Hard as a Walnut

     Jacob stared at himself in the mirror. The faucet was running water but he kept his hands by his sides. Shirt off and resting on the sink, his suspenders dangled from the coat hanger on the bathroom door behind him. Running his hand across his cheek, he felt the gray stubble that reminded him of the dust. A bald, strong man with a large mustache walked behind him, twirled his mustache in the mirror, and left the room. Looking into his own eyes, Jacob softened his forehead and lowered his eyebrows. He reached into the sink and splashed water onto his face. He put his sweating, dripping head down into the sink and said a prayer. As he was mumbling, he threw up in the sink. He quickly and aggressively wiped his forearm across his mouth and a massive hand slapped his back.

    “Try to loosen up,” a large and hairy gender-neutral looking individual appeared behind Jacob in the mirror.

    “That’s what my father always used to tell me,” said Jacob.

    “Well, that’s a wise man, your father.”

    “That’s one way to put it.”

    “All I’m sayin’, Jacob, is it’s not so bad after you get a few shows under your belt. Besides, you’re an expert.”

    Except Jacob wasn’t an expert. It was Tuesday, and over the weekend he had been hired by the southern territory’s premier traveling circus. The hiring process went pleasantly well. It exceeded all of his expectations. He found the flyer on Friday, had his interview on Saturday and was hired on Sunday. It was, much to his surprise, easier than even getting a job at the local grocery. He had applied there over seven times just that month and heard nothing back. As if it would have killed Peggy from the down the lane to just put in a good word for him. He knew her father managed the grocery, and the decent thing would have been at least to get Jacob a call back. Money was a growing concern for him. His old job at the shoe shining service was cut short, much like his father’s life, on account of his father’s death. Marty Jam was the owner of Missouri’s own “Father and Son Shoe Shine,” which he started shortly after the birth of his son, Jacob, in 1895. A real tough as nails hooker, Marty practiced catch-as-catch-can wrestling from his teenage years and stayed strong and healthy as an ox through his whole life. Jacob would see his father wake up every morning at exactly six and run for five miles. One story Jacob always told his friends was about the time his dad and old crusty Dudley from across the dirt got into a scuffle. Every morning during Marty’s runs, he would pass crusty old Dudley’s house. Well, Dudley sat on his porch chewing tobacco every morning. The problem of the matter was every time Marty would run past Dudley, he would spit the tobacco off the porch. Now, nobody knows if it was intentional or not, but Marty thought Dudley was spitting right at him. Marty took it as a sign of disrespect. So one day Marty ran by and right on queue Dudley spit some tobacco off the porch. Marty stopped dead in his tracks and said, “Dudley you crusty old prune. I swear on the good lord above if you don’t stop spittin’ your devil juice down at my feet I’m gonna learn ya a thing or two.”

    Well, the next day Marty ran by Dudley’s house and sure enough he spit that tobacco down with such force it could kill a june bug. That’s when Marty said “That’s it. I’m gonna give ya a toe hold harder than a walnut,” and he put such a whippin’ on Dudley that he was never seen on his porch again.

    In recent years many business had taken a hard hit. In 1929, the stock market dropped like a bag of potatoes and sent a shockwave through America, and eventually the rest of the world. Jacob and Marty saw the businesses around them falter and fail. But Marty was a smart southern cookie, and kept his business afloat using sly tactics. He made sure they were the only shoe shine business in town. They were doing better than just about everyone else, but they still were only scraping by. Unfortunately, in the midst of those turbulent times, a kind of time when a son needs his father most, Marty was killed. Coming home from the grocery one day in 1934, Marty was carrying a delicious satchel of apples and got caught in a dustbowl. He was dead. Legends claim his only remains were the ragged skins of a granny smith. Without his father’s business wits, Jacob’s shoe shine stand went out of business. Lacking the warmth of a woman and the money needed to survive, he needed to do something to save himself.

    One day he saw a flyer advertising The Circus, and it also said “Have a special talent? Think you got what it takes to be in The Circus? Come talk to Ted Mustard.” Ted Mustard was the promoter for The Circus. Jacob knew the circus performers, although Godless freaks of nature, made a lot of money. He was a good Christian, but he also knew the value of a dollar, so he put his plan into action. Down at The Circus, he had some casual chat with the horse poop collectors. He heard from them that The Circus was looking for someone to do a program with their African Tigers. Then he set up his fateful meeting with Ted Mustard.

   It was six in the afternoon, an hour before the Saturday night show started and Ted Mustard sat stone faced across from Jacob Jam.

    “Listen, pal. We provide a safe work environment. But at the end of the day, you’re responsible for yourself and we are not liable for any injuries or fatalities that may occur during our presentations,” Ted tilted his head sideways and looked at Jacob, “now, that being said. You seem to know what you’re doing in the animal department. Is that correct?”

    “You hit the nail on the head, Mustard,” Jacob snapped his fingers, “I been training Tigers since I was but five years old. Used to pet ‘em, wash ‘em, clip ‘em, shine ‘em, ride ‘em. You name it. I did it.”

    “Alright, fantastic. Fantastic! You’re gonna work a nice program in between the Strong Man and the Armless Man. We’re gonna get you set up with a uniform and a giant Tiger taming whip. The same one our old Tiger master, Brenton, used to use.”

    “Oh, what happened to him?”

    Ted broke eye contact with Jacob and looked at the floor, “He moved on. But you know what they say, to fly with the eagles sometimes you gotta live with the chipmunks.”

    “Ah ha. Just like my daddy used to say, you can drink the pee but don’t eat the poop.”

    Ted nodded.

    It was Tuesday, and Jacob’s program was starting in twenty minutes. He stood above the vomit in the sink and questioned his recent professional decisions. He wasn’t an expert. It was only then that he really understood he was going to be out in front of thousands of people and trapped with two hungry tigers. Still, he needed the money. After all, it wouldn’t be too hard for him to tame a savage beast. He was the son of Marty “hard as a walnut” Jam. Besides, maybe he would do a great job. The possibilities sprinkled through his head. He could be a star. A famous showman. A smile lifted his drooping face and he firmly grabbed the suspenders off the hanger and got dressed. He put powder to his hands. He smacked them together again and again. He was unaware that there was no use for powder on his hands. Seeing weightlifters do it at the circus made him think it was a standard practice for all carnies. He didn’t share the same intelligence as his late father. Still, he didn’t know, so his confidence was gaining momentum. That night Jacob Jam walked out of the curtains and into the spotlight a determined man. An expert. He was pronounced dead ten minutes later. The doctors at the time suspected he probably died several minutes earlier, but it was hard to tell because the corpse was stuck in the Tiger’s mouth. His remaining body parts were glued back together and used as a regular display for The Circus.

    That was the end of the Jam family. No one really knew Jacob. No one except Marty. Marty was taken by the dust and Jacob was savaged by the tigers. In a way, both were taken by nature. Although the Jam family is gone, they will live on in legend through the stories of Marty’s famous feud with Crusty Old Dudley, and Marty’s fabled and glorious shoe shines. They used to say when he shined your shoe, you could outrun a cheetah.

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