Carnival Day

In Issue 56 by Stacey C. Johnson

Carnival Day

Image by Tithi Luadthong on Shutterstock

When Littleman opened his eyes, he discovered that he was no longer on the couch in the living room as planned. He had meant to stay there all night with Uncle Marty, eating neon sour worms and watching samurai movies. He wanted to be in the front room when Mom got home and to hear when Uncle Marty got up. There was no point in trying to sleep.

He breathed in, looked around, listened. It was Saturday.

“Samurai training starts before you get out of bed,” Marty had explained the night before. ”It’s in your senses. And I don’t mean just your main five.” Awareness went beyond that.

He practiced.

The day of the Memorial Day Carnival had finally arrived. There was a shiver of fear behind the anticipation, dripping like a faucet. Littleman listened. Wanting something hard enough could make something grow over the want like a shell. The shell could make the thing that was finally happening look so shiny it seemed like make-believe.

Littleman was figuring some things out lately. He attributed this to his samurai mind practice. The facts of a situation weren’t necessarily as firm as they sounded.

“Facts are facts,” Marty liked to say. “But then again, you never know.”

Maybe the facts were something other than they appeared. Samurai Jack needed to go back in time to fight a shapeshifting demon. It was constantly changing, depending on the situation and who was looking.

“So when you look,” Uncle Marty had been saying, when they talked about the Samurai Way, “you gotta see not just what’s there, but what’s behind it.”

Marty had never done formal samurai training, but he’d watched a lot of movies.

“You’ll see, Littleman. You’ll see.”

Littleman practiced. Eyes open, he waited.

This year’s Carnival Day was different, because turning seven last year meant that he had moved out of kindergarten and onto regular kid level. Now that he had arrived, he was going to do two things differently. For one, he was going on regular rides. No more kiddie coaster or magic cars. Two, he was going to stop messing around with the low-level prizes and take home a big tiger. He’d present it to his mom, and she’d smile so hard she’d forget to cover her teeth.

He had been visualizing it ever since the night after last year’s fair, and last year he didn’t even know what visualizing was because that was before he started his training.

A samurai will sense something before he even knows why. Littleman had hatched this year’s carnival plan before he was even a regular kid, while his kindergarten lips were still sticky with cotton candy. The toy he’d won last year, a little paddle with a ball on a string, had broken before he even made it home, and he’d watched the ball roll away from him until it rolled out of sight and down the hill and it was probably floating around in the river by now.

This year he wouldn’t be tempted by anything so cheap. This year when he won — whether at Krazy Kans, Bottle Up, Bucket Ball, Frog Launch, or Ducky Ducky Ring Toss — he’d just say, “No thanks, I’ll hold out,” and take the vouchers. Since all the booths at the Memorial Day Carnival were staffed by city workers instead of private vendors, as they were at most other fairs, all the money went to the same place.

“Point being,” Marty explained, “you don’t need to settle for the first prize you win.”

This was a little-known secret Uncle Marty had divulged when Littleman was complaining about his broken prize. Marty had worked at the Carnival two times — once when he was in high school getting service points, and once after that when he was working toward group-home graduation. He’d done the carousel, the ticket booth, the bottle toss, and even the duck pond. Lately Uncle Marty wasn’t working anywhere on a steady basis, so he was usually around. This is why Mom had said, “Hey Littleman, if I’m not back yet, you go ahead with Uncle Marty, okay?”

Mom was gone a lot more than she used to be lately, and when she got home her eyes looked stony tired. Littleman couldn’t even remember the last time they went to the river park. Had they’d even gone since he was a regular kid? Or was the last time when he was still at kinder-level? There was something behind this, Littleman knew. The awareness knotted in his gut, but his samurai vision wasn’t yet strong enough to see what it was.

Some lady with a clipboard had come by the week before asking for her. Littleman had listened while Marty answered the door, which he did only after leaning into Littleman’s room to say, “Wait here, you hear me? Don’t come out.” Littleman had been looking at the dragonflies he’d just started collecting in kill jars. He heard Marty say that she was out with her son on her day off, possibly at the park but he wasn’t sure.

“Who was that lady?” Littleman asked when she left.

“I don’t trust the government, Littleman.”

“Working,” Grandma would say, when Littleman asked where Mom was. Grandma lived in the back house, which was smaller than this one in front where Mom and Marty and Littleman stayed. There was no kitchen or shower in Grandma’s house, just a bedroom and toilet. Grandma was in one of those special hospital beds and she didn’t move around much after she started chemo, so they’d take turns bringing her drinks and food, and when she felt up to it, she might lumber over on her walker to sit on the couch and watch a show with everybody nearby. Sometimes when Grandma said that Mom was working, she would share a look with Uncle Marty. It was the kind of look adults made when there was something they were not saying out loud.

Whatever it was, Littleman was going to cheer her up big time when he presented her with a surprise top-shelf tiger.

Littleman threw back the sheet with his kicking leg and rolled to the floor to check on the shoebox under his bed. He had taken his new light-up shoes out so he could put the carnival wristband in the box where it would be safe, along with the roll of tickets for games and a folded $20 Mom had left him for snacks.

