Originally published in No Shit, There I Was edited by Alex Acks.
No shit, there I was, trying to get one of the new clowns — guy who called himself Rudy — to back down from an ace-high straight. “Dude, don’t bet a witch doctor your immortal soul,” I warned. Most of the new guys would have listened. Most of the guys in the room were shaking their heads in disbelief.
Rudy scoffed. “What kind witch doctor goes by Donald?” he said, waving his hand in the middle-aged man’s direction. “This guy’s a joke.”
Inwardly I groaned. Rudy didn’t get it. You don’t make it as a witch doctor in the circus side show on the midwestern circuit with a name like Donald the Witch Doctor unless you’re an actual fucking witch doctor. It didn’t matter that Donald wore a button down shirt with the sleeves ripped off, a tie, and a pair of suit pants for his show. It didn’t matter that his tight cornrows looked no different than the ones worn by the audience members. He performed amazing stunts of magic and mayhem, cured minor ailments with potions and dry ice, and never ever ever had a head cold. The man was a witch doctor, pure and simple. Everyone in the circus knew it.
Everyone who’d sat in on one of the weekly poker games also knew if that wrinkled ancient IOU came out of Donald’s pocket, he had something fantastic in his hand.
Maybe it was the whiskey. Maybe it was the women who flocked to Donald’s trailer at the end of the night, while Rudy slept alone. Maybe it was the sheer orneriness of the young man. Rudy scribbled an IOU on a gin-soaked napkin with a grease pencil he grabbed from another clown’s kit, threw the napkin in the pot, and went as all-in as a man can get.
Four nines hit the table. Rudy hit Donald square in the jaw. I grabbed Rudy by the back of his ruffed collar and baggy pants and threw him out of the side-show tent before things could get interesting. “I warned you,” I growled. “Go cool off. You’re done here tonight.”
Rudy picked himself up off the ground, dusted himself off, and stormed into the night.
Donald cackled while he raked in the pot.
“Why you always gotta start with him?” I asked,, crossing my burly arms over my chest.
“Me?” Donald asked in mock surprise. “He knew not to play. This wasn’t his first trip to the rodeo. ‘For I suffer fools gladly…'” He grinned. He stuffed his IOU, and the pot, into the deep pockets of his frayed black suit pants.
“You know he’s gonna jump you,” said one of the other clowns. “He just repaired his slingshot, an’ I heard he lifted some pinballs from the arcade.”
“I’m not worried. I’ve got protection,” he said, patting the intricate tattoos of ancient symbols wrapped around his chest and shoulders. With a flourish he plucked Rudy’s IOU from the table, folded it solemnly, and slid it into the thin opening in a hollowed-out bone hanging on a grimy leather cord around his neck. “If he starts something, I’ll rip his soul out of his body and feed it to the bears. As the Bard may have said, nothing will become that man’s life like the leaving of it. Now, same rules as always, boys?” he asked, sitting back down and dealing the cards.
Most of the others nodded, approving of Donald’s approach. Rudy was fantastic on the midway, making kids smile and laugh and talk their parents into expensive side-show tickets, hot dogs, and snacks. But when the show was over, Rudy was as worthless as a no-armed man at a game of horseshoes. Too many of us had done, or redone, his chores while he flirted with girls at the entrance or took off in search of a bottle of hooch. Of course folks had threatened to tell the Lot Manager, but those threatening loudest tended to show up the next day with suspicious bruises and no complaints to be had. Rudy was the kind who delivered gold-lettered invitations every day to kick his ass.
Still, there was something about Rudy’s inability to see anyone else’s side to things that tugged at me. The sullen twenty-three year old we’d picked up in a bar in Oklahoma at the beginning of the season claimed he’d both started and finished his fair share of fights with a slingshot and a pocket full of pinballs he’d lifted years ago. I believed him. I’d seen him pick a starling off a telephone wire. Even a Strong Man like me couldn’t do much against goddamn 1 1/6″ carbon steel ball bearings. Maybe Donald wasn’t worried, but I was.
