Life is a Carnivalbydavidwatts©
This story takes place in the summer of 1978. The title was borrowed from a song written by Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson and performed by The Band, but the tale itself belongs to Billy Morton and his special friend.
Chapter 1: The Carnival comes to Colonie.
There was a time in this fair land when carnivals used to travel up and down the east coast of the United States during the warmer months, following the good weather as they pitched their tents in small towns for a week at at time.
The rides were put up and taken down time and time again, and although their safety may have been questionable, I don't recall any accidents in the years that the outfit stopped in our town, and they provided entertainment back in the days when there wasn't a Six Flags around every corner, and watching TV meant a choice of 2 or 3 channels at best.
The people that traveled with these rag-tag caravans were more entertaining than the rides were, and we used to enjoy making fun of the motley looking crew as they tried to hustle us into playing their rigged games. Since they seemed to corral plenty of rubes into losing their money on games of no-chance, I suppose that in the end they got the last laugh.
They arrived on Sunday to set up so they would be ready to operate on Monday through Saturday before breaking it down late Saturday night and moving on to the next town. By daybreak Sunday morning they would be gone again until the next July. I knew the routine because they held the carnival just down the road from my house, on a field that was unused the rest of the year.
Out of the twenty or so years that I lived there, one year stood out for me for a very special reason. It was the summer of 1978, and the O.C. Buck Shows were making their annual visit to Colonie, New York in July. Many of my friends had just graduated high school and some of us were going to college, while the others were just living from day to day with no real plans for the future.
We had summer jobs during the day, and the nights were spent chasing girls or drinking beer. If you had the beer, the girls would follow, for the most part. I was hopeless, though. Shy and insecure, I didn't usually bother chasing girls because I knew they wouldn't let me catch them, so I concentrated on sports. While I would have much preferred talking about getting into Diane Lambert's pants, I settled for knowing how many doubles Chris Chambliss had.
The first night that the carnival was open, tradition dictated that we all flocked as a herd to check it out. Why we felt the need to do that, I'm not sure, because it was the same thing every year. Same rickety rides, and the same crooked games run by people with few teeth and fewer scruples, but our attendance was a ritual that reflected the boredom of our lives in the dog days of summer.
I remember being on The Scrambler that first night, when for some reason, it started running slow and never sped up, which made for a boring ride. They stopped it, and called for somebody named Ken to come fix it. Naturally, we hooted and hollered and bitched about it, and sat in the cabs while a guy jumped the low fence that surrounded the ride and weaved through the metal maze to get to the mechanical part in the center.
It was a skinny guy in a tank top and bib overalls that jumped up on the thing and started cranking something around with a wrench. For a skinny guy, he had pretty big muscles with tattoos bulging on his arms, and he was really busting his ass to do whatever it was he had to do to get the ride going again.
He jumped down and went back around the fence to a board where the operator ran the controls. The operator stepped aside to let the mechanic play with the controls for a minute, and the ride started moving again right away, only this time it started whirling around at top speed, and we all cheered this Ken guy for a job well done, He gave us a half-hearted wave in response to our ovation, and after watching the ride spin long enough to make sure it really was fixed, headed off to parts unknown.
As I flew by this Ken, I noticed something strange. I thought I was seeing things, but regardless, I couldn't wait for the ride to stop so I could ask the guys if they had noticed what I did. They hadn't, and thought I was crazy, or just seeing things when I told them about it.
I hadn't been crazy or hallucinating, and after asking a couple of questions of the single-toothed ride operator, I confirmed that my observation had been right on. The guy Ken that had fixed the ride, was not Ken after all. It was Kim, and Kim, as I had noticed in a fleeting glimpse from my perch in the ride, was a girl.
Chapter Two: Kristy McNichol.
Happy to prove to all my friends that I was an astute observer, I gave them all the word that the Ken had in fact been Kim and was a girl. They were not impressed, which shouldn't have surprised me, but for some reason did anyway.
"Who gives a shit?" was the response from Dan.
I did. I thought it was neat that a girl could do something mechanical like that - something none of us would have had been able to do in a million years - and besides, I thought she was cute.
"You would," I was told.
