An animal trainer
“Don’t eat that!”
By Team Wonderbra
This was the third one.
Peter traced his fingertips over the symbol notched into the wooden sign post to verify it was real. The mark was simple – two “U”s side by side, encompassed in two circles; a Bucket Boy mark. Seeing it now shook Peter to his core. He felt Fitz’s presence inside the lines, half expecting to feel a pulse in the etching.
He couldn’t ignore a third one. It was the third one in six months.
The first time he saw it, Peter mistook it for a fluke. It could have been one of the many that Peter and Fitz carved together on the road. But Peter knew that Fitz had never been on this rail with him.
It was common for the hobos and tramps in the area to create monikers for themselves using the simple symbols developed by the migrant workers over the years to represent their hobo names. Most travelers couldn’t read, but they could leave signatures.
In the years following the Great Depression, hobo culture sprang to the forefront out of necessity. Both boys had been born into this society of the downtrodden, Peter’s mother dying when he was six. After that, Peter traveled with his father, a tie loader for the railroad company. Peter did odd jobs for his father’s crew and for the farmers that lived outside each town. He traveled with men much larger and hungrier than him, following the railroads in droves, searching for scarce employment and even more scarce food.
Peter only remembered a different life as a distant memory when his mother was still alive. Warm beds and hot soup seemed like a fading dream. He’d learned enough of the road rules from his father. He’d learned the codes and signs, but nothing he’d experienced fully prepared him to navigate the dangers of living tramp life. In addition to the gnawing hunger that seemed a constant companion, brutal railroad security Bulls were a constant threat.
He got lost in the tracing, closing his eyes tight. Peter remembered the first time he saw Fitz; the small boy had been in charge of water running to the fields for farmers. Peter paused his fruit picking and watched the tired boy struggle up the hill, his full buckets sloshing over his shoulders. The boy teetered and lost his balance, dropping both buckets and collapsing in defeat. The water welled up at his feet, mixing with his tears as it seeped into the ground.
“No sense in dehydrating yourself over spilled water. Get up, kid. I’ll show you a better way to carry these. Can’t let the rest of us die of thirst.”
The young boy raised his head, tears still spilling.
Peter softened, “Come on, Kid Simple. Ain’t got all day!”
Fitz met Peter with a grateful smile and followed him back to the well. He was Peter’s shadow from that day forward, and they became each other’s family.
They called themselves the Bucket Boys after their first year working as fruit tramps and begging at back doors. They’d pretend to be pirates and marauders to pass the time between their odd jobs. One morning, while riding the rail to the next town, Fitz pulled a coal piece from his pocket and drew two “U”s on the inside of the rail car.
“Bucket boys!” Fitz declared, as he circled the first U.
“We’re tramps now. Together forever,” he explained, as he drew another circle around the second U. He beamed at Peter and took his hand.
They were just boys then. When Peter’s father died, they quickly had to become men. Peter knew to find an old timer who would take them under his wing in one of the big jungle camps. King Junky Bat Man was eccentric, but his life as a traveler provided a wealth of survival education. He taught the boys the hobo codes and symbols left to help fellow travelers on poles, trees and gates along the rail line to find work, shelter, food and most importantly, avoid danger. A smiley face meant the farm up ahead would allow you to sleep in the barn. A circle with an X inside indicated there was food available. Two overlapping circles meant hobos would be arrested on site. Being fluent in hobo code enabled the boys to survive, and they began to feel at home on the rail. The orphans no longer felt alone; now they belonged.
It had been two years since Fitz went missing, and Peter hadn’t used the Bucket Boys sign since. It stood for Peter and Fitz, and now it was just Peter.
The night of the bull raid, they’d fallen asleep outside a farm camp, listening to the owls in the night. Fitz always fell asleep first. Peter liked it that way. Peter was drifting off when they heard the sound of the railroad Bulls stomping into the camps to clear out the travelers and prep the tracks for the next run of workers. Everyone scattered into the night, the sounds of screaming and gunshots echoing into the sky.
Fitz always circled back around and found Peter, but that night, he never came. When Fitz didn’t materialize after a few days, the other travelers declared Fitz dead. After that, searching was pointless; Peter had given up. Fitz wasn’t going to come back.
Now, standing in front of the Bucket Boys sign again, Peter allowed himself the luxury of hope. It was clear as day, written under the regular cross that meant, “church will give food.” Sometimes, it was written under an upside down Y, which mean “danger in this town.” It began to always accompany two rectangles, which meant, “afraid.” Looking back, Peter had realized he should have paid better attention to the surrounding monikers. Seeing a third sign meant Fitz was still alive – this realization washed over him in a wave of relief and joy and settled determination to find his dear friend.
