The Spectral Carnival Show
By M.F. Korn
art by Jody Franklin
Carnivals? Materialistic fantasies.
Crandall and I rode around Hammond arguing about what restaurant we could pick for lunch.
“You’re the businessman, you know the best spots.”
“But I don’t live here,” I said. “You do.”
He was a professional magician. He really was fun to be around even if he didn’t drink. I sighed. It was the Saturday before Easter Sunday. Were we going to drive by the college again to watch coeds walk by, unseen through Crandall’s tinted windows?
“Hey, a carnival!” I said.
“Ahhhh YESSSS…” he said in his best W.C. Fields voice.
On every other day it was an abandoned shopping center parking lot. Now it was a conundrum of machinery, rides for the kiddies bolted together too fast.
“I drove by yesterday and this setup wasn’t here,” Crandall said as his Hawaiian shirt billowed about his flabby arms and he turned the wheel.
We parked and looked. In the bright sun I saw snooker tables, nudger machines and bronzed barkers. Children were strapped into the swirling rides of steel and screaming. The haunted house trailer with the sheet-metal whirring skirt blowers, tilted floors and spooky interior lights was toward the back. I wanted to be scared by the apparitions flying at me run by gearshifts and conveyor belts. From even a distance the people running the show looked tough-skinned and countrified.
“There isn’t much of a crowd here,” Crandall said.
“Let’s stop by the games and see the setup,” he said. I knew he was going to ask the folks running the games and booths how the profits were going. He looked at me as he pulled the parking brake up and opened the door of the car. “It’s not the rides that make the most money. It’s those games, believe me.” He pulled up the sun visor. “They really rake up on those.”
There were folks sleeping in old peeling trailers. A tied-up pit bull was begging for food from a pale fat biker. He gawked at us and muttered something. We walked down the barker strip.
“We’re making a big mistake walking this way with no money,” he said.
“I don’t see what you mean.”
Two kids were throwing darts at balloons for prizes. Hung up in the booth were Heavy Metal wallets and framed beer mirrors. A kid was trying to snag a ring onto a Coke bottle. More kids were pitching pennies into shallow dishes. Across the highway I saw mothers going through trash that the Goodwill Store had just thrown out for the day.
“Hey man! Buy something for your woman!” a ruddy man yelled at us. I looked down. A kid managed to get a penny in a glass. The man gave him a cloth beanbag instead of the glass. “You gotta get beyond the rope, you was leaning over.”
Hammond had lots of Georgian houses that cut the sky in quaint ways. Cupolas came out their gambrelled roofs. Shadowy alcoves of huge oaks were full of moss. Kids would swing on wrought-iron gates and picket fences. I suddenly remembered listening to a choir when I used to walk to the college, crossing over the railroad tracks, thinking about my youth. There was something about this carnival.
I thought I heard a muffled conversation between two women at the goat barbecue stand. “Lotsa pickings here.”
A huge man in a Harley T-shirt held an enfolded shotgun, cleaning it carefully, sitting in a lawn chair by his trailer. He glowered at me with more than a usual country-way-of-knowing. Tinny strains of Kitty Wells resonance from an ugly trailer with contorted figures painted on its side. I smiled. “They have a sideshow?”
“It’s closed,” said a skinny man with lines all over his leathered face. I thought I heard cries from somewhere. What hucksters, out to rook and cheat people. I wanted to see a sideshow.
Crandall went over to talk to the fellow running the BB gun shoot, a fellow with one arm tattooed all over, in mauve and aquamarine ink.
“How are profits going?”
He didn’t answer.
I was standing right by a fat, crooked-smiling lady in double-knit polyester slacks who was talking with a skinny black woman with gold teeth, both holding onto their children. “When they sent up that space shuttle God got mad and flooded Denham Springs.”
“Oahh, yeah lawd,” the black lady said, smiling.
“I heard it in the Ponchatoula Pentecostal Church,” I said, smiling.
Little black boys by the video games were brushing up against the suburban boys, maybe to steal their wallets, as they played Zaxxon and Galaxia.
Crandall told the tattooed fellow he was a professional magician. “We’re both in the same business.” I saw the barker’s eyes and I realized something in the boiling hot sun. This clan of folks were all one incestuous family. They had a pall of plain sinister trashiness, found even amidst the happy young children.
