~This story first appeared in Glimmer Train (1998).
There was the smell of the dust, and the smell of the sand, and the smell of the rides, and the smell of the crowds which each day had a different smell, and there was the smell of the horses and the morning and the night. There was the smell of The Thing and The Thing's shit. So it smelled. What didn't?
Well, he thought. Alright, then. So he changed it.
"I'll need talc, or corn starch if you don't have it, and a first aid kit in case it's got sores from being swaddled up so. Don't tell Old Man Dawkins. He keeps changing it every morning just like before. You use diapers?"
"So we'll go through twice as many diapers. If I'm gonna do this I don't want to be running out."
Jacobsen stared at the kid. "Okay. We'll get more diapers."
"And I'll need somebody to help with the trash. "It's too much for me already. If I got to take care of it, too…"
"I've had men quit can't take its screaming. Once it starts up…night after night screaming and won't stop. How the hell do you make it shut up?”
"What do you do?”
"I dunno. I sing to it. That's one thing."
"You sing to it?"
"That's one thing."
What he meant was, what he wouldn't tell Jacobsen was, The Thing stopped screaming before he ever sang to it. It stopped the moment it saw him.
Kid come walking in off the desert all torn and burnt and stretched to nearly nothing. Staggered onto the carnival grounds. Would do any job…except he'd been burned so bad he couldn't take daylight. That's how he got night trash duty. That's how he got two weeks playing The Snake Boy in the freak show, every inch of his skin, flake. Every inch, peel.
When he healed up Jacobsen offered him a dollar an hour raise to get burned again but the kid said no, he liked trash duty fine, thank you, which was no lie. At night he brandished his spiked trash stick, danced across the grounds stabbing paper cups and popcorn bags as they skittered like pale crabs across the windswept earth. Stab! Like a matador. Stab! Like a spearfishing Indian. And sometimes after the crowds had come and reeled and gone, and the rides had churned and hours later sat still giving off heat and scent like sleeping animals, the night to him alone seemed nothing other than pure, thick sweetness.
The Thing sliced through that sweetness the second week the kid worked the shift. It cleaved the night in two.
He'd almost finished his trash duties when the wail sounded towards the back of the camp. He ran towards it, followed it back towards the tents, then to a small, solitary tent off by itself. The wailing continued, more horrifying now because it was clearly human. A man's voice yelled out from the sleeping tents, "Shut up! Shut up!" Inside the tents other voices yelled at the man for him to shut up, leave it alone, go back to sleep. There was a scuffle, and the man went silent.
The kid pulled back one of the flaps to the tent and the scream shot through him. He pointed his flashlight toward the ceiling. The interior of the tent glowed dim and gold-brown, shadows leaping like flames. In a baby's crib lay what seemed no more than a white bundle and a crooked, open mouth. How could all that sound come from that mouth? He stepped into the tent and the sound stopped. The mouth closed and eyes appeared from nowhere on the face and opened. Black eyes. They looked at him.
"Yes we shall gather at the river
The beautiful, the beautiful, the river
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God…"
That was the first song he sang for it. Then "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." Then "The Old Rugged Cross." He was hard pressed to understand how he knew so many church hymns. They seemed inexhaustible. He just pictured in his mind a red hymnal, then turned the page. There would be a song, and he would sing it. Singing hymns to The Thing was the right thing to do, but he didn't understand how he knew that either.
Now it was Natasha The Dancing Girl From Lands Far Away in lockstep beside him, her ankle bracelets chiming her footfalls, her white men's dress shirt tied in a knot below her breasts. The soft curves of her midriff swirled around her navel. A trace of blond fuzz, down, reflected in the sunlight disappeared into the loose, cut-off shorts that floated about her hips. The kid stole glance after glance into the shifting spaces in the shorts created by each of her steps, wondering at the magic that kept the cut-offs from slipping all the way down to her ankles.
"They say you just came walking in off the desert like some half starved coyote."
"I was more than half starved."
She made him nervous. She made the blood rush from his brain and head south. No way he could think straight with her around. He had enough trouble on his own.