“Hang onto this, Littleman,” she had told him the day before yesterday, before she left for work. “Put it in a safe place, and make sure you wear your shorts with the deep pockets so these don’t fall out.” The shoebox was the safe place, the shorts were his blue ones where the pockets went practically to his knees, and the extra insurance for today was his light-up shoes. He had wanted a pair for years, and now that he was getting a little too old for them, he finally had a pair. They were still white because he’d been keeping them clean, and more important than even the light-up feature, which made them glow red every time he stepped, were the extra thick bottoms. They make him even taller than he was with just his feet or his regular slippers.

“You’ll rot your teeth,” his mom would have said, if she could have seen all the neon worms he was eating last night. Littleman could hear her voice even when she was gone — especially then, sometimes. He had never been to a dentist, but Mom had made it clear that he would go someday and he’d better be ready. He had been to the doctor at the clinic a few times, and he had watched enough television to have a pretty good idea of what to expect. A dentist would be similar, he figured: same white coat, same silver things around the room. But with a chair and a light looking straight into everybody’s mouth, and all the dentist cared about was teeth. A samurai needed teeth, sure, but he had a lot of other places to focus his awareness.

Before going to get his toothbrush, Littleman went to check on Uncle Marty. It was only a few steps to the living room, down a narrow hallway crowded with boxes. Daylight poured into the mostly dark living area through the single narrow not-boarded window on the other side of the door, into the kitchen. He turned sideways to get past the boxes in the hallway and pulled back the curtain to peer into the living room.

He was relieved to confirm that Uncle Marty was still there. He must have carried Littleman to bed at some point. The TV was still on but now it was the weather.

“Getting a break from the heat this holiday weekend,” the weather lady was saying, “with highs around eighty-eight and humidity in the low teens, with clear skies through Monday.”

The TV was on a bookshelf near the door, in front of where the window would be if they were still visible. There were several pieces of plywood nailed over the spot where the large window used to be, and the TV went in front of these. In the bookshelf was a cable box and an old DVD player beside a pile of unopened mail and a mason jar full of loose change. Various wires and adapters collected between these, some partially coiled with loose ends hanging from the shelf. On the bottom shelf, a few of Littleman’s old baby books, the kinds made of boards and some of the ones they give out at the clinic with pictures of tigers coming back from places like school or the doctor’s or the dentist.

“That’s you,” his mom would say. “My little tiger.”

After he gave her the tiger he won all by himself, she could rest easy knowing that he had advanced to a new level where he could provide for as well as protect her, so she wouldn’t have to worry or work so much.

“I’ll take it from here, Mom,” he would say.

“My tiger,” she’d sigh. Her face when she hugged him would have that after-shower smell, like flower shampoo and face cream.

Between the TV and the couch there was a coffee table, and beside the couch was an arm chair that used to recline. Uncle Marty stuck his feet out from the chair at an angle onto the coffee table next to the soda cans, the neon worms, and the grocery circulars.

From the hallway, Littleman could only see Marty’s feet, which were wide with dark hairs on the tops and on the toes. He moved in for a better look. Marty’s eyes were closed, glasses perched on his head, one hand on the armrest and one on his chest. His stomach, which was also impressively hairy, rounded out between his lap and the bottom of a worn jersey which frayed at the end. His hand rested just above the round.

“That you, Littleman?” Marty was like a cat when he slept. Even when he looked like he was passed out cold, his ears were tuned to the slightest noise.

“Hey.”

“Got your tickets?”

“And money.”

“Wear your baseball hat. Sun’ll be strong.”

“I got shoes too.”

“Shoes are good. I’ll find mine in a minute.”

Shoes were a key part of Littleman’s carnival plan. He wasn’t taking any chances this year when it came to being tall enough to ride the good rides. Last year when he got to the Tilt-a-Whirl, the guy in the red vest had told him, “Not quite, little man. Just keep drinking your milk and try again next year, okay?”

Littleman didn’t drink milk. It made his stomach hurt. He grew anyway, and probably he’d be forty-eight inches since last time he got measured at school he was forty-six and that was back in winter. His mom said he grew about six inches a year as far as she could tell. So he probably had at least two to three more inches on him by now.

Just to be sure, he had rolled up two pairs of socks per shoe. He had to borrow a couple from Uncle Marty. He stuck those in the heels. He used his own for the middle and the front. If there was any question about that last inch he was supposed to grow, this should cover it. He had rolled the socks up the night before. He had to wear the Velcro of his light-up sneakers loose to make room. He could tell that it was going to be a day of uncomfortable feet, just by walking as straight as he could in the five paces it took to get across his bedroom. But it beat getting turned away from the Tilt-a-Whirl any day.

It was still early. Littleman went back to check on his dragonfly jars. Then he practiced his samurai stance. He got so into gripping the sword at his side that he almost forgot.

When he remembered, he filled a cup of water and got a straw and walked out the back porch door over to Grandma’s room.

