Chester’s sister Cat and her best boyfriend David left Chester alone at the fair. He begged and begged to play the game where he could win a giant stuffed dog. The dogs were almost as big as him and had glass plates on their heads. He wanted the St. Bernard dog most of all because he had the saddest eyes.
“Don’t go anywhere else,” Cat said. David gave Chester a $20 bill, an amount of money Chester had never before held in his hand. Chester understood why David was Cat’s best boyfriend ever, why she was quiet and nice around him. It helped, too, that he had a big, beautiful face. And even though he walked with sticks, he had very strong arms. He walked with sticks because he had polio. He was also a great boyfriend because he talked to Chester as if Chester were an adult. He explained about the polio, how he’d had an illness that started with the word “men,” and that polio was not the same as polo. Polo was a sport you played with horses and balls and long sticks, something David tried to explain, but that Chester couldn’t quite picture.
Mirage — Polly Buckingham
The dog barker dug into his apron pocket and gave Chester 10 dimes and $19 and called Chester a “rich little man.” Every one of those 10 dimes bounced off the St. Bernard dog’s glass plate. So he got 10 more, and those bounced off also.
He tried to think, as he asked the dog barker in his red vest for another dollar of dimes, how he was going to get the dog to the car. He was sure the dog was too big for him to carry. And David carried his two sticks. And Cat was allergic to dogs – but this dog was fake. He hoped that didn’t count. It made him anxious to think maybe the dog wouldn’t fit in the car or maybe Cat would get sick on the drive home, or maybe she would just say no. Maybe they could call his stepfather, Burt Rose, to come pick up Chester and the dog.
He thought these thoughts as dime after dime pinged off the glass plates. He thought about where the dog would sit in his room and whether the dog would be allowed in the house in the first place. He thought until there was only one more dollar left. He looked the smiling barker in the eyes. Chester’s face was hot. “Sure you want to spend that last one?” the barker asked. Only then was Chester fully aware that the dog was never coming home with him, and only then, did he retract his hand, shove the last dollar in his pocket, walk ashamed to a park bench, and, as any 8-year-old would, cried.
“Oh, Chester.” His father was sitting next to him. “Why couldn’t you have just wanted a goldfish?”
“I feel sick to my stomach,” Chester said, though this quality of sickness wasn’t the throw-up kind.
“Take your dollar to that man over there.” His father pointed to a man beside a giant scale. “He’ll try to guess your age or your weight, and if he’s wrong, you’ll get a prize. You tell him to guess your age. It’s a sure thing, Chester. He’ll guess you’re 10. You know,” he said, “you’re like a little old man, you’ve seen that much.”
A woman like his mother stepped onto the giant scale. He wanted to ask his father what he meant – what “so much” had Chester seen? But his father wasn’t there anymore. So many things he didn’t remember. Like when he was 4 and his father talked to him on the stone bench – even the next day, when he told his mother, he couldn’t remember what his father had said. His mother explained his father was in heaven. Chester didn’t know why that mattered.
His father was right. The friendly man with the red suspenders guessed Chester was “at least 10.” The prize was not a giant stuffed dog. “Do you want this plastic wallet?” Chester shook his head. “How about this bag of balloons?” No. “Squirt gun?” No. “You’ve stumped me again, little man.”
Chester pointed to a string of hot pink beads with a pink high-heeled shoe the size of a small mouse hanging from the bottom. “How about those?”
“Mardi Gras beads?” The man raised a triangle eyebrow.
Chester nodded and the man strung them around his neck. “You’re a queer one,” he said just as Chester saw David on his sticks with his pant legs that always looked empty, smiling his big smile.
On the drive home, Chester traced the outline of the plastic shoe, running his finger along the curve from heel to toe over and over again. He stared out the window at the road ahead, the heat swelling over it in waves. A dark patch like water appeared on the pavement. David had told him this was called a mirage.
“Mirage,” Chester said, pointing out the window. “Mirage,” he said when another one appeared. “Mirage.” He pointed to a third one. “Mirage.”
Polly Buckingham teaches creative writing and literature at Eastern Washington University and is founding editor of StringTown Press. Her chapbook, “A Year of Silence,” won the Jeanne Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award for Fiction. Polly’s roots in gambling date back to the 1974 Merrillville Fair in northern Indiana with her first big win at the mouse game.
Lead photo credit: