He smelled like cigarettes and cheap cologne. Whenever he came to visit I always thought the cigarette smell was better. It suited him, it was the fragrance of cancer and he was the malignant tumor. I wanted him to go away, but no matter what I did he kept growing back.
“I’m getting better, Joany,” he’d say. His face had a gristle of unshaved beard that scratched when he hugged me. “I’m getting better and one day I’ll take you home with me.”
I didn’t want to go home with him. I wanted him to let me go. I wanted him to stop coming to see me so I could find a new family, a real family with a mother whose sweet scent wasn’t just a cover for her rot.
I sat in the back of his pickup as he sped down the highway. I gripped the seat as he flicked his ashes out the window and yammered at me, his teeth born like a grinning rat.
“You’re going to love this, Joan. You ever been to a carnival?”
I shook my head, staring at the back of his seat as his eyes bored into me from the rearview.
“Well, you’ll love it. Best place for twelve year olds. I used to…”
“Thirteen,” I muttered.
“What’s that, kiddo?”
The silence was instantly uncomfortable. He wove around a semi-truck and cut it off to the sound of its clarion horn. He thrust his hand out the open window and flipped the driver off.
“They’ve got this guy there from Germany – heh, geezer by now, for sure – he dipped my hands in wax and I got this casting. You’d think it’d hurt, but it doesn’t. We’ll do that, get you one of your very own. You get to pick the colors, too! Pink, right? You like pink?”
“Yeah, pink’s great.” I hated it.
“I thought so,” he said proudly. The truck lurched off the highway and down a gravel path. It rolled into the churned up, muddy parking lot with a groaning sound, and he killed the engine.
“Come on, come on!” He pulled the door open and my sneakers squelched as I followed him. There weren’t many people flooding in. It was late afternoon and most had already had their fun. The faces of the parents looked tired and the children’s were flushed. A brother and sister used sticks to try and see who could pop the other’s balloon first. He won. She cried. His drifted into the sky like a soul that wrongfully won heaven.
The entrance was hung with a frayed rope that had a golden hook at the end. The man accepting money for access was dressed up like a clown. It was muggy and he was sweating – it made the red makeup around his mouth run down like blood dribbling to his chin.
“Check it oooouuuuut, Joany.” My father pranced before me, splaying his arms to show the tents around him. “They got camels here, you ever seen a camel up close? They say they spit. That’s funny, isn’t it? You want to go see?”
It reeked. It was hotter inside the tent than it was outside, and even though they weren’t bothered by it they made the place smell rancid. People were climbing up to an elevated stand to get on their backs, and one of the carnival workers would lead them around the cramped ring slowly. The camels chewed cud, eyes rheumy and half-lidded, tails lifting so they could take a shit.
“Cool right?” He stood pointing at the nearest one. “Did you know they store water in their humps so they don’t die in the desert?”
“Oh, neat.” I knew they didn’t really.
I watched him from the corner of my eye. His leather jacket had holes on the ends of the sleeves, and his stomach bulged too far past his pants. There was a sign nearby; ALL RIDES ONLY $10! He glared it down angrily.
“C’mon. I don’t want to get spat on.” I turned and trudged towards the entrance.
“Heh, yeah. Good call, good.”
I heard his BIC flick on behind me. A mother gave him a dirty look, herding two toddlers away from him with shooing motions. Coming up beside me, he took a defiant drag and let it out through puckered lips.
“Old bitty should mind her own business.”
“Got all these health nuts now ready to turn their noses up.”
“All that second-hand bullshit’s for the birds anyway.”
We walked and my eyes fell over the NO SMOKING sign. I didn’t say anything, I just looked at it. He dropped the cigarette and ground it out under his heel.
“Come on. They got a carousel here. You’ll love that.”
The embers were starting to eat at the drought-browned grass, and I finished snuffing them for him. “I’m sure I will.”
There wasn’t a line. Dusk was hovering, and people were chowing down on everything deep-fried for dinner. He thought he was subtle when he asked if it cost anything to ride, but I was already walking towards it while the carny running it shook his head. The lazy spin came to a halt, and I climbed aboard.
It was old. The horses looked almost ceramic, the paint chipping off bit by bit so their eyes were white and ghostly without the pupils. I picked one with half its leg shattered off. I imagined it limping its way around tirelessly, round and round, always moving even though it knew something was missing. We had a kinship.
It started. My valiant steed moved up and down the pole, letting out a high screeching sound at points. It needed oiled.
I glanced over. My dad was sitting in a carriage nearby, fingers drumming nervously against the front, darting his eyes towards me and back ahead again.
“I’m trying real hard, Joan. You know that, right?”
“I know you are.” But if you really wanted me, you’d try harder.
“Times are tough. I can’t afford to take care of you right now, but I will. I promise. I’ll get a job and we’ll be together, big old happy family, you and me. Right?”
My knuckles went white around the pole. I stared at the fake golden painting, flaking off and fluttering down. I wanted to scream at him, call him a deadbeat, tell him I hated him for not being able to take care of me. I wanted to tell him that I knew full well I’d just keep on living at that foster home, watching others come and go while I stood there like some aging statue forgotten in a swamp.
I wanted to tell him I wish he’d never had me.
“Sure John. Sure dad. I know.”
We sat there quietly as we rode forward to nowhere.
Written March 2015.