Beast of a Thousand Burdens
Ronny Tabasco considered his camel, worried about the limp; Ahab, his goldbricking two-humper. No more kiddie rides, Ronny decided right then, which was too bad because it didn’t leave much for the money. He’d canceled kangaroo boxing last month, had to put down Little Joey after he’d knocked that kid’s teeth out. He was going to lose them anyway, Ronny’d tried to tell the hysterical mom. The kid had stopped crying, but the mom was holding out for a stack of bills, the entire day’s take, and he had to show her the empty register before she promised to drive off for good.
Ronny finished forking hay into Ahab’s cage, then went into the Imaginarium to check on the displays. Everything was quiet in the stifling heat—the Wooly-Bullys conked out in their diorama, the Morbids hanging from their perches like dead parrots, the whole room seeming to hold its breath against the reek of mold and Formaldehyde. He wiped the condensation off the chilled display cases then verified the pH in the tank, where the Giant Eye gave him a slow, appreciative blink.
The beginning of a migraine was fingering up the back of his skull, so Ronny retired to his office, no more than a storage closet on the way to the toilet. He reached into the bottom desk drawer past his service revolver for the Jim Beam and spilled some into a “Mysterioso Road” shot glass, which he positioned on the taxidermy table, his daily sentinel from the Good Behavior Society. He downed six Advil and settled in front of his aging PC. One email—another refusal from his brother, whose House of Mystery in central Tennessee had the Buddha’s finger-bone, so far not for sale. Jeez Barry, what do you want, a piece of the True Cross? I would if I could. Come on man, I’m dying out here.
They’d both believed Dad, back in the 1950s when everyone was fretting about the new Interstate highways. Dad wasn’t worried, figured the family vacationers still had to get off for gas, would see the blood-drippy “Mysterioso Road” sign with the crooked-finger arrow, then follow the line of scrawled posters—Warning You’ve Gone Too Far, No-Screaming Zone, U-Turn U-Die, and so on—for a twisted mile past empty shacks and yards full of rusty tractors, half-collapsed barns, spooky arches of hedge-apple shrubs, so by the time they’d get to the oddly tilting farmhouse the kids were already so half-cocked with anticipation you could show them any old thing and they’d tell that story forever. Dad had been an Evangelist for the Unusual, taught that the exceptions could be the rule, that dark corners held strange rewards, to where his eventual dementia seemed like nothing more than the fulfillment of a life’s goal. He was smiling when they pulled him out of the pond, as if he couldn’t wait to tell you what he’d found in the muddy bottom, what his unblinked eyes saw in the brown water, what strange protozoac creatures he’d final-gasped into his own self.
It was almost six and Ronny was dozing in his chair, when he heard the door jingle. We’re closed, he wanted to shout, but business hadn’t been booming. He heaved his six-foot-plus frame out of the chair, flipped down his aviators and pushed through the hanging beads, expecting to see kids in sweatshirts and sneakers peering through the glass at the tiny cattle or Potato Jesus, but there was only a woman at the taxidermy counter, in oversized sunglasses, with teased blond hair wrapped in a gauzy scarf, stroking the fur of a cat-hawk. He thought of Tippi Hedren in The Birds for a half-second, but there was no hiding that hibiscus scent or the tightly skirted hips he’d tried for the last year to not think about.
“I hope you’re not here for a camel ride,” Ronny said.
“You still have that old thing?” Rose said.
“Look who’s calling who an ‘old thing.’ Like you’re fooling anybody with the blonde hair. Very cougar-y, though, I have to admit. Hey, with Little Joey gone and Ahab retiring, I might have an opening.”
“Little Joey? Your kangaroo?”
“Rose, what the hell do you want?”
“Still such a smooth talker.” She ran a finger down the side of his arm. “How could a girl resist?”
Ronny moved her hand away. “Look, Rose, I got things to do and you bothering me is not one of them.”
She took off her sunglasses. Her one brown eye and one blue eye were extra shiny, which could mean two different things. “Maybe I just miss you.”
“Got a funny way of showing it, with that mouth of yours.”
