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From the Dirt

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Wonder.

He could see it in their faces.

The way their mouths fell open a moment before their eyes went wide. Kids, farmers, shopgirls, grandmothers- it didn’t matter how old or young, they all felt it. Some as soon as they passed though the gate. The lights glittered in their eyes, reflecting the new and strange visions their minds hadn’t dared to imagine.

The sound of a half dozen tunes mingled together, the brightest and loudest from the merry-go- round. A slower, more languid rhythm could barely be heard from a tent in the back surrounded by men. Laughter, cries of surprise and delight competed with the barkers for attention.

The scent of spun sugar and popcorn hung thick in the summer air.

Along the main paths, faded images of past headline acts were painted over with brightly colored renditions of fantastical people with unbelievable attributes. Crowds moved from tent to tent, weaving between games and amusements, searching for a sight more exotic than the last.

The big wheel drew the most attention. At its size, almost fifty feet up, it could be seen for miles on the dust-choked plains. Rows of lights strung between the main supports shined bright like stars as it turned through the night.

One year, he remembered it had been a real good year, they had the extra money to spring for the wiring and bulbs to light it up. It was his idea, Jonesy recalled with more than a bit of pride. Samson said it would amount to squat and put them in the hole to boot, but they’d tried it. Took a lot of work, almost gave up on the idea altogether, but they managed to rig it up somehow. It looked real fine too. The big wheel attracted even more folks after that.

Jonesy would watch as they walked towards it, like invisible hands were guiding them through the crowds and tents.

His momma had said that God made people from the dirt. They were born on earth already reaching towards the sky, their souls knowing the were meant for something better. They were meant to be with Him among the stars.

Jonesy reckoned he never really understood what she’d meant, but he saw the ways folks changed on their first ride up.

The wonder spread across their faces as they glided through the stars.

 

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“You ever been up?” Jonesy asked, nodding to the big wheel as the gears twisted the swinging seats to the top. Children’s laughter could just barely be heard over the clugging of the motor.

“Nah,” Ben replied, glancing away as if that might end the conversation. He didn’t like to talk, which was one of the reasons Jonesy tolerated him. Besides, he didn’t need the kid to talk, he had him figured pretty quick. He could read folks pretty good.

The kid was from the dirt. More than that, he was stuck in it.

Jonesy had seen it more and more the longer they traveled. The rains never came. The winds never stopped.

People lost hope.

His momma said folks like that had stopped reaching.

Jonesy took a slow drag off the end of his cigarette and looked up to the top of the big wheel. He counted the colored metal carts as the passed. Three, four, five-

“So, do you got one or not?” Ben prompted him, clearly wanting to get on with his business without bumping gums.

Jonesy continued counting the carts, his hand resting on the brake. The kid had come looking for an extra bulb for the ten-in-one. They hadn’t told him where the extra were kept, so he’d been asking around to little effect. At least that’s what Jonesy figured, considering he’d watched the kid crisscross the grounds for a half hour with no luck.

“Yeah, I got one,” Jonesy replied as the tenth cart passed and he pulled the brake, bringing the big wheel to a stop.

There was a chorus of disappointment from the children on the bottom and a squeal of delight from a young woman on top. He lifted his braced leg off the support cable he’d propped it up on and limped to the base of the wheel. The children gave another disappointed groan as he lifted the rail on their cart. The ride was over.

“You take care now,” he called after them as they bounded into the waiting arms of their parents. They chatted excitedly as they parents seemed relieved they had made it back to the ground safely.

Some folks were afraid.

There had been a few bad accidents over the years. Kids getting hurt, a man died. Some were afraid of heights, of falling, or being trapped at the top. He reckoned he understood, sitting fifty feet up in the air wasn’t something man was born to do.

Before he snapped the rail back down into place, he glanced to Ben.

“You want a go?” Jonesy asked, gesturing to the wheel with the stub of his cigarette before he flicked it away. He figured everyone should get a chance to get their feet out of the dirt.

Ben lifted an eyebrow in disbelief, of the question or the idea, Jonesy didn’t know.

“No,” Ben replied a moment later, quickly. “Thanks, but that ain’t for me.”

“Suit yourself.” Jonesy shrugged and secured the bar. He couldn’t say his opinion of the kid improved any.

Some were afraid of seeing something different, feeling something they couldn’t explain. He didn’t know why it made people afraid.

Though, he supposed he had been afraid once, back when he first joined up. Those first weeks, the very air inside the tents seemed alive. The saw things he talked himself out of seeing, heard things that shouldn’t have been heard. He thought he was loosing his mind on top of losing everything else.

His momma said people weren’t afraid to reach, but they were afraid to lose. Sometimes, folks who had found happiness and lost it were the ones who were most afraid.

Jonesy made his way back to the break and released it. The carts began to move again.

He pulled a spare bulb from his pocket and held it out for the kid to take.

 

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The crowds drifted away as the moon traveled higher in the sky. Cars drove off, kicking up clouds of dry dirt. The head lights turned red in the haze, same as they did in a storm. By the time the main gate switched off, the excitement had gone with it. Gone for another night, another year if they even managed to keep the operation going long enough to make another circuit.

People needed to be fed, generators and trucks needed fuel, parts needed replacing- and that was on a good day. The way things were going, Jonesy figured they’d been done before winter. He kept that to himself.

The big wheel would be gone as soon as they couldn’t pay for gas for the two trucks it took to haul it. It was just the way of things these days. What took folk years to build up was gone overnight.

Jonesy lit another cigarette as he leaned back against one of the beams. A moment later, the main power was cut and the lights went out. He looked up at the sky and took the cigarette from his mouth as he exhaled. With no more competition from his stars, the real ones shone bright, sharp as white pin-pricks on the black night.

He heard shimmering in the air and smiled.

“Jonesy,” he heard his name a few moments later.

“Heya, Sofe,” he replied, his smile widening at the sight of her. He stood away from the wheel and smoothed his hair quickly out of his face.

She was wearing that skirt with the little metal pieces that dangled from the end and sounded like soft bells when she moved.

She returned his smile with a small one as she ducked under the support ropes and weaved her way to him. She had one of her Ma’s cards in her hand. He couldn’t see which one, but it wouldn’t have mattered much anyhow. Fortune telling wasn’t his thing.

He reached out and took her hand to help her over the last beam.

“Have you seen Ben?” she asked.

His smiled dropped a bit. “The hayseed?”

She misread the surprise in his voice as derision, withdrawing her hand from his.

“Cut him some slack, he’s new at this,” she reprimanded him good-naturedly. Her eyes drifted away from his as she spoke, settling on something behind him. The kid, by the look in her eye.

“See you tomorrow,” she said as she moved on.

“Sofie,” he called after her. She paused and looked back at him, impatient.

“He’s drifting, he won’t be here come next week.”

“I know,” she replied, her voice sounded confident. A moment later she had disappeared out of sight, only the jingling of her skirt reminding him she was still near.

She had made the skirt herself, with a sheer drape left over from a performer than had moved on. She sewed stars on it with yellow thread. He’d helped her cut little metal pieces from the tin cans they found. She’d sewed those on the hem. With each step, the metal glittered softly. It drew attention, she had said, it sounded magical and made her seem mysterious. It was beautiful, he had said.

His momma had said people weren’t afraid to reach, but they were afraid to lose.

He hadn’t been afraid of nothing in a long while.

Until he saw the way the kid looked at Sofie and the way Sofie looked back at the kid.

 

 

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