Excerpt from ‘Eyeing the Flash: The Education of a Carnival Con Artist’

by | Nov 24, 2015 | Creative Nonfiction

1967

I blew up the balloon, knotted it expertly and floated it basketball-style into a large cardboard box already brimming with hundreds of penny balloons. My cheeks and jaws ached; I wondered if I was coming down with the mumps. I already had a bad case of the flu, and each time a customer burst a balloon with a dart, I imagined my germs exploding toward them as payback for forcing me to inflate a replacement.

The first marks of the afternoon waddled toward my embarrassingly simple game, the Balloon Dart Toss. Lloyce and Jorge had won the Fattest Wife/Skinniest Husband contest that Party Time Shows had held the day before. Lloyce, a self-described housewife, had weighed in at 480 pounds. Her husband Jorge, a shy Mexican farm worker, had tipped the scales at 125. They’d be awarded $250, and I thought it would help my mood to win some of it back.

Overnight, the temperature had plunged to thirty-five degrees. A freak April snow had dusted Pontiac, Michigan, a declining car town about fifteen miles northwest of Mineralton and my parents’ undoubtedly cozy home.

I’d awakened on the plywood floor of the thirty-foot-long trailer that contained the Balloon Dart and another game called the Duck Pond, sweaty and shivering beneath a mound of gaudily colored stuffed snakes, teddy bears, giraffes and turtles. The “plush” had served as my blanket, with a burning candle beside my head for extra warmth, or so I’d hoped. I’d been sleeping that way for over two weeks, since the carnival season had opened, resulting in the energy-sapping malaise that made me wish my mother was present to tuck an extra teddy bear under my chin.

But my relations with my parents had declined so precipitously that I’d decided to live on the road and commute to high school until I graduated in mid-June. After that, I’d remain with Party Time Shows for the summer. I was an industrious student; a member of the National Honor Society and Mensa. My plan was to apply myself to carnival work in the same way I had my studies. I hoped that doing so would ensure that Jackie–my friend, classmate and son of the carnival’s owner—promoted me to something better than inflating balloons and dodging darts.

My carnival debut had been delayed by a year. Jackie’s a-hole older brother managed the midway and he’d invoked a clause in Jackie’s contract that required him to perform in the creatively named Free Circus for the entire season. Creative in the sense that it consisted of one horse and an elephant.

Fortunately, when Jackie returned our friendship took up where it had left off. We spent our entire senior year in pursuit of cash, playing the stock market and horses despite our mutual abhorrence of gambling. Betting was for suckers. The savvy crowd catered to their improbable hopes and dreams.

But the increased scrutiny of school authorities had forced us to close the makeshift casino we’d established in Jackie’s basement. Stocks and horses provided the only available action—and, like Jackie, I’d grown fond of the jolt. We lost big; while this barely dented Jackie’s huge bankroll, I was left near broke. Jackie had used this to his advantage in assigning me to hustle five-year-old kids and their moms.

“I’ll settle for ten of that two-fifty, Lloyce,” I mumbled, kicking aside the stuffed animals to create standing room in front of the dartboard, “the price of a warm motel room.”

Acknowledging a giggling pair of boys who recognized her from the contest, Lloyce squished ankle-deep through hay and mud. The midway was at the bottom of an empty, sloping lot off Wide Track Boulevard in the heart of downtown. Rain and melting snow had settled there. Several tons of hay had been unable to absorb all the standing water. The mud reached mid-calf in spots; that, however did little to dissuade the locals from descending upon the show. Such was the sad state of entertainment in Pontiac, where entire city blocks had been leveled for an urban renewal project that had fizzled out before the rebuilding stage.

It was in this undemanding environment that Lloyce had already achieved celebrity status: There were now more children trailing in her wake than there were “lot lice” staring at Channel 9’s Bozo the Clown, who was refusing to exit his panel truck and parade through the slop.

