Billy Luck’s bones rearranged themselves on the bus headed out of Gibsonton for the Tampa train station. He looked out the window, away from his trailer, all rusted, awnin torn, bricks holdin down tarp over a portion of the roof, lookin like other junkyard leftovers from his carnival days.
The bus passed an old train car that jailed tigers, vines growin through it, a giant planter. Gibsonton was a has-been like him, still some carnies left but most dead, or dyin, or just plain up and left, like his good friend Daisy, the most beautiful woman his eyes ever seen, a midget, but perfect, no matter.
Now Billy’s friends all had bodies from the shoulders up: Judge Judy, and that good-lookin gal on The People’s Court. He always took to smart, in-your-face broads—don’t take no shit type—like Daisy, who called, askin him to come see her in Miami, cause she was dyin.
What a foul mouthed little mother she been, tough, had to be, no taller than three feet, perfect proportion, and a great pick-pocket, long as people was sittin down. She been with the Gerling since nineteen fifty, five years after Billy started workin the carnival, a legend, Daisy was.
He figured since she git religion, and was close to dyin, that she wanted to talk bout that night sixty-five years gone, somethin they never spoke bout, but it was there, danglin, an untouchable. So’s Billy wondered if she got that on her mind, bein religious and all.
The bus turned the corner and he saw the corpse of a high-striker. The black numbers erodin, the bell tarnished and hangin on by a bolt. He chuckled to himself at how the marks showed off for their ladies when they took the hammer and slammed it on the lever—suckers, all of em, not knowin that life in the midway was rigged.
Billy’s memories weathered inside his head like peelin wallpaper. The old days with freaks and geeks and nights where it was so damn excitin, pickin up, settin down, movin on and on until the midway was in sight and stakes hammered, where people in scanty towns ran out to watch, hopin to catch sight of the merry-go-round or the Ferris wheel settin up, maybe glimpse a hoochie-coochie babe runnin between trailers. Billy resented the fake imitation of amusement parks nowadays, though he was glad few had animals. In his day, he’d done seen too much bad done to the beasts, Billy done seen too much cruelty, period.
Drivin along the Hillsborough River, Billy pictured Daisy as she was when he first seen her. What separated her from other midgets wasn’t just her womanly child looks but her husky voice, almost like a norm and she could sing, too. That’s what saved her when she got caught stealin at Ringlings and had to work peepshows in the basements of tenements on the lower east side. Bein a midget wasn’t freak enough she was told by the boss, “What talents do ya got?” The curtain would open and Daisy would sing, struttin her little body on the platform while doin a striptease. Her singin saved her from fuckin God-knows-what, which she wasn’t above doin. Daisy’d do whatever to survive. She come across all innocent same as one of them dolls in the window at Woolworth’s, but if you looked long enough, you’d see lots a smarts and a cellar-full a hurts.
It was her husband, Jack, who told Billy this, who saw her in the slums and brought her to Gerling’s Traveling Carnival of Fun.
Billy’s clean flowered shirt stuck to the back of the vinyl seat like loose skin bout to pare off. He used to love the humid muggy days, but now it made him tired, like standin in line for hell. Most of the time he resisted goin down the road of the pity-pot. It reminded him of liquor. It went down real good in the moment but the more you drink the more blurred your vision for any good comin your way. He knew that from his daddy, the meanest son-of-a-bitch to walk the earth.
The bus traveled up the I-75, crossed the river and stopped in Progress Village pickin up several black men who looked as parched and worn as Billy now felt, then the bus sped north, where there was as many as four lanes. Billy sat up. He liked the breeze stealin in through the window, how it reminded him of that time his daddy got a job drivin a bread truck and took Billy along, that was the year before his brother died from havin his innards cut from the saw. They tried to stuff em back in, but Jimmy passed. Only time he ever seen his daddy cry, why, for a moment it ripped him apart, his Daddy’s sadness, so like his own.
He blamed Billy, though he was nowheres near the sawmill. Jimmy just plum forgit to put on the safety belt.
Thinkin bout his older brother always brought on the blues, how Billy missed him. The way Jimmy throwed himself on top of him and his mama when his daddy felt like beatin em.
The night Jimmy passed, his daddy got wasted and told Billy he’d a wished it was him that died instead. He was drunk, but Billy knowed he was tellin the truth.
At fifteen, he packed a bag and hitched a ride from Montgomery to Birmingham, decided to change his last name from Lock to Luck, cause God knows he needed some and joinin the carnival seemed a good pick. He carried his hurt deep, like Daisy’s, guess that was one reason he took to her so.
He peered through the grimy pane as the bus pulled into the station. His hand reached for the back of the seat in front of him, his heart pumpin, an adventure, no matter, and Daisy lay waitin, just for him.
Everyone but Billy stood. The driver left the bus, and Billy watched as he opened the side panel and took out the suitcases.
When the last person left, he ambled down the aisle. The driver waited for him and offered a hand.
“I ain’t that old, I can git down myself.”
“Don’t want you to fall and sue us, young fella.”
Billy laughed. His dentures dropped. He pushed them up with his tongue, remindin him that his kisser was as fake as his hip and stepped off the bus.
