Carnival

A short story that takes you inside the mind of a teenager, a young femme fatale who embarks on a night filled with sweets, prizes, and the possibility of enchantment…

by: Jane Snyder1

I overslept this morning, Friday, and my dad yelled at me for making him late. “It isn’t all about you, Alice,” he grumbles as he takes me to school, which was my mom’s idea. A special time just for the two of us, she says.

If I talk he picks apart what I say and if I don’t talk he says, “I’m doing this for you. Take advantage of it. If you want the privileges of a young adult, you need to accept the responsibilities that come with them. So pull yourself up out of that rabbit hole of yours and grow up!”

If I had a rabbit hole, I’d stay in it.

“You’re not in Wonderland anymore, are you?” Mr. Heckell said in Biology, as he lifted a dead frog with tongs out of the formaldehyde onto my dissecting tray. He never gets tired of Alice jokes.

“It looks as if they poured the formaldehyde when he was still jumping,” I said as I thought of the frog footman picture from the Lewis Carroll classic, in his wig and velvet knee breeches, standing tall on his little webbed feet.

“Be a scientist, Alice. It’s stiff because it’s been in the formaldehyde. Put on your gloves and massage it gently before you start dissecting.”

Alice from Wonderland didn’t massage the dead or make an incision at the cloaca. She never stared down at a little, perfectly formed frog, and cut it open.

My mom loved the book, said it made her want a little Alice of her own.

I must have been a shock. My hair isn’t the silky blonde kind you can hold back with a ribbon. It’s red, thick, and crinkly. Punch it down, it springs back, like bread dough.

I’m the Alice who drank from the “drink me” bottle in the White Rabbit’s house and grew so fast she got stuck inside. I’m 5’ 10”, taller if you count my hair.

In P.E., while playing basketball, I got the ball and was dribbling it down the court when Darcy Andrews stepped in front of me. I tried to turn but I fell backwards hitting my elbow and tailbone hard.

“We’re supposed to be on the same team,” I said. I knew she’d done it on purpose.

“Sorry.” I’d have liked to wipe that smirk off her face. That’s something my dad says, wipe that smirk off your face.

Mrs. Wise bounded over, said I’d been traveling. “So you cost your team the ball. You’re not hurt, are you, Alice?”

I wouldn’t have minded a trip to the nurse’s office to get away from them, but they’d say I was faking it, trying to make Darcy look bad. The boys’ class was on the other side of the gym. They’d stopped playing too, and I saw some of them looking at us. 

Krisann Anderson had claimed cramps, so she didn’t have to suit up. She just got to sit on the bench. Mrs. Wise looked over at her then, saw her mouth something to one of the boys, and made us go into the locker room. It’s her big punishment. If one person does something wrong, Mrs. Wise makes everybody sit on the benches in front of her office so she can watch us from the window.

“You can thank Krisann for this.”

Meaning we’re supposed to say “Thanks, Krisann,” real loud and slow, to embarrass her.

My elbow was shaking. “Or we could thank you,” I said, which was stupid. Krisann is Darcy’s friend and I don’t like either of them.

Fifty sit-ups on the concrete floor.                                                                                                                                           

We weren’t supposed to talk or do homework, just sit on benches and “make like statues,” but Darcy and Krisann had their backs to Mrs. Wise.

“Look, Alice is holding hands with herself. Why are you doing that? Are you lonely?” Darcy teased.

I never know what to do with my hands. I must have looked stupid with my hands in my lap, pressed together.

“She has to hold her own hand. No one else wants to.”

“It may be sexually satisfying to her in some way,” Darcy observed in the bland tone of Ms. Pierce, the guidance counselor, who’d told us we could take our questions about our changing bodies to an adult we trusted. They won’t laugh, she’d said, and we’d laughed at that. 

“We’re being nice to you, Alice, including you in our conversation. Why won’t you answer us?”

“She thinks she’s better than we are.”

“Are you going to cry?” Darcy asked, in a tone of deep interest.

