darkness. She was always nibbling on something. Slowly tearing a wrapper, then holding something to her mouth biting little pieces off. One night I woke, not able to breathe. She happened to be in my room, in the darkness with her secrets. Anyways, she jumped up quickly and was at my side. After I had started to breathe normally. I saw something in her teeth; something she did not have time to pick out. It was bright red and waxy looking. It was a familiar color I had seen somewhere but I could not place where or when. I finally asked what she had been eating. She was very defensive at first, almost hostile. She stormed out of the room, and I didn’t see her the rest of the night. Then the following night she appeared in the darkness again. After watching me a while, Callie came and sat down beside me. She said she was ashamed, but she had a secret she wanted to share with me.”

Lady lit another smoke. Her exhale blew out quickly and then drifted to the top of the tent. “Spit it out already. What was she eating?”

“She was eating crayons.”

“That’s what she was scared to come out and say. Hell, I was born with a female’s body and a man’s face, and I get on stage every night.”

Lady threw her hands upwards and then smacked her thigh. Her dramatic movement made the ash from her cigarette break off and fall to her lap. Jimmy smiled. He knew if she was feeling half of what he was feeling that ash wouldn’t matter at all.

“The difference is, Lady, you work and live with a traveling freak show. You have to think, she was a freak on the inside. She couldn’t tell anyone around her about her obsession. She was eating twelve or so of those bad boys a day. So, when she told me there was this instant bond that happened between us. I told her, I was not going to judge her, that I had been looked at differently all of my life. This seemed to lift a heavy burden off her.”

Lady glanced out of the tent’s opening, then back to Jimmy. “So, why are you here, and why is she wherever?”

“In some way Callie and I needed each other. Late at night, when most of the staff was sleeping in a corner somewhere she would appear in my room. She would crawl in bed with me and hold me close to her. She would snack on her crayons, and we would watch television together. We talked for hours about everything under the sun. As we talked Callie would describe each color of crayon she was nibbling on. The texture, the waxy feel in her teeth, and the pieces, somewhat melted, somewhat hard sliding down her throat. She was happy, and I was happy. It was probably the best part of my life. But it all came to an end when one night we accidentally fell to sleep and woke to her supervisor standing over us. It was over for Callie’s job. She had to leave the state, and I was stuck right back in a place with no one I could relate to.”

“So, did you find out where she went?”

Jimmy shook his head. “Not at first.”

Months drifted by slowly without a word. I mean slowly. Then one day a letter came in the mail. Callie was living in Lawrence, Kansas, and wanted me to come live with her. She said she could not stop thinking about the two of us spending the rest of our lives together.”

Lady smiled. “I bet she was eating the hell out of some crayons by that point if she lost her job and had to move that far away. So, you joined the circus so you could catch a ride to Kansas.”

A bright smile suddenly stretched across Jimmy’s face. “Callie will be in the stands tomorrow night. After the show we can start our life together. I can’t wait to see her.”

“Well, you better get some sleep then. Climb on in bed with Momma. I promise I won’t bite. It will get cold in this tent, and it’s always good to snuggle with a friend.”

Jimmy climbed in bed with Lady Blue. He nestled into her full chest and then drifted to sleep in her arms, with the light brush of her whiskers on top of his head.

The next morning’s sun rose faster than Lady and Jimmy would have liked it to. Its bright rays pierced the tent's red and white striped canvas, casting the interior in a light pink alabaster haze.

Waking up hung-over in a circus tent was a new experience for Jimmy. He reluctantly made his way outside to the fairground’s spigot, roughly thirty yards from Lady’s tent. Placing his head under the cool water, Jimmy smothered the pain of his splitting headache. He then submerged his head in the bucket below, making everything so quiet, so peaceful.

Pulling his head up Jimmy’s headache came rushing back in the form of a voice saying, “Awk Aaaawk Aaaaaaaaaaaawk. You were supposed to be cleaning the cages of those filthy beasts at seven AM. Those stinking elephants need to be out for training. Aaaawk. Aaaaaaaaawk.”

Jimmy felt like he had been hit with a sledgehammer. Being shouted at by this strange little fat man who believed he was a bird seemed a little much after a night of drinking with Lady Blue. He was dumbfounded for a moment with the annoying screech still ringing in his head. He finally replied, “Okay, okay, I’m headed that way.”

“Good. Awk, this will not go unreported to Lucky. Aaaawk.

Jimmy slid his hands through his dripping wet hair. Lighting a cigarette brought slight memories of the night before with Lady. A slight smile crossed his thin lips as his thoughts turned to Callie. He looked off in the distance for a long moment quietly smoking. Then punched out his smoke.

Enough daydreaming Jimmy. You still have a day of work ahead of you.

