the last carnival i ever saw

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Dennis Gamblin 309 W. Ninth St Portageville, Missouri 63873 2003 D.R. Gamblin

The Last Carnival I Ever Saw by Dennis Gamblin It was the last summer of my youth. The last time that everything unreal was thought to be real -- everything untrue was true. When make believe was as unquestioned as my changing voice and growing bones. It was the summer of 1969 and I remember it well because it was the year of the last carnival. Mister Snow had been renting a small house from my Grandmother for nearly three years by the time he passed on (my Grandmother always referred to it as passed on, never died), and the one day that I remember so well she was in that house hanging black cloth over the mirrors, arranging flowers and lighting candles. The deceased should have a proper funeral, I heard her explain, though I doubted that anyone other than Grandma and myself would bother to show up. How could I expect anyone to visit him in his death when no one visited him in his life, except for me? But nonetheless, Grandma carefully placed a row of chairs neatly in front of the casket, she drew the blinds and lit the candles then sighed a deep sigh. When the room was fitting and well for and afternoon funeral, she smoothed her apron and went outside to wait for the preacher. Last Carnival/Gamblin/page 2 Being alone never seemed to bother Mister Snow much, I guess because he was never really alone. He was always content looking through his collection of faded photographs and scrap books, those little still frames of memories of his life traveling with the carnivals, and he loved to talk about the places he had been and the people he had known. Everyone -- his friends. His stories always stretching the limits of imagination as his marble blue eyes looked past the here and now to describe the then's and whens. His pipe tobacco always smelled like cotton candy and its smoke, well, seemed to linger and twist and carry his stories to every corner of the room. I saw that box of pictures and clippings and mementos sitting quietly by his favorite chair, patiently waiting to spill forth its secrets. I opened it slowly. It whispered. The photograph was faded and creased, but there he stood, Mister Snow, with his sleeves rolled-up and his derby hat pushed back on his head. His beard was not as scruffy and white as I had known it to be -- well, maybe not as white, but he looked much the same that day of the picture as he did the last day of his life: cob pipe in mouth and bamboo cane in hand. I could almost hear him barking at the crowd as they gathered. The door opened slowly behind me, I thought it was Grandma, forgetting some small detail and returning, but the labored grunts with each heavy footstep told me otherwise. I turned and saw a man trying to close the door more quietly than

he opened it. He was big, bigger than mister Pete at the feed store and he was dressed kind of simple for a funeral: Denim jeans, work boots, and a t-shirt, but those might have been the only clothes he could get to cover his thick legs and large arms. He walked Last Carnival/Gamblin/page 3 towards the row of chairs with solid but tired steps and finally took a seat near me. He stared at the casket a long time before finally rubbing his hand over his whisker-stubbled face and black, stubble-haired head. Hi, I said as I put the box of photos in the seat between us. My name is Henry. Henry Wilson. I offered my hand and it was swallowed by his but he held it gently, like it was a fragile mouse. My name is Ivan, he said with a thick accent rolling off his tongue. Ivan Borya. Did you know Mister Snow? I have known Mister Snow for a very long time, he said and then said nothing else. Minutes ticked passed with echoes in the silent room before I asked, Is your name really Ivan or is that one you chose for your act. Mister Snow said that sometimes performers made up their names and where they came from. Sometimes they ... My name is Ivan, he said bluntly. As he stared at me his eyes seemed half hidden by his rutted brow, then he turned his attention to the box between us. Ivan picked at the pictures slowly, examining one every now and then, until he pulled one out and handed it to me. My name is Ivan. In the picture he had a huge handlebar mustache, but it was him. His muscles flexed as he held an anvil on each shoulder. I wanted to giggle at the leopard loincloth and the leather sandals but dared not. I could almost see him squatting up and down effortlessly with those giant pieces of iron curled to his shoulders and secured with his bulky arms and I could almost hear him taunt the crowd, challenging any man to do the same. Of course, it was not very hard to imagine since Mister Snow had told me of him so very often. But Mister Snow told me a lot of different stories. Some of which I believed. I am Ivan from Tozski, he said proudly. Last Carnival/Gamblin/page 4 Where is Tozski, I asked, then wished I had not when the proud look washed from Ivans face. Tozski is in Siberia. Of course you have heard of Siberia? Of course. Even if I had not I would have agreed anyway. Ivan took a long breath and, with his hands on his thighs, he sat up straight, We were a small village, but very proud. Every day, every man and boy would work the mines. We would dig ore and fill the carts and push them out of the mines ourselves. We would dig ore all day long, never tiring. What kind of ore? Iron ore, he said, slapping his hands on his thighs. It takes an iron man with iron will to dig iron from the ground. When I was a little boy I could push as much ore from the mine as any man. And when I became a man I could push more ore than a team of horses. That is how I became known as Ivan the Iron Horse. I could push more iron from the mines than any man and I was able to buy bread and milk for my mother and sister. Well I saw a strong man once before and I sneaked onto the stage when everyone was gone and all of his weights were hollow. I do not cheat, his voice boomed nearly as loud as his fist slapping his chest. I do not need tricks. I will prove to you. He searched the room, his hands rubbing together, grinding like rough-cut wood, anxious to bend, rip or lift

