My so-called ex, Brent Parsons, showed up with his hair gooped. “Smell,” he said, and he poked his head where my nose could reach.
“Like Kool-Aid.” You can’t insult Brent. I know because he used to live with me. Even so, he would have liked a compliment. I could see that. What I said was, “How come you’re not sweeping floors?”
On his pitted face he put his that’s-a-dumb-question look. “Carnival, Nadine.” Like carnival was an answer I should know.
Brent was wearing the polka-dot shirt I gave him for his twenty-seventh birthday. His jeans were frayed to grey threads at the cuff. His pointy-toed, fake snakeskin, second-hand cowboy boots peeked out like rats from underneath the strings. “So every time the carnival sets up in town, they decide they don’t need clean schools, Brent?”
“If you was the boss and the carnival came, wouldn’t you say enjoy yourself?”
I could tell from the way he pouted he was lying. “As far as I know, Brent, the teachers at Casewood-Mackie Junior High don’t like to find their toilets dirty whether there’s a carnival or not.”
“People pee in dirty toilets all the time.” He hooded his eyes, a sign he’d heard enough. “You coming, Nadine? I don’t see Damian’s pick-up.” He’d made a point of looking all around, like he didn’t already know Damian’s blue Toyota T100 wasn’t going to be there. “Damian in Lancaster? Don’t he have a family there? Wife? In-laws? He loves his in-laws, don’t he? All the ones that aren’t in jail.”
“Suppose he loves who he loves, Brent. And suppose it’s no one’s business.”
All the time, I’d been staying half inside my door. There’s just two wooden steps. Now up Brent stepped, the same as when he’d had me smell his head. “What I suppose,” he whispered, breathing his mouthwash right into my face, “is that someone all alone inside her mobile home might be lonesome when a carnival with a moonwalk and whip cars is set up just a short stroll down the street.”
I could have gone to the carnival by myself. I’d thought about it. Or I could have gone with my friend Denise, except we were temporarily not speaking since somebody told her I said the dress she wore to be a bridesmaid looked like a slipcover. That was at my sister’s wedding. I haven’t had a wedding yet, so that’s why Brent is just my “so-called” ex.
I put two fingers on Brent’s skinny chest and pushed him off the step. He’s the kind of guy I can do that to. From the ground, he looked to the left at the Pelowicz’s and across the way to the place that used to be the Wentworths’ but is empty now. I knew he was thinking, “Who else will go with me?” The Pelowiczes are too old. The Wentworths moved to Ocala in April. The only other person is Selma Neiman, but I know he won’t ask Selma because when they kiss she’s got an overbite that two times has cut his lip.
“You’re walking, I suppose?” The state still had Brent’s license.
“It’s only four blocks, Nadine.”
It’s not four blocks. It’s more like half a mile. But I’d been hearing music when the traffic wasn’t loud. That, plus the Clorises pulled up just then with their six children. I watched as each fat little Cloris got out with their own cotton candy.
“Your treat, Brent?”
He put on his slickest look. “What’s mine is yours, Nadine.”
I knew he was lying, but I turned and got my purse.
I’ve lived in Belknap all my life. My dad worked at the mill until they closed it. It was the mill that made most of the socks the soldiers wear. The soldiers now wear Chinese socks, and people like my dad work at the car-wash places, or they move to where there might be work, like Selma Nieman’s father moved to Oregon.
“What’s he doing now?” I said to Selma.
“Picking cherries,” she said, pulling her lip down so her teeth didn’t look so much like she was a beaver ready to go to work on a tree.
My dad, at least, has fence installation. It’s what did before he got on at the mill. Now he’s out again with his post-hole digger, plumb-lining posts, and nailing up sections.
“I got a way to beat the plate-toss game.” Brent had waited till I locked my trailer door.
“You’re not wasting money on those crooked games, I hope.”
“It’s not wasting money if you can beat the odds.”
From the street in front of the trailer park, I could see the carnival’s far-off lights, like little jewels. And its musical sounds came steady. They play the same tunes every year. My steps got faster. Brent, in his second-hand boots, hobbled to keep up.
