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The Last Carnival I Ever Saw by Dennis Gamblin It was the last summer of my youth. The last time that everything unreal was thought to be real -- everything untrue was true. When make believe was as unquestioned as my changing voice and growing bones. It was the summer of 1969 and I remember it well because it was the year of the last carnival. Mister Snow had been renting a small house from my Grandmother for nearly three years by the time he passed on (my Grandmother always referred to it as ‘passed on’, never died), and the one day that I remember so well she was in that house hanging black cloth over the mirrors, arranging flowers and lighting candles. “The deceased should have a proper funeral,” I heard her explain, though I doubted that anyone other than Grandma and myself would bother to show up. How could I expect anyone to visit him in his death when no one visited him in his life, except for me? But nonetheless, Grandma carefully placed a row of chairs neatly in front of the casket, she drew the blinds and lit the candles then sighed a deep sigh. When the room was fitting and well for and afternoon funeral, she smoothed her apron and went outside to wait for the preacher. Last Carnival/Gamblin/page 2 Being alone never seemed to bother Mister Snow much, I guess because he was never really alone. He was always content looking through his collection of faded photographs and scrap books, those little still frames of memories of his life traveling with the carnivals, and he loved to talk about the places he had been and the people he had known. Everyone -- his friends. His stories always stretching the limits of imagination as his marble blue eyes looked past the here and now to describe the ’then's and when’s’. His pipe tobacco always smelled like cotton candy and it’s smoke, well, seemed to linger and twist and carry his stories to every corner of the room. I saw that box of pictures and clippings and mementos sitting quietly by his favorite chair, patiently waiting to spill forth it’s secrets. I opened it slowly. It whispered. The photograph was faded and creased, but there he stood, Mister Snow, with his sleeves rolled-up and his derby hat pushed back on his head. His beard was not as scruffy and white as I had known it to be -- well, maybe not as white, but he looked much the same that day of the picture as he did the last day of his life: cob pipe in mouth and bamboo cane in hand. I could almost hear him barking at the crowd as they gathered. The door opened slowly behind me, I thought it was Grandma, forgetting some small detail and returning, but the labored grunts with each heavy footstep told me otherwise. I turned and saw a man trying to close the door more quietly than
he opened it. He was big, bigger than mister Pete at the feed store and he was dressed kind of simple for a funeral: Denim jeans, work boots, and a t-shirt, but those might have been the only clothes he could get to cover his thick legs and large arms. He walked Last Carnival/Gamblin/page 3 towards the row of chairs with solid but tired steps and finally took a seat near me. He stared at the casket a long time before finally rubbing his hand over his whisker-stubbled face and black, stubble-haired head. “Hi,” I said as I put the box of photos in the seat between us. “My name is Henry. Henry Wilson.” I offered my hand and it was swallowed by his but he held it gently, like it was a fragile mouse. “My name is Ivan,” he said with a thick accent rolling off his tongue. “Ivan Borya.” “Did you know Mister Snow?” “I have known Mister Snow for a very long time,” he said and then said nothing else. Minutes ticked passed with echoes in the silent room before I asked, “Is your name really Ivan or is that one you chose for your act. Mister Snow said that sometimes performers made up their names and where they came from. Sometimes they ...” “My name is Ivan,” he said bluntly. As he stared at me his eyes seemed half hidden by his rutted brow, then he turned his attention to the box between us. Ivan picked at the pictures slowly, examining one every now and then, until he pulled one out and handed it to me. “My name is Ivan.” In the picture he had a huge handlebar mustache, but it was him. His muscles flexed as he held an anvil on each shoulder. I wanted to giggle at the leopard loincloth and the leather sandals but dared not. I could almost see him squatting up and down effortlessly with those giant pieces of iron curled to his shoulders and secured with his bulky arms and I could almost hear him taunt the crowd, challenging any man to do the same. Of course, it was not very hard to imagine since Mister Snow had told me of him so very often. But Mister Snow told me a lot of different stories. Some of which I believed. “I am Ivan from Tozski,” he said proudly. Last Carnival/Gamblin/page 4 “Where is Tozski,” I asked, then wished I had not when the