“That you, Devon?” Grandma was the only one that almost always called him by his birth name. That or baby.

“Carnival day’s today.”

“Ain’t you a dear,” she said when he handed her the water. Her hand trembled a little as she sipped. He opened her vitamin tray, took out the Saturday pills, and held them out to her.

“Whatcha gonna do first?”

“Definitely not the kiddie coaster.”

When Grandma laughed, some of her water and pills got caught in her throat and then she coughed for a long time. Littleman waited.

“Will you remind Mom when she gets back, so she can meet us there?”

“Mmmm, come here, Baby.” She held her arms out slightly above the bed and Littleman pressed his cheek to her heart.

“There you go, Baby,” she whispered, her grandma smell slightly dizzying in its soft expanse. “You have a great time for me, okay?”

Littleman waved and walked back across the dirt to the main house. Marty was filling a clear plastic bottle at the sink.

“I got a few of these ‘case we get thirsty. So you don’t have to go blowing all your dough on a five-dollar soda.”

“Cool.”

“Less go.”

Marty didn’t drive much if he could help it, so it tended to take him awhile to get situated in a car whenever he got in. It was a faded blue Camry with newspapers on the floor and a pine tree air freshener hanging with the rosary on the rearview mirror. Since Grandma had stopped driving altogether, Marty would occasionally take it into town for groceries or if Grandma had a doctor’s appointment.

He let Littleman in the back seat behind him. In addition to newspapers, the back floorboards were home to a minor collection of crumpled McDonald’s bags, various varieties of loose-dipping sauces, a few burrito wrappers, and an empty water jug.

“Getting warm already,” Marty said when he got in. “Here, lemme get these windows.”

“I got it, Marty.” Littleman rolled his down and leaned over to get the other side. Marty looked confused for a moment, then did the same.

He spent a few moments saying, “Okay,” and “There,” and “Alright,” while he jiggled the keys and took some deep breaths.

“Three, two, one, liftoff!”

Littleman preferred it when Marty talked like he was grown. But when he got nervous, Marty sometimes slipped and acted like he thought Littleman still hadn’t even graduated kinder, even though that was almost a year ago.

“Everybody buckled up? Safety first!”

Little beads of sweat glistened across Marty’s wide forehead.

“Here goes!”

Down they went, out through the community of similarly manufactured homes on dirt lots behind chain-link fences. Most of the homes had a few odds and ends in the yard: plastic buckets, children’s toys, mechanical parts, cars on blocks. Occasionally you’d see someone sitting in a folding chair under a tent, staring out. A few dogs barked from behind fences. There was a black Rottweiler tethered to a line, running towards them as they made their last turn.

Left on Hibiscus, right on Primrose, left on Gardenia. “Why are all of these streets named after flowers that no one ever sees?” This is something his mom said aloud more than once.

“It’s like whoever was naming all these streets was imagining they were somewhere else the whole time.”

Out to the main road through town, past the Dollar Tree and the Big Lots and the Wal Mart; past the Good Times Motel and the EZ-8 RV Ranch. You could see the marquee for the high school in the distance: Go Wolfpack! There was a florist right next to the wedding chapel and a used bookstore right next to Barry’s Bail Bonds. Then came the pawnshop and the check-cashing place, the liquor store and Tacos El Gordo.

“This town’s got it all,” Marty liked to say. Now he was focusing, both hands on the wheel.

“You okay back there?”

“Yeah.”

The carnival was in an open lot called the Town Center at the end of the strip malls and motels, just beyond the post office. There was a big empty billboard and a parking lot for cars, and usually the space was wide open, nothing but acres of asphalt and chain-link giving way to acres of dust, framed by mountains sitting wide and still like a circle of grandmas looking down.

Littleman was learning. To visualize meant to practice seeing a thing for more than what it was. When it came to an event, this meant looking before it happened.

“It goes hand in hand with your awareness training,” Marty had explained.

Walking, it was possible to keep his steps and ears and eyes all synced together by focusing on how they were connected by strings to a place halfway between his belly and his heartbeat, right in the center of his body.

Waiting in the line before the booth, Littleman stuck his right hand in his pocket. He felt the roll of tickets for games and he felt the $20 Mom had given him for food and he felt what he was learning to feel when he listened with the place on his palm that used to be the place where he’d just hang on, being held.

What a terrible thing, he thinks now, to be a baby.

That was before he understood how anything, at any moment, could turn into anything else. One minute he was against his mother’s chest with no sense of beginning or end. Then, his questions about where she was, and all of the adults looking away, saying, “Working, working” and “She’ll be home soon.”

That was why he had started watching time. It could speed up or slow down depending on what was happening. He hoped that he could get a handle on this so he could use it. It would be great if he could slow down a day like Carnival Day.

“Awareness,” his uncle was saying, the night before. Littleman had tried to hold it. He was going to be like Samurai Jack, finding his way back in time to beat the Aku before it unleashed all its evil on the world. But he must have slipped between then and when he woke up in his bed, unable to remember moving down the hall. He needed practice.