I did, and as a matter-of-fact she reminded me of that girl on television. Kristy McNichol; haircut and all.
"Kristy McNichol is a dog too, and besides, whatever he or she is, we're talking about a fucking carny here, Billy!" Tommy opined derisively, and his human laugh track Dan howled in agreement.
"Check her out closer," I pleaded. "Don't you think she's cool looking? A little like Mackenzie Philips too, maybe."
"Mackenzie Phillips? One look at her and I can't get a boner for a week!" Tommy insisted, to a roar from some of the guys.
I should have known better than to admit to being attracted to somebody, let alone somebody not classically attractive, but my mouth had worked faster than my brain once again. Should have learned my lesson by now, I remembered with considerable anguish, as I recalled that time back in school saying that I thought Lois Randall was beautiful.
Lois was what some might call a hippie, but I preferred to think of as more of a free spirit, similar in build to this Kim girl but in a more feminine package, and after mentioning I thought that she looked cute I was ridiculed and had to hear about my questionable taste for months afterward. How long would I be forced to pay for this latest expression of my taste, I wondered?
My friends didn't want to chase after this Kim girl, so I didn't say anything else about it, but instead kept an eye out for her as we walked the grounds. At least it hadn't rained, so the walking was easier than it would become after a storm, when you would have to clomp through the thick mud and soggy hay they used to absorb it.
Chapter Three: Billy's Girl.
We were screwing around with the guy that was operating one of those rigged games - you know the one where you try to shoot out a red star on a card using BB guns with crooked sights - leading him on by pretending that we were actually considering letting him hustle us, when my friend saw her.
"Hey Billy," Dan called out. "There's your girlfriend over there."
Sure enough, it was Kim. She was pulling a hand truck loaded with boxes, and I stared at her bicep with the tattoo of an anchor on it, thoroughly fascinated. I don't know whether or not it was because she was doing stuff that you would normally consider man's work, but she was hypnotizing to me, and so I found myself following her as she delivered the supplies.
My group of friends proceeded to follow me, in an effort to make me feel as embarrassed as possible. Obviously I was not the most popular guy in the group, but this was common practice with all of us at the time. Giving each other a hard time was a way of life, and we all took pretty much as much as we gave, and this was apparently going to be my turn yet again.
Kim had stopped the hand truck at the french fries stand and was effortlessly passing cases of cooking oil up to the counter person. How sexy she was, I thought to myself while watching her work. She was wearing a white tank-top t-shirt under a pair of bib overalls, and as she lifted things her formerly skinny biceps bulged and the muscles rippled beneath.
"Hey, it is a girl," Jerry proclaimed loudly. "You can see her tits from the side! She's got hangers!"
"Oh, now I see why Billy boy is all hot and bothered," Dan observed. "Check out her pits!"
"Lois Randall revisited," chimed in Tommy, who knew me too well.
"Maybe she's got hair on her chest too."
"Ask if it grows down to her balls."
"Fuck all of you guys!" I snapped before stomping off in the other direction, violating the cardinal rule of hazing. Never let them know they got to you.
"Don't go Billy," Dan yelled. "We'll set you up."
I hurried away as Dan yelled over to the poor girl, who was about to become an innocent victim of my friends immaturity, "Hey Kim! Billy over there has the hots for you!"
Keeping my head low, I ducked behind one of the kiddie rides and made myself scarce for a while, hoping that the girl hadn't seen my face. I spent the better part of an hour avoiding that entire area, which wasn't easy to do considering the carnival grounds weren't that vast an area to begin with, and tried to calm myself down.
Chapter Four: Let me please introduce myself.
After I had sulked for an appropriate length of time, I allowed my best friend Barry to catch up with me. Barry had mercifully refrained from razzing me earlier, and out of the five of us in our group, he had always enjoyed the most success with the ladies, and had tried to set me up with girls many times in the past. It wasn't his fault that I always chickened out or screwed up royally, and once again he was stuck consoling me.
"You can't let them get to you like that," Barry opined, and as usual he was right.
"Ah, I'm not really mad, it's just that sometimes they get to be too much."
"Fuck them. Everybody going to be going their own way pretty soon, and we'll be in college, and then you'll be around plenty of females."
