Happy Times Midway

(Inspired by Stephen King style short stories.)

 

I never planned on killing a man, but then again I suppose no one really does. I remember standing behind that dumb son-of-a-bitch and squeezing my long-handled Craftsman wrench against his throat until his windpipe crackled like a plastic beer cup. It wasn’t like he had done much of anything wrong to me; in fact, I know I was the one to start it. And finish it too. When his body finally went soft, both of our lives had just taken a turn for the worse. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed killing him. Thinking back, I’m not sure I felt much of anything at all.

I’m guessing there must be at least a dozen more or so since that first time, but I’ve truly lost count. It ain’t like I kept a log to keep track of the dead. But I believe there’s a place deep inside of me that’s keeping score like notches on a bedpost. A place I only visit when the liquor helps my darkness flicker like a firefly on a black July night. I can’t blame the drink for all of the killing, but it sure seems ‘ol Captain Morgan is close by as often as not. Some days I woke up with the rum still floating through my brain while I tried to remember exactly what I done the night before. It got so I could hardly keep separate whether the Captain and I had gotten into another scuffle, or if I was just dreaming about the next. But after I chewed on a few Bayers’, it didn’t seem to much matter either way.

It ain’t like I chose this life. And lately I was thinking that it just sort of chose me. I wouldn’t expect that anyone but a little kid hopes that that he’s going to be working in a carnival for a living.  But here I am, thirty-five years old, proud owner of a “Happy Times Midway” badge that says “Johnny” on it. Old man Conway is the owner of the company and I hated that phony bastard from the first day I met him. “A reputation,” I once heard him explaining over the phone, “is something you can’t put a price on.” I remember sitting there and listening to him laying down the lines thicker than chicken gravy as he tried to sell his carnival to some flea-bit town. He barely noticed me studying him as I stood in the beat-down trailer that stood as his office. I ain’t no work of art myself, but looking at him I could almost smell the grease that clung to his hair. When he shook his head a rope of slicked-back hair slipped onto his forehead and a few gray strands drooped over a pair of raggedy sideburns. Even the two-day old growth couldn’t cover his pockmarked cheeks that looked like they could hide a handful of bb’s. When he opened his mouth, the black that lined his gums matched the flecks of wet tobacco that dotted the front of his cream-colored t-shirt. I barely heard him speak when he finally turned his attention to me.

“So you want to work in a carnival?” he says to me.

I nodded my head like a dumbass mule and tried to get my mind off his bad set of choppers. “Yeah,” I said in a grunt. “I think I can do a good job for you.”

When he nodded the stringy hair fell over his forehead even further, but I could still see him measuring me up from behind his desk. He rubbed at his whiskers and took in what the years of living had done to my god-given features.  I pushed the long hair out of my eyes and automatically stroked at my cheekbones with the back of my hand. I watched him slowly worked his way down to the collection of tattoos that covered my forearms.

“You ain’t a con, are you? I can’t have no felons on the payroll. I got regulations to follow.”

“No,” I said as I shook my head.  “No record except for a couple of drunk and disorderlies in New Orleans.”

He laughed out loud as if I had just told him some kind of joke. After he finally caught his breath, he spoke. “Hell, if you didn’t have a few of those I probably wouldn’t even hire you. This ain’t a job for some kinda alter boy. Anyways, I can sure enough check on your record myself,” he said even though I knew he wouldn’t. “Everybody makes a few mistakes now and again.” I almost spoke up and told him I didn’t need any forgiveness, but before I could he spoke again. “What was your last job?” he asked while picking at the craters in his face.

“Factory in Mobile. I cut PVC pipes for almost ten years. At the end I could almost do it my sleep. Sometimes I think I was and that’s why I need a change. So I figured maybe we can help each other out.”

I watched him chew on his bottom lip and suck on the shaggy soul patch that hovered on his chin. I sat quietly and could only guess at the assortment of sickness caught up in that little piece of fur. After he read over my application one last time, he gave me a black-gummed smile and I knew I was in. Ready or not.

“Thank you, sir,” I said as he told me the news. “You won’t regret it.”

He laid down my papers and I knew he didn’t really give a shit. But what he didn’t know was the feeling was mutual.