The signs had become Peter’s new code. His map. He spent the summer picking strawberries in Bedford and followed his sign to Cooperstown during the apple season. It was fall now, and the only work to be made was a bucket or fire runner for another railroad. The fruits of summer were packed away, being sold to girls and boys with clean hair and hemmed clothes. He was tired. Carrying the buckets became harder this season. Peter had ignored the stories of where the work was and only followed his symbol. His belly ached and his legs became weak and tired. No matter how old or painted over his signal had been, it was a way to keep Fitz with him during his travels. He’d scratch an infinity symbol every time underneath. “Don’t give up.”
The markings were fading, as was his memory of Fitz. By the time he’d found them, fence markings had been painted over, grass had grown around the base of the tree where he’d last seen the carving. It had been too long. Maybe Fitz really was dead.
The infinity signs were harder to mark onto the wood. Fitz hadn’t left these signs for years. Peter was chasing a ghost at the expense of his own survival.
The last time he found it, Peter realized he had to travel back to Chadwick, right outside of where he had lost Fitz. “To find something you’ve lost, start where you last saw it,” his father once said. The easiest way was to take a cannonball, an express train that stopped in the larger cities to get medicines out to smaller towns by delivery truck. Cannonballs moved faster, but there was one every couple of days. Problem was, they were harder to hop. He knew the physical dangers of rail riding were just as prevalent as any Bull. It was common for hobos to fall under the wheels when attempting to hop the trains. If a guy was lucky, he’d lose a limb. Unsure footing meant he lost everything else.
He was consumed with the search. The long hours riding the trains gave him plenty of time to roll over the posibilies of Fitz’s wherabouts. He’d heard hobo folklore from the jungle cats about the fate of missing travelers for as long as he could recall. When he was younger, the tales of Bulls capturing young tramps and selling them at the ports to slave on ships and plantations terrified him. The road kids exchanged boogeyman stories about kids being disfigured and set on display in traveling sideshows. He remembers a particularly horrific interaction shouted at him by a old nutty lusher, “The Bull’s gonna get you street urchin, they gonna sell ya to the circus and the cats will eat yur bones!”
As he grew older, he’d dismissed the stories as old wives’ tales. He had enough real threats to worry about. He was still careful about taking food and drink from unknown jungle rats for fear of getting a lump laced with knock-out-drops. Travelers disappeared every day. Ever since the railroads had pumped up the security Bulls, life on the rails was significantly more dangerous. The older hobos spoke fondly of a time where no one bothered the travelers and they were even welcomed with open arms in farming towns. When the Bulls first were brought on by the Railroad companies, they would just round up travelers and jail them. That was before Peter’s time though. These days the Bulls seemed like more of a firing squad. The tough economic times only amplified the danger. Hunger can make people do things; bad things. Peter had even heard stories of starving boozehounds, their minds gone from Corn Bourbon, cannibalizing travelers. Now Peter revisited the boogeyman stories with a new horror.
It took only three days to get to Chadwick. After hopping off in Augusta, he
began the final walk into town, past miles of cornfields. Chadwick was the last place the Bucket Boys were together. He’d hoped to never return to this place. Losing Fitz had put a crack in his spirit…it was an emotional straw that had nearly broken his back. The knot in his stomach wasn’t from hunger alone — something about this place stood his hair on end. His senses were piqued as he scanned for hobo marks. The marks seemed ominous and he wanted to turn around, hop a train and never return. However, he was determined to find out Fitz’s whereabouts. The answer was here; he could feel it. He saw the mark for “unsafe place” directly over the sign for “man with gun”. He had to travel carefully. Less then a quarter of a mile down the road he saw more danger marks, one indicating that he should “be ready to defend”, and another urged him to “get out fast.” Just outside of town, he settled under a tree, unrolled his bindle have a bit of breakfast and gather his thoughts. As he forced down a lump of food, two small figures appeared on the horizon. Peter crouched down and soon could make out an old negro bicycle tramp and a small black and brown wirehaired mutt. The dog wore a bell that sang as he trotted down the road. Peter decided to take his chances and shouted out,“Hey Bo! Good morning to you friend!”
The old man seemed startled, and it wasn’t until the fellow closed the gap between them and stopped his bicycle that Peter saw why. His milky white eyes were those of a Blinkey. He was either nearly or fully blind.
““What business you got here, boy?”
“I’m looking for my brother. He went missing two seasons ago in Chadwick.”
The old man hesitated for a moment.
“Ain’t no lil ‘uns in Chadwick, and if you go to the place, you gon’ be gone too.”
Peter cleared his throat and willed his voice to stay steady.
“What happens to the little ones in Chadwick?”
“Some things ought not to be talked about, son.”
“I have a twenty cent that says otherwise.”
The old man pondered for a moment and shoved out his hand.
