I was on my smoke break when the carnie shuffled over from the fair across the street to bum a cigarette off me.
“Thanks, man,” he said, taking a drag like it was his last and flicking ash on the concrete. “Fourth day here and I already forget what town we’re in.”
“Not worth knowing,” I said.
“What do you guys do here?” The carnie asked, motioning to the back of the hospital building behind us.
“Cafeteria,” I said.
“Kitchen, eh? Got any burgers for me and my boys?”
I shook my head. “What you need burgers for?”
“How about a bottle of vodka for twenty hamburgers, man? You can’t tell me you don’t need some booze.”
I thought about it. From out here, you could see the top of the Ferris wheel over the trees, and a piece of some other frightening-looking ride I’d never go on. I was thinking about what I’d do if I could get Tammy up on top of the Ferris Wheel with me, all alone in that tiny car with nowhere else to go.
“We might be able to do that,” I said. I knew what Frogger would say if he were here—that the dude was only going to give us piss-ass vodka that we could just as easily get from his older brother if we begged long enough. But there was something about the carnie I kinda liked.
We met out back of the hospital after my shift, and I handed the carnie the stack of meat he asked for, all wrapped up in tin foil, frozen solid. No one would miss the twenty patties, not even the sick kids who got cheeseburgers on Saturday with tater tots and the endless cream corn. The carnie didn’t want the creamed corn, though. He was smart.
Later that night, Frogger and I wandered down to the fair, slugging the vodka out of covered coffee mugs with the hospital’s logo. I told him about the carnie, but Frogger just made fun of him. Frogger had a mean streak about him. He liked to punk the new cooks, told me when I first started that I should fill the water fountain, and then bled from his lip to keep from laughing as I dumped three buckets of water down it before realizing what was up. He told Evan, the little dude from Haiti or wherever, to go get him a bucket of steam from the freezer, but I’ll give Evan credit, he didn’t fall for that one.
The carnie had said he was working the goldfish stand, where you had to throw the ping pong balls into the fish bowls to win one. We found him pretty easily. Frogger and I both won bowls.
“Fuck is this?” Frogger asked the carnie. “This ain’t a goldfish.”
“No, some of them are betta fish,” he said. “Pretty tails, though, right?”
Mine was purple with pink streaks in it, and Frogger’s was darker, almost black. We walked around the place a little with them, and I was trying not to spill the water in my bowl.
It seemed like the whole town was there. We kept running in to people from high school. One big happy party. I was about to suggest we just leave when we saw Tammy and a friend of hers who was wearing tight white shorts.
Tammy giggled when she saw us. She pointed at our fish. “You guys won!”
“Yeah,” I said, not sure if she was making fun or not. She had her hair half-pulled back so you could see her gold hoop earrings. “Would you like him?”
She shook her head. “That’s sweet, but I don’t do well with fish. Always kill them.”
“Are those betta?” Her friend asked, leaning down to get a better look at Frogger’s bowl. “Can’t put those together. My mom says if you put two betta fish together, they’d fight to the death. That’s why they’re always alone.”
“You mean I can’t get him a friend?” Frogger asked her in that voice of his he used when he was trying to flirt with a chick. He thought it sounded cool, but he just sounded stupid and kind of babyish. He was trying to look down her shirt, too, and I had to smack him on the arm to get him to stop.
“Don’t you feel bad for them in those tiny little bowls?” Tammy’s friend asked, frowning, and I could just tell that Frogger didn’t have a chance. I was thinking the same thing about me and Tammy, too, who was checking her cell phone, her bangle bracelets making musical sounds as she moved.
“You guys want to ride the Ferris Wheel?” I asked, but it was Tammy’s turn to shake her head, and I felt my stomach drop a little.
“Nah, thanks Mikey, but we’ve got to head out. We’ve got to pick up some people and head to a party tonight.” Then she actually patted me on the head, to which I heard Frogger snigger, and she smiled. “See you next week at work?” I watched them walk away, already laughing about something else.
Frogger spit on the ground, then wiggled his fingers at me. “Gimme that fish,” he said.
“I want to see if they fight.”
“No,” I said. I’d already secretly named mine Henrietta.
“Gimme the stupid fish,” he said, and took it from me. I watched as he poured my water in his, water spilling out the sides. Henrietta went in with a splash and the two fish circled around each other, startled. “Are they gonna fight?” he asked, already bored.
“I don’t think so,” I said. And I was right.
“Dumb ass fish. Can’t even fight.” Frogger poured the water slowly out of the bowl, and then dumped both fish out on the ground. “Let’s go,” he said, and tossed his bowl away. I watched Henrietta flop on the ground and felt sick to my stomach.
“You’re an asshole,” I said to Frogger. “I’m going home.”
“Why? You sad about your stupid fish? Or your girlfriend dumping you?”
I walked away from him, out past the crowd and down the sidewalk as the fair was winding down for the night. Around the back, by all the trailers where the carnies slept, there was a whiff of something that smelled like charcoal, and I wondered if they were cooking up my burgers. It seemed depressing back there at first, all those people living out of smelly little trailers, moving from town to town, but right now it seemed kind of cozy. There was something nice about traveling in a pack like that, watching each other’s backs. There was something nice about not having to worry about being attacked when you suddenly found yourself suspended in the same small space, fighting for oxygen.
Tara Laskowski is a senior editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and two cats, and normally doesn’t kill off animals in her stories. She lives online at www.taralaskowski.com.