Leigh Kirkland >

Invitation to the Night


Even though it was pouring rain, there was a pretty good crowd the last day the carnival was set up at the county fairgrounds for the Shriners’ Circus.

Verlin sat under a red-and-white striped awning, water pouring over the edges in gushes where the support poles had leaned in to make gullies in the canvas. The cold drained all the color out of his face. He was with the rides and the games, the midway hired out of Nashville to travel with the circus. He didn’t have much to say to the people who came by his booth, but his job didn’t call for a lot of hawking. People who wanted to go through the Indiana Jones Obstacle Course had to buy tickets at the central ticket booth, and Verlin just took the melting paper out of their hands and sent them past the gate and up the stairs.

From where he sat, he could see Bobby Garvin and Shelbra in Bobby’s ring toss booth. Bobby was hollering at passers-by, calling them over to play. Verlin couldn’t see why any of them would want the stuffed animals and dull plaster lamps they could win if they got enough rings over the point counters. Shelbra was staring at Bobby like he was some kind of world-famous revival preacher.

He couldn’t stand watching them, watching Shelbra love that sorry man, so he yelled at the kids walking ankle deep in mud, to come into his ride. It wasn’t really a ride, and he didn’t care if they came, but he couldn’t look at Shelbra looking at Bobby without screaming something. Neither of them took any notice if they heard him. Just about the time Verlin started yelling, Garvin pulled down the tarp across the front of his booth and grabbed Shelbra. Verlin knew that was what happened because he could see them through the crack between the tarp and the canvas side of the booth. Two kids stopped their parents in front of Verlin and handed him their tickets. Verlin hollered at some more kids behind them.

In about ten minutes, Garvin rolled the tarp back up. Shelbra’s face was flushed and her eyes were wet. Garvin’s chest was swelled up like he’d done something nobody else in the world could do. Verlin knew that wasn’t true, but he did wish he wasn’t the only man in the world that couldn’t do it. Shelbra was looking at Garvin and she didn’t notice what Verlin was doing to round up business for his game.

A kid with water dripping off his glasses handed Verlin a wet crinkled ticket red as a paper heart. Verlin tore it in two and sat back on the stool as the kid ran up the stairs to the slide. Shelbra hollered at the men walking by, leaning out over the counter so they could look down the front of her shirt if they wanted to. They all wanted to. Even when she was yelling how lucky they looked, it sounded like she was whispering in Verlin’s ear. Garvin leaned back against the set-up, watching men just about fall face-down in the mud to get next to Shelbra. He headed out the back to the latrine once he made sure Shelbra could handle his sleazy game, like he didn’t know she’d been working steady since she was fourteen years old. The rain got harder and the crowd ran for shelter under the food tents that the Shriners had set up on the high ground at the grassy end of the fairgrounds.

“You do a better job of that than your boyfriend does,” Verlin yelled over to her.

“Thanks, Verlin,” she yelled back. “One thing I could always do is draw a crowd.”

The old man who owned the Indiana Jones Obstacle Course came up to Verlin in a yellow slicker and hip boots, wanting to see his receipts. By the time he left, Garvin was back from the head.

Verlin was eating by himself at a picnic table in the barbecue sandwich tent when the people from the freak shows came in. There weren’t many real human freaks who’d join a rinky-dink midway like this one, but the home office in Nashville had messed up and sent three Billy The Human Vegetables, The 21-Year-Old Boy Destroyed by Drugs out on this tour. But all three of them were doing pretty decent business. The three-man teams working the Vegetable trailers took turns being Billy—sitting behind the plexiglass window looking vacant-eyed while the wet customers dragged through. Some of the Billys let out a scream now and then if the ticket holders didn’t act like they thought they were getting their buck-fifty’s worth.

When the boys from Billy Trailer One came in to buy half-price barbecue sandwiches from the Shriners’ wives, the original Billy, a white-eyed blonde, was shaking all over and his voice was as screechy as Shelbra trying to play Garvin’s saxophone in the middle of the night. One of the ladies’ husbands, a Shriner shriveled from years of riding in a miniature car that wouldn’t go straight, only in circles, was smoking and acting like he was overseeing the women’s auxiliary. His red fez came over his ears, weighted with diamond decorations. The wives wore less ornate fezzes as they dished up coleslaw and baked beans with ice-cream scoops onto paper plates, while the old man kept tabs, and Billy paced the perimeter of the tent, his steps as erratic as the water dripping a square moat under the awning.

While his companions counted out cold dollar bills and wet quarters, Billy slammed his fist down between the salt and pepper shakers in front of Verlin. His soggy plate bounced, and the plastic spoon jumped off the table.

“What are you doing here, Griffis?” Billy said.

