Dana Fitz Gale | Fiction
The most important part of Caleb’s job is making sure the customers are angry, which comes naturally to him. He’s always had a big mouth and a gift for pissing people off, his teachers, social workers, and old Stobbs, the principal who kicked him out of tenth grade, just last year. And then there’s Pop. When Caleb lived at home, his younger sisters used to beg him to be quiet whenever Pop walked through the door with that half-smile that meant he’d had a hard day helping to unload dead horses at the rendering facility. But Caleb figured he was going to get it either way, he might as well give the old man some reason for his rage. And besides, Caleb’s rudeness helped deflect attention from his mom. He’d take a dose of Pop’s attention any time if it gave her a break.
But all that is behind him now. He’s perched above a dunk-tank at a county fair in Idaho—or maybe it’s Montana, he’s not sure—a spotlight burning through the thick white greasepaint on his face, reflecting rainbows off his spangled hat. He wears a diamond-patterned jester’s costume and has a microphone wired to a pole beside his head. His new friend Rocky’s on the ground, enticing passersby. “This way, folks. Step right up. Two bones to drown the jester,” Rocky says. “Two bucks a ball.”
“Make sure you talk to that guy there,” says Caleb, through his mike. “Him, there, in the enormous cowboy hat. That gentleman looks like he needs some balls.” The punch-line crackles through a hundred-watt P.A., but the cowboy doesn’t even break his stride.
Nearby, two teenage girls are cracking up. Caleb thinks they look a little younger than himself. Fifteen or sixteen, max. One girl is taller than the other, with a sprinkling of pimples on her cheeks. “Did I say something funny, Pizzaface?” asks Caleb, and the tall girl puts her hands over her abdomen, like she’s been shot. “Hey Pizzaface, what did you eat for breakfast, Ugly-Os?” She turns to leave. Her neck is rosy, underneath her ponytail. The shorter girl looks up at Caleb, scowling. For a moment, Caleb thinks he’s got one—she is going to pay—but no, she takes off, following her friend.
He wishes that his former principal could see him now. Old Stobbs once told him, “Acting like a jackass isn’t going to get you anywhere in life. Unless your aspiration is to be a circus clown.” Well, look who’s laughing now, huh, Mr. Stobbs? Caleb has always longed to see the world and now, at the tender age of seventeen, his dreams are coming true. He doesn’t travel with a circus, but with a carnival called “Midway, U.S.A.” In the past year, he’s probably visited more states than that old fogey Stobbs will ever see.
A large man and a larger woman pass the dunk-tank, holding hands. “Hey Sir, I like your pants,” says Caleb. “Tell me, is that your belt holding them up, or the equator?” The man stops and looks around. The woman points at Caleb—big mistake. “Nice dress, Ma’am. By the way, the Ringling Brothers called. They’re wondering what happened to their Big Top. Drumroll, please!” The woman puts her hands over her face and the man turns towards Caleb. His expression is a mixture of bewilderment and loathing. When the man takes out his billfold, Caleb smiles. Hook, line and sinker. Bingo. Gotcha. Fat man’s gonna sing.
Sometimes he feels a little sorry for the customers. Sometimes, he knows, he goes a little bit too far. Still, Caleb’s only trying to do his job, and do it better than Pascal, his predecessor.
Pascal’s in jail for selling weed behind the Magic Carpet ride—no major loss to Midway, U.S.A. Pascal’s a good guy, but he took no pride in jesting. He used to doze off in his seat, waking, from time to time, to shout generic taunts like “Dum-Dum!” “Loser!”—childish, dime-a-dozen insults aimed at no one in particular. But Caleb’s different. Caleb needs this job. He stays up late, inside the tractor trailer where he bunks with seven other men, reading old joke-books, whispering one-liners to himself. The secret is to make the insults personal, unique. You have to hurt the people where it counts so they’ll spend every cent to take you down.
