Every year in the last week of summer, just before school started, the carnival came to town. It took up most of the parking lot of the strip mall on top of the hill, overlooking the highway. The Carousel, Tea Cups, The Matterhorn, and Moby Dick materialized like visiting relatives from far away, mysterious yet familiar, in town for a few days, looking slightly older than they did the year before.
Dad was the biggest carnival fan. He talked it up throughout the summer, the anticipation mushrooming by August. “Carnival’s coming!”
They arrived in a caravan of trucks, trailers, and campers. Sinewy, weather-worn women and men, styrofoam coffee cups and king size cigarettes. It took them three days to set up everything. Dad took me and Lawrence on walks down to the strip mall to check on their progress. He made us pancakes for dinner on opening night. He went with us on all the rides he wasn’t too tall for, and for the real kiddie rides he rooted us on with hollers and whoops from just the other side of the barriers. He was crazy for The Cobra, a mini coaster that we always saved for the end of the night. He wished he could have ridden it with us; I thought he would crawl right through the metal bars of the barrier sometimes he was so excited.
Dad collected his empties all year long, stockpiling them in one end of the garage. Winter nights as a kid, I’d trot happily from the living room to the fridge and back again, cradling beer after beer for him, one hand around the cold neck of the bottle, the other supporting the base. “That’s a pal.” I just wanted those bottles emptied. I never could convince Mom to take one, though. She said the same thing about beer that she said about the carnival. “I’m not crazy about it.”
In August Dad would transfer his hoard of bottles from the garage to the back of the station wagon and, in two trips, return them to Quinn’s Market. For the occasion, Roland Quinn would let us drive around to the back of the store, where he’d unlatch his delivery door. Me and Dad and Lawrence made a chain from the car to the door, passing two-four after two-four of empties into Quinn’s. With the money Dad got he bought us our carnival tickets, unlimited passes, all four nights, with pocket change for Whack-A-Mole and Skee Ball.
The year I started Grade 11 the carnival came late. It was the end of September and it had turned cold, drizzling on and off. We still went but Lawrence was already off working the tar sands and I was looking forward more to hanging out with Angie Hart than with Dad. By then Brad, or the vasectomy malfunction, as I overheard my mother call him one night through the closed door of my parents’ bedroom, was eight. It bugged the hell out of Dad that he’d never had the guts to get on The Cobra. “Your brothers rode it when they were four!” That year Brad announced he was finally ready. It was cruel, but I told him it was probably too late, that he was too tall now. Brad started to snivel. Dad coached him to slouch.
When we got to the carnival I spotted Angie and her friends near the snack bar. After Dad gave me my bracelet pass I told him I’d catch up with him and Brad later. Dad glanced over at the gang of girls. They wore tight jeans and puffy coats. Long wool scarves dangled from around their necks. They laughed and whispered, clutching plastic cups, sipping through straws. Dad patted me on the back, his eyes proud, like I was a soldier or a quarterback. It made me cringe. “Okay, pal. Just be sure to find us in time to see Brad on the Cobra. It’s important his big brother be there.” His breath was foul. He’d already started in on next year’s bottle collection.
I sauntered over to the girls and made like I was interested in the snack bar menu. I said hey to Angie.
I asked her if she had started thinking about that English assignment. She said she was doing it on The Shining because she’d read it over the summer and was planning to coast as much as possible this year. I said I wasn’t sure what I was going to do but a Stephen King book seemed like a cool idea. Her friends giggled and whispered, shared knowing looks. Vicky Dufour was the least subtle of them. “Well, we’ll just leave you two alone.” Her friends slinked away. Angie made a show of protest but she didn’t leave with them.
Every part of me was electric.
Angie had the darkest black hair, down just past her shoulders. Baby blue ski jacket and a white scarf. She wore braces, new from the summer, and I’d noticed at school how she concealed her mouth with the back of her hand now when she smiled or laughed. Angie’s eyes were small, brown, and intense. Her left earlobe held twin green studs. The second piercing was also new from the summer. I wondered if she’d had permission to do that or if she’d just done it.
