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The Marble Kite
Phoebe Kelly jerked away from me with a shriek, and this only our fourth date. I turned to see who or what had spooked her. The clown was several inches over my six-one, broad as a circus barrel, holding a torch that roared softly and lit him in the September dusk. The baggy outfit of red and green stripes, big ruffled collar, cherry red nose--all the standard getup of Emmett Kelly (no relation to Phoebe)--looked harmless enough, but in the torch flare there was something decidedly unsettling in the way he eyed her, his long, crooked teeth yellow against the white greasepaint. It was something that Orson Welles might've tricked up on an overdose of Poe. In the flickering light, everything seemed a little furtive: Phoebe's look of alarm, the clown's leer, people slowing to glance our way as they wandered past. Then he honked a plastic horn, did a little dance step straight from Gene Kelly (no relation to Phoebe or Emmett), tipped his head back in a silent, toothy howl, and shambled away on big flippity-flap shoes, leaving the lingering kerosene scent of his torch. What was there to do but laugh?
"Gah!" Phoebe gave an exaggerated shudder. "Creeps me out. He's crazy."
"What's a carnival without a psycho clown?"
"Not funny, Rasmussen. I'm serious. And he pinched my butt." She rubbed her shapely, denim-clad behind, watching the departing clown, who, judging by other cries--of panic or delight, I couldn't say--was plying his clown trade in the mild twilight of autumn. But Phoebe's shriek had excited something in me, some old pulse from high school days, of taking a girl down to the Rialto on a Friday night to see a scary flick, the girl momentarily frightened, and me comforting, and both of us laughing and feeling the sweet pleasure of closeness, and the promise of something more. "Come on," she said, enthusiastic again. "What should we do next?"
We strolled past a line of children and parents waiting to enter a large semitrailer rigged up as a haunted house. "This?" I asked her.
"Castle Spookula? Uh-uh. I don't like scary things."
Attached to one side of the haunted house was a row of funhouse mirrors. We stepped in front of the first two. She was a squat Humpty Dumpty with a football-shaped head as wide as her shoulders. I was a beanpole with an apple on top.
"Too bad they don't have a mirror maze, like the one in The Lady from Shanghai," I said.
"You and your old movies. I assume it's a movie."
"Black and white. Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth."
"Wasn't she that redhead?"
"Yep, only she's platinum blond in this one. Her hair glows white in the dark, like a magnet for suckers."
"I like movies in color." Phoebe was gazing into another mirror now, at the image of a wrinkled crone. "What can we possibly see in each other?" she asked, laughing.
I knew what I saw in her. Auburn hair cut to the collar, dramatic green eyes, and slightly upturned nose. Pretty smile. She still had my private investigator's mind guessing how many sides to her there were--so far, I'd seen several and liked them all. Dressed in ripped-at-the-knees jeans and a sweatshirt, as she'd been on our second date, she gave a hint of mischief; in a white silk blouse and dark skirt, earrings, and a whisper of makeup, the way I'd seen her at work, she was office elegance itself. Tonight, wearing black slacks, a dove gray turtleneck, and a black crushed-velvet jacket, she was all that and more.
Around us carnival rides pinwheeled, dipped, looped, and tilted in the electric dark, shills hailed passersby, air rifles pop-pop-popped in the shooting arcades, and a scratchy Michael Jackson record blared out of cheap loudspeakers--"Why, why? Tell 'em that it's human nature ..." From Castle Spookula came the muted shrieks of visitors. "Okay, kid," I said, giving it a Bogart drawl. "How 'bout I win you something?"
"What do you want?"
"I don't know ... a rock from Harry Winston?"
"Settle for a stuffed Flintstone from Bedrock?"
"Mmm, not very romantic--but okay. If I get to pick the game."
"Let me count the ways I can make a clown of myself on a carnival midway."
Holding hands, we strolled along under the lights, amid the tents and the little makeshift stalls and the mingling aromas of popcorn, fried dough, and roasting sausage and peppers, the Ferris wheel glittering against the darkening sky. It was the same show that had been coming to Lowell early each autumn for years, setting up for a week in the big field across VFW Highway from the esplanade on the river. It didn't change, any of it. It was childhood and fun and romance and a little tincture of fright, too.
We scuffed through the straw, taking it all in. There were families out, and sailors fresh from boot camp and home on leave, and young people in hooded sweatshirts and jean jackets against the cool drifting out of the river, and a few Lowell cops on detail, roaming. We got fresh-spun pink cotton candy, which, like the carnival itself, was more about allure and promise than about delivery. Though why was I thinking that? We had been out only three times before, the last a week ago, for pizza. I was still looking forward to the delivery (her, not the pizza), but there was already plenty of allure.
Phoebe was a lively thirty-six-year-old who had been widowed for five years and made no bones about wanting to be coupled again--nearly had been after venturing into the singles scene for a time and falling for an engineer, but the relationship had collapsed when he got cold feet. I'd been single about half that long, and until recently had been holding on to some hope that Lauren and I would rekindle our flame. But Laurenwas remarried now, a new mother, living in Boca Raton. And I was still in Lowell, had in fact bought a house, which is how I'd met Phoebe, during the course of several visits to the Registry of Deeds, where she worked, to clear the title. Things were pretty good, and right now, with a big moon rising, silhouetting the smokestacks of an old textile mill and the spider-work of one of the bridges that spanned the river, and winter still a couple of months beyond worrying about, I was reminded of why I loved (and sometimes hated) this city.
