"You gotta take the job, Samson." Sabina spoke softly but firmly.
Her husband shook his head. "There'll be other offers. A better fit."
"Maybe, maybe not."
As she organized her thoughts, she took a long drag on her cigarette - grateful, as always, that the malformation of her hands didn't prevent her gripping the cigarette holder. Then she said, "You know an' I know that you're the best carny manager in the business. It was the idiots back East that ran Hyde an' Teller into the ground, with their bad decisions about the circuit. If you couldn't save it, no one could.
"But not everyone's gonna realize that. It's a stroke o' luck that Huggins an' Fisk do, an' they're givin' you this great opportunity."
He gazed out the trailer window, toward what would in a few hours be a bustling midway. "I owe a debt o' gratitude to Daily Brothers for takin' us on when they did."
"That's why I mean to stay," she told him. Trying to make it sound like the most natural thing in the world. "I can't leave them in the lurch. But the brothers don't need a manager. They'll never quit runnin' the show themselves. An' you're miserable bein' a dwarf strongman. Don't try to deny it."
"Shit, Sabina, I did it for a dozen years before I became a manager!"
"But you've moved on. Managin' a carnival is the only right job for you now, Samson. You need to be in charge, handlin' the egos an' seein' to it that things run smooth. When you can't do that you're bored out o' your skull."
He groaned. "Damn it. The whole thing could be so easy! If I sign on with Huggins an' Fisk, I'll have the authority to hire an' fire. I let the Murphys go an' hire you in their place, Daily Brothers snaps up the Murphys, an' it's all hunky-dory."
"One o' me wouldn't be a fair trade for five Murphys -"
"Yeah, it would, on account o' your sex appeal."
"Do I still have sex appeal, Samson?"
She wanted to take those words back as soon as she'd said them. But the fact was that his malaise had caused their once-exuberant sex life to dwindle to nothing.
He looked at her, then winced and looked away.
"In any case," she said, "you can't fire the Murphys." That was the crux of the problem. The Murphys were a family act with three young children, all of whom had the same deformities as their parents and Sabina. "Sam an' Effie are scared to move the kids anywhere, even to another carnival, for fear they'll be treated bad."
Samson gave a bitter laugh. "With most places, they'd be right. But the folks here with Daily Brothers are the finest I've ever known. Ain't no one said an unkind word to Lila, have they?"
"I should hope not," Sabina said stiffly.
"Believe me, she wouldn't o' had it easy in the place where I started out. These carnies are the salt o' the earth."
After a long silence, Sabina said, "But you can't uproot the Murphys. They're good folks. It'd be cruel to put them through an ordeal they dread, even if they probably would be okay after a few weeks.
"An' in spite o' that, you still have to take the job. You'll wither away if you can't do the work you love, the work you were born to do."
Samson gave a reluctant nod. "You could come with me," he ventured. "If you don't want to compete with the Murphys, you could come just as my wife. Hell, I can support a wife! I'll make it up to the Dailys by sendin' some other act their way."
"No!" She was surprised by her own vehemence. "I'm proud that I've turned a deformity into an asset, made my own way in the world. I can't tolerate bein' just someone's wife.
"An' besides, I don't think I could take...seein' the Murphys..." Sudden tears stung her eyes.
Samson looked up at her, and she saw pain in his eyes as well. "Yeah, I know. It won't be easy for me either, lookin' at them three kids every day.
"Rememberin' that our three were stillborn."
As soon as she could, Sabina shared the whole sad story with her friend Lila. At their usual meeting place - the clothesline.
"You're just lettin' him walk away from you?" the big woman asked incredulously.
"Correction. I'm makin' him walk away from me."
"You still love him." It was a statement, not a question.
" 'Course I still love him. An' he loves me, in his quirky way." Sabina sighed. "But sometimes love ain't enough. We are who we are. He's miserable here, I'd be miserable there. So our only solution is to split up."
Lila couldn't answer immediately, because she had a clothespin in her mouth. After she'd used it to pin up the far end of one of her sheets, she asked, "Are you gonna get a divorce?"
"We ain't talked about that yet. But I s'pose we will, eventually. The marriage has been dyin' on the vine anyway, with him so unhappy."
Lila shook her head. "Shit. It ain't fair. Hyde an' Teller's goin' belly up was the best thing that's ever happened to me, an' it turns out to be the worst thing for you an' Samson!"
Sabina said wearily, "That's how life goes, I reckon. I'm glad it's been good for you."
"When I think how close I came to shavin' my beard off an' quittin' the carny circuit altogether -" Lila shuddered. "God, what I woulda missed! An' I only signed on with the Dailys 'cause you an' Samson did." After a beat, she said hesitantly, "I was gonna ask you for a favor today. You and Samson. Now it seems like the worst possible time. But then, if he's leavin', it may be the only time -"
Sabina guessed what the favor was. "Hey, ask away! It ain't as if Samson an' me ain't on speakin' terms. If it's what I think, we've already talked about it, an' we'll be honored."
"Really?" Lila was blushing. "You don't think I'm a fool to try again, after so many failures?"
"No, I don't," Sabina said loyally. "I think this decision is as right for you as movin' to Huggins an' Fisk is for Samson."
"So you'll stand up for us?" By now there were tears in Lila's eyes. "Be our matron of honor an' best man?"
" 'Course we will!" And suddenly the two women were hugging, their laundry forgotten.
Five minutes later they'd resumed hanging it on the line. "If you don't have the weddin' before Samson leaves," Sabina assured her friend, "I know he'll come back for it." Then she looked speculatively at the wet frock in her hands, her thoughts already turning to wardrobe. "Are you gonna have a big, dressy ceremony?"
"You bet!" Lila gave a boisterous laugh. "This is an occasion. Charlie Lewis is the great love o' my life. An' even in the carny world, it ain't every day a white gal from Louisiana marries a black man!"
Author's Afterword: A reader who's also read, or does read, my fics "Trinity" and "The Little Man With the Tall Tale" may see more clearly what this AU was meant to represent.