He twists and stretches. Pascal’s right—after a few hours in the seat, your ass goes numb. At least it’s not too warm here, in whatever state this is. Not like in Arkansas, last week, where his iron seat got hot enough to fry a steak and he had to dive into the tank to get relief because the hillbillies down there all threw like girls.
A boy, about twelve, with a shriveled leg, limps up and stops beneath the “Dunk the Jester” sign. Caleb sticks his tongue out. No response. “Well, don’t just stand there, Slugger,” Caleb tells him. “Buy a ball.” The kid turns and hobbles off and Caleb shouts, “Hey, where you going, Gimpy? What’s the matter? Are you chicken? Bwok, bwok, bwok!”
Caleb is not oblivious to irony. He’s been called a gimp and worse, himself, before, which is why he keeps his hand concealed beneath his nylon glove. But if these fairgoers aren’t smart enough to hide their flaws, well, then they’re asking for it, plain and simple. And anyway, they love it. Look, the line to dunk the jester is much longer than the Magic Carpet line. It’s longer than the line to shoot at rubber duckies—longer, even, than the line to hurl blue ping-pong balls at plastic cups in hopes of winning a live goldfish, in a bag. The Goldfish Game is genius. Caleb wishes he had thought of it himself. Five bucks, five throws and –every now and then—some lucky moron wins a ten cent feeder fish. Whoopee.
• • •
Private First-Class Trevor James Beauchamps—called T.J. by civilian friends and family—is at the fair with his two kids: Sawyer, age seven, and Paige, who’s just turned six. He’s having a good time, or thinks he is. He isn’t big on noise and crowds these days, but he remembers when he used to like these things and remembering counts for something, or it should. He got a fifteen percent discount at the gate for showing his military card. Fifteen percent—three bucks—not much having risked his hide in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he wondered why he had to show I.D. when his T-shirt says Enduring Freedom on the front and lists his rank and regiment and squadron on the back. Still, the cashier had been nice enough. She’d thanked him for his service and gave stickers to the kids. She said, “I bet your mom is glad to have your dad home, safe and sound,” and Paige—God bless her honest heart—informed her: “Daddy doesn’t live at our house anymore.”
They’ve only been here for a couple hours and the kids have been on nearly every ride their father will allow. Sawyer wants to try the Zephyr and he’s tall enough, if he stands on his toes, but T.J. will not hear of it. “I don’t trust the guys who put those things together,” T.J. says. “Most of them are on something.”
Sawyer doesn’t press the issue. He’s always been such a good-natured kid. He acts as though he doesn’t mind the Dizzy Dragons and the Kiddie Copters and the Squirt-sized Submarines, though T.J. knows his son is disappointed, not just about the Zephyr but about the corn-dogs, too. When they first arrived, the kids requested corn-dogs and some cotton candy. T.J. told them he’d brought sandwiches along. Turkey and swiss on whole wheat, with sliced apples for dessert. Maybe Shelley lets the kids fill up on junk food, nowadays. He won’t.
Sawyer’s interested in the Whirling Teacups but his sister says that those will make her puke, so they agree to try the Duckpond Game instead. While they wait in line, T.J. continues worrying about the corndogs. Was he wrong to deny his kids this simple pleasure? Who can say? These days, he can’t be certain what those words mean: right and wrong. Assuming there’s a difference, anymore.
When it’s their turn, T.J. shows his daughter how to hold her plastic rifle. “Keep your elbow steady. Like this. Nice and steady. Good. Now squeeze the trigger. That’s the way.”
There are things that happened overseas that T.J. can’t remember now. Or he remembers, but it seems as if they happened to some other person or an actor in some movie, nobody he knows. One thing he does remember is how much he missed his family, the whole time. The first deployment was the worst. There were days when all that kept him going was the photo he kept in his wallet: Shelley and the kids posing with Santa, at the mall. Some days it was too much for him, the thought that some creepy St. Nick impersonator was holding T.J.’s kids when he could not—his kids that already looked so much different than they had before he left. One day, when he’d been gazing too long at the photograph, he put his foot through a glass door, got fifteen stitches and a referral for a mental health exam. He knew other soldiers—married guys, like him—went boozing on their days off, raising trouble, chasing tail, while T.J., who did none of that, got written up for missing his own family too much.