“The Aklalov place. North of town. They farm sheep. You get answers there, but God save your soul. ”
Peter listened to the bell growing fainter and fainter as he headed north. He followed the dusty roads until he saw a shack in the distance, pockets of white nestled in the hills.
Peter hunched behind the shack, but had a clear sight of the inside from a window above the storm doors. He always knew how to move with the shadows. He recognized the smell of potatoes in stew. A giant woman stood over the pot carefully, preparing dinner for what seemed like a family that wasn’t there.
What Peter recognized more than the stew was the thick footsteps of a burled man as he approached the door.
It was a Bull – his whip looped around his buckle, his hulking arms. He remembered those arms raising the whip as Peter scrambled toward the woods.
This time, his arms didn’t carry his whip. He was dragging a child behind him and tossed him in front of the woman with the missing family as he burst through the door.
The giant woman wiped her hands on her apron and said nothing. She only looked the boy up and down.
“I not give you more than four dollar. This boy hasn’t eaten in weeks. What am I to do with this?”
“Feed it. His size is not my problem.”
The boy was made of bones, his elbows jutting out from his skin. He wore his hunger on his face, eyeballing the bread on the table as the two adults bickered over him.
“Roger said five dollars. And the boy is willing.”
The plump woman stared him down.
“Boy. You can lift cart?”
The boy said nothing, continuing to stare at the bread.
“You don’t eat that. Bread not for boys with no manners.”
The boy sounded like a titmouse. He squeaked his words.
“I’ll carry anything you need carried.”
The woman sighed and tossed him the bread, watching as he inhaled it.
“Boy no better than food for tiger. He won’t even survive trip to Greenville.”
The bull shifted his legs.
“Like I said. Not my problem. He can be the Temple Circus’s next lizard boy. I heard you’re missing one of those.”
The woman reluctantly shuffled to a box in the corner and shoved money in the bull’s hand. It was an otherwise plain box with a red bear on its lid.
“It’s always a pleasure doing business with you.” His whip creaked around his buckle as he pocketed the money.
It was the bull from the night of the raid. Peter wanted to burst through the window and strangle him, as the thought of Fitz being thrown across the woman’s kitchen floor and sold to her disregard filled him with fury. But that wouldn’t get Fitz back. There weren’t any options. You don’t fight a bull. He had to head to the Temple Circus.
Greenville was seven counties over and trains didn’t run often enough. It’d be truck riding and foot to get there.
By the time Peter arrived in Greenville, his feet were blistered. He was hungrier than usual. He’d become accustomed to the feeling, but the pains in his side were roaring instead of a quiet murmur.
The townspeople had poured out into the dusty streets of Greenville to watch the red tops erect even in the distance. With so many of them out in the streets, Peter had to keep to the alleys and shanties. He hadn’t seen any signals as to whether Greenville was friendly to tramps.
Peter had never seen a circus. Tents should be easy enough to slip, with railroad hopping under his belt.
When the tents were staked into the ground, it was easier to slip in and out unnoticed. People were too busy staring at the elephants and the painted clowns, clutching their children’s hands and getting the little ones to stop squealing. The smell of lemons, roasted peanuts and cake doughnuts filled the air.
Peter found a spot toward the back, hiding under a railing. He noticed he could catch falling peanuts from the rows above him if he paid enough attention. It was dark underneath the railings, but the lights would occasionally gleam into the shadows, and digging around for them would have pinched him for sure. He stayed still, moving his arms carefully to catch the forgotten food.
Elephants danced in circles like ballerinas, and bears were kept as pets. A man smiled at the crowd, throwing back the curtain and leading out a giant orange cat. Peter had never seen such an enormous cat, its black stripes stretching around its massive muscles. A man came out and uncurled a whip to the ground, commanding the cat to stand up and bear its long teeth. The whip was longer than the ones he’d seen the Bulls use, and hearing its crack, his stomach churned, feeling sorry for the cat. But the cat listened, bearing his teeth with a roar as he’d been trained to do.
Then men crossed ropes at the top of the tent, throwing a boy from swing to swing in the air. The boy couldn’t have been a year older than Peter – his red curls reminded him of Rusty Tiptoes. Rusty had been the best car hopper in 30 counties. Peter remembered camping with him years ago, as Rusty told stories of how many cars he’d hopped, shifting his feet in the dark to change his direction, any time he pleased. East to West. From South to North. Back and forth, like the boy in the sky. Rusty had told him over the campfire that the trick was to never be afraid of falling.
The boy in the sky spun through the air and hopped on the bar quickly, lifting his toes. Tiptoes. Peter’s breath became shorter in that moment. Rusty Tiptoes, the best car hopper in 30 counties, wasn’t jumping cars anymore.
