As Luck Would Have It

By Daniel Pié

      The oily humidity of late August causes his new cotton-blend shirt to cling. He gently pulls it loose, hoping to forestall wrinkles, but it re-attaches like a persistent omen. As the sun sets, the arc of the day’s heat has yet to retreat from the pavement.

     A covert sniff returns a warm plume of Right Guard. The shirt, canary yellow with faint baby-blue pinstripes, is already losing its freshness. He waited several months to break it out. His aunt, who gave it to him at graduation, made inquiries.

     The smell of stale popcorn and the clank and drone of kiddie rides greet him simultaneously. He regrets arriving so early. He should have waited for nightfall. There will be few, if any, recognizable faces here now—certainly not hers. He foresees languidly circling the grounds for an hour or more. The carnies will beckon, but he’s determined not to blow through his twenty.

     The traveling grifters don’t face much of a challenge at twilight, when children high on cotton candy and snow-cone cocktails test the limits of love, badgering their parents to stop at every booth across the converted parking lot. These obnoxious kids don’t know the difficulty of looping a ring over the top of a Coke bottle or bursting a balloon with a dart. They jabber in anticipation of their conquests only to discover just how challenging—some say rigged—these games are. They don’t stay at it long. Futility works its frustrating effect in half the time on little people.

     The real action picks up when the shades go down on the day. That’s when the carnies hone their craft, pulling out every enticement to draw in the naïve. The barkers are the front men, but the true craftsmen are the carnies working the booths. The carnies’ game is to take the patrons’ money and to keep them coming back.

     He observes the carnies in action and resolves to resist their tactics. Without realizing it, though, his pace slows, and he walks about aimlessly. The pop of pneumatic BB guns, the click-click-click of prize wheels, and the shrieks of winners and losers dilute his concentration. Two-dimensional enchantresses in bikinis and lingerie cast their spells from oversized posters. Though meant to enhance the fantasy atmosphere, the models trigger a memory of a previous summer’s day.

      She came out of her parents’ lake house wearing a scanty two-piece. Her father, grill utensils in hand, grumbled his disapproval from the porch as the canoe was launched. The destination was the forested far side of the lake, out of sight from protective parents. The reflection of a high sun glistened off the water as the anticipation of being truly alone with her grew stronger.

     The possibilities were snuffed when, arriving on the other side, her cousin and his friend emerged from the trees. Both seemed to have been expecting her. The friend’s athletic body was deeply tanned for so early in the summer. He was bashful, or wanted to give that impression, deferring to everyone else’s lines of conversation while smiling broadly through brilliantly white teeth.

     The attention she paid him throughout the hourlong visit was kindling for an argument later in the evening back at the lake house. She downplayed her interest, saying she was just being polite. At one point, she referred to the friend as “some preppy guy.” It seemed much more than good manners and, in hindsight, might well have been an early sign of her changing feelings.

     When the relationship ended a few months later, it was difficult to let go. She couldn’t have sat farther away on the bench seat of the sedan. She was unusually quiet on the drive home from the movie and started crying as the car stopped at the curb in front of her house. She spelled out her decision in painful detail. She was grateful, had loads of fun, and hoped he’d remain a friend.

     Then he was the quiet one. It wasn’t shock that silenced him. Hints of her unhappiness had been mounting. It was the finality. Somehow, he thought he could reignite her feelings for him. When she explained that wasn’t going to happen, it changed him. It felt like he had been used. He vowed never to use the word love again. Yet he tried to figure out ways to get back into her life, even showing up at carnivals on the off chance she would be there, too.

     The mix of emotions disorients him. His feet move steadily under him, but his mind is somewhere else. To the hunter, he is weakened game that has drifted from the herd.

     “Back again, Johnny?” the carny’s voice interrupts.

     “Rob.”  As he says his name, he realizes he has volunteered personal information that gives this stranger a wedge into the doorway of his life.

     The carnies come to this sleepy mid-Atlantic town each year late in their circuit. In a few weeks, they will close out the season on Labor Day weekend. It’s their last chance to haul in some serious cash and make up for the money they’ve parted from in seedy bars all along the tour.

     The carny makes a show of sliding a long non-filtered cigarette from behind his ear. The paper is damp in spots from the high gloss on his blond hair, which thickens behind an M-shaped hairline and is lacquered straight back. A faux tortoise comb protruding from his rear pocket is white between the teeth from a coagulating gel.

     “Smoke, Rob?” He extends the burning Pall Mall in Rob’s direction.

     “Trying to quit,” Rob says, blushing at another little truth that has been extracted.

     The tip of the carny’s cigarette glows brighter with each drag, signaling the descending pitch of night.

