Johnny Cash Beset by Darkness

by John Marshall Daniel


Habits of The Beastman. His Lair.

It’s just a truck trailer on wheels, the kind that can be pulled behind a big rig. But then the two ends fold out to make an entrance and exit, and vents in the roof slide open. Set up the plywood stand for the talker out front and you’re all set to start bringing in the marks. The metal skin of the trailer is painted in bright colors, all yellows and reds. SEE THE AMAZING BEASTMAN, it says in big red letters, and there’s a painting on the side that looks kind of like Lon Chaney crossed with a Sasquatch. The flesh tones are way off, the facial structure is all wrong, and it doesn’t really look like me at all. Speakers mounted on the corners of the trailer sound the spiel in a continuous tape loop, so Dr. Vanderheiden doesn’t have to squawk all day.

“Found wandering in the aftermath of the tsunami! His brain turned off by drugs! Turned into an animal by science! The Beastman! You won’t believe it! Exclusive showing for a short time only!”

The spiel doesn’t make any sense, but that’s OK. People know there’s not really a half-man-half-beast on display inside the trailer, but that doesn’t stop them from tearing off five tickets to see what’s inside. Some of the posing shows are for real; Little Nell really is a little tiny woman; she’s nice but doesn’t say much. The World’s Smallest Horse (Alive and Real) maybe isn’t actually the smallest horse in the world, but it neighs and smells like a horse and craps the world’s smallest road-apples in little piles in its pen. Dr. Vanderheiden said the show once had an honest-to-god Alligator Man until he got sick and had to quit traveling. The Alligator Lady we have now is a gaff, with fake rubber scales and spots drawn on with a Sharpie. But the marks really don’t care if the show is gaffed—they’re in on the joke now and just want to see how it’s done, to have a good laugh, to see what’s inside.

Inside The Beastman’s Lair it doesn’t look too different from an animal’s trailer from a circus. Judging by the smell, it might have been one at one time. There’s hay everywhere on the floor, and floor-to-ceiling bars separating me from the marks. In one corner there’s a stack of hay bales with a piss bucket stashed behind. It’s a fully-functional piss bucket and it stinks. Sometimes I like to think it adds to the Beastman ambiance, but usually I just think it stinks. One time I tossed one of those urinal cakes in there, but it didn’t really help the smell. Besides the pissbucket and old animal smell there’s also the smell of the midway, which I kinda like. It’s a combination of diesel exhaust, frying food, and dumpsters. It’s pretty pungent but it smells like good times.

There’s a door in the side of the trailer, which I use when I need to run to the shitter or take a break. The air in here gets so humid sometimes, on days when it’s hot and crowded, that I open it up when there aren’t any marks coming through. Depending on the way we’re set up on the lot, sometimes I can watch people go by on the Wheel of Death or the Tilt-a-Whirl. I dig just watching the people, people I don’t even know, pretty girls, kids laughing, teenagers trying to be cool. It’s what makes this gig bearable.

Dr. Vanderheiden keeps the lights dim and pushes the marks through pretty quick so no one really gets a good look at me. There’s a low-wattage light bulb at the entrance and exit, but mostly I stay out of the pool of light. On bright days outside there’s some indirect light from the roof vents; on rainy days it can get pretty dark, and when the rain comes hard it makes a helluva racket on the roof. I don’t mind though—it’s kinda soothing and plus the rain keeps the crowds down. On quiet days like that I can stash a book behind the bales by the piss bucket, and read a few pages in the dim light between marks. I just have to be ready when I hear Dr. Vanderheiden launch into his come-along spiel, so I can jump up and slam into the bars and howl and try to grab at the marks. But mostly Dr. Vanderheiden stands under the In-door awning cursing at the rain, counting the day’s few tickets over and over, as if that extra miscounted ticket will make his lot payment for the week.


The Beastman and The Lady.

It’s one of those days, somewhere in Tidewater Virginia in a town where something happened once back in the Civil War, and a forecast for rain has kept the people away, but the rain that falls is half-assed and hardly even muddies the unpaved parts of the midway. Dr. Vanderheiden has switched off the tape loop and is doing all the spieling himself, which he says he does “just to keep in practice,” as if the day will come again when a carny talker with the skill to steer marks into a gaffed show or ten-in-one will be afforded wealth and status like in the old days. I hear him go into “just-five-small-tickets, thank-you-very-much-young-lady, now-prePARE-yourself, for-the-SPECtacle…” and I put my book down by the piss bucket and pick some loose straw out of my fur. I hear footsteps on the stoop and I know before the curtains part that it’s just one person—maximal effort for minimal return.

