Mama, the Hammer, and the Carney Man
Mama, the Hammer, and the Carney Man is a piece of short fiction about a trip to a supermarket carnival as told through the eyes of a small child. #short fiction #carnival midway #the Hammer
I looked out the living room window exactly fifty-seven times. I know because I counted every time I pulled back the curtains and glanced at the empty driveway. There wasn’t a single trace of the Land Shark. That’s what I called my Daddy’s black 1962 Lincoln Continental convertible because it had pointy fins like a giant fish. He said it was his pride and joy. He promised we were going to the carnival in the supermarket parking lot when he got home tonight.
The one with all the colored flashing lights and the Ferris Wheel that reached up to the sky. We had to wait until he finished up at work to go. Daddy has something called a job. It’s where he goes and does stuff to get money so we can go to places like the carnival in the supermarket parking lot, or at least that’s what Mama says. Today is payday, and he’s late.
It’s about to get dark. I can tell because the sky is starting to turn pink outside the window. I don’t know if the carnival will still be open after it gets dark. Places close at nighttime. Plus, my eyes get heavy, and I fall asleep even though I don’t want to.
When I talked to Daddy on the phone I had no idea about Mama, the Hammer, and the Carney Man
When I talked to Daddy on the telephone, he said he had to go to the bank and cash his check. Then we’d all go to the carnival. That was a long time ago. I don’t know what is taking him so long to get here. Mama doesn’t talk on the telephone, so I have to give her all the messages.
Daddy said I could have my own cotton candy and a corn dog if I went a whole week without my teacher sending a note home from school. There’s something you should know about me. I have a bad habit of talking when I should be listening, or at least that’s what Mrs. Harper says. She should know since she’s my first-grade teacher. I didn’t get in trouble once even though the thought of riding the Ferris Wheel made me feel all jiggly inside.
The bell rang
I wanted to tell Lisa Spaulding all about us going to the carnival, but I managed to keep my big mouth shut. Once I started in talking about all the fun we were going to have, there would be no stopping me after the end of the recess bell ring. That’s our signal to shut our mouths and listen, only I wouldn’t be able to control myself. There would be another note home and no carnival. I managed to seal my lips for a whole week. Daddy says my problem is I’m too precocious for my own good. I don’t know what precocious means, but I guess I got a bad case of it.
I was about to look out the window for the fifty-eighth time when I heard mama yell, “Emma Louise Branson get down from there. You’re going to knock the curtains down.” I turned around and sat on my bottom. I knew there was no point in arguing with mama. That being the case, I stopped trying to win when it came to her the day I learned how to talk.
Hence, I glanced at the clock on the wall the little hand was on the seven and the big hand was on the twelve. That meant it was seven o’clock. Daddy was awful late. I was as nervous as a stink bug poked with a stick. To tell the truth, I jabbed one once, and I won’t do it again.
Mama was watching me real close
The smell made throw up settle in the back of my throat. Mama was watching me real close. She wanted to make sure I didn’t get to her curtains again. I didn’t think I was going to be able to stand it one second more when I heard the Land Shark pull into the driveway. I thought I’d pee my pants from excitement when Daddy marched through the door.
The look on his face was the one he got when he and Mama were about to fight. I ran over to give him a hug. He smelled like cigarette smoke and the medicine he pours in a silver flask in his hip pocket.
Mama grabbed her purse from the kitchen counter and took Patrick’s hand. She moved toward the door without saying a word to Daddy. I knew this meant she was as excited about the carnival as me. I wondered if she was about to pee her pants. Patrick is my three-year-old brother. He isn’t very important when it comes to most things, but I thought I should include him in this story.
If you want to know the truth
If you want to know the truth, I haven’t decided if I like him yet. He was in Mama’s stomach one day and the next he popped out all red and noisy. There are some days I wished he’d go back to wherever he came from. Mama walked right past daddy and climbed into the front seat of the Land Shark. She sat Patrick on her lap and focused on the garage door in front of her. It was coming on dark. The sun was about to disappear from the sky.