     “I took you for an athlete, Rob,” he says after a long silence that Rob experiences as testing him. “What do you go? Six-foot-two or thereabouts?”

     “And a half,” Rob answers, and as he does is transported back to his adolescence, standing in front of his grandpa, who gushes over Rob’s rapid growth and what it portends, as if being tall were a guarantee of good things to come.

     “Play hoops at your high school?” the carny asks, taking a basketball from the rack at the front of his booth. The cigarette hangs precariously from his lips, its smoke encircling the carny’s squinting eyes as the ball rolls off his fingertips and zips through the chain net. He cups the Pall Mall in one hand and, with the other, flips the next ball in Rob’s direction.

     “Impressive, but I’m hanging on to my cash for a while.”

     “Five-foot-five, but I could shoot like a son of a bitch back in my school days in Indiana,” the carny says. “County all-star my senior year.”

     “I can believe it,” says Rob, gauging the carny to be in his early forties, although the lines in his drawn cheeks suggest he’s older.

     “Relax. The meter ain’t runnin’. I just wanna see what you got. Go ahead. Toss it up there.”

     Rob’s attempt clanks off the front of the rim, which isn’t as close as it appears and probably smaller than the ones at the school gym.

     “Oh, man, you’re not gonna get any after the big game shooting like that,” the carny says, throwing Rob another ball. Rob glances at the bikini girls, who reassure him in their silent seduction. Exhaling, he shrugs his shoulders and dips at the knees before launching another shot. Swish!

     “There you go, Rob. Lookin’ good.”

     Now they are both shooting freely and reaching for new balls. Rob’s are finding the range consistently while the carny seems to have lost his touch.

     After a horribly off-target shot, the carny feeds Rob another ball. “Tell you what,” the carny says. “Five shots for a buck. You make three, you win a stuffed animal for your girlfriend.”

     “I don’t know.”

     “Come on. You’re on fire.”

     “I mean, I don’t know about a girlfriend.”

     “How can you not know about a girlfriend?” the carny asks.

     “It’s just that she used to like to come to places like this,” Rob says. “I thought, maybe . . ., I don’t know.”

     “Can I tell ya something, Rob?” the carny says, eyeing the ash on his cigarette. “Girls are like buses. You miss one, another one comes along before you know it. Forget this young lady, what’s-her-name.”

     “Her name is . . .”

     “Doesn’t matter. You can make three out of five in your sleep,” says the carny, who dribbles the ball from one hand to the other as he waits for Rob to show his cash. Rob reluctantly hands over the twenty-dollar bill. “Change,” Rob says. “I won’t be spending all that.”

     Rob’s first two shots go through the basket without touching iron. “Might want to get that big teddy bear down,” he says, his confidence building.

     “My man!” the carny says. “Wait till you see the look on her face when you give her that teddy. She’s gonna love it.” Rob’s next shot misses, as does the one after that. There is no girlfriend, he wants to tell the carny. The last time he presented her with a gift—he showed up unexpectedly with roses on her birthday—she handed them back to him. “It wouldn’t be right, Robby,” she said. “You’re very sweet, but it’s over.” Rob’s eyes tear up at the memory, but he blinks them dry. His fifth shot misses everything.

     Before Rob has a chance to call it quits, the carny takes another dollar from the change Rob laid next to the basketball rack. “Concentrate, Rob,” the carny implores. “You can do this. Nothing to it.”

     Rob puts up shot after shot, feeding the carny dollar after dollar, but can do no better than two out of five. Her words declaring their relationship finished echo in his mind even as he tries to conjure happier times. He has gone through nine dollars and missed the first two attempts of his tenth game. “It all rides on this shot,” Rob tells the carny. “Either way, I’m pulling the plug after this game.” Rob arches a shot toward the rim. It hits the back of the iron and ricochets to the right.

     “One more game?” the carny asks. Rob’s closed eyes and bowed head are his answer. “Better luck next time,” the carny says. “Hey, you were just starting to heat up.” Rob wants to believe that, but he catches the carny grinning, pleased with his successful hustle. A flash of anger in Rob’s eyes puts the carny on the defensive. “A good shooter keeps shooting through a slump, Rob,” he says. “She’ll come back to you. I got a good feelin’ about that.”

     Rob doesn’t know if the carny means Rob’s shooting touch or the girl will come back. He walks away irked for having been manipulated, but not by the carny.

     A jagged streak of lightning off in the distance signals an approaching storm. Yet another tease, Rob thinks. A downpour would bring much-needed relief from the dog days, but storms usually veer away from the city, just like the men who work the crowd with a promise of a choice of prizes that doesn’t materialize, and the pretty girls who bat their long eyelashes at boys, filling them with hope for romance that isn’t in the cards.

