“There’s a stall in the new market where they cook just about anything on a stick.” These were the words, spoken by coworkers returning to the office from an early lunch, that drew me from my cubicle and onto the streets one late April afternoon. Everyone has their weaknesses, and mine has always been food.
Anything? I thought. We’ll see about that.
Already a humid heat had settled over Kansas City—a heat that arrived a little earlier every year now. Sweat soaked through my shirt by the time a streetcar arrived. I barely found a place to safely hold onto the exterior of the car when it chimed and darted away, riding the slope down towards the Missouri River carrying myself and a few dozen freshly arrived coastal refugees. I would have thought it impossible, but the air grew more damp and warm as we descended the small hill.
When the streetcar slowed at an intersection, I hopped off two stops ahead of the Market and walked. The over-crowding on the car made me uncomfortable, but mostly I wanted to take my time to stroll past the carts. The influx of coastal refugees brought all kinds of concerns, good and bad, but it’d done wonders for the food cart scene.
The air was heavy with a mix of Creole spices, pan-Asian scents that reminded me of my grandmother’s kitchen, and always that glossy-tongued hint of fry grease. Voices cried out in a variety of regional accents, hawking the standards and more unusual creations. My perpetually stuffy sinuses opened wide to take it in.
The heat, the scents, and my hunger drew me back to the days when I thought I might be a part of it all. I hadn’t grown up dreaming of becoming an accountant; my father “counted beans,” and it was my pre-destined profession according to my conservative parents. I was more interested in the beans, less in the counting. When I turned twelve, I used my birthday money to enroll in a cooking class at a local learning annex, paying extra to have the in-person classes instead of the virtual ones.
Except for one boy my own age, lonely men on the hunt for second wives made up the class. The instructor and sole woman (sadly for my fellow students, happily married) paired me with the other boy for the class exercises.
There’s a lot of time to talk in a kitchen, so we made small talk. In the baking section, small talk turned into serious conversation.
I learned that FEMA had resettled Alberto in KCMO along with his mother and father, an aunt, two sisters, and a brother. When Miami went past the tipping point, they’d lost the family restaurant to the rising water. Here in KC, his parents were busy trying to start a new restaurant, but it was almost impossible for refugees to get a loan.
“Why are you even in this class?” I asked. While the lessons were work for me, Alberto had been in kitchens his whole life. Scrambling eggs or dicing onions was as easy for him as breathing.
“My mother thought I should learn ‘gringo cooking’ to help me find a job,” Alberto had answered with a sly grin.
My skills around a kitchen improved and I learned many useful techniques, but what I took away most was that some people had an innate talent for working with food. Alberto had it. I didn’t. The flames of my interest guttered and died. I ended up in accounting and I lost touch with Alberto. We were both a little shy, and neither one of us took the initiative to build a real friendship outside of the practice kitchen.
I never lost my interest in food, but I’d diverted it into eating it. I adored street food especially. If not for my plans lately of setting out as a freelance accountant and the savings I required to do so safely, I would have eaten at a different stall, cart, or truck every day. The only way I could moderate my spending safely when it came to food carts was to spend nothing at all. I couldn’t deny how happy the sights, sounds, and scents of the carts made me, though.
Part of the appeal was the low-budget vibe. AR-space around the carts was uncluttered with ads demanding permission to display—signage was purely real and often hand-painted. As I walked, one sign adverting particularly tasty-looking Thai burritos tested my resolve for some old-fashioned food-on-a-stick. I held strong and made my way out of the chaos of the cart maze into the cooler, shaded walkways of the old River Market proper.
The center of River Market was a large U-shaped building composed of dozens of permanent food stalls, fruit markets, spice shops, and a museum featuring a dredged-up old riverboat. The shops faced inward, and in the center, rows of sheet metal awnings shaded empty stalls. Farmers from across the three-state region backed in to sell fresh produce during the growing and harvest seasons on the summer weekends.
The Market was a foodie paradise, and I had avoided it for months as a serious threat to my business plans. The lunch crowd didn’t bring the space to anywhere near the capacity it would reach during peak farmer’s market weekends, but from vascular muscle memory, my pulse raced at walking into the space. Avoidance had been so much easier for the past year; the complex had been closed to add two more stories of shops to the U-shaped building. I had done so well, saving. I knew I was taking a risk here, but I’d earned a treat by being so diligent for so long. Just one treat. Back to my packed sack lunches tomorrow, I promised myself.
Fresh new odors wafted down from the upper decks. I took the stairs up and navigated through the heavy lunch crowd until I saw the sign that read simply, in serif letters, STICK. A wooden skewer ran through the word. A line wound out the door and twenty feet down the walkway. I’d found the place.
A man in his mid-twenties like myself, covered in tattoos and piercings and sporting blue hair (unlike myself) worked the register and shouted barker-style to draw the crowd in. It didn’t seem necessary given the size of the line, but his patter was good.
“I have one rule about street food: I must be able to dance with it. You can keep your gyros and tacos; lettuce goes everywhere! No, give me a simple stick—the original food on the go. I tell you, the reason we’re so fat is because we invented utensils. When we started cooking food we had to sit down for, it was all over for the human race.”
The line moved fast and gave me just enough time to puzzle through the menu and make a decision. I decided to go with the Spaghetti on a Stick out of sheer curiosity at how such a concoction was even possible, but the Soup on a Stick was equally tempting.
“Welcome, what can we skewer for you, man?” Up close at the front of the line, I realized who the man behind the counter was: Alberto, thirteen years older than I had last seen him.
The seeming coincidence left me speechless for a moment. “Hey, um, Alberto. Long time no see,” I stammered. “I’ll have the #3.”
He shouted the order into the frenetic kitchen. I touched my chip against the reader and stepped to the side. When he handed me my order in a paper baguette bag, he flicked me an aug-card with his contact details. I reflexively did the same.
“Have you been refining that speech about food on a stick since we were kids?” I asked. This, I realized, was why I had been thinking of Alberto before. During one of our classes, he’d delivered a similar, passionate rant about utensils.
“Hah, maybe. Hey, let’s catch up when I’m not getting my ass slammed at work,” he said with that same sly grin I remembered. “Who’s next? Try the original food-on-the-go with an all-new spin . . .” and so his patter continued.
I stepped away from the throng and gently lifted the wrapper off my lunch. The “stick” appeared to be a thin but surprisingly strong bread-stick, and the “spaghetti” clung around it with a thin marinara sauce by some gastronomic technique I couldn’t identify. I bit into the end carefully. The pasta was cooked perfectly, and the sauce wonderfully tangy, with just the right hint of basil. The center of the bread stick was stuffed with moist hamburger, but probably faux stuff as I’d only paid twelve dollars for the meal.
Do I need to stretch my vocabulary to the limits in telling you how marvelous it tasted? How about this instead: I devoured the entire delicious concoction and shuffled back in line for seconds.
I returned to my workspace fifteen minutes late. My supervisor gave me a disapproving shake of her head, but I didn’t mind. For seventy-five minutes, I’d felt happier than I had in a year.
• • • •
¬Over the next three lunches, I worked my way through Stick’s entire menu. Each time, Alberto promised he’d get in touch soon. “You see how it is,” he said, waving to the ever-growing lines.
I took to watching the kitchen while I ate my meals, tucked around the corner from the counter area. Stick’s preparation methods were, rumor was, a closely guarded secret, but from what I could tell, they were using modified last-generation 3D printers for some of the assembly, which explained how they were able to keep up with demand. They had to be running some serious custom software to build anything as complex as soup or spaghetti on a stick, though.
Friday night, after my fourth visit (I had the capybara dog-on-a-stick), I received a text-only message from Alberto that was just an address in Olathe and the note: “Come see the Circus.” Maps showed it to be a mostly-abandoned industrial park, another victim of urban contraction as people moved in closer and closer to the city center. Gas prices were all over the place and now the suburbs were ghost towns. The cities thrived, at least.
I did a quick balance check; the numbers said I could swing it without putting myself too far behind on my goal, if I pointedly ignored the fact that I’d blown my food budget for the week. I sent a message back, forecasting my arrival in an hour. I pinged for an Uber autocar, and waited out front the four or five minutes for it to arrive.
Traffic heading out of the city and across the river was light; I passed the time trying to dig up fresh information about Alberto on the net. His name didn’t come up very often—once or twice he was interviewed on review shows or blogs about his experiences working for this or that kitchen in dining establishments around town.
The autocar exited the interstate and drove down empty roads, past abandoned condos and boarded up suburban homes. It was surprisingly dark out here—even the streetlights were out in most places. A few windows gleamed here and there—whether due to fringe hold-outs or squatters, I wasn’t sure. Eventually, we turned off onto another, narrower side road that was laden with potholes and bumped past an abandoned parking lot gate.
Past an overgrown row of hedges, then, and I made out the astonishing sight of a small city on wheels. Dozens of food trucks were parked in a pair of concentric circles, tied together by makeshift awnings and banners. Litters of assorted cheap lawn furniture gathered in the open spaces forming impromptu seating areas that bustled with activity. In the center ring, hundreds of trendily dressed people milled about, some swaying to the heavy Reggaetón beat that issued from loudspeakers on some of the trucks.
Above, the sky was alive with micro-drones, brilliant LEDs gleaming on their undersides. Portable floodlights erected on three-story masts cast sharp-edged shadows in every direction. It was an oasis of flavor in a sea of ghostly Applebee’s and nameless steak houses.
I ignored the autocar’s warning about extended wait times for a return trip and stepped out into the early summer air. A light breeze carried a delicious potpourri my way. The odor promised everything that the food carts of downtown did and more.
“Hey, you made it,” Alberto said from under a nearby tree. The purple light on the end of an e-cig dimly illuminated Alberto’s face. He stepped out into the lights and slipped the e-cig into the pockets of his khakis. He wore a t-shirt advertising something called GIFTS FROM CROWES.
“Hey, good to see you,” I pointed to the shirt, and asked hopefully: “What’s that? New restaurant?”
He shrugged. “One of my projects. We were a Counting Crows cover band, but we dressed up as different Russell Crowe characters, like the gladiator one and the crazy mathematician. You know?”
I laughed. “Did you get a lot of gigs?”
He shook his head. “We played three times. There aren’t that many good Counting Crows songs. Anyway! Welcome to the Circus.” He swept his arms wide like a ringmaster.
I’d been avoiding the foodie scene online for months, but still I’d heard rumors about an exclusive pop-up food experiment. I’d half-hoped the rumors wouldn’t turn out to be true, for the sake of my savings. I was already revising my budget for the night upward based on what I’d seen so far.
“I can’t remember the last time I saw so many food trucks in one place,” I said.
“The old gas-powered ones are too expensive to run a real operation out of,” Alberto admitted. “The Circus isn’t about money though. Most of the chefs here have other jobs that pay the bills. The Circus is where we experiment and play with cutting edge cuisine. Really push the limits, sabes?”
I did a quick headcount and some back-of-the-envelope math, nodding. Factoring in standard street food prices, varying depending on vendor popularity, but using elevated material costs based on higher quality restaurant fare, I figured most would be lucky to break-even.
“That’s, yeah, wow,” was all I could muster. I was starting to pick up on a crowd vibe; it reminded me of something like going to a rave crossed with Sunday church service.
“Let’s get a snack in the outer ring and catch up a little,” he suggested.
We stopped at the first truck, which was serving fairly conventional West Coast-style fish tacos, but they were artfully presented and made with shockingly fresh ingredients.
“Good, huh?” Alberto said between bites. I nodded along as he chewed. It was good, but not exceptional, not like the rumors I had heard drifting around.
He asked what I had been up to since our class days, and I told him the short version of things. High school, college at a state school in Missouri, short period of time with a failed startup, and then into the salary-man trenches for Biechmann Accounting. It sounded depressing coming out of my mouth, especially compared to his story.
Alberto had worked his way up the chain of jobs from busboy to sous-chef on the local restaurant scene. He too had done his time in the start-up failure mines, but for three years longer than I had. After each startup failure, Alberto had gone back to work for his “pendejo father” in the family restaurant.
“But fuck that. He’s just so conventional, so bland, you know? He thinks the best food is what he’s been making his whole life. Never wants to try anything new.”
“Stick is pretty fresh,” I said, feeling lame for it.
He shrugged. “Stick is okay, but . . . well, you just wait until the inner ring.” He paused, and his eyes glinted strangely in the floodlights. “It’s been cracking me up all week watching you eat. You can’t control your expression at all when you taste good food, you know? If Stick makes you show your O-face, I think the Circus is going to blow your head off your shoulders!” He laughed and slapped his thigh. I felt my face turn red—was I really that obvious?
“Don’t worry about it,” he said apologetically. “I don’t mean to embarrass you.”
I tried changing the subject. “I can’t get a signal out here for the Net,” I said. “I knew it was bad out here in the sticks, but not like this.”
“The drones are running signal interference,” Alberto explained, pointing overhead. “The Circus isn’t licensed and official. You can take pictures and stuff, but you can’t connect to the Net until after you leave.”
“Okay,” I said, and I felt a little thrill at the illicit nature of it all. Underground food here in Kansas City! And they said nothing interesting ever happened in the Midwest. “I think I’m ready to have my head knocked off or whatever,” I said. “These tacos are good, but I’ve had better in Little Havana.”
Alberto turned serious. “Okay, but first you have to promise me you’re going to stay chill. Not everything you see here is gonna be your cup of soup. We’re talking illegal at best, FDA-banned at worst.” He spat on the ground after saying the initials of the government branch responsible for food and drug legalities. I blinked at that. “But hey, I won’t ask you to try anything I haven’t tried myself, got it?”
Curiosity won out over my unease at the dire warnings. Just what kind of food were they serving out here? “Okay.”
“Good! Let’s head to Wiggle first. Everybody starts at Wiggle. You’ll see why.”
We pushed inward towards the center and got in line at a sleek, white electric truck that looked familiar—I was pretty sure I’d seen it parked outside my office building selling gravy-fries in the past, but its AR-signage was reprogramming from a generic and forgettable French-Canadian name to the word WIGGLE. The individual letters were animated, and when I squinted, I made out that the letters were writhing worms.
“Uh, not sure about this,” I muttered, but if Alberto heard me, he pretended not to have. “Bugs are pretty bland stuff.”
The line cleared and we stood in front of a large-chested blonde woman. She leaned out of the side of the truck through the order window and beamed at my companion.
“Alberto, welcome back! You want the usual?”
“Let’s do two plates of Recharge tonight,” Alberto said. She nodded and ducked back inside the truck. When she returned a moment later, she handed across two medium-sized white Styrofoam containers, and then a second later, two large drink cups with straws.
We sat at one of the dozens of makeshift tables someone had scattered around the parking lot. Alberto grinned, thumb on the tab to open his, and said: “You trust me, right?”
What I wanted to say was, “No, not really, I hardly know you.” What I said was: “Sure.”
He popped the top and revealed completely ordinary-looking pad thai. He laughed at my expression. “What were you expecting?”
“Well, from the sign—”
“Just eat it. I’ll explain in a minute.”
It was exceptionally good pad thai, just the right amount of umami combined with some heat from a type of pepper I didn’t recognize. Warmth radiated out from my middle into my limbs as it hit my stomach. I could honestly say I’d never eaten anything like it.
My stomach continued to feel a bit odd; the drink turned out to be some kind of milkshake, which was fairly tasty but not unusual. It complemented the spice well, and helped cool my palate.
“That was really good,” I said. “But I’m still waiting for the hook.”
“Tape, not hook,” he said mysteriously.
“Modded tapeworms, not hook worms,” Alberto said between bites as he finished off his container. “They should be almost full-size by now. The nutritional slurry in the shake accelerates their development.”
My eyes bugged. “No big deal,” Alberto said. “A little gross. The lombrices consume extra calories from everything else tonight and keep you from getting a foodie gut. Here’s the real ‘hook’—check out your device juice.”
I glanced into the corner of my AR space, and the icon for battery life showed it was receiving a charge.
“Worms in my stomach are wirelessly recharging my gear?” I asked, dumbfounded.
He nodded. “Flash, huh?”
“Gross, but way flash.” Alberto had promised that he’d tried all of this before, and he was still alive (unless, I thought uneasily, that he was some kind of tapeworm zombie and he’d just led me to be colonized by his brethren). “Is everything here like this?”
“The outer ring is good stuff; good, but ordinary. Those guys come to the Circus and make a few bucks off the less adventurous. Everything in the inner circle is a wild ride. Stuff you can’t even imagine until you see it, cabrón.” He glanced around, leaned in close, and whispered: “I’m going to make the inner circle. Soon as I come up with something really special.” He sat upright, threw his garbage into a beat-up can chained to the side of Wiggle. “Come on, let’s see the sights. The whole thing shuts down in a couple hours. Can’t stay in one place too long or the Feds and Slugworths start poking around.”
“You never read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Slugworth was Wonka’s arch-enemy. Always wanted to steal from Wonka. We’ve had corporate spies poking around, trying to steal concepts from us little folk. But we have countermeasures, don’t worry.” The word “countermeasures” was a little ominous, but I said nothing. I had my sights set on whatever the next truck was offering.
Breathe sold complete meals in aerosol containers. The owner was a short, squat man named Stavros who assured me that their meals were the real experience of calories and nutrients, just delivered more rapidly. It wasn’t my cup of tea or Alberto’s.
“Eh, it’s okay I guess,” he said as we walked on. “I’m not sure how they got into the circle with this weak stuff, though. They’d better take it up a notch next time.”
We followed that up with truck with a name written in Asian characters which I couldn’t translate without Net access. “Name literally means ‘Kanji.’ These guys are expert fabbers,” Alberto said. “One of the founders of Stick backs this one too.”
That night they were selling small fried food automatons that could be wound up with something that resembled onion string and then set loose to walk across a table. They looked like crosses between accordions and crabs, and indeed tasted subtly like fish. Alberto and I were both baffled by how they were powered.
At Pleasure and Pain, Alberto convinced me to get the piercer. On the surface, the dish resembled simple escargot. He instructed me in the careful placement in my mouth. I felt an astonishing mixture of very intense flavors, each shift punctuated by startling pain. After I swallowed, Alberto held up a mirror. A shiny bone-like spike had been driven through the center of my tongue.
“Outh,” I said, touching it gingerly.
“Now you look like you belong here,” Alberto said with a laugh. “Don’t worry; it’ll dissolve overnight and your tongue will heal the day after thanks to a cocktail of time-release quick-healing enzymes. Military grade stuff, totally black market.”
“Okay . . .”
Before we could move on to the next offering, Alberto stopped to stare at the crowd. He nudged me and pointed in the direction of a man dressed more formally, like myself. The suit watched through a side window into the kitchen of Kanji, fingers doing the invisible-typewriter dance as he took notes in AR.
“Slugworth,” Alberto hissed. “Come on.”
He pushed through the crowd. The suit turned just in time to take a right hook to the jaw from Alberto, which sent him sprawling onto the cracked pavement.
“We’ve got a Slugworth here!” Alberto shouted, and several well-muscled men in tight black shirts manifested out of the night. They took up struggling limbs of the accused and half-dragged, half-carried the man into the center of the circle. Alberto and I followed.
The omnipresent music shut off and a crowd began to gather, expressions eager, but I felt uneasy. Unsafe. Alberto stepped into the circle and began to address the crowd. So he wasn’t that shy refugee kid anymore. He spoke and his gear amplified his voice through the sound systems around us.
“I hope everyone is having a great time tonight. Are we having a great time?” The crowd cheered. “How about a little show to go with your dinner then? This ugly dude is Sam Carlton. He works for United Edibles.”
The man shook his head vigorously. “I’m not—” The crowd booed loudly. Someone threw an empty beer can at him, and it bounced off his forehead. That seemed to take the fight out of him, and he slumped. “Okay, yeah. You got me.”
“And what does that make him?”
The crowd roared back: “Slugworth!”
“Bring out the Shill Wheel!” Alberto demanded, and the crowd cheered again. A large wheel, like a prop from an old game show, was wheeled out into the circle by security. I squinted to read the labels on it—they said things like “Knuckle Fries” and “Bad Fugu.” I didn’t know what any of it meant. One sliver of the wheel was green and labeled “Go Free.” That one, at least, I could guess at.
