Big Red Cap, fiction by James Leary

Not so long ago there lived a young man who suf­fered great­ly at the death of his father.  The young man, who became known as Red Cap for the old, dusty Marl­boro hat he always wore, was loved by all those who lived in Saltlick.  They found him a strong, lean young lad, will­ing to help out neigh­bors with the sim­plest request.  When any­one need­ed a hand, Red Cap was there to chop wood, repair bro­ken trail­er pins and hitch­es, rescreen doors and win­dows, and set or pull or house tobac­co.  The cap itself was a rem­nant from the life of his father.  Once when the young man was a young boy, he fell off the back of a tobac­co wag­on as it bounced up a grav­el path to the barn.  The boy cried and cried, even though he had only been scraped, until his father took the Marl­boro cap from his own head and gave it to his son.

One day the young man’s moth­er remind­ed him that the annu­al farm machin­ery show was going to be held in a near­by city.  She told him very clear­ly, “I need you to take your father’s trac­tor to the city and sell it so that we can keep food on our table for the year.  Be care­ful and don’t waste all the mon­ey while you’re in town.”  She also explained to him the dan­gers of the city, in par­tic­u­lar the fact that out-of-town­ers are preyed upon, for mon­ey or oth­er­wise, when they spend too much time there.  The young man had dreams of becom­ing a farmer him­self, so at first he was quite dis­ap­point­ed that his moth­er would ask him to sell the trac­tor.  But, he thought, his father’s small­er, red util­i­ty trac­tor, a tiny Inter­na­tion­al, would still do well on the farm, and the mon­ey from the sale of the big­ger trac­tor would help keep him and his moth­er fed while he prac­ticed what he’d learned about farm­ing from his father.

Red Cap’s father had nev­er asked him to attend the show.  His father often went, near­ly every fall, but Red Cap typ­i­cal­ly stayed home with his friends and got into mis­chief in Saltlick or played out in the field with the fam­i­ly dog.  Red Cap had been as far as Bur­ford, twen­ty miles away and pop­u­lat­ed with a sin­gle stop­light, but he had nev­er been far­ther.  The world beyond seemed mys­te­ri­ous and dan­ger­ous, even though he could read about most every­thing about it from the World Book.

Now,  to become the man of the house after his father had passed on, Red Cap need­ed to go out into the world and do as his moth­er asked.  Red Cap loaded the main trac­tor into a large box trail­er and head­ed out to the high­way and the city beyond.

Once Red Cap reached Louisville, he found it much more dis­ori­ent­ing than he expect­ed.  He saw a for­est of build­ings and light poles and signs cov­ered with adver­tise­ments.  He mar­veled as he fol­lowed the signs for the Annu­al Farm Machin­ery Show that led him through sweep­ing and sloped high­way inter­changes and along above-ground bridges that loomed over the cityscape.  Saltlick had none of these.  His home had more grass and trees and dung in an acre than he fig­ured could be found through­out the entire city.

The clos­er to the high­way exit he drew, the taller the build­ings grew.  Even­tu­al­ly he saw them so packed in that it made him think of neat rows of tow­er­ing tobac­co ready to har­vest.  This thought actu­al­ly com­fort­ed him.  It felt like some­thing famil­iar in a wilder­ness of dark, strange things.

Near the fair­grounds, Red Cap took an exit and pulled his truck and load into a grand park­ing lot.  In a sea of trucks and trail­ers and trac­tors, he put his palm up to shield his eyes and scanned across the lot.  He saw no clear signs to direct him and had no idea where to go next.  Did he check in some­where?  Did he wait for some­one to approach?

As he was pon­der­ing his next path, an attrac­tive young woman stepped out from behind a row of John Deere machines and hand­ed him a small fly­er.  He glanced briefly enough to only notice a young woman dressed in a bright red cloak on the flyer.

Hi, hon­ey,” the young woman said.  She held a stack of the small fly­ers, all the same.  She wore a fit­ted pair of den­im jeans, cow­boy boots, and a yel­low tank top.

Good evening,” said Red Cap.  He glanced away from her hands to her face and back quick­ly.  He felt a bit ashamed at talk­ing to her, though he wasn’t quite sure why.  “Do you work for the Machin­ery Show?” he muttered.

No,” she said.  “I work at JT’s, six blocks north on Crit­ten­don.” She point­ed at the fly­er in Red Cap’s hand, touch­ing her fin­ger to it and soft­ly brush­ing his thumb as she drew it back.  He noticed she had an invit­ing smile, under­stand­ing and allur­ing.  “You should come see me.”