proud look washed from Ivan’s face. “Tozski is in Siberia. Of course you have heard of Siberia?” “Of course.” Even if I had not I would have agreed anyway. Ivan took a long breath and, with his hands on his thighs, he sat up straight, “We were a small village, but very proud. Every day, every man and boy would work the mines. We would dig ore and fill the carts and push them out of the mines ourselves. We would dig ore all day long, never tiring.” “What kind of ore?” “Iron ore,” he said, slapping his hands on his thighs. “It takes an iron man with iron will to dig iron from the ground. When I was a little boy I could push as much ore from the mine as any man. And when I became a man I could push more ore than a team of horses. That is how I became known as ‘Ivan the Iron Horse’. I could push more iron from the mines than any man and I was able to buy bread and milk for my mother and sister. ” “Well I saw a strong man once before and I sneaked onto the stage when everyone was gone and all of his weights were hollow.” “I do not cheat,” his voice boomed nearly as loud as his fist slapping his chest. “I do not need tricks. I will prove to you.” He searched the room, his hands rubbing together, grinding like rough-cut wood, anxious to bend, rip or lift
anything. “I know,” he finally said with a growl. “Give me a coin.” “A what?” “A coin,” he said, the fingers of his extended hand snapping. “Do you have a coin in your pocket” Last Carnival/Gamblin/page 5 I reached into my pocket and pulled out a quarter. I hesitated before giving it to him, after all, it was my lucky quarter, a 1959 D with a scratch across Jefferson’s cheek. But Ivan did not care, he snatched it out of my hand. “I will show you that Ivan is strong.” He gripped the quarter and it disappeared in the mass that was his thumbs and forefingers. His fingertips turned red and veins popped from his forearms as he seemed to try to squeeze the coin flatter than it already was. Ivan then moved his fingers to shift the coin and I could see that it was nearly v-shaped. He squeezed the coin again and it folded easily in half. “There,” he said as he handed me the bent quarter. “I am strong.” He flexed his hands slowly, laboriously; his fingers seemed as difficult to straighten as the coin would have been, but soon they were moving freely enough so that he could pick another picture from the box. “We all did what we said.” Ivan returned the picture to the box, chose another and handed it to me. “That is Merlin. The greatest magician ever.” It was a picture of a man in a tuxedo and tails. In his right hand he held a top hat and in his left he held a wand. “I’ve seen lots of magicians.” “Not like Merlin.” Ivan chose another picture, looked at it a while and smiled. “Ah, Charlie.” He grinned a big grin as I strained my neck to see the photograph. It was a picture of a tent. A tent and nothing else except a wooden barrel and a stool. “Charlie was special,” Ivan said. “He could make himself invisible.” “Invisible? But I don’t see a thing but a tent. And a stool.” I scratched my head. “Charlie is very shy.” Last Carnival/Gamblin/page 6 “He -- . Never mind. Mister Snow use to joke like that, too.” Ivan grinned big. Even his teeth looked strong. “I am not joking. It is true.” When Ivan stood up he seemed taller, larger than when he first walked through the door. His hand was as heavy as a bag of wet sand when he put it on my shoulder and leaned close to me, “Mister Snow always said, ‘It’s not what you see that you believe, it’s what you believe you see.’” Ivan patted my shoulder as he straightened. “Believe what only you wish to and believe in what you wish. I must leave. I have a long way to go.” And that is how he seemed to leave, like he had a long way to go. Ivan opened, then closed the door like -- well, like a man wanting to leave a funeral unnoticed. Only the creaking boards of the front porch announced his leaving and only the silent whispers of the candles announced I was alone. Or so I thought. “He was the best Talker in the business,” a voice rich in southern accent proclaimed. I turned with a snap, nearly spilling the box of photographs. At that moment I did not think it impossible for a boy of twelve to have his heart seize up -even when he was in a half-dark room keeping company with a freshly-dead man. “Yes indeed, he was the best Talker in the business.” The tall man in the tweed jacket made his way to the front of the room, the brass tip of his cane tapped the floor in perfect time with his stiff left leg. When he took a seat next to me I stared at his leg and his cane, I could not help it. He smiled and tapped it with his cane, “Had polio as a kid. Laid me up for