Once Angie’s friends were out of sight we both got quiet. She looked at the ground and twirled the end of her scarf around her hand. Undid it and twirled it again. “It’s cold, eh?”
I invited Angie on the Spook Train. She didn’t have a bracelet or any tickets but I had a pocketful of loonies and paid for her. We got the back car of the train and it wasn’t too packed, either.
When I was a kid I always sat beside Dad on the Spook Train. Lawrence had to sit in the car behind or in front of us, alone, or sometimes with another kid from another odd-numbered group. Dad called him a big guy for doing it. The Spook Train entered The Haunted Tunnel through an arched cut-out in the ride’s façade just big enough for us to pass under. Inside it was dark like night. And all around us in the blackness were shiny animal eyes; red, yellow, and white, with a litany of howls, hoots, and growls sounding in the background. After the train turned a rough corner, a green spotlight would snap on to the left of us, revealing a skeleton dressed in a train engineer’s overalls and cap, slumped against a rock. All of the sudden the skeleton’s teeth would start to chatter to the tune of insane, tormented laughter. Dad would laugh, too, and softly squeeze my shoulder. He knew I was scared but he didn’t let anyone else know it. He just went on laughing, pretending we were all having the same good time, keeping a hand on my shoulder when Frankenstein’s Monster popped out at us, when the wolves snarled, when the ghosts rattled their chains.
The Spook Train car was small enough that my arm and Angie’s couldn’t help but rest against each other, jacket to jacket. I ventured a bit, cautiously, with my hand and brushed hers with the back of mine, making like it was incidental, and left it there, a minor meeting of flesh. She didn’t move, didn’t flinch. The train started with a jerk and as soon as we were in the dark of the tunnel I sensed her pivot in her seat. I turned, too, and our mouths came together. Angie’s tongue tasted faintly of Coke.
We were still kissing when the train exited the tunnel. Angie pulled away abruptly. We were back out in the cold air, the commotion of the carnival. Angie looked down at her lap and played with the end of her scarf again. We got out of the car and followed the other riders out through the opening in the barrier. We were quiet again. We lingered in front of The Spook Train, the carnival crowds flowing around us. I asked her if she wanted to ride again. She said no. I felt a hollow open up inside of me. But then she took my hand and started walking, pulled me with her. “Let’s go watch the highway.”
We walked through the games alley. An operator with bad teeth implored us to play Balloon Darts. “Come on, win a prize for your girl.” I squeezed Angie’s hand and she squeezed back. I looked at her, caught her eye. For a second she smiled at me, shyly, then looked down. She picked up the pace, started jogging, and tugged me out of the alley. We were right in front of The Cobra.
I could see Dad and Brad in line. Dad kept looking back and forth between his beloved coaster and the surrounding crowds. He was on the lookout for me. It wasn’t so bad that he made Brad do everything Lawrence and I had done, I just didn’t see why I had to relive it all, too. It wasn’t my fault Brad didn’t have a brother his own size.
“Isn’t that your little bro?”
“He’s cute. He looks like you. Want to go say hi?”
“Nah.” I motioned toward The Matterhorn, the hill behind it, the highway. Angie hesitated but followed.
We sat on the grass on the slope of the hill, maybe halfway down to the highway pavement. There were four Grade Nines a little further over, a little further down, boys, sharing a green shaker of Kraft parmesan, licking their palms. It was windier on the hill than in the thick of the carnival. Angie wrapped her arms around one of my arms and leaned on my shoulder. The moon was more than half-full with a bright halo glow all around it. Cars and trucks whipped by in both directions beneath us, headlights bright like the animal eyes on The Spook Train.
“My dad drives a rig,” Angie said.
“He’s home Sundays and Mondays.”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
“I don’t know. It’s always been like that.”
I slipped my arm from Angie’s grip and put it around her shoulder.
