A Night at the Carnival | A Short Story

“You can’t tell me what to do!”

Her long red nails flash in the streetlight as she shoves me off of the curb and into the filthy gutter with a splash. My ankle bends at an unnatural angle, sending spikes of pain through my leg, I drop my cigarette. This night is turning to shit.

The roar of the traffic and my splitting headache drowns out the rest of what she’s yelling, but I get the gist of it. She’s pissed and I’m wrong. Story of my life. People crowd around us putting an end to any chance I had of defending myself. She got her big scene.

Leaning sideways, a sign behind her catches my eye—The Sassafras Carnival. It’s dingy with half the bulbs on the sign blinking and the other half burned out. Cigarette butts and beer cans press against the blacked-out window. A seedy dive. My kind of place.

I stand up and step onto the curb, trying to shake off the sickening smell of gasoline and garbage from my pants and shoes. She slaps my face hard and stomps away in shiny black heels. The crowd weighs in as they disperse with not-so-quiet whispers.

“Jerk.”

“Serves him right.”

“What a loser!”

My eyes are still on her. Her red dress trails on the ground, soaking up the wetness from the recent downpour and turning the bottom dark crimson. Her hair falls from its high perch, the wind blowing the red curls into a dancing frenzy. I want to go after her, or at least call to her, but my ankle hurts and I’m thirsty.

The double doors open easily, clearly greased, and I walk into the smoke-filled room. It’s deep and dark, the shape you’d expect from a place like this. Everything’s a shade of maroon or gold with lots of tassels and animal prints. It’s a mix of the Moulin Rouge and those safari-themed restaurants you find near big amusement parks. The faint sound of music can be heard far inside, but it’s mostly drowned out by the sound of people talking and laughing. I can disappear here. It’s perfect.

A waitress wearing a sparkling gold cocktail dress and balancing a tray full of empty glasses stops in front of me. Her hair is tucked inside an elaborate hat with feathers, but a few loose strands of auburn stick to her cheeks. What’s with all the redheads, I almost say out loud, but the look on her face isn’t welcoming so I shut my mouth instead.

“You want to sit at the bar or by the stage?”

She’s got the deep voice of a cigarette smoker and dull hazel eyes. I can’t guess her age behind the thick makeup but she has a no-nonsense way about her, suggesting she’s close to my age. No time for anybody’s shit. My kind of gal.

“Stage,” I say. “Who’s performing tonight?”

I hope my voice sounds like I’m a regular or like I know stuff about music. She doesn’t answer, striding away all gold sequined hips and shiny black shoes. I follow, limping slightly.

In another life, she’d like me. We’d link arms and she’d steer me to the best seat in the house. She’d know my drink order and have it to me in a flash with a playful wink. A lipstick kiss would be on my napkin. But this ain’t that kind of life. I’m a loser nobody and she’s really not interested.

The further we go into the place, the darker and hazier with smoke it gets. A long bar sits on the right side of the room, with crowds of people all trying to get the attention of a stunning young bartender with a low-cut leopard-print shirt and bright red lipstick. She’s laughing and moving fast.

Rows of colored bottles and stacks of glasses line the shelves behind her. Bright gold mirrors and blurry out-of-focus landscape pictures cover the rest of the wall, giving the impression that the bar is larger than it is. I catch sight of my face in a mirror and look away in disgust. The faint smell of bourbon makes me swallow hard. I need a drink.

At the end of the bar we curve right and the music, which I’ve heard faintly since walking in, now is unavoidable. I reach into my pocket for earplugs, a habit I’d taken to in the years I used to come to places like this, but realize I don’t have them anymore. Why is it so loud? My teeth feel the vibration and my head pounds more. This was a bad idea.

My brain finally registers the sound as piano music and I groan. A piano bar. Shit. Before I can stop it, a vision of my mother sitting straight-backed at our family piano rushes forward. I’m holding my sister’s hands and we are dancing around the room to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Sunlight reflects off the dozens of prisms hanging in the window, casting rainbows all around us. We are smiling like idiots. Like innocents actually, but what’s the difference?

I try to focus on the throbbing pain in my ankle, but more images roll forward with the music. The old stuffed dog on my childhood bed. The collection of seashells in the glass bowl on the coffee table from our many family beach trips. Mother’s dark green garden gloves hanging on a hook by the back door. The silly controversy over who ate all the candy mom hid in the pantry. The pang of the loss of my old life hits me and adds to the waves of pain I’m feeling. I stumble and grab the arm of the waitress.

“What’s the matter with you?”

She yanks her arm from mine and scowls.

“Sprained ankle.”

She looks at my soaked pant legs, sighs, and walks on weaving in and out of a sea of small, round tables in a complicated manner I find irritating and unnecessary. The tables are filled with couples laughing, talking, smoking, and touching each other. Anger erupts prickly and red, an apple with spikes in it. I bite my lip and clench my fists.

We stop at a table in the center of the room made of oxidized metal, orange in the dim light, covered with tiny scratch marks. I sit in one of the two chairs, high-backed and made of soft dark velvet. The waitress speaks directly into my ear sending shivers through my body.

“What will it be?”

The words don’t make sense because the piano music has reached a thundering crescendo and the memory of my mom on her deathbed stabs my chest. I bite back tears and look at the stage trying to calm myself. Get it together.

Two large black pianos sit on opposite sides illuminated by bright white spotlights. Both are played exuberantly by performers in cheap plastic masks covering only part of their faces. A zebra and giraffe in matching black tuxedos. What kind of place is this?

