Nobody else had been traveling with Magnamo’s Carnival long enough to remember Joe Rommel, but they damn sure talked like they knew him. Usually the bullshit about Joe came from the younger guys who grew tired of the same old story and decided to spice things up to their liking. One dry night in Nevada, the night we watched them take apart Thrill House for the very last time, Baby Bilbo came up with quite the stretcher.
Bilbo’s proper name was Bill, and we’d have called him that if he weren’t so short and curly-haired and weren’t so goddamn chatty all the time. The carnival had spent that afternoon collapsing itself into smaller pieces for the trip to Pennsylvania, I think, or maybe Ohio someplace. I came across Bilbo on my way back from last call at the mess trailer. He sat on the steps of his camper in the soft dusk light, drinking a forty of malt liquor that he’d gotten one way or another. I don’t think he was old enough to drink, but it’s not the kind of thing you ask.
“You know, they say Joe used to spend all his free hours in his camper, and the only time he let anybody else inside was just one night, this young carnie girl. Nobody saw her ever again, not once.” Bilbo took a solemn draw from the bottle. It’d been empty for almost an hour, but he kept touching the thing to his lips, tilting the base up with both his little hands.
“Hell of a thing,” I said.
I remembered spending more than one lazy evening in Joe’s camper when he was still around, drinking and listening to whatever trash the local radio stations would play at night. Country in the South, electronic in the West, hip-hop just about everywhere. There was never anything strange in his trailer other than the ashtrays full of wet, torn-up cigar butts. Joe was the only man I’d ever seen chew his cigars – I mean really chew, not even light them, just start the morning with a new cigar and gnaw until the afternoon, when he would toss the slobbery stump into the nearest ashtray. Each night, he picked little pieces of tobacco out of his teeth.
All of which was to say that Bilbo’s story was pure bullshit. Joe had invited people over to his trailer plenty, and otherwise he spent his nights alone, peaceful with his radio. No way in fiery Hell he disappeared a young carnie girl. Joe would never have done that, and besides, in all my years traveling with Magnamo’s, nobody resembling a young girl had ever joined up. Ridiculous new Joe Rommel stories of that sort had been cropping up for years. The only true one was the first one, the story of the day he had disappeared.
For as long as I knew him, Joe ran the same ride: Thrill House, a rickety dark-ride with all kinds of cheap haunted-house attractions on the inside. The same pre-recorded scream repeated every few seconds. The cart ran zig-zags and the light flickered on and off so the riders couldn’t look at anything long enough to see how pathetic it was. With the lights on, you could see the metal guide-rail for the cart, dirty ropes hanging down to simulate spider webs, and a thrift-store mannequin with a plastic skull for a head, a mop for hair. The place was a real travesty. But every day, Joe sat out front, regal as all Hell, and chewed his cigar under the menacing red façade with Thrill House painted in runny black letters. He’d tell the passengers to lower their lap bars, pull his start lever, and off they’d go through the doors, only to re-emerge thirty seconds later, looking somehow less amused than when they started.
The wonder was watching them build Thrill House on moving days. One minute there’d be a grassy field, and a few hours later the same old Thrill House would tower over my concession stand, identical to the day before, hundreds of miles across the country. Joe would direct the assembly team, as if the workhorse guys gave a damn what he thought. Once the walls were up, they’d leave the details to him – putting up the mannequins, hanging the ropes, all that, and I’d help him. That’s how we got to know each other. The first time I saw him hobbling into Thrill House, he held the mop-head mannequin gently in his arms like a junky bride. Every crease on his body was darkened with grime – his knuckles, the wrinkles on his face, even the folds of his ears, nearly black against his hard-tanned skin. Only by how he walked could I see that Joe Rommel was an extremely old man.
Joe would always do what he called a ride-through before Magnamo’s opened for the morning. I’d take his place at the operator’s podium and push the button to start the recorded screams. Slowly, Joe would check every inch of the ride cart, kicking the sides here and there. I once saw him lick his thumb and wipe a smudge off the cart, even though the whole damn thing was filthy. Then, he’d struggle into the ride seat and take off his ball-cap to show his bald head, the only clean part of his body. He’d chomp down on the cigar and nod to me. That was my signal to pull the lever, sending him alone into Thrill House.
I never heard official word that they were firing Joe, nothing better than gossip, but news at Magnamo’s always worked that way. The truth would travel the same way the bullshit did, out the same mouths and in the same ears, baby and bathwater together. One morning, everybody started whispering that it was Joe’s last weekend, and so it was. Magnamo’s was working a town in Kentucky at the time. Joe watched the workers build Thrill House that morning as always, but he didn’t give them any directions. Just watched. Before opening time, he waved me over. We stood side-by-side out front of the ride, in what had been an empty field at sunrise.
“Guess s’bout time to ride through,” Joe said.
Thrill House loomed red over him.
“You gotta set up the inside first.” I pointed at the mannequin laid out in the grass.
“Don’t see any use,” he said, and started shuffling toward the entrance.