     Rob seeks out a refreshment stand, parched from the oppressive heat and the stress of his experience with the carny. Rob’s hands are grimy from handling the basketballs. He reaches to wipe them on his shirttail, which has come untucked. It’s the only part of his shirt that doesn’t feel glued to his sweaty skin.

     The large Coca-Cola cuts into his cash by nearly half again. The drink is borderline flat and mostly ice. A large cube lingers on his tongue. He nearly swallows it whole when, wish granted, he catches sight of her. The burst of excitement he experiences is tamped as he watches her take hold of the hand of an older guy. Her date is familiar looking, but Rob can’t come up with a name.

     Rob remembers the sleeveless top she is wearing, its vertical pastels. It verifies what once was. A bracelet jangles with every gesture of her tanned slender arm. She exudes a sweetness that clutches at Rob, as if for the first time.

     The splintering ice cube and a gust from the threatening storm give him a momentary chill. He panics when he no longer sees her.

     He walks in the direction she must have gone. For what purpose? To say what? “You look really nice,” or to ask if there still is room in her heart? When her interest in him guttered and they struggled to find things to talk about, it was her formal politeness that crushed him.

     He spots her again near the darts booth. Her date is placing a paper-mâché garland over her head, being careful not to muss her new hairstyle. It’s short, which surprises Rob, but it captivates him in the way it reveals long sparkling earrings. She was never one for accessories. That she is wearing them for her date squeezes Rob’s heart.

     As she tries not to move while receiving the garland, her eyes meet Rob’s. He is far enough away not to be noticed by her date. Robby, she mouths, her expression a mix of surprise and alarm. She hurriedly ushers away her date, who looks back over his shoulder. Rob ducks behind a ticket stand to avoid being detected, at the same time asking himself, Why?

     A barker’s robust voice comes on the loudspeaker, interrupting the emptiness and hurt her rebuff causes Rob. Bingo will be ending for the night. Once the indoor facility is cleared, a portable cage, ten feet wide by twenty feet long, will be erected on the stage for the feature event of the evening.

     “Is there a man out there with guts enough to take on Punchy, the Menacing Marsupial of the Outback?” Hissing and boos erupt from groups of teens. “I’d kick that kangaroo’s ass,” escapes from one scrum in which friends enact a beating. “Probably get arrested for cruelty to animals after I got done with him,” boasts another.

     Rob wishes he would have taken that Pall Mall. He is shaken from the encounter with his ex-girlfriend. He dabs at his brow with his shirtsleeve, then scoops out his remaining cash, which is enough for admittance to the indoor show.

     A surliness elbows its way into his mood. He wants to see someone bust Punchy in the snout. Rob fantasizes momentarily about rescuing his ex-girlfriend from her date with one mighty punch. Then, pitying himself, he thinks it is he, Rob, who is taking a beating. He sees himself in the beast, unable to understand the stinging blows that assault him.

     A group of friends persuades one of its own, JP, muscular and in his early twenties, to take the challenge. The stubble of his full beard makes him appear older than he is. A crop of thick black hair sprouts from the unbuttoned top of his white shirt.

     He is stoic as he is fitted with 20-ounce boxing gloves that look like tattered relics from a 1930s-era gym. The abundant cushioning of the equipment makes contact easier but minimizes damage. Smart, Rob thinks. Punchy, who fights most nights during the summer, may be stunned but he won’t suffer any lasting damage.

     Rob wonders if JP’s thickness and demeanor intimidate Punchy. He overhears another spectator say he once saw JP back down an aggressor without saying a word. JP is up on his toes as the clash with Punchy is about to begin. JP’s rowdy friends are in a state of fevered excitement, shouting encouragements.

     Rob stands next to a teen he can’t place at first. When their eyes make brief contact and they exchange quick nods, Rob remembers the teen was his successor at the DQ last summer. On Rob’s last day, he walked the teen through the duties of a front-counter cashier. Rob worked there only a few weeks, thinking the job was beneath him. That’s what he said to family and friends. There was a more pressing reason for Rob’s decision to quit. He wanted to use every moment of free time to win back the girl who dumped him. Standing next to the teen now, and recalling the earlier events of this evening, Rob wonders if it would have been smarter if he’d stuck it out at the DQ.

     Rob and the teen join a chorus of whoos as JP unleashes a barrage of air punches. The teen gives Rob a second, puzzled look but can’t make a connection.

