Thursday, March 22, 2018

Tire-kicking



The uncle kicked a rocker panel and dirt poured down. "That dirt's same color as rust," the uncle said, and spat. "Can't tell what's rotting inside." Billy pulled the dipstick out. He squeezed off black oil, then rolled it between thumb and forefinger. He felt no grit. He needed a cigarette. He'd given up smoking a week ago. Billy looked toward the house. The truck's owner was heaving hay over the corral fence and pretending not to look at Billy and his uncle. It was cold, and the Sangre de Cristos looked blue and so close you could touch them, though they were sixty miles away: it was how they looked in dry cold air. The uncle turned toward Billy. "I don't get it," the uncle said. "You can't afford to leave, and now you want to buy this truck you can't afford so you can leave, 'cept you got no money to get off the rez to begin with." Billy, in straightening, banged his head on the raised hood. He rubbed his scalp, then slammed the hood down so hard it bounced. He slammed it again, less hard, and this time the catch took. Both men stood looking down the rust-colored arroyo. In the same instant they turned the collars of their jackets up. "I make it to Denver," Billy said, "I can work construction there. But I'll need a truck." The pickup's owner turned away from the corral. Two heifers swayed toward the hay he'd dumped. The man glanced toward his truck and walked toward the house. "Where I heard that before," the uncle said. "Jobs in the city. Money. Women." He spat. Where his spit hit the ground the dirt changed to the color of dried blood. "You all come back the same. Fucked up. Broke." Billy said nothing. His fingers were growing numb but they were covered in oil and he did not want to slide them in the pocket of his jacket for warmth. The jacket was almost new, he had maxed out his sister's Visa to buy it. "I'll front you half, you stay here," the uncle said. Billy turned back to the pickup, climbed into the driver's seat, and gripped the wheel with both hands. The cab smelled of oil, leather, stale tobacco. It reeked of leaving, to Billy. He would have bought the truck just for the smell.


(with thanks to Superstition Review)  

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Carnies

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Carnies

The people: children, fathers, mothers; moved across the parking field as if possessed by the lights that glowed, dimmed, and glowed again behind the intervening pines. They wore sports clothes and some carried babies. Tom moved with them. He had been coming to the county fair since he could remember but the colors had not been leached out of its attraction as had happened to other parts of childhood he loved. It was not because the fair only came once a year; Christmas happened once a year, yet he had grown tired of Christmas.

He took Jessie’s arm at the crossroads. She shook it off automatically. The cop stopped traffic and they crossed with the others, bought tickets at the gate, Tom holding one arm with studied carelessness over the pocket of his baseball vest so the beercan inside wouldn’t show; then they were walking down a dusty trail toward the midway. The smell of funnel cakes, onions, and Milky Way bars, all fried, made Tom’s stomach feel empty. He looked at Jessie and his awareness that this was the second county fair they had been to together was big in him. It made him feel grown up, committed. Even now, after a year and a half, the curve of her cheekbones still did that thing to him. Her eyes, which were a little tilted and always a third closed, made her look like she had just woken up and was dreaming about something better. Her thinness had not changed, and the way she crossed her arms under her breasts as if she were cold, even in July; and how she bent a little at the knees when she laughed or listened to music, all seemed to mix with the hunger in his stomach but it was not a bad feeling.

He said, “You probably don’t want any of this,” pointing to a chowder and fried clams stand and she shook her head, not looking at him, and said “You go ahead though,” and he said, “No, I’m not hungry,” then wondered what had possessed him to lie.

