I don’t usually entrust my children to meth heads, but then again, I don’t usually go to the carnival. You have to let go a little bit to enjoy the carnival, especially the small and seedy ones. Somewhere deep inside, you know the food is poison, but you still eat the funnel cakes. You know the games are rigged, the rides are unsafe, and that the profit margin enjoyed by the carnies is ridiculous, but you skip through it all holding hands with your sugar-addled children. Fuck it; we’re at the carnival, let’s do this.

The wife and I took our children and our parents to the county fair here in Durango this past weekend. The rides were small and rusting. The tickets were expensive and the carnies were toothless, but we had our fun; that took some serious “suspension of morality” on my part. You see, they guy operating the flying pink elephants was a scab covered meth-head. He weighed a buck-thirty at most, and at six-two, even diehard bulimics would’ve called him skinny. His hair was a garish red. He had four teeth I could see. His cloths were dirty and his pockmarked skin was covered in cheap tattoos. Most of them were evil clowns that’d probably earned him all sorts of street-cred amongst his fellow carnies. He was constantly twitching and scratching and moving his mouth like a dog that’d licked up some peanut butter. I’ve had plenty of friends that’ve lived a life of meth addiction and I can see the signs; this dude should’ve been on a D.A.R.E. poster.

But I sent my daughter up the ramp towards him and his flying pink elephants. She was alone and five years old. She had her tickets in hand and bounced with excitement. The carnie reached down and took her tickets. He led her to an elephant and strapped her in. She didn’t even notice him. I started looking around. Nobody else seemed to notice him either. He’d shout instructions to kids or try to help parents, but he could’ve been a ghost. Did they see him but look away thanks to his condition? Or did their minds gloss over his presence because he was on some lower echelon? I guess it’s possible. The carnie was just a bit of human flotsam that’d come into our town. He was quick to come, soon to leave. He was ephemeral.

I made a point of noticing the carnie, and I made him notice that I noticed him. I called to my daughter and told her to hold on, and then I stood at the bottom of the ride’s ramp and stared up at the carnie. I did my best to flex the muscles around my eyes and bore through his skull with invisible lasers of rage. Really? You’re going to get high on something cooked in a trailer, pick your skin to shit, and then touch my precious monster before operating the flying elephants that bring her joy? Fuck you. Notice me noticing you goddamn it. He did. His eyes locked with mine. He gave a toothless smile. My expression was deadpan, my eyes pissed. His smiled died and went to that place where he kept his dreams. He turned and started the ride. The elephants went up and down. The dirty lights flashed and the tired music played as the children cried their delight. I stared at the carnie. He worried over his remaining teeth with his tongue. The ride eventually ended and I collected my child. She left with nothing but good memories.

All the rides, all the attending carnies, were like that. The rotund gentleman operating the Ferris Wheel wasn’t much different than the dude by the pink flying elephants. Sure, he was fat and drunk as opposed to skinny and high, but he had the clown tattoos. People seemed to look around him as they got on and off the wheel of wrought ferrous. Again my daughter got onto the ride, this time accompanied by my mother, and again I stared at the man running the ride until he noticed me and acknowledged my disdain with a lowered head. I stood there clean and sober with all my bullshit in the past, as he stood there chest deep in all of his bullshit with his spiked big-gulp. Again, my daughter survived and came back to me covered with a smile.

It started to rain so we packed it up. My oldest daughter had met some makeup covered child of a similar age that looked years older thanks to the pain she wore. The new comer had pined for tickets and even borrowed my daughter’s coat. But that’s alright. My daughter is a precocious little punk so I didn’t even have to tell her which lessons to learn from her day at the carnival. She told me all about how the new girl had taken advantage of the endless supply of tickets I had doled out, and how the girl said she wished her father was like me. My daughter felt sorry for her but kept her at a distance. My work there was done. I looked back at the carnies who were still working the rides and standing invisible in the rain, and then we all got into my truck and left.

