Part 1: Conundrum
I am certain that I will come to regret divulging my real name to you, given the sheer embarrassment of being associated with such a spectacle as the freak show that I am about to expose. This would be the same freak show, mind you, that nearly sent me six-feet under the boat with fresh clumps of “magic” sassafras dust still speckled within the hollows of my nose. But, I fear that I am getting rather far ahead of myself, so you may think of me as Sonny.
Let us start at the beginning.
The day was a sweltering one. I was sitting on the edge of a freshly unearthed ravine with my weathered wading boots dangling over the edge while I rubbed my stinging, blistered palms. Seven other men, as dirty and famished as I, were doing the same, our shovels protruding from the ripe soil behind us like thin, splintered headstones.
“Remember gentlemen…ten minutes, and not a blink more,” said Jack Spellman firmly.
He was the foreman of our little traveling, Roosevelt-enacted work-party and so, we all nodded and obliged with a “yes, sir.”
“Say, you think they gots some sod-ee pop at that there general store over yonder?” said John Gray, the sloppiest and silliest of our cadre.
“What kind?” asked Richard Bledsoe, a blonde man of thirty-four.
“Dunno. Any O’em, I reckon,” John said.
“Fine by me,” Richard said quickly. “Anyone else?”
The whole gang, minus myself, all lumbered up to their tired feet and patted the dirt from the rest of their weary bodies. I looked back from my seated position to examine the spot to which they were preparing to head. On the other side of a very thin patch of woodwork, and across a two-lane dirt road was a corner store, waiting with the dual, welcoming arms of refreshments and indoor shade. But alas, nothing, not even the sweet nectar of some World’s Fair concocted soft drink could entice me on that day, for I was in a word: beat.
“Matches?” asked Joseph Honeycutt.
He tossed an old, unmarked book of said items and I caught them.
“Thanks,” I said.
He nodded and replied slowly with, “Better in your hands then mine,” before slicking back his sweat-drenched, dark-brown hair.
After a few moments of lingering by the tree line, Joseph, too, casually strolled towards the general store, leaving me alone with an unmarked book of matches and our freshly toiled trench.
I ripped one of the tiny toothpick-sized objects from its native cluster and stared. Of the vices inherited by we the people, I was a son of many, but tobacco smoking was certainly not one of them. No, no, I simply enjoyed the sight of the tiny dancing flame that the matches spit forth when swiped. I truly wish I was from the lot of men who espouse some sort of deep, personal metaphor for such fascinations, but I am not. Matchbooks intrigued me. And there was nothing more to it.
I pressed the match to the side of the book and swiftly swiped. I held it to my eye level. The tiny flame flickered and did not compete with the colossal glow of the blistering sun above. It was content in its own little glimmer until it slowly descended to the tip of my dirty thumbnail and was snuffed out by three flicks of my wrist.
Again, I ripped another native from the clump and struck. And I gazed upon it until it passed away.
Something pierced the air and popped directly in front of my face. The match flew from my fingertips and I jolted so violently that I stumbled down into the ravine that we had just excavated. I was dumbstruck, too enraged to be frightened, and yet too shocked to leap back up. I laid in the fresh soil, panting heavily and staring up at the sliver of blue sky between slabs of solid earth.
“Seems I heard someone say that it’s not a safe thing to play with fire,” came an embellished, theatrical voice from over the side of the ditch that I had been sitting upon not five seconds. I did not know how to respond to such a call, and being a man of more than one altercation, I held my tongue tightly in that dark, cool soil. “Well?” said the voice in mock-impatience. “You think we scared the critter speechless, my fair Fritz?”
“Don’t know, sir,” said a slow, chilling voice from the other side of the ditch.
I waited silently, suspiciously. It was akin to lying in my own grave, hiding from some undesirable mourners or grave robbers.
And then, from my previous side of the ditch, a man’s face sprang forth that made me wince. His eyes were wide, hypnotic, and barring a color that I was not close enough to decipher. His mustache curled upward with an eerie perfection. And his nose seemed as a downward hook of cracked cartilage.
“Sorry to startle you, there Sonny-boy.” I stared up with a frown, puffing air and dirt from my nose. Of course, I knew that the name Sonny was a common nickname, but nevertheless, a small part of me entertained the thought that he knew more than he let on. “Here,” he said, extending a white-gloved hand down towards me. The distance was just out of my reach. I knew it, and so did he. “My manners,” he said in more mockery. “Let me offer some more suitable aid.”