“Fill out the W-4’s,” he said as his interest in me started to fade. “ ‘Stitch’ will show you the ropes tomorrow. The Midwest crew needs someone for the ‘Zipper’. It’s one helluva lot of fun,” he said as he chuckled to himself.

Prick, I thought to myself. I wasn’t some cracker from Alabama that couldn’t read a stop sign. My high school may have been filled with moonshine swilling inbreds, but at least I was the best of them. I surprised my ma and pa by actually graduating and damn near gave them a coronary when I was named to the honor roll.

“Look what the little bastard done,” said my dad when he looked over my diploma. “Prob’ly thinks that now he’s smarter than a sack of shit,” he had said as my mom hid in the background. When he swigged on another tumbler of whisky and coke, I knew it was just best to shut my mouth. At least until I was ready to get a place of my own.

“You ain’t no college boy,” rang my daddy’s voice in my ear when I applied at Kentucky Plastics. “You’re gonna work your ass off just like me,” he said after he cuffed me in the back of the head. I had hated him for as long as I could remember, but until I was on my own, it was just the way it was.

Momma never said more than two words to me whenever he was around. She was the closest thing to a scalded dog that I ever seen. Afraid to bark and sure as hell afraid to bite. She sat around all day in her flowered print hoping that daddy wouldn’t beat the shit out of her and at least a few days a month she was wrong. Two years after I left it turned out she was dead wrong.

The factory paid just enough to help me get a place of my own. It wasn’t much more than a dump with a roof on it, but at least I was alone. At least more so than ever before. Ten years pass quick in a factory and I can’t say I was the better for it. Cutting PVC don’t quite make a man stand tall as much as it whittles him down. In fact, with every pipe that went by, I felt like I was drying up harder than a dog turd in the sun.

“I quit,” I told the foreman on an overcast Friday afternoon. He shrugged when he handed over my paycheck.

“Suit yourself,” he said in a backwoods drawl. “We got a barn full of niggers just waiting for a job. Pay’em less too as far as I’m concerned.”

When I left the plant I let the drizzle hit my face until I felt as clean as a fresh scrubbed baby. While I sat on the bench that stood outside the factory, I knew that I couldn’t go back. And yet as I thought about the black hole my life had become, I felt like disappearing even a little bit more.

***

Killing ain’t as hard as most people think. But as far as I know there’s not “An Idiot’s Guide to Killing,” like those books I seen at Wal-mart. In fact, I thought any idiot could do it, but only a smart man wouldn’t get caught.  I doubt my teachers at Greendale High knew all my “wonderful potential” would be put into getting away with murder. But in my own way, I felt better knowing that at least I ended up good at something.

I remember watching on TV about some nut-job that killed a bunch of fruity-boys in Milwaukee. He ended up getting all psychoanalyzed until they made it seem like he damn near had no choice in what he done. I recalled shaking my head and thinking that a crock as big as that could probably hold the whole state of Mississippi. We all make choices, but sometimes the end result ain’t agreeable for mass consumption. And sometimes even the person doing it ain’t much got the stomach for it either.

***

It turns out the Zipper was a ride that spun and twisted the kids until their innards were jumbled inside and out. It had four spider-like arms that rose up and down in the air while it shook the be-jesus out of anyone that dared ride it. Stitch showed me around and it took me all of ten seconds to learn how to check the seatbelts and push the buttons on the control box.

“Always check the door locks too,” he explained. “We can’t have some kid falling out during the ride. That makes for an awful mess in the gear box.”

I knew he was kidding, but I still nodded my head dumbly. “Who takes care of the motor?” I asked. “What if something ain’t working right?”

He looked at me as he tugged at the faded engineer’s cap that nearly hid his tired eyes. I could see the salt-ringed sweat stains that lined the body of the cap and guessed that the blue pinstriped cover rarely left his head. When he squinted at me the folds that lined his reddened cheeks doubled in size, and I knew he was sizing me up. He slowly reached into his hip pocket and pulled out a crushed handkerchief that he patted over his forehead to clean off the beads of sweat. I waited for an answer as he carefully re-folded the cloth into a small square. He didn’t speak until he had slipped it gently back into the front pocket of his overalls.

