Sittra knows the man following her. She spots him soon after skipping through the carnival’s gate. Pudgy Mr. Smue—owner, bouncer, barker, baker, bag of doughnuts homewrecker—is fast. He cuts Sittra off behind the corndog stand and says, “I’ll give you fifty bucks to climb the Ferris wheel and jump.”
Mr. Smue is bald except for a curly tuft of blond hair sprouting from his upper forehead. He wears a paint-splattered smock over gray trousers and patent leather shoes. Seeing him reminds her of unicorns and rainbows and cars that crash into ponds. The half-smoked cigarette stashed behind his ear makes her think of bad boys and mansions and things that go bump in the night.
She says, “Make it a hundred and give me that smoke.”
His eyes widen. “Really?”
“Yes, really, you foolish old man!”
“But you might die.”
“Bring me some balloons from Bonnie then.”
Mr. Smue sends the new guy to deliver the balloons from Bonnie. His name is Lene B Up (for real). Lene rhymes with penny and everyone knows he’s an orphan. Mr. Smue drafted him to work the dart booth the day he found him heads up on a concrete cloud. He told him, “You’re one lucky son of a bitch. I’ll feed you, I’ll clothe you. I’ll give you a home,” or so the story goes.
Lene is slim and clean cut, nothing like the usual carnies Sittra ignores. He has dark hair and eyes like chocolate kisses. She wants to taste his mouth but bites her lip and says, “How many?”
“Twenty-five until Bonnie took one back on account of the screaming kid who wanted the burgundy one.”
“Damn kids,” Sittra says. Lene laughs and Sittra’s heart breaks. Why’s he got to think I’m funny?
Business is business so Mr. Smue shows up with the smoke and a fat stack of cash.
“There’s one more thing,” she says.
“Anything for you, doll baby.” He plucks the cig from behind his ear, fingering it between thumb and index.
“I want a souvenir, something I can paste into my book of life.”
“Sure, doll. You name it.” He eyes her like a delicacy and he hasn’t eaten in weeks.
She snatches the cig and puts it between her lips. Mr. Smue lights her up with a tarnished Zippo. She takes a long drag and blows the smoke into his face.
“I want your curlicue,” she says.
“Your curlicue.” She twists his tuft of hair and lets it boink back into place.
Ed Riot operates the Ferris wheel. He’s a pirate man with a pirate patch and an arm chopped off at the elbow. He’s lucky to be ambidextrous, he jokes to anyone who stands in line. He bows to Sittra but gives Lene his kill-a-darling look because Ed thinks his crush on Sittra keeps her safe.
Sittra thanks Lene for carrying her balloons and says, “This was our first date, right?”
“Sure, yeah, if you want it to be.”
She smashes her lips against his, hoping to taste romance and love but it’s the sausage sandwich he ate for lunch. If she could, she’d revise that kiss to taste like cherry soda.
“You be careful now,” Lene says.
“Of course,” she says, but thinks, why’s he got to be so dumb?
Ed Riot loads her into the first cart. He pushes her balloons aside and leans in close, his lips tickling her ear. “You don’t have to do this,” he says. “You and me, we could run away together.”
She rubs his cheek with the back of her hand and says, “What do you think of Lene B Up? What if I married him?”
Ed’s nostrils flare and he stands up straight. The balloons knock against each other so there’s a bumpity bump bump noise. He says, “Lene’s clunky and his name is funny. You need to cut him off.” He holds his half arm out and chops against the stump with his only hand. “Get rid of that boy before he plots to take you over!”
Ed walks to a lever and cranks it back. The Ferris wheel jerks and Sittra ascends.
Ed stops the wheel when she’s at the top. Sittra’s terrified of heights. She meditates and hopes for a good strong breeze. (The air is dead.) That would be a big break. She could use her weight to her advantage and float down and land right next to her man. (There’s nothing but quiet atmosphere.) He’d love her and marry her and they’d live happily ever after. (Or until death they do part.)
Sittra doubts Ed Riot who doubts her; both would love to be right. Lene is a fine guy, someone she could call “darling.” She decides that hell no, no way will she delete him from her life. She’s about to stand and jump out of the cart when someone bellows from below,
“Bring her down!”
Ed cranks the lever and starts the Ferris wheel. Sittra’s cart stops at the bottom and she jumps out, still holding the balloons.
“What the hell?” she yells and marches over to Ed. “You had no right to bring me down!”
“I ordered him to,” Mr. Smue says, stepping in between the two. “We had a deal and you broke it.”
She’s seething instead of breathing and wants to beat someone over the head, but the balloons hold her back. “You owe me a hundred bucks!”
“I told you to climb the Ferris wheel, not ride up like some scaredy cat.”
Sittra tries to yank his curlicue, but damn that pudgy Mr. Smue—he’s fast. He hops to the side and laughs.
“Not this time, doll baby. This souvenir’s all mine.” He licks his finger and smoothes his tuft of hair. Then Mr. Smue steps in close so their noses nearly touch and says, “I’ve been real good to you, Sittra. It’s time you trust me.” He swipes the balloons from her and walks off down the path.
Lene pats her shoulder and says, “Tough break.” He stuffs his hands into his pockets and walks away to his dart booth.
Ed Riot props his fragment of an arm around her shoulder so that she feels the nub pressing into her neck. “Twenty-five balloons and maybe you would have made it, but twenty four…,” he shakes his head and raises his complete arm, pointing to the top of the Ferris wheel, “Twenty four balloons would have gotten you—” he makes a whistling sound as his finger dives “—splat!”
The lonely life of Sittra is a dust covered path cutting through the middle
of the carnival. She wanders most of the day lost in her own thoughts. Occasionally she thinks of Mr. Smue who is hiding, Ed Riot who is waiting, and Lene B Up who doesn’t think at all.
And then she sees the child with the burgundy balloon.
Sittra runs up and snatches the balloon. “This was supposed to be mine, kid.”
The child blubbers. A crowd gathers. Sittra’s cheeks flush.
“Dammit,” she yells and glares at the people glaring at her. “I needed this balloon.” She turns in circles, like a wheel trying to go somewhere. She feels the pressure to give the balloon back, but she clutches the string against her chest. The burgundy balloon floats above her head like a lightbulb; Sittra tries to brainstorm her way out of this but all she can think to say is, “Mine, supposed to be mine.”
The girl wails. The crowd murmurs. Sittra feels guilty. “Sorry, Kid. You had first dibs.” She gives the balloon back and watches the girl skip away. The balloon bounces merrily behind her.
When the girl passes by the dart booth, Lene steps out and blocks her path. Sittra and the crowd watch as he takes a dart and pokes the balloon. It pops. Lene sees Sittra watching so he smiles and waves.
Sittra turns her back on Lene and cuts him out of her sight. If someone would pop a little girl’s balloon, he might just take over her life.