by Kristy Gherlone
Adeline searched for her mother’s face among the crowds as her tiny frame dangled sideways under the fortune teller’s arm. If she found it, she wondered if her expression would say, ‘I told you so.’
The carnival had rolled into town on Thursday night, just as it did every year at the end of April, when it was still early springtime in Maine. Missionville was always first on the carnival circuit and for most people it was an exciting event. It marked the end of the long, desolate winter, and was a delightful teaser to the summer ahead; the first in a long string of thrills, but not everyone felt that way. Adeline’s mother hated the carnival. To her, it was so akin to hell that the fire and brimstone it carried with it melted what was left of the snow. It was a haven for prostitutes and drug dealers and tempted those already on the edge of sin. It was a place rife with danger; where gypsies stole away children, and limbs and severed heads littered the ground around the rides that had claimed them. Adeline was never allowed to go, but that didn’t stop her from asking. She’d started begging as soon as the posters began to pop up all over town.
“But everyone else is going. Everyone is talking about it in school,” she whined. “There’s going to be a Tilt-O-Whirl and everything! Janine won a huge stuffed turtle last year, and Sophie said they had the best Dough Boys she’s ever eaten.”
“I don’t want to hear about it,” Adeline’s mother said.
“But everyone will think I’m a freak if I don’t go.”
“I don’t care what everyone thinks. And I don’t care what everyone else does. Gambling is just fine for the likes of Janine,” she said, “but not for my child.”
“She wasn’t gambling,” Adeline sighed. “She was playing a game. You know, like the games we play at the church picnics.”
“Don’t you sit there and compare our blessed church to that rat-infested cesspool,” her mother snapped. “I won’t have this kind of talk in my house. You’re not going and that is that.”
Adeline pouted. She swore her mother hated everything fun. They never went anywhere in the summer except church. While her friends prattled on about camping trips and parades, barbecues and boat rides, Adeline stayed quiet and churned with envy. “But it’s not fair,” Adeline said.
“Fair? You want to talk about fair? How fair is it that I’m the one stuck raising you while your father is off committing I-don’t-know how many sins? How fair is it that I’m working two jobs just so I can put food on the table? Don’t you talk to me about fair! Even if I wanted to let you go, which I most certainly do not, I wouldn’t have the money. I can barely pay the rent, so you can just spend the rest of the afternoon cleaning that pit you call a bedroom and think about that!”
Adeline stormed into her room and slammed the door. Her insides ached with injustice. She jumped onto her bed, snatched her diary out from underneath the mattress, and tore it open. She flipped to a blank page, and wrote, ‘mom is a bitch.’ The satisfaction she felt was momentary. “I’m sorry, God. I didn’t mean it,” she said, scribbling over what she had written. She yanked out the page, ripped it to shreds, and tossed the pieces into the trash can. She turned her gaze towards the ceiling, “God, if you’d just please let me go to the carnival, I’ll never say anything bad about my mother again,” she prayed, though she knew it was a lie. It was supposed to be a sin to hate your mother, but sometimes Adeline did. She didn’t understand why her mom was so mean, because the truth was, she didn’t know much about her mother at all. There weren’t any pictures of her from before Adeline was born, and her mother never shared any of the details about her childhood. Whenever Adeline asked, her mother would say, ‘We don’t air our dirty linen in public,’ whatever that meant. If Adeline persisted she’d get mad, “Leave it alone. My past is mine to forget,” she’d say. If she had ever done anything that brought a smile or provoked a laugh; if she had ever done anything silly or even remotely adventurous, there was no sign. The only smile she ever wore was the fake one at church.
“I don’t hear any cleaning going on in there,” her mother hollered.
Adeline stuck her tongue out at the door, jumped off the bed, and kicked a pile of dirty clothes underneath her dresser. She’d never met her father, but sometimes she wished he’d taken her with him when he left. She thought about that while she cleaned her room.
“And the Lord said, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel!” Pastor Cranmore boomed during Wednesday evening service.
Adeline, who’d fallen asleep, jumped to her feet. “Pepperoni pizza!” she cried out, still in the throes of a dream. Everyone turned to stare. Adeline’s mother grabbed the back of her pants, hauled her back down into the pew, and gave her a scathing look. Adeline shrugged.
“Let us pray,” Pastor Cranmore said. Everyone bowed their heads. “Lord, please look over my flock as they venture forth to do your work. Protect my children as they descend upon that heathen carnival to deliver your words and let them be heard, in Christ’s name, Amen.”
Adeline’s heart skipped. Carnival? She sat up straight and stole a sideways glance at her mother. She was frowning.
Adeline smiled and clasped her hands. “Thank you, God,” she said.
Her mother elbowed her in the rib. “Don’t get too excited, young lady. I have no intention of going,” she whispered.
“But…” Adeline started.
