by Phil Geusz
©2000 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
Jeffrey Dawson really liked the Scrambler. Its wheels-within-wheels motions were too complex for his young mind to predict, and the continually changing acceleration amidst the gaily-painted trailers was heaven on Earth to a small boy. He laughed and giggled in pure ecstasy until, gradually, the allotted time passed and his carriage came to a smooth halt.
"Mommy!" he cried out eagerly as he ran towards the exit turnstile. "Henry! That was fun!"
"Wowsers!" Jeffrey's mother Marge said, turning towards her child for the first time. He'd waved over and over as he careened past, but she had not been looking his way. It's hard to kiss your boyfriend and watch your child at the same time. "It looked like fun to me!"
"Yeah!" Jeffrey replied with an eager grin on his face. "It goes around really, really fast! Sometimes you slide one way and sometimes the other. I had to hold on so tight!" The young boy convulsively clenched an imaginary rail with both hands, gritting his teeth in silent pantomime of the effort he'd made.
But Mother wasn't looking. Her face was turned towards that of her boyfriend Hank. They were holding hands. Almost desperately, Jeffrey thrust himself between the two of them. This was supposed to be his day! "Can I ride again, Mommy? I want to ride with you this time."
Gently she pushed her boy aside. "Mommy doesn't go on rides. You know that, Jeffrey."
"Aww!" he replied, dancing in frustration. "It's not hard. I can hold on for you!"
Mrs. Dawson smiled, and for just a moment Jeffrey's normally cold world warmed. "I'd like to. I really would. But Mommy gets sick."
"Aww!" the boy complained again, though this time more quietly. He kicked at the dirt with a well-worn sneaker, then a new thought occurred to him. "How about you, Henry? Would you ride with me? Please?" He jumped up and down in tiny little hops to emphasize his need, brown puppy-dog eyes desperately seeking love and affection from a world that seemed remarkably unwilling to offer anything of the sort.
But Henry had other things on his mind. Ignoring the child capering at his feet, he tossed back the last of his third beer and belched loudly. "How about maybe we go hit the bars, Babe? And then see what comes after? We've still got most of the day to kill."
"No!" Jeffrey cried out in frustration, his simple hopes dashed. All he had wanted was an outing at the carnival with the ones who were supposed to care about him! No one ever seemed to want to do the things he liked to do, no one ever seemed to spend any time with him! The tears immediately began to flow. "No! I want to ride the Scrambler some more!"
"Geez, kid!" Henry said, stepping back. "Are you spoiled, or what?"
"But this was going to be my day!" young Jeffrey wailed. "All of us together, instead of me watching TV alone in the apartment while you guys go away. You promised me last weekend, and we didn't come. And the weekend before that, and the weekend before that, and --"
"He's right, you know" Mrs. Dawson offered reluctantly as she stepped over to hug her weeping boy. "We did promise."
Hank rolled his eyes. "Gonna let the goddamned kid run our lives for us, are we? Is that how things are gonna be? Let his fucking daddy take him to the carnival, eh? Where the hell is he?"
Jeffrey felt his mother stiffen at the words. "Now, Henry, there's no need bringing Greg into this."
"Then shut the kid up and let's get going!" he declared harshly. But Jeffrey only wailed the louder, until even his mother's boyfriend was moved by the innocent tears. "Aw, shit!" he finally said, now looking down at the ground himself. Then, reluctantly he pulled out his wallet. "Jeffrey!" he said loudly to be heard above the caterwauling. "Jeffrey! Do you hear me?"
The boy looked up, his big brown eyes still brimming with tears. "Uh-huh."
"How would you like to ride all the rides in the park?" Henry asked. "Every one?"
Jeffrey's eyes went wide with shock. "You're going to ride all of them with me?" he asked. "Wow!"
Hank frowned. "No, not exactly." Instantly the boy's face fell again. But the older man quickly went on. "Your mother and I have, well, adult things we have to do today. You're just a kid, though. And kids are supposed to have fun. How would you like to stay here at the carnival all day by yourself?"
The boy looked puzzled. "By myself?"
"But," Mrs. Dawson interjected. "But he's only eight years old!"
"Plenty old enough!" Hank declared. Then he bent down and looked Jeffrey directly in the eye, man to man as it were. "Aren't you big enough to spend a day here alone?"
"I... I guess so."
"See?" Hank tousled Jeffrey's hair, then rose to face the boy's mother. "See? He's ready. Jeff's a good kid, Marge. He'll be fine."