We wandered over to a row of stands at the back, away from the rides and the brighter lights, to the booths of the games of chance--remote chance, if truth were told, but that was okay. Phoebe was holding my hand, and I felt lucky. We bypassed the shooting gallery, the dart toss, the basketball throw, and the stacked wooden milk bottles, and suddenly Phoebe stopped. "This!"
The sign read RING THE BELL. THREE SWINGS FOR TWO TICKETS.
"Hit the thingy with the hammer," she said, "win a prize. I like that teddy bear hanging there. The parti-colored one."
The barker gave us a tentative grin. "The lady knows what she wants."
I moused inside my pocket, tweezed out a string of tickets, tore off two at the perforations, and was about to lay them into his palm when I noted that the hand was deformed, twisted in an odd way and missing the pinkie finger. I gave him the tickets. "Good luck," he murmured.
I took hold of the long wooden handle of the mallet, which was wrapped with friction tape. "The teddy bear, huh? Piece of cake."
"Careful what you wish for." The barker pointed. Halfway up the tall pole, several feet above "Mama's Boy" and "Panty Waist," was the designation "Cake Eater." At the top, at the bell, was "Super Man."
"You're just trying to psych him out," Phoebe told the guy.
I rubbed my palms together and put a chokehold on the thick handle, finding the right spot on the taped-up shaft. I brought the hammer up behind my head, arms cocked, getting my shoulders into it, and swung it down onto the heel of the strike plate. The weight catapulted up a thin wire along the pole, hit the bell, and sent a crisp ding into the encircling dusk. "That's one!" Phoebe cried, jumping with childlike excitement.
Keeping the rhythm, I swung the hammer up and around and down. Ding.
Phoebe hugged me and gave me a kiss.
The bell was like a dinner gong for passersby. Smelling blood, they closed in like sharks. "Got us a Super Man in the making!" the barker called, waving more people in to watch. "Ain't had a winner all night. Nothing but Mama's Boys. Okay now--three's the charm. Bring home an animal for the little lady."
"Watch it, you!" Phoebe said good-naturedly.
I winked at her, and she clasped her hands together and batted her eyelashes at me, getting into it. "Wouldja? Couldja, Mister Hero?"
Our little gallery laughed.
I did, too. I felt good. It was autumn and I was healthy and had gainful employment. I had a long-term gig with Atlantic Casualty Insurance, running down double-dippers. I had a new home and a new woman in my life. I raised the hammer up behind me, ready to uncoil one final time to knock that little bell right off the top and launch it toward the big rising bell of a moon. I started my swing.
At the scream, I clenched. The hammer hit the fulcrum plate off center. Like a broken-bat hit, the weight wobbled up past Mama's Boy and Panty Waist, limped into Cake Eater country, then fell back with a slack thunk. Amid a chorus of awwws I turned, half-expecting to see the clown again, but there was no clown there, and Phoebe hadn't been the source of the scream. It had come from farther away, and now another scream followed it, and the flesh on the back of my neck crawled. I dropped the mallet and reached for Phoebe's hand, dimly aware of the barker's pale, frightened face.
She hurried to my side, and we dodged through a flow of people that bumbled along over the trampled straw, away from the midway toward the back, where trailers and campers and carnival trucks sat in an adjacent field.
A cry came again, less a scream now than a call for help. We skirted around Castle Spookula. The commotion was beyond it, in a meadow that ended far back in woods. A short way in, near enough to the carnival midway that the lights cast some fading glow, a small cluster of peoplestood in shadows, pointing down. I let go of Phoebe's hand and motioned her back. I waded through the knee-deep weeds until I got close enough to see what they were pointing at. A woman, her long dark hair flung in a glossy fan, lay there, face up, her hips turned so that her knees were drawn partway up. She had on tight jeans and a brightly patterned cotton blouse, which was ripped open to her navel.
"Back!" I shouted, more sharply than I'd meant to. It startled the nearest onlookers, who backpedaled hastily, trampling weeds.
"We seen something pale and we come over and she's just laying there," one of the young women was breathlessly telling anyone who'd listen.
Trying my best not to enter the actual space, I bent and looked at the woman's face. She was staring upward with a fixed gaze, her eyes wide, but they were opaque in the moonlight. There seemed to be some kind of bruise or dirt mark on her right cheek, and there was a red or orange silk scarf knotted around her neck. I glanced at Phoebe, who, despite my warning, had followed me. Her face was full of fright. "Oh, my God, is she--?"
"Call nine-one-one," I said.
"Someone already did," said a man standing behind her.
"There's police at the carnival somebody's getting," a woman said.
Careful that I wasn't simply feeling my own pulse, which was fast and hard now, I searched for a beat in the woman's slender wrist.
Phoebe looked ashen.
The wrist was cold. I put my fingers to the woman's throat, below the knotted scarf. Was there a throb there? No. What I did experience was some vestigial impulse, a twitch to take charge, to keep the citizens moving along, to secure the area, to call the ME. But I did none of those. That wasn't my job anymore. I realized, anyway, that the woman was beyond needing my help. I stood and took Phoebe's arm and led her back a respectful distance. In a moment, a pair of cops came hurrying through the high grass.
Copyright © 2005 by David Daniel.