“Here,” Big Pop said, reaching for his briefcase. “We may be in luck. I may just happen to have one last copy of the official paperwork.” Ray Falcone, 15, did his best to look persuasive. “Sign here and here,” Big Pop said to Jim, the new kid, Sonny’s friend. “Then go down to the computer photo stand, you know Buddy and Sally, they put your face on calendars, go down there. They’ll take your picture and print the permit. They are sanctioned by the carnival and the department of weights and measures. Don’t forget to date it, Jim. Today’s May thirty-first.” The game booths, bright in orange and yellow, made shadows on the midway. Behind the stock truck, rows of metal bleachers formed the grandstand of the lot. The main gate stood between Carmine’s Famous Cheesesteaks and Shiloh’s mother’s fries. Demolition derby drivers sauntered from their campers beyond the mud track’s picket fencing. About the hand truck license, Jim considered whether Big Pop was being funny. Sonny finished slicing cheese and brought a pot to cadence on the trailer’s flat-top grill. Ray watched Shiloh wash potatoes in a plastic camping sink. They’d met the day before, setting water lines. “You can Y off from my hose,” she’d said, “or I can Y from yours.” “That’s fine,” he’d said. “Whichever.” “I’m Shiloh,” she said, holding out her hand. “Ray,” he said. “Carmine is my uncle.” “Frieda is my mom. Frieda’s Fries and Fritters.” Her arms were brown and toned. “How come I haven’t seen you out before?” “We don’t do every spot,” Ray said. “Sometimes we can choose.” “That must be nice,” she said. “I mean, sometimes beef is too damn high. I’d love to have your margins.” “That’s the one good thing about it.” She pulled her hair into a top-knot. “Can you help me with electric? My mom’s still in the camper. I swear, she takes all day.” “You need a power line?” “I have a line. I need a source. The health inspector wants hot water at every hand-wash station. I guess I need a hand wash-station, too.” “You’re not plugging into power on the lot?” “I have it for cold storage. Hot water takes me over.” “I don’t think we brought a genny,” Ray said, frowning. “I don’t think our hand sink even works. The pump is always busted.” “Right? And they’re never worth fixing. The RV dealers sell them, but they mark them up all summer.” “That’s what Carmine says. Big Pop, I mean Carmine Sr., he says they never had hot water in the Navy and no one ever died from that.” “You always pass inspection?” “Pop rolls up his sleeves and shows his Navy tats. He says he doesn’t even do the paperwork.” “Really?” “That’s what he says. He’s been doing it since World War Two.” “He told my mom he invented cheesesteaks.” “I think he invented cows.” Later, Ray would write an entry in his journal about how he’d made her laugh. “The hook-ups are never right with these things, either,” he said about the faucet she was tying into. “The threads are always stripped, something always leaks.” The ground was wet beneath the plastic manifold. “And then people always steal your Y. They cost like what, a buck?” He watched the ripple of her muscle as she tightened on her line. Behind them, the bleachers in the grandstand shone with near-white heat; the reflection of the midday sun made spots behind Ray’s eyes. A wrestling promoter shouted orders to a luchador and strongman blocking out a mid-card fight on dying grass. “This drought,” Ray said, “is crazy. It hasn’t rained since April.” “It’s bad for the russets. Too much rain, too little.” She stood and watched the strongman. “I mean, why does everything have to be so hard?”
Later, Shiloh peeled potatoes. Ray cleaned a metal counter in Carmine’s trailer, watching. “Ray!” Big Pop shouted, “easy fella, you’re gonna wear a hole in it.” “The rag?” Ray said. His face was red. “Shit!” Carmine Senior said, “I’m worried about the counter!” “I’m just making sure it’s clean.” “It’s clean, boy-o. Don’t fall in love with it. Venny qua, come here. Would you take Jim over for his license? Look,” he said, “here comes your steady Betty.” Ray felt his chest expand like every cell inhaling. He tightened up his stomach and put his shoulders back. “You have one?” Big Pop asked Shiloh, who now stood at the counter. He held the papers from his briefcase and waved them in Jim’s face. “It’s in my joint,” she said. “I don’t leave home without it.” She wore silver earrings. Her bangs were bobby-pinned. “Let me pay you now,” Jim said, “instead of garnishing my wage?” “Even better,” Big Pop said. His grandson, Sonny, snickered. “That’s ten from you, Santino. Yours runs out this week.” “Already?” “Time flies when you’re having fun,” Ray said. “Ha,” Carmine Senior said, “time flies when you’re dead!” “Tell him about the cows,” Shiloh said to Senior. “Cows? What about them?” “Ray says —” “You know what they call a cow in It’ly?” “What?” Ray answered. “They don’t call a cow. They milk it. You know why you can’t milk a mouse?” “Can’t get the bucket under,” Shiloh said. “You heard that one before. Ray, take Jim over, would you?” “I can do it,” Jim said. “Will I get a receipt?” “I’ll mail it to you. With the company newsletter.” Jim’s eyebrows drew together. “Could I submit an article?” Shiloh hid her face. Ray looked at the counter. Sonny stepped outside and fell down in the grass. “What time do you go on break?” Shiloh asked Ray while Big Pop signed the papers in convincing loops and serifs. “Depends on business,” Ray said. “I usually go before Sonny. Jim is always first.” “Come over?” “Yeah, sure. I mean, yes. When do you get off?” “I can call my sister on the two-way whenever. She’ll come over from the camper. We can walk around?” The shadows on the midway were hazy, out of focus. Paper cups and napkins blew down from the counter. “Hey, little girl,” Big Pop said. “You think it’ll rain if it starts?”