“Here,” he takes Paige’s rifle. “Let me try.” He sights along the barrel at the bobbing head of the first duck. One down. He’s still a good shot, never mind the tremors, a side effect of all these pills they’ve got him on. Three more—he’s on a roll. When he came home, the first time, things were not at all the way he had remembered or expected them to be. Paige cried when he tried to pick her up, and Sawyer wouldn’t speak to him for days.
Five, six. The ducks are coming faster now, just like the alien warships in that video game he liked to play, after Iraq. His kids had gotten used to him, in time, but Shelley wanted him to go to counseling with her. She said she missed the guy she used to know and he said, “Nothing’s different. Here I am. The same old goofy idiot you married.” Shelley was the one who’d changed. She’d learned how to take care of things herself—she fixed the broken screen door, mowed the lawn. He wasn’t sure what he was needed for, apart from blasting spaceships in the den. And she kept asking him why he was angry when he wasn’t. How could he be mad? Thanks to the pills, he mostly doesn’t feel anything at all.
“Daddy,” says Paige. “Can I have my gun back, now?”
“Hang on, sweetheart.” Nine down, or is it ten? “I’m almost done.”
Before he reenlisted, Shelley told him she was lonelier with him back home than with him gone. Eleven, twelve. He’d built a wall, she claimed, and maybe that was true, but didn’t it just prove how much he cared? Why couldn’t she see, he had to seal himself up tight to keep the things inside from leaking out?
After the duck pond, T.J. buys a pair of giant Sno-Cones at the FFA concession, paying no attention to the black flies buzzing all around the booth. Sure, he’s overcompensating for the corndogs, but so what? He wants his kids to like him and to say good things about him, later, to their mom.
Then it’s back across the midway, looking for the pony ride. Paige is going through a major horse phase, lately. The kids are slurping on their Sno-Cones; T.J.’s trying to stop thinking about toxic additives, carcinogenic dyes. He’s having a good time, he tells himself, yet he still jumps when he feels someone touch his arm. It’s only a civilian, just some guy wearing a black mesh muscle shirt, which sags and billows on his fleshless frame. He looks old, with his hollow cheeks and hooded eyes, which doesn’t mean he’s not a threat, of course. Besides, the power of his grip on T.J.’s arm belies his frail appearance. “Yo, Mister, wanna buy a ball?” the stranger leers. He has a barbed wire tattoo on his neck and the worst fingernails T.J. has ever seen. “Two clams to dunk the jester. Come on, man.”
T.J. shakes him off and guides his children to the left, out of the stranger’s reach. The guy has left a grimy handprint on his elbow. Jesus Christ. Why do these carnies always look as if they’ve never heard of soap? It’s like they want to spare the cops the cost of ink when it comes time to fingerprint them, later.
A few steps closer to the pony ride, a voice rings out. “Oh, Blondie, hey. Yoo-hoo! Hey, Blondie, Kmart called. They need you. They’ve run out of stupid.”
Nearby, a woman stops and lifts one hand to her straw-colored hair. She turns and squints and T.J. shades his eyes to see what she can see. Some kind of clown, he thinks, although it’s hard to tell with that spotlight overhead and the sun sinking low, behind.
“Hey, did you hear about the blonde who got run over by a parked car? Bada bing!”
Yes, it’s a clown, all right. A strange one, with a moth-pale face and smeary, charcoal eyes.
“Ha! Get it, Blondie? Parked cars, they don’t . . . aw, forget it. You’re so dumb, if brains was dynamite, yours wouldn’t even ruffle up your hair.” The clown leans to one side to spit and T.J. sees the guy is wearing jewelry as well as makeup: earrings and eyebrow studs and something silver glinting from his lip.