“Say, pretty lady, where’s your trophy?” I shouted at Lloyce over the roar of the mammoth orange generator supplying power to the carnival’s games, rides and food stands. The grimy, grease-oozing machine was mounted on an open flatbed trailer behind a semi-truck, thick black cables spreading from it, octopus like, to all points of the midway. Several children’s games like mine were located at this end of the lot, called the “doniker” because of the trio of Port-A-Johns stationed there. The reasoning, according to Jackie, was simple. Kids needed to go potty a lot, and en route they would badger Mommy into spending a few quarters on the games. The odor of the toilets mingled with the smoky tang of diesel fumes to create an overwhelming stench, the only potential advantage of which was, in the words of Talking Tony, a fellow carny, “You could crap in your shorts and no one would know.”

“I want to pick up some ducks,” Lloyce bawled insistently, banging a quarter on the plywood counter of the Duck Pond game a few steps to my left. Today she had fame and demanded immediate attention. Tomorrow she’d be back on her reinforced couch with only her silent husband and a bag of fried pork rinds.

“You have a customer, Tony,” I hollered, my raspy voice quickly lost in the generator din. Talking Tony was a veteran agent whom Jackie had demoted for undisclosed reasons to the Duck Pond, which, like the Balloon Dart, was a child’s game. Angry and humiliated, Talking Tony was seldom behind the counter, forcing me to cover for him, which I hated. At least the Balloon Dart had an arguable danger. I could be accidentally punctured by a poorly thrown dart. The typical Duck Pond mark was a three-year-old held up by Mommy, and all the harm one of those could cause was a wet burp on my wrist. Lloyce, though, could still have the better part of $250 on her person, so when Talking Tony didn’t appear, I swallowed my pride and smiled.

“Be right with you, ma’am,” I announced, climbing gingerly over the box of balloons into the Duck Pond. The two games were mounted side by side in the corrugated aluminum-clad trailer, built to Jackie’s specifications that winter. Fluorescent tubing lit an interior “flashed” with plush stuffed animals dangling on hooks and stacked boxes of “slum,” or cheap giveaways, like rubber worms, Chinese handcuffs and plastic baseballs the size of a thumb. An unplugged GE portable TV rested on a bed of red velour stapled to a high shelf behind me.

The front of the Duck Pond contained a stainless steel basin shaped like a horse race track, the back stretch of which was covered by a section of plywood to form a tunnel. A jet of water powered by a hydraulic pump pushed dozens of bobbing ducks endlessly around the circuit. Each pink duck had a number painted on the bottom that corresponded to a piece of flash. A customer who picked up duck #7, for instance, won a bubblegum cigar. If he selected duck #28, he’d win the grand prize, the GE TV.

“Do I still have to pay a quarter to play?” Lloyce whined. “I mean, shouldn’t I get a discount, you know, because I won the contest, or something?”

On a day when all I wanted to do was be sick and sleep, her request irked me. It seemed like every mark wanted a special deal. Pretty girls because they were pretty girls, lawyers because they were lawyers, and Lloyce because she weighed 480 pounds. Only the girls lucked out with me. “A discount?” I countered. “If anything, I should be charging you more because you won that money yesterday.”

“Why do I even bother to ask a favor from one of you lousy carnival people? Here, take your lousy quarter.” Lloyce tossed it on the counter, screwing her mouth into a tiny pout. I placed it in the white carpenter’s apron I had just tied over my black dungarees and red corduroy shirt. Lloyce’s jaw was set tight. Her thin brown hair had been pulled into a bun the size of a clenched fist. She wore a daisy print muumuu under a lime green windbreaker and was leaning against the circulating pond, her overhanging flesh impeding the ducks’ progress.

“Stand back a little, would you?” Exhausted and chilled, I was quickly growing impatient.

“Don’t be telling me what to do.”

“The ducks can’t move around the pond.”

“Show me the rule book that says they have to.”

“Listen, if the ducks can’t travel, you’ll be able to pick the ones with the best prize-winning numbers again and again. I have a half-dozen people try the same scam every day, so back off.”

