By Erin Sherbert
By Howard Cole
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Leif Haven
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Kate Conger
"There are only two kinds of people in the world," said Chicken John. "People who are in the circus, and rubes." Chicken, the ringleader of a troupe called Circus Redickuless, paused for a second. " 'You're on the bus or off the bus' -- same shit."
Clearly, Chicken John was in the circus. The voluptuous Dr. Ducky DooLittle -- the crackpot sexologist -- was temporarily touring with the circus. David Apocalypse -- who did a straitjacket act and had actually been institutionalized -- was a circus.
And Chicken's best friend, Dammit the Amazing Wonder Dog, was the four-legged star of the show.
So that made me the rube.
I was running away with the circus -- to Boise, Idaho, of all places -- but I didn't have talent. That wasn't the problem, exactly. Chicken preferred performers with no talent. He told me that he could work me into the show. The problem was that I had paper and a tape recorder. People in the circus perform, they don't take notes. They let me come along anyway.
Chicken hadn't really slept the night before. David dozed against the car window, asleep as he could be in the front seat of a clanking 1974 Duster with a broken shock mount. Ducky, in the back seat, looked relatively perky in fishnet stockings, a fake leopard coat, and bright red lipstick. She was from New York City, after all, and she had the time difference on her side.
It was 5:30 a.m. Friday, and Chicken had the monkey-shit brown Duster, which he'd bought at a junkyard for $25, pointed east on Highway 80. With any luck, we'd cross the Bay Bridge, miss rush hour in Sacramento, and roll into Boise around 6 p.m.
The circus was booked for a gig that night at a club called the Neurolux. They didn't have all the acts planned out, but they were hardly unprepared. The trunk was crammed with a couple of pink drums, some sparkly boots, three machetes, a chewed-up hula hoop, grease paint, and a bag that Chicken told me was extremely flammable before packing it directly behind my seat. If the show went well, they'd take home $250. Six hundred and seventy-five miles for a couple hundred bucks made perfect sense. Hell, for that, they could buy a fleet of Dusters.
While Chicken John talked in the car, one of his eyes watched the road and the other locked on to David in the shotgun seat, or on Ducky and me in the rearview mirror. Dammit was curled up in a doggie bed in the front seat. Chicken developed stories as if he had all day to tell them, which that day, of course, he had. He asked active and rhetorical questions to make sure that whoever was awake was listening. As El Cerrito, Richmond, and Vallejo woke up at the side of the highway, he told the tale of how he ended up here, on this road, as a circus performer.
Chicken, a fairly nondescript 30-year-old distinguished by thick black glasses and a wedge goatee with a splayed mustache, developed Circus Redickuless five years ago in Los Angeles. The idea germinated from a series of terrible things that happened in San Francisco. First, his best friend and bandmate died of a drug overdose. Then Chicken spent all of his money burying the friend. Finally, Chicken's girlfriend dumped him. "She couldn't stand to live in the shadow of this dead guy," he said.
Chicken siphoned gas down 101 to Los Angeles, and played guitar at Elvis' star on Hollywood Boulevard. He tried to figure out what to do with the pain. "I thought, 'I could change all of these shitty things into comedy,' " he said.
It didn't work. "I bombed 61 nights in a row -- open mike to open mike. I was doing the comedy thing, but I couldn't get one thing right."
He began to toy with failure. "Nothing I could say was funny," he said. "I started working on the bomb factor, daring people to laugh. 'Laugh or I'll kick your ass.' " Now that was funny. Like any performer, he elaborated on the most successful element. "I thought, 'What if there were a couple of comedians who were not funny?' "
He knew that was a terrible idea. Who wants to watch crappy comedians, each one worse than the last? The idea mutated. " 'What if it was, instead of a comedy troupe, it was a circus troupe,' " he thought. " 'A completely dysfunctional circus -- no talent.' "
Now he had something. He worked with his new girlfriend, Dannygirl, on developing the idea. She came up with a speed-metal tap dance routine and a couple of other acts. Chicken had a few ideas as well: the Temporarily Tattooed Man; and the Vegan Geek, who could "bite off a head of lettuce."
Circuses travel. Chicken didn't bother performing in Los Angeles. He bullshitted clubs across the country, exploiting connections he'd made touring with old punk bands, before he even had a troupe. He told potential performers that he had a bus before he had the title to it.
In the summer of 1995 he left on a national tour with 19 performers, three vans, and $123. They hadn't practiced; they didn't have a set list. "You put energy into something, and chaos ensues," he said.
Chicken believed in chaos. He'd made a life of it so far, and with any luck it would pay off. "In the old days, when we first started this, I really thought we could make money," he said. "And I was excited about it. I really thought that we put together a great show on a collective level, and that we would cook collectively, and that we would all invest a couple hundred bucks each, and then we would pay for all of the expenses, and cook healthy meals under the fucking stars. We'd put on the greatest show on Earth, get all of this press, and we'd be the only punk rock circus on the planet. I had high hopes."
After three nationwide tours that burned through 147 different performers, a flamethrower on wheels, a life-size version of the board game Mouse Trap, and who knows how many shitty vans, trailers, and cars, Chicken has a new attitude, and a new line. When people in Phoenix, Austin, or New Orleans want to tour with the circus, he tells them that he needs to think about it for two hours. If they're still around in two hours, he takes them on. But not before he gives the pitch. "Now, I tell people they're probably gonna die, there will be no food, nowhere to sleep, you'll be beaten constantly, there's constant work, no sleep, and the shows suck -- no one ever comes to them. I'm an abusive piece of shit, I'm a junkie, I'm a liar, I'm a fucker. Wanna join my show?" he asks. "That's my official statement. Those are all the things that I've been accused of. Expect this, and then if you get anything else out of me, you're doing great."