"But nothing!" Hank put his hands on his hips then and looked stern. "I'm not gonna waste my whole weekend playing Daddy. I don't know about you, but I'm going to do some serious drinking and dancing tonight, and who knows what else. Are you coming, or do I need to go see if someone else might be more willing?"
It was not the first time that Hank had made this particular threat, and it was not the first time that it had worked. Jeffrey felt very cold and empty inside as his mother looked first at him, then at her boyfriend. "Well I guess he's old enough."
"Of course he is," her boyfriend replied with a smile. "You just baby him too much." Then he opened his wallet and turned back to Jeffrey. "Here's twen- No, wait. Here's ten, ten dollars, son. If you're careful, it will last you all day long."
Numbly, Jeffrey accepted the bill.
"Now," Hank continued, "That's not quite enough to ride all the rides. But I hear that sometimes if a boy is very polite and looks like he specially wants to get onto a ride, they'll give him a free ticket."
"Hank!" Mrs. Dawson sounded shocked.
Her boyfriend looked at her and made a dismissive gesture. "I know what I'm doing," he explained. "It'll help keep the kid out of trouble."
Marge frowned, then resolutely looked away.
"Your Mom and I will come back to pick you up by ten o'clock tonight," Hank continued. "Now, we'll need to meet somewhere." He stood up straight and looked around for a landmark. "There!" He declared triumphantly, pointing towards a food-vending booth. "See that big pink cotton candy sign on top of the trailer over there?"
Jeffrey nodded soberly. "Uh-huh. But I don't want to --"
"Now, now, now!" The adult waggled his finger in Jeffrey's face. "You're not a fag, are you?"
The boy wasn't quite sure what a "fag" was supposed to be, but he knew that it was a very bad thing. "No!"
"Then act like a man, son! Act like a man! We'll see you by the cotton candy at ten tonight!" And with that Hank took Mrs. Dawson by the hand and pulled her towards the parking lot before she could have second thoughts.
"Bye, Jeffrey!" she cried out, awkwardly throwing a kiss. "Be good!"
"I will!" the boy replied as something died just a little bit inside him. It was a sensation that he'd felt many times before, but it still hurt very, very badly. "I'll be good!"
Then Hank and Marge were roaring away in Hank's battered old Camaro, trailing blue smoke and a cloud of gravel dust from the parking lot. Like a little soldier Jeffrey stood up straight and alone amongst the happy fair-goers and waved dutifully until they were out of sight. Then it suddenly struck home in the little boy's heart that he was utterly alone in a strange place.
And somehow, riding all the rides didn't sound like very much fun at all anymore.
The ten dollars lasted Jeffrey about an hour. It might not have gone even that far had the boy not spent half of that time staring blankly at the parking lot and wishing with all his might that Hank and his mother might change their minds and come back. But it was not to be, and after seemingly a very long time Jeffrey realized that he was hungry. He knew how to stand in line at the little window, and eventually his turn came.
"What do you want?" a rather dirty-looking man asked him.
"Do you have hot dogs?" Jeffrey asked timidly. He'd never bought his own food before, not even at school.
The vendor rolled his eyes. "Not here, kid. This is a pretzel booth. We've got pretzels and soda. Nothing else."
It sounded good to Jeffrey. "All right. I want a pretzel and a soda."
Looking somewhat mollified, the vendor expertly wrapped up the food with one hand while tapping cola with the other. "That'll be" he began, then stopped. "You do have money, don't you kid?"
"Oh yes!" Jeffrey affirmed. "I have ten dollars!"
The vendor looked around slowly and carefully; no one seemed to be paying much attention to his young customer. Then he smiled evilly. "That's great! Because a pretzel and a soda just happens to cost exactly ten dollars even." Looking bewildered, Jeffrey extended the bill and the man snapped it up eagerly. "Next!" he called out, and with head bowed the boy took his food and walked slowly away. It was still early, and all of his money was already gone! It was supposed to have lasted him all day!
Penniless, Jeffrey wandered the fairgrounds. He watched people try to toss rings onto bottles while others shot rifles at moving targets. Gypsies told fortunes and men swung sledgehammers trying to ring a bell. Families smiled together. "Guess your weight!" a barker cried out once, looking right at him. "Guess your age!" But Jeffrey was shy, and didn't really know how the game worked. "I'm eight," he declared proudly. "But I don't know how much I weigh." The carnival man looked at him oddly, then turned his attention to more promising marks.
