Nonfiction Slough Night
A Carney’s Life is a hard Life.
All people, places, and events in my novel are, or were, real, and is based on my time when I traveled with my parents in a carnival from the mid 1940’s thru the mid 1950’s. The action takes place in a small carnival on its last night in a small town. Included in the final work will be an ‘Carny to English Dictionary,’
The Merry-go-Round is terrifying. My ears cringe from the screeching calliope and the stench of discarded cigarette butts in stale beer sickens me. My father plops me on a faded paint peeling horse and turns away, disregarding my pleas. The ride jerk-starts up, plunges down, slowly at first, then faster and faster. Something is horribly wrong. The motor is smoking and grinding as the operator frantically pushes and pulls levels, trying to regain control. Large pieces begin flying off the wildly gyrating Carousel as nuts and bolts shower down. I scream-bawl for my father, but he just stands there waving, as the bouncing horse slowly loosens my tiny fingers from the slippery brass pole. . ..
I scream myself awake, drenched in cold sweat, to the roar of a diesel generator parked behind my cramped travel trailer. The exhaust, blasting soot at my window, doesn’t help my throbbing hangover. Stumbling to the bathroom, I choke down a couple of aspirins, trying to get myself together. The running generator means I’m running late. Through bloodshot eyes, I can barely read the note Maggie taped on the cracked mirror saying she and the kids are going grocery shopping. Hope she remembers to pick up a couple of six-packs for tonight.
I rip the cellophane from a new pack of Camels, waiting for the coffee to perk. My match hand trembles as I light up, this morning’s nightmare upsetting me more than usual. It actually happened, sort of. I was four years old when my father, a lifelong carney who operated a couple of hanky-panks with my two brothers, carried me to the carousel, plopped me on a horse, and returned to flash his joints. I rode the first round, scared all the time ’cause it was the first time I rode a moving horse by myself. When the ride slowed, the horse stopped high, and I was too small to reach the pole-step to let myself down. This happened for three rounds, until the horse finished in the down position and I could slide off. I’ve had nightmares ever since, especially when things are going downhill for me.
Which, this year, is this year.
Thirty minutes later, with half a stale sinker and a cup of hot Joe in my queasy belly, I’m ready to face another miserable day. To help things along, I drop a pint of Jack Daniels in my jacket pocket. With rain drumming on the roof and puddling on the warped floor, I exit the trailer into a gray, moody, to-hell-with-everything existence.
I splash across soggy grass to my arcade tent’s back flap, do a fast walk through, and tape out-of-order signs on three of our digger games that won’t power up. Great start, I grumble as I break the whisky seal. Everything I touch today is turning brown and mushy.
The rain slacks and I step outside to gaze upon a motley collection of patched tents, peeling paint, shaky rides, and questionable games. Like Dirty Paul’s Mouse House. Paul has a large flat wheel with twenty-six mouse-sized colored holes on the outside, and one hole in the center. Paul gives the wheel a spin, releases the mouse from the center hole and the mouse scurries into a hole on the wheel’s edge. That color wins. With only five colors to play, you’d think that you have a one in five chance of winning. Dirty Paul, however, has an edge. He takes a quick look to see which color has the least amount of money bet, then rubs a small amount of ammonia on that colored hole as he spins the wheel and before he releases the mouse. Mice are attracted to ammonia. Ain’t nobody gonna get rich or win one of Paul’s prizes, even if they are slum. Paul used to be a ride boy ’till that time he got drunk and smashed two coaster cars into each other, messing up a young girl really bad.
Gazing at the carnival’s dilapidated sign, “Capital City, The Greatest Show in The South,” I flash back to the old days, when we played large dates. Johnny, the show’s owner, ran a tight and honest lot, fence-to-fence, and told all flatties and gaffers to get lost. Now he takes anybody, looks the other way, and spreads everything out to make the show appear larger.
But you do what you gotta when your last gig is the three-day North Georgia Lumpkin County Farm Fest, instead of the two-week Tennessee State Fair.
Mud show still date. Not the best season climax.
The “geeks & freak’s” from the three-in-one head for their afternoon meal at Shorty’s, picking their way around mud puddles, with Dolly leading the way. Dolly’s a vision in her short, pink chiffon dress, oversized matching hair bow, and knee high rose-colored cowgirl boots. A five-foot-three, two hundred and fifty-five-pound vision. Close behind is “Slim Jim, The World’s Tallest Man,” carrying thirty-seven inch, “Timmy Finger, the World’s Smallest Man,” on his shoulders. Timmy’s a good sort, always ready with a quip and turning the rude stares and comments back on the tip.
I wave at the troop and receive a lifted hand in return from Timmy. I’ve often wonder how he’s stood being gawked at for so long. If it was me, I’d left the business long ago.