I was smiling hard and couldn’t think what to say. That sharp tongue of yours won’t make you any friends, my mother always says. But they weren’t my friends.

“I’m the one who’s going to cry,” Krisann said. “Alice thinks she’s better than we are.”

“Why would you hold your own hand, though?”

When I got home I wanted to lie on the couch and watch Mulan again but my mom was there and she said we had to take my stupid stuffed white rabbits with their stupid vests and pretend pocket watches to the police station right now, this minute, to donate them to the Ride Along Buddy Bear Program because I’d said all I wanted for my birthday was to get rid of the Alice junk I’ve gotten for every Christmas and birthday my whole life. Bedspread and sheets, Alice posters, Cheshire Cat lamp, stuffed white rabbits. I was selfish, my dad said, disrespecting my mom who only bought me that stuff because she thought I’d like it.

She could have asked me what I wanted.

I filled three grocery bags with rabbits. The police, my mom said, could give them to little kids in traumatic situations. “You never even played with them. At least this way they’ll be of some use.”

Sure. The police come in the middle of the night to arrest your parents for cooking meth in the basement and you get a stuffed animal. A used stuffed animal.

I didn’t tell my mother I’d gotten hurt in P.E. because, if I did, she’d figure out a way for it to be my fault.

“I like how Alice is using her good fortune to help others,” she told my little sister Eliza when we got in the car.

Eliza is only in second grade but she wasn’t fooled. “She doesn’t want them anymore, is all.”

My dad calls the new police building Fort Zinderneuf, says it looks like a fortress. It gives me the creeps. “I don’t even know why I had to come. We could have just taken everything to Goodwill,” I said. My mom’s the one who likes doing good deeds. “If somebody sees me walking in here they’ll think I’m in trouble.”

“You’re too self-conscious, honey. People sometimes think about something besides you, you know. You’re helping children in trauma.

“These are my daughters, Alice and Eliza,” she told the officer at the desk. Why did I even learn to talk? When she takes me to the doctor she tells her where I hurt. “Alice has a donation for your Ride Along Buddy Bear program.” 

“Why, Elmer! Elmer Fudd,” he said, looking inside the shopping bags. “You finally got that pesky wabbit.”

My mother looked suspicious. “She wants to help children.” 

“It will mean so much to the little ones knowing you shot all those rabbits. Do you need a receipt?”

“I don’t pay taxes. I’m in eighth grade.”

“I’ll tell you what, then. The D.A.R.E. team is sponsoring the Swanson School carnival because it’s a drug-free family activity but we keep forgetting to pass out the tickets. You’ve heard of D.A.R.E., haven’t you? Stands for drugs are really excellent.” Eliza laughed. My mother bristled. “But you know drugs aren’t really excellent, don’t you?”

“Oh sure.” Eliza liked being noticed.

“Swanson’s an elementary school,” I told him. “The carnival’s for little kids.”

He looked at the poster behind the desk. “Well, there’s pizza. Root beer floats. And a crack shot like yourself should clean up in the shooting galley.”

“Eliza’s little friend Amy is coming over tonight,” my mother said. “If we could drop the three of you off at the carnival for a couple of hours your dad and I could go out to dinner. You’d like to go to a carnival, wouldn’t you, Eliza?”

Duh. Eliza lives for bouncy castles, fishponds, plastic junk, and getting her hair sprayed a rowdy color, purple maybe, that will stick to the base of her roots for months, no matter how often she washes her hair. I didn’t get to do the hair thing at our school carnival because the mom working the booth said my hair would soak up all the dye they had. Like a Brillo pad.

“I said I don’t want to go.”

“I’ll pay you,” my mother said.

The officer winked at me. I smiled back. My mom always says she’ll pay for babysitting but she weasels out of it when I take Eliza to something I would have done anyway.

“Thank you, Alice,” he grabbed my hand and shook it up and down. “We weawy appweciate you bwinging in dose pesky wabbits fow us. The police can’t do their job without concerned citizens like you.” He handed Eliza strips of carnival tickets long as snakes.

