Buster Bungle's Big Top
I'm posting the first chapter of my novel, “Buster Bungle's Big Top”. Who knows, maybe someone who's an agent or is associated with a publisher will stumble upon it and request the manuscript. Stranger things have happened.
The Hellcat was a big, fire-engine red bike that was built for speed. Neal Bobwhite was bent down over its handlebars pushing it to a hundred miles an hour in the HOV lane of the expressway. He leaned into the left turn ahead and cursed when he blew by the highway patrol car that was parked hard up against the concrete barrier that ran down the middle of the highway. Neal shot on over to the rightmost lane and slowed to the speed limit as he took the first exit. He glanced into the rearview mirror, but the cruiser wasn’t following. They rarely did. The bike was too fast and maneuverable.
He turned onto a four-lane street in a rough neighborhood, but it was a neighborhood that he recognized. He had lived there as a small boy, back before his mother had remarried. The Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise on the first corner had been one of his favorite places to eat, but it was now a rib joint called Daddy D’s. The McDonald’s wasn’t new, but the Checkers was. Another block down, a check-cashing business advertised payday and title loans. It occupied the yellow-brick building where his mother had worked as a receptionist for an insurance agency. Neal could remember the way the women who had worked there had doted on him, stuffing him with cookies, candy, and cake.
Just ahead, a homeless man was sprawled face down on the sidewalk. The way he lay, he seemed broken, as though he had fallen from a great height. Another unkempt man was bent over him. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then eased a half-empty pint of whiskey from the pocket of the unconscious man’s pants. As Neal rode past, the man held the bottle up in front of him and grinned like he’d hit the Cash 3 in the lottery.
Neal slowed for a light and came to a stop. On the right was a convenience store that Neal had known as a Seven Eleven. It was now called H&H, and it had become the kind of place where the cashier had to work behind bulletproof glass. Neal could recall going there to buy bottles of Coca-Cola and small bags of peanuts back when he was a boy. He’d pour the nuts into the bottle with the Coke. They would float to the top, and he would eat one or two with each sip that he took.
An emaciated, white woman was out in front of the store talking to the young, black men who were in the tricked-out, yellow SUV that was parked there. Her hair was a tangled mass of greasy, blonde curls, and she had on a tattered dress of the sort that might once have been worn in a wedding, though it was now dirty, gray, and ripped. The men in the SUV were having fun with her, teasing and taunting as though she were witless or mad. She reeled away from them, throwing a hand in disgust.
She was so frail and wasted that she looked like she might just collapse to the asphalt and expire, but then she saw Neal staring at her, and she drew herself up into a sober posture while smoothing the dress against her body. The light had changed, but Neal had pulled over to the curb. He didn’t know why, but she had something to say, and he wanted to see what it would be. He lifted the visor of his motorcycle helmet.
“You wanna party?” she asked.
Her eyes were bloodshot and her cheeks sunken. Her skin had a pallid cast, and her breath was so foul that it smelled as though she were rotting from the inside out.
“Here? On my motorcycle?”
She flung a skinny arm toward the intersecting street. “There’s a park up there.”
“I don’t think so, not today.”
She licked her top lip and her eyes lost their focus. She swooned momentarily, then caught herself before falling. “Maybe you can let me hold ten dollars.”
“So you can get something to eat?”
“I need me something to eat,” she said.
She wouldn’t eat. She’d buy dope instead, and Neal wasn’t going to give her a ten for that, but then he looked her over again. Who the hell was he to judge? His parents would have scorned the woman. That right there was reason enough to give her the money. If she used it to buy dope, then so be it. He pulled his wallet from the back pocket of his jeans. He didn’t have a ten, so he took out a twenty. She snatched it from his hand as though she were afraid that he would change his mind about giving it to her.
“Are you sure you don’t want to party?” she asked. “I could give you a BJ.”
“No, just keep the money.”
She nodded, though it seemed more like she’d just let her head fall. When she brought it up again, she raised her arm and pointed it in the direction he was traveling. “Are you going down there?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“No, no, no,” she said, throwing her head from side to side. “You don’t wanna do that. That’s where the devil cats are.” She leaned closer, her foul exhalations making Neal breathe through his mouth. “You should hear them at night. They’ll steal your soul away.”