“I’ve never seen a suitcase this old,” the man said, handin Billy the luggage.
“Had it since the sixties, before you was born, I bet.” Billy took the leather handle and felt the moist exchange of sweat.
“You have a good day, sir.”
“Goin to Miami, I am. On a way to see a friend.”
The man already climbed up the steps of the bus, leavin Billy talkin to himself.
He shuffled toward the train station, with the closeness of the Hillsborough Bay; Billy caught a breeze, rufflin his straggly white hairs under the straw hat. His sense of smell worked just fine as he breathed in the sharp crude from the cargo rigs mixed with the bay.
A woman held the door for him as he headed toward her.
“Thank you, ma’am. Fine day, ain’t it?” He pointed his index finger to the brim of his hat and winked. She smiled and hurried on.
Air conditionin stung the sweat on his body. Billy shivered. “My God,” he whispered as he gazed around. The place was beautiful with long wooden benches, ferns growin in large pots at the end of each row. The last time he’d been here the place was fallin apart. But now, wrought-iron gates, wall lanterns, the floor so shiny looked like you could take a dip in it, so much light from all the glass windows it seemed the sun had eyes just for the station.
He shuffled cross the depot and out the door to the number 235 train.
Climbin aboard the Amtrak, Billy strained as he stretched for the handrail and tightened his grip round the metal. The steps were damn far apart for a man his age, but he made it. Course it knocked the air clean outta him.
It was stupid to act like he was younger than his years, he couldn’t hide the hearin-aid behind his ear, the bum leg with the dummy hip, the missin lower teeth his tongue liked to suck, or the skinny ropes of white hair once blond and thick as a Fuller Brush mop. But he ain’t gonna turn into a mark where’s he trusted someone else to tell him what was up, no, Billy thought as he put on his glasses and matched his ticket with the seat number. All he wanted right now was to be able to walk on his own and see his friend without fallin down.
He found his seat by the window, four chairs two on either side with a table between em. Not sure if he could lift his suitcase to the luggage rack without seemin lame, besides, someone might steal it, so’s Billy set it next to him on the empty chair.
He took off his hat and put it on the table. He’d never get use to people rollin their suitcases. His been a friend for years, made of wood and leather, like him gouged with character, the handle worn from his grasp of luggin it from midway to midway.
A man put his bag on the rack above where Billy sat.
“Want me to put your suitcase up?” he asked.
Billy marked him as a businessman; suit, tie, bag strapped cross his shoulder, late thirties, nothin stand-out bout him cept for the flashy watch, gold and turquoise ring, and a ruby stud in his ear that made him look ridiculous. Somethin bout him seemed familiar.
“Naw, thanks though.”
He sat cross from Billy, next to the window. Another guy stood lookin down at him from the aisle.
“You’re going to have to move your suitcase. This is my seat,” a man said, holdin up his ticket. “I’ll get it.” The guy grabbed Billy’s case, lifted the luggage and shoved it onto the rack.
The fella was closer to Billy’s age than the guy with the ruby and this side of obese. When he took his seat, Billy smelled Bengay. He pulled down the armrest so’s the guy’s fat would stay on his own side.
The train began to rock. The conductor welcomed the people aboard the Amtrak then Billy experienced the thrill of movin. The wheels forward motion caused him to lurch toward the table. He stared out the window as the air-conditionin blasted through the vents, just like old times, like watchin a movie, it was, lots of overgrown shrubs and cast-offs as rusted and troubled as his own trailer. Metal stuff with graffiti sprayed on it. Crap didn’t make no sense. Billy wasn’t great at spellin, he’d made it no farther than the fifth grade, but what he saw out the window was nothin but young man’s rage who don’t care whether it make sense or not, just wanna leave somethin of themselves, like a dog pissin on tires.
As the train picked up speed the cool air faded, cheap-trick, made the customer think they git their money’s worth, then slight them, like he used to do out on the bally. Can’t dupe a con, Billy thought smilin to himself.
He felt like talkin so’s he took out a quarter from his shirt pocket and rolled it cross his knobby knuckles. Not with the skill like in the old days but a conversation piece, no matter.
Sure enough, the young man cross from him raised his eyebrows and smiled.
“Where did you learn that?”
“Worked the carnival for over half a century.”
“What did you do?”
“A talker, mostly.”
The guy frowned. “A barker?”
“People don’t know nothin call us that. That’s some watch ya got there,” Billy said.
“My husband bought it for me.”
Billy grinned, it never took him long to git used to the freaks, like Jamie, the half man, half woman, and Angelo, with his twin’s arms and legs comin outta his gut, but it would take some time for him to git accustomed to a man callin his partner, a husband. “Oh,” Billy said. “Guy’s got good taste. You look familiar.”
The man unzipped his bag and took out his computer. “I’m a reporter for WSFL. Maybe you’ve seen me on TV.”
“That’s where,” Billy said. “Boy, do I got stories to tell you.” But Billy read people like a canvas banner hangin in front of a sideshow. This guy was through talkin.
