– Fierce Fiction by Lily MacKenzie –
The Calgary Stampede had roared into town. My friend Sharon and I met at the Fairgrounds’ entrance at 8:00 PM. We pushed our way through the crowds, trying to keep each other in sight, unable to hear ourselves talk above the creaking and grinding of the rides and the shouting voices of carnies: “Step right up, fellows, win your little lady a big prize and her heart. Come on, girls, you can play, too. Here, I’ll give you a free one.”
“See any cute guys?” Sharon asked.
“Yeah, they’re everywhere. Lots of Americans. Why are American men so much better looking?”
“You got me, honeychile. Must be the water.”
Pretending to be a southern belle, Sharon wore an elasticized off-the-shoulder white peasant blouse that exposed her breasts with a skirt that flared out from her waist and showed off her hourglass figure. I liked Sharon, but I was jealous of her body and of her sophistication. Instead of clunky cowboy boots like I was wearing, she had sleek white sandals that showed off her painted toenails.
I asked, “Aren’t you going to get cold in that blouse?”
“Me? Cold? Never in a hundred years, honeychile, not with all these good-looking guys to keep me warm.” She stared boldly at a couple of cowboys lounging against some bundles of hay. They sucked on cigarettes and eyed all the girls that passed. They looked like the real thing, wearing silver spurs on their boots and Stetsons on their heads. The hat seemed a permanent part of them.
Sharon swayed her hips as we passed the cowboys. But when I imitated her walk, I just ended up throwing one hip out of joint.
“They are kee-ute,” she said. “Bet they’d like to party.”
At fourteen, Sharon was a couple of years older than I. Skipping a grade had tossed me into an older crowd. I had to move fast so I could keep up. Now I switched into high gear, but I felt sick to my stomach, not sure I was ready for the kind of partying she was talking about.
A young carnie with a blonde crew cut and a big space between his front teeth dug deep into his apron pocket and pulled out a hoop. He handed it to me. “Circle a peg and you git your choice of prizes from the top row.” He proudly waved his hand at a shelf of miniature horses and ashtrays. Cowboys riding broncos were painted in red on the ashtrays’ glass bottoms.
I took the hoop from the carnie and flung it at a peg. It landed on the ground.
He held out one more hoop: “Too bad. Take another shot for just 25 cents.” We moved on, laughing, the sound absorbed in the swell of voices.
By then we’d entered the Midway. Lights had come on, making the place even more magical. The Ferris wheel, a constellation, had dropped out of the sky; the roller coaster snaking around bends was a shooting star.
Sharon said, “Look, Tillie. ‘Madame Olga, Palm Reader’. Wanna try it?”
We stepped inside the tent. Madame Olga sat at a card table with a black-fringed scarf draped over it, a deck of cards spread out in front of her. Her hair was bleached, dark roots an inch long. Powder caked her face, and some of it sprinkled her black see-through nylon blouse. Her bra showed through the filmy material. From the cleavage that showed, it was clear she didn’t need falsies.
A lantern hung from the ceiling and made shadowy shapes. I shivered a little, not sure I wanted to know my future.
“Madame Olga velcomes you. Come, seet down, young ladies. The key to your future eez in your hand.”
We sat across from her on a dusty wooden bench. I looked at my left palm. A cowboy riding a bronco had been stamped there by the ticket taker at the front gate. Was he the key to my future? I clutched my purse in my other hand.
Madame Olga gathered up the cards on the table and flipped them. “Vich do you vant? A full reading costs $5.00. Zee bargain reading eez $1.50.”
I said, “What about the two of us for $2.50?”
“$2.75. Zat’s zee lowest I can go.”
Sharon and I dug the money out of our wallets.
“Who vants to go first? Vat about you, young lady,” and she nodded at me. “Gif me your left hand.” She took my hand and stared at my palm for a minute, shaking her head, muttering. I didn’t know how she could see anything in that light, but maybe that’s why she was a fortuneteller.
“I see many lovers in your future.” She squinted, looking more closely at my hand, pressing her fingers against one part of my palm. “Ah, yes, you have a very full Mount of Venus. Zat’s good.”
“Vhat does it mean?” Her accent was catching.
“Zee Goddess Venus, she smiles on you. Your love life vill be very full.”
I was in a daze when we returned to the Midway. Madame Olga’s words made me dizzy. I wasn’t even a woman yet. How could she know I would have lots of lovers?
The two cowboys we’d seen earlier were lounging outside the tent. “Hey, girls. Did Madame Olga tell you we’re in your future?”