“We’ll discuss this later,” her mother hissed. “Now pay attention.”
“I’m going to need some volunteers,” Pastor Cranmore said. He scanned the congregation until his eyes fell on Adeline’s mother. She stiffened. “Charity Loveridge, I’d like you to take the lead on this,” he said. “We’re going to need some brochures and…,” he continued, talking on and on, but Adeline didn’t hear the rest. She was going to the carnival!
“Remember, we are here to do the Lord’s work, young lady, and nothing more,” Adeline’s mother said the next evening when the church van rolled into a parking space on the edge of the fairgrounds.
Adeline’s face was pressed up against the window in the back seat. “I see Janine! And there’s Ramona!” she exclaimed.
“Did you hear me?”
“A Ferris Wheel! There’s a Ferris Wheel! Oh! Can I go on it just once? Please, please, pretty please?” Adeline begged.
“Adeline Louise,” Adeline’s mother snapped, “I already told you ‘no.’ We’re going to hand out church fliers and that’s all.”
“But that’s not fair!”
“Don’t start with that again. You knew how it was going to be. Now come on. The sooner we hand these out, the sooner we can leave,” she said, slapping a stack of papers into Adeline’s hand.
Adeline sulked. She took the brochures, hopped out of the van, and joined the others who had gathered out on the grass.
“Okay, everyone,” Pastor Cranmore said. “Let’s break up into our groups. We’ll meet back here in an hour.”
“Come on, Adeline,” her mother said, casting a wary glance toward the entrance. “Let’s get this over with.”
Adeline skipped. She couldn’t contain her excitement. The music! The people! She’d never seen anything like it! It was all so thrilling! She ran on ahead.
“Get back here this minute,” Adeline’s mother hollered, running to capture her. Her hand shook as it closed around Adeline’s. “That place is so full of sin, I can feel it from here.”
“Tickets!” the man hollered at the gate. “Get your tickets! Ride all night, only twenty bucks!” he said, waving a string of colorful stubs. He gave Adeline and her mother a lop-sided grin, revealing a mouth full of blackened teeth. “How about it, pretty little ladies? Need some tickets?” he winked.
Adeline reached out to take one, but her mother slapped her hand away. “No thank you,” she said to the man, “but if you care to spare a minute, I’d like to talk to you about Jesus,” she said, pulling out a brochure.
The man’s smile turned into a scowl. “Lady, do I look like I want to talk about Jesus? Cripes,” he growled, “move it along before you scare off my customers!” he said.
Adeline’s mother sighed. “Well, I didn’t say it was going to be easy. Let’s start in the back and work our way through,” she said.
Adeline trailed behind, taking in the sights and smells. “Can I get some cotton candy or maybe a hot dog?” she asked, her stomach growling as she eyed all of the food trucks.
“No,” her mother said. “I’ll make you a peanut butter sandwich when we get home.”
“Everyone’s a winner, folks!” A man bellowed as they entered the game section. “A dollar a try!”
Adeline saw some kids from school playing basketball toss. They looked like they were having a blast. She wished she could play too. “Can I go and say hello?” she asked, hopefully.
“No,” her mother hissed, stopping to give a brochure to a young couple with kids. When they started moving again, Adeline saw a tent with a sign on the outside. It said, ‘Fortunes Read. Five Dollars.’ As she contemplated what it might be like to know the future, an old woman emerged. She wore a funny hat and had on a long skirt. She waved when she saw Adeline. Adeline waved back.
“Adeline!” a voice screeched suddenly from somewhere behind them.
Adeline whirled around. It was Ramona. She was carrying a giant stuffed lion. “Wow! Where’d you get that?” Adeline asked, reaching over to stroke it.
“I won it,” Ramona said proudly.
“Lucky!” Adeline said enviously.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Ramona said. “No one will go on the Zipper with me. Can you?”
“What’s a Zipper?” Adeline asked.
“Only the coolest, scariest ride ever,” Ramona said. “It’s this big cage thing that takes you up in the air and turns you upside down and spins you all around. A whole bunch of kids already threw up on it. It’s real neat.”
It sounded great. Adeline looked at her mother with pleading eyes.
“Absolutely not. It’s not safe,” she said.
Just then, Pastor Cranmore and some of the other members of the group walked up and began talking to Adeline’s mother about all the sin they’d seen.
“Well, I better go,” Ramona said. “I’ll see you around.”
“Okay, bye,” Adeline said, disappointedly. She glanced over at the tent again. The old woman was still there, and she was staring at Adeline. When she motioned for her to come over, Pastor Cranmore said, “It looks like that lady wants a brochure. “Can you give her one, Adeline.”
Adeline didn’t know if she wanted to. She looked kind of scary.
Adeline’s mother stopped talking just long enough to say, “Go on ahead, Adeline. It’s fine,” before going back to her conversation.
