The Camel Story
Didn't your mother ever tell you not to talk to strangers?
MIke waited patiently for the door to slide shut behind him, then looked around the cell. To his pleasure, it was everything he'd imagined from TV and the movies. Gray brick walls; a dirty, seatless toilet in the corner; flat benches on either side of the cell; even a liquored-up bum asleep on the floor.
"The handcuffs, Mr. Welke," the cop behind him said.
Mike obliged by sticking his hands back out through the opening in the bars. He tried not to wince as the cop pulled them back further than they wanted to go. Instead, he looked over and saw that one of the cell benches was occupied by a man who, like Mike, wore a rumpled suit and tie. He was sitting with his elbows resting on his knees and his face planted in the palms of his hands. Hell of a night out for him, too, Mike thought with a smile. As the cop removed the cuffs, Mike watched his cellmate, waiting to make eye contact if the opportunity arose.
Once the cuffs were off, Mike rubbed his wrists like he always saw on TV and started toward the unoccupied bench. The cuffs hadn't really hurt him, but he'd never been arrested before and wanted to make the most of the experience. Ever since the cops had come to get him, he'd been taking mental notes; it was going to make a hell of a story for his buddies back home. Guess what happened on my Vegas trip, guys? First they cuffed me, then they read me my rights, put me in the back of their squad car, booked and fingerprinted me, and then I had to wait in a holding cell until my brother posted bail.
Mike sat down and sighed, hoping his cellmate would look up. When he didn't, Mike decided to take a different approach.
"So will they bring me a drink of water if I ask them?" he said. He watched as his cellmate slowly raised his head from his hands. The man paused for a second as he studied Mike and then he dropped his arms to his knees. Mike noticed how bloodshot his eyes were and how he really needed a shave. He hoped he didn't look quite that bad, but he knew it was wishful thinking.
"Doubt it," the man shrugged. He ran his hands through his short hair, which made it stand up on end. "In fact, I doubt you'll hear from them again until someone posts your bail. That's my guess at any rate. I don't make it a habit of frequenting jail cells."
"It's the first time I've been arrested, too," Mike confessed. "First time in Vegas, first time arrested."
"First time for everything, I guess," the man said. "My name's Louis, by the way." Louis offered his right hand to Mike.
"Mike Welke," he said. He had to get up off the bench and lean forward to shake it.
Louis smiled and then pointed to the sleeping drunk. "I'd introduce you to him, but he's been sleeping one off ever since I've been here."
Mike grinned and felt himself loosen up a little. He reached up to undo his tie and was slightly surprised that it was gone--he'd forgotten that the police had taken it away from him before putting him in the cell. The truth was, he'd had a lot to drink earlier and some of the details weren't exactly clear. When he looked up again, he saw Louis watching him. For the first time, Mike noticed that Louis was wearing a particularly nice suit, wrinkled though it was.
"I feel like an idiot asking this," Mike said, "but that isn't Armani, is it?"
"Hugo Boss," Louis replied. He leaned back and examined his lapel and sleeves. "Looks like it's salvageable, too. Nothing a good dry cleaning can't fix."
"Me, too," Mike added, taking a quick look over himself. "So are you like me and just had a little too much fun tonight?" Mike saw a playful glint appear in Louis's eye and watched him shrug.
"What can I say? I've been bad."
Mike laughed out loud but had to stop as soon as he realized it hurt his now-throbbing head. Still wincing, he looked back up at Louis. "I'm out here for a bachelor party, my brother's bachelor party, actually. A bunch of us drove in from L.A. for the weekend. It's been pretty crazy."
"Older or younger brother?"
"Older, but we're pretty close. You have any brothers or sisters?"
"I did," Louis said. He inched himself back on the bench and with his hands locked behind his head, leaned against the brick wall. "I had an older brother but he died a few years ago."
"Sorry to hear that," Mike said. "Were you close?"
"Well, we were always pretty competitive growing up," Louis explained. "Actually, there were times when I hated his guts. It's too bad, really. There's not much I can do about it now."
"I guess I'm lucky," Mike said. "My brother and I get along really well now. We had some fights growing up but not anymore. In fact, I'm going to be the best man at his wedding next month."
"That's great," Louis remarked, not changing his facial expression. "I guess my brother and I never grew out of our fights. He was quite a guy, though. A real clown."
"Good sense of humor?"
Louis glanced back at Mike and frowned for a half a second. Then he shook his head. "Well, actually, he was a clown. It was his hobby since high school. He did kids' birthday parties, events at the zoo, local store openings, that kind of thing. I always used to hear, `How come you can't be more like your brother the clown?' "
Mike chuckled until he noticed that Louis was staring at him. He wondered if Louis hadn't meant it as a joke.
"You get tired of hearing that kind of thing after a while, you know?" Louis added. "Ah, well, nothing I can do about it now, I guess."
"Do you mind if I ask what happened?" Mike said carefully. He saw Louis's face grow darker and decided he probably shouldn't have pressed him.
"The police ruled it was a suicide," Louis answered. "No note, but his wrists were slit. I don't know, it's sort of too perfectly ironic, isn't it? A clown who commits suicide."