"I don't like this place," said Ducky. "It makes me nervous."
"The Devil lives here," said David.
The Devil was looking for a new short-order cook, according to a butcher paper sign in the restaurant window. His house was across a snowy tarmac from a gas station just west of Truckee in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Chicken needed sleep and wanted us out of the car. "You guys want to get some coffee or something," he told us.
The Devil liked trains. The walls of his restaurant were afflicted with cheap, exposed-wood paneling strewn with locomotive photos lacquered to cross sections of young pines. A clock on the wall chugged and whistled at exactly 9 a.m. A railroad-crossing post said "Wait to Be Seated."
There wasn't a soul in the place. Someone was making noise back in the kitchen. "Anyplace you want," a perky waitress named Tiffany finally said. Ducky grabbed at a chair. "Oh, no," Tiffany said. "The
eight-top is for parties of six or more."
"I could take her," mumbled Ducky.
David asked Tiffany for a tea and half-order of biscuits and gravy. Ducky wanted coffee and an English muffin. I ordered the same.
"I've been committed twice," David said as we waited for food. "Once for chasing a girl around with blunt scissors when I was in the first grade. And then after I got out of the Army when I was 19. They restrained me for the first night. I kept escaping, and they would put the restraints back on."
"I think straitjackets are sexy," said Ducky.
"The second time I was in, I think I was genuinely off my nut," David said. "My brain was in a scary place."
Ducky looked past the silk flowers and examined the blue-and-white checked curtains hanging in the windows. "I just hate this place," she said.
David nodded across the room. "Yeah, this is where my brain was -- up there on a shelf."
Tiffany brought the breakfast and stared at David as she centered the plates on paper place mats. His face was covered with freckles; his ears flapped from the side of his head. His smile revealed a mouth full of puffy pink gums. A bolo tie collared his navy blue Boy Scout shirt -- Troop 602, two badges short. A rolled sleeve revealed a tattoo on his forearm: "2 Dum 2 Die."
"My dad used to take us to the Lake Erie clown convention," David said. "We would be the only three kids there, surrounded by thousands of clowns. It was terrifying."
"They know what you do -- your family?" asked Ducky.
"Yeah," David answered.
"My family thinks I'm in porn," said Ducky. The family is right, sort of. In the past she's worked about every job in the business, but she has never taken off all of her clothes. Now, Ducky is working as a publicist in New York. She also does a performance art act as Dr. Ducky DooLittle and Knockers the Klown, which she's toured with a couple of times. And she writes naughty stories for porn magazines, even though she doesn't read much. (She is dyslexic, making her, I suppose, a pron writer.)
"I just got my first clown porn video," said David. "It's really bad. The only thing it's got going for it is that it's clowns."
"Do you have it with you?" Ducky asked.
"No. I'll get it to you when we get back."
"Yeah," Ducky said. "It's important."
"When I was in L.A., we did this big clown sex thing for HBO," said Ducky. "Most of the things they wouldn't show -- too lewd. I'm going to do a two-clown erotic porn [photo] shoot when I go back. A lesbo thing with Chuckles."
"Make sure I get a copy of that," David said. "'Cause I like porns. And I like clowns."
"Once you've had a clown, you never go back," said Ducky.
"Yeah, I'm telling you, clown porn is going to be the next wave of smut."
"On the Sally Jessy Raphael show I made the claim that I was the one who invented the term 'Clown Sex,' " said Ducky. She also told Sally that she couldn't orgasm unless her partner was in grease paint. Someone from the audience asked her if she only had sex with clowns. "No, I have sex with clumsy people too," she said. "It was all over Talk Soup. I sent the host a pair of my patented joy-buzzer panties."
"Welcome to Nevada," the sign on the side of the highway read.
"I can no longer be arrested for driving," announced Chicken to all of us and to no one in particular.
As we headed east to-ward a town called Lovelock, Chicken said, "I feel like a shady character the more I get older."
"Yeah, you are shady," said Ducky.
"Am I shady?" Chicken asked.
"Yes," said David.
"You got this fly-by-night circus," said Ducky.
"That's not shady," said Chicken. "That's art."
"Circuses are, by definition, shady," said David.
"But I'm not bad," said Chicken. "I wouldn't press a button to kill a person in China for a million dollars."
"I'd press it for free," said David.
"They'd take the button away from me," said Ducky.
"Remember the last time we were here, David?" Chicken asked. "Driving around this town trying to disconnect the odometer of the truck. These digital odometers -- you've got to crack open the dash to just get at them."
Chicken rolled into a Flying J complex. "All these truck stops is what I hate about touring," said Ducky. "We don't have gas stations in New York. Or maybe they do, but I don't have to see them."
"We're on the last stretch," Chicken said.
"Really?" said Ducky.
"Just remember," said Chicken. "If we bomb in Boise, it doesn't matter."
Dr. Ducky DooLittle, who is 27, keeps a press kit in a small box covered with vinyl stickers. Among the news clips in the box -- including stories from magazines like Bikini and Leg Show that say she sells her underwear for $50 a pair -- was a xerox of a neatly printed postcard from France.
Thanks for the packet of Ducky items ... Tres interesant, as they say over here ... Plus you're quite cute, but is that you or some other girl in the photo you enclosed of a big-leg girl with a vacuum cleaner? Is that you?? My god, those legs!! If it's you, send more leg shots!! I want to come over sometime and have a piggy back ride!! I'll do a drawing of you in exchange for a ride!!