     The muzzled beast emerges. Spectators wedge themselves in at every angle for a glimpse. Their collective body heat turns the small room into a sauna. Punchy is nearly as tall as its handler, who keeps a casually loose grip on a short leash attached to a body harness. Punchy’s eyes are wide open, tall ears cocked, and the animal’s head makes small darting movements while scanning the faces. Hopping toward the cage, the animal remains alert for danger as if it were in the wild.

     Punchy’s boxing shorts are loose-fitting, exposing the top of the pouch. “Punchy’s a girl!” a flabbergasted spectator in the front yells, triggering an outburst of laughter. “Hey, JP,” one of the fighter’s buddies shouts, “how do you feel about beating up a girl?” Another spectator cautions that female kangaroos can be as fierce as males, which ignites a volley of taunts between JP’s fans and Punchy’s backers.

     Rob is thinking about a female of a different species. He turns toward the DQ teen. “They don’t know my ex-girlfriend,” Rob yells into the teen’s ear, trying to be heard above the din. “She can dish out a world of pain.”

     “Right,” the DQ teen shouts back, having heard only the last part of what Rob said. “I think Punchy is gonna be a tough girl to beat.” Rob smiles rather than repeat himself.

     Showing no effect from the hubbub, Punchy continues toward the cage. Her upper body is slender, which suggests a soft target. If anything, the trunks make her look silly, her incongruously broad clown feet visible beneath them. Rob ponders her eight-ounce gloves. They are proportional to her small hands but disguise a potency for lacerating a foe.

     Looking around, Rob reads a near delirious excitement on the faces of the spectators over the carnage they’re anticipating. A barker waves an arm to signal for quiet, then waits for the last smattering of hoots and hollers to die down. There will be no weigh-in, he proclaims. “Both fighters understand the risks,” he says, which draws nervous chuckling. There will be three one-minute rounds. “If”—and he takes a long pause—“needed.” Then the barker drops a bombshell: “No one has ever gone the distance with Punchy.” Hearing the previously unpublicized fact, JP and his friends give each other concerned glances. The rest of the crowd, Rob notes, including the DQ trainee, roars enthusiasm.

     Punchy is unharnessed just as the bell sounds. JP charges across the cage, arms and fists locked in classic boxing form. He moves from side to side and back and forth, braying taunts at Punchy, who is motionless and seems dumbfounded. Its little arms are raised, too, but not as though it’s prepared for a slugfest, but as if it’s daintily carrying a basket of greens.

     For all his taunting, JP keeps a safe distance from Punchy. Thirty seconds in and the first punch hasn’t been thrown. The crowd, even JP’s friends, cry out for action. JP flicks a series of jabs that graze the kangaroo’s face, causing her eyelids to flutter. Rob glances at the timer: Ten seconds left. JP delivers his first right, a thunderous shot to the torso, momentarily knocking Punchy off-balance. Her handler quickly steps between the combatants, as much to protect Punchy from further harm as to mark the bell’s ending of the round.

     The heavy blow electrifies the crowd. Shouts of “Here we go!” and “Oh, yeah!” ring out. JP’s buddies exhort him to “pour it on!” JP rises from his stool, looking more confident, but the second round starts in the same dull fashion as the first. The animal doesn’t move but watches as JP advances. The crowd buzzes angrily. Is Punchy sedated? Are they not going to get the fight they paid for?

     The first boos come from the back of the room. Rob can feel the crowd’s restlessness growing. Here we go again, Rob thinks, watching the timer pass the halfway point of the round. Maybe JP’s caution is tactical. Does he want to go the distance, to be the first to do so? Rob is trying to figure it out when JP charges Punchy. No set-up jabs this time. JP is all fury, his shoulder and arm muscles bulging under his shirt as he aims a powerful right.

     Punchy suddenly snaps out of her slumber. The crack of leather hitting flesh is startling. JP is unnerved, too, judging by the fear in his eyes as Punchy slaps viciously with her backhand after JP’s right misses. A second, then third slap turns JP’s nose into a spigot of red. He raises both hands to his face to block the onslaught from Punchy’s eight-ounce gloves. A trail of blood spots marks JP’s retreat to his stool as the round ends and the handler restrains Punchy, this time less urgently.

     The crowd is in a frenzy as the bell begins the last round. Rob is unsettled by the rage and fear in their faces. He recognizes something of himself in the furor, those times with her when he impulsively blurted out stupid things and acted half his age.

      Claustrophobia descends on him in the sweltering room. He desperately wants out, but the path to the doors is blocked by seething spectators. If he can get the DQ trainee to run interference for him . . ., but the teen looks lost in his own emotion, clenching his fists, squeezing his eyes shut, and mumbling something inaudible.

