by Ed Davis
Nate saw the journalist approaching, walking through the still empty midway, his attention drawn from side to side by carnies adding final touches to games that were about to close forever. At some joints he took a notepad from his breast pocket, or raised the small camera tucked inconspicuously into his cupped hand. It was half an hour until sundown, when the gates would open and the tip—the families and flocks of kids, the friends and friendless—would be welcomed into Forrest Brothers Amusements on its final night.
The newspaper man was not much older than Nate himself, about thirty by the cut of his clothes and hair, and the easy, unconscious way his body still moved. Nate had worked the Guess Your Age, Guess Your Weight joint, so he knew the details to look for and what they suggested. This fellow was a watcher. A thinker. If the midway were open, he might venture a couple of bucks on the Balloon Game or the String Pull, just for the experience. But he’d never try his hand at the Glass Pitch.
“Looks like I got here just in time.” Nate’s back was to him, shirt off in the late afternoon heat as he arranged the heavy crates of glassware just so. Starting right, exactly right—before he placed a single goblet, stacked a single saucer—was essential. “My name’s Dawes…Dave Dawes. Your uncle told me I could watch you build it…this one last time.”
“This is Uncle Gil’s carnival,” he turned to face the man, “so what he says goes.” It wasn’t fair to surprise him like this, but hell, he thought, anybody looking for fairness at a county fair deserves what they get. “Nathan B. Forrest, at your service.”
He extended his hand.
The first time they saw his tattoo—a fading Confederate battle flag as big as his chest—most people chose not to see it, in the same way they’d choose not to see a face mutilated by burn scars. Nate’s disfigurement was easier to ignore. He’d had it most of his life, so the image was not only fading, it was stretched. It had filled his chest, the red triangles and blue bars bright and dense, when it was inked into him as a four-year-old. His dad had chloroformed him, so he didn’t remember the actual tattooing, only the agony after, more like a hot poker thrust into his childhood than a memory. Now, faded and thinned out, the flag was almost a phantom image, but unmistakable. “You’d think he drugged you to save you the pain,” his uncle Gil had told him when he was old enough to ask. “It was so you wouldn’t squirm and fuck up the design. Your old man may have been my brother, but he was also an idiot, and an asshole.”
“That’s some tattoo.” The journalist shook his hand, not missing a beat. “You go shirtless much?”
“Would you?” Nate, based on his first impression, had not expected to like the man but found that he did. “Around marks…never.”
“I’m a…mark, aren’t I?”
“Uncle Gil always says, If you’re not a carny, you’re a mark. But he passed word we’re supposed to treat you like one of us. For the history books, he said. You write history books?”
“Just stories, for the local paper…and for magazines sometimes. Your uncle tells me that Forrest Brothers is the last of the old barnstorming shows. I sell ads too. He came in to place one, to sell all of this.” Dawes looked around him. “That’s why I’m here. When you guys drop the awnings for the last time tonight—yeah, I looked up some terms so I wouldn’t seem like a complete rube—it’s the end of an era.”
“And some magazine is paying you to write this story?”
“Not yet…I’m freelance. I write it first, then try to find somebody to pay.”
“On the come, you mean…just like us.”
“Never thought of it that way, but yeah, on the come.”
Nate kept working while they talked. His moves were so practiced he was hardly aware of them. The crates, stacked three high now, were in reverse order of how the glassware would appear when the pitch was complete. He would need the shot glasses and teacups last, so they were in the bottom crates. Mugs, saucers, and soup bowls in the middle. Goblets, dinner plates, and platters on top. He began removing the goblets from their cardboard dividers, two at a time, and placing them as the foundation for his glass monument.
“What do you want to know, Mr. Dawes?” Nate finished with the first layer of goblets and began positioning platters on them, building glass bridges that would support the rest of the structure. “Uncle Gil said to play it strong…not to hold back.”
“Call me Dave…please.” Nate could see that the journalist liked him too. “Play it strong…that’s good. Okay. Tell me about the tattoo. And your name. Nathan Bedford Forrest. One of the founders of the KKK, right?”
