[Dry County] fiction by Ernest Gordon Taulbee

The car­ni­val had come to Howard Coun­ty more than one or so times every­one said. He him­self had been there ten to twelve times, he thinks. Pret­ty much as long as he had been with the car­ni­val, so not long after he got released from juve­nile and was sup­posed to go back to school. He had a week between get­ting out of stu­pid fuck­ing kid jail and the start of school, when the car­ni­val came to town.  [Now?] He knew oth­er guys agreed to go to the army to get out of the deten­tion cen­ter, but he wasn’t inter­est­ed in that. He didn’t want to march in straight lines with all that “yes sir, no sir” shit all day long.

[He needs to slow down.]

He want­ed adven­ture, but he want­ed to get high too. Also, he knew he would end up in jail again at some point, and being in reg­u­lar jail where they let you sleep it off a lit­tle bit seemed like a bet­ter option than hav­ing some MP yelling at you about how big a fuck up you were at five in the morn­ing, when you were still half-lit. It didn’t seem like some­thing he would be down for, [Please.] so he would prob­a­bly just end up in the pokey for longer, when he put his hands around that MP’s throat.

[I can tell he has his fin­ger on the trig­ger. I felt him cock the hammer.]

He want­ed to be called Robin Marx, because he said that was the name all carnies use. He start­ed as a 24-hour man, post­ing the signs up and down the curvy roads in Howard Coun­ty, as part of the advance work crew. [Why now?] He got lost more than once when he was a First of May, and it took him for­ev­er to get back to the car­ni­val. He was afraid they would leave with­out him, since he was so new he wasn’t even sure any­one would notice if he was gone. They would come look­ing for the signs though. By the time he became an A&S man, [Please not now.] he knew those roads as good as any­body else. Don’t say like the back of your hand though [Why?], that ain’t no kind of bal­ly­hoo any self-respect­ing talk­er would use.

[My head hurts.] Back to what he was say­ing, Howard Coun­ty had always one of the best stops dur­ing the trav­el­ling sea­son, and only a crazy man would burn the lot there. [I’ve always hid­den my hang­overs well.] It was high grass, but it was more than worth it. He sus­pect­ed not much came there, so the Clems always came out like crazy, [This one is intense.] and it seemed to him those folks spent damn near every dime they had made all year in one night at the car­ni­val. The girls were easy too, but he ain’t no Chester. They nev­er had one blank; not a sin­gle time they were there.

All the car­ni­val peo­ple knew it was where the two of them fell in love.

[There is some­thing about him. Some­thing rep­til­ian in his eyes.]

He was The Man, and every­body – from caller to 50-mil­er – knew it. You did what he told you to do. You could give a lit­tle lip to the Con­ces­sion Man­ag­er, [I can’t explain it, but I can feel his heat.] but you bet­ter not say a cross word to The Man or you would be the cen­ter piece of a tor­ture show get­ting all the col­or drained from your veins. They called her Aunt Sal­ly, but she wasn’t one. She had start­ed as a key girl, since every mark that saw her want­ed her to be wait­ing when they opened the door, but now she run the girl-shows. Some folks say she start as a lot lizard when she wasn’t much more than a girl, but any­one in the car­ni­val would kill you dead if you said that out loud. [It’s fill­ing the room.] One carny said they first got togeth­er in a notch joint, but nobody ever saw that fuck­er again. [His heat is mak­ing me sweat.]

Word was they had got togeth­er in Gibtown over the win­ter. He heard one carny say it wasn’t going to be a carny mar­riage, but that it was going to be a real mar­riage. He didn’t believe it him­self, until they said they was going to have a cer­e­mo­ny and every­thing in front of the freaks and callers and ben­ders and every­body. [That look in his eyes. If he’s not blind, he is illit­er­ate.] He knew it had to be true when they said they was going to say their vows in Howard Coun­ty after every­one had put in their nel­son and the girl-shows was over.

That’s where the trou­ble start­ed. [I should have been able to over­pow­er him. He’s thin and frail look­ing. He’s obvi­ous­ly dying, so I didn’t expect him to be so strong.]

