The world was a mess of bright lights and distant screams. The garbage-littered park was awash with people skipping merrily in the filth. Amid the laughs and sweetheart smacking, a gloom of the inevitable hung over the crowd. There might be a tragedy tonight. So we enjoy the last night of the fair.
I could taste the cigarette ash deep fried in Jimbe’s signature deluxe burger. I took another bite into the dry beef, careful not to let the excess mayonnaise and mustard dribble down my chin. I gagged on the stale bread as I tried tearing away at the wet, stringy lettuce. It was the worst burger I ever had.
Cancerous smoke billowed from the stand. Jimbe puffed away as he flipped the patties. Sweat fell in torrents down his face and pits. Enough of it dripped on the grill that I wondered why I wasn’t tasting Jimbe’s moist essence in my meal. It must’ve been carefully hidden by the tomato mush that tried to escape out the side. I wiped the excess mess on my jacket sleeve. The napkin wasn’t doing much to soak up the grease.
“You planning on leaving me a tip, boy?” Jimbe said as he waved his spatula at me. Flecks of hot grease caught me on the cheek.
I held up the burger with a flourish. “For a five-star meal like this, Jimbe, I’d leave ya three.”
“Don’t get smart with me, boy.”
Old Jimbe was probably pleading his case so I kept my mouth shut as I forced down another bite of stale bread. Best not to challenge the old man.
I kicked the plastic bag at my feet. The crinkling sound it made filled me with an odd pleasure. I wanted to destroy something.
“Seriously kid. Quit loitering at my stand.”
Jimbe was staring at me all tough-like. He leaned forward, his cigarette held aloft in his right hand. It was then that I knew he meant business.
I smiled at him and took another bite of his masterpiece before going on my way. He bared his cracked yellow teeth at me before overcooking more of his ash burgers for his long line of customers.
I picked my way through cast-off soda cans and plastic wrappers. I felt out of place amidst the merriment and consumerist wishes. I’ve set fire to a creaky bridge and watched the remains smolder in flashing lights. Under Ferris wheel revolutions, we exerted our last bit of effort.
Two tickets for a night of blinding lights, tinny sounds, and fried heart disease. We tried to make the most of a thing that was already broken and bleeding from the strain. And when no more life could be fed to it, it was shot dead by careless words plainly spoken. She left a trail of tears asking why I had even bothered.
The truth was I couldn’t anymore.
I decided to haunt the fair for a while. I followed the line of vendor stalls spread out on both sides of the well-worn path. The haunting melody of a distant carousel served as background music. In the distance, the Ferris wheel was outlined in hazy colors. Roller coaster rails looked like pencil scrawls etched into the sky above.
The sweet smells of funnel cake and charred meats assailed my nose on all sides. Wisps of cotton candy floated on the air. The crowds were attracted to the bright lights much like the clouds of bugs that buzzed praise over their waste-rich harvest.
I threw away the remains of my burger and hid my hands in my pockets. Peering into the neon void, I let myself get lost in the sounds of metal clanging against metal, the tumble of wheels running against iron rails, the excited trill of an electric tune making winners out of those who pop quarters in their slots. The flashing of game machines beckoned me to a nearby overhang tent of orange and yellow. Every other second, the entrance vomited floods of people, taking their overstuffed animals and brightly lit playthings in tow.
I could see some of the pin-stripped employees, clownish smiles painted on frowning faces, bent over glass counters waving off people who pressed tickets into their hands. There was one little girl pointing to a wide-eyed blue bear with a stitched-on smile. It lorded over everyone’s heads with arms outstretched. She stomped her feet as she presented her ticket roll.
“I want blue bear,” she screamed. “Give me blue bear!”
“You don’t have enough tickets, sweetie,” a young female attendant said in an attempt to console but her furrowed brow belied her frustration. The clown makeup made her look homicidal.
I found the stink of excess crowds abhorrent so I move along to the other species of festival games: the shoot ‘em ups.
Taking a turn around the tent, my eyes met with endless stalls of one-sided square-offs. On one side stood the overstuffed and over stimulated fairgoers aiming makeshift pistols and water guns at the objects across from them. The main attractions were the prizes held hostage until a winner presented themselves.
I found more joy in looking at the designs of the gun range opponents. Some were human faces made parodies of themselves through extreme distortion. There were the robbers with their crooked laughing maws of broken teeth and women caught in an eternal scream. There were monsters that teased their makers scampering across the range in a monotonous up and down motion, and of course the racially insensitive depictions of old war enemies given new life in stirring old resentments. Beside these stands were glassy eyed animals that enchanted those weak to temptation. For each, there was a person hawking out tickets to play.
I passed by most without much of a second glance until I reached the sign for Fool’s
Gold. The words were emblazoned in sun yellow against a haphazardly painted blue background. There was an attempt at waves that consisted of some odd triangular strokes but it was apparent that this proto-Michelangelo couldn’t be bothered to put any more time into it. I appreciated the minor effort.
