Everyone’s a Winner
I work the ring toss; it’s an impossible game. My father designed it that way. The ring will only fit over the square peg if lined up exactly right, a one in seven hundred chance. That’s what Dad says. But more than seven hundred people have played and no one has won anything besides the cheap prizes we give away just for playing—paddle balls, Chinese finger traps, disco ball necklaces. “Everyone’s a winner,” is what I say, but so far no one is.
Most days I hope someone will win. I collect wooden rings from the floor and imagine one of them finding its way around a peg. How thrilling it would be to scream, “We have a winner!” and wave a giant stuffed flamingo above my head. Even though the top prizes are older than I am. Above me, life-sized apes and lion cubs gather dust.
Dad’s so proud of his scheme. We’re the most successful traveling carnival in three states. Once, when I asked if maybe people could win big every so often, Dad said the money we made on games helped keep our rides safe—and besides, what was life without a challenge? He put me in charge of the ring toss a few years ago. Before that, I sold cotton candy and popcorn, the job Mom had before she took off with Javier, who ran the Ferris wheel. “Anyone can sell concessions, Molly,” Dad says, “but it takes a pro to manage the games.” One day, he wants me to take over. His dream is that I will be the Traveling Carnival Queen. He says I don’t need college for that. When the crowds are thin, I read Chekov and Garcia Marquez.
The St. Julian the Poor Feast and Festival is a three-day event. At the ring toss, there’s one loser after another. Groups of teenagers try, teasing each other when they fail. None of them look at me when they collect their consolatory kazoos.
A boy with a shaved head and thick-rimmed glasses pushes a few dollars into my hand. I give him three rings. He looks like he’s barely paying attention as he throws them, one after the other. I’m taking money from another player when I hear them—clink, clink, clink. All three rings hugging the pegs.
I haven’t been trained for this moment. Even with my daydreams, I am stunned. The boy rubs his head. He can’t be much taller than I am, and drowns in a plaid shirt two sizes too big. His skin’s so pale I can almost see the veins in his arms. I hadn’t expected someone who looked so fragile and almost don’t believe it happened at all.
“You won,” I gasp. Then I remember the rules. “You get a plastic horn for one win.”
“I’ll try again,” he says. He pays for another set and the same thing happens—it’s one, two, three, all the rings on a single peg.
Now I’m shaking like it isn’t the middle of July, with hot funnel cake grease in the air. “That’s a plastic horn and one of the small stuffed penguins.” Instead of taking the prizes, he hands me more money and I give him more rings. I am like a lady handing a knight his sword.
Soon a crowd forms as he wins round after round. Rings land neatly on each peg—a different one every time until he has hit them all, then he starts again.
“Jesus, how do you do that, kid?” an old man says.
Woosh, woosh, woosh, clink, clink, clink. The boy claims he’s just luck. This time I don’t even ask if he wants his prize—two penguins and a plastic ninja sword. He presses dollar bills into my palm and looks at me when he says, “Thank you.”
“How’re you so good?” I ask, even though he’d said it was luck.
“I’ve always been,” he tells me, spinning a ring around his finger. “I can just see how it’ll land. Like how some people can see a house before it’s built.” He smiles at me and catches the ring in his palm.
“Harumph.” The old man glowers and throws money at me for his own chance. His rings land on the ground.
Someone in the crowd mutters the worst word imaginable: rigged. Which it is, except no one knew it until the boy started winning. As if we brought in the boy to make people think it was an easy game. Inside I’m saying, No, don’t mess this up. I wish the crowd would disperse so the boy could continue this feat. I could stand here all day, handing him rings so he could toss them into the air so that they soared for a moment and came to rest around the pegs, as if finding their rightful place in the universe. When he throws the rings, I can’t hear the tinny carnival music or smell the stale popcorn. But the crowd is restless and jealous.
One of the other carnies must have told Dad, because he is pushing his way through the crowd. Behind him is Edgar, the strong man, who also runs the shooting gallery.
“Well, what a talented young man,” Dad says. His smile is stretched, like taffy about to fall apart. “You must have won one of our big prizes by now. He doesn’t smile at me. “Molly, give this young man his prize so the other customers can play.”
For a second I clutch one of the plastic ninja swords and wish it were real. I could go off with this boy. I don’t have to be the Traveling Carnival Queen. But I don’t know how to toss rings or do anything besides work at the carnival. So I raise my head to the stuffed animals hanging above us. They all seem so shabby, so insignificant next to this minor miracle. Finally I chose the Siberian tiger, which I’ve heard is endangered. The boy accepts it with a small bow and tucks it under his arm. He reaches for his pocket, like he might try again, but backs away when he sees Edgar flex his muscles. I keep watching the boy as he walks through the crowd, under the flashing carnival lights, the tiger waving farewell. Maybe he’ll come back tomorrow, I tell myself. I know that tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that I’ll look for him, this glimpse of greatness. It’s something I need to see again.
BIO: ANNIE CARDI is pursuing an MFA in Fiction at
MOTIVATION: My boyfriend worked carnival games one summer.
Photo by Derrick Schultz
Photo by Derrick Schultz