Welcome to the Carnival

A boy discovers his father is more than a…Umm…father.

Fiction by John Dentino

Fiction by John Dentino (1990)

A boy discovers his father is more than a…uhh…father.

  In scraps of memories, in mute smells and pictures, one lost summer of my childhood keeps coming back to me. On a humid, moonless night when the solitary movie theater was dark and my father was away selling VacuLux vacuum cleaners, I took a shortcut home from the river through a tall cornfield.  Farmhouses, lit like sparse tabernacles against the pitch black, misguided me to the forbidden side of town.  I felt light-headed as I wandered, like a zombie, into a traveling carnival.  Amid the discordant whistle of a calliope, drunks and roughnecks from the country pressed against me.  I can still smell the exotic animals and damp canvas tents, see the sudden rush of twisted little faces in formaldehyde jars, and feel the chill that swept over me as an error of nature called the Snake Woman extruded her limbless body from a narrow opening at the top of an Egyptian urn.  The red-nosed clowns took swigs from bourbon bottles hidden in their pantaloons.  The contortionists and fire eaters sweated in the still summer air, plying their trade at the drop of a penney.     I lingered there, sawdust in my shoes, long after my mother, I supposed, had nodded off to sleep under the influence of laudanum.  No families were left, only grown-up men, with their dates clutching at their arms.  Suddenly a wave of gasps and groans hit the crowd and I craned my neck to see what could cause such cold shock. I climbed atop a wooden platform to get a better look and thought I saw a man bite the head off a long brown rat and expel the red stuff into his hand.  Music blared from speakers above my head, and I fell off the platform, losing consciousness to a long dream. For what seemed like endless hours, I ran in and out of different carnival tents, asking the various occupants if they knew the whereabouts of my father, the top VacuLux vacuum cleaner salesman in the county.  I broke into the makeshift boudoirs of the performing ladies as they powdered their breasts with talcum.     In one tent I witnessed, from behind an Oriental scrim, the transformation of a person who could either have been man or woman, into a creature divided clean down the middle.  She discovered me and glared, then laughed. “Would you like me to make you into a girl?” she said.      I sat perfectly still while she applied the white powder and makeup and watched myself soften into a lovely young girl under expert hands.     When I awoke from this dream I was in a little green tent, with the country doctor hovering over me.  He turned to the carnies and said, “The kid’s OK. I’d almost swear he was drugged, though.”     The nurse at his side whispered, “Doctor, the ergot poisonings…” and he quieted her immediately.         “He’ll be fine. He just needs to go home and rest,” he said.         “Shade, show the kid out,” said the carnival master. The head roustabout, a husky man who wore a coyote skull around his neck, picked me up and carried me outside, then let me go.  When I reached my house it was very late.  I tiptoed to my bedroom and slipped under the covers, but the doctor’s voice played over again in my exhausted brain.      Had he said “drugged”?

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