“Just trying to help, Officer.”

He gave me some tickets too. “You should get paid extra for taking care of two kids.”

“He liked you,” Eliza said in the car.

“I think he did too.” My mother sounded pleased.

“Jeez.” I figured he probably didn’t get many chances to talk like Elmer Fudd, not in police work.

“I wasn’t prepared for a grown man talking to you that way. He was flirting with you.”

I wasn’t flirting with him. “He was just having fun.”

“Have it your way. But there’s something about a man in uniform, isn’t there, honey?”

“You were funny, Alice,” Eliza said. I loved the serious way she said it.

“That’s what I meant,” my mother said. “You were able to hold up your end of the conversation.”

She made it sound like moving furniture, holding up my end.

“I’m not going out,” my dad said when Eliza and my mom told him about the carnival. “This week’s been a bastard. It would help if I could get a good night’s sleep. Did you know every time Alice gets up to use the bathroom I wake up? It sounds like a herd of cattle out in the hall.”

“Or elephants,” I said and my mother sighed. “Rhinos. Hippos.”

“I wasn’t addressing you, Alice,” my father said, because I must need permission to talk in my own house, “but if you don’t have any more control of your bladder than that you’ve no business drinking anything after dinner.”

“Potty girl,” he said, when I slammed the door to my room.

I heard the fight. My dad said he was sick of my hormonal drama and my mother said of course she knew about me waking him up because if he can’t sleep he keeps her awake too and the last time Amy came over my dad yelled at me and Amy went straight home and hadn’t been back for two weeks and she’s Eliza’s best friend so that better not happen tonight and was it such a hardship for him to have a nice dinner with her and I was going through a rough patch right now and she’d promised Eliza.

After he caved and agreed to go to the Italian restaurant my mom likes, instead of the steak place he wanted, she came into my room. She never knocks, says I’m not supposed to have any secrets from her.

“I’d like a lock for my door, please.” 

“Oh, honey. Daddy’s sorry. Sometimes he doesn’t think before he speaks.”

“Why doesn’t he tell me himself?”

“Eliza is going to be really disappointed if she doesn’t get to go.”

I should have said something about getting hurt when I first got home.   

Amy was already there when I went downstairs, giggling and happy because my dad told her what a wonderful princess she’d been for Halloween. “Simply lovely.” This was the first week in March. I guess Amy hadn’t done anything good since.

“That’s a very attractive blouse, Alice.” My dad must have a quota for passing out compliments, five a week maybe, and he must like getting through them fast, because, in the car on the way to Swanson, he told my mother it was amazing, how she could look so fresh and pretty after putting in a full day at work. “There’s a glow to you.”

We went into the gym first, for dinner, and Amy and Eliza went wild, chasing each other and yelling, the way little kids do when there’s an open space and a high ceiling.

A boy from school was ahead of me in line for pizza, Brad Adler. I knew him because he was on the student council. I wasn’t sure if he knew me because he was in ninth grade, but he turned around and started talking to me as if we’d been friends forever. “Doesn’t it take you back to all the carnivals of your childhood? The same Disney tunes over and over, the aroma of cheap candy, the little children at a fever pitch of excitement, the fisticuffs in the bingo room? What brings you here tonight?”

“I’m with them.” Eliza and Amy had jumped onto a pile of rolled up gym mats and were pretending to be monkeys, walking in a squat and dangling their arms in front. They were scratching under both arms at once and saying eek. “Aren’t they precious?”

“To be sure.” People at school make fun of the way Brad talked. They call him Senator Adler.

“My parents are on balloon dart duty tonight and I’m supposed to be taking care of my brother.” He put his hand out for the cans of pop I was carrying. “Let me help you with those. He’s with his friends. He’ll be okay.”

I wondered if he was supposed to ask me if we could hang out but Eliza and Amy came running over before I could say anything. “Are you on a date, Alice? Is this your boyfriend?”