“That’s all you can do,” Uncle Marty had told him. “All you can do is look. Keep looking, Littleman. You’ll see.”

He felt it when he entered through the booths, beneath the flags. The fair music, the game buzzers, the roar of the roller coaster and the hum of the crowd: time was speeding up. He’d have to concentrate hard if he was going to have any chance of slowing it down.

He walked with Marty to a shaded table near the entrance, beside a hot dog stand draped with flags. Marty took a seat at one of the round metal tables beneath a red umbrella. “Okay Littleman,” he said. “You have fun. I’ll be here.”

“ —Well,” he added. “Here or the food court, either one.” Marty could watch people all day long. Grandma said he wasn’t always right in his head, but he had a heart of gold.

“And you," she had whispered, “heart like a lion.”

“Tiger, Grandma,” he corrected, and she mussed his hair.

Littleman waved back at Marty and began his quest. Before he went in, he turned back towards the parking lot and the line of people waiting to enter near the ticket booth. If his mom came, she would wear the white hat with the big brim to keep the sun out of her eyes and her dark glasses under the brim. She hated when the sun got in her eyes.

As he was scanning the crowd, he heard a voice beside him.

“Hey Devon!”

He looked around. A woman in a straw visor and a floral sundress was raising her hand. She was standing near the Carousel.

Squinting, he recognized Ms. Yearous, his first-grade teacher. She was standing next to a man in a blue baseball cap. He had a look like a professional baseball player, with shoulder muscles stretching through his tight tee shirt. He was sipping a souvenir-cup soda that must have cost thirteen dollars.

“Hey Devon!” she said again.

He gave a weak wave. He felt a little dizzy seeing her like this, with her red-painted toes peeking out of her sandals and this man touching her back.

“So serious,” she said.

“Is this your brother?” Littleman focused on keeping his voice steady and low.

“Silly. This is my fiancé, Luke. Luke, this is Devon. He’s in my class. He’s very serious.”

Luke gave a big cool-guy grin. He had really white teeth against his dark skin. “Whatsup, little man. Pleased to meet you.”

Littleman waited.

“Well, good to see you!” Mrs Yearous waved as she turned, placing her other hand on Luke’s muscle arm. “Have fun!”

Littleman felt hot and he wished he had a soda, but he wanted to save his money for real food. As he headed towards the game, he saw a girl a few years older biting a snow cone.

“Hey, where’d you get that?” he asked her. She pointed.

“Watermelon,” he said, when it was his turn, “extra large.” The purchase cut into his food money significantly, but he’d still have enough for one or two more things — maybe even three, depending. If his mom showed up in the next fifteen minutes he could give her some. Watermelon was her favorite.

He didn’t want to stop moving, but the cone was so big that he had to find a place to sit until he could shrink it enough to get walking again. There was a bench over by the Ferris wheel. He sat and watched as people got into the seats one group at a time, buckling up and waiting while the attendant checked that the bar was locked down before waving forward the next riders. There were a few singles, some couples, trios of friends in various sizes, and lots of kids with parents.

“Don’t worry girls,” a tall man was saying. “I got you. I’ll go in the middle.”

There were more dads on the ride than moms. Littleman chewed the ice and let it cool his throat. There were various moms standing nearby with strollers, some with babies on their hips.

Littleman’s sort-of dad was at the war. His mom said that if he was a full dad they wouldn’t be living here.

“What do you call a sort-of dad?”

“Gone,” his mom answered. Then she caught herself.

“Sorry, baby. He’s your bio dad, okay. You can call him bio, you can call him Dad. But whatever, it takes something else to be a father-father, you know.”

One day, if they ever meet, Littleman was going to ask him if he’s ever seen Samurai Jack.

“One day you won’t be little anymore. One day you’ll be Big and you’ll be a man-man. You’ll do right.”

His dad probably didn’t have a signal for Cartoon Network over there in the desert bunkers. It wasn’t like the troops could lie around all day watching cartoons in war. Maybe he wouldn’t bring it up. Probably he wouldn’t have to, since by then he’d be more advanced in his training. A warrior would recognize another warrior.

His stomach was getting cold. He’d eaten the ice so it was almost level with the cone. He stood up and headed towards the games. He was on the other side of the Ferris wheel gate when he saw her standing in line at the Port-o-Potties.

“Mom!” She looked tired, but she had made it. Probably she hadn’t even stopped to pee all morning, she’d been in such a rush to get here. This watermelon ice would cheer her up.

“Mom!” She was in one of her dazes like she got when she was thinking.

He ran up to her, tapped her arm. “Mom! I was calling —“

The woman in the white hat and dark glasses turned to face him.

“Hey,” she said, with a big, wide smile. His mom never smiled with her mouth open unless she got caught off guard laughing. She was too self-conscious about her teeth.

“Oh, My bad.”

His hands were cold. He dropped the rest of the snow cone in the next trash bin he saw and he headed for the bumper cars. He needed to smash something.

