Jeffrey had never been to a carnival before, so when Ella suggested that they go to one, he was quite skeptical.
“A carnival”, he queried, his face the picture of puzzlement. “Whaddya wanna go to a carnival for?”
Ella smiled her sweetest, most engaging smile, the one she knew left Jeffrey as putty in her hands, and linked arms with him as they exited the movie theatre and strolled down Main Street.
“Carnivals are fun and romantic and exciting”, she told him as the other movie-goers spilled from the theatre and began heading towards their next destination. “Haven’t you ever been to a carnival before?”
Jeffrey hadn’t ever been to a carnival before and when he confessed this to Ella, she insisted that they go to the annual carnival held by their town. Amidst much protestation from Jeffrey, Ella convinced Jeffrey to take her to the carnival the next evening, which was Saturday.
“I promise you’ll have the time of your life!” she assured him when Jeffrey continued to voice his objections. “Don’t worry.”
But Jeffrey couldn’t help but be anxious. He hadn’t told Ella the real reason why he had never attended the annual town carnival. Jeffrey was afraid. He was scared of heights, clowns, and the rickety carnival rides that promised thrills but looked like they would fall apart at any given moment. He was afraid of the jugglers on stilts that towered above the crowds and the menagerie tent that contained wolf-boys, mutant rats, and a host of other freakish wonders. In the daytime, these things seemed bright, cheerful, and exciting, but after dark, it all became spooky and sinister to Jeffrey. The dark crevices, corners, nooks, and crannies created by the placement of the rides and attraction tents seemed like a gauntlet of terrors to Jeffrey. As he dropped Ella off at her home and kissed her cheek goodbye, his thoughts were consumed with finding a way to avoid the carnival at all costs.
However, this was going to be no easy task. The carnival stayed active the entire month of August and they were open until ten o’clock each night. Even though this was their last week, Ella was determined to take him to his first carnival and Jeffrey knew it was going to be very difficult to dissuade her of this intention. He was going to have to come up with a very convincing reason why he couldn’t go to the carnival that would not entail him admitting to his childish fear and keep Ella from being upset with him for ruining her plan to expose him to the wonderful world of carnivals.
“So, you can pick me up at about three PM tomorrow afternoon”, Ella said, and squeezed his hands excitedly, grinning from ear to ear at the prospect that was making Jeffrey quite nauseous. The timeframe she gave made Jeffrey panic and his eyes bulged as he scrambled to think of a reason to delay their departure.
“Well, I’ve got a lotta stuff to do tomorrow, Ella”, Jeffrey stammered, his mind racing to come up with some important task that would occupy most of his Saturday afternoon and evening. “So I won’t be able to pick you up at three.”
“What do you have to do?”
“Well, stuff”, Jeffrey sputtered, still racking his brain for an excuse and coming up empty.
“What stuff?” Ella persisted.
“Well, lots of stuff”, Jeffrey hemmed, stuffing his hands in his pockets as he stared down at his shoes, still searching for some task that would save him from calling on Ella so early in the day.
“What stuff, Jeffrey?” Ella demanded, crossing her arms over her chest, her suspicions rising as it began to occur to her that Jeffrey might be trying to avoid taking her to the carnival.
“I gotta wash my hair”, Jeffrey blurted and winced at his shoes at the implausibility of his excuse. He hurried to add additional tasks to make it seem like he actually had a crowded dance card. “And cut the grass, and help Chuck with some stuff.” The instant his best friend’s name left his lips, Jeffrey regretted it since Chuck was a worse liar than he was.
“What stuff do you have to help Chuck with?” Ella asked, her suspicions confirmed with the flimsiness of Jeffrey’s initial claim of having to wash his hair when he had a crew cut.
Darn this infernal woman and her questions, Jeffrey thought as he was forced back to square one by Ella’s continued demand for clarification. “I gotta help Chuck build a barn and you know these barn raisings start early so I better be getting home. Good night, Ella, see ya tomorrow.” Jeffrey turned and nearly ran down the street in his haste to escape Ella’s persistent questions and his complete lack of answers to those questions.
“Wait”, Ella called. “What time are you picking me up?”
“I’ll pick you up at nine”, Jeffrey shouted over his shoulder as he continued down the street at a hurried clip.
“But the carnival closes at ten”, Ella shouted back, but Jeffrey had already rounded the corner. Ella sighed and went inside as Jeffrey continued on his way. He had to get to Chuck’s as soon as possible. He needed his best friend to help him figure out how he was going to avoid the carnival.
“Ella wants me to take her to the carnival tomorrow night”, Jeffrey nearly shouted the moment Chuck opened his front door to insistent pounding. His eye’s were wild and panicked as he burst through Chuck’s front door and, having been best friends with Jeffrey since they were six years old, Chuck knew how Jeffrey felt about carnivals.
“Let me guess: you didn’t tell her you were afraid of carnivals, did you?” Chuck said dryly, shutting his door and following Jeffrey into the living room.
“Heck, no, I didn’t tell her”, Jeffrey said emphatically. “Do you know how embarrassing that would be? I just have to figure out how to keep myself away from there until it’s over, just like I do every year. Only I messed up and I told her I had never been to a carnival and now she’s got her heart set on taking me to my first carnival.”