“What will it be tonight? Will we get the Fried Knuckles? I know the boys over at Long Pig are close to perfecting their technique. For you noobs, that’s when we cut off the Slugworth’s hand, smoke it, and make him eat it. With his choice of sauce, of course—we’re not animals.”
The crowd laughed. I felt queasy, and for the first time that night I began to regret coming to the Circus. They weren’t really going to do that to the man, were they? I wasn’t sure. The whole scene was reminding me of the playground in elementary school; one kid would do something stupid and the rest turned on him or her. Public shaming ruined my appetite.
“We leave your fate up to the Culinary Gods,” Alberto said. “Spin the Shill Wheel!”
Sobbing now, but unheard over the crowd’s jeers, Sam spun the wheel. Alberto’s voice was replaced over the sound system with a tick-ticking of the arrow against the pegs that stuck from its surface.
The wheel slowed, and things did not look good for Sam; “Sharpen the Blades” didn’t conjure pleasant images.
The wheel slowed at this wedge, and then, at the final possible moment, jumped over to “Set Free.” The crowd groaned and cursed.
“Guess this is your lucky night, Slugworth! Get out of here. If we see you around the Circus again, you won’t get another spin. Chop, chop, fingers straight to the fryer.” The burly men released the spy. He scurried into the crowd, which did not treat him well with their shoves and pushes, but no one stopped his flight.
The crowd broke up and the music returned. Alberto walked towards me with a grin that made my stomach want to turn inside out.
“Worms got you unsettled?” he asked.
“What the fuck was that?” I demanded.
He frowned and took a hesitant step back. It was the first time since seeing him at Stick that I’d caught him off-guard. “Just a little show to entertain folks. I help out with the organizers for now.”
“A show? It looked a lot like mob justice,” I snapped.
Alberto sighed, guided me by my shoulder into the shadows between two trucks. “Listen, the wheel is rigged. We don’t cut people’s hands off. You didn’t really believe it, did you?”
“I don’t know!” I felt my face flushing with embarrassment again. “You hear all kinds of stories about crazy people who work in kitchens.”
“It’s true; kitchens are staffed entirely by psychotics, drug addicts, and ex-cons. Also, I want to sell you some prime real estate in Florida. Please. The Wheel serves a couple of purposes. Entertains the crowd, which is good, but it also puts the fear of God in the Slugworths. Nothing at the Circus is for sale to those factory food pendejos. We might be a bunch of no-good food slingers, but we have some principles.”
I took a deep breath. “I think I’ve had enough of this for one night. Is there a place where I can get some Net access and call for an autocar?”
Just then someone shouted “Feds!” in the distance and people began shouting and running. With startling speed, the food trucks began folding up awnings. Engines hummed to life all around us. A voice over a loudspeaker somewhere behind flashing lights demanded that we “stay where you are.”
“Shit, what do we do?” I shouted over the din. I couldn’t afford bail after splashing so much on food and the autocar.
“Come on. I have my bike.”
Alberto ran, and I followed, over to an electric motorcycle behind one of the abandoned buildings of the complex. It gleamed red and sleek in the starlight.
“How are we going to get past the cops?”
“Bah, those aren’t real cops; they’re FDA goons.” He tossed me a helmet. I fumbled with the straps. “Don’t worry, we scout our sites carefully and plan escape routes. Hop on.”
I’d never ridden a motorcycle before, and it was exactly as exhilarating and terrifying as I’d imagined. The best thing about it was not having to talk to Alberto on the ride; too noisy with the roar of the engine and the wind, and it made me especially nauseous, but that might have been my shame and embarrassment for overreacting to the Slugworth incident.
Alberto followed a half-overgrown side road out the rear of the complex and into the greater city of Olathe, then down side streets and state highways back to the city. When the bike finally rolled to a stop in front of my apartment building, I stumbled off and into the gutter. I vomited up half of what I’d eaten that night; I tried to ignore the writhing, glowing worms in the mix of undigested food; the sight of them only made me wretch harder.
“Hey,” Alberto mumbled. “That was a lot to put on you for the first time at the Circus. It’s just that your enthusiasm reminds me how it used to feel to be really, truly excited.”
I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and shrugged. “Forget it. It was just a little too much excitement for me. My average night involves some VR on the couch and a glass of warm milk.”
“Yeesh,” Alberto said. He looked away for a moment. Then looked back. “I asked you to come see the Circus with an ulterior motive. I don’t even know if I should bring it up now.”
Of course he wanted something. This wasn’t about rekindling an old friendship at all. “Go ahead. Just ask.”
He shook his head. “Nah. Maybe next time. The team’s probably already at our secret headquarters planning the next Circus.”
I surprised myself by saying, “Can I go? Maybe this time I’ll keep the food down.”
“Maybe,” he said with a sly, growing smile. “I’ll message you.” He kicked the bike into gear and sped off into the night without another word.
Once inside my apartment, I felt I could breathe properly again, but my stomach had settled enough that I was starving. Had I gotten out all the energized worms or were a few gnawing away still?