The zebra’s got a dark brown fluffy beard sticking out the bottom of its mask, thick bulging arms, and fingers covered in shiny silver rings. The giraffe isn’t wearing a shirt under the tuxedo jacket, but a bright red bra barely containing two perfectly round breasts. Her black curly hair sparkles with silver glitter. The waitress grabs my face and turns it toward hers. Her fingers are icy cold.

“What will it be?”

She speaks slowly as if I’m hard of hearing or stupid. At the moment I feel I’m both.

“Bourbon,” I say. “Neat.”

She’s gone in a flash as the animal players stand and bow. Applause crashes around me; smashing cymbals, screeching monkeys, juvenile catcalls, and relentless banging. My head falls onto the cool metal table and I squeeze my eyes shut waiting for the applause to end. It doesn’t. It increases and transforms into a strange repetitive rhythm. I raise my head and open my eyes.

A spotlight shines center stage on a new masked figure, a tall woman dressed in a sapphire floor-length gown with a slit ending at her hip. Curly red hair peeks out around an oversized peacock mask, colorful feathers fanning out from her face in all directions. Crazed morning glory in the moonlight.

She sways and twirls in time to the clapping, eyes closed, and arms outstretched with her palms facing up. I find my body reacting to her movements, wanting to move with her. When she drops her hands suddenly, the place falls eerily silent. My body turns to stone and I stop breathing.

It’s not until she’s seated behind one of the shiny black pianos that I find my breath return. I suck in the smoky air as she pounds on the black and white keys with an awkward and clumsy style, lacking any melody or form I’ve heard before. I expect people to laugh or jeer, but nobody does.

Everyone, including me, leans forward in their chairs transfixed by this peacock woman. Her feet and legs are bare, white as porcelain. She throws her head back and closes her eyes. Perfect pink lips hum a quiet melody in contrast to the piano playing. I find myself going limp.

A drink slides toward me and I lift it to my lips without taking my eyes off the peacock woman. I feel dizzy and light-headed. I take another long gulp of bourbon, draining my glass, and another slides in front of me almost immediately.

I look over to find a man sitting in the velvet chair to my right. He’s practically my twin with the same dark rings under his eyes, the same unshaven face, and the same black hair in bad need of a haircut. His clothes are different though, while I’m dressed in navy blue pants and a matching suit jacket, he’s wearing faded jeans and a grey t-shirt. He leans forward and I follow his lead. He smells of exhaust and diesel.

“Ya know her?”

It’s a gruff voice, but one I know as my own. Shaking my head no, I take out a cigarette from my coat pocket and my twin leans forward to light it. I take a long drag, feeling the realness of the tobacco burn my lungs.

“Look harder.”

I’m not sure if he means at him or the woman. Both are familiar but I’m not a fan of games or riddles. I drain another glass of bourbon from the several on the table and take another drag of my cigarette. Have I chased a white rabbit? Did I swallow the red pill?

“I don’t like this game.”

The second the words leave my lips the music ends. People leap to their feet in applause and my twin joins them. I watch his movements, my movements, and I wonder if I’m still laying in the gutter outside. Maybe I was hit by a car or hit my head on the curb. I’m in a coma or some shit.

“You’re not.”

He’s back in his chair staring at me with my own eyes. I reach for another drink and find the table empty. The show’s over and people are talking loudly all around us, the spell of the peacock broken. My twin grabs my hand under the table and squeezes it hard.

“You have to let her find her own way.”

I touch the spot on my cheek she slapped and blink away hot tears. Mother told me to look after her, but she doesn’t listen to me. She’s going to get hurt. He squeezes my hand a second time, much harder.

“If you don’t, she’ll never speak to you again. She’ll be fine either way, but you won’t. The choice is yours.”

Closing my eyes, I picture what letting go of her would look like. I’ve followed her around for the last ten years, barely doing much of anything else. She’s not a child anymore and neither am I. What if I decided to let her go? Would it give me permission to live my own life? I barely remember my dreams anymore.

“You okay?”

Lifting my head I find the waitress standing beside me. No sign of my twin. Wiping off tears with the sleeve of my jacket, I notice golden and amber flecks in her hazel eyes. They aren’t dull at all. I nod as she sets another drink on the table with a small white napkin. She smiles before walking away and I feel warmth explode inside me.

My sister will be okay. I drink in those words. She’s a peacock in a sea of pigeons. I need to get out of her way.

Sipping the bourbon I see a faint kiss mark on my napkin. Flipping it over I find a phone number scrawled in light blue ink. Maybe we both can be okay.

Author’s note: This week as I’m swamped with NaNoWriMo, I decided to cheat a little. During the start of quarantine, I created a FB writing group with the intention of working through all the prompts in “Write the Story.” It didn’t really take off and it was mostly me writing with zero likes or comments. I quit at prompt 14. I decided to resurrect the first one I wrote to see how far my storytelling chops have developed. The draft written back then was sloppy and about half this length, more a silly mashup of the words and less an actual story. It was fun to rewrite it and give it structure and I’m pleased with how it turned out. Let me know in the comments what you think and have a wonderful week.


Short Story Challenge | Week 45

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about a strange request at a piano bar. We had to include the words carnival, apple, sprained, mask, juvenile, controversy, oxidation, twirl, awkward, and sassafras


Write With Us

Prompt: The last moment of childhood

Include: Thanksgiving, refrigerator, surprise, contribute, pier, bird, strength, iron, voices, and requirement


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

31 thoughts on “A Night at the Carnival | A Short Story

  1. Beautiful vivid noir setting that keeps us immersed while teasing more hints about each character through flashback until that poignant reveal of their family connection – hope they both find peace themselves 🙂 Gritty and evocative story with a hopeful ending, Bridgette! ❤

    Like

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