This story first appeared in the online literary journal BLOOD LOTUS.
Ernest finds the five toy cars on the kitchen counter before breakfast, while I’m still in the shower, and swallows them all. He’s reading yesterday’s paper and looking innocent when I come out in my bathrobe.
“Where did they go?” I say, hands on my hips.
“You’re not getting them back until you tell me what you paid for them,” says Ernest.
“Ten damn years of my life,” I mutter.
Through the thin trailer walls we hear the clank of the ride operators testing the ferris wheel and the tilt-a-whirl and the merry-go-round, sounds we’ve heard almost every morning for the past several years and will keep hearing for twenty more, like it or not.
“Don’t steal toys for our kid,” he says.
“The metal is going to give you a stomachache,” I say. “Spit the cars back up.”
“Then you’re going to wash them off and I’m going to walk with you back to wherever you got them from.”
“Where’s all the extra money you’re bringing in to buy something for Bryce?” I say. Doing the county fair circuit with other food vendors was his idea, but people seem more tight-fisted here than when we’re traveling with a carnival and a bunch of sideshow acts like his.
“Kids have more fun with cardboard boxes anyway,” he says.
“You didn’t see Bryce last night,” I say. “I took him to the display with all the toy collections. Trains and plastic dinosaurs and stuffed animals and metal soldiers. They’re judged, you know. Kids win blue and red and white ribbons for all that junk. Bryce was drooling.”
“You shouldn’t have gone,” Ernest sighs.
“Why the f*ck does any little kid need seventy-nine cars anyway? How do they ever play with them all?”
Ernest doesn’t say anything, just starts bringing the cars up one by one, spitting them into his cupped hands. He takes them to the sink and rinses them off.
“Become a hairstylist then,” he says. “Learn how to do medical transcription. Something useful.”
“And you’ll do what?” I say. “Be a door to door showman? Walk around and swallow coins for housewives?” He knows that we can’t leave the circuit, have to pay off the trailers, can’t go further into debt when we don’t even own what we have.
I hear Bryce singing, it’s what he does when he wakes up, so I leave my husband washing spit off toy cars to get my kid out of bed. Bryce is four. I think he’s kind of small for his age, but there aren’t many other vendors who have children, so I don’t have anyone to compare him to. Bryce grins at me when I walk into his room, holds out his arms.
“Hi Mama,” he says. “Up, please.”
When I touch his hands they feel a bit sticky, but little kids are usually a bit sticky, and I’m often a bit sticky since I’m coating apples and bananas and popcorn with caramel all day.
His room is a closet, just enough space for his cot. His clothes and a few books and toys I got at a flea market are on a shelf above the cot. I want him to have something nice. Something new. Dammit. Ernest and I love traveling, what stinks is the bare bones budget. We worry, too, about raising a kid on the road, but tell each other he’ll learn more and see more than if we bought a dinky little house and got domestic. This is, of course, ignoring the fact that we don’t have money for a house. Sometimes we like to pretend that we have options. Right now there’s only life on the circuit. Ernest has been practicing the art of regurgitation, strengthening the muscles in his throat and esophagus, for years. I bought my little confections trailer with money from my grandmother that was supposed to fund my first year of college.
I carry Bryce as far as the end of the hallway then set him down, let him toddle into the kitchen. Ernest has hidden the cars and put a napkin and a powdered sugar donut at Bryce’s place at the table. He tousles Bryce’s hair after he climbs up on the chair. I grab a donut from the box and bite in. Too dry.
After breakfast we walk fifty feet to the midway, the little trailer where I make caramel apples and caramel bananas and caramel corn. The other vendors are heating oil for French fries and corn dogs and funnel cakes, but after ten years of carnival life I don’t smell the odor of fried foods anymore, only notice it when it’s gone. My booth is a little way down from Ernest’s show tent. He sits in the back of my trailer and pours a little antibacterial mouthwash on a cloth, uses it to clean the coins and pocketwatch and large glass marbles he swallows and regurgitates in his act. He keeps each object down for thirty seconds before bringing it back up. For his finale he asks members of the audience if they have anything they want him to swallow for an extra charge. I can’t watch his show anymore because he won’t refuse anything smaller than a cue ball, and it makes me ill to see him.