“The thing you have to do, Nadine, is make sure you arc your dime. You want it to fall straight down on the plate. You toss it sideways with a spin and it’s going to slide right off. They slick them plates up.”
The sad thing was, I could picture Brent practicing at some sort of artificial booth in his friend Epson’s garage. He wouldn’t know about the slicked-up plate from that, but he’d figure out the arcing part. Epson probably learned about how they slick the plates. He’s always on his computer.
“Look, there’s Tallis Dobbs,” Brent said. A bandy-legged guy wearing two-inch wide, bright-red suspenders was shepherding a biggish lady from where he’d parked his car. They didn’t see us at first. The lady had that straw-dry kind of hair you get from constant color changing. “Hey, Tallis,” Brent yelled. “When you going to put me on?”
Tallis was a foreman at the extruding plant in Lanford. They’ve got jobs that pay $18.06 an hour.
Tallis sighted us. He looked a little puzzled about who it was who called, but he and his big blonde friend started waving from the Lex-Track parking lot. Lex-Track used to be the mill that made the socks. The carnival sets up there because the parking lot is hardly ever used. Behind it, stone dead, all its windows dark, is the big, old, red-brick building where my father used to work.
“Don’t I know you,” the blonde lady asked me while Brent and Tallis high-fived each other and went through that friendship tomfoolery. She was looking at me with a height advantage from her platform shoes. Some shoes. The soles were cork in different layers, and each layer was a color of its own. She looked like someone squishing a rainbow. Her jeans were snug, the kind of fit you get from buying them a bit too small. Above her pinched-in waist, she had the country-western look — frilly blouse, snow-white, with the kind of neckline that says to guys, “Come on and have a peek.”
“You from here?” I asked her.
“I used to work at Cashwell Nuts, the chocolate place.”
“I worked there, too. Summertime in 1997.” I didn’t say that was the summer of my junior year. I could see she might be sensitive about her age, and if I now was 24, how old would she be?
“That must be it.” She touched her dry hair in a way that said this particular discussion was over.
You could smell the carnival. Most of it was corn dogs, popcorn, kielbasa in hot grease — everything like that. Some of it was sawdust. Some of it was animals, though where the animal smell came from I couldn’t say. The carnival didn’t have animal acts. Maybe it was humans. Maybe if you pack in enough humans and give them their peanuts and their fried dough and their snow cones and then spin them around in whirling-cups you get a smell like you don’t get anywhere else. I could hear girls screaming on the Tornado. They were even louder than the carousel tunes. Brent and Tallis were practically chomping at the bit. They acted like the carnival would disappear unless they plunged in right away. Brent was explaining to Tallis his idea on how to beat the plate-toss game, and Tallis was telling Brent there’s moonwalk boxing and asking if he’d like to put on gloves and have a try.
“First, Tamara wants to do the Ferris wheel,” Tallis said. This was the first time I knew his girlfriend’s name was Tamara. I was trying to remember if I knew her when I worked at Cashwell Nuts. “She don’t do the other rides. Too scary.” He and Brent started off to reach the Ferris wheel. “Get it over with,” Tallis yelled this back at Tamara and me. “Let’s get the Ferris wheel over with then do the better stuff.”
Tamara teetered along in her platform shoes, staying by my side. “He shouldn’t say scary,” she said. “Nothing scares me. It’s just I get sick to my stomach.”
Personally, I don’t like the Round-up or the Spinner, either. I threw up after an Octopus once, and the Octopus is like a ride for children. The throw-up went right on Brent’s shoes. He was very nice. He never yelled. He said he shouldn’t have made me go on the thing, although it wasn’t him. I went because I told myself I shouldn’t be a chicken. I shouldn’t just be scared of things and back away from them.
“Let’s do the Ferris wheel and then let’s find the fortune teller.” Tamara took my arm, acting like she and I would stay together if the guys went off alone somewhere. We reached the Ferris wheel linked like sisters.
Brent pushed in front of Tallis to buy tickets for all four of us. “My treat,” he shouted over the carnival noise. He waved Tallis off. I knew what Brent was thinking. He was thinking $18.06 an hour.