How tall are you? I suspect you are quite short ... Not that it makes any difference to me, if indeed those legs in the photo are yours!! Yes, I am big-leg fixated .... So whataya want from me ... ?? It's not illegal ....
Send more photos of you!!
-- R. Crumb
"He's harmless," said Ducky.
David said that if you look at North America at night from space, you can make out the state line of Nevada. Connect the dots of low-rent casinos along the border, up California to Oregon, east under Idaho to Utah, then down to Arizona, and there's a constellation called Nevada. McDermit is a tiny town, a light bulb along the Oregon-Nevada border. There are two blocks in McDermit, home to a gas station, an ice cream stand where you can buy corn dogs, a small motel, a post office, and a dilapidated flagstone jail from another era. The owners of the tawdry casino there had obviously botched the pun and called it Say When.
Chicken eased the Duster under a tree in front of the motel. He needed another half-hour nap. David set out for the Say When. Ducky and I took the dog for a walk. We turned left at the casino, and walked half a block on a street that dead-ended into all of southeastern Oregon. The old asphalt crumbled. Half-inch plywood boarded the windows of a ramshackle bar on the right. On the left, two young girls -- they couldn't have been older than 8 -- bounced on a trampoline. One of them wore an oversized white T-shirt printed with a picture of a large house cat. She quit the trampoline and her giggling at the same time. She stared at Ducky, her pixie face, her 4-foot-10-inch frame, her double-D breasts.
"Hey," the cat girl asked, "what's the name of your dog?"
The story of Chicken and the circus is al-so the story of punk, and how a once vital movement slipped into irrelevance. See, if punk rock still worked, Chicken might still be playing in a punk rock band. But punk doesn't work anymore. It's broken and meaningless. Worse, everyone does it. Although there are currently dozens of small fringe circuses -- Circus Redickuless, the New Jim Rose Circus, Circus Amok in New York, and Circus Apocalypse, which David started back in Pittsburgh -- and dozens more bands appropriating circus imagery, not everyone has a circus.
"Back in the 1980s, there was this thing called punk rock," Chicken said. "Do you know how it worked?"
"You wanted to make something happen and you did?" I guessed.
"You just made it fucking happen. There was an integral, interlocking mechanism to punk rock. It worked. You made the calls, there was a route, there were people that helped, there were bands. Badda-bing, badda-boom. Do you know that? Were you there?"
"I never claimed to be a punk," I said.
"It doesn't matter. There was a network. You were in, or you were out. You could be in the network, and it would all work," he said. "It was punk rock. And it was beautiful. It was a secret society that no one else in the world knew about. Now they know about it, and they co-opted it. But before they co-opted it, they ruined it for themselves. And here's how they ruined it. They released a book, and it's called Book Your Own Fuckin' Life. Are you familiar with it?"
"Yes," I said. It was a listings and resource guide published by the San Francisco punk magazine Maximum RocknRoll.
"Right," said Chicken. "Now here's the story. You're a guy like Chicken John, and you have a band. You say, 'Let's get our band together and have an adventure and travel the country.' You get on the phone, and you book the tour. There are no press kits, no tapes. You just say, 'Hey, I've got this band, and we're cool.' You'd go, and you'd go and make money, and people would come to a garage, or a thing, or a club. It didn't matter. Back then there were not 80 thousand kabillion bands. If you were in a band, you had to be good.
"[With that book] they made it easy to tour. They tweaked the network a little too much, and they made it too easy. Now, all of the sudden, the clubs' phones were ringing off the hook. This band from here; that band from there. All of the sudden there's all these yahoos. Their parents bought them $300 worth of equipment from Guitar Center.
"They fucking ruined it. All of the sudden, you were calling a club, and you'd get an answering machine, and the machine was full. And they weren't calling you back. And you wonder why, and you realize that they probably got 75 tapes today, they got 75 tapes yesterday, and they're getting 75 tapes tomorrow. They fucking ruined it."
"I've said this before, and I don't know if I should keep saying this," said Chicken. "There's really a new renaissance of art." He was unhappy with the sentence. "What else are you going to call it?" he asked.
He was talking about all the strange events, bizarre collectives, and weird goings-on that happen in San Francisco on a weekly basis -- the game show parodies that he used to run out of the Cell space, the Werepad, Survival Research Laboratories, the Space Cowgirls, the Seemen, and dozens of others that have gained a following via word of mouth and Web sites such as Laughingsquid.com.
Most of them are at least tangentially connected to the annual Burning Man festival in the Black Rock desert. But some of them, like the Cacophony Society, have roots dating back to the late 1970s and a group of San Francisco pranksters called the Suicide Club. Whatever the cumulative effect of the scene, it's booming in San Francisco. And Chicken John is right in the middle of it.
"I don't know if it's going to take off and be remembered in history, or if it's going to peter out in a year. I can tell you right now that it's based, largely, in San Francisco," he said. "There's some little satellites in New York, and people here and there, but largely, the major epicenter, the ground zero, is San Francisco. San Francisco is the town, right now, where shit is going right."
The late-afternoon sun-light was starting to turn the prairie the color of brass. We crossed a wide river and drove past a winery. "My game-show tape is sitting on somebody at Comedy Central's desk right now," said Chicken. "I don't know what's going to become of it. I wrote them a one-paragraph proposal. I told them that if they gave me the budget of the crafts table at any one of their productions, that I would make a show that would make all of their other shows embarrassed. They won't do it, probably."
"They won't do it because they don't want everything else they do to look so piss-poor," said David.
"I don't know about that," said Chicken.
There was silence for 10 seconds.