“You didn’t hurt yourself this morning,” I say quietly while poking Popsicle sticks through the bottoms of apples and watching the pot of melted caramel on my little stove to make sure it doesn’t burn.
“I’m fine,” he says.
“The cars didn’t have sharp edges?” I say.
“I’m fine,” he says again.
“I worry,” I say.
“You shouldn’t,” he says, but I don’t trust his judgment. I know that sometimes he’s gotten little wounds inside his esophagus and had to take a few days off because of the resulting sore throat.
“You need to wash his hands,” Ernest says when he hugs Bryce before he leaves. “He’s sticky.”
I wipe off Bryce again and sit him at his little plastic table in the corner with some crayons and a coloring book. I stand at the counter beside him, peel bananas and poke wooden sticks in them. The caramel I use for the apples is thick, the stuff for the bananas and the popcorn is a bit thinner, but involves the same ingredients. My grandmother’s recipe. She’s the one who gave me the money for college, the one who was upset when Ernest suggested it would be better for me to have a mobile candy store in a carnival rather than own one in town, but I wasn’t that hard to convince.
When we graduated from high school we wanted to travel, get the hell out of rural Ohio, have our own businesses. He’d been performing at talent shows for a couple years. I’d taken prizes in 4-H for confections and was in advanced math classes in school, so I figured I was set to handle our finances. For six years we did okay with just the two of us, lived cheap and saw a lot more of the country than we’d expected, even though I didn’t always like the long hours and the flies and the heat. But then Bryce came and two months after that we needed a new Airstream, so we were up to our eyeballs in debt before we knew what hit us. We travel from one coast to the other, need to keep working, paying everything off. The resale value on the trailers is too low to consider selling them. Sometimes Ernest talks about us disappearing – from the circuit, the creditors, everything – but that scares me. It seems like you couldn’t go back after that.
Business in the morning is slow. People want sweets after lunch and in the evening, so I dip apples and bananas, pop corn and form it into balls. I like the process, laying out the neat rows of apples and bananas and plastic-wrapped popcorn balls. On a good day I’ll make a hundred or a hundred fifty dollars profit. On a bad day I’ll break even. On a really bad day I won’t even do that, and Bryce and Ernest and I will eat popcorn and bananas and apples for dinner. I can’t stomach the caramel anymore, have to scrape it off.
I give Bryce a banana when he’s hungry. His hands still feel sticky, but I’m too tired to wipe them off.
“Caramel, please,” he says, but I shake my head. He gets enough sweets from the ladies who run the funnel cake and cotton candy booths. They can’t tell him no.
Ernest takes a break around one in the afternoon for lunch. We sit in the back of my trailer and eat hot dogs rolled in bread. I have to stand up from time to time when a customer wants a popcorn ball or caramel apple.
“I’ll watch the booth for a little while and you can go return those cars,” Ernest says to me. He has to wait at least an hour after eating to resume his act, or else unwanted things come back up along with the objects he swallowed.
“How much did you make this morning?” I say.
“Fifty,” he says.
“We’re going to need a lot more to make the payment on the trailer this month,” I say. “Not to mention pay for gas. The price is going up. I don’t know how we’re going to afford to haul the booth and the trailer around.”
“So I’ll watch the booth while you give back the cars,” he says.
“Not until evening,” I say.
“Cars?” says Bryce. “Where?”
“Why not now?” says Ernest.
“I have to figure out what to say,” I say.
“How about ‘I stole these and it was wrong and I’m giving them back.’” says Ernest.
“Just give me the damn cars,” I say.
Ernest pulls the cars out of his pocket and drops them in my cupped hands. They’re little cars, as long as my ring finger, but nice ones with detailed paint jobs, racing stripes and flames along the sides. I’m pleased to see they weren’t damaged by being swallowed.
“Here,” I say, handing one to Bryce who takes it in his small fingers.
“Cars,” says Bryce.
“What are you doing?” says Ernest, trying to get the car back from Bryce who holds it tightly. He has the best grip of any little kid I’ve ever met.
“Letting him play with it for a moment,” I say. “What harm can that do?”
“I don’t believe you,” says Ernest, wresting the car away from Bryce.
“I want the car,” says Bryce. He starts crying like I hoped he would.
“It’s sticky now,” says Ernest.
“I’ll wipe it off,” I grumble.
“Just give them back,” sighs Ernest. “Please. Before whatever little kid who owns that collection starts crying, too.”