“Dad,” says Paige. “That clown’s talking to you.”
“Hey Sarge, I like your haircut. Kmart needs you, too. They’re out of Brillo pads, is what I hear.”
Paige giggles. T.J. nods, to show his kids he’s a good sport, but the clown, it seems, is not through with him yet. “Hey Sarge, maybe you can explain something to me. I’ve been wondering, how come they train you guys to walk like that? Like you got something up your a—ah-choo! Excuse me! Must be allergies or something.”
“He almost said a bad word,” Sawyer whispers. “He said—”
“I know,” T.J. interrupts his son. “Let’s keep on moving. Just ignore the clown.”
• • •
Caleb watches as the soldier walks away. Maybe he should have listened to Pascal. When Caleb started, Pascal told him, “Rule of thumb. Don’t pick on anyone who looks like they could kick your ass. Particularly guys in camo gear or wearing any kind of military medal. Another thing, don’t pick on amputees, if you can help it. Some people got no sense of humor about amputees, I’ve found. Same goes for pregnant ladies, nuns, and priests.” When Caleb asked him who would wear a medal to a carnival, his friend just shrugged. “Beats me. But if you see one of those dudes, please try and keep your cakehole shut, okay?”
Well, what does Pascal know? Look where Pascal’s ideas have landed him. Caleb has mocked all kinds of military guys and so far, nothing bad has come of it. This last one doesn’t even seem to care. Caleb can see him now, kneeling to tie his daughter’s shoe outside the pony ride corral. The children’s mouths are a bright, Sno-Cone blue, and the little girl has blue stains on her dress. The boy is carrying a Ziploc bag—aha, a lucky goldfish winner. The girl is holding a stuffed panda bear. You have to kill a lot of rubber ducks to win that panda, Caleb knows. In the whole year he’s been with the carnival, he has not seen anybody win one of those bears before.
Another customer steps forward, takes her place inside the chalk ring on the ground. Caleb knows her—it’s the girl that he dubbed “Pizzaface,” although her skin is not that bad, in truth. She throws a ball and misses, then another. Caleb rattles off a few one-liners, but his mind’s not on his work. He’s still watching the soldier at the pony-ride corral.
The pony ride. When Caleb looks at ponies, he can smell his father’s clothes as vividly as if Pop hovered there among the gnats above the dunk-tank water. It was never just his work clothes, either—all Pop’s garments bore the faint aroma of horse carcass, not excluding the brown suit he wore to church. No wonder no one liked to stand beside their family at communion. Caleb hates ponies, with their drooping tails and sad, defeated eyes. Who’d pay to make a living creature plod around in circles? Honestly. If Caleb owned the pony ride, he’d have a sign: You Must Be This Fucked-Up To Ride This Ride.
The soldier’s kids are being boosted into saddles. The boy’s mount is too small for him; his feet are almost dragging on the ground. Caleb can’t look at ponies, so he shifts his gaze back to the soldier, who is standing by the gate, holding the goldfish-bag, the panda bear. This soldier doesn’t fiddle with his phone, like other dads. He doesn’t even turn to watch the small procession going by: a rodeo queen, wearing a sash and rhinestone-studded chaps, with several snooty-looking princesses in tow. He just watches as his kids go round and round, and he waves at them when they go by. The kids wave back, like it’s some kind of thrill for them to see him standing there, each time. Ridiculous and corny, that’s for sure. And yet.
Caleb ducks left to avoid a softball, whizzing past his ear. Poor Pizzaface still hasn’t called it quits. He tips his head back, gazes up into the spotlight, trying to dredge up some half-pleasant recollection of his father. His retinas glow white-hot, sparking haloes in his vision and he’s six years old, again. He’s in the small back yard at Grandma’s house. His father plucks a ripe tomato from a plant and takes a bite, chews meditatively, and then hands the bleeding fruit to him. Here, you can finish this one, sport, but do it quick. You got to eat these in the first five minutes after picking. Wait too long and they lose their flavor, turn to crap.
