The Bayou Sideshow
By James Calemine
THE BAYOU SIDESHOW
“I shouldna’ been foolin’ with a married man,” uttered our hero, Doreen, as she grinned a perfect smile, and passed me the pipe. “I’ll have to go back to the beginning for you to understand the disturbing circumstances I got myself into. He never told me he was married…”
We sat around an antiquated oak table in Doreen’s small den. She called her small abode a “den of iniquity.” Incense and candles burned throughout the small, low ceiling room. The candles flickered strange shapes upon the walls. A scent of pine and cinnamon wafted throughout the house. Arabic rugs covered the floors. A scent of December woodsmoke lingered throughout this comfortable abode. The howling winter wind shuddered Doreen’s small home. Our hero confessed a story to your traveling chronicler, in spirit of warding off negative forces during his journey.
Doreen was a gracious soul, whose countenance emanated good cheer, serving a medicine to the bones. Doreen was in her late thirties. Divorced. Her charm and wit appealed to everyone. In those days, Doreen worked as a hair designer. She dyed her long hair coal black. Her brownish, hazel eyes were friendly. She wore one silver ring on her middle finger on her right hand. Her smile encouraged serenity. Doreen’s openhearted nature attracted those who stray toward the wayward path.
“I was still working at the bar during this time. These traveling carpenters would come through town y’know, and I hooked up with this guy. We had us a big ol’ time. He worked in town for a few weeks. When his job was over, he left town. He invited me to visit him in Louisiana. So, a couple of weeks later, I bought a plane ticket and flew into Baton Rouge from Atlanta.
“As soon as I step off the plane, things begin to get strange. The guy I was foolin’ with, his name was Will. He wasn’t at the airport to pick me up. His friend picked me up. Picked me right out of the crowd. The friend's name was Randy. Randy’s girlfriend accompanied him. Talk about a couple. Good ol’ Randy informs me, says ‘Wills’ hung up with his wife. He’ll be over later.’
“I’m thinking--wife? He’s married? I knew then I was in trouble. So, we drive in Randy’s old 76’ sky blue Ford pick up truck, almost sixty miles into the bayou. I mean, the middle of nowhere. A dense, swamp jungle. Everything looks the same. No signs. No nothing. Just swamp. Once we got into the bayou, everything took on this strange undercurrent, as if a voodooish or insane power existed only this deep in the bayou. It always felt like something was watching you.
“Randy is drinking tall Budweiser's the entire time. He was a short, ugly fella. His brown hair was long in the back, and a crew cut on top. A greasy moustache. His farmer tanned arms were tattooed with various home made India ink designs. His truck reeked like sweat, nicotine, stale beer, and cheap cologne to mask all these obscure scents.
“I could not bring myself to say anything. I could only wait. Worry was no good. Yet, I felt helpless. I was so pissed at myself for, once again, getting into such a desperate situation. This guy, Will, led me to believe he had some money.
“We get to Randy’s place. Talk about a white trash scenario. The trailer was lined with thick, bright orange shag carpet. It smelled like unwashed feet in there. Sour. Diseased. At this point I became annoyed. I called Will. No answer. I ask Randy if I can take a shower. He says sure. The June heat was festering. I asked if I could use a towel. ‘Ain’t there one in-nair?’ The towel looked like a mechanics rag. Luckily, I had my own towel, but I didn’t want to unpack my clothes in this freak’s trailer.
“I get out of the shower. I start to sweat all over again. I get dressed and discover Randy is gone. I call Will for a couple of hours. No answer——of course. I start to get worried. I start thinking I may never see the guy.
“A couple of hours later, Randy returns, tall Budweiser in hand, and says, ‘Will cain’t git ‘way from the wife. She ain’t leavin town like he ‘spected. Not tonight anyways.’
“Randy wanted to go out. What else could I do? I should have left town because after that, everything seemed to take on an insane irony. Bad omens. Bad signs.
“We get in Randy’s truck and drive through dense swampland for miles. And miles. It all looks the same. Cypress trees and swamp water in every direction you look. It’s beautiful in a way, but if you ever get lost, you’re in trouble because there’s no sense of direction in the bayou to a stranger. Even my sense of time was disconnected.
“After what seemed to be twenty miles, we pull into this narrow, gravel driveway, passing a rusted sign that said: “The Ramble Inn.” It was a decrepit shack, hidden off some dirt road. I never could have found my way out of there. It became obvious I was not leaving on my own. I needed help.