Mike remained stoned-faced, not sure how to react.
"Anyway, his death was sort of a turning point in my life," Louis continued. "I knocked around for a while in various places and I've been in Vegas for the past couple of years," he said. For some reason, this made him stop. He turned back to Mike, studying him hard. "You know, Vegas is a pretty easy place to get along in without getting into too much trouble. Mind if I ask what you did to make them arrest you?"
This time, Mike felt he would probably be okay when he responded with a laugh. "Well, I asked you about your brother so I guess it's only fair," he explained. "I told you things got a little out of hand. It was because we'd been drinking and gambling since early this afternoon. Doing shots, cruising the casinos. Anyway, we started at the north end of the Strip, and were making our way down. We were pretty hammered by the time we got to New York, New York, but it was a bachelor party so we weren't about to stop. You know how all the casinos are connected to each other by moving walkways down there? You can walk through five blocks and five hotels without touching the street. We crossed over to the Excalibur on those walkways to keep drinking and gambling. Then my brother decides he wants to check out the Luxor, so we grab a few more drinks and hop on the next moving walkway. Now, right at the point where you are entering the Luxor, there are these two animatronic camels that welcome you to the casino and wish you luck or whatever. You ever seen them?"
Louis nodded. "Big things, right?"
"Well, they're camel-sized, like something you'd see at an Arabian Disneyland. Anyway, they move their heads around in kind of a jerky, animatronic way and say stuff like, `Welcome to ancient Egypt, where the slots are as loose as Cleopatra's dress and the crap tables as hot as a summer on the Nile,' " Mike said, making his voice deeper for the camels' part. "So there we are, coming down the moving walkway, and we spy those things. We start shouting at them and making fun of them and suddenly my brother says that he wishes someone would just put those camels out of their misery. I'm drunk enough, it's his bachelor party, and the bottom line is, I take it as an invitation. I leap over the handrail and start pummeling those two camels. And I mean pummeling them! Left! Right! Left! People all around us stop and stare. At this point my brother and his friends are on the ground laughing hysterically, which only makes me wail on them some more. It doesn't take long for a couple of security guards to come over and wrestle me to the ground, and before I know it, I'm being handcuffed and put into the back of a cop car. So now I'm here, waiting for my brother to post bail, I guess."
Louis let a smile develop on his lips and nodded at Mike slowly. "Well, like I said, I've been here a few years and I don't think I've ever heard of anyone pummeling the camels at the Luxor before," he offered.
"First time for everything, right?" Mike said. He pushed himself all the way back on the bench and leaned against the brick wall, not unlike Louis was doing. "Hey, Louis, you make it out to L.A. much?"
"Actually, I have been thinking about moving there, a few years down the road maybe."
"Well, let me give you my card..." Mike said, leaning forward again. As he reached for his back pocket he realized that he didn't have his wallet. He frowned. "Uh... the cops have all my stuff. Do you have a pen or anything? I could write it down."
Louis shook his head. "They have all my things, too. Look, don't worry about it--"
"No, I'd feel bad if you came out and couldn't look me up. I'm in the book, I guess, if you can remember my name until then," he said.
"Well, no offense, but it's a long time to remember a name," Louis said.
Reluctantly, Mike nodded. As he thought about what else he might do, he brushed his hand against his breast pocket and realized he'd stuck a couple of cards in there before going out that evening. "Look at that, I've got one after all," he said as he fished a card out and leaned over to hand it to Louis. "I put them in there just in case I met any contacts in the casinos tonight. I'm in commercial real estate and always looking for good leads. I never thought I'd be handing out my cards in jail."
Louis continued to lean against the wall for a few seconds longer, staring at Mike with an oddly self-pleasing expression. Something about it made Mike want to retract the offer, but by the time he fully considered it, Louis had snapped the card out of his hand.
"Good," Mike said, forcing a smile and trying to usher those few unsettling thoughts out of mind. "So I've been going on and on. Why don't I shut up and you can talk for a change? Let's start with what you're in for."
"Punching a clown at Circus Circus in the face."
"Really?" Mike said brightly. "Now that's irony, huh? Here I am for punching the animatronic camels at the Luxor, and you punched a clown at Circus Circus."
Louis stopped and considered this carefully. "Well, there was that and the fact that I stabbed him repeatedly with a steak knife."
Mike smiled as he waited to be let in on the joke. His smile started to fade, however, when Louis's expression remained unchanged.
"The unfortunate thing is that this one lived and also, I suppose, that I got caught," Louis continued. Slowly, he turned toward the ceiling with a faraway look in his eyes. "See, it's not that I have a phobia of clowns. I just hate them. I hate all of them. Must have started with my brother, I guess, although, they weren't able to pin that one on me. I was smart about that one, more in control. Then there was that clown in Kansas City, but he deserved it. I whacked off his head with an axe. A few more clowns here and there through the years, not that I make a hobby of this, and trust me, they always deserve it. I just do it when it needs to be done and so far no one has bothered me about it. Oh, and Mike, I'd certainly like to keep it that way."
