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The Devil's Tub: Collected Stories

The Devil's Tub: Collected Stories

by Edward Hoagland


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Edward Hoagland, best known for his essays, is also an extraordinary writer of fiction, as readers of his stories “The Final Fate of the Alligators” and “Kwan’s Coney Island” can attest. First published in periodicals such as the Paris Review, Esquire, the New Yorker, New American Review, and Saul Bellow’s famous literary magazine, the Noble Savage, Hoagland’s stories amazed readers with their precise language and finely etched characters. Assembled here are stories new and old, spanning from 1955 to today.

Meet the death-defying motorcycle trick riders in the carnival’s Devil’s Tub, a man who keeps an alligator in his bathtub, a Chinese laundryman in search of love at Coney Island, a frontiersman who saves himself from being mauled by a grizzly bear by hiding in a beaver house, three carnies looking for trouble at a rodeo, a washed-out boxer trying to hang onto his career, and dozens of other rich characters. From the crammed and gritty streets of New York City to the bristling wilderness of the Old West, Hoagland’s characters pine, ache, observe, love, learn, and live in such precisely rendered stories that we are transported into each of their peculiar worlds.

Skyhorse Publishing, as well as our Arcade, Yucca, and Good Books imprints, are proud to publish a broad range of books for readers interested in fiction—novels, novellas, political and medical thrillers, comedy, satire, historical fiction, romance, erotic and love stories, mystery, classic literature, folklore and mythology, literary classics including Shakespeare, Dumas, Wilde, Cather, and much more. While not every title we publish becomes a New York Times bestseller or a national bestseller, we are committed to books on subjects that are sometimes overlooked and to authors whose work might not otherwise find a home.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781628726473
Publisher: Arcade
Publication date: 06/07/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Edward Hoagland has written more than twenty books in sixty years, including travel memoirs (such as Alaskan Travels), essay collections (such as The Courage of Turtles), and novels (such as Children are Diamonds). He worked in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus while attending Harvard, and later traveled the world from Yemen to Antarctica to Assam, writing for national magazines. He has received numerous literary awards, and taught at ten colleges and universities. A native New Yorker, he divides his time between Martha’s Vineyard and a farmhouse in the mountains of northern Vermont.

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The Devil's Tub

JAKE THIBODEAU, also known as Grandpa Harley, or Pappy, had been a Wall of Death daredevil for more than thirty years, from the end of the good times — the era of Speedy Babbs and Speedy McNish, Joe Pelequin, Lucky Vinn, Elmo Ballard, the Kemps, the Hagers, Earl Purtle, and their sundry ilk, who still wore leather football helmets then — and was now about a month into working on his sixth marriage, when he booked himself and his motorcycles for a series of pumpkin fairs in northern New England with Smoky Miller's little carnival. Small-time, shit-kicker fairs, and Smoky operated out of his home in central Maine, not Florida, but he was in his own way a pro and knew all of the county officialdom.

It was late August, not a terrible time to be sleeping in your car in Vermont, but a teary disappointment to Vickie, needless to say, who was a Philly girl, twenty-four, and "the oldest old lady" Jake had ever had, as he liked to mention; thrill riders of any age do get a lot of action. But that meant Vickie's six-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Alice, came along with her. The child had been a good traveler so far, so busy adapting to the zany changes in her young life that she was no trouble except in the sense that her mother and Jake sometimes argued about how she would be schooled. She spent much of her waking hours searching the midway for coins, though the concessionaires fed her on fried dough, candied apples, and cotton candy — for free, naturally — and was so small that she could stretch out in a sleeping bag on the floor of the Plymouth pretty comfortably. On warm nights they had the floor of the Motordrome, roomier, slatted wooden quarters, but shared with the four motorcycles and Cliff, the second rider, and his tough-mouthed, bleached-out, shorthaired girlfriend, Charlene. (Cliff, whom Jake billed as "Flash Michaels — One of the Top Riders in the World," though he was a beginner, just a dirt-biker, and a stiffie, went in for women of his own age but didn't marry them.) Right now the cool nights had driven Cliff and Charlene to the back of his station wagon, with the Maryland plates and a tawny, ribby dog tied to the fender that would jump and bite you in the chest if you stumbled near, and then again in the ass when you fled.