“A few scattered trucks sat parked out front. Broken bottles and old rusted cars remained scattered throughout grassy areas with no parking parameter. Let me tell you, I’ve never seen a place like this. The damn place had dirt floors! Dirt floors! The walls were fake wooden paneling. There were two pool tables, and some broken electric bowling game. The clientele looked like refugees from a government experiment.
“Randy knew everyone there. I suppose I felt safe as a stranger could be in that place. It was the most seedy, run-down shack I’ve ever stepped inside. This situation appeared all too insane and real to be in a dream. I knew I had to relax and ride this thing out. I drank a couple of beers out of a cooler to take the edge off. They tried to be accommodating. Soon, a few of Randy’s friends sit down to play their ritual game of Friday night poker. All these ol’ boys just adored me cause I had my real teeth. They thought I was a Hollywood movie star because I didn’t have no “store bought” teeth, as they called them.
“Meanwhile, these guys are rolling joints and smoking them in this dank shack. Strong smoking reefer. The room smelled like a skunk when they opened the bag. It seemed a backwoods ethic existed there. Ain’t no law around, so they operate on a contraband ethic.
“Then this ol’ boy comes in and sits down next to me at the table. I wasn’t playing cards. The guy is another friend of Randy’s. He sits down next to me. Short, skinny kinda quiet fella. I tell the guy after he asks, I’m not playin’, just here to watch.
“They kept calling him Halfbrain. Funny looking guy. He answers to this knickname without question, as if he heard it many times. I just thought they called him that because of some inside joke. I wasn’t about to ask questions. These guys spoke among themselves with references to the card game. Halfbrain is not playing cards. He starts talking to me.
“He wondered how long I was going to be in town. He said he wanted to take me to the “free supper” he called it. I had no idea what the free supper entailed, and there was no way I’d make such a commitment, so I kept a general flow of conversation going. Everything led back to the fact I had no business being there. I blundered in a big way. I told Halfbrain where I was from and all, why I was there…
“After a few beers, and more rounds of poker, I mustered enough courage to ask why they called him Halfbrain. First, he explained the reason by removing his railroad cap. Half of his forehead was missing. A cratered skull. He explained: ‘See, I was packing the gun too tight and the gun fired. It blew part of my head off.’
“I could not help but stare a minute. My jaw dropped. Sometimes the imagination evokes strange pictures in the mind. They all kept playing cards like they heard the story a thousand times before.
“By this time, the fading, late afternoon sunlight only cast a shadow through the front door of “The Ramble Inn”. The light coming through the front door was the only way to calibrate the time of day.
“Halfbrain put his hat back on. He talked like he knew me for years after he revealed to me the most important event in his life. He seemed to cling to me. He made me nervous, but everything made me nervous. I resigned myself to cling to anything that would get me out of this place.
“Halfbrain told me, just like I’m telling you, a story about how he killed a man. Halfbrain said it really wasn’t like killing a real person, since the guy was a "neegra." Halfbrain said the “the neegra” was fooling around with his wife, so he killed him. Halfbrain told me how he waited for the guy outside his apartment. How he shot him. How the guy fell into the bushes. He told the story just like I’m telling you this now. There was no way he could’ve been making it up.
“He really confided in me. He said the cops never caught him. Said it really wasn’t like killing a real person. Y’know, it was just another common story of murder among these folks. Horrible. Horrifying. All along, these ol’ boys are playing cards, passing this religious reefer that would give you sticky fingers.
“After eleven or twelve in the evening, Randy’s girlfriend finally arrives to drive us back to the trailer. Randy was too drunk to drive. We hardly spoke. I rode in a delirium. I couldn’t believe the craziness unfolding around me. Yet, I was the only one who felt this crowd was strange.
“That night, I had to sleep on that nasty shag carpet. Mysterious stains and scents imbedded in these cheap fibers. And to think Randy and his girlfriend were sleeping together just on the other side of a thin plastic door. It just drove me crazy.
“I slept, if you want to call it that, in a stone cold fever. I had this re-occurring dream, the trailer is rolling down the road out of control with no driver, no hope, and Halfbrain is running behind the trailer trying to save me.
“At ten o’clock the next morning, Saturday, Will shows up at the trailer. He explains to me how sorry he is about the whole situation, but that we may not be able to see one another tonight, or any during the weekend.
“I cussed that sonofabitch out like I ain’t ever cussed anyone out before. He drove off in a cloud of dust. I was fit to be tied. Oh, I was pissed. I wanted to leave that damn bayou then and there. In the trailer, the phone mysteriously does not work. It’s dead. I begin to panic. There is a secret to remaining calm in the heat. I couldn’t stay in that trailer. I decided to go look for a phone. I grab my overnight bag and walk out of the trailer. Get a taxi and go home are my intentions. Randy was still asleep. I didn’t want to bother with him, and the girlfriend’s car was gone. I became so pissed.
