I drove by a sleeping carnival early one morning, watched the sun rise and bathe it in mood. Finally loneliness had perfect images. Silent. Abandoned. Eeerie. I walked around in complete anonymity taking pictures. No security, no maintenance workers. Just me, alone, fingering fish bowls, leatherette seats, blinking lights on ticket booths, and staring at myself in the fun house mirror. Big rig cabs were lined up with curtains drawn as I imagined snoring carnies and their life on the road. If any one of them had been awake, I might have stumbled across an interview...some fodder for a story. As it was, the story found me anyway.
He was nothing more than a pipsqueak, scruffy hair plastered down with Brylcreem to please Momma in the mornings, but flying free by noon, which pleased him just fine. In first grade you learn to read. You learn a lot of things that get etched in your marrow. Sometimes they turn to cancer, and sometimes they don't. The flier next to the water fountain said "Carnival". He KNEW what carnival was. He felt it rub up against his shin in good and bad ways, a cat with sharp claws. He scratched his chin with the back of his nails as if he had stubble, a gesture he would come to repeat so often it was like a tic. Casting a furtive glance at the empty play yard, he tore the flier off it's nail and shoved it in the back pocket of his jeans, depository of such treasures as coins, rocks, and broken toys that it had never seemed right to abandon.
With measured steps he ambled home, smoothed the leaflet out as best he could and placed it under his mattress, figuring to ask his teacher to point out July 4 on the calendar. Making his way into the kitchen he opened a can of beans for dinner...pots and spoons rattling around the empty house as if for company. He was grateful for the noise.
One year earlier, as now, he had no curfew except to eventually show up, as if that were indication enough all was well. It was not. Holes had been forming where tendernesses should have been, and scabs across the backs of little hands that should have been held within bigger ones. He was hungry in ways that would never be satisfied. He knew it already, at the tender age of six, though having no words for the ache. Having spent the night darting among tents, staring mesmerized at the red and green lights dancing across the water of the little boat ride, and collecting tickets dropped by the throngs of the attendees, he was the last one standing. It was Carnival. It was dark. He was alone, and he'd never felt lonelier.
Soiled leaflets stuttered across the pavement and one forgotten fish swam lazily in an eternal arc around a bowl with a ping pong sized mouth. He turned towards it. He didn't like being forgotten and imagined the fish liked it less. But his ears lurched in another direction and his eyes did a slow uneasy roll towards the sound. Music coming in bursts and sputters, the kind that came from Grandma's music box when the ballerina was about to stop. He liked the country tunes that sometimes played on the radio when his parents were home and of a mood. But this was....an avoided sound, a siren song, a taunt. He was able to shut it out well enough when the park was packed and his buddies were screeching at the carnies for a free ride on the Tilt-A-Whirl. Alone, he could not block the sound anymore than he could stop his feet now moving in the direction of it. The Merry-go-round wanted a rider.
Stories had been passed down, gaining speed and heft as stories do, along with a goodly dose of fiction in most cases. But he didn't think "Merry" was accurate, not by a long shot. He'd heard that Merry-go-round horses were not solid. They had mouths, and inside the hollow tunnel that fed their gut....it was not empty. His mind backpedaled, but the song was the long arm of a sticky substance that wrapped itself around his narrow shoulders and pulled. Perhaps he knew that this was just one of many things he was going to have to face down alone. Squaring up, he kept walking, imaging himself taller and broader, when in fact he was a small boy, bearing the stature of his mother. When at last he stood before the horse, (the black one, with a blood red seat and a chipped smile, as if horses could smile...but it was...and not in a nice way. It was the same smile the bullies gave him when "after school" was going to be a big deal) he was barely nose to nose with it.
He fingered the trinkets in his worn jeans and then watched in mute panic as his hand reached unsteadily forward. He thought about the horror flicks he'd seen on the side of Mel's Diner, how everyone knew you shouldn't open that door, or enter the woods, or get in that car...but those actors always did anyway. Now he knew they had little choice in the matter. Knowing what was coming did nothing to lessen his terror when something alive snaked out of that horse so fast he would have missed it had he blinked. He stumbled backwards.....straight into a solid form.
not again, not again, not again.
Turning, he beseeched the radiation of a thousand suns and shrunk to the size of a marble, rolling away as fast as the uneven pavement would allow. As scared as he was of that Merry-go-round...clowns were far worse.
~ Epilogue ~
She removed the rainbow colored wig and shook out her brunette mane of curls. Shaking her head, she wiped a forearm across the white/red paint that made up her smile. It was no use chasing him down. She'd made attempts, but he was a fast little sprite. She tried so hard to love the boy. He never could let her.