“You’re gonna be both lord and master,” he said finally. “After a few weeks on this rig you’ll know more about it than a clam does about his own shell. I’ll be traveling with the crew, but don’t expect me to hold your hand.  In fact, the less you expect the better off we’ll both be,” he said as he hitched up his coveralls and started to walk away. “Get yourself acquainted with the old Zipper because you’ll be getting inside each others skin for twelve hours a day.”

“Mmm,” I grunted as I watched his work boots kick up clouds of dust from the dirt lot. When he disappeared from view, I turned my attention back to the metal beast that loomed overhead. The giant, yellow arms that sprayed out in all directions surrounded me as I stood in the center of the ride. I felt the power of the creation even while it rested quietly. What I had more trouble understanding was the way a slight shiver traveled down my spine when I touched the refrigerator-sized gearbox for the very first time. When I opened the rusted lid that covered the engine-belly, I wasn’t surprised to see a series of gears and chains that powered the main drive. What I hadn’t expected was the layer of rotted apples and plums alongside a dozen or so crushed Budweiser cans that lined the bottom of the compartment.  I poked at the series of teeth that made up the gears and rubbed my middle finger over a broken one before I drew back as if I had been stung by a bee. I looked at the blood that slipped out of the tiny cut and watched it drop to the floor of the box. Probably get the damn tetnuss that my momma had warned me about all those years ago. Maybe get crazy as a rabid dog that I had seen once. I sucked on the cut until it stopped bleeding and then poked and prodded at the insides until I felt like a crow picking at roadkill. I’m sure spending half a life under the hood of my Ford pick-up helped my cause, and I was confident I could jerry-rig the engine if I felt so inclined.

“Getting ‘er down yet, Johnny?” Stitch asked as he tamped down a fresh pack of Winston’s. “The last guy who ran this rig went tooty-fruity after a few months. Last we saw him he was howling at the moon somewhere in New Mexico.”

He offered me a smoke but I waved him off. “No thanks. I’ll stick to my sunflower seeds,” I said as I scooped up a handful from my front pocket. “I never acquired the taste.”

“Goddamn nature boy. I never much understood the attraction to nibblin’ on rodent food,” he said as he pretended he was a buck-toothed squirrel working through the husks. “But whatever feeds the fire.”

I followed him silently to the motor and he prattled on about how good the engine was on oil and how I needed to check the lines most every day. But what really kept my attention was the jagged pinky finger on his oil-blackened right hand. I hadn’t noticed the gnarled little stub before and it was all I could do not to stare at it.

“Are you likin’ my little dee-fect?” he asked as he drew out the last word. “I almost lost the critter right here in this gear box when I was changing the timing cable. I never knew for sure, but I believe some reefer-head thought it would be a hoot to hit the ‘go button’ while I was working. The gearing nearly pulled in my whole hand, but I ended up only losing a finger. I left enough blood in this box that you would have thought I exploded. I was lucky to find the finger on the bottom lying there as plain as day.” He wiggled the distorted pinky to show me it was still working. “We were so far out in the sticks that some backroom abortion doc patched it back on with some fishing line or so it seemed. Ever since then Conway has taken to calling me ‘Stitch’.”

“That ain’t such a bad name,” I said. “I’m guessing at least people will remember you.”

***

I don’t know when I first started thinking about killing a man. But there came a time I felt like an old coon-dog trying to scratch at an itch just out of reach. At first I didn’t know what was gnawing at me until I watched a movie of a young Clint Eastwood plugging holes into a town full of losers. He held all the answers in his own two hands and he wasn’t afraid to parcel them out one bullet at a time. It seemed to me that he knew some people deserved to die. And even if they didn’t, most times no one really cared.

I ain’t trying to liken real life to make believe, but sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. I got to a point where I felt less like a man and more like a ghost. Like I was just a speck of dust blowing in the wind that might well end up on the bottom of somebody’s boot heel. I’d stand on the aluminum deck of the Zipper and find myself staring at the crowds that never stopped moving through. Even with all of those faces walking by, I bet I never said more than two words to any of them. I didn’t know them and they sure as hell weren’t interested in knowing me. When I looked at all those idiots, I found my fists clenching the siderails of the Zipper’s entry ramp and felt an unexpected power surging to my very core. It was right about then I felt a change set in. And just like with Clint, it was a change that eventually a whole roomful of dumb bastards would experience up close and personal.