I giggled and let Sharon do the talking. “You bet, honeychile. She said two handsome strangers would take us to the moon. My name’s Sharon. This is Tillie.”
The one with a tiny black mustache and curls creeping out from under his hat said, “I’m Kit. This is Ben. How about the Haunted House instead?”
Wanting to appear with it, I shrugged. “Okay by me.”
Kit slouched along beside me, hands in his rear pockets. “You ever been in there?” He pointed at a huge tent, a penny arcade that had peep shows. “You put a nickel in a slot and a pretty girl undresses.”
“I thought we were going to the Haunted House,” I said.
“We are. Just thought you’d like a little entertainment on the way. Whadya say, Sharon?”
She said, “Doesn’t hurt to check out your competition.”
Inside the tent, we lined up for the peep shows. The guys went first, inserting their coins into the slots and bending over the viewers, peering inside. When it was my turn, I stepped up, and Kit put a nickel in the machine. He was at least six feet tall, and when he took off his Stetson, a strip of white circled his forehead, just like the stripe down a skunk’s back. He bent over, trying to look through the viewer with me, pressing his face against mine, almost knocking off my hat.
He smelled like a man, a heavy musty odor, and his dense beard scratched my cheek. I hardly noticed the images flipping over rapidly. A pretty dark-skinned woman in a grass skirt, breasts exposed, was doing a hula and swinging her hips.
“Bet you could do a mean hula yourself, kiddo.”
Ashamed because my own body wasn’t a woman’s yet, I watched the peep show. Kit pressed against me, breathing faster. “I’d like to see you do a dance.”
I turned away, heading back to the Midway.
At the Haunted House, we all stood in line, waiting to get seated in one of the rickety looking cars that careened into the open every few minutes through a swinging door. They looked ready to jump their rails. I searched the crowds strolling past, white cowboy hats bobbing like buoys, hoping to see a familiar face. I felt out of my depth. Someone needed to rescue me.
Kit rested his hand on my waist as if he owned me, tightening his fingers. The pressure and heat from his palm sent a shiver of excitement through me, but it also made my stomach churn. It reminded me of the first day of school when I didn’t want to leave the safety of home for that unknown world, and I threw up after breakfast.
I glanced at him, my arms tightly crossed. He was twirling a toothpick in his mouth, staring hard at the pretty girls that passed by, his eyes hungry. He was like hawks I’d seen, circling their prey before attacking.
The rattle and clatter of Midway rides made me even more edgy—the jerky movements, the possibility they could fly off their tracks and soar into space. I remembered reading about space travel in The Book of Knowledge. It would take a prop airplane millions of years to reach the moon. The numbers boggled me, but I liked to think of being in space, of visiting the unknown. I pretended that Earth was just one big space machine, the endless prairie sky making me feel at times that we were being lifted into it, on a space ship traveling through time.
Finally it was our turn, and a carnie strapped us into a car that took off through the door into the Haunted House. Kit hollered, “Giddy up! Let ‘er rip,” and darkness swallowed everyone. Sharon giggled. I held myself stiff and gripped the bar resting on my lap. Kit’s leg pressed against mine. We whirled away from the entrance, the darkness deepening. There weren’t any stars to look at.
It reminded me of going under anesthetic when I had a broken leg, losing consciousness. My ears roared, and I tried to rip off the mask pressed over my nose and mouth. Kit’s mouth covered mine, cutting off my breath. I wrenched my head away. A skeleton leaped out at me, its bones rattling, so close I could touch it. I screamed, and Kit laughed along with the eerie canned laughter and screeching voices.
The car turned a corner sharply, and the motion threw me against him. I could smell his sweat. My heart in my mouth, one terrifying image after another jumped out at me from the dark—a head severed from a person, hair held in a disembodied hand, blood dripping from it; a doctor in white scrubs holding a dagger above a woman’s body in an operating room; a baby floating ghostlike through the air. I clung to Kit now, grateful for his protective arm holding me close to him. In the dark, unable to see his face, I could fool myself into thinking he was the father I’d never known, protecting me from these nightmarish images.
We jerked around another bend and catapulted through the swinging doors into the welcome sounds and sights of the Midway—carnies called out at passersby, bright lights of the double Ferris wheel whirled around and around. “Holy cow, what a ride,” Sharon said, jumping out of the car, her lipstick smeared. She rubbed at her mouth with one hand, wiping off the remaining color, forgetting her southern accent. “Jesus, Tillie, why were you screaming so loud? What were you doing to her, Kit?”
