If anybody ever said, "I wanna be a Carnie when I grow up," it had to be Lenny. My big brother and his gang called him "The Wolf Man." If I didn't know better I would have pictured him homeless, thick brown hair tangled in knots, his beard all bushy. He operated the best rides, but when he pulled the lever he grinned at us like we were his sheep, hunched shoulders, tilted head, as if we were cornered for sure.
My brother and his friends imitated Lenny when they were safely outside his range. I was friends with him and had been since the year before, and if the crowds were light I would get free rides. I think I did it to spite my brother, but also because it was my nature to make new friends.
My dad once said, "Boy, I believe you would pet a mountain lion if he gave you half a chance." My parent's knew I was too trusting for my own good at the tender age of eleven, so they told my brother to keep an eye on me, which he did with about as much desire as kissing a girl with a wart on her lips.
It was getting toward evening and I was on the Ferris wheel waiting patiently to be the next one released. As Lenny lifted my bar and I tumbled forward, I boldly asked him the big question on my mind. "How'd you come to be in a carnival?"
"I got left here one day little man."
My brother pulled me aside; "How can you stand to be next to him. He smells like spoiled garbage. He's gonna rub off on ya. What if he's a homo?"
I don't know if he heard my brother, but when I went back over to get in line, Lenny opened his green-mustard coat, and proudly showed off a picture of his girlfriend. I was surprised at how pretty she looked. Lenny was no queer. "She's a good catch," I said.
He laughed so hard his teeth clapped. "After the last ride, meet me here bud, and I'll take you to see her."
"She works here?"
"Can I trust you to keep a secret? She's a mermaid."
"You heard me. A mermaid."
A boy like me is supposed to run and never come back, but curiosity got the best of me, and I always wanted a peak at the freak-show. When I caught up to him I hesitated, but he motioned me forward, like he would do with kids in line for a ride. We jumped over cable lines, and passed under field lights, until we disappeared down a dark row along the tents.
As we walked he was casting wolf-like shadows on the tents. Worse yet, the moon was almost full, and my shoes felt like I had walked a mile in taffy. The place smelled of old cigarettes and broken beer bottles. I started to feel I didn't belong. Just when I was certain it was all a trap, and he was about to drag me into the tall weeds, he motioned me to an opening.
He took me by the collar and shoved my head in, and there she was. I could only see her upper half, while the rest of her was swimming around in something like a giant fish tank. I couldn't get a good look at the tail, but her hair sparkled in layers of golden-blonde, and I could see her long eyelashes flashing back at us. She was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen!
"Wow." I said, "She is one for real?"
Lenny must have enjoyed my ghostly face, as he let the moment settle. "She was birthed with one leg bud."
"You heard what I said."
My eyes swelled.
"Yeah, we're freaks. But we're Jesus Freaks. We have souls, ya know? See that dwarf helping her up out of the tank? He's a preacher. They took me in, and raised me under the gospel."
I whimpered like a lost child.
"What's wrong with you boy?" He steadied my shoulders.
"At Sunday school they tell us that Jesus loves everybody, but now...now I know it's true."
Lenny tilted his head, pulled me around like he does the lever on a ride, and pointed me back into my world. "You tell em, boy, you tell em so they understand. You tell em Jesus loves us all. Everyone."
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