by William Corlew
The son of a deaf and dumb, chicken plucking whore stared down at the bloody mess with a rumbling in his belly. Sometimes Hasil vented when he did his chores. So this morning, he had not wrung the chicken’s neck as usual. He had gone and lopped off its head with an axe. He would have to clean up all that blood that sprayed everywhere but it was never evident unless it got on his clothes. So Hasil⎯sixteen, broad shouldered yet lanky, donning a peach fuzz mustache⎯had done the killing naked. His morning erection had not subsided so he spent himself on the back wall of the barn thinking of town girls. He went inside the cabin, constructed originally to house the town’s dimwitted, and gave himself a good rinsing. He slipped into his father’s old coveralls that had been purchased black. But as they passed from father to son, they had transformed to the color of earth⎯a constant chameleon to the seasons.
Hasil stood frying eggs, daydreaming about town girls and being in the picture shows when the coffee peculated and brought him back to reality. Hasil’s dog, Frank, sat on his haunches and stared on with a powerful lust and desire for these eggs to drop to the floor. Hasil ate three of the eggs and let Frank clean his plate. He left four eggs stirred up and ready to fry in a bowl for his father who cursed even in his sleep. He retrieved his galoshes and stepped into them pant leg and all.
After plucking the chicken, Hasil set out to the still to replace the splo to make a fresh batch of rotgut whiskey. Hasil took the trail that lead to an old abandoned Bear hunting lodge. The path was scattered with rusted out debris and cast offs long forgotten. An old Boom truck blocked the path. Its trailer sloped down towards the valley, only a couple latches away from freedom. The cab of the truck was smashed and soiled with the expressions of various local artists, poets, and romantics. He walked on. At the hunting lodge, the old logging road continued no further. Hasil, however, continued on up a path long grown over and hidden with rhododendron. This path led to a stream and upon the other side was the still. The corn meal, yeast, malt, sugar and water Hasil had previously mixed up had fermented. Hasil heated up the splo until it began to vaporize and the resulting vapor, transferred through the copper line into the other container. The result was moonshine and once bottled and corked, it was sold as skull cracker. Hasil retrieved a hickory stick and strung 6 jugs of skull cracker to it. He walked back down to the old hunting lodge with the hickory on his shoulders. Steam clung to his figure as he made his way down the mountain, the sun just beginning its ascent. The sun and Hasil were always at odds. The sun seemed to know when to descend by the sight of Hasil climbing back up the mountain. Hasil waved at the sun and parted for it to pass by on the trail. He offered it some whiskey but it never lightened his load.
At the outskirts of town, people watched Hasil totter along like an outcast milk man soiled and seasoned, applying the only trade he learned from whatever savage place that spat him out. He was seen as something unworldly, diseased. He wound through the streets from back door to back door⎯stopping at a brothel, a mill, a bar, and a church. With each stop, he lessened his load.
When dawn brought light upon the town of Cosby, Tennessee the fog fled as if shooed away by the Rooster’s crow. The town was not yet open for commerce. Hasil came upon a group of boys huddled around a heaping pile of fresh cow shit. Hasil waited for a chance to introduce himself and to inquire about any new news of the circus. Amongst the boys was an imbecile child. He watched one of the boys mimic scooping up a helping of the dung and eating from it. “It tastes of chocolate”, one of the boys told the imbecile. Hasil watched as the boy ate it with no expression of disgust or delight. Hasil vomited just watching as the imbecile worked his jaws woodenly on the turd. A steady sliver of spittle escaped the corner of the imbecile’s mouth and adhered to his chin where it dangled like a yellow lugey, eventually it broke off and fell into the muck newly formed at his feet. But a new one would quickly regenerate lizard-like.
Mr. John Carmack arrived to open up his store for the day’s trade at 7:00 every day. For years, he arrived a full hour early so that he would have a full hour of peace and quiet. Something the confines of his home did not allow. His wife nagged the ever living shit out of him. The sound of her voice from within their home gave him the shudders. It was a shrill, whining call that demanded immediate action.