“The name is Nathan ByGod Forrest. My father was afraid somebody might sue him if he used Bedford. Uncle Gil says Dad wasn’t just a racist…he was chicken-shit.” Nate watched for a reaction. “That strong enough for you?”
“Pretty strong. Look, if you don’t want to…?”
“Nah, it’s okay. I hardly remember him. The story goes he gave me this tattoo so I wouldn’t be tempted to have sex with black women.” Nate set a platter slightly off-center—it wobbled when he tested it. He stopped to reposition. “Then, when I was four, he and my mom got blown up…they had a portable meth lab in our Airstream. If I hadn’t been playing over at Gil’s trailer…” He paused to consider how close he had come to never reaching the age of five. “I thought about having the flag cut out or burned off,” he pulled himself back to the present, to the glass pitch, to the tattoo, “but then I’d have the scar to explain. One way or another, I’ve gotta live with it.”
“Did it work…about women?”
“What do you think?”
“Around the ladies, I think I’d be keeping my shirt on,” Dawes sympathized, “or the lights off.”
“Around certain ladies, yeah.” Nate stood, stretched, popped his back. Building the lower levels, bending and reaching the whole time, was always hardest—work that was critical to make the structure stable, but mostly hidden beneath all the glitter.
“Does keeping your tattoo hidden ever seem…dishonest? I don’t mean to judge, and I know carnivals run on different rules. But since we’re playing it strong…”
“How is that dishonest, and what’s wrong with judging?” Nate looked at him, not sure which was more naïve, the question or the man asking it. “I judge every mark that walks past my joint. I’d go broke if I didn’t. You judge everybody that walks into your newspaper office. How else would you have figured out that my uncle Gil was a man who wanted to talk?” Nate studied the glass foundation he’d built, making sure everything was in place. “As far as honesty goes, it’s no different on the midway than it is on Main Street. There’s the games; then there’s the carnies running them.”
“I don’t follow.”
“You’re a writer. Is every word you write the truth?”
“No…I write fiction sometimes.”
“But you never tell yourself that those stories are true, do you?” Nate didn’t wait for an answer. “Marks come to the midway because they want to believe a story—a story that luck is only a quarter away, and they can go home with a prize. Go home a winner. It’s no different for me. A girl might share my bed because she wants to believe that she’s landed a prize, and not some asshole with a Confederate flag tattooed to his chest. No carny will make it if he doesn’t own up to the fact that he’s running a business, not a fantasy. Just like I’m honest with myself about this flag. I’m okay to wear a T-shirt or keep the lights low so me and a girl can feel like winners sometimes. But I understand that this fucker is never going away.”
Nate watched the journalist, just like he would watch a prospect who had stopped in front of his joint. Would the mark stay and become a player, even if only for a moment? Or was the cost too high, the game too threatening? Twenty-five cents, too high? Ridiculous, he thought, unless your world ran on quarters. Quarters that were about to run out.
“You’ve lived your whole life in the carnival, haven’t you?” Not too threatening, at least not yet.
“Sure. Everybody’s gotta live somewhere.”
“And the games…the joints. Have you worked all of them?”
“Every one…” Nate set the empty crates aside and began selecting the glassware that would create his next level. “That’s not what you want to know, is it?” Play it strong, Uncle Gil had instructed. “You want to know if the games are rigged.”
“Are they?” Nate could see the writer lean in, drawn by the lure of a truth about to be divulged. “I imagine the big outfits have to play it straight. But even at a little show like yours, the marks must be starting to wise up. And you guys are too, aren’t you?”
“Depends on what you mean by straight.” Pilsner glasses, tall and tapered, were Nate’s next building blocks. Transparent pillars that looked more delicate than they were, they added height and airiness, and a sense of elegance after the heavy goblets and platters.
“I’m talking about games that seem fair, but aren’t…like your String Pull.” Dawes, with a surprise of his own. “You pick a string out of a bundle, and pull it to see what you’ve won. It looks like most of them are attached to big prizes, only none of them are. I saw it in a movie once. The only way to win is if the operator pulls a hidden string for you, a string you can’t reach and can’t pull on your own.”
