Not so long ago there lived a young man who suffered greatly at the death of his father. The young man, who became known as Red Cap for the old, dusty Marlboro hat he always wore, was loved by all those who lived in Saltlick. They found him a strong, lean young lad, willing to help out neighbors with the simplest request. When anyone needed a hand, Red Cap was there to chop wood, repair broken trailer pins and hitches, rescreen doors and windows, and set or pull or house tobacco. The cap itself was a remnant from the life of his father. Once when the young man was a young boy, he fell off the back of a tobacco wagon as it bounced up a gravel path to the barn. The boy cried and cried, even though he had only been scraped, until his father took the Marlboro cap from his own head and gave it to his son.
One day the young man’s mother reminded him that the annual farm machinery show was going to be held in a nearby city. She told him very clearly, “I need you to take your father’s tractor to the city and sell it so that we can keep food on our table for the year. Be careful and don’t waste all the money while you’re in town.” She also explained to him the dangers of the city, in particular the fact that out-of-towners are preyed upon, for money or otherwise, when they spend too much time there. The young man had dreams of becoming a farmer himself, so at first he was quite disappointed that his mother would ask him to sell the tractor. But, he thought, his father’s smaller, red utility tractor, a tiny International, would still do well on the farm, and the money from the sale of the bigger tractor would help keep him and his mother fed while he practiced what he’d learned about farming from his father.
Red Cap’s father had never asked him to attend the show. His father often went, nearly every fall, but Red Cap typically stayed home with his friends and got into mischief in Saltlick or played out in the field with the family dog. Red Cap had been as far as Burford, twenty miles away and populated with a single stoplight, but he had never been farther. The world beyond seemed mysterious and dangerous, even though he could read about most everything about it from the World Book.
Now, to become the man of the house after his father had passed on, Red Cap needed to go out into the world and do as his mother asked. Red Cap loaded the main tractor into a large box trailer and headed out to the highway and the city beyond.
Once Red Cap reached Louisville, he found it much more disorienting than he expected. He saw a forest of buildings and light poles and signs covered with advertisements. He marveled as he followed the signs for the Annual Farm Machinery Show that led him through sweeping and sloped highway interchanges and along above-ground bridges that loomed over the cityscape. Saltlick had none of these. His home had more grass and trees and dung in an acre than he figured could be found throughout the entire city.
The closer to the highway exit he drew, the taller the buildings grew. Eventually he saw them so packed in that it made him think of neat rows of towering tobacco ready to harvest. This thought actually comforted him. It felt like something familiar in a wilderness of dark, strange things.
Near the fairgrounds, Red Cap took an exit and pulled his truck and load into a grand parking lot. In a sea of trucks and trailers and tractors, he put his palm up to shield his eyes and scanned across the lot. He saw no clear signs to direct him and had no idea where to go next. Did he check in somewhere? Did he wait for someone to approach?
As he was pondering his next path, an attractive young woman stepped out from behind a row of John Deere machines and handed him a small flyer. He glanced briefly enough to only notice a young woman dressed in a bright red cloak on the flyer.
“Hi, honey,” the young woman said. She held a stack of the small flyers, all the same. She wore a fitted pair of denim jeans, cowboy boots, and a yellow tank top.
“Good evening,” said Red Cap. He glanced away from her hands to her face and back quickly. He felt a bit ashamed at talking to her, though he wasn’t quite sure why. “Do you work for the Machinery Show?” he muttered.
“No,” she said. “I work at JT’s, six blocks north on Crittendon.” She pointed at the flyer in Red Cap’s hand, touching her finger to it and softly brushing his thumb as she drew it back. He noticed she had an inviting smile, understanding and alluring. “You should come see me.”
“Well, I’m talking to you right now,” he said, proud at his cleverness.
“You can see more of me there,” she hinted. “Not too much more on account of the city lawyers and council and so forth but more than what you see here.”
“Well, I’m not sure,” Red Cap stammered. He looked her up and down again and realized he didn’t know many women like this from Saltlick. She was fairly smaller than he was used to, and she looked at him differently, like she was hungry and excited that he was around. Women, mainly, and some girls from Saltlick usually invited him to dinner or to stop by the house and talk later. None had ever hinted that he might see more of them or what that meant. Red Cap wasn’t sure what JT’s was and why it was further into the city. “I’m not from Louisville, so I don’t know the area much, and I’m here to sell this tractor anyway.” He gestured at the trailer behind him.
“Honey,” she began again, “it ain’t far, and surely you’d rather look at something other than tractors all night.” She reached for his hands and turned over the flyer in it. Pointing at the back, she said, “Look there and you’ll see easy directions to get down there.” She hugged him, a little awkwardly, and walked on down the lot.