"I just sell my panties," said Ducky. "I can't deal with all of the people."
"I don't even wear underwear," David said. "What am I supposed to do?"
"You're supposed to buy my panties." Ducky giggled.
There was a hitchhiker on the other side of the road. "There's someone for the bottle-rocket act," said Chicken. He made a right toward Boise. We were less than an hour away, and the sun was starting to set.
"I'll be happy with this whole circus thing if I can bring back the old attitude people used to have about the circus," said David.
"What's that?" asked Chicken.
"You know how now, when the circus comes to town it's written up in the newspaper, they go do things at the children's hospital? Man, when the circus used to come to town people were afraid to take their kids -- the Gypsies were going to steal them."
David started to shout. "We pick their pockets, we make them pay to see the Man Eating Chicken. What happened to that? Cirque du Soleil. Give me a break. It's art? It's not art. If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit. Even better than that, if you have brilliance that you can potentially dazzle them with, they don't deserve it. Give 'em the bullshit anyway. Why waste the brilliance?"
"You guys talk too much," said Ducky.
We pulled into the alley beside the Neurolux at around 9 p.m. There were only a few people drinking at the bar. Someone was shooting pool in the back corner. Chicken, Ducky, and David unloaded the Duster directly onto the stage. They didn't waste any time. Ducky unfolded a three-legged presentation stand, placed a pad of paper on its edge, and then disappeared into the bathroom with an armful of clothes. David removed a gallon of white gas from the bag full of combustibles and poured some of it into a glass jar. Chicken assembled his drums and sound-checked his guitar in front of a large crown blinking with white and red light bulbs. They were ready in about 20 minutes.
At the foot of the stage, David opened a styrofoam container of Mongolian beef. "I've toured with the people I most respect: the best industrial bands; Ivan Stang, the guy who started the Church of the Subgenius," he said. "I've had the big buses, the hotels, and a lot more money, but the tour that I did last summer with Chicken was positively the most rewarding. It was a disaster, but I've never been on a better tour.
"I was on tour with 22 other people, and I was the only one who could do a legitimate circus act. I started teaching Chicken to juggle -- just beginner stuff. He told me that that little thing threatened the entire idea of Circus Redickuless."
David, 30, was at Neurolux that night because he just lost his handyman job. But work really didn't matter. He moved to San Francisco six months ago because, like Chicken said, it was the place where the shit was going right. Work was secondary.
"I saw what was going on and knew that I had to be there," he said. "I'm looking for a job in a porn shop now. I like smut. I'm not a pervert, but I like being around them."
Just after 9:30 Chicken looked around the spacious, and nearly empty, club. "What, there's a person here for every hour we drove?"
By 10:30 or so considerably more kids were gathered around triangular tables and slouched into some vinyl booths. Screamin' Jay Hawkins was on the jukebox. Chicken's thin and handsome friend Justinian, the sole local act on the bill, arrived, carrying a stringless tennis racket. Two enormous men and their jittery dates sat stage left with two pitchers of beer and screwdrivers for their ladies. They were big men: oil-drum chests, ball caps, leather skin. Rednecks.
There were plenty of hipsters too. The twentysomethings of Boise, Idaho, looked like twentysomethings anywhere. Some of them were outfitted in the swanky threads that look good swing dancing. There were rockabillies, scruffy punks, potheads, Gaps, flannels, and a woman with hairpins, horn-rims, and a gray skirt pretending to be an Eisenhower librarian.
When the juke died off, David pounced on one of the two stage microphones. "Ladies and genitalia," he shouted. "Faster than a speeding speed freak, able to leap a 14-foot couch and bone Priscilla: It's ... ELVIS."
Chicken was suddenly in David's flashy sunglasses, a white jumpsuit, and an absurdly big black pompadour -- a leftover from Hollywood Boulevard. His goatee and his face were covered with pasty drab-green makeup. He didn't look dead; he looked like a wigged cocktail olive wrapped in a white napkin. With chest hair. He grabbed his dirty Stratocaster rip-off and sat behind the two pink drums. He cradled a telephone receiver at his neck and ripped into a trashy old Elvis song.
"Thank you very much," he said. The crowd chuckled at the one-man-band Elvis impersonator.
"Any requests?" he asked.
" 'Don't Be Cruel,' " someone shouted.
"Any other requests?"
"Stevie Ray," shouted one of the rednecks.
"Are you ready to rock?" shouted Chicken.
"Yeah," shouted the audience.
"Are you ready to rock out?" Chicken shouted.
"Are you ready to rock out with your cock out?"
"Yeah," they all shouted back.
Chicken stood up and pointed to one of the swingers back in the booth. "OK man, let's see it! You there. Yeah, you right there."
The swingers laughed at their friend.
"What happened, man? Just a minute ago you said you were ready to rock out with your cock out," Chicken said. "What happened?"
He sat back down and kicked out a couple of more numbers. "How long does this go on?" one Gap back by the bar asked her friend.
After three songs the shtick was up. Chicken knew it. But he wasn't finished. He was going to torture them. "Just because you guys are so lame, I'm going to have to punish you."
He played them "Blue Christmas."
"That sucked," the redneck shouted.
Chicken barked back, "Like I care."
Five minutes later David appeared back onstage. "What you are about to see is real," he announced.
"What is it?" the redneck heckled.
"Sit the fuck down," David snapped.
He held a 75-foot length of rope in his right hand and demanded a volunteer. No takers. He singled out a college boy. "Come here."
The college boy shrugged him off.
"Get the fuck up here."
"Hey, listen, when I go to your job, I go right up to the counter and order," he said. "Come here."
