The Short Stories
of Glen Chesnut
These stories are taken from life experiences but turned into something universal.
APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX
I was suffering from a terrible hangover and didn’t feel up to doing much of anything. So I figured this would be a good time to go to a movie. I’d wanted to see Apocalypse Now Redux, playing at the Metreon, a downtown cineplex with about 15 theaters. I checked the time in what I thought was the morning paper—11 o’clock.
I got there early, bought a big bag of popcorn and a medium diet Coke. I entered theater 13 and looked around. I was the only one there.
The theater was built on a steep incline, so it was like climbing a mountain to reach a seat I liked in the rear of the theater. It was quiet, and I began munching on my popcorn, one corn at a time; I wanted to save some for the movie.
As the time neared for the movie to start, I noticed I was still the only one in the theater. This movie isn’t doing so well, I thought. I munched on my popcorn, sucked up a little diet Coke, and waited.
I let my thoughts wander as I looked down at that huge white screen. My seat was so comfortable and the quiet so relaxing, I laid my head back and closed my eyes. I don’t remember doing it, but I fell asleep almost immediately.
Suddenly, I was sitting on the side of a steep mountain, and the world before me was a giant movie screen. As I gazed across the panorama, I saw a lone tank rattling across the desert, kicking up a dust cloud.
I watched the tank move toward me until I was looking at it up close. The tank came to a clanking stop, and as the dust settled, the turret door opened. I watched a woman, naked to the waist, slowly rise out of the tank. Her breasts hung down almost to her navel. Then I recognized the woman. It was Miss Partlow, my high school math teacher! Trust me when I tell you it was a hideous sight.
She looked right at me, fondled one of her breasts, and said, “All equations will be solved before you leave the mountainside.”
As was so often the case in her class, I didn’t know what she was talking about. In a panic, I thought, or maybe said, “What equations?” She just looked at me and caressed her other breast.
Just when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, John Wayne, as Genghis Khan, appeared on screen, leading his Mongol horde. The Duke raised his arm, and they all came to a halt. He sat on his horse, looking at Miss Partlow, who was now fondling both breasts. “Genghis, what kind of mischief are you up to today?” asked Miss Partlow. “And did you do your homework?”
Then the Duke stood up on his stirrups, raised his arm, and said, “We can’t win this one, men. Let’s head back to camp.” And I watched them ride out of sight.
I looked at Miss Partlow, and she smiled at me. Then she began climbing out of the tank. That was more than I could take, and I awakened with a start, almost overturning my popcorn. I opened my eyes and, for a moment, wasn’t sure where I was. Then I remembered. As I looked around, I saw I was still the only one in the theater. I thought, oh my God, I slept through the whole movie! I looked at my watch; it was only 11:20. I knew something wasn’t right. I picked up my popcorn and diet Coke and carefully climbed down from my seat and left the theater.
I marched down the long corridor to the ticket taker and asked him what time Apocalypse Now Redux starts. He looked at the schedule and said, “1 o’clock.”
And I said, “I thought it was supposed to start at 11.”
He said, “That’s the weekend schedule.”
Well, I had other things to do. I couldn’t wait till 1 o’clock. I threw what was left of my popcorn and diet Coke in the trash and left.
But, what the hell, it wasn’t a total loss. I got to see Miss Partlow, as frightening as she was, turn back the Duke and put Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes in retreat.
BRUSH ARBOR REVIVAL
By a narrow dirt road winding through the woods in the Ozark Mountains, the Holy Roller preacher and his flock built an arbor of brush—an open-sided shelter with leafy, black oak branches for a roof.
They made hand-printed posters, tacking them up in the school, general store, and gas station. They even tacked posters on telephone poles and highly visible tree trunks. The poster read:
BRUSH ARBOR REVIVAL
OX CART LANE ON TINKERS HILL
On Saturday night, with little else to do, a few of us boys rode our horses up Ox Cart Lane to Tinkers Hill to watch Reverend Osgood strut his stuff. It was dark when we got there, and the arbor was aglow from the Coleman lanterns hanging from the poles. The seats on the makeshift benches under the arbor were filled.
We tied our horses to some trees, waited in the shadows, smoked cigarettes, and listened to the singing of hymns: “Nearer My God to Thee” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
Reverend Osgood delivered a prayer, calling for “the spirit of the Lord to be with us tonight.” Then another hymn: “There Is Power in the Blood.”
Reverend Osgood’s sermon started slowly. He spoke in almost conversational tones. With a Bible in his hands, he spoke of the glorious hereafter awaiting all those who are saved—united forever with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Shifting gears and warming up, Reverend Osgood began telling the other side of the story—all the unspeakable horrors awaiting those who have not come to Jesus. Reverend Osgood slapped his hand on his bible. His left foot jerked up like a reflex; then, he stamped the earth. “Only Jesus! Only Jesus! Only if you come to Jesus, will you be saved!” Reverend Osgood jumped and spun around as graceful as a ballerina. And with outstretched arms, he said, “Come! Come! Come to the loving arms of Jesus!”
Now the congregation started getting to their feet. “Praise the Lord, hallelujah!”
Reverend Osgood called for sinners to come forward. Three young women and the local handyman fell to their knees before the Reverend. In front of each sinner, Reverend Osgood did a quick little dancing shuffle. “Do you accept the Lord Jesus as your Savior?” Then he touched each sinner on the head, and each, in turn, went down like a domino, the woman’s dress sliding high on her thigh. Now, this is what us boys had come to see.
Reverend Osgood was in ecstasy as he danced before the prostrate sinners. Then, as the Reverend was thanking the Lord for the gift of the Holy Ghost, the Coleman lantern behind the Reverend hissed and sputtered. The flames shot up into the arbor’s dry leaves, and in seconds, the arbor roof was in flames.