They passed the farm pens—the smell of cowshit mighty in summer warmth, a loudspeaker announcing something at the paddock—and entered the midway at the closest entrance, where the toddler rides set up. It was early, just after dusk. A lot of families with younger children had been and gone, Tom and Jessie’s age-group mostly would come later, and the carnies had little to do but call to them. “Come on, chief, win a big tiger for your girl.” “Give it a whirl, two bucks a shot, three for five.” Most of the carnies smoked and it seemed to Tom they all moved quicker, more nervously than normal people as they arranged bottles and duck targets or counted change. Maybe the flash of lights, the tinny music played too fast caused them to move that way, he thought. One of them, a thin man with deep smile wrinkles, dyed hair and tats up his arms and neck, was leaning against the side of a rifle-range booth as they walked by. “Come on little lady, bet you a free turn you can beat boyfriend here,” and he pushed himself upright with one of those quick movements, making coins jingle in the little apron they wore to keep the money in. Tom stepped behind Jessie and moved to her other side, putting himself between her and the carnie, taking her arm in his, saying “No thanks,” but not very loud. The carnie laughed. Jessie shrugged, and shook Tom’s arm away again.

Twenty paces on he saw a water-pistol game he remembered from last year, the one where you shot at jungle animals, only the targets were so badly painted that the lions, monkeys, zebras all looked like dogs. It was run by a fat guy who called to them without much conviction while his assistant, or daughter, a gum-chewing black-haired girl not much older than Tom, played with her cellphone. Tom had won an alarm clock here last summer and he slowed almost involuntarily and Jess said “OK” without his even asking, and they both put two dollars down. When three more people had come along, an older couple and a middle-school boy, the fat man collected their money, dumped it in his apron, and rang a buzzer. Tom lined up his pistol the way they did on “Call of Duty” and Jessie held hers the same, left hand cupping right for stability on the recoil. His heart sped up, even though this was just a game, even though the stuff that was not a game was all around them and shading everything and he knew that and hoped it would not affect his aim. The buzzer sounded again, water pissed out of the pistols and he directed his stream at the target, a dog-wildebeest with a bull’s eye painted over its heart. He glanced rightward quickly to see how Jessie was doing, noticing her eyes tilted more than usual as she squinted; it was a mistake, even that one glance caused his stream to waver, only half a second but it was enough. Jessie’s target reached the top before his, just after the kid’s. The boy chose a blue elephant the size of a softball. The couple wandered off, giggling. A mom and two younger kids showed up then. Jessie held onto her pistol and put down two more bucks so he took change out of his pocket and paid too. This time her giraffe got to the top first. The bell rang and the gum-chewing girl, without looking up from her phone, handed Jess a six-inch panda with silver fur. It didn’t look much like a panda, Tom thought, but at least it didn’t look like a dog. Jessie turned toward him, the smile emphasizing her cheekbones; she hugged the silver panda to her breasts, her knees a little bent, and Tom thought then he would love her forever, this thing in his chest that was his love for her must warm him through all the cold and hard times life threw at them and everyone would see that and it would be OK.

The big rides were the next alley over, and when they left the water-pistol game Tom knew he was being pulled that way; he always was. Most high-school kids were, most of them paid the eight tickets it cost to ride the Wipeout, the Tilter-whirl, the Hurricane even. The boys all did the Terminator but a lot of girls would not, and almost no girls rode the Zipper, except for butch ones like Sammie Sabo. But Jess did. Jessie went on every ride at the county fair and he was proud of her for that. Without looking at the other, one of them turned into a dark space separating the water-pistol game from the next, Tom wasn’t sure if it was him or Jessie moved first but whoever stepped that way the other followed like they had the same idea at the same time: around a small and banging generator, over power cables and discarded beer cans, straight into light where the long counterweighted arms of these rides launched you fifty feet into thin air, spun you upside down, whipped you sideways so fast your cheeks sagged; where they glowed within chains of multicolored bulbs, rose slowly then dropped in sickened free-fall, rocketed in capsules full of open-mouthed faces pinned by safety bars, and the blare of electric guitars from speakers three times louder than the screams or music from elsewhere. 


