Aimee watched the sky, quietly.
Tonight was one of those motionless hot summer nights. The concrete pier empty, the strung red, white, yellow bulbs burning like insects in the air above the wooden emptiness. The managers of the various carnival pitches stood, like melting wax dummies, eyes staring blindly, not talking, all down the line.
Two customers had passed through an hour before. Those two lonely people were now in the roller coaster, screaming murderously as it plummeted down the blazing night, around one emptiness after another.
Aimee moved slowly across the strand, a few worn wooden hoopla rings sticking to her wet hands. She stopped behind the ticket booth that fronted the MIRROR MAZE. She saw herself grossly misrepresented in three rippled mirrors outside the Maze. A thousand tired replicas of herself dissolved in the corridor beyond, hot images among so much clear coolness.
She stepped inside the ticket booth and stood looking a long while at Ralph
Banghart’s thin neck. He clenched an unlit cigar between his long uneven yellow teeth as he laid out a battered game of solitaire on the ticket shelf.
When the roller coaster wailed and fell in its terrible avalanche again, she was reminded to speak.
“What kind of people go up in roller coasters?”
Ralph Banghart worked his cigar a full thirty seconds. “People wanna die. That rollie coaster’s the handiest thing to dying there is.” He sat listening to the faint sound of rifle shots from the shooting gallery. “This whole damn carny business’s crazy. For instance, that dwarf. You seen him? Every night, pays his dime, runs in the Mirror Maze all the way back through to Screwy Louie’s Room. You should see this little runt head back there. My God!”
“Oh, yes,” said Aimee, remembering. “I always wonder what it’s like to be a dwarf. I always feel sorry when I see him.”
“I could play him like an accordion.”
“Don’t say that!”
“My Lord.” Ralph patted her thigh with a free hand. “The way you carry on about guys you never even met.” He shook his head and chuckled. “Him and his secret. Only he don’t know I know, see? Boy howdy!”
“It’s a hot night.” She twitched the large wooden hoops nervously on her damp fingers.
“Don’t change the subject. He’ll be here, rain or shine.”
Aimee shifted her weight.
Ralph seized her elbow. “Hey! You ain’t mad? You wanna see that dwarf, don’t you? Sh!” Ralph turned. “Here he comes now!”
The Dwarf’s hand, hairy and dark, appeared all by itself reaching up into the booth window with a silver dime. An invisible person called, “One!” in a high, child’s voice.
Involuntarily, Aimee bent forward.
The Dwarf looked up at her, resembling nothing more than a dark-eyed, dark-haired, ugly man who has been locked in a winepress, squeezed and wadded down and down, fold on fold, agony on agony, until a bleached, out-raged mass is left, the face bloated shapelessly, a face you know must stare wide-eyed and awake at two and three and four o’clock in the morning, lying flat in bed, only the body asleep.
Ralph tore a yellow ticket in half. “One!”
The Dwarf, as if frightened by an approaching storm, pulled his black coat-lapels tightly about his throat and waddled swiftly. A moment later, ten thousand lost and wandering dwarfs wriggled between the mirror flats, like frantic dark beetles, and vanished.
Ralph squeezed Aimee along a dark passage behind the mirrors. She felt him pat her all the way back through the tunnel to a thin partition with a peekhole.
“This is rich,” he chuckled. “Go on – look.”
Aimee hesitated, then put her face to the partition.