Small Town Carnival

Prompt Day #267: Burrowing an idea from The Omen, write about a photographer or a painter whose portraits predict the manner of the subject’s death.

In the town where I grew up there were a couple different carnivals that came around every year. Usually promoted or sponsored by the Fire departments. In a small town like that, it was a big deal and the place to be when you were in high school. Plus being summer, it was a good time to catch up with friends. I remember an interaction I had at the local carnival the summer before my senior year. Only days later, something very bad happened to me, I probably should have died but didn’t. It had nothing to do with a fortune teller but it started a downward spiral for me that lasted about three years. Carnivals have a mysterious, dare I say magical atmosphere and I believe strange things can happen under their flashing lights and bright colored canopies. So, here’s my version of strange happenings at the Carnival. I’m no Ray Bradbury, but I sure hope you enjoy this one.


                In the summer of 1985, a carnival came to our little town. We had carnivals every summer, sponsored by the volunteer fire department, but that year a new company moved in without warning or invitation. They accepted no payment for their services but was, by far, better than anything our hamlet had ever experienced. This was truly a carnival in the classic sense. There were rides, of course there were, but it was the midway that drew the crowd. Younger kids chased each other through the mirror maze and the haunted house, while we, the class of ’86, spent our money in the freak show tent or on the fortune teller.

I had been voted the senior class president at the end of our junior year so I owned that summer and decided the new authentic carnival was an omen for our year to come. My entourage and I were standing at the entrance when the lights were turned on at noon and we were the last ones out when the calliope on the carousel faded out. We thought we’d visited every booth and attraction by the second week but when we began to see happy couples proudly showing each other fun caricatures of themselves, we were on a mission.

The artist, it turned out was the daughter of the fortune teller and had set up a small easel beside her mother’s tent and was selling her art to a line of anxiously waiting customers. We stopped one of the sophomores—a brother of one of our classmates—who’d just had his portrait done.

“Jason! Hey, what’s up with this line, man?” I asked. He grinned and held up his cartoonish portrait. It was your basic satiric representation; this one accentuating Jason’s hook like nose surrounded by a mass of freckles. In the drawing, he was driving down a windy road, the lines around the car gave the impression that he was driving fast and recklessly. The car was a convertible and all sorts of trash was swirling up out of the backseat leaving a trail of debris behind him.

“She drew this, like just did it and dude, look at the shit coming out of the car! That’s my stuff.” We leaned in to closer examine it. There was his softball trophy and one of his prized comic books among wrappers for various favorite snacks. We oohed and aahed and came to the conclusion that the artist had obviously inherited some of her mother’s special talents.

I had a brilliant idea just then. How cool would it be if I could get every member of the class of ’86 to come and get their caricature done by this girl, then we would put them in some sort of time capsule that we would open at our thirty year class reunion. This would be my legacy as class president. I sent my buddies off, each with a list of students they were to contact and ensure showed up for their drawing.

“And that was thirty years ago, the prime of my life, maybe the prime of all of our lives.” I finished the speech to a group of people I hadn’t seen in a long time. Behind me, the curtain was down covering most of the stage and the pictures drawn three decades before. When the applauding died down and the group began to mill forward in anticipation. “Now, before we raise the curtain and see those pictures of our former selves, I thought it would be fitting tribute to first bring out the pictures of our classmates who passed away.”

There had been five. Warren Kubiac was our first loss. He’d always planned to become a surgeon like his father, he was our valedictorian. Smartest guy I’d ever met. Warren shot himself in the head the day he received the rejection letter to his top pick med school. His parents found him in the basement, brains dried on the wall and his father’s antique six shooter in his lap.

Jamie Terrell and Becky Polinsky were killed in a car accident car-pooling home for Christmas break. The roads were icy and a large eighteen wheeler full of cases of Coca-Cola jack-knifed and knocked their car into a spin. It flipped three times before hitting a tree. Both girls were pronounced DOA. Their funerals were held on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Trevor Cross had a massive heart attack two years ago. Once a star quarterback, taking our team to the finals, he dropped out of college and ended up taking over his dad’s car dealership. It wasn’t good for his ego. He gained eighty pounds, never married, and developed a bit of a drinking problem. It was a sad end for a guy we all wanted to be in high school.

And most recently, just six months prior to our reunion, we lost Mike Normann. Mike was our resident DJ, playing all the school dances and parties. He worked his way into the wedding scene before finally nabbing a great job with a morning show on a Detroit radio station. But Mike started having migraines and those migraines turned into seizures. The CT and MRIs showed an inoperable tumor that resembled a spider, burrowing its legs down into his mid-brain. He put up a good fight and someone else came in to DJ the benefit dinners and dances that helped pay his medical bills. Mike slipped away quietly at home surrounded by his wife and kids.

Five guys each carried an easel out and sat it down. Cartoons of young people living life in a time when life felt eternal. I invited everyone up to take a look and “pay respects” to those now gone. Some chose to stay in their little talking cliques while many others walked up on the stage single file and looked at each picture or touched it and bowed their head. A few, who had been close to one or more of the deceased were in tears.

