Cirque Berserk: Excerpt

 By Jessica Guess

Chapter 5. Patty (1989)


Patty Sullivan knew that 11:30 PM was too late to have her eight-year-old granddaughter out at a carnival, but she had made a promise. Worse than a promise, a pinky promise. You’d think Patty signed a blood oath the way the girl went on and on.

“She’s spoiled,” Patty’s husband said. “Arleen spoiled her.”

Maybe he was right. Maybe their daughter did spoil their granddaughter. Maybe she was a little too used to getting what she wanted, but either way, Patty had to play nice. She had to make sure Jody had the time of her life staying at grandma and grandpa’s for the long weekend or Patty might have to go another six years without seeing her daughter and granddaughter again. Arleen even said as much when she dropped off Jody.

“Make sure she don’t eat too much candy,” she said handing Patty a Minnie Mouse bookbag with clothes in it. “And Mom? Do me a favor and don’t make her as miserable as I was when I was here.”

Miserable? Had Arleen really been that miserable? Sure, Patty and Roy had their problems. Roy loved to down a few six packs after work and was hell to be around when he was drunk. Patty herself liked a nice scotch and soda, and sometimes they got into screaming matches, but they never hurt Arleen, or at least not that she could remember.

Nevertheless, Arleen stopped speaking to them a little over a year after she had Jody and only just started talking to them again last December. She had fallen on hard times and needed help.  A few times, she’d let Patty and Roy watch Jody after school when she needed an extra shift at the diner and now, she was letting them keep her for the long weekend. Patty had to make a good impression.

So here she and Jody were, in line at the Cirque Berserk when it was way past Jody’s bedtime.

“Grandma, do you think they have cotton candy?” Jody asked. She was holding onto Patty’s hand tightly. She looked up at her grandma, her brown hair falling out of her face and revealing gray eyes that her husband and Arleen both had.

“Don’t you think it’s too late for cotton candy?” Patty asked, already knowing the answer.

Jody shook her head. “Nuh-uh.”

Patty smiled. “All right, just a little since we’re already here.”

There was only one ticket booth, and the line was moving slowly. There were a few adult couples, but mostly it was teenagers. Everywhere Patty saw teased hair, pastel colored windbreakers, and acid washed jeans. In front of them, a boy in a gray Members Only jacket held up his wrist. He had three different colored swatch watches on, one yellow, one blue, and one orange.

Now what sense does that make? Patty thought. Kids these days.

The night was alive with the energy of the carnival. It was hot, even for June. That was just summer in Florida, stingingly hot days and muggy hot nights. Patty could smell the popcorn and frying oil in the air. The screams from a rollercoaster erupted every few minutes and in the distance was the calliope music of a carousel. A dark-skinned boy wearing a Kangol hat and a thick, rope-like, gold chain walked by with a boombox on his shoulder, blasting a song with vulgar lyrics, and Patty covered Jody’s ears until he was out of earshot.

They moved up in line. Two teens were full on necking near the ticket booth. Patty looked down to see if Jody saw them, but the girl was staring mesmerized at the huge clownish face that made up the entrance. The hypno circle eyes were twirling around and around endlessly while the mouth stayed open and dark, welcoming everyone into Cirque Berserk.

“Don’t stare at it, Jody. It’ll make ya dizzy.”

Inside the carnival was even more vibrant than outside. A face painter off to the side drew tiger features on a redheaded girl. A man called Patty over to try her luck at tossing rings over coke bottles. A Madonna song blasted somewhere in the distance, but the sounds of the different rides and the general hustle and bustle of the crowd nearly drowned it out. Men dressed in bright neon colored pants and long, pointed masks walked on stilts. One of them handed Patty a balloon for Jody.

“Thank you!” Jody said, then pointed ahead. “The Merry-Go-Round! Grandma, we have to go there!”

“All right, all right.” Patty and Jody waded through the crowd and made their way to the mostly empty ride. The front of the carnival mainly had game stands, vendors and kiddy rides like the carousel. After that the roller rink, a haunted house, and a funhouse, then all the way in the back of the carnival were the big attractions: The Tunnel of Love, the Ferris Wheel, and the Bumper Cars. Patty hated big scary rides. Luckily for her, Jody was too young and too small to go on them, so they’d be sticking to the front of the carnival.

“Hey, little lady.” The carousel operator bent down to take a ticket from Jody. He was a short man in his forties with dirty blond hair and pale blue eyes. He smelled of stale beer and as he reached out to take the ticket, Patty saw a Confederate flag tattoo on his forearm.

He opened the gate and led them up to the brightly lit ride with painted horses and chariots. Jody got on one of the horses and Patty stood beside her. The ride would last for three slow laps in a circle. As they closed their first lap around, the operator waved at them, smiling. Jody waved back, happy to be on the horse, and Patty closed her eyes and thought of Arleen. Did she ever take her on a Merry-Go-Round when she was little? She couldn’t remember if she did. 

Patty opened her eyes as they finished their second lap and saw the carousel operator talking to a dark-haired teen girl. She was short and had pale skin with gray-blue eyes. The girl was wearing a long dark jacket despite the heat. The girl said something, then took a long, sharp knife out of her jacket pocket.

Patty nearly screamed but stifled it. Was that really what she thought it was in the girl’s hand? Before Patty could be sure, she was going around on the ride again and the operator and girl were out of sight.

Dear God. That couldn’t be what I thought it was. No one else was doing or saying anything so she tried to act calm. Her palms were getting sweaty, so she let go of her grand-daughter’s hand. She didn’t want to panic Jody or make a scene in case it was just her eyes playing tricks on her, but as they rounded the last lap, Patty didn’t see the carousel operator standing in his usual spot by the gate.

The Merry-Go-Round stopped. The operator was crouched on the ground with his hands pressed against a slit throat. Blood gushed from the open wound and sprayed the dirt beneath him. He tried to get up but slipped in the blood and fell back into the dirt. He reached up toward Patty and Jody. His sliced throat looked like a wide, smiling mouth; red and white membrane that resembling raw steak.

“Hhhchelp,” he gurgled out, but more blood spurted from his throat and mouth. The other carousel riders stood in shock, and a few people on the other side of the gate stopped to see what was happening.

Jody gripped her grandmother tightly around the waist. “G-grandma…” she whispered, too frightened to move.

Patty couldn’t move either.

Instead, Patty screamed.

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Learn more about Jessica Guess on our Black Voices Matter Page

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