A Fair To Remember

The analogy cracks the circle up and makes Sean, a 14-year-old kid from South Bend who's homeschooling on the road with his carny parents, hunch over the Coke in his lap and blush.

Shorty: "When's the last time you had a chance at that?"

Larry: "Soon enough. Come on, I'll show you."

He pulls another Old Milwaukee from the stash up under the rig's bow, nods to Bubba, their freckled, redheaded boss, who's puzzling over a leak in his bike tire with a flashlight and patch kit, and leads the way down the row of bunkhouses. By the weekend, a fleet of them will roll in and park for the fair's 12-day run.

This balmy night, all doors--four to a trailer--are flung open for air. Inside one of the 5-by-5 rooms, a TV splashes its blue glow over the steps, and the sound of a girl's voice mimics a Jerry Springer guest getting her heart broken. In another of the cramped cells, a shower's running. Next door, talk radio.

Beyond the quarters, as if marooned on the scrub and wild grass at the camp's fringe, sit the rides--the Himalaya, the Mardi Gras, the Sleigh, the Scorpion, the kiddie go-rounds, all with their spokes and cages, strobes and amps in pieces strapped onto flatbeds. One needs four trucks to move; another, a rented crane to hoist it. A car on the little wheel flew off its orbit last week at the Farmington County Fair, Chad says, though no one was in it--a brush with a ride operator's nightmare.

Times have changed, Larry's telling nobody in the procession who doesn't already know it. "Used to be among carnies you could pretty much do as you pleased. Most guys like me pleased for a little weed, drinking maybe too much till you woke up face-down in a ditch in a town and time you couldn't place. Hell, there were fights broke out all the time, mostly old-timers keeping the greenies in line. Cussing, coking, hair down to your ass. Nowadays, we got drug tests at every stop. You got to keep your hair collar-high and your face shaved. Chad here just took a break in detox for a coupla weeks so he could pass clean piss. Bubba likes him, seems, so he staked him to a little holiday."

"Tell you what, somebody gets hurt on a ride and the authorities would be on you before you could say jack," Shorty says. "Forget getting fired, I'm talking about doing serious time."

"It's not my way anyways." Larry's stopped and turned somber. Cicadas in the nearby ditch click away in a weird chorus. A storm smells a breath away, but it won't break for days, and across the midway the lit-up game trailers and occasional firecrackers look like a constellation crashed on the tar. Some old version of "Rocky Top" blares out of the dark, a staticky lick that washes down the wind tunnel between rigs.

"To last here," he goes on, "there's some simple ethics: No going overboard with the mind-benders. Keep it clean. Keep it in the law. Get used to having no anchor. Get an iron gut for fair food. Learn your own weight on a crew. Mind the boss. Don't mind the mash and noise on a hot night. Don't mind the clock."

Chad: "Sometimes you can even count on the company's owner coming around. I mean--"

Larry: "Right. And all sitting down at a decent place for a steak. On him. He's an old carny himself. He knows how to stay civilized."

Chad: "I mean, everybody around the same table, like a family or something. The last time was right before we headed to Portland, when the season closed. You'd think all these guys might splinter off and go their own direction, back home, if there is one, or for the Florida sun, but no. We drive the bunks out to the carny camp where a bunch of outfits go fishing for winter."

Larry: "Like I told Chad here, one of these days I'll just sell my girl off and buy a shrimp boat. I'm thinking that's the life."

Larry's girl, here at the end of the convoy, is the Crazy Dance, a four-flatbed, nearly $1-million contraption that'll take three days to erect and check. She lights up on a switch like a cruise ship, he says; grinds on a greased flywheel the size of a satellite dish, sings like a siren, slicks down in sweat and puke over an evening, but she's glorious. "All you need to run her is a good head, and a couple deckhands hired cheap to take tickets, which is easy enough to find. Some guys I hire on year after year in a town. Kids maybe, before school starts, but burnt-out slugs, too--guys who sleep for a week in a spillway waiting for the carnival to come to town."

It's with a kind of rapture that he spills the Crazy Dance's secrets: the exact angle at which to time her controls ("wrist like this, cocked, ready to trip it"), her habit of lurching and squealing on the back stretch ("snaky-like when she's having fun"), the ways he's come to know her mood by the motion and tilt of her track after a morning's lube--30 squirts top, 10 below, and a can on the buried gears. Nobody touches the Crazy Dance without asking. Nobody steps into her doghouse. Larry's got a special kit for polishing her after a morning ritual wash and lube--a chamois and camel brush, some pricey wax for the chrome hub fittings. He didn't pay for her, but he owns her, if owning means what Larry means when he says he's tamed her over the years so she knows it's his hand tending her parts. Crazy Dance has turned on him a couple, three times over the years--a sudden shimmy during safety check, a stripped screw that slipped during rinse-off--but Larry's bum knee and neck scar because of it don't show or slow him much. "You play, you pay," he figures, at a cost he stopped keeping count of several seasons ago.

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