Reverend Osgood ran through the congregation, crying, “This is the fire of the Holy Ghost!” He ran with his Bible in his uplifted hand. He parted the people like Moses parting the Red Sea, and two human waves rushed from under the arbor.
Spooked by the flames, our horses stamped and whinnied and tried to break free.
Reverend Osgood began circling the burning arbor, and the congregation fell in behind him. They were all doing their version of the Osgood boogie.
“Oh, the Holy Ghost is hot tonight! The Holy Ghost is hot tonight! Praise the Lord!” shouted the Reverend.
And the congregation shouted, “Praise the Lord!”
Round and round the burning roof they went. All this madness was too much for our horses, and it was all we could do to hold them in check. But hold them we did. We weren’t about to leave. For it wasn’t often we saw a show like this.
We watched the Reverend and his flock circle the flames till nothing remained but smoking ashes and a few flickering flames on supporting poles like lonely, dying torches.
The fire was out, the show was over, and it was getting late. We mounted our horses, and as we were leaving, I heard the Reverend say, “Let us pray.”
I didn’t know it then, but what we watched that night was like a reenactment of some ancient, long-forgotten, pagan rite. Reverend Osgood began his service, worshipping Jesus and ended it worshipping fire.
It was the summer of ’55. My father gave up the good pay and security of a civil service job at the Air Force Base near Victorville, California, and moved the family to Tehachapi. He landed a job as a cattle foreman on a ranch about ten miles from town, out near Cummings valley. The pay was low, and the hours were long, but he was on a horse, and that’s what made him happy.
I was just a few months shy of seventeen that summer, and, like my father, all I wanted to do was spend my days on a horse. I found a job riding for the Crofton outfit, a big ranch at the foot of Bear Mountain. Their headquarters were just off the highway going to Bakersfield, near the small village of Keane.
I worked there all summer, and I had never been happier. They paid me 150 dollars a month, but I would’ve done it for nothing. I was in love with the idea of being a cowboy, the cowboy paraphernalia: the hat, the boots, the spurs, the chaps, the saddle, the ropes, and, of course, the horses and the cows. I liked the smells: the smell of a sweaty horse, the smell of hay, and even the smell of barnyard manure.
When summer ended, and it was time for me to go back to school, I told my father I wasn’t going. We argued, but I was adamant. I told him I’d found what I wanted to do, and school didn’t play any part in it. Even my boss told me I ought to go back to school, but I thought, hell, this is the smartest thing I’ve ever done. Finally, my father said, “OK, Melvin, go ahead and be a damn fool!”
Melvin, that’s my name. I hate it. Everyone calls me Mel, except my father. Even my mother calls me Mel unless she’s mad at me.
When the weather turned cold, and grass was in short supply, I was assigned the job of feeding cattle. Every day I made about a fifteen-mile circle of various pastures, putting out just enough hay and cottonseed meal to get the cattle through the winter.
I was making my round one morning in late November, riding on the old road over the Tehachapi Pass. It’s the same road the Joad family of Grapes Of Wrath took to the San Joaquin Valley. Now the road wasn’t much more than a trail. It was maybe nine in the morning; the sun was bright, but the air was cold. Frost still covered the ground.
I came to a bend in the road where I always stopped to smoke and take in the view: the rolling hills all the way to San Joaquin, and the dropping canyon all the way to Caliente.
As I sat there on my horse, smoking, I heard the sound of ripping metal and tearing brush. Then I saw it through the dust. A car had gone off the new highway a short distance below me and rolled down the canyon.
I tied my horse to a bush and bounced and slid to the highway below, my chaps flapping and sparks flying as my spurs hit the rocks. When I reached the road, I saw what had happened—the car skidded out of control on the icy blacktop.
I crossed the highway and looked over the edge. I saw four or five bodies scattered over the mountainside.
I knew I had to get help, so I waited for the first car that passed, flagged them down, and had them call an ambulance from the station two miles up the road.
Then I slipped and stumbled to the bodies below, checking to see who was still alive: two young boys crying in pain, an elderly woman still breathing, a teenage girl moaning, a middle-age man lifeless, and the bloody body of another woman in the battered car, wrapped around a tree.
I went to the teenage girl, who was in danger of rolling down the mountain. Her dress was up around her waist, exposing her legs and panties. There was a deep, ugly cut on her thigh, up near her groin, and she was covered with dirt. Her hair was matted with dirt and leaves and small pieces of brush. Her right arm covered her face. I pulled her dress down over her thighs and kept telling her she would be OK as we waited for the ambulance.
When the ambulance finally arrived, I helped carry the injured and the dead up the mountainside. Then I climbed back up to my horse and finished feeding the cattle. It was way after dark when I got back to the ranch.
The images of that wreck haunted me for weeks. I replayed the scene over and over—all those bodies lying helter-skelter on that mountainside. And the dead—I had never seen a dead person before, not even at a funeral. I woke up some nights in a cold sweat, then couldn’t get back to sleep. I just lay there replaying that wreck. And every time I rode by the site of the wreck, I could see the hulk of that old car wrapped around that tree. As far as I know, it’s still there.
But other things were happening in my life at that time—like learning how to drink and have sex. And ranch hands Fred and Pete were my teachers.
Fred was in his late thirties. He’d been married once and had a kid somewhere, but I don’t think he knew where. Fred was a good cowboy, and he was especially good at roping. I learned a lot from him. The only thing, Fred liked his booze a little too much.
