First Published in 'Demonic Carnival: First Ticket's Free" 2019
“One of ‘em elephant ears…”
The man at the counter was a great breathless mountain of skin and bones, peaked with a swollen face that reminded Luby of a side of ham that had been left out for several days. His stubble-shadowed cheeks were a sour burnt red, his hair a thin buzz of reddish gray. His eyes, the color of old dishwater, probed beneath a blister of shimmering sweat, trying vainly to read the laminated menu affixed above the warm glow of the heating trays as a silky strand of saliva came rolling off the great slug of his upper lip.
“Uh, what else did I get again?”
She glanced down at the tiny faded letters on the paper. “One double-chocolate deep fried corn dog with crushed Oreo and whipped cream, large Diet Pepsi...” She paused, clicking the crusted old buttons of the register to record the dollar-fifty for the elephant ear. The feel was crusty, callused with grime like old scabs. Never cleaned, the white of its plastic case stained a deep mustard yellow like everything in FRIED OPEN PLAIN. “Then one bag of kettle corn with extra butter, the elephant ear, and--”
“Yes sir.” She handed him the ear, which Camberline had just silently laid down on the warmer. The fresh dough, doused in butter, glistened in the sun. “One cotton burger with cheese and bacon. Anything else you want?”
The man shook his head and took out his wallet. He opened it and then stopped suddenly. Beside him a woman had appeared, muttering in his ear, in the mysterious way old women often muttered at older men. A worried frown crept across his face. “How much?” he asked.
He nodded, unsmiling, and began pulling out a twenty.
“Hold on a second!” The woman’s voice was an agitated squawk, her wrinkled mouth stretched in ready outrage. “Fifteen dollars? Is that what you said?”
The woman looked at the man, incensed, “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Wode?”
Luby winced. Already she knew what was about to happen. Had known, in fact, since the moment she had noticed that muttering.
“Well?” Her voice was loud, shrill and piercing, several passers-by stared. “Answer me, fat ass, you’re about to spend fifteen bucks on some nasty food?”
“I’m hungry,” the man mewled, “what does it matter?”
“It’s killing you, that’s what it matters.” The woman reached out and prodded his belly with a cracked pink nail. Hard sharp in the center of overflowing flesh behind the stretched cotton of his KS Wildcats t-shirt. “That’s killing you, see? Idiot.”
“Hey, that hurt!”
“Did it now? Surprised you can feel anything through that tank of lard.” The woman giggled contemptuously and turned back to the counter, her smile vanishing into a look of accusation. “My husband, he has a condition,” she said, slowly, enunciating every word, the way Luby had come to learn a lot of folks did when they saw a woman with dark skin and raven black hair in a service position, as though she hadn’t just been speaking perfect English seconds before. “What can you can do?”
“The price!” The woman looked impatient. “Fifteen bucks…it’s a lot don’t you think? Especially when you know you shouldn’t really be selling it - A bartender wouldn’t sell liquor to a drunk, would they?”
“I’ll pay five, how’s that? Seeing’s as you already started makin’ it.”
Luby stared, wondering if the woman was joking. She wasn’t. “It don’t work that way.”
“You’re really gonna charge us fifteen bucks?”
“You seriously want me to pay you fifteen goddamn dollars for some disgusting fried shit for this fat ass that’ll see him dead within a year?” She grabbed the man’s huge neck, the way a poacher might a dead piece of game. “Look at him!”
“Do you want me to just cancel your order?”
The woman glared. Her husband’s red face turned redder. Behind him a family of four, two young kids, were eyeing the couple miserably. “It ain’t that much,” Wode blurted, unexpectedly, turning to his wife with a kind of fearful anger, “less’n you spend on that damn cat!”
She turned, “What?”
“Fucker’s sixteen for chrissakes! That’s like goddamn ninety years old! Tut you’re still buying him goddamn sweaters and shit and all I want is somethin’ to eat for the--”
“Pardon me,” Luby began, “sir…ma’am…other people are waiting.”