Is that it? Caleb wonders, staring up into the light. Is that the sweetest childhood memory he has? His eyes are stinging now, but he won’t blink. And then the hinges underneath his seat snap shut—old Pizzaface has made a lucky shot; well, how about that?—and he is falling down, down, down into the tepid water, skidding on his side across the velvet bottom of the tank.
• • •
A cheer goes up, but T.J. doesn’t turn to look. He has no interest in what’s going on back there. He needs to focus on his kids to keep them safe. Hyper-vigilance, that’s what the new shrink calls it. Pompous fool. These doctors use all sorts of big words, but they still can’t tell him what went wrong with Shelley. They can’t explain why he didn’t compliment her when she stood before him in her new dress, just a month before she took the kids and left. In that dress, she was like the noon sun at Fallujah, but when she asked him why he wouldn’t look at her, he couldn’t tell her that it was because she was so beautiful. Instead, he told her he was tired, which was the truth. It used up all his energy, pretending things were normal every day. And when his son, who was supposed to be asleep, ran in and threw his arms around his mother, T.J. told her, “See? See why I keep my mouth shut? Look what happens when I try to talk to you.”
The pony ride is over. Sawyer’s hungry. “Still?” says T.J. “You just ate a giant Sno-cone.”
“Still. Mom says I’m going through a growth spurt. Can’t we get some cotton candy? Please?”
“Yeah, Mom lets us eat cotton candy,” Paige says, twining a long strand of hair around her finger. “All the time.”
“Well, Dad pays for your dental work,” says T.J. There he goes again, making himself sound angry, when he isn’t. He probably should be, since it sounds like Shelley has found someone new. The kids have mentioned somebody named Paul. “I’ll tell you what,” says T.J. “Let’s do one more ride and then I’ll take you both to get a smoothie at the mall. It’s getting late. And cold. Let’s just do one more ride.”
“The Ferris wheel,” says Sawyer.
“No,” says Paige. “Too scary.”
“How about the bumper cars, again?” says T.J. “Those are fun. Let’s do the bumper cars once more and then we’ll head down to the mall. How about it? Doesn’t that sound great?”
The kids look dubious, but they cooperate. They follow T.J. through a haze of colored lights, past an old woman selling helium balloons and past the dunk-tank, where the clown is still haranguing passersby. T.J. is thinking about Paul. He wonders what Paul looks like. He tries to picture his wife with another man; he tries to picture them in bed. He tries to muster something, rage or jealousy, but all he feels is a mild tingling in his gut. Hunger, possibly. The medications do a number on his appetite.
“Look, Dad, the clown’s all wet,” says Sawyer, pointing. “Someone must’ve hit the target, finally.”
“It serves him right,” says Paige. “That guy is rude.”
Her father smiles. “Well, that’s his job, sweetheart. He’s only doing what he’s supposed to do.” What kind of job does this Paul have, he wonders. Can Paul shoot a dozen rubber duckies in a row?
“Hey, Soldier.” It’s the clown, again. “Hey Sarge, forgot to tell you. Your wife called.” T.J. stops.
“Uh-huh. She called me up to say she left her toothbrush at my place. Yuk, yuk, yuk.”
“Why’s he talking about Mom?” says Paige. “He doesn’t know her.”
“Yo, Sarge, she left her nightie there, as well.”
“Gross,” says Sawyer. “I don’t get it.”
Paige says, “Dad, you’re squishing all my fingers.”
The clown takes hold of the long fabric cones on each side of his hat, and pulls them down around his face, like hound-dog ears. “Don’t take it personally, Sarge. She didn’t tell me she was married. I just assumed she wasn’t, when I found her number on the bathroom wall.”
