CARNIVAL MALARKY

The moods which seem particularly American to me are the noisy ribaldry, the sadness, a groping earnestness. . . Roy Harris

Now, first off, you should know that Doody Mareain’s claim to some ancient and high-falutin’ African heritage is pure carnival malarky, dreamed up by a sideshow barker Doody and I used to travel with out of Savannah. Now don’t raise your eyebrows. I’m giving you the straight of it as I remember, and by Jess I remember it well because I was at an impressionable age – just a couple of years older than you are now – when I first ran into these fellows. It was along about 1885, thereabouts. I was already on my own, fiddling for room and board wherever they’d take me in. Well, anyway, I was holed up in some ramshackly place that didn’t have much to offer in the way of an audience. I think it was Watkinsville or Winder. Whatever, the townspeople had not taken to my fiddling and I was feeling the need for some pocket money when this drummer on the boarding house porch says, Hell, Rex-rote, why don’t you strike for Athens tonight. They’s some doings there that might interest you.

Like what?

A carnival for one thing. I saw it day before yesterday over in Comer, and it generated a right smart little turnout. They got this giant nigger buck of a prize fighter who whipped every white man the crowd threw at him. I understand they’re layin’ for him in Athens with some ringers that won’t say quit.

Well now, that didn’t seem at all bad, so I rode over there and took in the sights for a while, and then got a ticket for the fight. You paid a quarter to the barker and crowded around a ring set up in a tent. The barker was a black man, and he had a pitch that turned the head of everyone within earshot. It was a taunting kind of thing no white man could hear and ignore. What the barker was saying was that he had a nigger in the ring inside that tent who could bring the best white man to his knees. What he implied was that the black man – not just his fighter but any Ethiopian – was, when it was all said and done, superior to your white man. I mean he drew a crowd quick, one of those well-let’s-just-see-about-that mobs of men who were willing to lay cash on the line that their own kind was not to be humiliated by the likes of some nigger, no matter how strapping. But the barker you had to admire. He was a little nigger with sass and a sense of himself that would take no intimidation. He looked you right in the eye and smiled with such contempt that you wondered, in the deepest part of you, if maybe he wasn’t right.

When he got all the men he could into the tent – the women would have none of it – the barker entered the ring and became announcer and master of ceremonies. He was a magician at that too. By Jess, I’ll never forget his introduction, because I was to hear it hundreds of times over the next several years.

Ladies and gentlemen, he began, and then corrected himself in such a clever way that it made us feel that to be men and to be watching what we were about to see was somehow select and special in an elemental and undeniable way. There we were, whiskey-drinking, cigar-smoking, spraddle-leg-ged, jingling the money in our pants, pawing the sawdust with our boots, a fraternity of roughs who liked a good, bruising fight, while the little ladies, bless them, with their faint hearts fluttering in dainty breasts, had to remain outside. I even felt a masculine pride building as the announcer introduced his fighter. Gentlemen, he said, the management of the Patrick J. Owens Traveling Roadshow and Circus is proud to present to you its giant of the African earth, Hamercules! But before I bring him out to meet any and all challengers in the manly art of fisticuffs, I must warn you that this man is one of the mightiest to ever walk the earth. Since joining our company The Great Hamercules has faced in the ring more than 1500 challengers, on the average of three opponents a week over the past ten years, and he has yet to bow to any man. Only four have ever had the distinction of knocking Hamercules down, and they paid dearly for that all too brief moment of glory. His skill and strength is such that only the hungriest professional prizefighters will step into the ring with him. We have had, for the past few years, a most remunerative standing challenge to the bare-knuckle champion of the world, John L. Sullivan, but the champion, perhaps wisely, has not had the courage to meet Hamercules. Gentlemen, a hand of applause please, for our African Apollo, that hammering Hamite, that walloping Watusi from Ruanda on the River of the Nile, The Great Hamercules!

Well now, out he came from a canvas dressing room, and I tell you when the men saw him they fell back and only a few of us could muster a clap. Doody was something in those days. He was around forty years old then, and where now you see his bones then you saw muscle. Not just seven foot tall but broad as Brautigam. Biggest man any of us had ever seen, and black as they come.

I thought to myself, well no wonder the little nigger’s so sure of himself. He can hide behind the giant seven days a week and not be found.

I happened on the drummer in the crowd. He turned to me and says, Ain’t he a specimen? Wait’ll you see him fight. He’s as mean as he looks!



I laughed, and allowed that the white boys who had been conscripted to take him on might well be wishing for an out. But I misjudged the grit of the Athenian men. Two stepped forward from the murmur of the crowd and talked at ringside with the announcer, who was soaking Doody’s fists in a bucket of brine. The men around began digging into their pockets and placing bets with one another. I studied the two white boys. They were big men, but just boys, really, neither much over twenty. Outsized country hands with blunt, come-on-and-hit-me-it-don’t-hurt-but-I’m-sure-as-hell-gonna-hurt-you faces. Then it was that I realized they were brothers.

