Cooley County Carnival
Duckshoot! Duckshoot! Step right up! Step right up! Fer a mere! four tips win the prize o’yer choosin. Just shoot the ducks!... Cain’t win if ya don’t play!... Sir. Mayam... Here... Duckshoot! Duckshoot!...
—shouts the duckshooter carny in fortissimo— an overalled walrus of a man with three warts triangularly laid on his left cheek, and a mouth occupied by tobacco-stained teeth— an insatiable appearance of cunning, but none of that art.
An unescorted girl flits along the riverbank, an unlatched look to the lock on her heart. She then weaves through the riverwalking crowd toward the stand.
Ay, the showie barks. Ay, lil girl! Young miss! Yes. Ay missy. Ay. Look at ‘im. Ol’ fat teddy b’ar. Ya like im?! Jus look at ‘im. Cute n’ cuddly. Yes yes! The carny grins an alligator’s grin, slimily and dicey.
There hangs the bear, lifeless and smiling and brown, between fireless dragons and styrofoam swords. Clownishly the carny jabs at the bear’s pliant cottony paunch with a polehook —to prove the point.
The golden-haired upcountry girl saunters over, overawed. I’m Annie Oakley, she says, pauses to peruse the prizes and asks, What’s his name? pointing to the plush grizzly.
'E don’t have a name. Not yet. Wha’d you like ta call ‘im, lil’ Ann?
She stands dwarfed under the Oak-slatted stand of SHARKY’S DUCKSHOOT SALOON, stares aloft at the bear and freakishly blubbery Sharky —a human bowling ball with a grey mullet that looks like a moptop, and an independently roaming marble eye— she then proffers a name: Moe.
Moe it shall be the greasy carny grins swampishly.
Catherine! Criminy! I fine’ly found ya.
Poppa! The girl twirls aboutface in her brandnew summerdress and suede Noconi cattlewoman boots.
S’cuse us sir, says the girl’s father. He sweats paleley in a black business suit as riverbreezes blows barmily at his clammy back, slapping him slyly; his eyes joggle behind black circular shades, from Sharky to Cat. He drops his small shades and drops on his heels to his daughter’s level: Catherine Anne Demi, he mutters, thought I tol’ you not ta runoff.
I did not run off.
Well ya dissapeared quicker’n a coonie. He grips her shoulder, dually protective and authoritative, and a little tipsy, too. You stay by my side now ya hear, he says, checking her confirmation for a falsity.
Don’t be a dramatist, she responds, one-eyeing the massive TeddyBear. A head short of the carnival counter, she teeters on toes for a glance at the giddy ducks she must shoot to win her big bear Moe. She jumps to do so, fumbling for the trigger as if to illustrate Poppa’s raccoon analogy.
Poppa tries to turn her away from the counter, racked with BB rifles.
She jerks her arm and continues to jump. I wanna shoot a ducky Poppa.
You wanna shoot eh.
I want that bear, she amends.
Sharky crosses his arms for the duration of this familial deliberation.
Poppa brings a flask from his suit’s inner pocket, twists the plastic cap and upends it, only a sad nip. A free dog yips in his direction astraphobically, fearful of the White Lightning. He hides it. The dog scampers off. He thinks These damn scams, but asks How much’ta play? as dryly as a bag of wheat. He raises his small circular sunglasses to bridge his nose for negotiation, and holds them there as one holds a headache.
No one says there are no negotiations at the Cooley County carnival; but, there are no negotiations, and,
Four tipdollars fer four shots, says Sharky. And six tips fer ten. His voice is fermented, sloppily so.
Enervated by this endless scorcher of a day, Poppa asks, An’ howda we win? exactly.
The rules are written in miniscule print:
Vendor is not responsible for any bodily injury. When ready AIM directly forward. DO NOT attempt to aim at fellow shooters. The timer is set at: two minutes. Carnie’s ‘joint’ is under the principal ownership of ArapahoRun Incorporated. Prices subject to change at Carnie’s disgression.
Shark the carny removes his wig and tosses it onto a coatrack, then gives another guileful alligator grin and tucks his thumb under a jeanstrap, Y'axe howd'ya play, ya mean? then nods to himself turning toward the ducks.
