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Poor Kids’ Carnival

For Sagan

A TRIP TO HILLS DEPARTMENT STORE IN WARREN, OHIO, came around only twice a year. Once, when it was time to go back to school and once again when it was time to replace my pair of shoes. Walking into the store just before the school season started was what I imagine children whose parents had money must have felt like when they were taken to the circus. Or, maybe to one of those small fairs that popped up in random parking lots—those fairs that were there one day and gone the next and featured a few lit-up spinny rides operated by men with tattoos and criminal backgrounds—miniature amusement parks that lit up the night with sight and sound and filled the air with warm pretzel, sugar-baked smells. The ones my family was never able to go to. Money issues. So, my brother, sister and I only ever saw them in passing out the window of our bone-shaking, rust-bucket of a Buick on our way to pick my father up from the night shift.

We drove past them so fast that I only had a second to look out the window before the calliope music would change, sounding alive and inviting as you drove up, but as you kept going, it would warp into a mocking macabre and the lights would recede like someone slowly taking away your birthday cake. The laughter would trail off. I could only catch a glimpse of children running around free of adult supervision with one fist filled with red paper tickets trailing the ground, the other wrapped around the stems of soft-pinkclouds of cotton candy. The whole place was lit up like the inside of a pinball machine with booth after booth of rigged games offering the promise of giant stuffed animals that few would ever win. I felt cheated every single time we drove past with my nose pressed against the window of the back seat watching until I could see and hear no more. And when it was gone, I would flop back down on the seat, fold my arms, and stick out my bottom lip. And, in those moments, my mother would look back at me in the rearview mirror and remind me that it was almost the time of year to go back to Hills.

I didn’t know it back then, but my mother was a straight-up conwoman at the now-extinct department store practice of deferment known as “lay-away,” a system where one would basically placate the “lay-away lady” by sliding her just a jingle of money at a time for your clothes with a promise to pay the full amount and then reneging on the whole deal at the last minute when the items you wanted went on sale on the main floor. It’s a lost art, hustling the “lay away lady.” But, a woman’s gotta do what a woman’s gotta do and my mother somehow slowly chipped away at the “lay-away lady’s” sanity until she got those prices whittled down to damn near negative numbers. It’s hard work bamboozling the “lay-away lady.” But, for us—my brother, sister and me—the trip to Hills was all about fun. It was about the chance to sit on one of the reject carousel horses in front of the store that ate nickels as payment for vibrating us into oblivion for three minutes at a time. The only rides we could afford.

It was about the chance to sit on one of the reject carousel horses in front of the store that ate nickels as payment for vibrating us into oblivion for three minutes at a time.

The art of running a shell game on the “lay-away lady” at the rear of the store takes concentration, and the last thing my mother needed was three annoying children underfoot when she was trying to work her hustle. She needed all her wits about her and commanded the scene carnival-barker style with all the linguistic fluidity of an auctioneer so she couldn’t have her children braying nearby potentially wrecking the whole scam. So, she would give us each two whole concession-stand dollars to stay out of her way. The concession stand was in the small entry room facing the parking lot at the front of the store where the shopping carts were piled up. This antechamber of Hills Department Store smelled like the emotions of a child. Pre-adolescent bacchanalia. It was dizzying. It was a roasted peanut, soft pretzel factory wrapped inside a chocolate-covered everything. It was the aroma of popcorn-coldred-Slushee-hot dog jamboree with dusty corners and waxy yellow buildup on the floors at a time when two dollars could buy you the world. Right next to the shimmering silver of the shopping carts emblazoned with the red and white Hills logo was everything the children whose parents had money enjoyed at their pop up parking lot fairs, and that made it all taste so much better. It wasn’t just a snack bar; it was the mountaintop. The crabby, old, white concession lady with the powder blue eye shadow and a face like a catcher’s mitt was a Goddess of Giving, and I handed her my two dollars reverentially, head bowed, and accepted her synthetic foodthings with a gratitude only matched by those who have received a donated kidney.

I sat down on the diner countertop barstools that faced out to the parking lot and placed my hot peanuts to the left of me, my hot dog to the right and my cold Slushee in the middle and worked them like an assembly line. Handful of peanuts. Bite of hot dog. Heaping red plastic spoonful of red Slushee. Brain freeze. Repeat. Inside Hills Department Store was my first barstool and, when I was finished, sticky hands and all, it was time to wander the aisles while my mother grifted the lay-away lady.