***

My first few weeks on the road were spent living in gravel parking lots somewhere in the middle of Iowa. The heat of summer was just kicking in, but my mouth already had that parched feeling I had come to know as a kid. Twelve hours a day getting cooked in the sun made me feel like some sort of shrunken head, but aside from that at least nobody bothered me much. Of course, I had to tend to running the kiddies through the Zipper, but it got so I didn’t mind them too much. Most times they were excited to have the midway in town, and at least a few times a day I felt appreciated more than I could ever remember. What pissed me off most was the parents staring me down like I was in some sort of freak show. When I looked back at ‘em they’d turn away real quick like I was gonna give them the evil eye and rot their soul. I know that they were thinking I was some sort of societal reject, when in fact, I knew exactly what I was getting into.  And the difference between me and them was at least I wasn’t afraid to look any man straight in the eye.

Everyday I’d wake up in the little trailer that the midway hauled around. I had to share it with a swamp rat from Florida that we all called “Gator”. Like most of us he had a collection of tattoos, the biggest of which was a faded croc on his right forearm. It wasn’t like getting carved on was a requirement to be a carny, but the two sure seemed to go together like ham and eggs. I always got burned up whenever I saw a faggedy college-boy showing off his latest tattoo to all of the girls in the crowd. To him it was a fashion statement, but to me it meant something from deep in my gut. Something nameless that I had long ago stuffed deep inside.

Gator never talked much and that suited me just fine. In fact, I would have thought he was a mute except for all of the noise he made in his sleep. “Nooooooo,” he’d moan out into the night as he twisted under his blanket. Watching him toss and turn, you would have thought he was wrestling with a python the way he carried on. Sometimes he’d bolt upright in bed and shake like a scared schoolboy. I’d watch him twitching with his wild eyes jumping back and forth as he tried to slow his breathing. I never said a word to him about his dreaming because I figured he was as deserving as anyone to tend to his own demons.

It wasn’t like I slept much better. I’d lay awake half the night looking out a little screened hole cut in the trailer that acted as my window to the world. I always had them park the trailer behind the Zipper so that I wouldn’t have to walk any more than a few steps on my breaks. At night I’d find myself staring out that tiny hole directly at the arms of the machine spread out in all directions. When it rained I’d watch the water roll off of them like sweat and hear the cages groan as the wind rattled the hinges.

“Relax, old girl,” I heard myself saying to the Zipper. “It’s just the wind blowing.” After the night clouds rolled on by I’d soon enough find myself taking another sip of the Captain from the pint I’d come to keep close by.

“Liquor will get you through the night,” Stitch had told me when I first started. “And still be talking to you in the morning.”

I knew directly what he meant when my head throbbed at the first rays of the sun. As shitty as I’d feel, I had become accustom to having a nip when I needed to dull the edge off of the new day. I’d developed my own little routine of sneaking off behind the gearbox and setting down behind the upraised cover. When I was sealed off from view, I’d raise the pint up for a little “day breaker” as Stitch had called it. After hiding the flask back in the box, I chewed on a few seeds to deaden the smell of the liquor. Only the rum-soaked shells I’d spit into the chains left any notice at all that I had paid a visit. Stitch knew all about my habit and came by once or twice a day to make sure I was still upright.

“You doing okay, Johnny?” he asked with a little wink. He was dressed in the same old coveralls I had met him in, and I was pretty sure he’d only peel them off for extra-curricular activities.

“Fine,” I said.  “Same old, same old.”

He walked towards the next ride and I watched the stiff-legged shuffle that had worked the midway for over two decades. Stitch had seemed to be more than happy with his lot in life, and his creaky walk fit in well with the grinding of the Zipper as it whirled overhead. And when he disappeared from view, I found myself oiling the joints of the long arms remembering what Stitch had once said to me: “The Zipper is a good ‘ol girl, take care of her and she’ll take care of you.”

***

I’m not much for drinking in a bar because as often as not I’d find myself stuck next to some toad that thought I cared about what he had to say. In a matter of minutes I would end up getting tired of his yammering and I’d slide over to the next open stool. Most of those nights run together in my head, except for one particular time I was trying to get a little privacy in some busted-up roadhouse outside Detroit. I was parked on a barstool minding my own business when the first toad of the night sat down beside me.

“What you drinking, friend?” he said to me right on cue.