I heard one of the townsmen say, well, if Tommy or Tooter can’t whip him, no white man can, because they’ve whipped everything that walks in ten counties or more. I mean you can’t get much tougher’n the Horner boys.

The brothers drew straws to see which would take on Doody first, and Tooter stepped into the ring and removed his shirt. The announcer gave him a dandy introduction and then started taking bets against the house. Within minutes he had almost a hundred takers, and the match began.

The first thing you felt watching them circle and swap blows was a disappointment in Doody. There was a brittleness and a caution in him. Oh, he was strong, mighty strong, but you could tell that ten years of fighting three nights a week in every little burg had sapped, him. He was having to coast to live up to the claims of the announcer. And that’s what he did with Tooter Horner. He paced himself and fought defensive. Well hell you couldn’t blame him. After Tooter there’d be his brother, fresh and avenging, to contend with. Well, those boys were young enough to be his sons, and they gave the old nigger some bare-fisted hell before it was over. They came on fast and furious, and the only reason Doody whipped them was because he was cagier and more experienced.. He didn’t bull them over, he just outboxed them. And they were man enough to admit it. All in all it was a good show, and it didn’t bother me at all to learn that the drummer was on the payroll. His job was to pull in customers and I was glad he had enticed me, because I made up my mind right then and there to join the troupe and take his job.

I went into the dressing room and right up to the barker-announcer, whose name turned out to be Sutton Gray. Listen Gray, I began, I’d like to hire on. . .

Call me Mister, you little cracker, he snapped.

Doesn’t bother me at all, Mister Gray, I returned, looking him directly in the eye.

Hey, he says, what do we have here? A nigger-lovin’ white boy. Looky here Doody!

Doody looked down at me, and I trembled in new respect for the Horner Brothers. He was damn awesome up close. I grinned weakly, but he didn’t respond.

Why should we hire you, you impudent little ass, Gray jibbed.

You could use a cut man, I said, and you as the entrepreneur, you ought’n be groveling in the crowd collecting money. I could do that for you…

Entrepreneur? Boy, where you get such fancy words?

Same place you get ’em. I’m a smart little som-bitch and I can. . .

Gray was grinning. I figured I was in. What do you know about cuts? Pine tree rosin will stop bleeding quicker’n steptic, and I gotta sackful. Wax my bowstring with it.

Your what?

My bowstring. I’m a fiddler. Got a great idea for an act. Dress me up in tails, like a longhair, and bill me as the Great Rexrotti. I come out all dignified and pompous and start grandly into Beethoven’s Concerto For Violin, which naturally the crackers would hate. But then, just about the time they’re starting to cover their ears, I swing into a good old reel, Turkey In the Straw, somethin’ like that. They’d love it!

Uhn huh. I’m sure. We’ll have to think on that. About three seconds’ worth. You get sassy around here and I’ll tell everybody you’re not only a nigger-lover, but a queer as well. What’s your name? The Great Rexrotti ain’t gonna do.

Mandrake. Mandrake Rexrote. But you can call me Doc. Most everybody does.

I can see why. Alrighty Mister Doc. Tell you what. You tend the cuts and be our second fiddle and watch your manners and we’ll get along fine. I have but two commandments to hand down to you. The first is that in public you are to always and unfailingly address Doody and me as Mr. Hamer-cules and Mr. Gray. Now, Doody’s real name is Mareain, but in public it’s Mr. Hamercules or, if you feel up to it, The Great Hamercules. Got it? And the second thing is that you are not to make a sound on your puling little fiddle as long as you are with us. I will break it across your bony little butt and send you packing if I catch it out of its case.

What’s the pay?

Five percent of every night’s take, and you can eat with us if you sit at the foot of the table and lick the leftovers.

Five percent! That’s nigger wages! I gotta have at least ten.

We took in about $140 tonight. If I paid you ten percent you’d be getting $14, and you know damned well no white boy is worth that. You gonna have to get by on five to seven a show, and sleep in the stable with the horses.

That was at least fifteen smackers a week, not bad, so I stopped haggling.



