I resumed my search for carnivals at the first signs of Spring. In late March, I found one in Maryland. I dug out my old Canon A-1 from the back of my closet and a box of Kodak Tri-X black-and-white film from cold storage—the film had a nice grain to it, and great contrast in low light. If I was a fraud, this film would confirm it—it told no lies, only enhanced what I was exposing it to. I threw some road snacks and a thermos of coffee into the car and took off.
I had driven through an hour of rain after an unseasonably hot afternoon, and when I pulled into the parking lot of the sleeping carnival, the dusky sun was struggling to burn its way through storm clouds, a thin mist writhing on the ground. The gates were wide open but rides were dark, the kiosks open for business, but nobody inside them, like everyone had been snatched away. Full soggy trashcans reeked of spoiled meat and day-old vomit. The place had a dirty, hurried-taboo-sex feeling to it. It was perfect.
The rain had cast everything in deep contrasts. Shadowed surfaces were black mirrors that warped the world around them. The water drops clinging to every edge chimed with golden light.
Happy elephants were anchored to the legs of a bright red robot spider. Dead grey lights were planted in rows along its spiral limbs, like eyes of some primordial creature threatening to open. I switched to my macro lens and got in tight on one of the fiberglass elephants hastily airbrushed in grey and pink. A scar—a dead-fish-colored fibrous chunk was taken out of its trunk. Click. Pistons dripping pneumatic fluid were framed in the shadow of a hippo head. Click. The sign Jumbo Whirl was painted in cotton candy colors, encircled by light bulbs arranged in a dance of dead glass reflecting the milk-clouded sky. Click.
I stepped back and tried to remember how it felt to be a child, climbing aboard my first ride. This beasts were nothing like the buzzing ponies or shimmying helicopters stationed outside of grocery stores. As big as a small car, the beasts would push tiny bodies around in ways no child could be accustomed, rising higher than any tree they had ever climbed, spinning in circles designed to disorient. I wondered how many children had been initiated by this ride, and how many had puked on the seats. Still, the elephants and hippos smiled. Click.
I moved on to the Ring Of Fire, a five-story vertical black hoop painted with flames—an alien hot rod prepped for take off. Or maybe it was an astronomical marker erected by ancient aliens. Fractured by the tree line, the sun peeked through the ring, shining a sharp, golden crescent on its center rail.
Each click of the shutter pulled me in deeper. Tighter compositions. Deeper contrasts. Sharper focus on the grime-crusted details.
The mystic morphine that drives every artist and athlete was rushing through me. I hadn't had to hand-return a roll of film for years, and I actually felt fear—fear that I wouldn't be able to get back inside that framing window, into that zone, but when I advanced past the last frame and felt it pull taut at the end of the spool, I knew my hunger was back. It had been such a long time since I had been that deep inside of that tiny window, I had forgotten how time can distort. The sun was gone, and so was my contrast.
I grinned like a madman as I spun the tiny lever on the camera, listening to the plastic clatter as tiny teeth pulled the exposed film back into its black shell. A drunken nostalgic thrill welled up in me. When the roll spun freely inside the camera, I felt as though I had retrieved a dream. I took out the roll and patted it in my pocket as if it were an engagement ring, then loaded the next roll.
I had been so caught up in my bliss, before I finished the next roll, I was shocked to see people stepping into my line of sight. The carnies had opened their games and prepped the rides as I had been traveling through some parallel dimension. The mist was long gone, banished by the hard tinny speakers blaring twenty year old rock music. Animated lights blinked anemically in the fading light. The rides began to spin, and as if lured in by their movement, people arrived.