“Ouch, ouch!” says Paige, and T.J. lets go of her hand.
• • •
Everybody has a secret button, Caleb knows. Even the coolest customers will lose their shit if he can find that button and keep pushing. Stobbs had one. The soldier has one, too—he must, but Caleb hasn’t found it yet. He tries another joke about the wife, a lewder one. Rocky looks up, his mouth as slack as ever but his bloodshot eyes betraying a mild hint of curiosity. The soldier, though, seems unaffected, even after Caleb changes tack and starts suggesting that he’s gay. “Don’t ask, don’t tell, right, Sarge? Wink, wink.”
“What’s wrong with you, Bozo?” An old man approaches Caleb. He has a stubbled chin and looks like he’s been drinking steadily for days. “You got a problem with our troops?” he slurs, and then salutes the sky. “America. God bless the U.S.A.”
“Hey Gramps, make like a ballerina. Split,” says Caleb. “Why don’t you get yourself a gallon jug of Listerine and hunker down?”
The soldier’s leaving now. He’s walking off with one kid on each side and Caleb finds, to his surprise, that he is glad. There’s something about Sarge that makes him hope he’s wrong about the button thing. Maybe the soldier doesn’t have one, after all. Maybe some men are different from the rest.
• • •
They’re almost to the bumper cars when Paige starts wailing that she’s lost her coin-purse. “It was in my pocket. Now it’s gone!” So back they go, retracing steps until they find her coin-purse on the ground, a few feet from the “Dunk the Jester” sign. The clown is busy now, tormenting other customers—thank God for that. Paige makes her father count the pennies. They’re all there. He zips the purse into his backpack, telling his daughter she can have it after it’s been cleaned.
Then Sawyer sneezes. “Bless you!” It’s the clown. Just when T.J. had finally started to relax a bit. That’s what he gets for letting down his guard.
“Hey, that’s a nifty goldfish,” says the clown. “Did you win that yourself, Sport? Wow. How old are you?” And when Sawyer doesn’t answer, “What’s the matter, Sport? Cat got your tongue?”
Next thing he knows, the waxy, lukewarm layer that shelters T.J. from the outside world dissolves. It’s nothing in the words themselves—cat got your tongue—it’s more the cadence of them and the angle of the sun, the smell of fried food and the distant sound of freight cars coupling and the way the asshole clown is smiling, scratching his left hand.
• • •
Well, look who’s joined the line of customers. Surprise, surprise. Caleb had given up on Sarge, yet Sarge is back—he obviously couldn’t get enough of Caleb’s jokes. The soldier’s going to buy a ball, which proves that Caleb is the greatest jester Midway U.S.A. has ever known. Even when he isn’t trying, he gets his man.
The dunk-tank line is shorter than it was an hour ago. The sun is setting and the wind is picking up. Caleb tucks his hands beneath his armpits, wishing that his costume weren’t so wet. He isn’t used to places where it gets this cool in August.
Sometimes at night, when Caleb rolls along some highway in the eighteen-wheeler, he sees back yards full of weeds and trash, brick houses where the curtains flicker with blue television-light. Or he sees houses with no curtains. Once, he saw two people having sex on a bare mattress and he laughed out loud, while the men around him slept. Another time, he caught a glimpse of wallpaper inside a kitchen—old-fashioned, peeling, with a blue rose pattern—and it filled him with a longing he could not explain.
A ball rolls down the gutter. Rocky shouts, “Who’s next? Who’s next? Who wants a shot at Mister Jester?”
An overweight man steps into the chalk ring with a ball, and Caleb pulls his ruffled collar up around his chin. Goddamn this wind. Goddamn this place. It’s cold. The customer, the fat man, looks familiar, but they all do this late in the day. “Hey Lard-O,” Caleb greets him, wearily. “Your sister called.”
