Side Show

We followed the road north, always near the river, close enough to breathe its thick scent, black flies hitting our helmets, tires of the motorcycle grabbing at the black top. I clutched your camouflage jacket, leaned back into the sissy bar, only later finding a column of bruises dotting the knuckles of my spine. Early on, you left your mark.

Near Montpelier, we came upon a small carnival setting up in the weeds.

I held your rough hand as we wandered through rows of spiked-down tents, canvas flaps open to reveal people resting on cots. Two ride workers guarding their meal on a small grill waved us over. One passed me a bottle of whiskey. I took a careful sip; you tipped your head back and drank deep.  Where you been? he asked. Here and there, you answered, and I realized you knew them. Stopping here was no accident.

Achilles, your mother held you tight, dipped you in the river Styx. Your father, mortal king, smoked a Camel above Times Square, taught you how to steal and cheat and leave. And somehow your journey spit you out in Vermont, an oblique warrior liberating me from dorm room and text books.

Like you, the carnies were just passing through. You strode through the aisles of game booths and concessions. Always awkward. There was the limp, of course. And nothing fit right, or you wore it wrong. Your shirt tucked in hard, long hair thinned down to a string of a pony tail. Missing teeth when you smiled too big. And you often smiled too big, Achilles, especially boasting of scams: rip-offs like cities pillaged, cheap silver and fake artifacts, museum buyers falling for it every time.

You led me to a booth draped in velvet. Let me see your palm, the reader said. Here is your life line, she pointed, and your fate line. She looked at us, unlikely pair. Don’t forget the heart line, she laughed. Was she talking to you or to me?

That night, we slept in the meadow, rinsed clean by the river. You touched my still wet hair. You’re free now, you said, we can go anywhere. I was tempted to stay with you; half god, half not, almost invulnerable but not quite. All day I’d felt you cautiously watching. Your weakness: wanting too much. Above us, stars peeked through the sky’s dark armor. In the morning, I’ll hitchhike south; free, yes. From your Achilles heel, your Achilles heart.

Published in 2022 San Diego Dime Stories Anthology

Photo by Eunice Stahl on Unsplash