I cooked until dawn; I made omelets, pancakes, and cooked a pair of steaks. I even baked a cake. I ate all of it. It wasn’t until the sun came up that I finally felt something like satisfaction in my stomach. Still, some other part of me was hungry for something. I fell asleep watching an old Bourdain aug-doc and dreamed about a circus with a tamer that lashed his whip at giant pastries instead of lions.
• • • •
After, I forced myself back on my standard meal plan. I stopped eating at the Market. I focused on work and watched the money slowly accumulate in my savings. The satisfaction at seeing the small numbers grow steadily was less than it had been before, but I knew that if I avoided Alberto’s world, the excitement would fade and I’d be back to my boring self. Only . . . was that what I really wanted?
Two weeks passed without a message from Alberto. I assumed that he’d found someone else to pitch his mystery request and forgotten all about me. It was to be another quiet night in for me with a bowl of Szechuan tofu with the VR on.
The heat and eight flights of stairs left me breathless. I slumped on my couch and panted, waiting for the building’s AC to wick away the moisture and, if I was lucky, my mild depression with it. As my breathing calmed, I became aware of a soft tapping somewhere. I climbed to my feet and traced the sound over to the window. What the hell?
I pulled aside the curtains, worried what I would find. I did not expect to see a pigeon. Well—an ordinary pigeon, maybe, but not one made from what appeared to be animate marzipan and cake. Its eyes were little red candies that sparkled in the light. I turned away and looked back, like they do in the movies when they’re not sure what they’re seeing is real. It remained.
It tapped at the window again with its almond beak. It took me ten minutes to figure out the safety locks, but I finally managed to open the window. I brought the pigeon inside, cupped gently in my palms. I found a note tied around its ankle, which simply said “EAT ME.”
I stared at the pigeon. It “stared” back. Finally, I mustered the courage to rip off its head. Near as I could tell, the entire bird was edible, although the inside was more air than breading. The taste was delicate, like rose petals. It only took a few minutes to consume, and I felt a little guilty afterward. I’d expected to find another note with directions to the next Circus. But nothing.
A minute later, as I flopped onto my sofa with a sigh, I realized my arm itched. I rolled up my sleeve. Hives rose up, spelling out coordinates for an address north of the city, across the river. This was even more the middle of nowhere than the last time.
After some digging on the Net, I realized why I found nothing on the map—I was looking on the surface. The next site for the Circus was in Subtropolis.
At one point, Subtropolis had been one of the world’s largest underground storage facilities, but after the last economic downturn, ownership of the 1,100-acre man-made cave system fell into dispute among a dozen creditors of the former owner. Last I had read, which giant corporation owned the caverns was still a subject of million of dollars’ worth of court battles.
A giant, abandoned man-made cave seemed to me like a pretty good place for something like the Circus. Maybe the Feds would be less likely to raid this one.
I took another autocar, which dropped me off on the appropriately named Underground Drive. From there, I just followed the music down a path through some trees and into a tunnel carved into the limestone rock of a hillside. It was large enough to drive semi-trucks into, and probably had been used that way many times.
A cute girl dressed like a comical miner stereotype, suspenders, hat with light on the front, and with a 3D-fabbed foam pickaxe over her shoulder, stopped me at the gate. “You have the look of a slimy Slugworth,” she said, tone not remotely friendly. I realized that I was wearing my usual business casual get up—button-up shirt, jacket. Not Circus attire at all. I hadn’t even stopped to change.
I rolled up my sleeve to show the hives, and when that failed to impress, I said “I’m, uh, friends with Alberto.” She stared for a moment into the middle distance, obviously communicating with someone over AR, then nodded. “Sorry.” She took off her miner’s helmet and fitted it over my head. “This will keep others from hassling you.”
I thanked her and followed the tunnel inside. It turned gradually and opened up into a massive space like a warehouse. The same food trucks were gathered in rearranged-but-similar circles, but the crowd looked like it had doubled in size since the last time. The near brush with the Feds last time must have made the event even more exciting to a certain subset of people. It made my stomach do flips thinking about our near-capture.
Alberto wove his way out of the crowd gathered between Taco Republic and Weiner Wagon. I offered to shake hands, but he hugged me instead.
“I’m impressed; not a lot of accountants would dare to eat a confectionary pigeon. Did you enjoy it? I came up with the idea with help from the gastrogineers at Kanji.”
“How did you even get it up there? It tasted great, of course.”
He smiled mischievously. “It flew there, what do you think? That was nothing, though. Wait until you see what’s in the inner circle this time. Everybody’s upping their games, amigo.”
We skipped the outer ring and went straight for the main show. I passed on a plate at Wiggle—I hadn’t eaten much all day and was confident I could sample everything else I wanted.
Long Pig was offering the usual human flesh, vat-grown, of course, only they had a new, even more outrageous offering of genuine “baby-back” ribs. I couldn’t get over my squeamishness enough to try anything except a little of their blood-based sauces, the O-neg and B-positives. They were exceptional—the B was smoky and mellow, and the O was sharp, acidic, with a citrus aftertaste.
I was especially interested to see what Breathe had come up with. “Genuine scent memory meals,” the owner explained, handing me another one of their trademark inhalers. “Have a whiff.”