Soda and a pretzel made a thin diet for a hungry boy of eight, especially since the larger part of both went to waste in an unfortunate collision with a running teen. The young girl came running out of nowhere and blind-sided Jeffrey. One second he was standing and quietly watching a man trying to win a stuffed bear for his fiancée, and then the next he was sprawled out face down in the grass. She stood Jeffrey back up onto his feet and brushed him off in a friendly way. "Are you OK, kid?" she asked.
"Yes," Jeffrey mumbled back. The impact had shaken him up a bit, and he really didn't like talking to strangers very much anyway.
"I'm so sorry!" she declared, her concerned eyes running up and down Jeffrey's small body to make sure that all was well with him. "So very sorry!" Then she dashed off and was gone, sucked up into the crowd. Her concern for him made Jeffrey feel warm and happy inside as he wandered away, until he realized in a flash of panic that his pretzel was gone and the precious soda spilled. Alarmed, he turned around and dashed back to where he'd fallen. But by then his lunch was long gone, and the soda cup had become merely a crumpled bit of trash.
The boy wandered the fairgrounds aimlessly, his stomach empty and his mouth growing increasingly dry. From the midway to the sideshows, from the gaming booths to the big Diesel generator trailers that roared like caged beasts Jeffrey wandered, his aimless journey going on and on until his legs seemed too tired to hold him up and his head ached terribly. "I want to go home!" he declared to the world in general. "I want to go home now!" But his voice was little more than a croak by then. No one understood him; no one even noticed him, really. Besides, it was best not to interfere. The boy was just one child among many, and if he cried then surely his mother or father would take care of it. For he was, after all, clearly too young to be off at a fair alone.
The blistering hot summer afternoon gave way to evening, and still Jeffrey wandered the fairgrounds alone. He was sunburned now, ears blistered and legs seared nearly crimson under his short pants. One shoe was untied and the boy stumbled a bit as he walked. Being but a child, his attention wandered feverishly. For a fleeting moment he would be mesmerized by the festive music that seemed to come from everywhere. Then the lights on a whirling ride would hold his eyes for long minutes until it slowed and stopped. Next a bit of the crowd would surge his way and, caught up in the mob, Jeffrey would stagger along with them until his immature legs could keep up the pace no more. Sometimes he cried, but no one ever noticed.
By now sick and deeply frightened, Jeffrey stumbled about in the last stages of exhaustion. He was crying almost continually, and not really even aware of where he was or what was going on around him. He was walking misery, lost seemingly without hope amongst a sea of uncaring adults, cast adrift by those whom by rights he should have been able to trust most. Betrayed, forgotten, abandoned, he wandered half-blind through a world filled with pain and coldness where he should have known joy and love. Jeffrey was no stranger to these feelings; he'd felt abandoned many times when sitting alone in the apartment, had felt adrift and alone every day at school, had been hungry and dirty and sunburned. But never before had he been all of these things at once, never before had been all alone in such a strange and frightening place.
Again and again through the long day Jeffrey had walked past the cotton candy stand, just to see if perhaps Hank and his mother might maybe have returned early for him. Each time, however, he'd gone away disappointed. And then for seemingly a very long time he was too lightheaded to find the place. But eventually his wanderings took him down the correct paths. He ran a few steps then in his joy -- surely it was ten o'clock by now! "Hank!" he tried to call out. "Mommy!" His thirsting eyes took in the sight of the beacon once more. "Hank!" he cried out again. "Mommy!" I'm here!" But there was no answer, just as there was no Hank and no Mommy. Jeffrey struggled on for a moment or two longer, walking around and around the stand looking for the ones whom he knew should be there waiting.
It was too much for flesh and blood to bear. "Shit!" Jeffrey screamed aloud, his heart transfixed by a spear of rage and anger and betrayal. "Shit! Fuck! Fag!" Then he balled his hands into small fists and pounded away at the side of the trailer until, utterly spent by this last effort, he collapsed crying to the ground.
Business was usually slow at the cotton candy stand, and that night was no exception. Many of the potential customers had switched over to more trendy fare such as frozen yogurt and dried fruit. But cotton candy was a traditional carnival staple; people complained if it wasn't available. So reluctantly the carnival operator had sacrificed some precious space for the stand, albeit off towards the edge of the show, and hired Peter Demkins to run things.
