A journal of narrative writing.
Bait or Flight
by Amee Schmidt

Roger climbed over the stacks of corn with the apple in one hand and the magazine in the other. He stood in front of Henry and stared at the floor.

“Look up here at my face, boy,” Henry said. Roger had never seen a man like this before. He had black hair that hung past his shoulders, hanging out the back of a green baseball cap, and a dark face smudged with dirt and a thick black moustache. Henry smiled, and Roger felt a little at ease. Henry’s eyes were light and kind, and he was “clean cut” as his dad would say. Men who shaved their faces were respectable, so he figured he must be safe. As Henry walked Roger back to the front of the yard, Roger told Henry about his dad and mom, how his brother had kicked him out of the house, and his plans to go to Minnesota. Henry assured Roger that he could get him a ride on the feed corn car to Minnesota the next night. But Roger would have to pay him five dollars.

“I don’t have any money,” Roger said.

“Well you’re a clever kid, you can figure it out.”

Roger wasn’t sure how to do it, but he figured he had to try. He had to get away from there, away from Michael. He worried about his mom, but he knew that Michael would take care of her. Roger was a burden, useless. If he could get to Minnesota, he could find a way to make it better. It had to be better.

Henry and Roger walked to the front of the yard near the long rows of grey aluminum storage buildings. Henry had a one-room shack, with a packing crate as a door, right next to the unused railcars. Henry told Roger he could sleep the rest of the night in his shack. Henry didn’t have a bathroom, just an outhouse. Inside, a red couch missing its legs, with a small pillow and a torn sheet sat crooked against the one window in the room. There was a small refrigerator like the one the Hanover’s had in their camper, and a sink full of Miller cans like his dad used to drink.

“I’m off to bed. You get some sleep, now. Tomorrow’s your big day,” Henry said with a wink. Roger was happy to feel comfortable except that he really had to pee. But he could hear the other men shouting, and it was dark, so he sank into the couch, pinched his legs together, covered his head with the ratty sheet, and hoped for silence.

The next day, Roger woke early and ran out the back door to the john. He had tried a few times overnight to get up the courage to go, but he kept hearing the scary men. After he peed for what felt like five minutes, he headed into town. He could turn in soda cans at the general store for five cents each, and he and Michael always collected cans from the trash in town. Almost no one returned their soda cans; people threw them away. He had made fifty cents one day just by cleaning out a lady’s car.

This morning he started at the bakery; he was used to seeing the cooks on break in the afternoons. They tossed their soda cans in the big dumpster where Roger got his leftover bread. Then he ran across the street to the barber shop where the cats had knocked over the trash can. He’d only collected four cans. There weren’t many in the usual places because he had cleaned them out just two days ago. Michael told him that he wasn’t allowed to go past Mill Street because it wasn’t safe, but Roger had faced the men under the table. He could handle anything.

Roger headed to the corner of Mill and Main and felt a tinge of fear as he looked at the rusted sign over Manly Pub. He gathered his courage and dove into the dumpster out front. It stunk like Michael’s feet after gym class mixed with too-old lasagna from the diner. One by one, he picked out twelve sticky beer bottles, then a large plastic bag. This made him happy since he knew he couldn’t carry them all. Outside the mill, there were four big barrels with more brown bottles than he’d ever seen in one. He had to make a dozen trips to collect them all, and he was sure by the time he was done, he had cleaned out the entire town.

However, after cashing in the last batch, Roger had only collected $4.45. Henry was a nice guy, Roger thought, so he would let him go anyway. He was hungry, too. So, he decided to spend a little of his earnings on a cheese Danish from the bakery—35 cents. He was only 90 cents short, but wasn’t worried. He could collect and return cans when he got to Minnesota.

It was dusk as Roger made his way back to the rail yard. Large, red and white trucks were parked alongside the tracks, and big metal boxes like square space ships were strapped to the trailers. He tried to imagine how an astronaut could fit inside the bundled metal. There were a lot of people gathered around the yard wearing rainbow polka-dots, black and white stripes, and tall hats covered in sequins. One very tall man had the smallest head he’d ever seen, and it came to a point at the top. Five or six large, burly men in cut off dingy t-shirts were lifting orange and yellow containers with pictures of hot dogs into the open railcars. Other men loaded popcorn carts and ice cream machines. He wandered around them all, looking for Henry.

Roger found Henry talking to a short, well-built, bald man in a white tank top and brown slacks. Roger ran over to Henry and told him that he had most of the money, he was ready to go.

“Good job, Roger. Wait over there, and I’ll talk to you in a minute,” Henry said.

“So, we’re all set. You’ll take care of it, it’s one of the most popular rides we have,” the bald man said to Henry. Then the bald man pulled a bunch of bills from a silver clip, and gave them to Henry.

“But I got it! You’re still gonna let me ride with the corn to Minnesota, right?” Roger interrupted again.

“Just wait over there until I’m done,” Henry said.

“Wait a minute,” the bald man said, “you’re taking this kid to Minnesota in a feed car?”

“Yes sir!” Roger exclaimed, “Henry’s taking me to Minnesota for five dollars. Well, I don’t have the whole five dollars, but it’s beautiful there, see here in these pictures.” Roger showed the bald man the magazine.

“You nasty son-of-a-bitch,” the man said to Henry, “How can you cheat a child?” The man then turned to Roger and said in a soft voice, “Son, my name’s Joe, and you’re gonna put that money in your pocket. You keep it, you hear? You gotta get your things, and you’re coming with me.” Roger felt soothed by Joe’s voice and his smile reminded Roger of his dad.

“I guess I been beat,” Henry conceded, grinned and winked as he shook Joe’s hand.

“I don’t have any stuff, Joe, but I’ll go with ya, especially if it’s free.”

“Alright, then,” Joe said. “We’re not going to visit Minnesota for a couple of months yet, but we’re going all over the country.” He gestured his hands up to the sky. “We’re a traveling carnival! You can work for me, selling candy or helping people on the rides. You like rides, don’t you, Roger? And you will put all your money in your own pocket.” As Joe said those last words, he pointed Roger toward the trucks with the box space ships then turned to Henry. The two men stood close to one another talking quietly, shook hands, and Henry nodded. Joe came back and put his arm around Roger. The two sifted back through the crowd of carnies to the trucks and trailers ready for the road.