“Wow”, Chuck said rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “And you say Ella’s got her heart set on taking you to the carnival now?”
Jeffrey nodded, his face still stricken with panic.
“Well, you might be just about to get your carnival cherry popped cause I ain’t never know Ella to not get what she wants”, Chuck told his best friend, a worried look on his face.
“Not if you help me think of some things that I have to do so I can keep telling Ella that I’m busy”, Jeffrey insisted. “I already told her I had to help you build a barn tomorrow, so all we have to do…” Jeffrey never got to finish his sentence.
“You told her you had to what!” Chuck couldn’t help but interrupt Jeffrey when he mentioned the impossible lie he had told Ella. “I don’t know how to build a barn! And why would I want to build a barn when I already have one that I don’t even use now?”
“We don’t have to build a barn!” Jeffrey said in irritation. “We just have to make Ella think we’ll be busy most of the day and then I can drag it out into the night until the carnival closes at ten. The point is to keep me away from the carnival and I need your help to do it!”
“Well, OK, buddy”, Chuck said, holding up his hands in supplication. “What’s your plan?”
“I don’t have a plan!” Jeffrey shouted, his eye’s popping as the panic welling in his chest threatened to suffocate him. “That’s why I came over here! You’ve got to help me think of something!”
“Well, first you gotta calm down, Jeff”, Chuck said. “Then you can tell her that you’re helping me clean my barn, which, I guarantee you is a chore that might take the whole weekend.”
“Really?” Jeffrey asked his eyes hopeful and earnest.
“Oh, absolutely”, Chuck reassured him. “I’ve got tons of junk piled in there and my mom’s been bugging me for months to clean it out, so you just tell her you misunderstood me when I asked you to help me and there’s your excuse.”
“Whoo-hoo”, Jeffrey shouted, thrilled beyond his expectations at how splendidly his best friend was coming through for him in this dire situation. “I knew you would bail me out! Chuck, old boy, you’re the best! I’ll be over here in the morning ‘bout nine or ten, whenever the carnival opens. Whoo-hoo.” Jeffrey grabbed his friend in a bear hug before tearing out the front door just as fast as he’d burst in.
“Chuckie, what’s all that hootin’ and hollerin’ goin’ on down there?” Chuck’s mother yelled from her bedroom.
“Nothing, Mom, it’s just Jeffrey”, Chuck yelled back. “He’s coming over tomorrow to help me clean out the barn. Go back to sleep.”
Jeffrey ambled home pleased with the plan he and Chuck had created to thwart Ella’s plan to get him to the carnival, but as he slept that night, he was plagued by dreams of his childhood. In his dream he was three years old again and lost at the carnival, surrounded by grotesque laughing clowns, monstrous figures as tall as giants juggling flaming spears, and dark, gloomy alleys that seemed endless. They were all coming at him, menacing, looming figures trapping him in the endless abyss of the alleys between the tents where his cries for his mother were engulfed and seemed to dissipate as though they had never been uttered. He awoke immersed in his own sweat and more determined than ever to avoid the carnival at all costs. It had taken his mother only minutes to find him the day he had wandered off and gotten lost at the carnival, but this had seemed like hours in his three year old mind and the traumatic event had left him forever leery of the festive place millions of people around the world loved to visit.
He tossed and turned the rest of the night and in the morning he washed his hair in the shower, so as not to have lied to Ella, and dressed in some old sweats and a t-shirt. He ate a bowl of Honey-nut Cheerios, washed his bowl and spoon, and went to Chuck’s house to help him clean his barn. It was a little after nine when he got there and Chuck’s mother offered him breakfast, so pleased was she that he was going to help Chuck clean out the barn. She had made banana nut Belgian waffles, eggs, and sausage, so Jeffrey accepted the offer and filled up on the delicious fare. Chuck’s mother was a wonderful cook, which explained why Chuck was so husky in build.
“I’m so glad Chuck is finally going to clean all the junk out of that barn”, his mother gushed as she piled Jeffrey’s plate with food. “I’ve been bugging him to get this done for months now.”
Full to the gills, Chuck and Jeffrey waddled over to the barn, full of dust and piled high with all sorts of old appliances, junked cars, old farming equipment, and a variety of other items in Chuck’s ‘salvage collection’. But way in the back of the barn, past the stacks of rusting metal, was the real reason Chuck had collected so much junk. This was Chuck’s hideout, complete with a working refrigerator full of beer, a couple of Lay-Z-Boy recliners, and a big screen TV with pirated cable. Hidden away from the world, the pair lounged sleepily in their respective recliners, watching sports and drinking beer until Chuck’s mother called them in for lunch. They feigned wonderful progress while consuming corned beef sandwiches so thick they could scarcely hold them and dill pickles before retreating back to the barn, where they continued their earlier exploits through the rest of the afternoon. By evening, Jeffrey was a nervous wreck once more, fretting his impending meeting with Ella, which he was supposed to intentionally miss.
“She’ll be so upset with me when I’m late”, Jeffrey told Chuck mournfully.
