“Hey, sonny,” the old carnival worker called to Hunter, who had asked his mother to bring him to the carnival the day after his ninth birthday — “come over here and I’ll let you in on a little secret. If I tell you, you have to promise ... you won’t tell anyone. If you do and they find out” — he motioned towards the ticket booth with a nod of his head — “they’ll fire me. Here’s what you do,” he said, cocking a bent finger at the empty milk bottles of his display, fifteen feet away — “Don’t aim for the rims, aim for the space between the rims.”
Hunter looked over at the old carnival worker. When Hunter had discovered the Skeeball machine would take nickels for quarters, he’d thought several times that the carney had been watching him. Now, as hunter got closer and he got a better look at the old man, he noticed the carney’s fists were purple and bruised. His age-spotted right hand summoned the boy closer. The carney wore a bright red collared shirt and rainbow-striped suspenders. A ten-gallon floppy tie-dye top hat pushed grey, scraggly hair down the sides of his head. His white eyebrows wiggled while he talked. Giant red pants with a bright green belt buckle were at Hunter’s eye level. Hunter looked up toward the gray teeth in the carney’s over-zealous smile. Hunter drew back. The scent of roasting candied almonds blew by, and Hunter’s stomach growled. Right now, anything sounded better than talking with this old carnie.
“Come on, I’ll show you,” the carnie insisted, putting a ring in hunter’s hand, “don’t be shy.”
Hunter took another look at the milk jugs in front of him, then at the ring. There were sixteen single-gallon jugs laid out. The game was easy: take the single white ring from the Carney and toss it, attempting to land the ring around the neck of a bottle. He’d saved all of his nickels from his paper route for the past two months for this night. Two hours after cheating at the skeeball machine, Hunter had forty-two tickets to spend on anything in the park. Rather than buy a toy for forty tickets, he decided to play a few games to see if he could win something big. Half of his tickets now remained. A giant stuffed tiger he had eyed at the ring toss was a match made in heaven.
He gripped the short-stacked tickets in his left hand and winced. Begrudgingly, he walked over to the old carney.
The old man reached down and exchanged a ticket for the white ring.
“You see, when I was your age, I was not that different from you.”
Hunter rolled his eyes. The old shell of a man walking around a carnival as a young boy was too far a reach for his adolescent mind to comprehend.
“I used to spend all of my time at the carnival. Meeting all the workers, eating all the cotton candy, and especially learning what games don’t work.”
Hunter felt his face flush and he looked at his feet, his eyes now glued to his laces. He wondered if he should run.
“It’s all right, sonny, your secret is safe with me. Now, chin up, back to these jugs. Everyone always aims right at the rims, just like they aim for the stake in horseshoes. Have you ever played horseshoes?”
“All right then, now, watch what I do.”
With one swift motion, the man pulled his arm back and then forward like a pendulum, lofting the ring into the air. It came down and hit between the jugs with a double clang, before floating back up and coming straight down. It’s trajectory changed, the ring lipped around a jug and slid over the top.
Hunter’s eyes went big and he darted his head in the man’s direction, his face full of disbelief. He quickly filled with determination and jammed his hand into his pocket and produced five tickets. The old carney smiled, walked around to the jug that held the ring like a necklace, removed it gingerly over the top, and headed back for the boy. He took the tickets from Hunter but one slipped from his fingers, landing at the boy’s feet. Hunter bent over and collected the ticket and handed it to the man. Now filled with a new sense of hope and determination, he knew he would have the tiger soon.
His first toss landed directly between four jugs, popping forward and shooting it off of the game board.
“Gently,” the man said and motioned with his arm, pulling it upwards from his side and releasing an imaginary ring toward the jugs.
Hunter collected the white ring from the man and emulated the man’s toss the best he could. The same result. Hunter could feel his eyebrows ruffle but settled them with a big breath. The next two improved a bit, the fourth making contact with two bottle tops before bouncing off the table. Now holding his final ring, Hunter held it out in front of him and took aim. He closed one eye and his tongue stuck out a bit as he aligned the ring and the bottle. He smoothly pulled his arm backward and forward. The ring lofting toward the jugs and again hit exactly between four corners, just as the old man said. It shot directly upward and fell down on a jug’s lip. It circled the rim twice, and flew off the top of the jug.
“Oh, come on!” Hunter said through clamped teeth.
The old man chuckled.
“You know, this game is not for everyone. Perhaps the Skeeball is your safer bet.”
Hunter tossed the man’s comment to the side and traded in ten more tickets. One by one, the rings shot up, circled the rims of the jugs, then flew off into the same abyss his tickets and his tiger were slipping into. He couldn’t believe it. He had six measly tickets left and the old carney was laughing again.
“Oh, sonny, if I were you, I’d save your tickets for a funnel cake for the walk home. Either that or some pitching lessons!” The old man cackled at his own joke. White foam collected at the sides of his mouth
Hunter felt humiliated and angry. A funnel cake. He would eat it on the way home and then have nothing to show for it tomorrow. A passing boy pointed the tiger out to his dad with giggling glee. This reinvigorated Hunter and he knew he had to have the tiger. He held out his last 6 tickets.
“Now, you’re sure? I’ve got sticky hands and bouncy balls, Laffy Taffy and Jack in the Box. All of them under six tickets.”
“I want the tiger. May I please have the ring?”
The old man shrugged and gave Hunter a ‘it’s your funeral’ look as he handed over the white ring. Hunter took the ring and felt its cracking plastic in his hands. He rubbed the grooves, evidence of too many clangs, too many missed shots, all of them resulting in a homeless tiger.
One by one Hunter tossed them, and one by one they fell on empty rims. Hunter looked at the final ring in his hand and thought about running with it. At least the old man wouldn’t be able to torment any other kids that night. Pushing this thought away, Hunter closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He opened his eyes into a squint, pulled the ring back, and let it fly. It hit off a rim and almost bounced off the table, but was redirected downward by another rim before shooting straight up. Both Hunter’s and the carney’s eyes were fixed on the ring. The ring’s slight rotation gave Hunter hope. It came down on one rim, bounced to the next, then a third which shot it right off the table. Hunter felt his insides twist as his face went hot. All those paper routes. All those mornings waking up early. All gone.
The man let out a laugh and Hunter thought he might explode.
“So close!” the old carney said.
Hunter’s eyes still focused on the white ring lying motionless on the ground. He saw the carney in his peripheral slowly float back to the front of the game stand. He tried to will the ring off the ground and back onto the game board. His final toss had been so close. He could feel the tiger’s eyes burning down on him. He could hear the carney now shuffling toward him from behind. Hunter turned toward him. The Carney’s face was now flat, but his eyes glared down at Hunter. The Carney’s hands were in his pockets and one side of his mouth rose up into a smirk. He pulled his right hand from his pocket and produced a second ring that Hunter had not seen. The old carney turned his head toward the board, and with his body still facing Hunter, drew one hand behind his back and shot. The ring bounced twice before landing on a jug rim. Hunter couldn’t believe it. He ran over to the carney’s ring and picked up the one he’d used and compared the two. His slipped right through the old man’s with space to give, and Hunter knew he’d been taken. The carney must’ve switched the rings.
“You cheated me out of those tickets! You owe me that tiger!” Hunter said in a very low angry voice, inflecting the words at the end of each statement.
The old man smiled and walked over to Hunter.
“I suppose you think that I lied,” the carney said.
“Well I didn’t lie!” Hunter cried.
“But you did!”
Hunter stalked away, too angry to argue.