“Funny you should have a problem with my mouth. Maybe I should talk to your partner,” she said, and reached down for his partner.
It’s too damn hot for this, Ronny thought later as he rolled off Rose, who was snoozing or playing possum. The sun was down but the tin walls of the trailer didn’t know that. He tucked his lipstick-smeared dick back into his boxers and went to put on coffee.
Rose sat up and arranged the covers over her droopy boobs like they were something special, which they were. “So how much you not drinking every day?” she said.
“Not enough to stop messing around with you. Apparently.”
She dragged over to him, wrapped in the sheet like a bad-hair-day Statue of Liberty. “Don’t be like that, Ronny. I brought you a present. I know you been trying to get ahold of that finger-bone. But this is better.”
Ronny noticed her bare feet poking out, her Corvette-red toenails, and did a quick count. Jesus.
“Maybe I got tired of my shoes not fitting,” she said, then wiggled over to her handbag where she pulled out a glass vial. “This little piggy went to the market.”
Ronny peered at the pink digit floating in there like a Vienna sausage and barked out a laugh. “Damn. You’ll have to give me your surgeon’s number. So where’s the other one?” he said, nodding towards her truncated feet. “I’m only counting ten. And how do you even know about the finger-bone? You still talking to Barry, after all that?”
“Talking? You think that’s all people do is talk. Where was I supposed to go?”
“To Barry’s? Jesus, Rose, you gave it to Barry, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t give it to Barry. He was all on about the Buddha’s toe, and like who has that, until one day he comes at me with Lidocaine and some doctor. He’s a sadistic bastard, Ronny, but what choice did you give me? I’d a done it for you if you just asked.”
Leave it to Barry to figure out that sure, painting the toenails of the Twelve-Toe Woman was fun for the kids, but actually seeing one floating around in a jar . . .
“So now what’s an ordinary ten-toe gal supposed to do in a world of seahorse cavalry and dancing grasshoppers?” she said, dropping the sheet, and for the second time Ronny wasn’t surprised at how much he’d missed her.
Ronny always woke around 4:30 in the morning to pee, nagged by some vague worry that his mind tried to match with reality, going down the list. Not the big stuff, like ‘Nam, where it had to have been someone else, not him, hunkered down in the blood and shit, shooting at anything that moved. Not Mom, who’d fled all the weirdness when he was little. Not Barry, he’d fixed that. Or Dad. Christ. Mostly it was about his mission, here on Mysterioso Road, his little museum of anomalies and black holes and sky trains and vapor soldiers and pig-dogs and, well, the collection had grown since Dad kicked it, but who cared anymore, the whole world itself had become so damn weird. You gotta curate it, Dad had said, give it its own place where it can be what it wants to be.
Rose was cooking up the bed like a furnace, so he threw off the thin sheet and slipped out the door. The night was quiet enough to hear the trucks ambling down the interstate. The baked-in humidity hid any sign of the heavens. Was the Milky Way something only kids saw? He remembered when he and Barry were little, and he’d look up with a sickening sense he was falling into the endless stream of stars, until Barry would drag a finger between each bright fleck, connecting them into pictures of warriors and monsters. They took turns pretending to be Orion, hunting the Giant Scorpion. Barry said that with his superpowers he could actually move Orion across the sky, and Ronny stayed up all night watching him do it. Here, you try, Barry said once, pointing to the North Star, and it took a long time before Ronny understood why he couldn’t get it to budge. Fucking Barry, even then.
He heard a car crunching the gravel, then a pair of headlights veered toward him, stopping just short and pitching over a cloud of dust. A door opened and slammed, and in the glare of the lights he didn’t recognize Barry until right before a fist smacked into the side of his face, almost knocking him over.
“Where is she, Ronny?”
“Where is who?” Ronny said, then a boot to his kneecap sent him to the ground.
“Your fucking whore, that’s who.” Barry was on him, knees into his chest.