“Either you do this or you pick her up and go to the carnival”, Chuck said in a simple statement of the facts.
“But I’ve never lied to Ella before”, Jeffrey protested.
“So, tell her the truth and call it a day”, Chuck suggested, yawning loudly.
But they both knew Jeffrey would never admit to his childhood fear and so, at precisely 9:55 PM, Jeffrey made his way to Ella’s house to make his excuses for his tardiness and tell her he wouldn’t be able to attend the carnival since he would be cleaning out Chuck’s barn for the rest of the weekend. He fully expected Ella to be fuming when he arrived and for her to be completely disappointed at the news, but she wasn’t.
“I stopped by to see Chuck’s mom today and she told me how happy she was that you were helping Chuck clean out the barn”, Ella said after hearing Jeffrey’s news. “She said it could take as much as a week before you two are finished cleaning out all the junk Chuck has piled in there over the years. So, I guess what I’m saying is that I will join the two of you and help tomorrow so maybe we can get done sooner. What do you think?”
She was smiling even as Jeffrey stared back at her in horror.
“What?! You can’t do that!” he exclaimed, panicked at the prospect before recovering his composure when he noticed Ella’s puzzled expression. “What I mean is, a genteel woman like you need not sully her hands with such matters. Chuck and I will manage just fine without you and I will try to meet you later tomorrow night for the last day of the carnival.”
“Promise me we won’t miss the last day, Jeffrey”, Ella begged earnestly.
Not wanting to lie outright, Jeffrey tried his best to avoid making such an empty promise since he had absolutely no intention of making the last day of the carnival under any circumstances.
“I’ll do my best, darling”, Jeffrey said, kissing her check and felt horrible for telling even this lie because he knew he would do no such thing.
Sunday morning found Chuck and Jeffrey doing much the same thing as they had the day before. They were well into the day’s sport’s news when Chuck heard his mother calling them from the front of the barn. Now Chuck was in a panic, jumping from his lounge chair to shut off the TV. Dragging Jeffrey from his chair, he pulled his friend from his secret hideaway and pulled him towards the front of the barn.
“My mom doesn’t know about this room”, Chuck whispered, “and I don’t want her to find out.” He rushed them to meet her before she could venture too far inwards.
“Hey, Mom, here we are”, Chuck called rushing towards her. “What’s wrong, is there a problem?”
“Oh, hi boys”, Chuck’s mother gushed, looking around with a disappointed expression on her face. It was clear that they had not made the progress they claimed from the day before.
“We started in the back, that’s why we were back there”, Chuck volunteered in explanation for the sameness of the room.
“Oh”, his mother said, relief covering her face as hopes of a clean barn returned. Remembering what she came to the barn for in the first place, she began speaking again. “Ella’s at the house and says she needs to speak to Jeffrey right away”, she said, smiling.
Fearful of what could have brought Ella to Chuck’s house looking for him, the two friends shared a confused look before following Chuck’s mother out of the barn and back to the house. Ella sat in the kitchen sipping a glass of ice cold lemonade Chuck’s mother had given her before excusing herself to the barn to fetch the boys. She rose as the trio entered the kitchen and rushed over to Jeffrey, hugging him in her excitement.
“Jeffrey, I have wonderful news”, she exclaimed. I just heard on the radio that Mayor has decided to extend the carnival for another week. The town has made so much money and, given the recession, the Mayor thinks the town can use the extra money, so the carnival isn’t ending today! Isn’t that great? Now we have plenty of time to plan the trip to the carnival for you!”
Both Chuck and Jeffrey stood in the middle of the kitchen with their mouths hanging open and Jeffrey looked as though he might pass out. The town had never extended the carnival and Jeffrey couldn’t believe his bad luck in that the Mayor had picked right now to make history. Unable to keep his cool or maintain the lie that was clearly not working, Jeffrey howled in frustration.
Taken aback by his explosion, Ella looked at Jeffrey with concern.
“You’re not happy?”
“Ella, I need to tell you something”, Jeffrey said, deciding to tell Ella the truth. After all, even if he made it through this year, she would only try to get him to go next year and the year after and so forth until he broke down and told her the truth anyway, so he might as well get it over with. He told her of about how he had gotten lost at the carnival when he was three and how scary the experience had been and how he had avoided the carnival ever since.
“Thank you for telling me the truth”, Ella said when Jeffrey had finished speaking, “but you could have told me this from the beginning. You didn’t have to pretend and we don’t have to go to the carnival at all. In fact, I’m going to go home and change and help you guys clean the barn, like I said I would.”
Chuck nudged Jeffrey quite hard at this comment, not wanting to risk Ella joining them and finding out about his secret hiding spot.
“Why don’t you stay here and keep Chuck’s mom company while we handle the cleaning”, Jeffrey suggested trying to preserve his friend’s secret.
“OK”, Ella agreed and kissed Jeffrey on the cheek as he and Chuck returned to the barn.
“I can’t believe the Mayor extended the carnival for another week”, Chuck’s mother said to Ella after the boys had gone.
“Oh, he didn’t”, Ella said. “I just told Jeffrey that so he would tell me why he didn’t want to go.”
The two women shared a laugh as they sipped lemonade.