Peter was an old man, someone that most of the other carnies considered dull and slow-witted. He had been "with it" all his life, spending all his many years traveling from place to place, setting up and tearing down. He had no attachments, no intimates, nothing to fill his life but an endless flow of cotton candy. But his eyes looked deep. And his mind, slow though it was, operated along odd tangents and wandered down paths unknown to most. As a joke, a carnie gypsy once tried to read his palm. Her eyes had proven too limited to focus on his flesh, however, and his skin told her no secrets which she was capable of comprehending. Frightened, she had run away and never tried again. For true, real magic can come as quite a rude shock to those who encounter it the first time. It rarely takes the forms traditionally expected.
Peter didn't even try to understand a lot of things. Much of the world was beyond his comprehension, just as he himself was a being beyond the grasp of mundane logic and reason. The cotton candy man was a bridge between two worlds, a conduit of magical power, an instrument of God, someone whose true role in the way of things exceeded the reach of mere words. The old man understood none of this, however. He just knew, in a way beyond explanation, that it was his role to pick up after others, that some things in this world were far too precious to callously allow others to throw away.
He was dreaming with his eyes open when Jeffrey began his rampage, dreaming of shapes and ideas and logic that could not even begin to exist in the ordinary world around him. Then, suddenly, the rain of small blows and croaked curses called him back to reality. Closing his little window, he stepped out his side door and found the little boy curled up in a little ball at his feet, weeping bitterly. "Is something the matter?" Peter asked.
Jeffrey stirred a little at the kind voice and opened his eyes. "Hank?"
In an instant Pete knew the whole sordid tale, knew that this was a boy in need of his special talents. Jeffrey was but a small burden, and Peter's old hands were still powerful from decades of hitching and unhitching, packing and unpacking, hauling and tugging at stubborn canvas. To his gnarly arms the boy's body seemed almost as insubstantial as the cotton candy he sold. With something approaching tenderness, the aged man shouldered his burden and stepped up into the trailer. Then, taking a moment to hang his "Be Right Back!" sign in the little window, the old man carried him through the vending area into the tiny apartment in the back of the trailer where he lived. Carefully he laid the ill child in his bed and returned to his work.
It was almost midnight when Jeffrey regained consciousness. The lights were being shut off all across the fairgrounds and soon it would be time to shut down until tomorrow. Old Pete didn't actually hear Jeffrey stir, nor did he see the sheets move out of the corner of his eye. Somehow, though, he was aware that the boy had come around and needed help. Somberly the old man poured cold water from his thermos into a tin cup and carried the fluid back to his guest. Jeffrey reached out and greedily snatched the vessel away, draining it in a single gulp. Peter filled a second cup, then a third and even a fourth before Jeffrey had recovered himself enough to mind his manners.
"Thank you," he said simply. "I was very thirsty."
Pete nodded, grunting rather than speaking. Carefully he reached out with his heart and examined the small boy with infinite care. The souls of almost all children are bright and special, and Jeffrey's was more so than most. The core of the boy was sweet and pure, it was clear. He was as innocent as only a child can be, gentle as a butterfly and filled to the brim with the potential to love and live and joyfully create. With proper upbringing, he could perhaps have become a great statesman someday. Or maybe a philosopher, a poet, or a priest. Jeffrey's soul shone so brightly to Peter's special eyes that the act of looking was almost painful.
But already there was darkness growing here and there inside little Jeffrey, darkness with roots so deep and growth so well established that the issue could not be in doubt. There were gardens of young anger sprouting inside of him, and black frozen wastelands where once love and caring had thrived. Neglect and betrayal had left scars all over Jeffrey's soul, scars so deep and profound that even nurture and growth of the healthy parts could only result in strangulation as the diseased tissue twisted Jeffrey's essential being into a convoluted, miserable malignancy of a man. Peter could clearly see that it was already too late for Jeffrey, and had probably been too late from the day his mother had decided not to adopt him out. Gifted with a perfect little baby boy, Greg and Marge Dawson had elected to destroy him rather than do the difficult things needful to raise him properly. They were unfit, utterly unfit for the wondrous opportunity they'd been offered. In a fair universe it would be them who paid the price. But the universe was far from fair. Someday, when little Jeffrey was no longer so little, his anger and betrayal and rage would flow white hot through him and someone quite innocent would pay instead. With his life.