“Shush!” Mrs. Wode turned to her husband, her eyes tearful, “You bastard! Say that again and I’ll--”
“You’ll do what? Set your damn cat on me?”
The voice behind, its sudden emergence of the heavily accented calm behind where Luby stood jolted her in surprise and silenced the bickering couple. There, Camberline was holding one of the Styrofoam trays, her wrinkled face locked in a wide smile as she plopped it gently on the counter in front of Wode, whose eyes almost fell from his skull in astonishment. Astonishment and hunger. Luby could hardly blame him for the former, at least. The cotton burger was a particularly odd creation; a gruesome creation that smelled almost as bad as it looked…and it looked like sweet hell.
Sweet, sweet hell.
It was no true burger at all, of course, but two deep-fried Krispy-Kreme glazed donuts with sprinkles that were pinned with skewers to a ‘patty’, and the patty was the true genius. Ground meat mixed with cotton-candy, the latter balled tight like loft insulation, engulfing the tiny quantity of flesh. Then, the whole thing was dipped in a coat of batter and fried for just thirty seconds, long enough to turn crispy (although the raw ground beef remained bloody) but short enough so that it would not dissolve in the corn oil. The result was a crisp, alien object. A thing that looked, Luby thought, like a radioactive tumor more than any kind of food. The smell was an over-sweet, caramelized stink that was not unlike the smell of a corpse. Mixed with the savory grease of two slices of processed cheese with ketchup, mustard and a slice of bacon, it made her stomach churn. Even years after Pappa had first proudly shown her it, she had never got used to it. A lot of the food FRIED OPEN PLAIN sold she felt that way about. Most of it.
The fat man, however, looked like a kid on Christmas Day.
“Let’s go, Wode.”
Before Luby could react, the woman had snatched the cotton burger on its Styrofoam tray up and turned and the two of them vanished into the crowd. She watched them leave, sliding her hand into her pocket to take out sixteen dollars from yesterday’s pay to give to the drawer, her lips mumbling a greeting to the family who had been waiting. She took their order in silence. Behind, she could feel Camberline lingering. Her wrinkled old face watching.
By nightfall the fairground was quiet but for the distant rattle-rattle of small change being emptied and counted and occasionally a trash truck making its rounds. Occasionally there were the sparse murmurings of chatter and occasional clicks of distant laughter. Small disturbances that passed across air wounded by agitated pollen, rotting food, and a thousand different smoldering generators.
Mostly, though, all was quiet. As noisy as the fair was by day, it was like a graveyard by night as the place of a million sensory explosions became a dead zone.
Except for the smell.
What came from the fryer had infested every one of Luby’s memories for the past nineteen and a half years, infusing each with an unending concoction of rich and vile odors. It was a smell she could not wash off, no matter how many bars of soap she scraped across her skin. Grease from hundreds of forgotten orders danced from the dimly lighted kitchen – the place behind the partition where Pappa spent his days.
Now she could hear him.
He was hard at work as usual, brushing up the remnants of gristle and batter and crumbs that had fallen to the tile. The remains of donut burgers and Twinkie sundaes and M&M nuggets and Fried Smore dumplings and Pas special ‘Funnel Cake ‘N’ Steak Surprise’ and all the other things FRIED OPEN PLAIN served up. The smells moved through Luby’s brain as if in some conga line as she labored through counting the money in the till.
“Finish?” The heavy accent again – the word was spoken with exaggerated vowels: Feeneesh? Luby turned her head. There, shrouded by the electric bulbs, Camberline stood, small and elfin over by a sagging sack of trash. In the light her face was the color of French mustard and even more haggard than usual. Luby stared at her, surprised. Not by the question, but more the mere fact Camberline was talking to her at all. In the three weeks since they had hired the old lady on, she could not remember her beginning a single conversation.
“I wish,” Luby said, smiling politely.
Camberline came closer, eyeing the register curiously, as though it was some foreign object. Luby wondered if she was going to offer to help. She hoped not. For one thing, Pappa would not allow outsiders to touch his cash. Even old ladies. For another thing, Luby doubted she would be any real help. If anything, she would probably slow the whole thing up.