I cracked the seal and inhaled the container’s contents. Nostalgia washed through me, and suddenly I was at my grandmother’s dining room table and she was serving me her specialty, a plate of old-fashioned ham and beans. They tasted exactly as I remembered them. I was there, in that moment, until I finished the bowl, and then I returned to the present.
I half-staggered away, thanking them as Alberto giggled and led me onward. “You’re going to love this next one,” he said mysteriously.
The biggest line of the show by far was for Kanji. They were advertising something with a twenty-foot-long animated banner called the “Kaiju Experience.”
While we waited in line, which advanced at a glacial pace, we did our best to make small talk. I wanted to know what his ulterior motive was for asking me out to the Circus, but I was also worried that the real reason would upset me. I resolved to enjoy my time on the inside of something special, and concern myself with reasons later.
After a nearly twenty-minute wait, we made it to the front, where the Kanji people had set up a small trailer with an entrance and exit.
“Pay up front,” the cashier said. The price was nearly triple the next most expensive thing at the Circus, but Alberto assured me it was worth it.
“Reset’s done,” a lanky boy in spattered and stained coveralls said, poking his head out the door.
“I got to sample this one in testing,” Alberto said, waving me in.
The inside of the trailer was dark, but once my eyes adjusted, I realized I was standing over a miniature city under starlight. The tallest buildings reached my shoulder, but most were barely waist-high. I bent to examine the nearest one and saw the interiors were modeled, with tiny gummy people moving about inside.
I pushed gently against the building and it cracked. I took a piece and held it up to my tongue. Gingerbread?
Ahead, tiny sirens began to blare. I took a tentative step forward, and a booming sound effect played in time with my step. Below me, I heard high-pitched screams.
“Gojira!” something cried out from a window. I plucked it and examined it. It squirmed and moved, but near as I could tell, it was completely edible. So I ate it.
Sweet, a little salty. Delicious. I had to have more. A sugar-frenzy came over me; I smashed buildings and grabbed handfuls of the tiny candy people, shoving them into my mouth. I may have even let loose a little roar.
This went on for a minute before the tiny candy tanks rolled out. I smashed and ate a few of those, too. The experience ended when a B-2 bomber dropped a cotton candy a-bomb on me. A delicious, delicate pink cloud filled the room. The lights came up and the boy in coveralls ushered me towards the exit. I chewed my way out, laughing all the way.
“That. Was. Amazing,” I shouted, grabbing Alberto by the shoulder and shaking him. “Can I do it again?”
“Only if you want the diabetes.”
“How in the world do they make any of that work?” I wanted to know the secret behind this more than any other treat.
Alberto nodded to the boy in coveralls. “This is Etienne, the creator. Ask him.”
“Glad you liked it,” Etienne said. “We’ve got these programmable bacteria we grow from probiotics. They can work together in a gel medium to create a kind of skeleton. We’re working on other mediums, though. I think you saw one of my newer experiments earlier tonight.”
“You did the pigeon? That was also great, but I was kind of afraid to eat it. Too realistic. The gummy people are just cartoony enough that I didn’t feel guilty eating them,” I said.
Etienne took out a notebook and jotted something down. “That’s really good feedback, thanks. I better get in and set up the next attack.” He nodded toward Alberto. “Talk to you later, Al.”
“Okay. I don’t think I can eat anything else,” I said. “Why don’t you go ahead and say what do you want to tell me?”
We took a seat nearby the Kaiju Experience and watched the giggling satisfied customers for a while in silence. And just as he was about to explain, two of the black-shirted security guys interrupted him.
“Alberto, we caught another Slugworth snooping,” one said.
Alberto smiled apologetically and stood to follow the guards, and I, in turn, followed him. The guards had an elderly Hispanic man kettled up between them, and the wheel was already rolling out from wherever it was kept.
Alberto stopped short of entering the circle and stared at the man. “Papi?” he whispered.
“That’s your father?” If I squinted, I could see the family resemblance in posture and facial features, but clearly, he got his height from his mother’s side. “What are you going to do?”
Alberto remained frozen for another moment. The crowd was already thirsty for blood, chanting “Shill Wheel, Shill Wheel.” Alberto finally leapt into the spotlights that someone had trained on the makeshift stage. “Sorry for the delay, amigos y amigas. It looks like we’ve caught another filthy Slugworth! This pendejo thought he could get away with smuggling food out of the Circus. What punishment benefits this crime?”
Alberto’s father said something I couldn’t hear over the crowd, but from his gesture he was clearly pleading with Alberto. Alberto avoided looking at him and pasted on a marzipan smile for the crowd.
“All right, you asked for it! Let’s spin the wheel.” Alberto spun the wheel hard, the only signal I could see that really showed how he felt about the situation. Despite Alberto’s assurance that the wheel was rigged, I held my breath.
The arrow stopped briefly on “Prick Piercing,” which I guessed involved something horrible from Pleasure and Pain, but it drifted at the last second to “Marshmallow Madness.”
