Later, when the parents questioned him about their wayward girl, Gray Spaulding admitted he had seen her, but, for the life of him, he couldn’t explain what had become of her.
She leaned against the entrance gate to the Tilt-O-Whirl. Gray maneuvered the control box in his orange carnie jump suit, trying not to stare. It wasn’t easy. Looking a lean seventeen in a loose linen shirt, she was the most quietly beautiful girl upon whom Gray had ever laid eyes. Her hair was dyed a raven black, and a silver pentacle sparkled in the late day sun on her tanned chest.
“Hey,” she caught his eyes with her big, dark ones. Gray looked down at the controls, aware he had been gawking. When he looked back, she smiled, shy and sweet. She moved close and leaned over the fence.
“Do you travel all around with the carnival?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Gray said. The girl’s eyes bore into his.
“I wish I could go with you,” she said. Gray’s heart did a leap, and he almost swallowed his own tongue. Her smile broadened, and he, unable to resist, smiled back.
“It really isn’t a very glamorous life,” he said. Which was true, but he had chosen it. His mind went back to the moment he made the decision, almost a year before. As a freshman at his father’s university, he had found himself being taught Intro to Lit by the very woman whom he suspected was sleeping with his father. Gray had looked out the window as the woman droned on about the wonders of realism. On the next building, a colorful poster announced:
Gray had stood up abruptly and walked from the classroom, leaving behind his gymnastic scholarship, his parent’s expectations, the sleepy-eyed girl with the habit of showing up at his dorm room, drunk at two in the morning, and a used copy of The Sun Also Rises.
“So, do I get a turn?” she asked. Gray snapped out of starry-eyed reverie and turned to slow down the Tilt-O-Whirl. She reached out and caught his arm.
“Hey,” she said. Again, the dark eyes threatened to swallow him. “Which one do you recommend?” She tossed her pretty head toward the candy-apple red carriage seats that looped haphazardly in their orbits around the gaping grins of clowns that covered the center canvasses.
“Number seven, definitely,” Gray answered. Seven left its occupants dizzy and pleading for more. Even now, three kids spilled from its interior, staggering and laughing breathlessly.
“Well, thank you, Mr. Definitely.” Her hand let go of him, but her eyes did not. He undid the little chain and let her and the hoard of impatient fried dough gobblers inside.
As Gray started the machines up once again, the sky darkened toward evening, and the carnival lights splashed out all the brighter.
The Tilt-O-Whirl whirled. Number seven spun the girl into an intermittent blur. Gray pulled the levers, and the ride slowed. He watched with anticipation as number seven circled and came back around toward him. It canted on a slope and gave one last lazy loop.
Number seven was empty.
Gray ran a hand over his short-cropped sandy hair. He turned and scanned the milling crowds of sauntering locals, the sawdust-covered lanes, the rows of game tents where hawkers called out their challenges. He spun in a circle, disoriented by the familiar fried smells and flashing lights.
She must have gotten out, but how? It was impossible.
The next thought soured and clenched his stomach.
Had he imagined her? If so, Professor Spaulding’s son had succumbed to a nasty case of sudden schizophrenia. Even if most of the carnies of the world were junkie ex-cons, as most people seemed to think, Gray stood in the sober minority. But what had happened to the girl of his dreams?
Finding no answer, Gray grabbed a roll of duct tape and approached number seven. He stared into the interior. Only the cracked padded seats stared back. The trapped occupants of the other seats started up a chant: “One more go, one more go.”
Gray quickly taped a gray X, running from the lip of one side, over the handle bar, to the other. He walked around letting each occupant out of their confinement, searching for the missing girl. When he came to the last he stood, lost in thought, searching through his memory for some explanation.
“Hey, like maybe you could fugue out on your own time, carnie boy,” a long-haired kid shouted from the entrance to the hilarity of his friends. Gray let them in. In a sad daze he fell back into the routine of giving the unwashed hoards their chance at spinning oblivion. Number seven kept passing by showing him the awful shining X.
Twenty minutes later the girl’s parents showed up, allowing Gray the assurance that he had not seen a ghost, or a psychotic delusion. The parents wore matching polo shirts and strained, snooty expressions. Looking like they would be more at home at one of the Spaulding’s famous cocktail parties, these folks stood out from the pot-bellied locals wearing Blue Collar Comedy Tour T-Shirts.
