One Man's Monkey
It’s the shank of the afternoon and there’s more sky than dirt as the two-lane disappears beyond this yellow and brown Montana flatness. It’s a tank of fuel to find another tank of fuel and move on farther. But now there’s a little rest area around a bend, and the sun is staring and waiting.
There’s an old International pulled up out of the way in the dust, the AC on the roof breathing loud and hard in the heat. Behind it there’s a small tent, a pole in the middle and a big flap pulled back and the smell of the circus and the music of the midway coming out of it. Some boys with crewcuts come out. They heard us pull in to their sideshow.
They say they got tired of the big show and broke off from it to be on their own. They have a small elephant and a cage of monkeys hollering and throwing stuff at anyone who pays to go inside, but the boys say they’ll give us a show for free.
There is a tightrope stretched eight feet up, and one of the boys jerks himself up onto it and spins and sits down to get his balance. Then he is up and walking, dancing on one foot and turning himself around. He starts to sing and the elephant comes out from behind the tent flap and looks up at him. Now the boy is singing and throwing peanuts into the air for the elephant. The monkeys scream.
The tent stops moving and the monkeys are quiet. The boy climbs down from his wire. He climbs up on the elephant’s back and whispers in its ear. The animal moves toward the old truck and its old circus trailer where he lives when he is not looking at the boy on the wire, waiting for peanuts and people to look at him as he eats them.
The boy and his elephant amble over to my truck and, from behind the big ears, he looks in the window. He tells me he just wants to see what it’s like in a real truck, one with a hood and a big bunk and air in the dash. He drives the circus rig but he wants to haul freight. He wants to get off the elephant and move up and down across the continent in endless streams of displaced air, making money every mile. He wants to forget about peanuts and ill-tempered monkeys and learn the road for real.
I tell him maybe I’ll trade him places for a while. I’ll come out here and work for peanuts, ride the elephant and sleep when I want to sleep. He can jam gears and drive his life away.
The circus truck is old enough to still have a hole in the wall to get into the 36-inch wide “sleeper.” There also is a board with a notch cut out behind the driver’s seat. The boy says he and his partner take turns sleeping on the board across the seats and curling their legs around the gearshift, which sticks up through the notch.
The only thing, he says, is the pan under the air conditioner. Sometimes it leaks, and will spill on you through the bolt holes in the roof. Or you’ll be sleeping and it will run over.
I look at the elephant. He has big ears and the boy’s thighs look small and thin. The old truck has ripped upholstery and the bunk is full of peanut shells.
I have a load of shrimp out of Miami headed for Seattle. The boy says he wants to haul important things. He says he ran away and joined the circus and then ran away from the circus. But now he is bored again, and the little sideshow is just a way to kill the time. He doesn’t ever want to go home.
I tell him he never has to go home if he’s a driver. He can stay out here and haul sailboat fuel or polio vaccine or napalm bombs like he wants and never go home. Me, I tell him, every time I leave I am running away. And every time I leave I am waiting for the flip and the road home. I tell him, you’ve got your monkey, I’ve got mine.