SHORT STORY—”CLOSING FOR THE NIGHT”

Writing

I’m really proud of this short story. It first appeared in a middle-grade anthology titled Side Show 2: Tales of the Big Top and the Bizarre.

CLOSING FOR THE NIGHT

 Darkness crept up on the carnival like an old tom, slow and easy. A sign hung over the entrance gate: JOJO’S ALL-MECHANICAL CARNIVAL. The sign hung sideways, a confusion of peeled paint and rain-warped wood, the colors washed out by the passing years.

Gent permitted himself a faint metallic sigh as he rose to his feet. He let the rocking chair fall back and settle itself. Another night, another closing. Knee joints squeaking, Gent walked down the three wooden steps to the parade grounds. It had rained earlier in the day, and the ground was still muddy. Water splashed up to soak the edge of his tattered cape, and brown-spotted his tarnished brass legs. 

The small clapboard house that was Gent’s home sat in the shadow of the Ferris wheel. He pulled back on the switch, and the big ride ground to a halt. Lights, the ones that still worked, blinked out one by one along the wheel, dropping it into silhouette. 

Gent made his way from ride to ride, shutting them down. At the merry-go-round he had only to turn off the music. The ride had long-since ceased to turn. The tape was worn, and the tinny melody ground out slowly, in fits and stops. Gent let it play for a while as he wandered through the patterned labyrinth of his memory, where laughing knights rode to battle on their gaily painted steeds, and the music rang out to announce their coming.

So many memories. Gent had been the caretaker of the carnival in its heyday. He had strolled through the crowd, joking with the men, complimenting the women. His pockets were always filled with candy for the children. Gent’s sculpted ivory handlebar mustache curled to pinwheels at the ends. His ivory hair cascaded to his shoulders like the froth of a mountain stream. His white top hat was always tipped in greeting.

Gent shook himself, alarmed to hear a loose rattling sound. Enough. He had a job to do. 

He stopped the last ride, then crossed to the long, low sideshow building. The crude paintings on the outside had worn away, leaving only the barest outlines of the spider girl, the lobster man, the bearded lady, the alligator boy, the many others who had steadily pulled in the marks. 

Jojo had at first tried mechanical sideshow attractions, but it had not worked out. People came to a sideshow to be repulsed and shocked. Mechanical attractions could not do that. So he brought in human performers, the best, pulling them out of retirement in a celebration of deformity. The customers did not seem to mind that this one aspect of the carnival was not mechanical, and Jojo saw no reason to change the sign.

Open resentment existed between the humans and the droids, at least at first, but year by year their relationship mellowed. Gent felt true sadness when they left. They were all gone now, left with the last wave of colonists, gone to the stars.

Gent entered the sideshow. He walked down the row of parted, threadbare curtains to a small booth at the end. The only one who had not left—a two-headed baby floating in a large jar of formaldehyde. Its limbs had atrophied, skin wrinkling back from bone. Four eyes glistened like milky pearls. It stared into the darkness, lips pursed in identical frowns.

Gent had put off giving the baby a proper burial. It was his last, pitiful link with humans.

The slow, mournful wail of a harmonica drifted in on the night breeze. Gent left the sideshow behind and headed for the midway. This was the worst part of closing for the night. His fellow droids, the ones still operating, were all too human in their suffering.

Gent followed the sound of the harmonica to behind the first trailer. Kentucky’s brass skin had been inlaid with polished teak. Now the teak was discolored, the brass spotted, but a black felt derby still perched on his head.

Kentucky tipped his derby as Gent came into view. He dropped the harmonica into his lap. “Good sir, would you sit for a story? A bit of excitement to color this drab evening?” Gent heard a note of pleading in his voice.

Kentucky was a storyteller. It had worked fine in the old days. People would wander around back of the trailer, pulled in by the haunting sound of the harmonica. When enough had gathered, Kentucky would begin.  He knew a thousand stories. Tall tales and breathtaking adventures, stories to quicken the pulse and touch the heart. Pirates and ghosts, fair maidens and fire-breathing dragons, dastardly villains and heroic children.

And if the crowd thus gathered was just right for the pickpocket’s trade, it was a fair price paid for the entertainment given.

“Not tonight, Kentucky. Tomorrow. Right now, it’s time to shut down.”

Kentucky grabbed Gent’s arm, held tight. “Please, Gent. I’m getting tired of telling myself the same old stories every day. I need to look in someone’s face and see them smiling, or crying, or anything! The back of this trailer ain’t much of an audience.”