“Eating my supper, bud,” Verlin said without looking up. His hands were folded into fists on either side of his plate, the plastic fork jutting from his right hand.

“I know you’re eating,” Billy said. “I mean, what are you doing here?”

Billy’s cohorts were settling down at a table across the empty tent from Verlin.

“Leave him alone, Jud,” one of them said.

“You want some tea, Jud?” another asked.

“I don’t want no god-damn tea,” Billy-Jud said. “I want to know why Verlin Griffis thinks a millworker belongs in this carnival.”

“Come on, Jud.”

“You go back to that mill, Griffis,” Billy-Jud said. “See if you can organize you a union or something.”

Verlin picked up his plate and half his sandwich dumped out on the ground. He bent over and picked it out of a puddle. The halves of the bun came apart and the rainwater turned orange with thin sauce and fatty pork. Outside, he stabbed himself in the hand with the plastic fork. Avis Trapnell, covering while Verlin was on break, was pulling in young girls off the midway because they thought he looked like Indiana Jones, cracking his leatherette whip. Verlin smoked a cigarette for his last two minutes.

“You know, you’re better than the movie,” Verlin said to Avis when the crowd thinned.

“It’s all show biz,” Avis said. “You eat?”

“Yeah. Wasn’t fit to eat though.” Verlin uncupped his hand from around his cigarette and the rain put it out.

“Shelbra said you weren’t acting like you felt up to snuff,” Avis said. “You want to head back to the trailer and get some shut-eye? I’ll cover the rest of the afternoon. Last day anyway.”

“Think I’ll take you up on that,” Verlin said. “Shelbra and Garvin go eat?”

The tarp was pulled down tight on Garvin’s booth. Verlin didn’t want to think about what they were doing if they weren’t at supper.

“Nope. They went off to find some liquor for tonight.” Avis snapped the whip at his yellow boots. In the motor home he shared with Ed Gosse, who ran the kiddy cars, Verlin hadn’t been in bed long enough for his feet to warm up before a gong reverberating in the thunder made him jump out of bed. He jerked the door open and looked up the hill from the grassy lakeside where the motor homes were parked, expecting to see the Tilt-A-Whirl folded over on itself, the blood of teenagers spurting from the tangled metal.

Garvin was on top of the motor home parked next to Verlin’s, the one he shared with Shelbra, his knees slightly bent like he’d just landed. The metal sides of the Winnebago were still shuddering. His black hair was wild against the charcoal clouds over the lake.

Shelbra was standing with her back to Verlin, arms wrapped around herself. Her butter blonde hair was uncurling in the rain. Verlin ran to her barefooted through the icy water overflowing from the lake.

“Shelbra?” he said.

She turned to him, her face set in dramatic terror.

“Are you okay?” Verlin asked.

“I am, Verlin, but Bobby’s trying to fix the TV antenna and he’s about to get struck by lightning up on that aluminum trailer.”

“He’s fixing the antenna now?” Verlin asked.

“He’s a perfectionist,” Shelbra said. “You know how he is.” Which was not true at all.

Verlin put his arms around Shelbra’s shoulders to keep the rain off her. He’d been following her around since she was thirteen, but he was her second cousin. He wondered if she knew how he felt.

Bobby Garvin sloshed over to the TV antenna. He slipped as he got to the back of the motor home. Before he caught himself on the antenna, Shelbra put both arms around Verlin’s waist and leaned her face into his chest.

“I’m getting make-up all over you,” she said.

“It’s always washed out before,” he said, appreciating any chance to wrap his arms around her. Garvin jerked the antenna around, slipping, angry, slinging his head back, water flying out of his hair. He didn’t pay any attention to Shelbra or Verlin. He had too much rage at his television reception and the rain.

The rain got harder. Bobby Garvin kicked at the adjusted antenna and spun to the edge of the motor home. He bent over and grabbed the lip of the roof and pushed himself over in a somersault. Shelbra turned loose of Verlin and ran into the trailer, the door slamming behind her. Garvin bent his knees and the soles of his shoes hit flat against the side of the motor home. His arms straightened under the weight of his body, and he dropped into the grass. The boys from the Billy shows, coming down the hill from the midway, hooted and cheered. Bobby Garvin fell over onto all fours, picked himself up, slapping grass and water from his hands, and stomped into the trailer without looking at Verlin or any of them.

Shelbra’s voice came through the slatted windows, shrill and panicky, the way it used to sound when her sister Wanda found the rent money Shelbra’d saved, and spent it on Dynel wigs or some new costume for her exotic-dancer act at the Cheetah III. Bobby Garvin’s voice came after, low and guttural, saying something that made Shelbra laugh. Verlin went back to his trailer, soaked to the skin.