David Leighton, who’s younger brother Jason had given us the first glimpse of the carnie artist’s work, worked his way back through the line in the opposite direction towards the podium I had pulled back out of the way.

“Hey, uh, can I talk to you about something weird?” He asked.

“Sure.” I said. Jason had also been killed in an accident on his way to college just two years after we graduated. I wondered if he was pissed that we left Jason out even though he wasn’t one of our class mates. I stepped back behind the curtain just off the stage.

“Look,” he said looking behind him as if someone was going to come up behind us and catch us doing something illegal. “When Jas died, Mom asked me to go through his stuff and pick some to put up at the funeral. I came across that damn picture,” he thumbed back at the ones sitting up in memorial, “and thought it would be great because he was so impressed with that girl who drew it. Said she read his mind.” I was nodding, of course I remembered his reaction to the background she’d drawn around him. “We put it up at the funeral, you know, and I found myself staring at it, you know zoning out, thinking about my brother and whatnot. Something about it all of a sudden, had me captivated.” He reached out and pushed me further back away from the crowd. “It hit me when I overheard Mom telling our pastor about the accident, and how horrible it was for her when she and Dad had gone to sign the car over to the junk yard. They were able to go through it and get whatever stuff out of it they wanted. He’d had a few boxes in the back seat that had spilled through the car. She was trying to tell it as a funny thing, talking about how many candy bar and chip wrappers they had to dig through to find his stuff. She said ‘I almost threw out two of his comic books because they blended right in with those brightly colored wrappers!’ I found my eyes snapping back to the picture of my brother driving like a maniac while a hoard of trash and his prized possessions flew around like a tornado behind him.” He stopped and gave me a minute to take it in.

“So what are you saying, Dave?” I said fearing the conclusion he was about to make.

“Well, it was kind of a crazy coincidence, don’t you think?” He asked.

“I’ll give you that.” I nodded.

“Ok, I can see that you think I’m reading more into it than I should. A grieving brother looking for signs of…I don’t know…afterlife or destiny or something, right?” I nodded again, what should I be saying?

“Have you looked at those five pics out there yet?”

“No. I didn’t think it was fair. I asked the school secretaries to set all this up for us.”

“Come on.” He said and wrapped his arm around my shoulders. We walked out to the stage. The crowd had thinned. Most were back in the audience waiting to see their own past. David walked me over to Warren’s poster. In it, Warren stood in cowboy boots, a six-shooter in a holster on his hip. He had a lab coat on and held a brain in a glass jar. Dave was silent, he pointed to the gun, the brain, the lab coat and then looked at me to see if I was making the connection.

We walked on to Jamie’s. In her picture, she wore a Santa hat and sat in what looked like a drunken stupor leaning against an undecorated Christmas tree. An empty coke bottle lay at her feet and beside her on the table sat a plate of cookies with a note that said “Dear Santa, Here’s some Coke and cookies for you.” Jamie’s funeral had been Christmas Eve. The picture obviously denoted a scene the night before Christmas. He didn’t need to point out the subtleties.

My eyes had already jumped ahead to Becky’s picture. This was like solving a puzzle and I was indeed beginning to agree with Dave that something strange was going on. Becky’s picture was even more unsettling. Her’s took place Christmas morning. Becky stood a large wooden crate (coffin?) with a bow on the top. Her crate leaned against a decorated tree. The other gifts, surrounding her were a toy eighteen wheeler truck, a case of Coke, and an ice scrapper. I felt queasy.

In Trevor’s cartoon, He stood on a shiny car in his football uniform, holding a bottle of beer out in front of him as if doing a commercial. The car sat in front of a building, presumably a car dealership with big plate-glass windows. There was a reflection in the glass of an older fatter version of Trev drinking a beer and sitting on the tailgate of a truck. The icing on the cake was a banner across the top that said “We (heart) our hometown guy” with a big red heart much bigger than any of the letters.

I only needed a quick look at Mike Normann’s to know David was on to something big. The 1985 carnival version of Mike was a mystic with a huge skull wrapped in a turban. He held a pack of tarot cards and the only one the viewer could see was the death card. He was in fact doing a radio show, presumably taking call ins. On the desk in front of him was a microphone and a smattering of pill bottles. I looked at Dave.

“We need to find that artist.” I said “I wonder if the carnival is still a thing and if she is still with them.”

“It is still a thing. I don’t know if she is with them, but they do still have a fortune teller.” He said and added “I’ve been keeping track of their whereabouts since Jason died.”

I wanted to leave right then, while the belief was still strong. If I waited, I might talk myself out of it. “Where are they now?” I asked.

“Gatlinburg” He answered immediately “about a twelve hour drive. When can you get away?”

I looked at my watch twelve hours from now it would be ten in the morning on a Saturday. Now, I wanted to tell him. Now, before they lift that curtain and I have to look at my poster again. I can remember a very basic idea, but not any details and maybe that was the way I wanted to keep it. The curtain was the only thing saving me from myself. I knew if I was still standing here when they brought it up, I would look. I would look at mine and Dave’s and Benny’s and Jake’s and everyone here that I cared about but mostly mine and then I’d be as fucked as Warren or Trev or Mike.

“Let’s go.” I said.