I didn’t immediately answer as I studied his reflection in the mirrors that lined the walls of the bar. I could see him as much as I could smell him and when I took a breath, I caught a deeper measure of his cheap cologne and sweat. He was wearing a stained Dale Earnhardt cap that shaded his eyes and forced his stringy, black hair to jut out on the sides. I finally turned and was planning on letting him know I sure as hell wasn’t interested in being his pal when I got a better idea. An idea that had been creeping up on me on all those nights I had been looking out my little window.

“Anything you’re buying, Mister,” I said when I finally answered his question. “I ain’t a choosey man if it’s free.”

It got so that Clete and me got real chummy that night. In fact we were near goddamn blood brothers by the time we stumbled out of the bar at closing time. The roadhouse had been pert near empty, and except for a gimp of a bartender we almost had the place to ourselves. When I got to feeling all neighborly, I invited Clete over for a nightcap to celebrate our friendship that had been lubricated courtesy of Mr. Jack Daniels and my old buddy Captain Morgan. The fact that I had promised him a ride on the Zipper seemed to send the toad into a state of happiness that only a simpleton could understand.

“Do you think anyone will mind?” he asked as we pulled up into the gravel lot that housed the midway.

“Naw,” I answered as I got out of my truck. “These bunch of retards could sleep through anything. Follow me and I’ll show you the works.” I stepped lightly over the dusty ground that muffled my footsteps and Clete tiptoed right behind. I stopped when I got to the gearbox and lifted open the lid that covered the innards of the Zipper. “Damn engine is strong enough to run the Hoover Dam,” I said in a respectful voice.

Clete seemed pretty impressed as he whistled softly to himself. “It does look dandy. And strong enough to run Hoover Dam,” he repeated.

That was the last thing that nitwit said after I pressed the Craftsman against his throat and leaned back for leverage. His hands rode up as he tried to wrestle the tool from me, but I just dug my boots into the dirt and felt the sweat in his hair nestle against my forearms. I looked up at the cloudless sky and saw the stars flickering back at me from the distance. Astronomy was the least of Clete’s worries, and he just wiggled a bit as the stink of his cologne nearly burned my nostrils. I don’t think it took me more than a minute to snuff the life out of the man that had decided to sidle up to me at the bar. And after his Earnhardt ball cap fell softly into the gearbox, it only took me a minute more to stuff my first toad in right behind.

***

I sat on the deck of the Zipper all night sipping and chewing seeds. I was thinking about where I been, where I was, and where I was going. It turned out I eventually figured out my life was as useless as a three-legged alley cat. When the sun finally rose, I took one last swig and went directly over to the box that stored old Clete. I started up the motor and sent the gears spinning knowing that they would crush anything in their way into a stone-cold pulp. The roar of the engine echoed in my ears as the arms of the Zipper began to slowly rise up from the ground. When the gears started to grind into action, the crunch of bones reminded me of the sound of trampled peanut shells on a barroom floor.  But when I raced the engine to its upper limit, the noise of the cogs was slowly replaced by a sweet hum I had never heard before.

“Sounds sweet,” called Stitch as he watched me from a distance. “Like the Zipper is feeling her oats today.”

“Yup,” I said as I nodded back. “We’ve been taking care of each other just like you said.”

Stitch laughed before he lit up a Winston and moved down the row of attractions. The hum continued as the arms of the Zipper flapped happily in the early morning air. Pulverizing a man ain’t an everyday event, and I did my best to soak in the moment by closing my eyes for a bit. I knew the world wouldn’t miss my toad and I doubted Clete had any little Einstein’s swimming in his jiz. Hell, perhaps I had even done humankind a favor. I gave the Zipper a few more minutes before I opened my eyes and knew my first chore of the day was complete. I cut off the engine and watched as she smoothly glided to a stop. Only a thorough cleaning remained and as I turned on the hose, Stitch waved to me from the distance. I once heard that oil and water don’t mix, but as I gave half a wave back I saw that blood and water got along just fine.

***

Summer in the Midwest gets about as tiresome as watching a TV preacher trying to pull money from an old ladies purse. Between the flies and dust most of the time I felt about half-crazy. We had worked ourselves through Illinois and Ohio, but I’ll be damned if I could tell the difference. I ain’t sure if boredom could kill a man, but I was getting the feeling it could help a man kill. About the only thing that kept me breathing these days was thinking about my next night out with the toads. After every time I filled up the Zipper with a new load of kids, I’d listen to the engine hum and get me a craving for some more killing.

