Leaving Venice, Florida
Dave and me were sitting in Betty's
Elephant Car Cafe a couple of weeks after I'd hitched down from New England. We
were at the counter on chrome stools covered with cracked red vinyl, and we
weren't talking much because the night before Dave had told me he was sick. Said
he'd been to a doctor, and they wanted to cut him open. To look around, they
said. Nothing serious. But it sounded serious the way he said it, and he said he
wanted me to go with him to the hospital in Sarasota. "When?" I said.
"Tomorrow," Dave said.
"Dave," I said, "I can't stand hospitals."
Behind the counter Betty, the retired circus trouper, both waitress and cook,
was fixing a couple of Ring Two Specials—poached eggs on wheat toast with home
fries or grits for $1.45. Dave hadn't said anything about being sick on the
phone. He said he'd started a car cleaning business in Venice, Florida. It was
January and I was doing nothing but freezing in a room in Boston. Dave said I'd
be a full partner. I pictured palm trees, girls in bikinis, large drinks with
flowers in them.
Turned out not to be a big business, and Venice was a bus stop, but we'd
grown up together and hadn't seen much of each other since quitting high school
in '69, so I didn't hold it against him.
The bell over the door sounded and two guys walked in. One was tall with a
handlebar mustache, the other small with a pointed face, thin skin over sharp
bones. They took stools at the counter, and the big guy nodded at us and talked
real friendly to Betty. She wiped her hands on a corner of her apron, then ran
one hand over the counter in front of where they sat. They hadn't been there
before. Dave's shop was just down the road, and he knew everyone who ate at
Betty's. The big guy ordered a Center Ring Scramble—three scrambled eggs with
onions and black olives served in an iron skillet for $1.65. The little
rat-faced guy had a water. Big guy told Betty he was looking for a car wash, and
she glanced over at Dave.
"That your van?" the guy said to us.
I turned my stool to look through the plate-glass window. Parked next to
Dave's van with the plastic magnetized sign on the side—Dave's Auto Detailing—was
a white Buick Riviera. The guy said his dog had been hit by a car and had died
on the way to the vet. He was interested in having bloodstains removed from the
interior. "Is it a white interior?" Dave said.
"It was white," the guy said.
Dave went outside with the big guy while I sat sipping coffee and eyeballing
the rat-faced guy, who looked jittery. He continuously flicked his thumb against
the filter of his cigarette and glared at me whenever I caught his eye. I
thought I'd seen him the night before climbing out of the Dumpster behind the
Showfolk's Lounge. There were only three bars in town, and Dave and me were
kicked out of two of them. Only place would let us in was the Showfolks. In the
other places if you threw up on the floor or something they kicked you out fast.
None of the places had large drinks with flowers in them.
When Dave and the big guy came in they had a deal. Dave told the guy two
hundred bucks would clean the car and said it would take the whole day. The guy
handed him two brand-new one hundred dollar bills. Said we could hold the car
overnight as long as we parked it inside.
On the way back to the shop, Dave said the carpet looked like burnt toast.
"Had to be a big dog to produce that kind of crust," he said.
"Had to be a big gutted dog."
The shop was an end unit in a strip of garages. An open space with water for
one hundred and fifty dollars a month: cement floor, roll-down door, toilet,
small piece of tarmac out front. It was a neighborhood of transmission joints,
self-storage areas, welding shops, places vacated by people after dark. Except
us. Dave pulled his van inside at night and slept in it. I had a sleeping bag
and the bench seat of a Chevy pickup. We were only a block from the police
station, so after dark we pulled the door down and kept quiet or else drove out
of there in the van, which we didn't like to do because coming and going after
hours attracted attention. Dave was sure we'd be taken for burglars. Dave was
also sure the landlord did not intend that the units be used as homes.
We were in high spirits holding over a month's rent on a single job, so we
stopped at Jax Liquors to restock the beer cooler and bought a quart of Canadian
The car was parked in the sun on the tarmac outside the shop. Dave had the
van wired so we could blast rock 'n' roll while we worked. He took the leather
seats out of the Riviera. Underneath, the blood was caked in smooth cracked
wafers like a dried-up mudflat. "Must have been a huge dog," Dave
said. He pulled the carpet out, and the steel floor was wet with blood. I wanted
to run the hose right inside the car, but Dave said there was no way to drain it
without drilling holes in the floor. So I took off my shoes and shirt and
squatted inside the shell of the car and squeegeed the muck from side to side
with a dustpan. When I got a panful, I scooped it up and tossed it out the door.
