One in Wins
Even though it’s broad daylight, all the lights on all the carnival rides blink, and the surface of everything seems to shiver. “Parents—please load and unload your children,” the signs say, and good thing, too, because the ride operators are burly men in grease-covered jeans with errant facial hair and nicotine-stained teeth. They look like convicts. They probably are convicts. The Sizzler, Tornado, Orbiter, Tilt-A-Whirl, MoonBraker, DownSurger—the children aren’t tall enough to go on these rides. Jerry’s wife is pregnant, so she passes on rides altogether. In her Prada boots and DK maternity boot-cut jeans, she wanders off in search of funnel cake. So Jerry alone loads Sascha and Julian into the belly of a giant bear, the bucket-seat of a biplane, the rusty basket of a hot-air balloon. Sascha, four, and Julian, two, shiver with anticipation as Jerry squeezes between them and pulls the bar into place. Jerry shivers, too. The metal is cold against his exposed flesh—first his elbows incur the sting, then the back of his neck. The music on the ride begins mid-measure. The tinkling and chiming catch him off-guard, and beneath them the mechanical beast creaks to life. For a few moments they are caught between stillness and top speed, and those are the moments when Jerry’s heart seems to float, suspended above the earth. But then they reach top speed, and it’s only kiddie top speed. They are plodding, and Jerry fears the ride will never end.
As Jerry unloads his children, he tries to recall a time when Family Fun Day retained any semblance of irony. “What are the job requirements for a carnie?” Jerry asks as he and the children rejoin their mother. They’ve exhausted the selection of rides, and they wander through the crowds, dodging puddles of frosty lemonade and vomit. “What do you think their job application looks like? Do you have any unusual attributes like unwanted hair or extra digits? Will you work, literally, for peanuts?” Even though he left his sunglasses in the car, today no one recognizes him. He guides his family towards the animals on display.
It smells like shit in the Bunny Barn. Sascha pokes her finger through the bars of the cages. “Come here,” she yells at the rabbits, who cower at the back of their cages. Row upon row of rabbits fills the dim arena; it is a maze of hares, Alice in Wonderland times a hundred, Lenny Small’s hallucinatory dream. The cages are waist-high, and here and there pellets rain to the floor. Some rabbits are sleek, like Siamese cats; others resemble obese lapdogs, the folds of their bodies oozing through the gaps in the chicken wire. Dutchess, Princess Oreo, Mufasa, Buttercup, Snowdrop, Sir Camelot, Lil Leo—where do they come up with these names? Lil Leo is definitely not little. It should be funny, but it’s not. Most of the rabbits lie still, complacent, drunk on alfalfa, their noses quivering from the orgy of odors. Only Thumper stirs. Wild-eyed, he paces the eighteen-inch cage: two steps, then turn, two steps, then turn. He wants out.
Sascha eyes the older 4-H girls in tapered Wrangler jeans and pigtails. The barn is dim, and their mothers, thick-waisted, sunspots dappling their arms, do not recognize Jerry. They lean in towards him and complain about the biased judges. Princess Oreo’s coat isn’t shiny enough. Mufasa’s nails desperately need to be clipped. Buttercup’s left ear has a kink. It should be funny, but it’s not. Nothing’s funny anymore. Princess Oreo inches her rear into the air and releases an avalanche of pellets to the floor.
Outside again, Jerry blinks in the daylight. The lights on the rides continue to flutter, out of place in the unforgiving sunlight. He needs something to get through the day. He needs something to look forward to. “I want another Porsche,” he says, and his wife sighs. Flecks of powdered sugar from the funnel cake dust her lips. She didn’t sigh when he gave her a 1958 Speedster for a wedding present.
"Feed the clown!" shrieks Sascha, hurling the remains of her grease-sogged fries into the trashcan. Every trashcan sprouts a grinning clown head. She picks up other people’s trash from the ground. Winding up her arm, she thrusts the ragged butt-end of a hot dog into another clown's mouth. "Fat, greedy clown!" She scoops up a wad of dirt-coated chili and a chocolate-smeared wrapper and a dripping pile of nachos and splatters them into another trash can. "You ugly, gross, fat, fat, fat clown!" she laughs, her voice edged with malice. Where does she get this? Jerry looks at his wife, pregnant, bursting. His wife laughs and claps her hands. She wants another child, and another, and another.
He closes his eyes and envisions his forty-seven Porsches. His 911’s, his Boxsters, his 964, his Carrera GT. He pictures his cherry red Porsche 959, one of only 268 in the world, still sitting, undriven, in his custom-built three-story garage in Manhattan. City ordinances had been a pain, but he had made it happen. He takes each Porsche out in his mind, one by one, and polishes it like a marble.
“I’m tired,” says his wife, and Jerry has been waiting for these magic words. He scouts out the shortest possible escape route, behind the parade of miniature horses, through the gamut of carnival games. He takes Julian and Sascha’s hands. They make it past Machine Gun Alley, they make it past the Water Races. But try as he might, he cannot escape this, this humanity. Grown men compete with children to shoot plastic ducks with a stream of water—this should be funny, but it’s not. It’s as though cotton candy has filled his brain.
