Diana worked the overnight shift in the Everyhour Convenience Store by herself from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. She had heard people say that this or that big city “never sleeps,” but Multioak was a city that did sleep, for the most part, and it was also probably more of a town than a city, so Diana’s job was not exciting. At least during the summer, with the lakers in town and the teenagers staying out all night, there were a few more customers to break up the monotony, so that was sort of nice. Diana didn’t always check IDs on cigarette purchases because she wanted the kids to keep coming back. She always checked IDs on alcohol purchases, though.
Then, at the height of Summer, it was time for the Multioak Neptunalia Festival. The carnival arrived after dark on Friday night, and by Saturday morning, the fairgrounds next to the little league diamonds were covered with a brightly-colored, shabby collection of unsafe rides, unfair games, and unsanitary food stands. At noon, the carnival opened for business. Diana hadn’t gone to the Neptunalia Festival in years and didn’t intend to go this year either. She got up at 2 in the afternoon and spent the remaining hours before work reading on her porch and doing household chores.
That night, the first few hours of Diana’s shift at the gas station were unremarkable, but she knew what was coming. Everyhour Gas Station and Convenience Store was not near the fairgrounds, but it was right along the most direct route from the fairgrounds on the west side of town to Backup Paradise on the east side. Backup Paradise was Multioak’s only strip club, and the carnies loved it. Diana knew that around 2 a.m., once the carnies started trickling out of Backup Paradise and heading back to their campers at the fairgrounds, her shift would get a lot more interesting, but not in a good way. The carnies were crude and rowdy even when they were sober, and not a single carnie who came into the convenience store on the way back to the fairgrounds from Backup Paradise would be sober. They would be drunk and either foul-tempered or obnoxiously happy. Their motor skills would be impaired, which was bad news for the newspaper racks and chip displays, and they would be aggressively flirtatious, maybe even to the point of harassment. It was by far Diana’s least favorite time of the year to be the overnight employee at Everyhour Gas Station and Convenience Store.
Just a few minutes after midnight, the first carnie came into the store. He had not changed out of his bright blue carnival uniform t-shirt with the words “Gone Too Soon Amusements” printed across the chest. He was not much taller than Diana and he looked like a thin man who had recently gained some unwanted weight. He had flat black hair and a few days worth of beard. He did not seem drunk as he nodded a greeting to Diana and walked directly to the fountain drink machine.
“Wow!” he said, turning to look at Diana and pointing at the Huge Pop Summer Deal sign stuck crookedly to the front of the drink machine. “Any size? Only 69 cents?”
“That’s right,” said Diana. “All summer long.”
“That’s a great deal!” said the carnie, taking one of the plastic 44-ounce cups in his hand and filling the bottom with ice. He looked inside the cup and shook a few cubes out onto the grate over the drink dispenser’s drain.
“We do it every year,” said Diana. “People seem to like it.”
“I’ll bet they do!” said the carnie. “If I lived in this town, I’d be in here a few times a day!”
His enthusiasm for the Huge Pop Summer Deal was winning Diana over. She also liked that he hadn’t cussed yet. “Well, you’ll just have to get as many as you can this week while you’re in town,” said Diana.
The carnie filled his cup to the brim with Artiste Cherry Cola, put a lid on the cup, inserted a long straw into his Huge Pop through the top of the lid, and carried the cup over to Diana’s cash register with both hands. He set his drink on the counter and grinned as he struggled to pull his wallet out of the back pocket of his tight black jeans.
“That’ll be just 73 cents and not a cent more,” said Diana, playing it up a little. The carnie had swept her up into his excitement over the deal.
“I think I’ve got the change for that,” said the carnie. “I think I can buy this much pop with change. If you don’t mind waiting a second…” He opened his wallet and emptied the change pouch into his cupped hand. Then he set his wallet on the counter next to his drink and began plucking out coins and sliding them towards Diana.
