With the recent news that the state of New Jersey closed down some games of chance on the Jersey Shore because they were deemed crooked, here is an old story about a summer carnival with a similar theme.
Dust on my shoes I sit on the top old tire at the side of the carnival booth. The tires lean away at an angle from the brown rope that tugs at the canvas tent with its faded red, green and blue stripes held by a cinder block that keeps the tire pile from falling over.
I’m probably not supposed to sit on the tires, but I’ve been standing here for more than an hour, shifting my weight from one leg to another, holding a red Teddy bear we won at a ring toss game; the fur is already sticking to my hands, and I rub it on my blue jeans leaving a red furry streak on my thighs.
Why does it always look so new? I wondered. So grand, washed clean, the bright, flashing rides, the happy music leaking and clashing from a dozen speakers; kids dragging parents by their hands… I want that, Can I have that … Can you win that for me? Can I try? Fingers sticky with cotton candy, cheeks smeared red with candied apples and pants dripped with ketchup.
Every year we come it looks so new.
The sun had got stuck on the tops of the grandstand at the race track and the horses cut the last turn in front of a huge, glowing yellow ball, shadows like spirits, thin moving frames skinny in the center with oblong heads, then full and breathing hard, ground shaking, straining against the bridle and feeling the tip of the whip on their flanks as the ragged jockeys kicked their sides, rocked forward, heads down, asses in the air, urging, screaming, Come on! Come on!! Then they pass, the air is empty. The sun, unstuck, settles.
“Damn it!” My father cursed.
“That’s seven outta ten, pal. Not a winner.” The cigarette at the side of the carney’s mouth jiggled when he spoke, flipping ash. “Again?” And he holds up the rifle.
“What do I need?”
The carney scratched his nose, then pushed the ball cap off his forehead. “Well, look, since it’s late, it’s like this. Ten outta ten gets you a thousand bucks. Nine outta ten, say, five hundred. Seven? say $100. Anything less, zip. All for twenty bucks.” My father pulls a wad of loose bills from his pants pocket and stares. “I’ll be right back. OK to leave him here?” The guy says sure, and my father walks away.
He walks erect, tan dress pants creased, breaking just so on the tops of brown dress shoes. A thin belt. A white cotton short-sleeved shirt with one pocket. And a short-brimmed straw hat, with a red silk band; always seemed like it was too small.
It was the deal. I would get to try my hand at some twenty-five cent kids games – I won a few and we traded up to the red Teddy bear — and he would try the shooting game.
“I could shoot well when I was your age.”
A booth to the right folded its canopy shut, a flutter of dust caught is a high spot light, a beacon in a settling dark shell. Families trudged by, kids with balloon hats and dolls and plastic gorillas, slurping melting ice cream, getting yelled by their mother when they spilled in on their pants. All those toys and games and everyone just looked tired, used up; empty.
I looked up at the guy, all skinny and gray-faced, sunk inside a blue shirt with dark stains, a crushed pack of Camels in his pocket; he leaned sideways and spit a black wad.
I slung my left arm around the rope and hooked it in my elbow and felt the canopy shutter, then grab back.
“He ain’t gonna win, ya know kid,” the carney leaned in, while his elbows rested on the counter and his hands held up his face and his tobacco breath washed foully over me.
“Why not?” He shrugged.
“It’s rigged. All this stuff is rigged. Looks easy and fair, but these ducks are weighted, and when I reload the track for the games with real money at stake, they get heavier. That little pea-shoot won’t do it. You couldn’t knock them over with a twenty-two.”
“Why do you do it? Ain’t that cheating?”
“See that sign in the back?” He nodded to a dirty yellow sign in the back dark corner of the booth. “Says the ducks contain lead and the lays out the odds of winning, about ten-thousand-to-one, when it’s more like a million-to-one.”
“Why do you do it?”
“Gotta make a living. Company’s gotta make a profit. Them horse races you was watching? See the jockeys pull back their rides? They already know who’s supposed to win. Jockey wins a race he ain’t scheduled to win? He don’t ride again in this meet.”
I stared at the ground. Where was he going to get the money? We only came here with about fifty bucks.
“Hey, kid, try this. Head off to the toilet and when he comes I’ll send him after you, and when he leaves, I’ll shut down. Save him the embarrassment.”
“Why would you do that?” The man spit out another black gob.
“Cause you look like a good kid, and while I don’t look it, I’m not a bad guy. Seen too many working men lose their week’s pay, betting against odds they can’t figure. But they get that fever. Gonna win or bust. A big dream, be a big man. Seen ‘em sell watches and rings, stuff, figuring they’ll win enough to get it outta hock. Then the bust. There’s nothing here worth trying to win five-hundred bucks. It’s rigged, kid. Everything is rigged. In the end, all you get is red Teddy bear.”
So I walked away, past carnies trying one last deal … three shots for a quarter … win your honey a gold ring… try your luck.
Walked away and waited near the toilets; sad faces, plastic giraffes on sticks, heart-shaped balloons crushed, leaking air. But not me, I thought; the ride home would be wonderful, a new soda and hot dog for the trip, top down, music loud on the radio. Walked away, the glitter now crass, the facade stripped away, fool’s gold exposed.
The carney squeezed his face shut and shook his head once, then flapped the door closed against the counter, a clutter of metal locks, then silence.
He was waiting at the booth. He took off the straw hat and ran his hand through his thinning hair, then shoulders slumping, squinting, started at his dust-covered shoes.
The ring was gone. Wore it on his right pinky since before I was born. Probably a gift.
My father’s hollow face.