Ronny pushed Barry’s face away, smelled the booze and the tobacco, and something else, like the outgassing of a muddy slough. Barry was an inch shorter than Ronny, but he had the girth of a grizzly, and Ronny felt things starting to spin as he yanked on Barry’s beard with one hand while the other found a rock, which he cracked into the side of Barry’s head, just hard enough to get his attention, and Barry collapsed off Ronny like a landside.
“Let’s get you inside.” Ronny said, one-arming Barry to his feet and steering him to the trailer, thinking what was the point in going sober if you still had to deal with all this shit, only now it wasn’t any fun. He’d been astonished that first week off the sauce when he’d go to Porker’s and wonder why everyone was acting like an asshole, but he had nothing to offer instead.
Inside, Rose was out of bed, dressed in a pair of Ronny’s boxers and a ratty Mysterioso Road tee shirt. When Barry saw her, he lunged off Ronny’s shoulder, barking out some garbled syllables, took two steps toward her like a deranged mummy then pitched forward and it was all they could do to angle him into Ronny’s stuffy TV chair. He was drooling and breathing in gasps as Ronny draped an army blanket over him, while Rose took a wet washcloth and started wiping blood out of his mangy mess of hair.
“The fuck, Rose,” Ronny said. “Why am I so goddam popular all of a sudden?”
“He just misses you,” said Rose.
“Like anything’s changed?” Ronny knew his exasperation would not take him to a good place, but here it all was again. He’d staked Barry to the House of Mystery as his last good deed, hoping to once and for all make up for being Dad’s favorite. Goodbye Barry. Goodbye booze. Goodbye Rose. He wanted to tell her to just roll Barry into the car and go back to Tennessee.
“Ronny, say the word and I’ll go,” she said, reading his mind. He thought about the past year, what had he even done, still convincing himself there was some higher purpose to sitting around all day making tiny hay bales, or eight-counting the grasshoppers through their tired routine. Ronny Tabasco, special-ops proprietor for the misaligned, still standing watch, alone in a quiet house at the dark end of a long country road, where he was safe from the world and the world was safe from him. He wished he still had Joey to talk to.
“I don’t know, Rose, maybe it’s not so bad you came back,” he said, sinking into a chair next to Barry.
“Well, aren’t you just the born-again romantic. Did you ever think who else you have but me?”
“If that’s it then we’re both in a heap of shit.”
Rose straddled him, undid her hair and dangled it around his face, kissed him on the cheek then rubbed at the spot of lipstick. She was right. That’s all he had, this heap of shit Mysterioso Roadhouse and a relentless hard-on for the Twelve-Toe Lady. If he just had a drink, it’d be the goddam Holy Trinity.
At that moment Barry stirred, groaning. “I fucked her,” he slurred. “I fucked her cause she loved you. Just like Dad. And every-fucking-body else.”
“Ronny, I swear I never—” Rose said.
“I know, Rose, for chrissake let’s not talk about it.”
Barry was struggling to get up, but the saggy cushion was no help. Then he wiggled a knife out of his pocket, pried it open, and held up his pointer finger. “You want the Buddha’s finger? You got it, little brother, just like you got everything else.” He placed his open hand on the chair’s arm and raised the knife. Ronny was up and grabbed Barry’s wrist then Barry started whooping like a banshee, and as Ronny tried to wrench the knife away, he put a hand on Barry’s mouth, pushing him back. He felt a sharp bite and dropped the knife, then found it and went for Barry, but Rose got between them, Ronny now pointing the blade at her, his hand shaking like crazy.
“Get away, Rose. I’ve had it.”
“So what, are you gonna stab me? And your brother? Look at him. Come on baby.” She placed one hand softly against Ronny’s cheek and with the other eased the knife from his fingers. Barry’s head was lolling back and forth, and he was repeating to nobody in particular, “I fucked her, I fucked her, I fucked her . . .” like a mantra.
“There is no House of Mystery,” Rose said. “Barry burned it down.”
“Burned it down? What, for the hell of it? So I’m stuck with him?”
“Number one, who can say about your brother? Number two, you’re not stuck with him, we are.”