The glint of parked cars is visible in the distance when Sascha releases a blood-curdling, pig-like squeal. She stabs the air with her finger, and Jerry follows the arc of her pink-chipped nail.
One in Wins. The sign is faded, decaying, the cheap paint flaked off so much that the words look like they’ve contracted a flesh-eating disease. A basketball hoop perches above a pimply, shaggy-haired teenager wearing a red vest that is way too small.
Sascha points to the dangling giant stuffed gorilla, wearing a red jersey and almost-matching red basketball shorts. What does a six-year old girl want with a basketball-playing gorilla? If he were choosing, Jerry would go for the Batman dog, complete with hood and cape. But she insists, she clings to his leg with superman force, she suddenly weighs a ton. The heels of her pink-accented Nikes light up as she stamps the ground. Her voice goes into registers that would drive a dog mad. Jerry can’t understand what she’s saying, but that high-pitched whine, ascending like a siren, means that she could erupt into a full-fledged tantrum at any second. It's a dollar a throw. Jerry gives the pimply teenager a dollar. Sascha takes the ball and hugs it for a moment. Then she extends her arms between her legs and closes her eyes and tosses it, granny style, as hard as her little body can. For a moment Jerry fears the ball will land in the ring toss to the right, but the length of mesh between booths catches it, and it thuds to the floor. Sascha's jaw drops. Jerry knows that look. He’s had it a million times before, in his early career, dealing with tough crowds. She didn’t expect to be good, but she didn’t expect to be that bad.
Jerry always keeps a few hundred dollar bills in his wallet for emergencies. He doesn't want to waste his time, because he’s sure these games are rigged anyway, so he leans over, and the hundred-dollar bill finds its way into the teenager’s greasy hand. Jerry whispers, "What would it take to get that gorilla?"
The kid’s arms protrude from his tiny red vest, gangly as a gorilla’s. The kid looks at the bill. He seems to recognize Ben Franklin’s imposing gaze from his eleventh grade U.S. history book, but he doesn’t seem to sense the founding father’s implication. Somewhere, in the distance, an animal screams.
The kid pushes his hair out of his eyes. His nametag reads BJ. “You want change? I don’t have that kind of change, mister.”
Jerry frowns. He wonders what kind of car this kid drives. A rusty orange hatchback? His mom’s teal Geo Prism? Probably he takes the bus. “No, BJ, I don’t want change,” Jerry says. “I want the gorilla.”
A smile creeps across the kid’s face.
"You get one hundred tries."
Jerry knows he should protest, take his money back. But for some reason he takes the ball. It feels good in his hands. He turns it around as though he were turning the world. Sascha pouts, impatient—he can never please her. Sascha, a Russian name, imperial. His Russian princess. She knows what she wants, and she gets it. Not like Julian, a sweet-natured child, soft and silent as a mushroom.
The backboard deflects Jerry’s first shot. The second time he undershoots, and the ball lobs through the air, tracing a perfect parabola, embarrassing in its unbroken form. On his third attempt his aim seems perfect, but the ball hugs the rim before rolling out again.
“You don’t have to do this,” says Jennifer.
But she’s wrong.
He looks at her, the only woman in the world he was ever able to win over easily. Fecund Jennifer. A simple name. Jerry wooed her away from her days-old marriage to a Broadway producer, one of the richest men in the world. Jennifer. An easy name. He should have known.
He throws again. He continues to toss and miss, toss and miss. After the first ten throws his mind starts to detach from the task at hand. He finds himself in the park, and he relives his first vision of Shoshanna Lonstein, seventeen and gorgeous and awkward. Who cares that she was half his age? When they met, she wanted to study art history, she wanted to live art, she wanted Jerry to make his life on the same canvas as hers. That was before she started her own line of designer clothing, before she became rich and powerful, self-assured and dull. After twenty throws he is traveling even further back in time, through the snow, a blizzard, to find himself alone in a comedy club. He worked so hard to get there, and there is no audience, and after he recovers from the shock, he is relieved by the perfect stillness, the calm, white expanse stretching forever around him.
By now the crowd around him has grown larger. Someone has recognized him, and rednecks and suburban housewives call out his name. Jerry Seinfeld! What a joke! They stamp their legs, impatient as cows. After thirty throws he is a boy again, fourteen years old, and someone is landing on the moon, and he’s looking at the blinking lights of Massapequa, Long Island, and the distance between him and other people is larger than the distance from the earth to the moon. After fifty throws the buzz of the crowd around him becomes the clamor of the crowded souqs of his mother’s native Syria, and people bargain in a tongue he’s never tried to understand. As he hurls the ball towards the netted mouth he can hear the ululations of his father’s forefathers in their Hungarian synagogues, and he wonders what they’re saying, what they’re saying about God, what they’re trying to tell him. After seventy-five throws his mind has entered a pearl gray 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder, the same one that James Dean drove on that fatal day, like a marble veering out of the game, following its own sublime trajectory, only for Jerry the crashing and twisting of metal never comes, the racing down the bright highway continues, and after ninety-nine throws, he thinks, I could do this forever.
About the author:
Claire O’Connor earned her MFA in fiction from the University of Idaho. Her work has appeared in Fiction Circus and Best New American Voices. For the past six years she taught English and Special Education in New York City public schools. She recently moved to Scotland.