Pete was around twenty-five, a good-looking guy who thought of himself as a lover, but I never saw him demonstrate any of his talents. Pete was a good worker, but I think I was the better cowboy.
Fred and Pete took me under their wing, so to speak. They were going to show me how to be a man. And their idea of being a man was every payday buying a fifth of Four Roses and going to the whorehouse. And that’s what we did. Every payday we’d pile into Fred’s ’39 Dodge pickup, stop by the liquor store in Keane, pick up a bottle, and head for the White Castle.
The White Castle was a whorehouse in the desert, a few miles out of Mojave. It was built to look like a medieval castle by an eccentric millionaire from L.A. But there was one big problem: He couldn’t sink a well deep enough to find water. So he abandoned the place.
Then someone got the idea to haul water out there and make a whorehouse out of it. And a fine whorehouse it was—a large reception room with a fireplace big enough to roast a side of beef, lots of bedrooms, and enough scantily dressed whores to satisfy just about any man’s taste.
I got my first piece of ass at the White Castle, and I immediately fell in love. Her name was Terri. Probably not her real name, but that didn’t occur to me then. Terri was a redhead with freckles, and I thought she was beautiful. I couldn’t wait for payday on Saturday to roll around. If Terri was with someone else when I got there, I would wait for her.
Fred and Pete kept telling me to try some of the other ladies. Variety is the spice of life, they would say. But Terri was the only one for me. Terri took a liking to me, too. I think she liked playing the role of teacher; she taught me just about everything I know about sex.
We talked a lot, too. She always gave me extra time, especially if it was a slow night. She told me she had a five-year-old daughter in L.A. and that she only worked at the Castle three days a week: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Her mother took care of her daughter when she was working.
I told her all about my life, too—how I had quit school to work on the ranch. I told her about the accident and how shook-up I was. Terri told me that dropping out of school for a year was not a bad thing, but if I didn’t get back in school the next year, I’d be making a big mistake. She said, “You better get your skinny little ass back in school, or you’re going to end up like your two buddies out there.”
I told her I didn’t see anything wrong with Fred and Pete, and she said, “Oh, bullshit, you know what I mean. They’re stuck where they are. They’ll never go anywhere.”
One freezing cold night in February, we bought our usual bottle of Four Roses and headed for the Castle. When we got there, we knew something was wrong when we didn’t see any lights; it was deserted. The sheriff had raided the place, closed it down.
All we did that night was sit in the pickup and get drunk. We watched cars drive up, turn around and take off. Fred and Pete made fun of me because I was so sad over never seeing Terri again. They said, “Hey, she’s only a whore, for Christ’s sake.” I decided right then I didn’t want to be like Fred and Pete.
On Saturday night, Fred and Pete took off for the whorehouses in Bakersfield. They told me how great they were and tried to get me to go with them, but I wasn’t interested.
For the next five months or so, I didn’t go anywhere except an occasional trip to Cummings Valley to visit my parents.
By the time September rolled around, I had about 500 dollars saved up. I bought a black ’41 Ford coupe for 150 bucks, quit my job at the ranch, moved in with my parents, and went back to school. My father said, “Well, Melvin, you’re finally getting some sense into your head.”
Going back to school wasn’t easy. I made it even harder by taking all the subjects I had avoided in the past. I signed up for second-year algebra, physics, chemistry, English, and world history. With my academic background, it would’ve made more sense to sign up for woodshop and animal husbandry. And it turned out, I bit off more than I could chew. After the first month, I dropped chemistry and took music appreciation.
At school, I was pretty much a loner. I didn’t get involved in any school activities. The few friends I made, like Wayne and Morris, were themselves social outcasts. Wayne was a tall, gawky kid who always wore dirty Levi’s, a scruffy brown leather jacket, and clunky engineer’s boots. I dressed about the same, only I always wore cowboy boots. Morris was a short chunky kid who hated school. He couldn’t wait to graduate and go to work at the local cement plant, just like his father. Morris liked to wear an old black and red mackintosh.
Wayne was something of a mystery. He was one of the smartest kids in school, but you would never know it. He didn’t do anything except get drunk and smoke cigarettes. Wayne was in my physics class; he was a whiz and did the work without ever taking a book home. If it hadn’t been for Wayne, I don’t think I’d have made it through that physics class.
On Friday and Saturday nights, I would pick up Wayne and Morris in my Ford, and we’d get a bottle and drive around, listening to the radio and nipping from the bottle. Wayne and Morris did a lot of complaining that there was nothing to do. I was doing pretty much what I wanted to do—driving around and getting drunk.
Word got around that the White Castle was open again. So on a Friday night, I told the guys we had something special to do, and we headed for the Castle. I was hoping I’d find Terri there.
There were all new girls at the White Castle. I asked about Terri. They had never heard of her. Wayne and Morris borrowed money from me to get a piece of ass. They wouldn’t admit it, but I think it was their first. They couldn’t understand why I didn’t get some too.
They wanted to go to the Castle every week, and I took them back several times because I was hoping Terri would show up. When I realized Terri was history, I told the guys they’d have to find their own way to the Castle. They called me a chicken-shit, and things were a little cool between us for a while.
But something happened right about then which would make a big change in my social life. A girl who sat across from me in music appreciation class started paying attention to me. I noticed she was looking at me a lot. I tried not to let her know that I saw, but once in a while, our eyes would meet, and she would smile. I would smile back. I didn’t think too much about it; I figured she was an indiscriminate flirt.
It was a small class, not more than twenty students, so we all knew one another’s names. Her name was Carmen. One day just before class started, she looked at me, and I looked back at her, and she said, “Mel, who’s your favorite composer?”