“Trying to keep her from jumping out!”
“That’s a lie,” I said, adjusting the Stetson on my head.
He said, “Why were you sitting so far away then?”
“I kept getting thrown around.” We were standing next to the ticket seller for the Haunted House. Kit lit up a cigarette and leaned against the booth. “This is your big chance, girls. You wanna come over to our place for a beer? We’re staying just a few blocks away.”
“What time is it?” I asked, jostled by the people passing by.
Kit punched Ben on the arm and said, “This girl has a handsome guy after her and she wants to know the time? The night’s still young!”
Gripping my clutch bag, I looked at Sharon, hoping she’d get the message that I’d had enough. I said, “Whadya think? Don’t you need to get home?”
She was clutching Ben’s arm. “What for? Ma-ma and Pa-pa are living it up at the Petroleum Club. Why shouldn’t I have fun too?”
Outnumbered, I didn’t want to be a spoilsport. No one would be waiting up for me at home. Mum had just said, “Watch your money. You don’t want to end up walking home by yourself.”
I tried to stall. “We haven’t ridden the Ferris wheel yet.”
“Aw, that’s too tame,” Kit said. “We’re used to riding bucking broncos. The Ferris wheel’s for old ladies.”
“You mean you guys are competing in the rodeo?”
“Hell, yes,” Ben said. I just got myself second prize tonight. Not bad for a country boy.”
“Where you guys from?” I asked, hoping to stall them.
“Well, that depends on what day it is,” Ben said. “Today we’re from Montana, a little place called Kalispell.”
I played along with him. “What if I’d asked you yesterday?”
“We might have been from Wyoming, where the coyotes howl….”
“….And the wind blows free.”
“Hey, you sing pretty good. You could be in one of these shows here.”
I felt myself blush, though I liked it when someone complimented me on my voice. Maybe I would travel someday to the United States and sing in clubs.
The crowds were thinning out now, and the four of us walked side by side. Sharon and I were between the two men. “You wanna take these girls on the Ferris wheel before we leave?” Kit asked Ben. “Give ’em a little thrill?”
“Fine with me.”
When Kit started rocking the seat back and forth, ignoring my screams, I knew it was a mistake. “Come on, girl, let’s liven this up. Hang on.” He hooted and hollered as we approached the top and tipped over, descending, our seat swaying wildly. The earth seemed in motion, the Midway out of control.
My stomach felt like it had dropped from my body, suspended somewhere. I clung to the bar with one hand and clutched my purse and hat with the other one, unable to control the shrieks coming from my mouth. Kit’s lips were pulled back from his teeth, his hat in one hand, and he hollered “Giddyup,” as if he were riding a bucking horse or bull.
The sky exploded into fragments of color, a great booming sound blocking out the Midway’s noise. I forgot it was time for the nightly fireworks’ show and thought everything was coming apart, the constellations falling out of the sky and showering us. I remembered Chicken Little calling out, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling.” Like Chicken Little, I felt overwhelmed.
Finally the Ferris wheel ground to a stop, and the attendant released us from the seat. “How’s that for a ride?” Kit ruffled my hair. I ducked, jamming the Stetson onto my head.
After, we walked through tree-lined streets near the Stampede grounds to one of the old converted houses that rented rooms to transients. Western music and laughter floated out of the windows and reached us in the street. “The guys must be partying already,” Ben said.
Kit flexed his muscles. “We’ll have to do some catching up.”
I tried to get Sharon’s attention, but she seemed totally gone on Ben, laughing at everything he said, even when it wasn’t funny. I was on my own with Kit. He steered me onto the porch and up the stairs to the third floor. I looked into the rooms we passed. Men and women in jeans and fancy shirts lounged on beds and on the floor, guzzling beer, smoking, and laughing. A radio played Hank Snow singing “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and some drunken female sang along with him, off key.
On the third floor, Kit led us into a room with empty cases of Molsens and Labatts stacked against one wall, taking up more space than the broken down green chesterfield and chair. “Looks like Buzz and Dave have warmed things up already,” Kit said.
“Buzz and Dave?”
“Our roommates. Yah hoo. Ride ’em cowboy,” Kit called out to a guy who was sprawled across some women on the sofa, legs and arms entangled like an octopus. They didn’t even notice us. “Don’t let us disturb you. Maybe we can get some pointers, eh Tillie.” All I saw was a blur of bodies. Some were standing—taking slugs of beer. Some were sitting—girls on men’s laps. Some were slow dancing—bodies grinding together. Sharon and Ben disappeared into a room off the living room.