Within the hour, Red Cap sold the tractor, as it was a rare model of that size. The payment, all cash, he tucked deep down in his boot-sock, safe and sound. He considered wandering around and looking at some of the other equipment, but he felt tired and homesick already. He planned to leave quickly when he encountered the young woman in the parking lot again. He noticed this time, from behind, that she had longer hair than he expected, mostly brunette with some blond streaks throughout. She waved at him as she positioned the last of her flyers under the wiper on a nearby Ford pickup.
“Are you coming to see me later?” she asked.
“Maybe,” he said, “are you done here?”
“I’m done,” she said. “Going to JT’s here in just a few. I would offer you a ride, but we aren’t allowed.”
“Ah, I’d have a hard time explaining that story at home anyway,” he said. “Not many people like you where I’m from.” She smiled. “What is your name anyway?” he asked. “So I know who to ask for at the place.”
“I go by Candy,” she said. “But I’m not always sweet to people. I just like it when the farmers come to town.”
“Why is that?”
“Let’s just say they make it worth my while for the whole year,” she answered. It was clear that she didn’t want to explain because she quickly asked again if Red Cap would be visiting her club.
“I might,” he answered. “I probably could.” This seemed affirmation enough, as she hopped excitedly and asked him when he might arrive. He told her was going to head that way immediately, but that he felt like he’d rather walk to get a better sense of what the city was like. Yes, he planned to walk the six blocks, but he figured that was pretty easy compared to getting cattle where you wanted them to go all day and working in corn or soybeans or tobacco. With that, she jumped into her a small sedan and squealed off, flyers all gone, toward the downtown skyscrapers.
Red Cap’s walk was more amazing than he ever expected. Though he had heard, read, or seen pictures of the many types of people in large cities, he had never seen them up close. The sidewalks were full of mysteries. A man pushing a baby carriage filled with soda cans, a woman with a white and tattered wig whispering to everyone who passed, a three-legged dog being led by a one-legged man on a motorized wheelchair, dozens of shirtless black boys walking in small groups, a police officer on a horse, and even three teenage girls zipping by on a single, tiny scooter. It was a wilderness of unfamiliar people and things. Feeling disoriented, Red Cap remembered the small flyer in his pocket and knew the directions would lead him if necessary. However, he needed no such help. Soon he saw for himself the great, glowing sign marking the entrance to JT’s.
He went in. It was darker than Red Cap expected. The lights gave only a muted, bluish glow. A young, nightie-clad woman quickly approached him.
“Hi, honey, you want to get a drink?” she asked.
“I’m looking for someone,” Red Cap answered.
“Well, sweetie, you’re in the right place. There are lots of someones here.” And she was right. Red Cap looked past her and saw dozens of men and a few women gripping bills tightly and finding curious ways to give them to women who were dancing on the stages. He remembered the money from the tractor sale and felt the folded pile deep in his boot and damp with sweat against his ankle.
“I’m looking for Candy,” Red Cap replied.
“She’s over by the bar,” the woman said. She turned to leave, and Red Cap realized that she was wearing a small rabbit tail.
Puzzling over this, Red Cap made his way to the bar where he had been sent. Candy was there, sure enough. She spoke with another man beside her. She had her back to Red Cap, and he noticed that she, along with a rather revealing gray outfit, sported a tail of some sort. It looked wolfish.
As he looked around the establishment, Red Cap slowly understood the reason for the tails. The club was themed, to a degree, around hunting. The walls were the dark cedar of a men’s lodge. The upper areas were adorned with the trophy heads of hunted beasts. The ceiling displayed fake greenery, made up to look like the overhang of a canopy of trees. For Red Cap, who had only read and heard about places of this caliber, the scene was jarring. Yet he could quickly see how the atmosphere excited and invigorated the men, who then freely gave their money. In turn, the women, who freely accepted bills tucked into intimate places, including just beneath their tails, were invigorated by the exchange of money.
What struck Red Cap suddenly is that his father never mentioned such places. Surely such knowledge would have helped Red Cap in the long run, as so many of the farmers he recognized from the show had ended up here.
Unsure of how to act in such a strange space, Red Cap sat at the bar and nervously ordered a glass of water from a young female bartender who wore a brown bikini with what looked like a raccoon tail attached. A song with a consistent beat played in the background, making Red Cap think of the put-put-put of the cornmeal grinder at the county fair near Saltlick. Soon, Candy left the bar with the other man and disappeared into another part of the club. She left through a doorway framed by a skinned and stuffed water moccasin, and Red Cap turned back to his glass, which was now becoming slick with condensation.
While she was gone, several other women approached Red Cap and asked him for a drink, to drink with them, or to come somewhere and sit with them. Each time he refused and repeated that he was there to speak to Candy and that he would wait right there for her. Each woman, after he refused, slinked out into the open space of the room and weaved through and around and against all the other farmers wearing various caps of dozens of colors, and many, Red Cap saw, sat down beside some of the men or sat in their laps, giggling into their ears.