Well, I’m talk­ing to you right now,” he said, proud at his cleverness.

You can see more of me there,” she hint­ed.  “Not too much more on account of the city lawyers and coun­cil and so forth but more than what you see here.”

Well, I’m not sure,” Red Cap stam­mered.  He looked her up and down again and real­ized he didn’t know many women like this from Saltlick.  She was fair­ly small­er than he was used to, and she looked at him dif­fer­ent­ly, like she was hun­gry and excit­ed that he was around.  Women, main­ly, and some girls from Saltlick usu­al­ly invit­ed him to din­ner or to stop by the house and talk lat­er.  None had ever hint­ed that he might see more of them or what that meant.  Red Cap wasn’t sure what JT’s was and why it was fur­ther into the city.  “I’m not from Louisville, so I don’t know the area much, and I’m here to sell this trac­tor any­way.”  He ges­tured at the trail­er behind him.

Hon­ey,” she began again, “it ain’t far, and sure­ly you’d rather look at some­thing oth­er than trac­tors all night.”  She reached for his hands and turned over the fly­er in it.  Point­ing at the back, she said, “Look there and you’ll see easy direc­tions to get down there.”  She hugged him, a lit­tle awk­ward­ly, and walked on down the lot.

With­in the hour, Red Cap sold the trac­tor, as it was a rare mod­el of that size.  The pay­ment, all cash, he tucked deep down in his boot-sock, safe and sound.  He con­sid­ered wan­der­ing around and look­ing at some of the oth­er equip­ment, but he felt tired and home­sick already.  He planned to leave quick­ly when he encoun­tered the young woman in the park­ing lot again.  He noticed this time, from behind, that she had longer hair than he expect­ed, most­ly brunette with some blond streaks through­out.  She waved at him as she posi­tioned the last of her fly­ers under the wiper on a near­by Ford pickup.

Are you com­ing to see me lat­er?” she asked.

Maybe,” he said, “are you done here?”

I’m done,” she said.  “Going to JT’s here in just a few.  I would offer you a ride, but we aren’t allowed.”

Ah, I’d have a hard time explain­ing that sto­ry at home any­way,” he said.  “Not many peo­ple like you where I’m from.”  She smiled.  “What is your name any­way?” he asked.  “So I know who to ask for at the place.”

I go by Can­dy,” she said.  “But I’m not always sweet to peo­ple.  I just like it when the farm­ers come to town.”

Why is that?”

Let’s just say they make it worth my while for the whole year,” she answered.  It was clear that she didn’t want to explain because she quick­ly asked again if Red Cap would be vis­it­ing her club.

I might,” he answered.  “I prob­a­bly could.”  This seemed affir­ma­tion enough, as she hopped excit­ed­ly and asked him when he might arrive.  He told her was going to head that way imme­di­ate­ly, but that he felt like he’d rather walk to get a bet­ter sense of what the city was like.  Yes, he planned to walk the six blocks, but he fig­ured that was pret­ty easy com­pared to get­ting cat­tle where you want­ed them to go all day and work­ing in corn or soy­beans or tobac­co.  With that, she jumped into her a small sedan and squealed off, fly­ers all gone, toward the down­town skyscrapers.

Red Cap’s walk was more amaz­ing than he ever expect­ed.  Though he had heard, read, or seen pic­tures of the many types of peo­ple in large cities, he had nev­er seen them up close.  The side­walks were full of mys­ter­ies.  A man push­ing a baby car­riage filled with soda cans, a woman with a white and tat­tered wig whis­per­ing to every­one who passed, a three-legged dog being led by a one-legged man on a motor­ized wheel­chair, dozens of shirt­less black boys walk­ing in small groups, a police offi­cer on a horse, and even three teenage girls zip­ping by on a sin­gle, tiny scoot­er.  It was a wilder­ness of unfa­mil­iar peo­ple and things.  Feel­ing dis­ori­ent­ed, Red Cap remem­bered the small fly­er in his pock­et and knew the direc­tions would lead him if nec­es­sary.  How­ev­er, he need­ed no such help.  Soon he saw for him­self the great, glow­ing sign mark­ing the entrance to JT’s.

He went in. It was dark­er than Red Cap expect­ed.  The lights gave only a mut­ed, bluish glow.  A young, night­ie-clad woman quick­ly approached him.

Hi, hon­ey, you want to get a drink?” she asked.

I’m look­ing for some­one,” Red Cap answered.