Money was the problem. They had no talker. He'd left when Jake couldn't pay him enough any longer, so Jake had to do the spiel on the bally platform himself when he wasn't riding on the inside, which was exhausting and also left a terrible silent gap while the show was in progress, when ordinarily you could build another tip from the loads of people wandering the midway who wanted to be told, or assisted to anticipate, what was happening in that big, round, roaring, silo-shaped drome. The banners, adorned with painted skulls and Indian arrows and feathers, read: "The Race for Life. The Dips and Dives of Death. Free-Hand Trick and Fancy Acrobatic Riding Featuring Indian Scout Motorcycles on the Devil's Tub. The Circle of Death." But you needed a strutting loudmouth with a mike on the outside to draw them in and explain the history and the risks and the connoisseurship of using antique Indian Scouts, the most delicately balanced, maneuverable cycles ever made, for this dangerous job, where you doubled your tire pressure but left your tank unfull because too much gas sloshing around might throw you off the wall.

Jake dressed both Vickie and Charlene, brunette and bottleblonde, in glittery shirts, bare midriffs, leather pants, and high-top boots, so that the tip would think that they were going to see the girls go on and ride, if they paid to get inside. It was like a fish trap. Once each new batch of marks had swum in, they couldn't leave without forfeiting their money and, penned there, listened in frustration to the midway's siren songs till Jake decided that he had captured enough more to strut his stuff. Vickie sold the tickets, Charlene collected them, and a boy named Angel, a gofer Jake had recently taken on, sat on a Harley Davidson that they had on metal rollers on the box outside and raced it as tirelessly as if he were crossing Minnesota. He was sleeping with a harelip girl in one of the grab joints Smoky owned, so he always smelled of onion rings in the morning, and he traveled with her, driving the grease joint to the next town for Smoky, till he could buy a two-bit Honda to ride.

Cliff was thirtyish, a journeyman mechanic, and so stolid he had taken only a month instead of two to conquer his dizziness going round the wall. Not a bad guy, though, true to his word when times were pinched, and energy in the bank for a twelve-hour day. But Jake had served his apprenticeship riding on the handlebars of Goldie Restall, one of the legends, from the age of twelve, and then when he could legally drive, jumping a motorcycle over rows of cars on the Joie Chitwood Show. Of course, these bikes were stripped down, no headlights, seat springs, and so on, for a different purpose, and he liked to boast on the box that he was "The Doctor of Thrills."

Jake was slim, lightly built, twitchy and boyish in his bad posture, with a boomeranging sort of strength and a thin, browned, pockmarked, croupier's face, alert like a marten's and wrinkled concentrically, though his chin was receding, his undersized mouth lacked several teeth by now, and his nose seemed lengthened, as another effect of aging. He would lose about thirty-five pounds every summer, and when rounding the wall, his thin rigid frame and scraggly long hair flung out behind his balding head made him look like some South Asian holy man on a vision-seeking ordeal. He was cocky in his patter, however, though off-putting and confrontational in his naked yearning for the public's approval, but never a bully or abusive to his women: easy in a divorce. Split the money, didn't fight about custody, signed the papers, "Just leave me my Scouts." It was usually the classic problem of "in-laws versus outlaws," and "I didn't promise you a rose garden," he would say, "I'm the best drome rider left. That's what you wanted and that's what you got," even without the extras the oldtimers had had, like a lion riding perpendicularly with them in a sidecar, or chasing them across the floor of the drome, and them with a piggybacked blonde.

He was foxy in manner, and for the best crowds he'd still try a "money run" after a sidesaddle stunt or the crisscrosses he and Cliff had performed, round and round inside the "wine barrel," as carnies called the silo drome. That meant he would simply circle the rim, next to the safety cable that protected the customers, as slowly as centrifugal physics permitted him to, and snatch bills they held out. And if he was between marriages, he'd coast down and straddle his bike on the floor in his epaulettes and Sam Browne belt and admiralty cap and other glitz, looking up at the spectators' faces on the round walkway, and point at the cutest one that was smiling and ready, and say, "Come see The Doctor, Luv," while her boyfriend perhaps turned beet-red. A rider in his prime, at least in the old days, he could stack 'em up in different motels around town until maybe he'd get so tired that one day after the last show, he'd just have his grease monkey — his Angel — boost him over the twelve-foot-high wall when no one was watching and slide down the guy wire in back and sneak away to a hotel where nobody was waiting for him, for a night's sleep.