It was the beginning of a six-year engagement with Gray and The Great Hamercules. We made quite a team, and when Doody’s mother joined us she brought an added touch of class. Regal she was. Gray didn’t trust me, so he had Miz Mareain go down among the crowd and collect the bets, and this always caused a stir. She was so tall and beautiful and well-set-up, looked exactly the way Gray wanted her to look when he dreamed up all that stuff and such about her and Doody being aristocrats of Africa. And I’ve got to hand it to Gray, he could enchance Heaven with his introductions. And Lonnie Mareain was heavenly. She would descend among the men as Queen Makeda, and even in her coming down we had to look up and marvel at what Africa had wrought. You could believe that she was Queen Makeda, and that Makeda had been the Sheba who journeyed to Jerusalem to seek Solomon’s wisdom and returned with his seed, to give birth to Menelik, who became a great warrior and turned the ancient pastures of Abyssinia into the kingdom of Ethiopia, all a thousand years and more before the coming of Christ. Oh, Lonnie Mareain was as much a showman as Gray. After her fingers were fat with greenbacks, she would hold them up like fans and turn toward Doody and Gray in the ring and say, in a rich, exultant way, a strange and beautiful chant that went:

Through wisdom I have dived down into the great

sea, and have seized in the place of her depths a

pearl whereby I am rich. . .

and here she would wave the money and the men would whoop and holler and cheer her on. She would acknowledge the rowdies with a smile and a nod and continue in her contralto. . .

I went down into the great iron anchor,

whereby men anchor ships for the night on the high seas,

and I received a lamp which lighteth me,

and I came up by the ropes of the boat of understanding.

And she would go into the ring, to walk around it once waving the money. And Lordy, the men loved it. Then she would kiss Hamercules and disappear into the dressing room, where, I knew, she would become all business and turn to counting the take.



Hell, the truth of them, as far as I was able to tell, was that all three had come from Waco, Texas. Now that they had their genesis in Africa there could be no doubt, of course, but my point is that they made their African geneology a damnsight more magnificent and continuous than it probably was. I know for sure that Doody had been a cowpoke like his daddy until Gray latched onto him and his mother. The word I got from the other car-nies was that they had been run out of Waco by the Klan because of Gray’s radical political activities. He organized the niggers and tried to make Texas a black state. Apparently that was true because years later, after the act broke up, Gray wrote four or five novels about it. Became kind of famous. Brilliant, he was, but crazy. Dangerous. Doody’s the way he is now, and in the trouble he is now, because of Gray. I tell you it was a sin the stretchers that Gray put into Doody’s head.

And Doody came to believe them – the poor fool was convinced he was Ethiopian with a little Arab thrown in, that his ancestors had come down from North Africa to settle in East Africa along the Lake Kivu. And he was full of Gray’s notions about the superiority of the Watusi, and all that nonsense about how they had conquered the peasant Bahutus who lived on the plains and the pygmy Batwa who lived in the forests. The logical step, naturally, was to extend their supremacy over even white people. And that’s how Gray primed Doody for the boxing matches. He had Doody believing that most white men were worth killing, and in the beginning, when Doody was about thirty, they said it was like feeding the scent to a hound.

Gray made each bout a symbol of the niggers’ struggle against the white man, their own personal crusade, and so goaded Doody that sometimes they’d have to stop the fight to keep Doody from pure and simple murder.

But that changed.



By the time I came along, Doody was pretty much run down and tired of doing battle with every white-trash lunkhead. Behind all he was a gentle man, and he didn’t hate the way Gray did. I’m not sure why Gray took me on. My grit and gab, I guess, and then he liked lording it over a white kid. It was always jab and parry between us.

With Doody it was different. We became friends, and during those years I reached my prime, while old Doody, as an athlete, went over the hill and into rheumatic middle-age. I spent many a morning after a fight the night before working the aches and pains out of his body. Hell, we found it harder and harder to get him warm and loose for a match. Niggers aren’t supposed to bleed, but Doody did, and I put a forest-full of rosin in his old sore hide. I got big arms just from rubbing him down. He used to lie there and get drunk on the alcohol I was soaking him in and talk about what he was going to do when he retired from the ring.

He was going to get him a farm down in South Texas, get him a fat Mexican wife, and do nothing but pleasure in the woman and eat the corn and milk the cows he raised. The white bread and red beer life, he called it. Damn it, boy, because of your age I feel a little constrained like I’m telling you something I ought’n, but, by Jess, if you can sit there and sip my best Beaujolais like it was soda pop I guess I gave you the straight about Doody and me and our adventures. You’ve been around barnyards enough not to blink, eh? That’s what I thought. Well hell let’s enjoy it, at least the telling of it. That’s about all an old man and boy can do anyway, hey! Well, now, where was I? Oh, yes, Doody was day dreaming. He said he hoped to make love as many times as he’d fought, which made sense to me at the time. It seemed the proper balance for any red blooded man, and goodness knows Doody needed a little realignment, as we say in chiropractic. The poor devil! Between living with his mother and fighting for Gray, he didn’t have much time for ladies. Why he even said Gray put saltpeter in the meals they fed us to keep Doody celibate and strong for the ring. Now I never believed that, or maybe I was just immune. But Doody was convinced of it, and once in a while he would skip eating everything but the poke salad so he could slip out with me on an off night and make the whore houses. The women loved him! Oh, we were a pair, I tell you. We had it in our heads to throw in together on that Texas farm, and I think the hope of it helped sustain Doody through all of his servitude to Gray.

