Cover image for The aerialist
Title:
The aerialist
Author:
Schmitt, Richard.
Personal Author:
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Woodstock, NY : Overlook Press, 2000.
Physical Description:
295 pages ; 24 cm.
Language:
English
Geographic Term:
ISBN:
9781585670703
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

This latest title in the Sewanee Writers's Series is a gritty debut novel in the tradition of Tom McGuane and Pete Dexter that chronicles a young man's retreat into the darkly glamorous world of the circus.


Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Is the traveling circus a microcosm of the extreme in the "real" world or a subculture that attracts escapists of too many roadblocks on the way to the American Dream? Schmitt introduces us to a variety of characters who seem to reflect both views. The narrator Gary has drifted aimlessly from job to job and wanders off one night after he and a friend wind up with their car in a ditch. Ostensibly leaving to get help, Gary instead signs on with a nearby circus as a "bullhand," polite shorthand for one who scoops up after the elephants. Gary's gritty narration reads like nonfiction in that the reader has a sense of being in the sometimes dark, sometimes funny, and always peculiar world of the circus. Interspersed in Gary's own tale are wonderful vignettes of the colorful characters who make the circus world so mysterious to outsiders. These characters all form a backdrop for Gary's transformation from bullhand to wardrobe head to wire walker. The real story is not the spectacle of the circus itself but the life and drama behind the scenes. --Marlene Chamberlain


Publisher's Weekly Review

A high-wire act in more ways than one, this exhilarating novel by first-timer Schmitt tells the story of a restless young drifter who joins the circus and falls under its tarnished spell. Starting out as an elephant wrangler at the circus's Florida winter quarters, Gary Ruden drifts into other jobs: "butcher" (concessionaire), trainman ("water in... crap out"), wardrobe boy. Like some of the other hands, he is attracted to the idea of becoming a performer. Eventually he begins to practice seriously on a makeshift high wire. Gary's first-person narrative meanders like a circus train, with stops for various sideshows: excerpts from a diary written by a woman who cooks for the performers, the point of view of a circus midget, and even a glimpse into the mind of Gary's dog. As observed from all these perspectives, the world of the circus is brutal, often obscene and yet strangely romantic. Gary himself flexes several different voices: his initial flat, down-and-out, tough-guy tone; a comic deadpan; and even a lyrical one, at first a whisper. That voice becomes increasingly dominant as it gradually becomes clear that on his circus sojourn Gary is developing not just a craft but an identity. Grittily authentic in its details (Rick Wallenda of the Flying Wallendas is cited in the acknowledgments), Schmitt's debut is a beautifully polished tale. Published under the auspices of the Sewanee Writers' Series, it has all the hallmarks of a potential word-of-mouth success. If it catches on, it should go a long way toward launching Schmitt into the circle of other blue-collar champions with velvet touches, like Anne Tyler and Russell Banks. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Library Journal Review

Gary, a hapless high school dropout and runaway, gets a job, almost by accident, as a laborer with a traveling circus. He is quickly seduced by the security of repeated ritual and the closed system that is circus life. He eventually teaches himself to walk the high wire and becomes a performer. At the pinnacle of his career, while still in his twenties, Gary does an act too difficult for the audience to comprehend. The book is suffused with the minutiae of circus life almost to the point where the details of Gary's wirewalking are perhaps rendered too vividly for those of us with acrophobia. This is a tale of love and loss, of persistence, and of the value of learning what one really wants in life. For all large fiction collections.DJudith Kicinski. Sarah Lawrence Coll. Lib., Bronxville, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter One Twenty-Four-Hour Man Running contrary, crosscut to the grain of regular habits: your evening news, your family dinner, retiring at a decent hour. Running at night when regular people are tucked away, stoplights blinking yellow, streets shining wetblack from streetlights and sweepers, the Twenty-four-hour Man staples red cardboard arrows to telephone poles. He uses a stepladder and a staple gun to set the arrows just out of reach of school-bus-waiting kids, weekend yard-sale people, religious nuts with paper proclamations; he sets them at precise angles which speak the subtle tongue of his people. He is the one who points the way.     