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The Last Irresponsible Act in America
Tonight I will kill a dolphin, a show dolphin. I’m at the point where something must give. Hopefully it’ll scream into my boss’s big-ass ears. Maybe it’ll wake Big Hack up. I’m languishing in the shadows of his carnival where he bills me as “Bubo, The Four-Eyed Fish Midget.” I wrestle a dolphin named Revolver. I knock him unconscious. But really we’ve trained him to play dead. And people are always disappointed when they realize I wear goggles and that my fish fins are short deformed arms with webbed hands. It’s a matter of interpretation, and Big Hack interprets them as fins, but not everyone agrees. They yell, “He ain’t no fish. I want a refund.” For this reason, Big Hack posted a “No Refund” sign at the ticket booth.
Big Hack makes me play the villain. He believes in the villain’s ability to draw a crowd because he once managed the wrestler, Badass Boyd. But that was before he started the carnival, and I don’t think being the villain is enough these days. My act no longer thrills the audience. Reality television has jaded society. The norm for weird has changed. Near-death is what America wants so let me fight a shark or two. Let us fight to the death. This will liven things up, unless I’m killed. But if it happens, it happens. I’ll take the chance. Maybe it’ll teach Big Hack a lesson. I plan to mention it tonight at the staff meeting.
After everyone gathers inside the food tent and after Big Hack gives his usual lecture about starting on time, about sticking around for photo ops, and about not playing the music too loud on the rides, about cleaning up the messes we make, I raise my hand.
“Yeah, what is it?” Big Hack asks.
I swallow hard, hoping I can say it. “I’m just wondering if there’s anything we can do about the dwindling crowds at our acts. I know the carnival is doing great and all, [There was no need to sound too negative] but let’s face it people, the sideshow is in its last days. Reality television is about to ruin us. Take my act, for instance, everybody in the country has seen it a thousand times, even Revolver is bored. It takes the trainer ten minutes to wake him after the act.”
“That’s a lie,” Dick, the trainer says.
“Well, what I’m trying to say is maybe it’s time to restructure my act or replace Revolver.”
“With what?” Big Hack says. His large forehead wrinkles as he narrows his brown eyes. He has hands like a baboon—large and hairy. A crop of hair grows from the opening at the front of his collar, as if it might be a plant seeking sunlight. He always wears white oxford shirts starched to the max with his name embroidered above the pocket.
“Sharks,” I say.
“If you want to die, I can kill your ass,” Larry, the guy who runs the Tilt-a-Whirl, says.
This draws some laughs.
I don’t acknowledge Larry.
I continue, “We could train the sharks to play dead as well,” which I know is a lie. I really want to kill or fight to my own death.
“Sharks? You’re out of your mind. They’ll snack on you,” Lionel, the knife-swallower says.
I quickly add, “You underestimate me and what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to save our sideshow acts.”
Big Hack is visibly upset about this. He says, “Son, let’s get one thing straight. I made you what you are. And you think you can tell me how to run my carnival? Please.”
It’s true. My mother was Madam Seero, a palm reader in his carnival. She died with breast cancer when I was twelve and no one wants a midget for a child. Before she died I’d go with her on a nightly basis to her table, as the carnival swirled around us—kids screaming on the rides, pop music blaring from the speakers as tattooed operators smoked and worked the levers. Mostly dumb country people drifted to her table out of curiosity. All of them so free, so determined to have fun in the other world we’d created for them. And at night when the carnival lights were dim, when the silence set in, my mother would make me stay outside for the night while she spent time with Larry, the guy who runs the Tilt-a-Whirl. Some even say he’s my father. I don’t believe it. Just because he’s a midget doesn’t mean he’s my father. Plus, I despise him. Can’t stand his looks. But you know what they always say; we hate in others what we hate in ourselves.
I say, “Big Hack, you have me all wrong. I’m not trying to tell you how to run your carnival. I wouldn’t know where to start, but just take notice tonight of the skimpy crowds in the sideshows. That’s all I’m asking.”
Big Hack says, “Sounds like you’re asking for more than that. And the next time you want to give a state of the carnival speech, you clue me in ahead of time. This staff meeting is over. Now y’all get out there and entertain the customers . . . Go!”