“Wait a minute,” the attendant said, as he headed towards the gate. He had his eyes set on the green car with the checkered stripe. “Stand right here for me, little man, just to check your height.”

His stomach flopped sweet-cold. He bunched his toes up, trying to tiptoe without lifting his heels off the ground. He stretched his neck warrior straight.

“You’re good.”

It was a good thing he’d thought to add the extra socks. They were already making his feet hurt, but anything was better than getting turned away with the kinders.

It took him a bit to get a hang of the steering, but after he got out of a few jams, he figured out how to back up by turning the wheel. After that, everybody started to know he meant business.

“Look out!” said one of the moms to her daughter in pigtails. “Here he comes!”

“Aaaah!”

When the ride was up, a flock of older-looking kids raced through the exit door and lined up to ride again. He followed them. He couldn’t run fast because of all the rolled-up socks in his shoes. Eventually, he just walked. It didn’t matter who got in first. It wasn’t like the line was huge. He went again and again and again. One of them, a tall kid with longish hair over one eye, took note.

“Watch out!” he said when he saw Littleman coming. “This kid’s a beast!”

Littleman bit back the smile that wanted to cheese all over his face. A warrior kept his face like a blank slate.

Eventually the kids dispersed.

Littleman went onto the games. He was heading toward the Frog Toss when he heard a voice he recognized. It was Ms. Cherie, the neighbor from a few houses down. Cherie’s mom had been friends with his grandma, but when she died it was just Cherie in the house. Littleman used to stay with her sometimes when he was a baby.

“Hey Littleman,” she said, as she got closer.

“Hold up — look at you, you’re practically big man now!”

She had a flower skirt and sandals and a white tank top and she smelled beautiful, like a garden without any of the bad smells. He had a sudden urge to run and bury his head in her chest. He bit his lower lip.

“How’s your mom?” she said.

“Working, working.”

“I was trying to get ahold of her last week. Haven’t seen her around much.”

He nodded with his serious face. Brow scrunching, ends of his mouth turned down.

“You okay? You looked like you were limping.”

“New shoes.”

He stood still for a moment, forgetting himself and his mission. Her eyes caught someone behind him and she waved.

“Okay, well, have fun!” she called, walking away.

“Farewell!”

She was gone by the time he opened his mouth, hugging a ponytail man with torn black jeans and motorcycle boots. Eventually they turned and walked away from him, arm in arm. Littleman kept waiting until he felt the separation of her from him to snap like a flung rubber band. Then he took a deep breath and rubbed his eyes, back in the space where he was. Carnival flags fluttered above his head. There were the mountains in the distance and the late morning sky everywhere, clear blue with only a few wispy clouds way up high. He was small again.

Reaching his right hand to his side, Littleman felt for the handle of his sword. He waited to grow a little bit before moving again.

He started with the ring toss. He’d had some mild success there last year. This first round he went only one for three.

“You’re just warming up, little man, just warming up.”

He pulled three more tickets from his pocket, handed them over.

“That’s the spirit.”

The next round he went two for three.

“That’ll get you any one of these prizes,” said the man with the gold tooth, sweeping his hand toward a line of plush toys shaped like fruit. “I got strawberry, orange, banana, or watermelon.”

“I’ll hold out,” Littleman said, concentrating on keeping his voice level and low. “Let me just get the vouchers.”

“Ah, we got an insider here, folks! Holding out for a big prize, eh? Okay, well you come back here when you’re ready to go again.”

Littleman pocketed a yellow five-point voucher ticket in his left pocket. Then he walked down the aisle, past the kettle corn and the cotton candy, scanning the booths. He was looking at the top rows. There were bears, dinosaurs, Dora the Explorers; mermaids, Pikachus, and sunglass-wearing alligators.

He moved toward the next aisle. At the end of this one, a funnel cake booth. He watched a boy a little older than himself reach with two hands to receive a paper plate with something that looked like a massive doughnut with powdered sugar sprinkled all over it. Littleman’s mouth watered.

“Stay focused,” he reminded himself. He walked past the Rat Chase, the Spin-to-Win, the Pig Derby, and the Slap Shot. Near the Cash Cage someone was waving at him.

“Hey there, Devon.” It was Mrs Commuti, his Pre-K teacher.

“Hi Mrs. C.”

“Having fun?”

He nodded.

“How’s your mom?”

He waited.

“Devon’s always very serious,” she said, as if there were someone else to address. “Well, I can tell you’re on a mission. Tell your mom to call me when she gets a chance, okay?”

Finally, he saw the tigers. They were at the Tic-Tac-Pop booth, hanging from the upper rungs of the tent. They came in three colors: orange, blue, and pink. Blue and pink looked like somebody’s joke idea of a tiger. There was no question that he’d get the orange one.

There was no line so he walked right up to the counter and waited for a girl with blue hair to look up from her phone.

“How many points do I need to get one of the big tigers?”

“Lemme see.” She grabbed a chart from under the counter. “Those are forty-five.”

“I’ll play.” He handed some tickets over.

