A Grifter in the Heartland

A Grifter in the Heartland

It was the first carnival of spring, and as far as the kid was concerned, it was too cold for such festivities. He stood behind a low counter, looking hopeless and resigned. Behind him was a wall of cork, covered with under-inflated balloons in every color. A strong breeze intruded on the open trailer and made the balloons waggle one way and the other, as though they were shaking their heads no. The kid shook his head as well and hunched down into his jacket. The sun was low and white in a clear spring sky, but the wind still owed something to winter.

His jacket was short and purple with elastic cuffs and that dated look, like electroplated satin; metallic and gaudy. A few weeks prior he had found himself, desperately cold, at a Salvation Army store in Columbus, Ohio— a city he didn’t know. The jacket was the only thing he could afford that was both his size and insulated, though barely in the first case and sparingly in the second. The back of the jacket was emblazoned with the logo for “Heartland Amusements,” and the name “Reggie,” was embroidered on the left breast in a baby blue thread.

Now, the kid worked for Heartland Amusements, though didn’t technically work for Heartland Amusements. At least he had never interviewed or been hired. But he had the jacket and he had managed to find the crew as they were staging out in Columbus. Thanks to a lack of oversight or poor bookkeeping, he managed to stay on and head south with the rest of the carnies. Weary of thumbing rides and keeping ever vigilant for his father’s persimmon red Ford truck, he realized that being Reggie from Heartland Amusements was carrying his tired body in the right direction, so he decided that Reggie was the guy to be.

This festival, he had been told, was the first on the circuit, some kind of “welcome to spring” affair where people ate pancakes and maple syrup all day and the older folks went to yard sales while the younger tramped around the midway, getting dizzy on the Tilt-a-Whirl or trying to sink baskets in grotesquely warped hoops that allowed for no margin of error. Everyone would be wasting money one way or another.

New Reggie had kept his head down and his hands busy, always waiting to be exposed as a fraud, but he soon came to the conclusion that nobody on the crew remembered the real Reggie. Maybe he had worked for Heartland Amusements long ago, or for only a short time, or perhaps he was merely a forgettable man. Maybe carnivals weren’t rife with pretenders, or it could be that everyone was pretending and that didn’t leave them with time or energy to go seeking out imposters. This was not a group of people who pried, and everyone seemed to have their own dark business that they wished to forget. It was quickly evident to New Reggie that this was a very “here and now” collection of individuals. No one asked about yesterday and no one knew enough about tomorrow to speculate.

Rookies generally managed the Pop Shop, which worked well enough for New Reggie. He was not particularly mechanically inclined, and didn’t care to be responsible for the people who were slinging around on the Scrambler or teetering sky-high on the Ferris wheel. There were nuts and bolts and levers and toggles involved in those operations that he wasn’t familiar with.

Besides, the carnival rides took paper tickets, the Pop Shop was a cash game. If Reggie wanted to blend in and ride along, he couldn’t go asking where his paycheck was. Skimming the game would be easy enough, and in time he might be able to build up a bankroll and peel away from the carnival somewhere decent, somewhere far from home.

Opening day, the generators were fired up at ten a.m. and the midway was officially open for business at eleven, despite the fact that the temperature had not yet climbed above 50 degrees.

The scent of popcorn and elephant ears already hung in the breeze; a dozen different tunes— from pop to calliope— overlapped into a mad symphony, played for no one. The white sun glinted off chromed and candy-striped machines off all kinds, everything tested and warmed up, waiting now, still and dormant, imbued with a strange energy and dubious intent. To Reggie, it seemed like an open-air casino: the odds of winning or throwing up were always the same.

By early afternoon the crowd was picking up and soon the other game operators were barking at the passersby. Some used flattery, complimenting a potential customer on their hair or sunglasses, their shoes.

“I like those sneakers, man! I used to have a pair just like ‘em! Hey! You wanna win something for your girl?”

Others used a more psychological approach, aiming for the pride of a certain mark.

“Hey, tough guy! You think you’re strong, right? Well, come on and see if you can knock these down? You scared? You think you’re gonna look stupid in front of your friends?”

