At the Carnival

by Curtis Smith

Take your place at the end of the Ferris wheel line. “One ride,” your girlfriend Anna says. “Then we can go.” Truth be told, you don’t like the Ferris wheel, don’t like its height, the butterfly stabbings of being endlessly raised to the stars and then dunked into the carnival’s river of lights. But Anna wants to go, so you say sure, why not, and with a forced smile, you swallow your childish misgivings (because you’re no longer a child, are you?).

A balloon pops at the dart throw booth. A number wheel’s circumference of nails spits out its machine gun rhythm. In a booth’s sawdusty shadows, a knot of soldiers pass a pint bottle, and the carnival lights glimmer in the brown liquid. The wandering, five-piece polka band oom-pahs down the midway, and a gaggle of laughing boys skips along in their horn-tooting, accordion-bending wake. You inch forward, a step-stop pace that secretly infuriates you because over these past three years you’ve grown to hate lines. There are lines at the butcher shop and gasoline station, lines that stretch halfway around the block when there’s a rumor the grocer is about to run out of coffee or sugar. And in less than a week, there will be new lines for you, lines to have your head shaved. To be fitted with green fatigues. To have needles poked into your arms. To be issued a rifle.

“I’m not scared,” you mutter, half to yourself, half out loud. Anna gives you a queer look. “The war,” you explain hastily. “I don’t mind going.” It’s a lie. You know it, and so does she, but you feel better saying the words, and their uttered presence soothes the fears you don’t dare express. Finally, your turn comes. You lead Anna into the bright yellow lights beneath the Ferris wheel. She sits first, then you, and the carriage rocks beneath your weight. A stooped man with blue tattooed arms swings a metal bar over your laps. The wheel groans, and your feet abandon the earth.

Grip the lap bar and try again to find the courage in spoken words that seems to be lacking in your heart: “A couple years ago I saw this movie about the world’s fair,” you say. The next carriage loads. The wheel jerks upward and you stare into the crossing metal arms that hold you in place. A dewy sweat breaks across your back. “They had all these things about what it would be like fifty years from now. Cities with moving sidewalks and cars that could float and everyone has a television. It was like something out of Buck Rogers.” You want to say more, to somehow connect the image of a better world with your leaving, but instead you say nothing.

Another jerk, the carriage lifts higher. The greasy haze from the sausage stand flavors the breeze. The polka band slows its tempo and plays a brassy rendition of “Always.” Anna leans against your shoulder, and your carriage, now at the top of the wheel, sways. Pinprick twinges jab your stomach as you dare yourself to peek over the edge and watch the last passengers loading beneath you. Sit back and close your eyes–

–just that afternoon you and Anna drove into the country and Anna’s soft-soled shoes tapped on the toolbox your father keeps handy in case he needs to tinker with the Buick’s moody engine, and the corn getting taller–waist-high–and turkey vultures circling the deep blue above and closer to earth, bumblebees drifting among the blooming columbines and the car bucking over a rutted tractor road, the hard steering wheel vibrating in your grip until you park in the shade of a willow along a shallow, twisting creek and the two of you lay on the backseat, a picnic blanket spread over the ripped upholstery and until these past few months you’d often wondered what it would be like to hold her so close and feel the length of her body against yours and together, cross the tender border that separates lovers from the rest of the world, and you aren’t any good at English rules or anything that has to do with school but now you wish you were because you’d write it down and remember it all, the softness and sunlight and the farm breeze easing through the opened window and the moist warmth of her skin and when you’re far away, you’d reread the things you’d written and then perhaps, just perhaps, your hands wouldn’t feel so empty–

–With an unsettling moan, the wheel begins to turn, a gear-driven revolution that jars the delicate images from your thoughts. “Isn’t this great?” Anna says. Her blonde hair ripples in the spinning breeze, while below, the stone-faced, tattooed man smokes just beyond the fringe of yellow light. You want the ride to stop, but only a child would scream out to the tattooed man to pull the switch, so you breathe deep and give yourself over to the dwarfing machinery, its monstrous assembly of cogs and gears and surging electrical current, and hope it will be over soon.

Curtis Smith’s short stories have appeared in three anthologies and over two dozen literary journals including American Literary Review, Antietam Review, Greensboro Review, Mid-American Review, Passages North, South Dakota Review, and William and Mary Review.  “At the Carnival” will appear in his upcoming collection of short-short stories In the Jukebox Light (March Street Press).  He is also the author of another collection of short-short stories Placing Ourselves Among the Living(March Street Press) and the novel An Unadorned Life (due out in late spring from Neshui Press).