• • •
“What are we doing here?” says Paige. Her voice is wavering in pitch, which makes her sound much younger than she is. “Why do we have to wait in this long line? I hate that clown.”
“We need to teach that guy a lesson,” Sawyer says. “We have to show him he can’t be so mean.”
T.J. looks at his son, surprised. His eight-year-old is right. A simple lesson in respect, that’s what it is, and nothing more.
• • •
The next few customers are nincompoops, and Caleb tells them this while trying to scratch his left palm through his glove. His hand still itches, all these years after the so-called accident. It itches and it stings, along the raised seams of the grafted skin. But the hand, at least, distracts him from his clammy costume, from the smell of popcorn, wafting in the air. It’s been at least six hours since he ate lunch, and snacks are not allowed while he’s on shift.
Last month, the carnival stopped over for a brief stint at a country fair within a hundred miles of his hometown. He thought of calling up his mother, just to hear her voice, to see if maybe she would come and have a cup of coffee, sit a spell at one of the long tables in the FFA pavilion. Then he thought of Pop, imagined his voice answering the phone instead of hers, and Caleb knew he couldn’t call home, then or ever.
• • •
“Who’s up?” says Rocky. “Who’s up next?”
“I am,” says T.J., and he takes his place inside the chalkdust ring.
Ring, ring. He still wears his. He sees it now, on his left hand, as he adjusts his stance. His hands are relatively steady, at the moment. He can keep them that way if he thinks about his breathing, if he concentrates on just one thing. It does no good to think about the other stuff, like what he’d say if Shelley gave him one more chance. He’d like his wife to know he didn’t reenlist to spite her, like she thought. He’d never planned on going back a second time. He just ran out of options. He didn’t remember how to be a husband or a father but he knew how to be a soldier, still. And he thought maybe if he went back over to the sandbox, maybe he’d find what he’d lost. Like in those daytime shows where some gal hits her head and gets amnesia and then, later on, she hits her head another time and boom—she’s back to normal. He’d thought maybe, if he reenlisted, he could make things right again, but he was wrong.
“Gee whiz, you’re looking kind of trembly, Sarge,” the clown says. “Could be time to put the cork back in the bo—”
A splash. Applause. His children, laughing. “That was awesome, Dad,” says Sawyer. “That was cool. Do that again,” and T.J. feels a slow heat radiating from his core. This isn’t pleasure he’s experiencing, but it’s something.
“Yeah,” Paige says, hopping up and down. “Do that again. Please, Dad?”
“Well,” T.J. checks his billfold. He still has some money left inside.
• • •
It’s harder than it looks to hit that bullseye, Caleb knows. One time, in Alabama, some guy dunked him two times in a row and another time, some Texas smartass got him three times out of four, but this soldier is the first to sink him five times running. Crap almighty. Make that six.
From underwater, Caleb can hear garbled shouts and cheers. He sees kaleidoscoping greens and yellows, sees his own limbs moving in slow-motion. Each time he hits the bottom of the tank, it takes him longer to stand up. It’s warmer underneath the surface than above. But he has to climb back in that seat because a crowd is gathering out there. He has to show those idiots who’s boss.
• • •
Now it’s official. T.J.’s having fun. Everybody wants to see the loudmouth clown get dunked. Strangers are coming up to T.J., trying to shake his hand or slap his back. He winds up for another pitch and—it’s a good one. Listen to those cheers.
Inside his mind, he’s started dedicating every pitch to something he has lost. One for his wife. One for his kids. One for his livelihood. He’s been on disability for six months now. The army doesn’t want him back, thanks to his shaking hands and the exaggerated things the doctors wrote in their reports.
This pitch is for the things he didn’t say when Shelley left. She came downstairs and told him she was packed; the kids were waiting in the car. She asked him if he hated her and he didn’t even look away from the T.V. “I don’t hate anyone.” That was the only thing he said.