They seemed able to dive deep into the psyche of an individual, then, if that poor fool had moved too many steps away down the path, they could turn and light into a new victim without taking a breath.

Still others relied on intimidation, moving close to the carnival goers and speaking in short, clipped sentences, practically forcing the instruments of the game upon them.

“Take these, take these. Five bucks. Go ahead and toss ‘em. Toss ‘em. That’s five bucks. You owe me five.”

Reggie didn’t have a spiel. He stood in front of the wall full of flapping balloons in his purple jacket, a fistful of brand new darts clutched tight in his hand. He watched his breath billow out in front of him in and be ripped away by the wind— the most temporary thing in the world, but he didn’t say a word. He wondered if he could let his wares— the prizes, speak for themselves, but when he turned to take inventory, he decided that the Pop Shop offered a decidedly underwhelming selection.

Other booths boasted mostly plush toys. Enormous, coiled snakes, bedazzled in all colors of sequins. Gorillas as big as an easy chair, purple and smiling. Bears that clutched valentine hearts and professed undying love for whomever. A jungle of faux fur and poly-fill.

These, of course, were the top-tier prizes, the “Unobtainables.” To go home with such a trophy, even a preternaturally skilled person would have to shell out double what the toy was worth, just to buy enough chances to win it. To bow out earlier meant selecting from the bucket of prizes behind the counter, out of sight. Plastic sand shovels. Finger puppets. Erasers. Perhaps a fake mustache.

At least the Pop Shop was honest about its payout: pop a balloon, get a 6×6 photo of your favorite celebrity, just as long as your favorite celebrity was a bikini model or a professional wrestler. In the daytime, the back wall of the balloon trailer was bathed in shadow, making it difficult to tell which greased bodies were the wresters and which were the models. Each photo came inside a cardboard frame and behind a piece of real glass with real sharp corners. New Reggie wondered if Old Reggie ever worked the Pop Shop.

A young couple approached and asked to try their luck.

“Three darts for five bucks.”

Reggie took their ten spot and handed back four singles, folded neatly, darts on top. The young man tucked the bills into his pocket without a thought and Reggie was already up a buck.

The guy threw three darts and popped two balloons. He got a picture of a tanned model with sleepy eyelids and white sand stuck to her thighs. His girlfriend chose a snapshot of a man with tree-trunk arms, hoisting an elaborately jeweled and insanely wide belt over his head. Reggie noticed that they traded the pictures before they had gone a dozen paces from the trailer.

The next to try their luck at the Pop Shop was a little red-haired boy who paid in exact change and burst three balloons on three tries. Reggie was beginning to think he might run out of prizes before he could skim enough to buy lunch.

The sound of so many exploding balloons attracted the attention of the man who handled the ring-toss booth next door. He was an old man, short and stooped, with leathery skin and salt and pepper hair that was oiled and combed carefully into a proud pompadour. There was a week’s worth of white stubble on his cheeks and his jowls reverberated slightly with his step. His purple jacket read “Vince” and he came over to visit with Reggie between customers.

What are you set up for?” Vince asked. “Church picnic?”

Reggie only stared at him and shrugged. The man shook his head and fished a cigarette out of his shirt pocket, lit it with a match he struck on his thumbnail. Reggie thought it was the toughest sequence of movements he had ever seen anyone perform, despite how Vince’s hands shook as he cupped the flame.

“You got too many balloons on the wall, it’s almost full,” Vince went on after his first long drag. “You gotta pop about half of them before you open up. Leave the scraps hanging so it looks like everyone is winning, you know?”

Reggie found his voice and said, “Nobody told me.”

“Folks might’ve assumed you weren’t stupid,” Vince replied. “Are those new darts?”


Vince wagged his head again and glanced around, rubbing the back of his neck with his free hand.

“Geesh. Okay. There oughta be a rasp somewhere under the counter.”

“A rasp?” Reggie asked.

“Yeah, you know, a file?”

Reggie crouched to look behind the front counter, shoving aside stacks of cardboard frames and bags of balloons. He found a coarse metal bar, brown with rust.

