Twilight Eyes Page 10

Friday morning I went to Yontsdown with Jelly Jordan and a man named Luke Bendingo, who drove the car. I sat up front with Luke, and our portly boss sat alone in back, neatly dressed in black slacks, a maroon summer-weight shirt, and a herringbone jacket, looking less like a carny than like a well-fed country squire. From the luxury of Jelly’s air-conditioned yellow Cadillac, we could enjoy the green beauty of the humid August landscape as we drove through farm country, then into the hills.

We were going to Yontsdown to grease the rails ahead of the show train, which would be rolling in during the early-morning hours on Sunday. The rails we were greasing were not actually those on which the train would run; they were, instead, the rails that led straight into the pockets of Yontsdown’s elected officials and civil servants.

Jelly was the general manager of the Sombra Brothers Carnival, which was a demanding and important job. But he was also the “patch,” and his duties in that capacity could sometimes be more important than anything he did while wearing the mantle of GM. Every carnival employed a man whose job it was to bribe public officials, and they called him the patch because he went ahead of the show and patched things up with cops, city and county councilmen, and certain other key government employees, “gifting” them with folding money and books of free tickets for their families and friends. If a carnival tried to operate without a patch, without the additional overhead of bribery, the police would raid the midway in a vengeful mood. They would close down the games, even if it was an honest outfit that did not bilk the marks out of their dough. Spiteful, exercising their authority with a gleeful disregard for fairness and propriety, the cops would board up even the cleanest girlie shows, misapply the Health Department codes to shutter all the grab-stands, legally declare the thrill rides hazardous when they were patently safe, quickly and effectively choking the carnival into submission. Jelly intended to prevent just such a catastrophe in Yontsdown.

He was a good man for the job. A patch needed to be charming, amusing, and likable, and Jelly was all those things. A patch had to be a smooth talker, thoroughly ingratiating, able to pay a bribe without making it seem like a bribe. In order to maintain the illusion that the payoff was nothing more than a gift from a friend—and thereby allow the corrupt officials to keep their self-respect and dignity—a patch had to remember details about the police chiefs and sheriffs and mayors and other officials with whom he dealt year after year, so he could ask them specific questions about their wives and could refer to their children by name. He had to be interested in them and appear glad to see them again. Yet he dared not act too friendly; after all, he was only a carny, almost a subhuman species in the eyes of many straight types, and excessive familiarity was sure to be met with cold rejection. Sometimes he had to be tough, as well, diplomatically refusing to meet demands for more sugar than the carnival was willing to pay. Being a patch was akin to performing a high-wire act, without net, over a pit occupied by hungry bears and lions.

As we drove through the Pennsylvania countryside on our mission of genteel corruption, Jelly entertained Luke Bendingo and me with an endless stream of jokes, limericks, puns, and hilarious anecdotes from his years on the road. He told each joke with evident relish and recited every limerick with sly style and gusto. I realized that, to him, wordplay and clever rhymes and surprising punch lines were just more toys, convenient playthings to occupy him when the other toys on his office shelves were not within easy reach. Although he was an effective general manager, overseeing a multimillion-dollar operation, and a tough patch who could handle himself well in tricky situations, he still determinedly indulged a part of himself that had never grown up, a happy child still facing the world with wonderment from beneath forty-five years of rude experience and untold pounds of fat.

I relaxed and tried to enjoy myself, and I did somewhat, but I could not forget the vision of Jelly’s blood-covered face, eyes open in a sightless gaze, which I had seen yesterday. I had once saved my mother from serious injury and perhaps death by convincing her of the reliability of my psychic foresight and persuading her to change from one airliner to another; now, if only I could foresee the exact nature of the danger that Jelly faced, the day and hour when it would come, I might be able to persuade him and save him, as well. I told myself that more detailed visions would come to me in time, that I would be able to protect my newfound friends. Although I did not entirely believe what I told myself, I held fast to enough hope to forestall a steep descent into total despair. I even responded to Jelly’s good humor with a few carny stories I had heard, and he gave them more laughter than they deserved.