My meager audience shades their eyes with cupped hands in the late evening sun. They are quiet. No one is moving. I walk to the edge of the platform. Before I dive into the tank, I think about Big Hack’s refusal to liven up my act. A decade ago, kids would drawback in horror when I dove into the tank from the diving board that’s only two feet above the water. Big Hack thought a little humor would help the act, and it did. The adults once hissed and laughed when I’d plunge into the water and revealed my webbed-feet and hands by pushing hard against the glass at the front of the tank, exposing my weird fish qualities. By the end of the night, the tank would be full of partial hotdogs, cotton candy, loogies, and gold fish—some still inside their plastic bags. That’s when I knew they loved me. Response of any kind is the opium for a sideshow performer. We hate silence. Now I only get an occasional boo or laugh. My audience doesn’t hate me or even look bewildered, and God forbid if they clap. They long for manacled magicians who can remain underwater for 24 hours, and then escape from an enclosed tank while in public view. This is what we’ve come to in America. I’m a joke these days, and knowing this is what hurts most. Being a four-eyed fish midget means nothing. I can remember when PETA circled the tent outside, believing we were actually knocking Revolver out. Those were the glory days. But I no longer thrill. I’m not hated. I’m not loved. The chairs we’ve placed around the tank have become a place to sit while they nurse their aching feet from all the walking on carnival grounds. If they take their eyes off their feet it’s been a good night.
Before I dive, I wave to the meager audience below. A bunch of country-dumbasses. Just staring at me. Chewing their cuds. Working their jaws in the late evening sun. I can see Revolver’s fin like a razorblade circling inside the tank. He surfaces and makes one of his snide laughs the audience always likes. The smart-ass. I’ll show him who the star is.
I put my arms up and dive into the rather small tank. I plunge underwater and swim circles around Revolver. I’m the only villain he’s ever known. He swims as if he’s running from me. He hides at the back of the tank. This lets me know he’s ready to play dead. But tonight I grab the long crowbar I placed at the bottom of the tank earlier in the day after the staff meeting. I stab it into Revolver’s side repeatedly. The tank fills with blood. I feel the resistance of his flesh as I stab him some more. I surface and the crowd has reverted to the glory days. I thought I’d never see horror on their faces again. But death is the ultimate attraction. Somehow, I feel guilty and proud in the same moment.
After Dick, Revolver’s trainer, hoists Revolver from the tank, he gets in my face and threatens to kill me. Big Hack steps between us and asks me to follow him to his trailer. He’s six foot four and walks bowlegged as a bull rider.
We enter his trailer and sit down.
He says, “You did that on purpose, didn’t you?”
“What? He tried to bite me.”
“Dolphins don’t bite, you little asshole. You’re gonna pay for this. I hope you know that. I’m docking your paycheck to cover the insurance deductible I have on Revolver.”
“Why should I pay for defending myself?”
“Why should I keep from stomping a mud-hole in your ass?”
We stare at one another.
“Listen,” Big Hack says, “I don’t have time to fight with you. Alls I can say is your mother would be devastated. This ain’t the boy she helped raise.”
He lets it sink in, and it does. He always knows when to play the mother-card.
“You better be glad I’m not firing you. So let me offer you a shot at redemption.”
“The only way you’ll redeem me is by redeeming my act.”
“So, you want me to fire you?”
“That’s what I thought. Now I’ll take $100.00 out of your paycheck each pay period until it’s paid. That’s my redemption. And if you ever do something like this again, I won’t have to fire you, Dick will kill you.”
By the time I get back to the sideshow tent for our nightly party, everyone wants to know what happened.
“Tell it from the beginning,” Ann, the bearded-lady says. “And please tell us you didn’t do it so you could get a shark for your act. You know it ain’t gonna work with Big Hack.”
After I tell them, the knife-swallower says, “Bubo, he attacked you. What were you supposed to do? Don’t pay that man.”
Later, that same night, Scott and Steve, the twin fire-eaters—the ones I share a trailer with—invite me to go with them to their favorite tattoo artist in Nashville. They are addicted to tattoos. They have over a hundred and keep getting more.
When I realize I’ll be alone and remember how Dick has threatened my life, I say, “OK, sure. I’ll go.”
When they stop by the liquor store, I get a pint of Jack Daniels whiskey. I down the pint. When we get to the tattoo parlor, I begin drinking the fire-eaters’ vodka. I don’t remember much after this. People say I get obnoxious when I’m drunk—loud and uninhibited. But from what I can piece together from the fire-eaters, I passed out waiting on them to get their tattoos. And while I was unconscious, they talked the tattoo artist into giving me a shark tattoo that looks like the shark is biting my ass. Now I can’t even sit down.
Big Hack catches wind of the shark tattoo—the fire-eating twins are spreading the story—and sends word for me to report to his trailer.
“Sit down,” he says.
“Thanks.” I try my best not to grimace.
“I hear you have a shark tattoo. Is this true?”
“Maybe.” I’ve never been able to lie to Big Hack.
“Maybe’s ass. Drop your Speedos and turn around.”
I do it.
“That’s the most hideous thing I’ve ever seen. . . . Is that my name on the shark?”
“I was passed out when they did it. I’d never do something like this intentionally. Believe me. I don’t want your name on my ass anymore than you do.”