That night Verlin walked through the crowd of Shriners and carneys, drinking a can of beer and looking for Shelbra. The rain had stopped, but the ground was still soupy and slick.
It seemed like the Shriners and their wives looked forward to the last-night party all year. For the carnival people it was just the night before they drove the clumsy trailers to set up at another wet clay field.

Ed Gosse hit him in the shoulder. Ed’s other arm was around Rhea Harms, who ran the Tilt-A-Whirl with her daddy.

“Partying hard, Verlin?” Ed was drunk.

“Hell no,” Rhea said. “He’s just mooning over his blonde angel.” Rhea’s cuticles were black from the greasy chains and gears under the Tilt-A-Whirl. “You better watch out for that Garvin. He knows what you’re up to.”

“Come on, honey.” Ed squeezed Rhea. “Verlin ain’t blind. He knows he’s no match for old Bob.”

“Y’all have fun,” Verlin said. “I’m going to get me another beer.”

“Don’t be in any hurry to get back to the trailer, Verlin.”

“You got it, Ed. Don’t catch anything.”

Rhea flipped him the bird behind her back.

Past the crowd of wrinkled Shriners, rhinestone scimitars glittering on their red fezzes, Bobby Garvin carried a tall plastic cup to Shelbra. She took it and put both arms around Garvin’s neck to kiss him. Verlin saw them and turned away. The crown of one of the pearl snaps on the cuff of his new baby-blue cowboy shirt had already fallen off somewhere, leaving a gap like a broken tooth.

The midway was about deserted. Verlin sat on a folding chair he’d hauled to the top of the Indiana Jones Obstacle Course. Rhea and Ed staggered toward the motor home. Verlin checked his watch. Gosse would be passed out within thirty minutes, and, not long after, Rhea would slam out of the trailer, mad and frustrated.

Clouds were streaking across the face of the moon, and the sky looked blue and clean. The door to Garvin’s Winnebago opened, and Shelbra pranced down the steps in the red velveteen cape to her majorette outfit. Bobby Garvin came around the side hoisting an extension ladder on his shoulder. When he saw the glitter of Shelbra’s sequins, he stopped, planting the feet of the ladder in the mud in front of him. Shelbra let the cape drop. It made Verlin desperate to see them kiss through the rungs of the ladder, but he couldn’t look away. Shelbra stepped onto the first rung while Garvin held the ladder, to bring her face up even with his. Bobby stepped back, still holding the rails of the ladder, kissing Shelbra and pulling her towards him as she stretched her arms up the ladder, her baton in her right hand.

She leaned away from Bobby Garvin and stepped down, twirling her baton, passing it between her legs, spinning around and leaving the baton hanging, catching it in front of her. Then she threw that baton up in the air like Verlin had seen her do a thousand times practicing for the junior majorette squad before she quit Palmetto High. The mercury lights from the county animal shelter across the lake caught the silver of the baton as it turned end over end, like she’d thrown a star up there in the sky and it was spinning just because she wanted it to. While she was throwing her baton and twirling for him, Bobby Garvin lay the ladder on the ground. He was fitting a reed into his saxophone, licking the reed and touching the brass keys with a lot more love than Verlin had ever seen him touch Shelbra. Bobby Garvin was touching that sax the way Verlin wanted to touch Shelbra. As soon as Shelbra caught her baton and went down on one knee with her arms spread wide, Garvin started playing.

Sorry as Garvin was, Verlin had to give him one thing: he could really blow that saxophone. Shelbra had always had a thing for sax players, which no one in Palmetto could understand. The band director kicked her off the majorette squad for messing around with one of them on the band bus coming back from an away game. It was on account of that she quit high school. But that joker had nothing on Garvin, for music or sorriness.

Because he couldn’t stand seeing Shelbra stand there like she was in a trance while Garvin played, Verlin looked up at the moon. The stars were twinkling like Shelbra’s baton a hundred times over. When he looked down after the music stopped, they were gone.

Shelbra’s red cape was still laying in the grass between the two motor homes. When Verlin picked it up, he got a big whiff of that Shalimar Imposter she talked him into buying for her at the Drug Emporium in Palmetto before the carnival came. He spread the cape over his hands, across his face, inhaling her smell. He sat down on the steps of his own motor home, rubbing his face on the velveteen.

He heard a mechanical click and jerked up. Shelbra was in the door across from him, still wearing her sequined majorette suit. Wearing it again is more like it, he thought. It wasn’t like he could pretend she was out looking for him.

She grinned. “You wearing my cape, Verlin?”

“Thinking about it,” he said. “When you going to stop dropping your clothes wherever the notion strikes you, Shelbra?”