Vickie had come to his show — although he didn't own it at that point — on the Strates midway in Philadelphia this spring. Elizabeth Alice's father, never married to Vickie, had scrammed, and she was grateful to Jake for tying the knot, as well as excited to split from her irksome kin — hillbilly transplants and binge drunks for a life of bright lights, constant movement, and showbiz folk. It had appeared to be a child-friendly atmosphere too, until Elizabeth Alice mentioned that the other carnival kids "showed me their knives." Jake was always solvent in May because he was a pipe fitter for General Dynamics in the winter, building ships, with a union card — that's how he'd made a down payment on the drome when the owner wanted to close it up, the same week they got married. Vickie was a gentle, rangy girl with fluffy hair and a carny's owl feather tied in it, and bold, malleable, vulnerable features, a low forehead, a clown's personable nose, of the kind carnies want, but was aloof with the towners, and competent with the money box or driving the rattly Plymouth between dates while Jake piloted the tractor trailer that carried the drome. Jake had been a commercial driver for Mayflower Van Lines in the off-season as well, but had drawn a suspension for the sin of having a tail light out when he'd had a drink in him: which suddenly required that their hops be hired out at two hundred-fifty dollars a pop, on top of the second drome payment, and the big Strates organization, a railroad show, dumping their contract because of the ownership change. Jake had been riding this drome, and often driving it, for more than seven years, so he wondered if "management" didn't agree with him.

Vickie was not a quitter, and lacked other options anyhow. She was touched by the twin tattoos he had bought for their right wrists, I LUB YOU, and the slight middle-aged waddle he was developing in his fifties (though he claimed he was only limping from shitters), and the way that his eyes often roamed above other people's heads, as if calculating or conceiving stunts they had never dreamed of. He occupied the saddle of a cycle as another man might loaf in an easy chair, or fixing the motor, was patient, even methodical, as if following a set of written directions in his head. Now he was squatting on his heels at the bottom of the firwood drome, twenty-four feet in diameter, passing a cigarette back and forth with Cliff before they vroomed their machines and hit the jumpboards for the performance. The intimacy of sharing a bit of spittle was negligible, next to trusting his life to Cliff's timing soon after. Stringy arms, gray ponytail and all, Jake could lift as much as Cliff or Angel when setting up the huge wooden sections and the steel backframe. He'd described to her the thirty-six or fifty-foot outfits with three or four riders, where he'd learned his craft and had had more fun, steering with his feet on the handlebars, and stuff, like riding backwards, and a lion roaming the floor under you to chase you.

About every April Fools' Day, he said, the light in the sky would change and he wanted to put his lunch bucket down, grab the phone, and call a carny, or check Billboard magazine's placement ads. Vickie kept Elizabeth Alice out during the show, but sometimes stood underneath the whirlwind herself — by the center pole that held up the canvas that kept out the rain — to watch. It was safest there because "if somebody takes a shitter and falls, you can dodge," Jake said. Angel polished the machines and kicked the crank of Jake's motorcycle before each act. His most tedious task was washing the drome's interior with a sponge on a pole each morning so no shards of debris would cause an accident, and mopping the stairs and walkaround that the spectators used. And he was supposed to gas up. Jake nearly punched him once, when Cliff's tank went empty on the Wall. Cliff was low down at the time, so it wasn't a disaster. Angel was now begging to ride the silo too, but even Cliff had frozen on the midstripe one night — blind and deaf to Jake's shouted advice — too panicky to go up, down, or alter his speed in the slightest, till you wondered when simple giddiness would bring him crashing. Jake was circuiting above, near the red line and the safety cable, trapped in orbit. Not that he couldn't have ducked past by slowing or accelerating, but doing so might have triggered a jerk of Cliff's hands that might have dropped Cliff on top of him. Cliff, having put in the weeks of acclimation necessary to overcome a normal person's sense of vertigo, didn't get dizzy and tumble, but some Hell's Angel Hawgmen in the crowd who had spotted the trouble were hooting at him in the meantime. Jake swerved repeatedly in loops toward where they were standing, jutting his right boot out (he always rotated counter-clockwise) as if to clip their noses off or pulverize their chins.