I pull up my Speedos and gingerly take a seat.
“Bubo, you kill Revolver with a crowbar and now you’ve violated article 22 in the Big Hack Entertainment policy book that states no midget shall mark his body with tattoos. A midget’s body don’t belong to him. You know that.”
“Why can everyone else have a tattoo but us?”
“Bubo, you’ve been a midget long enough to know that you don’t need to enhance your oddity with tattoos. Just because the fire-eaters can do it and add to their persona doesn’t mean it adds to yours. People want to see pure midgets, not ones a tattoo artist has doodled all over.”
I don’t respond.
He pulls a cigarette from its pack and lights it.
“I’ll get your name blotted out . . . I promise.”
He takes a drag from his cigarette and says, “Well, I got a bit of news for you.”
“You bought a shark?”
“Son, listen, I’m never getting a shark. You need to get that through your thick skull. What I am getting is a hike in my insurance premiums because of your antics.”
“What antics? I just killed a dolphin, for crying out loud. The sea is full of them.”
“I don’t think the sea trains them to play dead, you moron. Look, here’s what the insurance company is willing to do for me. They will cut the premium hike by fifty-percent if you’ll attend their American Institute of Higher Responsibility.”
“What the hell is that?”
“I’m not real sure, but basically they teach you responsibility.”
“Why should I be the one going? There are others around here that need it too. Why are you picking on me?”
“You’ve been deemed unproductive by the insurance company. You’re beginning to cost the insurance company more than they will ever retrieve from my premiums. You’re a risk to their bottom-line. So you’ll be taught the fine art of responsibility. You got a problem with that?”
“Yeah, I got a problem with that.”
“That’s fine. But you don’t have a choice. It’s either go for the training and stay in my carnival or get the hell out. Which one you want?”
I know he’s not making empty threats, and I know I can leave. I can go anywhere. But the thought of leaving behind the thrill of the carnival is something I can’t do for now.
“If I go, will you at least consider buying a shark to replace Revolver?”
“Listen, just finish this course. You got it?”
“How long is it?”
“Okay, I’ll go. You happy?”
“Not really, but the insurance company will be.”
The corridors of the institute are long and empty. The floors are tiled. It has ocean-spray green walls. It smells like Endust or some kind of orange-smelling cleaner, which is good. But it’s too perfect, too put-together, and this perfection stands out.
I’m too tired to argue. I couldn’t sleep last night. Kept tossing and turning. Kept having dreams about Revolver. In the dream, he kills me. It’s so strange to think like that.
“Is there like a daily schedule?” I ask.
“There’s one posted in the dayroom at the end of the hall. But I can give you an abbreviated one. Breakfast is served at 7 a.m. in the cafeteria downstairs, then you’ll participate in different classes that will teach you safety and responsibility throughout the day. Lunch is at noon and supper is at five.”
“That’s definitely abbreviated.”
“You’ll see soon enough.”
Halfway down the corridor, she stops and says, “Here’s your room.”
I peep inside, unsure of stepping through the doorway.
“Come on in, Bubo. I want you to meet Potco.”
I walk in with my head down. Defeated. This fate is for real.
“Bubo this is Potco. Potco this is Bubo.”
“Hello,” I say.
“Hello back,” he says.
Mary says, “Potco is your Irresponsible Dumbass. We team all of our new clients up with Irresponsible Dumbasses so you can see what happens if you don’t take us seriously. I’m sure Potco will fill you in on our program. And remember, you could become an Irresponsible Dumbass too if you don’t heed the lessons we’ll teach you. Well, get settled in.”
Potco calls her a bitch after she leaves. Then he turns to me and says, “She thinks she’s a damn superhero. Did you get a load of that cape?”
I don’t respond.
“Are you a midget or something?”
“Yeah, I got kicked out of the carnival for killing a dolphin in my sideshow act. It made the carnival’s insurance premiums go up.”
He laughs and says, “That’s a good one. I’ve heard a bunch of them, but that’s the first time I’ve heard that. So congratulations for being original.”
“Thanks. Originality is my strong suit.”
He extends his hand, and I shake it.
“Welcome, Bubo,” he says.
I’ve already touched his hand before I notice the nipple in his palm. I jump back.
He laughs and says, “Haven’t you ever touched a titty before?”
“Is that your real hand?”
“Don’t worry it’s milk-free.”
I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff at the carnival, but that’s the first nipple I’ve ever seen in the palm of a hand, so I can’t help but ask, “Were you born with that?”
