A Few Years After the War
The tent was only half-full, but the show was ready to begin. Richard looked at his father sitting relaxed on the folding chair next to him and at other men and women scattered on chairs lined in rows in the tent. No one talked. There was the smell of wet canvas drying in the heat.
"Why didn't Grampa come?" Richard said.
"Clarence had to work today. The mines are all on double shifts."
"Will Mama come to meet us after this?"
"Yes. We're going over to Freeman Spur for your Uncle Jim."
Shafts of sunlight stabbed the tent's darkness where the flaps that made up the door didn't meet. Creaking noises came from behind a curtain drawn shut on the small wooden stage. The stage floor lay close to Richard's eyes as he sat sweating in the wobbly chair and wished this were over and his dad would take him to the bathroom. Laughter behind the curtain, a man's voice.
The barker appeared finally and stood silent for a moment, watching the audience carefully, formal in checked suit and bowler hat. His eyes got wide and he bent toward Richard, speaking loudly enough for everyone in the tent to hear.
"Welcome. Not many in this world have the intestinal fortitude to witness the savagery of JoJo the Wolf-Boy! Welcome! He's shocked heads of state from here to fair Italy! The young Queen of England faints at the very mention of his name! His presence is barred on four continents! Keep your hands in your laps, ladies and gentlemen, and pray he doesn't get loose, for if he does, my only hope is that your soul may rest in peace.
"Now, ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages, please, try to stay calm as I pull back this curtain and reveal to you...the most hideous freak of nature on God's green earth...JoJo The Wolf-Boy!" The barker swept back the curtain and jumped out of the way.
Something crouched on all fours in the corner of the tent that had been hidden by the curtain, and Richard strained anxiously to see. It rushed forward, dragging a length of chain fixed to a collar around its neck that pulled it short with a snap at the edge of the stage. Richard flinched and felt for his father's arm. JoJo the Wolf-Boy's hair was long and matted, and clumps of hair clung to his face and neck. His overalls were torn and stained, and his feet were caked with dirt. He snarled and barked and rolled his eyes crazily, like nothing Richard had ever seen, so close he was almost within reach, bouncing on bare feet and veiny fists. Richard forgot about the other people in the tent, about his father, even. He wanted Mama, but held tightly to his father's jacket as JoJo howled, long quavering screams that made Richard shiver.
The barker shouted, "Watch yourself, ladies and gentlemen! JoJo looks extra hungry and I'll have to feed him so he doesn't rip loose! That chain can stand only so much!"
With that, the man threw JoJo a live white chicken in a flurry of wings; JoJo caught it with both arms, stood up on his hind legs, wrung the chicken's neck with his hairy hands, stuck the head in his mouth and bit it off, tearing bone and flesh with jerks of his head as the bird's wings flapped weakly against his chest. JoJo spat the head into the sawdust and held the bird aloft by the feet as he roared, a long rebel yell, a gurgling death cry, as blood ran down his chin onto his overalls. Then JoJo yanked mightily on the chain holding him to the stage and broke free and rushed the audience with his arms held wide to catch and eat them all.
Richard broke loose from his father and ran too, blindly, through the crowd of men and women running laughing from the tent. They stopped as they exited the tent, sheep aware the dog wouldn't follow. Richard stood confused in the late afternoon sunlight, the smell of animals drifting over from the livestock barns. What kept JoJo from coming out after them? Richard searched the faces around him. His father was nowhere, missing, still back in the tent, and Richard knew at that moment that the Wolf-Boy was eating him. Nothing stirred inside the tent, and the flap hung shut. He'd been abandoned. What would he do without his father? He didn't want to cry. The audience left in couples and groups, and he was alone.
The tent sagged on the far edge of the fairground, far from the parking lot where his mother waited. How would he tell her? Who would support their family? Richard was terrified that it all was his fault. Dear God, he prayed, don't make me see daddy's dead body. Horrified, he listened for the crunch of bone from inside the tent.
Instead, he heard men's calm voices and the same laugh behind the curtain before the show. Richard looked down at his hard leather shoes. It would be shameful to have your daddy eaten by a wolf-boy at the state fair. He worked up his courage and lifted a flap of dusty canvas. It was hard to see in the gloom.
"Hell, they let me keep the chickens, Cliff. I trade some of 'em for produce. And Irma's kept up the victory garden. We're okay, eatin' good."
Richard's father said, "Not like Bastogne, huh, Mike?"
They laughed. "What was it McAuliffe said to the Krauts when they asked for our surrender? Nuts? Nuts!" More laughter.
"Clever, but he stole that from a Frenchman, I hear."
"Richard, come in here, I want you to meet somebody."
Richard walked in slowly, as if doomed. His father and JoJo leaned together on the main pole holding up the center of the tent. JoJo the Wolf-Boy smiled welcomingly, and his teeth gleamed with blood.
John Griswold has published in War, Literature & the Arts, Mediphors, and Natural Bridge, with more forthcoming from Perigee and Ninth Letter. As Oronte Churm, he writes a column for McSweeney's Internet Tendency and a superblog called The Education of Oronte Churm.