“Take your time,” said Diana. “I’m here until 6 and there’s no one waiting on you.”
“Thanks,” said the carnie. “I almost wish it cost a little more so I could get rid of more of this change. Almost.”
Eventually, the carnie lined up coins totaling exactly 73 cents in front of Diana on the counter. He dumped the rest of the coins back into his wallet and slipped the wallet back into his pocket.
“I’m actually surprised to see you this early,” said Diana, opening the cash register and dropping the coins into their appropriate trays. “You guys usually don’t start coming in until after 2.”
“Who?” asked the carnie. “Which guys?” He took a long sip of his drink.
“You guys,” said Diana. “Carnival workers. I don’t expect to start seeing you until around closing time for Backup Paradise.”
“Oh,” said the carnie, making a sour face. “That strip club? I don’t go there. Not my kind of establishment.”
“Really?” said Diana. “Well, your co-workers seem to like it.”
“That’s true,” said the carnie. “They do. We mostly work in small towns and it’s rare for towns of this size to have a strip club. They can’t resist. They get in all kinds of trouble over there. Can’t say it does much to improve our reputation.”
“My husband sure liked that place,” said Diana. “Even when he was on oxygen and in a wheelchair, his friends would load him up and take him over there. They had a special seat for him and everything.” She paused. “I’m only 41. He was older than me.”
The carnie nodded in mid-sip, which made him choke a little. “Well, I’m against that kind of thing,” he said. “The carnival is supposed to be innocent, family fun, but it doesn’t feel that way when us carnies are getting in fights and making lewd comments and not keeping the equipment in good running order.”
“Oh, I know,” said Diana. “I remember I loved going to the Neptunalia Festival carnival when I was a kid, but at a certain age, either the carnival changed or else I just started seeing it for what it really was. I never go anymore. Everything always just seems so run down and ugly and seedy.”
“Seedy,” said the carnie. “That’s exactly right. Today’s carnivals are seedy and that saddens me. They’re supposed to be about innocent, family fun, but instead, they’re seedy. That’s what I’m trying to change.”
“How?” asked Diana.
“Every little way I can,” said the carnie. “Being a good employee, cleaning up, keeping up on repairs, being polite and courteous, being a good example, not cheating anyone, watching my language, not causing problems in the local communities and such, and so on.”
“Well, that’s something I can appreciate,” said Diana. “I really think that sounds great. If there were more carnival workers like you, I’d probably start going to the Neptunalia Festival again.”
“I’m just trying to make a difference,” said the carnie. “If it’s gonna change, it has to start somewhere.”
“I’m really impressed,” said Diana. “I’ll tell you what. As long as you’re in town, your Huge Pops are free here. Well, while I’m working the register, they’re free. I believe in what you’re doing.”
The carnie broke into a broad grin. “Free Huge Pops? I don’t know what to say. You’ll be seeing a lot more of me, Diana, you can be sure of that.”
“How did you know my name?” asked Diana.
“You’re wearing a nametag,” said the carnie. “And my name’s Elwood.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Elwood,” said Diana.
“The pleasure’s entirely mine,” said Elwood, and he lifted his Huge Pop in a goodbye salute and left the store.
Shortly after 2 a.m., the usual batch of carnies began to arrive. They slurred and stumbled and cussed and shoved and argued and shoplifted and demanded cigarettes in tones of voice that Diana found very unpleasant. They recounted their exploits at Backup Paradise in graphic detail. They called Diana by condescending pet names and made remarks about her appearance that, while technically complimentary, did not make Diana feel flattered. She found it amazing that someone as kind and noble as Elwood could work with these people week in and week out without succumbing to despair. He was a saint. Giving him a week of free Huge Pops was the least she could do.
The next night, Elwood came in to the Everyhour Convenience Store at 10:30. True to her word, Diana let him have his Huge Pop for free.
