The Roustabout and the Towney

The Roustabout and the Towney

Bad luck always seemed to happen after dark.

“Hey!  Who goes there?”

 Not unlike during the day. 

“I know you’re in there, cuz I heard ya.  Listen up whoever you be, I gotta a gun and I ain’t afraid to use it.  Now answer you-me, who goes there?”

Stealing other people’s property didn’t help much either. “Don’t shoot, mister.  I’m coming out.”  The gig was up when the moon slid out from underneath the clouds at precisely the wrong moment.

“What was that you just dropped on the ground?”

“I didn’t drop nothin.”

“Sure looked like something to me.”  From the thick abyss of shadows emerged a seasoned, well traveled man.  The roustabout had spent years with the circus prepping meadows for the large tents they pitched.  New ground, however, this was not. He continued toward the interloper.  “What were you doin’ rootin’ around inside ’a my tent?” 

“Looking for my cat.” 

“Say What?”  Realizing the intruder was only a boy, the roustabout stopped.

“I ain’t scared a you,” the boy said. 

“Haaa, ha, ha, ha, ha!  Well you oughtta be.”

Think fast, the boy thought.  “Hey Mister, it’s gittin cold out.  Can I leave now?”

“What’s it’s name?”

“Whose name?”

“Yer cat.”

A long pause.   “Tomcat.”

“Tomcat, huh?”  The roustabout moved closer, then circled. “Maybe this one’ll be easier for ya. What’s your name, kid?”

Another pause, not as long this time.   “Horace.  Horace G. Young.” 

The roustabout said nothing, and re-traced his steps circling back.  He faced the boy directly. 

“So anyway mister, did you happen to see a tabby roamin around here?  Kinda fat and missin his tail.” 

“What’s my pocket-watch doing layin’ next to your feet?”

“I dunno,” said the boy. “Maybe you dropped it there.”

“What else did you take?”

The moonlight glowing, the boy assessed the situation.  The man had knarled, ragged hair, protruding wildly from a bandana that covered his head. His countenance revealed a long jagged scar, and teeth that resembled the keyboard of a piano, except for a singular sparkle of gold in front.  A pointed, unshaven chin jutted from below his dark, penetrating eyes. 

“Speak to me kid.”

The observations continued. The man’s breath lingered with the foul tenacity of a public outhouse on an August afternoon.  Horace considered the totality of the situation.  He had to confess.

The boy reached into his pocket.  “Just this wallet I found.” After retrieving the wallet he leaned over and picked up the pocket-watch, then extended his arm offering to return them.  Once the exchange was complete, he realized the roustabout had been empty handed. “Hey, you ain’t got no gun.”

“Yeah.  Well you ain’t got no cat, so that makes us even, doesn’t it?”  The roustabout pulled out a cigarette, lighting it. 

With no cat to find, and no gun to worry about, the boy lingered.

“Ya want one, kid?”

“I’d sure appreciate it if you just call me Horace, bein that I ain’t no kid.  So, did’ja you roll it yourself, or is it a store bought?”

The roustabout shot the interloper a glance, somewhere between annoyed and amused, and started walking toward an elongated crate adjoining a tree.  After sitting on the crate, he said, “What are you some kind’a expert on cigarettes?” 

Horace sat next to the roustabout.  “No, I ain’t no expert. I’s just askin’ is all.  So, can I have one?”

“Ah, what the hell.”

Horace took the cigarette.  “Got a light?”

“Next thing you know you’ll be askin me to smoke it for ya.”

“I wouldn’t go and do that.”

The roustabout handed over his cigarette and the boy daisy-chained them until his was lit.

“You here because of the circus, mister?”  Horace asked, returning the cigarette.

“Yeah.  I like to come into town early to check up on things, make sure everything is just right.  So, how old are you anyway, kid, I mean Horace?”

“I’ll be twenty next week.” 

The roustabout twisted another peculiar glance.  “Oh yeah? Me too.  How come you look like you’re about thirteen?”

“It’s the moonlight.  My ma says it makes me look younger.  So when’s the circus gonna get here?”

“Train pulls in day after tomorrow.”

“Is there going to be any of them elephants and tigers coming?” 

The roustabout drew on his cigarette, about to answer, when the sound of uneven footsteps crashing through some brush could be heard coming from the tree line behind where they were sitting.   They turned and saw a woman walking toward them.

“Speaking of elephants and tigers,” the roustabout muttered.

“Who’s that?” the boy asked.

“Jay-Willie, where have you been?  I’ve been waitin on you for over two hours.  You promised you’d buy me a drink.”

“Sorry Judith.  I ran into a little problem.  Seems Horace here has gone and lost his cat.  I was helping him find it.”

