“You do realize if you are apprehended, I will disavow this conversation ever took place,” Tuttle had said.
“‘Scuse me?” Maynard had said.
“If they catch you, I won’t know you.”
J. Lawrence Tuttle had worn a gray suit that looked like it had been new off the rack. His face had been clean-shaven and had a pinkish hue. His black hair was neatly parted, and a watch chain led from his breast pocket to his vest button.
Elias Maynard’s suit had long since started to come apart at the seams. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, and he knew he probably smelled something foul. Although, by now, he had gotten used to it. Maynard glanced up and saw a framed diploma from Harvard Law School. It made sense. Tuttle wouldn’t forgo the opportunity to display his pedigree. The rest of the office was immaculately clean. All of the books were in alignment, and a grandfather clock ticked away in the corner. Tuttle must have had a thing for timepieces.
Tuttle’s suit and the office itself seemed out of place for the times, though. Most of those items could have been sold to avoid the breadlines, but Maynard imagined Tuttle was steadfast about keeping up appearances. Tuttle had also seemed like the kind of person who loved the sound of his own voice, so it didn’t surprise Maynard that he had to sit through a lecture. It began with the birth of the motion picture industry and went on tangents. Tuttle defined positions on the set, who was responsible for what, and various steps and processes in which a film was made. Each time Tuttle wound down, something would spark another thought, and he’d sit back up in his chair fully animated.
Maynard had replayed the conversation over again in his head, now, as he watched Piggy and Fluffy take in a jazz concert in the cartoon You Don’t Know What You’re Doin. The theater had been packed but Clem had been easy to spot in the darkness. Seated next to Maynard, Clem shoved another handful of popcorn into his mouth and chewed unmercifully. Maynard had already assured Clem they could get another bag if the vendor was still outside. Clem sat enamored even though he had seen the cartoon at least five times in as many days. Around them was the raucous laughter of children.
Clem was probably blocking the view of everyone a few rows in back of him, but no one had approached the behemoth. Even though he was what they called shell shocked, at 6’7”, Clem was a force to be reckoned with. Nearly as wide as he was tall, he’d been fired from labor jobs for not knowing his own strength and destroying what had been referred to as irreplaceable equipment. Clem had kicked around for a while like a rudderless ship on the ocean until he had hooked up with Maynard.
Maynard had recognized Clem’s potential.
Maynard himself had been a rigger turned spotlight operator in the theater union hanging lights for Vaudeville and magic acts like Chao Kong Moon. Before that, Maynard had tried his hand at a few different schemes. When those failed, he participated in a final gambit, a marathon dancing contest with Loretta. When things had been at their worst, Maynard always had Loretta. Even when he had humiliated himself to make an extra cent, she still loved him unconditionally. The dance marathon had been his idea, and though she was lame, she joined him without hesitation. They had managed to last for almost fifty hours before being disqualified for sleeping. Maynard was already contemplating their next move when she complained she didn’t feel well. She fainted as soon as they left the dance hall. After she had died from dehydration, Maynard almost lost his will to live.
He found work with Hy Sugarman. Sugerman hadn’t been part of a large outfit like Murder Inc., but he’d been involved with Undzer Shtik. Sugarman had made his fortune bootlegging, but his current enterprise was loansharking. When people couldn’t pay the 20% vig, and rarely could they, Sugarman would ask Maynard to go collect. Maynard, himself, was not intimidating, but when people saw Clem they’d make whatever deal they could.
Clem had started to get worse, though. He’d have flashbacks; fine one moment, then screaming about incoming projectiles and Jerries coming over the top. This last time, Clem had almost killed the guy. To make things worse, the man had cooperated with them and given up some collateral. Clem had gotten the faraway look and started barking out commands. He had gripped the man’s head with his bare hands and began to squeeze. Maynard had touched Clem’s chest, made eye contact, and was able to bring him back to reality. The man had passed out, but thankfully, he had mostly recovered. Not that the guy was in a position to do anything, but still. Maynard couldn’t be certain, but he assumed it had been this incident that had put him on Tuttle’s radar.