They weren’t plan­ning some lit­tle thing that wouldn’t add up to some flukem and some­thing from the cook house to chew on and they sure weren’t going to throw some can­dy floss at the troupers and tell them it’s cake. [Even the steal in his hand is burn­ing the back of my neck.] The lot man was going to run the show and over­see the vows, so nobody was talk­ing about a lit­tle thing. Some­one said they even put an announce­ment in Amuse­ment Busi­ness but said no one but the troupe was invited.

[The first one was the girl with the birth­mark — like she did it herself.]

[But I didn’t have the stom­ach for that any­more.] Here’s the thing: carnies ain’t a roman­tic bunch.

[I couldn’t kill them after her.] They like to fuck as much as any­body else, but it ain’t much more than that.

[I sold them to the high­est bid­der after the first one.] There are those who get carny mar­ried, and that is just to say these two are going to just do each oth­er for a while, but it ain’t noth­ing serious.

[There were plen­ty of bid­ders, and the prices soared high­er and high­er.] I could end at any time and nobody would think much about it.

[I was done. I am retired, as long as I find my way out of this.] No point for a carny divorce.

[Now par­adise awaits, if only I can get out of this.] It’s just over.

[I know my name: Estill Saly­er. I want it to be for­got­ten.] They could both be carny mar­ried to some­one else the next day, and you wouldn’t see a drop of jeal­ousy out of either of them, like it nev­er happened.

[There were ten of them. Ten big pay days.]

Carnies just don’t work that way.

That wasn’t all of it either. Word had it The Man had a shoe­box full of ABA’s in his trail­er. They said he would spread them out all over his bunk at night, and he and Aunt Sal­ly would fuck on them to make sure they were blessed. [He saw the mon­ey in my case. It’s enough for me until I die.] The sto­ry pass­ing around was he was going to cash them in and the two of them was going to retire to Gibtown with enough C‑notes to last them until the day they died. [I want the wife, and I want the kids. I want it all. It’s wait­ing in South Amer­i­ca in some dis­tant place.]

The lot man or the con­ces­sion man­ag­er had sup­pos­ed­ly bought the car­ni­val off The Man, and one of them would be the new Man. Nobody knew for sure, but most were pulling for the con­ces­sion man­ag­er. He was eas­i­er to get along with, but every­body fig­ured it would be the lot man, since he hadn’t ever tak­en lip from anybody.

[They say par­adise is in South Amer­i­ca. A place where they know the cure. A place where you can be safe and clean. I am going there. I’ve met a man who can give me pas­sage. He’ll be expect­ing me soon.]

As it goes, the new sher­iff in Howard Coun­ty got 86’ed from the show back in the day, and hadn’t set foot back on the lot since. He was just a kid then, and he’s full grown now. For some rea­son, he just nev­er got over it. They said he gave the advance man ten tons of scream­ing hell when he went to the coun­ty clerk’s office. What they said was that the sher­iff told the advance man that he’d be com­ing in to check the annex and if he saw one sign of a blow-off he’d take every fuck­ing carny there to jail.

[There has to be a way out of this.]

Here’s anoth­er thing: when that sher­iff came in he wasn’t the only thing the rubes in Howard Coun­ty vot­ed on. They also turned the coun­ty dry. Nobody had ever heard of that. Usu­al­ly dry coun­ties go wet. It sound­ed like one fuck­ing hell of a mess for a coun­ty to go from wet to dry, but that is what went down in Howard. Every­body was fig­ur­ing the Clems would be com­ing for a drink of some­thing, but the advance man said to tell them you don’t drink noth­ing but vir­gin flukem. He also said the sher­iff told him he’d arrest any car­ney with even a drop of liquor on his breath or person.

Word had it The Man, the lot man, and the con­ces­sion man­ag­er was all on the same page: this was going to be the last trip to Howard Coun­ty, [I have to fig­ure it out.] at least until that sher­iff was out of office, so make it count boys – take them marks for all they got. They said to GTFM and don’t let these cake eaters leave with a pen­ny in their pockets.