"They say you keep The Thing from screaming."
"So it seems."
"They say you change it. Volunteered to do that."
"They say lots of things."
"You couldn't get me to touch it."
She stayed alongside him. He couldn't figure why she, the star of the show, was suddenly giving him the time of day.
"I don't know what Jacobsen told you to get you to do all that, but don't believe for a second he'll follow through. He promised he'd take me to L.A., but he left out the part about when hell freezes over. He plays the most God-forsaken towns in the southwest, places so hot and miserable no other carnival would ever go near them. That’s his racket. And the people stuck out here got nowhere to go, nothing but misery. They'll drive an hour or more to see his damned carnival. He'll never get me to L.A."
"Why don't you leave?"
" I have to give him most of my check on account of I owe him. He bought me out of a…problem back home. Understand?"
A trickle of sweat ran into his left eye, stinging. He wiped it away with the back of his hand.
"He's a liar," she went on. "A grade-A sonofabitch."
"Bus ticket's cheap enough."
“You don't wanna land in L.A. broke. Nine times out of ten I'll tell you where you'll end up working."
"Forget it. What brought you here to the middle of nowhere? Middle of hell on earth. You don’t seem the type.”
“What’s the type?”
“I don’t know. But it’s not you.” She grabbed him by his belt loop and jerked him to a stop, held him tightly in her fist. “So?” she asked.
He hesitated. “I left town. My mother died. I left town.”
She released his belt loop. She turned and began walking again. The kid followed.
“Everybody’s got to go sometime,” she said, as if to no one.
He stopped and let her go, turned away, headed to the sleeping tents. Inside, carney hands played dominoes, threw dice against the east wall. Not the sort of men he would normally sleep soundly around, but they’d all taken care to leave him alone since hearing about him and The Thing.
He lay on his cot and closed his eyes. In a fog of heat and exhaustion he thought of his mother again, the sanitarium, her failed suicide, the coma. The desert.
“What do you think?” he asked her. “If I saw my mother in the desert, do you think it was really her?”
“What do you mean, saw her?” Natasha asked. She’d wandered by after her last show had ended, stopped him on his rounds, lit up a cigarette. “You mean, like a dream?”
“Yeah. I guess.”
“Dreams aren’t real.”
“She saved my life.”
Natasha dropped her cigarette. Stomped it out. “Everybody says you’re crazy.”
“Everybody can kiss my ass.”
She smiled, as if proud to hear him swear. As if there might be possibilities here with a little encouragement. He knew different. The phrase felt untrue as soon as he’d said it, hung false in the night air, was a lie to impress her, somebody else’s voice coming out his mouth.
He wouldn’t say it again. And she’d be disappointed.
What he meant was, what he wouldn’t ask her was, if his mother saved his life on the desert, did it mean he was forgiven? Did it mean what he had done was okay?
He thought of the college boys that had picked him up that night, given him a ride and a beer. Somewhere in Nevada. Somewhere in Arizona. Somewhere. Next morning he woke to find them pushing him out of their car. They drove off laughing and left him standing on a dirt road. Like it was a joke.
There was nothing else to do but walk, so he walked southward, the direction the car had headed, hoping it wasn’t another of their jokes and that the highway lay in that direction. Hours went by. He couldn’t tell if he’d covered any distance at all, the hugeness of the land giving him no points of reference relative to his movement. She came to him the next day, when his skin was pure blister, when his eyesight was shot with sun blindness and everything so white he couldn’t see where he put his feet—everything white like the hospital room where she appeared, lying unconscious in her bed. She opened her eyes and sat up. She pulled the I-V out of her arm and stood. She took his hand and led him out of the hospital room and down a long narrow hallway. There was little light and no windows. At the end of the hallway, a glass door led outside. She took him towards it, their footsteps dimly echoing off the floor and cool stone walls. It took a long time to get to the door. He was in no hurry, but finally his mother held it open. He stepped out into the glaring light, and fell.