From the moment we set out on our journey, Luke, a rangy man of forty with hawklike features, spoke in one-word sentences; yeah and no and oh and Jesus seemed to comprise his entire vocabulary. At first I thought he was moody or downright unfriendly. But he laughed as much as I did, and his manner was otherwise not cold or distant, and when he finally tried to chime in with more than a one-word response, I discovered he was a stutterer and that his reticence was a result of that affliction.

Occasionally, between jokes and limericks, Jelly told us something about Lisle Kelsko, the chief of police in Yontsdown, with whom we would conduct most of our business. He casually parceled out the information as if it were not particularly important or interesting, but gradually he painted a very nasty picture. According to Jelly, Kelsko was an ignorant bastard. But he was not stupid. Kelsko was a toad. But he was proud. Kelsko was a pathological liar, but he was not a sucker for the lies of others, the way most liars were, for he had not lost the ability to perceive the difference between truth and falsehood. He simply had no respect for that difference. Kelsko was vicious, sadistic, arrogant, stubborn, and by far the most difficult man with whom Jelly had to deal in this or any of the other ten states in which the Sombra Brothers outfit played.

“You expecting trouble?” I asked.

“Kelsko takes the sugar, never presses for too much,” Jelly said, “but sometimes he likes to give us a warning.”

“What kind of warning?” I asked.

“Likes to have a few of his men pound on us a little.”

“Are you . . . talking about a beating?” I asked uneasily.

“You absolutely got it, kid.”

“How regular does this happen?”

“We been coming here nine years since Kelsko was made chief of police, and it’s happened six out of the nine.”

Luke Bendingo took one big-knuckled hand from the steering wheel and pointed to an inch-long white scar that curved down from the corner of his right eye.

I said, “You got that in a fight with Kelsko’s men?”

“Yeah,” Luke said. “The rotten b-b-b-bastards.”

“You say they’re warning us?” I asked. “Warning us? What kind of crap is that?”

Jelly said, “Kelsko wants us to understand that he takes our bribes but that he can’t be pushed around.”

“So why doesn’t he just tell us?”

Jelly scowled and shook his head. “Kid, this here is coal-mining country, even though they don’t take much out of the ground anymore, and it always will be coal-mining country because the people who worked the mines are still here, and those people never change. Never. Damned if they do. Mining is a hard and dangerous life, and it breeds hard and dangerous men, sullen and stubborn types. To go down in the mines, you have to be either desperate, stupid, or so damned macho that you got to prove you’re meaner than the mines themselves. Even those who never set foot in a mine shaft . . . well, they got their tough-guy attitudes from their old men. People up in these hills purely love a fight, just for the absolute fun of it. If Kelsko just chewed us out, just gave us a verbal warning, then he’d miss out on his fun.”

It was probably my imagination, fed by fears of billy clubs and weighted saps and rubber hoses, but as we rose into more mountainous country, the day seemed to become less bright, less warm, less promising than it had been when we started out. The trees seemed considerably less beautiful than the pines and firs and spruces that I so well remembered from Oregon, and the ramparts of these Eastern mountains, geologically more ancient than the Siskiyous, gave an impression of dark and graceless age, decadence, malevolence born of weariness. I was aware that I was letting my emotions color what I saw. This part of the world had a beauty unique unto it, as did Oregon. I knew it was irrational to attribute human feelings and intentions to a landscape, yet I could not shake the feeling that the encroaching mountains were watching our passage and meant to swallow us forever.

“But if Kelsko’s men jump us,” I said, “we can’t fight back. Not against cops. Not in a police station, for God’s sake. We’ll wind up in jail on charges of assault and battery.”

From the backseat, Jelly said, “Oh, it ain’t going to happen in the station house. Not anywhere around the courthouse, either, where we got to go to fill the pockets of the county councilmen. Not even within the city limits. Absolutely not. Absolutely guarantee it. And though it’s always Kelsko’s so-called lawmen, they won’t be wearing uniforms. He sends them off duty, in street clothes. They wait for us as we’re coming out of town, block our way on a quiet stretch of road. Three times they even run us off the pavement to make us stop.”

“And fight?” I said.


“And you fight back?”

“Damn right,” Jelly said.

Luke said, “One year J-J-Jelly b-broke a g-g-guy’s arm.”

“I shouldn’t’ve done it,” Jelly said. “That was going too far, see. Asking for trouble.”