Outside on the tarmac Dave hosed off the carpet and the seats and sprayed them
down with bleach. On his hands and knees he scrubbed the carpet with a brush,
then stood and hosed a pink river down the driveway into the street. I sprayed
some rinse water around inside the car and sucked it up with the wet-and-dry
vacuum. We took regular cigarette and beer breaks, sitting in our wet shorts on
plastic lawn chairs with the cooler between us, listening to music, chasing the
beer with occasional sips from the whiskey bottle. By late afternoon the floor
was clean and the carpet dried on a line strung across one side of the garage.
"Dave," I said, "there is no dog that big."
We sat watching our neighbors pull down their garage doors and drive off.
They had homes to go to, and that was always a sad time for us. We had to decide
whether to head out to the bar or pretend we were working late. The sun was low
in the sky when we got it into our heads that it would be a great idea to drive
the Riviera down to the beach. "What the hell," Dave said. "We
got chairs." So we set the cooler in the car between the lawn chairs, and
Dave rolled two huge joints, locked the van inside the shop, took his box of
tapes, and backed the Riviera down the driveway. Dave drove pretty well, but he
had to take the corners real slow otherwise the chairs shifted around. He had
the wheel to hang onto, but I fell over backwards twice until I turned my chair
sideways and held onto the door.
We drove down Main Street past the police station and the Showfolk's Lounge
with music blasting through the Riviera's speakers and drove on out of town
where there were no cars. We drove over the intracoastal waterway bridge and
took a dirt road through the scrub pines by the circus winter quarters. There
was a shortcut to a beach that few people used. In the mid-eighties, after
Venice had grown up, the place became a notorious nude beach with cops dragging
naked women over the sand and men without a stitch on waving their arms and
yelling. But when Dave and I drove between the dunes of sand and saw grass, down
to the water, it was wild and unknown.
We sat on the hood with our backs to the windshield in the best part of the
Florida day with the sun spreading out into the gulf and the sky in the west
gone the color of pink champagne and the breeze keeping the mosquitoes moving
and the joint burning even when we forgot about it and held it too long between
our fingers. And lions were roaring. It must have been feeding time at the
winter quarters. Lions or something like lions huffed loudly over the sound of
low waves, and we were stoned enough to wonder what they wanted. Did they roar
for horse hocks, rib cages, slaughterhouse scraps? Or did they eat some kind of
Purina Lion Chow? Dave said a large part of his small intestines might have to
be cut out. "What do they do with that stuff?" He wanted to know.
"What do hospitals do with people's parts?"
"Dave," I said, "hospitals make me sick." But he
wouldn't stop talking about his small intestines and with those damn lions
roaring all I could think about was catgut. Catgut wooden tennis rackets Dave
and me had used when we were kids. My dad had them in the basement, they must
have been made in the forties, catgut strings and warped wooden frames. Dave and
me used them in the road between our houses until the cat gut fell away loose
and broken and the shellac on the frames dried and flaked away like old skin.
Dave said chemo made all your hair fall out. Said he'd never have children.
We stayed on the beach until well after dark, and there was an inch of
backwash left in the whiskey bottle which neither of us had any intention of
drinking but would not throw away. We'd smoked both joints but still had beer,
which we used to try to get normal enough to drive back to the shop. We drove
between the dunes with the lights off, following the sandy road which glowed in
the moonlight. The lions were quiet; I imagined them gnawing viciously on bloody
bones, and decided right then that I was not going to any damn hospital.
Reaching the main road we saw the lights from the winter quarters a mile or
so away. Dave switched on the headlights, and we turned toward town.
Just after the intracoastal waterway we passed him. I had my chair turned
toward the door with my arms and head out the window, so I looked right at him.
"Who was that?" Dave said.
"The rat-faced guy!"
"He see us?"
"We went right by him."
"But did he see us?"
"He looked right at me."