"Yeah, but every time I get a chance to be with a girl, those guys try to screw it up for me, even before I get to do it on my own. I can't imagine what they must have said about me to her."
"They tried to be funny, but that girl shut them up pretty quick, especially Dan," Barry noted. "She doesn't take any crap from anybody, but afterward I had a few words with her."
"So, are you meeting her afterward?" I asked, knowing that after a few words with Barry the charmer, girls were usually on their backs with their toes pointing upward shortly thereafter.
"No, nothing like that," Barry said. "I told her that a friend of mine really thought she was cute, and he wasn't immature like the rest of our pack, so she said that if you want to talk to her, you should go find her when they start to shut down around 11 or so."
"Don't you think she's cute?" I asked Barry, searching for support.
Barry shared some of my interests in certain types of girls - hell, he had confided to me that he had gotten into Lois Randall's pants just after I had confessed my lust for her, although he swore me to secrecy on that.
"She's cute in a way, but she's a little rough looking for my taste," Barry admitted. "Hey, I can appreciate where you're coming from though. She's got an edge about her, or something like that."
"How old is she?" I wondered aloud.
"My guess is that she's about our age, although that's a tough call. She could be 30 for all I know, but with the tattoos I guess she'd have to be at least 18. You going to go after her?"
"Yes," I said. "Maybe, I guess. After all the wise-asses are gone maybe I'll be less nervous."
"Be careful though, man," Barry cautioned me. "This is a traveling carnival, after all. I mean, look at everybody that works here. They all look sort of the same - like they all are related or something."
"Not Kim," I said. "She's different."
This was going to be the girl that turned my life around, and I was determined to introduce myself to her that night.
Chapter Five: Hello.
"Excuse me," I said in my most manly voice.
The first night of the carnival was winding down, and minutes ago I had spotted Kim striding across the midway, dragging a canvas sack full of something.
"What's up, sport?" Kim said, not slowing down a bit as she glanced up at me.
"I just wanted to introduce myself," I said, trying to keep up with her. "I'm Bill - Billy."
"Hey Bill Billy," Kim answered. "Wotcha want?"
Good question. This was my chance to flee, as always, when dealing with girls who surprised me by allowing me to engage them in conversation.
"Oh, I just wanted to say hello. I was on the Scrambler before - you know - when it slowed down and you fixed it?"
"Which time?" Kim snapped. "The thing's a fucking piece of shit, like everything else around this fucking freak show."
"Oh," I replied, taken momentarily aback by the language coming out of her, and realized that it would be impossible for her to know which repair time it was that I was referring to, and furthermore, she really didn't care.
"I was thinking that maybe when you get done working we could maybe talk or something."
"About time," Kim snapped. "I was beginning to think this was the celibacy capital of the world."
"Huh?" I asked, not knowing what she meant and not real sure what the word celibacy meant either.
"Sure, kid," Kim answered as we reached her destination. "Get us some beer, and meet me over by the Giant Rat in a half hour," she instructed me, and without further adieu she quickly disappeared.
I knew where the Giant Rat was, having already paid a quarter to see the rodent, which wasn't quite what had been advertised by the banner or promised on the banner that flapped above the booth, which showed the rat being about the same size as the alleged rat tamer, who was cowering in fear while cracking a whip in the rodent's direction. Finding that ripoff would pose no problem for me.
The beer was the problem. The drinking age was 21 and I wasn't. Old enough to drink, smoke and join the service and die, but not old enough for beer. The nearby store was hopeless, as they knew my age all too well, and had already closed for the night by now anyway.
The alternative was the beer tent, and I couldn't get in there either. I know that because we had all tried earlier that night and failed. I didn't think well under pressure like this, and I didn't have many options.
I knew my old man had quarts of beer in the refrigerator - good old Rupert Knickerbocker - and I was known to pinch one on occasion, but the sound of me coming in the house would probably get the folks up, and keep me in for the night.
I had nothing. Faced between not going back to see Kim, or returning to face the music, I chose the latter. Not used to making manly decisions, I surprised myself by going over to the Giant Rat and waiting for Kim, proving at least that I really thought she was cute enough to humiliate myself by admitting my failure at her assignment.