Turning in my seat and regarding the fat man from a new and more respectful point of view, I said, “But if you’re permitted to fight back, if it’s not just a police beating, then why don’t you bring along some of the really big carnies and crush the bastards? Why guys like me and Luke?”

“Oh,” Jelly said, “they wouldn’t like that. They want to beat on us a little, and they want to take a few licks of their own because that proves it was a real fight, see. They want to prove to themselves that they’re hardheaded, iron-assed, coal-country boys, just like their daddies, but they don’t actually want to risk getting the shit beat out of them. If I come in here with somebody like Barney Quadlow or Deke Feeny, the strong-man in Tom Catshank’s sideshow . . . why, Kelsko’s boys would back off fast, wouldn’t fight at all.”

“What’s wrong with that? You don’t like these fights?”

“Hell, no!” Jelly said, and Luke echoed that sentiment. And Jelly said, “But, see, if they don’t get their fight, if they don’t get to deliver Kelsko’s warning, then they’ll make trouble for us once we get the midway set up.”

“Once you endure the fight,” I said, “then they let you go about your business unhampered.”

“You got it now.”

“It’s like . . . the fight is tribute you got to pay to get in.”

“Sorta, yeah.”

“It’s crazy,” I said.



“Like I told you, this here’s coal country.”

We rode in silence for a minute or two.

I wondered if this was the danger that was bearing down on Jelly. Maybe the fight would get out of hand this year. Maybe one of Kelsko’s men would be a closet psychopath who would not be able to control himself once he started beating on Jelly, and maybe he would be so strong that none of us could pull him off until it was too late.

I was scared.

I breathed deeply and attempted to reach into the stream of psychic energies that always flowed over and through me, seeking confirmation of my worst fears, seeking some indication, no matter how slight, that Jelly Jordan’s rendezvous with Death would be in Yontsdown. I could sense nothing useful; maybe that was good. If this was where Jelly’s crisis would arise, then surely I would pick up at least a hint of it. Surely.

Sighing, I said, “I guess I’m just the kind of bodyguard you need. Big enough to keep myself from being hurt too bad . . . but not so big that I come out of it unbloodied.”

“They got to see some blood,” Jelly agreed. “That’s what satisfies them.”


“I warned you yesterday,” Jelly said.

“I know.”

“I told you that you ought to hear what the job was.”

“I know.”

“But you were so grateful for work that you leaped before you looked. Hell, you leaped before you even knew what you was leaping over, and now halfway through the jump you look down and see a Tiger that wants to reach up and bite off your balls!”

Luke Bendingo laughed.

“I guess I’ve learned a valuable lesson here,” I said.

“Absolutely,” Jelly said. “In fact, it’s such a damned valuable lesson, I’m half persuaded that giving you cash pay for this job is just too deplorably generous of me.”

The sky had begun to cloud over.

On both sides of the highway, pine-studded slopes shouldered closer. Mixed among the pines were twisted oaks with gnarled black trunks, some burdened with large, lumpy, cancerous mounds of ligneous fungus.

We passed a long abandoned mine head, set back a hundred yards from the road, and a half-demolished tipple beside a weed-choked railroad spur, both crusted with black grime, and then several houses, gray and peeling, in need of paint. Rusting hulks of automobiles, set up on concrete blocks, were so prevalent that you might have thought they were a preferred lawn decoration, like birdbaths and plaster flamingos in certain other neighborhoods.

“What you ought to do next year,” I said, “is bring Joel Tuck with you and march him right in to Kelsko’s office.”

“Wouldn’t that b-b-be s-something!” Luke said, and slapped the dashboard with one hand.

I said, “You just have Joel stand there beside you, never saying anything, mind you, never making any threats or unfriendly gestures, even smiling, smiling real friendly, just fixing Kelsko with that third eye, that blank orange eye, and I’ll bet nobody would be waiting for you when you left town.”

“Well, of course, they wouldn’t!” Jelly said. “They’d all be back at the station house, cleaning the poop out of their pants.”

We laughed, and some of the tension went out of us, but our spirits did not soar all the way back to where they had been because, a few minutes later, we crossed the city limits of Yontsdown.

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