I let out a yowl that’s part Chewbacca, part Tasmanian Devil and strike a Who-Dares-Awaken-Mighty-Kong pose with my back to the door. As soon as I hear the footsteps come close, I whirl around and charge the bars, slamming into them and reaching and pawing through them at the mark, who jumps about a foot straight up and retreats against the wall, laughing. She’s a woman alone, which almost certainly means she has friends waiting outside for her to report back before they spend their five tickets. Cheapskates.

I turn my face to the light and bare my prosthetic fangs, letting out the gurgling howl that is my tribute to both Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Mushmouth from Fat Albert. The mark is gaping now, entranced. Hopefully she’ll bring her friends in as well.

“My God… Gordon? Is that you?”

I haven’t heard my real name since the day I walked on the show, and it stops me dead. For a second I don’t recognize her. She’s put on a bit of weight; I used to tease her that she’d hit thirty like a brick wall, and apparently she has. Her hips have gotten big just like her mother’s, and in her rain jacket and fleece sweatshirt she looks like she’s just back from Junior’s soccer practice.

“Oh. Hey. Hey, how are you?” I try to say, but it comes out Urharhharrrarugh. I spit out my fangs into my hand and try again. “How are you doing?”

“Good, good… I can’t believe it’s you.”

“I know. How weird is that? Do you live around here now?”

“Yeah, down the river near Williamsburg. We’ve been here three or four years now.”

“We? You’re married?”

“Yeah.” She still had that smile, the one that had turned my bones into cream cheese all those years ago. “He’s a nice guy. You’d like him.”

“He didn’t want to come in?”

“He sent me in to check it out first. We got burned on the Giant Man-Eating Chicken.” We hit that point in the conversation when you have to decide if it’s going to be a real conversation or just an exchange of pleasantries. She forged ahead. “Have you been doing…this…long?”

“No, this is my first season with the show. And I was doing caricatures on the midway until a couple months ago.”

“So you’re still painting?”

“Not really, no.” I leaned on the bars. “It’s hard to find time, and I don’t really have the space, either. Plus at the end of a long day, you know…”

“Yeah, I know. My life’s pretty different now, too.”

Dr. Vanderheiden’s voice is suddenly loud outside: Are-you-prePARed, for-the-unbeLIEveable-SPECtacle, the-mighty-BEASTman-in-his-LAIR…

“Hey, I gotta work.”

“Oh, OK. Listen, it was good seeing you.”

“Yeah, I know.” I jam my fangs back in my mouth.

“Really. You take care of yourself, Gordon.”

“Ur ruggh. Yur turghh.”

Then she’s gone and the next batch of marks is in the door. They’re mostly kids, and they scream and holler and run around so much it makes my job easy. When they’re gone, I go straight to the back door, open it a crack, and listen for her voice. She’s got to be telling her husband You will NOT believe who I just saw in there. But there are only the screams from the Tilt-A-Whirl, the shouts from the midway, and the slow drumming of rain on the aluminum roof of the trailer.


* * *

All day I read the marks that come in. Which one is he? I look for wedding bands on the men who come in alone, and reject those who are not her type. She has to have told him to come in and look at me. Gaze upon the spectacle! The former love of her life, covered in fake hair and tattered clothes. Still life with piss bucket. She has to have told him so many things. There were so many stories, ones I still tell. Backpacking in Italy. The tornado on the night of our Senior Prom. Her weird uncle with the herd of goats grazing among the junk cars in his yard. Stories she can tell the kids we’ll never have. We had even picked out their names. I can’t believe I’m even thinking like this after all this time. Loser.


The Beastman in Repose.

The lights finally go out on the Wheel. Dr. Vanderheiden comes in, rubbing his eye. His monocle bounces on its gold chain against his satin vest. Pawing through the day’s take in his ticket poke, he shakes his head. “Not too good. This damned rain.” He sighs. “We’ll do a lot better next week down in Fayetteville.” His German accent seems to disappear every night as soon as the Wheel goes dark.

I reach through the bars and let myself out. “Don’t forget your bucket,” he says. “I’ll close up tonight, but remember we’ve got tear-down tomorrow night. So get some sleep.”

“OK, thanks.” I pick up the bucket gingerly, being careful not to slosh. The night is cool as I step down to the midway, and the grass is wet under my bare feet. I keep forgetting to bring sandals for the walk back at night. Around me the other showmen, ride jocks, gamesmen, geeks, and grifters walk in silence, heads down, reading the midway for ground score--dropped change, tickets, jewelry, cell phones, cigarettes. The Giant Man Eating Chicken lopes by, at over seven feet unmistakable even in the dim light from the chow wagons. He balls up the day’s KFC bucket in one massive hand and stuffs it in an overflowing trash can. I reach the porta-jons and open one with my elbow, keeping my bare feet outside while I tip in the contents of the bucket at arm’s length to avoid backsplash.

“What up, Beast?” It’s Tree, the cherry of his cigarette reflecting off the dark shades he never takes off, even at night.