I was afraid he’d be embarrassed. He wasn’t. “Not anymore. Not now I’ve met you two. I always wanted a girlfriend with a tail.” Eliza and Amy were overcome, smitten. “I’d tell you a joke about pizza, Alice, but I’m afraid it would be too cheesy.” So he did know my name or maybe he’d just heard it when Eliza said it. The first day of seventh grade, when I was having trouble figuring out the combination to my locker, he’d helped me and I thought he was nice then. Over the summer he’d gotten taller, too, at least 5’9″.

Brad ate with us, laughing it up with Amy and Eliza about monkeys, about how they fling their own feces, not the way I’d pictured a date, but easier anyway than talking about our favorite shows or where we wanted to go to college.

When we were done eating he picked up our trash for us, asked Amy and Eliza what they wanted to do first, as if it was a settled thing.

Amy and Eliza had the duck pond figured out. You picked a celluloid duck and turned it over. If there was a red mark on the bottom you won a prize. If there wasn’t, you got a Tootsie Roll. Either way they put the duck back into the water so it was easy to figure out which were the winners. The prizes were lame, little blue plastic teddy bears. When it was our turn Brad and I picked loser ducks on purpose. “I’d rather have Tootsie Rolls,” I told the girls. “What are you even going to do with all those bears?”

Brad said they could use the bears to make a video, “You know, how they use plastic models of dinosaurs in movies. You could stage epic big blue bear battles. You might want to draw mustaches on a few of them. Give them some individuality. Get all you want. The night’s young.”

If my father had been there he would have given them the talk about cheating and not being good sports. The one that starts: “I’m not scolding you but…” He wouldn’t have cared for the lollipop tree either. He doesn’t like games based on luck. He says rewards should be based on merit.  When he took us to carnivals he’d act like he was having fun, tell my mom later it was crap.

In the lollipop game if you pulled out a lollipop with a black dot on the bottom of the stick you got a prize and you kept the lollipop. If you didn’t get a black dot you still had the lollipop.

“Lollipop seems to me an overly genteel term,” I said, striving to reach Brad’s level of polish. “I better prefer to say sucker. But Brad, you must be ill, your tongue is green.”

“They were serving frogs for lunch in the biology room. You can’t really taste them because the formaldehyde numbs your tongue but it’s filling.”

“We had to do that today. Dissect frogs. It’s not funny.” I thought of my frog, the perfect little parts spread out beside him. But that was stupid. I shouldn’t have said anything and just tried to make him laugh.

“I’m sorry,” he sounded as if he really was. “Worst day of eighth grade. I thought I’d get sick. We’ll probably never have to do it again, though. I heard if you take biology in high school they let you do a virtual dissection on-line.” Brad would be at Westside High next year. I’d still be at Taft. “But I think you must have jaundice. Your tongue is as yellow as a traffic light. Why don’t we go to the shooting gallery and release some of the tensions associated with a week of middle school?”

His brother was there with another boy. They asked Brad who we were.

“My monkey wives,” he told them. “They eat lice for protein. Saves me money on their food.” Amy and Eliza and Brad’s brother, and his brother’s friend, thought this was hilarious.

He helped the girls hold the gun and aim and it was nice because he didn’t act like they were babies, get smarmy. They won prizes, cloth dolls with yarn braids. “Like Charlotte in Little House in the Big Woods,” Amy said.

Eliza rocked her doll. “I’m going to keep her forever.”

Brad and I exchanged congratulatory looks, as if we’d done something good.

When it was my turn to shoot Brad didn’t offer to help.

I did okay, better than he did. “Curses,” he said. “I wanted to win you something.”

“You did?”

Maybe I sounded too hopeful because he said, “How about if I give you my little blue plastic bear?” But then he said we should go to the balloon dart game. “We can say hello to my folks.” 

Brad’s dad was replacing popped balloons and had his back towards us but he turned around when Brad said, “Mom, Dad, this is Alice from school. She’s very important and always travels with an entourage, Amy and Eliza, as you see. These are my parents, Ruth and Ben Adler.”