“What’s your job with the carnival?” asked Diana as Elwood leaned against the counter and sucked on his Huge Pop. “You don’t run one of those games, do you? Like a ring-toss? How come they have to display those posters of bikini girls and marijuana leaves and cartoon characters flipping the bird?”
Elwood sighed and shook his head. “That’s what they think people want. But they don’t understand that when that’s what you offer, you attract the kind of people who want that stuff. If they’d offer more family-friendly prizes, they’d have a better family environment and more families would come and less drop-outs and meth addicts and such and so on. But no, I don’t run a game. I’m in charge of quality control. I try to make sure all the rides are in good running order. I try to make sure the food’s being stored properly. That kind of thing. I mostly work at night.”
“Behind the scenes,” said Diana. “Making the carnival better and safer and no one knows.”
Elwood shrugged. “I don’t do it for the glory. I love carnivals and I want this carnival to be the best it can be. I can’t fix everything. I can’t make it perfect. But what I can do, I do. In fact, if I do my job right, no one notices at all. People come to the carnival, have a good time, leave without getting hurt or sick, and they never know I was there.”
When Elwood left, Diana came out from behind the counter and went to the door to watch him drive away in the direction of the fairgrounds on his small, beat-up motorcycle. He held his Huge Pop in one hand and didn’t wear a helmet, which struck Diana as odd at first, but then she thought it made sense because Elwood seemed like the kind of guy who worried about everyone’s safety except his own.
Diana went over to the fountain drink dispenser and wiped up the counter, tossing a few plastic straw wrappers into the garbage. She realized with a sinking feeling that, since Elwood had come in so early in her shift, she had nothing to look forward to for the rest of the night. There would only be the usual hours of boredom made worse by the dread of the 2 a.m. carnie rush, then the 2 a.m. carnie rush, then a few more hours of boredom in which she would get more and more tired, and then, finally, her shift would end. But, Diana reflected, Elwood worked in worse conditions than hers all the time, and yet, somehow, managed to remain upbeat. She would attempt to do the same. She returned to her post behind the counter, marshaled all the power of her will, and felt good.
Perhaps Diana was rewarded for her positive attitude. Or perhaps her good attitude summoned him. Or perhaps he was just really thirsty. Whatever the reason, Elwood came back for another free Huge Pop just before 1 a.m.
“I didn’t expect you back tonight,” said Diana.
“I work at night,” said Elwood, standing in front of the fountain drink dispenser and rattling the ice in the bottom of his cup, pretending like there was a chance he might pick something other than Artiste Cherry Cola. “Can’t work on the rides and food stands and stuff while they’re in use.”
“Oh, of course,” said Diana. “So you sleep during the day?”
“Yep,” said Elwood. “And the nice thing about working at night is I’m my own boss. So if I decide I need to come visit you for another free Huge Pop, well, that’s just what I do.” He carried his Huge Pop over to Diana and set it down on the counter.
“That will be zero dollars and zero cents,” said Diana. “Always happy to see you, Elwood.”
The 2 a.m. carnie rush came and went in a noisy, ill-mannered, foul-smelling burst. Apparently two carnies had been arrested for brawling in the men’s room at Backup Paradise and that was all any of the carnies that came through the convenience store wanted to talk about. Many of them tried to relate the story to Diana, but their chronologies were all messed up and they kept referring to different people by their first names as if Diana knew who they were and was intimately familiar with their various quirks and flaws. And for a story about two men fighting in a strip club bathroom, the cast of characters was enormous. By the time the last of the stragglers had purchased their cigarettes and staggered out of the store, Diana was exhausted. Maybe even too exhausted to maintain her good attitude, and she still had another two hours to go until her shift was over.
And then, just before 5 a.m., Elwood came into the store for his third free Huge Pop of the night. “Last one before bed,” he said, flashing a weary smile at Diana as he strode over to the fountain drink machine and took another 44-ounce cup firmly in hand.
“Did you have a productive night?” asked Diana. “Your coworkers sure didn’t.”