The hopeful look Rose gave him was the same one he couldn’t resist when she arrived two years ago, ashamed of her twelve toes. He and Barry had set her up in one of the cabins, hammered up a regal throne for her to sit in while the kids painted her toenails, and he remembered how she could tease them and make them laugh, asking them how many toes they had, then threatening to count each one, unbearably ticklish just to think about. Mom, I was tickled by the Twelve-Toe Woman. Then the kids would leave, their world safe and normal and predictable, all the weirdness stored securely down at the end of Mysterioso Road.
He knew Barry was crazy about Rose, but while Barry’d be in the back calling around for unicorn horns or women with hairy chins she’d come at Ronny with irresistible recreational suggestions. They were all drinking a lot then, starting early, then bumping it up later on with this powder or that pill, until the last, crazed night, when Barry got hold of the revolver and shoved in one bullet, spinning and clicking, spinning and clicking, and nobody knows who exactly he was aiming at when the inevitable slug found its way into Ronny’s hind quarters. In the hospital Ronny had his come-to-Jesus, and when he got out first thing he drove Barry to his new House of Mystery, telling Rose she better be gone by the time he got back. He made a promise to himself then and could tell you exactly how many days ago that was.
Barry began to stir. “Help me here,” Ronny said, and they got under him. “It’s okay, Barry, let’s get you to bed.” Together they lurched out of the trailer and across the yard, Barry mumbling, Rose talking to him in a quiet voice. Behind the house were the animal pens, empty now except for Ahab, who was enjoying his retirement sacked out on an expensive pile of alfalfa. They came to Little Joey’s cage.
“He really is gone?” Rose said.
“Jesus, Rose, don’t make me think about it.”
They maneuvered Barry into the cage and onto Little Joey’s mattress. “Here you go, Barry, we’ll talk about it tomorrow,” Ronny said, and locked the door.
Back in the trailer Ronny lay on his bed and stared at the ceiling while Rose fussed in the bathroom. There’s nothing he could have done about Little Joey. It wasn’t just the kid’s teeth; it was Joey staggering around on his off days like a punch-drunk fighter, sometimes shivering on his mattress at night, the infected-looking saliva . . . The vet had been kind enough to make a house call and it wasn’t until later that Ronny had bawled his eyes out. But now his brother. And Rose. The whole thing starting up again. He thought, why not just skip out tonight, let Rose and Barry work it out. He’d often imagined dumping this godforsaken place and moving to Florida, pictured himself on the beach, smoking a fat Cuban and sipping on an icy 7-Up, or maybe a neat Tequila, just one. Seriously, just one to dampen the heat lightning in his head, or two maybe, only if necessary, then one more and a round for the house, but then suddenly there wouldn’t be enough tequila in all of Florida, he knew that. But even if he convinced himself this time would be different, here was big-hearted Rose and that floating digit. Odds were good Barry’d sweet-talk her out of the cage and probably kill her, or worse. For a moment Ronny even thought about the pond, no idea if Barry could swim.
He must have fallen asleep, because he was dreaming about somebody screaming, then realized it was Barry outside, bellowing and cursing and banging on the bars of the kangaroo cage. It was just light enough to see Rose hurrying into her robe and slippers.
“Don’t go out there,” Ronny said, pulling on his jeans. “Nobody will hear.” They were out in the sticks for a reason, and if somebody thought a wild Yeti was lurking around, so much the better.
“He might hurt himself,” Rose said, which could solve everything. But now he had an idea. He tried to ignore Barry’s wailing as he hustled to his office and retrieved the bottle of Beam, then brought it back to the trailer where he took a few capsules from a plastic baggie, opened them, and dumped the powder into the bottle.
Rose fingered the empty capsules. “I don’t want to ask why you even have that around.”
“There’s a lot you don’t remember,” Ronny said, not having the heart to tell her about the night with her and Barry and the Rohypnol, when Ronny’d watched it all go down, too wasted to step in. To his eternal shame. He supposed he’d saved the pills for the same reason he wasted a shot of booze every night.
Outside things had quieted down. Ronny handed the bottle to Rose. “He’ll be wanting this. Tell him to get to the far side of the cage and you’ll slide it in.”
“Ronny, you do it.”
