Where the Carny Sleeps

They were hiding back among some barns and sheds. I’d uncovered a spot where a traveling carnival sleeps in the off-season. Only partially visible from the road, the unique shapes and garish colors jump out from the octopus, with light bulbs for suckers on its arms folded into a truck. The tilt-a-whirl truck and the Ferris wheel truck sat with trailers that morph into carny games of skill and chance. Mostly chance. It was hard to recognize some of the rides, packed tight as pig iron. Shake machines and simp heisters, maybe.

It seemed like a small group of trucks, as far as carnivals go, and would need to set up like a John Robinson. No shit. A John Robinson circus sets all the rigs and games end-to-end. Looks bigger. No matter the size, when the colorful carny powers up, the show offers a thousand distractions in a dozen directions. The bright red Tilt-A-Whirl grinds out another batch of thrills, its halfapple carriages swinging around one foot nailed to the heaving floor. The hiss of compressed air signals the spookhouse floor has blown up another pretty print dress. The green and golden neon lights of the Rock-O-Plane flash lighninglike as it spins and dives across a starry black backdrop above the edge of towering pines.

At night, darkness surrounds the carnival’s energy so completely that everyone who steps within its bounds becomes bonded to the lightbulbs. Crowds ebb and flow randomly through the sights and sounds of heavy metal. Sideshow barkers process fresh meat every minute. The sideshows and game stands crowd along a narrow gauntlet, where grass gives up the fight to dirt and cigarette butts and cotton candy cones. Step carefully over thick black cables that keep the lightbulbs flashing in a movie marquee pattern.

But today, the carny is at rest, silent, its barkers and babes scattered to the winds, hunting southern comfort and absorbing new tattoos.

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