“Very productive,” said Elwood between long sips of his drink. “Threw out some old nacho meat. Tightened some bolts on The Tussler. Fixed a few seatbelts on the bumper cars. Cleaned broken glass out of the obstacle course. Very productive.” He seemed so satisfied. Like, to the core of his self.
“You’re going to sleep well,” said Diana. “And you should. You earned it.”
“To a better family environment at the carnival,” said Elwood, lifting and tilting his Huge Pop toward Diana.
Diana pantomimed lifting a Huge Pop of her own and tapping it against Elwood’s Huge Pop. It would have been a sweeter moment if she’d had a real Huge Pop to use for the toast, but Diana never got Huge Pops. They were just too much pop.
The next day, when Diana woke up at 2 p.m., she felt as if she wanted to go to the Neptunalia Festival carnival for the first time in years. She got dressed, ate a meal of eggs and leftover baked chicken, and drove the fairgrounds.
The carnival was more or less as Diana remembered it. It was a hot afternoon and there weren’t many people around yet. Mostly teenagers and pre-teens and stay-at-home moms out with their kids. The stage outside of the pavilion was empty. The performances wouldn’t begin until later in the evening. A poster tacked to a free-standing bulletin board near the stage advertised “Len Maywer” as that night’s scheduled event. The only additional information about Len Maywer on the poster was that he was an “entertainer.” There wasn’t even a picture of him. The poster, to Diana’s way of thinking, raised a few red flags.
There were rickety kiddie rides and adult rides that sought to drown out their ominous creaking and clanking by blaring 10-year-old pop songs through shoddy p.a. systems. There were food stands that looked bad but, Diana had to admit, smelled good, although their prices were outrageous, of course. The people playing the games didn’t seem to be having much success, but she didn’t watch any of them for long because she didn’t like the carnies shouting at her to try her luck. Diana did see a few people walking around lugging enormous stuffed animals or wearing some of the t-shirts she’d seen displayed on the games’ prize walls, so some people were winning, although if no one ever won, then she supposed people would stop playing entirely.
The grass on the midway was brown and trampled flat from all the foot traffic. There was a lot of paper trash scattered around. Diana saw black ants swarming all over three different fallen ice cream cones, one of which was just a vanilla puddle. She also found a ten dollar bill folded up into a narrow strip, but it was damp to the touch, so she left it on the ground.
But as cheap and dingy and thrown-together and, yes, seedy as the carnival was, it didn’t get under Diana’s skin like it had before. It didn’t disturb her. She certainly didn’t find it in any way fun, but neither did she find it threatening. Just knowing that Elwood was out here every night trying to make things cleaner and safer and more wholesome in whatever way he could made the carnival feel almost harmless. Still lame, but almost harmless. When Diana looked around, she saw people eating nachos purchased at carnival food stands and not vomiting, she saw teenagers riding on rides and not getting severe whiplash or getting their limbs caught in machinery, she even saw some t-shirts on one of the games’ prize walls that featured the same cartoon character that was always flipping people off kneeling in prayer. Diana knew that Elwood probably didn’t deserve all the credit, but in her mind, he was solely responsible for every bit of good fun that these people were managing to wring out of the Neptunalia Festival carnival.
As Diana walked back to her car, her cell phone rang in her pocket. It was Mr. Gredt, the owner of Everyhour Gas Station and Convenience Store. “I need you to come in, Diana.”
“Now? I don’t work until 10.”
“Yes, now, if you can, that would be a big help.” Mr. Gredt sounded both serious and excited.
“What’s going on?” asked Diana.
“The police are here,” said Mr. Gredt. Diana could hear his smile through the phone. “They want us to help them with a case!”
When Diana got to the store, Mr. Gredt and two police officers were standing in front of the counter and talking. Both of the cops were short. One of them had a huge band-aid on his chin.
“There she is!” said Mr. Gredt. “This is Diana. She works the night shift. She’ll know.”