The automatic doors may as well have been two gallantly dressed footmen bowing to allow me cross the threshold of Hills Department Store. The glass slid apart and I stepped into a Wonderland that smelled like new things. New leather and new perfume. I was under the Big Top inside every color of the rainbow, having left the smell of food behind to breathe in the pure and potent smell of Capitalism. Oz. Narnia. Xanadu. Hills.

My mission was to lay my sticky fingers on every item on the sales floor and caress it with a child’s lust. Wantonly. And I wanted everything. Directly in front of me was the jewelry department. The path to the left took me to toy land. And, if I wanted a long journey, the lawn and garden department beckoned way over there with its smell of fertilizer and shiny rubber. The dulcet tones of innocuous Muzak were interrupted by the crackle of the PA system. A flustered-sounding lady announces that she requires managerial assistance back in lay-away. My mother is running her game on schedule, but it’s still going to be a while. The whole of Hills Department Store was magical, and it is the first place on this Earth where I felt lucky to be alive.

The three wholly different directions in which my brother, sister and I would scatter expressly defined our personalities. Brother, to his dugout of ball bats and helmets. Sister, to her land of dollies and make-believe. I would creep stealthily toward the women’s clothing section. I would do so knowing somewhere down deep that it was wrong. And, it wasn’t exactly like I wanted to wear girls’ clothes. It was just that girls’ clothes were so much more interesting. But, I knew down deep that it was wrong. I had been told several times by both my parents, and I knew especially that my father didn’t like it. My parents didn’t like a great deal of my behaviors, and my father had gripped me by the shoulders on several occasions to tell me plainly and in stern, pointed language while looking directly into my eyes:

“Brian. You. Is. A. BOY.”

He said it with short stops between each word in order to give each one time to bore its way into my consciousness. “You. Is. A. BOY.” And these were the words playing repeatedly in my head as I crossed from the jewelry department to sundries and finally into that place I really wanted to be wading through with its river of legs pushing shopping carts into the women’s department Women and Girls. The store smelled different here.

There, in the Ladies section of Hills Department Store, was the taste, touch, feel, and scent of freedom from the accountability and banausic restraints of boyhood, and I would have lived there if I could.

They undoubtedly spray perfume on ladies’ clothes before they put them on the rack. This must be some sort of marketing tool because the Ladies’ department smelled of lilacs and vanilla. In stark contrast to the dismal browns and grays of the Men’s department, there was vibrancy, color, and life. There were floral patterns and stripes and ribbons and bows. Even the mannequins were posed in friendly, inviting ways, and, unlike the mannequins of the Men’s section, had heads and faces. Fully made-up faces were posed with arms outstretched in frozen arabesque. They were beautiful dancers petrified in a state of shellacked grace staring off into the distance. Not one judgement. They wore wigs and shiny beads, downy feathers, and purple tulle. Someone took great care to put their shoes on, and the sharp metal spines and Christmas tree bases holding them up were barely noticeable. The music was more resonant here and I was being asked if I “knew the way to San Jose” by a smooth and soulful lady’s voice. I ran my fingers along the clothes hangers, taking in the feel of every fabric imaginable from rough wool to tenuously delicate silk. This place was a giant replica of my mother’s closet where I would hide some days before baseball practice hoping I would not be found and dropped headfirst into another bi weekly cataclysm of uncoordinated embarrassment. Here were racks and racks of clothing hanging majestically in the style that Ms. Diahann Carroll wore on that show where she was a nurse who was constantly surrounded by white people. There, in the Ladies section of Hills Department Store, was the taste, touch, feel, and scent of freedom from the accountability and banausic restraints of boyhood, and I would have lived there if I could.

Undernourished white people tend to have hollowness around the eyes that makes the color of those eyes stand out. Greens become emerald and browns become hazel. It’s shocking, really. And the boy I saw lurking near me in the Women’s section of Hills Department Store had that hollowed-out look. He was about my age, eight or nine. His hair was dirty and hung limply around his too-thin face in greasy locks. His rat teeth were bucked and yellow and his cheekbones were sunken. White trash in dirty clothes. I had seen this before. White people don’t wear poverty nobly and he was the personification of that fact. Skinny as chicken bones, and I could tell, even from this distance, that he smelled of rotten eggs. But, his eyes were spectacular.