“Here you go, buddy.” She placed three darts on the table in front of him. “All you gotta do is get three in a row. Up, down, across, however you want. Doesn’t matter.”

“No thanks,” he said when she offered him a prize. “I’ll hold out.” He walked away with more vouchers. He did the same at the Pig Derby and the Fish Toss and the Bottle Lift.

Next he went on the Flying Scooters. This time, he didn’t even get asked by the attendant to wait by the line. His confidence must have started to show. He had loosened the Velcro to give his feet a break, and he bent down to tighten them again before getting into a swing. He didn’t want either of his shoes to go flying off when he was up there dangling his legs.

When the ride lifted, he could see the river park. It was the only spot in town with shade trees. There were picnic tables and fishing docks and bike paths. One year when he played T-ball they had games there and at the end they got blue sugar with dipping sticks at the snack bar. Before Mom started working so much, she used to take him to the river park on a regular basis. They’d go through the drive-thru at Jack in the Box after school on early-out days, which ended a few hours before her early shift started. She’d get the curly fries and he would get the French toast sticks.

“Cheers, Littleman,” she’d say, in the pause before the turn out of the lot, after he pulled the carton of fries from the bag and handed it to her.

Littleman held his own box up in a solemn gesture, being sure that the front face of the carton touched the face of his mom’s fry box directly. Anything done improperly might not count. This was the way of the samurai, he knew now, but he wasn’t even training for real back then.

After their box toast, he moved the box to his left hand, using his right to check for the sword at his side, beneath the place where the seatbelt came out. It was there, ready in case anything tried to break through the doors. No one else could see it, which was good, since weapons as powerful as a samurai sword were going to be frowned upon in public.

The last time they were at the river park, Mom said, “Wait a minute. I almost forgot.”

She ran to the car and came back with a soccer ball.

“Here, so you can practice.”

Down the path, past the picnic tables and under the shade of the trees, he was lightning fast like Ronaldo. He could hear the crowds going wild.

It was not a regular soccer ball like they had at school.

“I was at the Dollar Tree,” Mom said. “I thought of you.”

It bounced like a kickball and instead of stitching it had white and black pattern painted on it.

“Oh no!” Mom called, when it got away from him. It bounced against the bench of a picnic table above the river banks and headed in the direction of the water. She sounded scared.

“I got it!”

“Careful!”

The ball got stuck in a creosote bush before it hit the water. He rescued it and trotted back.

“Thanks, Mom.”

“You bet, Tiger.”

After he got off the Flying Scooter, he was ready for something other than ice.

“I’ll take a large,” he said to the bearded guy at the kettle corn booth.

Then he set to his mission.

He collected vouchers at the Float Pitch and the Slap Shot. He got on a streak at the Apple Darts, and then he did so well on Bucket Ball that some guys he didn’t know were cheering for him. They had Marine haircuts. Maybe they knew his bio dad.

“You sure?” said the attendant, when he asked for vouchers. “You could get a tiger.”

This gave him pause. He looked to see if she was kidding.

“See?” she said, holding out a pillow not much larger than the plush fruit he’d seen earlier. It was a flat head painted with black and white stripes, a nose, and ears, like someone’s bad dream of a cartoon tiger.

“Nuh-uh,” he told her. “I’m holding out for a real one.”

“Suit yourself, little man.”

It was time to check his progress. He brought what was left of the kettle corn over to Uncle Marty, who was still under the umbrella by the hot dog stand.

“You hurt? You’re walking funny.”

“Think I’m getting close. Gotta count.”

“Wanna hot dog?”

“Sure.”

He was ten points away. He checked his game tickets. There were nine left. If he won at least three per game, with one extra on one, he’d make it.

“You hit the Tilt-a-Whirl yet?”

“Saving it.”

“There you go.”

“I’ll be back.”

“Godspeed.”

Littleman bowed his warrior bow and headed out.

“Hey!”

He turned.

“You’re bleeding.” Marty pointed to his feet. “Heels.”

It had soaked through the backs of the socks into the fabric of his light-up shoes. He kept his face still.

“I’m okay.”

Marty gave a solemn nod, bowing his head in a show of respect. Littleman limped on.

He had to keep a tight rein on tickets, but he still had enough money to try funnel cake. He was sort of full after the hot dog, but when Carnival Day was over, he couldn’t think of another chance he was going to have to try any funnel cake until next year, and if it tasted anything like it looked, he was not about to miss out.

He learned that in addition to powdered sugar, you could also get whipped cream and strawberries.

“Yeah, I’ll take that one,” Littleman announced.

“All you can handle, big guy,” said the man with the gold medallion glittering over an exposed triangle of chest hair.

Littleman carried his plate over to the pavilion. He sat at the end of an empty picnic table. The late afternoon sun was glittering over the river, catching the light in the reflective glass of the casinos lining the waterfront. If his mom were to be walking near any of them, he wouldn’t be able to tell with all the glare. He looked anyway.