“You’ll discover soon enough. The Irresponsible Dumbasses are here as reminders. If you don’t pass the course and live it in the real world, then you’ll be detained here. So between you and me, don’t accept NFL game tickets, NASCAR tickets, concert tickets or gift certificates. I accepted a gift certificate the first week I was here and it messed me up. It was a fifty-dollar certificate to a local topless bar. When I returned from my night out, they told me it proved I wasn’t socially responsible and dedicated to the institute. So they attached a nipple in my palm they’d cutoff a pig. They hoped it would remind me not to grab at social evil because it led to drunk driving, which led to car wrecks involving other motorists, which led to insurance payouts, which led to women making false claims about why they needed bigger boobs.”
“How long have you been here,” I ask.
“Been here a month this time.”
“You’ve been here before?”
“Yeah, I graduated and everything. But when I filed a malpractice lawsuit against the doctor and the insurance company for sewing a nipple in my hand, they slammed me back in here. I guess we’ve become more of a threat to society than terrorists.”
“Can’t you hire a lawyer to get you out of here?” I say, plopping down on the bed, wondering if Big Hack is thinking about getting me a shark when this is all over.
“Once you become classified as nonproductive, then lawyers can’t help you. It’s the insurance company’s little way of sticking it to you. You know what I mean?”
A young nurse with “Hilda” along with “Irresponsible Dumbass” on her name badge walks in with a clipboard. “Hey, Potco. It’s time for a Responsibility Liaison, so get your client and lineup.”
Hilda’s eyes are bloodshot. She has slobber in the left corner of her mouth while her nose drips what Potco tells me later is kryptonite. Looking at her makes you want to love her with doses of lithium. But the mesmerizing thing is how the roll of fat on the back of her neck keeps saying, “Pinch me, pinch me. You know you want to pinch me.”
Hilda says, “Midget, I don’t know you, so you better not even think about touching my neck. I don’t like being touched.”
“What?” I say.
“Hilda, is a good mind reader,” Potco whispers. “Were you thinking about touching her neck?”
“Yeah,” I whisper back.
“Don’t do it. She’ll slap the shit out of you.”
In the hall, Hilda turns and hands me a funny-looking beanie and says, “This is your personal responsibility cap. Potco will show you how to use it.”
I take it and ask Potco, “What’s this?”
“That, my man, is dumb shit.”
“It’s a responsibility cap that triggers the left side of the brain and shocks the right side. In theory, it’ll make you more logical and better able to make wise, responsible decisions. The problem is it kills the right side of your brain. So enjoy your imagination while you can. But if it doesn’t kill your imagination, then act logical or they will deem you untreatable and unproductive. I made the mistake of telling them I still have an imagination. That’s why they detain the Irresponsible Dumbasses here. They say we aren’t smart enough to be in society. But I’d rather have a little bit of imagination, if you know what I mean.”
Hilda leads her client by the hand. We follow. Hilda’s client is carrying a flower and has the Life section of the USA Today wrapped around her head.
“What’s up with the girl wrapped in newspaper?” I ask Potco.
“The insurance company believes she attempted suicide by wrecking her car, so they are afraid she’ll succeed next time, and then they’ll run the risk of having to pay her beneficiary. They believe in zero tolerance on risk, so they want her to see and feel what it means to be alive.”
“Doesn’t make sense, and another thing, if the Irresponsible Dumbasses are so irresponsible, then why do they leave y’all in charge?”
“Ah, that’s the spirit. I knew I liked you. We’re responsible for clients because we’re free labor. It doesn’t have anything to do with responsibility and everything to do with using people for their own greed. Control freaks at their best, and don’t think they’re not watching. They are.”
I don’t know who can be trusted. I only hope I’ll return to normal one day.
Potco and I, along with other Irresponsible Dumbasses and their clients, file past an octagon nurses’ station that serves as a hub for the five units sticking out like fingers from the palm of a hand. A glass divider shields the nurses from us, as they sit at a counter that wraps around the octagon. Once we pass the nurses’ station, we file out a door and into a patio area. Inside the area are four rocking chairs, a long bench, two picnic tables, and a cabinet that contains more responsibility caps. There’s a sign posted on the wall: “No thinking out loud during Responsibility Liaisons.”
Hilda walks to a cabinet and opens its doors. “Everyone line up and let’s get the responsibility liaison caps dispersed. This will be a fifteen minute Responsibility Liaison.”
Once I position my cap that looks like a beanie with a cord sprouting from the top, Potco plugs the cord into a socket inside the cabinet. When he sits down beside me, I ask, “Will this fry my brain?”
Before he can answer, I feel this tingle, like it feels when someone pretends to crack an egg on your head by running their hands gently down the sides of your head. Then I blackout.
Fifteen minutes later, Potco is tapping my cheeks. “Hey, Bubo. Where you going with that gun in your hand?”
It scares me. I look down at my hands. No gun.
“Man, what gun?”
“A little Jimi Hendrix right after they prod your brain will help keep your imagination alive.”