“Yeah, Kentucky, I know. And you’ll have an audience, just wait, they’ll be back. But right now it’s time to shut down.” Gent slid his hand to the back of Kentucky’s neck and eased down the switch. Kentucky drooped forward. The brightness in his eyes died and his arms dropped into his lap. Gent curled the fingers of one hand around the harmonica.

Gent never got used to the wide, desolate midway. Without a laughing throng of people, it was just sad. All that’s missing are tumbleweeds, he thought. 

The gaming droids had long ago rusted away. They were buried in the plot of swampy land beyond the row of trailers. They had never been more than simple machines. Jojo knew that no droid, no matter how complex, could top a human hawker. But the sign said ALL-MECHANICAL, and except for the sideshow it was so.

The gaming droids had squatted on casters and shouted, “Try your luck!” in a hundred different voices as they proffered darts and balls, rings and hoops. When the people left for good, they rolled into corners and shut down. Perhaps, Gent thought, they were the lucky ones.

Most of the trailers along the midway were tightly shut, the heavy corrugated shades pulled down and welded in place. Gent made his way past them, to the lair of Stupendo the Great.

Stupendo sat back in shadow, his cape billowing, his high top hat tilted at a jaunty angle. Stupendo had been a marvel in his day. His golden hands flashed to and fro, creating illusion after illusion with dizzying speed. His polished obsidian eyebrows were always raised, as if in surprise at his own mastery. Now when Stupendo moved into the light, Gent saw that the top hat was brimless, the cape a rag. His left eyebrow had broken off. And scrambled circuits, besides.

Stupendo fanned an incomplete deck of tattered playing cards before Gent. “Pick a card, any card at all.” Gent smiled as he took a card. The three of hearts. Stupendo tapped the deck with his magic wand. “Ah ha!” he shouted triumphantly. “Your card is…the queen of spades!”

Gent smiled again as he slipped the card back into the middle of the deck. “Right again, as always. But now it’s time to shut down.” Stupendo chuckled to himself as Gent flipped the switch.

Gent made a wide detour around the geek pit. When the geek had ceased to function, they had left the body there, unable to lift it from the pit. It lay there now, overgrown with fern and ivy, surrounded by the bones and severed skulls of chickens and rats.

The geek had been a prime draw. Built with its software purposely corrupt, it was a wild thing, truly dangerous, and the deep pit with its close-set bars across the top was a necessary precaution. Its iron skin bristled with spiky hair. Its body was corded with muscle, arms long and snarled. It walked with the sideways gait of an ape. Its eyes burned with a red, hateful fire.

To Gent had fallen the task of running the geek show. Four times a day he stood on the bars over the center of the pit and gave his spiel. Then, averting his gaze, he dropped in a live chicken, or a sleek black rat. The geek would fall on the animal with a guttural roar. Grasping the animal at the neck with steel teeth, it would shake its head back and forth in a frenzy until head parted from neck in a bloody shower. Foam running down its chin, the geek would proudly display the headless, jerking body. Men screamed and women fainted, but they kept coming back for more.

Gent was dragged back to the present by a shrill, cackling laugh. Madame Blatsky, the only other droid still living, and she was raising a ruckus.

By the time Gent reached her trailer, Madame Blatsky had quieted down, though her eyes still sparkled, and her carved mahogany cheeks seemed flushed if that were possible. Madame Blatsky reclined in a womb of Turkish rugs, the colors now muddled and indistinct. The faded sign above her read, Madame Blatsky, Palms Read, Fortunes Told, Prophesies Given.

Before Gent could say a word, Madame Blatsky began to talk, and the words poured out like thin wine from a goblet. “I saw a vision! They’re coming back, the people are coming back, they’re coming in their great silver ships, and they’ll reward us for waiting. They shall bedeck us in riches, in fine silks and spun gold, they’ll encrust our bodies with jewels and precious metals, and they’ll carry us in splendor…”

Gent turned her off. It was always the same. Each day she shut down her senses and entered a trance. At twilight she woke with a yell, convinced she’d had a vision. Madame Blatsky had begun to believe in herself. At least she still had some faith, some hope. 

Gent made his way slowly back to his house. Tonight had been a bad one. They were all nearing the edge, and it was only a matter of time before they slipped over. Perhaps they had been built too well. Loneliness, Gent thought, is a curse that man could not have wished upon us.

Gent looked up as a tendril of cloud snaked across the moon, sending a shadow racing along the ground toward the merry-go-round. He closed his eyes. For a brief moment it had looked just like a small child running to catch the ride before it began.

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