The Humble Derby
Ryan Everett Felton
Tammy Reuben’s cowboy hat was too big for her head, but to her mind this had a slimming effect and so she kept it on – although it impeded her vision while exploring the fairgrounds. Half-blinded, she bumped into a dozen folks on her way to the event tents. So friendly were the denizens of Humble that both parties apologized in each instance, usually to the point of profusion.
“‘Scuse me. Sorry!” she said, knocking a man’s plate of funnel cake out of his hand. He echoed her sentiment, but by then she was pushing through the ensuing powdered sugar cloud. She crossed into a large candy-striped tent and edged her way to the front of a small mob. It was hot, a scorching Texas summer morning, and none present could deny their contribution to the stink of the tent interior. Waist-high metal fencing cordoned off the center of the space, where a wooden mini-maze had been erected. Above this set-up flapped a banner with the spray-painted message:
13th ANNUAL HUMBLE DERBY
Tammy produced her camera and began snapping photos of the crowd, the racetrack, the fiddlers over in the corner. An older woman pointed at Tammy’s press badge and said, “Ooh, you’re with the paper?”
Viewfinder to her eye, Tammy said, “They don’t pay me or nothin’. Print my name under the pictures if they use ’em, though.”
“Well, I think it’s wonderful,” said the woman, and both ladies smiled.
Soon the contestants began to file in, announced by a man in a bolo tie, with their little armored ones in tow: housecat-sized nine-bandeds squirming in their owners’ grip. Lukewarm applause continued within the tent until at last, the final entrant made his way onto the ramshackle stage.
“Ladies an’ germs,” said the announcer, “please give a warm Humble welcome to our reigning victor, six time cham-peen Rocky Dillo, and his owner, Mr. Rusty Nermin!”
Sturdy, stocky Rusty entered with gusto, mugging for the crowd in his untucked Oxford shirt, flipping his red ponytail and holding Rocky the armadillo heavenward. Tammy read the man’s love of bombast written across his wide smile. To her pleasant surprise, her pulse quickened at the sight of him. She zoomed in on his face and snapped away.
Introductions expended, the race began in earnest after a heart-stopping shot rang out from the announcer’s pistol (the sole reason the otherwise family-friendly Humble Derby was not a recommended event for children or pregnant women). Nine competitors of various ages chased and nudged their armadillos through the winding maze amid the frenzied hoots and hollers of spectators. The fiddlers started in with a flimsy rendition of “Polly-Wolly-Doodle” and the crowd stamped their feet to the beat, such as it was.
All the while, Rusty stood aside, arms crossed in nonchalance, simply observing. Rocky – identifiable by his Lone Star bandana – wound his way through the maze, past his opponents as if bred for the purpose of finding his way to the end of this precise obstacle course. The race lasted five minutes, four of which held the audience’s attention, and ended with Rocky reaching the finish line (and Tupperware full of earthworms) first. The crowd perked up, the fiddlers shifted to “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” and Rusty scooped up his ‘dillo and took his assumed place at the announcer’s side.
“Our winner,” said the man with the microphone, “and still reigning cham-pee-own, Rocky Dillo!”
Rusty Nermin accepted his seventh consecutive medal with rote instinct and waved to the people before exiting stage left with Rocky in his arms.
Tammy’s pointer finger throbbed, victim to her own photographic enthusiasm. She snapped the lens cap on her camera and let it dangle by the neck strap.
The old woman at her side said, “That Rusty Nermin. Handsome fella, idn’t he?”
“I dunno. I guess,” said Tammy, but there was no hiding the stupid grin plastered upon her lips.
Rusty Nermin was signing autographs in the parking lot when Tammy came upon him. He’d even dip Rocky’s claw into an inkpad and press it on the paper, to the delight of many.
Tammy straightened her hat, undid the top button on her blouse, and cut in line, flashing her press badge.
Rusty ran his eyes from her boots to her hat. “Well, ain’t you a tall drink of water on a hot August afternoon?” he said. Rocky grunted, tucked under the man’s arm. “Who do I make this out to?” he said, clicking his pen.
