He told me his real name when he walked up to my tent for the first time, but I never remembered it. He wanted everyone to call him by his carny name: Mr. Blockhead. His head did look like a block. Something had happened to it. I didn't ask, and he didn't say.
Which was strange because he was happy to talk about his other quirks. Like his teeth, which were little chips. They barely poked out of his gums. "I wore them down eating glass and lightbulbs," he said in a high-pitched nasal voice. He also told me why he walked with a limp: "Broke my spine when the beam from a Ferris wheel I was puttin' together broke loose and swung into me." Mr. Blockhead looked about 40 years old, and his hair grew out in patchy tufts. He had deep wrinkles on his face from years of working in the sun.
I was 17 years old. My friend's grandfather, who everyone called Pop, owned the carnival, which traveled around agricultural towns in Colorado and Wyoming. Pop hired Mr. Blockhead on the spot because he needed somebody to run the dime toss. The other dime toss operator was an alcoholic and rarely showed up for work. Pop offered Mr. Blockhead the same pay everyone else got: one-third of the money you collected, minus the cost of the prizes people won. I often cleared over $100 on a busy weekend night. That was good money in 1978.
Pop and everyone else in the carnival treated Mr. Blockhead like dirt, even though he never complained and was always cheerful. Pop's wife would yell at him to fetch stuff from the trailer and yell at him some more when he didn't limp fast enough. I felt sorry for him.
The coin toss tent was about twenty feet away from my basketball toss tent. I'd hear his whiny voice as he tried to lure people to his tent. He used all sorts of carny jargon when he talked to the other carnival employees.
Mr. Blockhead disappeared while we were in Leadville, Colorado for a week. He just stopped showing up for work. A couple of days later, I saw a hand-written note posted in a biker bar window on Harrison Avenue: "MR BLOCKHEAD. FIRE AND GLASS EATING." I went into the bar and asked the bartender about it. Before she had the chance to tell me, a skinny guy with long hair, wireframe glasses, and a droopy mustache sitting on a stool at the bar, drinking a bottle of beer at 10 in the morning, told me that Mr. Blockhead had performed in the bar a few nights earlier, and the crowd had turned on him. They'd stripped him naked and threw him into the street. Mr. Blockhead ran down Harrison Avenue, covering his crotch with his hands.
The biker pointed to a stuffed moose head mounted on the wall. It had a pair of underwear hanging from its antlers. "Those are his," he said. He laughed, showing long yellow teeth. "He was one strange motherfucker."
[From The Magnet, image by my daughter Sarina]