The cartoon ended and a newspaper reel appeared.
The voice and photos had been about the United States Occupation of Nicaragua. Clem started making some guttural noises that Maynard recognized as warning signs of another outburst. Maynard guessed it was seeing photos of dead bodies. The crowd around them quieted and a child started to cry; it wouldn’t be long before someone alerted security. Maynard was able to steer Clem outside. Once he was in daylight, Clem returned to his old self. Maynard made a mental note to confiscate the bayonet Clem had kept as a souvenir and carried on him.
“Let’s go,” Maynard said.
Clem seemed disappointed he was going to miss the next showing.
“A few more?” Clem said.
“How many times you seen ‘em?” Maynard said.
Clem’s face soured, but he followed Maynard when he started to walk. Out in the sunlight, both of their eyes took a moment to adjust. Clem’s overalls had been big on him, but now they sagged.
“We going to wear the signs today?” Clem said.
Maynard calmly went over the plan again, even though it wasn’t the first time. Maynard’s stomach growled. Once they got Randian, Maynard would have a steak; if any place still served them. The last time he’d had a steak was maybe ’27.
Tuttle probably still had steak.
Tuttle had been hired to do contracts for Metro Goldwyn Mayer. His latest project was a film titled Freaks that was going to use legitimate sideshow performers. The idea developed over time once he reviewed the insurance papers for the film. The cast was unique and couldn’t be replaced. If one of them was held for ransom, the studio would have no choice but to pay. Tuttle had needed operatives to execute the plan. Clem and Maynard would pose as part of the production, go to the commissary during lunch, and take Prince Randian, one of the cast members, who had neither arms nor legs.
One of the tangents on which Tuttle had expounded was of a scene from the film he’d watched in which Prince Randian uses nothing but his mouth to light a cigarette while an able-bodied man watches.
“The film’s done?” Maynard had said.
“They’re still editing. I was able to watch this scene ahead of time,” Tuttle had said and gone back to his story.
When he’s finished lighting his cigarette, Prince Randian asks the man whether the man can do anything with his eyebrows? The way Tuttle explained the caper, it would be simple; no more standing in bread lines, wearing job-seeking placards, or any of the other indignities. Tuttle had already arranged for their entrance on the lot. The following day, Clem and Maynard entered the commissary and saw their target.
Prince Randian sat at a table with a few other cast members. A woman who sat next to him, either a nurse or his wife, fed him soup. Johnny Eck, the amazing half-boy, sat with them. Eck had been missing the lower half of his body. Tuttle had gone through cast photos with Maynard, so there wouldn’t be any confusion, but Maynard had already been familiar with Eck from Maynard’s time working for Chao Kong Moon. Eck and his brother had gotten started doing a magic act and the circuit was pretty small.
The table was rounded out with a few pinheads and a woman who looked like a bird. Tuttle had mentioned the medical affliction for these final performers, but Maynard hadn’t been paying attention. It didn’t matter. In a few hours, he could forget all about all of it, close this unfortunate chapter of his life, and stop having nightmares about Loretta. Maynard had walked a few steps before he realized Clem hadn’t moved. He turned and saw Clem had entered another one of his fugue states. Clem’s lower lip began to tremble as he took in the sideshow performers.
“Whizbang!” Clem screamed.
The entire commissary stopped and turned their attention. Maynard rushed over to aid his friend. Maynard could only imagine seeing the limbless actors had triggered Clem who probably imagined he was back in the trenches on The Western Front.
“Boche!” Clem yelled. It was what they had called the German soldiers.
“Easy,” Maynard said and touched Clem’s arm. Clem’s eyes grew wide.
Maynard was able to walk a few feet with the bayonet protruding from his chest before he collapsed.
Andrew Davie received an MFA in creative writing from Adelphi University. He taught English in Macau on a Fulbright Grant. In June of 2018, he survived a ruptured brain aneurysm and subarachnoid hemorrhage. His work can be found in links on his website asdavie.wordpress.com.