Before long though, Candy returned from her doorway, now alone. She wore a different outfit, even more revealing than the tight gray shirt and bottom she wore before. This time it was a pink bikini with small red cherries all over. The tail was nowhere to be seen now. She grabbed him by the hand without a word and led him from the bar into a small room.
Red Cap felt disoriented by the room, as it had mirrors all along the walls and a long dark leather couch along a whole side. Candy sat him down and asked him how he was doing.
“Good,” Red Cap said, “though I’ve never really been in a place like this.”
“Are you having a good time?” she asked. She began removing her top.
“I think,” Red Cap answered. Her top fell to the floor. He felt frozen, unsure of what to do next. Should he leave? Should he ask her about something, herself? “Did you go to the machinery show today, or were you just outside?” he finally asked.
“I never go in,” she said. “I go down there to pass out flyers for this place.”
“Well, it sure was nice to meet you down there today. This is the first time I’ve ever even been to the machinery show.”
“Oh,” she said. She glided toward him and straddled his lap. “I hope you’re enjoying yourself.”
“Do you not remember me from this afternoon?” Red Cap asked.
“Of course, honey,” she said.
“You were wearing jeans and tank top,” he said. “You changed when you got to work?”
“Yes,” she answered. “I can’t get very comfortable in here wearing that stuff.”
“Why is everyone wearing tails?” Red Cap wondered aloud.
“It is part of the way we work here, club’s rules,” she cooed, “part of our theme here at the club.”
“Why is that?”
“Well, the better to entertain you with,” she giggled. She began to rub her hips hard against him. Red Cap sensed himself growing uncomfortable. Candy’s hip and the undulations of her body matched the pace of the song. Red Cap tried to think of the cornmeal grinder, but it was no use. When she removed her bottoms, he was surprised and confused to notice the tail still attached to her. He thought that surely it was glued on, wasn’t it? His heart beat faster, and he felt both excited and worried. To his relief, or perhaps lack thereof, the song ended and Candy moved off of him and sat beside him on the couch.
“That’s twenty,” she said.
“Twenty what?” Red Cap asked.
“Twenty dollars. That’s one dance. Later there’ll be a two-for-one special and I can come back if you like,” she said smiling. Her teeth, a bright white, unnerved Red Cap a bit.
“What makes you think I have money,” he said.
“All the farmers have money when they come here. If you didn’t want to spend, why did you even come in here? At least you’re getting something good for it!” Candy retorted.
Red Cap, now realizing how people behaved here, finally began to understand. He wondered if his father had come here. He thought about his father’s excitement every year before the show, and he considered that it might not just have been for farm machinery. “I have to go outside,” he said quickly.
“The twenty first,” Candy demanded. Red Cap thought of the fights his mother and father often had over money. He furiously stuck his hand in his boot and sock and wriggled out a bill. That his father’s legacy to the family was a collection of well-worn land and machinery seemed bitterly cruel. He shoved the wadded money into her palm. Red Cap would have purchased feed or fertilizer with it; frustration made him want the money back, but Candy had already slipped away, behind some secret curtains. He stumbled out into the main room, still a bit disoriented. He saw the dozens of men in the club laughing and cackling and eagerly waving money in the air. Some drew out single bills from a large wad of cash, much like his own, and tucked one after another into bikini strings, bra straps, garters, and underneath the rabbit, raccoon, beaver, and wolf tails. Red Cap felt ashamed, as if everyone could see that he felt strange and weird and out-of-place, but at the same time he knew that all the men were clearly focused elsewhere. He realized, though, that he could escape while the others could not.
Another woman with a fake nose sporting whiskers approached him and inquired if he’d like to sit down for another drink. “May I go to the bathroom first?” he asked.
“Of course darlin’. You go and I’ll be right here when you get back,” the woman responded.
Red Cap sped towards the bathroom, beyond it, and out the door into the street. For a moment, panic struck him as he considered the possibility that others in the club had seen him withdraw money from his hiding spot. The money was vital to keep him and his mother in good shape while he became a true farmer. Finding himself out in the street, in the dark, Red Cap swiftly walked back the six blocks, trying to avoid making eye contact with anyone or anything. Before long, he found his truck, locked himself inside, and took a deep breath that brought in the smells of the dirty truck floor, speckled with earth and mud from his home in Saltlick. He felt great relief.
So Red Cap left JT’s and Louisville and headed home to Saltlick and his mother and the still raw absence of his father. Red Cap knew, though, that he was not his father, and the journey to Louisville convinced him of such. However, he did so with a boot sock still strapped with cash, a small legacy from his father that would serve as riches enough while Red Cap made his own way in the world as a farmer and son.
James Leary is currently teaching at Duquesne University and Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is a recent transplant from Louisville, Kentucky where he recently completed his doctorate in Humanities at the University of Louisville. His work has appeared in :lexicon, Eagle’s Flight, The Chaffin Journal, Aurora, Grab-a-Nickel, and Here and There. His literary interests and influences include southern and Appalachian fiction, fairy tales, and magic realism.