Mike slowly felt himself start to slump backward. All the color had drained from his face and he had no doubt now about the veracity of what Louis was telling him.
"I'm just not big on clowns, sort of like you're just not big on camels," Louis said. "It's really is... how did you put it? Ironic? I'm thinking you understand, though. I'm thinking someday you'll find yourself at a zoo or somewhere and there'll be a camel and all of a sudden you'll just start pummeling him, Mike, just like you pummeled the camels in the Luxor. I see that in you, Mike, and that's why I'm telling you all this."
Louis stopped and smiled, still holding Mike's complete attention. Then he raised his right hand and Mike glanced at it, suddenly realizing that Louis still held his business card between his thumb and index finger. The business card, with his home, work, and cell phone numbers on it, not to mention his address. Without it, there was always the hope that Louis wouldn't be able to remember his full name. He even admitted it would be difficult. But the card, Mike thought, well, that changed things. As the true realization of what he'd done came over him, Mike sat up and struggled to remain calm. He began to try to figure out how he might get the card back while Louis gently waved it back and forth in front of him.
Then Louis paused as if reading his mind, and then let go of the card. As it began to float harmlessly downward, they each focused their eyes on its slow motion descent. When it came to a rest on the ground, it lay almost halfway between them.
"Who knows, Mike?" Louis said, looking back up at him. He held Mike's gaze as he leaned forward on his knees, making himself just a few inches closer to the card than Mike. "Maybe you and I have a fine future scheduled together. You pummeling camels and me stabbing clowns."
Mike hesitated for a moment, then broke from Louis's gaze just long enough to gauge exactly how far out of reach the card was for him. Seeing this, Louis flashed a thin smile and sat back upright. He placed his hands on his knees as if deliberately indicating to Mike that he'd given him the edge, and daring him to go for it.
At first Mike thought the call had come from Louis. But he'd been staring at his face the whole time and he clearly hadn't said anything. The voice had come from outside the cell. Out of the corner of his eye, Mike saw there was a cop just outside the bars.
"Mr. Welke, your brother just bailed you out," the cop said. "He's waiting by the station desk. You are free to go." The cop sifted through the ring of keys on his belt until he found the one he was looking for. He unlocked the door open and slid it open. "Lucky for you, Mr. Welke, the Luxor said there was no damage to those camels and so they aren't pressing charges. Just don't go back in there any time soon, understand?"
Mike dared to steal only a quick glance at the cop before returning his full attention to Louis and the business card. Louis remained completely motionless, his hands still on his knees. The business card waited on the ground between them.
"Mr. Welke, did you hear me?" the cop said. "Mr. Welke, you're free to go as long as you don't go back to the Luxor."
Mike's eyes were still fixed on Louis. Slowly, he watched as Louis raised his right hand up by his side and flexed his fingers like a gunslinger, smirking at Mike the whole time.
"Mr. Welke!" the cop said, his voice much louder now. "If you don't look at me and tell me you understand, I'm going to come in there and crack you over the goddamned skull until you do. Do you get it? Do you get it, Mr. Welke?"
Mike whirled around toward the cop. "I get it!" he yelled. In a split second, he turned back again, but it was too late. In the moment it had taken to acknowledge the cop, Louis's hand had shot out and snapped up the business card.
Once he had the card again, Louis took a few moments to read it and then smiled and leaned back against the brick wall. "Thanks for the card, Mike," he said, placing it into his inner breast pocket. "It was good to meet you. Do me a favor and remember not to say anything about what we discussed. When I get out, probably two or three years I'm guessing, I'm planning on giving you a call."
Slowly, Mike dropped his gaze to the ground and turned away from Louis. Without lifting his eyes, he rose from the cell bench and brushed past the cop into the hallway, then stared straight ahead as the cop closed the cell door, not flinching even as Louis's deep laugh began. Mike followed the cop out of the lockup area, the laugh chasing him the whole way. Then again, Mike feared that laugh would be chasing him for a long, long time.
As soon as Mike was out of earshot, Louis became quiet. He took out the business card and looked at it for a moment. Then he tore it up into little pieces that he let fall out of his hand onto the ground. That one was the best story so far, ten times better than any of the ones he'd told to the guys in here before Mike.
They were all idiots, believing every ridiculous lie he could come up with. At least it was making the time pass, Louis thought. And he had no shortage of time. With his wife out of town until Monday, there was no telling how long it would be until his bail was posted.
Louis heard the door to the lockup area open and his ears perked up. As he listened, he could detect two sets of footsteps starting down the hallway toward the holding cell. Right away, he knew one belonged to a uniformed cop and the other was undoubtedly a new victim. Smiling to himself, Louis immediately started coming up with his next story.
Melanie Dixon (email@example.com) Grew up in Hawaii, graduated from Yale, and just recently completed her first novel, Jules' Housmates. Her Web site (www.meldixon.com) contains excerpts and a synopsis of the novel, other short fiction, and links to other e-zines that publish her work.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 9, Number 4 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1999 Melanie Dixon.