“Are you finished yet?” asks Paige, her shrill voice ruining his concentration, yet again. “I don’t like this. Anyway, the clown is cold, Dad. Look, he’s shivering.”
“So what?” says Sawyer. “Serves him right. Dad’s going to knock him down again, right, Dad?”
“No. Sorry. We’re all done. I’m out of cash.”
“Here,” says a man wearing a studded leather vest. “Take this,” he thrusts a crumpled ten in T.J.’s face. “You can’t quit now, man. You’re the best thing at this fair.”
• • •
Pascal, that loser, never told him this could happen. Never warned him he’d get dunked so many times his ears would ring and he’d forget to close his mouth and breathe in gritty water, full of bugs. But they don’t know who they’re dealing with, this crowd. He won’t quit. He’ll keep on climbing back into that seat, no matter what, because that’s why they pay him the big bucks and because those morons out there don’t know shit. Not one of them knows how their skin smells when it starts to burn and they have never left their bodies, drifted, like he’s drifting now, watching the people on the ground get smaller, smaller, slipping underneath a neon sign and past the rodeo announcer’s booth, over the top rim of the Ferris wheel, on towards the stars, while somewhere down below, there is a brick house with a woman screaming and a man holding a small boy by the wrist and hissing, say it, say it now, you stubborn little bastard, say you’re sorry. No. Nobody knows a thing.
• • •
The clown has lost his hat. His makeup’s coming off in patches and his face, beneath, looks startlingly smooth. How old is he? What difference does it make? The bystanders have started chanting—dunk him, dunk him—stomping their feet in rhythm with the words. T.J. has not felt this appreciated since the day he went to visit Sawyer’s school, before his first deployment. The principal held an assembly in the gym and all the kids waved handmade paper flags, but even that was not as good as this. He does some arm circles, to loosen up, and feels a sharp tug on his shirt.
It’s Paige. She wants to tell him something. It looks like maybe she is crying and—somewhere in T.J.’s brain—he knows he should react, he should take pity on his daughter, but he can’t. Not now. Not when he’s on a roll. Not when the bullseye’s pulling at him and the spectators are stomping, chanting, and he’s already decided his next pitch is for those friends whose names he’ll never speak again, who were with him on that day that never happened, nineteen months ago.
“Dad?” It’s Sawyer, this time. T.J. glances at his son, wondering how the boy would interrupt him, at a time like this. “Dad?” T.J. looks again, annoyed, and sees that his two kids are holding hands. No doubt about it, Paige is crying now. “Can we go home?” His son’s voice sounds determined and afraid. And T.J.’s raised arm buckles as he sees his children, standing there. He sees his kids. His kids. They’re hurting, too.
• • •
The soldier’s leaving and the dunk-tank crowd is breaking up. The spectators are wandering away. “Hey, where you think you’re going?” Caleb rasps, then spits. “Come back here, Sarge, you chicken!” But he’s gone. “Big chicken,” Caleb coughs and shivers. “Bwok, bwok, chicken. Loser. Pussy.”
Rocky looks up and grins at him—a rare, disturbing sight. He’s missing his front teeth. “Yo kid, why don’t you take a break? Go get a corndog. Go warm up.”
But Caleb, after coughing up more water, shakes his head. Why would he leave? He has the best seat in the house. Even with his molars chattering, he loves the carnival at night—the whirl and glitter and the sound of happy morons, wasting dough. From his seat, he can see the Doomed Titanic and the Matterhorn and on beyond these, in the fading hills, a strand of moving headlights on some highway: a parade of jeweled insects, heading home.
Dana Fitz Gale lives in Missoula, Montana with her husband and their two young sons. She is a recipient of the Arts & Letters Fiction Prize, the Writers at Work fellowship, the New Letters Prize for Fiction, and the Charles Johnson Fiction Award. Her work has most recently appeared in New Letters, Quarterly West, Indiana Review, Arts & Letters, Crab Orchard Review, and New South.Featured Image by Daniel von Appen