“Hey, Tree, how ya livin’?” I slap him a low five with my non-bucket hand.

“Large and in charge, like El De Barge.” He grins the grin of someone who’s lost a lot of teeth and doesn’t care a bit.

“Good day at the Pirate Ship?”

“Kinda slow, Beast, kinda slow. Had to make for some bumpy rides to pick up a little extra something.” He pulls a digital camera from the pocket of his fatigue jacket. “Check it: S-O-N-Y. The flash got broke when it hit the ground, but it’s all good.” We walk together down the midway toward the back lot.

“It’ll pick up. I hear it’s military payday down in Fayetteville where we’re going.”

“Awww, shit, Beast, you know it. We fixin’ to get paid in the Escalade.” Military paydays mean huge crowds of drunk soldiers with pockets full of extra cash who don’t care where it goes. The local five-o are too busy breaking up fights to notice if Madame Crumpet The Midget Strumpet’s hoochie show is working blue, or if the ticket men aren’t tearing straight, or if the Hoop-It-Up basketball hoops aren’t quite circular.

“Hey, Tree. You ever see anybody you knew from outside come on your ride?”

“All the time, baby. Everybody knows the Tree. Everybody.”

“No, really.”

Tree stops walking and looks over his shades at me. “You ain’t down by law, are you? Tree can’t help you with that, my brother.”

“Naw, Tree, it’s not that. It’s a girl.”

“I feel ya.” He drags on his cigarette. “And she’s not down with you being a showman?”

“You got it. But I don’t know why I even care. She’s an ex. From a long time ago.”

“Listen, Beast. Everybody with the show, they’re either running from something, or waiting to get to something. You got to figure out which one of those you are. Then you got to figure out if the show’s helping you with that. Some people ain’t meant to be travelers, Beast. Ain’t meant to be. But I think you got it in you.”

“I hear ya, Tree.” We stop outside the bunkhouse, the long trailer where newcomers and first-of-Mays rent a few square feet of sleeping space before they get enough money for a trailer of their own. A row of doors on each side conceal tiny cabins with little more than a fold-down cot, a chest of drawers, and a hot plate. I count four doors from the front and unlock my door.

“Hey, Beast, you got what you need?” I think that’s a pretty heavy question, and I’m pondering it when I realize he’s asking if I want to buy any dope.

“Naw, Tree. I’m good. But thanks.” Tree’s Mexican ditch weed always gives me a headache. “Thanks a lot.”

“A’ight, Beast. And if that girl needs some straightening out, tell her come see the Tree. I’ll set her right, for a fact.” He ambles off into the darkness of the back lot. A knot of ride jocks call out to him, and fives are slapped, and a bottle goes round. I let the door bang shut and sit on my cot. The bunkhouse vibrates gently with the thrum of the massive diesel generators on the genny truck next door. The tiny cabin fills with the sharp smell of spirit gum remover as I pull the hair off my face, clump by clump.


The Lady Touched by the Beastman’s Plight.

The knock against the window set in the bunkhouse cabin door stirs me from half-sleep. I know before I even look at the shape though the milky glass that it must be her. This has happened before, except in a dream. I let her in, and as she steps into the tiny space the smell of her is so instantly familiar that my head spins. But I have learned to both hate and pity her over these years, I remind myself.

“Sit down. How did you find me?”

“It wasn’t too hard,” she says, sitting on the edge of the cot, her knees almost touching the front of the dresser. “A nice midget lady helped me out.”

“Madame Crumpet? You’re lucky she didn’t offer you a job.”

“Actually, I think she did. Something about thousands of dollars to work in Fayetteville next week.” She glances around the cabin, probably wondering where my thousands of dollars are going. A few paperbacks, a cheap transistor radio, a NASCAR ashtray, a half-drained jug of red wine, a battery-powered lamp.

“Did your husband know you were coming here?” Suddenly I fear her motive. I know that if she so much as puts a hand on my knee I will burst into flames. The shape of her face is different now, rounder; the mouth fuller. But the eyes are the same.

“Actually, yes. We discussed it. At some length.”

“I see.” I don’t. If she’s not here for hot ex-sex, then why? Surely not to taunt me. She was never cruel, only misguided.

“Gordon, I came here because I’m worried about you. I wanted to make sure you’re OK.”

“Of course I’m OK. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Look, I know you took things pretty hard…”

“Oh, don’t flatter yourself.”

“Seriously, Gordon. I know I did. I know I thought you were the one. You probably did, too. We had it all planned out, remember?” I couldn’t have forgotten. We’d talked about it a hundred times—the wedding in the old church at St. Andrew’s, the house in the country, the two kids, the retirement, even. It seems even more ridiculous now than then.

“Sure. But you moved on. So did I.”

“Moved on? Gordon, look at you. You’re a carny, for chrissake.”

“Showman.”

“Excuse me?”