“You mean this?”

“Jesus! Quit waving that around, there’s people here!”

Reggie felt like he had just whipped out his penis.

A family had shown up at Vince’s game and he hurried over to take their cash. The mother tossed a few rings, then the father, all of them ringing and ricocheting off of the bottles, every toss seeming to come so close to a win. They paid for one more turn, so their little daughter could have a go. Reggie watched and saw Vince replace one of the rings with another, which he pulled from beneath the counter.

On the second toss, the little girl managed to drop the ring perfectly over top of one of the bottles. She left with a wide smile and an inflatable mallet that stood taller than she did.

Vince shuffled back over after they had gone.

“You use the rasp to dull the tips of your darts,” he said. His eyes shifted around the midway as he spoke, as though he were divulging state secrets. “Less balloons, duller darts, got it? Otherwise Mr. Ketch will get pissed and you’ll be cleaning port-a-johns all summer.”

Vince turned to head back to his booth, a gust of wind upsetting his careful pompadour and rattling at his jacket.

“Hey Vince,” Reggie called.

Vince turned to face him, bushy eyebrows arched.

“Should I keep a good dart under the counter, for the little ones?”

A crooked grin yanked at one corner of Vince’s mouth, showing a gap where one top tooth had been lost or taken.

“That depends,” he said. “How quick are your reflexes?”


People tend to compare carnies to gypsies. It might be because of the caravans— people traveling light and fast. They share a similar reputation as well: colonizers and settlers have been putting hooks in nomads throughout history. But the comparison really ends there. The gypsies— the Romani— can trace lineage to a certain part of the world; and their inclination to wander, if it still persists, is a part of their culture.

Carnival folks constitute a mosaic of humanity. They hail from any country, city, neighborhood or home that is fraught enough to send them rambling. There are men and women of every race, color and creed who assemble and disassemble the machinery of fright, who run throttle and brake on the more thrilling moments of our warmer months. They are mothers and fathers and sons and daughters. They come from money and from poverty. Some are on the run and others are on a mission to support folks back home. A carnie’s wandering isn’t so much in their blood as it is in their story.

Reggie began to see all of this, not through stories or confessions, but through some sense of recognition as he sat amidst the campers and motorhomes after that first evening of the season. There was a fire burning in a cast iron grate, and all about was a ring of purple coats and sweatshirts, clutching cans of beer and basking the warmth. Reggie noticed that the old timers wore the shimmering polyester jackets and the younger carnies, without exception, wore the hooded sweatshirts. Being a young man, he wondered how he escaped suspicion in his conspicuous, retro disguise.

Reggie didn’t look at all old for his age. In fact, people generally guessed him to be younger than he was. He was a little bit short and quite slender. His features were delicate and he tended to let his hair grow. In drama club he had always been cast as the youngest character in the play, oftentimes a child. In a pinch, he could play fairly convincing teenage girl. This had caused his father almost as much grief as the fact that he was in the drama club to begin with.

Around the fire, people laughed and cursed. A baby cried. She belonged to the girl who ran the Ferris wheel. Her father manned the Super Loop. Cases of cheap beer were all about and those who didn’t squat on their coolers would occasionally duck into a camper to fill their pockets with cold ones. The scent of reefer hung in the chill air, making Reggie feel oddly warmer as it always made him think of summer.

Vince set up a rickety lawn chair next to Reggie and explained to him that this was the norm and most everyone would drink and shoot bull until about two a.m. They had to be on the lot by ten to test the rides and prep the food stands so everything could begin again at eleven.

Beer was courtesy and currency, but the hard stuff was frowned upon. Liquor tended to linger on the breath and seep out of the pores the next day, causing hovering mothers and irritable dads to cast sidelong glances when the sun beat down and the operator’s vapors were dashed to the wind by the whizzing carriages of the Scrambler or the rumbling hull of the Pirate Ship.