Maybe it was the spirit of youth that made his eyes fight to be noticed underneath all that poor, but they shined in a way that I, until that moment, could never have dreamed possible. Blue. Azure, cerulean and powder blue all at the same time. They were sunken into his skull like someone had tried and failed to bury them, and they dazzled against skin that was far too pale to have been healthy. The outsides of his eyes were smudged with dark circles as if someone had wiped their muddy boots on them and his lashes were meters long and thick as paintbrushes. When his eyes met mine, I knew we were going to be enemies.

He was rolling the fabric of a shirt slowly between his dirty-fingernailed hands and intermittently holding it against his body. It was the most beautiful shirt that I had ever seen. It looked soft, but not too soft, and had detailed piping on the cuffs of the sleeves. It was just a T-shirt. But, what a T shirt it was. I scanned the bin where he’d picked it up for another one, but there was none to be found. He had the only one in his grubby little fingers and, at that moment, I weighed up and assessed everything I’d ever asked my parents for in my life. On balance, it didn’t seem to me like I’d ever asked them for much. I calculated my grades in school up until that point and it seemed to me that I had done pretty well, all things considered. And, as a child who hadn’t asked for much in this life, I knew that I deserved that shirt. I couldn’t understand why this trash was holding my shirt.

There are moments that lie as markers in one’s life. Your parents document your first steps and your first words and your first time pooping in the potty and, if my mother were standing by my side at that moment instead of swindling the lay-away lady, she would have documented this moment in time as Baby’s First Covet. My mouth had gone dry and my hands went clammy so I wiped them on my jeans. My mother missed Baby’s First Saunter when I casually strolled up to this Oliver Twist who had the audacity to be fondling my togs and stood right beside him as though I were just casually passing through. He eyed me with suspicion and fear. Terror, really. He dropped the shirt only halfway back into the bin but kept a hand on it and tried to look nonchalant like he wasn’t standing right in front of the world and everybody perusing girl’s clothes like the sissy he was. And he was an unctuous sissy, soppingly feminine

So, there the two of us were. Two growing, red-blooded American boys standing in the Ladies’ department, each with one hand on a shirt that God himself had forbade us to wear.

His wrists were thin and brittle as tinder, and his clothes hung on him. I could tell he was too poor to afford that shirt, so I just reached out and started aggressively handling it myself, gripping it in my fist. So, there the two of us were. Two growing, red-blooded American boys standing in the Ladies’ department, each with one hand on a shirt that God himself had forbade us to wear. I ran the fabric through my fingers, tugging the shirt closer and closer to me and farther and farther away from him. The fabric met my every expectation. The finest synthetic. After I got a feel for that shirt, I looked him straight into his firework-blue eyes and let him know with my best impression of the boys who bullied me every day that I had come to claim what was mine. But, before I could wretch it from his filthy hands…

“Joe!!”

The boy’s name was apparently Joe. A boy several years older than him was barking at him from the end of the aisle. A boy who had tattoos and a criminal background. A boy who looked like he ran the Tilt-O-Whirl at a pop-up fair. I could tell he was the previous owner of Joe’s clothes. He regarded me briefly but malevolently with the same piercing blue eyes harder around the edges than his brother’s. His hair was short on top and long in the back. He wasn’t happy with where he’d found Joe, and I could feel that they’d been in this exact place before. I could tell that, like me, Joe had been given “lessons” on how to be a man. Joe had been roughhoused, wet willied, and pants-ed, like me. I could tell that Joe had racked up hours in his mother’s closet avoiding baseball practices and had suffered the humiliations of Tonka trucks at Christmas sitting under the tree instead of the disembodied Barbie torso with hair you could really style. I could tell that Joe’s brother was just about at the end of his rope with Joe, and I didn’t blame him. Joe was an embarrassment. Joe was a sissy. Joe disgusted me. I wanted to fight Joe with all the strength in my body.

His brother’s voice caused him to startle like a rabbit and in an act that I was sure had been repeated over and over in his home. He dropped my shirt like a baseball back into the bin and ran toward his brother, who cuffed him and dragged him away. My shirt laid spread out before me waiting to adorn the back of its rightful owner. I held it against my body as I walked it quickly to the back of the store. Back to lay-away.

