Empty inside, cold in his heart, Zef turned to whisky and drugs to fill the void.
Instead, he ended up with a prison sentence and a new determination to get clean and make something of his life.
Since his release, Zef has been on the road, finding his spiritual home with a traveling carnival and working as a motorcycle stunt rider.
Live fast, live hard, keep moving.
He doesn’t want to be tied down to anyone or anything. Fiercely loyal, the only people he cares about are his brother and his carnie family.
Until a crazy girl who’s run away to join the circus crashes into his world.
But now his old life is catching up with him, and Zef has to choose a new road.
A standalone story, and the last one in the TRAVELING SERIES.
I watched the flames leap and dance, sending a shower of sparks into the sky as one of the logs caught light.
Even though the daytime temperatures had soared into the nineties, it was considerably cooler now and everyone gathered around the circle of fire. It was a carnie tradition that went way back, signaling the end of another day.
Tonight was special because it was the penultimate night at this pitch, and our last chance to take it easy for a few days. The final night was always crazy busy because it was a jump day—which meant that all the roustabouts were taking down the carnival rides and packing everything back into the rigs, then driving through the night to get to the next town by morning, to set up for the following afternoon, when the whole cycle started over again.
In fact, the 24-Hour Man had already left. He was the guy who went ahead, signposting the way for the rest of us to follow. It may not sound important, but you don’t want fifteen eight-wheelers getting stuck or ending up driving down a one lane road to the wrong field.
So tonight was our night—our time to kick back, relax, and visit with other carnies.
“Bro, you look like someone just kicked your dog. What’s up with you? You’ve been a pain in my ass all week.”
Tucker left the others by the fire and squatted down beside me, ignoring the fuck-off vibes I’d been giving everyone else.
“What’s eating you, man? Tell Uncle Tucker all about it.”
Tucker was a year younger than me, but sometimes he acted like a teenager and spoke like a California surfer, if you ignored his Tennessee accent. We were all like that in the carnival—mongrels who didn’t call any place home, but everywhere was our kingdom and the road was our right.
He sighed when I didn’t reply and threw an arm around my shoulder.
“I know about Mirelle. Tough break, brother.”
I shot him an angry glance and he pulled a face.
“Mirelle called Aimee, Aimee told Kes, and well … you know how it goes.”
Yeah. I knew. Kes and Tucker were my family, my blood brothers—cut one, we all bleed. We didn’t keep secrets. And since Mirelle was Aimee’s best friend, I’d expected the news to circulate faster than it had. Perhaps she’d thought I’d tell them myself.
I should have, but I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want their pity.
“She wasn’t right for you,” Tucker said softly. “I like Mirelle, but she wasn’t going to make it as a carnie. She has roots and that big ole Puerto Rican family back on the East Coast.”
I knew he was right, but the sharp cut of disillusionment was hard to take. Aimee had lived out East and she’d followed Kes to the carnival; Tucker’s woman flew out to see him every couple of weeks. Why couldn’t that work for me?
I shrugged off his arm and stood up. I was ready to walk away when a thought stopped me in my tracks.
“Did she tell Aimee who the father is?”
“Yeah.” He stared down at the dirt, idly pushing his fingers through the tough, brown grass. “Some dude who teaches at the same school.”
Suddenly Kes rose to his feet. Everyone stopped talking and we all turned to face him.
He stood with the fire at his back, the flames dancing behind as he faced us. His people, his family.
“I’ve got some news I want to share with you,” he said. “Perhaps I’d better say that we’ve got some news to share with you.”
He smiled at Aimee as she walked to his side, her eyes glowing with love as she looked at him, and he slid his arm around her waist.
“We’re going to be parents. By January, there’ll be a new little carnie joining the family.”
Yells and cheers rose from the carnies around the fire, then Tucker called out,
“Oh my God! Does that mean you’ve been having sex?”
“No, it’s an immaculate conception, dufus,” I muttered, slapping him around the back of the head.
Aimee shot Tucker a look that said he’d be paying for his dumb joke later.
Everyone crowded around offering congratulations.
“A new little stunt rider for the family business?” asked one of the carnies.
Kes shrugged, his whole body lit with happiness as men slapped him on the back or shook hands, and women kissed him on the cheek. Aimee was surrounded with her own admirers, smiling and laughing, glowing with joy as she turned to look at Kes to hear his answer.
“Our kid can be whatever he wants.”
“So, it’s a boy?”
“Maybe. We don’t know yet.”
When the crowd around them thinned, I walked over to give Aimee a kiss on the cheek. Then I turned to Kes.
“Congratulations, man. That’s great news.”
“Thanks, Zef. I appreciate it. And I wanted to ask you—Aimee wants the baby to be Christened, something old school, you know? So I was wondering if you’d be Godfather.”
That was the last thing I’d been expecting. I wasn’t the kind of guy that a kid could look up to.
Kes read the doubt on my face and laughed.
“I’m going to ask Tucker, too. So the kid will need at least one Godfather who’s not completely crazy.”
I grinned at him.
