What a long strange summer it was. Could there be anything more to take us on this year? This summer of pandemic, civil unrest, a rough election season. There were no concerts by the river or in the park, no fairs, no visits with friends, no carnival. None of the summer activities we enjoy and take for granted. Maybe it’s time to stop, take a cleansing breath, and maybe have a little fun.
I spent a quite different strange summer several years ago. I spent it traveling with a carnival. I learned a lot that summer. It was a different world. A world peopled with many strange characters. There were families with small children. There were single people. There were still others with questionable backgrounds or not admitting to any background. There were unfamiliar terms and actions that were new to this rural girl. I also learned a lot about myself, but that is a story for a different time. A few years ago, I wrote a short story based on a composite of some of the characters I met and the life of the carnie all those years ago. I want to share that story with you now. Maybe it’s time to stop, take a cleansing breath, and maybe have a little fun.
Missing the Mark
“Hey, weird beard! Come on over here!” With jokes and slight insults the Bozo called the people in, daring them to knock him into the water tank. The crowd gathered while hometown heroes drew up their best aim and showed off their pitching styles. Usually they missed the spring target, but sometimes they hit dead center. CRACK! SPLASH! Bozo plunged into the cold water.
Slim shivered. That wasn’t for him. It was cold enough out here on the grounds. The season was too early. No town marks would dare come out on such a damp, cold night. “No money,” Slim said to himself. “Got to make some money. Serious stew.” He clasped his hands behind him and started rocking back and forth. Heels to toes. Heals to toes. Humming beneath his breath, “Ludes, ludes, ludes.”
The wild rock music from the gorilla show played in counterpoint to his own tune. The red banner across the tent’s entrance invited “SEE THE BEAUTIFUL TANYA TURN INTO A HAIRY MONSTER BEFORE YOUR EYES!!”
“Two weeks ago the stupid broad was a possum belly queen. Amazing what a bath and a costume will do for a girl,” Slim muttered. He didn’t mess with girls who sold their favors to ride jocks in the underside of a semi.
Slim shivered again. He worked his bare toes back and forth in the flip flops he wore. No marks, no money. No money, no food, no motel, no ludes, no booze, no sex. Sex! The beautiful Tanya . . . No, he wasn’t that fond of penicillin. And who knows what else those jocks could have dumped into her.
The music came on louder. The poster lady jumped out of her joint and began to dance. The guy from the ring toss followed. Anything to keep warm. They were over there laughing together—dancing and laughing.
“Lord, send me a mark. Just one sucker,” Slim called as he spun and popped three balloons in a row with the darts he had been holding. “Shizit.” Now he’d have to climb over the counter to retrieve the darts.
“Hey, lady!” he called to a woman who passed by. “Ever bust a rubber?” He waved the darts at her. “Balloons, sweetie, balloons.” She went on past without looking at him. “Bitch has no sense of humor.” He grunted. He took up his usual place in front of the joint.
A couple came by. “Hey, sport!” Slim called. “Come on in. Win the big hairy one for the little lady.”
He overheard the man say, “Rigged—60 Minutes.”
Slim snorted. “Those television wise guys are putting decent folks out of work.” Rigged! No rigging here —just fast talk. After all, this was a hanky-pank, not an alibi joint. Slim felt a little come down in the world, working a hanky-pank. He had always worked as an alibi man in the past. “You’re holding your mouth wrong. Here, let me show you.”—always a reason why the mark didn’t get the big kadodie. My, how he missed those days.
Not many alibi joints or flat stores anymore. Suckers are getting too educated. These hanky-panks were kid games and no place for a strong agent. He might as well be working the duck pond as a build-up balloon joint.
Slim was still shivering. Just one good mark. That’s all he asked. Not much. Enough money for supper, ludes—he could always sleep in the truck —and sex . . . well, he could do without or maybe get lucky. The beautiful Tanya. No, he’d have to have a motel for that. She had begun putting on airs these days. A possum belly wasn’t good enough anymore.
Across the way, Shorty stepped out of his joint and lit up. Slim ran his tongue around his dry lips. No ludes, but he could almost taste the bittersweet flavor as Shorty inhaled long and deep. Wonder if Shorty would share the toot. No, he owed Shorty money. Best not go over now. “I better get to work.”