“You saw that in a movie? Must be true then.”
Nate’s uncle Gil had raised him, and educated him, and made sure he knew the difference between what passed for truth on the midway and the real thing. Gil had been clear, this man should get the real thing.
“Of course that game is rigged.” Nate positioned the last of the pilsner glasses and began placing dessert plates on top of them. “Every mark is certain that the only surefire way to win, whether it’s here on the midway or anyplace else, is if somebody’s pulling strings for them. Turns out…they’re right.”
“You’re telling me you think marks want to be cheated?”
“Hell no. But when they do lose, it makes them feel better to believe the game was crooked to start with…that they didn’t have a chance.”
“They don’t have a chance…at least not on the String Pull.”
“Like you said, they’re wising up. More and more are deciding to play a different kind of game…or not play at all.” Cocktail tumblers now. Squat, wide-mouthed, brightly colored in blue and crimson. Nate placed one each in the center of the dessert plates.
“Are there any games here that aren’t cheating?” The writer had gotten his answer, but Nate could see that he wasn’t satisfied with it.
“Depends on what you mean by cheating. Sure, there’s plenty of sucker games like the String Pull, and Balloon Game, and the Duck Dip—you aren’t winning those unless the carny behind the boards wants you to. But there’s skill games too. The Basketball Toss, the Cigarette Shoot, the Milk Bottle Game. A mark works at it, he can get pretty good. Of course when the carnival only comes to town once a year, who’s got time to practice?”
“What about this game?” Nate could see Dawes intently watching him place tea saucers on top of the cocktail tumblers, as if something in his movements might reveal the secret. “Your uncle told me that you build the best glass pitch he’s ever seen. What makes yours the best?”
“Nice of Gil to say that.” Nate had not heard the compliment before. His uncle was a good man but not a demonstrative one. The glass mountain was chest high now, and he was adding shot glasses, clusters of four centered on each tea saucer. “I try to make it beautiful. I don’t always manage it—sometimes the glass just doesn’t stack right—but I try.” Nate stepped back so he could take it all in. “Maybe that’s what makes it best.”
“It is beautiful.” Dawes admired it with him. “But how is it rigged?”
“Rigged?” Nate felt his face flush, and the red bars in his flag tattoo became redder. “I never said the Glass Pitch is rigged.”
“All the games around it are. Why would this one be any different?”
Atop each cluster of shot glasses, Nate balanced a single long-stemmed cordial glass, emerald green with a gold rim. The last elements of the last glass pitch he would ever build were now in place.
“Here.” He reached into his change belt—he always wore one on the midway, even when it wasn’t open—pulled out some quarters, and thrust them into the writer’s hand. “Try it.”
“You want me to prove that this game isn’t crooked…” Dawes asked, balancing a coin in his palm, checking to see if it were somehow fake, “…or that it is?”
“I want you to try it.” Nate stepped to one side, insuring that his nearness would not, in any way, influence the outcome of the throw. “If you get a quarter to stick, you get the glass it stuck on. If you don’t…you don’t.”
“It’s that easy?”
“I never said it was easy.” Nate held his gaze. Perhaps this writer did want to understand. Or maybe he was just another mark looking for an effortless win, and ready to believe that every game was rigged against him.
The flight of a few coins would decide.
The gesture was one Nate had seen ten thousand times at least. The slight flex of the knees, the drop of the hand. The lean forward, the reach, the release. A hopeful movement, like an offering to his glass deity, often accompanied by a prayer for luck.
Sound would tell him how the prayer was received, his ears so attuned that he no longer needed to look. Usually a cascading clink as the quarter bounced its way to the bottom. Sometimes a thud if the coin went wide and missed the glass entirely. Occasionally, only occasionally, the slip of a coin sliding to a stop on a polished surface, the snick of one wedging into a crease.
The sounds of winning.
“Great start,” the writer chided himself, grinned. “Guess I can’t call the game rigged if I can’t even hit the glass.”