After a long morning of cleaning cages, and sweating alcohol out of his body, Jimmy realized it was lunchtime. He could finally sit down and rest. By now Jimmy’s stomach was turning with nervousness. It had been two long years since he had seen Callie. In his mind he could still see her soft face and beautiful smile; her scarlet lips rich and full; her dark hair pulled back as she usually kept it. But what he remembered most were Callie’s piercing blue eyes. Her mysterious gaze seemed to look right through him at times.

Jimmy’s concentration was broken once again by that awful noise, “Aaaawk Aaaawk.” Sam shouted as he chastised the elephants with his Cane of Pain as he loved to call it, rapping them over and over with its sharp little hook.

Then Lady stepped into view. She reached out and snatched his cane, and in one fast swoop caught Sam in his ass. The steel hook grabbed his right cheek.

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaawk!” Sam screeched.

Lady’s cigarette danced in her mouth as she began to rapidly scold Sam, “You like that, did you? These animals don’t need all this misery you bring them day in and day out, you stinkin’ bastard.”

“Aaaawk, I’m going to Lucky with what you did to me.”

Lady then broke his cane over her thigh. As she handed the pieces to Sam she said, “Take this to him while you’re at it.”

“Aaaawk, Aaaawk, Aaaaaaaaaaaawk!” Sam hobbled off toward Lucky’s tent.

Lady looked over at Jimmy. “He had it comin’.”

Jimmy smiled at Lady. “I know.”

The rest of the day seemed to move a little faster than the first half. Jimmy fed and watered the elephants all while listening to Strange Sam complain about how he was treated by Lady.

Finally it was show time. The Circus Caller started his rant, “Step right up. This is the greatest show on earth, folks. We have it all, lions, tigers, freaks, strong men, bearded women, little people, and not so little people. We have it all.”

Jimmy scanned the crowd looking for Callie as the show began. Then a waving figure caught his eye. Her smile so bright, so welcoming to his longing eyes.

Suddenly, a loud shrill sound came from the center of the ring. It was the lead bull elephant blasting sounds of rage through his long gray trunk pointed straight up. Then a loud, “Aaaawk, Awaaaaak Awaaa--”

All at once the crowd began to scream and panic. Jimmy could see Strange Sam's lifeless body under the forehead and tusks of the giant bull, an animal that could easily push down full grown trees in the jungle. But today was pushing with everything it had into his tanner’s fat chest, smashing it into a four inch high piece of meat and broken bones. Sam’s eyes then popped from their sockets. They looked like two elongated eggs dripping with light pink blood.

Then Jimmy’s heart sank with fear seeing the bull now turn his anger on the crowd. Breaking its chains it started for the stands. The look of terror stretched tightly across Callie’s face. The bull was now starting to nudge the wooden bleachers, moving them with ease. The steel frame creaked and moaned as it buckled under the enormous force. The bull then let out another loud shrill through his trunk directly into the crowd as he shook his head back and forth.

Jimmy without a thought for his own safety made his way to the bull, shouting, trying to get his attention. Waving his arms frantically, he finally caught the eye of the bull. He swung his massive trunk, knocking Jimmy to the floor like a rag doll. Out of breath and on the ground Jimmy could hear Callie screaming. He somehow mustered the strength to stand and started up the bleachers to Callie. Halfway up, he felt the prickly cracked skin of the bull’s trunk wrap around his waist. Jimmy was suddenly flying through the air. He dropped to the unforgiving concrete floor below. Lying on the ground helpless, tears fell from his eyes as he saw the bull getting closer to Callie. Jimmy was weak and had taken a good hit to his head when thrown across the tent. Suddenly the screaming crowd was silenced by a shot ringing out. The bull slowly dropped to his knees, making low groans and grunts as blood flowed from his head. Then its giant gray body relaxed all of its muscles and fell lifeless on its side.

Moments later, Jimmy was in the arms of his Callie. Her tears dropped onto his face as she pressed her lips into his. Speaking softly, she told Jimmy to hold on, she wasn’t going to lose him twice. This was the last thing Jimmy remembered. He awoke three days later in the hospital. Callie was asleep in a waiting room chair beside his bed, her fingers intertwined with his.

“Callie,” Jimmy said softly. “Wake up.”

Callie slowly opened her eyes. “You’re alive. I didn’t know if you were going to make it there for a while. I love you, Jimmy.”

In a whisper Jimmy said, “I love you, too.”

There was a slight pause between them. They spent a few moments searching each other’s faces. Then Jimmy spoke, “You know you don’t need to be in that chair down there. You need to be up here with me, holding me until I’m completely well. This time you can’t be fired for showing how much you truly love another person.”

Callie’s face lit up with happiness as she climbed in bed with Jimmy. Lying on his chest, she slowly unraveled a dark purple crayon. Then nibbled at its end. All was well in Jimmy’s world.


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