They had emerged near the Zipper. A couple dozen people stood in line for the ride, including Pete Ryan and Shawne Cazeault, who both waved. Tom nodded back. Then he waved because though it was pretty cool to be with Jessie, who was definitely one of the three or four hottest girls in their grade, it was not so cool that he could just nod at Pete Ryan, who was on the varsity basketball squad and was going steady with Kim Lobel, who was friends with Jess. Tom wondered if Kim knew, and if that meant Pete Ryan knew, but Pete was digging in Shawne’s pocket and Shawne was punching him off which seemed pretty lighthearted, so maybe they didn’t. Tom and Jessie walked down the line and when they got to the end looked at each other. “You wanna start with this one?” Tom asked. “Why not?” she said.

They both knew why not: a certain ritual was involved in the county fair, you worked your way up to the biggest rides, partly because the fair was like a story in which it was best to start slow, like they had with the water-pistol game, and then maybe progress to the air-rifle range, and then the Ferris wheel or the Orbiter, unless you were with a date you weren’t too sure about and you waited to do that later, when you could get a cage to yourselves and put your arm around her and see if she’d make out. The power rides came last, when the guys showed off by doing them alone; though if you were lucky enough to date a girl like Jessie who would ride the scary ones you made sure she was on the inside, and that was perfect: for as the ride wound up, spinning the cage faster, centrifugal force would jam her willy-nilly into your arms.

They stood in the Zipper line. The cages filled. One of the carnies closed the entrance gate and climbed down to check the chute through which the arms would swing. He bent to pick up quarters from the dirt. When he climbed back the other carnie pressed a button, a buzzer ripped and the big arms began to move, like a windmill carrying two blades opposite each other and the people in cages at the end. The cages swung ever more quickly in a broad vertical circle and the boys yelled, obscenities mostly. Everyone in the line looked upward, smiling in a shared excitement. Their faces shone red, then yellow, blue, with more or less intensity as the lights on those arms flashed on and off, and one steel arm swung close to earth as the other rose heavenward. A girl was up there, Tom could hear her high-pitched keen increase in volume and see her hair, black and shiny, falling the wrong way for a few seconds as the cage she was in swiveled, swooped low, wooshed in then out of the chute ten feet from their queue. Seeing her hair like that triggered an image of Jessie in his mind, the second time they went all the way, when she was on top (which they hadn’t done before) but bending over him and her hair fell almost the same way, a smooth rippling curtain of coffee brown.

He had forgotten his fear, watching the others. Now it came back the way his thoughts always did, flashing, swooping, bringing more, dragging in images like the porch at Jessie’s house which was the last place he’d seen her parents, when she’d invited him to their Memorial Day barbecue. He remembered how her mother smiled in a way that was not mean exactly but it didn’t do what a smile was supposed to do: what Jessie’s did, opening her face. What Mom’s did too most of the time, though Mom also had the other smile, fixed and tired and locking her back when she was angry or sad, the way it did when his Dad called, or the bank. It would be how she smiled when he told her, if he ever did, what someday he would probably have to tell her anyway.

He wasn’t sure where the next thought came from. The girl upside down in that cage, the memory of Jessie’s body, how soft and delicate she’d seemed; how he worried, after the first time, he might have hurt her. How Mom used to joke about soap operas, and the stuff you could always predict: the politician would sleep with the rich guy’s wife, the sexpot would fall for the scoundrel, the rich guy would shove his wife down the stairs and she would lose the baby.

Jessie was watching the ride, her silver panda pinched in one elbow. When she smiled the freckles she hated, that washed in with summer, shone brightly along her cheeks. Her front teeth just nipped her lower lip and he could tell, by that, she was not as cool about this ride as she made out and this surprised him. She shouldn’t do the Zipper, he thought, the same thing could happen to her as happened to the rich guy’s wife. But his fear took that thought and flipped it somehow so that a spurt of relief, not fear, surged in right afterward.

It would solve everything.