The woman circled from behind, and was now standing before them, the moonlight falling directly on her face and chest.  Horace glanced at the roustabout, who calmly took another draw of his cigarette.  Looking back at the woman, she appeared a towering figure in the night, with thick arms, a round face, and a deep cavern of space between her breasts, which the moonlight seemed powerless to penetrate.

“So when did a towney and some lost cat become more important than having a drink with your lady?”

“Maybe I should be leaving now,” Horace said.

“That’s not necessary,” the woman said.  “Maybe you might want to buy me a drink.”

Horace quickly turned and looked at the roustabout, who said, “I’ll just get the bottle from inside’a the tent.”  After he stood up and took a step, he heard the boy call him.

“Hey.  Mister Jay-Willie. I think when I was in your tent looking for my cat I felt something fall inside’a my boot.  I just remembered.”  Horace reached into his boot and pulled out a half-full bottle of rye whiskey.  The roustabout kept walking.

Horace looked at the lady, and said, “Do you think he heard me?”

“Oh yeah, he heard you alright.  He’s just getting me a glass.  It ain’t proper for a lady to drink from the bottle.  So tell me about this cat that’s missing.”

“Well, he’s a tabby cat and he’s missing his tail.”

“No kidding? I’ll keep a look out for him.  I had a dog once, who was missing both ears.  Never came to me when I called it.”

“Really?”

“No. I was just making that one up.  So what’s your name?”

“Horace G. Young.  What about you?”

“My name is Judith Feinlove.  If you want to find love, baby, you found it.”  The woman laughed and wriggled her torso, her breasts taking a few seconds to catch up when she stopped the motion.

“Well, I’m just looking for my cat,” Horace said.  The roustabout returned with a glass and a lantern and sat on the ground leaning his back against the crate.  Miss Feinlove was to his left, and Horace to his right, both still sitting on top.

“So my whiskey bottle just fell right into yer boot, there, huh, Horace?”

“It was kinda dark, but I guess that’s about right Mr. Jay-Willie.”  The boy watched as the roustabout struck a match and touched it to the wick of the lantern.  “So anyway, how much do one of them bottles cost ya?” Horace asked.

“You probably could’a got about three dollars for it.”

“It fell right into my boot, mister.  Honest.  I wasn’t stealing from ya.”

No response.

 Horace changed the subject.  “How long you been with the circus?” he asked, the glow of the lantern now washing over them.

“I guess since I was about yer age.”

“Since you was twenty, then.”

The roustabout twisted himself and looked up at Horace.  The light from the lantern offered nothing to age the boy’s appearance. “Yeah.  Since I was twenty,” he said.

Judith cut into the conversation.  “You going to pour some of that or ain’t you?”

The roustabout uncorked the bottle, took a chug, then poured Miss Feinlove a glass.  After handing it to her he took another chug and said, “So Horace, you want to try it?”

“If its all the same to you Mr. Jay-Wille, I’d rather have another one of them smokes of yours.” 

The roustabout pulled out a cigarette. “Won’t your mother wonder where you are this late in the evnin’?”

Horace reached for the smoke. “Naw, she’s home sleepin.”

The roustabout took another chug from the bottle, then handed Horace some matches.

“Thanks, Mr. Jay-Willie,” the boy said, puffing his cigarette.

With the moon drifting in and out from the cover of the clouds, the three sat smoking and drinking, recalling ruses.

“Hey.”  Hiccup. “I need a re-fill.”  Judith stuck her empty glass in front of the roustabout’s face.  “Pour in a little more,” she said, after another hiccup, “It’s been a long day.”

The roustabout tipped the bottle. “That’s it.  It’s all gone” he said, finishing the last swallow.

Judith downed her glass.  “We better get some sleep, love.”  She stood up, stumbling.  “I’ll be waitin inside’a the tent. Now don’t be long, or you’ll be sorry.”

The roustabout and the towney watched as she stumbled away, climbing into the tent.

“That your wife, mister?” Horace said.

“Listen, kid, you better get home.”  The roustabout pulled out another cigarette.  “Here, take one for the road.”  Jay-Willie tossed the empty bottle, then started for the tent.

“Thanks mister,” Horace said.  He turned and started walking.

After a couple of seconds the roustabout turned around and called to the kid, “Hey, Horace, you ain’t got no mother, do you?”

Horace looked back at the roustabout, their eyes locked. “Not that I know of.”

The two turned and continued walking in opposite directions.

The roustabout slipped through the flap of the tent and saw Judith sound asleep.  He kicked off his boots and lay down.  About to turn down the wick of the lantern he said, “Well how about that.”  Curled up in the corner of the tent he saw a tabby cat, missing its tail.

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