I’ve always assumed that at some point I’ll live next door to a carny. I mean, wouldn’t you? Most kids scan the neighbours’ windows for half glimpsed affairs – flesh coloured bras hanging from curtain rails, men with their eyes on their feet as they stride down front paths at 3am. But me, well, I’m always on the lookout for stilts resting against a back porch.
I scan the windows for clown costumes slung over wardrobe doors, but the closest I’ve come was an Evil Knievel outfit once, when Mr Atkins lived at 473. I saw it flapping from the clothesline, but I could never work out quite what he was doing with it, unless it was…well, a sexual thing. People do that, you know. I swear, I wouldn’t lie about it. Every time I see Mrs Atkins in the supermarket I watch for signs of depravity, or at least a flash of Wonder Woman cuffs under her sleeves. I always come away disappointed.
It’s just as well, really. Mama complains that I keep coming home with the wrong kind of plums, or detergent that isn’t biodegradable. It annoys me when she scowls, and holds the offending article up between her fat sausage fingers. If she wants Chickasaw plums, she should get up off her ass and buy them herself, I want to tell her. I don’t say a word though. She doesn’t like to grocery shop online, and the chances of her getting out off the couch and into a supermarket are slim to none.
Mama doesn’t like to leave the house.
It’s strange what you can get used to. I can’t remember the last time she picked me up from school, or ran me to the dentist. She bought me a bicycle on Ebay and I’m fine zipping around on that, kicking my soles into the dirt of the football field, listening to music and waiting for the sun to fall. I know that if I fell off my bike, forehead bloody and words slurred, that she wouldn’t race to scoop me up. She might want to, sure, might even reach for the keys. But she wouldn’t get behind the wheel. I complain sometimes, but honestly, I don’t mind. You just get used to riding carefully, spine straight and eyes ahead. Your back doesn’t even hurt from the concentration, after a while.
Our town isn’t pretty, but it’s right off the interstate; if you’re travelling through then chances are you’ll pull in here at some point. Because of this, the fields outside the town line play host to many a travelling exhibition, drawing people from the surrounding counties. We’ve had bridal shows, the Rockabilly Riot Hot Rod Extravaganza, and once, an exhibition of Elvis paraphernalia that made Mama sit at the window, holding the curtain back. I think that one more than any other made her want to open the door, and put her feet onto the sidewalk. But she didn’t, of course. I brought her back an Elvis bottle opener from his Blue Hawaii phase, but I could tell she would have preferred Black Leather Elvis.
I should have known.
The owners of the house next to us often rent it out to those travelling with the exhibitions. We watch them in the back yard, Mama and me, sipping iced tea and whispering to each other. The bridal women are the funniest, with long claw like nails that make them pick up their wine glasses strangely, splaying out their fingers at odd angles. The hot rodders have colourful tattoos snaking across their arms, and the men spend more time under the hoods of their cars than inside the house. But lord, their women sure do look fine.
Whenever I break in, I’m not always sure what to take. The brides are easy pickings; a lacy garter belt, a pearl earring to press into Mama’s hand. But the rockers, well, I have to make do with a dice cufflink or two, sneaking down the side path and back over the fence. Mama never encourages me, but I know she loves the souvenirs I bring her, of a life she won’t live, and a world she’s beginning to forget.
We’ve got quite a little treasure trove going on in the spare room. At first we put the items on the bookshelf where Mama keeps her Bibles, but it got so cluttered the plywood started to sag. Now the parade of purloined objects stretches across the shelf and onto the dresser below, and I think we’ll be aiming for the bed head soon. Mama taught me the word purloined, but I still don’t think I’m saying it right.
Sometimes when I come home she’s in the spare room with the door closed. I stand with my ear to it, but I don’t knock. I know she’ll come out when she’s ready. She was a little sad when I brought her the Blue Hawaii bottle opener, not just because it wasn’t Black Leather Elvis. I heard her sigh that he was a good Christian boy, who wouldn’t understand her growing collection. I wanted to tell her that he was well and truly backslidden; that out of all of us, Elvis would have been elbow deep in someone else’s bedroom drawers, rummaging around. He just had that look about him, don’t you think?
Three times a year the carnival comes to town. I ride to the fields behind the pig farm and watch them set up, chatting about cootch shows and coconut shy games. I can’t always understand their slang but they hand me warm beers, and tease me about my bicycle. I wait, but none of them move into the house next to us. Carny folk don’t make the best tenants, or so people think. I can’t say I understand; they seem pretty decent to me. But then again, I’m the kind of person who climbs through bathroom windows, so what would I know?
Many of them have work wagons anyway, so I guess they don’t need to come stay in Jimson Crescent. Most of the yards in our street have car parts scattered around and dirt instead of grass, so it’s hardly appealing. Ours is no different. We have a few pink plastic flamingos lining the driveway, but I kicked the beak off one when I was bored, and now the other flamingos just look out of place. It’s a strange thing to be bothered about, but there you go.
I peer in the windows of their work wagons tethered into the thick mud, to see what kind of lives they live. They try to make them homely, with gingham curtains at the window and pictures pinned to the fridge. Once I could see a photo of a redheaded family standing in front of a pickup truck, all shielding each other’s faces from the sun as they smiled into the camera. And I thought, that’s exactly the kind of thing I’d take. Mama likes holding slices of other people’s lives in her hand, and imagining climbing inside.
Some of the work wagons come with a storage box built into the underside for cables and rigging, and I’ve watched men climb into it for a quick nap when the heat gets too strong. I asked one of them, and he laughed and told me the box is called a possum belly. He spat onto the grass and drawled ‘That there’s where we sneak the possum belly queens,’ and then he laughed in a way I didn’t really like. I see the local girls hanging around the carnies, skirts short and eyelids heavy, and that’s usually when I swing my leg over the bike and head home.
I like to sing as I ride; quietly and under my breath, but singing all the same. I have a thin voice, but that’s ok. Nobody’s listening anyway. I watch the sun fall below the corn stalks as I think about the possum belly queens. And as I pedal, I’m pretty sure Elvis would understand that too.
About the author:
Rijn Collins is an Australian writer with a fondness for red notebooks, black coffee, and stories about circus folk. She’s had over fifty short stories published in anthologies and literary journals, performed at festivals in Melbourne and Chicago, and broadcast on Australian and American radio. She’s currently working on a novel, and trying not to include Elvis in it: so far, so good. More of her work can be found at http://www.rijncollins.com