by Walter Plotz
I figured the carnival’s coming to town would do two things. First, it would lift everybody’s spirits after all the disappearings. More importantly, I reckoned it would give my idle hands something fun to do for a change. You know, get me outta that empty house for a while. Pap did his night job after his real job and only came home sometimes—and then only to drink and sleep. Ma? Well, let’s just say she went out every night and sometimes didn’t come back ‘til the next day. One time it was three days.
I feed myself. I dress myself. I tuck myself into bed. Teacher called me a “latchkey kid” once, and nobody even stopped to tell me what that meant. I had to find out days later from Thom the mailman. Turns out that was the last time I ever talked to Thom, ‘cause it was the last time he ever did the route. He was the first to disappear. At the time, though, everybody figured he just run off without leaving word.
I was fixing to head over to the carnival. I had enough saved to go on at least one ride, and I just wanted to get my mind off things. As I walked through the gates I saw Old Man Jenson trying to light a pipe near one of the tents, but he looked to be having a hard time of it. Drunk as usual. He was wearing his usual worn-out overalls that were full of holes and had a week’s worth of stains on ‘em. Bet he was happy to be here, too. He sure had idle hands to fill. Hasn’t worked a day since anybody’s known him. Keeps collecting from the government, they say. Or collecting from somewhere. There’s rumors, of course. Everybody in town thought it was him that’s responsible for the disappearings. Well, first they thought it was India Pete, ‘til Pete gone missing himself a couple weeks ago.
Now the eyes of the town hawked Old Man Jenson. Teacher said not to walk home down Palmetto Street, where he lived, though she never said why not. But we all knew. Nobody talked to Jenson, just kept their ‘possum eyes fixed on him. Here at the carnival, everybody walking past gave Jenson wide distance, parents grabbing their kids’ hands as he watched them walk by.
I was looking at Jenson and thinking about that very thing when the town fire chief, Mr. Hawkins, walked right into me. He was staring at Old Man Jenson, too. Staring him down.
“Watch where you’re going, boy,” Mr. Hawkins growled as he set himself straight and went on his way.
I went over and spent my few cents on the old water pistol game. Crackshot. Won a toy cowboy hat and revolver set.
No, I was one of the few in town who had no troubling with the Old Man. I heard he was an orphan. Reckon I know what that’s like. Jenson’s parents put him in an orphanage when he was a kid. Guess they didn’t want him around. It scared me to think what could happen, wandering around by myself at night without no reason to go home, and no parents worrying about where I was. But it was my habit. All my life, I got a lot of stares from the townsfolk. So I reckon I know a little what Old Man Jenson feels. Gotta act like you don’t know what they’re thinking, or that they’re staring at you. Act natural, like there ain’t a thing in the world that’s wrong.
I seen Mr. Hawkins walking back, holding a corn dog in each hand and made sure I was out of his way enough this time. He handed one corn dog to his son and the other to his daughter, who were both jumping up and down in excitement. He stayed next to his kids. I put on my new-won hat, brim as low as it would go over my face, then I ducked along a nearby tent to keep closer notice. The Hawkins kids gobbled up them goodies fast, then, all full and happy, wanted to take some more turns on the carnival rides.
But right then, their ma showed up and took them home, holding each one’s hand tight as they left the carnival. Mr. Hawkins stayed. Once his family was gone home, he quick made his way over to the tent where everybody been drinkin’ all night, almost stumbling right into poor Mrs. Johnston on the way. She’s a widow. All alone in the world. Drinks some herself. A good bit, really. Can’t blame her, though. All alone like that. People stare at her, too. And whisper.
Fire Chief Hawkins was one of the last to leave the carnival. I know, because I was still there when they was shutting off the lights. Like I said, I had no reason to go home, so I figured I might as well stay as long as they let me. Even managed to swipe a glass of whiskey for myself. Rich man’s whiskey, best I ever did taste. I seen Hawkins leave the whiskey-drinking tent and wobble down the road, heading home, where Mrs. Hawkins kept his dinner warm and had his two stuffed-full kids tucked away in bed.
The roads were dark. I stayed behind, safe enough not to be seen. Just another raccoon sneaking in the shadows.
Mr. Plotz’s biography, in his own words: At seventeen I dropped out of high school, and began reading whatever I wanted on my own, more than I ever did in school. Mostly Vonnegut or Orwellian classics, but the list kept growing, and suddenly I found myself writing as often as I was reading. Currently, I am pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in English at Stony Brook University, where I have expanded my writing into the field of journalism as a Staff Writer for the Stony Brook Statesman.