Cat no longer jumps but hops, legs losing their youthful vitality; her fingers drum the wooden counter, anxious to shoot. I wanna play Poppa, she bleats. Too short to see over the counter, too girlish to hold the butt of the BB rifle, and always too young to hear what goes on in AdultWorld. I wanna play. Poppa, Poppa, I wanna play it.
Be quiet KittyCat.
Overhead and out of her earshot, Sharky explains: So’s each shot ya make on a duck don’t count ‘gainst ya. But ya miss... n’ thas one shot. The now-bald carny leans across the counter for Cat’s benefit. Yer lil lady’s gotta get ten ducks fer that B’ar there.
Catherine addends the surname Bar. MoeBar. MoeBar.
I said be quiet Catherine. Poppa rifles through his pockets aggravatingly, as accustomed. Now do’ya wanna play or not?
Yes. Please Poppa. I wanna play it.
Alright. Poppa pulls a crisp five dollar bill and slides it onto the oily counter. Then he cradles his daughter under the armpits and lifts her onto his knee, his foot situated upon a metal bar below.
Immediately Catherine takes the trigger, swinging the muzzle at ducks and bushes, then at Sharky in ‘his’ shooting stand.
Sharky scoops up the papermoney and waves it in front of his face. Now watch where ya point that thing, lil miss. Don’ wanna go lose my other eye, he chortles.
Poppa guides her elbow and says Aim at the heads!
I am aimin’, she slangs.
Sharky removes himself from her line of fire, adjudicating Aight nawh, I’m startin’ the gall’ry. And joggles a switch behind a black curtain where he grabs a refreshment. The gallery’s mechanical grooves gallop mightily ahead. Rapid parlor music begins with bellwhistles. There are three levels; top and bottom move in the same direction at different speeds, whereas the centermost stagecrosses swiftlier in reverse. Ya got two minutes, he grumbles finally, then takes to a stool with a forty ounce sodapop.
Catherine hits. Ping!
Sharky’s marble-eye roves over unconsciously to her first shot, apparently piqued.
Then she tags another.
Nawh don’t waste alla yer shots, Poppa advises, thinking her skills still insufficient.
I’m not, Catherine says, lining her left eye with the barrel, popping another drunken-faced duck: Ping!
The dumby ducks ‘wade’ and oscillate, lingering above fronds and bushes in an arching motion then submerging. Some have bloodshot eyes and rediculously toothy grins. When they are hit they:
Catherine acutely bags four.
Keep shooting. Poppa shows small credence to the mystery of his daughter’s sudden firearm mastery, and eggs her on, as a gambler urges a betted racehorse. Come on Kitty. Track ‘im and breathe, says her father, peripherals espying the carny rising from his roost —with a malty Squall Soda, and a wicked polehook.
Ya got a minute n a q’arter miss, times the Carny.
She misses two shots in a row. No pings of dead ducks. Poppa reassures her, by squeezing her shoulders. Come on nawh Cat. Ya got it sweetiepie. Ya got it. Jus slow yer roll. Ya got time. Don’t get distracted. Poppa peers at the prices sign, grits his teeth, looking along the rifle as well. He knows how much money is in his pockets, to the dime.
Ping! Five. Ping! Six. She is accurate. Anticipating their movement. Ping! Seven. Ping! Eight.
She’sa mighty sure shot, says the carny calmly, though conned he undertones, lil damn sureshot: Watanya Cecilla, and hexes himself. He shifts onto his stool with hook in hand, snorts back a grumble of snot, then rests a hand awkwardly underside the counter —palm up.
A small surprised crowd gathers about and around Cat and Poppa, pausing casually and causally in their incognizant strollings to see ‘Lil’ Miss Annie Oakley knock ‘em dead’, or else sitting at shore as the river gurgles along, watching white footpedaled swanboats carry clasp-handed young couples toward the horseshoe-shaped end of the amusement pier where a ferris wheel overlooks a mostly lightless Liquor Lake. An awareness of waning daylight pervades; other amusements arrive at twilight to the smells of salt and barley. For now, a salmon sunlight swims Westward beyond slumbering stone giants toward the misty mountain towns of ElDorado and Laverna Falls, leaving a reddish sunglow streak. And, racketing across the uppervalley fields, sounds a fiery semitruckwhistle, of hothell, hollering like a lungless horn.