Dave twisted his head around to see behind him, and I guess that's how he
lost control of his lawn chair, because the next thing I knew he crashed to the
floor still holding onto the wheel with one hand, which turned the car sideways
to the road. The car fishtailed hard and the two of us, with chairs and cooler,
clattered back almost into the trunk. When the rear wheels hit the sandy ditch
the car stalled out and came to a halt. We were afraid to move, as if the car
were teetering on the edge of a cliff, but then we remembered the rat-faced guy
and crawled toward the door. It was an uphill crawl because the car was buried
to the frame, the rear wheels stuck in the ditch with the front wheels on the
pavement. On both sides of the road were tall dark pines and low palmetto
bushes. No sign of the rat-faced guy.
We stashed the beer in the palmettos and walked around the car for a long
time, shaking our heads, saying, if only we had front-wheel drive or a couple of
stout boards and some rocks and a place to stand or a tractor with nine guys and
a rope. We were miles from town and nobody drove this road unless they were
going to the winter quarters. "Where was that rat-faced guy going?" I
"Where did he go?" Dave said. We walked up the road to where I
first saw him, but there was nothing except the drawbridge, the pines and
palmettos. No houses, no sounds, and no lights except across an expanse of low
scrubland the winter quarters lit up like a small city.
"What we need is an elephant," I said.
"Hey!" Dave said. "We can walk over there. They've got stuff
to pull us out."
"Someone should stay here," he said.
"You stay here, I'll go."
"I don't even have a license," he said. "What if a cop
"You're the proprietor of a business, Dave. Say someone stole the car
and you walked here and found it." He held his head and walked around in
the road. I wanted to bed down in the ditch and sleep till daylight, but I knew
he'd start walking if I didn't, and I saw for the first time a change roll over
his body. Blood took leave of his face, and he gripped his midsection with both
arms as if to wring the pain from his body like a sponge. It was at least a mile
to the winter quarters. "Dave," I said, "let me walk over
I began walking up the middle of the road. The bridge was a hump with a glass
booth. Inside I saw a telephone. I thought about breaking the glass. But who
would I call? The police? A tow truck? The hospital? I'd say a man in need of
surgery was stranded on the winter quarters road, then hide in the woods and
watch them take him away. Again I felt the urge to simply lie down under a bush
and sleep. Looking back I saw the white car halfway across one lane, front
wheels on the pavement, back end buried to the frame. It was too dark to see
Past the bridge I left the roadway and walked on a wide path of trampled sand
that cut through palmettos. Light streaked toward me from vapor lamps on
telephone poles in the winter quarters. I walked slowly in the center of the
path, watching for snakes, and came to a dirt parking lot next to a building
that looked like an aircraft hangar. I stood in the shadow of a thick pine.
Behind the building was an open area the size of a football field surrounded by
a chain-link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire. A number of low
buildings backed up to the fence, some were horse stalls, others were aluminum
trailers. Farthest from the main building were two large green tents. People
moved about on foot and drove strange blue vehicles pulling brightly painted
wagons. I heard voices. Next to the main building was a guardhouse and gate. A
short stocky figure in a guard's hat dragged one leg behind him as he paced in
the road under a vapor lamp waving and shouting as people drove in and out.
Later, I learned this was Backdoor Jack, and had I approached him that night,
things would not have worked out.
I walked away from the guardhouse, kept to the shadows, until I came to a
break in the fence behind one of the green tents. A man in coveralls rolled a
wheelbarrow of steaming bowling balls across a makeshift bridge, planks over
mirrors of vile black liquid, to a pile of manure. I was no expert on crap, and
not thinking clearly, but I suspected whatever let loose crap of those
proportions had to be big. I suspected elephants.
I slipped through the gap in the fence behind the wheelbarrow man and
followed a path of hard-packed dirt between the tents. They were old
damp-smelling canvas tents surrounded by trenches of seeping juice the color and
consistency of used motor oil. Around front I mixed with busy people and no one
challenged me. There was an old guy sitting on an overturned bucket. I sidled up
to him. He held a Coke can with both hands.
"Lookin' to get on?" he said.
"Hilmer's the man."
"Somewhere." He took a sip off the Coke can. This didn't seem like
the guy I needed to help me get the car off the road, so I stepped away and
moved inside the tent flap.