The game broke up around two AM. I insisted on helping Donald clean up the side-show tent. He wasn’t thrilled. “I don’t need protection from the Strong Man,” he grumbled.
“Maybe I need protection from the Witch Doctor,” I replied. “You think that fucker’s got me on his ‘nice guys’ list?”
We crossed the midway under a moon that danced in and out of the high summer clouds. We were doing a two-day show in upstate Illinois on an old campground. The ground was flat, lightly wooded, with very few structures outside of the ones that we’d brought ourselves. Someone had long ago built a thick-walled stone farmhouse that the campground used as a general store and arcade for the kids, and we’d set up the midway and big top in the clearing next to the arcade. The backyard, where the circus wagons and trailers were out of the eye of the general public, was in the arcade’s deep shadow.
During the day, the idyllic scene reminded parents and grandparents of the heyday of circuses, but tonight a low ground fog and the sputtering moonlight gave an ominous air to the crumbling facade of the old stone building. The moon haphazardly reflected in the glass of a row of pinball machines, poorly maintained and chained to the wrap-around porch outside the arcade, dogs in a pound huddled together at the gate.
I shook my head. I hated to see good machines get ruined in the weather, but the arcade belonged to the campground and not the circus. Even in the dim light I could make out peeling cabinet paint and bent legs. The glass on an old Big Top lay shattered and I suspected I knew where Rudy was getting his pinballs these days. Tomorrow the Lot Man and the arcade manager would probably have an argument over that one.
Donald and I turned the corner of the arcade into the shadows. A loud crack shattered the air, and a silver ball streaked through the sky, barely missing Donald’s head. I ran forward and caught it off one bounce on the asphalt. “A pinball. Rudy!” We stood together and peered into the darkness of the porch.
“Ahahahahaha!” Rudy’s high-pitch voice cackled from the shadows of the fun house door. “Here it comes, Slick!”
“Donald, run!” I yelled, but not before another crack from Rudy’s slingshot assaulted my eardrums. The ball, shining with the cold white fire of moonlight, arced toward us.
Donald would’ve died, that much I’m sure of, if the ball hadn’t smashed that unchanged hollow bone necklace holding Rudy’s IOU.
As the bone fragments and scraps of Donald’s shirt scattered into the sudden wind, lightning struck all around us. I leaped away from the blasts, trying to avoid the worst of it. I gasped when the thunder rattled my bones. But no electricity coursed through my veins, and no smell of brimstone filled my nostrils.
Donald stood tall. His tattoos glowed blue and danced on his shirtless chest. Lightning continued to strike all around him as he shouted incantations into the sudden storm. He pointed at Rudy, who was crouched on the porch clutching a slingshot to his chest. Another bolt arced from the sky toward Rudy. As it struck I slammed my eyes shut, but even then I could see the afterimage of Rudy being struck on the inside of my eyelids.
I opened my eyes, blinking. The storm had stopped. Donald stood with his hands on his head a few yards from the arcade porch. He moaned. Donald stared at the building, and in font of it, a pinball machine.
I shit you not. It was most fucking insane thing I’d ever seen. I knew Donald was legit, but I never dreamed that he — or anyone — could turn a human being into a pinball machine. It crackled with electricity and the lights on the playfield began to flicker on.
“Donald, what the hell did you do, man?” I shouted.
“I don’t choose the form, man! The soul chooses the form!”
“Well you’re not going to feed that to a bear!”
The game’s music began to play. Donald didn’t say anything. He shook his head, turned, and ran to his trailer without even giving me a nod. Can’t say I blame him.
I approached the table cautiously. Like most carnies, I know my way around an arcade. Even the strong man needs something to do between shows that doesn’t involve a bottle. The machine’s backbox declared it, in typical carny-style letters, to be “Rudy’s Revenge.” The play field was decorated with elephants, acrobats, freaks, and a witch doctor. A ventriloquist’s dummy-like clown head, mounted in the center, glared out at the player. His face paint matched Rudy’s perfectly.
“Hey Buster! Wanna play? Come on in!” the mechanical clown shouted.
I reached around the side of the case to shut the machine off, but there was no switch. There was no power cord either.
