Far as Your Doorstep | Joe Baumann
The fair was sticky, like one big tangle of cotton candy residue. Sharma felt blasts of hot air from the ride generators, which were packed next to one another like sticks of gum in a foil pack. She kept pressing her brow with her forearm, which wasn’t doing much except to transfer her arm sweat to her head and vice versa. She felt like she was wrapped in cellophane.
Camper didn’t appear to notice the temperature; he ran ahead, turned to watch her saunter past the hot dog stands and cake walk booths, bouncing on the balls of his feet while wheeling his hands for her to catch up. This only made her want to walk slower. When she reached him, he squeaked out, “No chickens yet!” and dashed off again.
It was a game they’d played since the time they lived in the half-rotten house where they shared a bedroom and the bathroom smelled like a locker room. Sharma had been given a stuffed chicken toy by a boy who had a crush on her, and it became her prized possession, not because she really cared about the boy—she couldn’t even remember his name, or whether he had acne, or if he was athletic or a nerd, as though those things were mutually exclusive—but the plushy animal was the whitest, cleanest thing in their room, the only thing either one of them could call their own. She had shared it with Camper, letting him sleep with it tucked against his ribs on odd nights while she huddled over it on the evens.She felt empty when she gave it up to him, but she did feel like she must share it. They were all each other had, and greed would have ruptured the delicate balance of their youthful, platonic love.
Sharma passed a booth where a barrel-chested man in a deep blue turban glistened with sweat, his chest hair matted against his skin like seaweed. Avi, the Mystical Sword Swallower, the banner above his head read in satiny, floating letters that looked like smoke. He winked at Sharma and took a long, thin blade and skewered it down his throat. He made a small hocking noise and extracted the sword, his mouth open in a wide cauldron-like grin. His lips glistened with saliva, a liquid gleam that exuded happiness, as if there was nothing else in the world Avi would rather be doing than what he was at that very moment. Sharma smiled and looked away.
Camper was stopped twenty feet ahead at a booth. They were both plenty old enough to know all the games were rigged, but he was digging around in his pocket for a few ragged, crinkly dollar bills. By the time Sharma caught up with him, he was already balancing three softballs in his little pink hands. Everything about Camper was small, even though he was edging past the desperate throes of adolescence. In fact, he’d been a tall, lanky boy when he was eight and nine years old, rocketing up past his peers like a bamboo shoot. But then he’d just stopped growing; his face had developed the sprouty hair of puberty, and his nose and ears flared out into adulthood, but his body halted as if frozen in time.
“They’re giving that away,” he said, pointing his occupied fists toward the back of the tent. She knew it before she saw: a shiny red gumball machine.
Gumball machines were for Camper what chickens were for Sharma, ever since the day at the supermarket when Camper had plunged a quarter into the machine by the cart racks and twisted the metal lever around to get a gumball and then kept twisting. By some fated malfunction the floodgates opened and gumballs poured out, an avalanche of green and pink and orange sugary globes. The assistant manager, a pimply-faced girl with sleepy eyes and slumped shoulders, didn’t seem to know what to do when faced with Camper, who in a moment of quick thinking had used the lap of his shirt as a sack to gather up his prizes. She shrugged, offered Camper a plastic bag, and wandered off to approve a liquor sale by one of her underage employees.
“You know you’ll never win,” Sharma said to camper while looking at the carnival worker whose neon yellow shirt made his tanned arms look even darker. “They build these things against you. Who gives away a gumball machine, anyway?”
The man shrugged at her, opening his mouth to reveal smoker’s teeth. “All you gotta do is sink two of them.”
“Yeah, but it’s impossible when one of them is already in there.”
He shrugged again, and Sharma wanted to reach over and gather the stretchy nylon of his shirt in her fist and yank him down to the asphalt. She wanted him to care about something like she and Camper cared about their chickens and gumballs.
“I don’t make the rules,” he said.
“But you know it’s impossible.”
“I don’t know what to tell ya.” He turned his attention to Camper. “You gonna shoot?”
Camper sunk the first softball easily, and watched it roll around the bottom edge of the bucket that was sitting with its open top perpendicular to the ground. The ball settled in the dead center. Sharma’s attention shifted back and forth from Camper, who was weighing his second softball in his hand, tossing it up just so to get a feel for the proper arc, and the carnival worker. His brown apron sagged low across his hips over his cargo shorts, and his belly sagged over the apron, bloating out the neon shirt like a grotesque balloon. Everything about him sagged, as if the sound was a fleshy magnet pulling all of him down. Sharma hated the tube socks bunched over his hiking boots that were covered in scuffs and streaks of dried mud. She wondered where on an asphalt wasteland like this he would find anywhere to hike.
Camper’s second shot bounded off the back of the bucket and dribbled out like a stream of drool.
“So close,” the man said, as though he were yawning. He knew how this would end. They all did.
“I’ll give you ten bucks just to let us have the gumball machine,” she said.
“I can’t do that.”
“It’s not an auction house, ma’am.”
“I know. To be an auction there’d need to be another bidder.”
“I can’t sell the prizes. You have to win them.”
“But you know they can’t be won.”
Camper ignored them both. He held the ball up on his fingertips like a fresh egg, spinning it by the seams. Sharma glared at the man, knowing he was only doing his jobs. Everyone was always doing what they were supposed to do, she thought. Case workers, foster parents, half-siblings. The world only goes as far as your own doorstep.
With a deep breath, Camper tossed the ball. Sharma wished that time would freeze, that the doughy smell of the air would stick to her nostrils, that the flashing lights of the rides in the distance would glue themselves under her eyelids. That everything would remain the way it was, Camper’s wishful throw hanging in mid-air, headed for the bucket that would give him this small little thing, one single gumball machine to put on his dresser, to remember for as long as he could remember things, a story he would tell to Sharma late at night before bed, especially on the nights that she was able to hold onto her beloved chicken. That way, neither of them would ever be made to feel alone.
Joe Baumann possesses a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he served as the editor-in-chief of Rougarou: an Online Literary Journal and the Southwestern Review. He is the author of Ivory Children: Flash Fictions, and my work has appeared in Tulane Review, Willow Review, Hawai’i Review, Jelly Bucket and many others, and is forthcoming in West Trade Review and others. He teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at St. Charles Community College in St. Charles, Missouri, and was recently nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. He is the founding editor and editor-in-chief of The Gateway Review: A Journal of Magical Realism.