Joe didn’t bother to check the cart, just plopped down and dropped his cap onto the seat next to him. The lines on his face looked even heavier than usual that morning. Sources had told me the brass were letting him go because of his age, and I wondered where he could possibly live after being in the carnival for so many years. He’d been there the day Magnamo’s first hired me at nineteen. Nobody knew how long he’d been around before that. Forever, sources said.
I wrapped my fingers around the lever.
“Got a light?” Joe pointed at the cigar in his mouth.
I laughed. He blinked.
“Yeah, hold on,” I said, and ran to borrow a lighter from one of the workers.
Joe fumbled to fire up the cigar. I’m not sure he’d smoked one since I’d known him. The ember burned uneven. Squinting through puffs of smoke, he nodded. I pulled the lever. The dirty old ride cart lunged forward through the doors.
Thirty seconds later, the cart emerged empty in a cloud of smoke.
I ran inside with a flashlight, through clouds of the stuff. The smoke formed impenetrable white walls every which way, burned my eyesight into a wet mess of tears, and I thanked sheer luck when I felt my way out without suffocating. The workers disassembled the ride again. Smoke rose in impossibly thick clouds. Inside, they found only the rusty metal cart track weaving its silent curve along the wooden floor.
No sign of damage, and no sign of Joe.
The carnival mechanic gave the ride a half-assed once-over and insisted that nothing was broken. Joe must have set off a smoke bomb and deserted the carnival, the management decided. Whether they’d truly intended to fire him, they didn’t say. But I knew that Joe was too feeble to run away without being seen, and that the smoke had smelled too spicy for a smoke bomb.
Since I knew how to run Thrill House, I was the obvious replacement. At first, nobody showed interest in the change. The legends about Joe’s disappearance didn’t start until a few weeks later, when passengers started to complain about the smell.
“You smoke cigars?” one woman in Virginia asked, poking at me with her knobby finger. “Someone does, I’ll tell you that much. Someone has been smoking in your ride.” And sure enough, I started to notice. Week after week for months, the smell would grow stronger, until people started to emerge from the ride with their shirts covering their noses and mouths. Sometimes when I made my ride-throughs in the mornings, my eyes would burn.
The newcomers – Bilbo, for instance – had no trouble believing that old Joe was haunting the ride. I didn’t argue, because I couldn’t find an explanation myself. Carnival rides are more like tents than houses. I’d be damned to figure out how a haunted ride in Kentucky could be taken apart and re-haunted in North Carolina the very next day.
Our first morning in Nevada, two parents and their daughter crammed themselves into the ride car. I’d stopped doing ride-throughs myself by then, scared that Joe’s ghost might appear in the gathering smoke, or that I might disappear, too. The father wore a yellow polo shirt, his wife a sundress, and their daughter a knit sweater, though the heat that day was already brutal. Under her layers of clothes, the girl was mousy. Her nose stuck out of her bony face, and her skin was pale enough to show a web of blue veins in the sunlight. She flinched at every recorded scream.
When the family burst out after their thirty-second ride, the mother’s screams were louder than Thrill House’s. The father held their limp daughter. His mouth hung open, perfectly round.
“Call 911!” the wife screamed. “Help! My baby can’t breathe!”
The girl survived, but the insurance would have to pay the family big once the settlement came through, everybody knew. Asthma wasn’t on the list of warnings outside the ride, and the attorneys would have a rough time explaining how the smoke was there at all. The managers cut short our four-week stint in Nevada, and Thrill House came down without ceremony.
Our last night in Nevada was desert-cold, the kind that takes you by surprise. I shivered in the wind on Bilbo’s camper steps. Heat radiated off the ground below us. Bilbo scratched at the label on his malt liquor bottle. Across the field, workers finished packaging Magnamo’s for our trip back East. Thrill House was now disassembled on a flatbed truck, its rusty sheet-metal walls wrapped with rubber straps. Segments of the cart track were bundled like giant sticks. The mannequin’s mop-hair must have been coated in dumpster juice somewhere. I thought about the workers stacking Joe’s individual spectral parts, sliding them one on top of the other, rust chewing against rust. Thrill House rested now, harmless metal and wood. If the smoke really did form out of some kind of ghostly revenge, maybe Joe’s anger came less from being taken apart than from being put back together, week after week.
“That bullshit story you told me,” I said, “about the disappeared carnie girl.”
“Yeah,” Bilbo said.
“You didn’t even know Joe. He never killed nobody.”
“It’s not like you’d know. You don’t know goddamn everything.” Bilbo hurled his bottle into the parking lot. “If he wanted to, he could have.” Under the streetlight, the glass shattered into glimmering pieces. “All he would’ve had to do was blow smoke in her face.”
Andy Holt studies fiction writing and screenwriting in the MFA program at the University of California, Riverside. His short stories have appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review, Hair Trigger 36, and Three to Four Ounces. He currently resides in Los Angeles, where he has been working on a satirical crime novel set in his birth state of Florida.