Reluctantly, Adeline meandered over to the tent. She kept a cautious distance as she held out a brochure. “Here’s some stuff about Jesus and things,” she said.
The fortune teller smiled, “Why, thank you, child,” she said, reaching out to accept it. “’Course, I can’t see a thing without my reading glasses. I’ll have to go in and get them. Why don’t you come along in case I have any questions?”
Adeline looked back towards her mother, who was still busy talking. She knew she shouldn’t, but she followed the fortune teller inside anyway. Before she knew what was happening, the fortune teller snatched her up and carried her out the back.
Adeline wiggled and thrashed, but the fortune teller tightened her grip and hurried toward the back field. Adeline tried to call out before she could be carried further out of sight, but the old woman clamped her free hand over Adeline’s mouth. “Shush,” she said.
The intoxicating aroma of grilled onions, fried sausages, and cotton candy dissipated as they moved further away from the fairgrounds, and it began to smell more like Porta Potties and grease. It was quieter back there, but Adeline could still hear the muted sounds of music and laughter. Every so often a shriek of terror or perhaps delight would pierce the air, as whoever it came from churned around inside of the Zipper. “It isn’t safe,” her mother had said. Adeline smirked, despite her dilemma. “Yeah. This was so much safer,” she mumbled, rolling her eyes.
“What’d ya say girl?” the fortune teller asked.
“Nothing,” Adeline said.
The old woman’s pace began to slow as they neared a row of campers. “Well, we’re here,” she said, coming to a full stop. “It ain’t much, but it’s home.”
Adeline lifted her head. “Home” was a rusted, red trailer that looked so fragile, a stiff wind could probably blow it to pieces.
“Dale!” the old woman screeched. “Where you at, boy? You come on out here and help me with this child,” she huffed, out of breath. She set Adeline down but kept a hand on her shoulder.
Adeline startled when a large boy busted out through the door and ran down the steps. “Who’s this?” he asked, giving Adeline a once over.
“Don’t matter who. You just help me get her inside. And quick,” she said, stealing a nervous glance around.
The boy called Dale scooped Adeline up. She didn’t even try to fight or get away. She just let him carry her up the steps and inside.
“Have a seat,” the fortune teller said, after she’d followed them in.
Adeline hesitated, glancing back toward the door.
“You can run if you want,” the fortune teller said following Adeline’s gaze. “but I wouldn’t advise it. The carnival can be a pretty dangerous place for a girl alone. Ain’t that right, Dale,” she said, shooting him a look.
Dale pulled a small knife out of his pocket, held it up to the light, and ran his finger along the edge of the blade. Adeline’s heart skipped. This is it, she thought, I’m about to be murdered. Desperate, she searched for something she could say and decided on, “Did you know that Jesus says it’s a sin to murder, especially children? So, you should probably let me go. I wouldn’t want you to get into trouble.”
“No one’s gonna hurt ya, honey,” the fortune teller said. “Dale can be a little rough, but don’t be scared. He’s harmless. He don’t know no better.”
Adeline prayed that was true. She eyed Dale suspiciously and was relieved when he plucked a piece of wood off from the table and began to whittle with the knife.
“Dale, you go on outside now. I’ll call you if I need you,” the fortune teller said.
Dale shrugged, took the wood and knife, and went back outside.
The fortune teller turned her attention back to Adeline. “I just want to talk with you a while,” she said. “That’s all.”
Adeline couldn’t imagine what they’d have to talk about or why.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Adeline.” Adeline said.
The old woman smiled. “That’s a right fine and proper name. People call me Ro. How old are you, child?” she asked.
“Eight,” Adeline said.
Ro sucked in her breath and put her hand over her heart. “My goodness. Eight whole years,” she shook her head. “Time does fly. Doesn’t seem like so long ago that my little girl was eight.”
“You had a little girl?” Adeline asked. Somehow the very notion was a shock.
“Yep, I sure did and she was a beauty. Course not quite as pretty as you,” she winked, “but she was a looker, that one. And the talent! People came from all around just to see her perform.”
Adeline’s interest was piqued. “What did she do?” she asked.
“Do?” Ro cried. “Why, she was one of the biggest deals around, that one! She was a Trapeze artist and a high wire acrobat!”
“Wow! That’s neat!” Adeline cried, unable to help herself.
“Mmm hmm,” Ro nodded proudly. “Oh, that girl worked so hard. Up each morning at four; practicing until it was too dark to see. Couldn’t keep her away from it. She was addicted. She started young and made quite a name for herself here on the carnival circuit before she even turned ten.”
“She lived at the carnival?” Adeline asked incredulously.
“Of course she did. I raised her right up in it. She loved it. Yep, she was a carny girl through and through,” Ro said.