More volunteers in fake miner costumes walked through the crowd handing out small bags. I took one and looked inside; it looked to contain ordinary marshmallows, white and fluffy, but I knew better than to trust surface appearances at the Circus. For a brief moment, Alberto allowed his distress to play across his face.
Alberto whispered something to his father and then dodged away as a hail of marshmallows rained down on the old man. When they struck, they splattered and became gooey, like room temperature white tar. It wasn’t long before the old man was unrecognizable under a heap of marshmallow goo. Alberto held his hands up and the throwing petered away. “Get him out of here,” Alberto said sharply to security, and they began to drag him off.
I’d had enough. “How could you do that to your own dad?” I demanded.
“He was a Slugworth,” Alberto said, but his gaze was glossy, dazed. “I had to do it, or nobody would have respected me.”
I grabbed him by the arm and dragged him in search of his father. The magic of the Circus had worn off. I was done with all of this. “You have the next minute to explain what the hell you want from me,” I snarled.
“Oh man,” Alberto groaned. “I wanted to talk to you for the same reason my Dad was probably snooping around. The family restaurant’s not doing so well. But the place has a lot of customers. Papi and Mami think it’s just rising costs. I looked at the books, but I couldn’t figure it out. They have this bookkeeper they use from back in Florida, and I think maybe he’s stealing. When I saw your work badge that day, I thought maybe you could take a look for me. They can’t pay you, but I didn’t want to be a charity case, you know?”
“First,” I said, “of course I’ll look at their books for you. You should have asked me sooner. Second, this shit with the wheel has to stop. It’s cruel. Kick out the Slugworths, but stop making a show out of it. It’s not going to chase them away and you’ll all be tempted to get more and more serious until someone gets hurt.”
I went on, really working up a steam of anger now: “For that matter, maybe you shouldn’t be so fucking worried someone is going to steal your ideas? All of you are acting like children.”
“Hey, maybe you just don’t understand—” Alberto began, but I waved my hand sharply and he fell silent again.
“You should take their interest as a compliment. Maybe consider selling some of these concepts, get real licenses, and go legitimate. There are some amazing ideas here, but you’re all just jerking off for each other.”
“It’s more like private sex shows, if you think about it,” Alberto said quietly.
“I don’t give a shit what you call it, honestly,” I said. I took a deep breath. “You need to go help your dad. You can still be mad at him. But he’s your dad.”
For once, it was someone else’s turn to look red-faced. “Okay. Yeah. Come on.”
We caught up with the guards and Alberto had a quiet word with them. They remanded Alberto’s dad into our custody. We led him to an out-of-the-way restroom and cleaned him up. With a little soap and water, the goo cleaned right off, thankfully.
“I think maybe that got a little out of hand,” Alberto said. I nudged him. “Sorry, Papi.”
“No, hijo—I shouldn’t have been snooping around. It’s just that . . . I was hoping to find something to help out with things. Business is getting worse. I’m worried we’re gonna have to close soon.”
“Before you do,” I said, “I’d like to audit your books. I’m an accountant, and I might be able to help.” I knew better than to mention Alberto’s suspicions until I had hard evidence of them.
“Papi, this is my friend Nico. Nico, this is my father.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Señor Gomez,” I said.
“You would do that for us?” He sounded so thankful that it almost broke my heart. “I can’t offer you much in return right now.”
I nodded. “Your son and I know each other from way back, and I owe him. It would be my pleasure.”
“Papi, if you wanted something from the Circus to sell, you should have just asked me,” Alberto said. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t want you to know how bad it’s gotten,” Señor Gomez said. Pride ran in the family.
“I’ll leave you two to talk things through,” I said. “I’ll stop by tomorrow night around closing time and we can look at your books, Señor Gomez?”
They nodded. Alberto gave me a hug and slapped me on the back hard. “Thanks, man.”
“Forget it,” I said with a smile. “Go hash things out.”
I walked back to the Circus. I spent the rest of the night sampling along the fringes and thinking about Alberto’s request. Wondering why I was so disappointed.
I hadn’t wanted to admit it to myself, but I’d been hoping that Alberto would ask me to partner with him on some restaurant idea. Maybe he’d seen some spark of talent in me back in our shared class so many years ago.
Ridiculous, really. I had a little laugh at my own expense, and I decided to drown my sorrow in food.
I used a time-honored technique of finding great food: I got at the back of the longest line I could find. The line wound around a new-looking food truck in the outer ring, obscuring whatever it was they were offering. I didn’t care; whatever it was, I was going to eat two of them.
Just as I reached the front of the line, an argument broke out between some unseen elderly man in the rear of the truck and the teenager manning the till. They were arguing in what sounded to me like Korean. She stormed out of the truck’s side door, tore off an apron, and threw it on the ground. She stalked off into the Circus, ignoring complaints from those still in line. The cook stepped into the window. He smiled apologetically.
“So sorry folks. Unless someone wants to jump in and take orders, I have to close down for the night.” A groan rose up from the line.
“Man, I was really hoping to try that kimchi pizza,” someone behind me muttered. “I heard it’s the balls.”
Talent be damned; sometimes you have to work your way up from the bottom and learn the hard way. I picked up the discarded apron and did my best to tie it on. The line behind me cheered.
“You got a spare hairnet?” I asked.