A thin awkward boy, probably the girl’s brother, his polo shirt collar turned up, slunk behind the parents. He’s gay, Gray noted; and from the look of the square-jawed father, that wasn’t going to be an easy road to hoe, poor kid.
“Excuse me,” the father shouted, “have you seen this girl?” The man held out a school picture, where the girl, in a flowered blouse, stared out with those huge dark eyes. Gray admitted he had. She had ridden the ride twenty minutes ago, but he couldn’t tell her which way she went.
No, sorry, I can’t tell you in the slightest.
“Well, she couldn’t have gone far,” the father said to his wife.
“Richard, I told you. I was against coming to this place from the get-go.”
“She wanted to come. What was I supposed to say, Joann?”
“You tell her, no.” The woman made the appearance of searching through the crowd. “I mean, who brings a suicidal girl to this kind of place?” she said, scanning Gray’s carnie suit with disapproval. “Come on Adam, we’ll find her.”
But, from the continued calls made on the fair intercom loud speakers for Iris Miller to go to the information booth located at the back of the exhibition stands, Gray knew that they hadn’t. The night wound on. When Michelle came to relieve Gray for his break, he told her number seven was out of commission.
“Whatever you say, honey.” She brushed her bleached hair out of her face and lit a cigarette. As the midway emptied out in the delirious dark of the AM, Gray continued to stare at the X and the awful grin of the clown in back of number seven.
“What did you do, eat her?” he asked aloud.
“Eat who, Gray boy?” A voice crackled behind him. Gray turned to see Homer, the oldest member of their dysfunctional-carnie family. Homer walked with a hitch, which he called an old war injury, but from Vietnam, Korea, or prison riot, old Homer did not tell. He had sunken eyes and a knowing toothless grin. Probably, the closest thing to a true friend Gray had with the carnival, Homer always checked in on Gray before retiring to the old camper they shared.
“Nothing, Homie,” Gray said.
“Bringin’ back some floozies tonight, old man?” Homer asked.
“Not tonight, young man,” Gray followed their routine.
“You turning in?” Gray asked.
“Well, I heard the others tell that EZ Ed was going to try walking the spar between the exhibition hall and the announcement stand. Wanted to know if you’d like to come and watch.”
“You think he’ll really do it?”
“He’ll try; probably, get himself killed, though. He’s already been through a bottle of hooch, so they say.” EZ Ed was a thug and probably one of the biggest bastards Gray had ever known, but Gray didn’t particularly want to watch him die, either. But, Gray also knew that he wouldn’t be sleeping anytime soon, still thinking about the mystery of number seven, still haunted by the memory of that girl’s smile.
EZ Ed had managed the announcement booth roof by the time Gray and Homer got to the track that ran between it and the exhibition stand. The Vermont night had turned cold at the Essex County Fair Grounds. The dark hills all along the horizon were shrouded in a cold mist. The carnies watched as EZ Ed struggle to the end of the pole. A few locals had wandered from the darkened beer tent and hooted their encouragement.
“You get down from there before you break your fool head,” Michelle shouted up at her man from the track below.
“Shut up and go wait for me in the trailer, woman,” EZ Ed roared and swayed on the shingled roof. His muscled arms grasped the pole and steadied himself. His carnie suit sleeves were cut off at the shoulders to reveal the big “E-Z” tattooed on his upper arm. Gray had been told how EZ Ed had earned his name; he wished he hadn’t.
“Won’t someone stop him?” Michelle screeched. Everyone averted their eyes from Michelle as she blew out great clouds of smoke.
“Won’t someone shut that big, good-for-nothing mouth of yours?” EZ Ed snorted a drunken laugh. He took his first tentative steps across the pole that stood thirty feet over the track. The carnies held their breath. Even the locals stopped their riotous encouragement.
“He must want to die,” someone said.
EZ Ed tottered and stepped, balanced and stepped. A short length of chain hanging from the midpoint of the pole jangled. He approached it, and Gray wondered if he might make it, after all, hooch or no hooch. Then, looking down, EZ Ed made a little high pitched gasp and careened.
The crowd gasped in litany. EZ Ed reached and grasped the chain. He rocked wildly, but held on, cursing.
“Pull yourself back up!” someone yelled.
“I can’t,” he shouted and kicked.
