CARNIVAL

by Richard Behrens

I

As he turned sixty, Harry Bustamonte grew so sick of the world and the human race that he donned a moth-ridden pork pie hat, took to the road, set fire to the seat of his pants, and eventually returned to his home town to crash out in the abandoned ruins of an upstate amusement park.  There he took shelter among the rusting rails of the kiddie coasters, the dark looming painted walls of the ruined funhouse, and the sheltering pits of the crumbling concession trailers.  He was accompanied only by his drooping hound-dog, Mr. Fang, a sad-eyed creature with one ear and with six toes on each paw.

Harry improvised a bedroom in the funny mirror room of the Wacky World attraction.  An old cushion from the Tilt-a-Whirl served as a mattress, a burlap banner from the freak show as blanket, and a deteriorating air conditioning unit turned over on its side as a night table and shelf for his hooch.  The burlap banner announced in gaudy red carnival lettering: $10,000 REWARD IF PROVEN NOT ALIVE!

Mr. Fang didn't like the carnival setting at first: the skeleton of an old guard dog had been left chained to the parachute ride gate.  Fang avoided the polished bones and the iron gate like it was some profaned temple, a dark and evil place.  Harry could always tell the places that were haunted: Fang's nostrils would flare, the reddish hair on his back would rise, and he'd urinate where he stood without lifting his leg.  Both master and beast needed to get used to the deranged spirits that circled the rusting and decaying rides.

The only times Harry ventured beyond the fairground perimeter would be on Saturday mornings, his weekly shopping spree.  Down the road was a shopping mall that looked like a series of gray matchboxes lined across a gridded parking lot.  The inside was half-deserted with many of the stores closed and the rest doing no business.  Fat teenaged girls picking their acne would sit under cardboard pagodas waiting for customers to deliver canisters of Kodak film.  The sight of their sunken faces and pale complexions made Harry glad he had trashed fellowship behind him.

"Such is the human creature," he'd quip.  "I am not of them."

The owner of the supermarket, a thin whispery man with hardly a face to speak of, was an old army pal of Harry's; they had both worked on the deconstruction of the highway as asphalt blasters.

 "Once the road was abolished," the owner explained to puzzled visitors, "there was no more use for the mall.  But instead of closing, we keep it open as a sort of museum piece.  There are hardly any more like it, not since the War."

The archaic parking lot, spotted with the ancient frames of burnt-out vehicles, served as host to the latest form of transport: the rickshaw.  Small-boned coolies could be seen blowing air like overwrought goldfish as they pulled a flower-decorated compartment full of blank-eyed locals.

"Giddyap!" the riders would snap, hitting the sandal-footed runner with an ox goad.  Harry couldn't help but feel the blows on his own scarred and pitted back.

"Yes," he thought.  "The lash of the highway foreman was mighty cruel.  But we dug that road up alright!  It's as gone as the golden age and the garden of Eden!"

Since rickshaw fare to the mall was exorbitant, considering the enduring hardship of the coolie's labor, only the very wealthy frequented the shops. They moved past the still and silent marble fountains like wretched shades from a detoxification freak-out.  Harry shunned them as he would a rotting corpse.

When the supermarket owner saw Harry, a bent shadow of a man, slither down the aisles of his store, a limp burlap sack over his bony shoulder, he'd instruct the check-out girls, giggly gum snappers, to look the other way while Harry filled his bag with cans of corned beef hash, tins of sardines, tuna fish, potatoes, and, of course, bottles of the good stuff, the only liquid to pass Harry's dried and cracked lips.

The owner was not always so generous.  There were times he'd chase Harry away with a meat clever from the chop counter.

"Get your dripping hemorrhoids away from my store!" he'd howl.

"Ain't got no hemorrhoids," Harry would protest.  "Come on, Bill!  We go back a long ways!  Besides, where else I'm gonna eat?"

"Eat your dog's dung!" came the last angry words.

Harry was patient, however, for he knew the ropes and even filched groceries from the loading dock when he had to.  Some weeks he went hungry, some weeks he feasted like a king.  But he never starved.

II

At night he would set up a tilt-a-whirl chair under the stars and drink with his mutt, cursing at some of his least favorite constellations and muttering improvised prayers to those he had always liked best.  Orion, for instance, got his goat and made him kick his heels in the mud, while Aries pleased him no end.