“You like to dance, kid?”
Kit grabbed me, waltzed me across the room to the kitchen, and lifted me onto the counter. “There. You’re just my height now.” He shoved a beer into my free hand; I clutched my purse with the other one, remembering Mum’s warning, “Keep an eye on your money.” Sipping the beer Kit gave me, I studied the kitchen floor. Bare boards showed through in places, and the pattern in the linoleum no longer was visible.
A cockroach skittered across the counter and disappeared into a partially open cupboard. Kit set down his empty bottle and stood in front of me, hands holding the counter edge on either side of my legs, pressing up close. I wished I were a cockroach and could find a crack to crawl into. “The way you’re sipping that beer, it’ll take all night to finish it. Drink up! Have some fun.”
I put the bottle to my mouth, tilted my head back, and tried to take a big swallow. The bare light bulb’s glare blinded me, and the beer tasted bitter. After taking several sips, I tried to make conversation—distract him. “So what happens when the Stampede’s over?”
Kit rubbed his black stubble against my cheek, knocking the hat off my head. “We head back south, doll baby.”
I leaned back as far as I could. “To where?”
“I dunno, Wyoming, maybe. Wherever there’s a rodeo. Me and Ben’ll find us some doggies to ride. Cash in.”
“Aren’t you afraid of getting hurt?”
Kit took the beer from me and threw back his head, drinking it thirstily. When he came up for air, he opened two more. “You mean break a leg or something?”
“We’re always breaking bones—ribs, shoulders, legs, arms. You name it. No big deal. They heal eventually.”
“How do you earn a living then?”
“Broken bones don’t stop us from competing. You talk too much.” He covered my lips with his, pushing his tongue inside, filling up my mouth, almost choking me. I was going under anesthetic again, falling into blackness; I yanked my head free. “I can’t breathe.”
“You’re supposed to breathe through your nose. Christ, don’t you know how to kiss? Let’s dance.” He grabbed my hand and pulled me off the counter, pushing me around the floor, stepping over bodies, bumping into other dancers, stomping on my feet at times with his big boots. He breathed heavily into my ear, singing off key along with Hank Williams—”I’m so lonesome I could die.”
He danced me into a big pantry and pulled me onto the floor, forcing my body under his. Holding my arms over my head with one hand, he ran the other one over my body, stopping at my breasts and fondling my padded bra. “Nice little titties. You like to have them bit?”
I struggled but was helpless, pinned under his weight, angry because my body was betraying me by responding to his touch. “Stop! I’m a virgin. I’ve never done it before.”
“Don’t give me that shit. A tough little broad like you? You’re no virgin.”
“I’m only 12.”
“So? I like ’em young.”
He covered my mouth again with his, the taste of beer and cigarettes strong on his breath. He bit my lips, drawing blood, and his whiskers scraped my skin. I cried out in pain. “Shut your mouth, you little slut. You want it. Trying to play hard to get, huh.”
“I want some more beer, I’ve never done it sober before.”
“That’s more like it. It’ll loosen you up.”
He got up and I followed him. I said, “I’m going to the john,” and slipped past him, heading for a door. I hoped it would lead outside. I stepped over couples petting on the floor, running down the stairs and out the front entrance, taking deep gulps of air.
I ran for blocks, looking behind me every few feet, afraid to stop, certain I could hear Kit clomping behind me, but it was only my own heart, pounding in my ears.
About the Author of “Stampede” – Lily MacKenzie
A Canadian by birth, a high school dropout, and a mother at 17, in her early years, Lily MacKenzie supported herself as a stock girl in the Hudson’s Bay Company, as a long-distance operator for the former Alberta Government Telephones, and as a secretary (Bechtel Corp sponsored her into the States). She was also a cocktail waitress at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, briefly broke into the male-dominated world of the docks as a longshoreman (she was the first woman to work on the SF docks and almost got her legs broken), founded and managed a homeless shelter in Marin County, co-created The Story Shoppe, a weekly radio program for children that aired on KTIM in Marin County, CA, and eventually earned two Master’s degrees (one in creative writing and one in the humanities).
Lily MacKenzie has published reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, essays, and memoir in over 160 American and Canadian venues. Her novel Fling! was published in 2015. Curva Peligrosa came out in 2017. Freefall: A Divine Comedy was released in 2019. Her poetry collection All This was published in 2011. She taught rhetoric at the University of San Francisco for over 30 years and currently teaches creative writing at USF’s Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning. She also blogs at http://lilyionamackenzie.com.
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