The clatter of the box and flatcars rather than the bell sent Marvel and his friends streaming out the school house doors one afternoon in late August. In April, the Southern Railway, as part of its expansion, built a small depot in Scatter Creek, and the Hagerman-Watson Traveling Show was the first to test its inbound capacity. Marvel raced Enoch to the center of town where the flatcars carried painted wagons with dark sidewalls and bright trim, two deep, two across, featuring the show’s name. Their open tops overflowed with bundles of weathered wooden beams and faded signs, canvas sheets, and ropes. Boxcars, some with their side doors open, offered up more of the same. The cars that garnered the most attention were those with the carnies, who rode with their feet dangling as they pulled from hand-rolled cigarettes. Marvel’s favorites were the cars that carried the animals, the occasional roar of a lion or trumpeting of an elephant blasting over the screeching of the train coming to a stop. There were fancy wagons with caged windows and elaborate scripts teasing the contents, “The Flying Luchesi Family,” “Carolini the Great,” and “Billy Pollo.” Marvel watched as the final cars, with the tangle of steel legs and arms and joints belonging to the larger rides, rumbled past. The passenger baskets and carts were lined up in rows like church pews. The boys watched from the curb as ramps were fixed to the railroad cars and 8-horse wagons, strapped with riggings and tents, made their way to the fairground. Tucker and Enoch nudged at Marvel who stared as animals they had only seen in picture books were unloaded: tigers, zebras, and elephants. Wagons rolled and carnies milled about pointing and shouting. To Marvel, it all seemed like part of the show, this cast of characters, this opening act.
“I hear they got that bearded lady,” Enoch elbowed Marvel.
“No they ain’t,” said Tucker, “That’s just so you’ll pay the money. My momma told me. She ain’t got no beard, just some animal fur glued to ‘er face. None of that shit’s real.”
Marvel didn’t know whether to be more stunned by Tucker’s swearing in ear shot of their teacher, or by his suggestion that the oddities promised on the posters in Tate’s window downtown weren’t real.
“It ain’t no put on, Tucker. You’ll see. Got some guy who eats the heads and butts off chickens too. The butts, Tucker. What’s your momma got to say about chicken butts?”
“We’ll see, fathead.”
“So you’re still going then?”
“Of course…what if that shit’s real?” Tucker laughed.
“No fooling. Got to pay extra to see the geek I heard. And the pygmies? They’re half naked. You believe that? This is gonna be the best.”
The boys split up at the depot and made their way home, Tucker to the farm, Enoch to the junkyard, Marvel to the hillside. As he climbed, he turned back and watched the tail end of the show make its way out of town. It was mostly draft horses, battered wagons, and worn out workers by that point. The pace was slower, almost reluctant, and Marvel wondered if they just felt like going home instead of doing this one last run.
By early September, the wonder wheel appeared on the horizon, its spider web of dark steel bars extending past the tree line, and well beyond any horizon Marvel or his schoolmates could imagine. Tent poles dotted that same sky, going up in single file, the echo of stakes being pounded ringing through the holler into the few square blocks that made up downtown. It seemed like years, though it was months, since the advance man had shown up, since the first of the multi-colored signs had appeared mid-summer, since the talk had begun, a mix of excitement, fear, and disgust, depending on the company. Most of the signs were promptly torn down from lamp posts and places like the barber shop and the post office. As fast as the signs went up overnight, the Ladies of Grace church group had torn them down by morning. The only place in town to display a sign was Tate’s, the solitary establishment in Scatter Creek that sold alcohol. It wasn’t, by any stretch, the only place to find alcohol in town, just the only place where a traveler, like a carnival worker, could belly up to a bar. Pokey, the advance man, had made himself a fixture.
“Final show before Florida!” The signs boasted. Even as the advertisement battle waged each night, as the signs went up, so did tents; the steel structures were locked into place, a coaster, a tilt, a carousel, and something called The Zip.
The sign facing out on Tate’s window stood in stark contrast to what Marvel saw when looking inside. He’d only been in that once, when he’d found his father at the curb.