The goldfish looked up in dead-eyed horror below the Fool’s Gold sign. They swam aimlessly in their murky ship tank. People were popping caps at bottles over their head. A middle-aged Halloween pirate laughed in malicious glee as he hawked the game.
“Five shots for a dollar! Drop a bottle, win a fish!”
Kids with cotton candy sticking to their cheeks tugged at their parent’s sleeves. They whined as they pointed to the tiger-striped fishes that hid from their jeers behind brightly colored rocks.
“Hey, kid, what’s your name?” inquired the Halloween pirate.
I gave him a sly smile. “Call me Eli.”
“Do you want to try your hand at Fool’s Gold, Eli? Five shots for a dollar.” He held up his hand for emphasis as he licked his chapped lips.
“Do you have someone special who’d like a fish?”
I shrugged. “Not particularly.”
“Do you want to bring a special someone home?” he said as he scratched his salt and pepper stubble.
I tried to smile. I couldn’t imagine anyone being too charmed by a bug-eyed fish. Well, she might’ve but she always was happy when I took an interest in anything. Back in the days when nostalgia bleeds things rose, she would smile at me and openly wonder if she was the only thing in the world that could make me care.
Turns out she wasn’t.
I smiled. I decided to take the bait.
I pulled down my black cap as I fished my pocket for a dollar. I gave him my last wrinkled bill.
The Halloween pirate gave me a gun. A plastic one. A strange thrill ran up my right arm as my forefinger brushed against the trigger. I held the gun up to the light.
It was blue, lightweight, and cheap-looking. The kind of gun slaved over by little kids in Chinese sweatshops as their Western counterparts frolicked freely in their backyards playing Cops & Robbers with the neighbor kids. I could see where they snapped certain parts together and glued on others. Still, I was entranced by what it represented. A means to an end.
I could feel my stomach grumbling in protest.
I aimed at the red plastic bottles. They were stacked in rows of five against a white background riddled with indentations. An all-American game made seaworthy by the ship-shaped tank below.
I moved my left hand behind my back and concentrated. My heart rate quickened as I took aim.
I took the first shot. Pop! The sound rang hollow and echoed in the chill air. The toy gun recoiled slightly. It was enough to startle me. The fish blubbed in horror and scrambled.
I took the second shot. I was ready for the snap back. It hit the white background with a quick thud. My stomach did a 180 and I winced. My hand started to shake as I thought of the possibilities.
I took the third shot and sucked in my breath. I was numb to the sound. I was numb to the world. The shot hit the ground and the fish swam up to the top. They sensed the present danger. The present tragedy. My mouth watered as a fresh wave of nausea sharpened my senses.
I drew back the gun and pressed the barrel to my temple. My hand trembled as my finger itched to pull the trigger. A knife twisted in my gut. I wondered if the compressed air was powerful enough to break the skin. It would hurt. It may bleed. But could it break bone and tear through gray matter?
“What’cha doin, boy?” In my peripheral vision, the pirate stared at me in horror.
I smiled and dropped my hand. I saluted the hawker with my gun.
“Just thinking about the fish I’ll take home with me, sir.”
He narrowed his eyes at me but continued to passively sell his game. “Five shots for a dollar.”
I aimed for the last bottle of the second row. Pop! The bottle fell with a hollow thud.
“And we have a winner!”
The Halloween pirate scooped out my prize from the tank with a sandwich bag and handed it to me, still dripping. I didn’t really know what to do with it. I held it up by my forefingers and studied the frightened fish through the glare of the fair lights. It kept nuzzling against its confines, whipping its tail back and forth. It was trying to readjust itself to its smaller prison and like a person groping in the dark, the panic was sharp and lingering. It might adjust to its new confines but it would be a hollow resignation. The hollowness would only grow until there was nothing left.
This fish would be dead in a week.
Pop! Pop! Pop!
A little girl in a yellow balloon hat was firing away with the toy gun to my left.
“Aw man!” she yelled while furiously clicking away at the trigger. She lowered the gun and felt around the pocket of her dress for change but came up empty.
She set the gun down on the table before her and pouted.
I held the fish out to her. “For the effort.”
Her eyes shifted from me to the fish. She took it with an open palm and smiled. “Thank you, sir.”
I replied with a two finger salute and walked away.
I was ready to end my night at the fair. Growing nausea twisted my stomach. I kept my composure as I cut through a line of port-a-potties bridging the game stalls and the amusement park. The putrid smell of human excrement further antagonized my growing nausea. I broke out in a cold sweat as my mouth filled with ash.
I took refuge in the darkness, doubled over, and heaved.
About the Author:
M. T. Hollowell is an aspiring writer born and bred in the Midwest. She’s a recent graduate who got B.As in her lifelong passions, English and History. She spends most of her free time writing, reading, and contemplating the fantastic and strange of the universe. She shamelessly indulges in these passions on her blog Musings of An Addled Mind.