More than anything, I wanted Rory to shut up. He was stretched across the backseat of my mom’s Crown Vic and yammering on about Lana Thierry’s pussy, describing its elasticity, moistness and aesthetic merits.
“She’s got one of those landing strips,” he said, then paused to sip from a fifth of Old Crow. “No Chewbacca bush on that girl. Tighter than hell, too. I swear, my finger turned white.”
“Shut it, Ror,” Nick said from the passenger seat. “Matty doesn’t need to hear that shit. Every time she shows up to a party, he’ll pitch a tent.”
Rory laughed. “He does that anyway, don’t you Matty?”
“Fuck you both.” I took my right hand off the wheel to flick a sunflower seed at Rory, but it shot past his head and went out the window.
“Don’t get pissed, now,” he said, pointing the bottle at me. “Lana’s a good girl. I’m just warming her up for you.”
Lana lived up the street from me. Ms. Thierry ran a daycare center out of her house, and Lana worked there after school and during the summer. Some afternoons, she’d walk the kids past my house on the way to the Dairy Queen, their small hands holding a rope braided red and white like a candy cane, and if I was in the yard she would tell the kids to wave, say hello. I’d wave back and she’d smile.
Rory met her at his uncle’s restaurant and they started dating, openly, the same day he dumped his girlfriend, Trisha, captain of the girl’s volleyball team. Trisha showed up at the party in the woods behind Nick’s house that Saturday, slapped Rory’s face and called him a pig. When she turned to leave, he spit tobacco in her hair.
“Pigfucker,” he had said, grinning.
The following Monday, Trisha’s brother Tommy shoved Rory in the locker room after football practice. Rory grabbed a knot of Tommy’s hair and slammed his face into the wall. His nose left a starburst of blood on the yellow-painted brick and it stayed there a week before someone wiped it off. I think Nick did it, because I saw him at the mall with Trisha a couple weeks later. They were eating Chinese off paper plates, their hands joined under the table.
“Shit,” Nick said, unfastening his seat belt. “We drove two hours for this?”
Rory rolled the bottle of Old Crow under the seat. “Quit bitching. Neither of you had anything to do tonight, anyway.”
Nick got out of the car and slammed the door. I wondered if he had made plans with Trisha.
It was Rory’s idea to come to the carnival. Lana was out of town with her dad, and he decided he wanted carnie food. I told him to get a corn dog at the gas station, but he wasn’t having it.
“Come on guys,” he’d said to us at lunch. “It’ll be like when my uncle used to take us to the county fair.” We were twelve the last time we went, before people took to calling Rory “Ror”. He was scrawny then, as he hadn’t started lifting his dad’s old weights or learned to juke a tackle. The guy at the guessing booth had figured Rory twenty-pounds heavier than he was, so he won a framed picture of Eddie Vedder. He hung it in his garage, over the weight bench.
When Rory and I caught up with Nick, we heard him muttering.
“There’d better be some Skee-ball,” he said, hands stuffed in the pockets of his jeans. “That’s all I’m saying.”
There wasn’t. The midway was less than a city block long, and the only games were tosses, target shoots, basketball, and duck ponds. The barkers didn’t seem too impressed, either. They stood at their posts, smoking cigarettes, taking money and handing out balls and rings.
One booth featured a guy drawing caricatures, and we watched as he did one for a woman in a tank top and leather pants with a black dragon tattooed on her arm. He drew the dragon rising up off her skin to loom above her, its mouth open and salivating, as she kept smiling, oblivious. Nick told Rory he should get one, but he didn’t want to. “Waste of money,” Rory said. “If the guy could draw he wouldn’t be working here.” He kept walking toward the food stalls, following the smell of hot grease and cinnamon.
Nick wound up getting a carton of fries and an egg roll (from the same booth), and Rory got an elephant ear and two corn dogs. I had a lemonade with too much ice, and it tasted more like sugar than lemon. While we ate at one of the picnic tables, Rory told us about his plan to try out for the track team.
