The Festival and the Firelight

It was a simple fair in a small town. The afternoon was filled with blue tarp wrapped stalls selling corn dogs the length of your forearm, long plastic color changing cups with the worlds most saccharine lemonade, and funnel cakes boiled in the same wondrous grease as the rest of the menu.

Various events would take place in the afternoon with a chili cook-off set up on a few folding tables scattered with bubbling crock pots. Local dance schools would have their members up on the makeshift stage performing their latest routines dressed in matching fringe jackets and cowgirl hats.

When the sky moved from it's normal blinding blue into the calming purple and grey hues of the evening the stage became a spot for the local radio station to begin playing all the classic Halloween dance numbers. Children dressed in their costumes walked the late 19th century sidewalks collecting candy from the store owners.

An empty lot near the railroad tracks served as a venue for the pop-up carnival that really only reached it's full hastily repainted rusted steel glory when night took over. Nothing (And I mean nothing) brings brings a fair to life quite like the glow of warm amber bulbs below a dead black sky. The sun could only show the flaws in the mechanical beasts that spun and bumped and whirled around in all the flashing colors one could imagine. A carnival requires the night.

Staying the night with friends we were left to our own devices for a few hours while our parents took our younger siblings around trick or treating the weekend before Halloween. We kept watches to let us know what time to meet back up by the lonely white ticket booth to be picked up by whoever's mom was hosting the sleepover.

My friends and I met up with other classmates, broke off into little groups, and scattered around the carnival area occasionally meeting back up to ensure we didn't lose anyone. At some point I lost the other girls in the chaos of it all and began to make my way to the ticket booth. I stopped at the balloon dart booth, I wasn't about to leave without attempting at least one game, and handed the attendant my dollar.

He was a thin guy in a dirty polo shirt, basketball shorts, and hiking boots. The logo of the carnival company stitched into the front left pocket digitized so poorly it was illegible. He grinned handing me six plastic darts caked in the grime of previous players cotton candy fingers. “Here ya go young lady.” I took them and aimed at one of the balloons with the most air in it. My aim was off but the dart landed on a lower one with a loud pop. The man cheered.

Two more darts. Both hitting not the target I intended but still managing to pop balloons. Others came up to play as the man hollered his chime of “Step right up! Five darts for a dollar!” One of them was a guy in the grade below me, Toby. I threw my fourth, this time it landed on the one I was aiming for. The man cheered, “Alright that's four, one more and you win a big prize!” They stood closer in anticipation of my final throw. The dirty plastic dart left my fingers but, I assumed due to the audience, it landed just between two balloons. “Sorry girl, try again for another dollar?”

I motioned that I was out of money but before I could walk away Toby slid a crinkled five dollar bill onto the plywood booth. “Hey, maybe you could win my little cousin a stuffed bear. I've been trying all night and I suck at it.” I shrugged my shoulders, why not, I wanted to keep playing more than I wanted a cheap stuffed animal. He handed him the five and a pile of darts were dumped on the table that looked even dirtier than the first set.

The initial three darts landed on their marks. With each pop of a balloon the little cousin cheered. Now I was nervous. The last thing I wanted to do was waste this guys money or, worse, disappoint this kid. My fourth dart sailed right into a small blue balloon. Pop. The kid cheered again. Down to the last dart I glanced around for the easiest one to hit. They were counting on me after all. Toby tried to quiet his cousin so I could concentrate. I aimed, and the dart hit the cork board with a smooth thock, shattering the bubble of yellow latex in its way.

With the lime green teddy bear won and the kid contained I still had several darts left. “If you get another five you can trade up to a bigger toy.” The man said winking at the ecstatic child. I agreed to finish out the game, if anything I still had half an hour to kill. I gave some of the darts to the kid to throw, for fun, knowing I probably wouldn't need them and subsequently missed every one she threw. Toby patted her on the head as she began to cry, “Look, I gotta get her back to her mom. You can have the rest.”

I took the final set of darts and waved the two of them goodbye. The man was helping other players join in while I continued. For some reason my aim was off and was now missing balloons with surgical precision. My beginners luck had seemed to run dry. I checked my watch, only a few minutes before I had to leave and only three darts left out of the two needed to win anything else.

Giving up, I tossed two of the darts at once, both landing on balloons. The attendant cheered, the other players cheered, Toby who was now standing beside me – sans little cousin – cheered. Just in time. I rolled the last dart between my fingers. “You have to blow on it!” Toby said, “Like in Vegas, it's good luck.” I had no clue what he was talking about but figured a little superstition couldn't hurt.

And wouldn't you know the son of a bitch hit something. I didn't even see what color it was, all I remember was the guy handing me an under-stuffed orange bear just as a set of lips tapped my cheek.