Local cops crawl by in their patrol cars. The cackle of their scanners carries for six 3-A.M. blocks. Suspect is a heavyset man near the railway station. He has papers to prove his intentions. The papers of a person of cross-purposes. He carries documents from sponsors, the chamber of commerce, the city commissioner, maybe the mayor himself. The cops eyeball his staple gun, heavy duty, ten- or twelve-gauge staples. They consider crowd control, overtime pay, elephants running amok.     On the car seat with the arrows and the stapler and a role of duct tape for metal poles, the Twenty-four-hour Man has some old French fries and a two-liter jug of Coke. He has posters, rolls of tickets, bags of yellow rope-off ribbon, and a piece of foam rubber to sleep on at rest stops. He has more than a hundred city maps in the back of his Ford Country Squire. He is a nobleman of the road. An attendant of the country. An unlanded gentleman of logistics. He makes strange places familiar to his people who follow him. Not that they are of the same purpose; they are not. He has no peer in the town, and none on the road.     Some early-bird followers catch him; they cross paths by chance, some clowns driving overland. They pass him, faces pressed to the windshield, watching for the next arrow while he's still on the one that's gotten them this far. Fools! Wormhunters, gunjumpers, budnippers. Flying in advance of the advance man. Why don't they sleep at night? He watches them pass, then come driving back the other way, lost. Now they see him, the only car on the road. Soft springs in the back. Alabama tag scraping the asphalt. A car seasoned by miles of concave road; edges rounded by each rut and turn; each gear-grinding uphill crawl, each screeched-to-a-stop close call, and thousands of hard-swerve cranks of the wheel, stomps on the gas, jams on the brake pedal, have produced sophisticated shaping refinements no assembly-line designer could have foreseen. A car with faded stick-on wood paneling, a roof rack with two spare tires, remnants of a tarp shredded by wind, and some boxes tied up with string. The clowns see him and say, Who is that guy? They know he's not from the town, but they haven't seen him before. He goes on, driving to the place where he will put the next arrow.     In some towns he has used the same poles for years, guiding old-timer and first-of-May alike over the road to the lot so they won't need a map or have to stop and talk to townies. If he moves too fast, something might happen to the arrows, his people will be lost, and he'll catch hell from the home office. They couldn't find the lot in Saginaw: a rival show put posters over them. Arrows blew down in Chicago. Poughkeepsie passed an ordinance against signs on telephone poles. If he finds himself too far ahead he slows down, takes a motel one night, drops coins in the Magic-Fingers bed, watches a movie on TV.     You never see this man stuck in traffic. Sometimes he watches from the highway when his work is done. You see him by the side of the road. The baggy-clothes guy leaning against his car without the hood up, his hands in his pockets, or smoking a cigarette, with all the time in the world, all the world in his head. He works for you too, you town people, you regular folks. You don't want his followers lost in your town. But he has no arrows for you. You follow your own direction and he depends on that. He knows when your main arteries will be clogged, when you will be choked on fumes rushing to your job, when you have retired home for your evening news, your family dinner, expiring at a decent hour. Why you do these things he cannot recall. It does not matter to him. He knows the next town; he knows who his people are, and where he will lead them. Leaving Venice, Florida Dave and me sat in Betty's Elephant Car Cafe a couple years after quitting high school in '69, couple months after Dave left New England, couple of weeks after I'd hitched down in the dead of winter. We sat at the counter on chrome stools covered with cracked red vinyl. We weren't talking much because it was early and the night before Dave told me he was sick. Said he'd been to a doctor in Sarasota. They wanted to cut him open. To look around, they said. Nothing serious. But it sounded serious the way he said it. He wanted me to go with him to the hospital, because we were friends, because he had no one else, because he was scared. He didn't say all that, but I knew.     "Dave," I said, "I'm no good at hospitals."     Behind the counter Betty, a retired circus trouper, now waitress and cook, fixed us a pair of Ring Two Specials--poached eggs on toast with grits or homefries for $1.45. Dave hadn't said anything about being sick on the phone. Said he had a car-cleaning business in Venice, Florida. I was doing nothing but freezing in New England; working at shit jobs, switching roommates every month. Dave said I'd be a full partner. I pictured palm trees, girls in bikinis, large drinks with flowers in them. Turned out car cleaning wasn't big business, and Venice was a bus stop, but I didn't hold it against Dave since we were old friends.     The bell over the door sounded and two guys walked in. One tall with a handlebar mustache, the other tiny, thin skin over sharp bones. They took stools at the counter. Big guy ordered a Center Ring Scramble--three eggs with onions and black olives mixed up in an iron skillet for $1.65. The rat-faced guy had water. Big guy told Betty he was looking for a car wash. She glanced at Dave.     "That your van?" the guy said to us.     I spun my stool to face the plate-glass window. Parked next to Dave's van with the plastic magnetized sign on the side--Dave's Auto Detailing--was a white Buick Riviera. Big guy said his dog had been hit by a car; died on the way to the vet. He needed to have bloodstains removed from the interior.     "Is it a white interior?" Dave asked.     "It was white," big guy said.     Dave went outside with the big guy while I sat sipping coffee and eyeballing the rat-faced guy. He continuously flicked his thumb against the filter of his cigarette and glared at me. I thought I'd seen him the night before, climbing out of a dumpster behind the Showfolks Lounge. There were only three bars in town, and Dave and me were kicked out of two of them. Only place we could go was the Showfolks. None of the places had large drinks with flowers in them.     When Dave and the big guy came back, Dave was holding two one-hundred-dollar bills. Big guy said he'd drive the Riviera down to the shop; we could keep it overnight as long as we parked it inside. They left without eating and that was the last I saw of them.     On the way to the shop we were in high spirits holding over a month's rent on a single job so we stopped at Jax Liquors to restock the beer cooler and bought a quart of Canadian Mist. Dave said the carpet looked like burnt toast. "Had to be a big dog to produce that kind of crust," he shouted over a Bob Dylan tape. Dave's van had an eight track and four big house speakers. "Had to be a big gutted dog." We howled How does it feel ... down to Dave's shop, which was an end unit in a strip of garages, an open space with water for $150 a month: cement floor, rolldown door, slab of tarmac out front. It was a neighborhood of transmission joints, self-storage areas, welding shops, places vacated by people after dark. Except us. Dave pulled his van inside at night and slept in it. I had a sleeping bag and the benchseat of a Chevy pickup. We were only a block from the police station so we pulled the door down after dark and kept quiet, or walked to the Showfolks, or drove out of there in the van, which we didn't like to do because coming and going after hours attracted attention. Dave was sure we'd be taken for burglars. Dave was also sure the landlord did not intend that the units be used as homes.     The Riviera was parked in the sun outside the shop. Blood caked on the floor in smooth cracked wafers like a dried-up mud flat. "Must have been a huge dog," Dave said. He unbolted the leather seats front and back, then pulled the carpet out. The steel floor was wet with blood. I wanted to run the hose inside the car but there was no way to drain it so I took off my sneakers and shirt and squatted inside the shell and squeegeed the muck from side to side with a dustpan. When I had a panful I scooped it up and tossed it out the door. Dave sprayed the carpet and seats with bleach, scrubbed with a long-handled brush, hosed a pink river down the driveway. I sloshed rinse water around inside the car and sucked it up with the wet-and-dry vacuum. We took regular cigarette breaks, sitting in our wet shorts on plastic lawn chairs with the cooler between us, listening to Dylan, chasing beer with sips from the whiskey bottle. By late afternoon the floor was clean and the carpet dried on a line strung across one side of the garage.     "Dave," I said, "there is no dog that big."     We sat watching our neighbors pull down their doors and drive off. They had homes to go to. Regular middle-class houses with lawn around them and carpet in the living room, homes like we'd grown up in, like I'd run away from. Closing time at the shop was hard because we had no place to go. We could head for the bar or pretend to be working late. The sun was low in the sky when we got it into our heads that it would be a great idea to drive the Riviera down to the beach. "What the hell," Dave said, "we got chairs." So we set the cooler in the car between the lawn chairs and Dave rolled two huge joints, locked the van inside the shop, took his box of tapes, and backed the Riviera down the driveway. Dave drove pretty well but had to take the corners real slow otherwise the chairs shifted around. He had the wheel to hang onto but I fell over twice before turning my chair sideways and locking onto the door with my elbows out the window.     We drove down Main Street past the police station and the Showfolks Lounge with music blasting through the Riviera's speakers and on out of town where there were no cars. We drove over the intracoastal waterway bridge and took a dirt road through the scrub pines and palmetto bushes by the circus winterquarters to a stretch of pristine shoreline. In the mid-eighties, after Venice had grown, the place became a notorious nude beach with cops dragging naked women over the sand and men without a stitch on waving their arms and yelling. But when Dave and I drove between the dunes of sugarsand and sawgrass, down to the water, it was wild and unknown.     We sat on the hood with our backs to the windshield in the best part of the Florida day with the sun spreading out into the gulf and the sky in the west gone the color of pink champagne. Low waves smacked the sand over Dylan singing How does it feel into the breeze that kept the mosquitoes moving and the joint burning even when we forgot about it and held it too long between our fingers. And lions were roaring. It must have been feeding time at the winterquarters. Lions or something like lions huffed loudly over to be without a home , and we were stoned enough to wonder what they wanted. Did they roar for horse hocks or rib cages? Or did they eat some kind of Purina Lion Chow? Dave said a large part of his small intestines might have to be cut out. "What do they do with that stuff?" he wanted to know. "What do hospitals do with people's parts?"     "Dave," I said, "hospitals make me sick." But he wouldn't stop talking about his small intestines and with those damn lions roaring a complete unknown all I could think about was catgut. Catgut wooden tennis rackets Dave and me used when we were kids. My dad had them in the basement. They must have been made in the 40s, catgut strings and warped wooden frames. Dave and me used them in the road between our houses with no direction home until the catgut fell loose and broken and the shellac on the frames dried and flaked away like old skin. Dave said chemo made your hair fall out. Said he'd never have kids. Like a rolling stone .     We stayed on the beach sitting and not talking much until dark, until there was an inch of backwash left in the whiskey bottle that neither of us intended to drink but would not throw away. We'd smoked both joints but still had beer, which we used to try to get normal enough to drive back to the shop. We drove between the dunes with the lights off following the moonlit road. The lions were quiet. I imagined them gnawing on wormy bones and decided right then, old friends or not, I wasn't going to any damn hospital.     We saw the winterquarters lit up like a small city a mile or so across a war zone of palmetto bushes. Reaching the main road Dave switched on the headlights and turned the car toward town. I had my chair facing the door with my arms and head out the window so I didn't see what happened, but somehow Dave lost control of his lawnchair and crashed to the floor. He held onto the wheel with one hand. The car turned sideways to the road, fishtailed hard, and the two of us, with chairs and cooler, clattered backward. When the rear wheels hit the sandy ditch the car stalled out and came to a halt buried to the frame. The rear wheels were stuck in the ditch with the front wheels on the pavement. We crawled uphill toward the door, stashed the beer in the bushes, and walked around the car for a long time, shaking our heads, saying, if only we had front-wheel drive or a couple of stout boards and some rocks and a place to stand or a tractor with nine guys and a rope. We were miles from town and nobody drove this road unless they were going to the winterquarters. There was nothing except the drawbridge, the dark pines, the low palmettos. No houses, no sounds, and no lights, except across an expanse of low scrubland, the circus gleaming in the dark like a planet.     "What we need is an elephant," I said.     "Hey!" Dave said. "We can walk over there. They've got stuff to pull us out."     "Elephants?"     "Someone should stay here," he said.     "You stay here, I'll go."     "I don't even have a license," he said. "What if a cop comes?"     "You're the proprietor of a business, Dave. Say someone stole the car and you walked here and found it." He held his head and walked around in the road. I wanted to bed down in the ditch and sleep, but I knew he'd start walking if I didn't, and I saw for the first time a change roll over his body. Blood took leave of his face and he gripped his midsection with both arms as if to wring pain from his body like a sponge. It was at least a mile to the winterquarters. "Dave," I said, "I'll walk over there."     I began walking up the middle of the road. The bridge was a hump with a glass booth. A telephone. I thought about breaking the glass. Who would I call? The police? A tow truck? The hospital? I'd say a man in need of surgery was stranded on the winterquarters road, then hide in the woods and watch them carry Dave away. Again I felt the urge to hide under a palmetto bush and sleep. But I went on up the middle of the road, looking back at the white car halfway across one lane, front wheels on the pavement, back end buried to the frame. It was too dark to see Dave.     Past the bridge I left the road and walked on a swath of trampled sand that ran through the palmettos. I walked slowly, watching for snakes in the harsh light streaking from the winterquarters. I came to a dirt parking lot next to a building that looked like an aircraft hangar. Behind the building was an open area the size of a football field surrounded by a chainlink fence topped with three strands of barbed wire. Low buildings, animal stalls, and aluminum trailers backed up to the fence. Farthest from the main building were two large green tents. People moved about on foot and drove strange blue vehicles pulling brightly painted wagons. I heard voices. Next to the main building was a guardhouse and gate. A short stocky figure in a guard's hat dragged one leg behind him as he paced in the road under a vapor lamp attached to a telephone pole. Later I learned this was Backdoor Jack, and had I approached him that night, things would not have worked out.     I moved away from the guardhouse, keeping to the shadows, until I came to a break in the fence behind one of the green tents. A man in coveralls rolled a wheelbarrow of steaming cannonballs across a makeshift bridge, planks over vile liquid, to a manure pile. I was no expert on crap, and, not thinking clearly, I suspected whatever let loose crap of those proportions had to be big. I suspected elephants.     I slipped through the gap in the fence and followed the wheelbarrow man along hardpacked dirt between tents. They were old damp-smelling canvas tents surrounded by trenches of seeping juice the color and consistency of used motor oil. Around front I mixed with busy people. No one challenged me. An old guy sat on an overturned bucket. I sidled up to him. He held a Coke can with both hands.     "Lookin' to get on?" he said.     "Maybe."     "Hilmer's the man."     "He around?"     "Somewhere." He took a sip off the Coke can. This didn't seem like the guy I needed to help me get the car off the road, so I moved inside the tent flap.     Elephants. Massive. Silent, active, and close. They were chained side by side, swinging their trunks and whipping their clublike tails, rocking their heads back and forth, lifting one foot then the other, repeating each step in turn like some demented dance. I saw their eyes on me, acute, not missing a beat of their dance. Then there was a compact man wearing tight bluejeans and knee-high turquoise boots, no shirt, and teeth like Chiclets. Chiclets chewing gum right out of the box. He had bleached blond hair over his shoulders and he said, "Ja? Ja? What do you want?" He looked like a picture torn from a glossy magazine and tossed to the gutter. All I could think of was George Armstrong Custer.     "The guy out front," I said, "he said I might get on."     "You been on bulls?"     "Bulls?"     "We're loading out," he said, "tell Martin to set you up." He was gone before I had a chance to say I knew Elephant Car Betty.     I cut back through the tent flap to the bucket-sitting guy with the Coke can.     "You Martin?"     "You get on?"     "I guess so."     "Been on bulls?"     I didn't answer. It took me three days to figure out for sure that elephants were called bulls.     "Got a hook?" he said.     "Hook?"     "How 'bout a smoke?"     "I got nothing," I said. The guy leaned so far forward I thought he would fall on his face, then hocked a blood red gob of spit between a pair of cracked wingtips with curled toes. He tilted the bucket to one side, reached underneath and brought out a bottle of Everclear, unscrewed the cap, and tipped the bottle to the Coke can. He put the bottle back and slowly stood, flatfooted and swaying, like he was riding a subway. When he had his bearings, he turned and ambled off toward one of the aluminum buildings, waving me after him with his Coke can.     The building was crowded with men and women packing stuff into boxes and bags, leather stuff, nylon, canvas, and rubber stuff, with brass rings and silver chains, steel buckles and studded straps. Elephant stuff. Martin rummaged for a club and handed it over. "Yours while you're here," he said. "You leave, you leave it." It was a sledgehammer handle wrapped in black electrical tape. Embedded in one end was a vicious looking steel hook, a bullhook.     It might have been the bullhook that really altered things. I hadn't forgotten Dave, but for the moment I felt swept along, as if my plans had died when I slipped through that fence. I never had a plan anyway, never had a plan in my life that wasn't born out of necessity or desperation. I felt as though I'd fallen into a fast moving river. I was buoyed up, carried off. A strange collaboration of circumstances had given me a part. Playing it seemed the only thing to do.     Outside, I wandered around carrying the bullhook, trying to look on-duty, expecting someone to tell me what to do. No one did. I rolled bulltubs to wagons. When the wagons were full and the doors clamped shut, someone roared up in one of those blue vehicles, "unimugs" Martin called them. They had large steel pinhole hitches on both ends, two steering wheels and a revolving driver's seat. Their sole function was to push or pull. Dave would be impressed if I showed up with one of these things. I held the tongues of the wagons for the drivers to back into and tried to catch their attention, but they backed up fast, dropped the pin into the hole without leaving their seats. One driver nodded, so I stepped up to his steering wheel and said, "I have a problem." He drove off fast.     The center of activity was the brightly lit building across the lot. Two sliding doors big enough to roll planes through were open, and inside a jungle of ropes and cables hung from the ceiling and gray canvas bags cluttered the arena floor. People lifted, carried, pointed, and pulled. Shouts rose and died. Steel poles clanged and clattered as men grimed with sweat slid them into wagons and slammed the doors. The wagons were immediately taken up by unimugs and towed around the corner and out the gate where Backdoor Jack stood. I watched from under the seats and tried to think straight. I decided Dave should come here. We'd work on bulls and to hell with that white car. But Dave had baggage. His van, his wet-and-dry, a hospital appointment, something growing in his gut. People hustled about eyeballing me standing under the seats with a bullhook so I went back to the elephant tent. It was close to midnight. The only person sitting was the old Coke-can guy, Martin, so I slid up to him and tried to get information. "What time do we knock off?" He stared at me through eyeslits like pencil lines and took a hit off his Coke can.     The blond guy, Hilmer, grabbed my arm. "You come here." He dragged me behind him into the tent. "Next town you see Huffy," he said. "Huffy in the pie car. Tell him you're on bulls." He took my bullhook, handed me a pitchfork, and I spent the rest of the night scraping soiled straw from beneath elephants. I watched and copied the other guys. You timed your work to the elephant's dance, dodging swinging tails and trunks. When the left front leg came up you grabbed a sodden forkful and backed off, then the right rear, the right front, and so on. They seemed okay with me, but their eyes left no doubt: they knew I had no idea what a bull was.     