“I guess when you stop picking up behind me, I’ll have to.”

Verlin was embarrassed at how long he’d been covering her tracks. She sat on the step below him and put her head in his lap.

“You sorry you came, Verlin?”

“Hah,” he said. “Wasn’t like the mill was going to open back up and nobody else was going to give me a job.”

“Maybe not,” she said, “but it wasn’t like you would have hooked up with the carnival if it hadn’t been for me and Bobby.”

He sighed and slung the cape around her. He put his hands in her curly hair.

“Real cute, Shelbra,” Garvin said.

They both jumped. Garvin was standing at his door wearing those dark bikini underpants Shelbra bought for him at Wal-Mart. Verlin slid his fingers out of Shelbra’s hair as Garvin marched over to him like he was wearing a full suit of clothes. Shelbra jumped up but Bobby Garvin brushed her out of his way before she could say a word. He stepped right up next to Verlin like he wasn’t parading around in underpants that looked like he stole them off Rod Stewart’s clothesline.

“I know what you’re up to, Griffis. Jud and Rhea both told me about you. You stay away. I could be Shelbra’s last chance to be happy.” Then he went back in without Shelbra. They heard the door lock behind him.

Shelbra’s cape dropped to the ground. Her shoulders just wouldn’t hold it. In the greenish light from the window, Verlin could see the sequins coming loose around the zipper of her majorette suit.

“I sure can pick ‘em, can’t I, Verlin?” The light from the TV flickered through Garvin’s windows.

“He’ll cool off in a minute,” Verlin said.

She didn’t act like she’d heard him. “I spend half my life serving fried eggs at Waffle House to support Mama so Wanda can be the only exotic dancer in Atlanta who don’t make good money, and when I finally run off, I end up locked out of another trailer in the middle of the night.”

“At least it’s not raining. And you’ve always got me,” Verlin said. “You know?”

“I should have stayed in Palmetto where I knew everybody thought I was trash. I didn’t have to come off to hear it from some sorry man in the middle of nowhere.”

Verlin couldn’t stand her talking like that. He ran and got the ladder that was laying where Garvin left it. He banged it up against the back of the Winnebago where the TV antenna was.

His throat felt like it would bust open from his being so mad.

When he got on the roof, he grabbed the antenna at the root like it was a big weed and jerked it out with both hands. Beating it against the roof, he screamed for Garvin to come out.

“You don’t talk to Shelbra like that, Garvin. You don’t talk to her like that.”

Garvin slammed the door open so hard the door handle whanged against the side. He was still in his underpants and, even in the dark, Verlin could see his chest and face were red.

“You don’t tell me how to talk to nobody, Verlin Griffis. You come down off my trailer and I’ll beat your ass.”

Verlin jumped up and down, the metal rippling with a noise like thunder. He flung the antenna at Garvin, but it missed. Garvin snatched it up and brandished it over his head. Ed Gosse peered out the window of the other motor home. Lights came on around the lake. Some doors opened. “ What’s that racket?” somebody yelled.

“Griffis and Garvin finally got into it,” Rhea yelled from her daddy’s trailer two spaces down. Somebody laughed and a door closed.

“I’ll beat your ass, Garvin,” Verlin screamed. “Look at her! Look at her. She loves you. Don’t you treat her that way!”

“You know so much about how she wants to be treated, Griffis, ask her why she’s sleeping in my bed and not yours.”

“Don’t talk about her like that,” Verlin screamed.

“Ask her. You ask her why she’d rather be treated bad by me than good by you.”

“Y’all stop it. Stop it!” Shelbra hollered.

They turned around. Her face was red with crying and her yellow hair was all lit up from behind. Her collarbones were standing out over the scooped-out neck of her majorette suit.

“I hate you both. I hate you both,” she screamed for everybody to hear, and ran barefooted up the hill. The Tilt-A-Whirl was silhouetted, its arms folded in like a dead spider’s, waiting to be hauled down the road in a few hours.

Garvin folded his arms across his bare chest and laughed. “She’ll be back pretty quick.”

“Not if I find her first,” somebody yelled back.

Garvin laughed again. “Forget it, Mack. She’s had the best and won’t settle for less.”

“Tell him, Bobby,” Rhea hollered, but Garvin had already gone back inside to wait, dragging his broken antenna through the door.

The place where Verlin had stabbed his hand with the fork was hurting again, and his palms were ripped ragged from uprooting the antenna. He sat on the edge of the trailer with his feet over the side. Lights shut off around the lake. In a little while, the nightmares would break out into screams. Verlin would wait up there till Shelbra came back. Garvin was right about that. From where Verlin sat, Shelbra’s velveteen cape looked like dark blood pooling on the ground.