Brent and I watched Tamara and Tallis get seated. Tallis pulled Tamara tight against him. He was nuzzling her neck before the carny guy even got the bar snapped into place. I knew Tallis would make their car rock. “I don’t like that guy,” I said to Brent.
Brent waved the two off in the Ferris wheel car. Tallis gave the thumbs up back. It was like he was saying he had plans for Miss Tamara. Brent brought his mouth up to my ear. “No one said you had to like him, Nadine.” He made his voice a loud whisper, like even over all the roaring Tallis still might hear.
“Don’t kiss his ass to get a job.”
In reply, Brent spoke normal. The Ferris wheel car was far enough away. “You got to understand the way things work, Nadine. You got to play a person. Finesse. That’s what they call it. You ever hear that word finesse?”
“French, ain’t it? Ain’t it French for kiss my big behind?”
“I call it being friendly.” Brent continued waving to his wide-suspender friend.
Our turn came. The carny guy with his thick fingers signaled us to our seat. In the car above us, Tallis started swaying. Through all the other noise I heard Tamara yelling, “Don’t!”
Brent was my boyfriend from the time I started high school till the second time he got stopped and lost his license. He said he could beat it, but I said even if he did it wouldn’t make a difference. I had told him after the first time that if it happened again we were through. I’m not getting my leg broke just for a boyfriend. Broke leg or worse. I was with him both times, and the second time he said he knew a lawyer who could prove the breathalyzer gives out false results. Some lawyer. A snappy bow-tie. Not the kind you tie yourself but the kind you put on with elastic. His retainer was nine hundred bucks.
“There goes your ring,” Brent told me. We were practically engaged by then. We’d been living in my mobile home for going on two years. I never had another guy who lived with me that long. Only Brent. Now I got Damian, who, even though he says he isn’t married, everybody knows he is.
“I feel like some sort of king on these things.” Brent had to yell to make me hear. Our car had climbed up to the top, but they were still loading cars below so we had time to take in the view. “I feel like, the words I say, everyone must listen. That’s the law, Nadine. Or I feel like if an invader came, I would raise my sword and everybody would come flocking forward into battle, all cheering.”
“I can take dreams or I can leave them,” I yelled back. That shut Brent up. First, he looked astonished. Then he looked a little sad.
The bottom car, at last, got loaded and we began our downward turn. For a little while, the city’s lights still sparkled for us, and you could see where 93 cuts close to the river. Brent took my hand. I let him, even though that part was all over between us. I still liked Brent. You can’t help but like a man who says to smell his hair. And the other thing was the car was lifting us up above people crowding each other, everybody wanting this and wanting that. And the smells of mustard and coffee. And the ground getting littered with the pizza pieces people drop. Our Ferris wheel car would come down to that real world and then up we’d go again. It was nice, in those few minutes, to have someone hold your hand.
Both the guys wanted to do the plate toss next. We had to search to find it. The guys led the way; Brent fair, Tallis dark; Brent tall, Tallis not as tall; Brent in his silk shirt and Tallis with his belt and suspenders. He probably had his wallet on a chain. I know that type.
Tamara guided me through the crowd. She wanted to know all about me and Brent; how long had I known him; what kind of guy he was; what his job was; did he have other girls; did I have other guys. When I told her it’s all over and I’m only with him this one night, she said she’d bet he’d get me into bed. She talked then about how cute Brent was. “He’s got good ears. I like a guy with ear lobes you can play with. Plus his butt fills out his pants. That’s attractive.” She told me confidentially Tallis’s butt was stringy. When she said she bought him falsies for his butt last Christmas I said I didn’t know there were such things. She said, “Oh yes, you’d be surprised.” Then we pulled up short and wiped our smiles off because guys always think you’re laughing at them when you’re laughing at something private. You can’t even let your eyes glitter a little or they’ll ask you what’s so funny. What was so funny was all the cursing Tallis did when he found out his Christmas present was falsies for his butt.
At the plate-toss booth, you get prizes for the dimes you toss that don’t slide off the plate. A guy in a Harley tee-shirt was side-tossing dimes the way Brent said you’re not supposed to, and Brent very eagerly offered him advice. The first dime the Harley guy arced missed, but the next one landed right on a plate and stayed. He already had, from his earlier tosses, enough dimes to stay on to win his girlfriend a beanbag kitten. You would have thought it was a diamond ring from the squeals she made.
