Step Right Up – Jeff Fleischer

“So you’re not chicken about lookin’ bad? It’s ya don’t think it’s fair?”

Doug flipped the ball in his hand a few times, then bounced it off his wrist. “You think I can’t do it, don’t you?”

“Well, lotsa people can’t do it,” the pretty girl behind the fence responded, leaning over provocatively. “Wouldn’t be much of a game if it was easy.”

While the carnival grounds were full of families and couples, their particular corner was nearly empty. Doug had wandered over to talk to the girl running the booth, where fifteen bottles stacked in a pyramid waited to be knocked down by whoever could figure out how.  “I don’t have much use for a giant teddy bear. Got anything else I can win?” He still tossed the ball, which told her he was going to play.

Travelling with a carnival long enough had taught Molly how to spot a mark. Doug had the gait and broad shoulders of a recent athlete; he confirmed her suspicion that he’d played baseball about two seconds into their conversation. He’d also made an obvious effort to mention he didn’t have a girlfriend. Guys with girlfriends wanted to impress them, and paid to do it. Luckily, Molly could see he wanted to impress her.

“Any prize you see. Or any prize at that clown game over there. I’m watchin’ it while Rosie eats lunch. She won’t mind.”

He looked at the next booth, where a row of brightly colored, plastic clowns stared silently, with nobody around to toss ping-pong balls into their gaping mouths.

“What about a date?”

She had to laugh at his self-satisfaction with a line he’d been clumsily setting up for ten minutes.

“You ain’t exactly my type. Let me guess. You live with your mama, but think you got it all worked out how you’re gonna get out of this town…”

“Way off, but I’ll tell you why on the date. Deal?”

“Fine. One date, but you ain’t gettin’ anywhere. Besides, we’re leavin’ town in three days.”

Doug shook his head and gave her a few dollars. She handed him two more balls and went to stand at the next booth.

With only the girl and the prefabricated clowns watching, Doug took a long windup and threw the first ball with expert velocity, hitting the bottom row of bottles right in the middle. They shook, but didn’t fall. Doug listened to the reverberation, then walked around to the side of the booth.

He smiled at Molly as he took another windup and fired another ball at the pyramid of bottles. This pitch broke just enough to take out the support beam that held the pyramid in place. The glass shattered on the ground, and Doug took the largest teddy bear from its hook and handed it to her.

Molly’s mouth gaped as much as the clowns’ did.

“You cheated,” she said.

“So did you,” he replied. “Forget it.”

That afternoon would prove a template for their entire relationship.

Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction is most recently published in the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row literary journal, Steam Ticket Third Coast Review, Pioneertown, Zoetic Press Non-Binary Review, and Indiana Voice Journal. He is also the author of non-fiction books including “Votes of Confidence: A Young Person’s Guide to American Elections” (Zest Books, 2016), “Rockin’ the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries” (Zest Books, 2015), and “The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias” (Fall River Press, 2011). He is a veteran journalist published in Mother Jones, the New Republic, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, Mental_Floss, National Geographic Traveler and dozens of other local, national and international publications.

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