Well, sweet­ie, you’re in the right place.  There are lots of some­ones here.”  And she was right.  Red Cap looked past her and saw dozens of men and a few women grip­ping bills tight­ly and find­ing curi­ous ways to give them to women who were danc­ing on the stages.  He remem­bered the mon­ey from the trac­tor sale and felt the fold­ed pile deep in his boot and damp with sweat against his ankle.

I’m look­ing for Can­dy,” Red Cap replied.

She’s over by the bar,” the woman said.  She turned to leave, and Red Cap real­ized that she was wear­ing a small rab­bit tail.

Puz­zling over this, Red Cap made his way to the bar where he had been sent.  Can­dy was there, sure enough.  She spoke with anoth­er man beside her.  She had her back to Red Cap, and he noticed that she, along with a rather reveal­ing gray out­fit, sport­ed a tail of some sort.  It looked wolfish.

As he looked around the estab­lish­ment, Red Cap slow­ly under­stood the rea­son for the tails.  The club was themed, to a degree, around hunt­ing.  The walls were the dark cedar of a men’s lodge.  The upper areas were adorned with the tro­phy heads of hunt­ed beasts.  The ceil­ing dis­played fake green­ery, made up to look like the over­hang of a canopy of trees.  For Red Cap, who had only read and heard about places of this cal­iber, the scene was jar­ring.  Yet he could quick­ly see how the atmos­phere excit­ed and invig­o­rat­ed the men, who then freely gave their mon­ey.  In turn, the women, who freely accept­ed bills tucked into inti­mate places, includ­ing just beneath their tails, were invig­o­rat­ed by the exchange of money.

What struck Red Cap sud­den­ly is that his father nev­er men­tioned such places.  Sure­ly such knowl­edge would have helped Red Cap in the long run, as so many of the farm­ers he rec­og­nized from the show had end­ed up here.

Unsure of how to act in such a strange space, Red Cap sat at the bar and ner­vous­ly ordered a glass of water from a young female bar­tender who wore a brown biki­ni with what looked like a rac­coon tail attached.  A song with a con­sis­tent beat played in the back­ground, mak­ing Red Cap think of the put-put-put of the corn­meal grinder at the coun­ty fair near Saltlick.  Soon, Can­dy left the bar with the oth­er man and dis­ap­peared into anoth­er part of the club.  She left through a door­way framed by a skinned and stuffed water moc­casin, and Red Cap turned back to his glass, which was now becom­ing slick with condensation.

While she was gone, sev­er­al oth­er women approached Red Cap and asked him for a drink, to drink with them, or to come some­where and sit with them.  Each time he refused and repeat­ed that he was there to speak to Can­dy and that he would wait right there for her.  Each woman, after he refused, slinked out into the open space of the room and weaved through and around and against all the oth­er farm­ers wear­ing var­i­ous caps of dozens of col­ors, and many, Red Cap saw, sat down beside some of the men or sat in their laps, gig­gling into their ears.

Before long though, Can­dy returned from her door­way, now alone.  She wore a dif­fer­ent out­fit, even more reveal­ing than the tight gray shirt and bot­tom she wore before.   This time it was a pink biki­ni with small red cher­ries all over.  The tail was nowhere to be seen now.  She grabbed him by the hand with­out a word and led him from the bar into a small room.

Red Cap felt dis­ori­ent­ed by the room, as it had mir­rors all along the walls and a long dark leather couch along a whole side.  Can­dy sat him down and asked him how he was doing.

Good,” Red Cap said, “though I’ve nev­er real­ly been in a place like this.”

Are you hav­ing a good time?” she asked.  She began remov­ing her top.

I think,” Red Cap answered.  Her top fell to the floor.  He felt frozen, unsure of what to do next.  Should he leave?  Should he ask her about some­thing, her­self?  “Did you go to the machin­ery show today, or were you just out­side?” he final­ly asked.

I nev­er go in,” she said.  “I go down there to pass out fly­ers for this place.”

Well, it sure was nice to meet you down there today.  This is the first time I’ve ever even been to the machin­ery show.”

Oh,” she said.  She glid­ed toward him and strad­dled his lap.  “I hope you’re enjoy­ing yourself.”

Do you not remem­ber me from this after­noon?” Red Cap asked.

Of course, hon­ey,” she said.

You were wear­ing jeans and tank top,” he said.  “You changed when you got to work?”

Yes,” she answered.  “I can’t get very com­fort­able in here wear­ing that stuff.”

Why is every­one wear­ing tails?” Red Cap won­dered aloud.

It is part of the way we work here, club’s rules,” she cooed, “part of our theme here at the club.”

Why is that?”