Mr. Ketch enforced these unwritten laws, even while—as the carnies were quick to point out—he spent the better part of most nights alone in his climate-controlled trailer, wrapped around a bottle of Buffalo Trace. Apparently, the ethics of acceptable libations did not apply to the man who ran the show.

Vince was telling Reggie to hang in there, to develop a schtick, something to get a rise out of the locals that wandered down the midway.

“Talk with funny accent, or make up some jokes—just mix it up and don’t repeat ‘em too often,” he said, lighting a smoke. He balanced a can of Red Dog on one bony knee as he shielded his match from the breeze. “Soon, we’ll get out of this ice box and head further south. The weather’ll get better and the girls’ll wear less. You’ll have fun.”

Reggie didn’t tell him he couldn’t care less what the girls wore, he just wanted to keep moving.


He had devised a plan to keep a sharpened dart in his shirt pocket. He would take it out during down times and try to burst a balloon, make noise, attract attention. If he lacked the confidence to bark at the public, perhaps he could lure them with the perceived ease of the game. Besides, every balloon he popped in demonstration was one less for the customers to aim at.

It worked well enough. He was careful to keep his good dart separate. Any time he pulled it from the cork he would slip it discreetly into his pocket. The rest of the darts, the ones for the paying customers, had been filed nearly flat. The dulling of the darts served a second purpose: he didn’t have to worry too much when some dumb, hotshot kid tried to show off by throwing with their eyes closed. If he got hit, the dart would bounce off him like a plastic fork.

On the second day, there was a brief squall of rain in the middle of the afternoon and the midway fairly emptied out. Reggie sat on the counter of the Pop Shop and dug under his nails with one of the customer darts. He watched Coolie, the man who handled the High Striker, across the way.

The High Striker was even more classic than the Pop Shop or the ring toss. It was that old, tower-like contraption with a bell at the top. Any paying customer could swing a mallet and hammer down on the platform at the base of the tower, sending a steel weight up, up, up the tower until it either hit the bell with a satisfying “clang” or topped out at one of several labeled levels of virility. Stud. Poser. Joker. Dud.

Coolie was a tiny black man, middle aged and spry. He snagged a couple of stragglers who had braved the rain and showed them how easy it was to ring the bell. Coolie made a great show out of spitting into his palms and rubbing his hands together before taking up the mallet, which was a huge, theatrical, wooden version of the inflatable ones that Vince gave away as prizes. Coolie brought the mallet up high above his head and drove down with all of his weight, his boots positively leaving the ground as he made contact with the striking platform.

The weight rocketed from its nest with such speed that it was nearly invisible and smacked into the bell in less time than it took to think.

Coolie’s marks were big fellows with thick fingers. Chests like oil drums. They nodded and took out their wallets, glancing around to see if anyone was near enough to witness their strength. Just as the first bruiser raised the mallet high, Coolie used his heel to nudge a board on the platform. Reggie only saw it because Vince had told him what to look for. The board moved a pin that took some of the tension off of the cable that the weight rode up and down on. With slack in the cable, it vibrated with the sudden upward motion of the weight, slowing it considerably.

The weight rose as high as “Poser” and fell like a shot duck. The man stood and stared up at the bell, perplexed, while his friend doubled over in laughter. When the friend paid his money and took his swing, Coolie stayed on the board and the weight petered out at “Stud.” Better, but still no bell. The two men stood there in a cloud of shame and confusion. The weather was clearing and the crowds were returning. Coolie picked up the mallet and looked at it, then looked up at the bell. He scratched his head and shrugged at his duped customers, then he swung the mallet with one hand and sent the weight whizzing to the top of the tower. The sound of the bell could be heard above all of the screams of fear and delight, the bawling of children and the competing strains of top 40 pop and calliope music.