You would have thought that night was mag­ic. There ain’t no way around that. He said you would have thought every carny there was a heat mer­chant. Every caller, inside man, out­side man, and join­tee made sure to jo every game they were run­ning. He said they made them all look like lugens. There wasn’t a mark that left the car­ni­val that night who didn’t have a beef, and, you could def­i­nite­ly say, that the lot had been burned. [He has to be burn­ing up. I feel like I am stand­ing next to the sun.] The Man knew he would nev­er be allowed back in Howard Coun­ty. There wasn’t a KB all night, no mat­ter how much they hollered. The whole damn night, the carnies promised girl-shows and nud­ist colonies and key shows, but not a one of the Elmers got laid. He didn’t drop the awning because every­body had put in their nel­son, he dropped the awning, because all the mooches were spilling out too much heat. The carnies had their mon­ey, now it was time to have some real fun. [My head won’t stop killing me. It may kill me before he burns me alive.]

As soon as the last emby was gone, they had the 50-mil­ers set every­thing up. There were bot­tles of booze in buck­ets of ice stashed all over and good floss that looked like it came from an actu­al gro­cery store. They set guns out every­where too. Some of them guns were old­er than any­body knew. [I have my own gun, but he caught me out­side.] Some looked like they had just come out of come carny’s poke.

Carnies may not pay a dime in tax­es, but they are American’s just like the marks. God damn it,” he said.

He said he had nev­er been to any kind of wed­ding before. His par­ents weren’t even mar­ried, and he didn’t know what to expect. He thought it was the pret­ti­est thing he ever saw. [I’ve seen so many beau­ti­ful things.] The Man and Aunt Sal­ly said they loved each oth­er and promised to stay togeth­er for all times. Some of the peo­ple in atten­dance said what the lot man told them to say to each oth­er came from the bible. Oth­ers said he was just mak­ing it up as he went along, but that lot man had pol­ished more cracks than any­one else in the car­ni­val – so much that a lot of the carnies said he was the only pro­fes­sor who came about that title hon­est. [If only I had some­one. One per­son who cared about me.]

He said he had been carny mar­ried more than a few times, but watch­ing The Man and Aunt Sal­ly get hitched almost made him want to do it him­self. He said he was pret­ty sure that wouldn’t happen.

As soon as the lot man said “man and wife” The Man dropped his draw­ers and Aunt Sal­ly start­ed going down on him right in front of every­body. Some trouper grabbed one of them pis­tols, and shot it in the air. Some­body else yelled out, “Al-A-Ga-Zam” and the fuck­ing par­ty was start­ed with the only friends Robin Marx had ever had. [I have Fos­ter, but he is so far away. He prob­a­bly thinks I am dead already.]

All the carnies – from the newest 50-mil­er to the most elder trouper – was scream­ing loud enough to blow their pipes. If there was music play­ing, no one heard it. The girls from the girl shows and the key girls all start­ed danc­ing and get­ting naked. It wasn’t long before they were giv­ing it out for free. Even the key girls and they nev­er gave it out, but they all had two or three carnies going at them at once. It made him so hot he couldn’t stand it, so he grabbed him a gun and a bot­tle of liquor and went look for a place to bury his hard-on. That didn’t take long to find. He had nev­er had a bet­ter time in his life.

That’s right when it went to shit, before he could even come. That moth­er­fuck­er sher­iff had been as good as his word. He and all his deputies came in a shoot­ing guns and crack­ing skulls, before the first carny could say “B.C.”. That’s how he knew it was all over, when one of them deputies took a night­stick to the key girl he was fuck­ing. Nei­ther he nor any oth­er carny was going to take it. They all had guns, and that was their peo­ple the law was fuck­ing with.

[He’s so far away.]

He wasn’t sure if he was the first one to get a shot off, but he’s pret­ty damn sure his found his mark, the same way his bal­ly always found its mark. The cock­suck­er went down hard grab­bing at his chest and scream­ing some­thing awful. He walked on over there and put anoth­er bul­let in the asshole’s face, not even both­er­ing to put his own dick away. The key girl was just lying there on the ground naked, her eyes were wide open but she wasn’t breath­ing. [I remem­ber the last one strug­gling to keep her breath­ing calm.]

All the oth­er carnies were shoot­ing and fight­ing, and the police were fight­ing back. More of them kept com­ing too, except the new ones were wear­ing dif­fer­ent col­ored uni­forms. He lost count of how many of them there were, but he knew some of them were state boys and every­body knew the state boys don’t fuck around. He ain’t smart by any mea­sure, but he can count like a son of bitch. Every god­damn carny in the coun­try can count. They may not be able to say his alpha­bet all the way through, but he’ll be fucked if he can’t count.

