The Animal Fair
It was dark when the truck dropped Dave off at the deserted freight depot. Dave had to squint to make out the lettering on the weather-faded sign. MEDLEY, OKLAHOMA — POP 1,134.
The trucker said he could probably get another lift on the state highway up past the other end of town, so Dave hit the main drag. And it was a drag.
Nine o'clock of a hot summer evening, and Medley was closed for the night. Fred's Eats had locked up, the Jiffy SuperMart had shut down, even Phil's Phill-Up Gas stood deserted. There were no cars parked on the dark street, not even the usual cluster of kids on the corners.
Dave wondered about this, but not for long. In five minutes he covered the length of Main Street and emerged on open fields at the far side, and that's when he saw the lights and heard the music.
They had a carnival going in the little county fairgrounds up ahead — canned music blasting from amplifiers, cars crowding the parking lot, mobs milling across the midway.
Dave wasn't craving this kind of action, but he still had eight cents in his jeans and he hadn't eaten anything since breakfast. He turned down the sideroad leading to the fairgrounds.
As he figured, the carnival was a bummer. One of those little mud shows, traveling by truck; a couple of beat-up rides for the kids and a lot of come-ons for the local yokels. Wheel o'Fortune, Pitch-a-Winner, Take a Chance on a Blanket, that kind of jive. By the time Dave got himself a burger and coffee at one of the stands he knew the score. A big fat zero.
But not for Medley, Oklahoma — Pop. 1, 134. The whole damn town was here tonight and probably every redneck for miles around, shuffling and shoving himself to get through to the far end of the midway.
And it was there, on the far end, that he saw the small red tent with the tiny platform before it. Hanging limp and listless in the still air, a sunbleached banner proclaimed the wonders within.
CAPTAIN RYDER'S HOLLYWOOD JUNGLE SAFARI, the banner read.
What a Hollywood Jungle Safari was, Dave didn't know. And the wrinkled cloth posters lining the sides of the entrance weren't much help. A picture of a guy in an explorer's outfit, tangling with a big snake wrapped around his neck — the same joker prying open the jaws of a crocodile — another drawing showing him wrestling a lion. The last poster showed the guy standing next to a cage; inside the cage was a black, furry question mark, way over six feet high. The lettering underneath was black and furry too. WHAT IS IT? SEE THE MIGHTY MONARCH OF THE JUNGLE ALIVE ON THE INSIDE!
Dave didn't know what it was and he cared less. But he'd been bumping along those corduroy roads all day and he was wasted and the noise from the amplifiers here on the midway hurt his ears. At least there was some kind of a show going on inside, and when he saw the open space gaping between the canvas and the ground at the corner of the tent he stooped and slid under.
The tent was a canvas oven.
Dave could smell oil in the air; on hot summer nights in Oklahoma you can always smell it. And the crowd in here smelled worse. Bad enough that he was thumbing his way through and couldn't take a bath, but what was their excuse?
The crowd huddled around the base of a portable wooden stage at the rear of the tent, listening to a pitch from Captain Ryder. At least that's who Dave figured it was, even though the character with the phony safari hat and the dirty white riding breeches didn't look much like his pictures on the banners. He was handing out a spiel in one of those hoarse, gravelly voices that carries without a microphone — some hype about being a Hollywood stunt man and African explorer — and there wasn't a snake or a crocodile or a lion anywhere in sight.
The two-bit hamburger began churning up a storm in Dave's guts, and between the body heat and the smells he'd just about had it in here. He started to turn and push his way through the mob when the man up on the stage thumped the boards with his cane.
"And now friends, if you'll gather around a little closer—"
The crowd swept forward in unison, like the straws of a giant broom, and Dave found himself pressed right up against the edge of the square-shaped canvas-covered pit beside the end of the platform. He couldn't get through now if he tried; all the rednecks were bunched together, waiting.
Dave waited, too, but he stopped listening to the voice on the platform. All that jive about Darkest Africa was a put-on. Maybe these clowns went for it, but Dave wasn't buying a word. He just hoped the old guy would hurry and get the show over with; all he wanted now was out of here.
Captain Ryder tapped the canvas covering of the pit with his cane and his harsh tones rose. The heat made Dave yawn loudly, but some of the phrases filtered through.