what seemed like a month of Sunday sermons. But you won’t hear me complaining, son. No sir. Complaining can't fix a thing.” Last Carnival/Gamblin/page 7 I knew him. I had just seen his picture. I fumbled through the faded photographs as he continued talking. “Yes sir, son. Mister Snow there was the best Talker in the business. You do know what a Talker is, don’t you?” I shook my head. “Well, you are probably more familiar with the word ‘Barker’ but we never liked that word. Truth be told we never even used it. As sure as the stone was rolled away, he was the best Talker in the business.” I found the picture and he looked exactly the same now as he did when the picture was taken. Merlin the Great. The most amazing magician of this century and the century past -- at least that was how Mister Snow described him. “A good Talker is worth his weight in dollar bills, for sure.” “Huh.” My attention was divided between the picture of Merlin and the Merlin sitting next to me. “I said ... Oh, never mind. You see son, a good Talker not only packed the house but they also had the people believing that a pig can talk and elephants think out loud before the bench was able to leave a splinter in the seat of their britches.” Merlin nodded towards the mortal remains of Mister Snow, “And he was the best of them all. Why, he could conjure up all sorts of imaginations -- some of them true and some of them...well, let’s just say some of them were true because what was true then may not necessarily be true today.” “Mister Snow said you were the best magician he ever saw. Is that true,” I asked. “Well, I don’t know how many magicians Mister Snow had ever seen, but I’m flattered.” There was silence in the room until Merlin said, “I suppose you would like a demonstration.” Last Carnival/Gamblin/page 8 “Uh, sure.” “Of course you would.” Merlin straightened in his chair as best as his bum leg would allow and said, “Let me borrow a coin.” I did not have a coin other than a bent quarter so I handed it to him. Merlin held it with two fingers and studied it closely as if it were a previously undiscovered insect, then he smiled and pointed to the coin, and winked. “Ivan.” He laid it on his opened palm, and said, “This is a simple trick I learned when I was about your age.” He then covered the bent coin with his other palm and slowly rubbed his hands together. “Of course, I was very sick then and had nothing to do but practice.” He then slowly turned his hands, keeping them together but flipping them right over left then left over right before stopping them in their original position. “And all of those days and weeks, those many, many lonely months I asked myself, ‘What would life be like as a deck of cards or a bouquet of flowers.’” Then he opened his hands and said, “Or a coin.” There in his hand was a perfectly round and perfectly flat quarter. Of course, I thought it was a trick until I took it from his hand and saw that it was a 1959 D with a scratch across Jefferson’s cheek. I was amazed! “After all, people have many of the same ingredients as a coin or a deck of cards. If we could just rearrange our mass of molecules or lumps of atoms then -Voila! -- a little, tiny bit of us may be able to feel what a book feels when a page is turned.” Merlin took the coin from my hand, placed it in his palm and folded his long fingers over it. “Mister Snow understood that. He believed that. If you told him you could push the Rocky Mountains into the ocean he would warn California. There was something Last Carnival/Gamblin/page 9
special about that. So special that when he spoke, that belief flowed from him and washed over the crowds, every man, woman and child. They believed before they even bought a ticket.” Merlin waved his cane over his closed hand then tapped his knuckles with it. “And he never had to lie.” Merlin handed me the newly bent quarter. Again I took the quarter. “It’s not what you see that you believe...,” “It’s what you believe you see.” Merlin finished. His leg did not seem too much a burden when he stood. “No words could be truer.” Then he bent towards me, leaning on his cane until his face was close to mine. “There are people who still swallow swords and eat fire and glass. There are women who grow beards and babies born with two heads. Strongmen bend iron and magicians wave there wands, but it seems that people are too busy to notice.” Merlin stood straight and tugged his shirt cuffs from under his coat sleeves. “Mister Snow not only noticed, but he breathed beautiful life into us when the crowds came. He resurrected us each night with his words and found us a home in thousands of memories.” He picked a photo from the box, smiled and shook his head. ”And lucky for us that memories do not fade as quickly as photographs.” Merlin handed the photo to me then turned and left. I did not watch him go. After what seemed like several hours and hundreds shuffled of photographs I heard the door open behind me once again. I turned but no one was there, only the fallen shadows. Then a floor board creaked. Then another. I placed the box of photographs in the empty seat next to me and stood to leave. Charlie would want to be alone. He was very shy. THE END