Elephants. Massive. Silent, active, and close. They were chained side by
side, chained by one back foot, swinging their trunks and whipping their
club-like tails, rocking their heads back and forth, lifting one foot then the
other, repeating each step in turn like some demented dance. I saw their eyes on
me, acute, not missing a beat of their dance. Then there was a compact man in
front of me wearing tight blue jeans and knee-high turquoise boots, no shirt,
and teeth like Chiclets. Chiclets chewing gum right out of the box. He had
bleached blond hair over his shoulders and he said, "Ja? Ja?
What do you want?" He looked like a picture torn from a glossy magazine and
tossed to the gutter. All I could think of was George Armstrong Custer.
"The guy out front," I said. "He said I might get on."
"You been on bulls?"
"We're loading out," he said. "Tell Martin to set you
up." Then he was gone before I had a chance to say I knew Elephant Car
Betty. I stared at the elephants again. There were other people in the tent, men
and women moving about, lugging large trunks with leather handles to wagons
lined up outside. None of them spoke to me or even looked my way.
I cut back through the tent flap to the old guy with the Coke can who was
still sitting on the bucket.
"You get on?"
"I guess so."
"Been on bulls?" I didn't answer. It took me three days to figure
out for sure that elephants were called bulls.
"Got a hook?" he said.
"How 'bout a smoke?"
"I got nothing," I said. The guy leaned so far forward I thought he
would fall on his face, then hocked a blood-red gob of spit between a pair of
dry cracked wingtips with curled toes. He tilted the bucket to one side, reached
underneath and brought out a bottle of Everclear grain alcohol, unscrewed the
cap and tipped some into the Coke can. He put the bottle back and slowly stood,
flat-footed and swaying, like he was riding on a subway. When he had his
bearings, he turned and ambled off toward one of the low aluminum buildings,
waving me after him with his Coke can.
The building was crowded with men and women packing stuff into boxes and
bags, odd leather stuff, nylon, canvas and rubber stuff with brass rings and
silver chains, steel buckles and studded straps. Elephant stuff. Martin rummaged
for a club and handed it over. "Yours while you're here," he said.
"You leave, you leave it." It was a sledgehammer handle wrapped in
black electrical tape. Embedded in one end was a vicious-looking steel hook, a
I guess it was the bullhook that really knocked me off course. I hadn't
forgotten Dave, but for the moment I felt swept along, as if the plans I had
coming over here had no life once I slipped through that fence. I'd been taken
up, given a part, and playing it seemed the easiest thing to do.
Outside, I wandered around carrying the bullhook, trying to look on-duty,
expecting someone to tell me what to do. No one did. I set my hook down and
rolled bulltubs to wagons. When the wagons were full and the doors clamped shut,
someone roared up in one of those strange blue vehicles, "unimugs"
Martin called them. They had large steel pinhole hitches on both ends, two
steering wheels and a revolving driver's seat. Their sole function was to push
or pull. Dave would be impressed if I showed up with one of these things. I held
the tongues of the wagons for the drivers to back into and tried to catch their
attention, but they backed up fast, dropped the pin into the hole without
leaving their seats. One driver nodded to me, so I stepped up close to his
steering wheel and said, "I have a problem." He drove off fast.
The center of activity was the brightly lit building across the lot. Two
sliding doors big enough to roll planes through were open, and inside ropes and
cables hung from the ceiling and gray canvas bags cluttered the arena floor.
People lifted, carried, pointed and pulled. Shouts rose and died. Steel poles
clanged and clattered as men grimed with sweat slid them into wagons and slammed
the doors. The wagons were immediately taken up by unimugs and towed around the
corner and out the gate where Backdoor Jack stood. I watched from under the
bleachers and tried to formulate a plan. I decided Dave should come here. I'd go
get him, and we could both get jobs on bulls and the hell with that white car.
But Dave had his van, and his wet-and-dry, and some other stuff. Dave had
baggage, something growing in his gut, that hospital appointment in the morning.
Everyone in the building hustled around, and people began to eyeball me
standing under the seats with a bullhook, so I went back to the elephant tent.
It was close to midnight. The only person sitting was the old Coke-can guy,
Martin, so I slid up to him and tried to get information. "What time do we
knock off?" I said. He stared at me through eye slits like pencil lines and
took a hit off his Coke can.