Now that Littleman was in first grade, he had actual subjects instead of just playtime and numbers and art and reading all running together. In social studies, they did a unit on the Colorado River. They read how it was one of the biggest rivers anywhere, and it started way up north in the mountains with the snow that melted in the spring.

“It used to be red,” Mrs. Yearous told the class.

“From blood?” This question was from Carlos T. at the next table. Carlos had a thing for blood and guts. He wasn’t alone.

“Yeah!” called the boys nearby.

“Eeeeew!” shrieked the girls to his right. They were egged on by Cindy P., who never missed a chance to scream.

“Not blood,” Ms. Yearous explained. “From the earth, from the red silt up north.”

“What’s silt?”

“Dirt, but thinner. Almost like clay.”

Littleman chewed and let his eyes go soft over the river.

Red earth, red blood.

Earth in water, like clay. It could be molded, shaped. All you needed was your hands and your mind and you could turn it into anything.

He licked whipped cream off his fingers and the river rushed past. There was something he was almost grasping. It was like trying to stretch a rubber band between the spokes of his thoughts, feeling the band go from stretching to tight just before it snapped.

He pulled back just a little, finishing the last bite of soggy dough.

That’s when he noticed it again: the way something was happening with time.

In between the casinos across the river, you could see the palms, and behind these was the desert floor and it was glowing lemonade pink and the mountains behind it dark like fruit punch against watermelon sky.

Time was getting away. Littleman stood up, dropped his plate in the trash, and marched on.

Next came the Music Express. Aa fast as it looked, appearances were nothing compared to how it felt.

“Hang on,” said a shaved-head guy with a handlebar mustache. Littleman felt the side of his body starting to bruise from being pressed so hard into the metal cage around the seat. He sighed with relief when it finally slowed. Then it went in reverse.

As he headed for the ramp, handlebar mustache said, “You okay, little man? You good?”

He held the railing and waved as he limped away.

The carousel would be a calming reprieve. After that, he would rack up the rest of his voucher points and then celebrate on the Tilt-a-Whirl before claiming his prize.

No one checked heights on the carousel.

“You sure you want this one?” said the big girl with the nose ring and purple eyeshadow.

He stared. She laughed.

“Okay, little man. Suit yourself. It doesn’t move, but at least it won’t bite.”

Grown people who didn’t know him were always doing this, talking down like a kid couldn’t see for himself what a thing could and could not do.

The ride started and then he understood. There was no gear on the end of the tiger pole, so it was one of the only ones that didn’t go up or down.

He hated the nose-ring girl. He kept his face forward, stoic, doing his best Samurai Jack.

“You okay? You get hurt or something, little man?”

He stormed off, doing his best not to limp, wishing he could move faster.

The time had come. He headed for the exit.

Later — the following day or the day after this one — there would come a moment when Littleman would try to explain what happened on the Tilt-a-Whirl, even to himself.

He would not be able to tell it, though, because the thing that happened was behind what he could see and all that he could see was a blur.

What happened on the Tilt-a-Whirl was that eventually the music ended and the spinning stopped, and he limped down the ramp toward his final destination.

“Hey little man,” said the booth worker. Littleman couldn’t remember seeing him the last time. “You’re back!”

Resting his left hand on the counter, Littleman pulled the vouchers from his right pocket. The yellow slips resembled Monopoly money but less detailed. He made a pile and rested his right hand on the other side.

“I’m here for the tiger.” His head was heavy and he spoke into the pile, seeing only the booth worker’s sneakers.

“You bet, champ.”

After counting the vouchers, the bald kid said, “Sorry, little man. Gotta ask: you want pink or blue?”

Littleman looked up.

The real tiger, the orange one, was gone from the rafters.

“I want the real one. The orange. Where did it go?”

“All out, little man.”

Littleman limped to the exit, following the blur of lights until he reached the spotlights near the entrance. He dragged the blue tiger behind him.

They were barely through the exit when Littleman felt it coming and it bent him over at the waist, and everything that spewed forth from his mouth onto the asphalt and onto his white shoes was the watermelon red of his snow cone.

“Eeeeew!”

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Let’s go,” he told his uncle, and they continued across the lot, to the car.

Driving home, the sky behind the mountains went from pink to bruise, the remains of the big day looking like a movie’s last scene. The blue tiger was tipped over in the seat where Littleman had been that morning, behind Uncle Marty. Were he sitting there now, he would have been leaning his forehead into the glass. In the front seat there was no leaning. He bent over to loosen the Velcro of his light-up shoes, now bloodstained at the heel, and when he sat up again, he let the back of his head fall like a bowling ball into the seat. Under the purple sky and the traffic lights, into the headlights of traffic coming from the other side of town, and behind the red lines of taillights of everyone moving away from the Carnival, he listened with the full weight of his skull. It was over.

They drove past the pawn shops and the Dollar Tree and the Discount Tires and the RV dealership, past the auto repair and the wedding chapels and under the billboards shouting, “Buy your dream home now!” The promise was framed by the image of a white-toothed woman with auburn hair and a red-lipstick smile standing beneath palm trees in front of a white house with big windows and a river view behind her. The river was blocks away, but you couldn’t see it from Broadway because of the stucco boxes of discount retail chains and the concrete wall which separated the people who bought homes on the river from the town full of people who worked on it, in any of the high-rise casinos.