They just kept coming.

[There may be a way out.]

He looked up at the flatbed trail­er where The Man and Aunt Sal­ly had just got mar­ried. There were a few key girls hid­ing in the pos­sum bel­ly. There were two of the cops hold­ing onto The Man, wrestling with him. The sher­iff was behind Aunt Sal­ly. He’s pret­ty sure that sher­iff was fuck­ing her. [She was star­ing up at me; her tears hold­ing back her break­down. I wish I could go back to her.] Not only can he count, but he can shoot too. He’s got an aim like a moth­er­fuck­er – it only took him three shots to put those deputies down.

He took the pis­tol and threw it to The Man. The sher­iff was too busy giv­ing it to Aunt Sal­ly to notice as The Man walked up to him and buried one right between his eyes. It was some­thing to see. The sher­iff fell down on top of Aunt Sal­ly and The Man threw him off quick­er than shit. Then, The Man grabbed onto Aunt Sal­ly, and just start­ed hold­ing her. [That is how I feel now. I deserve this. I am the run­ner cut in half by the rib­bon as I cross the fin­ish line.]

He looked around and he saw one of them rifles like they give you if he had joined up so as he could get out of juve­nile. He grabbed onto that son of a bitch and start­ed thin­ning the crowd, but seemed like – no mat­ter how many of them he put down – more of them kept coming.

He saw the lot man come his way. He was drag­ging the con­ces­sion man­ag­er. One was dead the oth­er looked like he was dying.

Go on now, get,” the lot man said to him. “Ain’t nobody got any friends left here.”

He looked back at The Man, because he wasn’t doing any­thing with­out his per­mis­sion. The Man was still hold­ing Aunt Sal­ly, but she had tak­en a bul­let. He wasn’t sure if it was The Man who gave it to her, but it didn’t mat­ter. The Man looked him in the eye and said, “Save yourself.”

That was all he need­ed to hear, he said “Al-A-Ga-Zam” one last time and he was off. Like he said, Howard Coun­ty was tall grass, so it didn’t take long before he was in the woods. His ears felt all muf­fled over, but he could hear the shoot­ing and car­ry­ing on, so he kept run­ning. [This is less than I deserve. I should have to suf­fer more than this, but I think I know the way out.] It was dark and hard to see, but that is when he felt some­thing fun­ny come over his eyes, and he had to stop run­ning because it felt like he was breath­ing up some­thing sweet­er than the can­dy floss.

The next thing he knew he woke up in the for­est. He could tell by the dew it was ear­ly morn­ing, and there was a roost­er in the dis­tance. He was hun­gry enough to eat that roost­er. He thought about try­ing to find his way back to the car­ni­val, but he sus­pect­ed they wasn’t much left there, so he head­ed towards the roost­er. [I need to fig­ure him out. There has to be a way. He is the evil I have deliv­ered being returned.]

The for­est opened up to the clear­ing. He could see an old farmer spread­ing feed for some chick­ens and a mess of doo­dles. He still had a rifle in his hand and anoth­er pis­tol in his belt, and he wasn’t in any mood for con­ver­sa­tion. He took one shot from the tree line. He took his sec­ond shot when an old woman came out the front door with her hands wav­ing in the air, like she was in some weird pos­ing show. He walked down the hill and to the house.

[I’m afraid his sto­ry is almost over. I’m con­fi­dent my sto­ry ends, when he’s done with his own, but I’m still writing.]

Some­body behind the door was try­ing to keep it closed, but he was stronger. It was a girl plen­ty old enough. He fin­ished the job he start­ed with the key girl and he felt much bet­ter. [I can feel him get­ting clos­er. His breath hit­ting me like hot weld­ing slag. That sweet­ness in his breath, and anoth­er smell like cook­ing meat com­ing from inside him.] Once that was over, he made her give him the mon­ey in the house and the keys to the trucks. He put her down, too.