“Jesus,” someone shouted, as if in a revival tent. Gray ran and pulled himself onto the exhibition stage. He found an old pennant rope coiled in the corner. Thin, smooth and too short, it would have to do. Looping this over his shoulder, he climbed the announcement booth stairs and scaled his way onto the roof. He straightened and surveyed the pole.
Taking a deep breath, Gray centered himself and took light steps out across the expanse above the fair track. Everything faded away as Gray remembered the old training and visualized himself six inches from the ground.
At the center Gray lowered himself gently, so that he hung from one rigid armpit. He used his free hand to loop the rope over the bar a few feet from the chain. He tied the rope as best he could and tugged it hard and tight. EZ cursed below him. Gray waited for the sound of EZ’s impact below, but the bugger held on. Looping his free hand in the rope he lowered himself down.
“EZ, grab onto me!” Gray shouted as he hung a few feet from where EZ dangled, gasping.
“To hell with that,” EZ roared. Gray curled his leg around the rope and reached out a hand.
“Take my hand!” Gray commanded. With white faced suspicion, EZ flailed his arm out. He missed. As he spun around Gray grabbed him by the elbow. EZ fell off the chain, and Gray held on with all his strength as the larger man arched out.
The crowd gasped.
Slowly, his tendons standing out in his neck and arms, Gray lowered them toward the earth. The rope burned and squeezed his hand.
Gray came to the end of the rope. A group of men gathered below, and Gray dropped EZ the last ten feet or so. EZ fell into a pile of bodies, cursing.
“We got you EZ.”
“Get your damned hands off me!” He roared and thrashed and rolled away from them.
“Gray boy, drop. We’ll catch you,” Homer shouted. The rope burned across his hand as Gray uncoiled it. Rough hands held him from the ground.
The crowd applauded. EZ, swearing, staggered off. Michelle went to him, dithering. EZ cursed her, while he leaned against her stout side. Hands patted Gray, as he held his bleeding hand.
Afterward, Homer and Gray sat on lawn chairs in front of their trailer.
“For your hand,” Homer handed Gray a strong rum and coke. Gray sipped at it while Homer packed and lit his pipe.
“That was quite the thing you did,” Homer said.
“Well, yeah…” Gray’s mind had gone back to the girl, Iris, and number seven.
“I daresay, it was more than I would have done for the jerk,” Homer added. “You were born at the wrong time, kid.”
“What do you mean?” Gray asked.
“You’re True Carnival material. That’s rare.” Homer got a distant look in his deep set eyes. “Everybody comes looking for it. Very few people find it. Some kids do. You can see it in their eyes. They hear that calliope music, and they are in The Carnival. Then they grow up and keep looking. That’s what keeps them coming back. The rest of us desperate addicts never leave,” he chuckled and rubbed his back.
“How about you?” Gray asked.
“I catch glimpses of it, from time to time, mostly in the faces of the children, but it’s enough.” He gave another gravelly chuckle. “That’s the funny thing: most come looking for it, and refuse to see that it’s just a bunch of bums and machinery and electricity. They don’t realize that whatever carnival they are looking for, they bring with them.” Homer was silent, the pipe smoking away in his mouth. Gray wondered if the old man had nodded off.
“But after you’ve been around long enough, you get good at seeing the people that have the True Carnival in them. There’s something different about them, like you, Gray boy.”
Like Iris, Gray thought, remembering her eyes. Where did she go? He wondered for the hundredth time that night. They were quiet for a long time.
“I’m turning in,” Gray felt tired and woozy from the drink.
“Hey, kid, steer clear of old EZ Ed, will ya?” Homer said, putting a gnarled hand on his arm. “You did a hell of a nice thing tonight, but he won’t see it that way. He’ll think you stole his thunder, made him look foolish. He isn’t a nice person,” Homer said quietly.
“No problem, young man,” Gray promised.
“Goodnight, then, old man,” Homer said. Gray left him alone with his ruminations.
All that next morning a thick mist covered the fair grounds. Gray walked alone, thinking. He found Michelle smoking near one of the rest room houses. A nasty bruise covered the side of her face.
“Good morning, Michelle,” Gray called. Michelle turned her head and brushed hair over her face.
“Hello, Gray. That was some fancy climbing you did last night, honey.”
“Are you all right?” Gray asked.