“If you’d like to try your luck,” his dad said, “let me just step away from the balloons. So, Amy, Eliza. What do you do when you’re not with the entourage?”

Brad’s parents looked happy to see him and didn’t have any questions about what he’d been doing.

Amy and Eliza popped two balloons apiece, fast. They got little jigsaw puzzles with cute pictures of kittens on the box lid. Brad and I didn’t get anything.

Eliza wasn’t impressed. “Geez. Those balloons are practically touching.”

“I wondered about that too,” Brad’s mother said. “Try again, why don’t you?”

This time the girls and I won plastic chokers. They were meant for little kids, I guess, because mine wouldn’t stretch all the way around my neck, making me think of when Alice’s neck grew and the animals said she was a serpent and would steal eggs from the nest.

Brad’s mother offered to give me another prize but I said no, I’d just give the choker to Eliza, because it was pink, her favorite color.

“Pretty on the inside and the outside,” she said. No one seemed to think she’d said something funny.

Brad said he wouldn’t try again. “There’s an unseasonable sultriness to the air this evening and the young ladies may be thirsty. I believe I’ll squire them to sodas.”

Even Brad’s father seemed surprised by this speech, asked, “Squire, you say?”

“Squire, sire, since you inquire.”

I could have stayed there all night, listening to them, but Amy and Eliza wanted to be squired. When we left I heard Brad’s dad asking him if he needed more tickets.

Brad bought us Cokes, and boxes of popcorn, too, the kind with pink sugar, and we sprawled on the bleachers, me drinking after dinner, pounding down fluids.

Amy said she didn’t know why popcorn was always salty, she liked it better sweet. Brad listened to her with interest and I thought again how nice he was.

“This is good stuff, all right,” he told her.

No wonder Amy and Eliza loved Brad, acquiesced with alacrity, as he might have said, to his suggestion that we spin the Wheel of Fortune next.

At my old school carnival we didn’t have Wheel of Fortune. Some of the parents said it encouraged gambling. We had a fresh fruit walk instead. I’m sure my parents were behind that. One thing we never, ever, had was goldfish for prizes. We didn’t have them as pets either, though you’d think we could because we don’t have a dog or a cat. My parents say we’re allergic; I’ve never noticed it myself. My mother says the tropical fish trade is bad for the coral reefs and the fish are subjected to inhumane conditions. She probably had cod for dinner tonight, it’s her favorite.

“I want to win a goldfish so bad,” Amy said. Up till now I’d never thought of Amy as anything but Eliza’s annoying friend but tonight I thought if she wants a fish why shouldn’t she have one?

It cost three tickets to play the Wheel of Fortune. Wherever the wheel stopped, you got that prize. The goldfish were in clear plastic bags pinned on to the board. There were about a dozen of them, pop-eyed and swimming frantically in their little bit of water. There were more fish in bags on the teacher’s desk.

“We’ve got plenty of tickets left,” I said. “And my parents are picking us up in half an hour.”

“I like that one with the little bit of black on its tail,” Eliza said. “He seems really friendly.”

“Ah, Eliza,” Brad said. “you’re anthropomorphizing fish now.” She giggled. Showing off, I thought, using a word he didn’t think I knew. “That’s what you call it when you attribute human traits to an animal. Must run in your family. I believe your sister anthropomorphizes frogs. If you think that fish is kindly disposed towards you, I will try to win it for you.” He gave the arrow a terrific spin. It got close to another goldfish, a tiny reddish one, but stopped on a powder blue rabbit’s foot.

“If I’d gotten that little fish I’d have called it Baby,” Amy said. “It’s so cute. I’d put one of those little mermaid castles in its bowl for it to swim through.”

“For luck,” the lady said and gave Brad a rabbit’s foot keychain.

“Not for the rabbit.”

“You don’t want it? How about some goldfish? We can keep the keychains for next year but we can’t keep fish.”