Well, the bet­ter to enter­tain you with,” she gig­gled.  She began to rub her hips hard against him.  Red Cap sensed him­self grow­ing uncom­fort­able.  Candy’s hip and the undu­la­tions of her body matched the pace of the song.  Red Cap tried to think of the corn­meal grinder, but it was no use.  When she removed her bot­toms, he was sur­prised and con­fused to notice the tail still attached to her.  He thought that sure­ly it was glued on, wasn’t it?  His heart beat faster, and he felt both excit­ed and wor­ried.  To his relief, or per­haps lack there­of, the song end­ed and Can­dy moved off of him and sat beside him on the couch.

That’s twen­ty,” she said.

Twen­ty what?” Red Cap asked.

Twen­ty dol­lars.  That’s one dance.  Lat­er there’ll be a two-for-one spe­cial and I can come back if you like,” she said smil­ing.  Her teeth, a bright white, unnerved Red Cap a bit.

What makes you think I have mon­ey,” he said.

All the farm­ers have mon­ey when they come here.  If you didn’t want to spend, why did you even come in here?  At least you’re get­ting some­thing good for it!” Can­dy retorted.

Red Cap, now real­iz­ing how peo­ple behaved here, final­ly began to under­stand.  He won­dered if his father had come here.  He thought about his father’s excite­ment every year before the show, and he con­sid­ered that it might not just have been for farm machin­ery.  “I have to go out­side,” he said quickly.

The twen­ty first,” Can­dy demand­ed.  Red Cap thought of the fights his moth­er and father often had over mon­ey.  He furi­ous­ly stuck his hand in his boot and sock and wrig­gled out a bill. That his father’s lega­cy to the fam­i­ly was a col­lec­tion of well-worn land and machin­ery seemed bit­ter­ly cru­el. He shoved the wadded mon­ey into her palm.  Red Cap would have pur­chased feed or fer­til­iz­er with it; frus­tra­tion made him want the mon­ey back, but Can­dy had already slipped away, behind some secret cur­tains.  He stum­bled out into the main room, still a bit dis­ori­ent­ed.  He saw the dozens of men in the club laugh­ing and cack­ling and eager­ly wav­ing mon­ey in the air.  Some drew out sin­gle bills from a large wad of cash, much like his own, and tucked one after anoth­er into biki­ni strings, bra straps, garters, and under­neath the rab­bit, rac­coon, beaver, and wolf tails.  Red Cap felt ashamed, as if every­one could see that he felt strange and weird and out-of-place, but at the same time he knew that all the men were clear­ly focused else­where.  He real­ized, though, that he could escape while the oth­ers could not.

Anoth­er woman with a fake nose sport­ing whiskers approached him and inquired if he’d like to sit down for anoth­er drink.  “May I go to the bath­room first?” he asked.

Of course dar­lin’.  You go and I’ll be right here when you get back,” the woman responded.

Red Cap sped towards the bath­room, beyond it, and out the door into the street.  For a moment, pan­ic struck him as he con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­i­ty that oth­ers in the club had seen him with­draw mon­ey from his hid­ing spot.  The mon­ey was vital to keep him and his moth­er in good shape while he became a true farmer.  Find­ing him­self out in the street, in the dark, Red Cap swift­ly walked back the six blocks, try­ing to avoid mak­ing eye con­tact with any­one or any­thing.  Before long, he found his truck, locked him­self inside, and took a deep breath that brought in the smells of the dirty truck floor, speck­led with earth and mud from his home in Saltlick.  He felt great relief.

So Red Cap left JT’s and Louisville and head­ed home to Saltlick and his moth­er and the still raw absence of his father.  Red Cap knew, though, that he was not his father, and the jour­ney to Louisville con­vinced him of such.  How­ev­er, he did so with a boot sock still strapped with cash, a small lega­cy from his father that would serve as rich­es enough while Red Cap made his own way in the world as a farmer and son.


James Leary is cur­rent­ly teach­ing at Duquesne Uni­ver­si­ty and Robert Mor­ris Uni­ver­si­ty in Pitts­burgh, Penn­syl­va­nia. He is a recent trans­plant from Louisville, Ken­tucky where he recent­ly com­plet­ed his doc­tor­ate in Human­i­ties at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville. His work has appeared in :lex­i­con, Eagle’s Flight, The Chaf­fin Jour­nal, Auro­ra, Grab-a-Nick­el, and Here and There. His lit­er­ary inter­ests and influ­ences include south­ern and Appalachi­an fic­tion, fairy tales, and mag­ic realism.

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