Peter sat down on the bed and quietly groaned. It was all so confusing to a simple man! With genuine love he stroked Jeffrey's soft cheek -- already the exhausted child had gone back to sleep. Then the old man leaned back against the wall and reached out across an indefinable distance for guidance. "What is justice?" he asked the glowing field that seemed always to surround him. "What should I do here? Please," he begged, "show me the way in which I must fulfil my responsibilities, for I am but a slow man, ignorant and crude." The glow coalesced around old Peter, swirled and danced and capered. He smiled then.
The beautiful lights sang in approval as Pete, filled as always during these communions with love and joy, climbed to his feet. The boy stirred a bit at the disturbance, but was quickly calmed by the old man's words. "Sleep, child! Everything is all right now." Then with the familiarity of long years he began to clean his spinning machine. The drum turned effortlessly backwards in cleansing mode as old Pete poured in gallon after gallon of scalding hot water. In seemingly no time at all, the equipment was as clean as it could be.
Gently smiling, Pete walked back to his private space and picked up little Jeffrey. The angle was a bit awkward, but otherwise it was a simple enough thing to ease the boy into the big drum. The shining aura around Peter grew brighter and brighter until, when the time was right, he ran the machine backwards once again. Smoothly and effortlessly it accelerated up to speed and began to spin sugar. Pink threads began to form themselves around little Jeffrey's body, then grew longer and thicker. A dense fur spread itself out over his features, growing and growing until soon the only trace left of him was a lump, a thick area in the drum full of cotton candy. Pete beamed and as he watched the lump redistributed itself into an even coating along the insides of the silver vessel. Everything that had once been Jeffrey Dawson was gone.
Or, more correctly, nearly gone. The cotton candy began to melt away, its insubstantial bulk fading away to an even purer nothingness. Pete's eyes widened in awe, he chuckled and laughed innocently as the machine continued to run backwards and cleanse. Eventually the last traces of pink disappeared, and with a shake and a rattle sugar mix poured out of the machine into the big box sitting in the hopper. Slowly, the machine whined to a stop and the unworldly glow that had once seemingly been everywhere faded to nothing.
The cotton candy machine was singing away again when, drunk and slightly frantic, Marge Dawson came running alone across the darkened fairgrounds towards the darkened beacon. Her eye was bruised, and a trickle of blood ran from the corner of her mouth. She dashed hither and yon around the flimsy building before rapping on the window.
"I'm closed, lady!" Pete cried out in annoyance. "Can't you see?"
"But -- but I'm quite certain that I'm supposed to be here."
Suddenly, Pete realized who the woman was. "No, Ma'am. You're not supposed to be here. Not at all."
"Are you sure?" she asked frantically. "I'm, I've forgotten exactly why, but it seems very important somehow." Marge looked confused. "I... But I've never actually had a child, then. Have I?"
"No," Pete replied evenly. "You have not."
The tears began to flow. "It was all a dream? All the love and affection? He was so perfect!"
"And very, very precious," Pete felt the golden glow say through his lips. "But a mere dream nonetheless."
"No!" Marge cried out, dashing her fists onto the countertop. "No! You cannot take my child from me!"
"I take nothing," the glow answered, "which has not been first abandoned by others. A child is not a thing whose needs you can put off until it is convenient, Mrs. Dawson. A child cannot wait until you feel like paying attention to him. Nor can you make his wants and needs second to your own. I'd think very hard indeed about this, if I were you."
"But Hank says --"
"--that he wants to father a child by you?" the glow asked sardonically. "That he will love you forever and not beat you any more? Your first husband, Greg, made the same kinds of promises. Didn't he?"
"Well, yes. But he was sterile!"
"As are you, woman. Utterly barren, your womb shall be. Hank will father no children either. The three of you have been cleaned up after once; it is simply not right to give you another chance to make such a mess of things. Jeffrey will be born again, will be offered a second opportunity to prosper and grow healthy and strong. After all, he has done no wrong. But as for you and the others who turned your backs, well, may you enjoy the rest of your selfish and barren and pathetically loveless lives." And with that, Hank's body slammed the window firmly shut. Marge wept for quite some time as she wandered about the dark desolate fairground, snatching at bits and pieces of the suddenly precious memories that every minute grew more elusive. And Pete, nose wrinkled in disgust, worked solemnly until almost dawn scrubbing away at the noisome black slag that Jeffrey's purified soul had left behind as residue inside the once-sparkling clean silver cotton-candy drum.