This Carnival

They came to town under the cover of dark, a suspect bunch even by the standards of their kind, marching behind a tattered banner bearing the sign of a swan, white cursive water bird on a red field, far edge with a ragged golden fringe. Their leader, an acromegalic with a much-broken nose, strummed on a metal mandolin at the head of the line. I watched them pass over the bridge. The master of ceremonies stopped and turned to face his people. The cloud formations were amazing: violet cumulus concretions thrown against night’s honest black. The giant cleared his throat and spoke: “We are about to reach our destination. So Simon says, put your hands on your head. Simon says, put your hands on your heart. Simon says, calculate the exact nature of your misery. Simon says, confess all your transgressions. Simon says, what makes you think you’re so special?”

The strapping wench assigned the duty of publicly swallowing flaming swords while wearing a red tasseled bustier spoke up. “This is what democracy looks like!” she growled, twirling star-studded rocket cones in opposite directions. I grinned at her conviction like a mincing jackal grins over a camel carcass and fingered the small silver scissors in my pocket, my head about to explode. One of the ”little people” began to sob. A carnivore roared from its rolling shuttered cage. Mangy drays, roan and gray, hauled a platform decorated to resemble the first meeting of the League of Nations. A life-sized figure of Woodrow Wilson sculpted from wax was trundled along.

The majordomo resumed. “God told me to skin you alive. Just kidding! God told me to shower you with peonies and whimsical pressed-tin windup toys. That’s more like it. God told me that he doesn’t exist, never has, never will, is the merest glimmer from the edges of the collective unconscious, something for people to reach to when they’re afraid of the dark. God told me that he is an imaginary friend for grown-ups, Jehovah the friendly ghost, and that there are no accidents.” The roustabouts groaned. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Changing sumac flamed bleeding velvet in the chill autumnal air. I scratched at the poison ivy that I had somehow acquired on my backside.

“But my life is a train wreck!” one of the snake handlers whined in reply. “It’s run off the rails entirely, and passersby stop and cluster to look, torn between horror and pity.” I cringed with empathy. Everyone has been given tickets for that train, and I suspect that one evening, after too many boilermakers, I tongue-kissed the conductor. The sword swallower yawned and cleaned between her teeth with a toothpick. The midget carrying the swan insignia set his jaw with renewed stoicism as the sky spat raindrops. A spotted pony loped up behind him and nuzzled the top of his cap.

“Where will you stay?” I shouted at them. All turned and stared. “You could crash at my place,” I apologetically stammered. No other scenario could be more absurd. The swan flag flapped. Their leader removed his hat and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, still grasping the tin mandolin.

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