"— about to see here tonight the world's most ferocious monster — captured at deadly peril of life and limb—"
Dave shook his head. He knew what was in the pit. Some crummy animal picked up secondhand from a circus, maybe a scroungy hyena. And two to one it wasn't even alive, just stuffed. Big deal.
Captain Ryder lifted the canvas cover and pulled it back behind the pit. He flourished his cane.
"Behold — the lord of the jungle!"
The crowd pressed, pushed, peered over the rim of the pit.
The crowd gasped.
And Dave, pressing and peering with the rest, stared at the creature blinking up at him from the bottom of the pit.
It was a live, full-grown gorilla.
The monster squatted on a heap of straw, its huge forearms secured to steel stakes by lengths of heavy chain. It gaped upward at the rim of faces, moving its great gray head slowly from side to side, the yellow-fanged mouth open and the massive jaws set in a vacant grimace. Only the little rheumy, red-rimmed eyes held a hint of expression — enough to tell Dave, who had never seen a gorilla before, that this animal was sick.
The matted straw at the base of the pit was wet and stained; in one corner a battered tin plate rested untouched, its surface covered with a soggy slop of shredded carrots, okra and turnip greens floating in an oily scum beneath a cloud of buzzing blowflies. In the stifling heat of the tent the acrid odor arising from the pit was almost overpowering.
Dave felt his stomach muscles constrict. He tried to force his attention back to Captain Ryder. The old guy was stepping offstage now, moving behind the pit and reaching down into it with his cane.
"— nothing to be afraid of, folks, as you can see he's perfectly harmless, aren't you, Bobo?"
The gorilla whimpered, huddling back against the soiled straw to avoid the prodding cane. But the chains confined movement and the cane began to dig its tip into the beast's shaggy shoulders.
"And now Bobo's going to do a little dance for the folks — right?" The gorilla whimpered again, but the point of the cane jabbed deeply and the rasping voice firmed in command.
"Up, Bobo — up!"
The creature lumbered to its haunches. As the cane rose and fell about its shoulders, the bulky body began to sway. The crowd oohed and aahed and snickered.
"That's it! Dance for the people, Bobo — dance—"
A swarm of flies spiraled upward to swirl about the furry form shimmering in the heat. Dave saw the sick beast shuffle, moving to and fro, to and fro. Then his stomach was moving in responsive rhythm and he had to shut his eyes as he turned and fought his way blindly through the murmuring mob.
"Hey — watch where the hell ya goin', fella—"
Dave got out of the tent just in time.
Getting rid of the hamburger helped, and getting away from the carnival grounds helped too, but not enough. As Dave moved up the road between the open fields he felt the nausea return. Gulping the oily air made him dizzy and he knew he'd have to lie down for a minute. He dropped in the ditch beside the road, shielded behind a clump of weeds, and closed his eyes to stop the whirling sensation. Only for a minute—
The dizziness went away, but behind his closed eyes he could still see the gorilla, still see the expressionless face and the all-too-expressive eyes. Eyes peering up from the pile of dirty straw in the pit, eyes clouding with pain and hopeless resignation as the chains and the cane flicked across the hairy shoulders.
Ought to be a law, Dave thought. There must be some kind of law to stop it, treating a poor dumb animal like that. And the old guy, Captain Ryder — there ought to be a law for an animal like him, too.
Ah, to hell with it. Better shut it out of his mind now, get some rest. Another couple of minutes wouldn't hurt—
It was the thunder that finally woke him. The thunder jerked him into awareness, and then he felt the warm, heavy drops pelting his head and face.
Dave rose and the wind swept over him, whistling across the fields. He must have been asleep for hours, because everything was pitch-black, and when he glanced behind him the lights of the carnival were gone.
For an instant the sky turned silver and he could see the rain pour down. See it, hell — he could feel it, and then the thunder came again, giving him the message. This wasn't just a summer shower, it was a real storm. Another minute and he was going to be soaking wet. By the time he got up to the state highway he could drown, and there wouldn't be a lift there for him, either. Nobody traveled in this kind of weather.
Dave zipped up his jacket, pulled the collar around his neck. It didn't help, and neither did walking up the road, but he might as well get going. The wind was at his back and that help ...