Peter slipped into the crowd as it emptied from the tent. There would be plenty of places to sleep for the night – barns and camp tents covered the plain. He picked a hay bale behind an old barn away from the rest of the action, but he could still hear the animals in the distance. There had been no Fitz. He wasn’t being tossed in the sky; he wasn’t selling peanuts. Peter wanted to resolve himself to never seeing him at all, but hope was a tricky thing, and he remembered why he had avoided it for so long. It had a hold of him now.
He had to go back. The crowds were too thick and the expanse of the circus to big for him to call it quits.
The next morning, Peter slipped into the boundary tape and walked. He’d pick up trash from time to time to look at though he was hired to do it – it was the oldest trick he had.
Crowds gathered again as the posters unfurled above a stage. The Mermaid Girl. The Bearded Lady. The Half Boy. They almost sounded like hobo names.
A man with a wax mustache called out to the crowd, enticing the ladies and gentlemen to move closer to the stage. The Crocodile Man. The Snake Charmer. The Sword Swallower.
The sword swallower was next. His amazing feats would be sure to astound.
It wasn’t a large man with muscles that entered stage left. It was a boy, younger than Peter, who stood silently as he surveyed the crowd and waited patiently for the caller’s instruction.
The blond curls, the lanky figure. A littler taller now, but Peter knew the shape has well as he knew the two “U”s in all the sign posts.
It was Fitz.
Fitz waited patiently for instruction and for the anticipation of the crowd to grow. He pulled a sword from the stage floor and inserted it down his throat. Peter wanted to gasp, but the air was gone.
The sword comes out of Fitz’s throat and he bows, shuffling behind the curtain as the crowd screams with wonder.
“Now, you fine ladies and gentlemen, who would like to come see the sights of the macabre, the morose, the stunning and the stupefying?
A fat man shoves his way in front of Peter, his coins outstretched to the stage, hungry for entertainment. Peter feels around in his pocket for his harvest money. It is his winter insurance, his blanket – all he has left. He fills his hand with all the currency it will hold and throws it in the air.
“ME! I DO!”
The caller sees the wad of bills in Peter’s hand and pauses his breathless liturgy. He points directly at Peter and makes clear that Peter is the boy from the crowd he wants to see.
“YOU, my fine young man, step right up! Come this way! Now this is what we call a hungry kid! Hungry for a show!”
Peter moves through the waves of people as they push him along, the din getting quieter as he felt his pulse. He’s lifted onto the stage as the caller shakes his hand and pulls him close and whispers into his ear.
“Congratulations, kid. I’ve never seen a better shill. You spend all the time you want back there.”
Peter slips behind the curtains, the smell of fish hitting his nostrils. He moved his way down the dark corridor, until he came to the first exhibit. He gawked at the figure. A half figure, actually. He locked eyes with the legless boy as he moved down the hall, quickening his step. He moves past the Mermaid lady, with similar disinterest, this time avoiding eye contact. He almost could have caught her confused stare.
As he approaches the next exhibit, his heart pounds. He leans against the rope.
“Fitz,” he struggled to keep his voice low.
Fitz was standing on a platform, and it took a moment for his eyes to meet Peter’s. Fitz’s eyes grew wide with recognition, and he jumped from his platform at the same time Peter crossed the rope.
They met in a hard embrace, tears streaming down Peter’s face.
“Let’s go. I’m getting you out of here.”
Fitz balked and seemed conflicted.
“Fitz, let’s go! What’s wrong?”
Fitz only stared.
“Come on! What’s wrong?”
Fitz opened his mouth as if to speak and then closed it again.
“Fitz! Talk to me! We don’t have much time.”
The sword swallower locked eyes with his friend, his eyes welling up with tears. He opened his mouth wider and stepped toward Peter into the light.
Peter stepped back in horror as he looked at the gaping hole where Fitz once had a tongue. His voice shook as he demanded, “What have they done to you?!”
Fitz walked over to the stage and picked up the sword and began to write in the dusty ground.
He etches out the symbol for “safe place” in the dust. Then “food here.”
“There’s food elsewhere, Fitz! I can take care of you.”
Fitz pauses for a moment and carves again in the dust.
Peter stares at the symbol scratched into the dirt.
“End of the road.”
“I’m not leaving you. We’re family.”
Fitz carves the symbol into the ground again. .
He looks Fitz in the eyes, and whispers,
He takes the sword from Fitz’s hand, drawing their moniker into the dirt. Two “U”s inside of circles. He drops the sword at Fitz’s feet.
Peter takes a deep breath and pulls his jack knife from his pocket.
“Together forever. I hear they’re missing a Lizard boy.”
Peter pulled his tongue from his mouth, and with one fluid motion, sliced his tongue in two.
© 2013 Danielle Nichols, Nathan Davis, Denise Mullenix