“Steal my soul, huh?”
“And they won’t give it back.”
With that she was gone, waving wildly to someone in a car that was behind him. Neal dropped his visor and engaged the transmission. The light had changed, so he let a few cars pass, then shot out into traffic in front of a semi that was downshifting to grind up the rise ahead. Neal topped the slope and descended into to what had once been a hollow, and a dark one at that, judging by the stand of pines that still shadowed the land on the right. To the left a circus had been set up between a supermarket and a strip mall. The mall was unfamiliar, but Neal remembered the supermarket as a Winn-Dixie, though it now bore the name of ValuCheck. A row of paper signs in its display windows advertised collard greens, pork chops, corn on the cob, and ground beef.
Neal slowed to read the sign that hung from the motor home that was parked out in front of the circus, but the semi behind him was building up speed as it came downhill, and the driver let him have it with his horn. Neal popped the throttle and the Hellcat jumped ahead, shooting across the oncoming traffic and into the strip mall.
Neal parked, and got off of his bike. The circus was a shabby affair. There was a one-pole tent with a short vestibule extending out from the entrance. Its broad, red-and-white stripes had weathered to ugly shades of pink and gray. The battered motor home from which the sign hung apparently served as the ticket office. On the far side of the lot were a ferris wheel and a merry-go-round. Both had seen better days. A couple of the wheel’s spokes were bent, and overall it looked so rickety that it might well collapse the next time it was started up. The merry-go-round was tilted to one side, and the whole thing just seemed to sag, as though it had succumbed to gravity and would never move again.
Only now that he had stopped did Neal realize just how brutally hot it really was. He took off his helmet and shook his head. Beads of sweat flew from his brush cut. He ran a hand over the top of his head, then put the helmet down on the seat of the bike. His pulse was pounding at his temples, and he needed a cold drink, but first he wanted to see that sign, so he walked on over for a look.
“Buster Bungle’s Big Top” ran along the top of the sign in black, block letters. In a smaller cursive below was another line, “Featuring Selena Sable and Her Cats”. This Selena had been rendered beneath in a top hat, tails, fishnet stockings, and knee-high boots. Her hands were in the air in the manner of a choir leader conducting her singers. Three black cats in a row were leaping over her outstretched arms. The technique was crude, like some cartoonist’s version of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Selena’s legs were too long, her arms too short, and the features of her face distorted. The cats had been portrayed in primitive and abstract fashion, like stylized Sumerian lions on a stone wall.
Devil cats, huh? They were probably toothless relics that were too old for a real circus, and that Selena was undoubtedly some old hag who was just hanging onto a performing career as best she could. Neal turned from the sign and cursed himself for a fool. It was time to get home, and into the pool.
He paused to stare up into the sky, where the sun was beating down on him like a hammer on red-hot metal. Maybe he hadn’t been drinking enough fluids. It could have been a bug or a virus. Whatever it was, the pulse was still pounding in his temples, and he suddenly felt lightheaded as he walked back to his bike. He was telling himself that he needed to stop for that cold drink when, all of a sudden, a loud boom came from out of the sky. He jerked and went all to jelly inside. His arms and legs shook like the limbs of a tree in a gale. He sank to his knees and then, as his head began to spin, went down on all fours.
The next thing he knew, he was staring down at the red clay beneath him. There was vomitus on the ground between his hands. He grimaced at the sight of it, and spit as he tried to expel the taste of it from his mouth. What the fuck had that been all about? He rose up onto his knees and took a deep breath, then climbed back up onto shaky feet. Shielding his eyes with his hand, he peered up into the sky again. He saw a few puffy, white clouds, but nothing that could have caused a lightning strike. His eyes went back to the circus. He brushed the red clay dust from the knees of his jeans, then peered into the sky one last time. He was no epileptic, so it had to have been lightning. He’d heard of it striking from a clear, blue sky. Though he was still unsteady, he walked briskly back to his bike.