“I walked from yesterday’s memory, up to a dirt road in search of a pay phone. No cars passed. And it’s Saturday. I must’ve walked for two or three miles. I began to cry because I didn’t believe I was ever gonna get out of that place. I felt like I’d been dipped in heated oil. It was so hot with no breeze at all. It felt like everything in the swamp was alive and watching me. It was a nightmare being stranded alone in the swamp. Lost. I expected some animal to charge out of the woods and devour my ass right there. Finally, thank God, I stumbled upon a pay phone out side some crossroad convenience store. I was drowning in despair.
“I called my sister, crying hysterically. I just wanted to go home so bad. I was freaking out. My sister kept asking me where I was and I couldn’t tell her. I had
no idea. I was in the middle of the swamp. In the background, I heard my smart-ass brother say ‘Tell her to call 911, they’ll be able to find her!’
“I knew there were no taxis within twenty or thirty miles. The store was closed with not a soul around to ask directions. I couldn’t stand being there alone. I got mad at myself again. I had no choice but to walk back to Randy’s and see if he would take me to the airport. I was so frustrated. I felt insane. All along, I’m still carrying my suitcase.
“I trudged back to the trailer. It was past two o’clock when I got back. I opened the door, and there is Randy and Halfbrain drinking tall Budweiser's. I was delirious. They insisted on getting more beer. Randy informed me I should stick around. ‘Phones’ll be fixed, and Wills’ sposed ta’ call back in a bit.’ Another false promise.
“The three of us climb into Randy’s truck. Halfbrain lets me know, if my plans fall through, he would take me to the “free supper” tonight. If my plans fall through?
“Randy informs me, he is taking me to a very special watering hole. Randy fires up one of those joints for the ride. The sun’s heat and glare seemed to have a mischievous intensity.
“I can’t remember the name of the bar, but at least the place had wooden floors. It was then I realized I’d not eaten since I left Atlanta. I was starved. We sat at the bar. They ordered beers. I asked for a menu. They were out of everything I wanted to eat. I settled on a grilled cheese sandwich.
“While we were waiting, Halfbrain and Randy talked with the locals. Everyone knew everyone else. Halfbrain informed the owner he wanted to purchase a case of Budweiser. Finally the grilled cheese arrived. Worst grilled cheese I ever ate. Soggy white bread. Hard cheese. Even the chips were stale. I felt cursed at this point. Country music played on the jukebox. Chicken wire was built around a little stage for live entertainment. It looked like they had no live entertainment in quite some time. All sorts of strange folks loitered about.
“At least there were a few females to balance the bar’s population. Randy talked to some bleach blonde. Halfbrain walked out to the truck with his case of beer. I kept an eye on Randy, because I didn’t want to get stranded. He kept putting his hand on the bleach blonde’s ass.
“Then this big guy walks into the place; big greasy, red bearded, long haired, mean looking guy. The dude has this ugly ass pit bulldog on a leash. Scars all over it. Vicious looking fucker. The guy sits at the corner two seats down from me. The downhome waitress at the bar, pencil behind her ear, hand on her hip, says in a bored tone, as if she were accustomed to such clientele,
‘Frankie, you cain’t bring that damn dog in here.’
‘Aw Loretta, he don’t want nuthin’ to eat,’ and the waitress reconsiders and says,
‘Well awright then,’ she said and returned to her waitress duties. Halfbrain comes back in, speaks to Frankie, and starts in on me about the “free supper” tonight. We sat for what seemed to be the longest time in that place. By now, Randy is blind drunk. He can’t drive. He says a friend will drive him home. Halfbrain declared he’d drive Randy’s truck to the “free supper.”
“Halfbrain would hear nothing of taking me to the airport. ‘Stay awhile’ he kept saying. Time began to creep. I felt a desperation I’ve never known since then. The reefer made me more paranoid and aware of my naked circumstances. I drank a couple of beers. Randy disappeared with the bleach blonde. Halfbrain wouldn’t allow me to refuse the free supper invitation. I was stranded. A slave to circumstance. It wasn’t comforting to realize my only hope on getting out of here was Halfbrain.
“We get to this free supper, which is a tent. Folks are spooning out spaghetti and fried chicken, a strange combination. The chicken tasted like wood. I didn’t bother eating the spaghetti. It was a runny mess. I ate a couple of dry rolls out of starvation, and Halfbrain said, ‘Told ye id be good.’ What a stone soul picnic. No wonder it was free.