Upon the highway brightlights beam toward the night of the lowervalley. A gooey mat of splatted mountain-bugs cakes the windshield. Then a mosquito hits. Orange organs vein across as an abstractionist painting, with a doily-thin wing whipped in the wind for dimensional texture.
Water streams in an arch, washing the weirdly discolored insectile innards-splatter aside.
The radio is up: ‘This is Caterwaulin’ Mike on Mountain Americana Radio, 88.3fm. And now, for some Satchmo, Old Orleans very own Pops, Mr. Dippermouth, the beautiful crooner of Louisiana,, Mr. Louis Armstrong, straight outta StoryVille, singin’
What A Wonderful World.
A roadside marmot takes its chances. It darts across the empty expanse of asphalt. Scurries over the dividing line. It does not notice The DieselFish driving seventy-miles-an-hour in determination down steep gradients with WARNING signs everywhere.
‘And I say to myself...’
The backpaw of the marmot is crushed.
‘...what a wonderful world.’
The marmot limps, dragging its mangled foot off to a road-ditch, scampering for a safe hovel to die in.
The driver of The DieselFish does not notice the marmot hobbling in his rearview, with the gloaming sun, and silhouetted mountainscape.
‘I love that song and hope you do too. Next up...’
Little Miss Catherine Anne Demi, eight years young, has her finger on the trigger. Ragtime tunes of the shooting gallery block the noisesomeness of the crowd gathering solemnly at her heels.
A boy, older than Catherine, waddles up, eyes-level with the counter. Eagerly, he awaits his turn, crosses his arms and shouts: Shoot! Come on and shoot!
Catherine counts audibly to three: One– two— three... and fires wild. A BB ricochets mutely off the rippled wood panneling, stripping fake bark off a painted tree towering over a serene lakefront with animal-masked characters lounging on the shoreline under umbrellas, sipping some morning moonshine.
One shot left lil’ miss, bellies the Carny gladly. A curtain of sweat dribbles from his eyebrows as eaves, crawling in creeks along his crooked snout as a drainpipe. There are no identifiable thoughts halting in his headspace save NO REFUNDS.
The obese boy again says Shoot again.
Catherine’s nerves tighten.
Poppa smiles and levels his daughter’s elbow. S’alright darlin. Just aim and shoot. You know how now.
Catherine urges the trigger and exhales, hitting her Ping! ninth. Then her Ping! tenth.
Wowee! exclaims the wild-eyed kid from afar rifle. Then he checks his praise, and goes for his own BB gun.
The bells ring, and with the music an artificial voice barks WE HAVE A WINNER. WE HAVE A WINNER. Dings and rings attract the aforementioned ambling passersby as moths. They bustle about purposelessly, imbecilic in the blaring sirens and dizzying kaleidoscopic light.
The Carny slaps a button under the counter to cease the gallery game then storms to the gun, seizes it in his meatlocker mitts, and inspects it. He then pulls a fat chain from below the counter and wraps it around the trigger-guard, so none other may shoot it.
Catherine jumps from her father’s perched knee.
The older kid says, You shoots good... foe a gurl.
Better’n you’d shoot fer a girl, she chirps cleverly. Both boyish and girlish voices fade in the background of bells and arcade horns and that general babble behind the gallery, grown in girth as disreputable nighttime galleries open neonlit doorways.
Yeah we’ll see says the fat kid.
We’ll be takin our prize now, Poppa proclaims.
The Carny hooks the bear in the back callously by its posterior cushioning and thumps it on the table facedown. A plastic eye of the thing plops off behind the counter, but the carny makes no motions, possibly because his marble-eye did not witness it, but probably because he doesn’t care; he mouths filthily and pithily, There’s yer b’ar.
We don’t want that bear, Poppa argues, pointing to the popped-out eye.
Catherine swivels her ear to hear. Yes, Poppa, we do. That’s my MoeBar.
Sharky once again grins that alligator grin.
No we don’t. Catherine, dear, that bear is broken. We’ll wanna new bear. Poppa indicates the several others swung up behind Moe, like paratroops, tapping the next shoulder for departure into the turbulent AdultWorld below.
No. Moe, Poppa. I won him. I want my MoeBar.
Little Miss’ the one who won, grins the human alligator, now turning his attention to the adolescent duckmaster chucking change onto the corner. No parents around or attentive. The kid has buckteeth like a donkey and a shirt that does not quite cover his belly.
