“Women is bitches,” James Lee muttered, as he waited for the pushy woman to make up her mind. Not just this woman, but she’d do. Yeah, that’s right lady, ten tickets for $10. And each ride, three tickets. Damn, I don’t make the rules.
“Not all women is bitches,” he rapped under his breath, “but every woman’s got a little bitch.” NWA had it right. He held the words behind his teeth so people waiting in line couldn’t hear, least of all this woman, asking what kind of prices are these and who has that kind of money. I don’t, he thought. The people in line were jammed up now in front of the carnival ticket booth, pushing to get their hands on tickets to ride the Hurricane or buy their kids cotton candy, funnel cakes and kettle corn
“What in hell is kettle corn?” his mama asked him once.
“Just sweet popcorn, I think, mama.”
He could tell they were antsy, mob-like in their words.
“C’mon, we ain’t got all night!”
Kids crying. And this lady got to stop time and treat me like the man. His ex-girl Sheron stood at the back of the line with his seven-year old boy, Trey, who was fat as the rest of them. James Lee felt like he’d been around the universe a hundred times since he’d last seen them. Every town different and the same, a scrap of field, near a liquor store if you were lucky. Now here he was back here in this sinkhole, Dickinson. The city was close enough to the bay that the salted, humid air stuck to your skin, but it had none of the benefits of being near water, land locked as it was save for the bayous. Even the people were locked in and soggy. He sent money back sometimes, when he remembered. He nodded, but Sheron was busy fussing with a baseball cap on the boy’s head.
“It don’t fail,” says Mr. Benson, the carnival manager. “James Lee, it never fails. Each town has its hands full with people bored out of their minds. Their kids are jumping off the walls, their jobs dull as watching elephants shit.” Mr. Benson talked like this after they broke everything down and he was through screaming. James Lee thought he felt bad or maybe he was trying to justify something. His voice was often hoarse. “They’re not suckers. Don’t ever call them suckers. They are good folks like you and me; desperate, but good folks.”
Sheron wasn’t a sucker. James Lee didn’t think her a sucker. A queen bitch, yeah, but nobody who threw good money after bad. She was here because he asked her to come, asked if he could see his son. Most people, though, they scramble for the ATM and pull out crisp bills. They print fake tickets or they ask for just three stubs to use at Dragon Alley, hoping to win a stuffed toy for their kid.
The pushy lady wasn’t through. “How come each ride is three tickets, but you’re selling ten? I have an extra ticket now.” She waved the ticket at him. “I use nine tickets and I have one extra.” James Lee had seen all this before. Every crowd has their mathematicians. He could comp the lady. Mr. Benson wouldn’t yell about comps.
“The customer,” Mr. Benson would say. “The customer, James Lee!”
The lady’s kid was standing next to her, working up a sweat just standing there, chunks of lollipop stuck to his cheek. While the lady was talking, the kid kicked the ticket booth.
“Donny, please don’t do that,” the lady said. James Lee looked over the crowd at Sheron. She was whispering something in his boy’s ear. Donny kicked the booth again. “Donny, use your words!” What she meant, James Lee thought, is “use my words.” The kid let out a scream and punched at the lady’s leg. Yeah, James Lee should comp her. But she was waving the ticket in his face and talking like he was the man. He could grab the tickets and tell her to step aside. Now you got none.
The other kids in line looked past him, past the lady with her boy, at the blinking lights, the rides, the dark apes and dinosaurs, half-naked Amazons leering down from murals, the Catapult shooting folks through the night air like a comet. Maybe they saw something James Lee didn’t. They had a wonder in their eyes he must’ve had when he was their age. That one or two seconds when life opens up, right before the shit comes spilling in. I can’t remember, James Lee thought. I can’t remember.