Luby shook her head. “But there’s not much more, really. Just need to...check my figures. Few minutes maybe, if that.” She rubbed her eyes with her other hand. “How about you, Camberline? Cleaning done?”
She thought that would be enough. If there was one thing she thought she knew about the old woman it was that she hated anybody offering to help her clean anything. But, to her surprise, the old woman didn’t move. “Me se,” she said, stepping closer. Suddenly she reached up and, to Luby’s surprise, drew her long, brown fingernail in a gentle stroke across Luby’s cheek. “Na biandola dandencar. Pe ca?”
Luby stared, surprised. “Huh?”
“You do not speak, chavorro?”
Somewhere in the back she could hear the industrious scrape of Pappa still grinding free the burned rinds of whatever had scalded the grill top. Poor Camberline, she remembered Pappa saying, she’s had such a difficult life, Lubela. She wasn’t like us, she had to escape the old lands herself. she’s a good person, hard working--
“Ah, I’m a little rusty,” Luby said, blushing, “more than a little rusty, actually.”
“Rust?” Camberline repeated. “What rust?”
“Out of practice, I mean. My father, he doesn’t speak the old language much.”
The woman nodded gravely. “This I know.”
“Yeah. Well, I better get this done.” Luby turned away, her head beginning to hurt. Truth be told, she didn’t feel comfortable around Camberline, and felt increasingly less comfortable the longer she was there. In the past, she had always got along okay with the seasonal help. Valentina, the Mexican girl Pappa had hired last summer, had been a good friend. So had Jose, an older man with kind eyes who had taught her to play the harmonica. All of them she had liked for one reason or another.
But not Camberline.
Pappa had not mentioned how he had found her or where; only that one day he had brought her into their motorhome and told Luby she would be working with them for the season. Had she been a little younger, Luby could have understood (Pappa was a man, after all, and Mamma had been dead since she was a toddler) but this was nothing like that. This old woman, whose exact age Luby did not know but she had to be almost seventy, had just materialized somewhere between Marla, Texas and Oklahoma City and had accompanied FRIED OPEN PLAIN from the Tulsa-Newitt rodeo to the state fair in Hutchinson, Kansas, by way of the Hewell County Strawberry Festival. She thought perhaps what made her uncomfortable was the very thing that shouldn’t: Because she was a Roma, just like Pappa and she was, technically at least. Luby had met few Roma in her life, there weren’t many in Oklahoma, Texas or Kansas, and there was something about that fact which seemed to make a difference. Why, she could not say.
“Can you try speak?” Camberline asked, gently, “maybe our sayings? Or songs?”
Guiltily, Luby looked down at the cash, where in the dark Andrew Jackson regarded her cautiously.
Luby shrugged. “Nope."
"Bad." She was staring out at the darkened fairground, her mouth twisted in disgust like some old Puritan as she surveyed the empty stalls, the garbage that littered the grass. “Very bad. It’s true what they say, what they warn.” Camberline regarded her, the smirk vanishing, becoming a disappointment. “You do not know of this either, chavarro?”
Luby shook her head blankly.
Luby felt her face reddening, like the way Wode’s had. Something about the question, the disappointment, filled her with irrational guilt.
“A true Roma woman would know this," the old woman continued, her finger wagging. “No respect, this much I know, no interest.”
Luby felt a sudden twist of indignation. “The only reason I don’t know that stuff is because nobody told me!”
“This I know.” The old woman smiled in the yellow light. “But they will not care for your excuses.”
“What are you even talking about?”
“The Calusari.” . Even in the yellow light, she seemed to pale slightly. “The guardians of our blood, they are watching. They are unhappy. This is why they send me, see."
“I don’t understand what you’re saying. Now excuse me--"
“Na biandola dandencar - the child is not born with teeth.” Camberline’s lip trembled slightly. “These old wisdoms of our people, your people, so you claim. But your father, he did wrong for not teaching. Very wrong."