“I think,” Brad told Amy and Eliza, “we will be able to broker a mutually satisfactory arrangement.”

They traded in tickets for three goldfish apiece. My mom wasn’t going to like it but, after what she’d said about animal cruelty, I figured she’d have to let Eliza keep hers and Amy’s as well, if Amy’s mom wouldn’t let her bring them home.

Brad said he had to check on his brother but he’d meet us at the front door and stay with us till my parents came. I didn’t know if he really would. I thought he’d had fun but maybe he just hung out with us because none of his friends were there.

“This was the best carnival ever,” Amy said. She had the right idea, I thought. I’d had a blast, and they got their fish. It would be better not to want more.

“He’s so cool,” Eliza said. She didn’t need to say she meant Brad. “You like him, don’t you Alice?”

“Sure, but I don’t have a chance. You’re his monkey wives, remember?” I wondered if Brad would want to be with just me, no Amy and Eliza laughing at everything he said.

They had a real cotton candy machine at this carnival.  We liked smelling the hot sugar smell and watching the moms pull the pink wisps into the cone. I bought Eliza and Amy some with the last of the tickets. My parents hate cotton candy. Nothing but spun sugar, they’d say, which sounded like something from a fairy tale, and made me want it more. 

Brad did come, stood with us at the front door while we waited for my parents. “I wanted to give you something,” he said. “I knew you didn’t want a fish. I went to the Country Store but there wasn’t much left. I hope you like it.” He handed me a stuffed white rabbit, small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. “I got him because he has brown eyes like yours.”

“Oh, thank you,” I said, glad Eliza hadn’t told him about the rabbit purge this afternoon. “He’s perfect. Just the right size for my pocket. He’ll be good company for me.” I’d make him a little blanket when we got home, I decided, so he’d stay clean and comfortable, wherever I took him.

“I’ll see you Monday,” he said. Of course he’d see me, I’m the tallest student in the school, but what will happen when he does?

When my parents came, he opened the back door for us and stuck his head in. “Brad Adler,” he said to my parents, reaching out his hand to shake. “I go to school with Alice.” And, to Amy and Eliza, “Take care of those fish, now. They probably need to eat.”

“Fish?” My mother wanted to know. “And what is that sticky junk you girls are eating?”

My father said, “Who on earth was that?”

“Brad. He told you his name,” Amy said. “He won the fish for us.” He hadn’t, but that’s what it felt like.

My elbow hurt. “Do we have some bowls for the fish because they probably need out of their bags?”

“We can go to Walmart,” my dad said. “Did that boy spend the whole evening with you?”

“Yes, he did. He’s really funny.” Eliza wanted to be helpful. “He gave Alice a present.”

“What kind of present?”

“I told you, she’s a femme fatale,” my mother said. “She had that policeman eating out of her hand this afternoon.”

“I asked you a question, Alice.” My mother would have told him what’s what at dinner but my dad can never hold it in for long.

“A souvenir of the carnival.”  I didn’t want to show him my rabbit. He’d call it a cheap piece of shit, say it was stupid, thinking of boyfriends when I wasn’t doing my best in Algebra, not even close, and if I said I was I was lying.

“Why don’t we go to Target instead?” my mother said. “They have pet stuff and Alice needs some new sheets and maybe a bedspread. Would you like that, honey? You might see something at Target. Something more sophisticated.”

I waited to hear my dad go off about how tired he was and my mom always takes at least an hour at Target and why did I need new sheets right this minute anyway and what did I mean, a souvenir of the carnival?

“Good idea,” he said. I never know when it’s going to happen. His deciding he’s gone too far and then trying to make me like him. I’m not going to make that mistake again. When we stopped for a red light he turned and smiled at me. “Maybe you and I could go to the movies this weekend, just the two of us.”

Like that’s a treat.

“Oh, sure.”  He’d forget about it by tomorrow anyway. I put my hand around the rabbit in my pocket. When I stroked it the plush cloth was thin and stiff.

  1. Header art by Hüseyin Sahin. []

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