Doc had been chewing for over a minute and dreaded what came next, but he had to eat. His throat pulsated, pushing the mash up and down against the sides of his esophagus until it finished the long slog into his stomach. He took a breath and his eyes watered as the crisp air swept through his windpipe. He wiped his eyes and checked to see if anyone was staring at him. Breakfast was a gauntlet Doc passed with less confidence every morning. He knew the day his gag reflex returned would be the end of his time on the road.
He typed the same tired Facebook update into his phone. It had been a great run of shows all week, and he would be available for pictures at the Waffle House before his final performance. It received two likes while he waited for anyone to come by. A waitress asked if he wanted anything to go with his banana. Doc told her he was fine, thank you.
Doc fondly recalled fairgrounds dusted with fallen leaves and ticket stubs, but throughout the years those mainstays had given way to discarded Cheeto bags and half-eaten funnel cakes. He chalked it up to a sign of the times as he hoisted his knife kit from the back of his Toyota Tercel. He was saddened by how deeply the trunk pressed into the softness of his stomach as he hauled it across the fairgrounds. It was a fact he had wanted to deny for many years, but the demands of the road put him in front of too many things deep fried and convenient. Doc laid out his knives inside the performance tent and pondered what his days would be like after retirement. He didn’t exactly have a home to go back to where he could plan his next move.
A kid wearing a paint-splattered jacket motioned to Doc from the stage as the audience in attendance gazed in his direction. They reminded Doc of a bunch of cattle in a field somewhere, chewing on cud as the day passed. He began reciting his introductory statement without waiting for any applause. He had long foregone adding anything new to his routine. No jokes were necessary. He’d give the length and dimension of the blade in hand before shoving it down his throat and continuing the process until it was time to cock his head back and safely drive a nail through his nose and down his nasal passage in a grand finale. He coasted through the performance, stealing glances at the vacant, gaping faces in the audience. They gave tepid applause that seemed to grow softer after each blade. It stirred up a memory of the old hand-carved oak sign from his earliest gig, back in the days when they were known as “Curiosity Galleries.” The sign told them to gaze upon a cabinet of splendor and complexity, and they poured into the tent to be shown the extraordinary. The room would be in such awe, so much wonder of Doc’s ability that the only sound anyone would hear was the slow creaking of the sign back and forth. It had been a long time since Doc had heard that kind of quiet. Now the children were bathed in the blue light of their phones and the adults were numbed by hours of never-ending buzzer sounds. Doc eyed the final blade in the bottom of his trunk, his widest and deepest. His world-record sword with its beautiful one hundred and twenty degree curve. He pulled the nail out of his nostril and closed the trunk. The crowd didn’t deserve that sword. They hadn’t for years.
Doc’s phone was running out of power by the time he managed to find his tenth-grade crush on Facebook. He was sitting at the food truck outside the fair grounds, idly seeking her out while he ate. She had the same face but had gone through the wear and tear of giving birth to four children. He enlarged the picture until her chin was cut off and basked in the close-up. Doc pressed his last french fry into a plastic cup full of ranch before shoving it in his mouth. It slid down his throat, leaving a soothing trail that made him forget about the lump it left in his stomach. The phone went dead and it was time to go back to the motel.
It took a few tries to get the Tercel’s engine going. The AC had died in the summer so Doc drove with the windows cracked, even though the temperature was starting to dip. He drove in silence to the Motel 6, wondering if he should take the scenic route to the last fair of the season in Wichita Falls.
It was too early to go to sleep. Doc had made a rule a long time ago that he would never drink by himself in a motel room. He rubbed his throat and took the ice bucket down to the soda machine. The ice maker was out of order, so Doc settled for two packs of Rolos and a Slim Jim. He continued down the hall, feeling the night air pass through his T-shirt. He reached the motel lobby and glanced inside, hoping for a confirmation that he wasn’t entirely alone.