“Oh. I bumped my head on the way in last night, stupid cow that I am.” She attempted a chuckle. “It’s nothing, honey.”
“You’re too nice, Michelle,” Gray said. Michelle stubbed out a cigarette and looked him in the eyes for the first time.
“There’s something I don’t understand. What are you doing here, Gray? You aren’t like the rest of these machine monkeys. You don’t belong here,” she spoke the last in a flat tone. Gray took a step back.
“They keep paying me, so I keep coming,” he said awkwardly. He lifted a hand in farewell and walked on. He thought about what she had said and what Homer had said the night before. He thought of the brute, EZ, and him hauling off and taking out his self-loathing on poor Michelle. He thought of Iris, disappearing somehow into the cracked seat cushions of Cab number seven. He thought of her parents, probably sleepless, making desperate calls to everyone Iris had ever known.
He came up to the Tilt-O-Whirl. It sat, waiting in the mist. The deck gave a whine of protest as he walked across it and ran his hand over the candy-red shell of number seven.
Of all the folks who had ridden number seven, bowing their heads and laughing to tears, why had Iris been the one to vanish into nothingness? Her mother had called her suicidal. Could it have taken her because she wanted to die?
He drifted back to the night before, watching EZ Ed up on the pole. He must want to die, someone had said. A plan started to gather itself in Gray’s mind.
That evening, Hart, in a sweat stained dress shirt covering his enormous gut, waddled over and inspected Gray and the Tilt-O-Whirl with disapproving little eyes.
“What’s with number seven, boy?” the carnival owner asked. Gray had disconnected number seven’s handlebar. He couldn’t spend all night looking at that X of duct tape.
“Something’s wrong with it,” Gray said.
“What’s wrong with it?” Hart asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“Well, don’t you go to bed tonight, till it’s fixed. People get anxious when they see a piece of the equipment is not working, aint good for business,” Hart grunted and waddled off.
“I’ll test it again, tonight, after closing,” Gray said to the fat man’s back.
After Closing, Gray found EZ Ed downing hooch in the cockpit of the Thunder Derby. During hours, the cockpit gave EZ Ed a great vantage point for spying down the front of girls’ halter tops as they screamed, and Def Leppard blared from the loud speakers.
“Hey, EZ,” Gray called.
“What do you want, midget?” EZ snarled.
“I just wanted to see if you were all right.”
“Oh, I’m over the rainbow. Thanks for ashking.”
“You know, I thought you did really well, last night. It’s not an easy thing.”
“Piss off!” EZ shouted.
“No, really, I mean it. Most people wouldn’t have made it to the middle. I trained as a gymnast since I was six,” Gray said.
“Well, hooray for you, Mary Lou Retton,” he pointed and laughed from underneath his great drooping black moustache. Gray smiled innocently up at him.
“Do you want to see a trick, EZ?” Gray asked. EZ narrowed his eyes, and then laughed uproariously.
“Mary Lou wants to show me a trick. This should be good. All right, Mary Lou, show me your trick,” he said.
“You have to come down, first,” Gray said.
“Oh, all right, precious, I’ll come on down, and you show me your little trick.” EZ struggled with his legs and dismounted the cockpit. “You know you are all right, midget. Did I ever tell you that?” He put one big arm over Gray’s shoulders, and Gray steered him across the silent midway. “You know, between the two of us, it was a damn good thing you were there last night. For a minute…Now this is just between the two of us… I thought maybe my head would be splattered,” he staggered half a step away and slapped his hands together, “Kasploosh, just like a goddamned watermelon,” he laughed. “Where did I put my drink? That miserable bitch probably snitched it on me.”
“No, EZ, the trick, remember? I have to show you the trick,” Gray reminded him.
“Right, your precious trick; well, lead the way, my little man,” he said, and fell against Gray. For a second, Gray worried that EZ Ed would plant a wet one on the side of his face.
Gray brought EZ Ed to the Tilt-O-Whirl. Gray walked up the steps and turned on the machinery. Number seven, handlebar in place, glowed in the red, yellow, and blue trim lights.
“What the hell are we doing at the Tilt-O-Whirl?” EZ asked.
“I did something cool to it. It’s like no ride you’ve ever seen before. I wanted to show you, first. I knew you would appreciate it,” Gray said, wincing. He looked at the huge wrench leaning against the controls. He didn’t want to have to resort to it.