He imagined himself traveling on the Mars Rocket ride straight up to the outer rims of space until he arrived at that far-distant place.  It would be, no doubt, inhabited by bug-eyed Arians who'd greet him warmly on that planet where no human had ever set foot.  It would be just him and Mr. Fang, seated on an oaken carved veranda amidst a forest of tremendous purple trees, encircled by polka-dotted vegetation and basking in the hot Arian sun remembering with disgust the ugly, dusty, bone-cracking, head-splitting world they left behind.

It was nice to imagine such a scene to escape the darkness that surrounded him at present, the wasted relics of another generation's madness.  Many of the objects he came across, he had no way of deciphering, like the mechanized bear, coated in a thick mat of black fur that came to an end below the waist; after that it was only steel bars and wooden supports.   It had been lying serenely in the middle of the fairground's dining hall.

"Who the hell," Harry puzzled, "would decorate a restaurant with a robot grizzly?"

Small clown dolls, the rubber heads chewed by time-remote scavengers, lay scattered throughout the grounds.  The best Harry could imagine was they were used for baseball throwing games.  Most of their wooden bones were snapped in half, causing the whole foot-long body to wobble obscenely when picked up off the ground.  Harry used these toys to play catch with Mr. Fang.  He called it Clown Toss.

The grounds were filled with mystery and concealment.  Gasoline cans, plastic-foam coffee cups, mud-splattered comic books, discarded rubbers, and fly swatters embossed with the name JACOBSON were pieces of a complex puzzle that needed to be threaded together.

For one thing, the objects were scattered where they made no sense.  Back-scratchers lined the floor of a Ferris wheel compartment, make-up puffs lay flat as pancakes in the cafeteria ovens, and a pair of baby's boots were swinging from the sign announcing the Boneless Man attraction ("$10,000 if proved to be a fake!")

There were even traces of previous vagabonds who had made the carnival grounds their home.  Notches carved into gnarled tree trunks formed crude calendars.  Recently dug graves revealed empty bean cans, whiskey bottles, and even a few human bones.

Harry considered a complete archeological dig of the grounds.  One day he watched Mr. Fang dig up a femur that was buried beneath an empty frame of advertising hoardings.  He knew that a dark secret lay concealed, if not below the earth, but upon it, it's whole fractured and strewn about, the original being broken into a whispery trail of rotting condoms, rusted kitchen utensils, and putrid smelling jerricans.

III

"One day I'm going to write a book," Harry told Mr. Fang proudly. "The history of this place as told by an insider."

Harry had a major advantage over the other vagabonds who had inhabited the camp:  he had been to this very place when he was a young boy.

...When the hell was that?...a distant shore with alien vegetation...

Once the dusty midway had been alive with movement. Harry remembered with ambivalence the bright red balloons, strings lamps made of brilliantly colored paper, stuffed animals and hardened baseballs.  All those objects which dazzle and mollify a child, those were the objects that filled Harry with disgust.  None of them ever came remotely close to entertaining him.

His aging grandfather, Seymour "Buster" Bustamonte, a retired Army Colonel with one eyeball, took the boy to the carnival every Labor Day for the anarchist parades.  The young Harry couldn't emphasize more how bored to tears he was with the bright coloring and dizzying motions of the rides and attractions.

"You little brat!" the white-skulled man would snap, his spindly legs shaking in black leather boots.  "When I was a little bastard like yourself I loved the boardwalk.  I fired those water guns into the clown mouths and watched the damned balloon heads explode.  That's how I got into the army, see.  I got off shooting clowns in the mouth with a water pistol and when the War came around...you see, you can learn a lot from all this stuff in the end, you just have to possess the right attitude.  So come on and enjoy the rides.  Come see what it's like to be inside a Spitfire bomber while it crashes to the ground!"

But the sullen child, so different from other boys his age, remained unmoved.  The decrepit old man would hoist the boy on his shoulder and parade him around from one attraction to another, single-mindedly searching for an amusement that would fire the lad's youthful imagination.  The two made quite a sight, especially when Harry reached puberty and grew to a considerable height.  There would be the old war-horse heaving and puffing under the weight of the pimply faced and pock-marked corpse of a boy that dangled from his shoulders.

Harry remembers a carnival clown advancing on them, red hair flapping and bow-tie spinning with some inner mechanism.  He honked a few blasts from his bicycle horn into Harry's face, but the boy remained unmoved.  Privately, he was terrified of the blubbery red lips and bulbous crimson nose that resembled a rubber ball riddled with canine bites.

