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Tilt-a-Whirl

by Elizabeth Unangst

Well, step right up and take a ride, little girl, he murmured to himself, licking his lips.

He didn’t want to guess how old she was—her looks said she was old enough, and she had a street-smart way of sizing things up, and that was good enough for him.   She had been at the carnival all day, and now she was lingering in the shadows behind the office trailer, watching the carnies come and go. She’s figuring it all out, he thought, getting the angles. Just like when I first got out and found the Wayfaring Wonderland.

He had started out the summer as a backyard boy and then a roughie, doing the odd jobs that needed to be done anywhere on the site, until he’d figured out what he really wanted: to become a flat ride operator and run the Tilt-A-Whirl.

This revelation came after a group of college students had thrown up on the old ride. As he hosed out the hooded cars, Little Billy, the operator, bragged, “Aww, them snotty kids had money to burn…so’s I took ’em down a peg and gave the shakes a boost at the same time.” Little Billy showed him how the judicious use of the ride’s clutch lever could control the spin of any seat on the turntable. “It’s a skill, like anything else, Bub. See, you gotta clean up the puke, but I get to keep the shakes.”

The shakes, he learned, was anything shaken loose on the rides that went unclaimed. He quickly noticed that after tear-down, Little Billy usually collected upwards of fifty dollars in cash, plus a wide assortment of items to pawn a few towns down the road.

Little Billy disappeared on the overnight jump from La Grange to Fulton about three weeks later. No one seemed to take much notice of Little Billy’s absence, so as of set-up the following morning, the Tilt-A-Whirl job, at last, was his.

He didn’t mind the labor of set-up and tear-down, he liked working outside, and he loved the smell of the grease and the craftsmanship of the old machinery. Just the kind of job those preachy prison shrinks told me to get, he thought smugly. He had learned Little Billy’s job well, and he was good at boosting the shakes. He was continually amazed at the things people didn’t come looking for: cigarette lighters and cheap sunglasses were to be expected, but prescription eyeglasses? Expensive cell phones? False teeth? Once he had even found a glass eye rattling around under one of the seats after a long holiday weekend.

Now here was this girl, looking to run away and join the circus. He had heard one of the old-timers say that as hard as carnival life was, whatever most carnies were escaping was far worse, so maybe she would turn out to be just what he needed. He thought about how easy it would be to bump the clutch a little and work her into his game…Maybe move her into Little Billy’s trailer with him; plenty of room…Little Billy hadn’t been much fun, anyway—drunk most nights, too drunk even to put up much of a fight…this girl looks like nobody’d miss her, either….He went over to ask her name.

Because, hey, he told himself, I get to keep the shakes.

 

Elizabeth Hawes Unangst is a Marine Corps-trained former officer in the United States Navy. Prior to her service, she was a professor of history and English; her last teaching assignments included fifteen months as a civilian instructor aboard U. S. naval vessels. Her written work has appeared in the U. S. Naval Institute’s PROCEEDINGS, and as a finalist in NPR’s Three Minute Fiction and The New Yorker‘s On the Town Travel Story Contest.

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