“You have to be kidding.”
“I am. Come on. Let’s hang your war hat up.”
Hilda yells, “Okay, let’s go. Everyone come over to the cabinet and give me your personal responsibility caps. Easy does it. Let’s not get them mixed up. Let’s hang them on the proper hook. I don’t want to be responsible for your irresponsibility.”
Potco joins Hilda at the cabinet, and I overhear her say, “Have you met my brother, Ed?”
“You know family members aren’t allowed on the units,” Potco says. “They create a privacy risk to our patients. And you need to do something about your kryptonite problem. You’re dripping it all over the floor. Somebody could slip and look irresponsible.”
Hilda says, “Who died and left you in charge?” Then Hilda turns to what I can only guess is an imaginary brother and says, “Never mind him, Ed. Potco’s been reading Oprah’s latest book club selection. He gets like this when he’s thirty pages from the end.” Hilda turns back to Potco. “Hurry up and finish that damn book before I shove—”
“Stop right there! You don’t want to go there. Not today. No, ma’am, not today,” Potco says.
Hilda does the smart thing and walks away.
I can’t believe Big Hack would do this to me. It’s changing my whole outlook of him.
Later that night, I awake to someone tapping on my shoulder. It’s Mary, the woman that admitted me in the front office. I turn over and squint my eyes in the bedroom’s dim light. Potco is snoring in his bed across the room.
Mary says, “Something has happened to Big Hack. You need to return to the carnival at once.”
I jump from bed. Put on my trousers. Pull my shirt over my head. Grab for my shoes.
“What happened?” I ask. “Did he have a heart attack? I told him to lay off fried food.”
“Calm down. Everything is fine. We just needed to take your vital responsibility signs. It seems your dedication to the program is still a little on the low side.”
“I guess you are still too dedicated to the carnival.”
“You lied about Big Hack? Is he okay or not?”
“Big Hack is fine. So go back to sleep.”
“You people are sick. I’m out of here. This is crazy.”
When I step into the hall, Mary tackles me from behind and twists my arm behind my back.
She says, “You’re not going anywhere, you little weasel.”
“Stop, you’re hurting me.”
She mocks me. “Stop, you’re hurting me.”
“You better let me up.”
“How dedicated are you to the institute?”
She twists harder.
“Okay, okay. I’m dedicated.”
“I want you to say, ‘responsibility first, responsibility last, responsibility always.”
“Responsibility first, responsibility last, responsibility always. Now get off me.”
“By the way, you’re on a locked unit. You can’t run. But it was fun tackling you.”
This is when Potco appears at the door, rubbing his eyes. “I guess his vital responsibility signs are low.”
“You guessed right, Irresponsible Dumbass,” Mary says. “In the morning I want you to begin DVD therapy. Show him the first series of The Irresponsible Adventures of the Unforgettable Toe. Got it?”
“Got it,” Potco says.
“Y’all get back in bed,” Mary says and leaves.
“Did she say a family member had died?”
“Something like that.”
“Shake it off and get some sleep.”
Within ten minutes, Potco is snoring again. I can’t sleep, though. All I can think about is how to escape. I’m afraid of these people.
The next day, Potco walks into our room and hands me a crowbar covered with dolphin stickers.
“Here carry this with you at all times.”
“Haven’t you figured this place out? It’s all about remembering your irresponsibility so you won’t repeat it. This is your therapy. Also, you have to watch The Irresponsible Adventures of the Unforgettable Toe DVD.”
Potco slides a DVD inside the player in our room.
“What’s this all about?” I ask.
“It’s a stupid cartoon about a hippie toe acting irresponsible in different situations.”
“Look, Potco, no offense, but this is about the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“If you don’t watch it, I’ll have to call the six male voices. They’ll throw you in isolation, but before they do, they’ll sing a song so bad you’ll wish you were dead.”
“I ain’t watching it. I don’t care what it makes me.” I get up and turn the DVD off.
“I’m gonna give you one more opportunity to watch the DVD,” Potco says. “If you don’t, then you leave me with no choice. I can be punished for your rebellion if I don’t report it.”
“I’m not watching it.”
“Okay, I’ll go get the male voices.”
A few minutes later, Potco appears in the room with six males dressed like Chippendales. They’re flexing their muscles as if they’re in a bodybuilding contest. One with a fat nose gets them in key, and they sing, When the Man Comes Around, by Johnny Cash.
“Now you have to sing it with us,” the one with the fat nose says.
“I ain’t singing nothing. Y’all can go to hell.”
Two of the six male voices pick me up and carry me to an isolation room. Potco pulls a chair to the doorway and whispers, “Whatever they offer you, don’t take it.”