Brent was next in line. He waved a dollar till the bored guy in the booth gave him ten dimes. “Now watch this, Nadine,” Brent asked a guy nearby to move so he could take his stance. He had to crouch to get room to arc his dime. Up went the first dime. It landed in the space between plates.
“Try it this way,” the booth guy said. He had a moustache that looked like a bandit’s. He demonstrated the sideways toss.
Brent turned and winked at me. I guessed he was thinking the guy’s just proved his theory. He wouldn’t give advice that helped Brent out. Brent took his stance again and let fly a second dime. This time it arced perfectly and landed on a plate.
“Let me try.” Tallis stepped forward. He didn’t get dimes of his own. He took one of Brent’s. His toss landed perfect, too.
“Let the little ladies have a try,” the carny guy said. He knew he’d got a couple of sharpies and he wanted to stretch out the odds. First Tallis had to have a second shot. He cussed when it landed shy of a plate. “Nadine, you step up here and let me show you how it’s done. It’s all in how you move your arm. You got to move it very, very smoothly.”
I stood at the counter. Tallis stood at my back. He wrapped one arm around my middle and with his other hand he held my wrist. “You got to get the feel for this, Nadine.” He moved my arm through several motions before he said to Brent, “Let her have a dime.”
I wasn’t born yesterday. I knew what was going to happen. After I had made my toss and missed, Tallis let his left hand graze my tit. I could have told Brent. Brent might have slugged him. Creeps deserve a good punch in the nose. But no chance of a job after punches get thrown. A person has to keep that thought in mind. Brent, with his birthday shirt on, the silk one with the polka dots, if he had noticed Tallis brush his hand against my tit, might have said to Mr. Suspenders and his tacky-looking girlfriend we should go our separate ways. Tallis, whether he agreed or not, would have known that what he’d done was pretty crappy. He would have been on notice not to try that stuff again. Even guys who take advantage, if you let them know they’ve gone too far, can be put in their place. The thing is, though, Brent hadn’t seen Tallis cop a feel. It was my tit, of course, so I knew. But I just shut my mouth. I told myself if he got touchy-feely again, I’d let him have it. But that was just one thought I had. Another thought was $18.06 an hour.
Brent still had five dimes. He offered Tamara a chance, but she said the plate would have to be bigger than a trash-can lid before a dime she threw could land on it, so Brent cleared the space around him again and went into his stance and ended up getting two more dimes besides the two already there.
“Keep trying for a dolly for the ladies.” The booth guy grinned at Tamara and me.
Brent looked over the prizes stuck to the booth’s back wall. “What do I get for what I done so far?”
The booth guy showed him a pair of eye-poppers, which are a frame for glasses with ping-pong balls painted so they look like eyes. The eyes are all bloodshot, and because they’re on springs, they keep falling out of the frame and bouncing up and down.
“That’s what I want,” Brent said.
He put the glasses on to act more comical, and it turned out pretty funny because he could stretch the springy eyes to look two ways at once, or zoom them in and out, which he did at Tamara’s chest. Tamara acted like someone embarrassed and pretended to slap at the goggle eyes as if they were real.
The two guys talked about what to do next. I already knew Tamara wouldn’t go on any more rides. Tallis was all for the Tilt-a-Whirl or the Gravitron.
“He’s not getting me on any Gravitron,” Tamara said this to me but loud enough to make it clear to Tallis, too. “That’s the one that spins you ’round so fast you’re stuck against the wall.”
“It’s proven that you can’t get hurt,” Brent said.
Tamara took my arm. “We’re going to the fortune teller. Nadine and me.”
Tallis said, “I got your fortune.” He grabbed himself between his legs.
I’m glad he did it. I’m glad he was crude. Crude guys put themselves in their own little pigeonholes. They make themselves smaller than you are. They can still be annoying. They can still be a nuisance. They can be a menace even, but they’re shrunken up. They’re small. Tallis was smaller than Brent was. Even with his jobs at $18.06 an hour, Tallis wouldn’t measure up. There’s some satisfaction in knowing that. Though, of course, a Tallis will still be a Tallis. That’s human nature.