“When I was a little kid I thought my dad was driving every truck I saw,” Angie continued, staring at the highway. “I remember once my mom was driving me to skating and there was this rig up ahead of us and I got all excited because I was sure it was him. My mom laughed and said he was halfway to Kenora. I insisted it was him. She just laughed some more. I was so mad at her. She wouldn’t even speed up to check. To prove it wasn’t him. I was just supposed to believe her.”
“You took skating lessons?”
“Well who didn’t that’s a girl?”
We watched the cars and trucks some more.
I moved my head toward Angie’s, sought out her lips. She kept looking at the highway and I had to probe around with my face. She kissed me back but she didn’t open her mouth like on The Spook Train. In the middle of it she pulled back, looked down at the grass. I bobbed for another kiss.
“It was your idea to come down here,” I snapped. I felt Angie withdraw. She turned her head away. My words replayed in my head, nastier with each echo. It felt like I’d broken something, something important and delicate. “Sorry,” I started.
A ray of bright white light, right in my face.
“You two! You can’t be here!” Ken, the mall cop. We called him that but really he was just the janitor. He hated kids.
“I was just leaving.” Angie sprang to her feet and marched swiftly up the hill with arms crossed. I watched her go, watched her disappear at the top while Ken scattered the cheese kids with threats to call their fathers.
“Tough luck, kid,” Ken said to me, shaking his head. He reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a pack of Export A green. “Now get!”
I heard a scream from above. The carnival was full of screams but this one was different. Instead of fun scared it was just scared. There was a rumbling of voices, mounting alarm, an uproar. Ken stuffed his cigarettes back into his pocket and ran up the hill. I followed.
A hundred people at least were clustered around The Cobra and more were on the way, running from different parts of the carnival, curious, nosy, morbid. I was gripped by a sudden, abysmal queasiness. I pushed into the thick crowd, slipping between gawkers up on their tiptoes, necks craned, chattering, giggling. I could see the coaster parked in its start position, a collection of little kids aboard with the safety bars down, waiting, fidgeting, horsing around. Brad’s face was fire engine red. He was in the last car, sobbing. A girl of four, maybe five, was sitting next to him, both arms raised high in the air, screaming delight, even though the ride wasn’t even moving. I got frantic, fought my way deeper into the crowd. I wondered where the ride operator could possibly be. That nobody had attended to Brad yet, to whatever was wrong with him, filled me with fear and outrage.
“Don’t worry, son,” a man’s voice said near my ear. “We’ll get him out. We’ll get him out fast.” It was Roland Quinn. He was forcing his way through the crowd, too, one arm straight out in front of him, the other held straight up in the air. “Coming through, here. Make way!” Above the throng, in Quinn’s hand, a jar of Vaseline.
Quinn grabbed my arm and together we ploughed the rest of the way through. We made it to the barrier and Quinn unlatched the unattended metal gate himself. I started toward Brad but Quinn directed me off to the side instead. People were pressed up all along the barrier, mall cop Ken and a couple of carnival workers urging them back. Dad was right at the front of one section of the crowd, hunched over but looking up. He saw me coming and gave me a big thumbs-up. I couldn’t figure out which side of the barrier he was on.
Because he was on both. Somehow, Dad had squeezed his head through two of the bars and now, clearly, he was wedged there. Apparently every inch had counted on Brad’s big night. “Hey, pal!” Dad called to me, enthused. Like we had just run into each other by chance at a hot dog stand.
Mr. Quinn approached Dad and put a hand on top of his head, gently guided him to bend it down, the way a barber would. He applied a glob of Vaseline to the back and sides of Dad’s neck. “We’ll get you out, Dan,” Quinn chuckled. “Don’t you worry. We’ll try and slip you out with this. Fire department’s on the way with cutters. One way or the other, we’ll get you out.”
I stepped up. Embarrassed and determined at the same time.
“Can I help?”
“Your brother, pal.”
I sprang off, jogged to the base of the coaster’s platform and flew up the stairs. Brad’s grubby cheeks were streaked with tears but he wasn’t crying anymore. He was smiling, laughing even. Angie was there, crouched beside him, chatting away, a hand on the back of his head, stroking his hair, looking important and delicate.