Reggie had been given a cot in a Holiday Rambler with molted snake skins on the dashboard and an open hole in the bathroom where the toilet used to be. On the road to the pancake festival, he had opened the bathroom door and stood there for what felt like a very long time, watching that patch of highway pass in a grey blur, smelling the exhaust and feeling the rush of air that sucked up through the hole and cycloned around in the tiny space, tugging at his clothes and hair. The driver and owner of the Holiday Rambler was a ticket taker named Amir and he shouted at Reggie to close the door, the change in pressure was making his ears pop. Reggie had obliged and shut himself in the little bathroom. Without really knowing why, he knelt to the floor and carefully lowered his head through the hole until his shoulders rested on the bathroom floor. The asphalt rushed by just above his head. He turned his face in the direction of travel and imagined that the world was upside down and he was running very fast to correct it. In his peripheral vision, he caught a glimpse of what could have been a persimmon Ford pickup, but he was moving too rapidly through an inverted landscape to even care. A hunk of unfortunately located roadkill might have broken his neck.


It was Sunday, and the last day of the festival. At full dark, the lights would go out and the toolboxes would appear. Before dawn the carnival would be broken down into its largest transportable elements and rolling south, the lot would be a rutted mess, and Reggie would be happy and anonymous in the Holiday Rambler, drawing ever nearer to something that was not the home he knew.

He had a pocket full of money from short-changing customers or simply skimming the profits off the balloon game. There was really no system for inventorying the balloons that got popped or the darts that were thrown, so Reggie padded his roll judiciously.

The walls of the Pop Shop were still just as covered with photos of glistening men and women, all smiling or leering or looking bored; all somehow, always wet. Reggie had learned not to look at the photos while he was working. It made him feel clammy. Maybe later, during the hot, thick days of summer, he would look at them and feel a sort of solidarity, but for now he focused on the dwindling crowd.

The place that served the pancakes had closed at noon, and the flow of foot traffic had tailed-off significantly from that point. Still, the carnies on the game row crowed and bantered with whoever was left wandering through. They insisted that they had to get rid of some prizes before they left town, to make room. No one asked what they could possibly be making room for, they just played the games and lost just as much as the suckers did on day one.

“Hey man, I like your hat. I’m a State man myself. Tell you what, I’ll give you three throws for the price of four.”

“Yo, buddy, is that your Mom? Better win something for your mom! No? It’s your girlfriend? Shit! Better win her something extra nice then!”

“Here, take the ball. Free shot. Free shot. Free shot. You missed. Okay, I gave you a free shot, next one’s on you. Five dollars.”

Maybe because he wasn’t busy hustling locals, Reggie saw the guy coming from a distance. He was a thundercloud of a man, tall and thick and carrying with him an air of menace that suggested a great many bar fights and nights in jail. He wore a shirt without sleeves—in spite of the cold that came with the gathering dusk— though he still wore a knitted hat, perched above a small pair of ears that stood out from his square head like two dried apricots. With one hand he towed about a tiny woman who was thoroughly swaddled in down and wool, showing only blonde hair and vapid eyes between collar and cap. His other hand pointed at Coolie and the High Striker. His manner implied that he had no idea what was about to happen to him.

Coolie showed The Brute how easy it was to rocket the weight to the top of the tower and ring the bell. The swing didn’t even cause Coolie to levitate off the platform and Reggie wondered if he might simply be worn out from swinging the mallet so many times over the weekend.

With a dismissive air, The Brute handed Coolie a bill and checked to make sure that the bundled blonde was watching before heaving the mallet and throwing down with such force that Reggie thought he felt the concussion in his own boots, many yards away. But Coolie had kicked the board and the weight reverberated on the cable, barely clearing “Joker” before it rattled and died, clanking back to its resting point and bouncing with a rhythm that Reggie noticed for the first time sounded something like laughter.

The Brute scowled at the weight, at the mallet, at Coolie. He avoided making eye contact with The Blonde— and he paid again. This time he stepped back and bent his knees in a way that suggested he was building momentum, winding up for the blow. He grunted hard when he swung, but Coolie must have slid the board even farther and the weight shuttled only as far as “Dud” and then plunked back to earth. The Blonde made a quick, high squeal that sounded something like an exclamation point.