"Where's the brew, Sport?" Kim asked, arriving almost an hour later and seeing me empty handed.
This was the first time I had seen her empty handed too. No tool belt around the waist and no hand truck in tow, and she had dropped the front of her bib overalls down as well.
"Uh... er... well... er..." I stammered.
Actually, I suspect I sounded even more addled than that, but you get the idea. My nervousness was caused by two factors; the first being that I did not have the beer, and the second, far more compelling reason for my babbling, was that I was trying not to stare at Kim's tits, which were on display rather brazenly right in front of me. Trying and failing miserably to ignore them even by my standards at the "don't stare like a pervert" test, I simply stood and gawked at her.
The shirt she was wearing under the overalls was a white tank-top t-shirt - the same kind that my old man wore under his regular shirt during the day and sometimes by itself after getting home from work, much to my mother's dismay. Kim's tits were unsupported and hung down near her waist, and the outline of her nipples was plain to see through the cotton as well.
All those incredible womanly treasures showcased in a grimy, sweat-stained man's t-shirt made me weak in the knees and light in the head, as well as lost to the world.
"Hey! Sport!" Kim barked, snapping her fingers down at breast level in an effort to get my attention. "You awake or just slow? Where's the beer?"
"Uh... couldn't get any," I finally said.
"No!" I protested, holding up a crumpled five dollar bill. "It's just that I'm not 21."
"So what? You got no fake I.D. either, Sport?" Kim asked, shaking her head at my incompetence, and after grabbing the money out of my hand, went over to the beer tent, climbing under the rope and disappearing inside.
A minute later she emerged with a six pack of Schlitz Tall Boys. Five of them she carried by the loose plastic ring, and the one missing was in her other hand, almost drained by the time she got back over to me.
"You got a place to go?" Kim asked, and after I shook her head she led me back behind the Giant Rat trailer.
"To go?" I asked. "You mean a place to live? Uh - sure. I live down the road with my folks."
"Well, that won't work will it? Make yourself at home, Sport" Kim said, waving at the two plastic milk crates near the canvas wall and then tipping the beer can high, draining it, and throwing the can into a barrel. Kim let out a loud burp as she pried another can of beer out of the rings and tossed it to me before getting herself another one.
I sat down and opened the beer, and then tried to suck the foam out of the opening as it erupted, while Kim sat down next to me and poured the beer down her throat like it was water.
"Wow, you can really drink beer!" I said, admiring her drinking style.
"Work hard, drink hard, and party hard," Kim answered.
"I didn't think you were old enough to buy beer," I said.
"I'm not, Sport."
"How did you..."
"Attitude, Sport," Kim said assuredly. "Act like you don't expect to be questioned and you won't be."
"That's cool," I said, watching Kim fire another empty into the barrel. "So, do you go to school?"
"School?" Kim chuckled. "Yeah, O.C. Buck University. So, you want to party?"
Did I want to party?
"Uh, yeah, this is cool," I answered, and got a weird look in response.
"How old are you, Sport?" Kim said as she looked at me with a look that was part-curiosity and part-amazement.
"Old enough!" I proclaimed proudly.
"Old enough for what?" Kim laughed. "Cub Scouts?"
"Everything," I said with a lot of bravado that didn't really exist. "Old enough for everything."
"I seriously doubt that!" Kim answered with a laugh. "You got any weed?"
"Grass? No, but I can probably get some," I said hopefully, having smoked it but never having bought it before.
"So why did you want to meet me in the first place, Sport?" Kim said.
"Well, you know, I thought maybe - I dunno," I mumbled.
"You think maybe that we could make out, and maybe feel each other up or something?" Kim said, leaning into me and laughing.
It was like she was reading my mind. That was exactly what I was hoping for.
"I guess," I confessed, putting my arm around her shoulder, barely missing her head with my elbow as I swung it around.
"You're a trip, Sport," Kim replied, shaking her head at me.
"I'm not much good at this," I answered.
"I kinda figured that out already," Kim said.
"I always get nervous around pretty girls," I went on, trying not to start stuttering or bawling or something stupid like that. "I was hoping that maybe I would be different around you, because you aren't from around here and you don't already know what a loser I am."