Tamara took my arm. When the guys went walking toward the Gravitron, she yelled at them, “Where shall we meet?”
Brent answered, “Fun House. In front of the Fun House. Twenty minutes.”
Tamara wasn’t looking for the fortune teller. That’s the first thing I found out. What she wanted was plain enough. She was eyeing all the food booths. “Tallis would kill me,” she said when we stopped in front of the corn-dog booth. “I’m on a diet, but you can’t put a person in a place that smells this good and expect her not to be tempted.” She opened her purse. “You tempted?”
I shook my head, no.
“Not one tiny bit?” she said this while she was handing her dollar over. “If you want, I’ll buy you one. Or maybe a giant pretzel with mustard? Aren’t those good? You ever hear of fried Twinkies? Sounds disgusting, doesn’t it, but they’re really pretty good. I don’t think they have them here. Tallis and I were down in Pascagoula once and he said, ‘Here, try this.’ Don’t tell him I had this corn dog. If he asks, just say we shared a diet Coke.”
She had mustard on her fingers and had to lick it off. She did that finger by finger, and then she looked back to the corn-dog booth to see if they had napkins.
“Pascagoula stinks,” she said. “We went down for business. Monkey business, actually. Very raunchy stuff. They don’t respect a person there. I mean if she’s a girl. I’m never going back.”
We stopped walking so she could finish her corn dog. Her corn dog was on a stick, and after she’d finished she looked around for a place to throw it away. There were trash cans but she would have had to go through crowds to get to them, so she delicately dropped it on the ground. Then she took my arm again, and we steered off to where more food booths were.
From Tamara I learned about a boyfriend, Jack, who left her with two front teeth broken; about a guy named Leo who was pretty nice, except the unemployment people caught him cheating. There were others, like the guy who drowned the neighbor’s cat.
Tamara checked herself to make sure there was no mustard spill. She said she wished she could find a ladies’ room. I said it would probably be just portable johns. She said, “Ugh,” and we made our way through the crowd to find the fun house. We knew it when we saw a giant laughing face and a very old-fashioned picture of a woman with her skirt blown up as high as her ass. It was old-fashioned because nobody these days would wear a skirt that billowy. Plus the woman’s hair and lipstick looked like she’d gotten gussied up during the Second World War.
“Stupid sign,” I said to Tamara.
We could hear Tallis working his way toward us, jabbering already. “I’m a bad boy.” He looked as cocky as ever, but Brent was green. “I’m bad, bad, bad.” Tallis dragged the words out to let us know it was a joke. Meanwhile, he eyeballed the blonde with her skirt up to her ass.
He nodded to tell me, yes.
“He didn’t want to go. I made him.” Tallis kind of crowed this.
“I’ll be all right.” Brent had to force a smile when he made that brave response.
“You ought to be ashamed,” Tamara told Tallis.
“I’ll make it up,” Tallis said that in Brent’s ear. He’d thrown his arm across Brent’s shoulders, buddy-buddy style.
I watched Brent straighten up and work to keep his smile brave. It wasn’t a real smile, but it let you know he didn’t want to be the kind of guy who let a little puky feeling slow him down.
“So, fortune teller.” Tallis was rubbing his hands together. “Tall, dark stranger in your future? That would probably be me.” He grinned in my direction. “You shouldn’t waste your money, though. I can tell a fortune just as good as someone sitting there with cards. You should have had a bite to eat instead. Did you? Just a little bitty bite? There’s so much stuff, and it all smells so good.”
He wasn’t as clever as he thought he was. I said, “Diet Coke,” and when he asked, “Just one?” I said, “We shared.”
“I wasn’t really hungry, Tallis.” Tamara was looking not at him but at the fun house, “Why don’t we try this?” She fluffed her hair. She wanted the subject changed from food. Brent jumped right in. “Hey, fun house, yeah. I think I could do that.” Then he wobbled his legs to make a joke out of the fact he almost got sick.