For the next thirty days, The Irresponsible Adventures of the Unforgettable Toe DVD plays on a screen in the isolation room. I’ve counted ten different episodes that place the Unforgettable Toein irresponsible situations. He swallows a cotton ball dipped in Drano and dies because no one has bothered posting the phone number to poison control. He attempts suicide by stepping in front of a train and lives as a vegetable the rest of his life. The point being—“Suicide doesn’t always succeed.” He is consumed by a wild beast that eventually shits him out in the woods after the insurance company pays out a large sum on his life insurance policy. Then the insurance company discovers the crime after spotting him on MTV’s Pimp My Ride, where he’s pimping out a brand new BMW. They arrest the Unforgettable Toe and throw him in prison for insurance fraud. He ends this episode by saying, “If you die, you better remain dead, or we’ll make you wish you were dead. Got it?” One episode is a cheesy drunk-driving arrest. He gets pulled over by a policeman for swerving, and when the policeman approaches the car, the Unforgettable Toe says, “I’m drunk if you haven’t noticed.” The episode ends with the Unforgettable Toe being placed inside the cruiser. Once inside he says, “This was stupid of me. It’s irresponsible. I could’ve killed somebody.” Then he winks.
Eventually I tune the DVD out and start imagining different scenarios with the shark. I could fight and kill one every show, but that would cost a lot of money. I could pretend to knock him out, but it seems like the same old show with the dolphin. Maybe I could dive in from the high-dive and shoot into the shark’s mouth, and then fight to get out without being digested. This scenario is promising, so I rehearse it repeatedly inside my mind. I climb. I wave. I dive. I shoot inside the shark. I see the inner workings. I glance around at the parts of the shark as if I’m Jonah in the whale. A seal barks before it reaches me. Juices squirt inside the compartment. Then the stomach clamps shut. There’s only one way out, but I can’t swim to it, nor can I kill myself. I try. Then I hear someone laugh. It’s Revolver. I jab him with the crowbar that has dolphin stickers all over it. Water and blood rush out. Thirty pieces of revolver float past. The laugh becomes a chortle, and I run into a maze of signs: No smoking or chewing of any kind. No jaywalking. No carbon monoxide. No cancer. No depression. No faking your death. No false claims of any kind. No Homicide. No Overdoses. No Bomb Building. No Climbing the Walls, You Might Fall. Stay Away from Biohazard Waste. No Lifeguard on Duty. No Diving. No Trespassing—This Means You! Sign after sign. It keeps going. It’s so confusing. Then sudden silence.
Mary enters the room and says, “How are you doing?”
It takes a minute to adjust. I sit up. I squint. I rub the slobber from the corners of my mouth. “I’m fine,” I say. “But ferocious nightmares.”
“We need to talk. The Unforgettable Toe is dead.”
“How can a cartoon character die?”
“You can become irrelevant and die. You know that, don’t you?”
“If anyone knows, then it’s me. But how can a cartoon character become irrelevant?”
“No one can empathize with him anymore.”
“As if they could in the first place?”
“Exactly. So that’s why we want to talk with you. We want to offer you a starring role in our responsibility videos. We need a new danger facilitator—one made of flesh and blood. We need to reach all generations. You up for it?”
“What type of videos do you have in mind? I hope they aren’t like the ones I’ve been watching for the last thirty days.”
“They’re not. So relax. But before we go in a new direction, you need to see how dire your situation could be.”
“You’ll see. Come, follow me.”
We walk out of the hospital and get into Mary’s BMW.
“Put your seatbelt on,” she says.
She takes me to Big Hack’s carnival. I had no idea they were in Nashville. Maybe this will be my chance to run, to getaway, to expose the institute for what it is. Maybe Big Hack can be persuaded. Maybe I can get back to being myself again. I will no longer complain. I’ll jump into the tank every night whether there’s an audience of one or twelve-thousand. What kind of ambitious fool have I been? Learn to settle, I tell myself. My heart is beating fast by the time she cuts the engine in the parking lot at the carnival. I can see the Ferris wheel extruding from the middle of the carnival, swimming around in the lights.
“Walk this way,” she says.
Her cape is flapping in the autumn wind. If she stuck her arms out, I’m convinced she could fly.
When we get to my old tent, she says, “Look at the name on the banner.”
I look up. It reads: “The Last Irresponsible Act in America.”
“What the hell is Big Hack doing now? That’s my tent.”
“Some guy is popping pills until he dies.”
“What kind of entertainment value is that?”
“Evidently it’s a blockbuster. People love to kill when they aren’t on the line for the crime. Come over here. See. You can buy a pill at the booth. If your pill is the last one a pill-popping person takes, then you win $10,000. If he dies, we supply Big Hack with a new pill-popper. We have loads of pill-poppers. They cost us big money because of their irresponsible acts, so this is a way to redeem some of it. Big Hack is giving us 25% of the take.”