I’ve found a bit of empathy in retrospect. I guess it’d be easy to end up like that. You’d fall into a part time job in the carnival. You’d get to travel, see the states, get paid in cash, and taste a bit of freedom. Maybe there’s a girl, pretty and rebellious, working in the cotton candy both. The two of you could hook up and share your freedom. But then the opportunities fade as you drive from town to town. You pick up a vice, get a few dirty clowns tattooed on your forearm just to fit in, and then you earn your cloak of invisibility. Your girl gets pregnant, maybe it’s yours, maybe not, and now she’s anchored down somewhere in the heartland with a child. The new girl who slings cotton candy doesn’t even look at you because there are younger bucks operating other rides. Your dreams and your teeth disappear, and now there’s a man at the bottom of your ramp staring up at you like you don’t deserve to see his daughter. The scabs, the choices, they might wear off on his precious child. There’s nothing left but the night, the shitty motel rooms, and the vice. 

Carnie

I write and sell books and they never cost more than a dollar. If you’re a fan of fiction, you should check out Trailer Park Juggernauts here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00704HK6Q If you’re a fan of real life with just a sprinkling of fiction, you should check out Ephemeral Truths and Short Fiction here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00AYRAXNI

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4 thoughts on “Dirty Clowns

  1. A bit chilling, this piece, with a cloak of ordinariness. A clear, concise opening balancing the mythic must-experience anyway with the modern degraded aspect of the myth.
    I enjoy the places your temperament shows in a few words, and often fits well with the overall theme of the dirty old mythic clanging against a modern man’s precious, but street-wise child / family.

    Eg: …

    “…even diehard bulimics would’ve called him skinny ” (so irreverent on bulimia, yet you hopefully will escape criticism, like a fast talking stand-up here).

    “… moving his mouth like a dog that’d licked up some peanut butter.” (simply an well-used peanut butter simile freshened up in a catty way)

    “The carnie was just a bit of human flotsam that’d come into our town. He was quick to come, soon to leave. He was ephemeral.” (good turning point / recap)

    “My oldest daughter had met some makeup covered child of a similar age that looked years older thanks to the pain she wore.” (the intro to the street-wise daughter aspect, the initial confrontation of the precious child with the same riff-ragged edge of the mythic only a like-kinded child spinoff, not the actual carney itself. Brilliant, moving in one sentence.)

    Then the street-wise trust of knowing the daughter begins… “My daughter is a precocious little punk so I didn’t even have to tell her which lessons to learn from her day at the carnival.”
    and… “My daughter felt sorry for her but kept her at a distance. My work there was done.” (Again brilliant short referencing on the backstory.)

    The end shows the vulnerability of the father’s almost first word middle-class unnecessary worries and what it really boiled down to belonged only to the carney himself. “The scabs, the choices, they might wear off on his precious child. There’s nothing left but the night, the shitty motel rooms, and the vice. “
    Overall, I think you’ve dealt very well with a cliché moment that so many parents likely experience. I find it interesting that you use language that is discourteous to the general scene and its people, but at the same time, I manage to not feel any overt transgression for the sake of your piece being entertaining, almost as though I were suspended in the animation of the mythic itself, the carney, all the sounds and smells the midway…but not suspended there, suspended in front of a stand-up comic, relating it all fast and furious in a manner that will entertain the own ‘marks’ of his own ilk. Nice work. Thanks for sharing.

  2. This is so insightful, funny and sad at the same time. It’s such a great perspective how a father has to suspend his reservations to provide his daughter with a rite of passage. It’s also so observant how he’s watching her learn a lesson. Very well written. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I love how you take a memory from almost everyone’s childhood. Then take it through a parent’s eye. I will never take my future children to a rickety old carnival. My mom has instilled in me that the rides get put up too quickly and taken down so often that it can’t be safe. I didn’t even think of the methheads who run it.

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