Mr. Gredt took Diana by the arm and ushered her over to the police.
“Ma’am,” said the cop with the band-aid. “We’re looking for a man who we believe has been a frequent overnight customer here for the last couple of nights. The manager of Gone Too Soon Amusements believes he may be a disgruntled former employee.”
“Hmm,” said Diana. “That’s not very specific. Do you know what he looks like?”
“This man would have been by himself,” said the cop with the band-aid. “If he is a former employee, he probably wouldn’t have wanted any other carnival workers to see him.”
“How do you know he came in here at all?” asked Diana.
“Because,” said the cop without the band-aid. “We found the spot where he’s been hiding out and there were several empty cups lying around with your Huge Pop logo on them. We know he’s been here on multiple occasions.”
“It’s just not ringing a bell,” said Diana. “There’s a nice guy who’s been in a few times by himself, but he’s a current employee, not a former one.”
The two cops looked at each other. “How do you know he’s a current employee?” asked the one without the band-aid.
“He does maintenance at night. He cleans the food stands. He makes the carnival safer. Better for families.”
“He told you this?”
“Yes,” said Diana. “Yes, he told me.”
“Can you describe him for us?”
Diana looked at the cop with the band-aid, then at the cop without the band-aid. Something felt wrong. “What did this guy you’re looking for do?”
“He was caught trying to sabotage one of the kiddie rides at the carnival last night,” said the cop with the band-aid. “The Gone Too Soon Amusements manager happened to look out the window of his camper and see a figure tampering with the ride. He ran out of his camper and shouted. The suspect ran and the manager pursued him on foot, but the suspect got away. But we have reason to believe that he’s still in the area. He doesn’t know we’re looking for him, as far as we know, but we need to act fast. So please, ma’am, if you can remember anything about this customer you mentioned’s physical appearance or if he had a vehicle and, if so, what kind, or anything else, that would be very helpful.”
“ I…don’t remember,” said Diana, her mind racing.
“Well,” said Mr. Gredt. “We could always check the surveillance tape footage.”
Diana knew Mr. Gredt was cheap and she knew he was strict, but she never would have guessed that he would fire her just for giving away three Huge Pops, especially during the Huge Pop Summer Deal where that only amounted to a total loss for the store of 2 dollars and 7 cents. Mr Gredt had looked personally betrayed when the surveillance tape had shown Elwood leaving without paying for a Huge Pop. He had stood frozen, mouth agape, his right fist pressed against his forehead. All he’d managed to say was, “How many?” and then when Diana told him “three,” he’d said, “You’re done. Get out.”
As Diana had left the Everyhour Convenience Store’s back room, the cops had called for her to stay because they had more questions for her, but she’d ignored them. If she wasn’t an employee of Everyhour anymore, why should she stay? Stay to do what? Have two short cops interrogate her about Elwood and tell her he was a liar and a saboteur who wanted to hurt kids? Why would she stick around for that?
At 9:45 p.m., Diana parked her car halfway between two streetlights a block west of Everyhour Gas Station and Convenience Store and waited. She rolled her window down and listened to the radio for a while, but then she worried that she’d run the battery dead, so she shut it off. Diana waited in silence for two hours with nothing to do but think about her lost job and strippers and carnies and her dead husband and seediness and Elwood.
She saw him coming just before midnight, riding towards her on his little motorcycle. She recognized the buzz of the engine. Diana flashed her car’s headlights rapidly as Elwood approached, signaling him to stop. He pulled up next to her window and peered inside the car. “Diana? What’s going on? I was just coming to get a Huge Pop from you. Why aren’t you at work?”
“You can’t go there,” said Diana. “There are cops waiting for you. They think you sabotaged a kiddie ride last night.”
“The cops?” Elwood looked worried. He sat straight up on his idling motorcycle and looked down the street at the Everyhour Gas Station, an island of garish white light in the otherwise unassuming neighborhood.