“Go fetch my coat, boy,” his father slurred. Inside it took what felt like ages for Marvel’s eyes to adjust. The soles of his shoes, meeting the layer of dirt and dust, scratched against the floorboards. Dark figures slouched over the bar. A couple blended into one large mass in a far corner booth. A record warbled. Glasses clinked. Tate nodded at Marvel.
“It’s over there, kid. Hurry on up. Get him home.”
But on that day, all Marvel focused on was that sign. A bearded woman stood on a beach, posing pinup style, in a red polka dot two-piece swimsuit, coconut drink in one hand and the world’s smallest woman in the other. Behind them, on the beach near a palm tree was the wonder wheel and, beside that, a custard stand and shooting gallery. Behind that was the bluest sky Marvel had ever seen. For years, Marvel had only heard of the carnival, people passing through or from neighboring towns speaking, often in hushed tones, of the things they’d seen, and young Marvel wondered if this was his only chance to see it all. He dreamed briefly of running off to Florida, where he believed it was always warm and sunny, and fantasized that he’d have free and regular access to the rides, penny arcade, as well as cotton candy and custard sold from trailers lit up like a Broadway sign. In Florida, he imagined, life was a carnival all year long.
Each of them would need to come up with at least a dime to get on the midway and even more to ride the rides or have any fun and, truth be told, Marvel’s father never was really much in the mood for giving, unless it was a whipping. Seemed that lately all he was in the mood for was moonshine and fighting with his wife.
“No way my momma’s gonna give me a dime for that nonsense,” Marvel told Enoch one day after school. “I ain’t got the nerve to take it from my daddy, though he won’t notice it missing none.”
“We’ve gotta get on that midway, Marvel. No way is Tucker right. That lady is real and so is the tiny one. I heard my pop say that hand Pokey said they got one freak who’s even got no arms…she eats spaghetti with her feet. She paints….with her feet. Marvel, I got to see that. Says that ain’t even all of it. We just gotta get you in.”
“We’ll figure it out all right. Like as not, I’m going.”
Marvel and his friends stood outside Tate’s, pointing at the poster, daydreaming aloud about the ten-in-one, the rides, and the food. Marvel had two days to earn enough to get him to the midway when it opened. Tate eventually tried to shoo them from the doorway claiming, “I don’t want no more trouble than I already got, boys…”
“Tate…you got any work I can do?”
“Whatcha need money for? That there?” Tate pointed at the carnival sign. “You might head out back, sweep up some broken bottles for me. Careful though, you go home bleeding, and again, more trouble for me. Once yer done with that, use the hose and the scrubber to clean out the trash bins. That’ll get you a dime.”
Marvel looked down at the ground, “Thanks Tate.” Tate would know that Marvel couldn’t ask his father having kicked his father out for not paying his tab just about every month. Always said he wouldn’t let him back in, but when Marvel’s father showed up, hat in hand, hair combed and beard trimmed, telling how he’d gone clean for the past week and just needed a nip, Tate always had a bar stool for him.
Out behind the bar, Marvel grabbed himself a broom, and, careful to not cut himself, began sweeping up broken glass. With quick fast strokes of the broom, he built piles in a circle around the perimeter. He bounced over them, leaping clockwise, and sweeping from one end of the paved lot to the other. The smaller pieces plinked and chimed as they met under the force of the broom and the intact bottles made a deep hollow noise. If he got a good sweep in, Marvel reckoned he could make some music. He imagined himself riding the carousel and the tinkling bottles the music of the calliope. He got it all together in one pile and figured he’d shovel it into the bins once those had been cleaned. He pushed the broken glass to the edge of the pavement in a slow steady motion just to keep that music just a little bit longer. He placed the broomstick between his legs and mimicked the rise and fall of the carousel creatures, skipping in a small circle.
He thought for sure someone had caught him when he heard the first giggle. He kicked his leg back and swung it over the broom, posing as if he’d been sweeping all along. He felt like a little kid to have imagined himself straddling one of those pretty painted horses and riding that carousel to the whistle of the calliope. And then Marvel felt angry for having to be there, standing in a paved lot, sweating, surrounded by trash cans and broken glass, working for a dime. Suddenly there was no ride, no music, only a woman’s laughter and a man’s grunted whispers. And there’s certainly no music when you recognize the man’s voice as your own father’s.