Hecklers, in their Nazi trinkets, he generally dealt with by inviting them to try the Wall on their Electro Glides or Sportsters. "No, not on my bike, on yours! Be my guest. I got no insurance anyway to lose. You'll puke your guts out and black out and lose a yard of skin."

That's what you lost in shitters — mainly skin — if you were catlike enough when you landed that there were no bones broken. Once his oil pan split, spewing goo all over the wall, which sent him into a skid, and he fell, and the cycle landed on top of him, the wheels still spinning, which cut off the end of his boot and part of his big toe. It looked like a red balloon that had popped, and he lay looking up at the flames licking the wall and catching the canvas on top.

Jake was training Cliff to tense his torso periodically to force a blood supply back near his optic nerves. Jake himself had gone around the barrel as many as five times blind, then slowed to the point where his sight returned, not counting the stunts when he was a young hotshot and wearing a blindfold. The jumpboards took you to seventy-seven degrees; then the slope became ninety, and you had doctored your tires to hug the wall by burning a roughness onto the rubber that edged the wood, because although the wall was at right angles to the floor, you were not quite perpendicular to the wall and parallel to the floor; you were a bit angled.

"If you don't want to whiz, don't do it," he said to Cliff, after that episode, while obligingly scorching a grip on his tires. But Cliff of course did.

Unluckily, there was an individual who didn't, right on the midway: namely Jake's creditor, Phil, the son of the family that had sold him the drome, who had sunk that first payment into a grab joint where he seared sausages for the marks for a living. "Would you like the hot kind, Sir, or the sweet kind, Sir?" How could he bear it? A dozen years ago or more, they had ridden on this self-same Wall together, before Phil's brother got killed on it. But recently Phil didn't think Jake was earning well (Strates hadn't either; that's why they'd canned him), whereas Phil, when the hour got late, left the grill to his wife and was out with a beat-the-dealer craps board fleecing the drunks who'd swilled too much beer, with a cozy trailer to sleep in when he got through.

Two hundred-fifty a pop for transporting this rig? And the rewelding and lumber and paintwork Jake would need to refurbish an oldie — shouldn't that come before paying off his debt? Nobody quibbled with his expertise on the ride, just his crowd-control. And who cared about crowd-handling? Well, Phil the Sourpuss did, and Smoky, the boss, who took a fourth of each ticket, but was quite close-mouthed, like most Maine-iacs. Too much time squandered on the "Come see the Doctor, Luv," tease between shows, or whatever he'd replaced it with since Vickie had joined him? Yet the truth was, you couldn't turn out one crowd and fill up with another, and risk your skin, like a metronome, without winding down in between. Phil knew that. You'd think he'd at least pitch in on the bally box for the show, now that Jake had lost his talker. He was not a bad talker, or a bad rider either: better than Cliff, though with none of the flash of his parents. His dad had stood up on the saddle, going round the silo, for a deserving crowd, and his mom bottle-raised a series of cubs to be a "King" or a "Queenie" so affectionately that they weren't terrified in the sidecar, like other people's lions, but had laid their throats on the vibrating metal, as if for company, when they roared.

Patty Conklin, up in Canada, had the only other drome still operating. "So let's make this one sing!" Jake wanted to say. Phil, his once-upon-a-time mate, had never possessed Jake's panache, but on the other hand had never married a couple of strippers and been "twice burned," as Jake liked to kid himself. Stick to the amateurs, he'd resolved. Vickie didn't know he was a super-rider, on a scale of one to ten, but did guess that he frittered away time temperamentally, from the behavior of the crowds. Didn't know that a cheap, light, little, brand-new Yamaha might have served the bread-and-butter purposes of the show for these yahoos as well as the purist, antique Indians Jake persisted in using, but recognized that a creditor like Phil must be the enemy, like the fuzz. Her young heart would never be content with a hamburger-flipper; plus, with Jake, there were no black eyes to hide, unlike with Elizabeth Alice's dad, and if any creep had molested Elizabeth Alice on the midway Jake would have "ripped him a new asshole."


Excerpted from "The Devil's Tub"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Edward Hoagland.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

The Devil's Tub,
The Final Fate of the Alligators,
The Colonel's Power,
Kwan's Coney Island,
The Beaver House,
The Last Irish Fighter,
Circus Dawn,
The Witness,
I Have a Bid,

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