“Well, when you put it that way … I’m the lesser of two evils?”
“Something like that.” His voice sobered. “So, will you do it? If anything happened to me and Aimee…” he swallowed, a flicker of fear on his face, “if anything happened, I’d want to know that I could count on you.”
“Fuck, man, nothing’s gonna happen to you!”
“Yeah, but it could. We both know … we know it could and … I need to you to say it, man. I need to know that you’d be there. If I hadn’t had Dono to take care of me and Con, I’d have been in a fucking foster home. ”
I rubbed my hand across of my face.
“Of course. Of course I’d do it—anything.”
I stuck out my hand and he shook it before pulling me into a swift hug.
I nodded, then asked the question that had been burning me since he’d made his announcement.
“Are you scared … about being a father?
Kes cocked his head to one side, thinking about it.”
“Nah, I couldn’t fuck it up as bad as Mom the alcoholic or dear ole dad who barely knew I existed, or cared. Anyway, I’ve got Aimee to keep me straight.”
He grinned and turned to accept more congratulations from other carnies.
I walked away, surprised by the emotions I was feeling.
Kes, a father!
That was some pretty serious shit. Coming on top of Mirelle’s news, I was feeling off kilter. I tried not to picture her with a guy who wore a collared shirt to work, some nice, safe townie who’d give her security. But she deserved that. She deserved more than a tatted up wiseass who jumped motorcycles for a living—a man with a criminal record who’d served time in prison.
Someone walked over my grave and a shiver ran down my spine. I’d cleaned up my act since then and I wasn’t ever going back.
And I meant what I’d said to Kes: if anything happened to him and Aimee, I’d take care of their kid. Fuck knows what kind of parent I’d be, but he’d asked me and I’d sure as hell try.
The breeze had picked up since sunset and I could see the tops of the distant trees swaying blackly against the rising moon.
The Ferris wheel was still and silent, a towering monument to man’s desire for mindless pleasure. It didn’t go anywhere, it didn’t do anything—except give the illusion of movement. And wasn’t that what the carnival was all about? Cheap thrills for a few bucks before moving on to the next small town. And yet, even with the existence of Netflix, tablets and smartphones, people still came, searching for a little of that stardust, that elusive magic, the freewheeling world of the carnies. Maybe that was what made it so unreal: we’d arrive in the half-light of dawn, and by the evening a world of bright neon and music erupted from an empty field. A few days of eating cotton candy and corn dogs, a few moments of adrenaline as you were whirled around the Tilt-A-Whirl or rode the bumper cars, and then we’d vanish in the night, leaving patches of flattened grass and an empty field.
I pushed my hands into my jean pockets and stared up at the moon as if it had called my name.
How many years did I have before my body broke down, before my knees or ankles or spine couldn’t take it anymore, when throwing myself through the air on 200 pounds of metal no longer seemed like a good idea? Then what? What would my life be then?
“The Cheyenne tell a story that the moon was held by a warring tribe, so a pair of antelope tried to rescue the moon and take it to a good village. But Coyote, the trickster, decides to make trouble and the antelope chase him. Coyote tosses the moon into a river each night, just out of reach of the antelope.”
I didn’t turn around as Ollo spoke.
“Is that supposed to mean something to me, old man?”
I heard his soft chuckle behind me, a wheezing hiccupping laugh.
“Nope, it’s just a story about the moon.”
“Great, thanks for that. Very educational.”
He sat down behind me, ignoring the obvious message that I didn’t want company.
I felt a soft tug on my pants leg as Bo started to climb me like a jungle gym, nestling into me and throwing his thin arms around my neck, chattering in my ear.
“Damn monkey doesn’t know when he’s not wanted,” I grumbled, supporting Bo’s tiny furry body as he snuggled into my chest.
Ollo laughed again.
“I’d say he knows exactly when he’s wanted. Capuchins are smart critters—smarter than most damn humans.”
I sighed, knowing I wasn’t getting any alone time tonight.
I sat down on the bone-dry dirt next to Ollo, smiling as Bo took his chance to go scampering off into the darkness. For a moment, I listened to him rustling in the tall grasses at the side of the swing-boats and I leaned against the canvas backdrop of the Ghost Train.
When I was a kid back in Georgia, I used to try and sneak in under the canvas without paying when the carnival came to town. Sometimes I made it, and sometimes I got dragged out by a hard-faced carnie and sent packing with a smack to the back of the head.
It didn’t matter how many times that happened, I always snuck back. I was fascinated by the mechanics, all of those big machines whipping you into the air or speeding around in circles. I hadn’t heard of hydraulics or knew anything about the physics of gravity, but I loved the dirt and grease behind the scenes, and the rides that made people laugh and scream.
Now, I could take a ghost ride anytime I wanted, but I never did.
I sighed, wondering if the carnival would ever feel magical to me again.
“Good news about Kes and Aimee—new life. A child will keep the carnival alive.”
I nodded, but I wasn’t sure that Ollo was right. It was a hard life, the traveling carnival, and many of the smaller outfits had shut down or gone out of business. I knew as well as anyone that there were no guarantees in life, but I hoped Ollo was right.