At the Fun House ticket booth, me and Tamara got our money out. “It’s not too scary, is it?” Tamara said to the woman selling tickets.
“You kidding?” The woman didn’t want us holding up the line, so that was her only answer. She nodded us toward the entrance, which wasn’t doors but billowing curtains. What made them billow was hidden jets of air. I thought at once about that picture of the old-time blonde with her skirt up. Tamara thought the same, I guess. Even before we were inside we were holding each other and laughing.
In the fun house, just past the billowy curtain, you enter the dark. I had to feel the lady in front of me to make sure of my step. Then the rubber walls bulged out like they were going to squish me between them.
The lady in front got so scared she turned and tried to get back to the entrance. “Move on,” people snapped at her. Tamara had been hanging on to me, but that ended when the walls puffed. Next, I was on a walkway that rumbled like an earthquake underneath my feet. After that, I came to stairs that kept collapsing even when I barely stepped on one.
I was stuck for a second on those stupid steps, and someone came behind me ground his private parts against my butt. I said, “Cut it out, Tallis,” not caring who heard. Behind me came this silence, like a knife had come and sliced off all the sound.
The collapsing steps worked better after I barked at Tallis. The logjam broke up. I reached the hall of mirrors, which was not a place I wanted to be. It was baffling for me to find my way out, and looking for the exit I caught sight of Tamara, or rather of about twelve reflections of Tamara. Her look was kind of a sick one. She knew what happened on the collapsing stairs. Right at that instant, into the twelve mirrors strutted creepy Tallis, his cocky grin now magnified to twelve.
It was Brent who got me past the mirrors. He took my arm and guided me. The final blast, right at the exit, lifting up my skirt, got no reaction, not from me and not from anyone. Tamara said as we came out, “That was sort of dumb,” and Tallis, coming last muttered this: “Mass confusion. They shouldn’t make the place so dark. You can’t tell who is who.”
It was like he was giving an excuse for grinding his pathetic self against me. He glanced to see how I would take his explanation. In situations of such ugliness, you have to brush the stupid person off. Tallis had been stupid to pump himself against me. He had been stupid to lie about mistaking me for someone else. What I did was I took Brent’s arm and clung to it. It was more of a lovey-dovey thing than I felt, but it was meant as an announcement that would say, “I’ve got a boyfriend, Mr. Tallis, so you better watch out.”
It would surprise me if Brent knew why I was suddenly clingy. Brent isn’t the kind who reads between the lines. He patted my hand, like giving approval, and then he said in a bright, breezy voice, “Moonwalk?”
“Moonwalk! Yeah! Sure! A little go-‘round!” Tallis, as he spoke, fell into his usual strut.
The moonwalk boxing place was not in the carnival’s most attractive location. They had put it off by itself, away from the rides and the food booths. Maybe it had to be close to the generators so they could keep its rubber cushions blown up all the way. I’ve been on moonwalks when the air is going out, and believe me, it’s like syrup when you try to walk in there. The generator noise might keep people away, or it might be that a moonwalk is basically boring. You bounce — that’s all. They’d added boxing to spice it up. If you can imagine boxing on some sort of giant trampoline, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what moonwalk boxing’s like.
We saw two pimply boys going at it when we reached the place. Little kids were bouncing all around them, which told me right away this wasn’t a sport that would make you bleed. How good could your footing be if what you’re standing on is an inflated cushion? And even if you fell, you’d bounce right up again. The red gloves the fighting boys had on looked too big for them. Every time one of them bounced, the waves of bounce tipped the other off balance. The boys tried to toss blows, but they missed, or the punch landed as a tap. If they scored for just touching you could say who was winning, but the moonwalk wasn’t for winning. It was just to bounce around and strike a pose and then get flopped down on your ass and come up laughing.
Brent stepped up to the booth and hauled out his wallet. The ticket booth woman told him the boxing gloves would be extra. He paid that, too, and after he got two pairs of gloves, he tossed one to Tallis and they sparred, each one holding gloves, not putting them on yet.
We watched the teenage boys step down to the solid ground. They were sweatier than you would think, like they’d had a real work-out. They had to go to the ticket booth lady for help getting their gloves off, but Brent had me and Tallis had Tamara.