He put his coin away. He woulda enjoyed answerin questions. He often played the interview game, pretendin someone like Lesley Stahl asked him questions on 60 Minutes and him talkin bout his life. He imagined microphones, and lights spread all around as he sat center stage for the world to hear his story.
He woulda even enjoyed a conversation with Ben Gay, but he was too busy gawkin at his phone.
People ignorin him did have its advantages, like stealin butter and Hershey bars in the grocery store, snatchin things in the bank, like pens and paper tablets, sometimes right under the nose of the tellers, just to show em. So what if they caught him.
Billy sunk in his seat thinkin that the reporter cross from him woulda jumped through dog-hoops to interview him if he knowed what Billy had done out past the midway on that sweltering August night back in nineteen fifty.
That night, he remembered the marks had all left. But somethin nagged at him, call it sixth sense, or maybe it was that new guy who strutted into town, and took a job with the carnival, sold popcorn, cleaned up the tiger and monkey cages and the johns, jobs he did when he first joined. Billy didn’t like him from the git-go.
One day he caught him stickin his cigarette into Tuffi. Tuffi reared on her hind legs, her trunk swingin wild. He knocked the new fella to the ground, told him if he ever caught him doin that again he’d make him real sorry. Well, bout two weeks later, he saw him kickin the freak, Stumpy. Billy done did what he promised. He slugged the guy so hard he doubled and rolled on the ground, moanin. Billy thought that’d be it until the guy git up and come after him swingin and givin him a black eye. Mason was his name, mean, as cruel as Billy’s daddy.
That night, Billy went from tent to tent lookin inside, makin sure no one was there. He recalled checkin under the stage where the kids used to hide so’s they could look up the costumes of the hoochie-coochie girls and how the sawdust would have to be scattered real nice like in the mornin, he could smell it now, how it always reminded him of his brother.
The trailers had their lights on. He heard laughter, people talking; ice cubes clinkin into glasses, fiddle music comin out of a radio, like any other, cept it was hotter than most, sultry, the kinda night Billy wished he had a woman to keep him company.
He was down at the end of the midway, near the draped cage where the monkeys was cooped. The sun been gone for a couple of hours, and it was like openin night for the stars, millions of em. He recalled takin in the wonder of it, magic, real magic, where the night was brushed by the stroke of a master.
Billy began to hike. In those days, he had so much sex surgin through his twenty-year-old body, some nights he just had to walk it off. Till the day he died he’d remember the moon, wide and plump, near full, the crickets loud as he headed north toward an empty field and beyond that the woods, tree branches rustlin, spiky against a dark blue sky.
Billy breathed in the air, thick with the long leaf pine. He was thinkin bout his ma, feelin blue bout leavin her behind with the devil. Billy kept walkin. His shirt drenched in sweat. He wished he had a smoke, but he kept goin, crossin the brink of the woods.
He was gonna jack-off when somethin sounded. He stopped. An animal? Yeah. A moan cut off. No. Not an animal. Somethin muffled. A cry. Human.
Billy led with his toes feelin for twigs and dried leaves, like huntin with his daddy. He moved toward the moan. The hairs on his body sprung up. From the light of the moon, he saw somethin white swipe back and forth cross the ground. The hunched form of a man. The cries. Billy crept forward. Listenin. Strainin his eyes so’s to make sure.
Mason held Daisy’s face to the dirt, rapin her from behind. Her tiny fists battered the ground. Her little body struggled under his.
He sneaked up on Mason as he pumped away, groanin like a pig, loud enough so’s to make it easy for Billy to come up behind him and wrap his strong young fingers round his neck and squeeze. Mason grabbed at his hands. Billy felt his nails gouge his skin. Blood spewed wet and sticky, but Billy put all six-foot, two-hundred pounds into stranglin him.
Sweat ran down his chin and fell on Mason’s head, Billy felt it roll off the backs of his fingers, but so tight was his hold it never got the chance to threaten his grip. With the wrong this man done to Daisy, Billy’s hands made sure Mason never do it again. He held on, even when he felt life surrender. Then, Billy rolled him on his side with Mason’s little pecker exposed. “Let me!” He remembered Daisy demandin. Pullin down her dress she done give him a kick to the nuts and then one to the face and spat on him. She looked up at Billy, hair all tangled, nose bleedin and said, “You ever say a word about this, I’ll kill you myself.” From that day on, as long as they traveled together, no one would hurt her.
Billy stared out the window, passin the North bound Silver Star, long fences of hedges, warehouses. He nodded. The conductor garbled somethin bout Winter Haven. The forward movement, the click-clackin over the rails, relivin that night with Daisy and him bein eighty-five years old—Billy slipped into darkness.
DC Diamondopolous is an award-winning short story and flash fiction writer with over 275 stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, and anthologies. DC's stories have appeared in: Penmen Review, Progenitor, 34th Parallel, So It Goes: The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, Lunch Ticket, and others. DC was nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice in 2020 and also for Best of the Net Anthology in 2020 and 2017. DC’s short story collection Stepping Up is published by Impspired. She lives on the California central coast with her wife and animals. Check out dcdiamondopolous.com. DC recommends Homeless Animal Rescue Team Cambria.