But, then again, maybe not. I’ve seen shows come and go, good times and bad, but the sawdust got in my blood, and now I’m in too deep to get out. During the off season, I tend to forget the tough times, convincing myself that next summer will be better. So, I return each year, one of the mysterious, always scary, collection of misfits, odd balls, and loners they call carneys.
My feet feel wet and I look down at a sheet of water running through my tent. Last night I help spread five truckloads of wood chips over the midway in a futile effort to keep the lot dry. I share a fifth of Old Crow with the truck driver and a couple of roughies as we watch the cold September rain quickly turn the shavings into soggy flakes and transform the brick-hard Georgia clay into a quagmire of sticky, red mud. So now, well past noon and still fighting my hangover, I start a drainage trench that I should’ve dug last night instead of getting soused. I grumble-curse each mind-numbing shovelful of oozing sludge that sticks to my shovel, my tent, and me. I cold shower because the water heater’s on the fritz again, change clothes, and gulp another cup of strong, black coffee, that finally, with a little help from my friend Jack Daniels, scrubs the fuzz from my tongue.
Maggie and the kids return from the grocery just as I finished flashing our joint, empty-handed, and soaked. The owner won’t extend any more credit. So far, the day is perfectly normal. Lousy and getting worse. Maggie heads to the trailer to warm up and change into something dry as I stare angrily at the opaque sky and silently curse the rain that washes the very living from our lives. I chain-light a Camel from my last smoke and flick the glowing stub toward the nearest puddle. Taking a deep drag, I casually glance around, rip a slug, and drop the half-empty pint back in my change apron.
I see movement down the midway and feel a momentary surge of hope, but it’s only the roughies dropping cars off the Ferris wheel. No reprieve. The season’s done.
And so am I, maybe for good this time. Johnny hurries by in his black slicker and rubber boots, not looking my way, ’cause he knows I’ve had a bad year and I still owe him for two setups. I see him stop and talk to Phyllis, his big knocker wife who runs the gate, then heads back of my setup. Phyllis is the best polish board short-changer I know. I’ve watched her give change for a fiver, and count the same quarter four times by sliding it up with her thumb and kicking it back with her little finger. Maybe her flaming red hair, deep V-cut blouses and size double-D cup has something to do with it, but the guys never look at their change. Me, I use the palm-push and always keep a fist full of dollars in my left hand, so if my mark starts counting his coins, I can tell him ‘we’re short of change, so you gotta take a bill.’
The generator goes silent, plunging the midway into a twilight of soggy misery, leaving only a dim yellow glow seeping from scattered trailers. The only two bright spots on the lot are Shorty’s cookhouse and that Kootch show next door. Don’t have to guess how they got their power hooked up. Shorty’s pretty resourceful; I guess that he somehow tapped into the fairgrounds electric.
Everyone expected Johnny to call it, so, soon as the sign goes dark, roughies, ragbags, and gillies slosh wearily toward Shorty’s. No ones in a hurry. On the last day, everybody unwinds and gets a good, long, nights sleep. Tomorrow we tear down, fling all the tents and equipment in the trucks, and head for home. Time enough during the long, dark, winter for cleaning and mending. Not ’till spring will we drive all night, set up in the dark, snatch a couple of hours sleep before opening, and then repeat the routine in a few days. It’s no wonder that the majority of carnies live on cigarettes, coffee, and whisky.
I’m thinking about joining the growing crowd at Shorty’s, when I see Apple struggling with the flaps on his ride, a two-wide carrousel, and call my son.
“Greg, turn ’em off and go help Apple.”
Greg’s dozing in his chair and I gotta yell again before he grudgingly staggers to his feet, shuts off the power to our games, and shuffles down the midway. I chug a few while I watch Greg and old one-arm Apple unfold and tie off the canvas drops.
I reach for another smoke and mumble a short curse when all I find is an empty pack.
I turn to see a soaking wet young girl clutching a suitcase, her dirty blond hair in long tangled mats.
“We’re closed, honey. Get your money back and go home.”
“I need a job.”
“Take a look around. See the crowds?”
“Please.” Her trembling voice echoed her frail, petite, body. “I’ll do anything.”
Her eyes hold that desperate trapped rabbit look, and not all the streaks on her face were from the rain. She shivered and tried to blink back tears. Fifteen, maybe sixteen.
“Come on in and suck up a cup of bad coffee. It’ll warm you up some. LUCY,” I shouted into the dark tent. “Grab a dry blanket.” My sixteen-going-on-twenty-year-old daughter ran out back to our trailer, jumping puddles. I frown, seeing that she’s wearing her too short skirt and too tight blouse again. Good thing it’s slough night, so I can finally get her away from Cathy, one of those Blue Flame hookers.