I remembered the name of a few of the unsuspecting cretins I had met in the bars. Ed, Billy, and Stan come to mind, as did one particular lowlife who called himself “Mick”. “As in Jagger,” he told me when he shook my hand. The little dwarf was as annoying as a deerfly, but I let him bore me with the stories of the women he had “poked” over the many years of his pathetic life. I knew the closest he would get to a live woman was through a computer screen, but I let him prattle on to his hearts content. That was at least until I took ‘ol Mick back to the midway to shut him up for good.

“It almost looks like you’re smiling, Johnny,” said Stitch when he caught me daydreaming about the past. “Maybe I ought to try a little bit of the juice you’re always sipping on.”

“It’s good for the soul,” I answered back. “And chocked full of vitamins too.”

Stitch looked at me as if in shock and grabbed at his chest as he was having a conniption. “A joke!” he sputtered as he walked away shaking his head. “I’ll be damned.”

Stitch was the closet thing I had to a friend, but I knew some secrets are too strong to tell anyone. I had decided long ago that my particular darkness was best kept between the Zipper and me. And I figured as long as the two of us kept on feeding each other, we’d continue to get along just fine. As I loaded the Zipper up with the oil she had started burning to black, I had to think hard to recollect that I was parked somewhere in Wisconsin. “Welcome to Cheese Country!” I remembered some billboard shouting out. I had a hard time believing that any state that got all puffed-up about hunks of chedder had much to offer anyone, but Conway had found one more pigeon for his carnival.

As the summer had gone on I thought Stitch knew about my particular habits, but if he did he never breathed a word. All day long I would see him tinkering with the others carnies rides, but he steered clear of working on the Zipper. Maybe it had something to do with his crippled finger, but somehow it seemed deeper than that. It was almost like he had driven down the same path I was on until he had reached his own dead-end.

“Damn, there’s some ugly people in Wisconsin,” I remembered him saying. “I bet even the Zipper would spit a few back.” I just shrugged it off at the time, but when I let on the next batch of farmer’s kids I could have sworn he got a little gleam in his eye when he looked back at the gearbox.

That night when I pulled into the parking lot of one more dive, I felt my bloodlust hit a full boil. The name of the tavern didn’t much matter as long as there was fresh company for that night’s party. As I sat down quietly at the corner stool, I felt about as evil as one man can get. I nodded at the man standing near the jukebox and as I sipped at my Captain Morgan, I waited for the toad that would soon be churned into my own blend of Wisconsin’s finest.

“Neil’s the name,” said the man as he pulled up a stool. “I work in auto parts sales. I had me a good day so the next ones on me.”

I smiled cordially as my mind started clicking off the possibilities that lie ahead for Neil. We drank for a while and I listened to him croon about how many oil filters and spark plugs he had sold in the last month.

“Due for a nice bonus,” he told me as he stood up for a stretch at bar time. “Might get me a nice flat-screen this fall to watch the Badger’s games.”

“Hopefully they’ll beat those scum-bums from Michigan,” I said as we headed

towards the bathroom. I slapped him amiably in the back as I let him take the lead. “I got to piss more than a two-peckered billy goat,” I told him.

“Damn straight,” he said with a smile.

After we took a leak we headed for the door together and he was more than willing to show me his suitcase full of goods. I didn’t pay much attention to most of them, but one particular item caught my eye.

“Strongest serpentine belt ever made,” he said when he set the piece in my hand.

Little did he know that he had just made his final sale. And when he bent down to gather his next display, I wrapped that piece of silicon-rubber around his neck nice and tight. From somewhere far away I heard a hum as Neil hit his knees in one last deadly prayer.

***

The sweat trickled down my back when I stepped out of the truck and eyeballed our last stop of the summer. Nebraska was a depressing way to wind up our travels, but it wasn’t like I had a choice in the matter. As far as I could see the land was flatter than a griddlecake and a hot summer a firecracker would probably set off the dry land like a tinderbox.

“Summer is just about over,” Stitch said through the window of his own truck. “After Labor Day we take a maintenance break for a few weeks. About time we get a rest.”