And I know he kind of has a point, so I rise the car off in my tiny sink, dry it on a hand towel, and walk back to the white barn with the toy collections display. There aren’t too many people milling around, so it’s not hard to open up the back of the display case like I did last night and slip the cars in. They really should lock those things. I look at the case again and shake my head, wonder if the kid who owns the collection would have realized those five cars were gone. Meanwhile my husband figures our kid should be fine with cardboard boxes.
“Have you been feeding him straight caramel?” says Ernest when I get back to my booth. “I can’t get his hands clean.”
“I’m sticky,” says Bryce.
“I’ll wipe him off again,” I say, grabbing Bryce’s hands and scrubbing them with a damp cloth until he starts whining to get back to his coloring book. He really likes coloring and he’s good for a four-year-old, usually manages to stay in the lines. I keep one eye on him and one on the counter, wish there were a few more kids around for him to play with.
The afternoon is busy, which makes me pleased, but it’s a Saturday and they’re usually profitable. I give Bryce macaroni and cheese for dinner, only have time for a few bites myself until I close the booth at nine. Ernest and I eat cold macaroni while Bryce keeps coloring.
“Sticky again,” says Bryce when I try to take the crayons out of his hand. His palms feel like they’ve been smeared with honey, but the paper around the crayon is perfectly smooth.
“You need a bath,” I say, carrying him to the trailer while Ernest locks my booth for the night.
I draw the water in the tub while Bryce tries to undress himself, but he has a problem getting his shirt off and I have to pull it over his head.
“What did you do?” I say to him.
“Too sticky,” says Bryce.
His shirt doesn’t feel sticky, though, so I toss it on the floor, soap Bryce up with a sponge, wash his arms and legs and stomach, then rinse him off. When he gets out of the tub and I dry him off, the towel still wants to stick, so I plop him back in the water and start washing again. This time I scrub harder, until his skin shines pink and he starts to wince.
“You’re hurting me,” he says.
“I’m sorry, honey,” I say, lifting him out of the tub again, but the second washing doesn’t seem to have done any good. It’s like his skin is made of glue or tape. I call Ernest to the bathroom and show him how the towel clings to Bryce and I have to pull it off.
“Not clean enough,” says Ernest.
“I washed him twice,” I say.
“It hurt,” says Bryce, rubbing his arms.
Ernest bends down, touches Bryce’s hand.
“Let’s go to bed,” he says, “then we’ll take another bath in the morning.”
When I tuck Bryce in, he hugs me around my neck. Pulling him off requires effort.
“He’s been like that all day,” I tell Ernest when I walk back to the living room.
“Not much we can do at ten at night,” he says. “Maybe it’ll have worn off by morning.”
When I wake Bryce at nine, he’s cocooned tightly in his sheets and I can barely get his pajamas off.
“He’s still sticking to things,” I yell to Ernest. In a minute he appears in Bryce’s door, helps me wrestle Bryce into shorts and a t-shirt. I’m afraid to touch Bryce for the rest of the morning. He doesn’t seem to have a hard time eating breakfast, walks beside me to the caramel apple booth, but I have to pry the crayons out of his hand when it’s time to eat lunch. The tugging doesn’t seem to hurt his skin, makes me think more of magnets than glue.
Ernest and I don’t talk at lunch, just watch Bryce eat. I give him a caramel covered banana, which makes him happy.
In the evening when it’s time to walk back to the trailer, I think Bryce has problems standing up, like his rear is stuck to his little plastic chair. I pick him up and carry him out of the food booth, but once we’re in the kitchen I can barely get him out of my arms. I give him another bath. The washcloth doesn’t stick, but the towel tries to mummify him.
“We have to take him to a doctor or something,” says Ernest once Bryce is in bed.
“What can a doctor tell us?” I say. “That our kid is sweating sugar? We’d get to see him once a week from behind a pane of glass.”
We can’t think of anything to do, go to bed rubbing our fingers together and wondering if somehow they’ll start sticking together too.
The next day with Bryce is even more of a trial, wrangling him from bed and out of his pajamas. He walks to the kitchen easy enough, but starts crying when he can’t get up off his chair. Ernest grabs the chair and I grab Bryce’s hands and we pull him free.
