The Old Fire Eater, Downsized
The old fire eater sits in a truck stop eating his lunch: egg sandwich, fries, a cup of coffee. He’s out, terminated, downsized, “I’m sorry, Silas. We’ve had a good run together, but people today, you know, they just don’t… we’re just heading in a new direction,” no severance, not even a ticket home. After forty years with the big-top he doesn’t know where home is. He was the carnival’s last fire eater and after he left they didn’t hire a replacement.
He smells like a piece of coal. The truck stop midday rush is over and slowly his scent is filling the room. Only two people are working. A large woman stands over the grill while her son, fourteen, plays cashier, server, janitor etc… His arms are so skinny he can almost fit his wrist through the loop handle of a coffee mug. Legs like that, too. But the legs, along with his concave torso, are covered by baggy, stained clothes. Only the strangeness of his arms is verifiable, the rest, truly there, but inferred.
“More coffee?” He asks the old fire eater.
“Thanks,” the old fire eater coughs, “keep them coming, piping hot.” The boy sees the old fire eater smile, sees his teeth, they are razor white, like the epicenter of an explosion. They hide behind cracked lips and a rough, gray beard, but when that smile rises out it terrifies the boy and he takes long, soft steps to the other side of the room as if, behind him, a dragon is sleeping.
When he was twelve, the old fire eater saw a traveling circus and stood transfixed before goblins on stilts blowing great, arcing flame into the night sky. Behind them, the great rise of the circus tent became invisible. Over and over they laughed and punctuated the whine of a pipe organ with shrieks and, whoosh, fire. As his parents led him home that night the old fire eater noticed a taste in his mouth, sweet and crisp like mint. The taste faded overnight. The old fire eater concentrated on the memory and dribbled sweat into his pillow. A week later he stole one of this father’s cigarettes, lit it off the stove, and extinguished the burning tobacco on his tongue. There was pain, sharp then dull. But above the pain, rising quickly, was that crispness and cool, sugar and snow.
“You should see that old man’s teeth,” the boy says to his mother.
The mother is leaning her round body over the hot grill. Between her thumb and index finger she holds a small razorblade which she pushes across the metal surface, scraping up long strands of black. Her fingers and hands are calloused and scarred from repeating this task each day. All it takes is one small bit that has bonded itself beyond removal and the razor stops dead while the hand continues onto the grill. Inexperience and fresh skin will get you a trip to the hospital and six weeks of bandages, but the women’s hand simply skips from the hot surface and braces her body on the far wall. The mishap has become a formality, like stubbing a toe.
“I don’t have time for teeth,” she says. “You smell that? It smells like a furnace in here. I got to get this clean before dinner.”
“They shine,” he says.
“We’re having Swiss steak on special. Go grind the patties. I need to get all this garbage off here before…” When she looks up at her son he is already gone. She has trained him to do this, to begin the task as the task is given. It makes her hurt to look at her son. She wonders how he can be so skinny when both she and her husband are so large. He was born on time, healthy, heavy, and now she worries that one day he will simply disappear before her very eyes. As she slides the razor across the grill she hears the boy unlock the cooler and a moment later, struggle to lift a bag of ground beef.
The old fire eater is pouring hot sauce on his French fries. He removes the small stopper and lets the entire bottle spill out and pool on the plate. He reaches to another table, takes another bottle, and empties it as well. He takes his fork and mashes the fries into the sauce, covers it with pepper, and begins to eat the red mush with a spoon.
When they hired him, the carnival did not ask questions. The war was over and people had money to spend for the first time in twenty years… “What do you want to do?” / “I want to be a fire eater.” That was all it took. But this carnival did not have giant goblins on stilts. The fire eaters worked at the gate, blowing signals to the surrounding towns that a show was happening. At sundown, he would walk from his tent with a handful of torches and a bottle of fuel. The fuel was the most important thing. You might think the fire mattered most, but it was the fuel that the old fire eater loved.
