Looking for work and hoping for love
June 12, 2016
IT WAS AN OLD STORY in a new town, and Harry Baker was always riding the rails and on the lookout for a new town. A man couldn’t make it anymore if he hung around too long in one place because job were as scarce as hen’s teeth A job that lasted two weeks was considered permanent, and anybody who collected a pay from the same company for a month was probably married to the boss’ daughter or knew where the bodies were buried and had probably helped bury a few.
Harry Baker had slipped off the last Chicago and Western rail car just before daylight, finding some comfort in reaching Wabash before a blistering summer sun hammered the brittle landscape around him. He had a few coins left over from hauling cow manure out of the stockyards in Chicago, at least enough money to buy himself a cup of coffee and a find a place suitable for washing the dust off his face and out of his eyes.
The coffee in the diner was thick, strong, and hot. Harry asked about a job.
The aging, heavy-set man behind the counter laughed. “If I hire you,” he said, “I’d have to fire myself.”
Harry nodded, emptied his cup, and left, wandering down a back alley that led him out to a little glen beside the last road out of town. He stepped back, wiped the sweat from his forehead, and just beyond an old abandoned feet store, he saw a couple of roustabouts struggling to raise a circus tent that had been yellowed with age and frayed from too many days in the heat, too many nights in the rain.
The center pole was leaning, and the older man with a white mustache was on his knees, desperately trying to keep it from falling. Harry ran across the open field and wrapped his arms around the pole, keeping it awkwardly in place until White Mustache could nail down the stakes.
“Much obliged,” the old man said. “That old pole’s been trying to kill me for years. Gonna make it one of these times.”
Harry smiled. “I’m looking for a job,” he said
“I’d hire you in a heartbeat,” White Mustache said. “But that’s up to the boss lady. She holds the purse strings.”
“Where do I find her?”
White Mustache grinned. “Just wander around until you see the prettiest little redhead on the face of the earth,” he said, “and that’s her. Her daddy owned the circus for years. When his heart wore out, she took it over.”
The boss lady was not difficult for him to find. She was smaller than Harry had expected but with a full head of wavy auburn hair that glistened red in the summer sunlight. She had big green eyes and a smile that belonged on a showgirl, and he guessed that it did.
Sure, she said. She could always use a little help. Didn’t pay much. But the circus fed well, and the tickets were free.
“You have a name?” Harry asked.
“Most people just know me as the boss lady,” she said.
“You’re awfully pretty for a boss lady,” he said.
“Don’t even try it,” she said, but the smile never faded.
She folded her arms and leaned against the ticket booth. “I do three things,” she said, “and I do them really well. I run the circus. I’m the lady in short tights on the flying trapeze. And I’ve turned down men in forty-six towns during the last fifty-two days. There’s not a lot of love in the circus, just a lot of love lost.”
“I’m sorry,” Harry said.
“I may be, too,” she said. The boss lady winked as she handed him a shovel and walked away.
“What do you want me to do with this?” he asked.
“Follow the elephants,” she said. “Clean up whatever they leave behind. Gus will show where the stakes go. He’s got a white mustache. Can’t miss him. The ropes need to be pulled tight. These summer winds can be precarious sometimes.”
The crowd was sparse that night, mostly daddies with their children. The elephant show was all right if you had never seen elephants up close before, and most of the kids hadn’t. The Alligator Skin Boy looked like he had a bad case of eczema. The fire eater was coughing up smoke. The clown didn’t show up. He had run off with the Monkey Girl in Peoria. A man walked through the tent on stilts, selling peanuts that had been parched three towns ago. The lion looked hungry enough to eat the trainer, who was wondering if lion tasted better fried or grilled. The circus had only two rings, and the boss lady had trouble keeping them full.
But the boss lady, she was magnificent.
Harry Baker could not keep his eyes off her. He was mesmerized.
She was flying across the tent in slow motion, spinning once, then again, reaching out at the last minute when it looked as though the last minute had already disappeared and grabbing the swing, flipping her body into a handstand as her red hair fell splashed across her face and glistened in the spotlight. She was aloft on air, working at the top of the tent without a net beneath her, a portrait of grace in motion. Harry thought she would merely drift to the ground if she ever fell. Her smile never left her face. She tumbled again. And his heart tumbled with her.
Harry waited for her in the shadows after the spotlight had gone dark, and the handful of cars eased out into the night and toward home.
The boss lady was dressed in a flowing silk dress. The flowers in the fabric danced when she walked toward him. The moonlight softly touched her face.
“Coffee?” he asked.
“I’d like to see you again.”
“That makes forty-seven,” she said. “Fifty four days.”
Harry glanced away. “I’d like to travel with the circus,” he said. “Don’t mind the work. Don’t mind the late hours. You name the wages, and I’ll work for them.”
“Be here in the morning,” she said.
“Seven-thirty.” Her smile was etched with a touch of sadness. “I’ll have your money, then.”
“What about the job?”
“Don’t look for us when we’re gone,” she said.
Harry stood alone in the darkness and watched her walk away until the night closed in around her, and the boss lady vanished from his sight.
At eight o’clock the next morning, Harry was back in the diner, drinking a cup of coffee. He had not seen the boss lady that morning. She was already gone, said Gus with the white mustache. She had left three dollars for him. It’s not much, the note said, but it’s all I can do. Harry had slipped the wrinkled bills in his shirt pocket and headed for the diner. His heart was as empty as his pockets had been.
“Why you looking so glum?” asked the heavyset man behind the counter.
“Thought I had a job,” Harry said.
“We don’t have any circus in town,” the man behind the counter said. “It used to come about this time every summer.” He shrugged. “It was the one reason we were glad to see summer get here. Haven’t seen it in years.”
“But I was there last night.”
The man behind the counter laughed. “Down on the other side of Palace Street?” he asked. “In the open field where the old feed store closed down?”
“That’s where it was.”
“Must have been the whiskey.”
“I don’t drink.”
The circus stopped coming in 1938,” the man said, refilling Harry’s cup with hot, day-old coffee. “I never missed it when I was a kid. They had the prettiest girl I ever saw up on the flying trapeze. I told my daddy I was gonna marry her someday.”
“It sure glistened red in the spotlight.”
“I hear she fell just outside of Kansas City,” said the man behind the counter. “Winds blew down the tent. Busted her up pretty good.”
“Coma.” The man shrugged again. “She just never woke up.”
“But I saw her last night,” Harry said.
“Don’t worry about it,” the man said as he turned and broke an egg on the smoking grill. “You’re not the first.”
“I thought I was in love with her.”
“So did we all.”
Harry reached in his pocket for a dollar bill to pay for the egg and coffee. His pocket was empty.
My novel, Secrets of the Dead, takes place in the late 1930s, too, but the noir thriller sprawls across the war-torn landscape of Europe.