A glass case encloses a dozen pills. All twelve have a different price and strength. The cheapest goes for $5.00. The highest is $500.00. I can’t imagine anybody taking these pills and living through it.
“How long has he been popping pills? How many nights?”
“Pill-Popping Charlie is up to ten nights straight. It could be his weight. He’s a fat sucker. We’ll go in and take a look at him in a minute, but, first, here’s some money. Go ahead and buy one. Who knows? You could be the lucky winner.”
“How does it work?”
“Every night for four hours, Pill-Popping Charlie takes pills. If he doesn’t die after three minutes of taking a pill, then he’s given the pill of the next person in line. Some nights the pill-popping person takes the full eighty pills. Some nights they take as few as twenty-five. If the pill-popping person lives for four hours, then Big Hack keeps the money. If he dies before his four hours are up, then some lucky winner gets $10,000. He just has to be the owner of the last pill. Not a bad idea, huh? Better than maintaining and feeding sharks or dolphins or whatever it was you fought. So here, take the money. Buy the deadly pill. . . . Go on.”
I feel obligated, so I buy a pill with her money.
Mary walks off and slips inside the tent.
I follow, calling after her, “Mary, Mary.”
She doesn’t answer.
The packed tent has the feel of the early days. It distracts me to see it once again. The audience is laughing and yelling out obscenities. A fat man in a pair of overalls with no shirt is sitting on the stage. Big Hack is standing beside him with a microphone in his hand.
“Alritty, folks. This here pill is a Lorcet 10/650. Strongest one money can buy out there. This is the biggy. The $500.00 pill. Purchased by this man in the red plaid shirt. Step on up here, son. You bettin the farm on this one, ain’t you boy?”
“What’s your name?”
“The name is Jimbo Hardee”
“Okay, Jimbo. This pill could be worth $10,000. Here we go. If Pill-Popping Charlie dies in three minutes after taking your pill, then you’ll be the winner of $10,000.”
Big Hack hands Pill-Popping Charlie the pill and a beer.
The man in the red plaid shirt yells, “Go ahead and die, you fat bastard. I got five-hundred dollars riding on your ass. Now swallow that bitch and die.”
The audience laughs. Then they start chanting, “Die, you fat bastard. Die, die, die, you fat bastard.” They chant for a full two minutes, until Pill-Popping Charlie topples off his stool. When he hits the stage, the crowd erupts. High fives are passed around. Kids cling to their parent’s legs. Big Hack bends down. He taps Pill-Popping Charlie on the cheek. Then he slaps him. He puts his ear close to the man’s face. The audience throws things at Pill-Popping Charlie, and every now-and-then Big Hack gets in the way. He gets hit with partial hot dogs, with small pebbles stolen from the earth beneath their feet. The man in the red plaid shirt is jumping straight up and down. He’s screaming. It’s a frenzy of sounds.
During the mayhem Mary leans over to me and says, “Your first episode will be filmed here with Big Hack. You’ll be a pill-popper that dies just before the four hours are up. Then when the money has been given to the winning contestant, you’ll rise from the dead and say, “Pill popping doesn’t always pay. You can die from overdoses, and if you don’t die, we’ll pump your stomach and make you drink a charcoal substance that’ll make you wish you were dead, and don’t think overdoses lead to the sweet by-and-by. Hell is full of pill-poppers, so don’t risk it. Be responsible. Take only prescribed doses.”
Sounds lame to me. But thinking of my smooth face on a camera makes me consider it for a moment. Plus, I’d like to work with Big Hack again. I know I can convince him to let me back in the carnival. So I agree, but she wouldn’t let me talk to Big Hack.
“There will be time for talking, so let’s get back to the hospital.”
The next night Mary enters my room carrying my old costume from my sideshow act with Revolver. “Here’s your costume. Put it on. The first shoot is tonight during the pill-popping show.”
I take it and look it over, turning it one way and then the other. I see Revolver’s bloodstains, which is disconcerting. I don’t mention the stains to Mary. I want out of here, and this will be my opportunity.
“Be in the lobby in twenty-minutes. See you then.” She turns and walks to the door, but just before she opens it, she turns to me. “Showmanship means everything, so break a leg tonight.”
Pulling on the costume I realize I’ve lost some weight. It hangs from my body, making me feel even stranger in this hospital.
I find Mary sitting in the foyer without her cape on. It is folded neatly in her lap. When she spots me, she stands and swings the cape behind her and fastens the collar. Seeing her without the cape for that brief minute made her seem human.
“You look smashing,” she says, as she looks me over.
“I’ve lost weight.”
“I can’t tell it. Let’s go.”