He hit the ground hard. He looked up. It was sunset. He wondered how long he’d been walking and in what kind of daze. He pushed up off the ground and sat on the hot dirt, trying to recover. The light of the setting sun was gentle, soothing even, and his sun blindness diminished—he could look at his surroundings. Behind him he saw the two-foot plateau he’d fallen off. Around him buttes and rocks flamed orange from the light. He sat still and watched the crest of the red liquid sun sink below the horizon until it was a burning red line, and then it was gone. The buttes and rocks shifted to blue, and shadows moved on them, filling the crevices, deepening the breaks in the rocks.
The highway lay no more than fifty yards away. He stood, and staggered towards it.
"What is it?" came from inside the trailer, irritated. The kid banged on Jacobsen's door again. It creaked open and Jacobsen stood red-eyed and squinting, shading away sunlight with his hand.
"What do you want?”
"We're running low on first aid."
“You’re using too much.”
“It’s got sores.”
“I know it’s got sores.” He rubbed his eyes. “It’s always got sores.”
“Well…some have healed up.”
“Then why do you need more first aid?”
“It’s got new ones.”
Jacobsen stared at him. Shut the door.
The kid hesitated, then rapped on the door again. “Mr. Jacobsen,” he called out, “I thought we had a deal. If we don’t, fine. I’ll head on down the road. But it’ll be screaming its head off before you even tuck it into bed.”
The door cracked open. “Alright, alright,” Jacobsen said. “Goddamned Human Torso. Goddamned pain in the ass.”
By day, coyotes rifled through the trash pile Jacobsen’s men had dumped less than a mile from camp. By night, coyotes circled the camp, ringed the light that ringed the camp, and waited for it to go dim. When they moved in, they moved across the camp in lines, low to the ground, then fanned out through the shadows, covering every square inch for scraps of food.
The kid could only catch them out of the corner of his eye. When he turned his head they vanished like smoke, like ghosts of dogs, ghosts of wolves, and he could never be certain he saw them at all. Until one took to now and then making itself visible to him.
He found the coyote in his path blocking him—yellow eyes, bony ribcage expanding and contracting with each breath, in no hurry. The kid froze. It tilted its head as it sized him up. A slight wind moved through the camp. The creature turned its head and lifted its nose to the breeze, sniffed it in, pawed at the ground with its right forefoot, and trotted away.
Another night the coyote followed twenty or so paces behind him all the way to The Thing’s tent. Before he went inside he looked back. It sat down in the dirt. When he came out later it was gone. Another time the kid stepped out of The Thing’s tent near dawn, finished for the night, and headed towards the sleeping tents. He turned to see the coyote openly following him again.
The creature was tracking him, but to what end he had no idea. Nevertheless, its presence, its visibility gave him an answer: At least one of his more questionable visions had turned out to be real. What did that tell him? That which is seen out of the corner of his eye may not be a trick of the light; that which is invisible may be that which is simply able to hide; that which may seem a ghost may be many different things, only one of which is a fantasy, a falsehood, a failure of the mind.
What was on the other hand? His mother who’d been locked away for hearing voices that, at least as far as he could tell, were in fact a product of her mind’s betraying itself. In her last lucid moments she advised him that hearing voices was one thing, but talking back to them would get him locked up. Word to the wise. Her condition deteriorated—that was the word the doctor used—and each time he visited she had to struggle harder and harder to remember who he was. That neither of them were prepared for.
The last time he reached her was several weeks after the doctors told him it was hopeless to try. He remembered her favorite movie with Jimmy Stewart’s tiniest daughter with the strange name, how at the end of that movie he reaches in his pocket and discovers her crushed flower. The kid placed the petals from a rose he’d carefully taken apart into his mother’s hands. “Mom. ZuZu’s petals.” She raised her eyes and looked at him, not like a mother, he thought later, but more like a sister, or something there was no word for. That night she somehow managed to climb to the asylum’s roof, and leap. The doctors blamed the madness, but the kid knew it was the last sane act of her life.
“There’s coyotes all through here,” he told Natasha. “All through these grounds every night.”
“I haven’t seen them.”
“You’ve seen the ghost of your mother, too.”