I knew daddy was in a festive mood when he unfastened the latched on the convertible roof and pushed a button to make it lower. Mama hated it when he put down the roof. “I read in a magazine at the doctors off the other day about how dangerous these convertibles are. We need to get rid of this death machine before one of these kids falls out on the road.” Mama got a lot of strange ideas from reading.
Bad stuff was about to happen between Mama, the Hammer, and the Carney Man
Daddy ignored her like he always did when she started talking about all the bad stuff that could happen to us kids. He reached for the dial on the radio and turned up the news real loud. He knew there was no use arguing with Mama. It was easier to do what you wanted than to try to make her understand what you had to say. She ought to know Daddy was never going to get rid of the Land Shark. It was his pride and joy.
The highway was swarming with car lights. The carnival was going to be crowded with all the people headed in that direction. I turned around and sat on my knees in the backseat watching the road disappear under the Land Shark.
A country called Cuba
An announcer on the radio was talking about a country called Cuba where they had a place called The Bay of Pigs. I wondered if they were nice pigs like Wilber in Charlotte’s Web or mean old hogs like my grandpa John has on his farm. He always tells me to stay away from the pig pens because the hogs will eat me if I fall in with them.
Daddy must have glanced at the Land Sharks rearview mirror because he yelled, “Turn around, Emma Louise. Put your butt on the seat.” I did what he said and watched his shoulders tense up as the man on the radio talked about some sort of missile crisis. We seemed to drive forever. The Land Shark swam through the traffic like it was the fastest, sleekest fish in the ocean. We moved past the Tecumseh city limits sign.
Daddy works at an insurance company
I spotted the insurance company where Daddy works. I knew the supermarket wasn’t very far now. Daddy says his boss is a real bloodsucker. I had to make sure I didn’t say anything bad about the bloodsucker when we went to the company picnic because daddy said he’d get fired if his boss knew he called him a bloodsucker.
I know daddy hates selling insurance by the look on he wears on his face when he leaves for the office in the morning. It’s not an all the way frown, but it’s not a happy smile either. Mama stays home and looks after Patrick because he’s too young to take care of himself. I’m in first grade over at Washington Elementary.
Mama Hadn’t stopped talking
My mama hadn’t stopped talking since she started in on daddy about the convertible top being down and us kids falling out onto the road. She made us stop and get something to eat at the new place with the golden arches they’d built over on Grant Street.
She said there was no way we were going to pay high prices for fair food. There went the cotton candy and a corn dog I was promised for being good all week. Daddy turned off the street and pulled into a parking space. A lady came over to our car and wrote down our order in a notebook she held in her hand. The food came fast, but everybody took forever to eat. I couldn’t swallow my food fast enough. I was sure the carnival would be closed by the time we got there if we took much longer.
It was dark
It was dark by the time we pulled into the supermarket parking lot. The lights on the side of the amusement rides were lit up like fireworks on the Fourth of July. The only difference was they never fizzled out and melted into a dark sky. I could see the Ferris Wheel from the backseat of the Land Shark.
There wasn’t a doubt in my mind this was going to be the most exciting night of my life. As soon as we climbed out of the car, Daddy bent over and whispered, “I’m going for a cigarette. Tell your mother if she asks.” He disappeared into the night. I thought it was chicken of him to run off the way he always did when we were in public. Mama didn’t notice he was gone. She took my hand into hers, and she grabbed ahold of Patrick with her free fist.
Carnival people will steal you
“Stay with me, Emma Louise. These carnival people will steal you if they get a chance.” This unexpected danger added to my excitement as we ambled toward the carnival’s midway. We moved past the toss a ring on the bottle booth, the shooting gallery with its giant stuffed Teddy bears, the spooky haunted house, and the vendors selling cotton candy and caramel apples.
The aroma of food
The aroma of food cooking in the tiny trailers filled my nostrils. A powerful craving for an elephant ear surge through me when I noticed one of the powdered sugar pastries in the hands of a stranger who strolled past us on his way to the rides. I wondered if he was one of the carnival people out to steal me. I would be glad to get snatched if he’d give me part of his elephant ear.