“You can call it whatever you want…and everybody has.” Nate fetched the quarter and gave it back. “Here at Forrest Brothers Amusements, we’re dedicated to cheating you fair and square. You miss the pyramid, you go again.”
Three more throws. No thuds, but no wins. Just the music of the metal dancing through the glass.
“Okay…how does it work?” Dawes was studying the gleaming mountain as he spoke. “I watched you build it. What’s the trick? I think I could practice for a month and not do any better.”
“A month? Maybe.” Nate stepped over the rope that separated them and stood beside him. “I’ve seen marks get better at it, but not much. The trick is that it’s hard…that’s all. You’ve got no chance of winning if you don’t try, but everybody’s got pretty much the same chance if they do.”
“Only winning is almost impossible, right?”
In answer, Nate reached into his change belt again, came out with a clutch of quarters, and lofted them at the glass, their cacophony filling the air as they ricocheted and filtered downward. “It’s luck…and it’s odds. Works out to about two in ten.” They looked at the glass pitch together and could see that some coins had lodged.
There were two winners.
“I thought you guys might hit it off.” Gil had stepped up quietly behind them. How long he’d been standing there Nate did not know. “Figured it out yet?”
“What’s to figure out?” Nate asked, surprised at the question. “Some games are rigged, some aren’t. Mine isn’t.”
“Mr. Dawes, do you think it’s that simple?” Gil asked the journalist, but was looking at his nephew.
“No offense,” the writer had clearly not expected to be answering questions, “but rigged or not, I think these old games are done. Times have changed. Isn’t that why you’re calling it quits?”
“They are old games.” Gil gazed up and down the empty midway. “Marks have been playing them and carnies have been running them forever. My brother was playing one when he branded young Nate…trying to rig his son’s life and stack the odds so he’d turn out just like him. That game never goes out of style.”
There was silence on the midway. An air horn blasted three times, a signal that the public would soon be filtering in, like coins filtering through the glass.
Nate looked from his uncle, the man who had taught him everything he knew, to the writer who was not so different from himself. The banner stretched above them said, “Glimmer Mountain—Where Silver Turns To Crystal!” His booth contained no crystal, there hadn’t been silver in coins since before he was born, and the winners at his joint would get no more than a dime’s worth of sparkling glass for the quarter they risked. “There’s plenty of rigged games,” Nate said, as much to himself as to the others. “Marks…and I think we’re all marks…” he looked at his uncle, a wordless apology for speaking this heresy, “don’t have any choice but to play them sometimes. Just like I didn’t have any choice about my tattoo.”
“But you choose to work the Glass Pitch.” Dawes was staring at him. “You could run the crooked ones and make more money. You don’t. Why?”
“That’s the question, isn’t it,” Gil answered before Nate could. “I raised my nephew to think there were only two kinds of people. Maybe I didn’t put a brand on his chest, but I tried to put that idea in his head. As you can see, I failed. I’m glad I did. I’m not getting out of this business because the games are old, but because I don’t understand the marks anymore. I don’t understand the rules. Nate does…he still has a shot. But he’s outgrown this two-bit show.”
At the far end of the midway, the first of the carnival-goers came into view.
Nate slipped a T-shirt over his tattoo, ran his fingers through his hair, and stepped back into his joint.
“How does it feel?” Dawes took out his notebook. “Are you ready for your last glass pitch?”
“The tip’s coming, whether I’m ready or not,” Nate replied. “You seem to think all of us, the marks playing the games and the marks running them, are starting to wise up. I hope you’re right. When Forrest Brothers Amusements is dust, let’s see where we put our quarters. Then, we’ll know.”
Ed Davis is the author of the novella In All Things, which Kirkus Reviews called “…powerful; beautifully written, well-observed and effective.” He produced and directed the documentary Faces of Chidamoyo. He is a runner, backpacker, and traveler, and has been to Zimbabwe, Peru, Tibet, Nepal, and soon Bhutan. His travel collection, Road Stories, has recently been an Amazon top ten best seller.