I was sort of taken aback. Not by the question, but from the fact that she asked it. I pretended to give the matter some thought, then I said, “Hank Williams.”
She threw her head back and cackled. Everyone in the class turned and looked, including the teacher. I figured she was making fun of me, and I thought, to hell with her.
When class ended, she came up to me and said, “I like Hank Williams, too. I wasn’t laughing at you. It’s just your answer took me by surprise.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I guess I did come off kinda funny… coming up with Hank Williams after we’ve been listening to all that Beethoven, Bach, and stuff.”
We walked on down the hall until she went left and I went right. As I started to go my way, she said, “Oh, Mel, I’m having a party at my house Saturday night. Would you like to come?”
I just stood there with what was no doubt a dumb look on my face. Then the bell rang, and she said, “You can let me know tomorrow.”
I watched her walk down the hall. It was like her fanny was waving at me. I thought, is she interested in me, or is she just being nice?”
Carmen was an unusually attractive girl. She was tall and slender, and her body curved in all the right places. With long brownish-red hair (auburn, I guess), she had green eyes and the smoothest white skin with no pimples. She had a prominent nose, but it fit real good on her face. I went to the party.
I wasn’t sure what to wear. My wardrobe consisted mostly of Levi’s, so I borrowed a pair of my father’s gabardine slacks—they fit perfectly. I wore my dress Tony Lama boots, a suede leather jacket, and my brown cowboy hat. I thought I looked pretty sharp.
On the way to the party, I shored up my courage with a couple of hits from a half-pint of bourbon. When I got there, Carmen opened the door. With a big smile on her face, she said, “Mel, you look great!” Talk about looking great, she was wearing this knock-out green dress that really made her shine. And I told her so.
She brought me in, put my hat away, showed me where the refreshments were, and told me to have fun. Then she went to dance with one of the guys. I had a half-pint in my back pocket, so I mixed a little bourbon with my Coke. Then I made myself inconspicuous and watched the show.
They were dancing to rock and roll—Elvis, Bill Haley and the Comets, with a few slow ones mixed in by the Ink Spots and Frankie Lane. Elvis’ “Blue Suede Shoes” was big that night. I noticed a couple of guys wearing blue suede shoes. I could see they thought they really looked sharp.
Several guys were taking turns dancing with Carmen, including the two wearing the blue suede shoes. She was a good dancer, and she was also something of a show-off and a flirt. She kept looking in my direction. After a while, she came over to me and said, “Mel, why aren’t you dancing?”
I said, “I don’t know how.”
“Well, I’m going to teach you how. Wait right here.” She went to the phonograph, dug through the records, put one on, and said, “Now, come on, Mel, let me show you how easy it is.”
Carmen put on “Your Cheatin’ Heart” by Hank Williams. She pulled me onto the floor, moved up close to me, and said, “Just stand here and hold me and sway back and forth and keep time to the music.” And we did, and I was aware of her whole body pressed against mine. Then she told me to take a step back, then another, then a step forward. It went like that until the record was finished. I didn’t like the dancing part so much, but I was ready to put up with anything to keep holding her close.
She danced the rock and roll stuff with the other guys, but when a slow song came on, she pulled me back onto the floor for more lessons. And that’s how I spent the evening until my half a pint of bourbon was gone and people began to leave.
When I was ready to leave, Carmen got my hat and followed me out onto the front porch. She stood with her body close to mine, and it seemed only natural for me to put my arms around her, which I did. Then we kissed. She startled me with the passion she put into that kiss. With her lips close to my ear, she said, “I like you, Mel.”
And I said, “I like you, too—a lot.”
I drove home in a daze. I was in love. I could hardly wait to get to school on Monday so I could see her again.
Carmen seemed as glad to see me as I was her. We only had one class together, but we made a point to see each other between classes and eat lunch together in the cafeteria. After school, I drove her around in my Ford before dropping her off at her house, where she gave me a quick little kiss.
Right away, we had a routine going. We both felt comfortable being with each other. We didn’t have to talk a lot, just being together was enough. I asked her to go out on Saturday night, and she didn’t hesitate to say yes.
We went to a movie, and after the movie, I mixed some bourbon with our Cokes. We drove around for a while, listening to music and sipping our drinks. Then I parked, and we did some necking, but I didn’t get aggressive. For one thing, I wasn’t too sure of myself, and for another, I didn’t want to spoil things.
Wayne and Morris couldn’t believe what was happening. They wanted to know how I managed to be going steady with one of the prettiest girls in school. I told them I didn’t understand it, either.
A couple of the hotshot guys who had their sights set on Carmen couldn’t figure out how they had been aced-out by me, a guy who came from out of nowhere. To this day, I’m still not sure why Carmen was attracted to me. I do know I felt lucky to have a girl like Carmen—she was so pretty and fun to be with.
We went to all the school dances, and with Carmen as my teacher, I was becoming a pretty smooth dancer. We were invited to all the parties. I never thought it would happen, but Carmen was turning me into one of the school’s socialites.
We did a lot of necking and petting, but I didn’t push it to the limit. In my thinking, girls fell into three categories: good girls, good whores like Terri, and tramps. Carmen was not only a good girl; I had placed her on a pedestal.
But one evening in early February, we had been to a party where we drank a little more than usual. When we left the party, we drove up the old Quarry Road and parked. There was a full moon that night, and the light was so bright you could read by it.
We started kissing, and I was feeling Carmen’s breasts through her blouse. Then she unbuttoned the top buttons and put my hand inside. We were both breathing hard, moaning. Our hormones and the liquor were taking charge. I put my hand under her bra and forced it up and over her breast.