When I opened my eyes in the aftermath of that same familiar pop, I finally saw what the cursed thing was. It was a whip. From the mocking man’s white glove it dangled down to my right side in the dirt, mere inches from chest.
“Go on…it’ll hold.”
I grabbed onto the leathery, limb-like strand. It possessed an uncanny solidity. The man pulled, and whether or not his moans of exertion were mocks, or true, I am not sure. But either way, he pulled me from the dark doldrums of the dirt and back up into the humid afternoon.
Immediately in front of me stood the mocking man. He looked positively outlandish. Atop his crooked head was a black fedora, most likely of fine beaver. He brandished an upturned collar, around which a silky, bright orange ascot was tethered. His suit, three pieces in all, was of a fine, rich gray, which somehow appeared both old and new. His white gloves were like silky snow.
When I looked over my shoulder towards the other man, the one with the slow, chilling voice, I was truly impressed, if not altogether frightened.
Across the trench, standing stiffly, assuredly, was one whom I had to rear my head back at an abnormal angle to fully behold. I do not exaggerate when I estimate his height at seven feet. His scalp was shaven to the bare skin and his face also lacked a single hair. Even his eyebrows were bare, leaving only furrowed, wrinkled ridges of muscle and tissue contorted in a frown. My eyes lowered to his torso, which was in stark, striking contrast to his smooth face. From his chest all the way to both of his fingertips were tattoos of the most vivid detail inked upon sand-colored skin. Hatched Packs of wild dogs ran down slopes of forearm. A watchful, baleful eye peered from its belly button pupil with crisp crosshatches. Vultures fluttered around wrist-bound carcasses. And ancient armadas, vast and militant, battled with an ancient and terrible sea serpent, whose flailing tentacles reached their crescendo amongst razor-sharp waves at the man’s naval. The only reason my eyes finally pried themselves away from the sea of ink was due the clear contrast that the man’s red and white suspenders provided, which were fastened to an old pair of gray trousers that draped atop well-worn boots of black.
“Huh? Er…what?” I said, not knowing how long the whip man had been badgering me.
“I hope my antics did not offend you, good sir,” he said, using his white gloves to dust me off. “I just wanted to get your attention, no matter the cost.”
“Yes, well,” I said rather shortly. “Most folk just offer a light tap on the shoulder, huh, Mr…”
“Conundrum. Conrad Conundrum.”
“Hmm…” I said. “Conundrum. Haven’t heard that one before. Well, Mr. Conundrum, pardon my forthrightness, but what do you want?”
“I will answer that,” he said as he removed his hat, “if you answer me first the very same question.”
I spotted the rest of the crew filing out of the general store across the street. It was only a matter of time before they would be back, along with Mr. Spellman and more blisters.
“Look, I don’t much have the time for games and semantics such as these,” said I.
“Just a simple answer is all I require,” said Conrad, his hands hiding behind his gray coattails. “What do you want, Sonny?”
I rolled my eyes. At that point, I’d say anything to get the loon away from me.
“I don’t know. A decent wage, I suppose.”
And before I could even turn back to fully face Conrad, something of prickly paper bounced off of my right eyebrow. I caught it swiftly and was nearly ready for blows when I looked in my hand. It was a fresh, neatly folded dollar bill.
“For all the troubles that I caused you at this here trench.”
I was speechless. That tiny bill was just a shade more than a full day’s wage.
“Just look at this,” said Conrad, waving a white-gloved hand to the trench. “Back-breaking work, sweating the skin right off your bones, and for what? Hmmm? A few lousy coins to help you perpetuate the skin melting? No, no, no…this is no way for men to work, to earn…to live!”
The crew was nearly within earshot. I shrugged my shoulders out of instinct.
“It would be wise to heed his wisdom,” said the shirtless man of tattoos from behind me. I did not look. I only shivered.
“He speaks the truth,” said Conrad. “And there’s plenty more leaves from that green tree. Now do you want to keep testing that young spine of yours? Or do you want to add a bit more flora to your freshly planted garden o’ greenbacks? What say you?”
“What’s goin’ on here?” said John Gray, almost appearing drunk even though he held a half-filled bottle of root beer.
I quickly stuffed the dollar bill into my front pocket.
“Just in time, gentlemen,” said Conrad, his voice inflection skyrocketing. “Now, how many of you are quite through with the toils of labors such as these…the curses of such mediocrities?”
Most of the men mumbled with interest.
“I miss something, lads?” said Jack Spellman when he emerged from the other side of an old oak tree.
***To be continued…***