Yer sure you want this bear? Jus look at it Cat. It’s gotta strange air. Smelly. Hangin there fer long. Like ol meat left on the street, Poppa thinks; moreover, the entire carnival posseses an acridity (prolly city plumbin beit damned).
Yes, he’s my Moe. MoeBar.
Listen, I don’t have time fer this, says Sharky, walking towards the kid and snagging his cash-handfuls.
Poppa begrudingly bears Moe by the neck, thinking five dollar fer this ratty toy? and allows Catherine to take the opposite paw. Instead, she takes a foot. Now, hold on to Moe. We stay together. Your mother’ll kill me we get seperated and lost.
Ragtime music rolls tinny the gallery begun again.
Father and daughter walk off toward dusk, silhouetted with MoeBar between them.
Behind them BB’s pang! the wooden background in swift succesion, the unsettling sound of SORRY. SORRY. YOU LOST. SORRY. No bells.
Hell kid comes Sharky’s voice, that lil miss sure put you to shame. But Catherine and Poppa don’t turn toward the shooting gallery. They walk in a dreamy waft, towards streetsmells, now oddly inviting away from that stuffy interior of SHARKY’S DUCKSHOOT SALOON.
MoeBar’s glad to be gone of there Cat says wisely.
I’m sure he is. Looks happier already.
Though MoeBar's expression is unchanged.
Can we get something to eat? We're hungry.
Sure we can. What d'ya want? They got popcorn, pretzels, all manner’a things.
Whata bears eat?
Real bears or fake bears?
I bet they both eat Swedish Fish. Hey Poppa.
Thanks. That was fun.
O'course darlin. But how bout next time I get ta shoot?
Poppa leads their family troupe toward the lights of the ferris wheel, and the neons of gambling halls and less reputable places situated upon the riverbank. People fall in and out of bright inorganic lighting, crossing their path like jackals.
What was wrong with that man?
Earlier. That man at the stand.
What d'ya mean?
He’s jus weird was all Catherine. Carnival attract them sorta folks.
Why d'you name 'im Moe?
I don’t know. He looked like Moe I guess.
He don’t look like a Moe now?
No. He does still. Look like a Moe I mean. It's just he's missing an eye.
We’re gonna stop in here fer a sec Cat. K.
It smells bad. Nuhuh. She shakes her head and holds her nose.
That’s cuza the smoke. You'll be O K.
I don’t wanna go in there. And Momma wouldn’t want me to either. Moe says so too. Says NO. No to those places, he says. Me and Moe'll stay out here.
Daddy needs a drink. He’s thirsty darlin. And I can't leave you and yer bear out ere.
How ’bout Pretzels. Or popcorn. Or Swedish Fish? Moe likes that idea, she confers.
Ya see pretzels in here? Poppa checks inside the saloon, hoping.
Nuh uh. None of these stinky places do. They’re all back towards Ferris’ Wheel. I saw 'em.
It’sa Ferris wheel. Not Ferrises Wheel.
But I thought It was Mr. Ferris’. Mr. Ferrises Wheel?
Don’t go get so smart Sugarbean.
He told me to. To name him Moe.
Huh... Oh. Who? that man at the stand?
No. Moe. Moe said so. She pecks at the empty eyesocket.
Not this place? What about here? I bet they have burgers or something.
No. Moe wants pretzels. Look Poppa. He has a camera in his eye. Blink. Blink. Look. Look Poppa.
Lemme think a minute Catherine... ah. I know where we can go. He takes her hand. If you're a good girl that is.
Are we going to Ferris’ Wheel? Oh Poppa, are we? Moe wants to go. He wants to see everyone, all the adults and everyone look like ants.
You’ll see. First I need to stop in here. Real quick. You and Moe watch out for each other. Wait here. Right here. And don't move from this spot. O K? Poppa'll be back in less time than it takes to say sugar.
And at that Catherine's Poppa veers inside a small saloon named The Lazy Swan for refreshment, unscrewing the cap of his silver flask.
Outside stands a small girl under a lamp, with her cyclopean TeddyBear. She says, I know where to find mo' fun Moe. And pretzels too. Pretzels. Mmmmm. Swedish Fish? Mmm? You like?
Sugar. Sugar. Sugar. Sugar.
Quiet MoeBar. Shhhh.