Mama came to a stop at the line in front of the Ferris Wheel. I glanced up at the sky. There were a million stars twinkling above me. I couldn’t wait to play with them with my toes when we were stuck at the top of the Ferris Wheel. Mama opened her purse and searched for the change waiting to be found at the bottom of her bag. She scooped out a handful.
Conversation between Mama and the Carney Man
When it was our turn, Mama tried to hand the man operating the Ferris Wheel the loose change she held in her hand. He shook his head and pointed to a booth with a line of people standing in front of it. “You got to buy your tickets over there,” the man with the face stubble said with an irritated voice. Mama stood frozen to the spot. Her blue eyes shot beams of anger toward him as she continued to hold out the money to pay for the Ferris Wheel ride. I tugged on the edge of her blouse and got her steered in the right direction.
I was so excited when the chubby lady tore off a long line of tickets from the thick roll she held in her pink swollen hands and slid them through a crack in the window toward mama I almost peed my pants. A picture played in my mind of myself sitting in a seat at the top of the Ferris Wheel watching the lights of Tecumseh scattered on the ground below me like diamonds on a piece of green silk. It was the one thing I wanted most in my life until disaster struck. We were almost to the Ferris Wheel when I noticed the amusement ride at the far end of the midway.
When I saw the Hammer
It was painted a school bus color of yellow. Bright lights were attached to its side. The machine had two giant arms that lifted into the air. The buckets people rode in were shaped like the claws of a hammer. The Ferris Wheel looked too tame after I saw this evil machine. Excitement surged through my body. I had to have a ride on The Hammer, or I’d die. So, I guess you could say what happened next was my fault because I gripped the edge of my mama’s blouse and steered her toward the exciting carnival ride.
The Carney Man tries to warn Mama
The Hammer came to a sudden stop. People climbed out of the lower basket and limped away on wobbly legs. The Carney Man pushed a button and the second arm of The Hammer lowered to the ground. We didn’t have to stand in a long line before Mama tore off some tickets from the ones she held in her hand. She handed them to the Carney Man. An expression of astonishment spread across his grizzly face. “Lady, you don’t want to take them kids on this here ride,” he said in a stern voice.
Mama ignored his warning. She stepped into the lowered claw of the hammer carrying Patrick in her arms. I climbed in right behind her. “Didn’t you hear what I said. You don’t want to take them kids on this here ride. It’s too dangerous.” Mama nodded her head and smiled. “I guess it takes all kinds. I have half a mind to call the welfare people right here and now. “A flabbergasted look spread across his face.
Mama doesn’t listen
The Carney Man lowered a metal bar across our middles. He slammed the hatch we’d climbed through and turned the lever to lock us in the cage. I watched him through the metal grating stomp over to the loud machine that made The Hammer lift into the air. There was an electricity in the atmosphere as he flipped a lever and the claw soared into the night sky. I thought maybe I’d made a mistake pointing Mama toward The Hammer.
The Carney Man gave me the jitters
The way the Carney Man acted gave me the jitters. Maybe he knew something bad about the machine. The Hammer’s claw we were riding in came to a sudden stop. I was afraid at first but started to like hovering above the rest of the world once my stomach settled down. I imagined I might be able to spot Daddy walking around down below if I squinted hard enough.
It occurred to me the Hammer wasn’t much different from the Farris Wheel once you thought about it. Patrick started whining about the time I was getting used to being suspended in the sky. He started squirming in Mama’s arms. She calmed him down some. About the time I was getting comfortable again The Hammer went into action.
The first plunge it took wasn’t that scary. By the time the claw made its next round, it had started to pick up speed. The claw of the hammer dropped so fast I was sure we’d run right into the ground. I heard people start to scream. Their cries echoed in my ears like roaring waves crashing against a beach. I heard myself screaming right along with them. Patrick started in with his baby crying, which put a damper on everyone else’s honest screams of terror.
Mama tries to get the Carney Man’s attention
Mama started waving her free arm to get The Carney Man’s attention. By the third time around in the claw of The Hammer, I wanted it to stop. I was sure we were all going to die. What is more, I made promises to God like I’d be nicer to mama if he let me live. Also, I promised I wouldn’t be so mean to my brother anymore if he’d just make The Hammer stop. Patrick stopped his wailing and vomited the hamburger he ate over at the golden arches into my lab. The ride that looked so fun and exciting was turning into the worst scare I’d ever had in my life.