A ball dropped into the shooter lane.
I should have walked away.
I plunged the ball.
It played like any other machine, with a decent bonus multiplier off the stand-ups and an obvious multiball-all-day approach to scoring.
That is, it played like any other machine until I shot the ball into the clown’s open mouth. “Ow! Hey Buster, take it back!” the clown shouted. The steel ball whizzed past my head. I gasped and jumped away from the machine.
Another ball fell into the shooter lane. “Hey Buster, time to play!”
I looked around. There was no one else on the midway. Nervously, I approached the table again. The glass was solid. No holes. Not even a crack. Had I dreamed it?
The ball plunged on its own, and disappeared behind Rudy’s head. Two more followed. “Multiball!” Rudy shouted. I threw myself to the ground as three more balls shot through the glass and out of the table, bouncing down the midway asphalt behind me. “That was no accident!”
I ran. The machine cackled behind me, balls whizzed past my bald head, and the music swelled.
“What the hell are we going to do about that thing?” I asked Donald a few minutes later in his trailer. “Burn it to the ground?”
Donald shook his head. His tiny table was covered in ancient scrolls written in long-dead languages. “If you burn it, you’ll just release the soul to inhabit something else. There’s no telling what it might pick. An elephant, a bear, the locomotive…” He shook his head again. “No, we can’t burn it.”
“Can we bury it?” I asked. “I can dig a pit out near the edge of the backyard, where that drainage ditch is. Maybe stuff it in there?”
“Maybe tomorrow, but you’d never get a hole dug fast enough to bury it tonight. It’s after three already. We’ve got matinees to prepare for.”
I paced the narrow space between the kitchenette and the table while Donald continued to read the scrolls. Finally, he looked up. “Okay, so here’s the plan. We’re going to anchor it to the campground tomorrow night.”
“The hell’s that mean?” I asked. “Like, with chain?” I could do incredible things with chain, especially the thick heavy stuff.
“No, we’re not going to anchor the machine. We’re going to anchor the soul.”
My face fell.
Donald held up two scrolls. “This one is an ancient rite of burial, from a tribe in Africa, and it keeps the soul from wandering the earth. And this one is a spell of forgetfulness. It should force that asshole to forget that we were involved. It’ll break the binds between me, Rudy, and you.”
“And me?” I almost squeaked. “Why would there be bonds with me?”
Donald set the scrolls on the table and looked at me as if I was nothing but a dumb bruiser. “Buster, you said it called you by name when you played the table. Tried to kill you. Does that sound like maybe it knows who you are?”
“So that wasn’t a coincidence?”
Donald arched his eyebrows. “No.”
“Goddamnit.” I began pacing again. “So what do we need to do?”
“We just need to wait until the show’s over and we start the load out, then I’ll go cast the spells on the table and we’ll hightail it out of here on the train.” He pointed at me. “You keep an eye out for trouble during the show. I’ll be in the side-show tent.”
I nodded. The plan set, I returned to my trailer and slept very little that night.
I learned exactly how many times I could hold my breath, and for how long, during the Sunday Matinee. The natives were drawn to the new “Rudy’s Revenge” pinball machine on the porch like a moth to a flame, and I expected with a similar fate. It didn’t hurt our draw any, and the circus didn’t suffer for it, so there was nothing I could do but watch and wait for trouble.
The machine played generously for the children, just like Rudy always had. Extra balls and ball saves seemed to occur with amazing frequency, and many of the kids played for ten minutes or more on a single quarter. For every kindness it did a child, though, it punished one of the adult players. Balls got stuck, they took wild bounces into the out-lanes, bumpers misfired, drop targets didn’t fall… More than one young man reported to the arcade owner and the Lot Man that the machine had outright cheated. Between the two of them, the arcade owner and the Lot Man refunded a lot of money that weekend.
Rudy hadn’t changed. He did just as much as wanted to for the kids, but gave nothing back to the circus unless he had to.