“I found myself far from anything in my life I was familiar with. These people were, I don’t know, so cut off, rural, unsteady, backwards, and this is coming from a person who was raised in the country. It’s like they were all insane. Demented. It’s hard to explain. I stared out into the black bayou that chilled me with the obvious realization of a definite unknown.
“So at the end of this free supper, these ol’ boys start talking about dog fighting. They spoke as if it were time a well-known event was about to occur. Tonight. A real clandestine cult. No one there it seemed, except me, was an outsider. Things became stranger by the minute.
“Of course, I reminded myself it was nobody’s fault but mine that I landed in this position. Had I known the guy was married, I’d never bought the ticket. All this self-inflicted misery…
“It was dark by the time we drove to a part of the bayou where the locals hide with the intention of never being found. My fear returned with a gravity and force I could no longer ignore. Beer didn’t help. Nothing calmed my nerves.
“I knew dog fighting was illegal, so I knew the people there would be at least as crazy as Halfbrain. I was, naturally, very worried. We drove for miles through dense swamp. I mean, I’m in the swamp with a guy, maybe a confessed killer, they call Halfbrain going to dogfights. I had a bad feeling. The dirt roads were only a few feet from rising swamp water; the slightest swerve and you’re gone.
“We arrived at an open field near some water. There was a strange excitement in the air. All these trucks with dog cages in the back, parked around this huge pit.
“The pit was a few feet below ground level. The wooden borders in the pit were stained with blood from previous fights. It was blood sport overkill. Those poor dogs. I felt horrified. I missed my dog. It was one of those perverse moments of inner horror. A fear and insecurity hounded my senses and soul as I watched the animals try to kill each other.
“You could feel wicked undercurrents of violence and mindless cruelty in these people. Money and whiskey transformed them. And the blood. It felt sickening. Since I was an outsider, I thought they were going to kill me and dump me in the swamp.
“There was no regard for those dogs. Owners killed their dogs if they lost. They threw the dead bodies in a dumpster. A compost of dead dogs. It was terrible. I told Halfbrain I wanted to leave. I felt sick. Halfbrain drove me back to the trailer. I must say, he did watch out for me. That dumpster was full of dead dogs. I still can’t get that picture out of my mind. I could not sleep that night. I stayed balled up on the floor, looking at my watch every twenty minutes. My bones were chilled and my chest felt tight like a cold was coming on. I wanted to cry, but I knew I must hold myself together.
“I saw every aspect of my life in a different light. All the seasons and nostalgia of my life passed before my eyes. I promised if I ever got out of that bayou sideshow, I’d never fool with another married man again.”
“At six o’clock on Sunday morning, I woke Randy up. Seeing the sun come up in such a place made me sick with myself. I told Randy I would pay him one hundred dollars if he would drive me to the airport. Right now. ‘Okay. But how much beer do we have?’ is the first thing he asks.
“So, Randy and his girlfriend, not the bleach blonde, emerge from the bed space to drive me to the airport. The girlfriend, I think her name was Denise, smacked her bubble gum the entire drive.
“I couldn’t believe I was on my way to the airport. The fact I had to wait several hours for a flight did not bother me in the least. The girlfriend smacked her bubblegum and talked about nothing. She acted as if she had no idea Randy left with the bleach blonde last night. Or maybe she did.
“They were real nice to me on the way to the airport, saying things like, ‘sorry there was a misunderstanding, next time you come, we’ll get ye a motel.’ I felt like saying, what next time, I ain’t ever coming back to this crazy fucking place! They really believed I had a good time. They took the one hundred dollars too! When I got back home, all my friends and family are kidding me, asking when I was heading back to ‘Loozeanner?’ Get this, not a month later, I get a letter from the Louisiana Women’s Correctional Facility. Turns out, Randy’s girlfriend, Denise, wrote me from there. I think I still have the letter somewhere.
“Denise wrote about how Randy abused her. How they became strung out on crack. How she was in a mental facility because she couldn’t afford drug treatment. In the letter, she said I was her best friend in the whole world, and that she loved me like a sister. Funny thing is, we hardly spoke fifty words to each other the entire time I was there.
“Anyway, that’s the last time I’ve heard, and hope to hear, from those crazy folks. That sideshow was my heart of darkness. It was the strangest time of my life, chasing a married carpenter into the depths of the bayou. I learned the hard way, the swamp ain’t no place for outsiders.”