“We graduate next year,” he said, his mouth full of fried dough, “and then it’ll be football, football, football. I want to try something different, something that’ll push me.”
“I’ll push you,” I told him. “If that’s what you’re looking for.”
Rory swallowed and turned to Nick. “Nick, you got any Pamprin for Matty? I think he’s on the rag, again.”
Nick laughed. “Nope. Fresh out.”
Rory got up from the table. “I’ve got to hit the johns. You got a quarter, Matty? I can check for tampons in the ladies room.”
I flipped him off as he turned his back.
“You okay, Matt?” Nick asked when Rory was out of view.
“Fine.” I told him.
“Is this about the Lana thing?”
“Shit, man. Look, it’s like.” He started to say something, but didn’t. Instead, he asked if I wanted an inflatable plastic Batman from the nearby souvenir stall. “It’d look cool hanging in your locker,” he said, then started humming the theme from the old Adam West show.
I wanted to ask him about Trisha, but I knew he wouldn’t say anything. He’d make another joke, because he was Nick, and to Nick, Rory was Ror.
“Nah. Thanks anyway.” I stood up. “Let’s find Rory and get out of here.”
We found him by the kiddie coaster, standing close to a girl in a t-shirt with a unicorn airbrushed on it and a pair of thick glasses. Rory was whispering in her ear. A little boy riding in one of the coaster’s caterpillar-shaped cars kept waving to her, but she didn’t notice.
I walked up to them. “Let’s go.” I said. “It’s getting late.”
Rory grinned. “Guys, this is Serena,” he said, gesturing to the girl. “She’s here with her little brother.” She wasn’t more than fourteen, and I could see patches of zits under her make-up.
“Nice to meet you,” I told her, still looking at Rory. “It’s time to go man. We’ve got a long ride back.”
“No need to rush, Matty,” he said. “We’re just hanging out.” He tapped the side of his leather cowboy boot against her plastic sandal. Nick looked past us, watching the coaster’s trams circle the track.
“Nah,” I said. “I’m kind of tired. Besides, there might be a party in town.”
Rory frowned, then nodded. “You’re the boss. Serena,” he said, holding out his hand, “it was a pleasure.” She put her smaller hand on his and he kissed its pale skin, bowing like Clark Gable. I started walking.
“What was that about?” Rory said when we were back on the midway. “What’s up your ass?”
“You’ve got a girlfriend.”
“Christ. I was just flirting with her.” He shrugged. “I bet it made her day. No big deal.”
Nick put his hand on my shoulder. “Nothing happened, Matty. It’s cool.”
“Something wrong, gents?” A barker dressed in a faded referee’s jersey was watching us from beside a tent. “You’re not leaving, are you?”
I nodded. “We’re on our way out.”
“Or, you could stick around for a few minutes and make five-hundred bucks,” he said, smiling. “All you’ve got to do is wrestle the champ.”
“We’re not interested,” I said.
“Strong bucks like yourselves, it’ll be easy money.” He reached into a fanny pack fastened around his waist and pulled out a roll of green bills. “Twenty-bucks lets you give it a try.”
Rory smiled, his eyes fixed on the money in the barker’s hand. “Let’s see the champ.”
The barker nodded. “Sure thing.” He pulled the flap of the tent open, and we stepped through. Inside, there was a wooden circle about four feet in diameter, filled with dirt. It was spot lit by a camp light hanging from a rope stretched between two tent poles. Over in the corner sat a card table with two folding chairs, a male orangutan in one of them.
“You’re asking people to wrestle a monkey?” Nick asked.
“His name is Champ,” the barker said, not bothering to correct him. “You want a shot?”
Nick shook his head. The barker turned to me, but Rory already had his wallet out.
“I’ll do it,” he said, handing the barker two tens. “Can’t hurt to try.”
