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Kansas City MO 64131

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THE TRAVELING CARNIVAL

Cindy Maddera

The honeysuckle on the fence line fills the evenings with its sweet smell as the fireflies dance around the backyard. The boom and pop of fireworks reverberate from all directions. It has been like that for almost two weeks. Every thing nostalgic of summer. Hot. Sticky. Humid. Sunscreen and bug spray. Ice cream for dinner. As I step out of the shower in the mornings, I slather on sunscreen instead of regular lotion because I know I’m going to be riding my scooter or walking outside. We go to the Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings and buy tomatoes and spend the day riding around on our scooters. This weekend we passed a carnival set up in a parking lot of a derelict shopping center. It was complete with all of the spinning rides that you see in every traveling carnival. The thrill of the ride is whether or not it is going to rattle apart while you’re spinning precariously around at high speed. We had planned to take the Cabbage, but she wasn’t feeling well when Michael picked her up on Sunday. The carnival was packed up and gone by Monday morning, off to their next parking lot and rundown shopping center.

I think about how our perceptions of those traveling carnivals change as we age. As a kid, they held some kind of mystery and glamour. You’d ride your bike down past the empty lot that sits between the feed lot and train tracks one day and it would still be vacant, weeds poking up through the cracked cement. The next morning the lot would be full of activity as rides were bolted back together like a tinker toy set and game booths replenished with plastic wrapped stuffed animals. By the time evening rolled around, the ferris wheel would be up and operational with lights flashing in synchronicity with some tune. There would already be a line for tickets. You would stand in this line with your best friend and discuss how many times you would be able to ride the Bullet that night and what flavor of snow cone you planned on eating afterward. You would spend five dollars trying to win a barely living goldfish at the ring toss. There was always that one ride, usually the Swizzler or Tilt-a-Whirl, that was run by the ‘cute’ carney. You know, that one guy that’s handsome in that rugged, dangerous kind of way. The older teenage girls would hover around that ride pretending to be older and experienced. Over exaggerating their laughter and twirling a sucker in their shiny lip-gloss coated mouths. Every thing was bright and loud. Everything was perfectly safe.

Two days later, all of it would be gone. The only thing left behind would be a few random popcorn boxes of spilled popcorn, the birds fighting over the kernels. There would be some out loud wishful thinking from some of the boys about how they wish they could travel around with the carnival. A rumor about what did or did not happen between You Know Who and Cute Carney Guy would circle around the skate rink for a week or two before some other juicy rumor would take its place. Summer would end and school would start back. We’d all forget about the carnival and the summer. It would be school work as usual, football games and church choir practice. Some random neon colored flyers announcing the carnival would still be stapled to telephone poles around the town months later, well after the return of Fall. Reminders of those two hot summer days of thrills. You will step out the general store and notice one of those neon flyers still stuck to a pole, but it will be torn with graffiti scribbled across it.

And that’s how carnivals will seem to you as an adult, torn and graffitied.

As an adult you will notice the chipped paint and rusted bar on the swinging ferris wheel basket. You will be very aware that you are sitting in a contraption that was literally built that day, bolts tightened down and tested by the guy wearing a what used to be white tank top and sporting a mullet. He most likely was high while doing all of those things. You will see the lights that are burned out and you will hear music that was considered to be classic rock when you were a teenager. That guy running the Swizzler or Tilt-a-Whirl will not be ruggedly handsome, but smarmy and predatory. You recoil and shrink yourself up as he locks the the safety belt for you in hopes to avoid him coping a feel. You complain about the amount of money the child you are escorting wants to spend on trying to win a dying fish. You do not miss the carnival once it has packed up and left, but you will make a face at the amount of trash left in their wake. When is it, do you think, when the mystery and the glamour of the traveling carnivals is no longer a mystery or remotely glamorous? Is it before or after you stop believing in fairy tales? Or does it all happen at once? You just wake up one day with a new pair of eyes or the rose colored pair you’d been wearing finally broke. I don’t remember an in between phase. I don’t remember seeing the the worn out dirtiness of the carnival while at the same time being drawn to the mystery of it all.

Though I am always up for a slide down the Super Slide, even if those burlap sacks are smelly and crusted with good lord knows what.