When the last of the towners had left and the grounds were empty, we started tearing down the circus so we could move on to our next stop. Donald gave me a nod and snuck off to cast the spells on the machine. I nervously helped the sledge men pull up stakes, anxious to blow off this town. A moment later, Donald came back over, leaned in close, and whispered, “Now so long as we never set eyes on it again, he’ll never remember we were involved. We’ll be free from his violent hauntings and his spirit will be tied here, to the campground.”
“So it worked?” I asked.
“It worked,” he replied. We both sighed in relief. We helped the sledge men bind up the tent poles, and confirmed our trailers were being loaded onto the train. Everything secure, we headed for the train cars.
“Hey!” A man yelled from behind us. “Hey! You two! You tell this guy he’s gotta take that busted up pinball machine!”
Donald and I both wiped the expressions from our faces as we turned to watch the arcade manager storm up to us. The plump old man was wearing a tan suit and carried a straw pork pie hat, and I recognized him from the caricature of him on the Rudy’s Revenge backglass. He tapped me in the chest with the brim of the hat and then pointed back at the Lot Manager. “You tell him that pinball machine came here with you, and that you’re taking it back with you!”
“What pinball machine?” I asked.
“That one you spent the whole day staring at while we handed money out of it, that’s what pinball machine. You think I didn’t notice you staring?” He turned to Donald. “And you! You were just over there doing some kind of wacky dance around it. I saw you!”
“You must have me mistaken for someone else,” Donald replied, but he didn’t dare meet my eyes. “I’ve been hauling down the tent with the sledge men. You can ask them,” he added.
“Look, Lon,” the Lot Manager said in a tired but friendly tone, “I don’t know where the machine came from, and it doesn’t look like these men do either. Now, we’ve got a schedule to keep –”
“I don’t care about your damned schedule!” Lon replied. “By the time we split the take on the arcade I took a serious loss because of that machine, and I want it out of here!”
“Why, a machine in mint condition like that one’s worth probably a good $4,500. It’d be a shame to just walk away from an opportunity like that,” I said, pulling my arcade knowledge into the conversation. Slipping my hand into my front pocket, I palmed a hundred I’d planted that morning in case Rudy’s Revenge did something that required a payoff. “It probably just needs some adjustments,” I offered. “There’s a good arcade mechanic in Lake Forest I used to work with. I bet if you tell him I sent you, he’ll give you a break on the labor. Yeah, you just tell him Buster Slick sent you, and he’ll make sure you’re taken care of.”
I grabbed Lon’s hand and shook it, transferring the bill into his open palm. It had clearly been greased before; the man didn’t even have the decency to look momentarily surprised. “It’s been a pleasure working on your campground, sir, but it’s time we leave, don’t you think? Before someone else comes to claim that expensive piece of machinery?”
“Yeah… Yeah, sure.” Lon said. He popped his had back on his head, stuffed his hands in his pockets, and turned around without another words.
Donald and I both took a sigh of relief and headed back toward the train, only to feel the strong hands of one John Bailey, Lot Manager for the Midlands Circus Extravaganza, land on each of our shoulders. “You will explain to me what all of that was about when we get on the train, right boys?” When he felt us both tense up, he added, “And you won’t leave out the witchcraft this time, huh?”
It’s fair to say John didn’t believe us that day, nor for many days after, although he did agree that the mediocre attendance and trouble with the arcade manager were more than enough reason to bypass that sleepy campground the next year.
A month later, John dropped by the weekly poker game, pale-faced and clutching a newspaper in his hand. Page 10 of Section C contained an easily-bypassed article about a freak accident back in upstate Illinois, where a certain arcade manager was killed by a pinball to the head.
John reached into Donald’s pockets, quite against Donald’s will, and pulled the old wrinkled IOU out of it. He pulled out his lighter, lit the corner, and held onto that IOU until it was nothing but a pile of ash on the card table. Then, his task complete, he sighed.
“No more IOUs, huh, gentlemen? If you need cash to gamble, come see me about an advance.”
That night, as I crossed the midway to return to my trailers, I could swear I heard the sound of a ball loading into the shooting lane, and a mechanical voice asking, “Hey Buster, wanna play?”