“Say, there, fellow!” He stepped out on the midway, blocking the path of a young man and woman. “Hold this but don’t throw it.” He slapped a dart into the man’s hand. “You’d like to have one of these stuffed doggies, wouldn’t you?” Slim directed his remarks to the woman but didn’t give her time to answer. “Sure you would.” He had, with a broad sweep of his hand, directed their gaze across the colorfully flashed joint and brought their attention to rest on the big stuffed dogs at the top. “Give me a dollar and I’ll give you two chances to win.” He hoped this mark would be easy. The guy was young — he could be easily caught in Slim’s spell. Already the fellow was pulling out his wallet. Slim smiled. He peeked the guy’s poke and this sucker had stew! Serious fizucking stew! Slim’s heart beat faster, his palms dampened. Food! Motel! Ludes! Sex! — it was all right there in this mark’s pocket and he could have it tonight if he worked things right.
“Here’s three darts. Bust a balloon with each one and I’ll give you the first prize.”
The young man popped three in a row.
“Hey! That’s great. Have you been practicing?” Slim enthused as he reached under the counter for the first prize — a small plastic dog. “Here you go. The first prize. Now I’ll give you a chance to trade this back in on a bigger one.”
“What’s it going to cost?” the woman asked.
Slim knew he’d have to work faster than he originally thought. This broad might snap to the action any minute. Then good-bye to a sweet night.
“Tell you what I’ll do. I’ll give you another two chances for a dollar plus you give back that prize. You don’t want that old plastic dog, now do you? You want to give her something nice, don’t you?” The mark was shaking his head and grinning like some giant farm animal. Again the money and darts exchanged hands. The balloons were busted. “That’s great. You’re really doing good.” Slim took back the little plastic dog as he had many times with many other marks. This time he came up with a cloth dog from beneath the counter.
“I thought we’d get one of those.” The woman pointed to the stuffed animals at the side of the joint. This broad was too sharp. Probably caught the last half of 60 Minutes.
“Only two steps more and you’ll be at the wall,” Slim said, then he leaned in close to speak in a confidential tone. “Look, you seem like good people. I’ll help you out. Just pass me up a five and I’ll let you play till you win.”
“I don’t know.” The fellow hesitated.
“Look, I’m trying to help you. Now, don’t tell the boss. I’m not supposed to do this. Come on. Slip me the five.”
The faces were different, but all suckers were alike. Slim knew the score. This was their first date, the guy wanted to impress this woman. After all, he’d already spent two dollars and they had the little stuffed dog. But if he could win a bigger one by popping some more balloons, he might just have a chance to pop her on the way home. The mark slipped Slim a five. They were now fellow conspirators. Slim gave him some darts. “Just bust as many as you can,” he said and stepped out of the way. The guy popped several on the board. Slim took back the dog and handed out a slightly bigger one from under the counter.
“You said you’d let us have one of those. You said two more steps and we’d be at the wall.” This woman must be a chronic complainer.
Slim smiled broadly. “I like a thinking woman. I guess that’s what he sees in you. No, listen —carefully this time. I said I’d help you get one and I will. Now just pass me up another five and we’ll cut out all the steps. I’ll let you have it next time —win or lose.”
“No, I don’t think so.” The mark was backing away.
Oh, Lord, the mark’s starting to think, too. There can’t be an epidemic going around. I’ll starve!
“Only five more and it’s yours.”
“Well, maybe.” The fellow’s eyes wandered over his companion’s body. He pulled another bill from his pocket, threw another handful of darts.
“Winner! We have a winner!” Slim called, hoping to attract the attention of other marks. He took back the third prize, then handed the woman a stuffed duck from the lower hanging row. He could see the disappointment on her face.
“Now,” he continued, before she could say anything, “you’re qualified to go for the big one.”
“No way, Mister. I’m going home while I still got gas money. Come on, Charlene.”
Slim shrugged. Let them go. Let them fall in a doniker hole. He’d take sewer stink over an educated sucker any day. He placed all the bills face up in a row on the countertop. He had twelve dollars for a dollar-and-a-half piece of stock.
“A fin for food. Bread and baloney.” He pegged it to the countertop with a dart. “A fin for ludes.” And he pegged down that bill, also.
“And two singles for my pocket. No motel. No sex.”
He looked across at the poster lady who had wrapped a huge comforter around her shoulders. She had given up trying to work and was sitting in her joint watching the few marks that were left mill around. She really looked warm, wrapped up that way. It could get cold and damp in the back of the truck. “Wonder if she has any mustard?” Slim thought, as he looked at the first fin he’d pegged.
“Hey! Hair out of a bottle,” the Bozo called at a woman that passed by.