Dead carnies don’t need a bench to sit on, but they’ve got one just the same. Cold, black metal, punched with holes. None but a ghost — a carnie ghost, whistling tattoo memories — would choose it.
Fairgrounds get lonesome in the winter, all the shows gone south on a corndog breeze. Just me and Sue left over, and she’s a mangy dog, full of fleas, but keeps me warm at night. Sue likes a settled place, and me, I’ve got too old to wander.
This meadow, though? It’s seen a hundred years of shows. First warm day, trucks rumble in. Carnies unfold themselves from shadows. Twelve hours hefting steel, setting up, and they’re ready to blow steam. That’s when the cards come out, beer and cigarettes and all the tarmac stories.
I been there. As a kid, I worked the Ball Toss, folks knocking over bottles. I learned the secret language and moved on to the rigged games. Oh, we’d dust the backs of marks with chalk, identify the suckers. Now, inspectors come with clipboards, testing. But the world ain’t fair, so I’m wondering why a carnival ought to be.
In my twenties, full of muscle, I hauled the Tilt-A-Whirl, the Iron Bitch. She took my left ring finger at the knuckle. Didn’t slow me. I ran the Carousels and Ferris Wheels, the Flying Coasters and the Chair-O-Planes.
I got to know the regulars, the anglers and the sorrowful. Town by town, I knew ’em, the high-heeled girls grown to women, the bluster men adding up their wrinkles. Mabel in Milwaukee played the fishbowl game all week for twenty years. That’s a lot of goldfish. Lionel out in Denver complained about his son, until the boy grew up and died, and then he complained about his absence.
Eccentric as the marks were, the carnies doubled that, at least. I knew a man who stayed up at night, playing bingo with the stars. Nester had a bright green rabbit. Clarie lost all her teeth, but she could sing like angels. Mabel used to foxtrot on the roof. Still, we were a family. Mitch hocked his guitar once to get me out of jail.
In my twilight years, I made funnel cakes and candy apples, sloshed beer in plastic cups. When I got too old for that, I retired near the fairgrounds. The footprints by the bench are me and Sue. Carnie ghosts don’t leave a trace.
No one comes but lifers, to watch the empty grounds. The bench is long enough for six of us, if we aren’t particular about space. I listen to their spiel and cant, catch the scent of deep-fried chocolate, watch their shadows. The fairgrounds are a lonely place in winter, after a life of carnie marvels.
No, carnie ghosts don’t need a bench, but we’ve got one just the same. Cold metal planted on the far edge of the fairgrounds where the trucks come rumbling, first warm day in spring. You’ll see.
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