When I ran my hand over her exposed nipple, Carmen gasped. I leaned my head down (or it was like Carmen pushed my head down), and I took her nipple in my mouth. We were both on fire. Carmen was holding my head with her hands, running her fingers through my hair, and making low groaning sounds. I raised my head, and we kissed, and as we kissed, I ran my hand under Carmen’s skirt, all the way to her panties. Carmen groaned, scooted down in the car seat, and opened her legs. I rubbed the outside of her sopping-wet panties. Carmen pulled away from our kiss, and in a voice of desperation, said, “Yes, Mel, yes!”
Her skirt was up around her hips, and with Carmen’s fingers in my hair, I started to lower my head to her thighs. Carmen’s white legs were glowing, almost phosphorescent, in the bright moonlight. Then I saw the red, jagged scar running across her thigh, up near her crotch. I stopped. Immediately Carmen knew something was wrong. “Mel, what is it?”
I sat up in my seat and said, “Carmen, how did you get that scar?” I knew what the answer would be.
Carmen straightened her skirt and slipped her bra back over her breasts, and as she buttoned her blouse, she began to tell me about the accident.
“We were coming up from Bakersfield that morning,” she said, “my uncle and aunt, my grandmother, my two brothers, and I. My uncle lost control of the car, and we skidded off the highway, down the mountainside. I couldn’t remember anything that happened after that until I woke up in the hospital.
“Uncle and grandmother were killed, and my aunt died later in the hospital. My brothers had broken bones, and I had three broken ribs and this cut on my thigh.
“They told me at the hospital that we might have all died if it wasn’t for a cowboy who happened along when the accident happened. He got the ambulance there quickly. They said if it hadn’t been for him, I might have rolled down the mountain, and one of my broken ribs could’ve punctured my lung.”
When she finished telling her story, I lit a cigarette, and we both took a drag. I said, “Carmen, guess what. I was that cowboy.”
She looked at me with a puzzled look on her face and then said, “God, Mel, I can’t believe it. What an incredible coincidence! You may have saved my life.”
We spent the rest of the evening talking about coincidence and how we hadn’t mentioned the accident before. Carmen said she didn’t want to remember it, let alone talk about it. I told her it took me a long time to get over it, so no way did I want to bring it up again.
When I dropped Carmen off at her house, she gave me a quick peck, and she was gone, almost like she was in a hurry to get away.
On the way home, I thought about fate and destiny and how the accident would bring us closer together.
When I saw her at school on Monday, I felt something was bothering her. She was friendly enough, but she seemed distant, somehow, preoccupied. At first, I didn’t say anything. I thought it was just some temporary mood she was in. But after several days of this strange behavior, I said, “Carmen, what in the hell is wrong with you? You’re acting like you don’t want to be around me anymore.”
I could see she didn’t know what to say, or if she did, she didn’t know how to say it. Finally, she said, “Look, Mel, I don’t know… I got a lot of things going on in my head that I’m not sure of…”
“It’s about the other night, isn’t it?”
“Maybe,” she said, “maybe that’s got something to do with it.”
“I went too far, didn’t I?”
“No, that’s not it. Like I said, Mel, I don’t understand how I feel.”
“What are we going to do then?”
I watched her, head down, thinking, then she said, without looking at me, “Maybe it would be better if we don’t see as much of one another for a while.”
And just like that, Carmen and I were no longer going together. We were friendly, we said hi to one another, and I kept looking for some sign she wanted to get back together again, but that never happened.
At school, I kept up a good front, like none of it bothered me, but I was devastated. I didn’t understand what had happened.
So I was back with my two buddies Wayne and Morris. They were happy about that. They had missed cruising around with me on Saturday night and getting high on cheap bourbon. The first thing they wanted to do was go to the White Castle. They heard there were a bunch of new girls there. I said I wasn’t interested. I still had Carmen on my mind. I hadn’t given up on the chance we might get back together.
But then someone told me that they had seen Carmen down in Mojave holding hands with an airman from Edwards Air Force Base. Someone else said they’d seen them in the Frontier Cafe, and it looked like they were having a lot of fun. So the next weekend, when Wayne and Morris hit me up to go to the White Castle, I said, “Shit, yes, let’s go.”
A big homey fire was burning in the fireplace, and several ladies were sitting around on the sofas in the big reception room. It was early, and business was still slow, only a couple of other guys were there.
Wayne and Morris didn’t waste any time; they headed straight for the ladies. I got a Coke and a glass from the bar, sat down in one of the overstuffed chairs, and mixed myself a drink from the half-pint I had in my back pocket. I watched Wayne and Morris go up the stairs with a couple of the ladies.
I was sitting there, sipping my drink, staring into the leaping flames in the fireplace, and thinking things over when I heard someone say, “Mel, it’s you!” I looked around, and Terri was standing there with a big smile on her face.
I leaped out of my chair and gave her a big hug and said, “Terri, I never expected you to ever come back here.”
Terri said, “Yeah, well, a girl’s got to make a living, you know.”
I took Terri by the arm and said, “Come on, Terri, let’s go upstairs.”
Terri said, “I thought you would never ask.”
Up in her room, Terri said, “Come on, Mel, get your clothes off and let’s do it, then we can talk a little after. It’s kind of slow tonight, so nobody will be on my ass.”
Terri didn’t have to tell me twice. It had been so long, I almost forgot what it was like to go all the way with a woman. But Terri did an excellent job of reminding me what I had been missing.
Afterward, Terri mixed us a drink from my half-pint, and we sat up in bed, sipping our drinks. I asked Terri, “What were you doing all the time you were gone from the Castle?”