“Listen,” I said when I was lacing Brent’s gloves. “That fun house thing wasn’t a big deal.”
“What fun house thing?” He knew what I meant, but he wasn’t going to listen. I guessed from that how serious he was.
Then it was funny to watch Brent and Tallis climb up the wood stairs because for the second they stood on the platform shoulder to shoulder watching the little children bounce around inside, it was like they were little children themselves. That impression only lasted till Tallis gave Brent a slap on the back. I heard him sing out, “Bing!” like he was the bell, and it was Round One. They both stepped wobbly out on the cushion. The red gloves waved above their heads like lobsters. Most of the kids stopped bouncing to look. Here was something new — two grown-ups with the gloves on. I watched both Brent and Tallis put their fists up. They didn’t have their balance yet so neither threw a punch. The kids got quickly bored and went back to bouncing.
The guys touched gloves. This was as much for balance as for right behavior in the ring. Then they pushed at each other because they could push without taking steps. The pushing only lasted till one of the kids, a red-headed boy, yelled, “Hit him!”
Tallis cocked his arm and swung. The swing threw his weight on his forward foot. Brent had to catch him to keep him from falling. He pushed Tallis back up with his left hand and tapped him with his right.
The kids stopped bouncing. They turned to watch.
After that it was jab, miss, jab, tap, fall down, spring up, more jabbing. The kids started jumping up and down, so the shock waves underfoot would throw the boxers off balance. When Tallis went down, the kids cheered.
The cheering got louder when Brent straddled Tallis, trapping him between his legs. Tallis squirmed to get loose, but Brent wouldn’t free him.
Brent’s blows fell slowly, nothing harsh but clockwork-like, and pretty soon they’d gone beyond buffoonery. The sobered boys stood watching. I watched, too, thinking, “$18.06 an hour,” but also thinking, “Hit him harder.”
Tallis crawled free. He got back on his feet. His face was angry. He put his gloves up for a real fight, but when he lunged he lost his balance and ended up clinging to Brent. Brent looked around to find me through the plastic curtain. He wanted to make sure I saw. While he was searching for me in the little crowd outside, Tallis threw a punch that knocked Brent off his feet. He bounced right back up. The cushion bounced him. He cocked his arm to throw a punch. Tallis was still staggering from the punch he’d just thrown. Brent’s fist crashed right into his nose. Next thing I saw was blood — spurts of it from Tallis, with Tallis falling against Brent’s chest, and the blood becoming a big smear on the silk.
The two guys called it quits. Tallis came out yelling, “Tissue! Tissue!” to make Tamara scramble through her purse. He let Tamara cover his nose with tissues, but he also pointed at Brent’s shirt. “I win,” he said.
What did he think winning meant? Did he think it meant blood on a polka-dot shirt? Probably that’s what he meant, even though he was the one bleeding. He meant he’d see Brent come crawling on his knees to beg for $18.06 an hour.
“Bye, Nadine.” That came from Tamara. Arm in arm, she waddled off with her scrawny boyfriend.
“Goodbye to $18.06,” I said to Brent.
“I ruined this shirt you gave me,” he said.
We were walking toward the street, out of the carnival. “Give it to me, Brent. I’ll soak it in cold water. That gets blood out.”
He blew out air, like he was glad to hear my offer. Then he unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it off to hand to me. I’d been carrying his eye-popper glasses ever since he’d put on the gloves. He took them back and put them on like they were real and he needed them to see. Now I was walking home with a half-bare man wearing glasses with blood-veined eyeballs popping out on springs. “$18.06 . . . $18.06,” Brent kept saying. He was laughing. I marched at his side, clutching his silk shirt, feeling like I ought to raise it up above my head and wave it like a polka-dotted flag. But all I did was unlock my door and hold it open and smile when I said to Brent, “Come in.” I was smiling for the moonwalk and the dime-toss glasses. I was smiling for the carnival, because for carnival don’t people say, “You don’t need to always have to clean the school’s stupid toilets. Go out and have a little fun, why don’t you. Isn’t that what life should be? Shouldn’t life be fun?”
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