The Brute cursed loud enough that the carnies on game row took notice and turned from their respective hustles. His features darkened as The Blonde seemed to vibrate with excitement. There was a flush in his cheeks and neck. The Brute’s bare arms twitched as he twisted the mallet handle in his hands. But it was the blood in his eyes that prompted the carnies to start calling. Here, they saw a man with pride too overblown and skin far too thin. Coolie had pushed the envelope and now the sucker was redlining. They all began to shout out to The Brute.

“Hey mister! You got a good arm? Win a bear for your lady!”

“You look like a good shot! Come on and take some of these prizes so I don’t gotta pack ‘em all up!”

“Big fella! You think you can hold a dart with those sausage fingers?”

The banter of the other barkers went quiet as The Brute turned to stare at Reggie and the Pop Shop. Reggie stood there, tall and straight and willow thin. His jacket gleamed purple in the late dancing lights of the carnival.

As though no one was watching, he turned and tossed his pocket dart toward the wall, bursting a crimson balloon with a sound like a single pistol shot. Looking back at The Brute, he shrugged and called out, “It’s easier than swinging a hammer.”

The Brute dropped the hammer and dragged The Blonde to the Pop Shop.

“There ya go pal,” Reggie said. He didn’t even recognize his own voice as he dropped three dull darts into the man’s meaty palm. “You get three tries, pop a balloon and you can get yourself a picture of one of your cousins here.”

The Brute scanned the photos that lined the inside of the Pop Shop before fixing Reggie with an almost disbelieving look. His jaw muscles worked as though he were chewing on a cheap steak, but he said nothing. The Brute seemed to attempt to collect himself, glancing back at the The Blonde, who, in the excitement, was beginning to emerge from her wrappings. A crooked beak of a nose now protruded beneath eyes that had gone from bored to mischievous.

His first dart missed, hanging lazily in the cork wall for a moment before dropping to the ground. The second try glanced off a yellow balloon and clattered wildly. He took his time in aiming the last dart, puckering one small eye and gazing over the tips of his pinched fingers with the other; feinting, feinting, finally releasing. The dart travelled a smooth arch through the air and struck a green balloon dead center, half disappeared into the roundness of the orb, and ricocheted away. The cleanly struck balloon bobbed happily on the wall.

The Brute was still, his face blank and his mouth closed, until The Blonde laughed.

She positively broke loose, her face fully erupting from the folds of her coat like a snapping turtle on the hunt. Peals of raspy laughter tumbled from an impossibly wide mouth; her teeth were stark white but long and crowded. The sound echoed off the trailers and tents of the quieting carnival, causing every head to turn and every mind to wonder. She squealed with mirth, doubling over and losing her hat, pausing only long enough to cough, spit, and begin again. Tears streaked her reddening face and she became, bathed in blinking lights of a thousand colored bulbs, the very picture of mirth on the last day of the carnival.

The Brute lunged across the counter and gripped Reggie by the elastic collar of his gleaming purple jacket. He pulled him close and reached back with one broad fist, arm cocked to pummel all reason beyond Poser and Stud and to ring the bell that sat atop Reggie’s shoulders but he was rendered momentarily paralyzed when Reggie grabbed him by his apricot ears and kissed him fully on the mouth for what might have been several minutes but was probably a matter of a few quick seconds.

The Blonde was still laughing when The Brute finally yanked his head back, eyes wild with bewilderment and fear. He released his still-cocked fist and knocked Reggie all the way back to the cork wall, where his body burst two balloons.


It’s fully dark when Reggie wakes up in the Holiday Rambler. He can tell that the motorhome is moving fast down the highway by the rate at which the squares of light pan across the ceiling. Someone has left the bathroom door open and his ears are thundering, but he feels a surge of happiness at this violent movement of the air.

There are voices around him, laughter, the smell of cigarette and pot smoke. He knows the Rambler is carrying more than its usual tenants, and it sounds like they are having a party.

Then, in the shifting darkness, Vince leans over him, his pompadour falling and dangling oily strands of hair in front of his eyes. Vince smiles a grateful, broken smile and tells him, “Old Reggie never did anything like that.”


About the Author

Kenton Smalley is a writer from the wilds of Northern Michigan. 

Photo, "Carnival," by Amy on Flickr. No changes made to photo.