“It’s Tammy,” she said, uncapping her camera. “But actually, Mr. Nermin, um, I was wondering if I could just, uh, get a picture for the paper?”
Rusty flipped his ponytail – became, for an instant, a Western beer-gutted Fabio. “Never could say ‘no’ to a pretty lady,” he said and winked. Tammy giggled but stopped herself quickly enough to save face.
“Step into my office,” he said, jerking his head toward a nearby U-Haul. The pair trotted past dejected fans, and Rusty lifted the back door of the truck. He hopped in, waving Tammy clearance to follow; she did, only to find herself in a dung-scented mobile armadillo farm. Dozens of the critters snuffled about, glancing at her with half-hearted interest.
Rusty shut the gate, lit a battery-powered lamp, and peeled Rocky’s bandana off before setting him down to join the others. The armadillo was immediately lost in the fold, indistinguishable from his brethren.
“Welcome to Chateau Nermin,” said Rusty. “Hell on wheels, in other words.” He wiggled his eyebrows at Tammy, who held her hand to her chin in girlish reply.
“What are all these for?” she said, indicating the creatures sniffing at her feet. “You a breeder?”
“Nah,” said Rusty, lowering onto a crate. “Pick ’em up on the side of the road, mostly.”
“What are their names?” Tammy forgot her supposed purpose in coming here, her camera hanging useless at her hip.
“Well, let’s see,” said Rusty, pointing at the animals one by one. “That’s Rocky there. That one’s Rocky, there’s Rocky, and, ohh, that little guy over there? That’s Rocky.”
Tammy scrunched up her nose. “I don’t understand,” she said.
“There ain’t one Rocky Dillo,” said Rusty. “How could there be? First Humble Derby I entered, that Rocky, he died four years ago. They’re all the same, ‘dillos. Blow a little itching powder on their nethers and they’ll shoot off like a bat outta Hell!”
Confirmation in the form of a box of Borax sat on another crate in the far corner of the storage unit. Tammy squatted and scratched the closest varmint behind the ears.
“But everybody thinks you and Rocky are champions,” she said. “You’re tellin’ me the Derby’s rigged?”
“Every year,” said Rusty. “Nobody knows except me, these armadillos, and now you.” He stood up, clasped her wrists. “You ain’t gonna write an exposé on me, are you?”
Tammy let him draw her closer. “Oh, I’m no writer,” she said. “No photographer, neither, so long as we’re comin’ clean with each other.” There was a glimmer in the man’s eye, a malevolent twinkle that held her gaze. She’d never fraternized with an outlaw before; Mother hadn’t allowed it, and anyway there’d never been any outlaws around to fraternize with. The thrill she felt, the chill that came over her there in that musky U-Haul, was unlike any sensation she’d ever known.
“I should tell on you, mister,” she said into Rusty’s neck.
“You ain’t gonna.”
“No. Guess I’m not.”
Rusty Nermin kissed her then – maybe out of passion, maybe just in case she was planning to blab anyway. Either way, they were both silenced, save for the intermittent, sloppy smacking of their eager mouths.
When it stopped, Tammy stole another drawn-out gaze into the man’s eyes. “Wait,” she said. “Why?”
“Why even bother? It’s not like the Humble Derby gives out a cash prize.”
“No,” said Rusty. “But you’re a heckuva consolation, sweetheart.”
What happened next was more or less straight out of the movies, the ones Tammy tried to avoid because they made her blush. Needless to say, the storage truck took to rocking suspiciously in the Humble Fairgrounds parking lot. Needless to say, the next fifteen minutes were an uncomfortable quarter-hour for the imprisoned menagerie of armadillos trapped within.
And that is how Rusty and Tammy Nermin (neé Reuben) fell in love. At the wedding, a few months later, Rocky Dillo bore the distinct honor of bearing the rings on a pillow strapped to his plated back.
Or one Rocky did, anyway.