Tom looked back at the ride without seeing it. He was sweating, though the night had cooled. He shrugged off his baseball vest. Its weight on one side reminded him of the beer, which he took out. “Better drink this now,” he said, angling away from the carnies, since alcohol was not permitted at the fair and they weren’t legal anyway. She looked at him. He popped the can and licked foam off its top, thinking that she hadn’t wanted to eat fried food, and she probably wouldn’t drink beer either because it was bad for her and here he was offering her alcohol, standing in line for a ride that was a lot like falling downstairs, for a girl. And he was letting her, though with Jessie you didn’t exactly “let” her or tell her to do anything or she would get mad so it was out of his hands maybe.

She grabbed the can then and, tilting her head back, took a long swig. The words looped in Tom’s head: It’s out of my hands.

The ride slowed, stopped. People climbed out, laughing, dizzy, stumbling sideways through the exit. Tom and Jessie shuffled forward. He wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, but if he didn’t say anything it would still be his fault if it happened this way. It would be like what the rich guy did. He wasn’t hungry anymore. He felt sick and he thought, if I go on that ride now I’ll be one of those wimps who hurls and the slipsteam will make the vomit spew everywhere and the carnies will have to stop the ride and hose it off; he’d seen it happen on the Tilter-whirl. Sean and Pete would laugh their guts out and tell everyone at school. Abruptly he grabbed the beer from Jessie’s hands and she said “Hey!” and bent a little at the knees. “You,” he began, “you just—“ and saw, or heard maybe, doors slamming shut down the long long corridor in front of him that was the rest of his life.

“You shouldn’t,” he said at last.

She straightened.

“What.”

“You know.” He found her eyes. “You just shouldn’t.”

Her gaze was more tilted than ever.

“What, drink beer?”

He shrugged. “No. I mean, yes. And the ride. You know.” He looked around. The couple in front of them was talking but the people behind were silent and probably listening to everything he said. He moved closer to Jessie, spoke lower, almost inaudibly against the blaring pop, the screams that grew and faded with every turn of the nearby rides. “You know why,” he said again.

Her eyes stayed on his, very long and steady. They seemed more tilted than before.

Then she said, “Jesus. You know nothing, Tom. You really know nothing.”

She turned away from him, crossing her arms under her breasts. Her breasts weren’t big but they looked bigger when she crossed her arms that way. The ride slowed. The line advanced. The carnie taking tickets shut the gate six people away from them, and the line came to a halt again. They would be in the next group taken. The other carnie checked the swing-chute. Tom started emptying his jean pockets.

“What are you doing?” Jessie asked.

“I told you,” he said, “last time. You know what the carnies do, they collect the stuff that falls out when you’re upside down, it’s how they make extra money.” He dumped some change, his pocket knife and car keys, the remaining ride tickets in the zip-up breast pocket of his vest. “You should, too,” he said.

Her gaze was still tilted like that. But her mouth had changed shape, it twitched on one side as she took coins and dollar bills out of her pockets and handed them to him. Then she shoved the panda in her jeans, its head sticking above her beltline like a kangaroo baby.

When their turn came they climbed into the first cage. They were last in, two abreast, which meant they would be in front for half the ride, before the Zipper changed direction, and after that they would be riding backwards. One of the carnies, a cigarette pasted to his lower lip, clanged the safety bar down and locked the cage. The edge of his tobacco smoke cut at Tom’s nostrils. The buzzer sounded. Their cage began slowly to move, forward and up, the flashing multicolored lights of the county fair falling away beneath, the sounds of electric guitars and pinball bells and screams from other rides and shouts and laughs all dwindling as well. The sky darkened before them, stars glowed brighter above the shine of fair. Tom found Jessie’s hand and held it as the cage began to spin and soon they were upside down. A boy behind them cursed, they could hear clinking and rattling against the gridwork, but the boy was laughing too as his coins shone briefly in the fairground lights, flipping silver, over and over, as they fell to the ground below.

(first published in Ep;phany Journal, fall 2017)