“Right on.” The barker put the money in the fanny pack, pulled a whistle on a chain out of his shirt, and blew it once.
On cue, Champ half-shuffled half-waddled into the ring, his palms sweeping the dirt. He looked worn; his eyelids heavy, his orange fur tangled and matted.
The barker blew the whistle again, and the orangutan held his arms over his head, his palms up and his fingers spread. “Take his hands,” the barker told Rory. “You put his back to the dirt, you win.”
Rory rubbed his palms together, stepped into the circle and twined fingers with Champ. He dug his boots in, and, at the whistle, he bore down. Champ’s arms trembled, but his elbows didn’t lower more than an inch. Rory’s face went red and tightened.
“Come on, Ror,” Nick said, “push the little son of a bitch!”
Rory slackened, dug his feet deeper into the dirt and went for it again, but Champ held. In a spray of dust, first Rory’s boots then his legs slid out from under him. He kept his grip on the orangutan’s hands, stopping his fall and leaving them face to face.
“No dice,” the barker said. “But that was a hell of a try.” Champ lowered his arms, and Rory, to the ground.
“It was the dirt,” Rory said, crawling to his knees. “The goddamn dirt. I couldn’t get traction.”
“Sure, kid. And for another twenty, you can prove it.” He turned to the winner. “Good boy.”
Champ smiled at the barker, revealing wide, yellowed teeth. Rory, still on his knees, swung, his fist connecting at the orangutan’s jaw line with a loud pop. Champ howled and scrambled on top of Rory, pounding at his face and skull, pulling at his hair. Rory yelled and grunted, trying to cover his face and push the animal away.
The barker pulled a gun from the fanny pack, aimed and pulled the trigger. There was no barking report, just the sharp hiss of gas.
The screaming primate jumped off Rory and began spinning, grabbing for the yellow-tipped dart embedded in his back. Seconds later, he went limp and fell to the dirt.
Rory lay on the edge of the circle, his face pounded bright reds and sick purples. The brow of his left eye bulged, and there were bleeding scratches on his forehead. He started to push himself up, his furious, battered eyes focused on the unconscious orangutan.
Nick moved before I could. He hopped toward Rory on his left foot and swung his right one forward, slamming it into the side of Rory’s face. The force of the kick rolled Rory onto his back again, his eyes closed. Nick knelt down and put his hand on Rory’s chest. “Unconscious,” he said, looking at me. I nodded.
The barker fired a dart into Rory’s pec.
“I don’t want anymore trouble,” he said, “so get your pal and go.” The barker walked over to Champ, knelt down, pulled the dart out of his back and began petting his fur with gentle strokes.
Nick waved me over. He grabbed Rory’s arms, I lifted his feet, and we carried him out of the tent and down the midway.
“Do you think he needs a hospital?” Nick asked when we reached the parking lot.
“Maybe,” I said. “We’ll see when he comes around.”
Nick kept Rory’s head and torso off the pavement while I unlocked the Crown Vic’s back door.
“What if he pukes, back there,” Nick said. “Hendrix died like that.”
“He’s not Hendrix.” We laid Rory across the backseats, and Nick rolled him on his side. He shut the door, careful of Rory’s head.
“Shitty night,” I said.
“Do you think he saw you, Nick?”
He shrugged and got in the car.
I sat down on the driver’s seat, started the engine, then turned to him. He was staring out the windshield, letting the carnival lights paint his expressionless face. “You know, if you hadn’t…”
“I know, Matt,” he interrupted.
“You did what you had to,” I said.
Nick didn’t respond, just shifted the rearview mirror so we could see Rory sprawled on the backseat. I put the Crown Vic in gear and steered us toward the road.
J. Webster lives and labors in Hattiesburg, where he studies creative writing at The University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. He originally hails from Jackson, Michigan, once home to the world’s largest walled prison until they tore down the walls and put up fencing topped with razor-wire Slinkys.