The Colonel slapped him violently across the face.  "You little brat! Laugh at the goddamned clown!  He's funny!  You got a sense of humor, ain't you?  You're as shameless as a barnyard pig rolling in its own piss."

The rides, especially the roller coaster, frightened Harry more than the clowns.  He panicked at the sight of their large metal-framed tracks silhouetted like scaffolding against the cold gray sky. If his grandfather tried to bring him close to any of their ticket gates, Harry would let loose a hysterical outcry, thrashing and flailing his arms and legs until the old man dropped him to the ground to avoid sharp nails and gnashing teeth.

"You bugger!  Keep still or I'll knock your teeth in!"

The only attraction that had appealed to him in those days and still fascinated him to no end was the Wacky World.  It was the largest structure in the whole carnival and covered a square quarter mile of the fairgrounds. From outside it looked like a tractor factory on an open plain, with low-lying tan walls whose monotony was broken occasionally by a utility exit door or a sprinkler pipe with a red wheel and metal ladder heading off towards the roof.  But the front was a huge facade, painted brilliantine colors.  Staring at the faces and images depicted there made him the closest he ever came to "happy."

IV

"Imagine if you will," Harry would write in his autobiography, if he knew how to write, "a frail sickly boy from a crumbling plantation family, living in a deteriorating mansion on the edge of a malaria-infested swamp.  It is an area thick with weeping willows and crawler vines, vast sycamore trees with bloated trunks blocking out the sunlight.  He is a boy beaten regularly by his brain-diseased father (a paralytic bent upon cruelty and accustomed to murder sprees undetected by local law enforcers), a boy denied any real pleasures (girlfriends, boyfriends, school, candy, trips to the woods or the fishing hole), being dragged around by a senile war veteran who hits him every time he doesn't enjoy himself in the way that is expected.

"Then, imagine this same boy, scared and trembling within, tight muscles and stiff without, coming through huge iron gates under a darkening sky, passing along a winding asphalt walkway, and approaching the largest building he had ever seen, the facade spilling over with the bloated, hideous faces of crazy men, their features twisted and elongated, sometimes crushed tight, tongues wagging loosely and jiggling around, eyeballs popping, teeth slanted and jagged.  Also on the facade are distorted limbs and large feet, elbows bending in the wrong direction and necks craned to capacity length and then some.

"After seeing such a facade, the slow starting spark of something twisted must be kindling in this boy's brain, digging in deep and churning long buried telescopic images, desperately climbing their way up through his environmental sewage, threatening to erupt in that empty space just above the skull where all madness and dreams are coagulated into visible pearls and reflected in the wild gleam of the madman's eyes."

V

"The Wacky World became a surrogate home, and the boy would always gauge his happiness by his distance from the attraction.  No wonder he was so bored by the rest of the carnival, seeing them as pale attempts to do what he thought was worthwhile: finding a way to escape earth's gravity and travel to a distant star.  The Mars Rocket and the Trip to Venus were paltry shams, hunks of metal that associated interplanetary travel with actual spatial displacement.  The boy, in his pre-adolescent wisdom, knew different."

Harry knew he was not of the planet Earth and that each year he stayed there his suffering grew more acute until not even death could release him and enact a return.  Perhaps he did, after all, come from the constellation of Aries, from a vibrant planet where people's faces and bodies looked like the images on the funhouse facade.

Yes, he had concluded a long time ago, my race is really alive on Wacky World.  I am the Fallen Angel who was sent here in punishment for a sin now forgotten.

And this thing, this poorly slapped-together amusement house at a backwoods carnival, this was a museum containing exhibits, artifacts and antiques of that long-lost civilization.  Within these walls were the remains of his spaceship and the objects found therein.  He recognized his aqualung and extravehicular activity cord, heard tape recordings of the heartbeat from the Unnamed One, and felt the soft gravel from his home town.  There was his collection of Arian books, still undeciphered by American cryptographers; and photographs of life back home, quaint and serene shots of back porches covered in orange fuzz and red tendril vines draping around the railing which wiggles and writhes like erectile tissue (some American scientists still insist this is a monumental hoax conjured by supermarket tabloids).

Sure enough, when Henry first entered the funhouse (without his grandfather who feared the excitement would be too much for his faltering heart), the boy was sent into a spin, like he was climbing back through a vortex towards a home he knew and loved.  Appropriately enough, the first stage was the turning barrels, and Harry's little body was flung about from side to side, letting his shifting weight propel him towards the wooden slats at the other end.  "Wheeee!" Harry cried out loud, having fun for the first time in his life.