But even in the best times, the carnival never turned huge profits. As the years went on the show did its best to modernize, to accommodate, but the workers still had no contracts, no benefits, and everything always seemed to operate on the margin. The animals needed food, the trapeze nets needed mending, the fire eaters needed fuel; fuel like the gasoline and the kerosene that gave your gums cancers, the lamp oil that brought headaches, the methanol fumes that blind, propane gas that builds in the sinuses and blows a face wide open, and the old fire eater’s favorite, ethanol. Ethanol with its 9000 years of human use. Ethanol’s huge, wide flame rolling over into itself and getting the big, ahhhhh! And that sweet drunk of the Ethanol as it would inevitably drip down the old fire eater’s throat. The next day, head spinning, mouth alive and tingly sweet. But fuel is not cheap, and the cars need the fuel and the generators and the buses and once you see a man on an Ethanol kick and you’re 200 miles from nowhere, suddenly, everyone needs the fuel.
The boy feeds ground beef into the top of the machine, cogs and wheels spin and every three seconds there is a pop and a fresh hamburger patty falls into his waiting hand. The boy’s long arms make him perfect for a job where one hand feeds the meat in and the other catches it. He has done this work thousands of times and as the machine grinds and snaps the boy looks out over the order counter to the old fire eater who is still, slowly, eating his fries. The boy sees the charring on the old fire eater’s clothes. The back of his jacket is worn threadbare. Over the shoulders the cloth darkens into a front of black soot.
The boy’s mother walks into the kitchen. “Can’t you smell that?”
“I don’t smell anything.” But he does.
“Like the gates of hell in here.” She begins to follow her nose around the kitchen. “Maybe the cooler motor is overheating.”
“How the burgers coming?”
The old fire eater finishes his meal. He can only taste the weak heat, the faded oils of the peppers. He’s eaten Habanero from the vine and this is no comparison. When the show went to Mexico he bought the peppers by the bushel, dried them, ate them like candy. The sauce in the small, red bottle is no comparison. It lacks a life, is tepid, simply a means to make the food edible. Without trying to hide it, the old fire eater lights a match and extinguishes it on his tongue. He drinks down the last of his coffee. The coffee is cool and makes him sick.
He puts on his hat and walks to the counter. The woman comes out and, as she takes his check, she asks if everything was ok. The old fire eater nods and says nothing. He pays in cash, even throwing in extra for the two bottles of hot sauce.
“How far am I from Calderra?” he asks.
“Calderra? A day’s drive, maybe. Depends on the weather.” the woman says.
“Rains, floods, tornadoes, they slow you down.”
“I see,” he says. As the old fire eater’s breath wraps around the woman she recognizes the scent and, handing him the change, she makes a sour face. The old fire eater turns and leaves. Outside, in the gravel lot, he looks out at the highway running to the horizon in both directions.
The mother and the boy stand at the register and look through the window at the old fire eater.
“You believe how that man smelled?” she asks.
“I didn’t smell anything.”
“Don’t lie to me,” she says.
“I know when my own son is lying.”
“Did you see his teeth?” the boy asks.
The boy’s mother turns and walks to the table where the old fire eater sat. “Jesus. What a mess.” The table and chair both have a thin layer of soot covering each. “Get me a mop, we need to get this right. And then get those patties into pans.” The boy returns with a bucket of foamy water, a mop and a rag. The boy’s mother takes them and begins to scrub. “Get the gravy going too. I doubt if anyone will even want to eat in here with that smell.” The boy turns and walks to the back. His mother, her mouth full of ash, watches his shoulders bow toward one another and his head hang as he enters the kitchen. “What about his teeth?” she wants to ask.
The boy walks out the back door, around the restaurant and looks at the old fire eater walking down the road. The wind is blowing a steady line of black from the old fire eater’s clothes. The boy imagines the wind wearing the old fire eater down until one day there is nothing left. The boy sees the body of the old fire eater worn away by pressure and time, sees him thinning and thinning, sees his black skeleton slide into the earth until all that is left of the old fire eater is a small pile of diamonds, shimmering where his teeth met the dust.