“I’m not crazy,” he muttered. He started to tell her about the coyote that had been tracking him, but decided against it.
“Tell me something,” she said.
She squinted, peered at him through ribbons of smoke from her cigarette that curled up white in the dark.
“What?” he repeated.
She drew in a long drag, then blew a puff of smoke that rolled to him in a wave and broke across his chest. He felt himself stiffen in his pants; counted backwards from one hundred to settle himself.
“Is this what you want to do your whole life?” she finally said.
“Wipe the ass of a circus freak. A human torso.” He took a half-step back, didn’t know how to respond. “Listen,” she began again. “I’m sorry. That was harsh.” She touched her middle finger to his hip. “You’re so good. Better than anyone I’ve known in a long time.”
He hesitated. “I’m not good.”
“The way you take care of it. That’s what…” she removed her hand, paused, “drew me to you.”
“I don’t know. I just do what I do.”
“But you need to take care of yourself, too. The Thing hardly knows the difference you’re there or not.”
“Why does it stop screaming for me? Not anybody else.”
“I said ‘hardly.’”
He thought for a second. “I think you’re wrong.”
She looked away, softened. “Maybe. I think maybe you can be trusted.” She reached out and took his hand and pulled him to her, pulled his mouth to hers, arched her body into his. He felt himself in a free fall, felt her feeding a place that starved.
She broke the kiss. “Oh,” she said. “My my my.” She smiled, ran her fingers through her hair as she backed away. “Go on, then. Clean up. Go take care of your Thing.”
“It’s not my Thing,” he muttered, walking off confused and slightly shamed. “It’s not anybody’s. It’s…” But he couldn’t find words to explain his reaction to it or anyone else’s; why people drove for hours to see it. First timers scrambling out of the freak show looking like they were about to lose breakfast, but back the next weekend, this time with friends. This time in their face a different reaction. And the next time they came, a different reaction. And the next.
The Thing drew more people to the carnival than any other act, and even Natasha had trouble pretending otherwise. As good a dancer as she was, as gorgeous, as much power as she could hold over an entire tent full of men, it took every ounce of energy she could muster each night to make it all work. The Thing did nothing except lie in its crib, and people lined up around the tent to get a look at it. “People love freaks,” Jacobsen would say, but why, and why this one in particular, he couldn’t.
That night the kid avoided going to The Thing’s tent until Natasha’s effect upon him to some degree wore off, until the cells, excited and electric, stopped calling out to one another across the front of his body, radiating, remembering her shape against his.
When he finally opened up the flap and stepped inside its tent, it seemed to know something had changed. But it accepted it. That’s what the kid decided that night. Everything was accepted by it. Everything forgiven. He unfastened its diaper, cleaned its bottom. He took a wet sponge from a pan and bathed its hairless body, then powdered it. No arms, no legs; no beginnings of arms, no intimation of where a leg should’ve been.
He dressed a new wound that had appeared on its side. He put a fresh diaper on it and wrapped its body in clean gauze. He took a baby bottle he’d filled with baby formula and held the nipple to its toothless, uneven mouth. Its eyes were all pupil, all pools of deep, bottomless black, taking in everything, light shimmering on tears across the surface. As it sucked at the bottle the kid’s free hand went to its forehead, stroked the fractured shape of its skull with his fingers. It breathed. It sighed.
Was it male or female? Natasha asked him. He didn’t know. Male, female, both, neither, he didn’t know. How old was it? he asked Jacobsen. He didn’t know. “Older than you, kid,” was all he had to say.
“He’ll never move the carnival again, I just know it,” she said. We’ll be stuck in this corner of hell forever.”
“Crowds are still getting bigger.”
“They got nothing better to do. Like you said.”
“It won’t last forever.”
“We’ve been here longer than anyplace. Even the old hands say that. Jacobsen’s found his gold mine. Why’s he want to move? Meanwhile, time marches on, you know? Opportunities…I can feel them just out of reach. Slipping by. Like my life.”
The kid didn’t answer. Felt something was coming.
“You know what Jacobsen told me today? Told me The Thing was the star of the show. I was a bit player. That’s what he told me.”