“I tried going straight,” Terri said. “Can you believe it? I was doing temporary office work. I hated it. And the pay was lousy; I had to dip into my savings to make a go of it. The only good thing was I didn’t have to be away from my daughter. But enough about me. I want to hear about you, Mel. You still a cowboy?”
“Well, I’m still a cowboy, but I’m not working for the ranch anymore. I took your advice and went back to school.”
“Mel, that’s great.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I’m going to graduate in June.”
“And then what are you going to do?”
“I’ve been thinking about going to college.”
“Good for you, Mel. I can’t see you spending your life looking at a cow’s ass.”
I said, “Terri, I’d like your opinion about something.”
“Sure, Mel, what is it?”
“Well,” I said, “I had this girlfriend at school, and something happened that I don’t really understand.” Then I told Terri the whole story about Carmen and me and about her now going out with that airman.
When I finished, Terri said, “Oh, Mel, you poor guy.”
“Yeah, poor guy is right,” I said. “But what do you think happened? Why in the hell did Carmen drop me like she did?
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing that happened, Mel.”
“The hero doesn’t always get the girl.”
“But I’m no hero. I just happened to be there.”
“All heroes just happen to be there,” Terri said.
“Maybe so,” I said, “but that doesn’t tell me much.”
“OK, look,” Terri said, “the way you tell it, she wanted to forget all about that accident, and here you turned out to be a living reminder of it. She couldn’t handle that.”
I took a big sip of my drink, waiting for Terri to tell me more, but just then there was a knock at the door, and a woman’s voice said, “Terri?”
Terri went to the door; there was whispering. She closed the door and said, “Mel, I have to go now. Floyd’s here. He’s a big spender, and we have to keep him happy. I’ll tell you what, can you come back tomorrow, early? I’ll give you one on me, a freebie, and we’ll talk about you and Carmen. Maybe I can throw a little more light on the subject.”
We were hurriedly dressing, and Terri said, “But I can tell you one thing for sure right now, Mel, it all happened for the best. The way I see it, that girl did you a favor by dropping you. Honey, consider yourself lucky.”
When we went downstairs, Wayne and Morris were waiting for me. When we got outside, Morris said, “Boy, it sure takes you a long time.”
“Yeah,” Wayne said, “what were you doing up there anyway. I want to hear all about it.”
Of course, I never told them. And I didn’t tell them about my Sunday date with Terri, either.
The Man Who Caught Cannonballs
1956 wasn’t a great year for carnivals. Still, two carnies, Rosco and his partner, Melanie, were doing better than they had done in the six years they had been together.
“Rosco the Great” was a mediocre magician. His repertoire included a few old standard magic tricks like the Miser’s Dream, the Professor’s Nightmare, and several silk handkerchief tricks. He also performed coin tricks, including picking coins out of midair, the old cups and ball trick, coin through the handkerchief, and the French Drop.
Melanie sold the magic tricks during and after Rosco’s performances. The tricks were prepackaged with instructions for the want-a-be magicians. But Rosco’s main act was to catch a cannonball fired from a cannon; this was his moneymaker, the one people lined up to see.
It was the day before the Bakersfield County Fair opening, and Rosco and Melanie were resting up in their trailer. Rosco was sitting on their old couch drinking beer and smoking a cigarette. He was wearing black pants and a shirt. Rosco always wore black.
His long legs stretched halfway across the trailer. He had taken his shoes off, and there were holes in the big toes of his black socks. As he drank his beer, he ran his fingers through his thick mop of black hair, his cigarette between his lips. A snowy picture flickered from a black and white TV, but Rosco wasn’t paying attention to it.
Melanie was playing solitaire on the little foldaway table. She was attractive, some might say beautiful, in an offbeat sort of way. Melanie had high cheekbones and a prominent nose that seemed right for her face, with dyed blonde hair and large black eyes.
Melanie got up from the table and walked the few steps to the fridge. “I’m having a Coke, Rosco, you want another beer?”
“Sure, Mel, I’m ready.”
For the last six weeks or so, Melanie had been treating Rosco with uncustomary deference. She hadn’t wanted to rile him up while she was trying to figure things out. But Melanie had a sharp tongue. It wasn’t always easy for her to swallow some snide riposte on the tip of her tongue.
It was late one night in Durango, Colorado, when Melanie showed up at Rosco’s carnival concession as he was closing down. She was fifteen. It was a chilly night, and she was cold and hungry and needed a bath.
She had run away from home, run away from a stepfather who beat her and her alcoholic mother, and forced Melanie to have sex with him. She had vowed never to go back, no matter what.
Rosco took her in. He had been looking for someone to help him with his act, and Melanie happened along at the right time. She was a gift.
Rosco had her color her hair. He dressed her in black tight-fitting outfits. Even at fifteen, Melanie had the body of a fully-formed woman. And, with her blonde hair and all decked out in black, Melanie turned heads.
Melanie was a quick study. In no time, she learned just about everything Rosco could teach her. She learned to do the magic tricks. She could do some of them better than Rosco. Melaine was a master at selling the how-to magic tricks to the public. She also learned all about loading and firing the cannon.
Soon after Melanie teamed up with Rosco, he made his own sexual demands on her. She didn’t like it, but she didn’t object. Melaine figured she owed him that much. But during the winter of their first year together, she learned something else about Rosco. When things were slow, when things weren’t going his way, Rosco took out his frustration on her.
Melanie thought about running, but where to and to what? And she liked the carnival life. She felt like she had found a home, even if it meant getting knocked around once in a while. Anyway, Melanie was almost convinced that a woman had to put up with the rough stuff from a man.
Men were always coming on to Melanie, but none of them interested her. Then she met Jake, a young, good-looking man about her own age. He ran the Ferris wheel on the night shift. The day she walked by Jake, and he smiled at her, she was stopped in her tracks.