“They said they’re looking for a disgruntled ex-employee who’s sabotaging rides. I told them that you’re not an ex-employee and that you fix the rides, but I don’t know, I got a weird feeling from them. I think they want to pin it on you anyway. Like, frame you for it, maybe, since they can’t catch the real guy, but…”
As Diana spoke, Elwood’s face hardened until she almost didn’t recognize him anymore. “It’s always me,” he said, his voice low. “It’s so convenient. It’s not enough to humiliate me, to make me the scapegoat, to fire me. They even try to turn my atonement against me. They refuse to change and so they believe that change is impossible.” He shouted something that wasn’t a word and slammed his hand down on the roof of Diana’s car, making her jump.
“What’s going on?” asked Diana, her voice trembling. “Do you work for the carnival or not?”
“I work for the carnival,” said Elwood. “I work for the carnival more than all of the carnival’s remaining employees put together. I work for that carnival, yeah, I do, but I work for The Carnival too, with a capital ‘C.’” He stopped talking, breathing heavily, still glaring down the street at the gas station as if working up the courage to storm an enemy fortress. “But, no, I’m not currently employed by Gone Too Soon Amusements, nor any other specific carnival.”
“You lied to me,” said Diana. “And I gave you free Huge Pops. And that got me fired. And then I waited here for hours to warn you about the false charges against you. But now I see I don’t know anything. Maybe you were sabotaging that kiddie ride. Maybe you’re a monster.”
Elwood looked back at Diana, an expression of frustration on his face. “I’ve changed,” he almost shouted. “I was careless. I used to be. Last year, I was in that strip club every night, just like everyone else. But when a kid gets hurt, they have to blame someone, and they chose me. That’s the carnival, Diana! Reactive, not proactive. Cut corners until disaster strikes, sacrifice one man no more or less guilty than any of the others, and roll onward without changing a thing! But I won’t go away. I serve The Carnival. I’m following them and I’m saving them from themselves and they refuse to see it! I am a guardian angel, living in the undergrowth, skulking around with a wrench and a bottle of disinfectant. I am family-friendly!”
Diana tried to piece together what Elwood was saying, tried to figure out the sequence of events, tried to fill in the gaps. “You got fired from the carnival, but you follow it from town to town to sneak in at night and fix the rides?”
“I do whatever needs to be done. My goals are loftier than mere safety or sanitation. I seek the greater good of The Carnival. I pursue that end wherever it may lead me.”
Diana didn’t know what to say.
Elwood looked down the street at the Everyhour Gas Station again, his lips moving wordlessly. Then he said, “Diana, how did the cops know to look for me at this gas station?”
“Because,” said Diana. “They found your empty Huge Pops.”
Elwood closed his eyes and slammed his hand down on the roof of Diana’s car again. “I knew it!” His chest heaved as he took deep, alarming breaths. “I should never have let you tempt me with those Huge Pops! You brought this onto me, Diana! You distracted me from my mission!”
“No!” shouted Diana. Suddenly, she found that she did know what to say. “No! I am so sick of being blamed for everything. You blame me for the cops finding you. Now the cops are gonna blame me if you get away. Mr. Gredt blames me for Everyhour’s financial problems ‘cause I gave away three Huge Pops. My husband said it was my fault he blew our life savings on drinks and strippers in the last year of his life. You’re never going to change the carnival, Elwood. This carnival, any carnival, The Carnival with a capital “C.” It’s all gonna be seedy forever. It’s just gonna get seedier and seedier. You know why? Because you’re a carnie and carnies are seedy and you’re seedy, Elwood, you dirty, seedy carnie. When every last carnival is finally gone for good, swept off the face of the earth—and may that day come soon — you will disappear with them. You will just be gone.”
As Diana drove away, Elwood shouted after her, but she couldn’t understand a word. It was incoherent and obscene. Nonsense. Drivel. Carnie-babble.