“He was just trying to take you down a notch. You know how he is.”
“Listen. I can trust you, right? I can trust you, I know I can. I’m leaving. That’s it.” The kid waited. “If I…what I want to know is, if I figure a way out for both of us…a way that would take us all the way to L.A., would you be up for it?” She touched her fingers to his hip. “Would you go with me to L.A.?”
“Maybe,” he stammered before he could think of anything else to say. The implications of what she said, what was implied between them, left him stunned. She nodded and walked off. “Maybe” was good enough for Natasha The Dancing Girl From Lands Far Away.
After all he’d been through, a doorway had opened to him, a doorway that led to a beautiful young woman, Los Angeles, the possibilities of comfort, a real job, maybe a real future. What kind of fool would pass on that, he wondered. What obligation did he have to stay? None. But he was haunted by the thought of leaving The Thing, of letting it go back to the way it lived before he arrived—bed sores and Old Man Dawkins changing its diaper once a day, when and if he was in the mood. What kind of life did it have in that body? How much pain did it suffer every minute of every day? If he was leaving and had one gift to give the creature, what would it be? And was he capable of delivering it? Yes. He’d proven already that he was.
He could not stop thinking of Natasha, dreaming of what she would feel like under his body. The more he thought about everything, leaving the carnival seemed to be the only option that made sense. Still, he found himself strangely relieved when the first night passed and she hadn’t appeared with their ticket out of camp. Then the second night passed without her showing up, and he began to wonder if her escape plan was just a fantasy, a whim of the moment.
The third night she came calling. Between two and three in the morning she found him on his shift.
“Let’s go,” she said.
“Let’s go.” She grabbed his hand and pulled him behind her. “Did you leave anything in the tents?”
“A change of clothes Jacobsen gave me.”
“We’ll get you some more on the road.”
She began to run. “Wait,” he said.
“We can wait later,” she told him and led him towards an older model pick-up truck.
“That’s Jacobsen’s,” he said. “Jacobsen’s truck.”
“He’s letting us borrow it.”
They stopped beside it. He looked back at Jacobsen’s trailer. The lights were out. “Why?” he said. “Why’s he letting us borrow it?”
“Look. I struck a deal with him.” She stepped towards him. “You know what I mean? Do I have to explain that?”
He paused, shook his head.
“Thank God. C‘mon. Get in the truck.” She pulled a set of car keys out of her pocket.
It was all happening too fast. “There’s something I have to do,” he told her.
“I have to tell it goodbye.”
She crossed her arms. “You’re kidding.”
“If you want me to go with you, I have to tell it goodbye.”
He backed away from her, then turned and began running across the camp. He ran past the merry-go-round, then the Ferris wheel, then the octopus. He ran past the freak show and the cotton candy stand. He stopped at The Thing’s tent. He pulled open the flap and stepped inside, clicked on his flashlight. Its eyes were open. It looked at him. He set the flashlight on a chair and moved to the crib.
“I’m…” he began to say in too much of a hurry, his head in too much of a spin, and lost the words. “I’ve got to go,” he began again. “Understand? I’ve got to go now. I’m sorry. I won’t be here anymore.” He leaned over it. Its face registered no change. “I thought…I wondered if you’re sick of all this. If you want out, I could help. I could do that. If that’s what you want.”
Still, there was no reaction from it. The kid raised his hands over its body. He knew what to do, what seemed right, but somehow he couldn’t act further without a sign from it. He thought of his mother—two months in a coma in a hospital room. He remembered overhearing an orderly refer to her as “the vegetable.” He’d not put the two terms together, “the thing” and “the vegetable” until now. How unexpected that the situation felt so different beside The Thing than it had at his mother’s bedside.
He’d stood over her, too, thought of her botched suicide attempt and the shrubs around the asylum that broke her fall. He watched his hands move to her. He didn’t will them to move to her, but they did, as if someone else made the command. His left hand went to her right and gently held it, while his right hand went to her face, closed the passage of air for one moment, and that quickly she was gone. Like smoke. Like vapor.