“Jooooohn. Please come here a minute honey. Jooooohn. I need your help with something. Joooooohn. Could you do me a kindness?”
However for the past few days, he had arrived to the store only to be greeted by some loud, irritating fat man yelling all sorts of nonsense about the circus coming to town. The carnival barker had a high shrill voice constant and impossible to drown out. It reminded Mr. Carmack of a bad case of jock itch and he continually adjusted himself reminiscing.
So when Mr. Carmack pulled in front of the store this particular morning at 7:00 he knew it must be his lucky day because there was Hasil with a little whiskey he hoped to drown out the fat man. Plus, there was no sign, yet, of the fat man. Mr. Carmack unlocked the door, leaving it open just long enough for Hasil to pass through. He did not know what to make of all this silence and peacefulness. He knew that it must be some little trick that God had decided to play on him today. Hasil went on in and locked the door behind him. The only greeting given and returned were nods. Hell, Mr. Carmack thought, I can live with nods. Shit, he loved nods. Nods and grunts were about as underrated as having a wife with no tongue or teeth for that matter. As he went about his mindless chores for opening the store, he stared out the window at all the silence out there. Mr. Carmack poured a cup of coffee from his thermos for Hasil. He went to the shoebox he kept under the counter and withdrew a ledger book to note Hasil’s delivery. Then he poured a bit of the sipping whiskey into his thermos. He handed Hasil a “Sears Roebuck” catalogue and Hasil carried it over to the window. He let the boy sit there in the window to gawk at all the schoolgirls going by on their way to school. He knew Hasil could not read, but Hasil used the magazine so that his gawking would not be so obvious. They talked bad enough about that boy already. It never bothered Mr. Carmack to have Hasil there; it was soothing. The boy rarely spoke and never asked a thing of Mr. Carmack. Mr. Carmack gazed at his watch and it was almost 8:00 and no sign of the fat man. Lord God, he thought, I will go to church and not sleep but listen to that crazy, spitting mad preacher you got every Sunday and then he stopped thinking the better of such promises. Mr Carmack took out the shoebox he kept under the counter and removed all the recites and credits, withdrawing a little framed photo of his grandparents. He opened the latch of the frame and removed another photo from beneath that. He prayed to the little nudie woman in the photo he called Gloria.
At 8:00, Mr. Carmack opened the store for business and saw Hasil off. He was just turning on the lights when he heard the shrill of the fat man. He shuddered and scratched his balls. He noticed that the boy had stopped there outside and sat on his haunches watching the fat man rant and rave. But the shrill was short-lived and when Mr. Carmack went to inspect his newfound peacefulness, the fat man nor Hasil was there. So he scurried back to the counter, retrieved the shoebox and gave that nudie picture a big old smooch for all the good fortune it had brought him. He decided today to be one of celebration so he opened up his drawer and removed from it a little glass that he filled with more whiskey. He gave Gloria a toast and took him a little nip. If Jesus looked like Gloria, he thought, I would be a preacher
The fat man led Hasil to the grounds where the circus was to be held. Huge red and yellow tents where strewn about the confines of the land once cleared for the long abandoned lumberyard. The fat man ushered Hasil to the entrance of a tent guarded by two enormous black men. The fat man left Hasil staring up at the black men. They stared straight ahead and it was not until Hasil poked one of them in the ribs did they turn their eyes down to him. The three men stood staring at one another, no words spoken. The other black man bent down, ran his finger across Hasil’s lips, and then returned his attention to the distance. The fat man returned and sent Hasil off to make another whiskey run.
Hasil did not mind being yelled at for his tardiness by the brothel’s owner. He daydreamed all about the circus as he swept and mopped the brothel floors. He had pleasant thoughts as he scrubbed clean all the soiled linens. He hummed silently to himself as he buried the naked body of a traveling salesman, throat slit by one of the whores.
Hasil returned from his deliveries just after dark. No supper or pleasantries waited. Hasil began to cook the chicken he had plucked that morning for dinner. He old man stared up at Hasil from the chair he sat in.