“Yeah, I’m happy for them.”
I watched a shooting star shimmer across the sky, wondering what the world had in store for me, wondering if fate was planning some new torture.
“She wasn’t right for you, Zef.”
Ollo’s voice broke and squeaked like a twelve year-old boy, although his body was no taller than the average seven year-old.
Ollo was a dwarf and had lived his whole life in a traveling carnival. He’d done every job from clowning to tumbling, fire-eating and fire-breathing to knife-thrower and rodeo rider, fairground barker to roustabout, and everything in between. He was old now; no one knew how old, probably not even Ollo, but he’d been with Kes’s family since the second world war, so he must be at least eighty.
He probably weighed no more than ninety pounds. I could have picked him up and tossed him over my shoulder without a problem, but I had too much respect for him to do something like that.
So I sat back and listened to what he had to tell me.
“You’re the second person tonight to say that Mirelle wasn’t right for me,” I said, my voice wry.
Ollo spit a stream of tobacco juice onto the hard-packed soil, aiming at one of the iron tent pegs.
“Are you surprised? Her family has uprooted once—she wasn’t going to do it again. Not for you.”
“Feel free to sugarcoat it!”
“Aw, is the big, tough stunt rider feelin’ sorry for hisself?”
I shook my head.
“Nah. Just pissed that she was seeing someone else and didn’t tell me.”
There was a long silence and in the distance I could hear the sound of Luke’s guitar playing.
“I had a woman once,” Ollo said softly. “Long time ago.”
His voice was quiet and it sounded like a confession.
“She wasn’t like me,” he said. “She was a townie, a petite lil’ thing. Delicate all over, tiny waist. Taller than me, of course. We were in Boise for the summer and it was the swinging sixties. She had long straight hair, golden brown, the color of corn. I was a rodeo clown in those days, and she’d come to see the ponies. We got talking and became friends. I’d wait for her to come for me at night. We’d hold hands and sit watching the stars from the top of the Ferris wheel. We fell in love.”
“Sounds … nice?”
“Yeah, it was. She was going to come with me at the end of the summer,” he chuckled quietly. “Run away and join the circus.”
“But she changed her mind?”
Ollo shook his head.
“I don’t know. One night, she didn’t come. I waited every night, knowing that soon we’d be moving on. I went to look for her. In the town.”
I stared up at Ollo’s stars, knowing that this story didn’t have a happy ending. I imagined how brave he’d have to be, leaving the carnies—his people—to go look for this girl among strangers, among townies.
“I didn’t find her, but her father found me. Gave me what they used to call a damn good beat-down, and told me he wouldn’t let a deformed freak like me near his daughter. I don’t know if she’d been sent away or whether she was locked in her room, listening to her father whip me with his belt as I kicked and screamed and tried everything to fight him off. I always wondered about that.”
My voice was quiet, shocked, and he was silent for a moment.
“You never saw her again?”
“Ah, but I did. Ten years later, we were in Boise again doing the northern circuit. By then, the music was louder and angrier. We were all trying to forget about Vietnam, and everything seemed a little wilder. Borders were breaking down, and even the townie boys were starting to wear their hair long. That’s when I saw her. She was with a rube and they had two kids—a boy and a girl, maybe seven or eight years old. They had her eyes, I remember that. She saw me watching her and she stared back. She smiled at me, then she turned and walked away.”
His voice disappeared, lost in memories.
“That was the last time I saw her. I never tried anything with a townie again.”
“What was her name?”
“Jeanie. Jeanie with the light brown hair.”
I heard the soft patter of Bo’s footsteps, and he appeared out of the darkness, his tiny body curling into Ollo’s arms as he chirruped quietly.
I watched Ollo stroke the soft gray-and-white fur.
“Am I supposed to take some deep meaning from that story?” I asked, hoping to lighten the mood.
Ollo coughed out a laugh.
“Nope, just a story about a boy and a girl under the stars.”
And then, as silently as he’d arrived, he stood up and walked away, Bo still cradled in his arms.
I leaned back against the canvas, thinking about everything he’d said. If I was honest with myself, I’d known from the start that me and Mirelle wouldn’t last, but it still stung that she’d obviously been with this other guy for a while. And that she’d picked someone who was the complete opposite of me.
I didn’t have any trouble hooking up with women who wanted a one-night stand with a biker carnie, but even I had to admit that had gotten old. And now Kes was married and about to become a father, and Tucker lived half the year with his woman in LA. Everything was changing.
I’d had a family once—Mom, Dad, and a little brother. I still had my brother, but he was a man full grown now, successful and living his own life. He didn’t need me anymore, and he definitely didn’t need the shit I’d brought to his door. It was better that I kept moving, kept those wheels rolling.
The other Daredevils were my brothers too, but now they all had partners and I was on the outside again.
Sometimes it felt so damn lonely.
I live in a small village by the ocean and walk my little dog, Pip, every day. It’s on those beachside walks that I have all my best ideas.
Writing has become a way of life – and one that I love to share.