“Oh,” He groaned, “all right, but, I have to take a picked wiss,” he declared. He took three steps and undid his jumpsuit.
As EZ Ed groaned and urinated interminably, Gray looked at number seven. He tried to visualize how Iris had looked, her graceful fingers wound around the handlebar.
Had she really wanted to die? His instinct said, no. She had wanted freedom. She had wanted, he dared to think, him. But, mostly, Iris wanted the carnival, Homer’s True Carnival.
Gray swallowed and took out a switchblade from his pocket. He lifted the hand wounded in his acrobatic feat the night before. The wound looked angry and dark in the carnival light. He drew the knife quick and deep across his palm. The dark there spread. He let out a little shivering moan from the pain.
“Whatzza matter with you?” EZ Ed asked, zipping up his jumpsuit and approaching.
“I hurt my hand,” Gray answered. He reached down and smeared his bloody palm about the head of the huge wrench.
“You ought to be more careful, Jack Ass,” EZ Ed drawled and mounted the steps. With his good hand, Gray handed EZ Ed the wrench.
“What do I do with this?” EZ Ed asked.
“Just toss it on the ground; I was getting it out of the way,” Gray told him. EZ Ed complied.
“Now what kind of goddamned thing did you do to the ride, anyway?” EZ Ed asked. Gray turned and put his bloodied hand on EZ Ed’s shoulder and ran his hand down his chest. This close, Gray could smell how badly the man and the suit needed a good washing. That was good.
“You’re going to love it,” Gray assured him and walked out onto the deck.
Gray took a deep breath and dove into number seven’s darkened interior. He pulled the handlebar down over his lap, as Iris had done last.
“Let her rip, EZ, and don’t spare the horses,” Gray yelled. “You won’t believe your own eyes.”
EZ shrugged, hit the button and pushed the throttle lever to full.
The Tilt-O-Whirl shuddered to life. It clanked and clamored in the early morning dark. Number Seven rode up a steep slant, held itself at the apex, and flew into a great whirl. Gray spun and spun. His head fell forward, and then he pulled it back. The movement tickled him, and silent laughter poured out of him. Tears flew down his cheeks.
EZ watched, stupefied, as number seven spun around in a great red blur. Getting bored, EZ pulled back the lever. The machine slowed and finally came to rest. Number seven continued to spin for a half a minute after the rest had stopped. When it did stop, EZ Ed went onto the deck. He grabbed the rim of number seven and turned it toward him.
Number seven was empty.
A Calliope sang out its mystic siren call. Gray opened his eyes to soft carnival light. He saw tents and booths, rides and lights all around him. Barkers in top hats promised miracles, calling all those outside to be brave, step close, and observe wonders.
Gray walked, scanning his right and left as he went. On his right, a wolf-headed boy frolicked on a wagon stage and let out an unearthly howl, which made the ladies cry with fright, and the children jump. On his left, a woman danced exotically as serpents of flame twined about her.
Then coming close to an exhibition house, Gray spotted a young woman in a shawl sitting at a little table.
“Madame Iris, fortunes and palmistry: she sees your future,” colorful script declared. The woman stood and fixed her dark eyes on Gray. She smiled.
Gray came close. Iris stepped closer and laid a warm kiss on his lips. She tasted of sweet bread.
“I thought you’d never come,” she said and wrapped her arms around him. “You almost missed your curtain. Here, you better hurry.” She took his arm and led him through the back of the exhibition stage. She gave him a little shove. He stumbled through the curtains and into the stage light.
Gray looked down. He hadn’t noticed before, but he wore colorful tights beaded with sequins.
“Ladies and gentleman, wait no further. You are about to be astounded by amazing acts of acrobatics. I give you the Stupendous: Gray Spaulding!”
The crowd cheered. Gray lifted his arms, took a step, and flew.
About the author: T. L. Barrett is a writer of speculative fiction, a teacher, husband, and father. He lives in the wilds of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom in a circus-like commotion with five performing children, two dancing poodles and two ferocious cats. His short story, "The China People of Oz" is anthologized in Shadows of the Emerald City. You can read more about him at tlbarrett.blogspot.com. He dedicates "Number Seven was Empty" to his lovely, fortune-telling wife, Sandra. The first time he gazed into her big, dark eyes he saw his future, and it was good.