When I found myself sitting on a chartreuse carousel elephant and holding a funnel cake, I knew something was wrong. Besieged with raucous tinny music and blinded by flickering neon, my motion-sickness worsened by the smell of fried fat, I looked around for my family. They were the ones who had wanted to come to the carnival. Funnel cake fumes rose as the elephant dropped with a sickening lurch. I thought of throwing the plate, but didn’t want to add to the congealing piles of garbage all around.
When the carousel finally slowed, I looked around the crowd again. If I found my family, I would grab the keys and wait in the car. They should be easy to spot. Carnival-goers are always a tacky, greasy, overweight lot, but these seemed to be unusually gruesome, sporting full-body tattoos, exposed fat rolls, and appendages studded with piercings. There appeared to have been a Walmart special on goiters, acne and rainbow-colored frizzy hair along with cellulite-revealing leggings and gigantic puffy shoes. I lowered myself from the elephant before the carousel came to a complete halt and lurched away. All the gates were labeled “no exit” but I finally went out one of them, avoiding the people trying to get in. A smell of sweat, cigarettes and cheap cologne engulfed me as I wove through the crowd. Everyone towered over me and seemed to be all armpit. I found an overflowing trash can and gingerly balanced the plate on the top of the stinking pile.
I caught sight of a familiar face. I’d seen that pudgy woman and her runny-nosed kids somewhere before. As I approached, I tried to remember how I knew her. It couldn’t be from my children’s exclusive school, unless she was a janitor. I put on my best smile. “Hello there! Good to see you!”
The woman was bent over, talking to one of her offspring, who were hanging off her like monkeys from a tree. I got close enough to smell their shampoo, sweat and dryer sheets.
“Where do I know you from? The neighborhood? The grocery store?”
She finally looked up when another child yanked on the back of her oversized T-shirt. She stared through me as if I were invisible, and I had to back up to avoid being trampled by the children. One of them slammed into me, turned, looked around blindly, and ran to catch up. “I really need to talk to you,” I insisted and followed her as well as I could in the crush.
“Well, fine. Just be rude then.” I turned again, hoping to see someone else I knew. The crowd cleared for a moment and I spotted a ticket booth where I could ask for information. As I moved toward it, the sun beat on my head and heat wafted from the dusty ground. Thirst clutched my mouth and throat. I should buy a lemonade with lots of ice. I patted my pockets for money, and instead came up with a fistful of ride tickets. I stood at the end of the ticket booth line and squinted to read the sign. “By ticket’s hear,” it read.
“I think I’m in hell,” I said out loud.
The person ahead in line turned a whiskered face toward me and snorted past the nose ring. “Idiot.”
“Excuse me,” I said. I was about to say “sir,” but was confused by the person’s small waist and large, tray-like hips. “Could I sell you my tickets to get money for a drink?”
He or she hunched over a cellphone and began flicking with both thumbs. I gave up and scanned the area for someone more receptive.
A shadow fell next to me, and I looked back to see who had just joined the line. It was a tall, thin, apelike person wearing pants that managed to droop while being skin-tight. The lurid purple T-shirt that met my eyes bore the words “You suck.” I turned around quickly and waited for the line to move.
While I waited, someone spilled orange drink on my pants, another person tripped and dropped a fried pickle on my shoes, and two others carried on a shouted conversation over my head. Not only was it riddled with obscenities, but spit flew back and forth and I had no hat.
Meanwhile, sounds roared from every direction. Each ride had its own music and machine noises, with riders screaming at different times and volumes. There was a shooting booth nearby, and its constant pops were accompanied by whacking mallets at another booth and a gong that went off at random. Children ran shrieking and weaving through the line, women guffawed, and men spat tobacco. Just when I thought I would get used to the smells, someone would walk past with a new fried excrescence on a stick. There were deep-fried candy bars, deep-fried donuts in batter, and even deep-fried batter-coated butter.
Finally, I reached the front of the line. A teenager popping gum and wearing green lipstick sat on a stool at the kiosk window filing her nails and listening to something through headphones as she gazed at her phone. “Hello?” I shouted, but there was no response. “Can you help me?”
Without looking up, she held out a hand as if expecting me to put cash in it. I waited for a moment, thinking she would look up soon. She waggled her fingers expectantly. Finally, I had an inspiration. “Cool eyebrow ring. May I take a closer look?”
She looked up and leaned closer to the window, not meeting my eyes, but at least looking somewhere near my face.
“Could I return these tickets for cash?” I showed her the handful of slightly-sweaty cardboard.
She pointed to a sign and looked back down at her nails. The sign said, “No return’s.”
“How do I get to the exit?”
She pointed to another sign. “All exit’s closed. Entrence only.”
“Oh, God, I am in Hell!”
She looked up again. “Wrong. This is only purgatory.”
“But there’s no Biblical evidence that purgatory exists.”
Jaws working rhythmically, she muttered, “And yet here you are.”
“Ok, fine. How do I get out?”
“Lady, you’re holding up the line. This ain’t no information booth.” She looked back down at her phone.
“Please, I beg you. Isn’t there any way out?”
She sighed, blew a big bubble, popped it, and sighed again. “Yeah, there’s one way. The tunnel of love has an exit.”
“Thanks.” I started to turn away, but she held out a hand.
“Wait,” she said. “You can only take the ride with a friend.”
“But I’m alone here!”
“So …” she rolled her eyes and said slowly, loudly and with exaggerated pronunciation. “Just go … make a friend …and you can get in.”
I looked around at the crowd, my skin crawling. “Oh no! I’m going to be stuck here for all eternity!”
With a disinterested shrug, she waved me away. “Oops, I guess you are in hell after all.” She looked past me and shouted, “Next!”