The hammer rocked to a sudden stop with a jolt. The Carney Man grabbed the claw we were riding in so it wouldn’t swing when we stepped to the ground. He opened the tiny door on the front of the metal basket. “I stopped the ride early because I was worried about your kids,” he said.
I’d never seen a look as fierce as the one my mama wore when she climbed out of the cage. She puffed up her four-foot eleven-inch frame like she was a wet hen ruffling her feathers. “How could you let me take my kids on that ride. They could have been killed. You should have warned me. I have half a mind to find a cop and tell him what you did.”
The Carney Man waves his hands in the air
The Carney Man shrugged his shoulders and waved his black grease-covered hands in the air like he was a magician trying to work a magic spell to make his confusion disappear. “I do believe I told you in no uncertain terms not to take those kids on my ride,” he yelled.
“It’s too late to give me an apology.” Mama grabbed my hand and brushed past the Carney Man. “I’m going to write a letter to the carnival company you work for. They shouldn’t let people like you work these rides.”
“Go ahead and write that letter, lady. I’ll tell them you’re a crazy woman. Lady, you must be a bonified lunatic.” The Carney Man yelled into the night air. I could feel the stares of the people we passed as we rushed through the midway. The Carney Man continued to yell, but we were too far ahead of him for me to hear what he was screaming. He could make all the noise he wanted.
The Carney Man was wasting his time
Mama would never hear a word he said because she was deaf. We found Daddy next to the ball toss game. He’d won me a giant Teddy bear. I was sure the paper cup he was holding wasn’t filled with soda pop. There was a large dose of his medicine inside. Mama gave him a hard look with her cold blue eyes and started marching in the direction of the Land Shark.
Our time at the carnival had come to an end. On the drive home, a steady stream of complaints about the Carney Man flowed from Mama’s mouth. Their encounter turned out to be the most exciting thing that happened to her all year. The Carney Man’s rude behavior got blown out of proportion with each telling of the event until it turned into one of our family’s tall tales.
Mama wrote the letter
Mama wrote that letter to the carnival company just like she said she would. She received an official apology from the president of the company and a roll of free tickets to be used the next time the carnival came to town. They sat in the junk drawer in the kitchen for two years. Mama eventually threw them away. She never could work up the nerve to make a return trip to the carnival.
Our ride on The Hammer marked the day when I first had knowledge my Mama was different from other people. Before that time, I always took her deafness as a part of normal. It took me a while to work up the nerve to talk to my Daddy about why she was so different from other people. I caught him out in the yard giving the Land Shark a bath. “Why can’t Mama hear what I say when I talk to her?” I said without giving him any warning we were about to have a serious conversation.
Why Mama went deaf
“ When she was a kid she had whooping cough. She coughed so hard for so long her eardrums ruptured. Even after that, she had a little bit of her hearing up until the time she worked in a factory before you were born. In any event, she could hear a little better if she would wear her hearing aids, but she won’t,” Daddy said without making eye contact with me. I figured there was more to the story he wasn’t willing to tell.
“I don’t see why she wouldn’t wear her hearing aids if it was good for her. She always makes me eat all my vegetables. I hate vegetables, especially peas. She says I have to because they are good for me,” I said.
Stubbornness plain and simple
Daddy tossed the rag he’d been wiping down the Land Shark with into a bucket of soapy water and reached for the garden hose. “It’s stubbornness plain and simple, Emma Louise. Your mother is a proud woman. She figures the lip reading is enough to get her by. The only problem with that is she misses most of what people are telling her, but she won’t admit it.” Daddy turned on the water and began the process of spraying off the long black car with the fins on the end. This brought an end to our little talk. We never spoke of mama’s deafness again.
Who is Molly Shea?
Molly Shea is an accomplished fictional short story writer from Indiana, who writes short stories and novels about a fictional town called Tecumseh. To read more of her short stories and adventures click here.
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