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Eyeing the Flash: The Education of a Carnival Con Artistby Peter Fenton
I had my back turned to Jackie when he said, "You'll never get rich with your hands in your pants."
I whirled around. "Where'd you read that one, a fortune cookie?" It was hard to breathe, let alone come up with a decent retort. I had twisted away to adjust the sweat-soaked roll of cash in my black silk briefs and Jackie was no more than three feet from me, watching my every move. I couldn't let him spot the mysterious lump on my right hip — because, after all, it was his money I'd stolen.
"No, I saw it in a friggin' Oreo. Anyway, who cares? I've got to have lunch with the county sheriff in ten minutes. Can I just show you how to work the Swinger?"
My throat felt like it was being constricted by kielbasa-size fingers. I had struggled to convince Jackie that I deserved a shot working one of the best money-vacuums on the Party Time Shows midway, and now I couldn't get a word out except "Sure." I was anxious about the money slipping down my pant leg. I was sick from the cold corn dogs, pizza crust, and flat Coke I had for breakfast after waking up, fully dressed in my new blue sharkskin pants and white satin shirt with western-style fringe, under a Party Time Shows semitrailer. I couldn't safely sleep in a room, because spending the night in a Motel 6 might have tipped Jackie off that I had a source of income beyond my official cut of the action.
Jackie, on the other hand, was clean and calm, his auburn hair smelling of Vitalis. He was absently cutting a deck of cards with one soft, manicured hand while palming the croquet ball with the other. Then he dropped the cards into the breast pocket of his white, short-sleeved cotton shirt.
"See my pinkie finger?" Jackie asked, holding it in front of my face. "On the Swinger, your pinkie is the gaff, so don't get it chopped off in a bar fight."
"You see, even though it was probably invented in Alabama by some guy with three teeth, the Swinger is based upon a fundamental principle of physics, which is that the angle of reflection always equals the angle of refraction. Or maybe it's the other way around."
"Yeah, I did a science project on that in the fourth grade."
"Let me show you how it relates to the Swinger." Deceptively stripped down and simple in appearance, the Swinger was an "Alibi joint" that required the adult customer to knock a bowling pin down with a croquet ball. The bowling pin stood in the crux of a wooden coat hanger that had been nailed flat on a chest-high plywood counter. The croquet ball hung from a chain directly above the pin. Jackie turned and faced the counter. "In order to win a prize on the Swinger," he said, "the player needs to swing the croquet ball forward so that it misses the bowling pin as it travels past, yet knocks the bowling pin down on the return trip."
"So where does my pinkie finger come in?"
"When you want some moron to win, for publicity purposes or whatever, you wrap your pinkie around the back of the bowling pin so that when you seem to place the pin in the crux of the coat hanger, it is actually slightly off center. Which will result in the croquet ball knocking the pin down on the return trip."
"Because of the angle of reflection equals the angle of refraction thing."
"Like every game on the midway, the Swinger is all about science and the unchangeable laws of nature," Jackie joked. He glanced at his watch, then the neon-lit hot dog stand, where he was due to buy the county sheriff a foot-long and probably hand over a popcorn box full of cash, so that the sheriff would order his deputies to ignore every loser's complaint. Jackie was wise to every carny scam in the book even though, like me, he was seventeen and just a week short of graduating from high school.
"What's a good call?" I asked about the line of patter I'd use to attract a mark's attention.
Jackie shrugged. "Whatever feels right. Like if it was some biker with a tattoo of a Harley on his shoulder, you might say,'Hey bro, park your scooter and let me show you how to profit by playing a little item we call the Swinger.' Something to get him ticked off. Because when you insult a biker, he'll want to beat you at your own game. And that's not humanly possible."
"So I wind up with his money."
"But don't forget to leave him with a dollar so he can buy gas, drive home, and kick the mailbox instead of you."
For a brief moment, I forgave Jackie for all the tricks he'd played on me over the course of our friendship, how he'd conned me into this, manipulated me into that. With his help, I might soon be earning hundreds of bucks, maybe a grand a day, on the Swinger. I'd have pockets bursting with cash, a girl under each arm, and a beer in each hand.
Then the $1,253 in my underwear once again began to descend. My sweat and the accumulated grime of thousands of hands had turned the bills into a slimy mass that was slipping from the grasp of the elastic band. I stole a look at Jackie, who was now a few feet to my right, leaning against one of the tent poles that held up the Swinger. Why was he staring at me, I wondered? His opaque gaze was fixed on me just slightly off center, so that he was neither meeting me eye to eye nor looking away. Did he know I was skimming money because I'd discovered that he was paying me far less than my fair share? Hey, we were best friends. How could that happen? Maybe I was paranoid. Maybe at seventeen I was already far too suspicious of my best buddy's motives, not to mention those of the common folk who were currently slogging down the midway through the thick stew of mud, sawdust, and elephant turds the size of bread loaves.
Jackie pushed his black, horn-rimmed glasses back up his nose. Perspiration dotted his quickly reddening face. "Now," he said, "I have a question for you."
"Did you just shit cash?"
I peered down at my feet. There, peeking out of my right pant leg, was the soggy roll of bills I'd held out from Jackie. "That couldn't have come out of me. All I ate forlunch was nickels and quarters."
Jackie responded by wrapping his hand around the skinny end of the bowling pin. Impulsively, I grabbed the croquet ball, not the best defensive move because it was tethered to a chain.
Far away, from the direction of the Ferris wheel I heard a voice scream, "Please, oh please, let me down from here." That frantic wail was quickly obliterated by a screeching loudspeaker and the announcement that the Greased Pole Climbing Contest was about to begin.
I asked myself: If Jackie was me, what would he say next to hack his way out of this thicket?
Copyright © 2005 by Peter Fenton
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