I’d arrived just in time. My mother had the lay-away lady’s eyes spinning in their sockets with confusion and surrender. She’d double-talked and triple-talked her until that woman didn’t know whether she was coming or going. My mother had gotten all of her laid away items down to sale prices, and she was busily removing items from their hangers smiling slyly and pleased with her shucking and jiving skills when I approached breathless. I handed the shirt up to her. I knew well enough not to tell her where I’d found it. The racing stripes and the piping were “boyish” enough to “pass.” I knew that now was the perfect time to strike as she was so pleased with herself for bilking the store out of money and high on her savings. I held up my prize triumphantly and my mother gave me a quizzical and annoyed look. She frowned.

“Boy, if you don’t put that pink-ass shirt back where you found it—”

That “pink-ass shirt” was more of a carnation color, really. It was pink all over and the piping down the sleeves and around the neck and cuffs was a deep red—the color of dried blood. I thought I could fool her. But, the pink betrayed me. Color had again betrayed me.

“Boy, if you don’t put that pink-ass shirt back where you found it—”

She looked at me with a mixture of disdain and surprise at my boldness. She looked at me like she’d never met me before, like she was seeing me for the first time. She looked at me as though, with the presentation of this shirt, I had gotten beyond her reach and that no scolding or punishment for my strange behavior was ever going to work again. It was as if I’d plunged one of those clothes hangers directly into her heart, and I swear I saw tears bubble up and occlude her eyes. Her voice shook a little.

“Brian, that is a girl’s shirt.”

“But nobody can tell. You can’t tell. It looks like it could be a boy’s shirt. Just look at it. Please, can I have it? Please. I won’t ask for anything ever again. Please can I have it?”

She took a deep breath before exhaling slowly and I knew it was over when she snatched the shirt from my hands. I froze in shame knowing that the dream was over.

And from that day to this one, no one has ever looked at me like my mother did that day. It was pity mixed with worry for what was to come. It was the piping pink manifestation of all she had ever suspected. It was every ball and Tonka truck they’d handed me for Christmas going dusty and unused in the corners around our house. Writ large and crystal clear she understood my tendency to sneak into my sister’s room to play with her disembodied Barbie torso. And it made evident to her why I tended to notice the colors of people’s eyes instead of the strength of their throwing arms, forever enamored with all things “pretty.” She looked at me with a pity and concern that no one will ever show me again in this lifetime.

My mother hugged herself around the shoulders and tilted her head back as far as it would go. She took a deep breath before exhaling slowly and I knew it was over when she snatched the shirt from my hands. I froze in shame knowing that the dream was over. My head lowered on its own, ready for her to throw my shirt disgustedly at the already confused lay-away lady and snap at her to put this pink-ass shirt back where it came from. I knew that when we got home I would pay just like I paid on the baseball diamonds and basketball courts of the world. My mother would layaway my shame, making the payments last for years and years.

But, she just put it in the cart.

She exhaled slowly and just let something go. I can only guess at what it was. She just let it go in that breath and threw the shirt in the cart where it glowed bright, showing up the dull blue jeans and black T-shirts, gray slacks and boy clothes. She took a deep breath and bought me a girl’s shirt, rising up against so much that she thought she’d stood for. She bought it and I wore it.

When I wore it out of the house, she said nothing. She told me to have a good day and I can only imagine what must have been going on in her head. I wore it only a few times to school until the world told me to stop. The teasing became too much. But, when I wore it out of the house, I remember my mother really looking at me. Recognizing me. Knowing me. But, the teasing became too much and I have not worn pink since.

Hills Department Store is gone. But, I remember wandering the aisles of the poor kid’s carnival looking for myself. I even remember Joe and I feel bad for taking his shirt from him. I wish I could find him and apologize for hating him so much. I wish I could send my apologies for stealing his blouse up into the night air and have it reach him through the skyscrapers of the big city he undoubtedly moved to.

Wherever he is, he’ll sit straight up in bed, waking his husband who will ask him, “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” he’ll say, smiling for a reason he doesn’t understand. “I just thought I felt something move.”

Brian Broome is an author and M.F. A. Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh. For more info, visit brianbroome.com.