It’s a Monday and business is awful and I mope around my booth because we owe too much money to the bank and to my parents back home. The latter is worse since I’m more afraid of my mother than any accountant. She says I could have done better than Ernest. Sometimes I think we should have let my folks take care of Bryce for a while, but I didn’t want to. Still don’t want to. Instead we’ll be at this fairgrounds with the rest of the vendors through the middle of the week before we pack up and head to Georgia. I hate traveling in the south. Too humid.
Bryce is teary all day. Cries when he can’t get crayons out of his hand, so I have to help him switch colors. Cries after lunch when he can’t get the spoon out of his hand to start crayoning again. Cries when he can’t get out of his chair because he has to pee. I sell the occasional popcorn ball and try to comfort him, but when I smooth his hair my hand sticks to his head. I can’t concentrate on what I’m doing, burn two batches of caramel.
My poor son is crying so hard that Ruby from the cotton candy booth and Erma from funnel cake booth leave their husbands in charge and walk over to see what’s the matter. Both of them have grandkids in far-away states, work the fair circuit during the summer so they can travel during their retirement years. They love doting over Bryce. I let them in through the back door and try to keep one eye on the caramel I have on the stove.
Bryce whimpers at his table and holds his arms up to Ruby, who picks him up but is surprised when the chair stays on his rear. Erma pulls it off. Both of the ladies wrinkle their noses at him and then at me.
“He’s really sticky,” says Ruby. “Didn’t he get a bath last night?”
“I almost got two again,” says Bryce.
“He spilled some sugar earlier today,” I say, “and it mixed with the orange juice he dripped on his chair. I haven’t had time to go home, but when Ernest comes back I’m sure he can clean Bryce up.”
“I wouldn’t mind giving him a bath, honey,” says Ruby. “Since you’re so busy.”
“No, no,” I say perhaps too quickly. “Bryce is already a bit modest, even around me. He’s just a little sticky. Happens quite a bit.”
The ladies tilt their heads at me.
“And he was fussy last night and didn’t want to go to bed,” I say, “so of course he’s cranky today. Didn’t get enough sleep.”
“Too sticky,” says Bryce.
“Okay, hon,” says Ruby, bouncing Bryce on her hip. “We’re just across the way, so call if you need help.”
“Thanks,” I say, trying to extract Bryce from her arms without tugging too hard. He touched a curl of Ruby’s hair and it comes with his hand so I have to give an extra yank to wrench the curl free. The ladies tell me to have a pleasant afternoon, but even when they’ve returned to their booths I see them talking over their shoulders to their husbands, looking across the way at me every once in a while. I know they will return tomorrow to see if Bryce is clean and cheery.
Dammit. I like those ladies, don’t want them to think Ernest and I are bad parents, don’t want anyone to try and take him to the hospital. By the time Ernest has finished performing for the day I’m about ready to cry myself. He’s not in a good mood, didn’t sell very many tickets, and jokes ruefully about making Bryce into an attraction as the Incredible Glue Boy.
“We’re not going to put our kid on display,” I say.
“I’m not serious,” says Ernest. He takes a little toy car out of his pocket and give it to Bryce to play with. It’s cheap and plastic and I think he got it from one of the guys who runs the rigged games, the ones where you have to toss a ring around the neck of a bottle or knock down a bottle pyramid with a baseball. Bryce is happy, starts playing with the car, running it back and forth across his little plastic table, but then he can’t put it down. We haul him back home and I sit him on my lap, but I’m too tired to try and pull him off when it’s time to go to bed.
“We have to take him to someone,” says Ernest. “A medical professional. There must be some biological reason for this.” But all I can picture is my poor kid wrapped in sterile white sheets that I won’t be able to pry off.
“Let me help you,” says Ernest. He tries to remove my arms from around Bryce who whines and clutches at my shirt.
“Stop,” I say. “Just let us sit here a bit longer.”
Around eleven Ernest goes to bed, leaving me and Bryce in the chair. Outside I hear the clanking and yelling of the vendors and the ride operators closing for the night, the warbling calls of those who are already tipsy with booze. Bryce’s fist full of my hair. My legs losing sensation because of his weight. We’re both too weak and tired to move. He curls his body into mine. For a couple moments I can forget we’re stuck together. Relax. Tell myself in the morning we can give him mittens. Something to put over his sticky hands. In the morning we can deal with it.