Marvel ducked behind the dumpster and peeking around the corner spied his father pressed up against a woman whose hair was so long and curly it looked like a tangle of serpents. His hand and arm were up her multi-colored gypsy skirt, half of which was hitched up to her waist. She threw her head back and laughed a gravel-y laugh and Marvel’s father buried his face in her neck. With each shake and thrust of her hips, a belt of bells around her waist plinked and chimed; it wasn’t unlike the music Marvel had been imagining moments earlier, but this didn’t remind him of the carousel or a calliope. Marvel dropped the scrubbing broom; there was nothing more here for him to clean and nothing more he needed to see. Not here. The broom’s handle thudded against the steel of the dumpster as it fell from his hand and the woman looked over to see Marvel. She stared at him, unashamed, and the man’s head raised briefly, long enough for Marvel to look his father in the eye, and long enough for Marvel’s father to see his son’s face come into focus, if he could, in fact, focus. She placed one hand on the back of his head and pressed it back into her chest, pressing her hips against him, gyrating, the tinkle of gypsy bells fading as Marvel ran back to the front of the building.
Tate was smoking a cigarette out front.
“You finish back there, son?”
“No sir. Couldn’t finish.”
“Couldn’t? Don’t you got time? It’s well b’fore dinner gets called.”
“No sir..it’s just that…”
Before Marvel could say more, a bar back grabbed Tate’s arm and said “We got some trouble back here.”
Marvel stood in front of the bar’s open door, and picked up the still lit cigarette Tate had dropped. His father may have been a drinker, but he’d never picked up a smoke and all Marvel could think was he didn’t want to be like his old man. Just as he was about to take the first pull from that cigarette, he caught sight of his father’s coat draped over a bar stool. Still clutching the cigarette in one hand, he strode through the door and lifted the cigarette to his mouth, letting it dangle from between his lips, the way he’d seen Tate do. He reached into the pocket of his father’s coat, wrapped his fist around some coins and pulling his hand out, opened it to reveal two quarters. He held them flat in his hand, stared at them for a moment, and the shoved them deep into his own pocket. He pulled the cigarette from his mouth, held it between his thumb and index finger, and started to walk out when he finally looked up and saw Tate, leaning just inside the doorway. Marvel coughed, blinked his eyes hard, and said, in the toughest voice he could muster “What?”
“Tell ya what kid, you give me that smoke and I’ll give you this.”
Tate handed Marvel the ducat and took the cigarette, letting it drop to the ground, where he pressed it out with the tip of his boot. “Pokey gave it ta me. Free pass.…don’t need it. Just don’t tell yer mom or pop where ya got it and I won’t tell no one what I seen. Either in the back, or right here.”
Marvel stared down at the light blue piece of paper. Free admission to the midway and the ten-in-one.
The next day he showed it to Enoch after school.
“Doesn’t that tear you for a duster? I swear, Marvel. You get the best luck of us all. I worked a whole twenty-five cents off my maw and grandpa cleaning up around the house and yard, so we’re going to be set. Yes, sir.”
Marvel tucked the paper back in his pocket. “Let’s get Tucker and head out. No sense wasting any time here.”
Tucker, Enoch, and Marvel headed off for the fair ground. It was the farthest Marvel had been down Main Street, out where the roads turned to just numbers and letters instead of family names or directions. D Ave. 16th St., just past the Castellaw farm where the road dips a bit; the fairgrounds were down one more dirt road. In the distance, the tents rose from the ground and even closer yet, the wonder wheel slowly lurched in a circle, and the boys could see their friends peeking from baskets, stalled, but waving, from up on high. They could hear the barkers and ballyhoo, screams from the rides, the sweet whistle of the calliope, and Marvel thought it didn’t sound anything like broken glass.
About the Author: Jennifer Brown earned her MFA in 1999 from Bowling Green State University. After 7 states and 2 countries, she now calls St. Petersburg, Florida home. After teaching writing for nearly a decade, she currently works at a small professional theatre . When not working, she's on the tennis courts or enjoying "Sunshine City" with her two dogs.