In the third week of July, Ray helped Shiloh with the awning on her camper. He knew she was strong enough to hold the metal wing above her head and prop it by herself; by now he knew the way her body stretched, the way her muscles tensed when Otto Grundsow, carnival mechanic, tried to rub her shoulders. “I’m going to say something to him,” Ray had said the last time. “No,” she’d asked him, “don’t.” “Why not?” “It’ll make it weird.” “Isn’t it already?” “He’s just touchy-feely. He’s always hugging everyone.” “You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to let him.” “I’ve known him since forever. It’s not a thing. I mean, I’d stop it if it were.” Ray crossed his arms. “You’ve gotten bigger,” Shiloh said. “Your arms. Your chest. Your shoulders.” His hair was lighter, too, bleached by sweat and sun. On Independence Day, they’d had lemonade; she’d rubbed his scalp with pulp and juice — he’d been self-conscious about the food-grease smell and sheen. “I keep breaking out,” he’d said, “it’s gross. No matter what I do.” “You look good,” she’d said, “believe it. That’s what you’re always telling me.” She walked around the camper to the other awning. “This one’s a little higher. I might need some help.” In the lot behind the baseball field where the camper sat, rows of tents and motorhomes made something like a skyline. Through the chainlink of the backstop, the sun drew diamonds on their bodies. “I need to do some things inside,” she said. “I still might need some help.” Ray’s tan face began to lighten, the creases on his temples softened. “I—” “Shit.” She stepped down off the stairs and fixed her eyes behind him. “What?” Above the Ferris Wheel, gray thunderheads were forming. “I didn’t button-down my stand. My mom is gonna kill me.” “Let’s go,” he said. “I felt a drop.” His knuckles brushed her wrist when they started running. On the third base line, the bright colors of the games and rides and food stands faded into stormy brown. It would be a washout, he thought, a whole day lost for sure. When they came back to the camper, Otto Grundsow was sitting on a bucket by the door. He watched a colony of ants build mounds between his feet. “Don’t go in,” he whispered without looking. “The EMTs are coming.” “Mom!” Shiloh dropped Ray’s hand and Otto stood to block her. “Let me go, Otto!” “No, kid, listen. You don’t want to see.” He held her forearm in his giant paw, big and pink like Easter ham. “Let me go, you fatass!” “Sorry, kid. I’m sorry. You don’t want to see.” “Otto,” Ray said, “Let her go. Get your damn hands off her.” “You don’t understand.” Ray punched Otto’s side; the boy’s hand was lost in coveralls and fat up to his wrist. Otto kicked Ray with his boot. The mechanic’s ruddy arms, laced with tattoo green, had Shiloh’s waist and shoulders. She bit the inside of his elbow and fell down on the grass. “Shiloh, kid, I’m sorry.” “Fuck you, Otto,” Ray said. “You’re a little shit,” he said. “Can’t you fucking see?” Shiloh swung the camper open. Her mom was on the floor. “I found this between her toes,” Otto said, holding out a needle. “I didn’t — I didn’t think that you should see.” Shiloh sat down on the steps. Ray grabbed the golden cross he wore beneath his work shirt. “Shi,” “There’s nothing you can do, Ray. Both of you, just go.” “I —” “Please. Both of you.” “Get lost, kid,” Otto said. “Are you fucking deaf? Ray said. “Get the fuck away.” “Assholes, please, just go.” She threw down the two-way. “God,” she said, “and where the fuck’s my sister?” “I’m sorry,” Ray said. “We’ll go. Please let me know — please come find me later?” She nodded, never looking at him. “Whatever you need, kid,” Otto said, “I’m here.” She sat on the camper floor and pulled her knees back to her chest. Ray had liked the way her cut-off sleeves exposed the tanned brown contours of her body, the contrast of her skin against her gray knit sports bra. Now that all felt wrong. Shiloh turned to Otto. “Where’d she get it this time?” she said, slowly rocking. He said he didn’t know. “Of course not. Fucking useless. And that’s what you’ll tell the cops. And nothing ever changes and no one ever leaves. No one ever leaves this lot unless they’re in a bag.” The dugout’s chainlink gate squealed on rusty hinges. The whole fence rattled with a gale that finally brought the rain. That night, Ray sat on the roof of Carmine’s truck, where he and Shiloh had watched the grandstand shows and eaten funnel cake. Standing, he could see the camping tents and sleeping trailers. The storm had blown down awnings and set things on their sides. Carmine Senior left the counter, said he had to take a leak. “I know you’re up there, boy-o,” he said, pulling down his zipper. “Do me a favor and avert your eyes. This is where I piss.” “Okay,” Ray said, not laughing. “I heard about the girl’s mother,” he said. “Kid,” he said, “I’m sorry.” “Thanks,” Ray said, “I’ll tell her.”
The season always ended with the Milton County Fair, Labor Day, one last hustle, one last chance to make enough for winter. Ray washed dishes to the rhythm of the carnival's inversion; Otto Grundsow, fatter now than ever, oversaw the tearing down.
Chris Cocca's work has been published at venues including Hobart, Creative Nonfiction, Pindeldyboz, elimae, Geez, The Huffington Post, and O:JAL. He is a recipient of the Creager Prize for Creative Writing at Ursinus College, and earned his MFA in creative writing at The New School.