After getting to know each other for a few days, Jake took her to the trailer he shared with the Tattooed Man.
Melanie had no idea it could be like that with a man, that a man and a woman together could be transported out of themselves. She couldn’t get enough of it. And she didn’t want to give it up. What to do?
Rosco got up from the couch and turned off the TV. Then he pointed at it and said, “You know something, Mel? This goddamn thing is gonna mean the end of the midway.”
Melanie, whose thoughts were elsewhere, looked up from her card game and said, “How so?”
“Stop and think about it. How many people are gonna go outside their living rooms to be entertained, when all they gotta do is sit in their easy chairs and have it brought to ’em on this damn box? Jesus, I can see a time when the streets will be as deserted at night as a graveyard. All the people will be inside watching TV.”
“You’re a true man of vision, Rosco.”
Rosco walked the few steps to the fridge. His head almost touched the roof of the trailer. He opened the fridge, took out a beer. “You want anything, Mel?”
“Where’s the opener?”
“Look on top of the fridge, Rosco, where it always is.”
Rosco opened his beer, then took a seat across from Melanie at the little foldaway table. He lit a cigarette and sat there for a while smoking, watching Melanie lay down and pick up cards. Then he said, “You know something, Mel? When you showed up at my concession six years ago, you reminded me of me.”
“I reminded you of you?”
“Yeah, that’s right. I was about your age when Alfredo took me in—Alfredo the Great, what a man he was. Anyway, just like you, I was cold and lonely and hungry and dirty—god was I dirty. You were too. And you know what’s really weird? I don’t know if I ever told you this, but I showed up about a week after Alfredo’s wife died.”
“I think you mentioned that once before.”
“And you know, Mel, something that’s even weirder, you showed up about a week after Alfredo died.”
“How many beers you have, Rosco? Every time you drink too much, you get on a reminiscing jag.”
“It’s good to remember this stuff once in a while, Mel. Otherwise, we might forget who we are.”
Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, Melanie thought. But she didn’t say anything.
“Just like I taught you, Alfredo taught me everything I know. All except when I tried walking on coals. Saw this documentary about natives running over red hot coals, and I thought, shit, I bet I can do that. Alfredo thought it was great. But it was too much trouble setting up, so we dropped it.”
Rosco took a pull on his beer bottle, took a drag on his cigarette, blew smoke straight up, and said, “You were a quick study, Mel. The only thing you can’t do is catch the ball. I gotta hand it to you though, you were willing to try.”
“That cannonball couldn’t hit me much harder than that goddamn fist of yours.” It was out before Melanie could stop herself.
“Ah, come on, Mel, I guess you think Alfredo didn’t work me over now and then.”
“You probably deserved it.”
“You’re damn right I did. And so do you from time to time.” Rosco sipped his beer, blew smoke in the air. Melanie studied her cards. Then Rosco said, “You know something, Mel?”
“You know, it still bothers me I didn’t try to stop Alfredo from catching the ball that night. I could see he wasn’t feeling right. Hit him square in the heart. Almost knocked him through the tent. He was dead when he hit the ground.”
“Don’t feel guilty about that. Wasn’t your fault.”
“Yeah, I know. . . still. . . Alfredo loved me, you know that? That guy really loved me.” Rosco sipped his beer, tapped on the table with one finger.
“Stop that tapping, Rosco. Makes me nervous.”
“And I loved him too,” Rosco blurted out.
“Is there something you’re trying to tell me?” Melanie asked, looking up from her cards.
Rosco ignored Melanie’s question. “Did you know that Alfredo drew up the design for the cannon? The whole thing was his idea. That foundry did a beautiful job, too. I still can’t figure out how they made those hollow aluminum cannonballs. Can’t tell ’em from that little stack of real balls we put out next to the cannon. Alfredo had four of ’em made, and we still got three left. Remember what happened to the other one?”
“I remember. I accidentally put a little too much powder in the chamber. And you’re never going to let me forget it, are you?”
“Damn, Mel, my hands and arms were sore for a week. That ball collapsed like a ping-pong ball. Shit, Mel, you almost killed me.”
“Well, shit, Rosco, I can say the same. Anyway, the crowd loved it. And word must of got around, ’cause we had a full house the rest of the week.”
“Yeah, that was a good run,” Rosco said. “We oughtta do real good here in Bakersfield, too. I slipped the concession agent an extra twenty. That’s how we got that good spot on the right side of the midway. Should get a lot of families with their kids.”
“If you’d grease those asshole’s palms a little more often, Rosco, then I wouldn’t have to listen to you bitch and moan about being stuck down at the end of the left midway, passed the freaks and the hoochy-koochy girls.”
“You know damn well why I don’t grease more palms. I don’t have the grease, that’s why. I’m gonna have another beer. You want one?”
“No, thanks. But I’ll have another Coke.”
Rosco gets up and gets a beer and a Coke from the fridge. He sits back down. “You know, Mel, we might pull in enough here to trade in our old pickup for a new, used one. We gotta do something. That old clunker we got is using oil faster than I can pour it in. I’m tired of buying fifty weight oil by the case.”
“It’s a rattletrap, all right. How long did Alfredo drive that thing before you inherited it?”
“I don’t know, a couple of years before the cannonball got him. But Alfredo knew how to work on it. I don’t. That’s something he never taught me.”
“Yeah, I know. You don’t like to get your hands dirty.”
“It ain’t that. You can’t do magic with banged-up hands.”
“Oh, is that it?”