It was a shame, really, the way Gray pushed Doody. I don’t know who I hated most – Gray or the Horner boys, the way they dogged him. You see, those brothers wouldn’t give up after that first night in Athens. No matter where we were playing they’d show up at least once a month to challenge. He must have fought those rednecks 50 times. First one and then the other. Well it just wore him down, not to speak of all the opponents in between. And all the while Tommy and Tooter were learning, and the tide began to turn. The matches got closer and closer, until finally, one hot July night in Senatobia, Mississippi, just below Memphis, Tommy Horner let rip with a damn stunner, caught Doody on the side of the head with a left hook. Blood gushed out of his ear and sprayed us red at ringside. Doody went down like a rubber tree. He bounced up five times before Tommy put him down for keeps. Doody wasn’t out, he was just whipped, which was a worse humiliation. I never will forget. Gray was standing over him, screaming and cursing for him to get up and fight. I have never seen a man so worked up. His eyes were popping out of his head and his voice was as high and shrill as a crazy woman’s. When he finally realized Doody couldn’t get up, that Hamercules was done for – after 17 years and 10,000 rounds – Gray ran from the tent and lost himself in the midway crowd. We never saw him again because as soon as Doody came around and we got him dressed, he and Mrs. Mareain and I packed our horses and struck for Memphis and put up at a nigger hotel on Crump Boulevard. It wasn’t too many days before I came into the property out in Texas, the land we are on now, and Doody and Mrs. Mareain followed me out here. The year was 1891.

Now a lot has passed between Doody and me since we first came out here. Thirty-three years for one thing. In that time we changed and I guess you’d have to say we grew apart. I didn’t realize it until sometime afterwards, but that beating Doody took from Tommy Horner really changed him. Took the wind out of him in a way that’s hard to explain. He went right on into working as hard at farming as he had at prizefighting, and for a while he made a hand. But there was a removal about him that hadn’t been there before. He got so damned metaphysical, so superior to the things of this world that I had to let him go and put your daddy on the farm. You see the problem between us was that I was just coming into my maturity and, hell I’ll admit it, my ambition. I came to want to walk in the world of men, to cut a swath through more than a cornfield. And Doody, who had mowed through men like a reaper, was no longer interested in them, except maybe as corpses. No, that’s unfair. Let’s say as spirits. He got contrary and grim to be around, almost insolent in his derision of my storing up of worldly goods. I remember one year I was all excited about the corn crop and he put me down for it. Told me off, said I had not dealt squarely with him in the partnership, and accused me of keeping him in a bondage that was only a little more pleasant than his years with Gray. By Jess that stung me, because there was some truth in it. I had taken over, but it was due as much to Doody’s indifference as it was my bossiness. You notice Doody never took a wife like he said he would.

Instead he got skinnier and skinnier and downright ascetic. That day we had the knockdown-dragout, I said all right, let’s go halves, you take yours and I’ll take mine and we’ll each work our own fields, but he would have none of it. No, he said, he didn’t need it. All he wanted was a house and a small garden and his mule to ride around and think on. Socrates on an ass, that’s how he saw himself. Always jeering at me for being what he called another Gray, just another power-seeking politician. The insinuation being that I had somehow missed the true meaning of life, the pursuit of wisdom. Well I told the old fool off. For all his philosophizing, he cut a ludicrous figure. Fanatic old coot. Always hovering about graveyards, whispering with children. Where had his manhood gone? I was sick of his superiority and his pretension to some phar- oahic past. Hell, he has about as much Watusi in him as I have. He isn’t tall out of some noble lineage. I have sus pected for years that he and his moth er are afflicted with that bone disease which plagued Lincoln and made him such an elongated freak. The marfan syndrome is what we call it. Shows up about every fourth generation in cer tain families, and this is where your giants come from you see in carnivals and sideshows. Lincoln inherited it from his great-great grandfather, Mor- decai Lincoln II, and I’m sure if you would go back a few generations you’d find it in Doody’s line. What usually rides this syndrome is aortic insuffi ciency. You see the arteries that send blood to the heart can’t keep up with the stretching of the bones, and they tend to go haywire, causing a leaky heart. And the surest sign of heart leakage is a shaking and trembling of the legs, which I’m sure you’ve noticed in Doody. He even had it when he was boxing, though at the time I laid it to nerves. The only thing that doesn’t fit to make Doody a black Lincoln is his great age. Marfan men usually don’t live long. Take Abe. He would have been dead anyway, within six months, if Booth hadn’t shot him in Ford’s Theater. But hold on here, I’m getting off the track. Let me put Doody back on his mule, on his high horse, God damn him!

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