[I chose this. This is my fate. It is all I have done and all I will do.] Then he start­ed dri­ving. He knew the main roads well and the back roads bet­ter, so he just kept dri­ving. Those farm folks must of not like banks. Who can blame them? So he just kept going, stop­ping for gas and some cook when he need­ed it. He trav­eled south and west, the oppo­site route the car­ni­val had been tak­ing, and he said it felt like many days from the past when he had been haul­ing a pig iron. [But I think I know a way.]

[He said to call him Robin Marx. I am call­ing him “sir.” I have to keep him talk­ing. As long as his sto­ry is going, I have more time to fig­ure this out.]

Then he saw the motel and he pulled into the park­ing lot. He’d nev­er stayed in a motel before, and he want­ed to give it a go. He need­ed to stop too, he thought, some­thing about his insides was hurt­ing. They just felt hot: hot­ter than the key girl had made him. Some­thing just wasn’t right and he knew it.

[I’ve heard it called the ghost of Gin­ny Dare; it must be haunt­ing him. I spoke of it with the last one. She was run­ning from many things. I think she was run­ning from Gin­ny, too.]

He hadn’t tak­en a bul­let or a blade. Maybe the food was poi­soned and he was the only one who lived long enough to know they had all been lied to [I start­ed so hon­est, but so many things led me here and noth­ing will lead me back to the place where I began.]. Maybe that booze was rotgut and that was what was going wrong with his eyes. Maybe that key girl or the farm girl had some pri­mal case of clap, and it was work­ing him over. He didn’t know. Despite the heat [I need some­thing cold. His heat is burn­ing me up.], he felt strong – stronger than he had ever felt. Strong enough to take on a whole kayfabe.

[I would have done good things. I would have done so much good when I made it to South Amer­i­ca. I have been an instru­ment of some­thing dark, but I wasn’t escap­ing to live. I was escap­ing because I want­ed to be good. I want­ed to be more like Fos­ter, because I know he is good.]

The motel took cash and he had enough left to pay them for two days. He went inside the room, once he fig­ured out why he got a card instead of a key. He took a show­er and rinsed out his clothes in the tub. He left them hang­ing from the show­er rod, and he laid down naked on top of the bed. He slept for a long while. It was day­light when he went to sleep and day­light when he woke up, and he was pret­ty sure a whole day had passed, since his clothes were as dry as Howard Coun­ty. [I want­ed to get there and send for Fos­ter. I want­ed the only fam­i­ly I have left to be safe.] The room was just too fuck­ing hot to live, so he went out­side. He was out of mon­ey, and he didn’t know where he was going. In truth he didn’t know where he was, and that was a dan­ger­ous thing. [Direc­tion comes with dan­ger, too.] He had to fig­ure his way out of this thing.

[Maybe I could have found those women or at least what was left of them. I could have brought them south and found them help. I could have made sure they were healed.]

Then he saw this mark. There he was: pleased with him­self like he had edu­ca­tion. He wasn’t sure if he left his pis­tol in the truck, but he knew he would find out. [Killing doesn’t both­er him. There is no way he will let me live.] He went back into the room and took the pen and paper from the night stand, and went back to the truck. Sure enough, the pis­tol was there. [I was there too, as I am here now.]

He walked up to that mark who was struck on him­self and told him not to make a god­damn sound. He told him to get his suit­case in get in that fuck­ing room. [I just have to find a way out. Then I’ll be good.] Once they got inside, he told him to open the case. That son of a bitch was full of mon­ey, and he knew, if he could just find a way too cool him­self down, he would be okay. He’d take that mon­ey from this stu­pid fuck­ing Clem who thinks he is bet­ter than every­one else, and he’s get his ass back to Gibtown. One of them old snake oil guys was bound to have an elixir that would calm this heat. [It has to happen.]

There was anoth­er stack of paper and pen in the mark’s room too. There was a lit­tle desk in the room as well. He told the mark to sit his ass down. [The bar­rel is dig­ging into the place where my skull and spine meet. He’s fin­ished talk­ing, but I am still writ­ing.] He took his pis­tol up to the back of that motherfucker’s head and told him to start writing.

[He’s get­ting closer.]

He told that dumb mark he was an Elmer like all marks were Elmers and he didn’t give a fuck if he lived or died.

[He knows I am just stalling.]

He told him he bet­ter write down every fuck­ing word just like he said it.

[It’s time.]

And he told him he bet­ter have a prayer ready for when it is all over.



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