“No, he’ll go crazy again if he sees me. You, he still holds out some hope.”
“Okay, but he needs to eat, too.” She fussed around with some white bread and American cheese.
“Maybe fill up his water bowl,” Ronny said as she headed out of the trailer. “And don’t let him get too close.” He stood outside, listening for trouble, but she was right back.
“He went for it, but it breaks my heart,” she said.
They spent the day in the hot trailer, Rose watching TV while Ronny thumbed through his catalogs, listening for Barry, but all he heard was the dry breeze rattling in the pin-oaks and the nagging crows that hung around this time of year. It wasn’t until the late afternoon light was filtering through the trees that the thought occurred to him.
“Wait here ‘til I call for you,” he told Rose. He retrieved his revolver from the office then headed to the barn. It was more of a shed, something he and Dad had ply-wooded together to hold their tools and tackle. He took Ahab’s harness off the nail where it hung and brought it to the workbench where he measured the strips of leather attached to each end of the metal bit, then went to work with his cutters and awls, trimming and sizing the harness, replacing the buckles with rivets, and metal rings that could accommodate a padlock. He called for Rose, who came out as he was emerging from the shed. She eyed the contraption he was carrying.
“Don’t, Rose. You’ll see, it’ll be fine.” He handed her the gun. “Let’s hope for everybody’s sake he’s still passed out.”
The next morning Ronny slid out of bed at dawn, feeling well rested for the first time in forever. A front had moved through, the first hint of autumn, and Ronny shivered in his boxers as he pulled the covers up around Rose, then put on the percolator and dressed. He took his coffee and toast out to the shed where he positioned a scrap of plywood and got to work with a brush and black paint.
At nine o’clock he went into the house and switched on the OPEN neon, hoping for a little more luck, this being Saturday, then retired to his office. An hour later Rose came in. She smelled great, and looked great too, dark-eyed and lipsticked, big hoop earrings, her blond locks hidden inside a babushka. They cleared a place in the display and Rose positioned the “just-discovered Buddha’s Toe” next to Paul Bunyan’s axe blade, while Ronny took the new sign out back.
Around noon the door jingled and a family of four came in: mom, dad, brother, little sister. They bought tickets and wandered through the odd angles and slanted walls of the House, then Rose toured them around the Imaginarium. The boy had seen it all, said “That’s so fakey” when Rose showed him the toe. She started to take off her shoes when Ronny intervened.
“Then I suppose you don’t believe in the Overlords either.” He fixed a hard look on the kid and nodded toward a 50’s sci-fi poster of four Eduard Munchian aliens in front of a flying saucer, gazing out of empty eye sockets.
“Yeah, what’s that supposed to be,” said the kid.
“I swear to God,” he said (“apologies,” to the parents), “it’s a true story because I seen it firsthand,” then he told the tale, just as Dad always had. How the Overlords of the Universe saw the evil ways of the planet and decided it must be destroyed. How the tribes of earth assembled and chose among them the strongest, bravest man who went to the Overlords and spoke thus: that he would bear upon himself all the sins and sorrows of humanity in exchange for the lives of his people. How the Overlords took this man and poured into him the misery of the world then caged him deep in the woods, where his cries of pain and injustice could not dampen the happiness that was humanity’s birthright.
He could see the kid wasn’t buying it, and the little sister had drifted over to make faces at the Hourglass Astronaut, when a mournful wail rose up from behind the building. The boy gave a worried look at the door behind Ronny.
“Oh, I was gonna show you, but it looks like we woke him up. Might not be safe,” said Ronny. A loud shriek was followed by the crashing sound of metal against metal. Ronny looked at Rose, who was tightening her shawl around herself.
“Please, mister,” the kid said, and his little sister took his hand and nodded.
“All right then,” he winked at the parents, “but if you can’t sleep tonight—”
Ronny opened the back door and Rose put a reassuring hand on each child’s shoulder, urging them out and down the path, through the dark grove of hedge-apples and past the sleeping Ahab, to where the Beast of a Thousand Burdens growled and thrashed, banging against his cage and lamenting the loss of all good things.