She was hovering near the travel brochures, drinking burnt coffee from a styrofoam cup while she waited for the desk clerk to bring out the continental breakfast whenever 5 a.m. finally rolled around. She wore red and brown striped socks to the tops of her calves, making her legs look like chocolate candy canes. She caught Doc looking at her and shifted away, revealing a webbed tattoo on the soft tuffet of skin between her Adam’s apple and her chin. Doc breathed through his nose nervously and resisted the urge to avert his gaze. His thighs quivered and he weaved back and forth, but Doc figured he had more highway behind him than in front of him. It was a night to be bold. He carried that thought with him as he walked inside and asked if she wanted to join him at the soda machine.
“I was just there, there’s some nice stuff.” It felt like a decent thing to say. Doc worried that his long time on the road made him come off as desperate but it was too late now. Besides, she already said yes.
They sat on his bed eating their finds from the vending machine. Tears welled in Doc’s eyes as he forced the Rolo down without his usual marathon of chewing. He pretended to sneeze so he could wipe his eyes. She could never know. Not so soon. She was working on her Hostess Snowball when she introduced herself as Nell, short for Cornelia.
“How’d you get the name Doc?”
“I was always running around with knives as a kid. Everyone just figured I wanted to be a doctor.” It’s true, they did. And Doc did love playing with knives as a boy, but never to cut into anyone for surgery. The very thought of it nearly brought back his gag reflex. His dreams were found in the juggling, card tricks and graphics on the back of comics showing savages from the Pacific Islands swallowing blades of fire. They became heroes to the boy from the small ranch in backwoods Oregon. He only bled the first time he swallowed a kitchen knife and gagged for just a moment when he swallowed an old sprinkler pipe he found in his father’s shed. He started performing wherever he could and eventually his real life began as an entertainer in Curiosity Galleries. The look on Nell’s face as he revealed himself reminded Doc of how the audiences used to look at him while he performed. He asked if she would like to see him swallow a sword. Her toes curled beneath her striped socks before she said yes, and Doc knew which sword he had to use.
He brushed the thin layer of dust off the sword of swords; the one that put him in the record books. In that way Doc would live forever, but this feat felt more precarious than anything else that had come before. He had never swallowed for a woman. He gave his introduction with a slight flutter in his voice and a flair of showmanship that made Nell lean across the bed in anticipation. She put the Snowball on the bedside ashtray and rested her hands in her palms as she laid on her stomach. Doc’s grip tightened on the hilt. He would have to insert the sword at an angle and feel his way down, adjusting to the curve the deeper he went. His arms ached from holding such a large blade high above his head and he felt out of practice, but he had to go on. Nell kicked her feet back and forth like a child when he made his first adjustment. He felt her excitement as the sword passed through his chest cavity and Doc felt his heart thumping against the blade. The tip had made it to his stomach and his palms were clammy. He arched his back for the sword’s curve. Doc slowly removed his hands and outstretched them to the sides, bearing himself for Nell. He and the blade, flesh and steel, were made one for this night. He only wished he could have seen her past the hilt.He heard the bed creak as she rolled out of it. Doc wanted to turn to her, but he kept his hands out for an embrace. His body quaked. As much as he cherished the moment, he couldn’t take it for much longer. All he heard next was the thrashing of clothes and a thud from his trunk. He finally caught a glimpse of Nell through the changing mirror as she ripped his wallet from his pants pocket and took a pearl-handled dagger from the trunk before leaping over the bed and bounding out the door into the night. Doc stood in the center of his motel room as his heart broke with the sword still inside him. It would be several minutes before he took it out.
Doc pawned the rest of his swords the next morning. He took the pawner’s consignment note and lumbered back to the Tercel. Something stopped him before he began the increasingly long ritual of starting the engine. It was a thought behind a thought, and the only way to get to it was through wistfulness. He thought of the shows he had performed and wondered about all of his skills and joys and late night jokes. They were moments that had gone from being so lush and wild but somehow had brittled and fallen away like autumn leaves. There was a town just beyond Wichita Falls that he drove by every year but never visited. It had a small bridge going over a brook and a main street drag where everyone in town saw each other every day. At least, that was the impression it left in the rearview mirror. It had no fair to speak of and looked like it belonged in the oil paintings of nice little towns that adorned faded walls of old motel rooms. Doc’s throat prickled as he smiled. He got the engine going on the first try.