anything. I know, he finally said with a growl. Give me a coin. A what? A coin, he said, the fingers of his extended hand snapping. Do you have a coin in your pocket Last Carnival/Gamblin/page 5 I reached into my pocket and pulled out a quarter. I hesitated before giving it to him, after all, it was my lucky quarter, a 1959 D with a scratch across Jeffersons cheek. But Ivan did not care, he snatched it out of my hand. I will show you that Ivan is strong. He gripped the quarter and it disappeared in the mass that was his thumbs and forefingers. His fingertips turned red and veins popped from his forearms as he seemed to try to squeeze the coin flatter than it already was. Ivan then moved his fingers to shift the coin and I could see that it was nearly v-shaped. He squeezed the coin again and it folded easily in half. There, he said as he handed me the bent quarter. I am strong. He flexed his hands slowly, laboriously; his fingers seemed as difficult to straighten as the coin would have been, but soon they were moving freely enough so that he could pick another picture from the box. We all did what we said. Ivan returned the picture to the box, chose another and handed it to me. That is Merlin. The greatest magician ever. It was a picture of a man in a tuxedo and tails. In his right hand he held a top hat and in his left he held a wand. Ive seen lots of magicians. Not like Merlin. Ivan chose another picture, looked at it a while and smiled. Ah, Charlie. He grinned a big grin as I strained my neck to see the photograph. It was a picture of a tent. A tent and nothing else except a wooden barrel and a stool. Charlie was special, Ivan said. He could make himself invisible. Invisible? But I dont see a thing but a tent. And a stool. I scratched my head. Charlie is very shy. Last Carnival/Gamblin/page 6 He -- . Never mind. Mister Snow use to joke like that, too. Ivan grinned big. Even his teeth looked strong. I am not joking. It is true. When Ivan stood up he seemed taller, larger than when he first walked through the door. His hand was as heavy as a bag of wet sand when he put it on my shoulder and leaned close to me, Mister Snow always said, Its not what you see that you believe, its what you believe you see. Ivan patted my shoulder as he straightened. Believe what only you wish to and believe in what you wish. I must leave. I have a long way to go. And that is how he seemed to leave, like he had a long way to go. Ivan opened, then closed the door like -- well, like a man wanting to leave a funeral unnoticed. Only the creaking boards of the front porch announced his leaving and only the silent whispers of the candles announced I was alone. Or so I thought. He was the best Talker in the business, a voice rich in southern accent proclaimed. I turned with a snap, nearly spilling the box of photographs. At that moment I did not think it impossible for a boy of twelve to have his heart seize up -even when he was in a half-dark room keeping company with a freshly-dead man. Yes indeed, he was the best Talker in the business. The tall man in the tweed jacket made his way to the front of the room, the brass tip of his cane tapped the floor in perfect time with his stiff left leg. When he took a seat next to me I stared at his leg and his cane, I could not help it. He smiled and tapped it with his cane, Had polio as a kid. Laid me up for

what seemed like a month of Sunday sermons. But you wont hear me complaining, son. No sir. Complaining can't fix a thing. Last Carnival/Gamblin/page 7 I knew him. I had just seen his picture. I fumbled through the faded photographs as he continued talking. Yes sir, son. Mister Snow there was the best Talker in the business. You do know what a Talker is, do