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Fiction #160
(published January 1, 2004)
At the Carnival
by Ben Stroud

We went to the carnival and cotton candy was three dollars a bag. Three dollars! We emptied our pockets. Trish had three quarters. Robbie had a couple of nickels and a handful of pennies. I had a dollar bill and a ticket stub from Dr. Gen's Most Terrific Amazing Scientific Musical Traveling Show for which I had paid three-fifty and thirty minutes of my time.

Bemoaning the lack of a government cotton candy subsidy program we left the concession stand line. I told Robbie and Trish it wasn't such a shame. The man handing out hotdogs and drinks and candy had a bad cold and was dripping snot everywhere. I had seen it. Two translucent plops in somebody's coke, an acrobatic strand of phlegm landing softly on the pillowed surface of a hotdog bun, a pair of dirty hands taking money and giving out change. I couldn't believe they were letting this guy work.

We weren't lost yet.

"We're not lost yet," I said to Robbie and Trish at the gates of the carnival. "Empty your pockets again." They did so and found no surprises. The familiar pennies, nickels, and quarters. I took out my dollar but left the ticket stub at the bottom of my pocket, in the linty crease, where it belonged. "See, we have two dollars. That's enough for one ride on the carousel."

Robbie and Trish looked at each other then looked at me. They were both smiling but then they stopped smiling.

"So who gets to ride?" Robbie asked.

"Yeah?" Trish said.

It is now that I must admit that of the three-fifty it had cost me to enjoy the spinning colors and sounds of Dr. Gen's Most Terrific Amazing Scientific Musical Traveling Show, two-fifty had been pooled from Robbie and Trish. They had a right to be suspicious. Plus they blamed me for the whole not-enough-money-for-cotton-candy debacle.

"We'll have a race," I said. "But first let's buy the ticket."

They both looked at me doubtfully.

"Here, Trish, you buy the ticket," I said as I gave her my dollar. Robbie, satisfied now, handed over his three quarters. We waited for Trish to buy the ticket. Lots of people were walking around the carnival, deciding and debating about which rides to ride and in what order.

"What kind of race do you have in mind?" Robbie said.

I should say now that of the three of us, I was the fattest and least athletic. Robbie was the fastest runner. He was already picturing himself on the carousel, waving at Trish and me as we spun by then spun by again, again, again.

"We'll wait until Trish gets back, then I'll say."

Presently Trish returned and it was time for me to unload my plan.

"Follow me," I said and I led them to the field that was doubling as a parking lot. I stopped when we got just beyond the cars. "Trish, put the ticket here, under this cup," I said, pointing toward an empty paper cup, one of the many that littered the areas around the carnival. "What we'll do is we'll run to that lamppost over there and back. Whoever gets back here first gets the ticket and the ride. Fair enough?"

"Seems fair to me," Robbie said.

"Yeah," Trish said.

"Why don't you count us off, Robbie," I said.

"Sure thing." Robbie was smiling, thinking he already had this race won.

I suppose I should say I felt guilty riding that carousel around and around, catching glimpses of Robbie and Trish bent over, catching their breath, casting up mean glares at me. I suppose I should say I felt guilty turning back only a quarter of the way to the lamppost and taking the tickets from under the paper cup while Robbie and Trish were giving it their all, running neck and neck to the race's end. But guilt I don't need. What I'm asking you now, friend, is what do I do when this carousel stops?

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