I pour black liquid from the ever-steaming pot into a couple of mostly clean mugs, splash a shot of whiskey in mine, and place hers on the least grimy space on my desk.
“Pull up a chair. What’s your name, honey?” I sat gently on my old armless under-stuffed chair, hoping the back leg wouldn’t collapse. Again.
Small, quiet, apologetic. Someone like her has no business being by herself, much less alone in this place.
She sat uneasily on the edge of a rusty folding chair beside my cigarette scarred and whiskey stained desk, and gulped a quarter cup of hot, black, coffee, cradling it in her shaky hands.
Maggie hurries in wiping the mist from her face, sees Sandy, and raises her eyebrows in question.
“Maggie, Sandy. Sandy, my wife Maggie. Sandy wants to run away and join the circus.”
Maggie snorted, draped a blanket around Sandy’s shoulders, and unfolded a chair. “Let me give you a hint, sweetie, it ain’t as glamorous as it looks.” Maggie laughed loudly, sweeping her arm to indicate the shabby, leaky tent and eyed Sandy closely. “Three months?” Sandy nodded, staring into her cup.
Damn. Missed that. I glance at Sandy’s mid-section, finally noticing the slight bulge.
Maggie sighed and shook her head. “Let me guess. Daddy a local football hero or spoiled rich kid?”
“Bobby plays Basketball. But he promised me that everything would be all right, that he would take care of me.” Sandy’s lower lip began quivering. “Then I found out that what he meant was that he wanted me to have an abortion. He said that he knew this doctor who was really good, and who had helped him out like this a couple of times before. But I told him I couldn’t… I just couldn’t….” She broke down and rested her arms and head on the desk, her fragile body racked by sobs.
Lucy returned and propped herself against one of the games, and I figured that her hearing this could be a good thing for my mini-skirted-wanna-be-Kootch-dancer-daughter. Leaning back in my chair, I suck up a large slurp of ‘rainy day cure-all’ and let Maggie do the talking.
“Running away don’t solve anything, sweetie,” Maggie responded soothingly. “It ain’t gonna get any better.”
Sandy sat up and wiped her eyes. “You don’t know what it’s like,” she said, sniffling. “People staring and pointing, nobody wants to be seen near me. Everybody stops talking when I enter a room, then they start whispering.”
Maggie glanced at Lucy, then me. I shrugged. Lucy had to know sometime. Maggie took a deep breath and continued.
“I do know what it’s like. Your life’s forever changed, and if you don’t face up to that, you’re just gonna make it worse. I was seventeen when I ran off with Randy here ’cause I was pregnant with my Lucy, and I didn’t have the guts to ignore my so-called friends and listen to my parents.”
I hear Lucy gasp as I fish in my desk for another pack of smokes.
Sandy turned to Maggie. “Bobby told me that in no way will he ruin his life because of my stupid screw-up. But you live with the man you love, so everything turned out all right for you.”
Maggie’s body slumps as she quietly answers, “No, Hon, it didn’t. There ain’t a day goes by that I don’t regret that I didn’t stay with my folks and tough it out.”
Maggie’s answer stuns me. I just struck a match and I stare at Maggie, frozen, not wanting to believe what I thought I heard. The flame reaches my fingers and I scream a curse, shattering the suffocating tension filling the tent.
For a few seconds no one moves. Then Lucy, with a loud moan, turns, running for the trailer.
Sandy watches Lucy disappear, then, confused, looks at Maggie and me, not fully understanding what just happened. The awkward silence stretches until Sandy quickly stands, dropping the blanket on her chair.
“Well.” She glances around, nervously. “Well. Guess I got a bus to catch.”Â Sandy, looking as though she expects a hug, takes a small step toward Maggie.
Maggie doesn’t move.
“Well,” Sandy repeated. “Thanks for the. . ..” Her voice cracks as she grabs her suitcase and runs from the tent, escorted by a far-off rumble of thunder.
I stare at Maggie, actually seeing her for the first time in years. My heart sinks as I take in the tangled, stringy hair, the pale, drawn face, and, worst of all, the look of absolute hopelessness in her lifeless brown eyes.
“Maggie,” I began hoarsely, “Maggie, you didn’t really mean… I mean, that was just talk, wasn’t it, what you said to that girl?”
Maggie sat for an eternal minute staring at the dirt under her grimy fingernails. Then, without speaking, she stands and slowly walks to the trailer, so used up she doesn’t even flinch as the cold rain soaks her tattered dress.
I sit in the dark behind my memory-scarred desk, chain-smoking, and chugging Jack Daniels, my stomach churning cold lead. A snap-flash, followed by a blast of thunder, and the shower becomes a deluge, drowning my soul in a flood of despair.
A carnies’ life is a hard life.
But it ain’t supposed to be this hard.
– End Chapter One –