“What is it with you, Mel? Is it that time of the month or what?” Rosco took a few sips of beer and watched Melanie lay down her cards. Then he said, “And another thing, I noticed you’ve been spending time laughing and talking with that guy who runs the Ferris wheel on the night shift. What’s his name. . . Jake? What’s that all about?”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Rosco, can’t I be friendly with someone without you getting ideas?”
“Yeah, well, something else I don’t get. Several times when we were in San Bernardino, I saw Jake sitting in the crowd, watching me catch the ball. Now, why in the hell would he do that?”
“Hell, how do I know? Maybe he likes your act. It’s not often you see a man catch a cannonball.”
“Know something, Mel? Something tells me you’re full of shit.” Rosco finished off his beer. “Anyway, I’m keeping an eye on you and Jake.”
“You do that, Rosco.”
“I don’t know what’s with you. For the last few weeks, I notice you’ve been walking around on tippy-toes, treating me extra nice. Then sometimes you’re not around, and I don’t know where you are. Then I see you with this Jake. Let me ask you, is there something you wanna tell me?”
“You’re imagining things, Rosco.”
“Yeah, well, I hope so. Anyway, screw it. It’s getting late. I’m going to bed. We gotta get up early tomorrow. We still got a lot of setting up to do.”
Rosco went to bed. Melanie got a bottle of whiskey out of the cabinet and poured a hefty slug in her Coke. She sat down, played one more hand of solitaire, sipped her drink, and thought about what she was going to do. She listened to Rosco snore.
The turnout for Rosco the Great was even better than Rosco had anticipated. Rosco did his magic tricks, and Melanie sold the packages of magic tricks to the want-a-be magicians. Depending on the number of tickets they sold, Rosco caught the cannonball five or six times a day. He told Melanie it looked like they were going to get that new, used pickup.
It was the evening of the third day of their seven-day run. Rosco was preparing to catch the ball for the last time that day. They had a large, noisy crowd. Rosco liked a lively group.
Rosco wore a long, black leather coat that reached below his knees. He used two slightly modified old-time catcher’s mitts, one on each hand, to catch the ball. Rosco also wore a thickly padded black leather helmet. Under his leather coat, he wore one of those chest protectors used by baseball umpires.
Melanie was dressed in a tight-fitting black leather suit, which highlighted her long blonde hair. As she prepared the cannon, she tossed her head, which caused her hair to swish from side to side.
But that night, unbeknownst to Rosco, Melanie loaded the cannon with one of the real solid cast iron cannonballs from the small stack next to the cannon. These real balls were there for the crowd to inspect if they wished. They were about the size of a softball and weighed about nine pounds. Melanie replaced the real ball in the stack with the hollow aluminum one, which was indistinguishable in appearance from the real thing. She also raised the elevation setting on the cannon by one click. And she doubled the amount of gunpowder in the firing chamber.
Rosco stood about thirty feet in front of the cannon, his left foot forward of the right. He was bent slightly at the waist, his two gloved hands extended in front of him.
The gunpowder was ignited by lighting a ten-inch fuse. Melanie turned the fuse lighting into high drama by using a match with a foot-long stem. When the fuse was lit, the crowd went silent. They watched as the fuse sparkled and slowly burned down.
The cannon exploded and bucked against the chain holding it to its mount. The cannonball tipped the top of Rosco’s glove and hit him right between the eyes. The impact lifted Rosco off his feet. He was dead before his back hit the ground.
Almost in unison, the crowd said, “Oh, my God!” Many of them rushed to where Rosco laid.
In the confusion, Melanie retrieved the real cannonball and replaced it with the hollow aluminum one. Not that it was necessary, but she didn’t want to take any chances. Then she fought her way through the crowd, bent over the dead Rosco, and yelled for someone to call an ambulance.
The next day, Rosco’s death was the big story in the Bakersfield Californian and on the local TV news. The story was even mentioned on the network news as one of those odd things that happen. Melanie saved all the clippings for future advertisements.
Melanie was interviewed by the press and TV reporters. She told them what a talented man Rosco was and didn’t know how she could go on without him. She said before he went on that night, Rosco told her he wasn’t feeling well. She said, “Oh, how sorry I am now for not trying to prevent him from going on.” The truth was Rosco had never felt better. He was looking forward to the new, used pickup.
All the carnies chipped in, and they raised enough money to have Rosco cremated. Before the fair was over, Melanie had Rosco’s ashes in one of those little tin lunch boxes, which had a picture of Snow White.
When the fair was over, Jake was there to help Melanie dismantle the concession. They packed everything into the old pickup and hooked up the trailer. Melanie told Jake to be sure and check the oil. Then they headed up Route 99 toward Modesto, the next stop on the circuit.
“A few practice shots,” Melanie said, “and you won’t have any trouble catching the ball. There’s nothing to it. It’s all show.”
“Hell, Mel, I think I already know how to do it just from watching Rosco.”
“I’ll do the magic stuff,” Melanie said.
“That you can do,” Jake said. “There’s magic in everything you do.”
Mel gave Jake a big smile and said, “You can sell the packs of magic tricks. You think you can do that?”
“Hell yeah,” Jake said.
“By the way, from now on, don’t call me Mel. Call me, Lanie. And we’re changing your name from Jake to Jocko—Jocko the Great.
“Damn, Lanie, you’re a genius!”
In Glen's Own Voice
A Perfect Day
Two Nice Cops
Room and Board
The Written Works of Glen Chesnut
“There ain’t nothing out there but sagebrush,” Carl says.
“No Carl, no shit. I saw an animal. Back up, maybe it’s still there.”
Carl shifts to reverse, and as the truck backs up, Benny scans the desert.”
“Stop! There it is!” Benny yells.Want to read more?