“Showman. ‘Carny’ is an outdated pejorative.”

“Whatever. The point is, you work in a freak show, you live in a damn horse trailer, and you dress up in some kind of monkey suit for a living. In spite of everything that happened between us, maybe because of everything that happened between us, I still think you’re better than that.”

I look at the floor and say nothing. The diesel thrum from the genny truck abruptly stops, and the silence is sudden. The single light fixture dims, then dies. I reach over and snap on the battery-powered lantern. “Sorry. Eleven o’clock. They shut down the generators to save money.” Outside, the backlot and the midway fade into darkness.


Johnny Cash Beset By Darkness.

We talk for a while. Some about old times, some catching up to today. About her husband and about where I’ve been. About people we knew and where they are now. She bums a smoke even though she says she quit. I pour her some jug wine into a coffee cup, and it’s almost like old times. Almost.

I show her the last thing I painted. It was a long time ago, years ago even, not long after the breakup, but I don’t tell her that. She’d get the wrong impression, because the piece is really dark. In fact I haven’t shown it to many people, because everyone gets the wrong impression, and I got tired of explaining it. It’s a pretty small canvas, about 20 by 30, and it’s all in shades of black, with some gloss, some flat, a little more texture here and there. It’s oppressive and heavy, or at least that was what I was going for. I call it “Johnny Cash Beset By Darkness,” and that’s where everybody gets it wrong. Oh I get it. The Man in Black, ha-ha. But that’s not it at all.

In 1967, Johnny Cash, strung out on pills, in trouble with the law, and troubled by the dissolution of his marriage, climbed into Nickajack Cave to die. He walked straight back into that cave, through untold passageways and twists and turns, for hours, until his flashlight batteries gave out. Then, hopelessly lost, in a darkness that must have been overwhelming, with a million billion tons of rock over his head, he just lay down and waited to die. But something made him get up and start walking again, in darkness, hands out in front of him. Hours later, amazingly, he felt a breeze across his face, and followed it out of the cave and into the sunlight. That story’s in his book Cash: The Autobiography of Johnny Cash, by Johnny Cash, and when I read it, it stuck with me. I understand that a lot of Christians like to point to that as an instance of God speaking to somebody, but Johnny himself said he knew it wasn’t God talking to him. He said he just suddenly knew that life wasn’t his to just throw away.

“I want to buy this from you,” she says, holding the canvas by the wood framing and tilting it so the gloss-black streaks catch the dim light from the lantern. “I came here with some money. I was going to offer it to you so you could get out of here, get out of this life. But I was also pretty sure you wouldn’t take it.”

“You’re damned straight. But the painting’s not for sale, either.”

She nods. “I understand. But if you change your mind…here’s my number. And if you need a job, my husband is friends with a guy who owns a tavern in Williamsburg, and he can give you a job waiting tables or something. You’d have to wear a costume, but I guess…” She starts to laugh.

“Yeah, I’m used to that,” I say. “I won’t be calling you for a job, but thanks anyway. I appreciate the offer.” And I do. But I don’t want to be a charity case for my ex-girl and her new man. There must be a limit to how much accumulated humiliation one can bear in a lifetime. “But hey, if you want a job, I’m sure I could get you on the show.”

“Oh my God.”

“We could use a new Spiderella The Arachno-Girl.”

“How about the Fat Lady? That’s what I feel like I’m turning into sometimes.”

“Gabba gabba, we accept you! One of us! One of us!”

“Stop it. You know that movie gave me nightmares.” There is a kiss on the cheek, fraught with peril and drenched in memory, and then she’s gone, picking her way across the dark backlot in the direction of town, a glow on the edge of the dark sky.


The Beastman Afoot.

Morning comes early to the carnival, and I awaken to the sound of a ride jock puking outside the bunkhouse. The sky has cleared, and the golden dawn illuminates the top of the Wheel, its reflectors shining in gold and purple. My shoes leave trails in the dewy grass. Dr. Vanderheiden is startled to see me without my makeup and costume, but when I give him the news he doesn’t seem all that surprised, and he offers me a raise only half-heartedly. I know he’ll probably have another Beastman by the time the state Ride Inspectors show up in Fayetteville.

Tree only nods sagely. “Beastman’s gotta do what a Beastman’s gotta do.” Then he gives me the one-sided man-hug so as not to knock the ash off his cigarette. “You know you got family on the show, Beast. Any old time.” He swings himself up into the control seat of the Pirate Ship to run through his morning checklist.

“It’s Gordon.”

“What say, dog?” He peers over his shades at me.

“My name’s Gordon.”

He looks off into the distance and nods. “Gordon. All right now. All right.”

It’s a long hike to the bus station in town, but my backpack is light, with only my few things and a rolled-up canvas. The traffic begins to stream out to the fairgrounds, and the passing cars throw a nice breeze in my face.