In the parking lot of the carnival, she cuts the motor and says, “Now remember, you’ll be taking real pills, so play dead after you’ve taken a few pills. This should keep it real and keep you from becoming wasted to the point you forget your lines.”
I nod while watching a film crew unload their van. I’ve never been filmed before. Sure, I’ve been filmed at the carnival by personal camcorders, but I’ve never been a film star.
Inside the tent, Big Hack is waiting for us on stage.
“Hey, y’all,” Big Hack says, reaching for Mary’s hand. He doesn’t shake mine, doesn’t even look down.
This hurts. I can tell he’s still mad about the Revolver incident. I realize I may never return to the carnival, which disheartens me. But I’ll win his respect back. I’ll be the better man.
Mary says, “Big Hack, I know you usually run the show, but I’ll be doing your job tonight. You can stand at the side of the stage. If anything goes wrong, I’ll need you.”
“Nobody runs my show but me,” Big Hack says.
“You told us we could film the show, did you not?” Mary says with her hands on her hips. Her cape lies motionless on her back.
“I did, but—”
“No buts about it. You want a check from this?”
Big Hack doesn’t respond.
“We didn’t promise you a starring role. We said we’d pay you for the use of your show. That’s all. If you want to be an extra, I can place you in the audience at the edge of the stage.”
“Just shoot your damn film and get out of here.”
Big Hack storms to the side of the stage before I can plead with him to bring me back.
“I think you pissed him off,” I say.
Mary shrugs and says, “Oh well.”
After the director shouts action, I introduce myself as the midget formerly known as Bubo, the Four-Eyed Fish Midget.
The crowd hisses, and Mary shouts, “Cut!”
She turns to me and says, “Bubo, don’t introduce yourself as the midget formerly known as the Four-eyed Fish Midget. You’ll introduce yourself as ‘Kildo, the Irresponsible Midget’ as we agreed. Got it?”
“I don’t want to be known as an irresponsible midget.”
“Well, I suggest you act responsibly and play your role. Don’t deviate from the script again.”
“Can I at least pick the contestants I want to receive the pill from?”
“Okay, whatever. Let’s just get this wrapped up. I have a date tonight.”
Mary calms the crowd, and I choose my first pill.
After taking four pills, I begin to feel more nauseous than high. I begin to feel that I’m not choosing wisely. I try to remember what my mother told me those nights I sat with her at her table. She said country folk can fool you. They all look poor. She said the ones that look shiny as a new penny are the ones without money. She said they’re usually broke because they’ve spent all their money on hiding their poverty. So the next contestant I choose is wearing a starched white shirt, a tie and a fedora. I point him out to Mary, hoping he’s spent all of his money on clothes and not the expensive pill.
“You in the hat and tie. Yeah, you. Step up here,” Mary says into the microphone. “Step up here and see if you can kill Kildo.”
“Where you from?” she asks the man.
“That in Tennessee?”
“Okay, do you have a pill for Kildo?”
The pill is unlike the first four I’ve taken. It’s as big as a horse tranquilizer. It takes me two swallows of beer to get it down.
“That’s it,” Mary says.
The crowd starts shouting, “Die, Kildo, die. Die, you little midget bastard, die.”
Their shouts are loud and angry, which thrills me once more. I smile and wave at them the way I once did before I dove into the tank. Then I suddenly feel my knees buckle. My head bangs hard against the wood stage. The sound of the crowd seems distant and hollow. The tent is swimming. I try to get up. I can’t move my feet. I raise my head and see Big Hack reaching down for me, his massive hand clinches the collar of my costume. I feel his hairy knuckles poking into my throat, stabbing my Adam’s apple as the cheering crowd grows fainter.
Rob Lavender teaches creative writing as therapy to suicidal adolescents at a psych hospital. His work has appeared in Controlled Burn, Clackamas Literary Review, Red Clay Review, Wheelhouse Magazine, descant, Zone 3, and Aura Literary Arts Review.
“On lazy afternoons my grandparents would sit on their front porch in rural Tennessee and watch. They watched cars and trucks whine past as Duke, their mutt dog, chased them over the hill. They watched my brother and me wade through the creek that snaked along the foothills in front of their house. From their front porch they watched the sky redden in the west and listened to whippoorwills call in the distance. They waved at every vehicle that passed. Some honked. Most everyone waved. Their front porch was where they watched and told stories, usually about when they were young, about my ancestors, about how they spent their summers working in the fields. My grandfather was a farmer before he became a mechanic and built a workshop out of barn tin near his house. During the summer when my brother and I stayed with them, he’d work until the shop became like an oven in the afternoons, then he’d retire to the front porch to watch and tell us stories. He’s been dead a few years now, but that front porch remains like a shrine inside my mind. In some way, every story I tell is rooted there.”