“You listen, kid,” Lloyce announced, standing erect and freeing the ducks to wobble and spin forward, “my cousin lives next door to a state cop, so don’t start making false accusations.” She drew two rolls of quarters from her jacket pocket. “I’m aiming at winning that TV of yours and I’ve got more quarters than you’ve got ducks in that pond. So if I don’t win the GE, you’re exposed as a cheater. And I get on the horn to my cousin.”

“That’s entirely your right, ma’am,” I said. I ran my hand through my hair and smelled the Vitalis on my fingers, a nervous habit I was trying to shake. I had an incipient blond moustache and now wore my hair longer, sweeping it behind my ears (having decided, after a lengthy bout with a Gulf restroom mirror, that short hair made me look like a pro golfer contemplating his club choice on a Pebble Beach fairway). I was now in a position to take Lloyce for a good piece of change; all I had to do was to follow the simple rules of the scam Jackie had taught me.

First, while pretending to clear the pond of debris, I hid the #28 duck—the GE portable TV—within the tunnel the ducks passed through on their journey. That was the only prize worth more than a quarter, and I would not return it to the water until Lloyce ran out of cash. Next, I checked the lever I could use to release up to three hundred additional ducks hidden in a chamber beneath the counter.

“Now give me another quarter and you’re ready to play,” I told Lloyce.

“Fifty cents a duck? Who in heaven’s name ever heard of a carnival charging fifty cents a duck?”

“You’re correct. We usually charge a quarter but this afternoon it’s fifty cents due to special circumstances. The boss is contributing the extra money to an undisclosed good cause.” Her bad attitude had inspired me to spontaneously double the price.

“Like a charity?”

“Something better than that.”

“What’s better than charity?”

“I’m under orders not to say.”

Suspicious, Lloyce slapped another quarter into my hand. I dropped it into the carpenter’s apron. Lloyce extracted a duck from the water.

“Number twelve,” I announced loudly, so that the growing clot of adults and lot lice could hear. I presented Lloyce with the #12 prize, a Taiwanese paper bird whistle.
She glowered at me, harboring her quarters. Then she peeled two more from a roll and picked up a duck.

“Thirty-four,” I said and handed Lloyce a one-inch-by-one-inch Confederate flag.

Over the next hour, the slum piled up before Lloyce. As she became more antagonistic, I tried my best to prod her into quitting, in order to ward off a final explosion of cop-calling anger. Yet she refused to give up her quest to win the TV until, $79.50 in the hole, she claimed to have run out of money. That was a worry. To say the least, it didn’t look good for Lloyce to have picked up 159 ducks without winning the grand prize, particularly with a large tip of onlookers surrounding her and Jorge, who seemed only dimly aware of what Lloyce was up to. “Didn’t you win $250 in the contest last night?” I asked, planning to cool her off with a teddy-bear consolation prize the very next time she picked up a duck. Maybe even throw in a plush purple snake.

“I’m broke. My husband lost big trying to win a set of dishes we needed. You know, if my cousin got his cop buddy to come here, I bet even he couldn’t find a duck that wins the TV,” Lloyce said accusingly, as a heavy shower began drumming on the aluminum awning over the Duck Pond, compressing the crowd of gawkers into an irritable, tightly packed square.

“The lady’s probably right about things being fixed,” a deep male voice called out. “I lost thirty dollars from some bastard carny down at the end of the lot.” He was standing at the edge of the tip and rain was sheeting off his Caterpillar hat, rendering him unrecognizable.

“I got took for twenty bucks yesterday,” yelled a woman in a T-shirt, shorts and heavy winter coat. Several other members of the crowd loudly voiced their own complaints.

Reflexively, I brought my fingertips to my nose. Jackie had told me time and again that the Duck Pond was an easy game on which to break into the carnival business. I had believed that Lloyce would lose twenty or thirty times, swear at me, and leave. Instead, I had an angry, captive tip to contend with. The crowd was demanding justice, yet Jackie had made me promise never to give the GE away because he liked to watch it in his house trailer at night.