The blond guy, Hilmer, grabbed my arm. "You come in here." He
dragged me behind him into the tent. "Next town you see Huffy," he
said. "Huffy in the pie car. Tell him you're on bulls." He took my
bullhook, handed me a pitchfork, and I spent the rest of the night scraping
soiled straw from beneath elephants. I watched and copied the other guys. You
timed your work to the elephant's dance, dodging swinging tails and trunks. When
the left front leg came up you grabbed a sodden forkful and backed off, then the
right rear, the right front and so on. They seemed okay with me, but their eyes
left no doubt, they knew I had no idea what a bull was.
Before we finished, Hilmer came in yelling. Everyone put up the forks and
began unchaining feet. The chains were shackled on a rear leg, and each shackle
had a pin which had to be unscrewed. This happened fast with a lot of loud
jabbering by Hilmer. Within minutes they moved out of the tent. Each beast took
delicately with its trunk the tail of the one preceding it. They moved with
strong snorts of breath on round padded feet and lined up facing an identical
group from the adjoining tent. The men stood between them, even Martin was on
his feet, bullhook in one hand, Coke can in the other. I mimicked the other
guys, trying hard not to do anything stupid in the close proximity of forty
loose elephants and a dozen men with clubs.
We were loading out of winter quarters. I wondered where we were going, but
it didn't occur to me until later, after I'd seen the train, that all of us—elephants
and their stuff, unimugs and wagons, worlds of people, animals and things that I
had no notion of, but had somehow become caught up in—were leaving Venice,
Hilmer hollered and both lines of elephants moved at once. I moved as the
guys near me moved. We walked at the left hind leg, the way horse people walk at
the left shoulder, we carried our clubs prominent. The beasts were not to break
the trunk-tail hookup, that was gospel, if one let go of the tail our job was to
hook the inside back leg and say "Tail!" If the tail wasn't picked up
immediately the role of the bullhand was to take a full roundhouse swing with
the club and bury the hook in the leg. This took something more of an adjustment
than I'd been able to muster that night, but luckily the beasts were compliant,
they knew their role, fell readily into it, and did not test mine. They seemed
happy to be moving. I pictured myself a native in a safari movie.
The impetus of the movement, the focal point, was Hilmer. Each man and beast
watched Hilmer and he watched everyone. He moved along the line and spoke in a
way I could not at first understand, spoke in what I thought was a foreign
tongue, but once we'd gone through the gate, past Backdoor Jack, and out onto
the same sandy path I'd taken across the palmetto field, I heard what he was
saying were the names of the elephants.
He wasn't talking to us but to them. Moving slightly faster than the herd, he
cooed the name of each beast. They had regular girl names: "Ellen, Jenny,
Cindy." He said their names slowly and affectionately and he looked each
one in the eye as if they had his personal assurance that everything was under
control, that they would be fine, that there was nothing to worry about. That
reassured me, too. I saw that in this world bull and bullhand were not that
different, both had a place, both were taken care of. I nurtured a state of
helplessness about Dave, pushing guilt behind fantasy, and felt better the more
confusing things became. The world shifted, I was caught in the afterwind, and
went with it because it was the easiest thing to do.
The eastern sky had gone peach over the black horizon. At the rate we moved
we would pass the car in broad daylight. I could bail out of the line. I knew
that. I could simply stop walking, hand my bullhook to Martin as he went by, and
everything would be the same as the night before. Why not? Nothing would stop
the line, that much was clear, if I fell down dead they'd walk on over me. But
nothing else was clear to me. I didn't want to stop. I wanted to walk to Africa.
I didn't want to clean bloody car floors, sleep in garages, wait in hospitals,
watch Dave double over and not get up. I wanted to be a bullhand. The problem
was not the car, or even Dave. But rather, could I abandon a dying man? I felt
like I could. In fact, a dying man felt like the best kind to abandon. Dave
would understand that. Only a captain goes down with the ship, and clearly I was
We made it onto the road when the sun was just breaking over the tree line
and the inland waterway was beginning to steam. From the drawbridge I saw the
car. The herd padded silently in pairs straight down the double yellow. As I got
close to the car, I hunkered tight against my elephant's leg, moving with her,
but as we went by I peeked back under the tail and saw Dave's head sticking up
in one of the windows, his eyeballs wide as telescope lenses. He never saw me.
Shortly after, we turned onto a dirt road and came upon a white train parked
in the woods. Brilliant white. Freshly painted white. With large red and blue
letters on the sides. It sat there waiting for us. For me. I was stunned. Never
in my life would I have considered the idea that there was a white train in the