The kid came.
"What's your name?" David demanded.
"No one cares, Kramer."
David ordered one of the boy's friends up onstage.
David told them to uncoil the rope and begin tying him up. As the boys made loops and knots over his Boy Scout shirt, David told pedophile jokes, each worse than the last. "What's the best thing about fucking 4-year-old girls?" he said. "Turn 'em over, and it's just like fucking a 4-year-old boy."
When the boys finished, they leapt off the stage. David wiggled, and he was free of the ropes just in time for Chicken to join him onstage in blue tails, a string tie, and a little green fedora. He went straight for the rednecks, pulling the two men onstage. David gave the rednecks a straitjacket. He told them how to cinch him into it step by step.
The rednecks finished the job and rejoined their girlfriends. Chicken made a canned beat come out of a small keyboard. David began to flail inside the straitjacket. He struggled. He winced. The crowd started talking to each other.
They were not impressed.
"This seems to be going a lot slower than it usually does in bum-fuck hick towns," Chicken sniped.
He whistled, and Dammit -- a purebred Australian blue heeler -- scurried around the corner, a tiny sombrero tied to his collar. Chicken told him to sit. Dammit ran around the stage. Chicken grabbed a bent-up hula hoop. Everyone knew the trick: Cute dog jumps through hoop. Chicken held it out for him. Dammit ran at it and locked his jaws around the plastic. Chicken yanked the hoop away and set it up again. Dammit lunged for Chicken, biting at his ankles. Chicken lifted the hoop above his head. When the dog jumped up to get the hoop Chicken swiped it under him, effectively making Dammit pass through the hole. "Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much."
Chicken brought out a balloon and tapped it at Dammit. The dog jumped for it, nosing it back into the air. The balloon floated down and Dammit jumped again, nosing it back toward the overhead lights. Chicken walked up to the mike as Dammit flailed again and again at the balloon. "It's so cheap, isn't it?" he said. "You keep laughing. That's the cheapest part of it."
The show was bombing. Chicken aimed at the audience. "We drove 16 hours to stand in front of you so you can say, 'What-ever.' OK, everybody, when I count to three you say, 'What-ever.' One, two, three."
"I've been teaching drunks in bars about sexuality for years," Dr. Ducky DooLittle said by way of introduction. She explained that tonight she was going to teach the Neurolux about sex in the animal kingdom. "These are all true facts," she said. "Real science."
Ducky wore a long, fake, leopard-print skirt and a matching jacket. She took the microphone down and stood next to a set of flip charts. She turned a page and pointed at a clip art picture of a deer. "Deer antlers will show you exactly how long his penis is," she said. The crowd seemed perplexed.
She flipped the page. "A lion has at least an 11-inch cock. They don't call him the king of the jungle for nothing," she said. "He's got eight chicks. When they all go into heat he's got to take care of all of them. The lion can ejaculate every 15 minutes -- that's a lot of come."
The audience giggled nervously.
"A male octopus chooses one of eight arms to be a penis. The female octopus does not have a vagina, it is her nose. There's no romance there. He just walks up to her and shoves his cock in her nose. But the good part is that if she's not in the mood, she'll bite it off."
She didn't have the crowd. This was her first time performing the animal-sex act. To be sure, in previous performances she'd delivered entire lectures on the items that have been removed from the human rectum, but this was different. It was new. She started to talk faster, which threw off her timing.
And the lessons got more disgusting. She talked about men who put their dicks in jars of bumblebees in order to get an extra swelling sensation, and others who incorporated slimy snails into sex. She paged through more pictures. "These are facts, ladies and gentlemen. I am not making this up. This is real science."
She turned to a chart that contained statistics. "Seventeen percent of farm boys have had sex with animals," she said. "In America, the favorite animal to have sex with is the dog." She flipped the page and pointed at a xerox of a dildo shaped like a dog's penis. "A dog's cock cannot be pulled out for 15 minutes -- it will tear the cunt," she said. "I end every show I do with a little bit of advice. If you walk into your roommate's room and find her having sex with the dog, do not make any loud noises -- you might scare the dog. Calmly leave the room. Grab a dog treat and wait 15 minutes. You don't want to have to take her to the hospital. Thank you very much."
They were laughing, all right, but they still seemed nervous. Maybe there were too many farm boys in Boise.
Chicken produced a packet of sugar in his left hand and made it disappear into his right.
"Take that sugar and shove it up your ass," the redneck shouted.
"That's OK, man," said Chicken. "I remember what my first beer was like."
"I remember my first joke," the redneck shouted back.
"OK, hush now. Be quiet," said Chicken. He introduced his friend Justinian the Armenian Rubberman as a local boy from Boise.
Justinian -- wearing only black spandex shorts -- joined Chicken onstage. Chicken went to the crappy keyboard and pressed some beat pattern, leaving Justinian front and center with a prop, the stringless tennis racket. Justinian had a disease. His skin was like rubber, and he could twist his arms into double-jointed contortions. He'd done a tennis-racket act with the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow for a couple of years, but he'd found himself a replacement and retired to Boise to be near his father.
First Justinian put his head through the racket. Then an arm. His shoulder ripped back as he inserted his other arm into the hole. The arm flopped around like a half-inflated balloon with a crease in the middle. It looked painful, and really weird. The crowd groaned. Once the racket was under his arms he pulled up his thin pectoral muscles one by one. He worked the racket down to his waist, and then past his knees. He stepped out to uncomfortable applause. The crowd seemed to know that Chicken, Ducky, and David were self-made freaks. Justinian wasn't like them.