“What business did you bring in today?” he asked.
Hasil told his father all about the fat man with the circus. He told him about all the whiskey he had to run out there in the morning.
“It ain’t ye fault yous so ignorant. Ye muther’d give it away for free. She’d fuck who ever had the yearn’n. If it weren’t for me, she’d have never made one dime. Hell, she couldn’t speak a lick. Don’t rightly thank she could hear neither. She pluck a chicken right quick. Lot faster’n you. She run away with them circus freaks. She run away with the biggest freak of all⎯she run away with the Geek. All that whiskey they want is for the Geek. I had her tote it out there but she run off with him and a whole load of whiskey.”
Hasil’s father rose and swung, drunkenly, at him. He had become seemingly incapable of stability. The blows he landed had little force behind them. He could not coordinate his legs with his arms to generate the power he once had. While his father stumbled awkwardly, he muttered incoherent curses at Hasil. The old man watched with frustration as his son took his punches mutely. It seemed he was growing numb to the mental abuse too. Hasil watched his dog in the corner of the room. Frank was cowering and whimpering with every shot directed at the boy. The old man spun from Hasil and kicked Frank in the ribs with his boot toe. The dog peed itself and this elicited louder and angrier gibberish. The old man leveled his toe for the dog’s head and swung violently but missed, his force spun him backwards, and he crashed to the floor. He thrashed about and began pulling himself upright with a nightstand. But halfway up, he tottered backwards and fell to the floor with the nightstand. A war medal the old man had traded whiskey for slid from off the table and crashed into his mouth. With the nightstand resting on his chest, he chunked the medal at the dog. It shattered an old wedding photo of the thrower with his fresh, bright-eyed bride into pieces on the wall, well above the dog. The boy rose and walked in disgust to the door. The old man pawed for his ankle. Hasil shook his foot free and left the room. The old man lay on the floor panting, the nightstand rose and fell with his chest. The boy returned with the old man’s shotgun. The old man stared blankly at the ceiling. The boy pumped the shotgun and this caught the attention of his father. The old man began muttering and whimpering and he crawled backwards on his palms and heels. The nightstand followed him. His back collided with the wall and he picked up the nightstand and balled up, trying to hide his immense girth behind it.
The old man’s eyes were closed when he heard the blast and remained so for some time. He finally allowed his body to slack when he heard the front door close. He opened his eyes and tossed the table aside. The dog lay silent, unconcerned with the blood and urine that flowed from it slowly across the slanted hardwood and pooled above the weak foundation. The old man rose and walked towards the window. Then he squatted and duck-walked to it. He peered out with only his eyes and forehead exposed. He cursed softly to himself as his shotgun and whiskey began to disappear, and then there was nothing but an empty cove.
Hasil stirred about restlessly inside the cab of the boom truck. When he closed his eyes, visions of a mute woman plucking feathers haunted him. Even in his dreams, she spoke no words. He thought of Frank and he cried. He loved Frank but his father abused the dog. He wanted to kill his father, but settled on Frank and he did not know the reason. He was afraid that he was becoming as mean as his old man and he howled in despair for his own wretchedness. Why had he killed Frank who slept on his own feet all those nights? The dog was his only friend. He had named him Frank because he had always wanted a normal name⎯he thought of himself as a Frank.
Hasil left pre-dawn with a hickory full of shine. He beat the sun and made it to town before the sun could rise. Hasil strode past Carmack’s store well before 7:00. He made his way to the field with all the tents. The two black men were still at guard. They lightened him of all the whiskey and paid him in full.
“Is it all for the Geek?” Hasil asked.
The two blacks remained focused in the distance. Hasil lightly poked one of the men in the ribs. They both looked down at him. The other man leaned down and lightly brushed his finger across Hasil’s lips. No words spoken. Hasil left with a pocket full of money.
At daybreak, Hasil bought a new suit with boots that zippered up on the sides. He went to a diner and ate a breakfast of eggs, bacon, country ham, biscuits and gravy and he washed it down with hot coffee. At noon, he went to a picture show. He watched it three times in a row.
