| the Marlboro Review, Inc., A Short Story from Issue 6
Richard Schmitt, the Tentmen
At night on long runs Pie Car Bill locked the vestibule doors and played poker with Huffy, Backdoor Jack, Shorty the ringcurb boss, Rollo and Radar. I was in by virtue of Pie Car Bill who said it was okay to watch if I stayed quiet and paid him for the beer I drank. I'd made it past the first of May but was still green to the group of old- timers who drank whiskey, smoked cigarettes, and argued about the tent days. Only Huffy and Backdoor Jack were actually on the show in the tent days, and the old trainman, who sat in his own booth and stared out the plate-glass window. Rollo said he'd been on European tent shows, and Pie Car Bill claimed he worked for madman Crawford Diego, owner of the tightest tent in America.
"Diego carried a pistol," Bill said, "said he would kill anyone who messed with his tent."
"Heard he tried to shoot down the wind one time," Huffy said. "You guys in?"
"God, was that man scared of wind," Bill said. "Surrounded the - trailer trucks every town. In Iowa City a tent with a fleet of tractor new clown parked his pickup in the wrong place and Diego drove a forklift through the side of the kid's truck and lifted it out of the way." They all chuckled. "Diego loved that tent."
"It's a nice one," Huffy said. "You in, Bill?" "I'm in."
"Americans don't know tents," Rollo said. "In Europe we have tents." "Oh, bullshit," Huffy said, dealing the cards.
These guys talked big tents. Not pup tents or umbrella tents, or those save-your-soul tents behind K-Mart. Those weren't tents, and there was no art in bringing them to life. Look at the geometry. The roof lines loose and drooping, the walls sagging in the dirt. A sad- sack state of affairs, a child's game of stake-out-a-sheet-in-the-backyard, a wimp of wind comes up and they're gone. These guys talked serious tents that held thousands of people and came to life in five or six hours of strenuous twenty-man labor. They talked living and breathing tents. Tents which contained in the fibers of canvas and plastic the lifeblood of certain people. The blood of Tentmen.
"I work ten years for Mr. Bruno Ralston in Switzerland," Rollo said. "Mr. Bruno could set up in a typhoon. During the show he walk the roof, he bounce a football on it it so tight."
"He means a soccer ball," Bill said.
"That's bullshit," Short said. "Ain't no way to set up in a typhoon."
"They don't even have typhoons in Switzerland," Bill said.
"Mr. Bruno was taught by the Bedouin of Arabia, very windy there."
"The who?" Radar said.
"Play a damn card," Huffy said, "and pass that bottle over here, Jack.
"Ain't never heard of no A-rab circus," Shorty said.
"Everyone knows the best tents are made right here in America," Jack yelled at Radar. "At Sarasota Tent and Sail. John Ringling hisself went there for tents."
"I suppose you saw him," Radar said.
"Damn right. Before you was ever born."
"I'm out," Bill said dumping his cards. "Huff, you got a light?"
"Before you was out of diapers," Jack yelled at Radar.
"Sure," Radar said.
"You people in?" Huffy said passing Bill his Zippo and the deck of cards. "You in, Radar?"
"I was on this show when there was three trains, and the tent took a hundred men and twenty elephants to setup."
"What?" Radar said, whapping the hearing aid box hooked to his belt.
"Are you in?" Huffy said, looking at Radar.
"There were 5000 stakes. All of Hartford, Connecticut fit inside."
"Deal, Bill," Huffy said.
"Ain't Hartford where the tent burned that time?" Shorty said.
"Course it was," Radar said, throwing a five on the ante pot." "And Jack was there. Right Jack?"
"Damn right I was --"
"Passing buckets of water to John Ringling."
Bill took time lighting a cigarette, sucking the coal red hot, releasing smoke through his nose. He winked at me and looked at Huffy.
"Are you people playing cards or what?" Huffy said.
"There was so much smoke the sun was blacked out," Jack said.
"And the icecaps started melting," Radar said. "Right Jack?" "How'd that fire start?" Shorty asked.
"Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lamp," Radar said.
"That was the Chicago fire," Bill said, starting to shuffle.
"Jack was at that one too, weren't you, Jack?"
"You're talking out your ass."
"I was there."
Then Huffy pounded on the table with his fists and started yelling. "Shut up and play cards or I'm quitting!"
Things quieted down for a couple hands. Steel wheels clicked smoothly over the railends. I went behind the counter for a beer.
"Mark it down," Bill yelled. I made a mark in the beer book.
Someone slid the bottle of Old Fitzgerald to Huffy and they played and drank quietly until it began again.
"I heard in Tokyo, Japan, they set up a stakeless tent once," Bill said. "Was Bull Genders, wasn't it?" Rollo said.
"Some earthquake scientists designed it and hired Bull to set it up. Heard Bull took one look at the plans and told them it wouldn't fly."
"Bull's one of the best tent men in Australia," Jack said.
"Well, he was wrong about the stakeless wonder not flying."
"What happened?" Shorty asked.
"They wanted him to set up in downtown Tokyo on a lot surrounded by skyscrapers. About the time the top was up a bad wind got to circling the lot -- two for me there, Huff -- anyway, some newspaper people were there, and this tricky wind sucked the stake- less wonder skyward like a corkscrew popping a wine bottle. It whirled straight up to the 96th floor of the surrounding buildings and sent the diners in the rooftop restaurants stampeding in panic. They thought it was a Mars Attack."
"Let's see it, Bill," Huffy said.
"Shit," Shorty said.
"It was in all the papers."
"So what happened?" Jack said, throwing down his cards. "Slide that ashtray over here."
"Well, the thing was like an umbrella in the wind. Filled with uplifting air the stakeless wonder got free of the city, caught a prevailing wind and sailed out over the ocean like Swift's flying island."
"Like what?" Radar said.
"Ain't no such thing." Shorty said.
"Never heard of Gulliver's Travels?" Bill said, pulling the pot over to his corner of the table.
"Who?" Rollo said.
"He was on the road for years."
"Bill's one of them smart fuckers," Jack said, "he's been to college."
"Like them tent designers," Shorty said, and they all chuckled, even Bill, then he finished the story.
"The stakeless wonder got halfway to Hawaii before the Air Force sent out a couple of fighter planes to shoot it down."
They all wagged their heads at that. Jack shuffled the cards.
"Leave it to college boys to screw up a perfect mousetrap," Jack said.
"Think that's weird," Radar said, "Some brains in Arizona tried to put a world inside a tent, a miniworld. 'Biosphere,' they called it."
I heard that," Bill said.
"Didn't work. They fucked up the ventilation, the walls started sweating, everything poisoned everything else." They all shook their heads again and agreed that only show people like Crawford Diego, Bruno Ralston, or Bull Genders would know how to put an entire world inside a tent.
[the Marlboro Review Archive]
[ the Marlboro Review]