Now his hands floated uselessly over The Thing’s body. He dropped them to his sides. Suddenly its mouth began working, making shapes in the air. For a moment he was afraid it was about to start screaming. Natasha would be long gone at the first sound, if she wasn’t gone already. But no sound issued from it. He leaned down to the creature, turned his ear to its mouth, and listened to what it had to tell him.
The tent flap jerked open and Natasha stood in the doorway. Seeing them, she gasped, wringed the tent flap in her hand. “Hey…” her voice wrenched out. “I…hey…” He rose up. He had the sense it was she who was about to start screaming. She reached in the tent, grabbed his hand, and pulled him away.
By the time his head cleared they’d climbed in the truck, pulled out onto the two-lane blacktop that led away from the carnival, and turned west. Her hands clutched the steering wheel. She glanced over at him. “What…” she began, then shook her head as if to rattle it free of something.
“Jacobsen doesn’t know you’re taking his truck, does he?”
“It was the only way,” she said. Her voice was pinched. “We can make L.A. by noon. Park it and leave it. It’s not like he won’t get it back.”
“What did you do to him?”
“Nothing he won’t recover from.” She looked over at him again, then back at the road. “Listen. He owes me more than this damn truck, okay? What he got from me. Trust me on this one.”
He twisted around in his seat and watched the few dim lights of the carnival grow distant and faint. He felt something inside himself tearing.
“We’re not being followed,” she told him.
The lights disappeared behind them. “Wait,” he said.
“We can’t wait.”
She stomped the brake and yanked the steering wheel to the right. The truck skidded to a stop on the dirt beside the highway, its bed hanging halfway out onto the road. “Alright,” she said. “Fine. Tell me what you were doing in there. In the tent. I thought maybe you were going back to kill it.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“It said this. It said…”
He paused. “It said, ‘They need to see me.’”
She stared at him a moment, then turned and looked down the road. He opened the door, stepped out. Through the window he saw tears streaking down her face.
“I’m sorry,” he told her.
She suddenly laughed. “I can’t compete with it, you know? Never could. What a pain it is.” She reached up and wiped the tears away. “Keep a secret, alright?”
She put the truck in gear and it lurched away. He watched it until its red tail lights disappeared, then turned and began the walk back to the carnival. As his eyes adjusted along the dark road, he began to see the entire landscape around him; flat plains, buttes, and in the distance, huge, looming mountains.
He’d get back to the carnival, see what she did to Jacobsen—hopefully, just got him drinking until he passed out. Maybe she drugged him. He’d peek in his trailer, make sure he was breathing, then let him sleep it off and find out for himself about his truck and star dancer. In the meantime, The Thing would need tending. He walked faster, then started to jog. Out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw coyotes move through the brush. Softly, he began to sing an old church hymn.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
The idea for “Keeper” came from one image that led to another, the first being a boy staggering from the desert into a low-rent carnival. I’ve always been both drawn to and repelled by carnivals, which makes it ripe material. So my immediate question was what did the boy find there? After following a horrifying, almost inhuman scream to a small tent, he pulls open a flap and inside is The Thing, swaddled in a crib. Both images—the boy walking into a desert carnival and The Thing in its crib—were unplanned and unexpected, yet resonant with meaning even if I couldn’t say why. The rest of the writing was to build a storyline to support and follow the logic of where those two moments might lead.
ABOUT STEVE ADAMS
Steve Adams’ short stories have been published in Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, Chicago Review, Quarterly West, and Georgetown Review. His creative nonfiction has been published in Willow Springs and The Pinch. He recently published a craft/process essay in Glimmer Train’s Bulletin (go here to read it), and his essay "Touch," originally publied by The Pinch, has just been awarded a Pushcart Prize. He’s won Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers, The Bronx Writer’s Center “Chapter One” Contest, and both his fiction and his nonfiction have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes. His work has been anthologized, and his plays and musicals have been produced in New York City. He’s been a guest artist at The University of Texas and a scholar at the Norman Mailer Writer’s Colony. Currently, he lives in Austin and is a writing coach at www.steveadamswriting.com.