“I wish I lived at a carnival,” Adeline said. “I bet it’s fun. I bet you get to travel around and visit all kinds of places. I almost never get to do anything. Do you like living here?”
“I do. Been with it a long time. I suppose it’s like everything else; good points and bad ones. Sometimes it can get real lonely. I sure do miss my daughter,” she said.
“What happened to her?” Adeline asked. “Did the Gypsies steal her?’
Ro laughed heartily. “’Course not. She grew up, like all kids do,” she said. “She fell in love and had her heart broken when her honey ran off with the snake charmer. She blamed it on the carnival life. She blamed me. When she found out she was gonna have a baby, and couldn’t perform anymore, she got terrible depressed. There was nothing anyone could do for her. When the Christians came, one of them told her that the carnival folk were all sinners. Said her misery was her own fault because she lived a life full of sin. He promised her a new life full of happiness if she left with him and joined their church. He told her that God could make her happy again.”
Adeline thought about that. Her mother believed in God, but she wasn’t happy. “Did she go with him?” she asked.
Ro gave Adeline a sad smile. “She did.”
Adeline felt bad for her. “The Christians aren’t bad,” she said, trying to lighten her mood. “They’re mostly nice, I guess. They wouldn’t hurt her or anything.”
“Oh, sweet pea,” Ro said, reaching over to touch Adeline’s cheek. “No group of people is all bad or all good. It’s a dangerous thing to think that way. You have to take each person, individually. What that man said about carnival folk all being bad was wrong. That did hurt her. It ain’t right to judge someone just cause of where they came from. No one is free from sin. Not the carnival folk, nor any Christian. It doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters what’s on the inside. The carnival does have some awful sinners, but you might be surprised to know we have some Christians here too.”
“You do?” Adeline asked, surprised.
“Sure we do. Religion can be a blessed thing to have in your life, just so long as that’s not all you have. You have to make time for other things. One thing my girl should have known, being a high wire acrobat and all, is that you gotta have balance. If you lean too far in one direction you’re bound to fall. It’s best to stay right in the middle. She forgot that she was always the happiest in the middle. ‘Course if you stay grounded,” she added, “you can’t fall at all, but some people are born with their head in the clouds and that’s a whole different story.”
Adeline wanted to hear more about that, but didn’t dare ask. “Did she ever come back to visit?”
“I’m afraid not. She swore she’d never set foot in a carnival again. She said she wanted to forget about the past.”
“That’s what my mom always says,” Adeline said.
“Well, sorry to be the one to tell you, but that ain’t right. If you forget the past, you forget everything. The good and the bad. The happy and the sad. It’s all part of who you are. It’s all part of who you become.”
Adeline vowed to tell her mother that if she ever saw her again.
As if reading her mind, Ro said, “Well, I hate to, but I suppose I’d better take you back. I’m just so glad I got to meet you.”
Adeline smiled. “I’m glad I got to meet you too.” She knew her mother must be worried, but she wished she could stay a little longer. She was sure Ro had a lot of interesting stories to tell. “I hope you get to see your daughter again,” she said.
“I’m sure I will,” Ro said knowingly. “Sometimes folks just need a little jolt to the memory bank to get them right again.”
Adeline started for the door, but then stopped. “Can you really tell the future?” she asked.
Ro chuckled. “I get a glimpse every once in a while,”
“Can you tell me what mine is before we go?” Adeline asked hopefully.
“Let me see your hand,” the fortune teller said.
When Adeline gave it to her the old woman turned it over and traced her finger along the palm. “Looks like you’re going to have a busy summer. I see some adventures coming your way,” she said.
“Seriously? Are you sure?” Adeline asked excitedly.
“The outlook is good,” Ro winked.
Adeline hoped that was true.
“Just remember, a person’s future is up to them,” Ro said. “Keep an open mind and you’ll do alright.” She opened the door and together they started back towards the fairgrounds.
“How are we going to find my mother?” Adeline asked, snaking her way through the crowd.
“Don’t you worry. I think I know where she might be,” Ro said. “At least I hope so,” she added.
They walked on and on until they came to a large tented arena. Ro ushered Adeline inside. “There she is,” she said, pointing towards a maze of ropes near the ceiling. “I knew she’d come to her senses, eventually.”
Adeline couldn’t believe her eyes. Her mother was up there, and she was balancing on the high wire! She had a smile so bright, Adeline almost didn’t recognize her.
“Hi Adeline! Hi Mama!” Adeline’s mother waved enthusiastically when she spotted them. “I’d forgotten all about this! I’d forgotten how much fun this could be!”
Shocked, Adeline turned to Ro.
“People call me Ro,” she said. “but I hope you’ll call me Mami.”
Adeline laughed. “Really?”
“Come on up here, Adeline, and give it a try,” Adeline’s mother said. “I think it’s time we had a little fun. I think you’re going to love this!”