“It’s a town built on the promise of escape,” Grandma had said once. Not to him. He had been listening. “That’s why you’d better watch yourself.”

They turned off Broadway. They passed the house with the Rottweiler on a running line. The dog, no longer running, stood at the corner of the yard staring through the fence.

After the final turn, they pulled into the last row of homes in the neighborhood, the farthest from the river and the closest to the train tracks.

He’d driven this route more times than he could possibly count, but never in the front seat. He’d never seen his home as anything but the place where Mom once held him and Uncle Marty sat in the chair and Grandma hummed in the backroom and he kept his bugs in jars and even when there was shouting or loud noise outside, it was warm like a blanket someone puts over you when you fall asleep on the couch.

“We made it,” Uncle Marty said, and he parked where the fence made an opening, in the place they’d always called a driveway, but which was actually only dirt like the rest of the yard.

The yard, such as it was, was the expanse of dirt between the fence and the boarded-up window next to the front door. There was no vegetation except for a withering lemon tree falling over toward its own rotten fruit.

Beside the tree, a red Playskool slide with a gas can on the landing. Next to this, a wooden picnic table with rotting boards and a baby bouncer stowed beneath it. Atop the table, there was a drawerful of underwear and various mismatched socks waiting like a task someone was meaning to get to under a layer of leaves and bugs. A white plastic wastebasket rested beside it, on its side with a few crushed cans at the bottom.

In the shade of the tree was a blue pool, empty except for debris and a wet sludge at the bottom. The ladder leading to it had three steps. Beside the ladder, leaning sideways over the edge, into what would be the pool if it had water, was a little tykes basketball hoop.

“Want me to carry your tiger in, Littleman?”

Marty had the door open, waiting. Littleman shook his head. He pressed the seatbelt button, releasing himself, and he lifted the weights of his feet over the ledge of the car and onto the dirt. He followed Marty to the door, pebbles crunching under his heavy steps.

He let the screen slam behind him as he undid the Velcro of his shoes. He wanted to peel off his socks, but they felt stuck to the blood at his heels, and he didn’t want to deal with that now.

He went straight down the hallway, turning as he passed the boxes, back to bed. He didn’t turn on the light. He didn’t brush his teeth. He fell asleep looking in the dark. When his eyes adjusted, just before he nodded off, he could see the silhouettes of dragonfly bodies in mason jars. They looked alive. That was the point of the poison, Marty had explained. It killed them in a way that made them look alive, which made for a better display.

When he woke, his mouth was sour. He swished with water from the bathroom sink and brushed his teeth. He walked out to the kitchen, grabbed a plastic cup from the drainboard, and filled it at the tap. He drank it down and filled it again.

Through the back door, he could see Grandma’s light on. He filled a fresh cup, found another straw, and walked over.

“Hey Grandma.”

“C’mere, Baby. I been thinking about you.”

“Too much fair food, Grandma.”

“That’s alright, Baby. C’mere, Devon. Here, right here.” He set the cup down on her nightstand, beside the one he had brought her that morning, which was still half full.

“Least when you get sick you had something to show for it, Baby. With me these days, I get like that before I even eat anything. This medicine makes me barf on an empty stomach. Go figure.”

She opened her arms and he let himself climb in beside her, over the rails of the hospital bed, to rest his face against her nightgown, musty with her soft spreading Grandma smell and the crumbs of Nilla wafers, which seemed to be all she ate lately.

He didn’t have his sword and he wasn’t trying to see anymore, past what was in front of him, looking real, into the thing beyond it. He closed his eyes. Grandma rested her open palms across him, one over the back of his skull, one pressed flat against his back. He felt a catch in the back of his throat and he felt his sword drop beside him, clanging against the linoleum beside the bed. All there was to feel was his breaths and her hands.

And then, vibrating against his ear like the shake of a car when he used to sleep against the window, his Grandma was humming. It was not a song, but long notes stretching out like the space behind a song. He pressed his ear against the soft space of her nightgown and he felt himself inside it, pulled like water down a drain, behind the sound and into the space behind that, and he stayed with her there, falling until he reached a plug like a drawbridge over a waterfall, like the place where the river gets dammed.

He felt her wait until he was ready. When he was, she held him close and they went through it together, past the edge of the space behind the song, deep and wide like a valley before the snowmelt came down.

The veil was peeling back. They listened together for another moment and then it came, the sound behind the rushing water and beneath the almost-song, a cry in the back of the throat like a birth wail ready to come.

About the Author

Stacey C. Johnson

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Stacey C. Johnson writes and teaches in San Diego County. She is a graduate of the MFA program at San Diego State University. Her work appears in Oyster River Pages, Pacific Review, and Fiction International, as well as various other publications. You can find her at staceycjohnson.com and on Twitter @StaceCJohnson.