“See, I’m not the only one you people have robbed,” the Cat hat guy said, waving his finger at me. Others in the crowd shouted agreement. The entire group closed in, its anger buffeting me. I couldn’t believe that I had a potential riot on my hands, at the Duck Pond, a drooling child’s game. Jackie had given me the chance to rise to the top ranks of carnival game agents, and I was blowing Little League.

A familiar voice startled me. It was Jackie, goddamit, arriving at my moment of weakness, wearing a yellow rain slicker complete with floppy seafarer’s rain hat. Fat canvas money bags were crammed in either pocket, a few bills on the verge of spilling out. He pushed through the crowd, speaking loudly to the doubting man (or “knocker”) in the Cat hat. “Mac, you’re the kind of guy God would have to kiss on the cheek to turn into a believer. My man here is bonded for honesty. He teaches blind kids Braille in his spare time. He’s one of the few Boy Scouts with more merit badges than pimples. Hey, just look at this angelic face.” Jackie pinched my cheeks. I reddened, furious that Jackie had decided I needed his help.

“Who the holy hell you think you are, boy?” the knocker bellowed to Jackie. He forced his way to the front of the Duck Pond, planting himself beside Jackie.

Jackie stared at his accuser, his glasses slipping down his rain-splattered nose. He pushed them back up. “I happen to own all the games on this midway, my friend. You could pump gas all year and not make as much as I do in a week.”

“I’m calling your bluff, punk,” the knocker screamed. “And here’s how I’m gonna do it. I’m buying every duck in that pond, and if there ain’t one that wins the TV, I’m hauling you and your buddy in on a citizen’s arrest.”

Jackie whispered in my ear. “I hope you have #28 hidden where it’s supposed to be.”

“Of course,” I answered, stifling the urge to peer inside the tunnel and make sure.

“Here’s a damn hundred dollar bill,” the knocker proclaimed, shoving it into my hand. “Now stand back ‘cause I’m going to start turning over those ducks.”

I looked at him closely for the first time. His face dripped water and his neck muscles were stretched taut, giving him the appearance of a snapping turtle about to bite. Despite that, I now recognized him. It was Buzz Fazio, former captain of the Magnificent Minerals basketball team, with a full beard, bib overalls, and bare torso covered with axle grease and Band-Aids. I’d seen little of Buzz since he’d paid the gambling debt he owed Jackie and me. I moved to warn Jackie, succeeding only in bumping him against the counter—where, pretending to balance himself, Jackie reached into the tunnel and returned the #28 duck to the water with a deft flick of the wrist.

“Don’t worry,” Jackie whispered to me again, “I know it’s Buzz. I hired him yesterday to work on the rides.”

With that hushed announcement, I quickly relaxed. I was struck by the crazy impulse to ask the crowd to applaud Jackie for the great job he was doing in bamboozling them. Instead, I watched in closemouthed admiration as Buzz turned over duck after duck, finally revealing #28 with a phony, joyous whoop.

“Hallelujah! We got a winner here!” Jackie cried, dancing a little jig. “TV, TV, TV—come on, everybody say it—TV, TV, TV.” Jackie got a few kids to chant along as he presented the portable set to Buzz with a practiced flourish. Buzz splashed across the midway with the television atop his head as the sun momentarily cut through the thunderheads above.

Jackie nodded to me and we began dumping dozens of ducks back in the water—all but #28, which I returned to its spot inside the tunnel. With Buzz in the background, excitedly telling the curious where he had won, Lloyce considered for a moment, then raised her right foot and ordered Jorge to remove a twenty dollar bill from her plastic-soled blue moccasin.

“You have more TVs like that one?” she asked as I made change.

 

Photo by Marlon Doss

About The Author

Peter Fenton

Peter Fenton is author of the memoir Eyeing the Flash: The Education of a Carnival Con Artist (Simon & Schuster, 2005). The New York Times called it “a cross between Ferris Bueller and William S. Burroughs…a hilarious, twisted, coming-of-age story.” He’s also written two humor books: Truth or Tabloid? You Decide! (Three Rivers Press, 2003) and I Forgot to Wear Underwear on a Glass-Bottom Boat (St. Martin’s Press, 1997).