Joel Long

The Coin Throw

The Montana State Fair had the best lemonade in the world.  Apparently, I would steal to get some.  They made the lemonade in the Ag building where vendors displayed tree plantings, wheat harvests, magical blenders, carpentry, flower arranging, spin art.  At certain booths, eager participants handed out fliers, or better, buttons to put on your lapel.  The best button was from a forester with Smokey the bear on it saying, only you can prevent forest fires.  Nearby, a mechanical Smokey reiterated the words in a lazy, robotic tone only you can prevent forest fires, as he gestured his furry arms in some humanly significant way.  The lemonade was at one end of the Ag building where the doors opened to the August light.  The cement floor was sticky with a dropped, blue sno-cone.  Someone was putting lemons into the juicing machine so you knew that the lemonade was real—that perfect balance between sweet and tart, chilled with ice.  It eclipsed the 99-degree day with a pleasure that I hoped was endless.

From the Ag building, I had to wander through boring booths with carpet samples and chain saws, past the corn dog stands.  I had to pass the kids’ rides, little steel cars painted bright colors pulled in a circle while boys and girls turned the steering wheels without results.  Bulbous air planes lifted off ramps and then lit gently down before they rose up again.  Bumper cars buzzed with the sound of electricity.  The merry-go-round spun colored ponies through diesel fumes and notes from a calliope.

Past the rides, in the gravel beneath soiled canopies, carnies with bad teeth and greasy fingers seduced the carnival-goers, enticing them with games.  There was a horse race that worked as a sort of pinball mechanism; the winner would receive a little bronze horse.  I liked the game where you shot water into a clown’s mouth, until a little gage rose to the top and a bell rang, indicating a winner.  If you won, a tattooed carny gave you a stuffed animal.  When I won, I chose an alligator that I kept on my bed for protection.  It was stuffed with pellets of Styrofoam that made its tail stiff and inflexible.

For the most tempting game, carnies stacked plates and mugs and glasses and glass ashtrays, a myriad of knick-knacks, all sparkling with the dusty light of the midway.  You could win one of these objects by tossing quarters and having one coin land in the bowl or the green ashtray.  If you won, the carny would hand you the useless object with the quarter in it.  Most of the objects, of course, were designed so that a coin would bounce out even with the most deft touch, so you would hear the coins ringing the glassware as they slid to the dirt floor beneath the canopy.  Thus, the ground was littered with coins.  When I leaned over the counter to throw my coin into the candy dish, my hand was near the layers of coins on the ground.  I began watching the carny to see how long he might look away and how long he might stay on the other side of the canopy.  I was sweating, sweating more as I imagined that there might be a moment in the August heat, when I thought that he’d turn away long enough for me to reach down and cup a handful of coins.  I don’t remember whether I wanted the money to throw or to buy lemonade or to just feel the heat of the coins in my hand, in my heart.  It was like losing consciousness, like falling, I was suddenly leaning over, grabbing coins.

It didn’t last.

The carny was on me, grabbing my hand with his oily one.  I felt his hand digging into my wrist.

“What are you doing, kid,” he shrieked.

I pulled away from his hand and turned around and ran.  I ran past the corn dogs, past the kids’ rides, past the Ag building.  All of it in a kaleidoscopic blur of heat and fear.  I finally slowed on the cool grass of the park in the middle of the fair where a crowd had gathered for a hypnotist who was making people squawk like chickens.  I felt the whole park, the trees, the grass, the backs of the people laughing and wondering at the hypnotist show, pulsing like a big transparent heart filled with the acrid smoke of my guilt.  I believed that they all knew who I was; that I had the mark of a thief.  I felt the place where I’d come as a child was tainted.  Smokey the Bear, the barns with enormous pigs, rabbits and the sweet lemonade were all tainted.  I’d done something that I could never undo, that I still haven’t undone.

© Joel Long

Joel Long’s poems have appeared in InterimGulf CoastRhinoBitter Oleander, Crab Orchard ReviewBellingham ReviewSou’westerPrairie Schooner, Willow Springs, The PinchQuarterly West, and Seattle Review and anthologized in American Poetry: the Next Generation among others.  His book of poetry, Winged Insects won the White Pine Press Poetry Prize.  Additional books of poetry, Lessons in Disappearance and Knowing Time by Light were published by Blaine Creek Press. His chapbooks of poetry, Chopin’s Preludes and Saffron Beneath Every Frost were published by Elik Press.  He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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