     Rob sees a different fighter as JP crosses the cage. Gone is the confidence and swagger of the earlier rounds. Blood is drying brown on his white shirt. Punchy hops forward at first, then straight up and down. She soars higher with each leap, almost coming to a stop at the highest point.

     “What the hell?” JP shouts, looking over at his friends. “She’s punch-drunk!” one of them yells back. “Finish her off!” Instead, JP mimics Punchy’s jumping, then waves his arms like he’s flying. The two combatants, within two feet of each other, are bouncing like kids on a trampoline. One of them is laughing, the other edging a little closer to JP with each bounce.

     This IS a stinking carnival, Rob thinks. The show. That’s what it’s all about. Could JP be a plant, hired on to be part of the show?

      “Weeeee!” comes from someone in the crowd in a shrill voice. “Having fun, boys and girls?” another chimes in. Even JP’s friends join the mockery. This can’t be how it ends, Rob thinks, checking the time left in the round. If JP keeps it up, he can pull it off. He can go the distance!

     Rob observes the silliness transform JP, his buddies, and much of the crowd into playful children. The intensity rampant a minute earlier morphs into frolic. The serenity lasts only a moment, then Punchy strikes! In mid-leap, she cocks her huge feet and slams them into JP’s chest. Surprise etches his face as the kick rockets him into the side of the cage with nauseating force, a whoosh of air departing his lungs. JP collapses face first. Rob gasps and hears screams.

     “Stop the fight!” someone yells. Punchy keeps stomping as JP lies unconscious and defenseless. The animal’s handler, joined by two other men, rushes into the cage. Carnival workers drag a partition across the stage to block the audience’s view. Many turn away, Rob among them. As he does, the DQ trainee cranes to see the mayhem. Too late to spare JP, the bell rings. The fight and the show are over.

     An emergency crew arrives as the crowd is dispersing. Must have been nearby all along, Rob figures. The flashing red and blue lights atop the ambulance brighten the night sky enough for him to make out the menacing storm clouds now overhead. Thunder startles him and reverberates in his chest as it rolls. He watches the DQ trainee force his way for a closer look inside the ambulance. Does he want to help, or is he some kind of sicko? Rob wonders. A man in uniform asks the teen if he is a relative, then orders him to move back. None of JP’s friends is anywhere to be found, Rob notes.

     “That guy’s hurtin’,” a stranger tells Rob, the two of them moving with the flow of the exiting crowd.

     “How bad you think it is?” Rob asks.

     “Heard one of the EMTs say something about fractured ribs, stitches. Got out of hand there at the end. He’s lucky it’s not worse.”

     Strange word, lucky. If he was lucky, it crosses Rob’s mind, he’d have won the fight or at least not taken that beating. A calmness takes hold of him, assuming JP will recover from his injuries as the stranger suggests. Rob exhales deeply, recognizing his emotional exhaustion and the slow release of tension from all the evening’s events.

     Clear of the crowd as he angles toward the parking area, Rob scratches at patches of salty residue left by drying perspiration. The humidity no longer bullies him now that the imminent storm lowers the temperature.

     Rob sees a few people still trying their luck at games of chance at this hour, even as cleanup crews disperse throughout the grounds. Luck isn’t something you should go looking for, he wants to tell the last-minute players. You might find it.

     He thinks about where she might be right now. It surprises him that the anguish of knowing she’s with someone else is slowly dissolving. Could it be that everything he experienced this evening, what seemed like bad luck, was pointing him toward tomorrow? Something or someone better could be there waiting.

     The ping-ping-ping of a bouncing basketball disrupts Rob’s musing. He’s far enough away from the booth of his earlier misfortune to avoid being noticed. The carny is dribbling, a burning cigarette still a fixture between his lips, talking to an adolescent boy in a wheelchair.

     “You’re just having an off night,” Rob hears the carny say. “A good shooter keeps shooting through a slump. Eventually, your touch will return. When it does . . . look out!”

     Rob winces watching the boy, whose arm muscles are atrophied, struggle to get a grip on the basketball. His shot fails to reach the iron, weakly brushing the net.

     A swell of sympathy washes over Rob, who senses the carny must feel it, too, because the carny shows the disabled youth how to place his hand behind the ball and encourages him to aim just over the front of the rim. The tenderness of the carny’s guidance moves Rob.

     “Tell ya what,” the carny says. “Five shots for a buck. Make one, and you can take home any stuffed animal I got.”

     The first drops from the storm create little steaming puffs as they pelt the asphalt.

Daniel Pié, 70, is retired. He was a daily newspaper journalist for 44-plus years, the final 30 as a copy editor at The Arizona Republic, in Phoenix.