It was one of those middle of the night phone calls. Lying in the dark, phone ringing, not quite asleep.
I look at the phone, a name I don’t know. Is it some local meth-head, trying to score? Another drunken wrong number, looking for their love? A phone call I don’t want to answer, with a person telling me that someone I know is hurt or dying and I need to rush to a hospital?
Thoughts that pour through my mind, a jumbled cascade as I stare at the unknown name on my phone with the strange number. The answering machine kicks in, they don’t drop off, but start to leave a message.
“Hello, Mr. Thomas, I know it not a good time of night to call and get up with you….”
I pick up the phone. He’s apologizing for the late hour, couldn’t sleep, had to call me. I ask what I can do for him. It’s an old carny, who goes by the name of ‘Tom’. His real name is Gordon, but he’s called Tom. Something about shirts he wore when he first joined the carnival. Which leads to the first of more than a couple of stories that I’ll hear over the next hour.
When I met Gordon, three weeks ago, he was at the local flea market. I was running a table, trying to sell some of my accumulated goods, a polite way of saying I was trying to get rid of some of my junk. It also gives me an excuse to get off the farm, check out what the local folks are doing and maybe, if I’m lucky, make a couple of dollars.
You never know who is going to show up. My neighbors have wandered up, surprised to see me sitting there, clothes, exercise equipment, copies of my self-published book arrayed across the weathered wooden table.
An author I know from the defunct local writer’s group, shocked that I was mixed in among the rabble. People who pick over things, some just to see what you have, others are truly interested. Snooping and sniffing for a bargain.
A man stops, looks at some of the blue jeans for sale. He’s wearing a shirt with a fiberglass company logo, so I ask if he works for them. “Nope, just have the shirt. I’ve done fiberglass work for years, built those waterpark slides all over the country. Do roofing now.”
I nod, “Yeah, I done a bit of ‘glass work myself, mainly cars, a few boats.”
We talk fiberglass for a few minutes. He picks up a copy of my book, looks over at me.
“Wrote that just after I got back from Europe. People don’t really know the difference between working here and over there. Too many think that it’s all socialism over there. They have more rights than we do and don’t lose their benefits if the company fires them or gets bought up by another company. We bail out the companies and mistreat the people who do all the work.”
He nods and says, “Yeah, you have to work for yourself. Then you can set the price.”
We talk about work, life in general and that topic of disgust, how the economy went to hell. He looks my book over, reads the back cover, “I’ve got someone you should meet. You got a minute?”
“How’s that? I mean, there’s no one here to watch this…” My hand sweeps across the table, turning my dross into gold.
“There’s a guy here, wants someone to write a book about his life. He needs a writer. I was just talking to him about it. He’s right up the way here.”
I’m taken aback. There’s not too many people who you would expect to want a book written about them working at a flea market. Most people here would like to forget about their lives and just make the rent, buy some food and keep the electric on in the old homestead. I look over at Camo-Man, who’s daughter is here helping him.
“Hey, can she watch my table for a couple minutes? I’ll be right back.”
Camo-Man nods and his daughter comes over. She watched me set up and I’ve got prices posted on everything.
“I’ll split the profit with you on anything that you sell. OK?”
“Good, I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
We take off through the throng and dodge our way towards the center of the flea market. Along the way, he’s nodding, waving, saying “Hello” to people. He stops one portly man, makes a snide comment to him, most of which I miss, then moves on through the crowd. He turns to me, “That’s the sheriff, always good to know the sheriff.”
I nod in agreement, “Just as long as he’s not serving a warrant.” We trudge on and suddenly he stops in front of a pork skin stand.
Pork skins are a country delicacy which are self-descriptive, yet indescribable. The first time I threw the pellets into a vat of boiling oil, I knew I could never eat them. Later that day, after finishing off the first bag, I got two more bags to take home with me. They were like eating bacon-lite, not quite as greasy, great with beer. I ate them constantly for about seven months and haven’t touched them now for over fifteen years. After all, deep fried pig skins are still pig skins. Good for footballs, not my stomach.
In front of me is a long-haired man, a snowy beard dappled with black, short, energetic, hands waving about as he explains something to a woman’s he talking to. The crowd surges around us, islands in the middle of the stream.
The fiberglass man grabs Tom the carny’s arm, “He’s a writer,” pointing at me.
Tom nods, “Yeah? I’ve got a writer, school teacher down in Selmer, gonna write my book.”
I think, ‘Wonderful, that’s the end of that…time to go back to the table.’ Still, I’m not about to leave without throwing in my two cents. “That’s great! Are you working on it now?”
He shakes his head, “She hasn’t had time, been teaching school.”
I nod, thinking, ‘Yeah, I’ll bet…what’s a good excuse for me?’. Before I can say anything, he’s off and running, veering through stories, piling decades together, not quite in sequence.
It was the story about the unknown dead guy that got me. Man who had worked for him for six months, running the ‘duck pond’. A game that has rubber ducks floating in it, numbers on the bottom. Put a dollar in the man’s hand, pick up a duck, see what prize you won.
Tom the carny had called him “Quack Quack”, since he didn’t know his real name. Lots of people, on the run, making a living, just getting from one place to another, no names, pay in cash, gone in the morning. Carnies don’t ask any questions, just as long as you pull your weight. Otherwise you can hit the road, the carnival doesn’t need any freeloaders.
They had set up for the weekend. The carny told me that he had left with his girlfriend, spent the day at the lake, swimming and picnicking. Got back late. In the morning he goes to check on Quack Quack and finds him dead on his cot, lying in the back of a game trailer.
Now, over thirty years later, the carny wants to find out Quack Quack’s real name and contact his family, tell them where he’s buried. That and write a book, except for one problem.
He doesn’t know how to write.