When Hasil walked outside, the masses had formed around the fat man. The storm that festered in his head seemed no closer to reprise. Everywhere he looked he saw children with mothers and fathers who doted on them relentlessly. He licked his lips as he watched a fat boy caress the bountifulness of his change purse. The boy turned down a street and was swept up in a crowd that had begun to squeeze its masses into a gate that opened up into a field of large tents. Hasil worked his way into this field, no longer interested in the fat boy. The tents had men in front of them that yelled out at the people as they passed. Hasil worked his way toward the biggest of these tents where the fat man called out to the crowd.
“See the Geek,” he repeated over and over.
Hasil passed the many tents with his eyes stuck upon the geek tent.
“Twenty-five cents to see the geek,” the man told Hasil.
Hasil pushed the man aside. He entered the tent and walked straight to the front and up the steps to the stage. The Geek wore the pelt of a badger on his head. The badgers head was propped open with toothpicks. The Geek put his hand on Hasil’s shoulder, trying to push him back towards the rest of the crowd.
Take a seat son. You can’t be up here on stage.”
The Geek reeked of skull cracker. Sweat dripped down his face from the confines of the badger hat.
“Dad,” he said.
Hasil pulled the Geek to him in an embrace.
The Geek pushed Hasil away and he tumbled down the stairs. The crowd laughed and Hasil felt their eyes burning upon him and his blushing face. The Geek tuned to the crowd, playing off their amusement. He began to bump his chest and flex his old, slacken biceps to the crowd. Hasil watched this man, thought about him taking a boot toe to his mother who could not speak or care for herself like Frank. It was all too much, too vivid an image. He saw the Geek with his badger hat on stage, kicking his mother. She peed herself and the crowd would laugh and jeer at her. Fathers, sons, mothers, daughters⎯entire families united in their ridicule of his mother⎯of him. They had even paid the price of admission to see it.
Hasil took the stage, fed up with his standing in the world. He smacked the Geek to the ground. The Geek, now hatless, scurried away. Hasil pulled a chicken from one of the crates on stage. He bit into its throat and held it tightly by both feet as it thrashed about wildly. He began to smash its head on the ground until the chicken was good and limp. The crowd began to whoop and cheer with a fury. Hasil bit into the breast of the chicken. The crowd cheered and jeered encouragements. Insults. None of them was genuine. They were all empty. The mothers, and fathers, and children alike parted their mouths and emitted pure gibberish. They just hollered nonsense to fill the void in their brains. They screamed to fill the loneliness and insecurity that prevails in silence. But Hasil was not cut out to be a geek. He was disgusted with himself. He was angry for yearning to be loved by this crowd. He spit out the piece he had bitten off and left the stage. The crowd called for him, but he no longer cared about their opinions, their needs.
Hasil ran out of the tent and walked to the tent with the two black men.
“Do you know of the woman who can’t speak? She ran off with the Geek.”
The two black men stared at one another and parted. Hasil entered the tent and there was a woman. Hasil went to her where she sat on a couch with tiny men at her feet. They were rubbing her feet with oils. Hasil went to her.
“Are you my mother? Did you run off with the Geek?”
The woman looked down upon the tiny men and they exited the tent. The woman sat up, reached a finger out, and brushed it lightly across Hasil’s lips. She pulled him down to her and held him. Hasil cried there in the arms of the Queen of the freaks.
That night the crowds dispersed. The hat of the geek rode off upon the head of imbecile boy who waddled home, singing to himself as he went.
The next morning there was scarcely a sign the circus had been there at all. Mr. Carmack arrived at 7:00 sharp. He let Hasil in and by 8:00 when Hasil left there was no sign of the fat man. Mr. Carmack called out to Hasil.
“Has the circus left?”
“The circus is gone.”
Hasil left for home with the sun on his back, no longer burdened with the weight of dependency. He set out to care for his father, a ruined old geek unfit to fend for himself in the world.
“Praise thy Gloria be,” Mr. Carmack said without even thinking about scratching his balls.