David came back on. The crowd was warmer now. He juggled some machetes over a couple of guys down front. He twirled flaming devil sticks. He breathed fire from the stage, and then lurked through the crowd, blowing flames up at the ceiling.
Chicken grabbed one of the microphones. "Tonight we have a very special guest, and it's her very special day. Ladies and gentlemen, happy birthday to Knockers the Klown."
Ducky had her black hair tied up in pigtails. She wore a black plastic vest with three fuzzy balls for buttons. She had black-and-white sleeves and black-and-white knee-high stockings. Her skirt -- poufy red with white fringe -- stopped just below her butt. She'd painted her face white, drawn on a giant red smile, and applied a bulbous red nose. She looked ridiculous. "We bought Knockers a cake for her birthday," said Chicken. "Knockers really likes cake."
The sound man popped a tape of circus music into the house PA. Ducky danced around the pink cake, glowing with two dozen candles and resting on a chair. She tasted the frosting with one finger. She lapped the chair and smiled at the crowd. "But Knockers isn't like most clowns," Chicken said. "She really likes cake. I mean she really likes cake."
Ducky leaned over and blew out the candles. She did a little spin and stood behind the chair, smiling at the crowd. She brought one leg over the back of the chair like she was mounting a saddle. The second leg followed. She looked up at the crowd and dropped her ass into the cake.
After sufficiently grinding her butt into the cake, she stood up and grabbed the flattened mess. She took it to Chicken, who swallowed a fingerful. She took it directly to the rednecks. "You guys have been giving us shit all night," she told them. "Eat up."
"May I have a hundred-dollar bill?" Chicken asked.
Chicken dropped it to $50, then $20, then $10. Before he could finish, a sharp dresser handed him a C-note. Chicken looked surprised. He held it in his right hand. It disappeared into the left. He mugged. "Can I get some applause here?" he said. "I'm from the big city, and I just stole $100 from a hick town."
A few claps.
"You guys will be chasing me out of town with torches," he said.
Chicken called for a volunteer. They knew better now; no one came. He jumped off the stage and harassed a tall blonde named Helga. Chicken took Helga back to the stage, handed her a long balloon, and asked her to blow a 1-inch-long bubble. She couldn't. Chicken did it. This created a balloon with a small circular bubble, and a long protuberance inflated to about the diameter of a pencil. "What I am going to do now is lubricate this part of the balloon." He licked the long protuberance. "Next I am going to lubricate my nose." He spit on his finger and rubbed it around his nostril. He turned sideways so the crowd could see the profile of his nose. "Now what I want you to do, Helga, is shove this up my nose," he said.
Helga squirmed, leaned down to Chicken's level, and gently pushed it up his nose. When the bubble came up against his nostril, he turned to the audience. "The balloon is now firmly planted in my nose," he creaked out in a nasally voice.
They all laughed.
He looked at Helga. "Now I want you to squeeze the bubble," he said. She squeezed. Chicken winced. Then he smiled. He opened his mouth and the balloon bubbled out.
Groans. And laughs.
Chicken pulled out the balloon -- coated in mucus -- and handed it to Helga. "Thank you very much."
He had them.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Chicken said. "We've given you a lot of entertainment tonight. You paid $5, and I'd say that we've given you at least six or seven."
He told them he'd let them work off the difference. He was going to give the crowd the chance to entertain the circus. "What we're going to do is a little variety show," he said. "The idea is that each and every one of you has a skill, an abnormality, a defect, or a talent that you can share with everyone. Who wants to be the first volunteer?"
No one stirred. "How many people are here tonight?" he asked. "Sixty or 70? Three out of a hundred people have three nipples. That means that one of you has three nipples. Who wants to come up here?"
The rednecks started laughing. They were teasing the guy who had been taunting Chicken all night. Chicken pointed. "This guy right here has three nipples. Who wants to see it?"
They all cheered.
The redneck stumbled up to the stage and lifted his shirt. Three nipples!
The redneck was hardly off the stage before some redheaded kid in a baseball T-shirt was climbing up. He squared himself to the audience and lifted his shirt. Three nipples! And the third one was pierced!
Chicken laughed. "OK, what's next?" he asked. "I've seen a lot of strange shit doing this show. Why, once I got a blind guy to come up onstage and remove his fake eyes."
The rednecks stirred again. The mutant redneck pointed at his lady.
Chicken knew how to play her. "Nah," he said, "she doesn't want to come up here."
She bit, and marched to the stage. She fingered the socket and yanked out a fake eye. Half the room turned from the stage in horror.
He called for another volunteer. A tall kid with dreadlocks stepped up. Chicken smiled at him. In one hand he held the microphone. In the other, a dozen bottle rockets. "What I'd like to you do is shoot this bottle rocket out of your ass," Chicken said. "Now it's not going to hurt, it's not going to give you any splinters."
The volunteer grinned and shook his head.
"This is very simple," Chicken said. "Bartender! I need a pen with a pen cap."
I threw a Bic up onstage.
"Now what I'm going to do is ..."
The kid hopped off the stage.
"OK," said Chicken. "Who's going to come up here and shoot a bottle rocket out of your ass? Who's going to come up here so we can finish this show?"
He berated them for two long minutes.
"C'mon, come up here. You will be famous. For the rest of your life you will be known as the guy who shot the bottle rocket out of his ass in Boise, Idaho. C'mon."
The redheaded kid with three nipples stood up. The audience cheered. He leaped onto the stage. Chicken held the pen cap and the bottle rocket. The kid turned around and dropped his jeans, exposing two pink cheeks. When he bent over, Chicken stuck the pen-cap mortar in his butt cleavage. He lit the bottle rocket. The fuse sparked. Chicken leaned back with an absurd grin on his face. He clenched his teeth.