“Go away!” the tattooed barker snarled as he handed a kid a loaded BB gun. “Ain’t none of your business.”
We turned and laughed and left, right as a couple of kids were placing dollar bills down for some rats racing on a spinning board. It was an invisible cloak of black death, I thought, upon seeing the rats. It was a nice day before Easter Sunday, community basking in an ordinary way. I thought of the generations of squirrels eating acorns in the park under the gazebo, where a barbershop quartet sang “By the Sea” once. We drove in silence. We went inside Brady’s to sit down away from the heat. I gave sidelong glances at the stuck-up waitresses from the college in their Irish green. Crandall for the first time didn’t ask me to be the patsy in his never-ending quest for the perfect card trick. He looked at me and smiled. He did a couple of tricks with his tally-ho fan cards and I was the mark. We drank our sepia-colored iced tea with no lemon under a bronzed ceiling and I craved alcohol but always managed to fight it off well enough.
“They were kind of on the mean side.”
The soiled flapping banner had been painted Spectral Carnival Show.
“Did you notice how trashy those people looked?” I asked.
“It wasn’t that. They were dangerous.”
“What is a rotten carnival like that doing here the day before Easter Sunday?”
This was even better than when the mall had chickens dancing on hot plates for a quarter, or when I played Tic-Tac-Toe with a rabbit. When Crandall had tried to talk to them, they had something besides loose change in their crooked staring eyes. Something that courted death. I finished my meal. Crandall just fanned and shuffled the cards.
We went to the mall and caught the five-thirty matinee. While we walked around the mall it seemed word had spread about something like electricity. In the car Crandall tuned in the local radio station:
Several children are apparently missing that had attended the carnival. Police at this hour are looking for several youngsters. Apparently the kids had strayed from their mothers’ care. Authorities are still combing the area now in an attempt to retrieve the unfortunate kids, ranging from five years to thirteen years. Then a commercial. “Sunday! Sunday! At state capitol drag-way…Don Garlitz’s Funny Car….”
He turned it down and looked at me and I shook my head.
We hauled through the tiny arteried pitted roads, traversing subdivisions, streets leading to dead ends, only to find the load-cranking generators feeding juice to the joy machines swirling like a kaleidoscopic art picture in neon lights. It had turned into something almost supernatural beneath the veneer of the golden garden spot of magical wonderment.
Instead there was an empty parking lot. The carnival had already skipped town. We were too late. There were a few police cars around the vast stretch of terminal pavement and the concrete graveyard of empty bottles. The carnival and seven toddlers vanished like a large phantom.
How could such an event fold up as quick as a magician’s setup stand, as fast as Crandall could make a card disappear behind his hand or as fast as flash powder spectrally poofed in a blazing inordinate blink of molted fire?
A few months went by. I heard the authorities didn’t find those unfortunate kids. The mothers must have mourned their babies’ disappearance in the Ponchatoula Pentecostal Church. Maybe that band of gypsy beggars had found a certain use for the kids. Maybe they were going to raise them, teach them the ways of the circus. The rituals that were foretold by the creaking of the rooking guy’s bones, the glint of maligned and clearly discerned unnaturalness. Kids tied up with knotted rope, dressed up as experiments in the upcoming mutant show that we never got to see. They enticed kids to run away with them, to snatch the kids from their mothers like the unfortunate boys who were bad, whose ears turned donkey-like in Pinocchio. It was not anything Toby Tylerish to participate with a chicken-biting carnival freak-show geek and be his apprentice, to be an unwilling victim of some sort of black mass ritual as old as Hebrew times that would leave them maimed.
Crandall laughed when I told him this.
The dark carnival of blinking and winking seemed one step ahead of the law and of the childless mothers. I told Crandall I reckoned they were out west somewhere by now, in the desert, past Nuevo Laredo, or Matamoros.
They dismantled that twisted machinery of joy fast.
I thought of the revolving rides and twisting teacups that made me dizzy when I was a kid.
They were back into their trailers and out of town before the sun went down. They were not of any place Crandall and I or anyone of these parts would ever understand.
I would see carnivals again, but that pre-Sabbath one was not coming back here next year.