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April Contest Winner: This Precious Only Endless World

Each month we hold a writing contest for our members, by our members. Writers are given parameters, such as a word count and/or a prompt. Entries are judged and discussed blindly. For April, writers were asked to use a line of poetry in their stories.

This Precious Only Endless World

by J. H. Schiller

The best thing about the carnival is the smells. Sugary sweet cotton candy. Road dust and hot machine oil. The sharp tang of fear outside the Chamber of Horrors. If a man could fill his belly with scents alone, the carnival would be better than an all-you-can-eat buffet. I haven’t missed a summer since I first came as a boy seventy-six years ago. Still, I hunger to breathe it in.

I stroll along the midway savoring the aroma of funnel cake. Visiting each attraction is like stopping in on an old friend. I pause beneath the Ferris wheel, listening to its gondolas creak and sway as lovers kiss and children squeal. The piping strains of a calliope drift on the air, rising and falling in time with faded carousel horses. A barker with a waxed and curled mustache offers to guess my age (too damn old) or my weight (a buck fifty with rocks in my pockets), but I demur. Over the years, this old man has become an observer of wonders rather than a participant.

I’m nearly at the end of the midway when I spot a canvas tent I’ve never seen before. I stop in my tracks. This is where the fire eater always sets up shop with her pet Chupacabra–an elderly dog with patchy black fur and felt spikes glued to his back. But they’re nowhere to be found. The last time the carnival surprised me was when the three-legged tiger escaped his cage and holed up in the mirror maze twenty-odd years back. (Fortunately, we both survived the encounter.)

Long exposure to the sun’s greedy rays has robbed the tent’s blue fabric of its original richness, but it remains vivid enough to set off the silver moons and stars printed on the cloth. To the left of the open flap, a hand-lettered sign is propped against the back of a metal folding chair: Astounding Card Tricks and Close-Up Magic!

I walk toward the tent, glancing up when a fat cloud–oily gray and as swollen as an engorged tick–slides in front of the sun and casts the fairgrounds in momentary twilight. The abrupt darkling carries an otherworldly air that stiffens the hairs on my arms. Then the sun peeks through and the moment passes. I shake my head and duck inside.

A boy of about ten stands next to an old bridge table in the center of the tent. He’s wearing a battered top hat, a tank top with a cartoon character on it, and jeans so dirty they look ready to walk off on their own. Just as I’m thinking he must’ve wandered in and found the place empty, he jabs a dirty finger at the chair on my side of the table and plops down in the other.

I open my mouth to chivvy the young trespasser out of there, but he pulls a deck of cards out of his pocket with an extravagant flourish. Quick as a wink, his nimble fingers have those cards falling in a cascade shuffle good enough to make a Vegas dealer cry.

Openmouthed, I take the empty seat.

“Horace,” he says–and how he knows my name, I can’t begin to imagine–“if you dare to think of the greatness, rareness, muchness, fewness of this precious only endless world in which you say you live, you think of things like this…”

The kid tosses a pair of cards toward the table, and damned if they don’t land standing up on end. With a flick of his wrist, a third card slides on top of them to form a lintel. The air in the tent thickens, wavering the way it does over sun-baked asphalt on the 4th of July. Suddenly, the cards look thicker and darker–more like blocks of slate than slips of cardstock. I lean closer to get a better look. Vivid colors flash under the little archway. Dappled red and green. Tawny yellow.

The boy leans back in his chair and lazily wings card after card at the table. Before my eyes, they become a ring of dominoes–white pips on a black tiles, just like the set I had as a child. Unable to resist, I reach out and tip a domino over. The chain reaction ripples around the circle. When the last domino falls, the stone archway is gone. In its place sits a brown paper parcel tied with twine. As I stare at it, I feel…

I feel…

Wonder. That’s what I’m feeling.

The floppy end of the bow calls to me like a siren to a sailor. I reach toward it, but the kid holds up one grimy hand and shakes his head–a clear warning.

I pull the string.

The parcel falls open, revealing a tiny ocean. In that ocean sits an island. On the island, a tree. On the tree, a single fruit with a glossy purple skin. An ocean breeze carries the sweet fragrance of its nectar to my nose. It conjures ripe peaches and new summer wine and the mineral scent of forbidden love.

I pluck the fruit from the tree and pop it in my mouth, closing my eyes to savor the heady taste. A rush of memories floods my mind. My baby sister’s ancient, newborn eyes meeting mine for the first time. The wet, eager lips of the first girl I ever kissed. The earth-shattering moment of revelation when Jimmy Dougal kissed me. My head spins with the fruit’s intoxicating sweetness, which carries the promise of all I’ve ever dared to dream of and more than I believed possible.

When I open my eyes, I’m on the other side of the table. My dirty hands rest on a neatly stacked deck of cards, and across from me sits a wizened old man. He reaches toward me and traces a gnarled finger along my jawline. Then he winks, levers himself out of the chair, and walks out of the tent, leaving me with a second chance at this precious only endless world.

This story incorporates a line from "Warning to Children" by Robert Graves and draws upon its imagery. It is published here as fair use of a copyrighted work pursuant to 17 U.S. Code § 107.

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