Fiction: Spot the Carney
By Steven J. Moss
Where do “carneys” go after the last summer county fair folds its tents? You know carneys; they’re the people who run the rides, concessions, and carnival “games of chance,” which just might pay out a giant teddy bear or inflatable hammer. Usually tattooed, pale-skinned, and thin, the best carneys can get their customers to shell out $25 trying to win a $2 doll by throwing a ten inch basketball into a nine inch hoop.
The bad thing about carneys — the crafty ones, anyways — is that they’re quite skilled at getting money from a wallet into their hands. The good thing about them is that we know they’re carneys, so there’s some chance we’ll come to our senses before spending our entire paycheck on winning a pair fuzzy dice by throwing a tiny ring onto a big bottle.
After the summer ends, the carneys disappear. I always assumed that, like birds, they traveled south, to warmer climates, where children still begged their parents for one more chance at the dime throw, or water-gun balloon race. Until the fog rolls back into announce San Francisco’s summer, carneys become one of the season’s faded memories. Or do they?
It was a chilly fall day in San Francisco. I was walking down Market Street, heading towards the financial district, oblivious to all but my need to get to a meeting. A scrawny white guy with a long sleeve shirt and no jacket caught my stride. He lopped alongside me for a minute or two, before turning towards me.
“Hey man, why are you walking when you could be riding? I’ve got Muni transfers. Fifty cents’ll get you downtown in two minutes.”
I shook my head, and kept my pace.
“Just fitty cents, two quarters a ride. You can’t beat that!”
He thrust some pieces of crumpled newsprint my way. His sleeve drew back, revealing the edges of an elaborate tattoo.
“No thanks,” I said, firmly.
Without breaking his speed he peeled off, and attached himself to a woman walking the other way.
Later, at my office, I got a telephone call.
“Hi, this is mmmpphh,” the name was muffled, “if you sign up for Sprint today, I’ll send you a watch. Cheap phone service and free time. What could be better?”
“Not interested,” I said, and hung up the phone. I paused for a minute. Tattoos? Something for nothing? My thoughts were interrupted by a bicycle messenger, who poked his head into my office.
“Package for you,” he said. “And, as a bonus for using our service we’re handing out free pens. Here, take some.”
I reached out to grab the colorful samples, and abruptly pulled back.
“What’s the catch?”
“No catch. We’re giving them away.”
He looked at me curiously before throwing a few pens on my desk, and moving along. I squinted after him. I thought I saw the edge of some color peeking out along the bottom of his neck. That’s when it hit me; carney’s don’t disappear. They just go underground.
I mulled it over. The woman selling Sunday papers in front of Farleys; she was a carney. The man on the infomercial selling face cream: carney. Carneys were everywhere. They worked for airlines, selling strangely priced fares that were full of black-out periods and required stay-overs. Sometimes they were kids, pushing foul-tasting chocolate bars in front of the remaining Blockbuster outlets. Other times they surfaced as free taste ladies at Costco.
I had to tell someone, warn them about the carneys. I dialed my wife.
“Hey,” she said, “wanna go out to dinner tonight. I have a two-for-one coupon at the Chevy’s, near Yerba Buena.”
I punched the hang-up button. Was my wife a carney too? I sat at my desk, thinking. She did have a coupon for a free meal. Chevy’s had cheap margaritas. What the hell, if you don’t play you can’t win. I picked up the phone, and tapped in my wife’s number.
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