The rubes roared. The kid raised his jeans and beamed.
"I want you to remember," said Chicken before delivering the line that he uses to close every circus show. "We who have done so much with so little for so long are now completely qualified to do anything and everything with absolutely nothing at all. Thank you. Good night."
Chicken stepped down from the stage, but no one left the bar. They were all chattering with one another, laughing, and buying more drinks.
Chicken swaggered up to me with a de-vious grin.
"I can't believe you got that guy to shoot a bottle rocket out of his ass!" I said.
"You know why he did it?" Chicken asked. "You know why he did it?"
"No," I said.
"He did it because I fucking told him to do it!"
The bartender hadn't shouted last call when Ducky rushed up to me, still in her Knockers outfit. "Some rockabilly chick just came up to me, grabbed my hand, and put it between her legs. She said, 'I really loved your show. You were so great.' Then she told me that her boyfriend was sitting right over there, and that she wasn't wearing any underwear."
I didn't know what to say. The rockabilly chick was, in fact, sitting with her boyfriend and a couple of other swing kids. I shook my head and went back to my seat by the stage.
Ten minutes later, the rockabilly chick scuttled across the room and disappeared into the bathroom. Twenty minutes thereafter, she rejoined the swing kids. I looked over to the bathroom and saw Ducky emerge.
I smiled. "I saw that," I said.
She giggled. "That chick has double-G boobs. She's got em wrapped up under her dress."
I told her I'd never heard of double-G boobs.
"Once you go past double-D you can call them anything you want. You have to get custom bras."
"What happened in there, Ducky?" I asked.
"Let's just say she helped me get out of my clown costume."
Chicken was tired again. It was 3 a.m. He was hallucinating. And he was hungry. Chicken, Ducky, David, Justinian, and I were in a Boise supermarket, each looking for a separate ingredient for corn chowder: milk, frozen corn, bacon, some vegetables. No spices, though. Those would chew on Chicken's ulcer.
We attracted heat in the checkout line. The supermarket's security guard was surveying the crew, ogling Ducky. Justinian paid for the groceries. Chicken walked past the register and -- importantly -- through the shoplifting prevention panels without alarm. He sidled up to the security guard, a paunchy rent-a-cop who could have been 27 or 42. Chicken drew a long, black balloon from his pocket.
"When was the last time someone made you a balloon animal?" he asked.
"I don't want a balloon animal," the rent-a-cop said.
"Of course you don't want a balloon animal," Chicken said. "You want to watch me make a balloon animal. C'mon, anything you want."
The rent-a-cop stared at Chicken as he inflated the balloon into a long, black sausage.
"He looks like a poodle man to me," I said.
Chicken began to twist the balloon. "Poodles should be taken out to the desert and shot," the rent-a-cop said. "Only dog worth a thing is a trained pit bull. Maybe a Rottweiler."
Chicken was almost finished. "I'm going to give you something every man needs," he said. He looked the rent-a-cop straight in the face and held up a toy poodle. "An enemy."
The rent-a-cop stared at the poodle in Chicken's hands. "I can't take anything from a customer," he said.
"Tell you what," I said. "He's just going to set it here on this counter and slowly walk out of here. We didn't see anything."
We spent the night at Justinian's house and woke up late the next morning. By 3 that afternoon the '74 Duster was cruising along at an undeterminable speed -- I'd just realized Chicken had disengaged the odometer -- somewhere between Boise and Winnemucca. David was staring at nothing, Chicken was singing along with Billy Bragg, and Dammit was nestled on the shelf created by Ducky's push-up bra. I couldn't feel my ass.
"I'm not so sure about driving all the way to Boise for just one show," David said.
"What, did you think we'd stop and do a couple of shows on the way?" Chicken said. "Play Winnemucca?"
"Winnemucca rocks!" said David.
"Not even the radio station in Winne-mucca claims that Winnemucca rocks," Chicken said.
Back in Winnemucca -- officially, and ridiculously, mottoed the "gateway to the Pacific Northwest" -- Chicken determined the Duster needed a new tire. Or not a new tire, but a different tire. On Saturday, after 5 p.m., this was a problem. After a bit of aimless driving and direction-asking, Chicken found one garage that could do the job. There was one hitch: They didn't have any tires. The mechanic pointed him to Wal-Mart.
Chicken didn't bother with the front door at Wal-Mart. He immediately drove around back and found exactly what he was looking for: a pile of tires that Winnemuccans had thrown away. He picked one, examined the tread, and tossed it on top of the Duster.
Back at the gas station, while the mechanic worked on the tire, we all ducked into Winners Hotel Casino.
"How much does a new tire cost?" Chicken asked me.
"About 50 bucks."
"That's right," he said. Chicken took a wad of cash from his pocket and dropped a $50 bill on a blackjack table.
He placed a few $15 bets. I was $10 down and out of the game after just a few hands. Chicken was faring a bit better. He had $15 on the spot. He was holding 11. The dealer's name was Shirley. Gray-haired Shirley was from Winnemucca, and her features were sliding off her face. Shirley turned up a 10 on her spot. Chicken stared at me. Should he empty his bank into a double-down opportunity?
I shook my head. "Not when she's showing a 10."
Chicken stared at his cards again. Once, twice. Three times. He put his palm to his forehead. Shirley rolled her eyes.
Chicken passed on the double-down, asking for a hit instead. Shirley threw him a jack.
The dealer busted. Shirley turned up his cards. Twenty-one.
Shirley grinned at him. He had won, but she knew he'd botched the double-down opportunity.