Before we finished, Hilmer came in yelling. Everyone put up the forks and began unchaining feet. The chains were shackled on a rear leg and each shackle had a pin that had to be unscrewed. This happened fast with a lot of loud jabbering by Hilmer. Within minutes the bulls moved out of the tent. Each delicate trunk took the tail of the one preceding it. They moved with strong snorts of breath on round padded feet and lined up facing an identical group from the adjoining tent. The men stood between them. Even Martin was on his feet, bullhook in one hand, Coke can in the other. I mimicked the other guys, trying hard not to do anything stupid in the proximity of forty loose elephants and a dozen men with clubs.     I wondered where we were going, but it didn't occur to me until later, after I'd seen the train, that all of us--elephants and their stuff, unimugs and wagons, worlds of people, animals and things that I had no notion of but had somehow become caught up in--were leaving Venice, Florida.     Hilmer hollered and both lines of elephants moved at once. I moved as the guys near me moved. We walked at the left hind leg. We carried our clubs prominent. The beasts were not to break the trunktail hookup, that was gospel; if one let go of the tail our job was to hook the inside back leg and say, Tail! If the tail wasn't picked up immediately, the role of the bullhand was to take a full roundhouse swing with the club and bury the hook in the leg. This took something more of an adjustment than I'd been able to muster that night, but luckily the beasts were compliant, they knew their role, fell readily into it, and did not test mine.     The impetus of the movement, the focal point, was Hilmer. Each man and beast watched Hilmer and he watched everyone. He moved along the line and spoke in a way I could not at first understand, spoke in what I thought was a foreign tongue, but once we'd gone through the gate, past Backdoor Jack, and out onto the same sandy path I'd taken across the palmetto field, I heard what he was saying were the names of the elephants. He wasn't talking to us but to them. Moving slightly faster than the herd, he cooed the name of each beast. They had regular girl names: Ellen, Jenny, Cindy. He said their names slowly and affectionately and he looked each one in the eye as if they had his personal assurance that everything was under control, that they would be fine, that there was nothing to worry about. That reassured me too. I saw that in this world bull and bullhand were not that different, both had a place, both were taken care of. I nurtured a state of helplessness about Dave, pushing guilt behind fantasy, and felt better the more confusing things became. The world had shifted and I was caught in the afterwind. I went with it because it was the easiest thing to do, because it was what I always did.     The eastern sky had gone peach over the black horizon. At the rate we moved we'd pass the car in broad daylight. I could bail out of line. I knew that. I could simply stop walking, hand my bullhook to Martin as he went by, and everything would be the same as the night before. Nothing would stop the line, that much was clear. If I fell down dead they'd walk on over me. But nothing else was clear to me. I didn't want to stop. I wanted to walk to Africa. I wanted to be a bullhand whatever that meant, not on a whim but because it called out to me. A voice I didn't know, yet recognized, said go this way. And I went because I didn't want to clean bloody car floors, sleep in garages, or wait in hospitals for my friend to keel over and not get up. The problem was not the car, or even Dave. But rather, could I abandon a dying man? I felt like I could. In fact a dying man felt like the best kind to abandon. Dave would understand that. Only a captain goes down with the ship, and clearly I was no captain.     We made it onto the road as the sun broke over the treeline and the inland waterway began to steam. From the drawbridge I saw the car. The herd padded silently in pairs straight down the double yellow. As we got close to the car I hunkered tight against my elephant's leg, moving with her, and as we passed I peeked back under the tail and saw Dave's face in one of the windows, his eyes wide as binocular lenses. He never saw me.     Shortly after, we turned onto a dirt road and came upon a white train parked in the woods. Brilliant white. Freshly painted white. With large red and blue letters on the sides. It sat there waiting for us. For me. I was stunned. Never in my life would I have considered the idea that there was a white train in the world. Copyright © 2000 Richard Schmitt. All rights reserved.