Now an old man and a crumbling remnant of a person long since dead, Harry Bustamonte can still hear that first cry of joy.  It didn't pain him with nostalgia...it annoyed him to tears that he can't go back and assure the vilely optimistic youth that beyond the wacky barrels, and the wacky stairs, and the wacky corridor, and the wacky rooms, and the wacky mirrors, and the wacky exit, he would still find no entry point into the vortex.

He was forever a prisoner on this grease-clogged world, rotting under a piss-yellow sun and strangling on the mildewed air.

VI

That is, until the satellite crashed!

It was a cold September evening and the poplars along the perimeter fence were bending in the heavy breeze.  The sky had been flickering with crazy lights for days and Mr. Fang had been going into tail spins, howling like a lunatic at the waxing moon.  Venus, which rose elegantly over the midget house, even sputtered out and vanished.  Harry thought, "The whole damned shithouse is about to blow!"

There were sounds of motorcycles from a distant dirt turnpike and Harry shivered in the cafeteria under the wooden benches, looking for comfort in the company of the severed bear torso and a large clown bust that stared down from an overhead rail.  Mr. Fang crawled in after his master.

"Don't worry, Fang boy!" Harry said, patting the dopey dog's skull, the brown ear flip-flopping.  "I won't let no one near ya!"

The dog raised its sad old eyes and plopped its flappy cheeks down into Harry's lap.

One star, burning brighter than the rest, turned into five rays with scintillating pinpoints, then exploded like fireworks along the inner lining of the skull.  Harry watched through  a screen door as the ball of light, flecked with golden twinkles, plummeted to earth with a whoosh and landed somewhere near the row of outhouses.

Holding a heavy stick and accompanied by Mr. Fang on a long bit of linked chain, Harry approached cautiously along the weeded trail and peered at the smoking crater.  His mind was awhirl with dazzling possibilities, that it was an Arian craft come to take him home, and from the ruins would step a naked young boy, beautifully shaped and sprouting a tiny pink flower from between his legs whose stamen glowed the deep purple of his planet.  The boy would beckon him to come, lower himself into the crater, and dissolve in the dust.

"Wherever I wind up going, I'll take you with me," he said assuredly to Mr. Fang.  The mutt cocked up his eyes and began to whimper.

The smoke rising from the crater was indeed purple, but nothing seemed to be inside, except a tiny piece of twisted metal, apparently ripped from a much large projectile, just the jutting nose cone and a single antenna sticking up through the mist like the stalk eye of a metallic preying mantis.

The dog howled and broke loose from the link chain.  Within seconds, he was galloping across the fairgrounds towards the perimeter fence, occasionally falling to the ground and rolling in the dust like he was trying to hurl something off his back.

Harry was dazzled.  He crept closer to the edge and entered the thick purple haze.  It tasted sweet in his nostrils and strangely familiar, a passing whiff of a lost afternoon by the spacecraft runways, tasting on his tongue the poisons from the infected bay water.  He knew it was there, all there, the artificial atmosphere that makes sense to him, that complemented his metabolism.  He knew if he could only suck up this air on a daily basis, he would never have to touch hooch again.  And if he filled his lungs with it, he would rise through the air, shedding his clothes behind him and other things which cannot inherit eternal life...and he would rise...into the air...on a blast of sweet-smelling purple clouds...

Already his hair was turning a stringy orange color, and rising from his crown like an antenna which rose in the mist.  His face was contorting, twisting into a bizarre shape it had never bore witness to before, the chin jutting upwards, the nose twisting around towards the left ear and turning a deep crimson.  His eyes bulged and withdrew, puffing in and out with the ferocity of pumping lungs.  The skin of his body lost color rapidly as an overturned whiskey bottle lost booze.  The twisted inner pains of metamorphosis burned through his body cells.

He placed his palms to either side of his face and let out with a tremendous howl of triumph.   "Wheeeeeee!" His nose sprouted again like a rapidly inflating balloon, beeping on and off with an angry purple glow.  His hair shot upwards, overturning his bent and hole-ridden pork pie hat.

A voice whispered from his past: "Ship will come, brother, when it is time. Ship will come and take you home." * 

Story copyright © 1999 by Richard Behrens <behrens@pipeline.com>

Illustration "Clown House" copyright © 1999 by Lee Ward <ldraw@aol.com>

 


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