"Chicken," she said.
It was dark out. Chicken and David were arguing about the quality of the food on the last circus tour. David said they ate like shit. Chicken maintained that $26 a day was plenty of money to feed 22 performers two squares a day.
"C'mon, man," Chicken said. "Think of the gazpacho. Think about the time that I bought pork chops."
"I never saw a fucking pork chop. What the fuck are you talking about, pork chops?"
"Maybe you were in Pittsburgh then," said Chicken.
"What about being in the fucking grocery store and saying, 'Chicken, the 16-ounce thing of hot sauce is only 25 cents more than the 8-ounce thing.' "
"It wouldn't fit in the cabinet."
"That wasn't the answer that I heard. The answer I got was, 'These fuckers abuse all of the food so goddamn much that they'll eat the 16-ounce just as fast as the 8-ounce stuff.' You wouldn't spend the quarter on twice as much hot sauce."
After a period of increasingly heated food-banter, Chicken became emphatic.
"There was always something to eat," he insisted. "The only time you saw someone eating raw ramen, you know, licking their finger and dabbing the flavor packet, it's not because of my fault. I mean the food is there, they're just too lazy to cook it. They just have to boil the water. ... People have time-management problems. People are just too pathetic. They just open the flavor packet, stick their finger in there, eat the MSG, and crunch on the fucking ramen. Fucking complain that there's nothing to eat. Give me a break. Cry me a river. You won't wake up for breakfast, you fuck off and wander around the town during dinner, and come back, 10 minutes to show time, and they're like, 'I can't perform -- I'm weak from hunger.' "
"Welcome to Reno, David. This is your fu-ture in entertainment," Chicken said. I told them I knew where we could get a 99-cent breakfast.
"Fuck that," Chicken announced. "When we're in Reno, we go to Circus Circus."
The boardwalk around the main stage at Circus Circus was crawling with Saturday night teen-agers and tourists attending to their children. "Look at these people," Chicken said. "This is Middle America. Not one of these people has a distinguishing physical characteristic."
He was right. They all looked like Winnemuccans: clean-cut and logoed, wearing bluejeans.
David found the schedule of acts. "Ah fuck -- it's tumblers."
"I don't need to see the tumblers," Chick-en said.
"If I want to see tumblers, I'd just as soon push 'em down the escalators," David said.
We went upstairs to the buffet. Saturday night prices -- $11.99 for a buffet -- sent us away. We were going to Cal-Neva, home of the 99-cent breakfast, instead. On the way out of Circus Circus, David pointed at a Circus Circus clown feeding quarters into a slot machine.
"Career clown," Chicken said. "Betcha $50 his name is Bingo."
Abe Lincoln was waiting for a table at Cal-Neva. Chicken, Ducky, and David were already seated in a vinyl booth. Lurch, from The Addams Family, came by to collect Chicken's Keno ticket. This was not Middle America; this was a casting party for the sequel to Freaks.
Our waiter, put simply, had no neck. Everyone ordered the $1.99 steak and salad, and the waiter waddled away.
The dinners arrived late, overcooked yet edible. We shoveled and told stories throughout the meal.
We were all looking at empty plates when suddenly, and with great urgency, David lowered his hat and threw a $20 bill at Chicken. "I just saw someone. We have to go, now. Pay the bill and come get me out of the bathroom." He rushed out of the restaurant with his hand at the side of his face.
A few minutes later I found him hunched over a stool in the bathroom, his eyes welling up. "This cannot happen," he said. "This cannot happen here."
"Who is it?" I asked.
"I just saw my mom."
Chicken scoped out a stairwell, and we escorted David along the sidewalk. "So," said Chicken. "Tell us about your mother."
"You're so easy David."
In the car, David -- who had grown up in Pittsburgh, where his mom still lived -- had only a few words: "This cannot happen," and, "I haven't seen her in 2 1/2 years. I haven't talked to her in two years."
He leaned his face into his hand and, for 20 miles, sobbed. "Is it funny yet?" Chick-en asked.
That was, for all purposes, his last word that night.
It was about 2 a.m. Chicken was still driving -- he'd done all the driving. I was tired, but I figured he must have been dead. As we pulled into a gas station to get coffee, I asked him what his sleep patterns were like. He took a lot of naps, he said. The conversation continued up to the coffee maker. "Let's just say I'm blessed with sound sleep," he said.
"You're narcoleptic," I said.
"Yeah," he said.
Back in the car, we talked more about the condition. He didn't want me to use it in this story. He said people had too many prejudices; that they wouldn't understand. "It's all because of that fucking movie," he said.
He was talking about My Own Private Idaho, where the protagonist nods off throughout the movie. "River Phoenix was a good actor," I said.
"Yeah, he's a good actor, except that he wasn't playing a narcoleptic! He was playing someone with cataplexy," Chicken said. He explained that people with cataplexy -- a symptom of narcolepsy -- fall into a paralyzing sleep at any time. Because there are several degrees of the condition, some narcoleptics have more control. Chicken, for instance, would never fall asleep as long as he was doing something: talking, eating, driving, singing along to a tape, working on a car, pulling balloons through his nasal cavity. When he did fall asleep, though, he could hit the REM stage within seconds. His naps could get him through both days and nights.
Chicken uses the extra hours. He performs, he creates, he finds junk to incorporate into whatever he's got going at that particular minute. He has more nervous energy, more time to talk on the phone, more events to go to and people to see than the rest of us. Every few days he crashes for hours.
"You take what's given to you, and you turn it around," he said. "That ties it up into a nice, neat little bow, doesn't it?