“Sure, Stitch,” I said as I slipped a few seeds into my mouth. “Rest for the wicked.”

He looked at me kind of cross-eyed not really knowing what to make of me again. We spent time getting organized and after the usual set-up I felt more dog-tired than I could remember. Even the Zipper had started to look a little worse for wear and tear with a series of scratches and dents lining her arms. When a hot wind blew a curtain of fine dust into my face, a change in the routine seemed even more appealing.

The bundle of rolling clouds above my head seemed to match the foggy feeling I’d been having lately. I couldn’t explain the scattered thoughts that had been hitting my brain like shards of broken glass. The jagged dreams that blurred my nights had almost made me think about cutting back on the Captain.

“You okay there, buckaroo?” asked Stitch when he saw me looking bleary-eyed into the distance. “You’re looking as sorry as a stray pup kicked out of his momma’s brood.”

I smiled a bit but didn’t feel the need to do any talking. In fact, as the months had gone on I started to be about as quiet as my sad-sack roommate. Without a word I went back to my own business and readied the Zipper before I turned in for the night.

I never remembered morning being a good thing in my life. All I recall is the smell of diesel in the air when daddy started his old work truck. Sometimes I would pull the covers over my head and hope that the early sunshine might just pass me by. Even twenty years later when the light of dawn poured through my dented screen, I closed my eyes as the smell of oil slapped me in the face.

After I got going I gave a quick once-over to the Zipper and admitted to myself that I had been neglecting the old girl. I wiped at the grime that had built up on the gearbox and realized I hadn’t gone toad hunting in over two weeks. I lifted the lid and had my usual eye opener as I pretended to be giving the engine an early morning look-see.

“Wind ‘er up, boys,” I heard Stitch call from somewhere in distance. “Time to get a move on.”

I made my way to my usual post on the platform and nodded at the first few kids in line. I flashed back for a second and thought of them as just another piece of PVC piping heading down the line. When I opened the metal gate the kids rushed in and crammed themselves into the closest cage they could find. After hitting the start button, the Zipper seemed to be having as hard a time as I was and the gears grinded as the arms spun over my head. I turned and watched a puff of black smoke billow from the gear box just before I sighted a pink rag-doll hurtling towards its opening. The scream that followed sent another shard deeper into my brain and I watched a little girl fly through the air. “Always check the door locks too”, Stitch’s voice rang in my ear. That poor little girl ended up landing square on the box and on reflex I hit the kill switch just before the gears dug their teeth in. I watched frozen at my perch as her long, red hair drooped into the open space below. I knew only too well that the Zipper was just seconds away from one more victim and I listened to the engine groan painfully to a stop. I stood there rusted in place as the screams of the crowd echoed over the midway. My heart pounded as people ran back and forth and added to the confusion in my head. My legs felt as stiff as stilts when I finally made my way to the box and stood over the girl’s motionless body.

“Don’t move her,” Stitch called as he pushed me out of the way. “She might have a broke neck.”

From somewhere far away a siren wailed as a crew raced toward the midway. Lucky for that little girl some off-duty fireman sized her up and said she was still breathing in spite of a side-full of broken ribs. But what he couldn’t explain quite as easily was the twisted, dried-out finger melded to the inside of the upraised cover I had left wide open.

“I’ll be goddamned,” he said.

***

I wasn’t a total stranger to a jail cell, but this time I knew I would never be getting out. DNA’s a funny thing and my attorney said the innards of the Zipper was covered with the truth. She told me they had identified a whole assortment of “missing persons”; most of which I could hardly remember myself. But when they pieced together the route of the midway and gathered up the evidence, she seemed more than concerned that any number of states would have more than enough to strap me down and fill my lungs with gas.

The D.A.’s been asking me all sorts of questions as to why I done what I done. I knew by the blood in his eye that none of my answers truly satisfied him. At least not enough to make him understand why I felt the need to snuff out twelve men. Now that I’m locked up, I can hardly believe it myself that I killed all those toads. And except for the hum I hear in my dreams, the Zipper seems a far ways off. Thinking about all the D.A.’s questions, maybe I finally came up with the real answer for all of those dead men: a long time ago I came to understand that my thirty-five years never lent itself to much living. And maybe I just needed to make sure those poor bastards felt every bit as dead as me.

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