“How about this one? O shoshoy kaste si feri yek khiv sigo athadjol, O... The rabbit which has only one hole...soon is caught.”
“Gotcha.” She scooped quarters from the register’s inner tray. “Listen, Camberline, I’m gonna finish up here and go back to bed, okay? I’m tired.”
“But you must say you will learn!”
“Honestly, I was just being polite. I’m not all that interested in it."
The old woman stared, distraught in a way that no longer troubled Luby but began to amuse her. She wished Pappa would come out, and briefly thought to go find him, anything to get away from this tiresome old hag, but that seemed a silly response. A childish one. She was nineteen, for chrissakes. The woman was a pain in the ass. Probably insane, too.
“My name’s Luby. Now go away!”
And then Luby heard the music. Coming from the kitchen, one of the old folk songs with its sinewy fiddle and howling vocals. For a moment she couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, then remembered Pappa had a cassette radio back there. Usually when he played music it was the Rolling Stones or Billy Joel or some other dad-age classic rock. But occasionally he would play the traditional music. For the same reasons, she supposed, he had hired Camberline. Nothing more than a token gesture born of guilt. And now that token gesture was going to bug the hell out of her.
“Ajsi bori lachi...”
Camberline’s hand had taken hold of her hand, which still held a fistful of uncounted dimes, and was gripping it so hard it almost hurt.
“...xal bilondo,” the old woman muttered, “phenel londo…londo...”
The dimes spilled, the zinc glistened in the flicker of neon across the thoroughfare, from some High Striker machine the operator had either forgotten about or simply decided to let wear out its battery. Behind, in the kitchen, the old fiddle song was replaced instead by the clopping of a tambourine, followed by a willowy vocal.
“You know this one, chavarro? It is very famous. A love song.”
Camberline’s face, she realized, was no longer there. It was a shadow. She looked up, startled, only now realizing the lights that hung about the counter had darkened down to a feeble glower and were barely emitting any light at all. Meanwhile the light in Pappa’s kitchen had gone completely. It was pitch black. Inside she could hear, or thought she could, the light tapping of fingers to the tambourine.
“The Calusari." Camberline’s brown nail grazed her cheek. "They have come.
Luby opened her mouth.There was a sharp crackling. A second later the rest of the lights went out. In the dark, Luby felt a something pressed to her throat. Something thin and cold. Something that drained the scream.
“I’ll take one of ‘em elephant ears…”
She clicked the buttons. An easy job it was, just clicking buttons.
The fat man reached for his pocket and then stopped, frowning. He leaned in, almost whispering. “Wasn’t it a dollar fifty yesterday?”
“Oh, you’re right.” She nodded, smiling. Not knowing how to take the item off, she typed it again. “One dollar...fifty.”
The man looked pleased. “Sorry,” he mumbled, “don’t usually care…it’s just I promised my wife I wouldn’t spend so much money today."
“Certainly,” she replied, smiling.
“Big soda too,” the man said, rubbing his mouth with his forearm. "Pepsi."
The man shook his reddish head slowly, while his eyes stroked the words on the wall. His brow began to furrow in intrigue. “What’s that there? Some sort of burger, huh?”
She didn’t look. Didn’t need to. It was a popular choice already. Several had been sold just since that morning. “Delicious,” she said, holding her smile.
“Well, what is it?”
She flicked her eyelashes flirtatiously. There was no guilt. She had done nothing to render guilt. It had been their direction. Such things were meant to be. “Fresh meat," she murmured back.
The man stared, uncertainly. "
“You will like it.” She smiled at him. “It's much like steak, only deep-fried. Tender and thick and with all the -- ah -- juices.”
“Wow,” he said, the salivation growing, oozing from his lips as he handed over a twenty-dollar bill. “How long?"
"No time at all," Camberline said, nodding appreciatively as she pushed the bill deep inside her pocket. Through the fragrant vapor of the fryer, she looked back to the kitchen and smiled.